Corey McCorkle in Conversation with Paul Gladston
The following conversation took place in Shanghai on 1st November 2008 following the opening of ‘Involved’, a group exhibition at the ShanghArt gallery curated by Phillipe Pirotte, director of the Kunsthalle in Bern, Switzerland. The exhibition included a documentary film by the New York based artist Corey McCorkle entitled ‘March’ - previously shown as part of the Whitney Biennial in New York - which focuses on the activities of a paramilitary youth group, known as the Knickerbocker Greys. Much of the conversation presented here relates directly to the making of this film and its ethical/political implications.
Paul Gladston: I would like to begin by asking you to say something about your development as an artist.
Corey McCorkle: First, I studied architecture. I went to school in New York for a few years and worked for a firm of architects in the city. I then went to the Art Institute of Chicago and stayed there for graduate school. After that, I moved back to New York. I think my work has always been grounded in architecture; if not architecture then definitely site-specificity. My architectural training was: you come to a site and there are already given variables – of gradient, of the angle of sunlight, etc. My sculpture, which is what I usually do, involves a similar engagement with space: mutating the space; taking something away from the space; deleting something from the space; corrupting it somehow, or enhancing it, or something.
PG: So your work characteristically makes some kind of intervention into an existing space?
CMcC: Exactly. And over the years I have been invited to make these interventions. I’ll go and look at a space. I’ll go and look at it again and again, and try to come up with something. And more often than not over the last three years I’ve turned to films because some of the spaces just didn’t speak to me, or they’d already be complete.
PG: How did the documentary film ‘March’ come about?
CMcC: The film ‘March’ started with the Whitney Biennial inviting me to do a piece at the Armoury building in New York. The Armoury is a full New York City block enclosed, which means that it’s one of a small number of spaces with a unique relationship to the grid and the history of the city. It was built in 1881, so it’s been part of the Upper East Side for over a century and still functions as an armoury. The 7th Regiment US Army keeps a base there. They also do art fairs there. I went up a few times and one of the first things that struck me, apart from its sheer size, was that the interior was designed by Tiffany, but Tiffany pre Art Nouveau - like a little bit of ‘S&M’ Tiffany. There are axes and maces hanging from the walls…they almost look like depth charges or something. Anyway I went to the space maybe three or four times, and I was starting to get frustrated, because like…this space is ‘done’. It’s a completely comprehensive architectural approach; like the locks were considered, the keys were considered. I’ve got nothing to say here. The fourth time I went, however, I saw these kids rehearsing. They drill on the second floor. They don’t drill in the main space. Usually they drill in one of the hallways with all of this old wood panelling. And I saw one of them walking up the stairs, and I thought: “What! What was that?” It looked like some costume drama, some people doing a civil war re-enactment. The kid was about six years old and he had a sword and a gun. So I did a little investigating. It turns out the group was first started after the Civil War and they were called the “Knickerbocker Greys”. I think they started in 1889. They were started by a board of directors that were all women; women from the Upper East Side of New York. In peacetime membership has swelled. But usually during wartime it’s way down. At some point the membership was about 150 or 200. Right now I think it’s 40 if they all show up. And they all have to pay to be a member. I’m not sure what the selection process is for children to get in. A lot of them are military children. A lot of them are just there purely for the pedigree…they’re kind of “old school”.
PG: So, they are all children from wealthy families?
CMcC: My feeling is that there’s a lot of money there. I think they have money, for sure. But I think for those that aren’t rich there’s a certain pedigree to being part of this disciplinary thing. It’s a purely paramilitary, disciplinary programme. They meet once a week and they are trained by a military commander from the Army. The Army Reserves are involved, the Colour Guard Armoury Regiment is involved and I think there’s a Marine Corps member involved too. I called a meeting with them when I decided to pick this project. I had to meet their lawyers, of course, and a few of the board members - the Board President; the Lieutenant Commander; the Colour Guard who own the Armoury. I said: “Look this is obviously a really unique situation, there’s not much documentation about this group. And given the current political climate in America this is going to be problematic, but I want to make a documentary about these kids in this environment at this particular time; however, I want it to be timeless too. I don’t want to direct them; I don’t want to light them at all.” So that’s how I approached it. Their main concern was: “Are you going to make fun of us?” I just said: “No” And I really meant it and I still mean it. It’s much more interesting, more problematic to look at this simply as a social phenomenon as opposed to an event that’s already been prejudged as something horrible. So I hung around for sixth months and usually had a cameraman with me and sometimes two, and finally we would have three. And we collected what I think was about forty-five hours worth of footage. So, I would watch this footage after five and a half/six months and at the end of it I knew every second. You know, the editing process was really interesting for me. Before I started filming I watched every shred of film by Leni Riefenstahl; every bit of footage I could find – especially the propaganda films she made for the Nazis. There’s something about that work that makes beauty so ugly; she does it so successfully. She does it with 275 cameras ultimately at the Nuremberg Rally. But the first film she did - I think it was in 1931 or 1933 - it was kind of like the Nazi’s getting their hand in. Hitler’s kind of bumping into SS guards; like no one quite knows where they are supposed to be; the angles aren’t quite worked out. This was the first epic documentary film ever made. This was showing a mass movement using the mass media for the first time and making all of this fiction out of the ingredients of time and space that happened to be there. I have problems with film. I think it’s a really tricky medium. So for me, working in the medium and having Riefenstahl in the back of my mind, the question arises of what to leave in and what to leave out? Where are you telling lies here? So there’s this constant, intriguing internal battle for me just to try to make it speak about the issues of homogeneity, of the falsity of that, and yet still show you something that could take you to this place where…you know, where this contemplative, beautiful kind of lush moment exists.
