WE INTERVIEWED THESE CONCEPTUAL ARTISTS SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO: An Interview with the Congress of Conceptual Art

This interview was conducted as part of the first official plenary meeting of the Congress of Conceptual Art (CoCA), in the studios of the Art Department at the University of Maryland, College Park, on May 1, 2017.

CoCA, Class of 2017. Photograph by CW Brooks.

DJT: (audio recording) I mean if Andrew Jackson had been a little bit later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was…he was a very tough person, but he had a very big heart. And he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said there’s no reason for this. People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War…if you think about it, why. People don’t ask that question. Why was there the Civil War? Why couldn’t that one have been worked out? (switch to news anchor commentary)

RI: So, thanks to everyone for being here. I’m going to speak in a pretty informal fashion, for my part, but please everyone chime in. Let’s just start with the name: Congress of Conceptual Art. Could we speak about the significance of the name of the organization? Where does it come from? Where is it going?

KH: Ok, so I was not the one who came up with the name, but I want to say the name is kind of an appeal to legitimacy, which at this point our group perhaps needs, but also all of the other artistic congresses that have happened, I’m sure at some point they were just three or four people sitting around trying to figure out what the hell they’re doing. So it could very well be that this is simply the form that this takes.

CB: And of course we do need to appear legitimate, but of course Conceptual Art as the basis of this organization demonstrates our legitimacy clearly. The problem comes when you get the Formalists involved. And the Formalists have their own agenda. And this stuff scares them, doesn’t it?

KH: I think Conceptual Art scares the general public. So that legitimacy doesn’t hurt. Or maybe doesn’t scare, but most of the people I know who aren’t in the art world don’t understand Conceptual Art. Like they can look at something that just has formal qualities and appreciate ‘that must be art’, but once you start to bring concepts in, especially once you start to have concepts be the main part of an artwork, people are lost.

RI: Or do they understand it too well? And that’s why it scares them. And why it scares the Formalists.

CB: Well, Formalists would never admit this, but most art these days is conceptual art, fundamentally. People don’t realize it; it hides under the banner of painting or sculpture or whatever, but there is a huge amount of conceptual art out there that isn’t recognized as such because that recognition, that admission, it doesn’t….keeping formal control keeps power in the ‘correct’ hands, and we’re interested in dismantling that system, I believe.

KH: So do you think that an education context like this one should have a Concept Department?

CB: Absolutely. I mean at least in theory.

RI: You’ve already hinted at this, but I wonder if you could discuss the structure of CoCA. How do decisions get made, and how do collaborations function? Is the organization with a firm structure, like the Formalists, or a kind of loose network?

CB: I’m not sure decisions do need to be made.

RI: I mean I certainly feel that I don’t think that in my involvement, I’ve ever been part of a decision-making situation. Lots of things have gotten made, but decisions, not so much.

KH: I know there’s been at least one occasion when I was doing something, and wanted to invoke the Congress of Conceptual Art, and specifically sought group approval, but for the most part it’s mostly been us operating independently under the aegis of Congress of Conceptual Art, and feeling somewhat free to speak on behalf of the congress.

CB: Independently or collaboratively.

KH: There has been a lot of collaboration. In different pairings within the network.

RI: Do you think those collaborations have been formalized, or it’s just sort of not that important for them to be discussed as collaborations?

CB: Depends on how much we want to share the credit.

RI: That raises the question of what kind of organization is CoCA? An art collective? A business venture? An internet startup? A social media entity? Tax break scheme?

CB: I think that looking at the history of Conceptual Art probably provides a pretty good answer to that. Conceptual Art, one of its goals was the dematerialization of the object, and I think that that lesson can be directly applied to this organization.

RI: I think that pretty much answers it. I mean, it’s an organization whose main goal, by any means, is that dematerialization. Why this return to Conceptual Art at this point in artistic and political history? I mean, we began this discussion by listening to what’s arguably a great work of Conceptual Art, namely: the speculative rearrangement of Andrew Jackson’s significance in history, and his chronological point. But, what can Conceptual Art teach us this particular historical moment?

