December 29, 2010 · Print This Article
Our latest “Centerfield” column is up on art:21 blog! Actually, it went live yesterday, while I was flying home from Los Angeles so…apologies for the late linkage here. This week, I tried something slightly different: a roundtable Q&A session that addresses the question of how different people sustain a cultural practice over time. It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and it seemed particularly appropriate to ask as the end of 2010 draws to a close and we look forward to a new year, new projects, new relationships–all of which need fresh infusions of energy, creativity and enthusiasm. The discussion was really meaningful to me, and I’m very grateful to Britton Bertran, Duncan MacKenzie, Caroline Picard and Philip von Zweck for sharing their experiences with us. I hope you find something meaningful in the conversation, too! Happy New Year everyone.
The following is the entire text of the discussion which appeared in yesterday’s “Centerfield” column for art:21 blog. The “Centerfield” post had been edited somewhat for brevity.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about sustainability and sustenance. Not the environmental kind of sustainability–the personal and emotional kind. Chicago’s art community is rich in relationships, but like so many other ‘art worlds’ out there, it can be a bit less bountiful when it comes to monetary compensation, feedback, and consistent forms of validation. So I asked four longtime Chicago-based cultural practitioners–independent curator and arts educator Britton Bertran, artist Duncan MacKenzie (co-founder of Bad at Sports), Caroline Picard, an artist who runs the small but highly-regarded Green Lantern Gallery and Press, and Philip von Zweck, an artist whose work often involves project-based collaborations–a few questions about how they have sustained their own practices over time, and especially after a project has run its course. How do they stay sharp and engaged and committed over the long haul? How do they keep on keepin’ on when the going gets tough? Read on to find out what this group had to say.
Claudine Ise: Describe the work that you do. What forms has the work taken? When its form has changed, what were some of the reasons for the change?
Britton Bertran: My work is cyclical. I started my “career” here in Chicago working for a well-known and very progressive not-for-profit art education organization. It was hard and fulfilling programmatic work placing ‘teaching artists’ in mostly underserved Chicago public schools. It was also mentally exhausting, especially the part when we all sat around and planned the future of arts integration. Around 2005 I decided to open my own commercial art gallery (called 40000). There were many reasons why I did this but one of the main points was jettisoning the funk of non-profit work off of me and diving in to the wild world of working with artists for profit (theirs and mine). Three years later, and a month before the great economic collapse of 2008, I closed the gallery. There are a myriad of reasons why I closed the gallery. To this day, I am simultaneously extremely relieved for shutting down but will also ultimately regret doing so. After that I worked for a local philanthropic foundation doing a preliminary report investigating the feasibility of opening a contemporary art space in Chicago. Meanwhile, the aforementioned economic collapse waylaid the philanthropic element of the foundation and hence the feasibility of operating such a space. Currently I am working for another Chicago-based art education not-for-profit with a more encompassing, less intense mission that is equally as challenging but not laden with the philosophical conundrum of solving the world’s problems. It’s very satisfying and comes with a real live paycheck.
Interspersed with the jobs I have had in for the last 4 years or so, I have also had a secondary career as an independent curator and instructor in the Arts Administration department at The School of the Art Institute. Curatorially, I put together two exhibitions a year – one at a more Institutional level and one at an artist-run or alternative gallery space. As an instructor, my classes revolve around the art business, institutional contexts and the history of both.
Economics and the highs and lows of professional frustration seem to be running themes in my personal work history. The one constant is education. Its also important to point out I am not an artist. I don’t make work as “product”, but one of the ongoing mantras of art education (specifically in secondary school, but really at all levels) is the sweet dance between product and process. What is each of these things in the first place? Can you have one without the other? Where does the satisfaction of learning make itself known? Retention of information or basking in the glow of acknowledgment: which should take precedence or how should they be intermingled for maximum effect? These are the questions I have been working with throughout my “career” and I believe it will be a long pursuit.
