Charlotte Burns: Hello, and welcome to In Other Words where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and today I’m joined by Ian Alteveer, the Aaron I. Fleischman Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York.
Alteveer quote from interview: “That kind of dizzying sensation that you don’t really know the real story, I think, is represented so well in that work”
I’m also joined by Doug Eklund who is a curator at The Metropolitan Museum as well, specializing in contemporary photography and variable media.
Eklund quote from interview: “He was looking for that choke point where you could force the institution into revealing its agenda.”
Together, Ian and Doug have organized the exhibition “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy” which is on view now at the Met Breuer until the 6th of January.
Before we get to today’s episode, here’s your regular reminder to subscribe to our In Other Words newsletter at artagencypartners.com. And now, onto today’s episode.
The exhibition is called “Everything Is Connected: Art and Conspiracy”, on show now at the Met Brueuer until the 6th of January, and the elevator pitch for the show was how would somebody imagine the forces that control their lives?
Ian Alteveer: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: And the show is about power, conspiracy and suspicions of—or actual uncovering of—corporate and government malevolence. Defining the show, which features 70 works by around 30 artists and artist collectives divided into two camps: artists who have been on fact finding missions that hue to public records and have produced works of art from that investigation, or artists that have just dove right into the more fantastical side of conspiracy. Have I got that right?
Doug Eklund: Totally right.
Ian Alteveer: Yes, really right. And one thing I would say—and this is something that Doug often brings up—even though that second, more phantasmagoric side of the show is very spectral, labyrinthine, strange, it doesn’t mean that those artists are any less research-based. They still dig deep, but they are trying to connect things that they can’t connect, in a way.
Charlotte Burns: Right. They created more of their own personal systems. They’re actually very in-depth, sort of molehills that once you find it there’s a whole system underneath.
Ian Alteveer: Sometimes literally, like that sub-level in the Mike Kelley, Educational Complex (1995).
Doug Eklund: That’s right.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. And that work is really disturbing and also really funny.
Doug Eklund: Mike Kelley was sort of our guiding spirit for this show. And he was as dark and as funny as you could get. So, that piece contains a lot of sadness, a lot of pain, but also a dark humor.
Charlotte Burns: So Doug, tell us a little bit more about Mike Kelley because in a way, your conversations with him and his conversations with other practitioners were the basis for this show?
Doug Eklund: Yeah, exactly. I was lucky enough to get a cold call from Mike Kelley in 2010 congratulating me on the Pictures Generation show. And I had happened to have just read an interview that he had done from 1991 talking about why hadn’t anybody done an examination of artists’ interests in conspiracy theories? I said I would love to turn this idea into a show. Basically, the show is a tribute to Mike.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. And his vision.
Doug Eklund: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: How did you and Ian start working together on this?
Doug Eklund: Well, Ian and I have worked together beautifully before. I think of him as my brother in the Modern and contemporary department. So, it was just a natural first call to make, and we’ve just had such a great time working with all the artists. I mean, they really responded to the subject and were so excited to be seen in this context. So, that told us we were headed in the right direction.
Charlotte Burns: It’s a really unusual show. I went to see the exhibition yesterday, and I recommend everybody go see it. I think I have to go back. There’s a lot to take in, and also I have to admit that I hadn’t left the house in a week. I’ve been sick with the mumps, and I walked into this show and I was like: “Am I awake? I don’t know what I’m feeling right now.” This was very bizarre. “Am I still feverish? What’s going on?” Because the exhibition is kind of unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Doug Eklund: That’s intentional.
Charlotte Burns: And it’s kind of creepy and scary, and you feel a little ill at ease by the time you leave.
Doug Eklund: Yeah, it’s a dark show for dark times, and I can’t remember what I was going to say. It’s so early in the morning.
Ian Alteveer: I mean, it’s almost noon.
Doug, you talk in our text for the show about fever dreams of the disaffected, and I think that’s a really great sensibility for much of the work in the show.
One thing I love, in a way each gallery is slightly different. We start with this very rigorous work that is kind of documentary, Mark Lombardi’s kind of webs of influence and power and flows of money and connecting all of the dots together.
Charlotte Burns: Yes. So, tell people who don’t know about that work.
Ian Alteveer: Incredible skeins of influence. Everybody from the Clintons to the Bin Ladins to multi-national offshore banks. And you can spend hours looking at those drawings. You might realize your friend’s father is there somewhere in that mix.
