Work by Jenny Kendler.
Johalla Projects is located at 1561 N Milwaukee Ave. Reception is Friday from 7-10pm.
Work by Bert Stabler, Nick Black, and Jasime Young.
DIG is located at 2003 N. Point #3. Reception is Friday from 6-9pm.
Work by Hans Peter Sundquist, Samantha Bittman, Michael Milano, Casey Droege, and Stephanie Brooks.
Threewalls is located at 119 N. Peoria St., #2C. Reception is Friday from 6-9pm.
Work by Adrian Moens.
Comfort Station is located at 2579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception is Saturday from 7-10pm.
Work by Jesus Gonzalez Flores.
Julius Caesar is locate at 3144 W Carroll Ave, 2G. Reception is Sunday from 4-7pm.
Caroline Picard is a well-known artist, arts administrator, publisher and all-around indie maverick here in Chicago who runs The Green Lantern, a project that encompasses publishing, exhibition projects, and a daily blog. Needless to say, we are very fortunate to have her as one of our regular columnists here at Bad at Sports. When Caroline’s show Happiness Machines opened at Roxaboxen earlier this month (sadly, its run was short and the exhibition closed last weekend), I was personally very excited, because up until now I’ve never had the chance to see any of Caroline’s own work in person. Her core issues of interest — the notion of self, the construction of personal identity, and just what it is we mean when we talk about “happiness”– are subjects that I think about and puzzle over almost every day. I am truly grateful to Caroline for taking part in this extended conversation with me, where we discuss all of the above issues while also taking the opportunity to dish on celebrities…just a teeny bit.
Claudine Ise: Your show at Roxaboxen is titled “Happiness Machines,” which for me signifies any automated something that can deliver quick (and temporary) shots of pleasure on demand. There’s something intrinsically connected to human instinct and biology there too. Philosophically, the happiness machine relates to Robert Nozick’s idea of the pleasure-giving “experience machine” — Nozick’s thought experiment that asked people to consider whether, if given the choice, they would prefer to live in a pleasure-filled virtual reality over real life. The idea of the “happiness machine” has historical resonance too: Herbert Hoover used the phrase in a speech he made to advertising executives: “You have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines that have become the key to economic progress.” His words presaged America’s transition from a needs-based economy to a desire-based one — ironically, as Hoover himself presided during the Great Depression.
Cut to 2010, when Coke puts out a YouTube video that, amazingly, referenced Hoover’s idea with a pretty astounding lack of self-awareness – the video depicted a kind of advertising stunt, the Coca-Cola company put this special “magical” coke machine on a college campus, the coke machine gave students balloons or dozens of cokes to distribute to everyone, or flowers, pizza, submarine sandwiches — all delivered by human hands through the slot– after it received coins for a single coke. When one of the students in the video says something like, “aw I just want to give it [the machine] a hug…Thank you Coke!” – that was pretty chilling. I don’t have anything against Coke as a brand–it was just the perfect smooth execution of an idea by a corporate entity, and how perfectly the students appeared to buy into it – literally speaking and, if what appears on the video is to be believed, emotionally speaking as well–that grossed me out.
And now, you as an artist have created your own brand of energy drink as part of your project “Psycho Dream Factory.” I tasted one from that flowing pile, and was shocked at how delicious it was (I like how the empties were put back into the pile, too, so it’s a pile of plenty and a pile of trash in one). It would have been even better if it were chilled, but – this tasted just like liquid hard candy! When I popped the top this disgusting sweet smell wafted out of the can, like a vapor, but the taste itself was really good. Anyway, tell me about what “Happiness Machines” means to you, how you would define or describe what a “happiness machine” is in 2011, and how it functions in our culture.
Caroline Picard: I started thinking about it when I watched this amazing four part Adam Curtis documentary called “Century of the Self”. The documentary talks about how our ideas about the psychology and the self are directly tied to the ways that marketing and advertisement has developed over the last century. Curtis makes the case that the two fields have developed along a reciprocal path. The documentary begins with Freud focusing specifically on the relationship Freud had with his nephew, Edward Bernays. Allegedly the “father of public relations” he was the first to use psychological tactics to manipulate large populations of people, almost as a kind of way to save them from themselves. So, for instance, one early example of how that kind of approach would influence advertising: they tied smoking with the suffregette movement, encouraging women to smoke as a way to illustrate their independence (thereby opening up a new body of consumers, who had previously not smoked). Over the course of the documentary, ideas of self and signs of independence, success etc change. So, for example, in the 60s there was a backlash youth group who didn’t want to “sell out” and wouldn’t buy into the lifestyles their parents were supporting. Instead of being afraid of themselves and their inner urges, they were suspicious of the status quo that was (ostensibly) trying to control them. They wanted to be recognized as unique individuals with individual taste; they did not want to conform and many of them resisted taking on traditional jobs that tied to them to specific locations and markets. Marketing had to shift to accommodate them.
