The Love Librarian is in. Another Valentineâ€™s Day may be behind us, but Detroit-based artist Chido Johnson still wants to talk about love. For the month of February, Johnson is the official Love Librarian of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), cataloging, digitizing, and facilitating public engagement with his ongoing project, Letâ€™s Talk About Love Baby, a growing collection of artist-made romance novels. Since its founding in 2008, the Love Library has expanded from Detroit to include branches in Chicago, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia. Each chapter has its own resident Love Librarian whose task is to invite a group of artists, (who in turn have invited additional artists), to contribute a book to the burgeoning collection.
The current Detroit archive consists of works from artists and collectives who cross all media and cultural demographics, and their variable portrayals of love and romance range from the steamily satirical to the unnervingly intimate. â€œHeart Abortionâ€ by Suite42, (Danielle Julian Norton and Tarrah Krajnak), is an homage to art world-induced heartbreak bound in the pages of Artforum; Scott Johnsonâ€™s â€œGuilty Love,â€ is a volume whose pages literally reflect the reader-as-author bound in narcissistic self-love; and Ed Brown and Annie Reinhardtâ€™s dual volumes, â€œBirds + Shell,â€ consist of a cassette and player housed in a pair of two unassuming covers of Danielle Steele paperbacks. Each book when ensconced en masse is equally compelling, and upon closer examination, the works reveal maker, collector, and reader as agents bound by an affection for, well, affection, in all its mysterious and salacious incarnations.
The Love Library was born from a time of crisis. Creator Chido Johnson sought to address the violence and devastation of the current moment with a project that could serve as a generative counterpointâ€”love being a force that similarly leads to undoing and affect. Exploring a subject that many would consider taboo in the context of academia and fine art, Johnson ventured beyond the pop precedent of Robert Indiana, the unsubstantive sparkle of Damien Hirst, and even the digitally-networked quotidian community of Miranda July and Harrell Fletcherâ€™s Learning to Love You More. Indeed, Letâ€™s Talk About Love Baby is a different brand of cheese altogether. Johnson’s library reminds us that universality doesn’t preclude difference, and sometimes quirkiness can be found in clichÃ©.
I spoke with Chido Johnson, Love Librarian, in residence at MOCAD.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: So, letâ€™s talk about love. How did this project begin, and how is love as a subject significant for you?
Chido Johnson: The idea for Love Library [Letâ€™s Talk About Love] began when I was teaching in Sweden in 2008. This was just when violence in the Gaza Strip was escalating, and when Zimbabweâ€”where I was born and raised, was going through a horrific time. An image that has stayed with me from that moment is news footage of a doctor amidst the shelling in Gaza being interviewed live by a friend who worked for the Israeli TV. While he was being interviewed about the conflict, he was told that his familyâ€”his daughters were just killed by Israeli shells. It was crazy. At that time, I was thinking that as an educator we donâ€™t talk about love, sex, or religion, and for whatever reason, these are all no-nos in an academic setting; instead, we talk about psychology and identity, and I felt like we were missing the meaty stuff of life. Later, talking about this issue with one of my colleagues in Sweden, I knew I wanted to address this idea. I was moved by it.
SMP: Why the form of the romance novel?
CJ: I was raised in rural Zimbabwe where we didnâ€™t have television. My mom was a medical doctor and for her downtime she would read Mills and Boons, which is the British version of Harlequinâ€” novels that are more toned down and more romantic than the very hot, highly sexualized versions that are over here. Really, it was the only form of entertainment, and I used to read at least one romance book a week.
This romance novel project is a way to address the cheesiness of loveâ€”how itâ€™s perceived as a cheesy subject, packaged in cheesy formats like the Harlequin novel and the top-forty movie. I had to address the work in a totally cheesy wayâ€”I embraced the cheesiness. The thing about the romance novel is you tend to discount this shelf immediately for its cheap paperbacksâ€”as a one-night stand kind of experience, but then, if you really let yourself go into the project, you can be caught. The love story is human.
My work has been always curious about othering and the formation of assumptionsâ€”assumptions of self and of other. The idea is to look down the shelf and see all of these homogenized objects. Itâ€™s only when you pick one out and spend some time with it that you realize that itâ€™s so different. It was really important to the project that this work was not made by me, rather, I invite people to participate in it. It had to be about the collectivism, and it had to be about the assumptions of the similar and the shock of the differences. We are enriched by our differences, not by systemized similarities. Thatâ€™s what I really wanted to push with the project.
