“The 93 Dreams of Summer,” mixed media with audio, 2013.
For over two decades now Judith Brotman’s practice has hinged on relationships built between people. This has taken several forms over the years, and hopefully you’ve had the opportunity of seeing some of her recent work at Bike Room in “I Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed (reviewed here by Bad at Sports’s own Caroline Picard); at Slow Gallery with “New Word”; or at Gallery 400 in “Whisper Down the Lane.”
For the exhibition “New Word,” Brotman used the Jewish Kabbalistic prompt of finding a word to follow for the rest of your life as an impetuous to generate 1000 new words, including some of the following examples:
Brotman relinquished some control over the piece’s manifestation by “not touching the work,” tasking the organizer of the exhibition to fabricate the piece by inscribing the words on the wall for her. Although many of the words are humorous sounding, and the project on the whole involves a certain amount of playfulness, it forces a certain obligation and responsibility on the viewer as well.
“New Word,” words written directly on gallery wall and scratched off when selected by someone, 2013. Photo by Robert Chase Heishman.
In her piece “93 Dreams of Summer” from “Whisper Down the Lane” she generated several texts, related to koans in both their brevity and enigmatic nature, and created a sound recording of her reading them which viewers were invited to listen to over headphones. The phrases, while often absurd, are also witty and poetic, reflecting the skill and comfort with which Brotman writes:
Dream 6. You invent a machine that can play the violin, devein shrimp, and shred documents all at the same time.
Dream 27. You live in a world where there are restrictions to saying “Good job,” to your children. Saying it too often leads first to fines, then imprisonment, and ultimately the death penalty. You breathe a sigh of relief.
Dream 55. You are twelve years old, and God comes to visit dressed as a lawn chair. You say hello and sit down.
Dream 87. You legally change your name to “Tater.”
In both these exhibitions, Brotman engages language— either via the written word, or words read aloud— and they also both feature words or texts generated by her. Although she has stated she’s as influenced by visual phenomena as she is by literature, Brotman also views both works as engaging with that same, singular, overarching concern that continues to occupy her regardless of the medium she is experimenting with— relationships.
Her interest in relationships has translated into a focus on narratives, especially love stories. Brotman’s tastes run the gamut from day time soap operas to tales of unrequited love, or unconventional, odd ball works that, while they’re well known pieces of literature, may not typically be thought of as love stories (take Frankenstein for example, one of her favorites).
The pivotal moments, or moments of drama that these stories often hinge on, draw Brotman to them, and while she can appreciate the tension and theatricality that arise from their seemingly unending series of climaxes, she’s as equally taken with “the possibility that things will go wrong…”
In a cruel example of life imitating art, Brotman had just such a pivotal moment this past summer, in the form of a hand injury; “…(I) lost the use of my wrist and I couldn’t make anything and I didn’t know if it was going to come back, and it was very depressing… and people were saying to me, this is going to be an opportunity, and I… wanted to punch them, with the good hand (of course).”
This did lead to an opportunity however, and it took the form of a long-term project that, although she claims to have no idea how it may develop over time, imagines it going on, “for the rest of (her) life.”
“The Reading Project,” Rebecca Duclos reading to Brotman in her home, 2013.
The parameters of the project involve Brotman visiting the homes of friends and near strangers alike. She asks them to read to her aloud for forty-five minutes to an hour while she audio records them and takes some still photographs. There’s a certain amount of latitude in what they may choose to read, but Brotman requests that it be a text of meaning.
“Careful what you say, because… when I started at the School of the Art Institute in the late eighties I said there is one thing I will never, ever do, and that is performance,” jokes Brotman. And while her artistic overture is somewhat fluid in this project, she is still interested in the same kinds of dramatic tensions and relationship cultivation.
Generosity seems inherent in the act of inviting someone into your domestic space, thoughtfully selecting a text of meaning, and then sharing both your time and energy in reading it aloud, but the work is complicated by some of the quieter, darker reasons for Brotman’s impetus for the project— a cultural critic of a fast paced, compartmentalized, multi-tasking society that listens to books on tape, reads off a tablet, and texts or emails instead of making face time.
Although the project is only newly underway, Brotman has noticed that it asks a lot of her as a listener as well, and requires a heightened level of “focus and presence.” The project seems to repay careful, thoughtful and active listening, but Brotman is honest about stating that, “…pivotal moments may or may not happen.” Although the action of being read to is repetitive, there’s so much variation within each discrete event that it’s difficult to generalize. She does go on to say that, “…many of the readings have been exquisite and some have not been. Sometimes I can’t wait for it to end— and that’s usually when the reader can’t wait for it to end—…. And then sometimes it really is like a little love story… I have this feeling of being carried away, there’s this falling in love moment, that, I don’t know what else to call it, I’m inspired, I’m excited, I’m curious, I leave feeling like I have 300 times more energy then when I came in.”
The act of reading aloud to someone is usually an intimate affair, but Brotman is experimenting with performing the readings publicly, and recently had the opportunity of being read to for part of “The American Dream: (W)holy Grail” in Edgewater. And although previously her site-responsive installations constructed largely from objects crafted from paper were exceedingly fragile and ephemeral, she is deriving a certain amount of pleasure from the act of archiving, cataloguing and retaining these readings. It’s clear that the performance itself, rather then it’s mere accumulation, is still what’s most compelling to her though; “it has stripped down to the core what I care about most.” Perhaps as the project marches on, she will find herself generating love stories instead of merely listening in on them.
Interview conducted in October 2013.
The author would like to thank Judith Brotman for her assistance.
All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.
“I willingly was a participant in the lifestyle of the motorcycle club, and it is a lot like any other social scene, with it’s own codes and mores, only perhaps faster and at times more violent. But at the same time, it is upfront, so in that sense you know what you are dealing with and it is clear what is expected from you… I have never been uncomfortable around the club and have never felt threatened in any way, if they like you, and most importantly, if the leader of the club likes you, they will treat you with absolute respect.” -Laura Stewart
The two main protagonists of Laura Stewart’s latest film are the titular “Shooter,” motorcycle gang leader of Green Bay, Wisconsin’s Black Pistons, and Whitley, a young woman who is both his partner in crime and charity project.
Shooter is an actual individual whom Stewart credits with sparking her interest in perusing the project in the first place; “I didn’t even know what this film was going to be about when I started it, I had always liked Shooter and found him intriguing… he was the only subject that interested me enough to blow through all this film.” From seven hours of footage, the final cut comes in at fifty-three minutes.
Shot without a script, the film uses voice-over narration to reveal the thoughts, fears and desires of Shooter and Whitley, and we experience the filmic world Stewart creates through the lense of their impressions and experiences. Although Stewart confesses that a typical days shoot would involve “having a general idea what I’d want to film,” she cultivated a collaborative relationship with her actors and actresses wherein they would agree or decline to proceed given the premise she would establish. The goal was always to produce scenes that most realistically reflected their lives, so although the relationships and events of the film are all constructed, the characters had, “the freedom to expose the parts of their lives that they want(ed to).”
For Whitley, this entailed sound bites about coming from a broken home, learning how to cook crack by age eight, and getting thrown out of the house by fifteen. Shooter took a longer view about his romantic relationships over the years, and the protection and security he could provide Whitley for the price of obedience.
By giving them the “freedom to be who they want(ed) to be,” Stewart felt she was able to better coax an authentic portrayal of their “lifestyle or soul” from them. Amidst the dancing, drugs, partying and prostitution that eventually entrap Whitley, and cloud her ultimate quest for comfort and security in the hands of Shooter, we find both characters blindly searching for home in a motel and bar, and referring to a biker gang family.
Without knowing the film is fiction, it is virtually impossible to perceive it as anything but documentary. This complex fusion of fiction and reality is what interests Stewarts, who feels that, “…all our lives are continually being made up every day in our heads anyway. There is no concrete documentary in my opinion.”
The non-diegetic mood music is eclectic and often jarring— it ranges from a song by the Dirty Three, to The Rolling Stones, to Franz Schubert. One scene in particular, shot on location at the Bourbon Street bar, pairs “Nacht und Träume” with lingering close-ups on Whitley’s tightly bound bust and Shooter’s grizzled, filthy looking paw stroking her upper thigh. The camera cannibalizes the image of Whitley, lingering on her chest and leg, chiefly without inclusion of her head or face in the frame, placing the viewer in the position of objectifying misogynist right alongside Shooter.
There were a handful of reasons why Stewart opted for filming in 16mm (with some Super 8)— some were practical, others were creative license. After recent run-ins with the law that Shooter and members of motorcycle club had just prior to filming, the analogue technology of 16mm, “let them know this was not some sort of surveillance, so (they) would be comfortable with a camera around.” In addition, the film pays homage to seventies cult biker films which were also often shot quickly, using 16mm.
Stewart embraced the uncertainty that filming in 16mm comes with, stating, “That was part of what I liked best about (it), never having any idea how it would turn out until it came back from the lab in Seattle.” She notes that, “the bikes and the chrome, and the Sky Lit motel with it’s 50′s sign where the M goes out after a lot of rain, this was something I felt needed to be on 16mm.” While the quality of shooting with film goes a long way towards setting the stylized tone of the film, the rigid, traditional and conservative gender roles that both Shooter and Whitley personify also reinforce this feeling. The trance-like spell their gritty, sparse, and often desperate monologues invoke, incanted under the pulsing neon light of the Vegas-style motel sign transport the viewer to a bygone era, so much so that moments when a man in a recumbent bike pedals past the Bourbon Street bar, or a different man gets into his car in the parking lot of the Sky Lit while talking on his cell phone are unexpectedly shocking, standing out as wrinkles in the time warp.
Stewart reports that the bikers like the film, and that, interestingly, “the guys all say it is more about relationships.” Through an interesting blend of narrative and documentary, and improvisation and confessional, Stewart employs classic Hollywood filmic troupes alongside contemporary motorcycle club culture and aesthetics to create a film that navigates its own interesting path somewhere between the realms of hyper-reality and fan fiction.
