Tape for the Turn of the Year: Conversations with and about Daniel Wenk
Tape for the Turn of the Year: Conversations with and about Daniel Wenk
Recorded by Joseph Tabbi. A week in the life of the artist.
This essay-narrative originally appeared in a catalogue published by Eastwick Art Gallery in Chicago, and it was also included in ebr 11.
FRIDAY EVENING, January 1999
Gold Star, 10:30. Two draft beers, DAB ($7.00 with tip). Daniel agrees that an interview would be better than an essay. He wants a text that will be unlike all the other catalogue texts. During the past few days, he’s been reading my copy of Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Could we do something along the lines of a metalogue?
Daniel asks if I know whether, on the Internet, he might find information about Monaco? A font he and Jennifer are considering for the catalogue. Our working title, The Truth on Tape, comes out of the Clinton impeachment trials, but surely the connection with Monica is too oblique.
at the bar, from a woman in her late twenties talking with two young men: “He thinks he’s his own worst critic…”
I recall Daniel’s opinion of the art on display, three years ago when we started coming to this bar: Kunstkacke.
By midnight the noise is unbearable. Gentrification has reached Division Street - on our heels. We’ll meet tomorrow and discuss procedures over breakfast.
Up 8:45; Ten minute walk to El Barco Marisco on Daniel’s block at Cortez and Ashland. On the way home last night, Daniel checked opening hours with the staff. But at 9:15 the two of us are standing outside in the cold. Eventually the owner drives up, apologizes for oversleeping, pleads that the weekend crowd kept her working past 3 a.m.
Although it’s not on the menu (this is mostly a lunch and dinner place), the waitress brings us two orders of huevos rancheros.
Between 1968 and 1970, Allison Knowles ordered the same lunch at the same diner in New York City: “A tunafish sandwich on whole wheat toast, butter no mayo, and a cup of buttermilk or soup of the day” (from the pamphlet, Identical Lunch).
Daniel and Jennifer have settled on a font: Meta. Not so fancy as Monaco, not so nostalgic as Courier, which Daniel and I once used for the logo in Critical Ecologies. Courier, everyone knows, is the classic typewriter font; Monaco is one of the first fonts designed purely for the screen. Meta, a font devised in the 90’s, is entirely for printing.
Entering copy into Microsoft Word, the closest I can get to the probable look of the printed text is Arial.
Where, I ask, does the work go? In the years that I’ve known him, Daniel has not missed a day, but there’s never an accumulation of tape art in his apartment. What’s your idea of its life outside the studio?
In every instance, in the first place, whether it’s mail art or a tape sculpture, Daniel imagines the work going into the mailbox. He avoids the post office counter, where he has to explain that it’s art. Some postal workers are trained in its handling, some not. He doesn’t mind if his objects get scarred. He rarely uses a return address. When the piece makes it through to an address bearing official stamps and chance marks, that counts as approval, in his estimation. He does not check to see whether the piece has arrived, or in what condition. “Approval” comes from outside, impersonally, from the material world and its powerful systems of communication and transportation. Why seek the approval of a community of artists or specialists? Their judgement has already been internalized, in his working thoughts, in friendships, and in visits to galleries and museums.
Every day On Kawara stamped a postcard with the hour and minute when he awoke. He would send telegraphs daily, each one with the same message: “I am still alive.”
A letter today from Bill Wilson in New York, an art critic by profession. He met Daniel by my introduction, after a roadtrip through the Alleghenies and on to the city, in July of ‘96. Wilson asks how the “book” is coming? - taking Daniel down a peg for presuming to reject the standard catalogue format. Wilson’s response to last year’s invitation was non-committal. In the spirit of Daniel’s project, it was written on 3/4” labeling tape. The text emerges from the used-up dispenser:
Daniel: I am thinking about your offer and/or requiest; I would need specifications: date, length, & purpose, plus photocopies of your works & any fund readymaids of tape! Maybe I will send notes on Tony Smith; however most useful would be responses to writing I have sent earlier: conversation
FOUND FOUND FOUND FOUND FOUND
message length: 58”
In today’s letter, Wilson wonders if Daniel’s art can serve as a model for qualities to look for in experience. That Daniel uses tape, and risks sending taped objects through the postal system where they can be scratched, may be taken as a model for how one is to adventure through systems indifferent to our individual surfaces.
