Happiness Machines: A Conversation with Caroline Picard

June 29, 2011 · Print This Article

 

Caroline Picard is a well-known artist, arts administrator, publisher and all-around indie maverick here in Chicago who runs The Green Lantern, a project that encompasses publishing, exhibition projects, and a daily blog. Needless to say, we are very fortunate to have her as one of our regular columnists here at Bad at Sports. When Caroline’s show Happiness Machines opened at Roxaboxen earlier this month (sadly, its run was short and the exhibition closed last weekend), I was personally very excited, because up until now I’ve never had the chance to see any of Caroline’s own work in person. Her core issues of interest — the notion of self, the construction of personal identity, and just what it is we mean when we talk about “happiness”– are subjects that I think about and puzzle over almost every day. I am truly grateful to Caroline for taking part in this extended conversation with me, where we discuss all of the above issues while also taking the opportunity to dish on celebrities…just a teeny bit.

*******

Claudine Ise: Your show at Roxaboxen is titled “Happiness Machines,” which for me signifies any automated something that can deliver quick (and temporary) shots of pleasure on demand. There’s something intrinsically connected to human instinct and biology there too. Philosophically, the happiness machine relates to Robert Nozick’s idea of the pleasure-giving “experience machine” — Nozick’s thought experiment that asked people to consider whether, if given the choice, they would prefer to live in a pleasure-filled virtual reality over real life. The idea of the “happiness machine” has historical resonance too:  Herbert Hoover used the phrase in a speech he made to advertising executives: “You have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines that have become the key to economic progress.” His words presaged America’s transition from a needs-based economy to a desire-based one — ironically, as Hoover himself presided during the Great Depression.

Cut to 2010, when Coke puts out a YouTube video that, amazingly, referenced Hoover’s idea with a pretty astounding lack of self-awareness – the video depicted a kind of advertising stunt, the Coca-Cola company put this special “magical” coke machine on a college campus, the coke machine gave students balloons or dozens of cokes to distribute to everyone, or flowers, pizza, submarine sandwiches — all delivered by human hands through the slot– after it received coins for a single coke. When one of the students in the video says something like, “aw I just want to give it [the machine] a hug…Thank you Coke!” – that was pretty chilling. I don’t have anything against Coke as a brand–it was just the perfect smooth execution of an idea by a corporate entity, and how perfectly the students appeared to buy into it – literally speaking and, if what appears on the video is to be believed, emotionally speaking as well–that grossed me out.

And now, you as an artist have created your own brand of energy drink as part of your project “Psycho Dream Factory.”  I tasted one from that flowing pile, and was shocked at how delicious it was (I like how the empties were put back into the pile, too, so it’s a pile of plenty and a pile of trash in one). It would have been even better if it were chilled, but – this tasted just like liquid hard candy! When I popped the top this disgusting sweet smell wafted out of the can, like a vapor, but the taste itself was really good. Anyway, tell me about what “Happiness Machines” means to you, how you would define or describe what a “happiness machine” is in 2011, and how it functions in our culture.

 

 

 

Caroline Picard: I started thinking about it when I watched this amazing four part Adam Curtis documentary called “Century of the Self”. The documentary talks about how our ideas about the psychology and the self are directly tied to the ways that marketing and advertisement has developed over the last century. Curtis makes the case that the two fields have developed along a reciprocal path. The documentary begins with Freud focusing specifically on the relationship Freud had with his nephew, Edward Bernays. Allegedly the “father of public relations” he was the first to use psychological tactics to manipulate large populations of people, almost as a kind of way to save them from themselves. So, for instance, one early example of how that kind of approach would influence advertising: they tied smoking with the suffregette movement, encouraging women to smoke as a way to illustrate their independence (thereby opening up a new body of consumers, who had previously not smoked). Over the course of the documentary, ideas of self and signs of independence, success etc change. So, for example, in the 60s there was a backlash youth group who didn’t want to “sell out” and wouldn’t buy into the lifestyles their parents were supporting. Instead of being afraid of themselves and their inner urges, they were suspicious of the status quo that was (ostensibly) trying to control them. They wanted to be recognized as unique individuals with individual taste; they did not want to conform and many of them resisted taking on traditional jobs that tied to them to specific locations and markets. Marketing had to shift to accommodate them.

Throughout all of this, I kept thinking about how happiness seems like the thing that has been marketed consistently. The American Dream, I guess; it feels like this very American idea to me–in so far as happiness is a thing to be purchased, and that we want happiness specifically: a finite peak of experience that is, I think, different from contentment or satisfaction or, even, joy. I know this is stepping even farther away, but what does it mean that “happiness” as a concept makes such an early and seemingly integral appearance in our national identity? (i.e. the declaration of independence: what does it mean that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right?) How does it reflect on other cultural expectations? For instance, it’s also interesting to me because, as an idea its secular and a-moral: it is the idea of a feeling, not a behavioral prescription…

So. Yes. I also saw the Happiness Machine coke commercial on youtube and was thinking about how there is a constant desire for gratification. How it is still palpable. If it’s delightful and clever, all the better. Similarly Hoover, as you point out, was celebrating the idea of everyone’s potential happiness. Our cultural mythology is that we live in a place where anyone can be happy, just like anyone can be president. The idea of happiness then, I think, becomes an odd manifestation of power: if everyone has the capacity for happiness then it’s up to each person to manifest that on his or her own. Purchasing goods is a way to exercise some aspect of power and so I feel like it makes sense that they would get conflated. I felt like making an energy drink, as another element in the show, would draw out the idea of happiness and its relationship to consumerism more than the drawings alone. It felt like it also became an interactive feature that would help people engage and play with the materials, while also giving the idea of the show power outside of the immediately physical show: in other words, there’s almost an idea that these objects could circulate outside of the show.

