In a culinary world populated by stars, Ferran Adrià is the uncontested sun, the center of the universe. The Catalan chef who started off as a dishwasher at Barcelona’s Hotel Playafels, joined the El Bulli kitchen staff at 22 and only eighteen months later became head chef. From 1994 onwards, the year the restaurant received a substantial investment, El Bulli’s reputation as a place for experimentation grew. It held three Michelin stars and ranked first in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for a record five years.
The list of firsts accomplished by Adrià is extensive and varied—both in the kitchen and out. Among them, he is the only chef to have ever been invited by the art institution Documenta to be part of the show. The run of the 2007 edition saw an El Bulli outpost in Kassel—serving two guests per night—in a project that touched on the subjects of site-specificity and “the artistic disciplines which can not be inside a museum.”
Despite recognition on one of the art world’s biggest stages, Adrià doesn’t consider himself an artist—though his creative processes, production techniques, and even the language surrounding his work share some affinities. His brand of cooking is often labeled “molecular gastronomy,” although Adrià himself prefers “deconstructivist gastronomy.” He dissects foodstuffs and processes them to change their texture, taste, or both, then combines them in innovative and unexpected ways. He is famous for using scientific and technologically advanced methods, such as freeze-drying ingredients or using dyes. For El Bulli he created no less than 1,846 unique recipes—often explosive and extreme in taste. Rather than an eating experience, dining at El Bulli was a forty-course adventure at the frontiers of culinary sensation. One of his signature dishes, the “Spherical Olive,” or liquid olive, transports you through worlds both flavor and texture—oil, salt, sour, solids, liquids—within a flash of a second.
On July 30, 2011, El Bulli closed its doors. Adrià subsequently rented a former parking garage in a residential area of Barcelona and started elBullifoundation, commonly referred to as “the lab.” Here, the chef works with a large team of young historians, economists, botanists, artists, and other specialists on persevering his legacy. Using a signature method they call Sapiens, the team is mapping and analyzing all elements of gastronomic creativity—ingredients, tools, processes, and techniques—in order to uncover and unlock unused potential. It’s a rational approach to an intuitive phenomenon, which may also be used to understand other seemingly elusive creative practices.
Once in a while Adrià presents his findings in the form of exhibitions. Notes on Creativity (through July 7 at Marres, Maastricht) is one such an attempt to visualize gastronomic innovation through artistic means. On the ground floor, drawings represent the phase of conception—Adrià famously creates his dishes by drawing them. The first floor displays tools such as specifically designed cutlery and china, illustrating the production process. The dining experience, including restaurant architecture and the organization of staff, forms the end station.
For the first time, a month before opening Notes on Creativity, Adrià invited a group of international journalists to talk about his current undertakings.
All images: Installation views of Notes on Creativity at Marres, Maatricht, 2016. All images courtesy of Ferran Adrià and Marres, Maastricht. Photos: Gert Jan van Rooij
Edo Dijksterhuis: Why did El Bulli close and what made you decide to switch from being a restaurant chef to running a laboratory?
Ferran Adrià: El Bulli never really was a restaurant, not in the traditional sense anyway. It was closed six months a year and during the other six months we were only open at night. To have 75 staff members attending to 50 guests is not very conventional either.
But I guess that after almost 30 years we were getting bored. We were solidly booked years in advance and there was little room for further improvement. The period from 2003 to 2009 marked a peak for the restaurant in terms of appreciation and success, but creatively it wasn’t that interesting. And I got the impression people were getting a bit tired of El Bulli. It’s like Lionel Messi being awarded his fifth golden football—hardly any newspaper will pay attention, it’s become business as usual. We needed a new challenge, to go back to the situation of the early nineties when we didn’t know where we were going.
ED: How did you come up with the idea of a lab?
FA: When we decided to close El Bulli my brother Alberto wanted to start something new. Tickets in Barcelona is the result—a new type of gastrobar, offering an informal type of cuisine. I’ve participated in it but I didn’t want to be caught up in a kind of “new El Bulli.” I wanted to be free and spend some time reflecting on what we’d accomplished so far.
The entire restaurant concept is maybe two hundred years old. El Bulli has been around some 50 years, half of which with me as chef. A lot has been written about El Bulli—38 books, more than 14,000 pages—but maybe only ten people in the world truly know what it’s about. I wanted to analyze and document how the restaurant worked.
ED: What happens in the laboratory? It doesn’t look like a laboratory in the traditional sense, with test tubes and Bunsen burners.
FA: We don’t even have a kitchen here! Nobody eats; we only study, order, and analyze the creative process. I aim to decode the language of gastronomy, all aspects of it: the organization of the restaurant, the crockery used, the architecture, the personality of the staff. While running El Bulli I didn’t have time to think it through. We were working twelve-hour shifts, like efficient machines doing twenty things simultaneously.
ED: What is it you hope to uncover by sifting through thirty years of restaurant history?