Duncan MacKenzie: The work that I do has taken, and takes, many forms. The way that I work now is collaboratively, sometimes that means working on the “Bad at Sports” project and at other times that work is with an artist named Christian Kuras on an object and image-based practice. As a young artist, I was trained in several really active communal print shops, a series of film sets and a small graphic design firm. Those experiences left me with a real strong drive towards communal working and a need to share broadly both the authorship and the result. This is a very different way then the traditional “heroic artist” locked in their studio wrestling with a canvas. I don’t love spending my time all alone working through a series of problems and puzzles which I’ve situated for myself. I like and need the energy colleagues bring to projects.
Before these current collaborations, I had thought of myself and worked as a… I don’t know, for lack of a better term, postmodern pop artist, and developed a “style” which was reflective of pop culture, post-structuralism and of other “conceptual looking” art practices. That started to change when I confronted the reality of being a “print specialist.” The worry that was taking root had to do with how constraining a traditional printmaking practice can become and how that can limit its producers and their participation in a broader art world. Printmaking is so seductive in its process and its materials that artists attracted to it tend to become very invested in virtuoso printing and work in the closed community of international printmakers. I started to bump up against this boundary and began looking for other strategies with which to access the ways that I was thinking. Initially, I begin by looking at video and animation work and situating a practice of appropriation and collage there. Then that reach was extended out towards electronics, model building, and photography. Through those processes I began to engage sculpture and found that most of the ideas that I wanted to follow-up on needed a discourse that was more, or maybe less, lonely. Then, at roughly the same time, I started to collaborate with Christian on making sculptures, and Richard Holland and I started talking about doing a podcast about art.
Caroline Picard: For the last six years I have been running a non-profit gallery and press called The Green Lantern. During that time I have continued to work independently as an artist and a writer. I think these projects inform one another–in many ways I’ve thought about the Gallery and the Press as being significant influences on my own work; particularly when the space was in my apartment, I came to think of it as a kind studio-research. During the first five years, that’s where everything took place– in my apartment–I’m very interested in creating intersections for different artistic mediums, so it was a great place to experiment curatorially. I was also very interested in thinking about the intersection of public and private space and how that context might affect a viewer’s experience of contemporary artwork, whether it was poetry, or a painting exhibit, a music show or a performance.
After five years the city shut down the project because (and as a result of zoning) I did not have, nor could I acquire a business license. Last September I opened a second storefront space which will close in January of this year. As part of this second plan, I was trying to put together a business model which would sustain the non-profit gallery via a for-profit cafe/bar/bookstore/performance space. I couldn’t find that space, and after a continued accrued cost had to close up shop. The Press will continue and I’ll continue as its primary editor. We also have a very cool on-line indie-lit bookstore, (in my on-going championship of pipe dreams, I have a vague hope that said bookstore will serve as my primary income).
Philip von Zweck: From the early 90′s (as a student) until relatively recently most of my projects involved either producing a form for others to fill and/or making projects for a non art audience. For 15 years I produced a weekly radio program of live performance and sound art recordings that were submitted for broadcast; I have an ongoing project called Temporary Allegiance which is a 25 ft flag pole that anyone can sign up to fly anything they want on for a week at a time; I ran a gallery in my living room for 3 years in which I presented solo shows by people I trusted with keys to my apartment; I’ve made books which are compilations of pages submitted by friends; for my show museum show a few years ago I made a chain letter and mailed it to the museum’s mailing list; I co-founded the radio art collective Blind Spot which produced 1-hour works live to air- the list goes on, but there was a set of politics I was really guided by, and adhering to them eventually caused me to feel distanced from my own practice. I got to a point where I just wasn’t as interested in doing those sorts of projects, or feeling like I had to do those sorts of projects anymore. So recently, a few years ago, I begun showing paintings- I’ve always painted and drawn but didn’t show them because it didn’t fit in with the other projects and those took precedence. I wouldn’t that I have abandoned the previous set of politics and I still really like a lot of those projects; it’s just that I’ve come to a different way of thinking about them and my role as an artist.
