An Interview with Jen Delos Reyes

Spencer:

So for the third issue, I’ve been interested in this idea of recreation. I’ve been thinking about projects that are recreational in certain ways either through using forms of play or relaxation or leisure in what they’re actually doing. From there, I got more into this idea of what does recreation actually mean to artists? Are artists, on some level, always doing both work and leisure? As an artist, the assumption is that you’re doing what you love. 

I wanted to start there, thinking about your book I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song, and thinking about that idea of an artist’s life, and what that means. Maybe you would want to talk about the genesis of that book and how it came about?

Jen Delos Reyes:

For sure. In the intro to that book, I talk about hearing this song for the first time when I was in graduate school, which was written by Thomas Dorsey and performed very famously by Mahalia Jackson. She’s singing clearly from a voice which is her own, but a perspective which the listener could read as the space she occupies in her life. The song is about a gospel singer who is talking about the fact that in her work, her craft as a gospel singer, that she can’t sing these beautiful songs and then live a life that doesn’t feel like it actually upholds the art that she’s putting in the world. The refrain is that “I’m gonna live the life that I sing about in my song.” That felt like a complete revelation hearing that in grad school, and saying, “Yeah, actually 100%. I want the exact same thing. That what it is that I do in the world as an artist, I want it to be completely in line with my values, all my values. And my life practice.”

I guess it was at that point that it really felt like it was a goal. It felt like something almost impossible in some ways. It was definitely in my mind from that point on. I think it’s hard to disconnect that too, especially when, as an artist, a lot of the work you do is about lived practice, lived experience, and being with others in a lot of ways. I think that was really the first seed of that project, and I didn’t really realize it at the time, other than just having this general admiration for that way of living and working, and that connection to what you do in the world, especially as an artist. I also mean that for everyone. I don’t think it’s just for artists at all, to be able to live in that way.

Fast forward years later, half a decade later, and I’m invited to do a residency as the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. I’ve been working with this great coordinator there, she’s fantastic. I’m actually really struggling with what I want to do at this residency, like what is the frame for it, what is the structure? At one point she asked me, “Well, what could you do, or what would you do if you could anything? If you could really do anything, what would you do?” My sincere almost immediate answer was that I just want to live. I meant it, but I meant it in this way that I was I want to live with intention and with value, in the vein of I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in my Song. It ended up that I started using that residency, which I think was in 2013, on doing research into intentional living, intentional communities, and utopian impulses. Groups like the Shakers, for example. Other groups in the US, especially that were easier to research and very possible to even visit.

In particular, I wanted to connect those sorts of groups and impulses to artists who are clearly inspired by some of those radical approaches, or different ways of being in the world, and with each other. That came together in the form of the book. In a lot of ways, I feel like the book is a failure. It is an interesting series of cases studies of artists who I really feel do justice to that Mahalia Jackson song. They’re people whose work I admire greatly, I also admire them as people, and what they have set up is incredible and completely inspiration, and so different. The main people in the book were J Morgan Puett, and looking at Mildred’s Lane, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and looking at the work she did with the New York City Department of Sanitation as the official artist in residence. Then Ben Kinmont and his Antinomian Press, and his work as a bookseller. David Horvitz, and I just feel like everything in his practice is so just emergent from his personal life and relationships in this really beautiful way. And Fritz Haeg, and his embodied practice, but it’s also his communal practice and how he builds community, especially for artists.

All of these people were inspirational for me, and in very different ways. I showed a lot of examples of how an artist could be in the world. Basically everything I described in terms of their primary activity is not necessarily what most people think of as art: like running an art school in your home or starting a bookstore, or foraging for mushrooms, or whatever. All of these things aren’t necessarily the things that we think of when we think of artists, but they’ve been able to structure their lives in a way in which that is something that they get to do. I had hoped and intended that the book would serve as a roadmap for anyone to be able to take inspiration from that and do it, but the truth is, it doesn’t feel like that and it doesn’t read like that.

