In conversation with Margot Norton

Margot Norton: The first time I encountered your work was with your Wikipedia interventions such as Public Access (2010-2011), where you drove up Highway 1 on California’s coastline, photographed yourself on the beaches looking out to the sea, and uploaded the images onto each beaches’ Wikipedia page. Mood Disorder (2012-ongoing) is another related project where you photographed yourself on a beach in New York City with your head in your hands wearing all black and posted this image to the Wikipedia page for “Mood Disorder.” Since nothing posted to Wikipedia is copyrighted, these images could, and did circulate freely and legally online I remember thinking: what exactly is going on here? Did this artist just break Wikipedia? When does a photograph become “stock”? Divorced from its author? From its location? Is it when it is cropped? Photoshopped perhaps? Or given new titles? The Mood Disorder project is still ongoing and I am curious to hear how your experience of it has changed over time and what happened along the way that you didn’t expect? Also, can the project be fully-tracked? Or are there parts of it that you can’t trace, dissolved into the cyber abyss?

David Horvitz: I want to tell you a funny story: I was looking at a website that discussed different beaches you could find sea glass on. These were to make the glass works that were shown in my New Museum show, where I melted found sea glass I collected walking along the coast, and blown them into vessel shapes. I was reading about one of the beaches online when something caught my attention: there was a photograph of me standing on a beach. The author of the webpage sourced Wikipedia for the image and I encountered it just by coincidence. Strangely enough, I found it while researching for a new work. It was like this trace or shadow of an old work resurfacing into a new work. To answer your question, I didn’t expect anything. When I discuss this work I always have to tell people that I didn’t make this image circulate—it circulated by itself. Obviously, I set up the situation with the possibility that something could happen. I like to imagine it as a kind of seed that I cast out and grew, but it could easily have not grown. It could have been blown in the wind somewhere and grown somewhere that I was not aware of. The image has since been removed from the “Mood Disorder” Wiki page because I ended up getting banned from Wikipedia because of these works. I didn’t expect this at all! Yet the image still circulates, somewhere in the back channels of the internet. I still find new pages that use the image but it can’t fully be tracked. I find it by doing a simple reverse image search but I’m sure that not every website that uses the image shows up, especially if it was altered. Also, if anyone printed the image in a publication or something, there is no way I could find it through an online search. It would be crazy to one day encounter the image printed somewhere.

MN: I love how you describe your digital images as seeds that can be carried long distances by the wind (or in this case, the internet). This is something that many of your works have in common—a generosity of sorts, where you allow the work to go viral, destabilizing the notion of the unique art object (or artist!) and finding inspiration in the possibilities of endless reproducibility. In this sense, your works have a lot in common with those by Félix González-Torres, such as his take-away stacks of sheets or piles of endlessly replenished candies—or even his “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1991) —a pair of ticking clocks that will ultimately fall out of sync when their batteries expire. For your piece Let us keep our own noon (2013), for example, which was shown at the New Museum and most recently in Reykjavík, Iceland, for the 10th anniversary of the Sequences Art Festival, which we are working on together, you are in effect disseminating and dissolving the act of keeping time. The piece consists of forty-seven handbells which are activated by performers who, at local noon (when the sun is positioned directly above them), collectively ring the bells and disperse into the surrounding streets until each person can no longer hear another bell aside from his or her own. With this work, you empower each performer with the literal sound of time. What is it that interests you about this type of collaboration with the public and removal of yourself from your own work?

