During my first visit to Signal-Return, a letterpress print shop and exhibition space opened last fall in Detroit’s Eastern Market, I had strangest inkling of déjà vu. Not déjà vu in the traditional sense of having been there before; but rather, I was struck by the distinct feeling that the workshop, antiquated presses, and even the intern sorting type, had been in that location for decades or perhaps even centuries. Indeed, Signal-Return falls in the robust tradition of Detroit-based artisanal print houses. The independent press is rooted in the early-twentieth century Arts and Crafts Movement when studios such as the Cranbrook Press, (1902), were established in the tradition of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. The small press phenomenon continued into the latter part of century by those seeking to harness the revolutionary potential of the media. Most notably, the Detroit Artists’ Workshop, a multimedia collective that produced an array of printed matter, opened in November 1964—exactly 47 years before Signal-Return unveiled itself to the public.
Where Signal-Return deviates from its predecessors is in the organization’s four principles: teach, serve, connect, and produce. Beyond defining itself as a functioning print shop that caters to projects ranging from wedding invitations to artist’s books, Signal-Return operates as a laboratory and archive, offering hands-on participatory experimentation that simultaneously preserves, honors, and hybridizes the materials and methods of traditional letterpress printing. Further, in mere months, Signal-Return has become a hub where makers, creative producers, educators, and enthusiasts have come together to create work and exchange ideas. In essence, the workshop functions as a network of networks, cultivating new connections, conversations, and communities that otherwise wouldn’t have the context to engage. At Signal-Return, the potential of printed matter to serve as a democratic medium extends beyond the materiality of the page to disseminate through discourse and, (dare I say), intertext. The workshop has some thrilling projects in the works that will be the product of numerous thinkers, activists, and creative workers, engaging with the conditions and reimagining the mythology of here-and-now Detroit.
Signal-Return co-founder Megan O’Connell currently serves as the non-profit’s director, curator, chief development officer, outreach coordinator, and designer. She describes herself an unabashed typophyle, and in lieu of the term “printmaker” she has adopted the ethos of the “press”—a tool, process, product, and metaphor that creates any kind of imprint. I spoke with O’Connell at Signal-Return in Detroit’s Eastern Market on printed matter and its twenty-first century incarnations and aspirations.
Megan O’Connell A printing press, as a shaper of culture and dispatcher of narratives, continually reflects back its context, even after the fact of its existence. It provides a portal into the ideals, structures, priorities, production modes, economies, and material assets of a particular time and place. As a newly-forged initiative, Signal-Return–a letterpress workshop–is a site for the incubation of ideas and a promulgator of traditional and hybrid printing methods.
By design, both physically and philosophically, the project is porous. It showcases a range of presses, an extensive library of fonts of type [acquired from area print shops updating to digital publishing], a retail/gallery area, and an archive. Essentially, it reveals the back-end of production to anyone walking through the doors while offering easy contact with output of the press. The skillful melding of all aspects of the space is the work of designer Christian Unverzagt of M1/DTW, whose printed matter now comprises an on-site solo exhibition titled Artifacts and Identities. He immediately grasped what to leave raw and what to transform in our 3,000 square foot space, striking a balance between old and new. I walked out of our first charette practically pinching myself—it was uncanny to sense a typophile/designer shaping the space and imbuing it with an unfaltering logic.
In assuming the directorship of a press that serves as a cultural beacon in an economically vulnerable, post-industrial city, I am responsible for telling myriad stories. The press is a conduit for this time and place: residents long to see something created and circulated. Detroit was once a major printing hub, with many of its talented students learning the trade in High School and continuing onto life-long careers, so it is natural that there is synergy around our workshop. I have to acknowledge, too, the interest in the mythology of the city stemming from places beyond the city is far-reaching. There’s something that captivates people’s imaginations, whether they are in Berlin, Brooklyn, or Boulder, when they witness resources being re-directed, new forms of collaboration emerging, and a thoughtful reweaving of social fabric. The press is a model for this, and we intend to claim these phenomena and give them voice while the focus stays on Detroit. On a very basic level, we are sparking curiosity and inviting participation from those within and beyond the city.
SMP: Who are your clients? Are they specifically artists or have you reached a wider public, and what sort of work has Signal-Return been producing?
