Working on Non-Work: A Conversation with Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen

November 27, 2013 · Print This Article

CampCARPA, Joshua Tree, October 2013

CampCARPA, Joshua Tree, October 2013

I first met Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen as they were carting a tank of helium into the desert. The Portland-based collaborative had been deployed to Camp CARPA by The Craft Advanced Research Projects Agency to distribute airborne leaflet propaganda on the unsuspecting town on Joshua Tree, CA. Their project, Instead of Pleading Up: Improvised Airdrops and the Seizure of the Vertical, employed gratuitous slingshots and cheerful party balloons as vehicles to distribute their collateral. Historically used to threaten, bribe, and confuse enemy lines, Anna + Ryan’s dissemination drew from the festive, confetti-like tactics used by the military in order to subvert and counter the message. Instead of Pleading Up opened up vertical airspace for democratic participation both literally and conceptually. The project reflected on past (and present) histories and dominant ideologies while simultaneously building a counter-narrative that was produced by the structures of power—activating agency from within—opposed to creating a position from the ineffectual site of binary opposition.

Much of Anna + Ryan’s artistic practice intervenes within the language of prevailing systems in order re-imagine them otherwise. Often leveraging the visual and conceptual language of play, their work is cheeky and unassuming, drawing you in with a collective laugh, and retaining your attention with its poignant bite. Targeting systems of labor and production, artistic value, and academia, their work unpacks the undeniable shittiness of the current moment with a holistic approach to art making and life building that resonates with Julia Bryan-Wilson’s notion of occupational realism, defined as the collapse of waged labor and art to give rise to art practices that raise “questions about the potential strategic or operational value of precarity: its capacity to redefine social relations, aesthetic and affective production, and class structures.”

Anna + Ryan function as a truly united collaborative. Their work, life, and art are bound together by their shared home/studio, adjunct teaching gig, and three-year-old son, Calder, and their public identity is often presented as a single artist under the combined name Ryanna. This all-encompassing integration means that Anna + Ryan’s practice is inherently political. As participants within dominant systems, their activities both explicitly creative as well as mundane are constant interrogation of larger structures of knowledge and economy. Whether producing text or performance, playing pirate or pilot, Anna + Ryan, (often joined by Calder), explore the potential within ways of working, knowing, and living through active participation. Even within the very regimented space of the gallery, the collective is able to playfully package antagonism within the commercially viable object. Much like the stones wrapped in chevron friendship bracelets that they produce, Anna + Ryan skirt what could be viewed as gestures of impertinent rejection under the guise of revealing the potential within the familiar to shift one’s purview to imaginative alternatives.

I spoke with Anna + Ryan over coffee in a cavernous academic building about their most recent exhibition, A Series of Rectangles, on view at PDX Contemporary Art through November 30, 2013.


Sarah Margolis-Pineo: How did you come to make and co-produce together?

Anna Gray: We met in 2005 and we started helping each other make projects, and at some point probably around 2008, we realized that we were involved to such a degree in each other’s projects that it didn’t make any sense to continue differentiating who did what work. At that point, we decided to put all of our projects under our combined names. Now, we’re truly overlapped in terms of our teaching, our art-making, and our personal life, so there are times where we have to ask: where does our work start and family life end? Sometimes it’s a hard division, and other times, it’s not, and we want it to be.

Ryan Wilson Paulsen: Our working practices changed dramatically when we had [our son] Calder. It ended our studiomate-ness. Now we delegate the physical in-studio tasks, which changed our process of because we’re no longer as able to make decisions during the execution of a piece as easily—we’re often not producing the material work together, but that’s more true to conceptual art, I guess.

SMP: What is productive about combining this space of art—or world making—with home making?

AG: Homemaking is world-making. We devise most everything we do artistically through conversation and so doing that while all three of us are in the same space—negotiating emptying the dishwasher, pretending we’re pirates, and thinking about how to make some sort of visual work engaging labor and politics—is a particular method that can be really dynamic. I don’t know that it is a productive way of working necessarily, but we feel like there is entirely too much emphasis on production these days anyway.

RWP: For me, the chaos is invigorating, but it can also lead to frustration very quickly.

Object Lesson: Means Without End by Giorgio Agamben, 2013

Object Lesson: Means Without End by Giorgio Agamben, 2013

SMP: Your most recent exhibition, A Series of Rectangles, features work produced during a residency at the Bemis. Going into the residency, did you have a particular project in mind? How did that location inform the work that was produced there?

RWP: We wanted to continue the Object Indexes, which involve taking a text, inventorying and collecting the material objects that are mentioned, and arranging them so we can make a photograph. We knew we were going to do that going in, but we also knew that we didn’t want to go in knowing much else.

AG: I think it was important to us to be able to use the time to work on things that didn’t have a place yet. There was an openness to the experience of not making things on demand, for a particular exhibition or deadline. There was a similar openness in our experience of the landscape of Omaha that Ryan especially fell in love with. The landscape is really different than Portland, which we feel is becoming more and more over-designed architecturally and a bit claustrophobic in terms of the high level of aesthetic consideration of everything. There was a feeling of space in Omaha; firstly because we didn’t know the city, but also because there were a lot more abandoned houses and empty lots within the city, that felt full of possibility. I think that’s why we were attracted to making work with bricks and rubble—these things that are found in those places became markers of a certain destructive potential.

RWP: Omaha’s sort of like Swiss cheese and Portland is like a block of cheese. There’s no contested area here—everything is regimented and owned and marked. In Omaha, there are these neighborhoods and alleyways that were like no-mans-land. It felt more expansive. There was more potential for things to happen and for things to happen in secret.

