“I like to say when I was taught about Conceptual art, I believed it. I wasn’t part of the generation that had to be convinced that concepts could be art” —Glenn Kaino
“The art I know actually has tangible change, it that makes people think in different ways or makes people engage in different ideas” —Glenn Kaino
“They exist as these moments when you’re at a blackjack table and the dealer is throwing you a card and—in the air—that card is both every card you want and every card that you don’t want” —Glenn Kaino
Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and joining me today, for a very special edition, we’re in the artist Glenn Kaino’s Los Angeles studio. We’re also joined by Matthew Thompson, the director of advisory in LA for Arts Agency, Partners. Hi.
Matthew Thompson: Hi, Charlotte.
Charlotte Burns: Glenn, I could say the Conceptual artist. I could also say the Off-Broadway producer. The kinetic sculptor. The performer. There are so many different ways to describe your practice because it’s incredibly diverse. And that diversity seems to really be the key to it.
Glenn Kaino: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: How do you approach production of your work?
Glenn Kaino: Well, for me it all starts with ideas in the studio. So, when people ask me how to describe the work or describe myself, I always just start by saying artist. Everything stems from the art practice.
When I got out of grad school, the art world offered me a couple of binaries. I wanted to learn about media, but it really was like you could learn about media or you could be an artist. And I said: “Why do I have to choose? Why can’t I do both?”
Even in grad school, it was like you could do, engage in work that has to do with politics, or you can make formally beautiful things.
And these were explicit sort of binaries that were being proposed by really respected mentors and teachers that I sort of had looked up to. And I think that what they were responding to and what they were trying to influence me with—not negatively—was the practical nature of how to assert yourself in the system of art. And so, for me, it was my first sort of real rejection of the modality of what I saw the art world to be at that time. Because I didn’t really see a place where I fit in.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Glenn Kaino: So, I started up a studio, and I said: “Look, we’re just going to think about things, figure out where their generative slippage is, and then sort of chase down ideas. And early on in my sort of formal training, I was introduced to a concept called kit-bashing, which, I’ll spell it because some people misinterpret me and they think I say “kid bashing”, which is like the weirdest thing: it’s not like that!
And so, it’s K-I-T bashing. It’s an old model maker’s term for using a model kit to make something that is not what the instructions say. So, old science fiction models were made in that way; they would take parts of different things and glue them together and make a space ship, for example.
I realized quickly that I was applying that conceptually to entire systems of production. So, I would take an entire component of how a certain industry worked, and I would marry that with a formal production process of something else and within that, I found that my studio and myself … I was able to realize projects that I would not otherwise be able to realize.
Charlotte Burns: Oh, that’s so interesting.
Glenn Kaino: I’m always very interested in that membrane where things coalesce and become another thing. If you blur your eyes, you could see where your work becomes art. In that process, you just felt the magic and you just know. It’s a really good magic trick. You can’t see it, but you know it happened.
Charlotte Burns: Are there artists you look to as having set precedence for your practice?
Glenn Kaino: In different ways, yes. I look to several different artists in terms of thinking of different component parts: Pierre Hughye, Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp. There’s a lot of good Conceptualists, I think, that have different components that I’ve definitely learned from—Olafur Eliasson; and then contemporaries: Hank Willis Thomas is a fantastic artist; Tavares Strachan—people I know are trying to break the boundaries of where art exists and where art can exist.
I like to say that when I was taught about Conceptual art, I believed it. I wasn’t part of the generation that had to be convinced that concepts could be art. I was taught that concepts were art, and I believed that from the get go.
So, for me, it wasn’t until 10 years after that I realized that the older generation of artists that I looked up to, they were actually in on the joke, like John Baldesarri. I was like: “Oh what, do you mean you guys made that happen? I always believed that that was the case.” It had always made sense to me.
Charlotte Burns: That’s so great, because you inherited the idea and the idea became … word was made flesh. Idea was made art.
Glenn Kaino: Exactly 100%. 100%. Somewhere in that generation it happened, and we’re now the byproducts of all that work.
Charlotte Burns: And Matthew, you saw Glenn’s first exhibition?
Matthew Thompson: Not first exhibition. I saw Glenn’s first solo show in New York, I believe, in 2003 at The Project. One of the works which remains one of my favorite works of Glenn’s is a sculpture called The Siege Perilous (2003), which is a sculpture of Herman Miller Aeron chair inside a vitrine on a turntable that’s spinning so fast that the chair ceases to exist as an object and becomes a kind of spector or a silhouette in the shape of a chalice or a grail. There was a real precision and clarity to me in the Conceptual gesture.
Charlotte Burns: It makes me think of the element of danger and power which is one of the threads running through your work. There’s a sense that things are ordered currently, but may very soon not be. Or the other way around, that things have been unordered and may be reaching unification. But that sense of the perilous balance between collapse and unity seems to be something in your work from the early days.
Glenn Kaino: A continuing thread that has always been in the work is the notion of balance, the delicacy of those in power and those without power. So, there’s been a lot of sculptures that have been material that have then ceased to exist like The Siege Perilous ceases to exist: the volume of the structure is this specter form of a chalice, which is probably 30% of the actual volume because the chair spinning is creating the image of a chalice. You only see it because it’s moving.