MO’C: As of yet, there is no template for any of our jobs: we’ve kept our operations fluid, producing for both individuals and organizations. We get walk-in clients nearly every day, and it gives me deep pleasure to watch someone navigate the space and then proclaim “I want you to make _______ for me–can you do that?” We support them by helping to dream up a format, source materials, and select typefaces and color palettes. We quote out the job, and then, if given the green light, we realize the project. This might apply to a firefighter who has been promoted and needs new business cards, to an organizer of a seed saving project at a nearby Senior center seeking custom envelopes, to a poet looking to publish a chapbook, to a gallery director ordering an entire kit for an upcoming exhibition. It’s a way to honor our community, amplifying what’s happening here without defaulting to the simplistic ‘Go Detroit!’ response.
Conversations are underway with noteworthy writers, artists, curators, and collectors to yield various projects through Signal-Return. There is excitement about what have done to accrue currency in the art world, having produced for The Detroit Institute of Art, MOCAD, Mark Dion, Alison Knowles, and Etienne Turpin, fellow at the Taubman School of Architecture. We plan to serve as the publishing arm for Market Studio Kitchen/Detroit Emergent Futures Lab, opening this summer in our neighborhood. We are partnering with InsideOut Literary Arts Project to promote writers through the 4×5 reading series. Fritz Haeg, who will be working with and eventually disseminating the research of Wayne State University students in the fall, will look to us to produce print-based work. Plus, one of our staff has arranged for a curator from Paris to spend the bulk of August setting up our archive and a special exhibition. Our enthusiasm about these prospects borders on the uncontainable!
SMP: The 20th century print has such a lengthy, complicated, and politicized history: mechanical reproduction, the broadside, collage, pastiche, and even ‘zines and the revival of the local artisanal press. How are you expanding the concept of printmaking in the 21st century? Are you integrating new materials, practices, and discourses into your project?
MO’C As the 21st century advances, practitioners are concerned with how their work can confirm, provoke, surprise, or undermine one’s expectations. This, for the most part, remains media-specific and context reliant. The print, however, just might possess a bit more latitude to ‘show up’ in new contexts and to spur us into action. I think this is where its power lies.
Some of my hero-producers are those early progenitors of pamphlets, broadsides, posters, theater, and actions that readily dismantled old forms to cultivate new systems: the Russian Constructivists, Dadaists, and Futurists being the primary models. Based on what I have seen in the past, I cannot predict what the press and its products will look like a year from now, a decade from now, or even farther into the future. It stands as an open proposition.
SMP: It seems to me that by rooting your practice in the press, or a mechanized process, you are evoking the language of industry, but also the craft workshop. Is this an intentional?
MO’C: It’s impossible to be in a city like Detroit and to not consider what “industry” has meant. There’s a palpable point of pride around the scope and caliber of what has proliferated in this place: I find it awe-inspiring. I’m apprehensive about attaching any sentimentality to the idea of the printing press, and will circumvent a melancholy lament of what craft once ‘was’. Rather, the press holds potentiality while providing a tangible connection with the past. A printing operation of Signal-Return’s scale will never match the standards of industry, but it can serve as a cue for what was once there. If I had to choose, I would say that the qualities of our press are related more closely to the idea of workshop than factory.
SMP: What is your relationship to the digital?
MO’C: An epiphany that I had early on as a producer was that there is something very powerful in being able to see every aspect of a book’s production through–from beginning to end–and that limitations imposed through non-digital means invited me to take risks and problem-solve in ways that would never be invoked by the digital platform. This runs consistent with what I witnessed later on as an educator. As the director of the Typography Lab at the University of Oregon, I found my students craving a kinesthetic relationship to material. Physically laying out type on a galley, imposing and printing forms on the press bed, and collating pages into a book is unrivalled for what it teaches about the totality of an effort—it is a tonic after spending countless hours in front of a computer screen with pretty predictable results, finding yourself pushing ‘print’ again and again until you get it right. The habituation of designing with a computer can train us to rely on default settings and severely limits the range of what might get produced.
