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Fighting Words: A Public Debate on the Relationship Between Social Practice and Art Institutions

It seems like everywhere you look today, artists are working collaboratively through social and participatory formats, often in public and community settings and well outside the traditional context of the art museum. The desire by artists to directly engage the world, their diversity of approaches, and the collective and collaborative ways their work is made […]

Janaki Ranpura's project for the ongoing exhibit at the Katherine E. Nash Museum, thinking making living, on view through December 13.

Janaki Ranpura’s project at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery for thinking making living, on view through December 13.

It seems like everywhere you look today, artists are working collaboratively through social and participatory formats, often in public and community settings and well outside the traditional context of the art museum. The desire by artists to directly engage the world, their diversity of approaches, and the collective and collaborative ways their work is made has spurred heated debates about the role of art in the world today.   Tangled in histories of activism, community organizing, and avant-garde aspirations to merge art and life, socially-engaged art practices challenge the very institutions that have traditionally educated, presented, and supported contemporary artists, namely the art school and the museum.

“Art Inside Out: Socially Engaged Art and Institutions” will be the focus of conversation between Roger Cummings, Natasha Pestich, Christina Schmid, Colleen Sheehy, and Sarah Schultz, as part of the exhibition, thinking making living, at the Nash Gallery. (Wednesday, December 10 at 6 pm).  Knowing such conversations are happening among friends and peers elsewhere, we invited Portland-based artist Ariana Jacob, to share some of the proceedings from this past summer’s rousing Assembly: A Social Practice Get-together that took place at the Portland Art Museum.

The following debate project was organized for the Assembly by Ariana Jacob, who invited the six members of the debate teams, as well as the gathered audience, to respond to the question: Does social practice belong in art museums?

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This question was chosen not because there is a pressing need to resolve that matter one way or another, but as a prompt that could push to the surface the power dynamics of the overlapping and oppositional interests at play in this still forming field of art practice.

On the team advocating that social practice belongs IN museums: Phaedra Livingstone, professor of Museum Studies at the University of Oregon, Sheetal Prajapati from the Education Department at MoMA, and Harrell Fletcher, Director of the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University – the program that organized the Assembly event. On the team arguing for social practice to resist incorporation and remain OUTside of museums: Amy Harwood, co-founder of the outdoor artist residency Signal Fire, Deborah Fisher, executive director of A Blade of Grass, an organization focused on supporting socially engaged art, and Paul Ramirez Jonas, an artist who has worked within the field of social practice both inside and outside of museums.

The debate teams were invited to set the stage by having each member make a position statement, and the audience was invited to respond to these stances with their own comments and questions. These were followed by a period of dialogue, first between the debate team members and then opening up to a free flow between audience and panelists.

The IN-museum side pointed out that there has been a long history of parallel development towards public engagement practices within museum education departments that naturally correspond with social practice art. They acknowledged that there are real reasons why museums are perceived as elitist spaces but argued that this could be changed faster by artists and museum practitioners working together from inside the institution to make more inclusive institutional practices and to more fully live up to their ideals as a public space and a public good. The INside also pointed out that within the existing art economy museums are more compatible financial backers of social practice art than the existing commercial gallery world, where sale-ability is paramount.

The OUTside brought up strong concerns about the price of compromising the work by fitting it into museum sanctioned forms where it no longer has the wildness that gives it power. They astutely pointed out that museums are physically and financially structured around the collection and display of objects, and that unless that changes, social practice will always be at a disadvantage negotiating for recognition within those institutional structures. They also strategically made a call to refuse working with museums unless museums do more to present this work in the context of art discourse, as opposed to education and outreach, on the grounds that museums have more to gain from social practice work’s ability to generate their own audiences than these artists have to gain from getting access to the preestablished art audiences that come with a museum.

The atmosphere was intentionally rowdy. Time was kept by the electric guitar virtuoso, LKN, who drowned out speakers with screamingly beautiful heavy metal riffs regardless of whether they were well credentialed or unknown. For the first half of the debate people were not allowed to respond directly to each other and instead could only voice their own questions and statements, which accelerated the flow of ideas but heated up the room with frustration. Speakers, both on the stage and on the floor, were rewarded with shots of mezcal for sharing their thoughts. The rules of the debate were changed on the fly midway through to make more time for discussion between the audience and the debaters. For the most part each person was only called upon to speak once, allowing as many different voices to be heard as possible and making sure no-one dominated the floor. By the end, much of the audience had joined the debate, and yet the room was still filled with an urgency to articulate all the perspectives that had not been expressed.  As with a more traditional Oxford-style debates, the audience was asked to vote before and after the discussion to indicate how persuasive each side had been in making their case. While there was a slight movement from OUT towards IN throughout the course of the night, the final vote was a tie – a fitting end to the proceedings, resisting the charged desire to resolve the conflict, and instead re-emphasizing the importance of laying bare the different stakes at work in the field.

What follows are some key excerpts edited down from the live debate[1]:

Introduction by Ariana Jacob:

Think of this debate as a public conversation. Conversation as a form of practice is central to my interests as an artist. To many people, conversation implies an arena that is limited to politeness and agreement, when in fact, conflict is a crucial element of dialogue. Conflict points out what matters to us, where we draw our lines to take a stand. And conflict undeniably has energy. Disagreement illuminates the places where we can potentially think new thoughts. When we notice we are disagreeing with someone it reveals the edges of our own thinking, and even if we are not going to end up agreeing, there is a chance that we can get a different perspective on the echo chamber of our own established lines of reasoning. I wanted to bring a form of conflict into this forum on socially engaged art and see what would come forth from exposing and discussing some of our underlying fault lines. The relationship between socially engaged art and institutions is a complicated one. On the one hand social practice is born out of the impulse to take art out of sanctioned spaces and bring it into everyday life places and interpersonal forms. So it might be a form of backtracking to be finding ourselves back at the threshold of the museum. But on the other hand socially engaged artists have a lot to gain from being taken seriously in the discourse of art and museums have a lot to gain from the way that social practice shifts the relationship with audience towards participation and personal involvement.

The debate starts with the question: Does social practice belong in art museums? But then it moves out from there, as different stakes are brought forward in the conversation.

Opening Statements:

Phaedra Livingstone advocating for social practice to be IN museums:

I am here to assert that the art museum and social practice are perfectly compatible. Your very presence here in this space embodies my first assertion arguing for museums. I’d like to take a poll now. Who here feels that museums are elitist? (Most people raised their hands.) Now, who here feels that museums are a public good? (Again most people raise their hand and one audience member calls out, “they should be.”) Museums are complex institutions with many layers and I think it is fair to answer in the positive to both those questions.

There has long been an over-emphasis on the role of collections in the public understanding of museums. But as visitors, we actually experience the museum through programming, not through collections. We might experience collections in that programming, but it is programming we are experiencing. As we experience it, the art museum is a public space for programming with the goal of serving and developing civil society, and therefore is a prime venue for social practice. If you believe that museums are elitist or exclusive and you, as an artist, wish to change that, then the art museum is precisely where you need to do that work. The alternative is to create a new institution for showcasing art which will likewise face sociopolitical realities that will require management, and hence the dance of principled compromise. As a realist I want to improve the real world rather than invest in an imagined utopia that may actually be worse than what we’ve already got.

Amy Harwood arguing for social practice to stay OUT of museums:

My primary role in the arts community is as a totally devoted audience member. I’m not a committed maker or even a critic, but art is about the only thing these days that brings me back from spending time out in the wild. I have spent the most recent half of my life committed to environmental activism. I am unapologetic about this while maintaining some reservations about the history of my predecessors. One of the many debates in the environmental movement is about the utility of wilderness. As some of you may know this summer is the 50th anniversary of the wilderness act. This remains the strongest piece of legislation ever written in this soon forsaken nation. I recommend that you all read it someday. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of legislation, total poetry. It applies from the core of the earth to the atmosphere, which is so beautiful to think about. As I thought about this question of how socially engaged art interacts with museums and institutions I saw a corollary to wilderness: How do we ensure accessibility without debasement? What is compromised by this strategy? Does the construct of an institution undermine wildness? Ultimately, who is in charge? I think these questions, and questions of whether our institutions are just menageries of the rich and temples to cultural production are absolutely critical as my generation inherits the power of our predecessors. The art world is currently reflecting a community complicit with capitalist empire. I implore all artists who have the courage to be true interveners: to align themselves against that shit wherever it arises. Ultimately I can’t evaluate anything without resorting to my years of love affair with wild places, and just as I question the utility of wilderness areas to stave off the destruction of the natural world through a few hard to reach places, I would question the role of museums to represent the wild and free artistic expression of socially engaged art.

Sheetal Prajapati for IN:

When we think of art, we tend to think of art objects, but this is a mistake. The real art is the experience of making or encountering an object or an idea. When the work is separated from these experiences it is separated from life. These are the ideas from John Dewey’s Art & Experience and these ideas continue to serve as the core tenants of museum education practiced today, as they have been for decades. As I was thinking about the question of this debate, these thoughts from Dewey brought me to question the question itself. I think what we are actually debating is where does socially engaged art belong in art museums? Traditionally art has always belonged in collections and exhibitions, and essentially to curators, who steward, research, collect and display artworks. I want to argue that social practice art belongs in education departments. Museum education departments have been engaging in social practice for decades.  They have historically served as the most democratic and welcoming face of museums. Like artists who are drawn to social practice as their medium, in part because it is more free from the art market and other structural rigidities that exist in the “art world,” so educators have found museums to be the educative spaces that are largely free of the standards and practices of traditional educational institutions. There continues to be a range of valid and serious criticism of museums as elitist or closed spaces for larger publics, but most of the time these conversations ignore or omit the work of education departments. Our work is often invisible and commodified for the sake of funding exhibitions and other curatorial based practices. I would propose that like museum educators, social practice artists are thinking less about status and power, and more about openness, outreach, inclusion, facilitating action, inspiring creativity, and taking part in long term societal practice that develops culturally and socially active citizens.  One might even consider that social practice within the sphere of the art world may actually have been inspired by educative practice, but I suppose that is another debate.

Deborah Fisher for OUT:

I want to cut to the chase and talk about power and resources in a really direct way. How is value accrued around art? How is value accrued around social practice? What drives value in museums? I am an arts organization, and specifically I am A Blade of Grass, which is organized entirely around driving resources to social practice. So these are really, really important questions to me. And while is difficult to be on the side of the debate against museums as an arts organization, I think that museums are organized around objects in a way that is too important to ignore. It is ok for any of us to declare that art is about experience, or art is about creativity, but doing that disavows how museums actually run, and get their money, and become economically sustainable. They run because they work with collectors and their collections. They take care of those objects and everything is organized around those objects. Socially engaged art is interesting, and potentially revolutionary, because it is organized around a different value proposition. We value stuff in this society. Maybe social practice is a way to shift value in society towards relationships, experiences, and the sensation of interdependency. But how will we really be able to do that revolutionary work of valuing those experiences instead of the objects which can be sold so readily? I don’t think that museums are structured to be able to do this new work on an economic level. Theaster Gates does a really good job working around this structural problem: he sells a lot of art objects to fund other work that isn’t object based. But I think when you put these projects back into the museum, since the museum’s value is being driven so much around objects, the work winds up being documentation instead of the art, or the work itself gets distorted.

Harrell Fletcher for IN:

As an artist who has worked with lots of different institutions – and also outside of them – I came from a time period when there wasn’t a term social practice and there wasn’t a whole lot of understanding for this kind of work either.  So for me it has been really incredible to see the last ten years of development and how much things have changed.  When I see things like at the Hammer, where Allison Agsten is a public engagement curator that is a really interesting to me. I agree that yes, museums are not set up for social practice style work, or performance, or dance, or music, or any other of those kinds of things to take place in them normally, but they are incredible spaces, public spaces.  And it is great to realize that there is this sort of public real estate that for the most part isn’t being activated, it is just housing static objects – which is an important role, but I think it can do other things as well. It is an amazing thing to have institutions welcome in, as the Portland Art Museum has done with Shine A Light for the last five years, another way of using the space, and engaging with the public, making the museum relevant to people who it might not ordinarily be relevant to. My sense is that yes, social practice, however you decide to define it, does have a place in the museum – and it has a place in the grocery store, and in the park and the farmers market, the internet and in publications, and that this is a way of valuing that kind of work, and the more ways that exist the less necessary it is to feel like you have to follow  commercial route, which was what seemed like the only route when I was in graduate school, the only one that professors talked to me about for sure. Now sometimes I work with education departments, sometimes I work with curatorial, and sometimes I work completely outside of the institution. As an artist that is what I want.  I am a strong advocate for inclusion in all areas. Though it is difficult, and I have definitely experienced all sorts of challenges and adversity trying to work with institutions, including this one, but I think it is a worthwhile endeavor and one that will benefit both artists who work in this capacity and the institutions that do a variety of things, including now promoting social practice as well.

