Avalon Kalin is an everyday artist. He makes small works about little things, big works about small things, and smaller works about bigger things. No matter the size of the work or the subject matter, the scale of his appreciation for the delights of this world is consistently enormous. He is seeking the sublime.
When I first encountered Avalon’s art, I was struck by the profound, deceptive simplicity of it all. Photographs of incidental light patterns in the library? A drum set drum circle? A micro sensory field trip? (The instructions read: Today, I went on a “micro sensory field trip” by laying on the ground and looking at what I found there. You should too. Lay down somewhere. Look right where your face is. Look right there. Observe the microcosm. Small things become huge. Walls are good for this too.)
With Avalon, small things really do become huge. There is a palpable nowness in his work, an identification of what’s here now, why it’s worth attending to, and how you can get involved. He’s really good at marveling, and he’s invested in making something you can marvel at together.
It’s especially exciting to witness this knowing that Avalon graduated from the first ever class of the PSU Art and Social Practice program, 2007-09, a time when social practice was just starting to be recognized in academic and art institutions, and was, at least judging from his prolific body of student work, more freeform and experimental as a result. In our conversation, Avalon dropped one philosophical doozy after the next, and left me feeling inspired to look deeply at the small things, and make them huge.
Becca Kauffman: So how did you find your way to the Art and Social Practice program?
Avalon Kalin: This is such a fun story. I love telling it, because it’s a true story of synchronicity, and I’ve heard that if something synchronous is happening, you’re on the right track. So the story is, I’m an undergrad studying design at PSU in Portland. I know of Miranda July, and I stumble upon her project with Harrell, Learning to Love You More, online. This site moved me so much personally. It challenged me, and then won me over. And then I had to reconsider my whole life. That night that I discovered the website, I wrote a map of my whole life on a piece of paper. You know, you put your name in the circle in the middle, and then you put branches off, like rays or octopus legs, and all the things that are important to you: family, art, music, health, romance. Just so I could like meditate on what the heck I was going to do. I was hugely affected. And I go to class the very next day, a typography class with Lis Charman, who’s an amazing designer and teacher at PSU. We’re sitting there, class is about to begin, she picks up a piece of paper and she goes, “Oh, this must have been leftover from Harrell’s class.” I said “Harrell’s class?” and she said, “Yeah, Harrell Fletcher.” I said “Harrell Fletcher? Does he teach here?” She said, “Oh, yeah, you should take his class, you would get along famously!” Oh my God, you know! Becca, I had no idea that he lived in Portland, I had no idea that he taught at PSU, and I had no idea that I could take his class. This is one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me. When I took his class, actually, he said I was the first student he had who knew his art.
The first chance I got, I went up to him. I said, “Can I buy you lunch and ask you about your art?” He said, “Well, you don’t have to buy me lunch. I have to eat anyway.” And I just said, “Where did your art come from?” He always spoke plainly to me and he was always very generous. He’s been like a mentor or a friend ever since.
Becca: Everyone that I’ve known in the program found out about it in a social way, by someone just verbally handing off a suggestive seed that ended up growing into a whole new chapter of our lives, including myself!
Avalon: Don’t you feel like you’re invited by fate a little bit?
Becca: It’s funny, because when I look at your work I see a very Harrell-esque style and approach. There’s this clarified, direct simplicity. Your projects are sensible, but also philosophical. Is that the kind of work you’ve been drawn to from the start, or has there been an influence, having worked closely with Harrell?
Avalon: That sense of wanting something sensible, I really appreciate that word. That has always resonated with where I’m at as a creative person. This gets back to my interest in graffiti removal. In 1998, I began photographing it; in 2001, the film [I helped inform], The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, was released, and it showed at Sundance, and that really opened my eyes because I was a writer of that. It was based on my creative practice, and it was so interesting to people. It got into the back of Art Forum magazine, and I was just a kid, you know, I was like, in my early 20s, and it opened my eyes that my ideas were valuable. And, you know, artist to artist, talking to you, Becca, I could see my way of being in the world was valuable to people. You know, how do you tell someone that your ideas come from the way that you walk around or who you are? It kind of doesn’t make any sense in this very appearance and productive based society. But I can see that now. I’m in my 40s and I see, oh, okay, my art practice came from the way that I responded to being in the city; what I was looking at, what I was seeing, how I was feeling. And only when I had a chance to communicate that, did it lock in that I could keep communicating with people about that. And so that’s very poetical, isn’t it?
When it comes to Harrell, it was as if someone had given me the go ahead to do what I was already doing. Jen Delos Reyes also encouraged me, saw what I was doing and pushed me forward. The title Student Work, on my book of student work, really comes from her identifying that my whole practice was very much like an apprentice to the people I was interacting with or what I was doing. It was a great lens to look at my work, all of it is just student work, because there’s a sense in what I’m doing, like you said, making sense of something and making it clear, and re-presenting it, that makes the whole world like a library, and makes you the curator of that library as an artist to bring it to people.
I would describe some of Harrell’s art as poetical action art, and I also describe Harrell’s art as coming from institutional critique. Watching a professional artist manage the context of their work through their words, through what they talk about and what they don’t in given situations, is fascinating. Harrell is presenting the world to itself, and trying to pin that down, that’s why it’s art. I think Harrell’s bias is towards documentary, towards using social practice to humanize — and this is my language, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say this— but I believe myself that we are in an era of awakening to humanity, especially in the West. For me, Harrell’s art represents this huge philosophical shift of recognizing the connections we have to each other, to the institutions around us, to our work, to our life. Social practice is being connected to everyday life. That’s huge for me; you can see that in my work before I met him, and you can see how meeting him and doing the program was just a total license to ill. I did 40 projects in the two years I was there. It was two of the best years of my life. I always say that to people, because I felt really nurtured to do that.
Becca: How does your background in graphic design serve and inform your social art making?
Avalon: I was always interested in how I could use graphic design to get other people to participate in it. It’s an art form that’s very interested in communicating with the audience. Design often incorporates words, that’s one of the definitions of design, right? It’s art with words. So that relationship is always there. The design problem for me was, how can I use design to get people to interact with me? I think one of the great things that comes out of social practice is an emotional intimacy that’s not possible in other forms. It can be, but maybe it just opens it up to a range of experiences that you can’t find through other mediums.
Becca: So now, years out of the program and having been in the inaugural class, how do you explain social practice to people? How do you talk about social practice out in the world?
Avalon: I tend to call it social art. And I have a hard time. I have a hard time explaining social art to people. I don’t even get to social practice because I just have to say, you know, it’s art that involves working with people. And sometimes it’s public art, but it doesn’t have to be public art. That’s what I end up saying.
Becca: I’ve also chosen to use the term “social art,” because I think it actually does the job of plainly describing what it is more than “social practice” does. “Practice,” I think, confuses people who don’t run in art circles or something.
To what do you attribute the social nature of your art making in the first place? Why is that interesting to you as a central component?
Avalon: I like what Harrell said about it one time, and I’ll also say my version: “At some point, I discovered that I wasn’t that interesting.” At some point, I realized that what was going on around me was way more interesting than what I was going to find in myself. Now I say that only as a reaction to what we were taught art was, which is you have to reinvent the wheel, it all has to come from you, it’s the myth of originality. And we all know mastery is actually mimesis and copying very well until you find your own voice. And then what’s your own voice, but a way to advertise emotions? To be a part of something? It’s such a great question: why be social?
Becca: When your art is social, is your social artful? How is your art making integrated into your daily life? And your daily life integrated into your art making?
Avalon: I want to keep [the readers] very interested, so I’m gonna drop another big quote. So a really well known and beautiful poetic action artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles from New York, came to PSU and she gave me a huge compliment when she was answering someone’s question. A friend of mine, a student at PSU who was an undergrad, Roselle Medina said, “What do you see is the future of the city and us being in the city? How can we reimagine the city?” Her answer was, “We must reimagine our relationship to the city. We must reimagine what a city can be. Just like in Avalon’s art, we mark the world by looking at it.” My heart exploded, my head exploded. I felt so seen and appreciated in that moment. Someone had shown a video that I had made about looking at the world. It was about seeing things that aren’t there, that are kind of there. I think you can apply that to everything that the artist is doing who is involved in everyday life. I would say it is a constant invitation. My ideal would be to wake up and walk around my neighborhood with a camera, and to come back and to make a book, or post something or make a video, or have a symposium or have an event at my house. I hope everyday to be able to do that.
