Feature

The Kitchen Table, Talk 2: Art and the Dream

Eugenia P. Butler

It has been our privilege at X-TRA to print a series of four excerpts from Los Angeles artist Eugenia P. Butler’s Kitchen Table talks, of which this is the last. Conceived as an artwork and presented at the 1993 Art/LA art fair at the Los Angeles Convention Center, this series of conversations, hosted by Butler for artists that she admired or was interested in (some of whom she had not met prior to the project), was prescient in its structure and concerns. In its affirmation of social exchange in art, it anticipated the dynamics of what we now label “relational aesthetics.” In its use of technology and media to broadcast the conversations throughout the fair from a “private” room, it foreshadowed the possibility of speaking simultaneously from both a personal, intimate space and within a public space, a dynamic that is now intensely and paradoxically collapsed in the web-mediated age of Skype, Facebook, and Twitter. (Aspects of these trajectories in the project are examined in more depth by art historian Marie Shurkus in her essay in this issue.)

The editors worked in close collaboration with Eugenia’s friend and former studio assistant, Leila Hamidi, who had transcribed the entire series of eight talks. Together we selected threads and topics from the conversations that we anticipated would resonate for our readers today. In particular, we were interested in highlighting artists talking about their own process, as well as their descriptions of the artistic or political concerns driving their practice. Far larger than what you see in print, the talks covered a vast territory ranging from deeply insightful to banal or humorous. Some reveal—for better or worse—the power struggles, personalities, and blind spots of the participants or of the discourse of the time. But much of these conversations is impressively candid, intelligent, and inspiring, particularly due to Butler’s contagious intellectual curiosity and generosity. It is compelling to read them and witness how all of the participants grapple with articulating their experience, knowledge, beliefs, and varied perspectives on art and other significant questions. In addition to being a pivotal and transitional project within Butler’s body of work, it is also a valuable historical document. We hope that this series will encourage artists and scholars alike to investigate these talks further, as well as Butler’s often overlooked contribution to contemporary art discourse. Our great thanks and appreciation is extended to Leila Hamidi and Corazon del Sol, Eugenia’s daughter, for their participation and support in publishing these selections from the Kitchen Table talks.

–Karen Dunbar and Nizan Shaked, editors

•••

Participants: Marina Abramović, Eugenia Butler, Allan Graham, and Michael C. McMillen.

Witness: Judith Hoffberg

Transcribed and edited by Leila Hamidi.

Eugenia Butler: This is Allan Graham, Marina Abramović, our human witness Judy Hoffberg, and Michael McMillen. Let’s see, how should we do this? You can sit in any chair you’d like. Would you like to start eating or wait ‘till we start talking?

Marina Abramović: It’s only five o’clock; let’s have small conversation.

Group: Cheers.

Allan Graham: To Eugenia and the Kitchen Table.

EB: And all of us. When I thought about this dinner, there was a thread that ran through all of your work for me, which was an understanding of the force or the power of the invisible or the spirit or of dreams—that which is not palpable or physical. We have been talking about concerns that we think of as lucky occurrences around this particular table. I don’t know what that means; the way the winds of chance come together. How do things come together?

AG: You mentioned that the idea for this came from experiences you had at a kitchen table in your home— that you experienced it as a forum and place for people to meet and talk. It was interesting today because as we were at [your studio at] the Brewery sitting around the table, a number of us were introducing ourselves, talking about this, and somebody said, “What are we supposed to do?” I said, “Well, we’re supposed to do what we’re doing right here, only over there.” But the table is a familiar structure around which we’ve all experienced conversations. There is a little bit of awkwardness because of the context of this discussion, but it’s still a great idea because things do happen.

Michael C. McMillen: It is a very ancient ritual: breaking the bread, sitting around the fire, coming together for a common goal of sharing information.

Eugenia P. Butler, <em>The Kitchen Table, Talk 2: Art and the Dream</em>, ART/LA 93, Los Angeles Convention Center, 1993. Stills from The Kitchen Table hi-8 videos.

Eugenia P. Butler, The Kitchen Table, Talk 2: Art and the Dream, ART/LA 93, Los Angeles Convention Center, 1993. Stills from The Kitchen Table hi-8 videos. Courtesy of the Eugenia P. Butler estate. Clockwise, from upper left: Marina Abramovic ́, Eugenia P. Butler, Michael C. Mcmillen, Allan Graham; Mcmillen; Mcmillen and Graham; Graham; videotaping and recording of the talk; Abramovic ́; dinner; Butler.

