November/December 2006

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by Michelle White

Ninjas and Pirates, Revolution and Romanticism:

Lauri Firstenberg in Conversation with Glenn Kaino

Los Angeles multimedia artist Glenn Kaino is about to embark on the production of a new filmic installation for Artpace in San Antonio and to present a happening at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria in New York. He is also launching, a new online multimedia site. His practice takes multiple forms ranging from the former downtown Los Angeles artist-run÷not commercial, not nonprofit, no-critics-allowed÷exhibition space Deep River to Uberâs virtual network of media users. Kainoâs ability to develop new models and platforms for cultural production dovetails with the agility of his own artistic practice, which is exemplified by his invention of concepts, contexts, and languages to interrogate art, history, popular culture, technology, and politics.

Glenn Kaino, Graft (salmon), 2006, shark skin, thread, salmon skin, plastic, 36 x 12 x 4 inches (photo: SJK; courtesy of the artist and The Project, New York)

Lauri Firstenberg: Graft, 2006, a work commissioned by New Yorkâs Asia Society for the exhibition One Way Or Another: Asian American Art Now comprises taxidermic sculptures of a salmon and a pig with skin transplants from other species÷namely, a shark and a cow. This splicing operation informs both the surface and the core of the object. You conflate concepts, referencing the popular television series Nip/Tuck as well as Dave Chappelleâs Clayton Bigsby sketch of a blind Black KKK member who believes he is white. Can you elaborate on the impetus for this work? Your artistâs statement literally rehearses this absurdist character encounter:

What kind of people is it in which I am comprised? Good people? Bad people?

Materials, nothing more.

Youâre wrong. Why do you say that? Do you have a sub-conscious desire to harm me?

I assure you, any desire I have to harm you is totally conscious.

Glenn Kaino, Graft (pig), 2006, taxidermy pig, cow skin, wood, Plexiglas, lights, 38 x 61 x 48 inches (photo: SJK; courtesy of the artist and The Project, New York)

Glenn Kaino: The museum asked me for a few inspirational words. I took this as an opportunity to present the work as a hypothetical scripted interaction with fictional characters. Like much of my work, Graft is a contradiction. The subtleties of its theoretical and emotional premise require meditation. It is a celebration of rejection. Simultaneously, it is a tragic reminder of the pains of acceptance. It is also an attempt to use the visual language of plastic surgery and all of its attendant futuristic imagery as means to plot an abstract and poetic trajectory of representation beyond hybridity. It's a step towards embracing contradiction and on-the-fly thinking.

Clayton Bigsby is one of the clearest and funniest articulations of our racist cultural hegemony's production of blind self-hate÷literally and figuratively. Irony results from the combination of this kind of self-hate with honorable traits such as dedication and self-sacrifice÷as in the last scene of Chappelleâs now-infamous first sketch, wherein Bigsby divorces his wife for loving him. The doctors from Nip/Tuck consistently worship the veneer of physical beauty, while uncovering and thriving in the painfully exposed emotional and spiritual needs of each other as well as their patients. Isabelle Dinoire, the third reference in my statement, might as well have had her life scripted. She is the recent recipient of the first successful facial transplant÷after her botched suicide, from a donor who died of suicide. Less than three months after the operation, Dinoire started smoking, encouraging rejection of the new facial tissue. Self-hate, masked by self-hate, inspiring self-hate. She recently released a statement: she can now smile÷a small milestone in the way out of a complex emotional maze, perhaps.

I wanted to create sculptures that were touched by pains similar to those of the people referenced. I also wanted them to present a new optimism, out of the ashes of a seemingly bankrupt discourse of identity. It is no coincidence that these works were made for inclusion in a show about assimilation. The two animals in Graft proudly display their stitches as announcements of their attempts to not fit in. Yet, they also seem sad and fragmented. When they heal, hopefully they will also be able to smile.

