John Russell Q & A

Gean Moreno


Caught in one of those unforgiving Chicago winters that not only chap the skin but ruin things deep inside, I find sanctuary and solace in the only place we natives of tropical latitudes usually do in such inclement conditions—a seedy, out-of-the-way bar. I intend to review, over a beer or two, some notes for a Q and A I just conducted, but things quickly go south.

The entertainment tonight comes courtesy of two loud burly union guys, working on their tenth or eleventh Blue Ribbon and future strategies for the labor movement. One, the traditionalist, calls for a re-fattening of the ranks, mobilizing a new generation, returning to the pre-Hoffa halcyon days. The other, the visionary, uninterested in old solutions, talks of the need for new flexible models for the union to match the flexibility of multinationals. Spewing some of the best blue-collar theorizing I’d ever heard (or, at least, that’s how it seemed to me, also working on my tenth or eleventh Blue Ribbon), there is a mixture of eagerness and exasperation in his tone. He’s willing to wipe the slate clean and try to start from scratch, because really what’s the point of working with broken equipment.

John Russell, the subject of my Q and A, is kind of like that second burly union guy, beer-breath and all. He’s sick of doing things the same way. He wants to know what else art can do. We know that it can serve as a critical tool to probe some of the unseemly aspects that have accompanied the entrenchment of capitalist structures; that it’s a great tool of rhetorical opposition, even if it has never really been all that good at furthering real, practical changes. But art has served this function for so long that these days it seems as if it is merely putting on a show that it can perform, Wayne Newton-like, more out of habit than out of desire or disgust.

Without putting on the clown suit of willful ignorance, Russell wants to know what is it that paintings, artists’ books, exhibitions and things of the sort can be, if we forget all the uses that they have been put to and the standardized narratives that accompany them. For instance, what happens when 19th century French historical painting is recast as a back-lit digital billboard with sexy automata and shinny sports cars? Or, when a Pollock is rethought as an ornamental meatscape? Or, when Clement Greenberg with his unrealizable idea of pure flatness is recast as the first conceptual artist? What happens, in short, when we return the art object (or anything, for that matter) to some ideal virtual state and apply the pressures that will shape it from unexpected sides and skewed angles?

In the last few years, Russell has been compiling the strange Frozen Tears anthologies, which have been brought into the world in the guise of 800-page horror paperbacks with foil and embossed covers. Although perhaps at home in the same bookshop aisle as pulp slasher novels, they may ultimately earn their place at the margins of the mainstream less for the blood-and-guts fests in them than for the weird collision of views that they manage to capture. Heavyweight conceptualists Art & Language are mixed with the sticky formalism of Dennis Cooper with the weirdness of Jeffrey Vallance and Kevin Killian and Benjamin Weissman and Trinie Dalton with inimitable dispatches from the Gulf courtesy of the tweaked worldview of Reza Negarestani with the pop darkness of any number of neo-goth young artists. And all this woven with Marx and Artaud and the all-verb torrential textual currents of Pierre Guyotat. It’s less a mosaic and than a dirty coleslaw wrestling match of hefty worldviews, a jumble of active forces that somehow explains the world in its mind-tweaking multiplicity better than any prim-and-proper dissertation could.

-Gean Moreno

Q: Let’s start at the beginning. How did BANK come together?

A: There were a few of us who went to St. Martin’s art school together, and when we left we couldn’t think of what to do. The Frieze exhibition happened in 1987, and that looked glamorous and exciting, unlike all previous British art. The social dimension also seemed interesting. Putting on your own exhibitions seemed like a good idea. After Simon Bedwell and I designed and sent out a load of invites for imaginary exhibitions, we decided to do a real one. We put on a show in a disused bank (hence the name) in Deptford. At that time there was lots of empty property in London and people were squatting buildings to put on raves and art shows quite regularly. The show was organized as a party primarily. We thought we were doing what Damien Hirst and his friends were doing–but we weren’t.

Q: It seems to have taken on a different vibe, however. A kind of politically incorrect politics and an artist-as-cultural-jammer ethos took over.

