The representation and exhibition of digital or computer based works in the gallery is no small task for today’s young contemporary curator/gallery manager. Without even considering the surmounting cost that it would take to show media work at the level of a major institution, the mere spatial concerns that these works present is reason enough to give one a headache. Some, like Barmecidal Projects (a project I’ve written on recently), have obviously taken to a purely digital approach of exhibiting online works not just for economic reasons but also to act as diametric counter points to the physical demand of the art world. But even as these projects become more appealing and gain notoriety for their alternative approach to showing young work spawned from the Internet, they still do not necessarily solve any problems for those that wish to bring this work into dialog with more “traditional” mediums (I should stress that I’m not being pejorative here, as I typically would). One cannot expect such demands to be met by these emerging projects and virtual spaces, but a co-operative, co-existing conversation between screen-objects and non-screen-objects still seems contentious and rife with frustration. This is especially the case as the vogue of the identified netartist is quickly passing as evidenced by makers moving rapidly offline and (back?) into object making.
This subject particularly peaked my interest through dealing with these issues in two shows I have recently helped curate or oragnize. Last month I worked with Bea Fremderman who runs Kunsthalle New down in Pilsen on a show called A Small Forest which consisted of work by four emerging artists all exploring delicate digital landscapes and the representation of the natural through the lens/influence of network technology. Although Fremderman and I already knew that we wanted to include Kate Steciw Water Rub/Protal floor piece in the show, but once we had begun our installation we saw that installing one spatial object amidst works either pushed back against the wall, or resting flat in print/projection, a fear developed that we might be misrepresenting or poorly portraying the work. Both of us knew how the selected works could maintain an intimacy that the framework of a personal computer provided, but when we brought these works into the space we were immediately confronted with how each work commanded a unique set of physical demands for installation and exhibition.
In this way, I started to question what incentive I had for bringing works off the screen or away from a network into a more static environment; one that situated the immediacy of the work to it’s physical representation, and not to it’s ability to be constantly accessibility/hyperlinked. These variable points of accessibility between the spectrum of virtual and physical presentation shouldn’t be viewed as judgements of a work, but instead could be used as a metric for finding effective strategies for installing media art. When formulating a show based around similar aesthetic and/or conceptual approaches the reality of the works in space immediately changed what I initially had seen as a direct conversation. Even the relocation of the works into separate media devices determined such a significant reconsideration of how the pieces worked together.
When asked what methods and philosophies Fremderman brings to her work with Kunsthalle New and the installation of work in that space she commented:
Artwork contains a series of components that allow an idea to be translated visually. These components are broken down into the root-content, which refers to the subject of a given image; and a sub-content, which can be the image frame, the space surrounding, or the manner in which the piece is shown in relation to other works. Apart from the indexical, serial display of photographs in a space – which serves to obliterate that sub-content in favor of the portrayed subject matter – the inclusion of sub-content (a frame) can significantly help define and develop the concept of the image, and thus develop a complete object…. This is the same for all work, digital media included. Not all work must consider an alternate platform for presentation, but it is important to recognize the vessels through which media work may be presented through and the conceptual implications of such a gesture.
I might be that because the dominating “sub-content” of media work – it’s technology of presentation – that I’ve struggled to find balanced ways to present online work within galleries. The presence of a projection amidst non-projected objects always presents a spatial problem due to the fact that projection not only operates on a flat surface, but also provides spatial awareness due to it’s throw. Thus, the “sub-content” of a projected piece starts to take president over the actual image-content/subject matter of a work. This is particularly the case with work typically shown online since the framing of a work is not only technological but also social. When the net already presents an alternative platform for showing and sharing creative content, media curators must understand how to re-situate the framing of this work to best suit content delivery. I noticed a hesitation in myself to rely on other non-media objects to galvanize a show for the purpose of spatial continuity since I had confidence that projection, screens, and computer based artworks could maintain that togetherness through a shared media-frame.
Through these recent experiments in installation tactics, I found that there is an unexpected reliability and expectancy for physicality to substantiate a work – or else to give any ephemerality of a medium some sense of belonging within the gallery. A common strategy that I’ve recently seen is to turn projection into more of an object has occurred in Eija-Liisa Ahtila‘s multi-screen installation of her work The House at the Art Institute of Chicago as well as a recent show curated by Scott Wolniak at Andrew Rafacz. In these instances, it appears as though the projected image cannot sustain enough attention and must be presented on a apparatus akin to a billboard in order to convince an audience of it’s uniqueness. Perhaps through creative pseudo-site-specific installations of video screens and projected surfaces, the willingness to view the work as a unique object is more obtainable.
