An Interview with Gary Nickard About Failure at the Albright Knox
By Ben Van Dyke
“I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part … We’re just the guys to do it …”
Ben Van Dyke /
As a witness to this project, it is obvious that it did not go as planned and improvisation played an important part in the performance. It seems that if a “futile and stupid gesture” was part of the premise, you were fully prepared to fail?
Gary Nickard /
On September 5, 2008, along with two collaborating artists, I presented a spectacle of destruction at Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Entitled “Monsters of Nature And Design II” it was the successor to a similar event successfully enacted a year earlier at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center. Yes, I think we were all prepared for and ultimately did embrace our failure – the quote above is from the 1978 film spoof on the American college experience Animal House and it couldn’t be better suited to the ethos that I have adopted as an artistic position in relation to failure. This is especially appropriate since the most salient feature of “Monsters II” was the very public failure of its ambitious plan to drop a spinet (a small upright piano) suspended from a crane 100 feet up in the air onto a grand piano, all enacted at the base of the neo-classical marble steps of the area’s most august contemporary art museum. As in the previous destruction, musical accompaniment was provided by an odd amalgam of musicians that included the venerable punk rock group, the Vores. Formed by University at Buffalo art students in 1977, the Vores were always something of a neo-DADA art project and their music functioned as ironical deconstruction coupled with a strong dose of nihilistic angst. However, their signature approach to music was viewed (even by fellow musicians) as “too extreme” a negation of the prevailing musical tastes of the times and as a result they failed to generate anything more than a cult following.
During the performance, did “OH NO! This is failing” ever enter the minds of you or your collaborators?
My collaborators, George Hughes; Reinhard Reitzenstein and I were initially stunned by the failure, but we are professionals and immediately embraced it and “rolled with the punch.” A magnetic coupling was supposed to release the suspended spinet when the musicians had reached a crescendo in the accompanying score and suddenly stopped playing. However, the unintended result was abject failure. Nothing happened and while the artists and support crew scrambled to try to troubleshoot the problem and get the thing to release its payload, the Vores and the audience alike stood dumbfounded in silent expectation. Finally, when it became clear that we would remain thwarted in our aim, the band struck up a discordant tune as the spinet was slowly lowered back down to the ground. We detached the offending magnetic release and re-attached the piano to the crane with straps. Back up the spinet went and hung suspended for a moment and at a reprise of the Vores’ cacophonous crescendo it was now released manually – this time falling with a satisfying crash – laughably at least a foot away from its intended target which still stood defiantly intact next to a pile of shattered wood and metal – we had missed the target! Not wishing to leave well enough alone, in company with my fellow performers, I immediately attacked the survivor and with truly medieval fury we chopped it to pieces with axes. In retrospect, the event couldn’t have gone better – futility and abject failure following failure – all accompanied by the dissonant music of an obscure “has-been” punk rock group.
(Laughing) I can imagine attacking pianos can stir some unexpected reactions! You had an impressive crowd and media coverage for this performance, what was their response to destroying these icons of middle class culture?
None of us expected the level of public outrage that this art action generated. Labeled “vandals” and “idiots,” my fellow artists and the Vores finally seem to have attained the notoriety we deserve as avatars of artistic failure. The museum’s telephones, the opinion pages of the local newspapers as well as the blogosphere positively lit up with public indignation. I even received a threatening phone call at my university office. We were all repeatedly asked why we would do such a thing and the performers tried to answer as enigmatically as possible in order to allow the audience to freely interpret the event for themselves. My own motivations are most likely sublimations of a cavalcade of catastrophes that I have recently been faced with – a flood that destroyed all of my art, followed by cancer surgery, followed by failure to achieve tenure at the university where I teach – but that is my own psychoanalytic “back story,” and has absolutely nothing whatever to do with either the other performer’s motives or the stated aim of the project. The performance was intended as a “sound sculpture” that would bring the ideas of “Destructivism” forward in time for today’s audience in an effort to collapse the difference between manifest and latent content, and also to present the unconscious in all of its violent splendor as an entertaining spectacle.
You seem surprisingly comfortable with failure. Even to admit in print your own career failures suggests the authenticity of your commitment to this topic. Some would scream with beer and fists: Fail Again, Fail Often! But my contention is that the majority imply: fail but not really. Where do you find your inspiration for failure and is there an historical precedence for this?