Or a sand sculpture made to look like the Emerald City of Oz that’s made out of several cubic meters of sand, so invoking this notion of this huge monumental sculpture, but in all actuality it’s very delicate (Desktop Operation, 2003).
They’re different types of systems that all sort of are really, really pains in the asses to make.
But all serve a purpose of presenting to the audience this condition of balance where one begins to think and decipher and internalize what it means if this thing fell down. I like to say, too, that most of the work doesn’t exist with just the objects that we see in the physical spaces. They exist in anticipation of, they exist as memories after; they exist as these moments when you’re at a blackjack table and the dealer is throwing you a card and—in the air—that card is both every card you want and every card that you don’t want, while it’s in the air. Then once it lands, it flattens and it’s like Schrödinger’s cat: once you look at it, you know what it is. In that moment, though, that card is everything.
One of the explicit goals is to have the work have that possibility. So, in those moments of consideration, the work can exist and have many lives.
Charlotte Burns: I like that. Talk to me about magic in your work.
Glenn Kaino: Magic has now become—
Charlotte Burns: Magic in your life maybe.
Glenn Kaino: So, this is like a four-hour podcast?
No, I’d say that for my whole life and career, I sort of have existed and thought about magic in terms of—I mean, that’s sort of why we do what we do, right, as artists. But the explicit engagement in the world of magic happened in 2008, after the first time I’d ever visited an art fair. I had sent work to fairs before through my galleries, but I had never attended physically.
Charlotte Burns: Was that something you were reluctant to do or you just didn’t—
Glenn Kaino: I was reluctant to do it. Yes, I didn’t want to do it. My former gallerist at the time, Christian Haye, brought us down and said y’all should go. And it was a really bad time; 2008 was a bad time for the world.
Charlotte Burns: Was it Miami?
Glenn Kaino: Miami. This was my first—
Charlotte Burns: That’s where the bottom fell.
Glenn Kaino: That’s where it fell out, right? So, I was like: “Great job.” So, we show up there and it is this horrible, horrible moment. Blood on the floor, dealers jumping out the window, artists crying in the corner. The weirdest stuff happened. Well, the weirdest stuff always happens, but that was very painful.
So, I got on the plane on the way home, and I said to him, I said: “Look, I quit. I didn’t get into art for this.”
Charlotte Burns: What did you see this as being?
Glenn Kaino: How much influence an overall, overriding economic system had upon the sphere of making. I grew up in an era of … like, I thought I would only show at nonprofits at the time because this is pre-NEA collapse. I have been accused by collectors of being an institutional artist, because I’ve had more museum and institutional shows than gallery shows.
Charlotte Burns: Is that an accusation?
Glenn Kaino: He said it to me negatively, and I said: “Well, I’m very proud of that actually.”
Charlotte Burns: Why would that be a bad thing?
Glenn Kaino: When I grew up, that was like I aspired for that. I actually didn’t even know that I had to show at a gallery. You could make a living doing this?
So, I got in the plane and said look, I didn’t get into this for that: to have the work and to have my thinking be so conditional, and the opportunities that I had be so conditional upon this notion of this economic ecosystem.
He said: “What are you going to do?”
I said: “You know, I don’t know. I’m going to go hang out with a bunch of magicians and see what happens.”
He said: “Why?”
I said: “Because they know something about believing.”
He was like: “Hmm, sounds like a great idea.”
So, I got back to LA. I shut down my studio, and I literally traveled around the country meeting magicians and learning magic. Really, I didn’t care about learning magic tricks. As a by-product, I learned some magic tricks, but I was really interested in learning and understanding what I thought were systems of belief—
Charlotte Burns: Faith.
Glenn Kaino: That faith. Again, that membrane between believing and not believing; that space in-between knowing and not knowing. So, one of the first things I did was I went to the now defunct Hollywood Magic Shop, and I bought a magic trick. There was a postcard there with a guy who was the six time international master. His name was Shoot Ogawa, and he’s a Japanese magician. I had not been engaged in ethno-specific sort of work, per se, apart from my own culture being Japanese American. But I was, like, I’m in with this: Japanese dojo! I had recognized myself in a moment. I was like: “Oh, this is amazing.” I called him up and I said: “Can I study with you?”
He says: “No.”
I said: “Why not?”
He said: “Because I only teach professional magicians, and you’re not one.” He goes: “Come over and interview with me, and then if I like you, if you pass, then I’ll take you in.”
Charlotte Burns: Were you nervous?
Glenn Kaino: Yeah, I was really curious. I was really curious. I don’t really get nervous with those things because I know that inside, for me, I take it very seriously. I’m not a hobbyist in that way.
So, I passed his test, he took me on as a student and I began to learn magic.
The first thing he did was he took a coin and he held it in his hand and he vanished it. You know, it was a beautiful little piece.
He gave me the coin, and he said: “Go back home and pick that up 1,000 times and come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you how to vanish it.”
I said: “Fantastic. Why?” Because I wanted to know everything about it, not just how it was done.
He said: “Because when you’re standing in front of anyone and you make this coin vanish, you have to believe that it’s dissolving in thin air because no one is going to believe more than you.”
I thought wow, that’s beautiful. I spend my day in the studio, making different art works, with my belief that they mean something and that someone seeing them will be moved or take something from them. If I don’t believe the most, no one encountering my work is going to believe more than me.
