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Sylvia Lavin and Oscar Tuazon

Oscar Tuazon, A Person, 2014, steel, concrete, glass, brick, lamps, paint, image courtesy of the artist

​Oscar Tuazon, A Person, 2014, steel, concrete, glass, brick, lamps, paint, image courtesy of the artist

​A conversation between critic, historian, and curator Sylvia Lavin and artist Oscar Tuazon. The dialogue took place in person at Tuazon’s studio in Los Angeles. This is the first time Lavin and Tuazon have spoken.

Sylvia Lavin: Can I ask you just a quick question? It’s weirdly wonderful to be thrown into an intimate conversation with somebody you’ve never met before, so it’s hard to know how much preliminary background is useful. But some of it is useful for me.

Oscar Tuazon: Yeah.

SL: The critical reception of your work that I am aware of always frames your work through the lens of the art/architecture problem. Do I have that impression because I come from architecture? Is it imposed as a bias from within the interests of art criticism? Or does it reflect your own thinking? Is that a boring, overworked conversation?

OT: No, for me it’s really essential to think about. I guess that’s probably where it starts. You know as a sculptor you’re thinking—or I was thinking—how does an object work in this space? How does an object intervene in a building? Now, I’m more and more trying to design spaces, and I guess I still do it in a very—I’m not quite sure how to describe it—I don’t think that I use design the way that an architect does to solve design problems, but I use the same tools.

SL: Well, I guess I’m thinking that from minimalism on—I mean obviously there’s a prehistory to it also—but let’s just say in relation to what you’re doing, the most relevant history seems the one from minimalism on. I suppose you could describe that history as having added various things to the debate, so let’s say: architectural materials, an architectural situation is part of it. I don’t think that when you’re looking at a Carl Andre floor, let’s say, that you’re really thinking of it as an architectural floor—you wouldn’t hire him to do your floor.

OT: Right.

SL: But people have hired Jorge Pardo to do their floors. I know you had a conversation with Pardo along these lines, because I looked it up on YouTube. I’m curious what you thought of that conversation, which was less about sculpture as such and more about “artists” working as architects, like Pardo, [Olafur] Eliasson and [Vito] Acconci—and now you. I’ve called you all “super producers.” Where and how do you think you do or do not fit into that category or way of working?

OT: Well, I think there’re so many different angles, but yeah, you never hire Carl Andre to do your floor, but also he wouldn’t. I guess what I’m saying is that the artwork was still an object—discrete, a thing in a space… You know to me what was interesting about Jorge Pardo and that whole generation was that it’s really hard to identify where the work ends and begins. It’s a space—I mean the interesting and kind of perilous territory is that not all the decisions really matter.

SL: So it seems to me that the maybe art/architecture is even too broad because really it’s mostly sculpture and architecture. Although there’re all kinds of other things, but I guess what I’m trying to think about is that the contact has become more urgent, and prevalent, and pressing, and yet increasingly less defined. I’m wondering about the stakes of that, and I’m trying to make sure that we think about where writing fits into this. Part of what was in the back of my mind is that the art/architecture situation has been largely discursively defined by the October crowd. So it’s a very specific channel within the world—Yve-Alain [Bois], [Benjamin] Buchloh, and Hal Foster, and so forth. So those are the people who have really attended to it, and as far as I know, the fact that that group is the one that established the parameters is itself not an object of much analysis, so I’m trying to figure out what are the stakes for them. For Buchloh, the stakes were very clear: architecture is always intrinsically a negative object, that’s its job for sculpture. Hal Foster, I think, would pretend otherwise, but I think it is also intrinsically…

OT: He’s always setting it up as, what would you call it, the kind of relationship…

SL: The bad boy, yeah, antagonistic…

OT: Antagonistic relationship, exactly! Also the figure of the architect as this kind of like… 

SL: Complicit capitalist, that’s it!

OT: Exactly.

