Baltimore-born, and now, New York City-based, artist Chris Stain has been making use of the built environment as his canvas since the 1980s. His work stems from the simple printmaking method of hand-cut stencils, reflecting inner-city and working class themes, and relating closely to his own upbringing in Baltimore. Stain’s characteristic large-scale murals evolved out of his practice as a graffiti writer, and stand today as a kind of contemporary nod to WPA-era portraiture, featuring the faces and plights of everyday people in all of their affecting, confrontational realism.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
When did you start writing graffiti?
I started writing when I was eleven, right after I saw the movie Beat Street and picked up a copy of Subway Art. My first tag was SAVAGE. But it was long and I couldn’t get it to flow in the Baltimore handstyle standard that was set by Billy ZEK TST/GS, so one year later I started writing STAIN.
Your work comes together through a characteristic stenciling and projection process. It’s very precise work. When you’re planning a mural, how much do you plan ahead?
I like to check out the neighborhood first and see what type of demographic is present. To me it’s important to take into account who lives there and how they might feel about the mural. Of course you can’t please everyone. Based on that information I come up with images that seem to fit. I start out with one or more central figures, then I add elements of urban landscape to tie it together. I have a variety of transparencies that I can experiment with until I get the feel I am looking for.
Because you’re using a projector to throw your images onto the site of your work, I assume this means that you can really only work at night. Was this a process you decided on because you prefer to work under the cover of night?
Working with the projector is just quicker for me. I can get an outline up in no time and come back the next day to add color. The older I get the harder it is to stay up all night painting then get up early the next day to fulfill my obligations. The other option is to cut huge stencils out of paper, cardboard, or plastic and paint the mural that way. Its very time consuming for me to work like that and I don’t have the freedom that working free hand allows.
You very clearly favor storytelling in your work, often spotlighting culturally disadvantaged, underrepresented individuals and urban landscapes. What is the narrative yarn you’re spinning?
In some ways it’s biographical, somewhat nostalgic, and in others I feel like the children’s book author Ezra Jack Keats just telling stories about inner city kids and common folk.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
How do you think about the relationship between image and text?
Together they give the observer more of a complete picture. Coming from a graffiti background I have always had a relationship with letters. In fact I first began to notice letters while spending time with my grandfather as a child. He carved his name, “ George Kelso,” into all of his tools in script and painted everything red. My mother use to say “If you stand still long enough, Poppie will paint you red.”
Many of your murals include portraits. How do you select specific individuals as subjects?
I look for emotions in the person’s face that I can relate to. One of my favorites is the boy on the bike. He is just staring out into the distance, sitting on his bike. From the image I get a sense of being on your own looking around for the next adventure; the kind of experiences you have at that age.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
Are all of your projects done with permission?
Yes. But even with permission and a signed and dated permit in NYC, you will be harassed. At one wall in Brooklyn I actually had the owner with me and the police wouldn’t let up. I was interrupted six times by different officers in one night while working legally. After they saw the permit they prodded me for information just wanting to see if I knew any of the graffiti writers they were looking for.
There’s a particular kind of learning that happens through the passing down of knowledge in graffiti crews. You hang around, observe, practice, socialize. It’s all part of the process. It’s kind of like an urban folk art.
Yes. But that also happens with other art groups right? I am thinking of the Dadaists in particular.
Do you consider yourself self-taught?
As a graffiti artist, yes. I saw it and wanted to learn so I just practiced and practiced. I Hunted down publications, album covers, recorded music videos with the slightest hint of writing, like the Rolling Stones video “Waiting on a Friend” where for a brief second there is a Futura 2000 tag in-between some wheatpasted Stones advertisement. It sounds crazy but it was the creative spark that I was so attracted to that came by way of graffiti for me. I actually haven’t painted any lettering in quite some time. I miss it but there is a certain energy to it that I haven’t been able to fully embrace in the past few years and that has held me back. I learned stenciling as a part of the screen printing process back in high school in ‘86 or ‘87. Somewhere around 1998 I recalled that process when I was trying to work more figuratively. At that time I was very inspired by the work of Kathe Kollwitz and wanted to draw like her but I couldn’t and didn’t have the time to make the effort. Stenciling allowed me to work quickly and accurately while capturing the emotion of the photograph.
And, now you’re an art teacher. How do you approach teaching?
I just try to share what I have learned and experienced. Graffiti, despite its negative connotations, was and still is my gateway to a broader world of self-expression and creativity. So in the classroom I first talk about my experience and how that ties into the various avenues of art. If it wasn’t for graffiti the majority of the artwork I now appreciate would not make as much sense because I now understand the importance of having enough passion to dedicate so much time, what to speak of your personal freedom, to making art.
This is the second year in a row that you’ve been to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center through a partnership with the Wooster Collective for The Sheboygan Project. That means the city of Sheboygan now boasts two Chris Stain murals. What was the experience like?
The good folks at the Wooster Collective and The Kohler Arts Center have been very supportive and I have to say thank you again to everyone involved. The arts center is a gold mine for vernacular art. This year I was given a special tour into their collections. It’s one thing to see the work in a book but to see it in person, it radiates the artists mood and emotion much more. So I was blown away by the experience. The work housed in their collection by the likes of Emory Blagden and Eugene Von Bruchenhein, reveal creativity in a very pure form in my opinion. As far as my work there, last year I taught a stencil class and painted a mural. This year some of the people I met prior returned to help out on a large 40 x 20 foot mural on an underpass. It’s nice to be able to share work and the process but even better when people take something away from it to the point that they begin the practice themselves.
