Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with Lacey Haslam of Oakland-based BLOCK Gallery and artist Kari Marboe regarding their newest project titled Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled. Six months ago, they connected over email and by November, BLOCK will be presenting Kari’s site-specific public artwork in Oakland’s downtown area – specifically on the site known as Latham Square.
It wasn’t until half way through our conversation that I realized that we were sitting in Latham Square, just a few feet away from the site-specific building windows that would house Kari’s artwork. Kari shared fascinating stories and trivia tidbits about the small section of the city known as Latham Square, which was named after the late-19th century pioneer family of James and Henrietta, and their children Milton and Edith. The family had fueled money and programming into Oakland, including education for children on animal rights. One hundred years ago, Milton and Edith created a memorial fountain to their parents that was for “both man and beast”. The incredibly historical Latham Fountain now sits in Latham Square – sans running water – as a source of inspiration for Kari’s newest work.
Jeffrey: So what’s BLOCK Gallery all about?
Lacey: BLOCK started experimenting in 2010, playing with the on-going question of what happens when we move artwork outside of the white wall gallery space – thinking about the function of art outside traditional institutions, whether that’s museums or galleries. What BLOCK aims to do is tap into the function of art, and activating art from a more inclusive and educational place. What started as an experiment turned into site-specific exhibitions, meaning curating the work based on what’s happening in the space and using the context of the space as the content of the exhibition. What this approach ends up doing is providing an outlet for not only the artist to exhibit work – maybe it’s a piece that they have already created or it’s a piece that responds to the space – but exhibiting concepts the artists are already working with and putting it in a space that anyone can walk into or by and say, “oh this relates to me because I’m interested in this idea as well”.
J: So where are you now, three years later?
L: BLOCK is now moving into public space. It now has two different spaces –the alternative spaces with full-on rotating exhibitions and now the public space, and that’s where Kari’s coming in as an artist who also incorporates public spaces in her practice. These exhibitions are free, public, 24/7 – I mean, there are no hours associated with when you can view the work. You are not walking into a well-lit cube between the hours of 10 AM and 6 PM; rather you are walking down the street or stumbling upon them by happenstance.
J: How did you meet Kari? How did you guys hook up?
L: She actually reached out because she saw what BLOCK was doing. She was interested in the program that BLOCK was building and said, “hey, here’s my work, maybe we can pull together some projects”. I looked at her portfolio and it was exactly what I was looking for – she works site-specifically, in the public sphere, but she also draws on what’s happening in that space. Since our first meeting she has been fully involved in the entire process.
J: So Kari, how did you get to know of the BLOCK sort of “thing” that was happening?
Kari: I first heard about BLOCK while I was just finishing up my MFA over at UC Berkeley. I had been creating site-specific text-based installations during my time there—
J: “Site-specific text-based”?
K: Artworks designed conceptually and physically for a particular space, and in my case made with text. For example, during our thesis exhibition I worked with Dena Beard to find a public and easily accessible spot outside of the Berkeley Art Museum to place a piece. She suggested taking over one of the panels outside of the museum on Bancroft which is normally used for internal advertising on upcoming exhibitions or events and found a 4’x4’ panel that was available during the time we needed. So I wrote a piece that talked about being exactly in that space, the motions of coming in and out of the museum, in poem form so people could sit down on one of the benches across from the work and enjoy it for a while. The label for the work was displayed right as you were walking out of the museum, so people were stopping and asking, “where is this piece of art, it’s not the Calder, where is it”. Another piece I worked for that show was with the East Bay Express—
J: The newspaper?
K: Yep, the free newspaper that comes out weekly. They were so kind and donated rectangular advertising space to me for seven consecutive weeks. My collaborator Erin Johnson jumped on board and we made a series of seven squares that spoke about the nature and functions of a newspaper. That was a fun project, especially since it was free and available to everyone. While I was working on that, I also spent a lot of time online, seeing what other people were doing with sites and where my text work could fit in. I somehow ran into BLOCK Gallery and it was exactly the type of thing I was looking for. I had never heard of a site-specific gallery before, or at least not one in the area, and was immediately interested in meeting the person behind it.
