November 16, 2011 · Print This Article
Often art spaces emerge in response to rumbling (and specific) undercurrents in a given community. In the Artists Run Chicago Digest — a book I put together with threewalls that examines artist-run art spaces in Chicag0 between 1999 and 2009— 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 feels something noticeably underrepresented — nine times out of ten it’s “good art” — 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: 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 — 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 partner’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 away from HIV in the mid-90s. 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 – 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.
CP: As a nomadic exhibition project, how do you feel the unique architecture of Providence complements the specificity of individual projects?
TP: It’s different for each project, because the existing architecture (in a physical/historical/economic sense) in each location we’ve conducted our project \ is so very different and unique to the particular section of town where it resides. 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 ‘Providence Piers’ 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 “Conley’s Wharf” building which houses studios and offices for creative businesses. The exhibition was a solo-show of my partner’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 – 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 didn’t expect – 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 Providence’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 district’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.
TP: Absolutely, every property we’ve chosen to work in has presented itself as a space that could be activated by the presence of an exhibition — or vice versa – 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 “Art Is Shit Editions” – Frolic, Frolic, Irresistible – was organized around the premise of consumerism and art as commodity. The property we chose for it was a downtown property on Westminster St – known as the “Heart of Providence” – it’s primarily a restaurant and shopping district. 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 Providence’s history of sex-trafficking and how long indoor prostitution remained decriminalized in Rhode Island (it was made illegal in 2009). 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.
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 we’re trying to do with the project.
CP: How have your curatorial strategies developed over time?
TP: 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. Throughout the project I’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 I’ve conducted the curatorial strategies for the project. Kwon puts it perfectly when she identifies the purpose of her book as “to 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. That’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) 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 David Ciccilline called: “[In order to build] on one of [Providence's] finest assets — its large number of artists, designers, student and faculty innovators at such schools like Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design — the city recently re-branded itself as 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.
Sean Di lanni: The Due Return is a massive, immersive, interactive installation which is fully navigable by visitors. Its namesake and central element is a 75 foot long, by 15 foot high, by 20 foot wide dimension hopping, time traveling ship. The ship has traveled through 31 different “eras” (or TD’s) and now resides in an alien landscape on a foreign planet. The ship and it’s current environment, which we call TD+31 is available for visitors to explore inside of The Center for Contemporary Art’s 6000 Sq. Ft. Munoz Waxman Gallery here in Santa Fe through August 21st. It was collaboratively produced by over 100 Artists and volunteers, both local and international.
Upon entering the Munoz Waxman Gallery, visitors are directed through a cave-like entryway and immediately confronted by the 15 ft. prow of the ship, upon which is mounted the figurehead, a fantastical winged mer-leopard named Freyja. The cave-like entryway is part of a system of cliffs made primarily from mud, which occupy the front wall and corner of the space. They contain rooms and tunnels filled with bizarre life-forms and provide the setting for some of the many theatrical performances that will take place throughout the run of the show.
The environment transitions as you move to the stern of the ship and becomes a forest of “glow trees” which are “speaking” to each other in a language of colored light. Each tree actually produces colors that communicate with neighboring “trees” which in turn approximate those colors in their own vocabulary and pass them on to their neighbors
The ship itself contains 2500 Sq. Ft. split between a lower deck and an upper deck. The lower deck holds the Engine Room and Lab, 12 bunk spaces, Archive, and Garden. The upper deck supports a Victorian style Lounge (with a piano!), a Control Room inside of a geodesic dome and a Spanish galleon style Captain’s Quarters. The aesthetic of these spaces, and the wooden hull of the ship itself, reflect it’s non-linear voyage through time and space.
Each room of the ship is fully structural and can be explored by walking, climbing and crawling. Navigating the architecture itself provides the most basic level of interactivity in the show, but visitors are encouraged to engage in a variety of digital and narrative elements as well. The Control Room, for instance, features the NOMAD, or “Novelty Oriented Manual Automation Desk.” From here visitors can affect video interfaces which monitor bizarre “levels” of activity within the ship and environment, including the activity of the light forest, emotional health indices, vortexial activity and so on. NOMAD is also one of many places where visitors can actually control lights and sound in the ship and environment. For instance, one interface contains a map of an extensive system of LED lights installed in the ceiling called “The Stahphield.” By clicking on quadrants of the map visitors can affect the way the lights fade and twinkle in the Stahphield.
