New York City-based artist Jenny Polak has long dealt with issues of citizenship and legality through her site-specific and socially-engaged projects. Drawing heavily on her background in architecture, but working across a variety of media, Polak’s work brings human scale to the urgent politics of immigration in the US. Here, we spoke about her recent project at Northwestern University’s Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, the pitfalls of nostalgia, and the question of utility in art.
Your work is primarily about the experiences of undocumented people. How did you develop this as a lens?
I’ve got this simple outrage at the way the rules of nations and international relations are written to ensure that the people flowing across borders will remain vulnerable enough to be exploited. But it’s also a fascination I have with the complex interrelated migrant lives that are the life-blood of many societies, without the supposed benefit of the legal underpinning and authorization that comes with citizenship. I’m a Jew from England, where modern immigration law was founded on anti-semitism, capitalized on by racist loser politicians who insinuated a divisive narrative to use to their advantage.
Feeling pissed off about legacies of exploitation is a sort of lens. I got mixed up in immigrants’ rights activism in the US in the mid 90’s because Bill Clinton threatened to and then passed a couple of hugely terrible Acts that were going to catapult hundreds of thousands of people into immigrant detention. And then I would practically trip over shackled black guys on crowded Varick Street (then the location of a key detention center) where the architect’s office I worked in got me my second H1b visa. In the US of course the conceptualization of birthright citizenship got all bound up with the exclusion required to maintain the institution of slavery, and the seeming progressiveness of the 14th Amendment, driven by the need to legitimize a now undeniably free, and sometimes armed workforce has been followed by layer upon layer of gate-keeping legislation, to control new cheap labour supplies. Business as usual.
You recently completed a residency with the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University, where you worked with community activists who were opposing the building of a private detention center in Crete, IL. Can you talk a bit about what that experience was like? What challenges did you encounter?
This was an amazing thing. I’d been following the local news as the battle developed and with many in the ‘immigrants rights’ world cheered when Crete said NO to Corrections Corporation of America, the huge company that profits from mass incarceration policies in the US and elsewhere. Right then I got offered this miraculous residency, which gave me the chance to go and find the people who had pulled off this extraordinary result. I felt this urgently needed to be understood, represented and commemorated as an inspiring model for other communities. It wasn’t an ideal residency project perhaps; 3 months is an unusually great amount of time for me to be able to concentrate entirely on art but it is short for the kind of community connections I wanted to establish. I researched and networked before going, and luckily for me I already knew a few people in Chicago, not least my Mother-in-Law, who always provides a supportive base.
The Kaplan Institute people were also great about the general idea for the project and for an interdisciplinary class I proposed dealing with socially engaged art as it relates to urban planning, with a close look at the case of the Crete prison, which of course was partly an urban planning issue.
So my big challenge for this project was to meet people both in Crete and the vital immigrant activists from Chicago, learn from them in much greater detail how they saw the whole struggle, and win these remarkable people who had already moved on to the next struggle, to the idea of working with me and a couple of Northwestern students to make art relating aspects of “The Sweet Defeat of the Prison in Crete” – as activist Anthony Rayson named a zine he made – to a possible wider audience. It’s a tricky thing that is tough to get right in socially engaged art: when you are not already part of a community, and will not be able to stick around, why are you there? The activists involved had already done brilliantly at PR. The very different affected communities – the Concerned Citizens of Crete (started by Cetta Smart) and the immigrant community centered on Fr. Landaverde’s Anglican Catholic Mission Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Little Village – knew what they were doing and Local and national news media had followed the story in English and Spanish. I wanted to see something else happen because I thought that a particularly striking thing was the coalition of citizen and non-citizen that formed across a big divide of consciousness.
The people found common cause thanks to the abilities of several leading people in both communities to frame the debate in terms of the high ground; the moral outrage of detention and deportation, and of profiting from them. I proposed some art under the heading (n)IMBY, exploring ways to represent and sort of idealize this uniting of people whose ‘profiles’ didn’t match, both for the people themselves and for possible art audiences who would never know them. A number of the people who had been involved graciously came back together at my request: Father Landaverde’s community generously hosted, the no name collective provided support and I quite old-fashionedly drew and photographed them. The photographs simply pair up citizens with immigrants with the gridded walls of the storefront church as backdrop.