J: What was that advertising or marketing for BLOCK?
L: Gosh, at that point, it was very minimal. It started by hooking up with Oakland event calendars and bare-bone sites to say, “hey, I’m a program in Oakland and this is what I do”. It hasn’t been easy to put words to this type of program, instead I had to just do it, letting the installation images and the curatorial statements piece it all together.
J: So Kari, take me through that process of contacting Lacey…
K: After looking at BLOCK’s website I decided to send her an email with some links to my work. We got together and brainstormed on the types of sites that would be exciting to work with. While looking around in downtown Oakland we stumbled across Latham Square just before the City of Oakland and ReBar started their Pilot Project there.
L: In our first meeting, I mentioned wanting to do something in that little triangle where Broadway and Telegraph spilt – we didn’t know it had a name then. After seeing the Pilot Project and realizing that it did not involve any artwork – other than the street paintings – we started thinking about how to get in touch with the City, ReBar, what the logistics of doing a work there might be, what would a project there look like, and how could we help add to this newly pedestrian space.
J: So what is Latham Square? Are the Latham’s an Oakland-based family?
K: I’m glad you asked.
L: Yes, here it comes!
K: When we thought we might be interested in doing the project here I went to the Oakland History Room of the Oakland Public Library— wait, have you ever been in that room?
K: Oh my goodness, it’s worth a visit! They have a specific room and librarian for all-things-Oakland on the second floor. The first librarian I met was already familiar with the Lathams and instantly pulled the files of James, the father, and Edith, the daughter.
J: So interesting! I just got the chills.
K: I know! They also have a database with scanned articles from the Oakland Tribune. I was able to search around and found an amazing article from April 10, 1913, that described a great deal about the fountain and the dedication ceremony. I mean everything from the color of the granite to Mr. Latham’s first job. The title of this piece – Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled – is the same as the article’s title.
Kari continues to share the fabulous history of the Lathams. It is so fabulous that it has become the driving concept behind her installation. Text here would do no justice, and rather, a visit to the work of art would be most appropriate.
K: What I’m interested in is taking this history and creating a piece that combines that story – specifically the desires of motives of the Latham children for building the fountain – with themes of how the memories of citizens are preserved within city structures over time. It’s been just over a hundred years since the fountain was installed.
L: And at a certain point this piece will become part of Latham Square’s history as well.
J: Can you talk about some of the logistics of the piece?
K: Oh, boy. Site-specific pieces are about eighty-percent logistics and twenty-percent art making.
L: It’s been email after email, meeting after meeting. It’s an ongoing evolution. You don’t want to start on finalizing the actual artwork because so much can change.
J: Any details of those emails or meetings?
K: Well, we knew we had to talk to the Downtown Oakland Association.
L: The Downtown Oakland Association oversees a lot of different departments. Their main mission focuses on getting Oakland to be a more livable, more beautiful, more active, safer city. For example, they do the hanging plants on the lights, they have solar integrated trash compactors – great solution to any city’s trash management.
K: They have a certain amount of funding allocated for projects like ours. For instance, they helped Art Murmur get off the ground and have been sponsoring the Great Wall where large-scale video projections happen.
L: What’s fascinating about Oakland is that there is so much energy around the city’s re-identification through art, to position it as an exciting and relevant cultural hub. The crowds that turned out in the early days for the Art Murmur activated Oakland in a certain way, and now that First Friday has hit a plateau, I think there’s a lot of room for growth at this point. There is a ballooning need to gather around art again.
J: What’s BLOCK’s position in the Oakland art scene?
