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Ephemeral Building Structures: Michelle Lopez at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia
Michelle Lopez & Michael Queenland

Conversation Part 1 via phone:

February 7, 2020 

Michelle Lopez:  Hi Michael. How are you?

Michael Queenland:  I’m actually walking to the 99 Cent store right now. I felt like moving and having this conversation.

ML:  Perfect.  It’s a good way to start.  It seems appropriate in relation to your show Rudy’s Ramp of Remainders [ICA, Los Angeles, 2012].  I was thinking about that show recently and how prescient it was that you did it in 2012 in relation to everything that’s happening now; how you curated found consumer objects and connected things politically.  So it’s perfect you’re going to the 99 Cents store. Are you going for work?  Are you going just to get things?

MQ:  I’m going for work. I want to see if I can get some cheap drawing paper.  

ML:  I love how you’re getting drawing paper at the 99 Cents store.

MQ:  Well, I’m hoping that I can.  I don’t know if they are going to have it. I want 11 by 14-inch paper, just blank white paper. Sometimes they’ll have something similar to construction paper-- I just want to be able to make throwaway drawings. So I thought, let me just walk over there and see if they have something like that while we talk.

ML:  So, how close are you in walking distance to things in LA?

MQ:  Well, you know what?  Believe it or not, I’m pretty close.  I moved back to the Silverlake area.  I’ve been in my place for about 2 years. I didn’t have a car the first year or so.  So I walked everywhere and took the metro.  So, that’s a great thing about this neighborhood; I can pretty much walk to most things I need to.  The 99 Cent store is one of few places that’s been here since I left and came back. My neighborhood’s become super gentrified. I don’t really shop at too many of the shops around here so much.

I was just going to send you this picture that I took on the street. I’ll text. Alright,I just sent it to you.  It  reminds me of the kind of poetics and the materiality of your work. I just noticed it as I was walking. It’s this wire that’s hanging between these two trees - an extension cord, I guess for a string of outside lights but it has this piece of a real branch that’s zip-tied in the middle of this extension cord for some reason, just hanging there.

ML:  Oh my God. I’m looking at it now. That’s pretty awesome.

MQ:  Yeah. It just reminded, coincidentally, of the sort of fusion of nature and industrial object of the sculptural work you made with trees and tree limbs. This industrial-electrical thing with a broken branch supported by these two trees in front of someone’s house.  Anyways I thought that’s a good sign.

ML: It’s nice because there is this weird co-dependence of the two wires, like why is the branch zip-tied to the electrical wire?

So let’s catch up.  I thought we could first talk about what we’ve been up to since we both left teaching at Yale at the same time [Summer 2016]: What you’ve been thinking about in your work, and what I’ve been thinking about in my work in response to this strange political climate.You and I both have to back up because the last we saw each other, you were heading to the American Academy in Rome, and I was going to Philadelphia [having just gotten a new academic post at University of Pennsylvania, Weitzman School of Design, Fine Arts]. And we just need to catch up with what went on in between.  Because, for me, it was my first semester at Penn at the time, and probably for you in Rome.  In the Fall of 2016 Trump won the election. And I remember that moment of going and teaching my seminar and being in the room with my students and crying, and how that affected so much of what I made that year and how I thought differently about my work. What was it like for you when you when you were in Rome?

MQ: Yeah, I went to Rome right before the election. So I found out he had become president while I was in Rome.

ML:  That must have been surreal.

MQ:  It was. My whole experience of that moment, and the first year of his presidency was from afar in Rome.  So, it was a little abstract and a little agonizing. I was on social media seeing friends’ feeds and I could just witness the impact of it for everyone who was there in the States. And so it was ultimately a strange gift to have that distance. But at the same time, it was frustrating because I couldn’t be directly involved in any of  the  protests or conversations because I wasn’t physically there.

ML: Yeah, because there was a sense of outrage and everyone was going to the streets, the Women’s March soon after the election….It was really inspiring for me to go down to Washington DC with my son and be apart of that collectivity.

MQ:  Yeah, I can imagine. I remember when I came back to the United States in 2017, I went to a protest in downtown Los Angeles near the central jail against the migrant internment camps. It’s what I felt like I was missing in Italy. To feel the energy, and bea body among other bodies, and people physically saying no to racism and fascism.

But going back to my experience of being away – it was a gift to be outside of the U.S. at that moment. When you are here, you are so immersed in the propaganda and manufactured culture wars that it becomes your reality, and you may know that it’s bullshit, but you are influenced and affected by it anyways. And that was the thing about being in Rome; why I felt it was good timing and a relevant vantage point.  At the residency where I was, there were people who wanted to voice their protest, and there was a day when the residents at the American Academy in Rome organized a demonstration out front within the gates of the academy.

ML: How was that? Was it satisfying?

MQ:  You know, I don’t know. I don’t know how effective it was. But they did it. I think it came down to the feeling that something needs to be said; that an institution that represents the U.S. in Italy should respond to the moment. We need to be visible. We need to demonstrate how we feel about it. In a way, it felt like protesting on an island. I couldn’t make sense of what it was; it felt good and a lot of us were to be able to participate in the conversation that was happening in the United States.

ML:  It was also an interesting time for you, because you had gone through this period of teaching at Yale and being somewhat isolated in New Haven, compared to NY. And this was an opportunity to really spend full-time thinking about your work again. Do you feel like this constellation of different things changed the way you were thinking about the work, or how you were approaching your work when you were in Rome?

MQ: I went to American Academy in Rome without any plans, except to see the Corpus Christi flower festival in Genzano di Roma and see how the floral carpets were made. I think what happened over that year is that it allowed me time to tap back into a more organic way of working, and opened up a space for things to emerge in a span of time and scale I didn’t have access to before. Not long after I got there, I started collecting things I came across on the street as I was walking on my way somewhere. There was no time pressure to resolve anything. It was very open ended. Just basic curiosity. But that curiosity was also shaped by what it meant to be in Rome, and what Rome represent sin relationship to art, and imperialism. That was always present - the infrastructure of Rome as a proto imperial urban city.