CI: Can you describe one, or some, of the happiest and/or most satisfying period/s of production you’ve experienced thus far, and what made it so? In turn, can you talk about some of the “low points.” What brought you down? How did you pick yourself back up again afterwards and find the where-with-all to start fresh?
Britton Bertran: The opening night of the first exhibition I put together for 40000 was the happiest most satisfying 5 hours of my professional career. A completely fulfilling experience that squashed a good six months of the most terrifying anxiety I’ve ever known. Quitting my job to start my own business without any financial security or previous gallery operating know how was also one of the stupidest things I have ever done. Looking back now – part of that happiness was pure obliviousness, but seeing 300 people come and pretty much stay that night had a profound affect on me. The literal act of taking a space and preparing it for art looking is one thing, but preparing it for art socializing and art commerce is another. I learned a lot that night (process?), through the literal and figurative haze, that I still employ today (product?).
My low point was realizing how screwed I was by the overall economic situation that happened not too long ago. Either I was too arrogant to think I would never have work, or I thought I was just plain invincible, but that was the most incredibly depressing and scary 6 months of my life. Part of my problem was the fact that I had convinced myself that I had paid my dues and that a job, in the art world please, should just come waltzing my way, take my hand and whisk me off to that thing called adulthood. It was around this time (as I was selling my lovingly collected vinyl records in order to eat), that I realized I had built a solid network of individuals that could help me. Pride swallowed I groveled, professionally, and just asked. Within two months I was working.
Duncan MacKenzie: All of the most recent satisfying moments were times in which I felt very connected to our projects and felt like others were as connected to the result. One of the most amazing experiences, recently, was doing “Don’t Piss on Me and Tell Me its Raining” at Apexart in NYC. What made it such a delight was to know and have tangible proof of what our project is meant to the hundreds of people who been involved in its production. It was amazing to feel so intimately connected to so many other artists.
The low points for me are almost always the same. They are the moments that I feel like the art world is either just like a clique-y, bitchy, catty high school popularity contest or like a fashion Mall and all the things we make are just as disposable as this week’s “Entertainment Weekly.” They are always the moments that make me feel like we are not a community but a bunch of humans who represent opportunities to each other and should just be used as opportunities. It seems so obvious that we should be advocates for each other and support an overall growth but the evidences suggests that despite working in “culture” we are hyper competitive creatures. So I guess they are moments when I feel disconnected and disregarded. Thankfully it is as easy to get out of picking up the phone and reaching out. All it takes is a little reminder that we all feel alone, awkward, and like no one cares but everyone of us does this because we know how meaningful it has been to us and that we still share in it.
Caroline Picard: High points: I think my consistent favorite moment will always be the point an audience (of whatever sort) has settled into attendance–when the program has begun and the work is done–whether that’s the work of an administrator, or a producer. For me, those moments resolve the otherwise insatiable existential question (in my mind) of what art is for because art is precisely for that moment; at least that’s how it strikes me in that moment. That moment also demands a certain giving up–there is nothing left to do but allow the occasion to happen, and to try and be present for its happening. My other favorite moment is the deep concentration that happens when I am working on my own, whether writing a piece, or painting, or editing–this is my other favorite thing. That deep concentration–I don’t really know what else to call it, but it’s like everything else in the world gets quiet while I’m totally focused on exploring and developing a particular idea. That moment gives me a huge re-charge (you ask about this later). It’s maybe a little like meditation? I don’t know.
Low points include: Discovering typos in my writing, for instance–particularly if those typos point to some never-before-recognized ignorance–what are they called, lacuna? I think this space closing a second time is another one of those moments, despite my realizing that there was no specific failure involved–I am proud of what the last six months have brought, thrilled that I got to work with such great people and participate once more with the Chicago art community. Yet, I am conscious not fulfilling the larger, albeit abstract, vision I had undertaken. Why this, or realizing typos would inspire embarrassment, I don’t know–it must be some hangover of a waspy background, or a childhood fear of Scandinavian silence (my grandmother had a strategy called “deep freeze” that was remarkable). And then as far as how to get through that stuff–I don’t think there’s any trick beyond being patient and humble and adopting a sense of humor (I like to think of my consciousness like my grandmother–if it/she shames me I make a slew of jokes which, more often than not, work because they fail).