L: BLOCK is designed to be fluid on every aspect. When you’re not tied to a space, you’re not worried about the on-going programming of that one space. Being able to break away from that idea and bring art to a community or to places that people will frequent, and being able to use art as a sort of bridge for a new experience. In essence, the program is about activating art, activating space to further the experience. So, why is BLOCK in Oakland? That’s a fascinating question. There’s something here, there’s an energy here that San Francisco has, but it translates in a very different way. Oakland is primed for growth, has a sense of opportunity. The people we’ve come in contact with here have an authentic, raw enthusiasm for it. I haven’t seen that in any other space or city.
Latham Memorial Fountain Unveiled will be presented from November 1, 2013 to April 2014. For more information, visit http://www.block-gallery.com/locations/public-space/lathamunveiled
In an exhibition last year at the Geffen Contemporary in Los Angeles entitled Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974 co-curators Phillip Kaiser and Miwon Kwon attempted to create the most comprehensive assessment and categorization Land Art to date. This exhibition was lauded for not merely being comprehensive, but also for challenging the American-centric notions that usually define this movement, thus extending the conversation into a more international discourse. Thinking about this exhibition, and the attempts by the curators to reintroduce site-specific practices into a contemporary conversation has made me question the role of site and of location within digitally produced works.
Kwon herself offers many perspectives on the shifting state of site-specific work in her One Place After Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity. The book examines the emergence of site-specific artworks as a direct response to the stale/domestic/white cube settings that more commonly permeate contemporary art at the time. She notably points to the shift of site-specificity from wilderness sites back into the gallery due to the convenience of re-fabrication processes. This practice is then eventually supplanted by an adoption of institutional critique performance by museums as a way of continuing to support site-specificity work. However, this gesture of support still truncates this work within the confines walls of the institution. As a result of the increased modularity and/or insularity of many site-specific works – an effort to make these pieces more capable of traveling to multiple institutions – Kwon argues that the very nature of a site-specific practice is more mobile as of late. As a result:
“the specificity of the site in terms of time and space is rendered irrelevant, making it all the easier for autonomy to be smuggled back into the art work… The artwork is newly objectified (and commodified) and site specificity is redescribed as the personal aesthetic choice of an artist’s stylistic preference rather than a structural reorganization of aesthetic experience…. In this way, site-specific art comes to represent criticality rather than performing it.”
This trajectory not only asks artists to take hold of the performative role of a location based work (as famously done by Andrea Fraser) but it also asks artists to take the materiality of mobility as the primary location for criticism. If a work of location-based art is freed from needing specific time and space to discuss locational identity, then how might this serve an artist already working with a medium that embraces mobility? If one were to embrace the spatial and temporal flexibility of location then this site can become decentralized or abstracted in order to speak to the underlying cultural significance of a specific place.
It’s important to note here the importance difference in the two types of locations that artists might engage: space and place. In space, artists are concerned with geography, geometry, and dimensions of distance or volume; however, in place, artists are investigating the culture, history, identity, and politics of a location. This differentiation is important since space is the only location of the two that requires (or at least asks) the artist to be physically present with the site. (Various Marina Abramovic puns can be inserted here).
With place, that physicality is not required. In fact, place does not inherently require any physical manifestation whatsoever. Place can exist in memory, in writing, in oration, or in any variable/ephemeral media. In this way, place is much more akin to Conceptual art of the 1970s, where the idea of a work takes precedence, and the execution of object-making for the purposes of containing that idea are secondary (or at least that is the hope). If place can then exist within non-physical environments, then it is a ripe location for digital artists to inhabit and work within.
I feel as though there are already artists dealing with space as a decentralized phenomenon. For instance, in his Tantamount Series, JK Keller flattens various mountain peaks into a unified horizon line. This gesture then visually and metaphorically flattens the rooftops of the world into one single homogenous space. Regardless of Keller’s visually inventive gesture, this work does not necessarily take into account the actual placial relationships these locations might possibly have with one another. The decentrality of these mountaintops marks these locations more as a type of “any-space-whatever” then it does a place with a specific history/identity. This is not to fault Keller by any means, but his work serves as fitting evidence of a continued trepidation to address place within the digital arts.