I was born in the United States, but both my parents were immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America. In a lot of ways, I identify with the experiences of colonized peoples, as much as I identify with being an American from the U.S.  

And so, I think what happened for me over that course of the year being there is I was just drawn to things on the ground, which I guess thinking about it now,was a continuation of the Rudy’s Ramp of Remainders work’s relationship to the ground, and things that are made to have a short life span or be consumed and thrown away like packaging, flyers and newspapers.  And actually has continued with a more recent sculpture-- the orientation to the ground as a pictorial space. I think that really was the most surprising and interesting thing that developed. How that sort of shifted from Rudy’s to ultimately the tile mosaic works I made in Rome. This was how I ended up relating to the monumentality and mythic presence of Rome.

ML:  Could you talk a little bit more about that relationship to imperialism?  Because I had a similar experience when I went to the Philippines to visit my family in December of 2017. We went up to the rice terraces [Batad] where it’s one of the few parts of the Philippines where the natives actively resisted colonization. They still maintain a lot of their rituals and refused westernization, even fought violently and won. There’s a refreshing difference, almost a purity there compared to Manila, which is so westernized. And it made me realize that throughout my whole American education, I’ve been brainwashed to think a certain way and I have no idea what it means to be who I am.  Because I just bought into this kind of male-philosophical, white way of thinking. And yet there’s so much more out there and none of that’s been canonized. And so, it did put me into a crisis of: who am I and what do I care about?  And then to consider that my American education is such a sham, and even the things that I’m teaching my students is such a sham, because I’m just teaching what I’ve been taught.

MQ: Yeah – I definitely wrestle with that all the time,especially when teaching.  It’s a complicated thing to work through – the things that work against our own best interests that we internalize and the creative ways we find and inherit to resist a brutality and world view that is not our own. But as far as imperialism goes, I don’t know that I had any sort of singular thing that I took away from it.  I think I just was inherently skeptical of it, just being there, while at the same time, I wasn’t closing myself off to the experience and feeling of the physical and historical scale of that sort of imperialism.  I mean,that’s what you get from Rome, you just feel this physical and temporal scale. And then also…

ML:  Because of the relationship to architecture and the kind of archive of Western classicism that you were surrounded by in Rome?

MQ:  Yeah. And also, the scale of the revisioning of the city through different time periods from the ancient, medieval and modern era. How new avenues were created, or large parts of the city excavated, but mostly how Rome was re-framed from one emperor to the next. Rome is a lot like a collage, it’s this grand put-together thing.  Actually, when I was in Rome, Disneyland made so much sense to me!  You know that was my first relationship to Europe was through Disneyland, especially coming from Los Angeles.  As a kid, we would always go to Disneyland, and when I was in Rome, I was like, oh, wow this is Disneyland, you know?

ML:  Interesting.

MQ: Yeah, it was super interesting. And usually, when I think of Disneyland, I think of consumerism, fantasy, and cultural brainwashing–and when I was in Rome, I was like, wow, this is very similar, a structure that completely understands the power of representation and images, but it’s the original, or, I wouldn’t say it’s the original. There was Egyptian civilization before… But it, you know, when it comes to image making and production, the Romans were really on top of their game in reproducing images of themselves on a massive scale.

I think they reproduced images of emperors and athletes as intensely as we share images on Instagram. That’s probably an exaggeration – but artists would sculpt a bust of an emperor and that bust or statue would be copied and cast in different materials, and that copy would be sent off to far out colonies.  And so, there is this exporting of these images of power from antiquities that’s lasted to this day. A Filipino civilization or an African civilization is a little different, obviously. The Egyptians were very advanced about image making-- creating images that would last for a long time. That’s a very powerful political tool: their image making and reproduction in the world really has ensured that the importance of their culture exists to this day.

So, yeah, I think that’s kind of my impulse to like trash.  I felt this impulse to really support that,but just to kind of look to the ground instead, and to identify with this more,as what’s really happening on the day-to-day. And so, yeah, I think the sort of process that kind of happened over the year, came from history, and my relationship to the history of imperialism. And then obviously, the Catholic churches are still so ever present and dominating as you go around.

Those are some of the things that came up in my work after we taught together.

The work you sent me that’s part of your show at the ICA covers a six-year time span. I wanted to hear about how that came together.

ML: Yeah, the work that I made at ICA, and some of the other work in the show is a mini retrospective of ideas that were circulating when I was working with you at Yale.

It started with the Blue Angels and this doubt of image-making and object-making— “representation” of archetypes that you speak of in Rome. That conversation was in the air always, in teaching, and in my own thinking. My process was also contending with the male-dominated legacy of Minimalism but really connecting it to my experience of this underlying but also quite real sense of violence when the twin towers came down. I think when I was working with you, I was really immersed in this notion of debris and throw-away objects as a result of 9-11. Being in downtown Manhattan when the airplanes hit the towers (a real symbol of American consumerism) so violently, I really felt the moment tore down all those embedded ideologies for me. Even the consumer art world. I had big questions afterwards that led me on a totally different trajectory than I had been on before.

So Blue Angels was really about that collapse not only about capitalism and a certain kind of idealism, but also a collapse in the form quite literally. I was also interested in there presentation of flags as an assertion of nationalistic power, so I was making these really abject kind of SOS flags. But it always felt like a failure on my part that I was continuing to make images. I didn’t want to replicate those images or even really think about forms or bodies, because they were already becoming so throw away in a sense, not as powerful as an image. So in that same impulse that you were having of wanting to go to the ground, I just wanted to really evacuate the sculpture of image and volume and subject in a way. And that’s why I moved towards this idea of the mirrored smoke clouds and also of having that flagpole piece become more about how power is embedded more within the architecture of the hardware of flags, not really in the flag itself. It’s the expression of power through the monolith of a big phallic flagpole, and through sound of the flag flapping that is real propaganda.

