With certain currents in the contemporary art world pulling out of the gallery and museum box and into the spaces of everyday life, social relationships have come into focus as the site of many artistic projects. Increasingly, self-organized creative types pick up with simple materials, a group of friends, and an idea to enact change in their various communities by participating in and with them. Between Chicago (Bad at Sports’ hometown) and New York City (my hometown) there are two similar projects – with varying regard to an art world dialog – that center on a waste-not-want-not brand of idealism. Encouraging inventive approaches to everyday repair problems, Community Glue Workshop (Chicago, IL) and Fixers Collective (Brooklyn, NY) have each been building community by tinkering with and fixing things. All kinds of things. I recently had the good fortune of sitting down with Ally Brisbin and Carla Bruni of Community Glue Workshop, and Vincent Lai of Fixers Collective to discuss their respective work.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
Juliana Driever: Can you describe, generally, what you do and how you each got started?
Ally Brisbin: I think it was probably in May or June of 2012, when Carla posted a link to a New York Times article about the repair café movement in the Netherlands on Facebook, wanting to start something similar. I saw it and responded immediately. I own a coffee shop, called Kitchen Sink – which is how I know Carla, she comes into the shop. It seemed like Community Glue Workshop would be a natural thing that we could start, so we began reaching out to folks in our network who could help us. We found a designer, found people who could donate their time and tinkering abilities, made a WordPress site and a Facebook page and launched it within two months. It took off and got a great response right away. We have a crew of about six fixers who have been with us since the beginning. We have been doing one fix per month at my cafe in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. But next month, in April, we’ll be doing our first fix at a new location, StoryStudio Chicago, so we can reach a new audience and hopefully get new faces in the door.
Community Glue Workshop organizers Ally Brisbin (left) and Carla Bruni (right) at a repair clinic on November 18, 2012 at Brisbin’s coffee shop Kitchen Sink.
Vincent Lai: Fixers Collective started in the 2008-09 season when Proteus Gowanus, the gallery in Brooklyn that hosts us, organized its annual thematic exhibition schedule around the idea of “mend.” I started up with Fixers Collective in 2010, after a friend of mine who was interested in fixing umbrella fabric told me about it. I came on board because I wanted to fix. Period. I do it for the sake of being very hand-sy, working with my hands, and to repair things that probably would go in a landfill, or would be shredded. There’s a lot of value that can be re-captured with a little tinkering. I’ve been active with the Facebook page, outreach to the community, we’ve been at the Maker Faire the past few years in New York, and there are a lot of other things that are developing on the horizon, too.
JD: Was Fixers Collective something that came together because of the show at Proteus Gowanus? Or was it something that was starting up already?
VL: During that season, there were workshops, and people would come and sit around and fix things. And actually, part of the exhibit was not only the things they were fixing, but also the tools used. At the end of the night, when you put your things down, a large Plexiglas shield would be placed over the table, so the next day you saw the work in progress.
Carla Bruni: So, it’s like a performance.
VL: Yes, exactly. It’s part performance. So, after the season ended, People still wanted to fix, and we’ve been getting together on a regular basis since then.
JD: So, would you say that you started fixing things from an art context?
VL: Yes, we did start from an art/gallery context, and we would still like to keep the art context as much as possible. I think without it, we would just become just a repair shop. We try to discourage that concept, where people may come in and ask, “Can I just drop this off?” We tell people that they really need to be there to participate in a performance.
CB: We don’t come from a performance perspective – it’s more of an environmental perspective – and the community focus is just as important. Just to do repair is not enough. We do get people like that, but most of the time we get a lot of people coming back to participate again – because we figure things out together. For us, it’s not really an art angle, it’s a community angle. But we are also intuitively aware that to do it just as a straight-on repair shop would not be as rich of an experience.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
JD: What’s a popular fix?
CB: Good Lord, are there a lot of lamps! People bring in three at a time. It’s outrageous.
VL: I know that we can count on having at least one lamp for each session, unless it’s specifically geared to something else. Other things we get on a regular basis are small kitchen appliances. We do see toasters, blenders, food processors, coffee grinders and a lot of issues with motors or switches.