All images courtesy of Laura Stewart.
Interview with Laura Stewart conducted by the author via email in September 2013.
The author would like to thank Laura Stewart.
To contact Stewart, please write to: email@example.com
As I was writing this text, conversations I had had with John, glimpses of work in progress I had stole at our studio visit, and fragments of phrases from email exchanges were all still marinating for me. You’ll see some which percolated into the essay as quotations, but others are noiselessly wafting around and above it like a shimmering cloud of gnats.
This long-form approach to engaging with John’s work is what draws me to it– I have the sense that it is both tightly bound, fitted and finely finished, while simultaneously being on the verge of a blow out, ready to burst back into all the little bits and pieces he used to put it together in the first place.
Hopefully you had a chance to take in some of his other handiwork at EXPO this past weekend, and experience the atmosphere his work can initiate even amidst the hustle and bang of a massive art fair. I liken it to several tenants of the growing Slow Food movement below, but again John has bested me, and I have come to prefer his term “temporary stasis” for how it marries the fleeting with the stable.
In a way, I feel that dichotomy reflects the relationship between my text and John’s; mine being the former, his the later. I’ve used this introduction as a departure from my typical tone and mode of working in a nod to him, in gratitude for his art and writing which has inspired me, however cautiously, to adopt the gentle discomforts and bracing inscrutabilities of both lyrical prose, and long-lasting ideas built into short-lived experiments.
Image courtesy of The Experimental Sound Studio
John Preus is an artist, musician, carpenter, woodworker, and magpie. In the
long-standing tradition of Chicago artists scavenging for “trash treasure,” he lets
serendipity and the thrill of the hunt guide him in sourcing discarded materials. Each
new piece is a design challenge, contingent on entropy and surplus, to revive what
others have cast-off or given up on. His materials offer up an infinite number of
solutions which he is constantly attempting to “extract and exploit.”
His built objects typically serve a functional purpose, and oftentimes they are made for
domestic spaces but comprised of cannibalized furniture. His work is Surreal in the
most basic sense that it de-familiarizes the familiar; we recognize a tabletop here or a
headboard there. Because of this, it occupies a liminal space between constituent
parts and compound whole.
At times, Preus foregrounds the beauty marks and scars of his material— a found,
hand-painted design becomes the focal point of a guitar, imbuing it with a certain
narrative quality. Other times, his material serves as a sort of visual pun— you’ve
heard of making bedposts metaphorically sing? Well, Preus does so literally, turning
one quarter of an old four-poster bed into an upright bass. By combining a fondness
for his material’s embedded histories, with a craft person’s skill at building, and an
artist’s eye for shine, his pieces celebrate their past proudly, reveling in their physicality.
Oftentimes, this infuses them with a certain anthropomorphism. And yet, they are
incomplete without us— who will play them? Who will listen to them played? The
wistful air of the stray and the mutt also cloaks them, a perfect tragic foil to the
Slow Sound draws inspiration from the Slow Food movement, sparked in part by
Fergus Henderson’s cult classic cookbook, “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.”
This call to eat not just the choice cuts “high” on the hog, but the whole hog, necessarily
means getting creative by saving bones for stocks, scraps for brines, and rendering
the rest. Henderson has famously stated; “If you’re going to kill the animal it seems
only polite to use the whole thing.” It’s that mentality which resonates so strongly with
Preus’s own practice, echoing his questioning of the contemporary consumerist
mantra, “Replacement is better then repair.”
Closing loopholes by pulling items out of the waste stream is done not so much with
an overtly environmental thrust, although upcycling and net-zero philosophies are
applicable. Likewise, the importance of the locally sourced and the handcrafted factor
in, but aren’t the main driver. When I imagine Preus spotting the corner of a legless
Formica table poking out of a dumpster in the alley, I bet he thinks about how the press
board hiding just underneath its laminate surface is comprised of the same wood that a
family heirloom is made from, and that in some factory somewhere, it was a person
who helped fabricate it. Preus understands that the materials he works with shape shift
as they move through the world, rising or falling in value due to changing tastes or
The importance of context then becomes paramount, and so viewing— and hearing,
these pieces at the Experimental Sound Studio is central. Preus’s instruments are one-of-
a-kind— no two pieces are alike, the materials used to fabricate them are
unique, and their overall construction is unconventional. Simultaneously, however, they
produce relatively standard sounds. New Material, the band comprised of Mikel Avery,
Leroy Bach and Tadd Cowen, along with Preus, play straight ahead improvisations,
replete with melodic solos and quoted popular tunes. And so again, these pieces
shape shift, cultivating relationships across incongruities; they are accessible and
engaging while simultaneously surprising expectations of traditional instrument
construction, sound resonance and amplification.
Preus’s practice conflates fine art, design, architecture, music, curating, writing, social
engagement and environmental studies, among other things— such as parenthood,
citizenship and faith. It transgresses commonly held notions of labor and value in favor
of a post-scarcity worldview. It questions industrialization’s monocultural market place
and the planned obsolescence it perpetuates. It celebrates leisure time and recreational
activities in a loose sense, honoring unstructured deep play and creativity-sparking
boredom. It recognizes change as inevitable and speed as constant, but puckishly
messes with the variability of pace. More than anything, it is concerned with morphology,
how a given material might be used or re-used. Preus has referred to his work as
existing in “temporary stasis,” which I must concede is a much more elegant term than
“slow.” Like the Doppler effect, which explains why the frequency of a sound in motion
shifts in respect to its observer, Preus’s work meets you where you are. It offers up its
past, points the way to a more sustainable future, and embroils you in the day-to-day
and the domestic through a practice heavily reliant on viewer involvement.
• • •
John Preus is a Chicago-based artist, musician and woodworker whose work explores
forms of attachment, craft, art, and community life. Preus holds an MFA from the
University of Chicago (2005), and his education in the trades includes a 2-year
apprenticeship with award-winning furniture maker John Nesset. With roughly 16 years
of building and design experience, Preus founded Dilettante Studios in 2010, which
creates and fabricates items for residential and commercial spaces, using predominantly
secondhand materials. He co-founded the art group Material Exchange
(2005-12) with Sara Black; and SHoP (Southside Hub of Production) with Laura
Shaeffer (2010). He is former lead fabricator and project manager for Theaster Gates,
and oversaw production and installation of 12 Ballads for Huguenot House as part of
dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Germany. Additional exhibitions include the Museum of
Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Heilbronn Kunstverein; the Portland Museum of
Contemporary Craft; the Smart Museum of Art, Chicago; and the DeVos Museum of
Art, Marquette, Michigan. Preus’s work will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Hyde
Park Art Center in Spring 2014.
My thanks go to John and the friendly, hard-working staff of ESS. Please join us at The Experimental Sound Studio, located at 5925 North Ravenswood Ave. Chicago, IL 60660, for the opening reception of John Preus: Slow Sound, 9/27/13, 6-9pm. Special performance by New Material (Mikel Avery, Tadd Cowen, LeRoy Bach, John Preus) at around 7pm.
Over the past ten plus years, Laura Shaeffer has been the entrepreneur and custodian behind a number of projects housed within a handful of unconventional— and often under utilized— spaces on the Southside of Chicago, including Home Gallery, The Op Shop andSouthside Hub of Production (SHoP). Her approach is a combination of activism and common sense; community building and home-making. She honors domestic spaces as sites of radical, informal pedagogy, and this manifests itself in an important through line that runs across her projects; they act as platforms for kids to express their creativity and imagination, and indulge their curiosity. Alongside immersing them in art and cultural production, an important byproduct of this is kids’ engagement with other kids, families, neighbors and neighborhoods.
By remaining open, nurturing organic expansion and leveraging intuition, Shaeffer stewards growth rather then shoehorning artists into rigid themes or mapping them onto discrete timelines. She recounts the combination of circumstance and serendipity that led to the recent closing of SHoP and subsequent re-opening of Home Gallery for us, and outlines her influences, collaborators and thoughts on sustainability and longevity below.
When John Preus, Mike Phillips, founder of South Side Projection, and I first started thinking about SHoP as a community cultural hub, we talked a lot about a need we all saw for a more un-programmed life, where idle time can be productive and where relationships have time and space to develop, between people, artists and generations. I love the idea of stewarding growth, looking after, caring for and managing an exhibit as a way of curating through encouraging artists to be more present and participate in the exhibit after the opening in ways that could make their work more accessible to others and in return inspire further thought and exploration on what it means to be an artist in our current culture, especially a more publicly or socially engaged artist. I tend to work intuitively and gravitate toward others who do as well. Working on shows with John and Alberto Aguilar was incredibly inspiring, they are both extremely challenging and creative thinkers. I found that a very good sense of humor and irony is most important in this kind of work and we were able to make each other laugh at the most crucial times.
One common interest John and I shared with others who helped found this project, as parents and artists, was to create spaces for exhibitions, learning and socializing where children and older folks alike would come and be in an environment that was heterogeneous and allowed for spontaneous interactions. We talked a lot about the Piazza, the Town Square, the Adventure Playground movement, public places where everyone gathered, young and old to have a drink, converse, play freely, or make things… and to linger into the evenings. We also wanted a cultural space where we could bring our kids and they’d have their own environment in which to create together so we set up what we called the Autonomous Making Space (silly name we know) for them to explore their own ideas, and make up their own activities, structures, and games. SHoP drew much of its inspiration from the Junk/Adventure Playground movement begun in the 30′s in Europe by C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect. These playgrounds become centers, accessible to the entire community, a place to gather and play freely and to develop intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Like the Adventure Playground, we wanted our Hub space to encourage children and adults to interact with and learn from each other. Ultimately, we wanted to create a space for people to feel ownership and take responsibility for the space itself because it exists as a result of their own efforts and brings the larger community together.
