Alexander Hetherington

Tribute: Tim Rollins & K.O.S

Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Art Festival,
4 August – 22 October 2012


American participatory socially-engaged collective Tim Rollins & K.O.S are like art hip hop superstars, a troupe of painterly scorching showmen Beastie Boys, a Conceptual art, Appropriation Art Group Material-borne set of Globetrotters, a spiritual America adorned with the ghosts of Mark Twain, Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison and Martin Luther King Jnr and Evangelism, gospel, jazz and disco: mighty beat-box Queer Black Latino art magicians. They constitute an American hyper-text, to the five boroughs, and particularly the South Bronx, and riding a New York subway line, Trans-America Express that takes in spiritual metamorphoses, historical-social motives and motifs, a cannon of Classic texts, Shakespeare, HG Wells, Franz Kafka, and comic books, Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Seuss, and inspired by the age of Jazz all drawn on, remixed, ‘make and made’ more beautiful, more real, more dazzling. American Dream-time pioneers: “Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten, From the Battery to the top of Manhattan, Asian, Middle-Eastern and Latin, Black, White, New York you make it happen!”


The Black Spot, the collective’s new exhibition for Talbot Rice Gallery for Edinburgh Art Festival 2012, is a summons and a sermon from this body of work that stretches back 30 years to a gymnasium in a middle school in New York, that has traversed the globe in Art and Knowledge workshops straight to the heart of heartless contemporary art: Frieze, the Whitney, ICA, Philadelphia, Museum of Modern Art and insisted, insisting, an insistence that education as material and subject in art is its physical, mental and intellectual theoretical trajectory and therein lies its history, impact and longevity. “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”


And it is so beautifully rendered: A Midsummer’s Night Dream, blotches of multiple colour flows on Shakespeare’s texts, hybrid brown White House beasts in pastorals on Orwell’s Animal Farm, white-on-white Invisible Man on Ralph Ellison, and the V, I, C, T taken out of victim, in honour of a murdered K.O.S member. Spiritual, and moving and emotional and real.


The Black Spot from Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island resonates with the ghosts of these museum’s walls, this academy and the collective’s shout outs to history, and shaping history and the voices and words that make that history alive, political, potent. It’s an accusation and an invitation, explicit in its determination that art can change the world. A timely adventure, in an era of survival mode and austerity, evidence that art is the enemy of death, the contradiction of apathy.


Originally published A-N Magazine, 4 August 2014,


Intoxicating Charismatic Narrator : Terms and quotes repeatedly written, consciously and unconsciously, in pencil on reams of foolscap on the artist Tim Rollins, some are written and some are drawn

Lens, storyteller, shift, charisma, pioneer, now, promote, Dr Seuss, Jazz, ghosts, hillbilly, cowboy, Willy Wonka, Thanksgiving, Three Dimensions of a Complete Life, Alice in Wonderland, Kafka, Darwin, HG Wells. Amerika.

Nature Theater of Oklahoma: “within this “almost limitless” theatre his young hero was going to find again a profession, a stand-by, his freedom, even his old home and his parents, as if by some celestial witchery”, and “My intention was, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel, enriched by the sharper lights which I took from our modern times, and by the pallid ones I would have found in my own interior”, and “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living”.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not” and “Being crazy isn’t enough.”

Forms of transportation, the Greyhound bus from Maine to New York, the MTA NY subway, sick notes, “We’ve gotta get of this place”. The Art and Knowledge Workshop. 1982.

“Oh, the Places You’ll Go”, I know. 1984.

Then there’s these stories, like the one about getting on a greyhound bus from Maine to New York city on a bus with $500 and heading straight to the Chelsea Hotel and hanging out with the New York Dolls; or travelling on the No. 2 train to Prospect Avenue in the South Bronx to take a post for there for two weeks, as part of a Ghetto-a-day arts program, and arriving and walking and staying through the streets with burned out buildings like harmonica’s on their sides sounding a massive drone as the sharp September winds blow through their vacated apartments, and smelling as bad as 9/11, and the words flow like a performance poem, or like a Dr Seuss. And suggestions of speaking-in-tongues, a TV evangelist, a charismatic, Pentecostal Hillbilly Cowboy telling us about the ghosts in the academy, that don’t pass, stamps his foot, punches his chest with a mighty, knowing fist, whispers Darwin, makes a mark that everyone, no matter who they are, how they love, what they look like, how old they are, will make.