Paul Ramirez Jonas for OUT:

I come from a position where I am object maker who partakes of the sins of exhibitions, and I also make some things that now are labelled socially engaged art, so I’ve seen both sides and I am still trying to figure it out, but today I will say that I am vehemently opposed to presenting socially engaged art in art museums, specifically.  I think what I value in socially engaged art is its ability to convene audiences and make publics, it is about public making, as we are now assembled here, not in an exhibition. Each venue has a pre-made public, a ready-made public – in the theater, in the museum, in the movies. But we are in the business of trying to convene a public outside of these already prescribed formats. However museums do want to show socially engaged art – in science museums, in history museums in other museums, non-art museums. We are being asked to be part of a transaction: museums are offering us something and we artists are offering something in return. We are offering engagement, we are offering some ability to convene certain kinds of publics, and museums give us contexts. When I show in an art museum I want the benefit of the art museum, and that benefit is to put me in the context of art history. It is not a gallery, it is a museum, its job is to historicize and put my work in context. But museums of art don’t really know what to do with us. They know what to do with relics, performances, relics of performances, it is always shown in exhibition mode. They are not willing to reinvent the exhibition to accommodate this kind of work so there is no benefit to us if the work has to be violently transformed to fit that mode. When you see an exhibition of Fluxus it is not Fluxus, it is an exhibition of remnants of Fluxus. So what I would ask is, what do we have to gain if they can not put us in the context of art discourse and filter our access to the museum through the education department? For that reason I think we should refuse, until they can figure out how to give us a different mode of presentation that can accommodate this form of art.

Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

Excerpts from audience statements and the discussion that followed:

Mack McFarland: I’m really curious about the inside argument that museums should deal with social practice is through the education department. I’ve heard many artists and many museums workers describe the education department as the ghetto of the museum, based on budgetary hierarchies between the various departments and the amount of respect that education departments get. And while that evokes the issue of where most revolutions start… none the less, if we aren’t going to put this work into the place of curatorial, where the big dollars are, then I am a little hesitant to give my vote to the IN side.

Sarah Wolf-Newlands: I just want to say that the fight to be more inclusive is going on within the institutions, I’ve seen that at the Walker and I see it here at the Portland Art Museum. I think it happens on a daily basis within museum education departments.

Audience[2]: How Deborah framed the idea that museums are built around objects was really useful. To me this creates an entry point to the whole reason that this matters, because I believe in art that is the experience, is the intersection of power, is the thing happening and not a representation. The danger and the violence that institutionalizing or locating this work in more formal structures is that they insist upon creating representations.

Cameron Cartiere: My question is for Paul: So, if we resist and refuse to work with museums, how can we actually help with the change if we are not in there, in the conversation? While we could, eventually, hopefully, leave it to the museums to figure out, it will happen a hell of a lot faster if we are in there, doing it with them.

Sheetal: I think with every major avant garde and contemporary art movement in history, museums are always last to the party. We are the last ones to figure out how it fits into our collections and into our archives. I know this doesn’t sound fantastic, but I think this is the reality that we live in, which is that that museums are going to figure it out eventually, just like we did for everything else. I refuse to think that because it is ephemeral it can’t be collected. To me that is false, it can be collected: performance art is, video art is, digital art is – we are going to figure it out. This is the nature of the institution. I am not saying it is perfect, but it is inevitable.

Audience:  At what price are we going to figure out how to put all these kinds of art we are talking about tonight in a box?  I think that the real value – especially at this point of time in human history – of social practice art is its ability to interrupt.

Grace Hwang: I think I am in this unique position here, because I did work at the MoMA in the Education Department for about 7 years, and I did, I do, really identify with that work. I really saw the museum as this learning laboratory, a place of freedom outside the classroom.  I felt classrooms were not the places where I wanted to pursue teaching. But I also felt that I had limited agency as a contractual employee of the museum. I had a certain degree of freedom in what I could do, but it was really limiting. So, when I saw an e-flux ad go out for Shine A Light (a night of socially engaged art projects by students from the Portland State University Social Practice MFA program taking place within the Portland Art Museum), I felt both like this is what I already do as a museum educator, but then also like there was a curtain lifting and that maybe on the other side, as an artist, I would have more agency in creating these freeing spaces, which is the path I have now chosen.

Sheetal: I will say this: I am still figuring out how to share power. I work at an institution that holds a lot of power, yes. And my job is to try and figure out how to rework that structure, and find a space where artists are collaborating with us and not doing work in service of us.

Justice: One of the big things that museums do is establish authority and one of the things that social practice does is diffuse authority. So how can you possibly reconcile those two forces?

Tori Abernathy: I guess the issue that arises is to what extent the museum actually is a public place that is available to a lot of people. Like many people have brought up, obviously there are barriers to access that extend far beyond the price of the ticket. The value of the arts, especially the kind that many of us here practice, is its ability to intervene in people’s everyday spaces.

Paul: The museum should be a site of public engagement for artists in the context of art. I can go to the Met and have a martini while listening to a string quartet. The string quartet is engaging in public engagement – but not in the context of art. And we are artists, we do not want to be the string quartet while people drink martinis. We do not want to be part of the education department. We want the museum to show us in the context of art. The museum has to cooperate and do their part of the bargain. Getting in the collection is not so relevant, but the context of the discourse – we want discourse. We actually know how to present art outside of the discourse of art. But the museum only has one thing to offer us: it is that discourse, and if they do not give it to us…then we are out!

Amy: I would say, too, that with social practice art, one of its tenets is unpredictability, and that is something that makes me show up. I actually think that social practice involves some of the worst organizing that I have ever seen — as somebody who is a professional organizer, it is terrifying to see how bad people can be at organizing, because there are training programs and skills available for those things. But I show up anyway, because it is one of the most beautiful expressions of faith in unpredictable behavior. So, what I hear you all saying is: how do we control that in a way that doesn’t limit its wildness? And my point in making this metaphor is, like – no, don’t.  Just don’t control it. That lack of control is the whole point. That’s the thing that is the most exciting and gets people to actually show up.

Harrell: If we are going to function as artists, and the value system is through the art museum, but they only collect something once it is done, or once that artist is dead – it does not help people very much in their career and in their life now, like with paying the rent. We have to find systems in which social practice artists can be supported, so that this work can flourish and develop, which means there have to be these institutional support systems and probably skipping over the commercial realm that is normally the gatekeeper for art work.

Paul: My intention in advocating for refusal is rhetorical, but also more precise: I would hate for social practice work to have to be deformed by adapting itself to museum practices that are not adapting to them. Education departments are willing to adapt themselves, but curatorial departments are not, so the goal shouldn’t be to get into the museum at whatever price.

Audience: The museum has always been a site of historicity. and not necessarily of contemporary practice or art making. I am wondering if the museum could be a site for social practice, but not necessarily for collecting it, at least at this time. I don’t think that that is necessarily problematic. I think about artists like Sol Lewitt, who people often cite as being a grandfather of social practice: what happened with him was that new kinds of space were created so that his work could be properly exhibited. That has happened in so many instances that I am not sure if it is a question of whether this work belongs in art museums, but what role museums can play in raising our art forms to a level of needing to be preserved for future generations.

Deborah: The question becomes: what kinds of institutions can do the work of transforming something so ephemeral? Of extracting the value and sending it to the next place? What helps to really make something like that lastingly valuable?

Patricia Vazquez: A thought I have is about how institutions can become outdated, how they have life-span.  I just wonder at which stage in its life span the museum, as institution, is right now? Museums have been around for thousands of years, and I’m wondering if socially engaged art can change museums from the inside, or whether it is a better match for creating new institutions.

Cris Scorza: I want to bring the conversation back, maybe change the question: how does social practice interact in the art museum? Let’s remove the word “belong,” like someone said earlier. I think, yes, there are so many of us that are risk-takers, and we welcome you in! Yes, we stay behind in the process, but we are trying to catch up as quickly as we can. Yes, Lygia Clark didn’t have an exhibition until 50 years later, but we now want to walk the line together and start collecting this work and presenting it to our audiences. The museum’s resources, this auditorium that we are all sharing, is your auditorium. Our role as museums is civic engagement. These institutions belong to you – you ought to transform them.

Concluding statements:

Megan Grace Harned for OUT:

When we put this work into museums does that power stifle and suffocate it, and remove the obligation for museums to reflect on their role and power in society in terms of social justice?

Audience for IN:

If social practice doesn’t belong in museums, then that is awesome, because that probably means that it really does belong in museums, since that is when the most interesting stuff comes out: when you put something where it doesn’t belong.

Deborah for OUT:

It is really important if the goal of this work is transformation to ensure that we are never complicit in an existing power structure. So, the question is: how do you structure participation in these institutions in a way that is not complicit?

Harrell for IN:

I am just going to cite what we have just experienced here, tonight: Ariana’s social practice project, this debate, has happened within a museum. You guys can decide for yourself whether there was any value to it or not for it to be here.

[1] Thank you to Madelyn Freeman, Stephanie Parrish of the Portland Art Museum, Roya Amirsoleymani of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, and the PSU Social Practice MFA Program for helping make this debate exist.

[2] My apologies to those people whose voices I did not recognize in the recording or whose names I do not know.

Ariana Jacob makes artwork that uses conversation as medium and as a subjective research method. Her work explores experiences of interdependence and disconnection, questions her own idealistic beliefs, and investigates how people make culture and culture makes people.  She received her MFA in Art & Social Practice from Portland State University. Her work has been included in the NW Biennial at the Tacoma Art Museum, Disjecta’s Portland 2012 Biennial, The Open Engagement Conference and the Discourse and Discord Symposium at the Walker Art Center.

Readers, where do you stand? Make your case in the comments.

Recap: Lane Relyea on DIY Culture, Alternate Art Spaces and Making Objects into Subjects

The crowd that squeezed into Midway on November 12 to hear Lane Relyea’s talk, “Subjects of the Institution of Art,” could easily have filled the auditorium at the Walker, but Relyea’s message would have felt dulled had it been ensconced in such an “institution.”  Midway’s library was a particularly apt setting for Relyea’s thought-provoking discussion. […]

Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center

Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center

The crowd that squeezed into Midway on November 12 to hear Lane Relyea’s talk, “Subjects of the Institution of Art,” could easily have filled the auditorium at the Walker, but Relyea’s message would have felt dulled had it been ensconced in such an “institution.”  Midway’s library was a particularly apt setting for Relyea’s thought-provoking discussion. This gallery library is an exemplary iteration of the “your” in Relyea’s recent book Your Everyday Art World, in which he explores the burgeoning trend for art spaces at every level to multiply platforms for interaction and greater opportunity for feedback loops with their visitors. It’s worth noting that this alternative art space, once housed in St. Paul’s Midway area, actually reduced the square footage for its gallery to accommodate its library’s expansion, literally opening up more of its dedicated physical space to written intellectual discourse around visual art in an effort to foster more back-and forth conversation between viewer, artist and art object.

But Lane Relyea’s presence in the library was symbolic and powerful for other reasons, too. See, Relyea was here, in Minneapolis, at a particularly fertile time in our cities’ creative history — the late ’80s and early ’90s.  I was here, too, caught in the fringes of the era’s creative skirts as a punked-out teenager, one of many who were filing into neighborhood basements, garages, and various and sundry other alternative spaces made available to us. And Relyea was at the center of that scene, writing and editing Artpaper, a local publication which put a serious critical cast on the DIY activity sprouting around him.

relyea-everydayartworld Lane_Relyea_large

He has since stayed true to these roots, noting over the years the perverse ways in which neo-liberal capitalist mechanisms have corporatized this earlier era’s DIY fervor into the ideal “prosumer” — today’s in-flux, self-reliant, hyper-flexible ideal worker. These mythical free agents work for themselves outside of the establishment, contracting and piece-mealing their many gigs and professional roles together in an unstable mix of a, wait… This sounds an awful lot like what every artist has to do today to develop and maintain their artistic persona. Relyea’s recent work ingeniously shows how the current conception of the ideal worker resembles an artist, now more than ever before. He even notes Daniel Fisk’s argument that the MFA is the new MBA, articulated in the book Free Agent Nation, as creativity and entrepreneurship more closely align.

At first, it might seem that Relyea is just another critical voice upset at how a fractured economic landscape has left so many of us to despair of doing better, interminably in desperate straits.  But he brings to that discussion a welcome nuance, thoughtful insights into how one might navigate the many layered strata of the art world. He’s less interested in assigning blame for a failing system than he is in illuminating the ways all its various cogs and wheels function simultaneously.  But make no mistake: this is no Seven Days in the Art World. Your Everyday Art World looks far outside what Relyea would call the Fordist model (i.e. the system by which artwork passes through various hands – dealers, collectors, museum curators and collections – to be packaged as an elite, luxury good). It has traditionally been the gatekeepers — critics and dealers — who seize upon the work of emerging artists (almost exclusively functioning in the NY/LA axis)  and usher them into success.  But we now operate in a post-Fordist society, one dominated by large horizontal networks — meaning this current market system can easily be superseded and chart already how it is becoming less dominant.

This is where small, radiant beams of light fall through the cracks in the art system, especially in “far-flung sites of production” like the Twin Cities.  This new, decentralized system, Relyea argues, has the potential to overtake the outmoded critic/dealer model through a convergence of several key developments — one of which is the increasing importance of networks that help art move beyond objectification to prioritize fostering connections between artists, audiences and discourses.  In the end, he says, art subjects emerge out of such interactions, and these art subjects also feed back into the work itself. Thus the art, as object, cannot be isolated, aloof or proscribed from those interactions. Despite the imperative for these burgeoning art networks to be rooted in a scene of artists and interested parties coalescing together, geography hardly matters. The site of such interactions can be set in any remote locale and still be relevant to the larger cultural conversations.

