American Eye Pull-Up Bar: A Conversation With Tom Torluemke

February 24, 2016 · Print This Article

By Kevin Blake

Tom Torluemke is an enigmatic figure in the Chicago art community. By enigmatic, I do not mean difficult to understand. Or outsider. I mean individual. I mean, unmistakably himself. His work has incredible range–physically as well as conceptually. He chases ideas. He works in symbols. In metaphor. His work is powered by his investigations into himself, and that journey, is clearly part of the narrative he delivers. He reminds me of a fisherman. A patient one. One that understands that its called fishing and not catching for a reason. Here, we have a chat that attempts to unravel his process through a discussion about his latest contribution “American Eye Pull-Up Bar” at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.

“American Eye Pull-Up Bar” 2016 photo courtesy Linda Dorman

Kevin Blake: When we talked about your installation, “American Eye Pull-Up Bar,”  it was glaringly apparent that you had thoroughly vetted this idea in all its possible manifestations. You had considered every angle–you had seen this piece as the artist and as an audience member. I was frantically trying to catch up with each idea as you plowed through a mountain of symbology, metaphor, and purpose. Luckily, I recorded the conversation. As you were talking, I wrote down two statements that I think are critical to understanding how you process your experience of the world. This is what I wrote: “Nothing makes sense, and everything means everything.” To me, this is a profound synthesis of experience(not just your’s) and your installation is a perfect messenger for this sentiment. Can you elaborate on how you make visual language “work” for you while maintaining enough ambiguity to allow for infinite interpretations?

Tom Torluemke: Thanks for having me, and paying such close attention.  The idea has to make me either want to laugh or cry.  I think that deep down it’s the intention or motivation that starts a piece of artwork out on the right course, also a large category of guidelines help; for example, Mirth, Delight, Awe, Originality, Imagination and Mystery.  The above would be a strong foundation–give the artwork a better chance of working, communicating, evoking or eliciting a memorable and moving experience. Synthesizing those ideas or categories into one’s work while avoiding contrivance or losing spontaneity and urgency, is a whole different world of struggles (piles of failures).

So if my intentions are worthy, working with the formal art making process; you know, shapes, colors, forms and whatever technique best suits the idea–I generally draw around a theme; let’s say betrayal or maybe embarrassment. A couple of days, possibly a week or two usually leads to writing ideas down that have spawned off of the drawings.  I do this so I don’t forget all the thinking that took place while I was drawing.  Because drawing for me, is slower than jotting down ideas.

Once I have many drawings, I start to convert them into bold, broad, communicative color and design ideas, you know, this color speaks louder than that color.  That shape is more mysterious than that shape.  In order for the whole damn thing to work, I have to be really jazzed up in the theme, the world I’ve chosen.  That’s where the idea of originality comes in.

Detail: American Eye Pull-Up Bar 2016 photo courtesy Linda Dorman


That word for me is the nucleus of the formal creation. Each piece starts it’s own world. The first thought, mark, movement starts it, the origin.  You have to be submersed, consumed by it, that’s how it may have a chance at survival.

As for ambiguity, I pick the surprises, forms that come from the grey, dark, uncertain areas of one’s mind.  If I’ve known about it or I’ve seen it before, I’ve probably come to terms with it, or resolved it already. I don’t need to show that. So if it’s foreign, unusual or uncomfortable it will most likely be ambiguous and filled with unknown potential (symbolic energy).


KB: If I understand you correctly, you begin with an idea and those ideas are in a constant state of metamorphosis until you deem a piece of art finished. So, as you seek the surprise in the visual manifestation of an idea, or as you gravitate toward the unknown potential that you identify as symbolic energy, how do your ideas adapt to the object in the process of making?

TT: Through trial and error, many attempts, many mistakes. Coercing the images, shapes and colors in a work of art to potentially mean multiple things, requires a lot of attempts.  Sometimes I’ll keep trying with one set or group of related design ideas. Other times, I’ll make something completely new or different, but it will still be related in theme.  So let’s say the theme is violence, I may try many different designs with a gun over and over searching for something new with that theme.  Then for whatever reason, I’ll do a drawing of two youths shooting each other on a street, behind them is a car and it “triggers” a memory from my teenage years when an old “beater” car of mine dropped it’s muffler.  I had to “tie it up” with a “hanger”.  While I was doing this, the hanger sprung loose and poked me deeply right in the eyeball.  I almost lost my sight. This was one of the many moments of discovery for the American Eye Pull-Up Bar. 

