8 QUESTIONS IN 4 PARTS

The transcript from an event at the ICA, London
16 March 2008




THE CAST
(in order of appearance)

Mark Sladen, director, ICA, London
Claire Bishop, art historian
Donelle Woolford, artist
Polly Staple, director, Chisenhale Gallery, London
1st Questioner
2nd Questioner
3rd Questioner
4th Questioner
5th Questioner
6th Questioner
7th Questioner
8th Questioner


MARK SLADEN

This discussion obviously coincides with the Double Agent exhibition, now on view at the ICA. It has been curated by Claire Bishop, a writer and academic, and Associate Professor of History of Art at the CUNY Graduate Center, in collaboration with myself, Mark Sladen. I’m the Director of Exhibitions here at the ICA. We’re also delighted to have here with us this afternoon Donelle Woolford, who is one of the artists in the exhibition. Donelle is an artist from New York who has exhibited in a number of international group exhibitions such as last year’s Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates. She’s represented by Wallspace Gallery in New York and there is a bit of extra information on her in the gallery guide to the exhibition.
One of the central concerns of Double Agent is the use of mediation, delegation, and collaboration in contemporary art practice, and Donelle is here at the invitation of the artist Joe Scanlan. She is currently in residence in a temporary studio, which you’ve probably seen over there. She’s here on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. She’s going to give a fifteen-minute presentation on her work that will be followed by a half-hour-long discussion between the three of us, in which Claire and I will attempt to situate Donelle’s practice within the wider themes of performance and authorship in the exhibition, and then we’ll take questions. I imagine the whole thing will probably last about an hour. But let’s start with your presentation, Donelle.

DONELLE WOOLFORD

Good afternoon. Thank you for coming today to hear me talk about my work. First I want to thank Claire and Mark for inviting me to participate in Double Agent. It’s been a great adventure to be a resident here and a fascinating experience for me.
Okay, so: Donelle Woolford Exhibition Views.


[IMAGE 1]


Last year I participated in the 8th Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates, and as in the exhibition downstairs the installation I presented was a remake of my studio. You can see here—just like downstairs—that I work at two desks, and I have wood. I inhabited this studio during the opening, which was an all-day affair. What was interesting here was that all of this wood was actually taken from a working studio in Sharjah. During the time that I was there I did a little research on the city and I found that the Sheikh had decided to kick out the people who were working in the middle of Sharjah and make it into a kind of historical village, a fake antiquated town in place of the real one. All this wood was from a carpenter’s studio that was no longer being used. And it had me ask the question: What is real if this town is filled with actors —like in Virginia, where we have something called Colonial Williamsburg. What is real, if the workers are no longer involved but actors are called in to play them? So I decided to make a fake studio in the middle of the museum and use the wood from this real studio that was deemed useless.


[IMAGE 2]


So, facing this studio is your usual gallery scene and it has my works on the wall, and that also begged the question, for me, of what is this space? What are we looking at? When you walk into a museum is this what you expect, or is it the space where the art is actually created? And for me it’s important to have both sides of the table shown: the messy side that actually brings about the beauty on the pristine side. And I like the confusion that generates, how sometimes being presented with a view backstage is more interesting than what’s on stage.

[IMAGE 3]

That’s me in my studio. Ah, yes. This… [laughs] This is when I met the Sheikh. And it’s interesting because this picture captures a moment that I don’t really remember … partly because I can’t remember what was going through my head, just ‘I’m meeting a Sheikh! This is unbelievable!’ And so you have your blinders on, like, ‘Ah! This is amazing!’ But then I see the picture and it’s funny to me because he really doesn’t look like he’s interested! He’s the one in the middle, and next to him is his son, and then we have the two attendants on either side and they crack me up because they really—honestly—look like they’re happy to meet me. And I read someplace that UNESCO calls Sharjah the cultural capital of the Middle East, and, you know, it’s true he’s really done a lot to bring art into the community. Whereas a lot of the other states there are associated with gambling and things like that, he’s maintained Sharjah as a dry state and really, you know, about art. So that was me meeting a Sheikh!

