CONVERSATIONS Mousse 50
If the Future Were Now: A.K. Burns
by Lauren Cornell
What is negative space? The expression usually applies to the area surrounding the subject, something indefinite, invisible matter. Yet it is precisely this space that offers the greatest potential, dynamism, mutability, freedom. A.K. Burns puts negative space at the center of a new project, a video installation for which she describes the first episode, A Smeary Spot, to Lauren Cornell. The body, too, is negative space, a disorderly, mutable work in progress. Through this comparison between negative space and the body burns creates a sort of manifesto on the possibilities of being, its contradictions and polyvalence.
LAUREN CORNELL: The first shoot for A Smeary Spot took place in the desert in southern Utah, with the desert’s vastness and formidable age refracted through the movements of two dancers, niv Acosta and Jen Rosenblit. When we spoke about this shoot, you described being deeply moved by the landscape and mentioned, in particular, how Lake Powell, a dammed body of water that fills a deep canyon leaving a palpable and evocative absence, was an apt metaphor for the work. Can you talk about how you define the overarching concept of Negative Space, of which A Smeary Spot is an introduction?
A.K. BURNS: Negative space, as a formal term, is generally understood as the between, under, inside and around space, the atmosphere, the unseen matter. Positive space is the subject/object, the thing around which we orient our understanding of what is (and thereby what isn’t). This sets up a rather boring binary dynamic of absence and shapelessness (negative) vs. occupation and definable shapes (positive). What’s compelling to me about negative space is not that it is an inversion of positive space but that it has its own agency, that it is unfixed, dynamic, changeable and ultimately free: an open set of possibilities. I see it as an analogous framework for all kinds of socio-political questions of use and abuse of power. I was drawn to rethinking the science-fiction genre as an excuse to work at the intersection of politics and fantasy. The title, A Smeary Spot, is a reference to the sun—that is quoted in this opening episode—from a passage about space travel by science fiction writer Joanna Russ.
LC: This framework recalls previous works of yours like Community Action Center, which celebrated queer sex as “unfixed… an open set of possibilities,” or Randy and W.A.G.E., both platforms that create space for multiple and divergent artistic pursuits to unfold. It seems the concept of negative space encapsulates a long-running method of yours.
AKB: Yes, this concept is a kind of methodology that permeates many aspects of my practice and life.
LC: How does this get channeled into A Smeary Spot?
AKB: Once I got to the desert, I realized that was the landscape in and around which I wanted to develop this quasi-science fiction work, because so many analogies emerged between the larger concept of negative space and that site. We ended up spending a lot of time on public lands, and it quickly became clear that this type of landscape that is non-privatized, with little regulation, without rent and without a specific function, acts similarly to the loss of Glen Canyon and the dammed body of water now called Lake Powell, as another type of negative space. To explain briefly, public lands are the result of early American westward expansion when land was divided up into private homesteads, national parks and reservations. Everything left over (in Utah 70% of the state is public land) was handed over to the Bureau of Land Management. It is open for any “citizen”’ to be on as long as you follow the “leave no trace” ethic and move every 14 days. So you could ostensibly live out there for free, forever, if you so desired. But one also has to acknowledge that this potential utopia is, at its core, a tremendously fraught contradiction bound to our national history of violently stolen lands and defended borders.
LC: Why pair these public lands with a black box theater, the other location where the video was shot?
AKB: As the work developed, I was looking for another site to bring into conversation with the desert. I started working in the black box theater because on film it gives the illusion of infinite space. The theater is also a mutable site that is constantly becoming—the next stage for the next performance.
LC: In the desert, the dancers are often seen at a distance. They appear like flecks on the landscape, whereas in the theater the performers are seen in close-up, carefully arranged within colorful mises-en-scène and surrounded by props. Can you discuss your depiction of the performers in these two contexts, the desert and theater?
AKB: It’s interesting that you bring up scale. I was thinking about this a lot while in the desert. You feel impossibly small and at the mercy of nature for your survival. A place like New York City feels, at most, a few centuries old; in the desert, you’re on geological time and your own lifetime is just a speck. Literal and metaphorical scale shifts are one tactic I use to rework how value is applied to the relationship between things. And bodies are subject to being negative spaces as well; the female body, the trans body, the sick body, the old body, the black body. What happens when we stop seeing the body (medically, socially, economically…) through the scales by which it is usually measured, as limited territory for specific use, restoration and output, determined by gender, class, race, etc.? In A Smeary Spot I pose a question: what if we were to celebrate and support the body as a messy, always changing, never the same work in progress?
LC: That sounds better than supporting the body as something we fit into rigid preset shapes! So, niv and Jen dance in the desert in what seems like a semi-spontaneous response to the landscape. In the theater, the performances are scripted, defined more tightly by an assigned text and gesture: Nayland Blake recites writer Georges Bataille; Jack Doroshow (aka Flawless Sabrina) recites feminist theorist Karen Barad; and Grace Dunham recites science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin. Your direction, in both cases, seems to be part prompt and part improvisation. Can you describe how you direct one of these vignettes?
AKB: In A Smeary Spot, Jen and niv, as dancers, are markers of movement and action, traversing the landscape accumulating matter, refuse and material goods. There is one scene where they appear to be engaged in a kind of slow dance seducing the landscape. For this scene, I asked them to measure the landscape with their bodies; what you see in the video is their interpretation of that prompt. Their characters are part of a group of performers that I call “free radicals.” I use that nomenclature both to propose the idea that these performers are molecules with missing electrons and to represent bodies that are nomadic activists or those who initiate change. Because free radicals set off chain reactions that create more free radicals, this is an ever-growing group of performers that in the theater space all wear black t-shirts, jeans and boots as a kind of activist uniform. All the performers in the theater are given open and improvisational prompts that are also materially guided by the props I ask them to interact with. For example, Grace was handed an air mattress and asked to release the air from it. The forcing out, the release of confined air was very intentionally paired with the Karen Barad quote on why matter matters. To quote: “If agency is about possibilities […] particular possibilities for acting exist at every moment, and these changing possibilities entail a responsibility to intervene […] to contest or rework what matters and what is excluded from mattering.”
