An Interview With Beth Grossman

Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem sits down with artist Beth Grossman to talk about doors, seats, civics and conversation as an art form.

Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem: So, let’s jump to your work that’s specifically situated in politics and even more specifically in different forms of civic engagement. Let’s talk about what the first project was, and how that unfolded, and has informed, and continued to inform the work that you do. Like “The Bureau of Atmospheric Anecdata”, and “Washing the Wall Street Bull”, and “Table Talks”, “Seats of Power”, which are all sort of your more recent works. Not all of them, but some of them.

Beth Grossman: Well I think just in terms of where it started, I think that I was, even with the Passages Project, it was already happening there.

Shoshana: Oh, interesting.

Beth: I’m a really social, interactive person and there’s a lot of times I’ve wondered why did I decide to be an artist because the sort of stereotype is the artist that goes off into the studio alone to, you know. The carriage house or whatever, and comes out with a masterpiece. I’ve wanted to have my work be some kind of impetus for building community and creating conversations and making relationships and that kind of thing.

So, when I started my Passages Project, I was working alone in my studio, and it was super tedious.  I was also leading this organization called No Limits for Women Artists, which is probably a whole other story I won’t go into that too much. But I was building a community of women artists around me at the same time as I was doing that big project.

It was my first really big project out of graduate school. I had worked in political theater at La MaMa Theater, doing set design, and some acting and dancing, in New York. I had done a lot of crossover theater work, then I went to graduate school in NYU in Performance Studies.  My focus was feminist performance art, and political theater. The personal is political, you know, working from that perspective.

And my thesis was a really cool project called “Window Piece,” about fifty women artists who each took a week in a window of a comic book store, just on the edge of SoHo on West Broadway. Each of them had a week to do whatever they wanted as installations to address the nuclear war build-up, to all kinds of social-political issues. Some did more political things to greater and lesser degrees. And it was really “problematic” having  a woman in a window, with the male gaze, and all that kind of stuff.

So I had a lot of theatrical background, and I wrote my thesis, and then I got out of grad school. I kind of had to undo all of that learning in some way, and figure out what my own path was. That’s when I started my Passages Project, and then going into my family and the narrative of that. Then building the women’s artist community at the same time.

Shoshana: Was that all in New York?

Beth: No. No, I had moved out here already, to Oakland.

Shoshana: Okay. In what year? Just to give a context.

Beth: I did my undergraduate in Minnesota and I graduated in 1980. As part of that I was an exchange student to Malaysia, and I studied shadow puppet theater. My focus was on how they used shadow puppet theater as a way to disseminate public health information. So the kind of educational, social-political tool, even though it was a traditional art form. So you can see it’s like, it was all kind of moving in that direction anyways.

I was always trying to find, as a kid, going back and forth, bridging between art and theater and puppetry, and then actually doing demonstrations, then moving into undergraduate, where that was my focus. Using art forms as education, public health and political propaganda. And then in my graduate degree, I was at NYU in Performance Studies in ’85 through ’87. That’s when I did my thesis on feminist political theater art.

Shoshana: Then you went west.

Beth: And then I moved out here right after I graduated in 1987, and that was when I didn’t have the Jewish community in California. I was just trying to figure out what I was doing here. I had started a graphic design business to support myself, which is what I had been doing in New York. I had a freelance graphic design business.

So I was doing that, and then I started the Door Project, but then I had this, as part of No Limits, the idea was that you would come up with a largest vision for yourself, something that you wanted to work for, and think about next steps, and how to set up support to keep going, and then you would get together with these women every two weeks. I was leading two groups, so I had a lot of … I kind of wanted to put the whole process, the support group process, to a test and see if I could actually pull off a really big vision.

So at the time, I had this idea that I wanted to bring my doors to Ellis Island. Given my lack of any kind of resume of shows and things like that, that was about as ridiculous as saying I want to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, or something like that. It was huge. It was huge.

Anyway, I went out there and met everybody, and I put it together, and they said that they were into it. I wanted to use these old dormitory rooms that were not exhibition spaces yet, and then they said, it was the time of multiculturalism, and they’re like, “Don’t you know some Native Americans, and some African Americans, and maybe you can do a project on immigration with them”, and I’m thinking, ‘well yeah, but they didn’t actually immigrate here.’