During the making, everything has to be very fluid.  It all has to spill out during the drawing, painting, carving, arranging.  That’s what brings forth the hidden, mysterious special images.  So it was necessary for me to make that contrived, melodramatic drawing of the youths shooting at each other, to spark the broader, fuller idea.

KB:I am drawn to your work specifically for your unflinching loyalty to your intuition–to your past and the value of memory. Your impulses are always present in your work regardless of medium, but in such a large politicized installation such as American Eye Pull-Up Bar, this notion of intuition leads one away from the idea of the singular artist making work by himself and for himself, into more of a response from a witness of political and social injustice. Because installation is a medium by which the viewer becomes physically immersed, your project implicates the onlooker as part of the problem and potential solution to whatever it is we conger in contemplation of this piece. Can you talk about the roll of installation as a medium for dialogue? Does it “work” better than a painting?

Detail: American Eye Pull-Up Bar 2016 photo courtesy Linda Dorman

TT: Silent communication from the piece of art to the viewer, and then back and forth continued dialogue between the viewer and the piece happens with each medium or format. However the cause and effect can be quite different.  An installation is usually seen once or twice, if you’re not a well-known artist, after the show, it’s packed up and stored away.  Even a museum rarely dedicates space for a permanent installation.  So if I’m going to create an installation, it has to be a bit like modern advertising, strong, provocative with subliminal content that seeps into the audience’s mind and soul.  I pretend it just has once chance!  Once the viewer has left the building, you want them to be haunted forever. 

I experienced a piece years ago, in the mid eighties by Jannis Kounellis, where a line of gas jets were sticking out of a long wall, and the jets may have been about six or seven feet apart.  I still think about it. It doesn’t mean you have to hit someone over the head with it, subtle or sublime works. After life is a must.

As for a painting, it also has to grab you and leave you with an image burned into your mind. However with some luck you may sell the painting, it’s hung in someone’s home and stays there for 40 or 50 years.  It has to be the gift that keeps giving, a slow reveal, profound mystery, magnetism you can’t put into words.  Every time the owner gazes upon it the sensation should be a bit different; ageless and mysterious like the Mona Lisa’s smile, Pope Innocent’s expression, Goya’s giant, Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead, Van Gogh’s bedroom, Winslow Homer’s Surf, Hopper’s town, DeKooning’s figures, Lucian Freud’s flesh.

For both painting and installation, I try to be influenced by the outside world and drag something up from inside myself like a memory, happening, feeling or emotion; unite the two, outside and inside.  That’s where the magic is.

Painting may be more difficult because it has the potential to be forever seen. That’s a long time to entertain; everyone gets tired of talking eventually. It just sits there like a Buddha. I suppose if installations had that visibility it would be held to the same standards and they would be equal.

KB: In an exhibition that showcases the work of several artists whose work is brimming with visual information, your installation appears as the most minimal of the lot. Can you talk about how the “less is more” approach to this installation maintains your multi-layered conceptual bent that is so typical of all your work?

Installation View Courtesy Robin Dluzen

TT: I was striving for a simple, iconic,logo-like design composed of a several common elements.  The eyes, the blood, the stairs and the bar plus the not so common, bomb, land mine, football or whatever you call it in the foreground.  The elements were arranged in such a way as to create a visual puzzle with few enough pieces to be memorized–stuck in the viewer’s mind and figured out later if necessary.  At base level, to get stuck with an object in the eyes until they start bleeding is not good! And if you connect to the red, white and blue, that may be all you need to know. Of course, there’s much more but that’s a start.  After listening to the viewer’s interpretations, each different but excellent, (here are a couple examples; Viewer 1: “I think the pull up bar represents Americans trying to pull themselves up out of the mess we’re in.” Viewer 2: “I think the eye represents us, the public, watching the media broadcasting evil to build up fear.”) I don’t think I need to explain everything through words to the viewer because it limits their search, the viewers really do get right at the heart of the matter, even better than I could explain.

KB: So, how do you see this work in relation to the rest of the artists in this exhibition?

TT: I’m very proud to be showing with such strong artists, we lift each other up.  It’s what we all should be doing; expect the best from each other (humankind). It was cool that there were totally unplanned similarities and likenesses throughout.  The short stairs or riser to an altar or area of ritual in mine, Stacia’s and Marcos’. Kathy Weaver used long cones as knee spikes and I used long cones as blood tipped weapons. We each depicted blood as though we learned from the same how-to book.

