From X to XV: Conversation with X-TRA Founders Ellen Birrell and Stephen Berens

Brica Wilcox

In 1997, Ellen Birrell and Stephen Berens produced the first issue of X-TRA with co-founders Jan Tumlir and Jérôme Saint-Loubert Bié. In the following interview, they recount the intertwined histories of the journal and Project X, which started out as a series of artist-organized site-specific exhibitions.

Ellen Birrell, Stephen Berens, and Brica Wilcox in conversation in Santa Paula, CA.

X-TRA Founders Stephen Berens and Ellen Birrell with Brica Wilcox in Santa Paula, CA.

Brica Wilcox: Thanks for joining me to talk about the beginnings of X-TRA and Project X. You’re in the middle of the fifteenth year of X-TRA. A lot has happened! Could you go back to the beginning and tell me how everything started?

Stephen Berens: Maybe we should start with how we came to be living in Los Angeles. In the 1970s I was an artist and curator in Florida, curating by mail order. Meaning I would write artists a letter, they would send me slides, I would pick work out, they would send the work, and I would install exhibitions at the Florida School of the Arts, which is not as fancy as its title would imply. After doing this for a few years, I decided I needed to live in New York or Los Angeles. I got a phone call from a former professor who lived in Los Angeles and he had a house I could rent for $125 a month. That’s why I moved to Los Angeles in the fall of 1980. I also know how Ellen got here. I was working at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1981. Ellen Birrell and David Bunn, now her husband, had applied to the MFA program at UCLA. I called up, I think it was Ellen’s mom, to inform her that David had been accepted to UCLA.

Ellen Birrell: David and I had been living in Boston prior to coming to Los Angeles; we had started a small artists’ press there. We did various kinds of lithographic limited edition things and small artists’ books, keeping body and soul together with bad day jobs—from house painting to filing. We came out here when David got accepted at UCLA. While looking for a place to live, we were generously invited to a party at a soon-to-be friend’s house. As I approached the house, there was Stephen flat on his back in the driveway, completely, gloriously, Rabelaisianly drunk. I thought, “Who is that guy?”

Stephen and his partner, Elizabeth Bryant, and David and I became very fast and close friends and have been so, I am proud to say, ever since. The four of us shared two studio buildings in downtown Los Angeles, and in the second one, on Willow Street, Stephen and I would often have lunch or coffee in the afternoon, talking about what in the art world works and what doesn’t work. This was in the early 1990s and there was a big economic “correction” going on in the city.

SB: There had been quite a boom in the art market in the late 1980s and a wave of new commercial galleries opened in Los Angeles. But with the economy entering a recession in 1990 many of those same galleries began closing. At that time a friend, Christian Mounger, was working at a community college called El Camino. He asked if I was interested in organizing an exhibition with him. So, we organized an exhibition called Objects Objet, and included the work of Elizabeth Bryant, Anne Walsh, who’s now up in Berkeley, Jorge Pardo, and me. It was just at a small community college gallery. The interesting thing was that at the opening, there was a huge crowd. A lot of artists showed up at that opening.

BW: This was in 1991?

SB: Fall 1991, I think. It was sort of like, “Oh, you could do an exhibition anywhere. It doesn’t have to be in a commercial gallery anymore.” You could do something somewhere else and people would come. People are interested. It reminded me of my experiences making and showing art in the 1970s, where the point of exhibiting was mostly so that other artists could see what you were doing. EB: A community college gallery became a place.

SB: For that one month.

BW: That revelation was the inspiration to try to do something similar in comparable institutions?

EB: That was a big thing for Stephen, but I was less aware of that. In my practice, I’d gone from working with photography to site-specific installation. My issue was that it was crucial for work like this to be documented and written about, because you really need to be there, there’s no object afterlife. With the contraction of overall showing opportunities, I felt my practice being slammed both from not making a conforming object and from not having a vigorous press to enact a critical response to the non-conforming object. These were the kinds of things coming up in our studio conversations.

SB: As Ellen and I thought about organizing exhibitions we looked at how nonprofit galleries operated. Having a space meant you had overhead expenses: rent and salaries. So, of the money you raised, maybe 20% of the total operating funds actually went into the exhibitions, everything else was overhead. We felt if we could get rid of the overhead, we could do exhibitions much more easily. The idea was the same thing that happened at El Camino. Go to locations that already had an infrastructure: gallery, staff, money for mailing, the ability to keep the gallery open. We could just inhabit those spaces.

