Midway through our studio visit, MK Guth told me about a compassâ€”her fatherâ€™s compass to be preciseâ€”that, throughout her childhood, was contained in the tackle box on her familyâ€™s boat. After countless summers of relying on this particular compass to navigate the waterways of the Canadian Great Lakes, it became a talisman of sorts, and it was this heirloom that sent the artist running to Midwest following the sale of the entire rig a few years ago. Out of this experience, Guth began to reconsider objects: how they transition between function and fetish; how they shift and shape social interaction; and how their relation to us and to each other organizes our surroundings and appropriates our actions.
Despite her attachment to the compass, Guth never learned to read it. It wasnâ€™t until she was the sole owner of the object that she fulfilled its agency as a wayfinder, using it to navigate hikes through the Cascades. This notion of object lying in wait, anticipating the grasp of the human hand to become activated as an extension and mediation of human experience in the world, is a theme resonant throughout Guthâ€™s art practice. Her most recent project, When Nothing Else Subsists, Smell and Taste Remain, (2012), is a multi-sensory exploration of the meaning that can evolve from the intersection of subject, object, and context. The exhibition is composed of a series of vignettesâ€”or still lives as the artist calls themâ€”composed of everyday readymades interspersed with one-of-a-kind handcraft and modified found objects. Guth meticulously curated a range of texture in each display. The all too appealing interplay of lustrous forged bronze, hand-blown glass, and polished woodgrain cannot help being touched. Guth intentionally solicits this interaction from her audience, tempting visitors to sit at her handcrafted table, thumb through original artist books, and take various tools for dining in hand.
As a secondary, perhaps richer engagement, viewers are invited to enact dinnersâ€” elaborate rituals explicitly outlined in Guthâ€™s one-of-a-kind books: Dinner for John Cage,Â Dinner for Crying, Dinner for the Woods, Dinner for a Funeral, Dinner for Getting Lost, and others. In this iteration of When Nothing Else Subsists, the social becomes both medium and content of the project. Setting the stage upon familiar platform of table, flatware, and food, Guth subverts the everydayness of dining, directing attention to the ritual itselfâ€”its structure, its narrative, and its social interplayâ€”as a subtle reminder of the small, ephemeral gestures that contribute to grand, long-lasting accumulations.
Guth’s previous work similarly embraced participation as fodder for art practice. Her recent series of braid projects including: Best Wishes, (2011); This Fable is Intended for You: A Work-Energy Principle, (2010);Â Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping, (2008); solicited physical materialâ€”swatches of fiberâ€”as well as text commenting on issues ranging from desire to security. The material was then woven into yards upon yards of braids to create a generative social work that, in the gallery, was translated into an equally compelling sculpture, installation, or lens-based project, that visitors uninvolved with the initial performance could engage and appreciate. Braids from these previous projects festoon the artist’s studio currently. They are in the process of being woven into vesselsâ€”clever plays on the idea of a repositoryâ€” where hopes and wishes are bound-up in the objectness of the container itself.
Guth is the maestra of the send-off. At the root of her work is a central line of inquiryâ€”a rhizome-like thread that binds individual, to object, to universeâ€”generating meaning from what is unacknowledged, unarticulated, or unknown. I spoke to Guth in her southeast Portland studio.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: Iâ€™d love to start with a quote that came up in a previous conversation with you: â€œArt is what makes life more interesting than art.â€ (Robert Filliou, n.d.) Why did that statement resonate?
MK Guth: What I find important about that quote is that it reminds us that art has a job to do. In the case of my work, I tend to use the concept of the everydayâ€”reflecting on the everyday in the content, materials, and processes of art makingâ€”to refocus attention on analyzing and addressing everyday acts, rituals, and processes with new appreciation and understanding. My recent work at Marylhurst [Universityâ€™s Art Gym], When Nothing Else Subsists, Smell and Taste Remain, the project places the ritual of dining within the context of art to attune the viewer to an act that is so familiar that we take it for granted. For example, in the case of the Dinner for John Cage, you perform a composition at the dinner, but you are also enacting a ritual that we do all the time: eating. Itâ€™s this combination of producing something collectively as part of a mundane action within the context of an art experience that forces us to reexamine what we already know.
SMP: So, youâ€™re making the familiar strange, or the ordinary extraordinaryâ€¦
MKG: Itâ€™s more about bringing our attention back to the ordinary so we look at it again. For example, when you walk the few blocks to work every day, you notice certain things, but then you take that walk with someone else and they point out a different building or some detail or whatever, all of a sudden, the walk becomes new againâ€”you see it in a different way. So, Iâ€™m not even sure itâ€™s about making it special as much as it is about realigning our sight.
SMP: Food has become such an enormous part of contemporary art and exhibition practice, but in viewing your work, I was brought back to those seminal figures in food and performance, Gordon Matta Clark, Alison Knowles, and to some extent, Rikert Tiravanija. Do you have a relationship to these artists, and how did the contemporary contextâ€”cultural and social lifeâ€”set the stage for this project?