Doug Eklund: We know a lot of people in those drawings.
Ian Alteveer: Yeah.
Doug Eklund: They’re connected. I tend to really look askance at other curator shows that require three or four visits. But I give myself—
Ian Alteveer: That lewway?
Doug Eklund: That leeway.
So, yeah. And we kind of even just ran with it so that when you walk in, you are kind of overwhelmed because the very first work is a Mark Lombardi that you could spend—
Charlotte Burns: You could spend a long time.
Doug Eklund: —hours with. The work is overflowing with information, and we actually had to reign ourselves in from trying to include supplementary material and historical archival material.
The show does trace different moments from the late ‘60s. The show runs through various movements and styles, all held together by this idea of artists envisioning power. I thought that we could have a show that leaned a little more in to the history and the world outside of art because we couldn’t have predicted in 2010 where we would be now.
Ian Alteveer: Having worked on the show, by the time we opened the show, I was like: “Oh, this is where all this stuff comes from.” I feel like it’s nothing new.
Charlotte Burns: That comes across in the catalogues, too. Where we are seems to be a logical progression, or illogical progression.
Doug Eklund: Yeah, and we—luckily enough for us—we didn’t have to engage with the 2016 election and art made after that. So, we were able to do a show where you walk through it and you’ll be like, oh my God, fake news. They’re already dealing with all these topics.
Ian Alteveer: Even back in the ‘70s.
Doug Eklund: Oh yeah.
Charlotte Burns: That’s the thing, you always imagine that your time is unusual or different. I was reading something the other day that said this acceptance that we’re in a “post-truth” era. When were we ever in a “truth” era?
Doug Eklund: If anything, it’s kind of like the chaos and anxiety of now is coming to conscious understanding of these connections, and so that’s part of the realization. It’s the positive side to the negative, which is that everyone is a conspiracy theorist and freaking out. But the other side is that everyone is now aware of the webs that we’re all caught in. we’re in a difficult place. And so, I just am happy that we were able to do it. And then the catalogue, I was like: “Really, you’re going to let me say this?”
Ian Alteveer: In a Met publication?
Doug Eklund: Yeah. But it’s like different times, you know?
Charlotte Burns: One interesting thing, you write in the catalogue, you say that “the artist and the show taken together,” I’m quoting you here, “exemplify a different approach to the givens of post-war American culture. One that is less resigned to the impossibility of carving out a space of resistance to consumerism, Pop art, bureaucracy, Conceptual art and image overload appropriation art.” You say that the show is not a sweeping alternative history of art since 1960, but it is intended to show how artists dealing with political subject matter: “in the context of an institutional art world still plagued by a paralysis that is indistinguishable from complicity with the forces that scuttle change.”
Ian Alteveer: That’s good.
Doug Eklund: Ouch.
Charlotte Burns: That was good.
Doug Eklund: Yeah, no. I mean the first thing you see when you walk in is this great piece where the artist has included Nelson Rockefeller’s quote: “I learned about politics at The Museum of Modern Art.” One thing that Mike and I did talk about that I wanted to mention was that when he was talking to me about the Pictures Generation, he was the West Coast answer to that. He was sort of antagonistic to a lot of this sort of accepted New York house styles of Conceptual art, Pop art.
Charlotte Burns: And he thought it was a kind of class system.
Doug Eklund: Absolutely. And so, if you look at the list of artists and the works through that prism, these were all artists that… like Peter Saul: everyone in the art world has known that he’s a total genius since the ‘60s. But he couldn’t really catch a cab in a New York art world.
I mean, really these artists were artists that were, to a greater or lesser extent, not part of the mainstream narrative of galleries and collectors in New York. And so, they are critiquing. There are artists that you can see the relationship to Pop art but totally undercutting a lot of things. And then it goes on with Conceptual art.
Ian Alteveer: The great example of that kind of reworking of Conceptual house style is that room, that wonderful forensic room, where we have Hans Haacke, one of Hans Haacke’s real estate systems.
Charlotte Burns: This is such a great work.
Ian Alteveer: And Alfredo Jaar. The constellations of Kissinger works related to Kissinger’s involvement in the bloody coup in Chile in 1973. And the Sarah Charlesworth, that master work from our collection about the kidnapping of Aldo Moro and his hostage photograph. But these are all instances, they use the style of Conceptual art, type written type script or black and white contact prints, or the kind of black and white of documentary photography. But it’s used towards something much more, I think, political than the systems or information art of a high Conceptual stuff around the 1970s.
