A fortuitous schedule change gave me the opportunity to interview Liz Cohen, a photographer, performer, and pinup, who happens to be my neighbor on the Cranbrook campus. Simply put, Cohen is fearless. Her projects are fully immersive, intertwining ethnography and performance to the effect of uncanny transformation. Often, Cohen spends years inhabiting the spaces, learning the customs, and going so far as to cultivate the body of a certain group or subculture. Her most recent work, Trabantimino, involved a nine-year stint as an auto customizer, during which the artist transformed an East German Trabant, a two-stroke engine-car produced in Zwickau, into a 1970s Chevrolet El Camino low rider.
The carâ€™s nearly decade-long journey from an object emblematic of the communist bloc into a portrait of purely American ingenuity was epic. Physically, the Trabant made its way from Berlin to San Francisco to Phoenix, and finally to Detroit; however, the real story buried beneath the chrome and tawny exterior is one psychological transformation. In Cohenâ€™s project, the Trabantimino becomes a physical manifestation of the immigrant experienceâ€”the carâ€™s identity shifting and hybridizing like that of an individual traversing a wall, (fallen or otherwise). Much like Simon Starlingâ€™s Shedboatshed (2005), the exterior of the Trabant has changed, influenced by a new social and cultural environment, but its DNA is fundamental. Traces of memory and history cannot be erased entirely, and Cohenâ€™s custom low rider retains reminders of where it initially came from.
Through the course of Trabantimino, Cohen herself has transformed from a recent MFA graduate living in San Francisco to a mother of a three-month-old living in suburban Detroit. To document her own evolution within the world of automotive tinkering and low rider culture, the artist staged periodic photo shoots where she would capture her car and her own subject at various stages of development. Her chosen entry into the world of low riding was through the character of the pinup. From her first shoot, Bikini Car Wash (2002), to her most recent, Zwickau Routine (2010), Cohen has remained complicit with the structure of her chosen subculture to assume the role of the stereotypical hotrod poster girl. Despite receiving a great deal of critique from the (neo?) feminist sect, Cohen quickly accessorized her thong with a welder, a power sander, and other tools of the trade. Her bikini may have been her ticket in, but that doesnâ€™t change the fact that she is contributing to a community and helping to change the very stereotype with which her photography is complicit. In our interview, Cohen mentions that low riding is a culture of resistance. In my opinion, the artist-as-pinup is a similar proclamation of: Iâ€™m here, and donâ€™t fuck with me.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I find the arc of your work really interesting, especially considering that you started out pursuing documentary photography. What was your journey from documentary to project-based work and performance?
Liz Cohen: I went to Tufts with the intention of studying quantitative economics, and I started out doing that. But I quickly started taking some philosophy classes, and I got really interested in ethical theory. I ended up majoring in philosophy, and I started getting really interested in groups. For example, how do you ascribe responsibility to a group rather than an individual? How do you distinguish the agency of a group and the agency of an individual? What are the moments when a group functions as a group and not just as an aggregate of individuals?
Itâ€™s important for when you get into ideas of personhood for corporations or things like that… They have a dual degree program with the Museum School, and once I was [at Tufts] I started taking classes at the Museum School. I had a really great teacher, Bill Burke, who had been doing most of his work in Cambodia and looking at the residuum of the Vietnam War as someone who had been the right age to go to Vietnam but avoided the draft. In any case, I was interested in investigative photography, investigative reporting, documentary, and all the ways that documentary can become more abstract or metaphorical. Then as I left the Museum School, I started doing this work in Panama City [Canal (2000)] where I was photographing transgender sex workers. Thatâ€™s where things started to change for me. Before I started doing any performance, I was already thinking that it is very performative to be a photographerâ€”that you have a certain persona as a documentary photographer. I think that those ideas probably came to me through all these photographers I likedâ€”by looking at their work, I got to know about their lives. Robert Frank, for example: I understood a lot more about Robert Frank when I learned that I was looking at a photo of his ex-wife Mary, his daughter Andrea, his son Pablo, or his later wife June. Thereâ€™s all this mythology around his life that is really important to the photography and how you imagine him driving through the United States, photographing Americans as this Swiss guy looking from the outside in. I was thinking about that process as being very performative. It helped me reconcile what the sex workers were doing in front of the camera for meâ€”they were just really hamming it up and posing when I wanted them to chill out and have these blank faces. At some point, I had to embrace that. I think that some of the ideas I was thinking about Robert Frank allowed me to do that.
SMP: Itâ€™s interesting, because I largely think of documentary work as pursuing a position of invisibilityâ€”erasing the boundary between subjects to lend a totally objective lens. I guess itâ€™s easy to forget about the subject of the photographer, whose identity is being affected through cultural immersion and various social factors. What was your intent with the Panama projectâ€”what story were you after?
LC: When I went to Panama I wanted to do work on the US military bases. I was thinking about the relationship between the United States and Panama, and I wanted to do work about that because I think itâ€™s really representative of the relationship between the United States and Latin America. When I went to the military bases they were really boring, and they looked like what military bases look like everywhere. It wasnâ€™t until I started driving along the edges of the military bases and seeing the sex workers that I found something that was kind of interestingâ€”this kind of fringe. But then that just blew open the whole thing, because the work really is about the relationship between the United States and Panama but it becomes really metaphorical, and now weâ€™re into a special kind of documentary, right?! Or out of regular journalism.
SMP: How was it that you first got in front of the camera yourself?
LC: During that work in Panama, one of the sex workers became my guide. Her name was Lynette, and she was kind of the mother hen of the sex workers. I had really short hair at that time, hairy legs and armpitsâ€”I had just left liberal arts college! I would wear baggy jeans that I could fit a lot of rolls of film in, a tee shirt, and a backpack to go shooting at night. I looked pretty seedy, I guess. Lynette would always say: â€œyou look so pretty and you donâ€™t even realize it. Youâ€™re always hiding yourself, let me show you how to use your body, let me show you how to look pretty. You have a body like a Barbie and you donâ€™t show it!â€ So I would always just laugh, but she was persistent: â€œplease let me dress you up!â€ But I always just brushed it off and would continue doing what I was doing. Then my sister was coming to visit me, and I thought: I should take Lynette up on this and hand my sister the camera for a night. So, we did it, and I think in so many ways, I think that it was that experience that led to so many different changes in the way that I work from performing, to the use of my body, to dressing up and sort of method acting.
SMP: Your recent project, Trabantimino, (ongoing since 2002), is considered a long-term performance. How did you come to this project? Was it a residual interest in groups where you could engage on a macro-scale through theories of national identity, as well as a micro-scale through car-related subculture?
LC: I started having an interest in doing something to a car when I was working on the Canal Series in Panama. I apprenticed one summer at a brake shop: Discount Brake and Clutch in the Mission in San Franciscoâ€”I was the Sunday brake mechanic. And I took a class at City College [while getting a masterâ€™s at CCA] at night that was for auto repairâ€”for people to repair their own cars, not for professionals. So I was kind of tinkering with the idea of cars, but I was so unprepared for being in those environments. I wasnâ€™t someone who uses her hands, and my parents were definitely not tinkerers.
SMP: Itâ€™s sort of ironic that you took to cars in SFâ€”an aggressively green, mass-transit friendly city.
LC: And I wasnâ€™t really driving there, I was riding a bicycle. But I came from Phoenix, which is a car place, and I have this memory of an El Camino. I always wanted to buy an El Camino and make a low rider, because I love low ridingâ€”itâ€™s just the coolest thing. I didnâ€™t preconceive the whole project. I donâ€™t think I could have worked on it as long as I have if I had had it neatly wrapped up in a bow. So I started with the idea of an El Camino and wanting to do something with it. Then I got a residency to go to Germany, and I thought it might be kind of cool to turn one car into another kind of car. I was going to Stuttgart, which is sort of a richer Detroit in Germanyâ€”the Mercedes factory is there, and I thought Iâ€™d turn a Mercedes into an El Camino. I wasnâ€™t thinking about the meaning of it at that time, it was just an impulse. So I was in Germany and I started thinking about it more, and finally, I went to Berlin and I saw the Trabant. The Trabant was really interesting to me, firstly: I had never heard of it, and when I saw it, it was attractive to me; and second: the idea of it being from the former East was appealing. I was interested in the transitions that people from the former East were going throughâ€”that kind of process of becoming part of the West, and the idea that the car has to become part of the West was very compelling. So it was less about a specific national identity than about this idea of transitioning from a Socialist economy to a Capitalist economy and what that requires.
SMP: Itâ€™s interesting that with such a compelling project that operates on various levels socially, politically, and culturally, that there was no premeditated connection between the cars.
LC: It was only after I had started that I found what was cool about both of them together, which was they both represented these amazing things about the places that they were from. The Trabant is really utilitarian, and the El Camino is really overdoneâ€”itâ€™s like one stop shopping.
SMP: So, weâ€™ve heard about the Trabant as a Socialist iconâ€¦ What is the story with the El Camino and its all-in-one-ness?
LC: I think Ford made a car-truck first, the El Ranchero. The El Caminoâ€”itâ€™s like a muscle car. In the 70s, with the oil crisis, a lot of laws changed too for cars. I think with it being a car-truck, it got around a lot of new jurisdiction, so it could be a muscle car and a utility truck. I think itâ€™s interesting that both of the car-trucksâ€™ names are in Spanish. After World War II, muscle car culture was really a Ford thing, and that became a white thing. Then the Chevys were more of an immigrant thingâ€”they were an ethnic car. They were less expensive, and low riding became a Chevy thing. The Impala is the most popular car for a classic low rider. The history of it is a history of resistance. Itâ€™s the opposite of tuning: with tuning, youâ€™re stripping away and making small adjustments to make something as fast as possible. Low riding is the opposite: itâ€™s ornamental, itâ€™s adding to the car. Itâ€™s a way to stop traffic and say: Hi! Weâ€™re here! You canâ€™t ignore us!
SMP: I realize that this is a nine-year epic, but what was the process to create the Trabantimino?