Photo by Caroline Voagen
How have you seen graffiti change since you started in the 80’s? Do you differentiate graffiti from what is now being called “street art?”
In one sense it’s all art but there are different energies to what is known as “graffiti,” mostly lettering based primarily using aerosol paint, and “street art” which runs the gamut of various mediums. As for the letter-based movement, it has changed quite a bit since the 80’s. Technically, its reached levels unimagined back then through the help of all the newer spray paints on the market with lower pressure and cap options. The introduction of the internet helped styles develop more rapidly as it was easier to access photos from all over the world, get new ideas, and spark creativity.
Can you talk a bit about the translation of graffiti and street murals into the gallery and museum context. As artists who typically use the street as their canvas move their work indoors, it seems to me that there is a very different kind of relationship to and experience of the work – for both the artist and the audience.
Again it comes down to the energy that goes into it. You can compare it to running. If you go running one morning in the park as your daily exercise it’s one type of experience of running. On the other hand if you are being chased and you have to run from danger it’s another type of experience of running, with different emotions and intensity. Both involve a need to accomplish the task but the energy and emotion that go into each are slightly different and produce different results.
You’re a kinetic artist, and build Rube Goldberg machines. What does that mean?
I make chain reaction machines that perform a simple task via a convoluted sequence of events: string pulls hammer, hitting ball, breaking vase, etc. They’re often known as Rube Goldberg machines, named after the famous cartoonist who used to draw such absurd contraptions 100 years ago.
Joseph Herscher and The Page Turner, February 2012, Photo: Fletcher Lawrence © 2012 Joseph Herscher
Your work is quite aesthetic. You’re obviously not just thinking about what the machine does, but how it looks while it’s doing it. Where do you begin with designing the experience?
I get most of my ideas my observing the world around me and taking the time to play with it. Walking in the supermarket I once knocked a bottle of ketchup off the shelf and it rolled down the aisle in a really cool way. I then proceeded to play with all the bottles of ketchup in the aisle until I found “the best roll” which I eventually used in a machine.
Trial and error presumably plays a pretty large role in your work. What was your biggest error? Does the process of experimentation ever get dangerous?
My current project is taking me a year to complete and will be five minutes long. Most of my ideas come from playing with objects and discovering interesting things I can do with them. Then there is a LOT of trial and error to get it to work every time. Sometimes I will spend two weeks on something that only lasts four seconds. I don’t move on until I see it work fifty times in a row. My biggest error was in using acetone one time, which looks just like water but reaches boiling point much faster. I forgot that it is also highly flammable. The first two attempts worked like a treat, but on the third it caught fire and most of The Page Turner caught alight, spraying melted sponge everywhere, which was really hard to get off. And it almost burned the house down.
Although the machines themselves have a limited apparent use, paradoxically the materials that make up their various component parts are consistently exploited for a variety of functions beyond their conventional purpose. Has it become impossible not to think about how you might MacGyver random objects to work with aspects of a machine?
I like to use familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. My goal is for people to think twice about the endless possibilities in the everyday tasks and objects that surround them.
How do you decide what materials to use? Do you scout around and purchase specific items, or do you collect and tinker?
I spend about a third of my workday “foraging” for specific objects that fit specific needs. Luckily my street has eight discount stores, so if I need to find a plastic cup I go into every one until I find the perfect cup! I have to buy five sizes of everything to ensure I have different options to play with, and thus a lot of the stuff I buy I don’t end up using. I have a huge closet jam-packed with all sorts of materials and categorized by type; for instance I have a container labeled “Miniature Kitchen Utensils,” another for “Long Plastic Things” and another for ‘Things that Roll.”
Herscher and the Book Holder, September 1999, Courtesy of Joseph Herscher
Do you live with any of the machines – or with any clever hacks – in your everyday life? I’m imagining that mornings at your place might be kind of like the breakfast sequence in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.
I’ve made a lot of inventions to improve my life. I had strings to turn the light off from bed. Reading The Lord Of the Rings at the age of ten was rather heavy for my young arms so I made a machine to hold the book above my head.
When I was twelve I made a machine that made any drink carbonated; you pushed your drink into a hole in a box and the machine dispensed equal amounts of citric acid and baking powder, which made a bubbling reaction.
Speaking of pop culture representations of Rube Goldberg machines, they still manage to get quite a bit of play. In addition to your recent guest spot on Sesame Street, OK Go did a music video involving a very elaborate machine and the IFC network show Portlandia did a sketch involving a child who builds them. What do you make of the popular staying power of the Rube Goldberg machine?
At first I wondered if Rube Goldberg machines were just a fad, but if you look more closely humans have always been fascinated with these sorts of machines. People have been drawing absurd devices long before Rube Goldberg was around.
Your piece, La Macchina Botanica, was at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Where do you see your work fitting into the art discourse? Fischli and Weiss seem like pretty natural referents…
I love the work of Fischli and Weiss; the way those normally inanimate objects became characters in their surrealist landscape. I use similar whimsical interactions, but I try to contextualize it in more of a narrative with a beginning and an end, and incorporate people and animals. I want people to imagine having machines like these in their own homes, so they see the potential for play inherent in everyday life.
What do you have coming up?
I am working on The Dresser, a machine that helps me get dressed by ironing my clothes, shining my shoes, putting on my hat, etc. It is my largest and longest machine to date; a 30-foot traveling show that can pack up easily and be performed anywhere in the world. The first performance will be in Charlotte, North Carolina, on November 9th at the end of my time as Knight Artist-in-Residence at the McColl Center for Visual Art.
