Speaking with Ryan McNamara

by Danny Kopel, June 2011

Thursday, June 9, 2011. 2pm: Artwrit met with Ryan McNamara at Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York to relate the ins and outs of performance art, the delicate matter of documenting live work and his fool-proof technique for overcoming stage fright. Audio + transcript below. 

Ryan McNamara: Hi, my name is Ryan McNamara, and we are here in the back room of Elizabeth Dee Gallery.

Artwrit: So, we’re getting you fresh off the plane from Venice. How was the biennial? Can we get a first hand account from Ryan McNamara?
Sure. I’m really excited about some of the work that was there. Still kind of processing some of it. There’s this video that I’ve been thinking about pretty much ever since I saw it by this artist Bjarne Melgaard and it’s just one of those pieces that I’ve probably already had three hours of conversations with people about, which was kind of amazing to have these moments within this madness of parties and all this stuff, that actually there were these moments where we could actually talk about work and ideas. But those moments are few and far between there. It’s definitely become such a spectacle. It’s a really nice time to go during the opening because you get to see friends and connect with people, but I don’t know if I can do it again because it makes you depressed about the state of the art world and reminds you of the role that art plays in a lot of people’s lives as this kind of status thing. There’s actually a really good John Baldessari quote about art fairs and he says that an artist going to an art fair is like a kid walking in on his parents having sex. You know it happens but you just never want to see it. And I almost feel the same way about one of these big sort of ridiculous party situations where—I have nothing against them, I mean who doesn’t like to have a good time and see people—but it’s just when there’s such an emphasis on that, it does sort of becomes a little bit depressing. Seeing my friends’ work, and people I admire, their work, becoming an opportunity for parties and drunkenness. So, anyways, that’s my little spiel.

Let’s talk about your work. One of the distinguishing factors, I think, is that you, your personality or rather your persona, is really at the center of it. Is it autobiographical or apocryphal?
I think that I’m always there. It actually started when I was a teenager and I was getting into photography. I was in Arizona and I was stuck without a car so really the only subject I had was myself and it came out of a practicality that I’m always in it and it became more and more about me as I became more and more comfortable with my practice and would just strip away the other layers. Sometimes I even can have questions if I’m even making art anymore ’cause it’s just me, being me. I was in Buenos Aires on a new project and the newspaper did a story about it and translated the headline was “Ryan McNamara: Is it Art?” which I thought was sort of perfect.

So is there a line between the public persona and a private person?
That’s a good question. Obviously there is because I’m still stressed when I’m performing in front of an audience. I’m not a performer, I don’t have a performer background. I sort of stumbled into it. I went to school for photography. The cliché of photographers is the person alone behind the camera, alone in the darkroom. So it was sort of by accident that I fell into performance. I think that has something to do with the fact that my off—I guess “stage” even though I don’t usually perform on stage—my off-stage and on-stage personas aren’t that different, just because I don’t have the training of knowing how to be anything but myself. But I have this one thing where I still have to get—I shouldn’t tell this little secret—but I have to get a little bit drunk before I perform just because I’m not comfortable. [laughs] So that might be part of the on-stage persona, that I’m a little bit drunk.

What about for long-run performances like the one at PS1 where you did that for several days? Was that a technique that you had to resort to?
[laughs] Um, no, you’re right! Okay, not all the time. I was there every day for five months, and so it became my other home. I kind of forgot that people were even watching me at some point. It was like clocking in, going to work, which I thought was really great. It was also funny because people were like, “Wow, you’re there every day for five months,” and I’m like, “Yeah, and people work on the factory line every day of their lives for eight hours.” I have it easy. It’s actually amazing that I got five months of my life to experiment with something I’ve always wanted to do. I feel very blessed.