Becca: I see this thread between your practice of deep looking, observation and noticing, and your spiritual life— which seems really active, I gather you have a strong meditation practice— and the documentary nature of your art projects. So I’m wondering how you identify a project inside of these daily ways of seeing and experiencing and how you turn your curiosity into a tangible idea?
Avalon: That deep looking practice was a way for me to synthesize the practice that I had that produced my art. My wife Posie really helped me to create the context so I could understand what was happening. I did the Walking School in 2016, and the Walking School is also a practice that involves what I’m now calling “deep looking.” Deep looking is based on the idea of deep listening, but for all beauty. The word “looking” doesn’t even quite do it, so I might have to change it. Pauline Oliveros coined the term deep listening after she released an album with some friends called Deep Listening. And the way she puts it is so amazing, she says that deep listening is a way to have beautiful experiences with sound wherever you are, by dreaming, by feeling, through listening, where your feet can become your ears, for example. I really resonate with this. I read The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Rancierre, and in that book, he says, the three questions an emancipated intellectual asks are: What is it? What do I think of it? And what do I make of it? I love this idea that there could be a recipe to just engage in something. So I wanted to share this as a practice, because that’s what was happening to me way back when I was walking through Portland and documenting graffiti removal, and putting that into zines. Deep looking has been a way for me to keep engaging in that as a practice and it marries really nicely with documentary art. My ideal would be, every time I engage a work of art, I have some aspect of everyday life included with it. I’m heavily invested in art and creativity in everyday life. And that’s okay that not everybody is, and I don’t think we should make social practice synonymous with art in everyday life. That’s not fair to everybody and it wouldn’t make sense, because social engagement has a wide range. But that’s really, really huge for me.
Becca: So making documentary art is how you catalog the everyday?
Avalon: I obsessively like to put very intuitive things into sensible situations, because it’s a marvel. And that’s what happens when you make a work of art, it’s something you can marvel at, even by stepping back from it, isn’t it? As artists, we want to be engaging with something that keeps going in some way. If I’m going to share, I have to invest time into the “what.” That’s evolving for me as an artist, I think it does with a lot of us, especially who have a range. It’s a problem for people who have a range. Now the opposite problem for someone who’s focused on a craft is, well, where’s my range? And then the problem with us is, I have a range, where’s this going to go? How can I present this? So the solution has been to create a practice that synthesizes these, and it’s still going.
Becca: I was curious about where your work is showing up presentationally these days. Because I’ve really only seen it in this compilation that you published of your student works in 2015, and also the documentation of your graduate exhibition, which, from what I can tell from the photographs, it looked like you kind of transposed and magnified all of these fine details from the cafe where you were an artist in residence into the gallery. I thought that was a really effective formalization of the time you spent there as an AIR. What are you working on right now?
Avalon: Before I answer that, and I have some that have happened lately that I want to share with you and the readers, and they can see some of the stuff and read some of the stuff. But first, I wanted to say that we can use this interview to do a short art project, if you’d like, I have a project that is based on a word game. Actually, this would be the only time that it had ever been performed publicly, if you’d like to do it. It was created by Norina Beck and myself. And it’s a word game, it’s very easy to play. And you can take this project with you wherever you go. And anybody who reads this can do this. So would you like to do that now?
Avalon: I can answer the question. Then we’ll do the game. I was interviewed by The Stranger, which is Seattle’s main alternative weekly, four months ago about graffiti removal. I think people will appreciate that I was approached as an artist by a newspaper. And then I wrote an article for the Goethe Institut not too long ago about graffiti removal. This idea that everything we do has artistic merit is distinctly charming. Me and you could talk a long time about art, because the sensuous quality of art, I see that in your work, and also the transformational quality of sensuousness. And that’s kind of orbiting around the moment of the artists in the world, because it’s really sublime to do that. There’s that relational moment that can’t happen in other places. The documentary art is really to share that with people. That’s how people end up finding my work. Ideally, I would be an artist that was known to be spread through friendship. That’s what the situationists did, where they used to give their magazine for free by randomly selecting numbers and addresses— the whole sense of art really belonging to us. It doesn’t belong to the art world people. Art belongs to us.
