David Watson reports here for Dumb and Aggressive - the NYC column that reports on meteoric career rises and spectacular real estate steals - on ex-Britisher via Berlin now New York artist James Dawson-Hollis
Momenta Gallery is two smallish rooms, two blocks from the Williamsburgh L subway stop, the epicenter of New Yorks latest art, band and bar explosion. The veteran gallery of the Williamsburghs reputedly vibrant (read rent increase art scene), Momenta is somewhat a victim of its own success. Where it once was an island of sanity in a drab Polish neighborhood ten minutes from Manhattan, now it resists being another stop in the Young Persons Guide to Bohemia, and quietly goes on with the business of showing art.
Inside Momenta, funnily enough, there is James latest show, the subject of our conversation: a record player, set up on milk crates, surrounded by a messy pile of CD-Rs and cassettes - demos. Nothing that really tells you (you in search of that epiphanous moment) to search through the pile and play something, but thats the idea.
Two walls of the small gallery space are completely plastered with the
letters and photos that have accompanied the demos. Prints on the other
walls are of black-box rock clubs taken all over Europe, documenting
his interest in these architectural non-entities that play non-memorable
host to a host of memories. Another milk crate is full of custom made
LPs that he has pressed himself as negative shellac impressions
of existent LPs, which you can play in reverse rotation.
Dn A: How did this all come together?
J: This wasnt actually conceived of together as an installation, theyre actually like separate works. The photos are from a series, the CDs are their own sculpture project. The different works are different aspects but obviously theyre related.
Dn A: The title sounds vaguely familiar?
J: Its from The Beach Boys 20/20. Its the song Manson wrote for them. The photo series is called "Cease to Exist", a line from the song.
Dn A: OK, but the "Never Learn Not to Love" part, how did you set this up?
J: I ran adverts in the back of Melody Maker and the NME, and Music magazine sometimes. Occasionally a box ad, usually just a line advert. It said, "NYC label seeks British talent, send material", and I gave my address. I thought Id get thousands of replies. When I was in a band we sent out loads of demos, and of course never got a return, or thank you. They just disappeared, so I suppose thats where the idea came from.
Dn A: Did you run the ad once, twice?
J: Oh, more like twenty times. Originally I was going for 1000 replies. I imagined the sculpture looking like a Donald Judd thing, a really substantial stack, and hopefully people would still get the idea to help themselves, and it would dissolve into disarray, everything in the wrong boxes and itd be like after a party when nobody can find anything they like in your record collection. But actually I think it turned out much better this way. The amount that I got is not too overwhelming, and by doing it in this shoddy kind of way, just slinging them out there, encourages people to get involved and try and play whatever takes their fancy.
Dn A: Your advert says, "NYC label". Are you actually a label? You havent mentioned youre seeking British talent for an art exhibit.
J: Well, no. Im not a label. Some people have told me they like the show, but that its mean and exploitative and so on. Well, I would say, what isnt?
Dn A: For me the point where exploitation rears its head is in how incredibly naive the people are. Its almost a tear-jerker, and Im laughing at them.
J: But its you thats laughing. Thats what you bring to it. People have said that to me, and clearly some of these people are very naive. Generally theres the whole idea of "trying to get somewhere". Part of it is just who is going to answer an ad like this in the first place.
Dn A: Apparently you did. Some of these people seem like little Bambis looking for some cross-hairs [what is a cross hair?] to stand in. For example, "People tell me I look like an angel. Heres my photo and number."
J: Its true, she does look like an angel. Thats a part of this whole thing. If youre a producer and you want a lot of girlfriends...
Dn A: I think what I really liked about the show the most was that its a little peek into a whole world. The whole field of dreams of average people having a go at the stardom lottery. A little tragic, a little comedic, but also a little heroic - cos at least theyre doing it.
J: Thats how I feel about it. When people said to me it was nasty, I said I thought it was more of a celebration. Of all the output. The nice thing about making music with other people, which I still occasionally do, is that its like little gangs. Its great.
Dn A: A lot of the people who have sent in material, for want of a better word, seem like losers.
J: Well, you bring your own cynicism. Thats what youre bringing, Im not saying what my position is. When you send something like that out, you cant expect it to be private. Thats why I dont feel its an abuse, you want people to see and hear it. Its promotional material, except some of it is handmade which gives it the appearance of being more personal.
Dn A: I was surprised at how many letters were handwritten. Well, in this day and age, more like amazed.
J: Maybe theyre trying to be casual. They really havent worked out how thats perceived at the other end.
Dn A: I was surprised someone would handwrite in a promo to some anonymous New Yorker, "I like tennis and writing my own songs".
J: I think its a kind of naive interpretation of what successful big money groups write about themselves. They think its the appropriate information. Tennis is athletic, and that means theyre in shape, and sexy. Tennis is glamorous.
Dn A: You did say were in a band eons ago, and you got a lot of rejections yourselves. Do you think that disappointment is fuelling this work, giving it its sadistic edge?
J: Um, I spose, but I think its more about being good humoured about it. I think the over-riding thing is I think its cool to be salvaging something from this amount of stuff. For all the activity represented here, most of it is just landfill. Its buried.
Dn A: Do you find it funny?
J: If I do I think its because of the disappointments Ive had with art. Its very close to sending your slides out, and getting two seconds attention, if youre lucky. Probably half of them never touch the light box. The closer we get to power, the more we learn that theres so many things that decide who does and who does not "make it". Doesnt necessarily have anything to do with talent, or anything. Pretty much everything is mediocre to begin with, and its everything else that happens to it that lifts it to something else.
Dn A: Youve got the big photo of yourself pissing on a pile of skulls here. Is this a Pol Pot /Jello Biafra reference, or this a mea culpa for anybody else that youve over-exposed
J: Its funny that people get this Cambodia thing from that. This was a pyramid of skulls that I had been casting for a year, it had dragged on and on. Id finally finished it after all this work, and I thought, "this doesn't thrill me at all". I was really disappointed. One thing I like to do with my work is put it out with the rubbish, dump it and photograph it right at the last moment. Its meant to be quite jokey, with my head cropped out, so its like Im pissing on my own head. Yknow, pissing about in the studio. I put it in, cos if youre exposing everybody else, you've got to make some exposure of yourself. So this is like my big exposure, or small exposure, depending on your point of view. Because theres not much of me in the show.
Dn A: I wouldnt say that. Seems to me like theres a lot of inoculation against disappointment.
J: I really like this idea of failure, cos I think its something everybody can understand. To include this photo of myself there shows Im making stuff - its not necessarily good - doing stupid things, throwing it out, whatever. Just an acceptance of the process. You do the stuff, some of its good, some is bad. Sometimes its just as interesting to look at the stuff thats bad.
David Watson is a musician. He grew up in Christchurch but has lived in New York for 12 years or so. Our man James has gone on to an apparently successful career as an advert director... Is this what happens to the sad boys?????