At 23, I sat on a beach with my brother, eight years older than me, and confessed to identify with women. Embedded in my confession was an indelible anxiety about what that meant—something I had always rejected. I don’t know why it’s the case, or where it came from but as early as I can remember I wanted to be a boy, rejecting the signifiers of femininity with a ruthless vehemence that vexed my mother to no end. (I remember, for instance, her asking with special timidity, whether I felt she was somehow too weak a role model for me; assuming, I suppose, that my fierce (and impossible) attempts at male-identification stemmed from a desire to be more like my father). Fortunately or unfortunately I didn’t have an answer, though I do appreciate the tenderness with which she broached the subject—what I seemed to indicate her own conflict between trying to encourage and support the child-ego in me while wrestling with her own gender expectations. At the time I think I was perplexed by her question and (probably) slightly annoyed. I expect I was certain my individuality had nothing to do with her.
While I’ve yet to unpack the perceptions of femininity in my family (both immediate and extended) I have considered the female alternatives in child cartoons: I would always prefer to be a smurf than I a smurfette; I would rather be Popeye or a Brutus than an Olive Oil. Bat Man (or Robin, for whom I had a particular affinity) were far more intriguing to me than the Betty Boops or Barbies; I desired an experience of peril and achievement that was not contingent on negotiating a gendered body. I wanted to conceive the surmountable danger so prevalent in boyish narratives,within which the female protagonists were generally rare (i.e. one female within a cast of many differentiated males) and symbolic: female characters indicated a feminine force—what generally always had to address, in some way, their physical properties (whether the weakness of Olive Oil, the prettiness of Smurfette, the sexiness of Cat Woman). And then I ended up on a beach talking to my brother about gender at an age when I should have been fully sorted out. He repeated a dating metaphor his friend used, where women were gazelles and men lions. My habit would have led me to laugh, but suddenly I identified not with the lion but with the gazelle. I don’t think either of us were equipped for the conversation at this time, but we did our best and thereafter I muddled through a new experience of the world. Of course there are probably countless women who enjoy the ritualized traditions of gender (these women always appear to me as idealized figments, perfectly manicured, elegant and slim with polite breasts and expensive taste) but I am not one of them. Furthermore I’m sure their meat-and-bones manifestations are more complex than I give credit in day dreams. Nevertheless I have begun to appreciate the way an albeit emotional response to banal images of half-naked woman wheat pasted on various surfaces of culture has challenged me to face and hopefully trouble the still and ever-present cultural representation of women, something I adeptly avoided when I didn’t identify with them. I want to think about what those images mean, what they signify and where I stand/am supposed to stand in relation to them.
Which is why I so deeply enjoyed Laurel Nakadate’s show, “Only the Lonely” at PS1. It closes this next Monday, on the 8th of August. I went to see the show about a month ago while visiting friends in New York. I had read about her work before hand; I had read about how she vies to be the center of attention to such an extent that she makes a parody of those attention-seeking impulse so easily exercised (and thus pervasive) in our times. I had read that her work platforms a much overlooked demographic—the middle-aged, single, shlubby, presumably lonely male, a figure marginalized in society and media alike. The punch of Nakadate’s photographic persona is entirely reliant on the context provided by her male counterparts. It is their gaze we end up muddling around in an attempt to study her form. I had read about how her work involved a kind of self-exploitation, where she enacted the pinup, or reenacted the dance steps of Brittany Speers’ Oops I did it again. To be honest, before going to the show, I braced myself. I thought, yes, this might make me faint in an hysterical swoon. After all, Knocked Up made me cry. I’m still terrified of the third book in 2666 (though I’m working up the courage, 300 pages of female murder sounds devastating) and I never saw Sex in the City because I felt sure I would leave the theater wanting to punch someone (the image of Kim Cattral riding a camel in the midst of our vexing Middle East presence seemed a dubious enough tip).
The last thing I expected when I walked into PS1 was to start laughing—that’s what happened, though. I started laughing. Nakadate does create an uncomfortable space, because she is directly facing and then recreating the subject of male desire, but accompanying that muscular subject-tackle is an attention to humor. She reenacts slap stick death scenes by herself in an American landscape, putting a plastic gun to her lips and then spewing fake blood. She bares her chest to an empty landscape. Pretends to hang herself, badly–these motions are shlocky and amusing for their poor execution. They feel badly scripted, like one enacting a fantasy. In another series, Trouble Ahead Trouble (2006) Behind, she photographs different pairs of underwear just before releasing them outside a train window. The underwear itself, while handsome and nicely framed, conjures our curious affection for lingerie and all its ornamentation. Removed from the body, it hangs like a flag of passing fancy. In her video Love Hotel, she parodies sexual acts without a partner, still clothed (albeit ridiculously in fetishistic sports socks and all pink cotton panties) we watch her body writhe to the point of absurdity before repositioning from an all-fours jiggle to a partially upright stance with her hands against the wall. In this second pose, again, she appears to be humped by a ghost. It’s comical because sex is comical. People look weird having sex outside the stylized lens of pornography and they look especially weird if they are alone, gyrating. She capitalizes on the signifiers of lust—those fetishized (and kind of creepy) knickers and bows so familiar in call-girl advertisements where 30 year-olds (you hope) dress like they’re 16. Part of what enables the humor (and probably its inextricable companion, discomfort) is her lack of judgement. She embodies and performs with unapologetic commitment, leaving her audience to question its gaze.
Listed in the materials of Oops I did it again (2000) is the infamous Hello Kitty Boom Box (what also and always seems to be mentioned when anyone talks or writes about this piece) and while its presence immediately lightens the mood, it is further softened by the movements of her companions who try with relative effectiveness to contribute to Nakadate’s choreography. After being asked for a phone number, she asks to go to the man’s house if he will let her take pictures. Upon arrival she sets up the boombox and the camera. She plays the Brittany Speers song and encourages the men to dance with her while she performs, verbatim, Speers’ dance moves. Her partners are endearingly funny, not in a “look at those losers” kind of way, but in an empathetic way. (Jesus, if I had to dance with someone to that song, especially if they seemed to know what they were doing, and especially if we were alone in my kitchen, I don’t know what I would do). For me, that empathy increased exponentially as I continued through the exhibit. I wasn’t just empathizing with the projected loneliness of these characters (which I’m sure played a part) I was also empathizing with Nakadate’s bravery, to create a relationship within a dynamic traditionally considered threatening to women at large (i.e., don’t talk to the weirdo, he might do something–probably he looks at weird porn in the sad house he never leaves, and yes, maybe he wants to stick a hot rod up your girl-butt). Nakadate engages these men, demanding something performative of them, while also asking they clarify their participation in her performance. One of my favorite pieces in the show, Lucky Tiger (2008), features a collection of self-portraits where she has posed in a traditional pinup style: she sits atop a horse, barefooted in a cowboy hat and panties, navel undressed in a short cropped t-shirt. In another she has her back to the audience, her head partially turned over her shoulder, looking coy in cowboy boots. The photos are covered in fingerprints, fingerprints left behind by men who have examined them with her (she had them cover their fingers in ink). Accompanying these photos is an audio track where you hear her companions reviewing the image, “This is a nice one here,” says a man. “Why?” Nakadate asks. Her companion responds, “You can see your diaphragm peeking out just there between your legs; that’s nice.” His voice is calm and reasoned: they are discussing the formal expectations required of such imagery. By documenting the conversation, Nakadate requires her companions to be both accountable to her, in the way he they assess her person as represented in the photograph, and accountable to an unknown public. And of course, what is most upsetting is to hear experience the reality of these evaluations–an extreme instance which, I would argue, takes place all the time everywhere to a lesser degree.
Consistently in her work, there is a back-and-forth dance of power. At first she appears exploited, then exploiting. In Lessons 1-10 (2001) Nakadate poses on a table, half dressed. A man sitting behind her looks up, concentratedly. He has a pencil in his hand and holds it over piece of paper. At first I imagined a young woman going to man’s house after seeing an ad on Craigslist for life drawing models. I imagined her arriving to this house and felt a shadow of lonely perversity, as I doubted the credentials of his life drawing appetite. Then, I recognized Nakadate as the author of the shot; she has facilitated and documented this scenario. Perhaps she is the one exploiting, using her body as a kind of red herring to distract and illustrate the man in the room. Even then, though, the man has agreed to be in the room which calls forth a shadow of loneliness once more. One minute she seems in total control, the next you realize she is all alone in a stranger’s house. One moment the men seem predatorial, the next devastatingly pathetic.
Add to this a last essential detail: I kept returning to an experience of mutual enjoyment between Nakadate and her subjects. This too facilitates humor, softening the brutal dynamics she exposes. She asks a man to lie down on a bed while she, as the eye of the camera, performs an excorcism. The bedding is sad, messy, unmade–the shelves around the bed are adhoc, containing disheveled books. Still, the man lying in this vignette is playful, repeating after her clunky, childish phrases to imaginary ghosts, “I do not want you in me. Stay away from me.” The element of play allows a real relationship, despite its center around subject of sexual tension. Here too, I was supremely aware of my position as a voyeur—someone not privy to the specific interior dynamics of the relationship, an element of mystery that contributes to the work’s success. “It’s all about self-consciousness, really, in both senses of the word—being self-aware and being ill at ease. You watch Nakadate—and you watch her watching herself, because she often indulges in the tic of breaking character and looking at the camera as if checking herself in a mirror. Or you watch someone watching Nakadate, and then you watch yourself watching someone watch her as she watches herself—and all those different viewpoints start to blur together. This mise-en-abyme might make you want to be more alert about understanding what’s going on, in the work and in yourself” (Barry Scwabsky, The Nation). We, the onlooker, can only judge based on our understanding of the signs as they are portrayed, the very signs which are being exhumed and challenged. Because she often works with the same subjects on different projects, we must assume experience is enjoyable for them, yet we cannot identify the precise nature of that enjoyment. It is reciprocally impossible to pin down the payoff for Nakadate’s investment. Obviously the project, as a whole, works because she is making a point. At the same time, she is a complicit and active participant in this point, appearing as potentially lonely as her subjects. It’s very probable she likes this form of attention—is that bad? Should it matter? Would it influence our aesthetic experience? What if she hated it? In an interview with Scott Indrisek she said, “In general, I wait to be approached. I want to be the one who’s hunted, I want to be the one who they take interest in—because if they’re not interested in me, they’re probably not going to be interested in being in a video. I also like the idea of turning the tables—the idea of them thinking that they’re in charge or that they’re in power and they’re asking me for something and then I turn it on them, where I’m the director and the world is really my world.”
What is difficult about this work is the way it engages the subject of girl-ness, not girls as a stage in life but as it is portrayed culturally through the lens of American Apparel and Brittany Spears. It’s a highly sexualized genre—something that remains taboo while being pointed, poked and exploited. Good Morning Sunshine (2009) further delves into the subject. Here, Nakadate is behind the camera, out of view; “‘We’—that is, the camera—enter a young teenage girl’s bedroom,” on three occasions. Each room belongs to a different girl. Nakadate coaxes them awake, gently. She asks them how they slept, and not-so-slowly tries to convince them to get undressed. “Let me see your feet,” she begins. “Can you take off your socks for me?” Peppering these requests with honey-dripped compliments, “You’re so pretty,” the young women seem uncomfortably complying. This project further informs Nakadate’s relationship to the camera, her understanding of its power and how to illustrate one extreme of its mechanics. Do we imagine Dov Charney to behave any differently? What is our responsibility as consumers in that equation?
Of course that question comes to me again and again. Having seen a number of movies this summer and noted the lack of female protagnists (here’s a pretty awesome conversation about The Smurfs/Super8), picked up on the on-going project of Lady Drawers, read about disheartening DC Comic conferences and, maybe above all else, read the curiously aggressive comment threads that follow those posts–it was a relief to feel submerged in a body of work that dealt directly with the gender binary. Here too, I feel it’s worth noting that Nakadate’s work is about a male/female world–distinctions that are becoming more and more porous as our expectations of gender and its performance grow more complex and conveluted. “The traditional Oedipal backstory is grainy at best; we are copies of copies of copies of copies of Oedipus’ children. Copies repeat. Copies degrade. Copies transform.” (Ken Corbett, from his book Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities).