[IMAGE 4]

Okay, this is in Paris, at Galerie Chez Valentin. This exhibition wasn’t a recreation of my studio. It was actually more the kind of scene you expect when you walk into a gallery. I tend to use palm trees in my work, partly as a screen, so to say, like camouflage, and in this particular instance I added some modern chairs as well.

[IMAGE 5]

And with this view you can see better how the palm trees are acting as a screen but how also, with the chairs, they act as brackets to my paintings. And I guess to just mention a little bit about my work, the time period that I am influenced by mostly is the early twentieth-century, with the birth of the Cubist movement and the use of African masks, and how painters at that time were influenced by seeing these so-called ‘primitive’ aesthetics. So, for me, palm trees are a kind of camouflage but they also function as a sign of the exotic, the Other, in relation to my work. Additionally, trees have been around much longer than we have, well at least longer than painting and art and Cubism as we know it, and modern chairs come after that movement, so they do kind of frame my work in that way. They stand in for any number of tensions that were in the air at the time and perhaps contributed to the birth of Cubism, conflicts that might be summarized as Paul Gauguin versus the Wright Brothers. And lastly, and this is something that we just don’t pay attention to a lot of the time: When you walk into galleries or loft spaces that are kind of stylish there are often palm trees, and they’re almost irrelevant because they’re not natural to the spaces where they are, they’re not indigenous trees. So that’s another reason why I use them in my work.

[IMAGE 6]

This show was at the beginning of the year in New York City, at Wallspace, which is located in Chelsea. And this is again a very traditional gallery view. My work is on the wall again and I have the plant, not a tree this time but another very luscious, exotic plant, as you can see, a philodendron. Wallspace is a gorgeous gallery.

[IMAGE 7]

Now adjacent to this larger room is a smaller back room in which I made a kind of collage in space. And what I wanted was to have each of the objects that make up the collage consist of an exclusive material, each with exclusive properties and a distinct role to play. So there is fabric on the chair, and the steel armature, and wood, a plant with its particular elements —chlorophyll, soil, cellulose, the plastic pot—Plexiglas, a Malinese stool, an incandescent floor lamp, the digital projector, and, on the ceiling, a grow light. I kind of saw this as the boiler room for the main gallery.

[IMAGE 8]

And the projector, you’ll see better here, projected different images from 1907, which is the year that Picasso painted Demoiselles D’Avignon. For example we have different African art and artefacts but also technology from that period. And all of this I did with a variety of research, some in-depth and some superficial, from reading Robert Rosenblum’s Pioneering Cubism to doing Google searches on the Internet. And so that included automobiles from that time, early airplanes, and some documentation of plants from Africa that were discovered and catalogued by the museum of natural history in Paris. And also fashion: late Victorian capes, what men and women were wearing at that time. The way I see it, it was almost as if this was a primordial soup waiting for lightning to strike it and touch off the Cubist movement. Who knows, probably not, but at least it was all there, all the ingredients were there.

[IMAGE 9]

And so the next one is here. This is my studio again recreated. Every day I walk in there I wish my actual studio looked like this (laughs). I want to take the view back home with me; it’s such a beautiful arrangement. [Improvise]

[IMAGE 10]

[Improvise]

[IMAGE 11]

[Improvise]

[IMAGE 12]

[Improvise]

[IMAGE 13]

And just some of my individual works. Okay, Foreboding. Again, as you can see, most of my work is with wood, but I some times augment things with paint. I like being a painter who doesn’t use much paint, but still makes paintings.

[IMAGE 14]

And this is Do The Right Thing, which of course is titled after the Spike Lee movie. [Improvise]

[IMAGE 15]

And this is Detonation. This piece always reminds me of musical instruments exploding—hence the title. Because with an explosion you have a detonation but also when you explode instruments they become de-toned, so it’s kind of a pun. And this is Sharette, which is downstairs; a sharette is a space, usually an architecture office, where many people are working side by side in the same room under the watchful eye of a supervisor or a ‘master’, so I think it was very appropriate for this review. Plus it’s an old-fashioned word, it makes you think of rows of drafting tables and hanging lamps and precision drawing instruments, and I like that image.

CLAIRE BISHOP

OK.

DONELLE WOOLFORD

I hope I didn’t fly through that out of nerves!