EB: What they didn’t have was adventurous programming.

SB: They didn’t have the programming that we were interested in.

Project X Paper for "The First Show," October–November 1992, Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, Orange, California.

Project X Paper for The First Show, October–November 1992, Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, Orange, California. 16 pages, newsprint.

EB: At this point, we made up a Project X letterhead, gave each other titles, wrote official letters on the made-up letterhead, and started to pitch ourselves as a group who would come and organize a temporary exhibition in their space.

BW: It’s interesting that in all of the Project X exhibition papers, you state that you’re not a curating venture and talk very clearly about the fluctuation of the participants coming together in situ, with each project primarily being about the group’s decisions on what to produce.

EB: Right, we imagined our identity as Project X as being more like coordinators. The shows came about not as curating, but more like a chain letter. The founding insight of every one of the shows, for me at least, was an interest in something particular about the actual locations: the context of the space, the social and cultural context. The way Stephen and I started, we would each think about the space and then, for whatever set of reasons, come up with a first artist to invite. Then we’d offer to that artist the opportunity to invite yet another person. That person, if we had enough room, could invite a third person. It was a decentered collection of people. That provided a fascinating way of making networked connections between artists. One of the exciting things about this process was gathering people who had equal stakes in what was going to be in the room. It was an extraordinary shared ownership of the final product of the show. Being curated into a group show by a visionary curator is great too, but many group shows, organized around more casual or pragmatic connections, can feel like being part of a list, and in that list, an artist can be hidden in plain sight.

SB: It was also a reaction to some of the curating going on and the type of grants that were available. At that time, there were things that would basically be an open call. Artists had to submit a proposal and only after you developed your idea for that particular exhibition would they tell you, “Oh, yes, you’ll be in the show.” It felt like they did not trust artists. Rather than say, “This is the space. This is the idea for the show. You can do whatever you want. I trust you.” For me, one of the important things was believing in the artists. The first place where we proposed an exhibition was The Guggenheim Gallery at Chapman University; it was such a great name. During the time we were planning, I was in London and woke up in the middle of the night with the idea that for our first show as Project X, we could do the same thing that the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) did for its first exhibition. We could call it The First Show. In fact, we could use their catalog cover and introductory text, and just X out everything that didn’t apply to us for our catalog, which is what we ended up doing.

BW: At the beginning of MOCA’s version, there are so many “thank yous” related to all the funding. In the Project X version, I noticed Eli Broad is X’ed out very early on.

EB: The First Show at MOCA, in 1983, was all about the collections they were either getting or courting. The names on the front were those of collectors; not of artists.

SB: We replaced the collector with the artist. Otherwise, there was a lot of stuff that did apply. So, we left all that in place. We did agree with the basic idea of “having exhibitions where you consider art as a witness to and expression of its time.”

EB: What we figured out with Chapman constituted a loose template for subsequent Project X shows. Our pitch to the institution was that we would organize a show with a documenting publication and they would pay to keep it open and keep the work safe. Their only other cost was $1000 paid directly to the printer because that’s what it cost to produce 1000 copies of a sixteen-page offset newsprint publication. Our routine was to install the show and set the reception for a week into the run. During that week, Stephen and I would collect our 4 x 5 cameras and all the Polaroid film we could find and document the work in situ. The exhibition invitation to each artist included a page in the publication, encouraging them to do something direct to print. In almost every case, we would also invite a writer to write something in response to the space, the group of artists, or the work; to contribute writing that, in their purview, was appropriate. It was essentially recognizing the writer as another form of artist-worker. Writing was really important early on. Everything for the publication was assembled that week, and by the opening, we would have the printed copy in hand to give away free. That was a real juicy thing. A thousand bucks and the institution gets a show and a free publication. As a maker of ephemeral site works, that solved a big problem for how I understood the art work: now it might have a life, a track record, a visibility beyond the direct encounter within the space.

SB: The First Show publication says, “Project X is a fluctuating confederation of artists who are, with this show, initiating a program of artist curated exhibitions, each to be accompanied by a documenting publication such as this one. Once again, it has become apparent that artists need to take control of the processes by which their work is seen and understood. If you have an idea or location, contact us.” It was certainly a collective beginning.