CI: How does the entertainment celebrity function as a “happiness machine”? Can art’s “celebrities” be said to function in a similar way? I’m interested in your thoughts on this because I am not sure that they do, I don’t think that art celebrities affect us on that same emotional level as tv and movie stars do. I am not compelled or interested in the lives of art stars the way I am with celebrities.

 

 

CP: I think there is a difference, for sure, though I’m not quite sure how to hash it out, exactly. I mean maybe one example would be somebody like Jeff Koons and Cicciolina; I feel like his porn photo project was a way to think about public and private distinctions and publicity stunts. At the same time, Cicciolina has always seemed like the much more compelling figure in the story–that she was a member of the Italian parliament and a public sex worker. Still, the Koons-irony thing turns into a bummer so fast. Like it’s amazing that the distance between himself as an artist and his art would collapse, so that even his personal life seemed like a project. One that produced a child–.

Still, I guess I’m interested in the way our understanding of celebrity culture reinforces professional expectations in other fields. In the same way that actors are legitimized by appearing in tabloid magazines, so too I think the predominant model for artistic success is one of fame and monetary income. If your paintings translate into economic or cultural capital then the artist is legitimate. His or her practice has been deemed worthy. I understand the practical (and unavoidable) connection between art making and market economy, but I feel like it still provides a very a limited vision of art’s function–because the artistic gesture suddenly has to be commensurate to a market value in order to be meaningful. Is it possible to establish alternate criteria? With alternate methods of sustainability? What would that look like and, of course, why is that important? It reminds me of the recent upheavals in Universities in the UK. Middlesex University, a school with an outstanding international reputation for philosophy closed its philosophy department because it made more money in other, non-humanities departments. This has become a rampant trend (and caused a number of student protests in the UK), even in the United States: the humanities don’t translate directly into financially viable positions, so their seeming public value diminishes. (Martha Nassbaum also wrote a book, Not for Profit, that also talks about why the humanities are important–because they encourage the imagination, and therefore empathy as well as critical thinking, which leads to more actively engaged citizens). I guess I want to argue that we should think through alternative means of legitimizing contemporary practice. Maybe one way to do that is to think about what an object means as an object, not as something that translates into a monetary or marketable equivalent…is this possible to do? I don’t know….

In many ways, I feel like there is a strong, pessimistic undercurrent in the show. I don’t feel like propose any solutions–my favorite artists do that. I like to think it’s because I’m building up towards that direction, but who knows. I think it’s easier to have a sense of how things could shift than it is to imagine what that shift might look like.

 

CI: I loved the way your plastic-wrapped drawings were packaged and displayed (on hooks and in rows, not unlike a magazine stand or checkout shelf) and “delivered” to the visitors to your show. I loved the feeling of rifling through them all, I loved that there was such a multitude to look at and variety choose from, I loved that perfect balance of repetition and difference so that every one was just a bit unique, or at least gave the appearance of uniqueness to a buyer – you used precisely the same logic as higher-end mass merchandising does, and I suppose as certain types of art production as well. Your show definitely hit my own personal pleasure zones as a “shopper” and yet, the somewhat awkward way that you render these super-familiar celebrity faces, and the spare and barely-there ness of your compositions – the drawings still feel beautiful and unique to me in all those old-fashioned ways of talking about works of art.  Here’s my question: why were your drawings so inexpensive ($3 each)? They were so shockingly inexpensive I have to assume there’s a conceptual reason behind it – that in order to deliver that quick shot of pleasure on demand, you had to make your drawings so attainable that virtually anyone could buy one right away without much pain.

 

CP: Yes. That’s totally true, about the cheapness, I mean…
First though, to talk to the drawings themselves. Underneath all of this, I really really love making work. I really love the process of painting and drawing, and the way it lets me meditate or think through ideas. It’s like drawing gives me another way to digest material–in this case it gave me a chance to take in tabloid covers and then reenact them in some way. There is a way where I can’t get away from that pleasure, as a central tenant to what I do. Over the course of the process, I got to think about the materials I was using–white out, florescent marker, nail polish: all of these very shitty, somewhat toxic and probably imported materials. Participating in subject through medium seemed like another way to communicate some amount of uselessness: like I really don’t know how you’re supposed to get out away from capital or the hierarchical systems it instills. I think I wanted to create that experience in the space itself too–I wanted to encourage people to look through the drawings. That’s one of the most important elements: the way it’s interactive. The way you can take something home at the end of the day, the way everything (the materiality, the quickness of the drawings, the way a number of them have been xeroxed and added to or deteriorated via reproduction): I didn’t want them to feel precious in the end; I wanted them to feel almost like party favors. Of course, they mean more to me than that, and I think they stand up more than that–but I wanted to make them ride that line, and indicating a low-price seemed to be a way to do that.