Verb XII, 2013 (right)

Verb XII, 2013 (right)

SMP: I read this idea of potentiality in the series of cairns, Verb I – Verb XVIII. Even their titles tie them to this sense of activation. Looking at the bricks though, I didn’t intuit any real violence in the installation—disgruntlement, maybe—but I’m curious where the aggression comes in for you?

AG: The brick works, [Adjunct and Double Negative], as they are installed maybe seem more fixed, like they are saying rather than suggesting. But, we’ve thought about the Adjunct bricks functioning in accordance with a number of different motions or uses. We’ve thought about them being useful as doorstops—something to remind you whose keeping the doors open at the university. But they could also be commemorative paving stones; we could organize a brick-buy to fund raise for adjunct wage increases and benefits. We could also build our own unaccredited institution with them, or throw them through the windows of the old institution because it’s pretty fucked right now.

Double Negative, 2013

Double Negative, 2013

RWP: They could have suggested that more if they had been installed differently, but it was our decision to install them as they are—partly for visual cleanliness—but it was nice to invoke both the building up and the falling down of the institution of education by making a sort of crumbling corner. The way that they ‘re installed also makes their proportions a bit difficult to read, but it was important to us they represented the ratio of adjuncts to full-time faculty in the university system nationally, so 75% of the bricks there are inscribed ADJUNCT while the other 25% are blank.

AG: I think the aggression we feel about our positions as teachers is a complicated one because crossing through our relation with the bureaucratic education system and the aggression we feel there, is the care for students and enthusiasm for the ways that art could have a potential to make something different happen within the space of a classroom.

Adjunct, 2013

Adjunct, 2013

SMP: I didn’t realize the cataloging series was something ongoing. When did that body of work start?

AG: It started from making various text-based indexes for the same text as a way to create many ways of looking at the same thing: like an index of all the metaphors, all the colors, all the numbers etc.

RWP: It was with the color index that we began overlaying actual color fields over the text to create a visual graphic rather than a secondary text, and from there we moved into the objects.

AG: Looking at the objects authors use was particularly interesting in terms of reading philosophy. Scavenging for philosophical object lessons became really interesting to us because of the difficulty of reading that kind of material—there’s a certain level of abstraction. I would feel myself really grasping for those material examples to try and understand, and sometimes they wouldn’t be really actually be that palpable—they’re imagined or metaphorical things, and that’s where the interest in doing the object indexes and also the drawings emerged.

Installation view, courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art

Installation view, courtesy of PDX Contemporary Art

SMP: How do the photos and drawings relate?

AG: We were noticing that the speculative object examples were more interesting and evocative. For example, a knot of two concepts or something is more interesting than a knot of rope. It seemed interesting to focus on trying to render those things—literalizing them. It’s also kind of jokey. Peter Kropotkin wrote about the old institutions falling under the proletarian axe, and we got this image in our head of an axe branded proletarian on the handle. That experience told me something about the distance between our time and Kropotkin’s time. What arises in the public imagination is wildly different. The old institution of capitalism branded the axe that will be its own destruction? I don’t know, literalization always kind of makes a circle.

Under the Proletarian Axe, 2013

Under the Proletarian Axe, 2013

SMP: How did you come to the work of Simone Weil, whose pervasive reputation is as a complete crazy person?

AG: She was so frequently quoted by other writers we were reading and I was curious about her influence on other thinkers. Maybe she seems crazy cause she just hasn’t been historicized and sanitized the way that so many other writers have. She did die really young, and everything she wrote seems very forceful and maybe extreme, but I like that her writing seems of a fierce human-ness. It’s idiosyncratic and contradictory too.

RWP: We love contradiction and paradox. Giorgio Agamben and other theorists who we really love tend to define things from their paradox—everything comes down to it. And there’s another piece in the middle [of the gallery] that’s a loose sculpture with branches and an open paper book. Within the piece is the sentence “The line that runs through the middle of each of us is beginning to itch,” which is a note about the internalization of power and oppression: There’s no exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed anymore—there are no clear divisions because they’re both contained within us. We are our own worker and our own managers, especially as artists.

AG: Simone Weil has that great line about contradiction that when a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then you know it’s really a door.

Object Lesson: Void and Compensation by Simone Weil, 2013

Object Lesson: Void and Compensation by Simone Weil, 2013

SMP: Why take your process of translation as far as you do: text, to concept, to object, to image? What does the image making do for the work that is different from presenting an assemblage of the objects themselves?

AG: By photographing them we’re putting the objects in relative scale to each other within the space of a picture plane, which is relative to the space of the page. There’s a looseness to the acquisition process of the objects, sometimes they might be a bit inaccurate to the texts, but they are accurate to our reading, so putting them in an image keeps them within the symbolic or speculative realm versus being isolated and presented in their singularity and specificity as artifacts. Plus I think there is something interesting with the repetition of certain objects across different indexes of different texts. They reveal certain common metaphors, or objects that have a charge or convenience for particular authors: knots, stamps, screens, and bread for instance.

RWP: When we make an object, we’re trying to emphasize the use value of the thing—the ways it could be performed—but when we make an image, we’re encouraging its contemplative value over its use value.

Object Lesson: The Needs of the Soul by Simone Weil, 2013

Object Lesson: The Needs of the Soul by Simone Weil, 2013

SMP: Has this interest in cataloging and creating systems been something resonant throughout your practice?

AG: Definitely. Part of that is an interest in understanding how knowledge is organized and how those systems can tell you something about power and perception and tools during different times. I think we’re interested more and more, along with everyone else, in how power obscures and encloses certain kinds of knowledge and information.

SMP: You also tend to serialize. What is your motivation to work in series?

