Interview with Praxis
by RoseLee Goldberg
November 1, 2002 (from; http://carlosmotta.com/artwurl/interviews/INT006.html)
Praxis is an art and performance collaborative consisting of Delia Bajo and Brainard Carey, a husband-and-wife team, whose interactive performances were included in the Whitney Biennale of 2002. Their sculpture, drawings and paintings have been exhibited at PS122 Gallery.
RoseLee Goldberg: Let’s begin at the beginning. How did you two start working together?
Brainard Carey: We met and fell in love. Delia has said that I’m her muse, and she is also mine.
Delia Bajo: We compliment one another.
RG: When was your first joint performance?
DB: It was June of 1999, after we were married on June 15th.
“10th St. Studio”
RG: So your marriage was the origin of your most well known work “the hug”?
DB: We thought of hugging everyone as a way to counter the disbelief that some of our friends expressed about our relationship. That is, we fell in love so fast and so intensely; that some of those closest to us said it wouldn’t last. We knew they were wrong but also knew we couldn’t argue with them. So the hug was a way to lower people’s defenses while expressing something very intimate about our new relationship. Then we extended it to others. We felt this was a way to discuss the nature of aesthetic distance and to collapse the space between audience and performer. We wanted to eliminate analysis, to focus instead on connecting.
RG: Were you doing performance before that?
DB: Yes, separately. I was doing a type of experimental fashion-theater with my sister and a group of people.
BC: I was living on Block Island, where I was creating community-based projects. I developed a weekly gathering and created ‘a silence’ together with this group. We also engraved fresh cement tablets, which, over the course of several years, became a monolithic book of over a thousand handwritten tablets. It was a way of illustrating the life of a community.
RG: Did you think of these actions as performance?
BC: We were very aware that what we were doing was performance. We did it right out of the storefront studio where we were living in the East Village. We put a sign on the street that said “Free Hugs Today” and people just walked in. We didn’t identify ourselves as performers or artists unless someone asked. We would tell them that they could choose from a menu of four things: a hug, a foot washing, a bandage for a visible or non-visible wound, or a dollar bill. Sometimes people would just take one of the offerings and leave without saying anything at all, which in some ways was the most beautiful. At other times they would stay and talk and ask a lot of questions.
RG: It’s three years later. Can you describe how your work has developed since then?
BC: The project is now called “The New Economy.” We learned that dollar bills are the hardest thing to give away. The biggest development is probably the telepathic performance we call “Pray For Me”, which began with a sign on our storefront more than two years ago, that said “Pray For Me”. Passers-by fill out small slips of paper requesting a prayer and drop it into our mailbox. We perform their prayer and e-mail a confirmation. It is separate but consistent with “The New Economy”, a way of creating intimate contact without even knowing or seeing the person who we are performing for. It is a way of generating an audience through individuals, one person at a time. We just performed the “Telepathic Pray For Me” performance in Dublin, Ireland at the beginning of October 2002, at the invitation of Vallejo Gantner for the Dublin Fringe Festival.
RG: How did that go?
DB: Well, we weren’t actually there. We performed it from here. The curator installed three ‘mail boxes’ for the slips of paper — in a cafacute;, in a cathedral and at a theater box office and advertised the project through posters. All the slips of paper were collected daily, transcribed and e-mailed to us. As we received requests and performed them, we emailed the curator whom in turn sent out notes confirming our performance to individual’s cell phones in a text message. I think this was a very intimate use of new technology. And as far as the festival curators were concerned, we drew an audience of 300 in two weeks which was a very good turnout.
BC: It was tremendously exciting. I mean this was completely conceptual and at the same time very intimate. The requests were really moving and sincere and at times almost painful to read. Imagine this performance on a world tour! We could be everywhere while working from our studio in New York.
“New Economy ”
RG: What other projects are you currently working on?
BC: We just did a performance installation for PS122, in a new space they call The Classroom. We drew a mural on one wall and there were pencils hanging from the ceiling to draw on the other wall. Over the course of six weeks, those who came into the space created a collaborative mural. By creating two murals — one by us and one by the visitors — there was a chance for everyone to make a mark, to lay a cornerstone as it were, in this new exhibition space. Then, when the walls were painted over at the end of the show, subtle wavelengths of those who had been there will always remain. It was about creating a non-visible foundation, a way of imbuing an object with a non-visible element.
RG: What happens when you get angry or irritated. I mean, I put off this interview three times because of deadlines. How do you deal with anger in your work?
