Guest post by Jacob Wick.
I met Aandrea Stang in her office, which sits waist-level with passing-by students on their way to the dormitory across the way, twice. The second time, I brought her a raspberry glaze cronut from the donut place near my house, which, like most donut places in LA, is called LA 24-Hour Donut or Donut 24-Hour LA or LA Donut 24-hour or something like that. Their cronuts are truly marvelous, and their donuts are great. Their coffee is terrible. I asked Aandrea about the program she now runs at Occidental College, a small, residential liberal arts college nestled the Eagle Rock neighborhood of northeastern Los Angeles. That program, OxyArts, is currently presenting We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, a participatory sculpture project by Los Angeles-based artist collective Finishing School in collaboration with artists Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher (on view through May 9), and The Trouble Between Us: An exhibition organized by Kenneth Tam (on view through April 19). Watch a time-lapse video of the installation of We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, a full-size replica of a MQ-1B Predator drone aircraft that was covered in mud over the course of two days by participants from Occidental College and beyond, here.
JW: Do you have free reign over all aspects of what you’re doing here?
AS: Do I have free reign to do whatever I want here?
AS: Can you narrow the question please?
JW: I guess that’s just a really roundabout way of asking what you’re doing here. What is OxyArts? What are you meant to be doing? What is its relation to the school? It looks to me like it’s the sort of thing that an art institution—a museum—that’s attached to a college operates, like the Wattis [at the California College of the Arts] or whatever, but there’s no museum here—I mean I guess there’s the gallery, but…so is it an offshoot of the gallery?
AS: Well, the college president is really interested in the arts. He was at the New School before he came here, and he likes contemporary art—he has a stumbling-on-a-Jenny-Holzer story that he likes to tell. He really is interested in seeing the college’s arts programming be more visible, and he’s also interested in the college having a greater relationship to the arts community in southern California. So, as the one urban liberal arts school in southern California, and perhaps in California and possibly—I mean, I don’t know how many residential urban liberal arts schools there are—so the president really wants to take advantage of that and position this school as having a partnership/relationship with the arts community in southern California. There was a strategic plan written for the college several years ago and the arts were really strongly written into the strategic plan, and they saw my availability as an opportunity.
JW: What is the strategic plan a strategy towards?
AS: I haven’t read the whole thing, but it talks about where the college is ideally headed. Before this president came in, there was a lot of tumult; there was three or four presidents in two years. The economic downturn impacted the endowment. The school wasn’t in an ideal place, so the strategic plan was written to move forward—to aggressively move forward. [Occidental College president Jonathan] Veitch wanted to have the arts included. So I’ve been brought in to manage the brand of the arts, and especially the presenting component of the arts, on the campus, to the campus itself and also to a larger audience outside the campus. The overall list of things they want from this office is pretty long…
JW: Were you able to whittle down the list of things? It sounds like you’re asked to do everything.
AS: Yeah. For example they’d like me to be in charge of the college’s collection, which is currently housed in special collections in the college’s library, and given the pressing responsibilities the collection’s going to have to stay there until plans and policies are created. Additionally I am overseeing the gallery program and they are interested in seeing interventionist projects occurring on campus.
JW: Are you supposed to write any curricula or teach any classes? Or is it mostly an administrative position?
AS: For right now it’s an administrative position. We’ve talked about my teaching—and I adjuncted before I came here, teaching a class on how LA became a modern and contemporary art city—but it was agreed when I signed my letter for this job, while it was presented to me as a job description, that what I was signing was the description for my office, not for my job.
JW: It seems like you have some qualms—how much you’re being asked to do. Were you sort of trepidatious about working here, or…
AS: No. I’m not afraid of hard work, that’s fine. I was nervous about coming to an academic institution and what that meant—
JW: What does that mean?
AS: At MOCA, there was an acceptance that anything presented there was art. You know, you’re at MOCA, this is a project that’s being produced by MOCA, usually what I was doing was within the bounds of MOCA—not always within the physical space—but it was a museum project and therefore it was accepted as art. Here, the art department is small. Overall there are about 2000 students and I would say maybe 30 of them are art majors, or visual arts majors, so when you’re putting on a big project like Finishing School’s We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust or Liz Collins’ Knitting Nation, people don’t necessarily know what they’re looking at. Since this campus is used so much for film shoots, half the time the students assume that an artwork is part of a set.
JW: Wow, ok.
AS: Welcome to southern California. This was California University for Beverly Hills 90210, and it’s been every college campus you’ve ever seen in the movies and on TV. Part of my learning curve is understanding that that’s the dynamic here.
JW: I noticed that the first couple of things you did here were in the gallery.
