In conversation with SETH PRICE

“Scientists might get good work done if they wore insane outfits.”

Seth Price

Interviewing Seth Price was challenging. People often say, “Never meet your heroes,” and many I have met or talked to, shattered my perception of them. For the past few years, there were two people on my list I was afraid to talk to. First, because I didn’t want to come across as stupid and I wanted for them to see me on my best behavior, selfish, I know. Second, because for me they are the greatest, and I never want to ruin that idea. Why I find them so exceptional, I don’t know, but their work just talks to me in a different way than any other. One of the frightening two was Seth Price. I somehow got over the fear and did it. Luckily he didn’t disappoint, and I am now ever more obsessed than I was beforehand.

Fuck Seth Price: A Novel (New York: Leopard Press, 2015; 2nd ed., 2016), Photo: Ron Amstutz

Seth Price is a multidisciplinary artist whose work comprises video, film, sculpture, installation, collage, performance, and text that investigate how art and media are produced and disseminated. He was born in East Jerusalem, Palestine and is now based in New York. His latest show, “Social Synthetic” at the Stedelijk Museum just closed down a few days ago. The show was spectacularly mesmerizing, and it was an excellent overview of Price’s old and new works emerging together. And even though some of you may have never heard of him, you have to know that is of his choice, as in his work he prefers to observe rather than manipulate the public.

_

Mr. Price, you are not a trained artist it just happened, natural progression let say. Now, could you live without art?

I probably couldn’t stop making it, but I could live without it. I’d rather live with fabrics, flower arrangements, ceramics, smells, things like that.

You are one of my favorite writers, do you believe every word you say or write?

Thank you, that’s great to hear! Belief never enters into it, one way or the other.

Disappearance is a common subject that runs throughout your work. What is it about it that intrigues you most?

Being part of the times, and going with the commercial flow. Culture is like a series of disappearing tricks: something starts as material and then it gets thinner, flatter, and more transparent, and then it gets secret, virtual, out of sight and out of mind. I’d like to be out of sight and out of mind, but to myself.

How to Disappear in America (New York: Leopard Press, 2008; 2nd ed., 2011), Photo: Ron Amstutz

In your novel, “Fuck Seth Price” you play with an idea of how one can disappear. I read a statement saying, “The narrator speculates that the only way left for an artist to disappear is to be subsumed by one’s career, to a point where one’s public persona floats free of one’s self.” Do you ever want to achieve that status?

No.

Do you think artists like Koons, Abramović, etc. did that? Do you think they did it intentionally for fame and money or to run away from themselves?

I don’t know why anyone else does anything. I couldn’t care less about the motivations of those artists.

There is also a small portion of violence in the book, but it’s written in a way it does not lead, it’s more like a background noise. Have you heard of the book called, The Art of Cruelty? It is by Maggie Nelson. In the book, she discusses whether the brutal art presented in today’s reality and entertainment will shock society into a less alienated state and help create a just social order or whether focusing on representations of cruelty simply makes society crueler!? What is your take on that?

I read that book, I like her writing a lot. I’m no longer so sure about making an art that addresses bodily brutality and physical violence. Five hundred years ago, the world was a place of lawlessness, drunkenness and insanity, disfigurement and death, suffering and shunning, disorder and domination. And it still is that place. But now we also have newer and more subtle forms of coercion. So I’m no longer sure about focusing only on violence that can be aestheticized, although I’ve done my fair share.

Not long ago Jordan Wolfson came under fire for his violent work shown at the New Musem. Critics say he failed to acknowledge the privilege that lets him reduce violence to an aesthetic form. Do you think working around this topic is a privilege if you don’t have to face the social threats yourself? Especially white privilege?

Of course. Everyone should be aware of their relative position and power. We exist in relation to other people, and most people benefit from some given structural inequity, even if it’s just within a family, or a workplace, or a group of friends. Rather than say ‘white privilege,’ which suggests there’s such a thing as whiteness, you could talk about the privilege of lighter skin, which includes white privilege, but opens it up to a lot of other situations. Likewise the privilege of thinner bodies, taller bodies, more masculine behaviors, etc. And we shouldn’t disavow or deny these things – i.e., “I ignore race” – rather, we should inhabit them in a considered manner. And then the things we do might still be problematic, because we have to make compromises to get by. But that’s OK. The idea that you’re supposed to achieve some purity of conduct is another enemy. It’s important to acknowledge our own duplicity, and our simultaneous coexisting selves: the one that bends and goes along to get along, as well as the one that nurses hatred, and resistance, and discord.

