IT’S WITH MILD trepidation that I’m posting the essay I wrote for the upcoming John Preus show I curated for the Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) below. I say this chiefly because John’s own lyrical prose, posted here yesterday, is a very tough act to follow.
As I was writing this text, conversations I had had with John, glimpses of work in progress I had stole at our studio visit, and fragments of phrases from email exchanges were all still marinating for me. You’ll see some which percolated into the essay as quotations, but others are noiselessly wafting around and above it like a shimmering cloud of gnats.
This long-form approach to engaging with John’s work is what draws me to it– I have the sense that it is both tightly bound, fitted and finely finished, while simultaneously being on the verge of a blow out, ready to burst back into all the little bits and pieces he used to put it together in the first place.
Hopefully you had a chance to take in some of his other handiwork at EXPO this past weekend, and experience the atmosphere his work can initiate even amidst the hustle and bang of a massive art fair. I liken it to several tenants of the growing Slow Food movement below, but again John has bested me, and I have come to prefer his term “temporary stasis” for how it marries the fleeting with the stable.
In a way, I feel that dichotomy reflects the relationship between my text and John’s; mine being the former, his the later. I’ve used this introduction as a departure from my typical tone and mode of working in a nod to him, in gratitude for his art and writing which has inspired me, however cautiously, to adopt the gentle discomforts and bracing inscrutabilities of both lyrical prose, and long-lasting ideas built into short-lived experiments.
John Preus is an artist, musician, carpenter, woodworker, and magpie. In the
long-standing tradition of Chicago artists scavenging for “trash treasure,” he lets
serendipity and the thrill of the hunt guide him in sourcing discarded materials. Each
new piece is a design challenge, contingent on entropy and surplus, to revive what
others have cast-off or given up on. His materials offer up an infinite number of
solutions which he is constantly attempting to “extract and exploit.”
His built objects typically serve a functional purpose, and oftentimes they are made for
domestic spaces but comprised of cannibalized furniture. His work is Surreal in the
most basic sense that it de-familiarizes the familiar; we recognize a tabletop here or a
headboard there. Because of this, it occupies a liminal space between constituent
parts and compound whole.
At times, Preus foregrounds the beauty marks and scars of his material— a found,
hand-painted design becomes the focal point of a guitar, imbuing it with a certain
narrative quality. Other times, his material serves as a sort of visual pun— you’ve
heard of making bedposts metaphorically sing? Well, Preus does so literally, turning
one quarter of an old four-poster bed into an upright bass. By combining a fondness
for his material’s embedded histories, with a craft person’s skill at building, and an
artist’s eye for shine, his pieces celebrate their past proudly, reveling in their physicality.
Oftentimes, this infuses them with a certain anthropomorphism. And yet, they are
incomplete without us— who will play them? Who will listen to them played? The
wistful air of the stray and the mutt also cloaks them, a perfect tragic foil to the
Slow Sound draws inspiration from the Slow Food movement, sparked in part by
Fergus Henderson’s cult classic cookbook, “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.”
This call to eat not just the choice cuts “high” on the hog, but the whole hog, necessarily
means getting creative by saving bones for stocks, scraps for brines, and rendering
the rest. Henderson has famously stated; “If you’re going to kill the animal it seems
only polite to use the whole thing.” It’s that mentality which resonates so strongly with
Preus’s own practice, echoing his questioning of the contemporary consumerist
mantra, “Replacement is better then repair.”
