by Hans Ulrich Obrist

Rita McBride, Neighbors, 2002/2023; Painted galvanized steel. Installation view Arena Momentum at Dia Beacon, Beacon, New York. Photography by Don Stahl. © Rita McBride. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.

Düsseldorf- and L.A.-based artist Rita McBride has led a decades-long investigation into the idea of the public, which she often enacts on a grand scale. Her carbon-fiber hyperboloid Mae West (2011) towers 170 feet over Munich’s Effnerplatz, while her best-known work, Arena (1997) — a 66-foot-high modular grandstand made from the heat-resistant synthetic fiber Kevlar — has traveled the world, coming alive each time new audiences interact with it. Meanwhile, a piece like Bells and Whistles (2009–2014) — a 530-foot-long site-specific collaboration with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill — explores a hidden side of public space, making visible the New School’s egress-stair pressurization duct as it snakes through six floors of the New York City building. Science fiction, collective forms of literature, geometry, and time travel also feed into the 63-year-old’s oeuvre: for example, her 2016 work Particulates (now on view at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles) is a hyperboloid of high-intensity lasers that “exchanges gravity, a core element in sculpture, for the potential of infinitely traversable space;” and she is currently investigating the idea of a public elevator to Mars, for which she has scouted out potential sites on the equator. Now on view at Dia Beacon in upstate New York, McBride’s exhibition Arena Momentum proudly features the latest iteration of Arena, accompanied by free posters showing how to build your own version of the bleachers. Paired with a series of choreographies and more of her earlier work, like 2002’s Awning (Blue Stand, City Block Blue), a minimalist take on commercial marquees, or Neighbors (2002/2023), an ensemble of neatly-arranged customized air-duct units, Arena exposes the tension between looking and being looked at, as well as the sinister side of public arenas and stadiums — a red thread in the artist’s work.

Photography by Mollie McKinley. © Rita McBride. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.

Rita McBride photographed during the Dia Momentum event at Dia Beacon in Beacon, New York, in October 2023. The artist is holding the instructional poster produced for her exhibition Arena Momentum (on view until January 2025). Using the instruction manual, visitors of the show are encouraged to reproduce the bleacher-style structure at home. Photography by Mollie McKinley. © Rita McBride. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: How did you come to art, how did art come to you, and how did you then somehow start to bridge architecture, art, and design? I’ve known your work since the late 80s, but I was curious how it all began.

Rita McBride: That’s going way back. I grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, near a wonderful museum, the Des Moines Art Center, a beautiful Eliel Saarinen building with a 1960s addition by I. M. Pei and a 1980s extension from Richard Meier. My love for art grew there, and it’s where I became aware of the symbiotic relationship between the architecture and the artwork in the collection. Also, my mother was an art teacher, and she was very invested in the joy of looking at and being around art. I entered my first public artwork competition when I was 18 for a botanical center in downtown Des Moines. The botanical center was a geodesic dome, so I proposed a giant glass prism in an extruded triangle coming out of the ground. I had no idea if it was impossible — I just thought everything was possible in those days. I didn’t win the competition. I can’t remember how tall it was, but it was big — I was always thinking big.

I was friends with John Baldessari, who was one of your teachers. You were at CalArts at a very magical moment. You once said in an interview that Baldessari was particularly important because he gave you leeway, he gave you material choices and absurd possibilities. If it isn’t fun, don’t do it. And then you combine that with the institutional critique of Michael Asher. What was your memory of those CalArts years — did it lead you to work in an interdisciplinary way?

Yes, although I wasn’t exactly a model student. I was very close to both Michael and John. I worked as a tutor for them. Michael Asher’s colloquiums lasted 24 hours with no breaks and there could be a really intense focus on just one thing for twelve hours. It’s hard at that young age to sit still like that, but I was very happy to have that discipline later on. John Baldessari was always kind of asleep in the back of his classroom, so we were on our own basically. That was also great because we just had to figure it out. His sense of humor really helped make his classes more special. When I graduated, I worked on an exhibition of John’s in Madrid in the late 80s at the Reina Sofía. I learned much more from him after school than in school. But I had great peers at CalArts — that was more important than the teachers in a way.

One thing I always found fascinating about your work is how you connect it to literature. You have your series of genre novels, where different chapters are commissioned by different people. And you often mention science fiction as a source of inspiration in interviews. Can you talk a bit about this nexus with literature and sci-fi?