AG: Maybe it’s a defense mechanism. You can get away with more if you are presenting 100 of something than if you are presenting 3 of something. But it kind of goes back to this thing of play. If you allow yourself the number 100 and make as many variations as you can within that set, you’ve given yourself a useful bounded arena where you can experiment and stretch or break the rules of the original form or concept. For us, the true play happens within a space that is somewhat systematized, or organized by a given form but then we get to warp the system, interrupt it or evolve it through use.

RWP: In some ways, our tendency to serialize is lamely idiosyncratic and not worth talking about. We’re fidget-ers and totally anxious and creating multiples is a way to give us something to do outside of the conceptual work.

AG: Yeah, maybe…Everywhere Ryan went for the last three months he was knotting cotton for the friendship bracelets.

RWP: Well, if I wasn’t doing that I’d be chain smoking.

Verb XVII, 2013

Verb XVII, 2013

SMP: I think there are many makers out there who can relate there, and it is interesting this idea of balancing out the rigor of your conceptual work with the ritualized monotony of creating craft-based objects. Has craft and this particular way of making been something consistently present in your work?

AG: It’s always been there, but at the same time, half of us is always talking about how we wouldn’t make the work if we didn’t have to—if we could get someone else to do it. But it’s really important to me, because doing the teaching and the conceptual/pragmatic side of the work we do at the same time is really exhausting. It’s really nice to have a craft-based alteration from that kind of thinking and planning—craft-based in that you’re following a set of steps to produce an expected product, which gives you an opportunity to think and make and move at the same time.

RWP: Things made by hand are cool right now because we largely don’t have them.  People can connect with something made by hand precisely because they notice its absence in their day-to-day life.

SMP: We’re still in this place culturally though being so distanced from systems of production that the unassuming gallery go-er wouldn’t necessarily equate the traditional chevron and rainbow-patterned friendship bracelet with something handmade.

RWP: But in that case, it doesn’t really matter because so many of us have the associations of what friendship bracelets signify from grade school and summer camp—we all understand that it’s something we make, and not something we keep but give away. The idea to make them for this project came out of another text, Beyond Predicates, which talks about the revolutionary cells of today. We no longer have the party, the union, or the guerrilla army, we have the clique and the gang, which are based on friendship and have the potential to produce mass change. We started thinking about that—this very insurrectional text—and about weaponizing friendship in that way. Or friendship-izing weapons. A friendship is a certain formulation where like-mindedness is not a precondition for friendships. My friendships are my most diverse body of relationships.

We Already Quit, 2013 (left), Working on non-work, 2013 (right)

We Already Quit, 2013 (left), Working on non-work, 2013 (right)

SMP: I know that your work tends to be heavily text-based and cheeky, but the bricks and the towel piece, We Already Quit, don’t have a lot of subtlety to them.

AG: Maybe they are less subtle in relation to each other. We Already Quit has multiple meanings, but the piece gets a lot more specified in the context it’s in right now, and with our two names on the wall opposite. We’re saying we already quit for a lot of reasons. One idea we had about that statement was about the inability to stop participating. You can’t really quit working, there are really no ways of opting out, and fewer ways of choosing alternatives within the expansive network of global capitalism because we are all so dependent on the system that is exploiting us. So you can have quit already, but you’ll still be here participating and maybe even looking professional while you do it.

And the systems and ethics around work, especially in this country, are really detrimental and limiting. We titled that banner Working Towards Non-Work, as we are trying to find a vocabulary for working and artistic activity that isn’t about productive ends, but about positively reproductive ones. There’s a lot expected of artists at this point in terms of levels of productivity in academia, in shaping the quirk and brand of a city, in participating nationally or internationally as a creative contributor, and in maintaining an exhibition and/or studio practice. How are other artists managing this workload, which by its very design seems to prevent the best work from being made?

RWP: Alternatively, that statement could be about the tendency to treat struggle as something one tries for awhile along with youthful idealism but then gives up for a form of rationality later in life. Like: “yeah…we used to use cloth diapers, but it was just too much so we quit and disposables are so much easier.” Power makes certain things easier for a reason.

Can These Antiques Ever Prove Dangerous Again?, 2012

Can These Antiques Ever Prove Dangerous Again?, 2012

SMP: I’m wondering if you can unpack your project statement for this exhibition: nothing can be what it is anymore.

RWP: First of all, that came together very quickly. It was one of those cases where we were approached about the show and they needed the title and statement in a couple days. It can be as simple as it sounds: Everything has implications that transform it, and nothing can be what it once was or what it seems.

AG: We also thought about it in terms of societal norms. We make norms and we operate with norms as a form of language and judgment and coping and ease. But it’s important to be constantly suspending those norms in order to question them, reassert them in a more egalitarian or positive way, or to do away with them all together. I think it really has been since Calder was born that we both paused and were like: do we really want to accept these forms of normal? It suddenly was urgent to re-articulate what we hoped and envisioned for the world our kid and kid’s kids might inhabit, and the first step is in understanding how to analyze the world we are currently living in.

That’s somewhat selfish and personal, but our lives are not just our lives anymore, and having Calder has made more sensible the extension of my life by years, because I’m now bodily connected to subsequent generations and it is up to me to pass on a particular representation of the possibilities and actualities of the world.


SMP: There are moments in cultural history where the trueness of reality can be stripped away and platforms like imagination and fiction become all the more poignant as venues to open up potential for what can be otherwise. For me, nothing can be what it is anymore, invokes the idea of a clean slate, and I’m wondering if you can speak to how you leverage imagination and fiction within an art making practice that is simultaneously very critical?

RWP: We talk about imagination in contrast to creativity a lot—creativity being tied to production and imagination not necessarily so. This is something that’s important to us and we’re still trying to think about. When imaginative work is not tied to any type of production there’s a way that we’re able to let ourselves improvise that’s not predicated on some type of rational logic.  In the absence of this rational logic–which we see as a justification system developed alongside an exploitative economic structure—there is the chance that we might make astounding intellectual leaps.