AB: We get clothes a lot, too. We have a little rotating stable of seamstresses, so we always have one sewing machine. One time I had the shirt I was wearing repaired, my friend had the skirt she was wearing repaired, all during the the event …So you just go and hide in the bathroom while they’re stitching up the holes, and then throw it back on. We get a lot of broken ceramics, too. I think because our name is Community Glue…
CB: Right, because some people think the fixes would be limited to that. At least one fix every workshop requires gluing things, and it’s usually me who ends up gluing things back together. Oh, and bikes, too. We have a guy who comes in and repairs bikes, and more so when the weather gets warmer. It’s huge because it’s so expensive.
VL: We don’t get a lot of bike repairs because there’s an organization in NYC that has done a lot with reuse and repair called Recycle-A-Bicycle. They do a lot of community outreach, so we may see a bike repair once a quarter.
Community Glue Workshop fixer Paul Bassett (left) helps Jorge Sanchez get a floor lamp back into working order at a repair clinic.
JD: There is an aspect of folk pedagogy in what you each do – where learning is happening in more social, participatory and informal ways. I think of a gathering like quilting circles, where community knowledge was passed down through talking and interacting and the simple fact of being there and being hands-on. Have you observed this? What are the effects of this more personal exchange of knowledge?
CB: I think it’s been a really important part of what we’re doing. One thing that’s especially great is when kids come in and they’re blown away when they understand that you can “look under the hood,” so-to-speak, and actually see how things connect. I used to do this when I was a kid, but you don’t really see that anymore. In general, the issue of why we don’t use our hands is a big part of why, philosophically, this project is so interesting to us.
VL: I find myself using the phrase, “Project-Based Learning Initiative” partly because I heard that phrase used by Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari. I was attending the Games for Change conference, and he made a wonderful case for project-based learning for an educational model in schools. He listed a bunch of roles that teachers play right now – being an entertainer, a clerk, a disciplinarian. But, you can remove all of those roles if you’re engaged in a project-based learning model. So, I think it’s important to have people come over and hang around and idle. The more people around you, the more valuable the experience. Of particular interest are the slice-of-life observations that are made when all sorts of people come in with their stories. We’ll hear stories about manual fixes and what people would call “ghetto fixes,” and I think so much of this wouldn’t be possible if you were just doing it by yourself in your garage.
CB: You do get to hear a lot about the things other people are working on. There was a guy at the last workshop who works with a group that takes stuff out of alleys and makes franken-machines. It’s a bit different from our mission, but it’s obviously related, and we get to know a lot of people like that who are super handy and help out.
JD: Do you also think about how your work might take on outcomes that are less practical, perhaps in the way it might address larger social issues? What are the large-scale implications in working toward these smaller-scale “fixes?”
AB: For me, it’s to draw attention to the fact that our culture is so obsessed with the disposable. We’re so far removed from nature and even from trades. Everybody’s job is digital – and it’s not real, it’s not tangible – so even objects become these things that you can just delete. But, you can’t really. It goes somewhere. Someone made it, and probably in a sweatshop. So, I think about how we need to stop feeding the beast, and reduce what we’re using.
CB: I come from a historic preservation background, where we re-use entire buildings. In terms of green building rating systems, you’re rewarded for replacing everything, not for keeping things and repairing them. Even in system that was designed to make us more environmentally friendly, it’s a totally throw-away culture, it’s all about consumption still…which is of course why were in this problem in the first place. I was feeling frustrated by this for years, so that’s a large part of the thrust for me. But, it also it makes me sad that kids, and people in general, don’t know how to fix anything anymore. We’re losing a lot of our ability to solve problems creatively. Plus, it’s fun! People don’t come here to be on an assembly line, they come for the challenge of problem solving.
