(Here is part 2 of an interview that first appeared in my August Sub-rural blog with the noted independent critic and curator Susan Snodgrass. She has written for print and online publications, served as a Corresponding Editor of Art in America for twenty years, and is coeditor of ARTMargins Online. On her blog In/Site: Reflections on the Art of Place, she explores contemporary art and urbanism. We continue our discussion on a range of subjects that include the war in Ukraine and the unique journalistic structure of ARTMargins Online, recent manifestations of public art, and variances between rural and urban culture.)
PK: I’d like to begin by talking about your role with the publication ARTMargins Online, since it remains an active part of your practice. Can you discuss how you first became involved with it and how it provided an opportunity to build on the writing you had been doing with Art in America and the New Art Examiner?
SS: My experience with ARTMargins Online (AMO), first as a writer and then as an editor, began in 2001. In conjunction with the exhibition “In Between: Art from Poland 1945-2000” I co-curated for the Chicago Cultural Center, I organized a panel on contemporary and art historical perspectives on Central and East European art for the College Art Association annual conference held in Chicago in 2001. The papers presented were later published as part of a series on AMO and marked my beginning with this online publication, devoted to contemporary art in Central and Eastern Europe and the ever-changing global margins.
My role as a regular contributor and editorial advisor then evolved rather organically to my current position as editor, which I share as a member of our editorial collective. I continue to write for the publication as well, and just recently published two interviews on contemporary monument projects in Eastern Europe, as part of a Special Issue I co-organized on new commemorative practices happening in the region.
Previous to AMO, I had written several articles and reviews from Eastern Europe for Art in America, the result of a year-long journey beginning in Poland, then the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and later Germany, Slovenia, and Slovakia in subsequent travels. These included several in-depth surveys of the Hungarian and Czech art scenes, as well as reviews of Manifesta, a nomadic European biennial, and “After the Wall” at the Moderna Museet in Sweden, one of the first major exhibitions to map contemporary art in post-communist Europe. These articles were written from the perspective of an informed outsider for an international audience, perhaps unfamiliar with art from this region, and to offer a broadly contextualized view of the key issues facing East European artists and institutions in the transitional years shortly after the fall of communism. This in-depth, place-based approach is what I bring to all of my writing, including my blog In/Site: Reflections on the Art of Place, that looks at the intersections between art, architecture and public space, and is something I learned from my early experiences as a critic writing for the original New Art Examiner.
PK: I’ve always appreciated that ARTMargins is the only American venue that considers Eastern Europe as having a significant contemporary culture. Generally, coverage only goes to the former East Germany.
SS: Although all of the articles published on ARTMargins Online are in English, it is an international versus an American publication. One of the first publications to emerge in the infancy of online publishing some 20 years ago, AMO has no physical offices and editors work virtually across a number of time zones and regions with current members of the collective based in Los Angeles and Berlin, Budapest, Sydney and Bosnia, New York and Albania, and of course Chicago.
PK: I’m curious about the territories and politics of the world demarcated by ARTMargins Online. I can’t help but notice that many of the countries were originally members of the “Non-Alignment Pact” that provided such a staunch critique of the bi-polar Cold War environment.
SS: The Non-Alignment Pact movement was established in the mid-1950s to represent the interests of developing countries within the decolonization process that occurred after WW2. During the Cold War, member countries (one of which was former Yugoslavia) were encouraged to not align themselves with either the United States or the USSR.
The countries whose artists and cultural movements define AMO’s coverage and mission don’t really belong to the above history, but rather were once part of the 22 Soviet territories known as the Eastern Bloc who were subjugated by communist rule during the Cold War. Today and since 1989, they exist as independent states. AMO was established roughly 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall by Sven Spieker as an archive for documenting the wealth of artistic activity happening across the former East, and as a critical forum for artists, critics, curators, theorists and art historians (both from the region and working elsewhere) to discuss and analyze East-Central European contemporary art and its histories. In addition to interviews, exhibition reviews, and critical essays, we publish a lot of book reviews on the most recent scholarship happening in the region, as well as global art histories that offer broader geographic perspectives on parallel artistic activities. With the advent of the print journal established in 2014, the online publication has expanded some of its editorial content to include artists, exhibitions and other events happening outside of Eastern Europe, while continuing to respond to the region’s ever shifting political landscape.