Throughout all of this, I kept thinking about how happiness seems like the thing that has been marketed consistently. The American Dream, I guess; it feels like this very American idea to me–in so far as happiness is a thing to be purchased, and that we want happiness specifically: a finite peak of experience that is, I think, different from contentment or satisfaction or, even, joy. I know this is stepping even farther away, but what does it mean that “happiness” as a concept makes such an early and seemingly integral appearance in our national identity? (i.e. the declaration of independence: what does it mean that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right?) How does it reflect on other cultural expectations? For instance, it’s also interesting to me because, as an idea its secular and a-moral: it is the idea of a feeling, not a behavioral prescription…
So. Yes. I also saw the Happiness Machine coke commercial on youtube and was thinking about how there is a constant desire for gratification. How it is still palpable. If it’s delightful and clever, all the better. Similarly Hoover, as you point out, was celebrating the idea of everyone’s potential happiness. Our cultural mythology is that we live in a place where anyone can be happy, just like anyone can be president. The idea of happiness then, I think, becomes an odd manifestation of power: if everyone has the capacity for happiness then it’s up to each person to manifest that on his or her own. Purchasing goods is a way to exercise some aspect of power and so I feel like it makes sense that they would get conflated. I felt like making an energy drink, as another element in the show, would draw out the idea of happiness and its relationship to consumerism more than the drawings alone. It felt like it also became an interactive feature that would help people engage and play with the materials, while also giving the idea of the show power outside of the immediately physical show: in other words, there’s almost an idea that these objects could circulate outside of the show.
CI: How does the entertainment celebrity function as a “happiness machine”? Can art’s “celebrities” be said to function in a similar way? I’m interested in your thoughts on this because I am not sure that they do, I don’t think that art celebrities affect us on that same emotional level as tv and movie stars do. I am not compelled or interested in the lives of art stars the way I am with celebrities.
CP: I think there is a difference, for sure, though I’m not quite sure how to hash it out, exactly. I mean maybe one example would be somebody like Jeff Koons and Cicciolina; I feel like his porn photo project was a way to think about public and private distinctions and publicity stunts. At the same time, Cicciolina has always seemed like the much more compelling figure in the story–that she was a member of the Italian parliament and a public sex worker. Still, the Koons-irony thing turns into a bummer so fast. Like it’s amazing that the distance between himself as an artist and his art would collapse, so that even his personal life seemed like a project. One that produced a child–.
Still, I guess I’m interested in the way our understanding of celebrity culture reinforces professional expectations in other fields. In the same way that actors are legitimized by appearing in tabloid magazines, so too I think the predominant model for artistic success is one of fame and monetary income. If your paintings translate into economic or cultural capital then the artist is legitimate. His or her practice has been deemed worthy. I understand the practical (and unavoidable) connection between art making and market economy, but I feel like it still provides a very a limited vision of art’s function–because the artistic gesture suddenly has to be commensurate to a market value in order to be meaningful. Is it possible to establish alternate criteria? With alternate methods of sustainability? What would that look like and, of course, why is that important? It reminds me of the recent upheavals in Universities in the UK. Middlesex University, a school with an outstanding international reputation for philosophy closed its philosophy department because it made more money in other, non-humanities departments. This has become a rampant trend (and caused a number of student protests in the UK), even in the United States: the humanities don’t translate directly into financially viable positions, so their seeming public value diminishes. (Martha Nassbaum also wrote a book, Not for Profit, that also talks about why the humanities are important–because they encourage the imagination, and therefore empathy as well as critical thinking, which leads to more actively engaged citizens). I guess I want to argue that we should think through alternative means of legitimizing contemporary practice. Maybe one way to do that is to think about what an object means as an object, not as something that translates into a monetary or marketable equivalent…is this possible to do? I don’t know….
In many ways, I feel like there is a strong, pessimistic undercurrent in the show. I don’t feel like propose any solutions–my favorite artists do that. I like to think it’s because I’m building up towards that direction, but who knows. I think it’s easier to have a sense of how things could shift than it is to imagine what that shift might look like.
CI: I loved the way your plastic-wrapped drawings were packaged and displayed (on hooks and in rows, not unlike a magazine stand or checkout shelf) and “delivered” to the visitors to your show. I loved the feeling of rifling through them all, I loved that there was such a multitude to look at and variety choose from, I loved that perfect balance of repetition and difference so that every one was just a bit unique, or at least gave the appearance of uniqueness to a buyer – you used precisely the same logic as higher-end mass merchandising does, and I suppose as certain types of art production as well. Your show definitely hit my own personal pleasure zones as a “shopper” and yet, the somewhat awkward way that you render these super-familiar celebrity faces, and the spare and barely-there ness of your compositions – the drawings still feel beautiful and unique to me in all those old-fashioned ways of talking about works of art. Here’s my question: why were your drawings so inexpensive ($3 each)? They were so shockingly inexpensive I have to assume there’s a conceptual reason behind it – that in order to deliver that quick shot of pleasure on demand, you had to make your drawings so attainable that virtually anyone could buy one right away without much pain.
