A CONVERSATION BETWEEN
KEVIN FRANCES AND TAYLOR BALDWIN
ON THE OCCASION OF THE EXHIBITION
FRUITS OF OUR LABOR; CHEW, SCREW, GLUE
Kevin Frances: Will you tell me a bit about your working process? How do you choose your materials/subject matter? Are you working towards a goal?
Taylor Baldwin: My working process; I’m not entirely sure what that phrase would refer to for me at this point, if that’s any indication of where things are at. Mostly I am sort of lost in my practice right now, but intentionally so. So it makes answering this question a little obscure for me at this point, but here’s an attempt:
In the past few years, I’ve found that I am really working to trick myself out of knowing what I am doing, working against my own initial plans, or preventing myself from being able to anticipate exactly where a particular piece or body of work is going. This all comes from the fact that I don’t think that I have any good ideas for work before I actually start making it, and I’ve been trying to engineer circumstances where I have to let process save me from the poverty of my intentions.
I’ve been increasingly pursuing a psychological condition in the studio that you could call a ‘fugue state’ or ‘ecstatic reverie,’ Tim Bearse, a really close artist friend of mine refers to it as being ‘fucking ethical’. These all feel like ways of describing a state that is about losing or limiting control. It requires a certain amount acceptance of risk, which requires a willingness to self-destruct. The piece in “Fruits of our Labor” is the first time where I’ve really consciously exploring using the fugue state as a tool to make work, and throughout all of it’s genesis I would engage in all of these really specific routines on a daily basis that seemed to help to induce a more fluid, elastic, and sub-lingual flow of thought and action afterwards. These routines included an hour of playing drums before working, listening to hours-long loops of a single musical phrase, and trying not to engage in any language for as long as possible, meaning no radio, television, and limiting contact with other people throughout a studio day. It wound up creating a fairly brutal and ascetic existence for a period of about 4-5 months, which while psychologically demanding, also seemed incredibly potent and new as a position to make artifacts from, and I wanted to try to live some pale shade of an experience like those of proto-religious mystics, hermits, ascetics for as long as I could stand it.
The only control I tried to consciously enforce on the form of the ideas within the work was the initial decision of format, which in this case was a sculptural self-portrait. The use of the fugue state as a tool for making seemed like it needed some ur-form or structure to keep it from tipping into unmediated chaos and noise. The format of a self-portrait seemed like a standardized and formulaic enough of a container to hold and organize any energy directed at it, and encompassed a familiarity through which I could operate without external reference unbothered. Throughout the work, I tried to keep to the loose rule of not projecting into the future of the work at all, and to not anticipate decisions before they presented themselves in the moment. I wanted to fulfill the realization of an object where at every step the decisions had been made contingently, and entirely in the present moment, with the object acting almost as a physical record of a series of consecutive thoughts and impulses. So throughout, I tried to keep to only making decisions as they became required in the present moment in order to see the figure, in as compulsive and immediate a way as possible. “I need an elbow. There’s a traffic cone. I think I can make that show me an elbow.” This was more or less how I thought the fugue state could be useful as a tool to find a way to let the meaning inherent in materials as they exist assert itself without overpowering it with an agenda-driven interpretation from me.
The materials of this work are all part of an ongoing catalog and collection in the studio; a specific collection which isn’t selected or procured with any specific use or agenda in mind. This material catalog is more or less a 10-year archive of a compulsive gaze - picked up off the street, from a thrift store, stolen from a craft store, or given to me by a friend - and it’s selection and existence was structured entirely by the same sort of intention-less fugue state logic. It’s the material world filtered through a compulsive individual attention in the same way that a record collection is the music world filtered through a compulsive individual attention, and both can been seen to operate as a portrait of the collector. So during the period of time while I was working on this piece, I more or less sealed the door to my studio, not letting anything else in or out besides myself, and tried to make resourceful use of whatever already existed inside to fill whatever specific need I had in the moment. This process is more or less another strategy to try to trick myself out of my own projected intentions, and to become aware of the intentions that existed in the archive already.
