Critics Page In Conversation
Miguel Abreu with Andrew Woolbright
Andrew Woolbright: How did the show The Poet-Engineers come about? When I think of the Lower East Side, and I think about its difference and the texture of it, I think about Miguel Abreu Gallery, and I think about that show, in particular. It’s a show that still stays with me and I still consider and think about. And I think part of the reason is it really articulated a philosophy or it believed in an exhibition that was a way forward, or an examination of the present, or a series of possibilities. And I think that that oftentimes gets lost in things. So I’m happy to be sitting down with you and wanted to know, how did this show come about? What I think is the perfect show.
Miguel Abreu: [Laughter] Well, the only reason it might be considered a “perfect” show, so to speak, is because maybe it does tap into that definition, right? I mean, it started with the title, The Poet-Engineers. As opposed to most group shows you see that tend to propose some sort of external theme and feature artworks that exemplify a thesis, I wanted to build an exhibition grounded in a shared existential disposition, one that might allow artists to positively engage with the relatively new tools made available to them in recent years. That is: new materials, software tools, and fabrication techniques, which, taken together, provide practitioners an immediate opportunity to explore and perhaps invent new forms. And I wished to implicitly and secretly propose with this project that inventing new forms remains the ultimate horizon for art, an aim which seems to be rarely discussed these days. So the idea to be tested was that maybe the best equipped artists working now can be called Poet-Engineers. And that notion, of course, resonates with historical precedents, you know, going back to the Russian avant-garde, the Bauhaus, or Leonardo da Vinci. but I didn't really examine any of that. It was just the echo chamber, the murmur in the background as we developed the show. It was perhaps reassuring to know that the Poet-Engineer, as a positive figure, pre-existed our effort, and that all we needed to do was identify our current material conditions and then plug the figure into them.
Not surprisingly, one of the things we soon established is that the mere fact of having new tools at one’s disposal, irrespective of who one might be, meant that this was a good moment for art. It constituted a direct invitation to, precisely, explore and invent new forms, regardless of any preexisting subjective conditions. As an imaginative and proficient artist, you might actually come up with something that has an objective as well as pedagogical value.
Further, the Poet-Engineer idea offered a way of looking at things, right, because I think we need—the art world is so big, there's so much going on—that there is a need for an angle, or a posture from which to apprehend the huge pool of works you might see. As a collector, for instance, the Poet-Engineer might help you develop a critical eye and empower you to make distinctions between things. So I was thinking, okay, I can ask the question when considering a work: is it poetically engineered? And as you go out and tour galleries, and just ask that question every time you confront a work, ninety percent of the time, the answer is no! [Laughs] So now a debate can begin, right? So as soon as I realized that the title could also be used as a testing tool addressed to all, I knew it was an operative one. The next step was to ask friends and colleagues if they might be interested in participating in the emerging conversation, suggest artists to include in the show, come up with writers and ask them to contribute a text. My colleague, Michael Cavuto, who was working at the gallery full time then, is a poet and a wonderful critic. He basically became my closest collaborator, and found and proposed existing texts for the accompanying reader. Of course, the artists I contacted to participate in the show were some of the best Poet-Engineers, if you will: artists whose work I admired and that had a deep and lasting impact on me. Perhaps it was because it was pandemic times, but for some reason they all accepted the invitation, except for one, and contributed major pieces to the project. And with regards to the “live” publication, which was to remain open for submissions during the run of the show, then began the hard work of actually getting texts out of people, following the initial phase of expressed enthusiasm. In the end, it was Mike and I who just did it, you know. But there are two great original essays in the final catalogue. One is intriguingly titled “From ‘The Surface of Design’ to the Poet-Engineer”and is by Scott Lyall, an artist I’ve worked with since we opened the gallery. The second, by Reza Negarestani, the philosopher and systems engineer, is no less provocatively called “What does it take to make anything at all?” There is also a thought provoking conversation with Sam Lewitt, in which he compellingly questions some of the assumptions underlying the project. I’ll be eternally grateful for these exciting contributions that gave the effort a certain weight, but generally speaking, probably in part because it felt like a kind of manifesto show, some people I tried to engage remained silent, or steered away from getting involved in the conversation. I mean of course, few sophisticated minds wish to openly plunge into someone else’s manifesto, so it felt rather lonely at times! After I wrote the manifesto–introduction, which I sent to the artists as an invitation to participate, we introduced Alain Badiou’s “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art” in the reader, so things intensified quite quickly. So I don't know what people thought or discussed while we were developing the exhibition and publication, but for me the show represented an attempt at clarifying what I thought was possible in art today. That is, under what positive material conditions can one be active in this sphere of activity at this historical juncture?
Another aspect of things, which might be worth noting, is that the existential and conceptual posture, along with the installation framework we were articulating, felt like it was functioning against a certain dominant state of affairs. What I mean very simply is that I was looking for a way to orient the show towards making the viewer feel that the art object comes palpably first and foremost. Although the same can be said about any exhibition, I suppose, the hope and goal of the presentation was to unleash the potential adventure inherent in each work, and to achieve a maximum level of objectivity in that regard. I wanted to point to the fact that an art object can be seen as proposing a plastic solution to a problem, or constitute a kind of answer to a question. We know since Marcel Duchamp that a contemporary work of art has an idea component, and that at best, perhaps, an artwork is the embodiment of an idea. I don’t think I’m the only one who still believes that to be true! We've gone through the Duchampian revolution, we've gone through Conceptualism, we've gone through post-Minimalism; we should remember these achievements, indeed, but let’s take advantage of this moment to forge ahead and produce new objects, because there are new tools and materials available to use. My constant dialogue with Jean-Luc Moulène was crucial here, because as a highly functioning, consummate polymath he is the incarnation of what an artist can be today. He imagines and makes one object at a time, and each one can be described as a singular plastic solution to a given problem. There is a rare and high degree of objectivity to his accomplishments.