And when I installed the flagpole piece, [Halyard]in Istanbul with Mari Spirito at Alt [The first exhibition was at Simon Preston Gallery, NYC, 2014], I was really struck by how many flags were around. And at the same time, the government was smoke-bombing the soccer stadium during a match, and evidence of a real assertion of power was present in ways that didn’t feel safe.  

MQ:  What year was that?

ML:  That was in the spring of 2016.  So, yeah, around election time.  But I still think we were in this moment of thinking that there’s no way Trump could get elected. I even remember distinctly having this conversation with a friend a week before the election about celebrating having a woman as president. We had a sense of progress and evolution that was ultimately delusional.

MQ:  Yeah,it’s funny because I didn’t think Hillary Clinton was going to win when I left the U.S in 2016. It was still a feeling of dread and uncertainty when it wasn’t clear that Trump was going to be elected president of the United States, but it wasn’t completely unexpected. What was, and still is surprising, is the growing disconnect or fragmentation of a common narrative. Of parallel narratives that are valid because there is a large enough consensus for each one. We are of the same generation, a generation that saw the introduction of the internet and social media, but before that, there was more control of a larger shared political narrative that came from the top down. There were your personal beliefs and the official narrative you would see on TV or listen to on the radio and that kept the status quo in charge of the messaging of what was legit and not legit.

ML:  Yeah, we drank the Kool-Aid of a kind of American idealism. I mean, I know the cynicism was always there. But this sense of trust in American democracy….

MQ: …or just kind of taking it for granted. Thinking about your experience of that moment or mine, and expanding out, some people were sure Trump was going to win and other people were convinced Hillary was unbeatable, while others knew it was over when Bernie Sanders didn’t win the nomination in the primaries.  These separate bubbles of reality got reinforced and manipulated, if you think about Cambridge Analytica, so that there were all these parallel realities getting more increased..…Even more intense. From many points of view, this parallel prognosis of the path forward and claim to the truth, or what’s going to happen.

ML:  Yeah. It’s that neo-progressive liberalism. We are all for a progressive kind of way of thinking, but we are still going through American strategies of capitalism.  And so, there’s no way really out of it.  And, yeah, that’s the scary thing: the talk, that the rhetoric is kind of impotent in a way. It’s resigned.

MQ: I’m thinking about you being in Istanbul during that time and how the election of Trump affected your work. In the work made for the ICA show, I think about drawing and abstraction and what you were saying about evacuating an image.

Abstraction can be a resistance to imaging or a feeling that an image isn’t capable of conveying something genuine or accurate; That there’s a skepticism or ambivalence or distress about the image, so abstraction becomes a way to speak to something deeper.

ML:  Yeah, but also, abstraction can be a safety net, or it can feel like this safe accepted space of production at least within this context; i.e. in  relationship to Minimalism, which is so accepted now as an aesthetic.  One can project what you want onto a Minimalist form, and that can be dangerous or depoliticized (which is ironic because Minimalism began as a political stance).  So, I wanted to think about how much could be conveyed through a line and that’s in relationship to drawing and the body:what the artist’s body could do in terms of leaving a residue on the form. For example,crushing the Blue Angels and even manipulating the lead material with the flag piece.

But in this Throne piece, this kind of emaciated throne that was Giacometti-like, it continued the trajectory of a sparseness oran evacuation even of real power. I had done this installation House of Cards along these same lines,where it was this very minimal kind of Arte Povera inspired project:  made out of very thin scaffolding, and twisted metal rope I made in order to support the scaffolding, and it was counter balanced with paracord and rubble.

I wanted to bring in my thinking about infrastructure in relationship to drawing.How much could I talk about this sense of collapse, that I think we were all feeling by having everything be so tenuously balanced. Also in relationship to all the other elements, there are also these pieces of long pulled glass that were also a continuation of the lines but also these invisible translucent figures.

So yeah, somehow I was thinking about activating this kind of relationship to the body but activating that space around the body and around these forms.  Did you ever see that video I made Invisible Object because you were kind of the inspiration for that?  Did I ever tell you about that piece?  

 MQ:  I never saw the final video.  I remember an overhead shot of Virginia Montgomery describing something with her hands and arms, right?

ML:  Yeah. 

MQ: I think, you showed me some of the unedited footage, but I never saw the finished work. 

ML:  It was inspired by when you and I were taking a hike in the summer of 2015 in Sleeping Giant Park. And you were starting to collect objects via eBay. You were describing objects to me, and it was one of those hikes where I was hyper listening, not looking at you, but walking methodically in front of you and listening, which is kind of the beauty of going on a hike.

You were describing these objects so vividly, without understanding what it was. You were buying things intuitively, like “I have no idea what this is, but I bought it” [laughter from Queenland]. And in a way, what I thought was so beautiful about it is that you were drawing the object through language. And so, I wanted to see how through this process, almost psychoanalytically describing objects, in a non-cultural way, you could evoke them and have them appear in front of you.  By talking and gesticulating, you can build them with language and the body. And so, it was the same way thinking about the Ballast & Barricades [ICA] piece after doing the House of Cards piece [Simon Preston Gallery, NY, 2018] of the body being present via the viewer but also invisible in terms of an image.

The thing that frustrated me about House of Cards was I was so excited about this show. And yet because it was so spare and subtle, and you had to experience it with your body, you couldn’t Instagram it.  So no one saw it in person, or less and less people see things in person in general.  I was afraid that people were reading it in images as: this is just abstract formalism! And I didn’t think it was, because there was rubble and other political forms, which for me were connected to a kind of a thrown rock in a protest or uprising.I tried to position things together that there were causal effects of collapse,that was beyond what I would call a polite form of formalism. But ultimately it was about the body experiencing it in space, which can’t be replicated remotely.