MKG: Iâ€™m a bit of a researcher bug. I roll that way anyway. My undergraduate degree is in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and that department is very research oriented and it really influenced the way that I work. In the process of developing [When Nothing Else Subsists], sure, I was looking at all of these different people who engaged food in one way or another; that being said, I donâ€™t want to make the assumption that everyone who works with food shares some sort of similarity. Tiravanijaâ€™s way of engaging food and the meaning behind it is very different than somebody like Daniel Spoerri, even though both of these artists are cooking. Both are very different than Gordon Matta Clark and the project Food, or Alison Knowles, who, in a very Fluxus-Happening spirit, highlights our relationship with tools and implements. But sure, I became interested in how art addressed food and eating beginning with very early artworks as a material of life itself that is essential to existence. No matter the moment or context, food makes its way into the artistic realm, from pre-antiquity to presentâ€¦ food is part of what we need and often part of significant rituals that imbue out lives, for example, weddings, births and birthdays all have particular food and food rituals. Â It doesnâ€™t surprise me that artists are interested in using it to create meaning.
SMP: Many of your previous projects including Best Wishes and This Fable is Intended for You are about engagement through the accumulation of matterâ€”generating fiber and textâ€”whereas your more recent work around food and dining is more about ritualâ€”generative through discursive and performative engagement. What drew you away from one form of participation to another?
MKG: In the 1970s, Gordon Matta-Clark coined the term â€œfood theater.â€ I actually began conceiving [When Nothing Else Subsists] several years ago when I was in the process of doing all the weaving and braiding projects, and that termâ€”food theaterâ€”helped develop my most recent work by focusing my attention on what it meant when I was eating with friends and how it is this theatrical event. Everybody is a performer at the table and there are always expectations as the guest, as the server, as the person whoâ€™s cooking the meal, or as the person who is directing the conversation. That notion of performance in relation to something that we do together everyday started to inform where I wanted this work, When Nothing Else Subsists, to go.
I suppose this project is the absolute opposite of my previous work in terms of process. These last several years, perhaps starting with Red Shoe Delivery Service, (2002-2006), and continuing through the woven works, the interaction with the public played out in one field, and the accumulated ephemera then went on to form works of art that could be then reflected on in an institutional settingâ€”a gallery, museum, or what have you. In essence, the interactivity was one experience and the viewing of the object that came out of it was a different experience. What was important to me is that residual work wasnâ€™t functioning as a direct document; meaning, that the secondary object was created to offer up a wholly new viewing experience that has different meaning attached.
I know that my work could easily be defined as â€œsocial practice,â€ but in part because I choose not to show direct documentation of the interactive elements of the work in a gallery context and because my work does not exist as documentation of an experience but instead as an object produced from that experience, I feel that my work is set apart. Honestly, I understand why social practice, or any sort of event-oriented project, relies on documentationâ€”thereâ€™s an art economy there, and a manner of communicating something that would be otherwise lost.Â However, I also feel that showing ephemera can be a fuck you to the audience. Itâ€™s like saying: â€œhereâ€™s the event that you all were not involved with. It was great, but you werenâ€™t there.â€ Also, a photograph or video can never accomplish translating what the original experience wasâ€”the related discomforts, smells, sounds, and all the many other things are absent from documentation. An important part of what I do is creating something else that might connect to that initial experience but it isnâ€™t trying to document it in a direct way. I am interested in creating work that offers up multiple experiences and, as a result, the whole project becomes generative.
When Nothing Else Subsists turns my earlier process on its side. The object is similarly the agent of activation, but the activity occurs through an inverse process: object precipitates event.
Certain things cause us to act in specific ways: a book tells us to read it; a table tells us to sit and use it as a surface. We understand that code and structural system, regardless of where the objects are located. Itâ€™s universal. You can put something into a galleryâ€”it doesnâ€™t matter what it isâ€”it could be a clothespin and voila, and itâ€™s art. The thing that I like about the table is that people will go to sit at it because its meaningâ€”its system and codeâ€”is stronger than that of the art context. For example, people are still willing to go sit at a table and eat despite its location in a university art gallery.
As far as the little vignettes that hold these one-of-a-kind dinners, those still lives have materials that I had hoped would encourage people to take materials off the shelves and engage with them; in particular, the books. For example, the Dinner for Getting Lost has a copy of Aristotleâ€™s â€œOn Man in the Universeâ€ and a book of Rebecca Solnit as well as the one-of-a-kind book that encompasses the dinner. I made the books to be hardcover sturdy objects that tell the viewer: â€œIâ€™m not fragile, pick me up.â€ I wanted these still lives to announce that they are meant to be engaged and, in this way, that body of work starts with the sculpture as a way to promote an action. Really, each piece has three different potential experiences that can be engaged: the initial entry to the project is through the still life and contemplative viewing, the second experience is through engaging with the material of the still life, and the third level is to activate the dinner itself.