It’s fine, because in life, there are always more opportunities, and I feel like that to me, has then given birth to this new book that I’m working on that I actually feel will do that thing that I wanted it to do, that is about like, well how can we all live lives of meaning and value and look at our daily activities, and really keep them in connection to what is happening in the world, and not separate them because we are in a moment of social crisis, economic crisis, environmental crisis. We should all be crushed under the weight of how horrible things are in the world right now.

Spencer:

I’ve been reading your lecture What We Want is Not Free, which mentions all of the unpaid labor you put into Open Engagement. I think dovetailing with that, I’ve been thinking a lot about labor, and how normally we have to do stuff that we don’t want to do because it’s what pay the bills, or it’s what basically helps you survive. How do those two things relate to each other? There is this balance between precarity on the one hand, and utopian aspirational values on the other hand. Where do those two intersect, and how do we shift from one to the other?

Jen Delos Reyes:

What a big question. I feel like I have so much to say about that right now, that I’m a little bit like, “Well, where do I start?” One of the first things I’m thinking about is this idea that … and this is a little bit like some of the feedback I had gotten from the I’m Gonna Live the Life book, this idea that to be able to operate in the way that these artists operate from, is a privileged position. That not everyone gets to make these choices and to live in these ways. Which isn’t necessarily wrong, in a lot of these cases, there are instances in place or structures in their life that allowed them to do work for free. Here’s a great example: when I was talking to Mierle Laderman Ukeles, I asked her, “How were you able to be the unpaid artist-in-residence for 40 years?” The reality is that her husband, Jack, helped to support her and make that possible. I think that there’s just not enough transparency around economics, around the problematic structures especially in the art world, around class and privilege that people don’t talk about. This makes it possible for certain people to do unpaid labor, that then helps them to get better jobs within the system. 

Let’s talk about unpaid internships. Those are very privileged positions, you can’t be someone from a struggling economic background and think that you can do an unpaid internship and live in London or live in New York or in LA doing this great internship with the Getty or something, and just be able to live. Think about the amount of privilege that one needs to have to be able to do that. When I would talk about, and this was actually with that same amazing residency coordinator, Megha Ralapati. That I was, “Talk about how I want everyone to be able to take inspiration and live these lives, like their lives, with integrity and with purpose and to have a life philosophy that guides what you do in the world.” She’s like, “That feels so privileged. What about the people who are working these jobs that they can barely pay their rent, there’s so many unpaid bills. There is a way in which some of the models, the case studies are not feasible for most people, but I think what is actually possible is that we can still make small and micro decisions within our lives that are within our value structures.

It might not just be on the same scale, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do that because I do believe it will still have an impact. For example, here’s one that I actually think works with this okay, well economic pressing matters of daily existence. Someone like Fritz Haeg is very critical of fast fashion and over consumption, and is someone who’s making and knitting their own clothes. That is not a thing that every single person can do. One, because maybe you might need to gain that skillset, you never learned how to sew, or you don’t have the hours and hours and hours it takes to be able to sew a garment, or knit something. But, you do have the ability to say, “Okay, I do not agree with the exploitative labor practices of fast fashion, and I don’t want to go into one of these chain stores and buy something that I know is basically made by someone who is not even paid close to a living wage, is essentially a slave in another country, and be a part of this chain.”

What can you do to actually stop that cycle? One, you could not buy new clothes. It would actually be cheaper for you to go to a thrift store, to go to a Goodwill, to buy clothes in that way. Everyone would be better served if they also had a better understanding of who they were as an individual and what they wanted to communicate in the world, and not be so seduced by advertising, honestly, and current trends because then you’re in this other cycle of trying to purchase things that will make you feel a certain way because it’s like you haven’t … this sounds so new-agey, but I think it is part of it, like that’s a lot of the inspiration behind some of these artists that I’ve been so enamored with in this book. It’s about actualization. It has a little bit to do with actual knowing yourself and what that means, and then your messaging. I actually think that it would be such a radical act if people took aesthetic control of their lives in the same ways that artists do, and would define what it is that they put out in the world in a daily, every day way. 

