Every Tuesday for the past three terms I’ve spent a few hours among the Art + Social Practice Archive at the PSU library talking to Marti Clemmons and Caryn Aasness about archives, queerness, and the inherent queerness of archives. Here’s a conversation we had on the topic with one of the founders of the A+ SP Archive, Lo Moran.
The Art + Social Practice Archive was founded in 2018 by Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem, Roshani Thakore, Lo Moran and Harrell Fletcher, and with the help of Cristine Paschild and Marti Clemmons from Portland State University’s (PSU) Special Collections and University Archives, to mark the 10th anniversary of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Located in the Portland State University Library Special Collections, the Art + Social Practice Archive is the first public archive dedicated to socially engaged art ephemera. The ASPA houses both physical and digital materials including posters, publications, flyers, zines, videos, sketches and other project documentation from past and ongoing artist projects.
Olivia DelGandio: I’m thinking about a conversation we had when Caryn and I first started working at the Art and Social Practice Archive with Marti. We were really into the idea that archives are inherently queer. I don’t know how this conversation started but we were like, it’s obvious that this is queer. What do you think about this idea?
Caryn Aasness: Maybe because we’re still at relatively early stages of social practice as a field of art, it feels like it has a sense of queerness to it. We’re kind of bending the rules and making something new here. In the archive we get to acknowledge multiple perspectives that are underrepresented in western art history and it holds such a variety of stories so it’s going to be a more accurate picture of what’s actually happening, who is involved, and what’s influencing this field.
Olivia: Totally. Living a queer life means questioning things and thinking about alternative futures. I feel like that’s what we’re trying to do with the ASPA; we’re making the rules and queering traditional structures of archiving. This space didn’t exist until recently and now that it does we’re gathering and putting material into the world to make them exist in the present so that they can continue to exist in the future. And I think it’s so gay. Also, look at us as a group of people involved in this project right now; if everybody involved in the archive is queer, the archive itself is queer. We’re putting so much of ourselves into this project even though what we’re actually doing is collecting other peoples’ things.
Marti Clemmons: I wouldn’t want it any other way. I think when I first started volunteering and
working at the City Archives and the Oregon Historical Society, I was very much afraid to place my identity in my work. As a student in the History department, I learned you keep yourself out of your work. But now if I see the words “queer” or “gay” in the materials I’m working with, I’m making sure that it goes in the finding aid, because historically that is not acknowledged. Any chance I get to put queerness in the collections, I do it, and I will continue to do so.
Caryn: Making the future. Yes.
Lo Moran: I’m thinking about the ethos of social practice; it’s about valuing things that are undervalued in our current systems and having trickster energy in your artistic approach. I feel like that is a theme, drawing attention to everyday moments or stories that weren’t traditionally paid attention to, and that is what queerness is all about too.
Marti: I think the work that we’re doing, not to toot our own horns, but it’s very
important. I think queering history is essential, especially since people are trying really hard to erase us from existence. We need to continue to place ourselves and what we believe in into our work.
Caryn: I feel like people have always inserted themselves into the history and the work that they’re doing, they just weren’t acknowledging their identity and what that meant. You have to acknowledge where you come from.
Olivia: Being a social practice artist also means putting all your different identities into your work. Thinking about the work in the ASPA, the breadth of projects is so vast, because all of our identities are in our work. WAnd we can’t separate our identity from the work we want to be doing. Caryn, your work is so much about how your brain works and you put your brain into every project you do. MAnd my work is so much about grief, and I put all of that into every project I do. These projects are archiving our identities and the people that we are at this point in time. I think this connects to queerness too because we can’t separate this major facet of our identities from the work we’re doing.
Caryn: There is so much generosity in putting your identity into your work and allowing audiences to see into your personal experiences. It just makes things richer.
Olivia: It just feels like social practice is gay and being gay is a social practice.
Lo: I think we should end there. That feels like a good ending.
Lo Moran (they/them) creates interdisciplinary projects that are often participatory, collaborative, and co-authored. They aim to experiment with and question the systems in which we’re all embedded by organizing situations of connection, openness, and nonhierarchical learning. Lo desires to develop sites for accessibility, and reimagined ways of being together. They are currently living and working in Berlin, Germany.
Marti Clemmons (they/them) is an Archives Technician at Portland State University’s Special Collections and University Archives. They are interested in using archival work as a means of activism, especially through a queer lens.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) is a queer disabled artist from Long Beach, California living in Portland, Oregon. Caryn wants to invite you into their brain. In it we explore mental illness, and the folk art of coping mechanisms. We investigate queerness and how it forms and severs multiple selves. We look to language and learn how to cheat at it.
Olivia DelGandio Olivia DelGandio (they/she) is a storyteller who asks intimate questions and normalizes answers in the form of ongoing conversations. They explore grief, memory, and human connection and look for ways of memorializing moments and relationships. Through their work, they hope to make the world a more tender place and aim to do so by creating books, videos, and textiles that capture personal narratives. Essential to Olivia’s practice is research and their current research interests include untold queer histories, family lineage, and the intersection between fashion and identity.
This is an interview about interviews. I don’t think I’m a good interviewer and Ruth is the best interviewer I know, so who better to ask my burning interview-related questions? When I first met Ruth, she was writing a story about a business called “America’s Noodle” for her neighborhood newsletter. I was impressed by her curiosity and her boldness in going to talk to the people at “America’s Noodle” and I wanted to be just like her. Now, it’s five years later and I still want to be just like Ruth.
Ruth: First, I wanna look up what “interview” means. Like, what’s the definition? Here it is: “A meeting of people face to face, especially for consultation.” Hmm. Yes. Interesting. A structured conversation where one participant asks questions and the other provides answers.
Marissa: There we go. That’s a good one. Because I was just thinking about how this kind of interview is different from a job interview, you know, but they’re both interviews.
Ruth: Wow. I don’t know why I’m immediately having so much fun, thinking about the definition of interview. But it’s hard to know, especially because you are also my friend and I have conversations with you and we ask questions and give answers in those conversations too.
Marissa: That’s cool. I wonder, though, because the definition was when one person asks questions of another, but I wonder can it be people interviewing each other? Can people interview each other at the same time?
Wow. Yeah. But then, is that just a conversation? Does an interview need a power dynamic a little bit? Or roles?
Ruth: Yeah, I think you’re right. This is so funny because I feel like having this conversation slash interview with you makes me feel so good. I think in some ways interviews can be more comfortable because they’re structured, but then they can also be so much more rigid.
Marissa: Ok then, the first question is, what is one favorite question you like to ask people? Which I realize is a hard question.
Ruth: I think I actually know this.
Marissa: Oh, yeah?
Ruth: Well, I guess I should shout out to Anna Deavere Smith. Is that her name?
Yeah, Anna Deavere Smith wrote a book called Talk to Me, and she’s a theater lady. She was an actor who would interview people and then perform as the people she interviewed, like monologues.
Her whole thing was getting the essence of a person. Through speech, I guess. And she said that there are three great questions to ask. I think one of them is where were you born? The next one is, have you ever been close to death? And I can’t remember the third one. I think that those are hard to get into, but I do find myself asking people a lot where you were born. Sometimes we say, where did you grow up? Or, where are you from? And those things can be hard to get into like a conversation around.
Where were you born feels just like a great starting place, because we were all born.
Marissa: Yeah, it’s a good question because it’s an easy question that leads to more questions. Okay. Question number two. What do you think makes an interview good? When I read that question out loud it sounds weird, but it’s the question.
Ruth: Okay, well now this is gonna get really meta, because what if what makes an interview good is when you can also ask questions? And so then I ask you, what do you think makes an interview good?
Marissa: You’re setting the terms and then using them to say that what makes an interview good is me getting to say whatever I want, so I’m gonna say whatever I want…but that wasn’t your answer. Yeah, I don’t know what makes an interview good. Because there are different angles. I’m critical of the question now, because I’m wondering “good” for who?
Ruth: Yeah. And like we were saying at the beginning, there are different types of interviews too.
Marissa: Yeah. We kind of know the rules for a job interview because there’s a goal, you know?
Ruth: And what makes that interview good? It’s probably different from this interview.
Marissa: Okay. Question number three. Who do you want to interview the most? I guess it’s another way of asking, who are you curious about right now?
Ruth: Okay. The first person that comes to mind is Justin Bieber. And I feel like that’s been my answer for a while. I don’t know why.
Marissa: How long is a while?
Marissa: Yeah. He’s changed over the years.
Ruth: I know. I think it’s something weird, and this is why it feels embarrassing, because it feels like that’s more like some reflection of me as an interviewer. It’s because Justin Bieber’s at the top of some access pyramid. Along with the president, but I would rather talk to Justin Bieber.
Marissa: Maybe that’s the answer to a different question too, which is: if you could interview anyone, who would you interview?
Ruth: Yeah. Yeah. But what is the question though?
Marissa: Who do you wanna interview the most right now?
Ruth: I don’t know. I think maybe for someone outside of my world I would need more of that rigid structure, like an interview, whereas the people I wanna talk to are just people that I see around. Like, I would maybe want to interview my postman, but I feel like I don’t want that dynamic between us. I’d rather just have a conversation.
Marissa: Asking someone to interview them sets up a certain dynamic, which sometimes you don’t want, because you just want to relate in the roles that you are already in. But there might be a reason if you’re like, “I want you to come on my radio show,” then there’s a reason to change that dynamic. But when there isn’t, it can feel kind of bad.
Ruth: Yeah, and I think I need to remember that like, I made my radio show to have that reason, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. Okay. Um, what was the question? Did I get it? Justin Bieber. You got it? Justin Bieber.
Marissa: I’ll listen to it later and either I’ll include everything we said or I’ll just include Justin Bieber.
Ruth: The power of editing.
Marissa: Next question is, do you have any advice for me as a novice interviewer compared to you, Ruth, an experienced, mature interviewer?
Ruth: Well, this interview is going great.
Coming up with questions ahead of time is great. A lot of times you want to see where the conversation goes, but as an interviewer, it is good to at least prepare the questions beforehand. It’s also good to abandon them as necessary, which I think we’ve already done.
I kind of wanna say, you don’t have to say, “Question number three, next question,” but I’m also kind of enjoying that right now. So I don’t know how I feel. I think you totally know how to be a great interviewer. Advice… listening. Listening. That’s the number one thing.
I think sharing a little bit about yourself is important. And maybe that’s where these roles are inherent to the interview structure, but also a good interview is going to be based on your relationship that you have with someone.
If it’s someone that you already have a relationship with, then probably the interview will be better. If you don’t have a relationship or not a big relationship with the person you’re interviewing, I think it’s important to try and build a relationship upfront and whether that’s just getting through technical difficulties or just having a little chit chat about yourself to build a better relationship because the interview is probably just as good as the relationship.
Marissa: What do you think about silence? I feel like you’re good at silence.
Marissa: You can’t answer it in silence. It’s an interview.
Ruth: I’m doing it. This is representative.
I guess I have two thoughts on that. Especially interviewing for audio, which is my area. I’ve really gotten better at nonverbal communication, which is basically just nodding instead of saying mm-hmm, or all the other things that we usually say out loud. Being able to do non-verbal communication while someone is talking shows that you’re listening without your voice being heard. So I think practicing non-verbal communication is great if you’re trying to record an interview. It’s also a good practice that allows for silence because silence can be uncomfortable only when it feels like there’s a disconnect and you’re like, “Are you hearing me? Can you hear me? Are you paying attention?” And if you can communicate in other ways, like with eye contact or with nodding, that you’re paying attention, then the silence can exist and not be uncomfortable. And usually that gives time for someone to think and then they can share a new idea that they came up with when they’re just being quiet and thinking.
Or it could just be silent. I don’t know. Silence is cool. Makes me just wanna be quiet now.
Marissa: I know. Now I’m nodding and being quiet more.
Ruth: Okay. There’s another thing about silence and audio recordings, especially when you’re doing an interview that’s going to be edited. You are tasked with gathering what’s called room tone, which is just the sound of a room, because every room you’re talking in is gonna have a different sound, and so you wanna have like two minutes of silence in the room, which is always hilarious.
Marissa: Do you do it at the beginning or at the end or both?
Ruth: I think usually I do it at the end, but now that I’m thinking about it, it feels like it could be good at the beginning too, but it definitely is too weird I think to do at the beginning.
Marissa: Okay. Oh, this is kind of changing the topic, the question is… we talk a lot about time. Have you had any new thoughts about time or seen any good clocks?
Ruth: Okay, this is like a great interview question because you know about our relationship. It shows that you know who I am and what I like to talk about.
I’m always seeing good clocks. And, I mean, it’s spring. I feel like more than anything, this feels like the time of the year where I feel most like connected to time, like in the biggest way possible, just like cycles of life.
Marissa: Well, right now in Portland, it’s the time where it’s like, here’s the next thing blooming and the next thing blooming and the next thing blooming.
And that can stress me out. Because I wanna see it all, and I don’t wanna miss a thing because everything’s so liminal. In winter the branches are going to be bare and tomorrow they’re still going to be bare.
So I haven’t been thinking about time, but I think I’ve been feeling it, you know?
Ruth: Yeah. A plant can really just come up overnight or bloom.
Marissa: Is it warm there?
Ruth: It is. This weekend spring was unlocked. It was in the seventies this weekend. And the trees have buds. Things are happening.
Marissa: Okay, last question. What would a dream radio show be? Or what’s a radio show you’re dreaming about right now?
Ruth: This is exciting because this is what I love to talk to you about, just my dreams, and then figuring out if they’re good ideas or bad ideas by saying them out loud to someone else.
Um, okay, so I have a radio show today. And I’m kind of excited because I think I have a map of what it will be and I want to include some voicemails that I got. I went biking in Yellowstone and right in like the middle of the park there was this payphone, but it actually wasn’t a payphone, it was a courtesy phone, which means you can make local calls for free, and I think local is defined by the area code and the whole state of Montana is in one area code.
So I called my own radio show and left a voicemail. And then I really wanted to put a sticker up because the booth was covered with people’s Instagram stickers or whatever. But I didn’t have a sticker with the phone number on it.
But then I hung around there and some other bikers came by, and then I wrote the phone number in the snow. So I think I got like two voicemails from the courtesy phone in the middle of Yellowstone National Park that I wanna play.
Marissa: From the phone number you wrote in the snow?
