April 15, 2014 · Print This Article
Recently, I was fortunate enough to be in conversation with artist-choreographer taisha paggett. Paggett, who splits her time between Chicago and LA, is one of the many Chicago artists to be included in this year’s Whitney Biennial. If you’re in New York this week be sure to check out her performance at the Whitney starting on Weds.
Paggett’s works for the stage, gallery, and public sphere include individual and collaborative investigations into questions of the body, agency, and the phenomenology of race. Here we discuss her interest in dance, performer-audience relationships, and feeling-thinking through performance. More information on her work and practice can be found here.
I thought we’d begin with a few questions around your interest in choreography and the body, focusing in on how both might communicate a certain set of politics and also what I perceive in your work as an interest in how knowledge is produced through the body. How did you arrive at choreography? What does dance do in your work and what are it’s limitations?
my work was initially interested in addressing identity and the scars of alienation from fitting into neither a black community nor a white community, as well as the experience of coming into my sexuality and having to confront another layer of otherness. (an immediate aside: i’m a bit self-conscious using these monolithic, over-generalizing terms but you must understand that where i grew up was insidiously segregated and conservative—there was a white side of town and a black side of town and i lived in and simultaneously belonged fully to neither). it took me some time to see that my story was not a thing to make work about over and over but rather a frame or a perspective from which to ask questions. i do believe that we are reflections of our surroundings—that environment is a living entity which informs us and vice versa, and perhaps its that perspective which makes me as fascinated with space as i am with bodies… human geographies and spatial geographies.
i wasn’t initially interested in making work, i was only interested in opportunities to dance without having to make many decisions. i loved moving, i loved the type of thinking it required and i loved utilizing my body. what propelled me into making work was the accumulation of experiences in which i had to recognized how differently my body and sexuality read on stage in relation to my peers. there was a Black (modern) dance world and a white one and i grew up in the latter (again with the monoliths…) dance is tricky because it’s very collaborative and so much about relationships and interaction. more often than not as a dancer you’re living through or interpreting someone else’s vantage point… over time i started to develop an analysis in class and rehearsal that made it hard to continue moving—as much as i loved it all, i got to a point where i could not overlook the fact that i was participating in a pedagogy and performance of privilege that did not align with and required a disavowal of my own experience of the world. on top of that, i became interested in better understanding this notion of Black dance and how it was being articulated.
i’m going to stop there because i realize that i’m going long on just one aspect of your question but it’s true that those experiences politicized me and propelled me into creating work. my work continues to think through and beyond the conventions and methodologies of dance as a way to approach and create performance structures. for example, training as a type of knowing… dance is a performing art form and bodies are perpetually changing so one must be diligent about training the body. there are certain actions that one repeats to train specific muscles. it makes me think about repetition as a conceptual framework for understanding how knowledge enters the body. we are what we repeat—consciously or not, which means our habits are a type of becoming as well. i’ve created structures based on the repetition of a single set of identifiable actions (for example, Decomposition of a Continuous Whole in which i was blindfolded and drew on a wall with pastels and crayons a set score of movements over the course of several hours). the beauty of repetition is that it’s never completely the same–something in our external or internal environment is always shifting despite our desire to stay consistent and that friction within the repetition is how i believe we come into knowledge.
what dance does in my work these days is give me permission to get elemental and create what to me feels like momentary utopias of people coming together to share an experience. stripping away the excess, stretching out the movement slow as if to slow down time so that we even breath together. i guess it gives me permission to create a contemplative space… i see performance as an offering on both sides: the performer offers an experience and the viewer offers their presence. i’m also interested in creating structures that make the viewer realize that their body is as much a part of the experience as mine is… a momentary togetherness. this is true of my work with Ashley Hunt as well—we’re interested in activating the physical and sensorial body of the “viewer”… that one cannot come to an experience with only their eyes…. that the formation of the political subject requires bringing the conscious body into the equation.
Watching documentation of some of your work I am taken by the way you pay attention to speed and the control with which you execute movements lends your performances a kind of uncanny quality, a sense of mystery that calls attention to the shapes made by the body. Can you talk a little bit about your approach, how you construct movement and compose the works?
i’m not certain how long i’ll be in this slow period but it’s still very fascinating to me. i construct a framework and score first and then live in the experience of fulfilling that score. in most cases i don’t know ahead of time exactly how i’ll respond to the score until i’m in it, and because repetition is often part of the equation, i have to grapple with retracing the previous iteration of the movement (as when the score loops and i start back at the beginning) and living in the experience of doing it again based on mental and muscle memory. my approach to slowness is, on a basic level, definitely about wishing to slow down time—in an era in which everything is accelerated i feel it’s important to have a practice that goes in the opposite direction—but it’s also about wishing to create an experience that i can track and grow through in some manner. tending to the world “out there” but also being able to construct a dialogue with my inner world, my mental fluctuations, the energies that get turned on in the performance experience.. . there’s a kind of martyrdom in dance sometimes where it’s all about the audience and being frontal and impressive and virtuosic and mostly directing energy out out out and i’m interested in other possibilities, other virtuosities… my process toggles between intuition and research. sometimes my structures are informed by a certain set of readings, and sometimes they are informed by a desire to wear a certain set of clothing because they remind me of something that i can’t easily articulate.
