Heather Lynn is a Chicago artist best known for the band Pure Magical Love, the opera Templehead, and running Church of Templehead gallery with her partner, Michael Perkins. Her newest project, Genesis and Nemesis, set to open in September, is a three-act play that blends elements of traditional theater, performance art, video, installation, ritual, music, Reiki, classic special effects, and dance. Staged in an immersive environment, the audience is invited into a post-apocalyptic compound for an experience that is part celebration, part cautionary tale.
Genesis and Nemesis video stills courtesy of the artist.
Although Lynn is the writer and co-director of this piece, and plays the role of Mary Malachai, it is by no means a solo project. The work is being developed in collaboration with a group of Chicago-based artists, musicians, healers, and activists, including Efrén Adkins , Kaycee Conaway, Sky Cubacub, Zach Hebert, José Hernández, Zachary Hutchinson, Veronica Hyde, Andi Jane, Paul Klekner, Bret Koontz, Kalina Malyszko, Sarah Marie, Isabelle McGuire, Ariel Mejia, P. Michael, Michael Perkins, Jon Poindexter, Travis, and Julia Zinn.
In anticipation of this forthcoming production, I sat down with Lynn to ask her a few questions. Imagine a backdrop of shining, multi-patterned tapestries being meticulously constructed from dollar store treasures, mismatched fabrics, glitter, trash, glue. They are beautiful, in an obsessive, maximalist way. Heather and I sit at a small table on chairs she has reupholstered with dark and glittering fabric.
Can you tell me about your background as an artist?
There’s really no one defining thing. I feel like by the time I’m known as “that girl who does that thing,” it’s time to move on. I’m an untrained artist; I dropped out of high school. My only training really is dance, and I think that influences a lot of the way I work. I had my own dance company for a while. When I was younger, I was in this band that got a lot of attention. I went through a phase where I did watercolor paintings. [Now,] people keep asking me how the new opera is going, like “oh, she’s the girl who does the operas.” I believe that the best of us comes out when you’re creating a structure that you need to exist. And for me it’s about changing the context.
How has your dance training influenced other aspects of your practice?
Take ballet: you learn these really repetitive mundane things, but you learn them to shape your body into the type of machine that can make these amazing things. It’s that idea that if you do it every day, you put the work in, that’s what matters. I’m very work-oriented. The work I like best is work where I can see the effort behind it, effort is often more interesting to me than a beautiful result.
My favorite job was when I worked at Fannie Mae. When there was nothing to do, there were just pans and pans of chocolate in back, they all need to go in little white cups. There’s no way you’ll ever get them all done, but there’s always some to do. So you just do it, and it’s about finding pleasure in the task. You can put art into anything you do, even if it’s just a game you play in your head. You do the peasant work, but you act like a goddess.
If my brand is anything, it’s relentless sincerity and hard work. I’m never really worried about anyone ripping me off. What are they going to steal? The hours of intensive work I do myself? The feminism and politics? Please, steal that!
Do you feel like there is a common denominator across your shifts in medium?
Community-based, a lot of work, constantly topping myself, really DIY. Creating my own world. I have a world in my head, and I feel very at odds with the outside world. Another defining thing was sorting out my mental illness—or what we call mental illness. I think a lot of it is just being sensitive in a world that doesn’t stop to acknowledge all the ways it’s fucked up. And [art] is my way of sorting through that and surviving. A lot of my mental health stuff sorted itself out when I started really manifesting the things I see in my head with [the band] Pure Magical Love. I wrote these mythologies that were about expelling certain demons. Everything I do is me trying to be normal, but everything in my head is so crazy it comes out all fantastical.
The way I work it’s usually about transforming something, whether it’s myself, the space I’m in, the pile of garbage into something beautiful to worship. We make choices all the time, every day, and we are constantly transforming things. I like to take control of that—being mindful of the transformations I make.
You do a lot of community work in your gallery, and much of your artistic work is driven by community and social issues. How does that fit into your artistic practice?
I’ve always been really sensitive about social issues. I had a lot of spaces when I was younger where I didn’t feel safe. If you can’t change the world, change what’s in front of your face. For me the biggest tragedy is any living thing unable to follow its own design, and I grieve for all the living things that don’t get to do that. A lot of my work is a response to displacement. Making a space where you can. I feel like for so long no one wanted me to do anything, so just that act of being visible, of taking up space, was very defiant. You’re part of a sexist scene? You’re part of a bunch of shitty stuff? Put more of you in the room than them. There’s this crazy sincerity about what I do, and it makes some people so nervous.
So can you talk a little bit about this new project?