EB: I think what was going on this morning [in my studio] is just as much a part of this because it is also about bringing together some wonderful human beings who are looking at their lives and their work in ways that are very interesting to me, ways that are very different from one another, but very strong. One of the things that I became aware of in the last meal especially was how much we learned from each other. There’s a part of me that feels this incredibly delighted, lusty greed at having you all here and getting to talk to all of you.

AG: I know. And you get so many meals out of it, too. On the plane this morning I was thinking to myself, if somebody asks, “What are you doing in LA?” I’d say, “Well, I’m coming for a free meal.”

EB: It’s also funny because there is a form to the circumstance. We have cameras here and we’re in the middle of an art fair and we don’t really know each other very well. There is this sort of artificiality to it as well.

MA: I wrote to you that everything in my life happened around the kitchen table. I think of my grandmother’s kitchen as the center of my world.

EB: Explain it a little bit.

MA: The most important conversations, the most important meals, the most important kind of energy, kind of flow, was always in the kitchen. The kitchen was a place for bringing all the family together. [It was a place] where we drank vodka, where we made bread, even made love, you know, on the table.

EB: Well, that’s not a bad place, actually. And you can eat at the same time. [Laughter.]

AG: Well, the table is the focal point and it’s always associated with the human body. I was thinking as you were talking about artificiality about a story in a collection of Robert Creeley’s poems where he talks about a poet who’s giving a reading. When the poet finishes, he asks whether there are any questions and a person in the audience raises his hand and says: “Yes, I have a question: The second to the last poem you just read, is that a real poem or did you just make it up?” To me that notion expresses what it’s like when you go to your studio. It is like your idea of doing this table, transposed from an experience that you had, which of course is not duplicating [that experience], but it’s something [else] that you’ve placed out there. When does something become real? I think it’s fascinating.

EB: Is this real? Are we real?

AG: Oh, it all becomes real; but many times in the studio there is the moment of asking if you just made this up. When it finally goes out in the world, there’s something that starts to make things real because of other people’s experience of them. But prior to that it seems to exist somewhere in between.

EB: But that in-between space, I think, is a wonderful place.

MA: What do you have to say about this in-between space? I’m very interested in this space in between. What is your experience?

AG: This may be more of a psychological space one operates from. It’s like throwing a sheet over a ghost to see what shape it is. It’s like something that is intuited that you’re bringing into form.

[…]

MA: You talk about mental space, but in my case, I also need physical experience. Because I really have to put myself in some situation first to generate work. I can’t just imagine. I have to experience like with traveling. I was just telling Eugenia that I just came from one airport to another. I had time only when the plane was delayed, basically. And it’s perfect because you’re forced to concentrate on the here and now, this moment. The past is behind, the present didn’t arrive yet. So this space in between is kind of essential.

EB: The sense of engaging in the moment, the sense of being hyper-aware of the moment, hyper-attentive to the moment, the amount of attention we can pay.

MM: It’s very much against society, though.

EB: Explain that. How so?

MM: I was thinking of television.

EB: I think one of the most disturbing things that I know about my country is that something like ninety-five percent of Americans watch six or more hours of television a day.

MA: Television was my first experience of meditation. When we bought one, my mother and father fought for at least one year whether to buy a washing machine or a television. This was in 1964 and my mother didn’t win, so my father bought the television. And at this time in the early morning there were only test patterns, and afterwards two hours of programming. So my brother and I would sit all morning and watch test patterns. It was my first meditation experience. So, really, television has a lot of meaning for me.

AG: What happened when the programs finally came on?

MA: It was just political speeches and war movies and was horrible. So we really only looked at test patterns, that was it. And the snow, the television snow.

AG: That’s not generally what people here are watching for six hours a day.

EB: That’s right, I mean I was lying down upstairs for a while and I realized that I always rail against television. But here we are being seen on a screen. So, it’s not the fact of television, but what it’s broadcasting.

MA: The challenge here is that we have to say something meaningful, that’s the most difficult part.

