Friday, January 7, 2011

INTERVIEW: Nils Folke Anderson

With a foundation in painting, Nils Folke Anderson now works in large-scale sculpture. His most recent works feature repeated interlocking geometric pieces that can be shifted into different formations and left to pose like the kids game of “statues.” At first glance, it’s Sol LeWitt meeting minimalist sculpture. But looking a bit harder, Anderson is going the opposite way on the same road, doing the two-finger wave as they pass. I visited Nils Folke Anderson’s expansive Sunset Park warehouse studio on a wet September Tuesday. Across the hall from Marian Spore, and with a view onto New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty vague in the fog, it was well worth the shlep from Bushwick. The studio itself contained a large iron sculpture of interlocking bent rectangles with more yet-to-be-assembled pieces stacked on the floor, their scaled models lined up in a row. After a quick survey of these works, we headed up a floor to a smaller studio to discuss his work. Afterwards, we went looking for avocado milkshakes while talking trash about Blockbuster only to end up with a Vietnamese feast in Sunset Park Chinatown. Not bad at all.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

Let’s start at the foundation of what informs your sculpture: the concept of “reciprocal linkage.” Can you explain it in your own words along with its importance to your work?

I borrowed the term reciprocal linkage from internet terminology, where it's used to describe how multiple websites are linked to each other.

In my work reciprocal linkage is the term I use to describe a basic principle of interrelation, in which a number of elements that are essentially empty frames all link through one another. Together they create a dynamic, formless unity in which each individual element bears the same relation to the whole as any of the other elements.

Because all of the frame elements are made alike (same dimensions, material, etc.), a situation is created in which they are totally interchangeable, but also confined by this specific kind of linkage. I work in the openness of this space, interacting with a reciprocally linked object until I arrive at a stopping point, in which the elements make an interdependent stasis, all leaning on one another to form a configuration.

When we spoke at your studio, you related this concept to complex relational systems like economics, politics, with each piece affecting the great whole so as to shape the entirety. I like the idea of how this formation is alive in a way, and then reaches a point when you leave it to pose. This is a departure from more rational systems, like algorithms, used to create work. As the artist, you are directly involved in the aesthetic decision of how the piece will be arranged. How would you compare your sculptural work to someone like Sol LeWitt and why have you chosen to take the positioning away from either chance or systematic rationality and literally into your own hands?

Sol LeWitt's means were logical and rational, but the results are also poetic and humorous and beautiful. I admire how his work manages to be rigorous and light at the same time.

In my work I am interested in a direct, tactile engagement, the kind of subjective, physical, and psychological engagement that LeWitt in some ways rejected. When I am configuring a reciprocally linked sculpture, I move it until it stands up on its own. Along the way there are things it will and will not do, depending on its size, material, shape, location, etc. The sculpture has a specific character, and the interaction that occurs engages an immediate, physical intelligence. The moment of resolution happens in an instant-- everything is in play, and a moment later everything snaps into place and I am released. The sculpture and myself are separated. I assess the result and decide whether or not to reengage.

I am interested by the density of concerns that come into play at that moment, by the challenge of making the right decision when there is no right decision to be made.

That is the conundrum – when to let go. Especially when there is “no right decision to be made.” Instead of logic, physics – gravity and friction – plays a role in determining the final form, among the density of concerns. We talked about this having a more ab-ex attitude. You said instead of repetition like LeWitt, there is “recursion.” How does this term fit in?

Recursion occurs when a thing is in relation to itself. It is the basic mechanism of deconstruction-- that in placing the self-same in relation to itself something radically different might precipitate. Through recursion a novel face can arise from what had seemed stable and well understood.

In the case of reciprocal linkage, an indeterminate, liquid character emerges from what are completely self-equivalent square frames, simply by the act of joining them together according to a particular organizing principle.

Robert Smithson wrote a great piece contrasting "liquid" and "crystalline" thought, in which he advises the reader suffering from a liquid mind to make a mud pool and watch it segment as it dries. But I'm interested in the whole event he describes, the muck and the cracked polygons of dry clay, and what occurs along the way. I'm pursuing a continuum that absorbs it all.

You mentioned the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark as a primary influence. How does she fit into the picture?