About learning the value of patience, that some things take 15 years, and some thing’s happen now, even though you think “You’re done.” And about the story of Group Material ( with Felix Gonzales Torres, Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, Anti-Baudrillard, and a paralysis of analysis.

And there to the story of the kids, with all the school special definitions, and educational subclasses and measures, and diagnosis and conditions, and being a teacher trainer with the “dead face” in rooms with no air conditioning, reams of 11” x 8.5” paper and pencils carried in plastic bags and being, quite unexpectedly, asked to “Do the Best Drawing You Have Ever Done.” Then Rollins reiterates this theory about these beautiful objects, the exhibition and the works, that bring everyone together, about this being evidence of being an enemy of death, the (in)visible man, the d-i-s-e-a-s-e of being an artist. 1981.

There are some things in what Rollins talks about that talk to me very specifically: the ‘drawing’ on standards and classic texts (appropriating, remixing, Postproduction), of Kafka’s Amerika, Alice in Wonderland, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“the raft is a metaphor for America”), A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dracula and Frankenstein and to how some of this drawing on and colliding texts finding root in visual art, and to The Wooster Group in Manhattan, finding root in performance, The Crucible with Timothy Leary (“the mass hysteria is a metaphor for America”), La Didone, with Planet of the Vampires, Gertrude Stein’s Dr Faustus Lights the Lights with Olga’s House of Shame, Chekhov’s Three Sisters with Japanese monster movies, in the Performing Garage, off Broadway, which is like Rollins’ gymnasium, a media, a creative, a collective, laboratory, and scores and scores of references, and numbered drawings. What they do, it has to be said, is very political. 2012.

These creative spaces are vista points in Rollins’ “making” vocabulary, the talk of the work in the studio, in the workshops across the world, and to virtual spaces, where distant K.O.S. can fax in, scan in, collage in images back to the mothership in the Bronx, no matter where they now live. He talks about work, as not work, in forms of dignity, and equality, which he accompanies with a mime about a street sweeper and mouthing the word, slowly, “flow”. These descriptions, physical and conceptual, form another stream of philosophy in this high-to-low cascade of art. He talks a lot about jazz, and people like Dizzy Gillespie, but to me Rollins and K.O.S. are more like disco, it’s a thumping beat, and much more about “drama and love and elevation than syncopation.”

Educator. And the ways he says it sometimes it sounds like “Educate. Or.” That’s probably deliberate, a part of the script, this performance, which like the Number 2 Subway line with stops at stations: “the popular and the arcane, the minor to the canonical, legal documents and comic books, from political allegories, and testimonies and confessions, and erased newspaper headlines to musical scores”. “All aboard!”

“The Black Spot is a literary device invented by Robert Louis Stevenson for the novel Treasure Island. In the book, pirates are presented with a “black spot” to officially pronounce a verdict of guilt or judgment. It consists of a circular piece of paper or card, with one side blackened while the other side bears a message and placed in the hand of the accused.” It’s also a stimulus for and a metaphor of survival, which is at the foundation of the exhibition and the trigger for a new story, about a Black Spot being deposited into Rollins’ pocket by one of the participants at the gallery workshops: a letter written by a teenage girl about an observation of how creativity works in the labyrinth of survival, and as he reads it out, it reveals a potent truth, about generosity and art: it is as much a troubling gesture as it is a graceful gesture. It sits really uneasily, and it is extremely beautiful, and it is relentless, and it is a sermon, a gospel. It is about how young eyes see, and describe, like their work Pinocchio(after Carlo Collodi), which “sees”, glass eye replicas of the children’s eyes, set into wood.

Finally it is this device, seeing through a child’s eye, a child’s lens, that makes the loudest declaration in this wide, alluring practice.

And as he would say, with a stomp of his foot, and a heavy fist to his chest: “Can I get a witness to that?”


Commissioned by ArtWorks, Scotland

Alexander Hetherington