Philip von Zweck: The times when I am the most productive – and therefore happiest – artistically are generally times when everything else is going right; the times when I’m neither broke or pulled in a thousand directions (from taking on too many jobs or commitments), when I’m in good health, relationship, community, etc. When those things start going wrong it is really hard for me to make work, it becomes a feedback cycle- things not going well leads to being bummed out, which leads to not making work, which leads to being bummed out, which leads to…
Perhaps the lowest point came from doing a project in which I was treated poorly by the presenting organization. What should have been a great experience seriously made me never want to make work again. How did I pick myself up? I didn’t have a choice, I had already committed to do another project, and that one went swimmingly, actually way better than expected and that was enough- not that the previous experience has left my mind, but I’ve mostly moved on.
CI: All of you are engaged in practices that involve lots of other people (though I know that several of you maintain studio practices, too). I often think through my own personal quest for ‘sustenance’ in terms of introversion versus extroversion: sometimes, we recharge our energy by spending time with friends and collaborators, other times by being alone. So, how do you recharge — and how does it help you sustain those practices you most want to engage in?
Britton Bertran: The relationship between institutional and individual memories, as a conundrum, is fascinating to me – and worrisome. In order to combat that, I have made a real effort to reflect on my personal and professional experiences (process) in order to better inform my future (product), especially when it comes to being a part of the immediate art world around me. I also believe it has to be more than just taking pictures. The essential part that I concern myself with is finding ways to reflect, edit, and share those experiences. As official memories, of the institutional kind, seem to be becoming more and more overwhelmed by the collective desire for the next memory, harnessing something that I would call “The Slow Memory Movement” might become more essential. This Slow Memory Movement (akin to the Slow Food Movement) would emphasis the personal importance, or pleasure, of remembering and the sustainability of its impact on oneself. (I also have been reading as much post-apocalyptic science fiction as I can get my hands on which, beyond the pure entertainment factor, does wonders for the reflective process).
Duncan MacKenzie: Recharge? I read crime novels in which wizards solve crimes, and comic books. It is the source of a small amount of shame, but a couple of years ago I felt like everything in my life was connected to art production and I needed to find something that I was not going to try and plug back into an art world. Now it seems likes wizards are the order of the day and I am looking for novels about dinosaurs solving crimes.
Caroline Picard: Top 5 Ways to Recharge would include:
1) Deep and quiet thinking about a particular subject which is engaged through writing/visual work. The act of making something discrete–something very often totally “useless”–then makes me very happy.
2) Being with friends (of course), art-friends and non-art friends both.
3) Making Jokes, which I think I too easily forget. Making Jokes should probably be no. 1.
4) I have to admit, though I will immediately disown this, I also recharge watching some sort of television-thing, preferably an episodic serial drama.
5) Making non-art things like food. Or dreams.
Philip von Zweck: I don’t ever consciously think “I need to recharge” but I spend a lot of time alone and- not that I ever set out to not work on art, but really- it is very hard for me to not work on stuff. Sometimes this can be recharging, working in the studio can be a good antidote to a day at the job. But I guess for me it would be spending time with friends. A lot of ideas and projects come out of just hanging out, I think this is why I’ve done so many collaborative and social projects, they are both rewarding and rejuvenating.
CI: Thank you all so much for sharing your experiences and ideas with me and with our readers at art:21 blog.
I’m all about linking the interviews today, aren’t I? But I just came across another one that’s too good to pass on – three Chicago greats in conversation! Richard Hull interviews Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt for the Winter 2011 issue of BOMB, which hit the stands a few days ago on December 15th. The interview (or at least a healthy chunk of it) can also be found online – click here to read it; a small excerpt is below. There is also a 3 minute audio excerpt from the interview posted on BOMB’s website.
