Originally published in
Artes & Leiloes
Allan McCollum and Kevin Power Interview conducted in Madrid, in February 1989
Kevin Power: Your work attacks the notion of commodification, but in the end also inevitably turns into a commodity. You seem also to attack the concept of the original work of art, but also produce works of a highly particular and individual style. Are these contradictions significant as far as you're concerned?
Allan McCollum: Well, there are a lot of assumptions in what you've just said, and I feel like I have to respond very slowly, because I don't agree with what you assume my work to be about and what it 'does'. I'm not sure that 'attack' is a word I'd use, and I'm also not sure what you mean by 'the commodification of art.' I suppose you are assuming that I feel artworks could and should be made which are somehow not commodities to begin with, but that the cruelty of market forces will inevitably transform them into commodities, and thus deprive them of their more pure and natural condition. I don't happen to feel this way at all, however, in spite of what you may have read in the popular art press; and I don't think my work 'attacks' anything. One of the things I am trying to do is to make a kind of artwork that succeeds through not denying its status as an object of exchange, an object with a certain kind of social value, an object which is always destined to be owned. Personally, I feel that the sentimental impulse to deny art its identity within the world of commodities is an unfortunate kind of philistinism, a veiled wish to deny art any acknowledged function in our lives, to deny that we need art.
K.P. Don't you think that there's an increasing sophistication within the artist in the light of the awareness of how quickly the work produced is absorbed into the commercial system?
A.M. I guess I don't see the artist to be standing outside the "commercial system" in the first place. If artists claim to stand outside of commerce, they are simply being ingenuous, I think. They are imagining themselves to be pure and good and the world to be corrupt and corrupting. This would seem to be a childish worldview.
K.P. So you don't agree with that general line of critics who argue that your work is an attack on commodities?
A.M. That is correct, I don't agree with them. I'm not even sure what that would mean, to 'attack' commodities, to be 'against' those things that are produced to serve human needs.
K.P. The word "surrogate" is obviously connected with simulation, with the increasing difficulty to produce something original?
A.M. I think possibly you are thinking about some of the younger American artists, maybe...with certain popular issues... My works dates from the Sixties, actually, I belong to a somewhat older generation than maybe you are aware. I began the Surrogate Paintings in 1977-78, and I was thinking about other things entirely: art's role in our culture, and so forth. The popular philosophy I believe you're referring to was not influential in America at that time...
K.P. Kroker, perhaps...
A.M. I don't know who that is...
K.P. Excremental culture...The Postmodern culture...Baudrillard...
A.M. I have been active as an artist since 1967, and I guess I would have to say I was influenced a lot by the structuralist thinking which was popular at the time. I was interested in our artworks as our artifacts, and how I might make a kind of work that aligned itself in the world as a symbolic object amongst other symbolic objects, not merely an artwork amongst other artworks. I was interested in the way artworks function as objects of desire, as keepsakes, as symbols of transcendence, as signs of alliance with others, and so forth. I wanted to produce artworks that functioned as props. I was very influenced by Fluxus performance, by Daniel Buren, Lawrence Weiner, and certain others. I would watch performance artists create high drama through the simple repetition of common events, and I learned that the narrative form is a cultural artifact, it's in our heads, and carrying a mattress up five flights of stairs can have a beginning, a middle, and an end, like any other drama. So I learned that we learned about ourselves through reductions, and that complicated constructions usually worked to disguise profound drama on simpler levels. So I worked to foreground the profound drama that underlies the making and showing, the buying and selling, the viewing and owning of artworks.
K.P. Has minimal art also had that theatrical side to it? A reduction to essence and an emphasis on occupying space?
A.M. Oh, yes, of course. And I was especially influenced by the work of Robert Ryman. You might say that my Surrogate Paintings grew right out of Buren and Ryman, who had already reduced painting to the level of a simple sign, each in his own way and for his own purposes.
K.P. Are you being critical about the role of the art object as it is presented today?