Ruth: Yeah. So I wanna play those. And then yesterday a friend came to visit and we drove out a ways, just up into the farmland and mountain lands to this spot that Eben used to go to as a teenager, this abandoned homestead. And I was recording audio there. It was very windy and I kind of like wind because it feels like it bends the rules. Wind is supposed to be the audio recorder enemy, but it’s also such a good sound. It’s like, let’s just play the wind, let’s really listen to the wind. So I wanna play a bunch of wind and this interview with Eben, my friend, in this abandoned house that he used to go to.
And I also just wanna give a shout out to you because when I was in this abandoned house recording yesterday, the way that I phrased it was not “Can I do an interview?”I used a phrase that I think I got from you, which is “Can you give me a tour of this place?”
And that felt so nice to be anchoring it in space. And I wanna do that more. So that’s a dream.
Marissa: Yeah. And I like that. It’s more like, let’s talk about this thing together. Or let’s talk about this place together and you walk me through it, or let’s go on a walk or, can you show me?
Ruth: Yeah, I think I would like to try and maybe do that more.
And I was just gonna end this interview, but I wanted to say I found the questions. Okay. So the three questions from Anna Deavere Smith are: have you ever come close to death? Do you know the circumstances of your birth? And have you ever been accused of something that you did not do?
Ruth Eddy (she/her) is the host of Radio Hangout on www.KGVM.org Tuesdays 5-6 MST . She is a collector of sounds and trash, lives in a tiny shiny trailer and produces podcasts in Bozeman, MT. www.therutheddy.com
Marissa Perez (she/her) grew up in Portland, Oregon. She is a printmaker, party host, babysitter and youth worker. She’s interested in neighborhoods and the layers of relationships that can be hard to see. Her dad was a mail carrier for 30 years and her mom is a pharmacist.
My favorite Wendy Ewald image is one of and by Denise Dixon, taken in Letcher County, Kentucky. In the black and white photograph, Denise is wearing a sundress and a tall, light wig in what looks like someone’s backyard. A dog scurries under her feet. She looks both comfortable and performative. The caption: “I am Dolly Parton.”
When I see this image, I think of the archives my grandmother has of our family’s life in eastern Kentucky, their backdrops often similar to the rolling hills featured in this photograph. I think of my own childhood there, chests of dress up clothes and hours of make believe. I think of the beauty of the eastern Kentucky landscape and, of course, dreams.
As a photographer and Kentuckian, it was a dream to talk with Wendy about her experiences living in Kentucky and what she gains from working collaboratively.
Morgan Hornsby: First of all, thank you for being here and talking with me; I really enjoyed the conversation we had in class last week and getting to hear more about your artistic process. I wanted to start with asking about something totally different. As a person from eastern Kentucky, I’ve always wondered about how you liked living there. What did you gain from living in that place?
Wendy Ewald: It was really, really important. I always wanted to go to Kentucky. I knew about Frontier Nursing Service and Berea and when I graduated from college, I went to work for Appalshop. I went with my husband, and he started the theater there, with their roadside theater. So it was fantastic to drop into this group of artists of all kinds. Before that I had worked in Canada, so it made a lot of sense to me. It wasn’t easy, as you know, to find a place to live at first, because we were from the outside, but we eventually rented a house on Ingram’s Creekand became a part of that community. And that’s one of the things I really liked too, because we did things like grow corn with our neighbors, and we made molasses, nobody had made molasses there in many years. It seemed like a complete way of living and being an artist, you know, being part of all that. I did that for five years, and I worked in three different schools. I just learned a whole lot. I mean, I figured out my practice in a way. Yeah, not in a way, I figured out my practice there.
Morgan: What was your house like in Kentucky?
Wendy: Oh, well, that’s really a good question. Because I first lived in a little house, and this is all on Ingram’s Creek, but we rented it. I think it was $50 a month. We knew all our neighbors really well. And then we decided we wanted to buy a house. There was somebody who wanted to sell us their farm which was 30 acres or something like that. It had some bottom land and two houses on it. And so we bought it and rented out one of the houses there and were there for five years. And you know, we grew sorghum, made molasses.
Morgan: That’s cool. My family made molasses too.
Wendy: No one had done it in Ingram’s Creek in such a long time. It was a big deal for everybody. I wish I could get some last molasses! Does your family still make it?
Morgan: They don’t make it anymore.
Wendy: Ah. It’s so good.
Morgan: How did you spend your summers there?
Wendy: Well, we had a big garden, of course, we had animals. We were outside all the time, we went to the creek on the weekend to swim. We had outdoor parties.
Morgan: I really wanted to know if you played in the creek when you were there.
Wendy: Yeah, definitely.The whole thing of learning how the landscape is defined by the creeks, where the hills meet and all of that. I just learned so much about all these deep, meaningful things that I hadn’t experienced.Where did you live?
Morgan: I’m from Jackson County. It’s near Berea.
Wendy: Which town?
Morgan: My family lives in Sandgap, but the county seat is McKee. So I lived there, and in different places, but right now I live in Tennessee. Something else I wanted to know related to your work in Kentucky–on your website, you describe your aim for Portraits and Dreams as for the children you were working with to “expand their ideas about picture-making, while staying close to the people and places they felt most deeply about.” I was really struck by the phrase “staying close” the first time I read that description and have thought of it often since. Do you have any other thoughts on the idea of “staying close,” or of the way photography has of doing that?
Wendy: Well, I was trying to figure out how to do that, but I really did develop it there. I wanted them to learn how to start from themselves, self portraits, and then move to their families and then their community. And after that, more expansive things, like their dreams and fantasies. And then later on I went to do other kinds of projects, but that was really the basis of it. So it was a gradual kind of moving from the child, you know, out into the community and eventually to dreams and fantasies. And I don’t know, is that what you meant?
Morgan: Yeah, I think so, I have always just liked the instruction of staying close. Growing up, I sometimes felt like having aspirations of having a creative career separated me from the people around me. For that reason, I am really drawn to the idea of using art to stay close, especially in the context of eastern Kentucky.
Wendy: Yes, yes. And for me, working in those schools really helped to understand that. Because I was living right near all of them, we would see each other on the weekends and do projects together and stuff like that. Whatever I did came out of exactly what was there, both in terms of composition and landscape and in terms of topics. I think that’s the most important thing I’ve done in my career, to try and stay close to wherever I was. Even though I didn’t necessarily know it, I tried to get them to help me.
Morgan: I like that a lot. As a photographer, what do you feel like you gain from giving up the complete creative control that you yourself are making the pictures?
Wendy: Oh, gosh, I gain so much as an artist from that. You probably know what I’m talking about. But because when I went through school and went through rigorous photography classes, like at MIT, it was great, but it wasn’t necessarily mine. And it wasn’t necessarily the places where I was. Although it was good to have as a background. So when I went farther on, it also gave me some space to try different things and to try different techniques and use materials in different ways. And so part of it was pedagogical, but it also as an educational tool it made sense. So I was always trying to make up things that made sense in both ways, in education and then creativity.
Morgan: What do you feel like you’ve learned about yourself through the kind of creative process that you’ve chosen?
Wendy: Well, I’ve learned to look and listen, and to understand that I have preconceptions always, and to learn to let them go or be transformed by the situation. That is also very difficult sometimes, and I feel like I’m not doing the right thing. but I just have to wait it out until I start seeing and understanding.
Morgan Hornsby (she/her) is a photographer and socially engaged artist from eastern Kentucky. She currently lives and works in Tennessee. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Guardian, New York Magazine, NPR, Southerly, Vox, and the Marshall Project.
Wendy Ewald (she/her) has collaborated on photography projects with children, families, women, workers and teachers for over forty years. She has worked in the United States, Labrador, Colombia, India, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Holland, Mexico and Tanzania. Her projects start as documentary investigations and move on to probe questions of identity and cultural differences. With each situation, she uses different processes and materials to shift my point of view and engage with my subjects. Her work may be understood as a kind of conceptual art focused on expanding the role of esthetic discourse in pedagogy and creating a new concept of imagery that challenges the viewer to see beneath the surface of relationships.
I met Lyno Vuth in Sapporo, Japan in 2016. He was invited to an event called Art Camp to present his work and I helped with his presentation as an interpreter. He shared how he and his team started an art workshop and artist residency in one of the historical buildings in Cambodia; it was called the White Building which was then gray because of the dirt and aging. The White Building used to be a symbol of modern Cambodia, but it became a low income residence after the Khmer Rouge. Sa Sa Art Project started there, surrounded by communities who have almost no idea what contemporary art is.
One day, when I was thinking of applying to the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, I thought of Lyno, googled his name, and found Sa Sa Art Projects. It had grown into a sort of institution with projects and workshops and young artists. I was blown away by how much Lyno and his team had done.
Midori : You started the Sa Sa Art project in the White Building, and then you moved to the current location in 2017, correct? How long have you been working on the Sa Sa art project?
Lyno: For thirteen years now. The first six years were in the White Building, and then seven years in the current building.
Midori : That’s amazing! At the conference in Sapporo, I remember you mentioning that there was not much contemporary art education available in Cambodia.
Lyno: It was quite limited. For example, there is only one state art university, and the department is fine arts, but they are quite traditional, mainly doing paintings and sculptures. They are not so keen on contemporary and experimental practice.
On the other hand, there is a very big school in the north of Cambodia, Hmong, and in Paramount province. It’s not a state school, it’s a nonprofit school.They have had a long running art program since the nineties. Many students have graduated from there. Their program started out as informal but has evolved to a more structured four year program. And that opens for contemporary practice very much. And other than that maybe not so much, and that’s why Sa Sa is offering to fill this gap of contemporary art education.
Midori: How did you become interested in art?
Lyno: It’s quite a long story, but maybe I can share some key points. I was born in 1982, which is three years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 so Cambodia was going through a transition.
It was still like a civil war and recollection of powers between parties. It was not until 1991 that the Paris Agreement was made to reconcile and not until 1993 that we had a new constitution of democratic state with multi-party parliament. So in a way, because of that political infrastructure, it didn’t allow contemporary art practices to prosper.
It wasn’t until the late nineties that a new important art space called Radium: Arts and Culture Institute opened. Some other spaces slowly launched among Phnom Penh, including the French Cultural Institute which promotes art exhibitions that brought in French and Cambodian artists.
Midori: I see.
Lyno: For me, growing up around that time, I didn’t know much about art. I actually studied information technology, but my interest was quite a lot in the visual aspect. Later I was working in a nonprofit and then I became interested in photography.I would go into galleries by myself. At one point, I found out that one photo gallery offered classes. That space allowed me to meet others in the community and after graduating we tried to stick together.
That’s the beginning of this project journey, we formed the collective with the idea of wanting to do something to contribute to the landscape of contemporary art and to also allow us to continue to be artists.
When the Reyun came to an end in 2009, it felt urgent to build a Cambodian run space and we wanted it to be independent even though we didn’t quite have the skills to do it yet.
So , one thing led to another. In my practice, studying photography evolved into curating by necessity…and because within Sa Sa, we had to do sales… so it’s like skills that I had to learn as we go until today. It has been really starting something from scratch.
Midori: I see. That was the moment you became an entrepreneur!
Lyno: I am not sure if entrepreneur is the right term. But long story short, we had opened one small gallery already around 2009.
We tested with that gallery and then we expanded into the idea to be more of a space for education, experimentation, exchange, and learning.
Lyno: Yes. There was a moment of energy coming together.
Some of my collective members were from the universities, and they just graduated. So we were eager to continue doing something. Also we had a leader, a former team member who was a self-taught photographer. He had developed his practice, and he helped us to become ambitious and to come together.
Midori: Also during that period, you went to the States to study for your master’s degree.
Lyno: Yes, I studied in the US from 2013 to 2015. It was a turning point in my life, because when we started the Sa Sa Art project, I was still working full time in the nonprofit. So, applying to school in the US was like another part time job for me.
I did not know where the funding for the art in Cambodia was. There is zero funding for contemporary art from the government. So we need to think about getting it from somewhere else. I knew nothing.
Fortunately, we were able to meet good collaborators along the way.. We got a small grant and we did a series of workshops in photography and mixed media with young students from the White Building neighborhood.
Over time, we maximized the potential of the workshops and got to know our neighbors. There was a conversation and presentations at the end and students invited their families and the neighborhood to come and see. People were so excited, so happy and proud.
I asked them what they wanted to do after, and many of them said they wanted to study more. I was like, “Oh, they want to study more! But what do I have to offer?” Then I realized that this was my calling. That’s something I need to really put my full energy into. I needed to put my full energy into learning and my own growth and development. So I decided to pursue this master’s degree in the USbecause there’s no program like that here in Cambodia. I got scholarships and everything came into place.
When I came back, I continued to think about the way we teach and being an artist and curating.
Midori: How was your experience being in a school in the United States?
Lyno: Oh, it was so hard. The language and terminology, and the compensation of the academic material… I would read one paragraph and boom! Everyone else in the class had already read and finished the discussion. So it challenged me a lot.
It really pushed me so much. I was like, “Oh my God, can I do this? (I don’t think I can!)” But, you gradually get used to things , and hang on to it… and somehow survive. It really changed my life.
It really opened up my perspective in the ways that I look at my home country. I look at what’s happening, what happened before, how can we learn from that, what can we do now, and what I find I really appreciate a lot is to look at those things with a critical lens.
I think that the MFA program helps me regardless because it is a history of mostly European and American art. There are some other classes that involve art from Asia as well, but not a lot. I think it helps me to develop a method and a discipline in my thinking, in my writing and in my attitude towards things regardless of whether it’s art or not.
Midori: We need to update art history with more content from other cultures and countries.
It’s not easy for people from other countries to study in the United States in English when it’s not their first language, but I assume there must be so many more challenges when you return to Cambodia.. What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Lyno: I am not sure if it’s a challenge, but at the same time it is an opportunity as well. Thinking about the Sa Sa Art Project, when I came back in 2015, we continued to work at the White Building but also at the same time,we heard from the government that there was possible demolition and eviction.
We wanted to think about what we would do if they all agreed to move. If they did not agree, we would stay with and we would continue to look for alternative solutions. , But they decided to move.
There was also the conversation of, “are we still relevant?” and “Is our work still relevant outside of the White Building?” And if so, what are our strengths and do we want to continue? So it was a collective discussion and we all agreed that our strength is in education and that it’s something that we could continue to grow. We decided to continue in the new space. It’s grounded in an education program and it has also expanded into exhibition.
Midori: Wow. Amazing. So, is it currently funded by the Cambodian government?