AS: The first thing I did was Liz Collins’ project, Knitting Nation, which I did with the sculpture professor [Mary Beth Heffernan] She and her sculpture students were very involved in the project—one of the course assignments was to work with Collins on the project. I was more involved in a managerial, administrative, logistical role. Going into the project I didn’t know Liz, I wasn’t familiar with her work, but it was a good first project. We got on well and the collaboration with Mary Beth was a supportive way to ease myself into how things work at Occidental.
JW: How is OxyArts funded? Is it funded entirely by the college’s endowment or are there also private donors?
AS: One of my constraints here is budget, so I can’t do a lot of big programs until I have proper funding in place. Fortunately a generous family foundation is supporting an artist-in-residence program that’s starting this fall. Lucky Dragons is going to be our first semester-long artist-in-residence, which we’re really excited about. The foundation was interested in seeing the Artist in Residence program start last fall but since I had just started at Occidental I explained that it was too soon to put an effective plan in place. Their response was remarkable. They asked what kind of projects we could do for the coming year. We discussed these smaller residencies, which they were very amenable to. That’s when I began to consider what was possible.
JW: Do you think people receive these projects differently here than they would have had you done them at MOCA?
AS: Yeah, well the first gallery show [Devon Tsuno: Watershed] was really well received. It was comprised of lush beautiful paintings and other attractive elements. The show that’s up now [The Trouble Between Us organized by Kenneth Tam] doesn’t appeal to a general audience as much, but it starts an interesting dialogue. The students studying time-based media are mostly working in either documentary or fictional narrative, so this show has been an interesting teaching tool for their professors. I don’t know how the drone would have been received had it been sited in an art environment. It may have been perceived as didactic. Here I think it works. Here it is pedagogical. The artists understand their audience. When I was told that there is one military veteran enrolled on campus, that made me that much more interested in doing this project. The airmen controlling the drones—or playing the videogames that control the drones—are the same age as the students here. And if there’s a class thing that you accept about who’s in our military now—that’s not the student body here. It is my assumption that the Occidental student body doesn’t have much of a relationship with our present-day military. I think making that actually tangible is an interesting thing. And there’s the whole making it tangible part, having people come and put the mud on it.
JW: To be part of this celebratory social experience of putting a drone in mud.
AS: Yeah, and having it be this sort of generous, barn-raising kind of moment where you’re patting down hellfire missiles. I think that has had a pretty provocative impact on the community here. On Friday I had an art history student in my office who was asking for some direction about a job after college. It wasn’t a conversation she was particularly comfortable having with me, a stranger. We got to talking about the drone project, and her whole demeanor changed. She went from being very reserved to very honestly and comfortably expressing her excitement about the project. There’s a student in either history or politics doing a paper on it; one of the Diplomacy and World Affairs professors used it for her drone unit. It’s getting some traction. I think in a museum I might’ve pushed the artists away from a project like this.
JW: Because it was too didactic?
AS: Yeah. And here that gets flipped around and handled well. The setting of a beautiful college campus, the fact that every movie gets shot here because it looks like Joe College, that works to the advantage of this project. If you’d put this in front of something that looks like what we think a contemporary art museum looks like, how exciting would that be? I mean it’s still a big giant airplane covered in mud with Hellfire missiles, so it would still be exciting, but I think the setting…
JW: And it’s not even in front of an art building, it’s in front of an auditorium, right?
AS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think it works here.
JW: How would you say the work you’re doing here relates to the work you were doing at MOCA?
AS: Engagement Party—how to answer this?—it’s really interesting to look at this from the other side. You know, when we got the funding for the project I was really excited, and I had also been at the museum for eight years at that point, so…
JW: What had you been doing until then?
AS: Public programs. That had started to stretch into other programming. We received funding from the Irvine Foundation, as part of their Artistic Innovation Fund. At the time they were inviting the big cultural institutions in California—not just museums, but the symphony orchestras and the big theaters—to apply for projects that would be innovative in terms of both the artistic program—in how the institution interacted with its audience—and also innovative in a managerial sense. A lot was asked of this program. I had been interested in what we now think of as social practice for a long time. I had been looking at community-based art-making—what it was in the 1970s and 80s, what it became in the 90s, and how that transmogrified into what we think of as social practice. At the time of the application I was very involved in Allan Kaprow—Art as Life, working towards remaking his Happenings as part of the exhibition. For the year leading up to the exhibition opening I had been studying his work. As a result one of the things that I thought was important was to think about the idea of innovation broadly: how in a collecting museum do you support non-object-based work? On the managerial side of things, MOCA had always claimed that it was committed to hiring artists and other culture workers. That idea influenced how I selected the project team. I chose either front-line or junior-level staffpeople—in some instances, middle-management—from most departments. This group collectively was responsible for both the managerial and curatorial oversight for this project.