PK: The Russian aggression in Ukraine is globally catastrophic, but particularly for the security of all nations in its vicinity. hat are you hearing about artists or cultural workers in Eastern Europe responding to this tragedy? I’m particularly interested in how artists who were compromised by the 40-year history of surreptitiously producing progressive art in the Soviet Bloc react to the incursion when their countries contain Putin sympathizers.
SS: To answer your last question first, with the exception of Belarus there aren’t any European countries, including those of the former East that are sympathetic to Putin’s aggression. The overall response, therefore, has been one of overwhelming support while also coming to terms with the war’s larger implications for the region. Knowing that artists and cultural workers in Ukraine are dealing with the most basic issues of how to work and essentially survive, AMO’s first response was to create an extensive list of available resources (residencies, fellowships, emergency funds) for artists and scholars forced to leave Ukraine. Shortly after the Russian invasion, we published an interview with Maria Lanko, one of three curators of artist Pavlo Makov’s project, Fountain of Exhaustion: Acqua Alta, for the Ukrainian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale. Revealed are the harrowing circumstances of having to flee Ukraine and the challenges of curating exhibitions of Ukrainian art in times of war.
More recently, we published a podcast roundtable with cultural producers Janeil Engelstad and Lilia Kudelia who spoke with curator and researcher Kateryna Filyuk and art historian and cultural programmer Ilya Zabolotnyi about the impact of the war on Ukrainian art and culture. Here and across various other related articles, issues of cultural preservation and the building of support networks and new art infrastructures are discussed alongside questions of artistic solidarity, the theme of our upcoming special issue.
PK: While true that there are no countries in the vicinity of Ukraine that officially support Putin, there is evidence of extremism that awaits the ascendancy of anti-democratic governance in surrounding populations. Of course, that’s a troubling phenomena occurring in the U.S. as well, but we don’t have war on our doorstep. We are fortunate to only suffer the indignity of artists not located in major cultural capitals. We’re unwitting members of a cultural non-alignment pact snubbed by a powerful global network of mostly American and European museums, galleries, and academies.
SS: I would both agree and disagree with your statement. Perhaps it is true, if you think of the artworld only in terms of a singular trajectory, with artists and other creatives in the center seeking recognition and approval elsewhere. I am more of the belief that artists and cultural producers (including critics) in Chicago and the greater Midwest have great capacity and success in creating our own systems of exhibition and support and writing our own narratives. These successes play out locally, and in the national and international arenas.
This has always been the strength of the Chicago artworld, which as I have written in my blog is known for its spirit of collaboration, grass-roots politics and for defining art as a social practice and in relation to larger cultural ecosystems. I have brought a similar, transdisciplinary vision to all of my critical writing, particularly In/Site, which uses Chicago as a vantage point for reflections on the work of contemporary artists, public art and urban projects that reinvent that spatial environment of the city.
PK: American art continues to be incredibly splintered, not only in terms of geography, but between social practice and ideologically driven art, technologically and ecologically driven design, the surprisingly durable practices of figurative painting, and the continually escalating popularity of craft. It calls to mind the niche profiles of popular and progressive music.
SS: The great thing about art is the diversity and plurality of expression, with no one discipline or ism dominating the cultural sphere. Unfortunately, the artworld still must reconcile issues of inclusivity and representation, as well as fair labor practices as recent movements to unionize have made clear.
As a critic, the challenge is how to cover the breadth of artistic output and ideas, while also pointing to the issues that continuously affect how and what we create. Over the years, I have developed certain areas of interest and knowledge – contemporary Central and East European art, public art and the built environment, textile and material art practices. (I also regularly write for the journal Textile: Cloth and Culture that covers the broader contexts of textiles and material culture.) At the same time, I try to keep myself open to those artists and ideas outside my view.
PK: Regarding your blog In/Site you craft a position on the nature of public art practice, including objectives and the status of the discipline. You assert that public art took a step forward during COVID-19 by allowing certain work and artists to gain more visibility and relevance in this challenging time and assumed a voice that made contemporary art more accessible and civically engaging with regard to specific spaces and histories.
SS: I wrote three essays (or what I term long-form blogging) that directly respond to the pandemic. Planting the Future City looks at the interdisciplinary work of female artists, primarily living and working in Chicago (Sara Black, Nance Klehm, Melissa Potter, Frances Whitehead), who employ community-based approaches to urban agriculture. I saw their projects as productive models for righting the environmental injustices that – although existed before Covid – were made more evident when the fragility of our social and environmental ecosystems was further broken. Their artistic practices also predate Covid, as do the many art and nature parks I wrote about in another article that explores outdoor sculpture parks as sites that offer unique aesthetic experiences and environmental stewardship, as well as spaces for wellness and healing. Art and nature parks also provide opportunities for creating new environmental art forms that educate broad publics about art’s capacity for addressing planetary care as we move towards the post-pandemic era.