Angela Washko has been busy. Between working on ambitious new media projects, performances, residencies, curating exhibitions, and organizing events – all while forwarding a feminist agenda – she has an energy that seems hard to quell. And, good thing. Confronting oppressive cultural attitudes fuled by media representations of women in contexts outside of the art world bubble, Washko’s work incites an important dialog about the value in various forms of femininity. Here, in a “rebellion against concision,” she muses on World of Warcraft, Millionaire Matchmaker, the importance of community, and so much more.
You’ve been pursuing an overtly feminist line of inquiry in your work. What are your thoughts on the current feminist discourse in the art world? How is it still relevant?
I am less interested in a feminist discourse specifically in the art world than a feminist discourse in contemporary American culture. This is why I’ve shifted from making work exclusively for audiences that will view the work in galleries, and have additionally taken feminism to video game spaces (which, as most people are probably learning from increased media coverage of the issue, are generally incredibly misogynistic spaces) and am also working on projects in other public spaces. Ann Hirsch and I recently started a podcast called A Cups in which we discuss pop culture using a feminist lens with different guests (ranging from artists to reality TV stars to writers to comedians to scientists…). I’m excited to talk to people who work in different spheres, and hopefully access audiences that aren’t always exclusively a part of “the art world.” In terms of feminist discourse today – I still think it is a term that many consider antiquated, or as “a way to separate women from men to make women think they are better,” but fuck that. Feminism is as relevant today as ever, in any context. Many women I know (and myself included) can’t walk in the street alone without feeling unsafe because of men who think that it’s OK to grab a woman’s arm to tell her that she is beautiful, ask her if she is single, and then get angry and call her a cunt when they say that: 1. Grabbing me is inappropriate and 2. I’m not single and 3. Even if I was single this is no way to try and get my attention. I’ve been pinned against a wall in the subway for reading and not responding to sexual harassment. Yesterday I got a list-serv email from a college campus stating that women who run around the campus area should be on the lookout for a man who has been running up behind women and sexually assault them from behind. WTF. Ahem, anyway – that was ranty, sorry. Women are still judged upon for their beauty as their highest value and regularly treated as objects in all spheres + public spaces.
But in the art world (since this is what you really asked): I think there are still issues in the representation of work by and about women in gallery, museum, and art market contexts. Women’s experiences + perspectives + positions as sexualized objects, constantly under scrutiny, are still not generally considered. And, even though there are women in certain positions of power (largely gallerists, curators), it is still an uphill battle for women artists, and often those women in power have to sexualize themselves to get there. I also encounter a lot of (generally male) arts administrators and gallery owners who have this dated notion that all feminist performance work is supposed to mean hot women taking their clothes off and talking aggressive dirty talk. Some of those gallerists are attracted to it because they get off on that shit (not saying that the work itself is shit because it’s often incredible…historically two of my favorite artists present their bodies in confrontational ways – VALIE EXPORT and Carolee Schneeman). I am interested in a lot of feminist work that’s happening now because it is revealing in its sincerity, abject + frank depictions of sexuality, fragility, and is approached with a brave self-deprecating sense of humor – and also overlaps with sociology… Ann Hirsch, Nao Bustamante, Dynasty Handbag, Jennifer Chan to name a few artists I’ve been inspired by in the last couple of years. I really loved this recent essay by Rachel Rabbit White as well.
Chastity & The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, 2012, Part 1 of 3
You have also been working quite a bit in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, World of Warcraft. This includes public performances of the game in which you abandon the conventional goals of gamers and instead expose a variety of sexist attitudes by posing questions to various players about the nature of feminism. And, to further this aim, you’ve created “The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in the World of Warcraft.” Your video work, Chastity – which recently won the Terminal Award from the Center of Excellence in the Creative Arts at Austin Peay State University – takes the viewer on one such meander through WoW. Focusing on your encounter with a player named Chastity, a 19 year-old married woman, pregnant with her first child, the video shows presents a frank and meaningful exchange about your divergent perceptions on the role of women. What did you find so compelling about WoW as a space for this conversation?
I had gotten so used to being able to talk about feminism in contemporary art contexts because (largely) within the art/activism communities I generally work in I found that (for the most part) people in my community were in agreement that feminism is something that is important to talk about and the ways in which women are still today treated, evaluated, and commodified are indeed problematic. When I go back to my hometown (rural Reading, PA) I’m always shocked by the inexplicable outrage people have when the idea of feminism is mentioned. I mean, there’s a reason why there are 91 definitions of feminism in urban dictionary (see page 7 for a sampling). Anyway I became interested in the different ways the idea of feminism and the ideas of what women “should be/do” in general are interpreted when you change geographic, economic, political, and social spheres throughout the United States.
So I thought of a couple of reasons why WoW would be a great place to discuss feminism.
1. WoW is geographically, economically, politically, socially, and racially diverse. Discussing feminism in WoW is like going to a virtual (but still very physical) city and having access to people who are also inhabiting many, many disparate places but simultaneously inhabiting the same virtual space.
2. WoW is an environment in which people talk a lot in a variety of different channels. You can access thousands of people on a server at once. Granted, not all 1,000 will want to discuss feminism with me….but it’s still a better, bigger, and more diverse sampling than I can get on a city street corner. I want to hear from rural + urban attitudes, “conservative” + “liberal,” worldly + isolated, antisocial + popular, blue collar + white collar + the unemployed + freelancers + students, etc…WoW is great because the anonymity of the space allows for a frankness that is both frightening and also impressive, because no one is held accountable for what they say. This could mean that people can lie, but more often it means that they can be as extreme as they like in their beliefs and not be judged for it (and are actually generally rewarded for it socially).