Closing loopholes by pulling items out of the waste stream is done not so much with
an overtly environmental thrust, although upcycling and net-zero philosophies are
applicable. Likewise, the importance of the locally sourced and the handcrafted factor
in, but aren’t the main driver. When I imagine Preus spotting the corner of a legless
Formica table poking out of a dumpster in the alley, I bet he thinks about how the press
board hiding just underneath its laminate surface is comprised of the same wood that a
family heirloom is made from, and that in some factory somewhere, it was a person
who helped fabricate it. Preus understands that the materials he works with shape shift
as they move through the world, rising or falling in value due to changing tastes or
The importance of context then becomes paramount, and so viewing— and hearing,
these pieces at the Experimental Sound Studio is central. Preus’s instruments are one-of-
a-kind— no two pieces are alike, the materials used to fabricate them are
unique, and their overall construction is unconventional. Simultaneously, however, they
produce relatively standard sounds. New Material, the band comprised of Mikel Avery,
Leroy Bach and Tadd Cowen, along with Preus, play straight ahead improvisations,
replete with melodic solos and quoted popular tunes. And so again, these pieces
shape shift, cultivating relationships across incongruities; they are accessible and
engaging while simultaneously surprising expectations of traditional instrument
construction, sound resonance and amplification.
Preus’s practice conflates fine art, design, architecture, music, curating, writing, social
engagement and environmental studies, among other things— such as parenthood,
citizenship and faith. It transgresses commonly held notions of labor and value in favor
of a post-scarcity worldview. It questions industrialization’s monocultural market place
and the planned obsolescence it perpetuates. It celebrates leisure time and recreational
activities in a loose sense, honoring unstructured deep play and creativity-sparking
boredom. It recognizes change as inevitable and speed as constant, but puckishly
messes with the variability of pace. More than anything, it is concerned with morphology,
how a given material might be used or re-used. Preus has referred to his work as
existing in “temporary stasis,” which I must concede is a much more elegant term than
“slow.” Like the Doppler effect, which explains why the frequency of a sound in motion
shifts in respect to its observer, Preus’s work meets you where you are. It offers up its
past, points the way to a more sustainable future, and embroils you in the day-to-day
and the domestic through a practice heavily reliant on viewer involvement.
• • •
John Preus is a Chicago-based artist, musician and woodworker whose work explores
forms of attachment, craft, art, and community life. Preus holds an MFA from the
University of Chicago (2005), and his education in the trades includes a 2-year
apprenticeship with award-winning furniture maker John Nesset. With roughly 16 years
of building and design experience, Preus founded Dilettante Studios in 2010, which
creates and fabricates items for residential and commercial spaces, using predominantly
secondhand materials. He co-founded the art group Material Exchange
(2005-12) with Sara Black; and SHoP (Southside Hub of Production) with Laura
Shaeffer (2010). He is former lead fabricator and project manager for Theaster Gates,
and oversaw production and installation of 12 Ballads for Huguenot House as part of
dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Germany. Additional exhibitions include the Museum of
Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Heilbronn Kunstverein; the Portland Museum of
Contemporary Craft; the Smart Museum of Art, Chicago; and the DeVos Museum of
Art, Marquette, Michigan. Preus’s work will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Hyde
Park Art Center in Spring 2014.
My thanks go to John and the friendly, hard-working staff of ESS. Please join us at The Experimental Sound Studio, located at 5925 North Ravenswood Ave. Chicago, IL 60660, for the opening reception of John Preus: Slow Sound, 9/27/13, 6-9pm. Special performance by New Material (Mikel Avery, Tadd Cowen, LeRoy Bach, John Preus) at around 7pm.
What follows is an essay by John Preus, soon to be released in the next issue of Proximity :
ON LOVE AND LABOR-THOUGHTS THAT ACCOMPANIED THE MAKING OF A TABLE
By John Preus
I recently joined a Jungian men’s group…(pause for my academic colleagues to peel off).
On some occasions in the group, we go around the room and everyone says something they don’t want anyone else to know about them. It’s called the withholding exercise.
One man was sexually and repeatedly abused by his older siblings, one had an affair with his brother’s wife and his brother has never forgiven him, one hates his job and is embarrassed that he can’t leave it, a married man loves his wife but is also attracted to young boys and suffers from intense longing, one is embarrassed that his stomach is growling, one spends more time than he would like to admit looking at pornography and was discovered masturbating by his 9-year-old daughter, one loves his wife so much that he feels emasculated and jealous and is afraid he will disappear, and one is in the depths of financial ruin.