And so, I think with this Ballast & Barricades piece at ICA when Alex Klein, the curator said: “ Make this a project that you could do nowhere else.” And so, I really tried to take advantage of the 30-foot high ceilings and really have the scaffolding be scaffolding and creep up the walls. But what I think was important was that within each line that there was a signification of a flagpole, a barricade. Here is a broken house, a fraction of a ladder, scaffolding. I wanted to move away from abstraction, kind of straddling the line between abstraction and more of what seems important to me:this current political collapse.  I wanted there to be these political or architectural registers of building and also temporary construction spaces that we see everywhere in terms of this kind of ever evolving, or what we think is an ever evolving, constantly improving city.  But wait, is it being improved?  We see so many of our cities being destroyed because of gentrification. There’s this sense of loss that I’m constantly feeling of what does progress really mean?

And so, it’s in relationship to this kind of global westernization; “Western” in the way that a third world country like the Philippines was being destroyed by commerce and consumption. Everything in the rice terraces is sustainable and reveres and responds to the earth, and is extremely opposite of the Western model.  I think I was trying to map out this kind of ephemeral building structure that denotes progress, and also have it be on the verge of collapse.  And that’s why I wanted to have this fragment of the building because it was acting as the piece of rubble, the big fragment of a history that was acting as the counterweight for the whole thing collapsing.

MQ: Yeah.  So, that fragment of the building is kind of like a fulcrum...

ML:  Right,that it was suspending this kind of floating scaffolding. The house fragment is the “ballast.”

MQ:  It was interesting, looking at the images and imagining the experience of being there. It took me a while, zooming in on the images to understand that the entire environment and structure is all physically connected and had to have been made there in the space. I was imagining what it felt like to encounter the scale of the work and walking around, and underneath all of that counter weighted metal. In the pictures of the work, the space is flattened and the lines of the metal scaffolding become more formal and abstracted against the backdrop of the whitewalls like a drawing. At the same time, the elements are recognizable as scaffolding and materials used in construction and managing crowds. Your initial impression of the impossible physicality of the structure merges with  associations of the infrastructure of the city, which is, like you said, destroying something, and constructing something else at the same time. Like there’s this invisible activity that’s happening all the time. And those economic, political and social forces that are fueling that activity in the background.

I got a sense of that in looking at the documentation.  And then there’s an image of a person standing in the middle of the installation underneath everything - I zoomed in and saw that it was you.

ML:  I know, that was a mistake!  I mean in the sense that the photographer just took it while I was walking around. We didn’t plan for me to be there.

MQ:  Yeah,but, you know, I think seeing your body in this work that you made, does feel kind of profound. It’s hard to articulate. I love that moment of seeing your body in the space, and you kind of considering the work as if you hadn’t seen it before.  Maybe in a similar way to that hike we had through Sleeping Giant State Park, where we are walking through this terrain and we can’t see the area that we are covering because we are immersed in it.

And then from that walk, that leading you to this observation of drawing in space --drawing through language and physical gesture…

ML: Yes, I think it also just came from also thinking about sculpture as performative, and some of it was through just working with Martin [Kersels, Sculpture Chair at Yale School of Art]. I mean things had always been performative for me on some level, but just seeing it so clearly that that this way of moving, for me, had to be beyond my body.  And it wasn’t even a scale issue.  It was more of just the psychological state of mind. If the work was so big, I could forget myself in a sense.  And I feel that that was the gift of this project was that it was beyond me, and so we (my assistants and I) were just performing in a way and not thinking, doing it in relationship to the space even though I had worked on models and really had done a lot a lot of drawing and mapping things out.  But most of the installation was just intuitively responding to the space. We were installing in the gallery space for three weeks. We were welding on scissor lifts. We were trying to have things be delicately balanced, but also be really threatening at the same time.

And it is hard to see that in photographs. Every time people come to the space, they say how you can’t see this a tall in photos. I installed the work spatially with my body and that’s really how others have to experience it: walking through it and experiencing it with their body. Aruna D’Souza who wrote the catalogue essay, said, ok I get it now,when she walked through the show. I think that’s also just the hard thing about making sculpture now… that it’s such a particular language, I don’t think it’s as important anymore.

MQ: Yeah, when you were describing your experience after making House of Cards, and then thinking about this work (Ballast & Barricades), it feels like a kind of physical relationship that we have to signification, connection and meaning is just clearly going, you know? An appreciation and  importance of a physical sensual experience.

Or ,maybe we are onto other things - other kinds of space, the fusion of social and physical space that happens in virtual space?

ML: We think we understand the world through our screen. And I think it’s a narrative strategy that I’ve noticed in teaching grad students: the voice-over narrative is really supreme right now. I’m always trying to encourage idiosyncratic structuring but somehow my students thinking in that way anymore. They’re thinking about a linear explanation.Or it feels explanatory rather than asking questions.

I always get that sense when I look at your work, especially the tile work that I’m not seeing it properly whenever I look at it through photographs.

MQ: Yeah, maybe that’s because, similarly, there’s a physical aspect that the work requires to understand it. The physical and the temporal entry point to the work isn’t fixed like the narrative structures you were talking about, except for where you first physically enter the space. There isn’t an obvious beginning and ending point in the work. It’s meant to be walked around and encountered from multiple points. I think that came from how it was made.

The images of cigarette packages, playing cards, or shopping lists that are printed on the tiles were all things that I picked up from the streets in Rome for a period of one year as I was walking on my way to somewhere. At some point, I started to scan these things – the front and back. By the end of that year, I had about 2000 plus scans of dropped or thrown away things. I was also printing the scans of things on one to one scale.

