Interview with Charlemagne Palestine

Chloe Ginnegar

January 2018, Conducted on the Occasion of the Exhibition

at 356 mission, Los Angeles, CA, January 25 – April 22, 2018

Chloe Ginnegar: Your more recent exhibitions have been held in museum spaces, but I’d like to start with your earlier work and participation at the Idea Warehouse, an artist run space in the seventies in New York City, which is somewhat similar to 356.

Charlemagne Palestine: It was a very big space but in those days we could say the word, that I was – the word that I hate – that I was more minimal then.

CG: The work then was not as maximal as it is here.

CP: It was in 1975. That was more than 40 years ago. In those days I must say, even though I had my animals and things – I had a couple animals – everything was very sparse. Everything was in black and white more or less – also the equipment, the monitors were in black and white. It was a more »black and white« time. That’s why all my drawings of that time were in black – which I didn’t mind. It’s also to remember that using that word minimal, which we didn’t invent, was used for sculpture. Tony Smith, the father of Kiki Smith, he was one of the founders of a kind-of approach to form that eventually got called minimal. Then there was a composer, a writer for the Village Voice called Tom Johnson and he used that word for sound art and performance. So the word started to take off and forty years ago that was ok. The only thing that I have, the reason why I am so »anti«, is that we live in such an abundant world now. Internet and things, I just did an interview for Bourges in France right here in Los Angeles.

After forty years, why do we need to continue in this reductive way? It became not a concept, but what we were worried about in contemporary art. It’s repeating yourself over and over and over again but its become something necessary, maybe because we live in such a complicated world. People are terrified of everything. Sometimes when people see a show like this they are scared because the world outside is like this and then they come into an art gallery and the world inside is like that. In fact, they are looking for an alternative and I’m not obviously that. That makes me depressed now, forty years ago that was interesting. It felt like some new territory, doing things very reductive, but now it just seems repetitive and boring and restrictive. In those days, you did it because that’s what you felt like you wanted but now it feels like a necessity, it’s a law. That’s why I began to fight about fifteen years ago, when people kept saying, »Oh yeah, he’s the minimal artist, minimalist composer.«

CG: Exactly. When I read reviews about your strumming music as minimalist composition I feel that it does not account for the expansive sound and actual listening experience.

CP: Well, that label began to become incredibly obtrusive and inexact. It’s like the word improvisation for everything. So they began to use that word for everything that came out from those times. Some things are but almost nothing is. In fact, even Phil Glass recently, I just read in an interview just about six months ago, is also now fighting minimalism, I’ve been fighting minimalism for 20 years. All of a sudden I say I’m tired of that term. I’m not a minimalist. Even he, who coined the term and used it to bring his career to great heights, now he too can’t stand it. It just took over.

CG: It’s boring.

CP: It’s time to kick it out. It’s time to put it in the garbage.

CG: When people walk into this exhibition, they will be getting the opposite experience. The installation is maximal to the max, especially with all the different animal congregations. Can you explain how visitors might read the animal’s relationships to each other and the space?

CP: They are divinities. Well for me, it’s somewhere between a temple and a Luna Park. It’s something between a sacred Luna Park or sacred toy temple. It brings our daily things of our society together. I’ve taken all these orphans and this is the first time I use the word orphan in these pieces. I asked people here in Los Angeles to look for some animals and you came up with 18,000 of them that nobody really wanted.

CG: Oh, they were totally discarded.

CP: Yeah I found that an amazing phenomenon.

CG: It’s also fitting that all the animals came from different repositories.

CP: And my partner Aude had a very interesting perception that I didn’t realize. She’s been touching them all. It’s always that way. When we do a show, I do the whole big concept, and Aude goes and touches every animal and looks in their eyes and she really has a more motherly relationship to all these creatures and I don’t. I’m more about how they get placed. I’m like their travel agent.

Aude was telling me, she looked at all of these and so few of them have ever been played with by children. They still have their labels on them. In this case, even the companies that made them or the stores that sold them throw them out after they are no longer modern in the way of that year’s style and they throw them to a thrift store. Aude was telling me how few of these 18,000 give the idea that they’ve been loved.

CG: This is like their first foray into the world.

CP: And they are already orphans. This is like an enormous orphanage. Which is why I spontaneously thought of this term, a term I never even thought of. When I started to do these things with animals, which began in the late 60’s. I just had an animal that a girlfriend gave me. There is Pepperoni, a monkey who will be in the performances at The Box which Simone Forti bought for me in 1973. They were just animals that I had a sort-of identity in – alter egos – but then it started to become a phenomena that there were so many. They have so many cousins. What is the status of their cousins? Their cousins are like refugees – they have no country, no place, they are just lost.

