Bad at Sports

Interview with Will Brown

By Bad at Sports February 12, 2013

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


Illegitimate Business; installation view, Will Brown, San Francisco, January 27–February 26, 2012. Courtesy of Will Brown, San Francisco.

On February 2, 2013, David Kasprzak, Jordan Stein, and Lindsey White opened the exhibition The Ghost of James Lee Byars: A Retrospective in their exhibition space, Will Brown, located in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. The retrospective takes place in a pitch-black room that is itself an installation piece; it purportedly houses both the oeuvre and the spirit of the deceased artist, who declared all of his work to be cancelled upon his death. The absurdity that underscores the exhibition has become a hallmark of Will Brown in the year since its inception. Bad at Sports contributors Brian Andrews and Patricia Maloney spoke with the three collaborators just a few weeks prior to the opening to learn more about the philosophy that guides their singular form of exhibition making, about how the space came into being, and to find out exactly who or what is Will Brown. This abridged version of their conversation is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art Practical. You can listen to the full conversation on the podcast on Episode 388.

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Patricia Maloney: None of you are named “Will Brown,” so one wonders how the name originated.

Jordan Stein: A fair question. Will Brown is actually a person; he’s a curatorial studies graduate of California College of the Arts (CCA). We were trying to figure out what to name this space, and there was a very brutal five- or six-week period in which we couldn’t agree on anything. We almost chose the name “Joan Brown.” Actually, I was the only one who liked the name; I was desperately trying to convince them we should name the space “Joan Brown” after I desperately tried to convince them we should call it “Nirvana.” We had taken over the lease and were about to put up the first show. We were expecting Will Brown to come in, and it was David who had the idea at the last second before he arrived that maybe, we were “Will Brown.” Is that how it went?

David Kasprzak: He walked in and one or two of us exclaimed, “Will Brown!”

Lindsey White: It came about because we were so annoyed at the thought of it being called “Joan Brown” that we said, “Why don’t we call it ‘Will Brown’?” and he walked in the door.

JS: We had a little scrum: “Are we really going to do this? Is this a good idea? We have to talk to the real Will Brown,” and assure him it was not patronizing or creepy, although it is a little of both.

DK: A side note: He now goes by “A. Will Brown” because if you look up “Will Brown,” there are several pages of us.

Brian Andrews: You’ve ruined his Google search results.

DK: Apparently. We warned him it was possible. The idea behind it, though, is to play with the hierarchical system of naming, in which the gallery is named after the owner. We liked the idea of using a person’s name that had a generic, guy-next-door quality.

PM: But it’s not just the hierarchical naming system of the gallery world that you are playing with. There are a lot of other different aspects of galleries that you point out and take an ironic or questioning stance toward. So do you even think of yourselves as a gallery?

JS: That question comes up frequently, and I don’t know if we have a definitive answer for it. From the name down, we wanted to associate more with a gallery paradigm than a museum paradigm, and “Will Brown” sounds like any other gallery on Twenty-fourth Street, but we deliberately left out that word, gallery. Will Brown is a gallery in many ways—we’re a viewing space where exhibitions and programs happen—but we are uncomfortable with the notion of a gallery as a destination where one can buy something if one is so inclined. By naming the space “Will Brown,” [a name that refers to] every guy and no guy, it would be hard to discern who was making decisions and why.

LW: Leaving gallery off the end of the name changes what the expectations are. It’s nice to have this nebulous area that we exist in instead of being locked down [to one identity].

Earth Putt/Putt Works; installation view, Will Brown, San Francisco, July 1–August 12, 2012. Courtesy of Will Brown, San Francisco

DK: It was important that it be autonomous and un-authored to a certain extent—the three of us operating under this one moniker.

BA: I consider Will Brown to be an event space rather than an exhibition space, even though some of the exhibitions more closely resemble events, given the way that you produce them.

LW: We could be categorized as a gallery or curatorial endeavor, but our space is more about exhibition making. We try to pair events and exhibitions that have the same personality.

JS: It was surprising to us how non-discursive or unsocial many of the exhibitions were, the ones we had been part of or seen over the years. We each live within a two-block radius of this space, and we wanted to develop a model of exhibition making that was as much about the people who attended the show as about what was on display. We want to make exhibitions that are as active as possible.

DK: We began the space backwards, in the sense that Lindsey was given the opportunity to take it over and she contacted Jordan and myself. All of a sudden, we had this physical space and needed to figure out what to do with it. We moved forward based on the things we knew we didn’t want to be because we didn’t necessarily know what we wanted to be. By a process of elimination, we became what we are.