I have many precedents for my embrace of failure. 20th century avant-gardes, informed by psychoanalytic theory, occasionally deployed such destructive impulses as sexual aggression, violation, death, decay and mutilation in the process of creation. Needless to say, these activities were less than popular and in some cases even viewed as scandalous. “Destructivism” was neo-DADA in character and first appeared in the late 1950s featuring staged theatrical rituals in which furniture, musical instruments, and other objects were systematically destroyed as expressions of existential angst. Raphael Montanez Ortiz was a prominent Destructivist who initially followed this practice in private ceremonies displaying the detritus as sculptures that had a strong affinity with the abstract expressionist assemblage of the period. With his first public show, the legendary Berlin Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck brought him to the attention of Alfred Barr who purchased a piece of Ortiz’s work for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. His work (the carcasses of several destroyed pianos) can also be seen in the permanent collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. By the mid-1960s Ortiz began to stage elaborately transgressive performances occasionally involving the killing of chickens. He followed up his newfound notoriety by participating in DIAS (Destruction In Art Symposium) in England sitting alongside such masters of mayhem as Gustav Metzger, Herman Nitsch and Wolf Vostell. His London performances inspired Primal Therapy’s originator Arthur Janov to dedicate his first book to the artist. Ortiz’s subsequent performances at New York’s Judson Church are now the stuff of legend and so entertaining, disturbing and bizarrely comic were these that he was asked, twice, to perform them on the Johnny Carson Show. “Destructivism” was also an important element of rock performance. In 1964, during a show at London’s Railway Hotel, guitarist Pete Townshend of The Who began violently moving his hollow bodied Rickenbacker guitar in an effort to “play” the feedback from his amplifiers. In the course of these antics he accidentally hit it on the club’s low ceiling generating such an impressive “kerrrang!” that he decided to hit it again during the second set. This time the expensive but very fragile instrument unexpectedly broke in half and Townsend had to think fast as to how to handle the catastrophe. As he reminisced in the book Anyway, Anyhow Anywhere: “I proceeded to make a big thing of breaking the guitar. I bounced all over the stage with it and I threw the bits on the stage and I picked up my spare guitar and carried on as though I really had meant to do it.” Immediately notorious for this radically transgressive act, Townsend began to smash guitars as a regular feature of The Who’s performances, explaining to reporters that this gesture was “a statement of anti-materialism.” He gave as precedent Actionists like Nitsch and Destructivists like Ortiz: “To me, it wasn’t violence or random destruction, it was art.” Thus Townsend’s clearly embraced his failure and opened a new chapter in rock performance.
There is something much deeper than the obvious at the root of this topic — something that drives us to avoid failure at all costs. In many cases, creative energy is eventually spent exploring ways of reducing risk instead of exploring the benefits of uncertainty. Is it our obsession with control? Success? What are we really trying to avoid? And what is Failure’s role in the arts?
The avant-garde positively “wore failure on its sleeve” by celebrating the most socially unpalatable extremes of creative endeavor and as artists from Duchamp to Warhol have shown us, audiences are as readily drawn to a car crash as they are to a realist “masterpiece” painting. It seems that much of this extreme aesthetic behavior acts in paraphrase of a member of Spinal Tap, that fictional rock band of stupendous awfulness, who said: “there is a thin line between clever and stupid.” So, perhaps staggering, awe-inspiring failure deserves even greater recognition than do all the winners of Turner and Hugo Boss prizes. Failure is actually the vital “second front” in a battle against creative mediocrity. I maintain we also need to think about failure as a privileged position to be taken in opposition to the “ambition machine.” If we have as sense of what failure means, what then is its inverse: success? Is success just a positive relation to normative societal standards and public accolades or commercial success – if so, success is more about fulfilling expectations than about telling people something they didn’t expect or want to hear. Thus, to embrace failure is to forgo the rewards of conformity and to get off the “ambition machine” in an embrace of one’s outsider status. Being marginal is “where its at” for artists who still believe in the efficacy of avant-garde action and there has been nothing more marginal in the history of art than destruction as a deliberately courted tactic.
The Vores seem to have played a major role in the collaboration. What is your connection to music and the performance at the Albright Knox?
I have to confess that I am a founding member and continue to play bass with the group. As a musical phenomenon the Vores have been annoying audiences for over 30 years and with one exception, the musicians are now all in their 50’s. The group re-formed after a decade long hiatus and with the spirit of “once more into the breech” we hit the stage before audiences who didn’t quite know what to make of us. There seemed to be constant confusion over whether we were some kind of weird punk rock nostalgia act or whether we were just plain nuts. But failure has always been as much a part of the mix for the Vores as has destruction. In stubborn defiance of misinterpretation, the Vores continue to produce energetic music and stylized acts of destruction that echo the late ‘70’s weltanschauung – where a bleak vision of the future is actually rooted in a longing for a time when the future hardly constituted a problem, let alone a grimly insoluble one. The Vores never passively languish in chaotic darkness, instead we produce, out of the moral vacuum of modern life, a destructive activism employing cacophonous noise and symbolic violence – an active embrace of the void of failure.
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This interview was inspired by the passing conversations in hallways, nearby coffee shops and a very special Indian restaurant on the campus of the University at Buffalo. Gary Nickard and Ben Van Dyke are both colleagues in the Department of Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo in New York and have found a found a quiet pleasure in considering themselves experts in Failure.
Gary Nickard works in photography, installation and various time-based media as well as electronic media. He holds a MA Humanities, MFA and PhD from the University at Buffalo. He joined the Department of Visual Studies in 1995. Ben Van Dyke earned his MFA from the University of Michigan and was a Fulbright Fellow to the Netherlands, 2006 – 2007. He considers himself a graphic designer and installation artist and has had over 30 exhibitions in North America, Europe and Asia since leaving his job as an Art Director in 2003