Critics Page In Conversation
Rirkrit Tiravanija & Tomas Vu with Yasi Alipour
The following narrative is made of conversation fragments stitched together—an attempt to capture a day. This is how conversations often happen: hours pass, we talk about everything and nothing, our voices move in and out of focus. It was a Thursday, like many others. I start my day teaching a six-hour class. Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tomas Vu, collaborators and co-conspirators, began this conversation over a game of golf. Me and my voice recorder entered the scene long after the game ended. It took a few train rides and an uber to find the two deep in Long Island.
On the Road
[In Rirkrit Tiravanija’s vintage car.Tomas Vu follows us in his truck.]
[We have been small talking about our driver’s licenses and ended up touching on different nation states, border officers, and one prison story. I realize that the recording has to begin. We go into our usual subject, art education and the university—lowkey, this conversation is about the banality of evil.]
Yasi: You know, I’ve been teaching this class on art history and colonialism. It’s an interesting challenge for me. More than 60% of my students come from histories where their parents or grandparents have lived under colonization. The stakes are real. Yet somehow, I feel like the environments that surround us dictate ambivalence.
Rirkrit: Well, I mean, we sit in class, in the “Think Tank,” going, “Okay, well, it's time we just write our history now.” But we can’t do the Western timeline anymore. We got to make our own timeline. But also, Thais were not colonized.
Yasi: Totally, Iran was also never an official colony. There was Imperialism and occupation but…
Rirkrit: We colonized ourselves. When I go to look for old texts for archeology or anthropology, it's all written by the English—even when it’s the writing of all these smart people in Thailand, they all went to England. We all let ourselves be colonized by that. How do we turn that around? How do we say, “we have our own time and space?”
And we have to say, “what is our motivation?” Is it for the other or is it for ourselves? In some ways I like being a bit Buddhist, in the sense of, “Just don’t worry. Let them destroy it.” In the end, it's infinite. And in the end, it's a void. [Laughter]
[You can hear the car’s turn signal. We have arrived.]
We reunite with Tomas and the conversations continue; we chit chat around urgent battles and we make bitter jokes about our struggling “homelands” and our alienness here. What has just happened without recording is this:us walking to the shore, and then step by step, engulfing ourselves in the Atlantic. The water is cold. This is not a beach, it’s a corner of an exclusive landscape that is not used to holding people like us. Rirkrit and Tomas bicker back and forth. In their own absurdly competitive and yet deeply loving way, they are held by their old, shared history. If you have ever spent time with these two together, you can imagine this part yourself.
[The recording begins again. We are in the backyard next to a pool. The grilling has begun.]
Rirkrit: Okay, I'm gonna take a quick shower. Also, I have to go on a zoom call at 9.
Yasi: But you will come back from it?
Rirkrit: Yeah. We’ll eat and talk. It’s just Hong Kong.
Tomas: Yeah, he’s got a big project there.
Yasi: It is interesting how good Rirkrit is at not showing his hand, so he gets to work in all these politically charged places. And then there’s us who grew up in dictatorships and yet we don’t know how to keep our mouths shut.
Tomas: It's true. Rirkrit has always been able to navigate between spaces where, for me, I'm uncomfortable because there's a certain mannerism of privilege. Rirkrit walks in there like he belongs. But he's been conditioned and trained this way.
Yasi: Yeah, it makes sense that his dad was a diplomat. And then there’s you and your grandfather, fighting the good fight and getting in trouble.
Tomas: Yeah, my grandfather was from a very well-to-do family. He went off to Paris as a student as part of that generation of the Vietnamese in the 30s and 40s.
Yasi: He was one of those. Young colonized that found each other in France and became anti-colonial thinkers. They came back with plans and dreams.
Tomas: And he got in trouble for it. He spoke out against Ho Chi Minh, so he was imprisoned for a while, and then after that they publicly executed him. My grandfather came back from France and ran a newspaper.
Yasi: That's a classic.
Tomas: Yeah. He had to speak out. And he was very public about it from very early on.
Yasi: The broken pen: the story of the people who write and think and teach under oppression. Makes me think of your work, your obsessively systemic drawing, and your community centered teaching.