You simply can’t discount the rising tide of people, the sheer number of artists rolling out of the 270 MFA programs in the US, he says. (Fun fact: he tested the audience, challenging us to guess which state has no MFA program; I thought Alaska, but it is, in fact, Wyoming). This new wave of highly educated, creative workers cannot be absorbed by the elite, dealer/critic paradigm. Rather, they appear to be rejuvenating the DIY spirit of their underground forbearers, producing art subjects (and objects) worthy of note and also well outside the usual coastal axis of cultural influence.

The net effect of this activity, Relyea says, is the creation of a “federation of systems” — far-flung, geographically remote scenes that do not fit into the usual gallery complex, in places like Kansas City, San Francisco, Minneapolis, New Orleans or, his example, the art space, Elsewhere, in Greensboro, N.C.  This loose coalition of artists and independent spaces has many drivers — it is a highly inclusive system where creative value is invested in links, connections and interfaces. It’s no accident that this is the same terminology used in new media networks: this is the system of the future. And our local art scene, here in the Twin Cities, is poised to be a major player within it.  Indeed, the increased decentralization of these new cultural systems favor the literal center, the American Midwest, as notions of value shift further from discreet art objects given attention by high-end art magazines which, until now, haven’t much bothered with work made in “flyover” country.

Relyea highlighted a particular federation, Common Field, a newly formed umbrella by which disparate art spaces, organizations, and free agents (Relyea included) work in concert and mutually support each other.  Notably, this network also includes the Soap Factory, the largest contemporary art exhibition space in the US (which, incidentally, finally got the nod from New York for their insanely popular and populist Haunted Basement) and Works Progress, a progressive creative placemaking organization without a brick-and-mortar anchor — both of which will host the next Hand in Glove conference in Minneapolis, September 17–20, 2015.

Sure, there is a utopian feel to all this, but Relyea seems to be making the case that artists are hardy, robust activators with everything they need to make stuff happen — with or without funding, 501(c)(3) status or not. For Relyea, no cash sales are needed, because it is people, art subjects and artists, who replenish the scene. This more generous, people-focused conception of artistic worth eradicates the necessity for product differentiation, opening the possibility for a greater equality in market value, too.  By this measure, all work is valuable in so far as it endeavors to support the whole.  We especially need to remember this utopian ideal, he’s saying, in our overstretched, workaday artistic lives, where making time to create discrete objects feels less meaningful than setting aside space to create connections between art subjects.

I know, I’m barely skimming the surface of what Relyea’s premise means to Minnesota artists.  In keeping with the aim of producing and integrating art subjects, I welcome your feedback, response and further dialogue to my recap of Relyea’s recent talk. I’m especially curious to hear from you who also went to the lecture at Midway. What’s your take on these issues raised in Relyea’s visit? And did you know: this website, Mn Artists, was originally developed to fill in the gap Artpaper left when it folded? (For more on that history, see Neal Cuthbert’s interview for the Walker from a couple of years ago.)

Related links and event information:

Another lecture in this vein is coming soon: David Joselit, author of After Art, will discuss “Heritage and Debt” and further consider how contemporary art functions within globalized networks. Joselit will speak in the Walker Cinema, December 3 at 7 p.m. The event is free  and open to the public.

Sheila Dickinson is a St. Paul native and wrote her first art review of a Shane Cullen exhibition at the Orchard Gallery in Derry, Northern Ireland, a key DIY artspace in another remote art location that Relyea highlights in his book Your Everyday Art World. She wrote her dissertation on contemporary Irish art at University College, Dublin.

Exchange: HIJACK and BodyCartography on Collaboration, Choice and Chance

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about the interpersonal dance of choreography by collaboration, the “awkward clothes” of beginning new works, and bringing chance and choice into the practiced moments of performance. BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad spoke with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen […]

HIJACK's Kristin Van Loon, Arwen Wilder Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center

HIJACK’s Kristin Van Loon, Arwen Wilder
Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about the interpersonal dance of choreography by collaboration, the “awkward clothes” of beginning new works, and bringing chance and choice into the practiced moments of performance. BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad spoke with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder in November 2013 about the premiere of HIJACK’s redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye last year at the Walker Art Center.

Otto Ramstad (BodyCartography Project)

At HIJACK, do you direct your performers? If you do, how? And, if you don’t, what else do you do that might be analogous to directing? Or, maybe you don’t consider that – directing – at all?

Kristin Van Loon (HIJACK)

There are times when we deliberately do not direct and, actually, very specifically don’t even look at people as they’re working. And that’s a specific choice, to have everybody in the room working at the same time, including us, rather than standing apart as directors, separate and looking on.

Olive Bieringa (BodyCartography Project)

Do you do that a lot, and rely on it as a strategy?

Kristin

I like that privacy. We’ve worked with big groups: including ourselves, there are nine in this piece and there were twelve in the work last the winter. So often, we’ve done work with just the two of us in the room, and much of that time nobody is watching. We were really interested in expanding that experience of working to include larger groups of dancers.

Arwen Wilder (HIJACK)

How is it, if you do work where you show somebody some moves, there’s a clear right and wrong, a quality of assessment enters the work – the sense that there’s a very specific shape you’re supposed to do. One of the things we have to try to communicate to our dancers is how to approach the instructions that they’re being given. We know how much they’re inclined to be rigorous and to frantically stick to the rules. But we want to hold on to a sense of humor about the process. It’s impossible to let go of the direction once given. As long as the approach we’re after is clear to our dancers, it’s our job to keep the directions, to keep the rules about what they’re doing, such that they don’t need continuous direction from us. We want them to have the space to solve problems and figure out how to be, how to do things in the moment within the scores that we’ve given them.

Otto 

What’s your motivation for working this way? Is it about sharing the way that you approach a dance?  Is it about instilling a desire for dancers to have to find the way in for themselves? Or, is it about letting the work be about something more, or other, than what you’d get with explicit instructions?

Kristin

It’s just about finding the right people. It’s funny: you have to have inquisitive people for this approach to work. And, boy, have we hit the jackpot! We didn’t pick people with similar backgrounds to ours, or even to each other, but they’ve all been amazing. This way of working takes a sense of humor too. For us, the question of direction has come up pretty late in the process: like, “oops we’ve said almost nothing to them about what to do.” And actually, often we just don’t interfere because we love what they’re doing already. Sometimes keeping our mouths shut is the best direction we can give, because even telling them what we like can ruin it.

Olive

What percentage of your aesthetic, if you had to come up with a percentage, would you say is based on failure, in relationship to choreographing for other people?

Arwen 

That’s such a good question! Failure!

Olive 

I’m sorry, I’m just dying to ask.

Kristin 

We’re really into being non-sequential and bouncing back and forth to various things. We’re really into corrections, lately, so it helps to have…

Olive 

To make it more difficult?

Arwen

It helps to have something be wrong, so that it can be corrected. We like to have both the wrong thing and the right thing present. For example: take a page with some of the writing crossed out. You can still read the words behind the crossed-out parts — you can see both the finished text and what has been done wrong. Both are still worth reading. There’s something valuable in simply seeing that it’s wrong, being able to read through the scribble.

I can’t give a percentage, because it goes around and around for me, in terms of what actually constitutes failure. I mean, what if the work ends up failing in the right way? Is that still failure? I don’t know. I love the way a mistake turns into success; it feels like a necessary duality behind what’s improvised and what’s set. I don’t even know where to define the two edges.

Kristin 

I actually don’t think failure is a part of our aesthetic. We could just as easily answer Otto’s question by saying 0% of our aesthetic derives from that.  I think it’s clear for us and everyone who dances that the goal is perfection, always. That’s actually very important. Holding on to a sense of humor about failing is not the same as saying, “It doesn’t really matter if my arm is here or there.” That’s never a dancer’s feeling while executing a move.

Otto 

Never mark it.

Kristin 

Never mark it.

Otto

Do you think about dramaturgy? Is it important to your work, or not? Does it even come up?

Kristin 

I need a definition, and then you might have an answer right away.

Otto

That’s part of my question though. What does “dramaturgy” mean to you?

Arwen 

I mean, I hear the word dramaturge a lot. I know choreographers, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, are hiring people to do that with them or for them… I think of it as having someone who’s specifically paying attention to the way that the images and the arc of the piece are personally and culturally relevant.

 I don’t feel the need to hire someone on the outside. That is probably because there’s two of us at the helm already, so we’re often doing the work of a dramaturge for each other. Besides, we make a point of showing work as we’re making it, especially using protocols where we glean a lot of description from audiences about what people are seeing and what it’s making them think of. We’re getting that information as we’re making the work. I think making sure there’s someone paying attention to the communication of narrative and imagery, whether it’s the choreographer or someone else, is really important. Otherwise, it’s easy to get myopic, to get swept away by the sensation of movement. We’ve definitely experienced that in group work over the years – times where we got lost in the beauty of the work of the group so that we lost track of the other stuff a dramaturge could see and hold on to.

Production photo of Super Nature by BodyCartography Project. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center.

Production photo of Super Nature by BodyCartography Project. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center.

Otto 

We’d not really worked with any dramaturgical support until recently, with Super Nature.

Kristin

Who’d you work with?

Olive 

A woman from Germany: Stefanie Hahnzog.

Otto 

Yes, and she’s trained as a theater dramaturge.

Kristin 

And did she come to Minneapolis while you were making the work?

Olive

No, we were in Germany. She came to Hamburg and dramaturged while we were in process and then we did a little exchange after.

Otto 

She watched videos [of our rehearsals], and then we talked together on Skype.

Olive 

Beyond that, Otto and I just did our own problem-solving.

Otto 

Right. We thought: We don’t need to hire outside for a dramaturge because we talk about it already. The two of us talk about the piece all the time, so why do we need anyone else? But at the same time, having the advantage of more people there with us, talking about it, was itself very interesting.

Olive 

I’ve noticed that you just call yourselves HIJACK. Other than that, do you call yourselves “choreographers” or “dance artists”? How do you refer to what you do?

Kristin 

We call ourselves a “choreographic collaboration.”

Olive 

Your avoidance of labeling seems interesting, maybe important.

Kristin 

What do you call yourselves?

Otto 

Choreographers.

Olive

We do a lot of directing…

Kristin

What does “doing a lot of directing” look or sound like for you?

Otto 

I don’t know, Kristin; you’re in, like, three of our pieces. What do you think it sounds like?

Kristin

The thing is, I don’t think of myself as feeling highly directed by you two.

Otto

Think about that duo you did with Karen [Sherman] on the table…

Kristin 

Do you mean then that, when you work, it’s tightly scored?

Otto 

We would watch what you guys were doing, and then we would give you feedback. Something like, “Make sure you change the rhythm of the way you’re doing this, because if you don’t, I have a hard time seeing what’s happening,” for instance.

Kristin 

Yeah, and then I ignored you. (Laughter) I just don’t remember a sense of being closely directed.

Otto 

That’s good, because you, as a dancer, have to be in it. I mean, the piece still has a score, and I did give you feedback. We said things like, “Don’t do this as much, do that more.” We’d let you know where we saw particularly vibrant moments; or something like, “This thing you just did really distracted me from what I want to see right now.” But at the same time, we know: you have to perform it. You have to survive that situation without the work being set. So, I can understand why that would be a broader experience of direction than the idea of us just giving you some little tips along the way.

Kristin 

This is common way of directing for us, too, I think. It’s actually a lot like what we do in our Contact Improv class every week: we just take turns watching. In a sense, someone else does your score. Then, sometimes, five of us might be doing a movement, including Arwen and I, and we’re really trying to get a very unified attack, a coherent energy and shape in our movement. One of my favorite ways to accomplish that is to have one person sit out and watch, each one of us in turn, while the others repeat the movement. That gives everybody power; and, sometimes, the act of watching is, itself, enlightening.

Olive

Let’s talk a little bit about the seeds of new projects. Where do you begin?

Kristin 

I usually travel with a list of every piece we’ve ever done.

Arwen 

Usually, the way we start a piece is by trying to do the opposite of the thing we’ve just completed.

Kristin 

The MANCC Residency was a kind of seed time for new work: we articulated our interests and each of us had three hours a day to direct independently.

Olive 

And you never talked in the evenings about what you were going to do, you just kind of did it on your own, in the moment?

Kristin 

The planning, directing, leading in the rehearsal was independent…

Olive 

What about a vision for the whole, big picture? How did that fit in the process?

Kristin 

That’s how we were designing the whole commission project, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye.

Olive 

Was that the first time that you had done work that way?

Arwen

Well, it was the first time that we were thinking of making a single piece together. I mean, we’ve made pieces for each other when one of us was directing and choreographing and the other one was dancing.

Kristin 

We did that, for years, before we made something for ourselves jointly.

Arwen 

We’ve had rehearsals where we specifically take turns for set amounts of time. But to go for multiple weeks with, you know, the morning is mine and the afternoon is hers – making things independently in the knowledge that the culmination of the work was ultimately going to be one piece – that was new for us. It presented a large problem upon leaving the residency, actually: we ended up with two completely separate pieces. And we came back and we performed a couple of cabaret evenings performing the work in progress: Friday night we did Kristin’s piece, and Saturday night we did mine. We were really stumped for a long time about what to do with the material that came from that process, because these separate pieces we created had been developed more fully than usual, on their own, without being connected.

Olive

So, what did you do next to bring them together?

Arwen 

We made something completely different from them. Little by little, we have put some of that independently created stuff back in. But it was a huge quandary for a while, how to create one, united work from that material.