VL: What I think about the most is computer electronic recycling. I was a first-hand witness to all of the stuff that got turned in for recycling – or the phrase that I would rather use: “wrapping and shredding.” People mistake certain recycling for reuse, and they think that when they turn it in for recycling, it’s going to get reused. However, a lot of what gets turned in gets wrapped up, and sent to a shredder and chopped up for scrap metal. I’ve seen MacBooks that didn’t need to go to recycling, they just needed to a $20 replacement chip. So, in this town, the throw-away culture is strongly evident with computers and electronics, and the people who recycle it don’t reuse enough. Recycling is a first line of defense instead of last resort. So, that’s where I want the fixers to intercede, to bring one more line of defense before the recyclable shredding happens. Also, there’s another term that iFixit is throwing around: “product as appliance.” It explains the idea that when something is broken, we can just get a new one. Apple will treat a broken iPad or iPhone in the same way another company will approach a broken blender or toaster: by throwing it away and replacing it. So, that’s what we try to fight, too.
CB: Even when something is being recycled as we are told it is going to be, is very energy intensive. Additionally, with downcycling, it’s really grating to me when someone wants to take an item – say a really nice guitar – that is a bit warped and make it into a flowerpot. Anything can be a flowerpot! You’re taking a $500 guitar that needs a little TLC and a small part and downcylcing it. That drives me nuts — taking these really complex appliances that can last so much longer and essentially turning them into a concrete bowl. Give it another life! Instead of just downcycling everything that way, get as much as you can out of objects that are superior products or built for certain functions, that took a lot of energy to create. It’s hard to describe our mission to people because they think we’re tying to repurpose things since that’s what’s so hip now. I do that stuff too, but I’m also very mindful of that fact that this whole piece is missing: don’t repair things as they were. I think there needs to be that faction, too.
It was a full house at Kitchen Sink, host to Community Glue Workshop repair clinic, on November 18, 2012.
JD: When as a culture, we’re so taken with the disposable and the new, I’d imagine that you might have bumped up against the perception that your projects hold a kind of old-school, greatest generation mentality. Do you see the idea of re-use strike a chord again in recent years, during our economic downturn?
AB: I hope so, and it might be that I’m surrounded by more progressive folks, but I’m praying for a return to our roots. I like what’s happening with the recent return to community gardening projects, and how people want to produce their own food with a real interest and concern over where it comes from. It’s becoming hip to shun processed, terrible, chemical-laden food, and I think it goes hand-in-hand, with the idea that increasingly people want to get into their possessions and know how they work. I think that an interest in food can turn into a privileged passion, but the repair movement is certainly not a privileged endeavor. It’s extremely accessible and it makes sense for those who can’t afford to buy organic, or shop at Whole Foods. But, I think we’ve got a ways to go before we affect Middle America.
CB: I think people also miss working on things. Someone will pay a silly amount of money to go to a workshop, and put a couple of screws in a couple pieces of wood to make a bench, just because they want so badly to know they made a bench. So, they’ll pay $50 for someone to hand them a piece of wood and give them permission to make something. It’s great that this is happening, but I feel like it’s a sign of how removed people are from real things and how desperate we are to feel like we can make something again and be involved with our environment.
VL: The Mend exhibit, and in turn Fixers Collective, happened in part because of the financial collapse, so I would speculate that a lot of people came in on the defensive to just say, “Oh my God, I need this thing fixed.” So, then we just guided their hands through the process as they fixed it up. But, I’m hoping that these same people would come back later and want to sit down and fix things and be with others. We see that greatest generation mentality come in, and we have a fun time putting that up against a MacBook or an iPod that need fixing.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
JD: How have you observed gender roles coming into play in these gatherings? Are the women doing sewing, and the men doing electrical work?
CB: It does kind of break out that way.
AB: We mostly have men as volunteers, the only women who volunteer are doing sewing, and it just so happens that the men do everything else.
VL: If you look at recent Facebook pictures of our one of our patching sessions, you’ll see one of our Master Fixers, Tony, working the sewing machine to seam back up his jeans. Some of us make a really active effort to jump and cross those gender role gaps. It’s there, but we do also see instances where you would expect it, but then expectations are thwarted. There was a news article that surfaced recently about a bridge in Brooklyn that is going to be reconstructed, and the Department of Transportation is actively seeking women to work on the reconstruction. The organization working on this project is called Nontraditional Employment for Women, and we had one of their members to come in and fix our power saw. It’s there, we’re aware of it, and because we’re aware of it we make an effort to go outside of those expectations.
