By Chiara Vecchiarelli
The following interview took place on a day in December 2007 in Jeffrey Perkins’ loft, in New
York. We had just seen his last documentary film The Painter Sam Francis. The catalogue of the
Venice Biennial historic exhibition Ubi Fluxus Ibi Motus, of which he took part, was among his
books, together with a program of the experimental Cinematheque Theater 16 that he directed in
Hollywood, and his personal copy of the Fluxfax Portfolio. On the floor, two suitcases fostering
hours of interviews with passengers Perkins used to record in his cab, following
Nam June Paik’s advice.
Jeffrey Perkins is the author of original performances, the discreet story teller of Sam Francis’
work, the friendly camera operator of Yoko Ono’s Film #4. Above all he is witness of the fact that
art is the place where the singularity of one’s own practice coexists with the sharing of ideas.
Concepts that animate his practice are the source of his artistic and personal charm and one of
the most interesting issues I really would like to deal with, in thinking and organizing art.
Chiara Vecchiarelli (VC): Once, you told me a story concerning an exhibition you did. You got the money for this
exhibition from the painter Sam Francis, a friend of yours, in order to buy the wood necessary to realize the
work. After the exhibition you met some people needing some wood and you sold them the wood you used for
your art work. You sold it exactly for the price you bought it. Then you gave the money back to Sam Francis. In
your own words, it was: “Perfect”.
Jeffrey Perkins (JP): Yes!
CV: Well I think that here, in the way you acted, lies a concept which is important to understand your work and
to recognize its spirit of your everyday life, your every day practice, so to speak. You weren't particularly
interested in having an object that could be kept in a museum as a “rest”, so you let the materiality of your work
become that of something else. Once the life of the work naturally ended you let it disappear. It was an
ephemeral work somehow, a work of art that did not have any remainder.
JP: That was good for me as well, because you are right that it had an ephemeral quality and when the
consequence of it presented itself, i.e. that somebody else needed that wood to build a deck and they wanted to
pay me exactly what I paid for it myself, it was just... perfect! It was a perfect consequence for me because,
really, I didn't make it to sell it. It was to be used for something, exactly, useful. Let's say, practically useful. It
could have been used for a work of art if somebody wanted to create the room to keep the piece of work in.
However, no one set for that.
CV: I like the idea that the material was nothing but the medium for your practice, as well as for the different
practice of somebody else. Yours, of course, was that of an artist.
JP: You mentioned that, I thought I’d read a book on utopia years before by a French man, named Charles
Fourier. His idea was that of an utopian practice, an utopian system; a system of trade that was balanced and
fair for everybody involved. The only thing impeding this system was the brokering of material. Fourier felt that
the direct channel from the producer to the consumer was the most ideal thing, because when the broker gets
involved the broker doubles the price. Today what is popular is farmer's market. You are expecting they will be
cheap but they are not, they are actually more expensive because, basically, they are referring to the brokering
model as well; they are shaping their price system on the broker price system
CV: They are selling to you not only the product itself but together with it the very fact, the special fact that they
are selling without a broker. This last element becomes a value.
JP: Yes, what ever happened to cheap restaurants and places, to the good burger, the fairy deal? It doesn't
seem to exist. When I lived in Santa Monica in the Seventies, rents were cheap. Now I look back I and I see that
the prices for the same real estate, the same material, are now multiplied by a hundred; they are out of control.
The real estate market is wildly over priced but it is the only system existing and you have to pay; or you don't
get it. Why was that properly cheaper in the past? What explains that? A normal and historic and democratic
economic theory... probably. In '81 I discovered those lofts in New York, and I didn't know that, but New York
had gone through a depression; the city almost declared bankruptcy, that meant they were out of money, there
was no money to pay employees. The garbage collectors who are employees of the city, could not be paid, so
the garbage piled up on the street twenty eight feet. We heard about that in Los Angeles. So New York had a
financial depression and this place became very reasonably priced. Now it's the worst: This loft is priced so
much, people would kill me to have this place. Why did that happened? Why was there such a kind of a
CV: You mentioned another story once. You were driving your cab one time, the one you were realizing your
interviews project in, and, instead of receiving money, you received a gift from a passenger. It was a big one, a
gift with a bigger value than the work you actually had done as a cab driver. You decided not to be paid by the
next passengers until you reached the point where the value of your work and the value of the gift you received
were equal. You were searching for an equal trade that did not depend on the physicality of people. Were you
realizing something like a diffused equal trade?