I feel like this is a companion to [the post-apocalyptic opera] Templehead. I didn’t feel done with it. Templehead was about these people who have been displaced. They’re about to go extinct, but they find beauty and meaning when they can. [Genesis] is more about who survives, who benefits, who knows this is gonna happen and doesn’t stop it. People with money access would end up safe. When you’re dealing with money, it becomes abstract, and you’re not thinking about how having an extra three points on your stock is going to affect a town, because you’re not thinking about the community. Money can become a mental illness.
I wanted to reimagine [the Templehead story] where we don’t have to die, and we can evolve to meet the challenges that we’ve created for ourselves. Templehead ended on this sad, bittersweet note. This is going to end on a very uplifting, empowered note. One our collaborators practices Reiki, and at the end we do this ritual spell to activate the entire room. A bunch of people in a room, caring about the same thing, can have a positive impact. That’s kind of what this play’s about: the different gifts we have, how they can come together and fight something.
Where does the title, Genesis and Nemesis, come from? In your work there is often creation and destruction occurring simultaneously, and that title feels like a good encapsulation of that.
In this world in the future, there’s this fable about a boy named Genesis and his sister Nemesis. After the Unrest, they find this beautiful beach with all these minerals that could be used to rebuild the world. He wanted to find people to help them transform the minerals into materials, and she thought the beach was beautiful and wanted to protect it. They fought. He went off to find people, she warned him not to come back or she’d have to kill him. He comes back and she’s dead, she didn’t have anything to eat. It’s this story to instruct people to value the greater good over nature, a way of making people think about things a certain way. [But] Genesis and Nemesis were actually one person, turned into two. The way we remember always has an agenda.
We wouldn’t need to create if there was no destruction. But this is the world I live in, so I create and destroy with equal joy, and I’m very upfront about it. Collapsing the binary, for me that’s what it’s about. I don’t want like a nice story that wraps up neatly, I want a good story where we dig into this shit about ourselves that we’re constantly learning.
At the end of the day, in spite of it being about all this global stuff, it’s really about my journey. I see things that aren’t there, I constantly have to second guess what I’m seeing and feeling, but that actually worked to my advantage, because I’m not afraid to not know. I’m not afraid of what a mess it is; you’re part of the mess. Anyone that says artists shouldn’t be narcissists doesn’t really know what it means to tell yourself that you’re good enough to send something into the world. You have to start with the ego, you have to know what you want for yourself. You start with the things you care about, and it spirals out. I think you connect systems of oppression when you start with yourself.
Looking at the visual aesthetic of the things you make, there’s certainly a sort of controlled chaos.
For me it’s creating new ideas of luxury. Because it’s not all about money. Capitalism wants you to think it is, we have this idea that there’s not enough to go around, and if we want beauty we have to exploit someone, and we think it’s worth it. But you can make something special out of nothing. It doesn’t look like luxury like Versailles, but there’s something elegant about my little reupholstered chairs with my favorite fabric. It’s my own type of luxury, not waiting around for someone to tell me that I can have something nice. I can make nice things. We’ve created such a surplus of bullshit, both physical, emotional mental and it’s time to transform it. That’s where I’m at with this play; I really do have hope for the future. I know because I’m so scared all the time, so I must have hope.
How has this project been collaborative?
Before I fleshed out any of the characters, I got [the performers’] permission to write them into the story. Not to say that every little thing is literally what someone would do, but I really did try to think about giving them choices to naturally commit to. We do a lot of workshopping. Everyone has say. I love this, because it’s a room full of people talking about characters that I wrote, it’s like playing Barbies, but with my brain.
One of the workshops we did, I had everyone come in and tell me: what is it about your character that makes them both awesome, and suck. The thing that makes you awesome is the thing that makes you suck. That’s something with this play I’ve really tried to emphasize: there are no villains. If there’s a villain, it’s a system that is the result of human error. I don’t believe in evil people. I think the minute you’ve decided that someone is just the bad guy, you’re not going to figure anything out. I’m a little nervous about this play, because people want a strong hero and a strong villain, and this isn’t that. There’s definitely a force that needs to be destroyed, and another force that needs to be protected, but you can’t walk away “yeah, these bad guys totally got their asses kicked.”
My friend Sky (Cubacub) is helping with some of the costumes. In the story, I do all these crazy costumes, and I’m not skilled, but people see me doing it they start making these mass-produced really nice costumes. That’s what I feel like I do so often—I’m not really technically good at anything, but people like that I’m obsessed.
And how do the video segments fit in?
