On ViewRenaissance Society
February 25–April 16, 2023
Aria Dean is an artist who works in multiple media. Her interest in materialist and structural film has always been an intellectual base, and in her new film Abattoir, U.S.A.! she builds upon that base in ways that expand her creative practice. The film takes place in a slaughterhouse, and the artist has much to say about the history and architecture of such facilities. In the conversation below, edited from a longer discussion that took place on the New Social Environment, Dean speaks with McKenzie Wark about the connection between her earlier film and her newest piece, the importance of collaboration, and the challenges of being an artist who is also a noted writer. Sternberg Press will publish a collection of Dean’s essays called Bad Infinity later this year.
McKenzie Wark (Rail): Hi, Aria, how are you doing?
Aria Dean: I’m good. How are you, McKenzie?
Rail: Good. I don’t think we’ve met in the real world, have we?
Dean: I don’t think so.
Rail: It’s like the pinball machine of life hasn’t thrown us together yet, but I’ve been aware of your work for a long time. And it’s a pleasure to get to talk to you about it. Mostly I want to talk about your new work Abattoir, U.S.A.! But before that, I want to ask about a couple of things that are personal favorites of mine in your body of work. The first is your video, Suite!—with an exclamation mark. So I sort of want to say it with a little bit of emphasis. Besides having these dancing tree creatures that are like five percent disturbing and ninety percent charming and adorable—I want to be their friend—there’s sort of a little manifesto, and the voice could be the trees. I wanted to pull out some phrases and ask you about that particular piece. The voice is talking about the total inconstancy of all reality as an overwhelming image. Later it talks about having been accused of being a sophist of new and false gods. At one point it says “A bird catcher, trying to capture splendor and glory,” which struck me as, you know, like one component of an aesthetic, maybe. I wonder if that’s how you saw it?
Dean: Well, I did the voiceover, but a lot of the text is borrowed. I quoted from Giordano Bruno, Martin Heidegger, Bataille, and other thinkers that have kind of haunted the writing and thinking I’ve done. In the video these plants are dancing and there’s this voiceover and then also this sort of bedroom pop soundtrack that I made with my friend Evan Zierk, who also did the music for Abattoir, U.S.A.!. I’ve approached a lot of the work I’ve made from a very removed and analytical aesthetic sensibility, very minimal. When I made Suite! I thought, “Okay, this is a pivot point.” It was essentially the first time I began to mark out my artistic priorities as something beyond analyzing the functions of film and video.
Rail: That’s an interesting moment. When and how can one move from a practice that’s critical of how representation works, to then doing something other than it? And to me, it seems like that moment in your work is a kind of a declaration, and a question too. It’s like, “Alright, we’re not going to represent the world because we can’t. What else can we do?”
Dean: Yeah, definitely. At a certain point I was getting frustrated with the tools at hand, especially in terms of making work that critiques or unpacks those formal questions. I have a real interest in popular cinema, popular media, and art being fun and interesting, and having some sort of affect.
Rail: There’s a doorway in Suite! and in the Abattoir, U.S.A.! there’s a moment where we pass through a door. I’m wondering about the repetition of that image.
Dean: I forgot about the door moment in Suite! [Laughter] I’m really interested in the idea of the set, the scene, the scenario—and producing. With Suite! producing the exhibition space as part of the set of the video was really important. In the video, you’re watching a version of the room that you’re in, and there are these plants occupying it. It’s this nested architecture that has all these through lines that confuse the viewer’s relationship with what they're seeing and where they are.
I don’t know if the doors function the same way in Abattoir. That film has this sort of like dancing-with, or playing-with, or evading the idea of transcendence that I think is often culturally associated with death. So there is this kind of extended death moment, and then the doors open. But when they open you’re just in another part of the same space. The doors in Abattoir have a different sort of philosophy of the filmic space than the doors in Suite!, which was conceived of as more of a dance film. It’s more theatrical. Abattoir is more staunchly thinking of itself as cinema in a way.
Rail: Before we get to that, I want to ask you about a piece of writing of yours that I really admire, your essay “Black Bataille.” I like the connection in that essay between how Blackness has come to be thought of in Afropessimism and Bataille’s truly extreme, but kind of liberating, materialism or commitment to the impossibility of materialism. I wonder if that’s found its way into your work as well, that connection?