Woolbright: Would you go so far as to say Moulène is kind of the heart of the show?
Abreu: I would say without a doubt that he’s the clearest manifestation of the figure of the Poet-Engineer lingering in the shadows of the project, but really all of the artists have their proud position in the exhibition, in different ways and for different reasons. But Moulène did operate as a kind of guiding light, because of his vast knowledge of the history of objects and forms, of certain aspects of science and mathematics. There is not much that can be generalized about his practice by looking at a single work, except that the object at hand is well thought out and well executed. However, after looking at a number of varied works, a model for crafting things might reveal itself, but what seems to count first and foremost is for the object to find its decisive contours. In that regard, the show works against the aesthetic principle of open-endedness, which is something I grew up with. The great achievement of open ended literature, art, and cinema, which mines from within all master narratives, is forever in our minds, but what we realized with Moulène is that, with the onslaught of digital culture especially, sensation and meaning might have become overly open-ended, and that therefore, the responsibility of the artist might have shifted and was now to find that elusive edge, to find the contour of the object in order to sensitize the world and afford it meaning, one object, one work at a time. That's where the battle might be situated now, that's where you can make an effort to re-sensitize the world, in other words by closing the door to infinite interpretation. This is not to say that a work cannot be interpreted in different ways, of course, but the role of the artist, of the Poet-Engineer, if you will, is to finish and complete the work. And ideally, once completed, there's no need to make another one, because part of the integrity of the result is that it resonates with full force once and for all.
Woolbright: Would it be fair to say that, I mean, again, I love that the show attempts a criteria, which I guess could also be a manifesto, but it's a criteria and object that you can react to, or that contour that you can agree with or disagree with, but as a presence, intellectual presence, that closing of the door on the potential of everything, is it in the concept? Or it seems like it might be in the concept of this truth procedure of materials?
Abreu: It lies in the intimate, all-important relation between idea and execution, between question and plastic solution. It’s an age-old ideal which traverses art from the classical period all the way through modernism. The truth procedure, for its part, is a fundamental Badiouan concept. Alain Badiou is the contemporary philosopher of the truth procedure. In his metaphysics, he identifies four areas of human activity in which truth procedures have the potential to unfold: in science, in politics, in art, and in the experience of love. A truth procedure can only unfold in relation to what he calls an “event.” An event is a radical disruption of the established order of meaning in these four areas of human experience. So for example in politics, an event is nothing less than a revolution, an extremely rare momentous occurrence which fundamentally reorganizes the social relations of a given society. For instance, we have the French Revolution of 1789; the Russian Revolution of 1917; and the Chinese Revolution of 1949, events during which the entire social order was toppled and replaced by something new. In physics, it’s whenever a major breakthrough transforms our understanding of the universe: Euclid, Newton, Einstein. And in art, it's also a rare moment, right? You have Duchamp, maybe Pollock, Mallarmé in poetry, you know, four or five disruptions of this magnitude in the last few centuries. And so a truth procedure is about unpacking the implications of the event, and developing a path of loyalty to it. When you fall in love, your lifeworld is shaken up and fundamentally transformed, right? Being in love means forming a loyalty to that event. It constitutes the infinite truth procedure of the local event of falling in love. In his latest great book, The Immanence of Truths, Badiou writes about the notion of a work in truth. Some works of art rise to the level of containing a truth. And when that is the case, that elusive truth can be unveiled, so that the viewer might learn something new. It's a delicate subject, but I wanted to point to it with the show, as almost no one seems to be interested in exploring such a hot topic. We live in this relativist environment, where everybody’s allowed to express what they feel and what they want. And of course, in some deep sense that is a good thing and should be commanded as a societal and political achievement, no doubt. But what comes with it is a progressive lack of desire to objectively test things. We no longer feel the need to acquire the critical tools to apprehend the often complex inner logic of a work of art. And that is a shame, I believe, this reduction of the field of experience and inquiry to nothing more than a thumbs up or down!
The desire and capacity for an artwork to inspire its own assessment is crucial to its well-being and vitality, along with the well-being of the viewer. And so the Poet-Engineer, again, is someone who is interested in how things work, someone interested in materials, tools, and ideas. But the difference between the Poet-Engineer and the engineer is that what the artist produces has no use and no function! [laughs]. At best, an artwork is a tool for thought and for generating sensations.
Woolbright: I was speaking to Alex Galloway, yesterday, who will also be in the issue, who we've got to talk about. He had wonderful things to say about you, obviously, but he brought up this concept that every new technology ushers in a wave of its own modernism, that in the beginning of coding or in the beginning of a new device, there are artists that come in and are trying to make a recursive move within it, like they’re trying to hack it to itself. They’re not making it into an exterior aesthetic. But they’re asking what’s the most I can do by breaking HTML code? Or what's the most I can do by breaking 3D printing? And there’s this modernist movement with any new technology that asks how can I break this system or find a new form of engineering within it? I'm wondering how you feel about that characterization in regards to the Poet-Engineer.