EB: Well, but I think that’s untrue. No, I don’t think we have to say anything meaningful. It has to be really clear that anything can happen. Anything can happen or nothing can happen. And that’s the only way to really occupy this space. I think that if you start insisting on receiving something, you’re already limiting experience.

AG: [In art making] you can fossilize a moment in the sense that it can continue without anyone being there. You can walk in front of a painting or a sculpture and whatever was brought to bear in that moment of creation [by the artist] can be transferred to the viewer. To receive that as a viewer seems to require a similar essence to be there. There have been times walking through a museum when something will stop me. The power coming off of a piece that allows that to take place has always been of great interest to me. It seems to have been understood by a lot of earlier cultures. Performance and participation are very similar things, except that they are even more direct, because of your being there in the moment of the making.

[…]

EB: We all have these extraordinary physical mechanisms as human beings and we have this ability to access that place that you’re talking about, that place of transaction. The first time I ever became aware of it was when I was thirteen years old. I was in the Los Angeles County Museum and I stopped in front of a black Ad Reinhart painting and I got lost. And I remember coming back and all of a sudden I had this incredible understanding that there’s someplace else. It’s not a place; it’s not a thing. There’s no language for it. But I think that great works of art hold that, or are doors to that place. I think about doors and I think about the piece of yours that made me walk up and ask you to be here today, Allan.

AG: The thing that keeps occurring to me is that there’s a level of vulnerability that has been traditional with artists. The vulnerability, like that you’re doing something that’s so close that it makes you open for criticism. And within the last so many years, the vulnerability factor seems to have been sealed off—it’s as if one needs to resist being vulnerable.

MA: It’s one of the reasons that performance didn’t survive, because artists were so vulnerable in the situation of the performance structure that they couldn’t stay in it for a long time. There’s hardly any performance left from the seventies because it’s just too much. You are so exposed. And the protection of the studio is something they went back to, really.

AG: I mean that’s what you’re doing here, Eugenia. That’s what I responded to. There’s great vulnerability in doing something like this.

[…]

MA: Something else is very important. I think it’s good to do things you don’t like to do. Because if you always do what you like to do in the same pattern, you never go out of it. But things you are afraid of, things that are an obstacle when you are really uncertain, when you almost panic…that’s the thing I immediately go to.

AG: Well, that process of jarring is the process of keeping things from going into a pattern.

[…]

EB: I think about the whole notion of repetition. There’s one man in Los Angeles, John M. Miller, who in a certain way has been making the same painting for ten or twenty years. And yet, they’re extraordinary paintings. I had the experience of going into his studio, and all the paintings are almost exactly the same, and yet I could understand what painting he was working on when his grandmother died. I could tell very clearly which paintings had been done before her death, and which ones had been done while he was dealing with her death. I mean, that information, that human information, was there. And they’re incredibly alive using repetition to reach the place we are talking about.

AG: But it takes a response. It takes a person that has the ability to perceive that. To someone else, it’s not there.

EB: And you brought up this whole subject of translation… I mean, the problem is that there’s the work of art and then there’s the interaction. There’s this extraordinary thing that can happen with the work of art. But we as human beings have to be willing to risk ourselves. We have to be naked in front of these objects—in a sense, in our psyche—to be able to be there with them.

AG: I was just recently reading a review by Robert Hughes in Time magazine of the Robert Ryman retrospective. One of the statements was that here’s a man that’s operating with an unoxygenated imagination. And the article went on to describe Ryman’s past as a guard at the museum and how he was influenced by it. It goes on to say he can’t draw. And at the time I was reading, I thought, this is really a very strange perspective. If he were trying to draw in the literal sense, and he couldn’t draw, then that’s a point of criticism. But to criticize somebody who doesn’t have any interest in that area is very odd. He chose to make white paintings because it meant something to him and he stayed with it. This is criticizing someone from the wrong end of where their interests are.

I was looking at a book on Egyptian symbolism, and the cover showed one of the Pharaonic figures standing, and the hands were held out in front of a tree. And I kept looking at it and I thought it was very strange. There was something wrong with the hands. Oh my god, I thought suddenly, there are two left hands. And, of course, what I kept jumping to was that the guy couldn’t draw. Or maybe he or she had some misconception of how the body worked. Of course, that’s ridiculous. So as I’m reading, this made me think of the Robert Hughes article, and all of a sudden it says that in chiromancy, which is palmistry, there’s a thing where the left hand receives and the right hand gives; the right hand controls destiny and the other one receives destiny. The Egyptians would put a figure with two left hands or two right hands, or a crossover of hands between two individuals. It’s the notion of information coming to me when I didn’t need to fill the gap with criticism.

