There’s a certain amount of romanticism in the idea of mining your own gold, mused metalsmith Gabriel Craig on his recent adventure through the Black Hills of South Dakota. Romantic, indeed. Compound the gold mining expedition with two soon-to-be newlyweds who have commissioned locally sourced, handcrafted wedding bands, and you have the makings of a Hollywood epic. Before you cast Craig as a roguish Matthew McConaughey, reconfigure his character to resemble more Michael Heizer with a touch of Henry David Thoreau. Beyond their mutual love of Stetsons, (see Craig pictured above on the far left), both Heizer and Craig have expressed their ecological concern through the displacement and destruction of landscape. The mining of precious metals is, in essence, an ecological disaster involving deforestation, mile-long trenches, and terrifying amounts of cyanide. As a jeweler and metalsmith, Craig has sought to bring attention to ethical craft practices, citing that his process begins with the harvesting of materials—the formation of deposits in the earth—long before they are cultivated by the human hand.
At the heart of Craig’s multifaceted practice, which includes metalsmithing, writing, urban farming, and performance, is a desire for transparency. His performative works in particular—the public demonstrations, participatory constructed situations, and documented expeditions—are conceived as a way to unveil narratives of production from material source to mercantile object. Craig is perhaps best known for Pro Bono Jeweler, a craft-performance that brings metalsmithing to the street via mobile jeweler’s bench. In essence, the piece functions as a public forum for dialogue inspired by the visible production and free distribution of metalwork. More recently, Craig has refocused his tactics towards hands-on participation. Raising Awareness brings spectators into the fold by soliciting gallery-goers to experience the process of “raising” a vessel from a flat sheet of metal. Ultimately, both Pro Bono Jeweler and Raising Awareness fulfill one of the crucial tenants of craft: to humanize the production of objects—all objects—whether manufactured or handcrafted. Further, like many of Craig’s projects, these performances tend to unpack propositions rather than polemics. Criticality emerges through opening-up systems, providing a venue for public discourse, and posing the question: how can craft—as a process and product, legacy and ideology—inspire shifts in human behavior that improve the world around us?
I spoke to Gabriel Craig in his new studio and production facility, Smith Shop, based out of Ponyride, a cooperative space for creative entrepreneurship in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I first encountered your practice in Hand+Made at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2010), an exhibition that featured the work of Theaster Gates, Ann Wilson, and other artists who, likewise, have interwoven craft practice and public performance. I’m curious: as a studio-based crafts person, how did performance began to eke its way into your practice?
Gabriel Craig: My first performance—that I would actually call a performance—was in graduate school, and more than anything, the piece came out of expressing frustration rather than any sort of intentional performative impulse. At the time—as an angsty twenty-three-year-old—I perceived a very insular conversation happening in jewelry. I thought that a way to engage a general audience, or an audience outside of that insular conversation, was to go and make jewelry on the street. I began by performing the Collegiate Jeweler (2007), which ended up turning into the Pro Bono Jeweler (2008, ongoing). During this same time, I was also doing working on a piece where I wrote a series of monologues about being a jeweler and performed them in a theater context, Narcissist: Eight Confessions of an Academic Jeweler (2008). Early in my career, I think I had a lot to say that I felt compelled to share with people in a more direct way than by making objects. For me, performance has always been a way to engage people and directly give them my opinion rather than mediating it through an object. I think that’s the same reason that I started writing, because I had the same burning desire to tell people what I thought.
SMP: Can you speak a bit more to the process by which you went from the impulse of disseminating your frustrations with academia to really crafting a performance?
GC: I was certainly aware of performance practices before then but, after I started doing performance, I started being more conscious of the framework that I fit into and how I wanted to situate my own practice. I always wanted my interactions with the general public to be honest and authentic. It really seemed to me that going out, making jewelry, and sharing that with people was the ultimate goal; essentially, sharing what I do because I love it. The system that I set up—giving away rings as I was making them—emerged from this very altruistic sensibility, but giving away rings really wasn’t the most important part. For me, the most important aspect was interacting with people and having an opportunity to talk to them about using their hands.
GC: There are a whole set of issues that surround handwork including supply chain, manufacturing, consumption, etc. Depending on the individual participant and where they’re at—the context of place—there a whole number of directions that the conversation could go. So many of the conversations I’ve had are about seeing something being made and, all of a sudden, having a window into where things come from. In a way, I’m demystifying manufacturing, but also, I think that showing someone even just one thing being made is an opportunity to start that conversation about how all things are made and get at that disconnect between production and consumption. It was from these genuine, meaningful interactions with people that the performance really developed.
When I was still in school, I got a lot of criticism for not using the traditional performance art language—my performances are essentially demonstrations—but that misses the point. Craft performance is different than art performance. Yes, my performances have the language of a demonstration, but my performances never sell anything. My goal is to share craft with people, and performing craft has different standards than performance art, but that’s my own opinion.
SMP: I find it interesting that you entered into a field that, because of the individuality of the Studio Craft movement, is not viewed as the most social of art forms. I’m thinking of the idea of the monastic craftsperson throwing a pot in a barn or crafting metal broach. Yet, out of this tradition, you were able to develop a social practice…
GC: Really?! Historically, I think of craft as having a really social bent to it in a vernacular sense. You’re thinking of making as in objects that are made in a very monastic way; however, the objects themselves are made to enter into a cultural vernacular of social use. If a potter makes a jug, the making process might be solitary, but the using process is always about some sort of social interaction or utilitarian function. I think that there is that dichotomy in craft—this balance of opposites—which I really enjoy.
SMP: Your work seems indicative of this shift in the field of contemporary craft from the production of products to the processes of making. What’s your relationship to handmade objects versus the practices of handmaking?
GC: I find tremendous enjoyment in using handmade objects, but I find very little engaging intellectual value in them; meaning, the objects themselves don’t have the cultural relevance that the making can have in terms of what the process can mean and cause people to think about.
