Site-Specific Public Text: An Interview with Lacey Haslam and Kari Marboe

October 9, 2013 · Print This Article

Oakland’s Latham Square Plaza and Latham Memorial Fountain

Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with Lacey Haslam of Oakland-based BLOCK Gallery and artist Kari Marboe regarding their newest project titled Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled.  Six months ago, they connected over email and by November, BLOCK will be presenting Kari’s site-specific public artwork in Oakland’s downtown area – specifically on the site known as Latham Square.

It wasn’t until half way through our conversation that I realized that we were sitting in Latham Square, just a few feet away from the site-specific building windows that would house Kari’s artwork.  Kari shared fascinating stories and trivia tidbits about the small section of the city known as Latham Square, which was named after the late-19th century pioneer family of James and Henrietta, and their children Milton and Edith.  The family had fueled money and programming into Oakland, including education for children on animal rights.  One hundred years ago, Milton and Edith created a memorial fountain to their parents that was for “both man and beast”.  The incredibly historical Latham Fountain now sits in Latham Square – sans running water – as a source of inspiration for Kari’s newest work.

Oakland’s Latham Square Plaza sign blocks car traffic from bisecting the pedestrian plaza.

Jeffrey: So what’s BLOCK Gallery all about?

Lacey: BLOCK started experimenting in 2010, playing with the on-going question of what happens when we move artwork outside of the white wall gallery space – thinking about the function of art outside traditional institutions, whether that’s museums or galleries.  What BLOCK aims to do is tap into the function of art, and activating art from a more inclusive and educational place.  What started as an experiment turned into site-specific exhibitions, meaning curating the work based on what’s happening in the space and using the context of the space as the content of the exhibition.  What this approach ends up doing is providing an outlet for not only the artist to exhibit work – maybe it’s a piece that they have already created or it’s a piece that responds to the space – but exhibiting concepts the artists are already working with and putting it in a space that anyone can walk into or by and say, “oh this relates to me because I’m interested in this idea as well”.

J: So where are you now, three years later?

L: BLOCK is now moving into public space.   It now has two different spaces –the alternative spaces with full-on rotating exhibitions and now the public space, and that’s where Kari’s coming in as an artist who also incorporates public spaces in her practice. These exhibitions are free, public, 24/7 – I mean, there are no hours associated with when you can view the work.  You are not walking into a well-lit cube between the hours of 10 AM and 6 PM; rather you are walking down the street or stumbling upon them by happenstance.

Documentation of previous BLOCK Gallery exhibition Compulsions with Jon Kuzmich, Carling McManus, and Kari Marboe. Pictured: Carling McManus, A Realistic Fear, 2010. Edited found footage, 16 mm film.

J: How did you meet Kari?  How did you guys hook up?

L: She actually reached out because she saw what BLOCK was doing.  She was interested in the program that BLOCK was building and said, “hey, here’s my work, maybe we can pull together some projects”.  I looked at her portfolio and it was exactly what I was looking for – she works site-specifically, in the public sphere, but she also draws on what’s happening in that space. Since our first meeting she has been fully involved in the entire process.

J: So Kari, how did you get to know of the BLOCK sort of “thing” that was happening?

Kari: I first heard about BLOCK while I was just finishing up my MFA over at UC Berkeley. I had been creating site-specific text-based installations during my time there—

J: “Site-specific text-based”?

Kari Marboe, Panel #1, 2012. Screen print on vinyl. 48 inch x 48 inch.

Panel #1 outside the Berkeley Art Museum.

K: Artworks designed conceptually and physically for a particular space, and in my case made with text. For example, during our thesis exhibition I worked with Dena Beard to find a public and easily accessible spot outside of the Berkeley Art Museum to place a piece. She suggested taking over one of the panels outside of the museum on Bancroft which is normally used for internal advertising on upcoming exhibitions or events and found a 4’x4’ panel that was available during the time we needed. So I wrote a piece that talked about being exactly in that space, the motions of coming in and out of the museum, in poem form so people could sit down on one of the benches across from the work and enjoy it for a while. The label for the work was displayed right as you were walking out of the museum, so people were stopping and asking, “where is this piece of art, it’s not the Calder, where is it”.  Another piece I worked for that show was with the East Bay Express—

J: The newspaper?

Kari Marboe and Erin Johnson, Newspaper Space #1, 2012. Newspaper and text. 2 inch x 5 inch.

