by Autumn Hays
Considered to be one of the most renowned performance artists, Ron Athey began his works in the 80s. They are notorious for including aspects of S&M culture and it’s relation to the AIDS crisis. Athey’s iconic pieces focus on a wide range of subjects including sexuality, religiosity, trauma, gay identity, loss, illness and ritualism. Raised with the expectation that he would become a Pentecostal minister, and after running away to L.A. and coming of age in the milieu of the punk rock underground, Athey’s work grew out of a complex performativity that still informs his art practice today. In 2013 Ron’s first book dedicated to his work was published entitled Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performance of Ron Athey, edited by Dominic Johnson. The book includes writings by peers and scholars such as Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Antony Hegarty, Robert Wilson, Lydia Lunch, Bruce LaBruce, Amelia Jones, Jennifer Doyle, Homi K. Bhabha and others. At the start of February, Chicago was host a legendary performance artist, Ron Athey visited Chicago. I was lucky enough to attend his performances, lectures and snag him for an interview. Here are some excerpts from our discussion.
AH: How it feels to be back in Chicago?
RA: I think I had more pre-anxiety about coming here, memories of staying here with Lawrence Steger and doing things with him. I was shocked and went into the shivers from the cold when got off the plane, not wearing long underwear. It’s not like London is warm, it’s moderate and miserable there. Where as here needing many layers, I dig it.
AH: Tell us about he last time you were here and the last performance you did.
RA: I had to look at my own notes, I was here twice in ’99 doing Solar Anus so at Hot House and at Chris Kellner’s gallery Hook Torture and I hadn’t realized I haven’t been here since then.
AH: Yeah it’s been a while
RA:Yeah, I mean climates change. Randolph Street Gallery closed and all those places I would have went back to.
AH: I’ve actually been through the Randolph street archives and have seen videos of your work there and you really could feel its loss once it was gone here. I am interested as you are here working with Defibrillator a newer performance space what are the correlation and difference between these kinds of spaces in this new kind of art climate?
RA: I think it just takes energy to make things happen. It’s not really that the climate is any different. A lot of spaces with the same history as Randolph Street that go back to NEA funded times, but really even before that these are artist run spaces and they don’t, move with the times. So there was this gap and it takes someone high energy like Joseph (Ravens) to get people to work together. I mean even for these pieces I am doing this week and that he realized that Defibrillator itself would be a crunch and he found the right place off site, this is another way of working the art space because the space is so important. Some pieces I feel like I don’t want to be in a place that shows work, like you know this site specific thing becomes a more neutral space than that black box or white wall hygiene kind of space.
AH: Your work is very versatile where you can perform in a lot of different kinds of spaces. I mean you can do that black box theater, the white-walled gallery, you can do performance art spaces or even S&M clubs so you have a versatility in where you can perform and also a little bit in your performativity, you engage various kinds of performance. What’s the difference in working in these spaces? Is there a benefit to being flexible?
RA: Well, I wish I could still perform in clubs still, but I did evolve out of that scene. That allowed me to workshop before even any idea of funding to make the gig possible came up. For some pieces I think I might be precious about it being there. I tend, since I started doing the self-obliterations, I like being in with the audience. For the most controlling side of me, a perfect black box with the floors freshly painted and super duper lights, because you’re not fighting the white wall sucking the light out from one minimal light that happens to be shining. It’s a more controlled situation and I do work in lighting illusions and those sorts of things. So that’s if I’m being precious but it’s not necessarily the best feeling, the way I feel interactive with the audience or the space. But I think to get away from those white gallery walls I did start staging pieces in the middle of the room so that the people are the frontdrop and backdrop. You know I don’t come out of this tradition of thinking of live art as an extension of gallery, my work doesn’t come from there, I fully understand work that does but I’m not so keen on this… of course I love the perfect image, the perfect photograph but that’s not the work. I’m always concerned with how many cameramen are in there. I thought we were watching a work.
AH: Especially nowadays with camera phones it’s interesting to have that camera lens constantly there.