SL: That’s it. So that’s its job. Its job for the artist is to clarify the problems of capitalism. So, fine, as long as we’re understanding that you have to invent your antithesis, but what that discursive work doesn’t account for is this emerging generation of people who are crossing enough of the lines to make that symbolization of the architect no longer useful. So, if you’re entering competitions, let’s say—you don’t have to tell me any of the details, I’m just really curious—if you enter a competition and you win, do you get paid as an artist or an architect?

OT: I think in pretty much every case so far the competitions that I’ve entered have been defined as public art–type projects. I’ve tried to fit architecture into those, but they’re not really fit to make buildings in those kinds of situations. But they’re typically in it as sculpture commissions, but…

Oscar Tuazon, project rendering for Un Pont, image courtesy of the artist

SL: But your bridge [Un Pont, a memorial project in Belfort, France], for example, and the different ways that you were imagining that bridge would have, amongst other things, huge economic considerations.

OT: Yeah.

SL: A concrete bridge versus a rope bridge, you know. Thinking about those budgets—how do you think about that? So when you were saying that you use a lot of the same tools as architects, I guess I’m trying to take the Buchloh/Foster thing and say that for them—and this comes from a long line of thinking about architecture—for them, the constraint of architecture that makes it essentially, fundamentally, and always problematic was not its space and those kinds of things but its relation to capital, its economic system. So if we think of the specificity of architecture as an economic condition—is that one of your tools as well?

OT: But that seems like that’s architecture with a capital “A,” right? If we’re talking about architecture as a representative force of a dominant, capitalist situation, then yeah, I agree. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the architecture that I’m interested in, I’m just interested in building stuff, you know what I mean? I’m interested in general contractor-type spaces and situations and using kind of simple tools. I’m fascinated by international architecture, but that doesn’t have much relevance to me. What is relevant to me is much simpler, like creating a space to sit down or those kinds of things. And to do those kinds of things, you need all of the tools, I’m interested in using the tools. But I don’t actually do any computer drafting myself, I work with someone who does, to be able to visualize spaces and then create in those situations.

SL: It’s funny that you would refer to architecture with a capital “A,” those are all very typically architectural, architect-speak distinctions. Do people say sculpture with a capital “S?” 

OT: That’s a good question, I mean, isn’t it always? [laughs]

SL: With a capital “S?”

OT: No, I’m just kidding! But as a concept, sculpture necessarily dignifies itself and separates itself from the world, right? That’s my struggle, I have to fight against that all the time. To try and make lowercase sculpture, that’s what I want to do. But I think it’s challenging because, you know, where does this stuff end up? Well mostly, unfortunately, it’s destined to end up in an art gallery, or maybe somebody’s house, or a museum. Where else would it end up?

SL: So then maybe architecture is a misnomer, in other words, maybe what interests you about architecture is not architecture but building, if that’s a distinction, and you might be interested in building in order to invent a lowercase sculpture. Just so that you know my view of things—I think the distinction between capital “A” architecture and lowercase “b” building is a fantasy. And I think that lowercase building also imagines itself to be architecture, and I think architecture with a capital “A” is always full of innumerable prosaic everyday sorts of things. But the distinction is useful for various reasons, and I suppose this is why I was pressing on the competition. Competitions are very typical in architecture. For me, they’re stand-ins for all of the constraints that architecture both resists and embraces. I mean, architecture is envious of artists, because it imagines that they don’t have constraints. And I guess I’m thinking that now that you all are working in these new ways, I think you do have them. [laughs] You do. But maybe there isn’t the habit of talking about them in the same way.

OT: Totally. It’s so weird ’cause for example, I’m working on a project now for the Seattle Waterfront. It’s a project I’ve been working on for maybe a year and a half or two, and it’s interesting because the commissioning agency invited artists at the very beginning of the process. But rather than defining a site and completely defining where and what this thing is going to be, they invited the artist at the very early stage of the process with the landscape architect and the architect, when things are still nebulous enough that something could be proposed. To me, that’s the ideal situation, but it’s also really complicated because it’s almost like speaking a different language. 