K: Yep, the free newspaper that comes out weekly. They were so kind and donated rectangular advertising space to me for seven consecutive weeks. My collaborator Erin Johnson jumped on board and we made a series of seven squares that spoke about the nature and functions of a newspaper. That was a fun project, especially since it was free and available to everyone. While I was working on that, I also spent a lot of time online, seeing what other people were doing with sites and where my text work could fit in.  I somehow ran into BLOCK Gallery and it was exactly the type of thing I was looking for. I had never heard of a site-specific gallery before, or at least not one in the area, and was immediately interested in meeting the person behind it.

J: What was that advertising or marketing for BLOCK?

L: Gosh, at that point, it was very minimal.  It started by hooking up with Oakland event calendars and bare-bone sites to say, “hey, I’m a program in Oakland and this is what I do”.  It hasn’t been easy to put words to this type of program, instead I had to just do it, letting the installation images and the curatorial statements piece it all together.

J: So Kari, take me through that process of contacting Lacey…

K: After looking at BLOCK’s website I decided to send her an email with some links to my work. We got together and brainstormed on the types of sites that would be exciting to work with. While looking around in downtown Oakland we stumbled across Latham Square just before the City of Oakland and ReBar started their Pilot Project there.

Latham Memorial Fountain

L: In our first meeting, I mentioned wanting to do something in that little triangle where Broadway and Telegraph spilt – we didn’t know it had a name then. After seeing the Pilot Project and realizing that it did not involve any artwork – other than the street paintings – we started thinking about how to get in touch with the City, ReBar, what the logistics of doing a work there might be, what would a project there look like, and how could we help add to this newly pedestrian space.

J: So what is Latham Square?  Are the Latham’s an Oakland-based family?

K: I’m glad you asked.

L: Yes, here it comes!

K: When we thought we might be interested in doing the project here I went to the Oakland History Room of the Oakland Public Library— wait, have you ever been in that room?

J: Nope.

K: Oh my goodness, it’s worth a visit!  They have a specific room and librarian for all-things-Oakland on the second floor. The first librarian I met was already familiar with the Lathams and instantly pulled the files of James, the father, and Edith, the daughter.

J: So interesting!  I just got the chills.

K: I know!  They also have a database with scanned articles from the Oakland Tribune. I was able to search around and found an amazing article from April 10, 1913, that described a great deal about the fountain and the dedication ceremony. I mean everything from the color of the granite to Mr. Latham’s first job. The title of this piece – Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled – is the same as the article’s title.

Kari continues to share the fabulous history of the Lathams.  It is so fabulous that it has become the driving concept behind her installation.  Text here would do no justice, and rather, a visit to the work of art would be most appropriate.

K: What I’m interested in is taking this history and creating a piece that combines that story – specifically the desires of motives of the Latham children for building the fountain – with themes of how the memories of citizens are preserved within city structures over time. It’s been just over a hundred years since the fountain was installed.

L: And at a certain point this piece will become part of Latham Square’s history as well.

J: Can you talk about some of the logistics of the piece?

K: Oh, boy. Site-specific pieces are about eighty-percent logistics and twenty-percent art making.

L: It’s been email after email, meeting after meeting.  It’s an ongoing evolution. You don’t want to start on finalizing the actual artwork because so much can change.

J: Any details of those emails or meetings?

K: Well, we knew we had to talk to the Downtown Oakland Association.

L: The Downtown Oakland Association oversees a lot of different departments.  Their main mission focuses on getting Oakland to be a more livable, more beautiful, more active, safer city.  For example, they do the hanging plants on the lights, they have solar integrated trash compactors – great solution to any city’s trash management.

K: They have a certain amount of funding allocated for projects like ours. For instance, they helped Art Murmur get off the ground and have been sponsoring the Great Wall where large-scale video projections happen.

L: What’s fascinating about Oakland is that there is so much energy around the city’s re-identification through art, to position it as an exciting and relevant cultural hub. The crowds that turned out in the early days for the Art Murmur activated Oakland in a certain way, and now that First Friday has hit a plateau, I think there’s a lot of room for growth at this point. There is a ballooning need to gather around art again.

The highlighted blue panels are the site of Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled.

J: What’s BLOCK’s position in the Oakland art scene?

L: BLOCK is designed to be fluid on every aspect.  When you’re not tied to a space, you’re not worried about the on-going programming of that one space. Being able to break away from that idea and bring art to a community or to places that people will frequent, and being able to use art as a sort of bridge for a new experience.  In essence, the program is about activating art, activating space to further the experience.  So, why is BLOCK in Oakland?  That’s a fascinating question. There’s something here, there’s an energy here that San Francisco has, but it translates in a very different way.  Oakland is primed for growth, has a sense of opportunity.  The people we’ve come in contact with here have an authentic, raw enthusiasm for it. I haven’t seen that in any other space or city.

Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled will be presented from November 1, 2013 to April 2014.  For more information, visit

Episode 412: Amanda Ross-Ho

July 22, 2013 · Print This Article

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Amanda Ross-Ho
This week: We talk with artist Amanda Ross-Ho!

Amanda Ross-Ho was born in Chicago in 1975. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California. Amanda Ross-Ho’s work is inspired by detritus: the clutter and remnants of daily existence, and the ‘negative space’ of things over looked. Ranging from sculpture, installation, painting, and photography, her work seeks to uncover the subtle beauty of coincidence and anomaly. Working from source material as diverse as newspaper articles, narcotics agency records, life aspiration manuals, and home-craft instruction booklets, Ross-Ho highlights points of cultural ‘intersection’ to create extrinsic portraits of contemporary zeitgeist. Throughout Ross-Ho’s work is a sense of de-familiarisation and detachment, a numbing alienation contrived from everyday ephemera. Ross-Ho’s paintings similarly broach the uncanny. Translated from images of doilies or macramé wall hangings, her intricate webs are manufactured in grandiose scale, cut from painted black canvas dropcloths, or carved in sheet rock. Their recognition and domestic symbolism becomes estranged, placed out of context through size and materiality. Construing kitsch with the elegance of minimalism, Ross-Ho presents the sentimentality of tchotchke as emotive voids, displacing homey intimacy to the realm of objective contemplation.

Rolling On The Floor: An Interview With Renee Rhodes

February 13, 2013 · Print This Article

Renée Rhodes, Calibration Dances, (still), 2012. Single channel HD video. 8:30 mins.

Some time in the 1990’s, two children named Jeffrey and Renée were dancing ballet in separate productions of The Nutcracker.  Jeffrey was performing in New Jersey, while Renée was performing in Florida.  Years later, these two kids would grow up to be young adults and their stars would align in graduate school at San Francisco Art Institute.

When Renée Rhodes and I started our friendship, her hair was no longer than 2 inches in length.  She captivated my interest with her performance-based artwork, utilizing a familiar language of dance that I always assumed was separate from the discourse of fine art.  She exposed me to her interests in Yvonne Rainer, Pina Bausch, and Jonah Bokaer.  Today, Renée and I jokingly prance around the city of San Francisco, hoping to one day choreograph our own piece for the world to see.

At the start of this interview with Renée for Bad at Sports, we sat down and watched a YouTube clip of Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle.   The clip reminded me of a ballet movement called croisé…

Renée: I think I’m losing my French ballet words.

Jeff: Uh oh.

R: Have you heard of Labanotation?

J: No!  What the hell is that?

R: It’s a method for movement notation created by Rudolf Laban.  It’s a way of noting dance moves as a graphic score.

Rudolf Laban


J: Have you used it before?

R: No, it’s very complicated.  You really have to study it and be trained to properly use it.  I’m more interested in the narrative and history of measuring the body in that way.

J: You’re so smart!

R: Are you mocking me?

J: No, but, before we started this interview, I thought I was going to open with, “Renée, your hair is so long”.

R: Oh God.  You know what else is long?  A Jacques Tati film.

Jacques Tati, Mon Oncle, (still), 1958.

J: Are they really long?

R: No, but there’s not very much dialogue, so it can feel really long, and kind of like a dance.  I like how he creates an alternative language out of gestures.

J: Have you taken a ballet class lately?

R: Nope, sure haven’t.

J: But ballet has been a huge part of your artistic practice, or at least, an influence, right?

R: Is this is a prompt?

J: Yes.

R: I was taking ballet classes mostly throughout childhood and high school life, and later started using that as creative material.  And back to Labanotation, the reason I brought that up was because ballet is another way of measuring how the body moves.  Ballet is a sort of geometry when you strip it of its fairytale narrative.  It’s about making shapes and forms in this sort of perfection.  So I guess I’m not really interested in perfecting my ability to make those shapes, but I’m interested in that sort of quest and narrative.  It’s very human to want to achieve formal perfection, and I see that in ballet and that’s interesting, and it’s something I’m critical of, too.

J:  I see formal perfection in an Abercrombie & Fitch ad.

R: Damn!  Anyway, I think that the idea of making forms and shapes with your body is a way of measuring your own body’s physical terrain.  But it’s also a way of measuring the space around your body, or the space that your body is in.  It’s a very abstract language, but I see it as a sort of cartography, which is itself an abstract representation of space.

