For over two decades now Judith Brotman’s practice has hinged on relationships built between people. This has taken several forms over the years, and hopefully you’ve had the opportunity of seeing some of her recent work at Bike Room in “I Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed (reviewed here by Bad at Sports’s own Caroline Picard); at Slow Gallery with “New Word”; or at Gallery 400 in “Whisper Down the Lane.”
For the exhibition “New Word,” Brotman used the Jewish Kabbalistic prompt of finding a word to follow for the rest of your life as an impetuous to generate 1000 new words, including some of the following examples:
Brotman relinquished some control over the piece’s manifestation by “not touching the work,” tasking the organizer of the exhibition to fabricate the piece by inscribing the words on the wall for her. Although many of the words are humorous sounding, and the project on the whole involves a certain amount of playfulness, it forces a certain obligation and responsibility on the viewer as well.
In her piece “93 Dreams of Summer” from “Whisper Down the Lane” she generated several texts, related to koans in both their brevity and enigmatic nature, and created a sound recording of her reading them which viewers were invited to listen to over headphones. The phrases, while often absurd, are also witty and poetic, reflecting the skill and comfort with which Brotman writes:
Dream 6. You invent a machine that can play the violin, devein shrimp, and shred documents all at the same time.
Dream 27. You live in a world where there are restrictions to saying “Good job,” to your children. Saying it too often leads first to fines, then imprisonment, and ultimately the death penalty. You breathe a sigh of relief.
Dream 55. You are twelve years old, and God comes to visit dressed as a lawn chair. You say hello and sit down.
Dream 87. You legally change your name to “Tater.”
In both these exhibitions, Brotman engages language— either via the written word, or words read aloud— and they also both feature words or texts generated by her. Although she has stated she’s as influenced by visual phenomena as she is by literature, Brotman also views both works as engaging with that same, singular, overarching concern that continues to occupy her regardless of the medium she is experimenting with— relationships.
Her interest in relationships has translated into a focus on narratives, especially love stories. Brotman’s tastes run the gamut from day time soap operas to tales of unrequited love, or unconventional, odd ball works that, while they’re well known pieces of literature, may not typically be thought of as love stories (take Frankenstein for example, one of her favorites).
The pivotal moments, or moments of drama that these stories often hinge on, draw Brotman to them, and while she can appreciate the tension and theatricality that arise from their seemingly unending series of climaxes, she’s as equally taken with “the possibility that things will go wrong…”
In a cruel example of life imitating art, Brotman had just such a pivotal moment this past summer, in the form of a hand injury; “…(I) lost the use of my wrist and I couldn’t make anything and I didn’t know if it was going to come back, and it was very depressing… and people were saying to me, this is going to be an opportunity, and I… wanted to punch them, with the good hand (of course).”
This did lead to an opportunity however, and it took the form of a long-term project that, although she claims to have no idea how it may develop over time, imagines it going on, “for the rest of (her) life.”
The parameters of the project involve Brotman visiting the homes of friends and near strangers alike. She asks them to read to her aloud for forty-five minutes to an hour while she audio records them and takes some still photographs. There’s a certain amount of latitude in what they may choose to read, but Brotman requests that it be a text of meaning.
“Careful what you say, because… when I started at the School of the Art Institute in the late eighties I said there is one thing I will never, ever do, and that is performance,” jokes Brotman. And while her artistic overture is somewhat fluid in this project, she is still interested in the same kinds of dramatic tensions and relationship cultivation.
Generosity seems inherent in the act of inviting someone into your domestic space, thoughtfully selecting a text of meaning, and then sharing both your time and energy in reading it aloud, but the work is complicated by some of the quieter, darker reasons for Brotman’s impetus for the project— a cultural critic of a fast paced, compartmentalized, multi-tasking society that listens to books on tape, reads off a tablet, and texts or emails instead of making face time.