Lyno: No, not at all. We were very fortunate to have an amazing funder fully support us for a period of three years from 2019 to 2022. Those three years allowed us to expand on our ambitions in the program and focus on the impact of our work. We were able toprepare and think through how we can be more sustainable and independent.
Midori: So it was privately funded?
Lyno: Yes, we were privately funded by this Japanese-owned foundation based in New Zealand.
Midori: Wow. I am kind of proud. Haha.
Lyno: Yes. That’s amazing. It was actually, in fact, after we moved out here, we were also draining our funding and things. So this funding came at a very critical time. So through which we were able to continue to survive, and at the same time to have this time not thinking much about making money for now, but thinking about making money for the future.
Midori: Right. So now are you guys able to sustain yourself?
Lyno: Agh….almost! Haha…not quite yet! We are reaching a point where we feel okay for one year and a bit difficult for one year.
From the year of 2020, we started this fundraising option. It’s quite amazing. Because after all these years, as you could see from 2010 to the networks that we have built connections with artists in residency program, with partners, with friends in Cambodia, in Southeast Asia, and far beyond that we came into a point where we were able to to ask artists to contribute an artwork to us for our auction.
And 50% go back to artists, 50% goes to Sa Sa Art Project. We started in 2022 and it went very successfully amidst the COVID crisis. Yes. And it was quite, quite interesting because we were learning along the way and because of the COVID. Right. So everything was quite new, a new system upgraded to be online through this new platform, new technology developed online, including online bidding and options.
Midori: I see that now! I hear you say challenging could be a possibility.
Lyno: We knew that there’s some resources available. If you’re talking about art buyers or collectors, there are very few locally who are doing it. So we know that we cannot rely only on the local art collectors. So we need to reach out to the regional art collectors.
An online platform is the bridge. At that time we were still acting, but it is also very important to have the local presence to engage with the audience here so that they understand a bigger picture about the art scenes in Cambodia. For 2020’s auction, we had about 80 plus artworks. We’ve actually got between 80 and 90 artworks as well for 2022.
It includes young artists who graduate from art class to more senior and established artists from Cambodia and to kind of like a range of diverse artists from South East Asia, largely. So in a way, we call it the auction exhibition.
Midori: So a physical exhibition while having an online presence, it’s like a hybrid.
Lyno: Yes. We know that it is important to engage with the existing audience here in Cambodia to have that presence. And so they can see the highlights of Cambodian contemporary art and artists from the region. Also a sense of solidarity, while at the same time having an online presence for the regional art collectors that we reach out through all our networks, possible networks.
Midori: That sounds great. Wonderful!
So you had 80 to 90 pieces of artworks. Did you sell all of them or how did it go?
Lyno: No, we did not sell all of them. with 20, 21 days. I think we sold only about 10%, 25% of the artworks. But with strategic high value in combination of established artworks for the original act and low value adverts for the local and affordable for the local collectors,
Midori: Wow. You guys funded more than $40,000.
Lyno: Yes, that is the one from 2020. That’s quite remarkable and we are very thankful. For example, like the funder that used to support us for three years continues to support us through auctions.
Midori: Wow. Nice. Congratulations!
Midori: This is my last question for you today. How would you encourage children who are interested in pursuing art? What would you say?
Lyno: That is a hard one. Haha…
Whenever I teach, at least in my class, I want to know where you are from. To know who were in the way cultivated before you. Learn from strategy. And have a question for yourselves. Learning from the past, achievement, and innovation. What can we learn from? Learn from those and take action for now and future. For yourself, for your community, for your context.
Lyno Vuth (he/him) is an artist, curator, and educator interested in space, cultural history, and knowledge production. Alongside his individual artistic practice, he is a member of Stiev Selapak collective which founded and co-runs Sa Sa Art Projects, a long-term initiative committed to the development of contemporary visual arts landscape in Cambodia. His works have been presented in Cambodian and international venues including at major exhibitions and festivals such as the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Biennale of Sydney, Singapore International Festival of Arts, and Gwangju Biennale. He holds a Master of Art History from the State University of New York, Binghamton, New York, a Fullbright Fellowship(2013-15), and a Master of International Development from RMIT University, Melbourne, supported by the Australian Endeavour Award (2008-2009).
Sa Sa Art Projects https://www.sasaart.info/
Midori Yamanaka (she/her) is a social practice artist, educator, and single mother. Midori was born and raised in Japan, but is currently living and working in Portland, Oregon. Her practice explores ways to harness creativity based on common values in diverse societies and their respective cultures. She has been working on many international projects as a creative and cultural hub, including Virtual Playdate (2022), World Friendship Online (2020), Asia Winter Game in Sapporo (2017), Esin Creative Workshop in Sapporo (2015), and many others. In 2023, she launched a global mind creative coaching program for Japanese women. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from Art Center College of Design, and currently is studying and practicing Art and Social Practice at Portland State University.
Chemi Rosado-Seijo is a Puerto Rican artist and skateboarder who has created some of the most iconic art and community action projects in Puerto Rico. From painting the facades of an entire town in different shades of green, building a skate ramp/hang-out-spot by the sea, or changing the focus of the voices we pay attention to in the museum, his art invites a new understanding of a specific place and its people.
Chemi is also one of the first artists I learned of who considered himself socially engaged. La Perla’s Bowl and El Cerro illustrate how his practice embraces social engagement as a life-long relationship with participants and collaborators that stimulates social exchange, networks of support, and artistic thinking beyond the project’s specificities.
This conversation expands on some issues noted in We Did This–a previous interview with Jesús “Bubu” Negron, a friend and collaborator of Chemi, who also works in community organizing through art. Both artists have made significant contributions to the socially engaged art landscape in Puerto Rico, with a particular sensibility towards communities in their contexts and an understanding of engagement that questions the possibilities of this artistic practice inside the larger art world and its institutions.
Diana Marcela Cuartas: I was introduced to your work by hanging out with Bubu Negrón1, and I would like to know how you see the relationship between hanging out and socially engaged art.
Chemi Rosaado-Seijo: Of course, hanging out is essential for art projects.
In the construction of El Bowl de La Perla (La Perla’s Bowl), we were all a group of friends. I had a skate ramp set up in my studio, as a part of another project titled History on Wheels, and some skater friends from La Perla had a key to come in whenever they wanted. When I had to leave that studio, the boys asked to place the skate ramp in the coastal neighborhood, La Perla, and in the process of relocating it, we thought about making it out of cement, as our friend Boly was always suggesting, using debris from some torn-down houses in the area recently and were perfect for it. That same day, a friend said he could bring his Bobcat and move the chunks of debris for us, and, in the same spirit, neighboring folks started to help— with certain doubts that we would succeed at making a skating bowl in two months, but collaborating anyway from the beginning. I believe it all came to fruition because we had been hanging out in that neighborhood for a long time, for real.
Honestly, El Bowl is the best proof of something made through hanging out. The whole time, we enjoyed the process of making the bowl as a pool/sculpture. We worked every day, hanging out and having a great time. We never went there to suffer or have unpleasant times. If things weren’t going well, we would hop on our skateboards and take off.
Diana: Part of your work is characterized by an active participation from the communities you are involved with. How do you get your collaborators to participate in the aesthetic thinking or metaphorical aspects of a project?
Chemi: Generally, I try to work from the common knowledge we share in Puerto Rico, and part of what has worked in the projects is that they are related to the history of the site and the place.
In a project like El Cerro2, the metaphor emerges thinking like an ordinary citizen; it’s like a game, “to turn The Hill into a hill”, recognizing there are a lot of other implications like neighborhood pride and the place’s identity. After a while, we would be negotiating super swell about aesthetic issues with the community, for example, deciding which house should be painted next, what shade of green to use, or painting the best maroon house, really considering the color palette in detail.
I grew up in the countryside, and here in Puerto Rico there’s the imperialistic idea that the rural is the old, the abandoned, and that the city and modernity are the best. So, within that game of actually turning The Hill into a hill, by using green and maroon, we can question everything from our relationship with nature to whether art can really make a social intervention that works for something, and change the perspective about that nature and rurality that people have wanted to reject.
It is also important that what we do makes sense and has quality. It’s important that my son likes it, as well as my skater friend, and my brother who is an agronomist, and the people I appreciate, who know me and know my work. It is also important to share it with someone like you or Bubu, who has another knowledge of art. It is equally important that my mother and collaborator, a feminist professor and activist social worker, sees it as something beautiful too, as a good metaphor, as a work of art.
Something about Puerto Rico is that, fortunately, we learned to work as a crew with the homies, and we all do it openly all the time. It’s important for us to share our ideas, to ask each other questions. That’s why my ideas can come with Bubu’s input, or from whoever I am hanging out with at the moment, and I share that without fear.
Diana: I became a social worker after I moved to the US and couldn’t find a job in the art field, and I would like to know what kind of possibilities you see between social work and the arts from your experience with your mom?
Chemi: We collaborate a lot. My vision of social work is not that of a worker sitting in an office but one who is really for and in the neighborhood. There are methodologies we have developed together, such as asking questions, getting to know the neighborhood’s history and the needs people tell you about, and then coming up with solutions.
I think that is important, the methodology of social work that asks, learns, and builds relationships, which can also be done through art. If, as artists, we hold ourselves accountable, work at a site, learn its history, and think about what needs to be worked on in this specific place, we will end up doing social interventions with a social work approach.
Diana: How do you approach your projects when working with communities you’ve had no previous relationship with?
Chemi: When I worked with the guards at MoMA3, we started a year and a half earlier, for example. We would meet once or twice a month for three or four days to develop the project. We gathered their ideas, which were terrific and there were lots of them, then honed them to the real possibilities and brought them closer to what interested me, which was their voices. What ended up happening is that the project was them talking about artworks and reinterpreting the museum. The title was also a semi-democratic process; we were all together discussing ideas and voting until Beyond The Uniform came up, and it had immediate consensus. We established a very solid relationship over a year; we called ourselves The BTU Family.
Diana: When you gave a talk at the KSMoCA Lecture Series4, you mentioned that El Trampolín (The Diving Board) sparked your interest in doing art with the people. How was that process?
Chemi: El Trampolín arrived like a hyperrealism of a cultural phenomenon that is very interesting to me. People arrive from all over Puerto Rico by car or public transit. Kids, teenagers, and adults come to jump from the Puente De Los Dos Hermanos, a crucial point in our history. That bridge, at its moment, came to connect the big island with the islet that is Viejo San Juan, which is where the colonization by the Spaniards first took place. It is in that spot where we go to have fun.
We installed a diving board, which generally would be in private pools, on the bridge, and suddenly there were lines of people ready to jump. That’s what happened with El Trampolín. The kids loved it so much, and people were sharing and celebrating one of our most beautiful resources in Puerto Rico: the ocean, and that was something we didn’t expect. It even allowed us to meet a boy that was so agile that he deserved to be in a university league or professional diving. That type of impact is what later took me to try El Cerro and other projects.
Diana: At what point did you decide to call yourself a socially engaged artist?
Chemi: I think I first learned the term in a Creative Capital course. That was the first time I heard that, as artists, we should be taking time off, and that we can manage money well, among other concepts that I had a different perception of. It was there that a pair of colleagues told me, “No, Chemi, now we do socially engaged art,” and I realized what we do had a name and everything. It is no longer like, “my projects that nobody understands;” instead, it is precisely the moment to do them.
An “art of social engagement,” sounds really good. Before this, we would call it “interventions.” When Bubu did the project with the cigarette butts, and I did El Trampolín, those were interventions through art in the social field. El Cerro, for instance, was really a social engagement, we practically married that project; there is an engagement forever and ever.
Diana: Talking with another Puerto Rican artist, I told him that I was doing a master’s in art and social practice, and he said that I could probably be living in a contradiction. For him, to claim as art something that has been done with others is, in a way, a colonizing act. I’m not sure if I concur, but I think it is a valid question. Do you think there is a paradox of socially engaged art as a colonizing practice?
Chemi: I think that is a statement that can come from people who don’t work with people, or who don’t relate with social classes other than theirs. It is easy from the intellectual field and from the artist’s circle to say that “we are colonizing and using the people.” But they could go to the neighborhoods and ask. We are not smarter than the people in the neighborhood, they will know if they are being “used” or not. However, there are some projects in which it does happen, where there is a more calculated approach to social practice. I don’t see that a lot, but it can happen.
I also believe there is a difference between social practice and socially engaged art. A practice with social elements, where society is used for an art project, without a need for commitment, is another practice, and I think those terms should be completely separated. I have seen places where they offer courses on things, for example, “how to convince people to participate in projects,” and you must take that with a grain of salt, knowing there is still a lot to learn.
About ten years ago, Mary Jane Jacob invited a group of socially engaged artists and collaborators to discuss what she was researching, which was the possibility to academize or not the artistic practice we were carrying out. There was Rick Lowe from Project Row Houses with the accountant for the project, Pablo Helguera, Tania Bruguera, me with my mom, and several others. We met twice over the summer for two weeks, and the result was that it was not possible. It was very intense; there were many discussions and lots of great things, but we understood at that moment that it should not be academicized.
Diana: How did the group come to that conclusion?
Chemi: In my perspective, if I understand one thing about this socially engaged art, it is that it is not academic. Painting, engraving, and being a designer or sculptor can be academic, and that is super cool. I love what we learn in art school; composition, techniques, and everything else. But, for some reason, I am more interested in installing a trampoline to create a space of freedom and pride in what we do.
We are artists who immerse ourselves in social issues and do things that can go well or go wrong. Many of us who work this way don’t do it only for the intellectual class or for people with money that can support our work. In fact, because of the interest in social commitment, we decide to deal with all these structures because they can mutually benefit. I wholeheartedly believe in those exchanges. There is fundamental knowledge in each social group that ought to be connected.
I think the art world needs to come down to earth at some point because it creates very distinct relationships and wisdom that aren’t going to happen otherwise. If we share more between artists and people from all spheres of society— children, adults, skaters, teachers, guards, surfers, the homeless, millionaires, curators, and the public, we create a better society, and that does not need to be written in any academic book.
However, regardless of what I may or may not believe in, I think it is great that there are people who dare to academicize this madness of practice.
Diana: I also have understood that you are very good at creating workshops. What is Chemi’s method for coming up with workshops quickly and easily?
