On the occasion of Long Take, the artist’s acclaimed solo exhibition on view at the ICA through July 9, Weitzman alum Carolyn Lazard (MFA’19) spoke to Ken Lum, Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor and chair of fine arts, about their work. Their virtual conversation, which took place in late April, has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How’s it feel to be back at Penn? I know you’re in Philadelphia, but how does it feel to be back at Penn?
It feels really good. It’s such an honor to be able to come back and make an exhibition in the space that I was often going to as an art student. And even before that, because I'm from the Philadelphia area, I’ve been going to the ICA at Penn since I was a teenager. So it’s a homecoming for me.
I was in Los Angeles and your name came up during this MFA crit I participated in. So you’ve become quite an important voice in the art world and even beyond. Why do you think your work is touching so many people?
Well, I think it’s important to say that I’m part of an extended community or a group of people who are really interested in the relationship between access, and aesthetics, and politics. What I hope I’m able to do in my work is to reveal the structures and infrastructural conditions that we’re all beholden to, basically, and that we all live under. And also reveal the ways in which people inside of those structures find what they need with each other, even in the face of infrastructural neglect and failure. Access is a structural concern. It’s also about the ingenious, creative, and improvisatory ways that people manage and find ways to come together under all conditions of life.
But I think you’re under-crediting yourself. The problem of access isn’t new, but I think it’s your aesthetics, it’s your approach to this problem.
I appreciate that, Ken. What I would say is just that I am really interested in art that thinks about these things in a material way. I’m less interested in methodologies of art making that are about a thing. I’m more interested in methodologies of art making that somehow shift something in the material world itself, or that somehow us as viewers, as spectators, as people who encounter art are actually transformed in the moment of contact with the work. Is there something phenomenological about the work? Or is there something about the work that really addresses people in the moment of encounter that makes them aware of themselves in their own positionality in that moment?
Yeah, it’s very embodying. You mentioned visiting the ICA since you were very young. Where do you think this interest in art came from for you?
I was really interested in lots of different disciplines as a young kid. I loved to draw—that didn’t really pan out, I was a terrible draftsperson—so I became more interested in performance. I was always acting, and singing, and dancing. It crystallized in my interest in film and the moving image, and I became a rabid cinephile from the age of seven or something.
I think I was really just in awe of the spectacle and mastery of production, and I was enamored by storytelling—how storytelling could function. I think I was motivated by the same things that I’m actually motivated by now, which is essentially existing in a media landscape that I loved, but that I couldn’t really relate to in any personal way. And that felt like an injustice or a thing that needed to be rectified in some way, and I was going to be the one to do it.
One thing I appreciate about your work is you have something to say and what you have to say seems heartfelt, urgent. And as you said earlier, it’s not necessarily a prescription. It’s about “this,” but it's also largely about something else.
I really don't want to make prescriptive work because my work is so much about how everybody encounters artwork in radically different ways. Oftentimes people will ask, “What do you want people to get from this?” I’ll usually just decline to answer that question because I’m not interested in dictating how people interpret or relate to the work.
Right. But at the same time, do you try to imagine an audience in advance of your work?
Yeah, I think that’s really important. An artist once told me that that could be a guiding force when making an artwork—have your ideal spectator in mind and keep that person in mind throughout. I do that when making art, and also with writing. I think it’s a testament to what art does that you can have that in mind while knowing that it’ll have this ripple effect and meaning for just about everybody else. And that ripple will be substantial for everybody else, even if they weren’t the initial person you had in mind when you made an artwork.
I’ve known you to be always a very good writer. How important is the relationship of writing to your art?
It’s really important. For a long time I tried to keep them very separate. I was writing personal essays and making artwork separately, and it felt important to keep those things separate. But now I’m really interested in language, so I feel like I found a way to bring those things together so they don't have to exist as distinct practices where one somehow invalidates the other. My work is thinking about the integration of text, and image, and sound. And I’m really interested in the history of text in art. Now I just want to ask you a bunch of questions, Ken! I’m thinking about text in your work and the way that text is really bound to the history of conceptualism. I’m interested in what might be teased out around the relationship between text and conceptual art today under different conditions of making.
When I came in [to the art world], there was almost an ideology that pictorial systems have to be challenged. And one of the ways to do that was through the supplementation of text, because text was—wrongly, I think now—seen as something that was anti-aesthetic, that didn’t have the same pleasurable draw as pictorial systems. So that was part of the critique of pictures. In my case, I never really believed that totally, because if you look at advertising, most of it’s text, especially in print form. There is a pictorialism in the way they use fonts and the composition of the text itself.
That critique from that era feels incredibly western, in a way. What is the saying? “The call is coming from inside the house”? This idea that the pictorial and the textual, or the literary, are in opposition to each other feels like something from the Enlightenment.
I hear you. You have a beautifully realized installation of the ICA. For the reader who hasn’t yet been to the ICA, can you somehow describe for them what you put there?
The work came out of my interest in dance film and the legacy of dance film and dance video—which was a genre of work in the 1960s and ‘70s—and my interest in access, asking myself this question, “How might one make a dance film without an image? How might one think about the experience of dance without prioritizing sight as the primary way that we experience movement?” And this could be oriented around dance, it could be oriented around painting, it could be oriented around anything. But I was interested in dance because I come from a sort of extended disability arts community, and there are a lot of dancers from whom I’ve learned a lot, in thinking about access and aesthetics. We primarily understand dance as a visual medium. Even though it’s incredibly embodied, it’s a medium, a discipline that we primarily relate to as a thing to be watched. It’s about watching the body.
