Q&A with Will Brown

On the occasion of Will Brown / MATRIX 259, Phyllis C. Wattis MATRIX Curator Apsara DiQuinzio interviews the members of the art collective, David Kasprzak, Jordan Stein, and Lindsey White.

Apsara DiQuinzio: For several years Will Brown operated a small storefront gallery on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. I used to think of Will Brown as an alternative space for this reason, but now that the gallery is closed, I think of you more as a collective. What was Will Brown and what is it now—is it evolving into something else?

Will Brown:
Will Brown is the umbrella under which the three of us produce projects together. Its first iteration was the storefront and you’re right that it did look and feel a lot like an alternative space. We wanted to make a home for exhibitions and events that could not, would not, or should not fit within the operating structures of other venues for contemporary art. Various interests and themes unite the actions that took place there, but at its heart the storefront was about creating a discursive space about and around art and exhibition histories. Will Brown explores what it means for artists to build exhibitions and for curators to take on a role of creative production with the hope that it provides the audience with a new model and experience.

We opened with one rule that we endeavored to abide by, but which wasn’t formalized in print: to never show actual works of art. This took care of a lot of problems, in that it eliminated the need for shipping, insuring, selling, or buying works of art. As odd as that sounds, it was an attempt to separate our practice from that of a commercial gallery or even alternative or artist-run spaces. We wondered if it was possible to make exhibitions that explored the production, understanding, mechanics, meaning, translation, and history of an artwork or exhibition without necessarily having anything to do with the artwork itself.

Acting as an artist or curatorial collective within an existing institution wasn’t an option as it would shape who we were, or wanted to be, from the outset. The spirit was very proactive and simple: let’s just do it ourselves. So we neither suffered the constraints nor celebrated the benefits of working with a larger institution. The liability was entirely ours and our reputation was non-existent; it was a great place to begin.

We wanted to create an environment that was serious, but also fun; after all, we knew we would be spending a lot of time there. Hosting one-off events, such as a comedy drawing school (stand-up comedy meets life drawing), a lesson on card counting, and a goth dance party fundraiser helped to lighten the mood.

We never registered as a nonprofit because it sounded like too much work and because it seemed wrong to define the “good” we were doing. Maybe Will Brown was up to no good. We wanted to see how long we could last without a mission statement; the elevator pitch perpetually eludes us.

As Will Brown became more well-known, the project was invited to realize exhibitions and events in other venues, which was helpful in pushing the boundaries of what WB is/does, but also difficult in terms of maintaining a solid and simultaneous program on 24th street. It’s a full-bodied labor of love and there are only so many hours in a day. Needless to say, we shelved a bunch of ideas about books, performances, off-site actions, etc. We did a residency, traveled to give lectures, and made exhibitions for and with other institutions when we could.

When we felt we had created enough of a voice to step out on our own, and when paying the rent became not only burdensome, but also indicative of the increasingly obnoxious pay-to-play model evolving in our neighborhood, we gave up the storefront. At this point we joke that we’ve gone global, which is also to say we’ve become immaterial. We’re still open for business and figuring out what our business is along the way.

ADQ: I think whether or not you actually showed art is debatable. Your first show was full of “art.” So were subsequent ones. But I understand what you mean and the impetus to want to show, or gesture toward, a bigger picture through an illumination of certain art-world machinations, as well as a consideration of forgotten aspects and objects within it. All of this points toward larger structures and phenomena that inform what we do as artists, curators, and art professionals in general. 

WB: We’re interested in art as a word and art as a thing and what it means to whom and when and why. The inaugural exhibition, Illegitimate Business, set the pace by showing “art” in a way that we hadn’t seen before, that is, as non-art. The assembled collection of objects—illegitimately acquired through various means and therefore outside the formal trading systems of the art world—were presented as the embodiment of their acquisition narratives.

In place of title cards, each object was accompanied by a written statement from its anonymous lender, that detailed the work’s unique provenance. A Chuck Close print told the story of being pulled from a Japanese screenprinter's dumpster. An enormous Catherine Opie print, slightly torn at the bottom and therefore imperfect, was given to a friend of hers in the darkroom. A Jeremy Blake DVD was bootlegged by a local curator. So, yes, the videos on the DVD were art, but by telling those particular stories, we also showed the literally priceless DVD itself as implicated in its display. A group show featuring these particular artists would be preposterous under traditional conditions. Here, context became content.

We honored the show’s underground feel by holding it in the unfinished basement of Will Brown. The main street-level gallery remained empty for the duration of the show and visitors accessed the secret, subterranean space via a rickety ladder that descended through a locked hatch door.

ADQ: You are artists and curators alike in Will Brown, and inhabiting both those roles seems to be a critical aspect of your projects, and yet I hesitate to call the work you produce art. Can you talk about the importance of blurring this distinction (of artist and curator)?