Your work has multiple publics: the people it was done about, with and for – as well as the art world. How do you reconcile the function of your work in these two, often separate realms?
I have difficulty with thinking about an artwork that is not also understood as an object with meaning in the real world. So for the (n)IMBY project, I wanted to make something life-size – actually I thought about a commemorative monument of sorts, but the relationship to site was looking problematic, with two key foci of the struggle, neither of which I could just impose an object on without a lot more time to be with people and delve into what might be useful and share-able.
So I drank in the frequency of little Virgin of Guadalupe statues and tried thinking souvenirs – multiples thought of as ‘low’ art in high art world terms. I imagined narrative keepsakes that could be found in many people’s homes or places of assembly. There was a show of the figurines of John Rogers about that time – a prolific Victorian sculptor of Civil War and moral scenes. I was going to try and cast something but the Engineering Department at NU opened their Rapid Prototyping Lab to me and I made 3D prints instead – not as many as I would have liked, to share among more people, but it was an inspiring opportunity and I think those who have taken them to keep have an interesting connection now with both each other and the few art-audience people who may get to see some in a gallery context.
One big reason for making art objects at all rather than participatory events and such, is that the “communities of communication” (- a term like that I think comes from Walter Benjamin) that objects might generate – people who in potentially energizing ways are sharing ideas – don’t have to be all in the same place or exist in the same time, and this is important because you need so many different kinds of people on board and so much time to go after a real high ground kind of vision.
There is a feeling, in your work, that you’re not interested in getting nostalgic about the immigrant experience, but that you’re actively engaging the “now” on these issues, and imagining into future possibilities.
I grew up in crazily nostalgic culture – both England and the un-English, Jewish cultural time-warp I existed in are very tied up in their pasts. When I started to think about migration and its representation or manifestation in art I saw everyone doing ‘share-your-history-or-culture’-type-art. That was also THE accepted way for an artist to ‘work with the community’ – still is. These projects are celebratory, educational, cool, but tend to draw attention away from action or even from any representation that includes analysis of or fight-back against injustice. That’s not to say I think political art should be all about protest – many of us have done a lot of that and can see that there other ways to work so as to activate a space – not just the designated space of protest – with an awareness of its reality – its present, socio-economic networks – in such a way that people kind of unsuspectingly get a sudden jolt of their own reality and connection to others’. So after I tried making an art about my background, looking at the idea of the Jew in England, my amazing family, my own bizarre overdetermined history as a Jew sick with a supposedly Jewish disease and such, Lyle Ashton Harris said to me in a studio crit in the Whitney Independent Study Program one day, “why should I care?” A truly helpful thing. I said to myself, right, this stuff will be behind me, but now I will face outward, and look for ways to connect with other people, in the present and for the future.
How do you understand the relationship between your art and your activism?
Chicago was the first place I came to when I first arrived in the US, and the first thing I saw as I was driven from the airport was a huge demonstration about some art. (It was about “What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag?” – the work of my husband-to-be, Dread Scott.) This added tantalizingly to my sense that in the US art could influence public opinion, which I had given up hope of in England. My activism for a time was kind of separate from my art, but I was saved by the experiences of collaborating with Repo-History and the poster collective Resistant Strains on a few projects. Plus I had had a kid, and started working for architects and there wasn’t time anymore; then it was suddenly clear to me that those things (kid, architecture) were the sources and the connections I needed for a new activist art combo. I drew on my architecture background and my immigrant activist network and made a web project (HardPlace) for which detainees from across the country supplied sketches of what they knew of their invisible prisons, (photos being forbidden) and I traced them into strange digital 3D models where you could find a few tidbits of info that cumulatively conveyed an idea of the terrifying Kafkaesque system that was proliferating since the 1996 laws had passed. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum funded the project so that I felt able to team up with web designer Lauren Gill to deliver a project that got quite a lot of attention on the predicament of detainees and the dangerous direction US immigration policy was headed in – it was launched soon after 9/11 and detention was taking on a new definition in the public imaginary and in abusive reality.
Having a social or political application in one’s work can lend itself to a particular kind of “usefulness,” often discussed in socially-engaged art. How do you address utility in your work?