Olive 

When you’re choosing a title, or figuring out the starting point for the next piece – does it always feel like putting on awkward clothing? I mean, do you need the new work to begin in a place of discomfort? I mention it because, earlier, you brought up the word “comfort”? Is that unease the starting point?

Arwen 

No, not always. I can think of specific examples where we’ve actually started with an idea to create more comfort and more ease – maybe in the dance-making itself, or in our collaboration, in our conversation.

Kristin

There is some movement, some stretches of dancing, where A and B are next to each other and are very uncomfortable in sequence. It’s very inconvenient to have your body in once place and then need to lurch into the next. And if it does get convenient, then we change the score. Or, some movements are selected specifically because we love them, they’re favorites. We’re interested in watching what happens to something over time, especially what happens when we put those very inconvenient moves next to each other. And if you do the movements, even inconvenient ones, the same way for months, everything smooths out, regardless, with practice. If you perform the movements with the same music playing, even if you think you’re ignoring the music, you’re not. You’re starting to dance to the music.

"smithsoniansmith (as is)" at Bedlam Theatre Photo: Bill Starr, courtesy of the artists

smithsoniansmith (as is) at Bedlam Theatre. Photo: Bill Starr, courtesy of the artists

Otto 

When you go about making an evening-length piece, does that change the way you’re making the work? I ask, because when I watched smithsoniansmith — and I only saw it at Bedlam, I didn’t see it at the official opening – my feeling was, this is not evening-length.

Kristin 

You wanted more…

Otto

No. No, it’s just that what I saw were smaller pieces put together. It just didn’t seem like something conceived as a single, evening-length work.  And I‘m curious if the process of making that work, because it was just the two of you and Scott Heron, someone you hadn’t worked with on other pieces, affected the outcome. But it sounds like that “commissioning a piece” sort of feeling was a force in the room for the whole three years of development of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye.

Arwen

I felt the same way about smithsoniansmith. Our thinking about “novel” movement and slow development in this latest project — things coming back around, unraveling — absolutely came from a reaction to that “commissioning a piece” feeling. A lot of the other longer pieces we’ve made were like a bunch of little pieces strung together; we believed that those individual pieces informed each other, but there was less of a sense that we needed to work toward a single, evening-length sort of feeling in the work.

We did make a number of small pieces, short pieces, as we were making this, but the way that these new pieces come together and overlap – the way the individual elements kaleidoscope and splinter off each other, how some of the same vocabulary is used in different pieces – allows each section to have a very different character, but when you put them all together, it feels less a string of pearls and more of a whole.

Kristin 

From the very beginning of our work on redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, we were intentional about seeking out pleasing examples of wholeness — things that were almost a little too big, or too complex, to keep that  sense of whole alive and perceptible. For example, I started making an effort to read, and stick with longer books, novels. I tend to prefer shorter things; I love short fiction. So, I wanted to deliberately find sustained activities, routines and cycles that pushed toward longer durations of time and that require an expanded attention span.

I mean, you can make something that’s 60 minutes long, but still just episodic – just episodic — and maybe that’s what smithsoniansmith is. That said, the two of us like dense things. But we’re also anti-filler; we have a strong aversion to wasting anyone’s time. So, from the beginning of making this larger work, we struggled with: How can we tolerate asking an audience to look at one thing that lasts so long and still have it feel rich and specific the whole time? How do we do that both compositionally and as dancers, performing in the moment?

Arwen 

Trying to figure out, compositionally, how the sound was going to work was a big part of figuring out that sense of the whole. It presented a challenge, because we like to work with found sound and often with pop sounds and those all have complete arcs of their own…

Olive 

And those songs are usually three minutes long.

Arwen

Right! So, what do you do with all those distinct beginnings, middles, and ends? How do you move away from an episodic feeling to something more unified? That was a big puzzle.

Olive 

So the music for redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye is also found sound?

Arwen 

It is.

Olive 

And you guys have mixed it up and played with those sounds? And you’re the mix master, the cutter, Kristin?

Kristin

There’s a huge question in that, about whether a pop song from the radio counts as found sound, whether or not we should ever manipulate or edit anything so “found.” Where’s the thread in those smaller parts, the “whole”? We wondered: Can we find any sound sources that we like that are already 60 minutes long?

Arwen 

We both listened to a lot of movie scores – looking for a “whole” sound with a significant duration.

Kristin

The problem is that’s someone else’s story.

Arwen 

Yeah.

Otto 

Changing the subject: Are you going to tour the piece?

Arwen 

We’re not opposed to touring the whole thing, but right now…

Otto 

(Singing) — it’s a Walker show

Arwen 

Yes, and we’ve been trying to figure out: What does that mean?

Olive 

Yeah, we’ve taken our shows all over, but there’s just no space that’s like the McGuire Theater. The luxury and the height of its space, what the lighting designer (Heidi Eckwall) was able to do in the Walker – it’s really hard to replicate in other spaces.

Kristin 

We’re getting ruined by the Walker. (Laughter)

Olive

It’s gorgeous! But you get so in love with the beauty of the space and with being able to use the proportionality it offers, that the timing of everything gets shifted. Every time you remount the work after it’s been produced for the McGuire Theater, stuff that was maybe happening in the back corner of that expansive space, you just can’t see in less well-appointed venues.

Kristin 

I’m laughing, because everything that Arwen said before about abundance and fullness — big space, big time, big cast — is very true; we both say it a lot, and we mean it. But at the same time, especially at the very beginning, we thought and talked a lot about avoiding that “doing the big show at the Walker” thing. We want to, somehow, stay outside of that; otherwise, we’d be making something that wasn’t really of us. So we thought a lot about the everyday reality of our dance lives, and said, “We’ve been teaching Contact Improv Wednesday morning, every Wednesday morning, for 12 years. It must be important to us.” So, we decided, that experience needed to be a building block of the new commission. And that wasn’t only about including Contact Improvisation, but making sure to put what we do at the center. We very deliberately sampled from movement that happened in that class in our rehearsals for the new work — specifically, every week. The cast of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye was influenced by people who were dedicated to that class. We wanted the work to be about “practice” and “class-ness,” in general.

Otto 

Let’s talk about the brass tacks of collaboration. Both HIJACK and BodyCartography Project have been in two-person collaborative teams that have worked together for 15 years or more.

Kristin

Okay: Sex or no sex? Which is the better model? (Laughter)

Otto 

Well, if you have sex — if you’re hetero – then you just end up making more kids. So, stop doing it after you got one.

Arwen 

We’re very civilized. We keep sex and procreation separate.

Olive 

And that’s a wrap. Awesome! Thank you!

Arwen 

Yeah, thank you!

__________________________________________________________________________

HIJACK is the Minneapolis-based choreographic collaboration of Kristin Van Loon & Arwen Wilder. Specializing in the inappropriate since 1993, they insert dance where it is least expected. HIJACK is best known for “short-shorts”: pop song-length miniatures designed to deliver a sharp shock and collaborations with po-mo hero Scott Heron. The duo has taught and performed in New York (at DTW, PS122, HERE ArtCenter, Catch Series/Movement Research Festival, Chocolate Factory, La Mama, Dixon Place), Japan, Russia, Ottawa, Chicago, Colorado, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, Fuse Box Festival, and Bates Dance Festival. Commissions include DTW/Tere O’Connor’s “Nothing Festival”, James Sewell Ballet, U of MN, Bedlam Theatre. HIJACK has taught a Wednesday morning Contact Improvisation class at Zenon Dance School continuously for 14 years. Van Loon & Wilder are currently at work re-imagining their Walker Art Center-commissioned nonet, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, into a trio for small and/or awkward spaces.

As co-directors of the BodyCartography Project, Olive Bieringa (NZ) and Otto Ramstad (USA) investigate empathy and the physicality of space in urban, domestic, wild and social landscapes through dance, performance, video, installation work and movement education. Our works range from intimate solos for the street or stage, to large site based community dance works , short experimental films in the wilderness, to complex works for the stage. We have created numerous performance works, short films and installations across the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, Russia and South America and were recently named Dance Company of the Year by the Twin Cities City Pages. Recent works include Super Nature, with composer Zeena Parkins, commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Performance Space 122 and PADL West. Symptom, with Minnesota twins Emmett and Otto Ramstad and Mammal, a commission for the Lyon Opera Ballet. Our triology Holiday House (2005-2007) was commissioned in part by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and was the winner of two Minnesota Sage Awards. Our site spectacle Lagoon was the winner of the Perlorous Trust Creativity Award at the New Zealand Fringe Festival in 2003. We are featured artists in the first book about site dance in the USA published by University of Florida Press entitled Site Dance, the Lure of Alternative Spaces.

Note: A version of this interview was originally published on Critical Correspondence and that conversation is reproduced here with permission. The original transcript has been edited for clarity as published here by mnartists.org. Read a related exchange between these artists, on “How to Move Bodies in Space” here.

Exchange: HIJACK and BodyCartography On How to Move Bodies in Space

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about some of the many behind-the-scenes variables that go into the making of a new dance work: the use of scale and undifferentiated space, casting as choreographic choice, new works as antidotes to past works, challenging the value of novelty, and […]

BodyCartography, Super Nature. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center

BodyCartography, Super Nature. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about some of the many behind-the-scenes variables that go into the making of a new dance work: the use of scale and undifferentiated space, casting as choreographic choice, new works as antidotes to past works, challenging the value of novelty, and “sensory deliciousness.”

Kristin Van Loon (HIJACK)

What have you guys been doing since Super Nature premiered?

Otto Ramstad (BodyCartography)

Oh, grant reports.

Olive Bieringa (BodyCartography)

Identifying missing cables, buying thank-you gifts that don’t arrive at their destinations, booking plane tickets for New York, wondering if all of our cast is coming, which we’ve finally confirmed, one month before we’re all due in New York. Anything else? Trying to get some sunshine. Teaching in Ohio.

Otto

Re-adjusting to not having babysitting five to seven hours per day.

Kristin

This is actually great, because I want us to get this out of our systems—the logistics and the career and the fundraising and the tickets. Let’s not talk about that stuff.

Olive

Great! I love it. Yes.

Kristin

And maybe to get it out of my system, I’ll say where I am. I flew out of Las Vegas today, and I feel like I’m kind of tripping. But I was thinking about where I’m at right now and how it can help us talk, because I loved Las Vegas, just the sensory deliciousness, the lights, the scale, the visual, so as I was transitioning out of that I was thinking about your show, and how you dealt with scale and space and sensory deliciousness.

So there’s half—and just before Las Vegas I was at Figure Space [at Earthdance] with Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson, and that felt—well, one thing we were really working with was undifferentiated space. Which for them, I think, was space on an architectural scale, and space inside the body on a microscopic scale, and working in a place where you lose track of which space you’re in. I think of that as BodyCartography territory, too, so I’m not surprised to see you’re nodding to what Steve and Lisa were talking about. I’m interested in surface—just what the audience saw—and how you dealt with the [Walker Art Center’s] McGuire Theater, those ideas of space, in the actual making of the piece.

Just grab whatever part of that you want to talk about.

Otto

I think, with this piece, we always knew where it was going to be: at the McGuire Theater. For those who haven’t been there it’s a black box theater that’s 60-feet deep by 60-feet wide. It’s pretty big and the seats go right down to the floor – the first row of seats is right on the stage – which I always like. It’s a very high fly space, a very high ceiling in the theater, higher than your average contemporary dance venue. The visual artist we were working with, doing sets and costumes, originally wanted to put a drop ceiling in the theater, but we decided that would be just too much material to contend with when we were going to tour. We’ve already done a lot of shows with set elements, and we thought it seemed really excessive. Then we went on a residency on a farm —Lilysprings Farm [in Wisconsin]—and there was a really beautiful washing line. Olive had an idea to crash the washing line with the drop ceiling idea so that when people came in there would be a rope attached to the top proscenium arch and going back into a vanishing point on the upstage right side of the space. We wanted to change the scale of the space, to create a sense of dynamic change or shifting power.

Olive

Yes – between the bodies and the space itself.

Otto

So, if you were in the space underneath the line, the rope came to about five-and-a-half feet at the back wall; it functioned like a little room. Someone in the talkback said it annihilated the black box feel of the stage, to have the vanishing point just disappearing behind the wall. That’s pretty evident in the first half of the piece: it’s just black, and you have this vanishing point, and the first section—or the first beginning—has a lot of interruptions, a crash between the social and the physiological. In the second half of the piece a mobile forest comes in, and there’s fog, and, at least to me, the space changes a lot because of the trees and fog and different lighting. In the beginning [the activity feels more social], you have a sense of cause and effect, of one thing happening at a time. You can see that all change once the fog and the trees come in: the line of sight really spreads horizontally, and many different things are happening at the same time.

Olive

And to speak to this kind of undifferentiated space, we shift from a space we know to a space that we experience unconsciously, that we only know on a cellular level – on the level that’s more about biology or intuition or landscapes or things that are happening in the dark. There’s something about that horizontal space that makes it no longer about these people, or this social space. It’s bringing in many other beings, creatures, landforms, and going micro, inside ourselves at the same time.

It took a long time to figure out what the geography of the second half of Super Nature would be. It had to arrive organically, but we still had to get it there before there was a premiere [laughs].

So, that meant speeding up either the geography or the biology somehow in order to figure out what the structure of that second half of the work would be.

Kristin

Are you talking about the hurry to get it there in terms of what the performers had to traverse to be ready to be in that state at that moment?

