GUEST POST BY ELIZABETH CORR
- Recently, I had the great pleasure of talking with Betsy Odom about her latest show Sis Boom Bah currently on view at the Hyde Park Art Center. Betsy, who lives and works in Chicago, received her MFA in Sculpture from Yale in 2007. Her fascinating body of work examines gender and sexuality in the sports world, highlighting the various ways in which these social constructs become public spectacle. Considering the nature of Betsyâ€™s subject matter, we both agreed that there couldnâ€™t be a more aptly named blog to host such a discussion.
Sis Boom Bah is on view until June 19th. For more information on this and other upcoming shows, please visit Betsyâ€™s website.
Elizabeth Corr: One of the things that I find so striking about your work is your deliberate use of materials – leather, sporting equipment, auto paint â€“ materials that traditionally evoke the masculine. You take these materials and incorporate them through feminine decorative traditions such as sewing and weaving, while also utilizing established masculine practices like leather tooling. Suddenly, everyday sporting objects are transformed. Itâ€™s like this â€œAh-haâ€ moment, where the absurdity of societyâ€™s gender roles is highlighted and you realize just how much these notions permeate our daily lives. Can you talk about your fascination with the politics of gender and why you choose to use sports as a metaphor to investigate these issues?
Betsy Odom: I am extremely conscious of seeking out materials, techniques, and objects that I think contribute to that tacit construction of gender. Sex is infused in tooling leather. We drink from faucets that have grown ever more phallic as time has moved on. Decoration, carving, stitching, tooling â€“ I suspect that many of these activities grew as a way to busy â€œidle hands.â€ And some of my own assumptions are way, way off, which I also enjoy. Like, Iâ€™m pretty sure that not many people see Emmylou Harris, a straight older country singer, as enough of a queer icon to merit her own sports-team. But my hope is that as soon as you start looking for signifiers, which are abundant in sports, you can conceivably see them everywhere.
In some ways I am trying to act out a fantasy where you can be aware of the absurdity of our cultural influences and still enjoy them, slipping in and out of social constructs like gender, class, race, and sexuality as you please. Itâ€™s sort of like the fun of mixing all the different sodas together to see what comes out. (Am I the only one who still gets a kick out of that?)
EC: I want to talk about your piece Double Whistle. To me this piece was so overtly sexual (all I could see was a double sided dildo, but that may say more about me than about your workâ€¦). I was fascinated by the fact that you chose to exhibit it within a Plexiglas box â€“ essentially rendering it off limits. What are your intentions with this piece and what does say about female sexuality in the context of sports?
BO: The way I approach intentionality is a bit loosey-goosey. While I hate it when people say, â€œyour interpretation is just as important as mine, my intent is not important, etc.â€, at the same time, I do like to start from some pretty obscure or perhaps entirely invented associations. My take on it is this: not everyone reads the piece as a double dildo, or a curmudgeonly old man gym coach, or a tantric musical instrument, or an opulent and rare conjoined artifact. But hopefully, most people do read it primarily as one of the dozen or so things it can reasonably be. Then maybe the other interpretations seep in as well, showing how complicated even a simple gesture can be.
But, where Double Whistle actually came from: I had been mulling over the way my coachâ€™s mouth seemed unnecessarily emphatic on her whistle. I tried a lot of things to express that such as playing with scale, materials etc. It took me a year before the idea of mirroring the whistle finally hit me. I suppose one of the cool things about interviews is that you can get into the stories about a pieceâ€™s process or origins, and about the artists themselves. On the other hand, Iâ€™ve had many an artist ruin my opinion of their work by revealing where they are coming from.
EC: Walking through the show, I was couldnâ€™t help but think about the work of Judith Butler and her theories about gender and gender performativity. Butler, in a distinctly postmodern approach to gender, calls into question the idea that certain feminine and masculine behaviors are â€œnatural.â€ She argues instead that the ideals that constitute â€˜feminineâ€™ and â€˜masculineâ€™ are socially constructed, in essence making oneâ€™s gender a complicated ritual of performance. Sis Boom Bah draws our attention to one of the places where gender is regularly performed â€“ the playing field. Talk about the ways in which you and your work have been influenced by postmodern feminist and/or queer theories about gender?
BO: This is probably going to be my longest answer, as I am casually passionate about gender theory. But, before I get into it, Iâ€™d be interested in your take on the notion of making art that talks to bigger issues. I personally needed a big dosing of queer and gender theory to even get comfortable with even the idea of making work that is explicitly about sexuality and gender. This is probably a bit of an aside, but I think a lot of artists have to deal with the discomfort that comes along with sometimes wanting to make work that is queer or political.
My discomfort is basically this. I had to face a fear of self-ghettoizing or even pandering in order to participate in a cause I care about, but I also had to cope with the awkward phase of early queer art, and more than that, a fear of continuing in a tradition that tends towards the cheesy. But, at the same time, there is a lot of great stuff actually going on by artists who are able to move in and out of a queer dialog pretty comfortably: Nicole Eisenmanâ€™s fan drawing of Shane from The L Word with a fist coming out of her vagina, Collier Schorrâ€™s cover on the latest Aperture, Girls Like Us: Lesbian Quarterly for whatever thatâ€™s worth. Do you think Iâ€™m just paranoid in still worrying about this stuff?
