Robert Morris LevineEarlier this year, you published a monograph of works in exhibition. It was titled Work in Exhibition: 2011–2020. Your recent collection of writings is similarly blunt: 33 Texts: 93,614 Words: 581,035 Characters. You have a thing for literalism, it seems.
Walead BeshtyI find that being literal is helpful because it allows me to accurately describe a work without circumscribing an individual’s experience of it. Choosing titles that are mundane, technocratic, and almost tautologically self-evident keeps the interpretive field open, emphasizing that things are things and it’s for an audience to put them to use. I want to make it clear that the manner of someone’s engagement with the work is open or, rather, make it clear that I understand that my own interpretation is secondary to theirs at the point of reception—it’s their relationship to the work that animates it. Of course, it is impossible to be wholly literal: that would assume there is one reality to things, one true, uninflected way to describe them. But I think using technical language opens the door to thinking about the multiplicity of frames of reference objects move through.
RMLYou have discussed the potential of transparency to interrupt the concealment by which systems of power operate. On the one hand, your literalism does this. On the other, it occasionally resembles the language of these systems of power. For instance: FedEx® Large Kraft Box ©2008 FEDEX 330510 REV 6/08 GP, International Priority, Los Angeles–London trk#868587728072, October 2–5, 2009.
WBIt’s true, bureaucratic language is the vernacular of faceless authority. However, when used in art, where one might expect the expressive or symbolic, I think it gives the viewer a certain freedom from prescription; it relocates the art object in the zone of something common, something traded, a product or tool. It doesn’t pretend that art is a free space, as in free from the rest of the world, but that it is part of the world. My use of bureaucratic language began early on from a desire to posit the artist as a kind of functionary rather than the arbiter of symbolic meaning—to refuse a certain elevated status that is often ascribed to the artist or the artwork. More importantly, it addressed another issue I hadn’t been thinking about initially: how to draw forward the way an object can be understood as being part of various systems of meaning at once. Bureaucratic, logistical, and corporate language presumes universality, objectivity, and precision, a premise which is plainly illusory or provisional when one stops to think about it. In an art context, that language is alien, and its authority is undermined to some extent because of how expressionistically deficient it is. It becomes curious or perverse to speak with that voice; it prompts one to question the naturalness of any mode of address. I think it also points to the common understanding of objects as forms of traded commodity or logistical units—that things have a different status depending on the mode of circulation they are apprehended within. Such language acts, more or less, like a readymade.
My hope is that this bureaucratic or technical language also acknowledges that we always exceed the systems of instrumentalization we are subjected to, whether it be as a consumer, citizen-subject, or contemplative viewer, leaving an unquantified remainder, a surplus of experience and existence that is unterritorialized, unnamed, an agency that exists beyond the purview of the prescriptions and confinements we are forced to live within. In an art context, I think the deficiency of such language highlights the fact that experience always exceeds tidy containments, rather than trying to name or prescribe that excess with evocative language.
RMLYou insist on the politics of transparency. Can’t illegibility—literally, the inability to render in a ledger—be just as subversive?
WBI guess so, but it depends on how that illegibility is realized and what it might make apparent about the methods we use to to organize things for the “ledger.” I’m more interested in producing things that help us comprehend the systems that define the legible and illegible—things that might trouble those systems’ distinctions between what has meaning and what does not—rather than producing something that embraces illegibility. Every mode of inquiry demarcates its own territory, its own form of legibility, each system of thought has its own logic of inclusion and exclusion and tends to presume its universality as it characterizes the excluded as incoherent, unimportant, unformed, or illegible. I think the key is to acknowledge that transcription into a “ledger” can take many forms, is always incomplete, and that multiple systems of thought or understanding can and do coexist. My interest in the politics of transparency is really only an expression of a desire to keep multiple ways of comprehending something open. It also betrays my distaste for mechanisms of power that restrict how things can be understood and their attendant self-serving concealments. That said, transparency, as a gesture in itself, can also be an obfuscation. I specifically try not to conceal, rather than actively promote transparency as a political or aesthetic ideal.