The flipside is that if one understands the nuances of analogue typesetting, it is possible to invest nearly the same degree of attention into a digitally typeset composition. One of the ways we can cross platforms from pixels to the ‘real’ is through custom photoengraved plates. They are produced type-high, so printing from them yields a look and feel that bears much the same aura of authenticity of a hand-set piece, but allows for more flexibility than traditional compositing.
SMP: What role does preservation play at Signal-Return, or do you place more emphasis on modifying and hybridizing traditional tools and practices for a new generation makers and audiences?
MO’C: There are four principles at Signal-Return: Teach, Serve, Connect, and Produce. I feel almost ready to add a fifth, which is to Steward, because this equipment, wood type, and all of the tools and materials you see here are only preserved if they’re actively being used. Wood type will get dry, cracked, and will become unusable if it’s stowed away, and, obviously, the presses need to run in order to stay viable. Thus, the stewardship piece is becoming clearer to me.
SMP: What are some of the projects that made you most excited?
MO’C: Friso Wiersum, an historian-in-residence in Detroit through Expodium, a collective based in Utrecht, came in [to Signal-Return] before we had officially opened. He was doing research on Detroit—taking photos, logging journal entries, writing a blog, etc., while comparing his perceptions to those of his father, also from The Netherlands, who happened to live in Detroit as an exchange student in 1964. Over time, in collaboration with the Wiersums, I distilled the ‘findings’ down into a simple folded poster/artist’s multiple titled Clearly Not All About Detroit, pt. III. It is emblematic of a conversation that could only happen here. On a modest scale, I’ve been able to bring focus to their dual stays in this city—what the elder chronicled and what the son reassessed 47 years later. This publication, the first bearing the Signal-Return imprint, was released simultaneously in Europe and the U.S. Plans are afoot to circulate it in Berlin, Athens, Toronto, and NYC.
Amongst other thrilling things we’ve produced are the Salon, Book, and Bread evenings, which consist of a three-course dinner followed by instruction in binding a monastery-style book led by Leon Johnson. Novelists, journalists, artists, advertisers, film makers, chefs, small business owners, contractors, students, and teachers who gather provide a sweeping look at what others are making, thinking, and aspiring to. Participants are invited back for drop-in bookbinding hours on the weekends, so it’s helped to build a critical mass of some of the brightest and most motivated denizens of the city. They are all stakeholders at the press.
photo courtesy of Jamie Schafer
SMP: It’s interesting how you’ve taken the mantra of printed matter as a democratic medium and really absorbed this concept into your programming and overall methodology. It’s not necessarily about your way of working—the processes and materials of production, but rather, about bringing together a multiplicity of voices to really initiate a new dialogue.
MO’C: Essentially it’s about what it means to be human—part of a community, connected by language and participating in the transformation of the here-and-now. I don’t know of many other sites where this can happen. People tend to feel comfortable here. We seek to flatten hierarchies and allow the possibility for the participant to become the teacher, the intern to be the curator, and the person cranking the press to stand as a voice of the organization. All of that flow strengthens our case, performs what is important to us, and gives the opportunity to share ownership. There’s this sense of: what might I do? It’s a catalyst for creative people to claim some inspiration, and start firing on all cylinders.
There’s much to celebrate, much to be disappointed in, and much to compel us to throw our arms up about. To craft something that uses the resources at hand to the best of our abilities is ultimately the aim here. At Signal-Return, we shed light on the complexities of what it is to live in this city rife with struggle, without tamping them down or diminishing their import. I guess you could say it is an empathic and evolving project.
Signal Return’s second exhibition, M1/DTW: Artifacts and Identities, opens this Friday April 6, 6-9pm, and will continue through June 9, 2012. This exhibition will survey the work of Christian Unverzagt, director of M1/DTW design studio and architect of Signal-Return. Artifacts and Identities demonstrates the ways in which Unverzagt’s print work traverses myriad graphic qualities and uses, reveling in manifold material options and formats. The exhibition will feature a survey of work including books, cards, press sheets, posters, and other ephemera from a range of projects including those that are long out-of-print. Signal-Return’s retail storefront will carry more than one dozen titles designed by the studio, and a limited edition letterpress printed poster of the exhibition will also be available for purchase. On April 18, 7pm, Unverzagt will deliver a presentation in conjunction with the show.