EC: Paranoid? Absolutely not. Actually, the feelings you mention constitute a real rift within in queer theory relating to feminist standpoint theory and identity politics as useful paradigms for understanding the world. As you point out, while there is this element of freedom and empowerment in being able to speak from a certain perspective (queer or female in this case) there is also the very real threat of alienation and co-option (while certain commonalities may exist, certainly not all queer or female perspectives are universal). And so, as the artist, your worry about viewers taking one perspective (yours) and extrapolating into some kind of universal political statement about said groups (queer and/or female) is very real.
BO: At any rate, I am pretty revved up by Foucaultâ€™s idea that our discourse around sexuality tends to be, in truth, the total opposite of what it claims (i.e. the confession of sexual sins propagates more sexual sins for which to confess). I translate this into something of a bait-and-switch in my work: a lot of my pieces try to draw you in with materials, content, color, etc., only to bring you close enough to see something a bit more provocative, then question why you were attracted to the object in the first place. Sort of like your question about interpreting Double Whistle. I very much like the idea of the viewer wondering, â€œMaybe itâ€™s just me?â€
Judith Butlerâ€™s work on the performance of gender and her thoughts on sameness and otherness were a driving factor in me getting into this work. Iâ€™m especially interested in the way Butler points out gay and lesbian creative use of gender performance. But I wonder if queer play with gender comes from a larger cultural desire (imperative?) to point-out a hegemony, or does it fall into the same heteronormative fallacy of a sense of â€œnaturalness:â€ i.e. â€œbut I really feel like an androgynous jock,â€ which I often do, by the way, minus the actual athletic prowess. The need for consciousness of gender as a construct goes both ways I guess. And then thereâ€™s the whole other question of how this applies to the very real social issues riding on a perception of queer difference. How do we negotiate all this information?
EC: For me, part of what is so appealing to Butlerâ€™s approach to gender is how radically it disrupts normative ideas of heterosexuality. Can you tell me a little bit about how your works challenges these notions, and the ways in which queer culture and sexuality inform your practice and use of language?
BO: Butler is pretty convincing in pointing out that our focus on the biologically gendered body (or that gender is born of the body) encourages us to chain a big olâ€™ leash on the much wider and more interesting discourse around gender formation. I use sport as place to play with the body, joking with the unnecessary weight we give the body in connoting gender. I enjoy digging into ideas like Butlerâ€™s and others that gender is mostly relationary (the concept of female exists in relation to the concept of male, and vice-versa.). I am conflating those relations and projecting them back onto the body – in gear, skin-like materials, etc. What comes out may be a glimpse into what would happen if the performance we have all agreed upon as a society just suddenly ended.
EC: There is a long history of uneasiness with ambiguous gender and sex in sports, and this is partly because the sporting world so heavily relies on neatly packaged ideas of what constitute â€œfemaleâ€ and â€œmaleâ€ especially as they relate to athletic ability. Your drawing, the only drawing in the show actually, references the most recent example of sex testing, which concerned Caster Semenya, a South African runner whose sex was called into question after her gold medal performance at the 2009 World Championships. What did you make of this story and can you talk about your appropriately named piece Un-titled (for Caster)?
BO: I was really blown away by this story because it is one of those instances where I really cannot get my head around what the â€œrightâ€ answer should be in terms of oppression vs. the roles of normativity in culture. Obviously the way this was dealt with is atrocious and inexcusable, which strangely seems to happen a lot when womenâ€™s sports are finally noticed. (Imus, anyone? Or the constant focus on the fact that you donâ€™t see dunking in the WNBA?)
But, I donâ€™t know for sure. Is it fair for Caster to run? Can we just think of her mildly intersexed physiology as a genetic advantage similar to height or big lungs? Or should there be events for men, women, and â€œin-betweens?â€ I love that this story made the world deal with how complicated gender actually is. Caster is now officially allowed to run in womenâ€™s sports and kept her title, by the way, but many speculate that there must be a caveat about testosterone suppression.
But honestly, my main interest in Casterâ€™s story was a glaring omission in the coverage. Namely, no one seemed to publicly care about her sexuality! It is such a rare moment in our culture where gender and sexuality are kept separate. Iâ€™ve always thought that separating these is something I would like to see; but in this instance I think it is another form of imposed gender-enforcement. I personally think that, whatever we feel about Casterâ€™s eligibility in sport, we should all agree on one thing, which is that s/he is amazingly sexy. So with the drawing, I simply wanted to celebrate her, well, hotness, the way we do with other athletes. Something like fan art meets the life-sized Michael Jordan poster for the back of your door.
EC: Iâ€™m a little embarrassed to admit this, but after seeing Sis Boom Bah I started thinking a lot about the lingerie football league! To me, your work represents one side of the spectrum of gender and sexuality that, excuse the pun, gets played out in sports. And, lingerie football it seems must exist on the exact opposite side of that spectrum. Here we have women sexualized in an overtly heteronormative manner, whose athletic ability and prowess are undermined by uniforms (or lack thereof) and (tit)illating team names like Philadelphia Passion, Dallas Desire and San Diego Seduction. What do you make of this? And, can you talk about how the queering of well-established sexual mores in your work relates to (or makes necessary?) this type of performance of sexuality.