While NOMAD acts as the center of digital interactivity for the show, we’ve set up a number of alternative interfaces for this as well. One of my favorites are these small “control boxes” set up around the environment and in the Captain’s Quarters that affect the activity of the Glow Forest. They allow visitors to actually dial in a specific color, which is displayed back to them through a cool frosted acrylic surface. When you find a color you like, you “send” it to the trees, interrupting their conversation and interjecting your color into the forest. Over the course of the show, these interjections are added to the color vocabulary of the forest.
We’ve also created an iPhone App called Elixir, which provides another platform for these interactive elements. Elixir contains programs that can interject colors into the Light Forest and affect the Stahphield. It also serves as an access point to The Loci, the ships archive. In addition to it’s physical manifestation inside the ship, The Loci is a vast digital archive of the ships history told in passages from journals, audio recordings, images and entries by the fictional archivist, Teddy Hubbel (www.loci.theduereturn.com). Some of the material in the archive is also linked to QR Codes, which are scattered throughout the ship and can be accessed by most QR Code readers including the one in Elixir.
The narratives contained in the Archive are also made accessible to visitors through a series of “seemingly spontaneous” theatrical performances that happen on select weekend nights through the run of the show. On performance nights visitors are given schedules of key performances at the door. In addition to these publicized performances, smaller vignettes occur in the form of crew interactions throughout the installation.
CP: You’ve used a vast array of materials in this project. While looking at the website, I even I noticed some computer architectural programs. Can you talk about how you were able to include so many material dimensions?
SDL: Most of the magic that happens in a Meow Wolf project happens as a result of the projects being as inclusive to as many forms of expression and materials as possible. Usually, the results of this inclusion surprise the people involved in the project as much as they surprise audiences. Including different types of artists and processes allows us to reach a broader audience, simply because of the huge variety of stuff that any one project can contain. But “more stuff” is made much more interesting when it’s combined under a semi-cohesive theme, idea, or at least space. That stuff starts conversing with itself. Every one of our projects deals with issues of cohesion and structure in different ways, and they all seem to be experiments in bringing together diverse people and materials to achieve something where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
So, for The Due Return, we set up a fair amount of structure and organization because we felt that we needed these things to achieve our very high ambitions. At the same time, we were careful to keep in mind that whatever structure we created was intended to make space for expression and not to contain ambitions, or curtail visions. As I see it, these structures were set up to facilitate opportunities for artistic collaboration and experimentation.
With this in mind we broke the The Due Return down into sub-projects. There was a lot of interaction between sub-projects but each had internal organization and one, two or three point people, so that a system of communication was set up. These groups were as follows: Ship, Archive, Tech, Environment and Performance.
At first we met as one large group, until we had a solid idea of what we were trying to do. Then the sub-groups really got going and started generating all kinds of plans and bringing in all kinds of people with different interests to work on the project. We’d meet up again as a whole group to get on the same page periodically. We set up deadlines for conceptual design and worked our way towards details, logistics, budgets and so on. Eventually these massive group meetings became less necessary and communication between groups just happened as needed. What was very helpful in all of this was the dedication of individuals. Some folks were involved in multiple aspects of the project, so they would be at meetings about Ship Design and also meetings about the Archive and so forth.
I was one of the point people for the Ship Design Group, and my role was to take everyone’s ideas and form them into workable architectural plans that had real structure and could be used to generate specific lists, budgets and schedules. We used all kinds of methods to get to this point, most of which were typical to any architectural design process. What was different was that none of us are professional architects, or designers really. We did consult with an architect to make sure we had all our structural calculations figured out, but I think the architecture and the project as a whole stands as an amazing testament to the power of dedicated amateurs.