CLAIRE BISHOP

No, no. That was great. Thank you very much, Donelle, for that presentation. I know that you’re participating in this exhibition on the invitation of Joe Scanlan. So I wondered if you could you just clarify what your relationship is to Joe.

DONELLE WOOLFORD
Well I’ve known Joe for many years. He was my first sculpture teacher at Yale, and for a little while afterwards I worked as his assistant.

MARK SLADEN
And was that a useful experience?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
Well, actually it was a great experience and great practice for becoming an artist. And it also allowed me to bide my time and see how things worked because I couldn’t quite figure out how to insert myself in the art world. I guess in the beginning for me it just seemed very difficult as an unconnected, unknown artist from the South, and a black female in a predominantly white male environment. How could I make it happen? So originally what I planned to do was make myself invisible and don a mask and I started to pawn off my works under someone else. And after a while I just realised that being invisible was ridiculous, you know, with Joe promoting my works. First of all he’s getting all the credit, but, as in any situation, you know, being an assistant you eventually want to break out on your own. And so I did and I pushed Donelle Woolford out there so she had her own space, her own work, and her own narrative.

CLAIRE BISHOP
So is that what you think you’ve been doing over the last year or so, inserting yourself into the art world by showing your work in studio installation format in Sharjah and here at the ICA?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
Yeah, yeah. I think every young artist is a character ready to be consumed. You know when people see me they don’t know if I’m real or not, but for me, perception is relative, I don’t care if people think I’m a collaborator or an avatar or an actor.

MARK SLADEN
So then what or who do you think you are?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
Well, today I am Donelle Woolford. [Laughs] Because I choose to be! That’s my mantra. And I’m fascinated by authenticity or the lack thereof: Who’s to say what’s real or a performance? We all show different sides of ourselves and we all hide different sides of ourselves, and we choose an image based on other images and basically—like P. Diddy, Puff Daddy, or Sean Puffy Combs, or whatever he wants to be called now—it’s just that: it’s just a name and that’s not what really matters. What really matters is how you put yourself out there. And that’s what I’m doing: I’m putting Donelle Woolford out there with strength, with conviction, and with confidence. Oh, and, by the way, my name is Jennifer Kidwell and I’m an actor hired by Joe Scanlan to play the role of Donelle Woolford, just as other actors have been hired to play her in different locations.

CLAIRE BISHOP
So Abigail, if I can call you Abigail, what’s it like playing the role of a contemporary artist? Is it frustrating or exhilarating or testing?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
[Laughs] It’s actually a lot of fun! I’ve had nothing but a great time doing this and being here and meeting people. It’s been utterly fascinating to have a space in this museum and have people come up to you as an artist, expecting you to be an artist, and I guess almost like the awe that you get and the good wishes. It’s been amazing and I’ve loved every moment of it.

CLAIRE BISHOP
I’m curious to find out what kind of directions Joe Scanlan gave you for performing Donelle?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
Joe was fantastic, actually. We had, I guess, to set it up we had a very brief time, less than a month from when I got the role to when I came here. So it was a crash course in art. He sent me a long e-mail talking about different types of art like appropriation, collage, narrative art, identity art. He gave me different readings I had to do and different shows to attend. Unfortunately I did miss the Robert Prince—

CLAIRE BISHOP
Richard Prince.

DONELLE WOOLFORD
—Thank you, the Richard Prince retrospective that was at the Guggenheim. But I did catch the Kara Walker exhibit, which was a beautiful example of I think it was identity art. And then we had a great field trip to the Met to look at their African art collection, which is extensive, and Joe came along and we just went through that and then saw a little bit of the works from Picasso and people of that time.

MARK SLADEN
Could you talk a little bit about the audition process? I also understand Joe has particular ideas about styling you as well.

DONELLE WOOLFORD
Yes, yes. Well, the audition process was [Laughs] pretty fascinating. When I saw the ad I saw they wanted someone who knew a lot about art, and I was like, ‘Oh no! I’m not gonna do this! I know nothing about it’. And then I eventually went, and each time I went I had to say something about art and I really thought I was making a fool of myself. But he’s been very good at giving me a lot of information and honing what makes sense to people. So for my final audition I had to go to, I forget what it’s called, but it’s when critics come to your studio and grill you on your work. So I had a kind of mock set up of that and out of the whole experience I think that was the hardest thing that I had to do—though this comes close! But, you know, it’s been very eye opening and he’s been very patient with me through the whole thing. And as for styling he’s very much into the image of what I look like and so, like, this jacket, which is Dries Van Noten, I’ve never heard of him in my life, but this was something that was very important that I should wear, as well as my fifteen-dollar glasses that I can’t see out of at all [Laughs] and my shoes, so this has been my uniform which has been very helpful in forming my character.