CP: Yes. That’s totally true, about the cheapness, I mean…
First though, to talk to the drawings themselves. Underneath all of this, I really really love making work. I really love the process of painting and drawing, and the way it lets me meditate or think through ideas. It’s like drawing gives me another way to digest material–in this case it gave me a chance to take in tabloid covers and then reenact them in some way. There is a way where I can’t get away from that pleasure, as a central tenant to what I do. Over the course of the process, I got to think about the materials I was using–white out, florescent marker, nail polish: all of these very shitty, somewhat toxic and probably imported materials. Participating in subject through medium seemed like another way to communicate some amount of uselessness: like I really don’t know how you’re supposed to get out away from capital or the hierarchical systems it instills. I think I wanted to create that experience in the space itself too–I wanted to encourage people to look through the drawings. That’s one of the most important elements: the way it’s interactive. The way you can take something home at the end of the day, the way everything (the materiality, the quickness of the drawings, the way a number of them have been xeroxed and added to or deteriorated via reproduction): I didn’t want them to feel precious in the end; I wanted them to feel almost like party favors. Of course, they mean more to me than that, and I think they stand up more than that–but I wanted to make them ride that line, and indicating a low-price seemed to be a way to do that.
CI: Your collage drawings make reference to celebrities and the tabloid narratives associated with them, among other things. My favorite was the Angelina turning Shiloh into a boy one because I’m personally fascinated by that narrative. Not so much by the “Angelina pushing Shiloh” angle, but by the idea that Shiloh may in fact be transgendered and how cool is it that her parents are allowing her to be that way, to be who she wants to be, despite their super-high profile life and the gossip pressures associated with that. What interests me most about tabloids actually, is tabloid writing. These are all written narratives, i.e. crafted by someone or a group of someones who are giving it some thought, the “stories” comprised of this weird psychological pastiche of culture, desire, and whatever new photographs are available via the paparazzi. I think I’m most interested in the celebrity narratives that sort of don’t go the way the public might expect or want. So when Jennifer Aniston turns 42 or whatever and still doesn’t have a baby, I’m fascinated because…she really is supposed to have had that baby by now. When Shiloh dresses like a boy, I’m fascinated because…Shiloh is the golden child, she is supposed to represent the blending of two of the world’s most gorgeous people: Brad and Angelina. She’s not supposed to be transgendered (or god, maybe she is – the most perfect, precise blending of those two people!!!) – yet she doesn’t fit that Suri Cruise model of what a perfect princess, cute little girl should look like – Shiloh looks the way many people think a boy “should” look.
So, with my own tabloid weaknesses revealed to all – tell me what kind of tabloid stories you are attracted to? And why do you find them compelling?
CP: My favorites: also “Why Is Angelina Turning Shiloh into a Boy?” and “I Love My New Body”. Those are really my two favorites. I guess I also like the one about the Kardashian daughters (what’s awesome is that I’ve no idea why they are famous or where they came from–they just started appearing in magazines and on bilboards; I assume just because I don’t have a TV, but I feel like Paris Hilton was also very famous all of a sudden for more or less being famous and (this was years ago) being mean. Like she was best friends with LiLo one day and then someone else another day and basically did nothing but play dumb mind/playground games: it’s amazing to me that that is somehow a viable option for fame) where it says “Tormented for their Bodies.”
I like the Angelina one because I’m continually impressed by her ability to stay in the tabloids, consistently for the last five+ years. It’s moments like that where you realize some degree of effort or planning goes into a media spotlight. (Especially, for instance, that the coverage is selective: no one at all talks about their youngest twins)–so there’s a way where her presence is so consistent as to feel strategic. The narratives start to quake a little; they feel constructed. Then too, the “turning into a boy” is so amazing because I feel like it reflects a hyper-conservative perspective about gender and, even, how that manifests/is projected in childhood. I think it’s related to what you’re saying as well–this idea of what we expect their child (or an ideal child) to be, and how we interpret the signs of their comportment.
The “I love my new body” I think is amazing because it was text right next to Britteny Spears and she was wearing a bikini and I think that it points to a really crazy relationship between where we locate the self (or the “I”) and the body. Somehow these two things are extricable: how does that happen? Is that simply because of plastic surgery? (i.e. that it is possible to get a new nose, or new breasts or a chin, or whatever—) But then too, how is it that the implied “I” is constant and unchanging? Where are we locating it if not in the body? And then I guess that idea is also reiterated in the “tormented by their bodies” statement. And what on earth does *that* mean? It’s like they’re weird slaves or something–slaves to a physical embodiment of beauty? I don’t know. I just think it’s amazing stuff to think about, because I guess I see it as a kind of cultural mirror.
