Word-Things: Ingrid Burrington
Ingrid Burrington is an artist and writer based mostly in New York City. She received her BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She makes all kinds of brilliant things out of words.
Michael Kimball: You make words do different things that most writers. There is a conceptual approach that makes me think of Kenneth Goldsmith, Vanessa Place, Carl Andre, Andy Devine. The first word-thing of yours that stopped me is the set of protest signs in “The Things Worth Fighting For.” Can you talk about the appropriation of the form and maybe a protest sign or two, maybe especially I’LL PLAY MY BLACK SABBATH AS LOUD AS I WANT?
Ingrid Burrington: First of all, I like the term “word-thing”–it suggests that there’s still ambiguity here, which I think means I’m doing something right.
I think people get the impression that “The Things Worth Fighting For” is a lighthearted work because of the adolescent nature of the protest in question. But in an art context, protest signs are almost elegiac. By placing something like a protest sign in a gallery the object can take on two equally mournful characteristics: the sign is read as an artifact, an abandoned tool of a lost cause, and/or as a prop, a parody and critique of the practice of protest itself.
The language of the signs is based in a hyperbolic, ridiculous stereotype of a pre-teen boy. I feel like that tone of unapologetic indignation is what drove me away from being “politically active” in the ways that our society permits–I came of age during the Bush years and saw that protests and marches didn’t really generate change so much as noise. And yet, when I imagine this teenager, upset that his mom doesn’t know that it’s BLACK SABBATH, the most important band EVER, not just mere “rock music,” I feel this great affection and empathy. He doesn’t even realize how wonderfully simple and easy life has to be in order for the most important matter at hand to be not cleaning his room. And who hasn’t had those moments of extreme frustration at what later appeared to be totally trivial things?
I recently made a new “word-thing” that follows sort of in this path: it’s a protest sign with a white dry-erase board for its sign and a marker clipped to the side. I’ve been trying different things written on it. Right now it says “WE WANT EVERYTHING FOR EVERYONE”, which is a real anti-globalization slogan. But that piece is more about the way that tactics of resistance tend to be adopted by the institutions one seeks to evade.
Kimball: The “EVERYTHING” and “EVERYONE” makes me think of your piece, “The Memorial for Everything That’s Ever Happened Ever.” I like the attempt to catalog everything and the types of everything that seemed to memorialized and the fact that it seems to change each year. I’m especially interested in the 2009 Memorial, where everything was catalogued with chalk, which, of course, is pretty impermament. Maybe talk about any of that that you want?
Burrington: I think I am still working out the mechanics of “The Memorial For Everything That’s Ever Happened Ever.” It started with just getting the plaque made, and playing with different settings for a temporary memorial—adding a somber, reflective tone to banal spaces. The memorial as an event is sort of designed to fail in its efforts—the crowds I can gather for it are usually small, mostly bribed friends, and the list is by definition never complete. So every year when I do it, it’s sort of disappointing, but it’s sort of supposed to be disappointing. The format keeps changing because I keep trying to find the appropriate tone—because it’s set up to fail, which is kind of funny, but it’s really not a joke. Every year when I start to prepare for the event, I find myself reflecting very seriously on well, everything. This might be a tangent, but a lot of my ideas about making art and writing are influenced by having a parent with dementia. Watching someone lose grasp of their personal history and their ability to do ordinary tasks—to say nothing of keeping up with world events—instilled in me a real urgency to remember things, be they topical or historical. In a completely non-joking way, I really do want to remember everything that’s ever happened. Except maybe some people I’ve dated. And my “punk” phase in middle school.
Kimball: I like how that piece is funny and hopeless, sad and ambitious, temporary and documented—all at the same time. I like how you have taken the act of the memorial and the words involved in that act and given them a new context. I like how you did that with “Chance Notice” too. In the photo, the notice appears to be in a living room. Tell me where this project came from and whether you posted any notices anywhere else (or, what I’m really trying to ask is if you would come over and post one somewhere in my house)?