RA: I think you have to think about what you are not experiencing while looking for that shot and also, do you care about the work, or are you just documenting your own life?
AH: So we touched on your definitions of live art and performance art. There are always different definitions. What are your thoughts on that?
RA: I think you get this polarization. This is the gallery school, and this is the theater school, but actually my background was through the Pentecostal church, particularly woman evangelists who did illustrated sermons starting in the 20s with Amy Semple McPherson, who built Angelus Temple in Echo Park and later Miss Velma (Jaggers) who built the jeweled altar from the Book of Revelations and who would appear as the whore of Babylon swinging in on a crescent moon using all the 70s technology, like the echo box, strobe lights and fog machines. So, performance art is this other type of sacred theater without the belief system in it. In abstract terms I might still use a thing like the audience is the witness, and its not about second guessing what their boundaries are, what they will experience, what they come in the door with. It’s impossible to know. It’s a mix of things, which is what it should be. Also it’s about what mode you are in. It’s obviously not acting, so it’s just full of these triggers to go into, not an altered state where you look like your fitting or asleep but some heightened state. I like art that rides a line between art and not art at all.
AH: I was wondering if you could tell us more about your book, “Pleading in the Blood”, and your process of making it.
RA: To start out with the book, you have to open archives that you didn’t even know existed. And here is where I have to give some kudos to social media. I am very linked in to people in LA, people from the late 70s and early 80s Goth and Punk scenes. So I was able to come up with materials, confirm dates, and stories through there, and then track down the photographers. All I ever had was the newspaper, the tabloids, the rough printed images, Xeroxed and scanned, you know that kind of thing. And then I started getting closer to the source of the original image. It felt like I was perusing someone from a David Lynch movie, you’re in a hotel room with seven 5by7s in a brief case. So you track that down and try to flesh out some of those stories, which is a harder period for me to flesh out. And working with Dominic Johnson who is a young academic at Queen Mary University, London. He was clear about what heavy academics who we liked in common, but I was clear that I didn’t want it to be one of those artist books with three academic essays in it and lots of pictures so that no one ever, except for people in school, ever read the writing because its inaccessible outside the bubble. I wanted to give it a testimonial voice not just an academic one.
AH: Do you have any advice for younger artists attempting to learn the craft of making performance art?
RA: The key element of making work is immersion. Rather than doing research as a strong guide, let it be something you soak up. There is nothing sane about making performance art.
Defibrillator, Hook Torture, and Mana Contemporary pooled their efforts to showcase Ron in Chicago this month. Each night was filled with a wide mix of viewers, from pierced punks and goths, old school Chicago underground, art students, and art academics, many eager to see Ron’s work in person. He performed two works on two separate nights, “Incorruptible Flesh: Messianic Remains” and “Sebastian” featuring Jon John and Sage Charles.
Messianic Remains is part of Athey’s Incorruptible Flesh series. The series started in 96’ and references the dark reality of living with AIDS. Athey talks about the piece saying it stems from “still living but not living bodies”. 10 years later in Glasgow, Athey did a solo individual piece, 6 hours long. The third part focused on the Mythological. Now this 4th and final chapter, was performed in Chicago at Mana Contemporary on January 31st. The work reveled in a religious grandiosity and explored Ron Athey’s body as a post-AIDS entity: a survivor. The work also looks at Athey’s own bodies ageing, and seems to shake hands with notions of death. The choreography is inspired by Kenneth Anger’s short film, Lucifer Rising.
The audience came in on to Ron laying down on ladder sitting on two wooden sawhorses with a baseball bat, swollen glands, and his head latched to a series of hooks in a crown of thorns style lining, his head connected to the wall. Though the preparations for this performance were not part of the audiences’ viewing, many felt the preparations, though unseen, were a large part of the work. Clear gloves were handed out and the audience dipped their hands in a pale Vaseline before taking turns touching Athey’s body as he laid on display. The offering of his flesh was both a gift and an obligation as viewers chose to experience the tension and pain up close. Ron than rises for a mythical, almost Egyptian dressing ceremony and moves to a new part of the gallery where he begins to read text from Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet, specifically “Divine’s Funeral.”
