Brian Tolle in Bomb Magazine

 by William R. Kaizen


Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Jul 1, 2001

Brian Tolle, artist; David Piscuskas & Juergen Rubin, architects; Gail E. Wittwer, ASLA, The Irish Hunger Memorial at Hugh L. Carey Battery Park City Authority. Brian Clyne, 3D visualizations.

Brian Tolle is currently a very busy man. He’s been awarded a commission by the Battery Park City Authority to design and oversee the installation of a memorial to the Irish Famine. When it’s finished, the memorial will be situated on a half-acre plot in Battery Park City overlooking the Hudson River. The selection committee knew they had the right person for the job when they saw Tolle’s model. It featured a displaced quarter-acre of the Irish countryside, cantilevered out over the sidewalk—a combination of postmodern monument and landscape. All of Tolle’s work deals with memory and the memorial. His objects grow out of detailed historical research that is materialized through crafted work combined with the latest techniques of production. He’s been known to hand carve Styrofoam beams with an Xacto knife so that they look identical to wood, and he’s made a 14-foot robotic, computer-controlled rolling sculpture—all in the name of his conceptual practice. These days his time is spent navigating the numerous technical and political complications of the hunger memorial. On a rainy Friday afternoon Tolle showed me the construction site and then took me back to his Williamsburg studio, where we shared an egg sandwich and talked about simulated environments, Colonial Revival architecture and his work.

William R. Kaizen: The early ’90s saw a critical mass develop around conceptual object making. You went to Yale and were aware of artists such as Mike Kelley, Alan McCollum and Ronald Jones. They were making art objects based on behind-the-scenes research, their methods coming out of Duchamp but eradicating the Surrealist chance operation and replacing it with this archival, obsessive work—the “CalArtification” of the object.

Brian Tolle: It’s certainly part of my training. But it wasn’t enough; I like making things too much. Craft, for a while, became quite an important aspect of my practice.

WK: Craft meaning finish, given that craft for Mike Kelley is about the crappy aspects of the homemade. Were you interested in the opposite of that, on some level?

BT: Yes, it was about making something out of virtually nothing.

WK: Tell me about your piece based on Thomas Jefferson’s folding, portable writing desk.

BT: Jefferson designed that desk, and drafted the Declaration of Independence on it. It’s a historical relic, an existing object, so there’s an element of simulation involved with that first sculpture of mine. What attracted me wasn’t its objectness as much as Jefferson’s particular relationship to it. It was a tool to create other works, but furthermore, at a certain point in his life, he recognized that this object would live beyond him and would have value, and he inscripted the desk. That sentiment inspired me. It was the perfect metaphor for what it is to make art. The inscription ends with, “It’s the identical one on which he [Jefferson] wrote the Declaration of Independence. And if politics as well as religion has its superstitions”—a strange thing for Jefferson to say—”those gaining strength of time, may one day give imaginary value to this relic for its association with the Declaration of Independence.”Imaginary value, that was what hooked me.

WK: You see this uncanny return of history through the memorial running through all of your work.

BT: In my first installation, Overmounted Interior, I built this complete experience. I was doing my usual research and got very interested in the idea of revival style. Why it happens and when, and how changing attitudes are reflected in the mutation of certain forms and styles. It’s about manipulating the past to satisfy the present. So I thought, Why not get to it through more recent reinterpretations? That’s when it became Colonial Revival, revised—Colonial Revival once removed. Of course, each time it gets removed, it gets more distorted. I took little bits and pieces that are commonly associated with the Colonial era. Ceilings are low …

WK: Exposed beams, brick fireplaces …

BT: There is always a hearth. So the gallery had eleven-foot ceilings and I wanted the beams to come down to seven feet, to convey the right feeling. Rather than lower the ceilings, I made the beams four feet thick—that’s how I solved the problem.

WK: The effect of those beams was a surreal displacement of something like Colonial Williamsburg, or the faux marbling painted on expensive interiors.

BT: I never liked the word faux. Like trompe-l’oeil, it connotes surface and illusion at the expense of objectness. Although I use artifice, it’s not the central theme of my work. It’s subtext. There’s play with material, certainly, but I hope the work is given a kind of authority because of the attention to detail.