FA: Ultimately I want to develop an international gastronomic language, a kind of physiology of taste. By using our self-devised Sapiens method we decode products, foodstuffs, cooking methods, techniques, and kitchen hardware. By identifying and classifying the basic building blocks we can uncover the vast culinary realm no one has ventured into yet. Up till now gastronomy has only realized a fraction of its potential. We intend to publish an extensive study, the Bullipedia, pointing out the possibilities.
ED: How do you present the laboratory’s findings?
FA: In the first year of operating the elBullifoundation we did an exhibition in Barcelona—the first in restaurant history. It drew some 700,000 visitors. The audience was enthusiastic but I learned that you can’t really exhibit the experiment that was El Bulli. Later, we made a much more accomplished exhibition at the Drawing Center in New York, which showed how dishes were created. In the past four years, our exhibitions—twelve up till now, the one at Marres being the latest—have been about the creative process. They include sketches for new dishes, designs for innovative cutlery, co-productions with architects like Norman Foster and Jean Novel.
ED: Are there plans for a more permanent exhibition of the elBullifoundation’s findings?
FA: Yes, there are. We’re now developing a location in Roses, on the coast, and will probably open to the public in 2017. The laboratory serves as a pilot project. At the heart of the museum will be the 1,846 dishes I’ve created for El Bulli. It’s kind of an autobiographical presentation. I’ve also donated my personal archive—some 15,000 documents—so in one hundred years people can still understand what went on at El Bulli.
ED: You were the first—and only—chef to have ever been invited to participate in Documenta. You’ve had several museum shows and are now planning your own museum. Would you say you’re a kind of artist?
FA: I don’t care for that label. But I do appreciate the way the art world has taught me how to look at things. Thanks to Documenta I could reflect on the concept of creativity for a year and a half. And the conversations with artists have changed my life.
I do think, however, that the contemporary art world is lacking someone as radical as Andy Warhol who can bridge the gap between the inner circle and the larger audience. We need a Steve Jobs of the art world. There is so much talent out there that goes unnoticed.
ED: Using the football analogy one could say you’ve been the star player in a world-class team for years and now you’re the coach. Would it be possible for you to step onto the pitch again?
FA: At forty, Cruijff and Messi can’t play anymore. I could be back in the game at fifty or sixty, if I wanted to. But I don’t feel the need to play anymore. My job now is to coach, to pass on my knowledge. And it’s quite a challenge, maybe the biggest in my career, to make explicit my ideas about creativity. And it’s exciting to see if the Sapiens method actually works, and that it’s not just some mad man’s theory.
Don’t misunderstand me: People are stupid in the ways that I am stupid. We are stupid in common: over-worked, over-tired, over-extended—distracted by 21st century life's whizzing communications, the decentralized self, and efforts to keep the barricades from being completely overrun by life’s ghoulish troubles. This being so, we possess precious little attention left to really know what someone's talking about who is actually sitting across the table from us or who just emailed us that text I/they want you/me to read or visit that exhibition we/they labored over. I bet even as you read this you've got a couple of texts messages and/or emails that are burning in your mental inbox. Maybe it's word back from the grant proposal you wrote five months ago, maybe it's someone you thought would never write you back (but maybe they did!).
We are stupid because we are lonely and estranged.
We are stupid because we are lonely and estranged. It's nothing personal, dear friend seated across from me. But of course that's just the problem: it is personal—intensely so. It’s personal and human. There is just no way I could ever really tell you how fucked my interior world is right now. Or: I could, but the terror of real-time rejection—the "no one cares about your problems" tough love reply—sends us scurrying back into our technological hole in the ground.
So we are stupid and it may very well be the case that we are stupid because our gizmos are hooking into our loneliness, self-doubt, and exploiting our rampant fears of rejection. Oh to be so Holy that we felt God or the spirits swirling in and around us so much that we did not crave that type of connection. But this spiritual longing otherwise subtle in previous generations may have taken its crude form today in flat screens, digital circuits, and the like. Still, I don't want to lodge yet another harangue against the internet and technology... How can I while typing this out on one of those gizmos, when I am myself a shameless scroller and poster to the much hated Facebook?
Instead, I'd like to ask what our shared stupor might mean for notions of taste. Given the choice between digital delirium and the chance to be a kind of Hume-ian/Kantian person of taste...I am pretty sure I'd elect for the former. Most of us have, because those Enlightenment era philosophers are, well, pretty embarrassing in many respects. Even if you grant Immanuel Kant's project its desire to create an aesthetic commons some modicum of cultural edification, it’s difficult to get past some of his notions of universality, beauty, disinterestedness, and pleasure. Pierre Bourdieu, while obviously useful for identifying some of the key problems of class structure in the field of cultural production, kind of leaves us a little cold and alienated. I mean, we do share interests after all. Cultural life turns out to be more than can be explained by a sociologist’s charts and graphs. I find that Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love is pretty instructive in breaking down the theoretical and aesthetic implications of taste. Wilson makes some penetrating insights into the phenomena of “cool,” which he describes as striking a fine balance between economic capital (money), social capital (connections), and cultural capital (knowledge). Still, even in Wilson's thinking, taste tends to be in conversation with something like power relations that are grounded in aesthetics.