MARK SLADEN
And can you say a little about your experience here at the ICA? I should add that one of the instructions that Joe gave us was to take Donelle out and insert her into other art world situations in London. So maybe you could say a bit about your experience in the gallery and also outside?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
Well, my experience here has been great. People here have been really, really kind. There have been a few times that… well, everyone has that gallery guide and clearly that woman is not me! [Laughs] It’s been interesting dealing with it: from hearing that I’ve gained a lot of weight [Laughs] to people staring at it and staring at me for a while in the corner, and then finally coming up to me and saying, ‘Are you the artist?’ and I say, ‘Yeah!’ and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, of course, of course, yeah’—so that’s been kind of fun. But for the most part people have been very generous and I’ve really enjoyed my time. And I went out with Mark a few times and it was like going out with a rock star I have to say. I loved it! [Laughs] But of the different events that I’ve been to, I think the most fun was going out to the dinner with the -

MARK SLADEN
We went to a dinner at White Cube for the opening for Mario Garcia Torres’s show. I thought this might be a good one to go to as some of you might have seen the lecture that he gave at Frieze last year that was also about using the idea of a fictional author. I called up White Cube in advance and spilled the beans about who she was, and then it became a fascinating dynamic over dinner—people who knew and didn’t know—and it played itself out in a very interesting way. Whereas other situations we’ve been in, like going to the Derek Jarman opening at the Serpentine, one just felt that any edge the project might have just got lost in that sea of people. But I was corresponding with Joe and he thought that was quite good because it was a classic situation for a young artist to be in, lost in an ocean of gamesmanship and activity.

CLAIRE BISHOP
Can I ask about the difference between taking instructions from an artist and taking instructions from a theatre director?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
You know, it’s interesting because the two don’t exist in the same world. From a theatre director you have the script and that informs you first and foremost—what and who your character is. By contrast, in this environment your character becomes… how does Joe see it? How do I see it? Who’s this woman? How did the last woman play it? Whereas in theatre, a director shapes something that already exists and we all have an understanding of the characters in a play and how the play unfolds. With this situation it was very improvisational and we never quite knew what was going to happen next. The best advice that he gave me was to ask myself, when I look at a work, and particularly when I look at my work, how does it hit me here, how do I feel about it? Not what do I think of the history, or how do I think about it politically (which is how I was approaching it before), but what it actually feels like here when I look at it. And that always brings me back to the idea that, okay, I inhabit this role.

MARK SLADEN
And do you think his idea of Donelle Woolford and yours are very different?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
You know, he gave me carte blanche, I have to say [Laughs]. He really did. I think a great example is the fact that in the guide it says I’m from Conyers and then another place it says I’m from Cleveland, and then he says, ‘It’s okay, just say you’re from New York’. So other than ‘This is what she wears’, he never said this is the way she acts in this situation, he left that up to me.

MARK SLADEN
Because she’s changed, hasn’t she? She has got older for instance and not just chronologically. I mean in previous outings Donelle was in her early twenties and now she’s supposed to be a little older than that.

CLAIRE BISHOP
I think it’s also telling that Joe is an artist and not a theatre director and the emphasis is on the visuality of Donelle: What she’s wearing is important, how she looks in the space and what the space looks like that she’s operating in. There’s much less emphasis on motivation for the character.

DONELLE WOOLFORD
That’s a very interesting point. Yeah, I mean, he did say, ‘think about if you were in a situation that was tough, how would you react?’ But for the most part it was what I looked like. And I have to say, the uniform came very late in the process. A lot of my groundwork was actually going to museums and meeting people and just finding out a lot about art.