In content, Marcos and I are often very close, we tell socio-political, sexual narratives from our podium.  His piece with Mary & Child in front of the mushroom cloud is in my opinion the strongest in the show, so relevant now with the rise of evangelical religion in the US as well as the most recent end of the disarmament movement, because of the proposed one trillion dollar nuclear modernization budget.

Installation View Courtesy Robin Dluzen

Kathy Weaver also inspires me, tackling the so frightening blend of technology, electronics and biology.  Robots and nature, burned and sewn paper, what’s not to like? 

Stacia, what playful seriousness.  It made me smile, but also a bit afraid.  It’s the growing organism of color and happiness taking over.  Formally, Stacia’s piece and mine are very related; they each spilled onto the floor.

David Criner’s was like the Matisse of the bunch, like an early spring morning, formal evocation of space and light.  It’s as if you put Rothko, Diebenkorn and Bonington in a blender and out poured David.

KB: What is on the horizon for you? Where can we see some more Tom Torluemke?

TT: I have a hard-hitting political show coming to Firecat Projects in August just before election time, along with a book release of satirical comics and political writings.

Woot. Look who’s a super admin-er and changing the world.

February 23, 2016 · Print This Article

Holy smokes. Before bed we managed to get this little tidbit (but we were *forced* to keep it quite until now)…


Sad news for our friends at Art Practical but she is stuck with us (and they are in great hands.) So there.

Here is the press release which is slightly more dignified then our irrepressible enthusiasm.



February 23, 2016

Photo credit: Ellen Shershow Photography.

Southern Exposure Welcomes Patricia Maloney
As New Executive Director

February 23, 2016, San Francisco, CA – Southern Exposure is excited to announce that Patricia Maloney has been named the new Executive Director of the 41-year-old San Francisco art organization, effective March 14, 2016. Maloney is the founder of Art Practical and executive director of Daily Serving | Art Practical, a partnership between the long-running international platform dedicated to articulating artists’ voices and the Bay Area’s leading visual arts magazine.

“The board and staff are thrilled to welcome Patricia to Southern Exposure,“ said SoEx board president Kelsey Nicholson. “Her strategic vision, leadership capacity and business savvy, along with her unwavering advocacy for visual arts are exactly what we were searching for to lead Southern Exposure in our fifth decade of supporting visual artists. Patricia is deeply rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area artistic community, while also maintaining a strong national presence that will keep Southern Exposure at the forefront of the nationwide network of alternative art spaces. Each day our excitement grows with Patricia at the helm of SoEx.”

“I see a remarkable continuity of purpose between the work of Southern Exposure and Daily Serving | Art Practical,” said Maloney. “Both organizations steadfastly believe in the importance of investing in artist-centered production, and both display a dynamic interchange between producer, subject, and audience. I am excited to take on this new role as the Bay Area cultural ecosystem undergoes one of the most consequential transformations it may ever experience, with the confluence of new spaces opening alongside shifting demographics and significant economic challenges. Southern Exposure’s position within this new landscape is perhaps more vital than ever because of its capacity to catalyze and support artists’ practices.”

Demonstrating the collective and collaborative spirit that characterizes the Bay Area visual arts culture, Art Practical was a recipient of the organization’s Alternative Exposure grant in 2009. This program, launched in 2007 in partnership with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, supports the independent, self-organized work of artists and small groups that play a critical and significant role in the San Francisco Bay Area arts community. “The Alternative Exposure grant validated our mission and signaled to the Bay Area arts community that we were worthy of its attention. Because Southern Exposure was willing to stand behind our work in our early days, we received heightened visibility and crucial funding from other organizations, and we were able to grow in a significant way very quickly. Today, Art Practical is nationally recognized and respected for its critical content and public programming,” Maloney remarked. “I’m excited to reinvest my knowledge and experience in SoEx, and I am committed to foregrounding the myriad ways by which this organization can contribute to the sustenance and growth of this community.”

Patricia Maloney is the founding editor and director of Art Practical. In 2013, she also became the publisher of the international online art journal Daily Serving. She has been an Associate Professor in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts and is a senior correspondent and producer for the weekly contemporary art podcast Bad at Sports. Maloney has written for ArtforumArtChronikaThe Brooklyn RailMeatpaper, and SFMOMA’s Open Space, as well as for numerous exhibition catalogues. She has organized programs with a broad range of arts organizations, including 826 Valencia, UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center, Art LA Contemporary, Cannonball, the Charlotte Street Foundation, Gray Area Foundation, Kadist Art Foundation, the Lab, Southern Exposure, and SFMOMA. With Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, she created the YBCA Artist Residency Program in 2013 and with the Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium, she created the ACAC Writing Fellowship in 2012.

