the school of violence
interview by JETHRO TURNER
portrait by JEREMY LIEBMAN
All artworks copyright Jordan Wolfson
Jordan Wolfson suddenly emerged in the New York art world with Female figure which featured a demonic, abused, animatronic stripper, dancing in front of a mirror, speaking about love, vulnerability, and the human condition, as if she were trying to engage a dialogue with the viewer. This spectacular piece gave Wolfson immediate recognition in the art world, recalling Matthew Barney’s performance of 20 years ago, climbing naked around gallery walls.
Besides the strong formal quality of his work, which includes movements, voices, graphics, and music, Wolfson strikingly incarnates a new generation of artists working with technology, robotics, and social media imagery. His nihilistic, scary, and entertaining work reflects a world where the body and the machine are intertwined, where love and hate seem indistinguishable, and where beauty and horror are interchangeable. The show continues…
JETHRO TURNER — So let’s speak about the post-human condition.
JORDAN WOLFSON — What does it mean? Like “after human”?
JETHRO TURNER — I guess. What is the next stage in being human?
JORDAN WOLFSON — You’re asking the wrong guy. I’m just an artist.
JETHRO TURNER — I think there’s some really interesting stuff in your work that relates to that idea, though. In this idea of post-ness, being beyond things, whether it’s modernity or humanity or whatever, there’s something quite layered. Especially the idea that we don’t know what’s real anymore. We’re all dealing with this massive overdose of information and stimuli. Maybe part of being post-human is being able to process this mad version of the human experience that’s never really been lived before.
JORDAN WOLFSON — What do I know? I’m not a theorist or a philosopher. I’m a witness to the world, and what you see in my artwork is kind of like the shape that it makes as it passes through me, which is like my signature or footprint.
JETHRO TURNER — Like how a radio wave has a signature?
JORDAN WOLFSON — Yeah. I can’t talk like [Slavoj] Žižek about what it feels like being in the world as a philosopher. I can only really talk about it as an artist.
JETHRO TURNER — That’s what I wanted to ask you about the video Riverboat song. Where did the inspiration come from for the relationship monologue? Was it something quite personal, or was it a patchwork of other people’s experiences?
JORDAN WOLFSON — I would say that it’s a patchwork of my own experiences, but that it’s sewn together through fiction. It’s not real… Sorry if I’m slow today; I got super-stoned last night and couldn’t sleep and took an Ambien. The dialogue in Riverboat song is a patchwork of my experiences in the same way that an author or a film director will create a book or a script. It’s also based on a kind of structural form, to say something like, “I want to drink your blood. I want to seduce and make promises to you. I want to kill you. I want to dance naked for you to pop music.” All this dialogue isn’t coming from me, but it’s not coming from nowhere. It’s coming from a sense of composition. The spectator’s mind is like a wheel in the water, like a ferryboat wheel turning and turning, and it always needs liquid to push behind it. It’s a linear thing, and we experience time linearly. It’s the experience of it coming, passing, and leaving. So that’s kind of how I’m thinking. Like in Female figure, it says, “My mother is dead, my father is dead, I’m gay, I’d like to be a poet, this is my house.” It’s the same as a drumbeat and a guitar, or a symphony. These things come together to create a movement that’s a kind of ambiguous form that cannot be interpreted within a blink. So you examine it and examine it.
JETHRO TURNER — The spoken lyrics at the beginning of that section are kind of like a pop song. And it has the Iggy Azalea song within it, and the Bob Dylan and Otis Redding. And it’s a bit like a pop song in that you can binge-listen to it, but it might leave you feeling a bit sick or lose all meaning. How many times have you seen it?
JORDAN WOLFSON — I’ve seen it more than anyone else. But even when I’m working on my work, I don’t ever watch it on repeat.
JETHRO TURNER — Which is how it’s played to the audience. Most of the time, people are walking in halfway through and punctuating the flow.
JORDAN WOLFSON — I don’t know what their experience is, but I would say that I don’t know it until I’ve seen it loop. What’s funny about the piece is that the title sequence actually falls three-quarters of the way through the video. It actually starts with the dancing.
JETHRO TURNER — One of the things that fascinated me was the section with the apple being cut at the end.
JORDAN WOLFSON — It was this idea that individuals take time out of their day to show people how to cut an apple in half. This is the world we live in. There’s sex, violence, actual death online, and people making content that is as mundane as how to cut an apple. There’s probably one that is “How to remove a grape from a grape stem.” Like, “How to cut a sandwich in half.” Isn’t it bizarre? I almost want to compare it to Egyptian hieroglyphs of them doing stuff in the fields to show the way they live. It’s the strangest thing because it’s the truth.
