Featured in
Issue 154

The Real World

Artist Matthieu Laurette, critic Vivian Sky Rehberg and the prolific curator, collector and dealer Seth Siegelaub, who died in 2013 aged 71, discuss the legacy of Conceptual art, the origins of curating and how art history is made

BY Vivian Sky Rehberg in Interviews | 13 APR 13

In the 1960s, Seth Siegelaub was central in bringing Conceptual art to a broader public. Realizing projects with artists including Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner, the New York art dealer and curator was among the first to organize exhibitions without paintings or sculptures, or that took the form of a publication. In 1971, he collaborated with a lawyer on ‘The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement’, a pioneering attempt to rethink the artist’s control of their work after sale. A year later, Siegelaub left the art world and moved to Paris, founding a research centre for leftist media studies. During the 1980s, he started collecting textiles, a selection of which was exhibited last year at Raven Row, London, uk. The work of French artist Matthieu Laurette resonates with Siegelaub’s concerns in many ways. In the projects Laurette has realized since the early 1990s, he has explored the possibilities and limits of Conceptual approaches and of engaging with the mass media: from appearing on tv game shows and living for free using money-back guarantees, to setting up contracts with collectors or fellow artists.

‘This Is the Way Your Leverage Lies: The Seth Siegelaub Papers as Institutional Critique’, an exhibition based on Siegelaub’s personal archive, was at MoMA, New York, earlier this year. A selection of textiles from Siegelaub’s collection is currently on show at the Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture in Maastricht, the Netherlands (organized in collaboration with Kunstverein Amsterdam, the Netherlands, the show will travel to Grazer Kunstverein, Austria, in June).

Laurette lives in Paris, France. He will contribute a new project to the group exhibition ‘Bourgeois Leftovers’ at De Appel, Amsterdam, (from 20 April), and his Mobile Information Stand for Money-back Products (International Version) (1999) will be on display at Centre De La Vieille Charité, Marseille, France, from 4 July. In March 2013, he co-organized an international symposium on artistic image-making in the context of conflict at the Cinémathèque de Tangier, Morocco. Vivian Sky Rehberg is a contributing editor of frieze and Course Director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam.

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Matthieu Laurette Seth, the first time we met was in 2006 at a panel discussion in a Vienna auction house. I remember you wore cowboy boots and a very colourful paisley shirt, and we sat on vintage designer chairs that were due to be auctioned the next day. To me – as to so many others – you were a name, a legend: the man who first put Conceptual art on the map in the 1960s. How does it feel, as someone who decided to leave the art world in 1971, to make these occasional reappearances?

Seth Siegelaub I do it when a project interests me, but I don’t make any great effort to keep in touch with what’s going on in the art world. To be perfectly honest, if it wasn’t for my curator partner Marja Bloem, I wouldn’t go to see very much contemporary art. Last year, at Raven Row in London, I gave some lectures and talks in connection with the exhibition of historic textiles I have been collecting since the 1980s. But, for the most part, I’m a hermit.

Vivian Sky Rehberg But you must be aware that your own curatorial legacy has served as a blueprint for subsequent generations of curators?

SS     I am, but I try to keep it in check. In fact, I try to avoid being seen as the ‘first curator’ – or even as any type of curator at all. I don’t want to make a business out of my past.

VSR     You’ve said that your activities in the 1960s were very much about a moment, a specific socio-political context and a particular group of artists. How, then, do you respond to the way the Conceptual legacy has become an almost trans-historical aesthetic or approach, in the sense that now any artist or curator can adopt it?