DH: I’ve wanted to make a photo flip book of Perfect Lovers. Maybe a photograph every minute for 24 hours as the clocks fall in and out of sync with each other. I think all artworks collaborate with the audience, and some of mine do this more literally. For example, there are encounters with works that you carry with you. I didn’t grow up looking at art, but my mother would occasionally take me to a museum. I must have been in high school, and my mother took me to MOCA in Los Angeles. I have this blurry memory of walking through the collections, not really thinking about anything, and encountering a pile of candy wrapped in silver paper. I probably didn’t even read the wall label and just kept walking, but this memory stuck with me, and I’ve been carrying it around with me. It wasn’t until years later I realized what this work was. I feel that carrying this memory of an encounter with an artwork is the same as carrying out a piece of candy from one of González-Torres’ works. The bells, besides being a sculptural installation or performative artwork, is also a sound piece. I get a lot of inspiration from sound and artists like Pauline Oliveros and John Cage. The bells are about ringing the time and developing your own rhythms as you fall out of sync with each other, but it is also a deep listening exercise. In this piece, it is important for people to hold the bells, as if they were carrying time. And as with Mood Disorder, I kind of let things go. With the bells there is more of a structure, but still things fall apart and something happens that I can’t really control. To me, it is more interesting when something happens that you don’t expect. I really despise keeping a schedule because for me that ruins a day. You already define what you are doing at a certain time and place, and that day is no longer open for something unexpected to happen. A few years ago I did two connected shows at Jan Mot in Brussels and Dawid Radziszewski in Warsaw. The shows opened the day my friend Jenny gave birth to her daughter, so no one knew exactly when the opening would be. I wanted it to be unknown, to complicate the gallery’s calendrical system with the biological (and lunar?) rhythms of my friend’s body. I’ve always been amused when Brooklyn Botanical Gardens would have their Sakura festival and none of the cherry trees would be in bloom yet, or the peak blooms would be over. The gardens would have to schedule it a year in advance for various reasons, but a tree will bloom when it wants to bloom. In Japan, the moments the trees blossom is the moment you celebrate Sakura. You are on the tree’s schedule—it doesn’t follow your Google calendar.

MN: Your projects reveal the abstract quality of standardized metrics such as Google calendars and clocks and investigate alternative, perhaps more “real” methods for measuring and experiencing time. This idea is central to the theme for the Sequences festival, Elastic Hours, that I am curating in Iceland this October, and which features your work. For the festival, you present your sculptures of hourglasses. Instead of being used in their traditional capacity, they are filled with water and used as instruments in a collaboration with Icelandic musician and composer Jófríður Ákadóttir. In this work, time is experienced visually, aurally and metaphorically perhaps. For you, how does this piece function in relation to alternative systems or rhythms of time and communication?

DH: I made molds from a collection of hourglasses I found online and the glass is blown into the same shape of the original hourglasses, but the top stays open. In the performance, the lips of the glasses vibrate when someone’s fingertips press along the rim, like how you can make a wine glass sing. I like this idea of the vessel as a container of standard duration, and then taking this defined, quantified measurement—the hour, the minute, whatever it is—and imbuing it with subjectivity and experience, and giving it a sound. Maybe it is a sound of time, of a minute, or an hour. There is also a conceptual score/text work that goes with the piece, which is a list of meditations on time. These are seemingly impossible ideas, such as trying to imagine all the time that will pass after your death (or before your birth), or imagining your heartbeat as a second—thinking beyond quantified or standardized time. The idea is that the performers might think about these ideas as they perform the sound piece or the audience is thinking about them as they listen. It is a meditation on time. You might encounter the work and have no idea that the glass pieces are made from hourglass molds, or you might miss this text, and just sit and listen to the sounds.

MN: This meditation on time reminds me of your piece I will think about you for one minute, where someone may purchase your time. The posters published by Yvon Lambert bookstore, which we are going to be wheatpasted all over Reykjavík, are another example of works that propose alternative clocks in sync with natural rhythms, such as “a clock that is wound by the wind.” When we were discussing what works you would show at the festival, I remember that you had so many ideas. One idea that we didn’t end up doing, which I love, is that you wanted to create a bootleg minute where you would offer passers-by an alternative minute that they could live on in the same way that people may sell bootleg watches on the street. You actually seem to have an archive of unrealized ideas—and I am curious to know, if you could pick one idea that you have always wanted to realize, but haven’t had the chance to yet, what idea would it be?

DH: I am doing the bootleg minute in Milan at Pirelli HangarBicocca in November! I once had the idea to do a box of ideas, and whenever I needed an idea for a show, I would go to the box. Maybe I need to put this idea in the box! I like ideas that are somewhat incomplete, that are like seeds and once they come to fruition something unexpected happens. In Los Angeles, out in the Pacific Ocean, there are old trolley cars. They were dumped out there when LA started to become a car city. It is like a secret past, buried in the depth of memory. If you look around, you can only see the present, and you can’t even imagine this past. By now the trains are probably rubble, but I’ve always wanted to bring one out.

MN: It would be amazing. There are old subway cars in the ocean surrounding Manhattan that have actually become underwater reefs for crustaceans and fish! It seems that you spend a lot of time working at the beach these days, alongside the ocean. When I was at your studio the other day you showed me a score that you created for a choir to perform the sounds of the ocean. Can you tell me a bit more about this work? Do you think that the human voice will be able to mimic these sounds?