PK: Some of the work you describe has links to a particular strain of late Minimalism and Earth Art once undervalued as a transposition of the white cube onto nature. Though I don’t agree with that perception, the Flag Art you write about prompts the memory of abstract painting as a kind of flag (with pictorial autonomy) as it maintains a dimension of ideologically tinged discourse submerged beneath the material’s surface – discourse that’s necessary to appreciate its appearance and trappings as appropriated form. I’m particularly attracted to the way you connect the dots between form and subject but remind viewers that the best public work requires a high level of intellectual accountability on the part of the viewer.
SS: In the article you refer to, it was never my intention to situate the memory of abstract painting as a kind of flag. But rather, to use the color studies of Josef Albers, who saw the political potential of color, as a lens through which to consider the Flag Art project, SOS Color Code by the collaborative Luftwerk and design practice Normal, that translates distress codes into a series of abstract flag designs. The article is a larger reflection on the deployment of flags in various public art projects created during the pandemic that respond to our current political situation that has seen the toppling of Confederate monuments and flags and the abuse of democratic symbols by the Right as a guise for patriotism. As markers of commemoration and signs of protest, flags have been used by contemporary artists Andy Goldsworthy, Luftwerk/Normal, Odili Donald Odita, and Kiki Smith to make certain environmental landscapes visible and map new spatial territories through the associative power of color and abstract form. Given the saturation of images, symbols, and signs that fill our collective reality, I think that contemporary audiences have a rather sophisticated visual acumen which is part of what makes the works by these artists I exam so successful.
PK: I’m also interested in your decision to pursue architecture in a way that provides perspective on both its fundamental discipline and its linkage to regional history and aesthetics, which bridge the orthodox, exotic, and analytic. Few art critics and historians who can discuss the expanded range of art media, including craft and social practice, venture into the privileged arena of architecture, even with its urban and rural omnipresence. While it’s our custom to see urbanism as the obligatory center of art production, can you account for a difference of purpose and aesthetics for rural art and design practice other than geography?
SS: Since I live and work in an urban environment, many of the artists and ideas I address in my critical writing are engaged in what cultural theorist Rosalyn Deutsche refers to as an “urban aesthetic.” As I mentioned earlier, I often adopt a place-based approach to understanding the art and architectural subjects I review and analyze. This employs a kind of embeddedness, narrative storytelling that broadly contextualizes, and as Lucy Lippard suggests looks at art (and here I will add architecture) as lived experience rather than mere objects or buildings, methods and ideas that can be applied to rural art and design as well. The important question is how to create cultural infrastructures that support community-based art projects outside of cities and put rural and urban aesthetics in a fruitful dialogue.
PK: It’s heartening to imagine rural and urban art environments culturally reciprocal to the degree that a public dialogue could be developed. The rural Midwest is sprinkled with print collectives, ceramic cooperatives, residency enclaves, domestic architecture, and vernacular art but it’s totality and its difference have yet to be fully theorized. I would presume your forthcoming work will continue to engage a variety of subjects that acknowledge the multiple addresses of contemporaneity.
SS: My role as an editor extends beyond AMO. Throughout my career, I have worked with various artists and cultural institutions in producing books and catalogs, including those on artists Anne Wilson, Barbara Crane, and Industry of the Ordinary, among many others. Currently, I am the editor of a forthcoming book on the public works of Edra Soto and Christine Tarkowski at Millennium Park, a project I have been working on for the last couple of years and for which I am also one of five authors.
Soon, I’ll be turning an editorial eye towards my own critical practice. During a residency at Ragdale this fall, I plan to begin work on an anthology of collected writings, using articles from In/Site (alongside new essays) as the basis for exploring further the intersections between art, architecture and urbanism that have interested me for some time. As a critic –particularly one who has an eclectic set of interests and has written for a diverse range of publications – it can be a challenge to address those for whom you write, while maintaining the broad view needed to create the kinds of urgent dialogues that contemporary art demands and deserves. It is my hope that with this collection I can present a particular arc in my career and to engage new audiences, including those outside of the world of art.