Olive

They have to get to a point where they’re in that state, but we also have to come to an agreement ahead of time. It’s really hard for performers to make good improvisational choices around timing and space because of the sensory deprivation involved in most of the second half of the work – they’re not able to perceive everything going on around them. Some are stuck inside the mass of others’ bodies; or, somebody else’s full weight is on them, and they can’t move quickly. Some of the performers literally can’t see: they’re under a blanket, or they’re in the fog [laughs]. Some are under a tree. There’s something limiting their ability to perceive the space around them. So, the work’s structure did eventually form itself, but it was a long time coming.

I want to back up a little bit. In our history of making site-based work, it’s been hard for us not to go into the theater and use that theater as the site – that is, we’re always tempted to really play with everything that’s in the space itself. But Super Nature started with an installation piece in the gallery, with research: it began in this incredibly intimate space with one audience member at a time. After that, we needed to go into the McGuire, so the question was: How can we translate that intimacy, that level of move-or-be-moved-by-whomever-else-is-in-the-room immediacy? How can we bring it into the theater? How can we super-actively work this space to affect and be affected, as performers, and also to affect our audiences? To allow ourselves to be seen on every side of our body, but also to really create transformation in how people are watching us? Those were the questions that informed many of the structural and choreographic choices of the work, too.

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Arwen Wilder (HIJACK)

Do you think there was something to learn from the McGuire Theater?

Olive

There’s something indulgent in it. It’s so lovely to work in that space, to have that kind of fly space and wing space, but also to have such intimacy, to have the benefit of that compressed space with the audience. I feel like it will be hard to put this work in different spaces and see how the work changes, because Super Nature was so constructed with the McGuire in mind.

Otto

What I mentioned about the first row of seats going all the way onto the stage—you don’t find that at all theaters. And in the McGuire, we were really able to use that intimacy: there are two aisles and we could move people between the house and the stage easily. We found that kind of zoom-in to be really helpful in achieving what Olive was talking about. Knowing that there are people all around you—it knocks out a degree of passivity. I didn’t see the piece, so I don’t know its effect on the audience first-hand. But I imagine, and I heard from people who did watch from the audience, that the first sections of the work, in particular, disrupted their expectations. You’re watching the stage and then something is happening in the house where the audience is, and now it’s just on the stage again, but then someone new comes in among the audience. There’s a lot of interruption – of space and of activity – and we learned the ways that we wanted to do that from the context of the McGuire.

Zeena [Parkins] didn’t compose the score to relate to the space, but she did spatialize the score specifically for the McGuire, in terms of speaker placement. The whole score emerged from behind the audience, or at the proscenium arch, or on the speakers on the stage; she also had a speaker set up in the pass-through, in the back hallway, and she had people doing live Foley up in the balconies. So, she was using different sounds and different speaker placements to try to do much the same thing we were doing in our play with proximity and affect.

Olive

I also learned what fog does in that space when you have an audience, and where the fog goes: It leaves the theater really quickly when you have an audience. So, that was another thing, on a really practical level, that I learned about that particular venue [laughs].

Arwen

You’ve worked with this composer before. Did you learn anything from working with Zeena again here?

Olive

Interesting question.  I feel like this was a more fully articulated development of ideas from Half-Life and also Mammal, our previous collaborations with her. So, in some ways the ideas in play weren’t new to me, but Super Nature represented a fuller manifestation of those ideas.

For me, being in an audience, I’m just focusing on being in the work – I’m not tracking which speaker the sound is coming from, but I do have this—whoa…whoa!—thing going on; I mean, it works on me whether I’m aware of it or not. I learned from what Zeena did that people loved that combination of live and recorded sound moving through the space; and audiences really responded to the physicalization of the sound. That’s why we were working with her, because we love that too! [Laughter] 

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Arwen

I ask because you’re talking about working with space, and with undifferentiated space, and she’s sending sounds from different parts of the performance area, really helping to shape that space. And what’s interesting is that there was this huge difference between the audience space and the dancing space in terms of how the sounds were perceived.

Otto

Right – I mean, how you can perceive all that when you’re focused on doing your work, when you’re dancing.

Arwen

That’s where your focus is.

Otto

Yeah. Some sections of the show, I could really feel what was happening; but other times, it took a while for me to really hear what she was doing. All the sound stuff got finished near the end – Zeena is in New York and we’re in Minneapolis, so it wasn’t like she was playing along with the rehearsals.

Kristin

The real compositional choice-making was in deciding to work with Zeena again, it sounds like. Because we [HIJACK] so often use found sound, it’s striking to me how different that must be—it’s like a big saying yes and then working out the deadline. I’m sure however rich the negotiation is about little details at the end, it’s just something you said a big “Yes!” to — you’re excited to see what her sound contribution is going to be.

Otto

Well, Zeena did come here twice before the premiere. We also had sound Zeena recorded that Olive was able to play during rehearsal and at showings.

Olive

But even so it’s always different when she’s there, playing live. It’s a totally different experience, because she’s playing harp, and then she’s conducting the Foley; she was really calling the cues during the performance, even at the Walker, for various reasons. And that direct participation is a completely different thing than just our playing recordings of her music. The spatialization of the score makes sense in a different way. Some people felt, when they heard the sound in the context of an early showing – the recordings – that the score was disjunctive, like “Oh, I can tell she’s not here working with you all the time.”

Otto

One person said that.

Olive

But it was interesting feedback. I’ve never heard that feedback before. That’s an interesting, different perception of the interplay of the dance and the score. “What do you want music to do?” would have been my question back to that commenter, but I wasn’t in the conversation.

Otto

What you’re saying also brings up the importance of casting.

Olive

Casting is a choreographic choice.

Otto

Casting is the biggest thing.

Olive

For us, in our work.

BCPSNfaunSeanSmudaRamstadShogren

Pictured: Otto Ramstad and Anne Marie Shogren. Photo: Sean Smuda

Otto

But also in theater, performance, film. I read something once, a review of film, something like: “Casting is 75% of the work of the film or of what makes a film successful.” I don’t think I’d go so far as to put a percentage on it, but for our work, it’s very important. Then again, who doesn’t [think casting is important?] I’m sure there might be some people working with dancers who don’t generate their own material for whom it’s not so crucial, but if you’re going to have people making the dance with you…

Olive

Then you better love ‘em!

Otto

Better love ‘em. What you brought up with the sound, Kristin: the idea that, if you’re not controlling the music, you want to trust the person that is.

Olive

Within the sound itself, too, we’ve got layers of history with Zeena. We’ve done recordings with her that she used with the Lyon Opera Ballet – recordings from Mammal, and that we did out at Theodore Wirth Park and at the Walker. I don’t think we used any of them in Super Nature, though—

Otto

I think we used the breathing—

Olive

We used the breathing. But there’s this collection of sounds from us that she’ll use again somewhere, or that might come back again in another piece we make together. And that sort of history of collecting is interesting, too.

Kristin

I’d love to jump on the idea of continuity with your past work. I really want to ask you about Super Nature, and how successful you thought it was. It feels especially timely, like it’s a contemporary statement from you and about the culture at large.

When we, Arwen and I, are making a new piece, I’m struck by how much that process also involves thinking about old pieces. I’m surprised by how much I get out of that recollection, how much I’m enjoying saying: “Oh, that thing we made eight years ago, that was the sweet spot. And then we made some transitional pieces…”

We’re poorly equipped to assess what we’re making now, but continuing to make new work is a way of getting some distance on what you’ve made in the past; it means being able to have a really strong opinion about one’s own past work. Can we talk about some of your earlier work – say, Half Life or Symptom? Having made Super Nature, what do you now know about those pieces that you didn’t before?

Photo: Sean Smuda

Photo: Sean Smuda

Olive

I can speak back to Holiday House now [laughter]. I can also say that Mammal was totally the idea of taking all these great moments in our work, because we didn’t have enough time with the Lyon Opera Ballet. We had 18 days there – we didn’t have enough time to invent a whole new thing, to get to know those dancers and develop a whole new piece with them. The process of making Mammal was more like: How can we pull in what we know and what we know we can teach, what we know will work and is exciting?  So, we took a whole bunch of stuff from Holiday House—scores, not choreography—and then reframed it. Really, that was the seed – those new things that started happening out of that piece – that birthed Super Nature, in a way.

That’s one tangent. And then it feels like Half Life was a whole other one – like it speaks to Super Nature in the sense that both works are responding to the environment in some way, but they’re talking about it in completely different languages. Half Life was really dark – bogged down by research and bogged down by trying to figure out how to simply bring it to fruition: how to get a visa and how to get the dancer we wanted. It was a real struggle for that work to be made manifest. Super Nature has a kind of magic, a kind of levity around it. This work easily manifested what it needed.

And then Symptom is just a completely different thread altogether from these. It’s like two people – a visual artist and a dancer onstage together – really addressing this conversation between the gallery and the stage, between the spheres of visual art and dance. Symptom just feels worlds apart. But I guess each piece that you make in some way responds to what has come before, like – “Oh! I want this piece to be really physical!” Everything bounces off—

Kristin

It’s like the antidote—

Olive

Right, a new work is the antidote, somehow, for the last experience. Symptom is the piece we made before Super Nature; it was this really cerebral work, so we knew the next piece would be super physical.

Otto

The experience of doing Mammal,  going through our previous work and taking out scores that we knew worked in other pieces and that we could effectively direct—

Olive

With people who don’t improvise a lot—

Otto

Or, who don’t already know about our work – that was very interesting and validating. Just to try to start with something not-new. I mean, you’re making something new out of existing things, but that’s not to say it feels like you’re making something old, just because you’re using things you’ve used before. Something else is still happening – because of the different casting or because you’re organizing your materials in a different way. Even just having the extra space–

Kristin

The extra space for shaping the final product, because not as much energy is invested in inventing the process – right.

Otto

There’s such a high value on novelty in contemporary dance—or whatever you want to call this field we’re in, so much pressure to create something new, always to do something different.

Olive

To reinvent your whole process.

Otto

But no one’s trying to say that to Robert Wilson!

Olive

Or Mark Morris!

Otto

Mark Morris?

Olive

Or even Bill T. Jones! [Laughter] Just to name a few… [more laughter]

Otto

Why is there such high value put on the new? Why not redo what you’ve done before and see what other things come out of it? For instance, I was trying to direct this thing we’d been doing, this one-on-one score responding to the changing space between two people; the performers weren’t really getting it, so we just did the piece as a group of people instead. And that new interpretation was the basis for a lot in Super Nature.

Arwen

I’m interested in the translation from score into movement, the manifestation of that and, from here, the translation from movement into language, or maybe audio into typed-out words. Could you describe Super Nature’s movement as movement? That is: Could you pick one section and just talk about the dance – not as if from a score, but from the perspective of seeing it? What did the dance look like? How were the performers moving?

Olive

Like a traveling, evolving individual of multiple species.

Arwen

Keep going!

Otto

Olive, you stole what I was going to say [laughter, and a long pause]. There’s a solo in the show that looks like a crash between someone who is enacting recognizable dance vocabulary, but they’re doing it in a social manner; at the same time their breathing pattern seems out of sync with what they’re doing, and then it matches what they’re doing – the breath matching the movement and the movement changing the breath coming out.

Olive

There’s a solo that turns into a trio of shooting planets, or stars that are imploding or exploding.

Kristin

I’m sure it’s hard to detach from the savvy of the intention…

Otto

That was not the intention behind the choregraphy, at all.

Arwen

But it also makes sense that you’re in a different position, being in the piece, seeing the breath score. Of course! You’re still doing this piece.

Olive

In one section, the movement coalesces in piles of bodies, like complex jigsaws.

Otto

Or, just piles of bodies where it’s hard to discern whose body parts are whose.

Kristin

I love the body puzzles. I realized in our last rehearsal with HIJACK, that we’d essentially re-choreographed your show. So, look forward to seeing your material on the McGuire stage in a year! [Laughter]

Arwen

I hadn’t recognized that till now. I’ll be sure to put “move 562 and 563 courtesy of BodyCartography” in the program.

Otto

Didn’t that also happen in Fetish?

Kristin

What? Where we stole from you? Oh yeah, there was a quote! Arwen and I had to make some moves, each of us, and the score directed us to “tell each other what we did last weekend.”

Arwen

I had cleaned the house, and Kristin had rehearsed with you! [Laughter]

Kristin

When you refer to the space-in-between score, it just makes me laugh – as if it’s this albatross, “The Score.” That’s always going to be in every piece – it’s the choreography that you’re making, of course, but it could also be a metaphor for what your collaboration is, how, as BodyCartography, you’re combining two people’s voices. And if we had another half hour—or another three hours—Arwen and I would grill you on your collaboration!

Speaking of which: I could describe our partnership, with HIJACK, a little bit. We’ve gone through phases of emphasizing different things, both for others and for ourselves. There’s sometimes been an understanding that HIJACK is a single, united voice; an authorship obscuring the fact that it’s made of two people.  But maybe now we’re in a phase where our understanding of the collaboration is more sensitized to how it’s a crashing of two individual authorships, in the choreographic process and onstage, and not necessarily always unified in so doing.

With BodyCartography, what are you-all doing?

Otto

Olive and I are making the same thing, but we’re both approaching it in our own ways: we each have different roles within the chronology of time, or different parts within the process where one of us is adding more. In Super Nature, our contributions were pretty different because Olive was watching and directing, and I was in it – so that made a big difference. Just to speak grossly, I was mostly generating scores that would either remain improvisational or become fixed, and Olive was doing more of the structuring, organizing—

Olive

—I was figuring out what the whole thing would be. Otto’s role was bringing in all those initial seeds, and manifesting them from the inside; then I was directing from the outside, figuring out how all those parts needed to speak to other parts of the piece.