I remember just putting them on the ground as I printed them out.  I never thought to put them on the wall because to me that orientation to pictorial space automatically creates a hierarchical relationship to an image. That kind of orientation makes an image singular and important in a way that things in the world aren’t. The guts of the work is the encounter that reveals the mysterious relationship between intention or choice and chance or fate. Organizing each tile image into thematic groups in a panel makes it clear that there is some intention and deliberation on my part, but the orientation to the ground let’s someone approach the images and panels from 360 degrees in the space so that it is closer to the experience of walking down a street,looking down, and encountering something.  

Similar to your piece, understanding comes through exploration and moving in time and space.

ML:  Right. So,when you make an installation of these scans, there is less cognitive dissonance, because in a way, with the same scale, it reproduces that similar feeling that there’s something magical when you find something on the street. I think about it in terms of time too, as we are walking encountering the discovery. Do you space the trash as a singular thing at a time with a kind of randomness? Within the installation do you think about it in terms of a tiled space?  Or do you think about it as these individual tiles?

MQ: Yeah, when I was thinking about the ideal setting for the work, it would be outside and more architectural than individual,but the individual things are important.

The experience of finding the things was definitely very individual, especially where and when I came across them. I hope that that translates in looking at them--  a mosaic of specific and singular moments.But the conception of it was more architectural because of how that would fuse with the infrastructure Rome. I wanted it to be installed in an outdoor public space, or, a church; somewhere where people would walk over it, drop their trash on it, or notice something different each time they looked at it. In the end that wasn’t possible, so I showed the work in Los Angeles in a gallery space that used to be a bank. The floors were a checkered terrazzo pattern,which serendipitously related to the geometric patterns of the tile mosaic panels that sat on top of the floor.

I had just moved back to Los Angeles and was thinking about how these objects would translate from Rome to Los Angeles. I was curious how trash from Rome would read from trash in LA. Would it  seem fetishized, or would it ultimately be the same? Then there was also the question of translation-- will it be misunderstood? I’m always interested in the space of mistranslation.  

ML:  Yeah, there’s also this sense of global cultural debris. It’s beyond cultural identity, that we own a specific country’s identity.

MQ:  Yes. I was interested in the material presence of global capitalism, and how it creates mono culture from one urban space to another. A kind of visual literacy where you would see something familiar but realize it was in a different language. I mean, in a lot of ways, the work is thinking about the visual terrain of an urban experience, from a proto urban center like Rome.  Crumpled cigarette packs on the street are ubiquitous all around the world, as are flyers and lighters, but there are some objects that are specific to certain cities. When I came back to LA, I started picking up discarded plastic prescription bottles that people tossed after they took out the weed they bought from a marijuana dispensary.

ML:  But yeah,the familiarity of that kind of debris.  When I moved to Philadelphia, I was really struck by how much trash there is, and I’m constantly cleaning it up.  But I like seeing the catalog of things, for example a champagne wire cork, because it’s a history of things.  It’s an archive of living but it’s also depressing culturally because it flattens meaning since it’s so mundane; it unifies this experience of living, but then it also makes it so poignant. I think it has to do with the recognition that someone with a biography and a need held this wrapper and lottery ticket. When I’m picking up trash in front of my house, I’m thinking who held this? What’s the story? And maybe there’s none at all. And maybe that’s the tragedy.

So much of the rubble from House of Cards and Ballast & Barricades was also taken from the streets of Philadelphia-- a lot of houses or roads being torn down or dug up. And a part of taking the rubble for me was feeling that this was someone’s history or someone’s infrastructure and wanting that realness in the work. The house fragment is that too. There’s a flattening that’s happening there as well…

[Sound of sirens] You have a lot of activity over there Michael.

MQ:  Yeah, I’m on Sunset.

ML: Cool, is it sunny there?

MQ:  It is sunny here. Yeah, I was going to send you this picture, but I was like…

ML:  No, send it to me.  Send it to me.  I love Sunset Boulevard.

MQ:  Yeah, I was going to send a picture the other day to you the other day from Griffith Park.  I’ve been hiking through there pretty often. Yeah, I just wanted to send you some California. 

ML:  Oh,please, that would be great. I love LA!

MQ:  You should come visit. I mean, it’s been raining.

ML:  It will probably be raining when I come.  But,yeah, I’ve been doing a lot of exercise too because I’ve been going through this midlife crisis! And it just feels good to be back in my body, and in nature and breathing, and feeling really connected that way.

MQ:  Yeah,I’ve also been starting to exercise, dedicating a time in my day where I do this hike and it actually feels related to things that I’ve been thinking about in my work.

ML:  In terms of walking as a form of a studio practice? Like Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust?

MQ: Yeah. Actually, that’s funny. I don’t make the connections myself. Yeah,the thing that I have been thinking about in relationship to walking, or the thing I’m struggling with… I don’t know if struggling is the right word, but that I’m trying to make a connection in my work, this moving through space, and the perspective of an overview where you are looking down at a terrain that you moved through. The tile panel mosaics are similar in orientation to looking down to this sort of overview. From higher up, you’re more able to discern patterns that you weren’t able to discern in the middle of a terrain. Pattern recognition, whether it’s a visual pattern recognition or a psychological pattern or spiritual pattern recognition; this is a re-occurring structure in my work the last several years. Rudy’s Ramp of Remainders was more social pattern recognition, like really trying to identify this invisible social propagandistic pattern. And then this rug piece that I did last year…

ML:  Yeah,tell me more about. I was looking at those images.

MQ:  That came from Rudy’s Ramp of Remainders and an assemblage where an Afghan prayer rug and a bag of cereal came together as a sculpture. I wanted to focus on this moment more visually for a public artwork and so it was translated into the rug being cast in aluminum and painted.  

ML:  It’s beautiful.

MQ: The pattern is based on a Chobi styled rug from the Afghan-Pakistan region. It’s a style of rug made for the western market, where they basically are making modernist interpretations of traditional Afghan style rugs. That meeting of East and West in a region that has been an area of ambiguity when it comes to the power dynamics of the US occupation.