Chemi: Well, you can do workshops on everything. Draw your own skateboard, make your own shirt, the history of your neighborhood… There are a thousand possibilities; it depends on you. You can use the same artist system I mentioned before; it can be about a place and all its particularities. The important thing is that something is accomplished. There must be an outcome of the workshop, something that is done in a group.
Diana: It sounds like intentional hanging out.
Chemi: Workshops are a form of hanging out. Like the weekly meetings with the guards at MoMA to discuss the ideas that each one brought. Or El Cerro, where we started with a workshop to paint your house and in the same week we were also doing a Making-your-own-El Cerro- t-shirt workshop. What these types of gatherings allow us is to get to know each other faster, and while getting to know each other, we are also doing things.
Diana Marcela Cuartas (she/her) is a Colombian artist, educator, and cultural worker transplanted to Portland in 2019. Her work incorporates visual research, popular culture analysis, and participatory learning processes in publications, workshops, parties, or curatorial projects as a framework to investigate local cultures and their contexts.
Before moving to the US, Diana was Head of Public Programs at Espacio Odeón, an organization for interdisciplinary creation in Bogotá, Colombia. Formerly she was part of the lugar a dudas’ team, an art space dedicated to contemporary art practices with a global focus in Cali, Colombia. As an independent researcher, she has been an artist in residence in La Usurpadora (Puerto Colombia), Bisagra (Lima), Tlatelolco Central (Mexico City), and Beta-Local (San Juan, Puerto Rico), studying different popular culture phenomena and socially engaged art practices in Latin America. In 2021 she founded the Centro del Conocimiento Migrante, an initiative for enjoyment, experimentation, and cultural exchange between migrant communities in Portland; this project emerged from Diana’s experience in the social work field, working with Latinx families in different public schools in East Portland.
Chemi Rosado-Seijo (he/him) is a Puerto Rican socially-engaged artist whose practice consists of community-based interventions linked to the site where they have been developed. Often his artwork, projects, or interventions are set and/or developed with the communities that have inspired them.
He graduated from the painting department of the Puerto Rico School of Visual Arts in 1997. In 1998, he worked with Michy Marxuach to open a gallery that transformed into a not-for-profit organization presenting resources and exhibitions for contemporary artists in Puerto Rico. In 2006, he inaugurated La Perla’s Bowl, a sculpture built with residents of San Juan’s La Perla community that functions as both a skateboarding ramp and an actual pool. From 2009 to 2013, Rosado-Seijo organized exhibitions in his apartment in Santurce, creating a center for meeting and exchange in the Puerto Rican contemporary art scene. In 2015 he started El Festival de Chiringas, an annual kite festival in collaboration with residents from the La Perla community in Old San Juan.
I keep thinking about this thing the artist Jeremy Deller said to me: “People like to have transcendent experiences. Everyone wants things to be different.” All I’ve ever wanted was for things to be different. All I’ve ever wanted was to transcend! I think Jeremy’s work gets me closer.
As a musician, performer, and dance club frequenter whose socially-oriented art is guided by the presence and participation of crowds in public, I am propelled into a kind of ecstasy when I look at Jeremy Deller’s work. His signature crisscrossing of conceptual art and popular culture— an AP high school course about the 90s rave scene, a deep dive into Depeche Mode fandom, a movie about a genderbending pro wrestler— transfers the gloss of pop idolatry and fanaticism onto the typically more formal, and less peopled, context of the art world. It can be as exciting and alive as an underground nightclub (sometimes it’s even in an underground nightclub), and that’s because Jeremy Deller knows the essential ingredient for making the kind of work you can see yourself in: he looks to what people care about.
His work is about life— its absurdities, amusements, pitfalls, and pleasures, its personal triumphs and monumental tragedies. Through collaborative large scale public events, documentary films, interactive sculptures, posters, banners, a contemporary folk archive, concerts and musical collaborations, Jeremy Deller gives a platform to sub/cultural phenomenons and attitudes of devotion. In doing so, he spotlights the innate artfulness of collective activity and the shared passions of everyday people.
Becca Kauffman: I want to talk about the ins and outs of your large scale projects, how you generate ideas, the behind the scenes process, exhibition strategies, and your relationship to your collaborators and participants. I keep your book, Joy in People, on my nightside table and I look at it all the time. I’m a big fan of your projects Open Bedroom, Acid Brass, So Many Ways to Hurt You, What is the City But the People, all of that, and the way that you tune into the offbeat quirks of people’s passions and shine a light into the corners people don’t tend to look into very often. It has a really comforting and validating and thrilling effect on me. It makes me just giddy to be alive, through learning what other people have reason to care about and what they get obsessed by, what they’re devoted to. What draws you to people’s obsessions?
Jeremy Deller: Well, I think if you’re going to work as an artist, it’s good to work with people who have a strong interest in something, because they’re enthusiastic. But also, obsession in itself is interesting. Maybe I have a mildly obsessive personality, but not really at all— a little bit, in as much as we all do— so I probably identify with people who are into things. I find it quite endearing and interesting in its own right. And so, you know that if you’re working with people who are very into something, they probably are going to be quite into making an artwork about that thing, or working with you to make a film about something. So fans of a band, like Depeche Mode, they’re really into the band, so if you ask them, would you like to be in a film about the band? they’re going to say, and they did say, yes, of course, we would love to be in a film about the band, that would be an honor for us. And so in a way, it’s quite easy or straightforward working with people who have strong interests, if you’re going to make work around those interests.
Becca: I’m really curious about the behind the scenes process for Procession. How did you convince people to participate in something that was so offbeat and quirky?
Jeremy: It doesn’t take that much. People are up for doing things. I mean, this is the thing about working with the public: on the whole, the public are really interested in doing unusual things, or displaying their interests, or talents. With Procession, I just went around and explained what I was doing: a procession about the city that these people lived in. I was saying, I’d like to feature you in this procession in some way, because of this. It’s always good to explain why and give motivations. I think that it’s really good for people to know the motivation for doing something, because it gives them something to look at and think about. And so I connected with people. So that was really straightforward. You can’t make someone do something, even if you’re paying them. If they don’t want to do it, they won’t do it. So it’s a self-selecting group of people, often, that you work with, which is great. So I was very happy to work in Manchester. And processions happen all the time, don’t they? People understand the format. They understand what it is. Everyone likes processions on the whole, they like displays like that, and parades. They’re attracted to them. They’re showing things that are unusual. And so it’s like alternate realities. So it’s not that difficult. That’s not the problem, the people on the whole are not the problem.
Becca: What’s the problem?
Jeremy: Well, sometimes the problem is when you try and make it work in a gallery that involves people or a museum. Museums, often, are less… actually they’ve improved massively in the UK, I don’t know what it’s like in America. From my experience in America, it’s more difficult. But people in Britain now, in museum culture, in gallery culture, they’re much less afraid of the public now, but they were when I was starting out. They really didn’t know what to do with the public. When the public were in there making work or part of the work, that’s where problems happened. Because there are rules and regulations in museums that are not really in the street or in life. There are less rules and regulations about things. Galleries and museums are very controlled spaces, for a reason, because there’s the value of the objects within them. So when you bring chaos into that environment, or potential chaos, in the form of human beings, galleries and museums get slightly concerned.
Becca: So then, how do you see the street and open air public space as an important site for spectacle and for the work that you make?
Jeremy: You’re working with the public, for the public. You’re not working for an institution where, again, it’s a self-selecting group of people who go into museums. It’s small, it’s a percentage of the population. It’s not the whole population. In the public realm, it’s there for everybody who’s out in the public realm. So it’s a much wider group of people. And that’s more exciting, when you work with big groups of people like that. I like working in public, because you don’t really know what to expect. There’s a randomness to it. There’s an unexpected element, a loss of control, which is interesting, when artists lose control of a project.
Becca: When your work happens outside of an institution, and it’s not as readily identifiable as a work of art, is it important for you for your project to be perceived as a work of art by the people who are there?
Jeremy: A little bit. Not really. They might know an artist made it. And they might see it as an artwork. But it doesn’t bother me that much. I’m just glad I could do it. I know some artists and friends and colleagues get slightly bothered when things aren’t seen as artworks. On the whole, if people know you’re an artist, and you’re making something happen, the participants, at least, sort of understand that they’re part of an artwork, or at least part of something that an artist has initiated. So there’s an art component to it.
Becca: There was one group in Procession called the Unrepentant Smokers. Is that the way they described themselves, or a phrase that you came up with together, or?
Jeremy: I came up with it. I came up with the whole content of that procession. I kind of mapped it out, I curated it, if you want to use that term. That’s the narrative. But I knew what I wanted from traveling around Manchester over a period of six months to a year, and knew exactly what could be made and what would work. The smokers, it was to do with recent laws being changed in the UK where smokers were being sort of edged out, they were being banned from smoking [in] buildings. And so they’ll be seen on the streets a lot. And it was weird that smokers have never been so visible, because they had to be outside all the time, in all weathers, smoking. So you’d see them everywhere.
Becca: They got smoked out.
Jeremy: Yeah. In Manchester, a lot of people smoke. It’s a former industrial town, and people tend to smoke and drink maybe a little bit more than other parts in the south, maybe. It’s this kind of cultural thing, almost. I just thought, I’m not a smoker and I don’t really particularly like it, but I just thought it was an interesting change in the visibility. Manchester has very varied weather and can be very wet, and so you see people out in bad weather and rain and wind and cold, still smoking, a sort of heroic act. And so I just thought, well, they are unrepentant, let’s celebrate them. Which made it a problem, because we were effectively promoting smoking. So we had to have a sign behind them, a banner saying, “Smoking kills,” behind us as a warning about that work. I was very happy.
Becca: That the disclaimer had to be applied?
Jeremy: Yeah, legally, we had to do it.
Becca: You’ve talked about your work as being both social and antisocial, which I thought was really interesting considering how much it deals with people. I know you have an art history background and I see a perspective that views large groups, mobs, crowds from a sociological distance, rather than a more intimate one.
Jeremy: Yeah, there is a distance, but that’s what I’m like anyway. I’m not a big joiner-inner, I’m someone who’s more often on the fringes watching something happen in front of me, like a demonstration or an event or something. I don’t like being in the middle of crowds, I like to be on the fringes looking at things, looking at people. Often you go to a concert, and the people are more interesting than what’s on stage. I’m more interested in the people that attend events than the main attraction. So I’ve always been a bit of an outsider in that way, and it’s just how it is. That’s actually quite helpful when it comes to looking at things. I didn’t take part in certain things at the time, but I was observing it and looking at it and thinking about it. So maybe that helped me because I wasn’t within it, I could actually have a different kind of opinion looking onto it, and trying to analyze it, rather than be inside it.
Becca: I very much relate to that. I’ve never been a joiner. Do you think that being analytical and observant at a distance is mending for you, in some way, are you trying to correct that distance?
Jeremy: It’s not mending, it’s just research. It’s just finding out things, and trying to work things out. So the miners’ strike, The Battle of Orgreave, that was definitely a personal work, but it was just a huge public event. But it was really about me and about my trying to work out what was going on when I saw the event on TV as a teenager. It extrapolated out to be this huge public event with thousands of people involved. I think emotionally, overall, when I saw it, I was sort of cold to it, and I think you have to be, because if you aren’t, you’ll just have a heart attack. Because it’s so overwhelming. And it’s nerve racking. So that actually makes you weirdly calm, not excitable. If I get nervous, I get quiet and sort of retreat into myself. I can’t be running around or happy, or be like the ringmaster of these events, because it’s just not in my nature. I don’t really want to be like that, either, it takes the attention away from it, in some way. It’s not really my thing.
Becca: So during the execution of these large scale events, what role do you play on the ground when they actually take off? You’ve called yourself a director.
Jeremy: It depends on the work, but usually by then my work is done, there’s nothing I can do. Once something starts, there’s very little you can do to stop it, literally, or change it, it’s too late. So in a way the work is done and you could walk away from that event or whatever it is, and it will be exactly the same whether you are present or not. And I quite like that. My dream is to start some huge thing and not be present almost, or to walk away and not have to get involved.
Becca: Right, you’ve done your job up until that point, and the show can go on without you.
Jeremy: Yeah, exactly.
Becca: How much do you delegate inside of these projects?
Jeremy: Tons. You have to. It’s like being a film director– you have to work with people who have proper skills, who can help you and do work with whatever their skill is. So you find a team, or a team is put together on your behalf, and you work closely with them. And you motivate them, and they know what you want, you tell them why you’re doing something. That’s a lot of work for other people. But I delegate a lot. The vision or the idea, let’s use the word “idea,” should be unmolested, in a way, or untouched. And that’s my role. It’s other people’s roles to make sure that it’s fulfilled.
Becca: How do you arrive at that kind of agreement? I mean, you’re so far along in your career that that expectation is probably laid out pretty clearly at this point. But often when one gets collaborators involved, they want to have creative license.
Jeremy: I think people are looking to you as an artist to do something. If you’re the boss, effectively, or you’re seen as “the person,” then people will ask you, and they will, on the whole, do more or less what they’re told. Especially certain things, like We’re Here Because We’re Here, which worked with thousands of people around Britain, the rules and regulations were very strict, and that was for good reason. Whereas with other events, you want the public who are taking part to maybe improvise on the idea, and you can tell them that, you can let them know that. So some things are quite rigid, and other things are more free flowing and open.
Becca: Is “film director” the analogy that you use to think of yourself in these projects the most?
Jeremy: Maybe, because often the film director gets all the credit. The artist gets all the credit. You don’t really know who did the cinematography, even though it’s great. On the whole, you are the person that either gets the blame or the credit. And that’s just how it works. It’s like architects. So and so built this building, but of course, he or she didn’t really build it. Other people built it. The architect designed it, but with a huge team. But it’s usually one person that gets credit. Having said that, a lot of the work I do, other people get credit because they’re involved, and they’re recognizable groups of people or individuals with certain skills. It’s the way things are, isn’t it? A lot of artists have assistants, you never hear who they are, the people who actually physically make the work, cast it or paint it, even. Virtually anonymous. At least with what I do, it’s clearly a group effort. And people are credited. We’re Here Because We’re Here, we credited all the theatre groups and the head of the National Theatre. That was clearly a collaborative process. Much more so than traditional art, I think. But people are often shocked, they can’t believe that sculptors actually don’t even make the work, physically touch it, even. They just get it made.