[…]

MA: I’ll tell you a really amazing experience connected to this. About four years ago there was a project at the Louvre that never got realized. They invited twelve artists and they wanted us to come and see all the objects in the Louvre—paintings, sculptures, whatever area we wanted—and to make one work based on our choice of a certain thing. So they invited Nam June Paik, for example, who wanted to choose Leonardo to make work based on his interest in Byzantine paintings with reverse perspective, and so on. What was fantastic for me was that I could come to the Louvre every week on Tuesday, because it was the only time when the Louvre was closed to the public, with only one guard to follow me. So we had a completely empty museum. All day long I could wander wherever I wanted and stay as long as I wanted. I was very interested in the pre-Egyptian sections and the Sumerians and Babylon.

My idea was this: the day before I would go to the museum, I would not eat anything. I would not have any food, just water. Then I would go there at ten o’clock in the morning to the Babylon, pre-Egyptian, and Sumerian sections, but I didn’t want to read the titles and I didn’t really want to see the sculptures. I asked them if it was possible to turn the alarm system in this area off for me because I want to touch the sculptures, which I could never do it in the normal situation. They said it was okay.

So I would go and just gently touch the work with my eyes closed. My idea was that the piece should choose me rather than I choose the piece because I liked the shape or aesthetic of it—I wasn’t interested in that. Something had to happen between me and the object. I went like this for about a month. I tried everything—this object, that sculpture. And the most amazing thing happened one day. I touched one thing and I got completely erotic. I mean there was this old guard sitting there, and it was definitely not for him. I was absolutely hot. I said no, there has to be something wrong, maybe I’m getting a period. So I didn’t look at what it was. I went away and looked at some other objects. Half an hour later I went back and touched the same thing. The same thing happened. The really amazing thing was that this energy arose in me three times. And finally I looked at what it was. It was a Sumerian sculpture, actually used by women for fertility. It was working. And these things we have in the museums are completely displaced. Some of them have such amazing power, and we don’t even know what it is. There are a lot of things like that and we just place them in a museum and we see them as art objects. They’re out of their function yet they still have certain energy. This strong experience I had with the object definitely exists.

EB: Did you hold it for a very long time?

MA: No, I touched it for maybe three or four minutes.

AG: And they maintain that power even though the surroundings are against it.

MA: These objects maintain their power through this ritualistic repetition, hundreds and hundreds of years of using [an object] the same way each time.

MM: I had the same experience in the basement of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, where they have Australian Aboriginal artifacts [on display]. Walking out of there I wasn’t the same person because of the power of those objects.

EB: It doesn’t happen with the European art, or it’s very rare.

AG: It’s also dismissed. There are a lot of people who have certain experiences and refuse them because it’s like you’re not supposed to have that experience now in this day and age. It’s a closing out of a very rich world that feeds the way we perceive things. It is there, it’s available, it’s always pushing into your consciousness. The idea of the sublime…. I had a review here in Los Angeles of a body of work and the reviewer made a statement that I found very interesting: “We all know now in this day and age of post-modernism that the sublime no longer exists.” She went on to say, “But here is an interesting artist who wallows in it.” It was as though she was having some experiences through the work and was backing out of those experiences. It’s a kind of very macho attitude. Somehow we’ve started tucking [these experiences] away, and saying, “Well, those were primitive societies; they didn’t know what they were doing. Look at our technology, look at our abilities now.”

MA: Progress is regress in my point of view. I hate progress; I hate technology. Because it makes us invalids, it cuts everything out.

EB: Not necessarily.

MA: Yes, but it does. It’s not supposed to, it’s supposed to give us more time for ourselves, but it doesn’t.

EB: I think it depends on how we coexist with it; how we live with it.

MA: We do badly with this because, tell me, we spend four years to learn how to use a computer but we don’t use four years to learn…

EB: You came from Amsterdam to Los Angeles in one day.

MA: That technology is okay, but…

EB: I understand, I hear myself rail against television, against a lot of technology, but the reality is also that these are tools.