Video still from Chastity, 2012
3. WoW is a community that I participate in and understand. I’ve been playing for a long time. I did take a hiatus for a while but returned without skipping a beat. I am comfortable there, I know the social cues, commands, communication channels. I am in guilds that I like. I used to raid a lot. This project relies heavily on my ability to play the game and my ability to create trust in the people who I talk to. Without my gaming skills, I would be a n00b and everyone would smell the exploitative aspect of the project right away (even though I do disclose that I am recording/performing/using the conversations for a research project – all true). I don’t know any artists who play WoW. I have access to this group of really diverse, interesting, unabashed people to discuss feminism with using the communication skills I’ve developed in my other lives as a facilitator/mediator/arts administrator/performance artist/actress/college athlete!
4. WoW is a notoriously misogynistic space (like most massively multiplayer online games). I originally thought of this project as activism – me going into the space asking lots of questions about feminism, revealing the obvious misogyny therein, uniting all the women in the game to revolt together to change it!!! This was an unrealistic goal. It shifted as the complexity of the responses I got made me question my own ideas about what being a woman means today and I started realizing that thoughts on the issues are so tied to our own perspectives – where we are, how we live, who we’re exposed to. And this space is a refuge for all kinds of ideologies that get less fashionable/acceptable in today’s increasing politically correct culture because it is harder to access, and thus not policed. But I am interested in these attitudes that still exist and are not often expressed in physical public space, but thrive and become the dominant language in internet spaces like WoW (and forums, other games, etc) and I’m glad that I now have the ability to get people to discuss them with me in a (seemingly) sincere way inside those spaces.
Do you see your work with WoW as a durational project? If so, what are some of your long-term goals?
Yes. I have been working inside WoW for a while now and I hope to continue. I am getting better as a facilitator each time I do it, so I think I am definitely getting somewhere – and it feels like I should keep doing it. I recently made a text transcript from some of the most interesting conversations I had with players…it includes the text from “Chastity” and is also 24 pages long…Ultimately I want to continue the conversations and make a book from the transcripts and screenshots. I also hope to start doing the live performance version in larger theater contexts with improved sounds, additional live-players on stage with me participating and a longer time frame (1.5 – 2 hours) to really get into more intense discussions. The live version of the performance suffers from a severely short time frame – which forces me to be in panic mode just hoping that SOMEONE will talk to me. More time = more casual and closer to how the conversations unfold when I’m conducting these conversations in my bedroom or studio.
Video still from An Irregularly Shaped Pearl, 2011
OK, we have to talk about boobs. Big, pink, balloon boobs. They crop up quite a bit in your projects. In fact, so do other exaggerated and artificial notions of stereotypical femininity, which you reappropriate and perform.
So, yeah. I’m interested in advocating for a more diverse idea of what kind of woman is acceptable, beautiful, and valued. In a lot of my performance and video work I try to step into the norms of what is popularly considered desirable (long hair, big tits, big ass, revealing clothes, feminine, fake eyelashes etc), norms that don’t apply to me – and end up failing. I’m not saying women who fit that description aren’t beautiful…I think they totally are, I just find that there are a lot of women who are incredible that don’t. I try to exaggerate the ridiculous idea that one must subscribe to these culturally imposed ideals in order to attain the person they want to be with. It’s bullshit. And if ultimately those things are exclusively what one feels bonded to…seems like a pretty weak connection, no? I agree that sexual attraction is in some way important to finding a partner, but in an age when anyone who can afford it can manipulate just about anything about themselves physically – perhaps we could also expand our culturally enforced ideas of what is desirable to be a bit more creative, too. I love Adam Zaretsky’s research on art and gene expression. Taken from a talk of his I listened to recently, he advocates for aiming (in genetics) for “the widest range of aesthetic bodies possible and this doesn’t just mean the widest range of beauty but the widest range of feelings a body can have…aesthetics doesn’t just mean good and there’s a lot of that going on here in this sort of ‘we need to go toward the pleasant, better feeling, longer living, more beautiful, more stable emotionally…’” I like this video of him talking about it.
I just watched 5 1/2 seasons so far of Millionaire Matchmaker (it’s “for a project” lol). I’ve been archiving the descriptions of what every male millionaire specifically asks Patti Stanger to find for them in a woman. Almost all of the men lead with physical attributes (though of course this could be a result of the show’s editing – which then I find also the show at fault for reinforcing this issue). I’ve been making spreadsheets of different data from the show, and the most popular responses to what male millionaires report to be looking for: #1 brunette, #2 beautiful, #3 petite, #4 able and willing to have children, #5 short, #6 hot, and finally coming in at a whopping #7: intelligent (big boobs and nice ass follow). In my work, I’m advocating for a massive mainstream beauty value re-assessment in whatever media and sphere that I’m working in. In an era in which you can pay to play in the “beauty standard department” (boob jobs, boob reductions, lipo, botox, incredible makeup, personal trainers, special diets, hair dyes, $1000 hair extension jobs), I hope that the projects I’m working on now promote a reconsideration of genetic otherness as being more valuable and beautiful than ever? eee?