There are a few different ways we use them. There are these transmissions that are happening between this giant government that’s in control of everything, and this small group of people in hiding. It’s kind of uncanny… I got this idea for this, and after I started writing it I started hearing about ISIS, and in the months after that they really kind of developed that war through social media.
Working with video is very challenging for me, it’s sort of the opposite of what I do, but I have enjoyed working with video. As a dancer, I’m getting older, my body can’t do all the things it used to do, which is so hard for me to accept because I’m a hundred miles an hour no matter what. But as I can do less, maybe I can make video choreography. I’m interested in exploring it, but I don’t think I’d ever make a straight-up movie. I am really invested in doing work you have to experience live. I think it’s in reaction to the Internet and it being so easy to generate, repost stuff. I want to make things where you have to be there. This has to happen at this point in time because these videos are with these people, these people have busy lives, when this is over we’ll probably never do it again. It has to be seen in person.
Genesis and Nemesis opens in September 2015 at Church of Templehead Gallery in Chicago. More information about the project can be found here and here.
Psychosexual catalog, ANDREW RAFACZ GALLERY, curated by Scott J. Hunter. Rafacz told the T that this catalog is the first in a series, with forthcoming edition for Wendy White’s solo exhibition in September. The catalogs are part of larger initiative to expand and deepen the galleries programming with longer running exhibitions and events like the catalog release and conversation on May 25th.
A “real extension of the show” Rafacz said the book is meant to be a “sexy object,” sporting a lux cover, BUTT magazine-esque pink pages and elaborate typography. Designed by Ryan Swanson, Jason Foumberg‘s diagrammatic essay might be Psychosexual’s sexiest piece. Also includes an essay by Hunter and a great read about a Caravaggio work by Elijah Burger. More information on the Psychosexual catalog here.
Sunday Thoughts, by Clay Hickson. I love seeing Hickson’s “Sunday Thoughts” on my tumblr stream, so I couldn’t be more excited to have the entire collection in the flesh. Sunday Thoughts was recently featured alongside other local, national and maybe even international artists at Johalla Project‘s Artist Book Collection, curated by Nina Hartmann.
Hartmann with the Artist Book Collection at Johalla Projects.
Header image features artwork by Lorraine Duaw from her exhibition NANCY DREW TITAN SAVOR on view now at The Hills Esthetic Center.
Korroch and her husband, Chad Jewsbury, at their Ravenswood apartment.
Oh come on, I know you get your art news from Facebook, too. Click images for stories.
Anthony said it best.
Gallerista‘s Joshua Herrington asks, ‘girl, what is the T?’
Theaster Gates trending even more than normal. Recently my gmail inbox just cannot get enough of Theaster Gates. It keeps going on and on about how Gates has been named the keynote speaker of the One State Together in the Arts conference, and how he inaugrated his new exhibition 13th Ballad at the MCA, or about this well timed interview between him and Elysabeth Alfano. Will my inbox never rest?
Who Wore it Better?
Time Magazine cover and Kate Ruggeri sculpture from 2010. (Stole this from Kate‘s tumblr).
Inspirational art work for the band Black/Black, who performed this weekend at SWAN SONG for LODOS. Art work by Steven Vainberg
Following a preview launch at the closing of 24hours/25days at New Capital, Forever and Always, the joint curatorial venture of Billy Joyce and Brook Sinkinson Withrow debuted at their Pilsen location last Friday night with a screening of Dreamgirl by Sarah Condo work and a musical performance by Younger.
Forever and Always curators Joyce and Withrow by Matthew Joynt
While the Forever and Always main focus is on programming (they have a lecture by Willy Smart scheduled for March 5th), the space features an ongoing “exhibition” of artwork as well. Whether or not this is a clever ploy to decorate the curators’ apartment remains unclear.
“Its not like someone is trying to hide that it’s an apartment. The art is just where it is. It’s like a return to not giving a shit.” – unnamed source (Michael Kloss)
They Won’t Roll Themselves
Can’t get enough irreverent internet in your tumblr digest? Is The Jogging becoming too relevant for your taste? Enter #NYCartlife. Just a couple SAIC to NYC transplants and their NY Advanced Painting analogs posting selfies and bad art history jokes. #thankmelaterorneveritscool
At last weeks opening for #WITH at ACRE Projects, exhibiting artist, Kristina Paabus, introduced What’s the T? to “#SOYEAHDUH” and we are forever grateful. After doing a little researchWTT? learned the blog was created by Wicker Park’s Lisa Frame. Frame is also the creator of “Mugshot-Monday,” which is unfortunately just a bunch of people and their coffee cups.