I find this all riveting. Despite trying to maintain my cherished neutrality, I divulge to a room full of strangers something I’ve never told anyone before because it feels disingenuous under the circumstances. The confession, and the resulting (asexual) intimacy I felt with a room full of men was like an electric charge that glowed in me for a couple of days, temporarily erasing my general social anxieties. Under certain circumstances, shared vulnerability invites trust.
Tables support activity. And when they are not supporting activity, they are ready-to-hand, expectant, loitering around waiting for something to happen. The now traditional binary, form and function, addresses this dual role of objects in their identity as placeholders and actors. They are supposed to look graceful in waiting, to redeem the embarrassing position of being un-engaged. I am inclined to think that craft, like Glenn Adamson points out, is a way of thinking about what happens in the world, how to have some influence over it, your place in it, culpability and accountability. But the history of craft is also a reflection of collective longing and anxiety, loitering on the banks of the Styx, barking at the thing moving in the bushes.
Patching, as an additive variant of repair, is a long-standing strategy for lengthening the lifespan of a well-worn object, taking a piece of something to cover a worn piece of something else. Pant knees are patched with denim, roofs are patched with tarpaper and shingles, streets with bituminous, yards with pieces of sod, tarps with duct tape, cars with Bondo, boats with fiberglass resin. A patch is used when the object still functions, but is not stable unto itself. A patch does not generally change what a thing is, but prolongs a thing’s ability to be what it is, however temporary. A pair of pants could be patched with shirt material to the point of being more shirt than pant. While this may be problematic for an ontologist—assuming that the pants continue to be worn on the lower half of the body—most of us would be able to accommodate them without philosophical strain. At the same time, the identifying function, “pants” occupies a relatively short span of time on their material morphology.
Quilting, a designation generally reserved for things made of fabric, is the result of surplus parts. It is not quite an assemblage or collage, although that history certainly relates to what is interesting to me about the table. An assemblage has to incorporate disparate parts, disruptions, things that were not meant to be together, a forced marriage, so to speak. Being that all of the table parts are wood, it isn’t suitable to describe it as an assemblage or a collage. And it is not marquetry, which is an image or pattern-making technique using veneers of different colors to develop a picture. Quilting takes parts of other things to make a new thing. I would venture to guess that it comes out of a utilitarian folk tradition in which materials were limited and people had to make do with what was around. That may have been true long ago, but I am sure that quilting happens now more among folks with time to kill, than among low income folks trying to save material, textiles being as inexpensive as they are.
The most apt description might be bricolage, or using what is on-hand. Levi-Strauss damned bricolage as mythological and irrational thought, in contrast to the engineer. Deleuze and Guattari described it as the general mode of thought for a schizophrenic. I prefer Jacques Derrida’s statement: “If one calls bricolage the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text of a heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is bricoleur.” Borrowing parts of other things to make a table strikes me as the most adequate expression of what a thing is in the broadest sense. Within the table is another table, a futon frame, pieces of virgin plywood, parts from other projects, bits of a chair, and a panel from a stereo cabinet. Those identities have all been subsumed to become the “table” but they have not entirely given up their former character.
September 21, 2013 · Print This Article
The following interview was published originally in The Expo Register, a print daily created by What’s the T? Dana Bassett with ACRE and Bad at Sports. “The vibrant, hand printed Register, designed by Chicago artist Clay Hickson of Tan & Loose Press, will highlight special events during the fair including reviews of special exhibitions and trends at the exposition.” The paper is available for free in assorted newspaper boxes at EXPO, and can be downloaded here, on the Bad at Sports blog, by clicking on our front page banner. You can also read Saturday’s edition here.
Under the eaves of Navy Pier, four artists install four iterations of domestic space. These spaces — a bedroom, kitchen, living room, and studio — are envisioned expressly as artist domiciles, fittingly embedded in the commercial throng and hype of a contemporary art fair. Fitting, I suggest, because they are interdependent while nevertheless at odds. The aroma, mess and casual experimentation of a kitchen is a far cry from the professional white sea of gallery cubicles. Yet of course they are interconnected; the artist must sleep somewhere, just as he or she must also engage a commercial market. This juxtaposition manifests like a dream; it is hard to know if the domestic space is dreaming that it is in an exposition hall, or if the exposition hall is dreaming that it harbors domesticity. Emphasizing this surreal tension HOME reminds fair-goers of the quotidian world behind the otherwise sharp and prestigious kingdom of commerce. In the following interview I was able to discuss the project with curator Tricia van Eck and its participating artists, Lise Haller Baggesen, Sabina Ott, John Preus and Jane Jerardi.
