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Pablo Helguera, ‘The School of Panamerican Unrest’, 2003-ongoing

How do we actively critique culture while simultaneously existing within it? Now that the postmodern inclusion of the everyday into artistic practice is met with a yawn, and virtually everything, yes, everything, can fall under the purview of contemporary art, it is questionable where new aesthetic frontiers exist. In an attempt to understand the art world and its relation to society, is it possible to rewardingly enlighten artistic practice from the inside? Or, perhaps in a reversal of roles, could culture at large shed light on the little blister known as the international contemporary art world? One of the few successful confrontations of the art world as a system comes from multidisciplinary artist Pablo Helguera. Born in 1971 in Mexico City and currently living in New York, Helguera works in manifold mediums ranging from collage to performance, simultaneously occupying the distinguished post of Director of Adult and Public Programs at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Also an accomplished writer, Helguera has published numerous books, most notably The Pablo Helguera Guide to Contemporary Art Style, a satirical guidebook for contemporary artists. Though the artist is a jack of most mediums, his conceptual interests engage with excavating histories of little known antiheroes, notions of authenticity, investigating cultural dualities, and championing outsiderism and escapism.

Pablo Helguera, Wakefield', performance at CC5 Bard, March 17, 2010
Pablo Helguera, ‘Wakefield’, performance at CC5 Bard, March 17, 2010

The following conversation reflects the second of two meetings in New York City between myself and Pablo Helguera. The locations were chosen by the artist, and the exact address was relayed shortly before our scheduled rendezvous. The first took place at the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant Manganaro’s, an old Italian restaurant famous for its hero sandwiches. Next door sits a newfangled competitor owned by another Manganaro brother who split from the family business after the death of their parents. (The Manganaro brothers both claim their restaurants are the authentic Manganaro’s, apparently, and haven’t spoken for years despite owning businesses directly adjacent to each other.) My task was to pick which restaurant Helguera would be waiting at: the new, shiny version or the atavistic one. I correctly chose the latter. Our second meeting brought us to the basement of Showplace Antiques in Chelsea, where the artist divulged his interest in antiquated audio equipment, and demonstrated how to play Thomas Edison’s wax cylinders. In an attempt to re-imagine the oft-staid interview format, I asked Helguera a series of earnest, ‘unanswerable’ questions.

Pablo Helguera, The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003-ongoing
Pablo Helguera, ‘The School of Panamerican Unrest’, 2003-ongoing
Pablo Helguera, The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003-ongoing
Pablo Helguera, ‘The School of Panamerican Unrest’, 2003-ongoing
Pablo Helguera, The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003-ongoing
Pablo Helguera, ‘The School of Panamerican Unrest’, 2003-ongoing

Karen Archey: When I was preparing for this meeting I thought about the nature of the interview, what I really wanted to talk to you about, and how I could frame it. Our first meeting only fell under the general purview of ‘candidness’. It took me a long time to think of a specific interview topic. Initially I couldn’t really figure out why, but now I realise it’s because all of the questions I wanted to ask you were kind of taboo or unanswerable.

Pablo Helguera: I don’t see that as a problem.

KA: I didn’t think you would, so I made a list and we’ll see how it goes. The following questions are not created to put you on the spot, but if the question is unanswerable, why is it unanswerable and what is the nature of the question? Who is the person that often asks these questions? During my later years of university I was frustrated by fellow students and professors earnestly trying to answer the question ‘what is the definition of art?’ Even participating in philosophical discussions about potential definitions of art, no one never really came to a conclusion.

So is that one of the questions: what is art?

KA: Yes.

PH: Well, isn’t the answer ‘I don’t know?’. A very similar question frequently gets asked when I’m in an educational setting in a museum, which is, ‘Why is this art?’. Which also begs the question, ‘What is art?’.

In a museum context, when I give a gallery talk and visitors ask this question, my goal is to show them that these objects have a certain history that make them significant. In the end I may not manage to convince the visitor entirely but hopefully they will leave realising that experiencing art goes beyond making a blunt personal judgment about an object.

I’ve been in many situations in which it’s very unclear whether people understand if what I’m doing is an artwork or not. It’s actually wonderful when the question is left open. During the making of ‘The School of Panamerican Unrest’ sometimes the public saw it as a civic project, a political enterprise or a public art project, but it didn’t really matter in the end how it was defined. It didn’t change its essence.

When I’m interested in something, I’m not concerned about whether it’s art or not, but in the subject matter, and how this subject matter is communicated or generates communication. Many times they are seen and understood as artworks and other times they are just events that might promote exchange or discussion. I personally enjoy this shifting of frames and I think that is the direction we are going now: in order to survive, art has to become chameleonic, changing itself wherever it goes.

