GRAPPLING WITH THE CONTEXT
Interview with Artforum's new editor, Tim Griffin
by Dike Blair
Less than a year ago, Tim Griffin was named chief editor at Artforum. He's among the youngest ever to head this magazine that is, arguably, the most influential periodical in the contemporary art world. Since its inception in San Francisco in the early 60s, the magazine has reflected the art world's difficult colloidal solution of artists, critical theorists, and marketing powers. Certainly the publishers' selection of Griffin is intended to keep the magazine vital in an art world that mushrooms exponentially every few years and where styles and attitudes shift like screensavers. In this world any kind of authoritative voice is suspect, if it's lucky enough to be considered. Griffin has managed to have his heard and respected.
Young as he is, 33, Griffin has been around the cultural block a few times. During the mid-90s he played with hip-hop groups in New York. He later went to Bard College for an MFA, having previously studied with legendary New York School poet Kenneth Koch. Griffin still writes poetry and his svelte and luminous lines have been published in this magazine.
But Griffin's real milieu has been the magazine world. While still a student, he edited William Burroughs for Semiotext(e). From 1998 to 2000 he was an editor at ArtByte, a magazine that never got its due from the art world's critical establishment; but while there he explored issues of design, technology, and the visual arts in the digital age; and, certainly, aspects of his aesthetic were shaped during that time. After being editor-in-chief for a single issue, Griffin moved on and took the job of arts editor at Time Out magazine where he learned to manage the weekly deadline and, while writing a regular column there, gained an appreciation for journalistic clarity. His magazine experience, a couple well received curatorial efforts, and the requisite amount of art world buzz brought him to the attention of Artforum, which brought him on board and quickly promoted him up the masthead.
Over the years Griffin has edited my own writing at those aforementioned mags and we've become friends-friendly enough that this is the first interview I've conducted without a list of written questions, and over cocktails. We talked in the lobby of the Maritime Hotel.
Dike Blair: How long have you been editor-in-chief at Artforum?
Tim Griffin: I think it's been 6 months. My first issue was the Oct. 03 issue.
Dike Blair: Any revelations? Any disappointments?
Tim Griffin: Every day there's a different one! But I knew that was going to be part of the deal, that I had my ideas and beliefs but there were also things I didn't have the faintest clue about, so I should take my time, sense the situation, and then do something truly new. I hope this idea has broader implications for both me and the magazine--a basic openness is essential to have in art and criticism right now, I think. So many people in every sphere are being conventional, even when they think they're being radical, or on-point.
Actually, I guess that, until I arrived at Artforum, I did imagine that there wasn't a great deal of adventurous art-writing in magazines today simply because people weren't being given the chance. There wasn't the context. So a revelation for me early on was that even when you give people the opportunity to be un-formulaic, they generally don't take it.
Dike Blair: Of the pieces that you've published, what are the exceptions to this?
Tim Griffin: Well, this is one reason behind my desire to get more artists into the publication. In my first issue, Richard Prince's piece with his nurse paintings was successful, because it was completely informative in regard to his practice-in other words, there was a clear reason for it to be there, beyond its being cool-yet it wasn't beholden to the formulas of today's magazine templates. I'd note that it was a mild struggle to get that piece accepted.
Dike Blair: Was the struggle with the publishers?
Tim Griffin: It was a piece that didn't fit formulas and changed the magazine's place in the world ever so slightly, and so the resistance was actually among my colleagues who'd been doing something else for a decade. A gut-level resistance is completely understandable, though. You know, even what kinds of sentences are acceptable in the magazine, what people will let fly, is what finally shapes the magazine. Right now, I want to change the magazine at a deep-tissue level, to create the possibility for possibility, and then really get started on the rest after that.
Dike Blair: Did you go back and look at the old issues?
Tim Griffin: I avoided that at the start, since I figured it's easy to be intimidated by the magazine's history. Plus, if you dwell on the past, you risk getting stuck in the past. You forget your own time. For now, I want to introduce oxygen and be a catalyst for speculation. But I'll start studying again soon.
