Claire Bishop, New York (2014)
Marcel Janco, Cluj (2010)
Raimundas Malasauskas, Vilnius (2007)
Lorena Muñoz-Alonso, London (2012)

Claire Bishop speaks with Donelle Woolford

Claire Bishop lives in New York. She is professor of Contemporary Art, Theory, and Exhibition History at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Recurrent themes in her research are spectatorship and the relationship between art and politics.

CLAIRE BISHOP: Donelle, when did you first think about moving into performance? It’s a bold, some would say risky, move for someone whose career has been based on two- and three-dimensional work.

DONELLE WOOLFORD: In my first show at Wallspace in New York in 2008, I made a kind of “lecture” installation in the back room, but there was no lecturer, just artifacts and a slide show. I liked the tableau vivant feeling--except there was no vivant--so I did a similar gesture a few months later for the 8th Sharjah Biennial, but inserted myself in the role of the artist by making a studio environment that I inhabited for several days. Of course, I did an extended version of that for your Double Agent exhibition at the ICA London that same year. By the time of my second show at Wallspace, in 2009, I was thinking much more theatrically. It was still paintings hung on walls, but they were arranged in “scenes,” with adjacent furniture functioning as props. I could step into a scene and out of it again, and kind of switch the whole conceit on and off.

CB: In those earlier pieces, you just seemed to hang around in the space, fielding questions, interacting with the audience. Was that some kind of comment on the way in which the artistic persona today is a constant performance?

DW: Yes, I think exhibitions are always performative. I wouldn’t be the first to have noticed that galleries tend to function as stages on which we play and are watched by other players. The second Wallspace show had more than one version of me working the room, and that was a more explicit commentary on persona. Each of us would move through the gallery in normal fashion, but keeping eye contact, and then from time to time suddenly trade places. It was quite disorienting for whomever we happened to be talking to, or for people who got introduced to me more than once that evening and met a different person each time.

CB: How did you get interested in reenactments? So many artists turned to reenactment in the last decade--were you just following the crowd, or did anything in particular trigger your turn to this way of working?

DW: It grew out of my cubist paintings, which are reenactments of sorts. I saw Tino Sehgal’s Twenty Minutes for the Twentieth Century, which I loved--it was so remedial. But the real catalyst for me was the Dan Graham retrospective at the Whitney in 2009. I had never experienced a Dan Graham artwork in person, and I really liked the doubling and dissolution of self that happens in his work. I felt completely at home in them. So Dan Graham became a primer for me to investigate, to see what happened when my body entered a work like Performer/Audience/Mirror. In the original from 1975, Graham is facing an audience in front of a wall of mirrors. He begins moving and describing those movements to the audience for five minutes, and then describes the audience’s movements to itself for the next five. After that he turns his back to the audience and repeats the cycle, only this time the movements are described as Graham sees them in the mirror, as opposed to direct observation. I first reenacted that piece at Princeton University in 2009, but I added a second performer. In my version, the second performer comes on stage and begins the performance anew just as the first performer is entering the second phase. So you have two threads going simultaneously with one overlapping the other, like singing a round.

CB: But now, for the Whitney Biennial, you’re reenacting a Richard Pryor stand-up routine. Dan Graham to Richard Pryor is quite a leap, don’t you think? Are they the same generation?

DW: You know, I think they are. But it’s not such a leap. Dan Graham is famous for his acerbic sense of humor. And Richard Pryor was all about narrative allusion and shifting perceptions of character. What I like about the question is that it isn’t primarily predicated on racial difference; it seems to have more to do with context and style. Or am I misunderstanding what you mean by “leap?” When I read Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, it crossed my mind that there aren’t very many artists of color instigating participatory work. Adrian Piper? Edgar Arceneaux? I remember William Pope L. gave a sufficiently seditious public lecture at Yale when I was there.

CB: You’re right, there are very few examples in my book. In general, the fate of people of color has been to assume the role of participant, rather than acting as the instigator, of socially engaged art. The only piece that really turns the tables is Adrian Piper’s Funk Lessons, from the early eighties. I’m exaggerating of course--there are important examples (Lorraine O’Grady, Rick Lowe, Theaster Gates)--but on the whole, especially in Europe, there is a tendency for ethnic minorities to be the visible and symbolic object of participatory artists--

DW: --Like Santiago Sierra or Christophe Schlingensief--

CB: Yes. I hope that will change with a younger generation. Remind me, you were born in the 1970s?

DW: I was born in 1977, but then I changed it to 1980.

CB: Of course, self-design is everything these days.

DW: Indeed. What did Cher say? “All of us invent ourselves, some of us just have more imagination than others.”

CB: Funny you mention Cher, I always wanted you to be more rock-n-roll. Have you ever wanted to break free of Joe Scanlan?