In terms of spaces that have provided a source of inspiration, there are so many. Several are in Finland; Hirvitalo, a Contemporary Art Center, founded in 2006 as a cultural space in Pispala, Finland, a deeply kindred spirit; Pixelache, a transdisciplinary platform for experimental art, design, research and activism co-created by artist Andrew Paterson whom I had the good fortune to meet in 2007 at the Pedagogical Factory by Jim Duignan, founder ofStockyard Institute, who is a very significant inspiration for SHoP. Places like Experimental Station, Co-Prosperity Sphere, Mess Hall, Comfort Station and North Branch have provided guidance and inspiration as well. There are too many individual artists, projects and people to mention, who have been collaborators and co-producers over the years. Collaborations likeMaterial Exchange, Kultivator and WochenKlausur have also been very influential.
After the Fenn house was supposedly sold (it is now back on the market!), we were charged with the daunting task of reducing the accumulated contents of a 16 room mansion to fill a 20 foot sea container, to be driven away and parked on the Resource Center’s land (thanks to the generous help and support of both Ken Dunn and Ken Schug and some wonderful volunteers). We had all grieved the loss of that beautiful space before we moved, but the lightness of being I personally experienced shortly thereafter made it clear that it is not the space itself, but the people who make the space meaningful through their care, their energy and their creativity. That location, while at once magical and wonderful, and which provided so much space for learning for us all, was also much more demanding than any Op Shop or Home Gallery exhibit and we really needed time to reflect, regroup and re-organize ourselves if we were to become a sustainable center for the community.
I suppose the decision to open up Home Gallery again was a combination of circumstance and intention. We invited some of the artists that played a large role in SHoP as well a few new ones to our private home to intervene with our “private lives” in ways that would alter or disrupt our routines and as well, help us ease the transition back home and frankly, tend to the spaces that had been neglected while running a 16 room grass roots community arts center for almost 2 years. Our tiny home became the focus for the continuation of concepts and ideas we had been working with on a larger scale at Fenn House, allowing us to explore the more domestic and private side of these ideas.
The question of how we will continue to nurture and grow our projects outside of the traditional constraints of traditional organizational structures and frameworks is a very good one. We are discussing and further questioning this all the time. What might we gain by adopting a more organized structure and what might we stand to lose? As an art project, The Op Shop had a sense of freedom and extreme fluidity, SHoP for the 15 months of it’s existence at Fenn continued to enjoy that fluid, flexible and organic quality… but how long can that be sustained? Eventually a project has to grapple with these questions, I admire projects like Mess Hall who knew from the get go that they would not opt to become a non -profit and had a very clear vision for their mission in this sense. I feel we are still questioning the whole issue of becoming a non-profit and what that implies and how it impacts the project itself. In some ways we will not know before hand but one suspects that there might be a loss of this sense of intuitive process, fluid practice and to be honest, we may get away with much less. On the other hand, money is an issue and funding is needed if we are to continue in any long term way. I am and we are obviously conflicted about this issue!
Maybe artists and others who are attracted to unconventional spaces to view and think about art, like the mansion, the small townhome, the porch, the back yard gallery, the storefront, the park, and various unexpected public spaces, are more likely to want to examine their role in social change, themes of modern urban life in spaces that are themselves a challenge. There are artists who have certainly been repelled. I like the story of one artist who had proposed a project for an exhibit at SHoP, was invited to participate, and showed up on a typical day for us, where kids were hammering pieces of wood together on the front steps, students were running a yard sale in the front yard, some seniors were playing bridge inside, the house was buzzing with activity preparing for the installation of the next show. I saw a looming figure outside the house and then I saw him disappear, I asked a friend if they knew why this artist left the scene without coming in to meet us (I knew him from his resume and photos) She said that he ‘didn’t want to show his work in a house run by unprofessional hippies.’ This artist never responded to us again. I could see his point, but I love general (orchestrated) chaos, so I guess that’s my fate.
As told to Thea Liberty Nichols via email, June 2013.
Indefatigable– it’s the only word I can think of that in some small way describes Jodie Mack. You can see it in the sheer volume of her accomplishments, including the number of films she’s created, the places they’ve screened, the teaching positions she’s held (and holds!), and the film festivals, exhibitions and performances she’s organized, participated in or contributed to. You can also see it in the work itself– its speed, its persistance, its resolve. It is both self-aware and self-abnegatting; her films traffic in the tropes and technical achievements of the history of moving image work while simultaneously canabalizing themselves in the process of their creation (magazines are cut up, posters are shredded, envelopes are torn, etc., etc.). Mack enlivens the tension between competing generations of technologies, modes of representation and -ism’s of art. This adds a worldly complexity to her also entertaining, and often charming work. Her latest film, “Dusty Stacks of Mom: the Poster Project,” is screening now, and she was kind enough to discuss this and several of her other works below.
Jodie Mack inside her exhibition “No Kill Shelter,” at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts, 2013.
TLN: It’s hard to imagine a film more ambitious than your previous gem “Yardwork is hardwork”, but it seems like your latest, ”Dusty Stacks of Mom,” is equally as epic! Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to tell this story? (I know your previous piece “Lily” was also autobiographical in a sense, but that type of documentary story telling isn’t your main way of working, right?) And while we’re at it, I might as well ask about the depiction of representational imagery versus abstraction in this new film. Is it a focus of the piece or more a by-product of some of the processes you use to animate things? (I’m not even sure you’d agree these two approaches are as oppositional as I’m making them out to be; do you feel they have more in common than I’m giving them credit for?)
Still from Jodie Mack’s “Yard Work is Hard Work” (28m, 16mm, color, sound, 2008).
JM: Yes, YWiHW was an obscenely large project that kind of knocked me over like a tidal wave, but I decided it was time for another long work. (I actually started shooting for DSoM only a year after releasing YWiHW but then stopped for a few years and made over a dozen shorts before coming back to it.) As an animator and a collagist, I am always looking for discarded materials to use – things I can find in bulk. I had a lingering interest in printed waste from YWiHW, and my mother’s poster business was steadily declining. When it became clear that she would move out of her space and liquidate the poster inventory, it seemed logical that I should try to animate some of her stock while I could. So, ultimately, what fueled the start of this project was the unlimited access I had to a huge warehouse of printed material. (I mean, I went through a lot of posters during shooting, but I didn’t even make a dent in her gigantic collection.)
On a fundamental level, I’m interested in the tension between form and meaning. Each one of my films studies some sort of tangible object or set of objects: colored plastic (A Joy), photo-negatives (Lilly), magazines (Yard Work is hard Work) junk mail (Unsubscribe 1-4), fabric (Harlequin, Rad Plaid, Posthaste Perennial Pattern, Point de Gaze, Persian Pickles, Blanket Statement), posters (Dusty Stacks of Mom), etc. The materials guide the messages; the results take on different forms, some looking more like pre-established genres than others. The role of abstract animation in cinema – its sensational and narrative possibilities – surfaces often in my films no matter the material I’m exploring. DSoM chews through the posters and digests them through a number of animation techniques; certain scenes emphasize representational aspects of the posters while others abstract the material. So, I’d say the depiction of representational imagery vs. abstraction in this film is both a focus of the piece and a by-product of the material at hand in this case.
TLN: So I have to confess– I’m actually not that familiar with the original Dark Side of the Moon recording, but I know you reworked the lyrics to every song off that album and scored your recent film with them. Is this because Pink Floyd was one of the posters your mom sold, or is there some other connection? Seems like that record has a funny filmic pedigree because of the whole “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack syncing urban myth. In general, I feel Iike most of your films reflect a keen sensitivity to song and soundtrack (as well as diegetic and non-diegetic sound), which often act as an extension of the filmic narrative in an operatic or musical theater kind of way. Can you talk about your relationship to these genres and if they are in fact sources of inspiration? Also, can you talk a little bit more about using your voice as instrumentation in the soundtrack to some works (“Unsubscribe #4: The Saddest Song in the World”), or performing live choral soundtracks to other works (“The Future is Bright”)?
Still from Jodie Mack’s “Dusty Stacks of Mom: the Poster Project”(42:00, 16mm->HD, color, sound with live singing, 2013).
JM: Yes, great question. DSoM re-makes Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, featuring instrumentation by a different person/group on each track and alternate lyrics as voice over narration. Adopting this structure was a huge breakthrough moment because, as I mentioned, I tabled this piece for a number of years because I didn’t know what it was or how to make it. What would I say? How would I say it? How much? How little? Words were the issue. I didn’t want to use interviews, voice over, or intertitles. I loved the idea of making a musical documentary in theory but didn’t want to write the music myself because it felt too personal, raw, and uncomfortable. So, deciding to use the album as a structure re-invigorated the project and ultimately expanded its scale and context.
I chose this album in particular for a number of reasons. Certainly, Pink Floyd posters were great sellers in my mom’s business. My parents, who ran a printing business when I was a child in England, also printed some of the PF merchandise for European tours when I was young. Stom Thorgerson’s simple and bold prism album cover of DSoM, to me, represents the trippy-stigma struggle of abstract art in a post-psychedelic climate. I am interested in how abstract animation permeates everyday life, so you’ll often hear me talking about firework displays, screensavers, or laser light shows (often at planetariums and often to Dark Side of the Moon). I think the album really nails the division (or lack of) between abstraction in fine art and psychedelic kitsch. I also appreciate the album’s cult cinematic association and how it relates to synchresis and the history of what’s often called “visual music” in the experimental animation community. The idea of synchresis (that viewers connect sounds and images onscreen) kind of nullifies what seems to be the purpose of visual music: to carefully construct a complex relationship between sound and image – through experiments in unison and counterpoint (once by hand, now often by machine). It feels like, well, if a machine can do this fairly easily and we associate sound and image as having a relationship anyway, then where’s the magic? Even though this problem makes me a little sad, I capitalized upon it to make this movie because I was able to force or siphon my images and words through a structuring principle that was also related to my content to begin with. One of the things that interests me about lots of animation and experimental film more generally is that what constitutes a diegetic sound remains questionable because the images are not representational. What does a triangle vortex sound like? What do specs of dust whizzing by at 24fps sound like? You can take more liberties in abstract film than in representational narratives. But, again, because of the synchresis problem, “visual music” further complicates the notion of what’s diegetic/non diegetic because the sound’s “source” does not appear onscreen but the images move in synch. Tricky!