Caroline Picard: I wanted to ask you about your definition of “home” first — I feel like it’s a theme that you have been working with for some time with your project at 6018North.
Tricia van Eck: Home, for me, is simply where I am for any length of time. I have a loose definition of home and often call the place where I work, home. This is fortuitous since 6018North is a home — a dilapidated mansion in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood — turned into an experimental art space.
Since art is often made in one’s home — thought about in the tub, worked on in the studio, written about in the office, discussed at the dinner table, and then shipped off to be shown elsewhere — what if art was presented in the home where it was made? What if everyone’s home became an art space?
I believe people are yearning for unique, inclusive experiences and 6018North provides this experiential space and platform to connect with others through art. We encourage artists to take risks and to develop projects (often communally) that challenge what art is, who it is for, how and where it is made, and where it is shown. We encourage artists to think about audiences as if they were guests in the space (their home for the time being). My favorite experiences at 6018North are when the space is buzzing like a good party, where people are talking, meeting, laughing.
CP: Has your understanding of domestic places in your own day-to-day, non-art life changed as a result of these recent curatorial practices?
TVE: 6018North’s events almost always involve food and conversation to provide time to connect, talk, and discuss the art on view, as you might if in someone’s home. 6018North also hosts conversational dinners for more in depth conversations related to its exhibitions or various concerns facing artists. In college, I lived in a cooperative vegetarian house and some of our conversations over dinner with friends and strangers alike, radically altered my thinking and worldview. This is the power of art and ideas shared in comfortable settings. If change begins within, it often occurs in homes, where we feel safe and secure enough to challenge ourselves.
CP: What made you want to do a series of “homes” at a place like EXPO?
TVE: I love the expressions: “make yourself at home” and “mi casa es su casa”. At the recent Venice Biennale, I loved the feeling within the Pelham Project, and HOME draws from Michalene Thomas’s popular apartment/bar space at Art Basel. I also like democratizing the experience of VIP rooms at Art Fairs where collectors can relax their eyes and get free coffee, champagne, or ice cream. For HOME I invited four artists whom together have created an amazing artists’ home with generous and experiential rooms — an artists’ studio, kitchen, living room, and bedroom to offer “an artists’ home.” Lise Haller Baggesen has recreated her artists’ studio replete with disco balls, glitter, and glam, while John Preus and Dilettante Studios’ kitchen, built from reclaimed cabinetry, hosts performances, talks, and discussions curated by Laura Shaeffer from SHOP. Sabina Ott‘s chill-out living room offers Expo attendees a captivating space to relax while Jane Jerardi’s performative bedroom presents a dreamy moment of longing. As a home within an Art Fair, whose intent is to sell artwork, the artists and I are experimenting with how to challenge and commingle ideas of capitalism and mercantilism with generosity and hospitality through art, food, drink, performances and conversations. We want HOME to offer a unique but comfortable way to experience art within the Fair but yet not pretend to remove ourselves from its contradictions of exclusion and inclusion, since these ideas are also intrinsic to our homes, which both separate and unite, as does the art world.
CP: What is your definition of home? Or how do you think about domestic space?
Lise Haller Baggesen: The Studio is the home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play and where Iggy Pop just wanna be your dog. The highway to hell runs through it as does the stairway to heaven. What I mean to say is that the studio is a “home” in a larger sense that the strictly domestic, or that it is a home to the undomesticated self. Since I am a very domesticated person, I am a wife and mother of two, it has always been very important for me to have a studio space that is separated (by at least a mile) from my actual home. I have to go to that place to get to that place.