DW: Not at first, but when the arrangement became too stressful my first avatar resigned. She felt like she was deceiving people, and not in a good way--like meeting the Sheik of Sharjah and pretending to be a young American artist. She was troubled by the politics of pretending to be someone she was not. Recently Joe has been the one pushing for a break, he wants me to go it on my own. But I don’t know the art world that well, so there are still things he can do that I can’t.

CB: But I reckon you could just go rogue, you don’t need a guy to show you the way. He’s pretty controlling. And you have a good CV by now. The Biennial will really help.

DW: You’re right, I don’t need a guy to show me the way. But I also don’t see why I have to go it on my own, whatever that means, in order to be a legitimate artist. I like the fact that my association with Joe gets under people’s skin--that just tells me I have something that I can work with, exploit. We’ve talked about devising a breakup piece--except ours would look more like a subsidiary licensing contract agreement than a trek across the Great Wall of China. Just two lawyers, a conference table, and the sound of pens scraping across paper.

CB: A breakup piece might be nice, but that sounds pretty bureaucratic. What would Richard Pryor do?

DW: I think I’m doing what Richard Pryor would do. The Pryor performance is a breakup piece: it’s Pryor breaking up with NBC by giving them forty minutes of uncut profanity that he knew they couldn’t broadcast. But it’s also Pryor dissembling himself, playing with the notion that Richard Pryor, comedian, is someone who cannot be defeated or controlled. Throughout the performance he is continually sliding into different characters and attitudes without ever indicating when--if ever--we’re seeing the “real” Richard Pryor. It’s the stand-up version of a Dan Graham pavilion. That chimerical quality, that defiance, is what attracted me to the performance, but I wanted to push the mise en abyme even further. So instead of Richard playing Richard playing Mudbone, it’s Jenn Kidwell playing Donelle playing Richard playing Richard playing Mudbone.

Cubism Meets Broodthaers Meets IKEA
Marcel Janco Interviews Donelle Woolford

This interview was first published in IDEA magazine. Marcel Janco is a curator and writer based in Cluj, Romania, and co-founder of Galeria Sabot. He is a former associate editor of Uovo magazine.

MARCEL JANCO: Your show at Wallspace in 2008 consisted of works made from wood scraps, latex paint and cardboard screws hanging on the wall. The space was enhanced by plants standing on minimal plinths. It appeared to me like Cubism and Marcel Broodthaers meeting Ikea. What do you think?

DONELLE WOOLFORD: I think that's a pretty good description. Broodthaers’ work touched on three themes that are very important for a successful business strategy: 1] choose something and focus all your energy on it; 2] one thing is good, two of the same is better, three of the same thing is even better, etc. 3] once you have someone's attention, make them laugh and confuse them into buying something.

MJ: Where did you train and who was the artist who made you think you wanted to become an artist yourself, if any? What are your influences in life?

DW: I first trained with the little known artist Lester Hayes, at a summer camp in North Carolina. I went to school at Yale and got a degree in graphic design, but I was really more interested in painting and sculpture. Joe Scanlan was the artist there who made me realize that I had good ideas, I had a good sense of humor, and that I could make it on my own. He also helped me see the legacy of my interests in narrative and mythmaking. Not so much Warhol, that's everyone's boring influence. He turned me on to Piero Manzoni, Adrian Piper, Broodthaers, Blinky Palermo, Sherrie Levine, David Hammons.

MJ: Your following show at Wallspace in 2010 had a quite similar body of work but here you activated the room with a one-night performance where you were “talking to yourself.” I’m saying this because I’ve read that people have seen you performed by Namik Minter in the United Arab Emirates, by Abigail Ramsay in London, and by Jennifer Kidwell in New York. For the performance where you were “talking to yourself,” it was Ms. Kidwell and Ms. Ramsay portraying you simultaneously. Could you please clarify, if possible?

DW: That’s easy — I am not real. I am a character whose story is being written and played out by a number of authors and actors simultaneously. I exist as a known entity of sorts, just like a character in a well-known play. But each time I am "on stage," so to speak, each time I have a show, my character is transformed by the art that’s on view and the subjective interpretations of the actors who portray me.

MJ: In her texts, Alison Gingeras argues that artists like Warhol and Kippenberger were using their persona as an artistic medium. Is that your case? Being a female artist do you think there’s a legacy as such for female artists?

DW: I guess so, although unlike Warhol my persona remains unfixed. I prefer Kippenberger because he really did transform himself over the years from earnest young hopeful to savvy operator to midde-aged rhinceros. And despite Kippenberger's celebrity as a person, all his best works were made in private — they were the anxious product of a studio practice. All the artists I mentioned above, Manzoni et al., are important to me because, unlike Warhol, the idea of fiction and celebrity for them is still located in the artwork rather than the personality of the artist who made it. The merde d'artiste, the snowballs, the sharecroppers, and the hotel drawings are what circulate and become known while the artist as a persona remains somewhat unclear.