BO: Oh boy is that funny! Iâ€™d love to see actual womenâ€™s contact football teams doing lingerie football- pitting the Chicago Force against the Dallas Desire. I think it would put an end to the practice forever. Or maybe start a whole ancient Greco-Roman revival of naked athletics. Who knows!
Elizabeth Corr received a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in African Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her graduate work focused on contemporary African art in post-apartheid South Africa. She lives in Chicago and works at NRDC, an environmental nonprofit.
Guest Post by Dan Gunn
Artist Mindy Rose Schwartz has shown her sculpture and installations throughout the United States with exhibitions in Houston, TX; Brooklyn, NY; St. Louis and Kansas City, MO; Miami, FL and Chicago. Her work has been written about in artnet Magazine, Beautiful Decay (online), Time Out Chicago, The Chicago Tribune, Newcity, ArtForum, Frieze Magazine, Art in America and Whitewalls.Â Schwartz earned her MFA at the University of Illinois, Chicago. I caught up with her after the close of her most recent show of work at Threewalls. The following is our conversation.
DG: How do you think about your materials?
MRS: The materials and processes I use have to make sense in relation to the meaning of the piece.Â So, for example, in this body of work, one of my reference points are remembered objects from the house I grew up in.Â So my use of ceramics, macramÃ©, white stones, and gold chain are materials I came in contact with in my past and have resurfaced to add to a palette of materials for sculpture.Â I am also interested in processes and skills that I learned while growing up, before I made it to art school.Â Why do I know how to make every type of lanyard key chain, or a macramÃ© belt, or to crochet a yarmulke, or to paper mache? They are a window into specific class, cultural and gender specific moments that shaped my experience.
DG: What else makes up those â€œreference pointsâ€?
MRS:Â As I was developing my proposal for Threewalls, I wanted to transform the gallery space into an idealized and symbolic domestic space. There is a smaller room as you enter, a large grand space in the center and a smaller more intimate space at the end.Â As you walk through, I thought of the first room as the foyer, the next as a living room and the last, a sunroom. In a home these are the spaces that you pass through, or only use on occasion or special occasion, not the every day living spaces.
The sculptures in each of the spaces are an amalgamation of the furniture, objects and people that would reside there. They reflect the kind of pictorial or fictive aspect that each of those rooms implies.Â Â Some of the sculptures in the living room space are: Chandelier, Credenza, and Vanity. I mean the credenza, what is it for? Who has room for the credenza? Itâ€™s a piece of furniture thatâ€™s purpose is to hold and display decorative objects and fancy dishes. The Chandelier too has a type of aspiration to it, a light that is dressed up in its finest jewels. These objects and what they represent become starting points to imagine their transformation into something else.
DG: Then what about the sunroom?
MRS: I was trying to create a space that was sort of mournful and had a kind of longing to it, but peaceful too. The sunroom has a sun in it, of course.Â It is created through a technique called, string art, which was a craft process I learned in fifth grade.Â It was supposed to teach that straight lines create a curve. The piece is called The Tender Light of Hope. In the living room space, it has its counter part in a piece called, The Depths of Bleak Despair.Â These two pieces provide a kind of emotional bracketing for the show.
Two other pieces in the space are called Friends, and A Peaceful Man.Â Â Friends are two, coil pot, heads sitting on the remnants of my grandmotherâ€™s mink coat. The coat was handed down through the family, repurposed, refashioned and redistributed as: a sporty jacket, a hat and some earmuffs. A Peaceful Man is also just a head, but his beard and mustache swoops down to form his legs and sprout a flower. I thought of it as my â€œGiacometti momentâ€.
DG: You mentioned collectibles, how do they factor in? What kind of symbolism lies within them?
MRS: I was trying to find a way to get the figure back into my sculpture, in an effective way. As a sculptor, youâ€™re kind of off the hook.Â You donâ€™t really have to use the figure, because the viewer is the figure. The sculpture exists in the same space as your body. There is this uncanny weirdness when you perceive your body in relationship to this representation of one. That begs the question. How does it get in there and not be a statue. Statues are hil-ar-e-ous! Theyâ€™re so heavy. There is funniness to them.Â How to show the body… I tried to think of them along those lines then, to not be â€œfigurativeâ€ but â€œfigurine-ativeâ€
Figurines and decorative objects have a strange life span to them, right? They sit in the home in one spot for a whole lifetime. Then they get handed down, auctioned off or go to a thrift store and go to another house to sit in one spot for another lifetime.
The collectible object is really a way many people experience sculpture in their everyday lives.Â It is like the three dimensional version of a Picasso poster or, depending on your taste, a Margaret Keen poster.Â That is how I experienced it mostly, more often through home decorating than a trip to the art museum or a stroll through a sculpture park. So there are these mass-produced objects that one way or another make it into your life and stay. Over time it will look very different and mean something very different to whoever has it. In fact two identical objects become fundamentally very different things. Iâ€™m trying to show how my history with specific objects morphs their form and how I perceive them with the their stories still attached.
