Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Interview with Stephen Hendee


Perhaps appropriately given the context of the exhibition, I recently conducted an email interview (from questions written in a cabin in rural Michigan) with Stephen Hendee around his new exhibition at the Marjorie Barrick Museum, The Textiles of Dark Age Era North America: True Artifacts and Reproductions, From 2026-2280.

CACBlog: Thanks for taking the time for this interview. One of the things I was thinking about when I read the press release for the exhibition was that many of your works (both here and in past projects) have taken a strong interest in looking at and proposing civilization after the fact, posing—in no uncertain terms—what happens (or in this case, what happened) later. Similar perhaps to the approach that Ridley Scott adopts in Blade Runner or William Gibson in All Tomorrow’s Parties; transitioning out of the world we use now and leaving some things intact, but different; broken, rigged, temporary, shifting, unstable, homemade. Maybe improvising in a sense on what is already there. Like commenting in the role of a cultural historian on the eruption of Vesuvius before it erupts.

Stephen: I’d argue that these are not displays of lost civilizations as such, but present a process of continuity and reflection that is consistent with how society cyclically reformats and re-imagines the past. The museological historicization that occurs within cultural institutions is a mechanism optimistically used for public knowledge, but is more often used for a subtle propaganda that provides a variable but common ground. I assume that this convention will continue to occur as long as people signify the past. Recontextualizing our future within the past of the described subject in a believable manner requires conveying enough of what we can understand in order to outline the prospective narrative. Science fiction and speculative fiction, its semantically more socially relevant sibling, provide subtextual links to the everyday. As William Gibson spoke of science fiction: “The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed.” This would then be a relative equation, the axis of time and content being placed anywhere along a converging line held by the viewer and their ability to understand enough of the elements to build a narrative.

Artifacts have the benefit of the history of the everyday woven into it’s story, whereas contemporary art doesn’t normally make the point of providing that information, often an artist is expecting the work speaks for itself as an optical, representational, or materially provocative subject. This exhibition simulates a representation of events that have never occurred, while as art, the utilitarian objects presented need the viewer to entertain that this fictional history is realistic enough to believe.

In such a scenario, your Monument to the Simulacrum would appear to be a remnant of this (our) civilization, but the sculpture effectively disrupts any straightforward temporal reading; it is here now as part of our world, yet somehow commenting on and physically diminishing it’s referent (the Mirage). Would you discuss the criteria and processes you use in choosing (or mining) specific objects—or in the case of the Barrick exhibition, specific language—to use as artifacts to a lost civilization, or rather, the notion of a lost civilization?

I did not generate a silver plate photo of revolutionaries waving flags from the top of the Monument to the Simulacrum or of Daniel Oshima parkouring off of it, though I was tempted, because there is a perch designed up there for such. The Monument to the Simulacrum is dedicated to the writings of the late philosopher Jean Baudrillard, which describe the hyper-real empowering the development of Las Vegas. The Monument sits on top of the Centennial Time Capsule for the City of Las Vegas to be opened in 2105. Its history is already on track, to suggest anything about what that reality holds could be taken as a political indictment of the current conditions. Will the city still be present in the absence of water sources, or as the core of the alternative energy industry, a robotics silicon valley, a high speed regional transportation hub, or end up as just another tourist trap ghost town? Any sustainable future here is based purely on speculation.

In the text for your work Storyteller’s Drops (2035-2250) you write,

Before the chaos, most of the world’s libraries and archives had been converted into digital formats. Paper books became antiquated and though cherished by many, the production and distribution of book editions had diminished to a trickle and completely ceased more than a decade before the disruption. It is obvious to us now during the event of 2026, we lost nearly the entirety of human historical record. It was no small tragedy that most print paper had already become uncommon, but compounding this problem the electricity used to run all other informational archives both public and personal disappeared almost overnight. Unaware of the scope of the unfolding events anything that could be burned for warmth or cooking was used for survival, including most of the remaining books and paper.


For as many who wandered looking simply for food and clean water there were as many in shock that their lives, location, and history had been erased. Individuals and then groups became recognized for their ability to remember and re-record the history of collective memory among the survivors. Traveling storytellers became an instrumental part of community life. The arrival of those reciting their personal and handed down memories was met with excitement and anticipation.


Many storytellers would travel with lightweight banners often painted with a list of authors or stories they were keen to perform. Sometimes these selections were an assortment of fragmentary works, with others the oeuvre of specific authors might be the focus, or single works of literature that would be recited over many nights. Central meeting places became a social hub of storytelling, music, shared communal knowledge, and history.