Recently I had the opportunity to interview Matthew Goulish on the Art21 blog. Much of that conversation centered around a performance by Every house has a door that took place this last June. I wanted to reenact some aspects of that performance through writing. Memory is like a muscle, in a way, and what follows is an exercise of memory.
“The body (its matter) is eternal; the soul (the form of the body) is transitory” - Bela Bartók (1881-1945)
We met at the poolhouse in Holstein Park. It was a humid summer day—due to the heat we were asked to stay outside before the show. There was concern the room might get too hot from our cumulative body heat; the longer we could avoid its accumulation, the better. So we gathered around a bench, following incomplete conversational paths, subjects pursued to pass the time and, if necessary, abandon altogether should the doors open unexpectedly. In these preceding moments I realized, for the first time this year, that it was summer: a time for slow and amicable drifting.
Imagine you sit on this bench with us. You look at your watch; people have started to filter indoors. You follow them. You purchase a bottle of water from a vending machine and climb a set of stairs. I am just in front of you. The banister is wrapped with caution tape but you use it anyway. At the top of the stairs we enter a small, half-court gymnasium. Windows surround the upper third of the room. They are old fashioned, connected by a single metal bar; if you turned a specific rod, all the windows would open at the same time. Through the open windows, you hear the sound of children playing in the swimming pool outside. Sometimes you hear a car from the street. The room stills in anticipation of a beginning. You notice the sweat in your palms. It is very hot. Sun brightens the room and when you follow my gaze look through the windows, the sky is a Midwestern blue.
Hannah Geil-Neufeld approaches the microphone. The performance is beginning. It has begun. She begins to read from a rehearsal journal. Like the rest of the audience, we listen to her voice and thus enter the process that created the performance we have come to see. Her voice admits us back stage. She quotes Wallace Stevens. ”The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully,” she says.
The rehearsal journal ushers an experience of intimacy. It welcomes the audience. It calms us with stable, descriptive footing. But of course this is a performance and we are in a theater watching people who have rehearsed the ensuing movement multiple times. This diary is also a practiced devise. It is a grounding point, coherent and personal and common. It opens the door providing a lens through which to see the rest.
Three men come to the stage. They wear coats and ties. Brian Torrey Scott is not among them. He has been struck from the rehearsal journal as well. Scott was one of the original dancers; he was in the preview of this same performance put on a year ago at the Cultural Center. He moved away, I heard, and Jeff Harms took his place beside Goulish and John Rich in this performance. Harms appears in the rehearsal journal as though he had been there from the beginning. His dance movements are the same–you remember for instance, the comic flop Scott enacted periodically. At the Cultural Center the arms out, face down semi-dive made people laugh. In the gymnasium we laugh at different moment.
In the gymnasium, these men enact a dance. The gestures comprise a vocabulary because they are specific and repeating and sometimes traded off. Each dancer opens and closes his body differently, as a kind of breath. A delicate syncopation, they execute repeated patterns of movement, weaving in and out of one another. Harm’s flops down and up. Goulish wraps his arms inward and twists. Rich rotates, turning back and forth on an ankle. While the movements themselves are coherent and descriptive, it is impossible to translate their meaning into words. The letters of this language are limbs. The body almost resists the intelligence. Someone coughs at your shoulder. There are people sitting on gymnasium mats and I feel fortunate to have a chair. By watching the dancing men, you feel cooler. Because they must be very hot.
Charissa Tolentino sits in the center of the room with an economical table. She plays music from her computer, blending organic, forest sounds with varied samples. The samples weave in and out of one another. You catch a phrase from Iggy Pop and catch my eye. I drink some water. The bottle is perspiring also. The various beats of Tolentino’s music mix with the dancers’ claps and stomps, making the room’s noise greater than that of the children outside. And after a built-in rest (the men stand on the side lines breathing noticeably while Tolentino’s soundscape fills the center of the room), the dancers bring scores and music stands to the middle of the gymnasium. John Rich is the only one who keeps his coat on. He gathers with the others, resuming the focal point of the stage to read and perform the notes inscribed. Here we see the body as an instrument and movement becomes its muscular folk music.
