Witnessing Eugenia Butler’s Kitchen Table

Marie B. Shurkus

In 1993 Eugenia Butler invited a group of artists—some whom she had never met, others that she barely knew, and still others that were friends and neighbors—to join her for a meal and conversation at the Los Angeles Art Fair.1 What could be more commonplace than a conversation shared over the course of a meal? Yet, at the outset of several of these meals, Butler’s guests expressed uncertainty about what was expected of them. No doubt their uneasiness spoke to the artificial architecture of the project. Located in a specially built room hidden behind the commercial booths of the 1993 Art/LA, Butler’s commonplace invitation took on a mysterious charge. In this secret room, the convivial kitchen table was flanked by video cameras, suggesting the façade of a Hollywood stage set. Indeed, at one point Butler jokingly compared herself to a “television host.” Over the course of four days in December, eight conversations were recorded and transmitted live to a series of monitors installed throughout the fair, including one in a café barely twenty feet away from the secret room. By conjoining actual conversations with their live broadcast, Butler’s project alluded both to the growing prevalence of public surveillance and to our paradoxically diminishing faith in the veracity of photographic documentation, a recognition that had been brutally driven home in Los Angeles barely a year earlier when the home video of Rodney King’s 1991 beating by police was dismissed as insufficient evidence. Thematically, however, Butler had other ambitions for the hidden kitchen table. As she explained during the first conversation, one of the motivations behind the Kitchen Table project was to understand the connections and differences between object making and artworks that produce social effects.2 In this regard, the Kitchen Table conversations actualized a shift in Butler’s art practice that had been brewing for some time.

Eugenia P. Butler, title unknown, ca. 2002. Dialogic sculpture.

Eugenia P. Butler, title unknown, ca. 2002. Dialogic sculpture. Image courtesy of Eugenia P. Butler estate.

As has been noted previously in these pages, the Kitchen Table was initially inspired by Butler’s childhood experiences at her family’s kitchen table, where she often witnessed her mother having extraordinary conversations with artists.3 Butler even incorporated one of the chairs from her family home into the set of the 1993 Kitchen Table, where it functioned as a kind of talisman, connecting these conversations with her powerful experiences at her mother’s table. Underscoring this connection, the press release for the Kitchen Table project recalled twelve-year-old Butler’s impressions of a particular conversation: “They are talking a mile a minute and filling the space with their ideas. I listen quietly and I know I want to be a part of this.” Thus, the young Butler effectively sketched out the format for the work she would actualize thirty-four years later.

In the days leading up to the first of the Kitchen Table meals, Butler referred to the project as “riding on the back of the elephant of commerce.” This description clearly underscores the conjunction of aesthetics and capital that art fairs so blatantly articulate. Yet Butler’s metaphor begs further inquiry. Who or what was the passenger riding atop capital’s pachyderm? On the one hand, the rider’s metaphorical identity seems almost obvious: more often than not the presence and participation of artists in art fairs is largely eclipsed by the commercial value added to the objects they produce. In an effort to undermine this reductive outcome, Butler’s project simply broadcast the artists’ presence into the fair, literally following her childhood impression and “filling the space” of the fair “with their ideas.” The broadcast conversations projected on monitors effectively spatialized the artists’ discourses, spreading them throughout the fair as ethereal objects captured and framed in the rectangular monitors. This effect helps to unpack Butler’s metaphor further. For in addition to inserting the presence of artists, Butler’s project was designed to represent the creative process in operation. Central to this outcome was Butler’s fundamental understanding of ideas as objects.

Eugenia P. Butler, <em>The Continuum Through Which a Thought Proceeds</em>, ca. 1969. Ink on vellum.

Eugenia P. Butler, The Continuum Through Which a Thought Proceeds, ca. 1969. Ink on vellum. Collection of Robert Barry.

In part, Butler’s somewhat unusual perception of ideas as ethereal objects speaks to her development as a young Conceptual artist who actively exhibited on both coasts. Like many slightly older Conceptual art visionaries (John Baldessari, Robert Barry, Joseph Kosuth, and Lawrence Weiner among them) Butler eschewed the material physicality of objects and instead created artworks that became visible through their use of text. For example, a series of her works from 1969 are composed of simple handwritten or typed statements that appear on vellum. The semi-translucent ground of the vellum enhances the abstract pronouncements of the text, which include phrases such as “A forward slip in time,” “The continuum through which a thought proceeds,” or “A condition of continuous transformation.” The vellum provides the text with a physical terrain that allows the abstract ideas to become reified objects. Stubbornly visible in the otherwise empty field of the vellum, Butler’s statements do not point to any concrete referential objects. Instead, the phrases recruit viewers to complete their condition as representational signs, for the ideas that they convey can only become meaningful through viewers’ imaginations. In this regard, Butler shares territory with the Conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, whose “sculptural statements”—also composed of text presented on material grounds—were designed to prompt viewers’ imaginations. Rejecting the common interpretation of Conceptual artworks as dematerialized objects, Weiner argued: “No one dematerializes objects, that doesn’t mean anything. As soon as you know something, it’s an object.”4 In what amounts to a reversal of this process, Butler similarly described her studio practice as pulling objects out of the invisible, as objects pouring out of her hands or falling directly out of her brain.5