LC: Sculpture is a significant part of your practice, and in previous video works like Touch Parade it has translated into a careful consideration of props and the structure of the installation (the five monitors appeared like freestanding bodies). In A Smeary Spot, each object—even if it is submerged in a dense galaxy of clutter—has significance. Can you talk about the role of props in the work?
AKB: While my practice is very interdisciplinary, in my heart I’m a sculptor, or I perceive and make through a kind of sculptural-material-physical scale-focused sensibility, and I just happen to be using the medium of video to express this. Within the theater space, the props played a huge role, so there is a lot of material meaning behind every object you see used or in the refuse pile. For example, Nayland Blake, whose task was to be “re/productive labor,” was asked to activate his props, which included a juicer. I chose the juicer because it is a machine that transforms matter, solids into liquid. It also has a colorful visual output, both in the juice fluids and the pulp waste. I found that juicer in a thrift store and it was missing both the container for capturing the pulp and the plunger, so I improvised by using a garment bag to catch the pulp, which you see later also containing Chelsea Manning’s military jacket, a nod to leaks and leaky bodies, bodies that don’t conform. A Keds sneaker is used as the plunger, which is a kind of inversion on the idea of cleanliness and health culture that comes with juicers, and is a self-referential nod towards my work Touch Parade. Nayland’s outfit is an apron and jock strap, so it’s a bit like a dress with an open back, which is meant to give the effect of being a subordinate. It’s my take on a role that represents a conflation of domestic and industrial labor. He’s also covered in yellow dust, which was visually derived from stumbling onto a macro photo of a bee with pollen trapped in its hair, bees being a kind of classic symbol of labor. Once I knew I wanted a performer covered in yellow dust, I needed someone who was very hirsute for the dust to stick. I had been teaching with Nayland at ICP Bard program over the past year and I thought, “that’s the bear I need for this job!” He generously obliged.
LC: Can you point to some of the other references to art in the work?
AKB: A Smeary Spot includes several: in one part, Félix González-Torres-style candies spill over the image of the dam and ultimately into a military helmet that acts as a candy dish; in another, artist Marcelo Gutierrez poses on a pile of air mattresses reciting Guy Hocquenghem’s The Screwball Asses posed as Manet’s Olympia, an image loaded with the issues of sexual economies.
LC: In notes about the work you wrote that, together, the passages “weave into a loose manifesto on being.” Their references—feminism, Marxism, science fiction—imply an answer to my next question, but in your words, can you describe what kind of “being” emerges here?
AKB: You know I’m hesitant to say what kind of being, because I think the obvious answer might be “queer being” and I’m a little skeptical of the contemporary overuse and thereby depletion of the term queer. It often gets used as a space filler, as if queer had some universal definition. If there is any definition for queer it might be “that which lacks a universal definition.” So if I tell you it’s a manifesto on queer being, what does that mean? Queer being also implies that there is an inverse authority of the homosexual orientation as the privileged position. Part of why I use excerpts from The Screwball Asses is because that work challenges the position that the homosexual is synonymous being marginalized, a form of rebellion and thereby inherently political. In the age of gay assimilation politics this has never been more obviously incorrect. We can acknowledge the root to the term, the historical narrative and etymology, but I would not take for granted that homos are queer any more than that feminism is strictly about and for women. I don’t specify what kind of being because I want you to watch it and draw your own conclusions about possibilities of being of which I am not proposing a singular or universal solution, but rather an acknowledgement of difference, contradictions and the value of a polyvocal viewpoint.
LC: What fascinates me about you describing the work as “science fiction” is that instead of an imagined future, you are really depicting, or amplifying, current realities or “possibilities for being” in our present. Science fiction often relies on a future time—1989, 2020—even if that time is very clearly extrapolated from the present. A Smeary Spot transgresses this convention by expanding our definition of the present to possess “the future.”
AKB: I think if we literally change the way we see, value and define the world in its present state, that will open new ways of acting and being that will thereby create a new future. It’s a bit utopic. But shit is dismal out there and what we really need right now is not another sci-fi embedded in all the possible outcomes of our failures as humans (wars, surveillance, capitalism, uber-technology, etc.) but an outlet to create another world, different from the one we have.
 In scientific terms, free radicals are unstable molecules; when they find another stable molecule they “steal” the electron they need to be stable and thereby set off a chain reaction that creates other free radicals, which is how oxidation occurs, for example.
A.K. Burns (b. 1975) lives and works in New York. Her practice encompasses sculpture, video, performance and collage. Her work often deals with representations of the body and, in her words, “economies of gender, labor, ecology and sexuality.” Burns work has shown extensively in solo and group exhibitions in the U.S., Canada and Europe. In 2008, she co-founded the activist group W.A.G.E. (Working Artists for the Greater Economy); in 2009, with gallerist and publisher Sophie Mörner, she co-founded Randy, an arts magazine with a “trans-feminist and vag-centric” perspective; and in 2010, with A.L. Steiner, she debut Community Action Center, a “sociosexual” feature-length video inspired by feminist performance art and gay porn-liberation films of the 1970s. Burns new body of work titled Negative Space intends to reconsider the genre of science fiction. A Smeary Spot (2015), its first episode, is a four-channel video installation shot in both the desert of the American southwest and the black box theater of the Kitchen in New York. A Smeary Spot premieres at Participant Inc, NY in fall 2015.
Originally published on Mousse 50 (October–November 2015)