The process led to a sort structure of the working process: the vessel of the energies (a self-portrait) was a fixed control, and the material was a fixed control (whatever materials existed in the studio, and all of the reasons why they existed there). The variable being portrayed through the expression of energy through these two fixed points was what I was really looking to see. The structural idea was sort of based on the logic of performative improvisation, where you do all of the structural work before the moment of performance - setting up a general chord progression and time signature or establishing a comedic premise and a series of characters - and then once the live performative moment starts, the performers extemporize within those structures, trick themselves out of their own control, and generate something unforeseen that, in the best cases, distills and condenses everything that went into the structures that made it. As a process, I hope it can be transposed onto an artistic practice as a way to make work that skirted the contriving effects that artistic control often engenders, but was still able to be intentionally directed. You know, as a way to make work about something without it being formulaic and lame. And so all of this structure gave me a way to think about the sculpture itself as the live performative moment, and every sculptural action as a performative act, with the physical residue of that act being leftover as sculpture. I sort of believe that within this model of performative improvisation, the energies expressed within this bracket of the empty vessel of the self-portrait would take the impression of the patterns existing in the mindset that expressed them, and so the act of directing the work became about only crafting the mental space that produced.
At the time I was really fascinated with finding moments in history and culture where people were, on a societal level, really concretely considering the reality of total self-annihilation or absolute destruction. Throughout specific time-period this process encompassed - the end of daylight saving 2013 to daylight saving 2014 - when I wasn’t in the studio fugue state, I was focusing on literature and work from and about cultural moments like the 14th Century and the Black Death/Hundred Years War, WWI and WWII, The Vietnam War, The HIV epidemic in NYC and San Francisco, the end of the American Indian Wars and Geronimo’s resistance, first-hand accounts of self-trepanation, among a lot of other stuff. I read a lot of apocalyptic and post-collapse literature, nihilistic philosophy that came out of all of those historical moments, and spent a lot of time on reddit subforms like /r/conspiracy and /r/endlesswar and /r/postcollapse. All of the musical loops I played endlessly in the studio were taken from places like funeral dirges, black metal, harsh wall noise, or prison work songs. Genres expressive of abjectness mostly. It seemed that there was a common and allied urge that was being expressed at multiple scales throughout all of this cultural material, which was the same willing embrace of self-destruction that felt required to enter a transcendent ecstatic or fugue state. It was a will for self-annihilation or dissolution that I was also familiar with at an individual-scale, which I think lives in most of our brains. It’s that compulsive voice that tells you to turn your car over a guard-rail when you are driving over a bridge, or to jump when you are standing at the edge of a building. That happens to everyone, right?
So the idea behind this new working process is this: If I had some fixed structures in place to work through, that weren’t fluid or needed any decisions made (i.e. only the format of sculptural self-portrait, only the materials I had unconsciously gathered at a specific moment in time), and if crafted the mental condition of a fugue state to make all the active conceptual-physical decisions of the work, all while flooding my mind with cultural material from moments of significant focus on total self-annihilation, I would see something in what was produced that connected the inherent individual experience of self-annihilation/destruction with the larger cultural experience of it in a compressed, condensed, processable whole. Like something potent or transcendent could be distilled out of all of these cultural artifacts and my own shitty psychology if I could somehow act as an unmediated and open conduit of it. An unbiased channeller of a tapped vein. Or something like that. Does that answer the question? It’s sort of like how the post-iconoclast Byzantine icon painters has really specific rules and rituals in place that they had to conduct in order to open up their ‘mind’s eye’ or whatever to the divine spirit, to make sure that what they were painting was actually channelling God, and not their own ego or individual personas. Except I think with my work I am interested in trying to channel something that feels inherent in the material of the world as they exist within and connect to larger hyperobjects and hyperideas in the world. Does any of this make sense? It sometimes sounds fucking stupid to me, if I am being totally honest. But sometimes it feels amazing.
Since then, I’ve been trying to continue these processes, using the larger mechanisms that happened in this “Plague Year” and explore or refine or warp the ways in which they can be used to draw out the ideologies and meaning embedded in a material and it’s processing. I hope that it allows me to make work with some degree of authorial control, but without getting too much in the way. I’ve been making a lot of videos recently too.