AB: What are we going to call a guy who brings in his sewing machine one day? A “seamster?” A tailor? I tried to call them “sew-ers” one time in a Facebook update, and someone wrote in, “Hey, it looks like you wrote ‘sewers.’”
Launch of the Massicot | Credit: Kendra Sullivan
Consisting of a current roster of seven members, Mare Liberum is a self-described “freeform publishing, boatbuilding and waterfront art collective based in the Gowanus, Brooklyn.” Jean Barberis, Ben Cohen, Dylan Gauthier, Anna Larson, Arthur Poisson, Kendra Sullivan and Stephan von Muehlen make up the collaborative-crew, who have been actively adventuring around New York City – and beyond – in a variety of boats made from free or cheap materials. While the members of Mare Liberum are typically described as artists, they are in fact a much more diverse group; among them – yes – artists, non-profit administrators, a poet, an industrial designer and an elementary school teacher. We recently had a round-robin discussion, including their thoughts on polyvalent art practice, the emergent dialog between waterborne artists and building a paper boat.
Tell me a little bit about the name “Mare Liberum.” Where does that come from?
Dylan Gauthier: We borrowed the name Mare Liberum – which is latin for Freedom of the Seas – from a 17th century commentary which championed the natural rights of maritime trade and navigation and forms the basis of modern maritime law. Penned by the Dutchman Hugo Grotius in 1609, Mare Liberum sought to resolve a political debate between, on the one side, Spain and Portugal – who had been awarded halves of the earth by the Pope – and on the other, the Dutch – who had recently broken away from the Spanish Monarchy and were claiming their right to freely travel and engage in trade.
In taking the name we oriented the collective toward a study of past relationships with the water as well as to the present environmental threat to the sea through global warming but also the exploitation of oil resources and other risky undertakings that threaten the health and stability of this water-commons. For us Mare Liberum is also a bit tongue-in-cheek, since we were interested in getting out on the water for as little cost as possible, hence our translation and our website “thefreeseas.org”
Mare Liberum is known for building a small and humble boat called a dory, and more recently, canoes and kayaks. What attracted you to these particular kinds of watercrafts?
Stephan von Muehlen: For Dylan and I, coming out of the Empty Vessel Project, getting access to the water in NYC meant lowering the barrier to entry for everyone. Having a small, inexpensive boat makes it a lot easier than maintaining and keeping a big boat. They also each have their own histories that we tapped into for inspiration and historical context. The move from dories to kayaks to rowing skiffs to canoes charts a progression towards simpler lighter-weight boats that make it easier and easier to get out on the water.
Dylan: We were looking through a book of boat designs by the late John Gardner, who had been a socialist educator and labor organizer in the 1930s, but is better known as a writer of DIY boatbuilding guides and the head of the education department at Mystic. We were looking through some of his boats, which were already broken down into steps that the novice boatbuilder could build, and the Dory seemed just the right size for our first boat. It also had this long history of being a cheap and throw-about kind of thing that could be stacked on the decks of larger fishing boats and let out into the water in a hurry. We liked that.
ML Dorys on the Gowanus | Credit: Mare Liberum
In the past, you’ve offered instructional workshops on boatbuilding, and you also offer templates and broadsheets with instructions describing how to build a Mare Liberum dory on your website. What are you hoping potential boat builders will do with their vessels? Are there practical – or impractical – results you hope to achieve?
Ben Cohen: I hope that potential boat builders will get out on the water! I think these boats are not quite practical, but good at breaking the mystique surrounding boatbuilding and boating. Getting over that hurdle I think puts people in a position to take a more serious approach to how to use the waterways here.
Dylan: The main thing for us was getting out on the water, exploring this open expanse around the hemmed in city, and as we figured out how to do this, we hoped to make this knowledge attainable by others. We’ve lent a lot of our boats out – and also given instruction and hands-on advice – to artists, but we’re not only thinking of our boats as art or as platforms for artistic inquiry. We really want people to be inspired to build their own crafts and explore the water around them. So even if people aren’t building our boats we think we’re contributing to a dialogue about the uses of this public resource here in the city, and that connects with ideas about urban planning and design as well as with economic and environmental justice – so, who gets to live here, who gets to enjoy the city’s wealth of resources, who gets locked out of the equation, etc.
