Tina Rivers Ryan, PhD, is a curator, historian, critic, and educator specializing in art since the 1960s. Her work focuses on the uses of new media technologies. She holds five degrees in art history, including a BA from Harvard and PhD from Columbia.
Tina Rivers Ryan (TRR):
While you’ve produced many projects focusing on social practices and relations, on a fundamental level, you’re a sculptor, so I want to begin this conversation by looking closely at your use of materials.
for example, is an installation-cum-performance site comprising a boardroom table and chairs; sculptures of walnut, nylon, and rubber; and a single-channel video. I’d like to talk about how the objects relate to your understanding of social space.
That’s clearly a throughline in your practice: your work understands architectural or physical space as fundamentally social. Your sculptures poetically capture—in a visceral, material way—the way that we feel in these spaces. For example, at the table, participants can use wood, acrylic, and paper spheres to transfer the ability to speak and to determine what kinds of communication are going to transpire; their tactility and weight helps us understand that our verbal communication is very much embodied and informed by its physical and discursive contexts.
see chapter 1, also includes a bust made of mycelium, the mushroom material that eats agricultural waste, which underscores your almost ecological concern with interdependence in group dynamics. It’s suspended in a net that hangs on the wall, which really gives us a sense of gravity acting on the body. I look at these objects and I see echoes of post-minimalism: you’re building on the legacy of an artist like Eva Hesse, who similarly used netting to suspend objects from a wall, haunting abstract sculpture with reminders of the body.
your work understands architectural or physical space as fundamentally social.
In terms of the way that you build on the legacy of post-minimalism, it seems to me that you’re connecting the concerns of sculpture to our supposedly dematerialized information economy (which of course is tied to meetings that happen around boardroom tables just like yours). What would it mean to think about this installation, and the components that comprise it, as being new media art? For example, I wonder if your use of netting here refers not only to Hesse, but also to the internet, which itself is a network of social relations?
netting is about the internet, or a network, but it’s also about trapping, about containment, about capture.
I love the way that your thinking engages the ideas that are central to “net” art, but from within a sculptural practice. For example, you point out the fundamental paradox of trying to instrumentalize social practices that happen within a particular context as sculptural installations that inevitably are divorced from that context. This relates to one of the essential aspects of how information and ideas circu- late on the internet, right? The internet is basically a machine for generating content that then becomes divorced from its source.
I wonder how this connects with the way that a single project of yours can exist in different media. It reminds me of hypertext, which allows for a nonlinear, non-hierarchical relationship between ideas. There’s something about the way that you are dealing with performance and social practice, and translating these into installations or sculptures—these all become hyper-texted to each other, in a kind of horizontal way (for example, the objects don’t become secondary to the performances, like relics). They all point to each other and refer to each other, in a constellation of practices and objects.
I was also thinking about hypertext in relationship to your work to the degree that your work is about protocols. A lot of net artists focus on the protocols that govern how we navigate the web, and how information is distributed (e.g., through hyperlinks). Your work is also, in its own way, about the protocols that structure our communication. You’re not dealing with uniform resource locators, but you are dealing with the ways we “address” each other, and the protocols that we use to determine our interactions. Your work can help us understand how these protocols function, and how they shape our social space in the same way as, for example, the boardroom table that is at the center of this work. It’s one of those objects that seems completely innocuous and designed to not draw attention to itself, much like the protocols of the modern information economy. And yet its form actually encodes values. The table identifies a community of people who are allowed to participate in this dialogue; it separates actors from bystanders. Even the rectangularity of it, with two “heads,” implies that this is a space that may not be as egalitarian as it seems. And then the specificity of the chairs that you use — they look like Aeron knock-offs — points to a particular kind of white-collar (and racially white) space.
Speaking of communities: even the way that you work, which is through collaborations between networks of people that unfold over time, reminds me of early net art, which often was explicitly opposed to the individualism of the art world and/or credited to anonymous collectives.
A lot of net artists focus on the protocols that govern how we navigate the web
This points to a core tension in collaborative work: who gets to name their collaborators, and who is the collaborator who doesn’t have a book like this?