JP: Yes! However it wasn’t based on money, really. In a way it was because the person who proposed this
trade, or this deal, had given me something of much greater value than I would have accumulated from the two
taxi rides that I gave for free. So I felt the trade was worthy. Basically the motive of that was a moral decision,
you know, it was based on moral truth. And in fact that is missing, in economics and politics too, there isn't a
moral truth because the truth is always mitigated or brokered by some intervening idea or interest or feel or
what-ever. I’m a victim of it. I think Joseph Beuys engaged in this kind of ideal in his time as a professor and an
artist. Really, not many artists actually make any views or want to invest their thinking in this kind of question or
problem. And yet, along with all other artists they are victims of the problem themselves and they feel isolated.
Well, another great example of the hypocrisy is that there are communities where artists take advantage of
working in poverty. Taking something base and making something fine of it is an alchemic concept. What I'm
thinking of, for example, is what happened in SoHo where artists colonized useless spaces, living the bohemian
life in cold flats. This was later observed, enjoyed, and exploited by speculators. SoHo is now one of the more
expensive places in the most expensive city in the world.
In fact, one of the greater charms and uses of Fluxus was Maciunas’ social idea. Of course it was a popular idea
at the time to live cheaply in a communal fashion, which I was also doing. In the Sixties we had it so good.
Things that happened in certain communities were food co-ops. Basically, food co-ops were made of this
utopian idea of having a direct relation between producer and consumer, i.e. of the elimination of the broker.
What happened was that communities gathered together and decided to be a dependable coherent value of
people and each week the job of a representative from the community would go get the food and bring it back to
a place were everybody else could come and get it. Basically, they would pay what it cost from the producer,
from the farmer, and so the farmer would bring it to the market, the community would go to the market and get
the food and bring it back to the people who were part of a commune.
CV: Were you part of this?
JP: Yes I was part of a food co-op and I think there could even be one in New York somewhere today. So it
existed, the idea of a food co-op.
Now there are buildings there are co-ops, where you have to apply to be a member of the building. But prices for
these real estates are just as bad as for the other places. Who the actual bosses are we will, maybe, never
know. Is it the Queen of England or the Pope? Or maybe they work for…!
In any case, Maciunas started out and eventually owned 28 buildings in SoHo. His idea was to create artist
communes. I was actually present at one of the first meetings where lofts were offered for sale. I could have
bought a loft, a 25 M2 loft for twenty five hundred dollars, on Greene Street, Wooster Street, Broadway, or
Mercer Street. Emily Harvey Gallery Building. – That was a Maciunas' building. The gallery itself was his loft and
the building extended back to Mercer Street which was his building too. So that was the idea. Each building
would have its own laundry, it would be a self sustaining community of artists. Maciunas didn't have any money
when he started, I mean, no money what so ever. He was just a graphic artist, he didn't have a trust fund or
CV: How did he make it?
JP: He got the help of Bob Watts who was a professor and they put together a little block of money to buy the
first building. They sold these lofts and with the block of money they bought another one. When I discovered this
building it was like a magical thing because in '81-'82 it was already pretty difficult to find a loft in Manhattan. I
had five hundred dollars and I wanted this floor, the sixth floor. So I had to negotiate with the net-lease holder of
the building, not the owner. I told him I wanted this floor to rent, I put an add in the Village Voice, I found people
who wanted these floors and I collected money from them and with this deposit money and my deposit money
as well, because I was working as a cabby, I went and got the list. Now, at that point I had an option between
finding out which rents to charge. My idea was also to create an artists building. In fact, what I did was that I
went to John Hendrix, the archivist of Fluxus, and I bought a Fluxus document which was co-published with
Henry Flynt and George Maciunas. This beautiful document was George's design for modular buildings. I traded
something for it with John. This was a kind of a magical object, it was something that would bring me good luck...
CV: A talisman?
JP: A talisman! Exactly, a talisman! This Fluxus publication bears the title: "How communists must give
revolutionary leadership in culture". I chose my rent. I rented out for very cheap, no profit. I could have made
money with this deal if I wanted to approach it as a money making process. I could have exploited it, I decided
not to. This also happened with driving a cab, I had opportunities in driving the cab as to move to other kinds of
work. I met people in the cab, "Oh, you are interesting, why don't you come to work for our advertising agency?"
and I just… this is the kind of stupid idealist that I am… no, I'm an artist! Basically I think that ideas like this can
work; however, they are always mitigated by the system in which they are working, and where you are working.
