Mark Kremer: Your work incorporates cultural products from various historical periods. How would you define the relation of your work with the world?
Stephen Prina: I have always worked with cultural products or sites of meaning that are in social use, and that function through a process of signification that predates my wilful intervention. My intervention could be seen as parallel to that process, a supplement to that, an excess to that, but always something that has been added. My works are tautologies, or relatively autonomous structures. I address both the state of the relatively autonomous structure and how it takes its position in the world.
MK: Could you give an example of such a tautological work?
SP: In the mid-eighties I wrote a piano score that was entirely generated by transcriptions that had been made of Beethoven symphonies. These piano reductions were made for different reasons. Some were made to serve as pedagogic tools. Then with Franz Liszt arranging Beethoven’s symphonic scores, he turns them into superb virtuosic ventures.
MK: Your piano score was a kind of recombination of the symphonies?
SP: Yes. A cursory description of it would be: I took scores of the nine symphonies, I measured each one, I divided each one into equal ninths, I took the first ninth of the First Symphony, the second ninth of the Second Symphony, and so on until the ninth ninth of the Ninth Symphony. I retranscribed that into a 150 page, two-piano score. It starts for two pianos and every time that there is a move from one symphony to another there is a format change. I transcribed everything from the scores except tempo designations and dynamic markings, and substituted a description of performance instead. I instructed the players to begin playing as slowly and as softly as possible and to gradually crescendo and accelerate until the exact mid-point of the work where they were to be playing as loudly and as quickly as possible and then to deaccelerate and decrescendo until at the end theyre again playing as slowly and as softly as possible.
MK: So it’s a mechanic prescription.
SP: In description it is, but in every moment the Beethoven text is attempting to defy that.
It seems as though this work perfectly embraces symmetry in every way with this kind of mechanical programme, but in fact when the work is heard it is not this kind of a seamless arc. It seems to be filled with fits and starts and it is shifting into different gears.
MK: You call this early work auto-referential, despite the effect of derailment.
SP: Yes. But I find it necessary that other kinds of aspects are produced or generated. That’s why Ive been described as an impure conceptual artist. And I celebrate and embrace that!
Camiel van Winkel: In 1989 you made Upon the Occasion of Receivership, a work that aligns a work by Lawrence Weiner from 1969 with another kind of apparatus, Berlitz Translation Agency. The concept of receivership seems crucial to your work.
SP: I am very interested in the point of reception. But reception theory is sometimes applied as a way to talk about the `appropriate’ utterances that can be made. I’m not interested in that. In fact I’m interested in always problematizing the possible utterances that can be made. It’s similar to the discussion about the site-specific. Site-specificity in general is of an importance that approaches the epistemological, but the way it’s been applied sometimes is really just a way to proclaim a positivist realism in the guise of a radicality.
MK: You were a student of Michael Asher. Does your view on site-specificity imply a critique of his work?
SP: I would pose another question. Whats the difference between the conception of Ashers work and the reception of it?
MK: Let’s talk about Asher’s exhibition in the Van Abbemuseum in 1977. Here he removed the glass panels from the roof and replaced them. This instalment was changed every day, so the light conditions changed continuously.
SP: I agree with Benjamin Buchloh’s reading of Asher’s work from this period as being a culmination of Modernist sculpture. I think it is sculpture. So it is not the demonstration of an idea or the application of the genre of institutional critique in the way that that term has been used. Asher is not an idealist, he is a materialist in the way in which he moves through the world. Material aspects, including this play of light, are very important in his work.
MK: In an interview from 1988 you said that the subject of Asher’s work is the narrative of institutionalization. Is this not contradictory with the way you just described his work?
SP: I don’t think so. I think the problem is that Asher’s work was often reduced to a very singular idea of site-specificity. I’ve never seen any of his works that I would reduce in that manner. I’m generally not interested in reduction. I’m interested in the expansiveness and the productivity of reading instead of attempting to trace the originary singularity.