CI: Your collage drawings make reference to celebrities and the tabloid narratives associated with them, among other things.  My favorite was the Angelina turning Shiloh into a boy one because I’m personally fascinated by that narrative. Not so much by the “Angelina pushing Shiloh” angle, but by the idea that Shiloh may in fact be transgendered and how cool is it that her parents are allowing her to be that way, to be who she wants to be, despite their super-high profile life and the gossip pressures associated with that. What interests me most about tabloids actually, is tabloid writing. These are all written narratives, i.e. crafted by someone or a group of someones who are giving it some thought, the “stories” comprised of this weird psychological pastiche of culture, desire, and whatever new photographs are available via the paparazzi. I think I’m most interested in the celebrity narratives that sort of don’t go the way the public might expect or want. So when Jennifer Aniston turns 42 or whatever and still doesn’t have a baby, I’m fascinated because…she really is supposed to have had that baby by now. When Shiloh dresses like a boy, I’m fascinated because…Shiloh is the golden child, she is supposed to represent the blending of two of the world’s most gorgeous people: Brad and Angelina. She’s not supposed to be transgendered (or god, maybe she is – the most perfect, precise blending of those two people!!!) – yet she doesn’t fit that Suri Cruise model of what a perfect princess, cute little girl should look like – Shiloh looks the way many people think a boy “should” look.

So, with my own tabloid weaknesses revealed to all – tell me what kind of tabloid stories you are attracted to? And why do you find them compelling?

CP: My favorites: also “Why Is Angelina Turning Shiloh into a Boy?” and “I Love My New Body”. Those are really my two favorites. I guess I also like the one about the Kardashian daughters (what’s awesome is that I’ve no idea why they are famous or where they came from–they just started appearing in magazines and on bilboards; I assume just because I don’t have a TV, but I feel like Paris Hilton was also very famous all of a sudden for more or less being famous and (this was years ago) being mean. Like she was best friends with LiLo one day and then someone else another day and basically did nothing but play dumb mind/playground games: it’s amazing to me that that is somehow a viable option for fame) where it says “Tormented for their Bodies.”

I like the Angelina one because I’m continually impressed by her ability to stay in the tabloids, consistently for the last five+ years. It’s moments like that where you realize some degree of effort or planning goes into a media spotlight. (Especially, for instance, that the coverage is selective: no one at all talks about their youngest twins)–so there’s a way where her presence is so consistent as to feel strategic. The narratives start to quake a little; they feel constructed. Then too, the “turning into a boy” is so amazing because I feel like it reflects a hyper-conservative perspective about gender and, even, how that manifests/is projected in childhood. I think it’s related to what you’re saying as well–this idea of what we expect their child (or an ideal child) to be, and how we interpret the signs of their comportment.

The “I love my new body” I think is amazing because it was text right next to Britteny Spears and she was wearing a bikini and I think that it points to a really crazy relationship between where we locate the self (or the “I”) and the body. Somehow these two things are extricable: how does that happen? Is that simply because of plastic surgery? (i.e. that it is possible to get a new nose, or new breasts or a chin, or whatever—) But then too, how is it that the implied “I” is constant and unchanging? Where are we locating it if not in the body? And then I guess that idea is also reiterated in the “tormented by their bodies” statement. And what on earth does *that* mean? It’s like they’re weird slaves or something–slaves to a physical embodiment of beauty? I don’t know. I just think it’s amazing stuff to think about, because I guess I see it as a kind of cultural mirror.

Psycho Dream Factory by Caroline Picard.

CI: Let’s talk about the non-fiction essay you wrote as a coda to your book, Psycho Dream Factory, starting with your observations about celebrity and its dependence upon / propagation of fictions of the Self, or as you put it, “the illusion that something, or someone, can be simplified and projected onto a surface….those are dangerous illusions. They evade any sense of consequence or complexity–elements essential to the human condition.”  In contrast to this simplified notion of self-hood, you propose an alternative understanding of the self which you describe as “the additive self”. For those reading this interview who can’t get their hands on your book right away, can you talk a bit about what you mean by the additive self and how it might help us think about identity — as well as notions of success/legitimacy — in new ways?

CP: Maybe it makes more sense to think about the stability of self and self-image. For instance in statements like,  “Figure out what makes You Happy,” or “What do you really want”: there is an idea that the self is singular and maybe even intrinsically static. Even in a specific and relatively small time-frame one is presumed to have a singular integrity. You could see this also reflected in the idea of a “soul mate,” where some-one-specific individual supposedly is out there to complete you. That idea in particular is propegated through love songs and pop songs and movies: it’s a very Romantic ideal, I think. What’s interesting, though, is the stability it assumes. Like it assumes an unequivocal certainty: something which I think is, actually, impossible to maintain. At least in my experience, I am a mix of probably countless desires and those are very often in conflict with one another. I think you could point to a similar aspect of self, if you look over a long period of time: there is an idea that one has a unique and unchanging nature. Some idea of an I or a center endures. I want to know, though, where is that located? And even how can it be? Even though I have always more or less experienced myself as a stable constant, I think I’m taking that idea for granted–at the very least because I want to see what other philosophical conclusions an alternative would lead to. What I love about Deren’s description of Voodoo in The Divine Horsemen is that the individual is actually constantly and fundamentally changing as it is inhabited (and thus influenced) by more and more loa (or spirits). Like a ship accumulating barnacles, the individual gathers different ghosts and having gathered those spirits, it cannot go back to what it originally was. I might make a corellary with experience, to suggest that once you’ve experienced trauma or pleasure, you cannot imagine yourself without that experience: it’s a transformative knowledge, like an emulsion. It even changes the way you look back on yourself prior to that experience.