RMLSpeaking of transparency and illegibility, your website—the impossibly long www.actionstakenunderthefictitiousnamewaleadbeshtystudiosinc.com—suggests that your name is an alias. Is Walead Beshty indeed fictitious?
WBWhen you incorporate a business, you give it what is called, in legal terms, a “fictitious name.” That is, the fictitious name Walead Beshty Studios, Inc. provides some protection for the “real” citizen-subject Walead Beshty. This always seemed funny to me, as is the very possibility of a name being authentic, true, or real. What is a non-fictitious name? People refer to each other with nicknames, pet names, and the like; are any more or less authentic or real? Authenticity has to do with context and in this instance the law is the presumptive context—and the term, rather ironically, marks this entrance into law as an entrance into fiction. Law tends to be privileged over all other forms of authenticity; it’s a kind of pervasive abstract realism that’s so completely naturalized that it has become ubiquitous. It reminds me of the brutality of bureaucratic structures of identification, of the state as an arbiter of personhood: the state dictating legibility if you will. I also like that the URL nods plainly at the business of art. This is a business; there’s no other legal way to define what I’m doing. Even if that category doesn’t wholly fit my activities, it’s the only way the law offers to describe it.
Most Waleads tend to be W-A-L-I-D. My name is spelled as it is because I was naturalized in the U.K. at a moment when Anglo-Arabic transliteration practices were less standardized. All of our names are provisional and context-dependent, fictitious in one instance, not in another. Is my real name البشتي بخت وليد? That’s what my parents intended; it was only anglicized for my British birth certificate, before I myself had even entered into language. But the Arabic version isn’t in the ledger, it has no legal validity because I was never naturalized in an Arabic speaking state. I’ve played with the varied forms of my name’s transliteration a few times in exhibitions. Depending on context, a shift in the form of a name could be a gesture to a space outside of the law or between legal regimes, or outside a certain idea of authorial propriety, a certain notion of subjecthood, or a certain symbolic order.
RMLIn a sense, you’ve subjected your person to similar migratory and translational flows as your work.
WBOnly to a very minor extent, but it continues to interest me as an idea, as a nascent possibility. By becoming public, or entering into discourse, we have to adopt certain conventions to be intelligible—to be recognizable as an entity and be able to communicate. I needed to have an Anglo name to operate in Anglo society, so that provisional name became my real name, even though it was just an afterthought to my parents, a way to fill in a form. It’s interesting that something that feels so inextricable from my existence in the world could come from a compromise made in the moment to comply with a legal process.
RMLAs evident in Foreign Correspondence, your recent exhibition in Zürich, travel is an important matter and method. You commonly run film through x-ray machines (first by mistake, now intentionally) when passing through airports. Your FedEx works are made by being shipped here and there. Is there an itinerancy to those shipping boxes that feels personal?
WBYou mean my personal life?
WBNot especially, but one could draw a comparison. I was born abroad, and I did choose a job that encouraged travel and kept me fairly unmoored. My father left his home in Tripoli when he was sixteen and couldn’t return for political reasons; his distance from his family was palpable as part of my growing up. I guess all that focused my imagination on distant places, especially during my adolescence. Not that there is much that makes me anything other than a white “American,” just an anglicized Arab name, but I was aware quite early that I had proximity through my family to a culture that was seen as exotic in the U.S.—a state and people that were represented in bizarre ways here, Libya having been an outsized cultural reference point in the Eighties. I think most people experience this disjunction in identity in some way, especially in the U.S. An “American” identity isn’t a terribly convincing story; it’s easy to feel it doesn’t fit oneself.