Abreu: Oh that’s an interesting perspective, to make a recursive move within a new device as a modernist trope… Perhaps I should say here that the one thing that this show is against is a kind of glorification of technology, and new technologies in particular. Jonathan Lasker, for example, is a painter who works exclusively with oil and canvas—it doesn’t get more traditional than that—but his disposition is definitely that of a painter-engineer. In the same way, I'm generally uninterested in all the talk surrounding so-called generative art. I mean, I'm very interested in the idea of generative art, but not if the game is fixed at the onset and its results preexist in the boxed-in environment of the screen world through some form of animation. No, why should generative art not also produce a fixed sculpture to be contemplated standing in the real world of human experience, in time and space? Actually for me, such an object would be much more radical and interesting. Certain artists, such as Pierre Huyghe and Jean-Luc Moulène, for instance, are already imagining and making such works. In my opinion, screen-based generative art tends to lack poetry, partly because it tends to immediately and completely give itself up to the allure of dazzling software tools. If you're going to explore the capacities of a new tool, do it in your own time, and then maybe use it to do something that makes the tool encounter foreign forms and materials—not to say that it's not possible to limit yourself to developing something that's disruptive within the algorithm, or the software code itself. But yes, the Poet-Engineer strives to disrupt or displace established content and formal categories.
The same thing goes for NFTs. The field was rigged almost immediately with the most reactionary types of mimetic imagery standing in for what might have become imaginative artistic forms and content. As enormous sums of money were thrown at NFTs, there was no time for the blockchain to be explored as such, as a new technology to be used by artists towards mind expanding outcomes. The base human impulses of speculation and the quest for uniqueness and authenticity, without delay, became the engines fueling the mad rush to NFTs. They grossly overdetermined and suffocated the new medium, which never had a chance to make its modernist “recursive move within,” as Alex Galloway so incisively notes, at least not that I hear about so far.
Woolbright: To me the show almost felt like it dealt with a type of sublime, like a postmodern sublime, that is different than the classical sublime of the natural indescribable event, like a volcano or a hurricane, but the postmodern sublime which is of the understanding that there's no one behind the machine, or there's no organization. Everything, as you said, is open ended. The technology comes out, but there's no sense of what it will do to us. And I'm wondering how you feel about that characterization. You're choosing artists that are trying to slow down a procedure, or they're asking why at every step, to a system that otherwise could just be this self perpetuating open rhythmic gesture that never stops.
Abreu: Well yes, I mean that's the disposition of materialists. It’s important not to forget that artists make things with materials. And generally speaking, those materials need to be carefully examined and thoroughly respected. Materials impose certain boundaries on the artist. Lines of resistance, lines of demarcation are gradually drawn through testing and might be manifested as such in the ensuing works. The problem with software-based or computer work is that what you end up seeing are images, but what you don't see is how they’re fabricated. And rendering the trace of the used material as well as the process of fabrication is a quasi-ethical imperative of the modernist object. So now with digital imagery, things have become obscure and mystifying again. It’s almost impossible to understand and to feel what’s behind the image, what process actually produces it. One just sees a result which obfuscates its mode of emergence. So in a sense we’re back to the age-old realm of mimesis, but detached from a real world backing it. It might be ample time to revisit and study the mechanisms of mimetic desire, which René Girard so masterfully described. In a nutshell, we desire what others desire because we imitate their desires. And in disoriented times, such conservative impulses become more potent and potentially dangerous than during more open and experimental periods of history.
If the postmodern sublime poses the threat of revealing that there is actually no one behind the machine, so be it. Wouldn't it be great to find a way to unleash a work that would be nothing but the rigorous product of its own conditions of existence? A kind of super modernist work, if you will!
Woolbright: One of the things that’s really exciting about this show, and I know that COVID played a role in allowing you the time to really think of a new way forward, which I'd like to hear more about, but also just your ability to kind of move through multiple spaces as a gallerist. And I was talking to Alex Galloway, who mentioned that when he was working on his Laruelle book, he went to you, and you had letters and ephemera and things from François Laruelle. And Deleuze as well, you're very connected with philosophy and in conversation with these people. And I know you brought on Badiou as a consultant of the show and spoke with a collection of consultants from different fields, and I'm just wondering about how you’ve created this wonderful constellation of philosophy, and what I loved about the show is it is ultimately a wonderfully aesthetic, incredible show that makes sense of objects and materials in relationship to each other. But there's a team you produce in tandem with shows of like, you're bringing in scientists and philosophers and other people. Can you talk about that team and how you've created it?
Abreu: Let me just say one more thing about the issue of Poet-Engineers. There are four very inventive painters in the exhibition: Helen Marten, R. H. Quaytman, Cheyney Thompson, and Jonathan Lasker. Lasker, for instance, isolates and objectifies to the hilt the basic elements of painting, such as the material of paint itself, gesture, figuration, color, and ground. He liberates them from submission to any representational or metaphorical program, and recombines them into a striking and decidedly fresh visuality. His work leans against the return to the nineteenth-century symbolist aesthetic so prevalent in young painting today, so I considered it crucial to include it in the show and let it unleash its formidable powers in relation to other mostly sculptural works featuring seemingly more advanced materials and fabrication techniques.
