Catchat, following an Interview With a Cat

Kristen Clevenson in conversation with Noa Ginzburg, February 2020

Catchat, a screenshot of a skype conversation, 2019.
Photo by Hannah Bruckmueller

“This is an interview recorded at the Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 12 Burgplatz Düsseldorf,” announces the interviewer. “MIAOW! MIAOW!” replies the interviewee.” In 1970, the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924-1976) conducted and recorded an Interview With a Cat. In Catchat, a trans-Atlantic collaboration between Hannah Bruckmüller, Michal Ron, and Noa Ginzburg which was recently published on PROTOCOLS, the three listen carefully to the protagonist cat and transcribe French and Cat tongues into Hebrew and Latin letters. Kristen Clevenson and Noa Ginzburg share with Art Spiel their conversation about cats, collaborating while in different time zones, transcribing illegible languages, and using deep listening to assert agency.

Kristen Clevenson: Would you start by walking us through the inspiration for this project? Tell us more about the context, yourself, your collaborator.

Noa Ginzburg: Catchat was published in January inPROTOCOLS, an online cultural journal. I am thankful that this collaboration got me to work with two incredible Broodthaers scholars, Michal Ron and Hannah Bruckmueller, who wrote their PHD dissertations on the artist in philosophy and art history, respectively. While at Hunter College, I met Hannah when she was a visiting scholar, and I was studying Broodthaers’ work in Dr. Thierry de Duve’s seminar. Thierry opens his essay in the catalog of Broodthaers’ retrospective at MoMA mentioning Interview With a Cat, and I ended up writing my final paper in his class about this work. You can listen to the interview on Ubuweb,here.

Broodthaers’ (I will refer to Marcel Broodthaers as MB from now on) interview with his cat made me think about the interview as a form of performance, in which the performer/interviewer is not necessarily interested in listening to their interviewee’s answers. MB uses the cat’s voice to make an institutional critique. This is also reflected in the reception and discourse of the work, which mainly focuses on MB’s questions. In my seminar paper, I suggested that this sound piece has the quality of an audible dance, each dancer addressing a personal notion of fundamental importance—some might say self-defining. I argued that as the cat isn’t really being listened to; the agency they can assume would be limited to the interruption of their capturer. The cat starts to do so later in the piece, when MB repeats, “this is a pipe, this is not a pipe,” in English and in French. Listening to both of them, I was thinking, will they reach an understanding? Do the interviewer and interviewee become equals at some point? What form of dialectics is presented? Is any side interested in understanding the other? The conversation with Hannah and Michal started from these questions, and we played around with issues of language and translation, thinking about transcribing someone or something that you can’t fully understand.

There was a lot of real time translating happening during our conversation. It felt like time traveling, as we were in three different countries at the same time, channeling the significant time differences into our conversation.

KC: So this project grew out of an international collaboration. Can you speak about collaborating and working remotely? Also, in it, Language, communication, and translation are a huge part. Can you tell us more about how you choose the languages for this work- the texts are not a direct translation of one another, correct? So, as a reader, I feel a tension between what I am gaining by being able to read more than one language and what I am missing by not being able to read the rest. Can you speak more about how this tension operates within the work?

NG: These are questions which we discussed at length in Catchat. Michal initially pointed out the fact that MB’s interview, although it was recorded in 1970, was not translated to Hebrew up to now. While Michal speaks German, English, and Hebrew, Hannah only speaks German and English, and I speak English and Hebrew. Therefore, our conversation resulted in a playful intermingling of many languages to which we even added our “fictitious French” and of course “Cat” in various levels of fluidity. This experimental encounter of languages is reflected by the Talmudian text structure. This way, we are able to orchestrate different threads and trains of thoughts, simultaneously. We employ different footnote styles and symbols; following these references, numbers, symbols, and letters, the reader can switch, jump and go back and forth between the text and columns.

Spoken language communicates so differently from written language, and translating and transcribing exists often at a different pace. Our conversations take place over Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp, and Google Docs comments. We understand and misunderstand each other in many languages and on many platforms, leaving more room for confusion in our comments and exchanges.

We transcribed the audible French and Cat into Hebrew letters. So, if you can read Hebrew characters out loud, you are speaking French without necessarily understanding it, similarly to an English-speaking person who can read the Latin letters but doesn’t speak French. Both don’t really do the cat justice. Cats don’t care about the building blocks of letters and language. Cat’s language is much more gestural. It’s about their body language, tail wagging, whiskers spreading, distance. They tell us more than the actual sound they make. We try to find clues to these gestures in the audible sounds of the cat in the recording.

We thought it was interesting that different cultures transcribe the sound of cats differently or engage with cats using different words and key phrases. We nicknamed our project Catchat and it became part of the title. Chat of the cat/s, and chat (le chat) c’est cat in french. The wordplay seems to be in the spirit of MB and served as an opportunity to question the willingness of the “other” being, the one that might be deprived of agency and of a legible, socially comprehensible voice, to be in this conversation.

KC: Though I study art history, I’ve managed to remain rather unaware of Broodthaers works and practice. Would you give me a crash course on some of his main concerns and how you sought to subvert and/or amplify trends in his larger body of work within this project?

NG: MB was primarily a poet and turned to art in 1964 when he was already forty years old. Although his artistic career lasted only for 12 years, until his untimely death in 1976, he left a tremendously rich and quite enigmatic oeuvre. The sensibility of text, language, and words in space remained at the core of its artwork throughout his career. But our project was not only about MB or the way he is “ventriloquizing” painting (e.g. Magritte and his pipe) in this work. We took his encounter with the cat as a starting point, as a prompt for our conversation with cats.