The whole exhibition is called Long Take, and it consists of a few works, but the main piece is a three-channel video, which is a multi-speaker, multi-channel sound installation. I wrote a dance score based on my research on dance scores and dance improvisation, and it’s a text-based score. And then I read aloud, recorded, and gave it to my friend and collaborator Jerron Herman, and he performed it. While he was performing this score that he was listening to a recitation of, we were also recording the sound of his body. So while he was performing, his body was covered in microphones.
I worked with another friend, Joselia Rebekah Hughes, to write audio description of the performance, the improvisation that Jerron made. Audio description is a form of verbal description for blind and low-vision audiences. It’s used at events for live performance, dance, and in television and the movies. It basically gives a verbal description of any visual cues that are happening on the screen or on stage.
So, we are left with three components: the original recording of the dance score, the sound of Jerron’s movement, of his improvisation, and then an audio description of that performance. And those things are all happening at the same time, so you’re getting this layered experience of a dance, but there’s no image. You’re looking at black screens with white captions. You can either read it or you can listen to it, or you can read and listen to it at the same time. And every way of accessing the work is equal and as equally valid.
It's primarily a sound work in this large gallery. You have these three small monitors crowded in the center of the room, a bench is in front of it, and then the floor is covered in Marley dance flooring. And that’s also a work, called Surround Sound. It’s a score-based work, which means that it arrives at the museum as a set of instructions to cover the floor in dance floor mat and to not clean it. The hope is that, for the duration of the exhibition, the floor will pick up the traces of the movement of people coming through the gallery, that it won’t be cleaned up, so they become incorporated into the exhibition itself.
There are benches in the gallery and outside the gallery in another part of the museum that are benches that I appropriated from the museum. I asked the ICA to give me their standard museum benches, and then I adapted and modified them with cushions and plywood backs to make more comfortable seating. Video art has always been in somewhat of a crisis in museums because we install video art, but we don’t really give people comfortable ways to watch it. And for time-based media, you need something that actually facilitates the duration required to experience the work.
The work is primarily, for me, thinking about access, and accessibility, and aesthetics, and how accessibility might actually change our relationship to aesthetics, and how it might produce new aesthetic forms. And also thinking about accessibility as an improvisational tool, as a way to navigate conditions, whether it’s the museum, or an inaccessible building, or an inaccessible classroom. What are the things that we do to somehow provide access for ourselves and each other? I’m also really interested in the instability of artworks as solid forms. So this is a work that exists as a recording, it exists as written text, it also exists as a description online, so it can move through all of these different forms and meet people in the ways that they need to meet it. I would argue that if you’re reading a description of the exhibition online, that’s an equal way of encountering the work as being in the room with the work.
One of my takeaways was the uncertainty, but also fluidity, of identity. I started stepping into the body of the dancer, or the imagined body I could hear, and that called into question who I was. I was forced to try to imagine being someone else. There’s coming into contact with someone, someone not yourself, a stranger, and yet that person became a inner voice somehow. I thought that was really quite interesting and a little bit destabilizing in an opening up space way. I really appreciated that.
That’s a really beautiful way of putting it. For me, there’s this critical moment where you’re listening to a description of a performance that’s been done, but it also functions as a set of instructions that you, the spectator, could then perform. So it does implicate the spectator, in a way. Once you’re in that room, you become a part of the installation itself, which I think is just an interesting proposal for spectatorship. Oftentimes, we’re sort of expected to show up at museums and then disappear and be these disembodied, observing eyes.
What sort of advice can you give MFA students who also want to succeed? Not necessarily succeed as art stars, but to have their voices noted?
I was going to say something specific to their experiences at Penn, which is that the program is uniquely situated as a program that supports really experimental practices. There are expectations around your course load, but there aren’t stringent demands around how the work is produced and how the work shows up, which leaves room for artists to make new things that may not have been encountered before. I would say, take advantage of that simultaneous openness and rigor at the same time. Take advantage of being at this university where you’re able to take courses in other departments and bring things into the studio that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to, like meeting incredible scholars from other disciplines.
Moving out into the world, the best thing for artists to do is to build community. We ultimately make work for ourselves, but we also make work for others. It feels really important, leaving a program like this, to maintain what is a circle of feedback about your work, to find ways to facilitate things for each other. I think artists survive through collective practice. We may have been taught that the artist is this solitary, individuated figure who’s sitting alone in their studio working on a masterpiece, but, more often than not, that’s not how artists function and that’s not how artists survive. They survive through being in community with other artists.
What projects are you working on now?
I have an exhibition at Artists Space in New York City in the spring of 2024, so I am in research mode for that, but I’m also really just resting. I feel like it’s important to say that, especially because of the practice that I have. I’ve just opened this exhibition, so I’m really taking time to recuperate, and reconnect, and take care of myself because it’s hard to generate interesting work if I’m not.
I think that’s absolutely great advice. It was great reconnecting with you, and we look forward to reading and keeping up with further developments. Good luck to you, Carolyn!
It’s an honor to even be interviewed by a giant like you. I appreciate it.
People [reading this] should know I'm only 5’5’’, so not a giant!