Directions to the Land of Milk and Honey: An Interview with Bill Burns
by Yaniya Lee
Who gets to become a successful artist? What are the echelons one must climb or the secret doors through which one must pass before accruing a certain degree of skill, recognition, remuneration or notoriety? Canadian artist Bill Burns has been making a spectacle of his attempts to position himself alongside the elite of his field. His work playfully questions notions of power and value in an art world economy conditioned by late capitalism. Bobbleheads that Burns created of art world celebrities, among them Adam Weinberg, Hans–Ulrich Obrist and Okwui Enwezor, are for sale in museums. Last winter, Burns hired airplanes to fly over Art Basel Miami bearing messages like “Glenn Lowry Remember Me” and “Beatrix Ruf Protect Us.” This fall, electronic billboards across Canada displayed similar messages of supplication to famous curators and biennale directors. Elsewhere, the structure of Burns’ body of work doubles as autobiography. yyz Books is set to publish a memoir of Burns’ trials and tribulations as a professional artist, a set of watercolours and diary–like captions previously exhibited as A Brownnoser’s Story.
Since graduating from Goldsmiths College in the late 1980s, Burns has worked on projects in a variety of mediums all over the world. He began exploring the tension between nature and culture by looking critically at the relationships between animals, humans and their shared environment. Different conceptual and technological experiments became starting points from which Burns could address social justice and environmental issues. The ongoing project Safety Gear for Small Animals, for which Burns is best known, is a research lab, an itinerant collection of safety gear for small animals and a publishing company that the artist describes as a “rhetorical excursion where the problems of degradation caused by advanced industrialism are solved with equipment produced by the same regime.”1
Over the past several years, Burns’ sculptures and interventions have used facets of Abrahamic traditions and economic theory to draw attention to the paradoxes of art world hierarchies. During The Bill Burns Show (2010), a stack of logs found in Northern Ontario was engraved with the names of art world celebrities and then coated with milk and honey. Burns highlighted the illogical nature of valuation by assigning each log a price according to his personal Top 100 ranking of art world figures. This summer at The Bill Burns Show (Part 2) (2014), Burns coordinated with local farmers and organized a goat milking and honey extraction in the gallery, again invoking biblical notions of plenty and success. He also showed several videos, watercolours, bobbleheads and models of renowned art institutions with his signature messages of supplication.
I spoke with Bill Burns via Skype while he was resting on Toronto Island, after an exhibition in Helsinki. We talked about the ideas and experiences that were the impetus for this most recent turn towards the political economy of the art world.
Yaniya Lee In the early 1990s you started making ball caps with the names of art world celebrities and post–structuralist terms embroidered on them. That project has developed over the years in a variety of ways. The Bill Burns Show: Parts 1 and 2 are a collection of works, sculptures and performances in which you use your own experiences to develop a narrative of yourself as “the brown–nosing artist” trying to ascend the complicated power structures of the art world. You’ve described this project as “part of an ongoing autobiography.” What led you to place yourself, and your experiences, so explicitly in your work?
Bill Burns I’m not exactly sure how that came about but I would say that as an artist working in the field you start to think about issues around how you’re represented in the world. It’s not always up to you. And one of the things I’ve noticed about artists’ biographies — from Pablo Picasso to Joseph Beuys — is that, and in some respects this is a trope of modernism, artists construct their own history, their own hagiography. That intrigues me.
Then there are stories — quite hackneyed in my opinion — about how Max Ernst, for instance became a Surrealist artist: his beloved bird died and his sister was born and things like this. They’re kind of dime–store psychoanalyses, and it’s not so much that these things aren’t true, it’s just that they are unpacked consistently as historical one–liners. So Max Ernst’s father announces the birth of his sister and he makes these paintings and Van Gogh cut his ear off, and the like. The stories from the Renaissance are different. They seem to have less of a psychic dimension; we get more of that under the Modern regime. And when they’re unpacked, artists are reborn. And that’s where the Joseph Beuys story is important, because he starts to create himself and articulate it himself.