A: Well, yes, the impetus or trajectory of things did change. I don’t know about ‘cultural-jammer’ though – things were not so clear or planned as that sounds. BANK’s performance was based around a kind of positionality or situationality but with the direction flipped around. So, we kind of adopted a series of stances, as ‘angry’, ‘stupid’, ‘clever’, ‘political’, ‘working class’ and so on. And it was a lot of fun. We could also play around with a kind of knowing-hypocrisy whereby although much of the work was seemingly overtly critical of art world structures, sometimes a cartoon version of criticality, it was also engaged self-consciously in an attempt to ingratiate itself within the art world it criticized, e.g., BANK Fax-Bak and the BANK Tabloid newspaper. It also seemed that as long as you were not concerned with immediate commercial success within the conventional commercial structures of the artworld, the performances of ‘bitter hypocrite’ or ‘twisted loser’ were at least as productive and interesting as those of ‘successful artist’ or ‘international gallery.’ And this gave you a strange kind of power – the power of visibility. We were also popular and possibly even fashionable as well for a while – as well as being losers.

By the end, I had begun to find the idea of “politically incorrect politics,” as you put it, as a limiting option. It has been played out so many times, from Kippenberger to Lucy Mckenzie – the idea that an artist maintains a ‘critically’ located position whereby the critical or political content (or performance) of the work is staged within the structures of which it is critical but which it relies upon for its visibility…blah blah blah…existing as a kind of critical ‘not-belonging’ or antagonism or disaffirmation. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see what these stagings ‘do,’ except to signal their presence as antagonistic or disaffirmative to a receptive but fairly limited audience for this type of art product.

Q: Although Relational Aesthetics seems to have become a sought-after target as of late, I guess I want to link it here to this idea of a political posturing that doesn’t really ‘do’ anything to the object it is critical of. The idea of participation was at times treated as somehow ipso facto progressive or correct. It didn’t matter to what end the structure for participation was serving, only that ‘social relations’ had replaced objects.

A: Yes, I think Relational Aesthetics is just one of the latest attempts to find a way to suggest that art might ‘do’ something – as art, or as art-as-politics or as anything else. Bourriaud tries to suggest the political significance of relational aesthetics is tied to a DIY microtopian ethos based around using the institution (configured as a kind of shelter/oasis from the spectacularised conditions of the world outside) as a place where we can conduct social experiments and find new ways of ‘living together,’ new ideas of ‘non-scripted interaction,’ as he puts it. I didn’t really find his ideas that useful, but I suppose I prefer them to the ‘critical’ backlash. For instance, Claire Bishop’s dumb-arse response in October, where she refers to the clapped out ideas of radical democracy and the idea of antagonism, i.e., in democracy, conflicts are good, involving the negotiation of difference blah blah blah. Then, she goes on to use the example of [Santiago] Sierra only to reinstate the artwork within the conventionalized contexts of critical art practice/ theory, as disaffirmative/ antagonistic/ critical etc.

I have been thinking recently that in a contemporary context artworks are continually confined (to use Robert Smithsons phrase) by their staging in relation to a binaric conception of artistic practice, split between either a critical model premised on ideas of negation, deferral and lack, or an aesthetic model based on ideas of transcendence. This configuration coordinates roughly with the distinctions drawn in the 1960s, in the reaction against formalist aesthetics. This is the (supposed) distinction between the aesthetic (for instance the formalist aesthetics championed by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried) as visual (retinal), sensual, anti-intellectual and aristocratic (criticized as a mystified affirmation of the structures of capitalism); and the conceptual (for instance Minimalism and Conceptual art) as a form of radical criticality, intellectual and politically engaged (championed as critical of the structures of capitalism). These distinctions are replayed again and again and again. It’s not a useful structure. It doesn’t go anywhere. A continual restaging of ‘the critical’ doesn’t do anything.