So, I thought, what a beautiful concept. I’m hooked. I’m in. What else does magic have to offer, you know?
As it turns out, my performing partner, Derek, now says I believe in magic more than most magicians because what we found out is that most magicians really care more about tricks and tricking people, which is ironic, because I was under the misunderstanding that it was about belief.
I traveled around the country and I met a bunch of different magicians, and everyone I met told me that I should meet this young other fellow named Derek DelGaudio. It’s a great story. I go: “You’re the fifth magician that told me I need to meet Derek DelGaudio. I should find out who this guy is.” So, I google Derek DelGaudio, and there was nothing; He didn’t even exist on the internet. I was like this is amazing because—
Charlotte Burns: That’s a magic trick.
Glenn Kaino: That’s a magic trick in itself. Now I really gotta find him. I found—
Charlotte Burns: How did you find him?
Glenn Kaino: I found one digital listing from him in a private secret magician’s message board, and his name came up on a search, and the message header was: “Who is Derek DelGaudio”.
I’m like: “This is the best thing ever. This is a magical invisible man ninja!” We had mutual friends give us numbers, and we then we connected. We met late at a bar. Neither of us drink. We ended up staying all night long and becoming really good friends immediately. Derek was technically a master, but was very dispirited in the context of the way magic was, in his opinion, treating itself as an art form because he was a big believer in magic.
We talked about inverted problems in the art world and in the magic world. In the art world, I had observed that it was becoming hyper-professionalized. There was a structural system for success. There was undergrad, and these types of grad schools led you to these type of galleries with these type of feeder systems and then certain biennials with, like, this amount of credibility which got you into those curatorial circles and blah blah blah.
Charlotte Burns: Right. Step ladders.
Glenn Kaino: In the magic world, Derek would say there are a handful of professionals and a sea of hobbyists. There are very few practitioners, even at the highest level that actually consider it an art form more than consider it an entertainment form. We started working together, and that has been a very fruitful partnership. It’s super fun.
Matthew Thompson: I’ve always been interested, just going back for a second, in that idea of belief, in the way that you connect that to a core principal of Conceptual art; that pure belief in the power of ideas, let’s say, and the aesthetic dimension of ideas; the poetry of ideas and how that can be tremendously generative and help you reframe any part of the world.
For me, this tremendous through line in your work is actually thinking about if the early works were about interrogating systems on the physical level, there’s this expansion that starts to happen when you start to essentially engage larger and larger systems—whether it’s the whole field of magic or another channel of distribution; if it’s technology; if it’s film; if it’s politics.
Charlotte Burns: Can I ask you when you decided to open back up the studio? If you were traveling around and focusing on magic, how long did that last and when did you realize that you could do both?
Glenn Kaino: It was probably about a year or 18 months. I was engaged to do an exhibition of some of the thinking that I had been working on. So, I started to make objects again and make performances and think about things. But as Matthew says, belief has always been at the core of the entire practice. It’s really belief about the power of art. Which is why the whole system of the art fair model was so foreign to me, because I was like: “This is not the art I know.” The art I know actually has tangible change, it that makes people think in different ways or makes people engage in different ideas and different things.
My relationship with institutions is about putting ideas out there into the world that have different and larger platforms to have and engage credibility with different audiences in that way. It’s been about creating and connecting ecosystems that don’t normally have a chance to meet, in technology as well.
Glenn Kaino: When I first created my studio, we engaged in digital media projects, and the first website that we made was a site called Favela; we were the first website to ever put artists of color and women artists on the web. It was in the early days of Yahoo where Yahoo was a directory of links. There was a guy named David Filo and Jerry Yang that ran it, and there was an art section and a culture section.
Literally, I would email the head of Yahoo and say you don’t have enough African-American artists on here. We made two sites for these guys. You need to put it up there.
We won a whole bunch of awards, not just for diversity but because there was no one putting up artists of color on the web. Why? Because artists of color didn’t have access to these tools. We had scrounged and saved our money and bought one stupid little web server that probably cost way too much. It would probably cost $9 now—my iPhone probably has more power than that web server—
Charlotte Burns: You were using … Right.
Glenn Kaino: —we were using. But we got a DSL line that cost us everything. We were in flip flops, shorts and sweated our backs off because we didn’t have any air-conditioning.
I remember the day we launched because we launched on the midnight between Halloween and Día de los Muertos. It was like: “Launch!” It was 20 websites of people of color. It was like: “Oh, shit, no one is coming.”
All the sudden, it was like an episode of Silicon Valley back in the day, but like art nerd style. All the sudden, boop, one person, boop, and then 100,000 people.
Now, fast forward many years later, we were taking that same philosophy and trying to understand how to work that with musicians. We created the first streaming service with Jimmy Iovine. After that, that became us trying to figure out how to make Napster legal. They gave me Napster to try to figure out how to make it legal. Spotify and all these companies sort of used the thinking that we had made back then. We’re very proud of that.
Charlotte Burns: It’s amazing.
Glenn Kaino: Now, we’re at the point where … Ebroji comes from my collaboration with an activist, an actor named Jesse Williams. We met, again, in the art world.
Charlotte Burns: Whereabouts?
Glenn Kaino: I’ve just known him, because he’s in LA. He and his wife were on a board for an organization that I helped created called The Mistake Room.
