A graphic, editorial overview of art, artists, and visual art events, found in and around Chicago over the course of the preceding month. All artwork copyright original artists; all photography copyright Paul Germanos.
Above: Theo Elliot at left; Morgan Herbert-King at right; opening night at ACRE Projects.
Thelonious Elliot and Wray Morgan Herbert-King
“Moving a Hole”
January 20 â€“ February 4
1913 W. 17th St.
Chicago, IL 60608
Above: “Algren” 2012
Above: “Morandi” 2011, top; “Entrapment” 2012, bottom.
January 11 – March 1, 2013
Harold Washington Library Center
400 S. State St.
Chicago, IL 60605
Above: Exhibition closing and curator talk (MCA curator Dieter Roelstraete, left, and Smart curator Stephanie Smith, right) January 13, 2013
“Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not,” panel 2
(wool tapestry from photo collage, approx. 11 x 38 feet, half of diptych)
December 13, 2012 â€“ January 13, 2013
Smart Museum of Art (lobby)
5550 S. Greenwood Ave.
Chicago, IL 60637
Above: Robert Chase Heishman with artwork at Roots & Culture, opening night.
Robert Chase Heishman
January 18 – February 16, 2013
Roots & Culture
1034 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Curated by Eric May, Stephanie Cristello and Allison Glenn
Artwork by Robert Chase Heishman, Jessica Labatte, Alistair Matthews, and Liz Nielsen
Above: Peeking inside the piece “Public Space/Two Audiences”
R. H. Quaytman
“Passing Through The Opposite of What It Approaches, Chapter 25″
January 6 â€“ February 17, 2013
The Renaissance Society
5811 S. Ellis Avenue
Bergman Gallery, Cobb Hall 418
Chicago, Illinois 60637
Above: Cotton on linen, embroidery, under glass, framed.
January 11 – February 16
Packer Schopf Gallery
942 W. Lake St.
Chicago, IL 60607
Above: Sarah Mendelsohn with her artwork at The Plaines Project, opening night.
January 19 â€“ February 8, 2013
The Plaines Project
1822 S. Desplaines St.
Above: Tom Torluemke with his horrific vision of environmental degradation, shot at the opening reception.
“Fearsome Fable â€“ Tolerable Truth”
January 20, 2013 â€“ April 28, 2013
Hyde Park Art Center
5020 S. Cornell Ave.
Chicago, IL 60615
Above: Hummingbird in flight, floral origami aim, installation at Roxaboxen.
“Potentialities,” a two-person show with Milcah Bassel
January 20 – February 1, 2013
Roxaboxen Exhibitions / ACRE Projects
2130 W. 21st St.
Chicago, IL 60608
Above: Scott Hocking with artwork at opening reception for “EXCHANGE: Chicago-Detroit”
CHICAGO: Chicago Artistsâ€™ Coalition, Chicago IL
January 11 – 31, 2013
DETROIT: Cave Gallery and Public Pool, Detroit, MI
February 23 – March 16, 2013
Chicago Artistsâ€™ Coalition,
217 N. Carpenter Street,
Chicago IL 60607
Above: Edie Fake at opening reception; artwork in background.
January 4 – February 16, 2013
Thomas Robertello Gallery
27 N. Morgan St.
Chicago, IL 60607
Above: Lauren Payne and Erin Washington’s collaborative installation, opening night.
Above: Jenny Kendler (ACRE Board of Directors) left; Lauren Payne, right; opening night.
Lauren Payne and Erin Washington
“As Above So Below”
January 25 – 31, 2013
Johalla Projects / ACRE Projects
1821 W Hubbard, Suite 209
Above: Harvey Moon with “drawing machine” installed in gallery, opening night.
January 25 – March 22, 2013
230 W. Superior St.
Paul Germanos: Born November 30, 1967, Cook County, Illinois. Immigrant grandparents, NYC. High school cross country numerals and track letter. Certified by the State of Illinois as a peace officer. Licensed by the City of Chicago as a taxi driver. Attended the School of the Art Institute 1987-1989. Studied the history of political philosophy with the students of Leo Strauss from 2000-2005. Phi Theta Kappa and Phi Kappa Phi. Motorcyclist.