I think that I read that for you work comes up sort of just a few weeks in advance someone will commission something or an opportunity opens up to create something, so I’m curious about what your studio practice is. Do you have a daily practice, something that you work on a little bit every day? Or was that the closest experience that you’ve had to that daily grind?
Yeah, it’s weird. I don’t know what it is about me or maybe it’s performance or something, but I don’t have that, you know, “Let’s plan the show that’s going to be a year and a half away.” I have no idea why. I always think that this is like, “Okay, well I have nothing lined up. This is my last thing I’m gonna do.” I haven’t figured that out. I don’t know why that is, but I kind of like it in that I can sort of be in the moment. As for my studio practice, there’s always something that I’m doing. I’m always working on one of those projects even if it’s only a month in advance or something. There’s a lot of day-to-day business being an artist, just like little things here and there. Also, it’s not like I’m someone who has a big staff or anything, so I’m doing the mundane things as well: tracking stuff that’s being sent places and stuff like that. So, in terms of the day-to-day practice, I mean I do stuff every day, I don’t necessarily have that opportunity to make work for work’s sake. In fact, I’ve been thinking about it because I have something coming up, but it’s a video that I made a year ago. That’s my next project, and so it’s kind of strange. I have a show opening, I’m in a show, and I’m like, “I don’t have to do anything, oh my God, I’m just going to hand a DVD to them.” I have this opportunity to make work for work’s sake. It’s been so long that I feel like I have to figure out how I do that again. And I have to admit I’m a little nervous. All right, there it is, the blank page sitting in front of you. What do you do with that?

So the PS1 show did afford you the experience of feeling like you’re going to a factory line or clocking-in, clocking-out.
Yeah, and I really liked that, but it wasn’t a going-into-a-studio situation. I had a schedule that I had set up for myself, so I knew what I was doing every day. That was amazingly freeing in another way.

So that was Make Ryan a Dancer, where you tried to learn a different dance style every day in different galleries at PS1?
I have a fantastic portable dance studio so I can move it anywhere, so I could actually see the show myself. I was actually working with—I forget the exact number—it ended up being like fifteen different dance instructors who came over the course of the exhibition and taught me different dance styles. I had never taken a dance class before the first day of Greater New York, but I’d worked with dancers a lot. I had always been a little jealous of what they could do with their bodies. So this was an opportunity for me to make a really selfish piece and take the five months to learn. So it was actually working on a really short dance piece with each person over the course of five months. The last day I did a piece called The Finale, which was basically a recital showing everyone what can happen in five months. I think it ended up being like eight different pieces that I learned and they were just sort of mirroring the fact that I was always in different galleries. The dance instructors were all around PS1 and I kind of Pied Piper-style brought the audience with me from place to place.

You said in another interview that “dance is one of the more interesting forms of bodily abuse.” So even though there’s this apparent lightheartedness about that particular performance project, it has that self-mutilating, sort of heavy endurance sense that a lot of the iconic performance art pieces have. How intentional is that?
Well, there is something about just pushing limits. I don’t see myself as really a traditional kind of endurance artist, but I am interested in finding out the limits of what my body can do. Or not even body. That traditional sense of how far can I take this action until I collapse but also just how uncomfortable can I make myself? How can I do a piece that embarrasses me? That’s another thing about that piece is that the harder part, rather than just the physical part of it, was the fact that I had to be in public next to someone who’s been doing this for their entire lives. Most of the people who are working out there are at the pinnacle of their careers. And here I am, having no dance training. Being in a show like Greater New York, it’s to kind of show off, you’re supposed to show, look at what hot shit I am, look at what I can do. It was almost like this repulsion of the idea that I had. This was going to be one of the bigger venues that I had shown in and it was a long show and so I thought the idea of just kind of showing my greatest hit sounded sort of boring. The endurance is also mental. It’s like, can I really do this day after day? Looking like a fool? Because I get really embarrassed. It’s so strange that I ended up being a performer because—I mean, at parties, unless I know people, I don’t talk to anyone, [laughs] so it’s very strange.

Klaus Biesenbach, who was involved with that project as a coordinator, invited you to participate in the performance art biennial in Moscow last year. And you did Hallways, which also dealt with the body, but also echoed very historic performance pieces. Bruce Naumann comes to mind. And I know that you draw heavily from pop culture, but what artists influence you?
Definitely Bruce Naumann obviously is one… I’m trying to think of people who I’ve just seen recently. I mean, this is totally random but I saw her in Venice, this Argentine artist, Marta Minujín. She’s a crazy-person, and she did a lot of projects, social projects, where she would throw parties. She’d put ads in the newspapers and she would have people fill out forms about their occupations and then she would throw a party for businessmen and another one for politicians and another one for people in fashion, and another one for people in art. Then she would film those, each party, and then for the exhibition, she would just project on all sides of the wall, up the wall, so you were inside this party but you never know which party you’re in. I always thought this was so great—this was in ’68, uptown here. She also has created this larger-than-life persona in Argentina, she’s in Citibank ads, she’s probably 68 now and she’s just one of those people who has that presence that I really respond to. It’s so funny that I brought her up of all of the people, but there’s something about that in the ’60s she started parties and she was imitating this idea of happenings even one step farther removed from the artist’s hand. She was literally throwing parties. And I think that’s kind of interesting.