My idea at the moment is that we should start forgetting things. In the same sense that Deleuze asks for a philosophy that has “forgotten dialectics” (in his book on Nietzsche) as a way of escaping dialectical thought without that escape being dialectically reincorporated as dialectics. In his case, he is concerned with a way of thinking or doing that would allow difference and contradiction to remain in tension in thought and in doing. If artworks are ‘confined’ politically, theoretically and materially by their prefigured relationship to the structures of the institution, and if doing (as art) is prefigured and contained in the same way, is it possible we could start forgetting some things, for example forgetting politics, forgetting political art, forgetting critical art?

Q: With Deleuze, it’s always a need to go from a tired actualization of a category back to the virtual in order to reactualize it in a fresh "format.” There is a kind of ‘forgetting’ back to the virtual, if you like. Now, it sounds like you got to this end point with BANK and had to start forgetting how things were done. Where or how did this process of rethinking things begin?

A: Re-thinking? I’m not sure certain things can be re-thought. Like this whole discourse surrounding critical/political/function. I don’t think it’s a question of rethinking it. It’s fucked. It’s become kind of hysterical comedy/tragedy. Like that thing Andrea Fraser wrote in Artforum. She says there’s no longer any position for critique of the institution, that what we should do now is create critical institutions. And we can’t get outside the institution because its inside our heads, whilst at the same time the institution is not separate form the wider socio-economic world (that is …err, outside our heads). What the hell was that all about? She might even be right. It’s like a trauma of limits. Like I was saying earlier, an anxiety regarding boundaries and the dialectic between located and unlocated-ness–what is contained, what is excluded, what is allowed and what is censored. If an artist maintains a critically located position, the critical or political content or performance of the work is inevitably staged within the structures of which it is critical but which it relies upon for its visibility. This is a kind of critical not-belonging. However, if this type of art is pitched at a wider (mainly non-art) audience then it risks losing its art status and visibility as art and its differentiation from the (supposedly) chaos of other non-art messages. In this context, it risks losing itself within the infinity of extra-institutional social relations. In this respect, the move towards the possibility of an infinitely expanded institution leaves open problems of indeterminacy both in relation to status as art and to how this indeterminacy might operate. I think all of this stuff should get forgotten NOW.

After I left BANK the first things I did, which were a kind of reaction to this, were some performances with the artist Fabienne Audeoud. One was called ‘John Russell Kills Fabienne Audeoud in the style of William Burroughs’ (2001) and the other ’20 Women Play the Drums Topless’. The idea with these was that they didn’t mean anything. The ‘20 Women…’ performance was based on a conversational idea for a performance (the idea was described to me ten years earlier by the artist Wayne Winner as an example of a performance that could never happen). We staged it so that the performers (the first 20 to answer an advert in a magazine) were seated on a four-tier stage and each provided with a complete drum kit (bass, snare, cymbals etc). The only instructions we provided were that the performers should move in and out of rhythm erratically for 40 minutes: apart from this they should play the drums any way they wanted. It was very loud. I thought it was interesting because it was difficult to make sense and the title did not seem to describe the performance. It was a kind of event.

This all kind of relates to something I read recently where Jerry Saltz put it very well where he wrote that theory was problematic because it always ‘knew where it was coming from’. That’s almost like a phrase from Deleuze. And another quotation that has remained stuck in my head was Lawrence Weiner saying that ‘once his work becomes part of art history it stops being art’. This relates to the idea of meaning and what you said earlier about the virtual. Things seem most interesting when they are virtual rather than actualized. But obviously that doesn’t mean they are not real. This is the case with theory. Theory is most interesting (and creative) when it’s half-understood. In fact, the problem is often that when you read theory or philosophy and finally get what the writer was trying to say, you realize how banal it was all along. Theory is much more useful at the point where it holds out a variety of half-understood possibilities – it’s a kind of trippy sensation – exciting and dislocating. Smithson described the experience of watching sci-fi and horror films in similar terms as ‘low budget mysticism.’

Q: Maybe this is a good place to speak of the Frozen Tears anthologies?