MJ: A friend of mine founded his seminar at the Yale School of Art upon these 3 topics: 1] an anti-hierarchical perception of the art field, in which artists, curators, gallerists, collectors, editors and critics are all considered “players” of the same game; 2] an expanded definition of practice, in which the figure of the artist is considered not only the “creator” of an artwork, but a cultural operator able to write, manage galleries, curate and collect; 3] the consideration of the entire discourse around the artwork, including its conception, creation, production, presentation, distribution and dissemination. Is that your case as well?

DW: No, I am an artist. If I have an anti-hierarchical perception it is against the idea that an artist has to have an essential identity that is embodied by one person only. I am anti-hierarchical in that I can be represented by a half dozen people in a half a dozen places simultaneously, and all of them are real and true and actual representations of Donelle Woolford and her work. This one is tall, that one speaks German, this one is grumpy, that one is beautiful.

What is interesting about your friend's approach to me is that the more you break down the hierarchies and the more everyone can be responsible for all facets of cultural production, the more possible it is for an uberproducer like Hans Ulrich-Obrist to run absolutely everything. Your friend's approach can create a useful democracy and confusion, but it can also create monsters. That is an interesting risk to take, but I am not sure it is worth it. Look what it gave us: Tino Sehgal!

MJ: “Remake,” your installation presented at the 8th Sharjah Biennial, was like bringing a microcosm of a studio — your studio, I assume since it was full of woodcuts — to the exhibition space. It was like showing something we don’t usually see. It reminded me of the recreation of Brancusi’s Studio outside the Pompidou in Paris and I think Josh Smith has done the same in the past. How do you position your choice? Is it about voyeurism and celebration, as it is for Brancusi, or rather the more Josh Smith — like a pornographic or bulimic gesture? Is there a third way or a middle path perhaps?

DW: I prefer the model of Raymond Roussel, those refrigerated chambers in Locus Solus where recently deceased people eternally re-enact the moments leading up to their death through the injection of a special chemical. All the accoutrement of their final moments are in the chamber with them, like evidence at a crime scene or stage props, to make the event as accurate as possible. I think the artist on display is like that, the public display being a kind of perpetual death acted out for the sake of knowledge and entertainment.

MJ: On the website of your Paris gallery, Chez Valentin, your biography doesn’t have the same structure as that of the other artists. It doesn’t include group and solo shows. Instead, it recounts your life since you were born, as you find sometimes in catalogues of dead artists. Why’s that?

DW: See above.

MJ: In a text about your work, Joe Tang ends with writing: “Donelle Woolford, Narrative artist. Donelle Woolford, Cubist painter. Donelle Woolford, avatar. The possibilities are endless.” Could you please explain? Who is Donelle Woolford?

DW: That’s a good question. I don't know. Maybe a better question is, "What is Donelle Woolford?" A folk legend? A product? A myth? Or maybe she is the precise outcome of a demographic that is continually calibrated to reflect our collective desire for an artist like Donelle Woolford.

Raimundas Malasauskas Talks to Donelle Woolford

Raimundas Malasauskas writes letters, menus, scenarios and situations. Along with Alexis Vaillant and Sophia Hernandez Chong Cuy, he organized BMW, the IX Baltic Triennial for the Contemporary Art Center, Vilnius, which was the inspiration for this interview. More recently he has been an artistic advisor to Documenta 13, curator of the Lithuanian Pavilion for the 55th Venice Biennale, and a tutor in the Sandberg Instituut Masters Program, Gerrit Rietveld Akademie, Amsterdam. He lives in Brussels.


Are you Donelle Woolford?


Ha, ha. Rai, is that really the first question? To answer: "Yes, I am
Donelle Woolford."


another first question could be "Who are you?"
One of the reasons I am asking this question is a project that Loris Greaud, a French artist, did for the Black Book of the IX Baltic Triennial, which was curated by Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy, Alexis Vaillant and me in 2005. At some point of our multiple email exchanges in preparation of the project I've noticed that Alexis Vaillant was using two email addresses in the correspondence between the three of us. Not the most striking fact given the common practice of using several different email addresses by the same
person, but when a time came for artists to submit their contributions to
the Black Book (which was dealing with black markets, undercover strategies, shadow networks, etc.), Loris Greaud sent us a wiretap of all our email correspondence, which he entered using the name of Alexis Vaillant and a specially created email address for that. So we suddenly faced a mirror of our own strategies and ended up publishing the wiretap in the publication
including the parts that we've censored due to a number of obvious reasons. I think Loris Greaud did a really interesting project and it made me very much aware of the "shadow identities" one might encounter not only on Internet, but at the corner bodegas as well. How does it sound for you?


