Daniel Arsham | Exclusive interview by Purple Art
Following the premiere of his traveling performance piece “Rules of the Game” (a collaboration with PHARRELL WILLIAMS and JONAH BOKAER) at Dallas’s SOLUNA Festival and leading up to a solo exhibition of new work at Galerie Perrotin in New York, contemporary artist DANIEL ARSHAM discusses his summer workload at his studio in Queens.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How long have you been in this space for?
DANIEL ARSHAM: — Since January. We were in Greenpoint before. We have the main space, the workshop and then the upstairs area. Upstairs was like this disgusting ’70s office. It had a drop ceiling and this really terrible carpet. So we took everything out and sprayed it all white. Like ten years ago JEFFREY DEITCH had a gallery in the downstairs space. He built all of the big walls. Then it was empty for a long time. I love it here.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Are all of your endeavors based here?
DANIEL ARSHAM — Yeah, so I have my studio, the architecture practice, Snarkitecture and then a film company. Each one is separate, but there is some cross over of ideas. Like Snarkitecture may work on some set design for a film project or my studio may loan production methodologies to the architecture practice.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Tell me about your film work.
DANIEL ARSHAM — “Future Relic” was a film I started two and a half years ago. I made it in sections, four of which I’ve done and released. They’re all part of a feature film and it’s as if I made half of it. Then in September I’m releasing this short film that was shot in Japan, in Japanese. It’s called “No Mind.”
PAIGE SILVERIA — Do you speak Japanese?
DANIEL ARSHAM — No. There’s not a ton of dialogue in it. I had a translator but also a supervisor who was making sure that I covered everything. When I’m looking at different takes from the footage, I may pick something based on performance or something, but I’m not listening to the dialogue. So the edit was super complicated.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Do you have your hands in all aspects of the films?
DANIEL ARSHAM — Depends on the project. So like the Japanese film, I wrote the story for it with another person and then we hired some writers to fill it out and build the world around it. Same thing with “Future Relic”; I gave the treatment for it and then hired a writer to make it good.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How do you prioritize each day?
DANIEL ARSHAM — I just come here and I’m back and forth between different things but most of the time I spend on my own on the art. And then for the pre-production film stuff I have to make a lot of decisions concerning talent and set locations and the way we’re going to shoot it, but that doesn’t require my full attention. When I’m on set, I’m just devoted one hundred percent to that.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Tell me about the art objects lining the center of your studio.
DANIEL ARSHAM — All of the work that’s in the center console is all failures, things that were miscast or for one reason or another I didn’t like the result. And I kept them. When I first started casting these pieces I didn’t quite know how to get the materials to adhere together properly and some of the early ones would slowly melt or would fall apart. Some works I make go off into the world and I never see them again.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Previously your artwork was achromatic. Why have you begun to use color?
DANIEL ARSHAM — I’m color blind. It doesn’t mean that I don’t see color, but the range that I see is drastically reduced from what you would see. So I got these lenses that correct my color blindness. I went through this whole process to get them. It took like months, because they were back ordered. And it’s crazy. Before I could see like twenty percent and now I can see eighty percent.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How do they work?
DANIEL ARSHAM — Your eyes have rods and cones that accept different colors, which are different wave lengths of light. When the wave lengths are close together, especially in lower light, if you don’t have all the same rods and cones, your eyes aren’t able to differentiate between the two colors. What these lenses do is as the light comes through the lenses, it’s refracted in a way that it separates the colors further apart artificially. So you’re able to see a broader range. Green for instance is a big problem for me and looking at grass for the first time with these lenses, the range was infinite. Without them it still looks green, but everything is the same green.
PAIGE SILVERIA — You’re not wearing them now?
DANIEL ARSHAM — I stopped wearing them because they’re really distracting. So all of the colored works have come out of that. I have a big exhibition in September with Perrotin in New York. The show is entirely in color. It’s still a refined view of color; I’m not just exploding a rainbow. It’s one distinct tone. And all of the cast works are made out of different crystal materials. So I’ve had to work through to find which of those materials actually work for the process I’m using. I figured it out already with this range of black to white. With color, I’m starting from scratch. It’s been awesome.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Where are the glasses you’re wearing from?