Your 2002 essay “Dispersion” is based on frustration around how to be an artist, and whether you should even be one. It seems like you were struggling with a reason to do art back then. Now 15 years later, what was the good enough reason?

I couldn’t have kept from making art, that was the force I was fighting. Sometimes you have to fight something in order to understand it.

You once said, “The title of ‘artist’ is just so embarrassing. Just to assert that, “I am an artist!” It took a long time to be able to say that. It started to seem coy to deny it, anyway.” Can you say it more with ease now or it is still troubling?

I got over it. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to work, to be supported, to build a machine.

Do you think your work is valuable?

Valuable to whom? Sharks need to eat, too.

What do you think makes someone an artist in an age where everyone can be a self-proclaimed one. A real artist? Whereas I don’t even know what a real artist is, but let’s just say someone art world takes seriously. Is it the money? Is it when people start cashing in on you?

Weirdly, I only felt OK with calling myself an artist when I started putting it on my tax form. Like, okay, it really is just an official designation. Kids naturally investigate, ask questions, pose experiments, and turn personal obsessions into the production of knowledge and socializing. In other words, a child is a scientist. But they don’t know they’re scientists, because a scientist is a regulated social function that gets to wear certain kinds of clothing. Anyway, I do think non-belonging and non-identity are the best goals.

When at clothing, you did touch upon fashion in your work. You were in a Brioni campaign two years ago. You did a collection for Documenta a few years back. That said, do you care what you wear?

God yes, clothing is one of the pleasures. The pleasures of othering yourself. I think a strong detachment is important, in the sense of detachment from the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we’re like, and what we like. That’s an aspect of fashion I appreciate. Scientists might get good work done if they wore insane outfits. On the other hand, actual clothing designers and fashion directors seem to wear just tee shirts and jeans, as if crazy outfits are for consumers, not producers. “Do it, don’t be it.” Don’t smoke your own product. Non-belonging and non-identity may be the best, but they’re also the most frightening.

What about your body? Do you care what you look like?

I care what my body looks like.

Do you order a dessert after a meal?

I would take Viennese pastry if it’s on the menu.

I saw your Stedelijk Museum show, congrats on that. Walking one floor up on stairs has never been more interesting than the day I saw “Social Synth.” How did you decide on what to show? How did you decide which art was good enough or relevant enough for Stedelijk, for 2017?

Curators make initial selections. Then there’s the question of which works are around. Some pieces I wanted were privately sold and resold, and we couldn’t track them down. We had to pick works in geographical proximity so they could be consolidated for two main shipments, and some of my favorite works were in locations that would have busted the budget. There were collectors who just don’t loan. A couple of collectors declined and immediately sent the works in question to auction. In the end, I was the biggest single lender to the show because it was easiest and cheapest. A lot of works were in my storage because I hadn’t liked them when I made them, or I thought they failed, but when it came time to do the show they seemed strong.

Your opus is just too wide to cover all, and each finds different stand outs. This is not a question per se, but can you please just say whatever you want to say in regards to your work that I haven’t touched upon?

There is a material world, and there’s a world of customs, histories, rituals, and peoples, and then overlaid on these worlds is a system of laws, links, annexation, indexing, naming. It is this last system that should be destroyed. And thank you to Andrew Culp for that thought.

Mr. Price, what is your favorite and least favorite smell?

A person is okay with the smell of their own shit, but if they suddenly learn it’s, in fact, emanating from someone else’s shit, the smell can become intolerable.

Do you like tattoos? Do you have any?

I’m into people fucking with themselves however they like. I remember when that Modern Primitives book got huge in the late 1980s, and tattooing started going mainstream. Around 2030, retirement homes are going to receive a wave of older people covered with tattoos and piercings. I decided not to get on that train. My one idea was to maybe give my infant daughter a tattoo gun and let her draw some random thing on my arm, but that seemed too fucked up to put on a baby. These days a tattoo seems less weird than writing on your own clothes, or cutting holes in your clothes. Go ahead and cut holes in your shirt so your armpits are visible, write “Mineral Water” on your pants, and see how you feel on the subway.

What is the last song you listened to?

I was just listening to that song they discovered last year, the earliest song ever written, from that new Neolithic site.

What are you working on next?

Music.

Lastly, are you language sensitive?

I think so.

Interview: Katja Horvat

Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery