Contemporary Exploration Part 2; The Idea of Elsewhere: An Interview with Hui-Min Tsen

July 13, 2011 · Print This Article

Last week I posted an interview with James Barry about his collaborative project The Mt. Baldy Expedition. James built a boat with Hui-min Tsen. Together, it took them seven years and after seven years they sailed the boat around Burnham Harbor. This week I wanted to talk to Hui-min about her experience with the project, in addition to other works of her public and contemporary exploration. Most of the interview focuses on The Chicago Pedway Tour where Hui-min led groups through the curious and sometimes underground commuter passages — throughways which are largely undocumented despite their frequent use; during the tour she would stop periodically at points-of-interest in order to perform a narrative for her audience. Embedded in that narrative are ideas of the American Frontier, the mythology of cities and comfort anAs The Mt. Baldy Expedition emphasized the significance of learning in an art practice, The Pedway brings up issues of public and private space, while also tugging at collective mythologies. In addition to physical exploration, Hui-min also explores those issues.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk about your experience making the boat for the Mt. Baldy Expedition? Maybe specifically, how you would compare working independently to collaboration? And what was your experience of the boat as-an-art-object?

Hui-min Tsen: Building the boat was an unexpected experience for me — it was not something I ever thought I would do. When Jim and I first started collaborating, I had been working with ideas of urban exploration where I was exploring the city (calling it an expedition) and referencing explorers of the past. Jim had been dreaming about building a boat and the initial plan was that he would build the boat, I would lead in sailing it, and we would collaborate on all the side projects. As the project progressed, though, it became evident that one person couldn’t build a boat alone and that we were collaborating fully on every aspect of the project — it no longer made sense to divvy up tasks to one person or the other. I did not have a lot of previous woodworking experience, so a lot of what I was working on, especially at first, was the less intricate work like cutting pieces to size, planing down wood, routing. A lot of the building process was new to both of us, though, so we worked together on testing the epoxy, figuring out how to read the plans, and eventually developed our own working methods and rhythms in the shop for techniques like getting all the screws in before the epoxy set, etc.  To be honest, I often had mixed feelings about the amount of time and labor building took — it’s not the kind of work I naturally decide to do — but at the end of the day, I was always so proud and happy with the results and the experience of learning, that I was really glad to be there. I especially enjoyed it when I had my own tasks to figure out, like making the mast, boom, and gaff, the centerboard and rudder. So much of the project wound up being about the everyday act of learning and discovery and building the boat was at the crux of that discovery.

We always thought of the boat as both a functioning boat that we would sail and as an art object. It first and foremost had to float and handle well, but we also thought a lot about the conceptual tie-ins of the materials we were using, the act of making and documenting the construction, and how the boat would live when we were finished with it. Normally I tend to have a casual relationship with the craft of an object — I come from a photography background so the craft of the image has always been important, but the creation of a sculptural object was something new to me. Since the object was a functioning boat, the building and documentation of it was still very oriented around process and not just about the beauty of the final object.

In terms of working independently versus working with a partner, they are both methods I enjoy. I very much enjoy collaborating, whether it’s with other artists or making work that relies on an interaction with the public in order to take form. Jim and I would often talk about how we wound up doing things collaboratively that individually we would never think of doing and how much stronger the project was for that. Having such a long a involved collaboration pushed me as an artist in directions I wouldn’t have been comfortable with or thought of alone. When you have to work through ideas with someone else, you are forced to explain them far more precisely than you might be persuaded to do for yourself. Jim and I had very similar philosophies about art-making and how to exist within the art world.

There are times, though, when you really want to just dive into your own quirky interests. A project like the Pedway which very much followed my own train of thought, would have been difficult or impossible in a collaboration.

CP: What made you consider the Pedway as a site of artistic exploration? And how did you come to make the Pedway tour? 

HMT: When I first came across the Pedway, I had been working on urban spaces and the mental constructions surrounding them such as fear, attachment and belonging. These projects often involved mapping and walks — but I kept searching for the perfect vehicle to work with. One of the things that had first attracted me to Chicago was its role in the history of American industrialization and modernization — the tension of optimism and fear that came with the late 19th and early 20th century boom. In my mind, Chicago had come to symbolize the Mythic City, a site which, like the Mythic West, lives primarily in the imagination. I read all about visions of futuristic cities, urban planning, the history of Chicago, and fictional representations of cities from silent movies and novels. When I first moved here, I kept looking around for traces of that Mythic City.

When I stumbled across the Pedway, I saw in it my Atlantis — the elusive city born of fantasies. I began exploring it, looking for secret passages and connections and the possibilities of what lay at the other end. The more I explored it, the more I saw that it had a clear beginning, middle and end. After I walked through it for the first time, I loved the way the corridor unfolded so much I wanted to show it to everyone else! I knew that the temporal and spatial experience of transitioning through all these unique locations all strung together would never translate to a 2-dimensional piece and that the path was so difficult to navigate, there needed to be a guide to help other people through.

Since I had been working on projects involving mapping, story-telling, and walking, I had been looking at artists such as Stanley Brouwn, Emily Jacir, and Francis Alys, as well as photographers such as Sophie Calle and Joel Sternfeld’s project “On this Site.”  These artists were influential in showing how action, text, and photograph could be used to address issues of site and memory. I had also looked at tropes from travel and tourism such as how guidebooks use points-of-interest to tell a story. Since the Pedway unfolds as one path, or line, in time, it seemed perfect for playing with how a story of history and place can unfold as a tour. I realized we are often led to experience a tour (even something as simple as a self-guided nature tour through a park) as if we are the protagonist walking through a 3-dimensional play where the land is the stage set and the points-of interest are the plot points. I used this idea of tour-as-narrative as the guiding principle when writing the Pedway tour. I tried to loosely construct it as a three-act play where the guide is the narrator, the Pedway is the protagonist, you are the main character, and historical figures such as Cosimo, Potter Palmer, and Clara Bow are the supporting characters.

CP: Didn’t copyright issues play a role in your publicity materials? Can you talk about that? 

HMT:  I’m not sure it is as formal as copyright; no one has used that exact word with me, but some businesses have definitely taken issue with my photographing and how I’ve referred to them in some of my materials. Understandably they want to have control over how they are portrayed. When I was doing research for the project, I purposefully avoided interviewing the businesses in the Pedway. First, I didn’t want to be tied to their “official” histories and secondly, I didn’t want them to know me — I wanted maintain the luxury anonymity while moving through the spaces — sitting and observing the comings and goings in hotel lobbies and such, without people asking me questions about what I was going to use my observations for and when they could see the results. I had horrible visions of asking permission, being turned down, and then being banned from one of the buildings! Once I put the project out in public, I knew it would be much harder to remain anonymous. If you’re leading a group of 35 people through a lobby, security will notice you. Some business’ took issue with my photographing and a few have approached me about content. For instance, the Renaissance Hotel was unhappy I referred to them by an incorrect name on the map and asked me to change it to the “Chicago Renaissance Hotel.”  I had kept their name a little more generic to blur the line between the Renaissance and the original hotel, the Stouffer-Riviere, calling them the Stouffer Renaissance Hotel on the first iteration of the map. I decided not to test the copyright issue, and changed it on later maps as per their request. For a while I was nervous that I would have to either conform to all the corporate histories or start omitting points-of-interest.

On the flip side, an unexpected and exciting result of bringing the project into the public is how it has lived in the public imagination and how my interpretation is helping to define the space. There is not much information about the Pedway out there, so when doing an internet search, my website comes up pretty quickly.  Most of the hits I get are people looking for a map of the Pedway. I love the idea that people are walking around the Pedway holding maps pointing to the “Subterranean Parking Lot,” “The Descent” and “The Garden of Merchandise.”  I keep wondering how it comes across to them — do they wonder why the portion they are walking down is labeled “The Medici Corridor”?

One building caught on to what I was doing was using my tour on their website as a selling point for their building!  They thought it was good to be part of a mythologized space, saying I would lead them “through a historical dreamland unlike any you have imagined before.”  Ironically, this was a building that had asked me not to photograph in it, so I don’t really have them as a point-of-interest on the tour.

By choosing to make it a public art piece, chance encounters like these became possible.

CP: How has the Pedway Tour transformed your idea of public space?

HMT: As someone who enjoys using the world-at-large as a studio, wandering the streets and photographing, I have often encountered the tension that can exist between public and private, ownership and invasiveness. With the Pedway, I encountered some unexpected issues of public/private. It turns out most of the Pedway is not actually public space, it is private space. This can create weird questions about access. However, I think the fact that it is a private space is part of the fantasy of a hidden corridor — it is your secret corridor. If it were just like walking down a public street, it would not be as fun.

During the two miles, the Pedway moves through varying degrees of public/private spaces as it passes through food courts, office lobbies, government buildings, the subway… Once you’ve gotten used to being in the private space of a hotel lobby, moving to the very public space of a subway platform can feel jarring. As I began noticing these shifts of private and public within the enclosure, I wanted to include that feeling of passing from one to another as part of the story. I let the experience help guide the narrative. In the first stage, the privacy of the corridor can be equated with your ownership of the space — it is a regal, luxurious, safe home that is yours and you can go wherever you want. The second stage (part 1) is a sudden thrust into the public government buildings. You are no longer separated and removed from the street — you are mixed in with the hustle and bustle, which can be intimidating. There are crowds and security cameras and the buildings exert an oppressive power above you. You feel much smaller and the presence of an external power is much greater. Here the story leaves the early urban history of the first stage and introduces turn-of-the-century ideas of Utopian planning. In the second stage (part 2) you are still with all the crowds, but this is a friendlier urban culture — more glamorous, more leisurely. It is more about the pleasures of moving within a public crowd. You ride mass transit, go shopping for mass produced goods in the department store, and enjoy a huge old library in the Cultural Center (the People’s Palace). The final stage, stage 3, is east of Michigan Avenue. This part of the city used to be a large railyard and was not developed until the 60s and 70s. I think of it as the suburban portion of the Pedway. There is a slight removal from the city, you are separated out again — it is clean, sanitized, comfortable and again you have a feeling of privacy, a feeling that no one will bother you as long as you behave according to code.

It is fun, while leading the tours, to watch other people encounter the surreal line between public and private that exists in the Pedway — many people ask me if we’re really allowed to be there. At one very disoriented part of the tour, down near Point-of-Interest #13, I draw attention to the fact that, although we are surrounded by the grid aesthetic, the normal lines of public space and the squares of private space normally associated with the grid, are no longer present. This, I feel, is one of the things that makes the Pedway so fascinating.

CP: Can you talk a little bit more about how you weave history through your work? 

HMT: For some reason I find this question difficult to answer. Although history is constantly a part of my work, I often think of it as secondary to themes of exploration, travel, and the idea of elsewhere. And yet I keep coming back to it as the context and framework for almost all of my projects. I guess, I think of it as a form of Elsewhere, of another place, intangible but ever present — a place that exists as a force on the imagination and our collective or individual sense of self. History has a real influence and impact on the present, and yet that impact is laced with projected ideals. Like many locations and cultures that are not physically located where we are located, history can be an origin — an often mythological origin to be revisited and played with. Coming from a multi-cultural family, I am used to looking for cultural origins and seeing, instead of one version, a plurality of versions. I think this has had a big influence on my outlook and can explain why I keep looking at how strains of history and experience can simultaneously layer on top of one another.

When I am working on a project, the research and project usually have a give and take. With the Pedway, I had already done a lot of research before discovering the Pedway. I then allowed the space to determine the rest of the research — looking up particular buildings or related topics like the history of the geodesic dome. Ultimately, what I choose to use is what I find intriguing and what excites my imagination. Some things you just keep returning to without quite knowing why. I guess if I really knew why it was so mysterious, I wouldn’t have to make work about it!

CP: That makes me want to ask more about exploration. You’ve talked to me a little bit about a forthcoming project where you’re documenting the lake over an extended period of time, and then drawing out ideas of geographical exploration. It seems to me that the Pedway tour is also about exploration, as is the Mt. Baldy expedition. How does exploration play out in your interests?

HMT: Yes, the project was for the show “Hecho en Casa/Home Made” at Cobalt Art Studio.  The show was about acts of domesticity, localness, and home so I decided to take a trip at home, following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, an explorer I first came across while researching for the Mt. Baldy Expedition, but someone that we never used. I walked down to my local beach every day and looked out across the water, recording the weather conditions visible for as far as the eye could see. These observations were interwoven into a slideshow with the stories of Humboldt, Elisha Kent Kane, Margaret Fox, and the idea of north (the north pole and the northern islands of Lake Michigan).

I have always been attracted to photography’s ability to aid in exploration and looking. As you point the camera at something, the picture is attaching you to the distant. My recent projects have become more focussed on the act of everyday exploration. As globalization increases and we have more and more mobility and immediate contact with distant places, the predominant everyday experience remains one of being in one place and looking outward from there. It makes me wonder about how other places and times impact what and how we see. What is just over the horizon? What is just beyond the visible? What mental constructions are layered onto the world around us? Exploration is synonymous with curiosity, learning, looking and discovery — a lot of my motivation with these projects is simple curiosity about what lies over there. It seems that even with new technologies and globalization allowing us to see around the world via webcam and satellite and to eat foods or watch tv shows from anywhere in the world, our relationship with the unknown and the distant will always be part of our experience of being located.

 


Contemporary Exploration Part 1: James Barry & The Mt. Baldy Expedition

July 6, 2011 · Print This Article

On the first floor of Chicago’s MDWY Fair, Hui-min and James Barry installed the boat they’d made together for The Mt. Baldy Expedition. The boat was the result of seven years of collaborative work. It was the first time I saw it, though I remember numerous conversations with both Hui-min Tsen and James Barry over the course of its construction. Suddenly it was tangible, out of water, clean, complete and upright. It sat on a large stand in the sparse warehouse room under high-ceilings, its mast still tied up: the ceilings were not high enough.

On The Mt. Baldy Expedition  website, their statement of purpose is as follows:

The Mt. Baldy Expedition is a 21st century voyage of exploration. Inspired by predecessors such as Ferdinand Magellan and Enrique de Malacca, James Barry and Hui-min Tsen have begun a journey of quixotic proportions across the third largest lake of The Great Lakes. Over the course of 2004 to 2006, Mr. Barry and Ms. Tsen are building a sailing dinghy, sailing from Chicago, Illinois, to Mt. Baldy, a sand dune in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore– “the once largest live sand mountain in the world.” Mr. Barry and Ms. Tsen are also conducting a series of educational and performative events throughout 2004 to 2006 culminating in a traveling exhibit and lecture tour to share the findings of the Mt. Baldy Expedition with the world.

And suddenly the boat was real, placed not in a lake or a boat show, but in the middle of an art fair. The project began as a pipe-dream and from its inception, through a countless slog of hours, repetition, collaboration and patience, James and Hui-min managed to—actually—build a functioning boat. To me the project contains in it, the celebtration of amateurs (as lovers), visionaries, and pioneers: traits I see among artists’ biggest contribution. Our world is increasingly and self-knowingly specialized. There are well-trodden roads that define the way things ought to be done. Houses are to be bought, not made. Roads are to be traveled on, not deviated from. Similarly, if you want to be published, you ought to find a publishing house. Under the eaves of those admittedly useful establishments, expectations are defined. It nevertheless useful to remember how things are built, in order to recall how we are in each capable of building our own worlds that can contain their own unique expectations and standards. At least in my artistic community, I am constantly aware of people creating for themselves, building their own communities around spaces and practices—even Bad at Sports, as a site of artistic writing, thought and discussion is a kind of self-generated and generating boat. Very often those projects begin with an amateur’s spirit. The practice of research is integrated with the end result.

I wanted to ask James Barry and Hui-min about this project. This interview will take place in two parts. This first part focuses specifically on the boat and James Barry has answered my questions, about its inception and the course of the project. Next week, I’ll post an interview with Hui-min that pulls back to more abstract questions of exploration.

Caroline Picard: How did the Mt. Baldy Expedition become a project?

James Barry: I started working on the Mt. Baldy expedition in the fall of ’03. I was in my second year of grad school at SAIC.  I had just finished a long term project that summer, and I was still casting around for something new to work on. I had wanted to make something that would fly and made a boomerang. It broke on the the third throw, but it did fly.  I started working on a wearable theater, stuff like that, but nothing was really working. At the time I had lived in Chicago for about 7 years, and I didn’t really get out of town very much. So I asked a friend and teacher of mine who rode the Metra where you could go on it.  He gave me a bunch of suggestions. One of them was Mt. Baldy, and he told me a little about it and Michigan City.  So one weekend I took the train there to see it.

When I got there, there were two train stops. I was trying to get off at the “downtown” by Mt. Baldy and the lake, but the first one seemed too small, so I waited for the second. Wrong choice. I ended up in some residential are. I walked for a couple of hours trying to get to the lake, but it didn’t work. I was lost, and it was getting late. So I ate at a Mexican restaurant and decided to head back to Chicago. On my way to the train station I met up with two Michigan City juvenile delinquents who thought terrorizing a lost Chicagoan was the most entertaining thing to do that night. After about an hour and half of their unwanted company, I finally caught the train home.

Shortly after that I was out with Hui-min and some other friends from school. We were in a bar just joking around talking about projects etc. I told the story about trying to go to Mt. Baldy. At some point, I mentioned that it would be funny to build a little boat and sail it to Mt. Baldy and compare it to Shackleton and people like that. We all laughed, and Hui-min said she could sail it there.

I liked the idea and started to work on it and eventually went back to Michigan City. This time I got off at the correct station, and found a lot of information about the history Mt. Baldy/Hoosier Slide, Michigan City and their relationship to Chicago, tourism etc. at a little museum/historical society there. Everything just fell into place very easily, and it was really interesting to me. Ever since I had come to Chicago, I had missed the Northwest. (I’m originally from Seattle).  This homesickness had translated into a little bit of an obsession about wooden boats and the history of exploration.  Before studying art, I got an English degree.  Reading and writing literary criticism for years had created a huge aversion to literature. For about six years I only read stuff about boats and history, preferably both. Hui-min and I were good friends and would talk about this stuff a lot. We had similar interests. After a couple of months, I asked her if she would like to collaborate on the project for real. She agreed, and we went from there.

CP: How long did you think it would take to build the boat?

JB: Before this project, I had only worked on two boats. One when I was a little kid with my Dad. My job was basically to hand him tools and name the boat. The second time I actually got a CAAP grant to go back to the Northwest and take a boat building workshop at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding. I had been doing a lot of work that investigated different sorts of social interactions. This was suppose to be research into a boat as a microcosmic social environment and to learn new craftsmanship skills. It was a lot of fun and very challenging. We actually built a Norse Faering in just 12 days. I had also been building case interiors, etc. for museums for quite a while, so I thought we could build the boat and sail it in about 6 months. Totally wrong! First off, we had never built a boat alone. We had also never built this boat. And I had never built a boat with a deck, which seems like a small thing but was a very educational experience for me. We had all sort issues too. Money was a big one. We wanted to build the best boat we could, so we bought the best materials we could, and it took time to earn that money. We also weren’t making a sculpture of a boat, but a real boat, so we really made sure every thing was done right which takes time. And then we still had our lives, jobs etc.  Hui-min was injured at home and had a long recover one year and then later had a prolonged illness. I had a job as an exhibition manager that basically took up all of my spring every year and about every 4 to 6 weeks I’d have at least a week that it prevented me from doing anything else. But we just kept working on it a little at a time.  Knowing that someday we’d get there. It was difficult, but also fun.

CP: What is your impression of the boat as an object now?

JB: My short answer would be, “I see it as a boat.” But I think it is important to realize that in this project we were always having to deal with two related issues. One, it’s a conceptual art project where we play with things/terms from everyday life and history to try to communicate our experience and our take on the world. Two, we are building a boat, and our lives and the lives of anyone else who sails in it depend on this boat functioning. We were novices, but we were informed novices, so we were always very careful to take all the proper safety precautions, and when you think like this it is difficult to not think of it as primarily a boat.

Aside from that, the boat is something I care a great deal about. It was kind of amazing when we had almost finished the boat. We had started out with about 4 huge piles of wood that we built the shop and the boat out of. At the end when I was reorganizing the wood and sorting it looking for pieces for this and that section and thinking damn where did all that wood go and then realize it was sitting right there on the other side of the shop. I fitted almost every single piece of wood on that boat. There are stories about every part. To me that boat is very much alive.

CP: How does that compare with your experience of sitting in it, floating on the water?

JB: When we were putting the boat in the water, I was exhausted. I had quite my job two months before and had been doing nothing but working on the boat. The last two weeks in the shop were a madhouse, very long days, seven days a week. A lot of my former student workers from SAIC had been coming in to help out, my landlord, the neighbors in the building and even the neighbors next door. That was really cool. Most of these people had been hearing about the project for years. So when it came time to actually put it in the water, I was excited but also a little scared. We didn’t have a trailer or anything like that. We had moved the boat to the harbor on my landlord’s former county flatbed truck. It was old, yellow and had a big hazard light on top. The boat looked really interesting tied down to it driving down Roosevelt. We rolled it to the water and down the ramp on a make-shift furniture dolly. There was about six of us moving it including this guy who had just gotten off a boat and just thought wooden boats were cool. He had actually gone to the same wooden boat school I had. I think his name was Dav, not sure. He was a big help. He and a friend of mine from L&L Tavern, Neil, who also just happened to show up really helped us with getting the rigging right and transporting it from the truck to the water. So when we where going down the ramp, I was at the bow. I had the painter in one hand and a line attached to the dolly in the other. The boat kept getting lower and lower, and I was starting to get worried. It’s only suppose to draw four inches of water. There were no waves, so it was hard to tell what was going on. Dav was at the stern, and he told Hui-min to get in it. She did, and I was like, “Oh no, has she bottomed out?” Then I realized Dav was in water up to his thighs. I pulled  the dolly out and got in too. I was just amazed. She floated and wasn’t taking on any water at all. It was a little late in the day, so we had to deal with a lot of drunk people on speed boats coming in. They were not very patient with us at first while we got our sails up and got ready to go, but then some of them asked us, if we had built it. When they found out we did, they stopped complaining.

Being on the water actually sailing after almost seven years of working on this project was just so cool. We weren’t that good on the water, not embarrassing, but we definitely needed some work. We knew that this would be the only time we could sail her, so it was very exciting and fun but also sad. All I wanted to do was keep sailing her everyday.

CP: How did the dynamic of your partnership with Hui-Min develop over time?

