Critical Regionalism

May 26, 2011 · Print This Article

"A Map lacking boundaries" by Matthew Friday, the first mail art project published by Regional Relationships

I received my first work from Regional Relationships, a project started by artists Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis, in the mail a couple months ago: a small package containing a tube of paint made from acid mine drainage by artist Matthew Friday, diagrams of the Appalachian watershed systems, and some accompanying paint brushes and a quill pen to presumably put it to use. I’m really excited about this kind of platform for distributing art, partly because I’m currently obsessed with art subscriptions that work like CSAs, but also because I imagine that for artists like Sarah, Ryan and Matthew that are engaged with a research-based art practice, typical exhibition venues don’t always make the most sense. And in knowing their other collaborations and projects, like Temporary Travel Office and the Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor, where a place-based inquiry that may have nothing to do with art per se then gets exhibited or represented in art contexts, it seems a pretty open question as to what actually would make sense. So I asked them to humor me and let me interview them, in the hope that I could draw out some of the spaces that they do indeed see as active sites of exchange for their practice.

A little about them: “Regional Relationships commissions artists, scholars, writers and activists to create works that investigate the natural, industrial and cultural landscapes of a region. It is a platform to re-imagine the spaces and cultural histories around us. An invitation to join in seeing what we can learn—and learning what we can see—by juxtaposing spaces and narratives that are usually kept apart.”

AS: How did Regional Relationships start?

RR: Maybe 4-5 years ago, there were several conversation happening amongst different constellations of people about the need to seriously think about cultural production outside of urban, metropolitan centers. We don’t know how they got started and weren’t even that involved in them at the time. A few initial conversations we remember involved Daniel Tucker, Nato Thompson, Dan S. Wang and Sarah Kanouse. A lot of these discussions seemed to be coming from a need to rethink what it means to be a cultural producer in small(er) towns and in a manner that doesn’t just translate into making work on “the margins” for an audience in the center. Around this same time, another series of related discussions and activities coalesced, involving some of the same participants and some others, that focused on the potential for political and cultural activity across the mythical geography known as the midwest. This idea came to be called, half tongue-in-cheek, “The Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor.” We don’t remember exactly who coined this odd place name, but initial participants were Brett Bloom, Bonnie Fortune, Brian Holmes, Claire Pentecost, Nick Brown, Dan Wang, Sarah Kanouse, Sarah Lewison, Mike Wolf, Amy Partridge, Matthias Reagen and ourselves. This group would eventually expand and operate under the name “Compass.” The desire for something like Regional Relationships was developing parallel and in concert with these activities for us. At first, we thought it would manifest as a space and residency program, but after spending much time refining our desires and thinking through logistics, a space wasn’t the right direction. We should also note that our thinking was greatly aided by consultations with Sharon Irish, an Urbana-based writer, activist, scholar and long-time collaborator on many things.

AS: How do you select artists? Do you work with artists that already have a project that you want to disseminate or is it a commissioning process?

RR: Our selection process is really driven by our mission, which we’ll explain more later. Right now, that translates into us approaching people who are already doing work that intersects with that mission. It doesn’t mean that the specific form of the project is already complete, as that’s part of what we hope to facilitate—the production and dissemination of original creative, scholarly and political work that doesn’t fit easily into current conventional institutions. That said, it is mostly a commissioning process, even if the conceptual aspect of the project is done, we’re asking contributors to create something that can be distributed as multiples. Our goal is to distribute 2 mailings per year.

AS: Tell me about the projects you’ve done so far. What’s coming up next?

RR: Our first mailing is the project “A Map Without Boundaries” by artist Matthew Friday. We knew about Matthew’s work through his involvement in the collective Spurse and through his participation in an exhibition that Sarah co-curated in 2010 for Spaces in Cleveland (titled “In a Most Dangerous Manner”). Our interest in ideas of “regionalism” and the work we had been doing with Compass resonated with him and the work of many of his colleagues at Ohio University who had been developing a working group calling itself the Critical Regionalism Initiative. We had been in contact with Matthew since that exhibition and he had a couple of project ideas that seemed a perfect way to launch Regional Relationships. “A Map Without Boundaries” ended up being the one that we distributed, which we are very excited about. The project presents a prompt for those receiving it to locate themselves in an ecology where human actions (industry, water use, labor practices) combine with the actions of various non-humans (minerals, streams, bacteria) to produce the world we live in, what Matthew calls an “entangled collective.” It sounds like a simple suggestion, but it becomes obvious that most of us don’t think this way, otherwise we wouldn’t be so surprised when our actions produce unintended consequences. Matthew presents a pretty specific way to consider this through the material of acid mine drainage, a yellow, toxic soup of sulfur hydroxide that is produced when bacteria release sulfur from digested coal remnants in the many flooded abandoned mines of the Appalachian hills. Using a technique developed by an environmental engineer at OU (Dr. Guy Riefer), Matthew converted this toxic substance into a non-toxic pigment. RR01, our first mailing, contains a small tube of paint made from this pigment that recipients are encouraged to use to draw representations of their own ecosystems, including themselves. Matthew’s provocation, one we’re happy to facilitate, is to produce interpretations and understandings of these entanglements that lead to more responsible and inclusive decision making.

RR02 will be produced with Claire Pentecost and involves her research into the genetic pollution of corn stocks in Mexico by US-produced genetically engineered corn. Further down the road, we are producing a self-directed series of videos and documents in collaboration with Faranak Miriftab, an urban planning scholar at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This work is an attempt to visualize and narrate some of the complex realities experienced by new and long-time residents and workers in a small town on the Illinois River.