Lygia Clark made a body of work called Bichos in the early 60's, which she built by hinging together metal plates. These sculptures are meant to be manipulated by the viewer into various forms. "Bicho" means beast, or animal, or bug, and the basic proposition is to create a tactile/visual dialogue between a person and this object, an object that-- through the interaction-- takes on a kind of internal life based on the nature of its construction. There's a tension between the will of the object and the will of the person touching it, and a decision to be made regarding when and why and how to disengage.

These sculptures also continuously empty themselves-- they are the opposite of a palimpsest, because there's no trace of what forms they have previously taken. Every movement simultaneously creates a new form and destroys the prior form.

I once recreated a Bicho, in steel rather than aluminum, and I was struck by the conundrum of the stopping point that this work presents. I still am.

I find it interesting for a painter to move into sculpture. How did you decide to begin working in sculpture? How would you say your background in painting has influenced your sculpture practice?

I've built things all my life, and because my art making was oriented towards painting for a long time, I had the benefit of making objects without thinking about them as artworks. I taught carpentry, built mud houses, worked in construction, made my own furniture, never thinking about art exactly. I'm making steel sculpture now, but my education in steel came from helping my brother build domination equipment for S&M dungeons. Later I worked in the wood shop of a framer and found a book on Japanese joinery and immersed myself in that world. All of this was a respite from art, and I developed a facility with materials and structure along the way that is now central to my art.

It was my engagement with color that provided the bridge between painting and sculpture, specifically the understanding of color as something that has three dimensions (light/dark value, hue and saturation). Color interaction happens within a three dimensional color space, it happens densely and all at once, and something analogous happens in reciprocal linkage.

I made the jump from painting to sculpture because I sensed that possibility. I had also recently become a father, and the tactility and vividness of holding this little living being gave an urgency to this transition to sculpture. It was a good moment for change.

Going back to Lygia Clark, she was bothered by the non-presence of the backside of paintings. She folded that empty space into her Bichos. She didn't eliminate that void, but rather turned it into an active element of the work. That image-- of contemplating the reverse side of the painting-- also instigated me towards sculpture.

Wow, so your sculpture truly has a solid foundation in craft too. The S&M thing is quite funny considering Robert Morris’s famed poster in all the gear, but also something I would never have guessed you had done. At the studio I got a sense of the reciprocal linkage emerging, with your Peter Halley-like paintings demonstrating a degree of inter-linkage already. The transition to sculpture seemed quite natural, especially now that I’ve learned your experience in building and craft. Good deal. So, what do you have coming up we can look forward to? I know you just opened a group show at Nathan A. Bernstein & Co. (sorry I didn’t make it – had tickets for Peewee on Broadway). Tell me more about this and other upcoming projects / events.

I'm working on several outdoor sculptures, including my first permanent public commission. And I'm painting again, after a hiatus of several years, preparing for a show next year that will have both painting and sculpture.

The show at Nathan Bernstein is a group show of light art, with Dan Flavin, Keith Sonnier, Anthony McCall, Jenny Holzer, among others, beautifully curated by Nicole Berry. I have a reciprocally linked neon piece in it, my first neon sculpture with multiple colors. The neon sculptures have these discrete elements in them, like my other linked work, but with one continuous electrical series running through them, and one continuous field of light.


SLEEPIES are a Brooklyn nice-kid-freak-punk three-piece composed of: “Josh (bum/bum/bum/croon), Max (bang/boom/bat/bat/yell), and Thomas (plunk/jangle/jangle/bark).” They semi-recently put out a self-titled full length LP (available here) and have been thrashing it up all over town. On top of that, they are three nice guys, cool cats, and interesting fellows.

Interview by Brandon Johnson

So, I know all three of you, Thomas and Max through separate sources, and Josh through the two of you, but tell me how you met, and how did SLEEPIES form?

Max: Thomas was one of the first people I met at NYU; he was my neighbor, and I believe we started talking because he was wearing a Blood Brothers t-shirt and it turned out we were both from the Bay Area. I met Josh through a friend from class, Rachel Coleman, who now books shows under the name Pop Jew and won a reality TV competition in her spare time – she’s really quite something!

Anyway, the three of us tried to do two bands before Sleepies, one of which was a dance band – it was 2003, everyone was doing it! – and the other was more lo-fi indie stuff. As they say: the third time’s the charm.