CI: I keep wanting to question or complicate some of the ideas about celebrity put forth in your essay – whether we’re talking about Hollywood or the art world. For myself, I definitely don’t share Adorno’s pessimistic take on popular culture and its effects. I very much believe in a person’s ability to go beyond the face-value of a given cultural narrative and make it into something else, to redirect it in ways that can be authentically empowering. And so I don’t see celebrity or a celebrity persona as monolithic.  I see them in terms of stories that we as a culture tell each other, they are written and rewritten, and are also interactive in that the narratives can be read subversively (like the Shiloh/boy stories).  I agree, the celebrity persona is compelling in part because its fictions reinforce the idea of the self as a stable signifier — which also makes it into a thing, or as you put it, a commodity, and an unchanging commodity-thing at that (Mandy Moore = All-American Good Girl; Amy Winehouse = Alcoholic Fuckup, Shepard Fairey= Sellout, Damien Hirst = Soulless Art-Commodity Producer, etc.). And yet the celebrity narratives that are often the most fascinating to me are the ones where an established fictional identity implodes – when all-American good girl Britney Spears goes nuts and shaves off her hair and makes monster faces at the paparazzi, or when stars like Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin and/or Charlie Sheen go on violent, abusive, self-destructive benders. I guess what I’m ultimately arguing against is the idea that cultural production and dissemination, even in a product as debased as a tabloid magazine, is inherently one-dimensional. We already have the power to shift the narrative, and I think we employ that power on a regular basis. Maybe that’s what you are getting at too, when you propose at the end of your essay, “Perhaps then the key lies in focusing our attention elsewhere: studying the blurred, interstitiary matter between categorical selves.”  Where do you think those interstitiary areas can be found?

CP: I think it’s funny, actually: I was thinking the other day how funny it is that in my own life I feel very empowered. Or at least, I feel like when I run up against shitty stereotypes in conversation or something like that, I often enjoy the ensuing conversations–I guess because I feel like there is a lot to learn always, and I think reasoned disagreement can lead to valuable insight. At the same time I think I am easily overwhelmed by my experience of popular culture. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 90s with a pervasive myth–it came from everywhere, schools, parents, other kids–that culturally we had progressed beyond racism, sexism or homophobia; then too there is this American Dream floating around that you can be anything you want, that a class system doesn’t really exist–but I think the class system does exist. I think prejudices and stereotypes are still very much in play. I feel like now there’s a sense that we’ve progressed beyond prejudice so it’s OK to make bad jokes, because everyone knows no one means it, but it totally bums me out. I don’t mean to dismiss the progress that has been made, but it’s weird to turn on the television and see an off-hand gay joke just like it’s weird to hear about how fuckable Sara Palin is. At that point, when it’s coming from a television or a radio, I don’t feel like I have anything to push against directly. It’s like your not supposed to be critical of culture because it’s trashy junk food like popcorn and everyone knows it. It still there though, all over the place.

CI: I’m also interested in the potential of the first person point of view as a rhetorical tactic. In all of your cultural writing, I think you have employed the first person POV in such a lovely and effective way – it’s why I have always been drawn to the way that you write. Writing an essay in the first person might on the one hand appear to reinforce all those myths of the “stable I” – but in fact, I find that using the “I” actually allows us to talk about culture in non-monolithic, non-authoritative ways that make absolute sense right now.  Rather than emphasizing the writer’s authority over a subject, writing from the first person point of view seems to embrace a vulnerable and even overtly fallible position from the get-go: the form accurately reflects the contingencies of the subject matter. So – when you’re writing about culture, how important is it for you to write from the first person? For example, do you think you could have written the Coda to your book using the traditional third-person perspective and felt satisfied with the results?

CP: Yes! The first person! I never know what to do with it. I used to really, deeply fight against it. I used to feel like writing in the first person was self-indulgent. BUT! The thing is, I don’t know a better way to go about it. What I like about writing in the first person, is that I think you can create am empathetic body for the reader; so, when I describe a show by describing some of the physical attributes/impressions, I can bring a reader into a subjective experience. The flow gets more poetic, I think. It admits a subjective narrative–what art very often engages. But yes, in my essays I am always aware of my own vulnerability, or limits. I often feel like I have a limited understanding of my interests. Like, I am interested in social philosophies but I’m also alway going to feel like an amateur relative to those specialists who spend their lives studying one slice of that pie. By writing, I want to engage all sides; to be reflective and learning…I don’t think I could have written the Coda in an exclusive third person, for one thing because I don’t think Doug Aitken or Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is unequivocally bad. I actually enjoyed both bodies of work–they made me think about what was at stake and what made me suspicious–also they are so seductive and lush! Similarly, I don’t think Alys or Rohmer are unequivocally good–by talking about them in the first person, I feel like I have a better chance to open up a conversation. Still, I wish there were more pop songs in the third person, or pop songs without people. Or like, of there was an Entertainment Tonight show that was dedicated to the natural red carpet occurrences and talked about how sexy different hurricanes or cloud formations were.