There are different ways to be useful and to address usefulness. Many things I make use a language usually thought of as functional or useful but they are dysfunctional – they talk about their own inadequacy or misguidedness. I think of it as a sort of reverse-engineering the ready-made – art that escaped into the real world. It can’t be instrumentalised except in make-believe (unlike the Urinal getting put back to its intended use) but it can talk about what might have been or might be. I think when artists aim for ‘real’ utility, it tends to produce poor relations of things made by real designers and urban planners – partly because art in the socially engaged realm has generally had to accept a pathetically minimal funding structure as compared with architecture and urban design budgets, or even regular public art budgets – but of course those big budgets entail the forswearing of criticality- the pact with the devil. We are beginning to see some good results as the exchange flows the other way and urban designers merge into artists.
I was moved recently when Tania Bruguera’s Museum of Arte Util, soon to open in Holland, asked to include my Design for the Alien Within and other projects in their archive. My tactics may be frowned on by some advocates/practitioners of utility in socially-engaged art. For example during Occupy Wall St, I got involved with Mitch McEwen and others in the Architecture Group: there were interesting discussions and practical exercises to come up with temporary shelter strategies for public sites controlled by city regulations, as well as the chance simply to observe and engage with the structures that kept being built. While hanging about the financial district I picked up some bags of shredded paper and with advice from Michael Rakowitz about sealing plastic sheets into shapes, began making shapes like financial crisis graphs stuffed with shredded paper, that double as pattern pieces for assembly into warm, waterproof wearable shelters, coat-tents. But they will they actually be used? It doesn’t matter at the moment, it’s more that people who see and feel them immediately want to talk with each other and me, and these conversations are useful.
October 30, 2013 · Print This Article
This has been a pretty great fall in the borough of Queens.
From the NY Art Book Fair and Maker Faire earlier this season, to the ambitious Empire Drive-In that just closed 10 days ago, Queens – typically perceived as the dowdy counterpart to Brooklyn’s thriving culture of creative professionals – is loudly staking its claim as a cultural destination in NYC.
And now the icing on the cake: the Queens Museum will open its newly renovated and designed facility on November 9th. Doubling in size to 100,000 square feet, the building, which was originally conceived as the New York City pavilion for the 1939 World’s Fair, has expanded to include the space of a former ice skating rink, with a soaring, light-filled, 48-foot ceiling atrium.
Panorama of New York City
The inaugural season at the QM includes solo exhibitions by Bread and Puppet Theater Founder, Peter Schumann, Pedro Reyes and Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao, as well as the sixth installment of the Queens International. New installations of the permanent collection galleries impress – including, of course the panorama of New York City, easily one of the museum’s greatest assets.
Peter Schumann: The Shatterer is incredibly staggering, both in scale and aesthetic prowess – and in the museum’s visionary curatorial decision to highlight work that is often dismissed by the mainstream, as their blockbuster opener no less.
Peter Schumann: The Shatterer
Other galleries featured works representative of the rainbow of cultures in Queens including an exhibition of Cuban artists from the collection of Don and Shelly Rubin (major benefactors of the museum), and a gallery dedicated to the work of artists from Taiwan.
The museum – which has also changed its identity from the Queens Museum of Art to simply the Queens Museum – follows a one-word mission statement: Openness. As an ideology, the museum has been pursuing this purpose aggressively during the tenure of Executive Director, Tom Finkelpearl. Now, it has the physical space to complement it.
The museum will also include a branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, planned to open in 2015. This smart partnership is indicative both of the radically shifting roles that museums and libraries are evolving toward, and the leading role the QM has taken in creating a hybrid, inclusive, social space that will soon become the model for cultural institutions. From their characteristically large focus on service-based public programming and community involvement, to their collaboration with Queens College (CUNY) and the community of Corona on Social Practice Queens (SPQ) — an MFA with a concentration in socially-engaged practices — the QM is setting a high bar a new museum standard.
The view from the atrium
Empire Drive-In is a full-scale, twelve-night, outdoor cinema and social spectacle. Hosted by the New York Hall of Science, and brilliantly programmed and designed by artists Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark, this project is an ambitious statement on upcycling and participatory culture seen through the defunct theater of suburban drive-in entertainment.