My own willingness to surmount the novelty of technological pieces within a gallery is perhaps giving my audience to much benefit of the doubt. Although I am quite willing to allow for a media-only show to “stand-up” against those that contain no such work of that kind, curators and organizers from other backgrounds might not be as eager to mount a show exclusively comprised of media/screen artworks. This might also have to do with an unrelenting faith I have in the work that I want to show, and the dialogs I hope to create between works when presenting them in group exhibitions. For me, the power of the works have already surpassed a limitation of the framework in which they originate. I often don’t think of them as media work at all, or even work dependent on specific technology, but instead I consider them an amalgamation of ideas or concepts wrapped into visual casings. Installation obviously radically changes my perception of a work since the materiality of that presentation plays an equal role in any given works effectiveness.
After working on A Small Forest I encountered similar spatial/installation concerns when working with Mike Ruiz and Adan De Le Garza for the mounting of a show at The Future Gallery in Berlin entitled Youth Culture. We quickly found that the media heavy show that Adan and I had put together could potentially turn into a stale cubicle of moving images without proper consideration paid to non-digital works acting as counters (or stabilizers) to works displayed on digital devices. The sensitivity of this scenario was also crucial since the thematic structure of the show happened to incur similar aesthetic approaches that when paired in close spatial proximity to each other seemed dangerously visually redundant (i.e., works with faces/people, works with abstract geometry, etc.). The immediate concern was that if all the work existed within too obvious a framing then nothing would extend beyond the initial reception of a leaned or projected image against a flat wall/surface. We agreed that a sculptural object would interrupt the fear of a static show comprised of only wall-hanging objects, but whether projection and digital presentation necessitate the same sculptural balance for me was partial evidence of how media still exists in a state of unease within a gallery/fine-art context (even in spaces like The Future Gallery that specialize in showing media art).
After several trial and errors we found a layout that worked well, giving non-media work space to breath, as well as utilizing the floor space of the gallery. However, almost a week after the opening, I’m still curious how my expectations of media installation within a space are being informed by the apparatus’ that are currently available. Perhaps this whole series of problems has something to do with the increasing readiness of smaller/DIY/apartment venues to have access and/or acquire equipment necessary to show media based work. Since so many younger artists are working between screen environments and physical spaces the integration and incorporation of media-objects into a show will not only become necessary but it will undoubtably become less cumbersome for curators. But what is at stake here is not just an acceptance that media-objects will become so common place in both museum and gallery contexts but rather that within this transition period (if one can call it that, since so many galleries already have media specific shows) an attempt at reconciling how media-objects not only serve as surfaces but also as spaces needs to become a more open conversation.
August 11, 2011 · Print This Article
Looks like our the Chicago Artist Coalition are pulling in our friends and allies all over the place!
If it wasn’t enough that they had brought our friend Judy Ledgerwood ( along with Tim Anderson, Hillary Blanchard-Rikower, Lauren Brescia, Koren Grieveson, Richard Hull, Stephanie Izard, and Randy Zwieban) into their dinning and art-ing fund raiser (Starving Artist,) they have pulled in Anna Kunz and Jeff M. Ward (along with Tempestt Hazel and Jamilee Polson) to assist them in the programing of the Coalition Gallery.
Food and Art drops on August 18th and you can get more info here.
For possibilities at the Coalition Gallery find more info here.
“A question of repetition: a spectre is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back” (Derrida, Spectres of Marx).
What follows is a longer correspondence that began as a casual conversation at the Hyde Park Art Center. After talking for a bit, I emailed Anthony Elms, “Can I interview you about ghosts?” That was several months ago and ever since, we’ve been emailing back and forth at various interim. Why might I want to ask about ghosts? How does that pertain to a website about contemporary art? Partly, my interest stems from a Q&A I witnessed not too long ago. The conversation centered on the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Consensus assumed the ghost a literary device on Shakespeare’s part. “What if the ghost is real?” someone asked. Blank stares darted around the room. There was an almost impalpable twinge of embarrassment mixed with misunderstanding, “Of course the ghost is only a metaphor,” silence seemed to imply, “ghosts aren’t real.” And the conversation went on to other things.
I got stuck on this notion; what did it mean to say the ghost isn’t real? There is no reason to think the ghost any less real than Hamlet; both characters share the same frame of reference for the audience. And then I began to wonder what it might mean for any ghost to be real. I started reading Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, which is when I encountered Anthony Elms. “I love that book,” he said. “I’ve only just started it,” I said. “Do you think ghosts are real?”
Anthony Elms is an artist, a curator, a writer and an editor of the wondrous press, White Walls, where he has curated a number of projects. His writings have appeared in Afterall, Art Asia Pacific, Art Papers, Artforum, Artforum.com, Cakewalk, May Revue, Modern Painters, New Art Examiner, and Time Out Chicago, but his accomplishments resist a concise sentence. For this and so many reasons, he seemed an especially good person to talk to. I have included the extent of our virtual conversation below. We talk about ghosts for their own sake, try to devise their locations and energetic habits while linking them (perhaps to Elms’ chagrin) to artistic experience.