PG: During ‘March’ there are moments of ritualistic intensity which would appear to have been heavily choreographed.
CMcC: Absolutely. Although I didn’t actually choreograph things in advance, there were plenty of mistakes which were deliberately left out during the editing process. You know the kids are not always great at what they do; they’re kind of learning it. So it’s not entirely about moments of mastery where they instantly become baby lieutenant colonels. One of the moments I loved when we were shooting is when a lieutenant colonel is giving a sergeant a promotion. The sergeant is a little girl; she’s about eight. And he has to kneel down on one knee and shake her hand. And then he gets up and he salutes her, and she like rifles back this laser sharp salute. I said to myself: “Did that just happen?” He was almost knighting this child. Its’ one of the strangest military moments I’ve ever seen.
PG: I think I’m right in saying that the Armoury is for the most part a private rather than a public space. Most people just don’t get to see what goes on in there.
CMcC: You don’t really see most of the space that the kids perform in. I mean you could walk into the Armoury. But if you go to the Armoury during an honour parade you usually can’t see anything. So, in Walter Benjamin’s terms the activities represented by my film have a ceremonial cult value.
PG: I wanted to ask you about the possibility of a relationship between your work and Benjamin’s writing; in particular his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.
CMcC: I read that essay over, and over, and over. Benjamin wrote ‘The Work of Art’ essay in 1936, I think. So when he talks about fascism and film, he’s referring to the mass Nazi rallies of the thirties and the films Riefenstahl made about them. On top of that I also read Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’. It’s the most cogent argument even today. She talks about the masses being a fiction. Riefenstahl definitely helped create that fiction through her film; to paraphrase Benjamin: “Fascism renders politics aesthetic; communism responds by politicising art.”
PG: Isn’t the absolute distinction that Benjamin makes between a politicised art of the left and an aestheticisd politics of the right difficult to sustain nowadays? Wouldn’t we now say that one of the paradoxical consequences of an anti-auratic or an-aesthetic ‘art’ is that it has a tendency to distance rather than to engage a mass audience? Hence, the strategic return to beauty by many politicised artists in recent years. Doesn’t film always-already play inconclusively across the boundary between an aestheticised politics and a politicised art?
CMcC: Yes, I think that’s right. When I was a student Benjamin was taught simply as a kind of anti-auratic ethic. For lack of a better comparison: Duchamp – ‘good’ / action painting - ‘not good’. I just think that this kind of dialectical reading is lame. You can’t be entirely critical on that stage - you approach everything with this already predetermined structural template, through which you process and critique. When I was in graduate school I took a Foucault seminar. In one of his essays he refers to “non positive affirmation” as a political incision. Not a double negative, not a reflexive criticality - that changed everything; that seemed like a weapon to me. It sounds corny to talk about Foucault in 2008, but it still has this real potency for me. When you re-read Benjamin on those terms his is a rich, terrifying look at the uncertain political consequences of film. In 1933 Riefenstahl has all the resources in the world and invents modern film. She invents the modern medium and I don’t think it’s been topped since. And I don’t think it could be. When I was making ‘March’ I wasn’t trying to rival Riefenstahl. I couldn’t rival the resources of a totalitarian regime with one, two or three cameras. But I could refer to her: look at the shots; look at how people were captured; how they were not directed. She did direct, of course, and there was a little bit of choreography: ok, the camera’s going to be here; don’t look up. More often, though, she would set up the camera and wait for things to happen; wait for things to pass and then already have a cut in mind with other cameras in position. Out of this she makes this complete invention called ‘the Masses’, for the first time ever.
PG: So, in addition to the Armoury your film ‘March’ also intervenes in the uncertain filmic space opened up by Riefenstahl?
CMcC: I hope it does. And it’s been problematic for me also, which I accept. This is where I want to be: in this uncertain moral space where you have to look at the thing and put a lot of consideration into it; you know the grammar, the beauty, for lack of another word. The places where you know people will go like “Wow, look at that shot, look at that cut!”, or the timing. This is a very tightly wound film. It presents something which the audience - myself included - might see as this really uncomfortable space. How do you deal with the difference between agitprop and propaganda? What happens when you butt those two up against one another? Where, on the one hand, a viewer who’s a parent of one of the children in the film says: “Oh, my child is so lovely, so beautiful”; and on the other hand “Wow, Corey’s a fascist! I can’t believe he embedded himself.” Or: “He’s completely manipulating” – which I’m not. My films are kind of anti-manipulation, even though, as you suggest, I’m always-already a manipulative director by dint of the medium. So if I can generate a conversation about manipulation versus militarism, for example, or propaganda versus agitprop, or differing ideological positions, that for me is interesting - playing across those conceptions and flickering back and forth. And, as for passing judgement on discipline: obviously it’s fraught; we know that we are at war; we know that we have initiated two wars right now in Iraq and Afghanistan that have absolutely no relevance to life in America…at all; we know that we’re wasting resources. But the thing is this group, the Greys, has been around for a hundred and twenty nine years. During that time we’ve gone through so many manifestations of military righteousness, or shame, or whatever – so there’s also a bigger historical dimension for me.