So I’ve been working on this for a long time. I came up with a really elaborate, developed proposal, finished engineering, consultation, and design, and I came to them with a question. I said, I want to put a pylon because I wanted to suspend this tree. This is the really pie-in-the-sky version. It’s an elevated walkway that would take you up to this tree, and the tree is suspended over the water. I came to my senses. Sometimes the design process tells you when the project isn’t working. The project that I came up with after realizing the constraints is way better and much lighter. It fits in and responds to the conditions in a much better way, but somehow getting to “no” is always important, I think. To me that’s what was always appealing about the architectural process is this fighting for a “yes” or a “no”—fighting for a “yes” and getting a “no”—maybe that’s what it is.

SL: Well some people have said that the distinction between architecture and other things is the toilet. I mean in the end, every practice has its own form of “yes” and “no;” every practice has its own form of economy. Every practice, at least post-minimalism, has its own form of space and social engagement.

OT: And function! I mean, as much as artworks are supposed to be functionless, and that’s the distinction.

SL: Right, I agree. I think that being responsible to the toilet is still the architect’s job. The notion of the function of a work of art is so expanded, that I would agree we can’t hold functionalism as an architectural problem, but what about the bathroom?

OT: By the toilet do you mean the plumbing? The infrastructure?

SL: Yeah, like some base condition for survival, let’s say. You can chip it away, and you can go live in The Land [Foundation] project in Thailand and cook and eat and do all of those kinds of things, but somehow fundamentally the toilet is not an art project.

Eli Hansen and Oscar Tuazon, Huh, 2014, Toilet, steel, 68 x 36 1/4 x 47 1/4 inches, Image courtesy of the artist and Maccarone, New York/Los Angeles

OT: Yeah, well I did make a toilet sculpture, but… [laughs]

SL: Well, lots of people have made toilet sculptures! Those are very famous! But I’m not sure anybody ever took a shit in one of them. [both laugh]

OT: Exactly! Yeah, I think that’s kind of the answer right there…my toilet is not one that you’d want to have in your house.


SL: I fantasize that Sherrie Levine has at times peed in one of her bronze toilets, just secretly, because it would be fun.

OT: Again, it just reinforces the difference, because it would be fun

SL: Yeah, not because you have to pee.

OT: Not because it would work. Like, you don’t go to a toilet in a normal bathroom because it would be fun. [both laugh]

SL: Who are the other artists working today that you feel the most close engagement with? Or architects? Who do you talk to in your head who might talk back?

OT: Steve Baer, I’m talking with Steve Baer a lot, and he’s been a major source of inspiration for me. He’s somebody whom I would consider an artist, definitely an architect, just in terms of the way that his thinking process is so driven by a particular idea of function. Baer’s idea of function is very eccentric, idiosyncratic, and not at all like the kind of function that we think about in say, normal architecture, which is to make things easy, convenient, and nice. In very simple terms, Baer’s impulse is to make it work, but there are other motivations that preclude comfort.

SL: Most architects must be terrible by that definition, though, because I think people generally complain that architects make things too complicated, that they’re not efficient. It’s just ironic that they seem to fail what you think of as their most basic job, to make life easy. If somebody came to you and said, “design me a house,” would you think that that they had confused you with somebody else? Or would you think that was a great thing? What would you do?

OT: That’s the phone call I’ve been waiting for my entire life! Yeah, of course, that’s what I want to do, to design a house. I haven’t found someone foolhardy enough to embark on that project yet, but that would be cool. 

SL: And again, just hypothetically—so depending on who the architect is, they get a percentage of the construction budget—let’s say you got whatever it is to make it, which I would imagine is significantly less than what you would get for selling a sculpture. So what would be your thoughts about that?

OT: Yeah, it’s a good question actually. I don’t know how it would stack up. Well, maybe just to put it in terms that I’m already familiar with, the way it works here is that the architectural or public art projects need to be subsidized by the artistic production of the studio. That’s something I learned from [Vito] Acconci. The architecture is going to bankrupt you, so you better have something else that can create the conditions for making that work, which is very expensive, especially for somebody who’s untrained. It takes so much time and work, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, it takes triple the time that it should.