The body is also a diary in which memories are embedded, bound by tissue and variously noticeable tensions. It can be inspired, unexpectedly. The tri-tone stirs the body even when it’s listeners resist (John Rich jumping up and down with a red plastic devil’s fork. His feet make stamping sounds when they land on the otherwise squealing wood).
The tri-tone, Bartok and Barry Goodman are all characters in this performance. They linger in the air, as spirited figments, swooping down to possess the dancers periodically. Bartok was a pioneer of ethno-musicology. He collected folk songs like the Grimms collected fairy tales, traveling through the countryside with an Edison phonograph. The ease of his travel was impeded by the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but he continued to visit what became Romania, trapping voices in an historical box. Folk singers regularly used the tritone without any evil associations and Bartok used it in his own compositions, smuggling the diminished fifth symphony halls. His violins were retuned to play dissonant notes on open strings and his audience was curiously moved in ways they didn’t understand. Americans were similarly afraid of Jazz (it made the young people dance) but in 1938 the Goodman Band played at Carnegie Hall, what had otherwise been a site for classical performance. By drawing you into this gymnasium, I am trying to conjure the ghost of experience. Now we have these figments between us, as they were in the gymnasium.
And so we come to the final act. Goulish approaches the microphone and begins to read from the rehearsal diary again. He describes the movements of an opera. He returns to the idea of mothers while describing an after-rehearsal walk. We have left the center of the performance. In leaving the center, we approach the bounds of its circumference and crossing that line will mark the end. Goulish conjures a looming maternal presence–a presence that seems to have always been in the room, lurking in the shadows of each and every one of us, ill-defined until it was named. Mothers are the beginning of material experience. Her multiple facets standing like a grove of aspens with one single root system. This is the forest we have been walking through inside of this bare-bright gymnasium. The wooden floors, rife with patterns to measure court games, collecting sweat like a forest floor. The performance is a delapidated road and by its enactment it wants to mend itself.
But first, there will be a death scene. In the first month of summer, in the middle of a very warm day, you watch three dancers die while thinking of an opera you have never seen. Goulish describes the opera as I am here describing their performance. Their bodies jerk differently as they imagine themselves drowning in this dry heat and when they leave they exit out the gymnasium door. Goulish drowns last.
We cannot tell if it is really over, which is what happens with death. Material bodies are stupefied when they can no longer move themselves. The room begins to applaud. Performers come out from their backstage retreat to bow. The Director, Lin Hixson, is called out from where she has been watching in the audience with a smile. The room applauds with a bigger noise.
Back down the stairs you realize the banister you’d been using for support is only partially screwed into the wall. Thus the cautionary tape. In addition to the memory of the performance, you also remember (perhaps by accident) the faces of those sitting around you. The same faces you walk down stairs with. Strangers watching a partially silent music.
Edie Fake: I think a couple of things happen in a couple of different ways. First off, drawing a tattoo for someone is sort of like finding the perfect gift for someone you barely know. Part of a perfect gift is that it is entirely wanted and sort of surprising and I think it also has to have a little personal flair, some indication of who the giver is and why they would choose to give such a thing. So just the drawing/planning itself is already a lot more collaborative than just thinking about what you’d draw on your own. Then, you start tattooing someone and it’s a whole other thing. It’s a blood ritual and it’s craftsmanship and it’s fun and painful and casual too. I was only tattooing for a couple of years, but when I was working on someone there was this whole new process of understanding each line drawn, and also an understanding of why this tattoo was going to fit the person getting it. I think I was looking at the stuff I was tattooing like it was different sorts of heraldry. The person wearing the tattoo is a huge part of what the drawing becomes, both physically and energetically. That’s the biggest difference throughout the process. With drawings on paper I usually am pushing out a drawing with my own vision, and then it can have a really singular presentation. Tattoos temper your own version of how things should be with someone else’s ideas and I really love it because it can really push the way you draw into some strange places trying to figure out the common ground where “what someone wants” meets “what you want to give to them.” I’m not tattooing now, but I miss it a lot and I miss the way it pushed my drawings. I’m starting to casually put my feelers out for another apprenticeship here in Chicago.