Between 2000 and 2012, she held curatorial positions at Ampersand International Arts in San Francisco; the MATRIX Program of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum; and the Mori Art Museum (MAM) in Tokyo, Japan. From 1999 to 2002, she was a Program Associate for the International Program at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. She holds her MA in Theory and History of Contemporary Art from the San Francisco Art Institute.

Southern Exposure (SoEx) is an artist-centered non-profit organization committed to supporting visual artists. Through our extensive and innovative programming, SoEx strives to experiment, collaborate and further educate while providing an extraordinary resource center and forum for Bay Area and national artists in our Mission District space and off-site, in the public realm.

An active presence in the Bay Area since 1974, SoEx is continually evolving in response to the needs of artists and the community while engaging the public in artists’ work. Central to our mission is to remain the most accessible space for visual artists to produce and present new work, learn and connect. SoEx provides visual artists with the tools and resources they need to experiment in an open and supportive environment. We also work to advocate to new, diverse audiences and build an ever-growing community of enthusiasts and supporters of the visual arts.

For press inquiries and images, contact Lisa Martin at 415-863-2141 x102 or Southern Exposure is located at 3030 20th Street, San Francisco, CA 94110. Office hours are Monday through Friday, 10 AM to 6 PM and gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 12 to 6 PM. Admission is always FREE. Website:

Southern Exposure
3030 20th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110Map
Phone: 415/863-2141


All Hands

February 16, 2016 · Print This Article

Amy Elkins’s exhibition Black is the Day, Black is the Night, at the Cress Gallery at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, explores her relationship with five men who have spent decades in maximum security prisons, much of that time in solitary confinement. Through photography, video, sound, and objects, Elkins creates a world of the imprisoned men with whom she corresponds. Their words, drawings, and letters are surrounded by portraits of the men and recreations of their visual and aural memories that obscure and layer their experiences. The works unpack memory, the multiplicity of its roots and permutations as its holders are forcibly removed from those places, people, times, through enforced solitude.


Amy Elkins, Black is the Day, Black is the Night

In the large piece, Parting Words, she re-anchors that created world within the world outside of prison. The 531 portraits of the prisoners executed in Texas since 1976 are created with their last recorded words. As those words slowly breathe into life the obscured photographs, they push us back into the world outside of the imagined worlds of memory. The words are communications to those who remain in prison and those of us outside. They are an explicit grounding in the consequences of the prison system in the lives of those people within it and their family, friends, and loved ones, the deadly toll it extracts from our communities.


Amy Elkins, Parting Words


Amy Elkins, Parting Words (detail)

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes, “‘We can have no significant understanding of any culture unless we also know the silences that were institutionally created and guaranteed along with it.’ Nowhere is that observation more relevant in American society today than in an analysis of the culture of mass incarceration” (quoting Gerald Sider). Alexander is writing of the silence of individual prisoners while in prison, the ways they are kept outside of economic, housing, political, and social opportunities after their release, and of the silent systems of legislation, policing, prosecution, and imprisonment that uphold and enforce the criminal justice system.


Amy Elkins, Black is the Day, Black is the Night

Elkins’s exhibition attempts to break the first silence, re-centering five mens’ voices and words, using their experience to develop the works through which she manifests the changes she observes in the men as they spend years in solitary confinement. The repetition of final words recreates hundreds of faces, magnifying a moment into lifetime. In the middle of the exhibition, Elkins has recreated a full-size solitary confinement cell. It is only revealed in the context of the larger constellation of works, not as origin or culmination. By rooting it within the context of the surrounding work, she prioritizes her correspondents’ experiences, memories, poems, and drawings. For the viewer, their complex, human lives are primary over their status as prisoners.


Amy Elkins, Black is the Day, Black is the Night

I do not believe Elkins must be an activist to work with prisoners or the prison-industrial complex. She frames the exhibition as the aesthetic expression of personal relationships she has developed with five prisoners, and it is successful as such. As an aesthetic experience, Elkins has created a compelling exploration of what it means for us to live with the effects of and tacitly support the carceral state.