Sabina Ott: Home, to me, is a site of rest but mostly a place to build connections with family, friends, neighbors. I am interested in spaces that are many spaces all at once — a home that becomes a community hall, that becomes an artwork, that becomes a nest.
John Preus: It is more an idea than a place. A destination, a return, a longing, a loss, the place to which we are reconciled and always in the process of losing. My interest in it is tied to my life with a family, and how that life clashes with, or bumps up against, or augments my life as an artist. Much of the work on the theme of home started in graduate school when I had young children and was not home very much to see them, and the tension I felt around that condition. Having children made me much more acutely aware of temporality because children grow and change so fast, and each moment is so tremendously beautiful (and mind-numbingly banal) in its own way. Emotional extremes are exaggerated, and your sense of self is eviscerated and forced through the matrix of this other being that needs you but doesn’t care at all about you as a subject. The reality that I am at once creating the idea of home for someone else starts to overlap with my own conception of it. The title, Homemaker is really interesting because it is so literal and narrative at the same time.
I think of domestic life as the private arena within which we confront our thrownness. We did not choose our life in most ways, but we can choose how we live at home, at least until we live with others, and then we are in a mini- political petri dish.
Jane Jerardi: A lot of my recent work has been dealing with displacement and longing, so the issue of home gets right at the heart of these ideas. I think of home as not having to do necessarily with a specific place, but with a certain familiarity and sense of comfort built up over time through everyday ritual as well as a community of people and relationships cultivated over time, and perhaps, even, a state of being. In some ways, I think the body is the ultimate home and a way to be ‘at home with ourselves’ and as a deep, resonate place for connection and groundedness.
CP: What does it mean to you to fabricate and embed such a place (or installation) in a commercial art fair?
LHB: The artfair is the epitome of artwork as Product, whereas the studio represents the artwork as Process, or put differently the glamour of the artwork as a luxury commodity vs. the makeshift glam attitude of actual art making. I am more interested in the latter, so I am hoping that our installation can work as a respite from the commercial rush of the fair and be a reminder that art comes from somewhere and is going somewhere, outside of the ever-present “contemporary” that seems to be the event-horizon of the current art market.
CP: How does your installation at EXPO respond to your idea of domestic space?
JJ: The installation at the EXPO of ‘Nocturne’ deals with the idea of the body as an archive of memory and as a home or container for somatic experience. In the work, the virtual body moves and responds to a real body — either the body of the viewer or of a performer (during the two scheduled performances). It gets at the idea of everyday choreographies and rituals that create a sense of intimacy and connection — and a sense of home. While of course alluding to the bedroom and sleep — which we spend a lot of time doing in domestic space — the work also relates to dreams and virtual spaces. I also think sometimes of home as a place where I can slow down, and this particular work shifts a sense of time to a slower one, inviting the viewer to also slow down, in a hopefully meditative, relaxing way.
LHB: My installation at EXPO plays with the idea of the studio as “the space where your voices can live”. Or in other words, the space where your different influences can confluence and mingle and interfere with each other in a new set of relations. In that way it operates as a sourdough, rather than an archive. Of course, this being an artwork, it doesn’t pretend to work as an actual studio, but as a model of a studio, a mise-en-scene.
SO: Tricia has been calling my room “The Chill Room.” I have taken a kind of chant and tweaked it and used it as the sound accompanied by almost psychedelic imagery designed to transport the participant to an unfamilar place outside of measured time. It is a relaxing place that, through the repetition of the video, almost hypnotizes those resting on the faux fur covered bean bag chairs. There are three fish bowls on mirrors — the fish simply swim in circles and reflect the liminality I hope the visitors feel. It serves as the living room in this quartet of rooms, where there are many people relaxing and the conversation can be especially unguarded, especially intimate, because of the dream – like atmosphere. I am fascinated by the affect of objects and spaces- especially those that combine multiple functions and references. I am not interested in reflecting how we already experience domestic space, but making a site of different associations and experiences outside of what we already know. I hope the room is a respite and a counterpoint to the art fair experience, and I am hoping that the dreamy quality of the space will almost suspend of time. Perhaps people will find that they have been dreaming and chatting in this room for hours, perhaps just a few minutes.