Dike Blair: You're in a powerful position in terms of influencing the market place. Would you comment on the pressures brought to bear on you because of this?
Tim Griffin: For me the key thing is how to introduce art that I care about without becoming part of a style cycle. Typically a new editor introduces a new generation of artists at the outset of his or her editorship; then at the end of the editorship you just see a few careers transformed. What I would like to see is for the particular kinds of art that I care about gain more recognition, but have that recognition transform art making practices and the art system, not just careers. Maybe that's an absurd, presumptuous notion, but.fuck it. Everyone should have ambitions.
Dike Blair: What art are you looking at and liking?
Tim Griffin: Trisha Donnelly, Catherine Sullivan, Christian Jankowsky. Olafur Eliasson. Jeremy Deller's very interesting. But these are well-known people and boring for me to mention. Roe Ethridge is great as he moves in photography from genre to genre, appropriating and manipulating whole typologies today rather than single images. What art is goes up for grabs. That kind of abstracted maneuver fits these abstract times. Another provocative artist is Jeremy Blake. His videos always have a great drug-like, psycho-physiological effect that perfectly addresses those experiences that accompany the introduction of any new medium into the world, i.e., which necessitate a recalibration of one's relationship to traditional media.
I'm really excited about some pieces I saw in the studio by Wade Guyton and Kelley Walker, two artists I love. They appropriate pages from popular German magazines of the 70s, collaged the images, and screen-printed them onto canvas. The nature of their appropriation isn't exactly clear--do they reanimate the shells of these images?-and that's good. Guyton is also involved with Continuous Project, which distributes one-time photocopies of historic magazines like Eau de Cologne. There are a number of things like that around New York, with projects taking place in spaces that aren't necessarily named as art spaces, and nearly anonymous events involving performance and art pieces that disappear almost as rapidly as they appear. It seems an attempt to get around a gallery oriented art world without veering into what are now the clichéd moves of the 70s. What do you do after the age of the alternative scene? When there are no more alternatives?
Dike Blair: Is there a critical issue that you find important or urgent right now?
Tim Griffin: I suppose the issues that I find important right now pertain to ideas of materiality and dematerialization-our changed relationship to materials and the art context's changed relationship with mass culture. We don't truly have an active language to describe what's happened since the observations of Situationism, or of McLuhan. Maybe we could go back to Lyotard's "Immaterial" show at the Pompidou in the 80s. Questions of scale, spectacle, technology are everywhere, but a rigorous debate in the pages of an art magazine, which is a philosophical platform, on these points is yet to happen.
That said, there's probably a more basic, more terrible problem out there, which is actually the same in politics in the U.S.-you just want to hear somebody speak to beliefs that cut through, for Christ's sake, and make a play for the heart of things. Some passion. Some polemicism. We have to make all this matter. In the US it feels like a hard rain's gonna fall, and I need a different gravity.
Dike Blair: What about internationally?
Tim Griffin: That's a different question. There's a brilliant speculative lightness, I think, created by an international system of artists, writers, and curators that privileges travel, exchange, ambience, flow. It speaks to globalized commerce and communications. And I've loved the work coming out of it. But I admit I don't totally relate at the moment. It seems so wed to movement and accumulation.
You know, this is a slight change of subject and maybe shouldn't be in the interview, but I would love to have a conversation with Pierre Huyghe. There are so many things I'd like to ask him. I suppose now I'm in a position where I should just call him up. He makes such interesting work that at the same time is so enmeshed in this system that belongs so strictly to the art world. Take the work he did with Philippe Parreno in the Ann Lee project. For me, there are two other provocative ways in which that could be presented. Either as a cartoon manifested somehow as a television interstice, or in the hyper-exclusive way it appears the De La Cruz Collection in Miami, where you have Ann Lee in different manifestations in different rooms and you have the experience of the uncanny: You go into the living room and television itself seems alive and talking to you. It outstrips the art system context. Maybe the project is not as interesting now as it might be in 50 years, when you could distribute it en masse to intelligent houses in suburbia. Then you'd really be touching on the anthropomorphizing of Idoru anime characters and synthetic celebrities, the empty shell of media that we're so intimate with.
