When I interviewed Detroit-based artist Chido Johnson last month, I had planned on a short and timely discussion about his work Let’s Talk About Love, Baby, which opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCAD) on February 10. As the conversation wandered, we began discussing a recent project, Jack’s Vision, that had taken the artist back to Zimbabwe, the country where Johnson was raised, but from which he had been estranged since the early 90s. At the risk of stepping on Caroline’s toes, (readers may be familiar with Caroline Picard‘s series of interviews for this blog exploring the nature of hybridity), Johnson and I likewise reflected on the concept of hybridity—a position that the artist has continued to negotiate in his art practice, reflecting on his European ancestry, African upbringing, and his current immersion in the hyper-American city of Detroit.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I’m interested in the idea of reenactment, particularly in Jack’s Vision, where you reenacted a contentious narrative within the history of colonization while simultaneously reenacting your own biographical narrative. How do you view reenactment within your work?
Chido Johnson: For me, it’s a process of rewriting or reclaiming. With Jack’s Vision, I’m playing Jack (who is described as Kingsley Fairbridge’s trusted helper) and myself, as well as embodying the role of Fairbridge, who was the white child of the European colonizers who had a vision of where the city should be relocated. My DNA relates to Fairbridge, but culturally, being raised in Zimbabwe, I relate to Jack. When I created the film Mutare Mangwana [part of the Jack’s Vision project], I was creating a new monument for envisioning, which historically was limited to one vision, Fairbridge. There was a bronze statue of him that was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth at Christmas Pass in 1953 and removed following independence in 1982. Since then, it has just been a barren slab of stone with a small painted sign reading “scenic view.” There was still a negative element despite the absence of the bronze—even the empty space signified a purely colonial condition.
The location marked the historical spot that led to a city being relocated. The original location of Mutare (now called Old Mutare) could not access the railway that the imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, was trying to build connecting the colonies. Fairbridge’s was a surveyor Rhodes and entrusted his son to search across the mountains for a location where the city could relocate that had access to the south for a railway track. The young Fairbridge and Jack camped on this site as they build a campsite for his father to survey the new location, which is now the city of Mutare. Putting aside the colonial narrative, the site reminds us of the power of visions—the idea that both Jack and Kingsley stood looking down at the valley seeing visions as different as they may have been. I wanted to rewrite that moment—recognize that it was Jack who was from Mozambique, who very probably knew that path, and led Fairbridge up the mountain—but instead of undemocratically documenting one vision as was the case with Fairbridge, I wanted the diverse citizens of Mutare to claim their own multiple visions. So my collaborator, Naomie (Dr. Hleziphi Naomie Nyanungo, who is currently a professor at the Institute of Peace, Leadership, and Governance at Africa University in Old Mutare) and I invited people to that space to sit in a chair and record their visions. Originally it was going to be the chair I made for the performance chirem(b)a , but then I felt that it should be very minimal, because I wanted the subject to be the people not on the carved elements of what they’re sitting on, so we chose one of those simple white, plastic chairs that you find in every back yard in every country and we had them sit on that. History is a very non-democratic narrative, and in this case, history is the single perception of a white child within a white settlement. What got us excited about the project was to democratisize history and subvert a site from its negative role into a positive one.
Artistically too, I made sure that there was more than one resolution to the problem. Instead of installing one monument, Jack’s Vision included several parts: Mutare Mangwana, the participatory video; Chirem (b) a, the process of me climbing the mountain with a collection of objects that themselves were very symbolic; and the narrative contribution— Dear Sekuru Jack, a letter to Jack, by Naomie. And the project is still on-going —the video Mutare Mangwana is still growing and people are still contributing to the narrative… there are some key people who we need in the video, and to truly bring the performance to everyone, we want to have the white plastic chair cast in bronze so anyone could use their cell phones and document themselves on the site recording their vision. In doing so subverting the role of a monument as a fixed historical narrative into a constantly growing narrative. The monument in its physical form is a performative stage.
SMP: Do you consider yourself a performance artist? What is the relationship between performance and object making in your work?
CJ: I’m totally an object maker. To consider myself a performance artist, I am very naive performer, because it was more that I had to climb to the top of the mountain. It was a very raw, very direct experience. I wasn’t thinking critically of performance art. Chirem(b)a, for example, was a raw need to connect with the experience of me as a kid climbing that mountain all the time. It was something that I was already connected to. I knew that in that case both Jack, Fairbridge, and I had climbed that mountain, so the project was to reenact those climbs… It seems like the older I get, the less I feel I need to intellectualize or appropriately position a thought but rather collaborate or stem new thought from an existing thought. The goal becomes less about its critical position and more about its honesty or realness. My process becomes less about whether the work is performance, installation, site specific but rather enacting my natural role as a little kid—the ways I used to play and the ways I would brainstorm and maintain curiosity about my role within daily life, connecting myself to the existence around me. I grew up in very political space, and the process of trying to find pleasures within it, and so I keep going back to puppets because that’s what I used to do as a little kid. Maybe that’s where the humor comes in, through the performance– not necessarily through its expression but maybe through its oddity. My background was in traditional figurative expression, carving in stone and wood, so I love the craft of things, but equally, I love the pleasure that comes from the interactions and activation between those “things” and people. I am more interested in how the objects perform.
SMP: Had you worked in Zimbabwe as a professional artist before this project?
CJ: When I was 17, I came to the USA for school and had serious culture shock issues, so I went back to Zimbabwe for a year, and that’s when I began carving stone with an amazing sculptor who became my mentor, Tapfuma Gutsa. I visited once more when I was an undergrad in 1994, and since then, I could not really afford to easily. When I was awarded the Kresge Fellowship, I was finally able to go back in 2010 and 2011. It was an amazing experience! I am presently collaborating with my friend Naomie I mentioned earlier and another friend who joined our project, Kumbulani Zamuchiya. Besides the economic struggle in Zimbabwe, the art scene is very much alive.
SMP: Hybridity is a term that is often applied to your practice. Given that so much of your work addresses your biography and childhood, I’m curious how you addressed your own hybridity presumably before you even knew what that meant? How did you address identity as a young person and how did you eventually realize that the in between-ness of your hybrid identity provides a productive place to work from?
CJ: I grew up always being the other. Someone from another place. As an adult, I have connected with friends who grew up similarly though on the flipside. It is more common then we imagine, yet culturally still slowly accepted. With me, the question of othering wasn’t an issue until I came to the States. It was very simple growing up: the whites were fucked up. That was it. They had an unbalanced superiority complex, probably originating from the fact that the entire west was fucked up—President Reagan was in office when I came! As a child, I spoke Shona as my first language and it was later that I learned English. It was only coming here that I realized that I’m white. Really white. It was shocking. It seemed much easier to drift between cultural spaces in Zimbabwe, in which I was already living in, and finding meaning or existence between complexities and tensions. It felt like as soon as I came to the USA I was immediately confined to my physical identity and not my social political or cultural perceptions. This is not to undermine my won personal struggles of being different growing up, but rather to embrace those struggles as well as the evident struggles of change existing around me. At the time Zimbabwe was a post-revolutionary state, a free country redefining itself from an oppressive minority rule that claimed a colonial cultural hierarchy. Subversive western culture that defied power systems such as hip-hop and reggae were really popular. Hell, I was into break-dance and basketball in high school in rural Zimbabwe.
I guess what I am trying to emphasize is that I do not want to necessarily idealize the hybrid, like in music, its easy to talk about the mixing, but we have to remember it comes from cutting, which is a violent act. So the hybrid to me is like blues music, dancing to lyrics of struggle. We all experience how media, mass culture, and social political systems marginalize us – I’m interested in those spaces of conflict that divides us, and hopefully reveal the beauty that connects us. That point of tension can be the point that’s exciting—full of possibility and new experiences of understanding.
SMP: Is this why you’re drawn to collaboration and bringing together diverse viewpoints?
CJ: Very much so!
SMP: How do you see your role as an organizer? How do you control the chaos of collaborative projects?
CJ: I realize that doing this stuff, I can’t plan everything. I need to be open or else I turn into a director, and I’m learning how to accept chaos. Some of my work has more of a sense of authorship and I do still craft objects, but it all comes back to the puppet and its role in the narrative. I did this show two years ago at Oakland University called Domestified Angst Second Recording, which was very rooted in my personal struggles of culturally assimilating. It was difficult to explain, as it was directly questioning here and there (Zimbabwe). I almost felt like I didn’t have an audience that understood what “there” meant. Not everyone understood the statements I was making because you need someone who has really experienced both to connect the two positions as well as the in between. It turned into almost an educational or didactic thing— the process of unpacking the layers. Kresge really did help quite a bit by allowing me to go back [to Zimbabwe]. When I was there, I was able to look at “here” differently. The meaning of place became something very new to me. Another really being impact of that exhibit was I had studio assistants for the first time. The final install of the work was not done by me but by artists that I truly trusted with my work. During that install I was teaching in Sweden, so as much as we planned everything out ahead of time, then skyping while I was there, I still felt like an audience when I finally walked into the installation. I finally understood what Amar Kanwar meant when talking about his piece a year earlier titled The Lightning Testimonies, as what he learnt from the work. I finally felt I was able to listen to my work. A major part of that is the work already had an existing rich conversation before it was installed. Those conversations existed between these artists assisting me (Vince Troia, Nate Morgan, Kevin Beasley, Kurt Greene) the curator Dick Goody and I before it was open to a wider audience. As much as I was the author of the work, it had already expanded beyond my initial internalized conversation and externalized it. This was very enriching and I realized how rewording it was working with others. The work exists as a shared point of inquiry between things and between makers. I think soliciting this conversation among different identities became more rewarding to me as a searcher and as a quest. Here, I’m trying to pose and open questions whereas before I was giving out statements and telling people how I felt and presenting how I looked saw the world. Working collaboratively externalizes personal narratives and reveals shared perceptions.
SMP: It seems as though the journey is a reoccurring theme in your work, thinking particularly of Jack’s Vision and your Detroit-based project, Dance for Diego. At the conceptual level, how does the journey factor into your practice
CJ: Detroit is the longest I’ve lived in one place, and even so, the spaces I physically occupy feel psychologically like a hotel—a comfort that feels transitional. It comes down to this idea of moving, not being rooted, and constantly searching for something. The Woodward Avenue projects are the most specific to the city. My Pink Caddi was about relocation, while the Woodward Avenue Wire Car Cruise was about a cultural celebration—it was about the phenomena of that performance and the poetry of the wheels rolling down that actual road, similar to the way that Jack’s Vision is about being on that same sacred land. People looked at those cars like they were magic, and they weren’t considering the economy at that moment. Diego [Rivera]’s mural depicting workers from diverse ethnic backgrounds working together on the assembly line was in reality bullshit. But it was this vision of a city whose diversity Diego saw represented the city that inspired me to work with many different communities in the city and get them to come and participate. It was about the diversity of Detroit—Detroit as Diego imagined and painted, and realizing that vision today with all of us together here. But back to your question, I realize I never really investigated the journey physically, or at least consciously. It has more been about a cultural psychological journey.
SMP: Do you have any plans to continue working in Africa?
CJ: Right now, I’m working very hard to bring two artists here from Zimbabwe by teaming up with Mitch and Gina with the Power House Project. Detroit has had rich interactions with artists predominantly the East and West coast, and Europe, it is about time we artists coming in with different cultural lenses. There are such assumptions about African artists, but so much of the work produced by friends and collaborators in Harare share certain similar aesthetics such as installations made from found material. There’s a great deal of conversation about this type of work, but it all comes from a very western tradition. It’s about time we had artists coming in who give a diverse perspective about Detroit and the experience of this city.
Chido Johnson is the head of sculpture at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and was a 2009 Kresge Fellow.
The Love Librarian is in. Another Valentine’s Day may be behind us, but Detroit-based artist Chido Johnson still wants to talk about love. For the month of February, Johnson is the official Love Librarian of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), cataloging, digitizing, and facilitating public engagement with his ongoing project, Let’s Talk About Love Baby, a growing collection of artist-made romance novels. Since its founding in 2008, the Love Library has expanded from Detroit to include branches in Chicago, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia. Each chapter has its own resident Love Librarian whose task is to invite a group of artists, (who in turn have invited additional artists), to contribute a book to the burgeoning collection.
The current Detroit archive consists of works from artists and collectives who cross all media and cultural demographics, and their variable portrayals of love and romance range from the steamily satirical to the unnervingly intimate. “Heart Abortion” by Suite42, (Danielle Julian Norton and Tarrah Krajnak), is an homage to art world-induced heartbreak bound in the pages of Artforum; Scott Johnson’s “Guilty Love,” is a volume whose pages literally reflect the reader-as-author bound in narcissistic self-love; and Ed Brown and Annie Reinhardt’s dual volumes, “Birds + Shell,” consist of a cassette and player housed in a pair of two unassuming covers of Danielle Steele paperbacks. Each book when ensconced en masse is equally compelling, and upon closer examination, the works reveal maker, collector, and reader as agents bound by an affection for, well, affection, in all its mysterious and salacious incarnations.
The Love Library was born from a time of crisis. Creator Chido Johnson sought to address the violence and devastation of the current moment with a project that could serve as a generative counterpoint—love being a force that similarly leads to undoing and affect. Exploring a subject that many would consider taboo in the context of academia and fine art, Johnson ventured beyond the pop precedent of Robert Indiana, the unsubstantive sparkle of Damien Hirst, and even the digitally-networked quotidian community of Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher’s Learning to Love You More. Indeed, Let’s Talk About Love Baby is a different brand of cheese altogether. Johnson’s library reminds us that universality doesn’t preclude difference, and sometimes quirkiness can be found in cliché.
I spoke with Chido Johnson, Love Librarian, in residence at MOCAD.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: So, let’s talk about love. How did this project begin, and how is love as a subject significant for you?
Chido Johnson: The idea for Love Library [Let’s Talk About Love] began when I was teaching in Sweden in 2008. This was just when violence in the Gaza Strip was escalating, and when Zimbabwe—where I was born and raised, was going through a horrific time. An image that has stayed with me from that moment is news footage of a doctor amidst the shelling in Gaza being interviewed live by a friend who worked for the Israeli TV. While he was being interviewed about the conflict, he was told that his family—his daughters were just killed by Israeli shells. It was crazy. At that time, I was thinking that as an educator we don’t talk about love, sex, or religion, and for whatever reason, these are all no-nos in an academic setting; instead, we talk about psychology and identity, and I felt like we were missing the meaty stuff of life. Later, talking about this issue with one of my colleagues in Sweden, I knew I wanted to address this idea. I was moved by it.
SMP: Why the form of the romance novel?
CJ: I was raised in rural Zimbabwe where we didn’t have television. My mom was a medical doctor and for her downtime she would read Mills and Boons, which is the British version of Harlequin— novels that are more toned down and more romantic than the very hot, highly sexualized versions that are over here. Really, it was the only form of entertainment, and I used to read at least one romance book a week.
This romance novel project is a way to address the cheesiness of love—how it’s perceived as a cheesy subject, packaged in cheesy formats like the Harlequin novel and the top-forty movie. I had to address the work in a totally cheesy way—I embraced the cheesiness. The thing about the romance novel is you tend to discount this shelf immediately for its cheap paperbacks—as a one-night stand kind of experience, but then, if you really let yourself go into the project, you can be caught. The love story is human.
My work has been always curious about othering and the formation of assumptions—assumptions of self and of other. The idea is to look down the shelf and see all of these homogenized objects. It’s only when you pick one out and spend some time with it that you realize that it’s so different. It was really important to the project that this work was not made by me, rather, I invite people to participate in it. It had to be about the collectivism, and it had to be about the assumptions of the similar and the shock of the differences. We are enriched by our differences, not by systemized similarities. That’s what I really wanted to push with the project.
SMP: It’s interesting, because as you rightly point out, there’s a distinct stickiness between numerous elements within the work including: fantasy and reality, serial and singular, and ephemeral and eternal. Can you speak more to the objecthood of this work?
CJ: Yes, this project definitely speaks to the book and its perceived temporalness. These objects here are very much alive —in touch, caress, smell—yet in our present time, books have become the object of nostalgia almost similar to a hand written letter. So that physicalness was very important too, and I think that’s why I specifically called out to artists who would approach work so differently, but are very conscious of the physical nature of objects. Each book is a very physical experience.