LC: I didnâ€™t know very much about cars, and I didnâ€™t know anything about fabrication. I wasnâ€™t a part of any car culture. I knew I had this car, [an â€œexpensiveâ€ Trabant, purchased for $400 in Germany], I knew the residency was going to ship it back to the US for me. So the car was coming to the port of Oakland and I started looking for a shop that would take me inâ€”a low rider shop. So I found this shop, Worldwide Customs, that was this kind of shitty low rider shop. And really, that was a wasted yearâ€”everything I did on the car at that shop I had to remove later. I donâ€™t know if it was that they didnâ€™t know that much about fabrication, I think it was more that it was a shady place. In any case, I learned a lot about low riding there, I learned a lot about hydraulicsâ€”I saw how they were being installedâ€”really basic stuff. I met the darker side of the low riding world. These guys were part of the Mexican mafia, and there was shady stuff that happened there. The way I left was that they called me up and said: â€œhurry up, youâ€™ve got to get your stuff. Weâ€™re closing tonight!â€ Luckily I had a friend who did car stuff and who had a garage in San Francisco, who let me put the car in his garage. We called a tow truck, my friends came, we packed up all the stuff, and then it was like, gone, and that guy disappeared.
SMP: And at this point, you transitioned to Phoenix?
LC: Yeah. Thatâ€™s when I realized a couple things, one being that if I want to find a good shop where people are actually going to help me, that one of the ways I could figure that out is if they were there early in the morning. If they started their workday on time, and if the cars didnâ€™t have dust on them, that means they had turnover. So I got to Arizona and I looked up in the yellow pages every shop that had the word â€œcustomâ€ in it. I started going to a bunch of them, and I think the 38th or 39th was this place called Elwood Body Works. It was in Scottsdale, and they were owned by an Italian family. The ownerâ€™s name is Don Barsellottiwhoâ€™s this amazing guy, and they do mostly insurance work and collision repair, so they have a lot of turnover, they were a serious shop, and they were also doing some restorationsâ€”Ferrariâ€™s, they did an Aston Martin once, they were doing cool things in there but they also had cash flow.
So I knew when he said he would take me in that it was going to be okayâ€”they werenâ€™t going to try to exploit me or be shady in any way, they were really nice, and they thought the idea was hilarious. I was asking for a lot: I was going to be working on the car, and they were going to teach me how to work on the car, while I didnâ€™t have enough money to pay them to help me work on the car. I was asking for the world, and for some reason, this guy decided to give it to me. Then he hooked me up with this guy Bill Cherry, whoâ€™s sort of the last of a dying breed of guys who can do a bit of everything. Bill became my mentor, and he really taught me how to engineer all the movements in the car.
SMP: How much of the car is Trabant, how much is El Camino, and how much is custom hybrid?
LC: All hybrid. It started out as the Trabant, and to turn it into the El Camino, I wanted to figure out some things that would give it El Camino-ness. So I picked a few things like the wheelbase, which is the distance between the wheels, the length of the car and the heart of the carâ€”the engine. That required me to build a new chassis for the car. I also wanted to have the car to have a sense of integrity so it wouldnâ€™t forget where it came from. Thatâ€™s why I felt it was important that it is able to go back and forth. Itâ€™s like going homeâ€¦ I grew up in an immigrant household, so itâ€™s like going home and speaking Spanish and then you leave the house, you stretch out, and you put something else on. I wanted the car to have that type of experience, but when it goes back to its Trabant form itâ€™s not really a Trabant anymore because it has been through all these experiences.
SMP: What was the idea behind the Bodywork component– the bikinis and Olympic poses? You definitely went down the road of gender and identity politics with that series, and I know this work has incensed a number of critics. Are you articulating a relationship between the car and the body with this work?
LC: My motivation was more about how to become a part of a certain subculture. I had had this frustration with Canal: once I dressed up with Lynette, I realized that that was kind of a masquerade, and if I wanted to hold my interest in the project, I needed to become an insider. Firstly, Iâ€™m not a biological male; and secondly, I wasnâ€™t interested in going on a transgender journey or taking sex work, so that was as close as I could get. It was done. For the next piece, I wanted to take something where I could go from being on the outsideâ€”really being an outsider, to really being an insider, even if I was a freak insider. Different ways to become a part of that car culture are to build cars, to own cars, or to model for cars. So my motivation for doing the modeling was more to become a memberâ€”I never did it to make fun of that aspect of car culture. I wasnâ€™t judging it, I was using it.
For the early photographs, [Bodywork] I was just using poses from low rider magazines and Sports Illustrator. I did nine of these, and I thought of them as trailers or movie posters. They were documentation for me, even though it was staged documentation where I would have the car at a certain stage of completion, me at a certain stage in my process, and the environment and the people around me building the car at that moment. They were a way to document periodically where the project was at and say: â€œcoming soon to a theater near you!â€ I knew it was a really long project, so I wanted to let out pieces of it. What happened instead is that those photos provoked a huge conversation around â€œpost-feminism,â€ whatever that meansâ€”I still havenâ€™t figured out what that means! But anyway, the series that youâ€™re thinking about is call Zwickau Routine (2010). For those, I wanted to go to the home of the Trabantâ€”to its birthplace. I had moved to Detroit, so I was here, in the home of GM, and I thought: I have never been to the home of Trabant and I need to go. So I went to Zwickau, Germany and I found the abandoned Trabant factory, where those photographs were taken. I was thinking about my memories of the Cold War as a child, and for me, it was all through things like the olympics–Nadia Comanechi and Mary Lou Rettonâ€¦symbols of American and Socialist strength. When I was a kid, my parents were really interested in Socialism. We traveled to the USSR and China, so I had an interest, and I had exposure. In any case, I was thinking about the Trabant factory, the Cold War, and the reasons that I never heard about this car, and I started overlapping all these memories of when the car would have been in existence.
LC: I think there will always be parts of it ongoing until someone takes the car completely out of my hands. Youâ€™re never really done with a custom car. Thatâ€™s one thing Iâ€™ve learned from working at all of these shops. In Detroit, I was at this really interesting shop Kustom Creations, and you see people with these amazing cars come in to just tinker with one more thing. Thereâ€™s always one more little thing.
SMP: How has the project changed since your relocation to Detroit? Do you find that thereâ€™s more interest in the home of GM?
LC: It changes the people around the project and the nature of the car culture around the work. When I was in Oakland, I was really around low riding culture; in Scottsdale, I was at a collision shop owned by an Italian family, but I was also going to tons of low rider shows and even planned a low rider show, so I wasnâ€™t working in a low rider shop, but I definitely went to more shows than I had before; and when I got to here, I was more in this phase of wanting to finish and refine. Here, I got to work around people who were really the best of the best. The project ended not at that Kustom Creation shop, it was with this guy Al Sharp, whoâ€™s really amazingâ€”he works for this place Experi-Metalâ€¦ In any case, as the project went on, every time I changed shops I moved into a higher end situation because I knew more. Also, Iâ€™ve been able to meet all these car designers from GM, which was really exciting for me. To have folks in that industry excited about what Iâ€™m doing was really an interesting moment, because that wasnâ€™t a group of people who I really thought about.
Itâ€™s interesting, I think an aspect of the project that really hasnâ€™t been explored by people writing about it is the aspect of me really going through the project over timeâ€¦ It went in fits and starts, but it really consumed nine years of my life. Iâ€™d say five or six years it totally took over my lifeâ€¦ The Bikini Car Wash, which was the first piece that initiated the project, was really a long time ago. I was this young single person in San Francisco with roommates! Iâ€™ve definitely matured through phases of the project, and now thereâ€™s a video of me, pregnant, bouncing with the carâ€™s hydraulics. Iâ€™m at this phase where I want to use the car to do work that is more family-oriented with my husband and my child. Again, this comes back to the Robert Frank stuff… Just this morning, I was looking at these images where his whole familyâ€™s faces are pressed to the side of the car.
SMP: It seems as though youâ€™ve become the El Camino poster childâ€”exuding the coolness of low riding, while embracing the family-oriented practicality of a car and truck in one!
LC: I like working on stuff that stays open. I didnâ€™t really formulate everything it was going to mean and do and be. I didnâ€™t even know it was going to go back and forth between two different cars until I got to Phoenix. It was at that point that I knew more about the technology of what I could do and I figured out what hydraulics can do, so I was like: I can do this, or I can do this. Every year I can say I barely made it through that year, and it made my life really hard for a long time.
Liz Cohen is represented by Salon 94, New York, NY; David Klein, Birmingham, MI; andÂ Galerie Laurent Godin, Paris. She is a 2011 Kresge Artist Fellow, and is currently Artist-in-Residence of the Photography Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Trabantimino is currently being shown in Autobody at The Ballroom in Marfa, TX, and she has photographs exhibited in here at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, as well as in an exhibition at David Klein that opens this Saturday, November 5. A new video work, Hydro Force, will be included in No Object Is an Island, an exhibition that opens November 11 at Cranbrook Art Museum.
October 13, 2011 · Print This Article
I feel like Iâ€™m on a bit of a mission to prove to Bad at Sports readers that not all Detroit artists trespass into abandoned buildings, cultivate urban prairie, or become beekeepers to create work in this city. Admittedly, tactics of urban intervention are a integral aspect of the cultural life of any locality, but in the D, activities based in studio practice can be provocative, and even subversive, without any bulldozing or breaking-and-entering. I was eager to interview Sarah Wagner, a sculptor who recently returned to Detroit by way of the Bay Area and most recently, Chicago, where she was teaching in the fiber department at SAIC. Sarah is admittedly a studio-based practitioner, who crafts intricate environments from the space of the galleryâ€”entire ecosystems for the imaginary, populated by botanical and biological specimens that nearly float away with uncanny ethereality. Her most recent series of Wormwood Cats are a collection of laser-cut wooden skeletons rendered with meticulous anatomical precision, that are overlaid with a fine skin of marigold yellow Chinese silk organza. Wagnerâ€™s Cats are icons of human-made disasterâ€”residuum of the atomic meltdown at Chernobyl that left a trail of biological mishap in its wake. The sculptures are not a pessimistic portrayal of the clash between human and environment, but rather, a positive look at the process of renewal, and the ability of some species to thrive amidst catastrophe.
Wagnerâ€™s work exists in a delicate balance between real and imaginary, exterior and interior, city and studio. She is able to create alter-universes from the space of the gallery, yet traces of reality inevitably emerge from amidst the illusion. Beginning in the summer of 2010, Wagner and her husband Jon Brumit, who is also an artist and recently appointed Director of Public Engagement at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, started Dflux, a residency program that falls under the framework of Creative Commons. The couple invites artists to engage with the city of Detroit and the immediate Hamtramck Heights/Banglatown neighborhood using the landscape and culture as the basis for a summer-long investigation. The residency operates from the space of their $100 houseâ€”a purchase made legendary by 20/20 and other mass media outlets in 2008, which can take partial credit for initiating the (some say speculated) romance between artists in search of low-cost housing and Detroit.