For further context, let me add that when in 1917 Duchamp placed his readymade urinal in the middle of gallery space and called it art, he invented the mirror, that is to say he produced the rupturus moment when the work looks back at the viewer and asks: “What do you want from me?” At that precise moment, the viewer is destabilized forever. They can no longer stand comfortably still and self-contained in front of a painting as a window onto the world and expect to decipher some sort of meaningful message contained in the work. At that exact (revolutionary) point, the viewer is hystericized and confronted with the void of meaning, and then invited to perhaps participate in the creation of new meaning and signification. And that is where and when contemporary art clearly begins, I believe, when the two fundamental categories of the mirror and its sister category, the monochrome, were established once and for all. When you look at Kazimir Malevich's Black Square painting from 1915, it also looks back at you and murmurs, smiling, that’s it, game over! So if you're a painter working today, it might be advantageous to remember that the mirror and the monochrome happened, and that they survive as the ghosts of contemporary art, and contemporary painting in particular. In other words, why go back and add an arabesque to the black square? Why install anything vertically onto a wall and invite the viewer to look into it? These are profound, difficult questions that need to be carefully navigated and subverted, not simply cast aside, in order to explore and open new territories for art.
Woolbright: Absolutely. I love that you brought up that Lasker painting because that was a moment in the show that I still remember from two years ago. I remember that it had a presence for me that reminded me what good curation can do. For the first time, I saw Lasker in a completely different way. The work still stood on its own, but I now could see those marks as integers. And its closeness to Tishan Hsu too, I saw it as a mathematics of gesture or like a grid of gesture in a way that now I think of all the time when I think of that work, it's like a wave of a mathematics or poetics of abstraction that was always there, but like good curation can, through proximity, reveal something's whisper, I think, and that was a moment it really did that for me.
Abreu: Well, I'm glad to hear that, because Lasker and Moulène functioned as the two building blocks for the show, partly because I wanted to make sure to also have a “traditional” painter as an anchoring point of the project, so that people wouldn't think, oh this is yet another show about fascinating new technologies!
Woolbright: Right, right. And it counteracted or, you know, counterbalanced the Tishan Hsu or the Pierre Huyghe, the things that were like this type of otherworldly sublime, or something that was getting closer to a William Gibson texture, then seeing this painting was like, both…
Abreu: Or the bronze human bones used by Moulène to construct his pyramid sculpture! I think it's usually beneficial to identify the classical lineage of what appear to be whimsical objects. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to place Moulène’s imperfect pyramid in the front hallway, as the first thing the viewer encounters. The idea was to avoid or delay at all cost any impression of here we are once again, plunged into the unchallenged domain of new media on screens! With Pyramid’os, Moulène expresses perfectly clearly the attitude of the childlike engineer, of the bricoleur at play, one who no less affirms the classical geometry of a pyramidal composition.
Woolbright: How did you assemble the community of philosophy?
Abreu: Well, it always feels liberating to consider that art can be about navigating and negotiating ideas. Art is about ideas, it's not just about the immediate presence of the picture in front of you. It's also about that often elusive moment when you begin to discuss and unpack it, that is when the work generates a forceful enough impression, something akin to an idea, that can be debated by people. And hopefully, it's an emancipatory idea. It has always been a pleasure for me to relate art to ideas and philosophy. And of course, artists tend to like debating ideas, why wouldn’t they? [Laughs]
As far as our publishing is concerned, Katherine Pickard and I got very lucky to meet Robin Mackay, the founder and publisher of Collapse, the important contemporary philosophy journal from Britain. Pamela Rosenkranz, an artist we work with, introduced him to us. It turned out that I knew some of the philosophers he was interested in, like François Laruelle in particular, whose seminars I had diligently audited at the College International de Philosophie in Paris twenty-five years earlier. So we started talking and decided to establish a joint publishing enterprise, Urbanomic/Sequence Press, which would focus on continental contemporary philosophy. And with Robin at the helm as the editor and lead translator, it soon became one of the most exciting and rewarding activities the gallery was involved with. We invited young writers, such as Quentin Meillassoux and Reza Negarestani, to come and give memorable talks at the gallery for the launch of their respective books, and otherwise brought in major philosophers, such as Alain Badiou (many times) or Slavoj iek, to speak about various topics, such as “Inventing the future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.” Many people attended these events; it was life affirming! These high caliber thinkers delivered engaging lectures, yet they rarely discussed the art in the room. The books and talks became a separate sphere of activity for the gallery, and the artists enjoy it, as they are sometimes able to find connections between what is being articulated and their own practices and concerns. The philosophers are often intrigued by the exhibitions they get to see and operate within for the evening, so there often are mutually reinforcing effects produced by these events,
Woolbright: Well, I just loved it. I mean, speaking for myself, I’ve walked into your gallery through the years, and it’s there where I was introduced to Laruelle and others. I've come to so many thinkers just by walking through the bookshelves. It's also a terrible trap. In terms of [laughs] I've spent a lot of money looking at your bookshelves and just thinking of like—
Abreu: Well now you’ll get them free forever!
Woolbright: [Laughter] Oh my god. No, this is always a potential addiction. I love that you have to enter a bookshelf to get into the Orchard Street gallery and still do. I love those ideas.
Abreu: Yes. But some people object to that! We are sometimes asked to dismantle the bookshelves. Some artists don’t want the filter of books preceding their work. I can understand that, but the problem is that these bookshelves also function as our bookstore, so negotiations can get tricky…
Woolbright: They want language elsewhere.