Of the definite genres of collectible figurines some interest me more then others. I particularly admire ones that address the landscape or nature.Â I made my versions of this type forÂ Credenza.Â There are also characters that reoccur across many different brands of collectible objects; the CLASSIC mainstays of every family of Precious Moments, Lladro, or Royal Dalton are the harlequin, mime and ballerina.Â I made a series of those characters for the â€œVanityâ€ piece.
Aside from the emulated realism of collectible objects, I love the sincerity of those that adopt a modernist â€œlookâ€ as their most prominent style.Â Â There is nothing like the grace or elegance of an abstract dancerâ€™s elongated neck or the motion of flowing dance attire captured in porcelain or electroplated aluminum.
DG: So you see the forms of dÃ©cor as the remnants of Modernism?
Well, I guess this comes back to how and when I experienced Modernism as aÂ trickle down influence in popular culture during the seventies.Â I saw a lot of Hollywood musicals growing up.Â Most of these movies started out on Broadway and one of the byproducts of their translation into cinema, seemed to be these inexplicable dance sequence that would interrupt the regular narrative of the story to express some kind of emotional drama or conflict in the story. The Dream Sequence Ballet in Oklahoma and the Rumble scene in West Side Story are real stand- outs.Â The main characters come onto these angular abstract sets and work it all out through Modern dance.Â The piece Dream Sequence Ballerina has a little stage set and dancerâ€™s graceful head as a fantasy interlude atop a modernist piece of ceramics.
DG: As you think about the decorative object, is there also a kind of spiritualism, mysticism or â€œpop-religionâ€ that is also reflected in it?
MRS:Â Objects are very powerful, especially in how they can absorb meaning or deflect it, depending on the context.Â There are a couple pieces in the show that allude to religious Jewish objects. For instance The Hands of God in the foyer,Â references a religious object call the â€œyadâ€.Â â€œYad literally means â€˜handâ€™ in Hebrew.Â It is an object that is used to read from the Torah because you are not allowed to touch the scroll.Â It is an ornate stick about seven inches long with a very realistic hand on the end of it. They really are amazing looking objects. I made two yads. These long skinny arms with big hands swoop down from the ceiling. They are the hands of God giving birth and from their palms emerge people. The figures are these half formed little homunculus men.
Other figurative references are more specific to cultural or historical milieu. Iâ€™m thinking of the Credenza, actually, itâ€™s feet are the â€œkeep on truckingâ€ foot andÂ itâ€™s pointing hand is from the â€œIâ€™m with Stupidâ€ Tee Shirt.
DG: Ha! So how does humor function in your work, is it important?
MRS: I try to combine several different emotions in one object like: Sad and pretty, or funny and strange, so there is more than one way to read the work at the same time.Â Humor is definitely in the mix.Â I think through humor and often, unlikely connections result in something amusing. Another aspect to humor in my work is through bad taste.Â Humor itself often has a double edge to it.Â It can be really nice and really mean at the same time.
DG: Can you discuss your relationship to process and craftsmanship?
MRS: The finished object shows the history of how itâ€™s made. There is a particular look to materials when you first learn a skill that I happen to really like.Â There is a type of enthusiasm and inventiveness that translates to the work as you try and form it into something. This has a unique type of meaning that is very different then something that has no loose ends.Â The final look of the work has to support the meaning of it.
DG: How do you know when youâ€™ve gone too far, or havenâ€™t gone far enough with your sculptures?
MRS: If it doesnâ€™t have a kind of balance between emotional responses itâ€™s not finished. For example I made a piece for the show where I wanted to reference something whimsical but to actually express a totally different feeling. The piece t ended up just being whimsical. There was no tension in it.Â Iâ€™ll still work on it, but it definitely didnâ€™t make the cut. There is a fine line between trying to make work about something and just making the thing in and of itself.
Dan Gunn is an artist, writer and educator living in Chicago.
Guest Post by Dan Gunn
Chris Bradley is an MFA grad from SAIC in sculpture. He’s recently exhibited at Swimming Pool Projects, Raid Projects in LA, Dorsch Gallery in Miami to name a few. I sat down with him to talk following the opening of his new show at Shane Campbell Gallery titled Quiet Company.Â The show is up until April 2nd.
DG: Your references seem to be clearly of a certain kind from the basketball, to the potato chip and now the pretzel rod. Of what â€˜kindâ€™ are they? How do you choose what referents get into your work?
CB: I think it might just be happenstance, something just clicks, a revelation for lack of a better word. Recognizing that â€œOh yeah, thereâ€™s an idea here.â€ Then itâ€™s just a process of trying to figure out what Iâ€™m interested in. I end up pulling in these things that have been important for a while or that Iâ€™ve noticed in a different way. Then I play with them in the studio and after Iâ€™ve worked with them for a long time they become part of my vocabulary.