I’m reminded of an anecdote from my friend Steve Stelling. Late one afternoon we were discussing different ways we would potentially want to be buried after we had passed from this world. The conversation quickly took a savage, derailing Gonzo turn, with both of us trying to outmaneuver the other in pure weirdness. Steve offered that he would love to be buried in a pink bunny costume (of the quality and variety employed by college mascots) in the hopes of one day being exhumed and people assuming (wrongly, perhaps) that he had been the shaman of a powerful rabbit cult. I’m reminded of this with your banner that carries the phrase All Yesterday’s Parties, a clear transformation and temporal shift of the title of William Gibson’s book, as though it had already happened, and perhaps been forgotten, or misinterpreted. How vital is misinterpretation in your project and how do you see loss as being a potentially vital part of our future history?

For a period of time in the early 90’s I lived at the Phoenix Ironworks in West Oakland, a 100,000 sq ft warehouse, blocks from the port and last exit to the Bay Bridge. At least 20 people at one time lived there in two sometimes three-story houses made from scavenged materials. The Immortal Piano Company used the space for their business resulting in many finely tuned and restored pianos, but also those that could not be saved.

Piano mover Steve Heck used dead pianos to build giant walls and hallways separating spaces. Oddly enough when reading All Tomorrow’s Parties, the descriptions of the community on “The Bridge” read a lot like the construction and feel of the Ironworks. When looking at the images of the Ironworks it is not hard to imagine that the world has ended outside the walls of the vast yet miniature city.

The distortion created by context is powerful. To forget and then only partially remember things is common, as is the strength of completely forgetting something. In Baudrillard’s later essays he writes about the disappearance of meaning, as the internet never “forgets”, and this informational immortality creates a barrier to innovation and creative problem solving. The result of forgetting within the creative realm by definition allows “new” ideas to emerge. Once an idea dies it then has the opportunity to be created again within a completely new context for good or bad. If it is not forgotten, it then requisitely lives in an undead compost of masticated hyper-real culture. The fantasy of restarting culture itself is implausible but has hypothetical advantages for meaning or the quality of that valuation. I think that is why zombies and other post-apocalypse related pop-culture narratives are prevalent. There is a desire to pair the reality that exists without hyper-real culture with the world of our personal perceptions. Ironically, the only way to reconcile that is to simulate the experience by representing cultural survival and rebirth in the wilderness of the end.

In your use of camouflage patterns (and patterning in general), could you comment some on what the nature of camouflage has to do with the project? Which is to say, in his book Disruptive Pattern Material, Hardy Blechman posits that essentially there two different approaches that camouflage can be successfully deployed, as either disruption or blending. While these are not polar extremes, they do offer some sort of a frame, or a means of delineating approaches. What role(s) does camouflage fulfill in your practice?

I started this work because I had to find the cheapest way to continue making sculptural work. Camouflage is the cheapest fabric you can find and many of the camouflage elements are made from even less expensive bolt end cuts no one wants. In this case, the use of camouflage was to draw a line between the rare fabric being used carefully and being imbedded with significance to those who employed it. In this narrative, the warlords use it for intimidation and the Dawn workers use the pattern ostensibly to hide assets integral to restarting electrical service against the will of agricultural extremists.

Could you comment on Creech? Nellis? Since their inception, the military presence just outside of Las Vegas has always had a strong presence on shaping the city. Since moving to the city, I had always heard that certain casinos were built to cater to the military, and certainly other aspects of the city have followed suit. Are there particular ways (that may not be entirely visible) that the military presence presents itself in your practice? When did you begin to notice that the culture and aesthetics were entering into your practice, or have they always been present?

If you knew, you’d have to be destroyed. But seriously, the military is a philosophically existential presence in our society. In Pure War, a discussion between Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer, there is an analysis of military advancement as the leading edge not only of technological hardware, but the perceptive high ground that accompanies that new way of seeing or utilizing that advantage. The locative and strategic advantage given to military assets will ether be created by or filter down to companies who will eventually use the same concepts to sell us consumer devices, that will control our perceptions of space, our subsequent behavior, and provide direct access for advertising and purchasing goods. Eventually we’ll all be on computers 8 hours a day. Nah, that all sounds like some far out science fiction, Philip K. Dick paranoia.

This is almost an aside, but when I was checking to make sure that Gibson had not also written a book entitled All Yesterday’s Parties, the first book that came up in my search was in fact All Yesterday’s Parties: The Velvet Underground in Print, 1966-71. Any chance that was intentional? Do you even like The Velvet Underground? Is this homage?


No, it was intended as science fiction in-joke in relation to the past of the narrative.

For images and more information on the exhibition, please visit Stephen's blog here.

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