Taste marks our individuality.
Giorgio Agamben’s thoughts on the subject of taste open new paths for thinking about what taste could mean without “taste-making”—how it could be a zone for thinking about what makes us human. After describing a series of entries in a newspaper's personal ads, where people seek other people through brief descriptions about their hobbies and tastes, Agamben writes:
In the attempt to deﬁne oneself through one’s hobbies, there comes to light in all its problematicity the relation between singularity, its tastes, and its inclinations. The most idiosyncratic aspect of everyone, their tastes, the fact that they like coffee granita, the sea at summertime, this certain shape of lips, this certain smell, but also the paintings of the late Titian so much—all this seems to safeguard its secret in the most impenetrable and insigniﬁcant way. It is necessary to decisively subtract tastes from the aesthetic dimension and rediscover their ontological character, in order to ﬁnd in them something like a new ethical territory. It is not a matter of attributes or properties of a subject who judges but of the mode in which each person, in losing himself as subject, constitutes-himself as form-of-life. The secret of taste is what form-of-life must solve, has always already solved and displayed—just as gestures betray and, at the same time, absolve character. (Agamben, "Toward an Ontology of Style," The Use of Bodies, 231)
As I understand it, Agamben is saying that taste marks our individuality. In a sense, like our quirky habits, what we are attracted to reveals something about who we are as human beings. Obvious enough, you say, but to think about taste as a way of accounting for humanity instead of locking us into a cultural hierarchy runs counter to notions of taste-making and returns taste back to its almost animal nature. We might even think of his formulation of taste as a practice of popular distinction. By popular distinction I only mean the ability to recognize particularity without resorting to social climbing of ladders. Rather than taste being about judgment, Agamben’s embodied formulation of taste could lead to the discovery of particularity and that type of discovery might prompt something like a connection that could withstand the onslaught of distraction I ruminated on earlier.
Let’s talk about a particularity then. Let's talk about taste. Let's talk about something real. Let's talk about art.
A photo posted by New Capital (@newcapitalprojects) on Nov 15, 2015 at 10:06pm PST
Let's talk about an alternative space in Chicago. Lets talk about the art of Rebecca Beachy and her project Inherencies at New Capital last fall. It was a show that actually left a bad taste in my mouth. Which might sound like a criticism but it's not.
Let me explain.
On first viewing I didn't “like” the exhibition—or to be honest, it bummed me out. The artist had an assortment of animal bones in various material states—boiled and semi-raw, configured like so many decrepit minimalist sculptures. Think Donald Judd in the bone-yard. The show also had an artist-built subterranean level which you could enter through a hole that had been cut in the floor. Underground there were standing pools of water, dimly lit alters with animal bones... the whole show had a sephlucar vibe; invoking: death, rot, and the bodily. Mourning.
A photo posted by New Capital (@newcapitalprojects) on Nov 15, 2015 at 10:08pm PST
It was not an easy show. But more than most, it was art that I had to contend with and ask myself: why did this trouble me so? And what did it mean that it left such a bad taste in my mouth? These were questions that nagged at me for a while and I wondered...how would I have reacted to this exhibition if it had not been installed in a marginal old warehouse building, but in a shiny museum space like the MCA Chicago... My sense was that taste and convention were skewing my reading of the work...and that my answer to my speculative "what if" was: Rebecca Beachy's exhibition was one of the most absorbing shows in Chicago last year and deeply resonant with the work of famed Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, whose work was also exhibited at the MCA last year and is likewise rooted in the bodily and funerary while dealing with political atrocities of Colombia. Salcedo's work is hard not to take seriously simply because of the authorship of the artist and the institutions that host it.
Doris Salcedo, A Flor de Piel, 2014, Rose petals and thread, 445 × 252 in., Installation view at Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and MCA Chicago. Photo: Kazuhiro Uchida
Context effects taste.
Seeing this condition from another angle, I am also reminded of On Kawara’s tour de force retrospective, Silence, at the Guggenheim in New York in early 2015. The exhibition was a revelation and allowed me to connect with the artist in a whole other way that I think very much has to do with the type of taste Agamben is describing. Until the Guggenheim exhibition I only really understood On Kawara’s work in relationship to the conceptual art canon, i.e. he was an “important” artist as portrayed in countless books, magazines, and internet articles. What I encountered in the Guggenheim was a life. This “form-of-life” (to borrow Agamben’s phrase) struck me on a visceral level. Kawara’s work is a far cry from the chilly conceptualist that I had been given to understand. Accounting for everyday, the I Am Still Alive telegrams, the hand-painted Date Paintings, and numerous other works, registered something more than the personal. In aggregate they reflected back a life. A life, moreover, that (at least for this viewer) could only begin to come into focus in this particular exhibition. Taste then might be rethought of as a phenomena that resolutely places us in the world—not as universal subjects who adjudicate culture but as particular individuals who literally have a taste for it.