AG: The other thing about making the distinction between those two terms is that creativity is a word that’s been highly corrupted and used interchangeably with words like innovation, or alongside words like entrepreneurship, which are very much in the service of profit. And this is where ideas like anti-work and the suspension of productive ends becomes really important. And to be perfectly frank, I don’t feel like I’m very good at the work of imagining. Ryan has a better imagination than I do in so many ways, and I think that there’s an interest in making work around those notions because I feel particularly deficient. I watch our son too and wonder: how does he do it?

SMP: Does humor come into most of what you do and how are you using it?

RWP: As a coping mechanism.

AG: Desperation…or as a way to make things easier for a viewer, or sometimes not intentionally. Most of the drawings are literalist jokes, but they weren’t all intended as such—it’s just an inclination that we have. But there’s also maybe humor or at least frivolity in, for example, our use of bright party balloons to drop militarized leaflets versus using a weather balloon or something more scientific, because there’s something catching at a first glance.

RWP: The balloons say: this artwork wants to have fun with me, so I’ll take a second look at it. Also, the Adjunct bricks are intended to be funny, and when you make a joke with an artwork and the viewer gets it, there’s a base of camaraderie because you’ve shared something—this inside joke.

Don't Worry, We'll Fix It, 2011

Don’t Worry, We’ll Fix It, 2011

SMP: What are your thoughts on social practice, specifically, how it’s been canonized and how your work is often categorized as such?

AG: I have a slight revulsion to the term because it seemed to originate as if it didn’t have a history or precedence, and because it seems like a weird redundancy or something.

RWP: I’m not interested in participating in the fixing of subjects…But I think Claire Bishop sort of had it right when she said that if you’re going to engage in this type of practice you’re going to be looked at aesthetically as well as socially, so you have to deal with that.

AG: Basically, what she’s calling for is an evaluation of art that is based on ethics as well as aesthetics and that combination seems so important in terms of any kind of critique you’re going to bring to an artwork. I also appreciate how she is often evaluating why certain works are happening in our particular historical moment, rather than trying to assess whether they are good or bad. But, going back to the term social practice I think it can be a useful classification to identify certain inclinations or tendencies or methodologies that have taken hold. We see how in our present moment those tendencies point to specific lacks in the world at large—social lacks—and there’s been lots of words to describe them from alienation and isolation, to disenchantment, disenfranchisement, or the loss of the commons. The point is that people largely feel that they can’t represent themselves politically or socially or even if they can, they’re misrecognized or ignored. It makes sense that social practice projects emphasize building relationships, sharing economies, and alternative structures in a world where those things are being more over-determined and enclosed upon everyday.

RWP: The problem is in isolating social practice as a specifically contemporary movement because that hides the ways that art activity has always been social, and maybe it also hides certain histories of resistance that connect a lot of the socially engaged artworks of today to a rich past of struggle in and out of the discipline of art proper.

AG: We wouldn’t describe ourselves as social practice artists, but then again we sometimes don’t even like calling ourselves artists, but rather people who make art—finding a definition through process and activity rather than by an externally affixed label or level of professionalism.


Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen are a collaborative artist team whose current interests center around reading and writing holes into the political and institutional predicaments that make life worse. Their pieces and projects have been seen at PDX Contemporary Art, CampCARPA, The San Diego Art Museum, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Publication Studio, PICA’s Time Based Arts Festival, and in the pages of NOON Literary Annual. They live in Portland, Oregon where they teach at Portland State University and try to spend most of their time pretending with their 3-year-old son Calder.

Photos courtesy of the artists, PDX Contemporary Art, and the artists-in-residence of Camp CARPA, 2013.

Artist Profile: Jenny Polak

November 27, 2013 · Print This Article

New York City-based artist Jenny Polak has long dealt with issues of citizenship and legality through her site-specific and socially-engaged projects. Drawing heavily on her background in architecture, but working across a variety of media, Polak’s work brings human scale to the urgent politics of immigration in the US. Here, we spoke about her recent project at Northwestern University’s Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the pitfalls of nostalgia, and the question of utility in art.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMaria with (n)IMBY Keepsakes at Our Lady of Guadalupe, 2012. Photo: Jenny Polak


Your work is primarily about the experiences of undocumented people. How did you develop this as a lens?

I’ve got this simple outrage at the way the rules of nations and international relations are written to ensure that the people flowing across borders will remain vulnerable enough to be exploited. But it’s also a fascination I have with the complex interrelated migrant lives that are the life-blood of many societies, without the supposed benefit of the legal underpinning and authorization that comes with citizenship. I’m a Jew from England, where modern immigration law was founded on anti-semitism, capitalized on by racist loser politicians who insinuated a divisive narrative to use to their advantage.

Feeling pissed off about legacies of exploitation is a sort of lens. I got mixed up in immigrants’ rights activism in the US in the mid 90’s because Bill Clinton threatened to and then passed a couple of hugely terrible Acts that were going to catapult hundreds of thousands of people into immigrant detention. And then I would practically trip over shackled black guys on crowded Varick Street (then the location of a key detention center) where the architect’s office I worked in got me my second H1b visa. In the US of course the conceptualization of birthright citizenship got all bound up with the exclusion required to maintain the institution of slavery, and the seeming progressiveness of the 14th Amendment, driven by the need to legitimize a now undeniably free, and sometimes armed workforce has been followed by layer upon layer of gate-keeping legislation, to control new cheap labour supplies. Business as usual.


You recently completed a residency with the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University, where you worked with community activists who were opposing the building of a private detention center in Crete, IL. Can you talk a bit about what that experience was like? What challenges did you encounter?

