Narcisse Tordoir in conversation with the phantom of Allan Kaprow

Narcisse Tordoir

Narcisse Tordoir, Words
Narcisse Tordoir, WORDS, series, 2007
Courtesy the artist

This conversation between Belgian artist Narcisse Tordoir and the phantom of Allan Kaprow (embodied by Philippe Pirotte) took place on the occasion of the re-invention of Kaprow's Words (1962) by Tordoir, for the exhibition Allan Kaprow: Art As Life curated by Pirotte (in collaboration with Stephanie Rosenthal and Eva Meyer-Hermann) for the Kunsthalle Bern in 2007. It was originally printed in a newspaper* produced by Tordoir for the exhibition, which can be downloaded here:

Narcisse Tordoir: So! What do you think?

Allan Kaprow: Wow! That's a painting?!

NT: Yeah, some big painting. You were a painter too, weren’t you?

AK: I was, I was, but…

NT: Wait! Here in the studio it might look like painting but once it is installed it will form what you've called an "environment", consisting of two canvases, a newspaper and some documentary material. You’ll be submerged in it. In fact, you are already part of it right now…

AK: Weird though, I don’t recognize my own work anymore. Is it really based on one of my strategies?

NT: From where I see it, the "re-invention" of your work is a collaboration, an artistic dialogue, or even an exchange between the two of us.

AK: A collaboration in what sense? I can see that the imagery in these paintings is drawn from documentation of my work, but other than that…

NT: These paintings are not based on the original documentation of your work. Instead I've "re-done" that documentation. You see, there is nothing left but the photographs, so I've had to find all visual clues there.

AK: It’s funny that you consider registration and not experience to be the essence of my art.

NT: Experience is influenced by the Zeitgeist. The energy and power in those images is fascinating precisely because they don’t bring back the past. They incite something totally different!

AK: When I re-invented my own environments in 1991 in Milan, I added a mural-scale photograph of the original for each reinvention, allowing people to make a visual comparison between then and now. The frozen poses of the participants in these photographs gave clues about how to handle the reinvented environments.

NT: Exactly. We started out by performing acts and movements that were loosely modelled on the ones in the pictures. We tried to physically imitate the poses and behaviour of these historical predecessors, creating mock documents, not necessarily correct or…

Narcisse Tordoir, Words
Narcisse Tordoir, WORDS, series, 2007
Courtesy the artist
AK: "Getting it wrong" is probably getting it right…! Still, these types of documents never hold the promise of a future artwork.

NT: Why not? While studying the score of Words, the photographs of your Happenings kept haunting my head. They are lasting images that have become iconic... In the end, they are the only thing that remains, really. Whether or not these remains are art, is of less interest to me. When we deal with experiences of the past, as we do in this case, that kind of essentialism seems valid…

AK: Strange. I thought it was exactly the overcoming of the past that pushed art, certainly when considered from an avant-garde logic. It is as if nowadays there were an almost fetishist interest in a vanishing modernism and the gestures of our generation of artists.

NT: Do you know that I almost abandoned this project at one point?

AK: No, for what reason?

NT: As I said, it was hard to separate the score from the photographic documents. The pictures of your "originals", whether artworks or not, came to dominate my mind as the only possible reinvention of the score. I couldn’t get rid of those images!

AK: I wanted to create a sort of result without a result. For me, art is pure activity. It is identical to life precisely because in the end I produce documentation rather than art.

NT: … Identical to life? How can your art be identical to life, when the pictures clearly show you "posing" or strategically overlooking your own orchestrated performances?

AK: "Happenings", or "activities"! These are not performances. I deliberately used the words "happenings" and "activities" to describe my work. Remember, there is no public. In a Happening, all of the spectators are participants!

NT: Whatever… You threw tires. Pollock threw paint. There is not necessarily that much of a difference.

AK: I agree… Nowadays, life is probably part of a prefabricated reality. But then, how do you explain this project as a collaboration? What did you do with my ideas, besides abandoning them?

NT: My way of working stems from the same ideas you put forth in your text The Legacy of Jackson Pollock. You pursued Pollock’s logic by introducing all sorts of materials: the space of everyday life and of our bodies was an extended notion of painting. Involving others to intervene literally or mentally while working on a painting is quite the same for me.

AK: So, you are trying to rehabilitate painting as a medium. Pollock destroyed that, didn’t he? Like some of my colleagues, I considered dropping out of the professional art world myself, in order to deconstruct the artistically hollow professionalization of the field. Didn’t you start in the 1980s, when there was a massive return to painting?

