On the occasion of Mercedes Teixido’s 2016 exhibition at BUSHEL, poet and National Book Award recipient Claudia Rankine asked her friend about how working and performing with her custom-built drawing machine has influenced her thinking and practice. This conversation will be included in BUSHEL’s forthcoming monograph on Teixido and her drawing machine project.
Claudia Rankine: I have been living with the line drawings you made years ago with an earlier iteration of a drawing machine. Can you speak about that early project and how you have changed the way you think about your process using drawing machines?
Mercedes Teixido: The large-scale pieces you have were made with drawing machines improvised from rubber bands and tape and cardboard. They were meant to take my hand away from the activity of drawing; they were asking where the beauty is in the work. I performed them with eyes closed, using only movement and time, so curiosity replaced the more common mode of striving to make a good mark. Drawing is so often understood as a skill, but I think of it more as an activity, a trace of a moment; a drawing is most interesting to me when it feels like ephemera. The machines allow for an emphasis on the moment of making, which means that performance is part of the work. To use a machine or some mechanism invites the body to be considered, even as it also becomes a bit removed. The newer writing machine that draws in duplicate emphasizes this aspect of performance and makes the presence of the body visible in the work.
CR: I think for someone like you, who professionally interrogates the mark on the page, the challenge then becomes how to reassert your drawing process—since the mark, what gets represented, is what remains. As I am thinking about your desire to keep the viewer involved in the performance of drawing, I am reminded of the work of Ann Hamilton. The bodies in Hamilton’s installations are inescapable, as they are tied to their activity. What artists have allowed you to understand your process over the years?
MT: There are artists whose work effortlessly affects me. I recognize something that feels familiar but has become a form in their work. Philip Guston described it as “coming home.” The work of Richard Tuttle affects me this way. He has a radical freedom and a sense of gesture that is startling. Emma Kunz, a Swiss artist and healer, is another important artist for me; her work was meant to influence the well being of others. Tantra paintings have that same purpose and seem to exist in their own space. Yoko Ono is important, too, as a fluxus artist who really questions the way that art manifests in the world. It is political. In performance and in many of her pieces there is an invitation; the viewer is implicated as part of the work.
All this work has that quality of feeling of a personal experience.
I am increasingly aware of my work as relational. The impulse of the drawing machine was to manifest my voice, and that was what was most interesting to me. It was as if I was speaking to a person, an audience of one. Then I started to invite others to become part of the impulse of the work.
CR: The new drawing machine has a public performance component. Does this add an element of randomness to the work? How do you think of control relative to the duplicating lines in your newest process?
MT: Claudia, thanks for this question. Ideas around randomness and control are such a part of this work and my thinking about it.
When I was first asked to perform and to make improvisational drawings on the spot, I was doubtful that this would be a meaningful way to work; I thought I would be an artist on display. But what I learned that first night and in all subsequent performances is that by giving up a sense of what was going to happen, there was more possibility. What is changed is that you initiate the project but also know it will become something you never intended or imagined. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable when my assumptions are revealed to me. By inviting others in as part of the work, something completely novel surfaces. There is both excitement and respect for anyone that is willing to step in, even for those who just want to watch. I find that my work has become simultaneously more my own and more about a shared experience. Realizing how energizing it is to let go of ideas about the work and allow for the influence of others has changed both my work and my teaching. Ideas about success and failure are upended.
I am not always sure what I am doing or what I think of it. This is the most interesting territory for me. There is more acceptance and curiosity in the work; this can come in as the result of letting go of control. My studio is still a place of solitude that I need to stay grounded. The work I make there provides a contrast to the performance work, which invites me to activate a different self.
CR: Plato says the line is a point in motion, and for you the motion is relational. One form of motion communicates with another. How does this latest drawing machine work exactly? How am I invited in?