SMP: Continuing this thread, can you tell me a bit about your most recent project, Raising Awareness (2012, ongoing)?
GC: Raising Awareness takes the process of “raising,” which is taking a flat sheet of metal and forming it into a vessel shape by hammering it with repeated blows over a forming stake. This is a really meditative, highly skilled activity, but it is a process that is really simple when you think about it. All you’re doing is using a lever and fulcrum, essentially, to change the shape of a sheet of metal. It’s really basic—anyone can do it—but not a lot of people are good at it. Also, it’s a really traditional way to make metal objects and most people are totally unaware of this process.
GC: I had always wanted to do a project that was a little more hands-on than the Pro Bono Jeweler. The Pro Bono Jeweler was about showing, and I think there’s an opportunity to make a deeper, more intimate connection than through just conversation. The Pro Bono Jeweler started to get problematic because, often, I was having conversations about making things with an informed, museum-going audience and it stopped being a rich conversation. With Raising Awareness, even if you are already oriented to craft or to metalsmithing, the opportunity to pick something up and start making something—for it to be participatory—means this project facilitates a different level of interaction.
I’m doing a marathon Raising Awareness performance with another metalsmith, David Huang, at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids in September. We’re going to be raising every day for two plus weeks with metalsmith volunteers from around the country for a crowd of 200,000 people over the course of two-and-a-half weeks. That’s going to be something that’s really about sharing widely, and we’ll see how many people we can actually get to do some hands-on work. To contrast that project, I have a show next year at the National Ornamental Metals Museum in Memphis where the project is to work with the public to replicate an object—an accessioned historic metal vessel—that once replicated, will be accessioned by the museum. The idea of recreating a historic masterpiece gives the general public a window into a collection that they couldn’t get any other way. I think that that makes the museum environment such a rich place to execute this project. The intent of both iterations—Art Prize and the Ornamental Metals Museum—is to give the public a stake in making something in an active way and empower them to use their hands.
SMP: Having read a bit of your writing, I gather you’re insanely knowledgeable about the history of craft practice and I feel as though you imbue quite a bit of your work with an early-twentieth century Arts and Crafts mentality that brings together concepts relating to mastery, skill, education, preservation, etc. I’m wondering if you consider yourself within a certain legacy and do you consider that legacy when conceiving, particularly, of these participatory projects?
GC: I’m glad that you picked up on that because the utopian aspect of craft is something I really geek-out on! I’m shamelessly romantic about it. I wish that craft was this model of production that could be perfect and anyone could make a living from it, but in reality, it’s so deeply flawed. I’m really interested in the Arts and Crafts Movement and the idea that turn of the twentieth century crafters were looking back romantically to the Medieval era and what it was to be a maker during that period. It’s funny because life was horrible for Medieval crafters—they were serfs!—yet the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was completely trying to emulate that lifestyle. I think there’s a certain optimism in the idea of making things and deriving enjoyment from it, but simultaneously, grounding these practices in a social context; meaning, really being aware of where things come from, questioning the status quo and labor practices, and having a respect for the environment. If you go back and you read some of the Arts and Crafts practitioners, they were writing about factories polluting the rivers and destroying the land of the English countryside. All of this is still completely applicable now. Right now, I’m finishing this biography of C.R. Ashbee by Alan Crawford, and Crawford is meticulous—the detail to which he writes about the workmen in theses handcraft studios! Anyway, he describes how Ashbee pulled kids off the streets in the East End of London at the end of the nineteenth century, which at the time was really impoverished, and gives them jobs as jewelers: training them, employing them, watching them grow, and really creating an entire lifestyle and an intentional community. Thinking about that and looking at what I’m doing here, I can’t help but project a parallel pursuit. Even if it’s not exactly the same, there’s a certain amount of intentional social engagement that now exists here—out of necessity! The East End of London was a really tough place and Detroit is a really tough place too. But the idea of recruiting on the streets of Corktown is problematic—imperialism and colonialism weren’t a problem for Ashbee. Here you need to meet people on their own terms; but regardless, craft does have something to offer.
SMP: I’m interested in the notion of an “ethical jeweler.” Can you elaborate on the ethical considerations within your practice?
GC: I have a real penchant towards talking about material sourcing, and it’s a conversation that I feel often falls on deaf ears. The issue first came to my attention through Ethical Metalsmiths, which is a nonprofit organization that advocates for mining reform and ethical material sourcing for jewelry. Metal mining is such an environmentally devastating industry. If you’re mining metal now, the practice is “open pit mining.” The basic premise of open pit mining is to find a gold rich area, locate a vein, and then dig an enormous hole in the ground, which can be miles wide and miles deep in some cases. Then, you take all the ore that contains the gold, crush it, put it on a huge tarp, and spray it with cyanide, (it’s the cyanide that leaches the gold out of the rock matrix). The gold and cyanide runs off, and the compounds are separated, using electrolytic deposition, and what you’re left with is waste cyanide and all this crushed rock. All the chemicals that are naturally occurring in rock ore – like sulfides and phosphides – begin to leech out through their exposure to air and rain. Even if this is done in a really responsible fashion, there’s no way to avoid destroying a significant portion of landscape in addition to all the other contamination concerns. Containing cyanide and these chemicals in sludge ponds is hugely imperative because even just a small spill can poison a watershed. The regulation of this in the US and Canada is fairly good, but in other parts of the world—countries that aren’t able to enforce mining laws—there’s real potential for disaster there.
SMP: And what was it that led you on your gold mining expedition?