The very next day Ron Athey, Jon John and Sage Charles preformed “Sebastian.” While interviewing Ron I had asked him about Working with Jon John and Sage.
“We have this great chemistry where we trust each other, we don’t have to plot out everything. You’re going to do what you need to do with the goal of making this action happen. Easy directions within a choreographed frame. What is Sebastian? I don’t know. I think that’s where live work can be surprising. If you know what you want to prove rather than explore something you’re just strong-arming a result. The potential of live experience is so beyond that outlined vision that I’m doing. It took me a long time to understand that.”
In this work Athey is taking on the role of St. Sebastian, a saint that has also become a homoerotic icon. The event starts with Sage and Jon John making their way through the crowd in a procession towards Ron, who is already hung up on a ladder, tied with red rope. As Sage drums, Jon John climbs a second ladder to meet Athey and begins piercing him with arrows. Ron begins to scream and chant in performance’s best ritualistic shamanism. Jon John then fills the role of St Irene and begins to heal Athey, spreading lotion on Athey’s body, eventually removing the arrows and as Athey bleeds he helps him depose down from ladder and onto a table where they cover him in a white cloth. For the final and perhaps most touching part of the performance, one that had echoes of the NEA controversy, Jon John cuts sections of cloth-covered in Athey’s blood and places them in tiny frames handing them to random audience members.
Ron Athey’s work certainly isn’t for the squeamish, but despite the inclusion of blood and body modification I didn’t find the shock value of the work to be any kind of crutch or sympathetic tool. Rather is was a means of performativity that outwardly engaged Athey’s body as a gay, post-AIDS, religicized, performative body. When looking at his work, the dense symbolism and actions, the controversy and the intense metaphoric value, I feel like ending this with one of my favorite quotes from my interview with Ron Athey that I feel addresses his work, process, and in a way the very practice of performance art.
“I’m actually at this place in performance art where I think everything is just an entry point. You can say this is about your mother, this is about this accident, this is about AIDS, but it’s actually not what it’s about. You don’t know what it’s about till you do it live, that’s why it’s live work. I have to bring something to life to make work. There has to be uncertain things within the framework of the piece that allow it to go as it will.”
Two weeks ago, I wrote here about one relationship between art and album jackets, specifically The Beatles’ White Album and Paul McCartney’s Thrillington, released under a pseudonym. That same week, I was asked to give a talk on the broadly interpreted theme of “jackets” and so I followed the album jacket vein. Along the way I rediscovered Barney Bubbles, the long forgotten graphic artist who designed incredible jackets for many of the quirkier members of Britain’s punk scene in the late 70s and early 80s. Most of his work was deliberately uncredited. Some examples of his work and my experience rediscovering Bubbles for myself follows.
Who among us hasn’t burned off a drizzling afternoon in Wikipedia limbo racking with tab after tab of hyperlinked articles? Often enough its done out of boredom, you could be stuck behind a desk at work and have nothing else to do, but that doesn’t exactly mean that you read these articles without interest. You could start an afternoon on the entry for Operation Barbarossa and easily end up reading about the Latvian hockey team. With your interest and your time, you create the proper conditions for an accident to happen. In my experience, research is not a method with clear steps to follow. It’s closer to a test of interest and patience as well as the faith it takes to believe those two qualities combined will bear fruit.
Before the turn of this century, when computers lurched and gurgled as they connected to the Internet, I regularly spent hours in front of a grey Compaq desktop in my family’s living room browsing disc after disc of the Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. I would do this after a full day at Central Junior High, where rudderless classes like Mrs. Crutcher’s Honors Biology would routinely devolve into unsupervised poker games. My brain was not fed at school and so I filled it at home, aided by the interactive gizmos of Grolier’s
CD-ROMS. I watched animated maps of the Marshall Plan and learned about the founders of Adelaide. I discovered the Celtic words for the Irish potato famine and found out that the county I grew up in was originally called Mosquito.