SL: I think it always takes a long time. Even the great efficient architectural firms are not winning every competition, and spend a lot of money producing stuff, losing competitions. Some architects make plenty of money, it’s not that you can’t make money as an architect, but the economies of it are very different. You know here’s a funny story, I don’t quite know where it goes, but I think it goes somewhere. There’s a house that Frank Gehry worked on for years and years for Peter Lewis called the Peter Lewis House, and he worked on it for 12, 15 years, and in terms of Gehry’s output, it’s one of his significant projects for a variety of reasons. One of them is that it is where the digital modeling first entered. So this is a huge development that affects a lot of other production—Gehry Technologies makes software, which is all over the place, so it’s pivotal from a variety of points of view. So the house was never built, and before he died, Peter Lewis was asked: don’t you feel ripped off? You spent 80 million dollars in fees and a really, really long time. [Oscar laughs] It’s a lot of money. Maybe that was an exaggeration. And Lewis said no no no, because to build the house, it would have cost me a lot more, so actually I got what I wanted, which is the Peter Lewis Gehry House, and I got it at a bargain, ’cause I got what counts, which is the idea. Who the fuck needs the house? 

OT: Dream client! [laughs]

SL: So then there was another internal story inside of that, which is that one of the reasons it was all so expensive over the years was because Gehry kept getting collaborators. Frank Stella was one of them. He got the call—your dream call—from Frank Gehry saying, “come and design the little building on this project.” So he got the gateway, a little building. And so this is going along, and then it turns out that at a certain moment that there was a confusion. This was while they thought that this thing might actually get constructed. The figure of a million dollars had been stated, and it turned out that Stella was calling complaining that he needed more money, but then it turned out the money wasn't for his fee, the million dollars that he had been told was the construction budget. So for a tiny little thing, a million dollars then was a huge construction budget, and to which Stella’s response was, well this was way bigger than any one of my paintings, and I get way more for my paintings, so why should I make a giant thing and make a fraction. It was so interesting that it was scale—like it’s bigger…so you should get paid more.

OT: Oh, that drives me nuts, I mean it’s a weird retail logic that infiltrates the valuation of every artwork. It’s insane.

SL: And who makes those determinations of value? Is that you and the gallerist? 

OT: [laughs] Let’s put it on the quiet hand of the market. I mean, I participate, I have to make those decisions, but ultimately it does come down to be very arbitrary…you know why? It’s terms that are set by the consumer, it’s based on their interests. The size of something matters, who cares how long you worked on it. You know this is something—a weird sidetrack—but maybe it brings us back to writing. I did a project once that I spent a lot of time on. It was an artist edition, and rather than produce a sculpture, I produced a book. I republished this book called Vonu, which is a weird, hippie, libertarian survivalist manual. I republished and rebound it in this nice leather binding, and I was so excited about it. It’s a project that I still love, it’s a great book and a nice object. And this book and then another book that I did, just never sold, and I was like, “why?” ’Cause it’s greater than any of my other works… [Sylvia laughs] I realized that it’s because it’s something that doesn’t fulfill the function of an artwork—to be present, and to be looked at. It’s just something that’s on a shelf, and so it isn’t something that communicates status or whatever. I don’t really know what the distinction is, but if it’s a book, it’s on a shelf, and because it’s an artwork, it has a different valuation applied to it.

SL: Do you like to read art criticism? Or do you like to make art writing?

OT: I don’t read so much art criticism at the moment. I like to write, well I don’t know if I like it…

SL: It’s not fun. [both laugh]

OT: It’s one of the most difficult things. I don’t want to say that art criticism or theory completely misses the point, it’s not that, it’s just that it’s fundamentally apart from the object somehow, and that gives it a lot more freedom. And I’ve always thought that the way that an artist writing can relate to the work is just to be a separate… 

SL: Is it a work? Or is it about the work? 