JP: EXPO is in a way the polar opposite of a domestic space, and any attempt to make it domestic becomes sort of absurd. The idea of creating a pseudo-domestic space within an exhibition hall strikes me as a longing to somehow conflate the private and the public. It’s something like wanting to have sex in public, that the intensely personal and subjective act requires an audience to consummate it, so to speak. I’m interested in the phenomenon that homes look increasingly like stage sets that nobody lives in, and become glorified storage space for furniture that is never used, combined with an opposing interest in main street, in making public life feel more homey. The point of contact is the liminal zone, the place where the public and private lives of a community intersect through socioeconomic interdependencies. Our interest in the home is maybe something like our interest in nature-it becomes active on the occasion of loss. We are homeless.
JJ: While an art fair may be the ultimate place for securing artworks that might decorate or become the accouterment for a domestic space, and our expression of home might indeed be the ‘things’ we consume, I also believe ‘home’ to be something completely intangible. In this way, this installation emphasizes everyday ritual and embodiment as a part of our experience. While all art operates on an experiential level, I hope this work emphasizes a resonance between the experience of the installation and the viewer.
SO: I hope the room is a respite and a counterpoint to the art fair experience, and I am hoping that the dreamy quality of the space will almost suspend of time. Perhaps people will find that they have been dreaming and chatting in this room for hours, perhaps just a few minutes.
JP: The frenetic beating heart of EXPO is the spectacle, consumerism, the ambitious energy to outdo each other, to be noticed, to be visible and relevant, all of the opposite qualities from being at home. Maybe EXPO HOME is a way to interject some small degree of homeliness into that environment, and a small gesture of resistance to the market aspect of the whole affair. It is also a way to think about the varied art economies.
My piece in the show directly references Mike Kelley’s piece, More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid. It is partially a tribute to what is for me a really affective piece, but I like it for all of the wrong reasons. He sees the gift economy as manipulative, leading eventually to an incremental and collective sense of shame and indebtedness. The fact that the love hours can’t be repaid for him is because we don’t know what we owe in return for a hand-made doll. Money creates at least the potential for a clean slate, a perfect exchange, but does not generally account for all of the forms of cost offsets that we all engage in, to avoid taking full account. The thing about a gift is that it is often something that you would not have paid good money for. You receive it with gratitude as a gesture of friendship, or obligation, but you might rather have the money if you were to look at it pragmatically. The market determines value through supply/demand…as the theory goes, while love-hours are a social economy.
For my project, over 30 artists, builders and friends have agreed to collaborate with me. I designed a kitchen, and suggested conflating cabinets and vitrines-kitchen as exhibition-and they are all building the cabinets, whatever that means to them. So it will be a hodgepodge, collective kitchen that we will try to unify in some way on site. Maybe they all agreed to work for no money because they like me and enjoy working with me, or being involved with my projects? Maybe it’s because EXPO is sort of a big deal to put on your resume? Maybe they hope their piece will sell and they might make a little money? Some are young artists and happy to have so many eyes on their work. Or, maybe they like the idea that the project forms a temporary community, and considers the social and political possibilities of temporary action communities? So, in terms of exchange, they are getting something-cultural capital, money, associative capital… and I am getting something-labor. But whether or not the exchange is even is yet to be seen. The surplus of the exchange is the emotional remainder, somewhere along the spectrum from gratitude to resentment. Every single one of the people involved has some spoken/unspoken expectations, or wishes for the show, (myself included) and how their work might be received in it. They are all contributing Love Hours, in exchange for exposure, fun, associative capital, communitarian good will … As artist David Wolf put it, the makers of the cabinets are all like one of the stuffed animals, and the kitchen becomes the afghan. But the major difference is that I don’t intend it as a critique as much as a kind of revelation. I intend it as a big happy love fest in a place where that will probably be considered uncool. The 2nd, and not yet articulated part of this project is to consider whether the debts have been discharged, and how, and why, which will hopefully include the added complication of money.
