In Conversation: Carey Young and Joseph Redwood-Martinez

First published in 'An Incomplete Reader for the Ongoing Project "One day, everything will be free', published by SALT, Istanbul, 2012.

Joseph Redwood-Martinez: I want to start in 2001, if that is possible, with the “Gift Economy” piece you did for the exhibition NOTHING. You printed this exhibition title and logo on 1,000 erasers, which were given away for free, much like you would see in the context of a trade show. Can you tell me about the significance of erasure and removal within your work?

Carey Young: This connects to an ongoing idea in my work about forms of silence, negation, disappearance, dematerialization and gaps in communication. More recently, this interest has turned to legal forms of silence (such as disclaimers and retractions) and legal grey areas. But with that particular exhibition, I was interested in the idea of “nothing” in a poetic sense–the idea of an object that could be both something and nothing; an object that could also simultaneously suggest the erasure of itself and the erasure of mark making. It also points to a corporate context because of the way the erasers were displayed, referencing the kind of giveaway free gifts often found in a tradeshow.

JRM: With respect to this idea of erasure and dematerialization in relation to legal forms of silence, in a way it forms a connection all the way through to the Redshift series from 2010, where you are deliberately abandoning copyright protection for the piece on a country by country basis–

CY: No, I’m not, and this is very important. It actually suggests a new form within copyright. It is not coming from an anarchist position where one might say, “let’s get rid of the law.” It’s coming from a position that holds a belief in the legal system – via state- instituted laws - as the only powerful method currently available to contravene corporate power. This is why I have worked with law as an artistic material. But at the same time, through playing with and using the law as an artistic medium, I’m interested in suggesting that there is a kind of malleability and a plasticity to the law. I’m not only interested in the transgressive territory between the legal and the illegal, but also I want people to feel that they have more agency in the face of the law.

I’m not trying to make excuses for the state here, or kowtow to a greater power; rather, I’m interested in suggesting that we might see ourselves as more powerful than we might think when we are faced with ideas of legal domination.

JRM: Maybe, then, we should go back to 2001 and work our way to the present. There is a shift that happens in the work; a few shifts. And the connections take more work to develop.

With respect to this interest in silence, and gaps, could you tell me about the significance of the concept of zero within your practice?

CY: I’m mostly attracted to the perceived poetic suggestiveness in the idea of nothingness, and also of course the sublime. I’m attracted to that which one can’t quite account for.

I often come back to the initial generation of Conceptual artists because I feel that their varied and urgent attempts to escape the marketplace were key. But the way those works were commodified and did not ultimately escape the market context suggests that ultimately, at a certain point, art cannot evade the logic of the commodity form. It is an interesting intellectual and symbolic game, but tragically there seems to be no escape.

Instead I am more interested in situating a work within the context of the market in such a way that it problematises that context. It is thus not so easily consumed. I want to avoid the scenario of my work “sitting on its ass in a museum”, to quote Claes Oldenburgh. I hope that my work sets up a critical and discursive relationship with its exhibition context, and subtly warns of that context as having a more ‘corporatized’ future (since, in our neoliberal era, all of life now takes place in a marketplace, this is not an unreasonable ‘modest proposal’.)

JRM: In this respect, we are departing from thinking about the artwork as an object of contemplation in favor of considering the way in which it can function as a mechanism that is capable of entering certain predetermined spaces and operating so as to open up different patterns of behavior.

CY: Yes, and I’m interested in the idea of the artist going deep within those spaces with subversive intent. But a subversive intent that is not immediately obvious...

JRM: But within late neoliberalism, or whatever we’re in, critique has been commoditized to the point that systems actually depend on it. Or, to paraphrase Tiqqun, Empire manages violence (critique) to the extent that violence is not only anticipated, it is incorporated. But it was never outside the mechanism, it was always a constitutive element.

CY: But in terms of the neoliberalist view that the whole of life takes place within a market context, then where can we find critique? I’m an optimist – I believe we can find or create it somewhere. Culturally speaking, we are often looking for possibilities to offer critique, but if there is nothing that lies outside of the marketplace, than what does one do?

So, my work doesn’t suggest an attempt to stand ‘outside’ corporate structures, or legal structures, or political structures, but tries to go deep inside those structures by taking on that deep knowledge, taking on that identity, taking on those kinds of modes of address to make artwork from inside that. And I also alter corporate tools so as to expose them, by adding new content which criticizes them from within. It can be seen in a Zizekian way as an overidentification with power structures in order to become subversive. This is also explored by Deleuze, in Venus in Furs, in relation to the idea of the masochist as a figure who identifies with rules and laws to the extent of being transgressive.

JRM: You’ve previously been employed in the corporate sector, is that correct?

CY: Yes. It was kind of by accident. I finished a fine art Masters in photography in 1997, but because the subject of my artistic work and research at that period was very much looking at the technological sublime and the interplay of the physical and virtual, I found it very useful to be looking at the so called “new economy”–the period of rapid technological growth and fuelled economic boom at the end of the 1990s. As a result, very shortly after leaving art college I agreed to take up a surprise part-time job offer in the corporate sector working for a management consultancy that specialized in information technology. I agreed because, despite my political leanings being pretty much hard Left, I felt that one might want to roll the dice and see where this highly unusual offer might lead.

Ultimately, although it was a regular corporate job, not a residency, it gave me access to many new contacts, conversations, and servers full of information–which developed into a major research opportunity for me. Out of this, unbeknownst to the company, I started to develop a large body of artistic work. It was a kind of clandestine artist residency, and I imagine they still don’t really know about it in an official way. My artistic work never referred directly to the company since I feel that artists such as Hans Haacke had already made such pointed work in relation to specific corporate examples and there was no point trying to repeat a similar position with relation to institutional critique - I was more interested in general “corporation as institution.”