SMP: Itâ€™s interesting, because as you rightly point out, thereâ€™s a distinct stickiness between numerous elements within the work including: fantasy and reality, serial and singular, and ephemeral and eternal. Can you speak more to the objecthood of this work?
CJ: Yes, this project definitely speaks to the book and its perceived temporalness. These objects here are very much alive â€”in touch, caress, smellâ€”yet in our present time, books have become the object of nostalgia almost similar to a hand written letter. So that physicalness was very important too, and I think thatâ€™s why I specifically called out to artists who would approach work so differently, but are very conscious of the physical nature of objects. Each book is a very physical experience.
Growing up, my father was an artistâ€”a political activist and a puppeteer. As a child, I really enjoyed making puppets, and for me, a puppet has a defined role and function. It has a purpose, a cultural function. So i see the work being very raw, naked to its actual role, thus very real, and not dependent on an existential narrative. Itâ€™s an object that is what it isâ€”it exists through a performative act, not through its fabricated narrative. I see traces of that here in the Love Library, and also in the project in the next gallery, [Laugh Detroit].
SMP: Iâ€™m also interested in the collaborative aspect of this project. Primarily, you solicit the participation of artists contributing to the work, but then you also have the continued activation of the project through the lending library and the physical interactions with the viewing/reading public. First, can you speak to the logistics of participation in this projectâ€”is there an open call, for example? And more generally, what does participation bring to your practice overall?
CJ: Thereâ€™s no open call, and itâ€™s up to the Love Librarians to extend the invitations to artists to participate. All the people who I initially called are people who I totally admire and respect. I called them individually, and then I told each one that they could in turn invite one person to participate. Thatâ€™s how it grew, and now in all the different chaptersâ€”Chicago, Addis Ababa, [Ethiopia], St. Louis, Harare, [Zimbabwe]â€”the librarians there can extend their own invitations to allow those chapters to grow. Itâ€™s amazing how it slowly creeps and expands. Looking at these shelves, I know everyone here is so intimately connected and thereâ€™s so much love and respect that exists here. I wanted to keep the project real that way, the feeling of a community.
On top of that, I guess, as any artist tries to do, I always try to question the ways we present work and how we interact with an audience. What I really enjoy about the idea of a library is that is that itâ€™s not an immediate, total experienceâ€”itâ€™s a changing space that has to be constantly interacted [with], and itâ€™s intimately interacted [with]. I like that itâ€™s not being perceived as art, so people can perform the work and have a natural experience rather than a trained experience. At first I thought that I would have the public check-out books, but right now, books are still coming, so Iâ€™m here every day cataloging. Iâ€™ve held back from checking-out books because now Iâ€™m very protective of all the books in the show.
Iâ€™ve been starting to think about that. Itâ€™s gotten to the point now where itâ€™s a project that I feel honored to be a part of, but itâ€™s a lot of work. I do everything: run the website, self-sponsoring, ship books back and forth, so Iâ€™ve been starting to think of what to do in the long term. Itâ€™s a responsibility I have nowâ€”itâ€™s not just a project, itâ€™s a responsibility, and these are really precious books.
SMP: What struck me immediately about this project is its seriousness. Despite the clichÃ© fantasy of romance novel, by in large, these artists presented very real, very moving, very intimate narratives through making these objects.
CJ: Thatâ€™s what shakes me up! A friend of mineâ€”that colleague in Sweden who I mentioned earlier, she passed away last year. Her book is a copy of Romeo and Juliet; she removed all the text except for the words that bind. The pages are sort of translucent, so as you flip through the experience of it is almost like a riverâ€”like water, but itâ€™s still mapped out as the pages were, so there is an internal order. She did this book in honor of a friend of hers in Sweden who was a Fluxus artist who passed away at that time, and since the artistâ€™s own passing, this has become a truly powerful piece. I remember sitting down in Ethiopia meeting a group of artists and introducing the project. In the beginning, I have my rap about the project: this is what itâ€™s about, itâ€™s all about love, etc. But then when the work actually happens, every time, itâ€™s totally moving. Itâ€™s then that the realness occurs. People tell their stories. Thereâ€™s one couple: heâ€™s in Ethiopia, and she is attending school in Texas. Since the day theyâ€™ve been married, theyâ€™ve been separated by a great distance with no funds to travel. Theyâ€™re book is a collection of emails sent back and forth across the globe during their separation.