Doug Eklund: Right. But Hans, you know, the Haacke, which you pinpointed as such a powerful work. I mean it’s so fascinating. I love to walk around the galleries and see how people are responding to things, and the Haacke is one that just draws people. And I don’t know if it’s a New York real estate—
Charlotte Burns: It’s so substantial though.
Doug Eklund: Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: For people who don’t know the work, it’s a series of photo text essays on New York real estate. And it’s about uncovering shell companies and the ownership behind shell companies, which is therefore about power and land in New York, which is a city about power and land. Hans Haacke has these photo essays, and he was going to have them installed in his first solo monographic exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1971, and he had another work, too, which was controversial.
Ian Alteveer: The survey of museum visitors.
Charlotte Burns: And if you want to remind me of what their question was?
Doug Eklund: Demographic questions.
Ian Alteveer: Yeah, so demographic questions and also—yes, demographics. So, economics—
Doug Eklund: Current top issues.
Ian Alteveer: —but also asking about art and politics. And it’s unclear in a way—and Hans, I think, would say—there’s this myth that it’s the real estate works, and that Shapolsky was connected to somebody at the museum, and that’s what got his show canceled. But it seems there was also real—
Doug Eklund: The previous poll he had done—one of them—was called the MoMA Poll (1970)—
Ian Alteveer: Information in 1970.
Doug Eklund: Yeah, and it was a poll in The Museum of Modern Art asking about Governor Rockefeller’s policy on Indo-China and the Vietnam War. And of course, Governor Rockefeller was the brother of the founder of the museum. Hans knew exactly where he was going. He was looking for that choke point where you could force the institution into revealing its agenda.
Charlotte Burns: Right, and it’s not an ideologically neutral space.
Doug Eklund: No, not at all.
Ian Alteveer: It certainly never was.
Charlotte Burns: His artwork was so interesting because it was about self-regulating systems, and then the system self-regulated to abandon that fiction of being idea logically neutral by canceling the show and firing the organizing curator. Which then made the artwork take on a whole other life beyond the exhibition and now that’s part of the artwork.
Doug Eklund: Yeah, forced the director into defending his decision by saying that he thought an alien substance had entered the precincts of art, which is just like—
Charlotte Burns: Which is perfect for your show. There’s an alien as well?
Doug Eklund: Yeah. And then of course all the leading artists rallied around Hans, and it became kind of an affair, scandal.
Charlotte Burns: It’s really interesting when you think about those systems. I thought your show made me think a lot about what art can do when it chooses to. There are various opinions that people have about the idea of politics in art.
Doug Eklund: Well yeah, and I think we’re finding, just to try and be oblique—I tend to be pretty direct and Ian can say things indirectly—I also did want to do a political show that wasn’t about protest art.
Charlotte Burns: What did you want to do?
Doug Eklund: Well, I wanted to do a show that might integrate works that you might think of in those terms, but I wanted to reframe it. Political art is what it is. It’s very necessary and direct.
Ian Alteveer: What do you mean by political art, though, Doug? Also, maybe this should be our next show.
Doug Eklund: I wanted to do a political show that was different from what you might normally expect.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Doug Eklund: And so, I think that that is part of the difference of the show that people are reckoning with. Because when you think of political art, you think of a very specific—
Charlotte Burns: Kind of didactic?
Doug Eklund: Exactly.
Ian Alteveer: Agitprop.
Doug Eklund: And this is a little different angle. I thought the topic is explosive, but I didn’t really fully understand that maybe the angle at which we approached politics would also be sort of controversial.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, and I found that walking around the show. It’s essentially American history since the ‘60s.
Ian Alteveer: The assassination of JFK.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. You have the assassination of JFK, you have—
Ian Alteveer: Watergate.
Charlotte Burns: Watergate. You have oppressed communities. Then you realize they’re oppressed by design. And it’s done in a very light… You could have entire exhibitions about… There are little parts of the exhibition where there’s maybe a cluster of works, and that’s the AIDS movement. And you look at the impact of those posters and the way in which artists responded to the AIDS crisis and to the US government’s handling of the AIDS crisis.
Ian Alteveer: Or not handling it at all.