This was an amazing thing. I’d been following the local news as the battle developed and with many in the ‘immigrants rights’ world cheered when Crete said NO to Corrections Corporation of America, the huge company that profits from mass incarceration policies in the US and elsewhere. Right then I got offered this miraculous residency, which gave me the chance to go and find the people who had pulled off this extraordinary result. I felt this urgently needed to be understood, represented and commemorated as an inspiring model for other communities. It wasn’t an ideal residency project perhaps; 3 months is an unusually great amount of time for me to be able to concentrate entirely on art but it is short for the kind of community connections I wanted to establish. I researched and networked before going, and luckily for me I already knew a few people in Chicago, not least my Mother-in-Law, who always provides a supportive base.

The Kaplan Institute people were also great about the general idea for the project and for an interdisciplinary class I proposed dealing with socially engaged art as it relates to urban planning, with a close look at the case of the Crete prison, which of course was partly an urban planning issue.

So my big challenge for this project was to meet people both in Crete and the vital immigrant activists from Chicago, learn from them in much greater detail how they saw the whole struggle, and win these remarkable people who had already moved on to the next struggle, to the idea of working with me and a couple of Northwestern students to make art relating aspects of  “The Sweet Defeat of the Prison in Crete” – as activist Anthony Rayson named a zine he made – to a possible wider audience. It’s a tricky thing that is tough to get right in socially engaged art: when you are not already part of a community, and will not be able to stick around, why are you there? The activists involved had already done brilliantly at PR. The very different affected communities – the Concerned Citizens of Crete (started by Cetta Smart) and the immigrant community centered on Fr. Landaverde’s Anglican Catholic Mission Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Little Village – knew what they were doing and Local and national news media had followed the story in English and Spanish. I wanted to see something else happen because I thought that a particularly striking thing was the coalition of citizen and non-citizen that formed across a big divide of consciousness.

The people found common cause thanks to the abilities of several leading people in both communities to frame the debate in terms of the high ground; the moral outrage of detention and deportation, and of profiting from them. I proposed some art under the heading (n)IMBY, exploring ways to represent and sort of idealize this uniting of people whose ‘profiles’ didn’t match, both for the people themselves and for possible art audiences who would never know them. A number of the people who had been involved graciously came back together at my request: Father Landaverde’s community generously hosted, the no name collective provided support and I quite old-fashionedly drew and photographed them. The photographs simply pair up citizens with immigrants with the gridded walls of the storefront church as backdrop.


(n)IMBYFrom the (n)IMBY photo series, 2012.


Your work has multiple publics: the people it was done about, with and for – as well as the art world. How do you reconcile the function of your work in these two, often separate realms?

I have difficulty with thinking about an artwork that is not also understood as an object with meaning in the real world. So for the (n)IMBY project, I wanted to make something life-size – actually I thought about a commemorative monument of sorts, but the relationship to site was looking problematic, with two key foci of the struggle, neither of which I could just impose an object on without a lot more time to be with people and delve into what might be useful and share-able.

So I drank in the frequency of little Virgin of Guadalupe statues and tried thinking souvenirs – multiples thought of as ‘low’ art in high art world terms. I imagined narrative keepsakes that could be found in many people’s homes or places of assembly. There was a show of the figurines of John Rogers about that time – a prolific Victorian sculptor of Civil War and moral scenes. I was going to try and cast something but the Engineering Department at NU opened their Rapid Prototyping Lab to me and I made 3D prints instead – not as many as I would have liked, to share among more people, but it was an inspiring opportunity and I think those who have taken them to keep have an interesting connection now with both each other and the few art-audience people who may get to see some in a gallery context.

One big reason for making art objects at all rather than participatory events and such, is that the “communities of communication” (- a term like that I think comes from Walter Benjamin) that objects might generate – people who in potentially energizing ways are sharing ideas – don’t have to be all in the same place or exist in the same time, and this is important because you need so many different kinds of people on board and so much time to go after a real high ground kind of vision.

 Keepsakes: those who stopped the prison, 1, 2, 3(n)IMBY Keepsakes, 2012.

There is a feeling, in your work, that you’re not interested in getting nostalgic about the immigrant experience, but that you’re actively engaging the “now” on these issues, and imagining into future possibilities.

I grew up in crazily nostalgic culture – both England and the un-English, Jewish cultural time-warp I existed in are very tied up in their pasts. When I started to think about migration and its representation or manifestation in art I saw everyone doing ‘share-your-history-or-culture’-type-art. That was also THE accepted way for an artist to ‘work with the community’ – still is. These projects are celebratory, educational, cool, but tend to draw attention away from action or even from any representation that includes analysis of or fight-back against injustice. That’s not to say I think political art should be all about protest – many of us have done a lot of that and can see that there other ways to work so as to activate a space – not just the designated space of protest – with an awareness of its reality – its present, socio-economic networks – in such a way that people kind of unsuspectingly get a sudden jolt of their own reality and connection to others’. So after I tried making an art about my background, looking at the idea of the Jew in England, my amazing family, my own bizarre overdetermined history as a Jew sick with a supposedly Jewish disease and such, Lyle Ashton Harris said to me in a studio crit in the Whitney Independent Study Program one day, “why should I care?” A truly helpful thing. I said to myself, right, this stuff will be behind me, but now I will face outward, and look for ways to connect with other people, in the present and for the future.


How do you understand the relationship between your art and your activism?