She also “hopes that these projects brings some light to topics and issues about capital punishment and juvenile incarceration, the inequity that bears upon their application from state to state, and the legal and social debate about race and economic level that surrounds this discussion today.” It certainly sheds light on those topics, but it does not push the viewer to action as other prison- and prisoner-related work by artists (Tamms Year Ten, Prisoners’ Inventions) or work towards other criminal justice reform and prison abolition efforts happening around the country and the world.

There is great need for awareness of the ravages of the criminal justice system on individuals and poor, non-white communities, of the abuse of solitary confinement, of the enormous profits being made at the expense of these communities and the theft of their lives. It is vital that a wider public sees and understands the impacts of the prison system. There must be action beyond that awareness, however. We must recognize the role we have played in the creation and maintenance of those systems and work to change or abandon them. There is a role for art and artists at every point along that journey.

We Woke Up Like This: Reflections on Social Practice in the Sunday New York Times

February 11, 2016 · Print This Article


On Sunday February 7, 2016, the date that will now forever be known as the day a politically aware and majestic Beyoncé won the Super Bowl, an article written by Daniel Grant ran in the Education/Life section of the New York Times titled “For These Pieces Hold the Paint: Social Practice Degrees Take Art to a Communal Level.” The Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University (PSU), where from 2008-2014 I taught and was for the majority of my time there the Co-director and Chair,  was heavily featured in the article.  Before joining the faculty at PSU, I also founded the largest annual international conference on socially engaged art, Open Engagement. My background as the director of this conference, my intimate knowledge of the program at PSU, and my position in the world as a woman of color led me to read the article (one of the first circulating these ideas to a broad and mainstream readership) and wonder who gets to speak for socially engaged art? Whose voices are privileged? And what types of projects get circulated?Social practice feels as though it could hold the potential to change the world. As Harrell Fletcher stated in the article, many artists working in this way could be described as politically progressive, some “fairly extreme in their anticapitalism.” I would say that much of the ethos behind this way of working as an artist is about re-evaluating and challenging systems of power. It is about the value of art in daily life and the belief that art is for everyone, not just the elite. Its commercial value can be slim as much of the time this kind of work might not look like art at all. This work promotes agency in artists, it is made alongside and with it’s intended audience and necessitates being in the context of the world.


Because social practice can be so seemingly outside of what we have traditionally framed as art it often has a problem with tone and form. Artists wishing to tackle the most pressing and serious issues of our time sometimes land on a dinner party, or a walk as a way of addressing these problems. While I believe that real change can emerge from seemingly small gestures, it is undeniable that there are clear tropes that have emerged in socially engaged art. One of the most troubling things for me in the New York Times piece was that while Grant talked about social practice’s historic connections to figures like community organizer and agitator Saul Alinsky—whose work was able to help lend power to the voices of so many who have been disenfranchised, that one of the main projects of graduates of the PSU MFA program that was featured was “Grocery Stories”, a project installed at a locally owned Portland boutique chain grocery store, giving voice to artisanal cheese makers. I know from first hand experience that the PSU MFA program has produced projects and artists that deal with immigrant rights, housing justice, shifting institutional power, LGBTQIA communities, and media access. As I read I wondered where was the radical work? Why were only white students highlighted? In addition to this omission of these student projects, there was a lack of diversity in the interviewed leaders in the field ranging from program directors, to chief curators—many of these voices representing the usual suspects for social practice.


Grant’s article ends with a sentence that is undoubtedly supposed to elicit a response and understanding in the reader about the new level of awareness that the students and artists working in this way have achieved, “They shuffle, reach, grasp the air, and ultimately open their eyes.” If this is a practice that is truly woke I would hope that it would not continue to perpetuate the models of the dominant art world that continue to exclude women and people of color. In 2013 The National Museum of Women in the Arts estimated that 5% of artwork currently on display in the United States was made by women, and the famous Guerrilla Girls poster outlining the breakdown of artists in the 1991, 1993, and 1995 Whitney Biennials show that the numbers of women of color included in the art world are significantly less. Jillian Steinhauer’s article for Hyperallergic titled, “The Depressing Stats of the 2014 Whitney Biennial” shows that sadly little has changed in almost two decades.