On the surface, Empire Drive-In has plenty of nostalgic charm, but it doesn’t take long to see how the project redirects retro sentimentality into much more nuanced conditions of creative re-use. Made entirely from re-animated waste, including cast-off lumber and 60 wrecked cars salvaged from a Brooklyn scrapyard, the project’s junk aesthetic offers up a critical interrogation of our culture’s throw-away mentality, and the tremendous value that can be recaptured with artistic reconsideration and a little bit of elbow grease. Chandler and Stark offered their impressions this conceptual overtone:
“One of the things that we’re saying, or that we’re trying to get at, is that this kind of place – a place that is built by hands and is brought alive by living artists and performers – offers a type of critical alternative to the safety of theme park nostalgia. […] People love nostalgia. A lot of us have an almost emotional attachment to the romantic idea of a drive-in theater. So we use that as kind of a set-up. People come to Empire with that romantic idea, and what they experience is on some level quite different: It’s a bunch of dirty old cars in a parking lot. We’re not trying to trick people, but we are deliberately looking for a little nuance – a little questioning.”
The creation of public and private space is another big picture idea that plays into the experience of Empire Drive-In. Sitting an early aughts BMW on the evening of my visit, I found traces of the previous owners scattered around the car, purposefully left behind by the artists. A wallet-size studio portrait of two young children and an ATM receipt with a balance for little more than $9.00 created a humanizing and intimate fantasy of these earlier occupants. The private narrative unfolding in the car was met on the other end with the larger, public narrative taking place outside, as people moved around, socialized, bought popcorn from the snack bar, and lounged on the hoods and roofs of cars. This division between public and private has always been part of the haphazard choreography of the drive-in theater, though here these narratives feel more direct and curated for personal discovery.
In addition to the social concepts it tackles, let’s not forget that Empire is essentially a series of film screenings; a program that is thematic, collaborative, and diverse – including a Bollywood Bash, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991), and silent films. I attended the Teenage Wasteland double feature, with screenings of Over the Edge (1979) and Suburbia (1983), both about the uprising of white youth in the face of oppressive and alienating suburban communities; a rebellious delight. The films were preceded by a presentation of Stephen Mallon’s impressive documentary photographs of scrapped subway cars in the process of becoming artificial underwater reefs, tying into the space’s larger theme of industrial re-use – though hanging somewhat awkwardly in relation to the rest of the evening’s programming. RVIVR, an energetic punk foursome from Olympia, WA played a set during intermission, giving the crowd another opportunity to gather before heading back to our cars.
While participation plays heavily into the artists’ thinking about this work – as it also does with Stark’s other “unauthorized” events in which complicity is an unambiguous, horizontal requirement – true, active participation at Empire feels optional. Interaction is certainly encouraged here, but some may simply go for a controlled, car-bound experience. “There’s been a lot of talk about the tyranny of participation, and yet it’s true that Claire Bishop and a lot of ideas about social practice have influenced some of our thoughts about Empire Drive-In,” remarked Chandler and Stark.
“What we’re after is a space that compels participation in the face of spectacle – one that allows for both at the same time. We’re hoping for an almost a civic impulse. But at the same time, we would never force people to join in a Bollywood dance lesson, or demand someone to climb up on top of a car. We talk a lot about the distinction between public and private space at Empire, and about how the drive-in is an American institution that allows for both. We often celebrate the public aspect, and work on encouraging it, but private space is important too.”
There are several big, concurrent messages at Empire Drive-In. Perhaps this is an effect of it being a multivalent product of many collaborators, or perhaps it’s a resistance of reductive categorization. One thing is for sure: if all art-going experiences were this inclusive, a wider public might start to recognize themselves in the visual culture that represents them. Museums take note.
Empire Drive-In at the New York Hall of Science closes on Sunday, October 20.
As a young art student in the late 90’s, I attended a talk given by Ernesto Pujol at RISD, where he presented his then-current project: an installation of Nazi-era porcelain as a commentary on whiteness, purity, and the attendant relationship these meanings have to the atrocities of World War II. I was immediately struck and moved by his handling of materials and ideas; it was one of those projects that burned itself into my consciousness and stayed with me for a long time.