WB: The best curators learn from artists and not the other way around. As authored as our quasi-curatorial practice is, we’re suspicious of an outsized curatorial voice, or worse, the way in which artists are forced to fit the thematic theses found in so many e-flux emails. It may have been a cynical move not to muddy our 24th street waters with artists at all—the logical extension of a dangerous type of curatorial thinking at present. But it’s also in tune with our pedagogical and critical stance toward the machinations of the art world; if anyone was going to be exploited, it was going to be us. 

ADQ: Can you elaborate on that? What do you mean by “a dangerous type of curatorial thinking”? And how are artists being forced to fit the theses of e-flux emails? Are you suggesting that an authored curatorial voice is dangerous? Are curators not allowed to have a voice or work creatively? I don’t consider myself to be an advocate of the curatorial auteur, per se, but I do think it can be useful.

WB: Dangerous in that we’ve noticed a number of curators using art and artists to illustrate theses rather than ask open-ended questions. A talented curator can make artworks speak various languages, play high or low, illuminate or desperately confuse. But aiming to make a show “about” anything is a failure by default in that it conscripts artworks to perform for the curator or native institution; a bad deal.

ADQ: But, curators make shows that are “about” things all the time. For example, would you consider the show I did at SFMOMA, The Air We Breathe, which was “about” same-sex marriage to be a failure because it was trying to generate awareness for marriage equality? Was I making the artwork too illustrative of a concept in a problematic way? You are referring to what has been called the authorial turn in exhibition making, but adopting what might be construed as an “authored” approach to this exhibition was very important in this instance, because it was my authored statement or essay in the catalog and in the wall text—not the museum’s. Ultimately that was an essential distinction. Or what about the widely acclaimed show that Connie Lewallen recently curated, State of Mind, which was “about” California conceptualism in the sixties and seventies. Was it a failure because it had a strong curatorial theme? I could could think of many other examples as well… Making a show “about” something is often what makes an exhibition interesting and keeps the field dynamic; I don’t think it necessitates it being a failure. What I think is more dangerous than any notion of the curatorial auteur is that there be a prescription for what an exhibition can and cannot be just because a few curators here and there don’t really care about the art they are showing and are compromising it in their display methods. As I see it, the problem primarily lies in letting those specific curatorial styles (or voices) speak for everyone and dictate the terms of authorship in and around curating.

WB: Perhaps that edge was a bit sharp and our disagreement is a semantic one; the bigger fish to fry is indeed the sublimation of artworks to curatorial agendas.

While curators make shows “about” ideas all the time, the best ones seem to know they’re not truly “about” anything. Connie’s show wasn’t about sixties and seventies conceptualism, it was about the ideas embodied in the diverse grouping of works she chose. Your “same-sex marriage show” wasn’t about same-sex marriage, it was about freedom. “About” is a translation or an equals sign; a shorthand for “let’s think about these ideas in relation to this work.”

This brings to mind Not New Work, the show you made with Vincent Fecteau at SFMOMA in 2009. Culled from rarely and even never seen works from the permanent collection, the exhibition carried no formal statement other than the elegance of the choices made and the idiosyncratic installation. In that way, it became about intuition itself, as much as being reflective of a particular sensibility. It was a rare show for many reasons, but especially because it didn’t privilege textuality as a portal to knowing or interpretation.

Naturally, we think curators should be creative, have big ideas, take risks, and even function as collaborators. As you know, certain members of Will Brown work as curators “on the outside” and believe that a career in the field can be fulfilling, honest, and authored. But the economics of the business can get you down and it can be hard to consistently do right by artists, especially those that don’t fit the commercial gallery format.

Speaking of economics, and with regards to e-flux, we can’t imagine it’s helpful or inspiring for young curators, not to mention artists, to be on the receiving end of so many formal and homogeneous announcements. Even though it’s engineered as a PR tool, it still feels like settling, in part due to the fact that it’s somewhat mandatory to subscribe.

And given that each announcement sells for more than the yearly operating budget of organizations like ours, it’s as oppressive as it is informative. We suspect there would be a great future in exhibition making if everyone unsubscribed to e-flux at the same moment. Of course we realize that the announcements fund a wildly interesting and very necessary publishing/thought/action platform that we’re very invested in. Is that ironic or just contemporary?

ADQ: There goes the e-flux I was planning to do for your exhibition… Are the exhibitions you organize works of art? Should the objects that you make for our upcoming MATRIX show be considered art?

WB: An e-flux announcement for us would be a major coup. We’re ready.

But to answer your question, we see ourselves as somewhere just above or below the artist/curator spectrum, on a slightly different axis, but always working with the "exhibition" as our medium. In terms of how to define the work, it’s important to note that there’s no formal category for the work we do, which is both exciting and maddening. It certainly made us ineligible for most funding opportunities on the planet. There was simply no check box for us on any grant application we ever saw.