In April the 8th Open Engagement will feature Keynote speakers Angela Davis and Suzanne Lacy. This edition of the conference is the first in a trilogy that will explore the themes of POWER, JUSTICE, and SUSTAINABILITY,  2016 in Oakland at Oakland Museum of California, 2017 at University of Illinois at Chicago, and in 2018 back at the Queens Museum in NY.  Open Engagement has worked alongside practitioners and institutions to make sure that the conference symbolically and literally is as capacious as the art by spanning geography, recognizing spaces both inside and outside the academy, and embracing all people who are engaged in transforming the world through creativity and radical imagination. These struggles are continual and each year we acknowledge that this work is never done—that is the nature of social change.  As the Associate Director of the UIC School of Art & Art History currently developing socially engaged curriculum at a large public urban research university,  I hope that within this freshly institutionalized area of art making that has its roots in activism, social justice, and community organizing, the promise and values that I see in social practice will hold space in the art world for all of us. Before my own time at Portland State University ended I was told by an older white male tenured colleague that I had, “become too visible, and was taking too much credit for the work I was doing.” If we can’t shift these paradigms of oppression and fight these inequities within our own field, what hope do we fare when we take on the world?





Jen Delos Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, radical community arts organizer, and author of countless emails. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially engaged art that has been active since 2007. Delos Reyes currently lives and works in Chicago, IL where she is the Associate Director of the School of Art & Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago.



Visions Into Infinite Archives: Interview with Black Salt Collective

February 2, 2016 · Print This Article

Black Salt Collective is a multidisciplinary group of four women artists of color based in Oakland and Los Angeles: Sarah Biscarra-Dilley, Grace Rosario Perkins, Anna Luisa Petrisko, and Adee Roberson. The collective’s first curatorial project, Visions into Infinite Archives, which opened at SOMArts in mid-January, first struck me for its wild ambitiousness: the exhibition includes over thirty artists of color intervening with themes of time, oppression, history, and narrative. I met with Black Salt Collective soon after the show opened to walk through the challenging, at times dizzyingly complex body of work. We then moved online to expand on the themes of presence, magic, hospitality, and the presence of the artist’s hand that emerged in our conversation.

Visions into Infinite Archives runs through February 10th at SOMArts in San Francisco. The closing reception will take place on February 4th.



One of the starting concepts for this show was creating “overwhelming presence,” which plays out in one way into the multiplicity of voices in the show (30+ artists) and formally in terms of the sheer maximalism of the exhibition. Can you say more about this initial impulse to create overwhelming presence and how you translated that impulse into your curatorial choices?

Anna Luisa “Jeepneys”: Whether or not the Western world validates it, people of color have BEEN here and we will continue to BE here making art. This show reflects that, and it largely represents a diverse spectrum of not only race but of gender, sexuality, ability and class– many underrepresented groups. It’s not that we’re not making work; it’s just that it’s not being shown, documented, publicized or archived. This infinite archive is a way to honor the voluminous and multiplicitous past, present and future work by artists often left out of the contemporary art canon.

Adee Roberson: When I think of the overwhelming presence in the show. I think of the artists we chose and their authenticity. In a culture that is currently held back so much by “Not being real,” it feels especially important to me, as an artist, to be real and vulnerable.  That energy is overwhelming when you walk into the gallery.  Not only do you feel the presence of the artists via their work, but you feel their ancestors. Multiple people who came to to opening, and ourselves, at times were in tears!

Another theme that emerged in conversation is the role of spells and the role of the object as a conduit for magic (for example, with Petitions to Saint Anthony). Grace said that this setting of intention in offering objects as prayer is another way of seeing the exhibition as a whole. Can you say more about the role of magic in Infinite Archives?

Work by Jose Luis Iniguez.

Work by Jose Luis Iniguez.

Grace Rosario Perkins: In the case of Jose’s work, as well of a lot of the work in the show, I think magic is a coded way of describing the way we all transmute our experience, our pains, our traumas, and joys into objects. I think as a whole… Adee and I were talking about it just yesterday and getting really emotional about it– this exhibition exemplifies this because it is full of energy and intention. Just in the way one would set an altar with objects, each representative of a hope, this show itself feels similar to that. There are dynamics we are creating in the space itself where all of us come together with cohesion because in a lot of ways our experiences of oppression and existence are not dissimilar and here we are all in 2016 working through it.

Installation by Black Salt Collective.

Installation by Black Salt Collective.