GC: The idea was to create a narrative piece that illustrated the difficulty of extracting gold and demonstrated what it actually takes to extract a ubiquitous metal from the earth. I had written a more technical/academic article in 2008, “Seeing Green,” for Metalsmithing Magazine about sustainable jewelry making as it existed at that time, but writing facts and figures on paper is wholly different from constructing a narrative that readers can really relate to. There’s a certain amount of romanticism in the idea of mining your own gold. I thought that putting a personal face on the process would be an interesting approach to advocate for better practices. So, I connected with another jeweler and a couple who wanted to have wedding rings made, and the idea was to go and obtain the gold to create the wedding rings in South Dakota. We prospected on a week-long expedition, and in the end, we didn’t find nearly enough gold for the rings to be made. We did manage to document the pursuit of gold—what we were all experiencing—throughout the process. (View videos of the expedition on Vimeo.) The prospecting took place in the middle of this pristine wilderness in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is such beautiful country, and what did we do? We dug a ten-foot hole in the ground to try to find gold and, in the process, we ruined the landscape—basically trying to avoid knocking over trees and displacing the order of things. Even on the very small scale which we were doing this, we were still really conscious of the fact that we were spoiling the landscape.
GC: I think it’s important to tell stories about material sourcing. We need to expose the narratives of where things come from, not starting from when it arrives as raw material for a craftsperson to use, but starting where the material itself is sourced—things start before a maker even touches them. Even if a maker’s studio is really environmentally conscious and there’s the imperative to make by hand versus through industrial means, if the materials are obtained in a really irresponsible way, I think that taint isn’t erased by making by hand. And so often, that is the case! I had a conversation in Washington, D.C. last week with Daniel Michalik, who is a furniture maker. Almost all of his furniture incorporates cork and he did this wonderful project for Core77 where he went to Portugal and documented the cork harvest. He had hundreds of photos documenting his total immersion in the cork industry from tree to factory. I think that that’s the sort of education that needs to be available for all craft products especially if we’re going to talk about craft as having an ethical imperative. I don’t understand how it’s not a completely holistic conversation!
SMP: How has your practice changed since your first exposure to ethical sourcing?
GC: The first time I saw an Ethical Metalsmiths presentation at a conference I was shocked. My first thought was: What do I do now? Do I quit? I think it’s that tension between something that you’re in love with but at the same time is horrible. How do you resolve or else deal with that tension? I don’t think the world will be a better place if I quit making jewelry, but maybe if I work from within the existing system, there’s the potential that I can do my small part to change it. Craft being a force for good is essential to my worldview and how I approach my practice. I think I’m just compelled to do positive things.
Gabriel Craig is a Detroit-based metalsmith, writer and craft activist. His studio and workshop – Smith Shop – is currently being launched from Ponyride, a cooperative space for art, craft, design and education, in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Craig’s work is included in 40 under 40: Craft Futures, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum until February 2013. Craig will be speaking at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s symposium, “Nation Building: Craft and Contemporary American Culture,” Nov 8-9, 2012. Craig will perform Raising Awareness daily with David Huang, September 19 through October 7 at the B.O.B. in Grand Rapids, Michigan as part of ArtPrize 2012. For more visit: www.gabrielcraigmetalsmith.com
There is a bit of the Hopeless Romantic in the art of Richard Haley, as well as humor, depth, and boundless curiosity. His projects initially amuse and then confound, like a dose of sarcasm hiding within utter sincerity, or the strange experience of playing chess against yourself. Minimalism, land art, conceptual art, and performance all play a role in his practice, but his work stays fresh through his completely heartfelt approach. Whether trying to sink in a row boat at the same rate as the setting sun, moving nothingness from one part of the country to the other, or warming a decaying and forgotten slab of concrete with his own body, Haley’s games evoke a magic circle bound by the quirky dictations of a childlike sense of wonder.
Though he currently lives in metro Detroit, Haley hails from Northern California, and his practice is undeniably rooted in the West coast spirit—the uniquely Bay Area and LA awareness of the land as the frontier’s end. In Haley’s work, the frontier becomes personal. Mundane everyday actions—accumulated small gestures—place him, and often his audience, in the world at a particular moment. These moments are constructed to simultaneously acknowledge humanity while coming to grips with mortality. The deciduous nature of these poetic gestures means they are often missed and must be experienced through concise documentation; otherwise, they could drop off into nothingness.
Recently-recruited B@S Detroit correspondent Tom Friel and I spoke to Haley in his garage-basement-office-home-studio. We began our conversation in front of a work in process: a hole.
Thanks to Tom for collaborating on this interview and crafting this superb introduction!
Richard Haley: I made a mold of a hole within Detroit. For this upcoming exhibition [at ANOTHER YEAR IN LA], the mold will be shipped to Los Angeles and cast using matter foraged locally. Essentially, I’m shipping nothing from one contested place to some other strange place—two strange cities. My work is usually an accumulation of small gestures, and this is a larger gesture. I don’t exactly know what a hole is, and I’m trying to figure that out. It’s a puncture in the land, but it’s not the land itself—it’s not the site. It’s surrounded by the site, but it can’t exist without the site. A hole is almost more like a photograph in that a photograph is not the thing, but it cannot exist without the thing the photograph is of. The hole is the space, it’s not the earth.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: Will this be the first and only iteration this project?
RH: Oh, I hope I can have more holes. If I was to think bigger, and I usually tend to think in small bits, Birmingham would be my shipping center of nothingness. It would be nice to have nothingness on two opposite coasts. That would be exciting—to have replications of Detroit nothingness in these other places that are not here.
Tom Friel: Does this project have any relationship to your previous work that addresses mounds and hills?
RH: I hadn’t intentionally made that connection; although, in some way, I suppose it does. To put it sculptural terms, one is a presence and one is an absence, and both with revolve around some type of action that uses futility as a measuring tool. I use acts to address primary ontological questions: doing something that isn’t going to work is an exercise in futility, but the act itself is a way to measure of the nature of being.
SMP: Recently, the Bas Fischer Invitational in Miami described your work as an amalgam of California conceptual and monumental land art; meaning, that your gestures are often solitary, rule-based, and play out within a landscape. It seems to me that you’re very much a maker—of objects and images—as well as a performer. How do you reconcile conceptual and making in your practice?