Abreu: Placing bookshelves in the storefront windows was Blake Rayne’s suggestion when we opened the space. I immediately liked the proposition, so we did it. We have a bookshop at 88 Eldridge Street as well, so we’re covered. It's always a privilege to have a chance to read parts of a live manuscript and to meet the thinkers in the process of wrestling with their complex work.
Woolbright: That’s incredible.
But is this relevant to the show—we can cut this if it isn't—Laruelle’s Non–Philosophy? Did that come into…?
Abreu: The first book we published in 2011 was a bilingual edition of Laruelle’s short book, The Concept of Non-Photography, with an optical work by Liz Deschenes on the cover. A number of us read this enthralling experimental essay. We organized a symposium at the gallery which included a number of his advanced English-language readers. It was a very exciting time. I felt lucky and grateful to be able to re-engage with Laruelle and offer him a platform in the US so many years after he changed my life with his groundbreaking ‘Non-Philosophy’ seminars in 1987 and 1988. ‘Non-Philosophy’ is an ambitious project which aims to liberate thought from the restraining order of Greek categorical thinking by mining it from within. It attempts to achieve this goal by rigorously establishing and activating what Laruelle describes as the plane of immanence of thought. At the time, Laruelle was a radical university professor in France, but he was completely unknown in the US.
Woolbright: It seems incredibly formative to you that you had those experiences of going to a free university, an open format or commons, and had the ability to learn from him and others. And you've really recreated that here, or been continually recreating that, and using the gallery to be the free university.
Abreu: Yeah. I always thought that the gallery needed to also play that kind of role, which art can’t necessarily fulfill on its own, that is opening new territories for reflection. Alongside the production of art exhibitions, publishing books, organizing screenings and talks in a certain order, in other words devising a program, can produce mutually reinforcing, palpable effects. The sum total of these activities is what is called the gallery.
Woolbright: But also, I mean, you know, I'm the audience, right [laughs]. I see it as perfect. I hope you never quit. But, you know, it reminds me of like, the Rosicrucian idea of the Invisible College, you know, or like this ability for thinkers to truly be interdisciplinary and get together to exchange their dreams, or exchange ideas of the world here, and from so many different angles. And it's wonderful that you've created systems where not every show, but many shows are able to bring in this collective group of people thinking about it in such a dimensional way.
Abreu: Oh, thank you. I mean, that's the effort. But again, it gets harder and harder, because, you know, what I miss is precisely having the time to work on exhibitions such as the Poet-Engineers. And making sure that enough people can actually be part of it in a way that they might want to be part of it? So yeah, everything's going too fast. You know, it's not easy to find the formula for things to coagulate, you know, they have to have time to coagulate, they have to have the space to coagulate, people need to have—it’s a lot of things that need to come together.
You know, I always think about the fact that there's so much talent in New York, but so little time for people to be exposed to this vast pool of talent and be affected by it.
Woolbright: Yeah, my research is done on the subway [laughs].
It's always more difficult to do that, then, you know, just fixate on the market. Because we're asking for something that very few people give themselves time for.
Abreu: And again, this is why I always go back to someone like Moulène as a source of inspiration, because with him, we always find a way to stop everything in order to discuss the work at hand. It can last for a long time. I mean sometimes maybe just the two of us. But he's not going to let anything interrupt that process. And we sometimes spend two or three days unpacking what a work might mean, and then we open it up to other adjacent subjects. Because his work has that kind of level of substance, you know. It has the power to reorient attention and prioritize a certain discussion.
Woolbright: He’s had to create something somewhere else, or have space away from everything.
Abreu: Yeah, I mean he always worked in a small studio in Paris, but he recently completed the construction of a majestic new studio building in the Perche region, in lower Normandy. And that's the other thing, he's a teacher, because he shows us that you don't need a huge operation to succeed in art. You don't need specialization, you don't need a studio that can produce bronzes for you—there are people around, you just have to determine which fabricators you want to work with based on the requirements of the work. He doesn't have assistants. He works with specific fabricators, according to the needs of the object.
Woolbright: I really liked two of Badiou’s notes in The Poet-Engineers reader. And I wanted to know if you had a response to them. He says, “art is an impersonal production of Truth addressed to all.” He also said, “non-Imperial art is abstract art, and avoids particularity.” I thought those two things out of many of his theses—
Abreu: In Badiou’s vocabulary something reaches the level of truth, if you can determine that it's addressed to all. A truth has a universal dimension. So, you know, at what point does an artwork produce such a massive surprise that it can be considered its own force? Only then is it addressed to all. The truth procedure is grounded in that rupture. And that rupture is by nature addressed to all. So that's why it's impersonal, but it doesn't mean it's not localized, or it doesn't happen with someone behind it at some highly specific moment. But it's a good question, you know, is this work addressed to all? I don't know. I mean, most works are not.
Woolbright: But unintentionally become that or—
Abreu: Yeah, that erupted force is unintentional. It's an effect that goes beyond itself. That's why it's impersonal.
Woolbright: Seems close to Jung speaking about signs and symbols, and how artists are trying to convert signs into symbols. But that's an event that's ultimately beyond our control. But obviously, we'd like to deal in the world of symbols.
Abreu: And, again, we don't have to really worry about the goal of an event. Because it's not something you can just manufacture. Artists just need to focus on the sanctity of the logic of what they're involved with. They need to establish and test it. That’s why we need good engineers. So that’s the first part; the second part, the poem is more mysterious.