JETHRO TURNER — But as much as it’s banal, the apple cutting also becomes this violent image.
JORDAN WOLFSON — I didn’t see it that way.
JETHRO TURNER — Juxtaposed with the rest of the film, in that context, you’re waiting for incipient violence. Everything seems to have been imbued with something else.
JORDAN WOLFSON — It’s kind of interesting; I haven’t really unpacked it for myself. You could go as far as thinking of the apple as a representation of knowledge, and the knife moving over this benign shape.
JETHRO TURNER — It made me think of that botched restoration of the church fresco in Spain, where it was such a banal image, but that’s kind of what made it so powerful. It’s a Christ image that ends up looking like a kind of cartoon lion.
JORDAN WOLFSON — I haven’t seen that.
JETHRO TURNER — You know it when you see it. The Iggy Azalea lyrics “Walk a mile in these Louboutins” suggest a sense of violence against the body. What makes you want to work with a certain song?
JORDAN WOLFSON — I thought she was an interesting symbol of our culture.
JETHRO TURNER — Because she’s an Australian white girl who moved to Florida to become a rapper?
JORDAN WOLFSON — Yeah. I think the song is compelling, but I also think there’s this other idea, very similar to Bob Dylan. He would write songs that were like letters to people. And this is also a direct-address song. It would be disingenuous of me to say that the first reason I chose the song is because she’s a white woman speaking in a kind of Ebonics dialect. I was attracted to the ambiguity and ambivalence around Iggy Azalea. I thought it was interesting because it’s really not about her. All those details about her play second fiddle to the vocal qualities of the song. I started listening to that song when I was working out, and it’s really similar to the way in Raspberry poser I used the Beyoncé and Mazzy Star music. It’s all music that I’m casually listening to for whatever reason, and I can close my eyes and it’s like a glass of water filling up, and I saw the entire dance sequence. I saw it in my head very powerfully, and I may have seen it because of that backstory, but I’m not one to unpack myself. I really don’t think about my work analytically. I’m focused on my work formally and intuitively. There would be a lesser energetic presence in the work if I focused analytically.
JETHRO TURNER — So you don’t want to overthink the work before you’ve made it?
JORDAN WOLFSON — I don’t want to overthink it after I’ve made it. There’s a whole industry out there where people are making wages from unpacking artworks. And I don’t need to do it. How am I supposed to do my work if I’m always looking over my shoulder thinking, “Why did I do that?” It’s not my thing.
JETHRO TURNER — It suggests that there’s a level of trust in yourself that you can unleash without being scared of the results.
JORDAN WOLFSON — Totally. I don’t need to know all the time; I don’t need to have the answer. That’s the essence of my practice. I work with the images that come to me, and they don’t come all at once. It’s like a dinner service arranged on a table slowly getting filled up with soup, which makes different patterns.
JETHRO TURNER — In the same video Riverboat song, there’s the Huck Finn character who’s pissing in front of a Buddha.
JORDAN WOLFSON — Yeah, he’s pissing into his own mouth.
JETHRO TURNER — Which is kind of self-sufficient on one level, this circularity of the character drinking his own piss. But there’s also something absurd about that character, like he can do whatever he wants to do.
JORDAN WOLFSON — That was the first scene of the whole video that I thought of. I had the idea of the character pissing into his own mouth and constantly looking at the viewer, wanting the viewer to look at him, with a sort of neediness.
JETHRO TURNER — The neediness is interesting, because part of the human condition is that we all seem to want other people’s approval on some level. Now we’re in this strange world where everybody is connected via social media. It’s all measured out by engagement and how much approval something gets.
JORDAN WOLFSON — I guess we do live in a world like that.
JETHRO TURNER — What do you feel about that character’s narcissistic edge?
JORDAN WOLFSON — The whole video has a narcissistic edge to it.
JETHRO TURNER — Yes. The section on the relationship is like a play-by-play guide by an arch-narcissist.
JORDAN WOLFSON — It’s horrid.
JETHRO TURNER — But it’s playfully horrid because you present it in this ironic, cartoon way.
JORDAN WOLFSON — He shows his penis; he exposes himself. Yeah.
JETHRO TURNER — Maybe because of the post-human condition, these days people are so confused by all these layers of meaning, and by not knowing what they can trust as real, and not really knowing who they are, that narcissism becomes the last refuge of the soul. It becomes quite solipsistic.