Over the past ten plus years, Laura Shaeffer has been the entrepreneur and custodian behind a number of projects housed within a handful of unconventional— and often under utilized— spaces on the Southside of Chicago, including Home Gallery, The Op Shop and Southside Hub of Production (SHoP). Her approach is a combination of activism and common sense; community building and home-making. She honors domestic spaces as sites of radical, informal pedagogy, and this manifests itself in an important through line that runs across her projects; they act as platforms for kids to express their creativity and imagination, and indulge their curiosity. Alongside immersing them in art and cultural production, an important byproduct of this is kids’ engagement with other kids, families, neighbors and neighborhoods.
By remaining open, nurturing organic expansion and leveraging intuition, Shaeffer stewards growth rather then shoehorning artists into rigid themes or mapping them onto discrete timelines. She recounts the combination of circumstance and serendipity that led to the recent closing of SHoP and subsequent re-opening of Home Gallery for us, and outlines her influences, collaborators and thoughts on sustainability and longevity below.
When John Preus, Mike Phillips, founder of South Side Projection, and I first started thinking about SHoP as a community cultural hub, we talked a lot about a need we all saw for a more un-programmed life, where idle time can be productive and where relationships have time and space to develop, between people, artists and generations. I love the idea of stewarding growth, looking after, caring for and managing an exhibit as a way of curating through encouraging artists to be more present and participate in the exhibit after the opening in ways that could make their work more accessible to others and in return inspire further thought and exploration on what it means to be an artist in our current culture, especially a more publicly or socially engaged artist. I tend to work intuitively and gravitate toward others who do as well. Working on shows with John and Alberto Aguilar was incredibly inspiring, they are both extremely challenging and creative thinkers. I found that a very good sense of humor and irony is most important in this kind of work and we were able to make each other laugh at the most crucial times.
One common interest John and I shared with others who helped found this project, as parents and artists, was to create spaces for exhibitions, learning and socializing where children and older folks alike would come and be in an environment that was heterogeneous and allowed for spontaneous interactions. We talked a lot about the Piazza, the Town Square, the Adventure Playground movement, public places where everyone gathered, young and old to have a drink, converse, play freely, or make things… and to linger into the evenings. We also wanted a cultural space where we could bring our kids and they’d have their own environment in which to create together so we set up what we called the Autonomous Making Space (silly name we know) for them to explore their own ideas, and make up their own activities, structures, and games. SHoP drew much of its inspiration from the Junk/Adventure Playground movement begun in the 30′s in Europe by C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect. These playgrounds become centers, accessible to the entire community, a place to gather and play freely and to develop intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Like the Adventure Playground, we wanted our Hub space to encourage children and adults to interact with and learn from each other. Ultimately, we wanted to create a space for people to feel ownership and take responsibility for the space itself because it exists as a result of their own efforts and brings the larger community together.
In terms of spaces that have provided a source of inspiration, there are so many. Several are in Finland; Hirvitalo, a Contemporary Art Center, founded in 2006 as a cultural space in Pispala, Finland, a deeply kindred spirit; Pixelache, a transdisciplinary platform for experimental art, design, research and activism co-created by artist Andrew Paterson whom I had the good fortune to meet in 2007 at the Pedagogical Factory by Jim Duignan, founder of Stockyard Institute, who is a very significant inspiration for SHoP. Places like Experimental Station, Co-Prosperity Sphere, Mess Hall, Comfort Station and North Branch have provided guidance and inspiration as well. There are too many individual artists, projects and people to mention, who have been collaborators and co-producers over the years. Collaborations like Material Exchange, Kultivator and WochenKlausur have also been very influential.
After the Fenn house was supposedly sold (it is now back on the market!), we were charged with the daunting task of reducing the accumulated contents of a 16 room mansion to fill a 20 foot sea container, to be driven away and parked on the Resource Center’s land (thanks to the generous help and support of both Ken Dunn and Ken Schug and some wonderful volunteers). We had all grieved the loss of that beautiful space before we moved, but the lightness of being I personally experienced shortly thereafter made it clear that it is not the space itself, but the people who make the space meaningful through their care, their energy and their creativity. That location, while at once magical and wonderful, and which provided so much space for learning for us all, was also much more demanding than any Op Shop or Home Gallery exhibit and we really needed time to reflect, regroup and re-organize ourselves if we were to become a sustainable center for the community.