Tits on Tits on Ikea, 2013
You also have the distinction of being the first artist to sell a video work formatted Vine, which was in The Shortest Video Art Ever Sold (#SVAES), a project of the Moving Image fair, and a development that received wide press attention, including coverage on Bad at Sports. I think one of the best points made in that piece was that much of the coverage emphasized the project’s commentary on patronage and the economic structures of the art world, and that the work itself was eclipsed by this focus. The piece that sold, Tits on Tits on Ikea, like many of your other works, offers a critical look at the mediated images of women. What was your specific focus with this work?
Oh gosh, I could go on and on about the weird economically-focused reactions to the sale of the video I made using Vine, but I won’t. I made the piece in Helsinki, Finland while I was at the HIAP artist residency program. The work is a video, made using the Vine app (which at the time was only supported by iPhones, so I didn’t even have it myself), which I had to borrow from Eleni Tsitsirikou (HIAP employee and performer in the video!). Vine was the curators’ specification for format. So because I found the format so odd, I wanted to respond to the medium’s restrictions – 6 seconds and square and looping. I read a lot about the early impulses of Vine users to use the medium immediately to create homemade porn or dick pics – an impulse popular in a lot of social video formats – Chatroulette being a famous one. So my piece is a performer showing her tits, which are my tits from a longer form video of mine, which are big pink balloons being massaged – producing a very irritating, high-pitched, plastic, rubbing sound. I wanted to sneak a longer video into an incredibly short format and have essentially two videos in one. I wanted to create a very disappointing version/reenactment of what would otherwise be a sexual act. I was also commenting on the lack of consideration that people often have regarding their “set design” in these chatroulette masturbation videos and homemade porn..,and thus you have “Tits on Tits on Ikea.”
Washko (center) performing with collaborators at Flux Factory, NYC
You’ve talked a lot about your work in connection to your community. It’s funny that this should be striking, but less and less it feels like artists are running in definable packs. How has your socialization within your community influenced your work?
My community has been incredibly important to my work. I’ve moved around a lot and have really been scraping to get by since 2009 – living on couches, relying on artist residency programs to provide temporary refuge from living on couches, getting travel grants which again provide temporary refuge from living on couches. But during this time I’ve always been compelled to organize events surrounding the works of people who I’ve met along the way that really speak to me. These artists create works critiquing cultural ideals and providing alternatives that have really impacted the way I think about my own work. My earliest socially engaged projects weren’t my own art projects, they were shows (exhibitions/experimental lecture events/performance events) that I organized including artists who were doing the kinds of work that resonated with me. The work of The Yes Men, Adam Zaretsky, Boryana Rossa + Oleg Mavromatti, Nao Bustamante, Chris Skinner, Jeff Stark, and The Center for Land Use Interpretation were all introduced to me when I did my first residency at CAC Woodside in Troy, NY. If it weren’t for the experience of meeting and learning from these artists that make challenging, multi-disciplinary, activism-oriented work, I might still be sitting in a studio trying to make + sell paintings – hoping that someone might knock on my door and say I make prettier paintings than every other painter and give me a gallery deal. My time in Troy was extremely formative. In Troy, there isn’t a lot going on, so it’s up to everyone there at any given time to create culture. NYC will always have enough venues and enough artists (“there’s something for everyone!”). But in Troy, like many artists there, I was moved to organize and participate to ensure that the community thrived. In that small town the community and the pool of artists is tiny, but the people participating are incredibly tight-knit and innovative. When I moved to Flux Factory in Queens (I was an artist-in-residence there for 2 years and the Residency Coordinator for 1 year), I found a similar vibe there. I also immediately got to make work collaboratively with a lot of very different artists and cultural producers, and was able to meet an incredibly massive network of people upon arrival in NYC, which is a pretty amazing opportunity. Flux also provided a platform for a lot of my community organizing. I produced a lot of events there and included a lot of the people I’d met in Troy and other residencies with the community I had found in Flux. As I’ve been able to gain some attention for my projects, I always try to bring people I believe in who aren’t getting the spotlight they deserve with me, as a lot of more-established people I care about have done the same for me. I’ve slowed down on the frantic curating/organizing (the demand of curating the Conflux Festival in the fall and a permanent collection exhibition at Southern Queens Parks Association that directly followed took its toll on me) but still maintain a critique group I started that meets monthly to discuss work (which has been really helpful for the development of my work – thanks Ann, Nathaniel, Jason, Alex, Man, Nate, Michelle and Sunita). I’m also organizing a performance event in late July. Lately, I find that a lot of my community is also online and equally as meaningful. My work has shifted a lot because of my community. I prefer to work from ideas and then choose what media is appropriate instead of defaulting to painting like I would have a few years ago, and I am much more interested in working my somewhat academic criticality into my practice, and creating new ways to display research-oriented projects. Despite being geographically separated, with the seemingly increasing importance of social media as a way to communicate what you do, it’s easier to find like-minded artists and activists in these formats as well, and I learn a lot from what other people are doing globally. I’d say that the days of the “artist hiding in a studio making magic” are limited and that “participating” should not be limited to going to openings. My advice for people moving to new cities or students graduating from art schools is always to find a community that interests you, attend what they do and get actively involved somehow. Keep making your own work, but don’t forget to take things in. The advice I was given when I graduated was “go get a studio and just make a lot.” In retrospect that advice might work for some, but that formula always left me feeling like I needed to be engaged with something more – I’m glad I figured out what makes sense for me. But I’m not sure I’m qualified to give advice anyway. <3
You’re a self-described “dude who is just trying to make things a little better.” Some other terms that have been used to describe you are: urban alchemist, rapid prototyper, and mischief-maker. Taken together, where do these designations put you on the spectrum of creativity?