Chicago was the first place I came to when I first arrived in the US, and the first thing I saw as I was driven from the airport was a huge demonstration about some art. (It was about “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” – the work of my husband-to-be, Dread Scott.) This added tantalizingly to my sense that in the US art could influence public opinion, which I had given up hope of in England. My activism for a time was kind of separate from my art, but I was saved by the experiences of collaborating with Repo-History and the poster collective Resistant Strains on a few projects. Plus I had had a kid, and started working for architects and there wasn’t time anymore; then it was suddenly clear to me that those things (kid, architecture) were the sources and the connections I needed for a new activist art combo. I drew on my architecture background and my immigrant activist network and made a web project (HardPlace) for which detainees from across the country supplied sketches of what they knew of their invisible prisons, (photos being forbidden) and I traced them into strange digital 3D models where you could find a few tidbits of info that cumulatively conveyed an idea of the terrifying Kafkaesque system that was proliferating since the 1996 laws had passed. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum funded the project so that I felt able to team up with web designer Lauren Gill to deliver a project that got quite a lot of attention on the predicament of detainees and the dangerous direction US immigration policy was headed in – it was launched soon after 9/11 and detention was taking on a new definition in the public imaginary and in abusive reality.


Cover Series Cover Series, 2012. Photo: Dread Scott


Having a social or political application in one’s work can lend itself to a particular kind of “usefulness,” often discussed in socially-engaged art. How do you address utility in your work?

There are different ways to be useful and to address usefulness. Many things I make use a language usually thought of as functional or useful but they are dysfunctional – they talk about their own inadequacy or misguidedness. I think of it as a sort of reverse-engineering the ready-made – art that escaped into the real world. It can’t be instrumentalised except in make-believe (unlike the Urinal getting put back to its intended use) but it can talk about what might have been or might be. I think when artists aim for ‘real’ utility, it tends to produce poor relations of things made by real designers and urban planners – partly because art in the socially engaged realm has generally had to accept a pathetically minimal funding structure as compared with architecture and urban design budgets, or even regular public art budgets – but of course those big budgets entail the forswearing of criticality- the pact with the devil. We are beginning to see some good results as the exchange flows the other way and urban designers merge into artists.

I was moved recently when Tania Bruguera’s Museum of Arte Util, soon to open in Holland, asked to include my Design for the Alien Within and other projects in their archive. My tactics may be frowned on by some advocates/practitioners of utility in socially-engaged art. For example during Occupy Wall St, I got involved with Mitch McEwen and others in the Architecture Group: there were interesting discussions and practical exercises to come up with temporary shelter strategies for public sites controlled by city regulations, as well as the chance simply to observe and engage with the structures that kept being built. While hanging about the financial district I picked up some bags of shredded paper and with advice from Michael Rakowitz about sealing plastic sheets into shapes, began making shapes like financial crisis graphs stuffed with shredded paper, that double as pattern pieces for assembly into warm, waterproof wearable shelters, coat-tents. But they will they actually be used? It doesn’t matter at the moment, it’s more that people who see and feel them immediately want to talk with each other and me, and these conversations are useful.

Make Up the Breakdown: Music as Self-Contained Instruction in 140

November 25, 2013 · Print This Article



When 140 begins, you’re dropped into near silence. A single tone plays: low and bassy, it seems to emanate from the flat, monochromatic setting of the world. Your avatar is a lone recognizable shape: an unmoving square. Move to the left or right and transform into a circle; or jump into the air, turning briefly into a triangle before landing.

140’s protagonist-shape is instantly familiar, because it’s derived from a universal visual language. Those gentle geometric shapes are the stuff of childhood learning, the foundational building blocks of concepts such as color recognition, addition, and geometry. The square, rectangle, and triangle are a mark of simplicity, their functions instantly recognizable in motion.

What’s wonderful about 140 is that every component of the game is at its most basic, most recognizable. The colors are just as sparse as the landscape, a single-color expanse that’s all right angles save for the occasional circle. Whatever origin the game’s character came from, the world came with it.


In the Nintendo classic, Super Mario Bros., numerous pits and enemies roll across the screen at a somewhat uneven pace. The game is a pillar of the platforming genre it helped popularize. Platformers are the side-scrolling titles that defined early consoles, where a 2-dimensional protagonist such as Mario, Sonic, or 140’s shape runs and jumps between obstacles and platforms.  But though the game is legendary, it can be unforgiving, confusing, and ultimately, frustrating, especially in a modern context.

While modern games are usually prefaced with in-depth tutorials requiring memorization of a vast button- or combo-system (and sometimes to the detriment of ease), Super Mario Bros. suffers from a lack of explanation. The only way to become good at the game is learning its game-design language, usually by trying, failing, and trying again until you succeed. Such as it is, it’s somewhat difficult to get into without the determination of a child, applied in full force.

This is, in part, due to expectations about difficulty. Early video games were the stuff of quarter-gobbling nightmares, an intersection between entertainment and commerce. Looking back, most games from the era seem to be defined by external forces, external expectations: we should expect games to be hard; we should expect ourselves to adapt on our own time, determine the game’s world as an adversary, and conquer games such as Mario from within ourselves.

Mario and 140 certainly share a skeleton. Their challenges are similar ones, of jumping over pits and obstacles. And while both are without explanatory text, in Mario, this feels like a technological oversight. In 140, however, it feels purposeful; the game relies on no textual explanation. Like its shapes, the game’s instructions are spoken in a language that’s universal, that we’ve all known our entire lives: music. Where there might have been lengthy tutorials, planted signposts explaining mechanics, there’s instead narrative silence. There’s no princess to rescue in 140—there’s just a song that wants to be complete. And the game is tuned entirely around creating the feeling that the player should feel invited.


140’s title is derived, presumably, from the BPM of game’s ever-present soundtrack. As the player progresses through 140, they’re treated to an ever-growing blend of electronic music. While the entry of the game is a low rumble, the introduction of the game’s first challenge—a moving platform—adds a rhythmic thrum, and each subsequent challenge increases not only in difficulty, but in musical complexity. By the end of each section, the soundtrack is varied, and as it pulses, the background of 140’s world pulses with it, as though it were an overly-reductive music visualizer.