Okay, so maybe a slight harangue about technology after all... Our slick gadgets and the hyper-capitalism that peddles them ad nauseam are sucking the life out of life. “Disinterested,” they are helping render embodied taste obsolete. The scary thing is—worse than death, rot, and bad taste—should we loose our sense of taste we very may well lose any real connection to each other...and while technology may offer us a kind of freaky-deaky disembodied cyborg immortality that might allow us a break from being stuck in our bodies and to float free through the global corporatized ether, we might inadvertently trade away bodily tastes altogether, both good and bad, for a life without life.
“Made hickory smoked salmon with rose and squid ink rice tonight... :)”
This is an email sign off I received from my fellow editor, Joel Kuennen, the other day. Touching base about what we’ve been making and eating is not uncommon for us; before taking on the challenges of running an art website, in fact, Joel was a sous chef. Amidst meetings about editorial strategy and publication schedules, we swap recipes for preserved lemons, and I implore him to send me transatlantic care packages of that lavender hot sauce he’s been fermenting (thanks, Joel—it’s about time for another batch!).
That we are publishing a special edition on food—on taste—feels natural and overdue.
The bonds between food and the arts are far too many to cover in this space. Just last week Laure Prouvost shared a fantastical meditation in The Guardian on her ideal “Last Supper,” imagining an epic meal involving pineapple hats, chasing pigs, and foraging for berries with her grandparents. It’s easy to envisage the scene realized in a forthcoming video installation from the Turner Prize-winner. The same day, a continent away, Bay Area chefs started serving up signature pork belly dishes in a month-long tribute to the “meat-shaped stone,” a priceless Qing Dynasty sculpture that, as advertised, is a piece of jasper carved to look like a hunk of pork belly. On loan from Taipei, the 19th century royal treasure is currently on view at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. For centuries, artists have looked to the kitchen for nourishment and inspiration—these days, chefs are looking back.
In preparation for The Taste Issue, I did some art-inspired cooking myself, getting my hands on the new cookbook from the studio of Olafur Eliasson. More than a collection of recipes, the book is a testament to the intimate relationships between nourishment, community, ecology, labor, and creativity. In the introduction, iconic Berkeley chef Alice Waters describes the studio as an “organism.” It is a social being, nourished literally and creatively by the communal rituals of dining.
Studio Olafur Eliasson has some 90 members, including dedicated kitchen staff, who prepare meals for dozens of people daily. Reading the cookbook, I couldn’t help but think it represented a different reality entirely from the working and dining conditions of 99 percent of artists. Last November I profiledStudio Cooking, a residency in which Los Angeles artists Arden Surdam and Meghan Gordon programmed a series of “meal events” to interrogate what artists eat while they’re working. Their inspiration? A vision of the artist cooking in her studio with little more than a rice cooker and a hot plate. When I caught up with the artists recently, Gordon reflected on the project: “By choosing to work with food, Studio Cooking was looking for a universal expression of artist labor—what work do we do as artists that cumulatively adds up to the art we make in its final form?”
She went on, “Everyone has to eat to continue making work, but some cook, some buy fast food, some share this task communally, some can pay others to prepare elaborate meals… these are very personal and political actions, which can provide a possible context for an artist’s work.” From Studio Olafur Eliasson to Studio Cooking, we find this organism, at once creating and consuming, its tentacles reaching out and touching on our bodies, our work, our politics, our environment. “When we cook, we both use the world and produce it at the same time,” writes Eliasson.
In The Taste Issue, writers dig in, ruminating on the big picture, and also the microscopic one. Nadja Sayej profiles a Berlin Biennale project where visitors are literally ingesting artwork. Artist Debora Delmar Corp.’s juice bar, MINT, speaks not only to the influences of celebrities and lifestyle branding on taste, but also to the global economic contexts embodied in the trendy products we consume.
Given these examples, you’d think taste is all relational aesthetics and social practice. But for some, like the founder of Soylent—a food product designed to be a nutritionally complete meal in beverage form—eating and cooking are perfunctory tasks. Joel Kuennen chats with artist Sean Raspet, who was brought on as a “taste creator” for the company. Raspet zooms way in, transforming food, and flavors, on a molecular level, before widening back out to consider the product’s implications from commercial and environmental perspectives.
Artists and chefs sit across a narrow table: As Debora Delmar Corp. and Sean Raspet make food as art, some chefs make art with food. Ferran Adrià is the only chef to have participated in Documenta, and he currently has an exhibition about his work and legacy. Edo Dijksterhuis gets some face time with the legendary Catalan chef, who reaches across culinary boundaries, describing his interdisciplinary project to map the elements of gastronomic creativity.
Of course taste is not just about what we eat, but what we see, feel, judge, experience. To round out the issue, Zachary Cahill chews on contemporary manifestations of taste, wondering whether our idiosyncrasies and aesthetic preferences reflect not only our social hierarchies, but our humanity, our very physical, embodied being. Can taste connect rather than isolate us?
