Geoffrey Farmer Discusses His Documenta Hit

Installation view at Neue Galerie, Kassel.
Geoffrey Farmer, Leaves of Grass, 2012. Installation view at Neue Galerie, Kassel. Courtesy the artist and Catriona Jeffries. Commissioned and co-produced by dOCUMENTA (13) / photo Anders Sune Berg

Neue Galerie, Kassel June 9 to September 16, 2012
By Rosemary Heather

Geoffrey Farmer’s Leaves of Grass is one of the big hits of dOCUMENTA (13). Toronto critic Rosemary Heather caught up with the Vancouver artist by email to ask about the inspirations, processes and resonances behind the astonishing work—which, as Farmer noted, ended up surprising even himself.

Rosemary Heather: There’s quite a story behind the making of Leaves of Grass. The work features a great number of figures cut out from the pages of Life magazine that have been mounted on dried-grass sticks. Someone told me there were 30,000 figures, but you have amended that, saying it’s closer to 16,000, which is still a huge number. Can you tell me a bit of the backstory here?

Geoffrey Farmer: The collection of Life magazines came from the Morris/Trasov Archive. They (Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov) knew that I had been working with image collections, and about three years ago they asked if I might be interested in it. There were approximately 900 magazines in the collection, spanning five decades, from 1935 to 1985. In the beginning, Life was a weekly; in 1978, it became a monthly. So we had a lot of magazines from the 30s, 40s and 50s. We had fragments—a few pages—from 1935, and then complete copies after that. This includes the first issue that had Time co-founder Henry Luce as publisher; he bought it in 1936 and changed it to a photojournalistic format. The last issue we had, from 1985, was on AIDS.

In Kassel, the work is displayed on the second floor of the Neue Galerie in the loggia, which is a long, sculptural corridor with huge arched windows overlooking the park. The view brought to mind the miniaturization of the world. I was already thinking about how photography has a tendency to make sculpture, and I liked this in relationship with the loggia. The piece is in chronological order and is displayed on a 124-foot table, which is viewable from both sides. There are 16,000 figures, and each figure has two sides. Although the image arrangements may appear chaotic, I took great care in their placement.

During my studio visit with dOCUMENTA (13)’s curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, we talked about Paul Klee’s drawing Angelus Novus and Walter Benjamin’s essay “On The Concept of History.” I showed her a film made in 1961 by Arthur Lipsett, Very Nice Very Nice. In it, he uses images from Life, as well as found film footage and sound clips, all montaged together. It contained a quality I wanted to find for the piece. I mentioned to Carolyn that he committed suicide a few weeks before his birthday in 1986. She was curious as to what was happening in the world around the date of his death. So we were looking at timelines, and I began to think about chronology as a composition.

It was a gruelling project, but I wanted to be transformed by the experience. In the last few months, we had about 90 volunteers helping us. We had quotas to keep. We worked in shifts. There was a small group of us who, in the end, I think, were working 20-hour days. I was amazed at the generosity of everyone working on the piece. It was a communal experience. A lot of conversation happens when you are sitting together working around a table. If someone didn’t agree with the image selection or strongly felt an image should be included, they would hold the image up for a vote. We had meals together, a fantastic cook and friend came in to make lunches and dinners. I wasn’t expecting the piece to grow in the way that it did.

There is another story, though, that I want to mention because I think it relates in a broader sense.

When I was very young, my teacher asked us each to bring a leaf to class. She then got us to place the leaf on a piece of paper. Above the paper was a metal screen stretched over a wooden frame. She lowered the frame, and then she gave us a toothbrush dipped in gouache paint to rub on the screen. When I rubbed the toothbrush over the screen, it sent out a fine spray of paint over the leaf and the paper. Then she lifted the screen, and then lifted the leaf off of the paper. Even though she was holding the leaf in her hand, it still appeared on the paper. This deeply shocked me.

When I first saw William Fox Talbot’s early leaf-photo experiments, I recognized them as being linked to this early experience. When I read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, I also had this recognition. Absence existing simultaneously within presence.

RH: Your anecdote brings to mind a certain uncanny quality the work has. When the figures are cut out from the magazine and brought together again in the amalgamated form, the first thing you notice is the discrepancy in scale between them. This suggests their lost context (the scale that naturalizes each figure within its photo) and makes apparent the essential strangeness of the photographic format, which you evoke in your answer above. So is the work just an expression of a relationship you have always had with photographs, or is something else going on?