OT: I’d say it’s more of a work.

SL: And why therefore do you think it’s more difficult? 

OT: I don’t know if it’s more difficult because it’s its own work, I think it’s just difficult to write. It’s really hard work. [laughs] 

SL: But I guess I’m saying: is sculpting easy?

OT: No, it’s also really hard. 


OT: It can be hard, but at least you can walk around while you’re doing it. That’s the difference.

SL: [laughs] Well now with Siri you can walk around while you’re writing, too.

OT: It’s true, yeah. Is that how you write?

SL: No, no. But I imagine some moment in which writing will actually happen in a different way, and it will be more like that. I’ve started trying to figure out a way to communicate with students with voice messages for example, rather than writing things out, and I think there are a lot of publications now that are dealing with oral formats. I think of the return to orality as the sort of theory equivalent of the use of rough-hewn timber, you know. There’s a sense of a kind of—I mean we don’t believe in these words anymore—but nevertheless there’s a kind of authenticity, a vitality, a lack of mediation, which of course it’s not, but it’s somewhere more in that neighborhood that I think people are interested in.

OT: Right, yeah. I think this is maybe kind of banal, but it feels to me that a distinction or a change has happened recently, from book-based writing having to do with a certain kind of long temporality, and what’s happening now, where I feel like, whether it’s things that you read online, it’s much more about transmission, immediate transmission. I guess what I’m talking about, to use an analogy, is something that I’ve never even used: Snapchat. But something like this, a momentary appearance that is present, and that doesn’t need to have…

SL: …the burden of long time.

OT: Yeah. Is that orality? I don’t know if it’s the same thing.

SL: Yeah, well, I think that orality has been the traditional locus for that sort of thing. Now I don’t think it has to be. You know the Snapchat thing—I think that part of the issue is that it’s clearly doing something that other sorts of formats didn’t do in the past, but I’m not sure anybody completely knows how to valorize them. I mean there’s something weirdly juvenile in its instant gratification without any consequence.

OT: I’m wondering what’s the next form after the book.

SL: Well, I’m on the board of a museum, and I’m trying to get them to collect an Instagram account, and the legalities of this are complicated because I think it needs to have all of the posts.

OT: Right. 

SL: I’m not interested in it without the posts. The photographer said, well, I’ll give you all the prints, and I was like no, that’s really not the deal.

OT: No, to do an exhibition of an Instagram account would be a nightmare, right? 

SL: A nightmare. Well, I’m trying to figure out how to do that with an Instagram account. If we’re going to do an exhibition, what would you show? And how would you show it? 

OT: Right, exactly, yeah.

SL: It’s clearly one of the key formats of the day. I’ve become really interested in the problem of the Freudian slip in the digital era, because, on some level, my generation as readers were trained in the critical universe to treat everything as though it were a symptom. That’s the way I was trained in the world. And everything has an ulterior thing, and if it didn’t, the critic would have absolutely no work to do because everything would be self-evident, requiring no analysis in the classic Freudian sense. I really spend more time in the car than I like to admit. I got to the point where I realized if I’m not going to use Siri or something like that, I’m just going to get endlessly behind. So I decided that there was a certain kind of e-mailing that I would do in the car. 

OT: Yeah. 

SL: I was having an argument with somebody, with an important personage in my field, and so my e-mails had to be very carefully worded, slowly and carefully worded, much more crafted as a text than something that I would send to Artforum or something like that, right? And so I sent off an e-mail, and then I got an e-mail back, and I was reading it in the car, and it said, “Well, OK,” and then at the end, it said, “I hope you didn’t really mean it,” and I thought, oh God. So I went back and I looked at the e-mail that I had sent, and it had this beautiful crafted, super tempered, very elegant paragraph, and then instead of sincerely or whatever I would have said, it said, “you fucking idiot.” 

OT: [laughs hysterically] What?!

SL: With a comma by the way, like perfectly, “You fucking idiot,” and I was thinking back, and I thought… 

OT: Siri, have you been listening on all of my conversations?!