The legislation furthermore provides this blogger with the perfect context in which to repost the recent Temporary Alliegance flag by h.melt. The installation of the flag pole outside of UIC was concieved by Philip von Zweck and functions as an opportunity for others to exercise freedom of expression.
After slamming several prominent galleries, curators and artists in his article “Friends Curating Friends” for New City, local art critic and curmudgeon, Pedro Velez, took to Facebook last week to gloat over his own accomplishments of curating exhibitions and making artists cry while simultaneously chastising more victims.
LVL3 was unharmed.
Velez’s heart failed to grow three sizes that day.
Terry Myers offeres one of the most not-crazy responses to Velez’s article on the illustrious and longwinded Foumberg thread:
What could Nadar have been thinking when he offered his photography studio for his friends to have their first show in Paris? And what about the activities of all of those friends at the Cabaret Voltaire? Not to mention that pointless “Freeze” show in London. Shocking, but thankfully none of these artists had to call themselves curators.
Terry R Myers
February 5 at 1:28pm (7 likes)
All images taken during the opening of the The Couples show at Heaven Gallery last Friday night, unless obviously from @richforever.
Thorne Brandt & Lindsey Regatta
LVL3 turns 3.
Gallery finally lives up to its name
LVL3 is turning three(3) years old and to celebrate, curators and co-directors, Vincent Uribe and Allison Kilberg, are showing five artists who have been with them from the beginning: Michael Hunter, Paul Kenneth, Easton Miller, Liz Nielsen, and Kate Steciw.
Slow curated a small 7-person exhibition, “miniature GIGANTIC,” for Clutch Gallery. They brought it to Washington D.C. for its official opening.
Last month, I compiled a collection of interviews with a curatorial projects operating in the city of Chicago. In it, Happy Collaborationists, LVL3, New Capital, slow, Roxaboxen, Plaines Project, and Johalla Projects all answer the same four questions, discussing their respective curatorial agendas. I always love to hear the back room story behind spaces, the way administration and practical impasses influence day to day decisions. I would love to post all of them here, but as it is, I’m only going to wet your whistle on this Internet-machine. After all, the interviews were intended to go together. While the resulting zine, “AD HOC,” was available for free in the Bad at Sports booth of the Chicago EXPO, you can download the entire booklet via the following link: EXPO_Bas_pamphlet_for_web. Below I have included an interview from that collection with co-director Paul Hopkin from slow gallery â€” a wonderful space that straddles the line between apartment space andstorefront gallery. At present, slow is exhibiting Benjamin Bellas, Represent the sound outside these spaceswherein”Benjamin performs herculean tasks and shows what is produced by his efforts.” That exhibit is open to the public until November 10th. For information about what they’re up to, the show they have installed in Clutch Gallery (a portable exhibition site in founder Meg Dugid’s purse). Hopkin’s co-director, Jeffrey Grauel is carrying it around at present, and even brought it to Washington DC for its official opening.Â Visit their website here Â and don’t forget, the following interview is just the tip of the ice berg.Â Each of those seven spaces has a interesting and varied way of thinking about their curatorial work.
Clutch at The White House
Caroline Picard: What kind of exhibitions excite you generally?
Paul Hopkin: I like an exhibition that gets under my skin. Art is best when I am not sure whether I like it or not, but I canâ€™t stop thinking about it. I always try to get artists to present work in ways they would be less likely to without me, or the kind of space I run. That means pairing people who otherwise would not be paired, encouraging a new direction in the work or taking more risks in its presentation. I have been really lucky to have worked with a lot of really fantastic artists, but I have two favorite shows: one was called the low down and featured the work of Jeffrey Grauel, Caroline Allison, and Danica Favorito. Jeffrey covered all the windows with panels of crocheted video tape. It brought a darkness to the space â€” clearly because it was a sort of blackout curtain, but it also just pushed its presence into the space generating a kind of tension. Well, the fact that you also walked straight into a slowly spinning baseball bat maybe helped that a little too. I also really loved the play between Carolineâ€™s gorgeously printed and beautifully framed photos with Danicaâ€™s that were off her junky inkjet she had at home, wrinkled and hung with obvious pieces of masking tape. I think one of Danicaâ€™s photos had a coffee stain on it.