Charlotte Burns: Exactly. To try and force the government’s hand. You have a moving video of Fred Hampton from 1969, talking, foreseeing his murder by police, which happened. These things, it’s just a wall label. You see it’s a video, and you look at the label and you say: “Oh, and he was murdered in his sleep,” and then you move on to the next thing, and it’s this very fast…
If anything, it more accurately than most exhibitions about politics that I’ve seen, mirrors the way in which it’s just life, and it happens fast, and it’s when you look back that you can pull out threads and make a narrative and say: “Well, this happened on January the 14th, and then by March 17th, this happened.” But actually, if you were a human alive between January and March, you’re just dealing with, I don’t know, your breakfast and your lunch and the dinner and the news and your life and loves and all of those things, and the exhibition mirrors that flow, that you’re just like: “Oh, well, there’s that whole moment in political history, and now we’re on to another one, and these things are all happening simultaneously.”
Ian Alteveer: But in a way, as we say, everything is connected. It’s not to say that these things just happen in sequence and we’re pulling out things, but I think we really feel that these situations—these sociopolitical, socioeconomic things that have occurred, largely in the US but also particularly the US involvement overseas, in Chile, for example, or in Iraq—that those things are all connected.
It’s been fascinating to think about certain moments as well when there are clusters of work from the ’70s, for example, a moment when the country as a whole was in a way revisiting the horrors of the ’60s, particularly assassinations—JFK, RFK and MLK, Jr.—through congressional commissions and panels, and that’s all in the public sphere. And so, people who are living at that time are made aware again of what had happened, and think about it again, and so that reemerges.
I think a great example of this is how Lee Harvey Oswald’s face, his visage, rises up like a specter throughout the exhibition, and that’s precisely because… Or even just images of the assassination from things like the Zapruder Film, something Jim Shaw uses, for example, in works from the late ’70s. He reemerges—or that moment reemerges—again and again in the show. I guess in music you’d call it a leitmotif. That sounds a little light for what it actually is, but I hope that helps reinforce what I mean to say: that these things are all connected by threads, and that things pop up again.
Charlotte Burns: And you realize that moment of American optimism or something changed, that trust in the forces that… Well, your elevator pitch: the forces that control your lives. There was a different relationship in America, with especially Watergate. You note in the catalogue, too, the subsequent pardoning of Nixon, this idea that there are different justices for different people. Reading that, it seems so prophetic to the moment we’re in, and this idea of who is punished and who is pardoned.
Doug Eklund: Right, and I think that the assassinations, you can’t underestimate what that did to the national psyche. It broke it in a way that we still have not come to terms with, and I think that what people sense is that, they sense that something wrong happened, and then they wonder how history unfolded because of those assassinations and how we were set on a course that we didn’t want to be on.
You just wonder where we would have wound up, somewhere differently, if they hadn’t killed off every leader: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. That was basically it. And so, you wonder what would have happened. Why are we here and what role did those… Who’s in control?
Charlotte Burns: Yeah.
Ian Alteveer: Can I talk about one of my favorite works in a way that connects to that questioning, I think?
Charlotte Burns: Please.
Ian Alteveer: In a way that maybe the artist would not necessarily agree with, but something I feel very deeply about it. And that’s Rachel Harrison’s Snake in the Grass (1997). I relate to that work myself, not having been, like Rachel wasn’t, alive for that assassination. She said recently she went to Texas in 1996. She was in some group show in Arlington, and that she thought: “Okay, I’m going to go to Dealey Plaza. I’ve always heard about it. I want to see what this grassy knoll is all about.”
She was struck by that, and a lot of her work happens by accident, and then it leads to ideas. She’s there with her camera, shooting color film, and she takes a picture of the grass. She was surprised that the grassy knoll wasn’t some kind of little mound. She sees people in that space, touristic, looking around, pointing and thinking about how she only knew that event and that site through images, through photographs. Amateur still photographs and amateur films, like the Zapruder Film.
So, I loved her description of this labyrinthine space that she creates when she builds that installation as a passage, a filmic passage, through a site. But then, of course, you get into this room where there’s these hanging pieces of drywall that are suspended from the ceiling, and it’s all very confusing, slightly disorienting, and you’re never quite sure where you stand in the midst of all of this or what is real or what’s not, or whether you’re seeing a photograph of a photograph of a photograph, or just a photograph, or what color is the grass really, as she prints six different versions of the same photograph in different tonalities.