CvW: You mentioned the auto-referential nature of your work. Isn’t there an opposition between auto-referentiality on the one hand and the relation to the world on the other hand?
SP: No. I think that both of them have to be maintained in combination. The opposition is a misapplication of certain theoretical precepts. The idea that the self-referentiality or self-reflexivity that has been instantiated through the development of Modernism would at this moment have to be surrendered would be an act of historical amnesia.
MK: But in an interview from 1988 you said that Modernism had shortcircuited itself.
SP: It isn’t that Modernism is over, but that certain aspects, like the position of opposition of the traditional avant-garde, dont work anymore. Opposition seems to be a construction that is predicated upon the speaker being located outside of the object of scrutiny. This notion of being outside is something that I can’t support. The idea of resistance is something that is potentially much more workable than one of opposition, because it would implicate me.
CvW: Artists like Donald Judd and Ad Reinhardt focused on geometrical forms. They departed from the premise of their specificity, assuming that these forms had no reference to the organic world. Your work seems to deny that any visual language could totally be itself.
SP: Any construct would be referential in some way. With Judd we can read all his descriptions, but that isn’t what I produce with his work. His work brings me precisely to what you state as being excluded from his work, the organic world. When I look at a work by Judd I not only see its material qualities, I also realize that I’m the perceiving subject of the work, and that Im rendered an object within a field of operations. Its as though the work demands that I recognize that objectification process and that subjectification process. I refer to that as the choreography of Minimalism. In my essay on Reinhardt I talk about his work encouraging me to engage in the productivity of a curator. With Reinhardt Id like to ask is he a painter? is he a traveller of the world? is he an educator, a writer, a cartoon maker, a provocateur? What I think is generative in the practice of Reinhardt is this multiplicity. Thats why I think his work had such an incredible effect on so many artists, within the realm of a model for a certain kind of activity.
MK: Could your work be seen as the elaboration of a model?
SP: Doubling is an aspect that happens a lot in my work. Perhaps it is the attempt to make a model of a model, an allegorization of the model. I like the idea of using the word model. Locating its trajectories of force and accelerating their operation, is a way to talk about it.
CvW: Your work has been criticized for not making clear whether it implies an institutional critique or a homage. In your lecture at Witte de With in October 1992 you proposed the paradigm of the system specific. Would that concept bypass the opposition between an institutional critique and a homage?
SP: The word critique has attained a bad name in the eighties. The way in which the word was deployed was only in reference to that which beats its opponent into submission. But if we think about criticality as embracing a more expansive field of reading, I would think of my work as being a critique of site-specificity. The site specific seems to be grounded in a very particular location and a particular time, and all information is related to this. But when you take any of those coordinates, space or time, and you compound them, the model doesnt seem to hold up. What the model of the system specific allows is compounding. It compounds the ideas of a place and a time, so one can talk about the inappropriate, or what happens when a displacement is effected. With the project Galerie Max Hetzler, a work that is comically overdetermined in relation to its original site for presentation, once that work was shown in Cologne that became the format for the presentation at Luhring Augustine Hetzler in Santa Monica, and all subsequent installations. The standardized design was only appropriate in Cologne and then after that point is always presented along the axis of the inappropriate. This project is a demonstration of the system specific, and I think it explodes the classical model of the site specific.
MK: Is your Manet project a system specific project? I interpreted the system specific as being about cultural mechanisms in a wider, also historical sense.
SP: Yes, it is. With that project though, little has anything to do with the site specific model.
CvW: We were intrigued by the manual labour involved in the Manet project. In what way would your labour relate to Manet’s labour?
SP: At one moment, at one time, a producer, Manet, stood in front of a certain sized support and engaged in a certain kind of labour. That’s also the kind of labour I’m involved with. It took Manet his whole life to make his works, and I’m making them faster. I don’t make paintings, that would be too close to the original model. I make drawings, ink on paper.