SS     People don’t define this ‘Conceptual legacy’ very carefully now – it’s a catch-all term, a house that holds anybody. It was completely different 40 years ago: the people I was involved with then had a very specific way of dealing with words and relationships, what you see, what you do, the artist’s role, truth. Initially, my role was that of the dealer, although I wasn’t very good at selling art – the real dealers were people like Konrad Fischer – I certainly looked and sounded like a dealer. I provided the artists with opportunities for exposure, but at a certain point I gave up on the idea of being an art dealer representing a group of artists, and decided to take up exhibition-making on a much broader scale. I was no longer interested in Conceptual art; it’s not that I lost faith in it, but I wasn’t interested in promoting it anymore. In 1971, before leaving the art world, I did ‘The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement’, which was a legal document addressing the question of the rights of the artist over his or her own work.

VSR     While you may not have been a ‘traditional’ art dealer, you were giving visibility to a certain kind of artistic practice, which is what curators do. This question of visibility, of public exposure, is also central to Matthieu’s work.

SS     What particularly attracts me to your work, Matthieu, is that you take the viewer out of the art-world context – serendipitously, intelligently – before throwing them right back into it again because, let’s be honest, who the hell would care otherwise. But you are clearly working in the real world with real values with things that are part of everybody’s daily life. That’s the difference between your work and that of in-your-face artists such as Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, who make it appear as though they are doing popular manifestations meant for the masses when, to a large extent, what they do is typical studio art clearly only meant for art lovers. When you do projects like Apparitions [1993−95], Produits remboursés/Money-back Products [1993−2001] or even El Gran Trueque [The Great Exchange, 2000], the game show you did on Basque television, you are definitely working in the arena of the real world. If my mother were still alive, she could identify with a work like that.

ML     In the early 1990s, France was in crisis – economically as well as artistically. I studied at two different art schools: first Rennes, which was very conservative and where I tried to escape being trained as a painter before they kicked me out, telling me I was not meant to become an artist; and then Grenoble, which – ironically – felt not traditional enough for me. I was making videos there and I thought: why am I doing this, just for my fellow students and teachers? It seemed not fake exactly, but unreal. I also wondered where I could show my videos, because, at that time, videos were still often being shown at video festivals, or in the side rooms of exhibitions. I thought: this isn’t what I want; why haven’t artists been using television as a medium effectively since Chris Burden’s TV Hijack in 1972? The only way art appeared on television in the early 1990s was as the subject of boring, late-night shows that offered up terrible clichés about artists. So, I began to think about using television, since it not only has an audience, but also the best studio and equipment available. (By comparison, my school had just poor-quality camcorders.) In 1993, when I was 22, I applied to be a contestant on a game show called Tournez Manège – the French version of The Dating Game – and after a number of phone interviews, I was chosen to take part. The show was recorded live, but not broadcast until two weeks later, giving me time to print some invitations to send out to people to watch it live on television. 

VSR   The people you invited were from a certain milieu, however?

ML     As I was still a student, I mostly invited people who already knew me, but I also sent invitations to many well-known artists, critics and curators because I considered it to be my first solo exhibition. In fact, at the time I didn’t even refer to it as a performance – a word used so unhesitatingly by young artists today – since my generation were against the term, in France at least. The day the programme was broadcast, I put a vhs tape in my vcr, recorded it, and the work was complete.

VSR     And that was your work – a video-cassette?

ML     The whole thing was my work! I was working from inside the images. Later on, I re-edited it because I went on a number of different shows to create the Apparitions project. (In French, the word apparition means both ‘appearance’ and ‘apparition’.) One of the teachers I’d invited said: ‘Oh, I didn’t even watch it. I thought it wasn’t real. I didn’t realize you were actually going to be on television.’ Another teacher, who was supposed to be doing a studio visit with me, said: ‘I’m not talking to you. You are compromising yourself by going on mainstream television.’ But, when I was asked on the Tournez Manège show what my ambition was, I said: ‘I want to be an artist.’ The presenter asked: ‘A painter or a sculptor?’ I answered: ‘A multimedia artist.’ She had no idea what that meant; in French, the word was not yet being used for computers. For me, going on television was as much about the medium as it was about using it as a kind of exhibition format. Soon after, the project was shown in a gallery context, although I still occasionally create new Apparitions on television. Seth, I remember we talked about that once: you said you were not against exhibition spaces, although you have become known as the person who, in 1968, made a catalogue as an exhibition with Xerox Book as well as Douglas Heubler’s exhibition as a book

VSR     Well, I think it was more of an expansion of the idea of an exhibition than a reduction, wasn’t it?