Caroline Picard: When did your awareness of ghosts begin?
Anthony Elms: I cannot actually remember a time when I was not aware of ghosts. Some of the earliest encounters I can think of are in Looney Tunes and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, not surprisingly, and elaborate costumes my mother would make for Halloween.
CP: How did that process take place?
AE: I really don’t know. I did not grow up in a superstitious family. So it isn’t that there was an environment of believers. That said, when I was growing up we lived in a series of large houses that were empty a lot of the time, and I would often be left to myself, and I never felt alone. A friend in high school really believed in ghosts, and he lived in a house said to be haunted by many. I never saw anything there. Others did. In undergraduate I lived in a place where I was always seeing things. I was never sure. I have had moments over the years where I feel watched by the dead.
CP: How would you describe them?
AE: How would I describe ghosts, you mean?
As a presence that troubles, follows, affects, desires, drives and disturbs.
CP: Do you feel like particular cities have more ghosts than others?
AE: Without doubt. Some cities belong to ghosts more than to the people who live there.
AE: As you know Caroline, it has taken me almost a month to respond to you questions. Most unhelpful to getting this conversation on track for a proper back-and-forth. You were calling out to no response. No pun intended. In part because the questions and thoughts are difficult ones. And, I’ll be honest, in part because of the turn of the
conversation, of trying to think about ghosts in the context of art. I wasn’t particularly excited about trying to frame my thoughts relative to art–for me ghosts are so much larger and more interesting than their relation to aesthetics–but in time I found my way and made peace. It happened rereading filmmaker Raul Ruiz’s Poetics of Cinema. In the chapter “Mystery and Ministry” Ruiz sums up Western Civilization as basically a war between the two. He writes:
“Ministry’s police repression favors (if not actually creates) the subversive function of Mystery; and in the very heat of battle, its hierarchical orders command the publication of Mystery’s secrets, and therefore its conversion to Ministry. All this has happened many times. Ministry gains in secrets–which, for it, is a way of losing; while Mystery, whose substance consists only of shadows, cannot help but vanish as it comes forth into the light–therefore it loses as well. These circles could have gone on spinning indefinitely, if in this century the very nature of Mystery had not begun to change. Instead of discretion it now prefers public exhibition, and indeed it never risks even that without clarifying everything beforehand; there is no longer a shadow zone where the mysterious players can marshall their forces and practice their moves. We call this phenomenon a ministerialization of Mystery: its immediate consequence is to affect the nature of Ministers, who themselves become increasingly mysterious.” (p.102)
So first, I will get ahead of myself and answer that, yes, a seance can and should be art. Now, I did not see the piece you mention and neither want to give it validation or critique. We are stuck with the good, the bad and the ugly. However, it is important to always stand in potential, and with respect. One of my favorite moments ever witnessed was a lecture by artist/composer Carl Michael von Hausswolff. He talked about a work made in collaboration with Andrew McKenzie of The Hafler Trio, Dale Travous and Annie Sprinkle. They combined, in different locations but synchronized in time, attempting to marshall technological, magical and sexual energies to rid Iceland of NATO. At the end of the gathering of forces the airbase was still there. However, during the time of their exorcism, a volcano erupted in the Philippines, smothering a U.S. airbase with ash, closing the base. Hausswolff explained that their focus was right, but obviously their aim imprecise. A student incredulously challenged, “Are you serious?” Hausswolff responded: “Sure. What is to be gained if I’m not serious?” Case closed.
Back to the Ruiz. His assessment is correct: “there is no longer a shadow zone where the mysterious players can marshall their forces and practice their moves.” And still mystery does exist. Lurking in the daylight. Art is one such realm. The space of art, much like the screen of a moving image or the stage of a musical performance is a zone where we don’t just allow ourselves to encounter the unknown, we ready ourselves for a connection with the unknown. And this sometimes happens in the classroom too. You can sit there with all your administrative powers: attendance requirements, assigned readings,schedule, lecture notes, project assignments, and still you can never predict what will be summoned when all the individuals come to the table. And in fact it is those very structures and borders that set
the place for the unknown–good and bad–that does happen. It is the platform from which risk jumps. And to follow Ruiz’s playful implication, anyone who has tried to get anything done that involved a large bureaucracy (the post office, a university administration, a city government all come to immediate mind) has witnessed under fluorescent light just how mysterious things can seem when everything is presented before you in plain 12 point type.
