Storytelling A Conversation with Tris Vonna-Michell


Tris Vonna Michell isn’t exactly what you’d call a smooth talker-in fact, his monologue performances, which involve disjointed autobiographical narratives both live and recorded, aim to disrupt one’s sense of time and space. With his fast-moving voice, he tells autobiographical narratives about finding concrete poet Henri Chopin, whose move to Essex inspired his own family’s relocation, or destroying his archive of photographs in isolation, like the stasi, are equal parts meandering and meticulous. They’re also seductive: Vonna Michell installs his sound pieces in dimly lit spaces using a variety of antiquated media (slide projectors, or cassette decks) to add yet another consideration of time and process to the listening experience.

Many artists brought old work to the New Museum‘s generational exhibition, “Younger Than Jesus.” Tris insisted on a new one: a jet-black marble clock and a felt table with an archive box of images, and a cassette deck that contains a recording of an earlier performance, installed in the niche next to the museum’s elevator shaft. Says Vonna Michell, “If 70% of your new work is taken from old work, it’s not really new work. In this situation, 30% is from old works, so it’s a new piece in a way.”

ALEX GARTENFELD: Your contribution to “Younger Than Jesus” is installed in one of the most difficult spaces in the New Museum: a niche in the middle of a stairwell. It does seem appropriate for your work, because it is such a controlled and immersive space.

TRIS VONNA-MICHELL: I want it to be missed somehow, but then to be something you can actually spend time with. I wanted something intimate, and withdrawn from the show. “Younger Than Jesus” is such a heavy title for an exhibition.

AG: And you made a new piece, although it’s a composite of older works.

TVM: I was uncomfortable bringing older work that I knew would succeed for an exhibition that is such a test. The curators told me I could submit an old work, because I was so busy. But for me everything is old and everything is new; it’s about a feeling.  If 70 percent of your new work is taken from old work, it’s not really new work. In this situation 30 percent is from old works, so it’s a new piece in a way.

AG: That’s interesting because your narratives always have an element of an unsteady relationship of time to space-which here is doubly, or triply, manifest in the giant, opaque marble clock.

TVM: You can listen to headphones to hear a monologue that was recorded in front of an aquarium with bubbles. It’s a monologue piece, a story about homelessness in Japan that I performed in three segments at Cabinet Gallery. It involves all these places where you one waits, and stops and starts – marble and fixtures and water fountains, like in airports or lavatories. The monologue goes on endlessly, and there is a clock above you the viewer, but behind you them so that theyyou can’t see it. So all the subtleties of the spoken word are materialized as these waiting stations.

AG: When you say the piece is 30 percent new. What new elements did you bring to this piece?

TVM: I change a lot; I’m always working out ways to avoid certain characteristics of my work that are easy to fall into. For example, switching the lights off and turning the projector on, which is its own type of control. Just by turning off the lights, you get rid of, or avoid, lot of the issues you don’t want the viewer to deal with in a space by. Then you I realize you that I do want them.

AG:  Do you mean that you want to bleed the content into the spatial frame, and effect a type of installation using the space in between the media?

TVM: It sounds a bit “80s,” but yes: If a space doesn’t work I won’t even show an image. For one of my first shows, the curator told me the great thing about me was that I don’t need a space, that I’m “space independent.” I probably just nodded at the time. Later I realized how important space really is for me. It’s the relationship between talking and the sound that is going to fill it.

AG: When you speak, do you think of yourself as transforming the space?

TVM: I talk fast but when I perform it’s a lot faster. It tests whether the space is architecturally conducive, but also psychologically. I performed at the Tate and it was a disaster: It was a ticketed thing. Signs were posted: “50 people at a time;” “no drinking;” “no one suffering from epilepsy as there will be high intensity of words and light.” I don’t mind control, but warning signs create a psychological reaction in the public. I ask curators if the public can drink, and it’s because I like to have a beer when I perform and relax.

AG: When you perform in a space do you stake it out beforehand?

TVM: I very rarely go to the space before; I just look at a lot of images and have discussions. I always ask the silliest questions that piss people off like “Where is the plug? What are the heights of the ceilings? How thick are walls? Where are the windows? Are they double glazed?” Curators don’t even think about those issues.

AG: The monologue in the New Museum is about another container space, or lack thereof. It moves between your being homeless, and moving into an incredibly small apartment.

TVM: I was in Tokyo in the summer of 2001. I spent five weeks sleeping on the streets, two of which I managed to meet a hostess at a train station She was an artist; she had studied in London, but she was mentally ill, basically. I stayed in her studio space, which was just twice the size of the elevator shaft at the New Museum. But she didn’t stay there; she worked in the city and she came to Tokyo to work as a hostess. It was a really intense experience that I wanted to return to. At first I attempted to make a work about those five weeks, as a travelogue.