SS     Yes. It was also linked to a certain kind of art, and it was meant to encourage a certain kind of production.

ML     It’s incredible to think you were doing that in the 1960s; even when I think back to what I was doing in the early 1990s, it seems such a long time ago.

SS     It was a long time ago!

ML     Television dates very quickly: it looks old after three years, even after three months – the way people are dressed, the television set itself.

VSR     Julien Doré is a more recent example of an art student who ended up on television, winning the fifth season of Nouvelle Star, the French version of PopIdol. Were you ever tempted to stay in television?

ML I’ve been told that Doré has acknowledged studying my work as a student and that I have been an influence on him. He even described me an article in Elle magazine as his ‘spiritual godfather’. But was I tempted to stay in television myself? No. I think that’s another point of connection between Seth and I: we both believe in art.

VSR     Do you believe in art, Seth? 

SS     I believe that art can increase our awareness of the world around us. When I was young and active in the art world, I thought the most interesting art was that which asked questions, which was on the very edge of what might even be considered art. For me, that was the definition of art; it wasn’t about having a painting hanging on the wall in your house.

VSR It seems the current generation of artists looks at television and the Internet as media that potentially allow you to become famous – not as visual artists but as ‘personalities’. Was this something that occurred to you as well, Matthieu?

ML     Well, I did that in the 1990s with my project Produits remboursés / Money-back Products, for which I used offers and disclaimers such as ‘First Purchase Free’ and ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ on corporate food products and other commodities to get 100 percent of the money I spent on things refunded, and thus live almost for free by recycling the same amount of money for years. The media picked up on the story and I was even on the cover of Le Monde newspaper under the headline ‘Demain on mange gratis’ [Tomorrow We Eat for Free]; there were so many television reports about it, and I appeared in so many magazines and newspapers. I clearly had my 15 minutes of fame, but for me it was not about the mediatization of my work; being on television was the process of making the work − it was the work itself. 

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VSR   That is an important distinction.

ML     Yes, but it was also a way to produce art without making it myself – which is, after all, an important part of the legacy of Conceptual art. Lawrence Weiner’s famous ‘Declaration of Intent’ of 1968 states that ‘the decision as to condition rests with the receiver’ of the work – implying that it may be put together by someone else. Seth, I remember you once mentioned to me that the artists you were working with would hate to have their names in The New York Times.

SS     It had to do with the idea that the artist was not really supposed to become famous; the process by which the artist became a celebrity was seen as a denigration of the work and the ideas. In the 1960s, you would never see a successful artist pulling up in an expensive limousine – although he might have parked it around the corner, of course.

ML     I once heard this art-world urban legend about Joseph Beuys: when he was in Kassel installing 7,000 Oaks at Documenta 7 in 1982, he used to drive his Mercedes part of the way to the Fridericianum, and then take his bike out from the boot and cycle the rest of the way!

SS     That’s true! Artists felt they ought to be like working people, long after they’d become wealthy. It started almost like a caricature, really. Even today, I think of Carl Andre walking around in blue worker’s overalls! And artists saw collectors as capitalists exploiting their work and making money from it. I remember Robert Barry complaining about a collector who had made a huge profit on a series of his works that he’d bought from Leo Castelli some years earlier, for which Bob himself had only been paid a few hundred dollars. That was one of the motivations behind my writing the artist’s agreement: to help level the playing field.

VSR   Currently, there are numerous debates around the way cognitive capitalism has developed, and how art workers or cultural producers are being increasingly exploited.