You’ve been involved in a large variety of creative projects: producing digital media, unauthorized alterations to real-life, pain-in-the-ass issues with city dwelling, hilarious pranks, generous pranks, subway installations, and participatory events. Was being such an interdisciplinary, big picture thinker and do-er always the plan?
Oh man I wish there was a plan or something. I’m just making this shit up as I go along. Really, I’m just completely drunk with the enormity of the world and its infinite possibility and I can’t bear to focus on one small part of it at the exclusion of the rest. I thought focus would come with age, but if anything I’m falling in love with more, not less.
You’re also the Associate Curator of Digital Media at the Museum of the Moving Image. How do you negotiate your institutional role as a curator and your independent role as a cultural producer?
This is a tension I’ve always been sensitive about, but I’ve begun to understand how my roles overlap in the area of “participation.” At this point, referring to any moving image as “digital” is redundant, so professionally I’m interested in video games, interactive art, net art, and all the ways people are using creative acts to construct communities and express themselves online.
I’m lucky that Moving Image gives me a lot of room to explore topics that might be risky for a museum to touch. This results in fun projects that some of my friends accuse of being art, like We Tripped El Hadji Diouf and Under Construction. And you know, if an artist called those installations art, maybe someone would believe them. But I think they’re more interesting in the historical context I’ve set up. Thankfully the Museum isn’t an art museum, so I’m not burdened by that set of rules.
But because my field is the medium of participation – about the act of engaging – I have to participate, too. That means not just curating video games, but trying my hand at making them. Not just watching how people use animated GIFs, but creating and using them myself. Because getting your hands dirty is the whole point. Participation is not an end product, it’s an ongoing process.
You have moved fluidly between highly technical digital media work and very simple, low-tech interventions, and similarly, the “sites” of your work have gone between the public spaces of the internet and the public spaces of New York City. I think many people today struggle with finding a balance between virtual and real interactions. Has this been something you’ve maneuvered naturally, or has there been a deliberate push to find a balance?
There’s a “classic” moment from the 2009 Pirate Bay trial when the prosecutor, in a weird attempt to appear hip, used the term “IRL” (In Real Life). Peter Sunde replied, “We do not use the expression IRL. We use AFK.” (Away From Keyboard).
Which is to say the challenges we frame as real vs. virtual are just about proximity and mediation and self-presentation/performance, which are issues we’ve always faced since our species became self-aware. The only difference is the tools.
Every generation is comfortable navigating the world with the tools they grew up with and every generation feels uncomfortable with the tools they didn’t grow up with, and there’s a simple evolutionary reason for this: Our brains are elastic during our youth as we figure out how the world works, adapting very easily to new tools because, well, everything is new to us. And our brains become more firm as we age so we can more efficiently do the things that ensured our survival. And in age, we can interpret new tools as threats or we can adapt and relearn behaviors. Historically this was not much of a tension, because, e.g., it took thousands of generations to perfect agriculture. Today, the tools change a little faster.
Up until this point, the balance has all been very natural for me. But my synaptic pruning is just starting to ramp up. I’d like to think that I’ll still passionately take up new tools for the rest of my life, but who knows? In the end, I’m at the mercy of my body.
You clearly enjoy a good laugh. Humor and play can build a sense of community, which you also obviously value, but can it also function as a small act of resistance?
Of course. Most of my heroes fit in the middle of that Venn diagram, except their resistance is often quite big: Abbie Hoffman, John Law, Stephen Colbert, etc.
Is it really easier to beg for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission?
Yes. This is known as a game of “imperfect information” in game theory. Unfortunately, this usually doesn’t work in our favor, for example America’s surveillance state (companies/governments compile data about you for the benefit of the powerful) or our culture of litigation (companies/governments limit possibility to reduce the likelihood of lawsuits).
Your recent work, Concision, Concision, Concision, “sold” for a 5,000-word essay on the value of concision. That’s not very concise.
Speaking in broad terms, the theme of human relationships recurs in your work. The dialog around socially-engaged art has gained momentum in the past few years and in many cases, shares similar concerns with your projects including: shared authorship, participation, utility, public engagement, et cetera. Is this a conversation you find any interest in?
I tend to zone out whenever these terms pop up, primarily because the “a” word (“art”) signals a narrow approach that I’m not very interested in. I mean, I guess I’m glad people with some amount of power who are not evil are paying attention to this stuff, and I suspect their validation will do more good for humanity than the subjection does harm.
But I’m interested in things that are necessarily transgressive, and I don’t think they can exist in the same systems that use words like “socially-engaged art.” A lot of people start out making daring, exciting work because they having nothing to lose, because nothing is at stake. And then they become recognized for it and suddenly something (their livelihood, usually) is at stake and they can’t take big risks anymore. But I want to always exist in a space where nothing is at stake, where I can risk everything. Is that adolescent contrarianism? I don’t know. Maybe. But I have to follow it where it takes me.
That said, I think getting more people involved in the production of our shared culture is always a good thing, as long as the primary benefitting party is the participant, not the institution or the instigator as is the case with much “participatory” “art.”
Social Practice Queens (SPQ) is a collaboration of the Art Department of CUNY Queens College and the Queens Museum of Art with the goal of developing an MFA pilot program in Social Practice. The vision is to serve as a model for education in this field by combining the expertise of a group of artists, administrators, educators, and those engaged with local issues specific to Queens, NYC, one of the most complex and multicultural urban centers in the world.