Some artists seem to be slowly approaching place as it relates to personal history, however. Nicolas Sassoon has made a couple of works – notably Fidji – that address the architectural history of locations from his childhood and how these sites have influenced his amazingly consistent style. Works like Legend by Timur Si-Qin, on the other hand, addresses place not through personal narrative, but through the context of the gallery in which he is shown/invited. The place in this piece (although situated in a specific space) involves the family of one of the gallerists. Si-Qin asks the gallerist to engage with her father’s interest in medieval reenactment through the devices of contemporary warfare. This process then creates a fictional, decentralized place that involves a specific family history and cultural lineage. The catalyst for creating place in this work occurs in the “simulated anachronistic battle [that] double[s] as the act of artistic production.” The physical space of the gallery is then made somewhat irrelevant, and in turn creates a “context-specific project.” (Above quotes taken from the press release of the exhibition at Fluxia in Italy).
Si-Qin combats falling into the trappings of a more typical context-driven methodology that takes cues from the spatial concerns presented by a physical gallery or institution. This more standard way of working, however, is what most artists I know would identify as site-specific work (or what I too have identified in the past for invitational projects). It goes something like: a gallery asks to do a show with an artist, and the artist seeks to make a new body of work in response to such a request. This process is still grounded in issues of space, and rarely addresses the place of the gallery or site. As a result of this trend the gallery itself becomes a no-place, and merely serves as a spatial vessel for transporting (or manifesting) the consumable goods that Kwon had initially argued against. However, because digital art does not require spatial presentation of a work (although some would argue this abandonment is naïve), artists in this medium should take the opportunity to create work that investigates the nuances of place.
I could be asking for too much, since the lure and attraction of showing in a gallery poses artists with an opportunity to sell work or to recoup production/education costs. I suppose it’s more than a lure, it’s a real/physical possibility that digital artists are rarely afforded. But in my mind artists should already be working on projects or ideas regardless of representation and/or exhibition opportunities. Due to the accessibility – and I use that term lightly – of the net, the potential for emphasizing placial concerns should be unavoidable. This is particularly the case since the space of the Internet is much more decentralized. So why is there still reservations in discussing the potential of a decentralized place?
It might be that the conceptual project of a decentralized place is much more of a challenge to those already comfortable with the idea of working within decentralized space. How does one talk about the specifics of a culture or history in such a way that is not predicated on a particular geography? One recent project that I feel is attempting to approach this conundrum is a kickstarter initiative by Lance Wakeling entitled Field Visits for Bradley Manning. In his description of the project Wakeling outlines a particular methodology for tackling the task of decentralized place through looking at multiple spaces:
“despite the title, Field Visits is not a straight-up documentary about Bradley Manning. Instead, the video explores the peripheral histories and landscapes of the surrounding areas. The case of Manning and the fight for open information become one tile in the larger mosaic of an internet impatient to assume the world.”
By stitching together histories, sites, and spaces, Wakeling is attempting to create a place – an imagined and decentralized location – to discuss the implications of free information in a heavily surveiled society. In doing so, the space of these locations – Kuwait, Virginia, Kansas, and Maryland – becomes subservient to the place in which these locations come to represent. Thus the place of this work is situated in a decentralized location.
In looking back at the strategies of Land Artists included in Kwon’s exhibition one can observe how desire to relocate art outside of the minimalist influenced “neutral” interiors of the gallery was an act of rebellion against the sterility of that aesthetic. The organic forms of Land Art, in and of themselves, serve as an oppositional stance against the geometric rigidity and spatial obsessiveness of minimalism. Artists working with digital technology have certainly taken it upon themselves to investigate how the ephemeral material of their medium challenges traditional notions of space. However, artists of this ilk must also take advantage of that ephemeral materiality as a way to challenge traditional notions of place. In this way, I wonder how the potential for a new form of decentralized or actively mobile site-specificity might in turn serve as a reaction against the rapid commercialization and institutionalization of art online.