Burrington: I still have a lot of them if you want one! I made the notice initially as a kind of petulant art student’s joke about the institutionalizing of transgression in art settings. Sometimes I feel like artists have a bad habit of explaining away all the interesting parts of what they’re doing, through criticism and essays (and interviews like this one, possibly) and, well, wall text and gallery labels. But then I didn’t have it in a gallery–I had it in my old apartment. Which meant that I was opening up this possibility of “chance operations,” this very specific art-historical term, taking place not in academia but in my living room. It was as if I were rescuing it from the theorizing of “everyday” in art by making it, you know, part of my everyday. The second sentence of that piece—“please keep aware of the surroundings”—that’s sort of the more interesting part of the piece to me now. I like the idea of making things that encourage people to generally pay attention.
Kimball: I think it is that second sentence that makes me want one in my house (and, yes, I do).
Burrington: I seem to frequently run into my own work in other people’s homes. This is nice, because in general I try to make things that I can live with, so if other people can live with them then the work shows promise.
Kimball: You have a bunch of word-things and other objects that could be found in people’s homes and would look almost ordinary until one looked closely—rulers with different kinds of measurements on them, jigsaw puzzles, a subway map that is annotated with missed connections. And you have a project where you just read to people. Tell me about that one and the resulting booklet, “Stories told in order to live: or the small failure of a nice idea.”
Burrington: I feel like that project is another example of a necessary failure, though maybe in a different way. I had this idea that offering up some reading material–not just that, but listening material–would be a nice response to living in a world where people consistently say they don’t “have time” to read, or if they read it’s in a skimming, disengaged fashion. I set up these hours I would be available in a location once a week for three weeks to read out loud to people from a stack of mostly personally chosen titles (people could bring material if they wished). If you don’t have time to read, basically, I will read to you. For free. I get to read nice things, you get to hear them. Good deal.
I made the mistake of having a Field of Dreams mentality about this–it turns out if you build it, they’re not necessarily going to come. Over three weeks I had maybe five visitors, most of whom were there because I begged them to show up. This left me with the really terrifying idea that maybe people don’t want to slow down and listen to stories. It’s like inertia: we’ve gotten so accustomed to moving at this pace, and it takes a lot of force to slow that pace down.
I made the booklet because I’m sort of interested in how to tell a story about something that didn’t work out, how to document an event that sort of didn’t happen, or didn’t happen the way I romantically hoped it might. I still kind of have mixed feelings about that project, because I think the few people who did participate got something out of it, but I’m not sure what I got out of waiting and waiting for people who never showed up. There’s this Lacan quotation that I use in the booklet, and that I think gets to the heart of what I’m doing: “Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.”
Kimball: For some reason, that makes me think of your Venn diagrams (more here and here), another kind of word-thing that you make. One of the things that fascinates me (and Aaron Burch) about them is the tremendous amount of implied story that you convey with those three little sets of words (a, b, and where a&b overlap). I’m interested in both the idea behind these Venn diagrams of words and the source for the material.
Burrington: The diagrams that you’re linking to are from when I made a small book that was filled with blank Venn diagrams that I used kind of like a diary–instead of saying what I did that day or how I felt, I would look at things in my everyday life that seemed to have shared qualities and try to break them down, sort them out. A lot of them weren’t actually that funny–some of them were really boring. Some of them were really maudlin. But then on occasion they really clicked. I like the idea that they are a form of storytelling. I think that I tend to employ information graphics, maps and diagrams, in my work because they provide an authoritative overtone that is rapidly undermined by the content.
Kimball: We have been talking a lot about word-things and I want to get at the adjectival part of that. I think of you, first, as an artist who makes things with words. What I’m wondering is how and why you chose words as your main material?
Burrington: I frequently joked while in art school that I was basically “a writer who made a huge mistake.” I tend to approach the making of printed material, sculptures, or events through writing or, maybe to be more accurate, through telling a story. What I like about words is the same thing I like about maps or schematics–they represent the workings of a place or a thing while also changing the thing through the use of its own established framework. A map can make a place seem bigger and smaller at the same time. I enjoy the uncertainty and subjectivity that goes into using words as a material in art making.
[Note: This interview originally appeared in the great Hobart.]
Michael Kimball is the author of three novels, including DEAR EVERYBODY, which is now out in paperback in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” All three of his novels have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages and Tyrant Books will release HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS in early 2011. His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, Open City, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and two documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).
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