Caroline Picard with moustache and energy drink. Photo: Devin King.

****

Happiness Machines was on view at Roxaboxen Exhibitions, 2130 W. 21 St.,  Pilsen, Chicago, IL from June 10-24th.




Centerfield on art:21 blog: “Sustaining Practices”

December 29, 2010 · Print This Article

Our latest “Centerfield” column is up on art:21 blog! Actually, it went live yesterday, while I was flying home from Los Angeles so…apologies for the late linkage here. This week, I tried something slightly different: a roundtable Q&A session that addresses the question of how different people sustain a cultural practice over time. It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and it seemed particularly appropriate to ask as the end of 2010 draws to a close and we look forward to a new year, new projects, new relationships–all of which need fresh infusions of energy, creativity and enthusiasm. The discussion was really meaningful to me, and I’m very grateful to Britton Bertran, Duncan MacKenzie, Caroline Picard and Philip von Zweck for sharing their experiences with us. I hope you find something meaningful in the conversation, too! Happy New Year everyone.

The following is the entire text of the discussion which appeared in yesterday’s “Centerfield” column for art:21 blog.  The “Centerfield” post had been edited somewhat for brevity.

*********

Lately I have been thinking a lot about sustainability and sustenance. Not the environmental kind of sustainability–the personal and emotional kind.  Chicago’s art community is rich in relationships, but like so many other ‘art worlds’ out there, it can be a bit less bountiful when it comes to monetary compensation, feedback, and consistent forms of validation. So I asked four longtime Chicago-based cultural practitioners–independent curator and arts educator Britton Bertran, artist Duncan MacKenzie (co-founder of Bad at Sports),  Caroline Picard, an artist who runs the small but highly-regarded Green Lantern Gallery and Press, and Philip von Zweck, an artist whose work often involves project-based collaborations–a few questions about how they have sustained their own practices over time, and especially after a project has run its course. How do they stay sharp and engaged and committed over the long haul? How do they keep on keepin’ on when the going gets tough?  Read on to find out what this group had to say.

Claudine Ise:  Describe the work that you do. What forms has the work taken? When its form has changed, what were some of the reasons for the change?

Britton Bertran: My work is cyclical. I started my “career” here in Chicago working for a well-known and very progressive not-for-profit art education organization.  It was hard and fulfilling programmatic work placing ‘teaching artists’ in mostly underserved Chicago public schools.  It was also mentally exhausting, especially the part when we all sat around and planned the future of arts integration.  Around 2005 I decided to open my own commercial art gallery (called 40000). There were many reasons why I did this but one of the main points was jettisoning the funk of non-profit work off of me and diving in to the wild world of working with artists for profit (theirs and mine).  Three years later, and a month before the great economic collapse of 2008, I closed the gallery. There are a myriad of reasons why I closed the gallery.  To this day, I am simultaneously extremely relieved for shutting down but will also ultimately regret doing so.  After that I worked for a local philanthropic foundation doing a preliminary report investigating the feasibility of opening a contemporary art space in Chicago. Meanwhile, the aforementioned economic collapse waylaid the philanthropic element of the foundation and hence the feasibility of operating such a space.  Currently I am working for another Chicago-based art education not-for-profit with a more encompassing, less intense mission that is equally as challenging but not laden with the philosophical conundrum of solving the world’s problems.  It’s very satisfying and comes with a real live paycheck.

Interspersed with the jobs I have had in for the last 4 years or so, I have also had a secondary career as an independent curator and instructor in the Arts Administration department at The School of the Art Institute.  Curatorially, I put together two exhibitions a year – one at a more Institutional level and one at an artist-run or alternative gallery space.  As an instructor, my classes revolve around the art business, institutional contexts and the history of both.

Economics and the highs and lows of professional frustration seem to be running themes in my personal work history.  The one constant is education.  Its also important to point out I am not an artist.  I don’t make work as “product”, but one of the ongoing mantras of art education (specifically in secondary school, but really at all levels) is the sweet dance between product and process.  What is each of these things in the first place?  Can you have one without the other?  Where does the satisfaction of learning make itself known?  Retention of information or basking in the glow of acknowledgment: which should take precedence or how should they be intermingled for maximum effect? These are the questions I have been working with throughout my “career” and I believe it will be a long pursuit.

Duncan MacKenzie: The work that I do has taken, and takes, many forms. The way that I work now is collaboratively, sometimes that means working on the  “Bad at Sports” project and at other times that work is with an artist named Christian Kuras on an object and image-based practice. As a young artist, I was trained in several really active communal print shops, a series of film sets and a small graphic design firm. Those experiences left me with a real strong drive towards communal working and a need to share broadly both the authorship and the result. This is a very different way then the traditional “heroic artist” locked in their studio wrestling with a canvas. I don’t love spending my time all alone working through a series of problems and puzzles which I’ve situated for myself. I like and need the energy colleagues bring to projects.