Mare Liberum also maintains a publishing arm and produces broadsheets of the collective’s boat constructions. To what extent is your publishing activity part of an effort to reach a wider public? Are you also thinking of your prints as creative documentation?
Stephan: I once told Dylan that without the publishing arm that places what we do in an art and historical context and serves to share what we have learned with other people, we would run the risk of being a bunch of dudes in a garage making boats for ourselves. Although that can be good too–and I might happily end up there one day–it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting or fun.
Broadsheet 7: On Paper Boat Construction (Le Massicot or the PAPERei Canoe) | Credit: Mare Liberum
Are you interested in defining Mare Liberum as art, activism or something in between? Do these distinctions matter?
Arthur Poisson: The difference between art and activism doesn’t matter. The most important thing is to do what we want, what we think is of significance, and to stay involved in it. To distinguish it as art, publications, or work in the kitchen is missing the point.
Jean Barberis: I’m not interested in defining it. I like the inbetweenness. The boats as objects are never meant to be seen as pieces of art, even though they’ve been shown in museums and generally get a good response from the art crowd. I guess because it’s a very hybrid and multifaceted project it touches a lot of people.
Ben: Looking from one side of this distinction to the other is the interesting part for me. It seems like people experience our project as a portal from one field to another; either they are a builder or activist and see through us to the art-world, or they are an artist and see through us to an activist or craft idea. When you see through the project you experience something you’re not used to and your ideas about what craft can be or what art can be should change.
Dylan: I think the distinctions do matter, and also the distinctions don’t matter. We go pretty easily between these at-times exclusionary “worlds.” We also have this other connection which is to the historic boatbuilding community, which is generally not primarily interested in either the art or the activism but is still interested in our project and gets excited about our use of materials, etc.
While at its core, Mare Liberum deals seriously with issues like reclaiming access to NYC waterways as viable public space, there is something undeniably playful about your project. It feels close to childhood adventure fantasies – a creative circumstance in which a new and self-directed set of rules and conventions can be enacted.
Jean: Absolutely. My collaborations with the collective have resulted in some of the most amazing adventures: Exploring a boat graveyard with Marie Lorenz as part of Flux Factory’s going places doing stuff, racing kayaks around Maumau Island with Swimming Cities, and of course rowing a paper skiff 180 miles from Clayton, NY to Montreal. Honestly my childhood fantasies weren’t nearly as wilds as these journeys turned out to be.
Kendra Sullivan: The actualization of a childhood fantasy is a bizarre and mind-bending experience. Nothing is what you expected. For one thing, it’s a lot harder. For another, it’s a lot more beautiful. I think that’s because it’s no longer about escape from reality, but an extreme engagement with reality at its most elemental – the weather, the water, your friends. Building your own vehicle to enter that altered sphere makes you feel like one among a crew of architects authoring a shared dream. It’s lovely.
Stephan: There is definitely something about the water that can capture the imagination and that we all read about as children and some of us still do as adults. The rules are different and you really do see the world from the outside when you are out there. There are no fences or roads or private property. The elements have a lot of say about what you can and can’t do, but not so much the regular set of laws and players. It can be scary and risky. We make ‘best efforts’ to make sure we don’t hurt ourselves or encourage others to the same, but you definitely can set the stage for an adventure when you go out in water in a small boat, and it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong…
There are a handful of artists building junk rafts, boats and other kinds of floats in NYC right now. Immediately, I can think of Constance Hockaday, Marie Lorenz, A’yen Tran, Swoon, Mary Mattingly… How do you see the dialog produced by this particular network of artists evolving?
Stephan: We are friends and help each other out. I am inspired by everyone you listed. We have shown work together, been on panels, and built boats with each other. We all have our own projects and draw inspiration from the same people that did similar things before us (Poppa Neutrino, for instance). I think we all started our projects for different reasons at different times, but the Sea Worthy exhibition (co-organized by EFA Project Space, Flux Factory and The Gowanus Studio Space) and the show at the Antique Boat Museum (in Clayton, NY) put us all in the same room together. It makes sense.