So, yes, this interview begins with a discussion on the housing crisis, arson, and what it means to buy a house for $100. No matter how thick those studio walls are or how many locks separate the inner sanctum from the street, (three at DFlux!), itâ€™s tough not to let a bit of Detroit in. Sarah and I spoke recently over tea in the DFlux kitchen.
SMP: So, we’re in a pretty famous house. Just to get it out of the way: You have to tell the storyâ€”what does a $100 house look like?
SW: We bought the house in 2008, Decemberâ€”we were both working down in Miami at Art Basel, and Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope [of Design99] sent us a picture all graphic-designed up: 3323 Lawley, $100. They had walked through the house, and it was structurally sound with the exception of one 2×4 that had been busted when the firemen cut the hole in the roof. Two fires had been set here, probably by the tenants as a way to get out of the mortgage, because we know they were both arsonâ€”you can actually tell by the way the fluid hits the ground in a perfect circle, which indicates the use of some type of accelerant. So there were two firesâ€”one in the front bedroom, and one in the living room, so the house was just a mess when we first got it. There was paint coming down from the ceiling, and all these just amazing surfaces. We promptly found out after we closed that I was pregnant, so we had to make sure the lead was out. We probably would have sealed the paint in otherwise to preserve those amazing surfaces. Basically, we demoed the whole thing. Thereâ€™s a bit of original plaster thatâ€™s still there, covered up by drywall but weâ€™ve made a huge changes within the floor plan due to the damage. There was a bunch of water damageâ€”for two years there was a hole in the roof, and the damaged planks had to be removed, but now we have this kitchen counter as a resultâ€”the countertop is from the rafters.
SMP: But the media makes buying a house in Detroit seem so appealing!
SW: What we hear a lot now is: Oh, I hear there are artists buying all the houses and itâ€™s a movement! Itâ€™s been really interesting watching the shift of the perception of Detroit in the media because before we even bought the houseâ€”the day we closed on itâ€”was the day the $100 house piece aired on 20-20. Itâ€™s been a really bizarre and very educational experienceâ€¦ There was this media blitz, [NYTimes, CNN, ABCâ€¦ Itâ€™s endless!], and everyone was contacting us and wanting to talk to us, and it was weird because I was pregnant and I didnâ€™t want anyone to know. All the comments were difficult to take, for example many people said that no one with kids would ever move into this neighborhoodâ€¦ I feel like 20-20 actually did a really good jobâ€”I didnâ€™t expect them to spin it in the way that they did because they wanted it to be the “feel good” segment at the end of the program, but they spun it in a more authentic way. They used a quote to describe it that was something along the lines of it being something really good out of something really horribleâ€”this isnâ€™t just, like: Woo hoo! Buy a house for $100! Well, it is, but this is the only way that Jon and I could have bought a house. We have never had enough money to buy a house.
SMP: Is this the housing-crisis iteration of the American Dream?
SW: It is for us, I guess. And this is a city of the American Dream, and this is a city that everybody loves to mythologize. It was once the “most dangerous city in the world”, and now, itâ€™s the “city of artists” in the midst of resurrection. Or something. Thereâ€™s always some sort of big, big mythology that is really quite simplistic, and thatâ€™s the thing about mythology; it misses all the beautyâ€¦ Thereâ€™s incredible diversity, amazing neighborhoods with beautiful, well-cared full homes! Itâ€™s not that the portrait thatâ€™s painted about Detroit wrong, itâ€™s just that it only captures one part of the whole narrative. Itâ€™s funny too, because the myth just really isnâ€™t interesting after a while. Itâ€™s a great story for a cocktail party: Ha, ha, $100 home, but it gets old. What really is interesting to me is the neighborhoodâ€”30% Bangladeshi, 30% Polish, 30% African American and the 10% other, which we fit into, and every single one of these people has a storyâ€”a really interesting story, way more interesting than a $100 home. So this was what led us to do DFLUX project, because we felt as though we wanted to provide a platform for people to come in, see, and explore. It was really important that they actually explore and not have their experience scripted ahead of time. We were frustrated with the sound bitesâ€”reporters would come in, and theyâ€™d claim their interview would be different, but all we ended with was being used for sound bites.
SMP: How did you facilitate going beyond sound bites considering these all-pervasive myths? It seems like chasing various Detroit mythologies would be part of the impetus for artists to be in residence here?
SW: I guess by not giving much information so they had to seek it out on their own. In terms of what we would show artists when they would come here, weâ€™d definitely show them the neighborhoodâ€”where to get their beer and all that stuff, and then weâ€™d bring them to visit the field. Thereâ€™s this field off of Mt. Elliott where they razed a whole neighborhood in order to provide a space for development. But of course, no development came, and it has turned into a wetlands. Itâ€™s this really amazing place where thereâ€™s all this natural growth, which is really overtaking the grid. The roads are still there and the fire hydrants are still there, but everything else is gone. From botanical standpoint, there is all kinds of diversity. The area was residential, so there are all these cultivated plants popping up along with plants that are perhaps natives, or perhaps invasive, or whatever. And thatâ€™s what has absolutely fascinated me is the memory, or trace, of what was there before, and how different traces are reemerging and reclaiming the space overtime.Â And that was it. That would be it. It became really clear that some of our residents came and wouldnâ€™t leave the house, and thatâ€™s just not okay. The experience is not about being at the house, but to be in the neighborhood and city.
SMP: So 2011 was DFLUXâ€™s second summer. How many residents did you take on initially?
SW: DFLUX in 2010 had nine residents, which really pushed the envelope.
SMP: Yikes! That sounds like a camp-out!
SW: It was a camp-out. It was not fancy. We warned people, and out litmus test for selecting people was whether or not we thought they could handle it, which was difficult. We had six people sleeping upstairs, one person downstairs and we had a mother and son sleeping on a porch.
SMP: And how are you taking applicants?
SW: Everyone who we asked in that first round came, which is how we ended up with nine. That was really ambitious, but we thought: weâ€™ll just figure it out. We didnâ€™t have our bathroom ready for three days! That was a bit rough, but it worked. In the future, weâ€™re not really sure. We had one resident this summer, who was fantasticâ€¦ But it became really clear that we canâ€™t do it with so little space. Weâ€™re looking to buy another house right across the street in this auction cycle, and if we buy that one, then weâ€™ll continue, but if we donâ€™t, then I donâ€™t think weâ€™ll be able toâ€¦ Especially with a toddler.
SMP: It seems as though the engagement with landscape that your residency facilitates is similar to the way that you explore ecological and human-made systems in your own work. How does the shifting biology of this placeâ€”epitomized by your field, also inform your studio practice?
SW: Itâ€™s something that Iâ€™m trying to figure out, and I think itâ€™s a big part of the reason that Iâ€™m attracted to the wetlands off Mount Elliot… The piece Iâ€™m working on right now is a grouping of five cats.Â Itâ€™s about Chernobyl, and what Iâ€™ve been thinking about is that there are all these animals, wild and formerly domestic,Â in the area of Chernobyl that appear to be doing just fineâ€”completely normalâ€”theyâ€™re playing, running, eating, procreating, but theyâ€™re completely radioactive. And what Iâ€™ve been thinking about is how to represent the invisibility of the radiation. So this is the first oneâ€”it has a completely normal skeleton now, but the skeleton will slowly start to overtake the inside of the form.
SMP: In essence, these are ghostly traces of radiated creatures that will change form overtime?
SW: Yes. And theyâ€™re dyed with turmeric, because itâ€™s a bad dyeâ€”meaning, it doesnâ€™t keep, so itâ€™s light sensitive. The idea is that the turmeric is mimicking the shelf-life of radiation. And so, these creatures are slowly healing, and over time, theyâ€™ll be come white again. I donâ€™t know what that time period is, but they start out one color and they end another.
SMP: Interesting. So itâ€™s not so much about deconstruction or decay, but more about purification?
SW: Healing is really important. At the risk of being very California, itâ€™s really important to me. Also, I donâ€™t want to look at the problem, but to the hope. Thereâ€™s this military term called â€œpositive ocular response,â€ which means when there are two blown-up tanks with a small space in between, you donâ€™t look at the tanks while trying to drive through, you focus on that space between–and often you make it no matter the odds. Iâ€™m trying to present positive ocular response while still being truthful about the situation. Truth is really important to me too, but truth is flexibleâ€¦ I supported myself for ten-years doing construction and fabricationâ€”including museum building fabrication, exhibits for natural history museums and the like. It was really interesting working in these environments because I came to realize how these institutions of science presented an interpretation the truth–not the truth.Â The idea of exploring whatâ€™s true and whatâ€™s real, and trying to imagine the process by which truth is created is interesting to me, because it is all a product of imagination in a way.
SMP: Iâ€™ve heard the correlation made between Detroit and Chernobyl before. Is that a comparison youâ€™re conscious of making this work?
SW:Â Detroit is not Chernobyl–it’s vibrant, alive and safe for humans, but I feel like the reason Iâ€™m drawn to the idea of Chernobyl is that thereâ€™s all this hope–living creatures surviving radiation.Â But the effects of radiation on the animals is not investigated, and we donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on there, but I really am interested in the idea that this horrible thing can happen and that life continues. It may not be human life, but something is flourishingâ€”all the plants and the species that are coming back, itâ€™s all pretty phenomenal. In that way I feel like there is a link, particularly when thinking about the Mt Elliot wetlands–it’s a place that gives me hope.
SMP: It seems that your practice is for the most part studio and gallery-based. Given your interest in landscape, have you ever done any installations outdoors?
SW: I havenâ€™t really done that. Iâ€™ve had ideas for it, but I havenâ€™t been able to manifest them. I love being a studio-based artist, and thatâ€™s what makes me different from Jon and Mitch and Gina is that their studio is everything. I love getting lost in that deep space of just being alone, working, and making something. I donâ€™t know if my work will shift that way. But there have been a number of other big life changesâ€”I have this big, sort of, Bangladeshi-style garden that we grew out back– we grew our own food, and doing things like this will surely have some sort of impact . But I donâ€™t knowâ€¦ Thatâ€™s one of the things about the creative process I guess.
SMP: What is in the works for you?
