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Interview with Jonn Herschend

This excerpted interview is part of an ongoing collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art Practical. The conversation with Herschend took place on March 15, 2011, as Jonn and his co-founder at THE THING Quarterly, Will Rogan, were about to move into a temporary storefront office at the Kadist Foundation on Folsom Street in San Francisco.

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Brian Andrews: Your current body of work crosses the line between installation, performance, video, lectures, PowerPoints: a wide range of material that involves this larger thread that somehow seems to be either pulling the wool over the audience's eyes or exposing the wool that had been pulled over their eyes. The first thing in your bio is that you were raised in an amusement park. Is that true?

Jonn Herschend: It's true. My grandfather started an amusement park in the Ozarks on the Arkansas-Missouri border in the 1960s, called Silver Dollar City. My dad was involved in that as his son, and my mom worked there. It was an 1880s theme park, so there were people dressed up in costume.

So here's the story: My grandfather was a vacuum cleaner salesman in Chicago when vacuum cleaners were all the rage. He cashed it in, and they bought a cave in the Ozarks. They decided that they would try to figure out a way to entertain people while they waited to go on a cave tour. I think the Ozarks at this point in time, even though it was the 1960s, were pretty exotic for a lot of people. There weren't a lot of roads there; it was beautiful -- there were great, beautiful rivers, and people would come down there from Chicago, because they thought it was a really amazing place to go. I guess it would be like going to Costa Rica today.

They built this amusement park up over the top of the cave. They bought a steam train, they started building shops, and they had 1880s performers there. Then I came along. They would dress me up in costume when I was a little older and leave me in the steam train depot with the old timers. So I ran around this park as a kid, and I thought it was really cool, and as I went through elementary school I thought it was strange, but we were just part of the community.

Then, when I went to college and studied theatre, I was really embarrassed about it all because my friends were going off and studying -- or going to do Summer stock, and to these amazing theatre companies up and down the East Coast. I went to Boston University and to this really tiny theatre department, and I would go back in the summers and be a train robber. So I did grow up with this backdrop of make-believe and entertainment, and people coming in and suspending belief. Now it's more interesting to me than it was in college.


Embrace of the Irrational, 2009 (video still); HD video; Photo: Lenny Gonzalez.

Patricia Maloney: I think you can make a direct thread between that and a lot of your work -- in the way that you play with simulacra and reveal where the fictive experience falls away.

JH: I think that is definitely informing the work that I'm doing now. Because there is a willingness to suspend belief when you walk into a situation like that. Also, everyone who is experiencing those particular situations has something going on; I mean, going to an amusement park with kids is usually awful because they eat sugar and go crazy. Families are trying to keep it together, but someone's crying and yelling. It's just an intense experience.

There's this background of angst that comes into it, this desire to be entertained, and then on the other side there are people who work in these situations, pretending to be characters. So there's this fantasy -- an exchange that both parties have in the situation -- and I find that incredible.

PM: As well as the fantasy of the undue expectations that are placed around the experience.

JH: Totally. It's like going to a museum today. What are the expectations at a museum? There's no difference. I think culturally it's different -- we put it on a different plateau, but we're paying money to go and have this experience. And it may not be a hillbilly who is going to have a street shooting with someone else from the Hatfield and McCoy side, but it's definitely something that's supposed to change us in some way. What is the role of art and what is the role of entertainment, and how do those -- as the economy collapsed, and more and more institutions are looking for funding from the individual, as well -- how do those things coalesce? What's the difference between spending money and going to a museum or spending money and going to a baseball game?

BA: I think it's interesting to relate this part of your history to your most recent self-portraiture piece -- the self-portrait as a PowerPoint proposal for an amusement park. Could you talk us through that work?

JH: That piece was made for the Mattress Factory in 2009, but it's actually going to be in the San Francisco International Film Festival this year. They asked me to do a portrait, and I just could not think of a portrait to do. I hadn't done anything that was necessarily autobiographical; usually what I end up doing is fiction. I was thinking about the dichotomy of the experience; you suspend your belief and you come into the institution -- in this case, the Mattress Factory -- and what are your expectations?

There's a leak in that piece, in the ceiling, that we created by drilling a hole. So even within the piece itself, you constantly have to ask yourself: is this real or is this part of the piece? In the front room, there is a PowerPoint proposal that is completely fictitious, about a guy proposing a rollercoaster, but it becomes a sordid tale about he and his coworker, who have an affair and get in a car wreck because they're drunk.