A.M. I think I have strong feelings about art and the art world, and because my feelings are strong I try to deal with them by analyzing them...I suppose one has to be critical to do this, especially self-critical. But I think people misunderstand the object of my criticality all the time. People accuse me of making fun of the art world, of cynically satirizing it. But I only feel I'm trying to dramatize it, to reduce it to its most simple codes, and to produce a heightened feeling of wanting something from the artwork, and seeing that one wants something as one sees something. To do this, I simplify and exaggerate things, like all artists do.
K.P. What about repetition?
A.M. I use repetition in many ways and for many reasons. It is a way, of course, of dramatizing the wanting. And it is closely tied to the way I produce uniqueness, which is probably one of the most important features of my work. I have made thousands and thousands of objects, but each is unique in shape, or color. I want to dramatize the art-object as an object which attains its identity in its relation to common, mass-produced non-art objects, but I won't give up on what we expect an art-object to be, or what we need from it. For an artwork, to be unique is very basic. Then, when I install them by the hundreds, or sometimes even by the thousands, the viewer can become quite enthralled in looking for the differences, making distinctions, and so forth as we all like to do with art. But there is a paranoia in this search, a desperation, a fear of not being able to claim one's individuality with confidence. This, also, is an important part of the drama.
K.P. Many critics have taken this as a criticism of the function of the museum today and of how contemporary museums should function.
A.M. More democratically or something?
A.M. Personally, I do feel that museums could function more democratically. But I don't see that to be implied in the way I install my work, necessarily. I'm not trying to be a social critic.
K.P. But...a lot of the things you are saying do implicitly involve the deconstruction of some of the myths about the way art objects exist within Western culture. We also know, however, that all critiques are finally assimilated into the system and recycled into the market. How do you feel about this?
A.M. Well, I suppose if I were a social critic, and if it were my goal to produce critique, which could not be assimilated, I might worry about it. But I expect people to see my work in many different ways, and I am not trying to do their thinking for them.
K.P. How far are you involved with the way in which the viewer sees your work?
A.M. I think I just expect the viewer to see it in a way similar to the way that I see it myself, in certain respects...there are certain effects I'm interested in. Like the way sometimes when one is performing some common activity and suddenly it seems to be an alien ritual, and one forgets why one is doing it...and then the memory returns, and one proceeds. An uncanniness threads its way through our lives, and I'm interested in this, in the effect of this. I expect the viewer to become occasionally confused as to whether he is looking at art or something that stands for art. And to feel how strange it is that things are always the things that they are and signs for what they are both at once; and that even perhaps we are ourselves signs for ourselves even as we are ourselves, and so forth. I guess I like the idea of setting the stage for a kind of questioning, a kind of acknowledgement of the precariously conventional nature of reality, of reality in social life, of how social life creates reality, and how symbolic objects, like artworks, function in the construction of social worlds, and mediate our subjectivity, and so forth. But to me, this is drama, not critique.
K.P. But at the same time you are also living in another situation which is the post-technological society where one is becoming increasingly aware of the way in which that coding system works. Baudrillard has made us increasingly aware of those things.
A.M. I have had to think about these things for many years, because I have been interested in promoting a sort of anthropological stance towards our own behavior, and our use of symbolic objects. My work is all tied up in this kind of decoding. Lately I've been thinking quite a bit about the way we construct our distinctions between art-objects and mass-produced objects, because I'm kind of doing both. I've been taking note of all those qualities we expect of an artwork spontaneity, expressivity, passion, uniqueness, reflexivity, and so on all of these qualities are precisely those qualities which are never found in a mass-produced, machine-made object. We never hear an artwork applauded because, say, it is predictable, repetitive, methodically-produced, and commonly available! I think we must be extremely frightened of machines and their products, and that we have come to accept a philosophy which can only recognize as "human" those qualities which are not like the qualities of our machines, and we have come to expect our artworks to express this particular definition of human-ness. So in this way, we have paradoxically both allowed the machine to determine for us what it is to be human and also what our art should be. Our industrial methods have determined the nature of our subjectivity. Yet for me, during this present period in American history when the high drama of the Industrial Era seems to be winding down, it is increasingly easy to see how enormously human a period this has been, with so many high aspirations and dreams and so much horror, as well.