This has come up over and over again, especially in the last year, it’s sort of become a hot topic: the issue of documenting performance. How do you do it? Is it right to do it? It’s an ephemeral form, it’s over when it’s over… These are some of the debates, and it’s fodder for countless papers and panel discussions. But you seem to have upended that in your own work and provided your own solutions to that problem. I’m talking about the show that you did here in this gallery, And Introducing Ryan McNamara, where you gave personal guided tours of your own work, inhabiting the role of artist, naturally, but in a sense curator and historian, as well, providing the work itself but also the critical perspectives on the work. What was the intent there? Was that the intent there?
I mean, it literally came out of me being very literal. Elizabeth asked me to introduce myself to the gallery audience. I’m like, “Oh, I will do that.” I always find the oral history of performance being the one that I respond to the most, so people talking about their work and lectures to someone trying to remember what someone told them about a performance piece that may or may not have happened five years ago or something. That was always interesting to me. That potential for myth-making really makes performance exciting because there is that mistranslation and that thing that five people went to ultimately becomes so historic. I wanted to try out, to see if this is the best form of describing my work. There’s a lot of pieces that I’ve done where you see a photo of it and you have absolutely no idea what was happening. I also don’t expect people to sit through the video of it. So I think it is a valuable tool, just talking to people. I also think it’s an artist’s responsibility in a way to be available. It’s something that I’ve been doing actually at PS1. I give tours to the public and I think that’s really becoming an increasingly important part of my practice just because there’s this dialogue we’re having with our peers that I feel like a lot of the public feels a little left out of. This has been an opportunity for me over at PS1 to talk to them and say, “No, you’re not being left out. This is an inside joke. I don’t get some of this stuff either, you know? We all are confused. Let’s be confused together.” That can be an exciting and rich place to be in. And so, yeah, I think that’s not that hard. You just talk to people every once in a while. But it’s an interesting model that we’ve come up with: I’m an artist, I fill a room with my tchotchkes, I leave, you come in, deal with it. That is interesting. That’s sort of one way of operating in the world and making work. I have nothing against that. I also think giving people, especially people who do feel a little intimidated, some keys to sort of get into the world a little bit… If it’s a completely brick wall then what do we expect from these people? But it’s something I play with. How much do you expose? Then does that kind of close people’s interpretations out because you’re there talking about it so you’re saying, “I made it and therefore I know what’s going on.” I hope that I’m not didactic, but it’s an interesting one. How much do you want to reveal about that experience, when there’s no way you’re ever going to have that experience again?, What does it mean to sort of even try to get a little bit of it? I’m actually moving more and more towards just taking the documentation and making a completely new piece out of it. That’s where I’m having—in my own head—to kind of let go of the narrative of the actual performance and using that as just material for an entirely new piece and seeing how that goes.

Are you working something right now?
Yeah. Actually my summer project to myself is to do exactly that, to go through all of this material now. I actually just kind of compiled it and it’s a lot. It’s been a busy two years. I’m interested in experimenting: does this stuff that I’ve already compiled, does that have another life as something else? I don’t think it’s that interesting for me to just take that performance and project it on a gallery wall. It could be just: It was the event, it’s over, we can talk about it now but really there’s no revisiting it. That could be what I find out by the end of the summer. But I’m interested in seeing if I can use this as my materials to create something new. So that’s the summer project. I have plans of stuff. I’m actually getting a little bit of lead time these days, so I’m excited about that. But I love the fact that when someone asks you to do something in a month, well it has to be exactly what I’m thinking about right now and as someone who’s committing to something, you have no choice. You know, you have to commit to that thing because people are showing up in one month so you have to do it. I think I might go a little crazy now that I’m getting I’m getting a little more lead time because I’m like “Oh, great, I have time to change my mind five hundred times and annoy all the people that are collaborating with me on it.” But, we’ll see how that all turns out. So it’s kind of a nice kind of looking-back-looking-forward summer that I’m excited about.

This is from your CV. It says: “A discussion of my artistic concerns is probably best done in person. If interested, please contact me at ryan@ryanmcnamara.com so we can schedule a conversation.” I’m so glad we did. Thanks, Ryan.
Thank you! It was great!