MA: I’m for telepathy, against the telephone.

EB: Absolutely.

MA: But you know, how much time do we spend to learn telepathy? You know, it’s possible to learn telepathy?

EB: But we all do it. No one can ever tell you a lie because you always know. There’s some place in your body that knows when you’re being lied to. It’s only the adaptations, the refusal, the denial of information that stops us from knowing.

AG: But technology is not necessarily the villain. Granted it takes us away from abilities that we would normally use or be forced to use in other ways, but…

MA: It makes us lazy.

AG: It makes you lazy only if you really want to be lazy. It also allows you to do things. We’re privileged because we have that ability, that freedom. There are a lot of choices that we have that many other people may not have. But to use that choice is really what it comes down to, like technology.

It’s like how a computer was used for John Cage’s show, Rolywholyover A Circus. I found it a joyous thing to go into and experience. I loved the feeling. Here are all these computer programs of John Cage’s; here are all these systems that he doesn’t use. Here are all these choices, all this moving in and out happening every day. The changing format of this show was utilizing it in a way to give freshness to it. It wasn’t deadening my senses.

MA: He also says an interesting thing: the choice he likes the least is the choice [from which] he learned the most. The second thing about his life that I like very much is that his life was completely structured. He had at least three hours every day to water his cactuses in the studio. He did an enormous amount of work that was very complicated. Then, he would spend about four hours making macrobiotic food, then another four hours playing chess. So, everything was on a time plan and art was random. It’s perfect. It really was a nice way.

[…]

EB: When I think about your work [to McMillen], I think that it is very highly crafted. You spend a long time on it, there’s this similarity, and yet I get these jumps. I get these places where the abyss is open, where all of a sudden I’m going, “Yes!” I’d love to hear you talk about your process a little bit, if you can.

MM: Thanks, it’s very difficult. [Should I talk about the] installations or objects?

EB: Whatever is the hardest to talk about.

MM: The installations. They’re the earliest works where I wanted to take the viewer and put them physically into a place where they became one with the object. That was the whole thinking that came out of the sixties and the psychedelics and experiential reality. Through that goal I left painting and went into sculpture, then eventually I went into installation. I see it as a way of basically breaking down a lot of perceptual barriers that we have in order to see things.

EB: Do you break down your own in the process?

MM: Hopefully, I try to. It’s intuitive work mostly. I have this point where I try to imagine myself as my audience. What would I want to see, what would I love to see? That’s where I start. You’re an artist because the world doesn’t have what you need to see, and so you have to invent that. Artists are inventors. So the problem is how do you invent a situation or an object that does what you want it to do. That’s the problem; then basically, you draw from your knowledge or your perception or intuition.

EB: What do you want to see now that you haven’t seen?

MM: Oh, a lot of things. I want to see sound, I want to see darkness. I love darkness, darkness where you see things.

EB: Darkness where you see things coming out of the dark?

MM: Yes. If you close your eyes sometimes you see strange light forms and things. All these things are very interesting to me and audio phenomena are extremely important to me. Oftentimes I’ll use sound with these installations so the viewer is taken out of where they know they are, and hopefully transported to a strange place that talks to them.

EB: When you are doing this work are you working out things for yourself; are you working out personal things at the same time?

MM: Oh, definitely, it’s a real personal dialogue. Often, it doesn’t translate into language. It’s like an intuitive surface. You can look back and see a map where it’s been, but you don’t know where it’s going. To use the metaphor of the map…

EB: That’s nice; it’s exploration.

[…]

MM: Basically, we’re stuck to a finite amount of time, hence a routine is important to get the work finished.

EB: You mean a finite amount of time in terms of a lifetime?

MM: Yes, you have a lifetime and so many days per year, so many hours per day to work and there’s time to not work, too. That’s really important—to read, to investigate, to travel.

MA: Do you ever think about your death?

MM: Every day, constantly.

MA: I always think artists can know how we are going to die. That it is in our life, in our work. You can see exactly the ways.

EB: Really? What do you mean by that? How fascinating, I’ve never heard anyone say that before. How do you want to die?

MA: I want to die consciously. That’s very important. But [to McMillen] do you think how you are going to die?

