Carey Young and Jill Magid: The Color of Law

First published in Mousse magazine, Summer 2011 issue

Jill Magid:                    
I am curious about your identity in relation to, and as it appears, in your work. You are visibly at the centre of your practice, often wearing a mannish business suit. (For example in Everything You’ve Heard is Wrong [1999] continuing through into your Body Techniques series [2007].) I’m aware that you worked in the past within multinational companies, including being an artist in residence at Xerox, and that you draw from these experiences in your work. But even in your video I am a Revolutionary (2001), the 'I' of that sentence seems to be something or someone other than Carey Young. Can you discuss who this ‘I’ is?

Relatedly, the New York Times Style section on Oct 21, 2010 featured a front page article that discussed women in politics: "The Fashion Conservatives: Some Women show curves while campaigning, but shapeless corporate uniforms hold the lead". The article was about the difficulty in allowing a feminine image into politics. I thought of your work and how you present yourself in your work.

Carey Young:                                           
The 'I' in my work is first and foremost the figure of an artist. The works appear to be self portraits, but they are not autobiographical. I want this figure to represent any artist..except this is an artist who has half lost their identity, or gained another - perhaps the 'other' - to also become what looks like a professional or businessperson of some kind. What I am interested in is the artist as chameleon, and also a kind of non-identity. A generic, globalised business aesthetic. That was even a factor in the way I set up my artist’s residency at Xerox - I knew that by approaching the Xerox Corporation and having them accept me as artist in residence, there was a kind of implicit mutated duplication of the artist's identity. It's a kind of warning in a way - if we as a global society go ever further into a neoliberal context, where the market is supposed to provide for every need, whether political, social, environmental, personal etc - does the artist also have to adapt and take on a 'mutated identity' in order to have any real power or voice? What do we hold as precious within past ideas of artistic identity? Or are those ideas - so socially pervasive since Romanticism - just an anachronism?

These works also propose the artist as a certain kind of researcher: to deal with the ideas of business, economics and law that I am dealing with, the work proposes a kind of deep knowledge gained by a working familiarity with the language, tools and tactics of business and law, which I have often gained through employment and residencies within those sectors. It is not about surface - it's about what it means if an artist has a working knowledge of the inner mechanics of business and law, so that they can gain access to often-hidden material which they then bring out for examination and as material for their own artistic production. Without that kind of understanding, the artist will not be trusted enough to be allowed access to or use of that material, or won't know where or how to find it. I don't just use the material I find as readymades – it’s often turned inside out, radically altered, satirised, in order to try and interrogate it within the public domain.

In terms of gender, I have an inherently anti-patriarchal attitude, but the way I present myself in my work is more about appearing as I actually did, or would, within a business context. So in that sense, it adds a sense of authenticity.

I was recently at a lecture by an artist whose work is popularly termed 'socially and politically engaged'. During the Q&A, an audience member asked the artist how she hoped her projects would affect and change the specific political and/or social situations with which she was engaging. To my surprise, the artist responded, “This is art. My work is about representation, not about change.” I wonder how you feel about this answer, in general and in relation to your own work. I am thinking specifically of some of your projects in which you are placing yourself in relation to the public, sometimes in a didactic way, such as Image Transfer (2006), Conflict Management (2003) or Everything You’ve Heard is Wrong (1999).

I think this is a fair response by the artist concerned. There is often an expectation that artists have a direct political effect, without a careful consideration of timescales, of who the audience is, or was. It's too blunt an approach. But I disagree with that artist that there is an opposition between the potential of representation and change within a work. I'm aiming for most, but not all of my works to have both. The kind of change I mean is not didactically or polemically proposed by the work. I’m more interested in creating a space for thought and discussion about certain ideas. For example, Conflict Management (2003), is a 'live' piece in which a professional arbitrator (conflict resolution specialist) sits in an urban marketplace for one day and makes his or her services available to the public for free. I see the work as a 'temporary peace zone'. The exhibiting institution must advertise  the piece widely in advance so that the public are aware of the opportunity. In order to assess this work, the question should not be a utilitarian one - 'how many people used the 'service'?'  - it should be considered in symbolic terms: whether people choose to ignore the piece, or to participate within it, both have a poetic significance and offer a reflection back on to that location and community. For example, the work was heavily 'used' in Karlsruhe, Germany, but in Taipei the local audience merely expressed curiosity. Both are equally valid.

To take a wider view, my works often feature speaking, whether by actors, myself, curators and exhibition staff, or the audience. Often there is an invitation to join an ongoing dialogue. That sense of voice and rhetoric links to a quote I've found relevant, by Jacques Rancière, "A speaking being, according to Aristotle, is a political being." 

I'm not sure I would agree that my works are didactic. In essence they often are quite 'soft', in that I often try to create fuzzy borders between the work, the audience and the exhibition context. The works try to bring the viewer in, to implicate or seduce them, to make them laugh so that they are already physically connected to the work, even though they may find the subject matter alienating at first. I want criticality to emerge from that sense of entering the work.

There’s something in a photograph that seems a failure to you: a photograph is not enough. I think photography in your work is really interesting in that it’s seductive as an image but it’s also framing part of a larger story.

That’s a good question. I’d agree - a photograph isn’t enough, somehow, especially not if I’ve made it: there has to be some kind of process or system that has resulted in that image, and the image has to be part of some conceptual schema where it isn’t just acting as documentation. The viewer has to perceive that the photograph is a fragment of some larger whole that isn’t pictured, but is somehow visible or perceptible within the work. For example, with the images in the Redshiftseries (2010), it’s not enough to me that these photographs were made by exposing light through meteorite slices in the darkroom, even though that was a very inventive, unique process which created these arresting photographic abstracts. I then added a title to each work which contains a copyright statement worded with a lawyer, in which, after my death, my copyright in the work is given away, and placed into the public domain in a very innovative way. The legal aspect of the work is totally new - it extends existing ideas around copyright, and is at the margins of legality.

You can take the series as a comment on the role of the index within photography, but instead of some particular moment of time on Earth that is problematized, the time presented within the photograph goes back before the Earth was formed, sometime around the birth of the solar system. So I think from a photographic standpoint, that’s inherently interesting, but I felt that the images, if they just stayed as images, were decorative. My signature, if you like, is to play with the law and with business tools and tactics, so I wanted to reframe those images in conceptual terms. It’s like an intellectual test for me, how can I push this photographic project into the domain of the law and also in terms of the domain of subversion of the law. It was quite a challenge.

JM:   I am wondering how your approach the idea of power in your work?

CY:   I’m not an anarchist so I don’t take issue with all forms of power. I also believe that the state is the way to counteract corporate power. That’s rather unfashionable in artistic circles, and especially so to defend the state, but the state and the rule of law is the only way to reign in corporate power, and corporate misuse of power, and this is a key reason why I want to make work using the law and legal language, for example, rather than trying to take a position of being somehow ‘outside’  it.