MARK SLADEN
One thing I’ve always assumed about this project is that there’s an element of satire in it; there’s a satire of political correctness of the art world, there’s a satire of the cult of youth in the art world. What’s your opinion about how ethnicity and gender come into this role and do you think your understanding of its dynamic in those areas is different from Joe’s?

CLAIRE BISHOP
I should add that Joe Scanlan is a white male artist and Donelle Woolford is a black female artist.

DONELLE WOOLFORD
We never really spoke about that. I think it’s one of those things that some people look at and see, as opposed to me experiencing it. And I think it wasn’t my business to worry about that. My concerns were creating a human being, reacting in a way that was human, and being a character that people understood. So the politics is a difficult question because it takes me out of the character. But I remember not wanting to tell my friends who are very political that I was doing it. But when I did eventually tell them they all thought that it was great that I was going out and getting the chance to play a character that is potentially full and in an exotic location. So it reminds me of Hattie McDaniels in Gone with the Wind: She won the Oscar playing—I can’t remember the character, but she was the mammie role—and she got a lot of flack for doing that. She always said that she preferred making $70,000 for playing a maid instead of $7 for being one. And I think there’s a point where people make that decision for themselves—that it can’t be about the political experience, but rather it has to be about your human experience.

MARK SLADEN
I think now we’re going to snake away into a more general discussion about the show as whole. And one thing I wanted to bring up with Claire is how you think Donelle relates to the issues around performance that we wanted to explore in the show as a whole.

CLAIRE BISHOP
One of the premises of this show, which forms part of my research for a book I’m writing, concerns a difference in performance art from the late sixties and early seventies and what’s happened in the last ten or fifteen years. In the earlier paradigm, artists used their own bodies in body and performance art. Their own body is the site of authenticity and meaning; they act upon their own bodies as material and medium. In the last ten to fifteen years we’ve seen a notable shift away from this paradigm towards artists ‘outsourcing’ or delegating this work of performance to other people. This was an operation that I wanted to explore through a number of contemporary practices, to look at the ways in which this displacement of authorship takes place in performance but also through other mediums such as video, film, ceramics (in the case of Pawel Althamer), and installation (in the case of Donelle). That’s why these people have been assembled in the ICA in this particular way.
I’ve had a number of reactions to this exhibition, both in the press and from people talking with me, that assumed it relates to my previous writing about relational aesthetics and participation. But it doesn’t at all; for me this is a completely separate issue. Double Agent is not about viewer interactivity but about a mechanism of delegation, of outsourcing performance to other people. Something that does connect it to my previous writing is an interest in works of art and projects that are ethically uncomfortable, rather than a model I’ve criticised in the past (particularly in relationship to relational aesthetics) that presupposes a harmonious community of respect and understanding and togetherness. I’m more interested in projects that are barbed in some way, and I think that the satirical element that Mark has pointed to in the Donelle Woolford project picks up on that: There are moments of discomfort for both the actress who’s playing Donelle and the audience. On the opening night, a lot of people were completely convinced that this was an artist who had set up a studio in the space. So there’s an element of deception there that’s more or less convincing and more or less troubling.

MARK SLADEN
And as well as this notion of delegated performance there are also a lot of questions around authorship that the exhibition brings up, specifically around unreliable narrators. There are a few projects which have fictive authors: Donelle is one, but the Barbara Visser film downstairs also involves multiple layers of deception. We wanted to do seven quite distinct projects to show different aspects of this field. I even think someone like Pawel Althamer is an unreliable author within his own work. He’s quite unplaceable within the Nowolipie Group, for instance. I wondered if you could say something more about that.

CLAIRE BISHOP
Okay, it’s tricky to talk about Pawel specifically. Something I’ve become aware of since the show has gone up is that although displaced authorship seems to be a theme within many of these works, the idea that the authorship is entirely removed in them is misleading because in fact there is a very strong sense of authorship behind each of these projects. That’s what makes the best of them compelling: There’s an openness that takes place within a highly controlled framework.

POLLY STAPLE
Can I ask a question? Can you just say a bit more about that?