Spencer:

I wanted to pull back for a second and go back to this question of how do we quantify the work we do as artists? I wonder how we cash in on this work we do just to survive in the first place.

Jen Delos Reyes:

Oh my God. Okay, thank you for bringing us back to this survival question ’cause it got lost in that storm of soap box passion.

I’ve been thinking about this book by Julie Rose called Free Time. I don’t know if you’ve read it, it’s pretty remarkable. Her position is just not one that I had ever heard before, but it made so much sense. She’s framing free time as a social justice issues. She’s says, “The same way we think about the distribution of wealth and resources, we need to think about the distribution of free time.” It gets very complex in terms of how she defines free time, and how that’s measured. It’s a beautiful book. I can’t recommend it enough.

Then it’s like, how do we think about our work as artists? I definitely want to answer that question. You already have a little bit of insight into where I’m at in terms of a position on free labor and needing that to shift. How do you even look at all the problems around being an artist and labor? One, I’ll say that in this country in particular, there is this expectation that artists will work for free. That we are not valued, like people are not valued who are artists, but art objects are. I’m like, “Can we get that to shift a little because if you don’t care for the people who make the work, then you don’t get those beautiful objects or experiences.” Part of caring for artists is actually being able to pay them a living wage.

I guess I don’t like the framing of how do we cash in, or capitalize? Because those reinforce problematic structures of capitalism that I wish we never had. I think it takes radical imagination to be able to think differently about what those governing structures are. Let’s not go into fantasy world. Although, I do think that science fiction and fantasy are very important because it does get us to exercise our muscles and think about other ways and other worlds, which I think we desperately need. We do live under capitalism, we do need to survive, so how can artists ensure that they are paid for their work?

Look, in our world right now, there are actually countries where this happens already. I am like, “Hi, I’m from Canada. We have CARFAC, artist run culture, artist led culture fought for this, and then it became government sanctioned.” Now this is the set regulation of how artists are paid for all their labor, and it’s incredible. It breaks down what an artist should be paid for a workshop, for an artist talk, for a group show, for a solo show, for a write up in a publication, for this, for this. It goes over all these different forms of labor, and then it says like what the percentage rate should be. Then the great thing is that it’s scalable, so it’s not just like an institution looks at it and they say like, “Oh, that’s a shame ’cause we don’t have $1,000 in our budget to be able to pay for a workshop.” It’s scalable in that what the artist is paid in based on what the annual operating budget is of the institution. If it’s a bigger institution, then you get paid more. Then also it’s a pay range based on if it’s a solo show, you get paid more than if it’s a group show. Just all these things that take into account how much labor is expended and how an artist should be compensated.

I think that we need a system that is more like that here. People need to operate in that way. There are amazing groups like Wage, who are advocating for those sorts of structures. I think it starts, also this goes back to this, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter. These systems are so strong, the institutions are so strong. I just have to do it.” I’m like, “No, actually, you don’t. You can bring up for yourself as an individual, as an artist, what your value is, and the fact that you can resist. If an institution is not going to pay you for you work, you can say, “thank you, but I actually have decided to make a choice in which I no longer give my time for free. This is not free.” I guess I’ve gotten to a place of deep frustration around that, and that has come out of years and years of free labor and being exploited, honestly, by large institutions and doing work that no one really told me that I shouldn’t be doing, or that should be only the work that a full time tenure track or tenured faculty does, that’s not your work, you don’t do that ’cause that’s not paid. You’re just adjunct, you’re responsibility is just that one class.

Then we get so, I don’t even know. I think that yeah, it begins with artists actually making demands and then resisting institutions, and calling out and calling in institutions to be able to join and to make this right. For me, part of how I’m making this right is that Open Engagement should actually be a model of sustainable artist led culture. I do not want to do any work anymore for Open Engagement in which like if we were to be transparent about it, and you were to see the inner workings, I want to feel good about it. I don’t want to feel like, “Wow, we really modeled a piece a shit.” No one needs to be working for free. That’s not what I want. Why would we model that? I want us to be an example, and I want us to show larger institutions that these changes actually can be made. Part of that change is valuing artists for their labor.