The first cohort of SPQ students began the program in spring 2012 with a semester-long introduction to the Corona, Queens neighborhood and its newest public space, Corona Plaza. The Queens Museum and its organizers have been instrumental in transforming Corona Plaza into a programming and organizing platform for the community, and have been actively collaborating with the students in the development of their projects, which are set to launch this summer.
And, plans are afoot for a conference in the spring of 2014 in the QMA’s new expansion wing that will emulate aspects of the Open Engagement conference at Portland State University, but with a decidedly NYC flavor.
SPQ collaborators Prerana Reddy and Jose Serrano of the QMA offered some insight into this experimental partnership, and what it means for the collaborating institutions, students, and community stakeholders alike.
Juliana Driever: You chose to name this a “social practice” program, though there is a bevy of other ways of calling this work: new genre art, socially engaged art, relational art, et cetera. Is using the word “practice” a way around using the word “art?” Are you interested in pushing this kind of work beyond a specifically art-oriented dialog?
Prerana Reddy/Jose Serrano: The choice of the words “social practice” was more pragmatic than anything. There was no deliberate distancing from using the word “art.” It had more to do with acknowledging the growing community of practitioners that has come to identify with this particular terminology.
What we did spend a lot of time on was discussing what form of ‘social practice’ we could excel at, and how that might end up in our branding. So there were ideas ranging from ‘urban social practice’ to ‘critical social practice’, which would have been intended to highlight the kinds of artist projects that address the complex urban fabric of a place like Queens, or signal a stronger critical-political component, respectively.
JD: There are a handful of other “social practice” (or similarly dubbed) MFA programs in the U.S. The interest in this discipline as a course of study seems to be growing. Do you think this creative interest has something to do with the larger state of social relationships, a shift in the state of art pedagogy, or a conflation of these and other circumstances?
SPQ graduate student Seth Aylmner collaborates with the youngest artists of Corona toward the creation of a bronze sculpture for Corona Plaza. Courtesy of the Queens Museum of Art and Queens College Art Department.
PR/JS: There at least as many answers to this as people involved in the initiative. Some might say that the development of these programs has to do with simply fulfilling a need, as more students identify with this type of work and are looking for graduate degrees…
There has been an increased pressure on arts and academic institutions to define the benefits they provide to society at large. In an era of economic crisis, there is always a pressure to think of arts and culture as a luxury that can be cut. I think there is a genuine belief on the part of those who work in these institutions that art provides not only educational benefits, but a cohesive and inclusive space for a healthy and engaged civic life of the communities that they work in and with. In a time when public space is increasingly privatized and policed, it behooves artists, designers, and public intellectuals alike to work together to strengthen the public sphere. Social Practice emerges at a time in which what practitioners know intuitively must be expressed more concretely and analyzed more rigorously.
JD: Unlike other social practice MFA programs, SPQ is in direct partnership with a major museum, which is a unique set-up for an MFA program to start, but even more so given that much socially-engaged art typically takes place beyond museum and gallery contexts. Does the QMA’s investment in this program also signal a shift in the role that museums play in support of such work?
PR/JS: At the Queens Museum of Art, we are constantly striving to examine whether the avant-garde in the realms of art and politics can actually meet. Can an art project simultaneously address aesthetics and concrete social goals in public space? This is a constantly evolving process, one that must be responsive to shifting demographics, economic conditions, political will, unplanned crises, and a constantly unfolding definition of art. Unlike the confines of the gallery or contracted set of artistic services rendered in non-museum spaces, engaging in complicated social relations in the “real world” involves a surrender of control over outcome as well as some amount of risk. This is not something that all museums want to enter into or are well-positioned to do.
Families read together at the UNI Project’s Mobile Reading Room at a Community Celebration at the newly designed Corona Plaza, 2012. Photo by Neshi Galindo.
However, equally, if one is receptive, such projects provide invaluable input in the context of a long-term, iterative experiment in local knowledge production. It also requires staff with specialized training and social networks outside of or in addition to those found in traditional curatorial or museum administration spheres. For example, the QMA staff includes two community organizers, three art therapists, and more than twenty teaching artists whose backgrounds and language repertoires mirror the diversity of our largely new immigrant neighbors. QMA’s exhibition program consistently exhibits artists who work collaboratively with our community members, and our partnerships include municipal agencies, local advocacy organizations, health care providers, urban planners, local business associations, and public libraries. Furthermore, these staff must be consistently present in community spaces and events, and possess the intuition, social skills, and social capital to overcome communication barriers and historic mistrust of arts institutions.
Participatory public artist projects exist within triangular set of relational dynamics amongst the Museum, the artists’ projects, and audiences. Museums have curatorial and social questions that are motivations for commissioning such projects: the development of new species of artists residencies within museums as labs for investigation; mutual education and different modes of interaction; the changing understanding of the mission of museums and their responsibility to the cultural vitality and health of local communities; the visibility (or invisibility) of participatory art practices and their relationship to traditional gallery exhibitions and experiences; and the role of documentation, presentation, and new digital and interactive (web2.0) technology in the life and dissemination of such emerging practices.
JD: Because “social practice” implies an inherent nature as an applied art, is there the desire/need for the equivalent of a “materials and techniques” handbook or something such? In a very practical sense, how does one approach teaching this area of study?