Growing up, my father was an artist—a political activist and a puppeteer. As a child, I really enjoyed making puppets, and for me, a puppet has a defined role and function. It has a purpose, a cultural function. So i see the work being very raw, naked to its actual role, thus very real, and not dependent on an existential narrative. It’s an object that is what it is—it exists through a performative act, not through its fabricated narrative. I see traces of that here in the Love Library, and also in the project in the next gallery, [Laugh Detroit].
SMP: I’m also interested in the collaborative aspect of this project. Primarily, you solicit the participation of artists contributing to the work, but then you also have the continued activation of the project through the lending library and the physical interactions with the viewing/reading public. First, can you speak to the logistics of participation in this project—is there an open call, for example? And more generally, what does participation bring to your practice overall?
CJ: There’s no open call, and it’s up to the Love Librarians to extend the invitations to artists to participate. All the people who I initially called are people who I totally admire and respect. I called them individually, and then I told each one that they could in turn invite one person to participate. That’s how it grew, and now in all the different chapters—Chicago, Addis Ababa, [Ethiopia], St. Louis, Harare, [Zimbabwe]—the librarians there can extend their own invitations to allow those chapters to grow. It’s amazing how it slowly creeps and expands. Looking at these shelves, I know everyone here is so intimately connected and there’s so much love and respect that exists here. I wanted to keep the project real that way, the feeling of a community.
On top of that, I guess, as any artist tries to do, I always try to question the ways we present work and how we interact with an audience. What I really enjoy about the idea of a library is that is that it’s not an immediate, total experience—it’s a changing space that has to be constantly interacted [with], and it’s intimately interacted [with]. I like that it’s not being perceived as art, so people can perform the work and have a natural experience rather than a trained experience. At first I thought that I would have the public check-out books, but right now, books are still coming, so I’m here every day cataloging. I’ve held back from checking-out books because now I’m very protective of all the books in the show.
I’ve been starting to think about that. It’s gotten to the point now where it’s a project that I feel honored to be a part of, but it’s a lot of work. I do everything: run the website, self-sponsoring, ship books back and forth, so I’ve been starting to think of what to do in the long term. It’s a responsibility I have now—it’s not just a project, it’s a responsibility, and these are really precious books.
SMP: What struck me immediately about this project is its seriousness. Despite the cliché fantasy of romance novel, by in large, these artists presented very real, very moving, very intimate narratives through making these objects.
CJ: That’s what shakes me up! A friend of mine—that colleague in Sweden who I mentioned earlier, she passed away last year. Her book is a copy of Romeo and Juliet; she removed all the text except for the words that bind. The pages are sort of translucent, so as you flip through the experience of it is almost like a river—like water, but it’s still mapped out as the pages were, so there is an internal order. She did this book in honor of a friend of hers in Sweden who was a Fluxus artist who passed away at that time, and since the artist’s own passing, this has become a truly powerful piece. I remember sitting down in Ethiopia meeting a group of artists and introducing the project. In the beginning, I have my rap about the project: this is what it’s about, it’s all about love, etc. But then when the work actually happens, every time, it’s totally moving. It’s then that the realness occurs. People tell their stories. There’s one couple: he’s in Ethiopia, and she is attending school in Texas. Since the day they’ve been married, they’ve been separated by a great distance with no funds to travel. They’re book is a collection of emails sent back and forth across the globe during their separation.
Love is something that’s trapped in us. The world is in such a state now, that’s it’s almost like we have to hold on to something—some sense of realness. We’re at the height of crisis, and people become overrun with emotion. Really, we need love.
Chido Johnson is the head of sculpture at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and was a 2009 Kresge Fellow. Currently, he is the Artist-in-Residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) as part of the Department of Education and Public Engagement Space Residency, where the artist has installed his Love Library and will be serving as head librarian. On Sunday Feb. 19, 12-4pm, Johnson will facilitate “I Love You and Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!” as part of Laugh Detroit, also on view at MOCAD.
This interview is part one of two. On Thursday March 2, Bad@Sports will post part two of Sarah Margolis-Pineo’s interview with Chido Johnson.
January 5, 2012 · Print This Article
One thing I’ve realized since moving to Detroit is that the city is like an island. I suppose in some ways all cities relate to each other socially, culturally, and politically like bodies in an archipelago, but Detroit, more than any other place I’ve experienced, has the distinct feeling of a world apart. This very modernist sensibility of the city as an autonomous space is expressed visually by Detroit’s unearthly postindustrial cityscape, and is manifested culturally by a make-do spirit that fosters creativity, experimentation, and generally imagining things to be otherwise. In many ways, Detroit exists in a vacuum, so consumed by its own issues that it overlooks the happenings in neighboring cities closer than its own suburbs, namely Windsor, Ontario.
In essence, Windsor is Detroit’s Canadian counterpart— a city irrevocably hit by the decline of the auto industry that now has fallen victim to benign neglect. Windsor, like Detroit, has cultivated a vibrant creative community anchored by various academic and cultural institutions. One artist-led collective, Broken City Lab, has taken on the task of making things better, starting with Windsor and progressively reaching out to other Canadian rust belt cities. Through multidisciplinary projects and civic interventions, the collective has adopted the city itself as a laboratory, unpacking locality and invoking alternatives through community-based social practice.
Broken City Lab’s activities include research, writing, workshops, participatory projects, and interventions. Recently, the cohort coordinated a conference on collaboration and social practice entitled, Homework; painted the words, As of 2011.09.21, We are Alive and Well, on a Windsor-owned parking lot; published two books containing texts, proposals, and projects to complete the long-term research endeavors How to Forget the Border Completely and Save the City; and held an informal City Counseling Session where the Lab projected the meeting notes on the exterior of Windsor’s City Hall. What first brought the collective to my attention was a project that directly provoked Detroit from the Canadian border. Cross Border Communication was a series of messages, including “We’re in this together,” projected on the Windsor waterfront aimed at Detroit. The medium of Cross Border Communications invoked Jenny Holzer, but the messages were much more to the point, optimistic, and humorous than any twentieth-century text-based predecessor. This attempt to break down walls, whether between cities or between neighbors, is truly the crux of Broken City Lab’s praxis. The predominant medium of this work is collaboration and discourse—what Gregory Sholette has termed creative dark matter, which allows for experimentation, tactical subversion, and community-based political intervention.
I spoke to the founding members of Broken City Lab in their home in Windsor.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: What inspired Broken City Lab?
Danielle Sabelli: It came out of a conversation Justin and I were having about the possibilities and limits of protest. I didn’t think it would turn into anything, but Justin took that conversation and ran with the idea.
Justin A. Langlois: I remember thinking that the model of protest had failed in that it never seemed to actively engage in conversation—it just seemed to say no. It all feels a bit quaint now to be thinking about how polarized I viewed protest and any other sort of civic engagement towards creating change in a community, but that’s where it started. I think seeing Occupy unfold has offered me a more nuanced view of what that sort of practice can do, namely, create an appropriate venue and platform for conversations around common experiences and frustrations, and in turn, I think more and more of what we do is something along those lines; that is, creating the opportunities and occasions for conversations around the places we live. So, shortly after this conversation with Danielle, I wrote a page of bullet points that outlined a way to get together and do something collectively. This was also in reaction to perhaps the boredom and uncertainty I was facing doing my grad work in the studio alone. Having a background in music and media production rather than visual arts, it seemed really unproductive to me to spend so much time in isolation, only to talk about what I had done rather than what I was doing, so I’m quite sure that this page that I wrote in response to a conversation about protest was also driven by me looking for a different way through my MFA. Anyways, I titled this document Broken City Lab and went about recruiting a few other students. We started with the idea of teaching one another skills and experimenting on developing these small-scale tactical gestures, all of which would somehow address the City of Windsor, or maybe more accurately, a neighborhood, a street, a backyard, that sort of scale.
SMP: I’m interested in the use of Lab in an art context. Why the name Broken City Lab?
JL: I think it was probably a couple things. Natalie Jeremijenko was doing X Design Lab, and there was Graffiti Research Lab, both of which presented an interesting model for working within and outside of art contexts. We thought this idea of taking different terminology would help us move a little bit outside exclusively art circles.
DS: And I do remember when we first started out that summer, a lot of our projects addressed the fact that we were calling ourselves a lab and took a scientific approach. We went back into our memories of grade-nine science class, and there was this acronym that we all remembered for the scientific method. The first project that we applied it to was Seed Bombs. It was really funny to work through that process and do it in a really rudimentary way.