RH: Well it gets me in trouble. Where I’m from in northern California, and all my teachers came out of the Bay Area figurative or funk movements. They were the students of people like William Wiley, Robert Arneson, Wayne Thiebaud, Joan Brown, so that was in the air when I was a student. Everything I did was figurative painting and figurative sculpture. One day, I was in my figurative painting class, and I turned it into a game painting as fast as I could and as quick as I could. Also, I made a great deal of noise and positioned myself next to the people doing the most labor intensive work, which didn’t work out too well. But anyway, I’ve never been a figurative artist—I like to make things, and I make very clumsy things. The way I think relates more to the *white men of the 60s*—the conceptual artists, and my thinking and my making often collide, which that gets me in trouble. I’ll make something that seems very clear and clinical and then I’ll make some strange chairs to sit on and watch the first thing, which completely distracts from the intent of the work. Here’s what it is: I like to make things with my hands, so my work doesn’t always fit into this dematerialized mode. I keep trying to rematerialize my dematerialization.
TF: How do you use images? It’s interesting that when working with the ephemeral you can play with the way that performances and objects exist as objects and as documentation. For example, the piece where you rubbed the grease from your forehead on a particular spot, [RUBBING THE GREASE FROM THE OILY SKIN ON MY FOREHEAD ONTO A DECORATIVE CONCRETE THING AND WAITING FOR THE SETTING SUNLIGHT TO TURN IT GLOWING ORANGE], that piece wouldn’t exist without the photo because, without the documentation, that gesture would remain a minute moment invisible to most people.
RH: I go back and forth: is this an archive, or is this a photograph? I make things that are clearly intended to be one or the other, but then I intentionally confuse even myself… When I made that piece, I was fascinated with Turner and David Ireland. I came across these readings that Turner liked to stare at the sun, and it started getting me thinking about using the sun as a material. David Ireland was interested in these miniature moments like polishing walls or stripping paint, and this fleeting second when the light came through his house and changed everything into this glowing atmosphere. The gesture of rubbing the grease came from a different failed piece where I was trying to work with a reflection of the setting sun over a body of water—I was trying to create that orange stripe. The first piece didn’t go anywhere, so I ended up rubbing my grease to try to make that orange stripe on concrete; essentially, making my own orange glow.
SMP: Can you speak more about your use of landscape and natural phenomena? Do you consider these futile gestures interventions into landscape?
RH: I don’t think of it as intervention, I actually use landscape and the body as a measuring device. In a way, this work relates to the body and performance art of the 60s and 70s. I use the body as a way to measure the landscape instead of using the vastness of the landscape as a way to measure the body. For example, with the piece where I sank the boat at the same rate as the sinking sun, [ATTEMPTING TO SINK WITH THE SETTING SUN], my thought was: how can I make myself as small as possible. Here’s this giant ball of fire in the sky that makes it so we can see, without it we’d have no electromagnetic spectrum. In the piece, I was comparing myself to that, but I don’t know if that actually comes across. It could be that I’ve looked at too many art history books and can’t shake the influence.
RH: In a recent piece, I tried to warm a piece of rubble that I found. I pressed my body against it—cuddling it—while the sun rose so the sun warmed the east side and I warmed the west side. The sun rose that day at 6:48am, so I started at 6:43 and stopped at 7:02 when I thought the sun had risen enough. For the piece, I created a sweatshirt that opens up so I could press my abdomen against the stone, and I cast the impression of my abdomen in latex against the rubble to create “a cuddling” of the thing. During the performance I just sat there still, going back to nothingness for 17-minutes. I didn’t do anything, but my body just happens to produce heat.
SMP: How did you choose that site?
RH: I was out looking for big piles of rubble and this just happened to be a pillar located in a place I wouldn’t be harassed. The site was an empty thing that looked lonely and needed warmth.
SMP: How do you use humor in your practice?
RH: I don’t try to, but I’m often told that my work is funny. For example, when I was making the Black Rainbow piece, I wanted to refer to nothingness. I thought: here’s something you can’t see, that doesn’t exist, so I’ll make a physical object that refers to this non-thing.
TF: But in PORTABLE HOLE PROPOSALwhere you’re falling over and there’s a shovel laying there. There’s darkness, there’s bodily injury… And you didn’t intend for it to be funny?!
SMP: I definitely saw some classic Buster Keaton-era antics in that piece, but slapstick doesn’t preclude criticality…
RH: When I was making it, I wasn’t thinking that it was funny. The first incarnation was just me standing still and recording myself sinking. I realized that if I stood for an hour, I would sink ¼-inch, so I made up the odd logic that if I stood there for a year, I would sink 90-inches into the ground. Two years, 180-inches, and so on. So the piece came about that way and I wasn’t actually thinking about it being funny; although, I can see that the work can be taken as humorous. Even though that is not my intention, I don’t take offense to it. Again, where I grew up, there’s a lot of humor in art. It happens. It just exists. I’m not trying to cultivate it, not trying to deny it, but if I’m making a piece and I don’t show it to anyone for a while, I can be oblivious to it.
Here is one piece I intended to be funny: SMALL MOUNTAINS/LARGE HILLS I PLAN TO PUNCH
TF: I’m curious: with any conceptual work, is it enough to have the plan and the documentation of that plan—the idea to punch a mountain on paper—or do you really have to follow through with the act, or the punch, to fully actualize the piece?
RH: This project exists in three different ways: it exists as a text document; it exists as a cast of the side of the mountain; and it exists as a sequence of documentation of me punching the mountain. Of the three iterations, I settled on the text as the clearest and most concise representation of the piece. The other elements were functioning as an archive and this was more of a diary, an illustration of something that I’m thinking about. I often don’t know what’s right or wrong. Sometimes it’s better to think about it, sometimes it’s better to actually do it, sometimes it’s better to lie about it. Like Lawrence Weiner says: it doesn’t have to be made for the piece to exist. Sometimes they just have to be made in my head.