JW: How long were people on this decision-making board?
AS: As long as they wanted to be. There were some people that were on it from beginning to end, four of us I think. For various reasons other people rotated out and were replaced, usually by people from the same department. We tried to keep a representative balance.
JW: And it was a consensus-based decision-making thing?
AS: Yeah. And you know, museums are pretty hierarchical spaces and it was really hard for a lot of people to accept the flat management within the pyramid, to cut the line thorugh the triangle. It was interesting to me who wanted to be involved, who didn’t want to be involved, and which department heads were willing to have their people be part of the project. In some cases, the people who I thought were going to be totally behind it, didn’t want to give up that much of their person’s time, and…
JW: How much of a person’s time was it?
AS: It was a an hour and a half meeting each week. With each cycle, as we drew closer to project dates, there were more things to do and more of the group members’ time was needed.
JW: How big was the group?
AS: The original group was thirteen people including one full-time staff person dedicated to the project.
JW: How did a typical meeting go? Was it you present a project and then talk about it and then vote?
AS: It was everything from soup to nuts. When we first started, I presented the group with the framework of the program, explaining that as a group we would have to complete the program design. At the same time—because of the limited timeline—we were working on the program design and making decisions about what artists we were going to be selecting. During the selection process for the first artists with whom we’d work, I was scheduled to go on vacation to Montana. I let the group know that while I was gone they needed to make a decision from the final two or three artist groups. It wasn’t a tactic on my part. I was going to be away, my voice was one of thirteen and we needed to keep the process moving. I got back, they had chosen the artists, and they understood that I was serious when I said that the program was a going to be a consensus-based management process and that they were really part of it. It wasn’t intentional; I was just going to Montana because I needed some time away.
JW: Where did the name come from?
AS: One of the educator’s husbands came up with it. We were trying to come up with a good name, and I asked widely for help. I don’t like having my picture taken and I can’t come up with interesting names for projects. Bonnie’s husband came up with it. Thank you William.
JW: It’s a good name.
AS: It’s a good name. It’s sort of a double-edged sword, though, because the artists doing the projects wanted to be taken seriously and if the work is part of something called Engagement Party is it really serious?
JW: Well, for one thing, there’s also political parties and those are pretty serious.
JW: But also I feel like something that’s nice about Engagement Party is that, at least in the social practice environment now, looking back at Engagement Party, it’s nice to see something that isn’t being weighed down by overly—it’s not couched in terms that are only accessible to people that are within this very small niche of social practice within the art world.
AS: That was the whole intention—and I think coming out of an education department had a lot to do with that. We thought a lot about and worked on how to present work that would garner the interest of the younger art world set, but would also will be something that a wider audience could participate in.
JW: Why were these audiences not already going to MOCA?
AS: They were, but the point was to try to get them more invested in the institution, not just as a place to visit but as something they were a part of, and what makes you feel more of a part of something than social practice?
AS: A place like MOCA needs to accept that it is an elitist institution, and I don’t mean that in a bad way—if you have an extremely limited amount of leisure time, unless you’re deeply dedicated to art, MOCA’s not going to be your first choice of what to do. Coming here was stimulating to me because that notion of audience is completely turned around, and I’m really interested in exploring that. Not everybody’s coming to the projects with any kind of aesthetic language, much less the same one—or they have an aesthetic language, but don’t know what it is, and I find that a really motivating challenge.
JW: How to make things make sense to people—how to make them intelligible as art?
AS: Does it matter that it’s an artwork? If a bunch of people are knitting on mechanical knit machines, and students are walking through the same space, what is their engagement? Are they there to watch, are they there because their economics professor wants—to talk about things, including labor…
JW: Like labor practices? Like people knitting as labor? Were they being paid?
AS: The artist was being paid, the non-student participants were being paid, and the student participants were there as part of a class assignment and were not being paid.
JW: Huh. Sounds like that would make a good class about labor practices.
AS: With Devon’s exhibitions, one room was painting, and one room had sculptural objects that looked very mundane, very banal, but were all hand-produced. I think Devon’s show was a really good moment with the students because I think they started to understand that a lot of things are artwork…
JW: Or a lot of things could be artwork…I guess maybe that’s the exciting thing about being here, is that a person can just walk by the drone and not think about it. Like inhabit the same space as it, but not notice it as art or even think to notice as art, not be an audience or a participant or a viewer or whatever—just be walking by.