We pick up nine shark steaks at the new Home of Seafood, next to Aronda’s on Ashland and Division. $22.50. Daniel will broil eight of them for guests this evening, after a day’s work with Jennifer. I’ll have mine over the weekend, after I put the final touches on an article due Monday.
Dinner with Rob Wittig, compiler of a book documenting the Seattle performance group from the eighties, IN.S.OMNIA. “Compiler,” not “author.” These days, designing web pages on a freelance basis and editing Tank20, Rob ceases even to speak of a text as writing. He prefers the technical term, copy.
Rob’s recently back from a trip to North Carolina. There he met Anne Burdick, who, like Daniel, has collaborated with me at various times on the visual design of the electronic book review. Rob’s impressed by how she’s organized her professional life: 1/3 design, 1/3 teaching, 1/3 lecturing and writing. The simplicity. Like so many artists nowadays, Anne gets by, but only by turning every element of her life into a business. All of her correspondence originates from “The Offices of Anne Burdick,” for example. I mention Daniel and his division of the year between Germany and the U.S., freelance corporate design and tape art.
Daniel has kept his daily life unadministered, even at Leitner, Inc. Between countries, between activities. He doesn’t “balance” roles, he tries to fall between administrative cracks. How much longer this can last, Rob, himself a resident traveler in France and Germany, is unsure.
For a long time Rob has wanted to establish more embodied ways of writing about literature and art. Picking up on an idea in Georges Perec, he’s interested particularly in creating a phenomenology of reading. Not the content - the physical act of reading a book. Rob wonders why literary criticism never asks about people’s postures when reading; about the parts they skip; where they go to read, or what sounds they hear in the background.
The idea emerges of an unadorned chronicle, a week in the life of the artist. That’s less structure than Daniel and I had initially supposed, with our “metalogue” composed via email exchange during his stay in Germany. But I’ll take the idea to him and see what he thinks.
On the recommendation of Manolo, a member of the Matadors boxing club (Cortez and Noble) who once did some work for Daniel, we try La Condesa, a block south of El Barco. Coffee is weak (a cheap U.S. blend, not Bustello), chips stale, but flour tortillas are served underneath the eggs, not on the side. Price is the same: $14 breakfast for two, including tip. Decide tomorrow to return to our first choice, and continue the interview there.
Daniel agrees that we should meet every morning in the coming week, and let the day-to-day record give form to the interview. Instead of the usual Q&A, we’ll record what happens to each of us, each day. Much of it will be trivial, no doubt, but these details are the texture of life.
Particularly as it is lived by Daniel. A spartan set of rooms on Cortez (400 square feet at $350 a month); savings earned working periodically for Leitner in Stuttgart are converted to US$ and spent in Chicago; no salary; no patron; no university position. No need to pay taxes (his income falls below the German minimum of 20,000 Marks; in fact it comes out negative, since he is allowed by law to deduct “standard” amounts for stays in foreign countries - 225 per diem).
Henry Caderey used to build sticks out of wood, colored in patterns with always one built-in mistake. In the sixties he would walk into NY openings (not his, he never showed there) and lean his artwork on the walls. A temporary intervention. One show in Köln featured him walking through the city with a seven-foot stick on his shoulder, according to a schedule.
Daniel agrees to record all daily expenses during the term of the interview.
I have with me this morning a collection of Kafka stories, which I assigned to a student for an independent study. Daniel’s father likes Kafka, so Daniel read Kafka as a child. His teacher liked Kafka, so he read Kafka through school. His older brother likes Kafka, so he continues reading him when he sees his brother. But Daniel himself has never liked Kafka. He’s now reading Bill Wilson’s story collection, Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka.
In the past week each of us has received a letter from Camille, in her “bird cage” on Pine Grove in West Lakeview. Tree leaves and small branches encased in plastic, glitter, and glue. I immediately put mine in a folder - one of many where I sort correspondence. Daniel says he will throw his away. Because it cannot be re-sent. He keeps nothing that he cannot use.
Annelliesse has moved her belongings - she’ll be in and out during the week and then stay on at Daniel’s apartment for the next month or two, while he’s in Germany. One of her Art Institute friends was over yesterday. Student questions, Daniel notes, are always the same:
Does tape have a special meaning for you?