That kind of dizzying sensation that you don’t really know the real story, I think, is represented so well in that work, and in a way, forms our passage into that second half of the show, which becomes more phantasmagoric.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah. Why did you make that decision to split into those two sides of that coin?
Ian Alteveer: In a way, again, it all goes back to Hans Haacke, sort of. We were very careful about talking to all of the artists who were still with us about their participation in the show and making sure that our choices about what we thought should be in the exhibition, that they aligned with their thinking.
Haacke is very precise about what exhibitions he wants to participate in, for good reasons. So, we were a little nervous to see him, but he’s always wonderful to see and he said: “Okay,” after we presented everything to him, “Let me think about it.” And he came back to us, and he said: “You know, I’m not really sure I want to be in this exhibition because I don’t ever want my work, which is fact-based, to be confused with fiction.”
Charlotte Burns: Oh, interesting.
Ian Alteveer: That took us aback, but also made us think about how each and every artwork in this exhibition functions. It made us realize that there are these two halves of the same coin, these two slightly different strategies for dealing with conspiracy theories or connecting the dots, the first half being this very fact-based, research-based one, the second being slightly more phantasmagoric, no less well-researched, but also slightly more spectral, more strange, less cut and dry.
With Haacke’s work, there’s nothing—I mean, as we’ve been saying—nothing quite so straightforward, in a way, as what he’s unveiling. It’s done very systematically and explicitly, but cleanly, so to speak, in this Conceptual aesthetic of information. And so, for him it’s very different to make something like an installation of Rachel Harrison’s or like a Mike Kelley Educational Complex.
Charlotte Burns: Right. It makes sense because the word “conspiracy”… You write about this in the catalogue, too, the way in which the CIA used the term “conspiracy theories” to control the narrative and say: “These are theories, these are harebrained, looney-tune ideas of fringe radicals.” So, the actual word “conspiracy” has come to be pejorative, suggesting whackadoodle—
Doug Eklund: Tin-foil hat.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, whereas the first half of the exhibition particularly, you see that these things are… It’s like investigative journalism. It’s very related to that. As a journalist, that happens, that you say: “I have this idea that this and this are linked because someone said this.” I can’t even remember how many stories I’ve begun when I’ve said: “I have this idea, and it’s based on no facts, so now I have to go in and see if it’s true or not.”
Ian Alteveer: You’ve come to me with some of those questions before.
Charlotte Burns: I have come to you with many of those questions. Yes, it’s true. Then sometimes that turns out that there’s something there. That’s how a lot of investigations begin, and I would never really call that conspiracy journalism, although I guess that’s just the difference between calling something investigative and conspiratorial.
Ian Alteveer: Yeah, I think with conspiratorial implies… A conspiracy is different than conspiracy theory, right?
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Ian Alteveer: A conspiracy is an actual conspiracy, an actual plot to keep something secret and hidden and covert, to conspire with somebody under the radar, whereas a conspiracy theory would be someone’s speculation about something that they don’t know quite, but that there are like… UFOs were involved in President Kennedy’s assassination.
But sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be true, right? There is a secret mind control program run by the CIA since World War II. Oh yeah, there is. It’s called MKUltra, and they’ve been doing secret testing on people against their knowledge.
Charlotte Burns: These works are so sad that—
Ian Alteveer: Sarah Anne Johnson’s work House on Fire (2008), yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Her grandma, suffering from—
Ian Alteveer: Partum depression.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, post-partum depression, and was treated to a course of LSD, essentially.
Ian Alteveer: Without knowing.
Charlotte Burns: Without knowing, and altered her reality.
Doug Eklund: Not just LSD.
Ian Alteveer: Electroshock therapy.
Doug Eklund: It was many times higher than the limit which was allowed for electroshock, and then also putting her into a near-coma state.
Ian Alteveer: For weeks on end, with headphones on, saying things over and over and over, to be reprogrammed.
Doug Eklund: Like: “You’re a terrible mother, you’re a terrible mother,” because she would try and get out of the program, and they would say: “You’re being a horrible parent to leave this therapy.”
Charlotte Burns: It’s so terrifying. There were parts of the show that genuinely frightened me. For me, the most creepy part of the show was that move from the mind experiments to the dollhouse diorama.
Ian Alteveer: Did you go in the gnome cave?