Woolbright: Yeah. All it said was “non–Imperial art is abstract art and avoids particularity.” I think I interpret it as it's refusing to be flattened, or it's refusing to be compressed or it doesn't want to be legible. That it's trying to make a work that is more of a thing that you keep trying to unwind in your mind rather than like a single pass through.
Abreu: Yeah. I mean, imperial art partakes in the logic of the masterpiece, or the logic of the monument. And it usually faces the leader. The abstraction part has to do with the trace of the thought process, of the spirit that fuels the making of the work.
Woolbright: Right, which is kind of oppositional to the poem, right?
Abreu: Imperial art covers over sensitivity and the experience of visual intelligence. The poem—so non-imperial art—works against this overdetermination, this closing of the object in the name of the master.
Woolbright: Avoids particularity.
Abreu: Yes, in a sense, although the particular is also the point in which an ‘event’ is specifically located. The truth procedure starts there. The particular produces the unpredictable ‘event’. And the ‘event’ is what we're living for, right? Because in Badiou’s philosophy, you become a human subject when you encounter an ‘event’, addressed to all by nature, an ‘event’ you are going to unfold and abide by for the rest of your life. Before the rupture of this encounter, you merely exist as a kind human animal. So crucially, the subject is someone who recognizes something that can be considered an ‘event’.
Woolbright: An event?
Abreu: An event beyond the ordinary unfolding of dear life as usual!
And you become a political subject when that happens, when you identify a rare political ‘event’, a revolution, if you will.
The reason why ‘love’ is a category of truth is that when you fall in love, everything changes; your lifeworld is suddenly overthrown and transformed. Falling in love is a finite ‘event’ between two people, which inaugurates an infinite truth procedure.
Woolbright: You disassociate in a way, or you become yourself, but also, you're aware of what the other person thinks you are. And you're both aligning towards this middle space together.
Abreu: Yes, but what must be stressed here is that ordinary life is fundamentally disrupted, right? Your life is changed forever. In a sense, one can say that life starts over! It's mysterious, fundamentally mysterious. You can't explain it. you know, but that ‘event’ is the source of a truth procedure that you can become faithful to. It allows you to build your life as a continuous act of faith. Encountering a world shattering ‘event’ coincides with the moment of becoming a subject. You become a subject when you fall in love; you become a subject when you recognize the revolutionary potential of a political sequence.
Woolbright: But also, the other part that I really enjoyed about the show is this language that kind of comes through in the writing of the bricoleur, or like the essay by Yuji Agematsu of the clump spirit—
Abreu: That’s Robin Mackay’s wonderful essay.
Woolbright: Yeah, and I think this idea of kitbashing that I'm interested in, which is the same language or it's a different word for the same idea of the skeuomorph. It's the monad where the thing retains being the individual but also becomes kind of clumped together or magnetic to larger attractions. It's not entirely Deleuze’s smooth space, which is like total non-structure, it's where everyone is still an individual but an individual swept up in the crowd. I like that the work in this is still discrete, still building off of a larger thing, but then ultimately, retains itself while also becoming this larger criteria.
Abreu: Nicely put. But again, I’m not interested in the individual, I'm interested in the subject, the subject at work. And artists are subjects, when they have something to say. And I think all the artists in the show do something very singular and specific. And then it was just a matter of sequencing things and making the appropriate cuts in the installation. And you know, my idea of the cut comes from Robert Bresson, the French filmmaker. In his theory of editing, he talks about—
Abreu: Yes. In order for a shot to be as sensitive as possible, it has to be streamlined to one thing, for instance a gaze, a sound, or a gesture that can be transmitted to the next shot because it needs the shot, and the next shot needs what precedes it. This converts the cut into an act of love. Therefore, a shot should always be partial. A full establishing shot is not possible, because it structurally doesn’t offer anything to cut to, right? It’s already all there. So you need to reduce the shot to a sensitive element that is as affect-filled as imaginable. And that element, at its extreme point of intensification, calls for something else. And that something else determines the cut. In this configuration, the cut is akin to an ethical act, This sound needs something else to fulfill it. What is it? Well, it will appear in the next shot? The next shot is just a partial object again, and so on, and so on. That precise kind of sequencing is what Bresson called the cinematographe. I’ll go as far as saying that I try to stay in line with these general guidelines when organizing and installing exhibitions. I try to make them sensitive in terms of cuts from one object to another, from one show to the next show…
Woolbright: So… prismatic, brilliant, love it. So thinking of cuts, lets go literal then with the show, which is, the cut begins with Moulène, and Lasker. Can you walk us through how you're approaching artists, but also their works? And thinking about their proximities to each other? And how those cuts are building?
