Liam Gillick Decodes the World

February 1, 2013

Creative Time’s chief curator, Nato Thompson, speaks with artist Liam Gillick about the limits to our understanding of contemporary art, culture and politics.

Liam Gillick, 24/7 ™ Kiosk, September 7, 2009. Photo by Wouter Horré.

In this episode of Forms of Life, host Nato Thompson speaks with artist Liam Gillick about the critical conversations that frame contemporary art, and our limited understanding of the present moment. Their discussion identifies a series of cultural impasses: an obsession with the very recent past among art critics and historians; a hesitation to implement structural change among political progressives; and a lack of general education in art and visual culture that might help broader publics to “decode the world.” Gillick will address these critical themes from a historical perspective in four lectures, collectively titled “Creative Disruption in the Age of Soft Revolutions,” for the 2013 Bampton Lecture Series at Columbia University.

Forms of Life is a monthly podcast hosted by Creative Time’s chief curator, Nato Thompson. Guests are culture makers whose work posits new ways of looking at political realities. By addressing a wide variety of issues—such as alternative economies, calcified political structures and new forms of collective living—or simply by being a thorn in the side of normality, Forms of Life interviews provide an opportunity to think counterintuitively about social conditions faced by people around the world.

Special thanks to The Clocktower Gallery and for their support.


4 Responses to “Liam Gillick Decodes the World”

  1. […] Creative Time Reports Liam Gillick Decodes the World Creative Time Reports In this episode of Forms of Life, host Nato Thompson speaks with artist Liam Gillick about the critical conversations that frame contemporary art, and our limited…  […]

  2. William says:

    In advance of a possible discussion of the interview, here is a slightly truncated response to Creative Time’s Todd Florio:

    What I took away from the interview is that Liam is basically disgusted with the art market discussion, not ready to take on a philosophical inquiry into the nature of art, and is trying to form an understanding of contemporary art through a very specific sociological and anthropological look at technological and scientific innovations that spurred certain artistic advances. I’d peg his inquiry as what sociologist Diane Crane described as the ‘distribution and production’ branch of the avant-garde. Liam very clearly articulates he’s looking at moments in history that leave traces or pathways that art funnels through towards our contemporary moment, ie some Hegelian notion of progress and despite his reservations about discussing philosophy he is discussing philosophy.

    I found it to be a rather frustrating discussion, in so much as when Liam broaches difficult topics, such as the use of pronouns that create conditions of ‘universality’ in speech, such as the coercive “we”, he just says ‘it’s difficult’. When asked about 2nd generation feminism, he
    says an awful lot to say it’s a useful methodology. All of it is difficult, and I think what might be useful, and what we were trying to do in a recent open dialogue at Auxiliary Projects was, as Liam puts it, “asking a dumb question that demanded a serious answer.” We (the Jens and I) wanted to examine some of our own ABC assumptions in conversation with others about a field, art, that even its practitioners aren’t quite sure what they are doing. In the interview, Liam basically paraphrases Max Kozloff’s recent statement in the Brooklyn Rail, “Post-religious art counts among those human activities whose practitioners are unable to explain how or why it does any good.”

    I do find it kind of sad that Liam dismisses any discussion of the effects of the market in terms of “Blake Gopnik’s universe”, which is to say Blake has been writing about the absurdities of the market, which for better or worse, is the public face of art. A lecture series at Columbia is for the private face of academia, and will probably take years to have any influence through the few privileged (and well-informed) people able to attend 8 hours of lecture about the nature of bar codes and the simultaneity of production and distribution embodied in a technological development. Nato mentions Bruno Latour’s theory of action network technology, while I’m still processing his essay “Matters of Concern”. Yesterday, artist Steve Lambert tweeted “Artists are comfortable being outside the main stream well past the point it does them any good,” which made me think of the remoteness of Gillick and Nato’s discussion, as interesting as it was to them.

    So, I’m not sure if this is at all helpful, but I find Liam’s reduction of any market analysis, say Andrea Fraser’s excellent essay “L’1%, C’Est Moi?” on price as determinate of the meaning of art, as ‘retarded’ and ‘idiotic’ to not be very helpful at the moment. I’d also like to walk around Mexico City and consider the implications of the architecture in relation to the development of a society too, but I also spent a lot of time considering the succession of abandoned strip malls in Sheboygan that lead to two Walmart stores at each end of the town. That’s a sad inscription of economics onto architecture in the mid-west.

    This past spring, I listened to a former artist’s assistant to an established painter describe how he had lost his job, because the artist had closed the studio and was looking for a way out of this holding pattern too. I think it’s a condition becoming increasingly common among anyone frustrated enough with our contemporary moment to look at history and ask ‘how did we get here?’ I understand Liam’s desire to step back, and take a look at the broader picture, but I don’t think that should exclude market forces from the inquiry. His position reminded me of an another artist’s reference to the monastery and the market dialectic (purity and corruption) and Liam may be retreating too quickly behind the walls of the monastery to study in isolation, well apart from the market and the main stream.

    Nato does wonder if this contemporary moment is dire enough not to retreat, but to do the
    hard, messy ABC work of challenging main stream assumptions about what art is and what it’s worth. I think it is, and that starts with artists talking to artists about not only historical trajectories, but their lived experiences in the market. If we don’t know what it is we are doing, how can we expect anyone else to?

  3. I came to this talk via @Powhida’s twitter feed & discussion, not aware that it was a scheduled discussion between himself and other artists. Listening to Gillick’s talk, I hear some underlying beliefs, beliefs that frustrate me the way that the host reports on his frustration with the question ‘is this art? what makes this art?’.

    I’m going to leave a few ideas about those beliefs here.


    Gillick describes his lecture series as ‘Western European & American artist’s personae as culturally & historically contingent’, as reactions to the stage set by that moment in history. I’m thinking about T.J. Clarke now. Except with Clarke the art objects are the logical consequence of the historical moment. The artists are the people who made the objects.

    Perhaps I have mis-perceived the sketch Gillick provides for what he calls his ‘boring, boring’ lectures. I find it disempowering to define human beings as functions of history. Discussing artists as contingent turns them into reliable products of any given moment. Can we take history as a dance partner, instead of a dictator?

    For all of Gillick’s ‘subjectness’ each artist I’ve hung out with over the years (in my non-NYC-art-world-life of making) has, at any given time, for whatever reason, done their thing, made their choices, whatever. They’ve been as conscious about it as they’ve chosen to become conscious as people. I’m with Marjane Satrapi (author of Persepolis). We have to keep humans at the center, as makers and as audiences.


    Apropos of nothing : I was walking back from a notary public tonight, thinking about this idea-set, when I walked past a cemetery. They’re dead. Am I going to use life strategies the dead used when they were alive? The world has changed. I’m more interested in paying attention to right now, and finding what to create right now.

    This moment became a rather obnoxious series of tweets to Mr. Powhida, the gist of which is, leave the dead in the ground, we’re here now, its up to us.


    Art comes from people. Art answers some need that language fails. The economic thing is secondary ~ economy happens where exchange of goods happens. Period. Because our culture prizes expensive things, expensive art objects get a lot of attention. Is that the goal?

    As artists, what do we expect to happen from our work, financially? That’s a very different question than the questions being dealt with by Mr. Gillick. He opens this talk speaking from a place of creative difficulty, from a stoppage. He’s talking, I think, from a personal place about his process of discovering what kind of art he should be making.


    Ah the unreality of this whole conversation. A poet-friend of mine opened a recent spoken word piece with “I work in a restaurant/I want to burn it down”. There’s something to be said for remaining in touch with the reality of ordinary Americans, whatever that is.

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