Otto

I also work with details – housekeeping details, like “don’t look to the right, look to the left,” that kind of directing.

Kristin

Do you think you’ll use a setup like this again? Or, do you think you’ll seek an antidote, like a project where Olive is inside and Otto directs from the outside?

Olive

No. I think this is just what we do. I think it’s what we’ve been doing for a while now, actually, and we’re just getting clearer about articulating that.

HIJACK is the Minneapolis-based choreographic collaboration of Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder. Specializing in the inappropriate since 1993, they insert dance where it is least expected. HIJACK is best known for “short-shorts”: pop song-length miniatures designed to deliver a sharp shock and collaborations with po-mo hero Scott Heron. The duo has taught and performed in New York (at DTW, PS122, HERE ArtCenter, Catch Series/Movement Research Festival, Chocolate Factory, La Mama, Dixon Place), Japan, Russia, Ottawa, Chicago, Colorado, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, Fuse Box Festival, and Bates Dance Festival. Commissions include DTW/Tere O’Connor’s “Nothing Festival”, James Sewell Ballet, U of MN, Bedlam Theatre. HIJACK has taught a Wednesday morning “Contact Improvisation” class at Zenon Dance School continuously for 14 years. Van Loon and Wilder are currently at work re-imagining their Walker Art Center-commissioned nonet, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye into a piece for awkward spaces.

As co-directors of the BodyCartography Project Olive Bieringa (NZ) and Otto Ramstad (USA) investigate empathy and the physicality of space in urban, domestic, wild and social landscapes through dance, performance, video, installation work and movement education. Our works range from intimate solos for the street or stage, to large site based community dance works , short experimental films in the wilderness, to complex works for the stage. We have created numerous performance works, short films and installations across the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, Russia and South America and were recently named Dance Company of the Year by the Twin Cities City Pages. Recent works include Super Nature, with composer Zeena Parkins, commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Performance Space 122 and PADL West. Symptom, with Minnesota twins Emmett and Otto Ramstad and Mammal, a commission for the Lyon Opera Ballet. Our triology Holiday House (2005-2007) was commissioned in part by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and was the winner of two Minnesota Sage Awards. Our site spectacle Lagoon was the winner of the Perlorous Trust Creativity Award at the New Zealand Fringe Festival in 2003. We are featured artists in the first book about site dance in the USA published by University of Florida Press entitled Site Dance, the Lure of Alternative Spaces.

Note: A version of this interview was originally published on Critical Correspondence and that conversation is reproduced here with permission. The original transcript has been edited for clarity as published here by mnartists.org.

Grand Rapids Border Control: Interview with Pitch Night Winner Bjorn Sparrman

Last month, mnartists.org collaborated with ArtPrize to help fund an ambitious public art project by a Minnesota artist. Supporters flocked to the Walker Cinema to hear five artists present their proposals, each of them allowed five minutes and five slides a piece to present their ideas. After the pitches, the artists fielded questions from audience members […]

Last month, mnartists.org collaborated with ArtPrize to help fund an ambitious public art project by a Minnesota artist. Supporters flocked to the Walker Cinema to hear five artists present their proposals, each of them allowed five minutes and five slides a piece to present their ideas. After the pitches, the artists fielded questions from audience members and a jury of experts, ranging from the practical to the conceptual.

For the uninitiated: ArtPrize is one of the largest art events in the world, attracting over 400,000 visitors last year. The festival transforms downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan for three weeks, covering parks, restaurants, stores, museums, and sidewalks with art.  Its structure fosters a tension between professional and populist views of art, awarding large cash prizes to artists selected both by jury and by popular vote.

After some deliberation, the Pitch Night jury selected The Grand River Checkpoint Project by artist Bjorn Sparrman to receive $5000 and a coveted venue at the sixth annual ArtPrize.  His piece will be installed on Gillett Bridge, a major thoroughfare in the midst of the festival, from September 24 to October 12, 2014.

mnartists.org asked Sparrman a few questions about the ideas behind his piece.

Entering Western Grand Rapids

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Sparrman

What’s your previous experience with ArtPrize?

I’ve attended ArtPrize most years since it began back in 2009, but this is my first time participating. I went to college in Grand Rapids, and as a young artist, ArtPrize was overwhelming: the crowds, the diversity of the works, the spectacle. Now that I’ve had some separation from the city and ArtPrize, I feel this is a good time for me to return and participate.

Describe your winning project. What’s the elevator pitch?

I will be erecting a border control checkpoint on the Gillett Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that spans the Grand River and connects the eastern and western sides of the city. There will be a guardhouse womaned by a Gillette Bridge Border Control Officer. Along the bridge will stand several signs, some that demand “NO PHOTOS” or “NO CELL PHONES”, and others stating, “You are now entering/leaving Eastern/Western Grand Rapids.”

How do you hope the public interacts with your project? What do you want them to experience?

The piece will bring up a lot of different images and memories for different people, some of which might be very difficult or saddening. However, I do know that everyone will be forced across this border together. If there is something specific I want people to experience, it is a feeling of temporary equality within communal constraint. I am anxious to see the various kinds of responses. There is definitely a bit of shock value.

Gillett Bridge Border Control

Photo courtesy of Bjorn Sparrman

Tell us about the political implications of the project – it seems to work on several levels.

I want the border to act more as a political/national backdrop which people traverse, or are forced to traverse. We cross these kinds of borders every day. I’m just making the experience more visible. When I was thinking about the bridge and the river, I could only see fit to amplify and play with the implicit border and movement of people that was already there.

How do you think your work be read within the context of the whole festival?

I must admit that the idea came from a somewhat cynical view of ArtPrize, and of large festivals in general. You go and take pictures of the spectacular artworks. You’re encouraged to vote for your favorite pieces with your phone, but the border I’m installing will have signs expressly prohibiting photography and cellphones. Pedestrians have so much access to the city during ArtPrize, I want to make sure they aren’t taking it for granted.

What’s coming up next for you, and how can we learn more about your work?

I’ll be moving to Massachusetts this fall to begin working on a master’s degree at MIT through their Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT) program. I currently have a small exhibition in a Copenhagen storefront, but if you can’t make it there, you can see my work at: greenlocomotive.wix.com/beta

Pitch Night

Photo courtesy of Emily Gastineau

The Value of Unrealized Projects

On June 26, five artists will take the stage in the Walker Art Center Cinema to give short pitches for projects they hope will become a reality. The event, called Pitch Night, is a collaboration between Walker,mnartists.org, and ArtPrize, a huge annual exhibition and competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan that awards artists $560,000 in prizes […]

Preparatory drawing for Temporary's Pursuit of Permanence, Alexander Hanson and Daniel Feinberg

Preparatory drawing for Temporary’s Pursuit of Permanence, Alexander Hanson and Daniel Feinberg

On June 26, five artists will take the stage in the Walker Art Center Cinema to give short pitches for projects they hope will become a reality. The event, called Pitch Night, is a collaboration between Walker,mnartists.org, and ArtPrize, a huge annual exhibition and competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan that awards artists $560,000 in prizes each fall. ArtPrize is open to any artist in the world, and each year more than 1500 installations occupy some 160 locations all over downtown. (Take note: applications to present your idea on Pitch Night-Minneapolis are due May 19.)

Pitch Night is a unique program within ArtPrize designed to give artists from outside Michigan extra funding for ambitious projects. For the second year, five Minnesota-based artists will give short pitches, in public, for the work they want to do — five slides and five minutes each before a live audience and a panel of five judges, about what they’d like to install on a prominent pedestrian bridge in the center of ArtPrize. After the artists’ elevator speeches, audience members and judges may then ask questions about their proposals, quizzing them on particulars both practical and conceptual. Then, after a short deliberation period, the judges will announce the winner of this year’s $5,000 grant. Last year’s Minneapolis Pitch NIght winners, Alexander Hanson and Daniel Feinberg, went on to be nominated for one of the juried awards during ArtPrize.

The obvious purpose of Pitch Night is to provide an artist with a grant of additional funds that will enable them to create and install work on a scale that might not otherwise be feasible. Equally important, though, are the four artists who don’t get a grant. Inviting artists to submit proposals, reviewing them and making notifications of grant awards via private communications (which ArtPrize also does!) is considerably easier and cheaper than staging an event like Pitch Night. So why do it?

We want to challenge artists to make their ideas public, even if those ideas aren’t fully ready for production. The act of forming an idea for a work into a concise presentation is itself valuable, both for the artist and the audience. For the artist, by way of its public articulation, their vision for a work takes a crucial step toward realization, one that’s free of the burdens of fabrication. For the audience, the artists’ pitches function as a show-and-tell showcase of creative ambition, a chance to see artists’ practices up close and to critically consider artwork in a developmental stage.

Installation view of last year's Pitch Night-winning project, which also earned a spot on the ArtPrize shortlist in the category "Use of Urban Space"

Installation view of last year’s Pitch Night-winning project, which also earned a spot on the ArtPrize shortlist in the category “Use of Urban Space”

Creative iteration is hugely valuable to artists, but it’s not always easy to achieve. Smaller, less expensive, less time-intensive work can be produced, exhibited, and critiqued via a pretty short feedback loop. This isn’t usually the case with large public projects. Conception of a project is typically followed by months (if not years) of planning, fabrication, and installation before any kind of public engagement and critical response can happen. A pitch presentation, like a drawing, is not the same as experiencing a fully realized work, but it’s still an important opportunity for display and critique.

When a work is intended to be developed for a public space, why not invite public participation early on, in the more formative stages? Articulating a vision for artwork publicly is something that should happen far more often than occasions for presenting a finished work.

Related event information:

Artists interested in throwing their hat in the ring at this year’s Pitch Night, take note: applications are due by May 19. The event itself, Pitch Night, is free and open to the public. It will happen Thursday, June 26 at 7 pm in the Walker Art Center Cinema. Find out more about the ArtPrize exhibition/competition on the website: http://www.artprize.org/

Kevin Buist has exhibited artwork in solo and group exhibitions in New York City and Grand Rapids, and has been featured in numerous print and online publications including the Art:21 blog, where he was a blogger-in-residence, as well as Solace Magazine, Art Hack, and SpoutBlog. At ArtPrize, Buist oversees exhibitions and cultural programming, and he also directs the ArtPrize juried awards, including selection of jurors. He programs a world-class speaker series that coincides with the event, that has included lively and provocative lectures by John Waters, Jerry Saltz, and Theaster Gates, among others.

Always In Build Mode: Women In Publishing Talk Shop

What bookish teenaged girl didn’t fantasize about working in publishing? Maybe for one of those venerable companies with difficult-to-pronounce names: Knopf; Houghton Mifflin; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It would require a move to New York City, of course, where you would read on the subway all the way to work from your cramped-yet-charming apartment. Sure, […]

Graywolf Press essay collections

Graywolf Press essay collections

What bookish teenaged girl didn’t fantasize about working in publishing? Maybe for one of those venerable companies with difficult-to-pronounce names: Knopf; Houghton Mifflin; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. It would require a move to New York City, of course, where you would read on the subway all the way to work from your cramped-yet-charming apartment. Sure, you might start out making photocopies, but perhaps you’d discover a promising author whose hit debut novel would make your career. You’d rack up thanks on acknowledgments pages like they were bowling league trophies.

Turns out you don’t need to move to New York to work in publishing. But you do need to put in the time making photocopies… or else take the scary step of striking out on your own. And you also need to work very, very hard, basically forever, as the audience of a “Women in Publishing panel hosted by the University of Minnesota’s literary magazine, dislocate, recently found out.

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MFA candidate Elizabeth O’Brien moderated the April 23 discussion, which included Fiona McCrae, head of Graywolf Press; Ann Regan, editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Historical Society Press; and Meghan Murphy and Jamie Millard, who created the literary magazine and press Paper Darts and co-founded the description-defying, arts community-meets-business online platform, Pollen.

As in the Knopf fantasy described above, McCrae and Regan started out in entry-level roles, McCrae at the storied London publishing house Faber and Faber “working for a bunch of men who couldn’t type” and taking dictation from Samuel Beckett’s editor. After working at Faber’s small Boston office, McCrae took the director position at Graywolf back when the press published only 6 to 8 books a year. Now it puts out 30, and to great acclaim: Graywolf poet Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections just won a Pulitzer, while Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine won the National Book Award for poetry last year.

Fiona McCrae. Photo: Erin Smith Photography

Fiona McCrae. Photo: Erin Smith Photography

Regan graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in history and Russian literature and said, “The only thing I really wanted to do was leave the state.” She got an internship at the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 1978 and “lightning struck” in the form of a big project coming down the pike and a crucial employee’s maternity leave. Regan was assigned to the project, and she stayed. In a neat six-degrees-of-separation twist, she recently edited a book by McCrae’s husband.

McCrae and Regan agreed that the important thing after getting a foot in the door is to “overperform,” even if it means “taking a manuscript home on the bus,” as McCrae put it. Regan said she still spends her days in meetings and answering emails and spends evenings and weekends working directly with manuscripts. No rest for the weary, particularly if the weary work at nonprofit presses, it seems.

Ann Regan. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press.

Ann Regan. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press.

