17 August 2009

Building Rome in a Day: an Interview with Liz Glynn

‘Building Rome in a Day’ was part of the New Museum's ‘The Generational: Younger than Jesus’ exhibition in spring 2009. The exhibit, conceived and organized by LA-based artist Liz Glynn, had groups of volunteers constructing and destroy the city of Rome, tracing its architectural history from its founding by Romulus in 753 BC to Alaric’s conquest of the city in 410 CE. NYT has the time-lapse video here. Liz was kind enough to sit down with me and talk about the project back in April. (That’s forever in blog time, but no time at all in archaeology, so it averages out!)

Dan: For starters: how did the 'Building Rome in a Day' project come about?

Liz: I was making a lot of works based on language at the time, and I tend to have a lot of fragmentary but iconic bits of text bouncing around in my head at any given time. I was also working with ideas of utopia. But whenever I was working directly with utopia, all anyone wanted to talk about was futility. but I wanted to talk about possibility, and what can be done. So I decided "building Rome in a day" was a good way to refute the idea of the insurmountable challenge.

Dan: I love puns and contradictions, so the idea of refuting a proverb (“Rome was not built in a day”) tickles me. It's wonderfully contrarian.

Liz: Yes. I like things that are little blunt, verging on stupid. But so stupid, you've got to try them.

Dan: It’s interesting that you mention optimism. the project has a very modernist feel to it somehow – that technological optimist attitude - the sense of 'we can do it!', no matter how absurd or ambitious the project.

Liz: hmmm... there's a sense of that, but then there's also the destructive aspects of the closing [of the exhibit, where the city is destroyed], which I think people in the high modern era were in denial about. I think the rise of modern technology was a little blind perhaps.

Dan: So is it more a rejection of that postmodern cynicism that you're aiming for? A post-postmodernism?

Liz: I don't know if I’d classify it relative to the modern/postmodern dichotomy; it's more of a reaction against the post-60s-apathy. I think a lot of people in our generation are bewildered by the complexity of the problems facing them. Part of the Rome piece is reducing the scale to make an enormous, complex thing accessible in a hands-on way.

Dan: On that note, I want to detour into some of the practical stuff for a moment. My readers are going to want to know some of the nerdy details, like, what did you do about the hills? Is everything in scale? What were your sources? Did you really make it from Romulus to Alaric in 24 hours?

Liz: We started with the 7 hills stenciled (just their names) on the cardboard. We don't have much in the way of topography, however, simply as a practical matter. The scale is relative to the buildings already built. We began with the hut of Romulus, and I think the last building is St. John Lateran. But very little is built near the end. And yes, we covered 753BC to 410AD, about 1.238 years per minute.

The Hut of Romulus (Zack Sultan, via Archaeology Magazine)

Dan: You used cardboard and plastic – not your usual archaeological materials. I love the aesthetic contradiction of representing these 'eternal' monuments in ephemeral, disposable, very modern media.

Liz: Ah, all of the materials are recycled from the museum's waste stream - nothing comes from nothing. We use cardboard as an analog for brick, and wood for marble (we switch when we hit the era of Augustus).

Dan: Nice!

Liz: Yes, even marble was "recycled" or at least refashioned in ancient Rome. There's a great bust in the Getty Villa that used to be one emperor, and now is another carved from his unpopular predecessor’s head!

Dan: It's true - the great irony of archaeological conservation was that the ancient practice was to recycle building materials.

Liz: Yes. Our idea of the eternal monument is very much a modern construct. In the case of Rome, there was a point in the nineteenth century when they decided what ruins were iconic enough to preserve, and leveled everything else to build apartments.

Dan: How literally did you reenact things like fires and invasions?

Liz: The big invasions - the Gauls and the Visigoths - are musical. Dan Friel, of the band Parts and Labor, played the Gauls, and those present acted out a vicious battle scene. Shahzad Ismaily played an accompaniment to the Visigoth destruction. As for the fires... for the version I did in LA, we used small fireworks and matches, with lots of water handy. For the New York version, at one point we brought a building outside and burnt it on the Bowery (which was not necessarily sanctioned). But otherwise, we dumped red paint on it, improvised, stomped, and then, restored! We used lots of white paint.

Dan: Got a favorite moment from the day?

Liz: The morning was lovely, when Joshua Beckman was reading from Catullus and Edgar Saltus around the era of Caesar, and a number of people were getting into some great buildings - including Nero's Golden House, my personal favorite. Also, it was nice gathering with everyone who had been working on the piece and deciding to become the Visigoths. There were all these people swarming outside for the opening, but we huddled together, tried to decide how it would work, then took to the perimeter, and went for it.

Dan: Roman history is usually taught in such a lopsided way, so it must have been interesting to have all centuries get equal time. Any unexpected results from that?