I am thinking now about what audiences can do. How they join the work and how, for lack of a better word, they might be manipulated in the process.
i’m not interested in manipulating the audience though i supposed that would be a logical sequence for those artists who wish to take it in that direction (draw the audience in to the work, get them activated, and then twist the scene against them..? it’s a bit predatory and not my mojo—or at least i HOPE the audience doesn’t feel manipulated in my work– but sure, bringing the viewer “in” always has the potential to become manipulative because they come with a certain vulnerability and set of expectations to simply be invisible watchers…) that said, i don’t feel there’s anything particularly radical about folding the audience into a work or seeing them as part of the work. for me it grew out of an interest in paying attention to the larger frames—not just what happens “on stage” but responding to the surrounding structures and systems as well.
American modern dance critic John Martin, writes in American Dancing from 1936, “What, then, is the means of contact between the dancer and the spectator? When we see a human body moving, we see movement which is potentially producible by a human body and therefore by our own; through kinesthetic sympathy we actually reproduce it vicariously in our present muscular experience and awaken such associational connotations as might have been ours if the original movement had been of our own making. The irreducible minimum of equipment demanded of a spectator, therefore, is a kinesthetic sense in working condition.” I believe Martin’s point here is to invite audiences to feel through dancing as opposed to thinking through dancing.
I really like this though i’d add the point that “feeling” ones way through a dance is the same thing as “thinking” ones way through… if dance can do nothing i hope it gets people to understand that ideas, feelings, logic, argument, etc etc etc can and does happen across the body. that’s what makes me so irritated by the popularity of competition dance (a la So You Think You Can bla bla bla franchise, not to mention regional competition dance etc, etc): it reduces all of that intelligence into spectacle and in that realm i don’t think audiences are feeling-thinking through their bodies and experiencing kinesthetic sympathy as much as applauding and salivating over skill and effort. i think it puts forth the idea that the body is something to champion, a lame horse to be disciplined rather than something to listen to and from which to think-feel. sure, this is one perspective and we need multiple perspectives, but this is what’s educating people on dance and that’s really unfortunate, a lost opportunity. i teach in academia and i witness and work with a lot of incoming students who’ve danced for most of their lives and can do a heap of cool technical actions and dance for hours, yet are disconnected from their bodies physically and psychologically. i’d go so far as saying those experiences within my teaching practice have played a great role in shaping what i pay attention to in my own work, my desire to move away from formal notions of virtuosities towards the more contemplative, nuanced, elemental, even murky and i can only hope that an audience is willing to go there with me.
by Autumn Hays
Considered to be one of the most renowned performance artists, Ron Athey began his works in the 80s. They are notorious for including aspects of S&M culture and itâ€™s relation to the AIDS crisis. Atheyâ€™s iconic pieces focus on a wide range of subjects including sexuality, religiosity, trauma, gay identity, loss, illness and ritualism. Raised with the expectation that he would become a Pentecostal minister, and after running away to L.A. and coming of age in the milieu of the punk rock underground, Atheyâ€™s work grew out of a complex performativity that still informs his art practice today. In 2013 Ronâ€™s first book dedicated to his work was published entitled Â Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey,Â edited by Dominic Johnson. The book includes writings by peers and scholars such as Guillermo Gomez-Pena,Â Antony Hegarty,Â Robert Wilson,Â Lydia Lunch,Â Bruce LaBruce,Â Amelia Jones,Â Jennifer Doyle,Â Homi K. BhabhaÂ and others. At the start of February, Chicago was host a legendary performance artist, Ron Athey visited Chicago. I was lucky enough to attend his performances, lectures and snag him for an interview. Here are some excerpts from our discussion.
AH: How it feels to be back in Chicago?
RA: I think I had more pre-anxiety about coming here, memories of staying here with Lawrence Steger and doing things with him. I was shocked and went into the shivers from the cold when got off the plane, not wearing long underwear. Itâ€™s not like London is warm, itâ€™s moderate and miserable there. Where as here needing many layers, I dig it.
AH: Tell us about he last time you were here and the last performance you did.
RA: I had to look at my own notes, I was here twice in â€™99 doing Solar Anus so at Hot House and at Chris Kellnerâ€™s gallery Hook Torture and I hadnâ€™t realized I havenâ€™t been here since then.