CI: Let’s talk about the non-fiction essay you wrote as a coda to your book, Psycho Dream Factory, starting with your observations about celebrity and its dependence upon / propagation of fictions of the Self, or as you put it, “the illusion that something, or someone, can be simplified and projected onto a surface….those are dangerous illusions. They evade any sense of consequence or complexity–elements essential to the human condition.” In contrast to this simplified notion of self-hood, you propose an alternative understanding of the self which you describe as “the additive self”. For those reading this interview who can’t get their hands on your book right away, can you talk a bit about what you mean by the additive self and how it might help us think about identity — as well as notions of success/legitimacy — in new ways?
CP: Maybe it makes more sense to think about the stability of self and self-image. For instance in statements like, “Figure out what makes You Happy,” or “What do you really want”: there is an idea that the self is singular and maybe even intrinsically static. Even in a specific and relatively small time-frame one is presumed to have a singular integrity. You could see this also reflected in the idea of a “soul mate,” where some-one-specific individual supposedly is out there to complete you. That idea in particular is propegated through love songs and pop songs and movies: it’s a very Romantic ideal, I think. What’s interesting, though, is the stability it assumes. Like it assumes an unequivocal certainty: something which I think is, actually, impossible to maintain. At least in my experience, I am a mix of probably countless desires and those are very often in conflict with one another. I think you could point to a similar aspect of self, if you look over a long period of time: there is an idea that one has a unique and unchanging nature. Some idea of an I or a center endures. I want to know, though, where is that located? And even how can it be? Even though I have always more or less experienced myself as a stable constant, I think I’m taking that idea for granted–at the very least because I want to see what other philosophical conclusions an alternative would lead to. What I love about Deren’s description of Voodoo in The Divine Horsemen is that the individual is actually constantly and fundamentally changing as it is inhabited (and thus influenced) by more and more loa (or spirits). Like a ship accumulating barnacles, the individual gathers different ghosts and having gathered those spirits, it cannot go back to what it originally was. I might make a corellary with experience, to suggest that once you’ve experienced trauma or pleasure, you cannot imagine yourself without that experience: it’s a transformative knowledge, like an emulsion. It even changes the way you look back on yourself prior to that experience.
CI: I keep wanting to question or complicate some of the ideas about celebrity put forth in your essay – whether we’re talking about Hollywood or the art world. For myself, I definitely don’t share Adorno’s pessimistic take on popular culture and its effects. I very much believe in a person’s ability to go beyond the face-value of a given cultural narrative and make it into something else, to redirect it in ways that can be authentically empowering. And so I don’t see celebrity or a celebrity persona as monolithic. I see them in terms of stories that we as a culture tell each other, they are written and rewritten, and are also interactive in that the narratives can be read subversively (like the Shiloh/boy stories). I agree, the celebrity persona is compelling in part because its fictions reinforce the idea of the self as a stable signifier — which also makes it into a thing, or as you put it, a commodity, and an unchanging commodity-thing at that (Mandy Moore = All-American Good Girl; Amy Winehouse = Alcoholic Fuckup, Shepard Fairey= Sellout, Damien Hirst = Soulless Art-Commodity Producer, etc.). And yet the celebrity narratives that are often the most fascinating to me are the ones where an established fictional identity implodes – when all-American good girl Britney Spears goes nuts and shaves off her hair and makes monster faces at the paparazzi, or when stars like Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin and/or Charlie Sheen go on violent, abusive, self-destructive benders. I guess what I’m ultimately arguing against is the idea that cultural production and dissemination, even in a product as debased as a tabloid magazine, is inherently one-dimensional. We already have the power to shift the narrative, and I think we employ that power on a regular basis. Maybe that’s what you are getting at too, when you propose at the end of your essay, “Perhaps then the key lies in focusing our attention elsewhere: studying the blurred, interstitiary matter between categorical selves.” Where do you think those interstitiary areas can be found?
CP: I think it’s funny, actually: I was thinking the other day how funny it is that in my own life I feel very empowered. Or at least, I feel like when I run up against shitty stereotypes in conversation or something like that, I often enjoy the ensuing conversations–I guess because I feel like there is a lot to learn always, and I think reasoned disagreement can lead to valuable insight. At the same time I think I am easily overwhelmed by my experience of popular culture. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 90s with a pervasive myth–it came from everywhere, schools, parents, other kids–that culturally we had progressed beyond racism, sexism or homophobia; then too there is this American Dream floating around that you can be anything you want, that a class system doesn’t really exist–but I think the class system does exist. I think prejudices and stereotypes are still very much in play. I feel like now there’s a sense that we’ve progressed beyond prejudice so it’s OK to make bad jokes, because everyone knows no one means it, but it totally bums me out. I don’t mean to dismiss the progress that has been made, but it’s weird to turn on the television and see an off-hand gay joke just like it’s weird to hear about how fuckable Sara Palin is. At that point, when it’s coming from a television or a radio, I don’t feel like I have anything to push against directly. It’s like your not supposed to be critical of culture because it’s trashy junk food like popcorn and everyone knows it. It still there though, all over the place.