SS     I’m actually working on a project called ‘How Is Art History Made?’, which is an attempt to formulate some ground rules for the art world. There are all these mechanisms governing who you sell art to, who writes articles about you, when you get into certain collections, etc. And, as time goes on, when an artist reaches a certain level they are ‘made’. Yet, just as some characters are written into history so others are written out of it, and the circumstances as to why aren’t clear.

ML     It is amazing how some artists disappear.

SS     And some do so not through failure, but through choice.

ML     Stephen Kaltenbach, with whom I recently did a collaborative work, for example, who was part of the first generation of Conceptual artists, but who then dropped off the radar in 1970, explained clearly why he choosed to withdraw in your book Seth, The Context of Art / The Art of Context (1996).

SS     I’m still very interested in how this happens. In my own experience, Douglas Huebler – unlike the other three artists he was associated with at the time: Kosuth, Weiner and Barry – almost completely stopped making work when he took over CalArts. Everyone thought highly of him, and he was a great influence on lots of people, but he never got any work done after that. He was a little too far away.

VSR     Too far away geographically because he was in California, or too far away because he went into education?

SS     I mean, he became distanced by his vocation: he was an administrator running an institution. And then, in 1997, he died. Often, accounts of first-generation Conceptual art barely mention his name.

ML     As an art student, and for many years afterwards, I spent a lot of time looking at Huebler’s work. He was once famously quoted as saying: ‘The world is full of objects more or less interesting. I do not wish to add any more.’ I relate to that so much. My show last year at Gaudel de Stampa in Paris, ‘Demands & Supplies’, consisted entirely of contracts – say, a contract that a collector could purchase the cost of my phone deals, the rent of my studio or have a dinner with me and stuff like that. And also a series of contracts entitled ‘THINGS (Purchased With Funds Provided By)’ (2010–20), which allows me to acquire objects with collectors’ money for my personal use. Collectors pay the retail price of the object and, in return, receive a contract bearing a photograph of the object co-signed by themselves and by me. One of the contracts I exhibited was not signed yet, but will be today, and it says: ‘There is an ongoing discussion with Seth Siegelaub since 2006 …’ 

For the invitation card, I appropriated – and slightly modified – Huebler’s quote to say: ‘Galleries are full of objects more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ Yet, as much as I have always been interested in Huebler, there is an aspect of his work that I have tried to avoid in my own. His pieces often included a sentence along the lines of: ‘A contact proof print and 12 photographs join with this statement to constitute the form of this piece.’ I, on the other hand, with my television Apparitions, have tried to make work that does not consist of the remains of things that have happened. They are the things themselves produced through a process. Produits remboursés/Money-back Products, for instance, was about promoting the money-back concept, and took shape in the printing and distribution of flyers in the media as well as in launching a website. The website became really popular – it was during the first wave of dotcom start-ups in 1996 – and I could have sold it and made a lot of money, but then the moment passed and, for me, the aim was, in any case, different. 

Matthieu Laurette, Apparition: Tomorrow We Eat for Free, Le Monde, Paris, 16 May 1997 (p.1),1997, framed newspaper cover, 50 × 70 cm

The way we encounter art today, through such a wide variety of channels, is a process that started with people like you, Seth. Nowadays, the art world seems to revolve around rumour: we all know about so many works without actually having seen them. So many people now tell me they saw my Apparitions when they were originally screened on television. This may be true, of course, but I think it is probably more akin to a childhood memory that could be genuine but that could equally stem from seeing a photograph of the event at a later date – you can’t distinguish whether the memory actually existed before you saw the photograph.

SS     I’m sure we all talk about shows or exhibitions that we haven’t seen and books we haven’t read; but we’ve heard someone describe them and, over time, they come to seem very real.

ML     Yes, that’s true, but a lot of people also try to manipulate how they are perceived. You say you hardly go to art fairs or exhibitions, but I’ve seen you two or three times at least in Basel, and when I used to live in Amsterdam I often saw you at openings! I’m joking with you, of course, but you know what I mean.