AS: Last Friday, the senior media majors showed their final projects, their films. They had a reception beforehand in the plaza in front of that auditorium, where the drone is sited. Every person attending the event was forced to interact with the project in some way. Some people were just trying to move around it—in a Tilted Arc kind of way. But many people were really engaging it.
JW: Is that something that you—are you always interested in what’s going to happen? Is that something you look for in projects? The possibility of a scenario where you don’t know what’s going to happen?
AS: Yeah. I think that’s interesting. Maybe that’s the product of too much time spent with Kaprow. I don’t know how happy I would be working in circumstances where I know what the end result is going to be. I like working on projects that have some element of random chance. As a result, working on the exhibitions in the galleries has been interesting for me—exploring how that fits into what I’m thinking about. I like not knowing the outcomes of an art project. That said, I can appreciate people that go to the symphony to see the same piece of music many times. Whenever I go to MOMA I tend to go see the same works. And there’s comfort in that—but I don’t always like to be comfortable. Of course, I say this from this place where…
JW: We’re sitting under a veranda in comfy chairs with birds singing.
AS: Right, I find that a little—I don’t know. Look at what Pussy Riot is doing, or any number of political art groups—you know, they’re uncomfortable! I’m not uncomfortable.
JW: It seems like the experience you’re seeking here, with the projects you’re setting up, is this sort of aesthetic discomfort. Students walking into the gallery and seeing a milk crate that isn’t a milk crate introduces the idea that any milk crate might be a work of art, which is a different possibility. It’s a different sort of discomfort, which I guess is valued differently—because, you know, we like heroes and dying and all that—but it’s discomfort nonetheless.
AS: Yeah. I like experiences that force one to consider the aesthetics of their situation. Sometimes something’s just a shopping cart, sometimes it’s not. Donald Judds could be Donald Judds, but in a different set of circumstances they could be ductwork. Does looking at a Donald Judd make you look at ductwork differently? Kind of.
Aandrea Stang is the recently appointed director of OxyArts, a newly created multidisciplinary arts programming initiative at Occidental College. From 2002 until 2012 she served as Senior Education Program Manager at The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) where she developed and produced the museum’s public programming. From 2008 to 2012 she oversaw MOCA’s Engagement Party program, which offered Southern California–based artist collectives opportunities to make new artworks, interacting with the museum in unexpected ways. Stang has held positions at local government and community-based arts organizations and served on the boards of several arts organizations.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. In 2013, he coordinated Germantown City Hall, an installation of civic space in a disused structure in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Germantown City Hall was a collaboration with Information Department and the Think Tank that has yet to be named…, and was commissioned by the 2013 Hidden City Festival with generous support from the Andy Warhol Foundation. His recording with guitarist Shane Perlowin, objet a, on tape cassette and for digital download, will be released by Prom Night Records on May 6th, 2014.
October 13, 2011 · Print This Article
I feel like Iâ€™m on a bit of a mission to prove to Bad at Sports readers that not all Detroit artists trespass into abandoned buildings, cultivate urban prairie, or become beekeepers to create work in this city. Admittedly, tactics of urban intervention are a integral aspect of the cultural life of any locality, but in the D, activities based in studio practice can be provocative, and even subversive, without any bulldozing or breaking-and-entering. I was eager to interview Sarah Wagner, a sculptor who recently returned to Detroit by way of the Bay Area and most recently, Chicago, where she was teaching in the fiber department at SAIC. Sarah is admittedly a studio-based practitioner, who crafts intricate environments from the space of the galleryâ€”entire ecosystems for the imaginary, populated by botanical and biological specimens that nearly float away with uncanny ethereality. Her most recent series of Wormwood Cats are a collection of laser-cut wooden skeletons rendered with meticulous anatomical precision, that are overlaid with a fine skin of marigold yellow Chinese silk organza. Wagnerâ€™s Cats are icons of human-made disasterâ€”residuum of the atomic meltdown at Chernobyl that left a trail of biological mishap in its wake. The sculptures are not a pessimistic portrayal of the clash between human and environment, but rather, a positive look at the process of renewal, and the ability of some species to thrive amidst catastrophe.
Wagnerâ€™s work exists in a delicate balance between real and imaginary, exterior and interior, city and studio. She is able to create alter-universes from the space of the gallery, yet traces of reality inevitably emerge from amidst the illusion. Beginning in the summer of 2010, Wagner and her husband Jon Brumit, who is also an artist and recently appointed Director of Public Engagement at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, started Dflux, a residency program that falls under the framework of Creative Commons. The couple invites artists to engage with the city of Detroit and the immediate Hamtramck Heights/Banglatown neighborhood using the landscape and culture as the basis for a summer-long investigation. The residency operates from the space of their $100 houseâ€”a purchase made legendary by 20/20 and other mass media outlets in 2008, which can take partial credit for initiating the (some say speculated) romance between artists in search of low-cost housing and Detroit.