It’s true; I have a background in musical theatre (something more common in experimental filmmakers than one might think, I’ve found). Even though that background seems more and more distant each day, these musical and performative impulses exist in my personality/everyday life and therefore in many of my films as well. Additionally, I appreciate opera/musical theatre as a narrative form that incorporates spectacle. I’m interested in abstraction’s role within narrative as well as in life. Time-travel, hallucinations, dream sequences: these are places which incorporate abstract imagery within traditional cinematic syntax (cin-tax?). And musicals, especially movie musicals, set aside the space of the number to allow the film to go places the narrative wouldn’t allow – dreamy places, surreal places, choreographic places (e.g. Maria spinning from the sewing shop to the dance in West Side Story or the famous rippling fabric dance scene in Singin’ in the Rain). But, anyway, back to performing and singing. Again, I use what’s around and who will work for free, usually myself. At a certain point, I started taking little tours and singing with the films live because it seemed to facilitate a reason for people to come to the show and sit around and share an experience with me in a room instead of on their computer. I’m also singing DSoM live when I can and screening it with a few new shorts that work together to simulate the sequence of a rock concert (two opening acts, headliner, encore.) I’m isolated by my own demanding studio habits, so performing creates a space for human interaction – the kind of interaction or human labor that DSoM mourns the loss of in many ways…
TLN: Pattern, collage and a sort of indexical accumulation of objects and imagery occur again and again in your films, but often times they act as the vehicle for a work’s larger narrative. Can you talk a little bit about recent work like ”Point de Gaze” that seem to take that aesthetic as the subject of the film itself, in an almost structuralist way? What prompted this shift? Was it the use of material, such as Belgian lace, instead of other more ephemeral or craft items? In a way, I’m wondering if you feel like earlier pieces like “Unsubscribe #1: Special Offer Inside” were precursors to that approach?
JM: Sure. I see PdG fitting in with a number of other films I’ve made since 2010. I feel like it definitely belongs in the same family as the Unsubscribe films and other fabric films I’ve made recently. These films study domestic and recycled materials in stroboscopic anti-sequence to illuminate the elements shared between fine-art abstraction and mass-produced graphic design. The films extend the temporal concerns of structural film while calling for a critical formalism. They question the role of the decorative and conceptualize abstraction by meditating upon objects of cultural significance (or insignificance), revealing the beauty and kinetic energy of the wasted, the overlooked, the everyday product of yesterday’s work. They attempt to bring texture and domestic signification to a cinematic practice often rooted in sterile minimalism. For a while, I explained myself by saying I wanted to be the Eva Hesse of structural film – not sure how much sense that makes nowadays, but that’s how I felt at one point. I see these shorter pieces working together in the same way as paintings in a gallery show or songs on an album. But, you’re right to notice something different about PdG – it’s the first fabri-flicker film I made with textiles I didn’t own. I borrowed them from a costume shop. So, the film features a largely varied set of materials made by both humans and machines, almost predicting the ideas that emerge in DSoM about labor and technology (similar themes will also emerge in an upcoming film). I don’t see myself shifting as much as I see myself building, expanding my toolkit, and (now with DSoM) culminating – knocking it all down to rebuild again with the leftover rubble from the latest tidal wave.
Editor’s note: 100 Artists is a yearlong celebration of the 100 artists who have appeared to date in Art21′s award-winning film series Art in the Twenty-First Century. Throughout 2013, we are dedicating two to three days to each artist on our social media platforms—Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and here on the Art21 Blog. Our current featured artist is Jessica Stockholder. That our current blogger-in-residence has interviewed Stockholder is fortuitous.
Jessica Stockholder. Courtesy the artist and University of Chicago Department of Visual Arts.
Jessica Stockholder is most readily known as a sculpture, but she brings a complex history and distinct approach to the discipline. Her remarkable sensitivity to color combined with her attention to pictorial space are in many ways very painterly, and in fact she began her artistic career as a painter at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. Eventually her work crept off the canvas, across the wall, over the floor and then finally, in some instances, out of the exhibition space altogether.
Her creative process embraces chance, humor, and imaginative problem solving, and the work itself embodies these things. Stockholder feels her art “is indexical of the process of coming to knowledge and understanding,” and in many ways the art’s physicality remains an integral aspect of its ultimate meaning.
Jessica Stockholder, “Vortex in the Play of Theatre with Real Passion,” 2000. Duplo, theatre curtain, work site containers, bench, theatre light, linoleum, tables, fur, newspaper, fabric, and paint. Courtesy the artist and University of Chicago Department of Visual Arts.
Stockholder’s attraction to readily available, human-scaled objects for use in her sculpture and installation has been impacted by her relocation to Chicago where she is Chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Arts. When asked if and how having new materials at her disposable has affected her recent work she commented:
“It is taking me a while to find places to find stuff here in Chicago. I am living in Hyde Park which is definitely not oriented around consumption! Thus far I don’t find the kinds of materials available here to be substantially different than elsewhere, though I’m sure there are all kinds of eccentric nooks and crannies here yet to be discovered!”
Back in 2005, Stockholder was featured in Art21’s “Play” episode, and her work does often “play” with dualities. But looking back at her segment, she had this to say about the characterization of her work:
“I was very happy to have my work featured by Art21, and didn’t at the time see that it was useful to discuss my mixed feelings about ‘play.’ But now that some time has passed—and in the context of this one-on-one discussion focused not at a group of artists but only on my work—I will say that the word ‘play’ feels a little threatening. Within the hierarchies of value that we live with, being a woman is already something to deal with. Adding the childlike connotations of the word ‘play’ to the mix doesn’t feel productive from my point of view. How about the words ‘experimental’ or ‘exploratory’? I also enjoy talking about my work in relation to chance or serendipity.”
In both her sculpture and installation, Stockholder relishes destabilizing the dichotomies between dynamic and static; tangible and immaterial; and ephemeral and fixed. In each of these instances, her work traffics in the third dimension of space as well as the fourth—of time. It is meant, in her words, “to be experienced.”
Tavi Gevinson works across disciplines as a writer, editor, singer, and actress. She also works across mediums, predominately on the web, but also in print, sound, and film. She pairs her inimitable perspective with a well cultivated, muscular aesthetic and at the same time reveals in a sort of stream-of-consciousness curation of the movies, novels, photos, and magazines that both inspire and influence her texts and imagery. Below, she discusses with me her feelings about blogs, the publishing industry, and the power of observation.
Tavi Gevinson. Courtesy the artist.
Thea Liberty Nichols: Lady Gaga has been quoted as saying that you’re the “future of journalism.” Do you think this is because of how you’ve approached things, as a talented “rookie“ engaging in a dialogue with your readers? Or, do you think it’s because of the new media formats, such as personal blog and online magazine, that you’ve employed to get your ideas across? Or is it something else altogether, like simply the content of your writing itself?
TG: I think she was talking about the democracy of blogging and the influence somebody who hasn’t been working in the industry for years can have. There’s still a hierarchy within the community, though.
“Rookie: Yearbook One” cover. Courtesy the artist.
TLN: Since your writing has gone from the platform of personal blog, to online magazine, and most recently to printed, published book, can you identify some advantages and disadvantages to each? Do you prefer one over the others? I know the music industry, like publishing, has done a lot of soul searching over the past decade, and I’m curious if you think your generation, or you specifically, will invent a new format for media to exist within or be distributed by? For example, Beck seems to have looked backwards by publishing musical scores instead of recordings, whereas Björk previously issued a digital, app-generated album. I don’t know yet if I think one approach is better than the other, but they do strike me as two totally different answers to the same, maybe unanswerable, question.
TG: They’re each good for what I needed them for, so it would feel like an apples and oranges comparison. Blogs are great because the author-reader interaction feels very direct and it can be loosely structured, just scattered thoughts and musings. But they’re not taken very seriously. Online magazines usually feel like magazines that didn’t have enough money to be in print, but I think that’s changing as people take the Internet more seriously. I don’t think David Fincher would have directed a Web-only series a few years ago. But online magazines are good because you can publish more than you can in print, and that leaves more room to say what you really want—there’s no word count, you can be more immediate, etc. Print is good because of the aesthetic and sentimental value, and because it costs more money on behalf of the creator to put something out in print, so you can trust that it’s better than what you might find online, or at least a more thorough experience of the creator’s work.
TLN: Am I right in thinking Cadaver is your first film? You seem comfortable working across genres and disciplines, including fashion, visual art, music, feminism, and pop culture. Do you consider writing to be your main discipline or does your practice encompass acting and singing as well?
TG: I acted in a short film when I was 11, I think. I consider writing my main discipline just because it’s the only thing I do every day. I have Rookie editor duties I do every day, but it’s not the actual act of curating or editing or art directing. I think like an archivist, so being a writer feels more part of my personal identity than anything else. But I am also interested in how you can apply the stereotypically central characteristics of a writer to something like acting that is more about performing. I think acting is strongest when it’s like good writing, with its strength being in the subtleties not flashiness and with research done by observing.
Interview conducted via email March 2013. Thea Liberty Nichols is Blogger-in-Residence through March 29, 2013.
Grafting is a horticultural process that involves splicing one plant onto another to jump start growth. The root stock is the base, or anchor, of the operation used for its already mature, well developed root system. The scion is the plant matter that is grafted on; if the process is successful, you end up with a genetic duplication of the scion. Edra Soto’s current exhibition “Graft” is on view now at Terrain in Oak Park, a project space encompassing artist and principal Sabina Ott’s front yard. Soto uses Ott’s front porch as the root stock to graft her installation, comprised of patterned, bright white screened gates, onto, and although they mimic the aesthetic appeal of similar gates in her native Puerto Rico, they function quite differently in the terroir of Oak Park. Soto was kind enough to discuss this, along with her inspiration for the project and her own gallery and art collection with me below. “Graft’s” closing reception is this Sunday, April 21 from 1-4pm.