DG: For instance your show at Shane Campbell Gallery, Quiet Company, seems to be more associated with leisure. And I think that has to do with the palm trees. For me palm trees = leisure.
CB: For the show Iâ€™ve made targets set up in a precarious manner ready to be shot at. Or else theyâ€™ve been shot at and someone is a terrible shot. You can read that either way.
CB: The leisure aspect is definitely a component, but Iâ€™m not trying to celebrate a tropical place or a vacation, I think itâ€™s more about the lack of the possibility to vacate. Itâ€™s fabricating an exit that someone doesnâ€™t have an actual possibility of achieving.
DG: How do you indicate that lack of possibility?
CB: With this particular body of work its the ordinariness of the subject matter. You know Iâ€™m working with junk food, beer and paint rollers. I feel like these are materials that are really available for a lot of people. For some, alcohol is a means of exit. I feel like the artifice of using the beer can as the home of the potted palm dumbs it down to a level of patheticness.
DG: Would it be wrong to look at your work as working with completely masculine stereotypes? I have a hard time looking at Quiet Company, especially, and not imagining a watching a Packers game with a beer and some potato chips.
CB: I think a lot of people look at it that way. I think itâ€™s totally fine. Itâ€™s bro-culture totally. I live with a gay male artist whoâ€™s doing projects on effeminacy within gay culture and then thereâ€™s me whoâ€™s doing commentary on masculinity within Middle America. But I donâ€™t necessarily read it that way, though Iâ€™m OK with it. Being around a lot of different people I realize that I feel like I am just a dude. Iâ€™m happy to be a dude and to own that. Iâ€™ve been interested in working with motors, steel and things that move that have been commonly associated with the masculine. So Iâ€™m OK with the association but I wouldnâ€™t say that itâ€™s what Iâ€™m after. I think it might be inherent in how I think and what Iâ€™m in contact with. Often what stereotypically comes with masculinity is seen as insensitive and cold and I donâ€™t feel that way about my work whatsoever. So I think that works to negate some of the narrower ideas of masculinity.
DG: How do you think about materials? What kind of criteria do you have for how they go together as sculpture?
CB: Iâ€™ve had some of the potatoes and avocados for a long time actually. I cast them and I didnâ€™t really know what to do with them. I found some other resolution to the project that I was working on at the time. So I started playing with them again when I was in between projects and just made this target. Made a really strange pedestal and put them on top of it. I went â€œOh thatâ€™s doing something, let me see where this goes.â€
That was the impetus for the target series.
I started thinking about the potato chip as a subject. You know Iâ€™m very much a builder, I used to be more into image and 2D stuff,Â and I still am but I donâ€™t really trust myself to do anything intelligent there. So I looked at the potato chip as a building block, but couldnâ€™t come up with something interesting.Â While I was at the liquor store I saw some pretzel rods and I thought that there might be something there. So I bought some real pretzel rods and built a target with them and I was into it, seeing if I could build other ways with them and ended up making the giraffe with it.
There is something really approachable to the temporary, to the clips, to something bound vs. something welded or fabricated in a more permanent way. Because someone could go and just take it apart. I think understanding the way that something is built provides a direct way of accessing it. If someone knows how to use a ratchet strap they could take that thing apart.
If itâ€™s anything worthwhile people connect to it more because itâ€™s part of their world. A lot of people donâ€™t weld so thatâ€™s not as accessible. I think thatâ€™s more about believability and play on the precariousness of the palm tree and making a really stupid act that anyone could do. It has a certain way of communication.
Also with the targets the clips make sense because you can shoot it and then clip another one to it. There is a certain trickery that I want to maintain. Even in the trompe oâ€™ leil in something like the potato chip.
DG: The pretzel is kind of like an edible Lincoln log… Earlier you mentioned motors and motion, how does motion play into your work? Iâ€™m thinking specifically of the Cinnamon Spice Machine and its involuntary motion.
CB: I find it challenging to use kinetics in a sculpture in an effective way. For the sake of movement itâ€™s easy to do, but to make an artwork that couldnâ€™t be done without that movement is more rewarding. There is a balance in my practice where Iâ€™ll be really into kinetics for a bit. Itâ€™s a different thought process, but I get exhausted by it and move on to something else. Iâ€™ve been doing anything but kinetics recently and Iâ€™m starting to get interested in it again.
DG: If this kinetics focused side is one part of your practice, how would you characterize the side that produced Quiet Company?
CB: It was my approach to figure out where I stand within a bigger discipline. I take that body of work as something painterly. I think itâ€™s about being in the studio and spending half an hour mixing paint, trying to get the color right. Iâ€™ve been relating with painters more, to try and understand what they do and what I do. Iâ€™m getting over the separation between the disciplines and trying to figure out where I stand with that. I was really excited to find a resolution for the wall because that was the last thing that resolved for the show.
DG: Can you describe those pieces?
CB: They are the pretzel rod prisms. I take them as outlines of paintings, and consider them sketches because they are so loosely put together. There is also â€œHorizonâ€ which is kind of a squiggly line of pretzels.