Glenn Kaino, Graft (salmon), 2006, shark skin, thread, salmon skin, plastic, 36 x 12 x 4 inches (photo: SJK; courtesy of the artist and The Project, New York)

LF: You discuss contradiction, stating that it is central to your project. You also claim that iconic models of difference must be unsettled, and that tactics of dissension are necessary. Can you expand on these two sites of tension? In a conversation with Daniel Joseph Martinez, he discussed this temperament as one of disobedience·.1

GK: Dissension is part of the apparatus of insurgency. It is important that I frame my work, in part, in the lineage of artists like Daniel, who have aggressively fought throughout their careers for a pluralist artistic landscape. My job is to use the philosophical real estate they have opened up in order to create work that addresses the new questions.

Contradiction plays a key role in my practice for many reasons. It creates an irrational theoretical space where impossible problems can be contemplated. Operating outside of the dictates of reason, it also allows for a critique of concepts and ideas from multiple vantage points simultaneously. Invention arises out of a mobile and balanced position rather than a dogmatic one.

Glenn Kaino, Untitled (Reverse Inverse Ninja Law)

LF: You recently showed two monumental sculptures [Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego ((MCSAD); December 7, 2006÷February 4, 2007]. These works enact the opposition between two figures or tactical positions: the ninja÷a stealth operator÷and the pirate÷an anarchist. How do you use these figures to explore questions of subjectivity, and the relationship between the individual and the collective? You craft an army from thousands of Zapatista dolls cloaked as ninjas from Chiapas, Mexico. These are originally made in support of the EZLN [Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional; Zapatista Army of National Liberation]. In your work, they are bundled, bound by rope, and configured into a massive hammer. Do you view this work as a monument to labor and resistance or as an anti-monument to global capital? Can you discuss how you take liberties with scale, and how this partakes in current debates over the notion of monument?

GK: A few years back, I came across a debate on various internet message boards: who would win in a fight between ninjas and pirates? Some reported that this debate had been raging for over thirty years, which I believe to be untrue. Whatever the case, itâs the existence of the dispute itself that interested me, more than the actual outcome of this particular conflict.

The ninja and the pirate are both considered rogues. As such, they share a methodological deviation from the social standards. I use them as departure points to question subjectivity. I also enlist them to describe the poetics that are often lost in more objective, theoretical investigations of revolutionary practice, and simultaneously masked with romanticism and bravado.

Ninjas are commonly thought to be well-disciplined warrior mercenaries, with little emotion or loyalty. ăThe Inverse Ninja Lawä is a pop-cultural theorem of collectivity. It dictates that, in the movies, a ninja is only as effective in combat as one divided by the number of ninjas in the room. This logic makes for exciting storytelling, as a lone protagonist often beats impossible odds to win our hearts and make it to act three. These two ăfactsä made for a perfect place to begin. The Inverse Ninja Law is a flawless model for imperialist propaganda and an effective hegemonic gesture. Its underdog plot device works convincingly to camouflage both the conquest of multitudes of foreigners and the protagonistâs superiority. Itâs so good that it keeps even the defeated cheering for victory. It makes me sick how clever it is.

In Untitled (Reverse Inverse Ninja Law), I wanted to author an opposing gesture that, premised on solidarity, would challenge this singular bias. The EZLN was a perfect counterpart to my ninja exploration. Not only did its members share a balaclava aesthetic, but their existence was a remarkable and brilliant occurrence in itself. Craftspeople close to Chiapas made the dolls for Untitled (Reverse Inverse Ninja Law). These dolls were originally created as mementos of local villagers. Thanks to smart marketing, they were transformed into warrior replicas during the insurrection and sold to tourists to help fund the locals. I attempted to create an iconic symbol of power and leverage÷an absurd Nietzschean tool÷and an altar to their hard work by engineering a giant hammer from several thousands of dolls. They all face outward, seeing in every direction and bestowing an omniscience through trust. The work is simultaneously a monument to collective resistance and an anti-monument to hegemonic imperialist practice.

Some describe pirates as swarthy and cunning fighters, booze-mops, and aesthetes who express their individuality in every shred of their existence. Such pronouncements have played a major role in the pirate vs. ninja online controversy. The piratesâ creativity sets them apart from their shrouded ninja opponents. This is demonstrated by their diametrically opposed sense of fashion. Disney fashions pirates as artful mercenaries with dreadlocks and advanced acrobatic skills. By contrast, the poet Hakim Bey invokes them as engineers of mobile, autonomous societies that exist outside the influence of legislation÷a model for anarchist functionality.

