Cameron Shaw met with members of the artist collective The Bruce High Quality Foundation to discuss Empire, on view at Cueto Project until April 11th. Inspired by Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire (1834-36), the exhibition spans media, transforming the city of New York into a giant pizza, among other imaginative sculpture, photography, painting, and video works. Assembled in their Bed-Stuy storefront studio one Tuesday night, the perennial pranksters got down to business:
CS: The backbone of the exhibition seems to be the video Five Courses of Empire (2009) in that it tells the story, providing a hilariously condensed history of civilization. What do you see as the relationship between the objects and the video?
BHQF: The objects play with different moments in time. Some are visions of ruin of an empire or civilization and others are relics or artifacts.
CS: Like the crumbly pile of stone noses and penises that constitute The Sack of Rome (2009), for instance -- is the viewer meant to understand them as historical objects or as contemporary recreations?
CS: I ask because misinformation plays such a large role in your practice. For example, the video attributes a famous quote by Edmund Burke to filmmaker George Lucas.
BHQF: We believe in the liberating properties of fiction. The whole fictional awning of The Bruce High Quality Foundation is not supposed to be about obfuscation. It's about framing things in a way that we feel is more accurate-even if it's steeped in fiction-towards a model we're trying to engage here.
CS: So what would you say is the specific intent of repositioning history? Edmund Burke and George Lucas didn't exist in the same place and time; what is the goal of connecting moments that originally didn't coexist?
BHQF: Well they do coexist. That's the beginning. The way we were conceiving of empire is counter to what we saw illustrated in Thomas Cole's painting series, which shows empire following this very clear path. For Cole, there is this pure state, which for whatever reason becomes something glorious, and then has its downfall. That's not how it happens. It's not so much a repositioning of history; we're just trying to reflect how weird things really are. When there are moments of clear misinformation, those are generally used to make people be more conscious of the potential that it's all made up. They have a function so that you always know it has been written by someone somewhere.
CS: You've mastered this pretty impenetrable combination of middle-school hi-jinks and sophisticated critique. How do you know when you've hit the right tone?
BHQF: There is a collective energy that happens when we know or we think something is going to work: we're all excited. A lot of it is sitting around this table and throwing out stupid ideas and smart ideas and trying to make them line up or balance. When everyone feels it, that's when we go with it.
CS: One of your many mission statements explains you are "working explicitly in the ever-expanding tradition of mockery." Who or what do you see as your predecessors in this tradition?
BHQF: Nirvana is important. Oscar Wilde is important -- Don Quixote.
CS: I read that the group started in 2004, which is a time when you could have easily exploited the young art star phenomenon that was happening. Instead you went the route of collectivity and, in effect, anonymity. What did you see as the possibilities of going that route?
BHQF: It was directly reactive. One project that feels like a beginning was auditioning for Jeffrey Deitch's ARTSTAR television show. That anchors a lot of what you're talking about in avoiding the whole young "hipster artist" thing and trying to do something else. It's largely because we saw it happening to a lot of people and it seemed gross. It didn't have any relationship to how we understood making things, what would be fun or interesting or critical about how to be an artist. We decided to do something that ends up being much harder but that we think has more possibilities.
CS: What are some of those specific possibilities?
BHQF: One thing that anonymity allowed us to do on a personal level is to try things that we might not have tried if we had been trying to stake out individual art careers. I think especially with young artists you see them stake out a terrain so quickly that they don't get to explore anything. They're told they have to be included in some big blowout museum show and that they've got to sign up with a gallery as fast as possible. We definitely arose out of that problem and feeling the pressure to be active, but wanting to define activity for ourselves.
CS: Though few knew you by name at the time, you garnered media attention in 2005 when you pursued Robert Smithson's Floating Island in a motorboat with a miniature replica of one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Gates. How do you relate the early interventions and performances with what you do now? Not to oversimplify, but you went from chasing Smithson in a dinghy to showing in Chelsea. When you're inside the machine, how do you continue to affect it?
BHQF: We've never been about setting up a purely alternative model. We're not about simply eschewing the art world; we care about the art world and want to have a presence and a voice without being bound to the art world. We want to be there but still have the energy to do our own thing here, to maintain this space-our space-to have shows here, music, art, theatre. We're more interested in maintaining a presence in parallel contexts than in committing to either alternative or enfranchised ones.
CS: Still there are choices you make that seem to counter the traditional Chelsea gallery model. For example, you chose to make Five Courses of Empire in the current exhibition an open edition.
BHQF: To edition the video never made sense to us. It always made more sense to run more copies off, to be free to disseminate it without entanglement, to put it on the internet. For something like a photograph, it's a big effort to make a print. The commodity of it is more apparent, so there is no reason to have some illusion otherwise. The video in Empire and some others, including Art History with Food (2008) and Public Art & Collaboration (2008), were conceived as being a part of a suite of educational videos, so accessibility is most important.
CS: There are certain historical events that reappear in your work. September 11th is the most extreme example.
BHQF: It's kind of like our creation myth. That event was the great untouchable and we couldn't resist. In The Life and Death of Bruce High Quality (2005), when we auditioned for ARTSTAR, there is this line where Bruce High Quality, as a foam head, claims he fell from the World Trade Center. We've been able to watch the reaction change over the years showing this video. When it first happened, everyone would laugh in this uncomfortable way, just amazed that anyone would do that. It depends on the audience, but it has been interesting to see that go away. Also, in retrospect, September 11th points to what were once conceived of as "the prosperous Bush years." Art is inextricable from this conception; as the art market expanded, I think a lot of people, not just us, started to feel that the market shouldn't dominate everything. That's what humor or mockery is all about; nobody can own mockery.
CS: Do you think of art as an important political tool? Is that the role art should play?
BHQF: Yes, but in a complicated way that can't be made into shorthand. Speaking about art as a tool assumes that it can do something, that it has a utility. We're trying to make good work and have good work be the ultimate political statement. That's something Bruce says in the 2005 video: "the most radical gesture of art is its own existence."
CS: Many of you met at Cooper Union. Is that the foundation of your art historical knowledge? The big monsters of the canon continually pop up, sometimes all on one or a few canvases, as in The Course of Empire paintings in the exhibition.
BHQF: A lot of that comes from thinking about younger artists, not even our generation but the one that is coming next. There is always this constant fear of what art history is. Everything's been done, so how are you going to do something important in relation to that? It's been important for us to think of art history as a material, as more stuff to work with, whether it's to honor or to disparage it. It's as much a material as anything else, wood or plaster.
CS: So what's next?
BHQF: We're working on a movie with Creative Time, who has commissioned a group of artists to make projects on Governors Island. The basic premise of our movie is to destroy the art world of Manhattan, not just Manhattan, but all of New York and to rebuild it on Governors Island in a drastically different form. It's a zombie movie. The idea of reanimation really resonates with us. We're a fictional foundation for a fictional dead artist. The Bruce High Quality Foundation is the afterlife.
From top: Rite of Spring, Hooverville; Images courtesy The Bruce High Quality Foundation.