MT: Basically, the way it works is that I sit at the drawing machine and any person who cares to can read to me. The reading activates me to draw. The first performance was at the home of the poet Anna Moschovakis; she has a library in the spacious hallway, next to a beautiful old staircase. I wrote out simple instructions (on the drawing machine in duplicate, of course) inviting anyone to read to me from one of the books. When that happened, I would “draw” in duplicate, and when I was done, the reader would be given one of the duplicate drawings. One of the aspects of invitation that interested me in that piece was the permission and encouragement to browse a private library. I always want time to look through someone’s books, yet fear it would seem intrusive and rude. Here is an art event at a private residence where pulling books and looking at their content is an act that anyone present can—and is asked to—perform. The element of reading aloud adds another layer. I was interested in what books people would select, wondering: What are they interested in? How long will they read? How will they use their voice? Reading aloud has its pleasures, and hearing all kinds of people read their selection is thrilling. Some of the readers sat on the stairs, other stood. I remained silent and felt completely engrossed in my drawing. It was some of the most intense studio time I have ever experienced.
I learned from that first performance that you have to make a space for someone else to enter. Each person is unique, and I respond differenty to each. I will never forget a woman who read to me in DC at the Emerge arts fair. That library had to be created, so I asked a student of mine to create a collection of books about the “other Washington, DC.” The books he collected were amazing: underground zines, manuals for floor cleaning in government buildings circa 1950, headmasters’ letters, a memoir of a male stripper at a gay night club, and a history of domestic employees in the area. That memorable reader was 90 years old and she selected to read from the most provocative section of a zine from the 80’s. I mailed that publication to her when the fair was over.
This practice has become about improvisation, and there is no better way to improvise then to allow the presence of someone else to be a catalyst. You have to trust the process and surrender control in the conventional sense. Ah, control again: to be in the moment, I have to be open to the moment—whatever it brings.
CR: If the length of time you work on a piece in the performance is determined by how long the reader reads, do you find yourself working on pieces onside of that time?
MT: My credo in the performances is “you do what you want, and I will do what I want.” I want the reader to feel free and for my response to be the same. I am propelled by the reading, but I’m doing my thing too, and it starts to have its own logic. Sometimes I am done quickly, and other times I keep going. There‘s an interesting and pleasant nervousness about the gaps when I keep drawing or the reader keeps reading.
CR: I am curious how the more public practice with readers’ voices in your head changes how you feel present. Do you listen as you work, or do you find yourself engaged with the reader as much as the text? Has this performance practice changed your expectations for your private studio time? Does the time now feel more solitary, or are the terms so different that it’s an unfair comparison?
MT: The reader gives me the moment. There is nothing more complex than a person standing near you reading with intention, so my response is varied. Sometimes I immediately jump in while listening; other times I wait and just listen for a while. As I mentioned earlier, the first time I did improvisational work with public readers was a revelation. I didn’t know how interesting it would be for me, or how natural, to work with that kind of response and immediacy. Improvisation is something I had not consciously engaged until then. Now it’s a fundamental practice in my studio as well.
I should say that even before the performances, I was writing with the drawing machine, trying to make myself do short essays without thinking them out ahead of time. I am interested in the rejection of editing as a separate process, and in fusing the impusles of drawing and writing. The performances launched a new level of trust in process itself, so that even my image-based work is really improvisational now. I’m not interested in an overt kind of perfection; I try to plan nothing and even not to think that one decision about form or line or color or image is better than another—the “right” decision is the one I make in the moment. I try to work ahead of my rational thought process. I tend to work in large numbers of smaller pieces so that there’s no fear of making something less successful.
I took a Zen calligraphy class a few years ago, and the idea of making strokes and marks quickly and then doing another drawing, and another, made sense to me. You just keep with the moment and the experience. This is all of course very influenced by my interest in Zen Buddhism.
CR: My final question has to do with satisfaction. When you step back from a piece, what gives you satisfaction? Is the feeling or the knowing beyond language?
MT: Satisfaction comes in various forms. While it can be difficult to articulate, it’s important to try to understand, so try I will. First, just being in the studio is a kind of satisfaction. The awareness of the solitary joy of the studio is always there. In terms of looking at the work itself, certainly I am looking for a certain presence from the form, and I am less convinced by the work at some times than at others. The work is forming its own visual impulse and language as it borrows from existing languages. Ultimately, I’m trying to be honest, to drop pretenses. Form is full of ideas: my own and those of cultural precedents. How can I engage those things, but hold them in my way of understanding them? It may be satisfying because it’s just beginning to become something that feels like a relevant ground for my work.
In a sense I try not to be satisfied or disappointed or frustrated, although those things are somewhat inevitable. Sometimes I make something that leaves me mystified; it takes me a while to know what to think of it. I am learning.