We were talking about diversity in the tech space now. But at the creator level, we were interested in understanding what it means to have symbols and icons and people to look up to and to think about it. It’s like astronauts; if you don’t see astronauts of color, colored kids don’t think they can be astronauts. We decided to get together and think about what that would do and what we could do. We started to make technology products. Jesse is the lead and chief creative officer of that.
Our first app was called Ebroji, which was a gif keyboard. The next one is called BLeBRITY. It’s a trivia game made for and by people of color. It’s been very well-received.
We’ve done a performance installation called Untrained Eyes (2017) with a big blog called Engadget. It’s a series of mirrors that when you walk up and you wave at the mirror, it draws upon a small database that we crowdsourced; the closest image that we have in the database that approximates you comes up. It started because a year ago—it’s changing now hopefully because of our influence—if you Googled the word man, you got two or three pages of white men in business suits before you got any other man of color. If you Googled the word woman, you got white women, but predominantly also with the male gaze. They were all in various states of undress, seductively looking at the camera.
I had met a woman named Pam Grossman years ago who was the chief curator or one of the curators of the Getty images, who had presented a really great paper about the history of women in stock images. She and Sheryl Sandberg got together and built a really interesting system of having a women-curated representational system inside of Getty images so that stock images could more appropriately represent gender.
Thinking about that and this race problem with the default search; Google would argue that algorithmically there are more white men in business suits that create a desire for the word man there. But that’s still a cultural problem. There’s a term in technology called garbage in, garbage out. If the data is bad or the data is racist, then it is what it is even if it’s there. Should not we as an active society trying to foster inclusion make change here?
When we started it, we said: “Let’s go crowd source a database of images so that everyone could get something that looked close to them.” And what happened was the most contradictory emotional thing. When we first started testing it, the first thing that people would say to us was like: “Oh, I look better than that.”
Immediately they started to distance themselves from that image. The funny part is—even me—the team, as a joke to test and see how accurate they were, they put a picture of me in there. So, I walked up there and I waved at it, not expecting a picture of me to be in the database. I looked at the picture and I was like: “Oh, I don’t look like that at all.” And it was a picture of me.
We loved this even more in terms of the poetics of inclusion. What was happening when people were seeing themselves, they were distancing themselves from their own image. I cited the last line of Massimiliano Gioni’s text for the Gwangju Biennale. It was something to the effect of: “That is the paradox of being human. Not wanting to be alone, but not wanting to have anyone else look like us or be like us.” That is indeed our paradox. We want inclusion, but at what cost and at which parameters? And we also want to be individuals. So, that’s the type of work that I engaged in with Jesse.
Charlotte Burns: Do you see that as separate to your art making or part of practice? Do you have that division?
Glenn Kaino: No, there’s no division. That’s part of the practice. To me, art has this very malleable state and ability to be anything, in a way. I use it as connective tissue to create circumstances that themselves bear different types of generative thinking.
Yes, I see that as a manifestation of the art practice. That is an artifact of an exploration in the same way that a sculpture is an artifact of an exploration.
Charlotte Burns: Right. It’s just evidence of a different—
Glenn Kaino: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: It’s evidence of a thought process.
Glenn Kaino: Exactly, yes.
Charlotte Burns: I wonder how you manage all of that. Do you still want to bypass that gallery, biennial model? Or do you like to dip your toe in it? How do you want to connect to that art world, or does that interest you?
Glenn Kaino: It is. Everything is sort of an ecosystem that supports idea generation. I think the key for me is, again, the balance and not being dependent on an individual system to do that, but have a layering of different support structures.
Charlotte Burns: That makes sense.
Glenn Kaino: How do we take the best of how agencies work and customize them to really support the practice of making in this way? There are shortcomings of most of those commercial systems when they relate to the principles of capital creation, and I’m familiar with where compromises happen in ideas as they relate to the notion of generating wealth.
Charlotte Burns: What do you mean?
Glenn Kaino: Agencies, for examples, are there to make money. We’re here to make ideas and to realize things that people will not commit themselves to realize. I’ve been fortunate and blessed that, in the attempt at making the right decision to support difficult and challenging ideas throughout my entire career, I have not been severely penalized yet—until someone hears this podcast.
No, we’ve managed to evade failure in that way, at a dramatic level. We’ve had a lot of failures in other circumstances. If the projects that failed that I’ve made were the only vehicle, then I might have been forced to make bad decisions.
Charlotte Burns: Right, I see.
Glenn Kaino: And so, by trusting in other people and by trusting in our team and by creating partnerships and really having, again, trusted relationships, we’ve been able to do that.
I’ve been very quick to give credit where credit is due in terms of all my partners and friends and people that we’re able to work with, because there’s no this without—
Charlotte Burns: Without all of them.
Glenn Kaino: —a wide network.
I was invited to a think tank, years back. I was invited to present, and David Levi Strauss was my respondent. I was terrified. I was paralyzed. It was in Pittsburgh. I flew out. I didn’t know what I was going to write about. Instead of bringing a suitcase full of clothes, I bought books. I was writing until the last day. The night before the talk, I heard in my head older friends tell me the advice to write what you know. So, I wrote what I knew; a paper, what I called “Object Oriented Cultural Production”. I presented that the next day.