Becca: You were going to introduce this word game.
Avalon: So this word game was created by my friend Norina. It’s a perfect game to play when you’re making food with someone. Breakfast, dinner. There’s two games: one is “Opposite of…” and the other is called “Is Like…” “Opposite of…” is where you say something, and then the other person says, “That thing that you just said is the opposite of…” and then they say something else. Then you take that and you say, that thing that they just said is the opposite of, and you say something else. So, you’ll see the fun of this game is that anything can happen. And actually, the less accurate, the more interesting and poetical the game becomes. One example would be a tree. And then someone might say, the opposite of a tree is roots, right? That’s very physical. And then someone would say, well, the opposite of roots is… today. And then another person could say, well, the opposite of today is timelessness. So it just goes wherever you want to go every time you do it. So do you want to try it?
Becca: Yeah, let’s try it.
Avalon: I’ll start with: walls. Now you have to say “the opposite of walls…”
Becca: The opposite of walls are… fields.
Avalon: The opposite of fields is… pine cone.
Becca: The opposite of a pine cone is… a dew drop.
Avalon: Beautiful. The opposite of the dew drop is a ray of light.
Becca: The opposite of a ray of light is a piece of coal.
Avalon: The opposite of a piece of coal is a train locomotive.
Becca: The opposite of a train locomotive is complete stillness.
Avalon: Beautiful. The opposite of complete stillness is American politics. [both laugh]
Becca: The opposite of American politics is…
Avalon: I’m so sorry for invoking them.
Becca: … Pure atmosphere.
Avalon: Yeah, pure atmosphere. Pure atmosphere is the opposite of… we’re stumping each other on this one. I gotta get out of this one. The opposite of pure atmosphere is… a carpet asking you to sit on it.
Becca: The opposite of carpet asking you to sit on it is… a surface that says nothing at all.
Avalon: So you can see this is a fun game. It’s just inviting you into metaphorical crossroads together, and the funny thing is, you can move around from being literal to funny to poetical to, you know, all of a sudden, something comes out of nowhere, and it’s just exciting and funny.
Becca: That’s great. I’ll introduce that into the program, I think people will get a kick out of it.
Avalon: I always thought this was a wonderful little work, because it’s something like a social work, you can pick it up wherever you are. Anyone can do it. In a way, it doesn’t exist unless you do it, which I also like… I think Norina probably invented it, and I was the artist who was like, this is an art project.
Becca: That’s one of the things that inspires me about your work is, what you just said, it doesn’t exist unless you do it. It’s a bold act to decide that something is art, and not many people would construe a kitchen game while you’re preparing dinner into an art piece, but by saying so, it makes it one. Do you have any thoughts about the way certain social projects of yours function as a kind of framework to pursue and explore relationships with other people?
Avalon: I am fascinated by the question because I’m worried about the antisocial nature of consumerist society. I’d never really dreamed that social practice would be a revolutionary act. And I’m afraid it might happen. I’m not too afraid, though, don’t worry. What I love about social practice is, I think it’s a tendency in art. The question for me exists in a space where we’re invited down the path of technocracy and VR, interacting through media. What I’m attracted to is to be together in ways that there’s live feedback in the live world. For me, social art is about the agency to give and ask and care about that question. To say, what does it mean that I’m even asking that? What’s my relationship here to the world? So the question is, what’s my relationship through my art? What’s my relationship to others and what’s my relationship to myself becomes what’s my relationship to the world? And this brings us back to my deep philosophical idea that we are all connected, everything’s connected, and we’re living in a time that literally doesn’t understand that, that’s still holding on to this Cartesian logic that believes things can be discreetly separated in a mechanical universe. And that’s all been debunked, but we’re still there as a culture. We’re waking up to reality, which is also an ancient reality. Can I use art to pursue a relationship? I’m like, oh God, yeah. Because the art process is a way for me to do that, isn’t it? I want to sit on that question forever.