Although the project is only newly underway, Brotman has noticed that it asks a lot of her as a listener as well, and requires a heightened level of “focus and presence.” The project seems to repay careful, thoughtful and active listening, but Brotman is honest about stating that, “…pivotal moments may or may not happen.” Although the action of being read to is repetitive, there’s so much variation within each discrete event that it’s difficult to generalize. She does go on to say that, “…many of the readings have been exquisite and some have not been. Sometimes I can’t wait for it to end— and that’s usually when the reader can’t wait for it to end—…. And then sometimes it really is like a little love story… I have this feeling of being carried away, there’s this falling in love moment, that, I don’t know what else to call it, I’m inspired, I’m excited, I’m curious, I leave feeling like I have 300 times more energy then when I came in.”
The act of reading aloud to someone is usually an intimate affair, but Brotman is experimenting with performing the readings publicly, and recently had the opportunity of being read to for part of “The American Dream: (W)holy Grail” in Edgewater. And although previously her site-responsive installations constructed largely from objects crafted from paper were exceedingly fragile and ephemeral, she is deriving a certain amount of pleasure from the act of archiving, cataloguing and retaining these readings. It’s clear that the performance itself, rather then it’s mere accumulation, is still what’s most compelling to her though; “it has stripped down to the core what I care about most.” Perhaps as the project marches on, she will find herself generating love stories instead of merely listening in on them.
Interview conducted in October 2013.
The author would like to thank Judith Brotman for her assistance.
All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise noted.
September 30, 2013 · Print This Article
“I willingly was a participant in the lifestyle of the motorcycle club, and it is a lot like any other social scene, with it’s own codes and mores, only perhaps faster and at times more violent. But at the same time, it is upfront, so in that sense you know what you are dealing with and it is clear what is expected from you… I have never been uncomfortable around the club and have never felt threatened in any way, if they like you, and most importantly, if the leader of the club likes you, they will treat you with absolute respect.” -Laura Stewart
The two main protagonists of Laura Stewart’s latest film are the titular “Shooter,” motorcycle gang leader of Green Bay, Wisconsin’s Black Pistons, and Whitley, a young woman who is both his partner in crime and charity project.
Shooter is an actual individual whom Stewart credits with sparking her interest in perusing the project in the first place; “I didn’t even know what this film was going to be about when I started it, I had always liked Shooter and found him intriguing… he was the only subject that interested me enough to blow through all this film.” From seven hours of footage, the final cut comes in at fifty-three minutes.
Shot without a script, the film uses voice-over narration to reveal the thoughts, fears and desires of Shooter and Whitley, and we experience the filmic world Stewart creates through the lense of their impressions and experiences. Although Stewart confesses that a typical days shoot would involve “having a general idea what I’d want to film,” she cultivated a collaborative relationship with her actors and actresses wherein they would agree or decline to proceed given the premise she would establish. The goal was always to produce scenes that most realistically reflected their lives, so although the relationships and events of the film are all constructed, the characters had, “the freedom to expose the parts of their lives that they want(ed to).”
For Whitley, this entailed sound bites about coming from a broken home, learning how to cook crack by age eight, and getting thrown out of the house by fifteen. Shooter took a longer view about his romantic relationships over the years, and the protection and security he could provide Whitley for the price of obedience.
By giving them the “freedom to be who they want(ed) to be,” Stewart felt she was able to better coax an authentic portrayal of their “lifestyle or soul” from them. Amidst the dancing, drugs, partying and prostitution that eventually entrap Whitley, and cloud her ultimate quest for comfort and security in the hands of Shooter, we find both characters blindly searching for home in a motel and bar, and referring to a biker gang family.
Without knowing the film is fiction, it is virtually impossible to perceive it as anything but documentary. This complex fusion of fiction and reality is what interests Stewarts, who feels that, “…all our lives are continually being made up every day in our heads anyway. There is no concrete documentary in my opinion.”
The non-diegetic mood music is eclectic and often jarring— it ranges from a song by the Dirty Three, to The Rolling Stones, to Franz Schubert. One scene in particular, shot on location at the Bourbon Street bar, pairs “Nacht und Träume” with lingering close-ups on Whitley’s tightly bound bust and Shooter’s grizzled, filthy looking paw stroking her upper thigh. The camera cannibalizes the image of Whitley, lingering on her chest and leg, chiefly without inclusion of her head or face in the frame, placing the viewer in the position of objectifying misogynist right alongside Shooter.