SL: So all of the sudden I remembered that I had gotten cut off by somebody, and I yelled out, “you fucking idiot!” in the car… [Oscar laughs] and “hit send.” And the thing was that’s really what I meant to this person, you fucking idiot. But it really was Siri, and at that moment, I had a kind of universe collapse.

So, when I was a student in New York, I went to a show at the New Museum on Broadway, and I was in art history, and I had been taking a class on Vienna blah blah blah, you know I thought I knew something. And I walked into the show, and then I was looking at these Egon Schieles, and I knew Egon Schiele, I was so pleased and proud of myself. And then it turned out that they were Sherrie Levines, and my world was fucked right at that moment.

OT: Right. 

SL: ’Cause I didn’t understand. And it was like, OK, the world actually really changed. So this e-mail for me was the end of the world that [Levine] had me enter, ’cause that was a world of double entendre, innuendo, unconscious drives, and all kinds of things. 

OT: Where it could still also be shocking… 

SL: Yes, shocking, and then Siri did this thing to me, and it flattened everything out. 

OT: Right.

SL: And the fact that she actually spoke my unconscious. It made me feel as though I didn’t have an unconscious anymore, or it was over, it was flat. The world was incredibly crazy. Writing without an unconscious, without symptomology, without any of those things…I don’t quite know where they go. And so the writing on Instagram, it’s very hard to know what to make of it, ’cause it’s super uncrafted. 

OT: It’s uncrafted, and there’s also this true lack of an audience—or there’s an overabundance of audience—you know what I mean? The way that everybody’s talking at once.

SL: The people who otherwise we don’t particularly like, because they say really stupid things on Instagram. [both laugh] But I hope your tree [at the Seattle Waterfront] gets built and becomes a great selfie station… 

OT: But like I said, the project I have now is so much better! It’s really light, it’s the house post from the Old Man House, which was the Chief Seattle’s longhouse in Suquamish, across the water from Seattle. It was the largest longhouse known, it’s insane. Basically, what happened is the longhouse was burned down by the Indian Agent in 1870, and the village dispersed. It’s interesting also in architectural terms. The way that the longhouse would work is the posts and the beams were permanent, but that the house would expand and contract seasonally. Everybody would be there in the winter, there’d be maybe 800 people living there, and then in the summer, you would just take the boards off of the posts, put them in your canoe and go to your summer camp. And so the house would expand and contract.

SL: But the frame is the same. 

OT: The frame is consistent, so early explorers like [George] Vancouver would see these structures and just thought they were abandoned ruins. But really they’re this kind of modular living thing. Anyways, that’s kind of where the project is going now. I’m trying to expand the project area to 800 feet. It’s so fascinating just to be able to see that structure in your mind, to start on one end and walk the whole length of it and have some sense of the scale of it. 

SL: And so it’s not of the actual materials, but their size would replicate the original?

OT: Yeah, I think it could be done more or less in the traditional way. I don’t think you could have a joint, a wood-to-wood joint because it would rot, but we’ll see. 

Lorenzo Costa, The Argo, 1500-1530, painting, image courtesy of wikimedia commons

SL: In Mythologies, Roland Barthes writes about the Argo ship, and he describes how as it went about its quest every so often a piece of wood would fall off. The piece would get replaced, and another piece of wood would fall off, and it would get replaced, and by the time the ship got back to where it started, not a single piece of the original wood was there. It had been completely remade. But the name held all those otherwise disconnected pieces of wood together. So the ship remained actual in a structural sense. In fact, Barthes called it the perfect structural object. Anyway, your project reminds me of that, with some important twists.

OT: That’s great, that’s really cool. 

SL: A nice way to think about this is remaking, making, and unmaking it, remaking, but somehow the name, the geometry is the thing.

OT: Yeah.

SL: Anyway. It was really nice to meet you!

OT: Yeah, likewise.

This dialogue was organized by Marco Kane Braunschweiler and edited by Karly Wildenhaus. Special thanks to Aria Dean.