Work by Andrew Mausert-Mooney.
Johalla Projects is located at 1821 W. Hubbard St. Reception Friday, 8-10pm.
Work by Jeroen Nelemans.
The Mission is located at 1431 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Matthew Paul Jinks.
threewalls is located at 119 N. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Taurus Burns, Design 99, Jessica Frelinghuysen, Scott Hocking, Chido Johnson, Nicola Kuperus, Faina Lerman, Adam Lee Miller, Clinton Snider, Vince Troia and Graem Whyte.
Chicago Artists’ Coalition is located at 217 N. Carpenter St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Mike Schuh and Yuan-Chen Li.
PSA Projects is located at 2509 N. Lawndale Ave. Reception Sunday, 5-7pm.
The Love Librarian is in. Another Valentineâ€™s Day may be behind us, but Detroit-based artist Chido Johnson still wants to talk about love. For the month of February, Johnson is the official Love Librarian of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), cataloging, digitizing, and facilitating public engagement with his ongoing project, Letâ€™s Talk About Love Baby, a growing collection of artist-made romance novels. Since its founding in 2008, the Love Library has expanded from Detroit to include branches in Chicago, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia. Each chapter has its own resident Love Librarian whose task is to invite a group of artists, (who in turn have invited additional artists), to contribute a book to the burgeoning collection.
The current Detroit archive consists of works from artists and collectives who cross all media and cultural demographics, and their variable portrayals of love and romance range from the steamily satirical to the unnervingly intimate. â€œHeart Abortionâ€ by Suite42, (Danielle Julian Norton and Tarrah Krajnak), is an homage to art world-induced heartbreak bound in the pages of Artforum; Scott Johnsonâ€™s â€œGuilty Love,â€ is a volume whose pages literally reflect the reader-as-author bound in narcissistic self-love; and Ed Brown and Annie Reinhardtâ€™s dual volumes, â€œBirds + Shell,â€ consist of a cassette and player housed in a pair of two unassuming covers of Danielle Steele paperbacks. Each book when ensconced en masse is equally compelling, and upon closer examination, the works reveal maker, collector, and reader as agents bound by an affection for, well, affection, in all its mysterious and salacious incarnations.
The Love Library was born from a time of crisis. Creator Chido Johnson sought to address the violence and devastation of the current moment with a project that could serve as a generative counterpointâ€”love being a force that similarly leads to undoing and affect. Exploring a subject that many would consider taboo in the context of academia and fine art, Johnson ventured beyond the pop precedent of Robert Indiana, the unsubstantive sparkle of Damien Hirst, and even the digitally-networked quotidian community of Miranda July and Harrell Fletcherâ€™s Learning to Love You More. Indeed, Letâ€™s Talk About Love Baby is a different brand of cheese altogether. Johnson’s library reminds us that universality doesn’t preclude difference, and sometimes quirkiness can be found in clichÃ©.
I spoke with Chido Johnson, Love Librarian, in residence at MOCAD.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: So, letâ€™s talk about love. How did this project begin, and how is love as a subject significant for you?
Chido Johnson: The idea for Love Library [Letâ€™s Talk About Love] began when I was teaching in Sweden in 2008. This was just when violence in the Gaza Strip was escalating, and when Zimbabweâ€”where I was born and raised, was going through a horrific time. An image that has stayed with me from that moment is news footage of a doctor amidst the shelling in Gaza being interviewed live by a friend who worked for the Israeli TV. While he was being interviewed about the conflict, he was told that his familyâ€”his daughters were just killed by Israeli shells. It was crazy. At that time, I was thinking that as an educator we donâ€™t talk about love, sex, or religion, and for whatever reason, these are all no-nos in an academic setting; instead, we talk about psychology and identity, and I felt like we were missing the meaty stuff of life. Later, talking about this issue with one of my colleagues in Sweden, I knew I wanted to address this idea. I was moved by it.
SMP: Why the form of the romance novel?