How long do they last?
Do you know where your work is?
How do you know what happens to the pieces?
I ask whether he’s ever worked in another medium besides tape. In 1993, he catalogued a number of steel sculptures. One section was titled Special guests: The Normals & their place. A “normal” in this case was a meter, a standard unit of measurement. Nearly all of Daniel’s work is about standards (on his worktable lies a grid, a knife, a ruler, and stacks sometimes a yard in height of round cardboard inserts, left over after the tape’s been exhausted.) He says in that early show he wasn’t concerned about the stainless beauty of the material. But people complained about rust. It would take millennia for rust to affect the sculpture’s proportions, but that was all people saw: the imperfection.
Today people ask, will the tape turn yellow?
The brittle yellow of tape in the pages of an old book.
I ask whether he will work in steel again. A slow shake of the head: no, too heavy. We talk about a trip he made, with Gert, in Turkey. They wanted to try an alternative route by boat to Kuzgunçuk, a town on the Asian side of Istanbul. Taking a map to the ticket office and tracing out the desired route (which they knew had to exist), they asked the attendant when the next boat left for Kuzgunçuk. The man, who spoke no German or English, pointed to the boat about to leave, and quoted what seemed an exorbitant sum for the ticket. Unfortunately, Daniel’s system of rational map-consulting was not the attendant’s system. With no time for bargaining, the two artists got themselves on the boat, moments before the platform lifted. An hour had passed, when they had to be well past Kuzgunçuk, before they realized they were on their way to the Black Sea.
In this circumstance, with two rolls of tape in his pocket, Daniel was able to spend the afternoon preparing postcards. Gert cut tape with his teeth. They could never have accomplished so much on that day, working with steel.
Roman Opalka paints according to a master plan for life. Each painting is titled “1 - ∞, detail” (with the sequence, x to y, in parentheses). Small white numbers are painted continuously until the paint from one deep dip is used up. In the background, a monochrome gets whiter with each painting, as more white is added, with every painting, to the pigment. Eventually, as the artist ages, white numbers will start to disappear into the white background. After each finished work a self-portrait is taken to accompany the painting.
We discuss the temporary quality of tape: you use it to attach a name to a mailbox, because you won’t be long at the address. Or because you’ll put in something more permanent later. The material itself is timebound. Before the sixties, roughly, and before the era when personal life in the West became life in an office, tape was not so much in general circulation. When the bureaucratic society passes, tape too will disappear.
A title from A. R. Ammons flashes into my mind: Tape for the Turn of the Year. A long, thin poem, written daily in the form of a journal on adding-machine tape, then transferred foot by foot to manuscripts. When the roll ended, so did the poem.
mounting bracket for Saturday’s opening: 3.00
film dev. + photo CD: 207.11
evening bus to Clark and Belmont: 1.80
Today I bring loose tea in a bag and order hot water. The leaves settle, although some remain floating on the surface: a yin-yang effect, according to Daniel. We each note similar phenomena in partially cooked Spätzle; in Pierogie; and in pools of dead and dying fish.
He offers tomorrow to bring along a strainer (which he calls, in a literal translation from the German, a “tea egg”). To avoid bitterness.
Walter de Maria’s “New York Earth Room” is an apartment permanently filled with dirt, approx. two feet in height. His “Broken Kilometer” consists of five hundred brass rods, each two meters long, laid out in a room.
We ask for our tortillas under the eggs, and order orange juice (fresh squeezed; $2.00 a glass) in consideration of the heat.
A non-English speaker yesterday asked Daniel where in the U.S. she could get a job that required no reading at all. He took the question to me, a professor of English. Apart from housecleaning, prostitution, or typing, I could think of no such job. Not above the table. Not in the age of bureaucratic domination.
Whoever controls the records has power. Daniel’s great-grandfather, on his mother’s side, was appointed director of the Statistisches Landesamt - a title that carries down, in aristocratic fashion, to his relatives today. Daniel relates this fact without pride or embarrassment, quoting Arno Schmidt on the democratic potential of public record keeping (when the record’s not secret, as in the Stasi administration, or the CIA). The unprecedented power of identifying who is who in the state.
He feels he has not done enough to catalogue his work.