JB: Hui-min and I were good friends. We were both just really into this subject, so it was very fun. In the beginning, we just worked on the project all the time. But collaborating is very similar to a relationship. The project started out as this very heady Romantic conceptual art piece, but then we had to deal with these very practical concerns, researching glues, paints, finding wood suppliers, creating budgets and “time lines.” This stuff is all great and also very much informed our work, but you get a little bogged down, and after years of working on the same project, we both wanted to move on to something else. I think we both sort of out grew the project and artistically started to move in different directions. We are very close though. Making art together in a 100% collaborative relationship for 7 years, you get to know each other really well.

CP: Can you separate the boat from the way you two worked together?

JB: Yes, the boat was kind of the center piece to the MTBE, but it wasn’t the only thing we worked on. We also did a lot of writing for text pieces and lectures/performances, shot and edited a lot of photo. Hui-min did a lot of illustration. There are actually a lot of projects that we had started for the MTBE but never finished and made public. I hope we will be able to publish some of this work on our blog, but we will have to just see what happens. We are both doing our own thing now and pretty busy. I’m sure some of it will come out eventually. Concerning the boat though, it is of course very important to both of us, as is the history of our collaboration and our friendship.


The Dream Outside: An Interview with Peter Burr about Cartune Xprez

June 22, 2011 · Print This Article

I met Peter Burr and Christopher Doulgeris for the first time about five or six years ago. “Hooliganship,” the name of their performative duo, was on tour with the second issue of a DVD cartoon compilation called Cartune Xprez. They came to do a screening/performance at the old Green Lantern Gallery. Cartune Xprez is Peter Burr’s curated compilation of independent, short animation—sometimes I think of it as an animated equivalent of an intensely gratifying literary magazine, or portable gallery exhibition. The biannual DVD is an event of imagination that colludes and clashes on the brink of psychedelic experience, precisely because it celebrates the idiosyncratic visions of its participants. As is often the case with non-commercial media, my appreciation for the project serves as both a reminder and a relief, reminding me that the larger behemoth of mainstream culture is not the only world of creative insight. When Hooliganship arrived, we set up couches for audience members while Peter and Christopher inflated neon crystals that glowed in the dark. We couldn’t plug them all in, because we kept blowing the fuse. We projected the video on the street-side window, so pedestrians outside would have another experience in reverse. Christopher and Peter both wore tight fitting neon yellow sweat suits and when the screening began, they rose—aside from the crystals, the room was otherwise dark—playing instruments (a clarinet and a guitar). Meantime, these very idiosyncratic cartoons by various artists screened in the background. It’s probably one of my favorite experiences from running a space. The habitat of the cartoon-world had been built out into our literal experience, lending additional form to the 2-d and sometimes crude projected imagery. As I said, that was years ago—at that time they were traveling with their first 2006 video. Since then Cartune Xprez has released two additional DVDs and, having recently seen the 2011 edition, I wanted to ask Peter Burr some questions about how he curates, what he loves about the project and how he situates his practice in relation to the more commercial television outlets we are accustomed to.

Caroline Picard: Where does your love for cartoons come from?

Peter Burr: I can’t entirely say I LOVE cartoons across the board. I love the way an individual’s spirit is captured when making a motion picture, especially an animated one. It takes such tenacity to produce anything of substance in cartoon form. There’s this sweet spot for me where the cartoon balances the energy and ideas and images so casually and confidently that takes my cake. A large number of commercial productions and studio jobs lose my interest in the way things get overwrought. I think that’s where CARTUNE XPREZ emerged for me…… as a platform to showcase those sweet spots in one place.

CP: It’s interesting to me that you wouldn’t boast an unequivocal love for cartoons given that you must dedicate so much time curating work for CX. Can you talk a little bit more about that sweet spot? Is it a sweet spot peculiar to the cartoon genre? And what do you mean by ‘overwrought?’

PB: Perhaps on point, my day-job is making children’s cartoons which, as I reread my last response (and your follow-up question), probably colors my approach to CARTUNE XPREZ. As with any medium, I believe, our ability to accept creative work with ‘unequivocal love’ is challenged when market forces dictate the decisions behind the practice. This feeds my desire to give life to CX, creating a platform outside the commercial industry that holds a space for ebullient animated spirits. There’s a bravery behind a lot of the work CX shows that just doesn’t exist in most main-stream cartoons I come across. I guess that’s part of that sweet-spot you’re asking about….bravery, independence, risk, failure. It’s work that is not outright trying to appeal to a mass which in turn yields really strange, really personable results.

CP: Do you have a sense of the community of contemporary cartoonists?

PB: I can’t keep up! Sometimes I feel like I could be surfing around the Internet 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and still never have a clear sense of what animation artists are out there. When I was in university back in the 90s I started to explore independent animation for the first time, searching blindly with vague keywords like ‘animation + art’ or ‘cool + cartoon’ and it ultimately just tired me of the web. Granted, I was learning how to use search engines for the first time and YouTube didn’t exist, but still; in the course of that year I think I only ever found one artist (mumbleboy) who clicked into my sensibilities. In subsequent years of peeling my eyes for this kind of work I’ve found that most of the work that gets integrated into CX emerges when I go on tour and just talk to people. It’s a lot more fun than sitting on my computer trolling the net, but of course it also keeps my vision somewhat limited to the countries/cultures I visit.

CP: What would you say your aesthetic is? (that thing you’re looking for in independent cartoons) and how does it differ from your commercial work?

PB: That’s a tough question! I can’t really speak to a single aesthetic, but I can talk about some of the core values that we try to put forth with the project.

Let’s see……the boundary for work that comes into the CX world outlines a quest for independent, mostly single-artist productions. This means that we exclude music videos and other types of work that could be construed as ‘selling something.’ Studio productions tend to get left out too, mostly because I find a special magic imbued in single-artist or small collective projects that comes from a tenacious, intuitive, working process. Rarely does work we show seem storyboarded or acutely planned (even though some of it, in fact, is). Takeshi Murata is a great example of this. Take a video like PINK DOT…… It comes across as a crazy compression error that coalesces around some striking images from Rambo. Of course, these aren’t straight accidents, which becomes especially clear if you compare Takeshi’s work from this period (2005-2008) with other datamosh videos on youtube. The means of representation here feel glued to the topical concerns. I suppose this is the ‘aesthetic’ CX gravitates towards.

Another great example of this can be found in the work of Bruce Bickford, an older gentleman whose work is mostly known from his days as Frank Zappa’s in-house animator. Like Murata, his work is baffling on both technical and conceptual levels. I’ve watched some of his pieces hundreds of times and I still read new ideas in them each time I watch. Part of this comes from Bruce’s utter dedication to his practice. He lives alone in a dreamy complex outside Seattle where his art practice is the focal point of everything including house chores. (There’s a great doc called MONSTER ROAD that you can watch to see what I’m talking about). Anyway, it’s this commitment to a practice that I really admire and like to put forth with CX.

CP: It’s interesting to hear you talk about the way you research cartoons, the way you follow artists and their various practices. It seems like that must be an integral part to your administration-life with CX. What kind of other duties would you include in that? What does it take to put out one of your compilations?

PB: I think about my ‘research’ as a way to put framework between my consumer interests and my desire to produce.  Yesterday this meant watching a couple hours of cartoon network before and after Ben Jones’ PROBLEM SOLVERZ to see what cable TV is nesting around some of the artists CX has affiliated with. Day-to-day, these research duties are a lot more casual (I haven’t owned a TV in about a decade so it took some work to find a place to watch cable for a few hours). Thanks to the fact that I live in New York City, freestyle conversation with wonderful artists/critics/organizers is quick to come by. Going on tour provides a similar stimulation. One of my favorite research paths in recent times came when I was in Riga, Latvia with our FUTURE TELEVISION tour. I spent a week there after our show, which gave me time to learn about the cartoons my friends there grew up on. I was blown away by the trove of Soviet animation that had been produced in the 80s. For months afterwards I dug through Russian-language video databases, finding some gems like Captain Pronin and Pereval. This kind of exploratory work is so much fun!

The heavier administrative duties are a bore to talk about…… emailing venues, learning new video compression techniques, managing boxes of amaray-cased DVDs, etc. Its like an episode of “The Office” without the employees.

Peter Burr of Hooliganship at the Cinémathèque, part of their Cartune Xprez: 2008 AMRCAN Fall Tour. Photo by Michelle Mayne

CP: What is your vision for CX? To me, it kind of seems like it’s fulfilling itself as it is. I mean, I so love and enjoy each of the DVDs you’ve already put out, I’d be psyched if you just did that forever. That said, I can imagine you think about the project differently, or imagine moving in different directions, or presenting the work in different ways. Can you talk about that a bit?

I think my fundamental vision for this project has a lot to do with integrating youthful dreams with my adult experiences. This certainly IS fulfilling in itself! Its also really squirrely and challenging. The biennial compilations feel like a good way to bring some permanence to our activities and touring has been a sweet way to stir up the project’s spirit (bringing new energy and voice).  You’re right, though….. in tandem with what we have now I DO envision the project working in different directions. I think about LIQUID TELEVISION, POSTERDISC, RAW MAGAZINE, CHOOSE-YOUR-OWN-ADVENTURE, THE EXPLODING PLASTIC INEVITABLE and still watering the plants at home.

 

Time Traveling Santa Fe : Meow Wolf and The Due Return

June 15, 2011 · Print This Article

The Due Return: a time & space traveling, inter-dimensional vessel

I am always interested in the way narrative is built up and developed, particularly when it is constructed by multiple parties. It happens every day in a number of ways: events and thoughts are interpreted, communicated and reflected upon. People working together will create a common story. It manifests through mission statements, gossip and even more subtle forms of identification. I’m interested in those instances where narrative is consciously fabricated. In this instance I found out about an exhibit in Santa Fe when an old friend emailed to ask what I might say to trees, given the chance. She went on to describe how the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) was hosting a massive interactive exhibit where, upon entry, you could download an iPhone app that would allow you to communicate with the sculptures (“trees”). A collaborative group, Meow Wolf, didn’t just build trees; they built an entire habitat including a ship that visitors can walk around, on and in. The Due Return is a massive collaborative endeavor with multimedia facets that range from a large fabricated digital archives to live performances to sculpture. This group brought a multi-dimensional ship to the desert mountains. I spent some time talking to Sean Di lanni, a Meow Wolf representative, about the exhibit and the collaboration.
Caroline Picard: Could you paint a picture of this project? From what I gather, you all built an interactive, inter-dimensional ship. Can you describe more about how that works?

Sean Di lanni: The Due Return is a massive, immersive, interactive installation which is fully navigable by visitors. Its namesake and central element is a 75 foot long, by 15 foot high, by 20 foot wide dimension hopping, time traveling ship. The ship has traveled through 31 different “eras” (or TD’s) and now resides in an alien landscape on a foreign planet. The ship and it’s current environment, which we call TD+31 is available for visitors to explore inside of The Center for Contemporary Art’s 6000 Sq. Ft. Munoz Waxman Gallery here in Santa Fe through August 21st.   It was collaboratively produced by over 100 Artists and volunteers, both local and international.

Upon entering the Munoz Waxman Gallery, visitors are directed through a cave-like entryway and immediately confronted by the 15 ft. prow of the ship, upon which is mounted the figurehead, a fantastical winged mer-leopard named Freyja.  The cave-like entryway is part of a system of cliffs made primarily from mud, which occupy the front wall and corner of the space.  They contain rooms and tunnels filled with bizarre life-forms and provide the setting for some of the many theatrical performances that will take place throughout the run of the show.

The environment transitions as you move to the stern of the ship and becomes a forest of “glow trees” which are “speaking” to each other in a language of colored light.  Each tree actually produces colors that communicate with neighboring “trees” which in turn approximate those colors in their own vocabulary and pass them on to their neighbors

 The lounge on the deck of The Due Return

The ship itself contains  2500 Sq. Ft. split between a  lower deck and an upper deck.  The lower deck holds the Engine Room and Lab, 12 bunk spaces, Archive, and Garden.  The upper deck supports a Victorian style Lounge (with a piano!), a Control Room inside of a geodesic dome and a Spanish galleon style Captain’s Quarters.  The aesthetic of these spaces, and the wooden hull of the ship itself, reflect it’s non-linear voyage through time and space.

Each room of the ship is fully structural and can be explored by walking, climbing and crawling.  Navigating the architecture itself provides the most basic level of interactivity in the show,  but visitors are encouraged to engage in a variety of digital and narrative elements as well. The Control Room, for instance, features the NOMAD, or “Novelty Oriented Manual Automation Desk.”   From here visitors can affect video interfaces which monitor bizarre “levels” of activity within the ship and environment, including the activity of the light forest, emotional health indices, vortexial activity and so on.  NOMAD is also one of many places where visitors can actually control lights and sound in the ship and environment.  For instance, one interface contains a map of an extensive system of LED lights installed in the ceiling called “The Stahphield.”   By clicking on quadrants of the map visitors can affect the way the lights fade and twinkle in the Stahphield.

While NOMAD acts as the center of digital interactivity for the show, we’ve set up a number of alternative interfaces for this as well.  One of my favorites are these small “control boxes” set up around the environment and in the Captain’s Quarters that affect the activity of the Glow Forest. They allow visitors to actually dial in a specific color, which is displayed back to them through a cool frosted acrylic surface. When you find a color you like, you “send” it to the trees, interrupting their conversation and interjecting your color into the forest.  Over the course of the show, these interjections are added to the color vocabulary of the forest.

We’ve also created an iPhone App called Elixir,  which provides another platform for these interactive elements.  Elixir contains programs that can  interject colors into the Light Forest and affect the Stahphield. It also serves as an access point to The Loci, the ships archive.  In addition to it’s physical manifestation inside the ship, The Loci is a vast digital archive of the ships history told in passages from journals, audio recordings, images and entries by the fictional archivist, Teddy Hubbel (www.loci.theduereturn.com). Some of the material in the archive is also linked to QR Codes, which are scattered throughout the ship and can be accessed by most QR Code readers including the one in Elixir.

The narratives contained in the Archive are also made accessible to visitors through a series of “seemingly spontaneous” theatrical performances that happen on select weekend nights through the run of the show. On performance nights visitors are given schedules of key performances at the door.  In addition to these publicized performances, smaller vignettes occur in the form of crew interactions throughout the installation.

Performers as crew members conducting a thought experiment in the Lab

CP: You’ve used a vast array of materials in this project. While looking at the website, I even I noticed some computer architectural programs. Can you talk about how you were able to include so many material dimensions?

SDL: Most of the magic that happens in a Meow Wolf project happens as a result of the projects being as inclusive to as many forms of expression and materials as possible. Usually, the results of this inclusion surprise the people involved in the project as much as they surprise audiences. Including different types of artists and processes allows us to reach a  broader audience, simply because of the huge variety of stuff that any one project can contain. But “more stuff” is made much more interesting when it’s combined under a semi-cohesive theme, idea, or at least space. That stuff starts conversing with itself. Every one of our projects deals with issues of cohesion and structure in different ways, and they all seem to be experiments in bringing together diverse people and materials to achieve something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

So, for The Due Return, we set up a fair amount of structure and organization because we felt that we needed these things to achieve our very high ambitions. At the same time, we were  careful to keep in mind that whatever structure we created was intended to make space for expression and not to contain ambitions, or curtail visions. As I see it, these structures were set up to facilitate opportunities for artistic collaboration and experimentation.