This experimental essay invites the reader to exercise deep listening, meditate on the hardship of articulating yourself in a foreign language, conversing in multiple tongues without failing, failing miserably (or rather with joy) while recapping an exchange of sounds and gestures, and trying not to confuse sympathy with solidarity.

KC: As I visit galleries and consume media I’ve noticed the prominence of cats; for example, Karen Kilimnik and Vincent Fecteau have both recently shown work with cat imagery and (dare I mention it?) a new “Cats” movie was recently released. (All things I notice being a cat lover myself.) Do you think the art world’s fascination/attention to cats, in particular, has something to say about the social/political/global time periods of the pieces? Or perhaps plays off a deeper historical tradition?

NG: Cats might be enjoying a contemporary moment, maybe as they impersonate the ethnocentric inquiry: What does the cat has to do with me, with you, with our knowledge?

I love that cats have a continuous presence as companions and protagonists in artworks. Cats were depicted in tombs and scrolls, and some of my adored artists, like Joan Brown and Agnes Varda, have a sincere, almost family-like, relationship with cats in their work. Jacques Derrida, in his “The animal therefore I am” lecture from 1997, reflects with and on the cat. And while Derrida might be highly irritated by the gaze of his cat, he and other philosophers, like Foucault or Sartre, insisted on keeping them around for company. Cultural critics seem to have a desire for the critical gaze of the cat.

The relationship between cats and philosophy is historical. Already in Ancient Egypt, the cat goddess Bastet was closely connected to wisdom.  In the “Companionship Species Manifesto”, Donna Haraway writes “dogs… are here to live with. Partners in the crime of human evolution, they are in the garden from the get-go…”.  In a play on that, we as humans might be the partners in the crime of feline evolution.

Way before cats were riding Rumbas on youtube, Carolee Schneemann had enacted the gaze of her cat, Kitch, and Joyce Wieland made “Cat Food, a 16 mm film that is part of the MoMA collection, in which she depicts a cat as it devours a fish, purrs and naps. In that spirit, In 2018, I co-created ‘Full Moon Saloon‘ with Amra Causevic. Full Moon Saloon is an immersive installation that lets you embrace the house cat perceptions of space and surface. The experience enhances your ability to understand “Radical Coziness.” It is a safe space to commune. Our installation also included hundreds of “cat toys for the human visitors” and a sound installation that was composed from both human and feline sources. Cats usually prefer cardboard and crumbled paper to play with, but humans certainly will engage if given the opportunity.

Full Moon Saloon, an immersive installation, 2018, Amra Causevic and Noa Ginzburg, Photo by Noa Ginzburg and Amra Causevic
I Bundle The Joy to Master The Sorrow, 2019, Assembled Sculpture: Glazed porcelain objects, crocheted acrylic yarn, threads, and twine, repurposed glass objects, weaved sequins, rope, paper cutout, golden wooden frame.8x12x5” (I Don’t Go By That, Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects, curated by Joachim Pissarro) Photo: Britt Glasscock

KC: You mentioned that Catchat is a work in progress, what’s next for this project?

NG: First, I want to thank the folks at PROTOCOLS, who have helped to get the essay to its current graphic shape, and for publishing it. We are so grateful. We would like to expand the conversation, thinking about the idea of Hevruta, a gathering for a discussion of core ideas and seminal texts and thoughts of ritual, habit, vice, and life.  We would love to indulge with more footnotes and references, and other visual tokens. Currently, the online version includes active web links but we would like to play with a physical, printed edition. Moving forward, we are working on an opportunity for the three of us to physically meet and continue the conversation

KC: I know you recently graduated from the Hunter MFA program (May 2019). What’s next?

NG: I moved to New York in 2016 to do my MFA at Hunter college. For those three years, the studio building functioned in many ways as my primary community center and I’ve treasured taking part in the community and being a facilitator in the cohort.I was equal parts eager and nervous about graduation, to be honest, but I’m happy that since graduating I’ve gotten opportunities to develop and show my work with brilliant artists and venues in New York. My studio is in Gowanus, where I’ve been lashing and knotting Extra Ocular Objects and bundles: assembled performative sculptures that play with alternating points of views and breaking down hierarchies between viewers and objects in spatial assemblages, aka my installations. Some of these works will be featured in a two-person show that will open April 18th at a new artist-run space, Langer Over Dickie, in Chicago. It will be my first visit to the city and I’m really looking forward to spending time in the Midwest, working with a Chicago-based artist, Michael Lopez, and the directors of the space, KT Duffy and Ali Seradge.

Kristen Clevenson is an art historian and curator. She is the Curatorial Assistant at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and an MA candidate in Art History at Hunter College. She has written for multiple publications including Two Coats of Paint and Whitehot Magazine and her research has been published by the Rauschenberg Foundation and in The Oculus, the University of Virginia Undergraduate Research Journal (2018).

Noa Ginzburg is an artist and educator. She studied Medical and Life Sciences in Tel Aviv University and Multi-Disciplinary Art at Shenkar College. Recently she graduated from the MFA Studio Art program at Hunter College in New York (2019), and has shown her work in solo, collective, and group exhibitions in Israel, Colombia, and the US. She teaches visual art in schools in New York.