I mean sci-fi is a genre which enables one to imagine the future, and there’s this foundation of historical events that sci-fi will riff on and then produce new narratives going forward. At one point I felt a little disappointed in art-historical writing — it seemed this kind of categorical thinking was somehow lagging behind, and so I wanted to find other ways of articulating artistic ideas through literature. When I did an exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein in 2001, there was a catalogue offered, and I proposed this collective anonymous structure of writing. It ended up being a sex pulp novel based on a book from the 70s, Naked Came the Stranger. I asked different people, not all artists, but also authors, curators, and politicians, to write in the first person. The writers are listed on the book, but who wrote what was always anonymous. I’m the only one who knows the authors of each individual section. Sex had to be some part of the chapter, and also a mention of one of my works — either in passing, or the whole story could be organized around a particular piece. It was rather surprising what people felt the freedom to write under the cover of anonymity. We had so much fun with it that I decided to keep going with different genres.

Rita McBride: Arena Momentum, installation view, Dia Beacon, Beacon, New York. © Rita McBride. Photo: Don Stahl. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation.

You edited a book called Futureways, which is in a way about time travel. You said in another interview that time travel is almost kitsch now, and that you’re interested in things that are losing their original function. That’s something which is also present in the Dia Beacon presentation, Arena Momentum, where there are elements we know from urban spaces in the sculpture, but they no longer have the function they have in a city.

I’m glad you made that connection — it’s absolutely central to how I approach working and producing artworks. It’s about noticing when something’s shifting in the design world and losing its original function. Then I can begin considering it as having other functions, starting from anaesthetic kind of reorientation. So, for example, there are these drawing templates that we used to design the world from, and they just become pure geometry — when a tool becomes an object. I don’t know how much it’s connected to time travel, which is about imagining things and articulating them in another way.

Participation is a major part of your practice. I saw Arena, one of your central works, on a snowy day in December 1997 at the institution formerly known as Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam, which is now the Kunstinstituut Melly. Arena is a grandstand that connected all the second-floor rooms at the museum. As a young curator, it was a great experience for me to see that piece, because one was immediately part of it, and there was an oscillation between being an actor and a spectator, which you can now sense at Dia Beacon too. Do you remember when you first had the idea for this work?

I do. I was having a hard time figuring out how to work with the institution, which was quite loud with its own politics and self-involvement at the time. I thought, “I can’t compete with what’s going on in Witte de With right now,” and that was kind of a lightbulb moment — I might as well formalize it. It’s kind of a perfect example of my approach with institutional critique along with a sort of Baldessari fun. I was always interested in Modernism and urbanism; I had previously made parking garages and cars out of rattan. In the vocabulary of Modernism there are these large structures — stadiums, arenas, and democratic structures. I was mostly fascinated by the ebb and flow of them. These structures are so different when they’re full of people. When they’re completely empty, they’re almost sinister. It was just that simple. I wanted to make it portable. I had already learned that when you make things large, you have to break them down into parts so they can fit through doors. And I wanted it to be lightweight. It’s Kevlar, a bullet proof high-tech material that gave strength to the structure — it’s still alive after traveling the world for 26 years. Then I insisted that I was going to program Arena all the time, as its steward rather than its owner. I always wanted to add programming that would somehow start the conversation between people inhabiting the Arena in an institution, and also invite the institution to program it, but under another heading called “Blind Dates.” I think there have been 18 different participating institutions in those 26 years.

It’s also a question of context — it’s a very different situation in a place like the Melly Institute, over several floors, versus Dia Beacon, where it’s surrounded by other artworks on the ground floor of a much bigger space. I always think it’s interesting how things change with travel and according to context. Has the piece evolved?

I made it modular so it would be able to either fight or uncannily come together with the space. The dimensions are the original dimensions of the Witte de With installation: a 13-by-13-foot module. Three modules constitute an Arena, no less. An unexpected moment happened in a third-party program in Düsseldorf: [choreographer and artist] Alexandra Waierstall invited a dancer to participate, and he danced on top of the Arena while everyone else stood outside it. I hadn’t actually done that myself before, because I thought it was such a silly trick, but what I saw was so magical. Waierstall has shown me how incredibly dynamic the democratic structure gets with bodies — without them, it’s just a lot of hot air. At Dia Beacon, we have a program called Momentum, initiated by myself, Waierstall, and [performance collective] discoteca flaming star, which continues the programming coming from me, but we also made a copyleft Arena license when it became part of the Dia Art Foundation collection. So there’s a certain amount of freedom to make your own Arena. If you want to get a copyleft, you get the files for the original cutting to be interpreted and the Momentum Manifesto, a brilliant body-sized poster designed by David Reinfurt. But it’s not the same as open source; there’s a lot of room for interpretation. Hopefully, by the end of 2025, we’ll have a platform online which has all these essential ingredients, or conceptual parameters, for building your own Arena, which is of course a democratic structure at its core.