With this in mind we broke the The Due Return down into sub-projects. There was a lot of interaction between sub-projects but each had internal organization and one, two or three point people, so that a system of communication was set up. These groups were as follows:  Ship, Archive, Tech, Environment and Performance.

At first we met as one large group, until we had a solid idea of what we were trying to do. Then the sub-groups really got going and started generating all kinds of plans and bringing in all kinds of people with different interests to work on the project. We’d meet up again as a whole group to get on the same page periodically. We set up deadlines for conceptual design and worked our way towards details, logistics, budgets and so on. Eventually these massive group meetings became less necessary and communication between groups just happened as needed. What was very helpful in all of this was the dedication of individuals. Some folks were involved in multiple aspects of the project, so they would be at meetings about Ship Design and also meetings about the Archive and so forth.

I was one of the point people for the Ship Design Group, and my role was to take everyone’s ideas and form them into  workable architectural plans that had real structure and could be used to generate specific lists, budgets and schedules. We used all kinds of methods to get to this point, most of which were typical to any architectural design process. What was different was that none of us are professional architects, or designers really. We did consult with an architect to make sure we had all our structural calculations figured out, but I think the architecture and the project as a whole stands as an amazing testament to the power of dedicated amateurs.

Engines and propellers stick off the back of The Due Return into a momentarily blue Glow Forrest

In the Ship Group we made lots of hand drawings and culled images to move our process along.  Once we had the basics I drew up the project in Google Sketchup, a very basic, intuitive 3-D modeling program. From there we actually made some 3-D physical models out of clay and paper so we could feel the thing in our hands. Eventually I decided we needed a more advanced 3-D digital modeling program to really hash out the curves of the ship and get specific about structural needs. So I began learning Rhinoceros 3-D. After a couple of weeks, I was lucky enough to find someone here who knew Rhino better than I did and she volunteered to take on the actual drafting.  The program helped immensely with figuring out the curve of the hull. It allowed us to prefabricate sections before we had access to the gallery. We were even able to have the ribs for the bow of the ship cut by a CNC router using our CAD files. This saved us hours of tedious jigsawing and was a pretty magical process.

That’s just a few examples of the types of digital and physical tools we used to complete the process from the Ship Design perspective. There was also a ton of amazing computer programming that went into the archive, lighting, sound and other technical aspects of the show.  The programming for the trees, for example, was done using Max MSP and a whole bunch of Arduino microcontrollers. The Stahphield also utilized Arduinos, along with some amazing curcuitry that we custom printed and hand assembled. I joked a lot about how we were making “fair trade, local, organic circuitry” for the project while we soldered away LED’s for days on end in March.

As for the “stuff” we used to build The Due Return– dang!- there’s such a variety of materials involved. The trees were made from this incredible biodegradable plastic called InstaMorph which you heat to mold into forms. The cliffs were made with a wooden framework, then wire mesh, and then tons of dirt mixed with straw and water to form cob. That process was incredibly labor intensive, and involved countless hours from scores of artists and volunteers. People were always doing “mud.”  Some of the creatures we made were cast from rubbers and resins with little built in LED lights. The ship itself was made from a combination of scrap lumber from previous projects and new lumber (which we will re-use or pass on for re-use). We used a ton of stuff from dumpsters and random treasures from artists homes. The Black Hole in Los Alamos, an incredible second hand store for used lab equipment (mostly from LANL) donated and gave us great deals on a plethora of bizarre science equipment and weird plastics. Most of NOMAD and the lab was sourced from the Black Hole. We rented a bunch of beautiful 19th century furniture from the Santa Fe Opera (who were also incredibly generous) for the lounge. So, there’s a combination of old and new materials. Where it was possible, we recycled things, but we also bought a fair amount of new stuff, all of which will be used again when we disassemble to show.

Windows and trees

CP: Maybe following up on that last question, too, how did you go about constructing this narrative?

SDL: I passed this question along to Nicholas Chiarella, who headed up the Archive group, because i felt he could answer it best.

Nicholas Chiarella: The narrative of The Due Return was conceived at its start as an archive, a collection of information and artifacts that would have been gathered by the crew members of the ship over the course of its history—physical objects, written text, audio recordings, video clips, found items, created pieces. Meow Wolf has involvement from a number of writers, and having a narrative component allowed us to bring in a few more. We wanted to engage the audience in story and give them a chance to interact at a slow-paced, intimate level—to test out the way story can unfold within an art installation. We also wanted to enhance the sense that the ship had existed for a long time, that it had a lifespan of its own. A group of a dozen or so writers and artists sat down together with the initial concept of an interdimensional ship travelling time and space, and then they began to play with the idea of where the ship had previously gone, who the crew members were, what their interests were. Everyone in the archive group had a different approach, at first, some telling stories through letters or journal fragments, and others working through objects: maps, artifacts, photographs. The archive group met weekly in order to exchange ideas and weave stories together. From the start, the group knew it wanted a physical space on the ship to house and display the collection and a digital interface for sharing information at the show and off-site as well. The digital interface ended up being called the Loci (Latin for “places”) in order to reflect the organization of the ship’s history, which in part is structured by the places and times that the ship has visited.

The narrative is a strong backdrop, too, for the performances that happen on the ship. …

Portholes into a flower filled bunk

CP: Will you talk a little bit about Meow Wolf? When did the collective get started? I was looking through your flikr page and it looks like you’ve made habitats before, in addition to making music.

SDL: Meow Wolf was created in February of 2008 by a group of young residents hoping to supply Santa Fe with an alternative arts and music venue. The group has evolved into a central hub of cultural growth for a community that was previously without an outlet; using art installations and music shows as opportunities to form relationships, welcome newcomers to Santa Fe, and provide individuals with an open space to be expressive.

Bringing music to Santa Fe and supporting local music has been part of the goal with Meow Wolf from the start.  The installations arose out of an early art show that was primarily produced by two artists. It was called Meowzors and was kind of a painting installation in which every surface of the space was covered with imagery and objects. I think people got really excited about covering space and creating immersive environments from that show and we started on this now three-year tradition of doing installations as a central part of our process. The ideas for these shows are usually generated through a combination of single individuals ideas and a collaborative process of discussion. For whatever reason they often feature bizarre living spaces. The installation we did before The Due Return was a show called Habitats and the theme was living spaces.

I think, though, we are open to any kind of production. For instance, last winter we did this huge multimedia theater production called The Moon is to Live On which brought together more time-based and performing arts (like music and acting) with the creation of physical space. We also instigate a big public “performance” event called Monster Battle on the Santa Fe Plaza every summer.

CP: How do you think about sculpture and landscape? What is the role of the viewer in your environments?

SDL: That’s a really interesting question to me.  Maybe “sculpture and landscape” is a more specific version of “sculpture and context,”  or, even more broadly “object and space?”  I, personally, am very excited by experiences that confuse and reorient our assumptions about what is an “object” (like furniture or sculpture) and what is “space” (like architecture and landscape). I love when an object suddenly becomes inhabitable (either physically or psychically) and a space suddenly becomes an object-like mass (like a boat sitting in a gallery).

I think installation or “environmental” art champions the interactions that happen between objects and people in a space. An installation is able to engage this wide range of sensory experience in the same way that walking into a building or tromping through a forest can. So, in a weird way, an installation can be accessible to a wider audience because it engages these basic spatial senses that we all take for granted on a daily basis.  It then has the power to subvert our spatial assumptions. I love when an art experience is simultaneously disorienting and familiar in this way.