By the way: I love to swim, run. I enjoy yoga and have an unhealthy attachment to a rowing machine. What all these share in common is rote activity: repetition and pattern. The actions don’t surprise me, I know what I am doing, for how long and where my actions are leading me. But in these moments I usually find my mind explodes, struck by
something I had either overlooked, or had not even recognized as a possibility. Or the unpredictable flow/feel of a limb, it has moved that way a thousand times and yet now it has discovered something in that movement it was never attentive to before. Or this does not happen. And of course this doesn’t happen when I watch someone else swim, run, yoga, row. But maybe if someone shared with me the unknowing experience of their swim, run, yoga, row I could get there. Let me witness for a moment the behaviors by which matter changes for this other person. It is too easy to confuse facts for spaces of engagement in art: large amplifiers = heavy metal, or in your example, building an alter and lighting candles = spiritual evocation. Still, be generous. We would never say of a book that the cover ruins our surprise of the contents because it’s sturdiness is a parody of a story’s beginning and end, we are likely to talk about bad cover
design and poorly told stories. A crucial element of your listed troubles, and where the art seance chooses a path: unpredictable or parody, is related by art critic Jan Verwoert in “Under the Sign and In the Spirit of a Stoa: On the Work of Cerith Wyn Evans,” republished in his collection Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want.
A passage, funny enough, that segues quite nicely from Ruiz’s administered mysteries.
“Besides, you never know with spirits. There is no guarantee that they’ll come when called. They appear when they want to. So seances are a tricky technique for dealing with creatures from the past. Citations, conversely, are more controlling; the one who cites takes possession of what is cited. Things work differently in a seance. With spirits you must negotiate. And if you lose the upper hand in this process you might end up being the one possessed. Power relations are not predetermined; they are subject to negotiation. In contrast to the act of citation, the ceremony of convocation remains perilously performative and open ended. It cannot coerce a community (among and with spirits) to come into being.” (p.213)
Perhaps the student lost sight of convocation and ended up in citation. Ghost hunter Michael Esposito once remarked, “we like recordings more than we like to listen.” Or maybe the spirits were having a laugh at the student’s expense that day. For spirits to survive, it is imperative to support Hausswolff and his request, “What is to be gained if I’m not serious.” Which does not promise success at every attempt. If Hausswolff didn’t help the wrong volcano to erupt,
what kind of a world do we live in? No world I’ll come home to.
AE: I referenced a chapter from Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, by Avery F. Gordon about the disappeared in Argentina. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured and killed by the dictatorship. Obviously people are dead. The government for a majority of cases never admitted to imprisoning the individuals, and never
issued death certificates. So yes, people basically vanished, preserved in an unresolved gap. A question with no sounded answer. The absence is palpable because a clean label cannot be applied: living, dead, employed, institutionalized, etc., and the desire we feel for a name, a descriptive, is left wanting. French philosopher Jean-Luc
Nancy, in Being Singular Plural, shares “willing (or desire) is not a thinking; it is a disturbance, an echo, a reverberating shock.” It is not trivializing the disappeared to say they were incompatible to the existing dominant structures. That is why they were disappeared. And now the reverberating shock has no perimeters to catch and stop the waves.”
I should resist, but I will now risk gross trivialization to somehow thread the loose threads of our exchange together by drawing an artistic analogy to the felt missing out there. Again, Verwoert, but this time from his essay “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real: On the Risk of Bearing Witness and the Art of Affective Labour” from the same collection mentioned above.
“Except perhaps whistle a tune, like people do when they walk alone at night. It’s a strange habit. You whistle to chase away the thought that someone or something else might be out there with you. But for whom would you be intoning the tune if not for them, whoever or whatever they may be? Whistling in the dark is a way of relating to something out there like it was both there and not there. It is therefore a most suitable way of relating to ghosts; as the embodiment of the unavowed, ghosts are what they are because they are there and not there. Good art and thinking is always a bit like a tune whistled in a manner that echoes the possible presence of something or someone out there.” (p.292)
This, ultimately, I am not sure why, reminds me: I think timing and a tune is the key to ghosts.
AE: Underneath the plaster and lathe of the walls were denim jeans. Obviously used as a cheap readily available insulation. So many jeans. My friend Matt and I jumped when the jeans came for us, clinging to our crowbars. Please do not feel embarrassed by my calling you out for wrong details, we need to keep this going… misremembering is key to
the sense of missed time that unleashes ghosts.