CJ: I was raised in rural Zimbabwe where we didnâ€™t have television. My mom was a medical doctor and for her downtime she would read Mills and Boons, which is the British version of Harlequinâ€” novels that are more toned down and more romantic than the very hot, highly sexualized versions that are over here. Really, it was the only form of entertainment, and I used to read at least one romance book a week.
This romance novel project is a way to address the cheesiness of loveâ€”how itâ€™s perceived as a cheesy subject, packaged in cheesy formats like the Harlequin novel and the top-forty movie. I had to address the work in a totally cheesy wayâ€”I embraced the cheesiness. The thing about the romance novel is you tend to discount this shelf immediately for its cheap paperbacksâ€”as a one-night stand kind of experience, but then, if you really let yourself go into the project, you can be caught. The love story is human.
My work has been always curious about othering and the formation of assumptionsâ€”assumptions of self and of other. The idea is to look down the shelf and see all of these homogenized objects. Itâ€™s only when you pick one out and spend some time with it that you realize that itâ€™s so different. It was really important to the project that this work was not made by me, rather, I invite people to participate in it. It had to be about the collectivism, and it had to be about the assumptions of the similar and the shock of the differences. We are enriched by our differences, not by systemized similarities. Thatâ€™s what I really wanted to push with the project.
SMP: Itâ€™s interesting, because as you rightly point out, thereâ€™s a distinct stickiness between numerous elements within the work including: fantasy and reality, serial and singular, and ephemeral and eternal. Can you speak more to the objecthood of this work?
CJ: Yes, this project definitely speaks to the book and its perceived temporalness. These objects here are very much alive â€”in touch, caress, smellâ€”yet in our present time, books have become the object of nostalgia almost similar to a hand written letter. So that physicalness was very important too, and I think thatâ€™s why I specifically called out to artists who would approach work so differently, but are very conscious of the physical nature of objects. Each book is a very physical experience.
Growing up, my father was an artistâ€”a political activist and a puppeteer. As a child, I really enjoyed making puppets, and for me, a puppet has a defined role and function. It has a purpose, a cultural function. So i see the work being very raw, naked to its actual role, thus very real, and not dependent on an existential narrative. Itâ€™s an object that is what it isâ€”it exists through a performative act, not through its fabricated narrative. I see traces of that here in the Love Library, and also in the project in the next gallery, [Laugh Detroit].
SMP: Iâ€™m also interested in the collaborative aspect of this project. Primarily, you solicit the participation of artists contributing to the work, but then you also have the continued activation of the project through the lending library and the physical interactions with the viewing/reading public. First, can you speak to the logistics of participation in this projectâ€”is there an open call, for example? And more generally, what does participation bring to your practice overall?
CJ: Thereâ€™s no open call, and itâ€™s up to the Love Librarians to extend the invitations to artists to participate. All the people who I initially called are people who I totally admire and respect. I called them individually, and then I told each one that they could in turn invite one person to participate. Thatâ€™s how it grew, and now in all the different chaptersâ€”Chicago, Addis Ababa, [Ethiopia], St. Louis, Harare, [Zimbabwe]â€”the librarians there can extend their own invitations to allow those chapters to grow. Itâ€™s amazing how it slowly creeps and expands. Looking at these shelves, I know everyone here is so intimately connected and thereâ€™s so much love and respect that exists here. I wanted to keep the project real that way, the feeling of a community.
On top of that, I guess, as any artist tries to do, I always try to question the ways we present work and how we interact with an audience. What I really enjoy about the idea of a library is that is that itâ€™s not an immediate, total experienceâ€”itâ€™s a changing space that has to be constantly interacted [with], and itâ€™s intimately interacted [with]. I like that itâ€™s not being perceived as art, so people can perform the work and have a natural experience rather than a trained experience. At first I thought that I would have the public check-out books, but right now, books are still coming, so Iâ€™m here every day cataloging. Iâ€™ve held back from checking-out books because now Iâ€™m very protective of all the books in the show.