Dean: Yeah, definitely. Often I think of things I write as trying to work through some sort of weird crossover between different lines of thinking, and finding out what happens when you kind of smash together different schools of thought. I’ve been interested in Bataille for a while, in large part through Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois’s book Formless. There’s this bit in Bataille where he talks about Blackness in relation to base materialism and our relationship to politics as it’s related to base materialism. I had already noticed some resonances between Bataille and certain people who might get associated with Afropessimism, such as R.A. Judy and Frank B. Wilderson III. For example, this idea of non-productive expenditure in Bataille obviously relates to surplus populations as well, the way that Wilderson and others figure Blackness as inherently an outside that reinforces the inside.
So I wrote that essay looking at certain artistic practices, using Bataille to extend how to think about certain Black artists’ practices. But Robert Morris ended up in there too somehow. I guess it was really a critique of Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois in terms of the limitations of how they think of the formless in art, but then all that research opened onto this other thing about Bataille—like his little piece about the slaughterhouse. He talks about the slaughterhouse being a space that produces a boundary. The work in there is hidden away. But that work reinforces civil society. And decades later, but conceptually paralleling that Bataille piece, Frank Wilderson comments in “Gramsci’s Black Marx,” that just as we are not surprised that cows are killed in slaughterhouses, we should not be surprised Black people are killed in America, because the architecture—the conceptual architecture—is built for that very purpose. That is where the Abattoir work started.
Rail: Yeah, I’d never read the Krauss and Bois book, and I feel like now I don’t have to. [Laughter]
Dean: It’s great! It just suffers a little because it sits at this moment in both of their careers—or at least Krauss’s for me—where they’re still both so staunchly modernist in their approach, so their framework kind of fails because they’re just reincorporating what they see as different, or formless, into their existing frame. They aestheticize this concept in Bataille that’s really not meant to result in an aesthetic approach. The show I did at Greene Naftali in 2021 was very much trying to do some sort of formlessness thing in sculpture, without making blobs entirely. [Laughter]
Rail: Which brings us to Abattoir, U.S.A.!, your installation at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. Can you describe the piece?
Dean: Sure. It’s a single channel installation. It’s about ten minutes long. The floors are non-slip, rubber mats like you would find in a slaughterhouse. It has eight-channel sound. There’s a highly developed surround-sound system that was designed by the composer I worked with, Evan Zierk. The entire piece was made in Unreal Engine by Filip Kostic. It’s all simulated in Unreal Engine and the film is a recording of that simulation.
Rail: It makes me think of Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, which was about the meatpacking business in Chicago. Fun fact: some of my ancestors migrated to Australia, not the United States, because of that book. [Laughter] They were like, “Oh, my God, that sounds awful. Let’s go somewhere else.”
Dean: Wow. Yeah. So in the final scene, the floor is basically made of blood—well, it’s a reflective red surface that suggests blood. And then the hooks sort of loom above that. The soundscape is a pretty ambient score until the ending scene when there’s a cover of the song “I Think We’re Alone Now.” That’s a song most people associate with Tiffany, the eighties artist, but actually there’s a 1960s version and that is what we were using. So it’s a cover that is sort of a duet between a cello played by Nicky Wetherell and a cow mooing. Evan made a bunch of field recordings of a cow and used them to make a kind of instrument. It’s really processed. It’s a weird ending, energy-wise. But I think it’s funny and sweet and sad and kind of disturbing for all those reasons.
Rail: To me, that’s what fulfills a bit of that promise from Suite!—of putting all of those affects together. It’s the relation between the affects that’s disturbing to me more than anything else. Because at the end, I’m like, “Oh, I like this, but wait a minute.” The piece also reminds me of this other version of modernism—Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, which is all about how the slaughterhouse is modernity. It’s this other version of it that is just absent from a lot of art world discourse. I wonder if you went back and looked at that?
Dean: Yeah, I did a lot of research about the slaughterhouse as an architectural typology. I have a longtime love for architectural theory. I wanted to be an architect when I was in undergrad, but I was just not interested in learning the nuts and bolts that go with it. But I read a lot of architectural theory!