Though the player and her shape are dropped into a world of visual and audio silence, the player progresses naturally into a world filled with vibrant color and sound. The player’s goal is to seek out a dual-colored circle that floats, and when touched, follows you. But the disc also emanates a sound pattern, as though it were calling out sonar, asking you to come get it. And when you do, you take it to another circular pattern embedded in the world, at which point the disc jumps directly into it, drawn by certain magnetism.

At this, the world explodes. Color erupts, painting you, the land, and the background in new, effervescent colors, and the music, previously a lilting silence or dull drone, turns into a celebratory ecstasy.

The landscape changes, too. Where platforms were once stationary, they now move on fixed lines, ski-lifts taking you to previously unobtainable heights. And every round they make, a familiar noise occurs, a component of the now thriving soundtrack that signals timing to player. And in the background, a beat acts as a metronome for your action, counts the moments before you need to jump.


Death in video games is usually met with a loss of lengthy process, or a dwindling of your “lives,” a holdover from the arcade days of tokens, or quarters. Lose them all, and the penalty is usually grave, can sometimes result in a loss of all forward progress.

140 has no lives, and true to its nature, checkpoints are common. These are tiny beacons of light that shoot skyward when you touch them, celebrating your progress. The music momentarily hits a filter as you falter, plunging into static after mistiming a jump. But when you return to that point, the beat of the soundtrack is there, timing the obstacles for you, for as long as you might need to internalize it.

Later, as the challenges and music build further, greater obstacles are encountered. Pits of static which ostensibly “kill” you send you back to a previous point, although the length of loss is generally minor. Blocks shift back and forth, disappear and appear in time, or expand and contract. Floors glow and bounce you into the air. It’s all incredibly joyful, even more so because it all serves to underline a distinct, obvious fact about 140: above all, it wants you to succeed.


Episode 430: EXPO panel Josh Baer, Paddy, and Forrest Nash

November 25, 2013 · Print This Article

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This week!


EXPO Panel!


“Who owns the internet?”


Josh Baer - Baer Fax

Forrest Nash - Contemporary Art Daily

Paddy Johnson - Art F City



Richard Holland and Duncan MacKenzie - Bad at Sports

“I’d be safe and warm if I was in LA…”

November 22, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest post by Jacob Wick.

Towards the end of The Function of Criticism, Terry Eagleton suggests that the “role of the contemporary critic,” which is of course a different thing than the function of criticism - right? a role and a function are different things, but of course the function of something might be to provide a role, or a role might be to serve a function, in both cases it seems like function is greater than, trumps or possibly dictates, role – is to reconnect “the symbolic to the political,” by which he means “engaging through both discourse and practice with the process by which repressed needs, interests, and desires may assume the cultural forms which could weld them into a collective political force.” He is emphatic in pointing out that this role, this idea, is not new at all, but – like many ideas around a libertory role for art, theory, etc – harks back to an earlier historical moment. Eagleton tracks the formulation of what would eventually become criticism to 17th and 18th centuries and the publication of pamphlets like The Spectator or The Tatler or the slightly later Rambler, and posits the function of this publications as the creation of publics against authoritarian rule. It was these publications, Eagleton argues, that began to bind together the bourgeois public sphere as such, and that would later provide foment for this public to assert its hegemony over autocratic rule. It is worthwhile pointing out here that the focus of The Function of Criticism is very, very narrowly trained on England; although in the colonies, I’m sure the publication of the Federalist papers and the myriad pamphlets that fluttered up and down the Atlantic coast would be a decent analogue. In any case, Eagleton’s estimation of publication meaning the creation of the public jogs handsomely alongside Matthew Stadler’s estimation of publication (Stadler is, of course, a former BaS star, on an interview that I was privy to in a relatively non-participatory, hungover fashion). The function of criticism, though, is slightly more pointed than the formation of a public around a text; it is the formation of a demos around an intertext or series of intertexts that weave(s) through contemporary cultural production. In my view, this amounts to provoking and/or fostering the articulation of a local discourse in relation to a larger discourse that supersedes it, for it is around this localized discourse that a public or counterpublic might begin to recognize itself in context.

The not-so-recent hullaballoo over the use or misuse of English in e-flux press releases, which started with the dubious assertion that a language separate from English was being used in the online listserv/journal in Triple Canopy and fizzled out with an entire issue of e-flux journal dedicated to half-assed rebuttals of that thesis provides some useful fodder. e-flux is a listserv that serves some 90,000 readers across the world, and to which are submitted press releases from everywhere, all of them in English, some of them in better English than others. These press releases are generally written in a similar tone and register, a tone and register that is relatively uniform throughout early 21st-century art writing in English. These press releases, because they strive to make sense with and to each other, constitute a discourse. This is not in itself a problem. Neither is the quality of English in use, nor whether this use constitutes a separate language – which of course it doesn’t, that’s ridiculous, if anything it might constitute a sociolect (unless we are going to start talking about International Baseball English or something) – or even that English is being used (lingua francas are important if a global discourse is to be established, right?).