Dylan: I think it’s great how much work is being made around the water in the city right now, and there’s a lot of really interesting interactions happening there, all the more-so as people are responding to the changing floodlines post-Sandy, etc. But all of our work has crossed paths on numerous occasions and I know that we’re all learning from each others’ projects and adventures and experiences. There’s also a handful of other artists that we have not had the pleasure to work with directly but who are building boats and grounding some part of their practice in human, ecological or economic relationships of maritime culture or the symbolism of the water – so Hans Schabus and Simon Starling and Julien Berthier and Nari Ward and Mark Dion come to mind. So it’s a very rich and diverse, um, what is it… something between “scene” and “meme”… “scmeme?” to be a part of.
Arthur: Again, I’m not sure if the term “artist” is important, the most important, to describe the water building community. A dialog exists, separate of the art community, but there is no interest in it. The water context is larger than the art dialog, and, for example, the fishermen on the Marina 59 (where Constance Hockaday’s Boatel project was docked) are a huge part of the community, and without them, nothing can exist in this place. The “dialog” that you’re referring to only holds meaning for the art world, and projects of this kind can’t hold real meaning or value for a local community if only artists act or are involved.
Jean: I think this waterborne arts scene is in full expansion. It’s especially strong in New York with the people you’ve named and collectives like Swimming Cities and events like Sea Worthy, which really helped federate everybody. The Boatel came out of that and it’s been a real focal point for the whole community. Swimming Cities has organized this amazing event called the Battle for Maumau Island for the last two summers, Chicken John out on the west coast has an event called Camp Tipsy which is also bringing tons of people together. Then there’s also a lot of artists in Europe doing somewhat similar projects though they might more isolated: Fergal McCarthy, Filip Jonker, Julien Berthier, Simon Starling, Peter Callesen…
Kendra: I am interested to see how the hurricane changes the way we approach making art in/around/about the water. I also think that how gender plays out on the water is a topic worth delving into a bit further.
Mare Liberum Crew Charts a 160 Mile Route Along the St. Lawrence River, 2012 | Credit: Arthur Poisson
In the summer of 2012, you floated a paper skiff called the “Massicot” down the St. Lawrence River after a residency at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, NY. What prompted this experiment?
Jean: The original idea was to take advantage of the Museum’s resources and create a replica of one of their pieces, though we weren’t sure of how to do it in two weeks, then Dylan started telling us about Nathaniel Bishop, a 19th century writer and adventurer who journeyed from Troy, NY to the Gulf of Mexico on a paper canoe. We all read his book and got really excited by the prospect of resurrecting this lost boat building technique. We did a lot of research and read everything we could on the subject then started experimenting with various Kraft papers, adhesives and varnishes and we got to work on this beautiful early 20th Century Peterborough Lake Ontario Skiff. We built an exact replica of the hull, using the original as a mold, then copied the wooden structure. We got a lot of advice from the staff of the Museum, which was amazing. Of course everyone was a bit skeptical that we would pull this off. I mean, there you have these seasoned boat builders, masters of their craft who are used to spending years on a restoration, and a bunch of artists from Brooklyn show up claiming they’re going to build a 17-foot skiff in less than two weeks… But once we got to work and they saw the Massicot come together they were really behind the project.
As it happened my visa was about to run out and I had to be out of the country by a certain date, so we decided to go to Montreal. We crossed the border two days after the launch and rowed for five days before getting to Montreal. The Saint Lawrence is one of the most amazing bodies of water in North America, especially around the Thousand Islands. We camped on a different island every night. I never felt so free in my life.
Mare Liberum Crew Charts a 160 Mile Route Along the St. Lawrence River, 2012 | Credit: Jean Barberis
Does Mare Liberum have further plans to look beyond local, NYC water-related issues? It might be an extreme suggestion, but would you ever consider a Neutrino-style ocean expedition?
Stephan: That would be crazy.
Dylan: I have watched a few too many YouTube videos on “Rogue Waves” to ever attempt such a crossing. That said, circumnavigations and long-distance river routes interest me a great deal, as do shorter routes in hastily built local boatshapes… What’s interesting to me in the ocean mainly happens on the coasts of civilizations, and river travel is like watching a movie plot unfold before your eyes at 6 mph. Someday I’d also like to raft what retired yachtsmen call the “Great Loop“ (a 5,000 mile loop through the East Coast’s intercoastal and canalized waterways). There’s this weird culture of self-described “Loopers” to research and develop a broadsheet on/for as well.