AS: What’s the infrastructure of RR like, are the subscription fees your only source of income?

RR: We were lucky to receive a generous start-up grant from Opensource Art, a non-profit project that started in Champaign, IL. That covered a large part of realizing and distributing RR01. Right now, subscriptions are our only Regional Relationships-specific income, but we also pay for things out of wages from our jobs. We incorporated Regional Relationships as a business partnership, solely for the purposes of separating income and expenses from our own finances, which also means that money can be received by Regional Relationships, rather than going through personal accounts. We may eventually apply for grants, but right now, we would like to keep our scale and ambitions rather modest, fulfilling our mission through a combination of subscriptions, self-financing or other contributions. To be clear, we don’t expect to cover our expenses solely through subscriptions. We are shooting to cover mailing expenses and some portion of production costs through subscriptions.

AS: Who do you see as the audience for the project and who do you want to reach out to with it?

RR: Our goal is to have a core, consistent subscription base while simultaneously distributing to a changing and project-specific group of recipients. That core is likely to consist of a demographic with ties to cultural and educational establishments, but we also want to reach out to publics that might have a stake in specific projects. In that sense, we actively want to engage with publics whom we intersect with through shared interests and concerns. Our contributors will likely play a large role in identifying and connecting with different constituencies. Part of the excitement for us is making connections across concerns that are related in many ways, but don’t always occupy the same intellectual or political space.

AS: Why a subscription project? Are there other subscription projects that you were thinking about as models? How do you think this method of dissemination affects the relationship between the audience and the artist? Is there more direct engagement with this kind of process?

RR: We don’t really have a great answer to the subscription question, and we didn’t set out initially to produce a subscription-based project. We didn’t even set out to distribute multiples, and definitely don’t consider Regional Relationships to be a publication or magazine-like effort. So, we haven’t really thought much about or researched subscription or mail art projects as models, although we are aware of many contemporary and historical examples.When our earlier considerations of starting a physical space led us to reconsidering what we wanted to do, and what we thought would be useful, the idea of bringing things and ideas to the people we wanted to talk with directly became very attractive. We thought, “What if we commission things that we can get into peoples’ hands?” Asking for a subscription just seems like a direct way of asking people to support a project if they are interested in it. Whether this increases direct engagements with the work is maybe not exactly the question we asked ourselves. It is a different relationship we are seeking between the projects and those receiving them, compared with what happens in an exhibition space. The kind of physical space we’re interested in discussing is diffuse and permeable, so it makes sense to distribute work in a way that realizes that.

We’re not interested in these mailings being “collectible” precious objects per se, but we do want to make connections with recipients through aesthetics. So, if people want to “collect” things, that’s OK too, but it’s important for us to make sure that the project doesn’t become one defined by collectibility, or contained solely within an art context.

AS: Can you talk more about your ideas of regionalism and why it’s important to you? Is there a relationship between that idea and then the methodology you’re using to disseminate the works? And you both make a lot of work with that kind of regional focus, is this project part of your art practice? Is this part of building The Midwest Radical Cultural Corridor?

RR: To answer the last two questions first: yes.

As we described above, part of the reason for mailing stuff to people directly has to do with the kind of space we are interested in. One of our primary goals is to distribute, document and produce knowledge about lived space, knowledges that don’t always abide by political boundaries and traditional delineations of place. We want to connect the project we distribute to other people and organizations (i.e. farmers, environmentalist, queer activists, immigrants), who often have stake in or otherwise take up similar concerns, but in different ways. To clarify an earlier point, our interest in multiples comes from a desire to interface with dispersed audiences, rather than some other impulse to make copies of things or something like that. It’s not about “democratizing” the art object, since we’re not trying to privilege that kind of relationship with the projects to begin with.

Much of our thinking on “regionalism” is indebted to our Compass collaborators, as well as many other artists, writers, activists and geographers. Someone like geographer Neil Smith, for example, who has written about the mostly mythical divide between “town” and “country”, “urban” and “rural” in late capitalist society. Taking a regional view allows for a recognition of dependencies and entanglements across places that are otherwise defined as specific entities. We should be clear that we’re not adhering to any orthodox formulation of “regionalism.” For us, it’s simply a useful shift in scale that is flexible enough to include small, contiguous geographies as well as vast and distant locales. The Italian critical architects Multiplicity have produced a body of work based on “border devices,” where they use metaphors to describe the different ways that borders function. For example, they discuss how a particular border region might function like a funnel, or how a “fold” can occur that connects two non-contiguous places on either side of a border. These kinds of ideas are important to us, as they open up spaces for action that we may have not been able to see before.

We also see regional thinking as something that can more productively deal with the problems of disciplines. This is something we’re still figuring out, but we think that knowledge regimes, like disciplines, are governed somewhat like spatial regimes. Our desire to reproduce responsive, non-orthodox understandings of lived space is complimented by a simultaneous desire to recognize different forms of knowledge production and reception– without trying to synthesize them into a muddy interdisciplinarity. In other words, we’re not trying to find the right combination of disciplines to build ever-more expert bodies of knowledge. A “regional” body of knowledge, for us, isn’t simply geographic, but takes into account the connections and differences in how we understand and create place. Matthew Friday, in his project for RR01, puts it well when he writes, “Interpretation is a form of engagement that produces the world as intelligible.” Producing interpretations that foreground engagement is something we’re very interested in.

Dudley Farms, Inc, combines harvesting hybrid corn outside Pleasant Plains, IL

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