AH: Yeah itâ€™s been a while
RA:Yeah, I mean climates change. Randolph Street Gallery closed and all those places I would have went back to.
AH: Iâ€™ve actually been through the Randolph street archives and have seen videos of your work there and you really could feel its loss once it was gone here. I amÂ interestedÂ as you are here working with Defibrillator a newer performance space what are the correlation and difference between these kinds of spaces in this new kind of art climate?
RA: I think it just takes energy to make things happen. Itâ€™s not really that the climate is any different. A lot of spaces with the same history as Randolph Street that go back to NEA funded times, but really even before that these are artist run spaces and they donâ€™t, move with the times. So there was this gap and it takes someone high energy like Joseph (Ravens) to get people to work together. I mean even for these pieces I am doing this week and that he realized that Defibrillator itself would be a crunch and he found the right place off site, this is another way of working the art space because the space is so important. Some pieces I feel like I donâ€™t want to be in a place that shows work, like you know this site specific thing becomes a more neutral space than that black box or white wall hygiene kind of space.
AH: Your work is very versatile where you can perform in a lot of different kinds of spaces. I mean you can do that black box theater, the white-walled gallery, you can do performance art spaces or even S&M clubs so you have a versatility in where you can perform and also a little bit in your performativity, you engage various kinds of performance. Whatâ€™s the difference in working in these spaces? Is there a benefit to being flexible?
RA: Well, I wish I could still perform in clubs still, but I did evolve out of that scene. That allowed me to workshop before even any idea of funding to make the gig possible came up. For some pieces I think I might be precious about it being there. I tend, since I started doing the self-obliterations, I like being in with the audience. For the most controlling side of me, a perfect black box with the floors freshly painted and super duper lights, because youâ€™re not fighting the white wall sucking the light out from one minimal light that happens to be shining. Itâ€™s a more controlled situation and I do work in lighting illusions and those sorts of things. So thatâ€™s if Iâ€™m being precious but itâ€™s not necessarily the best feeling, the way I feel interactive with the audience or the space. But I think to get away from those white gallery walls I did start staging pieces in the middle of the room so that the people are the frontdrop and backdrop. You know I donâ€™t come out of this tradition of thinking of live art as an extension of gallery, my work doesnâ€™t come from there, I fully understand work that does but Iâ€™m not so keen on thisâ€¦ of course I love the perfect image, the perfect photograph but thatâ€™s not the work. Iâ€™m always concerned with how many cameramen are in there. I thought we were watching a work.
AH: Especially nowadays with camera phones itâ€™s interesting to have that camera lens constantly there.
RA: I think you have to think about what you are not experiencing while looking for that shot and also, do you care about the work, or are you just documenting your own life?
AH: So we touched on your definitions of live art and performance art. There are always different definitions. What are your thoughts on that?
RA: I think you get this polarization. This is the gallery school, and this is the theater school, but actually my background was through the Pentecostal church, particularly woman evangelists who did illustrated sermons starting in the 20s with Amy Semple McPherson, who built Angelus Temple in Echo Park and later Miss Velma (Jaggers) who built the jeweled altar from the Book of Revelations and who would appear as the whore of Babylon swinging in on a crescent moon using all the 70s technology, like the echo box, strobe lights and fog machines. So, performance art is this other type of sacred theater without the belief system in it. In abstract terms I might still use a thing like the audience is the witness, and its not about second guessing what their boundaries are, what they will experience, what they come in the door with. Itâ€™s impossible to know. Itâ€™s a mix of things, which is what it should be.Â Also itâ€™s about what mode you are in. Itâ€™s obviously not acting, so itâ€™s just full of these triggers to go into, not an altered state where you look like your fitting or asleep but some heightened state. I like art that rides a line between art and not art at all.
AH: I was wondering if you could tell us more about your book, â€œPleading in the Bloodâ€, and your process of making it.
RA: To start out with the book, you have to open archives that you didnâ€™t even know existed. And here is where I have to give some kudos to social media. I am very linked in to people in LA, people from the late 70s and early 80s Goth and Punk scenes. So I was able to come up with materials, confirm dates, and stories through there, and then track down the photographers. All I ever had was the newspaper, the tabloids, the rough printed images, Xeroxed and scanned, you know that kind of thing. And then I started getting closer to the source of the original image. It felt like I was perusing someone from a David Lynch movie, youâ€™re in a hotel room with seven 5by7s in a brief case. So you track that down and try to flesh out some of those stories, which is a harder period for me to flesh out. And working with Dominic Johnson who is a young academic at Queen Mary University, London. He was clear about what heavy academics who we liked in common, but I was clear that I didnâ€™t want it to be one of those artist books with three academic essays in it and lots of pictures so that no one ever, except for people in school, ever read the writing because its inaccessible outside the bubble. I wanted to give it a testimonial voice not just an academic one.