Project X Paper for "Xtreme Research," February 1993, California State University at Los Angeles.

Project X Paper for Xtreme Research, February 1993, California State University at Los Angeles. 16 pages, newsprint.

BW: Xtreme Research from 1993 is one of my favorite of the Project X papers. Can you tell me about the exhibition at Cal State Los Angeles?

EB: It’s also one of mine. Mitchell Syrop started this particular way of installing his yearbook pictures there, actually using the gallery as a research site throughout the time of the show. Prior to this, he’d been hanging them in static groups.

SB: Mitchell not only worked there, he had graduate assistants work with him, as you would in a research facility. So we were able to use not only the facility but also the resources of the institution. I think that was an important thing. A lot of people could try different kinds of activities; people would try something different because the opportunity presented itself.

Mitchell Syrop, "Mistaken Identities Project," installation view, 1993.

Mitchell Syrop, Mistaken Identities Project, installation view in Xtreme Research, February 1993, California State University, Los Angeles.

David Wilson, "Geoffrey Sonnabend, Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problems of Matter, an Encapsulation," video, 1993.

David Wilson, Geoffrey Sonnabend, Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problems of Matter, an Encapsulation, video, 1993. Installation view in Xtreme Research, February 1993, California State University, Los Angeles.

EB: David Wilson made a video with wonderful diagrams about a marvelously abstruse theory about memory. I seem to remember animations, and a lovely professional voiceover. These were great people who were using the model of research.

SB: Cal State Los Angeles had video production facilities, which were much different in 1993 than they are now. They produced what I believe was David Wilson’s first video. Also, David lectured as part of his piece.

EB: Yes, that was fabulous. The other thing is that in the case of Mitchell, he said, “I want to give half my page away to somebody else.” He shared his page with Cinthea Fiss, and of course she was working on something quite complementary to what he was doing. That was another case of this extended act of reaching out to another artist with a related practice.

BW: And continued that generous invitational style.

Installation view of works by Christian Mounger (left) and Eric Magnuson, in "Suitably Appointed," 1993.

Installation view of works by Christian Mounger (left) and Eric Magnuson, in Suitably Appointed, September 21–December 14, 1993, Muckenthaler Cultural Center, Fullerton, California.

SB: Suitably Appointed, at end of 1993, was the first exhibition that Ellen and I just facilitated.It took place in a historic house, the Muckenthaler.

EB: It’s a landmark property, an old citrus grower’s house in Fullerton, which had been adapted into a sort of community gallery by lining all of the original surfaces with false walls. They had to do something with the electrical system that required them to pull all those fake walls out. Suddenly, the house was visible in a way that it hadn’t been for twenty or thirty years. We heard about this, and convinced the people who ran the Muckenthaler that this was a great opportunity to do a show about the house itself—or about what the house generates in peoples’ thinking.

SB: A lot of the work dealt with the domestic. People were making work specifically responding to that site. Renée Petropoulos made a kind of work that she’d never made before. Anne Walsh’s piece was a kind of piece that she had never generated before.

Installation view of Christian Mounger, "The Peaceable Kingdom," 1993, and Renée Petropoulos, "untitled," 1993, in "Suitably Appointed."

Installation view of Christian Mounger, The Peaceable Kingdom, 1993, and Renée Petropoulos, untitled,1993, in Suitably Appointed, September 21–December 14, 1993, Muckenthaler Cultural Center, Fullerton,California.

EB: That was a real breakout moment in this shared conversation about what is to be done in this show, in this place—the real question of both exhibition design and site specificity. Renée decides that she’s really attracted to the mission style revival architecture with the rounded barrel vault arches all through the house. Essentially, she does a line drawing in real scale of the entire house but shifts it, which meant that these chalk line drawings went throughout the entire exhibition space. It ends up being in the middle of everybody else’s work. Here’s a case in which a site-specific work doesn’t overwhelm anybody else but marks the context in a different way. It also evoked the displacement of the false walls with a kind of ghostly echo. I thought it was a really wonderful piece.

Eli [Pulsinelli], who’s still very much involved in X-TRA now, did this whole cutout thing. This was her first opportunity to work with us. For her page in the publication, she created a model of the Muckenthaler, with all of its interior decorative details, as a paper doll kind of a house that you could cut out and assemble. She traced in all of Renée’s drawings, which is really fun.

Further Reading