AG: It would seem to have such a political element, except that Japan is not a place associated with homelessness.

TVM: With me it’s not sort of a “George Orwell” thing. I’ll be homeless for six weeks as a teenager, but I’ll do it in the cleanest country in the world.

AG: It’s like taking a political statement to its natural end, then turning away from it, and then boiling that resistance to a direct assessment down to a more fundamental theme.

: It’s funny when I recognize these things. The action itself is based on intuitive, naïve things. I do have political interest: My mom is from Berlin and my dad is from Detroit. They have these histories that they don’t really want to talk about, and that’s why I want to find out about more. I know if I become too anthropological about my own past, it becomes serious, and self-important. I’m going to enjoy myself and do things the way I think is right, even if I look back it’s not. Then the concoction is more enjoyable for me and the end result is, let’s say, stronger for the public.

AG: They’re also based more on slippages than on observable facts.

TVM: The stories are stories of mistakes. My identity or approach as an artist is not based on my following through on a plan. I went to Japan was because I was vaguely interested in Japan.  But I lost my money and was sleeping in the streets. In the installation you have all these little details, like the clock and the carpet and the box, but the end result is not going to be, “bang, there it is.” That’s why I want it in that compressed space — so you’re forced to see the loosely related details together.

AG: You do quite a lot of work for fairs and biennials. Do you think that these types of complex exhibition formats reflect a way that people overlap, or collaborate with a generational character?

TVM: I’ve always felt that I’ve been on a solitary journey. I’ve done three triennials or biennials in the last year and I think they’re varied a lot in what they brought to me. Or also what I could bring back to the public.

AG: What did the best ones bring to you?

TVM: The best ones bring a unique space, like the outdoor garden in Yokohama-and a context, for better or worse. But a lot of the artists just sent DVDs, and didn’t turn up. It depends on how they bring the artists together, not only what they think as a curatorial statement. In some biennials I have felt totally isolated from the other artists from the show. I didn’t get to share ideas. And I think that’s a real shame.

AG: Do you think your synthesis of different technologies has a kind of generational aspect?

TVM: Antiquated technologies seem on one level so beautiful to us now since we’re used to this process of slightly improved technologies. And I am aware of that and to kind of avoid it often. But I always fall back on it. 

AG: Do you feel a responsibility to making the work less beautiful?

TVM: Yes, or at least sometimes I do. I look back on images and documents and think, “There’s a lot of fine edges to this; it’s too seductive.” It’s the same with words, and my voice. I’m aware when I perform I try not to make the experience of the narrative like a musical one. In Napoli, because they were Italian and the voice is so important, they were enraptured with every word I said. But all they cared about was the melody and the sound of my voice like flowers in the air. I think one of the major changes that happened, was when my work was stolen from the museum, from my Chopin piece, Finding Chopin: In Search of Holy Quail? That really opened up a bizarre dialogue.

AG: Do you mean your treatment of objects became less precious, as it were?

TVM: On one level I was super precious about the objects and the materials that I thought signified parts of the installation or the work or the journey. I was upset with the museum for what I perceived to be their negligence in protecting the objects. But as time passed I realized how ridiculous these conversations were – trying to get insurance for a toothpick or something because “That toothpick really belonged to my journey in Paris.” I realized the installations that need to let the work live true to their intentions if I don’t want them to be a representation or a prop.

AG: It comes back to a question of the specificity of time, and where and how an object occupies a space.

TVM: The words ‘prop,’ or ‘relic,’ have become curses for me. They are titles of things that don’t actually have a place — that is defined by the public or myself that I can say “That’s their rendered, intentional meaning.” I allowed that misinterpretation of the object — the public relic — go on for too long.  In doing so it almost glorified it and let them have an unintentional overt meaning or extra meaning that didn’t really belong to it.

AG: And how does that manifest in the moment of performance?

TVM: It all comes down to a relationship to me.  When I’m in a space to perform I’m there and then I’m gone. So I let it go and try to learn other ways to display different ways to represent objects and images and words and memory that don’t relate to the fragility of an object that is supposedly intimate and precious. That has a lot to do with the shows moving from a small project space or people’s bedrooms to biennials or museums. The work enters a whole different context, where the objects have to be editioned, if they were to be sold to a collector. I realized that there is a whole different journey and dedication in upholding the mythology of objects that perhaps should have not been mythologized in the first place.


[Images courtesy the New Museum. Photographer: Adi Shniderman]