One of the most amazing things I've recently seen is a commercial for Playstation 2, in which a newscaster is giving this stereotypically sunny delivery of the headlines, when the image slows down and scrambles, delivering an encoded message. It's a complete mimicking of the organic-electronic hybridity of Cronenberg's Videodrome, except it's in real time on ABC, or CBS, on your TV set. There's this moment where you can't tell whether it's a real commercial, a newscast, an art film, or what. It's a shock. And when you finally realize what's happening, you realize the techno nightmares of yesterday are the marketing dreams of today. This all speaks to the media intelligence of a younger generation. But I think it also speaks directly to what art and art publications have to do, which is to somehow take over the context, scramble the language, weave into the DNA of culture and hack its modes of perception.
Dike Blair: Do you change your mind about art and artists?
Tim Griffin: It's almost embarrassing to me today, but I remember visiting galleries when I was 23 or so and looking at Andrea Zittel's trailer containers, which I thought were trite. Now I look at what she does and think she's not only doing provocative things in art but exudes an attitude about art that is infectious: Be dumb enough to have a new idea.
Dike Blair: You come from outside of the art world system. Your background is in literature and music as much as in contemporary art. Does that make your writing and perceptions fresh? Do you get bullied by PhDs.?
Tim Griffin: It's still strange to me that I didn't pursue a PhD. Now I guess coming from outside the art world makes me want to make art matter in a world where art is a kind of microwave glitch on the cultural sun. Poetry affects the art writing, since I hope mine has a poetic density, with each word necessary, carrying a number of meanings. It can be a slow, dilated language. And I know this approach affects my editing of the magazine: Everything that appears there is meant to correspond with everything else. It's spatial.
I guess that kind of attention should point to the idea that I see what I do as happening in conjunction with artists. I'm in art for the collaboration, the substance of dialogue and the ideas coming out of it. Also, there's a core predicate of the New York School of poets: "Don't be boring." Happily, PhDs, even and especially the established ones, seem enthusiastic about this.
Dike Blair: What is the ideal mix of journalism and more academic writing in the magazine?
Tim Griffin: Imagine critical, studied writing that has the immediacy of that Playstation ad. What's weird to me is that there are historic precedents for journalistic clarity paired with intellectualism, and for movement across borders, which has somehow been disallowed, or disavowed. Baudelaire and Mallarme showed up for the newspapers and yet what they wrote there has become the basis for scholarship today; in another vein, you have someone like Rosalind Krauss whose pivotal essay, Sculpture in the Expanded Field, was speaking to the art of its moment with a clarity that would work in many contemporary journalistic magazines. Or at least in Artforum today. It's precisely that kind of presentation that produces writing of any kind of significance.
Dike Blair: So separating those 2 kinds of writing is a meaningless construct?
Tim Griffin: Both are forms of interpretation with specific values. I try to juxtapose them in the magazine in ways that generate correspondences, and to help break up the conventions that often come with communities. I guess there are conventions and communities. On the one hand you can write to the infrastructure that exists before you or, on the other, you can write to the population that you think will understand your vocabulary. But the best abstract texts and theoreticians have an amazing clarity in their writing that makes it provocative. Also, having writing showing up precisely in the wrong place, like a Baudelaire writing today in the newspapers, could have the most transformative effects.
Dike Blair: It has to be spoken.what of the crisis of criticism?
Tim Griffin: It's a crisis within the community of criticism. Yet so many of these people are complaining about a situation that they've stood around for decades contributing to. Now they're wading through the mire of consequences. But you can state the problem, which is fine, or you can step back, assess the situation, and actually contribute something. Say something that might break that pane of glass.