SMP: I have to ask: how has Detroit affected your practice?
RH: We, [Haley and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Anderson, who teaches in the Department of Theater and Dance at Wayne State University], came here in 2009, and we were planning to live in downtown Detroit but ended up here a bit further north. Yes, Detroit’s a consideration, it’s hard for it not to be a consideration. First, there’s always the shock. I had never even been to the Midwest, so first there’s the shock of the Midwest, then there’s the shock of Detroit, the shock of the suburbs, and the real tension between. I try to not deal with it, but then I keep making art that does deal with it. For example, I organized a show that only existed on line for a few months where I salvaged charcoal from burned houses and mailed the charred bits to friends around the country so they could make work with it—drawing with it or whatever. I don’t like to use the word “ruin porn,” (I really hate that term!), but at the same time, you can’t not look at it. The landscape of Detroit, it’s almost like it casts a spell on you—you begin to think of all these fantastic scenarios of what happened in these now blighted sites. You can’t escape it.
RH: Right now, I’ve been enamored by these places outside of Detroit where I keep having what my wife likes to call “Snow White moments,” where you’re out walking and suddenly you’re just surrounded by animals. We were in one of the parks the other day and within something like 100-ft we encountered deer, wild turkeys, these weird furry egret things that eat out of the sand, and then our favorite thing: groundhogs, which I refer to as fur pigs. They look like little fat things that wear sweat suits. You can have that, but Detroit exists at the same time, and they clearly inform each other—each makes the other more powerful. It’s a reciprocal relationship, and I couldn’t have the Snow White moments without certain parts of Detroit being what they are.
Richard Haley will be featured in an upcoming solo exhibition, Holes, Voids, and Other Descriptive Terms for Blankness, at ANOTHER YEAR IN LA, in the Pacific Design Center.
Tom Friel relocated from Philadelphia to Detroit in 2009 to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he earned an MFA in Sculpture in 2011. Tom can frequently be spotted playing restaurant slave and art museum admissions stooge, but ultimately, this artist-writer-educator is most comfortable in the lion costume that has become integral to his recent video and performance work. Tom will be taking over the Detroit B@S beat when I segue into retirement at the end of this month, so y’all can look forward to seeing more of his work as of July!
Detroit has always been a refuge to makers, hackers, tinkerers, and industrious do-ers. In many ways, the socio-cultural life of the city thrives on grassroots production, and increasingly, these micro-enterprises are beginning to enter into the economic conversation as well. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to tour three Detroit makerspaces: OmniCorpDetroit; Ponyride; and Tech Shop. All three are fairly recent additions to the city’s culturescape, and although they diverge in organizational structure and affiliation, each was created to cultivate making through access to space, tools, and a network of expertise.
My first visit was to OmniCorpDetroit, a member-driven organization of hackers and makers who have recently added Moped Mondays to their list of recurrent antics. Housed in a former spice factory in Detroit’s Eastern Market, OmniCorp is festooned with a chaotic array of materials and tools that have been finagled, bartered, and salvaged for all manners of mayhem and mischief. Next, I was on to Ponyride, a residency and shared studio space whose mission emphasizes social entrepreneurship, community development, and cultivating creative networks. Currently, the facility is occupied by videographers, choreographers, fencers, a letterpress shop, textile fabricators, and many other producers who manage to operate from a workspace that bridges private and communal to mine the productivity that exists in between. Lastly, I was able to have look inside the first Tech Shop established outside of California, built in Allen Park in partnership with Ford Motor Company. This workshop is able to offer hands-on teaching and access to an impressive and well-maintained suite of tools including wood and metal shops, laser cutters, 3D printers, a vinyl cutter, plastic and textile labs, and a mammoth water jet cutter.
This post includes excerpts from each tour along with photographs courtesy of John Lui and Achille Bianchi. Thanks to Aaron Blendowski for hacking B@S.
OmniCorpDetroit: Hack ‘n’ Cheese
Aaron Blendowski, (founding member): We don’t have a mission statement, and we’re going to keep it that way. We’ve all agreed that if we develop a mission statement then we’re done. It’s allowed us to work entirely free-form, and that’s why we have people who build mopeds, sell custom saddle bags, make gelato, bikes, air cannons, robots, and sound stuff. There’s really not a project that’s gone unconsidered. People often ask what happens when someone proposes a project that OmniCorp isn’t about, and I don’t think that’s possible. We haven’t had that happen yet. We’re kind of a group of yes people.
AB: OmniCorp is member-driven and without sponsorship. It’s been interesting to see a number of maker spaces popping-up in this area—Red Bull just invested in a bunch of property to convert into artist studios—and know that many of these well-funded projects tied to corporate sponsorship may fizzle out whereas we can guarantee that we’re going to be here because the organization is member driven. I was just looking in Frame Magazine the other day, and it seems like everywhere you look, there’s some sort of reference to Detroit and how the city is growing: what’s happening here, what isn’t happening here, what people think is happening here. The only way to really know is to come down, take a look, and contribute, and there are more and more people doing that.
AB: We’re doing Open Hack Nights every first and third Thursdays, 8pm-11pm. Most nights we have a DJ here during the event so that people feel more welcome to come in, just hang out, and learn about what we’re doing. They might get a project started or meet someone who has nothing to do with OmniCorp, but that’s the idea: it’s more a group-stop where people can go and be like minded without a bar setting. Open Hack makes it easy for someone to come in and say: hey, can you help me do this? Our members include hard and software engineers, programmers, graphic designers, sculptors, architects, community planners, who are interested and willing to invest their time and expertise in different creative projects.