That said, I’m pretty much “American.” And I say that with all the problematic associations it entails: firstly the word “America” and why this country calls itself by the name of two continents. I find that word, “American,” particularly alienating and grotesque. To call oneself “American” is to call oneself willfully oblivious to the world, that said, I do appreciate its vulgar honesty, its blatant arrogance. I am most definitely socialized as an “American,” from accent to customs. By being a citizen of the U.S., I am implicated in, and the beneficiary of, the suffering this country causes. The key is acknowledging this fact and doing one’s best to behave ethically within one’s confines and expertise—and to spend time thinking about what behaving ethically means.
I believe the production of distinctions based on the premise of uniqueness is the go-to justification for exploitation, brutality, and suffering. It’s horrifying that these fuzzy, anachronistic, and unstable categories are exploited to the point where they have become tangible; it puts the suffering, the abused, the excluded, in a terrible double-bind, forced to continue to participate in the language and values of a repressive system just to be acknowledged, to be legible. But really, my interest in travel, transmission, circulation and so on, is that it is usually ignored as a generator of change and transformation; rather I think that fluidity is central to understanding the world and why it is the way it is. I think we miss the complexities of life when we treat things as static, fixed, or discrete.
RMLI’d like to stay with FedEx works. They change each time they are shown, the glass panels and copper plates recording their contact with bodies between destinations. Have you considered the inverse: objects that leave their impression on bodies, just as our necks bear the curve of looking at the phone (“tech-neck,” as it’s called)?
WBCertainly. Our bodies are just another thing, and our bodies change by their exposure to context as well; we change objects, and objects change us. There are a different set of abstract systems we use to represent the body; I have made work related to that, the Body Prints, which are copper etchings of all the prescriptions for the medications I take. It shows how my body is understood from a corporate pharmacological perspective; it’s understood negatively, as a list of ailments and administered compounds that are meant to alleviate its dysfunctions. Each medication is like a conduit to distant and abstract corporate entities, tentacles that reach into and out of my body.
The FedEx box, the iPhone—everything from a book to a hammer to a couch—these are all cybernetic extensions that both are and are not our body, as much as our body is and isn’t our body, in the sense that our bodies also belong to and are penetrated by the world. I think the boundaries of our bodies are porous and always provisional—not to get too actor-network theory-ish.
RMLRight. You often refer to the ideas of twentieth-century European critical theorists: Adorno, Ranciere, Lévi-Strauss, Flusser. Do you read contemporary theory?
WBI tend to have localized affections for writers and theorists. I’m drawn to certain ideas and I gloss over the others. I approach all theoretical models instrumentally, merely as means to an end. I’ve found, say, Agamben on sovereignty and the exception, or on gesture, to be very useful, or Siegert’s idea of cultural techniques, or Deleuze and Guattari on minor literature. The same quotes will arise again and again in my writing. I don’t try to repress that; it’s kind of like using a screwdriver multiple times and in different ways. I don’t feel any obligation to an author’s body of work, or to history in general; there is no particular institutional body of knowledge that I feel obliged to preserve or maintain. I just collage the pieces I find helpful together to articulate something that I feel might be useful.
Also, it takes time to get to know an idea. I only feel comfortable with really small steps, so I use what I know I can depend on; I rely on ideas I’ve turned over in my head again and again.
RMLYou began writing before you were producing artwork. It was, as you’ve said, your first way of “participating in discourse about aesthetics.” What is the relationship between these two practices now?
WBWriting and making have always ebbed and flowed. One is a release valve for the other. I can get frustrated by the limitations of one discourse—say writing—and find a freedom in art making that lets me get reinvested in the limitations of the previous discourse. Really, immersion in writing and reading most often offers a respite from art; it’s much less stressful for me because the professional stakes are pretty much nil. Still it can be frustrating.
RMLOscillating between frustrations.
WBIn a positive sense. Frustration is often the symptom of an interesting or important problem. Switching between modes—writing, teaching, editing, organizing shows, art making, etcetera—gets me unstuck, lets me reframe problems and see new ways to engage with them. While each activity may be divergent in method, they are mutually reinforcing in terms of the core set of issues that I am thinking about.