What the paper said was I grew up believing that Conceptual art was real. I believe also in the structural tenets of post-modernity. I also believe in collaboration to the fullest extent. I said: “Hey, look, how is there to be progress in the world if we all have to learn the same things over and over again, and we all have to learn the same mistakes and be subject to the same ethics and morality and politics and conditions of all of our peers?”
In that way, it was sort of like: “Hey, artificial intelligence is definitely going to win because …”
Charlotte Burns: Because it can evolve.
Glenn Kaino: That’s all additive. Yes, that’s all evolutionary. Humans all grow up from zero and we have to learn things. I said: “I have a new proposition. It’s called trust. Why don’t we trust each other? Why don’t I trust you, who have a different life experience, and we figure out how to make connection points?”
What I cited was this growth of technology, wherein prior to 1969, 1968, the structural methodology of creating technology was called process-based technology. Early technology is still taught that way. In ’69 and ’70, there was a new model called object oriented production which came into play, wherein someone would write a piece of software and another person would write a piece of code. As long as they could communicate … Adobe Photoshop is a good example. There’s a blur tool. Blur was not written by Adobe Photoshop. Blur was written by the IEEE mechanical engineers or whatever. If blur got better, Photoshop would just plug in the new blur. Before ’69, there was no concept of—
Charlotte Burns: That is so interesting.
Glenn Kaino: Humans didn’t have the concept of plug and play; that didn’t exist as a concept. Humans didn’t do that. That happened after this notion of technology.
I say: “Wow. If you chart that timeline with the timeline of Civil Rights and inclusion and post-modernity and art, there’s a lot of pluralism and heterogeneity that came out of this transition from the ’60s to the ’70s there.”
Charlotte Burns: That’s really interesting.
Glenn Kaino: I said: “Why don’t we get there as creators?” I looked at a woman who was from southern Mexico, and I said: “I know you. You were engaged with the Zapatistas. Why wouldn’t I be able to do an artwork or create something that had credibility with the Zapatistas, as long as I shared credit with you, and you and I were able to get together and work on something and do it together? The reason why I wouldn’t do it is because, as an artist, I would want to have authorship: I don’t care about that. You would want to have an opportunity and we would go through this together. Let’s create a compound credibility and a compound language together that would be better as long as we could share and do that with a lot of trust.”
So, I have approached all my relationships and the way I engage with the world through this lens of belief in trust. That’s how these collaborations were germinated.
As it turns out, ironically now, we’re getting to a point in the technology world where people are seeing shortcomings of object orientation.
Charlotte Burns: Oh really?
Glenn Kaino: Yes. There was this modality, this expansion of thought that happened from the ’60s to the last, I think, five years ago where certainly the way that the world works and technology works could not have advanced this quickly without a model like object orientation.
But now that we’re at a different plateau technologically, things want to be more efficient. Just the same way as I am observing in contemporary politics and society at large, that we’re largely in a “retreat to your corners, let’s be more efficient” moment.
Charlotte Burns: Why do you think that is?
Glenn Kaino: I think it’s a structural model of evolution, of sort of epistemic conditions. For example, if learning a lot of different textures and new things allows for one’s worldview to expand, and then once you’ve expanded to a point where you feel comfortable or overwhelmed, now you want to be more efficient; one then might retreat to a streamlining, where you would want to be more efficient because of—
Charlotte Burns: Right. Sort of like a tango.
Glenn Kaino: —scarcity of resources. What I’m heartened about now, though, is that the overall condition of that efficiency is in and of itself generative and positive in the long run. That bears some optimism.
Charlotte Burns: And are you overall optimistic? Are you by nature optimistic?
Glenn Kaino: 100%
Charlotte Burns: Yes?
Glenn Kaino: Yes, yes. This is a utopic practice. We’re trying to put forth things that will absolutely, hopefully, move the needle.
Charlotte Burns: When you make works that are around civil rights, because I know that’s something you’re very engaged in, what is your hope there? Do you have specific hope for works, like Bridge (2013) or “With Drawn Arms“?
Glenn Kaino: Yes and no. I don’t know if there are specific goals in mind, per se, more than there are observations, and hope in the way that people engage those works, and belief that those works will have a positive impact and make tangible change as they do.
Charlotte Burns: Maybe you can describe those works to people who don’t know them.
Glenn Kaino: Yes, yes. “With Drawn Arms” and Bridge are both collaborations that I’m working on with the African-American activist and athlete Tommie Smith, who in 1968 famously raised his hand in salute after winning the men’s 200 meter gold at the Mexico City Olympics.
I had a picture of him taped onto my iMac in my other studio. A friend of mine walked in and pointed at it and said: “Hey Coach Smith, you want to meet him?”
Wait, hold on. Coach Smith is a pretty familiar term. That’s not like: “Hey, that’s Tommie Smith.”
I said: “Absolutely. Is he alive?”
He walked in the corner, started texting someone, and came back and said: “Yeah, he wants to meet you.”
I said: “That’s phenomenal. When?”
He’s like: “Anytime.”
I said: “Today?”
As I turned out, he lives in Atlanta. So, I booked two tickets as fast as we could get there. Two days later, three days later, I walk up to his house. He shook my hand and sat me down on the couch. He put in a VHS tape when he played the race and he narrated his win.