Not for the sake of a personal record. And not for the impersonal record kept by the church or the state, either. The post office is the more appropriate model: it catalogues the work for Daniel and gives it a public dimension - a more than personal value - by stamping the date on the piece and delivering it to a destination. The record circulates with the work, and is itself a part of it.
Artist cvs, pages and pages pursuing grants and stipends - all to demonstrate that you’ve been approved. The act of cataloguing in such cases supplants the work, as it does for so many younger artists who carry around portfolios when all they’ve done is a school show or a café wall. The better alternative - in an age where media of information and communication are not neutral but are themselves capable of determining what lives and is recognized and what is ignored - is to make the record and the work inseparable.
As in, for example, a tape recording? There is high magic in low puns. Why haven’t we thought before about taping the interview?
An early video installation by Bruce Nauman employed two parallel walls and a camera above the entrance/exit. At the far end (approx. 45 feet away) stands a TV monitor: You can see yourself only from behind, and the closer you get to the TV, the smaller your image becomes.
Neither one of us has a machine, unfortunately.
On her way past the café, Isabel sees us, waves, and mouths through the window: “Bon appetit!” Has El Barco Marisco become our Flore? La Condesa notre Deux Magots?
To pass through customs, of course, is for Daniel another identity-defining experience. Another experience of betweenness. And another impersonal form of public approval. As the work of art must be made to fit within the specs of the post office, so must the person shape an identity within the constraints of power. Customs is a socially constraining force - about this the individual has no control. Or rather, the individual yields control and power through enforced acceptance of membership in a collectivity, a nation state. This is a given for most people and accordingly it’s given little thought. For the artist, whose life is in a sense inseparable from the work, the constraint is accepted willingly. In one sense, the artist becomes more conscious than others of life’s constraints, but at the same time, by making a formal principle of the idea of constraints, one re-asserts a kind of control over them.
Daniel once identified the contents of a taped object with the word, “AIR,” before sending it overseas. Customs cut through the tape and cardboard, saw that it contained only what had been declared, and then - what else? - taped the incision shut before sending it on.
That’s how the piece went to the gallery. At which point - Daniel is in agreement with all gallery owners and curators - it must not be touched. Damage en route is part of its identity; it’s not reproducible, and it shouldn’t be encouraged past a certain point - that is, past the point when the work goes public. Damage in the gallery would decrease the work’s value. The two systems, creation and exhibition, are distinct, and it’s a mistake to confuse them.
Colliding systems. The difficulty with metric conversions is not knowing that an inch is 2.54 cm. The problem is that you have to think differently in going from one system to the other.
Daniel’s method: to give up some of his own agency and creative power to the accidents of a work’s circulation, as it works its way through modern systems of communication and transportation. Using the system as a kind of co-author or collaborator, the living artist points a direction through a lifeless long network.
Isabel returns with a package from the Home of Seafood. Daniel’s been sending the word around. And word’s gotten around, evidently, about the interview as well. Isabel asks, will there be a biography? I explain my intention to include only what Daniel tells me, at the place where it occurs in conversation. The less biography the better, with nothing best of all - as Bill Wilson suggested for himself in one of his letters concerning his own contribution. But you must record the conversations, uh-huh? She’ll look to see if she has a machine for us.
In the same letter, however, Wilson also mentions a decalcamania that Picasso glued into a sketchbook, about the season he met Georges Braque. (The first use of tape in modern art?) Documenting a life as it is lived, the time and its record - is this not preferable to biographies that supplant the life?
1932 Bill Wilson born in Baltimore, MD
1960 Joe Tabbi born in Buffalo, NY
1962 Daniel Wenk born in Tübingen, BW
1990 Joe Tabbi meets Bill Wilson
1995 Joe Tabbi meets Daniel Wenk
1996 Daniel Wenk meets Bill Wilson
They’ve shut down Edmar Foods on Chicago Avenue, where Daniel and a handful of aged Ukranians used to get their bread, welfare cheap. Ginza Health Bread. Sent in from Bruno’s bakery on the South Side and made according to a recipe from the Himalayas.