Despite the similarities between Butler and Weiner’s works from the late sixties, there remains a subtle but significant difference. Most of Weiner’s statements from this period—such as “One Standard Dye Marker Thrown into the Sea” (General Statements, 1968) or “An object tossed from one country to another” (Terminal Boundaries, 1969)—tended to reference absent but concrete objects or specific events.6 Butler’s statements on the other hand registered abstract conditions. In other words, rather than prompting viewers’ imaginations to visualize something that was absent, Butler’s text invited viewers to imagine something that had no correlate in the visual. As a result, these works focus viewers’ attention more specifically on the perceptual experience of an idea as a durational moment that unfolds in our bodies. While Weiner and Butler both considered ideas to be sculptural forms of knowledge, Butler’s statements took a more kinetic approach in their construction of these forms and thereby focused viewers’ attention on the manner in which ideas transform and develop through time. Accordingly, where Weiner defined his works as “sculptural statements,” Butler referred to hers as “performative sculptures.”7

Eugenia P. Butler, <em>This Piece is the Shadow (Absence of ) Cast Upon It</em>, ca. 1968. Page from notebook. 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 in.

Eugenia P. Butler, This Piece is the Shadow (Absence of ) Cast Upon It, ca. 1968. Page from notebook. 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 in. Image courtesy of Eugenia P. Butler estate.

When seen from the perspective of Butler’s earlier Conceptual artworks, the hidden dining table can be said to function as a sculptural armature that Butler and her collaborators used to build their “idea objects.” Engaging the power of the video cameras, Butler transmitted these collaboratively crafted ideas into the art fair, where they had the potential to prompt the imaginations of the fair goers and even transform their perceptions of the other artworks on display there. Ultimately, Butler expected the Kitchen Table conversations to function as generators that not only produced ideas but also powered those ideas, moving them through different expressive bodies, where other levels of collaboration could take place.

Looking back on the Kitchen Table now, almost two decades later, we readily recognize it in the terms of participatory practices that increasingly dominated the 1990s; Nicolas Bourriaud dubbed those same practices “Relational Aesthetics” in 1998. Although Bourriaud never cited Butler’s Kitchen Table or her subsequent conversation project, Fire in the Library (1997–98), they both fit neatly within his definition of relational artworks that engage common forms or functional models, such as meals, to render visible our relationships with the world.8 Noting the somewhat apolitical nature of Bourriaud’s definition, Claire Bishop has redefined relational works as participatory art practices in which the traditional distinctions between artist and audience, production and reception collapse. “[The] emphasis is on collaboration and the collective dimension of social experience.”9 In the Kitchen Table project Butler extended the performative address of her earlier Conceptual sculptures by inviting the power of the imagination to expand through the potential of collaboration. With Bishop’s insightful definition in mind and some assistance from Édouard Glissant’s 1990 text Poetics of Relation, it becomes possible to more fully grasp Butler’s ambitious goals for the Kitchen Table.

Eugenia P. Butler, <em>Fire in the Library: A Laboratory with Velocity</em>, November 13, 2004. Dialogic sculpture at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

Eugenia P. Butler, Fire in the Library: A Laboratory with Velocity, November 13, 2004. Dialogic sculpture at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Eugenia P. Butler estate.

Eugenia P. Butler, <em>An Implosion/Explosion Produced by the Collision of the Ends of the Axis of Symmetry</em>, ca. 1967–1968. Page from notebook. 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 in.

Eugenia P. Butler, An Implosion/Explosion Produced by the Collision of the Ends of the Axis of Symmetry, ca. 1967–1968. Page from notebook. 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 in. Image courtesy of Eugenia P. Butler estate.

Glissant draws upon the philosophical work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (a favorite read of Butler’s as well) to theorize a fluid understanding of identity as a shifting relational terrain of influences that is always in transition. In contrast to more binary constructions, Glissant’s conception of identity entails an ongoing dialogue with difference: “Identity is no longer just permanence; it is a capacity for variation, yes, a variable—either under control or wildly fluctuating.”10 Central to Glissant’s project—and Butler’s—is an understanding of the power of the imagination to move and transform the meaning of lived experiences by establishing new relationships with both the past and the present. The relational, however, can never be a passive experience; it demands participation and it flourishes through collaboration.

As noted above, the artists collaboratively constructed the Kitchen Table conversations; however, to fully understand the relevance of Glissant’s notion of the relational for Butler’s project it is necessary to consider another key ingredient of the Kitchen Table, namely its witnesses. Butler not only broadcast and documented the conversations on video, but she also invited human witnesses, namely curator and archivist Judith Hoffberg and critic Cuauhtémoc Medina. Unlike the other participants in the eight meals, Butler asked Hoffberg and Medina to observe the conversations silently. In doing so, Butler casts Hoffberg and Medina in a role that was comparable to her own role at her mother’s table.