PR/JS: We don’t necessarily have a “unified theory” of how to teach this work, because it depends so much on context, but we’ve been doing a lot of experimenting. First, nothing is more important than lived experience. It is important to encourage students to develop projects and actively participate in the initiatives of others, including more experienced artists but also with people and organizations in other fields that align with their interests. The museum provides “these points of access” for students to enter into ongoing projects as they unfold and to meet a wide variety of artists, organizers, and administrators at various points in the process of “social practice.” But we have realized that there are important community organizing skills that seem to be relevant to most of the student projects. QMA’s Public Events Department is also “on-call” to advise students how to manage permits, navigate city agencies, work with CBOs, find necessary technical services or advice, which are also key components in this type of art practice.
Maureen Connor, one of the lead faculty of SPQ, recently instigated a social practice pedagogy group that is jointly developing an introductory Social Practice syllabus with other NYC and East Coast faculty this Spring. They have been meeting weekly since mid-December and are teaching the course while developing it. In addition to Maureen, the group includes Caroline Woolard, Scott Berzofsky, Robert Sember, Mark Read, Laurel Ptak, Sasha Sumner, Shane Aslan Seltzer, and Susan Jahoda.
JD: Taking human relationships as a medium and a context is an undoubtedly tricky thing. Have you identified/partnered with key figures from Corona to help facilitate projects with the students? What has been the community involvement and response to this initiative and its projects?
PR/JS: That “permaculture” approach has been a kind of ideal for Corona Studio, and into this context we introduced SPQ and the first cohort of students. In the spring of 2012, the first SPQ course was based out of Immigrant Movement International, and was focused on the transformation of Corona Plaza. It was called: “Corona Studio: Transforming Corona Plaza” and was opened to both graduates and undergraduates in both the Art Department and the Urban Studies departments at Queens College. Throughout the semester, we invited some of our most valued community partners as visiting lecturers to help the students develop “listening tools” that would help them have meaningful conversation with the stakeholders of the plaza, and in doing so, learn to see the potential for creative interventions in a more holistic community context. Over the course of the last year, the students have remained connected to the community by participating in many of the museum’s ongoing public events in the Plaza, and by carrying forward their own creative projects in Corona with the support of the Museum and its partners. Many of these projects will culminate with public events in Corona Plaza throughout the summer of 2013.
Community celebration at the newly designed Corona Plaza, 2012. Photo by Neshi Galindo.
For example, Barrie Cline and Sol Aramendi, two students in the program, are collaborating on a project with members of the community organization New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), a long-time community partner of the Museum which advocates for the rights of recently arrived and often undocumented immigrant workers in Corona. The first installment of the project will culminate in the launch of a publication showcasing the writing and photography of the members of NICE in collaboration with union tradespeople from the Harry Van Arsdale School for Labor Studies, an institutional connection offered to the project by Barrie Cline.
JD: A criterion common to some of the most successful community-based projects is sustainability: the desire and ability to stick around in a community for an extended period of time. How have you considered encouraging a meaningful, lasting relationship between the students, the college, the museum, and the community?
PR/JS: We’ve had the opportunity to think about this question quite a bit, as the Museum has invested a lot of time and energy addressing the sustainability and health of our relationships in the community of Corona.
Over the last eight years, we have had an actively cooperative stance in terms of our community relationships, and have developed a strong network of over 40 community partners, some of which participated in creative collaborations we proposed to them — for example, working with one of our commissioned artists, or co-producing a cultural event in Corona Plaza.
Corona Studio was born from a desire to sustain these creative relationships, by committing ourselves to a program of commissioning long-term artist projects that are actively interested in working creatively and cooperatively with our community partners in Corona, and the people of Corona at large.
Workshop at Corona Plaza by Change Administration and DSGN AGNC. Courtesy of the Queens Museum of Art and Queens College Art Department.
The first of these commissioned projects was Immigrant Movement International, a cultural space initiated by Tania Bruguera that is going into its third year and has become the de-facto home of many of the local cultural groups that we have been working with throughout the years, like the Corona Youth Music Project. We have also developed long-term projects in Corona with the Ghana ThinkTank artist collective, the Change Administration, and DSGN AGNC design collectives in the context of the transformation of Corona Plaza. In the case of each project, our goal was for it to benefit from the relationships developed by the ones that came before, and for it to pay it forward to those that come after.
So for example, Immigrant Movement International became an active partner and the host for many of the gatherings organized by the Ghana Think Tank, and the social projects surrounding Corona Plaza.
We have been thinking about the question of sustainability not simply in terms of each of the individual projects, but also in terms of their fluidity and openness to connect with existing relationships and resources, and their willingness to re-invest their community energy into subsequent projects, as well as other locally-driven initiatives.
Each participatory art project allows new, often unforeseeable, partnerships and projects to emerge based on the skills and insights learned through their interactions both with the community collaborators and the Museum. The community who participates in those projects might shift their perceptions about what art is and what roles it could play in social life, what types of personal transformations it could bring about in terms of self-perception, new social interactions, and political possibilities. The challenge then becomes one of capacity and commitment: how to continue to build upon these possibilities and to remain accountable to partners beyond the lifespan of a project or a grant cycle that supports it. On the evaluation side, it is difficult to understand the impact of such projects. Exit interviews, final reports, surveys, and the like represent a very small slice of what takes place in a participatory art project, somewhat like a single frame in a serial scan of a longitudinal social process. Ultimately, we believe the engagement approach of any institution is necessarily situated in both ecological and ethical terrains, in that such endeavors live within a dense, interconnected local environment as well as a set of contested value systems that must be constantly negotiated towards generative rather than reductive outcomes.