WK: You were invited to do a piece in Ghent, Belgium, titled Eureka; it was like the Bauhaus thing, artists collaborating with designers. This is the press release: “The project focuses on the relationship among sculptors, designers, fabrication hardware manufacturers, and software companies in creating artwork that expresses the interface between the virtual and the real.” What about that interface? (laughter)

BT: I like working with people and exchanging ideas. I like collaborating. The idea was to try to do something that hadn’t been done before. So there I am, in Belgium—I had been speaking with people about various software packages that simulate actual conditions like wind tunnels, to test airplanes or cars. They create a virtual window and then test the resistance and strength of the material. I was interested in software that simulates real wave algorithms to test the hulls of ships. So I found a building, a 17th-century canal house, and we digitally mapped its façade. Then we created a virtual water plane and tour boats modeled after those that cruise the canal. We piloted the boats through the water to create wake patterns. We then reflected the building’s data onto this modeled surface. The computer model was then output in full-scale 3D using a CNC milling machine—that model was sculpted using Styrofoam, coated with urethane and painted by hand. It was shipped to Ghent in ten sections and installed onto the original building. The result is a collision between water and architecture, creating something between the two. The ripples that disturb the façade in Eureka are actual waves cutting through the building. I wanted to express something that technology enabled me to bring into real time, real space and integrate it into a landscape rather than onto a picture plane.

WK: You’ve taken the actual architectural façade of the building and marked it with this indexical trace of the boats passing by. It’s a virtual brush stroke transgressing the validity, or at least the solidity, of the building’s architecture. You’ve remapped the space of the city using a structure that’s an integral part of the urban fabric.

BT: It gets back to the earlier discussion about the conceptual framework of research-based artwork. I could spend hours explaining the technological significance of this gesture, but at the end of the day, it’s a highly experiential work.

WK: So let’s jump to your next project. Who are Alice and Job?

BT: This is where things sort of go awry. I was asked by Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Los Angeles to do an exhibition in the old railroad terminal, which is an enormous space. I started investigating Los Angeles history and picked up Mike Davis’s City of Quartz. He makes a reference to Llano del Rio, which was the largest socialist experiment in the United States; 1200 people moved out to the desert between 1914 and 1917. I accumulated a lot of research material, which started to suggest a number of things about the community. [Yale University included some of Tolle’s material in a 2000 exhibition at the Beinecke Library entitled No Place on Earth.] Anyway, a couple thousand acres were cultivated out of the desert; it’s a biblical story. All that remains are a few stone ruins.

WK: Twelve hundred people, that’s not as big as some of the Shaker communities.

BT: No, this was the largest socialist experiment in the United States, not religious. Many of these people were European immigrants. They were led by Job Harriman, a labor lawyer who had run for vice president with Eugene V. Debs. He had also been a very strong contender for the mayoral race in Los Angeles. Alice Austin, a suffragist and self-trained architect, was invited by Harriman to plan the future city of Llano del Rio, but it was never built. They never got beyond their original settlement. It was a very strong moment for socialism. It’s not the politics explicitly that interest me, but the fact that history marches along and occasionally marks something like the Alamo as significant. There’s so much that was left behind because it wasn’t the history that we wanted to remember.

WK: It reminds me of B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two. So, all that’s left today is these chimneys?

BT: Yes. I carved each stone out of Styrofoam and used them to replicate the chimneys. It’s a reenactment of a futile process, an ancient process of stacking stones. Job and Alice are essentially monuments. They are the embodiment of all that’s left of this history. A history no longer collectively acknowledged. So I turned it into a story. I decided that Job and Alice were sitting out in the desert one day after everyone else had left, and Job said to Alice, “They’re not going to come back.” And Alice said, “You’re right.”

WK: So you made up a fictional narrative. You got so involved in the research …

BT: Job and Alice don’t know any other place, they only know the desert, but they’ve heard about Los Angeles because their people came from there. They understand themselves against this other. The other is successful; Los Angeles, the capitalist model, survived. So they muster up all their energy, pack their bags and drag themselves to Los Angeles.

My Job and Alice are each 16 feet tall, 12 feet at their bases—they’re enormous. So you enter the gallery and see Job and Alice standing there, and then you go on to see the rest of the exhibition. There are two more rooms, one with window pieces with typical views of the future city that never came to be. The other with a 12-foot diameter well filled with rusted beer cans collected at the site. When you go back into the first room, something’s not quite right, Job and Alice are no longer where they were. They’ve moved.

WK: How quickly do they move?