Love is something thatâ€™s trapped in us. The world is in such a state now, thatâ€™s itâ€™s almost like we have to hold on to somethingâ€”some sense of realness. Weâ€™re at the height of crisis, and people become overrun with emotion. Really, we need love.
Chido Johnson is the head of sculpture at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and was a 2009 Kresge Fellow. Currently, he is the Artist-in-Residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) as part of the Department of Education and Public Engagement Space Residency, where the artist has installed his Love Library and will be serving as head librarian. On Sunday Feb. 19, 12-4pm, Johnson will facilitate “I Love You and Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!” as part ofÂ Laugh Detroit, also on view at MOCAD.
This interview is part one of two. On Thursday March 2, Bad@Sports will post part two of Sarah Margolis-Pineoâ€™s interview with Chido Johnson.
October 13, 2011 · Print This Article
I feel like Iâ€™m on a bit of a mission to prove to Bad at Sports readers that not all Detroit artists trespass into abandoned buildings, cultivate urban prairie, or become beekeepers to create work in this city. Admittedly, tactics of urban intervention are a integral aspect of the cultural life of any locality, but in the D, activities based in studio practice can be provocative, and even subversive, without any bulldozing or breaking-and-entering. I was eager to interview Sarah Wagner, a sculptor who recently returned to Detroit by way of the Bay Area and most recently, Chicago, where she was teaching in the fiber department at SAIC. Sarah is admittedly a studio-based practitioner, who crafts intricate environments from the space of the galleryâ€”entire ecosystems for the imaginary, populated by botanical and biological specimens that nearly float away with uncanny ethereality. Her most recent series of Wormwood Cats are a collection of laser-cut wooden skeletons rendered with meticulous anatomical precision, that are overlaid with a fine skin of marigold yellow Chinese silk organza. Wagnerâ€™s Cats are icons of human-made disasterâ€”residuum of the atomic meltdown at Chernobyl that left a trail of biological mishap in its wake. The sculptures are not a pessimistic portrayal of the clash between human and environment, but rather, a positive look at the process of renewal, and the ability of some species to thrive amidst catastrophe.
Wagnerâ€™s work exists in a delicate balance between real and imaginary, exterior and interior, city and studio. She is able to create alter-universes from the space of the gallery, yet traces of reality inevitably emerge from amidst the illusion. Beginning in the summer of 2010, Wagner and her husband Jon Brumit, who is also an artist and recently appointed Director of Public Engagement at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, started Dflux, a residency program that falls under the framework of Creative Commons. The couple invites artists to engage with the city of Detroit and the immediate Hamtramck Heights/Banglatown neighborhood using the landscape and culture as the basis for a summer-long investigation. The residency operates from the space of their $100 houseâ€”a purchase made legendary by 20/20 and other mass media outlets in 2008, which can take partial credit for initiating the (some say speculated) romance between artists in search of low-cost housing and Detroit.
So, yes, this interview begins with a discussion on the housing crisis, arson, and what it means to buy a house for $100. No matter how thick those studio walls are or how many locks separate the inner sanctum from the street, (three at DFlux!), itâ€™s tough not to let a bit of Detroit in. Sarah and I spoke recently over tea in the DFlux kitchen.
SMP: So, we’re in a pretty famous house. Just to get it out of the way: You have to tell the storyâ€”what does a $100 house look like?
SW: We bought the house in 2008, Decemberâ€”we were both working down in Miami at Art Basel, and Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope [of Design99] sent us a picture all graphic-designed up: 3323 Lawley, $100. They had walked through the house, and it was structurally sound with the exception of one 2×4 that had been busted when the firemen cut the hole in the roof. Two fires had been set here, probably by the tenants as a way to get out of the mortgage, because we know they were both arsonâ€”you can actually tell by the way the fluid hits the ground in a perfect circle, which indicates the use of some type of accelerant. So there were two firesâ€”one in the front bedroom, and one in the living room, so the house was just a mess when we first got it. There was paint coming down from the ceiling, and all these just amazing surfaces. We promptly found out after we closed that I was pregnant, so we had to make sure the lead was out. We probably would have sealed the paint in otherwise to preserve those amazing surfaces. Basically, we demoed the whole thing. Thereâ€™s a bit of original plaster thatâ€™s still there, covered up by drywall but weâ€™ve made a huge changes within the floor plan due to the damage. There was a bunch of water damageâ€”for two years there was a hole in the roof, and the damaged planks had to be removed, but now we have this kitchen counter as a resultâ€”the countertop is from the rafters.