There were a handful of reasons why Stewart opted for filming in 16mm (with some Super 8)— some were practical, others were creative license. After recent run-ins with the law that Shooter and members of motorcycle club had just prior to filming, the analogue technology of 16mm, “let them know this was not some sort of surveillance, so (they) would be comfortable with a camera around.” In addition, the film pays homage to seventies cult biker films which were also often shot quickly, using 16mm.
Stewart embraced the uncertainty that filming in 16mm comes with, stating, “That was part of what I liked best about (it), never having any idea how it would turn out until it came back from the lab in Seattle.” She notes that, “the bikes and the chrome, and the Sky Lit motel with it’s 50′s sign where the M goes out after a lot of rain, this was something I felt needed to be on 16mm.” While the quality of shooting with film goes a long way towards setting the stylized tone of the film, the rigid, traditional and conservative gender roles that both Shooter and Whitley personify also reinforce this feeling. The trance-like spell their gritty, sparse, and often desperate monologues invoke, incanted under the pulsing neon light of the Vegas-style motel sign transport the viewer to a bygone era, so much so that moments when a man in a recumbent bike pedals past the Bourbon Street bar, or a different man gets into his car in the parking lot of the Sky Lit while talking on his cell phone are unexpectedly shocking, standing out as wrinkles in the time warp.
Stewart reports that the bikers like the film, and that, interestingly, “the guys all say it is more about relationships.” Through an interesting blend of narrative and documentary, and improvisation and confessional, Stewart employs classic Hollywood filmic troupes alongside contemporary motorcycle club culture and aesthetics to create a film that navigates its own interesting path somewhere between the realms of hyper-reality and fan fiction.
All images courtesy of Laura Stewart.
Interview with Laura Stewart conducted by the author via email in September 2013.
The author would like to thank Laura Stewart.
To contact Stewart, please write to: email@example.com
IT’S WITH MILD trepidation that I’m posting the essay I wrote for the upcoming John Preus show I curated for the Experimental Sound Studio (ESS) below. I say this chiefly because John’s own lyrical prose, posted here yesterday, is a very tough act to follow.
As I was writing this text, conversations I had had with John, glimpses of work in progress I had stole at our studio visit, and fragments of phrases from email exchanges were all still marinating for me. You’ll see some which percolated into the essay as quotations, but others are noiselessly wafting around and above it like a shimmering cloud of gnats.
This long-form approach to engaging with John’s work is what draws me to it– I have the sense that it is both tightly bound, fitted and finely finished, while simultaneously being on the verge of a blow out, ready to burst back into all the little bits and pieces he used to put it together in the first place.
Hopefully you had a chance to take in some of his other handiwork at EXPO this past weekend, and experience the atmosphere his work can initiate even amidst the hustle and bang of a massive art fair. I liken it to several tenants of the growing Slow Food movement below, but again John has bested me, and I have come to prefer his term “temporary stasis” for how it marries the fleeting with the stable.
In a way, I feel that dichotomy reflects the relationship between my text and John’s; mine being the former, his the later. I’ve used this introduction as a departure from my typical tone and mode of working in a nod to him, in gratitude for his art and writing which has inspired me, however cautiously, to adopt the gentle discomforts and bracing inscrutabilities of both lyrical prose, and long-lasting ideas built into short-lived experiments.
John Preus is an artist, musician, carpenter, woodworker, and magpie. In the
long-standing tradition of Chicago artists scavenging for “trash treasure,” he lets
serendipity and the thrill of the hunt guide him in sourcing discarded materials. Each
new piece is a design challenge, contingent on entropy and surplus, to revive what
others have cast-off or given up on. His materials offer up an infinite number of
solutions which he is constantly attempting to “extract and exploit.”
His built objects typically serve a functional purpose, and oftentimes they are made for
domestic spaces but comprised of cannibalized furniture. His work is Surreal in the
most basic sense that it de-familiarizes the familiar; we recognize a tabletop here or a
headboard there. Because of this, it occupies a liminal space between constituent
parts and compound whole.