Becca: Considering how much that behind the scenes process is obscured, it makes sense that it’s so shocking. Something that comes up a lot with social practice work is crediting. It distinguishes itself from other forms of art, in one regard, through the act of crediting everyone that contributes to a project and kind of pulling the veil off of that mythology that one person made it.
Jeremy: Yes, and often it’s clear that other people made it, because they’re in it, they’re present, you know, their faces, their skills are there. It’s clearly not made by one person, because you literally see other people do things. So in a way, it’s much more open, this sort of work. It’s clearer. I mean, that’s the kind of cliche, that you’re exploiting people because you’re working with them. I think we’re sort of beyond that discussion. Maybe not in America. But it’s possible. I think the public understands much better than a lot of people in institutions do, almost, instinctively. They’re not afraid of it. They’re intrigued by it. That’s what I find.
Becca: A topic that comes up in work that involves people is the risk of instrumentalizing human beings. But we can also operate in good faith that we generally have best interests at heart.
Jeremy: Yeah and you can tell if you’re being exploited, and you can tell if an artwork is exploitative as well, I think. You can instinctively see there’s something not right happening.
Becca: I read an interview where you talked about how sometimes in socially engaged work, there can be an agenda of “do-gooding,” where it has to have a positive outcome for the people involved and be about the quality of experience rather than an aestheticized outcome. You don’t like that prescription. Do you have your own agenda in your work when you’re making it?
Jeremy: Not really. The work is quite different. Maybe certain works have different agendas, really. But overall, I tend not to think about it too much. I tend not to self-analyze too much. And I don’t read about my work when someone writes about it. Because I don’t really want to know what it is. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I try to just not get too involved in what people think, or in discussions about it. But yes, there was for a time this idea that art was a way of healing wounds and bringing people together, which of course it does, sometimes, but it doesn’t have to do that all the time. It shouldn’t do that all the time, because that’s sort of boring in a way. It has many uses and many things it can do, many facets to it. With the Battle of Orgreave, I wanted the opposite. I wanted to make people more angry, not happier, actually more upset about something, if that was possible, or provoke them, rather than placate them. So some works are that: they are confrontational.
Becca: Your collection of quotes for London train conductors, What is the city but the people?, was a lighter project that inserted delight into the routine of the daily commute. What was your intention there?
Jeremy: It was for staff on the Underground to have and maybe use the quotations in their everyday interactions with the public, either putting them over the announcement, or putting them on display boards and writing them on information boards. It was just a way for the staff to have some communication with the public by using wisdom and interesting quotations through history. Very straightforward. That little book was never seen by the public. It was just for every staff member on the Piccadilly line. It was a very lovely little book as well. It was their little book in their pocket, and if there was a delay or something they could whip it out and quote from history to comfort people.
Becca: A lot of your work uses communicative mediums like graphic posters and bumper stickers, T-shirts and street signs. I was wondering, who did you at the time, or now, consider yourself or those pieces in conversation with, since they’re kind of dialogic?
Jeremy: Well you know, anything you put in the public realm is for anybody and everybody. Whoever’s going past. There’s absolutely no distinction in that. It’s a very wide spectrum of people. For me it’s just very, very broad.
Becca: I relate to that, too. I like to puncture that seal of normalcy that we’re used to abiding by in pedestrian space. I’m always drawn to these acts of mischief that stand out from the mundane, but use a familiar vernacular.
Jeremy: There’s no substitute for seeing something in public. And it changes the reality of a place or situation, if only very quickly. And so, for me, I love showing work in public. It’s really the best thing, that you can affect public space like that. If only for a fraction of a second.
Becca: What do you think is the service or use in making reality feel surreal?
Jeremy: I think people like to have transcendent experiences. You have that with religion, with drugs, with art. It’s just changing the nature of reality. Everyone wants that, in a way, they want things to be different. They want to be surprised and delighted and maybe even challenged, and art does that in the public realm. It just shows a different version of reality. And I think that’s something everyone is looking for. That’s why they go to sports matches, concerts, anything, join a choir, it’s to just change their environment, with culture or with an experience, and art provides that as well.
Becca: What is the power of the crowd, do you think, and immersion in a crowd experience?
Jeremy: Well, it’s just being around human beings, isn’t it? I mean, I find it quite scary, but it can be thrilling as well. But if you can work with that as an artist, that’s a great thing to have, if you can harness that power, that energy. But personally, I don’t really like crowds. So I would prefer to be away from that. I don’t really like confrontation either, but you know, I make work about those things sometimes. I’m interested in masses and bodies, which is why I was interested in rave. It’s a huge, phenomenal amount of people, these gatherings. It’s exciting.
Becca: I share that draw, from afar, of mobs, and rave and sports culture. I love looking at a crowd of people in a stadium, but from that distance. And maybe it’s about control too, I don’t know. I also make work that takes place on the street. The idea of the pedestrian, as an identity, and the anonymity of that, that all it takes to be a pedestrian is moving through public space on foot or wheels at any given time, and you can opt in or opt out of it. It’s kind of slippery.
Jeremy: We’re all sort of equal on the street, as well. Even if you’re rich, you’re just on the street with other people. There’s a kind of democratic nature to it. It’s not like if you’re in a car, you have a really fancy car. But on the street, and you’re walking, regardless of what clothing you have, whatever, you’re just like everyone else. I think that’s really interesting.
Becca: Have you read this book, Crowds and Power, by Elias Canetti?
Becca: A friend recommended it to me. It’s really interesting. It starts with a chapter called “The Fear of Being Touched,” and then, “The Discharge,” “The Eruption,” “The Crowd is a Ring,” “Attributes of the Crowd.” It covers all the different natures of critical mass and different environments that groups congregate in, and the kind of transcendent shift that happens to human behavior once there’s a certain amount of people united around a certain thing. He talks about the dissolving of differences and identities in that moment.
Jeremy: That’s when it gets scary. It can get out of hand, when you stop seeing yourself as a person but you’re a part of a group. Things get violent. Or it’s all good, but often not. That psychology, I’m interested in that. But, you know, I’m kind of repelled by it as well.
Becca: Right. It’s hard not to feel on the defense as an individual thinking about this insatiable hunger of a crowd, that it just wants to grow and envelop us into it. That’s where the destruction can sometimes set in. Canetti talks about crowds literally breaking down doors and pulling people out of their shelters. It’s almost druglike, in a way— the more that you get this taste of groupness, the more you want everyone to become a part of that group too.
Jeremy: To join you. I understand that. Definitely.
Becca: Do you want to share what you’re thinking about and working on now? Are groups and large crowds figuring into it at all, that large-scaleness?
Jeremy: There’s something happening, a public event in London, but it’s difficult to talk about because I have no idea what it’s going to be. But it’s good because it’s sort of a challenge. I like a challenge. It’s high profile and it’ll be for the National Gallerie in London. It has a working title of “The Triumph of Art.” At the moment, it’s just not clear what it’s going to be. But that’s fine. It’s two years away.
Becca: I’m so curious about your process of generating an idea. At this point in your life, it seems like you get opportunities or commissions and then maybe reverse engineer and work backwards from the venue and the budget and the scale, and figure out how you’re going to fill in the gaps from here to there. So what is your thought and research process like? How will you begin to start thinking about this idea?
Jeremy: Well, I just have to sit down and think about what I would like to see and what’s possible. I have to sort of work out what kind of things are on offer. You have to work out what’s possible within the budget. You just have to get two or three decent ideas for an event, and then it kind of works from there. I’m working quite closely with curators, so every project is very different. And they’re creative people, so they’ll be helpful. I’m quite confident, but it’s so early. There’ll be research about the collection of the National Gallery and the building and the environment that it’s in, and where it is in London, where it’s placed. So all those things are starting. That’s basically where I am. It’s really early days, but it will take two years til it happens, more than two years, two and a half years, almost. Thank god.
Becca: It seems like something of that scale would require years of preparation.
Jeremy: Yeah. Two years minimum, for a big thing. That’s how it works.
Becca: Are there things that you’re googling or reading about or listening to that are inspiring you and influencing your lines of thinking right now?
Jeremy: I consume the daily news. That’s really the thing I pay attention to. I’m obsessed with it. There’s some voter suppression going on in the UK at the moment, which is quite unusual, really. The government is now requiring everyone to show photo ID, and there are 2 million people who don’t have photo ID. They’re usually poor people and young people and people of color, who are just the kind of people our government does not want to vote. It’s so blatant and so obvious and so corrupt. That’s annoying me massively. That’s the thing that is obsessing me.
Becca: Since you’re hooked on that right now, does your mind go to, what’s a project that I could make about voter suppression that might influence or comment on that?
Jeremy: I’m thinking about it. I’m probably gonna make some posters and stuff like that. Seems like the most direct way of doing. Yeah. So that’s one of the things I’m thinking about at the moment. We’ll see. We’ll watch the space. If you follow me on Instagram, you might see some of it at some point.
Becca: I have a question about exhibitions. How do you decide what form or medium your ideas will take? Do you have certain strategies that you use to convert your public, experiential projects into gallery and museum contexts?
Jeremy: The word strategy is not one I would use at all. But usually film is good. On the whole, film is a very understandable medium, and it’s a medium that’s very controllable, because you edit, you make the cuts. So film is always good. If there’s objects produced, then maybe objects, and research, maybe. But in a way, research isn’t so interesting to look at in a museum. I mean we all do it, we all show it, but I just don’t know if it has limited value since it’s more archival. But film, installation, something that’s exciting to look at. If the project is exciting, then convey that in your installation.
Becca: Do you think of it as a kind of fictionalizing of real things that took place, by transposing it from one place to another, into the museum?
Jeremy: It’s not fictionalizing, it’s just rearranging really. And trying to order it. Maybe that’s fictionalizing, but not really, because the thing itself is fiction in a sense, because it’s an artwork. It’s fictive. I think it’s just trying to make sense of it again, and to try and make it look good, and attractive. So when people look at it, they’re not gonna look at 600 pieces of A4 paper, which might be a notebook, but they are going to look at film, something that’s colorful and engaging.
Becca: So for example, if you were interested in the topic of—this is my interest—dancing crossing guards, which is kind of a phenomenon across the world, there’s a lot of YouTube footage of them, just biding their time by dancing in the middle of the street. If you were going to somehow convert that into an aesthetic presentation, an exhibition, what would you do?
Jeremy: I think, show the films. People watch films forever. People’s attention span for the moving image is insane. Often in Britain in exhibitions, I’ll have a film about the artists outside the exhibition itself; people will spend more time looking at the film about the artists than they do looking at the work. So I just think a compilation of interviews with them and stuff like that, that would work. But more than what you’d see online. But that’s up to you to work out what that might be.
Jeremy Deller is a British conceptual, video and installation artist who makes projects that grow out of an interest in vox pop, giving vent to the views of ordinary people and focusing on ordinary people’s lives. He seeks the involvement of common people in the making of his work as well as focusing on events that have had a major impact on people’s lives. Deller won the esteemed Turner Prize in 2004 and has continued to make works which investigate the interface between art and popular culture, normally with a strong political and social aspect, although often the works are funny and witty.
Becca Kauffman (they/them) is a social practice artist with a background in multidisciplinary performance, long stationed in New York City and now living Portland, Oregon. Practicing art as a flamboyant public utility, they collide fantasy with everyday life by choreographing new forms of social infrastructure through poetical actions. Their work uses communicative mediums like radio and video broadcasts, signs and fliers, telephone hotlines, group spectacles, interactive sculpture, music compilations, and renegade traffic direction to transform spectatorship into participation, and can look like an unsanctioned artist residency in Times Square, a neighborhood variety show in the middle of a NYC dive bar aired on public access television, or a seven year pop persona project called Jennifer Vanilla. They are an unofficial Mall Artist at Lloyd Center Mall, where they invite you to join the Public Acts of Dance Company on Saturdays at 3pm, sponsored by their fabricated city agency, Department of Public Dance.
What does it mean to care for someone? How do we learn about care by watching our caretakers care for others and what do we take for granted when they care for us? How is teaching a form of caretaking? Janet Aasness has been a teacher and caregiver for decades and is a mom of two, she’s my mom. When I was growing up, I tagged along as she cared for elderly neighbors and friends. It seemed to me that everyone must have an elderly friend they looked after. I wanted to ask my mom how she remembers those relationships and if my memories matched up with hers. Along the way I wanted her advice about teaching, and to have a conversation about care in our family, and how the landscape of what we each need shifts as we grow and grow old. If I were to describe the quintessential characteristics of a conversation with my mom, I would say first, at some point, some word or phrase would compel her to sing a song with the same words, she knows a song for every occasion. Second, she will (like everyone in our family) sometimes make clicking noises to indicate something instead of using words. Both of those things happen in the following conversation, please enjoy a classic conversation with Janet.
Caryn: How did you come to start taking care of older ladies when I was a kid?
Janet: I think that’s so interesting because I don’t think I knew that I did until you pointed it out. But I think that I learned it from my mom. That was something that she always did, I think also without necessarily recognizing it. When I was really little I remember that every month we would have a list of people at the nursing home that was nearby and she was given the job of providing their birthday cakes or whatever birthday celebration. So she’d say, well, I need to make three cakes and then we’d go and deliver them and sing and do all that. For some little stage of my life, that was kind of her responsibility. I was probably young enough that I wasn’t in school, so I was included in the project. Then she always had somebody that we would pick up on the way to church and there was always somebody that she was looking after. I was just brought along for the ride usually. She said the other day, and it just made me smile; one of her little ladies that she took care of was somebody who was kind of just used to being alone and not super open and not super friendly. It was hard, but she just kept going and going and going. Pretty soon they became really sweet friends, but it took patience and at one point, the lady told her how she appreciated it. She knew that she wasn’t easy to get to know, and she appreciated that my mom took the time to keep coming in. I thought that was sweet.
Caryn: I remember we would do things for Mrs. Dieckman across the street sometimes, but then after she passed away we would go and see Maryann. In my memory, it was every weekend or most weekends, but is that accurate? Did I always go with?
Janet: You didn’t always go with but it was pretty regular. So Mrs. Dieckman was our neighbor, she was sweet. We always tried to be friendly and helpful if we could be but it was never anything official with her. Then when she passed away, we really got to know Maryann, her sister. We ended up helping Maryann put on the estate sale. Maryann was pretty much all by herself. It started out as just friendly visits, and then she expressed that she could use a little help with certain things she couldn’t do herself. I would go, I don’t even know how often but regularly, maybe every other week or something, and wash her bedding and take her to the grocery store, or go to the grocery store for her, take her wherever, whatever she needed. So it was a regular deal.