A: Yes, the previous Frozen Tears books adopted the format of an 800-page horror/sci-fi bestseller, including cover illustration, foil blocking, embossing, and spot varnish. That was because I liked best seller books as objects – and I like the fact that they were viscerally/violently visual. But also the format wasn’t random. It pointed toward the idea of a visually excessive use of text (or ‘figurality’). In the first book I asked people to write a “visual text”. I felt there was a connection between the expressionistic/cinematic/violent use of language and fiction of writers such as Stephen King, Phillip Dick, Stanislav Lem and writers from the French transgressive tradition such as Artaud, Bataille, Guyotat, etc and, in extension, the cross-over with the American beat writers (and beyond), for instance William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, and then more contemporarily Dennis Cooper and so on.

So, the idea was to stage the conflation of the visual and the textual both in relation to these ideas of figurality and with respect to the distinction between book-as-text (text art, collection of texts) and book-as-object (art object, sculpture, commodity, found object or pretend found object). For instance, I showed the books as a pile at the Cabinet gallery like Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. This is the idea that the object (or book), though superficially (or perhaps profoundly) visual, could only be approached, interestingly-as-a-text, by reading; which would seem to temporarily negate the point of its visual-ness as an object or art object, in line with the idea that "reading isn’t the same as looking, unless it is" which was something Smithson wrote about. Put simply visitors to the gallery would be able to look at the books OR read one. In the first edition, for instance, I included two texts by Art & Language. Art & Language and Pierre Guyotat—that seems like an interesting collision.

Q: But then, the books were used as a pretext to organize exhibitions in which they weren’t shown. And these were really more like events–with metal bands, hired prostitutes, live web feeds, etc.

A: Yes. I also liked the idea of Frozen Tears as a kind of brand, or virus; as a kind of speech act. The idea of performing something as a statement or speech act (or as a sort of naming) to see what reality effects it could produce. We did that a bit in BANK. Not as something that has a pretext or a plan but speculatively. I think Frozen Tears is the prophesy or curse of the infinite social as predicted in Marx.

Q. Maybe you can draw some concrete distinctions here between the Frozen Tears branding or viral model and the critical/political
stagings that are no longer effective? Let’s finish off by talking
about the digital paintings that you are working on these days?

A: I like big paintings. In particular, French 19th century figurative painting – ‘Raft of the Medusa’, ‘Oath of the Horatii’ etc—or Jackson Pollock. I like the violence and the narrative/dramatic dimension. Pictures of people killing each other and interacting – the illocutionary force of this type of presentation. And the way this plays off against some of those old-style formal issues like surface. At the moment, I’m interested in the way Greenberg talks about the move towards the ‘purity’ of flatness as painting. It’s pure but it’s also impossible because flatness is an abstraction – and so his idea of the purely visual is conceptual – which is exactly what he doesn’t want it to be (Thierry de Duve talks about this in Kant after Duchamp). There is a drama and violence in these ideas as well. I was watching a brilliant film of Greenberg talking in the 1980s about Pollock the other day. He is drunk and ends the interview by saying “Ah, he was full of shit like all the rest of us.’ I’ve recently been producing large digital prints on canvas and vinyl of virtual Jackson Pollock-influenced paintings made out of blood and meat, and including Jesus’ hands. And at the moment I’m producing 4 large (30 x 10ft) paintings on back-lit vinyl depicting a range of people standing ankle deep in an infinite ocean.

Images are:

Pg 1: Photo of John Russell

Pg 2: BANK, Invitation to ‘Fuck Off’ 1997. Exhibition organised by BANK. Including works by BANK, Lolly Batty, Gavin Turk, Rebecca Warren. DOG, London. 1996.

Page 3: BANK, ‘Adman You’re a Bad Man.’ Cover, BANK Tabloid’ 1997.

Page 4: John Russell, Fabienne Audéoud and Wayne Lloyd. Performance shot – Twenty women play the drums topless. South London Gallery. September 2002.

Page 5: Installation shot from ‘Zombie Golf’ organised by BANK.

Page 6: BANK, ‘GOD’ 1997.

Page 7: Frozen Tears II cover.

Page 8: Genesis P-Orridge reading at Frozen Tears III launch, NYC 2007.

Page 9: Dennis Cooper reading at Frozen Tears launch at Skylight Books, Los Angeles, CA.

Page 10: Frozen Tears II installation, Death Valley, CA.

More about Russell & Frozen Tears is at