A lot of people have tried to see in my drawings the image of a Manet painting. Thats not a concern of mine. It’s not image to image that Im interested in, but labour to labour. I’ve extrapolated an abstraction from Manets work: the size of his supports, the narrative chronology, titles, and the location of the model painting. This project was somehow a response to contemporary trends, because the discussion of appropriation had been reduced to a discussion of image to image, instead of all the other things that could be explored.
CvW: Do you have an ideal space for your work in mind?
SP: I think I would say no. For instance, I’ve shown the Monochrome Painting project in several different places, and each time different aspects of the work floated to the surface.
CvW: And if we talk about space in a more metaphorical sense? You always make use of the institutional art context to give insight in the relation that your work has to the world.
SP: More often than not I have. But I think my projects take advantage of that context. The Manet project, the Monochrome Painting project, both are predicated upon mining the archive of the museum, so there’s a direct relationship. But to answer your question: I think I would have to say no again. One could say that the commercial gallery or the museum are the arenas that I have at my disposal. But I don’t think that any particular location can be seen as the prefered location for the presentation and reception of art.
MK: Your work is often based on a polyphonic principle in that voices of several authors can be heard. In this respect, could you tell us about your project at Documenta IX?
SP: The title of this project is A photograph, the principle source of illumination of which is work by Dan Flavin I, II, III. I wanted to make a work where a swift and expedient meeting of the synchronous and the diachronous would occur. So I used an installation shot of an exhibition that Ive done in Santa Monica, the previously described installation shot of Galerie Max Hetzler, and an installation shot from the exhibition that had preceded it, a solo exhibition by Georg Herold. The show that I had done was the last exhibition in the space before they closed, and so the third installation shot was the empty gallery. In this work there are at least two different historical models that are brought together. One is a narrative sequencing of what happens in institutional spaces, and then there is another axis of these works being into relationship to Flavin or history at large. Why did I select Flavin? I remember having seen an installation at the Art Institute of Chicago. One room had a work by Flavin and a work by Judd. There was no auxiliary lighting for the Judd sculpture. I remember that at the time it appeared to me that Judds work had been designed to be illuminated by Flavin. Which is a perversity, but a possible reading. And it was only much later that I decided to adopt that as a productive mode.
MK: Your instalment made the Flavin very alive. It seemed as if the work opposed the selective memory of the art world where artistic intentions and entire practices disappear.
SP: I think some people have put Flavin on a pedestal. They think of it only as beautiful, unattainable. It’s not that I’m interested in recuperating Flavin. Flavin does not need that. But I think that an aspect of Flavin’s work could be recuperated, notably the idea of this radical proposition of a work that provides its own illumination and also illuminates the spectator.
MK: What are you working on at the moment?
SP: I am preparing a book, entitled Johanna Fähmels Monologue. Its point of departure is a film by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, `Not Reconciled or Only violence helps where violence rules’, from 1965. It’s an adaptation of a Heinrich Böll novel, `Billiards at half past nine’. At one point in the story, there is a monologue of a woman who has been committed to a mental institution, that isn’t interrupted for an entire chapter. This chapter is virtually eliminated from the Straub/Huillet adaptation. I decided to make a book of this monologue. The preface will be a still photograph from the film, showing the woman against the background of the Dom in Cologne. The typeset will be in Gothic letterface, which I read as German or heavy metal, take your pick. When the book is printed, the first third of the book will be printed on black paper, the second third will be on red paper, and the third third on gold paper. I plan to publish it in November, and then to do a booksigning in the room where this scene was shot, which is in the Dom Hotel. The film will be continuously screened in this room. The naturalization that occurs here leads to a kind of resistance that I was talking about before. I mean, the novel is set in Cologne, this book will be published in Cologne, and it will be first presented in Cologne. Its excessively appropriate for the site. At least half of the project though embraces cliché. What does it mean to make a book that from the side, before it is opened, will appear as the German flag?