In appreciation for the help with the estate sale, she got tickets to the Lion King musical for our whole family.
Caryn: I remember going to the Lion King and I remember being at Wells Fargo with Maryann one time…
Janet: Oh, that took so long!
Caryn: It took forever, yeah. There was another little kid in the waiting area of the bank and you had two calculators in your purse for some reason and gave them to us and we made up games on the calculators. I also remember being over there helping you guys clean out Mrs. Dieckman’s house.
Janet: Mrs. Dieckman had all kinds of interesting stories too. She had been married and then they had their one son. They had a liquor store that they owned that was in, I don’t know, downtown LA and she told me once that she was robbed at gunpoint when she was running the store and they locked her in the cooler. She was in there until the police came, so for a while.
Caryn: Their son had polio, right?
Janet: Yeah, when we cleaned up that house, we found all kinds of his stuff. All his friends had gone to Vietnam to fight but he was unable to because of his health. So we found letters that they had written to him. He raced cars, and he died in a car racing accident. She was lonely after she lost him, that was a big blow in her life.
Caryn: Would you have said she was a hoarder?
Janet: I would say that she definitely was a hoarder, and she was embarrassed about it. We came to visit her one time and there was so much stuff. She basically said I was addicted to the Home Shopping Network and then she said to herself I just have to stop. So she got a handle on it, she made herself stop, but for a while, that was something she definitely had a problem with, yeah.
Caryn: I remember tons of stuff just still in boxes.
Janet: Yeah, and odd stuff.
Caryn: Odd stuff?
Janet: Yeah, remember that weird camera thing? Those closed-circuit cameras? I don’t know if they worked.
Caryn: They did work, it was like you could watch… it was kind of like this, like FaceTime [Gestures to Janet on the screen]. But early on like, you could only really be in the next room over. You could be watching a person on a screen, and they were watching you on a screen.
Janet: It seemed like they were very limited. It didn’t seem very useful.
Caryn: I think we set it up and watched a model train go around. That’s all I remember.
Janet: That seems like something dad would have checked out. Yeah, she was always very sweet to you guys. She gave you Christmas cards, she was thoughtful. Oh yeah, Mrs. Brown. She was down the street. Do you remember her?
Janet: Her name was Brown, she always wore brown, and she lived in a brown house. You don’t remember that?
Caryn: Wow. No.
Janet: It was easy to remember her name. It wasn’t just ladies. Mr. Nathe, he was sweet.
Caryn: He would always say hello to me, even though I was a child.
Janet: Yeah, he was very kind. Remember he had bought that little swimming pool so he could check inner tubes for leaks and then once he was done with it, he gave it to you and Dylan? Very sweet. He would always get the two-for-one Western Bacon Cheeseburger deal and give one to dad because he couldn’t eat two!
Caryn: Oh, I want a Western Bacon Cheeseburger right now!
Janet: I would go get you one if I could.
Caryn: Thanks. If you did bring me with you to Maryann’s or Mrs. Dieckman’s or whoever, were you thinking about it as being an experience that I would learn from or was it just sort of like I was around, it was Saturday, so I went with?
Janet: I think that as a parent you think of modeling kindness for your kids so even if you didn’t do the exact same thing in your life, I would hope that you would look for ways to help others and be kind.
Caryn: What do you think you learned from taking care of these older folks?
Janet: I think again, they have a story, they’ve lived a life. They’ve had joys, and they’ve had losses. They have stories to tell and wisdom to share. Anybody you meet has a story and unless you take the time to ask or listen, you don’t really know. You can’t assume that you know what their deal is. I totally remember Mrs. Dieckman saying, Yeah, I used to watch baseball but it’s so slow. I can only watch hockey now. [Laughs] I would not have expected that, I had no idea.
I think I recognized out in the world, a lot of times, somebody is having to deal with something hard, having trouble with something, whatever; and to me, I would want help on that or I would want company at least. It’s helpful even just having someone to be alongside me for the stuff I do know how to do. Just seeing people doing the hard thing without help, that makes me want to help. So that’s part of how I ended up getting involved with people too. I just think that would be hard, so I feel sympathy for that.
Caryn: Do you feel like that’s how you show people that you care about them?
Janet: I think so, yeah. And that the world can be a positive place. People don’t have to fear each other or isolate themselves.
Caryn: When have you felt the most cared for?
Janet: Well, when I had my babies people cared for me, and when I had my surgery people cared for me.
Caryn: What did they do that made you feel cared for?
Janet: Just checked in on me, called or whatever; brought me a meal, sent me a card, told me they were praying for me. Those kinds of things. My mom brought me fresh squeezed orange juice the minute you were born, that was very sweet. Even just this week, dad is away and Aunt Robin invited me over to join them for dinner. My students often show their appreciation and care. They bring a little coffee or a little something to share with me which is nice. Hairong brought me an açaí bowl this week!
Caryn: Wow. Did you like it?
Janet: It was incredible! She put everything in it. Oh my gosh! I didn’t eat it right away so it was very melty by the time I got to it. Is there yogurt normally?
Caryn: I don’t know.
Janet: I think so. I think that was yogurt. I don’t think it was ice cream! It had blueberries and strawberries and peanut butter and little chia seeds, I guess probably açaí in there somewhere or whatever. A bowl of crazy goodness. It was very filling. It was good.
Caryn: [Laughs] Yeah, you teach adults now, but you taught elementary and then preschool for a long time. Do you want to talk about how those experiences compare?
Janet: I think all of them are meaningful and rewarding, they’re very different things. As a parent you have love, you have strong feelings, you have history, so it’s special, and maybe a little more challenging. It can be more frustrating, and heartbreaking. I think that’s a good thing. It’s just a little bit different caring for the people that you love. Not that I didn’t love my students, it’s just one step removed right?
I enjoyed teaching elementary, but I did that before I was a parent. I always wonder, if I would have done that after I was a parent, would I have been better at it? Better at understanding the parents’ side of things and the students’ side of things; just what it’s like to be in school and to have kids in school. I enjoyed it, but I was pretty young and inexperienced.
I loved teaching preschool, especially in our programs because the parents are part of it. I had so much fun when you guys were that age, so I kind of kept that going and that was a lot of fun. I think I was good at that, I think I was good with the kids and the parents by that point.
But I like teaching adults as well. It’s a different challenge. Most of the people that come to us had something that challenged them when they were originally in high school. Whether it was a disability or anxiety or just an interruption in their life. So I think we, as a team, try to figure out how to best support them to help them succeed this time around because they don’t usually have positive feelings around school. So I think we have to do more to make them feel at home and accepted and comfortable and encourage them and all that as well as just give them the classes they need. We have lots of positive stories. I had a grad yesterday, his wife and his little two or three-year-old girl came with balloons. Oh my gosh, they were so excited for him! He’s been there probably three years working on his diploma little by little and just about a week and a half ago I sent him an email like, it’s the final countdown, because I could see he was almost done and he’s like, I love that! We have another graduate, he’s one of those that came every day and we all got to have a soft spot for him in our hearts because we saw him so regularly. He’s all done this week, it’s exciting.
Caryn: It was interesting to watch when you went from having preschoolers to adult students, the types of stories that you were telling about your students were different but your enthusiasm was the same, you’re equally excited to watch them succeed, which I think is cool.
Janet: Yeah, they have different goals, different stories, but they all have their story. That’s the cool part about it, each of them has their story and it’s fun to be part of their story.
Caryn: I’m gonna be teaching pretty soon. Do you have any advice for me?
Janet: Well, you’re gonna do great, I know that. One thing that I was told, or learned over time is to be as prepared as you can be, with your plan in mind. Have everything you know you’re going to need, but then be ready to abandon that and go with the flow.
Try to think of your students, not just as students, but as people, and recognize that they have, like we just said a story. Maybe a challenging story. Maybe you don’t know everything they’re dealing with. So keep that in mind.
I always like to encourage my students to let them know that I don’t have all the answers and that I don’t think I have all the answers. They can let me know if they don’t understand, and we can either go over it together or they can usually get really good answers from each other, maybe someone else is able to explain it in a way that you understand better. I always think of when I learned decimals, I wouldn’t know decimals if it weren’t for Holly Thompson. I think I missed a class and I was so confused and she was sitting next to me and said you just do it like this [makes a clicking sound effect and hand motion]. An instant lightbulb went off.
Caryn: What have been the most surprising things to you about yourself as you’ve gotten older or your parents getting older or your kids getting older?
Janet: Well, I can’t believe my kids are as old as they are because I feel like I’m still that old, I really do. I don’t feel like I’m as old as I am. I mean, clearly, I recognize that you are the age that you are, and I enjoy knowing you as adults, which is different from knowing you as kids, but it just doesn’t seem like I’m that old. It’s hard to believe.
I guess with my mom I’m just surprised by the worries that she has and how she really goes back and forth between thinking I can do that and then thinking oh, no, I can’t do that. She has real big swings there between confidence and enthusiasm about something or worry and lack of confidence, fear. Even about the same thing from day to day. It’s interesting. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but that seems to be true for her.
Caryn: When Dylan and I were born, did you have an idea of what you hoped or thought or imagined that our lives would be like as we got older? Did it change as we got older and showed more of our personalities?
Janet: Yeah. I think I just assumed that we would always love each other and get along because dad and I love our parents and got along well with them. I’m thankful that that is true. But I think a lot of things that I assumed are not the way I pictured them just because, for one thing, there are so many things about the world I didn’t picture. Technology and all that made things different. I mean, I think I expected to be a grandparent. I don’t think I’m going to be a grandparent. I would never want to pressure my kids into having kids for my sake. Having kids is a big deal and you have to want to do it if you’re going to do it. So I’m definitely never going to be that kind of mom who says, when am I going to be a grandma? I’m just going to find other kids to play with, that’s my plan. But I wouldn’t want you to be under pressure. Under pressure… [sings Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie, 1981] I heard that song today.
Caryn: How do you think or hope that yours and my relationship will change as we both get older and need different types of care from each other?
Janet: Well, I hope we can ask for what we need from each other and say what we are able to provide. I think that we love each other and so that shouldn’t be a problem, but it might be challenging. We’ll have to be conscious about communicating our needs to each other and our boundaries and all that so that we can do it well, and care for each other well. We can’t read each other’s minds, so we have to communicate.
Janet Aasness (she/her) has been an educator since 1986, currently teaching adults who are pursuing their high school diplomas. She is a caretaker, song lyric virtuoso, and mother of two living in Long Beach, CA.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) Lives, laughs, loves in Portland, Oregon. They follow their compulsive interests into the topic of hoarding and other manifestations of other peoples’ compulsions. They make work about brains, language, and bodies. Caryn likes to ask questions as an act of care.
Nina Katchadourian is an artist working across many mediums and often not in a studio. She’s made work in libraries, on airplanes, and in parking lots. She has collaborated with sports announcers, curators, her parents, and museum maintenance staff. She has interpreted the shapes of moss growing on rocks as countries on an atlas, decoded the sounds of popping popcorn using Morse code, and mended spiderwebs with red thread. Her exhibit Uncommon Denominator, which opened at The Morgan Library & Museum in February 2023, is a mix of objects she selected from the Morgan’s collections, her own career, and her personal and family history. She even invited fifteen Morgan employees to discuss a collection item “about which [they] have thought, ‘I’d love to see this in a show one day.’”
When I left that show and returned to the world outside, I felt like I was wearing eyeglasses with an updated prescription. Things on the New York City streets and in the subway station looked different, sharper, and lines and shapes and words felt different, like they were alive.
In the exhibition at the Morgan and so much more of her work, I like what Nina does with the world and in the world. This interview was a thrilling opportunity to learn about her life, practice, and how to be an artist who gets to do this work.
Nina Katchadourian: What year are you in your MFA program?
Laura Glazer: I’m in my last year of a three-year program.
Nina: Oh my gosh. Do you know where you’re headed next?
Nina: You’ll know at some point.
Laura: I like to think of it as I planted a lot of seeds and we’ll see which ones bloom at the right time.
Laura: And you’ve visited our program?
Nina: I did. I was trying to remember when it was. It feels like it was a really long time ago. Like it could have been 2012. Do you know when it was?
Laura: It was 2012. There’s a little book that collects interviews with people who visited and there’s a very brief interview with you.
Nina: It’s funny, I don’t remember doing that at all, but I guess I did! There were a period of years where it seemed like a lot of things were going on in one part of the country. There was a Portland phase of many years where there were many opportunities to go there. Then for a while it became Marfa, Texas. Then it became Austin. It was weird. There were these regional magnet points, but I really haven’t been to Portland in ages. Now that I live in Berlin half the year, it feels super far away to go all the way to the west coast but when I do go, it tends to be to see my parents in California.
Laura: Do your parents feel famous?
Nina: They sometimes do because I’ve put them in my work. They came out with me to see The Morgan Library show and I went to see them for a week. Then they came back out with me to New York. My dad was going up to people in the exhibition and—referring to that piece of my mom growing up in the nightgown—he kept saying, “Guess who this is? That’s my wife. She’s right over there.” They were very thrilled to see the show.
Laura: When you told your mom you were going to exhibit that piece, what did she say? Or was she surprised at all?
Nina: No, because I have actually made a response piece with my mom and it has been shown a couple times. It’s called “The Nightgown Pictures.” There’s a real, full scale digital scan of the actual nightgown, which we have, and that’s printed really big at the beginning. And then all these pairings of the original photo with my retake and the texts underneath them run in a long, long line along the way. It’s a little like an exploded book. Over the course of many years, we went back to all of the places where those photos were originally taken together and tried to find exactly where my grandmother had been standing.
My mom knew enough and remembered enough about the particular summers and where they were and recognized enough things in the pictures that we could find all of them pretty easily, at least generally where they were. We had the actual photos in our hands and would stand there, moving around until…it was an uncanny feeling. It would be like a tree, a rock, a horizon line. Suddenly, it would be like “bloop” and it all clicks into place and then we know that exactly on this spot is where my grandmother must have stood to take the picture. Then I would take the picture again. So, it wasn’t with my mom in it, it was a record of the landscape and how that had changed more.
But then running alongside that, there were these short commentaries that I wrote that tracked various things we learned while we might’ve been in each of these locations and other kinds of things my mom might’ve told me about that particular summer.
Laura: Do you ever think of yourself as a socially engaged artist?