GF: I think there are many things that are going on in this piece and I hope people get a sense of that. In one of the last issues of Life, I found a small image of Susan Sontag’s book On Photography. It is about one centimetre by one centimetre. It appears at the very end of the piece, next to a tiny Lady Diana. I think, in some ways, the piece is dedicated to Sontag and to her writing. Not to say there is a warning there, but perhaps there is.

RH: So ideas about the work proliferate in the same way the figures seem to…this suggests why knowing their exact number is not important. There are enough of them to push the mind into the territory of something not previously experienced. Was this a goal you had in mind? Or did you set out to do one thing and in the end discover you had accomplished something else?

GF: I am not really conceptual. I don’t think up a concept and then execute it. I learn through discovery and from direct contact with the material I am using. Even though the work might emanate out of an idea or interest and may have a horizon, I don’t really know exactly what I am doing.

For example, the title partially came from the fact that I was using grass, in a literal way, to mount the images onto, but also because I was looking at Walt Whitman’s use of writing cut-ups to make the poems for his book Leaves of Grass. He spoke about wanting to write a modern portrait of the United States, and I thought that the piece could be looked at as a kind of portrait. I also liked that the first Documenta was in 1955 as part of a horticultural show, and that it occurred on the 100-year anniversary of the publishing of Leaves of Grass. There was a special article in Life on Whitman in 1955, with pictures of his grave that are now in the piece. I also liked that the term “leaves” can refer to the pages of a book and to grass—to something without much value. I thought this related to the form of a magazine.

I didn’t really consider what the effect of looking at so many images would have on me. At certain points in the project, I had a hard time sleeping. When I closed my eyes all I could see were images. I was going through 30 magazines every morning to make selections. And then we would see them again for cutting, again for the gluing, again for the sorting and then again for arranging.

I knew from the beginning that it was important the figures be placed in chronological order, and that their arrangement was important. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be a strange kind of history lesson. It was like a slow-motion flip-book.

It wasn’t until we had finished making the work that I realized the piece is very much about factory life. Factory farming, the war factory, the death factory, the automobile factory, the Hollywood factory, the personality factory…. History emerging out of a factory. In the end, it takes on the appearance of a conveyor belt.

I was asked to pick a song that the viewer could then download as part of a dOCUMENTA (13) phone app. I chose Over The Rainbow as sung by Judy Garland in the movie The Wizard of Oz. American soldiers used to play it in Germany as a kind of anthem at the end of the war. In the movie, it is a hopeful song, but when listening to it and looking at the piece, it has another effect, making the piece, and history, feel like a very strange dream.

This interview was commissioned by 

More information about Documenta 13 can be found here

More information about Geoffrey Farmer can be found here

Artists at Work: Luis Jacob talks to Rosemary Heather

ROSEMARY HEATHER: How has your art practice developed in the local context in Toronto? We have known each other for 10 years, and I know you have always been very involved in different local scenes. Can you talk about your involvement with the Anarchist Free School, and how that informs your current practice?

LUIS JACOB: My education has played a big role. I studied semiotics and philosophy at the University of Toronto.

RH: You are not trained as an artist?

LJ: No, not formally at all. Art history, art theory and art technique are things I taught myself. The interesting thing about the University, with professors like Bart Testa and especially John Russon, was that they approached both semiotics and philosophy as being about intersubjectivity. Semiotics asks how significance comes about, and signification itself is a question of mediating relationships among people. This was not a purely linguistic or philological approach to semiotics, but was informed by cultural and social theory. Similarly, the philosophy I was taught was less concerned with metaphysics or logic than it was about intersubjectivity-about being with others in the world.

RH: The way you compile images addresses the whole viewer, and this brings up your non-hierarchical presentation of the images.

LJ: As individuals, we do belong to different worlds. It is important that artists address this reality. Recently I presented A Dance for Those of Us Whose Hearts Have Turned to Ice at the Basel Miami Art Fair. This work includes a video of a nude dancer performing a choreography in the snow, and a Canadian art critic wrote that this video was ‘the most embarrassing in the fair’. I thought, ‘well what do they have to be embarrassed by?’ Of course, this is logical since nudity in our culture is the realm of shame and embarrassment. In the context of this art fair, the work was understood as an instance of bad behaviour. It was vulgar. But this is such an interesting observation, to notice that the work touches on vulgarity. Every once in a while someone gives me a comment, often a negative comment, that helps me to articulate something.

RH: The critic thought that the performer, Keith Cole, dancing naked in the snow, is silly somehow, and what you point out is that they are identifying something that is very intelligible but rejecting it.

LJ: Yes, rejecting it as false rather than as a mode of communicating.