The second part of the piece is a janitor's closet that we built. It has a door that's slightly open, that never closes fully and never opens fully. Viewers have to decide if it's part of the piece or not, so they go behind the scenes. There is an 8mm projector in the cupboard that projects the true moment of my daughter going on one of those fairground swing-chair rides. She's having so much fun; it's just pure innocence and joy -- that's the real experience. I wanted to separate those two experiences, and have them operate in that space. I don't think it was necessarily super successful, but it was a step for me. It was the first step for me to really think about my background.

PM: Oftentimes in your work there is a series of decisions that have to be made: how much am I going to embrace this? How much am I going to go along with the logic or the disintegration of the narrative that's happening, and how much am I going to stay faithful to this before I veer off from it, or I discard it? That's a process that I'm curious about. In one of the recent additions to THE THING -- the piece by Starlee Kine -- is a very similar experience. Kine's Cutting Board contains a narrative about crying. The idea is that you're supposed to use this board to chop onions and, actually, as you're reading the story, which fades away the more you cut on it, it still provokes this very real emotion -- or rather, interaction. I'm interested in the way you play with a viewer's expectations and willingness to embed themselves with the narratives that you're producing.

JH: Yeah, that issue by Starlee Kine is awesome. That's one of our favorite issues because she took the task fully to heart and really created something that is the object but goes beyond the object. I taught English literature at the high school level for six years, and when I was going to college to learn how to teach, reader response theory was all the rage. It was all about how to incorporate the reader. So I thought, what is the reader's response? What is the responsibility of the viewer, and what does that mean in art? How can I really actively engage the viewer? So part of it became, not a trick, but a way to create a scenario where the viewer had to become engaged in some way -- whether they wanted to or not -- to create a piece where there was a rift in the structure, and the viewer had to step up and fill that rift, and decide: is this serious or is this not serious? It's out of great respect for the viewer that I think of these pieces when I put them together -- not to mess with them or fool them, but to engage them. I think one of the best ways to do that is if you're doing a live performance, and there's something that seems to go wrong, really wrong.

I've seen this a couple of times in business presentations, where someone will freeze for a long time, and you just wonder, are they having a stroke? What's going on? Then they get back into it. That's a real moment. I think if I can take that moment and respectfully continue the piece with that drama incorporated, then there's potential for a cathartic experience. That's a goal of mine -- to create a theatrical moment without the guise of theatre.

BA: I think that's the root of most successful performance art: the breakdown of that sort of audience-viewer relationship and the ambiguity that comes out of it. Reading through a lot of your earlier bodies of work, seeing them only described as text and photo, I feel awkward. How awkward would I be if some guy is giving a PowerPoint presentation and he starts breaking down? I think a lot of more recent performance work seems to avoid that issue.

JH: It's true. The other side of this that I think about, and wrestle with a lot, is entertainment and how important it is. What role does entertainment actually play? I do feel that, as artists, we gave a lot up to the powers that entertain. And I think it's important that we take some of that back. That doesn't mean that we make things that don't have any depth or meaning, but I think that's something that's being reexamined more and more now.


Self Portrait as a PowerPoint Proposal for an Amusement Park Ride, 2009; installation view, Likeness, 2009. Courtesy of the Artist and the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh. Photo: Tom Little.

BA: I'm really interested in that myself -- the idea of giving it up to television, Hollywood, the blogosphere.

JH: For a long time I think the intellectual side is what we got. We got to keep that, and anything that smacked of narrative or smacked of entertainment -- well, there was already a place for that and that's where people went for it. I think contemporary art became too austere.

BA: I completely agree with that statement. I think one difficulty operating as a contemporary artist is that quite often if you reach towards humor, or if you reach towards entertainment, you pick up this patina that may be too pop or too commercialized, which is a ridiculous notion, but it marginalizes you away from potentially more active parts of the discourse. So, for people who aren't familiar, what is THE THING?

JH: THE THING is a project that Will Rogan and I started with a residency at Southern Exposure in 2007. It's a periodical in the form of an object. We publish on objects. We work with different writers, artists, and filmmakers to produce an issue each quarter. We treat it like a magazine. It's not a limited edition; we don't think about it like that. It's problematic because it is by default, and it's also problematic because people have to deal with these objects and may not necessarily want them once they get them, because they're secret. That's been the idea behind it -- it's a secret before they come out.

Our ideal is that everyone uses the objects. But we also understand that some people won't. The further we've gone along with it the more we've crept into the design scene. It's really fun to work with designers. They consider the function of it much more than we do. We always consider the form.

Tess Thackara: Wasn't there one issue that was a single shoe? It was like laughing in the face of the utility, because what can you do with one shoe?