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Murphy explained that she and Millard studied literary magazines with Terri Sutton at the University of Minnesota and wanted to work in publishing, but they couldn’t seem to move past internships into permanent positions. Finally, they took matters in their own hands and founded Paper Darts; they have worked as a designer (Murphy) and in nonprofits (Millard) “to support our Paper Darts habit.” The two occupy a “weird Cinderella space,” said Murphy,with Terri Sutton and the Bush Foundation as their fairy godmothers: a year ago, Murphy and Millard received a grant to the tune of $1.5 million to turn their lit mag sideline into a full-time job. They still run Paper Darts but have since also taken over as co-CEOs of Pollen. “Our day-to-day right now is trying to build a system that will allow us to exist after the three-year grant expires,” Murphy went on. She described their schedule as follows: “We wake up, we work, we go to sleep, we wake up, we work…”

Ominously enough, McCrae said of operating a press, “It’s always in build mode.”

“Well, that’s scary,” Murphy replied.

Regan said, “It’s the definition of publish or perish.”

So, what’s so great about working in publishing, if it’s tough to get into and tough to stay afloat? Regan cited the constant exposure to new ideas and intriguing creative projects: “Every day I learn something from some passionate, crazy monomaniac who has decided to write a book.” Murphy and Millard talked about the pleasure of developing a readership through their digital presence, art and events and discovering what audience engagement looks like in the age of social media. It may all sound very seat-of-the-pants, but Millard said, “Meghan and I do our best work when we’re terrified.”

McCrae talked about the close, rewarding relationships an editor can develop with authors. “A perfect manuscript doesn’t need you,” she said, and one where every sentence needs work is a slog, but there’s a right balance that is lots of fun.

Murphy concluded with a note of realism: she was on a panel last year where a participant said that “if you love books enough, there’s a job for you. Not true,” she said. “You have to hustle. As women, you have to hustle even more.” She also had a word of advice for women writers. Often, she said, women want to wait to submit work until they judge it to be perfect, while male writers hit send more freely. She echoed the explanation many editors have given for VIDA scores showing male writers vastly outnumbering women and exhorted women writers to be “strong and confident” and, of course, to try, try again.

Guess I’d better hit “send.”

2013-2014 McKnight Photography Fellows: Now Available on iBooks

For the past 30 years, the McKnight Artist Fellowships for Photographers program has supported the work of mid-career Minnesota artists, both to recognize their accomplishments and to assist ongoing work. The fellowship provides four annual awards which include a $25,000 stipend, visits with nationally and internationally recognized curators and critics, and the production of a […]

For the past 30 years, the McKnight Artist Fellowships for Photographers program has supported the work of mid-career Minnesota artists, both to recognize their accomplishments and to assist ongoing work. The fellowship provides four annual awards which include a $25,000 stipend, visits with nationally and internationally recognized curators and critics, and the production of a monograph artist book or catalog. mnartists.org has hosted and managed the fellowship for the past five years, working with a total of 20 mid-career photographers.

The 2012-2013 McKnight Artist Fellows include an accomplished group of contemporary photographers selected by jurors Kevin Moore, an independent scholar and curator; Lisa Sutcliffe, a former Assistant Curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and current Curator of Photography at the Milwaukee Art Museum; and San Francisco artist, Todd Hido. The fellows worked closely with the McKnight Photography Fellowship staff and Minneapolis publisher Location Books to produce four distinct monographs. The completed books are published in a limited edition of 100 copies, and they represent the distinct bodies of work made by each fellow. Each book includes an introductory essay on the artist’s work written by independent curator Charlotte Cotton. Below is a preview of the newly published catalogs: see a sampling of each fellow’s images, read excerpts from the essays. We encourage you to download a copy of each through iTunes if you’d like to read more.

Frozen by Jenn Ackerman

Jenn Ackerman, Crib Ruins. Lake Superior, Feb. 2013

Jenn Ackerman

Ackerman’s work has been recognized by the Inge Morath Award, Review Santa Fe/CENTER, Magnum Expression Award, the Honickman First Book Prize, Communication Arts Photography Annual and others. One of her projects, Trapped, was named Non-Traditional Photojournalism Publishing Project of the Year, and the project’s short film won an Emmy. Ackerman studied photography at the Danish School of Journalism, and received a master’s degree in visual communications from Ohio University. During the fellowship year Ackerman continued working on her project, Frozen, shooting with a 4×5 camera in the rural areas of Northern Minnesota.

From the introductory essay by Charlotte Cotton for the book, Frozen: 

Jenn Ackerman moved to Minnesota three years ago, and it is perhaps not surprising that her first mature body of work created here would engage with one of the defining characteristics of this state.  In her series, Frozen, Ackerman responds to the unique visual drama of winter weather.  She gathers a series of scenes and encounters in northern Minnesota, seen through the eyes of a newly arrived photographer, each conveying a graphic sense of the infinite terrain that the ice and snow create in the winter months.  There are solitary structures and vehicles that she finds in remote places — almost comical and anthropomorphic, resilient and even optimistic in their ability to endure these harsh winters, disconnected from regular fall or spring time use.

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Teri Fullerton, from the series The Return, ongoing

Teri Fullerton

Fullerton is a 2010-11 Jerome Emerging Artist Fellow whose work has been included in 22 solo and group exhibitions in Portland, Seattle, Milwaukee, Santa Fe, the Twin Cities and Paris. Fullerton grew up in Lake Tahoe, California, completed a Master’s in Education (1996) in Portland, Oregon, and a Master’s in Fine Art (2008) from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Fullerton traveled to both Molokai and Hawaii during her fellowship year, where she created photographic and video portraits of veterans for her project, The Return. 

From the introduction to Before Eros/After War:

Fullerton often takes an observation and something that is, for her, an emotional point of pressure, and thinks through how a photographic strategy can reveal the contradictions and hidden narratives of contemporary life.   There are a number of facets to Teri Fullerton’s photographic practice, which all centre upon the human condition of loneliness and the quest for a feeling of homecoming.  This is absolutely explicit in Fullerton’s ongoing series of photographs, which portray American military veterans.

But Fullerton also introduces her own interventions into this mediated system of desire, creating an artful gallery of ‘fantasy boyfriends’, reworking the iconography of heterosexual male desirability that the Internet now provides, reminding us of the deep-seated desires that we project so naturally upon online photographic imagery.

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Jason Pearson

Pearson has exhibited his photography and drawing both nationally and internationally and is the recipient of the Jerome Foundation Travel and Research Grant (2011), Djerassi Resident Artists Program Residency (2008), The Cooper Union School of Art Residency (2007) and the Anderson Ranch Arts Center Residency Program (2007–08). His work is in a number of private collections as well as the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, IL. Pearson was born and raised in Minnesota. He holds a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (2002) and an MFA from Syracuse University (2007), both in photography. During his fellowship, Pearson traveled to Playa del Carmen where he staged photographs that function in tandem with a cache of images co-created with his twin brother for his project, No Kissing.

Cotton, on No Kissing:

Jason Pearson, in collaboration with his brother, has been creating a cache of photographic imagery. They construct a visual language of shared memories, notes, and proclamations that collectively provide an idiosyncratic glimpse into their histories and experiences.  Their photographs act as a set of codes and signifiers of imagined events, games and desires.  Jason Pearson has an eye for the visually strange and contradictory, and this is the overarching characteristic of all of the photographs shown here.

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Katherine Turczan, Reubens and Watermelon, Ukraine, 2012

Katherine Turczan

Turczan’s work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. She was a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and 2010 Fulbright Fellow and has travelled extensively in Eastern Europe, making photographs which reflect the changes in the former Soviet Union. For her fellowship year, Turczan returned to Dneprodzerzhinsk, where she photographed the impact of social upheaval on the lives of young women in her project, Breshnev’s Daughters.

From Cotton’s essay on Breshnev’s Daughters:

Katherine Turczan uses a slow camera, the 8” x 10” large-format camera, positioned on a tripod, and that determines the gentle scrutiny that she gives her subjects.  Working in the women’s domestic spaces, with their distinct patterned carpets, wallpapers, paintings, and elegant displays of flowers, Turczan provides a sense of safety and respect in these photographic encounters with her use of black-and-white photography.  The delicacy in the play of light, of finely detailed fabrics, the women’s hair and skin are all palpably present in these monochrome scenes.

Complete catalogs, with full essays by Charlotte Cotton on these fellows’ projects, are available for download on iTunes.

Anne George: Readymade Gestures

Anne George welcomes me into her studio one sweltering Minnesota evening in late June. I’m greeted by the soft flutter of crepe paper flagging through the air as a standing fan oscillates. Her studio is — through my aspiring eyes — quite dreamy; easily 1,000 square feet laid out in the form of an “L,” […]

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Untitled, Banner Series Canvas, twill tape, acrylic, 108″ x 96,” 2012

Anne George welcomes me into her studio one sweltering Minnesota evening in late June. I’m greeted by the soft flutter of crepe paper flagging through the air as a standing fan oscillates. Her studio is — through my aspiring eyes — quite dreamy; easily 1,000 square feet laid out in the form of an “L,” with generous daylight, massive walls, large utilitarian carts, flat files, a built-in bookshelf wall and seating area. Together we walk through several bodies of work, each which investigates medium as subject, and draw connections between formal interests, slippage of language, and non-fixity with respect to “gesture” and artists careers.

The artist's studio. Photo by Jehra Patrick

The artist’s studio

George’s earlier work was centralized in printmaking with a conceptual interest in sequential nature of film. Influenced by film and video’s emergence, and acceptance, into contemporary art practice during the 1990s, she transcribed an interest in time and framing into a motif of pagination carried out across books, prints, and multiples. Choice in medium, format, and therefore subject, within George’s practice tends to shift by happenstance and introduction, rather than placing an exterior interest into the medium as a vehicle. In example, her interests shifted from books and prints to working photographically, through the catalyst of simply being given a camera. The medium itself then becomes the cause for its employ. She’s not interested in resolving topical or content issues, rather the issues specific to medium, form, and the properties of both.

Untitled (Level), 1997. Image: Walker Art Center

Her earlier work in digital photography, bypassed traditional photographic concerns for framing, subject and documenting contemporary history. Rather, she became interested in the qualities of the digital mark – the pixel – and its ability to shatter and break apart an image. Digital cameras and resolution quality are now a part of everyday vernacular, but in the mid-90s this was an exploration of the nature of the object of the camera and its output – with concerns for what is can do, what kind of information does it transmit – rather then engaging the language of the photograph as commentary on, or reflexivity of, the medium.

George’s material interests are also apparent in her concerns for resolving two-dimensional design applications though drawings. She works on a smaller — we’ll call it store-bought — dimension, which bears a nice relationship to the body. Easily at arms length, the size of a torso, or something you’d carry. On that size, one’s hand can caress the paper and enjoy its smoothness, burrs, and other tactile qualities. George will also enforce the drawing paper by stretching it over foamcore, creating an airy tablet.

George approaches the substrate employing everyday materials as formal, and physical, “gestures.” For George, the notion of the gesture sprawls out in all its semiotic glory: as an action, doing, articulating movement through space, occupying dimensions, acting as lines, or compacting into iconography. One drawing bares a craft-paper brown bow on a dirtied piece of 18” x 22”paper; the charcoal-smudge across the paper’s composition a gesture as well. A decorative bow — the same thing one would find affixed to a present — is inducted as a drawing implement. As gesture, the bow has association with the act of gift giving, it signals appreciation — a warm gesture — and, located on the drawing’s surface, recalls the bodily motion of securing it with a gentle, pressing force. Its loops, folds, curves and bends, can be unraveled through one’s vision as a undulating planar line in space. All of these gestures George compresses in the bow. The drawing slips in out of flat space and sculptural space; just sitting there — half-object, half-image — it embodies art as an offering itself, being set into the world like a metaphoric open hand.

Assorted drawings.

Assorted drawings

A few other surfaces are adorned with paper shopping bag handles, seemingly functional, like little portfolios an art student might have filled with prints. Other non-traditional materials employed in the artists compositions include the ephemera of everyday: tape, paper, scraps, clippings, the kind of stuff organized by bins of some sort — recycling, discounted fabric, dust, hardware, discount. The drawings and their implements live between substrate, medium and object, each material forming a sculptural drawing or character. Though George is hesitant to say character, or even symbol; these meanings are fixed. Gesture implies malleability, movement, action. She holds her hand in the air, pursing her index finger on her thumb and waves her forearm side to side. This is the motion we all make when we perform the charade for “Drawing.” We also happen to be miming the production of a check mark, or tick. This check mark is the most reductive form of “gesture” for George — a readymade gesture – and we see this formal element reoccur throughout her oeuvre, pointing us to a movement, line, shape, and its denotation. Check. Good, I completed this. Or bad, I supposed, when next to our names on an elementary chalkboard. It is a simple and reductive motion, and drawn line, symbolizing both doing and undoing. Those things accounted for, or simply: yes.

One of the artist's book compositions

One of the artist’s book compositions

George’s palette is also reductive, working in the values and colors inherent to her substrates, drawing implements, and readymades, often black, brown and their tonal and textural variances — sometimes glossy, inky, dull, or matte. Her lack of pigment allows for greater emphasis on form, as well as removes the connotations of color from her compositions.

