Organs in the Snow

Rachel Mason and Little Band of Sailors performing for ESP TV.

Several months ago, I was invited to perform at an event organized by Scott Kiernan. I didn’t fully know what it was, but it had something to do with a TV show, and it was at an apartment in Brooklyn. It sounded fun, even if I didn’t really understand what I was getting into. When I arrived at the party/opening/ gig/ event/ TV taping I was even more confused. There was a crowd of people waiting in the hallway with looks of great anticipation on their faces. They stood in dead silence, saying, “Shhh…” as we approached, and “you can’t open the door!” This wasn’t a typical show, I realized at that moment. So we waited until the door opened up and I was greeted by a famous art dealer/Drag Queen called “Mary Boom” (aka Bradford Nordeen), whose orange-fake tan was coated over by so much Vaseline I could see my own reflection in her face. That’s when it hit me, this really IS a Live TV Taping–with an audience and performers and cameras, and this guy behind a console of super 80’s video gear–the kind I haven’t seen in a very long time, in the digital age. The guy was a DJ…? Oh wait, it turns out this is Scott…and this was Louis V E.S.P.

I later came to understand the accidental nature of the name is in keeping with the strange nature of a lot of aspects of Louis V. (A neon Louis Vuitton sign was left outside their apartment building and it just said, “Louis V” and so Scott added “ESP”… Extra Sensory Powers…which is perfectly appropriate for what’s going on in the video editing). Louis V E.S.P. is a not-for-profit gallery and project space run by Scott and Ethan Miller, which is located in Brooklyn’s  Williamsburg neighborhood. They feature solo and group shows, and they also produce a cable access show and live taping event called E.S.P. TV, which airs on Manhattan public access television. The show features New York City-based performers, video, film and visual artists and uses rotating guest hosts in a variety-show format.

E.S.P. TV / Louis V ESP

I did my Little Band of Sailors routine. It was super fun, and then I left. The whole show was taped before the live studio audience of Louis V E.S.P. A few weeks later, the show was aired on public access television in Manhattan. I live in Queens, so I didn’t get to see it, but Scott hosted an event at a bar where we could all come out to watch.

A few months later, Scott asked me to curate a show. I don’t curate. I have a play that I’m working on, a sculpture project, performances coming up, I have to move studios…. It wasn’t really something I could imagine doing right now. But I loved the strangeness of Louis V, and how it’s not like any other space or gallery or venue. It’s just Louis V… and I felt like I could try something out. So after some back and forths with ideas, I started staring at the few artworks I have on my walls, works that were given or traded by friends. Staring at them, I realized I had the beginnings of a show. The three that really set the exhibition concept on its course are a print by John Baldessari, a collage by Mamiko Otsubo, and a photo by Jason Lazarus.

John Baldessari. "Miracle Chips® (Proof)," 2008. Archival inkjet print.

John Baldessari’s print is a potato chip with a face inside of it. A few years ago, we did a trade when he came to my show of drawings of the Presidential Candidates at Circus Gallery in Los Angeles (now closed). I wanted to just give him a drawing (for being a great human being and teacher) but (in the spirit of being a great human being and teacher) he insisted on trading–and this solitary isolated face in a potato chip has been hovering on my wall ever since.

Here’s a random anecdote: a few years ago I taught art at Sing Sing Prison, and in one class I brought in images of John’s work and also Yoko Ono’s early performances. Later in the semester, one of the men did a performance piece where he wore a circle cut out of paper on the side of his face, and walked around a desk in profile, so his face was always a living Baldessari assemblage.

The idea of wearing a circle as a mask to perform John’s images connected his potato chip to the other piece on my wall which hangs near it: a mask by Mamiko Otsubo. She makes these pieces out of a specific edition of art history books published in the 1950’s. They have a modernist design and it’s really kind of an immediate connection to Baldessari in terms of the source material, but Mamiko’s mask simultaneously inverts and explodes modernist obsessions with ethnography. They are also magnificently beautiful. So the story that I wrote in conjunction with the exhibition began to form itself around the connection that occurs when one becomes the other. When the potato chip face becomes the mask.

Mamiko Otsubo. "p. 207 (Miffy Orange)," 2010. Acrylic on cut book pages mounted on linen bookcover.

Jason Lazarus and I did an exchange of artwork through the mail, and I still remember unrolling his piece in my house. It took my breathe away when the image popped out of the roll. It’s a forceful image of the most mundane thing, a plastic toy dangling in front of a window, with rain behind it. Somehow staring at Jason’s atmospheric piece–which makes me think of staring out at the cosmos from inside your house–to the floating faces in John’s and Mamiko’s work, set the stage for the other pieces in the show, and the story started to develop.

Jason Lazarus. "Airplant, Snowstorm (April 5, 2009)," 2009. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery.

Dan Asher‘s video came to me, sadly, on his deathbed. I was going to help him finish it, not thinking he actually was dying. When he transferred a series of photographs to my computer and asked me to put them into a sequence he could edit, I took them home, sequenced them, and when I brought them back, he was unable to stay awake long enough to look at them. When I asked him what music he wanted, or if he wanted sound at all, he said to me, let’s make this a collaboration. But as much as I’ve loved collaborating with Dan in the past, I really didn’t want to do it under these circumstances, because I just didn’t want to lose Dan, and that was kind of what I felt like he was telling me, that he just couldn’t be there to finish it.

Dan Asher. Still from "Birds," 2010. 2 minute video.

I left the sequence in the exact way that it was on that day, and I think it’s actually the best way it could possibly be. There is a moment at the end when Dan and Tom Jarmusch, the friend who he went to the beach to shoot the birds with, flash in front of the image, and I always wondered if that was or wasn’t something he wanted to edit out, but after looking at the video so many times, I realize it’s perfect. The video hasn’t been touched since the memorial service, where it played at the entrance to St. Mark’s church. One thing I have done–and I suppose this is the collaboration part of it– is I’ve done a few live performances where Dan’s birds have been projected into the space as I sing Blue Prelude. I think he would approve of that…. Anyhow,  hopefully there will be more about Dan on this blog later.

But for now, I’ll point you to Organs in the Snow: A group Exhibition and Story, the exhibition I curated for Louis V E.S.P. The exhibition will open this Friday, September 30 and runs through October 14. The full version of “Organs in the Snow,” the story I wrote for the exhibition, can be found on my website here.