Open Letter to the Artist Ryan Gander
December 7, 2010
Dear douce bag,
Dear Mr. Gander,
Over the last three years your name has come up in one uncomfortable situation after another. People look at our work and pause as an expression of recognition, an aloofness, settles on their faces. They inevitably ask: “have you seen the work of Ryan Gander?” Each time we agonize. What does one say? Do we answer dumbly: “no, we haven’t. Who is he?” That would mean we would have to sit through a vague articulation of the resemblance between our work and yours. Or, alternatively, we could say, “oh, yes, we’re big fans.” Though, that might imply that our works are knock-off versions of yours. We could take a preemptively defensive stance and reply: “yeah, we know his work. He seems to be following us around, producing our projects right as we do.” But, that just sounds deplorably pompous. Lately, we’ve just been answering with a simple “yes.” Despite its stinginess, this reply acknowledges the implication that we aren’t original (not that we ever claimed to be) and it also makes us seem like we sort of know what’s going on.
We began composing this letter a few years back as an angry note. We had been delivering discursive and fast-moving slide lectures that were each based on six or eight randomly chosen topics. Over the course of an hour-long talk we would link the topics together using whatever rhetorical, conceptual or aesthetic associations we could. If there were gaps or sticky transitions, we would simply fill them with interesting related facts, (facts that only sometimes happened to be true.) We had been happily performing these lectures in auditoriums, galleries, and living rooms, enjoying the confusion, the laughter, the resulting conversations, and ‘ums’ of our listeners, when a friend (who was working at Carnegie Mellon University at the time) sent us a publication that included one of the transcripts from your Loose Association Lectures. The resemblance was striking. Honestly, we felt annoyed—annoyed that ideas get taken—annoyed at the Internet for its speed and reach, its simultaneously visibility and anonymity, and its ability to function as a kind of one-stop idea shop. The minute one person does something interesting fifty other people are inevitably doing the same thing as if it’s their idea. And, if those individuals are more rich, quirky, reputable or good looking than you the feather goes in their cap. I guess we could have felt validated by the overlap, but instead we felt a little like our toes had been stepped on.
More recently we saw your piece The Medium—the broken neon sign that reads M_SSAGE—the one that references the clever and perpetually confusing title of Marshall McLuhan’s famous book. We have to admit that your piece is pretty brilliant. Unfortunately, more brilliant than a drawing we recently completed of a boy standing in front of a sign that reads MESSAGE or MASSAGE. One can’t be quite sure because the boy’s head is strategically placed in front of the second letter of the word, making it read M(boy’s head)SSAGE. After we came across your piece, we showed our dealer your work. The interaction was more awkward than we were anticipating. She didn’t say so, but it was clear that she found your sign more compelling than our drawing. Somehow, after that, we both wanted to pretend like our version didn’t exist. We retrieved the drawing from the open storage at the gallery and we ripped it up. This didn’t exactly ease things with our dealer. So, to repair some of the damage, we collected all the fragments of the drawing and placed them in a small pine box, which we titled Ryan Gander Keeps Making Our Work.1
There are more correspondences between what you do and what we do that aren’t quite so obvious. For instance, your Rietveld Reconstructions are not unlike our Modular Mondrian.2 Your visually sober aesthetic, your propensity towards fiction, your dry jokes, and your first name are all familiar. It was after we did some research about you that we realized perhaps an angry approach didn’t exactly make sense considering your career, which is longer and more recognized than ours. So, anyway, we just wanted to apologize for our initial reaction, even though you were ignorant of it in the first place.