I am Donelle Woolford. But I do believe that we all have alter egos or
shadow selves. I might define who I am differently from day to day.


Do you know why I am contacting you?


I would guess that you want some answers from me, unless you are just feeling a little lonely over in Vilnius, or wherever you are these days. I know you've been traveling . . .


So who are you today? And weren't you part of the same Baltic Triennial two years ago? Can you tell me more about it? And about your day?


Today I am Donelle Woolford because I choose to be (that's my daily mantra). It's nice to be able to don personalities like a wardrobe. But in the end "Puffy", "P. Diddy", "Diddy", or "Sean Combs"... doesn't really matter what people call you. A name is just a name, but it's how you put yourself out there that counts. I was a part of the Baltic Triennial a year ago. I can't believe it's been so long. That show was a great excitement. The idea of undercover systems and black markets was something I had been dealing with abstractly in my work for years, and am still toying with those ideas today. I have a fascination with authenticity or lack thereof. Who is to say what's real or what's original? People are always hiding and revealing different parts of themselves, consciously constructing their image from pieces of others.


'Multiple solitude' — this is how Deleuze was talking about Godard. Can
you share some loneliness with me? Loneliness is a way of traveling to me.


I would share my loneliness with you, but I prefer my solitude! It's interesting that you bring up Godard though. I always think of how he calls attention to the inherent plasticity and performative nature of things on display. It seems we are all on display now-a-days. We have taken Hollywood to heart and have begun to perform ourselves. Each of us enters society as a model to be tested and identified with. Your next-door neighbor could be the next American Idol! You begin to play roles, to construct your image. Life is getting so performative, full of escapism and disguise. The most admirable people achieve greatness by embracing levels of reality much lower than those of average people.


'All of us invent ourselves, some of us just have more imagination than others' claimed Cher. Do you agree? And do you invent other people (or help them to invent themselves)?


Quoting Cher eh? You are well versed! I do agree with her though. We all
play a very active role in constructing our identities. I do dabble in the
creation of identities, my own and others, but then again I work in advertising . . . I think it's facsinating how people can really feel connected to personas, even if they are clearly constructed. Madonna (or is it "Esther" now?), Napoleon Dynamite, Superman. There are teams of people who work behind the scenes to construct these personalities; yet we enjoy their persona and performance so much that they become endearing to us in very real ways.


You work in advertising? Does it overlap with your artistic practice, or is it a continuum?


It pays my bills. I would add though, that developing an understanding of how
advertising works has affected how I think about my art work and what I might
do to influence its reception by, for example, what I read or the shoes I wear.
It's just a fact that, whether real or contrived, our biographies play a big
part in the reception of our work. Successful people know this. In order to make
the most of this inevitable framework through which all of our work will be perceived
— or
at least to neutralize it — they have to become whomever their work tells them
they should be.


So which stage of your formula from your contribution to Hans Ulrich-Obrist's Do
are you in now:

1] Get rich

2] Become an artist

3] Get rich


Now that's a formula. Things would be much easier if I had known how to work my way through that. They should teach that in math class instead of all those useless algorithms? Well, regardless, I've given up on step 1 and have moved straight on to step 2, but with an eye on step 3.


Talking about the Baltic Triennial Æ it has been exactly eighteen months since we received an email from Joe Scanlan, an artist whom we wanted to participate in the Baltic Triennial, introducing you as his assistant and a very particular type of collaborator. Can you explain more about your relationship with Joe? Is he your collaborator or a mentor or a shadow self? What is your current role in Things that fall? And why do they fall?


I have known Joe for many years. He was my first sculpture teacher. I worked as his assistant for some time, biding my time and observing how things worked because I didn't really know how to insert myself into the art world.

I was intimidated at first by the challenges I saw, not only as an unknown, unconnected
artist from the south but also a black female in a white male dominated world.
For a long time I decided I would just be invisible. Pawn my works off as someone
else's, don a mask. After promoting my works under Joe I realized that being
invisible was ridiculous — especially when he was getting credit for my ideas!
This is the fate of every artist's assistant, the reason they — at least the
ambitious ones — break out on their own. I appreciated al Joe's help, but
it was time for Donelle Woolford to have her own space, her own work, her own
narrative. So here I am. As much as they try to keep the two worlds apart,
art is politics, and I just got tired of sitting on the sidelines. Labels aren't
so important to me, call me what you will: a collaborator, an image, an avatar.
All I want is to achieve things that are beyond my identity, beyond what my
physical appearance in the art world will allow.

I am a part of things that fall — I take up some space on the website, plus
I used to handle its sales and marketing. Everything falls really, is there any object on earth that ascends in perpetuity? Inevitability is very profitable.