PG: Your film has a labyrinthine quality. It suggests a labyrinthine space and the critical incisions which it makes are labyrinthine; they cut both ways.
CMcC: Yes, you’re completely penetrating a building every little crevice of it. And the building functions almost as if it has its own ecology. It’s processing these people as much as the people are trying to learn discipline in it. It’s packaging them in certain ways. Letting them have a kind of disassociation from this particular moment in time…especially the uniforms they wear. There is also the idea that I’m interacting in this completely fictive space – which is what Riefenstahl did with film, I think.
PG: So there’s a virtuality to your film as well as a documentary quality?
CMcC: Yes absolutely. And you know virtuality is fraught with fascist implications. Because you are depicting a homogenous space where there is no homogeneity; you’re depicting a movement that stutters that hiccups and all that stuff, and then suddenly it’s seamless. Or you’re projecting a particular time of day when actually it’s filmed over six months. Or you’re depicting a moment that could be in 1930, but it’s 2008. There are all of these weird fictions that go into documentary and I’m fascinated by that marriage.
PG: Can you perhaps say a little more about how beauty works in the context of your film?
CMcC: If you watch a commercial about the military in the US, it’s not beautiful. I can’t even describe why; it’s not even like a car commercial. Like the way the sword comes up, it’s like a preview for a World Wide Wrestling Federation programme.
PG: Perhaps it can’t be beautiful simply because of the memory of Riefenstahl. The military and the Government would be accused of being fascists if it were.
CMcC: I just don’t think they are smart enough. I think if they had a minister who watched Riefenstahl, they would make it beautiful.
PG: So you are deliberately occupying aesthetic territory that’s not currently being occupied by the military?
CMcC: Exactly. But I don’t think they could co-opt it. They don’t have the skills; they don’t have the even-handedness. My concerns are different. I’m a witness to beauty when I encounter it; whether it’s Caspar David Friedrich, or…whoever.
PG: However, as post-modernists, for want of a better term, aren’t we automatically suspicious of beauty nowadays?
CMcC: Right. But I don’t entirely like that position. I’d much rather walk up to that Rothko and kneel down.
PG: Nevertheless, this is a problematic issue. Aesthetics are an undeniable point of reference for your work as an artist. But they are also held in suspicion by contemporary cultural discourse, not least because of the influence of Benjamin.
CMcC: Yes, of course. I deliberately put myself in the position where my work is not art with a capital “A”. In fact art for me is an irrelevant point; an irrelevant question. The looming questions of artification are completely irrelevant to me. Like I have a job; and I’ve given myself this job; and I can barely afford to pay myself in this job. Art is such a ridiculous idea.
PG: But at the same time your work is as arty as it gets because it’s heavily aestheticised.
CMcC: Absolutely – and I know where it’s going…beautifully. It’s not prefigured but I know it’s got to be done by this date, for this exhibition or there are other pressures; you know - the whole art ecology. That said - I’m suspicious of beauty in the same way I’m suspicious of the news. You know I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but information is so layered and there are so many dimensions to the things that we look at; especially things that are produced by artists. To be in denial of that is wildly irresponsible; especially given how much we look at in our society, how much information comes out. That’s my job, if anything, as an artist: to produce an object whereby you can initiate a transformative aesthetic experience, but one that also initiates some sort of conflict in the viewer; or, in my case, in the artist. One of my friends gave me this idea a few years ago and it’s a very non-profound, dumb idea. He said: “You know what I love about your work is that you find this uneasy spot every time; you always put yourself in an uncomfortable position, even critically, because there’s no conclusion.” My work never has a dramatic reveal at the end. I’m often asked: “What exactly is your relationship to the thing you’re addressing. Why aren’t you making Michael Moore films?” Michael Moore doesn’t make transformative situations, ever! They’re entertaining and they’re persuasive sometimes. They’re annoying…I don’t mind annoying either. But it’s a different phenomenon. For me documentary can be much more powerful when it’s not directed to conclusions.
PG: One of the key issues about the film ‘March’, it seems to me, is that it does initiate a transformative moment. And yet, in the end I don’t feel entirely transformed; I don’t feel entirely comfortable about where I’m going and so as a viewer I resist going there.
CMcC: This is the problem. Why is it that my mind and my body and all of my self are taking me to this place? I don’t know. I don’t want to go either, because if I do that just means I’m complicit. But you are complicit, I’m complicit, we are all complicit. I think that art feeds on our complicity.
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