At times, Preus foregrounds the beauty marks and scars of his material— a found,
hand-painted design becomes the focal point of a guitar, imbuing it with a certain
narrative quality. Other times, his material serves as a sort of visual pun— you’ve
heard of making bedposts metaphorically sing? Well, Preus does so literally, turning
one quarter of an old four-poster bed into an upright bass. By combining a fondness
for his material’s embedded histories, with a craft person’s skill at building, and an
artist’s eye for shine, his pieces celebrate their past proudly, reveling in their physicality.
Oftentimes, this infuses them with a certain anthropomorphism. And yet, they are
incomplete without us— who will play them? Who will listen to them played? The
wistful air of the stray and the mutt also cloaks them, a perfect tragic foil to the
Slow Sound draws inspiration from the Slow Food movement, sparked in part by
Fergus Henderson’s cult classic cookbook, “The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating.”
This call to eat not just the choice cuts “high” on the hog, but the whole hog, necessarily
means getting creative by saving bones for stocks, scraps for brines, and rendering
the rest. Henderson has famously stated; “If you’re going to kill the animal it seems
only polite to use the whole thing.” It’s that mentality which resonates so strongly with
Preus’s own practice, echoing his questioning of the contemporary consumerist
mantra, “Replacement is better then repair.”
Closing loopholes by pulling items out of the waste stream is done not so much with
an overtly environmental thrust, although upcycling and net-zero philosophies are
applicable. Likewise, the importance of the locally sourced and the handcrafted factor
in, but aren’t the main driver. When I imagine Preus spotting the corner of a legless
Formica table poking out of a dumpster in the alley, I bet he thinks about how the press
board hiding just underneath its laminate surface is comprised of the same wood that a
family heirloom is made from, and that in some factory somewhere, it was a person
who helped fabricate it. Preus understands that the materials he works with shape shift
as they move through the world, rising or falling in value due to changing tastes or
The importance of context then becomes paramount, and so viewing— and hearing,
these pieces at the Experimental Sound Studio is central. Preus’s instruments are one-of-
a-kind— no two pieces are alike, the materials used to fabricate them are
unique, and their overall construction is unconventional. Simultaneously, however, they
produce relatively standard sounds. New Material, the band comprised of Mikel Avery,
Leroy Bach and Tadd Cowen, along with Preus, play straight ahead improvisations,
replete with melodic solos and quoted popular tunes. And so again, these pieces
shape shift, cultivating relationships across incongruities; they are accessible and
engaging while simultaneously surprising expectations of traditional instrument
construction, sound resonance and amplification.
Preus’s practice conflates fine art, design, architecture, music, curating, writing, social
engagement and environmental studies, among other things— such as parenthood,
citizenship and faith. It transgresses commonly held notions of labor and value in favor
of a post-scarcity worldview. It questions industrialization’s monocultural market place
and the planned obsolescence it perpetuates. It celebrates leisure time and recreational
activities in a loose sense, honoring unstructured deep play and creativity-sparking
boredom. It recognizes change as inevitable and speed as constant, but puckishly
messes with the variability of pace. More than anything, it is concerned with morphology,
how a given material might be used or re-used. Preus has referred to his work as
existing in “temporary stasis,” which I must concede is a much more elegant term than
“slow.” Like the Doppler effect, which explains why the frequency of a sound in motion
shifts in respect to its observer, Preus’s work meets you where you are. It offers up its
past, points the way to a more sustainable future, and embroils you in the day-to-day
and the domestic through a practice heavily reliant on viewer involvement.
• • •
John Preus is a Chicago-based artist, musician and woodworker whose work explores
forms of attachment, craft, art, and community life. Preus holds an MFA from the
University of Chicago (2005), and his education in the trades includes a 2-year
apprenticeship with award-winning furniture maker John Nesset. With roughly 16 years
of building and design experience, Preus founded Dilettante Studios in 2010, which
creates and fabricates items for residential and commercial spaces, using predominantly
secondhand materials. He co-founded the art group Material Exchange
(2005-12) with Sara Black; and SHoP (Southside Hub of Production) with Laura
Shaeffer (2010). He is former lead fabricator and project manager for Theaster Gates,
and oversaw production and installation of 12 Ballads for Huguenot House as part of
dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Germany. Additional exhibitions include the Museum of
Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Heilbronn Kunstverein; the Portland Museum of
Contemporary Craft; the Smart Museum of Art, Chicago; and the DeVos Museum of
Art, Marquette, Michigan. Preus’s work will be featured in a solo exhibition at the Hyde
Park Art Center in Spring 2014.