BC: I think our work is about anger, desperation, failure, and mistakes. Our work gives us an anchor, when times are really rough. By creating anchors for ourselves, we offer a rope for others who are struggling as well.
DB: I think we express our anger through sound. When we are angry or in despair, we usually end up working in sound and video.
RG: What kind of sounds?
“Pray For Me ”
DB: A mixture of many different effects; voices as instruments, the sounds of toys, people talking…
RG: Would you consider creating a live performance from these sounds?
DB: Yes, we have a twenty-minute performance that hasn’t yet been performed. A kind of mouth to mouth piece with a microphone. We are creating a humming mantra that becomes a very weird sound.
BC: We plan an introduction and an epilogue created with a lot of live mixing. The vocal portion is like a harmonic choir that can literally vibrate you in your seat, if it works properly.
DB: Now that I am thinking about it, we could do the vocal piece and then everyone could join in, mouth to mouth making an incredible sound all over the room.
BC: Back to your question about how we use anger. The work may seem peaceful but it is really a way of trying to control or transform our anger into something concrete and useful. Recently, we were commissioned to do a video on the war, or the war to be, in Iraq. Obviously, this is a violent subject and one that makes us fearful and angry, and the video we made is a violent and disturbing piece. It is about relationships, but unlike much of our work, which is about contact, and touch of some kind, this is about breaking contacts and not being able to touch. It is about the physical destruction of family, or collateral damage as it is often called. The video includes images of our 22 month-old child dancing, juxtaposed with graphic images of our child laying down, apparently dead with a bullet in his head or of Delia looking dead while our child is nursing. These are the scenes you won’t see in the media but scenes that of course do occur. The video couldn’t be more disturbing yet it remains part of our aesthetic to connect, to reach out, whatever the means. We could have made a work about peace-making or we could have shown images of “The New Economy” as an antidote to war, but we felt the video would have a greater impact if we attempted to generate anger toward war, not peace.
“The Classroom ”
RG: Is there anything in either of each of your backgrounds which relates to this work?
DB: Now I see myself looking more into my childhood but that is because I have a child and I feel that more of my childhood is present. I grew up in Madrid, Spain in the 70s. My mother was a dancer and my grandmother was also a singer and actress. My mother never wanted to dance because my grandmother made her dance since she was very small and she hated that. My mother always told my siblings and I not to be artists. So I think I rebelled against that. I always wanted to be an artist and to prove that it is the most wonderful thing in the world, even if you have to suffer and struggle.
RG: What about your background, Brainard?
BC: My parents and sister are teachers and I think I strongly rebelled against a lifestyle that seemed predictable and rigid in many ways. I had a brother who died at 15 years of age when I was seven. That created a lot of questions about death and God. I was looking not so much for an answer to his death but for a means to still my mind that was suffering. Both parents told me that in terms of a God, they both thought that more or less, there was nothing there. I became increasingly interested in theology, though I didn’t call it that at the time. Then something gelled in High School when I wrote an essay about owning a pizza parlor and serving pizza to people. Serving people somehow came out of that idea.
RG: Let’s talk about artists who might have influenced your work.
BC: Well, as Laurie Anderson said, we thought we were doing it all for the first time until we read your book on the history of performance art! Of course we were also aware of many visual and performance artists.
RG: How does your work differ, say, from Yoko Ono’s “Touch Piece.”
DB: We were just talking about her work recently.
BC: That was because we are curating a show that will be a near-replica of a SoHo loft party in the 70s. We will ask other artists to recreate familiar performance pieces from that time.
DB: So we were talking about “Touch Piece”, when Yoko turns out the lights and asks everyone in the audience to touch one another. On one occasion the performance lasted all night. We love that piece, but we feel that our work is quite different. In that piece, Yoko is the conductor. She is the artist giving instructions. She remains to some degree, aloof, apart, which gives her work a certain power. In our work we don’t conduct, we demonstrate. “The New Economy” could be said to be a series of demonstrations. We are not conducting or teaching; rather, we present ourselves in a most vulnerable way and we ask the audience to do the same.
BC: I think Yoko always presented herself as a conceptual artist. Our work I think has less distance than hers. We don’t identify ourselves as artists and that’s very important because the work appears sincere to people on a visceral level. I mean, you know when you are getting a cold hug. So when things are working most effectively, we don’t have the art label on it.
There are some people who come back often and start a relationship with us which clearly goes beyond the work. But the live public interaction is really very theatrical, in a Shakespearean sense almost. I mean you stay if you are entertained, you leave if you are bored. People walk in, off the street; quite bravely I think and enter an entirely created world, which they embrace literally and figuratively. There is also a fresh public coming in all the time.