Shoshana: Oh my God. I cannot believe they said that to you.

Beth: So I said, “Absolutely not. But I will do one on Jewish women’s immigration and family history.” So they agreed, and I had six rooms, six old dormitory rooms, and I invited six Jewish women artists to create installations based on different basic scenes that told the narrative of the immigration story. It was an amazing exhibition.

Shoshana: Did those women also create on the doors? Did they each do their own installation in another medium?

Beth: Yeah, they each had their own room, their own mediums, and I just gave the theme, like arriving in a country, continuing family tradition. I can’t remember them all. There were like six different themes, and each person got a theme to work on.

Shoshana: I’m looking at it now. Do you have more documentation? Do you have images of the work that they did?

Beth: Yeah I do. It’s not online, though. But I do have it.

Shoshana: You should put it up there. Okay?

Beth: Yeah, it feels like it was ages ago. For me, it wasn’t enough to just have a show at Ellis Island. It was like no, I want a dialogue with other Jewish women on this, you know?   And the other part too is that, it was a really big deal to be that visible with, not just Jewish history at Ellis Island, but women, Jewish women’s history. And so that was in, I worked on it for five years, in 1995. I had to fundraise for it. It was a huge, huge project. It was one of those things where, if I had any idea of what I was getting into, I would have never done it.

Shoshana: I”m familiar with that experience.

Beth: I really have to say that was the beginning of my realizing that it wasn’t just about making art. I really wanted a conversation with my work.

I don’t think I got as aware of it until I came up against the changing economic times, in terms of … so my doors traveled for 12 years to museums all over the country. Every time they moved, it cost three thousand dollars, plus insurance, and they’d have to fly me out there, and the museums actually had some budgets. I had room in my studio. And as time has gone on since 1995, the economic situation for museums is tighter in terms of their budget. My space is tighter, and that’s when I think I became really aware of what I was doing.

What do I really, really, really want to do with my art? I want the conversations. I want to be building community. I want to be in situations where we’re mutually turning light bulbs on in each other’s heads, that kind of thing. Once I became clear about that, I really moved away from the large object making, that was the doors, or the Virgin Mary project, or even “The Sabbath Has Kept the Jews”, where I would … or “First Comes Love.” Now I have crates and boxes and shipping, and crazy stuff. I just got like, I don’t want to do that anymore.

So when I’m developing a project, the questions are, can I roll it up and put it under my arm and take it on a plane? Is the purpose of this work going to be able to have a low infrastructure but high impact? Will it allow me to set it up and create a situation or a space where people can be in a dialogue about issues that I care about?

Shoshana: Right. And you chose the latter.

Beth: Yeah, that’s the direction that I’ve come to in recent years.

Shoshana: So can you talk about what you call conversations? What has been the most meaningful and impactful for you?

Beth: Yeah. Well, I mean I think in a way, conversation has become my medium now. It’s interesting, when people ask me, “Oh, you’re an artist. Do you paint or do you sculpt? What medium do you do?” And I used to say, “All different mediums.” And now they’ll be like, “What’s your medium?” Ideas! I just hate when people ask me that. But somebody just pointed out to me the other night that no, your medium is conversations.

I’ve had so many. I don’t really know where to begin, but I think the biggest part is that listening is a key component. I talk about conversation so the other medium is listening. Because I think I just try to create a space … and I don’t even need art really to do it, but sometimes it’s just kind of, you know, it’s a way to get people to walk into a situation.

Whether I’m having an opening at a city hall, or at a community center, or a synagogue then the audience is actually invited to something and they come into there, into a space. They often think that they’re gonna stand around and look at art, and maybe have a glass of wine, and all of that. But usually I try to create some kind of point of entry where there’s going to be something that happens where they actually become part of the art and interact with each other.

Some of it is like framing a key question in a really, really open way, that I don’t even have the answer to. And there is not one answer, but it’s just gonna give people an opportunity to think, and think together, and realize their intelligence and creativity and having to put different things together, and different ideas together in some way. That hopefully, and this is the point of a lot of branding agencies now, that everybody wants these projects, which is funny because I’ve been doing it for so long. And back in the day, there was no funding for this. Now they want measurable outcomes. Then it’s not art, okay? Then it’s social services, or something like that. The art part about it is when you set something up and you have no idea what’s going to happen. And you’re unleashing something that it’s going to be a journey and an adventure. It might come up with nothing. You have to be willing for that too, you know?

