Bee Time: Terence Koh and Ross Simonini in Conversation
The following conversation was conducted outdoors in the early morning in Muir Beach, California. It is one of many conversations between Koh and Simonini, who have both recently located from New York to Northern California. A previous talk between the two artists appears in Episode 5, Season 1 of SFMOMA’s Raw Material.
Terence Koh: I saw honeybees in your garden this morning. It’s a good sign when honeybees are around. The ecosystem is healthy enough that it’s able to support them. They seem happy.
Ross Simonini: How do they seem happy?
TK: It’s an important question, whether you can feel what an insect feels. It’s unexplainable. Some kind of vibration emanates from them. I think it’s from observing them for the last three years, working on the Bee Chapel projects.
RS: Is it how they move?
TK: Everything. It’s how they congregate, how they’re flying around, how close the moon is to the earth. Also the time of day, the weather, the seasons, and then that indescribable vibration — I think it’s just there if you let it be. There’s nothing that separates me from the honeybee. We’re just forces of energy and vibrations, so you can, if you wanted to, just tune into that. Bee time.
RS: Time is an important material for you. I noticed your Instagram post the other day suggested we should all get rid of clocks.
TK: Let’s burn all the clocks on Earth now. Then we will realize all this time we are already inside time. We go about most of our daily lives believing we are outside of time. We see clocks and we see them as separate from us. We know it’s eleven, twelve or something right now and we know that at eight-ish, it’s dinner time. We separate it into little, linear blocks, which is one part of it as well, but we tend to forget time can also be spherical.
RS: The prison of time.
TK: If the whole world decided we’re just going to work for two hours a day, to meet our basic food and shelter needs, and then the rest of the time we would devote to love — it’s completely possible. I truly believe this can happen. Why don’t we do this? Why we couldn’t just all slow down as a whole species? Instead of all these wars and sufferings, like all these Senators debating over the health care rules, and TVs, and dramas. Why are we devoting so much time into all these different things instead of the fundamental things? Like having food that we grow, that we planted as seeds and we saw grow up. And we protect it from aphids and we have to build fences because there were deer and then you eat it and then you poop it out and you compost it as well. It’s a whole system.
RS: Your recent show [sleeping in a beam of sunlight at Moran Bondaroff in Los Angeles] seemed like a way of living in that system you just described, right?
TK: Yeah, that’s right. What interests me is the idea of living systems, and the idea of wholeness. What are the basic things that we need too be completely alive? To see the different seasons but also to make seasons with poetry and dance and eating and killing aphids (if it’s an ethical choice), and pooping as well. That can all be mixed up as one togetherness.
RS: Did you poop in a toilet or did you compost?
TK: I compost.
RS: On the roof?
TK: Yes. I lived in the gallery for six weeks without leaving the gallery and went off the grid. The only system that we took from the main system was the water supply. Everything else, like the power, was from solar panels and pooping was into a bucket on the rooftop with a little box over it and a toilet seat. It actually felt very pleasant.
RS: Did you use sawdust?
TK: Yes sawdust. I’d never pooped in a compost toilet before. But after the first few days, when you’re pooping outside and you’re waking up in the morning and the sun is just coming up, you see the sunlight hitting the tops of the trees and the birds are chirping and the honeybees are just kind of getting up and buzzing around and a waft of wind is blowing through your butt cheeks you go, why don’t we all poop like this as well?
RS: How did the concept of time affect your life in the gallery?
TK: A rhythm just happened naturally. One notices that the gallery windows faces east, as that’s where the sun wakes up. We slept in the front windows by the gallery area and we set up a bed over there and we brought Garrick [Koh’s partner] and Skeleton, my cat, as involuntary volunteers — they are part of my family as well.
RS: And Garrick had a café in the gallery where he cooked.
TK: That’s right, GG’s Cafe. A little dream of ours has been to set up a little cafe, art gallery, print press, and massage parlor. This space used to be the gallery’s crating room, and we opened up the ceiling for the skylight and stairway to the Bee Chapel garden upstairs. During gallery opening hours, when Garrick was around, he would be cooking stuff for either the gallery staff or people who just happened to be visiting. A cafe also becomes a public spot, a political spot. We would devote nights to music and political discussion.
RS: You never left the gallery, right?
TK: Correct. I stayed within the parameters of the gallery from January 28 to March 11. I wanted to do this so that I could attune myself with the building’s systems and attune myself with the bees in the Bee Chapel as well. The gallery became home.
RS: And this was a way of investigating a kind of cycle of time?
TK: I remember observing the plants growing up. At the beginning of the show the vegetable box was little baby seedlings and at the end — it was actually funny that I didn’t eat most of them because I got attached to the vegetables and they were so beautiful to look at. Did you know that broccoli is just unopened flowers? And we were in bee time because I could sense them waking up even when I was downstairs in the gallery. And there was pee time as well. You had to climb all the way up, pass a fairly vast gallery, and then climb over another barrier, and then pee into the ivy between two buildings. There’s so many ways to perceive time.
RS: And you didn’t let anything leave the gallery space. No waste.