Abreu: Well, each work needs to be singular and different from the next in terms of form, material organization, and facture. Broadly speaking, in order to be sensitive to the next object, each work needs to be addressing a singular, or part of a singular issue. It must pose and solve a particular question or riddle? It can't repeat the same question or produce the same sensation as the previous object in the sequence. However, the object must also contain an identifiable element that can be shared with the next work, indeed manifest an element that needs something other. So you know, you don't think of Yuji Agematsu as an engineer, but he's an engineer of urban detritus. He transforms detritus into charismatic mini-sculptures, produces enchanting moments of rearticulation of what has been discarded. These are poetic gestures, but they’re also engineering feats. The engineering is highly singular and highly subjective. It's a question of attention, focus, craft, and love. I placed Agematsu’s shelf piece next to a majestic, blue/green monochrome, folded-sheet metal painting by Florian Pumhösl. One work dignified the other, I thought; colorful, intensified trash sculptures being asked to co-exist next to a sleek and absorptive field of color. It wasn’t an obvious juxtaposition, but it worked. And I think all the artists are doing something like that. I mean, Pierre Huyghe’s work was just, again, an engineering feat, which he was able to realize for the first time. He told me that, in a sense, it was the first time he was making a stand-alone sculpture—most of his work is relational and installation-based, or a motion picture. The gesture with this work was to scan someone's head at the moment the person is asked to think about something: an object, an animal, or for instance a tool. And while the person is generating a mental image of the thing, the MRI generates data to be processed by a GAN deep-learning software. The Generative Adversarial Network software attempts to recreate the human thought or image, and fails. What results is a kind of chimeric form that is used to produce a somewhat ephemeral, three-dimensional object made of an admixture of synthetic and biodegradable ingredients.
Woolbright: I'm really interested in the idea of the Grotto and the presence of the Grotto and what it meant to artists as the space of dreams during the Renaissance. It's like every artist was a craftsperson working for the Medici or a patron, and then they had the things they made for themselves: the space of grotesque, the space of the Grotto, the space of dreams. I love the idea that he found a way to try to build the directory, you know, and it formed into this imperfect lump, this strange, abject thing that just has a presence in the gallery.
Abreu: And the most counterintuitive aspect of this failed result, of this bizarre looking, even haunting new sculptural creature, is that it is achieved through the very machine that supposedly is sucking our spirit out! Actually, the machine produces its own imaginative, surprising solution.
Woolbright: Instead it's the grotesque or Nero's grotesque or, yeah, it's this presence. That's incredible.
Abreu: It was this amazing test or competition between someone like Moulène and someone like Pierre Huyghe, who wasn’t used to making stand-alone objects. Actually at the level of materials, Pierre had this general idea of using biodegradable ingredients that would make the work eventually disintegrate. And he was testing that unknowable part of the project with this prototype of an object. And you know, Jean-Luc would have an issue with that. The engineering of the object itself was a bit too uncertain. There wasn't quite enough inner necessity to the material result, if you will. The idea was experimental and awe inspiring; the plastic solution was visceral and eye catching, but it remained somewhat subjective and unresolved. And this is what happens when you have two great artists, who happen to be French, going at it! No one thinks of France as the cradle of the most advanced and engaging art of our times, but here we had two great practitioners examining each other’s work from a distance through this project. Pierre studies problems very carefully; he reads a lot and develops profoundly destabilizing projects. He follows Moulène’s work, although they don't see each other much. I believe that the show presented an opportunity for these artists to look at each other’s work under a certain light and in a particularly productive context. And literally, you know, one of them was in Chile, the other one was in France. [Laughs] No one was here in New York.
Woolbright: So were the artists aware of each other's contributions as you built the show?
Abreu: Yes, somewhat.
Woolbright: So they knew what else was going to be around.
Abreu: Not everything, but they at least knew who the other participants were going to be.
Woolbright: Right. But as much as you could you show them what else they were riffing off of?
Abreu: Yes, but mostly they just liked the ideas underlying the project. They responded positively to the experimental nature of the Poet–Engineer. I mean who is this figure? They somehow identified with it, and wished to collectively find out more. The artist who had the most trouble with this existential proposition was Trisha Donnelly. She is the ultimate free spirit and didn't want to be considered a Poet-Engineer. She’s a fantastic artist and a tremendous installer, someone who tests and challenges every prescribed way of placing a work in space, and will, at the very end of the creative battle, do the one move that is least expected. I learned so much from her radical posture towards installation.
Woolbright: And legibility and compression.
Abreu: The way that her tiny black-and-white video image ended up projected onto a storage rack.
Woolbright: Wonderful reaction to the manifesto, like the tiny video…
Abreu: The video is actually a still. The video image is a still. [Laughter] But I mean Trisha’s spirit permeates the entire space of the show, like that of a compelling poet. But as is the case for every good artist, you know, they're always engineers to a certain degree, they simply need to engineer things. They can’t just throw things together. I mean that attitude has been explored too, but only accounts for interesting outcomes in rare and isolated instances.
Woolbright: I've always thought that, I mean, I love hearing you say that’s how you curate and how you choose what to include. I've always thought that the perfect shows, given enough time, show an artist the work that comes ahead of them. And then they make a response to that and you carry that to the next person, you create a chain reaction of living artists.
Abreu: Like an exquisite corpse.
Woolbright: Exactly. An exquisite corpse. I feel like, you know, everyone loves complaining about the Whitney Biennial and biennials in general and I think a major problem of them is it's the curator who's trying to over-define a moment from an authoritarian place. In any of those shows, if you picked out any one of those artists and said, “who are you thinking about?” and then did studio visits with those people and kept following the navigation of each artist, if you did a more horizontal thing of, you know, “you're making this, where should I go next?” it would be such a better idea of a major biennial like that. Exhibitions and criticism always work best when you allow yourself to be directed by that, through the artists and the art.
Abreu: I think that’s a powerful idea. The notion of organizing a group show where you start with someone who functions like the engine of the main idea, then send that person to the studio of the next artist, whose mission becomes to make something in reaction to what the first artist brings in, and so on, and so on. My question would be: which object do you send to the next studio? Would it be the last object in the sequence, or the initial object from the first artist?