CI: I’m also interested in the potential of the first person point of view as a rhetorical tactic. In all of your cultural writing, I think you have employed the first person POV in such a lovely and effective way – it’s why I have always been drawn to the way that you write. Writing an essay in the first person might on the one hand appear to reinforce all those myths of the “stable I” – but in fact, I find that using the “I” actually allows us to talk about culture in non-monolithic, non-authoritative ways that make absolute sense right now. Rather than emphasizing the writer’s authority over a subject, writing from the first person point of view seems to embrace a vulnerable and even overtly fallible position from the get-go: the form accurately reflects the contingencies of the subject matter. So – when you’re writing about culture, how important is it for you to write from the first person? For example, do you think you could have written the Coda to your book using the traditional third-person perspective and felt satisfied with the results?
CP: Yes! The first person! I never know what to do with it. I used to really, deeply fight against it. I used to feel like writing in the first person was self-indulgent. BUT! The thing is, I don’t know a better way to go about it. What I like about writing in the first person, is that I think you can create am empathetic body for the reader; so, when I describe a show by describing some of the physical attributes/impressions, I can bring a reader into a subjective experience. The flow gets more poetic, I think. It admits a subjective narrative–what art very often engages. But yes, in my essays I am always aware of my own vulnerability, or limits. I often feel like I have a limited understanding of my interests. Like, I am interested in social philosophies but I’m also alway going to feel like an amateur relative to those specialists who spend their lives studying one slice of that pie. By writing, I want to engage all sides; to be reflective and learning…I don’t think I could have written the Coda in an exclusive third person, for one thing because I don’t think Doug Aitken or Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is unequivocally bad. I actually enjoyed both bodies of work–they made me think about what was at stake and what made me suspicious–also they are so seductive and lush! Similarly, I don’t think Alys or Rohmer are unequivocally good–by talking about them in the first person, I feel like I have a better chance to open up a conversation. Still, I wish there were more pop songs in the third person, or pop songs without people. Or like, of there was an Entertainment Tonight show that was dedicated to the natural red carpet occurrences and talked about how sexy different hurricanes or cloud formations were.
Happiness Machines was on view at Roxaboxen Exhibitions, 2130 W. 21 St., Pilsen, Chicago, IL from June 10-24th.
Our latest Centerfield column is up on Art:21 blog. This week, Nicholas O’Brien takes a look at Gallery 400′s current exhibition, File Type, which looks at how “formats… represent ways that artwork in digital or Internet media create particular standards of representation.” Nicholas also talks to the show’s curators, Lorelei Stewart and Chaz Evans, about their ideas behind the show. A brief excerpt below; click on over to Art:21 to read the full post!
When I initially saw the promotional poster for File Type, currently on view at University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400, I was immediately intrigued by the curatorial premise posed by curators Chaz Evans and Lorelei Stewart regarding how “formats… represent ways that artwork in digital or Internet media create particular standards of representation” (quoted from the curatorial statement). The variety of artists selected for the exhibition — a combination of local, national, and international makers – would have given me enough reason by itself for me to attend the opening. As I entered the space and browsed the works on display, I felt my curiosity continue in ways that I had not expected when initially considering the above statement by Evans and Stewart. Even after I left the show, questions kept reappearing and presenting themselves to me with intense frequency. Initially, I couldn’t help but question why some works were displayed on flat panel monitors as opposed to computer screens and as I continued to peruse the show, I wondered how the mounting of a physical show reflecting on the effects of network technology on artistic inquiry inevitably varies from a digital exhibition of identical material (something that perhaps I have had more comfort in discussing as of late). Can an exhibition highlight recursive dialogues between the language of the screen and the language of the gallery? Is there a sense of irony in the idea of a file type, since a great majority of the works deal with the translation and fluidity between codecs and mediums, as opposed to the static state of objects that galleries and museums tend to support and reenforce? Without outright calling File Type a “media art show,” how does this show effect the reception of the work, or even more importantly effect my (and the viewer’s) understanding of “media art?”
As these questions bubbled around in my brain, I decided take the initiative and voice these queries to the curators themselves. (Read more).
When considering architecture, I find it difficult not to revert back to that well-worn Le Corbusier trope of a “machine for living.” The Modernists gave us a legacy of sleekness and functionality in the field of design, taking inspiration from a systematic approach to production where every part incorporates itself seamlessly into the overall whole. Within this model, it is impossible to separate form from function, and in recent years, this binary has manifested in the innovations brought to the formal compartmentalizing and hybridizing of our 21st century live-work-ways. The work of Ann Arbor-based architect and founder of Alibi Studio, Catie Newell, unpacks functionality to reimbue space with a sense of experiential wonder. Her installations investigate the materiality of volumes, and cultivate a relationship with the ephemeral that relates to practices of landscape architecture as well as urban planning. Newell refers to her process as creating inhabitable textures—remixing the material and spatial constructions of spaces to draw attention to the volumes themselves as liminal, tactile essences.