Nothing much seemed to happen in Mosquito County. Sitting as it does on the Atlantic coast of Florida. Salty air and tropical weeds wipe out signs of the past that tourism and the aerospace industry haven’t already eclipsed. With Grolier, all the history hidden from
me in person was suddenly laid out at home on a computer, made all the more attractive by its digital glitz. In my wanderings through the encyclopedia, I came upon an entry titled “History of Rock and Roll.” It was in this article that I was first exposed to
Elvis Costello, the musician who would become the musical touchstone for the remainder of my teenage years. A thirty second audio clip of Costello’s 1978 song “Pump It Up,” his sixth single for the iconoclastic British punk label Stiff Records, played through the puny computer speakers in my family’s living room.
After hearing “Pump It Up,” I got a ride to Barnes and Noble and bought a best of CD. In its liner notes, I scrutinized the one square inch images of albums I had never known existed. By the time I finished High School, I had heard them all. Through Internet
browsing, I learned of and heard the music of Costello’s early label mates at Stiff: Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury, Nick Lowe. Barnes and Noble didn’t sell these musicians’ albums. They wouldn’t even order them for me.
This was all, of course, before iTunes displayed a handy thumbnail image of the album you’re listening to in the bottom corner of your screen. If I had downloaded an album, probably from Napster, my knowledge of its cover was cursory at best. CDs weren’t much better. As I wouldn’t appreciate until I began collecting records AFTER I’d already amassed piles of compact discs, much is lost in the journey from twelve inch LP to five inch jewel case. What a terrible name, jewel case. Now that most of us save things to our hard drives and beam music to our cars’ stereos through iPods, it’s absurd to glorify those obsolete plastic discs by comparing them to jewels. The things that vinyl LPs come in have a much better name. They’re called album jackets.
Because I wasn’t experiencing albums by Costello and his label mates on vinyl LPs, I didn’t understand that there was one designer behind what seemed like wildly different jacket designs. That designer was Colin Fulcher, known better for most of his career as Barney Bubbles. His designs did not stop at compelling imagery, they creatively engaged with the form of records themselves—from packaging conventions through to mass manufacturing techniques. Without handling the jackets yourself, pulling out the disc, and rifling through the liners, the core qualities of Bubbles designs are lost. Here are a few examples.
Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Do It Yourself, 1979.
For this album, Bubbles suggested that Stiff buy up reams of actual Crown wallpaper and print the title information over it. Dave Robinson, Stiff’s owner, actually negotiated a deal with the wallpaper company to get the product for free. Crown agreed to the deal as long as Stiff left the catalog numbers of specific designs on the paper. The cover features a character called Tommy the Talking Toolbox and a Stiff Records logo redesigned to look like a hammer from a home toolkit.
Nick Lowe, I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass, 1978.
For this design, Bubbles simultaneously quotes a dadaist motif from the portfolio of artist Theo van Doesburg and, applying a classic Bauhaus photogram technique, quotes the tools of his own trade. Laid out on the jacket are some of the tools Bubbles would use to assemble his designs: a magnifying glass, a pair of tweezers, an x-acto blade, and a paperclip. One of the more raucous elements of the studio’s atmosphere makes in into the image in the form of a pull-tab from a beer can.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, This Year’s Model, 1978.
The instantly recognizable cover of Costello’s second album shows him behind a medium format camera, peeping out at the viewer and directing you to shift just a little bit to his right. Where Costello was the subject of the photo on the cover of his debut album My Aim Is True, here he IS the photographer. Jake Riviera, the owner of Stiff spin-off Radar Records, wanted to make a bold gesture to Radar’s distributor—Warner Music—that Riviera was serious about making album jackets his own way with no interference. He made this clear to Bubbles, who ran with the idea. Working from the image of Elvis as a photographer, Bubbles continued the photography theme. He designed the cover as a misprinted proof, with the normally present color test bars running down the right hand side. The bars take up enough space to push the first letters of both Elvis and the album’s name off the cover completely. It’s a tiny tweak, but completely in line with the album’s sneering impertinence.
Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Accidents Will Happen, 1979.
Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton—pioneers of early computer graphics—generated the imagery for this single. But as with This Year’s Model and Do It Yourself, Bubbles intervened in the printing process. He had the factory print the seven inch sleeve inside out. It looks blank until you take the disc out and peep inside. Then you get the joke: seemingly, during manufacture, an accident has happened. It’s a strange moment in anti-marketing. As with Dury’s Do It Yourself, the managers were not only prepared to indulge Bubbles’ designs, but were enthusiastic about doing so. It served the manager’s purposes by giving Stiff and Radar recording artists an edge of “cool.” But the design choices Bubbles made on these jackets were hardly market-researched or audience-tested. They were made in the midst of a chaotic office environment, where Bubbles, the quiet, tidy craftsman, would listen to the songs on the record he was designing for and, drawing upon his own knowledge of art history and personal reserve of eclectic interests, respond directly to the music he outfitted.
Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, 1978.
Barney Bubbles’ jackets effortlessly complement the aesthetic impulses of the artists whose music they contain. For Costello, he responded to the joy Elvis takes in playing with words, even snide and cynical ones. For Ian Dury, who was a college art professor before his music career took off, Bubbles designed jackets that played to the singer’s taste for Bauhaus and evoked the solid core of principles often disguised by a man and music frayed around the edges. And nowhere is Nick Lowe’s sensibility summarized so effectively as the jacket for Jesus of Cool, below, where Lowe dressed up as a number of rock archetypes: lounge act, new waver, pub rocker.
Nick Lowe, Jesus of Cool, 1978
What’s even more remarkable is that even on labels as central obsessed with personality driven music as Stiff and Radar, Bubbles humbly toiled behind the curtain. By the mid 70s, Bubbles had stopped crediting himself on jackets, leaving the work of attribution up to die-hard fans. It’s part of the reason that people are only now beginning to take notice of his designs’ wit. They stand on their own without the aid of a personality cult.
Bubbles’ jackets are seeds that have lain fallow for years only to bloom now. His work is a repository of modest charm and small moves with delightful delayed payoffs. At least for me, that describes the process of research pretty well too. It’s less the result of one person’s skill and more a collusion between the right atmospheric conditions. Of course, it takes putting oneself out there in those conditions again and again over long periods of time before the flower blooms, the fruit ripens, and you get what you didn’t even know you were looking for and hadn’t even realized you needed. The generous attention you give to something when you’re in the research mode is a frame of mind applicable to the world at-large, not just the world in books, or the world on the Internet. That doesn’t mean putting everything under the microscope, but allowing that the people, places, and things that populate our everyday lives don’t necessarily reveal their gold on first, second, or fifth glance. Often enough, they’re time-release capsules that only burst open to reveal themselves in the presence of those two essential components of research: time and attention. And with patient, smoldering curiosity, accidents will happen.
Thanks to Anthony Stepter, Amber Yared, and Nate Dorotiak.
This week: Richard and Duncan talk with Anders Nilsen.
Anders Nilsen was born in northern New Hampshire in 1973. He grew up splitting his time between the mountains of New England and the streets and parks of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was weaned on a steady diet of comics, stories and art, from Tintin and the X-Men to Raw, Weirdo, punk rock, zines, graffiti and regular trips to art museums.
Nilsen studied painting and installation art at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, also making comics and zines mostly outside class. In 1999 he started photocopying strips from his sketchbooks, self-publishing them as Big Questions #1 and #2. That same year he moved to Chicago to do graduate work at the School of the Art Institute. In 2000 he turned an artists book he’d done in undergrad into his first properly printed book, The Ballad of the Two Headed Boy, with a grant from the Xeric Foundation. The same year he took advantage of an offset lithography class at the Art Institute to print the third issue of Big Questions, with all original material. In 2000 he dropped out of graduate school to do comics on his own. He received grants from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs to publish the next three issues of Big Questions.