VSR     This notion of selective memory brings us back to the question of how art history gets written. It is as though we are all standing on quicksand in the present moment, trying to figure out what might be of value. So, we go to these beacons – art fairs, exhibitions, magazines – where people are showing us what we should think is interesting.

SS     It’s difficult to get your head around, insomuch as there are numerous variables: dealers, collectors, paying critics to write about you, etc. But what I’m thinking of is a little more complicated than that – a little less direct – and it becomes especially tricky when you’re talking about things that happened many years ago, of which we have no direct knowledge.

VSR     Art historians sometimes make the conscious decision not to write about living artists because it requires a whole different set of negotiations than looking at a completed body of work and trying to contextualize and interpret it in the light of whatever documentation is left.

SS     Although you also have to question why some documents have been left behind while others have not ... 

VSR     Exactly.

ML     Seth, I’d like to ask you about the leftist writings you published in the 1970s and ’80s.

SS     When I left the art world, and New York, I started a research centre for leftist media studies. This was initially based in Paris, then later in Amsterdam at the International Institute for Social History. I spent over ten years doing that, and produced about ten or 12 books during that time, including a few anthologies of leftist readings in the media. I was provoked into doing it by people saying that there was no theory about how the left or progressive movements use the media, despite the fact that there clearly was a history. I was super happy doing that: it brought in a modest income and we opened a free library, which a lot of people came to. It was a wonderful time. ‘The Stuff That Matters: Textiles Collected by Seth Siegelaub for the CSROT’, exhibition view at Raven Row, London, 2012

VSR     All the research you’ve conducted over the years seems to have been driven by this purpose: the desire to make material available to a wider constituency.

SS     Yes. It’s the same with the textiles. In the early 1960s, I collected books on carpets, which I included in the library and which are still part of it – although I didn’t really do anything with them until the mid-1980s in France.

VSR     So, it’s not about collecting things for yourself?

SS     Not entirely. I would certainly give it away if I could find someone who was in a position to take care of it and develop it further. In that sense, it’s more personal I suppose; it’s not as militant an activity as the artists’ contracts were, for example. 

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ML     One of the disjunctions that I, and probably many others, have with the knowledge that you were a Conceptual gallerist – in relation to the notion of dematerialization, of things not taking place in a physical space – is that your collections demonstrate you also have a hyper-materialist side. We are sitting here in your study, which is full of masks and head-pieces from around the world, in addition to which there are, of course, your textiles – the show at Raven Row being the first time any of them had been exhibited – so there is this ‘stage three’ quality that I find extremely interesting. 

SS     I don’t know why I’m involved with that. There is no political, social or ‘do-gooder’ rationale behind it. 

VSR     Pleasure?

SS     Pleasure, yes, but I have to say that the pleasure is diminishing as the administrative side of things becomes increasingly complicated!

VSR Do you think you might lose interest in maintaining the collection because it’s too much work?

SS     I will certainly have to give some very serious thought in the near future to the extent I want to commit myself to it.

ML     When I met you here in Amsterdam a few years back, you were writing new entries every day for your textile encyclopaedia.

SS     Yes, it’s the biggest database in the world on the history of textiles.

ML     From the beginning, you were very aware of the issue of archiving. You told me once that you even stored all your accounting books and pay cheques from the day you opened the gallery until you closed, and kept it in storage for years in the US until you donated it to MoMA in 2011.

SS     For me, collecting textiles is definitely about the archive. So that is part of the excitement, too.

ML     Do you consider yourself a collector?

SS     I suppose now I have to say yes, although I don’t really know why I evolved into one. I never resell anything, so it’s not like I’m planning to make lots of big bucks one day. It is more about me looking for beautiful objects. But, as I said, I have not been doing much cataloguing recently – or even buying or looking for any new textiles – because there is so much admin to deal with. All I do is have meetings with people; it’s terrible. We worry about insurance statements, parking lists and schedules!

VSR     Sounds like being a curator!

SS     It’s horseshit!

Vivian Sky Rehberg is a course director of the Master of Fine Art at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.