Glenn Kaino, A Plank For Every Pirate, 2006, wood, paint and resin, 16 x 14 x 16 feet

I wanted to explore this notion of individually modeled praxis. I rounded out the seductive aspects of piracy as a metaphor of expression, which I began to illustrate. I built a small model pirate ship in my studio. Once it was done, I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness. I had encountered this before, in concerts. It was also connected with the inspiration I received from my investigations into subaltern theory and the history of revolutionary activity. Somehow, this feeling of isolation combined with a sense of meaning, or purpose, was always there÷while reading Subcommandante Marcosâ manifestos on the internet or during a fortunate encounter with Gerry Adams, in which he described his struggle in Ireland.

Back in the studio, I then envisioned a plank for every one of the shipâs pirates. Each pirate would have a plank on which to walk down. Each plank would be as individual as the pirate. They would become a metaphor for individual gestures of insubordination, each with its own expiration date.

Glenn Kaino, Desktop Operation: There's No Place Like Home (10th Example of Rapid Dominance: EM City), 2003, wood, paint, plastic tarp, sand, and water, 8 x 14 x 7 feet (courtesy of the artist and The Project, New York)

LF: In Desktop Operation, 2003, you reconfigured a Zen garden÷an eastern emblem co-opted by corporate America÷into a monumental sandcastle sculpture resembling Ozâs Emerald City. Diagrams of military invasion strategies are incised on the base of the sculpture. The work seems to speak to fragility and dominance·

GK: I began to work on Desktop Operation: Thereâs No Place Like Home (10th Example of Rapid Dominance: EM City) after seeing a miniature executive Zen garden in a catalog. It was accompanied by the slogan ăBuy A Little Peace for $50.ä After buying one, I felt very peaceful. I started to think about altering scale in order to interrogate this notion of peace as a commodity. I first built an oversized base. Then, I figured I would try to create an architectural sand sculpture inside of it. I experimented with materials but nothing worked. After doing some research on professional sand sculptors, I found Todd Vanderplym on the internet. He claimed to be the Guinness Book of World Records champion so I called him up.

When Todd picked up the phone, I asked him if he was available to help me. He responded that he was too expensive. After he told me his price, I realized that he was right. He was too expensive. Who knew that sand sculptors made more than doctors? Still, I thought I would try to squeeze a few answers from him about questions like how sand sticks together. I asked him if he could teach me a few things. Crustily, Todd said no. Then, just as I was about to hang up, he asked me if I had gone to anyone else for help, specifically a guy named Frank. I told him that I had called everyone I could find and that he was my last hope. I had no idea who Frank was so I lied. After a split second of deliberation, I made my bet and said ăFrank was kind of a jerk to me.ä The phone was silent. I was sure I had blown it. He said ăFrank is a jerk· OK, Iâll help you out. Meet me on the corner of Zephyr and the beach at sunup on Friday.ä

What the hell was sunup? For the next two hours, he briefed me on what I needed. I got my crew together. We assembled the tools he had requested and got to the beach at 5am on Friday. Todd was already there, standing next to a fifteen-foot pile of wood and tools. My team and I approached the guy, who stood around five foot five and looked like an old sailor with white hair and a blue coat. He pointed at a jetty about a mile away and said, ăYou see that? The sand is good to learn there. Iâll see you there.ä He started walking and never looked back. It was like the TV show Kung Fu. We had to move several hundred pounds of equipment through the sand for hours before we learned anything.

He taught us all of the fundamentals. When you make a sand sculpture, you essentially accelerate the building of a sedimentary rock by depositing thin layers of sand in a wood form. You pound these layers together with a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound tamper. You then remove the forms, and carve out of the formation. All day long, Todd told stories about winning surf contests, card counting, magic, and a dozen other things. He bragged to passersby about his exploits. When we finished, we knew how to build big sand sculptures.