MM: I never thought how. I’ve thought of the topic many times, and I’ve thought of a lot of ways I wouldn’t want to die.

EB: That’s the first thought I had.

MM: I really haven’t thought of it in a real positive sense yet. I’m not denying its inevitability. I’m just saying I haven’t really thought about it.

EB: For me, when you first talk about it, the first experience is of fear. I don’t want to die by fire. But then the idea of taking that out, making it a place of power, a place of consciousness; I want to go willingly, I want to go openly. I want to choose, but I don’t know that I want to choose it until I suddenly understand this is my time to choose it. I’ve had a few experiences recently where I felt like death was very close to me and I remember saying very consciously, no.

MA: It is very important that you exercise this very closeness to death really consciously. My whole closeness to death was through my performances. I chose consciously a structure where I could go as close to this experience as possible. I’m fascinated about Tibetans who actually go through a clinical dying state in order to know how it is there, and come back. I think that as artists we have to know these techniques and do the same because then you can really consciously go to that state. Death is not an accident, it is not something to take as a surprise. That is ridiculous. It’s our duty to know more about it, to really experience it.

EB: How do the Tibetans do it? How do they come back?

MA: It’s a technique. It’s a lot of different preparations. First, on how to fight the fear of dying, which is this enormous fear that we have all the time. They are [enclosed] in a cell, in a kind of meditative state when they can imagine themselves dying and their body rotting. In the second stage, they get out of that and go to the graveyard and sleep together with a corpse in a different stage of disintegration…

EB: Have you done that?

MA: I didn’t go that far, but I went quite far. If you can spend four years learning to work with a bloody computer, why we can’t spend…

EB: Twenty learning to die?

MA: No. It’s just four years, it’s very short—a short course in death…. You know what’s happening; this is becoming a real kitchen table. I completely forgot that we are in the fair and there’s a television. It’s really true.

EB: I would love to know more about your work, Marina. I asked you about it last night, and you said it was a very long story, and I’m trying to remember what it was.

MA: You know what is very interesting. It’s the most difficult thing in the world if we try not to talk about our own work. It’s actually much more beautiful.

EB: If you don’t want to talk about your work you don’t have to.

MA: I’d rather not because it’s so easy. It’s me and my work. I go there, I do this.

AG: Well, it is a point of reference we all have to use.

MA: Okay, I really to want to tell you about this. I think it would be interesting to get one scientist, one man who’s doing genetic research, one nuclear physicist, one philosopher with a twentieth century mind—very rational— and one holy man. And I want actually to ask questions of these five people. They always ask artists like they have all the answers in the world, but that’s not true at all.

MM: Artists ask better questions.

EB: I think we do.

AG: That was another one of Cage’s points. You have to ask yourself the right question. I’ve often thought about that question that you ask…the answer is misleading. It’s the question that opens things up, it’s the answer that closes things down. The answer is the illusion of closure.

EB: I’ll tell you a nice story. We keep talking about John Cage, and every time we talk about him I think about this. In the first month when I was working on the preparation for the Kitchen Table, every once in a while I would wake up in the middle of the night terrified and think, “Oh shit!”

AG: It’s called vulnerability.

EB: But I found that when I would get really afraid or I would have a problem I couldn’t figure out how to solve, I would go to the John Cage show, Rolywholyover. I felt like I was consulting with the ghost of John Cage and I would always get the answer I was looking for.

MA: Can we have one plate now for John Cage? John, where are you? And some water?

AG: Also talking about Rolywholyover, John Cage wanted to include stones and plants, the things that keep life from being oppressive.

MA: This is for John.

AG: So, we need to move the plant over a little closer to him, an unexpected guest.

MA: John, I’m very happy to be with you

MM: Yes, thanks a million.

EB: Thanks for all your help.

MA: So, if you could ask questions what would they be in general? What would you really like to know?

AG: It’s not that I want to know something, it’s that I want to experience more fully. So the asking of a question is, when it comes down to it, [like asking yourself] “What do you want?”

Eugenia P. Butler, <em>The Kitchen Table, Talk 2: Art and the Dream</em>, ART/LA 93, Los Angeles Convention Center, 1993. Stills from The Kitchen Table hi-8 videos.