Anders’ comics have been translated into a number of languages. He has exhibited his drawing and painting internationally and had his work anthologized in Kramer’s Ergot, Mome, The Yale Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Best American Comics and Best American Non-Required Reading, as well as The Believer, the Chicago Reader and elsewhere. Other titles by Nilsen include Dogs And Water, Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow, Monologues for the Coming Plague, Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes, and The End #1.
Nilsen keeps a blog at themonologuist.blogspot.com where he posts occasional new work, and a website with examples of past work and various illustration he’s done at andersbrekhusnilsen.com.
He currently lives with his cat in Chicago, Il.
Anders Nilsen also received Ignatz Nominations for Outstanding Artist for Big Questions #7 & #8, Outstanding Series (Big Questions), and Outstanding Comic (Big Questions #7) at the 2006 Small Press Expo. Dogs and Water won an Ignatz for Outstanding Story in 2005, and his graphic memoir Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow won an Ignatz for Outstanding Graphic Novel in 2007.
AS220 is a special place. In last week’s conversation with the Dirt Palace, you can already get a sense for how it has influenced the culture of Providence. In the following interview, I talked to Meg Turner, a former RISD graduate, who helped build and share AS220′s print shop. Rather than focus on AS220, however, we spent most of our time talking about her life after Providence. About two years ago, she moved to New Orleans to start and run Art Works’ non-profit print shop. It didn’t work out and she has since embarked on another coop print shop project. To me, the whole story is valuable: what does it mean to think of an arts organization as an ethical parent? What does it mean to keep the passion of your interest safe from the specifics of a bad experience? And, perhaps most of all, how do you balance one’s personal creativity with administrative, communal work? Meg Turner is also a print maker dedicated to crumbling, abandoned buildings. She’s just as handy with silk screens as she is employing (and teaching) older, photopolymer gravure, techniques. The second part of this interview will carry on here, where we talk more about her work and what was like to move her creative practice to New Orleans.
Caroline Picard: I’m curious about Noe, the print shop you’re running in New Orleans, and how you came to be there.
Meg Turner: Right now I don’t run the print shop. Right now I’m part of an amazing co-op that is totally existing because of every person putting in an insane amount of hours. I am the least part of running it because I left for 2 months.
But. I used to go on bike rides with my friend Morgan who ran the shop when we were at RISD and we would daydream about the print shops we would run someday — we would just think of the presses — we didn’t really think of the form, just “Someday I’m gonna have a letterpress, and an etching press: I’m gonna have this equipment and that space—” the same way people decorate their kitchens and future homes. We didn’t really think about structure or how it would work. When we heard AS220 was opening a print shop, we both called Susan to try to get a job. And she said, “No it’s not like that. Come to the meetings.” The first meeting took place in a bare room and we sat on the floor and there were 10-15 people there asking, “What do we want in this shop?” Once that question came up, then we started asking, “Who’s going to use it? How does it work?”
The whole co-op structure and the way that it would work with volunteering, that wasn’t instinctual for me, at least. It was an interesting—for a good 6 months to a year I definitely—coming out of RISD atmosphere of fine art editioning—I was thinking we would have to create the most beautiful print shop possible so fine artists could make beautiful work. Let’s keep it clean and maybe it shouldn’t be open to the public, maybe it should just be a small group of members that work together. But I got used to AS220′s approach. Because if someone asks, “Hey can I come to your shop and learn how to screen print?” and I have to say, “No, I’m sorry it’s only for these people—” it’s too bad. I don’t ever want to say, “This print shop is closed, you can’t come here and learn.” Because the whole point was create something that is as good as a university but open to absolutely anybody to come and use it in whatever way they can.