KA: Onto our next question… What is the role of the artist in society?

PH: Oh god. [Laughs] What is the role of the artist?

KA: Is there a responsibility to educate the public?

PH: I don’t think you can subject art to any sort of responsibility. I don’t think you should demand art to do anything, because what you end up doing then is instrumentalising art, turning it into a mechanism to implement other things. Art, by definition—or perhaps, precisely because it hates definitions—escapes any sort of practicality. We know from historical experience that art is a bad practical replacement for other disciplines. It is something we inherited from postmodernism: to turn art into the stand-in of something else.

But, when the main concern of the object is to implement the goals of other disciplines under the assumption of the artist’s responsibility, then it very quickly starts functioning as naive ethnography, sociology, or education. I think that’s why we’re generally suspicious of art that is prescribed in such a way. Art has the potential to illuminate these other areas in ways those disciplines cannot do on their own.

Pablo Helguera, The School of Panamerican Unrest, 2003-ongoing
Pablo Helguera, ‘The School of Panamerican Unrest’, 2003-ongoing

KA: How do you define the culture industry and is art part of it? Is this good or bad?

PH: The culture industry is a very vague concept and I would imagine that we all have a different interpretation of what that means. For art to be part of a larger cultural superstructure is not good or bad, it’s just the way it is. I’m always fascinated by how, in the US, the mainstream equates art and entertainment so closely. When you look at the newspaper within the ‘Art and Entertainment’ section there’s an implicit message: by placing ‘art’ right next to ‘entertainment’, art is a related or similar subject to entertainment. We may agree that this is perfectly logical, as people often consume art in their leisure time, although you could also say that about politics: doesn’t CNN function like a reality channel? But in any case, this underplays the fact that art is as much about enjoyment as about attaining a sense of meaning about the world that can hardly happen if we are in vegetative mode.

I think this is because of the role in our lives that we’ve collectively assigned to art. Art is something that gives us pleasure, makes us happier or more fulfilled. At the same time, contemporary art specifically is also something that’s challenging. It doesn’t immediately give itself away to you. It can push you or confront your ideas about pleasure a little bit.KA: Do you think this has changed in light of the recent economic downturn? I feel like the Grand Tour of 2007—the Venice Biennale, Art Basel, documenta 12, Skulptur Projekte Münster—featured spectacular, high-budget projects that are arguably not as critical. They appear to be more concerned with pleasure and entertainment, although they are perhaps embedded in some sort of historical logic that excuses their sensational nature. Now we hear about biennials such as Prospect New Orleans that have to be postponed due to budget constraints. Of course it’s reductive to think of high-budget, spectacular art to be in binary opposition with critical, socially-conscious art, but it seems as if there’s something to be said of that duality. This directly relates to another unanswerable question: How has the art world changed, if at all, in tandem with the West’s recent economic and political shifts?

PH: I believe these questions are impossible to answer from the perspective of what we know and see today. In the post 9/11 era, I think there has been a slow rise in the desire for greater meaning in the arts, beyond financial and personal motives. It was a product of the 1990s—the proliferation of the European biennials and the boom of the contemporary art market. I want to believe that there has been a slow rise in works informed by pedagogy and social issues. I can’t really see anything else on a wider horizon. But ultimately I don’t think things change so drastically for good or for bad.

KA: How do you define creativity and how does it relate to the production of art?

PH: I define it in a completely different way than I think a traditional art school would. I’d define creativity as a personal endeavour that results from the need to come to terms with one’s obsessions, defects and even sicknesses. I think creativity is the positive result of a pressing group of negatives, such as the lack of something that we feel. It is about understanding one’s limitations and interests, and how they come together to express something in an unusual way.

KA: This brings to mind your recent performance at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard in which you recited a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne from heart while holding your six-month-old daughter.

PH: ‘Wakefield’ is a story in an early set of short tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The story is particularly strange and surreal—very uncharacteristic of other tales by him. It tells the story of Wakefield, a man who one day leaves his house and his wife, for no apparent reason. Supposedly he’s going on a trip, but actually he moves to an apartment around the corner from his home. Wakefield essentially spies on his life for 20 years, seeing what it would be like without him. In a voyeuristic fashion he watches his wife becoming a widow, and then an old woman. His acquaintances who mourn him eventually forget him completely, and he gets used to this. And then one day, again for no apparent reason, he comes back and resumes his life as before, until his death.