Iâ€™ve been starting to think about that. Itâ€™s gotten to the point now where itâ€™s a project that I feel honored to be a part of, but itâ€™s a lot of work. I do everything: run the website, self-sponsoring, ship books back and forth, so Iâ€™ve been starting to think of what to do in the long term. Itâ€™s a responsibility I have nowâ€”itâ€™s not just a project, itâ€™s a responsibility, and these are really precious books.
SMP: What struck me immediately about this project is its seriousness. Despite the clichÃ© fantasy of romance novel, by in large, these artists presented very real, very moving, very intimate narratives through making these objects.
CJ: Thatâ€™s what shakes me up! A friend of mineâ€”that colleague in Sweden who I mentioned earlier, she passed away last year. Her book is a copy of Romeo and Juliet; she removed all the text except for the words that bind. The pages are sort of translucent, so as you flip through the experience of it is almost like a riverâ€”like water, but itâ€™s still mapped out as the pages were, so there is an internal order. She did this book in honor of a friend of hers in Sweden who was a Fluxus artist who passed away at that time, and since the artistâ€™s own passing, this has become a truly powerful piece. I remember sitting down in Ethiopia meeting a group of artists and introducing the project. In the beginning, I have my rap about the project: this is what itâ€™s about, itâ€™s all about love, etc. But then when the work actually happens, every time, itâ€™s totally moving. Itâ€™s then that the realness occurs. People tell their stories. Thereâ€™s one couple: heâ€™s in Ethiopia, and she is attending school in Texas. Since the day theyâ€™ve been married, theyâ€™ve been separated by a great distance with no funds to travel. Theyâ€™re book is a collection of emails sent back and forth across the globe during their separation.
Love is something thatâ€™s trapped in us. The world is in such a state now, thatâ€™s itâ€™s almost like we have to hold on to somethingâ€”some sense of realness. Weâ€™re at the height of crisis, and people become overrun with emotion. Really, we need love.
Chido Johnson is the head of sculpture at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and was a 2009 Kresge Fellow. Currently, he is the Artist-in-Residence at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) as part of the Department of Education and Public Engagement Space Residency, where the artist has installed his Love Library and will be serving as head librarian. On Sunday Feb. 19, 12-4pm, Johnson will facilitate “I Love You and Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!” as part ofÂ Laugh Detroit, also on view at MOCAD.
This interview is part one of two. On Thursday March 2, Bad@Sports will post part two of Sarah Margolis-Pineoâ€™s interview with Chido Johnson.
Human infrastructure can only withstand so much benign neglect before returning to nature. Much like the children of bohemian parents or the subjects of laissez-faire governments, the physical structures of built space will eventually succumb to wildness if left too long on their own. In no city is this process more apparent than in Detroit, where creeping vines engulf Victorian homes, trees sprout from the roofs of skyscrapers, and packs of wild dogs roam the streets. Nature has been slowly reclaiming the city for decades, disseminating a sense of wildness that many proclaim is a promise of renewal rather than an admission of failure.
Surveying the expanse of Detroit prairie, it does indeed appear that the city has been given a proverbial green slate upon which to rebuild and flourish as a newly incarnated future city. The future has not arrived yet, however; so for the moment, many Detroiters are making do as only Detroiters know howâ€”embracing the period of transition with resourcefulness, ingenuity, and a sense of possibility.
Detroit-based artist Scott Hocking has been a life-long observer of a city in flux. His work explores the physical and psychological thresholds between crumbling infrastructure and flourishing nature. Through tactics that are technically illegal and certifiably insane, Hocking traverses vacant sites in forgotten corners of the world that are on the verge of collapse. His practice involves site-specific installation and documentary photography, where industrial debris becomes the backdrop for monumental sculpture. Beyond being the Andy Goldsworthy of urban detritus, Hockingâ€™s work arrests the ephemeral, and reminds us that decay is an equal cause for celebration within the journey we call progress.
Recently, I had a conversation with Scott amidst the well-categorized clutter of his Detroit studio.