Charlotte Burns: Yes, I went in the gnome cave. That wasn’t as creepy, though. That was kind of like—
Doug Eklund: That’s more a—
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, that’s like Superman and gnomes.
Ian Alteveer: Well, they’re just manufacturing something that doesn’t exist, which is called compound interest.
Ian Alteveer: Sarah Anne Johnson’s work, House on Fire, that complex of the creepy dollhouse. When you peer in the windows, each room has a different kind of scary, creepy, sinister feel, and then the works on the wall are also related to the story of her grandmother, who fell unwittingly into the hands of a doctor, a psychiatrist in Montreal who was funded by the CIA, by the program MKUltra, which was exploring ideas of how to control people’s minds through illicit substances or sleep deprivation or subliminal messaging or electroshock therapy, the craziest kind of stuff.
Originally, this doctor, Ewen Cameron, was supposed to be… He was on the forefront in the post-war period, of treating depression, which was only really coming out at that time as something one could diagnose. So, in a way, there are all kinds—one imagines, at that moment, as there are now—all kinds of people, people with depression who are desperate for help, and so Sarah Anne Johnson’s grandmother was really badly depressed with post-partum depression.
So, here you have someone who needs help, who’s desperate for help, and here you have someone else who could provide that help and has some fancy ideas for how to do that. It just is so crushing that it turns out that it was really awful stuff that caused permanent brain damage, traumatized her for the rest of her life.
But when it all came out in the 1970s—and this is again, that moment where the US Congress is investigating all kinds of stuff, and this is also when the CIA mind control program MKUltra was exposed—Sarah Anne Johnson’s grandfather happened to be watching the evening news in Winnipeg, where there was an exposé of this program in Montreal, and he said: “Oh, my god, that was your doctor.” So, she joined together with six other victims, a class action against the CIA and against the American government, and it was that they were the first foreign nationals to be recompensed for harm done.
But the artist talks about being very close with her grandmother, growing up with her, seeing the damage but always thinking of her grandmother as someone normal. She described recently to us her grandmother sitting in the living room, surrounded by piles of papers, a letter she was writing, and books she was going to read, and she just thought: “Okay, when I’m not around, that’s what Grandma’s doing.”
But when she told her mom about this, she was like: “Oh, I saw Granny with all these letters she’s writing.” And her mother said: “Your grandmother, it will take her a month to write a letter. I don’t think that’s what she’s doing.” So, one of the rooms in the dollhouse is the piles of paper, piles and piles and piles and piles. So, in a way, the dollhouse is an extrapolation of the stories.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah, the rooms of the mind.
Ian Alteveer: Right, exactly.
Doug Eklund: We wanted to begin and end the show with conspiracies that you couldn’t prove, but that turned out, in hindsight, to be true. So, the Black Panthers, Emory Douglas, Eklund Las, Fred Hampton: they all were totally aware that if you were in a community of color, you knew that your rights were being trampled all the time, and that you lived under the yoke of basically a kind of state-sponsored terrorism, and that you didn’t have any of the same services that anybody else did.
Then Fred Hampton basically predicted his own death, and they were later, in 1971, a group of anti-war activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and discovered the existence of the FBI secret police, which was COINTELPRO, which is the entire covert agency. Its sole function was to—
Ian Alteveer: Undermine activists
Doug Eklund: —destroy anti-war activists and communities of color.
Charlotte Burns: You have that in the book, too. You have one of Nixon’s henchmen on his deathbed saying our two enemies were anti-war activists and people of color, and so we knew you can’t make it illegal to be either of those things, but you can associate them with drugs and you can criminalize drugs and you can keep communities down.
Doug Eklund: Right, so it’s really the assassinations, and then the incredible efficacy of those covert agencies that really killed off the ’60s, and as Ian was saying so well, it’s just been a slow-rolling disclosure over decades, where in the ’90s, JFK—the Oliver Stone movie—comes out, and then more things are released.
Charlotte Burns: Doug, I had the feeling reading the book and reading the essays that you have been down rabbit holes.
Ian Alteveer: I’ve had to pull him out of a few.
Doug Eklund: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: I was going to ask him about that curatorial relationship.
Doug Eklund: Yeah. No, actually, it’s like a very good teamwork because I’m the bad cop, and Ian is the good cop.
Ian Alteveer: I’m the good cop.
Doug Eklund: And Ian is the rationalist, and I’m the romantic.
Charlotte Burns: It’s like the id and the ego, yeah.