Fast forward to 2012, and once again I came into contact with Pujol through writing for A Blade of Grass Foundation, where we both had been contributing our thoughts and research. I reached out to let him know of my long-time admiration, and he reciprocated with an invitation to his home for afternoon tea. When we met, his charisma and generosity were just as disarming as that morning lecture at RISD so many years before.
Pujol is a site-specific public performance artist and social choreographer. He has a long record of intellectual and interdisciplinary art practices which have dealt with concepts of collective and individual and collective identity, the sacred, social and political issues, and public/private space. Since the late 90′s, Pujol has also been working on public group performances, where the focus has rested with action, movement, the journey – and the central concept of the “artist-as-citizen.” Additionally, he is the founder of The Field School Project, where young and emerging artists are individually mentored in site-specific practices.
This fall, in conjunction with the French Institute Alliance Française, Pujol is bringing his first public group performance to New York City. Time After Us is an ambitious, 24-hour collaborative perambulation of the interior of St. Paul’s Chapel in downtown Manhattan. By walking the space, animating it continuously from the morning of October 3rd through the morning of October 4th, Pujol and his twenty-three cohorts will produce a work about rest, second chances, and healing the past.
Catechumen (Baptism), Ernesto Pujol, 2009 (Photo by Ernesto Pujol)
You’re currently getting ready for a major performance, Time After Us, at St. Paul’s Chapel in downtown Manhattan, where you and a group of 23 collaborators will walk for 24 hours straight. Can you tell me a bit about how this project came together?
The curators of Crossing the Line 2013 contacted me last year, asking me to meet with them at the French Institute Alliance Française. They invited me to develop a new performance for the festival. This happened shortly after hurricane Sandy. They were moved by how New Yorkers united and responded to the catastrophe. They were also concerned about the future of the city, in terms of climate change. For the past two years, I had been quietly envisioning a performance that was constructed like a vortex, with performers walking a circle backwards and counterclockwise; combining vulnerability with the notion of the natural passage of time, time past and time to come, coexisting simultaneously in the now. I proposed it to them and they embraced my concept.
St. Paul’s is an historic episcopal church, but became an important contemporary touchstone when it provided a center for relief and recovery workers during the period surrounding 9/11. Does its connection to the nearby Ground Zero site have a relationship to Time After Us?
I first developed the concept for the performance without a site. Initially, I wanted a vast interior, enough to hold a mighty river of people whirling, and hundreds of people surrounding them, watching silently. We considered the Armory and Saint John the divine, among other spaces. Curator Gideon Lester suggested Saint Paul’s Chapel in Wall Street. Curator Simon Dove and I visited the site and fell in love with its interior and exterior. The third curator, Lili Chopra, approved it. The chapel feels like a little island within the larger island of Manhattan. It contains an amazing statement about mortality, with its green graveyard. There is no intended connection to 9/11, to Ground Zero. It is not a performance about loss and mourning, although a viewer may contribute that reading out of their own life story. For me, it is primarily a performance about rest and second chances; about revisiting the collective and individual past, and trying to heal it.
This will be your first public work in New York City. For someone who has made a conscious effort to satellite beyond the art world center, this feels like a very deliberate move. Why is it the right time to perform in NYC?
I have had many solo exhibitions of images, objects and installations in galleries and museums in New York since the early 1990s. But this will be my first public performance, in terms of how I constructed my group performance practice since the late 1990s. Thus, this is not a “move,” in the career sense. It was an unexpected invitation, which I accepted with humility, as a matter of public service. I believe in Carol Becker’s notion of the artist as a citizen, a cultural worker. I simply seek to offer the city a place of psychic rest. I have lived and worked in this city for 28 years. I am 56 years-old. I have served as an educator in most of its art schools, as lecturer or adjunct instructor. There is no right time or wrong time. As a Zen Buddhist, I do not believe in human time. I am offering an ephemeral space-within-a-space for manifesting the intangible.
You’ve enacted many collaborative projects with diverse groups of people who are not necessarily artists. How do you prepare someone – physically, intellectually, psychologically – who is not an active performance artist for an engagement like Time After Us?