CLAIRE BISHOP
Yes, okay. This is something I’m trying to wrestle with and articulate at the moment. Some of the art of the present decade that interests me most involves an artist who has set up a particular structure within which they can anticipate what will take place—but it’s not tightly controlled or directed. So the works by Pawel and Artur Zmijewski are both classic examples of this, and come out of the way in which they were taught by Grzegorz Kowalski at the Warsaw Art Academy in the early nineties. He had an experimental way of teaching that was based around the idea of ‘open form’—which was opposed to ‘closed form’, i.e. structures and situations that allow no space for the viewer’s participation. This meant that his teaching involved setting up the rules of a game, but how the action by the individual artists unfolded was subject to enormous variation. And I can see both Zmijewski and Althamer using that technique in their works in Double Agent: setting up a structure and then watching it unfold. You can see that very clearly in Zmijewski’s Them, in which he sets up a series of combative painting workshops with four groups that have disparate ideologies. To an extent you know that he knows the outcome is going to be complete nihilistic conflagration, but he has no specific control over what people are saying or how they are going to react in that context. Does that make sense?

POLLY STAPLE
Yeah. I’ve got some questions, but shall I wait until the end?

MARK SLADEN
Let’s throw it open.

POLLY STAPLE
All the way though this discussion, my desire as an QUESTIONER is to know what’s at stake with Joe Scanlan with this piece. Who is Joe Scanlan? And what does it mean to him in terms of artistic strategy to develop this project? Even though I also am very aware of an unreliable director and know what’s going on with the piece, I still—

CLAIRE BISHOP
You still want to pin it on an author and find out their intention?

POLLY STAPLE
Yes, which is why I’m suggesting that what the piece builds up is… As much as exploding myths about authorship it also reinforces them by mythologizing Joe Scanlan. I know Joe Scanlan is a real artist. So that’s interesting to me and I almost want Joe Scanlan to be on stage as well.

MARK SLADEN
I was looking through my correspondence this morning and I found this rather interesting quote that Joe made about Donelle. He said: “She’s a full-fledged artist in her own right: she has a body and opinions and a developing oeuvre. Her only drawback is that by conventional measures she is not real. My role is that I invented her, just like any other author who invents a character whom they hope will enter the public imagination. I guess the big difference is that unlike a character within the framework of a novel or play that has a beginning, middle, and end, Donelle is not fixed. Rather her character is still unfolding, still being written, even as she moves through the stage of the art world, with all its characters and props. I am also on stage, partially hidden behind the bookcase or potted palm, furiously making scenes and lines and props to hand to her just before she needs them.”

CLAIRE BISHOP
What I was dreading at the last talk I did here was somebody buying the whole situation as we’d presented it to them and asking me, “Well, why did you invite Joe Scanlan in the first place? Surely there was something about his work that fit within the context of this show that he then delegated to Donelle Woolford.” And I wouldn’t be able to answer that because I think this project stands at a distance from his other work.

POLLY STAPLE
That would be one of my questions as well, if Joe Scanlan were on stage. At what point did he decide to develop the Donelle Woolford project and how does that relate to his other work? And also where does the Donelle Woolford project go? Because there must be a saturation point when it doesn’t work anymore because everyone knows how it works. So it’s like the Pierre Huyghe Ann Lee character—there’s a ceremonial killing off. I suppose what I’m intrigued about is a wider story as to why this trend?

CLAIRE BISHOP
I’ve raised this question with a few people who write about theatre and performance and they support my use of the word ‘outsourced’ because it connects to economic changes that took place in the nineties regarding the outsourcing or offshoring of labour. I’ve realised there are many words we can use to describe this mechanism, but outsourcing evokes an era of flexible working systems and economic globalisation. I don’t yet know to what extent artistic practice dovetails with those trends or is critical of them, but I think it’s significant that they are contemporaneous with these shifts.

MARK SLADEN
Could we take some more questions? Or we’ll go back to Polly. Any questions about any of the pieces?

1ST QUESTIONER
What would happen if we’d just carried on sitting here and the exposure hadn’t occurred? What if we didn’t know, and assumed we’d just got a fattened up version of Donelle sitting there. Why expose?

MARK SLADEN
I think it becomes more interesting in a controlled exposure of Donelle. At least that’s been my experience.

1ST QUESTIONER
If people remain in pig ignorance then?