I first installed the artwork at The Projectâs Harlem space. It took five people four days to build the piece. It was exhausting. The original title was simply Desktop Operation, Thereâs No Place Like Home. The subtitle (10th Example of Rapid Dominance: EM City) came later, the evening after we had finished installing. Exhausted and covered with grime, my crew and I decided to go to a barbeque spot in midtown. Our arms were jelly and we could barely stumble into the place. As the door closed, a light gust of outside air blew some sand from our pants to the floor in front of us. We looked up and saw George Bush on the bar TV screen declaring, ăThe sandstorm has abated and we are now clear to invade Iraq.ä We could have cried. The work became even more meaningful. I went back and wrote the subtitle, which is a reference to the concept of Shock and Awe.

Glenn Kaino, Learn To Win, Or You'll Take Losing For Granted, 2005, found wood and ammunition crates, bronze, chess board: 84 x 84 x 20 inches, chess pieces: 10 inches high, installation view at The Project, New York (courtesy of the artist and The Project, New York)

LF: How would you describe your approach to visualizing theory?

GK: I use artmaking to try to discover ways to articulate ideas that I cannot clearly describe prior to÷and even sometimes after÷I make the work. This opportunity is fundamental to my practice. I know of several artists who illustrate concepts with their work. This is a fine way to approach building things, but for me this isnât fun. Often times, the search for answers in material production yields thoughts that resonate in theoretical space.

I believe that the process of looking at art, dissecting and unraveling its aesthetic and conceptual considerations, leads to a different and meaningful perspective. So does living with work as it occupies your physical space. I set bodies of work off with conceptual trajectories that I intend to explore, and knead the actual ideas during production.

Glenn Kaino, Learn To Win, Or You'll Take Losing For Granted, 2005, found wood and ammunition crates, bronze, chess board: 84 x 84 x 20 inches, chess pieces: 10 inches high (courtesy of the artist and The Project, New York)

LF: Your forthcoming multi-channel film project for Artpace in San Antonio pursues the investigations of time, synchronization, and perception found in your sculptural production. It features several vignettes and is structured as a race. Recently, at the Project in New York, you showed a wood and bronze chessboard entitled Learn To Win, or Youâll Take Losing for Granted, 2005. This interest in games, strategy, and temporality extends to The Burning Boards, 2007, a happening you will present at The Whitney Museum of American Art in February 2007, wherein players will negotiate an ever-extinguishing chess set, racing against the clock. How does this new body of work relate to such previous elaborate sculptural installations as Time Machine #2 (To Summon the Past and the Present to the Aid of the Future), 2004?

GK: I am trying to extend, or shorten perhaps, the life of my projects by adding a temporal subjectivity. In my work, time is a sculptural component through which I am trying to further existing explorations.

It all started with my investigations into simultaneity. These were first exhibited publicly in Time Machine #2, an experiment in the use of a sculptural installation to affect a temporary perceptive circumstance. While this particular methodology was purposefully clunky and loud, it relied on an elusive artistic gesture that, when found, was very delicate. On Kawara is a major influence on my thinking about this. His gesture is incredibly precise and clear while simultaneously abstract and poetic÷to paint with time. The new work is an attempt to continue these investigations. One is a performative extension, the other is cinematic.

LF: Do you see the potential for radicality in contemporary art practice?

GK: I believe in the potential for radical ideas in life, including contemporary art. It takes courage, however, which I donât always see.

Some people try to adopt radical political positions without having anything at stake. They market themselves by using the romantic veneer of revolutionary acts of the past. This is not that interesting to me. I believe in risk and in the gamble. For me, process is rewarding and dynamic. Winning or losing are static propositions.

Other people try things, putting their careers and their reputations on the line. They start projects that may fail, make shows that may not make sense, or say things that are considered dangerous. These are the people I respect. They are the most inspiring to me. They convince me that the potential of radicality exists. This type of work continues to push forward innovative concepts that will define the future. Radicality takes practice.


1. Lauri Firsternberg, ăMutation is the Most Radical Ideology: Daniel Joseph Martinez, ART PAPERS 30:1 (January-February 2006): 38-41.

Lauri Firstenberg is Director/Curator of LA><ART, a new nonprofit contemporary arts organization in Los Angeles, and founder of the forthcoming online contemporary art journal Lâart.


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