SMP: But the media makes buying a house in Detroit seem so appealing!
SW: What we hear a lot now is: Oh, I hear there are artists buying all the houses and itâ€™s a movement! Itâ€™s been really interesting watching the shift of the perception of Detroit in the media because before we even bought the houseâ€”the day we closed on itâ€”was the day the $100 house piece aired on 20-20. Itâ€™s been a really bizarre and very educational experienceâ€¦ There was this media blitz, [NYTimes, CNN, ABCâ€¦ Itâ€™s endless!], and everyone was contacting us and wanting to talk to us, and it was weird because I was pregnant and I didnâ€™t want anyone to know. All the comments were difficult to take, for example many people said that no one with kids would ever move into this neighborhoodâ€¦ I feel like 20-20 actually did a really good jobâ€”I didnâ€™t expect them to spin it in the way that they did because they wanted it to be the “feel good” segment at the end of the program, but they spun it in a more authentic way. They used a quote to describe it that was something along the lines of it being something really good out of something really horribleâ€”this isnâ€™t just, like: Woo hoo! Buy a house for $100! Well, it is, but this is the only way that Jon and I could have bought a house. We have never had enough money to buy a house.
SMP: Is this the housing-crisis iteration of the American Dream?
SW: It is for us, I guess. And this is a city of the American Dream, and this is a city that everybody loves to mythologize. It was once the “most dangerous city in the world”, and now, itâ€™s the “city of artists” in the midst of resurrection. Or something. Thereâ€™s always some sort of big, big mythology that is really quite simplistic, and thatâ€™s the thing about mythology; it misses all the beautyâ€¦ Thereâ€™s incredible diversity, amazing neighborhoods with beautiful, well-cared full homes! Itâ€™s not that the portrait thatâ€™s painted about Detroit wrong, itâ€™s just that it only captures one part of the whole narrative. Itâ€™s funny too, because the myth just really isnâ€™t interesting after a while. Itâ€™s a great story for a cocktail party: Ha, ha, $100 home, but it gets old. What really is interesting to me is the neighborhoodâ€”30% Bangladeshi, 30% Polish, 30% African American and the 10% other, which we fit into, and every single one of these people has a storyâ€”a really interesting story, way more interesting than a $100 home. So this was what led us to do DFLUX project, because we felt as though we wanted to provide a platform for people to come in, see, and explore. It was really important that they actually explore and not have their experience scripted ahead of time. We were frustrated with the sound bitesâ€”reporters would come in, and theyâ€™d claim their interview would be different, but all we ended with was being used for sound bites.
SMP: How did you facilitate going beyond sound bites considering these all-pervasive myths? It seems like chasing various Detroit mythologies would be part of the impetus for artists to be in residence here?
SW: I guess by not giving much information so they had to seek it out on their own. In terms of what we would show artists when they would come here, weâ€™d definitely show them the neighborhoodâ€”where to get their beer and all that stuff, and then weâ€™d bring them to visit the field. Thereâ€™s this field off of Mt. Elliott where they razed a whole neighborhood in order to provide a space for development. But of course, no development came, and it has turned into a wetlands. Itâ€™s this really amazing place where thereâ€™s all this natural growth, which is really overtaking the grid. The roads are still there and the fire hydrants are still there, but everything else is gone. From botanical standpoint, there is all kinds of diversity. The area was residential, so there are all these cultivated plants popping up along with plants that are perhaps natives, or perhaps invasive, or whatever. And thatâ€™s what has absolutely fascinated me is the memory, or trace, of what was there before, and how different traces are reemerging and reclaiming the space overtime.Â And that was it. That would be it. It became really clear that some of our residents came and wouldnâ€™t leave the house, and thatâ€™s just not okay. The experience is not about being at the house, but to be in the neighborhood and city.
SMP: So 2011 was DFLUXâ€™s second summer. How many residents did you take on initially?