AH: Do you have any advice for younger artists attempting to learn the craft of making performance art?
RA: The key element of making work is immersion. Rather than doing research as a strong guide, let it be something you soak up. There is nothing sane about making performance art.
Defibrillator, Hook Torture, and Mana Contemporary pooled their efforts to showcase Ron in Chicago this month. Each night was filled with a wide mix of viewers, from pierced punks and goths, old school Chicago underground, art students, and art academics, many eager to see Ronâ€™s work in person. He performed two works on two separate nights, â€œIncorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remainsâ€ and â€œSebastianâ€ featuring Jon John and Sage Charles.
Messianic Remains is part of Atheyâ€™s Incorruptible Flesh series. The series started in 96â€™ and references the dark reality of living with AIDS. Athey talks about the piece saying it stems from â€œstill living but not living bodiesâ€. 10 years later in Glasgow, Athey did a solo individual piece, 6 hours long. The third part focused on the Mythological. Now this 4th and final chapter, was performed in Chicago at Mana Contemporary on January 31st. The work reveled in a religious grandiosity and explored Ron Atheyâ€™s body as a post-AIDS entity: a survivor. The work also looks at Atheyâ€™s own bodies ageing, and seems to shake hands with notions of death. The choreography is inspired by Kenneth Anger’s short film, Lucifer Rising.Â
The audience came in on to Ron laying down on ladder sitting on two wooden sawhorses with a baseball bat, swollen glands, and his head latched to a series of hooks in a crown of thorns style lining, his head connected to the wall. Though the preparationsÂ for this performance were not part of the audiencesâ€™ viewing, many felt the preparations, though unseen, were a large part of the work. Clear gloves were handed out and the audience dipped their hands in a pale Vaseline before taking turns touching Atheyâ€™s body as he laid on display. The offering of his flesh was both a gift and an obligation as viewers chose to experience the tension and pain up close. Ron than rises for a mythical, almost Egyptian dressing ceremony and moves to a new part of the gallery where he begins to read text from Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet, specifically â€œDivineâ€™s Funeral.â€
The very next day Ron Athey, Jon John and Sage Charles preformed â€œSebastian.â€ While interviewing Ron I had asked him about Working with Jon John and Sage.
â€œWe have this great chemistry where we trust each other, we donâ€™t have to plot out everything. Youâ€™re going to do what you need to do with the goal of making this action happen. Easy directions within a choreographed frame. What is Sebastian? I donâ€™t know. I think thatâ€™s where live work can be surprising. If you know what you want to prove rather than explore something youâ€™re just strong-arming a result. The potential of live experience is so beyond that outlined vision that Iâ€™m doing. It took me a long time to understand that.â€
In this work Athey is taking on the role of St. Sebastian, a saint that has also become a homoerotic icon. The event starts with Sage and Jon John making their way through the crowd in a procession towards Ron, who is already hung up on a ladder, tied with red rope. As Sage drums, Jon John climbs a second ladder to meet Athey and begins piercing him with arrows. Ron begins to scream and chant in performanceâ€™s best ritualistic shamanism. Jon John then fills the role of St Irene and begins to heal Athey, spreading lotion on Atheyâ€™s body, eventually removing the arrows and as Athey bleeds he helps him depose down from ladder and onto a table where they cover him in a white cloth. For the final and perhaps most touching part of the performance, one that had echoes of the NEA controversy, Jon John cuts sections of cloth-covered in Athey’s blood and places them in tiny frames handing them to random audience members.
Ron Atheyâ€™s work certainly isnâ€™t for the squeamish, but despite the inclusion of blood and body modification I didnâ€™t find the shock value of the work to be any kind of crutch or sympathetic tool. Rather is was a means of performativity that outwardly engaged Atheyâ€™s body as a gay, post-AIDS, religicized, performative body. When looking at his work, the dense symbolism and actions, the controversy and the intense metaphoric value, I feel like ending this with one of my favorite quotes from my interview with Ron Athey that I feel addresses his work, process, and in a way the very practice of performance art.
â€œIâ€™m actually at this place in performance art where I think everything is just an entry point. You can say this is about your mother, this is about this accident, this is about AIDS, but itâ€™s actually not what itâ€™s about. You donâ€™t know what itâ€™s about till you do it live, thatâ€™s why itâ€™s live work. I have to bring something to life to make work. There has to be uncertain things within the framework of the piece that allow it to go as it will.â€
When I first came to Chicago in January of 2011, my girlfriend and I met in the large, empty luggage area of Midway that, even as a place designed for waiting, Â seems hilariously ill-suited for the purpose. And then, after a brief train ride, we arrived–slightly out of breath and heaving large suitcases–at my brotherâ€™s front door, where we would stay for a month to look after a pair of cats and introduce ourselves to the brand new grid we would call home. A month later, we moved into our new apartment; a day after that marked the first day of the massive blizzard called snowpocalypse, snowmageddon, or blizzaster depending on what terrible local blog was on-screen at the time.