With The Due Return visitors walk inside a gallery and are suddenly outside of a ship, and in a landscape.  Then they can go inside of that ship.  In that very basic way it breaks expectations. There’s a line in one of the scripts for the performances in which a crew member of The Due Return is describing the process of walking out of the show into the real world of the CCA grounds. He says its like “outside of outside.” I love that.

With The Due Return the whole thing is highly produced and kind of controlled, I guess. I think it interacts with visitors like architecture does in that they are navigating it however they like, and it has a big impact on that navigation. But it then plays with how one can navigate literature and theater in a spatial way. So it ultimately gives power to the audience because of how many physical/psycholigical entry points there are.

A view of the ship from inside one of the caves, with glowing cave creatures

CP: What is your background and how did you find yourself in Santa Fe? How would you compare your background to other members of Meow Wolf?

I grew up in New Jersey and went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design for sculpture.  I moved to Santa Fe after school almost 4 years ago because i had some family in New Mexico.

I’d say that maybe less than half of the people who worked on The Due Return have a similar background. Meow Wolf was started by folks who didn’t go to college at all and who grew up in Santa Fe. For this project we worked with Dads, little kids, professionals, hobbyists, amateurs and students alike. Most of the people involved in Meow Wolf on a consistent basis hover around 20 something in age, but we are a diverse group and have no boundaries in terms of age, or educational background or anything like that. People have all kinds of different day jobs or lack thereof. So much of the value of this group comes from putting a huge amount of trust in people just because they are excited about doing stuff. I think we have a lot of faith in people.

CP: Can you talk about some of the programs that are going on during The Due Return?

SDL: The programming was conceived as an alternative to the talks, lectures and panels that happen around lots of other exhibitions. We wanted programming to be more geared toward building a youthful culture in Santa Fe and we wanted to have parties. So we booked a bunch of great music shows and have had DJ’s and Dance Parties in the installation. The last dance party  was attended by a really diverse crowd. It was fully all ages, which was great. The installation itself has plenty of conceptual wiggle room, so it can become an awesome music venue and that just adds to the experience.

In addition to the music shows we’re doing some more theatrical performances in the first two weekends in July. We’ll also be doing an archive presentation this Saturday  which presents a fictional history of The Due Return. And, on Saturday, June 25th we’re having a panel discussion with CCA and 516 Arts from Albuquerque, where we recently completed a satellite installation as part of their exhibition Worlds Outside This One.

So there’s some of everything, but I think the programming reflects a larger statement about producing culture “on our terms,”  reflecting the diverse interests of both the artists involved and the visitors who come to the show.

The Due Return is open to visitors until August 21st. For more information and to see a list of public programs, please visit their website.

A view of the ship from inside one of the caves, with glowing cave creatures

Alchemical Processes: An Interview with Aay Preston-Myint

June 8, 2011 · Print This Article

 

"SMILE II," installation/performance stills 2010

The first time I met Aay, he was was giving a presentation at Version Fest in 2007. Aay, Ilana Percher and Rebecca Grady had just returned from Art Shanty Projects on Medicine Lake, where they installed a soft shanty/sculpture called The Soft Shop. They reinstalled this portable, cloth shanty in the Version’s basement, (where all the other art booths stood) and talked about their residency, hosting some of the same fiber workshops they had hosted in its original location in Minnesota. Since that first encounter I have benefited from Aay’s collaborative work in multiple ways. I have been to Chances to dance-dance-dance, a short story of mine was published in an on-line magazine he organizes called Monsters & Dust. I went to No Coast and convinced Aay to make some covers for the Green Lantern Press. I point this out because his work has impacted a wide audience of which I am a part. He creates public, collaborative platforms while producing a concise, independent body of work. Despite having appreciated his work for so long, I have never taken the opportunity to ask him about how these projects relate to one another, and even how he thinks about his own practice. To me, this interview is suited to the beginning of summer. It’s hot outside, the Critical Fierceness Grant is open again (until June 30th) for grant proposals, many artists and faculty alike are facing a new open schedule, and it’s good to remember the alchemical mixture in aesthetics, politics, the body and imagination.

 

Mess Hall's interior, just before the opening of Celebrate! Celebrate? The Politics and Tactics of Visualizing a People's History, organized by Nicolas Lampert of Justseeds (January 2010)

Caroline Picard: You’ve been in Chicago for a number of years and have continued to work with different organizations—I was thinking as far back as Diamonds/Texas Ballroom for instance, No Coast of course and many others—I was wondering if you could talk about your participation in those different organizations; how your role has varied? Do you feel like your participation in different communal structures has impacted your visual work?

Aay Preston-Myint: Well, Diamonds and Texas were two iterations/sections of the same artists collective in warehouse space in Bridgeport, back in the day. We all did our share of programming and running events, mostly art shows and music, and let’s not forget parties. No Coast was a similar collective/consensus structure but centered around the concept and physical space of a bookstore, shared studio space, in addition to an open community workshop. When I look at these and other organizations I’ve been involved with (the online curatorial project Monsters and Dust, the experimental cultural center Mess Hall, and the microgrant/queer dance party called Chances), the difference is not so much in work or ‘roles,’ but the content of each project itself. These are ventures that have all been run by consensus to serve a specific audience or community. As such, roles can shift depending on interest, ability, and the needs of our contingents. I think the impact on my own work has been that I have a desire to engage, entertain, and encourage dialogue through my practice. I enjoy using color, a richness in materials, humor, mystery/seduction, and participation to engage the viewer. Creating a gravitational pull, drawing people into an active space — that’s what all the organizations I work with have done.

CP: Do you categorize different aspects of your art practice?

APM: In a way those divisions (solo work, collaborations, and design/commissions) are often a matter of convenience — an easy way of categorizing, but the nature of the work is different too. I think my solo work has more of a clear narrative, using conceptual, material, and stylistic threads that weave in and out of the work. Collaborations of course deal with similar concepts and interests. However that work tends to take on forms, processes, or issues that I don’t always deal with on my own because of the influence of my partners — each collaboration tends to stand apart. The design work, while perhaps more aesthetically my own, is a whole other beast, often because it’s not used in an art context, and also because the content is decided by the client and maybe even pushed to the background. I think each category exhibits a different kind of development over time, and it can be interesting to compare how they are disparate but also influence one another. From the subject matter of my solo work, to the clients I choose to design for: there are connections that become apparent when you zoom out.

“Untitled (Habitat) rope, neon lights, oak, enamel and latex paint, satin, sports mesh, thread, flies, shellac, wig-infused rum 10′ x 14′ x 5′
2011

CP: Will you talk a little bit about your relationship to materials?

APM: Responding to materials have always been a key part of my work. For a while when I drew it was almost like I had an issue with attention span; I needed something to respond or anchor myself to, a fabric, wallpaper, a photograph — I disliked drawing on a blank surfaces. Now it’s more about responding to the social, historical, or affective associations with an object or material — rope, a flag, hair, light, even scent. I think in a body of work like mine — which is so about embodiment — the choice of materials is really key when interpreting form.

CP: I’m also really curious about your Hybrid Moments Project—can you talk about that a little?

APM: Hmm, yes — as you can tell from the text banner series that I made a couple years ago, I like to use pop songs as titles and content sometimes. After I made the first series of screen prints, Hybrid Moments seemed to be the right phrase to contain my work at the time — I think of the title more as a container than the name of a single “project.” I think it still works for the prints and maybe some of the discrete/smaller sculptures, but not so much for the larger sculptures anymore. But in general, it’s the body of work I’m engaged with now. The works make propositions of what mutating, unpredictable forms that community, identity, and the environment—both built and natural — may take on in an unspecified future moment — all through the lens of a critical queerness.