SW: Iâ€™ve got a couple showsâ€¦ Iâ€™ve got a month to finish the cats for a traveling museum showâ€¦ I’m also part of a “sisters” show this spring at the Ann Arbor Art Center called Inherent State. My sister, Cathy Wagner, is an experimental writer. Right now, sheâ€™s putting herself into trances, recording herself speaking in tongues, and developing writing from that. I decided that I need to meditate to try and, you know, be calm, (laughs), regulate my anxiety, and so Iâ€™ve been trying to meditate, and when I begin obsessing about things while I meditate, I write these things down on the fridge. As soon as Iâ€™m done with the cats, Iâ€™m going to begin making all of these thingsâ€”Iâ€™ll make the objects on the list on the fridge and install them in Ann Arbor.
SMP: What kind of objects are we talking about?
SW: [Sarah reads from her list:] Garden; Pollination; Squash; Otto Screaming; Ramadan Plate; Concealed Weapon, carrying, protecting; Otto Baby; 3322â€¦ Oh no! Itâ€™s illegible, darnâ€¦ Platonic Solids; Peony; Oxygen Masks; Otto; Cat; Bottles; Window; Cat.
SMP: In a way, youâ€™re in dialogue with your sisterâ€™s process but through your own process of making.
SW: Yeah, weâ€™re definitely drawing from the same process. Stream of consciousness to create objects and text. Sheâ€™s got her craft, and I have mine, so the process will be filtered through our skill set. For the show, weâ€™re teaming up with artist Brooks Harris Stevens and her sister Jen Harris, who is also a writer. Brooks and I have a lot in common both materially and in our personal lives, including having writers for sisters, so we thought this would be fun.
SMP: Do you and Jon ever collaborate in this way? Since Jonâ€™s praxis is more socially-based and your work is certainly all about the introverted studio-time, do you find that this clashing of opposites is productive (and challenging) in the way that working with a writer is?
SW: Jon and I collaborate quite a bit, and weâ€™re looking to collaborate more because heâ€™s been so busy, so itâ€™s a way for us to get to work together. And I really admire his work, and I think he admires mine, but weâ€™re also so different, so itâ€™s really lovely to have that polar-opposite-ness come inâ€¦ We did a Life Laws project together. We have this series of Life Laws, for example, number one is: Donâ€™t put your bearings in the dirt. Number three is: Donâ€™t cut a hole in the roof of a co-owned car without asking the co-ownerâ€™s permission. These are either things that weâ€™ve done, or tales that weâ€™ve collected from friends. This is from a friend, who was actually at Cranbrook: Donâ€™t wear homemade pants that arenâ€™t reinforced in the crotch and sit cross legged in publicâ€¦ We have performed the laws and made romance novels with the titles.Â Collaboratively? What elseâ€¦ Well, DFLUX which is pretty huge, and then we did a show at Patricia Sweetow, [San Francisco], with Christy Matson as a third collaborator. She makes weavings using a conductive thread, so I made sheep that conducted sound art that Jon created. Oh! and Jon and I did a show in Tennessee in 2003 calledÂ Crossover in Chattanooga, TN, which is where we both went to undergrad.Â That project was really fun: we conducted traffic across this bridge that has a perfect octave. I donâ€™t have a perfect pitch, but it goes [Sarah hums three successive pitches: looooow-hiiiiigh-looooow]. We discovered that if you drove over in 3-mi/hr increments that [the pitch would elevate harmoniously]. Depending on how fast you were going, you could actually make different pitches. So, we tried to conduct traffic across the bridge to create, like, â€œRow Row Row Your Boatâ€â€¦ It was really bizarre, because you just canâ€™t control how fast the traffic goes.Â We were able to do it on a synthesizer in the gallery, and we exhibited that along with an installation based on the Tennessee River Valley out of construction materials: tar paper, electrical linesâ€”the current was the river, and then we had shredded paper set up so as the viewer entered the space, they came into a pristine environment mimicking what the Tennessee Valley was before it was settled. The viewer was then forced, essentially, to clearcut it as they walked through these huge piles of shredded paper so their trace was left as they walked. The audience then essentially made the environment, which was the reason I really loved that piece.
SMP: It seems as though many of your collaborations involve willing or unwilling participants. Is this an element of installation-based work as well?
SW: Um, I think it ends up being part of the sculptural experience. I really love the way, for example, Richard Serra sets up his work, where itâ€™s more about the emotion of the encounter. I want to get that kind of affect in my workâ€”Iâ€™m really into creating that kind of intense feeling when a viewer walks in. You know how when you walk in and see one of those stacked sculptures and thereâ€™s this amazing tensionâ€”thatâ€™s really what Iâ€™m hoping for. I guess it is unwilling in some way, where youâ€™re just subjected to some kind of emotional shift.Â It does require participation.
SMP: With this new Chernobyl series, do you intend for viewers to get a strong sense of lifespanâ€”though the turmeric, or the shifting patterns of natural systems?
SW: The evolving? I guess so, I hope so.Â I envision the viewer, the owner of the work really, seeing the work shift over time.Â The viewer who passes by will miss this–it is too slow of a story arc.Â I guess thatâ€™s what I feel like happens in my whole life! The story arc is a long one with many shifting patterns.Â In my twenties I approached life as if it was so much more cut-and-dry, like, if you got rejected than that was itâ€”you were black balled. Now I know that rejection is just an opportunity. Now I think: oh, well, they got to look at my work, and you never know what’s going to happen–there is an ebb and flow. I think being willing to submit to things occurring over time has very much about not having scarcity, and not living in that kind of closed mental space. I want my work to existÂ in the same kind of placeâ€”where there is room to be open ended–to not know.Â Because what do I know?! I donâ€™t know anything, I only know what Iâ€™ve experienced. Thereâ€™s a whole range of things on the horizon of possibility that are so out of the range of what I could even imagine. I would have never guessed I would buy a house in Detroit for $100 and weâ€™d go on 20-20, Iâ€™d have to navigate all that mass media, and that weâ€™d have a kid! Go figure! And throughout, still working in the studio.
SMP: What I love about your work is the overall sense of positive uncertainty, which I find very hopeful.
SW: Thatâ€™s lovely, because Iâ€™ve worked towards that. A number of years ago, I decided I wanted to turn conditions aroundâ€”I wanted to transform from survival into prosperity. And I did that during grad school, and it felt great, so lately I’ve decided to turn worry into wonderâ€¦ Maybe Iâ€™m starting to do that in my art work as well.
SMP: A word Iâ€™ve been hearing quite a bit lately is the notion of precariousness, and how contemporary art thrives within uncertainty. Precariousness seems to be an apt termâ€”itâ€™s where your work is, and where Detroit isâ€¦ It seems to be a lovely synthesis of you and environment.
SW: I think thriving within uncertainty is the only way to go.Â A precarious position is wonderful in the range of possibility that is there depending on the way one falls.Â There’s a lot of tension there too and that’s what makes life and art interesting.Â Our neighborhood is in some ways “precarious” but it’s a space of possibilities.Â Itâ€™s really funny, because I would be terrible in a neighborhood where everybody mowed their lawns preciselyâ€”I wouldnâ€™t fit in there, and I couldnâ€™t do what I wanted to! I can do what I want here, nobodyâ€™s looking, and our neighbors get excited when we do something. I like the openness. There are so many places where we livedâ€”Cranbrook is one of them, where itâ€™s so beautiful, but itâ€™s so sculpted–finished! Thereâ€™s something about our neighborhood, and about its openness that I really, really like. What can happen?
Sarah Wagnerâ€™s wormwood cats will be featured in Innovators and Legends: Generations in Textiles and Fibers:
Muskegon Museum of Art: December 13, 2012 â€“ March 17, 2013
Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center: May 26 â€“ August 11, 2013
University of Kentucky: September 8 â€“ December 1, 2013
Colorado State University: January 24 â€“ April 11, 2014
All photos courtesy of the Artist, Jon Brumit, Benjamin Maddox, Robert Beamer, and Patricia Sweetow.
September 8, 2011 · Print This Article
Leon Johnson is an artist and educator whose practice traverses poetry and performance, film and food. He is an avid researcher into the multifaceted nature of social relations, and seeks to engage with the world at large by cultivating situations that emerge out of myth and (re)enactment. If forced to fix a label to the liquid ebbs of Leonâ€™s creative work, Iâ€™d have to take a cue from Liam Gillick, (episode 220), and describe it as discursive practiceâ€”a method of art making that involves the dissemination of information, and it looks to the structures that underscore the sharing of ideas as a space of productive art practice. Operating within the discursive framework allows Leon to go beyond the scripted role of reflecting, generating, or denying a problem in his work. Rather, it allows for problems to be projected within concrete, albeit temporary realities, which become situation-specific sites for ongoing interaction.
In essence, Leon is engaged in â€œthe creation of new zones of intimacy and social possibility,â€ (to borrow from Okwui Enwezor), and he achieves this through installation, performance, video, photography, print media, and the production of discrete objects. Most recently, Leon orchestrated interactive spectacles in Detroit and New York, and he is currently working on a three-part film that will be shot in three locations. Leon is the operating Chair of the Department of Fine Arts at the College for Creative Studies in downtown Detroit, and is an aspiring beekeeper. We spoke over the course of the summer by email.
Discussed: Failure, problem-production, armies of unprepared debtors, beehives, Gatsby, Homi Bhabha, Naked Lunch, pleasure producing exploration
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: Iâ€™ve heard you mention that failure is a place to begin creative labor. Can you articulate on that statement, and express how it might relate to your current practice?
Leon Johnson: In that unholy mix of intention, aspiration, reference, mimicry, parody, pastiche, mastery – an alloy that forms the foundation for many of our creative embarkations – we can, at best, produce an iteration of where we have already been, or someone else has already been – there is in failure the possibility forÂ emotional contagion, produced by aÂ not-knowing, and aÂ non-recognition. Here is whereÂ the bodyâ€™s imagination takes over, and creative galavantingÂ for pleasureÂ begins. Failure is where problems worth having are incubated.Â Where am I? Today? This moment?Â What have I left behind? Left out? Left in?Â What scares me?Â What in the work has activated my emotional curiosity?
SMP: If Iâ€™m understanding correctly, you envision creative possibility in the failure to communicateâ€”it is where the systems of language, knowledge, reference and affect dissolve, where compelling work can be realized?
LJ: No, I am not a concerned about failing to communicate – that is never an aspiration of mine, to have people “understand” – but I am conscious of when “what I know” can no longer serve the act of creation – I am seeking for “not-knowing” to take over and lead me into new possibilities, new problems. Communicating, if at all, through process and problem-production rather than product and solution-production.