Here we are, three years later, in what feels like another long and dreary winter in the same vein as all the long and dreary winters before it, and after it, and etc. I always associate winter with a certain kind of loneliness, and especially that one three years ago, living in a new city without any real way to even figure out how to best navigate a massive snowstorm, when our plans to hit up IKEA were blocked and we ending up spreading peanut butter and jelly with chopsticks while sitting on the floor.
In a lot of ways, I think winter and videogames can be kind of comparable in that loneliness, for better or for worse. At the time of experienceâ€”either treading through a deep snow alone or deep into the fantasy narrative of an outrageous dragon-adventureâ€”theyâ€™re both intensely personal. Itâ€™s only really until after the fact that people begin to talk about the shared experience they had, be it shoveling out their car, or falling into a snowbank, or conquering some foe on what ended up being a very similar adventure. In a similar way, games and winters begin in the individual, personal realm, and only later transform into the social, shareable experience after the fact, via discussion.
It can be difficult to get new players or people unfamiliar with the personal commitment necessary to play a sprawling, multi-hour epic, and truth be told, even as a fan, I find it daunting myself. After all, if youâ€™re more comfortable with books, or filmsâ€”you have the necessary foundations to understand those mediums, prevalent as they have been in our cultureâ€”it makes more sense to dive into one of those, just as it makes more sense to stay on the west coast, or in Texas, away from the feet of snow that always finds a way to creep into your boots.
I bring this all up because during that 2011 winter, with a lack of anything inside our outside our apartment (aside from snow), I discovered a game by Terry Cavanagh called At a Distance. I had first encountered Cavanaghâ€™s work in the small flash game Donâ€™t Look Back, which turns the myth of Orpheus and Eurydiceâ€™s ascent from the underworld into a bit of puzzle-platforming, and is its own obvious meditation on love and loneliness. At a Distance is something quite different, though, because, unlike Donâ€™t Look Back or those other single-player monoliths, it requires not only two players, but two screens, two computers, positioned side by side. The game, however, is just as much about loneliness as it is togetherness, a kind of blending of that initial personal and secondary social experienced that can occur through gaming.
Though it took a bit of work to get it setupâ€”for which Cavanagh offers a handy guideâ€”once we got At a Distance working, and played through it, it became one of the most memorable gaming experiences I had ever encountered. The art of the game is enchanting; thereâ€™s a sort of lo-fi blurriness to the gameâ€™s monochromatic worlds that wouldnâ€™t be out of place on a 90â€™s screensaver. But the play is just as engaging, mostly because the way it treats shared space, physically, as different than the individual space, which is entirely cooped up in the digital form of your computer.
Like a lot of the press which came out about the game at the time, Iâ€™m reluctant to give too much away. But what essentially happens is that Cavanagh plays very successfully with a physical aspect of the game via screen-sharing. Maybe youâ€™ve played or seen others play a split-screen adversarial game such as Goldeneye on the N64, where each playerâ€™s location, though broadcast openly through the nature of a shared screen, is a closely guarded secret. In short, screen-looking (as it is often called) is looked down upon, akin to cheating, as it could easily provide an edge against an opponent.
Cavanaghâ€™s At a Distance, on the other hand, flips this premise in two ways: first, screen looking is naturally encouraged via his setup suggestions (side-by-side). Since itâ€™s meant to be played on two systems, the natural assumption by omission would be a head-to-head setup, computers and people facing each other, Thunderdome-style. Second, as players progress through the game, the digital space they find themselves in is not exactly shared, but intrinsically linked in a way that really only comes to light through screen-sharing, through conversational awareness, and social discovery between two players. Even though each player finds themselves in a solitary digital realm, the game is anything but lonely, because that social aspectâ€”normally confronted after the fact through identical shared experienceâ€”is combined willingly into that personal, individual experience of playing a game on the lonesome.
Above all, what I mean to say is that, if, like me, you look outside at the grey canopy of snow/cloud/doom and feel the urge to crawl back into the warmth of a recently-vacated bed, give At a Distance a try. Just like hot chocolate is the perfect companion for a cold February day, so is At a Distance, if you and a partner are willing to give it a shot and stretch the boundaries of a sometimes solitary, occasionally-wintry medium.
Guest post by A.Martinez
Nick Jirasek is a food artist and founder of underground food entityÂ Guerrilla Smiles. He has worked with TonyÂ Fitzpatrick,Â LinksÂ Hall,Â RedmoonÂ Theater,Â LindaÂ WarrenÂ Projects, HauserÂ Gallery, EnsembleÂ DalÂ Niente, High Concept Laboratories, and more. Nick has a strong love of Malort and makes a mean pork shoulder. I got to ask him some questions about who he is, what he does, and his exciting presence in the arts scene.