JL: I think that borrowing from this corrupted memory of scientific method got us immediately focusing on process and really investing in it.
DS: And it was a really good starting point because we fumbled through it. Even though we had somewhat of a working knowledge of it, we sort of adapted it to how we thought and I think that has sort of evolved over time.
SMP: One thing I’ve noticed about your work is that the projects are always ongoing, which is certainly in the spirit of the laboratory as well—nothing is ever completed, it’s always evolving. I’m curious, how do your projects germinate?
JL: A lot of the work is about trying to explore how we enact, think about, and explore locality. So the city becomes one of many parts of this matrix of locality and it spans from very small scale to very large—from people to buildings. When we’re bringing projects to other places, and this has been in the last six months or so that we’ve been focusing on work outside of Windsor, I find that we’re pulling from the playbook of tactics and research that we’ve created through our work back home. As far as how projects get developed, I think we’re still doing what we’ve always done which is looking at what is catching our attention in the city—what sort of makes us at a very personal and immediate level think that this is not working. There’s a lot of: why is this the way it is? And: what if this wasn’t the given and there was another way to think?
SMP: Is Broken City still operating with its original cohort?
DS: Initially there were about four of us. Those same four are still in there now, but we’ve had this revolving door approach for new members. Different people sit around the table and attach themselves to each project, so we’ve had people around the table that we’ve never seen in the past. The most we’ve ever had is about twelve people at one time. Whenever that dwindled out, we were always left with the original core, and I’d say now, we certainly have a larger core. There’s the four of us in addition to some fresh blood—some new, young members who are really eager, and their eagerness translates into a permanent spot within the group because they are so dedicated and devoted to what we do.
SMP: Do many of your members come from a studio art background and are eager to do more socially-engaged work, or are they coming from various fields?
JL: I think now, just by virtue of having some attachment to the School of Visual Arts, the last few people who have worked with do come with an art background.
DS: I feel like people outside the visual arts are a bit more reluctant to participate because many people still have a problem understanding why the work we do is art, and consequently, they may not understand their place within our work. I think some people might be interested in what we do and want to learn more about it, but those outside of art or any art background seem to find it difficult to plug-in to the things we want to do and the way we want to do them. Being an artist is a really sacrosanct position, and I know for myself I’ve struggled with this idea that even though I’m not pursuing it anymore, [as a second-year law student] am I still an artist? I feel like that’s a boundary that many people outside visual art don’t want to come within, even though we really try to encourage people from other disciplines. I think by terming ourselves an artist collective sort of deters people who aren’t artists from wanting to participate.
SMP: How does the decision making process work in a collective?
JL: So this is an interesting question, and I don’t want to say much because I want to hear how Danielle sees it happening, but what I will say is that a lot of times I have to deliberately put issues on the table and go around and see what everyone thinks. That being said, I also am fairly certain that anyone who feels into an idea enough and really want to see it happen, things will definitely move in that direction.
DS: Well, in terms of specific projects, most often we’ll talk about the project itself and start to develop ideas and add on to the ideas. I feel it’s this process of everyone is contributing until we hit on it and are all: that’s it, that’s what we want to do. You forget who it was who made that call, but you know that everybody participated to get to that point and everybody agreed that that’s the way we’re going to go. So that often happens, but because of the nature of the group—Justin has been the professor of many people in the group and we’re a bit older than many of the members, and that feeds into the dynamic as well. I don’t think there’s any denying that there might be some desire to look for leadership and in some instances, that really comes into play. When we can’t agree on anything or it’s not going anywhere, I think that sometimes there’s that deference to the natural leaders just by virtue of age and experience. But again, most of the time, I feel like it’s a very natural consensus.
SMP: I’m wondering how you’re able to fluctuate between street and gallery, and how you negotiate public and private?
JL: That’s a tough one. We’re still in the process of resolving that, but I think the project we did in Winnipeg a few weeks ago was the best example of how we can do the work that we do and have it be translated into an exhibition that I’m fairly happy with. Doing street art stuff has always been more fun from the beginning. I’ll always remember that when we did You Are Amazing and Cross Border Communication, every little detail and way of working just sort of synced. Those moments were what it was all about: we envisioned a project and figured out a way to make it happen. It really was a feeling like we took some ownership over that place, and that was hugely exciting. Transitioning to a gallery, I think it comes down to figuring out what we want to do with a gallery space. There are still projects that we have lined up that are going to result in a gallery show. To be invited to do shows elsewhere—even other public projects, is weird because we have such an embedded practice here. It can feel like trying to take the best of collection and apply it to other places, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.
DS: Well, I’m personally not so much interested in gallery stuff, and I’m somewhat resistant to it. My interest in Broken City Lab reconciled my desire toward activism and art—it was a new way to bridge the two together. For me, it exists on the street for that to be accomplished. So this transition into galleries, like I said, I’m a bit resistant, but I definitely view it as an exploration of space for us. At this point, we’re making use of space to address what we usually do on the street and looking at the politics within those different considerations.
JL: I totally agree. It’s about the scale of approach. When we were a little ad hoc collective, we could respond to something and then pick up with the next project. Now, I’m interested in understanding what can you do if you frame yourself as a type of formal organization or institution or something, so at that rate it becomes crucial to work through that gallery dynamic because it’s the only way to then move on and do other things. With a wide enough view of what we might want to do, I think there’s a pragmatic reason to consider working through that. But I think it’s a really good way to frame it as a continued exploration of space—not just architectural space, but especially in Canada, this idea of: what is an artist-run centre supposed to do?
DS: Also, if we look at the progression of what we’ve done, where we started and where we are now might seem completely antagonistic to one another. When we started out, we were more interested in guerrilla tactics. We weren’t asking permission, and were just doing what we wanted. We just went out and we did it, and that’s what I’ve been wanting to get back to. But then, over time, we’ve realized that we can do more if we ask permission and have some sort of dialogue with the city. If we do it legitimately, we’ll have access to these larger things where we can make better projects. So it turned from doing things guerrilla style without asking any permission, to now at times, really institutionalizing ourselves within a gallery. So, one way that I look at it from my background, is I still want to look at it as being the wolf in sheep’s clothing. I still want to agitate and do all of that, but at this point, we’re doing it from a place where there’s this institutionalization and legitimacy. I hope it comes around full-circle.
JL: But I think it has. By getting permission to do huge things like painting text in a city parking lot, the intervention is as much on the parking surface as it is on the infrastructure of city hall. To me, the more things that we do in a formal way—for example, getting non-profit status and applying for foundation grants, these things become ways to push the mandates and boundaries of institutions. It sounds kind of grandiose, but if a foundation gives us money to open an alternative space, their decision to do so will be so much different than anything else they’ve funded in southwest Ontario. Like, ever. So for me, that’s an intervention on another level.
SMP: Can you elaborate on the role of the social in your work? What interests me about the scope of your practice, as you mentioned, you’ve gone from a very call-and-response way of employing text, to now, actually generating your own content through participatory projects. In my mind, that’s what distinguishes a number of historic text-based and social intervention-based work from more contemporary iterations of discursive or social practice. I’m wondering if you could speak to this particular trajectory and also to the role of the social in your practice?
JL: I think that the most honest way for us to speak about the work as social practice is to locate that practice in the collaborative process—the actual sitting around the table and doing the work. The collective is as much the work as anything that comes out of it…Going out and trying to create these opportunities for discussion that can feed into works, it’s always the most challenging, but when it works, it’s really great. I think that as we travel to other places, we’re trying to develop a way of doing this. In Calgary, we were doing this on the street sort of survey of post-it notes, and that’s a very visible thing, but the depth isn’t there obviously. We’ve done a lot of fill in the blank things, and that’s one of my favorite tools because it collects data really effectively and also creates this moment where the person doing the fill in the blank can really assume some ownership over the existing structure. I like to understand our work as demonstrating the possibility for this stuff to happen, and I think of the fill in the blank as a micro-instance of that. At the end, the responses are always the most hilarious as well as the most critical and best thought out. It creates an opening into a conversation, and it gets some of the low hanging fruit out of the way and starts to get into places of richer conversation.
SMP: How do you negotiate the unknown elements of soliciting participant/viewers for your projects and performances?