SW: DFLUX in 2010 had nine residents, which really pushed the envelope.
SMP: Yikes! That sounds like a camp-out!
SW: It was a camp-out. It was not fancy. We warned people, and out litmus test for selecting people was whether or not we thought they could handle it, which was difficult. We had six people sleeping upstairs, one person downstairs and we had a mother and son sleeping on a porch.
SMP: And how are you taking applicants?
SW: Everyone who we asked in that first round came, which is how we ended up with nine. That was really ambitious, but we thought: weâ€™ll just figure it out. We didnâ€™t have our bathroom ready for three days! That was a bit rough, but it worked. In the future, weâ€™re not really sure. We had one resident this summer, who was fantasticâ€¦ But it became really clear that we canâ€™t do it with so little space. Weâ€™re looking to buy another house right across the street in this auction cycle, and if we buy that one, then weâ€™ll continue, but if we donâ€™t, then I donâ€™t think weâ€™ll be able toâ€¦ Especially with a toddler.
SMP: It seems as though the engagement with landscape that your residency facilitates is similar to the way that you explore ecological and human-made systems in your own work. How does the shifting biology of this placeâ€”epitomized by your field, also inform your studio practice?
SW: Itâ€™s something that Iâ€™m trying to figure out, and I think itâ€™s a big part of the reason that Iâ€™m attracted to the wetlands off Mount Elliot… The piece Iâ€™m working on right now is a grouping of five cats.Â Itâ€™s about Chernobyl, and what Iâ€™ve been thinking about is that there are all these animals, wild and formerly domestic,Â in the area of Chernobyl that appear to be doing just fineâ€”completely normalâ€”theyâ€™re playing, running, eating, procreating, but theyâ€™re completely radioactive. And what Iâ€™ve been thinking about is how to represent the invisibility of the radiation. So this is the first oneâ€”it has a completely normal skeleton now, but the skeleton will slowly start to overtake the inside of the form.
SMP: In essence, these are ghostly traces of radiated creatures that will change form overtime?
SW: Yes. And theyâ€™re dyed with turmeric, because itâ€™s a bad dyeâ€”meaning, it doesnâ€™t keep, so itâ€™s light sensitive. The idea is that the turmeric is mimicking the shelf-life of radiation. And so, these creatures are slowly healing, and over time, theyâ€™ll be come white again. I donâ€™t know what that time period is, but they start out one color and they end another.
SMP: Interesting. So itâ€™s not so much about deconstruction or decay, but more about purification?
SW: Healing is really important. At the risk of being very California, itâ€™s really important to me. Also, I donâ€™t want to look at the problem, but to the hope. Thereâ€™s this military term called â€œpositive ocular response,â€ which means when there are two blown-up tanks with a small space in between, you donâ€™t look at the tanks while trying to drive through, you focus on that space between–and often you make it no matter the odds. Iâ€™m trying to present positive ocular response while still being truthful about the situation. Truth is really important to me too, but truth is flexibleâ€¦ I supported myself for ten-years doing construction and fabricationâ€”including museum building fabrication, exhibits for natural history museums and the like. It was really interesting working in these environments because I came to realize how these institutions of science presented an interpretation the truth–not the truth.Â The idea of exploring whatâ€™s true and whatâ€™s real, and trying to imagine the process by which truth is created is interesting to me, because it is all a product of imagination in a way.
SMP: Iâ€™ve heard the correlation made between Detroit and Chernobyl before. Is that a comparison youâ€™re conscious of making this work?
SW:Â Detroit is not Chernobyl–it’s vibrant, alive and safe for humans, but I feel like the reason Iâ€™m drawn to the idea of Chernobyl is that thereâ€™s all this hope–living creatures surviving radiation.Â But the effects of radiation on the animals is not investigated, and we donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on there, but I really am interested in the idea that this horrible thing can happen and that life continues. It may not be human life, but something is flourishingâ€”all the plants and the species that are coming back, itâ€™s all pretty phenomenal. In that way I feel like there is a link, particularly when thinking about the Mt Elliot wetlands–it’s a place that gives me hope.
SMP: It seems that your practice is for the most part studio and gallery-based. Given your interest in landscape, have you ever done any installations outdoors?