RH: That leads on to questions about your interest in modes of expressiveness and sincerity-and as you say, inelegance and vulgarity-modes that are rejected. For me this is very much what your work at Documenta 12 was about. Maybe you could first describe the video installation?

LJ: The installation has a long title: A Dance for Those of Us Whose Hearts Have Turned to Ice, Based on the Choreography of Françoise Sullivan and the Sculpture of Barbara Hepworth (With Sign-Language Supplement). This work is oriented around a freestanding wall. On one side of the wall there is a reading area comprised of two eccentric teak-root chairs where one may read a brochure that is also part of the artwork; on the other side of the wall there are three videos, a large projection flanked by two monitors.

RH: Keith Cole’s dance performance in your video projection is very much about expressiveness. For me, it transcends the ridiculous and is not meant to be read in an ironic register. In conversation, I once described it as a kind of levelling or equalization of different languages and modes of expression. The installation had sign language on the monitors, and the dance performance used camp. In the Album III on the surrounding walls, you also made room for different pictorial languages. To clarify, the dancer is naked in only one version of the choreography?

LJ: Yes, there are two versions of that performance. In Documenta, we featured Keith Cole performing a choreography in the snow while wearing a costume that referred to Françoise Sullivan’s original costume from the 1940s. That same choreography exists in a second version (that was shown in Miami, and will be shown at the Barbican in London) where he is performing nude.

Perhaps this has something to do with what you identify as sincerity, the fact that he is vulnerable, outside in the snow, and is completely exposed. You know he is not comfortable, and he is getting colder and colder as the minutes pass by. At one point he lies down flat on the snow. You can project yourself into what he is experiencing, even though you are only watching a video. Maybe this suggests a sincerity or directness of communication…

RH: He is putting himself on the line. It is very clear.

LJ: This sincerity may also have something to do with Keith’s body. He is a trained dancer, but his body looks at odds with what many people expect a dancer’s body to look like. This can register in different ways. One person can see it as a vulgar gesture: ‘I shouldn’t have to look at this non-idealized body. How dare you represent a non-idealized body?’ Another person can see it as liberating, or sincere. None of us possess an ideal body, so what can be read as vulgar by one person can also read as honest by another, or authentic. ‘Authentic’ is a loaded term, of course, but it is one I would like to keep open. I do believe that there is such a thing as authenticity, existential authenticity, and this is a term I prefer more than ‘sincerity’.

RH: What about your use of sign language? Why is it there? Why do you have two interpreters? Are they saying the same thing, or two different things?

LJ: One of the sign language interpreters is signing the words of Barbara Hepworth and Herbert Read in American Sign Language (ASL), and the other is signing the words of Françoise Sullivan and Paul-Émile Borduas in langue des signes québécoise (LSQ).

For someone who does not understand sign language, what is your relationship to seeing someone signing in an ‘other’ language? And for someone who does use sign language, what is your relationship to understanding one sign language but not the other? American Sign Language is chosen because it is the ‘universal’ language. But even for an ASL user, the LSQ often presents an experience of ‘otherness’ as well.

RH: That leads me back to your idea of creating collisions between different regimes of meaning, and how this addresses the whole viewer. Do you think that incorporating the ‘other’, or acknowledging the other’s existence, is a way in which you create the whole person?

LJ: Sure, but only if we understand that it is inadmissible to have real ‘otherness’. As human beings we are structured so that we always comprehend otherness, embrace or appropriate otherness in some way. Though inadmissible, however, we encounter ‘otherness’ all the time. Intrinsically, we are even ‘other’ to ourselves! Look at our unconscious. Look, even, at the many ‘selves’ we become throughout the course of our lives.

While at school I connected with the house music scene, a scene that dealt with intersubjectivity and its other-alienation-quite explicitly. The classic house songs are various theses about these same questions about togetherness and alienation, created by black and often gay musicians. If house music can be said to have one anthem it is a track by a man named Larry Heard, called ‘Can You Feel It?’ That is the thesis of house: that house is not a thing, certainly it is not a building, but rather house is a joyous, interpersonal experience.

Later on, after deciding to become an artist, I connected with Toronto’s anarchist community. In 1998 there was a major anarchist gathering in Toronto called Active Resistance, with hundreds and hundreds of anarchists coming from all across North America. That was an amazingly formative experience, which I understood as house in another guise. I found very interesting the way that people organized the event, and the way that people related to one another, in opposition to social hierarchies.

One of the results of the Active Resistance gathering at the local level was that a group of us in Toronto continued to meet afterwards, and decided to launch the Anarchist Free School. I soon became very invested in this collective project, and at a certain point I decided to make the different aspects of my life-being an artist, being involved in the dance community, being involved in the anarchist community-become present to one another.