SMP: Iâ€™m interested in your ability to engage with the unique properties and etiquette for participation within different spaces, fluctuating seemingly easily between white cube and more public venues, as with your recent work in Las Vegas. How do you leverage the different qualities of different spaces for your projects?
MKG: All spaces have a contextâ€”including galleriesâ€”and often, it can be difficult to fight against the associations brought on by site. For the Whitney Biennial, my piece, [Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping, (2008)], was installed in the library of the Park Avenue Armory, a space that has very specific meaning and embedded history. In my mind, simply putting an artwork in that space without considering the relationship to site means that both elementsâ€”the history of the space and the meaning of the artworkâ€”are in this constant battle. In my work, it makes more sense for me to use history and meaning in the construction of the artwork so that the two could come together and create a unique, mutually supported experience for the audience. At Marylhurst, the Art Gym has a very particular feel with its exposed wooden beams and a huge expanse of windowsâ€”a very hallowed hall kind of feel that adds to the sense of ritual. And, of course, you canâ€™t fight Vegas, so it made sense to do a work that connected some of the aspects of the reasons people visit Vegas: the dream, desire, etc. To me, it seems to be a more successful strategy somehow to engage the site, leveraging it to create meaning for the rest of the work.
SMP: The research-based element of your practice is so intensive. Iâ€™m wondering if you could continue this thread and speak to blending more empirical truthâ€”particularly historyâ€”with mythmaking, which strikes me as being very present in many of your projects?
MKG: I start often with mythic narratives and use them as a way to bring people in. Often with interactive work, people do not like to engage, (including me!), so there has to be another way to invite people into the piece. There are narratives that we all recognize, and these provide a way for people to come to the work thatâ€™s familiar. Itâ€™s the shifting that happens in that spaceâ€”engaging audience with familiar narrativeâ€”that creates a new mythic site.
SMP: How did you begin to do participatory work and how do you negotiate the unknowns that come with choreographing this type of performance?
MKG: Late-summer 2002, Red Shoe Delivery Service made its debut in New York. This was a project with Molly Dilworth and, one year later, with Cris Moss. I had been working on a series of photos that were combining mythic representations into everyday scenarios, and one of them was Dorothyâ€™s Ruby Slippers. I had been doing this kind of work for three years and, at that point, I was frustrated with it. In my mind, I was redesigning these representations to make room for ordinary people in the way that you may not be a superhero but you could still have some sort of remarkable power. That series of work just kind of collapsed into the photograph, object, or video, and never really became an experience outside the realm of image or object; Red Shoe developed out of this point of frustration. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my then roommate Molly Dilworth, and I said: â€œWhat if I just rented a van, filled it with glittery shoes, and drove around giving people free rides? What would happen then?â€ And Molly said: â€œIf you do that, Iâ€™ll drive.â€ Thatâ€™s how Red Shoe was born. We did our first three days in New York with a rented minivan and a bunch of red glittery shoes that I had made, and we literally gave rides to people to wherever they wanted to go. In exchange, they had to give us their shoes for the duration of the ride, and they had to choose a pair of red glittery shoes and click their heels saying: â€œthereâ€™s no place like…â€ the Post Office, work, the neighborhood bar, or wherever they were going. We took video of our passengers at the beginning and end of each ride, and later edited those two moments together to create a video of people magically transported in a spiral of glitter and heart music to their desired location. As the project went on, we became more sophisticated. Molly started curating the van, so the ride itself became this entirely other experience for the riders. Then Chris Moss became involved when we realized we needed a third person. Chris began working on these interactive DVDs that involved recording the stories of our riders and partnering with writers and illustrators to translate them into texts and images. We began creating this multi-layered, almost rhizomatic project that spoked in all these different ways. We began doing virtual travel agencies, dispatch centers, shoe stores, so something that started out as a mobile projectâ€”which we always keptâ€”became all these different ways of communicating notions of risk taking, desire, transformation, and different ideas of home.
When Red Shoe was first developed, it took time for the three of us to understand and evolve the work in such a way that the loss of autonomy that comes with participation was not a problem to be resolved, but rather, something that offered up a range of new possibilities both for the viewers and for us as the artists that made the work more exciting. As time went on, and with the braid projects, I began to weave-in this loss of autonomy into the design of the work. When Sol Lewitt spoke about his instructions-based works, he had an understanding that no one person draws a line the same. So, those works, no matter how well the instructions are composed, will always vary a little bit, and that becomes part of the work. I think that if you pursue a practice that is exchange-based or participatory without that understanding that concept, you are going to be constantly frustrated. Understanding that active audience members will come in and shift the outcome of the work has to be taken into consideration in the design of the piece. This different system of meaning making doesnâ€™t change the authorship of the work however, because the design of that experience is still coming from me.