My thanks go to John and the friendly, hard-working staff of ESS. Please join us at The Experimental Sound Studio, located at 5925 North Ravenswood Ave. Chicago, IL 60660, for the opening reception of John Preus: Slow Sound, 9/27/13, 6-9pm. Special performance by New Material (Mikel Avery, Tadd Cowen, LeRoy Bach, John Preus) at around 7pm.
Christy LeMaster is the powerhouse behind the Nightingale, a Chicago microcinema dedicated to screening experimental film. It’s a welcoming and unpretentious space thanks to her generosity and openness. The Nightingale engages in inclusive conversation surrounding the production, distribution and consumption of new work, but at the heart of everything it does, beats the fans, makers, viewers, colleagues and friends it’s cultivated. LeMaster’s ingenuity, sweat equity and contagious enthusiasm has kept the place humming for the past several years, and now— poised to celebrate a milestone anniversary— she was kind enough to recount the Nightingale’s gradual growth in scale and scope; discuss the film she’s currently making; and give us a teaser regarding the new website she’s developing, a project which will vault the community built in her brick and mortar space into the ether of the internet with the hopes of connecting and supporting even more filmmakers, cinemas and cinephiles.
TLN: April 5 marks the five-year anniversary of the Nightingale. Can you recap the activities and structure of your space over the last few years and let us in on what’s next?
CL: You say “5 years”, and it seems like it’s been so much longer; and at the same time, it feels like it’s happened at light speed. When I started the Nightingale it seemed like access was the issue; there was more work being made than was screened, and seeing one’s work in front of an audience should be the bedrock of artistic development. The city just seemed hungry for it. When I first began talking about starting a microcinema, people just rushed in to help. So I decided to do as many screenings as I could, and to not be overly precious about the idea of curation. There seemed to be a need for a community screening room as well as an experimental cinema; we got requests to be an auxiliary venue for other arts organizations; to screen social-issue documentaries; to host youth-media showcases; and to feature work from all the city’s art schools. And so the momentum became its own practical logic: What do we need right now? What do we have that we can use? Who is coming to town? What is the rest of her work like? Those sorts of questions often propelled me forward more often than “What should we be showing?” Luckily, generous and gifted people keep showing up to help. Patrick Friel has been presenting every month for years; Jon Cates and Nick Briz brought us UpgradeChicago for awhile; My dear friends Doug and Chloe McLaren have been managing tech concerns and special event details for years; Sally Lawton showed up a year ago asking to help out with screenings, and is now involved in every aspect of the place. It all happened pretty organically. I would ask for help as needed and people helped. The place runs entirely on a gift economy and volunteer labor. With exception of special events and multi-artist shorts programs, we always pay artists out of the door and spend the rest until it’s gone. For the most part we break even.
When I started, I gave the project a sunset date of five years so I could re-assess if I was happy doing the work and if the space was still needed. And here we are. I think it is still useful to do, but I am being pulled by other projects. So I am handing off. The main bulk of the work will be managed by five programmers/keyholders: Patrick Friel, Emily Kuehn, Jesse Malmed, Chloe McLaren, and Doug McLaren. They will all have autonomous use of the space. We have structured the new system around transparency. We have put all of the tools for running the space online, and gathered a group of volunteer staff to assist the programmers. And we are taking this moment to refresh the space in lots of other ways too. We will soon launch a kickstarter to get a new projector. We are overhauling the website and changing the look of the space. I am excited for the transition. It seems really natural. I can’t wait to see what happens next. I hope to still organize programs occasionally and think about the space in a more macro way.
TLN: The Nightingale has managed to transcend its programming by acting as an informal hub of community building. I know intentional communities, post-nuclear family structures and Utopias are all part of your research interests, can you tell us more about how they relate to the activities of your micro-cinema and your own arts practice?