YL His work was never a clear self–representation. He played with the performativity of self–invention.
BB That’s right, and I see similar streams in American avant–gardism, with William Burroughs and the Beat poets.
YL You make a reference to Burroughs in the photograph Meeting of the Board, in which you place your own friends around a boardroom table, apparently discussing your work. What drew you to those original avant–garde artists? Was it just the aesthetic or did it mean something else?
BB Well, definitely the first thing that drew me to it was the aesthetic. It’s always been attractive to me, maybe because it’s very masculine (in the [Brion] Gysin film still, only men are pictured and they are all wearing suits). Living on the West Coast in my youth and reading Jack Kerouac’s stories about wilderness and travel were seminal moments for me. So my boardroom picture is based on a still from a film called Thee Film by Brion Gysin. (I brought two of my women friends into the picture, but it’s still dominantly a masculine picture.) I was looking at the picture as a marker of a certain era of art production but also as a way of positioning myself and my work into that, into the historical avant–garde. And then I started to think about the troublesome notion of the avant–garde: how it was established and how it’s used, and how maybe — in some ways — it leads to even more of the hyper–marketing that we have now. It’s a problematic historical moment — it is deeply connected to the building of the nation, the building of military capitalism (all the things that are good and bad at the same time) — yet it’s often cited as a shining light of Utopian Socialism. Even the term “avant-garde” is a military one.
When I went to art school in my early career, I couldn’t have imagined that one gallery like the Gagosian could one day do a billion dollars of business every year. When I was in art school, probably all of the contemporary art market in New York was doing that much business combined. So those are the kind of things that I was considering: how did this avant–garde situation go so off the rails?
And also the other part of it for me is the love–hate relationship with the avant–garde because it seems that now there’s no space for it. There’s something particular about this idea of the avant–garde that was positioned in that postwar era, with Robert Filliou and Joseph Beuys on one side of the ocean, and William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac on the other. You can probably see that this is a very Western and Northern industrial view of the world. It’s a very particular kind of historical positioning and I think that kind of avant–garde space that allowed the Beat generation and Joseph Beuys to thrive in New York, for a number of historical and economic reasons, no longer exists in the same way. It’s no longer really a possibility, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t possibilities for radical practices.
Meeting of the Board, to me, is a lament about this loss and a longing for it. And I think that’s my work. I think that’s a lot of artists’ work: that they long for something. Pina Bausch longs for things. John Cage longs for things. I think that’s something that many people carry but artists make work about it.
YL It sounds like it’s about money: the prohibitive tuition of those schools changes the accessibility to that training. Does that become a bigger factor than just being a great artist or having potential?
BB Yeah, I think John Baldessari said the most obvious thing about a work of art is usually the most important thing. The most base part of my project is I’m saying I want to be seen and recognized by these important people in my field. And I know that those feelings are actually mutual — it’s not like artists long to be recognized by them and they don’t long to be recognized as well. There’s a mutuality to it.
YL Is there slippage between the artist self that you present in this body of work and your self as a practising artist? It seems to work within institutional critique because you’re bringing out all these power structures and drawing attention to them, but how would you respond if a major art institution offered you a show based on this work? How much of the work is true and how much of it is play?
BB The main thing is that it is basically true. I do want this kind of attention and I guess I see that as a way to make a living, for one thing. The structure of our art system — the financial aspects of art, the production of art, the way the art world and the art market operates — is that in spaces available in different subfields, there may be a hundred artists or so who can get the kind of attention that allows for a big dealer like Larry Gagosian or David Zwirner to promote them. But until you’re in those echelons, it’s very hard to make any living really without working as a teacher or in a record shop. There’s no fairness or justice in this system. That’s its nature because it’s a part of capitalism. In many respects it’s the most corrupt part of our marketplace because it doesn’t even have the regulations that the stock market has.