Ben: Are you sending us out to sea? We respond to art-world deadlines mostly, doing little on our own without an outlet to focus on. Our focus on the waterways makes a lot more sense in a city than in say, the St. Lawrence River. Up there we stepped back from access (since everyone already has it) and focused on performance and craft and active engagement. When invited somewhere it’s better for us to make plans in the setting than to think about what the project ‘could be’ in a vacuum. I would be terrified to go out in the ocean in anything I made myself.
Mare Liberum Crew Charts a 160 Mile Route Along the St. Lawrence River, 2012 | Credit: Arthur Poisson
Jeff Stark is a Brooklyn-based artist whose site-responsive work emphasizes the significance and spectacle of collective experience. Although it resists easy categorization, Stark’s work has a particular closeness to participatory modes of art, theater and DIY culture. His diverse and wildly ambitious projects range from street events, secret dinners in unlikely and hard-to-access locations, full-scale theatrical productions that make unauthorized use of public and private spaces (like the subway, or an abandoned factory), and collaborations with collectives like The Miss Rockaway Armada and Madagascar Institute.
Stark is also the publisher of Nonsense NYC, a “discriminating resource for independent art, weird events, strange happenings, unique parties and senseless culture in New York City.” If you live in New York and haven’t signed up to receive the weekly Nonsense email, just go ahead and do yourself a favor and opt in.
For my first contribution to Bad at Sports, Jeff and I chatted over email about the importance of cultural participation, the challenges of assessing non-object-oriented art and what he calls “trespass theater.”
Empire Drive-In (2010), in San Jose, California. Photo by Tod Seelie.
Juliana Driever: How would you describe your artistic impulse?
Jeff Stark: I’m not exactly sure what that means. I think you’re asking, “What makes you make art?”
JD: Yes, exactly. What gets you going?
JS: That’s a fairly complex question. But to take a crack at it, I suppose I don’t really think I’m special: I think everyone is creative and everyone wants to communicate. “Everyone is an artist,” just like Joseph Beuys said. So for me too: Making art is about living, about asking questions, about creating a dialog with others — not just those who live near me, but also those who live far away, and, in some cases, those who live in different times.
JD: Different times?
JS: When I’m working on something, I’m thinking about the past, the present, and — in the way that I am deliberately trying to invoke myth and story — the future. And not just in a general way, but of particular individuals. For example, I love the work of theater artist Reza Abdoh. I never got to have a conversation with him, but, in small ways, I hope my work speaks to his.
JD: You’ve published Nonsense NYC, a weekly email listing independent and quirky happenings and art for over 10 years, and have built a community of people around these events in the process. Do you view Nonsense NYC and your work as an artist as mutually exclusive?
JS: No. It took me a long time to realize this formally, but Nonsense is one of my art projects, and the values and ideas expressed in it are the same values and ideas that inform most of my more traditional art projects, some of which are easy to understand as creative works — like performances or large-scale installations — and others that are not as obvious — like secret dinners in unusual places.
The Sweet Cheat (2010), in Yonkers, New York. Photo by Lauren Silberman.
JD: Your projects are typically very active, social experiences and require the willing participation of the audience.
JS: Most of my projects look at the different ways we think about participation. I like projects that are open, that allow audiences to bring something to the work. Marcel Duchamp wrote about this in The Creative Act: It’s the viewer who completes an artwork — not the artist. So one of the things that I’m always trying to do is to make audiences aware of their own place in a performance, or in a space, or — in the big picture — in culture itself. And one of the ways to do this is to ask them to take a risk with me. When an audience makes an investment in an event by bringing their own creative being to it, or they put their body at risk — real risk, legally and physically — they are participating in culture, they are not simply being entertained.
JD: So, who typically shows up to take a risk with you?