TK: I didn’t throw out trash for the show. I made a Trash Mountain in the gallery, which is this accumulating pile of trash that got higher and higher as the show progressed. I got artificial flowers as well, like roses, and I planted them on Trash Mountain. I don’t know how my mind thinks but it was also Ego Mountain as well. I got out all these Sigmund Freud books and they were all hidden amongst the mountains. So you would see Civilization and its Discontents or Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex. But then on the very last week I decided to set all this kindling at the very base of the mountain, and all these matches as well, and then all these dried mission fig branches so one single match could set off the whole exhibition on fire.
RS: But it didn’t.
TK: I decided not to light it.
RS: And the whole show was powered by solar energy.
TK: Not the whole show but as much as we could. It’s very important that one generates one’s own power.
RS: That’s your plan, right? Once you get to a place where you can be permanent.
TK: Well we are looking anywhere around the coast north and south and up and down and here and there for a quiet sunny plot of land on this Earth so we could, as Gary Snyder said, “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” Build our own home. We designed a system of modules that can be built as time and money allows so that eventually all the modules would form a ring with a courtyard in the middle. We will plant an apple tree at the center. Start a garden and grow as much food as we can from the land. And part of the land is devoted to marijuana so that we can make marijuana chocolates and products to fund all our other projects, like the printing press and cafe. It’s important that I figure out some sort of income so that I don’t rely on the sale of art for my living expenses.
RS: Isn’t that the same thing though, in a way? You’re still selling something, one is marijuana, one is art.
TK: Yes, it is, but marijuana is universal.
RS: Cannabis is more egalitarian.
TK: Anybody could come to our shop and buy a box of chocolate weed that’s affordable.
RS: You could sell art that way too, though.
TK: That’s fair.
RS: All of this seems to me like a really strong move towards self-sufficiency on your part. The bees, weed, plants.
TK: You use healing herbs in your work, as well.
RS: Yeah, and for the same reason, I think. Sovereignty. The idea is that we stop thinking about health as helpless emergencies, where you have a problem and you go to the doctor because she is the only one who can fix you. The rest of the time we all just zone out and don’t think about health at all. That’s western allopathic medicine. Whereas with herbalism you’re constantly evaluating health, becoming sensitive to the fluctuations and micro-sensitivities of your body so that you can be maintaining a state of health and preventing the sort of acute problems that require you to be dependent upon a doctor.
TK: And the whole pharmaceutical industry.
RS: Last night, we all had Four Thieves vinegar on our salad, which has all these different herbs in it; it was something that they made during the plague to stave off disease. It was a staple in the kitchen.
RS: But part of this kind of sovereignty is staying in one place for a while, which is not the way most people in our generation have lived, including you and me. We’re just hopping from one place to another so we never really get to know the nuance of the area we’re in. And it’s all because of technology.
TK: Technology and civilization are happening much faster than we are moving spiritually. We also go into different bubbles as well, because in our Instagram bubbles we all have these perfect, beautiful images.
RS: You just started Instagram (@kohisland).
TK: I did. Two weeks ago.
RS: You came out of the exhibition and one of the first things you do is get on Instagram.
TK: People always want to tell stories. The first caveman, when he discovered the shadows made interesting patterns, when they were having a campfire in a cave and they made silhouettes, they told stories. I think Instagram is just a different way of telling a story, except that this time there’s likes and followers. I would like Instagram better without followers or likes. They give you a little adrenaline, a little serotonin so that you constantly check your phone. As you press down with your finger on your iPhone, that little love thing pops up.
RS: Are you trying to get to a place where you don’t need technology?
TK: It’s not what I envision yet. Me and Garrick still buy things on iTunes and watch stupid movies.
RS: Do you want to totally expunge that from your life?
TK: I don’t know. Because I think about the Nearings. Helen and Scott Nearing, and they were as perfect as humans could get. But then you think about Alan Watts, he wasn’t perfect. He accepted all his imperfections — his drinking, his weed smoking. He wasn’t striving to be perfect because it’s not possible to be perfect, except if you were Scott or Helen Nearing.
RS: The way you talk doesn’t seem to be toward art, it seems to be away from it. Do you want to get away from art with a capital A, and closer to the Nearings, who just lived artfully? I know you just visited David Ireland’s house on Capp Street.
TK: Yes. It was the first time I had ever cried in a work of art, because of a work of art. In a sunny spot in one of the rooms on the second floor. Thinking about it now I think it was so soon after the Bee Chapel home show where the gallery was the work was the home. Similar emotions. Connections of trees and time. This question as about art and life. It’s both so simple and so hard. We’re both thinking about it all the time.
RS: It’s the question.
TK: Why collectors would want to like spend money on art when the most amazing cloud is passing right this very moment? Or if you just took a moment to see this single end of this piece of grass you could stare at it for six days. Don’t eat and just stare at the single piece of the end of this grass. That’s more amazing than any piece of art I can ever produce. You could be taking a poop in your accountant’s office and the fascination of the flush of the water, billions of drops of water into this blackness of a plumbing system.
RS: Just pure curiosity.
TK: Fascination and wonder, which is what art is. But the thing is, anybody could do that. Can I read that quote that we saw in the book last night?
RS: In A Course In Miracles? Sure.
[Simonini and Koh search the house for the book.]
RS: Here it is, by the window. I should say that you opened this book last night, at random, and pointed to this line by pure chance.
TK: “Time is indeed unkind to the unholy relationship. For time is cruel in the ego’s hands, as it is kind when used for gentleness.”