Listen to the Subject

“…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.”

-Nina Katchadourian

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?

Laura: No. 

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. 

Nina: Excellent. 

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? 

A sign on a brick wall

Description automatically generated with medium confidence
A banner announcing Nina’s exhibit “Uncommon Denominator: Nina Katchadourian at the Morgan” displayed on the façade of The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, March 2023. Photo by Laura Glazer.

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? 

A picture containing text, sign

Description automatically generated
A picture containing text

Description automatically generated
Views of Runa “Nunni” Lindfors (Finnish, 1904–1987) “The story of Why Stina’s First Nightgown Became Too Small (Berättelsen om varför Stinas första natipaitu blev för liten)”, photos 1939–51, book ca. 1975. Inscribed and accordion-bound gelatin silver prints. Courtesy Nina Katchadourian. Photo by Laura Glazer.

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.

Gallery attendant looking at Nina’s exhibit at The Morgan Library. Photo by Laura Glazer.

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.

A picture containing calendar

Description automatically generated
View of “Every Version of ‘Survive the Savage Sea’ in Every Language and Every Edition, 2021, from the installation ‘To Feel Something That Was Not of Our World,’ 2020. Thirty-one books on shelving. Courtesy the artist, Catharine Clark Gallery, and Pace Gallery.” Photo by Laura Glazer.

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. 

A sign on a wall

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated
A picture containing graphical user interface

Description automatically generated
Wall label above a vitrine containing Nina’s “Beatles Log” from 1981, shown in the image on the top right, and her annotated Sierra Club weekly calendar from 1982 in the bottom image. Photos by Laura Glazer.

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? 

Laura: Yes.

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.

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.

SoFA Journal
c/o PSU Art & Social Practice
PO Box 751
Portland, OR 97207