I basically started going back into Giedion and other writers from that time. Giedion talks about slaughterhouses being this major part of modernity. And there’s this baby-birding of architectural forms back and forth between Europe and the US; even prior to the advent of architectural modernism and the development of International Style, the slaughterhouse was a prominent point of the conversation around the appropriate nature of ornamentation. In France, there was a lot of conversation around whether or not there should be any ornamentation on slaughterhouses. And that kind of prefigured the conversation about ornament and crime a la Adolf Loos. Architecture and politics are obviously really important touchstones in terms of generating modernity, but the slaughterhouse as a site for this is not so elaborated upon. For instance, Corbusier’s first design prize—it’s a little bit washed in the archive, but you can google it—was for an abattoir, and then he repurposed the design for housing projects. Antonio Gramsci also has some really interesting writing about animal slaughter and fordims in the Prison Notebooks. Revisiting that seems like it would recontextualize modernism in some interesting ways that might connect it more to death than any sort of will to life.
Rail: It also makes me think of the “killing floor” as a figure in blues music. That kind of labor is what was available to Black men. But also, the killing floor as a state of existence, I can see it from the point of view too.
Dean: Right. And I think that goes back to Wilderson—there’s an equally material and symbolic life to the slaughterhouse, and it’s operating along both frequencies, always. In order to parse through that, I’m most interested in approaching the formal elements of it. In general, and in making this work, I am really interested in materialist and structural film. I prefer a thing to be treated as itself, not allegorized through some narrative. With Abattoir, I was asking whether that’s possible, especially with such a loaded territory or subject matter, asking myself, the audience, everyone involved—at what point does the impact of looking at this thing draw it outside itself?
There’s this idea in Abattoir that in the slaughterhouse the line between human and animal is being drawn and redrawn by killing animals in order to argue “We’re separate from that. We kill animals, we don’t kill humans. And if we kill animals, this is where we do it.” And then also the line between humans and machines and animals is being simultaneously reinforced and blurred. In this space, the line between the material and the symbolic gets confused. The space itself is generating actual material processes that affect the world, but then it’s also generating symbolic meaning. The film tries to treat the site and its processes, symbolic and material, in a way that holds it all in place. I don’t know if it does or doesn’t do that, because I’ve been sitting with the work for so long. And I don’t know what the implications of even trying are, but I know that was something that was important to me.
Rail: I immediately have two thoughts. One comes out of that “Black Bataille” essay and has to do with how materialist film tended to make the apparatus of cinema itself the limits of the materialism we could deal with, and this in a way uses a kind of form of simulation to get us even past that point, to something like a base materialism in Bataille’s sense. That’s really refreshing to me to have this other path. That’s modernity. But now I’ve completely forgotten what the second thing was!
Dean: I hear what you’re saying. In some ways it’s like, what are the limits of materialism? That is the question I’ve been preoccupied with. For a while now I’ve been obsessively reading materialist film history and materialist approaches to film, and emailing old film critics being like, “what is material film after the digital?” because that whole line of thinking was based on the idea of materials as film stock, light, time, space—but it’s like well, okay, if we’re shooting on digital or if there are other ways of producing vernacular cinema with iPhones, what actually is the material?
I’ve spent a lot of time writing about the circulation of moving images, but in some ways I think I’ve moved back to the production of the moving image. What is compelling in terms of materialism in relation to this right now? And I don’t know that shooting in Unreal Engine is necessarily always the best way through that. Here it actually was just a solution to a problem, which was that we couldn’t get access to a slaughterhouse. I wanted to just shoot in a real one. But no one would allow me into any. So it became the only way to image the space.
The idea of a Black materialist or a Black materialist film—there’s no way there could be a singular conception of that—is something I’ve also tried to write about. I wrote this essay about Arthur Jafa a few years ago, where I tried to apply a lot of Peter Gidal’s ideas to his work and ask, “okay, if we acknowledge that race has a material reality to it in some way, or has a relationship to the material world, or Blackness has a relationship to the material world, how does it insert itself into an actual material conception of the moving image, and not just as a symbolic or conceptual layer that ‘sits atop’ that material?” And again, I don’t know the answer. I think this film has moved away from that particular question.
Rail: Yeah, it gets us away from the trap of representation, which always seems to entail a kind of idealism. And that, to me, is Bataille’s point about it. But it seems to me that there’s a metonymic sideways chain from the automation of killing pigs to the automation of producing images—it’s sort of one history. And it seems too that even if it was accidental that the work ended up being made in Unreal Engine, it kind of closes the loop in that history of things that have been automated.