DG: I read â€œHorizonâ€ as a backdrop to your tropical paradise that goes to your notion of a limited escape through objects. A dreaming through objects. If you can imagine a line of pretzels on a wall as a horizon then you have a pretty active imagination or longing for something else.
CB: Thatâ€™s putting a lot on pretzels! I think thatâ€™s often what painting is about. Itâ€™s about illusion and trickery. If you can stand in a room and point past a line of pretzel rods I think thatâ€™s pretty effective. But I donâ€™t know if anyoneâ€™s doing that…
DG: How does humor function in your work?
CB: Iâ€™ll take it as funny, if someone wants to take it that way. I hesitate to call my work humorous because of a weird insecurity about calling yourself something that most people want to be. To be funny is a nice thing, to self proclaim something like that is odd to me. Itâ€™s also like being an artist, I mean anyone can technically be an artist I guess, but thereâ€™s a different level to it when someone else comes to take you in and say â€œThis person is really doing something valuableâ€. You have to wait for those things.
DG: I wouldnâ€™t say your work is purely funny because there is also a kind of fatalism in certain pieces. Iâ€™m thinking specifically about a work like Potato, where an actual potato travels on an oval track around a wall. I get a kind of perverse pleasure thinking about it in relation to De Scott Evans trompe oâ€™ leil painting â€œThe Irish Questionâ€ in the Art Institute, though I doubt you were thinking about the Potato famine… Still there is something about the bland taste of a potato traveling a circuit repeatedly that is both funny and fatalistic.
CB:Â I think the potato is a very loaded icon. I first approached it with those notions in mind with a very loose hand. I wasnâ€™t very conscious about what I was getting into. The first instance was a flying potato in Ireland.
DG: So it was Irish!
CB: It was a very performative gesture throwing a potato in the air, taking a photograph of it and hoping for the best. I think the fatalism that you speak of comes because the potato doesnâ€™t progress. It doesnâ€™t learn anything. Maybe we have it fantastic, because we donâ€™t just walk in circles? Or maybe we do. The potato is kind of monotonous,Â Sisyphean, pathetic and strangely frightening. Thatâ€™s how I see it.
DG: So if that’s the iconology of the potato, what about the avocado?
CB: Itâ€™s just another piece of produce…
DG: See, because I read it as the analog to the potato chip, as the thing which will eventually go on the potato chip.
CB: Sure! You can definitely read it that way. Avocado, guacamole.
DG: It was a culinary read…
CB: Other people brought that up as well. I see it as some kind of parallel to something tropical. The more I worked with it I thought that it was kind of a romantic fruit with a big seed inside, and kind of lush. But in the end itâ€™s just produce.
DG: But what about your beer choice?
CB: Iâ€™m a Budweiser drinker. Nowadays Iâ€™m more of a light beer drinker and I would say that Modelo especial is kind of light. To work with beer cans you need to be conscious of who else works with beer cans, itâ€™s available and itâ€™s being used. So I went with a 24oz can to be specific with my choice and I ended up drinking a lot of cans. I started playing with these cans and I began to think about what it meant to be a Budweiser drinker.
The Modelo cans seemed to go really well with the idea of putting palm trees in them. It was a really conscious choice, a comparison between two different places. There is this longing for the other, for the unknown.
DG: A world inside of a beer can.
Dan Gunn is an artist, writer and educator living in Chicago.
by Marquis Steele
If you lived in my place, you would know that no area is truly safe,
They made it seem as though all the crime was in the projects,
Now that the projects are gone, I still havenâ€™t noticed the change yet.
They thought getting rid of Cabrini was a safe bet,
Promising false dreams and writing minuscule checks,
But that small amount of money wonâ€™t cover the bills and their debts,
Our problem is that we were put in a system designed to keep us down,
When that happened, things could have only went south,
We should have been applying ourselves and not making it worse by running our mouths.
I understand that it was a struggle and everybody needs a hustle,
But people were afraid of the projects because they felt if they walked by, they would get mugged,
But it wasnâ€™t that way; the buildings just looked scary because of the bad wiring,
Passersby felt afraid and it was getting tiring,
See you can make anything worse seem worse than it is if you donâ€™t know firsthand,
The media does a good job of proving that to be a fact,
All they did was overlook the good and search for the bad.
Our destruction was the infrequent crime,
The crimes that happened every once in a while,
The crimes that looked worse on them because of the complexion of their skin and where they were,
I guarantee it wouldnâ€™t have been a big deal if downtown wasnâ€™t so close to there.
But now the building and tenants are gone,
No more BBQâ€™s and children singing double-dutch songs,
I truly donâ€™t care much because I left years ago,
But still, kicking people out for property value is low.
by Jasmine Dilworth
Lay me down to sleep my Lord, if I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to takeâ€
â€œBabu-Gum, Babu-Gum in a dish, how many pieces doâ€¦youâ€¦wishâ€
Looking at the building as it takes its last breath
Boom! It landed in the middle of my room
My room was the place where all my girl cousins chose to hang out
But my color faded away
â€œBabu-Gum, Babu-Gum in a dish, how many pieces doâ€¦youâ€¦wishâ€
I wish I had just one more time to play before they all moved away
To where I donâ€™t know
But they were my best friends; I hope to see them again
Sometimes I can still hear them laughing and running up and down
the fifth floor ramp, with purple popsicles dripping down their chin
Too bad we will never ever play again
â€œBabu-Gum, Babu-Gum in a dish, how many pieces DOâ€¦YOUâ€¦WISHâ€
by Justus White
Why must we all have to live in a lie?