JORDAN WOLFSON — Well, the whole idea of pissing was solipsistic. And I thought of the dialogue as a kind of shape. And at the end he says, “In the end, you won’t be able to recognize me as I will have changed and found my peace as a completely different person.” It’s a kind of shape that turns on itself. What’s interesting is, you’re having a reaction to the artwork, which goes to Instagram and Facebook and all these things that are completely drowning us today, and to me it confirms that I’ve found an art practice or a way of working that’s accurate to the transmission of reality traveling through me. My practice is observational and intuitive. What’s probably interesting to the viewer is that my shape is not that different from their shape. At the end of the day, we’re pretty much having the same experiences with our ego; we’re having narcissistic experiences. I’m just trying to let it pass through me and not censor it.
JETHRO TURNER — How do you avoid self-censorship?
JORDAN WOLFSON — I stay conscious of fear. If I say to myself, “I want to make this virtual-reality piece where you witness the most horrific, realistic act of violence,” I don’t have a voice inside me saying, “Don’t do that for A, B, and C reasons, or you’ll ruin your career.” It’s your ego and self-consciousness talking to you, and fear. This idea of blocking that and being conscious of it is in my daily creative practice. At the end of the day, I’ve learned to trust myself.
JETHRO TURNER — How do you think you could ruin your career?
JORDAN WOLFSON — It’s ironic because what I could do to ruin my career is to make the work that a fearful mind would think the public wants. To not be true to myself. No matter how much money I seem to make, or how many shows I have, or how much publicity, at the end of the day I’m really just a hardcore artist, and I live in a certain way. I take what I do super-seriously. It’s a personal project, and it’s quite selfish; it’s really not about anyone else but me. It’s not about anyone else’s experience but mine. It’s not about anyone else’s intuition but mine. It’s not about anyone else’s desire but mine. It’s not about how anyone else sees but me. But as I said, we’re all pretty similar! I try and do the best job I can. For the most part, I feel conscious of what I’m experiencing, and conscious of my thoughts. I mean, how much do I want someone to walk up to me at a party and be like, “Are you Jordan Wolfson?” Do I have thoughts like that? Of course I do! At the same time, I’m like, “Jordan, that’s your ego. Fucking stop.”
JETHRO TURNER — The work is entertaining.
JORDAN WOLFSON — Well, you could also say the work is medicinal. I would say an entertainer is out there to please an audience and make people feel good. And I don’t feel bound by that.
JETHRO TURNER — Entertainers can also be there to provoke.
JORDAN WOLFSON — Well, the people I look up to are like Lenny Bruce, people like that. Being an artist is so different from how I ever thought it would be. And I tell a lot of young artists, “Look, you might be super-talented, but it’s really going to be up to you. You’re going to have to look after yourself, look after your creative emotional life. The minute you start identifying with material possessions or your public status, it’s over.” Or not necessarily over, but that’s when you have to clean the kitchen counter.
JETHRO TURNER — The work is like a space to push all of that narcissism.
JORDAN WOLFSON — The space is a free space. You can be and say anything you want within this space. But there’s a condition, and the condition is that your intention needs to be set. Say you’re about to go on a date with someone. Is your intention a/ to get to know the person, b/ to entrap the person, c/ to only have sex and use this person’s body to masturbate with, or d/ to just pass the time because you’re bored and lonely? No matter what happens, even if your intention changes, you have a subliminal guide. Despite the violence of my virtual reality piece, Real violence or the narcissism of Riverboat song, the intention is set. There are many, many, many intentions, and I can’t identify all of them, but I can identify what it’s not. One, it’s not to provoke. Two, it’s not to make money. Three, it’s not to become more famous. Four, it’s not to receive favoritism or praise from the public. But it’s more complex to tell you what they are. It’s more how do you create something without context, how do you remove interactivity, how do you use violence as raw material? But the core is having the positive intention to make something that is not attached or identified to the ego.
JETHRO TURNER — That piece ends on Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.”
JORDAN WOLFSON — It’s not that it ends, it inverts. My idea was that maybe the animation world is a kind of dream world, and then the camera turns and looks out of the eyes of the dreamer. Then it’s this other meta-world through the dream of the collective Internet.
JETHRO TURNER — The dream of the collective Internet is very nice. To go back to the post-human condition, it seems like there’s this meta-mind that exists that we’re all constantly connected to. And in Real violence, it’s the notion of reality that seems more nebulous, and how real or fake it appears is totally different to different people. Some people find it totally unwatchable, and for others, it’s just another artificial, mediated experience that’s very easy to watch because you’re aware that it’s not reality.