RH: I wanted to ask you about your process. To produce Album III, the image archive you showed at Documenta 12, and which is part of an ongoing project in which you arrange found images on panels that are mounted on the wall. How did you collect the images you used?

LJ: All the images are collected from various books and magazines. Basically, I decided to work with images that floated within my orbit: junk mail, magazines being discarded by friends, or used books from Goodwill or Value Village.

RH: Tobias Buche has a similar project focused on collecting and arranging images, quite often using photocopies. However, you work exclusively with non-reproduced, non-digital sources…

LJ: Working with original images gives an artefact quality to the photographs, one that emphasizes not only their image content, but also their original context. Their artefact quality brings not only the imagery into dynamic play within the Album, but also brings into play the various life-worlds that the images originally inhabited. Once they are laminated on the panels they almost have a scrapbook feel, and especially with the pins it refers on the one hand to a bulletin board, and on the other hand, it alludes to those insect…

RH: Specimens…

LJ: Specimens, exactly. I produced Album I in 2000, when I realized that the steps of development in my work were becoming too close to one another, the process was becoming too tight. So I decided to throw it open and project my thinking in a different direction, even in different directions at once. The images for the first Album were selected because they all depicted things that are vertical and things that are horizontal. This simple process became a way to crack my authorship a little, and to work with other people’s ‘words’, so to speak-or other people’s images-and have them determine the narrative that I wanted to shape, allow that to land me somewhere unexpected.

RH: Can you elaborate on the idea of your process being ‘too close’ in its steps?

LJ: For an artist, having a definite set of themes makes the work legible, but I realized that legibility was not exactly the kind of communication I needed. I am interested in contact. At one time, I thought contact could be achieved through clarity and lucidity, so I always tried to make my work as clear as I could. Then I realized that clarity was actually a detriment to contact. I saw that what is effective in aesthetic contact is something closer to disturbance, something much deeper, more unconscious or intuitive. So rather than clarity I am pursuing forms of perversity and ways of doing things correctly wrong.

RH: ‘Correctly wrong’, that’s a nice turn of phrase.

LJ: When something is wrong in the right way, that is what I am calling perverse. When meaning-systems collide, or even coexist, energy is created that generates new meanings. This energy is based upon a synthesis that happens at the level of the recipient rather than at the level of the producer. This is what I understand by ‘aesthetic contact’.

RH: These ideas connect to your effort to crack open your practice and not assume that you had the ability to create clarity on your own. When you say you are making meaning-systems collide, this brings the unconscious into play, and relates to the way in which the images in the various Albums are organized according to formal homologies. It suggests an unconscious response.

LJ: I take for granted that all of us have creative capacities, rather intense and brilliant creative faculties that include the capacity to synthesize our experience of things. The Albums are quite large; some contain 160 panels with hundreds of images. This requires a kind of attention that is perhaps unusual within a gallery context. The piece ‘calls’ to viewers as being individuals who possess complex capacities, in the way Althusser describes ideology as ‘calling’ you. He used the term ‘interpellate’. The Albums call you…

RH: They name you…

LJ: Yes, the Albums frame the viewer as being able to grasp a large and complex whole. More and more we are becoming used to being addressed as people who can easily ‘get’ something in a flash, but the Albums do something quite different. There are homologies between images that stand next to one another, and through that process of connect-the-dots the specific narrative of each Album unfolds. But every once in a while there is also an image that does not match anything around it. These stray images become a kind of flag for the attentive viewer, of something that will be picked up at a later point in the narrative. It is amazing to me how adept our unconscious is in being able to hold onto these things that do not make immediate meaning, and keep them in suspension until the synthesis can occur later on.

LJ: Every encounter with an Album must of necessity be something like: ‘I am not the centre of the world. I can read many images, but not all of these images, because there are other worlds of representation that I do not belong to.’ Perhaps there is something non-hierarchical about this encounter with a wide horizon.

What is essential for our experience of art-what is foundational-is the experience of non-intelligibility, a kind of dislocation. Aesthetic experience for us today is first of all an encounter with otherness, with strangeness; but an otherness that, crucially, is there demanding appropriation, intelligibility. What is so constructive about aesthetic experience is that it requires a creative act on the part of the viewer, an act of synthesis that is original through and through. The ‘creativity’ so praised of artists, and the ‘originality’ so lauded in works of art, are in reality nothing but displaced descriptions that properly apply on the other side, on the side of the art-viewer who encounters their own authenticity in front of an artwork.

This interview originally published by in March 2008.