Dike Blair: They're a bunch of whiners.
Tim Griffin: I should qualify that by saying there are 3 or 4 camps of crisis in criticism, which deserve different considerations.
Dike Blair: You'd have to describe those for me.
Tim Griffin: I know (laughter), clowns to left of you, jokers on the right. I suppose this all just relates to my magnified vision of Artforum. I'm hoping I can change the range in which critical action takes place. I believe it matters.
Dike Blair: Seriously, I imagine that criticism must be in an awkward place, between market pressure and institutional hierarchy?
Tim Griffin: That wasn't the case for a hundred years? It's a continuous effort to make it all matter.
As far as the construction of value for writing and criticism, yes, you're absolutely right. I realized when I was at Time Out, for example, that critics rarely took a risk. If you're a freelancer and trying to turn a buck, you criticize somebody and you probably won't write the artist's next catalogue essay. That's rent. Then there are writers who haven't gotten their critical legs yet and are trying to prove something to their colleagues, so they in essence imitate.
Most importantly, for me, you have a culture that has been radically transformed in the last 8 years and you have an art world that is phenomenally lagging in actually understanding what these transformations mean. You have science fiction writers like Bruce Sterling writing things in 1996 that the academy and art world only takes up, in paler shades, in 2004.
Dike Blair: What do you think of the idea that we're moving out of an age of irony?
Tim Griffin: I love irony. I sometimes think the critical language of Oscar Wilde, especially in the "Decay of Lying," is incredibly timely now.
Dike Blair: But if it's a matter of avoidance.
Tim Griffin: Irony allows for multiplicity and provocative encoding. We just ran a Michael Smith interview with Dan Graham in Artforum where there's a discussion of the relationship between art and entertainment. Smith is ironic. Too often art becomes a quotation of the sphere of mass media as opposed to infiltrating it, and turning it. To my mind the manner of infiltration may be the story of the next decade.
Dike Blair: Despite loftier goals, it seems to me that the only way that art has infiltrated has been to serve as material for marketing and media to recycle.
Tim Griffin: It really becomes a question of what art is in fact, because maybe it exists in places where it is not recognized. Or maybe its models are not so exclusive as they once were. At the same time, forms of marketing and media have entered art in many uninvestigated ways. This is dangerous ground, though, because there are meaningful distinctions to be had between art and entertainment or between art and the culture industry. One creates consciousness; the other creates novelty.
Dike Blair: How would you describe your editorial approach?
Tim Griffin: It's my belief that you have to allow chance into the equation. Without chance, nothing provocative is going to happen. With chance comes subjectivity and strong voices. With chance comes the possibility for revelation.
Unfortunately, chance also drives an editorial staff completely fucking nuts. Artforum can be this totally paradoxical place. We're radically understaffed. Ideally you are out there at the grassroots level. Often editors depend on the writers to do that. But when the magazine really meant something, it was the editors themselves who were out there. The editorial voices you saw in print had a direct relationship with the practicing artists, dealers, and curators.
Publications get created to be desired, to answer desire. So it becomes a matter of which desires are you going to answer to. Are you going to answer commercial desires, artistic desires? Ideally, there's an alchemical possibility to answer both. I'm still fascinated by Rem Koolhaas's Prada store attempt to take a kind of Situationist blueprint into the fashion industry. I'm also fascinated by the opportunity to satisfy the desires of a new generation, or actually of all generations, which I think is hungry for a different kind of engagement in art.
Dike Blair: I'm astounded by the degree to which young artists want to participate in the existing system.
Tim Griffin: It blows my mind because these people doom themselves to anonymity in this way. On the other hand, you're talking to someone whose position is almost a symbol of the system, and I like what I do. But I was a writer who wanted to have a more satisfying relationship with the world around me, and I made a conscious decision to grapple with the context. So, hey.use the system, bend it to your will.