Addendum: Since this article was published, Megan O’Connell has left Signal-Return to start a new venture, Salt & Cedar, in Detroit’s Eastern Market. Salt & Cedar is a letterpress studio producing custom invitations, calling cards, stationery, booklets, and posters. Their workshops, led by renowned instructors, include traditional and experimental printing, ‘zine making, book structures, and paper making. Within the 3,000 square foot space, farm-to-table food events, a pop-up cinema, exhibitions, dinner theaters, readings, design lectures, and special curricular offerings are slated with a diversity of cultural partners.
Salt & Cedar is located at 2448 Riopelle Street in Detroit. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 8, 2011 · Print This Article
Leon Johnson is an artist and educator whose practice traverses poetry and performance, film and food. He is an avid researcher into the multifaceted nature of social relations, and seeks to engage with the world at large by cultivating situations that emerge out of myth and (re)enactment. If forced to fix a label to the liquid ebbs of Leon’s creative work, I’d have to take a cue from Liam Gillick, (episode 220), and describe it as discursive practice—a method of art making that involves the dissemination of information, and it looks to the structures that underscore the sharing of ideas as a space of productive art practice. Operating within the discursive framework allows Leon to go beyond the scripted role of reflecting, generating, or denying a problem in his work. Rather, it allows for problems to be projected within concrete, albeit temporary realities, which become situation-specific sites for ongoing interaction.
In essence, Leon is engaged in “the creation of new zones of intimacy and social possibility,” (to borrow from Okwui Enwezor), and he achieves this through installation, performance, video, photography, print media, and the production of discrete objects. Most recently, Leon orchestrated interactive spectacles in Detroit and New York, and he is currently working on a three-part film that will be shot in three locations. Leon is the operating Chair of the Department of Fine Arts at the College for Creative Studies in downtown Detroit, and is an aspiring beekeeper. We spoke over the course of the summer by email.
Discussed: Failure, problem-production, armies of unprepared debtors, beehives, Gatsby, Homi Bhabha, Naked Lunch, pleasure producing exploration
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I’ve heard you mention that failure is a place to begin creative labor. Can you articulate on that statement, and express how it might relate to your current practice?
Leon Johnson: In that unholy mix of intention, aspiration, reference, mimicry, parody, pastiche, mastery – an alloy that forms the foundation for many of our creative embarkations – we can, at best, produce an iteration of where we have already been, or someone else has already been – there is in failure the possibility for emotional contagion, produced by a not-knowing, and a non-recognition. Here is where the body’s imagination takes over, and creative galavanting for pleasure begins. Failure is where problems worth having are incubated. Where am I? Today? This moment? What have I left behind? Left out? Left in? What scares me? What in the work has activated my emotional curiosity?
SMP: If I’m understanding correctly, you envision creative possibility in the failure to communicate—it is where the systems of language, knowledge, reference and affect dissolve, where compelling work can be realized?
LJ: No, I am not a concerned about failing to communicate – that is never an aspiration of mine, to have people “understand” – but I am conscious of when “what I know” can no longer serve the act of creation – I am seeking for “not-knowing” to take over and lead me into new possibilities, new problems. Communicating, if at all, through process and problem-production rather than product and solution-production.
SMP: This notion of problem production—is this where mimicry, parody and pastiche are incorporated into your work?
LJ: No, it is where I hope to avoid those kinds of reflexes. The kind of traps one sees MFA art students lining up to dive in! Our job should be, in fact, the incubation of variables, and the production of difference. This suggests incredibly vivid spaces of making and learning, if we keep our processes porous and our conversations healthy and emergent via constant engagement. Sarat Maharaj states it beautifully:
“As we cannot quite know beforehand what form this will take–each instance is different and unpredictable–we have to be wary about attempts to regulate artistic research, to knock it into shape of the academic disciplines, to make it a lookalike of their logic and architecture. What matters today is its ‘difference’–the distinctive modalities of its knowledge production.”
For the most part art schools are habituated through non-distinctive modalities of knowledge production, and mimicry, parody and pastiche are set as default containment areas as institutions go about their primary business: the production of armies unprepared debtors.