Shoshana: Yeah, every week we talk about all of these things in our practice, as a cohort, wrestling with a lot of these things. Measurable outcomes, engagement, and all of those things. So it’s not unfamiliar. It’s a big and important conversation.

I’m curious about the civics piece, if you could pull out any project that you feel like – maybe “impactful” is not the right word, because they’re all impactful in different ways and they all have different meanings and reach different audiences to different degrees – but one that you feel that is current, or that you feel particularly drawn to. You can talk about what that meant, from a civics perspective.

Beth: I guess I’ll talk across three projects that I think they all led one to the other. I’ll start with “Seats of Power”. “Seats of Power” happened because I’ve been really involved as a community activist and an environmental activist in my town. At the same time, I’ve also been an arts activist organizer. And that’s been kind of one of the ways that I feel like I differentiated myself from the other environmental activists, in that I made relationships with our elected officials and our city staff.

Actually when we were deciding where we were gonna live, and the kind of life that we wanted, one of the things that I wrote on my list was that I wanna be able to walk into my city hall and have everybody know me, and be happy to see me. Nobody wants to see environmental activists at City Hall. Yet, I’m 100% committed to that role.

But what I did was, I came in as an arts advocate, and basically had to make a case, and kind of educate our city about why a really active and vibrant arts atmosphere was going to be important for the city, in terms of not just feel good community building but in terms of economics, in terms of real estate, in terms of schools, in terms of having a sense of place, an identity, and making it a place that people want to come to, and do business in, and stay. And so it was kind of a long process over the years, and then also lobbying them to make an art space.

I did all that through this idea that I proposed to our mayor –  to do this art-sharing evening every year. It was kind of like a really well-produced talent show. I borrowed it from what we used to do in our No Limits group.  When we would do our weekend workshops everyone got five minutes to share what they were working on. So this was way more formal than that but I got our city to allow me to do it and that created an artist community. And it also gave our community a sense of the amazing talent that people are living amongst – their neighbors. And it gave people a chance to connect. “Oh, yeah you’re the guitar player”, and “You’re the mosaic maker”and that kind of thing. “You do fabulous weaving; I want to commission something.”

It really made a sense to have everybody knowing everybody beyond the fighting that was going on in our city over this constant struggle against the vicious development that was happening. And is still happening.

Shoshana: How big is this city where you live?

Beth: Four thousand.

Shoshana: Oh, okay.

Beth: We’re right smack in the middle of the Bay Area, and we are on a mountain that is a county park, and it has three endangered butterfly species. It has some of the best views of the Bay Area. It’s ten minutes from downtown San Francisco. Also, part of Brisbane is the former San Francisco dump, which is an extremely toxic wasteland and now has radioactive waste. It was a Super Fund site. They want to force us to put in four thousand houses to help with the housing crisis in the Bay Area. But that’s a whole other longer story that’s kind of the back picture of what’s been going on since 2004 and what I’ve been fighting against for a really long time. It’s really weird to be in a situation of fighting against affordable housing which is not going to be affordable because it’s so toxic and because of what they’re going to have to do to remediate it. But it’s a really weird situation.  And not on our watch do we want people living on that toxic waste dump. It’s really serious.

So, anyways. That was the context, and I started coming in and really showing that I was a person who wanted to contribute to our community. Not just try to stop development and argue with City Council.  So when I would get up to talk about the environmental issues I felt like they listened to me in a different way because they knew of how much I’d done and contributed to the community.

And I have relationships with every single person in the City Hall. We all know each other by first names.  That was my goal. It’s been fun. And when I walk in there, I almost feel like I work there even though I don’t.

Shoshana: Do you want to?

Beth: People have asked me so many times to run for mayor and do all this and that, and no, I absolutely do not want to. I’m way more effective on the outside, doing what I do best rather than try to read through all that stuff about parking spaces and all that.

