Guest post by Thea Liberty Nichols
Email interview conducted with Erik Wenzel
Erik Wenzel deals with interdisciplinary art making, writing and exhibition organizing. He co-edited and contributed to Internal Necessity: a reader tracing the inner logics of the contemporary art field published by Sternberg Press in 2010, and has contributed a piece to the forthcoming Shifter17: Re___ing. Recent solo exhibitions include Live A Little, Live Ennui at the President’s Gallery at Harold Washington College, New ‘N’ Lonelier Laze and Warm For Your Formalism at DOVA temporary and Belief in Doubt in Painting at 65GRAND. Wenzel is a Senior Staff Writer for ArtSlant and has run Art or Idiocy? since 2004.
TLN: I remember around the opening of your solo show at DOVA you mentioned a listing in a local serial publication that described you using your “least favorite” descriptors strung together, i.e. Local Artist and Critic. Care to elaborate?
EW: The exact phrase from Time Out Chicago was: “Wenzel, a local artist and critic who’s a U. of Chicago alum, conjures a show from a deliberately sparse ‘collection of things’: a new video and some objects.” Which is basically a great description. I guess thinking about it now it’s not that big of a deal, but it bothered me because “a local artist and critic” seems so diminutive. “Local” sounds so small town and shut off from the rest of the world. Like a little newspaper for a little suburb that writes only to the interests and concerns of “locals”. It bothered me because it ties into a bigger problem with art in Chicago in general: the local is monumentalized. It’s privileged to the point of becoming a kind of provincial isolationism. This is a big international city, there’s no reason to have such an insular mentality.
As far as “critic” I kind of bristle at that term because I never have identified myself through that role. To me the word has negative connotations, people use it as a put down, like you aren’t even a writer, you’re just a critic. Or a critic is a failed artist, failed writer, failed musician etc. Sure it’s just semantics to a certain extent. But you do constantly ask yourself, “are you an artist who writes or a writer that makes art? Or maybe you should give up making art and just write about it.” It was actually during the installation of that exhibition, “New ‘N’ Lonelier Laze”, that I finally arrived at a definitive answer to that question. It is one of those things that you might know intellectually, but have to internalize over time before you truly believe it. It is clear to me that I am an artist first and foremost, everything else stems from that.
TLN: So if I’m understanding you right, can you tell us how you’ve absorbed writing into art practice? I’ve certainly seen some work by you that’s text based, or more conceptually driven— is that related at all to the other writing you do for say ARTslant or your blog?
EW: I guess I’ll give a little history here. While I’ve drawn and made stuff as long as I can remember, it was in high school when I began to develop my art making along side my writing. I was fortunate to go to a really amazing public school (Homewood Flossmoor HS, in the South suburbs) that had a pretty extensive art program. We basically had to write research papers that pertained to the projects we were working on, both of which only got more rigorous over the four years.
So the writing has always sort of been there. Things have been compartmentalized though; I think of writing about art was separate from making it. Which again goes back to what I was saying about understanding something versus actually feeling it. In theory it would make sense to say that this is all my art practice, but for me there is a distinction. Especially the writing for ArtSlant, which is pretty much straight up criticism. I look at it in a bit of a schizophrenic way because at various times–quite often within one review–I feel like I am coming from the position of a maker, an historian/critic or as someone making meaning. I consider them, the best ones anyway, to be primary sources. Ideally they will be of historical value beyond just a line for the CV and a clipping for the press book. I am interested in participating in the history–as someone writing about contemporary art, not just making it. Especially with “emerging” artist’s who don’t yet have a discourse surrounding them, you can sort of start that conversation. And in that way I hope they are of use to future curators, artists and thesis writers–anyone doing research, to use that popular term.