Structurally, Will Brown is not a gallery. We don’t represent artists, and we don’t sell work. What we found to be more interesting was creating a communal gathering space that involves a lot of dialogue and events and includes practitioners outside the art scene. San Francisco has a large number of self-proclaimed experts on a wide variety of subjects and skill sets. We wanted something where all those things could come together without a very rigid, structured mission statement that could exclude any one of those interests.

PM: Before we delve into discussing specific exhibitions and events, tell us about the collaboration between the three of you. What are the sensibilities that bring you together?

JS: The collaboration is a funny one, and it unfolds slowly. I was astonished when we had our first official Will Brown meeting. I don’t think any of us could see into the future of what the exhibitions or programming would come to be, but we made an agreement that we would start an art space that would never show art. That was the first moment that we all worked together. It terrified us to a certain degree, but we’ve done our best to stick to that. We’re interested in working with artists but not so interested in showing art. The mission statement is implicit in how we’ve worked together since that moment.

LW: Even though we don’t represent artists, we invite artists in the community to work with us to produce different one-night events. We couldn’t exist as a space without all the support from our friends. We were thinking about the community and about creating a space that would welcome anyone into it. That’s the way we plan things, across the board.

Each of us comes from different backgrounds. My background is in teaching and making art; there’s David’s curatorial background, and Jordan’s curatorial background, working at the Exploratorium, is a little different. The three of us together make for a unique combination.

DK: We had all known each other and had been friends but never worked together, so again, it was this reverse situation—in which we hadn’t decided to work together in a collective, but all of a sudden we had this space, and Lindsey chose the two of us for whatever strange reason. (Laughter)

PM: Jordan, you mentioned that you wanted it to be a space that never showed artwork, which brings us to your first two exhibitions: Illegitimate Business and Daren Wilson: After Morandi. Both of these shows question either the veracity or the value of artworks.

Daren Wilson. After Giorgio Morandi, 2011; oil on canvas; 14 x 14 inches. Courtesy of Will Brown, San Francisco.

JS: After Morandi consisted of paintings made to match the scale, form, and color of Giorgio Morandi still lifes from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s by a friend of ours, a Mission-dweller named Daren Wilson. Daren wanted to teach himself how to paint in oils, and he fell in love with the palette, the tone, and the subject matter of these beautiful bottles and vases. Daren copied them, showed them to his friends, and got a lot of positive feedback. He got hooked and didn’t stop until he had dozens of these totally beautiful Morandi reproductions that broached a lot of questions: “What are these? Are they mine? Are they Morandi’s? Are they worth anything? Are they even art?” We liked those questions and were not interested in putting monetary value on any of the work. The great thing was that we didn’t have to. We just showed them as copies.

DK: To say that we decided not to show art sounds really insane, and obviously there are art-like works that go up in the gallery from time to time. But we were less interested in showing artworks that were polished or finished or created for the purpose of display and more interested in the systems that surround that whole process of making, publicizing, displaying, and selling the work. So, in Illegitimate Business, we were not questioning art’s value on a large scale but were finding where that value is. Is it monetary or does it come from another source? For that show, which was a collection of artworks obtained by people through illegitimate means, there was no money exchanged to acquire these artworks. This was an exhibition I had wanted to do for a few years, but, obviously, where do you do it? Nobody is going to take on the liability of an exhibition like that, which is a perfect example of why we started this space.

The show included Mathew Brady, Martin Kippenberger, Catherine Opie, Kara Walker, Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, and Harmony Korine, among others. We obtained all the pieces just by talking about the show for several months, and one story led to another. People kept coming out of the woodwork with stories like, “I’ve got this crazy piece that I acquired when I was working at the museum and Martin Kippenberger decided to cut the face off his sculpture. He gave it to me because he didn’t like the way it looked, and he asked me to sneak it out of the museum so he didn’t have to deal with the curators.”

We asked each of our lenders to anonymously write a short narrative about how they obtained the piece, and we displayed those next to the works. What we found was that the value of the work to the people who owned them came from their interactions with the artists who made the works and from the illicit adventure of obtaining them—much more than from any monetary value. And a few of the artists in the show who we spoke to were quite happy to be included, even if they had missed out on some money somewhere in the process.