MARK SLADEN
People in the art world are incredibly trusting. It’s a very nice, consensual environment and I was initially rather disappointed by how straight everyone took Donelle, that no one was really questioning it. So at that point I started to tell a few people, just to try to get a rumour circulating, and I think that the project becomes most interesting when it starts to break down. If it’s a flawless façade then I don’t think it operates.

CLAIRE BISHOP
But tell me how you experienced the first half of this talk. Would you like more discussion about wooden Cubist assemblages?

1ST QUESTIONER
Well there was something about these introductions—the Arabs, they certainly looked real, were they real?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
It was, yes. They were.

1ST QUESTIONER
I mean, does this place actually exist?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
Yeah! Sharjah.

1ST QUESTIONER
So somebody, not necessarily you, someone went there, a previous artist?

CLAIRE BISHOP
Donelle went there. OK, anyone else?

2ND QUESTIONER
I have a question for Abigail. How much do you think you actually become the artist in the piece? If you’re left without a script, you become the only creator of the piece. You might not be a visual artist but as a performer you step into that role and take over that part and Joe steps back.

DONELLE WOOLFORD
Well, yeah, because Joe’s not here, the reactions have to come from me and I suppose if I’ve been doing it for five years then I could definitely say, ‘This is where Donelle is stepping forward’. But doing it for about two months, you know, she’s not a different person from myself, and she can’t be because I’d be second guessing every move I made.

MARK SLADEN
I should also say that the exhibition is going to tour to two other venues: the Mead Gallery in Warwick Arts Centre and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. And there are other actresses or agents playing Donelle, some of whom may be with us this afternoon.

3RD QUESTIONER
I’m not even sure if the original character of the artist exists, does she? Or is she completely fictitious?

CLAIRE BISHOP
What do you mean the original character: Joe Scanlan or Donelle Woolford?

3RD QUESTIONER
Donelle Woolford. Does she actually exist in her own right?

CLAIRE BISHOP
Donelle exists.

3RD QUESTIONER
So Abi, have you ever met her?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
I guess I’ve met her through her work. I’ve met her through Joe. She’s not a body to meet. She exists, but…

3RD QUESTIONER
Is she just an idea?

CLAIRE BISHOP
I think the thing that Mark read out from Joe is beautiful, and that it says it all.

MARK SLADEN
Any more questions that we can dodge?

4TH QUESTIONER
Did you say you’re not worried about ethics?

CLAIRE BISHOP
Okay, this obviously needs a little bit of refining. It’s clear that ethics and politics come into any artistic judgement. What I meant is that I’m critical of liberal humanist ethical positions that have re-emerged in philosophical and literary thinking since the nineties under the pressure of identity politics and political correctness. And I’m more interested in retrieving theoretical anti-humanism from the French ‘68 tradition. The recent writing of Badiou, Ranciere, and Żizek is where I would align myself with regard to contemporary ethics rather than with the diluted forms of Levinas that concern responsibility and respect and acknowledgment of the Other. Does that make sense?

POLLY STAPLE
So you think a defining feature of the post–relational aesthetics moment is antagonism? I’m thinking of that in relation to Chantal Mouffe, who you mentioned in your article.

CLAIRE BISHOP
Yes, I did use antagonism as a way of criticising relational aesthetics, but I wouldn’t want to turn it into an operative principle to describe all contemporary art. I think some people would like me to do that but I’m a bit resistant to it.

5TH QUESTIONER
Can I go back one step to the unreliability of the narrator? Ultimately, if that is built into Donelle’s character, then it only functions to the point of revelation. I’m only coming across this fresh today. I thought I was coming to a curators’ talk, so is the fraudulence built into your manner or the frame?

CLAIRE BISHOP
I’m not quite clear what you’re asking.

5TH QUESTIONER
This afternoon during the talk you made a revelation. And is that built into the presentation of the character when you’re not making that explicit revelation? I mean for me as an QUESTIONER visiting downstairs …

CLAIRE BISHOP
Well, some people read the gallery guide very astutely and pick up on it by making the links from Dora García to Barbara Visser and then coming upstairs and they completely understand. It’s also hinted at through the tone of our language in the gallery guide: last weekend somebody drew my attention to one phrase, ‘up and coming’, which we would never use in relation to the other artists.