Discussed: Kangaroos and giant lizards, the end of mystery, fucking with everything, scrappers, documenting survival, a four-story collapse, making lemonade out of lemons.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: The most immediately striking attribute of your work is your depiction of site. Your photos have this other-worldly quality, like weâ€™re looking at bacteria blooming on a Petri dish rather than an actual place. Working internationally, you must see quite a bit, and Iâ€™m wondering how you select where to work. What is it about these sites that you find compelling?
Scott Hocking: Itâ€™s hard for me even to articulate what it is that threads through everything that I do. Itâ€™s easiest to say that I work site-specifically, that I really just try to get a sense of a space and get ideas from my surroundings and from its history. I work differently in different places, but I end up being drawn to places that end up being somewhat forgotten, or maybe thereâ€™s a sense of mystery, or of chaos, or of loss of control. I feel like when nature reclaims places thereâ€™s a feeling that humans have stopped controlling it and itâ€™s gone back to this wild, organic way of moving and living. Often times, that can involve the decaying of the structures that weâ€™ve built. Iâ€™m not particularly drawn to abandonment or decay by themselves, but I have an interest in these places that give me a sense of solace. In Detroit, going into an abandoned auto factory is my walk in the woods. Itâ€™s the closest I can get to the top of a mountain peakâ€”the top of a building. This is where I get my sense of wildnessâ€”my satisfaction in nature. I did this project in Australia in October, and I was in the bush. I loved it, because that was itâ€”I was getting it from my everyday life. I walked out of my space to see kangaroos in the morning, and I hiked into the mountain and ran into giant lizards. I donâ€™t get that here, but I crave that wildness, and I think I get it from these spaces that have begun to be reclaimed by nature.
SMP: It interests me that you characterize your work as site-specific, because your images also express a certain universality, or an ambiguity in the way of place. Is this intentional?
SH: I think, for me, I may work from the site and get ideas from the history and the site itself, but in the end, what I want the images to convey is something more universal. I donâ€™t want people to look at the image and think: Oh, this is Detroit. Sure, people might recognize it, or know it knowing that my work is based here. But, I do try and emphasize that this could be anywhere, and what is behind it speaks to people everywhereâ€¦ It might sound grandiose or dramatic, but Iâ€™m trying to talk about peopleâ€”about humans on earth, what we do, what weâ€™ve always done, how weâ€™re really no different than weâ€™ve ever been. When I put a pyramid in an abandoned building, one of the many things that Iâ€™m thinking about is the fact that itâ€™s a ruin within a ruin. One is ancient, and Iâ€™m building a new one, and whatâ€™s the difference? Why do we look at some ruins with reverence, and see others as failures? Why canâ€™t we realize that weâ€™ve been creating things since the dawn of time, making structures and objects with our hands, and at some point they decay, at some point the civilization that made it fails, at some point the city in which it was made disappears? Itâ€™s not the endâ€”thereâ€™s never an ending. So maybe thereâ€™s a certain countering to the idea that this is the end of something, that this is a failed city, or a failed industrial age. I just see it as a constant cycle that weâ€™re in the middle of. I just try to find the beauty in all the stages.
SMP: You seem to take an almost ethnographic approach to collecting data on decaying works of culture. Do you see yourself as an urban anthologist in a way?
SH: I was transient for years, and didnâ€™t go to art school until I was about 22. When I first went to college, I had lots of interests including anthropology. I took a number of courses actually, and I found out very quickly that I am way too impatient for the scientific method. So, for me to claim that Iâ€™m an ethnographer, anthropologist, archaeologist, you name it, would be a slap in the face to those who have studied for all those years. Iâ€™m an amateur at bestâ€”I feel like I have the curiosity, without any of the knowledge. If I was to excavate anything, youâ€™d find out what an amateur I am. Iâ€™m okay with wrenching something to death, just shaking it until it falls loose, or kicking it until itâ€™s down… I have no problem fucking with everything, and Iâ€™m sure scientists would be a lot more finicky about disturbing the site.
SMP: It seems that the installation-aspect of your practiceâ€”the way that you build in the field to create sculptural works within these sites, speaks to processes of myth-making. Is myth something you consciously incorporate into your work?