DANIEL ARSHAM — They’re vintage from the ’30s in Europe, Vienna or something. I found them from a thrift sale in the city. I’ve had them for like 10 years. I’ve been trying to find ones like these, but they don’t make them like this anymore.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Let’s go back a bit to 2003 when you were just out of Cooper Union and received the Gelman Trust Award. What did it allow you to do?
DANIEL ARSHAM — I think it was like $15,000 in cash. It was the most amount of money that I had seen. I moved back to Miami and with a couple of friends I started this exhibition space called The House. We rented this broken-down, old house. Now it’s right where everything is happening in Miami. But back then, there was nothing there. We gutted it and put in a gallery that was showing us and our friends.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How long did it last for?
DANIEL ARSHAM — That was around for like three years. It was right around the time that Art Basel was starting in Miami. So dealers and collectors and people that were coming from Europe were curious about what was going on. There were no parties like there are now. They were interested in what was happening in the city. So all of the galleries that I work with today came out of those early relationships. Like EMMANUEL PERROTIN was friends with GEORGE LINDEMANN, ADAM’s brother. GEORGE told him about our space so he came and it went from there.
PAIGE SILVERIA — When did you move back to New York?
DANIEL ARSHAM — Basically since I left school I was always back and forth between Miami and New York, even if I was sleeping on someone’s couch. I came back more permanently in 2005. It was very gradual. I had to keep going back to Miami, because if I’d stayed in New York I wouldn’t have met all of these people and I wouldn’t have had these opportunities. Sometimes it was easier to be in a smaller city.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Around this time you worked with the great choreographer MERCE CUNNINGHAM. How did you meet him?
DANIEL ARSHAM — He had seen an exhibition that I did at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami. This was like right before I left for New York. It was an exhibition of paintings, which is why it’s so bizarre that he asked me to do a stage design after that. He got my number from the museum’s director and called me. He said, “I’m MERCE CUNNINGHAM, do you know who I am? Are you familiar with what I do?” He had this very peculiar way of working: he would separate each portion of a performance into their own respective parts, allowing each person to work independently. He would make his choreography, I would make the set design, an artist would make the costumes, a musician would make the score, but none of us knew what the other was doing. I never knew what the dance was going to look like before the premiere. I could basically do anything I wanted. It was amazing and sort of terrifying at the same time. Also when I first started working with him, I was 24. He was 84.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Why do you think he trusted you with the responsibility?
DANIEL ARSHAM — He was constantly setting himself up to be in positions where there was potential for failure, but also for amazing things. That was pretty consistent throughout his career. His thoughts were similar to JOHN CAGE’s ideas of rolling dice and trying to evacuate your own taste out of something. He would pick the artist, but whatever they did, it was out of his control. By doing that, it allowed him to find things he never would have found or make things he wouldn’t have decided to do. It didn’t always work, but he tried.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How did you feel after that first show?
DANIEL ARSHAM — He never told me specifically that he liked anything, but he kept inviting me to work with him, so I did. That was kind of enough.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Were you familiar with his work before he reached out?
DANIEL ARSHAM — I had never seen a show live, but I studied him in school, primarily through his collaborations with ANDY WARHOL and ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG who was a stage designer for MERCE from the ’50s. So I knew about it from that angle, but not the other side. Then I had a crash course in dance and that whole universe. And I worked with him until he died and I continued to work with a choreographer who was a dancer in his company at the time, JONAH BOKAER.
PAIGE SILVERIA — And you and JONAH, just premiered the new piece “Rules of the Game” with PHARRELL WILLIAMS.
DANIEL ARSHAM — That was a fucking crazy piece to do. It could have ended in disaster so many times. SOLUNA, the symphony festival in Dallas invited us down there like two and a half years ago. Then JONAH and I had this commission from BAM to build this new work. I’d been spending a lot of time with PHARRELL also. So all of a sudden I thought: maybe PHARRELL wants to work on the symphony and then it becomes this much larger production. But PHARRELL doesn’t write sheet music, so how do you translate his ideas to an orchestral score? He made a demo which is basically like straight out of a studio. No vocals, just music. That went to an arranger, DAVID CAMPBELL, who was the same guy who conducted it. There was this whole back and forth, where he translated it and PHARRELL tweaked it. Then Jonah was working off of this demo track. Then my scenography was a video projection coupled with these physical elements that was also timed. It was just very complex.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Did you all sit down and come up with the theme together or was it pieced?