Just to hear another voice of our people die.
This, itself, enrages me in anger.
But who really wants to hear the voice of a young black stranger?
So all I can say is why?
Why canâ€™t we live in a world where you can be you?
How come people donâ€™t like you because of what you do?
Soon as you hit those streets you better watch your back
For those in which your abilities inside they lack.
So all I can say is why?
Why do we live in a world where everything my race does is bad.
This can be like being back stabbed by your close friends which is kind of sad.
I just really want to spread a deep message to this earth.
To say not all black kids are born the same at birth
So all I can say is why?
Me? Why should I always be the one to turn the other cheek?
When a boy canâ€™t be safe even walking down his street.
Sometimes my heart is filled with perpetual darkness and pain
But it will never be enough for me to learn from this or gain
The knowledge to know that this pain will not last
This makes my heart beats one thousand times fast.
Maybe one day now I have no need to ask why
Because the life I live, I know is not a lie
Hope is of the essence, it will never be wrong
All you need to do is keep faith and stay strong.
So my last question I ask why
Why canâ€™t we sprout our wings and just fly?
How Did They Break It To You?
by Michelle Stearn
Dear Former Cabrini Resident,
How did they break it to you?
Did they send you a letter?
A form letter, addressed to a number
Anonymous, like the number on your door.
A white envelope
Innocent when sealed, but when opened —
a shock of a thousand volts.
A letter made from an arrangement of letters,
assembled on a page
Deciding the fate of your existence.
How did they break it to you?
How did they break it to you?
Did they come to your door?
Knocking three times, serious knocks, hollow, devoid of
Did they look into your eyes when they said it?
To see your reaction — or lack thereof?
Did they react to your reaction?
Or just blurt out the news and then bolt
Like a hit and run, a drive by, a robotic telegram,
an empty urn, serving you the news.
How did they break it to you?
How did they break it to you?
Did you hear it from a neighbor?
From a fellow survivor, sufferer, witness of all things unseen?
Or from a mouse, a rat, a roach —
preparing for evacuation
going off some inexplicable animal instinct sensing unrest.
Or through the grapevine of gossip, from which you would soon be
Cut off from the source
Cut off from the roots
Cut off from the very foundation.
But these are mere speculations
Inevitably ignorant assumptions, not unlike the ones that decided your
So, you tell me,
How did they break it to you?
Why Do You Build
by Robert Harrison
If you build to tear down, then why do you build.
If you build to break it up, then why do you build.
If you build to hurt lives, why do you build.
If you build and they have to evacuate, then why do you build.
If you build and they have to relocate, then why do you build.
If you build and waste materials, why do you build.
If you build to tear apart, then why do you build.
If you build to break up relationships, then why do you build.
If you build to separate families, why do you build.
If you build to destroy, then why do you build.
If you build to leave people without homes, then why do you build.
Why do you build, if you build to make memories,
If you build to break memories, then why do you build.
JT: No, we approached the Chicago Housing Authority. They own the land and the building. Itâ€™s a large project, and expanding all of the time. When I say we, first and foremost Iâ€™m working with my partner, Efrat Appel. She is a social worker and editor. We developed the idea and at a certain point went to look for connections in the neighborhood. We met Cabrini Connections, Marwen and After School Matters. Then there are numbers of SAIC students who work in student work groups to collaborate on the projects. Itâ€™s important to me that the exchange is not â€œcome help me on this project and I will give you credit,â€ but is on the level of something more educational and important. And really none of this would’ve been possible without the support of Richard Gray Gallery who helped me approach the CHA and who made the project financially possible.
DG: Then I guess the proper question would be what made you want to work with Cabrini Green as a site?
JT: My work at times has a political or social aspect. There was a time when I was living in Israel with the political situation, with its racism, with Jews against Arabs or even Jews against Jews with a different color of skin. And in coming to Chicago, itâ€™s here as well.
I also think that the notion of working with housing projects came about through working with Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology.Â It was a very different collaboration with my students from SAIC. We lit it up from inside. By working on the campus of IIT and exploring with the students not only the architecture but what was happening around we began to feel that the absence of the Robert Taylor Homes was very strong. It had only been a few years since they had been torn down. Because we were working on lighting the building we changed the class time to from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
JT: Well … you know … the students liked it in the end. Taking students from IIT to the Red Line at 5 a.m. safely just wouldnâ€™t have been possible a few years ago. I havenâ€™t lived here before so it wasnâ€™t like I noticed. But at IIT we were interviewing students, faculty and neighbors so it was clear that it had had a huge impact on the local community.
Another impetus was a commission for a private collection in the former Montgomery Ward building that I worked on. While learning about the building I found out that it was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who also built the World Trade Center, and who in 1954 designed the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis.Â They were torn down after just 16 years. Architecture critic and writer Charles Jencks later pointed to that moment as the end of Modern architecture. The first time that we were tearing down this Modern dream.