Anyway, to answer if it is empathic imagination or something intrinsic to the objects, the answer is both and neither, pending. Let’s be distinct. Some objects hold my empathetic imagination: a somewhat useless antique chair that pressed uncomfortably into my stomach in the back seat of an economy car on a ride back from Washington D.C. in
the 70s, a vase I bought my mother for a Christmas gift once and now sadly own, a painted portrait my father made of me when I was about four. These objects contain my attention, my care, my devotion and my love. They do not hold any ghosts. There are objects that seem haunted, my CD player that randomly turns off on its own accord, the VCR player that at times has a display light and at times does not. These objects raise my ire. They do not hold ghosts. And the others: a photograph I cannot imagine discarding, because I know some bad will befall me if so, the novel that for some reason radiates love from the shelf whenever my eye catches the spine, that album that exorcises the bad demons from any untoward moment, the Christmas ornament–owned less than 24 hours–that fell and broke and elicited instant tears, the ottoman I never wanted to see again. These objects hold ghosts.
Can I prove any of the above? Absolutely not. This does not make the above nonsense. This is precisely why we need to give these types of objects and responses more attention. And resist received wisdom. And I also wonder why we should require that our empathic imagination cannot be something intrinsic to the object? Verwoert appears here
again, and once again from his text on Cerith Wyn Evans, an artist who often references past texts and histories in his art, or arranges situations that call back to and bring forth past histories–Lettrists, Georges Bataille, W. S. Burroughs, Brion Gysin–often without a clear reason for the recall. But they are not puzzles for decoding.
“The mode in which Wyn Evans relates to Lettrist principle is thus not so much a form of reference but of reverence. Instead of displaying knowledge, he invests passion in the invocation of a spirit. He communicates the fascination inherent to a certain manner of freely engaging with cinema and literature…. What counts is spiritual affinity. It is through a gesture of reverence, therefore, that Wyn Evans creates proximity between characters and evokes the spirit of their collective subjectivity.” (p.208)
Perhaps, when our empathic imagination rests on an object with which it shares a spiritual affinity, we see the ghosts?
AE: An artistic experience that does not bristle your arms, or at least shut off your self-assured all-knowing voice is not worth having. Simply put. In fact, maybe an artistic experience that does not put you in touch with some form of spirit is not an artistic experience. And all this is possible in a photocopied booklet, paint and canvas, a snapshot, 16 mm film, tape and cardboard, store-bought product, graphite, a rock. You name it. I must appeal for the eternal return of
Verwoert, to quote him again from his essay “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real: On the Risk of Bearing Witness and the Art of Affective Labour”:
“Spiritual as they are, if all spirits were exorcised, then art, writing, love and friendship would equally cease to exist. As artists, writers, lovers and friends, we are therefore not afraid of ghosts. On the contrary. Our biggest fear may be no ghosts. Without ghosts to converse with, we would have nothing to do and no right to be. But since we cannot scientifically prove their existence, our vocation to write, make art or love and be loyal friends will always remain questionable. …
Still, there is evidence that sometimes magic tricks work, spells are broken, curses lifted, and the load of unresolved emotions prevented from being passed on, when the load is cast out from the body, not onto another person, but openly transferred onto objects, pictures, gestures or words, to be arrested by and in them, not so that the load can be cast away and forgotten, no, on the contrary, so that the pain and joy it contains can be avowed and owned, together, by artist and viewer, writer and reader, temporarily sharing an experience, and freely avowing it, like lovers might.” (p.270)
AE: Impregnated does indeed seem a very funny choice. Imbued? Go back to that comment “We like recordings more than we like to listen.” I think we are–most of us–pretty bad at paying attention to the notions that we feel but don’t know why. Rarely do we stop to think and interrogate these moments. Not interrogate to kill them, or rationalize them into an easy understanding, but to try to sharpen our ability to recognize things like love, avoidance, unease, or even that we are not by ourselves in the room. Perhaps having many objects around a room is kind of like billboards on the highway for our lazy intuition to catch wind of the changes in the breeze.
AE: I don’t think it possible to prescribe a process for the interrogation, because obviously there will be any number of methods for any number of types of moments. Being active and being attentive are both crucial to the process. Obviously a level of rationalizing and discernment is crucial to taking an experience apart in reflection. Or in being critical in the moment.
As far as the rational… I think it is important to look closely at the cracks in any structure. To also look at the sweeping large-scale shapes and drives and to be prepared to be surprised, to not know, to have an experience and be accepting of something that exceeds your current understanding. So in looking to learn from an experience, particularly of ghosts or haunting, do not work to explain away the unjustified remainders, the parts that do not quite add up, the details that seem unreal. Possibly treat these details as suspect, not as meaningless or impossible or silly. Use attentiveness to accept something beyond what you expect can or should happen and that may be even absurd. Nod. “Yes, this is a place I haven’t been before and I do not know how I got here.” Accept that your own limits are far below those the world routinely offers. Be open. The desire to understand can be a disturbance that creates the experience that is needed, particularly if the desire goes unfulfilled completely.