AB: Jeff Sturges, “Uncle Jeff,” was affiliated with a similar space in New York called NYC Resistor. In cities like New York, people escape into the space in the evening after working full-time all day. In this region, people don’t just have one job and then come here to mess around. People are hustling constantly. It’s not a joke that Detroit hustles harder; I have two-and-a-half jobs, and then I’m here when I’m not working. OmniCorp members don’t just have their one job and come here to tinker during off-hours, they’re involved in community projects, teaching, working as active professionals and then coming here to work on a hobby, do a project, or just unwind. This space runs on individual or small group initiative. Whether you want to screen print or work on the loom that’s currently being set up, we have the space and often the resources, but it’s up to you to get it done.
OmniCorpDetroit is located at 1501 Division Street, Detroit.
Ponyride: Elbow Grease Economics
Peter Beaugard, (board member): One third of the building is traditional tenant space—apartments at market rate, and then we work with a leasing company to rent studio and work space at a very, heavily subsidized rate, essentially 10-cents per square foot. So space here is less expensive than other studio buildings, and along with that, we offer a community for makers to be a part of… As a board, we’ve been discussing strategic planning to turn Ponyride into a model that could be brought to other Rust Belt cities. They call it “elbow grease economics”. Essentially, we want to create a toolkit—not necessarily a distinct plan—but an outline of what went into the space and how someone could develop a Ponyride… Some of the questions that we’ve been asking are: is it a creative incubator, creative accelerator, or just a collection of studio spaces? I think it’s just fine to be considering these questions as you go—you don’t necessarily have to plan in Detroit. The good thing is there’s clear leadership: board members who are helping to frame these issues. Phil [Cooley] was smart in the way he set this up—it’s a low-risk proposition. He bought the building for $100k and retained one-third as housing for tenants in order to pay the mortgage. He knew if he rented studio spaces out at 10-cents a square foot, he wouldn’t be paying money at the end of the month.
Steve Coy, (board member, shared studio tenant, Swagon founder): The process has been really organic. We’ve been trying to define who we are based on who approaches us and how they want to use the space. Right now, we’re housing three Artists in Residence and a handful of Studio Tenants… Personally, I just knew I had to have my program with Lawrence Tech run out of this space because of all the unique resources available here. The project was to engage my students with youth from Detroit and identify unique, community needs. Based on their research, the students created a business related to art and design, and what emerged was an idea to purchase an old ice cream truck and use it to sell design objects out of the back. We bought the truck—it’s out back—and now, we’re prototyping design objects using the resources here at Ponyride.
Zak Meers, (artist in residence): I wouldn’t even call most of the residents here “artists.” For example, Veronika [Scott of the Empowerment Plan] is a business woman for the most part, Bryan [Baker of Stukenborg Studio] has his letterpress operation, and there are carpenters, craftsmen, videographers, and others who really expand the idea of the artist studio/residency. I’ve been here working on this project since August, but Ponyride has been in the works for about a year. The first step was tearing it apart. This used to be a letter-graphics facility and it was filled with obsolete machines and other crap, and there were drop ceilings and raised floors, so we’ve spent the last 8-9 months creating what you see here—restoring the material of the building itself.
PB: There aren’t really any models for Ponyride, and the project is not specific to Detroit—it’s specific to any post-industrial Rust Belt city, but with a different energy than other shared studio spaces. Many spaces are only focused on fine arts, and I think there’s something about this space being about creative and social entrepreneurship; SC: and community engagement; PB: yeah, it sets this project apart.
Ponyride is located at 1401 Vermont Street, Detroit.
Tech Shop: Dream Consultants
Jason Burton (lab tech): This is a space that is geared towards making in a very fundamental way. We’re interested in hobbyists, dreamers, tinkerers, designers, engineers, product developers, entrepreneurs. The idea here is that you use your membership to access what I like to think of as a co-op of tools in order to make whatever you want. We have an education system here to help you use the facility regardless of your experience—we offer classes and constant support. My position here is the Education Events Coordinator, and my job is to work with the community to make our presence known—work with area organizations to incorporate our activities here into what they do—and to cultivate an environment where we can start getting things done and work out the details later.
JB: There’s a monthly membership ($100) that give access to the space and one-times class that gives you access to individual tools. Once you have access to the tools you can use them however you want. The techs in the shop are called “DCs,” which is short for “Dream Consultant.” They’re around all the time to help with the tools and serve as a project manager, so there’s constant assistance. Everyone who works here is a maker.
Tech Shop is located at 800 Republic Drive, Allen Park.
During my first visit to Signal-Return, a letterpress print shop and exhibition space opened last fall in Detroit’s Eastern Market, I had strangest inkling of déjà vu. Not déjà vu in the traditional sense of having been there before; but rather, I was struck by the distinct feeling that the workshop, antiquated presses, and even the intern sorting type, had been in that location for decades or perhaps even centuries. Indeed, Signal-Return falls in the robust tradition of Detroit-based artisanal print houses. The independent press is rooted in the early-twentieth century Arts and Crafts Movement when studios such as the Cranbrook Press, (1902), were established in the tradition of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. The small press phenomenon continued into the latter part of century by those seeking to harness the revolutionary potential of the media. Most notably, the Detroit Artists’ Workshop, a multimedia collective that produced an array of printed matter, opened in November 1964—exactly 47 years before Signal-Return unveiled itself to the public.
Where Signal-Return deviates from its predecessors is in the organization’s four principles: teach, serve, connect, and produce. Beyond defining itself as a functioning print shop that caters to projects ranging from wedding invitations to artist’s books, Signal-Return operates as a laboratory and archive, offering hands-on participatory experimentation that simultaneously preserves, honors, and hybridizes the materials and methods of traditional letterpress printing. Further, in mere months, Signal-Return has become a hub where makers, creative producers, educators, and enthusiasts have come together to create work and exchange ideas. In essence, the workshop functions as a network of networks, cultivating new connections, conversations, and communities that otherwise wouldn’t have the context to engage. At Signal-Return, the potential of printed matter to serve as a democratic medium extends beyond the materiality of the page to disseminate through discourse and, (dare I say), intertext. The workshop has some thrilling projects in the works that will be the product of numerous thinkers, activists, and creative workers, engaging with the conditions and reimagining the mythology of here-and-now Detroit.