For this reason, or in spite of it, history became increasingly important to us to use as a readymade, already bent and fictionalized. In this way, our practice squares more as history or fiction than art. You might call our exhibitions physical narratives since we’re interested in creating experiences and telling stories. It’s becoming increasingly evident that our generation is more concerned with collecting experiences than commodities, and we felt there should be a practice that supports that.

The objects we make for the upcoming MATRIX show will not be art, in the same way a natural history museum diorama isn’t exactly an artwork. It does, however, function as a model that houses a particular narrative, even if that narrative is mediated by the designer or craftsperson who created it. It’s safe to say that we work in the realm of mediation and translation.

ADQ: I like thinking about your work in relation to fiction, which is certainly an important component of what you do, and also to the notion of history as a readymade. These two ideas apply very clearly to this MATRIX project. Do you want to talk about the importance of fiction to this exhibition in particular? You are, after all, commissioning Kevin Killian to write a fictional play that loosely relates to a site-specific installation Dan Flavin made for BAM/PFA in 1978. The concept for this MATRIX exhibition began from your specific interest in untitled (for Gretchen, a colorful and fond match) (1977–78), which was installed in the interior light well, near the administrative offices in the museum, for many years after his exhibition closed. In fact, a fragment of it still remains: one single bulb was turned horizontal and left in the stairwell. What about this work interested you so much?

We often begin projects by researching the historical background and physicality of a proposed site. On an early visit to BAM/PFA, former Assistant Curator Dena Beard had us “look up” into an unassuming stairwell. Above, screwed directly into the concrete block of the architecture, was a single fluorescent tube. “Flavin,” she said.

The informal provenance and ambiguous loan conditions behind the original piece were pretty fascinating and we discovered its future, like its past, was uncertain. To be more accurate, it’s future was forgotten, much like its past.

The piece is dedicated to BAM/PFA’s’s former registrar, Gretchen Glicksman, whom Flavin apparently knew before making the exhibition. The “loan agreement,” although it’s a stretch to call it that, stated that the piece could not be moved and that if it was ever deinstalled it would no longer be extant. So it was amazing that this came to light, so to speak, at the precise moment of the museum’s transition to the new venue. It was literally the final moment that the thirty-eight year old work could be reactivated.

That’s the great thing about history—it becomes relevant over and over again depending on who’s researching it, and when. In its present anemic state, the piece held little interest, but it provided us with a foundation on which to build countless questions. Who was Gretchen Glicksman? Why had Flavin dedicated this work to her? Why was one fragment of this piece still installed? Why was that piece now horizontal instead of vertical? What was the original effect of the work? Where are those tubes now? When did it come down and why? Did Flavin intend to properly give it to the museum? Who owns the work? Is it even a work anymore? And what happens to it, physically, financially, and otherwise, now that the building is closing?

These questions led to conversations with both current and retired BAM/PFA staff members, who all had unique accounts of the work and its surrounding context. It was in these moments of discussion and research that the piece became properly fictionalized for us. The space between fact and fiction, and how that middle ground is mediated by individual memory, is what tends to excite and inspire Will Brown.

Former chief preparator Barney Bailey recounted how the growing green light of untitled (for Gretchen, a colorful and fond match) emanated from the roof of the building into the sky by a steam cloud breezing in from the elevator shaft. It wasn’t hard to imagine a rapturous light sucking the museum into the sky like an abductor’s beam immortalized in so many science fiction films. This symbolic gesture of finality and transcendence of the Ciampi building led us to ask what happens to the artworks, histories, people, memories, and broken tubes of an institution when it moves across town?

With BAM/PFA temporarily dark, SFMOMA on long-term hiatus, and many galleries, alternative, and artist-run spaces closing, this has become a recurring question not just for us, but to so many who live in and care about the Bay Area. For us, fiction is a more efficient way to take on these questions and concerns. And because of the gravity of the local situation, we felt our project could benefit from a highly theatrical component. Kevin’s play is a perfect match for the busted Flavin; a hilarious art-historical mystery, soap opera, and send-up.

ADQ: Many of your other projects are also rooted in research and a questioning of what has been left out of the historical narratives constructed around art. There is also a strong commitment to the local in your work. What kind of interests motivate and propel you? What makes a Will Brown project a Will Brown project?

WB: We’re interested in the overlooked, forgotten, abandoned, uncompromising, artistically and curatorial radical, darkly humorous, local, archival, and ahead-of-its-time. Sometimes it feels like we’re only interested in Bruce Conner. The history of artist-run and alternative spaces is a touchstone, as is independence, gift shops at volunteer-run institutions, weird America, and our friends.