PM: There seem to be two subtexts to Illegitimate Business: one is the extent to which an artist legitimates the work by entering it into a market system, and the other is the context in which the work becomes available to artists.

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Listen to the full conversation on Bad at Sports: Episode 388.

PM: Because we don’t have the financial means that collectors do, acquisition depends upon exchange with another artist or working for an artist or just having some proximity to the situation in which the work exists. It highlights a very interesting aspect that artists, who are producers, are often excluded from participating in the system that legitimates the acquisition of this work.

LW: All of us working as artists work for other artists and save all the bits and pieces of things we admire and love. When I was picking up these pieces for the show, they were delivered to me in very different ways than if they were worth lots of money. For example, the discarded Chuck Close test print was rolled up and placed in a tube; it was simply pinned on the wall. These were very personal exchanges that you don’t see everyday. That was one of my favorite parts of that show.

JS: It set the pace for us to do shows that rely on storytelling. Most of the time, when you go to see art in a museum, the wall label or title card doesn’t read like a narrative or a story; it reads like a fact-based situation that you had nothing to do with. Illegitimate Business was amazing not only for the number of people who lined up to see it over the course of its run but also for how long people spent down there, reading all the texts. They seemed to get an awful lot out of knowing these works came from highly personal circumstances. All of the shows that we’ve done seem to have a storytelling or friendly pedagogical approach. It’s very available.

BA: The stories you describe are of the art world, of people working for each other, but the sizzle of the show is the more illicit side. Was there any fallout from that?

JS: I was really excited to talk to a lawyer because I was curious to know if we were breaking the law. There were a few pieces in the show that were questionable, and when I talked to Suzanne (the lawyer), she asked if there were any pieces in the show that were stolen. And I said, “Well, yeah.” (Laughter) And she said, “That’s illegal.” She also said that she couldn’t imagine anything would happen—the work was in a basement and only up for five weeks—but that we probably shouldn’t do a podcast on Bad at Sports talking about it. (Laughter) I do remember that David was the most concerned that we would be taken to task.

DK: Yeah, I was sweating. There was one piece in particular whose acquisition was through a rather dark situation that had already come to some legal blows many years ago, and we were concerned about a particular dealer finding out about it.

JS: There was a part of me that wanted to get in some trouble so we could navigate those waters.

LW: Generally, [that kind of] curiosity fuels our whole project. Jordan often will look at the caption under a photo, and it will include some random artist’s name that we’ve never heard of; then he’ll go on this long tangent. And we’ve all caught that same bug. We see something we’re interested in, we share it with the group, and we all just go nuts over it.

Installation view of the “Mooseum” of the Manitoba Museum of Finds Arts, located in Room 305 of the Veterans' Building, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, circa 1975. Courtesy of Will Brown, San Francisco.

DK: Yeah, the detritus left over from eras we weren’t around to be part of have definitely been a big part of the story of this space. I worked very closely with Steven Leiber for several years when I was in grad school and afterward, and he shaped that impulse for me. Sitting in his basement was way more fascinating than any museum I had ever been to. And that’s true for each of us, and it’s not just related to art. Lindsey and I love to go to Party City and look at these bizarre objects and think, “Why was this made?” It’s just a curiosity about unexplained objects and ephemera in general that have led to the things that we’ve done.

JS: For example, what led us to the Manitoba Museum of Finds Art exhibition was this very circuitous route of tracking photos and captions and histories that we had no idea were right beneath our feet the whole time. We each are interested in ephemeral and minimal practices of the ’60s and ’70s, particularly of the West Coast, and in photographs that came out of that era. Tracking down one of the photographers who was no longer living, whose archive was in the possession of another person, led me to another person, Alberta Mayo, who ran the Manitoba Museum of Finds Art in her office when she was the assistant to the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) during the 1970s. It was a parasitic art museum. She had exhibitions and a permanent collection, she printed amazing postcards, and she kept really detailed archives—photographs and texts. As far as we could tell, there was no history whatsoever around this thing except for the archive she had kept.

The time felt right and she was amenable to us coming down and checking out everything. We put the archive in the car, drove it up here, and she joined us for the opening. Since then, it has generated a lot of press, and Alberta has gotten her due. We all felt very lucky but scared that if we didn’t do this and do this right now, when would it happen? We felt a lot of overwhelming humility, wanting to do this thing right.

PM: At one level, there is playfulness to your programming, certainly, a sense of humor that infuses it. But there are also thoughtful investigations into these questions about exhibition making and historicity that are serious curatorial concerns. Where do you perceive the area of overlap to be?