So, I stayed in the corporate world for four and a half years working at the same company, and subsequently I was hired as a marketing person by an organization that represented pretty much the opposite of the corporate sector - a wonderful leftist think tank, specializing in economics, called the New Economics Foundation. I worked there for three years. So I also work with ideas from that context. I chose each of these jobs for the opportunities they would give me to do a kind of paid research. At the same time as doing these jobs, I also did artist residencies at places like the BBC or Xerox. I was looking at their materials, research, knowledge, tools, all sorts that I could use as starting points for works. It was highly unusual for an artist to be able to go from one corporation into another as a colleague and insider (in terms of having trusted access to their servers and staff) and I made the most of it – it was a particularly energetic period for me in terms of production.

JRM: While you are interested in the dialectic of the inside/ outside, it doesn’t seem like you have ever really been convinced about withdrawal as a critical strategy. You are more interested in embeddedness, occupation, and a certain ventriloquism.

CY: Yes, and I would also say learning, and a kind of becoming. There is a lot about embodiment and physicality in my work. I often come back to the object status of the work, and emphasize the piece as object. With the erasers that we discussed earlier, for example, it is very important that they exist as physical objects in the gallery. Or, as in the Disclaimer series, 2004, in which prints featuring legal disclaimers were mounted onto wooden supports that were then hung on the gallery wall - it is important that those weren’t just flat prints or vinyl texts on the wall. I gave them a kind of physicality.

This is something that occurs across my whole practice: the idea of physical participation and embodiment, and a bodily enactment of ideology. It is likehabitus, to invoke the ideas of Pierre Bordieu and Marcel Mauss. Even the Soviet statues in my video Memento Park (2010) are seen as performers suspended in a mid-action enactment of political ideology and propaganda.

JRM: Your works are often also polyphonic in nature–the terms of your collaborations allowing your work to move in and outside of the art context, operating as multi-authored texts suggesting legibility in several vocabularies at once. Could you expand on the relationship between polyphony and simultaneity, but also absence?

CY: I’ve often been trying to minimize my own artistic identity in the work, so I become a kind of vehicle for the projects, a symbol of the artist. It is almost a strategy of disappearance, which is actually very ironic, because that is probably the last thing you would expect when you first see my work, since Ioften feature within it in one way or another. But that character in the work is often a cypher representing the identity of the artist merged with this corporatized being. A kind of neoliberal, corporate, science-fiction future that we seem to be hurtling toward, one which is even more in thrall to neoliberalism. And it asks the question: is this what artists might look like? Might be like? Might think like? There is a strategy of disappearance within that (as well as a challenge and warning for us in the present.)

In terms of polyphony, I have worked closely with a number of non-art professionals in the creation of many of my works, from lawyers to computer hackers and a venture capitalist. Their input is always credited and one can clearly discern their input into the work. With my law works, it is important that the works are functional legal instruments as well as works of art, and for this reason I name the lawyers who have helped me develop the works. Their names add legal weight and credibility to the works. With a status as legal instruments, the works have a separate and perhaps parallel reality. The law to me is a separate reality since it inherently involves the idea of punishment, which has its own physical charge. This to me is an interesting form of the ‘real’. In a conceptual sense, I create the machine of the work, and the content of the work is created by others, including myself. With Nothing Ventured, (2001) I wrote a script for a call center which discussed myself and my artistic work. At the gallery where I was exhibiting, my installation featured a phone, desk and chair, and a sign inviting callers to pick up the phone receiver. They would be connected direct to a call center agent, who would offer them a little information about my work, background and concerns. The script was pretty limited–just enough to tempt the caller to try and get off the script and have other conversations with the agents. I told the agents they could get “off script” whenever they liked with any inquisitive caller who wanted to test the boundaries of the work. The visitors were very curious, and immediately wanted to ask the agents about what they thought about the work and what it might be about. I recorded and transcribed those conversations. So, the call center agents and the caller were actually co-creating the content of the work by having those conversations. The transcriptions of that work form a very interesting, free flowing engagement with themes in my work and act as the main content of the work, as well as the documentation.

JRM: What do you ask of your audience?

CY: I ask the audience to engage with the works almost despite themselves. I actually expect a degree of affront in relation to the corporate identity of the artist depicted in the work. I know this is going to go against the more Leftist sensibilities of the typical art audience. I also try to use beauty or humor as a way of disarming people and engaging with them almost before they have a chance to really think about the work. By finding the work humorous–because there is often a comic vulnerability, or elements of the absurd or ironic in the work- or by finding the work visually seductive - I want to people to like the work or feel connected to the work almost despite themselves.

JRM: With the video Terms and Conditions, (2004) for example, the viewers find themselves invited into an idyllic landscape, but they are immediately given a spoken presentation consisting of legal disclaimers borrowed from corporate websites. There is actually a humorous element in the fact that you are going to these websites and the one thing that you actually can easily take away is the text, it is open, free, and malleable, even though the way in which the text is presumed to operate is to limit the malleability or interpretations or the openness of one’s relationship to landscape. In using the terms to subvert them or open up a more poetic relationship to them.

CY: It is interesting that you find humor in that piece–I see it as centering more on the absurd.

I would say there are other pieces that engage more overtly with humor, such as the videos I am a Revolutionary, (2001) or Product Recall (2008), both of which are both deadpan and ridiculous. Partly because I’ve got a certain dry sense of humor I can’t help but injecting that. But I think when someone intellectualizes it.... I’ve given you my main reason, which is to try and deliver a sense of connectedness to the audience. I think it is important with my video work that the audience feels as though the work has physically entered their own space, so I want them to have that physical, embodied connection, and humor is one way to do that.


The full SALT Reader can be downloaded here.