[Our conversation gets interrupted. We meet Rirkrit’s dog. Tomas leaves to shower.]
[Indoors, we sit around the kitchen island. Rirkrit is on one side, close to the stove. Me and Tomas on the other side. The “official interview” is to begin.]
Rirkrit: [Pointing to a bucket full of oysters] Okay, I’m going to shuck it and give it to you guys.
Yasi: So, to get us started, I wanted to ask each of you about 1989—
Tomas: 1989! Oh, that’s Tiananmen Square, Berlin Wall, apartheid… that’s my second year at graduate school at Yale.
Yasi: And Rirkrit, you finished the Whitney ISP not long before that? I say 1989, as this specific moment in the beginning of Globalism and in each of your educations. (Yale as this famously formal space, and ISP a political one)?
Tomas: There’s a lot there. [Laughs]
Rirkrit: Well, you know, when I went to the ISP my thoughts were that this is their history, their problem. This is how they build from their problem. I’m just gonna sit here, listen to it. I remember thinking to myself “I don't need this. Because it’s not mine.“
Tomas: And it has nothing to do with you.
Rirkrit: Yeah. The other night, I was telling my students how I stumbled into art. And how I ended up always as a misfit, always in the outsider group. And I was taught by the outsider group and the misfits. I was just at the wrong place at the right time.
Yasi: But what did it feel like to literally be the only person who’s not white and American at that place?
Tomas: Yeah, welcome to Yale. It was very difficult at that point.
Rirkrit: I seriously say this, I come from a place that was not colonized in the official sense. We were the R&R (US military’s Rest and Recreation). If you decide you’re gonna sell yourself, you better know how to make it work. You’ve got to take advantage of it. It’s knowing how to use it. And also, not to be put in the position of being used.
Tomas: I was not that clever. I was a reactionary. I chose Yale because I was gonna deconstruct the Ivory Tower from the inside. Before Yale, I was doing all this graffiti work. When they brought me in there, I was a fish out of water. Suddenly we were talking about Albers’s color theory. And I am thinking “what the fuck are we talking about here?” The funny thing is, hearing Rirkrit say he was always seeing himself as the outsider. I never knew that, or I never thought of you that way.
Rirkrit: Me? No, smart white people don’t realize that either. They don’t realize that I'm not a part of that. And because of that, they always see me as a mystery.
Tomas: And you let them misread you. You lead them there or you don’t care to correct them.
Rirkrit: I don’t care to correct them when they say my name incorrectly. Because that’s a reflection on them. It’s a reflection on the institution, when the institution reacts or doesn't react, but I know they’re gonna do that.
Tomas: How did Thailand avoid all that shit? You had nothing of value?
Rirkrit: No, we gave things away. [Laughter]
Tomas: That’s the strategy. Give it away before they take it away.
Rirkrit: We gave away Cambodia, we gave away Laos, we gave away Malaysia, we gave away Burma. And these territories were fluctuating anyway, right? It wasn’t ours in the first place. Why do you think we are known as the land of smiles? We just smile.
Yasi: So, here is a question that has been haunting me (very much influenced by Eve Kosofsky Sedwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1990): Are we always stuck to being either a reformist or separationist? Is there anything else?
Rirkrit: You can be the vagabond!
Yasi: [Laughs] Right. As we are, together in this beautiful home eating oysters.
Tomas: Yeah, the irony of all that.
[We took a detour. We talk of oysters and the art of shucking different kinds of oysters. The shells cut Rirkrit’s hand. Tomas remembers the free “French” oyster in Vietnam back in the day. I wonder about the city I share with my parents, and how they knew Tehran as a place that for me is not even possible to imagine. Revolutions happen. We wash dishes to prepare for steak.]
Tomas: Why do you think there’s such absolute definition?
Yasi: I’m tired of simply being a reformist within violent structures. You think you are doing something critical but you are just helping the structure upgrade itself and continue its violence. And I don’t trust my separationist desires. It all ends up with choosing who is in and who is not, basically defining new borders and policing them. Fuck that.
Rirkrit: You do both! [Laughter] That’s why I would be the vagabond. I do both plus plus. You know when I say vagabond, I just mean that you're not institutionalized. You’re not grounded. And of course, it will always become institutional. Everything that can be, will be. But you can keep moving.