ML:  It’s another ground, right?

MQ:  Yes, it’s another ground and this this particular rug pattern looks to me like an aerial view of an occupied space or remnant of some kind of city, or even a military base. And occupying the space of the pattern are these cast and magnetized cereal pieces. I wanted there to be this invisible force that was creating this abstract form connecting each cereal to each other, and much taller…

I wanted there to be this interaction with the pattern on the rug that would seem maybe unintentional, like a kid playing with cereal on the rug. The sculpture was outside in the Exposition Park Rose Garden. When I moved back to Los Angeles, I really got into gardening and growing my own food. At some point, I started to learn more about plants native to California and how the indigenous peoples of this area, like the Tongva, Chumash and Kumeyaay used and related to them. I made a new garden bed in the rose garden planted with native plants like sages, monardellas California buckwheats.

ML:  It’s so interesting because the foundation of a ground (the rug) with another cultural ground (the rose garden), and then another ground of human activity with the (Cheerios)but they’re all in relationship to evidence of human production. What the real intervention here though is this idea of having indigenous plants in a rose garden; it’s really beautiful.  It’s re-historicizing or a taking back, because English rose gardens are so specific;they are so groomed and manicured, projected onto a landscape.

Conversation Part 2 in person:

Griffith Park, Los Angeles,California, March 9, 2020:

MQ: How are you feeling about this show now that it’s been up?  How long has it been up now?

ML: It opened in September, so it’s been a while.I’d love for it to travel so I could do it again in a different configuration but, I feel like it’s never enough. I think that’s the point of being an artist. You just always want to do more with it. I got an email today about de-installing and I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do with all that stuff.

MQ: Get rid of it. I’m still working through the Rudy’s Ramp Remainders work…

I had a similar ambition that the work would travel and be this evolving present thing, and in some ways it has, but not on the scale of the first iteration. In the end, you’re going to have to store and manage it. 

ML: Have you ever re-configured or done things with it? Speaking of storage….

MQ: I have. Different parts of the installation have been shown, but because it was such a large work, it’s never been shown again in its entirety.

I’m thinking about the scale of Ballast & Barricades. One way you understand what the work is doing is by experiencing it physically, by moving through and underneath it, and not being so focused on where the work begins and ends.

Itis different from the blue wing sculptures, which are physical in a different kind of way, shaped by bending them with your legs and your body.

ML: Yeah that’s pretty autonomous, those [Blue Angels] pieces, whereas this one [Ballast & Barricades] is so dependent on space.  I would love for more people to see it because every time I walk into the installation, I think,“oh right, this is what this piece is about,” because like I said earlier, you can only understand the work experientially by being physically in the space.

MQ: Yeah, I feel like you can wrestle with a kind of work created for a specific time and place – or even not created for a specific space, but one that has become associated with a time or place. What is the life of the work after? I think a lot about this with Rudy’s - like I should just let it go.

ML: How would you let it go? Just put it in the dumpster?

MQ: Yeah. But, it’s strange. I’m working on a catalogue of the Rudy’s work right now, and it’s been a form of investigation that is still fundamental to the things I think about; the things that I’m concerned about artistically, socially, politically,philosophically, spiritually. But because of the scale and materiality of it, it also has become about management of it.

It feels like what it means to make sculpture and experiences that articulate a specific physical experience has changed since so much of art has become experienced online or at art fairs.

ML: It’s less about the experience, right?

MQ: Yes. It’s less about experiencing a specific speculative physical experience, and more about how a physical experience or object translates through a camera lens and an image.

ML: Yeah I think some of it is I always think about the word “encounter.”  As artists, we are trying to create this “encounter” that you can’t have on Instagram at all.

MQ: What does the encounter do?

ML: I think it’s in relationship to the viewer,where you’re having an experience that’s in relationship to meaning, where possibly that physical experience of what you’re seeing is coalescing together to create this kind of understanding of how you are in relationship to it int he space. It’s a little like listening to live performance perhaps. I think the problem is that you can’t really articulate that meaning in language. I’m not trying to be a cop out; it leads back to this confusion about Formalism. I don’t think people are being trained to use those muscles to build on the spoken/written language of forms and the kind of intelligence they can communicate. I really want the conceptual and the formal to find each other.I’m trying to use those muscles to build on that language.  

MQ: But people are having encounters everyday out in world.

ML: True, physically or just virtually?

MQ: Both. Thinking about Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle and how he was recognizing in the 60s an experience of the world more and more mediated through images. Now physical experiences are enhanced and shaped by virtual encounters. Whether you’re driving through city and following your GPS. My experience of LA is completely different now than when there was no GPS.

ML: I was thinking about those big fat LA map books recently as I was driving here in LA because we got around somehow without GPS.

MQ: Yeah there was the Thomas Guide.

ML: Right the Thomas Guide! You know what’s interesting about the whole virtual thing? I can’t map things quite like I used to. I actually don’t know where I am.  I used to have a better sense of where I was when I had to map it out. Now I’m willing to follow direction and be more complacent. Like a robot.

MQ: Because you would realize that you had to understand what the surrounding areas were… What was basically east or west, or you’d never get anywhere. Now you don’t need to know . the GPS will tell you where to go.

ML: It’s interesting because this Ballast & Barricades project was done so physically. Unconsciously I made this teetering, hovering scaffolding in the tall ICA space, that felt so separate from my other work, but after I looked at it I could see links to this tornado project, my other work that I’ve been researching and working on for a few years, which has to do with re-imagining our virtual space.

I’ve always asked my students if you could make a project about the internet what would that look like in sculpture?  And I realized that’s the thing I’ve been working on for this planetarium project,where it is about that kind of who’s controlling who?  or how do we control our destiny? Can we control our destiny through social media? We think we can.