A.Martinez: What is your definition of a food artist and what you do?
Nick Jirasek: A food artist is one who uses primarily comestible materials to create, explore, or challenge ideas. Â I work professionally in this capacity at exhibition openings, private events, the streets, house-parties, underground dinners, performances, pop-ups, talk-shows, and screenings.
Martinez: You are a self-trained- how did you develop your skills?
Jirasek: Immersion. There are seemingly unending resources, documentation, and wisdom surrounding food. Everyone wants to talk about it, wants to teach you the â€˜right way to do it,â€™ to share the ritual of eating with you, the most authentic place to buy kielbasa, the healthiest diet, the ethical diet, the best place to eat carnitas. Once I had the feeling that being a food artist is what I wanted to do, I made it my entire life. Some of the learning has been traditional in cooking under trained kitchen professionals, but most of it has been in acute observation and guerrilla learning tactics. Iâ€™ll sound like a broken .FLAC if I say the internet has been a tremendous resource, so Iâ€™ll say itâ€™s been invaluable. That of course means the usual suspects of e-books, Youtubes, and blog trolling, but also some harder to find fountains of information in more underground and illicit venues of the www. Once one is cognizant of basic technique, cultural/ethnic culinary tradition, and flavor pairing, is when some cooks then begin to hone their craft or get the fuck out; an Italian chef mastering the different regions of Italy, travelling to the Piedmonts to study centuries of tradition in Agnolotti, or a trade-school dropout in search of Tru. They begin to specialize based on their talents, their genealogy, and interests. But, Iâ€™m not interested in specializing my edible journey. I want to continually challenge the ideas and traditions of food while building a vocabulary of how to articulate that comestibly, socially, and literally.
Martinez: Who and what is Guerrilla Smiles and how long has it been around?
Jirasek: Guerrilla Smiles started as a social project about 6 years ago; to simply spread smiles in unexpected places and unexpected ways that would serve to beautify our lives and the lives around us.
I was a worn-out, director of food and beverage at Chicagoâ€™s 4th tallest building, the John Hancock. I worked a ridiculous amount of hours. The dreams at night of P&Lâ€™s, and the commute home down Chicago on the 66 bus was the cherry on-top of the soul sucking sundae. One day someone at the Hancock had ordered what must have been nearly a hundred gold, helium filled balloons and thrown them in the loading dock after the party was over. Â I grabbed all the balloons and walked down the street, handing a floating ball of gold to anyone and everyone that would take them. People like balloons, or maybe just the color gold more than I had thought. I was overrun by would-be gold-diggers by the time I made it to the McDonaldâ€™s on State street. At that point I walked to the middle of intersection and released the remaining bouquet of gold into the sky. Similar projects came in weeks following like cashing half my paycheck at the currency exchange in quarters and handing them out, then throwing them in the air and off bridges. Safety became an issue.
Around the same time my good friends Claire Molek and Erin Babbin were starting a gallery practice called Studio1020 (later theStudio and thisisnothestudio). Â Building on the ideas put forth on the street, I pleaded with them to seize the opportunity of the ubiquitous gallery food & wine table. Â The idea was simple; to mirror the displaying artistsâ€™ work aesthetically or thematically in comestible form. This way the dialogue of what the artistâ€™s message was, was literally palatable and hopefully led to broaden and ease the discourse. Â Through the past 5 years, a changing cast of cooking professionals, artists, and friends have helped carry on this mission from private dinners of 9 to public events of 900.
Martinez: The Break The Bread series focuses on your collaborations with visual artists at galleries around the city. How do you choose what artists and galleries with which youâ€™re going to collaborate? Or do they choose you?
Jirasek: For the vast majority of gigs, the artist, gallerist, or curator approaches us. Guerrilla Smiles does not advertise, has no website, and uses social media sparsely as a means to communicate. That is to say, we truly relish our underground disposition. My time with Studio1020 afforded me a great opportunity to interact and network directly with interested parties, interesting artists, and share lots of ideas through food. It all started from there and kind of naturally branched out by word of mouth. I have, in special situations, approached artists I want to work with and am looking forward to doing so more in the near future, as well as producing independent original work.
Martinez: What is the process of trying out new dish?
Jirasek: I kind of have an ongoing list of techniques, ingredients, serving vessels, equipment and ideas Iâ€™m waiting for the right opportunity to try. When it seems appropriate, I get to try out new stuff. In general, the basis for everything I make is a new dish as every exhibition or performance is new. There is some safety in knowing my control of flavor is adept, my technique is solid, but conversely an exciting trepidation in knowing that this dish has components I have done before, but altogether is completely new.
