Sam Orlofsky is a director at Gagosian, where he works closely with artists including Dan Colen, Roe Ethridge, Mark Grotjahn, Alex Israel, Shio Kusaka, Mary Weatherford, and Jonas Wood, and curates exhibitions, such as For What You Are About to Receive (2008), Ancestral Figure (2012), and Laws of Motion (2018–19). He joined Gagosian in 2001.
Sam Orlofsky We’ve just come from seeing the Vija Celmins retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and I think it’s interesting to consider just how different both of your working methods are from hers. She’s committed to certain highly traditional mediums, and she has revisited select subjects repeatedly, over long periods of time. By contrast, you’re both associated with using experimental, nontraditional materials. I would classify you both as being closer to sculptors than, obviously, painters, but do either of you think of yourself as having a primary medium? If someone were to ask you what you do, is there a medium you start with in explaining your work?
Anicka Yi I think I would probably sincerely reply narrative. That’s the engine. Without narrative, it’s very hard for me to get excited about something, first and foremost—but also to conceive of threading it and seeing where it can go. If you think about how something that doesn’t exist in the world might get birthed, to me narrative is that umbilical cord.
SO So in other words, if you are aware that there are things that you would like to see or experience, the only way that can happen is for you to be responsible for those things occurring or being made?
AY Yes. There’s also a sense of participating in the world through these tools, through art. I’ve been asked multiple times, “How do you think that art is useful in the twenty-first century, if you think about all the other staggering issues that we’re up against, and how do you apply art in addressing some of these issues?” And I think first and foremost, it’s a communication tool; it’s a way that we can speak. So a lot of the concerns that I have, I’m able to channel through the work.
SO And Josh, how would you answer the same question?
Josh Kline I often tell people that I work in every medium except painting. I would say I primarily make installations, using the exhibition space as media space and building an environment and experience out of sculptures, moving-image work, and architecture. Outside installations, sculpture and video are probably the two media that I work in.
SO Something we’ve discussed previously is that the socioeconomic realities of the world have changed considerably and demonstrably in the last three years. How have those changes found their way into your work? To what extent have you been conscious of those changes and felt a need to address or respond to them?
AY One of the works that was in Laws of Motion when it was shown in Hong Kong, Immigrant Caucus, was a direct address. I had a show at the Guggenheim in 2017, and as I was going into preproduction, Trump was elected and I just felt flatlined. I had to pause for a while, and I didn’t really know what to do, how to respond. It was not an option not to respond. The Muslim ban was out there, children were being separated from their parents . . . This was something that deeply resonates with me. My parents are immigrants, and the fact that this was happening, this toxicity, I knew that I had to do something. I had to take a knee.
I feel an urgency with everything that I do, because I could either work in the State Department, or for, I don’t know, a solar panel company, or I can make art. We’re all trying to work around these issues. There’s only so much I can do as an artist, but if I can address some of the issues that need addressing with the urgency that they require, then I feel very much a part of the collective conversation.
Immigrant Caucus started from a science fiction narrative. I wanted to create a drug that would allow a human to be able to experience the perception of another species, like a coral reef or a pink dolphin. And so I went to my biologists, and they humored me for about two minutes, before saying, “You know that’s physically impossible, right?” Because in order for me to experience what you’re experiencing right now, I’d have to remap my brain, my neural networks, and reshape my brain to yours, and we don’t know a lot about how the mind merges with the brain.
And so from there, that impossibility, that fiction, that’s where the art started getting hatched. I thought, Okay, well I can imply that there’s a drug through a scent-based work that’s transmitted through the molecules that you have to intake to experience it. And the idea was that if I combined the scent of an Asian American female and a carpenter ant, then as you inhaled this smell, in some way that would allow you to be endowed with this hybridized multispecies sensibility. So I worked with a forensic scientist, a perfumer, and an artist colleague of mine, Sean Raspet, to develop this scent.
SO How did you locate the fragrance of an Asian female?
AY I took sweat samples from a number of friends and colleagues. It was important that they were Asian American, because one of the primary factors contributing to our own unique smell is diet. As an Asian American, my diet is probably similar, economically speaking, to that of most of my friends and colleagues, and so it wouldn’t necessarily be ethnically distinct in that sense.
SO After you took the sweat samples, then what?
AY I sent them out to my forensic chemist down in Florida, and he performed a chemical analysis—essentially a molecular reading. Then it was my job to translate that dry data, and that’s where the narrative takes place. Because when I got back the sweat samples, they didn’t smell very “human,” and so I made the conscious decision to sort of—
SO You pushed it.
AY Absolutely. Whereas the ant smell was very garlicky, kind of spicy, some grassy notes. Lemony too. It was very food-like, and I wanted it to smell kind of animal, or like some sort of alien portal. So some synthetic elements were boosted in.
SO What was the sculptural vehicle you chose to contain the fragrance?
AY They’re ant insecticide canisters—from the 1970s, I think. There is a diffuser hidden inside each canister, and that pumps out the aroma.
SO Josh, Anicka mentioned that Immigrant Caucus started from a science fiction narrative. I think it’s also safe to say you have invented a borderline sci-fi narrative as the logic for at least two of your last shows. Can you talk about how you use that rubric to inform your work?
JK I’m still working my way into narrative. I studied film, I’ve written screenplays for short videos that I’ve made on my own and with other people, but I don’t know if I’ve really cracked the narrative nut. Maybe I’ve become more of an art director for film—a kind of world builder—or somebody who creates the setting, which is why I make these installations.