Dean: It’s still pretty hard to entirely automate animal slaughter. Someone has to be there to do something. And so there’s this idea that people are still involved in the “automated” world. Filip Kostic did all the simulation work, and watching him work was incredibly engaging. I initially imagined we would build a total slaughterhouse architecture in Unreal and just shoot within it. He told me that didn’t make any sense. What we needed to do was build sets of each of the spaces. It’s the same way that you would make a movie. You would never build an entire slaughterhouse on a soundstage. You might shoot on location, but you would never build the whole thing out.
The first-person point-of-view was hugely important going into the work, and shooting it in Unreal worked well for that, and became an interesting process in itself, because the way you use a camera in that program is really different. Unless you have a physical rig you’re using you’re just keyframing camera movements as though you’re keyframing time. It’s like the the camera is objectified in a funny way, or you’re just dropping cranes into space and then moving the crane around like it’s a marble. It’s a very strange way to work.
Rail: I can see you writing about the making of work like this at some point.
Dean: I hope to. This is the first time I’ve worked with Filip. Evan and I have done a number of projects together where he’s done the sound, but this is the first time we’ve all worked together. And also Andy, my assistant, he basically produced it. Right now, we’re all like, “Okay, we’re gonna do this again, but we’re going to do it on a feature scale.” We want to incorporate actors and shoot people against these backdrops and see how it looks. Because it’s totally possible, and the barriers to entry are all relative and mostly financial—more about getting access to stage space and technologies than anything else.
Rail: You’ve written scripts for actors before?
Dean: I did this play a few years ago at CAC in Geneva. Actually I wrote it for a thing at the Swiss Institute and then it took on different formats until it found its final form there. And then this project in COVID at the Hammer, King of the Loop. I have kind of a secret life as a screenwriter in more popular arenas which is, you know, really fun to pair with all of this weirder work. But I like writing for actors. I mean, in some ways, Abattoir! was really hard because I didn’t write a script at all; there was just a written scenario and storyboard of images I wanted to see. But I think it made it really hard for Evan, for instance, who was composing the score. He was over here in one black box, and Filip was in another black box; there wasn’t an object that we were working from so much. So I do really like scripts, even if there aren’t people, but I also really love working with actors. This was fun to do, but I did miss person-to-person, director-to-actor engagement.
Rail: How much is collaboration part of how you work? And how much is it a solo thing?
Dean: I think everything I do is very collaborative. Even the sculptures I make require others—I don’t do the 3D modeling or the fabrication. So I’m constantly in contact with a team of at least three people, and I really like that. I think through conversation better than I do alone. But I like to read alone; I like to write alone; I like to conceptualize alone. But in the production of work, it really means a lot to me to work with other people and also to work with them in truly collaborative ways.
I always think it’s funny, or tragic, that when we talk about film and video in the art world, it often remains in this, “the artist as singular producer” formula, when there’s a whole industry where we know that it takes so many people to make anything. I really liked acknowledging those relationships. And I like having that be part of the creative process. My parents are both in film production. So I think it comes from that being the world that I grew up in, but I don’t know. I think making art can be so lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. And I personally don’t think that I am at my sharpest when I’m in a vacuum on my own. That doesn’t birth much that is interesting.
Rail: Well, the thing that would contradict that is your volume of work as a writer. And there’s another, more extensive collection of your writing coming out later this year with Sternberg, Bad Infinity. How do you see the practice of writing what to me is media theory—you might think of it as something else—as connected to your other practices?
Dean: Yeah, the Sternberg book has been an interesting opportunity. There’s writing in there that spans from 2016 to 2023. I was in my early twenties in 2016. I can feel myself in it in a way that’s kind of vulnerable, like I can’t believe I published this, and everyone read it, and saw me freaking out in public. But yeah, I do think of it as something like media theory. I primarily think it’s all artist writings. Everything I wrote was in the service of some problem I felt I needed to solve for my studio practice.