Why did you decide you wanted to insert yourself into the art world? Why did you decide to become visible at some point?


It's difficult to create work and not to want people to experience it at some point. It was more painful to watch from the sidelines and complain than anticipated. I thought by not taking part in all the politics I could forget about it. But I love art and will always be around it so there was really no separating myself from it.


Were you making works of different stripes under those different names or was it a more homogenous production?


I haven't released my works under many different names. I've stuck mainly to my wood works. But I could understand reaching a certain point where you feel locked into a style. People can be very inflexible and expect a certain work from you. In that scenario I could see creating and releasing a new genre of works under a different surname. It's like how celebrities put on hats and glasses to escape the paparazzi.


So if one day someone asks you to produce a work in someone else's style under someone else's name, properly paid, would you?


Yes, that's what I used to do for a living as an art assistant, use my hands as instruments of labor to create someone else's vision. I don't like it much.


What would you do if one day you saw a piece by Donelle Woolford that you've never seen before on ebay?


That's a strange thought. I guess I would be flattered and outraged. People copy, you can't really stop that part of human nature. I do believe that when something is made by a person it carries a unique energy, and that can never be copied. If my works are so well liked that people are bootlegging them and pawning them off on ebay I don't think I'd worry about the sale of one knock-off.


Would you ever consider producing an invisible work?


I have actually.


The above? Or something else? Tell me, I am really curious. Don't you think invisibility has become almost a matter of style, not only an ideological statement?


It was a different project to actually create an invisible piece . . . it was interesting, very liberating. I liked it a lot. I think the obscure and the unknown have always been in vogue.


Do you have a blog? Where is your home? Thinking about home (or rather about a house) I remember John Waters who claimed that 'My life is a reality show. Everybody has a great reality show if you go out, if you live a life. I think the only people who really love reality shows don't go out of the house.'

Do you ever see your life as a reality show? Or a film? Or a song? I think it was Jill Scot who said that 'You become what your sing about' — she was talking about funk. Is it true that the artwork you do can have a transformative power on your life?


I don't have a blog, my daily stream of consciousness is not for public consumption. My home is where I can breathe and create, right now somewhere between New Haven and Brooklyn. I often see my life as a film or at least an hour-long sitcom. In certain moments I can even hear the music cue up. I don't really think my art transforms me; I am not separate from my
art. It is just an extension, an action, a part of me that reflects myself just like a best friend or an enemy would.


I think my home is writing, or maybe traveling. Kathy Acker was saying 'traveling is just like having an endless orgasm. You just go and go and
go.' Do you know her work? I remember her when I think about the way you re-appropriate Cubism — I think she did similar things with centerpieces of male writing like Don Quixote. Can you tell me more about your cubist period? Did it come from Fauvism or Conceptualism?


I grew up with Cubism. Jazz, scratching and breaking, even beat boxing with my sister. I grew up looking at African sculptures and masks and kente cloth dolls. So when I went to school years later and saw the works of Klee,
Mondrian and Picasso I was like . . . oh, ok, I see where they are pulling from. Breaking things down to basic elements, flattening, refracting and recombining to approximate life — and maybe even create a better vision of it — seemed very familiar to me and natural.


To envision life? Do you like to define what art means to you? And how does this definition change?


That sounds like a very philosophical question Rai. I say 'envision life' because I think all pieces are made through their creator's eye, from their vantage point. Life is consumed. Filtered through our beings and regurgitated back into the world through various forms of creation. Art is just another form of communication, one that can reach you in ways that dialogue alone cannot. I like the freedom it allows for; to comment on, express, re-envision, or supplement life however you see fit.


I like what you say about freedom. To me art provides a possibility to be at both sides of the door at the same time.


And do you stand there just looking at yourself?


I look at myself fully aware that I become different in this act of looking. Almost-someone-else. Have you ever appropriated Joe's work?


I have never purposefully appropriated Joe's work, but I can't promise that I haven't been influenced by it or his thought. I've never been one to believe that copying is the highest form of flattery. To me it's much closer to plagiarism, criminal almost. But we are all guilty of it. It's impossible to see something and to not be affected by it and have it seep into you, but it still surprises me that it happens. What does new and original even mean: without a trace of influence or origin?


Do you consider originality a sin as well?


I could never see true originality as a sin. I'm just not sure I've even witnessed such a thing.


A sin or originality?


Either. I do know and like Kathy Acker's work. I like thinking about how her intention was not to be a feminist voice but to wrIte from a female point of view in a sexist world. People get so used to looking at things from a certain perspective it can be hard to flip it around and really see it from another vantage point.


