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Kim Gordon vs Jutta Koether

The Sonic Youth star and the German artist talk flooring, fantasies and feminist performance

Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether performing at Kunsthaus Graz, 2009. Video capture. Courtesy of Kim Gordon and White Columns

To celebrate the new Girls Rule issue, Dazed is running a month-long online series of girl-centric interviews, thinkpieces and features. This week, we kick off the theme with exclusive head-to-head interviews with some of our favourite females – beginning with Girls creator Lena Dunham and YA author Judy Blume. Keep checking our Girls Rule page for more content all month. 

Kim Gordon and Jutta Koether go way, way back. The Sonic Youth vocalist has worked with the influential German artist for years – one of their best-known collaborations was the site-specific work Reverse Karaoke, where visitors to the South London Gallery space could sing along to a disembodied Kim Gordon vocal track in a zebra-skinned yurt that functioned as a lo-fi rehearsal space. Their work together melds performance, painting, dance and music in truly unique ways, disregarding formal technique and going straight for spontaneous, raw gut emotion.

In this exclusive extract from Kim Gordon's new book, Is It My Body? Selected Writingsthe two celebrated artists talk about running their Danceteria-inspired gallery space, where they host events like the "Isadora Duncan dance class", and how TV western Deadwood provided an unlikely catalyst for a feminist art show. 

Jutta Koether: Could you talk about how you experience the different cultural conditions of making art today? How that has changed for you over the past 20 years? Or has it?

Kim Gordon: These are questions I wrestle with. I’m thinking about it, but I don’t know if I have an answer yet. When I first started out with Design Office, it was also something to do because 
I didn’t have access to a gallery. Like being in a band, it was a way to do something. I’m still interested in it and in picking up the thread by reexamining that work to find out what interested me about it, and making new work that relates to it but also to what I’ve been doing over the last twenty-five years or so. Design Office was a means to examine things psychologically in different circumstances, whether it was someone’s apartment, a gallery, or an alternative space. Dan was a willing guinea pig in letting us intervene in his apartment.

Another project was for an alternative space in Los Angeles called F.A.R. They didn’t have a specific space; they staged things in different locations. I ordered them an ornate phone cover with their initials engraved in it so they could put it on different phones wherever they were. Another project was for White Columns when it was over on Spring Street. They were in an Art Deco-ish building, kind of like a showroom. I redid their office area, making it into something more like a dining room, because it was a community place. I put in a dining room
table and redid the flooring. For the show I had there in 1981, I brought in chairs from different collector’s houses. They were kind of hybrids of designs. They weren’t like signature design chairs, they were more like second generation hybrids. When you and I did 'The Club in the Shadow' at Kenny Schachter’s gallery in 2003, we kind of approached it with similar ideas. What is the context? Well, the context was in part the location, which was below these two not-quite-completed Richard Meier towers surrounded at the bottom by a sort of rubble. People like Calvin Klein and Martha Stewart had already bought apartments, although they weren’t living there yet, so we decided to make a club for the neighborhood.

“We had to temporarily fulfill this fantasy for him, for ourselves, and for whomever else might come across it” - Jutta Koether

Jutta Koether: It was the beginning of the total gentrification of the West Side. Kenny Schachter had holed up in this small townhouse and had a permanent installation by Vito Acconci that was supposed to be the special attraction for his gallery. The whole thing was a ready-made disaster.

Kim Gordon: It was a destination point and disaster. Nothing looked good there.

Jutta Koether: Nothing looked good there because the gallery had a weird shape...

Kim Gordon: ... and the Acconci installation was made of metal fencing that you had to use hooks to hang things from.

Jutta Koether: At the time, I was interested in the project as a way to join both of our interests. It was kind of an impossible, not redesignable design merged with the impossible desire of the gallerist to have something cool happening somewhere between music and art, a hunger for some kind of action. And Schachter himself was not considered a serious gallerist at the time, so you also have to consider the factor of his being some kind of underdog in the sphere of art dealers. So we were really in a very wobbly, strange, interstitial place, where we had to go in there and temporarily fulfill this fantasy for him, for ourselves, and for whomever else might come across it.

Kim Gordon: It also had this upstairs. It reminded me of an 80s-style club like Danceteria, where you would have a video lounge upstairs.

Jutta Koether: We sort of redesigned the whole thing, and we put a program in there twice a week, mostly with very young artists. We, of course, didn’t have a budget. It was all super lo-fi, and we recruited a lot of our friends and my students to do things.

Kim Gordon: That’s where Ai Arakawa did his first performance.

Jutta Koether: It was his semester assignment instead of writing a paper! I said, 'Hey, you gotta do something, because you haven’t done anything all semester,' so he designed a sequence of four performances. It was his first public appearance.

Kim Gordon: No one really knew quite what was going on. For one of them, Ai handed pieces of paper with numbers on them to ten people or so and then just took them away. I don’t know where they went.

Jutta Koether: He took them around the block, literally in the shadows of these towers.

Kim Gordon: It was at the end of this alley. It felt like the edge of Manhattan or something. And we had dancers. Every week we had different dancers.