Signal-Return co-founder Megan O’Connell currently serves as the non-profit’s director, curator, chief development officer, outreach coordinator, and designer. She describes herself an unabashed typophyle, and in lieu of the term “printmaker” she has adopted the ethos of the “press”—a tool, process, product, and metaphor that creates any kind of imprint. I spoke with O’Connell at Signal-Return in Detroit’s Eastern Market on printed matter and its twenty-first century incarnations and aspirations.
Megan O’Connell A printing press, as a shaper of culture and dispatcher of narratives, continually reflects back its context, even after the fact of its existence. It provides a portal into the ideals, structures, priorities, production modes, economies, and material assets of a particular time and place. As a newly-forged initiative, Signal-Return–a letterpress workshop–is a site for the incubation of ideas and a promulgator of traditional and hybrid printing methods.
By design, both physically and philosophically, the project is porous. It showcases a range of presses, an extensive library of fonts of type [acquired from area print shops updating to digital publishing], a retail/gallery area, and an archive. Essentially, it reveals the back-end of production to anyone walking through the doors while offering easy contact with output of the press. The skillful melding of all aspects of the space is the work of designer Christian Unverzagt of M1/DTW, whose printed matter now comprises an on-site solo exhibition titled Artifacts and Identities. He immediately grasped what to leave raw and what to transform in our 3,000 square foot space, striking a balance between old and new. I walked out of our first charette practically pinching myself—it was uncanny to sense a typophile/designer shaping the space and imbuing it with an unfaltering logic.
In assuming the directorship of a press that serves as a cultural beacon in an economically vulnerable, post-industrial city, I am responsible for telling myriad stories. The press is a conduit for this time and place: residents long to see something created and circulated. Detroit was once a major printing hub, with many of its talented students learning the trade in High School and continuing onto life-long careers, so it is natural that there is synergy around our workshop. I have to acknowledge, too, the interest in the mythology of the city stemming from places beyond the city is far-reaching. There’s something that captivates people’s imaginations, whether they are in Berlin, Brooklyn, or Boulder, when they witness resources being re-directed, new forms of collaboration emerging, and a thoughtful reweaving of social fabric. The press is a model for this, and we intend to claim these phenomena and give them voice while the focus stays on Detroit. On a very basic level, we are sparking curiosity and inviting participation from those within and beyond the city.
SMP: Who are your clients? Are they specifically artists or have you reached a wider public, and what sort of work has Signal-Return been producing?
MO’C: As of yet, there is no template for any of our jobs: we’ve kept our operations fluid, producing for both individuals and organizations. We get walk-in clients nearly every day, and it gives me deep pleasure to watch someone navigate the space and then proclaim “I want you to make _______ for me–can you do that?” We support them by helping to dream up a format, source materials, and select typefaces and color palettes. We quote out the job, and then, if given the green light, we realize the project. This might apply to a firefighter who has been promoted and needs new business cards, to an organizer of a seed saving project at a nearby Senior center seeking custom envelopes, to a poet looking to publish a chapbook, to a gallery director ordering an entire kit for an upcoming exhibition. It’s a way to honor our community, amplifying what’s happening here without defaulting to the simplistic ‘Go Detroit!’ response.
Conversations are underway with noteworthy writers, artists, curators, and collectors to yield various projects through Signal-Return. There is excitement about what have done to accrue currency in the art world, having produced for The Detroit Institute of Art, MOCAD, Mark Dion, Alison Knowles, and Etienne Turpin, fellow at the Taubman School of Architecture. We plan to serve as the publishing arm for Market Studio Kitchen/Detroit Emergent Futures Lab, opening this summer in our neighborhood. We are partnering with InsideOut Literary Arts Project to promote writers through the 4×5 reading series. Fritz Haeg, who will be working with and eventually disseminating the research of Wayne State University students in the fall, will look to us to produce print-based work. Plus, one of our staff has arranged for a curator from Paris to spend the bulk of August setting up our archive and a special exhibition. Our enthusiasm about these prospects borders on the uncontainable!
SMP: The 20th century print has such a lengthy, complicated, and politicized history: mechanical reproduction, the broadside, collage, pastiche, and even ‘zines and the revival of the local artisanal press. How are you expanding the concept of printmaking in the 21st century? Are you integrating new materials, practices, and discourses into your project?
MO’C As the 21st century advances, practitioners are concerned with how their work can confirm, provoke, surprise, or undermine one’s expectations. This, for the most part, remains media-specific and context reliant. The print, however, just might possess a bit more latitude to ‘show up’ in new contexts and to spur us into action. I think this is where its power lies.
Some of my hero-producers are those early progenitors of pamphlets, broadsides, posters, theater, and actions that readily dismantled old forms to cultivate new systems: the Russian Constructivists, Dadaists, and Futurists being the primary models. Based on what I have seen in the past, I cannot predict what the press and its products will look like a year from now, a decade from now, or even farther into the future. It stands as an open proposition.
SMP: It seems to me that by rooting your practice in the press, or a mechanized process, you are evoking the language of industry, but also the craft workshop. Is this an intentional?
MO’C: It’s impossible to be in a city like Detroit and to not consider what “industry” has meant. There’s a palpable point of pride around the scope and caliber of what has proliferated in this place: I find it awe-inspiring. I’m apprehensive about attaching any sentimentality to the idea of the printing press, and will circumvent a melancholy lament of what craft once ‘was’. Rather, the press holds potentiality while providing a tangible connection with the past. A printing operation of Signal-Return’s scale will never match the standards of industry, but it can serve as a cue for what was once there. If I had to choose, I would say that the qualities of our press are related more closely to the idea of workshop than factory.