Tomas: Rirkrit always gets to have it both ways.
Yasi: Because of people like you…
Tomas: Yeah, how’s that?
Yasi: Cause you invite and host him, while you are the one doing the work on the ground! And I must say, honestly, I really appreciate that you do hold that space, that you do the day in and day out work. You have been really important for my survival in a place like Columbia, and this country, and it’s art world. But yes, you're enabling him to be a vagabond.
Tomas: Yeah. [Laughs].
Rirkrit: There have to be vagabonds and enablers of vagabonds…
Tomas: I think there is truth to that. There’s something there.
Yasi: Rirkrit, your class is famous for how it disguises itself as an advanced sculpture class that refuses object-making. You even refuse to enter the campus. It’s all about leaving that place, being on the move, having conversations on the run. Tomas, a big part of your teaching in contrast is through the Leroy Neiman Center for Print Studies, which is not only on campus, but it’s a unique kind of shelter hiding in plain sight. You built it from scratch and have run and protected it for years now. It is not only where we have classes, or where we meet and work with established artists. It’s where people go when they need work and money to survive Columbia. It’s where the students hide to nag and debate and plan and occasionally write angry letters and manifestos.
I don’t know Rirkrit, I wonder if the ultimate anti-enablers are actually not the “vagabonds” but the admins and bureaucrats…
Rirkrit: The bureaucrats have the power because of fear. People are afraid to be responsible, afraid to be sued, afraid to be canceled. So, they need a surface, right? Which is bureaucracy.
Yasi: Which is fascinating, cause on one end there are people scared of being responsible, sued, or cancelled, and on the other end facing them are people who are in danger of deportation, displacement, and actual financial, physical, and mental harm. And somehow the first group believes their fear to be more real.
Rirkrit: They're scared of living and being confronted by reality, which is ugly, which is dangerous. Because they have set it all up that way. Because they've destroyed so many lives.
Tomas: The thing that they fear is where I think my work begins.
Yasi: And to be clear, at this point and with the current rate, there’s no arguments, MFAs are beyond indefensible. But let’s be real. How else can a young artist from all these histories of erasure be in a place like New York. It’s literal, there’s no other “Visa.” Not that everyone needs to be in New York, but this place does have immense power and hold when it comes to defining and valuing contemporary art. It is not naïveté that brings people here. More like exhaustion.
Rirkrit: No, we have had a lot of this discussion. It always goes like this. We’ve got to be in institutions, so we can change the institution.
Yasi: Yes, reformists!
Rirkrit: Yeah. And you know what, that’s the thing, bureaucrats think they are reformists. They are like, “we are going to have the school come and tell us what to do. And we will reform!”
Tomas: See, they lack imagination. They will not put themselves at risk. Because there are these rules and they follow them. And they use that as the shield from doing anything. But I've not seen them do anything for anyone, except for themselves … Rirkrit and I are now talking about how we’ve got to get out of this academia and start our own thing. We don't know what that thing is. But we know that this model is broken.
Rirkrit: And a lot of people know that this model is broken.
Yasi: I’m curious to know, do you say no if you face censorship?
Rirkrit: Singapore censored me and I said no. Every year to come back to me like, “we’re not gonna do that anymore. You can do whatever you like.” And I say, “No, you did it.” In Singapore you cannot make an image of Lee Kuan Yew as an artist. So, I taught a class there and we had a huge row of shop front windows that went into the subway station. So I said “Okay. Paint just his lips!”
Tomas: [Laughs] Is it recognizable as his lips?
Rirkrit: Yes. He has thin lips. And then just say “we can’t speak.” This was something they can’t do. They can’t imagine how to get around that.
Tomas: Hey Rirkrit, you have 6 minutes.
Rirkrit: No, I have an alarm on. When the alarm comes on, I’m gonna go to the meeting.
Tomas: Oh, you don’t have to do anything?
Rirkrit: No, they’re gonna tell me what the situation is with the museum in Hong Kong and what they expect me to do. And I’m gonna say, “well, we’re gonna paint images of protest on the wall.”
Tomas: That’s a no already. I don’t know why you think that’s allowed.