EF: I’m not sure if my thoughts are organized enough to bring up anything worthy of being a philosophy! I do identify as a transsexual and I do think a lot about the expansiveness of language, the importance of self-definition and how that all relates to complicating gender and sexuality. Collapsing and expanding meaning of words and images can work towards a wild and playful vision of sex positivity as well; that’s what I strive for in drawings.
Multiple meanings are critical – I really think that’s what keeps visual, verbal and physical language alive, the way that new interpretations will always be added to the heap. I make a lot of work based on innuendo and word play. Coded meanings and visual decadence can provide a place where drawings can snap into something that complicates gender and implies new systems. For me, it’s impossible to articulate queerness in a direct and definitive way because it doesn’t exist like that – it’s much better pieced together through a drawing with many things happening, the interplay of different codes, sly language tricks, a collision of symbols, because all these things together gets more toward the idea of a border-less, boundless queer gestalt.
CP: Do you believe in a Utopia? (not necessarily something to implement, but something to work towards?)
EF: I don’t believe in some true, universal, obtainable utopia, or any kind of unified vision for a utopia, at all. However, I have experienced periods in my life I would definitely call “utopic” where I’ve felt amazing energetic kinship to those around me, or even just to myself… I should add, these were not periods that were free of problems or hardships, but they were times of feeling deeply connected to what I was doing and how I was living. Constantly scheming and trying to help others with their schemes.
I think the world is shitty and hard, really lovely things always fall apart, pain, violence, heartache and futility reign supreme. Flying in the face of that, a utopia notion in my head can push me forward, and encourage me to try to create good energy and critical work. Utopia as a constant push to conjure up how things could be better, and then the working your ideas into realities.
CP: In some way I was thinking about the utopia question because of the on-line project A Gay Utopia. I was wondering if you could talk a little about that–how did the project get started? What was it like developing work for an on-line and shared context?
EF: Before the Gay Utopia Online Symposium, I felt like the term was floating in the air a lot, especially the air over Chicago. In my experience, it was being used as sort of a rallying cry, to envision working for each other, creating networks, sharing resources, and helping each other build the things we wanted to see in the world. When I went on tour with Lee Relvas in 2006 she delivered this brilliant soapbox speech as part of our performance that culminated with asking the audience “Are you ready for a Gay Utopia?” Well, the answer to that was yes.
I’m unsure of how the Online Symposium started, but that project was the brainchild of Noah Berlatsky and Bert Stabler. It’s a wild grouping of folks that they brought together, and I’m really proud of the work I did for the project. There’s a wide range of how people approached the work there, and I think I approached it as someone who feels like “Gay Utopia” is a concept that nourishes me and is integral to how I see the cycles of my life tumble out. The Gay Utopia shares a lot with the Temporary Autonomous Zone and I am really invested in both of those, so I wanted to create a comic that reflected falling down that rabbit hole. When I settled on a long scroll down drawing, I also decided that the most important thing for me to show in the images was the close combination of destruction and ecstasy, love and fury going hand-in-hand, fueling each other. That’s a big part of my lived experience.
CP: I was thinking about tattooing again, and your description of its gift-quality. It made me think too about how you describe community and connectedness as being somehow central to those moments of utopic experience. In many cultures, it feels like tattoos have ritualistic significance–it’s a sign given at the coming of age, for instance, or after some epic experience. I was wondering if you feel like tattoos have a ritualistic resonance in your experience and what that might be?
CP: I was also reading that you do some performance work as well–can you talk a little bit about that? And maybe what it is like to physically embody something, (vs. describing it 2-dimensionally).
EF: I do occasionally do performance work. To me it seems much more like conducting a public experiment, whereas displaying a finished drawing is like showing off the answer to a long series of problems. Performances are so dependent on your openness and the openness of the audience and they hinge on both the clarity of your purpose and also your ability to convey that purpose in a non-didactic way. It’s usually a medium I use when I have a cluster of ideas floating around my head. To perform effectively – it is so hard! For me, performing is maybe the hardest, so I try to listen to my heart about it and know when I’ve got something cooking, and if I’m not really feeling it knowing to throw in the towel and forget it, I’ll just do some drawings, which I always have ideas and methods for.
Go here for more glimpses of Edie’s work.
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.
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.