AE: Oof, I need to say I am always suspicious when objects are described as having “democratic disposition”, particularly when being held in opposition to items that somehow lack “democratic disposition.” The frames need to be drawn very tight for that distinction to matter in a meaningful manner that is not glib or carefree. To the topic at hand:
Yes, I too had interactions with Ouija boards…I suppose many American kids did, particularly when they became mass produced by a gaming company and available at almost any toy store. To this day I’m not sure what happened in those times spent with the Ouija board: did one of the people at the table manipulate the direction? Did we conveniently together somehow agree what answers should come our way? Or did the spirits appear. I don’t really care what caused the experience, I’m more interested in the fact that an experience happened. And I think it important to recognize something happened in a place with the intention to contact something beyond the assembled
group, even if some hood-winkery enters the frame. I do not doubt that some objects do indeed carry curious energy. But I think the importance of thinking with ghosts or spirits is not just to treat them as real, but to treat the spaces where the unexpected happens seriously and to not try and explain away the particular, beyond clean explanation experience.
In this light, I myself am not interested in seeking an answering, or even asking questions such as, “Do you think that common or shared mythologies create these instances?” I’d rather ask, “What common space did you share at that moment?” “What conflicting desires were in the people around that table, and how did these mix?” “What did you
reach for–mentally, emotionally, physically–to help ground you when the experience moved beyond expectations?” “How does the preparation for an experience focus the senses?” “What cannot be focused in such a situation?” Any question that looks at the space created in the action, rather than asking a sort of causal sociology.
AE: Of course, but we need not be able to recognize that history. Or even recognize it as a history.
AE: There could be an absence or there could also be too much presence. Something extra. Either way, there are many writers who would answer this question much better, Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy all come to mind, and all at times attended themselves to notions of otherness and how to be with another and the other.
Let’s somewhat glibly gloss thoughts from these three, it is important to let the other be other, to not try to append our definitions and rules to the other. To recognize the sovereignty of the other’s position and begin to negotiate rather than to assimilate or absorb. This doesn’t mean to give up the ability to react, respond, disagree, judge or confront that other, but to recognize it as a distinct presence (or absence) that may not play to our ways of being.
The importance of the issue of ghosts, haunting, and many of the points touched on is also that there is no way out of a subjective experience of activity. I cannot prove feeling of love or sadness or fear or boredom in any way that would make the histories for those feelings concrete or embedded in objects in a way that you would necessarily have to experience the feelings in the same manner. Still you might be able to sense, in a moment, that my relationship to an
object is based in some relationship that you do not share or understand. You might even sense that an object sits in a way that doesn’t quite seem in line with the way the other objects around are sitting. There’s just something off…
To wildly misuse a quote, British artist Victor Burgin in his essay ”Perverse Space” writes, “There is no objectification without identification.” Closeness and detachment require each other. And when feeling one we should not pretend the other is not lurking. To not recognize is to identify a difference and understand something is not of your kind. And this lack of recognition does not prevent, to use Verwoert’s wonderful phrase again, “temporarily sharing an experience, and freely avowing it, like lovers might.”
CP: Does anything else come to mind for you? Something we haven’t covered? In much of this I have been steering (a little wildly) towards answers, but I also can’t help feeling like I might not be asking the right questions. Not that I’m dissatisfied with your answers (on the contrary) but I still feel like I’m grasping at sand, something elusive and vanishing. Is there something I am missing in all this? Have you ever tried to hunt a ghost?
AE: Oh come now… I don’t think you’ve asked the wrong questions. I think we have covered a lot it seems, and without reading back through anything I can’t think off the top of my head.
I have tried to hunt a ghost. 3 or so times. Never success. I find them best when I’m not looking.
What makes a weed a weed? It’s a question that goes beyond horticulture to take on broader cultural and even philosophical implications. I love weeds as much as I love to garden. Sometimes those two loves are in conflict with one another, other times they’re in harmony. My desire to learn more about weeds, along with other forms of backyard horticulture led me to Vanessa Smith, an agriculturalist, artist and arts administrator who is the exhibition programmer at The Presidents Gallery at Harold Washington College. Vanessa recently gave a workshop/lecture on the history of house plants and their culinary and medical uses at Cobalt Studio as part of the latter’s Hecho en Casa/Home Made exhibition. Unfortunately I only learned of the talk after the fact, but so eager was I to talk weeds with Vanessa, I asked her if she’d engage in a longer conversation with me about weeds, plants, backyard chicken and bee-keeping and a whole host of other projects she’s involved in, and she generously agreed.
Claudine Ise: You’re interested in narrative, specifically in narratives related to plants – the stories we tell each other about plant life, and how those stories help to keep certain heirloom fruits alive, and maybe even help restore varietals that have been “lost”. Can you talk about the importance of story-telling to (for lack of a better term) plant-growing and cultivation in general?