Martinez: What is the biggest revelation youâ€™ve had about the way you work?
Jirasek: One needs to be aware of their work patterns and not sabotage their opportunities. I donâ€™t like asking for help, and no one will ever work for me for free.
Martinez: Is shopping for ingredients an important part of your creative process?
Jirasek: Extremely. I devote at least an entire day to shopping for an event that can completely change the menu. The Green City Market is a staple and only occurs on 2 days of the week. But generally I go to local specialty stores and markets that take me from 113th to Skokie. This process of traveling all around the city, of breathing in the lifeblood of our diverse culture, of interacting with ethnicities whose only commonality with me is Chicago and food, is probably my greatest inspiration. Itâ€™s not dissimilar to the interaction I have with people on the night of an event. Most â€˜food peopleâ€™ will disagree with me on this, but Iâ€™m less interested in the local food movement and more interested in small, local family businesses, and traditions in Chicagoland.
Martinez: What is your favorite ingredient to work with?
Jirasek: Celery or Popcorn.
Martinez: Guerrilla Smiles has a dish called Oak Street Beach. Describe this dish and how it came about.
Jirasek: Oak Street Beach started as dish for a thisisnotthestudio show featuring artist Xiao Tse at High Concept Laboratories. Tse took upwards of a thousand pictures from the concrete pavement of Oak St. Beachâ€™s shore, facing the lake and narrowed it down to one piece that combined around twenty of the most discerning shots. It is essentially a deconstructed soup, with the broth held separately so as not to affect the aesthetic and textural integrity of the dry ingredients. The dry ingredients are held in a ten ounce clear plastic glass. The sand is a combination of ground peanuts, cashews, and maltodextrin. Â The grass is julienned wild ramps. The trash is a candied ginger chip. The fish is a rice flour fried smelt. The towel is a soy and turmeric based spring roll wrapper. The wet ingredients are suspended above in a fitting five ounce plastic glass, rimmed with suntan lotion that is garlic mayo. The Lake Michigan water is a kombu dashi. The eater is instructed to take a small mouthful of the dry ingredients and wash it down with a swig of the wet ingredients, going back and forth in a double fisted affair like they are swimming, until they are finished.
Martinez: You were born and raised in Chicago and this has a strong influence on the food you make. Are there any other cities or cultures that you either look to for inspiration or are inherent in your work?
Jirasek: I think Mexican food simply got everything right. We obviously have a large population of Mexican-Americans in Chicago, and benefit greatly from the cornucopia of ingredients, flavor, and culture they have imbued upon us. Aside from that, I took great inspiration from my time cooking in Panama City, whose flavors are a great amalgamation of the diverse foreign cultures who have occupied the area and the local flora and fauna. I look forward to delving into historical American First Nation culinaria as a geographical inspiration, and look forward to marrying Filipino and Czech food with acidic flavors.
Martinez: Food-wise, what do you think are some exciting places or events happening around the city?
Jirasek: I think The Plant in The Back of the Yards is going to be a blueprint for metropolitan farming worldwide. Asado Coffeeâ€™s recent expansion plans and concept of â€˜nano-roastingâ€™ is next level. Smalls BBQ is the kind of approachable, forward thinking neighborhood restaurant that Chicago has lacked to put it on the level of NYC. Florioleâ€™s baguettes are worth lining up for a la Paris when they come out fresh at 11am everyday. Three Aces is what every gastropub should strive to be. I also think weâ€™ll see a boon in quality independent food writing like Graze, Middlewest and whatever Anthony Todd has up his sleeve.
Martinez: What is your favorite Chicago-style food? And whereâ€™s your favorite place to get it?
Jirasek: Chicagoâ€™s hot dog is unmatched. Though not all the classic ingredients are included, Gene & Judesâ€™ canâ€™t be contended with because of the volume they go through and the freshness that entails, and fries like woah. Gotta go with underdog Chickieâ€™s for beef because their giardiniera is only quickly cured and crunchier. Salernoâ€™s for pizza because the true Chicago slice is thick crust and party cut.
Martinez: What does Guerrilla Smiles have lined up in the coming months?
Jirasek: In the great tradition of former Redmoon Theater Development Director Sean Kaplan, we will be curating the amuse-bouche portion of the upcoming fundraiser Spectacle Lunatique, outfitted Guerrilla style, primarily by the underground supper clubs of Chicago. We are in post-production for the next episode of our Break The Bread series with OnTheRealFilm for last yearâ€™s THAW fundraiser for Links Hall, as well as designing a menu for a soon opening southside cafe with one of Chicagoâ€™s champion contemporary artists.
Martinez: Is there a piece of advice, food-related or not that you think of often?
