Susan Kleinberg

    Susan Kleinberg


Installation for the Venice Biennale 2001.

Also shown at

P.S. 1/MOMA, New York

Museo de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires

Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin

Chicago International Art Fair

Tasende Gallery, Los Angeles and La Jolla, CA

Neuhoff Gallery, New York

Stark Gallery, New York

FEAR NOT / NON TEMERE - Arsenale - Venice Biennale 2001

What is courage?  Susan Kleinberg has posed this question to dozens of people from the arts, politics, science and everyday life.  The responses, elicited in conversation with the artist, are each singular and unexpected. From the most famous American General discussing episodes of chance and extreme peril, to an astronaut's measured thoughts on risk, to the most important man in Italian politics saying that ultimately courage is an act of love.

The voices are heard through headphones hanging from the high ceiling in the Arsenale -- along one wall in English and the other in Italian.  Flat screens embedded in the walls project a sequence of still images of each person and/or their environment as they speak, i.e. Cong. John Lewis in his office with potent mementos of the march in Selma...

The images, in most cases photographs taken by the artist, provide not only visual reference and augmentation, but a landscape of context. Overhead, a weaving DNA-like canopy of light filament connects us to the rope-making history of the Corderie as well as to the weave of texture and substance in the progression of the conversations.

The conversations run in seriously considered sequence on a continuous loop. Each exists individually, but grows or is challenged by the next.  The result is operatic, a collective epic, a document of our times.

The question, "What is Courage?" functions as a key to a further realm of interaction between the person and Ms. Kleinberg. What we hear is the result of an assault, a gentle assault, but an assault nonetheless on social convention, restriction, exposure.

Each conversation is an essential portrait. We come to know these people, and Ms. Kleinberg, through her choices, thought after thought, and locate ourselves in relation to them.

    -- Angela Vettese
       From the Venice Biennale 2001 catalog

What is courage?  Over the past four years, I have posed this question to dozens of people, from the arts, politics, science and the street.  “Fear Not” is an installation piece of audio interviews, linked on DVD to a succession of still images that I have taken or chosen after the interviews.

It is a vast weave of material, conversations tightly edited between me and the people interviewed -- including President Bill Clinton’s consideration of threat and social pressure, General Norman Schwarzkopf discussing episodes of chance and extreme peril, astronaut Sally Ride’s thoughts on risk, domestic worker Santa Isaacs’ speaking of responsibility, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi speaking of love, Albanian refugees considering choice, author Gore Vidal’s thought that there is no such thing as courage.

There is a coup of interviews in English and a different one in Italian.  They are portraits, a landscape of context in which viewers can locate themselves.

In each location in which it has been exhibited, the piece has been installed sculpturally -- on 12 jewel-like plasma screens embedded in the walls in a jungle of long hanging headphones at the Venice Biennale 2001; on large high-definition monitors distributed throughout the galleries with an overhead speaker system specifically designed to deliver a cone of sound directly over the viewer; in Los Angeles and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires; on an extremely large monitor in the lobby of P.S. 1 ...

        -- Susan Kleinberg

Venetian Firemen at FEAR NOT, Venice Biennale 2001


February 20, 2021

This is a book as much about the will to live as it is about courage. Such curious phenomena – phenomena that we all question at some point; profoundly, daily, suddenly, unexpectedly.

I began this investigation with no thesis, nothing to prove, no ax to grind. In 1998, I walked down a small road with an extremely low- rent tape recorder to a fire department. Adrenaline pumping, I approached one of the firemen, who was outside fiddling with the hoses on his truck. I asked him if he would talk with me about what he thought courage was.

He was on his lunch break and all he had was a decrepit-looking tuna sandwich. So I lucked out as a diversion. We started talking, soon joined by his colleagues. The question of courage proved to be a wedge in: beyond the social, the defended, the predictable – a key to thoughts unacknowledged, certainly unexpressed. I spent the after- noon at the firehouse, primarily listening. I learned a great deal: How one must reveal themselves in order to be revealed to; how to pay attention; how what happens, what is said and done, exists in a space all its own -- neither one person or the other, of its moment, unrepeatable, unreproducible, ephemeral, a gift, an effort, a pain, a catalyst, a treasure.

I thought, “How can this phenomena of what people find, become, in extreme circumstances, be they dramatic or subtle, be transferred to others, to a general knowledge, without the horror of having to endure the experience? How is it that so much good, such positive, emerges at the far edge of our capacity and is utterly lost in the venal of daily life?