JL: I’ll say that one of the best rates of response that we’ve gotten was when the communication was online. Our Text in Transit project we got a ton of responses. We printed one hundred individual panels and I think we got at least double that, which was a lot, and that was all through an online form. In London, [Ontario], the research we did there was largely through Twitter and through another form that was on the website—a whole list of questions, and we got about 80 responses. When we were out in Calgary, we probably got about 60-70 people to engage with us, and that was on a busy street. So, I think we’re increasingly finding that if projects require more engagement, one of the best ways to solicit participation is online. When we were in Winnipeg though, we hosted two workshops with eight to ten people each, and they were so sharp, and it was so amazing to get a different level of conversation going.
SMP: Is the lack of face-to-face contact satisfying for you as the organizer?
JL: Well it’s different…I think it’s important to try and get whole range of responses. They don’t necessarily have to be deep—it’s all about the shorthand and the headlines that actually shape someone’s experience of a place. The other thing is that I’m always nervous in some way that some people read the work as a comprehensive and exhaustive survey of every demographic, and it’s never like that—it’s really random! Especially when we do stuff online, there’s definitely a very specific age and generational audience that is cultivated, and I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. The work isn’t trying to be comprehensive, it’s about trying to pick up things that really open up a larger conversation.
SMP: Borders are a reoccurring examination in the work of BCL. Why have you selected the notion of borders as a point of engagement?
DS: What was our first border project? Was it Cross Border Communications?
JL: It was. We were trying to do this strategic plan that was just like a big mind map. At one end, I think Michelle had written: “send a message to Detroit,” so we had written all these clusters of things, and many of them had arrows leading back to this idea of sending a message to Detroit. From there, we started thinking about Caesars Casino—how there’s this massive neon sign that can be read from all points in Detroit as well as here in Windsor, and we wondered how we could send a message of that scale to Detroit. The concern with borders really relates to the reality that being a Windsorite. Whether you like it or not, we are totally shaped by what is happening in Detroit. Growing up, I watched more Detroit news because that’s what was available. I feel the temperature in Fahrenheit rather than Celsius. Windsor has always felt like a distinctly different place in relation to the rest of Canada…
DS: And a lot of people who grew up here, grow up with this fear of Detroit. It’s about breaking that down and having some sort of dialogue with a city that’s closer to us than other parts of Windsor. We found it very strange that this wasn’t going on. We have similar concerns, and yes, we are a totally different country, but that shouldn’t necessarily inhibit any dialogue that we have with Detroit.
JL: The other funny thing is that Windsor is very concerned with being a border city, and I don’t think Detroit is. So, increasingly as we do this work around borders—charts of effectiveness for playing with Detroit, and other simple things like pen pals and house swapping—it became this idea generator that explored how to break down the border between these two places. With our How to Forget the Border Completely book project, its also playing with this notion of how you get beyond the tough looking person in the booth to get where you’re going. All of that is, in my mind at least, is becoming increasingly self aware that these concerns exist on this side of the border and not so much over there in Detroit. And I get it—there are many more immediate things to be worrying about in Detroit. Ultimately, whether or not people consider crossing over to Windsor, it’s not really going to change what’s on the ground over there.
SMP: Do you see culture as an appropriate venue for this dialogue to occur?
DS: Yes, because it’s devoid of any political considerations…
JL: Woah! I don’t know about that…
DS: Well, what I mean is that artists are more willing to talk to other artists about things, and develop ideas from an artist’s perspective that are totally different than from a politician’s perspective, where they’re negotiating things between the two cities at a much different level.
JL: Okay, so I think it’s highly political, so maybe what we can say is it shifts the scale of conversation. This is what cultural dialogue can do—it brings it into a much more immediate sensibility.
SMP: Maybe another way to approach this question is to ask you to address your own relationship to power and politics and the role of art as an agent of socio-political change?
JL: What we want to do going forward and possibly opening our own space is to refocus our work back to the questions: how does art operate? How can artists become community leaders? How can we create a way of working that is no longer an abnormality or something that requires a biennial to be expressed? I think that art is really useful for many reasons. It’s a catalyst, point, or tool for change—it has an unbelievable flexibility, and can approach a wide range of problems. Again, approaching problems doesn’t mean solving problems. I think it’s actually about putting together a coherent or legible path towards a discussion about an issue. So often these issues are encountered as headlines, press releases, or really broad-strokes funding related platforms, and there’s very few opportunities to look at how one approaches these issues who is not in a position—professionally or politically, to address these problems. So art provides that flexibility and when it’s done right can be a really accessible conversation, and I think that’s why working with text and doing things publicly is all a way employing a successful communication device.
DS: It provides for new tactical approaches that haven’t been explored yet. The reason Broken City Lab came about is because of a conversation on the more historic approaches to resistance—protest, etc. Justin was saying that we need to rethink these models—they’re stale and we need to think of new affective approaches, and I was on the side of: it still works, they’re still effective. Through doing what we’ve done with Broken City Lab, I still always held on to that, but recently, we went to Occupy Windsor, and I started to really import the ideas we’ve developed as a collective and how these could be adapted to that situation to make it a bit more effective. I’m still going to hold on to historic approaches, but I’ve budged a bit. I’ll admit that our new, tactical approaches can be in a way hybridized with the old. In my mind I always wanted to keep the two separate—the work we do as artists and established forms of political resistance, and I think it was just because it was easier for me to understand them. But, either way, it wasn’t until we went to the Occupy first general assembly in Windsor where I really started to reflect on that and see where things could converge and we could make this mode of resistance more effective… Looking at the scope of Broken City Lab, the narrative has shifted a bit. When we first started, the story about Windsor was really doom and gloom—no hope, and now it’s definitely at a more hopeful stage. So now we have to address something different since the situation has changed in the city a little bit, so how do we do that? Even though we take Windsor as the test subject and apply it to other cities, there’s also take back from other projects that then informs this new approach that will then be used to address these new concerns in Windsor. It’s really interesting—we take this and apply it here, but now more than ever we’re going to take more from there and bring it back to develop a new approach.
December 15, 2011 · Print This Article
Entering the studio of Craft Mystery Cult, I was greeted by a plywood table festooned with ambiguous objects varying from crudely handcrafted clay bowls to scorched specimens seemingly pirated from the vault of a natural history museum. All three CMC members, Sonja Dahl, Jovencio de la Paz, and Stacy Jo Scott, were seated around this collection, which I soon discovered to be ephemera from their collaborative rites and rituals. Removed from the context of performance, the reliquary expressed an internal coherence— the vernacular of the objects linking hand, to material, to detritus, suggesting a connection between everyday practices of making and the more mystical aspects of ritualistic activity. The tableau was presided over by the sanctified portraits of William Morris and Johannes Itten—the patron saints of craft and color, whose workshop-based practices inform the social and conceptual underpinnings of CMC’s activities.
The members of Michigan-based Craft Mystery Cult are all in their final year of their MFAs in fiber, (Dahl and de la Paz), and ceramics, (Scott), at Cranbrook Academy of Art. They established the CMC collective as a platform to explore issues relating to the history, economy, and conceptual framework of contemporary craft. On Saturday, CMC will orchestrate a performance at Roots and Culture that draws from their sacred text, The Hapticon. I interviewed Dahl, de la Paz, and Scott in their studio as they were making preparations for this event.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: It’s my understanding that Craft Mystery Cult was officially formed over the summer in residence at Ox-Bow, but I’m wondering if you can elaborate on the CMC origin story. What strange and mysterious forces conspired to bring this collaboration together?
Jovencio de la Paz: I don’t know that I’d say we formed at Ox-Bow, I think it was prior to that through discussion and writing.
Sonja Dahl: I’d say we began casually working on this project about a year ago now. It really evolved out of issues that originated within each of our individual studio practices.
Stacy Jo Scott: Through a number of conversations, we realized that we had similar concerns in terms of how we approach work. It seemed like we had this shared desire to create a conversation that we weren’t getting otherwise—in other venues or in other forms. It was really from this desire to create a narrative to work from… By narrative, I don’t mean the Craft Mystery Cult narrative, I mean more of a framework for understanding our art historical lineage.