So would you mind if I flip it around and say that Joe Scanlan is a creation of Donelle Woolford and this is how the feminist machine works? Is it true that Joe is an actor performing the scripts you've created — I am sure you know the story of the buried coffin in Vilnius. Did he tell you any details about it when he returned to the U.S.?
(By the way, I really like the way Russian poet Joseph Brodski talked about the power of one's creative practice to influence one's everyday existence. He was saying that in artistic production he was trying to make things in a different way each time and thus to avoid clich³s, and the same attitude would move to his everyday existence where he would try to avoid clich³s of living.)


As intriguing as the idea is, Joe is definitely not my creation. And nothing against him, but I don't think a feminist machine would use Joe as its front! He still plays a huge role in my career and development, but he is very much his own person. He is kind of like Big Brother, or the man behind the camera, coaching, guiding, advising . . .


Once, while we were digging a grave by flashlight in the woods outside Vilnius, Joe introduced himself in a rather Hitchcockian fashion as 'the man who knew too much.' Would you agree? Is he following our conversation now?


That sounds like Joe. He's much smarter than he lets on. I do feel an inherent sadness for people that seem to 'know too much,' and that includes Joe. It seems to always come with a loss of innocence. Look over my shoulder and tell me if you see him.


Yes, I see him and I'm trying to decide whether he is a projection or a screen, or both. Who are the other characters in this sitcom?


Well the usual cast. My very sexy romantic lead, my best friend, my ex, my two sisters, my mother and father, my roommate. They are a lively bunch. Love, lies, betrayal. I've been waiting for MTV to call me for my own reality TV show! I'm still waiting . . .


Would you like Madonna or P Diddy to have a cameo appearance in your reality show? Who else if not them?


Prince. Do you know how to contact him?


Call him. Why Prince?


He's one of the greatest artists I know and he dances in heels better than I do.


By the way, what are the materials and skills you are using in your current work? Would you like to tell more about what you do? And would you agree that you share some love for craftiness with Joe?


I use wood scraps and recently have begun integrating a layer of beautifully corrogated cardboard to the pieces. It gives them a wonderful new depth and texture, they feel much more concrete, images as objects, like Malevich or Fontana. The pieces I make are cubists paintings, made out of wood scraps. My studio is in a giant reclaimed lumber factory so I have tons of free material, and all of it from the industrial revolution. It's funny Æ part of Cubism's original motivation was to inject an element of primitivism, of baser instincts, into industrialized modern life. So here I am, remaking cubism from derelict New England factories, injecting remnants of industrialized modernism into our media-driven, postmodern life. I really love working in a very physical way — I always have. As an adolescent I used to carve things out of wood, blow glass and melt metals. I like working with the elements. We don't push materials around much anymore in our society, there's something really sad about that.


Were did you find a place to blow glass and melt metals?


I was fortunate enough to have parents who supported my love of the arts so they put me in programs initially that had those classes and facilities. I really admire that, because if I had a daughter who came to me at age fourteen saying she wanted a blow torch, I can't say I'd so readily oblige.
And one summer while I was visiting my mom's family in North Carolina I attended an workshop on Installation art taught by Lester Hayes. He was an early and influential postminimalist in New York before he became bitter and left town. Art world politics in New York City in the late 1960s really got him down. But when he was in a room with stuff in it, any kind of stuff you might pull out of storage shed or a garage, he just lit up and turned it all into poetry. It was startling to me at that age, to carefully peel the aluminum foil off a broken piece of insulation and then, voila, call it art.


I know that work. He was a contemporary of another tragic artist from the 1960s, John Fare. At the moment I'm working on a project related to his work. I hope you can contribute to it in some way while you are in Paris.

He wrote (let me quote this big chunk of his email):

'For the past five years I have been developing an artist named Donelle Woolford. First was she was my studio assistant, then she did some editorial work for me, and finally she became my publicity manager. Many people corresponded with her and she performed her tasks well.

'Now she has left my employ and set out as an artist in her own right. Having heard that there was a very lively market for hot young artists in New York — especially recent Yale graduates — she has moved there to try her hand with the rest. She is currently living in Clinton Hill and working as a television advertising producer.

'I mention her because she is, on many levels, a black market artist. First and most obviously she is a black artist and she markets her work, ergo, she is functioning in a kind of "black market" that is, as you say, both obvious and indiscernible in the context of the contemporary art world.

'Second, her work is a smart, satiric remake of classical cubism. That is, she is taking back for her culture an aesthetic that was stolen from them 100 years ago. Rather than oil on canvas, however, her cubism is constructed out of found scraps of wood to have the approximate appearance of cubism. Thus her work is both real (made) and fake (counterfeit), just as the original cubists' works' were both real (painted) and fake (bastardized African culture). Her works are mere shadows of the originals, outcasts lurking in the suburbs of art history, waiting for their big score. Her works are stolen goods.