As I was preparing “Tomato Soup with Cumin and Figs” from the Eliasson studio cookbook, some 3,400 miles away Joel was working on the gif for this issue. We chatted via Skype and I watched as he suspended a camera above his stovetop. Affixed to the makeshift rigging, illuminating the frying pan, was a small yellow light: a Little Sun solar lamp, made by Studio Olafur Eliasson. We laughed, hysterically, as he smashed eggs on the skillet, his failed experiments becoming breakfast. The sun, and our tastes, bringing us together.
Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky. —The Creation of Ea
Ursula K. Le Guin, Tehanu
İnci Eviner is a gatherer: she collects the memory of crowds, unearths folk narratives, and retells their stories in her own language. She is a hunter: she traces misogyny, detects hierarchy, and targets it with the tools of a unique feminist visual lexicon. Although she doesn’t specifically identify her work as feminist, Eviner dissolves dichotomies and prescribed identities using the female body—but just as often, ungendered bodies—as an agent through which womanhood, gender, and the politics of identity are performed.
To understand Eviner’s art, which spans nearly every conceivable medium, one needs to break the mindset of a western linear understanding. The tales in her works mushroom in different terrains, hatching into a rhizome. As in Deleuze and Guattari’s model of the rhizome, which opposes a hierarchical, tree-like model of culture and thought, Eviner’s work rejects a continuous, unbroken, orthodox perception of the world. Unlike the tree that sprouts from a single seed, branching out from a stable trunk, the rhizome is a root-like organism that spreads and grows horizontally, making diverse, but not necessarily continuous connections and appearances.
İnci Eviner, İnci Eviner Retrospective:Who’s Inside You?, Installation view at Istanbul Modern, June 22–October 23, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Istanbul Modern
Who’s Inside You is the first retrospective of a living female artist at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art. Curated by museum Director Levent Çalıkoğlu, Eviner’s much deserved exhibition reflects this rhizomatic structure. The artist’s wide-ranging methodologies and materials are dispersed across the space, non-chronologically. Connected through their inherent melodies and thematic refrains, the works call back to one another, as if the whole exhibition were one giant installation. At a press conference, Eviner spoke of how it all came together:
This exhibition enabled me to look back. Not only did it give me the opportunity to look from a certain distance at my own story in terms of how my identity as an artist became established, but it also revealed how all of the works are linked in certain ways. I designed the presentation in an entirely open-plan setting. I wanted to create a dynamic environment that would not be presented chronologically, but would bring back into circulation visual languages that reference one another, speak to one another, and are informed by the same past although they were articulated in different ways at different times.
İnci Eviner, Body Geography, 1995, Copper on board, acrylic, and asphalt, 260 x 210 cm. Courtesy of the artist
Body Geography (1995), is emblematic of Eviner’s approach to material, medium, and body. A plate covered with copper, acrylic, and asphalt, speaks in a primeval language, telling the stories of bodies traversing an unspecified terrain. The artist’s relationship with the rhizome is already visible in this early work. Bodies are plotted around the composition, connected to one another via dotted lines, journeys charted on a map that start, stop, trail in and out of the frame, connecting and disconnecting. In this geography of an unknown land, some figures wear cone-shaped dresses; others have no legs, but rather a single appendage tailing off on the ground. Charted like symbols on a map, these mysterious, ungendered figures nevertheless possess character: they wander around contemplating, observing, looking warily at the lizard-like animals sharing their space.
The uncanny topography in Body Geography echoes the artist’s identity as a woman in Turkey, trapped between nationalist and modernist narratives of the state and the conservative values of the society. Women in Turkey were once seen and advanced as the modern face of the revolution and westernization—throwing away their headscarves, offered a decent education, and enjoying the right to vote. However, they were still expected to preserve moral values like not having love affairs or sex before marriage. Eviner’s bodies are tasked with navigating this vague, unreconciled territory, reflecting and playing upon the intersection of art and feminist discourse.
İnci Eviner, Harem, 2009, Still from single channel HD video, 3’ loop. Courtesy of the artist
A centerpiece of the show is Harem (2009), a video projected on a giant screen in the middle of the exhibition space, which takes on western perceptions of the East and the representation of women. In the work, Eviner deconstructs Antoine Ignace Melling's eponymous engraving which dates back to 1795. Revealing the original engraving’s perspectival flaws, she also underlines the faults in the figures’ bodies—possibly the result of lack of observation. She accentuates the artificial production of the orientalist imagery and the fantasy world of the West by simply erasing Melling’s fabricated figures—and then introducing her own instead.
The artist says that she sees architectural space as an extension of the body, and she examines space as pregnant with codes full of memory. Thus, by playing with our recognition of space, she tampers with our perception of memory. In doing so, she also addresses her own education as an artist, and the history and systematized knowledge embodied therein. As a graduate of the Istanbul State Academy of Fine Arts (now known as the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University), famous for its formal western-oriented orthodox art education, she tries to deconstruct her knowledge of perspective, and reverse it with her video. The women Eviner introduces in Melling’s reclaimed space manifest her political viewpoint as well. With their acts—biting and stabbing one another, hugging the dead—they constantly challenge accepted moral values, violence, and death in an uncanny setting.