The other thing too, is like I don’t know, this like, “Oh, well, you could commodify the thing that you do in your life that brings you joy and does this thing, and sell it to an art institution.” Yeah, you could, but you could also just do it for yourself and for your life. I do a lot of these things that yeah, I guess I could do that as public programming somewhere, but I’ve just made that choice that it’s like, “No, I don’t frame it as ‘this is an art project.’” It’s just part of my life practice. I think that that is actually important for us to be able to do, that you don’t have to commodify everything in your life. You don’t have to make everything a project. I think that’s part of what we need to model, maybe as artists for other folk, is that it’s like we can just do these fun and creative things, and you don’t have to call it art. They can just be like what you do because it’s what you want to do in your life.

Spencer:

Yeah. It gets so confusing. Thinking about transparency around boundaries, too. The willingness to say that even if something looks like an art project, to say like, “This isn’t art. Or this is just part of my life practice, I’m not trying to think about this in terms of that bigger, that labor piece, or something.” And setting boundaries where you are able to not so much clock out, but check out from thinking about the thing … or check out from relating to the thing as labor because ideally you want it to be a source of strength, inspiration, resiliency, fun, any of these other things also.

Jen Delos Reyes:

Oh my God, yes. I’m happy to hear you say that because part of the definition of recreation is well, one, you can look at it as like re-creation too, to make a new, to do over. It’s like this practice that’s a constant re-creation. Then it also is supposed to be restorative and revive, that that is like it when you break down the definition. It’s from these words that mean those things. It’s like it is something that we need to do for ourselves to I think, be able to do the work better. It should not be seen as frivolous. I don’t think it’s frivolous. It’s like insert Audre Lorde quote here about self-care being a form of revolutionary practice. It’s guerrilla warfare in a way, because if we care for ourselves, we can do that important work in the world.

Spencer:

Yeah, and it’s only frivolous in the capitalist lens of the important thing is the work, and then the free time is where you get to mess around and do whatever you want. That speaks to a lack of intention, where you’re not thinking about either necessarily, in a very wholistic way.

Jen Delos Reyes:

Yeah.

Spencer:

I just had one last question. What do you like to do in your free time?

Jen Delos Reyes:

I wonder if part of this is about a mind shift, just that even to say like, “Okay, well there is a certain amount of time that is “free time”.” Maybe that’s not even the best way to look at it. I often think about this Annie Dillard quote that has been something that helps guide what I do on almost a daily basis, and was thinking about it even this morning walking to work. The quote is also so simple, you’re like, “Yeah, I know. That’s basic math in a way. That’s basic time math.” What Dillard says is that what you do every day, every hour, of course becomes how you live your life. To think about all time as being equally important and how your life is lived.

I do try to have everything feel values aligned for me, and part of that is why am I here at this job right now even? I’m here because I believe in this mission of urban public research university that it is a majority minority, and it is about access and the most affordable education possible. That that is important to be here and to support that. Or-

Spencer:

On spring break, no less.

Jen Delos Reyes:

Yeah, on spring break, no less. I don’t know, I guess I’m just trying to think of all time as so valuable. The other thing that I’ve often said, now I can’t think of who said it, is that time is the most valuable thing we have to give each other, and that that is so meaningful. I guess I try to think very intentionally about how I spend all my time, not just the time we like to think of as free time. I want to be able to look back on my life or have other people look back on it, and for there to feel like there was meaning and purpose and value in all of it, in all of the time that was spent here and with other people.


The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a bi-annual publication dedicated to supporting, documenting, and contextualizing socially engaged art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal focuses on a different theme in order to take a deep look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions, and the public. The Journal seeks to support writing and web based projects that offer documentation, critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

The SoFA Journal is published in print and PDF form twice a year, in June and December by the PSU Art & Social Practice Program. In addition to the print publication, the Journal hosts an online platform for ongoing projects.

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