SMP: What is your relationship to the digital?
MO’C: An epiphany that I had early on as a producer was that there is something very powerful in being able to see every aspect of a book’s production through–from beginning to end–and that limitations imposed through non-digital means invited me to take risks and problem-solve in ways that would never be invoked by the digital platform. This runs consistent with what I witnessed later on as an educator. As the director of the Typography Lab at the University of Oregon, I found my students craving a kinesthetic relationship to material. Physically laying out type on a galley, imposing and printing forms on the press bed, and collating pages into a book is unrivalled for what it teaches about the totality of an effort—it is a tonic after spending countless hours in front of a computer screen with pretty predictable results, finding yourself pushing ‘print’ again and again until you get it right. The habituation of designing with a computer can train us to rely on default settings and severely limits the range of what might get produced.
The flipside is that if one understands the nuances of analogue typesetting, it is possible to invest nearly the same degree of attention into a digitally typeset composition. One of the ways we can cross platforms from pixels to the ‘real’ is through custom photoengraved plates. They are produced type-high, so printing from them yields a look and feel that bears much the same aura of authenticity of a hand-set piece, but allows for more flexibility than traditional compositing.
SMP: What role does preservation play at Signal-Return, or do you place more emphasis on modifying and hybridizing traditional tools and practices for a new generation makers and audiences?
MO’C: There are four principles at Signal-Return: Teach, Serve, Connect, and Produce. I feel almost ready to add a fifth, which is to Steward, because this equipment, wood type, and all of the tools and materials you see here are only preserved if they’re actively being used. Wood type will get dry, cracked, and will become unusable if it’s stowed away, and, obviously, the presses need to run in order to stay viable. Thus, the stewardship piece is becoming clearer to me.
SMP: What are some of the projects that made you most excited?
MO’C: Friso Wiersum, an historian-in-residence in Detroit through Expodium, a collective based in Utrecht, came in [to Signal-Return] before we had officially opened. He was doing research on Detroit—taking photos, logging journal entries, writing a blog, etc., while comparing his perceptions to those of his father, also from The Netherlands, who happened to live in Detroit as an exchange student in 1964. Over time, in collaboration with the Wiersums, I distilled the ‘findings’ down into a simple folded poster/artist’s multiple titled Clearly Not All About Detroit, pt. III. It is emblematic of a conversation that could only happen here. On a modest scale, I’ve been able to bring focus to their dual stays in this city—what the elder chronicled and what the son reassessed 47 years later. This publication, the first bearing the Signal-Return imprint, was released simultaneously in Europe and the U.S. Plans are afoot to circulate it in Berlin, Athens, Toronto, and NYC.
Amongst other thrilling things we’ve produced are the Salon, Book, and Bread evenings, which consist of a three-course dinner followed by instruction in binding a monastery-style book led by Leon Johnson. Novelists, journalists, artists, advertisers, film makers, chefs, small business owners, contractors, students, and teachers who gather provide a sweeping look at what others are making, thinking, and aspiring to. Participants are invited back for drop-in bookbinding hours on the weekends, so it’s helped to build a critical mass of some of the brightest and most motivated denizens of the city. They are all stakeholders at the press.
photo courtesy of Jamie Schafer
SMP: It’s interesting how you’ve taken the mantra of printed matter as a democratic medium and really absorbed this concept into your programming and overall methodology. It’s not necessarily about your way of working—the processes and materials of production, but rather, about bringing together a multiplicity of voices to really initiate a new dialogue.
MO’C: Essentially it’s about what it means to be human—part of a community, connected by language and participating in the transformation of the here-and-now. I don’t know of many other sites where this can happen. People tend to feel comfortable here. We seek to flatten hierarchies and allow the possibility for the participant to become the teacher, the intern to be the curator, and the person cranking the press to stand as a voice of the organization. All of that flow strengthens our case, performs what is important to us, and gives the opportunity to share ownership. There’s this sense of: what might I do? It’s a catalyst for creative people to claim some inspiration, and start firing on all cylinders.
There’s much to celebrate, much to be disappointed in, and much to compel us to throw our arms up about. To craft something that uses the resources at hand to the best of our abilities is ultimately the aim here. At Signal-Return, we shed light on the complexities of what it is to live in this city rife with struggle, without tamping them down or diminishing their import. I guess you could say it is an empathic and evolving project.
Signal Return’s second exhibition, M1/DTW: Artifacts and Identities, opens this Friday April 6, 6-9pm, and will continue through June 9, 2012. This exhibition will survey the work of Christian Unverzagt, director of M1/DTW design studio and architect of Signal-Return. Artifacts and Identities demonstrates the ways in which Unverzagt’s print work traverses myriad graphic qualities and uses, reveling in manifold material options and formats. The exhibition will feature a survey of work including books, cards, press sheets, posters, and other ephemera from a range of projects including those that are long out-of-print. Signal-Return’s retail storefront will carry more than one dozen titles designed by the studio, and a limited edition letterpress printed poster of the exhibition will also be available for purchase. On April 18, 7pm, Unverzagt will deliver a presentation in conjunction with the show.
Addendum: Since this article was published, Megan O’Connell has left Signal-Return to start a new venture, Salt & Cedar, in Detroit’s Eastern Market. Salt & Cedar is a letterpress studio producing custom invitations, calling cards, stationery, booklets, and posters. Their workshops, led by renowned instructors, include traditional and experimental printing, ‘zine making, book structures, and paper making. Within the 3,000 square foot space, farm-to-table food events, a pop-up cinema, exhibitions, dinner theaters, readings, design lectures, and special curricular offerings are slated with a diversity of cultural partners.
Salt & Cedar is located at 2448 Riopelle Street in Detroit. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.