The problem is twofold: first, that this global discourse is directed, at least in part, by the e-flux journal, a monthly publication usually consisting of around 7 articles generally written by a relatively small pool of artists, curators, etc that are recognized by the selfsame global discourse as important, and who are in general from a relatively narrow geographical context. This journal responds generally to the global discourse that is in part produced and supported by the e-flux listserv. The views of this journal, which are not necessarily bad, but generally do not address specific local contexts in any way; to do so in a monthly publication of 7 or so articles would be impossible. Because this extremely limited journal exists in a feedback loop with the global listserv, however, a rather distressing situation arises whereby the narrow view of the journal is regurgitated unproblematically into local contexts, without a consideration for whether or not this discourse is pertinent, or even relevant, to said context. Thus, an informal contemporary art space in Shenzhen might feel the need to publish a press release, in English, on e-flux, in order to participate in a global discourse, but in order to participate in this global discourse it might also feel the need to articulate itself using the tone and register, even the current relevant topics, of that discourse, set by the e-flux journal. The local tone, register, and topics of Shenzhen would then be reoriented in some way towards this strangely narrow global discourse in such a way that what is happening at the informal contemporary art space in Shenzhen reads exactly like what is happening at, say, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. This does not make sense.

A global discourse does not make sense without the existence of local discourses that challenge or at least interact with that discourse. If New York used to be the center of the art world, the Internet is the center of the art world now. This is not an oxymoron; we should drop the tired hat of insisting that the Internet will make us free, is devoid of hierarchy, and so on. Packets of information float horizontally across a non-hierarchical field for a while, yes, but in order for them to be legible they are converted via Internet Protocal (IP) into the hierarchal tree of the Domain Name System (DNS). If you’d like to read an entire book about this, please consider Alexander Galloway‘s Protocol. If you wouldn’t, read this 7 or 9 page gem by Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” In societies of control, power exists in the form of internal and/or internalized functions that corral anarchic forms of life into easily-policed norms. One of these norms might be the notion of “our global society,” the general assumption that we live in a world where we are all flying to Mumbai or Vancouver or Philadelphia whenever the latest investigation of you know, whatever, that we are all part of an abstracted society of global travelers (for more about this, check out Lane Relyea’s book Your Everyday Art World, which I haven’t finished at all, in fact I’ve barely started it, but he writes about this stuff immediately and in a very engaging manner, like in the first chapter or possibly even the introduction). The problem with “our global society,” of course, is that it doesn’t exist, or that it only exists to those who have tremendous wealth or privileged access to tremendous wealth. I live in Los Angeles, for instance, and occasionally am able to access wealth in the form of grants, paid travel by host organizations, etc. I may have been “global” from 2006ish – 2009ish, while I was living in New York and playing relatively regularly with a trio I had with two Irish musicians. My residence in our global society ended abruptly with the crash of the Celtic Tiger. Anyway, the point is that our global society doesn’t actually exist, and by endlessly repeating how it exists, and how great it is, how revolutionary for all of us, local contexts lose the ability to recognize themselves.

For instance, Southern California! The California-Pacific Triennial, which closed recently at the Orange County Museum of Art, made an attempt to at least slightly narrow California’s global context to the Pacific Ocean, rather than across the continent to New York or across a continent and an ocean to Europe. This seems exciting and it probably is, but to be honest the show generally seemed directed at the nonexistent global public I have discussed above, not towards a discourse that exists between or among Pacific art scenes, probably because that discourse doesn’t actually exist. This discourse also does not appear to exist – at least not to me, and I am certainly new, but isn’t that at least sort of the point of this series of blog posts? – in the City or County of Los Angeles.

Last month, I went to an opening at Honor Fraser for Dawn Kasper’s THE ABSURD show. The opening featured a gospel choir of that sang and danced in the space between the PA, pictured, and the two platforms, also pictured, leaving almost no space for an audience. The choir was incredible, really, it reminded me of Andrew Hill’s gospel music, it reminded me of Don Byron saying in 2008 or 2006 or whenever that was that gospel music is the most interesting improvised music happening, the room – an art gallery, seriously – a huge mass of people feeling very intensely, sweating and confused, rich collectors baffled at why they couldn’t see better, everybody looking very confused and happy, some dancing or trying to dance, the singers occasionally falling down from the Spirit. The whole thing felt to me a bit like a gag in the sense that I described in my last post, the gospel choir wrecking the scene of the art opening in a positively heroic fashion. At the post-opening reception a man next to me gushed to the man next to him that he tries to visit New York City once a month for inspiration.

The County of Los Angeles sprawls across 4000 square miles and holds 9.8 million people in fifteen cities speaking something like 200 different languages. In my neighborhood, I hear Tagalog, Spanish, Korean, and Bengali regularly: what are they talking about? What is their discourse? According to the listing at LA Art Resource, there exist at least 50 artist-run (maybe 85) initiatives in the City of Los Angeles (one of the fifteen cities in the county), located in phone lines, apartments, the Internet, lofts, and so on. What are they talking about? What is their discourse? Are artist-run initiatives speaking Tagalog or Korean, Bengali or Thai? Are they speaking to each other, in English, or in Spanish, about their local contexts? What the hell is going on in Burbank or Lancaster, Pasadena or San Gabriel? Surely not nothing. And if nothing is happening, then shame on us allowing that narrative, that public, to disappear from our discourse.

The setup, or lack of setup, of the City of Los Angeles, a setup that Brecht derided in the early 20th century as a collection of culturally vacant suburbs haphazardly roped together under a dubious civic entity (a situation only slightly ameliorated by the Interstate system) might prove actually beneficial to the development of a sort of critical ecosystem, a local discourse that might operate as the conglomerate of a series of hyperlocal discourses. Perhaps it is beside the point to fret about what Los Angeles’s unified cultural identity is, and instead ask what the cultural identity of Koreatown is, and how that relates to neighboring Mid-Wilshire or Historic Filipinotown. What is happening in Los Angeles is not what is happening in New York, but it shouldn’t be, namely because Los Angeles is not in New York. But what is happening in Los Angeles surely has the potential to be absolutely fascinating and exciting, if – maybe only if – we can get a little critical.

Jacob Wick is a conceptual artist living in Los Angeles, CA. For more information, please visit