But it was funny how long it took me to appreciate that. When I started working for my boss in New Orleans [at LA Art Works], I went to her shop and thought, “Oh my God it’s so clean! One person uses this space! There’s an endless supply of paper towels!”
CP: Were you psyched at first?
MT: I was psyched—I thought this is the best thing I could ever imagine! And then after 3 days I thought that if I didn’t have open shop to go to and didn’t exist in the chaos of the ink and people showing up that were 50 and 16 years old my world would feel small because I wasn’t spreading the love of this medium. Part of it is just that I love analog mark making and want everybody to learn it. I want to make it as accessible as possible.
CP: Maybe this is a stretch but I feel like the silkscreening ethos is centered around production and dissemination.
MT: Yeah, it’s totally about the democratization of art making and words and markmaking is the history of printmaking and I really love that. But you can also just make wedding invitations and other dumb things and you can make crazy political posters to wheat paste. It’s anti precious even when you’re making etches. And the art scene that I’m involved with is way more dirty and punk rock so we’ve created this really down and dirty silkscreen studio in a warehouse.
CP: Wait, you mean it’s more punk rock compared to Providence?
MT: Well it’s just a different scene down there. In Providence we’ve got an art school that pumps kids out, kids that come from the bubble of like, “I take my art really seriously,” and our music scene is small enough that it doesn’t divide itself. Providence is unique and that’s why I love it, because the art and the music scene are totally intermingled—whereas down in New Orleans there are more people who want to be in galleries or work in non-profits, people who are cleaner in some ways, and then there’s the punk scene that screen prints but printing is very much a hobby or in service of the music scene, and it’s a little separate. That’s where a lot of the constituents of the print shop are coming from. Having been familiar with the punk scene [in Providence], that’s the part I plugged into [in New Orleans]. But a lot of the people I’ve met are amazing educators and there’s beginning to be more of a mix.
The struggle down there now is how to not lose the feeling that anyone can walk in off the street at any time —which I felt like was lacking at AS220 — once a week, no appointment necessary. New Orleans isn’t like New England — people don’t have calendars, people don’t want to sign up for things. They just want certain days a week when they can walk in. That has been by far the most successful thing. But I also want it to be a place where someone who wants to get a beautiful edition done can go, and it can be clean and organized and professional. And we also have no money now, no money at all. But we’re going to do a kickstarter I think.
So that’s been really interesting and the amount of enthusiasm out there — because there’s not a printing or poster scene down there like there is in Providence. The poster scene is photocopies, still amazing photocopies, amazing drawings for shows.
CP: Do you have a sense as to why there wouldn’t have been a poster scene down there?
MT: Well — I mean it’s not that there completely wasn’t — people have posters on the walls — but just not in the same way that I grew up seeing in Providence. I think a big part of it is RISD. New Orleans doesn’t have an art school; there are art programs but kids don’t settle in town to keep doing what they’re doing. So it’s not to say that there’s no poster scene down there, because there is a huge flyer practice — the amount of time and effort that people put into making photocopied flyers down there is insane, and gorgeous and amazing — but the tools are different, you know?
What’s been really exciting is how many people have been psyched about what we’re doing.
CP: It’s pretty awesome that you could even have walk in hours that people would use. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case in every city. There’s also the whole thing of how you get people who would be interested to learn you exist —
MT: Yeah, and it’s been funny how, even when we left Art Works and went to Noe — and Art Works was gorgeous— then to go to this amazing but totally chaotic, dirty warehouse and have people follow us from one to the other, people who had never been in a place that weird and, say, punk; it was cool. We’ve had some amazing middle-aged people, some high school students have been coming, and small business owners who want to make t-shirts. It’s slow. It’s definitely small, we get maybe five walk-ins at a time.