Richard Hull: As I was coming up here I was thinking about your collection of works by self-taught artists, contemporary art, and ethnographic objects—especially with the Ray Yoshida show coming up at SAIC. As a teacher at the school he had a lot of influence on people collecting things. When did you start collecting?
Gladys Nilsson: We bought a small painting by a Sunday painter who couldn’t quite get it right at a junk shop in the early ’60s because, I don’t know, it seemed like the thing to do. We didn’t start out acquiring things with the idea that we must form a collection.
Jim Nutt: The False Image people [Christina Ramberg, Phil Hanson, Eleanor Dube, Roger Brown] and other students became aware that Ray was going to flea markets, and they started going as a group. It became almost a weekend ritual, but it also had something to do with his idea of going out and collecting images that you see in your eye. It wasn’t unlike his instructing students to cut out images from wherever and organize/paste them in sketchbooks, based on formal relationships. The idea was to recognize the potential of a form or shape beyond the literal reference.
GN: When all of this flea market and Maxwell Street shopping was going on, we were in California. Even earlier on, before the Hairy Who shows started up, people were ripping out ads from backs of magazines or odd photos from newspapers, or picking up junk found on the street, and surrounding themselves with this curious mix in their studios.
JN: People acquired things just because they liked to have them. It’s the kind of stuff that artists for years have had in their studios. They see something that interests them, quite often it’s a postcard of a well-known painting, but it’s also something from the vernacular or popular, easily acquired in the everyday world.
RH: Does what you collect influence you directly? Say, the African pieces or the works by self-trained artists in your home; do they have an effect on the way you use color or make shapes or images?
GN: That’s been foisted on us and others of our ilk: that we were heavily influenced by our collections. I mean, I would be more prone to go to a museum, find an arm in a painting and use it as a source, than to say, “Oh, my God! Look how Joseph Yoakum draws a tree in a work in our collection. I must use that.”
December 22, 2010 · Print This Article
Check out Caroline Picard’s interview with the Chicago writer (and Bad at Sports’ literary correspondent) Terri Griffith on The Lantern Daily about Griffith’s book So Much Better. Here’s a brief excerpt from their conversation; read the full interview here.
CP: Could you talk a little about what your process for writing this book was like? How long were you working on So Much Better? How did you “discover” the characters? And really, what’s up with a credit union?
TG: So Much Better is my third stab at trying to write about a story I read in the Seattle Times, or maybe it was the Post-Intelligencer. It was about a woman, a middle class, white woman, wearing nice department store clothes and high-end make-up, who was found dead in a hotel room. She had committed suicide and had been dead a few days before they found her. The thing about the article that struck me was what the detective said. He said that about once a year, woman just like her turned up dead. A woman who by all outward measure wouldn’t be considered disenfranchised, but somehow was. A woman who was never reported missing. This is the idea that plagued me. How do you live in this world and arrive at a place where no one would know you are gone? What about work or family? Oddly, I still haven’t written this particular story. But certainly my protagonist Liz knows exactly what it means to have no ties. The Credit Union? My girlfriend worked for a credit union. She was a really bad teller because her drawer never balanced at the end of the day. Just off by a penny or two, but they don’t care in banking. It didn’t matter that she blew everyone out of the water on the Federal regulation tests. At the end of the day, your drawer has to balance. Credit Unions are really popular in The Pacific Northwest. I’ve been a Credit Union member for twenty years. Actually, I still do all my banking at my college Credit Union. I am crazy obsessed with people’s job. I love to listen to people’s work stories. Work is like our second family, and for some people it’s their first. There needs to be more stories about office life. Netflix tells me my favorite shows are “witty workplace comedies.” There are a few books that I really love that I consider in the same vein as So Much Better. Something Happened, by Joseph Heller. Death of the Author, by Gilbert Adair. Also Julie Hecht’s Do the Window’s Open? They are all empty books, with isolated protagonists who are tied to their work. (Read More).