BT: They move quite slowly. Job and Alice wander the space, they’re constantly in a state of motion. They would do the most bizarre things: Job would go up in a corner and sulk, or they’d march one behind the other—very strange, random activities. If they hit a wall or a person, they’d stop, reorient themselves, and then go another way. They have hidden castors and robots driving them.

WK: You’ve anthropomorphized these things—you’re talking about them as if they were real people.

BT: I never thought that I would. I don’t work figuratively. I’ve tried to create situations where the viewer as figure becomes part of the subject matter. I’m not interested in situations where there’s an empathetic other. When you’re dealing with history, it’s too easy to say, “This is about them, then.” It’s about the experience that you’re having right now. It’s about you.

WK: This brings us to the Irish Hunger Memorial. When someone invites you to make a monument, it’s a very different situation. It is about us, now but it’s always also about them,then. One question is, What’s the difference between a monument and a memorial? All monuments are memorials in some way. Look at the history of sculpture, its incipient moment in the Western tradition in Greece is about a memorialization of the gods, about giving literal embodiment to those mythical figures as a visual, iconic representation of cultural ideals.

BT: The early monuments provided places for the gods to reside. There is a relationship, from the beginning, with architecture: they were making houses for the gods. Battery Park City Authority reviewed the work of one-hundred-some artists and selected five of us to submit proposals for the memorial. I, in turn, selected Jurgen Riehm and David Piscuskas of the firm 1100 Architect to develop a design concept. When it became clear that the landscape was a central element in the design concept, we brought Gail Wittwer on board as the landscape architect. I’ve been using architecture in my work for a long time. I thought, Why not enter into a dialogue with people who make buildings?

WK: The point of the commission’s planners is to memorialize the famine.

BT: The Irish Hunger. Hunger is the Irish term for it, the Great Hunger. The mission was to create a memorial to the Irish Famine, and use it as a catalyst to address issues of world hunger. Per capita, the Irish people donate more money to world hunger than any other nation because of this collective experience. Ireland is one of the most prosperous economies in Europe. And there’s a huge Irish-American community here in the U.S. that’s prospered over the years. There are a number of these memorials to the famine and they are almost always bronze, and they almost always represent an emaciated woman and child.

WK: That’s horrible, an image of what can never be properly represented.

BT: That’s right, and it shouldn’t be. Famine is an unbelievably horrible reality. One million people perished in the Hunger, starved to death, and millions more emigrated. Its subject is land—not only land because land is life sustaining, but the politics of land. The cultivated land on this site will be a quarter-acre. This is significant because the English instituted a poor tax in Ireland, which made landlords responsible for the tax of tenants occupying land less than a quarter-acre. This led to the evictions of the poorest tenant farmers. There is also the issue of indoor versus outdoor relief. The British government built workhouses, rather than delivering aid directly to the poor. It’s the same issue as today: they believed that relief was demoralizing and that it was addictive, that people would become accustomed to being given relief.

WK: Welfare versus workfare.

BT: Exactly. So people had to make a decision. In order to qualify for indoor relief, official relief, they had to be destitute, which meant that they had to surrender everything, including their farms. People literally tore the roofs off their own houses to demonstrate that they had nothing. And they had to give up the other thing that had sustained their life—their land. The population of Ireland in the mid 19th century exploded—it grew to eight million. There are only about five million people in Ireland now; the country’s never recovered. The people were being forced to cultivate more and more difficult land—completely unarable, rocky hillsides; they were literally pushed to the edge. People brought seaweed from kelp beds and piled it onto the rocks to make compost. These were agrarian people who had to build a life from nothing. They had to make the very earth they needed to cultivate.

WK: But this was the heyday of industrialization in the United Kingdom; they were in the one spot in the world that is highly industrialized. As opposed to say, France, which outside of Paris was mostly agrarian.

BT: A lot of the hostility that is still very much alive in the Irish-American community is based on the fact that there was food. They were exporting tons of butter, beef, oats—to England and abroad. Food was leaving the country.

WK: You told me that you were grilled by the selection committee about this simulation of the Irish countryside that you’re planning for the memorial—they asked you if you were being ironic. How do you handle that?

BT: It’s tricky because oftentimes I make objects that look like other things or I make things from materials that simulate other things, but my commitment to expression is paramount. I believe in the subject matter first. I believe in the meaning that is conveyed and only use simulated forms if need be. Again, I didn’t conceive of any of my previous pieces to convey some ironic message about artificiality or fauxness.

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