İnci Eviner, Broken Manifestos, 2010, Video still from 3 channel HD video, 3’ loop, 6 channel sound installation. Courtesy of the artist
Eviner uses the images of women’s bodies, particularly from found images and photographs. Appropriating the collective, media-centric image of women, mostly produced by a hetero-normative mindset, Eviner turns these images into the “representation of the representation.” Referencing Lacan, she underscores that “there is no woman, only symbols, images, and representations.” Broken Manifestos (2010) addresses rituals and mythical narratives, with figures in dozens of small vignettes charted across a pitch-black abyss. The nebulous connections between immigration, violence, compassion, love, and sexual desire manifest in the video through the bodily gestures of the figures. One scene speaks to global protest movements, telling the stories of people who assert their rights on the streets. People waving flags and throwing stones blend into images of stray dogs; a hip-hop tune plays in the background.
(left) İnci Eviner, Beuys Underground, 2011, Ink on paper, 140.5 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist (right) İnci Eviner, Arthur Rimbaud, 2005, Ink on paper, 174 x 107 cm. Courtesy of the artist
Eviner’s drawings employ an equally rich spectrum of images and figures. In fact, the artist considers drawing as the starting point of her practice. In works like Baby Woman (2005), Defiance (2005), Arthur Rimbaud (2005), and Beuys Underground (2011) womanhood, and images of women—extracted from her own experience or from the stories and images of dancers, actors, her students, and even found photographs—remain central in her boundless image production. Gender, as well as nationhood and identity, is characterized as being in a state of flux: women turn into children, men flow into animal-like beings. In the end, nothing is definite.
It is fitting that Istanbul Modern's first retrospective of a living female artist goes to one so concerned with mapping, diagramming, retelling, and complicating formal histories and identities. It is not simply Eviner’s practice which expands rhizomatically, but her influence as well. Here’s to hoping that this crucial milestone will be followed by retrospectives of other key women in the history of art in Turkey like Hale Tenger, Nil Yalter, and Tomur Atagök, not to mention greater representation for a new generation artists like Canan, Neriman Polat, Fulya Çetin, Arzu Yayıntaş, Seda Hepsev, among so many others.
Budapest-based davidope (aka David Szakaly) is one of the best known GIF artists on the planet. The Tumblr page he started in 2008 became an inspiration for a generation of net artists that followed him. The extent of his sweeping popularity is best illustrated when you type “GIF,” or “animated GIF,” into Google images and his work appears at the top of the page. While many might not recognize his name, they are likely familiar with his distinctive aesthetic. His most familiar pieces quickly spread (often uncredited) like a digital wildfire through every corner of the internet. His work really feels like an intrinsic part of the fabric of the first era of popular GIF art.
The brilliance of davidope’s art lies in his complete lack of pretension and the deceptive simplicity of his ideas. His creations are often mathematically complex but never at the cost of an instant, inclusive, universal appeal. He brings a moment of joy to countless people on a daily basis and that is something that any artist should be deeply proud of.
We are honored that davidope granted us a rare interview to discuss his life, work, and influence.
Christian Petersen: What’s the difference between David Szakaly and davidope?
davidope: David Szakaly was given to me. It’s official. It's scary to hear or read. I usually only hear it when I have to pay for something or do other obligations that I don't really like. It reminds me of my boundaries.
The name “davidope” was chosen over 18 years ago. It stands for “david+dope” and also “da visual dope.” davidope is free. davidope is international. davidope is great.
CP: You launched your dvdp Tumblr account in 2008. When did you start to realize that people were really embracing your GIFs?
d: The first notifications came quite quickly after five or six months from some Japanese sites. I used Google translate and found words like “remarkable” and “big potential” so I was more than happy. Then there were these dudes on Tumblr who always made comments on each piece of work like “genius” or “keep them coming”—these were very, very motivational. In the first few months I only had a few hundred followers and a little later a few thousand. The big boom happened one or two years later when I was featured on large art and design portals which brought big waves of new followers, sometimes even ten thousand a day. Which was cool but also scary in a way.
CP: How has your approach to making GIFs changed since then?
d: It doesn't really change. It's only the time that I spend on them is less now. For me, animation is absolutely a fun activity. My works are all stored on my hard-drive under a big folder called “fun.” Through my experiences with web design and development I knew how quickly something can change from an innocent, fun activity to bloody serious work with all that stress. I consciously wanted to avoid that, so you could call it my hobby. I only do it when I really want to. In the last one or two years other, older hobbies became stronger again like flight-simulation or skateboarding. The primary goal is keeping my brain busy and getting happy.
CP: Your work is usually either black and white or rainbow colored—why do you choose those extremes?
d: For me black and white is the most fair choice of colors. Everything else is between these two extremes. The high-contrast pattern helps us to perceive depth of space or direction of motion more intensely. It’s also a good metaphor for all the opposites in life (e.g. existing vs. not existing, day vs. night, good vs. evil). It also ensures a small file size.