Third, I have been acting as a "front" for these works of hers, pawning them off as my own in the backrooms of various galleries but never showing them in the light of day under my name. So far, I have sold every work she has made, and this has allowed her to work at her own pace, in private, like a ghost.

'She has tired of this arrangement, however, and both of us feel it is time for her to break out. I think the Triennial presents the perfect opportunity, and so I propose that my contribution to the Triennial be the involvement of Donelle Woolford as a young black artist. She would need to show work, travel, attend the opening and be publicized to the same extent as all other artists in the show. She would have her marginal bio published just like everyone else will. And she would do her best to make her contribution to "Black Markets World" be as beautiful and subversive as possible.'

Karma Chameleon: An Interview with Donelle Woolford
By Lorena Muñoz-Alonso

First published in An Art Newspaper (Vol. 10, no. 23, April, 2011): 27–28.

LORENA MUÑOZ-ALONSO: I was reading David Joselit’s piece on you, in which he describes you as a quasi-mythical character and as an ‘avatar’, which allows "for an imaginary/real mobility" that a regular artist lacks. I am wondering how do you interpret this concept of mobility and why it symbolizes something positive or desirable?

DONELLE WOOLFORD: The dichotomy of "real” and "imaginary" reminds of the three kinds of beds in Plato's Republic: the idea of a bed ("bedhood," if you will); the object that is made by a carpenter (the bed itself); and the representation that is made by a artist (a likeness or imitation of a bed). Though Plato was quite confident about the distinctions he drew between ideas, objects, and representations, in our time we're no longer committed to such utilitarian hierarchies. So, what are these paradigms of "real" and "imaginary?" Am I, Donelle, a "god-made" idea, and if so, are ideas real or imaginary? If I'm an object — and as such, useful — does that make me more real? Or am I an imitation of something — an artist, perhaps — that relegates me to the realm of the imaginary? If I’m enjoying some kind of mobility it’s between these levels of being (or not). This chimerical quality is key to myth.

Being a character-driven myth, a shared theatrical role, allows me to be fixed and flexible simultaneously. There is the underlying, common notion of Donelle Woolford as a young artist—my character, so to speak—and then there are the particular embodiments of that character by the different actors who interpret it. Myth allows me to be in several places at once, or to be instantly fluent in German, or tall, or somber, or handsome. Every version of me is different, and yet every version is still me.

LMA: In your artist statement you define yourself as the 'quintessential market artist'. Could you explain to me what do you mean by that exactly and how that relates to your political agenda?

DW: I'm just trying to claim some valuable intellectual territory for the left. I've never understood why so-called political artists almost completely cede the power of commerce to conservatives. The belief that refusing to make saleable art objects for a market economy somehow symbolizes a critique of that market is dubious and shortsighted. Eliminating the object of exchange only turns the artist herself, or the public event, or the community involved into commodities that get bought and sold in an institutional marketplace of museums, biennials, and state-funded public art. So what we somewhat lazily refer to as commodity critique is really only a transformation — an exploitation, really — of systems and networks of people into art objects. That doesn’t sound very liberating to me, in fact it sounds quite corporate and repressive.

If one of my desires is to empower myself within a system like the art world it seems more resistant and effective to collect free material, use my skills to organize it into meaningful images, and try to control the flow (and value) of those images as my sustenance.

LMA: Your narrative as a working class black female is written by Joe Scanlan, a middle class white man. Do you have any idea why Joe decided you should fit this description, what were his most intrinsic reasons and thoughts to engage in a race and gender conflict that doesn’t really affect him that much?

DW: Actually you have it backwards. Joe is the working class artist, I'm the privileged one. My father was a real estate lawyer who made a successful transition into entertainment law. My mom is a natural healer and author. And I graduated from Yale.

If I were to say anything about Joe's characterization of me it would be that he wrote me to be everything that he is not. That counts in the basic white / black, male / female way, but it also counts in terms of class and education and family history. I'm everything he is not in those ways, too, and they also matter.

Plus, I question your assuming that race and gender don't really affect him. Aren't we all equally affected by this conflict? I think a working-class white male is just as bound to a stifling categorization as a bourgie black woman is, or a queer Arabian monarch. We're all trapped in overlapping sandboxes, and in that sense Joe and I play well together.

LMA: So far, you have been played by many different actresses. I am wondering, if you could choose to be embodied by a really famous actress who would it be?

DW: Salma Hayek is always a good answer to any question regarding celebrity embodiment. I could say Tilda Swinton but I think she’s too tall — even though I love her body language, her screen temperature. Does Patti Smith count? She would be the exact opposite of both Swinton and Hayek, so you kinda get my drift. If Johnny Depp's turn as a drag queen in Before Night Falls qualifies, he'd be great, too. However, Viola Davis would be my top choice, even though she might be too perfect for the part.