CP: Do you have a static, projected future point that your work is speaking to? Or does that future-vision shift, depending on what your working on?

APM: The future I depict is definitely mutable and unpredictable, that’s kind of the crux of my whole viewpoint. I think part of the criticality of my work is that our projections of the future never match up to what we imagine — I use mutation as a metaphor or allegory for that unpredictability. As soon as one struggle is overcome, new power relations form in place of old ones. Often abuses and rivalries emerge instead of coalitions. The future I imagine is always out of reach.

"It Gets Worse," open edition of digital/offset prints dimensions variable 2011-ongoing

CP: It makes me want to ask the same question about your lens. Is your lens of critical queerness also static? Do you apply that lens to the present as well? Or is it solely intended as a future-looking tool?

APM: Going off my last answer, the lens definitely applies to the present. Our current struggles are direct results of what we desire or imagine our future to be. I think the It Gets Worse series points to those connections/disconnections. Is marriage a queer issue? Or are supermax prisons and police states a queer issue? Both? Is one more urgent than the other? Why? The national discourse is really far behind with regard to what’s actually being said, thought, and done in queer communities across class, race, and trans/gender lines. How can we make the definition of queer issues — and following that, queer identity — more fluid and open in order to more successfully meet the challenges of the future?

CP: And your SMILE series too—that struck me, partly, because of the element of performance required. I was thinking about it because in Hybrid Moments you seem to be interested in gestures and the significance of those gestures, but then in that instance (am I right?) the resulting work is divorced from living people….

APM: That’s a great question because I think over time those two projects have influenced each other in ways I hadn’t anticipated and, at least in my mind, they aren’t differentiated anymore. The first iteration of SMILE was, I think, the first iteration of my continuing and relatively “mature” body of work. However at that time it was still lacking a specific goal or agenda in terms of content, despite having established the visual style and material concerns. I started Hybrid Moments soon after this, and through those works I began to lock down the kinds of gestures, characters, and ideas I am interested in. Queerness, futurity, power relations, color theory/theories, toxicity and mutation to name a few. So when I did SMILE a second time (at SFCamerawork in September 2010), it became folded into what had become my practice. Some objects that were previously presented as sculptures became props for SMILE — because all these works now inhabited the same world. I was delighted to see some of the situations in my drawings accidentally re-enacted in performance, and in turn, I’ve used the gestures and actions performed in SMILE to create new drawings (e.g. “Totem Ascending”, which was included in this year’s threewalls CSA). The SMILE performances have also helped me to rethink the concepts of figure, site, and the object/viewer relationship in my sculptural work.

"SMILE II," installation/performance stills 2010

CP: Can you talk more about how you experienced your practice coalescing? It’s interesting to me, because it sounds so evident to your process — like the way you differentiate a “mature” body of work and then that you talk about figuring out your material/styalistic concerns before realizing the ideas you were honing in on…like, how did you discover queerness, futurity, power relations, color theory/theories, toxicity and mutation as a central series of threads?

APM: For me, this happens in two ways. I think the first was the development of a certain intuition, in conjunction with a recognizable imprint or style. When I work, I start with a specific idea, and I gather the materials I need to make the object real, but at a certain point in the execution it seems almost like alchemy, like spinning a solid substance out of air. The work begins to outpace my thought, which is a good thing. After a while, you make enough things and you can kind of sit back and look at what makes them all tick. Almost everything I was making had some connection with the body or a body-to-be (figure-based drawings, costumes, stages/arenas), and it made sense to go from there. Futurity and mutation — bodies as agents of change, and subject to change. Power relations —‚ how our physical bodies place us in a hierarchy arranged around gender, color, etc. Queerness — an embodiment of difference or otherness. There comes this juncture, this arrival, where you are able to say, this is it, this is what I’m talking about.

The second part has to do with the research elements of my practice — looking, reading, writing. As I was working on my written thesis I was isolating these core concepts (embodiment, utopia, queerness, etc). The commonalities between the different works I make, and the works of others that I am influenced by. I started making lists, thought maps, and diagrams which would explode these concepts and then bring them back together in different configurations. With the encouragement of friends and teachers, these sketches and diagrams eventually became works in their own right.

CP: Do you draw a connection between power relations and color theory? Like how certain colors will dominate others; there is an inborn, albeit relative hierarchy. Is your list of conceptual concerns similarly linked? Or do you see that list as a body of distinct, non-relating concepts?

APM: Oh yes, there is definitely a connection. However, in my research I don’t talk so much about the optical domination of one color over the other, as much as looking at the social constructs and hierarchies around color.  I’m interested in how colors carry associations with certain emotions, objects, situations, and even social and political movements and attitudes. I’ve been especially invested in mixed colors, day-glo colors, and pastel colors — my written thesis was titled “Who’s Afraid of Pink, Purple and Brown?” in contrast to Barnett Newman’s “Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” I’ve done an artist talk solely on the color pink. It’s a pretty amazing color, not enough people take it seriously. Transgression, difference, queerness, sex, repulsion, obsession, fantasy….it’s all there in that one color.

CP: How has the graduate school structure impacted your process?

APM: I think that grad school has been really invaluable to my process….until now I’ve never been able to totally commit myself to developing an artistic stance or worldview, and turn that into a cohesive body of work over time. I can really reflect on how one piece relates to the next, and engage in intense and productive critique from myself and others at a level previously unreached. As hinted at above, I’ve also been able to take advantage of scale and material in a way I hadn’t had the time or financial backing to do before. I’ve been really fortunate to attend a program (UIC) that fosters community, improvisation, self-critique, and collaboration, due to its size, and in particular, the awesomeness and warmth of my cohort. In that way, it really hasn’t been too much different than my DIY experiences. I think my class in particular has truly been like family.

CP: What are you working on right now?

APM: Interesting that you say that — well, the fact is, I’ve just graduated and am looking forward to a lot of travel this summer, and not really sure what kind of work awaits in the fall (residency? teaching? design? working at a bar? these are all options). This means that for the time being, I’m not going to have the large scale modes of production, storage, and display available to me during graduate school — so I unfortunately might have to put the brakes on the large sculptural work for now. It’s strange how time, place, and life situations can have as much, if not more, impact on the work you do as your own concept/process. That said, I’m focusing on prints, drawings and the web at the moment — things I can do at home and at my shared studio at Roxaboxen in Pilsen. Mostly developing the imagery in the Hybrid Moments prints and the It Gets Worse Series — my long-time No Coast collaborator Alex Valentine and I will be taking these and other print/book projects to the Tokyo Art Book fair in July. Also, I can finally put my nose to the grindstone on Monsters and Dust — which you yourself have also made an awesome contribution to. Our next issue is way overdue. But as soon as I get enough space I think I’d like to start working on a “living vomitorium” idea that has been at the back of my head for a while.

Bottomless Loop, wire, polyester, cotton, false flowers, plexiglas, poured enamel 10' x 12 ' x 2' 2011

CP: How do you determine if a show with your work is successful?

APM: I guess there are a few ways. Of course people might just like the whole thing, which feels great, but I’m often excited when people respond to the work that I’ve had the most doubts about, or the piece that I almost didn’t include. It reminds me to continue thinking outside of myself and to trust other people’s input. If the work motivates people to ask challenging questions rather than just congratulate, that’s great too. I also think a work is successful when people ask funny questions or give things names – “Is that a gloryhole?” or “I like this hair donut,” or “This one is the great birth mother, right?” or “What’s that smell?”

You can see more of Aay’s work by visiting his website.