KH: I think, the performance that started this meeting is maybe…highlights the need for the Congress of Conceptual Art. So, what we’re doing emphasizes the value of ideas, which I think is an important thing to do right now because so few people have them.

CB: A lot of people think that Conceptual Art just isn’t relevant anymore, and if you go back and look at the framing of Conceptual Art by Sol LeWitt and Lucy Lippard and others, I can understand why that’s the case. Like we said, Conceptual Art has been integrated into a lot of art practices. However, I don’t think that we are aware of how that impacts not only the way that we make art and consume art, as well as live our lives. It has instead been pushed under the rug. The Congress of Conceptual Art, one of its prime missions is to push, no, I’m sorry, not push…to create a new, clear structure that explains why Conceptual Art is relevant to artists, to viewers, and to society in this day and age. And that has not been articulated.

RI: Right, do Formalists have the tools our contemporary world, and the argument would be no. You give a Formalist Donald Trump’s speech, and they can’t tell you anything about it.

CB: They just see a speech.

RI: I wonder if you could talk about CoCA’s relationship to the University of Maryland? Is it an administrative sub-unit the University of Maryland? An administrative sub-unit of the College of Arts and Humanities, is it associated with the President’s offices?

CB: Absolutely not. I believe that CoCA is, in part, an opposition front, but one that also sees the importance of opposing itself.

GT: We’re operating in spite of, not because of, that’s for sure.

KH: We don’t have any specific administrative association with the University of Maryland, aside from the fact that the university functioned as an incubator for the Congress of Conceptual Art. So the University of Maryland was kind of our patient zero.

RI: But the organization is ultimately basically viewed as being a transnational sort of thing, it’s not supposed to be regionally localized?

CB: Absolutely, it transcends borders, it transcends politics, yet it is political. Deeply so. But then, what isn’t.

RI: So, CoCA has worked in a variety of media. I wonder if you could say something about the significance of these different media (printmaking, stamped-editions of mail art, limited-edition clothing articles, vinyl lettering, etc.). And also if you could comment on where is CoCA looking to expand to next, in terms of media?

KH: I disagree with putting this much emphasis on the media.

RI: So you think the media itself is rendered immaterial by the conceptual weight, so to speak?

CB: I wouldn’t say immaterial, but certainly we transcend that media. I mean, one of the most difficult things now is to make art on the internet, but I feel that CoCA has already transcended the internet as a medium. And used it and really abused it as a developmental tool.

GT: And I do think in terms of different media expansions, we are looking at a book, hopefully in the works.

CB: At least one.

GT: Preferably multiples.

CB: Getting that publishing house up and running is one of the main projects of the upcoming quarter.

KH: So, would you say that the media is dictated as a byproduct of the specific programs that CoCA is interested in?

CB: Well, you use whatever means necessary. If we didn’t learn anything else from Spike Lee, we at least learned that. We learned a lot of other things too.

RI: There seems to be a relationship between CoCA’s artistic practice and an adjacent, emergent set of works by some of the same artists that document ‘found installations’, ‘found performances’, etc. Could you discuss the relationship between this set of works and Conceptual Art? Are they the same thing? Or do you see important distinctions? Is there a kind of middle-range overlap? Are these found installations works by CoCA, are they Conceptual Art, or are they something totally different?

CB: Well, found installations are a practice area that has yet to be properly examined by art historians, who are typically late to the gate anyway. But they are something that I think it’s not fully our role to interrogate. Our role is to is that of practitioners, primarily, and through this practice we promote, we advocate, we are in the role of changing lives, not saving them.

KH: I think the found installations and found performances were just an expansion on existing fields. Specifically, photography has always been about the documentation of existing things. So we’re just adding a conceptual layer to that. Specifically, finding instances in the world and then adding a conceptual interpretation to those documentation processes.