Renée Rhodes, Maps for Moving Landscapes, (still), 2011. Installation with maps, books, and 2 channel video projection.

Renée Rhodes, Maps for Moving Landscapes, (map), 2011. Installation with maps, books, and 2 channel video projection.

Renée Rhodes, Muscle Map Hiking Club, 2012. Hike and movement workshop at the Headlands Center for the Arts that guided participants through a series of exercises for translating the landscape from visual data to embodied topological maps.

J: Do you mean like Google Maps?  Is that a stupid question?

R: No!  Yes!  I love Google Maps because they make me totally confused!

J: How are Google Maps and ballet related?

R: They both operate on a fixed number of axis points in their movement.  They’re both very frontal.  It’s more about the grid – working on a grid system, and fixity that appears to be fluid.  With projects that I’m working on now, that ballet influence is there in a critical way.  I’m more interested in rolling around on the floor.

J: Isn’t that how we met in grad school?  We rolled into each other on the floor?

R: Yeah – fun icebreakers.

J: So what project are you working on now?

R: It’s called Navigating In a Whiteout.  There’s a lot of rolling on the floor.

J: I’ve never seen a ballerina roll on the floor.

R: (in theatrical voice) “It’s Modern Art, Jeffrey!”  Joking aside, it’s a more contemporary form of movement that starts with one simple movement phrase that is permutated along different axis points of the body.  It moves from the variation of the movement that’s just in the hands, to the version of the movement that happens through floor work, and then a version of the movement that’s for a body standing.

J: How did you arrive at this type of choreography?  Can I call it choreography?

R: Sure, you can.  I started the project by imagining myself as an explorer of Bouvet Island via Google Earth.  Bouvet Island is tiny and is the most remote island in the world.  It’s a place I’d never likely get to in any other way, but I spend a lot of time there!  I feel really familiar with the terrain and the topography on the island as if I have a memory of it.  That memory is now very visual and cerebral, and I am trying to figure out what my sense and physical memories are of that place.  The movement is a narrative about translating mediated landscape – about wandering through that terrain and transposing that topography onto my own body.

Renée Rhodes, Navigating In a Whiteout, (video backdrop still), 2013. Performance for 3 dancers, sound + video. 20 mins.

J: Whoa, so you’re like explorer and terrain all at once?

R: I think so!  When you navigate through a place, that terrain maps itself into your memory and onto your body.

J: How will this project manifest?

R: As a manifesto.

J: Are you serious?

R: No, but thanks for asking.  It’s actually a performance for three dancers with four different movement sections, sound, and video.  It’s being presented during Scrawl at the Center for Drawing, which has a new monthly performance series created by Mimi Moncier.  Mimi’s idea is to present movement and performance-based works that loosely explore the idea of drawing.

J: Are you one of the three dancers?

R: Yes I am.

Renée Rhodes, Navigating In a Whiteout, (performance still), 2013. Performance for 3 dancers, sound + video. 20 mins.

J: Can you share how you choreograph your work with the dancers?

R: I made all the choreography on my own, before meeting with them.  So that’s a lot of time alone in the studio, jumping around, rolling on the floor, and looking for movements that are compelling to me.  I’m also spending time with source material, which is the Google Earth footage through Bouvet Island.  I think it’s called making a tour in Google Earth.  You can save your movements in Google Earth as a data file and re-watch your expedition.  In terms of the dancers, I met Laurie Bramlage at a favorite dance class of ours, and Rosa Navarrete at a symposium at Z Lab UC Berkeley where I gave a presentation – or a “movement workshop,” if you want to be more specific.

J: I do not want to be more specific, thank you.

R: In this project, we had a really short amount of time to set the piece, so I wanted to make sure that I had all the movement ready.  There wasn’t a lot of time to experiment and change things.  It was a process of me demonstrating movement and them developing a memory of it.

J: Whoa, that was a beautiful way of explaining how any dancer probably learns how to dance.

R: (in kid voice) “I’m going to show you this move and you’re going to repeat it over and over until you remember it so we don’t have to use words anymore!”

Renée Rhodes, Navigating In a Whiteout, (performance still), 2013. Performance for 3 dancers, sound + video. 20 mins.

J: What is “a short amount of time”?

R: We met four times.  It really feels like the beginning stages of a project, like it’s in a sketch phase or something.  This is atypical for me because I usually spend more time on things.  On the other hand, I performed a solo excerpt of it last week in Portland at Worksound Gallery.  It felt really good to get it out there.

J: I think that fast paced, “no-time” sense of urgency is actually quite precious, and for me, makes me work really strangely in a super productive way.