NT: I did start then, but that does not necessarily mean I’m trying to restore the medium. At the end of the seventies, I did a lot of research concerning the reinvention of "my" medium: painting. It would be naïve not to acknowledge that our society is a complex situation; a web of relations between people. Personally, I've always seen painting as an interface and I worked in a series of collaborative undertakings.

AK: So for you, artistic activity is not about a final product? It is not about making more art?

NT: No, the art world is omnipresent today and it markets its products accordingly. I prefer to see painting as a way of working. It allows me to articulate cultural dispositions and their transformations. I've done a lot of workshops where I've tested the possibilities of different relations between people. These workshops might be seen as cultural exchange stations, realised specifically through the medium of painting.

AK: Rauschenberg once said: “Painting is related to art and life. Neither can be made.” Perhaps we try to act in the gap between the two…

Narcisse Tordoir, Words
Narcisse Tordoir, WORDS, series, 2007
Courtesy the artist

NT: I am interested in the "making" of art, in the same way you processed Pollock, his "act" of painting, possibly in trance, and these ritual aspects… and that’s what one can read as a spectator, close to the work, close to life maybe.

AK: For this re-invention, you combined pictures of different environments and happenings. You did not stick to the existing images of Words.

NT: When you sent me the score of Words in order to do a re-invention, I felt reluctant at first, because it seemed to be a bit of an old schoolmaster’s game. It is like teaching a child to swim by asking him or her to swim to the part of the pool where the swimming lesson will start.

AK: You teach art, don’t you?

NT: Yes, but I am not interested in the teaching itself; I am interested in what I can gain from it. That is why I have accepted to do this. I want to investigate the limits of artistic collaboration. To put myself in another man’s shoes and think and work with him, that is what fascinates me most. In that sense, teaching is a very rewarding activity.

AK: I share your fascination for the collaborative element in art practice. However, it is precisely this fascination that has led me to create my Happenings and invite the public to participate. To a certain extent, the Happening is the place where collaboration is enhanced and stimulated. You, on the other hand, choose to investigate the possibilities of artistic collaboration through painting. Isn’t that a contradiction, or isn’t painting, at the very least, a medium too stubborn for your said purpose?

NT: After art school, I gave up on painting for a while. I focused on "actions". However, the registration of these Actions gradually pushed me back towards painting. When I stopped painting, I did something very similar to, yet different from what you did when you were thinking about Jackson Pollock. I made big, foldable drawings and walked through the city, holding them up in different places.

AK: Like engaging in a conversation on the street?

NT: Yes, but rather as the action of a shy person. Recently, I brought some of my works resulting from the workshops I organised into the public sphere and asked the public to manipulate them. I am too shy though, to go on with performances. Let’s just say it was not really my praxis.

AK: I didn’t make performances…

NT: Sorry, "Happenings". I think in the 1960s and 1970s one could motivate people, do something personal, perhaps even odd, and that would be called a "Happening". I know you use the term to indicate a very specific type of act. We were not always that precise. We focused on the idea that "doing" things would "change" other things, but the unconscious, even naïve, implicit level of social transformation got lost over the years…

AK: I was conscious about that when I re-invented my own work from the 1980s onward. The space we live in once stood for the body and its functions but all of that has been mediated into semiotic oblivion…

NT: Yes, and on top of it, the government now strongly encourages participation in cultural actions. It’s so boring. Participation and art in general are presented as commodities accessible to all, as a means for social transformation, where in fact, people are merely being kept occupied — "entertained" at best.

AK: And you think returning to painting will challenge that status quo?

NT: Well, no, and besides, it’s not just painting. My activities did not bring me a lot, even when I worked together with people from the Behaviour Art Group, Reindeer Werk. We exchanged materials in a kind of parallel economy, or we organised workshops and tried to transgress the borders of art and life, intertwining the two. However, the whole collaboration remained between us. It didn’t really "blur" with "life".

AK: Explain that to me.

NT: There, you do that teaching-thing again. Art isn’t about confessions. We tried to stimulate social transformation and it didn’t work at all. In the end, the whole idea was naïve and as a result I started drawing again: registering actions.

AK: I want to know what art is about, then. How does the registering of actions become art again? My scores and activity booklets are certainly not art.