As Rebecca Solnit said in her history of walking, one of my favorite texts, walking is one of the traits that made us human. Everyone walks. I believe that everyone yearns for moments of restful silence and creative solitude. They are a human right. I cannot imagine discerning one’s individual or collective future, in terms of deep decision-making, without them. And slowness. One needs to protect moments of slowness. I believe that these basic yearnings are found within and shared by all human beings. My performance trainings simply name them, identify them, and encourage them out of bodies. I work like a midwife, unleashing remarkable human potential.
Flux, Ernesto Pujol with Jeffrey Baykal-Rollins & the Silsila Collective, Istanbul Modern, Turkey, 2013 (Photo by SC)
This summer, you choreographed FLUX at the Istanbul Modern Art Museum, a “reflection about our collective future,” in collaboration with Jeffrey Baykal-Rollins and the Silsila Collective. This, of course, was taking place at the same time as the Gezi Park protests, during which the Istanbul public was also making a major push for their collective future. How do you feel this work resonated with this major cultural movement? What “publics” did it tap into?
That was the second of two performances Jeffrey Baykal-Rollins asked me to collaborate on. We initially met in New York, where he did an internship with me one summer, at the end of which I strongly encouraged him to found a performance group in Istanbul. Turkey is undergoing great political changes. Its hybrid democratic tradition is under threat. The Turkish people are seeking many interventions and I was happy to support the use of metaphor in this cause. The silent group performance took place in the courtyard of Istanbul Modern. Many people came, professionals and students, young and old. They read through our encoded language and understood quite clearly that we were mourning the recent and ongoing violence, seeking to uphold the best of the Ottoman past, while also cathartically releasing anger and frustration, and finally finding a moment of rest before disappearing into their uncertain future. I experienced a humbling gratitude for being allowed to contribute my voice to the nation.
Baltimore-born, and now, New York City-based, artist Chris Stain has been making use of the built environment as his canvas since the 1980s. His work stems from the simple printmaking method of hand-cut stencils, reflecting inner-city and working class themes, and relating closely to his own upbringing in Baltimore. Stain’s characteristic large-scale murals evolved out of his practice as a graffiti writer, and stand today as a kind of contemporary nod to WPA-era portraiture, featuring the faces and plights of everyday people in all of their affecting, confrontational realism.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
When did you start writing graffiti?
I started writing when I was eleven, right after I saw the movie Beat Street and picked up a copy of Subway Art. My first tag was SAVAGE. But it was long and I couldn’t get it to flow in the Baltimore handstyle standard that was set by Billy ZEK TST/GS, so one year later I started writing STAIN.
Your work comes together through a characteristic stenciling and projection process. It’s very precise work. When you’re planning a mural, how much do you plan ahead?
I like to check out the neighborhood first and see what type of demographic is present. To me it’s important to take into account who lives there and how they might feel about the mural. Of course you can’t please everyone. Based on that information I come up with images that seem to fit. I start out with one or more central figures, then I add elements of urban landscape to tie it together. I have a variety of transparencies that I can experiment with until I get the feel I am looking for.
Because you’re using a projector to throw your images onto the site of your work, I assume this means that you can really only work at night. Was this a process you decided on because you prefer to work under the cover of night?
Working with the projector is just quicker for me. I can get an outline up in no time and come back the next day to add color. The older I get the harder it is to stay up all night painting then get up early the next day to fulfill my obligations. The other option is to cut huge stencils out of paper, cardboard, or plastic and paint the mural that way. Its very time consuming for me to work like that and I don’t have the freedom that working free hand allows.
You very clearly favor storytelling in your work, often spotlighting culturally disadvantaged, underrepresented individuals and urban landscapes. What is the narrative yarn you’re spinning?
In some ways it’s biographical, somewhat nostalgic, and in others I feel like the children’s book author Ezra Jack Keats just telling stories about inner city kids and common folk.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
How do you think about the relationship between image and text?
Together they give the observer more of a complete picture. Coming from a graffiti background I have always had a relationship with letters. In fact I first began to notice letters while spending time with my grandfather as a child. He carved his name, “ George Kelso,” into all of his tools in script and painted everything red. My mother use to say “If you stand still long enough, Poppie will paint you red.”
Many of your murals include portraits. How do you select specific individuals as subjects?