Who are your biggest influences musically and non-musically?

Max: Even musicians tend to influence me in both musical and non-musical ways, so I’ll go with the old reliables, in the order in which they became significant to me: Green Day, Nirvana, Bikini Kill, Billy Bragg, Hickey.

Outside of music, I reserve most of my admiration for Donna Haraway and Valerie Solanas.

Josh: I’ll follow Max’s lead and also list them chronologically: Nirvana ,Weezer, Pixies, Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney, Wipers. In general, I’m drawn to simplicity. A perfectly executed pop song is surprisingly difficult to put together and I value that a great deal but it’s also nice to be weirded out once and a while.

I don’t know really know about non musical influences other than my friends. I learn way more from them than I do from anybody famous.

Thomas: Josh and Max pretty much covered all the really crucial stuff, but I'll add The Urinals, The Feelies and Young Marble Giants. Recently I've been all about Beck's album One Foot in the Grave and The Gun Club's Fire of Love. One thing that I love about our band is that we all grew up on the same foundation of bands (Green Day, Nirvana, Weezer, etc...), but our tastes diverge in a lot of idiosyncratic ways that I think really help our songwriting.

Your new self titled LP, SLEEPIES, is available in both a 200 copy, hand-screened version and as a digital download. Who made the art for the album?

Max: The art was pilfered from the plaque designed by Carl and Linda Salzman Sagan to accompany the Pioneer space shuttle and indicate to any alien life what we were about as a species. I first saw it last spring in a course reader for a class I was teaching, where queer theorist Michael Warner presented it as an example of American society’s pervasive heteronormativity – and it is, all respect to Carl Sagan, unfortunate that the picture he wanted to paint of human life on Earth was heterosexual, white, able-bodied and hairless. In a bit of serendipity, we played a show at Brooklyn house-show venue Dead Herring a few weeks later only to find the same image pasted to their bathroom door.

Josh: I’ve always found it particularly appropriate considering we feel like aliens most of the time.

Thomas: Ditto

With digitalilty entering the field of book and magazine publishing, things are getting more polarized – on one end the limited edition, object-oriented collectibles and on the other de-materialized forms purely for readership. But I guess this has been going on in the recording industry for a while. Care to comment on how the new LP fits into this scenario? Will someone be filthy rich down the line if they buy one of the 200 print records now and sell it on Ebay in 20 years?

Max: I certainly hope not! I was always made uneasy by vinyl fetishists. To be straightforward, the LP/digital download scenario was merely a way to split the difference between what we all grew up with (i.e. buying physical LPs and CDs) and the reality of how people primarily find out about bands these days (via 1s and 0s, in the ether-cloud). Given my nonchalance here, it may seem somewhat hypocritical that the LPs are individually numbered. That to me, though, has more to do with preserving something amateurish about the whole operation – that we did this ourselves, in the most expedient way possible! That said, if anyone wants to re-release it as 2 one-sided 180 gram LPs in a gatefold sleeve, call us.

Josh: While I’m still totally thrilled that anybody would listen to our music in any format, I also wanted to give people a reason to buy the physical copy. It was really important to us to make something that we felt was special so we spent a month in my living room screen printing the jackets, designing the insert, stamping the LPs, etc while watching the entirety of our modest DVD collection Hand numbering the records was a small badge of accomplishment for doing it completely on our own and I think it’s really cool that we get to share that with anybody who buys the record. It doesn’t really matter to me how much money it ever makes (but that also doesn’t mean I’d be apposed to 2 one-sided 180 gram LPs, either).

Thomas: Hand made objects are so rare in our lives these days, so I think it's really meaningful when people take the time to make something themselves. I think anyone who buys records --- especially people who buy albums from small local bands that will never become collectors items --- appreciate having something handmade, and really value having a relationship to the music they own that goes beyond a 99 cent download or 2 gigs of records they found on Captain Crawl. It's great that we have our music available online, but it's also kinda cool that acquiring a physical copy requires some sort of interaction with us: you're either coming up to talk after a show, or emailing us personally about getting a copy. One amazing thing about a small-ish music scene is that it creates these mini economies that work on a very human, person to person scale. Just like in the olden times!!