Before these current collaborations, I had thought of myself and worked as a… I don’t know, for lack of a better term, postmodern pop artist, and developed a “style” which was reflective of pop culture, post-structuralism and of other “conceptual looking” art practices.  That started to change when I confronted the reality of being a “print specialist.” The worry that was taking root had to do with how constraining a traditional printmaking practice can become and how that can limit its producers and their participation in a broader art world. Printmaking is so seductive in its process and its materials that artists attracted to it tend to become very invested in virtuoso printing and work in the closed community of international printmakers. I started to bump up against this boundary and began looking for other strategies with which to access the ways that I was thinking. Initially, I begin by looking at video and animation work and situating a practice of appropriation and collage there. Then that reach was extended out towards electronics, model building, and photography. Through those processes I began to engage sculpture and found that most of the ideas that I wanted to follow-up on needed a discourse that was more, or maybe less, lonely. Then, at roughly the same time, I started to collaborate with Christian on making sculptures, and Richard Holland and I started talking about doing a podcast about art.

Caroline Picard: For the last six years I have been running a non-profit gallery and press called The Green Lantern. During that time I have continued to work independently as an artist and a writer. I think these projects inform one another–in many ways I’ve thought about the Gallery and the Press as being significant influences on my own work; particularly when the space was in my apartment, I came to think of it as a kind studio-research. During the first five years, that’s where everything took place– in my apartment–I’m very interested in creating intersections for different artistic mediums, so it was a great place to experiment curatorially. I was also very interested in thinking about the intersection of public and private space and how that context might affect a viewer’s experience of contemporary artwork, whether it was poetry, or a painting exhibit, a music show or a performance.

After five years the city shut down the project because (and as a result of zoning) I did not have, nor could I acquire a business license. Last September I opened a second storefront space which will close in January of this year. As part of this second plan, I was trying to put together a business model which would sustain the non-profit gallery via a for-profit cafe/bar/bookstore/performance space. I couldn’t find that space, and after a continued accrued cost had to close up shop. The Press will continue and I’ll continue as its primary editor. We also have a very cool on-line indie-lit bookstore, (in my on-going championship of pipe dreams, I have a vague hope that said bookstore will serve as my primary income).

Philip von Zweck: From the early 90’s (as a student) until relatively recently most of my projects involved either producing a form for others to fill and/or making projects for a non art audience.  For 15 years I produced a weekly radio program of live performance and sound art recordings that were submitted for broadcast; I have an ongoing project called Temporary Allegiance which is a 25 ft flag pole that anyone can sign up to fly anything they want on for a week at a time; I ran a gallery in my living room for 3 years in which I presented solo shows by people I trusted with keys to my apartment; I’ve made books which are compilations of pages submitted by friends; for my show museum show a few years ago I made a chain letter and mailed it to the museum’s mailing list; I co-founded the radio art collective Blind Spot which produced 1-hour works live to air- the list goes on, but there was a set of politics I was really guided by, and adhering to them eventually caused me to feel distanced from my own practice. I got to a point where I just wasn’t as interested in doing those sorts of projects, or feeling like I had to do those sorts of projects anymore.  So recently, a few years ago, I begun showing paintings- I’ve always painted and drawn but didn’t show them because it didn’t fit in with the other projects and those took precedence.  I wouldn’t that I have abandoned the previous set of politics and I still really like a lot of those projects; it’s just that I’ve come to a different way of thinking about them and my role as an artist.

Philip von Zweck

CI: Can you describe one, or some, of the happiest and/or most satisfying period/s of production you’ve experienced thus far, and what made it so? In turn, can you talk about some of the “low points.” What brought you down? How did you pick yourself back up again afterwards and find the where-with-all to start fresh?

Britton Bertran: The opening night of the first exhibition I put together for 40000 was the happiest most satisfying 5 hours of my professional career.  A completely fulfilling experience that squashed a good six months of the most terrifying anxiety I’ve ever known.  Quitting my job to start my own business without any financial security or previous gallery operating know how was also one of the stupidest things I have ever done.  Looking back now – part of that happiness was pure obliviousness, but seeing 300 people come and pretty much stay that night had a profound affect on me.  The literal act of taking a space and preparing it for art looking is one thing, but preparing it for art socializing and art commerce is another.  I learned a lot that night (process?), through the literal and figurative haze, that I still employ today (product?).

My low point was realizing how screwed I was by the overall economic situation that happened not too long ago.  Either I was too arrogant to think I would never have work, or I thought I was just plain invincible, but that was the most incredibly depressing and scary 6 months of my life.  Part of my problem was the fact that I had convinced myself that I had paid my dues and that a job, in the art world please, should just come waltzing my way, take my hand and whisk me off to that thing called adulthood.  It was around this time (as I was selling my lovingly collected vinyl records in order to eat), that I realized I had built a solid network of individuals that could help me.  Pride swallowed I groveled, professionally, and just asked. Within two months I was working.

View of opening reception for "Artist Run Chicago" at the Hyde Park Art Center, curated by Britton Bertran and Allison Peters Quinn

Duncan MacKenzie: All of the most recent satisfying moments were times in which I felt very connected to our projects and felt like others were as connected to the result. One of the most amazing experiences, recently, was doing  “Don’t Piss on Me and Tell Me its Raining” at Apexart in NYC. What made it such a delight was to know and have tangible proof of what our project is meant to the hundreds of people who been involved in its production. It was amazing to feel so intimately connected to so many other artists.

