SB: I think the magazine is really an outcome of the process. It’s a group of people that gets together and talks. Out of that discussion you end up with this [emphatically holding an issue], rather than an editorial process where you would sit down and say, “This is what’s going on; this major exhibition is happening in Europe; we have to have that covered, or this seems to be an upcoming trend.” I think a lot of magazines do that. There are magazines that set out to cover the market or cover who’s being shown or collected. I think those things are all interesting, but that is already being written about.
I also think there are publications that try to include art within the larger culture, writing about art, writing about fashion, and writing about music all in the same publication. X-TRA is in some ways, for better or for worse, really looking at what artists make and responding to that. Rather than looking at what museums are collecting of what artists make. I’m less interested in what museums collect and more interested in what artists make.
EB: Certainly, one of the things that makes me laugh every time I pick up yet another tome of Artforum is that, if you think about it as a site work, it clearly declares its investment in the market. Probably 95% of the physical content of any issue is ads about exhibitions. They place whatever critical editorial content they have within that envelope. That’s a business model. It’s a fact of living in American capitalism. It’s a fact of how collectively interested we are as a nation in where money goes and how money tracks or determines culture. Those are all really interesting things to think about, and Artforum does that in ways that are both aware and, I think, unaware, sort of blankly normative.
For a number of years now, I’ve been teaching a critical writing class for artists at CalArts, in part because of what working on X-TRA all these years has made me think about. I think that clearly we’re at a point after modernism and its various historical erosions, where we no longer think that the artist works with a single tool and doesn’t speak. The artist today doesn’t sit in an attic waiting for the lead paint fumes to kill her. She might pick up a musical instrument, might write, might paint, might perform. We understand the artist is somebody who occupies a creative periphery to mainstream culture that’s very fluid, using the most useful set of tools at hand to achieve a particular goal.
On the other side, the roles of critics and curators are no longer as fixed or separated as we have historically come to think of them. So, here’s my question: if we no longer limit the artist to working with her singular tool but rather think of her deploying any number of means, why aren’t artists the people to ask about what’s happening on the cultural edge, on the boundary of what’s not been seen, thought, or been thought about in quite that way before? It seems like the artist is one of the people who can tell us about what is going on on that frontier out there. By taking up the right to speak about what’s important in your field of practice and feeling confident doing that, we’re insisting that the conversation is about artwork that is grounded in a field of ideas, efforts, and speculations, some of which may be monetary, but not all. Writing about art is a way in which artists can build their own context for their works.
BW: Rather than being circumscribed.
EB: I could say you made something I thought was brilliant. Maybe five people saw it. If I can write a compelling argument for it and find a place for it, that thing has life. It goes back to my initial reason to participate in this, which is completing the responsibility to ephemeral but interesting artworks that might otherwise have no afterlife.
BW: Then, would you say the art historian or critic role we were talking about before is precisely on the same track, also trying to operate and be in a field of ideas because that’s ostensibly why they studied what they studied?
EB: Yes, but their methodology is very different from that of artists, which is why I find the conversations around the editorial board, which includes art historians, curators, critics and artists, very interesting. There’s a place in which, collectively, as an editorial group, we struggle to accommodate all sides of a conversation about art. I think this makes us editorially distinct, maybe not in every piece, but cumulatively throughout all the issues.
SB: I guess I see a slightly different history of writing about art. From around 1870 to the present, there are points in time, generally during points of drastic change, when it is the artists who are the main source of information. I look back and I think of Maurice Denis, whose writing on Cézanne was the best writing at the time. And when I go back to the 1960s, I look at Robert Morris, Donald Judd, and Joseph Kosuth.
EB: You are right, Stephen, and I didn’t mean to claim that artists speaking is brand new. In the first Project X paper, we wrote this mission statement: “Once again it has become apparent that artists need to take control of the processes by which their work is seen and understood.” It is still and again true.
SB: We’re actually reasserting the artist’s right to sit at the table and talk.
EB: Yes, and be a part of the big “durable culture” conversation.
BW: What are you both excited about with X-TRA now? Does it feel the same as it did five years ago in terms of your interest in how it functions and where it fits in the art world, or does it feel different?
EB: Yes. When we got the Warhol Foundation grant, for me personally, it was an endorsement of what we’d been trying to do, because sometimes it felt like what we were doing happened in an anechoic chamber where nothing came back to us—the problem of the letters again. To have this major foundation come and say, “This is deserving of support, and it needs to be helped to continue to exist,” was really powerful. I mark that as a move out of adolescence in a certain way. What has stabilized over this time is a clear sense of what the agenda for content is for the magazine. We have really long editorial lead times, so we cannot be informational in a dated material sense, we must aspire to a kind of deep speculative thinking about the artwork and about the world the work describes. That’s profoundly embodied in our new format as we go forward in volume 15 and 16. The new size and layout are hugely important to the quality of the reading experience. We have worked with many great designers who have listened closely to us, but our current form feels like the best fit we have collectively articulated so far.
The challenges that we’re facing at this point, of course, are the challenges that every small nonprofit in America is going through after the end of the big money drunk. We have a publication that is passionate about a very particular area of contemporary cultural production. Its base of support is understandably quite narrow, and we need to figure out some way to make it sustainable, at least until it is not needed or until someone does it better.
SB: In terms of a reading experience, I’m satisfied with the current magazine. The writing is good. We’re getting a broader range of people submitting materials to us. The artists’ projects continue to be really good. I think that this is a successful publication in that sense, but I also would like to see X-TRA, or the idea of X-TRA, reach a wider audience and produce more entry points.
EB: Among the things we’re thinking about is how our format works. The actual object we produce—the physical X-TRA—is good; but what other ways do people come to this? What other ways do people participate in this conversation about contemporary art? We’re going back to some of our Project X roots and really thinking about how and why we did events. We now do launches for every issue with some kind of original live programming, all of which is documented and archived. I am beginning to believe that we are broader programmers than we, or at least I, have recognized before.
SB: There are always personal things involved as well. When we did the first Project X exhibition, I had just turned 40. At that point, I thought, “Let’s just do this for now.” And then we’d ask ourselves every year, “Should we do this again? Should we continue or not continue?” There wasn’t the thought that somebody else would continue if we stopped. But that is part of the choice now. I’m not 40 anymore, and it’s not just a couple of us that are invested. There are a lot of people invested in what’s been produced.
To sustain X-TRA into the future we need to expand our support base and get new people involved. We probably had to be tightly focused to get the project off the ground. But now that is accomplished, we can afford to open up and reach out to new people. I hope people will realize that X-TRA, like the Project X exhibitions it grew out of, is an open system and we welcome their participation.
Ellen Birrell is an artist and lemon farmer. She lives in Santa Paula, California.
Stephen Berens is a Los Angeles artist and the co-founder of X-TRA.
Brica Wilcox is an artist and assistant managing editor of X-TRA.