SMP: This notion of problem productionâ€”is this where mimicry, parody and pastiche are incorporated into your work?
LJ: No, it is where I hope to avoid those kinds of reflexes. The kind of traps one sees MFA art students lining up to dive in! Our job should be, in fact, the incubation of variables, and the production of difference. This suggests incredibly vivid spaces of making and learning, if we keep our processes porous and our conversations healthy and emergent via constant engagement.Â Sarat Maharaj states it beautifully:
“As we canÂnot quite know beforehand what form this will takeâ€“each instance is difÂferent and unpredictableâ€“we have to be wary about attempts to regulate artistic research, to knock it into shape of the academic disciplines, to make it a lookalike of their logic and architecture. What matters today is its â€˜differenceâ€™â€“the distinctive modalities of its knowledge production.”
For the most part art schools are habituated through non-distinctive modalities of knowledge production, and Â mimicry, parody and pastiche are set as default containment areas as institutions go about their primary business: the production of armies unprepared debtors.
SMP: These â€œnon-distinctive modalitiesâ€ have been so fundamental to theories of postmodern/postcolonial cultural production, and historically, have been related to difference in the deconstructuralist sense. How can the academia cultivate thinking and producing beyond the postmodern when that structure is indeed the default?
LJ: Students, faculty and administration have to be partners in, at least initially, de-stabilizing the default mechanisms of art history, notions of mastery, and the departmental silo system. We have to migrate across departmental boundaries often and pleasurably. We have to conjure new and exciting alliances – as mentioned above, more creative gallivanting for pleasure! Here, for example, it is critical that the art school be passionately engaged with the city of Detroit – with other artists and institutions, yes – but also with the urban prairie, the people and communities of the city, with gardens and with beehives, with retired auto-workers, bacteria and mushrooms, and all the other remarkable resources around us. Our world of ideas, and relationships, is infinitely richer than a few square blocks in Chelsea.
SMP: Iâ€™ve been interested in Nicholas Bourriaudâ€™s recent thinking on what he has termed precariousness, which, (borrowing from Zygmunt Bauman), refers to the liquidity of contemporary social life, and the fundamental instability that is integral to compelling works of art. In a recent essay, Bourriaud wrote: â€œA precarious regime of aesthetics is developing, based on speed, intermittence, blurring and fragilityâ€¦ The contemporary artwork does not rightfully occupy a position in a field, but presents itself as an object of negotiation, caught up in a cross-border trade which confronts different disciplines, traditions or concepts. It is this ontological precariousness that is the foundation of contemporary aesthetics.â€ Thoughts?
LJ: For me the speed and complexity of contemporary communications, that produce uncanny new alliances, destabilizes the suggestion by Bourriaud of an order, or an aesthetic location, called “precariousness” – an artist likeÂ Vik Muniz and a project like Wasteland convinces me of that. Bracha Ettinger, moving beyond the defaults of empathy and sympathy, calls it “besidedness” – fabulous, no? – that conjures the potential ofÂ “almost-impossible borderlinks”. This suggest a rather remarkable notion of what the “classroom”, the “studio”, or the “city” might be for us.
SMP: Iâ€™d like to get a better idea of your process. Was your most recent piece the work featured at Lemberg Gallery this spring? How did this work evolve, and what did it entail?
There were two concurrent projects most recently: the Lemberg project “DEN, PYRE, THORN” and a project titled “I CANNOT BE SAVED WITHOUT YOU” which was part of the Live From Detroit exhibition in NYC, at Fred Torres Collaborations. Both evolved together, both featured a meal for audience/participants, collaboratively produced infrastructure, and both featured variations on performance. The Torres dinner, prepared and served in the gallery, featured a custom built dinner table by Jamie Johnston, hand-blown glassware by Tim Southward and Dave Helm, commissioned dinner-bowls and pewter hardware, and a six-course dinner prepared by a crew of three, Christopher Biddle, Leon Johnson, and Leander Johnson, my son – for twelve guests. This project was initiated finally, after years of gestation, by a fragment of writing I did for a catalog being produced in Canada:
“A tentative intimacy of the kind sketched skillfully by Fitzgerald, as Gatsby regards Daisy; â€˜They had neverâ€¦ communicated more profoundly, one with another, than when she brushed silent lips against his coatâ€™s shoulder…â€™ – but the perfumed damage is not far behind, the sea-moist beard and the bile, the twelve-penny-dagger and the burnt-bone eyeliner.”
I imagined a dinner of intimate irregulars selected from the audience at the exhibition – for a kind of one-night-stand. At the head of the table, it turned out, was Alison Knowles one of the founders of Fluxus, and the author of the IDENTICAL LUNCH project. Amazing! The table with all the detritus, remained on exhibition for the rest of the month of the exhibition.
The Lemberg project marked the 25th anniversary of the death of the French author Jean Genet, and focused on three of his novels, The Thief’s Journal of 1964, Miracle of the Rose of 1966, and Funeral Rites of 1969 – each represented in the gallery by 15 first American editions of each book in a sculptural system including shelves and mirrors. I served a light dinner for 50 audience members, contextualized by a spoken word performance performed by Michael Stone-Richards,Â Morgan Marentic,Â andÂ Sound artist, Dan Steadman. The performers were served dinner in custom porcelain dinner systems produced by Marie Perrin-McGraw. The project evolved from my study, and love, of the work of Genet for over 30 years, and in particular his book Funeral Rites writtenÂ for the author’s lover, Jean Decarnin, killed by the Nazi’s in WWII.
SMP: Could you speak a bit more to your emphasis on multiple-fronts of collaboration?
LJ: I treasure the conversations I am lucky enough to be part of – and I actively seek to incubate new ones all the time. I consider the nurturing of convivial discourse not only pleasurable, but a critical creative act. All my work emerges from these conversations, all production is dependent on collaborative engagements – some 20 years in the making, and some brand new.Â The process of making work for me relates distinctly to the “performance” of memory, to traversing the space between the past and the future and, ultimately, the ability to then be heard – even by one other. Homi Bhabha puts it this way: â€œI use the term the right to narrate to signify an act of communication through which the recounting of themes, histories, and records, is part of a process that reveals the transformation of human agency. Narrative is a sign of civic life.Â Societies that turn their back on the right to narrate are societies of deafening silence: authoritarian societies and police statesâ€. To remember, to imagine, and to speak are all performative domains.
SMP: Bhabha was speaking to a decolonizing world, encouraging metanarrative and hybridity as acts of resistance. Do you conceive of a relationship between the postcolonial and the postindustrial in terms of cultural work?
LJ: If we book-end for a moment, my first twenty years of life unfolded in Cape Town, and my last 15 months in Detroit. Ok! In my cultural labor the experience of the place-after-colony isÂ always twinned – Â a dual site – Â the real and the imagined, or the reMEMBERED. The mediating forces between the real and the imagined is my work, often fueled by a vivid on-call-prejudicial-image-index forged in fire, absence, violence and resistance. A strong translation of this for me is the work of William Burroughs, and particularly his novel NAKED LUNCH, and the work done many years ago on this subject by my colleague Peter Playdon. Burroughs describes a market-place calledÂ Interzone, which is understood as: â€œa transitive state, a city resisting total identification either as aÂ vision of a real cityÂ or as anÂ allegory of a mental stateâ€¦neither an inner space nor an outer spaceâ€¦it is a between space, a crossroads at which textuality, alterity, and identity collide.â€Â This dismantling of psychic defenses is imagined as â€˜space-time travelâ€™, a process of displacing the unity of the self and its relationship to place into different temporal or physical locations.Â The relationships between these locations, asÂ social spaceÂ folds intoÂ mental spaceÂ suggests the production of a performative zone that is simultaneously real, symbolic and imaginary; what it produces is a material environment, a visual culture and a psychic space. I see it as the framework for negotiations I can work out as an artist, as a kind of social actor.
SMP: To what extent are your performances choreographed, and as the maker/maestro, how do you address the element of chance?
LJ: The performances inevitably develop as devised works: meaning the work emerges from other texts, sometimes many sources, and is orchestrated and re-calibrated.
A process described by DJ Spooky:Â â€œI guess thatâ€™s traveling by synecdoche. Itâ€™s a process of sifting through the narrative rubble of a phenomenon, an â€œindexical presentâ€ Like an acrobat drifting through the topologies of codes, glyphs and signs that make up the fabric of my everyday life, I like to flip things around. With a culture based on stuff like Emergency Broadcast Network hyper edited new briefs.â€
I will give an example of a work-in-progress.Â Â Bruno AbroadÂ will be, finally, a digital video shot in three locations, London, Prague and Naples featuring theÂ Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno. Three psycho-geographical drifts through contemporary cities alive with the evidence of both vivid histories and media-saturated â€œbecomingsâ€; three dinners (which reference Brunoâ€™s dialogue, The Ash Wednesday Supper); at each dinner, three groupings of Renaissance visionaries, all victims of the political and religious orders of their time, with Giordano Bruno as principal guide. The three cities are imagined as temporary autonomous zones, Interzones, of radical discourse, ecstatic envisioning, and alchemical resistance. The project concludes in Naples the site of Brunoâ€™s death at the stake on February 17, 1600, in the Campo Deâ€™Fiori. This film aspires to track intersecting arcs of power and resistance and is not a historical representation of anything â€œrenaissanceâ€ except the politics inherited afterwards. The interests of the Church and the State, in our â€œrenaissanceâ€ context, to control discourse and, ultimately, to silence transgression has powerful implications for contemporary culture. It is critical to understand that these voices of knowledge, silenced almost 500 years ago, can resonate powerfully nonetheless. I will attempt to temporarily situate these thinkers in contemporary urban contexts, as trans-time specters in a celebration of the poetics of resistance. While not a â€œperiodâ€ piece, it is approaches the form of a multi-plane travelogue. The food, the actors and the locations will be formed and selected in each city – an improvised company – each time, and certainly to a large degree chance-based.
SMP: At what stage are you at with the filming of this work? Do you often use video to unite performances and create a narrative of sorts?
LJ: The skeletal script is complete, permissions to film at certain sites are in place, and the production crew of three is assembled. Then there are the dreams, visions, and psycho-geographical speculations Â – years of image-accretions, memories of the Nicholas Roeg film Donâ€™t Look Now, conversations with friends and colleaguesÂ - that will inevitably seep in once on site, and, happily, displace what is actually there.
SMP: Given the thematic arc of Bruno relating to power and resistance, how do you see contemporary artists addressing the notion of resistance?