The artist Edra Soto with her piece GRAFT at Terrain, 2013
TLN: I know the patterning and the structure of the screen installed at Terrain is inspired by similar wrought iron fences in Puerto Rico, where you’re from. Can you tell me a little bit about your background, and what inspired you to utilize these fences in your work– was it their design? A certain nostalgia for Puerto Rico? The way they fit within Oak Park?
View from the porch, GRAFT at Terrain, 2013
ES: Yes, this patterning comes from iron fences that still exist in Puerto Rico. Many are in my parent’s neighborhood (where I grew up). The neighborhood was built in the early 60s and in addition to the aesthetic appeal, the screens provided security and ventilation. It’s easy to find all kinds of information relevant to the problems related to criminality at that time. However, there’s not much information about the pattern designs of the fences. My interest in these patterns started around 7 years ago. I made some illustrations of them, but didn’t develop the idea further. My frequent visits to Puerto Rico awoke my interest in them again. My husband started using some of these patterns in the furniture he builds and that definitely made me feel I was missing out. Somehow, his admiration of the fences validated my previous interest in them. The last time I went to Puerto Rico with my husband, we went on fieldtrips around my parents’ neighborhood and adjacent neighborhoods to take pictures of these fences. That was one of the most fun things we have done together. We truly love finding patterns we haven’t seen before. After all that fun activity, the idea of transplanting a Puerto Rican fence in Oak Park came to me. Their beauty allures me but their potential of becoming modern art when taken out of their original context spooks me!
Edra Soto’s GRAFT at Terrain, 2013
TLN: You run a gallery space in your backyard, The Franklin, and Sabina Ott has dedicated her front yard to her exhibition space, Terrain. Do you think The Franklin and Terrain have a lot in common, or do they take two different approaches to a similar format? What are some challenges of having an outdoor exhibition space? Do you find that most of the works are made specifically for the exhibition space?
Alberto Aguilar and family entering Edra Soto’s GRAFT, 2013
ES: I’m so glad you ask this question because it hasn’t been asked before. Just now, we have created evidence that documents one small part of the history of domestic artist-run gallery spaces in Chicago. I probably will have a conversation with Sabina soon, since I don’t know the reasons why she chooses to do her projects in her front yard. From my end, I was offered an exhibition at Northeastern Illinois University last year and had almost a year to conceive the project. That time allowed me to partner with my husband on the project, have a lot of conversations about possible projects, and eventually, creating The Franklin became our project. I kept asking myself ‘what can we offer to the art community that is not available to them’? Having a significant art collection was another motivation, thinking ahead of time that it would be great to open our house during opening nights at The Franklin and extend the life of the artwork we own beyond our own personal enjoyment. The specific structure of the Franklin offers the challenges of interacting somewhat with its design. Being partially outdoors forces the artists to react to the space as well. So far, the most successful projects come from artists that have challenged themselves by creating specific interactions utilizing their work, their aesthetics and their ingenuity. It is a great challenge.
TLN: Because we’ve worked together previously, I know a little bit about your amazing collection of art work and visual culture in your home, which itself is a kind of museum of objects and works that inspire and influence you. I know you said you would often trade works with other artists, or purchase pieces at auction to build your collection, but what made you want to start exhibiting work and start a gallery? Is it related at all to collecting? Seems like there might be a similarly social aspect of owning and displaying work, but it may also be a more private, archival impulse that motivates you.
ES: Collecting art comes from a very honest place. I just happen to love many different kinds of art and also happen to have a lot of talented friends that make it. I am fascinated by materiality and objects, but really avoid being a packrat. Collecting art makes us feel that we are doing something honorable. It is after all someone’s real connection to art language and represents a little bit of the person that made it. I wouldn’t display my work at my house because I have always thought that it is a little bit tacky. It’s like putting a big portrait of myself in the middle of the room. Not that I don’t have pictures of me (most of them with my husband) around the house. But I see those as memories reminders.
One of the reasons I felt motivated to open a gallery in our backyard was to give a ‘second life’ to our art collection. Having other artists work at your house, in such a private setting, kind of limits the initial purpose of that art piece. Indeed, every single time we have an opening, I encourage people to look around. Lots of work gets lots of compliments and I get to tell the visitors, and then the artists, how much people like their work. So The Franklin has 3 major components: The exhibitions at the space, the art collection, and an upside down pineapple cake that I’ve been making since 2009. Derived from my wedding cake, made by my mother, I started this project in an effort to transform sour memories around the original cake. Now it’s one of our traditions at The Franklin. An installation of these cakes will be created for a collaborative project by Alberto Aguilar at the MCA during this summer.
Edie Fake’s punk ethos of reciprocity and collaboration extends into his work as a comic, tattoo, and performance artist. His arresting graphic work plays with the fluidity and elasticity of images, which sometimes literally interconnect, as in the continuous sidewalk seen in the foreground of his Memory Palaces series. The looping movement in these drawings exhibits an almost cinematic pacing. Below, Fake gives us some background into how his experience working in film impacted him, as well as how his cross country travels in a big, veggie-oil-powered school bus led him, prodigal son style, back to Chicago.
I got a bus while I was living in San Francisco. I was tattooing at the time and able to save the money for it. For several years, I had been moving every four months or so. I had deep wanderlust. Finding a rolling home had started to seem like the only solution. I got this amazing bus from this badass, Kevin Sour, who taught me how to drive and take care of it. The bus had a rich history and a really solid veggie oil conversion. From there, I recklessly decided to drive it from the Bay Area to Philadelphia with my friend Heather Ciriza. That ended up being several months of what I would call “clown school”—finagling grease, wrangling the bus down the road, being this large, dirty, weird spectacle. I sort of crash landed in Baltimore after that, until I got the urge to get driving again. I organized a performance tour called Fingers.
Edie Fake. “Nightgowns” from the Memory Palaces series, 2012. Gouache and ballpoint pen on paper. 14 x 17 in. Courtesy the artist.
There were nine of us on the bus for Fingers, and although it was crowded, it worked really well. There’s so much to think about when trying to maintain a big vehicle. When I was doing it alone maintenance was all I could think about. But with friends it got so much easier, and I got into making work and performing again. We did a loop around the East Coast and Midwest. On our way to our last show the bus broke down in a big way outside of Louisville. It took a long time for me to give up on fixing the bus. While I was working through it, I moved into Scott Tankersley’s living room closet here in Chicago. The city gave me a really warm welcome. I was able to get a foothold quickly and start scheming again. The bus is now retired on queer land in Tennessee.
Performing and tattooing are both very much a combination of your own energy and other people’s…as is being alive! Acknowledging that is really important for me; it’s part of a multimedia social conversation. I think that staying part of the conversation is staying open to new ideas and methods and letting them adapt your own vocabulary. I’m not sure how else to talk about it except in these vague terms. Sharing what you do, as flexibly as possible, helps other people understand your ideas. Simultaneously, being as flexible as possible toward what other people are sharing with you expands how you understand the world.
I started out working in animation. I was a film major in college and then worked as a negative cutter for about six years. After school I gravitated toward making drawings, collages, and comics because the resources were easier to access, and a lot of the language of film stayed on. My Gaylord Phoenix comics especially developed from thinking about translating animation into static drawing. I almost think about collage like film editing and I almost always see smaller work as part of a larger body, like scenes in a movie.
Edie Fake. “Gateway (for Dara Greenwald)” from the Memory Palaces series, 2012. Gouache and ballpoint pen on paper. 14” x 17” in. Courtesy the artist.
Every time I catch one of Alexander Stewart’s and Lilli Carré’s Eyeworks Festivals I am reminded how much animation can accomplish and what a strange experiment it can be. For those reasons, I think a lot about taking up filmmaking again. I feel like I’m in a bit of a cocoon with it though. Rather than jumping into it, I’m waiting for a cohesive project to envelope me. Part of this is because of time constraints—I feel pulled in other directions and I know how much a commitment a film can be. Hopefully, it will become a bigger part of my practice soon. Until then, I’ll just have to let the residue linger on other mediums.
Edie Fake. “Pride Route (Orange)” from the Memory Palaces series, 2012. Gouache and ballpoint pen on paper. 17 x 14 in. Courtesy the artist.
For as long as I’ve been an artist, I have felt part of communities where bartering and collaborating are critical parts of growth. Cross-pollinating is how ideas spread and get expanded upon. Sharing what we can is how we help each other thrive on this messed up planet. It creates networks, emotional bonds, kinship, thought, and physical resources. You can’t always give and you can’t always take. The balance is something I’m always working out.
As told to Thea Liberty Nichols via email in March 2013. Thea is Blogger-in-Residence through May 29, 2013.
Visit Fake’sTumblr to see more from the Memory Palaces series.
Faheem Majeed is an artist, curator, teacher, and arts administrator. He likes to ask questions, challenge expectations, and mine sensitive subjects—whether he’s behind the desk serving as executive director of a “small black arts non-profit,” or in the studio welding a sculpture. By blending personal narrative with research-based facts, he metabolizes his influences and inspiration and makes them his own. He outlines some of his personal and professional history below, and illustrates how each informs his art work, which he leverages to catalyze conversation, activism, and community building.
There are a number of aspects of my personal history that shape who I am as a person and artist. My parents were both members of the Nation of Islam. Shortly after my birth they both denounced their affiliations and moved to Charlotte, NC. My father grew into a respected politician and businessman. I grew up in city where every other yard had a “Majeed Cares” campaign sign in it.
After an amicable divorce, I spent my teenage years with my mother in Minneapolis, MN. She was a respected social worker and executive director of a chemical abuse agency. She believed that no matter how dysfunctional they were, everyone needs a family.
This confluence of experiences and influences is the foundation of my work and really shaped my thoughts on the possibilities of the impact of my work. As I developed as an artist in Chicago, I combined that perspective with what I was learning about the black arts movement and groups like AfriCobra, Blacks Arts Guild, Chicago Imagist, Spiral, etc.