The projects share an interrogative stance on authorship, originality, collaboration, mythology, linearity, and seriousness. At the same time, we’re quite serious about what we do and aim to be as inviting as possible to the general public.

For example, the life and work of artist James Lee Byars can be difficult for even the most studied art historian to grasp, but it holds fundamental aspects that everyone can experience in some way, like The Ghost of James Lee Byars, a pitch-black room he intended the public to walk through in 1969. What makes a Will Brown project a Will Brown project is that just before opening an exhibition, lecture, or performance all three of us get impossibly cold feet and doubt that anyone will ever connect with whatever is about to happen.

When Will Brown started, the three of us lived within five blocks of each other in the Mission. Neighborhood artists and economies became more relevant than anticipated as rents began to climb at an alarming rate, forcing many longstanding families and artists to leave the Mission or San Francisco in general. This gave rise to the Supreme Condominium show and City of Busappearances, our Google Bus project. We needed to comment in our own way.

We love our neighborhood and the Bay Area in general, but it’s been a difficult relationship—both supportive and inhibitive. In the end, you can’t really go out in the world and research external histories and environments without being aware of your own. A lot of our projects are very site-specific as a result.

Initially, we thought we could take on a few helpers, interns, etc, and we have, but we also discovered that Will Brown really is the three of us, it can’t be passed on or mutated. In that way, it’s much more of a practice than a space. And now that’s it’s not a defined space, it’s free to fit within other spaces, projects, or institutions.

ADQ: It seems to me that almost all of your projects have a strong resonance with local histories or artists who live (or lived) here: the Google Bus project, the Museum of Manitoba Finds Art, the James Lee Byars retrospective, etc. Now that you are “global,” I wonder how that concept will filter into your work. Is there a place beyond the Bay Area with which you would like to engage? And can you tell us a little more about the Google Bus project in particular?

WB: We’re not certain there’s a particular place with which we’d like to engage, but we welcome the opportunity to work with new environments, histories, and communities. We had a wild time, for example, “performing” a public lecture about Bruce Conner at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, the artist’s alma mater, with a handful of their current graduate students.

In conjunction with the City of Disappearances exhibition at CCA’s Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, Will Brown was commissioned to create a guided excursion around the Bay Area. Our charge was to "perform alternative routes and discuss forces of the urban domain that are hidden in plain sight." The infamous "Google Bus" has become synonymous with the changing face of San Francisco by chauffeuring San Francisco–based employees to and from Silicon Valley jobs everyday. City of Busappearances was a bus tour in the format of a talk show tracing the unpublished route of the infamous bus through the city with riders serving as the live studio audience.

This tour/show departed from the Wattis Institute and worked its way through San Francisco, stopping at several locations on the actual Google route to pick up the show's diverse group of guest interviewees, including an actual Google programmer named Will Brown. No shit. God bless him for doing it. A month prior, he walked into our Supreme Condominium exhibition hot off the street and introduced himself. We made nice and asked if he would be willing to engage in a broader conversation about cultural, financial, and artistic shifts in the city. His ten-minute bus conversation was tense, but enlightening. None of the folks signed up for the tour had actually ever spoken to a guy who rode the Google Bus, let alone one named Will Brown.

ADQ: The car that you are installing outside of BAM/PFA’s entrance is also intended as a metaphor for the shifting, transient state of the Bay Area, its art institutions, and its inhabitants. Is San Francisco’s future forgotten like it was for Flavin’s sculpture?
Will Brown was invited to make this exhibition while BAM/PFA was in transition, in-between buildings and without its exhibition galleries, so our ideas developed around an overall feeling of movement. And although that was somewhat compatible with our general position, considering we had given up our storefront several months prior, it was a challenging place to start.

We chose to marry site and content in the form of an abandoned car in front of the now closed museum building. We also decided to engage the roof to think about what the building now holds. The car ends up paying witness to history by maintaining a dialogue with the beacon of green light.

The third site of the exhibition, UC Berkeley’s Morrison Library, is a place where history is stored, bound, and referenced.The artist book we made doubles as an archive for the exhibition, and includes relevant correspondence, images, and ephemera. At a slight physical and conceptual remove from the museum, it has some perspective while holding a charge; it will actually glow when opened.

The historical amnesia around Flavin’s work is striking. Press clips from the time indicate that an astonishing 444,000 people saw Flavin’s show during its seven-week run. Was art more popular in the 1970s? Was it more simple to be shocked? Was it more important to have an opinion about art than it is now?

By making this show, we’re not suggesting that Flavin’s work is extraordinarily wonderful, just that many glowing pasts are forgotten. And because the piece was of the architecture and has such formally liminal conditions, we thought it made for a clean metaphor.

So, will San Francisco’s future suffer the same fate? We fear it already has.