What do you like about New York, music scene and otherwise, and what do you hate about it?

Max: I like that every touring band comes through here, and I like that there’s a shit-ton of DIY, all-ages spaces. I could do without the city’s overarching aesthetic sensibility. It always seemed to me to be an a priori truth that the best music comes – unless you’re Bruce Springsteen or the Birthday Party – from the tension between anthemic, fist-pumping shit and weirdo experimentation (see: Hickey, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, The Raincoats, et. al.). New York, for all its hundreds of thousands of earnest and well-intentioned band-things, almost exclusively deals in one or the other side of that equation: you either get retread indie-pop/rock gestures, or insufferable yelping with occasional electronic farts. Only a few bands/artists seem interested in aiming for that sweet spot.

Josh: The signal to noise ratio here is pretty bad. There are a million bands, a million places to see live music, and a whole slue of bullshit hierarchies which make it really difficult to get anyone to listen to you. However, despite the countless awful shows we’ve played to empty rooms in some of the lamest bars in New York, we’ve also met some amazingly wonderful people and played the sorts of shows that I dreamed about playing when I first got into punk rock. With all the nonsense that we have to endure being in bands in New York, the weirdos all seem to find each other and the result is really fun. It’s nice to fall in love with bands not because we “fit together” but because we are genuinely excited about what they are doing. I’d always prefer to see a show with bands that share the same enthusiasm rather than simply sharing the same reverb pedal.

Thomas: I'm always really inspired by all the people who are doing DIY projects to help create a welcoming music/art community in Brooklyn. In a city with so much red tape and so much indifference, it's cool so many people are dedicated to do things on their own terms. DBA, Showpaper, Dead Herring, Market Hotel, Famous Accountants Gallery in Bushwick and Newtown Radio are just a few examples.

What do I hate? I hate that the Charleston no longer serves free pizza, and that the $1.25 place on the corner of North 7th and Bedford charges $2.00 for their slices after 8pm Fri-Sun. For the record: that pizza is balls and barely worth the $1.25 to begin with.

In general, Brooklyn is pretty great. Most of my gripes have to do with pizza.

I happen to know a couple of you have other things happening on the side. Care to speak about art, philosophy, etc. and how that fits in with your music?

Max: You have outed me as a philosophy PhD student, which I understand is truly one of the most despicable things a person can be. But let me try to persuade you! I became interested in philosophy, I think, because I was so in love with and fascinated by punk rock that I wanted to understand it, that I felt like I needed to read about questions of collectivity and oppositional subculture. While my interests now trend towards the more arid – what, no one wants to talk about the transcendental unity of apperception? – I try to keep all of this in mind. Hell, Bikini Kill is a huge reason I ended up pursuing feminist philosophy as my primary field of study!

I tend not to overthink the influence of my academic work on punk or music in general, because that generally only leads to blowhards making grandiose proclamations about how their atonal improvised noise band is a perfect example of Deleuzian deterritorialization. These people are, I think self-evidently, clowns and charlatans, and are not to be trusted. I will say that my continued involvement in punk has kept alive an appreciation for its utter ridiculousness – which people forget at the risk of succumbing to a fate worse than crust bands. I see a lot of that same ridiculousness in the academic study of philosophy – seriously, we’re getting professional training to teach people about this nonsense? – and it helps me not take myself, I think, too seriously.

Josh: I used to do a lot of drawing but became disenchanted with it after studying animation in college (you think you like drawing until you draw 1000 nearly identical pictures for 2 minutes of footage that still looks like shit). Helping make our LPs, shirts, flyers, etc. has let me continue to make art in a way in which I can really enjoy it again as well as try out new techniques. If not for our first run of t-shirts, I wouldn’t know how to screen print. Next I’m going to think of a band related reason to learn voodoo.

Thomas: I also have a bit of a background in visual art, so things like album covers and t-shirts are always things we think a lot about. I think because of our backgrounds and other interests we're a very self aware band. Not like we're self-conscious or are trying to please a particular group, but in the sense that we always spend a lot of time thinking about how things will come across and how they will be read. Ultimately, we're a punk band, so the most important thing for us is playing music that is fun to play and not taking anything too seriously. But, there is definitely a very analytic side to our writing process that is probably a product of sitting through too many critiques and lectures about "isms."

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