Charlotte Burns: Wow.
Glenn Kaino: Phenomenal. On the hour, his wife cut him off and said: “Tommie! Be quiet. Glenn, why are you here? Tommie will talk all night long if you’ll let him. We need to know why you’re here.”
I said: “Look, I’m a Conceptual artist. I’m not here with anything to pitch you, per se, but I do have an observation, if I may.”
They said: “What is it?”
I said: “Look, I was born after that happened, so for me it’s always been symbolic. But for you,” and I pointed to their house, I said: “For you, it’s highly personal.” In their house, there’s hundreds and hundreds of pictures of the salute. “You brushed your teeth this morning with that hand. You drive your car with that hand. The rest of us know that hand in the air.” I said, “What if we were able to collaborate on an art project that functions in the now, allowing you to be a spectator for the first time in this rich history that you’ve created?”
They were very moved and they said: “How do you start?”
I said: “Well, you come to LA. I take the arm off your body.”
He said: “Whoa! What is that?”
I said: “No, no, no. I’m going to cast it.”
So, we cast his arm and, months later, we created the monumental sculpture named Bridge that’s been in a few different exhibitions. We’ll open in the fall at the High Museum in Atlanta (“With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino & Tommie Smith” 29 September-6 January 2019).
When that work circulates in the art world, resources directly go back to Tommie. It’s a collaboration. I’ve gotten into arguments with curators who actually don’t understand that he’s still alive and think that I’m monetizing these reference points when, in fact, we’re not monetizing at all. That whole ecosystem of engaging in the art world in that way is a conceptual project in and of itself to help and figure out how we, as beneficiaries of his sacrifice, can create systems that pay homage to—and also pay—him.
We are working on a documentary film project to tell Tommie’s story in a new way. It’s been told through the lens of sports. It’s been told of the lens of that 20 second race, 19.83 second race, and the consequence of the salute after. That silent gesture was so large and spoke so loudly that it crushed him. He became a very flattened, in-a-history-book figure. What we’re trying to do is re-dimensionalize him.
Charlotte Burns: It’s like your card in the air.
Glenn Kaino: Yes, exactly. Our belief is that in the era of Instagram, in the era of constant image making, if we’re able to tell the story of how an image can influence and change the world, with the notion that millions of creators are creating images everyday, if they had a shred of the understanding of what Tommie’s thinking, and what that sacrifice could be; our hope is that it has influence, and expands the lineage of that level of symbolic action.
Charlotte Burns: When will that film be finished?
Glenn Kaino: If you know, let me know.
Glenn Kaino: When you find out, let me know.
Charlotte Burns: It’s interesting, though, because you began this collaboration—
Glenn Kaino: Many years ago.
Charlotte Burns: —many years ago and now, we’re in a different time when that image is seen often in the papers.
Glenn Kaino: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: It’s seen now in a new light against the protests of people kneeling.
Glenn Kaino: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: It’s really fascinating to think of that, a kind of flattening of that continuum; that you make progress, but then you have to kind of remake it.
Glenn Kaino: 100%. That’s why when we fortunately, met Colin Kaepernick as well, just to chat with him briefly about that. An amazing, amazing moment for us to all be in.
Charlotte Burns: I wanted to ask you, as well, about the non-profits. You’ve been really involved in founding several non-profits and founding Deep River, LAXART, and The Mistake Room: how important is that to you to have that space for others and for your own thinking?
Glenn Kaino: Space making has been a vital part of the practice because, again, I think that in terms of the notion of collaboration, the collective spirit of making change, I’ve dedicated a good portion of my life to create opportunities for things that I want to see exist in the way that even if I don’t have the material means or the intellectual means to make then. Deep River was the first of those experiments. It was a finite project. It was a five-year project because we also are very aware of the limitations of sustainability. We felt that if we said Deep River was going forever, it was going to fail sometime, so we might as well—
Charlotte Burns: You might as well end it.
Glenn Kaino: We were going to get exhausted at some point. We called it a not-for-profit, not-not-for-profit, gift to our community. It was in downtown; we all lived in downtown. This is pre the new downtown, but post the ’70s downtown, which was also a very vibrant community. We wanted to be this bridging agent to bridge the stories that we had heard from the ’70s.
We created a little one room. We didn’t have any money, so we drove around the city and we looked at every detail in every museum that we wanted in our space. We knew that we couldn’t afford anything for 1,000 sq ft, but for 500 sq ft we could afford anything. It was like two electric plugs and plywood on the walls so you could screw anywhere. We made a beautiful little pristine box, a jewel, in the middle of downtown.
And we started showing people that we felt deserved shows and weren’t getting shows anywhere. We gave Mark Bradford his first show; Kori Newkirk one of his first shows. A lot of great people: Eileen Cowin; Michael McMillen; Juan Capistrán. A lot of great artists were part of what we called the Deep River family. We had a budget of $600 per show. $200 in wine. $200 in stamps. $200 for printing. That was literally it.
Charlotte Burns: I love the allocation for wine.
Glenn Kaino: Yes, exactly.
Charlotte Burns: It’s a third of the budget.
Glenn Kaino: It was a third of the budget was booze. We counted how many people showed up by the amount of cups we got rid of. It was on average, I think, 780 people per opening.