Is there a way to put this forward? Where do the challenges lie? Can it contribute? Can its entirely fresh ground communicate through the preconception of such a battle-worn concept, “courage.”

At the end of my afternoon with the firemen something had happened, to them, to me. My tape recorder had been rendered invisible. This was essential. The process would never work if it were self-conscious. This made for infinite hours of editing, but surely worth it.

I began photographing each person with whom I spoke, as a record for myself. They were not portraits, they were glimpses, photographed fast, unposed, informally. They became portraits, with the conversations, portraits of possibility, of each individual, of their similarities and differences, where they’d landed on this earth, what they saw, how they saw.

From the firemen, I continued on, speaking with the publicly known and unknown. In many ways no one was more interesting than the next – the electrician on a back street, General Norman Schwarzkopf in his office in Florida.

The electrician was surrounded by the tools of his trade and the inquiries of his community who valued his considerations. General Schwarzkopf was surrounded by photographs of dogs, many with birds in their mouths, and photographs with children. Not one photograph of anything remotely military. And his phone rang with the same inquiries as the electrician’s customers.

What happened between each of us was different and the same. I never knew what I would hear, The line between the dramatic and the prosaic became blurry, the material of courage porous and immune to definition.

My interest was always the question.

For myself, I tend to integrate my experience obliquely. I never quite know from where things arrive and make art to see how they form. I didn’t set out to understand or make order of my own expe- riences or emotions, but I had some grounds. Pretty well a Pandora’s box full: a broken body drawn and quartered by a water-skiing accident in the shark-infested sea off Panama; an attack of the impossibility to breath, to continue life itself, on an island down a river in Belize; a rare form of cancer, causing uncertainty to be as much a component of each day as the sun and the moon, complicated by responses of the heart. Its return ten years latter, its return again.

Surviving – why?  The acuteness of the essential moment, fading back to life and its pains, stresses and difficulties.  At first thrilled to feel their normalcy, then to find oneself again available to be preyed upon by the attacks on one’s soul, by the emotions of interchange – the challenge of how to stay positive, knowing a bit too much.  The world, as it turns unjustly, brokenly, why fight?

What is this will to live? What is courage?  Where do you place yourself within it?

This book tracks this exploration through many conversations:

Cong, John Lewis, astronaut Sally Ride, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former President Bill Clinton, author Gore Vidal, Dr. Holly Andersen, domestic worker Santa Isaacs ... their challenges, their fears, my fears, their terrors, their doubt, where they find beauty, value, where they don’t.

It takes the form of a prologue of my experience, my journey to each person, often an extremely interesting quest; telling these inside stories, at the beginning of the chapters, as a thread to weave the book together. 

For example, how does a New York artist in entirely too much black, move through the echelons of bishops in scarlet to attempt to speak to the Pope? She gets frisked by guards in uniforms designed by Michelangelo, sits in back of the Queen of Spain while watching the faces of 40 princes of the Church at the Mass in which they are made Cardinals pass through the immensity of their relationship to this wedding, as they are given their rings by the Pope, an ancient man leaning on his staff, speaking at the edge of language. I was invited to record this mass, up close. No one interviews the Pope.

The book is propelled from conversation to conversation, each reflecting, commenting, challenging the next: The gondolieri in Venice, as they know of nature. Astronaut Sally Ride and the normalcy, to her, of riding a rocket past the moon, her awe and admiration at the magnitude of the capacity and the difficulty of the actions of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Former President Bill Clinton, at the height of his impeachment hearings, tapping the spoon to his saucer, continually, unthinkingly, a metronome as he talked. Dr. Holly Andersen questioning what she can really do to intervene in life-threatening situations, emphatic in her commitment to try.  An exceptional individual, preferring anonymity, in his perseverance, his joke, “Do you know why New Yorkers are so depressed? Because the light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey.” His thought that, no matter how impossible it seems at the moment, you will be happy again. Gore Vidal showing me his miraculous garden, declaring there is no such thing as courage. It is an adjective.

In contrast to Vidal, Cong. John Lewis, a living embodiment of courage by any definition. Domestic worker Santa Isaacs sees her every day as courageous, she aches, but then she goes shopping.

These conversations have been presented as a visual-audio art installation, from the Venice Biennale to MOMA/PS1 to the Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires...

My purpose is to create a dialogue with the reader, as they read on from one to the next in joy, in confusion, in doubt, in hope, to locate themselves.

Hassidic students viewing
"Fear Not"

New York Installation.

Installation of "Fear Not" with overhead directional speaker.  Los Angeles, 2002.