SH: Yeah, for sure. I love mythology, and Iâ€™ve started to really become inspired by ancient ideasâ€”mythologies and ancient sciences more than anything. I donâ€™t pay attention to the current art sceneâ€”I donâ€™t know what is hip right now. I just know that my ideas come from generations ago, and somehow Iâ€™m more inspired by that. Mythology is exists outside of timeâ€¦
One thing that I appreciate about ancient ideas is that they were often more lyrical, and there was a sense of mystery. Today, weâ€™ve destroyed all our mysteries! Weâ€™ve figured them all out and are looking at them with telescopes or microscopes, taking things apart. I feel like there isnâ€™t enough mystery, whereas in ancient times and myth, there was a lot. If you even read it now, you donâ€™t know what theyâ€™re talking about; so thereâ€™s a part of me that likes to try and create this sense of mystery or myth when Iâ€™m in these buildings. And it could be as simple as someone coming into a building and discovering the Ziggerat, or discovering the TVs on the columns in the Garden of the Gods. It could be as simple as me creating a sense of: who the hell did this? When did this happen? What the fuck is this?! For example, building the pyramidâ€”itâ€™s a universal symbol that has existed on all continents since weâ€™ve first started building things, and we have no idea why. Itâ€™s still a mystery to this day. Some people might look at my work and think: wow, this is an amazing thing, while others might look at it and laugh. It might be a joke, and I love how it can be interpreted in so many different ways because itâ€™s an archetypal symbol. I like playing around, to be honest. Thereâ€™s a part of me thatâ€™s very serious, and thereâ€™s a part of me that likes having a sense of humor about things. I like being open minded and I like that art can be perceived differently by different people because of our different backgrounds, and god knows what. So I donâ€™t like to narrow in too much. I like to maintain that nebulous quality.
SMP: Can you speak a bit more to your process? How do your projects, like Garden of the Gods, [which was installed and photographed in Detroitâ€™s landmark Packard Plant], usually unfold?
SH: Garden of the Gods was fun because those pedestals were formed when the roof collapsed and those columns were still standing. Immediately I thought of pedestals. If youâ€™ve ever been to Rome or any of the ancient cities, they have statues up on pedestalsâ€”gods or warriors to be revered. I thought there needs to be some gods up there, and as luck would have it, in another part of the building that was used for storage was filled with television sets. Hundreds. And this was almost too easy for meâ€”the idea is almost too simplistic that the TVs are new gods, and Iâ€™m going to put them up on these pedestals. But I have to admit that it was just too good to resist. Iâ€™m sure other artists would have taken it a step further, but for me, Iâ€™m a simple guy, so I thought: these are our new gods, Iâ€™m going to put them up on the pedestals, and Iâ€™m going to name them after the twelve classical Greek Pantheon gods.
In the end, it was all for an image, but I love the idea that people will come across the actual objects. That interaction is a significant part of the way Iâ€™m working now. I alluded to it earlier when I said that Iâ€™m attracted to places where thereâ€™s a loss of control and a little wildness. Detroit is that kind of place. When Iâ€™m working on projects like this, thereâ€™s also a loss of control in terms of what I might do. I canâ€™t come home to the studio every day and resume working on the same project. Iâ€™m going out to a building I donâ€™t own that could be torn down, burned down, destroyed, renovated, boarded up, somebody could have broken in and knocked over or spray painted what Iâ€™m working on, they could have added to it, or the materials Iâ€™m using could suddenly be gone. There are so many variables I donâ€™t have control overâ€”a hell of a lot of chance involved. Itâ€™s sort of like working on a sculpture, and every night putting it outside to see if someone stole it in the morning. Itâ€™s a real freeing way of workingâ€¦ I just try and trust the universe.
SMP: So I have to ask about the aestheticization of decay, since itâ€™s a very prevalent topic of conversation in the city at the momentâ€¦
SH: Itâ€™s so interesting that no one was saying â€œruin pornâ€ ten years agoâ€¦ Iâ€™ve been really exploring vacant spaces and forgotten places since I was a child. Maybe itâ€™s in my nature, but when I grew up it was near the railroad tracks in a real blue collar neighborhood, so I was exploring these places as a little kid. So the notion of ruin porn, I understand where itâ€™s coming from, but I also feel like the media is coming late to the party.