Charlotte Burns: That’s actually amazing.
Glenn Kaino: It was huge. It was amazing. If you know people who went to Deep River back in the day, it was a great little moment and scene that we created. The co-founders, myself, Daniel Martinez, Rolo Castillo, and Tracey Shiffman, we all had occupied different generational spaces, different art worlds and we came together and really created a moment. From Deep River, Lauri Firstenberg had heard and seen Deep River. Daniel and I joined the board to help create LAXART. Cesar Garcia was the curator at LAXART. He had an idea for an international space and drew upon the name of one of my performances with Derek, which is called The Mistake Room. We helped support him creating that. Now we’re working on new spaces and new ideas.
Charlotte Burns: I was going to ask you what you’re working on next. I’m sure there’s 100 things.
Glenn Kaino: Now, working on a couple things. I’m helping advise an organization called Fathomers, which is a team out of Kansas City that formally was known as Grand Arts. Now they’ve come to LA on a pretty expansive mission to invest into really, really challenging and difficult and impossible projects that are between the worlds of science and art, in different ways, with some really great artists.
I’m working with Laura to create an organization to support the work within the intersection of art and food. That draws upon a collaboration that I have been working on with a woman named Niki Nakayama, who’s a Japanese chef. We’ve been thinking about mechanics of memory and taste memory. We observed that when people talk about food that they like and don’t like, it sounds a lot like when they talk about people they like and don’t like.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, that’s so interesting.
Glenn Kaino: With the absurd concept being that if we can figure out how to train people to like new things, maybe we can learn something and that would resonate. Niki and I came up with a thing called the MSG Club, which is a taste memory club where we have dinners. We ask chefs, friends of ours and artist friends to come and give us negative taste memories, and we try to attack them. It is really about this poetic notion of: “Can we at least learn to like new food?” At least understanding the challenges of that, in terms of both taste, preconceived notion and think about what that is.
Charlotte Burns: I read somewhere years ago that if you don’t like something it’s do with something happening at the moment. It’s to do with the formation of your taste buds. There are ages where you don’t like bitter things. But also, to do with your taste memory, and what you need to do to change your taste memory is to try something 13 times.
Glenn Kaino: Really. Is that what they say?
Charlotte Burns: Yes. I read it when I was around 21 and I was like: “I don’t like blue cheese, I don’t like olives and I don’t like tomatoes. I’m going to eat them 13 times.” And I really wish I’d never done it because now I love blue cheese and I love tomatoes.
And I’m really still on the fence about olives. I don’t know.
Glenn Kaino: It’s the funny thing about the numbers because another thing that a lot of chefs have said is if you’re really super hungry, it’ll craft into a positive taste memory because your threshold for distaste is a lot lower when you’re starving. Your body creates this circumstance. You’re like: “Blue cheese is awesome!”
Charlotte Burns: It’s sustenance, of a form.
Glenn Kaino: Exactly.
Charlotte Burns: What’s the importance of LA in your life and work?
Glenn Kaino: In my life, I’m fourth generation LA. So just textually I have a good understanding of different communities. My family is from this neighborhood, from Boyle Heights, East LA. Growing up here, in the same way that I believe in Conceptual art, I believe in diversity—because I saw it everywhere.
And, from a practical sense, I think that LA has been very nourishing to have the ability to have space to work and to mobilize and to create or rally resources around. More so than I see with friends in New York and other places where—
Charlotte Burns: I’m sure.
Glenn Kaino: —it’s really expensive to do things.
I have a couple of public art projects that we’re working on that are really mining my relationship to LA.
Charlotte Burns: Are you able to talk about those?
Glenn Kaino: One project is the monument for the new Sixth Street Viaduct that we’ve been selected to create. Right now, the engagement is challenging, because there is a heavy degree of politicized dialogue between the communities on both sides of the river.
Now, it happens to be that I was born in the neighborhood. Both of my grandparents live less than two miles from the bridge. My parents met 1.2 miles from the bridge. The gallery Deep River was 0.8 miles from the center of the bridge.
Charlotte Burns: So you’re just getting closer and closer.
Glenn Kaino: Yes. I have a lot of relationships on both sides of the river. I have interviewed and spent time with many people on each side of the river as a way to research and what I’ve found is that they all have very legitimate, defendable reasons for not liking each other.
In the Chicano community, there’s a lived experience of displacement that is causing a sense of cultural agency and passion. From the developers who believe that they’re saving LA because they’re saving these old historic buildings, only to raise the rent, because they’re making them nicer. They believe they’re preservationists, and they’re not wrong in that way. They see their contribution—and these are the macroeconomic structures that govern the way the US economy works and the global economy works—so they see themselves as not personally responsible in that way. And the artists feel that they want places to have studios and this, that, and the other. It just so happens that none of those agendas meet.
Charlotte Burns: Together, right.
Glenn Kaino: What we’ve done is actually realized that everyone is really proud of being in LA, though, in that dialogue.
Charlotte Burns: How do you approach your work? What do you do?
Glenn Kaino: It’s really about priorities and timing. I try to engage in projects that have a-synchronist timing. Some projects are fast, and some projects are slow. We have a calendar and we understand how production systems work. The ability to do that has been one of the things that keeps us going. There’s always a sense of momentum.
Charlotte Burns: And energy, yes.