Robert Crumb’s younger brother Charles Crumb, a suicide, in his work would focus repeatedly on one particularly well-known piece of English literature, having to do with the relationship between an old man and a boy. Initially, his drawings contained very little text; later, as the drawings become smaller and smaller, one finds almost the entire page filled with text. His last works are books, without margins, filled on every page with pure calligraphy.
ticket for car borrowed (Tim Anderson): 30.00
computer printout: 0.51
gas bill: 98.03
In the afternoon mail, Staples gives me a free roll of “invisible” tape, which I won’t read as a sign, yet it does seem to designate.
Preparations are underway for tomorrow’s opening, and Daniel needs to go downtown before noon to request funds from the Chicago Goethe Institute. Besides, in all truth, we’re beginning to tire of huevos rancheros. So we each order orange juice and agree today to keep it short. Tomorrow, also - and we’ll move the weekend discussion to my apartment.
Daniel recalls On Kawara’s immediate response to him asking about the fall of the Berlin wall: But of course, that’s because of the Chinese. From Tiananmen Square to the Brandenburg Gate was a natural mental leap for this man.
The title of Daniel and Thomas Wenk’s collaboration in February/April 1997: temporäre Verbindungen, und Nichtmusik. Temporary connections and (not) music. The folded pages of the catalogue are glued together, creating a tearing pattern on opening. A different pattern for each reader.
Eine kleine Nichtmusik.
Daniel’s first collision with the American measurement standard marks the time when he began working with tape in a conscious way. He agrees to write down the story in an e-mail next week, from Germany. It will say:
I was flying to New York in the summer of 1989 to get out of an unpleasant situation. I had not desired to be especially there, but just did not want to be in Germany. I had a few hundred dollars and made my living as a bicycle messenger. The place I was living in was the smallest place I’ve ever had.
Since one has to start somewhere: I wanted to divide a sheet of paper into five sections with the help of a calculator, after having measured it with a yardstick. A rather simple procedure which of course took way too much time. Calculators are decimal, yardsticks are not. They have different historical, not immediately visible origins. One has to bring different systems into collision with each other to find out what is, and what is not, possible between them. One more reason to leave tape on packages and focus on surfaces.
By the way, due to its origin in American standards, working with tape is of beautiful simplicity. It does not require a calculator: one, half, threequarters of inches (thumbwidths of Henry IV and me, the diagonal of a TV-screen in Italy is measured in “pollici”) etc.: no leftovers; it always fits. All tapes (including magnetic ones) are manufactured like this; and I could lecture anyone on the French revolution and the origin of the metric system. In Europe, I had never before thought about the reasons for tape being 25 or 19 or 12 millimeters in width. Or a millimeter being one millimeter long.
A year ago in Paris, switching trains: a middle-aged man in a loose fitting black jacket overheard Daniel and Gert speaking about the Zhou brothers in Chicago. The man approached, and in German asked them please to give his regards to the brothers, whose work he knew.
This afternoon, at the opening on Cleaver Street, the same man is there, but neither he nor Daniel can make the connection right away. In the homosexual atmosphere of a Wicker Park opening, neither one wishes to appear too inquisitive. But eventually they recall the chance meeting in Paris. The man is Dr. Michael Haerdter, director of the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin.
And here in the newly opened basement gallery stands Nathan Mason, local curator of a group show on an American midwestern theme: Butter. Without a common aesthetic or dominant movement among Chicago artists, themes are needed sometimes to bring work together, and to bring people to see the work. Butter is as good a filter as any for work that uses a variety of materials and means. Some months ago, for a show called Mono9, that many artists applied their own technique to printmaking - which gave Daniel a chance to reverse the tape’s function from adhesive to surface imprint. A show last year (December 97) organized by artist Tom Billings, had twelve artists transposing their techniques onto hand crafted traditional plates: a Blue Plate Special. I’ve found that the requirement of working in an unfamiliar medium brings out some of Daniel’s best work. Such second order taping, letting one’s own material or medium affect the surface of another, can be a way of bringing the work into the world. Daniel’s tape abstracts, complete in themselves but for the impersonal stamp of postal “approval,” might be sent across the world, but these works will always lack the worldliness that can only come through being received by people whose good report, and whose heartfelt approval, you desire.
at the basement entrance: “But what I want is to see you do a feminine piece.”
from a couple in their thirties handling Daniel’s entry in the show, four cardboard “sticks” grouped according to the dimensions of a standard U.S. butter package and glued together ($600): “It’s all scotch tape, see?” (He points to the plaid) “Oh yeah!”
dinner at Hilary’s Urban Eatery (for five): 65.00
wine (byob): 20.00
taxis (5) to and from Zhou brothers studio: 24.00
Dinner and taxis would have been for six, but I passed on the food and let the group go on without me to the Zhou brothers’ loft on the South Side. Daniel’s invitation said, Black Tie “optional,” but the Wicker Park group were received kindly in their jeans and work shirts. Zhou bros. were happy to have “real people” show up.