I suppose the decision to open up Home Gallery again was a combination of circumstance and intention. We invited some of the artists that played a large role in SHoP as well a few new ones to our private home to intervene with our “private lives” in ways that would alter or disrupt our routines and as well, help us ease the transition back home and frankly, tend to the spaces that had been neglected while running a 16 room grass roots community arts center for almost 2 years. Our tiny home became the focus for the continuation of concepts and ideas we had been working with on a larger scale at Fenn House, allowing us to explore the more domestic and private side of these ideas.
The question of how we will continue to nurture and grow our projects outside of the traditional constraints of traditional organizational structures and frameworks is a very good one. We are discussing and further questioning this all the time. What might we gain by adopting a more organized structure and what might we stand to lose? As an art project, The Op Shop had a sense of freedom and extreme fluidity, SHoP for the 15 months of it’s existence at Fenn continued to enjoy that fluid, flexible and organic quality… but how long can that be sustained? Eventually a project has to grapple with these questions, I admire projects like Mess Hall who knew from the get go that they would not opt to become a non -profit and had a very clear vision for their mission in this sense. I feel we are still questioning the whole issue of becoming a non-profit and what that implies and how it impacts the project itself. In some ways we will not know before hand but one suspects that there might be a loss of this sense of intuitive process, fluid practice and to be honest, we may get away with much less. On the other hand, money is an issue and funding is needed if we are to continue in any long term way. I am and we are obviously conflicted about this issue!
Maybe artists and others who are attracted to unconventional spaces to view and think about art, like the mansion, the small townhome, the porch, the back yard gallery, the storefront, the park, and various unexpected public spaces, are more likely to want to examine their role in social change, themes of modern urban life in spaces that are themselves a challenge. There are artists who have certainly been repelled. I like the story of one artist who had proposed a project for an exhibit at SHoP, was invited to participate, and showed up on a typical day for us, where kids were hammering pieces of wood together on the front steps, students were running a yard sale in the front yard, some seniors were playing bridge inside, the house was buzzing with activity preparing for the installation of the next show. I saw a looming figure outside the house and then I saw him disappear, I asked a friend if they knew why this artist left the scene without coming in to meet us (I knew him from his resume and photos) She said that he ‘didn’t want to show his work in a house run by unprofessional hippies.’ This artist never responded to us again. I could see his point, but I love general (orchestrated) chaos, so I guess that’s my fate.
As told to Thea Liberty Nichols via email, June 2013.
All images courtesy of Home Gallery and SHoP.
Keeping up with Paul Chan could be two peoples full time job. This time out he and Paul talk about the context of publishing, Documenta, and what Paul has been up to since 2010.
Check out Paul’s site here… http://www.nationalphilistine.com/
the followoing was borrowed from Paul. He really is a lovely fellow.
Paul Chan is an artist who lives and works in New York. His work has been exhibited widely in many international shows including: Documenta 13, Kassel, 2012;Before The Law, Ludwig Museum, Cologne, 2011-12; Making Worlds, 53rd Venice Biennale, Venice, 2009; Medium Religion, ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2008; Traces du sacrê, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2008 and the Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of Art, New York, 2006. Recent solo exhibitions include Paul Chan: The 7 Lights, Serpentine Gallery, London and New Museum, New York, 2007–2008. In 2007, Chan collaborated with the Classical Theatre of Harlem and Creative Time to produce a site-specific outdoor presentation of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot in New Orleans. Chan’s essays and interviews have appeared in Artforum, Frieze, Flash Art, October, Tate etc, Parkett, Texte Zur Kunst, Bomb, and other magazines and journals. Chan founded Badlands Unlimited, a press devoted to publishing artists writings and writings about art in paper and digital forms in 2010.