SMP: All three of you come from disciplines focused on object making, and historically, discrete object making through ceramics and fiber. Do you feel like academia, as well as the larger cultural framework surrounding craft-based practices of making, are perpetuating discourses that in some ways are no longer relevant; for example, the Modernist tradition of autonomy, or the postmodern tradition of critique? In what sense were you breaking free?
SJS: I think for me and my experience with ceramics, it’s almost coming from a different direction than what you’re describing. As artists making work at this time, the conversation is so steeped in the dematerialization of the object. The desire to make and have hands-on material, and the desire to see objects manifest from work is something that’s disappearing from the larger conversation. It’s difficult to have a position to work from that seems relevant when everything is becoming more ephemeral. In a way, we’re trying to consider what position objects and materiality still have; specifically, the hand’s relationship to material as a different source of knowledge that we aren’t taught to access.
JdlP: Much of CMC’s work deals with the creation of language; specifically, the kind of language that might be able to house what Stacy Jo is describing, which we refer to as haptic knowledge—the knowledge beyond language. In order to present that or to create a bridge between that and the viewer, we work to create an environment that utilizes strategies that may be familiar from other forms such as text, performance, ritual, music, things to serve as access points to that non-verbal space. We’re really using the notion of the craft workshop as a model for collaborative art practice, which is a reference that is very different compared to other collaborative art practices in that it deals with a very craft-specific mode of production. There are interpersonal hierarchies that are very different than other collaborative groups.
SMP: Going back to your practice that draws from text, music, and performance, I’m curious what you think can be gleaned from the interstice of ritual and craft? Did you approach the project with a preconceived relationship between mysticism and making, and how have your thoughts evolved throughout the past few months?
JdlP: I think a very simple way to describe it is that it’s sort of like a logic puzzle. We’ve created a framework that has a very specific language related to the occult and mysticism through rites and rituals. Craft serves as a parallel structure that is based on skill. Take the Masons for example: as you progress in skill, you gain knowledge in a more profound, spiritual sense. So there’s this parallel, and we were always sort of guided by both. We were interested in the work of Johannes Itten, and his spiritualistic approach to making and teaching.
SJS: One of our earliest references was William Morris, who is complicated, but one thing that he championed was this idea of human dignity—the worker and the maker have a sense of dignity that is lost in certain forms of industrial production. For me, mysticism related in part to humanism and highlighting individual agency rather than obeying the types of beliefs and laws that are passed down by mastery.
SMP: Can you describe some components to the larger Craft Mystery Cult project and articulate the relationship between ritual and performance to object?
SD: One of our performances at Ox-Bow: “In Commemoration of the Death of the Prophet William Morris” really brought together many aspects of our collaborative work at the residency. It brought together the component of collecting—we would visit each of the studios and collect material remnants of their processes, so we had the slag pile from the iron pour, fragments of glass and things like that. Those objects were collected throughout the course of the project, and we were also creating other objects both through the playful re-authoring of, for example, William Morris textile prints, as well as through various different ways of employing the symbology that we had created. We generated all these objects through various modes of making and collecting, and we funneled them all into this final ritual that involved a processional, the building of this pyre in the fire pit, creating a musical, auditory experience, which all happened at twilight. In the end, it really became this performed ritual for a number of individuals that brought together history and research, object making, collecting, the spiritual, bodies moving in space, music—all of these elements that we had been working on for the duration of the project. There’s a real spirit of play that we’re getting at with improvisation. Spontaneity can occur because of embedded knowledge and experience to some degree. We brought to this collective much of our own thinking and making, and because we come without own histories, the spontaneous and inventive moments can occur.
SMP: I find it interesting that this project evolved from reaction— a simultaneous response to your individual practices within a larger academic framework. If I’m understanding this correctly, it’s the interaction of the collective—the coming together of individuals to create a new body and a new interstice from which you can cultivate an alternative framework for making and its related embodied processes.
SJS: Yeah, absolutely. And I think part of that is we have this desire to make together. I come in with a set of skills that Jovencio and Sonja don’t have, so the way I use my skill in collaboration is in a way that they can also use, which means that the work itself is often quite basic like the pinch pots. Similarly, Sonja will lead in dying indigo since she has experience with that and Jovencio and I do not, and it’s these simplified processes that guides the making of objects…
JdlP: …and thereby the aesthetic that they express.
SMP: Is it from the aesthetic that you make references to meaning in a symbolic sense?
JdlP: I think it’s the implied process more than the aesthetic of the object. Pinch pots and one-dip indigo dye are very foundational.
SJS: That speaks to our interest in skill. We’re interested in that moment of skill that is extremely foundational—not skill in terms of mastery, but skill in terms of someones first encounter with the material. In that way too, the aesthetic that we’re developing is based on the desire to speak about that primary moment of skill.
JdlP: So the aesthetic appears always untrained, or primitive, as problematic as these terms are. We are interested in this notion of prehistory, which really relates to the realm of craft in that a pinch pot made tens of thousands of years ago is strikingly similar to a pinch pot that a high school student in a public school might make. That high school student and prehistoric person are somehow linked through the object, the aesthetic of which comes from this moment of foundational, or primal creation.
SJS: A lot of work that one might consider deskilled comes from the idea that a lack of skill is a stand in for authenticity, and I don’t quite buy that. I feel like what we’re doing is somehow different from that—not that that moment of primary skill is more authentic than mastery, but it’s about creating some kind of framework around that moment—that moment has a depth of meaning that isn’t about authenticity. It’s not that the primitive person is somehow more authentic than the teenager.
JdlP: But what’s important is that they share the same moment through making that object. That moment can be opened up, and what exists there isn’t authenticity but some sort of experiential knowledge.
SMP: I often have the discussion across a range of art practices about the concept of the moment of discovery, and whether you’re working in paint or performance, it’s all about discovery on some level for the viewer, and I suppose for the maker as well. Does that concept relate to what you’re speaking to?
JdlP: But it’s a very particular kind of discovery because it’s always available through rediscovery—it’s never exhausted, and that’s where the idea of ritual is also important. That moment is always exciting for whatever reason, which is part of the mystery, and I think that’s speaks a lot to where the aesthetic of our objects comes from. It’s interesting because the show in Chicago has nothing to do with objects…
SD: Before we get into Chicago, I’ve been wanting to mention that something I think about a lot in relationship to the CMC project is the spirit of approaching things with a sense of wonder. When we talk about using basic skill and that primary moment of discovery between body and material, there’s a sense of wonder there. You can appreciate that depth of knowledge of a maker’s body to their materials and their process through a sense of wonder, and I feel that a lot of my experience at Ox-Bow visiting all the studios was a process of cultivating that sense of wonder. To stand in front of the glass studio or the iron pour, or to see them open the raku kiln—there’s a sense of wonder and appreciation that’s very important.
JdlP: And I think it’s very difficult not to feel a sense of optimism through craft…
SD: Dare we say it!
JdlP: …because you’re encountering a moment becoming—a moment of creation—it is a generative moment. It’s very integral to that sense of wonder that you are witnessing a generative process.
SJS: And it’s already essentially performative. We can go see an iron pour, we can go see someone blowing glass, someone throwing a pot—that’s performance, and that’s ritual.
A fortuitous schedule change gave me the opportunity to interview Liz Cohen, a photographer, performer, and pinup, who happens to be my neighbor on the Cranbrook campus. Simply put, Cohen is fearless. Her projects are fully immersive, intertwining ethnography and performance to the effect of uncanny transformation. Often, Cohen spends years inhabiting the spaces, learning the customs, and going so far as to cultivate the body of a certain group or subculture. Her most recent work, Trabantimino, involved a nine-year stint as an auto customizer, during which the artist transformed an East German Trabant, a two-stroke engine-car produced in Zwickau, into a 1970s Chevrolet El Camino low rider.
The car’s nearly decade-long journey from an object emblematic of the communist bloc into a portrait of purely American ingenuity was epic. Physically, the Trabant made its way from Berlin to San Francisco to Phoenix, and finally to Detroit; however, the real story buried beneath the chrome and tawny exterior is one psychological transformation. In Cohen’s project, the Trabantimino becomes a physical manifestation of the immigrant experience—the car’s identity shifting and hybridizing like that of an individual traversing a wall, (fallen or otherwise). Much like Simon Starling’s Shedboatshed (2005), the exterior of the Trabant has changed, influenced by a new social and cultural environment, but its DNA is fundamental. Traces of memory and history cannot be erased entirely, and Cohen’s custom low rider retains reminders of where it initially came from.