DANIEL ARSHAM — Both. Like with Jonah, I’ll usually present him with an idea: “There’s going to be thousands of balls or a giant roll of paper and I want it to form these giant icebergs on stage.” Then he develops the choreography and he uses the material as a way to motivate movement. The rolling of the balls, the masks, the shattering of these things as content in the work. So I’d throw out an idea and he’d come back and say, “I like these things.” It went from there.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How long did it take? Two years?
DANIEL ARSHAM — Yeah.
PAIGE SILVERIA —Who else is hosting “Rules of the Game”?
DANIEL ARSHAM — It’s continuing to grow. France and Australia in the fall, then it comes to New York, then it goes to LA and Chicago and probably Paris and London. They’re in discussion with all of these locations. I feel like it’s the most successful thing that we’ve done in terms of the result of it. You never know, but it feels big in a way that a lot of the other works didn’t or haven’t. The scale of it was a big challenge, to make something that could kind of outdo some of the work that JONAH and I had done before. Just because you’re presented with an orchestra and a larger stage, doesn’t necessarily mean the work is going to get that much better. For me, though, I think it kind of did. I think that will create a lot of opportunities for the work to travel.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How did you approach the stage design?
DANIEL ARSHAM — The title of the piece is “Rules of the Game”. For me, if there are rules, I’m going to figure out how to break them. And this idea of mythology and legend … there’s been a lot of work that I’ve created that relates to archeology and history so I was trying to figure out a way to integrate those two things. And this use of objects on the stage which have this antiquated quality about them—they look like Greek or Roman masks or busts—that are shattering and coming back together is a play on the stretching out of time. That’s what I was trying to get to with the scenography.
PAIGE SILVERIA: — Let’s go back to your show in New York in the fall.
DANIEL ARSHAM — It’s my main purpose for the summer. It’s both floors at Perrotin. On the first floor there will be a whole selection of about ten new pieces of work and then the space downstairs will be an entire environment that you’d enter.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What’s the idea behind it?
DANIEL ARSHAM — A lot of this work has to do with a kind of fictional archeology and without saying too much about it, the work downstairs takes that to the next step. It imagines the excavation site for these objects. If you could travel to the future and find one of these things in the ground, what would that look like?
PAIGE SILVERIA — Did you consume a lot of science fiction as a kid?
DANIEL ARSHAM — Yeah. More recently I’ve been reading PAUL AUSTER and PHILIP K DICK. JONATHAN LETHEM’s “Girl in Landscape” is this book in the future when we’re able to get to this other planet where there’s this failed civilization and they have the remnants of their cities all around. The reason that it failed was that they made things too easy for themselves. Food was readily available and health was perfect, so they didn’t have to do anything. There were no challenges. They were just bored basically. And the people that arrive on this planet, they have this psychological disorder, which causes them when they go to sleep at night to inhabit the minds of these miniature deer that rome the plains of this failed world. I’d really like to make a film out of it. It’s awesome. Then I also read this other book recently called “Ready Player One.” It’s a book about virtual reality which is a kind of science fiction that feels really possible. Have you experienced any of the VR stuff?
PAIGE SILVERIA — Yeah. New York Times has an app now and it took me to Pluto the other day.
DANIEL ARSHAM — The technology is advancing so quickly and you can kind of see where it’s going. Look up this company called Magic Leap. They’re developing glasses that drop another layer of reality into your space that’s virtual. Imagine there’s a monitor over in the room, but it’s not real. It only exists for both of us in this virtual space. We can sit here and watch this movie on this virtual monitor that’s as crisp and clear and perfect as our own reality, except it doesn’t exist.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Are you exploring ideas for a VR project?
DANIEL ARSHAM — Yeah I’m working on one right now for next year that’s more of an experience. Now that we have this technology, what can we do with it? Because most of the content right now is garbage. It’s not like directing for film where you have only a single frame.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Sounds like a pretty big challenge that you’re taking on.
DANIEL ARSHAM — Yeah.