Glenn Kaino: And energy. There’s never a moment where I’m sitting, “Well, what am I going to do next?”
Charlotte Burns: You don’t strike me as someone who has time to twiddle their thumbs.
Glenn Kaino: Yeah—it’s really about keeping the momentum going and making sure that if there’s something that we learned that we get to apply that learning into a new project.
Matthew Thompson: These differences in approach are really conditioned by the channel of distribution. Somebody who is only looking at gallery shows or is only looking at museum shows of yours, they might not be aware of the true depth and breadth of not just the activities that you’re engaged in, but their real impact and circulation.
Glenn Kaino: For me, art is not decorative.
Matthew Thompson: Right.
Glenn Kaino: Art is the actual process and conceptual opportunity to engage ideas in the way that you describe. Art and artists have been used as decorations—even more so lately with brands, whereby they become logos. Art becomes a logo to go signify a class-based taste hierarchy. An artist collaboration with a brand means “I’m going to position my brand in the art world because the art world has an obscene value coefficient relative to the rest of the world.”
Matthew Thompson: It’s the missing jewel in the luxury good crown.
Glenn Kaino: Exactly. It’s the abstract, unregulated one that allows them to really create these sort of, again, absurd artificial increases. But for me, where I come from, my belief in art is that it is not decorative; it’s not to be used in that way. It’s to actually create meaning—
Charlotte Burns: And change.
Glenn Kaino: —and change. It’s really about the meaning value and the opportunity.
Charlotte Burns: Do you mind if people see only elements of what you do? Would you like people to have a sense of the whole?
Glenn Kaino: Yes, I would like to eventually. I think that it doesn’t work if everyone sees you coming, to some extent, but I think now is a good moment where more things are coming together in a more visible way.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Glenn Kaino: Early on in my career, I was very concerned about people sniffing out all the ways it worked and actually tried to keep that separate. I wanted to make sure that the different components were able to mature and grow. I didn’t want an excuse to be a hobbyist. You know, like: “That’s a horrible website, but I’m an artist so that’s okay”. That was not okay. I wanted to make sure that we had chops and were able to make good technology. Even though I knew that it was coming from my art studio and my team did, too, no one else necessarily did.
Now, in retrospect, most of the people I’ve collaborated with in the world of technology now, too, they all know and have known that I’m an artist and that it all comes from the studio. And that’s why our projects have always been texturally different than anything else they’ve ever worked on. Because I think inherently all of those people always want to make the right cultural decision; they just end up having to not, because of commercial circumstances or whatever. They were like: “Oh, whenever we were working with you, we always made the right decision,” or the cultural decision. Obviously there’s no right.
Charlotte Burns: There wasn’t that pressure to make a—
Glenn Kaino: There was always the pressure. It was just you did what—
Charlotte Burns: But I mean the pressure to make a faster, more efficient decision.
Glenn Kaino: Yes. There was the pressure: you just didn’t make that fast decision. I think that people will always want you to make bad decisions, per se, in those circumstances, but because we had this model-
Charlotte Burns: When you say we, do you—
Glenn Kaino: Myself and my team, I speak about our work and my work in that way. My teams have been with me for over 20 years, working on different projects from Napster to museum shows. My key way of technology right now has fabricated three different biennials for us. Everyone is cross-trained.
There’s a story of leadership that I have heard and love from Kennedy, when they were launching the first rocket to space or whatever, Apollo. Went to the restroom and—if you Snopes this, it’s not necessarily proven to be fact; I think it’s still open on Snopes, but the story still serves.
Matthew Thompson: Open Snoping.
Glenn Kaino: Kennedy walks into the bathroom before the launch and sees the janitor who’s cleaning up and says: “You know what we’re doing here today?”
He goes, “What are you doing here?” as he’s mopping the floor.
He says: “I’m putting a man on the moon.”
That’s exactly. That’s what we’re doing. I get all sentimental when I tell that story. That’s what we do. That story crushes me every time. I can’t even tell you. My teams, we’ve got people who have been with me since high school. It’s crazy. Yes, it’s awesome.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you so much for making the time to talk to us. This has been—
Glenn Kaino: I’m all emotional from talking.
Charlotte Burns: It’s so clear how much it means to you. And that colors, it shapes—that’s the engine behind everything. There’s a real sincerity. For me, this is just a great way to spend my morning. Thank you for having me. It’s a real privilege.
Glenn Kaino: Thank you. Thank you for coming.
Charlotte Burns: It’s always so energizing to hear people doing things in different ways and finding—it’s like Jurassic Park: life will find a way.
Matthew Thompson: Wow.
Glenn Kaino: Oh my gosh.
Matthew Thompson: Way to go to my favorite nerd reference.
Glenn Kaino: Oh my God, that’s the best thing ever.
Matthew Thompson: And my first real introduction to chaos theory.
Glenn Kaino: I’ve got to jump, but I have one Jurassic Park story, which is awesome. The internet is the best writer in the world. There was a video of Jurassic Park on YouTube where the scene of the Tyrannosaurus Rex chasing the Jeep of Jeff Goldblum, and Laura Dern is in the Jeep. The first comment on this video was: “Yo, is that for real?”
Charlotte Burns: That’s so good.
Glenn Kaino: It was awesome. Wow, looks pretty real!