NT: To tell you the truth, it doesn’t interest me that much, just as it wouldn’t interest me to take a series of pictures for the sake of taking pictures. When I talk about an artwork, I talk about the "making of" that artwork. How does an artwork come into being and how are its potentialities reactivated? Those are my main concerns.

AK: So how did you use the score?

NT: You gave me the score and trusted me to "re-invent" it, as you say. I started by reading about it and looking at the remaining pictures. Gradually, working with those pictures became painterly research.

AK: That's a little like what I was doing—I wanted to dissolve the boundaries between art and reality, so that my activities became indistinguishable from real life. That is why I didn’t like museums. I liked ordinary life, performed as art or non-art. It was able to charge the everyday with a metaphoric power.

NT: But weren’t the scores working documents in the first place? Elaborated sketches? Didn’t they become ideas only afterwards? You designed decors for the Happenings and wrote instructions in much the same way as a choreographer or a film director would. From that moment on, I think the Happening has had nothing to do with everyday life anymore. My re-invention of Words started as a Happening and we acted as if we were participating in an unknown Happening of yours, acting in your absent presence.

AK: But then the participants are not the same as the ones experiencing the work?

NT: Not necessarily, but you participate, I participate, we all participate and sometimes others participate. What I mean is that you participate because you are there. You look over my shoulder and see what I am doing. I try to understand you. I reach out for what you mean, even when I just see you smoking a pipe in the background.

Narcisse Tordoir, Words
Narcisse Tordoir, WORDS, series, 2007
Courtesy the artist
AK: The documents provided you with material and incited you to paint. It is not totally unlike compensating for the actual demand for conventional works of mine that amount to art history.

NT: You are your past! You became your own medium and you are your own fiction.

AK: I want to be as absent as possible from these re-inventions by others.

NT: Well, you are very present!

AK: That was not exactly intended but if you insist, I could see my artistic existence functioning in much the same way as an oral history would.

NT: Maybe; I don’t know much about that. But yes, why not — like an oral history.

AK: I want my art to function as an integral part of life, not as a foreign body that is buried in a museum, even when it is only kept as a document of the past. By the way, I've wanted to ask you, why did you not use words in this version?

NT: Aren’t we blabbing all the time? Our words will be an integral part of this reinvention, perhaps as a counterpoint to the idea of the language imposed upon us in press conferences and discourse.

AK: Ahhh, ok. I did Words as a spontaneous language collage, abandoning philosophy in favour of art. The words in the environment were physically "used" and given a playful significance that went beyond facts and the acquisition of knowledge. Words are both communication and non-communication at once…

NT: Exactly. I liked the notion of organised junk. So I researched the presence of language: what is the equivalent of a random collection of words today? Then I made my own non-narrative collage; a deconstruction of language similar to the one you intended.

AK: The result looks a bit like neo-classicist painting. Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii comes to mind…

NT: “… You’ll live on to tell my story… ” Again, words! Hamlet’s last ones. There are probably many digested references but if I've understood you correctly that could just be another form of the functioning of oral history. Look at El Greco for example: his clouds glue everything together. I use that in my collage-technique.

AK: Mmmh. "Man thinks in pictures", said Aristotle.

NT: And "A picture is worth a thousand words". Think of it as a big collage wherein everything fits and nothing is right. Language today is used similarly: communication, public relations, news, "infotainment"… All very visual, in fact.

AK: Indeed. In the Words environment, there were no images in the ordinary sense because the words themselves functioned as images. Here there is no play with model and symbol; no confusion between image and meaning.

NT: I am a Belgian. I can’t redo Magritte all the time.

AK: True, but your version doesn’t incite the beholder to do things involving his or her own subconscious thought patterns and polysemic illusions…

NT: Doesn’t it? Maybe it does. People will deal with this newspaper*. It’ll be distributed inside and outside the museum. Besides, you even made some fantasies about your own work in the 1990s didn’t you? Judging by the photographs, your 1991 version of Words looks like design to me.

AK: Well, it sure didn’t look like the original! The expressionism of the 1960s environments gave way to elements, which witnessed the regulated consumerism and corporatism of the 1990s. Some of them even had references to the first Gulf War. You know, I read somewhere that Warhol’s "Piss Paintings", with their queer take on the mythical Pollock and his macho acts, were the ultimate Pollock "re-inventions".

NT: It’ll become an endless process of mythologization and deconstruction. That is quite a "re-invention" in itself. The museums won’t be able to truly ossify your legacy.

AK: But they’ll try to, I am afraid.

Edited by Philippe Pirotte