When I first came to Chicago in 2003, I didn’t know many people. Artists from the historic South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) welcomed me into their space where I spent the next year absorbing and falling in love with its amazing history, constituency, and constant struggles. Rummaging through the SSCAC’s basement was more of an experiential education than I could obtain from the coursework and reading during my undergraduate studies at Howard University. The smell of aging paper, the accumulation of forgotten or abandoned art, uncovering posters and flyers from the ’40s and ’50s, and reading through the correspondence from past directors felt like coming home. Those objects spoke to me and each had its own story. The curator in me sees the ability to put these objects together in a way that is different from their originally intended purpose. I try to refocus the lens and tell a story that was not obvious or perhaps lacked a voice. I synthesize these objects into my work by discussing and sharing them with others and engaging and appropriating from the ones who created them.
Faheem Majeed. “Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden I,” Mixed Media, 2012. Courtesy the artist.
I was eventually asked to fill the position of executive director of the SSCAC. As I became more involved, my studio practice suffered. I was torn between two passions. I felt that I was at a crossroads and had to make a decision, so like any sane person that is faced with a difficult life decision, I decided to go to grad school.
I quickly figured out that, at the time, I wasn’t willing to step away from either role. So with that decision, my art practice shifted from welded steel figurative representations of my community to an administrative arts practice that creates institutional critiques of culturally specific institutions (you’ve got to love art speak). Basically, I use to be a steel sculptor and now I use my knowledge of running a small black arts non-profit space to challenge and draw attention to the strengths and needs of similar spaces.
In 2011, I stepped down as executive director and curator of the SSCAC. A year later, as a part of the South Side Hub of Production, I was asked to produce an intervention that engaged the building, so I decided to build a shack on the roof. I was driven by my realization that I was going through a transitional phase in my career. I was and still am a builder of institutions, organizations, and relationships but at that time, I was a man without an organization. I needed time to let go and move on so I asked myself: “Can I build without a clearly defined purpose or affiliation and be satisfied? And does it matter if it only satisfies me?”
Faheem Majeed. “Shack on the Roof,” Mixed Media, 2011. Courtesy the artist.
The idea was to build a quaint yet visually engaging sculptural space with no defined content and see what happened. Well what happened was that people were attracted to the space and wanted to engage and build upon what was there. A handful of artists used the space for various interventions and while I knew some of them, there were others that were new to me. I was purposefully removed from the role of curator and gatekeeper from the project. I was excited about making a space with no curatorial voice. Just first come first serve. It was a great moment for me where I could recapture the concept of building, figuratively, and again create space that can speak to a community. The process helped me move forward and [this] summer, I am expanding the project with a much more intentional approach towards encouraging involvement across communities.
In terms of the aesthetic value, I’m highly concerned with the visual appeal of my pieces but I’m not creating to appeal to others visual preferences. The thought or idea inspires the medium and the medium drives the appearance of the final outcome. As an artist and curator, I always want to create a compelling aesthetic and I put my all into everything I create because I want the end product to be something of quality, something I’m proud of. But in terms of how others receive what I am making, I like to feel that they see what I put into it rather than just seeing a beautiful object. I want them to connect to its patina, use, and history so that it takes more than one glance to really answer the question of its aesthetic value. My work should grow on you.
I am very excited about my new role as administrator and faculty at University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) College of Architecture and Arts. I feel like a big part of my being asked to come back to UIC is my past success of marrying my role as an administrator and artist into an engaging art practice. Many of the students coming out of our program are either interested or already very involved in civically engaged art practices.
As told to Thea Liberty Nichols via email in March 2013. Thea is Blogger-in-Residence through April 29, 2013.
Christy LeMaster is the powerhouse behind the Nightingale, a Chicago microcinema dedicated to screening experimental film. It’s a welcoming and unpretentious space thanks to her generosity and openness. The Nightingale engages in inclusive conversation surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of new work, but at the heart of everything it does, beats the fans, makers, viewers, colleagues and friends it’s cultivated. LeMaster’s ingenuity, sweat equity and contagious enthusiasm has kept the place humming for the past several years, and now— poised to celebrate a milestone anniversary— she was kind enough to recount the Nightingale’s gradual growth in scale and scope; discuss the film she’s currently making; and give us a teaser regarding the new website she’s developing, a project which will vault the community built in her brick and mortar space into the ether of the internet with the hopes of connecting and supporting even more filmmakers, cinemas and cinephiles.
TLN: April 5 marks the five-year anniversary of the Nightingale. Can you recap the activities and structure of your space over the last few years and let us in on what’s next?
CL: You say “5 years”, and it seems like it’s been so much longer; and at the same time, it feels like it’s happened at light speed. When I started the Nightingale it seemed like access was the issue; there was more work being made than was screened, and seeing one’s work in front of an audience should be the bedrock of artistic development. The city just seemed hungry for it. When I first began talking about starting a microcinema, people just rushed in to help. So I decided to do as many screenings as I could, and to not be overly precious about the idea of curation. There seemed to be a need for a community screening room as well as an experimental cinema; we got requests to be an auxiliary venue for other arts organizations; to screen social-issue documentaries; to host youth-media showcases; and to feature work from all the city’s art schools. And so the momentum became its own practical logic: What do we need right now? What do we have that we can use? Who is coming to town? What is the rest of her work like? Those sorts of questions often propelled me forward more often than “What should we be showing?” Luckily, generous and gifted people keep showing up to help. Patrick Friel has been presenting every month for years; Jon Cates and Nick Briz brought us UpgradeChicago for awhile; My dear friends Doug and Chloe McLaren have been managing tech concerns and special event details for years; Sally Lawton showed up a year ago asking to help out with screenings, and is now involved in every aspect of the place. It all happened pretty organically. I would ask for help as needed and people helped. The place runs entirely on a gift economy and volunteer labor. With exception of special events and multi-artist shorts programs, we always pay artists out of the door and spend the rest until it’s gone. For the most part we break even.
When I started, I gave the project a sunset date of five years so I could re-assess if I was happy doing the work and if the space was still needed. And here we are. I think it is still useful to do, but I am being pulled by other projects. So I am handing off. The main bulk of the work will be managed by five programmers/keyholders: Patrick Friel, Emily Kuehn, Jesse Malmed, Chloe McLaren, and Doug McLaren. They will all have autonomous use of the space. We have structured the new system around transparency. We have put all of the tools for running the space online, and gathered a group of volunteer staff to assist the programmers. And we are taking this moment to refresh the space in lots of other ways too. We will soon launch a kickstarter to get a new projector. We are overhauling the website and changing the look of the space. I am excited for the transition. It seems really natural. I can’t wait to see what happens next. I hope to still organize programs occasionally and think about the space in a more macro way.
TLN: The Nightingale has managed to transcend its programming by acting as an informal hub of community building. I know intentional communities, post-nuclear family structures and Utopias are all part of your research interests, can you tell us more about how they relate to the activities of your micro-cinema and your own arts practice?
CL: Early on, I decided on a few small details that have become our rituals— we make pretty tickets for every screening, we always have a raffle, we host a big potluck every year andfilm a trailer.
I’m really interested in issues around interdependence. I think in the wake of the implosion of the nuclear family, we’re all sort of floating into new models of how to take care of each other. I heard a woman say once, “co-dependence is no joke in a world without interdependence,” and that’s really led my interest. It was always more important that the Nightingale be accessible instead off curatorially perfect. And for a long time I didn’t think I had an art practice, I just thought I had projects. But over the last couple years I’ve started to see that all of my projects are concerned with the same issues— how do people establish interdependence outside of traditional means; heteronormative relationships, institutions of church or work? I think a lot of us arts organizers in Chicago are remaking a small corner of the world in a vision that we value. Utopia is social critique. We aren’t interested any more, it seems, in removing ourselves from society entirely, but a lot of people we know are working very hard to rebuild small parts of society from the ground up. The Nightingale is my vision of an interdependent cinema, and a lot of my other projects are concerned with the same dynamics. I’m working on a movie about utopias where I invite different arts organizations in Chicago to re-enact an intentional or utopian community from American history; I’m researching sacred harp choirs because of how they use performance as collaborative practice. I’ve been thinking about how to be a good collaborator for 10 years, and I’m only now applying it pragmatically.
TLN: Your network of colleagues and collaborators extends well beyond the city of Chicago, which makes you the perfect person to take on the build out of Splitbeam, an online resource you dreamt up and secured funding to implement. Tell us more about the project, its function and its design.
CL: It turns out that the experimental cinema community is pretty small; Splitbeam is an idea that I had over the last years at the Nightingale— I wanted a resource where I could see what other microcinemas were doing, and right now experimental moving image makers are working on a sort of punk-rock model where you book your own shows; we’re not really relying on media to travel independently of the artist very often. Splitbeam is a web directory of microcinemas, independent and alternative cinemas, and it houses a modular, open distribution that is meant to take some of the administrative burden off of curators and artists. I am lucky to be working on it with my good friends Nick Briz and Michael Castelle; Nick is doing the front-end design and Michael is handling the database, and I am taking on the research and organization. We received a generous grant from the Propeller Fund and used it to hire Sonnenzimmer to create a visual concept for the site. We’re going to work on it hard this summer and hope to launch in the Fall of 2013.
I was recently invited to contribute an essay to a forthcoming publication on The Stockyard Institute’s (SI) 2010 exhibition “Nomadic Studio.” It was a treat to look back and think through their amazing show and its constellation of programming and events. It actually felt like stars had crossed when I met Jim Duignan, founder of SI, at one of Nomadic Studio’s many workshops– we got to talking, and the next thing I knew, I was reviewing the exhibition, and then curating work into it and organizing and moderating a panel discussion for it! Duignan’s enthusiasm is contagious, but his true strength lies in his ability to inspire. Hopefully the 499 words below capture some of that, and recount just a handful of the art and ideas Stockyard Institute has helped seed.
The Stockyard Institute (SI) is no stranger to life on the road. From its formation in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood in 1995 to its current perch amidst Lincoln Park’s leafy DePaul University campus, faculty member and SI founder Jim Duignan has made an artistic practice out of teaching, learning, making and giving things away for free. “Nomadic Studio,” organized by SI for DePaul Art Museum (in conjunction with the city’s year-long Studio Chicago initiative), sounds self-reflexive at first, but its true complexity lay in the fact that it was about both the why, and the how, of SI.