RMLYou’ve published several books of writings but few, to my knowledge, of photographs. Making photobooks is de rigueur for photographers. Do you not find the form suitable?
WBI have made one photobook: Industrial Portraits: Volume One, 2008-2012, which is intended to be the first in a series. That said, the prescription of the photobook—of rectangles on a page—never felt like it had much latitude for play. Or at least I never felt I had much to contribute to its narrow conventions. In part, photobooks don’t tend to question the transformation that takes place between formats—that is, between a thing on the wall, a photograph in your hand, and a rectangle on a page. The convention takes that transformation to be automatic. In the exhibition space, you have incident, you have other bodies, you have physical proximity, you have all these other variables, and art discourse has the tools to acknowledge all that, while photographic discourse tends to lack them. Photographic artworks are objects, not just scaleless images. It means something to put them into book form. At the same time, the photobook doesn’t seem to capitalize on the book’s incredible potential to incorporate touch into the experience of images.
Because aesthetic discourse overemphasizes visuality, the corporeal knowledge that comes from engaging with objects is usually discounted. The discourse around photography doubles down on the primacy of the visual to its own detriment. I do think books can intervene in this. I have made a few little forays myself. When designing and editing an issue of Blind Spot, I printed an image of my eyelash in the margin at one-to-one scale. I later wrote an essay in October about the problem of mediation, which also concluded with an eyelash. That essay was based on Roger Callois’ “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia.” Callois discusses a grasshopper so good at emulating a leaf that it is subject to cannibalism. That’s his problem with mimicry: when taken to its logical conclusions, mimicry produces total dedifferentiation and is thus synonymous with death. It’s a theory of media, or the limit of media, of coming too close to the referent. For Callois, without categorical delineations, without distinction and separation, we die. But I don’t agree with Callois: I think this blurring of boundaries, this interconnection and lack of discreteness is life itself—our inextricable place in an ecology. We live through our connection, through the porousness of ourselves and others, and we echo the world around us for symbiotic benefit. Our dependency on others, be they human or nonhuman, is integral to our existence; the expansion and contraction of the boundary between us and our surrounds is a meaningful and ever-present part of life. What’s more, the primary objective of life seems to be the eradication of distance, of separateness, all human and animal endeavors seem to point to interconnection as a goal.
In the text, I analogize the camouflaged grasshopper to the photograph printed in a book—that a photographic object is being subjected to a process similar to the one Callois was discussing. When you print a picture in a book, one could argue that the logic of the picture is subsumed by the logic of the book, that the material specificity of the picture is lost and the picture is reduced to a mere likeness of itself. The question is, How does one describe what we are looking at? Are you looking at the book, at ink smeared on a page, are you looking at an image of a photograph, are you looking at a photograph, or at the thing the photograph is depicting? The same issue plagues the discussion of all depictions, and is particularly obsessed over in photographic discourse. Are you looking at things or into things? Really, it’s both. You are shifting frames or, better, seeing through all of them in rapid succession or simultaneously, and the unstable boundaries between these types of looking, these sensitivities, give us a glimpse into worlds within worlds. Which is to say, all of these mediating layers are inextricably intertwined, which gives rise to micro-circumstances of confusion—collision—places where these layers announce themselves (the best historical example of a synthetic attempt to do this is trompe l’oeil). I find those instances of confusion or disruption quite beautiful. I’ve since printed an eyelash or a hair in every book I’ve made so that, perhaps, the reader mistakes it for the real thing and blows on it or tries to brush it away, and is thus taken out of the text and into the world of things, and then back into the text—out of the abstracted world of text or image that displaces your imagination, a reminder of the surface of things. You touch the text instead of reading it. Maybe we should add something like that into this exchange, some digital artifact, a dead pixel somewhere, a greasy thumb print like the one I am trying to look past as I type this out on my screen. Those incidents and misrecognitions are opportunities for a reader to switch registers and become conscious of different types of looking. Then there is the presence of the other—your new book has an eyelash in it. That’s always the thing: you pick up a book from the library and find a chocolatey-fingerprint and are like, woah, weird. I am having this private experience with a text and suddenly there is this anonymous person’s body in between me and the text.