People have been interested in doing this stuff for a long time, and the city is only now becoming overloaded and flooded with people â€œurban exploringâ€ and taking photographs… Through the 70s, 80s and 90s, so much was abandoned in Detroitâ€”places like the train station, Packard, or Fisher Bodyâ€”these really trademark, vacant buildings in Detroit all happened in the 80s! Itâ€™s amazing, these places looked like people just up and left work one day, and if you were the first guy to get in there, like a scrapper, you wouldnâ€™t have even known the place was abandoned. Coffee would still be out. So, these buildings look a hell of a lot different today than when I began working on this. I have always enjoyed going in these places, and for years I didnâ€™t take photosâ€”I was just using the objects to make work. If I ever brought a camera it was to have an excuse if I got caught. And then very slowly, I started to take photos more because I began to want to document these places before they disappeared. A lot of these places became very cherished to me, and I began to see how fast they were disappearing. I never considered myself a photographer, and it was through the process of taking these initial photographs that I became sensitive to the idea that I was just, as someone put it to me recently, â€œdocumenting survival,â€ and that wasnâ€™t enough for me. So this path was good in the sense that it made me transition into photographing these places as larger installation projects. So now theyâ€™re just setsâ€”I donâ€™t have to create the whole environment, I just need to find the environment I want to create in. Other photographers will create environments in a vacant studio, and for me, my projects allow me to collaborate with buildings and collaborate with sites that I find mesmerizing. I know Iâ€™ve found a place to work in when I want to take a photograph of it alone. If I get that feeling, I think: Okay, this is where Iâ€™m going to build something. This is where I want to interact.
SMP: You really seem to occupy these very uncertain, threshold spaces in the city. Is there a certain adrenaline rush that accompanies this type of work?
SH: That is such a great wordâ€”I love the word threshold. Itâ€™s such an important word for me, because I feel like Detroit is on a threshold. These buildings are on a threshold. These are places in a space between what they were, and what they are going to beâ€”theyâ€™re in transition. Weâ€™re always in transition, but sometimes transitions can take 40-years, or other times transitions can be catastrophic and can happen overnight.
The Packard Building for example, I was working in there through the winter, and by March, I had people coming through to interview me for upcoming exhibitions, [watch a video of Scott giving a tour of the Packard here]. Two weeks later, there was a four-story collapse, right where we were standing! Two weeks later! It was an unbelievable amount of space that just fell, and we all would have been crushed. Iâ€™ve been in buildings and places where Iâ€™ve done dumb thingsâ€”fallen through holes, hit my head, been attacked by dogs. There are a lot of risks you take, and I donâ€™t really get that adrenaline rush anymore, but thereâ€™s something about the way it affects your sensesâ€”they become heightened and aware. Again, in the same way they would be if you were lost in the woods. If you were lost in the woods or at sea, and youâ€™re not in control and youâ€™re not sure if a shark is going to bite you or a bear is going to come at you, that way your senses sort of open up in these situations is the same.
I think that is certainly appealingâ€”that sense of being alive. You notice every fleck of paint on the wall, every sound you hear. A pigeon flies out and you have to be aware that itâ€™s a pigeon and not something about to hit you. Your senses become heightened and I think Iâ€™m very attracted to that too.
SMP: In a way, your work forges new pathways through forgotten places, exposing fissures in the traditional urban network. It brings to my mind the Situationist tactic of dÃ©riveâ€”the practice of walking â€œoff the gridâ€ in search of an unmediated, authentic experience within the urban landscape. Would you describe your process as an act of resistance?