SMP: So, given that transdiciplinary is the buzzword du jour, Iâ€™m curious if you can articulate a bit more about your approach to art making that draws from research, object making, image making, performance, and choreography. Moreover, artists today function in various roles ranging from sociologist, to journalist, to cabdriver. Given the expansion of the field, how would you define the role of an artist in this context and how do you address the anxiety that comes with pushing and crossing traditional boundaries?
MKG: Iâ€™m not going to define the role of an artistâ€”each artist is going to define that role differently. But I do feel that art has a job to do and, for me now, my job as an artist involves wearing a lot of different hats: choreography, directing, facilitating.
I come from an object making background, and I still believe in the power of the object to make people act or to change their understanding of an image or event. That being said, I would like to approach my practice as one that offers up a multi-level of experiences including more viewer activated experiences. At the end of the day, I feel that in order to communicate, I need to make use of many different skills: some that are very common and everyday ways of making; others are more cerebral, mining my education and research skills; and some that engage new technology, which in many ways is redefining the role of the artist today. What is an artist? Tough question! I guess I choose the job of cultivating an experience for an audience that communicates something about them back to them.Â This is the role I choose.
MK Guth is a multidisciplinary artist residing in Portland, Oregon. Her most recent project, When Nothing Else Subsists, Smell and Taste Remain, was on view at Marylhurst Universityâ€™s Art Gym, Oct. 7 â€“ Dec. 9, 2012. She received her MFA from New York University in 2002, and her work has been featured internationally at numerous museums, galleries, and festivals including: The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; The Melbourne International Arts Festival; Portland Institute for Contemporary Art; Swiss Institute; White Box Annex; White Columns; Frye Museum; Henry Art Gallery; and others. Guth is currently Chair of the MFA Program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, (PNCA), and is represented by Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland.
Oh, Detroit. Has it been two years already?! It seems but a day since I took my first Michigan left and brought my Subaru to a stop in the center of your simultaneously horrifying and humbling splendor. From those early moments, I knew our relationship would be as tenuous as your gloriously rusted patina. I came equipped with my New York Times-fueled expectations and, to my 21st century grand narrative, you countered with the arresting reality of day-to-day life in an urban center lacking in infrastructure, population, and amenities. From you, I experienced the creativity that emerges from near lawlessness; I witnessed the ingenuity required to survive and, indeed, thrive in urban wilderness; and I was charmed by the entrepreneurial spirit that nurtured makers, doers, and hackers alongside BYO basement strip clubs and speakeasy-style soul food joints. What resonates with me still is the unwavering commitment to a locality where life is a unique brand of struggle but, even so, there is palpable energy created around cumulative gestures of grassroots transformation. Detroit is a truly contemporary American cityâ€”engaged with the potential of the presentâ€”sending up smoke signals to the future while building on the recently razed past.
So Detroit, itâ€™s been real, but a working girl has got to eat, (specifically, sheâ€™s got to eat fresh produce other than the lemons and limes purchased at liquor stores), so this B@S blogger is moving on!
In September, I accepted a position in Portland and, beginning next Wednesday, I will be continuing my correspondence from the Pacific Northwestâ€™s veritable hipster haven notorious for crafting, composting, and pre-retirement. Despite its bicycle riding, NPR listening, backyard chicken tending demographic, not all of Portland is steeped in clichÃ©. Surprisingly, this city holds remarkable likeness to the Dirty D. There are hardcore, ambidextrous makers hereâ€”creative entrepreneurs who have eschewed the traditional a-list urban locale to continue canning, woodworking, and weaving from the comfort of a spacious home studio. A spirit of resourcefulness and resilience abounds. Like Detroit, the stability of full-time employment is hard to come by, but within this piece-meal existence, comes a freedom that facilitates forging alternative ways of living, working, and remaining creatively and culturally fulfilled. Portlandâ€™s got some hustle too, B@S!
Thanks largely to Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, Portland has become the subject of popular myth and, Iâ€™ll admit, there is something about this city beyond the grunge and facial hair that begs the question: â€œDo you remember the 90s?â€ From what Iâ€™ve seen so far, much of the cultural work produced in Portland does bear the vague glimmer of an outstretched Clinton-thumb. Far from the 90s articulated by Jeff Koons and new genre public art, the Portlandia version is defined by expressions of optimism and imagination that often leverage the space of art and exhibitions as sites to launch fantastical alternatives.
Consider the work of Wayne Bund, Portland-based photographer recently featured at Cock Gallery, whose riveting portraiture explores sexual identity through the incarnation of fantasyâ€”a veritable feast of cinematic unconscious that is as compelling as it is uncanny.
On view at the Henry Gallery is Like a Valentine, a solo-exhibition of Seattle-based ceramist Jeffry Mitchell, that features an other world of playful flora and fauna whose irresistible sweetness is perforated by gilded glory holes.