SW: I havenâ€™t really done that. Iâ€™ve had ideas for it, but I havenâ€™t been able to manifest them. I love being a studio-based artist, and thatâ€™s what makes me different from Jon and Mitch and Gina is that their studio is everything. I love getting lost in that deep space of just being alone, working, and making something. I donâ€™t know if my work will shift that way. But there have been a number of other big life changesâ€”I have this big, sort of, Bangladeshi-style garden that we grew out back– we grew our own food, and doing things like this will surely have some sort of impact . But I donâ€™t knowâ€¦ Thatâ€™s one of the things about the creative process I guess.
SMP: What is in the works for you?
SW: Iâ€™ve got a couple showsâ€¦ Iâ€™ve got a month to finish the cats for a traveling museum showâ€¦ I’m also part of a “sisters” show this spring at the Ann Arbor Art Center called Inherent State. My sister, Cathy Wagner, is an experimental writer. Right now, sheâ€™s putting herself into trances, recording herself speaking in tongues, and developing writing from that. I decided that I need to meditate to try and, you know, be calm, (laughs), regulate my anxiety, and so Iâ€™ve been trying to meditate, and when I begin obsessing about things while I meditate, I write these things down on the fridge. As soon as Iâ€™m done with the cats, Iâ€™m going to begin making all of these thingsâ€”Iâ€™ll make the objects on the list on the fridge and install them in Ann Arbor.
SMP: What kind of objects are we talking about?
SW: [Sarah reads from her list:] Garden; Pollination; Squash; Otto Screaming; Ramadan Plate; Concealed Weapon, carrying, protecting; Otto Baby; 3322â€¦ Oh no! Itâ€™s illegible, darnâ€¦ Platonic Solids; Peony; Oxygen Masks; Otto; Cat; Bottles; Window; Cat.
SMP: In a way, youâ€™re in dialogue with your sisterâ€™s process but through your own process of making.
SW: Yeah, weâ€™re definitely drawing from the same process. Stream of consciousness to create objects and text. Sheâ€™s got her craft, and I have mine, so the process will be filtered through our skill set. For the show, weâ€™re teaming up with artist Brooks Harris Stevens and her sister Jen Harris, who is also a writer. Brooks and I have a lot in common both materially and in our personal lives, including having writers for sisters, so we thought this would be fun.
SMP: Do you and Jon ever collaborate in this way? Since Jonâ€™s praxis is more socially-based and your work is certainly all about the introverted studio-time, do you find that this clashing of opposites is productive (and challenging) in the way that working with a writer is?
SW: Jon and I collaborate quite a bit, and weâ€™re looking to collaborate more because heâ€™s been so busy, so itâ€™s a way for us to get to work together. And I really admire his work, and I think he admires mine, but weâ€™re also so different, so itâ€™s really lovely to have that polar-opposite-ness come inâ€¦ We did a Life Laws project together. We have this series of Life Laws, for example, number one is: Donâ€™t put your bearings in the dirt. Number three is: Donâ€™t cut a hole in the roof of a co-owned car without asking the co-ownerâ€™s permission. These are either things that weâ€™ve done, or tales that weâ€™ve collected from friends. This is from a friend, who was actually at Cranbrook: Donâ€™t wear homemade pants that arenâ€™t reinforced in the crotch and sit cross legged in publicâ€¦ We have performed the laws and made romance novels with the titles.Â Collaboratively? What elseâ€¦ Well, DFLUX which is pretty huge, and then we did a show at Patricia Sweetow, [San Francisco], with Christy Matson as a third collaborator. She makes weavings using a conductive thread, so I made sheep that conducted sound art that Jon created. Oh! and Jon and I did a show in Tennessee in 2003 calledÂ Crossover in Chattanooga, TN, which is where we both went to undergrad.Â That project was really fun: we conducted traffic across this bridge that has a perfect octave. I donâ€™t have a perfect pitch, but it goes [Sarah hums three successive pitches: looooow-hiiiiigh-looooow]. We discovered that if you drove over in 3-mi/hr increments that [the pitch would elevate harmoniously]. Depending on how fast you were going, you could actually make different pitches. So, we tried to conduct traffic across the bridge to create, like, â€œRow Row Row Your Boatâ€â€¦ It was really bizarre, because you just canâ€™t control how fast the traffic goes.Â We were able to do it on a synthesizer in the gallery, and we exhibited that along with an installation based on the Tennessee River Valley out of construction materials: tar paper, electrical linesâ€”the current was the river, and then we had shredded paper set up so as the viewer entered the space, they came into a pristine environment mimicking what the Tennessee Valley was before it was settled. The viewer was then forced, essentially, to clearcut it as they walked through these huge piles of shredded paper so their trace was left as they walked. The audience then essentially made the environment, which was the reason I really loved that piece.