So, yes, this interview begins with a discussion on the housing crisis, arson, and what it means to buy a house for $100. No matter how thick those studio walls are or how many locks separate the inner sanctum from the street, (three at DFlux!), itâ€™s tough not to let a bit of Detroit in. Sarah and I spoke recently over tea in the DFlux kitchen.
SMP: So, we’re in a pretty famous house. Just to get it out of the way: You have to tell the storyâ€”what does a $100 house look like?
SW: We bought the house in 2008, Decemberâ€”we were both working down in Miami at Art Basel, and Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope [of Design99] sent us a picture all graphic-designed up: 3323 Lawley, $100. They had walked through the house, and it was structurally sound with the exception of one 2×4 that had been busted when the firemen cut the hole in the roof. Two fires had been set here, probably by the tenants as a way to get out of the mortgage, because we know they were both arsonâ€”you can actually tell by the way the fluid hits the ground in a perfect circle, which indicates the use of some type of accelerant. So there were two firesâ€”one in the front bedroom, and one in the living room, so the house was just a mess when we first got it. There was paint coming down from the ceiling, and all these just amazing surfaces. We promptly found out after we closed that I was pregnant, so we had to make sure the lead was out. We probably would have sealed the paint in otherwise to preserve those amazing surfaces. Basically, we demoed the whole thing. Thereâ€™s a bit of original plaster thatâ€™s still there, covered up by drywall but weâ€™ve made a huge changes within the floor plan due to the damage. There was a bunch of water damageâ€”for two years there was a hole in the roof, and the damaged planks had to be removed, but now we have this kitchen counter as a resultâ€”the countertop is from the rafters.
SMP: But the media makes buying a house in Detroit seem so appealing!
SW: What we hear a lot now is: Oh, I hear there are artists buying all the houses and itâ€™s a movement! Itâ€™s been really interesting watching the shift of the perception of Detroit in the media because before we even bought the houseâ€”the day we closed on itâ€”was the day the $100 house piece aired on 20-20. Itâ€™s been a really bizarre and very educational experienceâ€¦ There was this media blitz, [NYTimes, CNN, ABCâ€¦ Itâ€™s endless!], and everyone was contacting us and wanting to talk to us, and it was weird because I was pregnant and I didnâ€™t want anyone to know. All the comments were difficult to take, for example many people said that no one with kids would ever move into this neighborhoodâ€¦ I feel like 20-20 actually did a really good jobâ€”I didnâ€™t expect them to spin it in the way that they did because they wanted it to be the “feel good” segment at the end of the program, but they spun it in a more authentic way. They used a quote to describe it that was something along the lines of it being something really good out of something really horribleâ€”this isnâ€™t just, like: Woo hoo! Buy a house for $100! Well, it is, but this is the only way that Jon and I could have bought a house. We have never had enough money to buy a house.
SMP: Is this the housing-crisis iteration of the American Dream?
SW: It is for us, I guess. And this is a city of the American Dream, and this is a city that everybody loves to mythologize. It was once the “most dangerous city in the world”, and now, itâ€™s the “city of artists” in the midst of resurrection. Or something. Thereâ€™s always some sort of big, big mythology that is really quite simplistic, and thatâ€™s the thing about mythology; it misses all the beautyâ€¦ Thereâ€™s incredible diversity, amazing neighborhoods with beautiful, well-cared full homes! Itâ€™s not that the portrait thatâ€™s painted about Detroit wrong, itâ€™s just that it only captures one part of the whole narrative. Itâ€™s funny too, because the myth just really isnâ€™t interesting after a while. Itâ€™s a great story for a cocktail party: Ha, ha, $100 home, but it gets old. What really is interesting to me is the neighborhoodâ€”30% Bangladeshi, 30% Polish, 30% African American and the 10% other, which we fit into, and every single one of these people has a storyâ€”a really interesting story, way more interesting than a $100 home. So this was what led us to do DFLUX project, because we felt as though we wanted to provide a platform for people to come in, see, and explore. It was really important that they actually explore and not have their experience scripted ahead of time. We were frustrated with the sound bitesâ€”reporters would come in, and theyâ€™d claim their interview would be different, but all we ended with was being used for sound bites.
SMP: How did you facilitate going beyond sound bites considering these all-pervasive myths? It seems like chasing various Detroit mythologies would be part of the impetus for artists to be in residence here?