And just last weekend, I had the opportunity to experience an installation by Patrick Rock, visual artist and director of rocksbox, whose practice in studio and art space is notorious for combining blithe humor with biting art world irreverence. Â Requiem combined a room-scale bouncy playground with light effects, Mozart, and Dumbo, in a space resembling a church-y community center that would be hosting a pancake breakfast the next morning. The experience was cacophonous and disorienting… But I liked it.
Conversations with these three folks forthcoming, but first, an interview with MK Guth, an artist whose multifaceted practice includes sculpture, performance, image making, and Fluxus-style game playing. Not to reveal too much, but our conversation explored the logistics of participatory art: engaging various publics, embracing the unknown, and looping the experience back by transforming a collective process into a compelling art object. Stay tuned: MK Guth, next Wednesday 12/19, B@S blog!
This week: Duncan, Brian, Abigail Satinsky and special guest host Jacob Wick (MFA candidate in social practice at CCA in SF, he has a hot dog stand and it’s art….kidding….kidding) talk to Sean Joseph Patrick Carney about @socialmalpractice, Fuck James Franco and more more more! Everyone gets silly, editing was exciting. After that Richard and Max report live from the Chicago Toy and Game Fair. Max thinks the Star Wars nerds from the 501st are scary as hell.
Sean Joseph Patrick Carney is an artist, educator and writer living and working in Portland, Oregon. He has exhibited original work and performances nationally and internationally in New York, San Francisco, and Amsterdam, amongst others. Carney’s interdisciplinary art practice includes stand-up comedy, sculpture, performance, sound, critical writing, satire, and public happenings. He is the founder and director of Social Malpractice Publishing, an artist book distributor. In 2011, he co-founded the Conceptual Oregon Performance School (C.O.P.S.), a free, artist-run summer institute focused on contemporary performance strategies and critical theory. Carney earned a BFA in Printmaking with a Minor in Secondary Education from Arizona State University in 2004, and an MFA in Visual Studies from Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2009 where he now works as an arts administrator in the Graduate Studies Department and as a faculty member in Intermedia.
This week: Live from Expo Chicago 2012 we talk to Sun Foot!
Sun Foot is a Portland/Los Angeles 3 piece who play low volume tunes through small amps and a drum set that consists of a hand drum, cymbal, pan lids, and electronic drum pad, all three singing, playing random cheap electronic keyboards maybe, and switching of instruments probably. Good to listen to if you are interested in the sun and tired of negativity. Sun Foot (Ron Burns [Smog, Hot Spit Dancers, Swell], Chris Johanson [the painter, The Deep Throats, Tina Age 13], and Brian Mumford [Dragging an Ox through Water, Jackie-O Motherfucker, Thicket, Jewelry Rash]) has a website with relevant information at http://j.mp/sunfootrbc .
Julie Perini is endlessly curious. Her practice revolves around moving images, but utilizes a full quiver of strategies toward an equally far-ranging set of goals. The work–like Julie herself–is smart and funny, willing to try new things and thoughtfully self-aware. Even as she becomes more established in her role as a maker, organizer and writer, her curiosity and restlessness of form push her into new and challenging situations.
Graciously and unexpectedly, her responses in this interview touch upon several ideas I have been thinking through recently: the perceived mind/body split, the role of one’s hands in the realm of the digital and how to align the political, personal and aesthetic in ways that open up experience instead of closing it down.
Where do you come from? Specifically, how many parts of New York have you lived in and what initially keyed your interest in making art? Making videos in your basement? DIY shows in other people’s basements? An aggrieved political sense from infancy?
I moved around New York State from birth until age 29 in the following order: Poughkeepsie, Ithaca, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Oswego. Â There were brief stints in Florence, Italy and Juneau, Alaska in there too. I was a quiet kid and a voracious reader of books. Â As soon as I was able, I was writing my own stories and poems. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I was also a musician in various high school ensembles and in bands with friends and yes, the late 90s independent music phenomenon was a big eye-opener for a disaffected youth like me in the suburbs. What little interest I had in the type of music I was learning in school disappeared when I realized other kids like me were making music in their bedrooms with friends that didnâ€™t have to be perfect and you could sing about stuff that was funny or actually mattered to you. I also made videos with friends using clunky VHS equipment my early adopter parents had, often for school assignments, like the hour-long docu-drama Nam: The Homefront, 1964-69.
Also I went to the public library often and took out VHS tapes of classic Hollywood films. I loved the clever banter between people like Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey; those movies were so much better than the junk Hollywood was offering up in the 80s and 90s. I went off to college at age 18, wandered into a campus screening of The Red Shoes, had my socks knocked off, and keep going to see odd films at Cornell Cinema like work by Sadie Benning and Jennifer Reeves. I was hooked. At that time, Cornell only had two 16mm film classes that you had to sit on a wait list to get into, so I went to Ithacaâ€™s public access station to learn how to use analog video editing equipment. Iâ€™ve been teaching myself how to use whatever equipment is available ever since.