Nina: It’s funny, I made a bunch of things when I was in grad school that I’m sure now would solidly fall under the header of social practice. We weren’t using that term then. The people who were important to me in graduate school—in terms of professors who had a lot of influence on me—were people like Allan Kaprow. The kind of art/life happenings legacy of him and many others in my program, had a big effect on many of us there.
Allan wasn’t my advisor but I definitely felt like I had a lot of conversations with him and his approach to things, his attitude and what he located as interesting sites for making art, those things had a big impression on me. I sometimes think if I had been educated 20 years later that might have very well been the kind of program I could have wound up in.
In grad school, there was particularly a lot of collaborating going on in my program. We were all trying to find the thing that we do and figure out who we were as artists, but there was a nice way in which that wasn’t completely fully figured out. I think it made it easier to work with other people because there’s just somehow a kind of flexibility to all of that, that I think gets harder as you get older. I don’t know if it’s older or more settled into your innate ways of working maybe. I do collaborate now and then, but not nearly as often. Sometimes I think about whether that has to do with deadlines pressing harder on me or where I’ve just ended up working by myself more than not by myself.
But there are projects that come around for me. The one that comes to mind where I would say there is a socially engaged aspect is a project called “Monument to the Unelected” that I made in 2008 as a commission for the Scottsdale Museum of Art. It was for a show that they were putting together as a 10-year anniversary show called “Seriously Funny.” The idea was it would be a group of artists who work with humor, and they wanted me to make something new. It was like, “okay, so you want me to come to Scottsdale, think of something funny, and put it in the show?” I get asked about this sort of humor stuff all the time and I’m not trying to make things that are funny, actually. This is the only time I have been asked to do that, and it was really difficult. I was like, “I have no ideas, everything I’m thinking of is tragic.” The piece that resulted from it was sort of like two things that met up with one another.
One was a rumination in Scottsdale about indigenous histories and the tragedy of what has happened in the U.S. around the attempted erasure of Native American people. Growing up in California, those things had become a little more invisible to me and in Scottsdale, I could notice them, see them, and think about them in a way that I shamefully hadn’t as much as I did on that trip. There was that going on in one part of my head, which certainly wasn’t funny!
The other part was that we were coming up on the 2008 election and that election cycle was the one that Obama eventually won. All over Scottsdale and Phoenix were these plastic election sign posters with candidates’ names on them, as is such a weird American kind of tradition.
I wondered how I could make something that would actually make us look back on an American past and think about our history in some way, but that would also be funny. The piece became this piece called “Monument to the Unelected,” and it’s a series of 56 plastic lawn signs that were designed from scratch. I did not research them historically, but they have the names of everybody who ever ran through the office of U.S. President and lost. It’s like the road not taken since the beginning of election history.
These signs are shown in the kinds of places you would see them on a front lawn of a house or in a vacant lot and we found a few different sites in Scottsdale to show them, and it does look kind of crazy. It’s like an explosion of names on these colorful signs and the names… you’re sort of like, “Wait a minute, Roosevelt? Aaron Burr? This is John Adams?” These are odd names to encounter. It’s very intentionally supposed to be politically ambiguous; you’re not supposed to be able to read a political viewpoint into how I might feel about any of those names on the signs particularly. That’s one thing that I really feel pleased about with this piece is that it did—in the best possible way—confuse people. They were looking for a political message and there wasn’t one to be distilled out of that.
I made a commitment to show that piece every election cycle. I’ve shown it in 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020, which was a really intense one. The 2024 election is coming up and I have to start thinking about where it’s going to be shown next time.
Last time around, because we were in the middle of COVID, it also had to be really re-thought. What I also began doing as a kind of tradition is I would produce the signs of both candidates who were running for election that year, and then once the results of the election were known, I would show the piece three weeks before the election and then a few weeks after the election.
On the day that we found out who won, I would—in a solemn ceremony of sorts—add the newest loser to the group. That was for me—revealing my political leanings—difficult to do in 2020. It was really tough. Walking out there and putting the Hillary Clinton sign on the lawn, I was like, “I’m trying to stay really neutral, but this is really awful. This is really awful to have to do.” Then in 2020, because I couldn’t be in the U.S. I was in Germany, and traveling was not happening. It was shown in eight different places across the U.S. In every one of those places, I had a first-time voter hold the sign and plant the sign on the lawn.
We had these fantastic live Zoom events that could have been a total train wreck, but they were amazing. We had all the eight sites live and then I’m on the Zoom in the middle of the grid and all the first time voters—this is all archived on Pace Gallery’s YouTube channel if you want to watch it—and I gave what I hoped sounded like a very dignified speech, again, trying to be neutral. I didn’t want it to sound celebratory, it was meant to be very matter of fact. But I said, “Now candidates, please place the sign of the most recent losing candidate.” I didn’t use the word loser on purpose. Then I had them bring up the signs to the camera and then they put the sign in the lawn. It was actually really special to do it that way.
I feel very committed to it being in a public space every four years and ideally more than one, and ideally in different parts of the country and in places where they vote differently. I didn’t want it only in blue states, you know? There’s a social engagement, not just with what the piece tries to talk about, but with who gets involved in it.
Laura: How did you figure that out?
Nina: It was logistically crazy. For a long time, I’ve worked with a gallery in San Francisco called Catharine Clark Gallery, and they’re completely amazing. Our careers have grown together and they’ve been so supportive of me and stood by me through thick and thin and so on.
About three years ago I also started working with Pace Gallery in New York, who are an enormous operation and a very different kind of gallery. They’re all over the world and they have a lot of artists who are historical figures and a lot of living contemporary artists. The two galleries are working together and it’s all very good. I feel really supported and fortunate. A lot of opportunities have opened up because Pace has such a broad reach, too, and resources.
It was actually my gallery director at Pace, Ben Strauss-Malcolm, who suggested this first-time voter thing. And I was like, “Ben, that is such a great idea!” I knew there had to be somebody remote in each location, willing to place the sign, and I thought it could be a citizen of that city. But then Ben’s suggestion to make it a first-time voter, I thought was great. Between the lines, I guess I wanted it to be some advocacy for voting and there were a lot of people who voted for the first time because they were young and hadn’t been able to vote before.
But there was also somebody who voted for the first time because he had been in jail for every other election that he could have voted in. And that was really amazing to hear about what it meant to be able to exercise that right. It was really a very moving event. There was a lot of help from both Catharine Clark Gallery and Pace to help organize the event and getting eight venues for that work was largely because of the two galleries and the outreach that they did.
Laura: Who do you talk to about your ideas? When I was going through the exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum yesterday, there were moments when I was like, “Whoa, I can connect this to this.” For me, when I have those moments, there are certain people I’ll call and say, “You’re not gonna believe I just figured this out.” So, who’s your person?
Nina: I’ll say at the outset that for me it’s been very important to realize that there are some things I need to keep very close to the chest before I talk about them at all. I am married to someone who has the honesty gene, and if you ask for an opinion on something, you are gonna get the brutal truth and you better be ready to hear it. It’s a good thing. But I also know if my own roots are not in the ground with something yet, I can be kind of thrown a little bit if I don’t get the reaction I want. I sometimes wait and think by myself for quite a while. I think there are a set of friends, artist friends, friends who are not necessarily artists, and sometimes it is the person I’m married to—who is not an artist—who I will float a fledgling idea by. There’s also a set of people who are my secret weapon friends when I’m really stuck with something, the ones who have sometimes had the chiropractic effect [makes bone-cracking sounds], like, “Oh, I see it now. Oh my god.” It’s really great to have those people on your side.
I had to make some difficult decisions about a piece that I showed at Pace for the first show I did in New York with them in May 2021. To make a long story short, there was sort of a complicated component of one of these works that raised certain kinds of questions about race and representation. I knew I wanted to think through what I did with this one element of this one piece really carefully in part because it was also the framework of my first show at Pace. People love to hate on the big galleries and I get it. I do really understand the objectionable thing about any giant anything. I get that. So I felt that there would be a scrutiny that would be more intense than if I were showing this piece at a lot of other places, and for lots of reasons, I knew that I wanted to think this through very, very carefully.
There were a couple people I reached out to, and one is an artist friend I talk to often, and the other two are people who I know a little less well, but who I just think are really smart thinkers about these questions. One of them is an artist I’ve never even met, but we sort of know each other through social media. I think she’s smart and I just said “Would you be willing to have a conversation with me about this? Because I really feel like I would trust your feedback.” Sometimes I reach out to the trusted, tried, and true and other times it’s helpful if they’re not my friend exactly because I feel like maybe I get a more honest response. There’s nothing at stake in the same way.
When I talk to people, I’m not so prone to share every small, new thought, like calling someone like, “What do you think?” I have to have thought about a thing quite a bit before I’m convinced it’s worth pursuing. I am really lucky, I really trust the people who professionally I work with, like that story about Ben at Pace or Catharine Clark herself. They’re really smart and I think that certainly on the business end of things, I get a lot of advice when I ask for it. But not just that, I’ve floated conceptual questions by them, too, and it’s been really useful input.
Do you know this piece called “Accent Elimination” that I made with my parents? I had the idea to make that piece for years and years and years, and the thing that was preventing me from making it is that I had no idea what the script would be like. I knew we had to be speaking something in order to be practicing accents that we were learning. But I just couldn’t crack what we would be saying, I couldn’t figure it out. I was either asking myself, “Should we be reading a text about translation or accents?” Or I was coming up with tedious, obvious solutions. I knew those were all really predictable and bad solutions, boring ones. I talked to this anthropologist friend of mine who knows me and knows my parents too, and he said, “Why don’t you have them write scripts?” and I was like, “Oh my God!” It’s such an anthropologist thing to say. Listen to the subject, you know? I was like, “That is brilliant, that is exactly the right solution.”
Laura: How did you prepare for the exhibit at The Morgan Library in the sense of: what in your life and art practice led you to do something like this? I’m asking for a very specific reason—because that is my dream project! When I was going through the exhibit, I kept wondering if there was a life event or something in your head where you might have thought, “I did this in another project and it worked,” or something prepared you to look at things in this particular way?
Nina: Your question about “Who do you run ideas by?” I mean, it really has to be said that the Morgan show is really a collaboration. I started by saying I don’t collaborate much. I totally take that back. I worked with Joel Smith, the curator who invited me to do this show, and we really made this show together. There were moments where I might have taken the lead a little more, or he might have taken the lead a little more, but there is no way I would’ve made this show by myself.
There’s also no way he would’ve made this show by himself. It is really, truly, a kind of, “We made it.” When we’ve been doing walkthroughs of this show, one or the other of us always says something like, “We’re gonna be using the pronoun ‘we,’ because this was not a kind of artist/curator relationship where the artist’s work is the raw material and the curator decides what happens with it.” I’ve actually worked with curators a lot that way. In some ways, now that I start talking about this, curators are the people who have been my collaborators in more recent years, that is the more common situation. The other person I would name in that category is Veronica Roberts, who is now at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. She’s the director there now, but she was the curator at the Blanton Museum of Art, who organized a traveling retrospective show of mine that we really, really worked on together.
The Morgan exhibit was a really complicated show and the process was really murky a lot of the time. We looked at a lot of stuff over the last three years. The Morgan is full of interesting things and there was nothing that wasn’t interesting to me. Joel, in some interview or Morgan press release, said something like, “Both the wonderful and challenging thing about working with Nina Katchadourian is that she’s interested in everything.” It was really hard to find a structure because it felt like anything and all of this could be in the show; why would I rule any of the things out? We did, of course, rule things out. But it was very difficult for me to see for a long time a guiding principle. For a long time I was like, we have to find a guiding principle. I feel like I’m just awash in amazing stuff and I don’t have a structure. And it was starting to get stressful.
Then I came up with—maybe this is another kind of social engagement strategy of working—this idea of talking to the staff, picking 15 people at the Morgan and asking them to show and tell me a favorite object. The usefulness of that approach was something I learned while working on a project for MoMA a few years before, which ended up being this project about dust. I ended up making an audio tour for MoMA about dust in 2016 called “Dust Gathering.” It’s the same sort of idea. You start with the question of “Who’s in the building and what do they know?” There’s a lot of stuff here, but there are also a lot of people here who have knowledge. That turned out to be a really important strategy at MoMA that unlocked what that project became, and I thought, well, it’s unstuck me before, maybe I should ask the same question at the Morgan. Although I didn’t include every single show and tell object, I’d say more than half of them are in the show and it did really open up the collection for me; it brought me to places in it that I wouldn’t have normally found.
Joel is really fun for me to think with. We share a sense of humor and we share an affinity for the same sorts of, “Hey, hey, look how these things look alike. Not just literally look alike, but where two things might have connected to one another.”
He’s very good at keeping a lot of things in mind partially because he knows the collection better than me. He had an easier time being like, “Well, the blah blah blah and the blah blah blah and the blah blah, blah, blah, blah, those could be a group.” And I’d be like, “Wait, what are those things again? I’m still trying to sort of remember over two years of looking like what it was we saw.” Two years of looking and a year of organizing is a little bit how the work of the show took place. He says that it really wasn’t until the week we started hanging the show that we were like, “Okay, yes, there are connections here and they are visible and I think people are gonna see them.” It is kind of funny that we admitted this to one another. I think we were both like, “Is anybody going to see what we are seeing here? This may make no sense to anyone.” I have not had the experience of being so unsure until so late a stage in the game, about what a show was going to be.
Laura: As I was walking around the exhibit, I looked at every employee and I was like “Are you in the show?”
Nina: That’s nice, I love it. But you asked something else that I hadn’t answered yet: “How do you get to do a gig like this?” Was that what you were wondering about?
Laura: It’s not like what on your CV qualified you. It’s more of, as you look back on your career—and your practice in general—what sort of internal thing in your brain and heart and soul made you ready to undertake this approach? Because it’s very curatorial, but it’s also a project in the vein of other projects you do.
Nina: The past projects or works that felt like “training” towards this one were definitely the dust project. And also a project I spent most of 2020 making, which became an installation that is an artwork called “To Feel Something That Was Not of Our World.” The shipwreck books that you saw in the show are an excerpt from that big, big project.
In that project I had to be a historian, an archivist, an interviewer, a radio journalist, and I had to be a very good listener. I had to consider a lot of ethical questions and in some ways, that project became about questions that had to do with how you listen ethically and deal with somebody else’s story that you’re working with that isn’t your own.