But now, for example, I think there is going to be a recession and prices are going to go down and I hope they
go down a lot. I can live in poverty, I can do that. In fact Sam Francis said: "Oh great, now comes out the
poverty,” it comes out the poverty in your life, your distractions. You have to live with yourself I think, with your
own dreams, not other people's dreams.
CV: The question of property and poverty is particularly important.
JP: It's very important.
CV: Do you think that it's possible to use things without owning them, or owning them but reducing the effect of
successions of property, that of making money, of inventing an extra value?
JP: . In other words, if the value of the property is not based only upon ownership, on personal greed so to
speak, then the value lies in its use, It's not a necessity to own it in order to use it, to be useful, to be of use.
What you are saying is value equals use as a formula. So, what you are saying is, I go for this idea of ownership.
Now this value is how you use it. A good model of this is a housing program, the theory of it is that apartments
are made available to homeless people with problems, alcoholics, or drug addicts or other homeless people
living in the streets and have no money. They are beggars, they are out. Well, this organization is giving these
people apartments for free, they provide them with new, clean, working apartments, one bedroom apartments
with kitchen, a furnished bed, and they ask nothing in return. If the person is getting social security or some kind
of pension, yes, they would take a portion of that, some of it, leaving enough for that person to exist, money to
buy food etc. They say that it costs more for the government to stay in contact with the needs of these people,
then to give them the apartments to make their life better, where the need or responsibility of government would
not be needed.
CV: What is interesting is that Fluxus proposed an economic alternative system and that you are still proposing
it in your everyday practice, in your small economic world.
JP: It is a practice, yes. I’m also thinking of the artist George Brecht's ideas about objects having an actual use
and value rather than depending on objects unbalanced to practical needs. Really, the way the art system exists
now is that art is expensive and it's only available for rich people.
Flynt used to say to me when he visited the yard where I was going to get my taxi cab, there's a place where all
the cabs are and you go there, you pay your money, they give you the key and then you go, you get the car and
go work. There where many cars, like a hundred, so once he went there for me and just looked, and Henry said
to me “this place is more important than any art museum in New York City”.
CV: Joseph Beuys associated himself with Fluxus in the beginning. I'm thinking of his idea of the social
sculpture. Can we speak of a social sculpture in your work, or rather of a social sculpture that presents itself in
the collateral effects of your work?
JP: I read an interview with Beuys recently where he said that he encountered a teacher that he was really
inspired by and this teacher made him think about extending the understanding of what art could be, what
sculpture could be, or, let's say, art in general. After that he probably became aware of the Fluxus avant guard
art, where art could really expand, which happened to me when I met Yoko Ono in Tokyo and I read John
Cage's book on silence. We saw the work in Anthology, and suddenly I was exposed to a new universe, a new
doorway to what I thought art was. But before that I didn't know much. I knew that paintings looked very
interesting. Then my intuition saw something; it was a matter of steps. When I first saw Beuys' work, his pictures
and magazines, I immediately understood what he was doing, and it was attractive to me. He worked with
images and was very aware of what he looked at. Doing what he did, and his background, brought in with them
something meaningful. What the felt meaning was... or, why did he wrap a piano in felt? Why is there a room in
the Pompidou with a piano wrapped in felt?
CV: When I was a child I was wondering why that piano needed to be covered or protected with felt, why there
was the red cross, a symbol that was to me that of the medical assistance. Something needed to be medicated.
Then, later, I knew, it was our European culture.
JP: That's a big question. Do you really believe that, that the European culture needs to be medicated ?
CV: At the time, after the war, it needed. Actually it's still needing it! Not only European culture. There are still
differences between European and American culture, but many cultural problems we share.
JP: What's the main common problem?
CV: To me, one problem is related to the property and to the fact that we cannot control the economic value of
things any more. Yet another one is related to the distinction between information and communication, to the
overlapping, the confusion between information and communication, between the transmission of data and the
human exchange. It’s a question of glory. The media is the place where people are exposed, it's the exhibition of
their image, and of the image of merchandising.
JP: I was thinking of it the other day, in TV they always say "this is the best thing, this is the greatest thing, this
moment, this instant is the greatest, this is the most expensive thing and we will sell it cheap, actually free, but it
is the greatest moment!". All TV is great, they must be sensational. I guess this is what the French situationist,
Guy Debord, wrote about. I think I'm a situational artist, somehow. I combine the dictates of my unconscious or
my soul and the possibilities of the situation.
March 1, 2008, Venice
ART AND USE, WITHOUT INSTRUCTIONS
Copyright 2007-2009 bei JEFF PERKINS and Christoph Plum.
IInterview Copyright Chiara Vecchiarelli 2008