SW: I guess by not giving much information so they had to seek it out on their own. In terms of what we would show artists when they would come here, weâ€™d definitely show them the neighborhoodâ€”where to get their beer and all that stuff, and then weâ€™d bring them to visit the field. Thereâ€™s this field off of Mt. Elliott where they razed a whole neighborhood in order to provide a space for development. But of course, no development came, and it has turned into a wetlands. Itâ€™s this really amazing place where thereâ€™s all this natural growth, which is really overtaking the grid. The roads are still there and the fire hydrants are still there, but everything else is gone. From botanical standpoint, there is all kinds of diversity. The area was residential, so there are all these cultivated plants popping up along with plants that are perhaps natives, or perhaps invasive, or whatever. And thatâ€™s what has absolutely fascinated me is the memory, or trace, of what was there before, and how different traces are reemerging and reclaiming the space overtime.Â And that was it. That would be it. It became really clear that some of our residents came and wouldnâ€™t leave the house, and thatâ€™s just not okay. The experience is not about being at the house, but to be in the neighborhood and city.
SMP: So 2011 was DFLUXâ€™s second summer. How many residents did you take on initially?
SW: DFLUX in 2010 had nine residents, which really pushed the envelope.
SMP: Yikes! That sounds like a camp-out!
SW: It was a camp-out. It was not fancy. We warned people, and out litmus test for selecting people was whether or not we thought they could handle it, which was difficult. We had six people sleeping upstairs, one person downstairs and we had a mother and son sleeping on a porch.
SMP: And how are you taking applicants?
SW: Everyone who we asked in that first round came, which is how we ended up with nine. That was really ambitious, but we thought: weâ€™ll just figure it out. We didnâ€™t have our bathroom ready for three days! That was a bit rough, but it worked. In the future, weâ€™re not really sure. We had one resident this summer, who was fantasticâ€¦ But it became really clear that we canâ€™t do it with so little space. Weâ€™re looking to buy another house right across the street in this auction cycle, and if we buy that one, then weâ€™ll continue, but if we donâ€™t, then I donâ€™t think weâ€™ll be able toâ€¦ Especially with a toddler.
SMP: It seems as though the engagement with landscape that your residency facilitates is similar to the way that you explore ecological and human-made systems in your own work. How does the shifting biology of this placeâ€”epitomized by your field, also inform your studio practice?
SW: Itâ€™s something that Iâ€™m trying to figure out, and I think itâ€™s a big part of the reason that Iâ€™m attracted to the wetlands off Mount Elliot… The piece Iâ€™m working on right now is a grouping of five cats.Â Itâ€™s about Chernobyl, and what Iâ€™ve been thinking about is that there are all these animals, wild and formerly domestic,Â in the area of Chernobyl that appear to be doing just fineâ€”completely normalâ€”theyâ€™re playing, running, eating, procreating, but theyâ€™re completely radioactive. And what Iâ€™ve been thinking about is how to represent the invisibility of the radiation. So this is the first oneâ€”it has a completely normal skeleton now, but the skeleton will slowly start to overtake the inside of the form.
SMP: In essence, these are ghostly traces of radiated creatures that will change form overtime?
SW: Yes. And theyâ€™re dyed with turmeric, because itâ€™s a bad dyeâ€”meaning, it doesnâ€™t keep, so itâ€™s light sensitive. The idea is that the turmeric is mimicking the shelf-life of radiation. And so, these creatures are slowly healing, and over time, theyâ€™ll be come white again. I donâ€™t know what that time period is, but they start out one color and they end another.
SMP: Interesting. So itâ€™s not so much about deconstruction or decay, but more about purification?
SW: Healing is really important. At the risk of being very California, itâ€™s really important to me. Also, I donâ€™t want to look at the problem, but to the hope. Thereâ€™s this military term called â€œpositive ocular response,â€ which means when there are two blown-up tanks with a small space in between, you donâ€™t look at the tanks while trying to drive through, you focus on that space between–and often you make it no matter the odds. Iâ€™m trying to present positive ocular response while still being truthful about the situation. Truth is really important to me too, but truth is flexibleâ€¦ I supported myself for ten-years doing construction and fabricationâ€”including museum building fabrication, exhibits for natural history museums and the like. It was really interesting working in these environments because I came to realize how these institutions of science presented an interpretation the truth–not the truth.Â The idea of exploring whatâ€™s true and whatâ€™s real, and trying to imagine the process by which truth is created is interesting to me, because it is all a product of imagination in a way.
SMP: Iâ€™ve heard the correlation made between Detroit and Chernobyl before. Is that a comparison youâ€™re conscious of making this work?
