There’s been a lot of hand-wringing of late about whether artists and the creative class can do more to combat the growing threats to democracy, the environment, and even our physical bodies. The work is never over, but I found a welcome moment of encouragement while reviewing the artist interviews ArtSlant published in 2016. Clicking through the archive I was motivated by the diverse cross-section of artists grappling with some of the most pressing issues of our time.
In 2016, artists taught us about self-defense when faced with police brutality and how to evade Big Data collecting our DNA (really). We spoke with artists amplifying the voices of incarcerated populations and memorializing a planet facing mass extinctions. Artists shared strategies about navigating post-colonial legacies and wrestling with conundrums of visibility and identity. And women artists spanning multiple generations spoke of their radical feminist practices both on- and off-line.
It seems with every news cycle—and every new cabinet appointment—we have more to feel discouraged about as the final days of 2016 tick over to 2017. But let’s take this moment to celebrate the many ways artists continue to rise to some of the most urgent challenges of our time. Thanks to all the artists who so generously shared their words with us in 2016. From the archive, these are some of our favorites:
Maya Lin, A Fold in the Field, 2013. Photo: David Hartley Mitchell. Courtesy of Gibbs Farm
“I think I have always felt that if we can accurately look at what we are doing, or what we have done, we will be able to learn from our past in order to shape a different future.” —Maya Lin
In our most-read interview of 2016, Philip Barash caught up with Maya Lin for a “psychological pause” as she looked back at her career and considered how her art, architecture, and memorials speak together in one voice. Lin’s memorials have addressed some of the most vital issues of our time: war, civil rights, women’s rights, and the culture and history of Native Americans. Her latest project, What is Missing?, is a global memorial to the species and natural environments driven to extinction by humans.
Genevieve Gaignard, Drive-by, Side-eye, 2016, Chromogenic Print 28 x 42 inches. Courtesy the artist and Shulamit Nazarian, Los Angeles
“They’re me behind a façade... they’re extremes. But it’s a comment on who I have to be to fit into certain situations.” —Genevieve Gaignard
On the eve of her solo show, Smell the Roses, at the California African American Museum in October, photographer Genevieve Gaignard spoke to Alex Anderson about identity, passing, and the archetypical characters she performs in her work. We loved the candid insight that Gaignard, a biracial woman of color with fair skin, brought to the slippery subject of finding truth in the abstract aporia of identity.
Still from I Can't Breathe performance at EPIC North High School. Courtesy of the artist
“It’s not about survival. People have to prioritize joy. What does that mean for young people of color? To prioritize joy means having an active role in creating a space where you can almost always see the light at the end of the tunnel.” —Shaun Leonardo
In February, Shaun Leonardo brought his I Can’t Breathe self-defense performance and workshop into NYC schools and community centers, turning a project initially enacted in art spaces into a potentially life-saving gesture. Editor Joel Kuennen chatted with Leonardo about presenting the work in these different contexts, the legacy of police violence in New York City, and believing in the struggle.
Angry Hillary, 2008, Acrylic on paper, 26 x 40 in. Courtesy of the artist
“Nothing fundamental has changed. Misogyny is still blossoming in every aspect of modern life.” —Louise Fishman
Louise Fishman’s painting Angry Hillary predates the candidate’s recent political heartbreak by two election cycles. But for Fishman, who spoke to Olivia Murphy during her solo at ICA Philadelphia this spring, the struggles and sexism powerful women face is hardly surprising. And she’s long stopped playing by men’s rules: active in the lesbian and queer movements in the 60s, Fishman consciously tried to discard whatever she felt came from the male tradition—including painting on large canvasses.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg, Radical Love: Chelsea Manning, 2015. Image by @Luthy
“Do we as a culture decide it’s ok to throw genetic privacy out the window? Or do we shape our norms differently and work to protect people’s privacy...? I think the only way we can make these decisions is to have more cultural production around these topics.” —Heather Dewey-Hagborg
In this fascinating interview we learned artful strategies for protecting genetic privacy at a time when our DNA is increasingly used against our knowledge. On the occasion of her ThoughtWorks residency in Manhattan, Heather Dewey-Hagborg explained to Editor Joel Kuennen about our faulty reliance on DNA as evidentiary truth, not to mention the inherent racial biases that come to the fore in its application.
Angela Washko, The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, Screenshot from performances in-game
“Our online lives are our real lives… I think more and more women realize how much their experiences online differ from men’s experiences… and the ways those online experiences impact their lives, it feels important and pervasive, so they want to make work about it.” —Angela Washko
Angela Washko opens up discursive spaces in virtual places: like World of Warcraft, and in her notorious interview with pick-up artist Roosh V. In his Wednesday Web Artist of the Week column, interviewer Christian Petersen has spoken with a lot of artists about feminism in the digital age, but this conversation with Washko—who uses the internet as a social medium more than an aesthetic tool—was one of our absolute favorites on the subject.
Maria Gaspar, Wretched and Paramount #1 (Extreme Landscapes Series; Google study of Cook County Jail in Chicago), 2014, Inkjet Print
“The role of artists and creative folks is always an interesting one because I often think about how artists can point to, put light on, proposition, incite, intervene, subvert, reveal in forms that can range from a space of both poesis and praxis.” —Maria Gaspar
When the Rauschenberg Foundation named Maria Gaspar one of its 2016 Artist as Activist Fellows in Racial Justice + Mass Incarceration this summer, we wanted to know more. The Chicago-based artist spoke with Tempestt Hazel about her undertaking RADIOACTIVE: Stories from Beyond the Wall, a collaborative audiovisual project working with those most impacted by Chicago's Cook County Jail—both in and outside its walls.
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Otros Usos, 2014, 16mm, Color, Silent
“None of this is beautiful. But you can’t point the camera at this and see toxic; you see beauty. That is a problem that is inherent in the place.” —Beatriz Santiago Muñoz
Leading up to her New Museum solo in April, Puerto Rican artist and filmmaker Beatriz Santiago Muñoz met with Ionit Behar in Chicago. In this far-reaching conversation, they dig into the complexity of representing a place like Santiago Muñoz’s native Puerto Rico—where ostensibly beautiful landscapes are embodied with social, political, and ecological traumas and histories.
Simon Denny, Blockchain Future State Founder Whiteboard Globe Drawing: Blythe Masters Digital Asset, 2016, PE globe with plexiglas components and metal holder on Bullstage platform, stage feet; UV print on alucore, plexiglas. Courtesy of the artist and Petzel Gallery, New York
“What does this feel like to be around all these derivatives of a liberal tech future?” —Simon Denny
Despite becoming more pervasive as a digital authentication tool, blockchain technology can be hard for the layperson to understand. Enter Simon Denny, whose Blockchain Future States at Petzel Gallery in September took an imaginative and didactic approach (tech startup-themed board games?) to envisioning the technology’s implications. Profiling four companies using blockchain and Bitcoin, he told Olivia Murphy about his tech culture-inspired “fan art.”
Brenda Goodman, Almost a Bride, 2015, Oil on wood, 80 x 72 in. Courtesy of the artist and Life on Mars Gallery
“...I won’t stop painting what is in my heart, and I will never retire! Anyway, have you ever heard a painter say they have retired? No. They just paint till they can’t anymore.” —Brenda Goodman
“I need to do this to survive, and so far I have!” Brenda Goodman told Bradley Rubenstein during one of many lunches they shared last year. The 72-year-old painter’s deeply personal and often enigmatic work has seen a well-deserved resurgence in recent years, but setbacks along the way never stopped this intrepid painter. We simply loved this revealing and emotional interview.
Andrea Alessi is Managing Editor of ArtSlant.