SH: Saying itâ€™s an act of resistance might be a little much… I do feel, though, that the reason I can easily let go of these objects that Iâ€™m making and allow them to be destroyed is because the process is more important to me than the object. So really, these experiences that Iâ€™m trying to seek out, I donâ€™t think I could find them without going â€œoff the grid,â€ so to speak. Off the grid is where I have these experiences in my version of nature and can seek purity and solace, as I mentioned earlier. And itâ€™s not only a walk in the woods for me, but itâ€™s kind of like my church too. It can be a metaphysical thingâ€”I basically meditate when Iâ€™m working in these buildings alone, like a monk stacking blocks in quiet, in the middle of nowhere, and in the middle of winter. Itâ€™s a real peaceful, meditative experience to work like this, and often times, I have to break the rules and break the law to find this, but Iâ€™m certainly not going in there and saying: fuck you! Iâ€™m a bit more quiet about it.
Itâ€™s about inner peace and peace of mind than it is about the big FU to the powers that be. Now, on the other hand, if the powers that be were cool about things like this, then I wouldnâ€™t have to break the law.Â I do feel like in a sense: fuck you, because youâ€™ve left these buildings to neglect, you own this space and itâ€™s falling apart. If you own this, Iâ€™m not going to call you up and ask you for permission, because Iâ€™m already pissed that you let it fall apart. I feel like you lose the right to say you own something when youâ€™ve let something so useful and amazing go to waste.
SMP: Weâ€™ve already spoken about the influence of myth, and Iâ€™m wondering if memory comes into play at all when youâ€™re at work in these spaces?
SH: I feel like itâ€™s not my memory most of the time. There are many people who grew up in Detroit or one of the other cities that Iâ€™ve worked in, who might feel nostalgia for the past, and have certain memories of buildingsâ€”maybe even have family members who have worked there. There are all kinds of connections. In fact, when an article comes out, Iâ€™ve gotten emails from people who say: Hey, I used to work there! Whatâ€™s been surprising is that all of these people have written to tell me that they like what I am doing. My own sense of memoryâ€¦ I donâ€™t really connect in that way to these spaces.
I donâ€™t really like the idea of nostalgia, I prefer to focus on the present moment and find the beauty in how things are now opposed to looking back on how they were. I tend to work in buildings that arenâ€™t very personalâ€”theyâ€™re places of workâ€”factories. There may have been thousands of people working and occupying the spaces where I am working at any given moment. These sites donâ€™t quite have that trace, or energy, that a house mightâ€”where people lived and slept, family members loved and grew up. I donâ€™t really work in places like that, and I think part of the reason is because of the memoryâ€”the idea of who they were is still very strong there, and you can feel it and see it sometimes. I think I shy away from that a bit.
SMP: Thereâ€™s such a fantastic history in Detroit, perhaps initiated in the 70s by the Cass Corridor Movement, with artists appropriating materials that are symbolic of crisisâ€”the raw, discarded material of a city, to create artwork.Â I read this great quote the other day that was something along the lines of: we didnâ€™t have much, but we made art with it. Is this idea something that persists today in the city?
SH: I think itâ€™s continued. Personally, I have no history with Cass Corridorâ€”I didnâ€™t grow up knowing about it, and I didnâ€™t know anyone involved until I started making art and meeting people who were part of that. Now weâ€™re good friends, and itâ€™s maybe through meeting people and gaining a bit of knowledge that you start to realize that itâ€™s all connected. For me, itâ€™s less about the linage of the art world in Detroit, and more about Detroiters and the way we are. Most people who grow up in working class families and in working class neighborhoods in the city, this is how we workâ€”we do with what you have, make lemonade out of lemons. Everybody, myself included, who has been making artwork in the city hasnâ€™t had resources to do anything but making with what you have. Sometimes youâ€™re living in squalor and trying to scrape byâ€¦ The Cass Corridor people got a lot of notoriety, but shit, there were artists in the 80s living inside the Broderick Tower and Fort Wayne, and had studios in random skyscrapers that were virtually vacant because no one could afford to do anything in there. These artists may have not gotten the same attention, but that lineage is all the sameâ€”trying to use the spaces that have been neglected because creative people see potential there.
Congratulations to Scott for his award of a 2011 Kresge Foundation Visual Arts Fellowship!
Sarah Margolis-Pineo is a curator and writer. She is currently the Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow at the Cranbrook Art Museum.