Most of the essays in the book were written in conversation with others in major ways. For example, “Unsovereignty,” is this piece I wrote for Spike towards the beginning of COVID. That piece came out of this reading group I’ve been doing with some friends on and off for about five years. We were reading Necropolitics, and it sort of grew out of that. The “Black Bataille” essay was very much part of a conversation. We were doing this long form issue for NOVEMBER, and Emmanuel Olunkwa, who is the founding editor and a really good friend of mine, we talked a lot about that stuff. The final piece in the book, “Channel Zero,” was written for the Signals show that just opened at MoMA. That piece took me three years to write.
I remember in college, a studio art professor told us we had to write artist statements, and he said to me, “you really should mention your writing in your artist statement. It’s so crucial to your practice.” And I was like, “How dare you? I’m not a writer! I’m an artist!” I used to feel an ongoing identity crisis about that, but I’ve gotten over it.
Rail: It seems to be a particularly American thing that artists shouldn’t be writers. It comes from the idea of the nonlinguistic dumb genius artist—
Dean: But if you do write as an artist—in my experience—it’s taken to mean that your work is illustrative of whatever conclusions you’ve come to in your writing. It’s really frustrating. For example when my writing about memes is used to describe what I’m doing with sculpture. Of course these things are related, I can’t deny that, but we can’t consider the work a proof of concept for the writing.
I also think there’s this expectation as an artist who is writing that you’re supposed to write from this analytical and distanced position, when for me, it’s like I’m always standing in the center of a storm. With a work like Suite!, it’s like I just opened the box, and whatever came out of that went into the work. With Abattoir it’s a little more organized. It might be a bit more analytical because there are new questions I’m trying to answer. In some ways Abattoir and the Signals essay, “Channel Zero” have a strong relationship. They both approach the question of what happens when you remove the concept of the subject in the frame.
Rail: There’s a line in Suite! that’s “how do you do a character study of no one?” And that seemed to me to be asking: how do you do a character study of subjectivity itself?
Dean: Exactly. How would I do a character study of someone who is, in some conceptual sense, nobody? The play I did years ago was kind of the inverse. It took four young white yuppie hipster types and ran them through this weird meat grinder almost. The question was: How do I make this dinner party scene into a character study of no one? How do I unravel them? There’s a lot of stuff that I’m thinking about now, reading a lot of Catherine Malabou about plasticity, and there’s some great stuff about George Eliot in relationship to that. I’ve been reading Middlemarch, very slowly, trying to see how that might dovetail some of these things.
Rail: I just remember Virginia Woolf saying that Middlemarch was the first novel for grownups, and it really is. [Laughter] It’s a shame though that it’s always that trap of representation. As if your art is supposed to represent your writing in some sense. I mean, thinking about the phenomena of the subject, what about humans for whom subjectivity is not even available?
Dean: After a certain point in the pursuit of the anti-subjectivity line of thinking, I really did paint myself into a corner, and felt stuck making (literal) mirrors. I was trying to find a way to remain critically engaged, have a theoretically engaged practice, but also be expressive. I want to make things that excite me and are affecting in some way.
That’s been the question for the last year or two: how to draw materialist film, or structural film, or sculptural minimalism, into the present without having to make flicker films and cubes for the rest of your life. I don’t think we really need more straight-up Paul Sharits or straight-up Michael Snows. We need things that are working in new ways. And there are a million different ways to do that.
Rail: I wouldn’t say you’re painting yourself into a corner but, to me, what was so delightful about watching Suite! and then Abattoir was those moments that are like a jazz solo, where you wonder how, will they get out of that and into somewhere else? With Coltrane, you know, that’s the joy of it. So it’s been a real pleasure to engage with both those works, particularly Abattoir because of the ways it goes into the simulated world of what contemporary video technology can do, in order to literally render the place where flesh is rendered, in that other sense. I mean we all love Michael Snow, but we don’t need to do it again. You know, like, how can that resonate?
Dean: I make a lot of work that engages art history, but not in a confrontational way. I like art history. Often people have been like, “Oh, you’re taking on art history’s fucked-up canon.” But honestly, I’m just like, “I’ll take that, thank you. And that, thank you. Aaaaand … that!, thank you.” I just take what I feel the work needs, not copying things, but compressing material into new formats as things get combined in different ways. With Abattoir! what was really exciting was letting desire and affects guide the process once a structure to play with, the slaughterhouse, was identified.