In the Ship Group we made lots of hand drawings and culled images to move our process along. Once we had the basics I drew up the project in Google Sketchup, a very basic, intuitive 3-D modeling program. From there we actually made some 3-D physical models out of clay and paper so we could feel the thing in our hands. Eventually I decided we needed a more advanced 3-D digital modeling program to really hash out the curves of the ship and get specific about structural needs. So I began learning Rhinoceros 3-D. After a couple of weeks, I was lucky enough to find someone here who knew Rhino better than I did and she volunteered to take on the actual drafting. The program helped immensely with figuring out the curve of the hull. It allowed us to prefabricate sections before we had access to the gallery. We were even able to have the ribs for the bow of the ship cut by a CNC router using our CAD files. This saved us hours of tedious jigsawing and was a pretty magical process.
That’s just a few examples of the types of digital and physical tools we used to complete the process from the Ship Design perspective. There was also a ton of amazing computer programming that went into the archive, lighting, sound and other technical aspects of the show. The programming for the trees, for example, was done using Max MSP and a whole bunch of Arduino microcontrollers. The Stahphield also utilized Arduinos, along with some amazing curcuitry that we custom printed and hand assembled. I joked a lot about how we were making “fair trade, local, organic circuitry” for the project while we soldered away LED’s for days on end in March.
As for the “stuff” we used to build The Due Return- dang!- there’s such a variety of materials involved. The trees were made from this incredible biodegradable plastic called InstaMorph which you heat to mold into forms. The cliffs were made with a wooden framework, then wire mesh, and then tons of dirt mixed with straw and water to form cob. That process was incredibly labor intensive, and involved countless hours from scores of artists and volunteers. People were always doing “mud.” Some of the creatures we made were cast from rubbers and resins with little built in LED lights. The ship itself was made from a combination of scrap lumber from previous projects and new lumber (which we will re-use or pass on for re-use). We used a ton of stuff from dumpsters and random treasures from artists homes. The Black Hole in Los Alamos, an incredible second hand store for used lab equipment (mostly from LANL) donated and gave us great deals on a plethora of bizarre science equipment and weird plastics. Most of NOMAD and the lab was sourced from the Black Hole. We rented a bunch of beautiful 19th century furniture from the Santa Fe Opera (who were also incredibly generous) for the lounge. So, there’s a combination of old and new materials. Where it was possible, we recycled things, but we also bought a fair amount of new stuff, all of which will be used again when we disassemble to show.
CP: Maybe following up on that last question, too, how did you go about constructing this narrative?
SDL: I passed this question along to Nicholas Chiarella, who headed up the Archive group, because i felt he could answer it best.
Nicholas Chiarella: The narrative of The Due Return was conceived at its start as an archive, a collection of information and artifacts that would have been gathered by the crew members of the ship over the course of its history—physical objects, written text, audio recordings, video clips, found items, created pieces. Meow Wolf has involvement from a number of writers, and having a narrative component allowed us to bring in a few more. We wanted to engage the audience in story and give them a chance to interact at a slow-paced, intimate level—to test out the way story can unfold within an art installation. We also wanted to enhance the sense that the ship had existed for a long time, that it had a lifespan of its own. A group of a dozen or so writers and artists sat down together with the initial concept of an interdimensional ship travelling time and space, and then they began to play with the idea of where the ship had previously gone, who the crew members were, what their interests were. Everyone in the archive group had a different approach, at first, some telling stories through letters or journal fragments, and others working through objects: maps, artifacts, photographs. The archive group met weekly in order to exchange ideas and weave stories together. From the start, the group knew it wanted a physical space on the ship to house and display the collection and a digital interface for sharing information at the show and off-site as well. The digital interface ended up being called the Loci (Latin for “places”) in order to reflect the organization of the ship’s history, which in part is structured by the places and times that the ship has visited.
The narrative is a strong backdrop, too, for the performances that happen on the ship. …
CP: Will you talk a little bit about Meow Wolf? When did the collective get started? I was looking through your flikr page and it looks like you’ve made habitats before, in addition to making music.
SDL: Meow Wolf was created in February of 2008 by a group of young residents hoping to supply Santa Fe with an alternative arts and music venue. The group has evolved into a central hub of cultural growth for a community that was previously without an outlet; using art installations and music shows as opportunities to form relationships, welcome newcomers to Santa Fe, and provide individuals with an open space to be expressive.