JORDAN WOLFSON — When I went to see it at David Zwirner, I hadn’t seen it since the Whitney Biennial, and I was like, “Maybe all these people were right, that it was this or that.” And I watched it, and I have to say that I think it’s my best work. People have had incredibly strong reactions to it. Particularly in the United States, I think there’s a sense that artistic license comes with a heavy moral responsibility to play by certain codes. And these codes are constantly in flux depending on what the political atmosphere is. I’m not part of it, I don’t subscribe to it, I live outside of it. But, if I may say it about my own work, I think it’s a really interesting piece. And I think that it’s more sophisticated than Riverboat song, and I think it’s even more sophisticated than Colored sculpture. I don’t think that people are going to understand that about the piece for a long time. I know it sounds crazy to say this, but fuck it, I’ll just tell you the truth. I actually think that it’s a new object, a new type of artwork. And I like it a lot. The title of Real violence comes from Colored sculpture. In one scene in Colored sculpture, there’s this violent scene where the figure is getting smashed onto the ground, and I thought it was interesting that through the sculptural object we had actually created real violence. And it stuckin my head. The VR piece didn’t have a title for a long time, and then right before we shot it, I said, “The title of this work is Real Violence because we’re creating real violence.”
JETHRO TURNER — So when you’re beating that object up, that’s physically you attacking it, right?
JORDAN WOLFSON — Yes.
JETHRO TURNER — So are you channeling real violence there?
JORDAN WOLFSON — No, I’m not channeling any violence, and there was no anger or anything in me. So looking at it as a formal composition, I’m making an artwork that uses violence as raw material. But it’s also VR. The piece is broken up into three acts. First you experience this physical rotation, which is a physical distortion, then the second act is contextual distortion of the Hanukkah prayer and the violence, and the prayer cuts out early, then the sound of the violence cuts out and the perspective moves, and then it cuts. For me, the third act is the experience of the work after you’ve watched it. And what I experienced when I edited it was a kind of “Whoa, what have I just seen?” It’s interesting that an artwork can exist in an unseen space. That’s why it’s so short and doesn’t loop. First act, second act, third act. The Hanukkah prayer sits there in a contextless state; it makes absolutely no sense that it’s there. It does not create any kind of generative meaning with the rotation or with the violence; it’s not additive at all. Basically, it creates a total composition of distortion and offers a new window for looking at the raw material of violence. How do you experience banality in a different way?
JETHRO TURNER — Could the real experience of that kind of act of violence ever be felt as banal?
JORDAN WOLFSON — I don’t have the answer for that. At the same time, what I mean by banality is that what you’re seeing is not horror-movie or war-movie violence. What you’re seeing is something replicating something similar to an ISIS video or a YouTube video of enacted violence. And the horror of those things is often their banality.
JETHRO TURNER — So much of the violence that we are used to seeing is a Hollywood version where things look more realistic than real life. When it’s captured on smartphones, it comes out in this grainier way.
JORDAN WOLFSON — It’s also presented in a really telescoped way, like in a movie like A History of Violence, or the one with Ed Norton where he’s a white supremacist [American History X]. The camera cuts away. And that’s also something that I wasn’t interested in. So it wasn’t going to work with a stuntman, as I never want to hurt anyone. So then I was seeing on Instagram this facial swapping, and I thought, “Why don’t I build an animatronic [figure] and do a facial swap, and then I can really beat it and that will be real?”
JETHRO TURNER — My dad, who’s in his 70s and doesn’t have a smartphone or watch YouTube, gets his hair cut in a Turkish barbershop. He was in there the other day, and his barber, who was this young guy, stops to look at a message on his phone, and it was a video of someone at a factory in Turkey getting caught in a carpet-weaving machine. The guy was being pulled into pieces and no one could do anything. And it was interesting that this guy’s reaction was then immediately to show my dad, who was sitting getting his hair cut. He was shocked enough to kind of break that social code, but then he was also numbed and detached enough to show it as almost a form of entertainment, behind this mask of concern.
JORDAN WOLFSON — Entertainment is transitioning from narrative cinema into looking at other people’s lives on Instagram, like a telescoped reality TV, which is itself just a version of ethnographic film. And an even more telescoped version of people’s lives is their collection of personal YouTube videos, whether they’re showing someone how great they look in their new bathing suit or doing squats at the gym or jumping off a cliff. We now are creating entertainment for each other through our personal lives. It, like, rivals Game of Thrones.
JETHRO TURNER — And it becomes a pressure for each person operating in that dynamic, that they feel they have to capture experiences so that they become enjoyable content for other people. They commoditize their own experience in that process.
JORDAN WOLFSON — They commoditize it by how many “likes” they get. I mean, talk about solipsistic.