Eugenia P. Butler, The Kitchen Table, Talk 2: Art and the Dream, ART/LA 93, Los Angeles Convention Center, 1993. Stills from The Kitchen Table hi-8 videos. Courtesy of the Eugenia P. Butler estate. Clockwise from upper left: Marina Abramovvic ́, Eugenia P. Butler, Judith Hoffberg; pouring wine; Michael C. Mcmillen; Allan Graham; Abramovic ́ and Butler; Abramovic ́.

EB: My first question would be what is the most exciting thing going on in their field as a way to understand the sphere of their technical knowledge. I would want to know because I think that my feeling, for instance with the geneticist, there’s this incredible technical knowledge, and I would need to find a way to understand that picture. And I think that as human beings, the interesting questions lie right outside the edge, off the map lines that we’re following, the next to unknown. I would like to know the unknown at which the geneticist is peering. That would be the kind of question I think I would want to ask. So if I could take them to the lip of their own unknown, that’s where I’ll have an understanding of the form of that knowledge. What is right at the lip there? What is the most exciting thing?

MA: To me, this edge between what you ask the geneticist and what you ask the holy man is interesting.

[Summary of break in conversation: Abramović and Graham share some travel anecdotes and the conversation revolves around how knowledge is transferred between different generations and cultures.]

MA: I’m always busy with the vision of the artist of the twenty-first century. What is the artist of the twenty-first century? The artist of the twenty-first century should be the realest human being. There’s no object between you and the public. I also make objects, just a direct transmission of energy between you and receiver. And the public, as Duchamp said, also has to be developed to receive that, to be as creative as artists.

EB: But why no object? Why do you think no object?

MA: It’s just an obstacle. Why should we have the object in between if we have this energy in transmission?

AG: It could also be transmitted through the object in a private time to somebody in another environment. An inanimate object can carry and be carried. One thing doesn’t necessarily negate the other or prevent the other. In this case, I have been very grateful for objects. I have experienced things through objects that are left behind, or objects that were intended when the other wasn’t available. I think both are extremely valid cases. […]

EB: And the object can be a tool to keep you at the place of being a realized human being, being fully present and fully conscious in as many ways as possible.

AG: Everything becomes an object eventually.

EB: We are objects.

MM: You read my mind; telepathy.

[…]

EB: I’ve been thinking a lot about the act of being a good human being, whatever good means. “Good” is a phrase that fascinates me, that repels me, and that I have a lot of questions about. It goes along with some of the things that you’re saying. I think that we are in a sense chemical tools for this creative leap that happens out of us. The act of trying to be a great human being is an interesting task.

MA: Task?

EB: It is an interesting task. And it goes back to what you [to Abramović] were saying about the artist in the twenty-first century having nothing between them and the viewer. There’s an enormous responsibility there.

MA: I think the function of the artist today is being a servant. I think of myself as being a servant, very humble, and whatever it means being a servant. Another thing to think about is bridging different cultures from one to another. Malevich said of himself, “I am a step.” Beuys talked about the transmitter, Rothko about a sender. Bridge is not too bad. I’m for the bridge. What do you think?

MM: Part of the struggle is getting through the process of working, breaking through that barrier to a satisfaction level, realizing that you have to solve the problem.

MA: How do you know when a piece is ready?

MM: I just know it; you feel it. It’s intuitive when it’s done. People always ask me how long did it take you to do that piece and I don’t have an answer because I never look at a clock. I just do it. You look at it and it’s done and you just know it.

MA: But if something really doesn’t go right in the process of working and you can’t get through, can you get physically sick from this? Because that’s what happens to me—I mean seriously, physically sick; it completely upsets my system.

EB: For me, I’m always trying to reach around a hidden corner. I’m very interested in pulling objects out of the invisible. There is a place in me that always wants to go to the edge of something and pull something out of a place where I can’t see, so I don’t always expect to be able to do it. It’s more of an act of trying, an act of pulling something through, and I’m exhilarated when it arrives in one piece.

[Summary of break in conversation: The group discusses the role of doubt in their own creative processes and that of various historical figures including Willem de Kooning and Nikola Tesla. They also talk about sexual energy and whether it is a distraction or aide to the creative process.]

AG: I think from the standpoint of being lost at the kitchen table, this has been very successful. I mean, they’re blinking the lights telling us to go home, get out of here.

EB: And we don’t want to leave. Oh, thank you all so very, very much.