The second show was last spring, titled, it ainâ€™t over. Brent Garbowski and Joe Mault collaborated on this work that was not just designed for the space, but for people who come to it, for me. There was a kind of specificity to the work that was truly remarkable. They cut down a power pole and lay it down on the floor so that it cut through the gallery, through the entrance of my apartment and ran alongside my bed. They fabricated a swing arm with the familiar arch of a streetlight, so that the bulb illuminated my bed, complete with the way-too-bright light of an outdoor fixture. They are in the process of installing parts of that pole in another space and it is becoming a wholly different work. I also love that I got Barbara DeGenevieve to make work that was really light-hearted. I was really excited that she, one of my more established artists, was excited to work with Brent and Joe, two boys still in undergrad.
it ainâ€™t over, installation shot, April 2012
CP: Do you have a particular story about what the back-end of your space is like? Something perhaps indicative of your administrative process?Â
PH: I would probably not be running a gallery if there were no separation between my private apartment and the storefront gallery. It is funny to me now, but I thought I wanted to keep people in the public space and keep my home out of the mix. A couple of shows into it I just realized it was ridiculous â€” it was more comfortable to use my home as the space to hang out in. If I havenâ€™t swept the floor in my apartment and there is an opening, I just let it happen anyway. â€œYâ€™all come to see the work and enjoy a beverage. Hell, some of you seem comforted that there are little mounds of my dogâ€™s hair everywhere.â€
I made a rule â€” if I find you difficult to work with, it is not worth it to me. I will also not work with you if I donâ€™t trust you to be alone in my home. I do this because I love it, and it is important for me to continue loving it. I have only had a few conflicts, and I hope I have resolved them well. Most of the artists I have worked with have truly been a pleasure. Not that there is never stress; stress is part of getting something worthwhile to happen. But the artists I have worked with have been helpful, resourceful, and interested in having good shows. I have been thrilled to see it work that way. I have had artists who have shown in my space just jump in and help with practical chores even when it is not their show.
I keep a running list of artists that interest me. Some, I check in with from time to time. I throw ideas around, often in casual conversations with friends. Just keep at things until an idea clicks. Then I approach the artists. Sometimes that doesnâ€™t work out and it means I have to start again. Maybe an artist is unavailable, or sometimes just not into the idea. I usually have three or four studio visits with each artist leading up to a show and I always run my show ideas by Jeffrey Grauel, my co-director.
The biggest practical decision I make is to avoid shipping work. I have done it, and it has worked, but I mostly show Chicago folks. I find the practical matters to be a part of the scene, so working within the resources and space I have is a part of the fun. I donâ€™t choose in a terribly practical fashion. I mean I had a power pole hovering over my bed for two months, and I let a performer live in my space drunk for a week.
I write for every show. It brings clarity about the show and why I put the artists together in the first place, and it helps the artists understand it too. When I get it right, the writing also helps generate some interest in the shows. But I try to avoid describing the work. I want to generate experience with the work on its own terms. I have my ideas, but I donâ€™ t ever want to impose them on the work in a way that overshadows the work itself. I donâ€™t have my writing in the space at all during a show. It resides on the internet on purpose.
I donâ€™t understand your question about, â€œengaging a public audienceâ€â€” I mean, people come; the events are, in some direct way, public. It is a bit of a mystery to me that I engage a consistent crowd of undergraduate artists, and a consistent crowd of adults who have been out of school for a good long while, whereas I donâ€™t draw a ton of graduate students. It is a little frustrating to me, because critical attention has a way of following the interests of those grad students. But I think the shows at slow are better than that. And not that the projects havenâ€™t received attention, because they have. But sometimes I still feel like slow is a secret. I have had a couple of grad students tell me straight up that it doesnâ€™t seem like a place where they can figure how to get in â€”and if it doesnâ€™t present them with opportunities then they donâ€™t get invested in the space. The funny thing to me is that it can present them with showing opportunities. And then thereâ€™s the flip side of the same question: what good does it do for anyone if the venue will show anything that comes along? Editing, some kind of vision and hierarchy, seem to facilitate better things all the way around. I guess I am still figuring out some things, and those artists are too. But I want to maintain a kind of criticality, a kind of rigor, and I donâ€™t mind that there are interesting artists who remain outside my radar.
CP: Do you think non-traditional sites for exhibition are important?