You mention that some of your interest in engaging with community-oriented and more overtly political work stems from your own experiences with the FBI in Steve Kurtz of the Critical Art Ensemble‘s investigation. I know about this from reading things at the time and later seeing Lynn Hershman Leeson’s interesting film about the same. Can you detail your experiences a bit more and discuss how they impacted your making?
Lynn interviewed me for that film (Strange Culture) but I didnâ€™t make the final cut. Itâ€™s a long story, but for now I can tell you this: In the summer of 2004 after my first year of graduate school at the University of Buffalo, the FBI issued me a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury to testify as a witness for the bio-terrosism investigation of Steve Kurtz of Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). My part in this story is particularly amusing because the main reason that I can see the authorities called me in was because they found a note Iâ€™d written Steve that contained a line that said, â€œState smashers need to stick together.â€ So I explained what state smashers are to a Grand Jury. In an effort to understand why the community of artists around me in Buffalo was being scrutinized in this way, I read a lot of books about the history of the FBI, like Ward Churchillâ€™s Agents of Repression, and this quickly led me to other resources about state repression of dissidents in the US. The FBI has been successful at halting the development of progressive groups like the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and the American Indian Movement for example; these are facts that are well documented and well known. So this research provided me with a context for understanding why the government found CAEâ€™s work so threatening. This wasnâ€™t anything new.
At the time, this experience impacted my practice by making it difficult to focus on anything except the case and keeping my professor out of prison. In an effort to push past this creative block, I began shooting video with a small DV camera throughout the day in an unplanned, uncensored way. I followed most whims that I had and ended up making a lot of performance videos and diary material. I was inspired by people Iâ€™d been reading about from the Civil Rights Movement and resistance movements in the 60s and 70s like Assata Shakur, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so on. I figured that if they do what they did in their efforts to change their worlds (endure torture, ridicule, solitary confinement, etc.), I could push past my own personal boundaries and dance in public or whatever it was I had set my mind to do. After a few months, I reviewed a lot of this material and either used it to make finished short pieces or re-created some of what I had shot to make finished pieces. This became my graduate school thesis, Experiments in Immediacy. And this is still the main way that I make work â€“ I follow whims, experiment a lot, and then review the resultant documentation and fashion it into finished works. I have an artist talk that I do called â€œShoot First & Ask Questions Laterâ€ that discusses this approach.
Part of what would seem to distinguish Relational Filmmaking from other filmmaking practices is an emphasis on process over the final product. I think this is a commonality throughout your work: you are very overt in your direct communication with viewers. You speak and write directly to the viewer in many of your pieces and the way your materially-invested films are titled and presented very plainly addresses the process of their making at the outset. I’m hoping you might talk a bit about whether you conceive of these works as, on some level, being documents of the process of their making and about the relative directness of your speech/text throughout your work. Is clarity an important condition of Relational Filmmaking? Of politically-engaged art more broadly?
I am glad you picked up on this and asked about it. All of my work tries to strike a balance between process and product. Sometimes I feel like I hit a sweet spot with that balance and at other times I feel like things lean bit too much to one side. So I wouldnâ€™t say that I prioritize the process over the product since I am invested in creating careful and considered experiences for viewers as well as designing meaningful processes. Yes, I do conceive of much of my work as being a document of its own making, or a record of its own making (thanks Peter Gidal). The handmade films in particular seem like records of what happened to them as they came into being. And yet, much of the processes that made those films are not recorded; a viewer wouldnâ€™t know for how long Iâ€™d left Collaboration with the Earth in the ground, for example. This leads us to the titles and text. I decided to use text to tell quick stories at the beginning of each film, narrating the process behind each production. I think of this way of presenting material as a kind of Joseph Kosuth or Martha Rosler move, where I show viewers the same process in two different representational systems. This phase Iâ€™m describing is where one of the great joys of moving-image-making lies for me: looking at the results from experiments and figuring out how to shape them into something for someone else to view. I have to make decisions about the extent to which I let people in on the process and the extent to which I allow narrative or formal considerations to influence the final piece. I rely on text a lot to do that but I am always trying to find new ways strike that balance. Installation is pretty exciting to me right now because objects and materials communicate in an entirely different way from verbal language.
In terms of direct address, that partly comes from some of my earliest experiments with 16mm film in the late 90s. At that time what I thought was the most fascinating thing about film was that it could make a viewer feel something physically or even do something unconsciously. Horror films for example, make me cover my eyes with my hands during super scary parts; I canâ€™t control it. Some really gross films make me vomit a tiny bit in my mouth. Amazing. So in the 90s I made short horror films, usually about people who had a vexed relationship to food. For example, in one film food inappropriately comes out of a characterâ€™s body parts like his ears and nipples. I am still interested in creating a sense of reaching out through the screen and directly touching a viewer. A lot of documentary filmmaking does that and so does advertising. I think of my use of direct address, which is mainly through text/titles and sometimes through a subject talking directly to the camera (usually me), as a way to openly acknowledge the relationship between the art object (the video, the film) and the viewer. Mainly to acknowledge that the relationship is there, itâ€™s happening. There is something immediately funny to me about being this explicit.