You had a big exhibition at Dia Chelsea in 2017 called Particulates, and now Arena is at Dia Beacon. Can you talk a little bit about Particulates and your relationship to Dia?

Particulates existed before it came to Dia — it was first shown at the 2016 Liverpool Biennial. There are 16 high-intensity green lasers in a hyperbolic paraboloid, a geometry I’ve used before. It’s a very stable structure. I was interested in pushing the light and space vocabulary, which is so powerful, and bringing it into the laser world. Right now it’s in the collection of the Hammer Museum in a totally different kind of installation — it’s not hermetically sealed, while at Dia Chelsea it was in a very dark room. Conceptually I really love the idea that with lasers you can make an infinite line. And Dia artists were some of the biggest influences for me growing up and they still continue to inspire me. Their works continue to be bigger than a kind of art-market world that is relegated to objects.

I have a particular interest in this idea of instruction art based on my project do it, which I started in 1993 and which is still evolving. I’m interested in this idea of the open score, and to what extent someone could actually do it incorrectly? With the copyleft of these instructions, there is a kind of a parallel in the design world with Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione in the 70s. He wanted it to be a sort of transmission of knowledge.

I’m particularly interested in not owning my work at all because I find it so limiting. I love the design world because it’s not about this one idea of authorship. I find it completely restrictive to think of artists as being solo geniuses that get inspiration from god because we’re making work from our surroundings — we don’t create in a vacuum. I’m really happy to learn from the more collaborative disciplines of architecture and design. I’m interested in these essentials as parameters that are more like guidance systems than instructions.

I was at Dia Beacon on a Saturday and there were quite a lot of people at Arena. I stayed until the moment they closed. You described the piece as an ongoing investigation into the ways public and institutional space and art and audiences interact. It was animated when I was there yet, when everyone left, suddenly it was a sculpture.

I was invited many times to bring Arena to certain places to which I said, “No, you just want fancy seating.” It’s not quite like that. I had a really interesting experience at the opening of the Bauhaus Museum Dessau in 2019, when Arena was on the ground floor. Waierstall and some Bauhaus students were also programming it, but Angela Merkel, who came to inaugurate the museum, was the main attraction. They had set up all these chairs in front with all these dignitaries, and Angela was in front of Arena. For the first time, I saw Arena as the backdrop. I think I’m mostly allergic to it being called a sculpture, because it doesn’t seem like a sculpture to me. I can say it’s a structure, so therefore it’s closer to design and architecture. Somehow sculptures are objects and they ask for a different kind of looking than what happens with Arena.

I suppose some young artists might read our interview. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this little book, Letters to a Young Poet. What would be your advice to a young artist today?

I have written some stuff about that, but lately I’ve been calling them “tips for giving your work of art a life.” Disguise it as a functional object, never sell it, and build its life into it from the beginning. So think about how it travels, what’s around it, and where you want it to be. Just be conscious of an art object’s itinerant life and try to have some control over the meaning that it can have and its position in the world.

I have this recurring question in my interviews, which is about unrealized projects. Some are too big to be done, others too utopian. I suppose, having done so much public art, you must have competition entries that were never realized?

I love this topic because for a long time I never wanted to win any of these public projects. I just thought that they were theoretically interesting to pursue and to put into the discourse of public art, and the focus on realizing them has never been that strong. I believe in public art enormously and was always sad about the small potential that it was given, so I was surprised, for example, when I got the commission in 2002 for Mae West, the 170-foot-tall carbon-fiber structure in Munich. It took about ten years and a lot of persistence to realize it. My big dream now is to make a station on the equator for an elevator to Mars. It’s like imagining how to get to another place, and to imagine what that place will be. I guess it’s the equivalent of time travel. I’ve been looking at property to try to actualize it, but I’ve also been dreaming about it, making some good drawings and having some fun ideas.

Mae West is your biggest project. Can you describe that extraordinary achievement?

I’ve long been interested in why public sculptures are always the same size. This one was part of a ring-road project and had a huge budget. So I thought, “Okay, can I build something taller than normal?” I wanted to experiment with carbon fiber and make a project that was the opposite of most sculptures — usually, you build an internal structure that holds your project up against gravity and then you make a surface on it, but this is an exoskeleton, so the structure itself is also the surface. And it got the name Mae West because the tower was too abstract, too much about architecture, so I wanted to throw a decoy into the mix. I learned about using a celebrity name from Frank Gehry, who called one of his buildings Fred and Ginger. The name brought the conversation into another realm so that we could actually get the work done on it. It was initially met with much resistance from the neighborhood and the city, and now I’m told it’s a favorite on the Munich skyline. I think it found its place.