RMLOr a booger in the spine.
WBYes. You have to acknowledge a stranger being there before you, interrupting what is otherwise a hermetic and seemingly direct experience. I like that presence of the third—this agent from somewhere. Or rather, I like to remember that there are always those presences. Even in a new book, a new object, other bodies are present, and those presences indicate our connection to an expansive world.
RMLWhat is the relationship between your artistic practice and your teaching practice? You have held many academic appointments: at UCLA; Bard; California Institute of the Arts; the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and, from 2007–2016, Art Center College of Design.
WBTo me, teaching was always what artists did; it was just part of the job, and it was a reason I was drawn to art in the first place. I love teaching because you have to be accountable and honest about your investment in ideas. When your ideas are being kicked around and reused, you have to be humble about them, and you are forced to acknowledge that they have implications that you didn’t necessarily see and that you couldn’t have manufactured on your own, no matter how long you’ve spent sitting with them. You also have to acknowledge that they aren’t really yours—that ideas only exist in exchange with others. In a sense, the classroom is a microcosm of what I am seeking in the world: to understand how things change when they are in circulation, in discourse, during instrumentalization and counter-instrumentalization—how ideas gain momentum. It is immediately gratifying to witness that activity in motion.
RMLYou studied at Bard, then Yale. Is there a professor that left a deep imprint on your practice, or who you model your pedagogy after?
WBThere’s a long list of debt in terms of influence and support. Stephen Shore was important to me as an undergraduate. He was both very traditional and permissive: clear about what he thought an art practice should be and at the same time he was open to play. Then in graduate school there was Cathy Opie, who was very supportive of me and key in getting me started in L.A. (Jim Welling also; although I never studied with him, he played a similar role), Mel Bochner, Roni Horn, Joe Scanlan, Eric Schwab, Chris Wood, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Louise Neri, Christine Mehring, Laurie Dahlberg—all were incredibly patient and generous. It’s weird to list them. I’ve also learned from a great many people I’ve never formally studied with.
I always responded most to those professors that were clear about their worldviews and let us play around in them, try them out, repurpose them. I try to do the same. I am frank about what I believe. I want to get that out of the way first, so students don’t have to worry about where I’m coming from. You only get something meaningful out of teaching if you forget about ego, which is also freeing. I think the perennial anxiety of the artist is this idea that the professional field is unstable—people appear and disappear and you never really know why; when you’re a student that can be really confusing and distracting. As an artist, you have to reconcile yourself with that instability. You have to be convinced by what you do, but you also have to be open enough to see the world; if you don’t, you just become a miserable narcissist, whether successful or not.
But I want to ask you about something. I’ve worked on this interview more than I usually do. For some reason I struggled with clarity, with how much information was useful or not, and the authenticity of voice. Some texts just evolve in this way, becoming unmanageable and gruesome at points, but I think we’ve come out the other end. This text seems unrecognizable compared to where it started, but hopefully that is for the better. This morning I thought back to when you first sent me the transcript, how you also shared this lovely Roland Barthes quote:
It is still possible to hear a writer speak: his breath, the manner of his voice always has something to teach us; but to then convert that speech into writing, as if the order and the nature of languages were of no importance…, is nothing other than to produce a bastard and meaningless writing that possesses neither the arresting distance of the written thing nor the poetic pleasure of the spoken thing.
You added that you liked our “bastard.” The word bastard strikes me because it is a disowned offspring. Maybe bastards are free in a sense; they are no longer obligated to you, and you, likewise, have no obligation to them. They aren’t burdened with the strictures of lineage. I kind of think of my art this way: it’s free to do as it likes or as others would like to do with it. That it’s unaccountable to me but is accountable to the world. After seeing how things evolved through our exchange of drafts and revisions, how do you feel about our bastard now? Is it okay to let it go?