For This World & Nearer Ones, the Bruce High Quality Foundation are producing a zombie film that tells the story of a decimated art world returning as the living dead. Tue Greenfort will fence off a courtyard in the island’s Brick Village, recontextualizing the soon-to-be-demolished architecture into an pseudo-archaeological site. Here they talk about their respective projects and reveal what the undead and building materials have to do with being anti-establishment.
Tue Greenfort: Just to start up the discussion, I would like to ask you about your intentions for the Creative Time project on Governors Island? What has been your starting point and interests relating to the project?
Bruce High Quality Foundation: Our project, “Isle of the Dead,” is something we've wanted to do for a long time. The long version of our mission statement is an allegorical "day in the life" of our studio practice, taking place at the Guggenheim, and using works in the museum's collection to fend off a zombie attack. It is intended to elaborate our approach to art history; our belief that there exists an ahistorical denominator among all art; that histories of progress are born of power and not of what roots creative practice; and that an inter-contingent, imaginative approach to the materials of art's history is a way to "rescue art history from the bowels of despair." A zombie movie seemed like the next obvious step.
The basic arc of “Isle of the Dead” is that the art world has died—literalizing its economic death—and risen from the dead in search of an alternative space, Governors Island. Once installed there, it spends its time looking at its own past nostalgically. The title comes from a famous Arnold Böcklin painting of a figure transporting a body to a mysterious island.
To start our research, we began by watching zombie movies. The social critique element combined with ludicrous low-budget camp had an immediate appeal to our ethos of "Professional challenges. Amateur solutions." Night of the Living Dead is the best example, especially considering that it has recently defaulted on its copyright and risen into the public domain. This idea of a second life that happens outside of time is part of our foundational myth—arguably the reason foundations exist at all—and helped us find an anchor for this project.
The next element that informed our research is the contemporary phenomenon of zombie protests, an outgrowth of the "flash mob." At this point they've been staged all over the world, used for different activist causes, but more often than not without a political point of view. They seem to be a manifestation of the recent boom in internet-based "social networking" that by and large has outpaced any practical political application. There is even one point in our film where we stage a mass zombie action. We hope that through film we can channel the boredom inherent in previous zombie actions into an expression of anxiety concerning the present circumstance of the art world.
The subject of the film is the current state of the art world, specifically the idea expressed in Holland Cotter's Pulitzer-winning phrase, "The boom is over, long live art." This idea that the collapse of the art market will necessitate a renewal of radical art practice akin to the seventies in New York seems to be a rather naive understanding of how history works. Without the springboard of the cultural revolution of the sixties, why would artists rekindle the alternative space movement? That era was not about launching careers, rather standing against an “Old Boys” museum/gallery network. The critical edge of the new alternative space movement is going to have to be construed in an entirely different way—one that reevaluates the role of arts education in the market, recognizes that a majority of the alternative spaces that still exist have become institutions in their own right, and that museums and galleries are profiteering and misrepresenting the arts in entirely different ways than in the sixties. But that's another project.
For “Isle of the Dead” we want to focus on the first stage of the new era: nostalgia. Opposed to more complex historical circumstances that actually inform the present, nostalgia offers a sugar-coated, misty yearning for a simpler time. It separates our past from us, excludes us from it, and limits our possible engagement with the present. The zombie-movie genre provides camp, a method to critique nostalgia. Camp, and her older sister irony, allow us to cope with paradox, celebrating through critique and vice versa. That's why the only words in our film are the lyrics to Bryan Adams' nineteen eighty-four hit, "Summer of '69."
That's the basic rundown. How about your project? Tell us about it. Do you see parallels or divergences from what we're trying to do?
TG: When I first heard about your film project at the initial visit to Governors Island it seemed like a logical approach to me. The different architecture and natural boundaries of the island are like a film studio with different time epochs, functioning perfectly as a backdrop for a film project. The fact that the island is in a state of change with many workers and reconstructing activities taking place reinforce this staged atmosphere. Not to mention the U.S. military ghost, which can be felt wherever you are on the island.
For me the transitional change from a non-public military base to semi-public park has been the starting point.
The urban development plan for the island, which is being publicly announced on the web site www.govisland.com, in corporation with the Dutch landscape and architectural firm West 8 is to design a recreational area and a national park. A military museum seems like a positive plan for the future of the island—a new vibrant public and recreational park area for all of New York citizens.
However, I can't help the feeling of disbelief, questioning the intentions and constituting values that lie behind the park’s development scheme. It became evident to me that the upcoming changes on the island are in fact defined by U.S. military patriotism. This is clearly seen in the way the architectural fabric and institutions are being re-staged as a U.S. military memorial by planning to demolish the more unspectacular but historically as important Post-World War II buildings of domestic character and service facilities on the south side of the island. Opposed to more historically distant and less problematic history of the grand battles and protection of New York represented by Fort Jay and Castle Williams.
My feelings and experiences with the island authorities and representatives is that the historical representation—with its many layers of U.S. military history and relationship to New York City—are being filtered in the ongoing transformation into a semi-public park and re-staged to fit a Disney-like-spectacle / U.S. military theme park. Creative Time’s project Plot/09: This World & Nearer Ones, with its inspiration from Sculpture Projects Münster, could be criticized for falling into the same trap of cultural production as means of spectacle and event. Sculpture Projects Münster with its mega public art event in 1997 and the big art tour—Venice, Documenta and Münster—can be seen as examples of a way for municipalities to use art as mass phenomena and image shaping, rather than being truly interested in creating a relevant platform for artistic production.