The low points for me are almost always the same. They are the moments that I feel like the art world is either just like a clique-y, bitchy, catty high school popularity contest or like a fashion Mall and all the things we make are just as disposable as this week’s “Entertainment Weekly.” They are always the moments that make me feel like we are not a community but a bunch of humans who represent opportunities to each other and should just be used as opportunities. It seems so obvious that we should be advocates for each other and support an overall growth but the evidences suggests that despite working in “culture” we are hyper competitive creatures. So I guess they are moments when I feel disconnected and disregarded. Thankfully it is as easy to get out of picking up the phone and reaching out.  All it takes is a little reminder that we all feel alone, awkward, and like no one cares but everyone of us does this because we know how meaningful it has been to us and that we still share in it.

Caroline Picard: High points: I think my consistent favorite moment will always be the point an audience (of whatever sort) has settled into attendance–when the program has begun and the work is done–whether that’s the work of an administrator, or a producer. For me, those moments resolve the otherwise insatiable existential question (in my mind) of what art is for because art is precisely for that moment; at least that’s how it strikes me in that moment. That moment also demands a certain giving up–there is nothing left to do but allow the occasion to happen, and to try and be present for its happening. My other favorite moment is the deep concentration that happens when I am working on my own, whether writing a piece, or painting, or editing–this is my other favorite thing. That deep concentration–I don’t really know what else to call it, but it’s like everything else in the world gets quiet while I’m totally focused on exploring and developing a particular idea. That moment gives me a huge re-charge (you ask about this later). It’s maybe a little like meditation? I don’t know.

Low points include: Discovering typos in my writing, for instance–particularly if those typos point to some never-before-recognized ignorance–what are they called, lacuna? I think this space closing a second time is another one of those moments, despite my realizing that there was no specific failure involved–I am proud of what the last six months have brought, thrilled that I got to work with such great people and participate once more with the Chicago art community. Yet, I am conscious not fulfilling the larger, albeit abstract, vision I had undertaken. Why this, or realizing typos would inspire embarrassment, I don’t know–it must be some hangover of a waspy background, or a childhood fear of Scandinavian silence (my grandmother had a strategy called “deep freeze” that was remarkable). And then as far as how to get through that stuff–I don’t think there’s any trick beyond being patient and humble and adopting a sense of humor (I like to think of my consciousness like my grandmother–if it/she shames me I make a slew of jokes which, more often than not, work because they fail).

Audience attending a screening of "Now It's Dark" at Green Lantern

Philip von Zweck: The times when I am the most productive – and therefore happiest – artistically are generally times when everything else is going right; the times when I’m neither broke or pulled in a thousand directions (from taking on too many jobs or commitments), when I’m in good health, relationship, community, etc. When those things start going wrong it is really hard for me to make work, it becomes a feedback cycle- things not going well leads to being bummed out, which leads to not making work, which leads to being bummed out, which leads to…

Perhaps the lowest point came from doing a project in which I was treated poorly by the presenting organization. What should have been a great experience seriously made me never want to make work again. How did I pick myself up? I didn’t have a choice, I had already committed to do another project, and that one went swimmingly, actually way better than expected and that was enough- not that the previous experience has left my mind, but I’ve mostly moved on.

CI: All of you are engaged in practices that involve lots of other people (though I know that several of you maintain studio practices, too). I often think through my own personal quest for ‘sustenance’ in terms of introversion versus extroversion: sometimes, we recharge our energy by spending time with friends and collaborators, other times by being alone. So, how do you recharge — and how does it help you sustain those practices you most want to engage in?

Britton Bertran: The relationship between institutional and individual memories, as a conundrum, is fascinating to me – and worrisome.  In order to combat that, I have made a real effort to reflect on my personal and professional experiences (process) in order to better inform my future (product), especially when it comes to being a part of the immediate art world around me.  I also believe it has to be more than just taking pictures. The essential part that I concern myself with is finding ways to reflect, edit, and share those experiences.  As official memories, of the institutional kind, seem to be becoming more and more overwhelmed by the collective desire for the next memory, harnessing something that I would call “The Slow Memory Movement” might become more essential.  This Slow Memory Movement (akin to the Slow Food Movement) would emphasis the personal importance, or pleasure, of remembering and the sustainability of its impact on oneself.  (I also have been reading as much post-apocalyptic science fiction as I can get my hands on which, beyond the pure entertainment factor, does wonders for the reflective process).

Britton Bertran, Touching the Art at the Volo Auto Museum, Volo, IL. Photo: Bridgette Buckley.

Duncan MacKenzie: Recharge? I read crime novels in which wizards solve crimes, and comic books. It is the source of a small amount of shame, but a couple of years ago I felt like everything in my life was connected to art production and I needed to find something that I was not going to try and plug back into an art world.  Now it seems likes wizards are the order of the day and I am looking for novels about dinosaurs solving crimes.

Caroline Picard: Top 5 Ways to Recharge would include:

1) Deep and quiet thinking about a particular subject which is engaged through writing/visual work. The act of making something discrete–something very often totally “useless”–then makes me very happy.

2) Being with friends (of course), art-friends and non-art friends both.

3) Making Jokes, which I think I too easily forget. Making Jokes should probably be no. 1.