Maybe it helps to think about that core tension as being essentially a question of perspective. Especially with interdisciplinary practices like yours, the designation of the main protagonist—or the person who “gets to name their collaborators”—depends on who’s telling the story. In the case of
Carried on Both Sides,
which looks at the history and future of the @ symbol, see
I would say, as a curator, that you and Helen Lee are the primary protagonists. But if I was a glass blower instead of a curator, then Jason Christian and Daryl Smith, the master crafts- people at Pilchuck Glass School who fabricated some of your works, might be the main protagonists and you and Helen would be secondary.
As long as I brought up your work at Pilchuck, I want to talk about
You have included this description of the work in this book: “made of glass and filled with mineral oil, each object may reach a level state through the process of being shared, held, and manipulated. In gatherings facilitated by the artist, visitors are asked to remove these objects from the wall and reach a level with others in the space, whether friends or strangers.”
Glass is this incredibly evocative material with a very long history that you have explored elsewhere in your work. In the twentieth century, glass gained a powerful association with modernism and with the values of modernism, such as transparency and universality. There have been a lot of artists who have gone back to that legacy and tried to understand it and complicate it; I am thinking of everybody from Dan Graham to Josiah McElheny. But in the context of your practice, and your interest in networks, I’m also thinking about how glass in fiber optic cables and silica in silicon chips have become literally the medium of electronic communications and computing. The world we live in now depends on the transmission of information through transparent mediums, which is ironic, as communication is not transparent, or disembodied, or universal—as this work points out. The intention is for the group to put their hands on the glass object and work together to make it level—but it’s an impossible task. So instead of a flattening of difference—a “leveling” of subjects—it enacts the constant recalibration of group dynamics.
This idea of leveling for me ties back to the work of Lygia Clark, specifically her stone and air sculpture from 1966, which was this plastic bag filled with air with a stone balanced on it. You would compress the bag with your hands and then release it, causing the stone to rise and fall into and out of the bag. She intended this to have a kind of therapeutic effect on the person using it (the work was inspired by the bag that protected the cast around her fractured hand). In your work, the healing is a kind of group healing, or group therapy.
When is your work so far into another discipline that it might grow more in dialogue with that discipline?
The way you describe
also reminds me of the legacy parallel to modernism of avant-garde artists like Marcel Duchamp, who also worked with glass, but who consistently resisted the rhetoric of transparency and emphasized embodiment, and even produced what we could call “countermeasures,” like the
3 Standard Stoppages
50 cc of Paris Air.
Thinking of Duchamp and the conceptualism that emerged in his wake, your work is also about understanding that the point is the process, right? That there is no end to it: it’s a constantly unfolding act of engagement.
Speaking of economies: We have this fantasy that the exchange of information is frictionless, that our entire economy is frictionless. In reality, of course none of this is frictionless. Bitcoin mining, for example, generates heat and requires incredible energy resources. I wonder if a lot of your work is about exploring friction. Looking at
in particular, it looks vaguely like a sex toy, which perhaps signals the idea of finding the pleasure in friction, as opposed to in the frictionless. I wanted to talk about the shape of this because it has this strange, bodily connotation (perhaps another reference to Hesse): it’s weirdly bulbous and could be read as phallic, but also could be read as sort of like pendulous breasts—an ambiguity that seems to demand an analysis of the work in terms of your own identity as a queer woman.
That said, I’m wary of a politics of representation that calls upon artists to represent themselves and their identities in their art. There’s a tension between the demand for visibility, which for some people is the premise of political action, and the refusal to be visible, which for other people is the premise of safety. In terms of queer aethetics, I think about the work of David Getsy on the minimalism of Scott Burton, and the way that Burton’s sculptures—even his totally abstract minimal ones—can be read as being queer.
Do we want to be meta for a second again and talk about the way in which the structure of the book that people are holding in their hands is itself informed by your identity, and your practice?
It seems like in the designing of the book you captured so many of the themes that run throughout your practice: the importance of context; the question of labor and the material conditions of labor; and what I call hypertext (although maybe there’s a better word for it), or the notion of the interdependence or interrelation of ideas and people, which manifests in your index. I wonder if the design will help people see that there is a tension in your work between being very tight and internally consistent, and being very open and pointing to all these different associations, thanks to the amount of research into different bodies of knowledge and historical periods that you have done for a lot of your projects. (For example, this manifests in your use of netting to refer to the internet and networks of people and traps and colonial histories.) I think of your work as being almost like a supernova, something incredibly dense but that explodes and goes in many directions.