MARK SLADEN
That came from the press officer who wrote the press release. I was going to delete that phrase but then I decided to leave it in because it’s slightly destabilising: If people are looking out for clues I think that is a clue. And there are other clues in there, when I described this talk I wrote that Donelle was going to talk about her ‘double life in London’. And I think Joe does seed discrepancies into the project—for instance about Donelle’s age—you could probably Google her and find several different birth dates for her on the web if you really had the time.

6TH QUESTIONER
What is Joe’s previous work about?

CLAIRE BISHOP
He’s primarily a sculptor. The work concerns economic systems and the circulation of goods not just within the art market but also within a broader market arena. He’s got a very good website called thingsthatfall.com; for example, one of his projects is artist-designed coffins that you can buy, and the web pages take you through a whole Amazon-style shopping-basket mechanism to have the work shipped to you.

6TH QUESTIONER
Is it possible that Joe Scanlan is actually here?

MARK SLADEN
I like the way that everyone is becoming less trusting. I think if we wanted to achieve one thing with this exhibition we’ve done it.

7TH QUESTIONER
Could it be that Joe Scanlan is not a white male at all, but a white female, or the curator?

MARK SLADEN
We did think about having a third fictional curator for the show.

POLLY STAPLE
One more question. Do you know if, when Joe Scanlan is invited to talk about his own work, at another institution, not necessarily in conjunction with a show, do you know whether he talks about this project?

CLAIRE BISHOP
No, I don’t know that. But certainly on his website Donelle Woolford is one of many projects you can click onto, so you can easily source it as his work. But I don’t know what he says in an artist-talk situation.

MARK SLADEN
Maybe one more question before we wrap up?

CLAIRE BISHOP
There’s one more thing that Joe wanted me to ask Donelle: As an outsider functioning within this gallery but outside the art world, what behaviour or mannerisms have you observed while looking at the art world? What did you find that you needed to incorporate into your character to become more convincing?

DONELLE WOOLFORD
I used the word generous before to describe the audience but I think a lot of artists that I’ve come across are generous in a very soft way. It’s just so delicate, very welcoming. It’s so hard to describe and I feel really almost foolish saying it but there is something that’s just very open that I really appreciate compared to coming across a group of actors, which can be a little in-your-face sometimes.

POLLY STAPLE
One last question. It’s about the desires of the institution. I was foxed, but when I received the invitation card for the show it was also the point when I became suspicious of the project. I suddenly thought, ‘I can’t believe it, the ICA are promoting this show with this extremely good looking young black woman artist I’d never heard of – they’ve gone and found some girl in New York’. But that also dovetailed with my understanding of the ICA wanting to promote itself to a kind of young and hip audience.

CLAIRE BISHOP
That is such a great point. I would be deeply suspicious if I received an invitation card with that image: We’re not been shown the artist’s work but we’re being shown the artist bending over a desk with her bum out in these little cute shorts.

POLLY STAPLE
I’d be curious to know at what point you chose that image.

MARK SLADEN
It was when we realized that part of Joe’s desire was to disseminate images of Donelle that I thought that the card would be a good vehicle for that.

CLAIRE BISHOP
Joe is interested in her also being a virtual avatar around London. So that even when Abigail is commuting from Chiswick to the ICA, it’s a theatre without a frame: some people are seeing Donelle but they don’t even know she’s Donelle. And one way in which to seed that idea is to have her on the publicity material of the exhibition.

POLLY STAPLE
Your point about the visuality is really interesting. Because even though Abigail is really good, it’s the moment when the visuality starts to creep in, with that card, that’s really powerful.

MARK SLADEN
Well, unless there are any questions that anyone is dying to ask, let’s wrap it up.

8TH QUESTIONER
Why have you revealed it at all, so some people would know and some people wouldn’t? Why even expose it, why not just allow some phrases within notes to allow people to pick up on it?

MARK SLADEN
Well, we should probably say that the middle section of the event, after Abigail gave the PowerPoint presentation, the first few questions were actually scripted by Joe from an interview with Donelle that was partly written by Raimundas Malasaukas. So you could say it was his decision to reveal her because we were reading from a script that he conceived.

CLAIRE BISHOP
But I like the way it’s generated more doubt about Joe’s identity. This is for me the most productive part of the day.




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