4)  I have to admit, though I will immediately disown this, I also recharge watching some sort of television-thing, preferably an episodic serial drama.

5) Making non-art things like food. Or dreams.

Philip von Zweck: I don’t ever consciously think “I need to recharge” but I spend a lot of time alone and- not that I ever set out to not work on art, but really- it is very hard for me to not work on stuff. Sometimes this can be recharging, working in the studio can be a good antidote to a day at the job. But I guess for me it would be spending time with friends. A lot of ideas and projects come out of just hanging out, I think this is why I’ve done so many collaborative and social projects, they are both rewarding and rejuvenating.

CI: Thank you all so much for sharing your experiences and ideas with me and with our readers at art:21 blog.




Monday Links and Musings

December 6, 2010 · Print This Article

Just popping in for a moment to bring two significant facts to your attention:

1) The Green Lantern Gallery–which has long been led by Caroline Picard, who is also BAS’ newest blogger–is winding down as an exhibition space (but lives on as a publishing venture); this and next week’s slate of events offer some of your last chances to visit the space and hang out. In addition to the group show Isolated Fictions (which opened last Friday and features works by Deb Sokolow, Carmen Price, Jason Dunda, Amanda Browder, Nadine Nakanishi, Rebecca Mir and Nick Butcher), a reading by Adam Levin, a performance evening centered around world-based art, a screening curated by Eric Fleischauer and Jesse McLean, and the third installment of the Now It’s Dark experimental film and music series are all on the agenda. Click here for full schedule details.

2) Artist Damien James, who writes for New City and occasionally for this blog, is the latest Guest Blogger on art:21. His first post is up–in it, the Redmoon Theater’s production of The Cabinet, a puppetry-driven performance based on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, becomes a springboard for musings on art’s ability to transport us back to the past and deep into our own consciousness.  Several more essays by Mr. James will follow in the coming days and weeks, so be sure and check them out!

Adam Levin reads at The Green Lantern Gallery

from Redmoon Theater's puppet production of 'The Cabinet'




Off-Topic | Caroline Picard

April 9, 2010 · Print This Article

Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. We would like to welcome Caroline Picard as our latest guest with her post, “Smells like a Movie Star”. Caroline is the director of Green Lantern Gallery and Press. She is an artist and writer currently based in Chicago.

SMELLS LIKE A MOVIE STAR

Caroline Picard

Celebrities always line supermarket check out lines, always peering at you from glossy magazines dedicated to the torrential madcap folly of their lives. Their faces, bodies, lifestyles wallpaper not just culture but also the basic practice of obtaining foodstuffs. The ubiquitous presence of persona/brands like Jennifer Aniston, Johnny Depp etc., reinforce particular moirés about success, beauty and sexuality. Where repetition and familiarity elicit desire, the repeated surface of the celebrity remains the poster child of consumer society, reinforcing the criteria with which non-celebrities (that’s us) measure their own legitimacy, accomplishment and worth. Celebrity provides a filtered perspective through which we view and interpret immediate experience, history and cultural production. The celebrity exemplifies a model for success which, while applauding the individual in an immediate sense, further stabilizes predominant hierarchical structures of society. To consider the influence such a model has on the contemporary art world is of particular interest because of its function as an historically transgressive and transformative force in culture.

Despite the art world’s (partially self-inflicted) reclusiveness, it has an inextricable relationship to the economic market. That relationship is no doubt reinforced by the ever-increasing number of art students who graduate from secondary institutions and, understandably, expect their respective art practices to afford some semblance of a “career.” The very idea that one’s status as art marker can be ‘taught’ is already far from the modernist perspective of artist as a vessel of inspiration.  Similarly the sense of the struggling, starving, or “crazy” Van Gogh type-artist also feels old hat, a dusty model which, while adopted by some, nevertheless has been replaced by a new concept, i.e. artist as entrepreneur. Today the artist is expected to negotiate practical obligations in the world, she is encouraged to make a website, to show up on time, to write courteous letters to gallerists, and even develop—consciously or not—a public persona. While I tend to prefer the latter attitude of art as ‘learnable’ (because as a learnable occupation it is denied some of its precious mysticism), it is all the more difficult to see how art can provide new ways of thinking if its modus operandi is dependent on the closed system career-ism of work-as-commodity.

Read more




On the matter of public space: or my apartment gallery is an arctic explorer

December 10, 2009 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Caroline Picard

This essay was first published in the Artists Run Chicago Digest published jointly by threewalls and Green Lantern Press in 2009.

On the matter of public (1) space : or my apartment gallery is an arctic explorer

“‘Oh, you have a roommate?’

“ ‘Yeah, she’s actually here right now, but she’s sick….Don’t do that—she’s trying to sleep.’

“I heard them but pretended to remain asleep by keeping my eyes closed; [closing your eyes] is what passed for privacy then. My ‘room’ was in a corner of the kitchen on the other side of a folding screen. If you were tall enough, you could see me from either side at any time. The above exchange took place during the installation of a show when I happened to have a cold. I lived at the Green Lantern from 9/06 to 8/07. Recently out of college, I moved to Chicago to get my bearings. I had just spent two years living in the French countryside with no heat, no car, no Internet, no noise, no zines, no sushi, no shows, no jargon. When I moved in, I had never owned a computer. Suddenly I was in the middle of an art scene. Read more