I guess the criticism could be looked at aesthetically. It is controlling and assigning meaning. I think the way information moves around is one of the most important concerns for art because this is really what contemporary life is about right now, economically, politically, culturally and socially. And art is the one thing that allows us to look at any thing in any way and ask any question of it. So that would be where a piece like the Bullet Point’s About Art comes in, it’s a set of memes that attempt to define some edges of the art field. It can take the form of vinyl lettering on a museum wall or as a sound piece. Bullet points can be added, deleted, re-written and so-on. It’s not just about the content of each statement, it’s about trying to present ideas as material. And addressing the fact that ideas change as they go through the world and move through time.
At this moment I look at my practice, to use another popular term, as a constellation of activities that include art and the things around art.
TLN: To that end, can we close with having you tell us a little bit about a project you completed last summer, Internal Necessity? Also, what’s next on your horizon?
EW: I feel like this is the late night talk show portion of the interview. Please welcome to the program Erik Wenzel, his new book is out now from Sternberg Press.
The book Internal Necessity came out of the Sommerakademie residency I was a part of at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland in 2009. Each year a different curator is invited to put together the program. The year I did it Tirdad Zolghadr was the curator.
The tenor was very conversation-oriented with numerous guests leading discussions as well as us fellows presenting our work and projects. As it progressed we (the fellows in the residency) felt that these conversations–which carried over to dinner or riding on the bus the next morning–were valuable, especially since certain things kept coming up.
We also wanted to make something tangible and lasting of the experience since Tirdad had forgone the usual exhibition that is a part of the Sommerakadamie. This decision was what ultimately allowed these exchanges to take place. I think we were a lot more open to each other’s ideas and practices without the pressure of making some kind of exhibition out of it. Tirdad described his take on the notion of Internal Necessity, which is the “conceptual jingle” he came up with for his Sommerakademie, as being a productive break from the cycle of externally motivated art activities, such as exhibition making, fairs and biennials, where practitioners are expected to present product, not work in progress. The residency provided a time that could be used for contemplation rather than to display a polished surface. An intensive academy provides a special isolated situation ideal for being used as a sounding board to get input and feedback.
So a little ironically we, came up with the idea of a book. Not as a memory book, or a catalogue, but something that would be a forum to continue the thoughts that had been developing organically. We got together one night in the dining room of a gasthoff on the side of a mountain in Appenzell and hashed things out. There seemed to be four main themes that kept cropping up: Withdrawal/Refusal, Free time/Work time, Im/material Labor and Specificity. Originally we were going to organize the book into sections, but everything kept bleeding into everything else. To expand the discourse we all had the option of inviting people from outside the residency to participate. Some contributed separate pieces, others collaborated with their guests.
The whole experience furthered a profound shift in my approach to art—art making, “art” as a whole and my identity as someone who is in “art”. For a while I have been noticing that social interaction–I guess verbal interpersonal communication–is really important to me. It is almost a studio practice. When I am participating in a really good conversation I feel like I am making art. This can be a casual thing, such as when you are at a party and a few people end up talking for a long time about something everyone is interested in. Or it can be more formalized such as with the Sommerakademie. It’s a kind of immaterial production and is connected into my interest in information, content and value, all of which are things today that are completely dematerialized at the same time behaving very much like a physical material. Or can at least be conceptualized in sculptural raw material way. It’s something I’m working through and thinking about, so I can’t really give you a definitive statement. Right now I am trying to sort out a way where it makes sense for there to be these specific immaterial things going on at the same time art objects are getting made.
To that end, I organized a series of talks called Evening Academies as part of my exhibition at the Harold Washington College. The idea was to have a slightly formal, slightly casual situation where invited guests could present a topic for conversation. It was extremely important to me that it be productive and not an aestheticization of social interaction. Equally it was important that it was not oriented toward achieving a specific goal or again, presenting a complete package. I am interested in situations where useful things take place but are not immediately relevant or are only tangentially relevant. This is how things grow, evolve and move. This goes back to what I was saying before about information and how it moves through the world.
Thea Liberty Nichols is an arts administrator, independent curator and freelance writer.