Vanessa Smith: Stories give importance and connections to the food that we eat so that we are not only getting our daily food, but we are linking ourselves to our past and to other people. The experience of hearing a story can shift our understanding of the past. So doing, it shifts our lives in the present and the future. This can apply to stories of any subject, and in fact all stories blend many subjects, but here I am most concerned with stories about plants, particularly food plants and plants considered weeds. The “story” of these plants could include their origination, who first named them and why they were named that, how they were used, what family or group used them, an aside about anything involving the plant, and etc. But it isn’t just about this data that could be compiled into a spreadsheet. The experience of eating or growing or even walking past something that has significance will change the way you eat, grow and walk past other things.
CI: I am always wanting to know the names of the different weeds that come up in my backyard or I encounter while taking walks. How did you start learning about those plants that are typically identified as ‘weeds’? What are some good ways for people to learn more about these types of plants?
VS: I first learned about them by working on my parent’s farm, especially in their vegetable garden. Weeds were simply identified by their out of place-ness, that they didn’t belong where they grew, according to what we wanted to grow. Because we were trying to grow vegetables and not weeds, I learned an antagonistic relationship to weeds. The way I thought about them started to change with the short time I spent with a forager. He made his modest living by driving his used Toyota through the dirt roads of southern Minnesota to find wild edibles that he could sell to restaurants in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I accompanied him once out of curiosity, and it really opened my eyes to pay attention to the plants growing on the margins. When you are foraging, you look for something in particular, but in the wildness of where you are looking you always notice a plant you aren’t expecting. I also did a few weed-centered workshops and forages with Nance Klehm in Chicago, which increased my attention to the ecology of the urban landscape.
The most ideal situation to learn about plants is from someone who can show you what is what in the place where they are growing so you can get a sense of its whole environment. Outside of that, there are many books and websites that can be helpful, I don’t have specific recommendations, but look up “wild plant identification books” online or at a library. Many have ways to guide the search by leaf shape or flower color and shape. I think it easy to get overwhelmed with all the plants out there. Perhaps it would be helpful advice to just identify one or two plants and learn about them, find them in different places, observe their changes through a season.
In identifying plants, the more you learn, the more connections you can make between related plants, wild or domesticated. And there are many connections to make – for example, wild lettuce is a very common weed in Chicago. The endless varieties of lettuce that are grown all started with that wild plant.
CI: I’m really interested in the cultural processes by which a plant comes to be identified as a weed. What makes a weed a weed? Is it the plant’s tendency towards rampant, spreading growth? Or it’s lack of flowers (although many weeds bear flowers)? I’m also interested in the status of plants that are sort of in-between being the kind you garden-cultivate and weeds – like lamb’s ear, lemon balm or spider wort. I have all three of these in my backyard right now which I planted or kept (or transplanted) specifically because I like them so much. What are some of your favorite weeds? How easy is it to grow them as houseplants? Can you provide those of us who are interested in this with a few “how to” steps/tips that you shared during your urban foraging session/lecture at Cobalt?
VS: “Weed” is a very relative term – it is a word used to denote a plant out of place. It can refer to a plant that is an invasive species – one that spreads quickly and out-competes native plants because it doesn’t have any evolutionary checks to its growth. Most of the invasions are from the hands of people – due to bringing the plants in for food, medicine or cultural reasons and then they escape from the garden and run wild. Many weed-empathizers say that the best way to eradicate weeds is to love them to death. Imagine what our dandelion-filled lawns would look like if everyone were edging in on the spring greens for salads, the blossoms for dandelion wine, and the roots for roasted dandelion root coffees!
For the project at Cobalt space, which was a group show and performance program on the topic of “home,” I foraged for some commonly found weeds in empty lots and along railroad tracks and brought them into the space in pots. I wanted to give the weeds the value of houseplants by the simple act of bringing them inside. It was also interesting to confuse the distinctions of domesticated and wild. I gave a tour of them to talk about their history and some uses that they have.
One of the plants I had at Cobalt that I am most fascinated with at the moment is Japanese Knotweed, or Polygonum cuspidatum. It was brought in to this country from Japan as an ornamental plant (probably under the name Japanese Bamboo to market it, though it is unrelated to bamboo) and for erosion control because it grows quickly. It is spreading rapidly now and is very hard to eradicate, even using chemical control. It is an interesting plant because of its initial desirability as an ornamental, and because it has many edible parts – shoots, stems, flowers. In the spring, the first tender shoots look like asparagus, but have a tart, rhubarb flavor. The plant contains high amounts of resveratrol, an antioxidant that is also found in wine.