PH: Important is a funny word. Curators that work in canonized venues rely on the rest of us to decide what is worth thinking about, worth seeing. But what burbles to the top is just that; it is the thing that garnered attention. Local food and local art â€” you know? A lot of the best stuff will remain unknown to most, and that is why we visit the places that produce locally. It isnâ€™t so much thatÂ that venues like mine are important, but we do a kind of work that isnâ€™t done by important venues. Not so long ago Hamza Walker spoke very directly about waiting in the wings until a certain few venues have chosen first to pay attention to an artist, or to a new kind of approach. I think it is common for important critics and curators to wait and see what the lesser of us do. If a non-traditional venue bites on a new hook, and the results are well received, it can move through a system and become important. But I want to work from a messier place that is full of risk and opportunity. I love to play with ideas on their own terms. I love the heady space of â€œwhy the hell notâ€ and â€œitâ€™s about time.â€ That can happen when there is no bureaucracy. I can risk a big failure because nothing so terrible happens when I do fail. The payoff can be so much more satisfying when it comes from that sort of space. It isnâ€™t all just freedom and light, but it is so much closer to the fantasy of how the art world works. I support what strikes me, what feels ignored or absent from the scene, but nevertheless compelling. I hope to bring a critical eye to my part of the art world in a time where criticality is threatened and disappearing.
The television show The Wire changed how I think about storytelling. You get such a deep version of a really compelling story if you see the entire 5 year arch of the show. Artists usually work more like the storytelling in The Wire than in, say, Gilliganâ€™s Island. But we tend to see work that is from the fresh young thing just out of school. Or the work that has become important in the meantime. We see the same details, the same place in the storyline, repeated over and over. It is set up in this way that we think we are seeing a serial, but weâ€™re really seeing one or two pieces of a story set on constant repeat. But there is so much more happening than either of those snippets. And I get to pay some attention to work in a way that has a different piece of the puzzle precisely because I do not aspire to become important as a venue.
Importance is overrated.
CP: What are some administrative influences and how have they colored your own approach to running a space?
PH: Artists need good opportunities to exhibit. I feel privileged to have such a big part of my own creative process that functions through the work other artists have made. I try to make the work and the show the focus of the experience. As much as I have a point of view in this, I want that to support the artistâ€™s work, and not the other way around. I have worked as an administrator in several other capacities, and what everyone seems to want is freedom to choose things that have an importance, and for the things that arenâ€™t valued by the individual to just disappear, to be done by elves. I work to make everything simple, approachable, and pleasant for the artists. If I canâ€™t be the elf, I let them know. But if I can make something easier, I certainly will. My structure, my approach, is built on the philosophy that this will be what I want it to be, and what the artists want it to be, as much as possible. This is the place where you can ask to do anything, and it is a simple conversation. I am very aware that I am not an institution. I am not aspiring to be a lucrative business. I am opinionated, invested in fearless and sometimes transgressive art, I have a sense of humor, I have a sense of style, I am social and chatty, I enjoy a good beverage with friends, and I am intellectually motivated. I try to structure the shows to take advantage of all those qualities.
X.V.:ATLAS currently exhibiting at the Perry & Marty Granoff Center for the Arts at Brown University
Often art spaces emerge in response to rumbling (and specific) undercurrents in a given community. InÂ the Artists Run Chicago Digest â€” a book I put together with threewalls that examines artist-run art spaces in Chicag0 between 1999 and 2009â€”Â almost every interview conducted with gallery founders talk about how they opened a space because of some recognized lack. Miguel Cortez, for instance, when asked about why he started Antenna Gallery said, “Chicago has long had a history of ‘do-it-yourself’ art spaces and I felt that the Pilsen neighborhood was lacking in contemporary art spaces. I have seen alt. spaces come and go in the Pilsen neighborhood over the years. So I reopened a space on my own after Polvo closed.” In almost every case, founders feelsÂ something noticeably underrepresented â€” nine times out of ten it’s “good art” â€” and suddenly they takes it upon themselves to fill the niche. In this way, artist-run spaces create corner stones in an ongoing (and usually undocumented) conversation. Very often, whether as an unintended biproduct or a focused agenda, they reflect back on aesthetic, political and economic issues of a geographical local. Providence of course is no different. In the following interview I talk with co-founder and organizer of RK Projects, Tabitha Piseno. RK Projects is a nomadic, contemporary, non-commercial gallery. Each curated exhibit creates a dynamic and reciprocal interrogation between contemporary art work by local artists and the (often unused) architectural site it inhabits. At the moment, RK Projects has a show, “ATLAS” with work by X.V. installed at the Granoff Center in Brown University. You can download the digital album the artist made to be released in conjunction with the exhibition here.
Caroline Picard: What is your background and how did RK Projects start?
Tabitha Piseno:Â My partner, Sam Keller, and I started RK Projects in October 2010, a few months after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. While living in Providence, we had always been intrigued by the architecture of the city, the sense of its history, and how the urban layout of the city represented, or informed rather, the presiding social dynamics and economic development.