Newell founded Alibi Studio in 2010. Even though it is not an official firm at this point, Alibi was created on the platform of collaboration, and emphasizes a collective practice involving open discussion sessions and the random mashing of skills. Newell has cultivated a rotating cast of characters who are involved with Alibi’s projects, and this holds true for Second Story, which opened last week at Extension Gallery in Chicago with assistance from Lauren Bebry, Katie Schenk, Grant Weaver, Chuck Newell, Lisa Sauve, Carolyn Newell, Maciej Kaczynski, Drake Tolliver, and Cheyenne Pinson. Last week, Newell and I had an ongoing conversation about her practice, Alibi Studio, and about Second Story.
Discussed: Urban salvage, fleeting aspects of texture, skinning a house, sillways, throws and pulls.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: What brought you to Michigan?
Catie Newell: I came to Michigan as the 2009-2010 Oberdick Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Prior to that I was working as a project designer and project coordinator at Office dA in Boston.
SMP: What prompted the transition? How have your interests shifted and/or been actualized since relocating to the Midwest?
CN: Firstly, I had been working for about 4 years at Office dA, and loved it. But needed to take a risk to start doing my own work. The fellowship was a way to have project based funding and to see if teaching was a path I wanted to follow. Secondly, I did my last years of grade school in Michigan, so I was familiar with the area, and a bit tuned into Detroit.
My work has definitely been sparked and facilitated by working specifically in Detroit and this region of the Rust Belt. There are aspects of the material and spatial conditions here that have resonated with my own work and interests, and taking me in paths I could not have predicted.
SMP: Something that draws many artists, architects, and designers to the area is the accessibility of salvaged or repurposed material, which I’ve heard referred to as “new natural resources.” Beyond that, Detroit has this profound history with craft and the processes of making that, I feel, infuses the creative sensibilities of those working here. I’m wondering if through your architectural work you’ve also been able to articulate a relationship with craft, either through material, making, or both?
CN: I am not entirely sure how you are using the word craft here. I do however think that making is at the root of my work. Clearly I find an interest in built work, and as importantly, work that I can physically build. Therefore the realities of making add constraints and interests in the work. Ideas are often work through strategies and logics that respond to exsiting conditions, material applications, and performance over time.
I think that the Detroit area is very much so embedded in the realities of making. The history of production and fabrication demonstrates a population of makers. Often for me, it is the intelligence and creativity that can be found in actualizing a project that gives it resonance, strength, and the unexpected twist.
SMP: Sorry! I should have been more articulate… I was thinking of craft as Glenn Adamson defines it—as an approach to making organized around material experience that is more conceptual rather than categorical. What I’m getting at, is that your process involving the physical rendering of materials seems to diverge from the tradition of the architect in his/her studio digitally conceiving of these impossible projects. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on why this process appeals to you?
CN: For me the root of architecture is in the creation of space. I find that for me that necessitates an on-the-ground, through the dirt way of working. My sensibilities lie within how volumes come together. Ultimately, sometimes that most powerful aspect of a space is something that can’t even be drawn amongst our conventional architecture standards. This would probably most specifically apply to our explorations of illumination and intentional darkness, but could also include the more ephemeral or fleeting aspects of a texture, accidental resonance with a space, or an unexpected, but necessary, response to a situation on site.
Salvaged Landscape is a work I did [in partnership with Detroit's Imagination Station] that reappropriates the material and volumes of a house that was hit by arson in Detroit, Michigan. The work can be seen in an interesting way as a curation of the demolishing of a portion of the house. This was a necessary maneuver given the fire damage. I tapped into this moment by creating new masses and volumes within the house, utilizing the materials that of course used to create the house in the first place. The burnt material was collected and sorted, and placed piece by piece back into the house, using the stable portions of the house as the literal formwork for the piece. In accumulation, the work makes new spaces within the house, as well as an larger inhabitable texture of beautiful, dark black, and shimmering wood, bulbuous and no longer of perfect geometry.
SMP: I like your description of the affect of the ephemeral within our everyday interactions with space. Particularly within the context of Salvaged Landscape, which is, in essence, a landscape– unlike (permanent, enclosed) architecture, built to be liminial, and activated through the natural elements and bodies moving through it. I’m wondering how you negotiate the ephemeral, or this “unknown” aspect of the design process, when planning your projects?
CN: There is an aim to capture the ephemeral, but there is also the openess and embracing that I won’t be able to predict all of the affects. Instead, I remain aware and willing to change midstride, grabbing on to what are the unexpected and accidental resultants, seeing them for their spatial presences and overwhelming effects. This happens at all stages from mock-ups and tests, to remaining quick on my feet during the entire process of making. Even after the project is at a stable moment it still has the chance for surprise. Grabbing on to that as a design opportunity keeps me excited, challenged, and never sure (in a good way) what will come next.