Contemporary art on Governors Island takes an important role in the transformation of the island into an event and culturally historic park. Rather than measuring the success of the transformation by the number of visitors to the island, art can point towards the multi-layered and diverse long-term civic function that make Governors Island a unique place.
After several visits to the island I became especially interested in the domestic housing area on the south side of the island, Brick Village, and saw potential in its materials and planned demolition. Right before my first visit to the island the domestic village area, Liberty Village, had been demolished. I was thinking critically about demolition in general and the ways that material fabric of cities was being managed; how we decided to reuse or recycle materials, and the potential of using old houses for new purposes rather than being demolished. Demolition is a process that leaves behind a heap of materials only re-useable on the lowest level, such as iron scrap for re-casting, wood and other burnable material for the incineration—not to speak of concrete, which can only be re-used as a filling material on the demolition site.
My first proposal was to transform the buildings in a more sensible way by re-using its parts like a transcription in a biological-programmatic way. This idea was inspired by DNA duplication on a micro-biological level in the RNA polymerase process, sometimes mutated with a positive result, leading to the survival of the organism. As a result, new architecture in the form of a floating-houseboat structure would be made accessible from the piers next to Brick Village. Brick Village would be part of the final project and have an important function by representing the military barracks on the island as well as U.S. bases globally. Another aspect being exemplified via the project is the social divergence and ranks within the military life, from the prominent General’s Villas to the low-rank house barracks on the other side of Division Road. The reaction to this proposal was that it was by no means within the budget and would be extremely difficult to realize due to strict safety and health regulations with regards to public projects made in the water areas of New York City. The aspect of demolition also proved to be difficult. We are obviously no longer in the nineteen seventies and a Gordon Matta-Clark cutout technique would be extremely difficult to repeat with today’s rigid building regulations. Therefore, my initial ideas have been undergoing a phase of negotiation and have formally changed, but the core issues remain the same.
Wandering through Brick Village I can imagine the site being perfect for a zombie attack. Coast guards with hollow eyes rising from bleak waters below the long piers, or criminal CEOs with blood stained suits bursting out of the empty houses and basement doors. Do you already have plans for a shooting in this area of the island? It would be interesting to have an overlapping project in terms of site.
BHQF: We've done a few waterway projects. In our experience it's definitely easier just to go for it and deal with the authorities later. But we guess using a demolished building from Governors Island necessitates a certain bureaucratic negotiation from the outset. The conflict then becomes one between pirate action versus regulated action. Reuse/recycling of space and material has two opposing trajectories: one that is legally and socially sanctioned and one that is more unofficial and often operating against societal norms. The theme of pirates is timely and might also serve as an interesting way of engaging a naval/military base. Plus, pirate hats are amazing.
But you're right, it's not 1970 anymore, and forty years after the summer of sixty-nine, we didn't think it would be appropriate for zombies to be the same ravenous bloodthirsty hippies they once were. These days’ zombies take their sweet time, and instead of human flesh, they feast on themselves, their own history. Have you ever read The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch? It's a weird, biting book. He speaks to the institutionalization of the radical left—their ultimate failure, and the indoctrination created by capitalism.
Anyway, that's to say our zombie attack is a bit softer, probably more depressing than any zombie movie ever. But we'll see how it comes out on tape. Most of our filming will actually be on the island of Manhattan—the metaphorical counterpoint to Governors Island—but we'll check out the Brick Village. There's definitely a moment when it might make sense.
As for Creative Time's encouragement, complicity, and collaboration with Governors Island Preservation (GIPEC), Bloomberg, etc. toward Disney Fiction —damn straight—it’s very much a la Christopher Lasch. That is, indeed, what it is. In fact, that is basically what all public art is. When corporations, governments, and the non-profits that facilitate their money get tied up in spectacle production, it's always going to have a tinge of advertising, whether it's promoting new real estate or some humanitarian cause célèbre.
But great novels get written in prison, and great works of public art manage to happen despite, in spite of, and in cahoots with the systematic elimination of public space. It's also quite possible for something to be two contrary things at once. Creative Time's exhibition could be a public spectacle, a weekend attraction that awakens the masses to the possibility of a new, decidedly pro-military, park space; although we think the island is doing that much on its own. Meanwhile, it could also be an exhibition that creates new conversations about the aesthetic-political circumstances of public space. Co-opting art doesn't necessarily eliminate its critical stance or its beauty. You can still like the song after it's in a Volkswagen commercial.
TG: I also believe that it is absolutely possible to be part of such a mega event without losing touch with the critical aspect of the work; to have a voice and keep one’s integrity as an artist. I have been interested in collaborating and developing a project within the exhibition frame mainly because the setting and involvement with the island’s transition via Creative Time’s exhibition has made it such an interesting frame to develop a new work related to the island’s rich U.S. history. The military connection and the island’s relation to Manhattan and New York's history make it an absolutely unique and a rare spatial and thematic situation to deal with. However, I believe that it is very important to realize how often art and artists are being instrumentalised for such urban transitions, and to try to prevent this from happening through the work by re-negotiating and making the cultural mechanism behind these constructions transparent. For my part, historicization and evocation have been vital in the process. It is my attempt to give visitors to the island a chance to experience a part of its history that is different from the one exposed by the National Park Service. This links the vision of a future park on the island with a political climate that might seem historical, but its ideological fundamentals still very much exists in this country.
BHQF: The military-industrial complex is dead! Long live the military-industrial complex!