LJ: I see people living fully, talking, cooking, making, raising children, growing tomatoes, writing books, being conscious of all the other endeavors of their communities, friends, lovers – lived resistance – I am not compelled by “notions of resistance” practiced by artists or art students.
SMP: Do you mean the notion that it is the artistâ€™s responsibility to create intersticesâ€”new spaces of visibility that can serve as sites of resistance?
LJ: I would think demarcating “sites of resistance” would merely make them precious, or targets, or boutiques. Or worse, installations. No, we must do our best work in alliances with convivial constituencies, with cities, ecologies and systems, and without privileging artists and art practices. I would rather have bee-hives in the Eastern Market, than another art interstice.
SMP: Youâ€™ve spoken quite a bit about your role as an educator. Iâ€™m wondering how your praxis as an educator influences you as a maker, or are the two not exclusive?
LJ: I am influenced directly, intimately, thrillingly. No, not exclusive. Many of the most compelling contemporary creative makers and thinkers understand that 21stC engagement is one, inevitably, of hybrid practices and multi-site conversations, and collaborations. So to, I believe, should the academy be thus engaged. Alas, not so – we still have the discreet silo model, perpetuated by faculty and administrators. Clearly we must foster pedagogical templates that are not only founded on the demands of one’s craft, but also explores an intertwining of trends, debates, and practices in the humanities, sciences, politics, and worlds of commerce and communications. Our place in the world and how we can create meaningful relationships between others and ourselves is the challenge that faces us, and should motivate us to action and certainly to change. Most of this kind of creative labour is happening between students and communities, not between departments and colleges – so yes, this informs the kind of work I want to make directly and, of course, feeds back into my classrooms.Â The pedagogical imperative for me is to have students understand learning as the conversation that creates our cultures – in real-time, no deferment – participate now. Their lives, loves, and labor defines culture, and culture leads commerce. I wish to operateâ€”and equip our students, citizenry, and colleagues to thriveâ€”at the nexus between art, culture, commerce, and science. I want to support and encourage students to become authors of new subjects in the world: new subjects that celebrate the unique qualities of their relationships and aspirations within families, communities and global networks.Â An open-ended, porous, responsive and pleasure producing exploration – what an idea for an art school!
SMP: Site seems to be a reoccurring point of engagement in your work. Can you elaborate on your decision to relocate to Detroit and what you find compelling about this locality?
LJ: Your question has been much on my mind at the conclusion of my first year in this remarkable place – or dream, called Detroit. My current thinking? I’m not certain it has to be, any longer, a question of “leaving” in a definitive way, to go somewhere else – maybe it is closer in spirit to expanding, or re-forming. The world offers us an amazing set of options, and technologies, to engage nomadic ways of working and living. It feels simply like matter-expansion, and a very exciting one. My family and I will be triangulating between Maine, Detroit, and New York. The best way to understand this past year might be in my “articles of faith”Â – the pleasure of working with 45 incoming first-year students over the last three terms – amazing group of citizens – I have produced three complicated projects with a range of collaborators. And in October we open Signal-Return, a storefront press and print shop in the Eastern Market, to be directed by my partner, MeganO’Connell, produced with Team Detroit.
Detroit, past, present, and future, and the opportunity to participate in reinvention and innovation in a field I love. Regarding location, the potential of place has always been a compelling force for me. What can I make of the past, of material history? What is just beyond the visible? What is the space of potential between the claims of the past and the demands of the future? I have made the acts of reading, walking and sensing place, priorities – I was born in Cape Town, remember… complex, volatile, vivid. Detroit looms very large for me.
Â Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.
Human infrastructure can only withstand so much benign neglect before returning to nature. Much like the children of bohemian parents or the subjects of laissez-faire governments, the physical structures of built space will eventually succumb to wildness if left too long on their own. In no city is this process more apparent than in Detroit, where creeping vines engulf Victorian homes, trees sprout from the roofs of skyscrapers, and packs of wild dogs roam the streets. Nature has been slowly reclaiming the city for decades, disseminating a sense of wildness that many proclaim is a promise of renewal rather than an admission of failure.
Surveying the expanse of Detroit prairie, it does indeed appear that the city has been given a proverbial green slate upon which to rebuild and flourish as a newly incarnated future city. The future has not arrived yet, however; so for the moment, many Detroiters are making do as only Detroiters know howâ€”embracing the period of transition with resourcefulness, ingenuity, and a sense of possibility.
Detroit-based artist Scott Hocking has been a life-long observer of a city in flux. His work explores the physical and psychological thresholds between crumbling infrastructure and flourishing nature. Through tactics that are technically illegal and certifiably insane, Hocking traverses vacant sites in forgotten corners of the world that are on the verge of collapse. His practice involves site-specific installation and documentary photography, where industrial debris becomes the backdrop for monumental sculpture. Beyond being the Andy Goldsworthy of urban detritus, Hockingâ€™s work arrests the ephemeral, and reminds us that decay is an equal cause for celebration within the journey we call progress.
Recently, I had a conversation with Scott amidst the well-categorized clutter of his Detroit studio.
Discussed: Kangaroos and giant lizards, the end of mystery, fucking with everything, scrappers, documenting survival, a four-story collapse, making lemonade out of lemons.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: The most immediately striking attribute of your work is your depiction of site. Your photos have this other-worldly quality, like weâ€™re looking at bacteria blooming on a Petri dish rather than an actual place. Working internationally, you must see quite a bit, and Iâ€™m wondering how you select where to work. What is it about these sites that you find compelling?
Scott Hocking: Itâ€™s hard for me even to articulate what it is that threads through everything that I do. Itâ€™s easiest to say that I work site-specifically, that I really just try to get a sense of a space and get ideas from my surroundings and from its history. I work differently in different places, but I end up being drawn to places that end up being somewhat forgotten, or maybe thereâ€™s a sense of mystery, or of chaos, or of loss of control. I feel like when nature reclaims places thereâ€™s a feeling that humans have stopped controlling it and itâ€™s gone back to this wild, organic way of moving and living. Often times, that can involve the decaying of the structures that weâ€™ve built. Iâ€™m not particularly drawn to abandonment or decay by themselves, but I have an interest in these places that give me a sense of solace. In Detroit, going into an abandoned auto factory is my walk in the woods. Itâ€™s the closest I can get to the top of a mountain peakâ€”the top of a building. This is where I get my sense of wildnessâ€”my satisfaction in nature. I did this project in Australia in October, and I was in the bush. I loved it, because that was itâ€”I was getting it from my everyday life. I walked out of my space to see kangaroos in the morning, and I hiked into the mountain and ran into giant lizards. I donâ€™t get that here, but I crave that wildness, and I think I get it from these spaces that have begun to be reclaimed by nature.
SMP: It interests me that you characterize your work as site-specific, because your images also express a certain universality, or an ambiguity in the way of place. Is this intentional?
SH: I think, for me, I may work from the site and get ideas from the history and the site itself, but in the end, what I want the images to convey is something more universal. I donâ€™t want people to look at the image and think: Oh, this is Detroit. Sure, people might recognize it, or know it knowing that my work is based here. But, I do try and emphasize that this could be anywhere, and what is behind it speaks to people everywhereâ€¦ It might sound grandiose or dramatic, but Iâ€™m trying to talk about peopleâ€”about humans on earth, what we do, what weâ€™ve always done, how weâ€™re really no different than weâ€™ve ever been. When I put a pyramid in an abandoned building, one of the many things that Iâ€™m thinking about is the fact that itâ€™s a ruin within a ruin. One is ancient, and Iâ€™m building a new one, and whatâ€™s the difference? Why do we look at some ruins with reverence, and see others as failures? Why canâ€™t we realize that weâ€™ve been creating things since the dawn of time, making structures and objects with our hands, and at some point they decay, at some point the civilization that made it fails, at some point the city in which it was made disappears? Itâ€™s not the endâ€”thereâ€™s never an ending. So maybe thereâ€™s a certain countering to the idea that this is the end of something, that this is a failed city, or a failed industrial age. I just see it as a constant cycle that weâ€™re in the middle of. I just try to find the beauty in all the stages.
SMP: You seem to take an almost ethnographic approach to collecting data on decaying works of culture. Do you see yourself as an urban anthologist in a way?
SH: I was transient for years, and didnâ€™t go to art school until I was about 22. When I first went to college, I had lots of interests including anthropology. I took a number of courses actually, and I found out very quickly that I am way too impatient for the scientific method. So, for me to claim that Iâ€™m an ethnographer, anthropologist, archaeologist, you name it, would be a slap in the face to those who have studied for all those years. Iâ€™m an amateur at bestâ€”I feel like I have the curiosity, without any of the knowledge. If I was to excavate anything, youâ€™d find out what an amateur I am. Iâ€™m okay with wrenching something to death, just shaking it until it falls loose, or kicking it until itâ€™s down… I have no problem fucking with everything, and Iâ€™m sure scientists would be a lot more finicky about disturbing the site.
SMP: It seems that the installation-aspect of your practiceâ€”the way that you build in the field to create sculptural works within these sites, speaks to processes of myth-making. Is myth something you consciously incorporate into your work?
SH: Yeah, for sure. I love mythology, and Iâ€™ve started to really become inspired by ancient ideasâ€”mythologies and ancient sciences more than anything. I donâ€™t pay attention to the current art sceneâ€”I donâ€™t know what is hip right now. I just know that my ideas come from generations ago, and somehow Iâ€™m more inspired by that. Mythology is exists outside of timeâ€¦
One thing that I appreciate about ancient ideas is that they were often more lyrical, and there was a sense of mystery. Today, weâ€™ve destroyed all our mysteries! Weâ€™ve figured them all out and are looking at them with telescopes or microscopes, taking things apart. I feel like there isnâ€™t enough mystery, whereas in ancient times and myth, there was a lot. If you even read it now, you donâ€™t know what theyâ€™re talking about; so thereâ€™s a part of me that likes to try and create this sense of mystery or myth when Iâ€™m in these buildings. And it could be as simple as someone coming into a building and discovering the Ziggerat, or discovering the TVs on the columns in the Garden of the Gods. It could be as simple as me creating a sense of: who the hell did this? When did this happen? What the fuck is this?! For example, building the pyramidâ€”itâ€™s a universal symbol that has existed on all continents since weâ€™ve first started building things, and we have no idea why. Itâ€™s still a mystery to this day. Some people might look at my work and think: wow, this is an amazing thing, while others might look at it and laugh. It might be a joke, and I love how it can be interpreted in so many different ways because itâ€™s an archetypal symbol. I like playing around, to be honest. Thereâ€™s a part of me thatâ€™s very serious, and thereâ€™s a part of me that likes having a sense of humor about things. I like being open minded and I like that art can be perceived differently by different people because of our different backgrounds, and god knows what. So I donâ€™t like to narrow in too much. I like to maintain that nebulous quality.