AG: Oh, thank you, you’re the instigator.

MA: We covered all the subjects possible—death, erotics, energies, telepathy.

EB: I felt a distinctive chill when we did this.

MM: And the food was wonderful.

MA: And death also passed very fast.

Marina Abramović was born in 1946 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Since the beginning of her career in the early 1970s, Abramović has pioneered the use of performance as a visual art form. The body has been both her subject and medium. Exploring the physical and mental limits of her being, she has withstood pain, exhaustion, and danger in the quest for emotional and spiritual transformation. As a vital member of the generation of pioneering performance artists that includes Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden, Abramović created some for the most historic early performance pieces and continues to make important durational works. Marina Abramović lives and works in New York. (Edited excerpt from: http://www.skny.com/ artists/marina-abramovi/.)

Eugenia P. Butler was a Los Angeles-based artist who played a formative but often overlooked role in the Conceptual art movement. Her early text-based works, such as Negative Space Hole (1968) and A Congruent Reality (1969), were conceived of as invisible sculptures that prompted the activation of the viewer’s imagination to complete the piece. Aside from an eight-year pause in art making, when she moved to South America to raise her daughter and study shamanism, Butler had a prolific career that spanned over forty years. After returning to the United States in the early eighties, Butler resumed her studio practice with a focus on physical objects, including drawings, paintings, sculpture, and furniture. Beginning in 1993 with The Kitchen Table talks, Eugenia also developed public dialogues as part of her practice. She was an integral member of the Los Angeles art community and a mentor to many young artists. For an overview of all eight Kitchen Table talks and a full list of participants, please visit www.eugeniabutler.com.

Allan Graham, who sometimes goes by the name Toadhouse, is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Graham is a painter, visual poet, and writer, combining these practices in his work with paint, wood, language, and found objects. He uses introspection and simplicity, exploring the relationship of the known to the unknown. He combines extended visual power, painting, and sculpture to evoke ancient mysteries. Recent solo exhibitions include: Shit is a sure sign of life at Feature Inc., New York (2007); Ideo-gram, James Kelly Contemporary, Santa Fe, New Mexico (2004); life would be a shame left to description, Toadhouse, Tucson Museum of Art, Arizona (2001); and AS REAL as thinking, Allan Graham/TH, SITE Santa Fe, New Mexico (2000). He is represented in international collections, and has published several books of his poetry. (Adapted from the artist’s 1993 biography for The Kitchen Table and his website: http:// www.graham-toadhouse.info/.)

Leila Hamidi is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. She was profoundly influenced by her mentor, Eugenia P. Butler, who impressed upon her the value of collaboration and a deep curiosity for all disciplines. Her interests outside of fine arts have led to positions with Taschen Books and the Los Angeles-based architecture firm Johnston Marklee. She is currently working as a project assistant for Pacific Standard Time, a Getty initiative to explore the postwar art history of Los Angeles through a network of over sixty partner museums and institutions that culminated in a series of citywide exhibits starting October 2011.

Judith Hoffberg was an art librarian and curator who was a major influence in the emergence of books as an artist’s medium. Starting in 1978, Hoffberg edited and published Umbrella, a journal increasingly dedicated to artists’ books. Umbrella was printed through 2005 and then published online through 2009. The archive is available at http://www. umbrellaeditions.com/. Over about twenty years, Hoffberg curated more than twenty exhibitions, including Women of the Book, which opened in 1997 and toured the country for several years. She also was an authority on mail art and Fluxus. (Edited excerpt from: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/jan/28/local/ me-judithhoffberg28.)

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Michael C. McMillen established himself as an early exponent of installation art, after earning both MA and MFA degrees at UCLA. McMillen is the founding director of Aero Pacific Research, an entity focusing on perceptual cognition and the practical application of the interflexed ambiguity principle. His research encompasses a wide domain of perceptual mediums such as visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory. One-person museum exhibitions include the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1977; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1978; and Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, 1980. McMillen’s work has been presented in numerous group shows including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; San Diego Museum of Art; and Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. McMillen has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, Flintridge Foundation, J. Paul Getty Trust Fund, and Joan Mitchell Foundation. A retrospective of McMillen’s work, Train of Thought, was shown at the Oakland Museum of California Art, April–August 2011.

Further Reading