I had never done a project where that was such a front burner question. But there was also a process of making that piece where I did not know what I was doing for a very long time. It was like I was gathering and gathering and gathering and gathering information, and gathering all these audio conversations, these interviews I did with Douglas Robertson, who was the oldest son in that family that got shipwrecked.
For a long time, I just had to amass stuff and then at some point I could stand back from all of it and be like, “Okay, now there’s enough stuff that I can ask myself, ‘what’s the structure?” That was that place where I was like, “Oh God, I’m gonna get stuck here, if I don’t sort this out, I’m stuck, I’m shipwrecked and this project will never happen.” And the thing that unstuck it was when I realized that I’ve dealt with a 38-day story, a 38-day interview, and the show has to have a 38-day structure. And then it was like, “Wow, wow, yeah. That’s it, now I have a scaffold and now I can fill in a structure.”
There were moments with the Morgan show where I thought, “Alright, learning from these past experiences, we have a lot of stuff, and we just need to see what it’s showing us.” As soon as there’s a little bit of a structure to work with, that’s the key moment for me because then it’s like, “Okay, now I have something I can react to, I can shape, I can move towards this or move away from this, or contrast.” As you saw in the Morgan show, sometimes it feels like things are kind of matched or they rhyme or they’re of a piece.
But other times I think it’s a play of contrast or things that are a little bit like “That thing isn’t actually at all like that thing, but they might look alike in a superficial way, but they’re like and really not alike.” There are moments like that that I like a lot where similarity is actually the red herring. You’re not connecting from thing to thing the same way every time, I hope. I hope that’s how it works.
Laura: I’m curious about the process behind writing the wall labels and how did you determine the right moment and place to bring your voice into those exhibit points?
Nina: That is something I’ve started doing since that show at the Blanton in my retrospective called “Curiouser.” In that show, we—Veronica and I—made a decision to have wall texts that were written in a first-person voice. And we did that both in the catalog. Have you ever seen the catalog?
Nina: I did a lot of writing for the catalog. So, what we call the “capsule essays”—which are those short essays where one writer writes about one piece—was a sort of desire to unburden the writer from having to describe what the artwork was. I ended up anecdotally saying “Here’s what the thing is, here’s how I made it, and a little bit maybe about why,” although I would never be so direct about it. But between the lines, you might understand why I would make something like that. Then the writer could have the reaction to the piece, they didn’t have to do any explaining. Veronica was really interested in having my voice be there on the walls, kind of in this first-person present, anecdotal conversational way. People really loved it, they really responded so positively to that in that show.
When the show at Pace rolled around in 2021, there were so many things for me with that show where I was like, “I want to be really strategic about how I do this first show with this big gallery, I want to really think about the kind of mood I want in this show, and I want it to feel warm and welcoming. I know the building itself is big and imposing and expensive looking, and I want there to be a feeling in the show that is in some ways, very different from that. I want it to feel like I’m present, I’m alive, I’m a living artist.” Maybe I said it even a little obnoxiously, but when we had our first meeting with the Pace team about logistics around the show, I said, “I’m going to be writing wall texts. There’s going to be an intro text that will be in a first-person voice and there will be some texts throughout the show that will be in a first-person voice.”
They do not usually do things that way, and I think there was a little bit of a sort of like “Oh, hmm, unusual,” and a little bit of an attempt to talk me out of it. I really was very insistent about it, and I was very sure that this was an important decision and everyone went with it. Again, I think it was remarked upon as something that set a bit of a mood in the exhibition.
Joel saw that show, liked it, and we decided to do it again for the Morgan show, to have the artist really be there. He has done two of these shows in this series previous to me, like the Duane Michal’s show, where there were a lot of quotes from Duane, in his voice saying things. But we’re not quoting me, it’s me talking, so it’s a little different. What did you think of that?
Laura: It was like a dream come true. I hesitate to say this out loud but when I go to a museum or gallery, I really want to have a conversation with the artist, I want to know what the artist wanted and was thinking. There’s always a desire to be close to the person who made what’s on display, and wall text written by museum professionals gets me part of the way there, but there’s nothing like hearing from the artist. It’s really special.
Nina: I like that a lot, too. I push this with my students a lot, too. It’s very useful to have a critic’s perspective, but you should know what the artist was willing to say about what they were interested in doing, or what they hoped would happen.
I really think one of the most irritating things I’ve ever heard anyone say was while I was teaching at Brown University in the early 2000s, and there was a very well-known New York collector who came and spoke. He said something at one point, like, “Never believe anything artists tell you about their work, they never know what they’re talking about.” And I was like, “Do I walk out of the room now or do I say something pissy or do I say something in the Q&A?” I don’t think I actually did anything, which was terrible because I chickened out. But I was so offended by that.
I think there’s a way to be autobiographical without being self-indulgent. That’s also something that matters a lot to me. What is worrisome to me every time I make something that feels personal is I don’t want it to feel “me, me, me, me.” I want it to be that I’m a voice in the room, but these things also have their agency and their presence. I’m trying to welcome you into something. I’m not trying to tell you what it is or tell you that you have to pay attention to me. I hope we got that right.
Laura: I think you did. Because without it, it might have leaned towards the historical museum kind of thing.
Nina: Right, right.
Laura: That could’ve been okay, but I don’t think it would’ve been as fun and meaningful.
I’m gonna ask some final questions because I don’t want to keep you super long. I have to choose them wisely and I’m torn on which ones to ask. One of the things I have been asking at the end of my grad school life is something I wasn’t going to ask you, but now I just can’t not ask you. What I’m really trying to figure out for myself, especially in the art and social practice MFA program, is “What makes it art?”
Nina: Oh yeah.
Laura: I’m always trying to figure out how to talk to somebody like the taxi driver who asks, “What kind of art do you study?” I would like to bounce that off of you. And you don’t have to answer it because I don’t want it to be like, “Well what makes what you do, art?” I definitely don’t mean it in that way.
Nina: No, I get that you’re not asking that. Some people will ask that at artist talks, so it’s kind of funny. It can be a very challenging kind of question.
I make some things sometimes that I adamantly insist are not art. This can get kind of funny. I’ll end up answering your question via this oblique route, but I’ve made a couple things that I just really made for fun and I made them to put them on YouTube and they’re there to be entertaining and hopefully funny on purpose. I feel like it was really nice to not be burdened by the question of “Are they art?” They were, for me, a fun thing I made with a friend and it’s there for entertainment.
There’ve sometimes been uncomfortable moments where people have thought, “Well, you’re an artist, so everything you make is art. Therefore, this video is art.” I got a question once about it in a Q&A and I was like, “Oh, that’s not an artwork.” So, I do feel like I sometimes do want to delineate what I consider art and not art. What was the example you used, like a conversation with a taxi driver, is that what you said?
Laura: Yes. I was trying to explain socially engaged art and he’s like, “Oh, like flash mobs?” And that stumped me. Even though I know we don’t usually think of flash mobs as art, I still told him, “Yes, kind of. But we don’t credit the people who are in the mob, which makes it different from social practice, but it’s a similar sensibility.”
Nina: I think that there has to be an interpretive element involved, in the sense that the artist has to be willing to have a presence in the work that shapes the work. I feel like there has to be a process of selection and shaping of a thing—it doesn’t just include everything. The shaping of it is “You’re gonna include some things and not include others, and you will have your mark on the thing.” That makes it different for me than things that are made more in a spirit of, you could say, documentary. And obviously I don’t believe that the artist is not present in documentary, of course I agree with every argument around the impossibility of objectivity and so on. But I’d say that when it feels like an artwork for me, it’s because there is actually a deliberate, palpable, and intentional presence of the artist in the work. They are the reason I’m experiencing it the way I’m experiencing it. It’s their meddling in the thing that makes the thing what it is, and I guess I think every artist should recognize that that’s the work, actually.
I’ve had many studio arguments around the idea that “People can think whatever they want when they see my work!” I totally call bullshit on that. I do not believe anyone believes that, actually. I think that art is an act of communication and there is always something you are hoping to communicate, and it’s your responsibility to actually know a bit about what that is.
I always want to say really obnoxious things at that point. “Oh, you think I can think anything? Oh, so what if I embrace this as a completely fascist, racist work? Are you happy with that?” Of course, most people would not be.
That’s how, at the moment, I would think about that question of “What makes it art.” What makes it art is that the artist is willing to—I don’t want to say “take ownership” in that sense that they have to have their name attached to it—but they need to have a shaping presence.
I’m also obviously aware of arguments about authorship, like not having there be an author, an artist, or a person it all comes back to. I think you could still ascribe a collective authorship to things and what I’m saying, would still hold up.
Laura: Okay, so…my last question. Have you been to the New York Public Library Picture Collection?
Nina: I know about it, but I also thought it didn’t exist anymore.
Laura: It almost didn’t, they almost moved it offsite but there was enough lobbying against it that they didn’t do it. It’s still on-site. When I was at The Morgan Library exhibit yesterday, I thought, “I would love to see what Nina would make with the Picture Collection.”
Nina: I need to go. I’ve never been. I remember reading about it in that kind of “This thing is about to become extinct” moment and thinking, “Oh no.” Thanks for putting that back on my radar. That’s great. I will do that when I’m back in the Fall.
Laura: Well, thank you so, so much.
Nina: Nice to meet you, Laura. I hope our paths cross in real life one day.
Laura: Me, too! Maybe we can go to the Picture Collection together!
Nina: That would be really amazing. You can be my guide.
Nina Katchadourian (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist whose work includes video, performance, sound, sculpture, photography, and public projects. Her video Accent Elimination was included at the 2015 Venice Biennale in the Armenian pavilion, which won the Golden Lion for Best National Participation. Group exhibitions have included shows at the Serpentine Gallery, Turner Contemporary, de Appel, Palais de Tokyo, Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Turku Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, ICA Philadelphia, Brooklyn Museum, Artists Space, SculptureCenter, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Morgan Library & Museum, and MoMA PS1. A solo museum survey of her work entitled Curiouser opened at the Blanton Museum in 2017 and traveled to the Cantor Art Center at Stanford University and the BYU Art Museum. An accompanying monograph, also entitled “Curiouser,” is available from Tower Books, an imprint of University of Texas Press. On the occasion of her solo show at The Morgan Library & Museum in 2023, entitled “Uncommon Denominator,” the Morgan published an exhibition catalog with a conversation between Katchadourian and curator Joel Smith.
Katchadourian completed a commission entitled “Floater Theater” for the Exploratorium in San Francisco in 2016 which is now permanently on view. In 2016 Katchadourian created “Dust Gathering,” an audio tour on the subject of dust, for the Museum of Modern Art as part of their program “Artists Experiment.” Katchadourian’s work is in public and private collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Blanton Museum of Art, Morgan Library, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Margulies Collection, and Saatchi Gallery. She has won grants and awards from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Anonymous Was a Woman Foundation, the Tiffany Foundation, the American-Scandinavian Foundation, Gronqvista Foundation, and the Nancy Graves Foundation. Katchadourian lives and works in Brooklyn and Berlin and she is a Clinical Full Professor on the faculty of NYU Gallatin. She is represented by Catharine Clark Gallery and Pace Gallery.
Laura Glazer (she/her) is an artist whose work is socially-engaged and depends on the participation of other people, sometimes a close friend, and other times, complete strangers. Her background in photography and design inform her social practice, and her projects appear as books, workshops, radio shows, zines, festivals, exhibitions, installations, posters, signs, postal correspondence, and sculpture. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and has been published in The New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, NPR, and the BBC. Her book of photographs and interviews, I Want Everyone to Know: The Black History Month Doors at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, was published by the Dr Martin Luther King Jr School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) in April 2022. She was a 2022—2023 artist fellow at the New York Public Library Picture Collection. She holds a BFA in Photography from Rochester Institute of Technology and an MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. Born in northern Virginia, she was a longtime resident of upstate New York and is now based in Portland, Oregon. Visit her website to see her projects and follow her on Instagram for updates.
It’s technically March at the time I’m writing this, but here, in Portland, it still feels like winter. I miss the actual sunbeams that used to hit my kitchen floor in the winter in Oakland and how my cat would stretch out her body to fill the whole space. This image feels like summer to me and reminds me of sitting in a fairy ring of redwood trees. I think sometimes you need to bring the sunlight and warmth into the winter, so maybe this cover will do that for you as it did for me. Some other words we associate with this image are: physicality, grounding, ferns, nature, firs, and “feltness,” which Gili talks about in their interview with Linda. The “Finding the Forest” project depicted in this image brought people together in physical space in a way that feels so distinctly pre-pandemic. As our campus reopens in real time and space, we are excited to make new connections with our greater PSU community. You can see some of these connections in this issue of our Social Forms of Art Journal.
-Luz Blumenfeld and Gilian Rappaport
For this issue of SoFA, we each interviewed people affiliated with Portland State University. Our social practices tend to engage with communities, but as a program we operate more as a satellite of our parent university. Individually, we have our own ways of connecting with campus life— teaching assistantships in undergraduate classes, working on-campus jobs, hanging out in the park blocks, taking Dance Fusion aerobics class at the athletic center, or working in the Social Practice Archive housed in the Special Collections at the PSU library. But because we primarily convene for classes off campus— at KSMoCA (Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School), Harrell’s living room, on Zoom from our respective homes (or favorite coffee shops)— it can feel like we, as a group, are disconnected from our university community.
This year, as we experience a completely open campus after an era of pandemic protocols, many of us are getting reacquainted, or acquainted for the first time, with our campus; sprucing up our studio space, doing projects at the art department’s Open Studios, or picking up free groceries from the food pantry in the basement of Smith Student Union.
This winter, we found people in departments all over PSU who are engaging with topics connected to our own areas of investigation. We are excited to introduce you to the many people doing incredible research, teaching, projects, and labor across the university.
In the interviews that follow, we meet a dance professor who wants you to notice your body in the city and the city as a body; a pragmatist philosopher who surmises the whole world is one big role playing game; the lone mascot of PSU’s athletic department who’s willing to shake everyone’s hand; a sociology professor who wants us all to talk more about death; a social psychologist devoted to trash; two graduate students with an intimate connection to their bowel movements; a critical feminist geographer using comics to explore the experience of homelessness; a critical race spatial educator uncovering the hidden curriculum within university culture; and the PSU Provost, who wants more artists’ voices in the room.
Come with us on the most in depth and strange virtual campus tour you’ll ever get!
Caryn Aasness, Luz Blumenfeld, Becca Kauffman
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.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program