Before 2014, I was making work that was about an extreme present— distilling out aspects of our time that are different from the past and different, perhaps, from the future. I was trying to talk about the future through the present, talking about things like posthuman or nonhuman or transhuman states that are coming into being via certain kinds of precarious labor conditions. But I was doing it though this material and image-based vocabulary rooted in the present. In 2014, I had a realization that I could actually speak directly about the future and set my work there. So I conceived of a five-part cycle of installations, and each chapter would jump ten, twenty years into the future, to some hypothetical moment in the twenty-first century when certain key issues will peak or manifest and transform society for better or for worse. Issues that I think are nascent now but that will become definitive of the coming century.
The first chapter started at the onset of the Great Recession, the end of the Bush Administration, Obama’s inauguration, the viral political movements that were inspired by the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter . . . that world. And then each subsequent episode jumps ahead. The second chapter, Unemployment, which I made in 2016, was about this moment that’s predicted to happen in the 2030s or 2040s, when automation, artificial intelligence [AI], and software gut the middle class and remove most of the professional jobs that are the foundation for it in the industrialized world. Unemployment asks questions about what kind of impact those transformations will have. I think there are some very clear parallels with what led to World War I, the Great Depression, World War II—all these conditions that came, in some ways, out of labor issues and unemployment in countries like Germany and the US—and how these are mirrored by the conditions that are being created by technology, with little or no safety net in places like the United States.
I started to think that these labor and technological trends could have an even more aggressive and violent conclusion.Josh Kline
As I was making Unemployment, the 2016 presidential campaign was underway, and there was a point in April 2016 when I read reports on new sociological studies that were able to identify latent authoritarian tendencies in a population. I was also seeing images of high school basketball games where you would have a team of relatively affluent white kids on one side and a Latino team on the other, and the first team’s fans would be dressed in Trump gear and American flags, holding big cut-outs of Trump’s head and chanting, “Trump! Trump! Build the wall!” The images looked like something out of Germany in the 1930s—but in vivid color. I started thinking that Trump could actually win. I started to think that these labor and technological trends could have an even more aggressive and violent conclusion.
So I added another chapter to my cycle, out of which the works in Laws of Motion come. That project is called Civil War. For me, if you’re looking at the twenty-first century, I think there’s a good chance that the consequences of automation for labor will lead to authoritarian states and policies, wars, and political violence that are reminiscent of what happened in the 1930s, but in a hyper-technological context. It’s sort of like cause and effect: Unemployment shows the cause, and Civil War is the effect, looking at a country like America disintegrating based on these divisions of labor, inequality, and class that are primed and then ignited by technological automation.
SO Discussing the present and the future brings us to one of the two primary reasons I was interested in pairing works by you both with some of the older artists in the show. In particular, I see Jeff Koons and Cady Noland as using a sort of real-time archeological approach to the ephemera they’re surrounded by. In your case, and to a certain extent in their case, it’s both a present-day archeological distillation of what surrounds us, and also an anticipatory archeological approach, which is to say that you are imagining what someone fifty or a hundred years from now will need to know about the time we’re living in. Can you talk a bit more about how you use scientific or biological language as a way of presenting the ideas you’re interested in?
I’m coming from the perspective of the de-centered human, of challenging human exceptionalism, which is why I work with bacteria, why I work with organic matter.Anicka Yi
AY I think I’m sort of the outlier in the show, because I’m coming from the perspective of the de-centered human, of challenging human exceptionalism, which is why I work with bacteria, why I work with organic matter. The works in this show are really laying down the foundation for a new paradigm in my work, which is about the transformation of the human. We have had a pretty good hack for four hundred years with the elitist fiction around what constitutes the human and the idea that we are an exception in nature. I really disagree with that, and so a lot of my project right now is to think about existence beyond the human, to think of humans as part of an ecosystem. Currently we all have trillions of bacteria in us, so can you say that you’re an individual? What constitutes the self when the self is comprised of a multitude of organisms?
And so I’m thinking about biological intelligence sharing, about the ecology of intelligence, and about the dismantling of evolution that we’ve been part of the last couple of hundred years. At first I was worried about that dismantling, but this is also part of evolution. The rise of automation, for example—to me it’s part of a larger system; it’s not the end of evolution, because you can’t destroy nature; nature always wins. However, what’s interesting is that we’re now open to the idea that consciousness is decoupled from intelligence. Consciousness has been at the apex in terms of rights. Who has rights? Those who have consciousness. And yet with artificial intelligence we’re increasingly outsourcing our viability; this intelligence decoupled from consciousness is actually probably going to usurp us all.
SO Josh, do you have a way of thinking about this archeological approach to the present or the future?
JK When I make work, I’m thinking about two audiences: one is the audience of the present, and the other is an audience of the future. When you address the present, there’s the possibility of shaping where that present is going, of influencing people and suggesting possibilities. But there’s this other aspect of making a historical record like art, which is to talk with people in the near and far futures and to explain the times we live in, in ways that might be comprehensible to them. And to speak about these issues in a way that helps people in the future understand how people in the present made the choices that led to the world that they live in.
It’s interesting that this exhibition includes work from Civil War, because it’s my analog project: I used traditional sculpting practices—casting, and compositing found objects—and almost no digital equipment. I shot the media component, a film called Another America Is Possible, in Super 16. So it was kind of a break from the technology that was shaping all of these things. I wanted to focus on the human impact and not the digital. But that’s just this chapter. With the subsequent projects I’ve envisioned, it’s going to be harder to use objects from the present to predict the far future, because they just won’t be there.
AY Can I just add that I’m most interested in the near future and not the far future? Because once we’re able to engineer a human brain, I have no idea what that future could be like. It outstrips my imagination.
JK People ask me if there will be an AI chapter, and there won’t be, partially because my project is about human beings, and also because it’s very hard for me to imagine what that AI future might look like. It’s hard to imagine the wants or drives or desires of an intelligence that’s smarter than you are. By “far future,” I’m really just talking about the end of the century, and even that’s speculative.