Who are other Relational Filmmakers? Do you feel that this constitutes a “movement” or is the purpose of your manifesto a way to clarify your thinking on your own work?
The purpose of the manifesto was mainly to clarify my own way of working. I do not think itâ€™s a movement although I bet we could find enough makers out there whose work isnâ€™t adequately described by Bill Nichols to write an essay that argues thereâ€™s a trend towards relational work. Lately I have wanted to keep the tenets of the manifesto but change the name. The â€œrelationalâ€ term seems to float fine in filmmaking circles but other types of artists and art people recoil; it seems to carry with it a lot of late 90s baggage that I donâ€™t really need. Iâ€™ll get back to you when I find a better name.
What can Social Practitioners teach filmmakers and vice versa?
Good question. Filmmakers can teach social practitioners what theyâ€™ve learned over the past 100+ years about the ethics of working with human subjects as well as some techniques for effectively assembling and presenting visual/audio documentation of events. Social practitioners can remind filmmakers about the importance of being present and aware when creating an artwork with other people.
Will you talk a bit aboutÂ 34 Years of Whiteness: Race & Ethnicity in the Work of Julie Perini? Why whiteness instead of womanness? Why whiteness instead of educatedness? Why whiteness instead of Americanness? Does whiteness in this context convey all those other types of privilege?
The WhitenessÂ talk is a lecture I did a few months ago at the close of a show I had up at Place Gallery in Portland. It was inspired by an artist talk I had been at this past fall by a Native American woman. She talked about the use of family stories, tribal traditions, and indigenous language in her painting, sculpture, and installation. She both explained what motivated her to make work in the first place â€“ preserving and celebrating her heritage â€“ and she unpacked the symbols that recur throughout the work. I had this aha moment while I was sitting there: â€œWhy donâ€™t I ever give a talk like this? One where I talk about the influence of my family, my race, etc.? I give artist talks all the time and they are usually about some new process Iâ€™ve developed or some formal boundary Iâ€™m pushing here or there.â€ Then it all started to flood quickly into my consciousness, what a talk about race in my work would look like. In a moment I pretty much reviewed my entire creative output and reframed it through a racial lens. It was a big moment.
Think about it â€“ the reason I had never given a talk about race in my work the way this Native American artist was doing was simple: I am a member of the dominant racial group in the US. Here, white people are just people: we are the standard, the norm, the universal. Our race is invisible. The lecture was an attempt to make whiteness more visible by pointing out the ways that my previous work constructed images of whiteness, of white people, of the white race, of white privilege. Since whiteness is invisible, particularly to white people, I needed a lot of help to see it and several friends of mine who are people of color graciously helped me out. You can imagine how awkward, beautiful, and hilarious these conversations were. â€œSo, um, I am sure that this video I made shows some stuff about what it means to be white but Iâ€™m not sure exactly how it does it. Would you mind looking at this for meâ€¦?â€ I believe that our identity is expressed in all of the work we make, whether we intend it to be there or not. Art does more than merely express identity, but identity is in there every time.
The Whiteness talk was one of the best things I have done in years. The audience who came was filled with people interested in talking about identity in and around art. We had a great conversation. People want to talk about things like race; there just arenâ€™t a whole lot of spaces where it seems safe to do that. All of my work is about heightening my own awareness in some way and now this Whiteness lecture is helping me to be more aware of myself as a white person. And while I am certainly informed about and interested in ideas about intersectionality, right now I have a lot of work to do to understand the more nuanced histories of white people and white art in the United States. I think it would be great to have a whole series of talks like you mention in your question â€“ Gender in the Work of Julie Perini, Nationality in the Work of Julie Perini, Classâ€¦, Abilityâ€¦, and someday: All Axes of Identity in the Work of Julie Perini. Great idea!
Your day job is as an Assistant Professor at Portland State University. Can you talk a bit about how teaching has impacted your practice?
When Iâ€™ve got a good group, an awesome class meeting makes me want to run out into the street, or home, or to my studio, to make stuff.
You have a new project your raising funds for now. I’m hoping (first) you might take this moment of pixel megaphone, blog soap box to turn readers into donors and (second) I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about crowdsourced fund-raising. Will Kickstarter endure or will we joke about it in five years? Is it a key component of new relational art? Should we resent the middlemen? What is this project about?