R: Yeah, I agree with that.  Sometimes it’s good to have limitations so I just don’t go off on every tangent.  So now I feel like I have a pretty solid framework for this project that I’d like to develop more in the future.  One of the ways I want to develop it more is to collaborate with the dancers more and create a responsive movement with them.  Right now, there are some moments with partnering work, and in the future, I’d like there to be more improvisational exploration of what that movement could be.

J: Renée, do you feel like you ever finish anything?

R: No.

Renée Rhodes’s Navigating In a Whiteout was presented last week as a part of Scrawl at the Center for Drawing in San Francisco on February 8th.  You can view her other artworks on her website: 

Episode 349: Suzanne Lacy

May 7, 2012 · Print This Article

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Suzanne Lacy (born 1945) is an internationally known artist, educator, writer, and former public servant. She describes her work, which includes “installations, video, and large-scale performances”, as focusing on “social themes and urban issues.” She also served in the education cabinet of Jerry Brown, then mayor of Oakland, California, and went on to become an arts commissioner for the city.

The Art in Brewing Beer

January 16, 2012 · Print This Article

By 1979, Tom Marioni had been gathering with friends, drinking beer, and calling it art for almost a decade. It began in 1970 when Marioni invited friends to the Oakland Musem of Art on a Monday, the day it was closed, to hang out and drink beer. The gathering’s detritus became the art for the museum-going public to experience. Marioni called it The Act of Drinking Beer With Friends is the Highest Form of Art, and began hosting nights of beer drinking at his studio and at his Museum of Conceptual Art. In the wake of countless bottles and hangovers, the work finally made an appearance at SFMoMA in 1979. It was recently reinstalled there for the museum’s exhibition The Art of Participation.

Installation view at SFMoMA in 2008.

This iteration of The Act of Drinking Beer took shape as a seventies-era fridge stocked with free beer, a framed poster from Marioni’s Museum of Conceptual Art, and a sturdy wood shelf mounted on the wall that displayed 200 bottles of Anchor Steam Beer. A bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling seems to me to represent Marioni’s “eureka moment” realization that the act of drinking beer with friends, an experience common to so many local art scenes, could become the art itself. The beer served was certainly appropriate for the venue—Anchor Steam Beer has been brewed in San Francisco for over a hundred years, perhaps the best known of a category of beer called California Common. It’s something of an anomaly, as most beer is sorted into one of two categories: warm-fermented ale or cool-fermented lager. California Common Beer blurs these categories. West Coast brewers in the late nineteenth century brewed lager yeast warm to produce a beer that retains characteristics of both ale and lager. The result is something of a hybrid, an experiment by necessity that flouts traditional wisdom and tastes good anyway.

Anchor also holds an important place in the history of craft beer. After the second World War, the American beer market was dominated (as it still is) by large breweries like Miller and Anheuser-Busch. While the Anchor Brewery in San Francisco held on after the war, it did so by producing low-quality beer. Fritz Maytag III, heir to the Maytag fortune, bought the brewery in 1965 and restored it to its former glory by slowing things down and making smaller quantities of high-quality beer. It was artful, experimental, and historically conscious—all hallmarks of craft brewing today. Craft beer categories are even more well-defined than categories in art. With precisely measured qualities like alcohol-by-volume, international bitterness units, and specific gravity I could describe a Pilsner in a few lines. Art Brut would likely take a few paragraphs. But craft beer also opens itself to radical mistreatments of its established standards, allowing for the birth of new hybrid categories like California Common.

By refusing categories, The Act of Drinking Beer allowed the social form of beer drinking to exist as an artwork in its own right. Since Marioni’s first bottle was cracked open, a slew of artists have made artwork that takes shape around shared food and beverage. But Marioni’s expansion of art’s categorical dimensions to include social gatherings is not the most interesting thing about him. The impulse to disregard categories without permission, abandoning the urge to patrol boundaries, is what truly opens up new productive avenues for artmaking. Only this kind of free-wheeling experimentation can keep art, and brewing, vital.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be conducting and posting interviews with artists that brew to try and find out what skills, qualities, and perpsectives they bring to bear on beer. I suspect that most of them brew not to plant the flag of art on the shores of beer, but to explore untapped potentials in making a beverage they’ve been led to for reasons as varied as the refrigerated stock of a craft beer store. Just as a lager yeast and an ale-style fermentation can combine to make a beer that happily exists as both ale and lager, so too can artists and brewers disregard time-worn categories and embrace the possibilities of being two things at once. That beer can be art shouldn’t surprise us. The myriad things that artists can do with beer should.