Through the course of Trabantimino, Cohen herself has transformed from a recent MFA graduate living in San Francisco to a mother of a three-month-old living in suburban Detroit. To document her own evolution within the world of automotive tinkering and low rider culture, the artist staged periodic photo shoots where she would capture her car and her own subject at various stages of development. Her chosen entry into the world of low riding was through the character of the pinup. From her first shoot, Bikini Car Wash (2002), to her most recent, Zwickau Routine (2010), Cohen has remained complicit with the structure of her chosen subculture to assume the role of the stereotypical hotrod poster girl. Despite receiving a great deal of critique from the (neo?) feminist sect, Cohen quickly accessorized her thong with a welder, a power sander, and other tools of the trade. Her bikini may have been her ticket in, but that doesn’t change the fact that she is contributing to a community and helping to change the very stereotype with which her photography is complicit. In our interview, Cohen mentions that low riding is a culture of resistance. In my opinion, the artist-as-pinup is a similar proclamation of: I’m here, and don’t fuck with me.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I find the arc of your work really interesting, especially considering that you started out pursuing documentary photography. What was your journey from documentary to project-based work and performance?
Liz Cohen: I went to Tufts with the intention of studying quantitative economics, and I started out doing that. But I quickly started taking some philosophy classes, and I got really interested in ethical theory. I ended up majoring in philosophy, and I started getting really interested in groups. For example, how do you ascribe responsibility to a group rather than an individual? How do you distinguish the agency of a group and the agency of an individual? What are the moments when a group functions as a group and not just as an aggregate of individuals?
It’s important for when you get into ideas of personhood for corporations or things like that… They have a dual degree program with the Museum School, and once I was [at Tufts] I started taking classes at the Museum School. I had a really great teacher, Bill Burke, who had been doing most of his work in Cambodia and looking at the residuum of the Vietnam War as someone who had been the right age to go to Vietnam but avoided the draft. In any case, I was interested in investigative photography, investigative reporting, documentary, and all the ways that documentary can become more abstract or metaphorical. Then as I left the Museum School, I started doing this work in Panama City [Canal (2000)] where I was photographing transgender sex workers. That’s where things started to change for me. Before I started doing any performance, I was already thinking that it is very performative to be a photographer—that you have a certain persona as a documentary photographer. I think that those ideas probably came to me through all these photographers I liked—by looking at their work, I got to know about their lives. Robert Frank, for example: I understood a lot more about Robert Frank when I learned that I was looking at a photo of his ex-wife Mary, his daughter Andrea, his son Pablo, or his later wife June. There’s all this mythology around his life that is really important to the photography and how you imagine him driving through the United States, photographing Americans as this Swiss guy looking from the outside in. I was thinking about that process as being very performative. It helped me reconcile what the sex workers were doing in front of the camera for me—they were just really hamming it up and posing when I wanted them to chill out and have these blank faces. At some point, I had to embrace that. I think that some of the ideas I was thinking about Robert Frank allowed me to do that.
SMP: It’s interesting, because I largely think of documentary work as pursuing a position of invisibility—erasing the boundary between subjects to lend a totally objective lens. I guess it’s easy to forget about the subject of the photographer, whose identity is being affected through cultural immersion and various social factors. What was your intent with the Panama project—what story were you after?
LC: When I went to Panama I wanted to do work on the US military bases. I was thinking about the relationship between the United States and Panama, and I wanted to do work about that because I think it’s really representative of the relationship between the United States and Latin America. When I went to the military bases they were really boring, and they looked like what military bases look like everywhere. It wasn’t until I started driving along the edges of the military bases and seeing the sex workers that I found something that was kind of interesting—this kind of fringe. But then that just blew open the whole thing, because the work really is about the relationship between the United States and Panama but it becomes really metaphorical, and now we’re into a special kind of documentary, right?! Or out of regular journalism.
SMP: How was it that you first got in front of the camera yourself?
LC: During that work in Panama, one of the sex workers became my guide. Her name was Lynette, and she was kind of the mother hen of the sex workers. I had really short hair at that time, hairy legs and armpits—I had just left liberal arts college! I would wear baggy jeans that I could fit a lot of rolls of film in, a tee shirt, and a backpack to go shooting at night. I looked pretty seedy, I guess. Lynette would always say: “you look so pretty and you don’t even realize it. You’re always hiding yourself, let me show you how to use your body, let me show you how to look pretty. You have a body like a Barbie and you don’t show it!” So I would always just laugh, but she was persistent: “please let me dress you up!” But I always just brushed it off and would continue doing what I was doing. Then my sister was coming to visit me, and I thought: I should take Lynette up on this and hand my sister the camera for a night. So, we did it, and I think in so many ways, I think that it was that experience that led to so many different changes in the way that I work from performing, to the use of my body, to dressing up and sort of method acting.
SMP: Your recent project, Trabantimino, (ongoing since 2002), is considered a long-term performance. How did you come to this project? Was it a residual interest in groups where you could engage on a macro-scale through theories of national identity, as well as a micro-scale through car-related subculture?
LC: I started having an interest in doing something to a car when I was working on the Canal Series in Panama. I apprenticed one summer at a brake shop: Discount Brake and Clutch in the Mission in San Francisco—I was the Sunday brake mechanic. And I took a class at City College [while getting a master’s at CCA] at night that was for auto repair—for people to repair their own cars, not for professionals. So I was kind of tinkering with the idea of cars, but I was so unprepared for being in those environments. I wasn’t someone who uses her hands, and my parents were definitely not tinkerers.
SMP: It’s sort of ironic that you took to cars in SF—an aggressively green, mass-transit friendly city.
LC: And I wasn’t really driving there, I was riding a bicycle. But I came from Phoenix, which is a car place, and I have this memory of an El Camino. I always wanted to buy an El Camino and make a low rider, because I love low riding—it’s just the coolest thing. I didn’t preconceive the whole project. I don’t think I could have worked on it as long as I have if I had had it neatly wrapped up in a bow. So I started with the idea of an El Camino and wanting to do something with it. Then I got a residency to go to Germany, and I thought it might be kind of cool to turn one car into another kind of car. I was going to Stuttgart, which is sort of a richer Detroit in Germany—the Mercedes factory is there, and I thought I’d turn a Mercedes into an El Camino. I wasn’t thinking about the meaning of it at that time, it was just an impulse. So I was in Germany and I started thinking about it more, and finally, I went to Berlin and I saw the Trabant. The Trabant was really interesting to me, firstly: I had never heard of it, and when I saw it, it was attractive to me; and second: the idea of it being from the former East was appealing. I was interested in the transitions that people from the former East were going through—that kind of process of becoming part of the West, and the idea that the car has to become part of the West was very compelling. So it was less about a specific national identity than about this idea of transitioning from a Socialist economy to a Capitalist economy and what that requires.
SMP: It’s interesting that with such a compelling project that operates on various levels socially, politically, and culturally, that there was no premeditated connection between the cars.
LC: It was only after I had started that I found what was cool about both of them together, which was they both represented these amazing things about the places that they were from. The Trabant is really utilitarian, and the El Camino is really overdone—it’s like one stop shopping.
SMP: So, we’ve heard about the Trabant as a Socialist icon… What is the story with the El Camino and its all-in-one-ness?
LC: I think Ford made a car-truck first, the El Ranchero. The El Camino—it’s like a muscle car. In the 70s, with the oil crisis, a lot of laws changed too for cars. I think with it being a car-truck, it got around a lot of new jurisdiction, so it could be a muscle car and a utility truck. I think it’s interesting that both of the car-trucks’ names are in Spanish. After World War II, muscle car culture was really a Ford thing, and that became a white thing. Then the Chevys were more of an immigrant thing—they were an ethnic car. They were less expensive, and low riding became a Chevy thing. The Impala is the most popular car for a classic low rider. The history of it is a history of resistance. It’s the opposite of tuning: with tuning, you’re stripping away and making small adjustments to make something as fast as possible. Low riding is the opposite: it’s ornamental, it’s adding to the car. It’s a way to stop traffic and say: Hi! We’re here! You can’t ignore us!
SMP: I realize that this is a nine-year epic, but what was the process to create the Trabantimino?