CL: Early on, I decided on a few small details that have become our rituals— we make pretty tickets for every screening, we always have a raffle, we host a big potluck every year and film a trailer.
I’m really interested in issues around interdependence. I think in the wake of the implosion of the nuclear family, we’re all sort of floating into new models of how to take care of each other. I heard a woman say once, “co-dependence is no joke in a world without interdependence,” and that’s really led my interest. It was always more important that the Nightingale be accessible instead off curatorially perfect. And for a long time I didn’t think I had an art practice, I just thought I had projects. But over the last couple years I’ve started to see that all of my projects are concerned with the same issues— how do people establish interdependence outside of traditional means; heteronormative relationships, institutions of church or work? I think a lot of us arts organizers in Chicago are remaking a small corner of the world in a vision that we value. Utopia is social critique. We aren’t interested any more, it seems, in removing ourselves from society entirely, but a lot of people we know are working very hard to rebuild small parts of society from the ground up. The Nightingale is my vision of an interdependent cinema, and a lot of my other projects are concerned with the same dynamics. I’m working on a movie about utopias where I invite different arts organizations in Chicago to re-enact an intentional or utopian community from American history; I’m researching sacred harp choirs because of how they use performance as collaborative practice. I’ve been thinking about how to be a good collaborator for 10 years, and I’m only now applying it pragmatically.
TLN: Your network of colleagues and collaborators extends well beyond the city of Chicago, which makes you the perfect person to take on the build out of Splitbeam, an online resource you dreamt up and secured funding to implement. Tell us more about the project, its function and its design.
CL: It turns out that the experimental cinema community is pretty small; Splitbeam is an idea that I had over the last years at the Nightingale— I wanted a resource where I could see what other microcinemas were doing, and right now experimental moving image makers are working on a sort of punk-rock model where you book your own shows; we’re not really relying on media to travel independently of the artist very often. Splitbeam is a web directory of microcinemas, independent and alternative cinemas, and it houses a modular, open distribution that is meant to take some of the administrative burden off of curators and artists. I am lucky to be working on it with my good friends Nick Briz and Michael Castelle; Nick is doing the front-end design and Michael is handling the database, and I am taking on the research and organization. We received a generous grant from the Propeller Fund and used it to hire Sonnenzimmer to create a visual concept for the site. We’re going to work on it hard this summer and hope to launch in the Fall of 2013.
Interview conducted over email March 2013.
Last September, DePaul Art Museum hosted an epic group exhibition, featuring Imagist artist work on the first floor and a contemporary generation of artists on the second. While those contemporaries have in many respects plotted their own independent and respective courses, there was something refreshing about co-curators,’ Dahlia Tulett-Gross and Thea Liberty Nichols, ability to highlight the visual and theoretical connection between generations. The resulting exhibition, Afterimage, illustrated a visual legacy, reinvigorating the past while demonstrating it’s transformation into the present.
Caroline Picard: Often collaborative curatorial projects come from on-going conversations — how did you two conceive of the Afterimage show?
Thea Liberty Nichols: You’re right on target in thinking that the show evolved through a series of ongoing conversations, but ultimately, Dahlia came up with the idea. She’s connected to a lot of local galleries and has built relationships with dozens of artists. Recognizing a renewed interest in the Imagists among contemporary artists who, rather than obscure or reject their connection to them, prized it, she isolated a certain look or feel that many of those artists shared with the Imagists. She approached me about co-curating with her partly because I had written my thesis on the Imagists. Ultimately, our commitment to showcasing the work of every artist as an individual within the larger context of our show led to the publication of an exhibition catalog, which we were so pleased to include you in!
CP: What was so important about platforming art with writing in the catalogue?
TLN: We were dedicated to creating some enduring historical record since, like Imagism itself, there’s a lot of historical background noise about art writing in Chicago — both its quality and its outlets, or lack there of. In both instances, rather then engage distant and stale debates, we wanted to have a new conversation featuring new voices. We were lucky to work with a whole host of arts writers, including arts journalists, critics, curators and even some visual artists who also write for our publication. go here to read more.