Doug Eklund: And so, he’s constantly reigning me in, and I think I’ve helped open his mind more to certain things.
Ian Alteveer: Yes, very much. Very much. And then what’s really scary is when we swap roles. That really freaks people out.
Doug Eklund: Oh, yeah, no, because that’s what the agency… It’s like falls flat. Agent Provocateur. When we reverse roles, then people just… They can’t. It’s like really scary.
Ian Alteveer: Then they submit.
Doug Eklund: Exactly.
Ian Alteveer: They give us their loans.
Doug Eklund: But, no, I think what you’re catching onto is that I grew up in the tail end of the counterculture, and so I was born in 1968, and then I lived in Southern California as a small child. So, a lot of the works, especially in the Cal Arts section—
Charlotte Burns: I love the California section because it’s really—
Doug Eklund: Oh, the best stuff.
Charlotte Burns: —so geographically specific. This idea of… Well, someone, again, in the catalogue talks about this idea of actually the west of America being like an ultimate Ponzi scheme of just: “Keep coming out, keep coming out. Bring more people in. There’s freedom, there’s gold, there’s fruit.”
Doug Eklund: Well, conspiracy is at the edge of what’s acceptable political discourse. California, and the Pacific Northwest, and Berkeley, and all those places are at the edge of what’s acceptable in the discourse. And so, I grew up trailing along with my mother at the tail end of the counterculture, going to communes, and seeing EST meetings, and all of that stuff. And I remember watching—
Charlotte Burns: It’s so interesting.
Doug Eklund: Yeah, I remember watching these televangelists on TV.
Ian Alteveer: The ones that Jim Shaw is so interested in.
Doug Eklund: Yeah, like the gold throne, and all of that. And I remember being in a politically active household. My mom took me to No Nukes and spin stuff like that. There’s a little autobiographical element, I think, in the writing that I did about the different moments of conspiracy, because I remember what it was like when Reagan was elected, and how much it was like another one of those moments where you felt like the countercultural dream was slipping away for the last time. And in a way, I think that we’ve been living in the ’80s ever since. We’ve never really—
Ian Alteveer: Innocence, yeah.
Doug Eklund: Yeah, and it’s like—
Ian Alteveer: Well, now the ’80s are back with… Well, we won’t go there.
Doug Eklund: No, yeah. Trump. Absolutely.
Ian Alteveer: But I mean, I was going to say that you are the age of my older sisters, and so I grew up sort of knowing a little bit of it, but I grew up on the east coast, which is different. But I also grew up with them, so I lived that experience through them, and in a way indirectly, and so my approach is slightly more clinical. And also really research-based when it comes to California in the ’70s because it’s a real interest of mine academically. So, it’s different in a way.
But I would say, from my experience, it’s one of growing up in the ’80s, and growing up in the Reagan era, and also in the era of AIDS, which was deeply traumatizing for me as a young child and as a teenager and on. For me, I think we approach it in different ways, but I think that’s part of what makes us work so well together.
Charlotte Burns: I think you feel that in the show, that kind of two-step.
Doug Eklund: Yeah. Yeah.
Charlotte Burns: That kind of dance between—
Doug Eklund: Reigning yourself in and letting yourself go.
Charlotte Burns: Personal, academic, like I can imagine that you had a lot of really interesting conversations—
Ian Alteveer: So many over the years.
Doug Eklund: Oh, yeah.
Charlotte Burns: —to get to this show. And it feels like it could’ve been… Like it’s this show, but it also feels like there could’ve been other versions of this show.
Ian Alteveer: Absolutely. There’s so many roads to go down. I think that’s what we’ve started saying to each other by this past year, leading up to install, and finishing the catalogue, and thinking: “Oh my God, there are so many more shows, or so many more roads to travel down”. I think we really see this as only the first kind of salvo in looking at art and artists who think deeply about these things.
Doug Eklund: It’s such a big topic. We could’ve filled the whole building with the global cultures of the conspiracy. And we had to just… Because when I came up with the idea, I was really interested in seeing in individual art, is there something that is analogous to literature like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, or in film like Roman Polanski, John Frankenheimer, David Lynch? Is there something?
And so, I think very rightly, people may say: “Well, this is so tightly circumscribed to America and Western Europe,” but actually, to be able to tell this huge story, we really had to keep it limited. And I would say that the show that I would most like to see if we were able to do it—
Ian Alteveer: Next.