Duignan, along with Faiz Razi, Beth Wiedner, and a staggering number of additional collaborators too numerous to list– put together an audaciously elastic exhibition comprised of multiple, month-long thematic reincarnations. Featured works drifted across disciplines and blurred borders between singularity and replication, creativity and production, fine art and craft, and aesthetics and utilitarianism. It was cumulative, and expanded organically through the acquisition of new works over time. These works also talked to and cross-pollinated one another, shape shifting within each new context of the show’s constant fluctuations.
The handful of more traditional works in the exhibition confronted viewers with an exuberant pop sensibility and included large-scale painting, drawing, sculpture and a wall-sized mural. Some pieces were literally nomadic, given their mobility, such as the community garden housed within a canoe. Others were tools which required viewer participation to utilize, complete or deplete them, such as the low-watt radio station, the mobile book binding and screen printing stations, and the zine library.
Ultimately, SI managed to transform the galleries from a space into a place. This was done by literally replicating actual historic or existent Chicago places within the museum space, including the Rumpus Room’s basement recording studio, the Union Rock Yards’ stage, and A/V Aerie’s ballroom. It was also achieved by using the museum as a studio, as a place for experimentation, self-cannibalization and generative failure. Nomadic Studio was always humming– the palpable dynamism would have made most museums cringe with envy. Day and night, Duignan and his colleagues brought the outside in by hosting live musical performances, how-to workshops and open studios.
Beyond tangible artworks and transitory experiences, Nomadic Studio was also well documented. This led to the production of SITE, an online resource for educators that tracked the methodologies, development and implementation of the exhibition for future use and potential duplication. It also resulted in the text you’re reading in the publication you’re holding in your hand.
From the beginning, SI’s students have also been their teachers. Through a marriage of art and politics, they have acted transparently, embraced inclusivity, and stayed true to their belief that there’s plenty to go around. Above all, they appreciate a good spectacle, and this has been their trademark maneuver for reeling us in. The deal is sealed however, as soon as we realize that, through sheer force of will, they have the power to transform the ideal into the real.
I write with the animating glow of philosophical idealism, and I articulate my thought through descriptions of performances of queer aesthetics practiced in everyday life, literature and art.
— José Muñoz, Social Text Journal online, June 2010
José Muñoz was The Visiting Artists Program (VAP) at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s first speaker of the Spring semester. As somewhat of a newcomer to his work, and having never had the pleasure of hearing him speak before, I was really inspired by his lecture, entitled “Wise Latinas: Mario Montez and Others,” and the patience and grace with which he interfaced with the audience and responded to their questions. The lecture itself was a clever conflation between the confirmation hearings of Sonya Sotomayor and Andy Warhol’sScreen Test No. 2 (featuring Mario Montez), with some amazing Nao Bustamante video thrown in for good measure. It focused on issues of camp, affect, and stereotype, with Muñoz stating that the “…calculating, strategic use of history is one way we can reject coercive mimesis.” Through his examination of the politicized biography, he mined notions of universalizing versus particularizing lived experience in smart, unexpected, and humorous ways.
Aside from his interest in punk and the DIY aesthetics of amateurism– subjects that are very meaningful to me too– Muñoz is probably best known as the author of Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, a book that presents a “critical idea of hope.” The very idea that hope can be something other then naïve or flowery and instead can be used to critique the here and now, with its itinerant how and why, is powerful stuff. Muñoz says it best when he writes:
Cruising Utopia is a book that longs for collectivity during moments of escalating political isolation. It is my hope that Cruising Utopia offers readers resources that will help us belong to a future that is often narrated as impossible but is nonetheless attainable and utterly necessary. (Social Text Journal online, June 2010)
"Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity" by José Esteban Muñoz
I enjoy reading Muñoz because his writing style is an engaging mixture of theory and media criticism laced with emotionally raw personal anecdotes. During his visit, he said he tries to “push the conventions of what critical writing is” by letting the artwork he’s writing about dictate the voice of his writing. This focus on a more collaborative approach to writing reflects the often hybridized practices of both contemporary artists and contemporary art writers– and it also reflects how one’s creative approach to even non-fiction writing can function as an art practice in and of itself.
To read more of Muñoz’s thoughts, check out the excellent interview conducted by Claudine Ise, fellow Art21 blog contributor, over on Bad at Sports. And to join the dialogue on Muñoz with VAP, please become a fan on Facebook and get commenting!
Thea Liberty Nichols: While trying to determine how to define what it is that you do, I hit upon the idea of just describing all of your activities in one long run-on list, which might look something like this: publisher–distributor–writer–editor–curator–blogger–teacher. (Hopefully I haven’t made any glaring omissions?) I like the idea of employing awkward hyphenations in this instance because it not only emphasizes the reach of what you do— it also creates a sort of horizontal organization of things, were all of these different forms of expression and modes of production are recognized as equals, rubbing hyphenated elbows. Can you tell us a little more about the sum of these parts, or some of these parts?
Garden by Yuichi Yokoyama
Dan Nadel: You summed it up pretty well! I see all these activities as interlocking. Basically I look for as many outlets for my sensibility, and those of my artists, as possible. The parts you reeled off are linked by my desire to present both the work of artists I’m interested in and the lineage they’re a part of. So, it’s important to me to not just publish, say, Gary Panter, but also to curate a retrospective of his work, and then look at his art history and publish or curate around that, too. So from Panter I got to the Hairy Who and Karl Wirsum, for example. And likewise, when publishing a younger artist, like C.F. or Yuichi Yokoyama, I’m interested in their total sensibility: in comics, in drawing, in music. The artists that I’m most involved with by necessity require the above linkages — I have to be all those things just to keep up with them. But I’m a bit evangelical, so while they prod me, I like to think I’m prodding them out into the public — and trying to create a space, both contemporary and historical, in which they can exist.
TLN: The works that you’ve produced over the years feature a wide-ranging slew of multi-generational and cross-disciplinary makers. In your collaborations with others on these projects, do you see yourself as a maker too, or more of an indefatigable fan and promoter?
DN: I definitely see myself as a maker, or a maker by way of facilitating. What keeps things interesting is the making — working with an artist or group of artists to determine the best way for their work to be experienced in the world. And as a writer/curator, I like to think I’m making ideas, or spaces for ideas — making the context in which this work lives. In other words, I’m not interested, for myself, in just dropping raw material into the world. I want to help form and inform it, and, to some degree, inform the response to it.
1-800-MICE by Matthew Thurber
TLN: You’ve developed a lot of long-standing relationships with the cast of characters affiliated with PictureBox Inc., and I admire how you’re able to both track the emergence and blossoming of some while simultaneously unearthing or re-popularizing others, as only the best cultural anthropologists do. How do you see your creation of hard-copy print publications contributing to the existent mix of visual and cultural phenomena floating around us, bearing in mind the symmetry of publishing on comics, drawing and illustration alongside the dissonance of publishing on music, animation and web-based art?
DN: I’ve always wanted to, in a sense, rewrite the history of post-WWII visual culture. And if anything, that’s what all my various activities are about. I also like to think that the artists and designers that form the core of PictureBox (Gary Panter, Ben Jones, Frank Santoro, C.F., Brian Chippendale, Norman Hathaway, Matthew Thurber, et al) are sui generis sensibilities whose contributions to culture are deep and long lasting. And what my various activities bring to the fore, I think, is an intelligent “other take” on visual culture. What if we overthrew traditional narratives of pop and post-conceptual art and installed Peter Saul, Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum, H.C. Westermann, and Gary Panter in the pantheon? What would that bring us to? Is it possible that the artists saying the most about being human have often been the most overlooked? I’ve explored that in various articles, exhibitions and books. And similarly, as I suggested in my books Art Out of Time and Art in Time, what if our standard quality-lit narrative of comic art history was widened, and talents once deemed eccentric were accorded status commensurate with the full merit of their work, like Fletcher Hanks, for example. I go after the lost work (like 1970s airbrush art in Overspray, for example) because in it I often find work that is pungent and often too overwhelming to have been properly recorded in the first place. So called imagism or certain parts of illustration. Avant-comics, etc. Therein I also find the richest lessons about how history gets made (often by the embarrassed). So… in a megalomaniacal way I guess I hope that by digging up the past and helping to produce the future, I can create some parallel space for ideas — and that that parallel will converge, or crash, into the other spaces, with interesting results.
Above all, though, I love the relationships I’ve formed, and the connections made between generations. It’s rewarding for me to learn lessons across generations, and also rewarding for the artists I work with to meet one another— to meet their spiritual heirs or mentors, and to see what comes of that. It’s endlessly fascinating and keeps me hopping.
"Karl Wirsum: Drawings 1967-70," edited by Dan Nadel
Dan Nadel was born in Washington, D.C. in 1976. He is the owner of PictureBox, Inc., a Grammy Award-winning publishing company. Dan has authored books including Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900–1969, Gary Panter, and Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980; is the co-editor of The Comics Journal; and has published essays and criticism in The Washington Post, Frieze, and Bookforum. As a curator, he has mounted exhibitions including Karl Wirsum: Drawings 1967-1970 in New York, the first major Jack Kirby retrospective, The House that Jack Built in Lucerne, Switzerland, andMacronauts for the Athens 2007 Biennale in Greece. Dan lives in Brooklyn.
Thea Liberty Nichols: I’ve had the pleasure of curating one of your self-published books into a show I put together a few years ago, and recently you were kind enough to have me over for a studio visit where we got to rifle through your flat file. Can you detail for us your process of taking a work from creation through to production— whether it’s an animation, inking a comic, printmaking, or book-binding— and on out into the world, either through screenings, publishing, or what-have-you?