Along side object-drawings and material collages, George continues to work in book format. Her artists books are living documents, rather then a finalized container for a collection of content and function more like notebooks and sketchbooks.  They allow her to work in demonstrations, exercises, and modular units. On each page she introduces new problems to solve and alternate delineations to break apart, ruin, pull back, and reclaim. Each page gets eradicated and repaired, interrupted and completed. The drawings, while manipulatable, are also vulnerable, delicate and often times loosely assembled, such that an element can detach, fall or hang limply; all of these actions being gestures as well.

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Untitled, Banner Series. Canvas, twill tape, acrylic. 90″ x 70,” 2012

In her newest works, the Banner series, draping tarps speak their own language, hanging raw with solid icons, panels or washy stains. While she’s not one to look into the self-awareness of medium, these new works invoke the language of painting.

George is quick to say that she has, “never been a painter,” in fact, in her formative years was adamantly anti-Painting. George recalls from her instruction that, “in the hierarchy of art processes, painting sat predictably at the top, valued over the others.” It was this disdain that motivated George to pursue less predicated avenues — or those lower on the ‘hierarchal’ totem – for production. She confirms this is an old ethos, but it is a reminder of her influences and values.

If her pages, tablets, boards, are intimate and flexible palimpsests, the tarps provide a solution for scale and durability, as well as offer an out from the traditional picture plane. The weight and texture of the material and its ability to accommodate forward-jutting attachments, allow the piece to suspend between image and object. This discursive and gestural, ne symbolic, properties of the tarp pieces are amplified when George introduces the accompaniment of tributary objects and loose images as a supporting cast. Despite the spatial orchestration of the arrangement, George is also hesitant of claiming territory in sculpture and installation – she didn’t confirm this, but I suspect that it, too, is because of the hierarchal weight of those disciplines. In plain speech she said she ‘didn’t really like having those objects around. ‘ Which, as an artist who produces wall-hanging work,  I grinningly agreed with. Where do these things live?

Does it really matter if her work fits neatly into a league of drawing, collage, sculpture or another discipline? I would argue that it does. Not that the lack of identification and medium-specificity is detrimental to knowing what she makes, but it is precisely that she is not concerned with these medial differences that defines the ambit of non-fixity of her practice. After all, an artists work is defined by as much by what it is not as by what it is. Her work is about an output that lives between and around objects and images — this is also what the works do — they escape the picture plane and point away from themselves – these are the areas of interest. It’s not the thing. It’s the movement that expresses the meaning. It’s the gesture.

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The artist in her studio

With gesture as the subject, Anne George is  more interested in formal and compositional resolutions then pursuing medium or composition as a vehicle for content. Whereas some artists tend to load a lot of narrative into work — in promotion of an idea, or inclusive of a story — she’s not that kind of artist. She is willing to offer us a premise. She is also aware of that, now, and encouraged that artists to also be open to non-fixity in their work and pursuits. Gesture, in its non-fixed nature, allows for a longer life and an open reading, which also allows for artists to be agile, open their work up for new audiences and markets, and continue to offer new approaches through the gesture of their individual practices.

Posture Is Everything: An Interview with Artist Kristina Estell

Duluth-based artist Kristina Estell’s recent exhibition Posture Is Everything currently occupies the north gallery of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Composed of cool, pale blue sheets of silicone elegantly draped atop triangular wooden armature, Posture Is Everything calls to mind winding river beds, fallen skies and couch-fort mountain ranges. […]

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Posture Is Everything, 2013. Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Duluth-based artist Kristina Estell’s recent exhibition Posture Is Everything currently occupies the north gallery of the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). Composed of cool, pale blue sheets of silicone elegantly draped atop triangular wooden armature, Posture Is Everything calls to mind winding river beds, fallen skies and couch-fort mountain ranges. Like many of Estell’s sculptural forms and installations, this ethereal work evokes the gestures and forms of nature, rather then offering a direct representation of the natural world. I chatted with the artist recently by email to learn about the complex process involved in making the work in her exhibition, nature as medium, classical drapery and institutional posturing.

Jehra Patrick

I heard that the “drapery” in your piece was produced by the very labor-intensive process of painting silicone onto the walls of the MAEP space. Can you walk me through that process?

Kristina Estell

Actually, the piece in the MAEP gallery was produced in my studio! Due to material off-gassing and other concerns, the museum didn’t approve the original proposal to use the silicone on the walls of the space to create the work. A connection to the MAEP space is made apparent through the actual size of the combined dimensions of the sheets of rubber in the exhibition. These dimensions equal that of the MAEP space – 1352 sq. feet.

For Posture is Everything, the process was labor-intensive, but necessary to achieve the desired thickness – as well as to economically use the material — and to make it strong enough to support itself on such a large scale. Once I had determined the size of the pieces of rubber I needed, I mapped those dimensions out on the wall’s surface and then applied a thin layer of the silicone directly onto the wall using a three-inch chip brush. The liquid rubber is quite thick and has to be applied fairly evenly to achieve the effect that I want.

Installation in progress for Posture is Everything. Image courtesy of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Installation in progress for Posture is Everything. Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Once the first coat is applied, the material cures for 24 hours, all the while creeping down the wall’s surface as it sets. I then laid down a layer of thin nylon mesh fabric on the silicone’s surface and applied another full coat of rubber, adhering and sandwiching the material onto the first coat of rubber. Once the second layer was set, I simply peeled the rubber off the wall, rolling it onto a large cardboard tube to keep it clean and flat. The color of the silicone rubber comes “naturally” from the chemical activator provided by the manufacturer, and it’s one of the reasons why I like using this particular kind of silicone. Another great characteristic of this silicone mold material is that it doesn’t permanently adhere to (almost) any surface except itself, which makes it very user-friendly and flexible in terms of potential applications.

treatment (covered), 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

Jehra Patrick

A process similar to that was used to produce a previous work, treatment (covered), completed for the Kabinett Gallery during your residency at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, Germany – how was that process different?

Kristina Estell

For the treatment installation, the goal was initially much more about creating a subtle and materially-charged space – treating the space, as it were. After many calculations, much prep-work, and a call for volunteer helpers, I set up a station in the middle of the gallery and just starting mixing silicone. This particular silicone was dyed with a bit of blue and gray color. Using the same small chip brush technique, my helpers and I brushed two layers of silicone onto the ceiling, walls, fixtures, windows and radiators, in this case, without the layer of fabric in between. I then let the material cure and migrate down the walls as it set.

Jehra Patrick

I’m interested in the relationship between the two pieces and your decision to repeat the action and make use of the material in a new way for the MAEP show. Can you speak to the evolution of your concept and process from one exhibition to the next?

Kristina Estell

treatment directly inspired the work at the MIA. At the end of the exhibition at the Akademie, I returned to de-install the work. Through this process, I realized a whole new experience of the material. My expectations for covering a room in silicone included, initially, the experience of the material as a direct part of the space as an installation, and secondly, being able to remove this material to retain the mold of the space as a rubber negative. In practice, the additional and unexpected part of the process became even more interesting to me as I started to remove the material from the space and learn about the spaces characteristics in such thin dimensions and at such a large scale. As the material started to come off, it began to peel itself from the wall — pulled down by its own weight — and that created really beautiful, and kind of theatrical, draping forms hanging from the surface of the walls. I found these forms so interesting, I knew I wanted to create another work that intentionally used this discovery in a more deliberate way and which might really exploit the weighty, draping potential of the rubber.

Installation in progress for Posture is Everything. Image courtesy of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Installation in progress for Posture is Everything. Image courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Jehra Patrick

Silicone, or rubber, seems like a particularly unnatural and permanent [non biodegradable] material. What is the importance of the material in this work? Is it the behavior of the material or the implications of its use that you’re primarily interested in?

Kristina Estell

The silicone material I am using is, of course, industrially manipulated to have the uses and properties it does, but it is not so very far removed from [unprocessed] silicon, the chemical element found in nature, and that makes up an enormous percentage of the earth’s crust, for example. And in this rubberized form, the silicone mold material is actually not permanent. In fact, the life of all these sheets of rubber is very uncertain. The “skin” will start to degrade and the color will change over time…probably pretty dramatically within the space of just five years.

Jehra Patrick

That is interesting! I had it in my head that silicone (probably in terms of medical implants, etc.) was this permanent, fake thing. Thanks for returning me to the Periodic Table! That really gives the piece an added dimension, to think about it behaving like a skin – in form and behavior – molting off the walls, really delicate and fragile, even taking on attributes of aging.

Kristina Estell

To answer your question: Drawing lines back and forth between the material and the referring implications of its use is exactly what interests me so much in this material as a central subject and object in my work.

Processing and Computation, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist

Jehra Patrick 

Working directly with the site, as in the walls of the exhibition space, or collecting materials – such as rocks – from the area where you work appears to be a thread in your practice. Does your general studio practice guide you to work in response to your site of production? Or, does this [site-specificity] differ from your general studio practice, having more to do with preparing for a particular exhibition?

Kristina Estell

Depending on the project, where I am working at the time, etc, my working practice is very flexible. I do find inspiration in being outside of my everyday environment, and often I create work for specific locations. Many projects only exist in certain locations, but others can translate to other sites as well.  I see my studio practice as a kind of magnification process — taking a small thing from outside and blowing it up into something else within my work space.

My working practice is materially inspired but conceptually relies on finding and creating simple connections and gestures. Depending on the idea, my working practice, materials, processes change for almost every new project. Recently, I have been studying glass working and am preparing a station in the studio to start exploring this medium. I work with a material for some amount of time until I am able to understand it, how it acts and what connections I can develop between its physical properties and a set of ideas that interest me. This naturally involves a lot of trial and error, but this is also the best way to actually learn and make discoveries that can inform finishing a project and inspiring a new one.

Jehra Patrick 

The natural world has long been central to your work, yet you often approach the subject in subtle, indirect ways. Is this reflective of your own experience of nature? Or, are you simply looking for less representational ways to discuss natural forms?

Kristina Estell

That’s an interesting question. I feel like I use nature within my work as more of a medium than a subject sometimes: a set of imagery and objects to think through, learn from, processes and events that are relative to my own experience but which are also just the common experience of living today. Nature is something that holds us all; it’s a reflexive subject and it makes sense to pay attention to it that way. It’s also just the language that seems most essential to me.

Installation view of Posture is Everything, 2013. Image courtesy of The Minneapolis Institute of Art

Installation view of Posture is Everything, 2013. Image courtesy of The Minneapolis Institute of Art

Jehra Patrick

That is beautiful and poetic — the notion of nature as medium. This resonates with so many disciplines: painting by way of oil, photography’s use of light and chemicals, sculpture’s origination in stone.  I also appreciate your intentionality in blurring subject-object-medium and the slippage between form and materials. These poetics seem to work their way into the title of your current exhibition. Would you talk a little about that title: Posture is Everything?

Kristina Estell

I liked the ambiguity and the structure implied by the title, Posture is Everything. It is obviously resolute, but I was hoping that – in combination with seeing the work in the gallery – this resolution would be dissolved a bit and the title would help create a sense of urging effort within the sculptural forms; a sense that this dense, heavy, sagging but beautiful material — with all its references — has intentions of real structure or ‘posture’ but no such actual potential without the wooden armature underneath it. The ‘everything’ in the title makes it just priceless, bringing up an elusive sense of value and what matters. I especially thought this title would be interesting within the institution context of the art museum.

Jehra Patrick

Let’s talk more about the work’s placement within the art museum. In form, the silicone brings to mind historical imagery within a museum such as classical painting, or assemblies of objects and fabric swaths from life drawing. The armature nearly references easels. In titling, ‘everything’ might refer to all the museums holdings, or all things of greatness – art as valuables, or the art or the artist’s role, or stature, but also implies that these roles or behaviors are misleading. Do artists, or the museum posture as well?

Kristina Estell 

Yes, all these points you bring up are connections I am interested in. Right away during the install process, I was getting comments from various people about the visual similarities the piece has to other artwork within the museum and beyond. I didn’t expect such a direct relationship to specific works held by the museum, but did anticipate the relationship to the tradition of drawing, painting, still lifes and enjoyed pulling from that [classical] ‘standard’ of beauty that suggests objectivity, as well as genericness of subject.

The practice of working from drapery or fabric shapes with such attention and detail to accomplish form without content is very interesting to me; it is the most simple and empty way to illustrate ‘posture,’ or the act of posturing, which I definitely believe art does. The genre of still life most honestly reveals its postured nature. Necessarily, I do think artists and art institutions build on a series of postures that feel flexible and tenuous…at times misleading as well, but possibly just more undefined in our culture.

Kristina Estell’s work references physical material systems through an exploration of the theme of landscape and vision. As sculpture, my work exists in pieces, parts of a whole. It is ephemeral in its design as well as in the quality expressed by the use of such materials as transparent resin, sheer fabric, lenses and clear silicone. Using a range of sculptural and drawing techniques, my work aims to expand our understanding of landscape to include sites outside of our immediate periphery, which might be deeply interior or vastly exterior. These processes often result in a collection of naturally suggestive but ambiguous forms that come together to narrate a space and question our perceptions of nature.

Kristina Estell’s Posture is Everything runs until Sunday, June 20, 2013 at in the Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program gallery at The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Artist’s Talks: Thursday, May 16, 2013, 7-9 p.m.
Special Guests: Thursday, June 20, 2013, 7-9 p.m.

Look for Kristina’s work in the Minnesota Biennial at The Soap Factory, where she will create drawings from materials collected from the gallery, itself.

For more on the artist, visit her website at kristinaestell.com and blog kristinaestell.blogspot.com

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