Bringing music to Santa Fe and supporting local music has been part of the goal with Meow Wolf from the start. The installations arose out of an early art show that was primarily produced by two artists. It was called Meowzors and was kind of a painting installation in which every surface of the space was covered with imagery and objects. I think people got really excited about covering space and creating immersive environments from that show and we started on this now three-year tradition of doing installations as a central part of our process. The ideas for these shows are usually generated through a combination of single individuals ideas and a collaborative process of discussion. For whatever reason they often feature bizarre living spaces. The installation we did before The Due Return was a show called Habitats and the theme was living spaces.
I think, though, we are open to any kind of production. For instance, last winter we did this huge multimedia theater production called The Moon is to Live On which brought together more time-based and performing arts (like music and acting) with the creation of physical space. We also instigate a big public “performance” event called Monster Battle on the Santa Fe Plaza every summer.
CP: How do you think about sculpture and landscape? What is the role of the viewer in your environments?
SDL: That’s a really interesting question to me. Maybe “sculpture and landscape” is a more specific version of “sculpture and context,” or, even more broadly “object and space?” I, personally, am very excited by experiences that confuse and reorient our assumptions about what is an “object” (like furniture or sculpture) and what is “space” (like architecture and landscape). I love when an object suddenly becomes inhabitable (either physically or psychically) and a space suddenly becomes an object-like mass (like a boat sitting in a gallery).
I think installation or “environmental” art champions the interactions that happen between objects and people in a space. An installation is able to engage this wide range of sensory experience in the same way that walking into a building or tromping through a forest can. So, in a weird way, an installation can be accessible to a wider audience because it engages these basic spatial senses that we all take for granted on a daily basis. It then has the power to subvert our spatial assumptions. I love when an art experience is simultaneously disorienting and familiar in this way.
With The Due Return visitors walk inside a gallery and are suddenly outside of a ship, and in a landscape. Then they can go inside of that ship. In that very basic way it breaks expectations. There’s a line in one of the scripts for the performances in which a crew member of The Due Return is describing the process of walking out of the show into the real world of the CCA grounds. He says its like “outside of outside.” I love that.
With The Due Return the whole thing is highly produced and kind of controlled, I guess. I think it interacts with visitors like architecture does in that they are navigating it however they like, and it has a big impact on that navigation. But it then plays with how one can navigate literature and theater in a spatial way. So it ultimately gives power to the audience because of how many physical/psycholigical entry points there are.
CP: What is your background and how did you find yourself in Santa Fe? How would you compare your background to other members of Meow Wolf?
I grew up in New Jersey and went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design for sculpture. I moved to Santa Fe after school almost 4 years ago because i had some family in New Mexico.
I’d say that maybe less than half of the people who worked on The Due Return have a similar background. Meow Wolf was started by folks who didn’t go to college at all and who grew up in Santa Fe. For this project we worked with Dads, little kids, professionals, hobbyists, amateurs and students alike. Most of the people involved in Meow Wolf on a consistent basis hover around 20 something in age, but we are a diverse group and have no boundaries in terms of age, or educational background or anything like that. People have all kinds of different day jobs or lack thereof. So much of the value of this group comes from putting a huge amount of trust in people just because they are excited about doing stuff. I think we have a lot of faith in people.
CP: Can you talk about some of the programs that are going on during The Due Return?
SDL: The programming was conceived as an alternative to the talks, lectures and panels that happen around lots of other exhibitions. We wanted programming to be more geared toward building a youthful culture in Santa Fe and we wanted to have parties. So we booked a bunch of great music shows and have had DJ’s and Dance Parties in the installation. The last dance party was attended by a really diverse crowd. It was fully all ages, which was great. The installation itself has plenty of conceptual wiggle room, so it can become an awesome music venue and that just adds to the experience.
In addition to the music shows we’re doing some more theatrical performances in the first two weekends in July. We’ll also be doing an archive presentation this Saturday which presents a fictional history of The Due Return. And, on Saturday, June 25th we’re having a panel discussion with CCA and 516 Arts from Albuquerque, where we recently completed a satellite installation as part of their exhibition Worlds Outside This One.
So there’s some of everything, but I think the programming reflects a larger statement about producing culture “on our terms,” reflecting the diverse interests of both the artists involved and the visitors who come to the show.
The Due Return is open to visitors until August 21st. For more information and to see a list of public programs, please visit their website.