LC: I didn’t know very much about cars, and I didn’t know anything about fabrication. I wasn’t a part of any car culture. I knew I had this car, [an “expensive” Trabant, purchased for $400 in Germany], I knew the residency was going to ship it back to the US for me. So the car was coming to the port of Oakland and I started looking for a shop that would take me in—a low rider shop. So I found this shop, Worldwide Customs, that was this kind of shitty low rider shop. And really, that was a wasted year—everything I did on the car at that shop I had to remove later. I don’t know if it was that they didn’t know that much about fabrication, I think it was more that it was a shady place. In any case, I learned a lot about low riding there, I learned a lot about hydraulics—I saw how they were being installed—really basic stuff. I met the darker side of the low riding world. These guys were part of the Mexican mafia, and there was shady stuff that happened there. The way I left was that they called me up and said: “hurry up, you’ve got to get your stuff. We’re closing tonight!” Luckily I had a friend who did car stuff and who had a garage in San Francisco, who let me put the car in his garage. We called a tow truck, my friends came, we packed up all the stuff, and then it was like, gone, and that guy disappeared.
SMP: And at this point, you transitioned to Phoenix?
LC: Yeah. That’s when I realized a couple things, one being that if I want to find a good shop where people are actually going to help me, that one of the ways I could figure that out is if they were there early in the morning. If they started their workday on time, and if the cars didn’t have dust on them, that means they had turnover. So I got to Arizona and I looked up in the yellow pages every shop that had the word “custom” in it. I started going to a bunch of them, and I think the 38th or 39th was this place called Elwood Body Works. It was in Scottsdale, and they were owned by an Italian family. The owner’s name is Don Barsellottiwho’s this amazing guy, and they do mostly insurance work and collision repair, so they have a lot of turnover, they were a serious shop, and they were also doing some restorations—Ferrari’s, they did an Aston Martin once, they were doing cool things in there but they also had cash flow.
So I knew when he said he would take me in that it was going to be okay—they weren’t going to try to exploit me or be shady in any way, they were really nice, and they thought the idea was hilarious. I was asking for a lot: I was going to be working on the car, and they were going to teach me how to work on the car, while I didn’t have enough money to pay them to help me work on the car. I was asking for the world, and for some reason, this guy decided to give it to me. Then he hooked me up with this guy Bill Cherry, who’s sort of the last of a dying breed of guys who can do a bit of everything. Bill became my mentor, and he really taught me how to engineer all the movements in the car.
SMP: How much of the car is Trabant, how much is El Camino, and how much is custom hybrid?
LC: All hybrid. It started out as the Trabant, and to turn it into the El Camino, I wanted to figure out some things that would give it El Camino-ness. So I picked a few things like the wheelbase, which is the distance between the wheels, the length of the car and the heart of the car—the engine. That required me to build a new chassis for the car. I also wanted to have the car to have a sense of integrity so it wouldn’t forget where it came from. That’s why I felt it was important that it is able to go back and forth. It’s like going home… I grew up in an immigrant household, so it’s like going home and speaking Spanish and then you leave the house, you stretch out, and you put something else on. I wanted the car to have that type of experience, but when it goes back to its Trabant form it’s not really a Trabant anymore because it has been through all these experiences.
SMP: What was the idea behind the Bodywork component– the bikinis and Olympic poses? You definitely went down the road of gender and identity politics with that series, and I know this work has incensed a number of critics. Are you articulating a relationship between the car and the body with this work?
LC: My motivation was more about how to become a part of a certain subculture. I had had this frustration with Canal: once I dressed up with Lynette, I realized that that was kind of a masquerade, and if I wanted to hold my interest in the project, I needed to become an insider. Firstly, I’m not a biological male; and secondly, I wasn’t interested in going on a transgender journey or taking sex work, so that was as close as I could get. It was done. For the next piece, I wanted to take something where I could go from being on the outside—really being an outsider, to really being an insider, even if I was a freak insider. Different ways to become a part of that car culture are to build cars, to own cars, or to model for cars. So my motivation for doing the modeling was more to become a member—I never did it to make fun of that aspect of car culture. I wasn’t judging it, I was using it.
For the early photographs, [Bodywork] I was just using poses from low rider magazines and Sports Illustrator. I did nine of these, and I thought of them as trailers or movie posters. They were documentation for me, even though it was staged documentation where I would have the car at a certain stage of completion, me at a certain stage in my process, and the environment and the people around me building the car at that moment. They were a way to document periodically where the project was at and say: “coming soon to a theater near you!” I knew it was a really long project, so I wanted to let out pieces of it. What happened instead is that those photos provoked a huge conversation around “post-feminism,” whatever that means—I still haven’t figured out what that means! But anyway, the series that you’re thinking about is call Zwickau Routine (2010). For those, I wanted to go to the home of the Trabant—to its birthplace. I had moved to Detroit, so I was here, in the home of GM, and I thought: I have never been to the home of Trabant and I need to go. So I went to Zwickau, Germany and I found the abandoned Trabant factory, where those photographs were taken. I was thinking about my memories of the Cold War as a child, and for me, it was all through things like the olympics–Nadia Comanechi and Mary Lou Retton…symbols of American and Socialist strength. When I was a kid, my parents were really interested in Socialism. We traveled to the USSR and China, so I had an interest, and I had exposure. In any case, I was thinking about the Trabant factory, the Cold War, and the reasons that I never heard about this car, and I started overlapping all these memories of when the car would have been in existence.
LC: I think there will always be parts of it ongoing until someone takes the car completely out of my hands. You’re never really done with a custom car. That’s one thing I’ve learned from working at all of these shops. In Detroit, I was at this really interesting shop Kustom Creations, and you see people with these amazing cars come in to just tinker with one more thing. There’s always one more little thing.
SMP: How has the project changed since your relocation to Detroit? Do you find that there’s more interest in the home of GM?
LC: It changes the people around the project and the nature of the car culture around the work. When I was in Oakland, I was really around low riding culture; in Scottsdale, I was at a collision shop owned by an Italian family, but I was also going to tons of low rider shows and even planned a low rider show, so I wasn’t working in a low rider shop, but I definitely went to more shows than I had before; and when I got to here, I was more in this phase of wanting to finish and refine. Here, I got to work around people who were really the best of the best. The project ended not at that Kustom Creation shop, it was with this guy Al Sharp, who’s really amazing—he works for this place Experi-Metal… In any case, as the project went on, every time I changed shops I moved into a higher end situation because I knew more. Also, I’ve been able to meet all these car designers from GM, which was really exciting for me. To have folks in that industry excited about what I’m doing was really an interesting moment, because that wasn’t a group of people who I really thought about.
It’s interesting, I think an aspect of the project that really hasn’t been explored by people writing about it is the aspect of me really going through the project over time… It went in fits and starts, but it really consumed nine years of my life. I’d say five or six years it totally took over my life… The Bikini Car Wash, which was the first piece that initiated the project, was really a long time ago. I was this young single person in San Francisco with roommates! I’ve definitely matured through phases of the project, and now there’s a video of me, pregnant, bouncing with the car’s hydraulics. I’m at this phase where I want to use the car to do work that is more family-oriented with my husband and my child. Again, this comes back to the Robert Frank stuff… Just this morning, I was looking at these images where his whole family’s faces are pressed to the side of the car.
SMP: It seems as though you’ve become the El Camino poster child—exuding the coolness of low riding, while embracing the family-oriented practicality of a car and truck in one!
LC: I like working on stuff that stays open. I didn’t really formulate everything it was going to mean and do and be. I didn’t even know it was going to go back and forth between two different cars until I got to Phoenix. It was at that point that I knew more about the technology of what I could do and I figured out what hydraulics can do, so I was like: I can do this, or I can do this. Every year I can say I barely made it through that year, and it made my life really hard for a long time.
Liz Cohen is represented by Salon 94, New York, NY; David Klein, Birmingham, MI; and Galerie Laurent Godin, Paris. She is a 2011 Kresge Artist Fellow, and is currently Artist-in-Residence of the Photography Department at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Trabantimino is currently being shown in Autobody at The Ballroom in Marfa, TX, and she has photographs exhibited in here at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, as well as in an exhibition at David Klein that opens this Saturday, November 5. A new video work, Hydro Force, will be included in No Object Is an Island, an exhibition that opens November 11 at Cranbrook Art Museum.