I have always been interested in how this story imagines the case of someone slipping out of reality, or leaving, breaking with a social system in every possible way. Someone being the witness of their own life or absent from their own life. Someone taking a step away from themselves.

KA: Do you have a desire to do that? I think every one does.

PH: Yes, we all do. Escapism is a way of doing that. It is an attempt to get away from your worries in your life. In my work I have always been interested in the stories of social outcasts, from the Shakers to the hermetists.

The notion of escapism also connects to a project I’m currently working on about the Sullivan Institute. This was a very strange chapter in the New York art world’s history that no one really talks about. The Sullivan Institute was a ‘therapeutic community’ that was set up in the late 1950s by psychotherapists Saul Newton and Jane Pierce. It emerged from the social revolution of the 1960s but started as a therapeutic practice mostly focusing on creative people such as artists or writers. Soon it turned into a secluded community where therapists lived with patients. They also had a house in Narragansett. It’s well documented that Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner went to their parties and knew the people involved. Kenneth Noland, who just died, was also associated with them at the beginning. Many of the most talented and influential artists in New York at the time were part of the early years of the Sullivan Institute.

'Everybody said it was goregeous', from The Arlington Heights Suite, collage, 2008
‘Everybody said it was goregeous’, from The Arlington Heights Suite, collage, 2008
'The reason is simple', from The Arlington Heights Suite, collage, 2008
‘The reason is simple’, from The Arlington Heights Suite, collage, 2008

Over the course of years it evolved into this radical, left wing, authoritarian cult. You may typically think of cults as right-wing communities in Texas or something like that, but this cult actually emerged amid the most liberal hub of this country, the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It survived for a long time, until the early 1990s. As in many cults, there was a liberal sexual culture amongst them—changing sexual partners was not even an option, but a rule. The process of induction included making members hate their families. If you had children the Institute would detach you from them. You would have no family ties and become emotionally dependent on the community.

At some point, a member who had left the community sued for the custody of his child. The affair turned into a very controversial public trial that exploded in the press. The Village Voice and People magazine published articles exposing the controversial workings of the community.

My project is not about retelling those grim details, but understanding the conditions under which this community emerged, and the kind of role that art and culture played in it. I won’t say much more as this is an ongoing project, but what I take from this is that art itself is a sort of cult. Maybe a more benign cult, but a cult nonetheless.

KA: I remember a quote from the published version of your performance ‘Theatrum Anatomicum’ in which you question what happens when dreams take you away from recognising that you’re part of reality. Admittedly I do this quite frequently. I’ll finish a project and then watch the entire Lord of the Rings series. What you say is really poetic, ‘We might think that it’s okay to let ourselves go into a paradise of escapism in which our dreams are our own business. What if those dreams prevent us from waking up?’

PH: I think everything around us offers us opportunities to escape in one way or another, to forget our responsibilities.

KA: Do you think this is negative or necessary?

PH: I think it’s a necessary thing to be able to detach or distance oneself from something. But escapism is addictive, and when you’re in a permanent state of escapism you become like Wakefield. You become stuck in another world and you don’t know how come to back to it. In the story there’s always the intention to come back the next day, but he doesn’t know how to do it. So he puts it off until the next day, and the next day, and 20 years go by without him ever really realising what he’s done.

KA: It’s necessary to get away to be able to come back..

PH: Well, yes. The problem with the art world is that it is a system that always desires to be something else, that is, to step away from itself. But if you create something new it’s always part of the same system, like trying to escape your own shadow. It becomes a very incestuous process. I think that is why it’s very hard to do anything in the art world that is truly radical because it immediately gets absorbed by the art world—it’s part of the process of turning counter culture into consumer culture. This is perhaps part of my discomfort regarding the current discussion of performance being collected and preserved. I feel the reason why performance was the last territory to get one’s hands on or to make one’s own, is because it doesn’t lend itself very well to do that. Basically, in order to do collect performance like an object you’d have to possess an experience, but experiences are so tied to the place and time in which they’re made, not to mention to the individual who experienced them. For example, the ‘Wakefield’ performance will never happen again. My daughter will never be that age again. I am fascinated by escapism or the desire to detach oneself from somewhere. I think the culture of the spa or relaxation really comes from that.

KA: I was recently thinking about how successful it would be to create an art world boutique spa.

PH: Actually when I try to escape, I’m trying to escape from the art world. To me the notion of being at an art world-themed spa is terrifying. [Laughs]

Karen Archey is a writer based in New York
To read and see more of Pablo Helguera’s practice visit his blog