SMP: Can you speak a bit more to your process? How do your projects, like Garden of the Gods, [which was installed and photographed in Detroitâ€™s landmark Packard Plant], usually unfold?
SH: Garden of the Gods was fun because those pedestals were formed when the roof collapsed and those columns were still standing. Immediately I thought of pedestals. If youâ€™ve ever been to Rome or any of the ancient cities, they have statues up on pedestalsâ€”gods or warriors to be revered. I thought there needs to be some gods up there, and as luck would have it, in another part of the building that was used for storage was filled with television sets. Hundreds. And this was almost too easy for meâ€”the idea is almost too simplistic that the TVs are new gods, and Iâ€™m going to put them up on these pedestals. But I have to admit that it was just too good to resist. Iâ€™m sure other artists would have taken it a step further, but for me, Iâ€™m a simple guy, so I thought: these are our new gods, Iâ€™m going to put them up on the pedestals, and Iâ€™m going to name them after the twelve classical Greek Pantheon gods.
In the end, it was all for an image, but I love the idea that people will come across the actual objects. That interaction is a significant part of the way Iâ€™m working now. I alluded to it earlier when I said that Iâ€™m attracted to places where thereâ€™s a loss of control and a little wildness. Detroit is that kind of place. When Iâ€™m working on projects like this, thereâ€™s also a loss of control in terms of what I might do. I canâ€™t come home to the studio every day and resume working on the same project. Iâ€™m going out to a building I donâ€™t own that could be torn down, burned down, destroyed, renovated, boarded up, somebody could have broken in and knocked over or spray painted what Iâ€™m working on, they could have added to it, or the materials Iâ€™m using could suddenly be gone. There are so many variables I donâ€™t have control overâ€”a hell of a lot of chance involved. Itâ€™s sort of like working on a sculpture, and every night putting it outside to see if someone stole it in the morning. Itâ€™s a real freeing way of workingâ€¦ I just try and trust the universe.
SMP: So I have to ask about the aestheticization of decay, since itâ€™s a very prevalent topic of conversation in the city at the momentâ€¦
SH: Itâ€™s so interesting that no one was saying â€œruin pornâ€ ten years agoâ€¦ Iâ€™ve been really exploring vacant spaces and forgotten places since I was a child. Maybe itâ€™s in my nature, but when I grew up it was near the railroad tracks in a real blue collar neighborhood, so I was exploring these places as a little kid. So the notion of ruin porn, I understand where itâ€™s coming from, but I also feel like the media is coming late to the party.
People have been interested in doing this stuff for a long time, and the city is only now becoming overloaded and flooded with people â€œurban exploringâ€ and taking photographs… Through the 70s, 80s and 90s, so much was abandoned in Detroitâ€”places like the train station, Packard, or Fisher Bodyâ€”these really trademark, vacant buildings in Detroit all happened in the 80s! Itâ€™s amazing, these places looked like people just up and left work one day, and if you were the first guy to get in there, like a scrapper, you wouldnâ€™t have even known the place was abandoned. Coffee would still be out. So, these buildings look a hell of a lot different today than when I began working on this. I have always enjoyed going in these places, and for years I didnâ€™t take photosâ€”I was just using the objects to make work. If I ever brought a camera it was to have an excuse if I got caught. And then very slowly, I started to take photos more because I began to want to document these places before they disappeared. A lot of these places became very cherished to me, and I began to see how fast they were disappearing. I never considered myself a photographer, and it was through the process of taking these initial photographs that I became sensitive to the idea that I was just, as someone put it to me recently, â€œdocumenting survival,â€ and that wasnâ€™t enough for me. So this path was good in the sense that it made me transition into photographing these places as larger installation projects. So now theyâ€™re just setsâ€”I donâ€™t have to create the whole environment, I just need to find the environment I want to create in. Other photographers will create environments in a vacant studio, and for me, my projects allow me to collaborate with buildings and collaborate with sites that I find mesmerizing. I know Iâ€™ve found a place to work in when I want to take a photograph of it alone. If I get that feeling, I think: Okay, this is where Iâ€™m going to build something. This is where I want to interact.
SMP: You really seem to occupy these very uncertain, threshold spaces in the city. Is there a certain adrenaline rush that accompanies this type of work?
SH: That is such a great wordâ€”I love the word threshold. Itâ€™s such an important word for me, because I feel like Detroit is on a threshold. These buildings are on a threshold. These are places in a space between what they were, and what they are going to beâ€”theyâ€™re in transition. Weâ€™re always in transition, but sometimes transitions can take 40-years, or other times transitions can be catastrophic and can happen overnight.
The Packard Building for example, I was working in there through the winter, and by March, I had people coming through to interview me for upcoming exhibitions, [watch a video of Scott giving a tour of the Packard here]. Two weeks later, there was a four-story collapse, right where we were standing! Two weeks later! It was an unbelievable amount of space that just fell, and we all would have been crushed. Iâ€™ve been in buildings and places where Iâ€™ve done dumb thingsâ€”fallen through holes, hit my head, been attacked by dogs. There are a lot of risks you take, and I donâ€™t really get that adrenaline rush anymore, but thereâ€™s something about the way it affects your sensesâ€”they become heightened and aware. Again, in the same way they would be if you were lost in the woods. If you were lost in the woods or at sea, and youâ€™re not in control and youâ€™re not sure if a shark is going to bite you or a bear is going to come at you, that way your senses sort of open up in these situations is the same.
I think that is certainly appealingâ€”that sense of being alive. You notice every fleck of paint on the wall, every sound you hear. A pigeon flies out and you have to be aware that itâ€™s a pigeon and not something about to hit you. Your senses become heightened and I think Iâ€™m very attracted to that too.
SMP: In a way, your work forges new pathways through forgotten places, exposing fissures in the traditional urban network. It brings to my mind the Situationist tactic of dÃ©riveâ€”the practice of walking â€œoff the gridâ€ in search of an unmediated, authentic experience within the urban landscape. Would you describe your process as an act of resistance?
SH: Saying itâ€™s an act of resistance might be a little much… I do feel, though, that the reason I can easily let go of these objects that Iâ€™m making and allow them to be destroyed is because the process is more important to me than the object. So really, these experiences that Iâ€™m trying to seek out, I donâ€™t think I could find them without going â€œoff the grid,â€ so to speak. Off the grid is where I have these experiences in my version of nature and can seek purity and solace, as I mentioned earlier. And itâ€™s not only a walk in the woods for me, but itâ€™s kind of like my church too. It can be a metaphysical thingâ€”I basically meditate when Iâ€™m working in these buildings alone, like a monk stacking blocks in quiet, in the middle of nowhere, and in the middle of winter. Itâ€™s a real peaceful, meditative experience to work like this, and often times, I have to break the rules and break the law to find this, but Iâ€™m certainly not going in there and saying: fuck you! Iâ€™m a bit more quiet about it.
Itâ€™s about inner peace and peace of mind than it is about the big FU to the powers that be. Now, on the other hand, if the powers that be were cool about things like this, then I wouldnâ€™t have to break the law.Â I do feel like in a sense: fuck you, because youâ€™ve left these buildings to neglect, you own this space and itâ€™s falling apart. If you own this, Iâ€™m not going to call you up and ask you for permission, because Iâ€™m already pissed that you let it fall apart. I feel like you lose the right to say you own something when youâ€™ve let something so useful and amazing go to waste.
SMP: Weâ€™ve already spoken about the influence of myth, and Iâ€™m wondering if memory comes into play at all when youâ€™re at work in these spaces?
SH: I feel like itâ€™s not my memory most of the time. There are many people who grew up in Detroit or one of the other cities that Iâ€™ve worked in, who might feel nostalgia for the past, and have certain memories of buildingsâ€”maybe even have family members who have worked there. There are all kinds of connections. In fact, when an article comes out, Iâ€™ve gotten emails from people who say: Hey, I used to work there! Whatâ€™s been surprising is that all of these people have written to tell me that they like what I am doing. My own sense of memoryâ€¦ I donâ€™t really connect in that way to these spaces.
I donâ€™t really like the idea of nostalgia, I prefer to focus on the present moment and find the beauty in how things are now opposed to looking back on how they were. I tend to work in buildings that arenâ€™t very personalâ€”theyâ€™re places of workâ€”factories. There may have been thousands of people working and occupying the spaces where I am working at any given moment. These sites donâ€™t quite have that trace, or energy, that a house mightâ€”where people lived and slept, family members loved and grew up. I donâ€™t really work in places like that, and I think part of the reason is because of the memoryâ€”the idea of who they were is still very strong there, and you can feel it and see it sometimes. I think I shy away from that a bit.
SMP: Thereâ€™s such a fantastic history in Detroit, perhaps initiated in the 70s by the Cass Corridor Movement, with artists appropriating materials that are symbolic of crisisâ€”the raw, discarded material of a city, to create artwork.Â I read this great quote the other day that was something along the lines of: we didnâ€™t have much, but we made art with it. Is this idea something that persists today in the city?
SH: I think itâ€™s continued. Personally, I have no history with Cass Corridorâ€”I didnâ€™t grow up knowing about it, and I didnâ€™t know anyone involved until I started making art and meeting people who were part of that. Now weâ€™re good friends, and itâ€™s maybe through meeting people and gaining a bit of knowledge that you start to realize that itâ€™s all connected. For me, itâ€™s less about the linage of the art world in Detroit, and more about Detroiters and the way we are. Most people who grow up in working class families and in working class neighborhoods in the city, this is how we workâ€”we do with what you have, make lemonade out of lemons. Everybody, myself included, who has been making artwork in the city hasnâ€™t had resources to do anything but making with what you have. Sometimes youâ€™re living in squalor and trying to scrape byâ€¦ The Cass Corridor people got a lot of notoriety, but shit, there were artists in the 80s living inside the Broderick Tower and Fort Wayne, and had studios in random skyscrapers that were virtually vacant because no one could afford to do anything in there. These artists may have not gotten the same attention, but that lineage is all the sameâ€”trying to use the spaces that have been neglected because creative people see potential there.