K.P. Do you feel that the whole concept of individuality, as personal triumph, as privileged subjectivity, etc. is now being radically questioned and reread as almost a natural product of 19th century capitalism?
A.M. I guess I'm just speaking here of industrial methods more than economic systems. You can say that the original is defined by the copy, since there is no need for the concept of an original in a world without copies; or you can say that the unique is defined by the common, and so forth. It might follow, then, that the "individual" is defined by the masses. Our awareness of vast numbers of people is a recent thing, I think, and greatly enhanced by modern communications; I should think that our concepts of individuality, of heroism, of privilege, and so forth, are all affected by modern events.
K.P. It's a part of the whole humanist spirit which is now being deeply questioned as having been a particular successful model of civilization. If that is being radically deconstructed, which it seems to be at a certain level, then some of those myths are going to go. I don't know whether you'd agree with it, but Kiefer seems to very much still believe in the value of the individual statement, where somebody like Schnabel is more sophisticated where you can actually fake that and use it. But that may be the the only way to do it. That's like when Schnabel did a whole series using the Gaddis's "Recognitions," which is based on the fact that the only way to be authentic is to fake it. You have to transcend the fake. The best way to be a genius, and through the copying you transcend the imitation.
A.M. Well, however we may experience ourselves as authentic, as fraudulent, whatever the art we make stands as a memorial to our individuality, I suppose.
K.P. Do you see any development in your use of the Surrogate, any extension of your argument?
A.M. Are you asking me why I continue to make the same object even though my ideas change over the years? I've been making the Surrogates for so long that I have a hard time simply remembering what all my ideas were back then. But I have been consistently and always trying to represent the way an artwork works in what I do. Lately, however, I've become more well-known, and the neutrality of the Surrogates has suffered a bit, I think; I can get confused about this, at times.
K.P. Does it worry you that they're asking you for an image of yourself? Shows, museums ask you to produce an image which they can recognize...?
A.M. This is not something I would complain about, since I've virtually asked for it. I've consciously worked to create a sign-for-a-painting which I hope will become very familiar to the art world; a sign we might grow attached to, in the way we have grown attached to the Coca-Cola sign, or something. My basic goal has always been to install into people's heads a model of an art-object which they might use in their thinking about artworks, a sign of their own interior longing...
K.P. The Surrogates are anonymous in the end, they're not related to the popular conception of American painting, the history of American painting; you never use a big Surrogate...
A.M. I have always wanted to make big ones, but I'm afraid that a big Surrogate would cease to function like a sign it would just become another large monochrome painting, like those made by hundreds of other artists. But the more significant reason I've never done this is that I feel strongly that if one can imagine picking a thing up, carrying it around, slipping it into one's pocket, and the like, then one can much more easily carry that thing around in one's head. If I made them too big, one would always have to imagine it on a wall in a museum, or in an art gallery, or in someone's home, and then one wouldn't be able to carry it around in one's head as a tool, the way one can carry around a word, or a sign. This has always been especially important to me, in most all of my projects.
K.P. That's why they also get compared to salon paintings, because they're that size, they remind you of a nineteenth century bourgeois home...
A.M. Yes, or even a suburban home of today. When I first designed these Surrogates, I wasn't only interested in representing paintings, but also all framed objects family photographs, the kids, and so on objects we like to put in frames and hang on the wall, objects which have meaning for us. It is this meaningfulness of things that touches me, the things we save, the things we buy, the things we give as gifts. All the objects I make, in one way or another, are meant to characterize this imminent meaningfulness we find in things, and the meaningfulness we all work so hard to put into things...