SW:Â Detroit is not Chernobyl–it’s vibrant, alive and safe for humans, but I feel like the reason Iâ€™m drawn to the idea of Chernobyl is that thereâ€™s all this hope–living creatures surviving radiation.Â But the effects of radiation on the animals is not investigated, and we donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on there, but I really am interested in the idea that this horrible thing can happen and that life continues. It may not be human life, but something is flourishingâ€”all the plants and the species that are coming back, itâ€™s all pretty phenomenal. In that way I feel like there is a link, particularly when thinking about the Mt Elliot wetlands–it’s a place that gives me hope.
SMP: It seems that your practice is for the most part studio and gallery-based. Given your interest in landscape, have you ever done any installations outdoors?
SW: I havenâ€™t really done that. Iâ€™ve had ideas for it, but I havenâ€™t been able to manifest them. I love being a studio-based artist, and thatâ€™s what makes me different from Jon and Mitch and Gina is that their studio is everything. I love getting lost in that deep space of just being alone, working, and making something. I donâ€™t know if my work will shift that way. But there have been a number of other big life changesâ€”I have this big, sort of, Bangladeshi-style garden that we grew out back– we grew our own food, and doing things like this will surely have some sort of impact . But I donâ€™t knowâ€¦ Thatâ€™s one of the things about the creative process I guess.
SMP: What is in the works for you?
SW: Iâ€™ve got a couple showsâ€¦ Iâ€™ve got a month to finish the cats for a traveling museum showâ€¦ I’m also part of a “sisters” show this spring at the Ann Arbor Art Center called Inherent State. My sister, Cathy Wagner, is an experimental writer. Right now, sheâ€™s putting herself into trances, recording herself speaking in tongues, and developing writing from that. I decided that I need to meditate to try and, you know, be calm, (laughs), regulate my anxiety, and so Iâ€™ve been trying to meditate, and when I begin obsessing about things while I meditate, I write these things down on the fridge. As soon as Iâ€™m done with the cats, Iâ€™m going to begin making all of these thingsâ€”Iâ€™ll make the objects on the list on the fridge and install them in Ann Arbor.
SMP: What kind of objects are we talking about?
SW: [Sarah reads from her list:] Garden; Pollination; Squash; Otto Screaming; Ramadan Plate; Concealed Weapon, carrying, protecting; Otto Baby; 3322â€¦ Oh no! Itâ€™s illegible, darnâ€¦ Platonic Solids; Peony; Oxygen Masks; Otto; Cat; Bottles; Window; Cat.
SMP: In a way, youâ€™re in dialogue with your sisterâ€™s process but through your own process of making.
SW: Yeah, weâ€™re definitely drawing from the same process. Stream of consciousness to create objects and text. Sheâ€™s got her craft, and I have mine, so the process will be filtered through our skill set. For the show, weâ€™re teaming up with artist Brooks Harris Stevens and her sister Jen Harris, who is also a writer. Brooks and I have a lot in common both materially and in our personal lives, including having writers for sisters, so we thought this would be fun.
SMP: Do you and Jon ever collaborate in this way? Since Jonâ€™s praxis is more socially-based and your work is certainly all about the introverted studio-time, do you find that this clashing of opposites is productive (and challenging) in the way that working with a writer is?
SW: Jon and I collaborate quite a bit, and weâ€™re looking to collaborate more because heâ€™s been so busy, so itâ€™s a way for us to get to work together. And I really admire his work, and I think he admires mine, but weâ€™re also so different, so itâ€™s really lovely to have that polar-opposite-ness come inâ€¦ We did a Life Laws project together. We have this series of Life Laws, for example, number one is: Donâ€™t put your bearings in the dirt. Number three is: Donâ€™t cut a hole in the roof of a co-owned car without asking the co-ownerâ€™s permission. These are either things that weâ€™ve done, or tales that weâ€™ve collected from friends. This is from a friend, who was actually at Cranbrook: Donâ€™t wear homemade pants that arenâ€™t reinforced in the crotch and sit cross legged in publicâ€¦ We have performed the laws and made romance novels with the titles.Â Collaboratively? What elseâ€¦ Well, DFLUX which is pretty huge, and then we did a show at Patricia Sweetow, [San Francisco], with Christy Matson as a third collaborator. She makes weavings using a conductive thread, so I made sheep that conducted sound art that Jon created. Oh! and Jon and I did a show in Tennessee in 2003 calledÂ Crossover in Chattanooga, TN, which is where we both went to undergrad.Â That project was really fun: we conducted traffic across this bridge that has a perfect octave. I donâ€™t have a perfect pitch, but it goes [Sarah hums three successive pitches: looooow-hiiiiigh-looooow]. We discovered that if you drove over in 3-mi/hr increments that [the pitch would elevate harmoniously]. Depending on how fast you were going, you could actually make different pitches. So, we tried to conduct traffic across the bridge to create, like, â€œRow Row Row Your Boatâ€â€¦ It was really bizarre, because you just canâ€™t control how fast the traffic goes.Â We were able to do it on a synthesizer in the gallery, and we exhibited that along with an installation based on the Tennessee River Valley out of construction materials: tar paper, electrical linesâ€”the current was the river, and then we had shredded paper set up so as the viewer entered the space, they came into a pristine environment mimicking what the Tennessee Valley was before it was settled. The viewer was then forced, essentially, to clearcut it as they walked through these huge piles of shredded paper so their trace was left as they walked. The audience then essentially made the environment, which was the reason I really loved that piece.