DH: I live in California, and I think the beach might be my studio. It is a place to clear your head, to experience distance (looking out into the horizon), and aligning yourself to the rhythms of nature (the crashing of waves, the shifting of the tides, sunrises and sunsets). I was asked to be in a spoken word event at TBA21 in Vienna that was themed around the ocean. I’ve had this idea for some time—to speak the ocean sounds—and thought that Vienna would be a good place to do it, especially since it is not near the sea. I went to a specific beach (actually the beach below Trump’s golf course in Palos Verdes) with my computer and tried to type out the sounds of the ocean with the English alphabet. I made 50 separate scores, which are printed as large posters, and look like giant concrete or dada poems. To really get the effect of the ocean you need to make crazy sounds with your mouth and throat—sounds that you can’t really represent with alphabet characters. Part of the idea comes out of something I read in a Rachel Carson book. She describes the salinity levels in our blood as the same of sea water, which helps build a case for theories that life came from the sea. Imagine early life forms with porous skin or cell walls, where the sea’s water could flow in and out of these tiny bodies. Then, when some life forms migrated to land, skin developed to hold the fluids in, which was basically sea water, so they carried the sea inside them wherever they went. In a sense, these exercises are listening and vocal meditations, but they are also exercises in imagining or re-imagining that maybe we are the sea.

MN: I like how you mention that you observed the sounds of the sea from a beach next to Trump’s golf course—it’s a nice reminder that our current moment is just a small blip when considering the history of the ocean. Not to belittle the severity of our current situation, but it is refreshing to think beyond our daily preoccupations. In cities like New York and Los Angeles, I think it’s easy to forget about the greater scheme of things such as the fact that we are on a slowly rotating planet. Yet somehow, amidst it all, you manage to encourage this type of thinking with your work. I think of your neon sign that says “Whenever I take a shower I always wonder when the water was a cloud,” or the tote bag that you made that reads “Nobody owns the beach.” You even created an app that charts the physical distance between yourself and the nearest user of the same app. While it exists in the digital world, the app reminds users of the fact that we exist on a geographic axis. Do you find urgency in reminding people of the physical world in an age so marked by virtual connectedness?

DH: It’s funny, I just got back from watching the solar eclipse! It was nice standing in the middle of the city and connecting to the cosmos. I took Ela Melanie, my daughter with me. When I dropped her off at her school after they had a sign posted to reassure parents not to worry because they were going to keep the kids inside with the blinds closed during the eclipse. It seems like a punishment! Or a fear of the universe! Virtual connectedness is a good thing. You can communicate with people across the planet almost instantaneously, but it also displaces you from where you are. You lose sense of the place you are standing. A lot of my work is about reminding yourself that you are somewhere unique—in a spatial sense and a temporal sense. Imagine what it was like before time zones, when places had their own times. What time is it? Where exactly are we right now?

MoMA –
The Museum of Modern Art
David Horvitz describes “Mood Disorder,” an artist book generated out of his experiment to see how a single image propagates across the Internet. The project began when he uploaded an image of himself holding his head in his hands to the Wikipedia page on mood disorders—and resulted in Wikipedia banning him as an editor.

DAVID HORVITZ (b. 1981, Los Angeles, CA, USA) currently lives and works in Los Angeles. Solo exhibitions include: Galerie Allen, Paris; Chert, Berlin; Yvon Lambert Librairie, Paris; New Museum, New York; Kunsthal Charlottenborg, Copenhagen. Group exhibitions include Sequences, Reykjavík; MoMA, New York; IMMA, Dublin; LIAF, Lofoten. He has done projects with TBA21 (Vienna), Frieze (New York), Triple Canopy (New York), Recess (New York), LACMA (Los Angeles), The Getty (Los Angeles), Fiorucci Trust (Stromboli), Rhizome (New York). He publishes many artist books.

MARGOT NORTON is Curator at the New Museum, New York. With Jamillah James, she is curating the 2021 New Museum Triennial, and recently curated exhibitions with Sarah Lucas, Mika Rottenberg, Diedrick Brackens, and Carmen Argote at the New Museum; the group exhibition The Same River Twice at the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece; and the Georgian Pavilion with artist Anna K.E. at the 2019 Venice Biennale.