Nothing here of the art world politics in a Woody Allen movie. The curators know their work; the artists know their own worth. Politics, though present, is neither paranoid nor pushy. Fortunately for Daniel, his new friend Haerdter knows the Goethe Institute director. That should help settle Daniel’s funding application.
Toast and two boiled eggs: my method has been to drop the egg in boiling water and remove it when the toast is ready; Daniel generally lets his come to a boil with the water, and then remain in the boiling water for three and a half minutes. Today, through distraction, we risk disaster by mixing methods, putting the eggs in water that is neither fresh from the tap nor fully boiling. But through luck or intuition the eggs come out perfect.
Daniel reads over the first draft. Correx; some additions. But the overall form of the thing will stand. In a week our project has come some distance from the initial idea of a metalogue in the circulating, back and forth manner of Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson. The form settled on (adapted from prose metafiction by Harry Mathews and David Markson) creates a distance between the words reported (Daniel’s) and the reporting presence (mine). Rather than explicit dialogue, we’ll have a meta-dialogue presenting my understanding of Daniel’s words, something very different from what he said.
The principle at work: everything that happens in the document will have happened in actuality, although I may shift things around here and there for purposes of pacing. The Truth on Tape is not, after all, the truth on tape, not a literal record. A sign is not what it is.
We discuss the limits of a minimalist aesthetic. Daniel, no classic opera lover, would agree with his Landsmann, Adorno: opera is a feast for burghers. But Adorno also attacked Benjamin Britten for taking the opposite extreme. An apotheosis of meagerness, he called Britten’s work, a kind of fast. Could not the same be said of Daniel’s art?
Daniel acknowledges that minimalism can lead to a kind of Ärmlichkeit, where less is, quite simply, less. And that’s how some people view his work. He suspects it’s why Paul Klein stopped showing him in Chicago. For the gallery, Klein wants work with a little more flesh, more meat and blood, more decoration.
The problem with minimalist work is - where do you go with it? With his whites on white, in a sense, Roman Opalka brings minimalism to its end. Daniel thinks that at some point you have to find an escape, as Robert Ryman does. His hundreds of white paintings, though all different, all carry the identity of Robert Ryman. Rainer Giese, a suicide, never did escape the logic of minimalism. (His technique was to erase parts of the orange grid on transparent millimeter paper. He did the same in other works, working with traces of number and grid.)
What about all that you know, I ask. The very substantial worldly knowledge that I know Daniel possesses but that I don’t always find in the work. Isn’t it too much sacrifice to leave all that out?
He doesn’t try to quote reality directly. He’s influenced by the bulky packages taped shut with translucent tape in the sloppiest manner possible, that the Mexicans in his neighborhood send back to their families. But he doesn’t want to recreate a taped Mexican package. He doesn’t do pop art - it tells too much. You have an image of Elvis and you must then bring in the whole culture of Elvis, which doesn’t interest Daniel. Then again, he’s not interested in the meaning of the square, either.
What interests him would be a work that creates a bridge between the Mexican package, pop art, and geometric formalism.
The son of a scientist, a maker of categories, Daniel is working on the creation of a category for what cannot be categorized. His older brother, Thomas, a musician, once described himself as a vagabond between disciplines, a stray dog in the backyards of serious music. Daniel desires no more recognition than that, for himself as an artist.
JT (books, paper): 25.00
DW (tape): 25.00
(No recording of these discussions was ever made on tape).
P.S. Future work:
A self-referential tape object. Daniel will load a walkman with a cassette, push “record” and tape the entire mechanism. The sound of the tape being dispersed, cut and applied to the device will be captured on tape. And one can replay the process for as long as the batteries last. Then the work becomes obsolete.