I’ve been working on this installation for a planetarium context. It’s called the Joplin project and examines natural disaster in relation to technology. It stemmed from my work with the mirrored Smoke Clouds and how they were this ephemeral mass in the aftermath of an explosion but also these phantoms that appeared and disappeared. And it led me to looking at different cloud formations (information clouds of our own making, tornado clouds from epic natural disasters) to assemble contemporary violence in the forms of invisible constellations.

For example: I’ve been interested in capturing that moment of lights of individual cell phones illuminating a stadium at a rock-concert, as stars. Or the Joplin tornado that wiped out amid-western town in less than half- an-hour, with debris spinning in the air through the viewpoint of the eye-of-the storm. Or DDOS hack attacks from bots that attack individual personal computers cross-globally and silently that also forms another cloud of nothingness, where all of our information has been removed.This is the silent warfare we’re dealing with now.

So I’ve been thinking about how to build this atmosphere of different cloud experiences circling within the planetarium and the viewer will be at the center within the eye of the storm. I wanted again to create this feeling of overwhelm, the kind of mass destruction that we are seeing environmentally but also psychologically. There’s a lot of “stuff” and information that we have and are mis-managing.

I’m curious about the word “management” that you were mentioning in relation to catalogue-ing. What did you mean by that?

MQ: I mean the maintenance and life of work before and after it’s been shown, which in a lot of ways is an extension of the work itself. For Rudy’s, I was interested in that management of the inventory of things.

ML: Yeah, because it was an index.

MQ: Yeah…because it was about sourcing things and then re-contextualizing those things sculpturally. But at the end of the day,it was just me. I didn’t have employees.I was interested in the kind of space and process of an Amazon Fulfillment warehouse managing and a seemingly infinite quantity of things.

ML: You could just have a website of Rudy’s Ramps Remainders as an archive or collection.

MQ: Yeah, that totally make sense to me.  Maybe Rudy’s becomes de-materialize at some point.? I mean, it feels almost more ridiculous now.

ML: Because the art world is so different you mean?

MQ: Yeah, objects or physical static things don’t hold the attention anymore in the way that they did just in the last century.We live in an age of animation: video games, AI, smart phones – we’re able to interact with moving things constantly.

I think that’s why performance, video, and film are so dominant now, because our attention is more geared towards things that are moving, or in a motion. So yeah, it feels almost   antiquated, or not enough.  I mean for the artist it is enough, and for some people who see it is enough.

In the last class I taught at Yale in the sculpture department, I based it around this schematic of words that I was thinking about in my work-- the ideas around the words-- vehicle, time, image, invisibility.

And so when you were talking about “encounter.” I was curious to hear how you relate to or create an encounter in your work. I’m also interested in encounters–the moment before understanding or meaning kick-in. That’s always something I’m thinking about; The encounter out there in the world.

And to me the encounter is also about a recognition of reality or realities. One of the things I was looking into was this philosophical theory called Critical Realism.  It’s a philosophy about the nature of reality. It’s stratified into these different layers or experiences of reality: the real, the actual and the empirical. The all-encompassing layer is the “real.” The idea is that there are unobservable events which cause observable ones, for example,gravity. The real generates actual events that we can perceive, like something falling and hitting the floor. I’m interested in trying to recreate something like this: a rift where all of a sudden you become aware of the real – the mechanism or thing holding everything together.

ML:  That sounds like sculpture to me. [Laughter]

Who wrote the nature of reality or the theory of the nature of reality?

MQ: There’s a lot of different philosophers who write about it or theorize about it, but the one I’m thinking about is Roy Bhaskar.

Heal so incorporates this notion of spirituality but it’s a more contemporary philosophy.

For example, he talks about a notion of alienation as a result of relating to just one layer of reality. It seems kind of similar to the Buddhist idea that we are alienated because we believe we are separate from the things we perceive and it causes us to suffer.

Anyways,that’s why it’s so tenuous and strange to not just make and manage physical things but also managing virtual spaces

ML: Yeah, it doesn’t have to be one thing or an other, right?

MQ: Yes it’s all coexisting…

ML: Yeah, I can’t think about sculpture with a capital S because it’s dead already.

MQ: I mean in a way your installation was about dismantling…because it’s immersive we walk into it.

ML:  Yes, in many ways it was about directing experience. The Critical Realism you mentioned made me think of the microphone you had by your bedside. Do you still have that?

MQ: Yeah.  That was on my phone… I wake up and speak into my phone and record…

ML:  But the microphone was just to record you sleeping? Snoring or what?

MQ:  Snoring,turning in my bed. [Laughter]

ML:  Yeah, Ithink some of it is this idea of capturing things that you can’t see or things that you can’t know. I think that’s what you were talking about in terms of gravity… You know it exists. It governs things. It governs how we move.

MQ:  Yeah, and I feel like that exists in so many ways. That’s an aspect of sculpture that I’ve always been interested in: being drawn to objects, that have a purpose. It feels like there’s this energy of experience that brings some unsaid understanding or feeling for something. It seems like this time that we’re living in has made the invisible more physical… and that the invisible has become more instrumentalized. Like with cellular technology and Wi-Fi-- there is an invisible infrastructure that we all are tapping into and manipulating, and that’s manipulating us and helping us to navigate physical space.

ML:  Is it helping us navigate? I guess so?  It’s in relation to the GPS.

MQ:  Yeah, GPSor where to eat…

ML:  Right,right. Who to date

MQ:  Yeah, who to date!  Where to socialize...

ML:  But none of it is real, right?

MQ:  Nothing is real. Think about the current relationship to the invisible we have – it is instrumentalized and commodified. In the past, religion was a space for the invisible…

ML:  But how is that commodified now?

MQ: It’s commodified through data collection. Who you know, where you go, what your search history is. Those social relationships or interests were once private and invisible. …

ML:  The things that you buy.