LMA: I like very much the idea of you being a ghost, which you also say on your statement. However, a ghost is someone ‘present in absence’, in the form of a memory or a supernatural force. But you are, if you will, 'absent in presence'. You are there but you are not you, but the actress that plays you. What kind of ghost are you?

DW: I think ghosts are a manifestation of our desire to see what we want to see. The Donelle with whom you're interacting and the Donelle with whom someone else might interact are different. I don't think I'm "absent in presence," if I understand what you mean by that statement. But perhaps others do feel that way. I often have to contend with invisibility, even though I'm always sure I'm there.

LMA: How necessary are you for the art world?

DW: I think we're all only just beginning to learn the language of perception as it relates to social space. Our vocabulary is quite narrow, actually. For a recent show at White Flags Projects in Saint Louis I created a piece based on Piaget's theory of the conservation of volume. This theory deals with development and perception: at a young age, people associate volume (size) with shape, regardless of what they might have previously known or seen to the contrary. At the opening, I got to experience (and experiment with) reactions that I attributed to shifting perceptions of my portrayal. Throughout the opening, I would periodically change out of character whenever I climbed onto one of four risers built for the occasion that were of slightly different heights. Although my portrayal changed back and forth throughout the opening, my physical form remained unchanged. Some people had a hard time dealing with that because, like the Piaget experiment, they were not able to apply knowledge from previous perceptions of Donelle to the situation of Donelle in the present. Others just rolled with it and played along. It felt pretty important.

The performance challenged notions of provenance. It challenged my audience to reckon with what they think I am and what they'd like me to be. If that's an experience we need to have as an audience, then I guess I'm necessary for the art world.

LMA: I remember I went to see Double Agent at the ICA almost three years ago but I completely missed the point of your work. You were not in the gallery in that particular moment and I didn't even know you were an 'avatar', so my experience was reduced to the sight of an empty studio. What happens with Donelle's agency when the viewers fail to grasp her true essence? Is it diminished or, on the contrary, multiplied?

DW: The unknown is always more promising than the known. My agency is quite vast when you don't know anything about me, but the more you learn the tighter and smaller my realm gets. However, just when you think what you know about me will annihilate your curiosity, the fact that I am portrayed by many actors who are empowered by their portrayals flips the whole premise on a point, like light passing through a pinhole, and my agency expands again.

My existence is kind of like a solar eclipse. I'm best seen inverted, projected, indirectly.

LMA: Double Agent was a very interesting show in that it addressed situations wherein artists use others to make their work. Have you ever felt exploited in an artistic working relationship, like for example with Joe? And, have you ever felt guilty of exploiting someone yourself?

DW: I'd like to point out that exploitation has two meanings: to make productive use of something generally, like a skill or a natural resource; and to make productive use of something specifically, for one's own advantage. I can't name an artist who doesn't want to be exploited in the first sense, and I can't name an artist who hasn't been exploited in the second.

It's funny that people are so fixated on my exploitation, but I think that's more a function of their politicized perceptions of me (and of Joe) than it is of the work. It's also disrespectful, somehow, to assume that I would wittingly allow myself to be used. After all, the show was called Double Agent, not Agent and Sub-Agent.

LMA: At the end of the day, what is more important to you: your work in itself or the debate around the questions of gender, race and authorship that it generates?

DW: The work.

LMA: I was thinking about African-American art institutions and museums and wondering if your work has ever been included in any show in that kind of context. What do you think of these institutions and in what way do you feel they open up or narrow the dialogue around an artist's work?

DW: Joe told me something that happened at the opening of a show he had recently in New York City, where he displayed his archival recreation of David Hammons’ Blizzard Ball Sale. That's the performance where Hammons sold snowballs on St. Mark's Place in 1983, alongside all the other Sunday morning flea market participants. Anyway, a curator from MoMA asked him if he was particularly interested in black artists. And Joe thought, you know, I've made works derived from Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, Rachel Whiteread, Mike Kelley, and a whole museum exhibition that was an hommage to Sol LeWitt. Not once did someone ask me if I was particularly interested in white artists in response to any of those works. But with David Hammons it was different. The question wasn't asked in a malicious way at all, it was just a normal, rote thing to say by someone working at one of the most prominent museums in the world.

If we weren't all racially affected in some way, institutions like The Studio Museum or El Museo del Barrio in New York, to name two, would not need to exist. I think the commonly held notion is these places are exclusionary and narrowing. However, they exist to achieve exactly the opposite goal: to overturn the narrow question that Joe heard at his opening. We have yet to reckon fully with our perception of "the norm," and until we do, we have to have institutions for the rest of us.