Woolbright: Right, do you close it off so they only know what came right before, or—
Abreu: Yes. It’s a great idea, and the world should allow us to do this. The museums should do this. But they can’t do it for some reason.
Woolbright: No, because every Whitney Biennial, it's like any single one of these people you could build the rhizome off of, but instead, they've all been reduced to the tree, or they've all been reduced to their own little—
Abreu: Or like the last biennial was just a mess.
Woolbright: Completely. Right. And literally any one of those people like Alex Da Corte or Nayland Blake, or anyone—I am more interested in seeing their idea of a biennial by asking who are you thinking about? That would have been a better biennial. I also think it’s part of why so many people responded to Robert Gober exhibiting the work of Forrest Bess back in 2012.
Abreu: Great idea, this idea of the moving object in different spheres, giving enough time for each artist to react to work and make something. The first iteration of the show might need to be the one circulating the initial object throughout, which gives that artist a kind of hierarchical authority, of course, but that's okay, because in the end, one would refrain from revealing what that first object is in the sequence. The other version would be to move along the object coming out of the latest studio, and so on, just like an exquisite corpse structure.
I do these shows at the gallery called Sequence, in which I select and place a single object at 36 Orchard Street. When I have no good ideas for shows, or not enough time to develop something worthy of an exhibition effort, I just go okay, let’s do a Sequence show. We’ve done eight to date. They are group shows in time, as opposed to in space—one work, one week. I usually don’t know what I'm going to choose to initiate the Sequence until I see the work in the flesh. And then I choose the next one with the first in mind.
Woolbright: Which is how it should be. Yeah, I mean, it's just the work that has to communicate.
Abreu: People tend to respond well to these shows because they allow one object to produce its effects on its own terms with ample time to do just that, without any forced connection to, or conversation with another object in a shared space. It’s a luxurious proposition, but if done without pretension in a modest space, it can work.
Woolbright: Well, I mean, I'm sure you experience the same thing, which is like, it never… I mean, being someone that can speak about philosophy, can speak about literature and film, there's the thing that can happen where you become a discursive curator, or the idea leads ahead of the artists, but you don't approach things that way at all, which is what's so wonderful. You always, no matter how much you know, you still let that recede until it is about the confrontation with the object and the image and what I'm getting to—you do it so well. And what I was going to say is, I'm sure it annoys you because it annoys me—it's just amazing to me, like, I'll go to the biggest galleries and institutions just to see that they are still making thematic hashtag-y shows, a show that’s built off of a theme, and it’s so simplistic and reductive… or it's like a sky show or a theme show. And it's like, how are these people still starting with a theme in mind and then going out and finding the work based on the thing?
Abreu: Everything has to call attention to itself, whether the theme of the show or… that’s the main problem. You know, the other heroes of mine I’ve had the privilege to work with are the filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. I founded the gallery with them in mind, wrote them a letter, and went to visit them in Paris. When I returned, I was able to tell myself that all I needed to do is start the gallery as an act of allegiance to the way they did things, which is to carefully apprehend and serve preexisting texts and other materials such as music from history, and turn these materials into sumptuous, life-altering films. Over half a century, they consistently produced films servicing raw material from no less than Bach, Corneille, or Hölderlin, for instance, Cézanne, Schönberg, Brecht, or Pavese. Their choices, attitude, and rigorous working methods were a genuine source of inspiration, and in my very modest way, I felt I could lean on them to open and operate an art gallery. In brief, my inaugural exhibition brought together two of their films, an extraordinary text about their work by the French critic Dominique Païni, alongside a series of paintings I had commissioned Blake Rayne to make with Straub-Huillet films in mind. He was a fan and had been strongly affected by their cinema, as I had been.
To give you an insight into their practice, Jean-Marie Straub once stated that one could reduce or distill the creative act of cinema to only one thing, that is to find the proper place to position the camera in front of the subject to be filmed. This entails a lot of intense location scouting, which by the way is a Cézannean directive, one that Straub and Huillet could take over themselves; and now was my turn in all humility. I knew that in Hollywood, the problem of cinema was never posed in those terms. The solution there is to have seven cameras cover the scene from every possible angle. And so immediately, you're functioning in an insensitive environment, in which you don't need to worry about the dignity of your subject, how best to apprehend and approach it, with one camera and one lens. That crucial decision doesn’t need to be made.
Woolbright: I told my students I refuse to be immersed. I won't go to a gallery and put something on my head, I won't go. Art needs to be a thing that has the ability to bore you. It has to, and that is what also gives it the ability to exhilarate you, it could just as easily be nothing to you. And I refuse to be immersed. I will never be taken away to another world. This one has enough that needs tending to.
Abreu: Art should respect the viewer’s body and its perceptual capacities. You’re going to walk into a gallery space, and you're going to be asked to sit down and watch something, that's fine, but to be asked to put a prosthetic concoction over your eyes and head, that’s too much for me too…
Woolbright: It's annihilation. Well, last question. Would you ever recreate The Poet-Engineers? Would you ever redo it? Is it one moment or is it?
Abreu: I’ve been asked several times to do new versions of it. And of course, there could be new versions of it. Many different artists could take part. But it would need to engage the same level of effort. I don't want to do it too quickly or too soon after, in a kind of a mechanical way, like people do sequels.
Let’s not forget, however, that The Godfather Part II was better than the first.