SMP: It seems as though many of your collaborations involve willing or unwilling participants. Is this an element of installation-based work as well?
SW: Um, I think it ends up being part of the sculptural experience. I really love the way, for example, Richard Serra sets up his work, where itâ€™s more about the emotion of the encounter. I want to get that kind of affect in my workâ€”Iâ€™m really into creating that kind of intense feeling when a viewer walks in. You know how when you walk in and see one of those stacked sculptures and thereâ€™s this amazing tensionâ€”thatâ€™s really what Iâ€™m hoping for. I guess it is unwilling in some way, where youâ€™re just subjected to some kind of emotional shift.Â It does require participation.
SMP: With this new Chernobyl series, do you intend for viewers to get a strong sense of lifespanâ€”though the turmeric, or the shifting patterns of natural systems?
SW: The evolving? I guess so, I hope so.Â I envision the viewer, the owner of the work really, seeing the work shift over time.Â The viewer who passes by will miss this–it is too slow of a story arc.Â I guess thatâ€™s what I feel like happens in my whole life! The story arc is a long one with many shifting patterns.Â In my twenties I approached life as if it was so much more cut-and-dry, like, if you got rejected than that was itâ€”you were black balled. Now I know that rejection is just an opportunity. Now I think: oh, well, they got to look at my work, and you never know what’s going to happen–there is an ebb and flow. I think being willing to submit to things occurring over time has very much about not having scarcity, and not living in that kind of closed mental space. I want my work to existÂ in the same kind of placeâ€”where there is room to be open ended–to not know.Â Because what do I know?! I donâ€™t know anything, I only know what Iâ€™ve experienced. Thereâ€™s a whole range of things on the horizon of possibility that are so out of the range of what I could even imagine. I would have never guessed I would buy a house in Detroit for $100 and weâ€™d go on 20-20, Iâ€™d have to navigate all that mass media, and that weâ€™d have a kid! Go figure! And throughout, still working in the studio.
SMP: What I love about your work is the overall sense of positive uncertainty, which I find very hopeful.
SW: Thatâ€™s lovely, because Iâ€™ve worked towards that. A number of years ago, I decided I wanted to turn conditions aroundâ€”I wanted to transform from survival into prosperity. And I did that during grad school, and it felt great, so lately I’ve decided to turn worry into wonderâ€¦ Maybe Iâ€™m starting to do that in my art work as well.
SMP: A word Iâ€™ve been hearing quite a bit lately is the notion of precariousness, and how contemporary art thrives within uncertainty. Precariousness seems to be an apt termâ€”itâ€™s where your work is, and where Detroit isâ€¦ It seems to be a lovely synthesis of you and environment.
SW: I think thriving within uncertainty is the only way to go.Â A precarious position is wonderful in the range of possibility that is there depending on the way one falls.Â There’s a lot of tension there too and that’s what makes life and art interesting.Â Our neighborhood is in some ways “precarious” but it’s a space of possibilities.Â Itâ€™s really funny, because I would be terrible in a neighborhood where everybody mowed their lawns preciselyâ€”I wouldnâ€™t fit in there, and I couldnâ€™t do what I wanted to! I can do what I want here, nobodyâ€™s looking, and our neighbors get excited when we do something. I like the openness. There are so many places where we livedâ€”Cranbrook is one of them, where itâ€™s so beautiful, but itâ€™s so sculpted–finished! Thereâ€™s something about our neighborhood, and about its openness that I really, really like. What can happen?
Sarah Wagnerâ€™s wormwood cats will be featured in Innovators and Legends: Generations in Textiles and Fibers:
Muskegon Museum of Art: December 13, 2012 â€“ March 17, 2013
Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center: May 26 â€“ August 11, 2013
University of Kentucky: September 8 â€“ December 1, 2013
Colorado State University: January 24 â€“ April 11, 2014
All photos courtesy of the Artist, Jon Brumit, Benjamin Maddox, Robert Beamer, and Patricia Sweetow.