DK: I wanted to have a space where we could experiment with the exhibition as a medium. There were no rules here; we didn’t have anything to lose; we didn’t have anyone to impress, necessarily. It was a space where we could think about what an exhibition is, what factors have to be present for something to be considered an exhibition, how we could play with those and expose those experiments to the public without it being resolved every time. As naïve as it may seem, with Will Brown we can just try something out, open the doors, and hope nothing hits us on the head. It has been a nice process of learning to be okay with letting go [of control].

JS: The exhibition making and the programming are almost two sides of a coin. The exhibition making is having an idea and asking ourselves, “How are we going to do that?” The programming is more like, “What would happen if we did that?” These are totally different things. The programming is much easier to see. The exhibitions are slow-going and have more questions about the right way to do them.

LW: I’ve made so many art shows and have been part of the art community in many different ways, but until you open a space, you don’t even know what you need to do to make that place operate. So the events are what we can just gamble on.

For me, it resembles my art-making practice; it is very intuitive—that feeling when you know something is going to work. What works best for us is to have a piece of paper taped to the wall and rattle off ideas. Sometimes we’ll have some absurd idea that we’ll all be sold-on that evening, and the next day one of us will text the others to say that idea sucks. (Laughter) And it will keep going from there.

Interior view of Will Brown, San Francisco. Pictured are artist Tauba Auerbach (standing, left) and Will Brown founder David Kasprzak, during CONGRATULATIONS! event, January 3, 2013.

BA: What is the next event?

DK: For different reasons, we have each been interested in the artist James Lee Byars. How do we do a show about James Lee Byars, with very little money and none of his actual work? There were several installations that we were keen on, and the one that we chose was The Ghost of James Lee Byars, which is a work that he envisioned taking place after he passed away. He was fixated on his own mortality, and that is the subject of much of his work. The piece is a pitch-black room; anytime it is installed, his spirit supposedly comes and inhabits that room and interacts with the audience.

Then we decided to do a retrospective of his work inside this work. Of course, you won’t be able to see any of it. It will come down to whether or not you believe that there are actually works present in that room—and if there are, if they’re the works that we tell you they are, if we recreated them or they are actually borrowed. That is up to you. The backroom will have a James Lee Byars reading library, which is a research lounge for anyone who is interested.

BA: Will people need to navigate through the darkness to find this room?

DK: Yes. But a big part of the show will be the programming. It was really interesting to think about what could take place in a pitch-black space.

JS: James Lee Byars died in 1997. But in 1978, he declared that upon his death, all of his artworks would be cancelled. So he is the perfect artist for us because, as far as he is concerned, his artworks aren’t art anymore. Being that so many of his works were ephemeral, Will Brown is the perfect place to collect as many of those, as abstractly as possible.

Programming for this show is a mix of running with goofy ideas and running with research. Last night, I read about a performance Byars had staged in 1987 called The Perfect Death. He had the director of the UC Berkeley Art Museum dress-up like him, in a full gold suit and top hat—Byars generally wore all black or gold or red. The director lay down on a big gold sheet and stayed there until a woman named Beau Takahara, who still lives in the Bay Area, was instructed to yell the letter “Q.” That signified to the director that he was to get up very slowly and leave the building. We happen to know Beau Takahara through the Manitoba Museum of Finds Art, and we called her last night. She said, “I’ll never forget that because I did that on February 22, 1987; it was my birthday.” So it looks like Beau will come here, we’ll have a birthday party for her, and at the stroke of midnight on February 22, when it will be twenty-five years to the day, we’ll restage The Perfect Death of James Lee Byars.

Manitoba Museum of Finds Art Gift Shop; installation view, Will Brown, San Francisco, April 28–June 2, 2012. Courtesy of Will Brown, San Francisco.

PM: Presumably, the audience enters at the intersection of these goofy ideas and this historical research. I am wondering how far they go with you because there is this concerted and consistent investment into understanding the practices of these artists you’re presenting, but the entry point is always this goofy, frivolous idea.

DK: I love frivolity, and that is a great word to describe some of what we do. You don’t get to do that very often, but we get to do that here.

PM: But how much do you want your audience to move beyond the frivolity?

DK: That’s up to them. We like to think that we provide enough of an actual historical framework or research if they desire it. In this case, they have to wade through the darkness to get to the information about this man. And that is, maybe, the perfect metaphor for Will Brown.

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