Butler does not address the role of the witnesses until the seventh conversation, when Michael Rotondi jokingly asked Medina if he swore to tell the whole truth. Rotondi’s jest points to the challenge of testimony, which is always a secondary action derived from witnessing. Ultimately, a witness—whether human or technological—must create a narrative structure for the events she/he/it will recount. In short, testimony always involves some form of composition.11 The video cameras, for example, created a frame of reference and projected the Kitchen Table conversations from a particular point of view. As a result, they captured only certain aspects of the Kitchen Table scene. In other words the live video broadcast simultaneously confirmed (witnessed) the Kitchen Tableconversations and subtly reconstructed (testified) them. Moreover, by broadcasting the conversations “live,” the video cameras effectively collapsed witnessing and testifying, making them appear to be one action. In designating additional human witnesses, Butler thus worked against this effect and underscored how witnessing and testifying operate as separate but related activities.

The distinction between witnessing and testifying brings another important aspect of Butler’s project into focus. As noted above, the live broadcast of the conversations had the potential to impact the fair goers’ perceptions of the artworks on display. Nevertheless, the video broadcast was a one-way communication. In other words, the fair goers could be affected by the Kitchen Table conversations, but they could not participate in the construction of these conversations. Despite this seemingly exclusive structure, the fair goers were not passive participants in Butler’s project. The Kitchen Table’s central motif—eating a meal—offers important insight here. On the one hand, eating is a basic form of consumption. In fact, Georges Bataille drew this exact analogy in 1930 to define appropriation as a process of consumption (as opposed to excretion).12 The act of consuming food and making it a part of one’s body, and by extension one’s identity, provided Bataille with the seemingly perfect analogy to describe the homogenizing effects of Western colonization. Bataille’s analogy, however, relies upon an understanding of food—and by extension colonized cultures—as a largely passive and entirely receptive form. Yet consumption entails a much more relationally transformative process. Food, for example, moves through the digestive tract, actively engaging with the systems of the body to create energy, flesh, waste, etc. Similarly, the broadcast conversations were meant to operate like a prepared meal that unfolds through the body; they were an organized sculptural form of dialogue that when consumed created new and different relationships, simultaneously transforming the perceptions of the consumers as well as the ideas consumed, even as these ideas were still being formulated in the hidden kitchen. Thus, Butler’s project referenced another critical discourse that defined the nineties, namely how the shift in media toward twenty- four-hour news and information was impacting the ways in which we witness and participate in the world.

Significantly, Butler recognized that the bodies of the human witnesses (both Hoffberg and Medina as well as the art fair goers) have the capacity to perceive the world in a much more relational manner than the technological witnesses. In fact, when Butler explained the role of the human witnesses, she discussed them in terms of the collaborative nature of the project. Butler had every expectation that the human witnesses, like the technological witnesses, would also testify to what happened in the hidden kitchen, but she recognized that the human witnesses not only would register the events differently, but also they would transform what happened through a myriad of other relations and references that could be neither predicted nor controlled. Ultimately, through the human witnesses, the performative sculptures created at Butler’s Kitchen Table rode out of the 1993 Los Angeles Art Fair and continued to move into the world.

Marie Shurkus is a contemporary art historian and media theorist. She is a visiting assistant professor of media studies at Pomona College as well as a core faculty member of Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Visual Art Program.

  1. In addition to Butler, twenty-six artists (13 females and 13 males) from six different countries participated in her Kitchen Table project.
  2. Eugenia Butler, The Kitchen Table: A Documentation of 8 Conversations over Meals with 26 Artists at ART/LA93, 22. Transcribed and edited by Leila Hamidi.
  3. From 1966 to 1968, Eugenia P. Butler’s mother, also known as Eugenia Butler, ran Gallery 669 on La Cienega Boulevard with Rico Mizuno. In 1968 she opened the Eugenia Butler Gallery, which closed in 1971. See http:// articles.latimes.com/2001/ jan/19/local (accessed July 18, 2011). Also see Leila Hamidi’s introduction to Eugenia P. Butler, “Kitchen Table Talk 7: Our Relationship to Our Environment,” X-TRA 13.3 (Spring 2011), 4–6.
  4. Lawrence Weiner quoted in Birgit Pelzer’s “Dissociated Objects: The Statements/Sculptures of Lawrence Weiner,” John Goodman, trans., October (Autumn 1999): 79.
  5. Butler, The Kitchen Table, 71.
  6. his would shift in Weiner’s later work, where many of his statements become significantly more abstract. See Donna de Salvo et al., Lawrence Weiner: AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE 1960–2007 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2007).
  7. Conversations with Corazon del Sol, the artist’s daughter, June 16, 2011. Also see Anne Ayres’s “A Forward Slip in Time” in Eugenia Butler: Arc of an Idea: Chasing the Invisible (Los Angeles: Otis College of Art and Design, 2003), 8–33.
  8. See Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les presses du reel, 1998; English edition, 2002).
  9. Claire Bishop, ed., “Viewers as Producers,” Participation (London: MIT Press, 2006), 10.
  10. ÉEouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, Betsy Wing, trans. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 141.
  11. See Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas, eds., The Image and the Witness (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), especially pages 1–20.
  12. Georges Bataille, “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade (An Open Letter to My Current Comrades),” Visions of Excess Selected Writings, 1927–1939. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 95.