I don’t keep many houseplants, domesticated or wild, because I don’t have great light in my living space, but I am incorporating weeds into my backyard garden where I can. The first weed I deliberately planted was stinging nettle, or itch weed as I grew up calling it. I remember being a kid of maybe 4 years or so just walking through a patch of it and it stinging my bare legs. I was scared and in pain, not knowing what was happening, so all I could do was cry. My mom was close by and she scooped me up, took me to the house and washed my skin with soap to soothe the sting. I learned from Nance’s workshops how valuable this plant is despite its tendency to cause skin irritation! The plant contains many minerals and it makes a delicious simple tea.
Weeds are so resilient that if given the opportunity, whether it is in a pot in your apartment or in a sidewalk crack, they will give it their best effort to grow. Sun is the major consideration, though, if you wanted to create a wilderness in your apartment. They should have as much sun as possible. I don’t know how difficult it would be, but I love the idea. In one respect the commonly kept houseplants are selected because they are very forgiving if they don’t get constant attention, and this describes weeds as well!
CI: You also keep bees and chickens in your backyard. I’m curious about how Chicagoans are able to keep chickens in their backyards, given our climate. What does a person need to be able to keep backyard chickens safely and humanely in terms of space needs, chicken coop construction, etc.? What do you do during winter or periods of extreme heat?
VS: I do keep chickens in my backyard, but I keep bees on my friend’s rooftop and at an orchard outside of Chicago. The chickens do well in the wintertime, given that they have plenty of food, access to unfrozen water, and a dry, draft-free living space. The essential need is a good coop structure, and access to dirt is great if possible. It feels more natural for hens to have access to dirt, but there are a number of great examples of people keeping chickens in Chicago in unconventional spaces like the balcony of a condominium or a rooftop. In some Chicago backyards, soil contamination, the major one being lead, is an issue, so care should be taken in regards to this because chickens end up eating a lot of soil as they scratch around looking for bugs and small rocks to help their digestion. There are some great sources of information on chicken keeping in the Chicago Chicken Enthusiast Google Group moderated by Martha Boyd of Angelic Organics Learning Center.
CI: Tell me about your work with the Chicago Rarities Orchard Project (CROP) and what the group is trying to accomplish. How long will it take for the trees to grow large enough to bear fruit?
VS: We are a group of six people from different backgrounds working to establish a community rare-fruit orchard in Chicago. Our focus will be mostly apples, some pears, apricots, plums, nectarines, peaches, and some lesser-known fruits like paw paws and medlars. All the fruits will be heirloom varieties, to increase awareness of crop diversity and to popularize these specific varieties. We are working with the city of Chicago towards securing a lot in Logan Square for the orchard. The site plan includes space for the orchard as well as planters along the sidewalks and a large public plaza.
It is a longer-term project – while we have been creating trees of these hard-to-find varieties ourselves by grafting for the last three years, we probably won’t see any fruit for the first three years of having the trees in the ground in the Logan Square site.
CI: And how about the Pedestrian Project that you and Alberto Aguilar are starting at the President’s Gallery at Harold Washington College, and the Green Roof Project that Harold Washington College is initiating?
VS: Pedestrian Project is the new branding of the collaboration at Harold Washington College between programming of the President’s Gallery, which I run, and the Visiting Artist Program, which Alberto runs. We both work out of the Art and Architecture Department there, and bring in artists for gallery exhibitions, lectures, workshops and residencies.
A dozen “Earthbox” planter boxes were donated to the college to grow vegetables in, and I was asked to plant in them a few weeks ago. There are long-term plans for permanent green roof development that would involve greenhouses and outdoor classrooms for which they are still raising money and getting support, but they wanted to get started with what they could in the short term. We got started late in the growing season, and if there is a sizeable harvest, we will give it to a community service organization that has a fresh market for low-income families. We are going to connect the programming of Pedestrian Project to the planters on the roof in an exhibition next spring that will be of ecologically- focused art and events. Stay tuned!
CI: You’ll be in residence at Karolina Gnatowski’s apartment space in Chicago this year. I know you’re still in the conceptual stages, but is there anything you can share about what you’re planning? How long will the residency last?
VS: The residency will be a few weeks from mid September through the beginning of October. The residency project is called WorkWork and it is about collaborations based in her home studio. I will hold a dinner event, which will be a potluck encouraging people to bring a foraged dish or a dish that has a narrative of significance to them. I also want to help Karolina and her partner find a system that works for them to compost their kitchen waste. An earlier resident, Daniel Lavitt, created a mobile book-making station with Karolina, so it will be tempting to do an artist book, or short-edition multiple around the themes I have been working with. A continuation of the houseplants project started at Cobalt will be there in some form as well!
All photos are courtesy of Vanessa Smith.
This week: We wrap up our series of presentations of recordings from Monique Meloche Gallery’s Winter Experiment with Shannon Stratton talking to Ben Fain.