CB: Allegedly.

KH: I mean you may be as much photographer as Conceptual Artist, so it makes sense…I think that one started with you.

CB: I disavow any previous association with photography, however. Photography is merely a tool with which to tell my lies.

KH: As far as the different branches, I think all of them at the moment fall under the conventional practices of the Congress of Conceptual Art. If you were looking at this as a more formalized organization, those would be some of our primary departments.

CB: The found installations pre-date CoCA, actually by a couple of months, actually. And the found installations developed, really, as a response to the conceptually problematic conditions that we have experienced within this institution. Which, given geopolitical realities and changes in the past several months, has only worsened, really.

RI: But, you believe that there are found installations elsewhere, right? It of course raises the question: since this has occurred in a more or less geographically described region, there’s the question, do found installations exist, say, in New York? And the hypothesis is yes, it’s just that up till now the research done by CoCA has only been able to verify it in a particular context.

CB: I don’t want to get too Rumsfeldian here, but there are known knowns and there are known unknowns. And the found installations are known knowns, but the unfound installations are known unknowns at this point. So, certainly. There are found installations in New York, but they aren’t found yet, so they aren’t found installations. At this point, we have to face the reality that we have a great deal of work ahead of us. Which is why we must practice with diligence and persistence.

KH: I think at this point I would say, you said New York doesn’t have any found installatons, I would say New York doesn’t have any found installations yet. But that’s simply because no one has gone out to look for them.

CB: We’ve had potential found installations in Illinois. An associated artist, Caden, has, I think, begun to dabble with the idea.

RI: CoCA seems to frequently work with or adjacent to certain memes, and one could say that—among a certain group of social media users connected to the artists involved, again, I don’t want to conflate CoCA with its social media presence—it has already transformed ‘Conceptual Art’ (as a pseudo-empty signifier) into a meme. Is that the goal: to remake Conceptual Art into a meme both online and off? And I’m thinking about meme in the broad sense, not just on the internet but broadly as a paradigm of culture or language or practice…

CB: A basis of thought, or a seeming understanding, whether that’s a true fact, or some kind of alternative.

RI: I pose the question because maybe the meme-ification of art is maybe an inappropriate description of the process because it implies maybe too much re-materialization. I mean, even the idea of the mem has a kind of real, material presence, and in that sense the Meme-ification of Conceptual Art, in capitals, can really only be one aspect of the process of CoCA’s practice, and not even the primary one.

CB: I think it’s more likely that Conceptual Art is remaking memes. And our basic understanding of meaning, in that way.

RI: Does CoCA have a politics, and if so, what is it? Will CoCA members seek to run for public office, or take prominent roles in political/grassroots organizing?

KH: No comment.

CB: No comment at this time. We don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up.

GT: Or give anything away.

CB: Well, I mean, some things we can give away, but that’s usually the material things. But we reserve the right to future action.

KH: Would you run for public office as a conceptual performance?

CB: Isn’t every run for public office a conceptual performance?

KH: Would you wittingly run for public office as a conceptual performance.

CB: That might be a first, if it were done.

GT: I think it just has.

CB: It might be. I think the jury’s still out.

KH: I think you’re giving too much credit.

RI: CoCA’s handle on Facebook is in fact @AltCoCA, suggesting already that CoCA speaks both for and against itself; we touched a little bit on this earlier. Is the organization undergoing an internal schism? Is it existing in a perpetual state of near-crisis vis-à-vis its own ideological situatedness?

CB: True change can only take place in crisis. Bringing about crisis is essential to bringing about change in this reformulation of Conceptual Art, making it once again clearly relevant, making the understanding of its relevance part of modern life.

GT: But again, in terms of internal schisms, I don’t know if an organization that’s fragmented to begin with could necessarily have such schisms occur. I suppose we could reserve the right to future action?