SMP: It seems as though many of your collaborations involve willing or unwilling participants. Is this an element of installation-based work as well?
SW: Um, I think it ends up being part of the sculptural experience. I really love the way, for example, Richard Serra sets up his work, where itâ€™s more about the emotion of the encounter. I want to get that kind of affect in my workâ€”Iâ€™m really into creating that kind of intense feeling when a viewer walks in. You know how when you walk in and see one of those stacked sculptures and thereâ€™s this amazing tensionâ€”thatâ€™s really what Iâ€™m hoping for. I guess it is unwilling in some way, where youâ€™re just subjected to some kind of emotional shift.Â It does require participation.
SMP: With this new Chernobyl series, do you intend for viewers to get a strong sense of lifespanâ€”though the turmeric, or the shifting patterns of natural systems?
SW: The evolving? I guess so, I hope so.Â I envision the viewer, the owner of the work really, seeing the work shift over time.Â The viewer who passes by will miss this–it is too slow of a story arc.Â I guess thatâ€™s what I feel like happens in my whole life! The story arc is a long one with many shifting patterns.Â In my twenties I approached life as if it was so much more cut-and-dry, like, if you got rejected than that was itâ€”you were black balled. Now I know that rejection is just an opportunity. Now I think: oh, well, they got to look at my work, and you never know what’s going to happen–there is an ebb and flow. I think being willing to submit to things occurring over time has very much about not having scarcity, and not living in that kind of closed mental space. I want my work to existÂ in the same kind of placeâ€”where there is room to be open ended–to not know.Â Because what do I know?! I donâ€™t know anything, I only know what Iâ€™ve experienced. Thereâ€™s a whole range of things on the horizon of possibility that are so out of the range of what I could even imagine. I would have never guessed I would buy a house in Detroit for $100 and weâ€™d go on 20-20, Iâ€™d have to navigate all that mass media, and that weâ€™d have a kid! Go figure! And throughout, still working in the studio.
SMP: What I love about your work is the overall sense of positive uncertainty, which I find very hopeful.
SW: Thatâ€™s lovely, because Iâ€™ve worked towards that. A number of years ago, I decided I wanted to turn conditions aroundâ€”I wanted to transform from survival into prosperity. And I did that during grad school, and it felt great, so lately I’ve decided to turn worry into wonderâ€¦ Maybe Iâ€™m starting to do that in my art work as well.
SMP: A word Iâ€™ve been hearing quite a bit lately is the notion of precariousness, and how contemporary art thrives within uncertainty. Precariousness seems to be an apt termâ€”itâ€™s where your work is, and where Detroit isâ€¦ It seems to be a lovely synthesis of you and environment.
SW: I think thriving within uncertainty is the only way to go.Â A precarious position is wonderful in the range of possibility that is there depending on the way one falls.Â There’s a lot of tension there too and that’s what makes life and art interesting.Â Our neighborhood is in some ways “precarious” but it’s a space of possibilities.Â Itâ€™s really funny, because I would be terrible in a neighborhood where everybody mowed their lawns preciselyâ€”I wouldnâ€™t fit in there, and I couldnâ€™t do what I wanted to! I can do what I want here, nobodyâ€™s looking, and our neighbors get excited when we do something. I like the openness. There are so many places where we livedâ€”Cranbrook is one of them, where itâ€™s so beautiful, but itâ€™s so sculpted–finished! Thereâ€™s something about our neighborhood, and about its openness that I really, really like. What can happen?
Sarah Wagnerâ€™s wormwood cats will be featured in Innovators and Legends: Generations in Textiles and Fibers:
Muskegon Museum of Art: December 13, 2012 â€“ March 17, 2013
Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center: May 26 â€“ August 11, 2013
University of Kentucky: September 8 â€“ December 1, 2013
Colorado State University: January 24 â€“ April 11, 2014
All photos courtesy of the Artist, Jon Brumit, Benjamin Maddox, Robert Beamer, and Patricia Sweetow.