It just happens, especially in the last five years, when I started doing these pieces which I never meant to mirror what’s going on in our world. That wasn’t my intention, but they do. All these people, all these divinities, all these creatures and you look out into tent town in Los Angeles or you see pictures of all these people in refugee camps in Calais or different parts of Europe get to the West. It resembles, incredibly, that being a lost creature in our now world but it was never my intent, that just happened to happen simultaneously or parallel-y. This idea or obsession that I had with a few animals at the beginning, never did I imagine that it would become such a maximal, enormous work like this. It’s the biggest ever with about 18,000 or more. That we found them quite easily and quickly. And there are hundreds of thousands more out there so it’s like some kind of social phenomena.

CG: And with the boats, these animals are journeying…

CP: And like the people coming on the boats, to Lampedusa who are sometimes drowning. It’s happening as we speak and though it had never been my intention exactly it parallels a reality in our world.

CG: And the parachutes are similar? I know that you have been making these and including them in your installations for some time.

CP: We started in June 2001, the first show we did it in. Aude and I were – we actually found a little animal called P.Day.D.Day. which was kind of a commercial little mouse with a parachute. I’ll pass you a photo of P.Day.D.Day. and then he inspired me. It was the time when it was going to be the anniversary of D-Day, the Second World War. I was going to do a show in France and thought this would be nice, I’ll do a kind of, débarquement, which is when there is a parachute drop.

So in Besançon, in France, at a place called the Le Pavé dans la Mare, I did the first installation in a space very much like this one but much smaller. It had wooden ceilings like here and it was a greniér, an attic, a big attic functioning as an art center. This was when we did the first version of the parachutes with remixed music from »Saving Private Ryan« that had the effect of being in the middle of a battleground and these animals were coming down with their parachutes.

CG: Is the sound piece in this installation a remix too?

CP: The sound piece for this show will be almost worse! It will sound like an entire war going on from about ten to twelve different speakers all doing different things. It will be now my own sort of war games, not from a film. This will have the effect of being a chaotic remix of my own making.

CG: How do the divinities impact the performance? Are you ever performing for them?

CP: We are in a temple of all these different creatures but these performances are for everybody. It’s not especially for the animals but they are included. As you will see in »Illuminations!« I always have special animals by the instruments. Simone might even use this one element that we found for her again that we both used in a performance at the Serralves Foundation in Porto around fifteen years ago that I brought to the rehearsal and Simone started to dance with it. I call him Fanté like Elefanté. Simone seems to still like him but I can’t guarantee that she will use him again.

CG: Can we talk about the video pieces? Maybe it is best to narrow it down and talk about »Island Song«?

CP: That was done in 1976. It was a friend of mine, a women friend of mine, and she wanted to give me a birthday present, my birthday is in August. We took a map of North America and I closed my eyes and I put my finger on the map and it wound up on these little islands off of Newfoundland, Canadian Nova Scotia coast. There are these two little French territories, Saint Pierre and Miquelon. That was where my finger went when we decided I would just put my finger on the map and she would sponsor a video work. So it was 1976, around the time of my birthday, which is the fifteenth of August, we went to this island that is quite small, where they speak French since it is a French territory. I rented a small motorcycle and in those days video machines were very big and heavy. I wore the video recorder and it resembled the size of TV monitor and it weighed about thirty pounds. I wore it like a backpack on my back. I had the camera, which was quite large and not like the little cameras of now and I started as I often do. I did a one of a kind, just got on the motorbike and started to go through the island, which had a lot of potholes. As often with many of my pieces in the 70’s I started with no preparation. I never did any preparation.

What was strange is that I had started to sing this kind of song, a mantra, on the motorcycle and I didn’t realize it but later on in the island there is a refuse incinerating system, which is where the piece ends. The refuse center had a kind of fog horn sound, »eeeeeeer« »eeeeeeer« »eeeeeeer«, and I hadn’t realized but unconsciously where were on the other side of the island I must have unconsciously done my whole mantra in the beginning in that tonality that you don’t hear in the beginning, especially with the motor of the bike and you can’t hear anything except that and I was singing with the rumble of the motor and fifteen minutes later when I was singing on the other totally other side of the island and I arrive at this incineration plant and this is the sound that the foghorn was playing. It was like I was singing a special song in the tonality of the island. All of this is done unconsciously, spontaneously and then it became »Island Song«.

CG: When I watched »Island Song« it struck me as very trance-y. Now looking at the installation it also is incredibly trance-y. The mish mosh of animals and all that.