CB: Oh, absolutely. Although I might disagree with that. But, probably only as a conceptual stance.

GT: Not enough to cause a schism?

CB: Mmm, no, only to cause a schism.

KH: I think I want to say that everything has self-destructive impulses, and it might just be that CoCA is more aware of these at its inception than other instances might be. Not that these self-destructive impulses are necessarily going to be a total thing or a bad thing, just that the process is battling itself while its achieving everything else that it’s trying to do.

RI: Does CoCA have a recipe for success, and if so, what is it?

CB: 2/3 cup white sugar, 2/3 cup brown sugar, um, oh, 2 sticks of butter, 2 teaspoons vanilla, 2 eggs, 2 ¾ cup flour, teaspoon of salt, teaspoon of baking powder. 375 for 10-12 minutes.

KH: That’s how you make yogurt.

CB: Interesting.

KH: Muffins.

CB: You’re eating some weird fucking muffins.

KH: I don’t actually read recipes. I just kind of measure things out and throw them in.

CB: Fair enough.

KH: I don’t think there’s a specific recipe for success, or if there is, no one has told me about it.

RI: Mine would be similar to yours, except I would go with one cup of white sugar and half a cup of brown sugar.

GT: I think if there was a recipe for success I might not have ended up here with y’all at the University of Maryland.

CB: In my case, it’s because that [the white sugar] goes back in the cabinet first. Generally, the white sugar should be put away, I’ve found.

RI: At this point if there are particular other matters that you’d like to discuss, if there are particular things you think it would be helpful for the public to know, or historians to know…

KH: I think this was our first full formal meeting.

RI: Was it formal, though?

CB: No, we don’t have a gavel.

KH: More formal than the other meetings.

CB: I’ll see about getting a gavel for next time.

GT: Can we just put the stamp on it? Get it witnessed?

CB: On the gavel? Yeah but we’ve got to get a gavel first.

RI: We could sort of in audio form, for the record… [sound of self-inking stamp depressing near microphone]

CB: Plastic gavel…oh, walnut…. Sixteen bucks? That’s not bad.  …So, I mean as far as the future of CoCA, I think that there’s a lot of directions it can go, and it will likely go all those directions, and more. The goals we have are intentionally unclear. [sound of KH re-entering the room]

CB: Well, we now have a gavel.

RI: Should I use this end to stamp it?

GT: Yeah. [sound of loud thud] Oh my god, what is that made of?

RI: No it didn’t really work. Well, the concept transferred, we know that much worked.

CB: I realize that sometimes people find CoCA to be obtuse. But this failing is theirs, not that of CoCA. More likely, what they need to do is continue to engage, paying full price every time, until they understand fully.

RI: I mean, I actually have to say that I find CoCA to be….the works that I’ve seen, that I didn’t have any part in realizing, were actually pretty admirably easy for target audiences to understand. It’s just a matter of their willingness to engage, but once that willingness is there, I think it’s much easier to understand concepts, because that’s often what we do with concepts is we understand them, we figure them out.

KH: Looking back to one of your last questions, is it the goal to make Conceptual Art into a meme online and off, it seems like it has that idea of you’re talking about of maybe watering down and making accessible Conceptual Art, and maybe the idea is to provide people an easier entry point.

RI: And that could come back to again to why it appears so dangerous to people like the Formalists is it seems like it’s going to attract more people, which we know that it is. I mean we know that history is on our side. In the same way that we can be sure that Andrew Jackson saw the Civil War. [laughter]

CB: Might be a little different there. I don’t want to live in a closed system, one that’s deterministic, but looking at culture today, living as an American, in the particular positions that I live in, the necessity of Conceptual Art in our lives is clear, and that it will benefit everyone in many ways, not the least of which is materially, which is…

RI: One of the ironies.

CB: Absolutely.

RI: Well, thank you all for your time.

CB: Thank you.

This interview has been slightly edited for conceptual clarity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s