I look for emotions in the person’s face that I can relate to. One of my favorites is the boy on the bike. He is just staring out into the distance, sitting on his bike. From the image I get a sense of being on your own looking around for the next adventure; the kind of experiences you have at that age.
Image courtesy Chris Stain
Are all of your projects done with permission?
Yes. But even with permission and a signed and dated permit in NYC, you will be harassed. At one wall in Brooklyn I actually had the owner with me and the police wouldn’t let up. I was interrupted six times by different officers in one night while working legally. After they saw the permit they prodded me for information just wanting to see if I knew any of the graffiti writers they were looking for.
There’s a particular kind of learning that happens through the passing down of knowledge in graffiti crews. You hang around, observe, practice, socialize. It’s all part of the process. It’s kind of like an urban folk art.
Yes. But that also happens with other art groups right? I am thinking of the Dadaists in particular.
Do you consider yourself self-taught?
As a graffiti artist, yes. I saw it and wanted to learn so I just practiced and practiced. I Hunted down publications, album covers, recorded music videos with the slightest hint of writing, like the Rolling Stones video “Waiting on a Friend” where for a brief second there is a Futura 2000 tag in-between some wheatpasted Stones advertisement. It sounds crazy but it was the creative spark that I was so attracted to that came by way of graffiti for me. I actually haven’t painted any lettering in quite some time. I miss it but there is a certain energy to it that I haven’t been able to fully embrace in the past few years and that has held me back. I learned stenciling as a part of the screen printing process back in high school in ‘86 or ‘87. Somewhere around 1998 I recalled that process when I was trying to work more figuratively. At that time I was very inspired by the work of Kathe Kollwitz and wanted to draw like her but I couldn’t and didn’t have the time to make the effort. Stenciling allowed me to work quickly and accurately while capturing the emotion of the photograph.
And, now you’re an art teacher. How do you approach teaching?
I just try to share what I have learned and experienced. Graffiti, despite its negative connotations, was and still is my gateway to a broader world of self-expression and creativity. So in the classroom I first talk about my experience and how that ties into the various avenues of art. If it wasn’t for graffiti the majority of the artwork I now appreciate would not make as much sense because I now understand the importance of having enough passion to dedicate so much time, what to speak of your personal freedom, to making art.
This is the second year in a row that you’ve been to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center through a partnership with the Wooster Collective for The Sheboygan Project. That means the city of Sheboygan now boasts two Chris Stain murals. What was the experience like?
The good folks at the Wooster Collective and The Kohler Arts Center have been very supportive and I have to say thank you again to everyone involved. The arts center is a gold mine for vernacular art. This year I was given a special tour into their collections. It’s one thing to see the work in a book but to see it in person, it radiates the artists mood and emotion much more. So I was blown away by the experience. The work housed in their collection by the likes of Emory Blagden and Eugene Von Bruchenhein, reveal creativity in a very pure form in my opinion. As far as my work there, last year I taught a stencil class and painted a mural. This year some of the people I met prior returned to help out on a large 40 x 20 foot mural on an underpass. It’s nice to be able to share work and the process but even better when people take something away from it to the point that they begin the practice themselves.
Photo by Caroline Voagen
How have you seen graffiti change since you started in the 80’s? Do you differentiate graffiti from what is now being called “street art?”
In one sense it’s all art but there are different energies to what is known as “graffiti,” mostly lettering based primarily using aerosol paint, and “street art” which runs the gamut of various mediums. As for the letter-based movement, it has changed quite a bit since the 80’s. Technically, its reached levels unimagined back then through the help of all the newer spray paints on the market with lower pressure and cap options. The introduction of the internet helped styles develop more rapidly as it was easier to access photos from all over the world, get new ideas, and spark creativity.
Can you talk a bit about the translation of graffiti and street murals into the gallery and museum context. As artists who typically use the street as their canvas move their work indoors, it seems to me that there is a very different kind of relationship to and experience of the work – for both the artist and the audience.
Again it comes down to the energy that goes into it. You can compare it to running. If you go running one morning in the park as your daily exercise it’s one type of experience of running. On the other hand if you are being chased and you have to run from danger it’s another type of experience of running, with different emotions and intensity. Both involve a need to accomplish the task but the energy and emotion that go into each are slightly different and produce different results.