Sure! The Gentleman Bank Robber: The Life Story of Rita Bo Brown is going to be a short portrait documentary of Bo Brown, one of the members of the George Jackson Brigade. The GJB was a revolutionary group from Seattle in the 1970s that carried out a lot of militant actions â€“ ie; bombings â€“ to protest the Vietnam war, to show solidarity with workers on strike, and so on. The group often robbed banks to fund their activities, and Bo became known as â€œThe Gentleman Bank Robberâ€ because she demanded funds from bank tellers in a polite manner. She dressed so butch that the authorities were looking for a man for a long time before they figured out they should be looking for Bo. Eventually the GJB all did prison time for their actions but now they are all out. The GJB were like The Weather Underground but unlike the Weatherman who were mostly white, the GJB was a mixed sexuality, mixed race, and mixed gender group. I met Bo through a friend of mine here in Portland, Lydia Bartholow. Lydia has wanted to record Boâ€™s life story for a long time, to have more documentation of radical history from working class butch dykes like Bo. I am more than happy to help out with that project, so here we are. Our friend Erin McNamara is also working on the project. We are running a kickstarter campaign right now to raise money to fund our travel to Oakland, CA where Bo lives. We want to spend a week with her, interviewing her and her friends, documenting her life, and so on. I canâ€™t say right now what the final product will look like but it may be more straightforward than most of my other work. Bo is so awesome, super down-to-earth and sweet but also hard as nails and brilliant, that I am psyched to be able to spend a week with her like this. We are about halfway to our fundraising goal â€“ please feel free to support The Gentleman Bank Robber!
In regards to crowd-sourced fundraising, this is the first online fundraising campaign I have ever done. It seems like it is good for a few reasons: (1) you can raise funds very quickly, (2) you generate excitement about your project and build a community around it before you even make it, and (3) you can get funds from people who donâ€™t live near you. The first two were true before the internet and the third was true but more cumbersome to pull off. The main drawback seems to be that itâ€™s just plain annoying; I probably receive several kickstarter requests every week. I do not know what the future holds for crowdsourcing like this. I think we should ask Canadians what they think. Artists there seem to have an easier time accessing state funding to support their work. I heard that Kickstarter now channels more funding to the arts in the United States than the NEA does. That is not a good sign.
This relates as much to your own practice as it does to my interest in how artists conceive of their careers and the infrastructures they use to bolster their work. You’ve recently gone through a number of residencies (and have just begun another at Yaddo). How do these specific spaces and contexts inform your work? Does the Relational Filmmaker’s Manifesto dictate this kind of site-specificity?Â
In one way, this relates to your teaching question. I have a humanities/social science background, so teaching in art departments and art schools for the past several years has been like going to school all over again. I did not recognize it at the time, but during my undergraduate years there was this subtle idea in the air that thinking was what was difficult, important, and valuable; thatâ€™s what we did at school. Making was this base thing that happened someplace else. It was a manifestation of the unfortunate but common mind/body split we see everywhere in our culture. Iâ€™ve been unlearning that lesson slowly. And after several residencies where Iâ€™ve been able to have some heart-to-hearts with people who work with clay, paint, textiles, language, sound, and so on, my respect for artists and appreciation for what all artists do has grown tremendously. Artists practice fusing their minds and bodies so that they can act in creative, expressive, and investigative ways with materials, tools, forms, and ideas. Incredible.
I want you to talk about your (recent) interest in the materiality of film. This seems like a relatively late discovery considering how long you’ve been making images move. I’m interested in howÂ this more hands-on, process-engaged work has opened you up to new ideas. Part of what’s also interesting is that you bruise and beat the film such that–correct me if I’m wrong–the only time it’s ever actually projected, as such, is when it’s being transferred to a digital copy. How does film–as a physical thing–come to bear in other parts of your practice? What does it mean to be engaged in this specific form at this point in history? Have you taken an interest in the “materiality” of digital video, in its ones and zeroes?
Mingling with painters and sculptors for the past several years has made me way more open to both (1) working with materials with my hands and (2) seriously exploring formal elements. I learned about handmade film techniques through a workshop Pam Minty teaches at the Northwest Film Center and I immediately started to wonder what my usual repertoire of questions and strategies would look like as cameraless films.
I have taken an interest in the materiality of digital video, and analog video for that matter. I am constantly aware that these are all very different media created and transmitted through completely different means. I have not yet taken that fact to be the subject of a work but I appreciate that other folks like Evan Meaney are doing that, although he is doing that and much more.
What is the difference between creative activism (falling into something like living and acting politically as form) and political art? To me, one of the fundamental issues surrounding political art as well as documentary as a broader practice. How important are clarity, succinctness and overtness to communicating political ideas? Is there room for genuinely innovative and formally expressive work that is still oriented toward conveying a political idea? Compare, say, Frontline documentaries with those ofÂ Jackie GossÂ or Craig BaldwinÂ or evenÂ Ken Jacobs, if the goal of a politically-engaged film is to convey a political idea, maybe formal innovation can get in the way? And if creating a complicated space in which a multiplicity of ideas and feelings and interpretations can flourish is a goal of much of contemporary practice, how does this muddle political meanings?Â
These are all useful questions youâ€™re hitting on here, ones that have been considered for a long time either consciously or unconsciously by people with power and by people who want power. I think that Jen-Luc Godard quote makes sense here: â€œThe problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically.â€