People must have been having these Pierre Menardian moments for centuries. But, doesn’t it seem like the frequency or the awareness of that kind of cryptomnesia must have increased in the last seventy-five (or so) years? We’re attracted to the notion that ideas exist not in our material work or in our personal imaginations but in the ether, floating and accessible for use and reuse by anyone who is willing to pluck them out. But, at the same time that attraction has never fully transmuted into belief. We still hold on to the idea of originality in some form. Maybe, if we lived in an oral culture we wouldn’t be so worried about it. It’s just that influence can be embarrassing, especially when it flows one way.3 (And it would be so different if you lived in a different time. For us, feeling the influence of someone like Walter Benjamin is different than being influenced by one’s contemporary.) Coincidence, on the other hand, is not directional and that’s why we kind of wish we had never heard of you or what you do. I suppose we are invoking the old cliché that ignorance is bliss. Now that we are informed, we can’t help but be interested and affected by what you make. We want to find some way of alleviating the anxiety of your influence (pardon the Bloom reference). So, that’s why we thought a letter was in order—to change the direction of the current—to place our work in your hands and brain, (maybe it can even find its way into your ‘good boy’. Our fingers are crossed.)
So then, a little more about ourselves. People say that we are conceptual artists. They also will talk about our dedication to craft. Mostly, we make work about reading and writing, but we also make work about other things, like what we learn from the TV, the history of art, people we disagree with, etc. We met at school and began working as an artistic team about six years ago. The first thing we ever built together was a boat.4 Lately, we have been involved in making a number of public projects—large-scale sculptures that act as props for different kinds of performances or other programming.5
Since this past January, we have become less two people working together and more of a unit. This shift has been felt both internally and externally. We don’t receive nearly as many questions about our collaborative process anymore. People don’t ask us to differentiate or delineate what we each contribute to the making, and we are relieved. (Maybe the addition6 to our clan has proved to people that our dedication to teamwork is really serious or something.) We don’t usually find it interesting to talk about the intricacies of how our things get made. For us it goes without saying.
You, on the other hand, seem to be a proponent of talking about the small stuff that happens when you make a work. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe you just tell your friends that stuff and when they end up writing about you in catalogs and reviews they just use that material to demonstrate their intimate knowledge of your practice. One thing you don’t seem to discuss too much though is the collaborative nature of your work. (We don’t like to talk about ours but we feel fine inquiring about yours!) You have a studio body, right? A guy that does all the stuff in the studio that you can’t do. (We don’t have such a person in our lives (yet) but we look forward to the prospect someday.) Do you ever feel like you have a split personality? Sometimes we feel like that—that we are each double, both of our brains existing together in each one of our bodies—two physically separate ryanna’s if you will. We encourage people to think about us as a single artist and we sort of market ourselves as one body. This is a conscious choice we’ve made when thinking about the reception of our work. Do you expect people to do the same with you and ‘studio Ryan’? Do your ideas and his fuse together when you make something? Or, does he not have any ideas, only useable body parts?
Have you read that chapter in Boris Groys’ book Art Power called ‘Multiple Authorship’? It seems partially related. It’s not mind-blowing, but it is interesting. He begins with an epigraph by Don DeLillo7 that reads “maybe there is no death as we know it. Just documents changing hands.” He goes on to talk about all the parties who are involved in making an art exhibition, claiming that all the founders, funders, pickers, choosers, makers, breakers, packers and…zappers are a part of the process of authoring the artwork and therefore should be taken into account when thinking about its creation.8 He uses the analogy of film to invoke the image of a rolling list of credits cued up along with the exhibition of every art object.
Do you even read art theory? We tend to read it some, maybe too much actually. We seem to read and talk about art more than we make it. This is less than ideal. Maybe if we had a studio ryanna, we wouldn’t be in that position. And, you might be writing us a letter to discuss the uncomfortable influence we have had you rather than the other way around…but probably not.
Well, we’ll sign off now. Again, sorry for our initial lack of humility about all this. Sorry for calling you a douce bag. And, sorry about sending a letter through a publication, we didn’t have your address. We really do hope to hear from you.
If you are not Ryan Gander and you happen to know Ryan Gander would you forward this to him?
Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen
7. Have you read anything by him? We just sold one of his books, The Underground, back to the bookstore. We never could get through all the passages about baseball. I suppose we just like his words more when they are written by somebody else.
8. It strikes us that this way of looking at things really doesn’t take into account the idea of intention. So many preparators are not artistically invested in the projects they are helping to mount. They are invested in securing a paycheck at the end of the month so that they read the next issue of The Boys. But maybe that’s beside the point.