Lilli Carré: For whichever medium I end up choosing for a project, I usually start with scribblings in my sketchbooks and loose little notes and ideas all over the pages, which end up looking something like this:
When I work on a comic, I’ll start with these ideas and start to form a narrative thread, and from there I start making thumbnail storyboards for how I’m going to draw and structure the final comic. Here’s one of my loose storyboards for a page from my story “The Carnival”:
and here’s the final page:
When I work on animation or printmaking, it’s sometimes carefully plotted out, but lately I’ve been enjoying working much more intuitively in these forms. For animation, I’ll just start drawing frames, maybe starting with a particular little motion or simple scene and then build on it as I go. This whole animation Head Garden was made in this way— just starting with the idea of a man losing his head and drawing straight-ahead as I went.
I’ll make animations and prints most often just for myself, and I post most of my film work online but also sometimes send pieces out to experimental film and animation festivals that I like. For my comic work, I will either make a story for a specific anthology or to put out as a book, either with a publisher or as a self-published comic. It’s nice being able to finish a comic story and then immediately put it out as a self-published little book. It’s very cheap to do this (silkscreen printing, Xerox, etc.) and there are still lots of fun ways to get into designing these. I’ll trade them or sell them at comic book shops or at alternative comics fests. Right now, I’m working on putting together a larger book that will collect my self-published comics as well as my contributions to anthologies like MOME and Glomp and my strips that ran in The Believermagazine.
TLN: I know you studied animation and have several animated films under your belt, but there’s a sense to the pacing and a sensitivity to sound that I also recognize in your 2-D comics and illustrated work. Can you tell us more about how these media interrelate and inform each other? Do ideas ever evolve from one medium to another, or beg a certain type of medium from the onset?
LC: I frequently switch back and forth between working on comics and animation. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to work with pages, where I can really focus on the details and nuances from one panel to the next, and an overall page composition. After I’ve been working on something like that for a while, it feels very freeing to switch to working on an animation, and draw 12 drawings for every second of film. It becomes much looser in terms of each individual drawing, and is more about the overall feel and movement. So I’m constantly switching between the two mediums, and this does result in some crossover. I have aimed to create an ambience in some of my comics based on rhythm and written sound, trying to create the same feeling of mood and pace that you might experience when watching a film. I also carry some of the narrative themes that I develop in my comics over to my animation work, where I play with them in a more loose and abstract way. I have had little ideas for animations which have ended up being worked into comics and vice versa.
TLN: I’m just getting more familiar with the growing network of self-publishers and (mini-) comic makers in Chicago, of whom I know you’re colleagues with and already connected to. Can you tell us more about the Trubble Club and what your involvement with the group has been to date? In general, how do those types of collective making and publishing activities expand or alter the art-making practice you’ve already developed?
LC: Chicago is a great city for alternative comics, and there are a lot of cartoonists living here. A couple years ago, a handful of us started meeting up on occasion and drawing collaborative short comics together, usually very goofy ones, and eventually this group was dubbed “Trubble Club.” Since comics can be a very solitary endeavor, and Chicago winters are usually pretty harsh and isolating as well, it’s nice to have a group of people to occasionally draw with and talk shop about comics and stories and particular technical stuff like pen nibs and such. I don’t go too often, but when I do it’s a fun time. I think the most helpful part of group drawing like this is to just put aside the rigidity one might have with his own work and just go for a ridiculous idea off the top of his head and let out some drawin’ steam. It definitely yields some very bizarre comics!
Lilli Carré grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives in Chicago, where she works as an animator, cartoonist, and illustrator. Her animated films have shown in festivals throughout the US and abroad, including the Sundance Film Festival and the Aurora Film Festival. Last year, she co-founded the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation in Chicago and is working on plans for this year’s fest. She is the author of the graphic novels, “Tales of Woodsman Pete,” “The Lagoon,” “Nine Ways to Disappear,” and “The Fir Tree,” and has recently contributed comics to The Believer magazine, Mome, “Best American Comics 2010,” and “Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010.”
Thea Liberty Nichols: I have to bashfully admit that, despite it being just a bike ride away, I’ve never visited Roxaboxen Exhibitions before. But, for a while now I’ve been keeping tabs on all of the various events you have going on, such as the openings, performances, classes and studio space you have for working artists. Can you tell us more about all the stuff you house under one roof, and let us know what motivated you all to open your doors, add a new voice to Chicago’s exhibition space topography, and cultivate the community that orbits around you?
Liz McCarthy: I wanted to leave Asheville, North Carolina, where I had been living and going to art school. I had been selling my work and doing well there but it was a small community and I wasn’t satisfied with what I was making and wanted to expand my practice and feel more challenged. I grew up outside of Chicago and went to North Carolina a lot to visit my Dad— both these places have resonated as home, but I decided to return to Chicago to be close to my Mother again. Also the rent prices were a third of the prices of other places I was looking at moving (New York and Philly). I had read a lot of articles about Pilsen and artists who rented storefronts for art spaces in college, and I had gone to Pilsen as a teen to wander. I decided that I wanted to have a storefront arts space in Pilsen.
TLN: I see from the list of ten names involved in operating your space that there’s a healthy team of folks supporting your organizational efforts. Are all of them artists? And do all these voices and hands embed themselves into the character of Roxaboxen Exhibitions as a collective, or are things more parsed, delegated and individuated?
LM: Roxaboxen was extremely disorganized in the beginning, getting into it I had this idea that we would all have jobs and function more like a collective or business. After about 6 months where I had been doing most, if not all, of the administrative work, I realized that I had developed this major role as director. I began taking more ownership of the space, and was more committed to trying to really curate and schedule in a more intentional way. The others sort of let this happen and an unspoken agreement developed wherein I did what I wanted and others could schedule stuff they were interested in whenever there was free time. So Roxaboxen has evolved over the past few years out of this original situation. I am back and forth about making money on the space, sometimes I feel like I should be, sometimes I don’t care.
Today Roxaboxen consists of four residents, soon to be five, but the only original residents as of next month will be Lindsey Zimmer and me. We live in rooms we built into the building and the rest is studio space. We decided to rent out more of the building as studio space because we had been having these heinous rock shows to make money for our utilities, and renting the space meant we didn’t have to do that any more. The shows were full of drunks that loved to disrespect the space, and resulted in a lot of unnecessary cleaning and damage control. Also, I was interested in making the building a productive space rather then a party zone. I work really well in a community of artists and most of the reason I wanted to start the space was to expand and develop the art community around me. Having more studios and artists working was a way of bringing that making energy into the space. I had originally thought that the people living in the space would fill that niche, but after three months Miranda and I were the only residents actually making anything— live-in residents do more living then making of art. So now we have studios for artist not living in the space and a stronger community and dialogue has really developed within the intimate collective that identifies themselves as Roxaboxen. The collective itself has developed into what I like to describe as “family vibes.”I am really happy with the people that are now involved with the space— community community community!
TLN: I’ve worked with arts collectives in the past that have filled very specific niches and had extremely well defined and rigid parameters within which they function. I’ve also collaborated with other organizations that are very project-based, responsive and constantly honing their strengths and defining their own successes. Where would you say Roxaboxen Exhibitions falls on this spectrum? Have things changed from past to present, or do you sense changes ahead for the future?
LM: As far as the future— it is blurry. I am signing a new lease for the next year but have grand ideas of leaving the country, going to grad school, or just giving up on communal living. But, for the next year we are going to continue to be great with no expectations for the future! Because Roxaboxen has developed such a name for itself I feel like it is hard to just end, and it’s a really scary idea for me. I really like doing this art space thing, and I feel like even if I end this space I will continue to run some sort of art space in another capacity again, maybe in Chicago, maybe somewhere else. The gallery is booked till May….
Another reason for me to leave the space is also because it significantly takes away from my personal art practice. Part of my reason for starting Roxaboxen was to expand that, but I find I put so much energy into the space I push aside my own work. I had to take the summer off programming to have time for myself.
And community community community! I repeat this to transition into my statements about my curatorial strategy. Though the collective has doubled from the original group I still do most, if not all, the administrative work, and the others act as helping hands when needed. I took this on in many ways and enjoy my position. I am the best suited as ambassador of Roxaboxen, and I am the most driven to expand the gallery/ community programming aspect. I work off two precepts in deciding what happens at Roxaboxen: 1) things that amaze me/ art I love; and 2) artists and events that I feel close to or want to be close to. Most of the time I show work that falls somewhere in between— amazing art by people I love. Because the entire space is such a labor of love, I want to just have a lot of fun, learn from my experiences through the space, and meet new interesting people, thus that is how I decide what happens. This is how planning typically occurs; a friend asks to use the space, someone pitches an idea to me that sparks my interest, or I invite someone that I am really interested in to do something. To expand on how this plays itself out— Roxaboxen’s fame and fortune (HA!) is purely a snowballing of friends and word of mouth.
While the programming is wildly based on chance in this way, I am interested in making the shows here represent diverse communities in attempts that these communities overlap and make connections with one another and expand the Chicago art dialogue. I have noticed that the art scene here can become cliquey and segregated, i.e. Columbia College students vs. SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) students, ACRE (Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions) resident artists vs. Harold Arts resident artists, Latino artists vs. White artists. I want to bridge those gaps and include as many different groups in our space as possible.
I have been criticized a lot by more legitimate artists and communities for my curatorial methods; a resident artist told me that I lacked “vision” and focus in the way I choose shows, but I feel like I wouldn’t want to have too clear of an idea. Part of the beauty of Roxaboxen exhibitions is we have so much freedom and little self awareness, so we can show more outsider work like no name artists as well as more “legitimate” artists. While I understand the necessity to glorify fine art (I am an artist who wishes to make money too) I am all for new, captivating ideas in whatever form they take.
Liz McCarthy is a based out of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. She moved to Chicago from Asheville, NC, a little over a year ago to start an artist-run gallery/studio/co-op calledRoxaboxen Exhibitions, and continues to curate and manage the space. She has had the opportunity to participate in artist residency programs such as the Atlantic Center for the Arts with master artist Rineke Dijkstra and ACRE Residency in Wisconsin. She shows her work all over the city, and contributes much of her time to supporting Chicago’s many artist communities.