The other most universal way to go is the rainbow. The full color spectrum would be the most fair choice for color. It's also very human. This is the visible range of wavelengths only for us humans. A dog’s rainbow, for example, would look totally different. It's impossible to use all of the colors in the GIF format. So my finely selected “rainbow” color palette is a minimalist interpretation of the full color spectrum. In some of my GIFs the colors are interacting with each other; in others they are used to build shapes.
CP: Do you ever feel burned out on making GIFs or frustrated by their limitations?
d: I always feel burned out. That's why I began to create animations in the first place. It makes me happy. So when I feel burned I create. If not, I do something else. The limitations of the format help me. Too many options make me feel dizzy. At least I don't have to think about colors, dimensions, and files size too much.
CP: What do you think of now when you hear the word GIF?
d: Nothing really. I never felt connected to the format that much.
CP: Has your online popularity affected your real life?
d: Nope, I didn't let it get that far. In the beginning I was proud and felt flattered. Especially when friends and family began to understand that not all of the years I spent in front of a computer screen were wasted. But, after a while, I received so many requests that I couldn't process them, even if I wanted to, unless I dropped my real work to do this animation thing professionally. Then I'm sure I would have hated animation after two or three years. So I’m constantly feeling bad for all those unanswered emails. But I try not to. My hobby is to create, not to communicate, so I keep on hiding. I like my life as it is right now. One of my main goals is already achieved: to leave a mark in this world. Files created by me and bits with my name are scattered over millions of hard drives and human neuron-cells all over the world. Nobody can remove all of that quickly.
Immediately after the moment when I click the “save post” button on Tumblr I try to imagine how many different types of eyes are looking at the same motion in that same moment, in different time zones with different weather and moods. In those moments I feel connected with all the people following me from 182 countries around the globe. For one of the last living internationalists like me that’s instant heaven.
CP: Do you feel part of the global net art community?
d: I never felt part of it. I certainly have friends from this community. I’m not building new connections though. That would be the communication thing again. I want to create and chill. Nothing more. It's already hard enough to find time to meet up with real life friends.
CP: Your work is probably the most copied and reproduced (without credit) of any GIF artist. That must be frustrating?
d: It is. But there are so many more important things to be pissed off about. On the other hand I see it as a compliment. For somebody who works in the creative field—it doesn’t matter if it’s fine art or industrial design—it’s one of the biggest acknowledgments when you see you are inspiring others. It’s only sad when people are copying without adding any additional value or ideas.
CP: You will always be remembered as on of the first pioneers of GIF art. How does it feel to have made such a deep impact on the new digital world?
d: Gooood. But only time will tell if my name will be remembered. I hope so.
Actually, it’s quite important to me. I don’t want kids so that would be compensation.
CP: There’s usually an element of “joy” and “magic” to your work. They allow the audience to escape reality for a moment. Is that your aim?
d: Absolutely. That’s what I’m looking for as well when discovering things on the internet.
CP: What do your GIFs say about how your mind works?
d: Everything! Haha! Sometimes shooting, relaxing, sometimes dizzy or full of tensions. Simple and complex at the same time. It’s all me.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he'll be selecting a Web Artist of the Week.
In my experience, when you tell someone that you’re a gallery guide at a museum, they think you’re a tour guide. “No, no,” you tell them. “That is the job of the docents.”
“What the hell do you do then?” they ask.
I worked as a part-time gallery guide in an unnamed museum from October 2015 to March 2016, and I’m still not totally sure what I was doing there. To be fair, I was probably the worst gallery guide to ever grace that place. A more dedicated gallery guide could give you a detailed, poetic summation of our duties. When I explain the job to people, I just say that the gallery guide is, basically, a combination of a guard, a docent, and a janitor.
Officially, our main task was to have deep, meaningful one-on-one conversations with museum visitors about the displays and the works in the collection. This supposedly deepens their connection to the museum and makes them more likely to come back, or God willing, buy a membership. If I’m being completely honest though, I probably had a deep connection with a visitor about twice during the six months I worked at the museum. The bulk of my day was spent picking up used tissues, telling visitors where the bathrooms were, and herding children.
Over a quarter of the visitors to this museum were students on field trips. They were invariably accompanied by chaperones who hid in crevices and stared at their smart phones. Dear Lord, how they loved to stare at their smart phones! Why!? I can’t tell you how many times a class of sixth or seventh graders (the most spiteful and malicious of all age groups) would come in and be set loose like so many wild animals. One time a chaperone responsible for ten middle school boys just flopped down on a couch with his phone at the entrance of the gallery. Every time I would run into the boys trying to climb up to the ceiling beams or tearing down didactics from the wall, I would escort them back to the chaperone. He would walk with them a few feet, then sit on another bench and go back to Candy Crush or Tinder or whatever the hell he was doing.