SMP: These “non-distinctive modalities” have been so fundamental to theories of postmodern/postcolonial cultural production, and historically, have been related to difference in the deconstructuralist sense. How can the academia cultivate thinking and producing beyond the postmodern when that structure is indeed the default?
LJ: Students, faculty and administration have to be partners in, at least initially, de-stabilizing the default mechanisms of art history, notions of mastery, and the departmental silo system. We have to migrate across departmental boundaries often and pleasurably. We have to conjure new and exciting alliances – as mentioned above, more creative gallivanting for pleasure! Here, for example, it is critical that the art school be passionately engaged with the city of Detroit – with other artists and institutions, yes – but also with the urban prairie, the people and communities of the city, with gardens and with beehives, with retired auto-workers, bacteria and mushrooms, and all the other remarkable resources around us. Our world of ideas, and relationships, is infinitely richer than a few square blocks in Chelsea.
SMP: I’ve been interested in Nicholas Bourriaud’s recent thinking on what he has termed precariousness, which, (borrowing from Zygmunt Bauman), refers to the liquidity of contemporary social life, and the fundamental instability that is integral to compelling works of art. In a recent essay, Bourriaud wrote: “A precarious regime of aesthetics is developing, based on speed, intermittence, blurring and fragility… The contemporary artwork does not rightfully occupy a position in a field, but presents itself as an object of negotiation, caught up in a cross-border trade which confronts different disciplines, traditions or concepts. It is this ontological precariousness that is the foundation of contemporary aesthetics.” Thoughts?
LJ: For me the speed and complexity of contemporary communications, that produce uncanny new alliances, destabilizes the suggestion by Bourriaud of an order, or an aesthetic location, called “precariousness” – an artist like Vik Muniz and a project like Wasteland convinces me of that. Bracha Ettinger, moving beyond the defaults of empathy and sympathy, calls it “besidedness” – fabulous, no? – that conjures the potential of “almost-impossible borderlinks”. This suggest a rather remarkable notion of what the “classroom”, the “studio”, or the “city” might be for us.
SMP: I’d like to get a better idea of your process. Was your most recent piece the work featured at Lemberg Gallery this spring? How did this work evolve, and what did it entail?
There were two concurrent projects most recently: the Lemberg project “DEN, PYRE, THORN” and a project titled “I CANNOT BE SAVED WITHOUT YOU” which was part of the Live From Detroit exhibition in NYC, at Fred Torres Collaborations. Both evolved together, both featured a meal for audience/participants, collaboratively produced infrastructure, and both featured variations on performance. The Torres dinner, prepared and served in the gallery, featured a custom built dinner table by Jamie Johnston, hand-blown glassware by Tim Southward and Dave Helm, commissioned dinner-bowls and pewter hardware, and a six-course dinner prepared by a crew of three, Christopher Biddle, Leon Johnson, and Leander Johnson, my son – for twelve guests. This project was initiated finally, after years of gestation, by a fragment of writing I did for a catalog being produced in Canada:
“A tentative intimacy of the kind sketched skillfully by Fitzgerald, as Gatsby regards Daisy; ‘They had never… communicated more profoundly, one with another, than when she brushed silent lips against his coat’s shoulder…’ – but the perfumed damage is not far behind, the sea-moist beard and the bile, the twelve-penny-dagger and the burnt-bone eyeliner.”
I imagined a dinner of intimate irregulars selected from the audience at the exhibition – for a kind of one-night-stand. At the head of the table, it turned out, was Alison Knowles one of the founders of Fluxus, and the author of the IDENTICAL LUNCH project. Amazing! The table with all the detritus, remained on exhibition for the rest of the month of the exhibition.
The Lemberg project marked the 25th anniversary of the death of the French author Jean Genet, and focused on three of his novels, The Thief’s Journal of 1964, Miracle of the Rose of 1966, and Funeral Rites of 1969 – each represented in the gallery by 15 first American editions of each book in a sculptural system including shelves and mirrors. I served a light dinner for 50 audience members, contextualized by a spoken word performance performed by Michael Stone-Richards, Morgan Marentic, and Sound artist, Dan Steadman. The performers were served dinner in custom porcelain dinner systems produced by Marie Perrin-McGraw. The project evolved from my study, and love, of the work of Genet for over 30 years, and in particular his book Funeral Rites written for the author’s lover, Jean Decarnin, killed by the Nazi’s in WWII.