After making the decision to remain in Providence after graduation, we were immediately interested in engaging Providence outside of its academic environment; we wanted to create a socially engaged project that could speak to our interests in the city, be instrumental in responding to the lack of venues where young local artists could exhibit, while also retaining the ability to think and act critically. This was a very exciting venture for us, not only because of how stimulating we knew it would for own intellectual interests, but more so because of how it would fill a void of exhibition venues. There is a vibrant, and incredibly active, community of artists and musicians that truly thrives in Providence.(1)
We began with the intention of opening a gallery in a fixed location, but it was quickly brought to out attention that the cost of running a full-time space that would be solely dependent on sales, was not a financially viable for us. It was, in fact, discouraged by many people. From brokers of store-front commercial properties that had previously rented to galleries, to local curators who had previously run full-time galleries, to staff members of the Rhode Island State Council of the Arts and the Department of Art, Culture, and Tourism â€” many people made it clear how difficult it is to keep a gallery in Providence afloat due to the lack of collectors and connections to out-of-town buyers. It was clearly expressed that Providence had a track record of failed galleries, despite the profusion of local artists making work. With that in mind, the formulation of RK Projects really began; we were persistent in our interest in creating a new exhibition platform.
The first thing that came to form was our name for the project: “R.K.” which stands for Richard Keller who was my partnerâ€™s uncle. He was an outsider artist who expatriated to France in the 60s. He was a sort-of Francophile and was obsessed with the language; he taught Linguistics at the Sorbonne. While he was teaching, he continued making art prolifically. The work he made ranged from collages, drawings, and prints to bizarre Dadaist assemblage sculptures that he compiled entirely from trash he would find by dumpster-diving in the streets of Paris. After 30 years of moving to France, he became very ill and passed awayÂ from HIV in the mid-90s.Â He never exhibited his work. We felt naming the project in his memory was very important to us, and exemplified the purity of pursuing something you love doing no matter the means.
During our search for a fixed space we realized the extent of the economic deprivation that Providence has suffered from for many years. The abundance of vacant commercial and industrial spaces throughout the entire city sparked our strategy.
Ultimately, it was a solution and a proposal. It was our solution for creating a new exhibition platform that could invest itself in showing experimental work by local artists without having a tremendous overhead that a fixed location would have (most properties have been donated to us, or rented out to us at an extremely reduced rate). It became a curatorial proposal embedded around the idea of site-specificity â€“ Â How could we utilize each property in a way that could inform the work within the exhibition? How does the geographical location of each property speak to the work and to what we do as RK Projects? How does the presence of each exhibition affect its surrounding social and public space? In what way does the project speak to the economy of Providence, real estate or otherwise? These are questions that we take into account as we organize each exhibition, and exploring/experimenting with those answers is one of the most rewarding and satisfying aspects of what we do.
Sam Keller,Â Nacho Cheese Fountain., 8â€x 21â€x 8â€, 2010Â
CP:Â As a nomadic exhibition project, how do you feel the unique architecture of Providence complements the specificity of individual projects?
TP:Â Itâ€™s different for each project, because the existing architecture (in a physical/historical/economicÂ sense) in each location weâ€™ve conducted our project \ is so very different and unique to the particular section of town where it resides. Â We organized our very first exhibition, Nostalgia for Simpler Times, in the Upper South district of Providence in a double-wide trailer located on the historic â€˜Providence Piersâ€™ waterfront. The Upper South side of Providence is a section of Providence that was the last to undergo development with the rise of industrialization in the 19th century, and currently has the highest unemployment rate in the city. The trailer on the Piers was formerly a ticket office for a, now defunct, ferry route. It is currently managed by the adjacent â€œConleyâ€™s Wharf” building which houses studios and offices for creative businesses. The exhibition was a solo-show of my partnerâ€™s work; at the time, he was using courageously silly methodologies for making sculptures, paintings, and installation work that bordered on being iconoclastic. The double-wide trailer, in the desolate context it was in, informed the work in an interesting way. Throughout the exhibition he had a 3-tiered chocolate fondue fountain on a white pedestal that was constantly pumping nacho cheese. Every morning while the exhibition was up, we had to boil over 6 pounds of cheese and transport it to the site. It was absurd â€“ carrying these massive containers into a double-wide trailer in a parking lot while fisherman were going about their daily business along the pier. It definitely brought in an interesting crowd that we didnâ€™t expect â€“ people were coming in that had little or no experience with that kind of art and really appreciated. It seemed like the broadness (in a metaphorical sense) of the site kept the interpretation of the work very open. At one point we had a homeland security officer come to the exhibition because the particular area the trailer was in also housed a massive salt pile for winterizing all of Providenceâ€™s roads; there were also shipping crates directly adjacent to the trailer with storage for some equipment that belonged to the police department. He loved it; he took a good amount of time exploring the work in the show. The exhibition really exemplified the general feeling of that particular district.