The museum where I worked was a little unusual as it had an art section, a history section, and a science section. I was most often in the art section as my glorious Master of Fine Arts degree made me an “expert.” The art gallery was the real action zone because it had the most objects that were likely to be destroyed by visitors. That section was also where my favorite security officer, let’s call her Paula, was often stationed. She and I would team up and force every school group into total submission.
Museum Guide, Video by the author
Let me digress for a moment and explain the complex relationship between the gallery guide and the security officer. The main duty of the gallery guide is to provide customer service. We had to make sure the displays in the museum were protected, but we were instructed to do that in the most amiable way possible so that the visitor didn’t feel that they’d been chastised. Security officers, from what I saw, were more concerned with keeping order than glad-handing visitors. Paula never seemed to give a fuck if a visitor was feeling chastised or not; her priority was to keep people from touching shit. If someone touched something, she would sometimes holler at them from across the gallery. “Sir! No touching,” she would yell, brazenly. I got a sick sort of pleasure from seeing her drop the hammer on visitors in a way I only wished I could.
Paula would sometimes catch a visitor violating a rule and tell me to go deal with them. She called me her kickboxer. I guess because I’m big and tall. This was a pretty silly nickname for me though since I was totally sheepish to rule-breaking visitors.
“Hey there,” I would whisper, “I’m so sorry to have to ask you this, but could you please wear your backpack on the front or hold it to the side. We have this weird rule about backpacks. I know it’s a hassle. Actually, I could run it out to a locker if you want! Sorry! Love you!”
“... That day I saw a child beat a painting with both hands as if he were playing a bongo drum.”
The security officers usually didn’t mess around like that. They would just tell people to act right and if the behavior continued, the officers would call in their supervisor. The whole thing was sort of set up in a good-cop, bad-cop configuration. This was explicitly stated by our supervisor: “If a gallery guide needs to ask a visitor to stop breaking a rule,” she said, “they can say something like, ‘if it was up to me, I would just let you rub your face on this hundred-year-old tapestry, but the security guard will yell at me.’”
Paula and I faced all kinds of strange situations together. Once a class of practically unsupervised third graders visited. Every time Paula and I turned a corner we were faced with a child doing unspeakable acts to an artwork. That day I saw a child beat a painting with both hands as if he were playing a bongo drum. Children climbed up on plinths and tried to rip headphones out of the interactive displays. It was pandemonium. Whenever someone would touch a work of art, I would have to file a report with an app on my museum-issued iPad and Paula would radio it in to her supervisor. We probably made over a dozen reports that day. I tried to make my reports really jazzy, with a lot of dramatic flourishes. Here’s an example: Young child rubbed his open palm on the sculpture, and regretted it immediately. No visible damage to the sculpture, but you never know. Likelihood of a repeat offense: 30%
Field trip groups would usually be cleared out of the museum by lunchtime so during weekdays the museum was pretty empty for half the day. If I was stationed with Paula, we would chitchat about her family and movies we wanted to see. This was against the rules though and, some weeks, if a guard got reprimanded for chatting with a gallery guide, we would have to ignore each other for a day until things cooled off. During slow, times I would walk aimlessly around the gallery and read art history PDFs on my iPad. Sometimes I would find broken things to fix. Things were always broken, especially pencil sharpeners and digital interactive displays. Trying to fix these things was also an opportune moment to sit down. Gallery guides are on their feet all day. Though, we get more breaks than security; we had it really easy compared to the security officers.
“Get your shit together, museums!
It’s ridiculous to have exhibitions about social justice and radical politics when you’re not even treating your own workers equitably.”
This is what I learned in my time as a gallery guide: security officers are getting totally fucked by the museum. A security officer might articulate all this more accurately. Gallery guides are paid more than security officers even though gallery guiding is an easier job. Officers were constantly getting berated by visitors who were raging that they had to wear their backpack on the front or leave their drink outside the gallery. At the museum where I worked, security officers weren’t actually employees of the museum. They were independent contractors from a separate security company. So, they didn’t get any of the benefits of being museum staff. There were also several instances when officers were denied their legal minimum breaks because someone had called in sick that day. This was especially infuriating because the museum I worked for, and most art museums, are supposedly in support of progressive politics.
Get your shit together, museums! It’s ridiculous to have exhibitions about social justice and radical politics when you’re not even treating your own workers equitably.
I ended my short stint as a gallery guide and haven’t been back to my museum since. I didn’t officially say goodbye to Paula and I feel a little regretful about that. I did leave a giant piece of pound cake (her favorite) in her lunch bag on my last day of work. When I go to other art museums now I leave my backpack at the fucking coat check. I keep my admission sticker clearly visible, and when accompanying a child, I keep them within arm’s length at all times. I try to engage gallery guides in deep, meaningful conversations about all the works on display, and if a security officer asks me to stop being an asshole, I tenderly comply.
Kate Rhoades is an interdisciplinary artist. Influenced by a background in comic books and YouTube videos, Rhoades uses paint, publications, and digital media to probe the absurdity of the art world in all its social and institutional facets.