Our collaborative installation, which is what you see as you immediately enter the gallery space, is a way in which we are conjuring a mass meaning through objects with personal weight. Nothing arbitrary. It’s really funny to me how still, though, this idea of magic or work that has a spiritual basis is being criticized. One of our artists in the show whose work is all about magic, all about spirituality, and all about culture was pretty much dissuaded in grad school at CCA from making that work– being told that it wasn’t necessary, that it was questionable, so I’m kind of at a place where I’m wanting to pull people up and have us all come together again and say, “Well, anyway, here it is” in the face of dominant art culture because to separate those aspects from us as people of color has happened too many times, through force and cultural breakdown.

Sarah Biscarra Dilley: A teacher once explained to me, “Intention is nine-tenths of the magic.” This has stuck with me through times of duress and spiritual fatigue as well as moments of beautiful regeneration, expansion and change. Intention is our ability to shape the world(s) around us, within us, beyond us.

In some circumstances, intention is all we have had: a sheer faith in our prayers being heard. In others, intention becomes a political act, a testament to our belief and grounding in relationship to spirit, to land, to blood, to our people, to each other, to ourselves. This show was crafted with the same intention we each hold in our day to day lives, one that is founded in mutual care and respect, in prayers for intergenerational healing and cultural resurgence, in our fumblingly human attempts at honesty and transformative joy. The varied manifestations of magic or communion with spirit that present themselves in this exhibition are gifts to ourselves and each other, from artist to audience and beyond, impacting us in embodied and intangible ways. It reflects a worldview that deprives nothing of life and enlivens us to everything. It represents the responsibility we claim to collective change that is needed on all levels, physical, emotional and spiritual.

One powerful aspect of Infinite Archives is the effect of hospitality that radiates through the work. I’m thinking most immediately of Essence Harden and Jihaari Terry’s quilt, but this impulse is everywhere in the work, from preparing for a social event in postcommodity’s work, Eve’s photographs about the gifting around the sun dance, and the bar furniture for some times. What does hospitality and being a host or guest mean in the context of visiting this exhibition? Does that have political resonances in terms of the show’s criticality about (post)colonialism? And finally, how does this play out in the form of the exhibition itself?

Work by Jihaari Terry.

Work by Essence Harden & Jihaari Terry.

Sarah Biscarra Dilley: I think what is being read as hospitality in the exhibition are actually topographies of our resilience as indigenous people, as descendants of survivors of the middle passage, as peoples displaced by colonial expansion and imperial warfare. These are examples of our abilities and emerging attempts to transmute generations of grief and anger and fracture. These are examples of how we remain dedicated to loving ourselves and our communities despite being told our entire lives by dominant culture that we aren’t worthy of it. These are examples of our respective communities’ abilities to sustain vibrant and changing cultural practices that serve our communities and their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. And because there is nothing post about colonialism, in the context of the exhibition and where it is situated, unless we are of this place, we are all guests (welcome or not) on unceded Ohlone land.

Anna Luisa “Jeepneys” Petrisko: For jeepneys and some times’ piece, we talked a lot about hospitality and how we as Filipinos are proud of our hospitable nature, but at the same time, we are uncomfortable with the fact that Filipinos are labeled as “hospitable” by Westerners, which we believe stems from a 500 year Colonial history. It’s like one of those things– we can call ourselves “hospitable” but when you call us this it’s problematic! Like most of the ideas in the show, it’s complicated. And it’s further complicated by the fact that we (as children of Filipino immigrants born in the US) are settler colonialists ourselves (on stolen Ohlone and other indigenous Native American land). If you sit with our piece for awhile, we hope that you will understand the complexities of this. People of color navigate complex situations everyday and one of the things that this show does, in my opinion, is sit with complexity and contradiction.

Jeepneys & some times

some times

So much of the work in Infinite Archives shows its own process. Grace talked about how the presence of the hand was important to this show– versus the usual impulse in contemporary art to perfect, smooth, and not show the seams. Can you talk about the role of hands-on creation or “heavy-handed” process in the show as it moves into the contemporary art space?

Grace Rosario Perkins: I think the role it plays is basically just a vehicle of visibility. Thinking of a recent trip to a folk art museum got me thinking about how art that has a basis of cultural significance, spirituality, and tradition imbedded into its creation always gets a title that is not seen as “contemporary,” but “folk” or “craft” or something completely tied to its origins/time. This keeps the work itself pinned into categories used to continually “other” the work. The way a lot of the artists work in this show is through a process where the hand is visible, and I think that is directly tied to the cultural experience of many of us– using what we have, abstracting tradition, and not feeling the need to align with the tidiness of that particular seamless white box work we see time and time again in galleries and museums. In a way that white box work isn’t meant for us, really, so with that we work with what we have. It’s like what Lonnie Holley (one of our artists in the show) said at an art talk I attended when he was called an “Outsider Artist,” he responded, “Outside of what!? I’m an American and I’m an artist.” These titles are so limiting so I think just having a bunch of objects with seams, with cracks, with hand stitching is really important.