So but anyways that was the context of how I ended up getting involved. And because I made all of those relationships our City Hall decided to renovate and when they were reopening it they asked if I would be willing to do an art show in the conference room as a way to kind of welcome people back into City Hall. And I said, okay sure.  And I got this idea for “Seats of Power” because I’ve sat in that conference room with those chairs. And I thought, you know when I’m sitting in a forest and I wonder, if the trees could talk what would they say? I realized that these conference seat chairs had heard everything over all the years of Brisbane history and that those were the seats of power, and I had actually had the opportunity to sit in them, and that I wanted to know what they would say.

I had this totally goofy idea that if I could get the Council members to let me photograph their butt, I could  turn them into chair seats of power. The thing that was really cool about it was, the most important thing about it was, again, not the art objects. It was going to each one of their houses asking them to bend over and taking a  picture of their butt. I wanted to have them sit on the Xerox machine but that didn’t work out because some of them are a little too heavy and it would ruin the Xerox machine.

So we had to revamp, and I had them squish a piece of Plexiglass against their butt so that I could get a squished butt, because I wanted the view from the chair. But the best part was that while they were bent over, I asked them what it was like to be in power.

So, it was just so fun, and of course they just couldn’t resist making puns and jokes. Then the puns became the titles for their piece, or their butt, and I turned the photos into upholstery, and upholstered the chair seats. I had them up in City Hall.

I was thinking that I wanted to have a way to involve people to come into City Hall and see the new renovations. But also I wanted for them to have a sense that the City Hall is theirs and there’s a lot of people in Brisbane or in any city that have never walked into a city hall before. And also kids.  And I wanted them to feel as comfortable as I felt. I thought that, ‘wow, isn’t it amazing that our City Council has not taken themselves so seriously that they wouldn’t participate in a project like this?’

I wanted the public to get a chance to both interact with the Council people but also to see what it felt like to sit in a seat of power so I had a red carpet and I had a throne. I asked the general public to come and sit one at a time in the throne, the seat of power, and to make decrees. To say what they wanted to see happen in their town and how they were going to go about it and the support they were gonna set up. Basically, I was asking the largest vision questions.

Shoshana: Like what?

Beth: A lot like the largest vision questions that I used to do through No Limits for Women Artists. But I wanted to give people a sense of their own empowerment. A lot of people would say, “I’ve been saying we need a dog park and nobody listens to me and nothing ever happens.” And it’s like, well that’s not how local politics work. You want a dog park, you get a bunch of people together and figure out how to make a proposal to City Council.  It takes a lot of time and there’s a process. You have to learn the process.

So, I think that’s the other thing too, that I was lucky about.  I figured out how to get people to support me and teach me and show me when I was a kid.

One of the first people that I met when I moved to Brisbane was the former City Manager and she became a good friend of mine. Through some other environmental issues, she coached me about the whole process of how to approach our City Council.  It’s very formal and you have to play by those rules. There’s not a class in it usually, so I was just really lucky that she mentored me and was like, “Okay, here now, go talk to this person, go meet this one, and go take this one out to lunch.” I would not have known how to do all that stuff.

Shoshana: Right. It’s a whole language.

Beth: Yeah, and most people don’t speak it, so I was really, really lucky. And so what I kind of wanted my project to do was give people a sense of: ‘Come on into City Hall.  This is yours. These are your representatives. Here’s the City Clerk, here’s the assistant to the City Manager. It is their job to walk you through how to do this. These are the people that you need to get to know. And I think that most people don’t have any idea about that. So I wanted to try to use my project to be an education vehicle and a point of entry into the City Hall.

Shoshana: Fabulous. Super inspiring. I actually wasn’t aware of that. I’m so happy to hear about how it’s been used as a catalyst for this kind of conversation and dialogue. It sort of deepens the whole meaning, and, quite  literally, the power of the project.

Based in San Francisco, Beth Grossman has collaborated internationally with individuals, communities, corporations, non-profits and museums. She uses art as a creative force to stimulate conversation and focus attention on the environment, history and civic engagement – all aimed at raising awareness, building community and encouraging public participation.

Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem is an interdisciplinary artist, traditional Torah scribe and educator. Immersed in Jewish tradition and ritual, embracing institutional critique, inspired by craft and beauty, her studio and collaborative works invite participants into intimate and unexpected borderlands. Shoshana is the founding artist of Women of the Book which premiered at the Jerusalem Biennale 2015.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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