Doug Eklund: Yeah, next, or at the same time. Because this is really about America’s secret government of power.
Ian Alteveer: Its spheres of influence.
Doug Eklund: Right. And so, a great show, it’s not capable for us to do, would be to look at all the countries that we’ve meddled in and pull out all the artists who are responding to these conspiracies.
Charlotte Burns: Which you do a bit with Alfredo Jaar.
Ian Alteveer: Yeah, or Alessandro Balteo in a way. But I think it would be fascinating, and I think that there are definitely artists out there from those places who speak to that.
Charlotte Burns: It’s really interesting.
Ian Alteveer: There are so many places where we’ve meddled.
Doug Eklund: Yes. 80 some odd countries.
Ian Alteveer: So many.
Charlotte Burns: Well, also the interesting thing is that the show is about power, so it makes sense to focus on the—
Doug Eklund: Center of power.
Charlotte Burns: —center of power.
Also the other thing I thought was interesting, it reminded me of a podcast we did with Germano Celant a while ago, and he spoke about politics and art, and he had a theory which is interesting. I’m not sure I totally agree with it, but I’ve thought about it a lot. His theory is that if you’re going to be general about it, that European art of the post-war period, it was always rooted in politics. Like if you think of movements like Dada, and the Futurists, there were manifestos. They were overtly political. Whereas art that’s come to have been thought of as defining a post-war American period has been a-historical, or more obliquely political. So, whether it’s tied to political events, but the art that’s been thought of as mainstream—
Doug Eklund: Absolutely.
Ian Alteveer: I don’t know that I agree with that.
Doug Eklund: I think I agree with that. I think what he’s referring to is this still explosive art history of Serge Guilbaut’s “How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art”, and this idea that we get into with the fake Calder mobile, and all of that. And this goes back to my conversation about Mike Kelley, and the Guilbaut thesis was that in the ’50s, there was this legacy of social realist, politically committed art, and why did it wind up getting moved slowly, gradually, into this notion of abstraction. And even the scholars of Abstract Expressionism still get so upset about this.
Ian Alteveer: Some of them.
Doug Eklund: Yeah, some of them, but I would say that the kind of art that winds up getting viewed in the American context is depoliticized art.
Ian Alteveer: Well, I would say… See, this is where I argue with Serge Guilbaut. I would say that the reception of the art is depoliticized when it comes to Abstract Expressionism, and among the things he uncovers in the book is the CIA’s secret funding of exhibitions of American Abstraction that traveled overseas in the ’50s and the ’60s through the auspices of The Museum of Modern Art. This kind of exportation of an idealistic, kind of American, free capitalist, “See, isn’t this fabulous?”
But that’s not to say that that’s the real meaning of the art. So, I think that’s the slippage that I have always had an issue with that book, and I’m not the only one. So, I understand where Germano is coming from, but I don’t know that it could be so simply opposed.
Doug Eklund: But I would also like to say that at what point is there a division between the production of the work, the reception of the work, the institutions, the networks, and that institutions and museums choose some kind of art over others. And those are always decisions that are made with trustees who are collectors who buy the work, and they have jobs in finance, and in real estate, and in politics, and so you can’t separate these things out. So, why certain kinds of art and certain kinds of artists are needed by institutions. I totally get that idea that this is something done to the art after the fact, but I do want to sort of make a case for the total interconnectivity of these art movements.
Charlotte Burns: It’s really interesting because you guys bring this up when you say that it’s not a sweeping alternative history, but it’s a kind of hint at an alternative history, and I think that’s what I found really interesting, that moving beyond Pop art, Conceptual art, those kind of categories. And you’ve used the term “conspiracy” for that.
This has been a really interesting podcast for me. Thank you so much for being here today.
Doug Eklund: Thanks for having us.
Charlotte Burns: For everybody who hasn’t yet seen the show, it’s on until the sixth of January. I went with a colleague, and we walked around, and we kept tally of all the conspiracies that we were like: “Do you think that’s true?” “Yeah.” “No.” So, that was our game going around the show. It will be interesting to see other people’s hit rates.
Doug Eklund: I like that.
Ian Alteveer: Yeah, yeah.
Charlotte Burns: Okay, thank you very much for being my guests, Ian Alteveer and Doug Eklund.
Ian Alteveer: Thank you. Thanks, Charlotte.