SMP: Not to return to your use of reappropriated material, but Salvaged Landscape seems to express this ephemeral-ness further through the use of the charred wood– subverting what is destructive in order to give a second (or third, or fourth) life to a structure. Is this a concept you are bringing to Second Story as well?
CN: There is definitely an underlying discussion of repurposing material. There are two very different ways this is happening: one in the concept of the work, and the other in some of the process. As for the concept, one of the main drivers behind Second Story is actually to reconsider the repurposing, or reconfiguring, of the existing volumes. In this sense, the expression of the volumes is what is being reused. In given it a new life in location (both geographically and even in elevation) as well as the new volumes that are created by distorting an altering what could be considered the skinning or casting of the house to make new volumes for a very different occupation.
One could compare the reuse of the materials that made Salvage Landscape as a way of conceivably altering the exact volumes of the house. In this case densfying the volume (though maintaining the exact same materials). As for Second Story the volume is captured and agitated amongst what was once its enclosing boundaries. This time they are set askew to one another, opening up space present in the house (example: the wall thickness because a room, and the window sill becomes a passageway — that we call the “Sillway”.).
To speak directly about material reuse. There is another aspect of translating these volumes that continues to occur as we move and reconfigure the house. We’ve of course had to transport it on formwork that will allow it to hold its shape and to become suspended in its new location. This formwork has also had many lives where the form of the exterior skin, once utilized, was reconfigured to be the formwork of the interior skin. Within this process we have watched the print or ghost of the existing house come and go in mass or implied volume repeatedly.
SMP: So, if I’m understanding this correctly, (and tell me if I’m not!), in Second Story you’re displacing and then remixing volumes for sake of reimagining the experiential qualities of space. Could you speak a bit more to the more logistical aspects of this project? What will viewers see when they enter Extension Gallery?
CN: Displacing and remixing the volumes is an appropriate way to consider the installations relationship to the original house. The resultants of this maneuver provides new volumes and space otherwise once unoccupiable. So there is an ‘other’ occupation that emerges. This happens with moving the volumes from a second story height to ground level (thus the ability to inhabit the exterior volume just beyond what was once the wall to the outside), pulling and expanding open what was the windowsill into a passage way (the sillway), and slipping the volumes to create a room out of the former wall thickness. The installation in essence removes the mass of the wall thickness, creating a negative space that is now both visible and occupiable.
Logistically, the original house (Spencer’s Funeral Home) was evaluated for its existing volumes. The portion of the house that was chosen as the base for the installation provided dimensions that on this translation would maintain an appropriate and intimate scale to the human body. After this volume assessment, a geometric pattern was established based on the verticals and diagonals existing on the house. Maintaining these existing angles prompted working parametrically with a pattern that could wrap strategically around the house, permitting what are vertical maneuvers on one face to hit corners and become diagonals, and vice versa. This allows for the manipulation of the pattern (and each rod) to have a base logic and structure that moves cleanly around the space. This pattern was then flattened to allow for its construction. This as the base pattern is what remains as the flat surfaces tracing the existing volumes. After contributing to the base pattern, the acrylic is bent again out of plane to stretch and agitate the atmosphere (referred to as the “throws.” There are densities and lengths set for these moves around the space. Zones that are quite close to the base plane, and those that ‘throw’ quite far. The final alteration to acrylic, the ‘pulls’, stretches the acrylic down to whisker allowing for a flee of the material and its own capturing of space.
Second Story suspends from the ceiling of the gallery. Dramatically lit from several angles, the transparency of the acrylic in compliment with the reflection, refractions, and shadows embraces the space of the gallery. The volume hangs as a ghost trace, though manipulated of the Flint house, offering new occupations and relationships to this translation. Holding the room, occupants are encouraged to move in and around the space, changing their relationship and occupation of the volumes, and visual experience of the resultant.
SMP: Does this relate to your notion of inhabitable textures? What do you mean by this phrase?
CN: As architects, we are inherently interested in inhabiting spaces. Acknowledging a context and manipulating volumes, the core investigations of our work employs alteration, and amplification of existing spatial conditions as a means to both inhabit a space through a construction, as well as allow for human occupation within the texture. In other words, while textures focuses on material sensibility, volume and depth, assembly, and tactile qualities, it is within the depth of the work and its interstitial, occupiable spaces it moves beyond just simply being textured. The implication is that there are scales to the texture, both micro and macro; the macro scale is inhabitable, the micro is tactile.
Architect Catie Newell is a founding partner of Alibi Studio, and on the faculty of the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. She received her MArch from Rice University, and a BS from Georgia Tech. She was recently awarded the 2011 Architectural League Prize for Young Architects and Designers.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.