Liz: I think it's interesting to see how little gets built during the Republican era. In fact, most of the buildings that are instantly recognizable came out of periods that were less democratic than those that we idealize the Romans for. It was, in fact, the overly ambitious and somewhat corrupt emperors who produced great buildings. (Perhaps Trajan is an exception, but anyhow…)

Dan: Did you find Augustus' conceit about 'finding brick and leaving marble' to be true?

Liz: Well, yes. The era of Augustus is CRAZY, because so much is meant to be built, and we really can't keep up. But I wonder if he was just better at documenting, or prominently dedicating, all of the buildings. We also have the Res Gestae to thank.

Dan: I was meaning to ask about that. How did you deal with the unevenness in the archaeological record? Is this a picture of Rome as it was, or Rome as it was recorded?

Liz: Well, we work from what is documented, or at least, what is left. So, with the archaic material, there is a lot of improvisation – as in "there are 27 sacrificial altars, but we don't know what they looked like". Or in some cases, we have images, like the early drawings of the temple of Jupiter, which are merely a few lines on paper. In other cases, we don't have a drawing, just a mention in the topographical dictionary. One starts to think differently about the authority of these drawings after trying to recreate them in three dimensions.

The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (Photo Litdrift)

Dan: To return to some of the conceptual aspects: I thought it was interesting that you bill yourself as the ‘organizer’ rather than the ‘artist’.

Liz: I’m an instigator, but the piece doesn't exist without a lot of helping hands. The funny thing is, a lot of work is like that, but it's not usually acknowledged. I’m sort of at the mercy of the participants in a sense.... I couldn't do it without them. At any given point in the room, if someone asks a question, it's likely I can answer it, but usually someone else can answer it better. The span of knowledge tends to be striking. Some volunteers are great builders, others have lots of history, some have favorite emperors, and some are just super creative and crafty.

Dan: How many people showed up? And how well did they work together?

Liz: I think about 100. They were great; some made new friends, other kept to themselves. I have an old friend who is very charming, and she was there in the middle of the night and really kept the energy up.

Dan: So you had a few lictors, as it were.

Liz: Of course! And a delicious feast around noon. A roast, lots of fruit and grapes, and slightly anachronistic champagne gelatin.

Dan:Coalition of the willing’is my favorite phrase to come out of the Bush years, so I love that you describe your assistants/volunteers that way.

Liz: Ah yes, going to Bush. I had this huge frustration after the flood in New Orleans (another inspiration for the piece), where I felt like everyone wanted to help so much. If they had organized all Americans taking a week off work and volunteering to build or clean up - instead of subcontracting it all - we would be much better off.

Dan: Part of the tragedy there was the squandering of good will, which could have been productive.

Liz: I never discount willingness. I’m kind of creature of faith, not in the religious sense, but as a believer in human good will.

Dan: For your volunteers, what was behind their willingness? did they get the experience they expected?

Liz: I can't speak to everyone's motivation, and I do think they vary a bit.
Generally, people seemed to enjoy it, and I think once people are building, they get pretty wrapped in. A number of those from the middle of the night returned to check in the next day.

Dan: It's a nice change from a lot of people's experience of archaeology, which is very passive - watching television, reading interpretative signs. I see people craving a more immersive experience of the past.

Liz: Yes, a lot of the participants who have been involved with academia, including a woman who has a comparative literature PhD on the Sabines, said similar things. It comes much more out of the pleasure of getting one’s hands dirty, and figuring things out in a hands-on way.

Dan: I’m struck by how the view of Rome that you created is something that would have been impossible for the ancients themselves to perceive or construct. how does that affect the meaning of the project?

Liz: I’m not sure if affects the meaning, but I do think it's interesting; hindsight is 20/20, and we can never really get a birds eye view on anything while we're in medias res, so to speak.

Dan: So how much of this project is about ancient Rome itself, and how much of it is about how we see Rome today?

Liz: I think it's more about Rome, actually, but as a metaphor for our contemporary empire. The parallels only become apparent after digging in and looking at the historical trajectory through the built environment. These parallels, by the way, are quite eerie.

Dan: Which ones were most striking to you?

Liz: The proximity of the flowering of the empire to the decline. How long it took for the empire rise, and how quickly, and precipitously it fell... I mean, look at Italy today. Their attitude about art is very telling: "all of the great work has already been made". But for me, there is so much left to do.

Dan: now I have to ask you what 'great work' means to you! Or what the great tasks are.

Liz: There's a Thomas Hirschorn quote I like, which is "Down with quality - only energy counts." It's not true across the board, but I think it's a good place to start.

For more, check out Archaeology Magazine's coverage. And don't miss Liz' amazing 'Replica Replica' project at LACMA!

(Photo Litdrift)

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