JS: I always like to think of my audiences as my friends and my community. This isn’t always the case — I love it when strangers show up, and they do, or when someone is just going about their daily schedule and bumps into a project on the street. But I suppose I start from a place where I am making work for people who care about the same things that I do. Who are smart and creative and patient and generous and curious. When I was learning how to write, I would always read the same two pieces of advice: think about your audience; find your voice. Those are deceptively difficult instructions. Eventually I had to just think about my friends and how I would talk to them. It’s the same thing in art. Anything else comes off as pandering or pedantic.
JD: Your work relies heavily on its context. What kind of spaces do you look to occupy with your work?
JS: The answer is simply spaces: I’m looking for spaces to work. That can be any space, from a street corner to a parking lot to a ruin. The ones I end up making work in are usually found by paying attention, by living, by looking.
Art can do two things: It can show you something that you’ve never seen before, or it can show you something you see every day in an entirely new way. I’m always trying to do one or the other, and I’m constantly looking for places and projects that let me do that, one or the other. So, if I’m exploring an abandoned factory, I might think, “I’d really love to bring people to see this space,” and then go about devising a project that will allow me to do that. But I could just as easily start with an everyday place, like the subway, and try to develop something I’ve never seen before — like make a play with sets and lights and costumes. My work isn’t site specific as much as it is site responsive.
Tea (2012), at ICA in Boston. Photo by Jeff Stark.
JD: Some might say that one of the challenges of creating artwork that results in a specific social situation is the question of assessment. What are your criteria for judging the success of your work? Are there certain outcomes you strive for?
JS: This is a tricky question. On one level, success is simply doing a project, pulling it off without injury or arrest. But I am trying to communicate with others, to participate in a broader conversation. And it’s not always clear the way the work is being understood or being judged. I get a lot of press coverage, but it’s rarely critical, in part because it’s difficult to make connections among all my projects (partially my fault), and in part because art and theater critics are trained to write about very conventional work (partially their fault). So I look for other signposts. One time I organized a Secret Dinner in Barcelona. It actually failed because we got caught by a security guard on our way into an empty factory. But I talked about the ongoing project at a conference, and a few months later some Barcelona kids sent me pictures of a secret dinner they pulled off in an ancient fortress. That felt like success.
IRT (2009), in New York. Photo by Tod Seelie.
JD: The act of serving others is a gesture that appears in many of your projects. What does it mean to you to conceptualize what are often thought of as practical social transactions into an artwork?
JS: I’ve thought about this, and I’m not entirely sure what it’s about. I think part of it has to do with my belief that art and culture are things we do, more so than products or objects. And so when I create a situation in which I am serving — dinner, tea, advice — I am creating a situation in which I have something to do. It’s one of the ways that I understand what it means to be an artist: Artists serve art.
JD: Like a film or theater director, it’s obvious that group work appeals to you. Do you ever just want to lock yourself in a studio and work on an idea in the modernist, individualist tradition?
JD: On the whole, the art world tends to take itself very seriously, and for me it’s refreshing to see any suggestion of humor or playfulness. You often use absurdity in your work, and in a particularly subversive way. Would you agree that humor in art is underrated?
JS: Definitely. And I think the best artists are terribly funny going back to the Renaissance at least. I looked at The Night Watch yesterday, and it seemed to me like Rembrandt had painted in at least a half dozen dick jokes. Artists have always valued a good laugh; it’s the cultural institutions that formalize this stuff, that steal it away and insist we take it seriously. And it makes sense: Rich people are often uncomfortable with laughter; they’re worried the joke might be on them.
JD: Speaking of Rembrandt, you’re currently doing a writing residency in Amsterdam. How does writing fit into your larger creative activity?
Secret Dinner (2011), in Miami. Photo by Jordan Seiler.
JS: I used to be a writer. I studied journalism in school and had a career I quit because it made me miserable. But writing is a useful skill. It’s a tool that I’m willing to use to serve a larger project. And so I’ll do it when I need to, but it’s incredibly difficult and, I think, somewhat unhealthy for me.
JD: What are you working on next?
JS: I’m working on a few things, including a new play, another piece of trespass theater called the Dreary Coast, and a New York iteration of Empire Drive-In, which is a project that I’ve done a few times with Todd Chandler and several other artists. I’d love to make more work in New York City this year. It’s my home, and the place I care about most.