YL How do you think value is created in the art world?
BB Well, on the one hand, it seems really corrupted, and on the other, it seems like a cypher that explains the way we are in the world. No one can really say how much something is worth or whether Joe’s pictures are more valuable than Susan’s pictures. We can have opinions about which one is a better artist, of course. The arbitrary nature of the market has been central to a lot of work; Duchamp and Beuys come to mind. An economist I’ve been looking at recently — his name is Thorstein Veblen — proposed that certain commodities like fine whiskey, jewels and watches don’t comply with classic supply and demand models. Veblen observed the sale of a watch in Chicago. The jeweller was having trouble selling a nice watch but instead of lowering the price he increased it several fold until it finally sold. This observation was a challenge to economic models from John Locke to Henry Ford. So anyhow, art fits the model quite well and my current projects employ these ideas.
YL You graduated from Goldsmiths College in 1988. Since the huge boom of the ’80s there has been a change in the art world, and a proliferation of art schools and MFA programs. If art school is about networking and finding a community while you learn your craft, what implication does the gross multiplication of art schools have for people’s ability to succeed? Does it just mean that there are a billion artists out there and nobody’s ever going to get seen?
BB It’s baffling to me how this could have happened. The world’s population may be double what it was when I started art school, but there’re like 10 times more artists in the field — I mean people with training — and in many ways, I think this is good. A lot of artists do different things in different fields that are important and they don’t necessarily have a classic art practice. People move into different intellectual spheres or technical spheres. So you know there are some things about art that I don’t think are bad, at all. But I think this kind of pedigree situation of having the Bard College and the Royal College and Goldsmiths College is kind of awful.
YL And it’s about money, or that becomes more a part of it than just being a great artist or having potential.
BB Yeah, that’s right. I was giving a talk in Helsinki a few weeks ago and a young artist asked me this kind of question, but more from the perspective of “how do I get to where you are?” He was really sincere and genteel and thoughtful. I don’t blame him, it’s a legitimate question, but honestly, it’s impossible to answer.
YL What did you say to him?
BB I beat around the bush and I just said that I think that these situations, prestigious schools and the like, are about pedigree. Because he said, ‘Well, you went to Goldsmiths College,’ and he pointed out a few things that I had done at the Museum of Modern Art and Art Basel Miami and he said, ‘I can’t go ahead and do that; it doesn’t happen for me that way.’ But in some ways, I think it does.
Obviously there is a set of apparatuses that disallow certain types of entry into the field. That said, there are counter–indications. So someone who’s known doesn’t necessarily have an advantage over someone who’s unknown; some curators or museum people are more interested in doing something that surprises us. Surprise is a great human element, I think. People love that, and it is wonderful to go somewhere and to be surprised. So, that’s how I really answered it for him. In retrospect, it is at least partly a platitude and I’m sorry about that part. But looking at someone’s career as a strategic series of moves is not very instructive and it rarely produces any surprises… It’s a mug’s game — and if you think it’s about merit or fairness, you are deluding yourself.
YL You’ve described the similarity between the institutions in the art world and those of the Abrahamic tradition. The Bill Burns Show (Part 2), which was shown this summer at MK 127, was laden with religious references. There are the Litanies to the Blessed Virgin and others, which you use in those signs. You also had a goat milking and honey extraction in the gallery, which speak to biblical stories of plenty and success. Why was it useful to draw these parallels?
BB I guess it comes back to the kind of memoir part of the project in some ways, because I grew up in a family where we sold religious books and beeswax candles and sacramental wine. I grew up in the kind of world where the bishop would come for dinner and we would have long theological discussions into the night. Jesuit poets and artists would be coming over, things like that. So those kinds of experiences, which are outside of a lot of people’s experiences, were common to me. And then because we ran a bookstore, it seemed like art and writing were viable ways to make a living. I think it was unique.