CP: I like that term trance-y, I’d call it trance-y too. I would say that much of my singing since forever is trance-y. Even my performances with Simone, I sing in a lower voice, in a falsetto voice and it will all be very, very trance-y. Mish mosh, trance-y is my point, my style. Even though it started from such diametrically points, different points of view. My body art, my iconic use of these kinds of divinity creatures were very different but now I enter 45 to 50 years having used them both they sort of seem to work together. In the Now, they seem less contrasted or in opposition. It was only in those times, style was considered radical. When one style seemed to be in radical difference to another style and that was what made my work for many people illogical. Now, with so many artists that do various or perform various personas, not just following one point of view in the whole gestalt, big picture of Charleworld. These things did exist and it seems less radical. In the climate of our world, lots of artists have many schizoid points of view. But at the time, I was one of the very few doing such a radical style, from one to the other. At first, many people didn’t get it. They sort of thought that it just didn’t work.

Now, they say »Oh, it sort of did work«. Now it’s 45 years later and they have changed their minds, now it sort of works.

CG: Walking through the installation and past the screens of animals I keep thinking back to the story of your father trying to dispose of one of your stuffed animals and not being able to because it is speaking to him in it’s voice.

CP: Yes, it was in the back of the car. My mother was furious. He was someone without any sense that one would have known at the time. He was a serious, very unhappy man, always ill. Not really a sense of humor. But when I was talking to him and my mother in my childhood and I had a few special animals. Like a ventriloquist, I used to talk to them through the voice of my animals. When my mother told my father to throw out these certain animals because she thought I had become sufficiently old that I should no longer have these animal toys, he found it very, very difficult. He tried to throw them out and they started to talk to him in the language, in the voice, that I had presented them to him.

The thing that isn’t so shocking, unless you had known my father, was that he was someone without any real outward sense of fantasy or humor or imagination. He was a very pedestrian, sick, Odyssean immigrant in construction in Brooklyn. Yet, this man, when put upon to throw out these creatures that he had learned by my pushing had these voices and these souls. He couldn’t throw them out. That to me is the most shocking part of the relationship with my father. I never knew that about him and it was only in this one time that it showed that maybe he was much more influenced by all kinds of things that none of us knew about. I was able to communicate the personalities of these beings to him and it stayed to the point where he found himself incapable of hurting them.

CG: Yes, I found that story incredible and it made me wonder how many people have had similar experiences in your installations, with familiar animals from childhood speaking to them.

CP: Yes, I also found it incredible because that wasn’t the father that I knew. People often have something inside them. Especially people who are not very extroverted, perhaps have a world going on inside of them that we have no idea about, that they are interpreting things in a way that we have no idea or imagining that are as complicated or profound as they seem when we look at them from the outside. In my father’s case, this certainly was true.

The only other time he was interested in me in any way was when I sang in synagogue professionally. My mother pushed me strongly, when I was a very young boy maybe 5-6 years old. I had a very good voice, singing little rock and roll songs by singers of the day like The Platters, Johnny Ray, they were singers of the 50’s. So she pushed me to do an audition for a choir of traditional Jewish music and I was accepted. So all my childhood, from when I was six to fourteen, I sang in synagogues, special holidays and occasions like the Sabbath. My father would sometimes attend and I would see him mouthing the words in the audience when I would sing. Which again was something I never knew about him. He never spoke to me about my singing and he rarely ever spoke to me. Some how or other, something was going on inside of him. Jewish music was something that he was affected by even though he didn’t express any special affinity for it. He died right after my bar mitzvah; a bar mitzvah is when a Jewish boy becomes a man at thirteen. As my birthday is in the fifteenth of August, in the Jewish calendar of that particular year, my bar mitzvah was in the middle of September and my father complained of having chest pain at the party, a big party for the family, and by February he was dead. So I only knew him until I was a man and then I no longer had a father. I do remember watching him from afar, trying to mouth the words that I was singing when I was on the stage in that part of the synagogue. I was singing with others, I didn’t sing alone. We were choir that sang around the hazzan, now it can also be a women’s choir but in those days it was only male singers. In those days it was forbidden to have any kind of instrument except the voice. Everything was acapella.

CG: What’s next for Charleworld?

CP: I want to continue doing big projects like this. I’m very lucky to do this project and we’ve done it with an amazing team of people. If this was an Anish Kapoor or Mike Kelley, if he were still alive, it would be a budget of at least ten times.

But also I come from a rag background. Jews call rags, a sacred Yiddish name called schmattas. It really means a rag but at the same time because we were forced to use rags it became a kind of sacred textile term. It is very much in keeping in the way that I work. All these orphan animals that have now been created into some kind of sacred temple. This is how I have constantly worked since the beginning – transforming these cheap materials into a sacred concept. Not a particular religion but a religious kind of feeling. Like reverence, like trance-y as you say and sacred. A kind of sacred without a special name. It has a little bit of Buddhism, a little bit of Hindu, a little bit Catholic, a little bit Jewish, a little bit Muslim, a little bit of everything. At the same time it is none of those, it is in some kind free form sacred state.

Chloe Ginnegar is the Gallery Assistant at 356 Mission