Adee Roberson: When I think of the presence of the hand in the work the first things that comes to mind for me are the working class and touch. Building, planting, sewing, and painting. All of these actions infuse the maker/workers energy into whatever they are interacting with. As someone who is also a bodyworker, I also view touch as taking care of something or someone. Tending to. I watched Jose install his work for hours. Each addition and object has so much intention and I feel that work, time and care when I see his piece. And most of the pieces in the show.

Sarah Biscarra Dilley: I think this also emphasizes the interdependence of our bodies with the work. It’s what brings each work to life in this world, this collaboration between emotion and spirit and our physical form, what makes each work performative in its own way. It is our own expression of generations of experience that maps lessons passed down to us from blood family and messages from otherworldly realms, lessons learned in stubbornly and ones that are gleaned through the ways we are changing on cellular levels. It asserts our presence with every stitch on marred canvas and fingerprint in smudged paint. It asserts our commitment to embodiment in a world that has tried to erase our histories at every turn but still cannot. The presence of handwork, of the body, in this exhibition disallows the separation of our lived experiences from the visual work and our practice as artists.

These two previous questions point to one of the most successful elements of Infinite Archives, which is its critical approach to institutional spaces while also inhabiting them. How planned was this move?

Jeepneys: This is the way we have to navigate everyday life! So in a way, it is both planned and unplanned, pre-meditated and intuitive.

Adee Roberson: The show coming together the way it did, was a really intuitive leap of faith. We put a lot of trust in the process of connection. I’ve never really been one to inhabit or create in institutional spaces. So when I do, as a black, working class woman, naturally it’s always going to be a creative subversion.
How does the film series on January 30th relate to the rest of the exhibition? What will you be showing?

Jeepneys: We will be showing a group of multi-generational filmmakers, most of whom are emerging. I like how these films are both contemporary and archival, shot on various formats including 8mm, 16mm and digital, reflecting the sense of non-linear time that is one of the exhibition’s themes. The feature film is Bontoc Eulogy, and it is one of my favorite films of all time.

More information about the screenings can be found here.

I’d love to hear more about how this show intersected with your own practices individually and as a collaborative group. Would you ever curate a show together again? What’s next for Black Salt Collective?

Jeepneys: I have been thinking a lot about artistic and curatorial processes lately and how they differ when you are a person of color or any systematically-oppressed person. I am so interested in how identity and ancestral memory inform the artistic and curatorial choices we make. Whether they are aesthetic, political, formal, or content-based choices, our identities, histories and futures play a role. I think this interest is something we all share in the Collective.

Black Salt is a family. We know each other so well that we can work intuitively and with an immense trust for each other. And we all make each other laugh which helps. And make fun of each other, just like family.

Adee Roberson: I would love to curate a show with Black Salt again! What I would really love, though, is to see this show travel to different spaces. The work that we curated for this is so powerful and big. I’d like to see what it would look like to install in various spaces over time, and possibly add more to this current archive.

Our next endeavor is a book; we are working with E.M. Wolfman Editions in Oakland. We are still working out the content and vision.  I’m excited to have this hand held tangible object filled with stories, interviews, and reflections on our  process and practice. This year we are also all doing our own individual residencies around the country. So I’m excited to see what we all make and how it will come together back in the the collective process.

Grace Rosario Perkins: I just want to echo the sentiment, “Yeah! I want this show to travel” and  we definitely are not done curating together. I think doing this show and walking through one day after install with a little space between the process and the result I was like, “WHOA. What did we do?” in the best way possible, so yeah, so excited to keep the momentum going.

Sarah Biscarra Dilley: Yes! This has been such an immensely growthful process, one that we are still fully in the throes of- something that is marked in the ever-changing ways that our individual work is continually linked to our collaborative work. This collaboration has always felt like a natural extension of my personal practice because these babes are my family and co-conspirators, such immensely inspiring influences in my life. Black Salt has so much more to do together as goofball loners, as loving friends, as chosen family, as curators, as healers, as artists, as conduits, as archivists in our own understandings of that word. So yeah, from the book to other incarnations of this show and our entwined individual and collaborative practices– bring it on, universe!