MQ:  Yeah,what you buy. Do you remember that whole thing where it was discovered that Cambridge Analytica was getting information through Facebook users from an online survey, and was basically able to analytically create a psychological profile of thousands of people that would supposedly know people’s psychological motivations better than they did themselves.

A friend of mine once said about my work that it was trying to re-enchant the world,which is getting back to this idea of the encounter vs. a commodification of the invisible.

ML:  I’m wondering if the invisible can be commodified, that’s why I asked that question.

MQ:  Yeah, itis commodified.

ML:  Really?

MQ:  Well, Ithink I know what you mean.

ML:  What we think is invisible actually isn’t what is invisible in the encounter because if that could be commodified we could be a lot richer maybe. [Laughter]  

Ithink that re-enchantment in relationship to the encounter: to create this parenthetical space that tries to reposition things differently, maybe magically.

MQ:  I guess,what I was wondering about is this relationship to the unseen and how that’s instrumentalized in different ways: from art’s attempt to re-enchant the world to cellular technology or social media that connects you to people while at the same time commodifying your relationships - basically two different ways of relating to the unseen. Like the experience you created in Ballast & Barricades, it’s not something that’s asking for anything.It’s a gesture that invites an encounter with ‘the real’ – like thinking about invisible mechanisms and imminent collapse.

When I think of collapse, I think of what we’re going through right now with there percussions of the coronavirus pandemic and the fear that it could potentially crash the world’s economy. There’s been this sense of imminent collapse since 2000 and the Y2K hysteria. In the book The Fourth Turning, it describes a pattern where societies or civilizations go through four cycles every 100 years, and the fourth part of that cycle is crisis cycle where institutions and values a society relied on to grow and sustain itself, are more and more distrusted and eventually torn down.What comes along with this is a period of chaos and potential catastrophe.Eventually a consensus around new ideas develop and the cycle starts over with a period of growth and new ways of living and governing.  In your work there is this impression of imminent collapse of the infrastructure. Since the 60’s, it seems like there has been this impulse to tear down or dismantle a larger invisible structure.

ML:  That’s true. Yeah, now hopefully we’re tearing things down.

MQ:  From Y2k to the end of a Mayan calendar cycle in 2012, there’s been this anticipation for an end or collapse…

ML:  Yeah, which could be a good thing. I’ve been doing research with Google’s Security Division, Jigsaw, for this tornado cloud project. Jigsaw helps small companies online to prevent their information from being hacked by cyberthief bots. When these bots attack globally, Jigsaw engineers say that the most haunting thing about the attack is the numbing silence in the removal of information. The bots are preventing us from accessing any information at all. I thought that was really beautiful to think about violence on those terms: this kind of invisible nothing that happens as a result of things being shut down. What would you do if you couldn’t access anything could be kind of be liberating? Right?  It would be terrifying but also so liberating with all of that stuff gone. Maybe it’s happening now with the corona virus. It’s like that thing that you’re talking about management; the management is just so overwhelming, that if it just all went away, then maybe we could begin again.

MQ: I think for a large population of humans on the planet in the underclasses that is already the case.

ML:  Yeah,we’re basically enslaved by… productivity, all that productivity.  

MQ: Yeah.  You can see it in the stock market right now. It’s freaking out because the world’s economy is based on debt. It’s not based on producing, anything tangible. What happens when people aren’t buying stuff in this kind of economy?

Conversation Part 3 via email:

April 2020

ML: I wanted to lastly wrap up our conversation in relation to the COVID crisis. The quarantine has reduced our activities and has actually amplified some of the disembodied and invisible powers that we were speaking of earlier. Our relationship to the world through the screen has become that more present. The collapse is happening. How are you thinking differently about art or your art?How have you adjusted future production on your work?

MQ: In some ways, things haven’t changed too much. I’ve worked mostly from home for the last few years now. On the other hand, there were things I was working on--plans and conversations that have been put on hold indefinitely. The logistics of making work, especially sculpture, space wise, and financially, were already challenging in a continually gentrifying city. I’m not sure yet what the effect of this will be on what I make or the time frame of making and working. I’ve been growing plants from seeds and drawing more lately. I’m growing a California native berry plant, a golden currant, to plant outside. I’ve been growing native plants and planting them where I live. It somehow feels like an investment in the future. I’m hoping that this is a reset to the mentality of continual expansion. 

What about you?

ML: You mentioned earlier wanting to be a body among bodies. And now I am missing that now more than ever with a lot of my time spent on Zoom. Will performances and the encounter be entirely changed or non-existent with this new way of life?

But then the other part of me feels this hopeful resignation. Because yes I agree; we’ve been moving in this direction all along and I’ve been having my suspicions about making and collecting as we discussed. COVID just accelerated the collapse and may force us to reconsider everything. All my installation projects are on hold as well, but the Joplin project I’m still working on it and will change in relation to COVID, but it feels oddly still relevant.

Although before I was about to do a 360-degree film shoot of a concert stadium with everyone’s cell phone capturing the event and this will be impossible. But it was really meant to amplify this sense of isolation via screen and simultaneous illusion of connectedness and so I am figuring other ways of doing it without bodies, possibly creating an animation like the other images in the storm.

The other aspect of the project was this development of a robot that is at the center of the storm, and it holds the technology, the projectors and sound (speakers) of the swirling image above. And it’s essentially a platform that rotates 360; I’ve been working with these Penn engineers to move it more nuanced like a body. I wanted it to move with this ambivalence of not knowing if it is controlling the image or being controlled by the image (of the different clouds swirling above).

So in that sense it feels weird to be working on it because it has been in development for a few years (for so long!!), but I also feel more motivated to finish it because COVID is so invisible and it makes sense to make it more present, its threat, in this work as well. We are all robots right now… and me too I’m planting a garden.

conversation on Mousse website