CP: You’ve told me a little bit about Art Works; it sounds like in that initial situation you had a budget and a brand new facility but in that instance you had to work within a power structure that wasn’t the best—
MT: Yeah it was a strange experience. There was definitely a power struggle going on between the CEO and the Director. When I moved there [for the job] they had very different ideas, so I was kind of caught in between. And there was no budget at all, actually, so the whole challenge was balancing the fact that the facilities were amazing but half-built there was like a hundred thousand dollars worth of tackage presses but there was no budget for anything, paper towels, screens, emulsion, not a cent. So we had to create every dollar we could to spend on materials. When it started, we had a big meeting. “Does anyone want to do this? Who wants this? Who wants to get involved?” All these people came and our budget the first week came from the ten dollars we made at the first open shop. People donated equipment. People started paying dues immediately, it was 35 dollars a month and that let us buy our first bucket of emulsion. We could offer this amazing space, but the facility wasn’t what it needed to be. The organization wanted a gorgeous, functioning edition studio to attract artists from around the country. It seemed like they were not as interested in a local community. There was definitely tension there. And then the place was just crumbling, They had no money. When they hired me I said I could make it financially independent in two years, if they paid my salary and gave a small budget to finish outfitting the shop — originally 6,000 dollars would be made available to finish the shop, but I got there and they were just like, “Sorry, no.”
CP: Do you feel like it’s easier now that you’re sort of working on your own terms
MT: I think, it’s gonna be a lot easier except that we don’t have the same kind of facilities to offer the world, we don’t have tackage presses. We don’t have this like gorgeous room with 30 foot ceilings and glass windows, so, there are some there are some people who just won’t even pay attention to what we’re doing now, but I think in terms of the people who really respected what we were doing, they’re psyched, everyone is really supportive.
CP: I remember you mentioned procuring a lot of equipment for Art Works. Once a space like that sort of folds, you can’t take that equipment because it was donated specifically to the non-profit. How did you negotiate those issues of ownership?
MT: Because we all knew it was a bit of a sinking ship, I drafted things for people to sign when they donated equipment. I made it very clear to my organization and the people that they were loaning the equipment and they could take it back at any moment. When we got kicked out, I said, “Everyone is taking back their equipment,” and then I talked to the people who had donated that stuff and said, “We’re gonna open again in a couple months if you feel like donating it again, that would be great.” But what we didn’t get to keep were the things that we built ourselves. That was the really tragic because it was like our blood, you know. For instance there’s this rosin box that I got two local carpenters to build. It’s not to code, and they couldn’t use if they open again…Things were ugly when they fell apart. What we took with us was the energy of these ten people and we met in coffee shops for months, asking ourselves, “How can we do this again by ourselves no board, no money, no bullshit?”
CP: There must’ve been an important period of time where you were meeting without a facility, where your relationships were gestating, and you could figure out how you wanted to work together without the pressure of immediate, practical demands.
MT: Right, right. Some people that are there now have been there from the very beginning and people took different roles — that was the most exciting thing. A couple of people teach high school and middle school and have been teaching screen printing in those places. They were like really excited about being able to bring their kids to this facility and show them like you can work in amazing spaces. Then other people were more psyched about having a place to print, which the amazing thing about printmaking. It forces you to be communal (unless you’re loaded) because you have to share equipment. What’s hard has been how much administration needs to happen now that no one person is the manager. The last month has been all about insurance, bank account, bylaws; we became a nonprofit. I think like any place, if we all knew how much work it was going to be we probably would’ve been like, “Whatever!” But so we’ll see, we’ll see how it goes, see like what role everybody wants.
Read more about Meg’s visual work and abandoned building by going here.
Special thanks for transcribing help from Mallory Gevaert and Daryl Meador!
This week: Chris Duncan joins Brian and Duncan in a round table with Rich Jacobs. Jacobs work draws from by graffiti, psychedelic and folk art, and frequently appears on a broad range of materials beyond the gallery including magazines, books, CD and LP covers.
The raucous group discusses building a scene outside the system, the decline in the relevance of graffiti, why punks end up making hippie art, and why we all should endeavor to make more honest artwork. This is the final interview recorded in our series at Baer Ridgeway Exhibitions.