In any case, my experience with the Abrahamic prayer traditions comes into my work sort of naturally. We chanted the prayers. So the litanies and all those things were something we did in my family pretty much every night; basically, we would chant prayers. And it sounds severe, but it was kind of pleasant, mostly. I was the ninth born of 10 children so the prayers were kind of big and boisterous. Life was large in our home. One of the things we always did was pray to my brother Kevin who [had] died of pneumonia.
I started to think about how these prayers relate to art practices and it really seemed to me that the litanies — some of them are to the Virgin Mary, some of them are to different saints — are all genuine prayer structures, so we can add our mother or our grandmother to the prayers. And I noticed that these litanies and supplications exist in Judaism as well. And then I started thinking that those appeals and exhortations are like the way we approach institutions. So I suppose I conflated those ideas of the prayer traditions with career aspirations. Also I was never that far from the farm: I knew a lot of chickens and goats when I was younger and I like to introduce city folks to farm animals and farmers.
YL I am interested in your use of multiples. You’ve made a lot of artist’s books on a variety of subjects. In The Bill Burns Show and The Bill Burns Show (Part 2), and even before that, you made sellable logs, and gloves and bobble heads. And it seems as though you’re playing with ideas of quantity and commodification, as if you were transferring the symbolic excess, and value of art world celebrity into the commodities that you create as an artist. What draws you to making multiples? Am I wrong in that reading?
BB Well, I like that reading. In general, I think the common thread in my books is a kind of wonderment or questioning of the artist’s position in the world and how advanced industrialism operates. Generally, my take is that advanced industrialism is not necessarily a good thing. As an artist who produces things that are bought and sold (like anyone in our culture), our options seem to be limited to a kind of resistant marketing because we now live within a unified regime. This points to the success of the regime but I also hope it points to a method of resistance. Our choices are incremental rather than large ideological choices. That’s hegemony for you.
All that is to say that my multiples engage with the marketplace, but it’s also an incremental critique of it. Or at least I hope so. My objects try to make us look at why we need all these tchotkes — what we need things for and how they’re made, the kind of construction of the marketplace. The big picture is what do we long for, how do we fill our “lack.” For instance, the bobbleheads that I made recently for this project are of internationally known curators and biennale directors, Beatrix Ruf and Hou Hanru and Hans–Ulrich Obrist.
YL And they’re being sold in museum shops!
BB That’s right, so they’re being sold in museums and they’re being manufactured in China. So there’s a kind of equivocation. There are certain ethical questions and dilemmas involved in these things as well, and I’m not immune to ethical dilemmas. They are a condition of our advanced industrial complex. I see a fairly seamless connection between art production and our ecological troubles. The demise of species diversity and the collapse of certain ecosystems one after the other is part and parcel of advanced industrialism. I can’t separate my own practice or my position in the world from that. And I’m not saying that these people in museums are bad or anything like this; that’s not a part of it. But we are a part of a kind of …
YL …a structure, a social structure, an economic structure
BB Yeah, I think I would say, in Foucauldian terms, that the discursive practices of our field are all a part of this — our relationship to the ecology and species diversity and the art market are not separate parts of the world, they are all connected. So that’s one thing. And I’ve also read a lot around survival; I’m especially interested in holocaust literature — Primo Levi, in particular. Levi writes a lot about survival and also about his career as a chemist, so I started thinking of my career in relationship to these things, but also those dialogues were important for me to look at ecology and animal survival and things like that. I suppose this concern for animals and their survival is also a function of advanced industrialism.
YL What direction do you see your work moving to in the future?
BB The one thing I get out of making watercolours is a great deal of pleasure in the actual making of things and the pushing around of material. It’s also my way of connecting natural history and its rhetorical devices to my life. So I think material practice will be a part of it, but also something that is small and subtle, I hope, and fun. I think love is something that I want more and more in the work and in my practice. And so those are things that I guess I would like to share.