Congratulations to Scott for his award of a 2011 Kresge Foundation Visual Arts Fellowship!
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.
When considering architecture, I find it difficult not to revert back to that well-worn Le Corbusier trope of a â€œmachine for living.â€ The Modernists gave us a legacy of sleekness and functionality in the field of design, taking inspiration from a systematic approach to production where every part incorporates itself seamlessly into the overall whole. Within this model, it is impossible to separate form from function, and in recent years, this binary has manifested in the innovations brought to the formal compartmentalizing and hybridizing of our 21st century live-work-ways. The work of Ann Arbor-based architect and founder of Alibi Studio, Catie Newell, unpacks functionality to reimbue space with a sense of experiential wonder. Her installations investigate the materiality of volumes, and cultivate a relationship with the ephemeral that relates to practices of landscape architecture as well as urban planning. Newell refers to her process as creating inhabitable texturesâ€”remixing the material and spatial constructions of spaces to draw attention to the volumes themselves as liminal, tactile essences.
Newell founded Alibi Studio in 2010. Even though it is not an official firm at this point, Alibi was created on the platform of collaboration, and emphasizes a collective practice involving open discussion sessions and the random mashing of skills. Newell has cultivated a rotating cast of characters who are involved with Alibiâ€™s projects, and this holds true for Second Story, which opened last week at Extension Gallery in Chicago with assistance from Lauren Bebry, Katie Schenk, Grant Weaver, Chuck Newell, Lisa Sauve, Carolyn Newell, Maciej Kaczynski, Drake Tolliver, and Cheyenne Pinson. Last week, Newell and I had an ongoing conversation about her practice, Alibi Studio, and about Second Story.
Discussed: Urban salvage, fleeting aspects of texture, skinning a house, sillways, throws and pulls.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: What brought you to Michigan?
Catie Newell: I came to Michigan as the 2009-2010 Oberdick Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Prior to that I was working as a project designer and project coordinator at Office dA in Boston.
SMP: What prompted the transition? How have your interests shifted and/or been actualized since relocating to the Midwest?
CN: Firstly, I had been working for about 4 years at Office dA, and loved it. But needed to take a risk to start doing my own work. The fellowship was a way to have project based funding and to see if teaching was a path I wanted to follow. Secondly, I did my last years of grade school in Michigan, so I was familiar with the area, and a bit tuned into Detroit.
My work has definitely been sparked and facilitated by working specifically in Detroit and this region of the Rust Belt. There are aspects of the material and spatial conditions here that have resonated with my own work and interests, and taking me in paths I could not have predicted.
SMP: Something that draws many artists, architects, and designers to the area is the accessibility of salvaged or repurposed material, which I’ve heard referred to as “new natural resources.” Beyond that, Detroit has this profound history with craft and the processes of making that, I feel, infuses the creative sensibilities of those working here. I’m wondering if through your architectural work you’ve also been able to articulate a relationship with craft, either through material, making, or both?
CN: I am not entirely sure how you are using the word craft here. I do however think that making is at the root of my work. Clearly I find an interest in built work, and as importantly, work that I can physically build. Therefore the realities of making add constraints and interests in the work. Ideas are often work through strategies and logics that respond to exsiting conditions, material applications, and performance over time.
I think that the Detroit area is very much so embedded in the realities of making. The history of production and fabrication demonstrates a population of makers. Often for me, it is the intelligence and creativity that can be found in actualizing a project that gives it resonance, strength, and the unexpected twist.
SMP: Sorry! I should have been more articulateâ€¦ I was thinking of craft as Glenn Adamson defines itâ€”as an approach to making organized around material experience that is more conceptual rather than categorical. What I’m getting at, is that your process involving the physical rendering of materials seems to diverge from the tradition of the architect in his/her studio digitally conceiving of these impossible projects. I’m wondering if you can elaborate on why this process appeals to you?
CN: For me the root of architecture is in the creation of space. I find that for me that necessitates an on-the-ground, through the dirt way of working. My sensibilities lie within how volumes come together. Ultimately, sometimes that most powerful aspect of a space is something that can’t even be drawn amongst our conventional architecture standards. This would probably most specifically apply to our explorations of illumination and intentional darkness, but could also include the more ephemeral or fleeting aspects of a texture, accidental resonance with a space, or an unexpected, but necessary, response to a situation on site.
Salvaged Landscape is a work I did [in partnership with Detroit’s Imagination Station] that reappropriates the material and volumes of a house that was hit by arson in Detroit, Michigan. The work can be seen in an interesting way as a curation of the demolishing of a portion of the house. This was a necessary maneuver given the fire damage. I tapped into this moment by creating new masses and volumes within the house, utilizing the materials that of course used to create the house in the first place. The burnt material was collected and sorted, and placed piece by piece back into the house, using the stable portions of the house as the literal formwork for the piece. In accumulation, the work makes new spaces within the house, as well as an larger inhabitable texture of beautiful, dark black, and shimmering wood, bulbuous and no longer of perfect geometry.
SMP: I like your description of the affect of the ephemeral within our everyday interactions with space. Particularly within the context of Salvaged Landscape, which is, in essence, a landscape– unlike (permanent, enclosed) architecture, built to be liminial, and activated through the natural elements and bodies moving through it. I’m wondering how you negotiate the ephemeral, or this “unknown” aspect of the design process, when planning your projects?
CN: There is an aim to capture the ephemeral, but there is also the openess and embracing that I won’t be able to predict all of the affects. Instead, I remain aware and willing to change midstride, grabbing on to what are the unexpected and accidental resultants, seeing them for their spatial presences and overwhelming effects. This happens at all stages from mock-ups and tests, to remaining quick on my feet during the entire process of making. Even after the project is at a stable moment it still has the chance for surprise. Grabbing on to that as a design opportunity keeps me excited, challenged, and never sure (in a good way) what will come next.
SMP: Not to return to your use of reappropriated material, but Salvaged Landscape seems to express this ephemeral-ness further through the use of the charred wood– subverting what is destructive in order to give a second (or third, or fourth) life to a structure. Is this a concept you are bringing to Second Story as well?
CN: There is definitely an underlying discussion of repurposing material. There are two very different ways this is happening: one in the concept of the work, and the other in some of the process. As for the concept, one of the main drivers behind Second Story is actually to reconsider the repurposing, or reconfiguring, of the existing volumes. In this sense, the expression of the volumes is what is being reused. In given it a new life in location (both geographically and even in elevation) as well as the new volumes that are created by distorting an altering what could be considered the skinning or casting of the house to make new volumes for a very different occupation.
One could compare the reuse of the materials that made Salvage Landscape as a way of conceivably altering the exact volumes of the house. In this case densfying the volume (though maintaining the exact same materials). As for Second Story the volume is captured and agitated amongst what was once its enclosing boundaries. This time they are set askew to one another, opening up space present in the house (example: the wall thickness because a room, and the window sill becomes a passageway — that we call the “Sillway”.).
To speak directly about material reuse. There is another aspect of translating these volumes that continues to occur as we move and reconfigure the house. We’ve of course had to transport it on formwork that will allow it to hold its shape and to become suspended in its new location. This formwork has also had many lives where the form of the exterior skin, once utilized, was reconfigured to be the formwork of the interior skin. Within this process we have watched the print or ghost of the existing house come and go in mass or implied volume repeatedly.
SMP: So, if I’m understanding this correctly, (and tell me if Iâ€™m not!), in Second Story you’re displacing and then remixing volumes for sake of reimagining the experiential qualities of space. Could you speak a bit more to the more logistical aspects of this project? What will viewers see when they enter Extension Gallery?
CN: Displacing and remixing the volumes is an appropriate way to consider the installations relationship to the original house. The resultants of this maneuver provides new volumes and space otherwise once unoccupiable. So there is an ‘other’ occupation that emerges. This happens with moving the volumes from a second story height to ground level (thus the ability to inhabit the exterior volume just beyond what was once the wall to the outside), pulling and expanding open what was the windowsill into a passage way (the sillway), and slipping the volumes to create a room out of the former wall thickness. The installation in essence removes the mass of the wall thickness, creating a negative space that is now both visible and occupiable.
Logistically, the original house (Spencer’s Funeral Home) was evaluated for its existing volumes. The portion of the house that was chosen as the base for the installation provided dimensions that on this translation would maintain an appropriate and intimate scale to the human body. After this volume assessment, a geometric pattern was established based on the verticals and diagonals existing on the house. Maintaining these existing angles prompted working parametrically with a pattern that could wrap strategically around the house, permitting what are vertical maneuvers on one face to hit corners and become diagonals, and vice versa. This allows for the manipulation of the pattern (and each rod) to have a base logic and structure that moves cleanly around the space. This pattern was then flattened to allow for its construction. This as the base pattern is what remains as the flat surfaces tracing the existing volumes. After contributing to the base pattern, the acrylic is bent again out of plane to stretch and agitate the atmosphere (referred to as the “throws.” There are densities and lengths set for these moves around the space. Zones that are quite close to the base plane, and those that ‘throw’ quite far. The final alteration to acrylic, the ‘pulls’, stretches the acrylic down to whisker allowing for a flee of the material and its own capturing of space.
Second Story suspends from the ceiling of the gallery. Dramatically lit from several angles, the transparency of the acrylic in compliment with the reflection, refractions, and shadows embraces the space of the gallery. The volume hangs as a ghost trace, though manipulated of the Flint house, offering new occupations and relationships to this translation. Holding the room, occupants are encouraged to move in and around the space, changing their relationship and occupation of the volumes, and visual experience of the resultant.
SMP: Does this relate to your notion of inhabitable textures? What do you mean by this phrase?
CN: As architects, we are inherently interested in inhabiting spaces. Acknowledging a context and manipulating volumes, the core investigations of our work employs alteration, and amplification of existing spatial conditions as a means to both inhabit a space through a construction, as well as allow for human occupation within the texture. In other words, while textures focuses on material sensibility, volume and depth, assembly, and tactile qualities, it is within the depth of the work and its interstitial, occupiable spaces it moves beyond just simply being textured. The implication is that there are scales to the texture, both micro and macro; the macro scale is inhabitable, the micro is tactile.
Architect Catie Newell is a founding partner of Alibi Studio, and on the faculty of the University of Michiganâ€™s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. She received her MArch from Rice University, and a BS from Georgia Tech. She was recently awarded the 2011 Architectural League Prize for Young Architects and Designers.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.