SMP: Could you speak a bit more to your emphasis on multiple-fronts of collaboration?
LJ: I treasure the conversations I am lucky enough to be part of – and I actively seek to incubate new ones all the time. I consider the nurturing of convivial discourse not only pleasurable, but a critical creative act. All my work emerges from these conversations, all production is dependent on collaborative engagements – some 20 years in the making, and some brand new. The process of making work for me relates distinctly to the “performance” of memory, to traversing the space between the past and the future and, ultimately, the ability to then be heard – even by one other. Homi Bhabha puts it this way: “I use the term the right to narrate to signify an act of communication through which the recounting of themes, histories, and records, is part of a process that reveals the transformation of human agency. Narrative is a sign of civic life. Societies that turn their back on the right to narrate are societies of deafening silence: authoritarian societies and police states”. To remember, to imagine, and to speak are all performative domains.
SMP: Bhabha was speaking to a decolonizing world, encouraging metanarrative and hybridity as acts of resistance. Do you conceive of a relationship between the postcolonial and the postindustrial in terms of cultural work?
LJ: If we book-end for a moment, my first twenty years of life unfolded in Cape Town, and my last 15 months in Detroit. Ok! In my cultural labor the experience of the place-after-colony is always twinned – a dual site – the real and the imagined, or the reMEMBERED. The mediating forces between the real and the imagined is my work, often fueled by a vivid on-call-prejudicial-image-index forged in fire, absence, violence and resistance. A strong translation of this for me is the work of William Burroughs, and particularly his novel NAKED LUNCH, and the work done many years ago on this subject by my colleague Peter Playdon. Burroughs describes a market-place called Interzone, which is understood as: “a transitive state, a city resisting total identification either as a vision of a real city or as an allegory of a mental state…neither an inner space nor an outer space…it is a between space, a crossroads at which textuality, alterity, and identity collide.” This dismantling of psychic defenses is imagined as ‘space-time travel’, a process of displacing the unity of the self and its relationship to place into different temporal or physical locations. The relationships between these locations, as social space folds into mental space suggests the production of a performative zone that is simultaneously real, symbolic and imaginary; what it produces is a material environment, a visual culture and a psychic space. I see it as the framework for negotiations I can work out as an artist, as a kind of social actor.
SMP: To what extent are your performances choreographed, and as the maker/maestro, how do you address the element of chance?
LJ: The performances inevitably develop as devised works: meaning the work emerges from other texts, sometimes many sources, and is orchestrated and re-calibrated.
A process described by DJ Spooky: “I guess that’s traveling by synecdoche. It’s a process of sifting through the narrative rubble of a phenomenon, an “indexical present” Like an acrobat drifting through the topologies of codes, glyphs and signs that make up the fabric of my everyday life, I like to flip things around. With a culture based on stuff like Emergency Broadcast Network hyper edited new briefs.”
I will give an example of a work-in-progress. Bruno Abroad will be, finally, a digital video shot in three locations, London, Prague and Naples featuring the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno. Three psycho-geographical drifts through contemporary cities alive with the evidence of both vivid histories and media-saturated “becomings”; three dinners (which reference Bruno’s dialogue, The Ash Wednesday Supper); at each dinner, three groupings of Renaissance visionaries, all victims of the political and religious orders of their time, with Giordano Bruno as principal guide. The three cities are imagined as temporary autonomous zones, Interzones, of radical discourse, ecstatic envisioning, and alchemical resistance. The project concludes in Naples the site of Bruno’s death at the stake on February 17, 1600, in the Campo De’Fiori. This film aspires to track intersecting arcs of power and resistance and is not a historical representation of anything “renaissance” except the politics inherited afterwards. The interests of the Church and the State, in our “renaissance” context, to control discourse and, ultimately, to silence transgression has powerful implications for contemporary culture. It is critical to understand that these voices of knowledge, silenced almost 500 years ago, can resonate powerfully nonetheless. I will attempt to temporarily situate these thinkers in contemporary urban contexts, as trans-time specters in a celebration of the poetics of resistance. While not a “period” piece, it is approaches the form of a multi-plane travelogue. The food, the actors and the locations will be formed and selected in each city – an improvised company – each time, and certainly to a large degree chance-based.