DB: It also works when people know we are the artists and they are the audience. Even then, the preconceived notions disappear in a gesture like foot washing or bandage application.
BC: Even now, look at us, we are all talking analytically about all this material, in part because we are physically separated from one another. It is the distance that enables us to be rational and focused. But when we all hugged at the beginning of this interview in such an impromptu way, there was no thinking, no talking, only laughter and we relaxed. There was no room for anything else when you (RoseLee) reached out and pulled us together, physically, to get us all closer to the microphone. It had a strong emotional impact. That was what Arthur Danto said about our work in relation to Fluxus. He said there was warmth to our work of which there wasn’t much in Fluxus.
RG: What’s your response to Joseph Beuys?
BC: When we first talked to Debra Singer at the Whitney Museum, Delia talked about Beuys and the idea of spending days and nights in a gallery with a Coyote. There was an intimacy that Beuys achieved in that work that couldn’t be faked. The animal clearly didn’t know that it was spending time with the amazing Beuys, and Beuys had to genuinely communicate with the animal to assure his safety. That was very beautiful.
DB: Beuys’s interest in human behavior is also an interest of ours. Our work is a long-term study in many ways, though I wouldn’t go so far to use Beuys’s term, to say that we are social sculptors.
Social Sculpture sounds very dramatic. As a theory it is most interesting. Beuys was a charismatic personality and created a cult-like following. We aren’t doing that. We are more like radio transmitters. We are sending invisible waves out there; we create our own frequency and, if it is picked up by some, that is great, if not, that’s OK too. Look at the telepathic performance in Dublin. People were dropping requests for prayers into boxes and they weren’t at all concerned about who we were. They were only concerned that their prayers be performed. So our work is almost the reverse of a charismatic personality such as Beuys’.
RG: I have always felt that performance artists have very strong visual ideas which we only realize later, when we see documentation of the live performances, in photographs or in video. Are there any visuals of your telepathic work?
DB: There are texts and drawings, which are very powerful. But I also think the photographic documents of our performances, especially “The New Economy”, are very beautiful. Images of people hugging one another. Without knowing anything about us, these images are arresting and unusual. They make people ask, what is happening? Why are these people so intimate? Who are they?
RG: At the point when your work becomes more widely known in the art world it will be interesting to see how you resist, or how you cope with, the possible commodification of your work. Will you sell the photographs of the hugs?
BC: We would like to see a world without money — a world with a different economy, a different way of exchanging. But until then, we need to create some kind of structure for ourselves to survive. ‘Selling out’ could also be working for Philip Morris or the Defense Department. I think selling photos or sculpture is OK. If people like the work why shouldn’t they buy it and besides, we need to pay the rent.
RG: It seems that you are both driven by a need to “do good.” I am wondering how you will integrate those concerns with your growing success.
BC: We would love to see more artists who are on the margins survive more easily and be happier there. If they can sell work fine, but it is more important that they can work at all. I hope our work will encourage other artists. Everyone is scrambling to get into an inner circle at all costs, but at what cost? I hope the gallery system will go the way of clubs like Studio 54. It was all quite glam, and in retrospect a bit ridiculous in its exclusivity. It is essential that selling art be viewed differently. I don’t know exactly how, but different.
RG: In the 70s it was impossible to leave a work by an artist such as Vito Acconci or Marina Abramovic without being affected in some way. That kind of impact is rare these days.
DB: The difference between then and now is that then there were political and social advances to be made such as feminism or equal rights. Not to say that there isn’t more to be done in these areas, but now we are dealing with a spiritual crisis brought on by excessive materialism and artists are just beginning to address this issue. There is a need for a different kind of revolution.
RoseLee Goldberg is a cultural critic and curator who pioneered the study of performance art with her seminal book Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, first published in 1979 and continuously in print since then. It is available in five languages. Ms. Goldberg lectures extensively and has taught at New York University since 1987. She is a frequent contributor to Artforum, and her publications include Performance Since 1960 (1998) and Laurie Anderson (2000). Most recently she originated and produced Logic of the Birds (2001), a multi-media performance collaboration by Shirin Neshat, Sussan Deyhim, Ghasem Ebrahimian and Shoja Azari which was presented at The Walker Art Center and at The Lincoln Center Festival (2002).
Copyright: RoseLee Goldberg. December 2002
One time publication rights only for PS 122, on line magazine, Artwurl. No alterations or additions without prior consent of the author.
All images are courtesy of the artists, © 2002