Today seems like an appropriately rainy day to discuss Pae White’s Restless Rainbow (2011) at The Art Institute of Chicago, which I saw and photographed about a month ago, on a day when it was pouring rain. I’ve been mulling over the piece ever since. Restless Rainbow is a site specific installation created for the Art Institute’s Bluhm Family Sculpture Terrace, a public space which features stunning views of Chicago’s Millennium Park (visitors do not have to pay admission to access the Terrace). Unlike previous pieces exhibited here, such as Roger Hiorns’ Untitled (Alliance), 2010–a pair of Boeing surveillance plane engines into which the artist claimed to have inserted drugs, or the vertical abstract forms of Rebecca Warren’s small group of bronze sculptures–White’s piece does not directly engage the Terrace’s famed skyline views. Or rather, it engages the skyline by blocking a large portion of it out, save for a small porthole window cut into the center of one of its facades.
The same week that White’s installation was unveiled, the Chicago Tribune ran a story–I think it would fall under the ‘human interest’ category–about some early reaction to the artwork with the headline “Art disrupts wedding plans at Chicago’s Art Institute.” The sub-heading explained, “A new installation will block views from the outdoor terrace, upsetting couples.” Not surprisingly, the article came to be known as the “Bridezilla story” among some of us who read it and had a laugh over it. There’s no doubt the story has colored the subsequent reception of White’s piece, and has probably made a lot of people view the piece more favorably than they might have otherwise. After all, who wants to take a Bridezilla’s side in this kind of debate? And yet, to be fair, the brides-to-be quoted in the article seemed well aware of the risks they were taking when they contracted the Terrace for their wedding, and seemed to relish the notion that the works of art installed there would provide them with–irony of ironies–readymade centerpieces. They just weren’t expecting the “clown’s nightmare”–the quoted bride-to-be’s description, not mine–within which their dream-day setting was ultimately stuck.
But let’s bracket off the wedding issue for a moment to look at how White’s Restless Rainbow functions as a site specific art installation. The AIC’s online exhibition description notes that White’s impetus for the project stems from her own musings about the open-air setting: “What would happen if a rainbow became disorganized—would it fall from the sky? What if a rainbow misbehaved, causing its color spectrum to take on new order? Would it include black, as rainbows in comic books often do?” Indeed, White’s palette of eye-popping yellows, oranges and black evokes vintage Batman comics, (pre-Dark Knight), although White’s inclusion of bright pink bands within this comic-style rainbow works to fuck that recognizable color scheme up in a way that I quite liked.
Still, the installation as a whole doesn’t work for me — something about it feels off. The parts don’t add up to any kind of satisfying whole, I definitely don’t get “disorganized rainbow” from the way White’s paintings occupy the space, and I am slowly coming around to the conclusion that that may not have been the point. In person, White’s installation feels very much like a three-walled stage set slapped up on the balcony walls as opposed to an immersive environment. It doesn’t enhance your experience of this public space (which is all about picturing Chicago) — it looks and feels like what it is: a temporary facade constructed from two mural-scaled vinyl wall paintings and a floor painting installed in the out-of-doors.
White wanted to bring out the unique spatial dynamics of the Bluhm Family Terrace, dynamics which are typically ignored in favor of the impressive views the Terrace offers. As it turns out, however, the spatial dynamic of what is essentially a large, rectangular, concrete balcony is not all that interesting in and of itself. Indeed the Terrace’s whole reason for being is to function as a frame for Millennium Park, a frame which simultaneously acts as a mirror that reflects one of the most prized aspects of Chicago’s cityscape — its famous skyline — back to museum-goers, who can be wowed by it, take photos of themselves leaping in front of it, and, if they’re locals, take pride in it and by extension in themselves. By blocking off a huge portion of that view, White–like one of those rubbery-faced DC villains who wreak havoc on Batman’s Metropolis–has effectively destroyed this neatly self-reflexive dynamic. The terrace’s vertical bars only emphasize the sense that we are looking out at the city from within some kind of cartoon prison — its vastness diminishing before our very eyes within an hysterical, spinning vortex of eeeeviiiiilll.
It’s not like Pae White stole the skyline from Chicago, of course, but I do think those who criticize the Art Institute’s decision to exhibit this piece during the summer months have a point. In Southern California, where White grew up, summer is…well, okay, it’s not exactly endless, but it does last a looooong time. They have summer to spare there. That is not true in Chicago. Summer means something very different here — it’s more valuable, for one thing, because there’s less of it to enjoy. As a result I don’t think it’s possible to experience White’s Rainbow as something other than a revocation of vista because vista is precisely what that Terrace is all about. White’s Restless Rainbow transforms the Terrace’s famous view into a reverse-spectacle of pleasure denied, a perversely controlled “point of view” dictated not by the wandering eye, or even architect Renzo Piano’s knowing framework, but by the artist’s own willful design. Does this make White’s Restless Rainbow into something that’s ultimately really brave and smart and even kind of brilliant in an evil mastermind kind of way (as in, “I’m going to take away the view that the people think they own, in order to make them see that they never really owned it”), or is it merely an example of artistic hubris (as in, “My painting will be more interesting to look at than the great Chicago skyline!”). I still can’t decide, but I’m pretty sure I can hear the Joker laughing right now.