Jutta Koether: We made videos.

Kim Gordon: But I remember, besides those, also Alan Licht playing...

Jutta Koether: Oh, yes, we had dancing to noise music because we thought the club needed dance, to lend it some relation to Danceteria and movement. But people also just started to gather around...

Kim Gordon: Just to hang out outside, sitting on the rubble around the tower. That was the best, seeing people sitting there drinking beer at the bottom of the Richard Meier towers.

Jutta Koether: A few years later, based on this experience, we did it again, in a way, with us being more like the presenters and designers of a space when the Reena Spaulings gallery moved to East Broadway. For them, it was sort of a big shift going from a small place into this larger, loft-type space.

Kim Gordon: It had certain characteristics.

Jutta Koether: It had this character of being like a stage. Already, in a way, Reena was staging itself, or rather restaging itself as a 'real' gallery, Reena Spaulings Fine Art. We sort of picked up on that and tried to really use what was then this newly inserted platform that takes up most of the space, and the notion of a dance floor or theatrical floor came out of that situation.

Kim Gordon: Emily Sundblad saw it as something of a saloon. A salon or a saloon ... it was like either/or. They wanted a piano and a bar.

Jutta Koether: Again, we were really tapping into the hosts’ desires as well as into the location.

Kim Gordon: It used to be a bordello, I think, or a brothel upstairs.

Jutta Koether: Well, there was this whole mythology of what the place had been. It had obviously been transformed many times, and residues of those transformations were visible in the layers of flooring with different patterns that you still see today in the front of the space. We sort of imported this whole idea of the stage and, again, dance.

Kim Gordon: Also, there were these feminist shows that were starting to happen around, so we decided to make people really uncomfortable with notions of the body and dance. It was kind of influenced by the TV show Deadwood, the western, and the fact that most of the galleries we liked showed dead artists.

Jutta Koether: We called the whole exhibition or series of events Dead Already.

Kim Gordon: And we had Ai build a corral. He was going to do this dance piece, and we gave him certain elements, like Dan Graham’s recorded No Wave cassettes and...

Jutta Koether: ..and the pink, a body colour...

Kim Gordon: We got a carpet that was kind of a fleshy, kind of dusty pink body color that we put in the space. The floor was terrible, with nails sticking out, so we had to have something. We set up this corral that also worked as ballet bars or dance bars, and we also had some artwork.

Jutta Koether: We had these dollies with stacks of art that kept being moved from one place to another depending on what was needed.

Kim Gordon: We also had this series of events. One was an open dance class, an Isadora Duncan dance class. This woman who lives up in Northampton, Massachusetts. She came down with all of these tie-dyed silk tunics. It was supposed to be an open class hour before the actual performances started, but everyone showed up. Dan Graham was sitting in the front row watching.

Jutta Koether: Joan Jonas, too.

Kim Gordon: All these artists got into it. Everyone put on a tunic, and she led us in some class of Isadora Duncan dance. It was pretty funny.

Jutta Koether: So that was, again, sort of a weird mixture of events, but also a merger of design, redesigning a space — literally re-designing it, but also tapping into some of the ideas about or behind the space — and trying to feed it something that was...

Kim Gordon: ... Not quite right.

Jutta Koether: They didn’t know quite what to do with it. They wanted something like a relaunch or to reemerge from that move as something new. They were expecting this rebirth, but then we almost overloaded them with a string of activities and things that they didn’t really ask for.

Kim Gordon: It kind of set a precedent for everyone who comes to do shows at Reena Spaulings. They always make the gallery do stuff.

Jutta Koether: In retrospect, it really acknowledged and initiated the whole idea of Reena being this different kind of place. Every subsequent artist does an 'act' about Reena in that space, because of the way it looks, but also psychologically they’re always doing something in relation to the 'Reena complex'.

Kim Gordon: There’s some inner drama going on.

Jutta Koether: It’s not just another gallery. There’s always this other layer, the Reena complex, and you bump into it. In a way, our piece was really tapping into that condition.

Kim Gordon: There’s no documentation of it, which is really a shame. Just one shot of one of my paintings with a DVD on it.

Jutta Koether: At the time, which was 2007, I think, we were both very present in the city and really able to recruit other people. Our activities kept bringing in new people, mainly in my case through students. Georgia Sagri and others who were still in school or just about to get out were in that dance piece. The whole enterprise represented some sort of collaborative mood that was going on at that time. It was around the time the Orchard Gallery started to happen. People were really rethinking group activities. We had Karl Holmqvist reading poetry, Johanna Burton giving a lecture, and all kinds of things happening on the carpet that were not necessarily performance in the conventional sense, but giving an opportunity to do things.

Kim Gordon: It’s interesting just to create a situation where people come, and then it’s something. It almost doesn’t matter what’s going on in the space. It has to be a certain element of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. Just when you think you’re going to come back and see something that you know, it’s different. 

Courtesy of Kim Gordon, Jutta Koether, and Sternberg Press.

Order the book from Sternberg Press.