December 21, 2010 · Print This Article
I like the concept of this exhibition so much I had to blog it here – the more submissions the organizers receive, the better this show will be, don’t you think? Karly Wildenhaus, who runs the invaluable online Chicago visual arts calendar On the Make, is currently working with Golden Age on an exhibition of individual pieces of “take-away” art. The show is called Twice Removed. Right now, Karly is seeking submissions of take-away art from personal collections. All submissions (if accepted) must be mailed or dropped off at Golden Age by January 18th. Full details below. If you’ve got one of Félix González-Torres’ pieces of candy lying around – now’s the time to share! (Funny – I never thought of saving mine. I just thoughtlessly ate it. What is wrong with me??).
Encountering the “take away” artwork, consisting of unlimited or large-run editions whose individual pieces are free for the taking, has become a common occurrence in contemporary art exhibitions. A strategy notably employed in Félix González-Torres’ “stack” works, the take away has been used by many other artists with a variety of intents and forms. The spirit of generosity, an exploration of dispersion and the attempt to circumvent the art market are just a few of the potential motivations cited for generating take away works. Twice Removed aims to provide a venue where the multiplicity of meanings and post-exhibition life implied by the take away model can be considered by exhibiting single units of these works together.
Golden Age is soliciting individual pieces of take away artworks from personal collections for temporary loan during the length of the exhibition. To contribute, please send a brief description of your items for further submission and loan information. Items must be received by mail or dropped off at Golden Age’s location in Chicago by January 18, 2011. Any further questions? Contact email@example.com.
Because I have a four and three quarters year old daughter, I was intrigued by the email I received from The Suburban announcing a one-day only “Holiday Experience” for kids and grownups alike. We were invited to come and Sit On A Polar Bear’s Lap. The event was billed as “a project by Diego Leclery,” a well-known Chicago artist who also co-runs the alternative space Julius Caesar.
Since The Polar Bear looms large in our house (my husband runs the endangered species program of a national environmental group) I thought, what the hell, I’ll bring my daughter and check it out. It couldn’t be any creepier than Santa Claus, could it? (Since we’re Jewish, my child has never had the terrifying privilege of being forced to sit on Santa’s lap whilst bored teens in elf costumes took her picture). But since I wasn’t sure what to expect, I kept it vague and told my daughter we were going to do “this polar bear thing” during the afternoon and left it at that. A part of me was worried that the project–whatever form it took–would feel cynical in some way, and though I’m all for overturning fake holiday cheer in appropriate contexts, I didn’t want my kid to be the butt of the joke. But this Polar Bear was nothing like that at all.
In fact this Polar Bear…I’m not (too) embarrassed to admit that this Polar Bear was truly magical. At least he was for my daughter. She couldn’t get enough of the huge, cuddly fellow and I literally had to drag her out of the room so that other kids (and adults) could have their turn sitting on his lap. She got in line to visit the Polar Bear three separate times.
“Is the Polar Bear a machine?” she kept asking me. “No,” I said – “he is a living creature. Can’t you tell by the way he was hugging you?”
“So it was alive?” she asked. “Yes,” I responded, “he was alive. I’m pretty sure it was a he anyway.”
“But how did a Polar Bear come all the way from the North Pole?”
“Well,” I said, thinking fast — because she already knows Santa isn’t real and I kinda wanted to give her something — “well, this is a special kind of Polar Bear. That’s why he’s here. He is different from other Polar Bears.”
“Yes, mama…he is sooo kind! If he was a different Polar Bear he would probably try to kill me.”
“Pretty much, yeah.”
For me, the Polar Bear brought a number of things to mind–from Temple Grandin’s “squeeze machine” to the culture of fear that the media has built around children and adults and physical expressions of affection, to the fact that environmental groups crafting media campaigns are forced to rely on a few highly photogenic “charismatic critters”–like the Polar Bear–in order to get the general public to care about environmental issues like species decimation and global warming.
But for my daughter, the Polar Bear wasn’t conceptual or referential. It was real, and it made her so happy. So thank you Polar Bear. That was a really sweet thing you did.