Rirkrit: You have to put the margin over there before you negotiate.
Tomas: Because we did one of your walls for the DRAW show in that museum in Beijing. And boy, did we get in some shit for that.
Rirkrit: What? But it was up, right?
Tomas: It was up, but we could have won the show of the year. [The alarm goes off]
Rirkrit: Who cares about the show of the year?
Tomas: Go fuck yourself!
[We are in the backyard again. According to the people on the Hong Kong zoom call, things are more laid back than what we imagine. I’m skeptical. We talk about the colonization of Mars and the contemporary art that has been collected to go there. I fear Elon Musk; Tomas and Rirkrit want the car.
Yasi: Do you think we can resolve the past (or even think about it) in English?
Rirkrit: Yeah, I’ve been thoroughly down to the genetic coding colonized.
Yasi: I think my last question is relatively concrete. Have either of you checked all the news around the New York Fashion Week? I kept thinking about your collaborative work, the t-shirts with the texts.
Rirkrit: Yes, I saw AOC’s “tax the rich.” And I was thinking, “No! Beware Bastards.” That is way better. “Tax the rich” is so close-ended that it is no longer interesting. You wore this fancy dress going to this fancy rich people’s thing. “Rich bastards, Beware.” That would fuck them up.
Tomas: Listen, try walking into the protests for George Floyd last summer in New York, wearing “Police the Police.” I was there with my kids and we were all wearing it. There were 30 cops right there. It was very awkward. They’re all staring at this thing. And I think “oh, shit.”
Yasi: That’s why I recommend wearing an extra layer. Comes in handy.
Rirkrit: No, but you are wearing it to show them. You should have taken pictures with them.
Tomas: Actually, you would walk by the Black cops and they’d give you a thumbs up. But the other cops are just foaming at the mouth. They’re gonna take your head off.
Rirkrit: But even the most radical left is vague, and that’s a problem.
[We digress for a bit and talk about ice cream, a potential pie, and judge people who don’t like canned whipped cream]
Yasi: If you were asked to hold a position of full power—in a university, an art institution or even a government—to implement your utopian version, would you say yes?
Tomas: Would it be without the opposition?
Yasi: I don’t know, sure…
Rirkrit: To me, it would have been better to have Donald Trump burn this place into the ground.
Yasi: As the Iranian in the room, I must say, I feel like it’s people like us who are gonna pay the price.
Rirkrit: The thing is, they will burn it to the ground. We have to know how not to get burnt.
Yasi: Can we not get burnt?
Rirkrit: Yes! We have our own community. We have our own system. We have our own networks. We have our own structures. We have our own economy.
Yasi: But have we been able to protect each other?
Rirkrit: You don’t think?
[We go over some examples, names, classmates, students, comrades, people we love and care about. People who did/could not “stay.” We try to measure our precarity. I get lost in my thoughts, then and now: what does it mean to protect one another?]
Rirkrit: I mean I don’t necessarily think they all have to be here.
Yasi: I know.
Rirkrit: We all should be vagabonds, because we can work and live. We’re creative enough and that’s the point. We are artists and we should be able to do what we’re supposed to do, wherever we are, in whatever condition. That’s what I mean. And that’s what is not being taught.
[We’ve brought back the ghosts of the past. We are swimming in memories. The day has been long. We all teach tomorrow. And we are so many hours away. We head back]
I meet with Tomas weeks later. We are in the Hungarian Pastry Shop near Columbia University.
Tomas: I tend to have all the other weirdos who don’t fit into anything else. How did you fall into my sphere? [He names other people, former and current students; we are all vastly different people.] I’m interested in this collective thing. I don’t have a soap box I stand on and deal with the narrative of the personal history I went through. They don’t listen. I don’t have a voice they listen to. I plastered their precious museum and library; I built shanty towns on their campus. Nothing. I was just a nuisance to them. So, I had to reimagine, I had to reinvent myself to make it work. I’m still talking about the same issues. This is a broken landscape you are talking about, but there’s beauty in that.
Maybe on the surface, I seem pessimistic but the work that I do is very optimistic, there is this beauty in the chaos of it all…
[A random fragment of all the fragments. We talk for hours more.]