The subsequent projects went from the Industrial Valley district, where we conducted a 3-day music festival and a huge exhibition that spanned 20,000 sq. ft. of a historical industrial building that was being renovated, to Downtown Providence, to the West End, to Olneyville, and then we eventually made our way to the East Side of Providence in the Mount Hope district and College Hill where our current exhibition is on display in the new Granoff Center at Brown University. We tried to allow our exhibitions to speak to each districtâ€™s existing physical architecture and social space; we traversed a lot of territory and made a lot of noise in the broader area of Providence before making our way back to the academic bubble that is College Hill. I think that itinerary speaks well to how the unique architecture of Providence complimented individual projects.
Exterior View of X.V. ATLASÂ
Installation View ofÂ X.V.: ATLASÂ
TP:Â Absolutely, every property weâ€™ve chosen to work in has presented itself as a space that could be activated by the presence of an exhibition â€” or vice versa â€“ the space would activate the artwork that inhabited it. What has been really interesting, and surprising, for us is how each exhibition has sort of exhumed the past history of the property it resides in. For example, the third exhibition we hosted with â€œArt Is Shit Editionsâ€ â€“ Frolic, Frolic, Irresistible â€“ was organized around the premise of consumerism and art as commodity. The property we chose for it was a downtown property on Westminster St â€“ known as the â€œHeart of Providenceâ€ â€“ itâ€™s primarily a restaurant and shopping district.Â As we were working on preparations for the show, we discovered that the property was formerly an illegal brothel. It ran in an Asian massage parlor where women were kept sequestered in the basement and attic. During the installation process, we came across remnants of this history and ended up utilizing leftover equipment and rooms, such as shower stalls, a sauna, and a massage table for installations as a way of engaging that history. For the audience that experienced the exhibition, it brought up the issue of Providenceâ€™s history of sex-trafficking and how long indoor prostitution remained decriminalized in Rhode Island (it wasÂ made illegal in 2009). Â It turned out to be a fitting context for the exhibition, not as the mainstay, but as a representation of how the exhibition had the ability to activate a particular history and bring a localized issue to light.
Installation view of Frolic, Frolic, Irresisitible organized with Art Is Shit Editions
In terms of borrowing real estate, we choose properties that we notice have remained vacant for several years and are under-recognized. We always try to reach out to a very broad audience with the hopes that someone will see the space and be interested in purchasing or renting it. In priming the space for our exhibitions, we also make it a point to leave the space in better condition than we found it. This allows us to also maintain wonderful relationships with property brokers and real estate companies that we work with. It also helps them see the worth in what weâ€™re trying to do with the project.
CP:Â How have your curatorial strategies developed over time?
TP:Â The curatorial strategy for the project has always been the same: to address site-specificity via a nomadic, DIY exhibition platform, and offer an alternative way for contextualizing the work of local artists.Â Throughout the project Iâ€™ve been particularly fond of two books, one written by Rosalyn Deutsche called Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, and the other by Miwon Kwon titled One Place After Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity. The ways in which site-specificity is framed and iterated in each of those books have resounded with me greatly, and deeply affected me as Iâ€™ve conducted the curatorial strategies for the project.Â Kwon puts it perfectly when she identifies the purpose of her book asÂ â€œto reframe site specificity as the cultural mediation of broader social, economic, and political processes that organize urban life and urban space.”
That approach to site-specificity is something I find incredibly important.
What is different for each project, and continues to develop, is how the premise for each exhibition, and the work within it, is successfully supported by the context of the project. Thatâ€™s an overriding programmatic strategy as opposed to curatorial, but I would like to think that creating boundaries for the two is something for conceptual fodder that fuels the project and makes it better with each exhibition.
(1)Â In a city that was literally branded as the “Creative Capital,” it was surprising to see that there were no exhibition venues that could support young, contemporary, experimental work. There were a few galleries, but they were geared towards “tourist commodities:” New England kitsch-art that proliferates because of its accessibility. We were concerned about what work was actually defining our “Creative Capital.” The goal of re-branding this city was what ex-Mayor DavidÂ Ciccilline called: “[In order to build] on one of [Providence’s] finest assets â€” its large number of artists, designers, student and faculty innovators at such schools like Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design â€” the city recently re-branded itself asÂ Providence: The Creative Capital.” Yet there was no bearing as to how this new identity was intended to build the city’s economy. At the same time the campaign disregarded the nature of arts activities initiated by RI residents who actually existed in the public community.