The Montgomery Ward building itself had to go through this makeover to become what it is today, from offices to condos. So the notion of demolition and destruction together with 9/11 and was all sitting right across the street practically from the row houses. So that brought me closer to Cabrini.
But I guess the possibility of relating to a historical moment was very clear. Cabrini is the last [high rise housing project] to go down and this is the last building to go down.
DG: How do you see your intervention acting to elucidate or animate that historical moment?
JT: It was very clear to me from the beginning that projection (which is the tool that Iâ€™m usually working with) projecting on, imposing an image, wouldnâ€™t work here. To project on a building is to come from the outside. And realizing the potential of the emptiness that needs to be filled; it needs to be filled from the inside.
Therefore we went to the neighborhood, to the kids. People who should have the opportunity to raise his or her voice about this issue, to get a different attention. Cabrini Green got a specific kind of attention. Everyone was writing about Cabrini but only when somebody was killed. Nobody was paying attention when the other things were happening. So this is a way to give to the next generation, to the kids who came from there, a way to express, to be heard, to be seen and to be empowered.
So we started to work with partners in the community like Cabrini Connections, a tutor-mentor program and with Marwen Foundation that is also in the neighborhood, but serving kids from around the city. Several of the kids from Cabrini Connections actually lived in the apartments in the last building. Other kids, from Marwen were also mostly from low income housing, but not only. For the kids who donâ€™t know Cabrini, the approach was obviously different, it was more learning about the history.
DG: What is the nature of the kids’ contribution?
JT: I was thinking about how to help give voice to someone in a public space and also in my other work about the relationship between light and sound. If we can translate the message, or whatever the kids want to say, to light.
The workshops that we hold with the kids includes some information about public art, what it can do and about light and sound art as a means of gathering attention. Then we begin to talk about general issues about home and housing. At a certain point we introduce slam poetry, a form that is from Chicago and at a certain point the kids themselves start to write. When they are done with their poems they perform them. Their performances will then be translated into a modulated light display.
DG: So each individual kidâ€™s voice will light a room in the last building?
JT:Â We record the audio of the performance and program it into the control chips for the LEDâ€™s. We thought when we began that we might only be able to get 30-40 kids, but weâ€™ve had such a great response that weâ€™ve recorded nearly 100 kids. Weâ€™re trying to get to 134, because their are 134 apartments in the building. I felt that during the workshops that there was something really important happening with the kids that were not only from public housing. We felt that we could extend this dialogue to include area kids that werenâ€™t as directly effected.
There is another layer to this educational aspect, in that I look to the example of Moholy-Nagy. Heâ€™s close to me not just in working with light, but a lot in education. This is also something that came to me when I was working on Crown Hall. Both Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe came to Chicago at more or less the same time, from the same place for basically the same purpose, but they were completely different, not only as artists, but as educators and thinkers. Mies was like â€˜That is how you do things, cause thatâ€™s how I do it.â€™ Whereas Moholy-Nagy was much more collaborative, with faculty working with students on a project, trying to bring the students into the community from the very beginning. These aspects of his example are important. And that was also part of the idea at Crown Hall, was to do this very Moholy-Nagy workshop inside of a Mies structure. And there the idea that I brought was very simple. Just to light up the inside of the building, the rest was figured out in collaboration. I see myself as an artist / teacher, teacher / artist.
Here the idea is simple, just to light up the inside of the building with voices, but still as the project grows their is more and more opportunities for students and creative experience.Â Sound students made the sound equipment, and make the recordings. Faculty and students from the Art and Technology Department are constructing the LED kits.
The demolition starts the day after the installation of the lights and will last between 4 to 6 weeks, so every day there will be less and less lights, as they are demolished with the building. The electronics will be salvaged from the wreckage during the recycling process of the debris. The thing is we donâ€™t really know what it will look like!Â A mock-up wonâ€™t help me.
DG: Is that at all scary?
JT: It is!Â While I am working only with white light, I do expect that the effect will have color, reflecting off of the painted walls in the apartments, being more clearly visible because the windows have been removed prior to demolition.
JT: Someone was trying to make it nice, to make it a home.
DG: In the building is the audio also available?
JT:Â No, itâ€™s just the blinking because you wouldnâ€™t be able to hear it from the street anyway.Â The audio will be available online as a web component with an interactive digital model of the building. Youâ€™ll be able to click each apartment and hear all 134 poems performed.Â The poems will also be published.
There is also a gallery component at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Cabrini has always been close to the Gold Coast, close yet so far away. I mean itâ€™s a 9 minute walk from Cabrini to the MCA. But the gap between these two is huge. I thought it would be interesting to bring it live to the MCA. Another group of students from SAIC are working on making a live feed of the installation available 24/ 7 for the 4-6 weeks in the MCA.
DG: This is a colossal project!
JT: I was just thinking about that. Its obviously growing over my head and Iâ€™m really glad that itâ€™s happening in two weeks so it canâ€™t grow any more!