JH: That was Allora & Calzadilla whose work is much like that -- laughing in the face of utility. It was a shoe bound to a book. And it was called Problems and Promises. The idea was that it's this ridiculous conundrum where you have a shoe bound to a book that's through the lace. That's insane, and what do you do with it? Do you put it on your bookshelf? Do you put it in the closet? And the second part is that, for Will and I, the two represent two ways to gather knowledge. Are you going to put the shoe on, if you're a size seven, and walk around with a book dragging behind you? Or will you use the book and leave the shoe there?

PM: THE THING Issue One was a window shade by Miranda July and there are two versions of the text. I received the one that says, "If this shade is down, I am not who you think I am." Mine is hung adjacent to the window, so it's always down. One of our neighbors came in once and read that, and turned to me and said, "Is that shade ever up?" -- which I thought was just the best response to that piece. It implied that just seeing the piece calls into question what your relationship is to the person who is actually viewing it.

JH: Miranda had this really amazing vision of people all over putting the shades down in their apartments or houses in cities and the message being sent out to the world: "If this shade is down I'm begging your forgiveness on bended knee with tears streaming down my face." That was the other one.

PM: As you mentioned earlier, one of the major requirements for all of these pieces besides being utilitarian objects is that they incorporate text. So these are fragments of narratives that then, as objects, become embodied -- you're living with and somehow participating in these narratives. Would you say that that is accurate or does that inform the people that you work with?

JH: Initially, we thought about what happens when an object receives text. How does that change the object? And that's all in the interpretation of the person receiving it. I think that's such a personal thing, and the other thing too is that it's a way for people to interact with these pieces outside of a gallery -- in their homes. So a piece by Allora & Calzadilla would come to your house, and it's just you and the object. What do you want to do with it? How do you feel about it? For us, it was really important to create that experience or that possibility. Plus, to have the US Postal Service be the intermediary -- we like the US Postal Service, even though sometimes issues get lost. But that experience is really what we envisioned, not so much what happened after -- that moment when it came to them in the door, and they opened the box, and it's like, THE THING's here! That's the moment that we really got excited about.

PM: There's an interesting switch that happens in the unwrapping of the box. It arrives and it says "THE THING", the issue number, and the name of the artist on it. Then you open it up and you see what the object is. So you know in advance who the artist is going to be, but you don't know what you're going to receive. So all of a sudden the object takes precedence.

JH: There's an incredible amount of expectation in that, too. And that's the problem we had in the very beginning. You create this expectation, and it can go through the roof. Really, it can only cost so much to make. It has to be very affordable.


THE THING Quarterly, winter 2010/11; vinyl record; issue 13 by Matthew Higgs & Martin Creed; 12". Courtesy of THE THING Quarterly. Photo: Lenny Gonzalez.

BA: So there's no text or anything that comes with it, there is only the object.

JH: This is another editorial stand that we took early on. There is text that does accompany the object, but in some cases the text is very terse. We decided early on that we weren't going to instruct the viewer on the artist or on how to experience this piece unless the artist wanted that. But there are issues that do have more texts than others. Starlee Kine's, for instance, has an amazing essay that fully instructs you on how to use the cutting board. Whereas Allora & Calzadilla's issue has no text.

BA: Which is beautiful. There's a moment of negotiation. So what's next for you?

JH: Well, I was just in Copenhagen in a residency for two months. I was in an exhibition there and shot a video piece as part of the residency. Tucker Nichols and I came over together for the show, and the piece I created for them was a promotional video that would play in the lobby of the space when you walk in, and it would look like it was made for the institution, but they had actually gone out and contracted someone to make this. The video falls apart in the process. The translator has taken the narrator's cat away to the country. They get in fights all the time apparently. She leaves him and he takes her cat away. And so this all comes out in the video and it collapses.

I have a show at Steven Wolf this fall -- in his new space. More immediately up next is the launch for James Franco's issue. He's coming to San Francisco to work with us for two days. He will be actually hand writing on each issue. We're also producing a limited edition with him that we'll release in May, which we're very excited about.

Listen to the full interview at Bad at Sports: Episode 290.

Jonn Herschend is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker and experimental publisher. His performances, video work, and installations have included works such as an infomercial about ambiguity and a motorized trolley tour of places where personal crisis became public. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally including the Stuttgarter Filmwinter Film festival, Germany; Koh-i-noor, Denmark; LKV Gallery, Norway; the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art; the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; and Southern Exposure and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. He is the co-founder and co-editor, along with Will Rogan, of the experimental publication THE THING Quarterly, and is a recent recipient of a Danish Arts Council grant for his work as co-curator, along with Heidi Hove, of the Deadpan Exchange international exhibition series. He has been a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, San Francisco State University, California College of the Arts, and Stanford University.

This article was originally published by Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions.

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