SMP: At what stage are you at with the filming of this work? Do you often use video to unite performances and create a narrative of sorts?
LJ: The skeletal script is complete, permissions to film at certain sites are in place, and the production crew of three is assembled. Then there are the dreams, visions, and psycho-geographical speculations - years of image-accretions, memories of the Nicholas Roeg film Don’t Look Now, conversations with friends and colleagues - that will inevitably seep in once on site, and, happily, displace what is actually there.
SMP: Given the thematic arc of Bruno relating to power and resistance, how do you see contemporary artists addressing the notion of resistance?
LJ: I see people living fully, talking, cooking, making, raising children, growing tomatoes, writing books, being conscious of all the other endeavors of their communities, friends, lovers – lived resistance – I am not compelled by “notions of resistance” practiced by artists or art students.
SMP: Do you mean the notion that it is the artist’s responsibility to create interstices—new spaces of visibility that can serve as sites of resistance?
LJ: I would think demarcating “sites of resistance” would merely make them precious, or targets, or boutiques. Or worse, installations. No, we must do our best work in alliances with convivial constituencies, with cities, ecologies and systems, and without privileging artists and art practices. I would rather have bee-hives in the Eastern Market, than another art interstice.
SMP: You’ve spoken quite a bit about your role as an educator. I’m wondering how your praxis as an educator influences you as a maker, or are the two not exclusive?
LJ: I am influenced directly, intimately, thrillingly. No, not exclusive. Many of the most compelling contemporary creative makers and thinkers understand that 21stC engagement is one, inevitably, of hybrid practices and multi-site conversations, and collaborations. So to, I believe, should the academy be thus engaged. Alas, not so – we still have the discreet silo model, perpetuated by faculty and administrators. Clearly we must foster pedagogical templates that are not only founded on the demands of one’s craft, but also explores an intertwining of trends, debates, and practices in the humanities, sciences, politics, and worlds of commerce and communications. Our place in the world and how we can create meaningful relationships between others and ourselves is the challenge that faces us, and should motivate us to action and certainly to change. Most of this kind of creative labour is happening between students and communities, not between departments and colleges – so yes, this informs the kind of work I want to make directly and, of course, feeds back into my classrooms. The pedagogical imperative for me is to have students understand learning as the conversation that creates our cultures – in real-time, no deferment – participate now. Their lives, loves, and labor defines culture, and culture leads commerce. I wish to operate—and equip our students, citizenry, and colleagues to thrive—at the nexus between art, culture, commerce, and science. I want to support and encourage students to become authors of new subjects in the world: new subjects that celebrate the unique qualities of their relationships and aspirations within families, communities and global networks. An open-ended, porous, responsive and pleasure producing exploration – what an idea for an art school!
SMP: Site seems to be a reoccurring point of engagement in your work. Can you elaborate on your decision to relocate to Detroit and what you find compelling about this locality?
LJ: Your question has been much on my mind at the conclusion of my first year in this remarkable place – or dream, called Detroit. My current thinking? I’m not certain it has to be, any longer, a question of “leaving” in a definitive way, to go somewhere else – maybe it is closer in spirit to expanding, or re-forming. The world offers us an amazing set of options, and technologies, to engage nomadic ways of working and living. It feels simply like matter-expansion, and a very exciting one. My family and I will be triangulating between Maine, Detroit, and New York. The best way to understand this past year might be in my “articles of faith” - the pleasure of working with 45 incoming first-year students over the last three terms – amazing group of citizens – I have produced three complicated projects with a range of collaborators. And in October we open Signal-Return, a storefront press and print shop in the Eastern Market, to be directed by my partner, MeganO’Connell, produced with Team Detroit.
Detroit, past, present, and future, and the opportunity to participate in reinvention and innovation in a field I love. Regarding location, the potential of place has always been a compelling force for me. What can I make of the past, of material history? What is just beyond the visible? What is the space of potential between the claims of the past and the demands of the future? I have made the acts of reading, walking and sensing place, priorities – I was born in Cape Town, remember… complex, volatile, vivid. Detroit looms very large for me.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.