Jirasek: Donâ€™t crowd the pan. When it rains, it pours. Be safe, be strong.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.
By Kevin Blake
Chicago Imagism represents something more complex than a published manifesto, an aesthetic engagement, or a theoreticianâ€™s aim at creating an avant-garde. One might argue that Chicago Imagism, an internationally recognized movement with roots in the late 1960â€™s and early 1970â€™s, is still alive and well in the second city. On his 90th birthday on January 26, 2014, Richard Loving explained to a rapt audience at the Hyde Park Art Center, that his workâ€“like the work of other â€œImagistsâ€â€“were simply about making the work that they wanted to make.
In their current exhibit, Inside the Outside at the Hyde Park Art Center curated by Aaron Ott, Richard Loving and Eleanor Spiess-Ferrisâ€™s works on display span two careers that aptly describe the very complicated historicity of the Chicago Imagist movement. Inside the Outside is a critical investigation of the ambiguous framework of Chicago Imagism and how these two very different artists bound geographically but also aesthetically chose to utilize its tenets to spur their artistic visions.
The works are hung chronologicallyâ€“a relatable choreography that adequately stresses the aesthetic distances traveled and the hard earned merits of two lives of artistic engagement. In relation to the Imagistsâ€™ aestheticâ€“high key color strategies, figuration, symbology, and text to name a fewâ€“these works can fit the bill. However, the distinction as Imagist work may also deprive them of the singular translation they so deserve.
Spiess-Ferris and Lovingâ€™s works are clearly about themselves. Throughout the show, there is an overwhelming sense of self discovery or exhibitionism that develops into a confident vernacular that is uniquely their own. In Lovingâ€™s case, this idea takes the shape of a materials quest, that over decades evolves from small enamel works that become large format abstractions and matriculate to color drenched dreamscapes that embody the entire narrative. They are Lovingâ€™s accumulated wealth of knowledge with his materials, and a pointed emulsion of his interests.Â Lovingâ€™s work â€œFire and Smokeâ€ is one such amalgamation.
Hovering above the very unnatural bands of lush color is a curved horizon that encloses the space of the painting and alludes to an inevitable endingâ€“a forced punctuation. This curvilinear maneuver has become a staple in Lovingâ€™s later works and allow for the landscapes to remain in the netherworld of abstraction while maintaining the graphic qualities central to the Imagist aesthetic. Lovingâ€™s narratives are not forthcoming, but they reveal enough of itself to spend time with their mysteries. The paintings can operate as storyteller or simply as an object of contemplation, and therein lies their success.
On the surface, the narrative elements seem to be more readily available in such works as Spiess-Ferrisâ€™s â€œResignation,â€ where the viewer is immediately immersed into a parallel universe that is completely her own. The cast of characters is the entry pointâ€“as there is a familiarity that grows from one piece to the next. Everything in Speiss-Ferrisâ€™s paintings is as familiar as the paint itself, yet there are no answers to her riddles either. The paintings allow you to meander through them, but never actually be a part of the placeâ€“it is her singular experience of a world in which the viewer has no role. It is in the moments of expectations unmeant that the viewer can understand their exclusion. â€œResignation,â€ exudes Speiss-Ferrisâ€™s anguished charm while allowing for self discovery through her range of emblematic totems that find their way into her imagined worlds.
The show also presents some of Speiss-Ferrisâ€™s drawings where one can see the artist looking at her creations from without, while also participating in the ironies and chagrin of human awareness. In â€œAcquisitionâ€ the sketched portions of the drawing remain as portals into her studioâ€“a nod to herself and remnant of her hand.
This elusiveness and earnest approach to her materials has kept Spiess-Ferris on the periphery of Imagism. Her work is an acidly good-natured view of human follies, largely concerned with the roles and relations between women and nature. She presents the human comedy through her imagined places that are often absurd, charming, hostile, seductive, and ridiculous. Charged with strong doses of painfully comic self-discovery, her host of symbols, images, and characters all play theatrical roles in the ongoing comedy that is a perpetual remix of itself.
The affinity to nature, the paint handling, geography, and the parallel working timeline are enough to link these two artists, but the strength in this show comes from both artistâ€™s unflinching dedication to their practices. Decades in the making, their works have evolved and remained on the edges of a discussion that Chicago painters cannot seem to avoid. Imagism is the staple, the running joke, the license, and liberator for Chicago painters. It is the all-encompassing genre most aptly described by Richard Loving as â€œjust making what we wanted to make.â€
To pair these two artists in a conversation about the reaches of Imagism was to operate on the peripheryâ€“to think outside the proverbial box. As the Hyde Park Art Center enters into its 75th anniversary year, a show to kick off the celebration that commemorates a pivotal moment in the centerâ€™s history as well as the history of Chicago image making was a grandiose gesture, most welcome.