Becca: Do you feel a connection between your spiritual life and your art making? Is there a direct line there for you, in how you approach it?
Avalon: Yeah, because spiritual life for me is quite simple. What I’ve noticed about my work is—and this is what you see all the time with your cohorts and other artists and yourself— this art is fundamentally about me being in the world and my relationship to being in the world and my relationship to the world. For me, it’s just that simple. I remember Harrell half-jokingly talking about this one time with me. He had some really ridiculous scale that he started off really small, and he was like, “And this thing is just advertising this thing and that thing is really just advertising that thing,” and I think he might have said something like, “Well you know, the flower’s advertising colors and petals,” and he went all the way out to like the whole universe, you know, it’s just advertising this universe really. It was hilarious. And it’s so true. Spirituality for me is being here with you, it’s just being alive and knowing that that is more important than how I appear, or what I produce.
In the city, the secular cities and institutions, people hate the spiritual stuff, because there’s so much baggage with spirituality and religion has been abusive, really, right? So I get it, I get the reaction against spirituality. But the truth is, spirit is a word for the profound experience of being alive. You could say, “profound emotional and psychological experiences,” or you could just say, spirit.
Becca: Do you have any favorite quotes to share?
Avalon: This is from way back. Here’s a good one. Paul Klee, he said— and social practice really understands this: “Art does not make visible things. Art makes things visible.”
Becca: Wow. Yes, noticing is an artform in and of itself. Art is like one big arrow.
Avalon: I love it. And so there was an introduction written by Sibyl Moholy Nagy for this Paul Klee book, Pedagogical Sketchbook, and she quoted [the poet] Novalis and I’ve never found this quote anywhere else: “Give sense to the vulgar. Give mysteriousness to the common. Give the dignity of the unknown to the obvious. And a trace of infinity to the temporal.”
Becca: Are these guiding lights for you in your own work?
Avalon: Oh my god, yeah, this quote just resonates so much with me. I can just meditate on this as what’s happening in the art that I love… It really comes down to, what’s alive for you right now? What’s alive for me is “give sense to the vulgar.” Because, first of all, what’s vulgar? What does that mean? Disgust is a powerful emotion. It’s almost autonomic. Don’t think anybody’s above it. Everybody has something that’s vulgar to them or that they’re disgusted with. So the idea of “give sense to the vulgar” is very interesting.
Becca: “Give sense to it.” Like, name it, notice it, realize what’s there and what are you pushing up against, what feels challenging or repulsive… And what kind of indoctrination is involved in that, or subjective felt experience.
Avalon: Yeah. So bringing that awareness in, that’s what poetic documentary art gives me a chance to do. I am so grateful meeting someone like you who sees the range of my work, you know, who sees the different things as being valuable, because some people will see one thing or the other, but seeing multiple things, it’s like, Oh, I see what you’re on about. I took pictures of the lights in the PSU library. They were beautiful to me. I took the photographs and I printed the photographs and I put that in the book. To me, that’s the “dignity of the unknown to the obvious.” Literally, let’s bring lights into this photograph. Everytime I walked in the stairwell, the invisible was being spotlighted, in that sense. But I ended up going into the spotlight by taking pictures of them, I guess. It’s like the artist is carrying around a lamp, and the art is a way for them to bring that lamp space back to other people. It’s very interesting, because when you start to separate, well, where does life end, and art begin? That’s really what’s happening.
Honestly, the staying power of this stuff is its subjective value, its poetic value. For me, the real value is talking about the stuff that we’re talking about. As somebody who’s been through the program and looking from the outside, or anybody who’s reading this, it’s the meaningful experiences that are the purpose of the work.
Avalon Kalin (he/him) is a graphic artist who makes documentary and social art connected to everyday life. He is the co-author of “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal” film produced by Matt Mccormick and he studied under the first Social Practice MFA program with Harrell Fletcher and Jen Delos Reyes at Portland State University. His work has shown in institutions and perhaps more importantly between friends. He collaborates with his wife Posie Kalin designing installations and products. Recently, he founded The Walking School. Find more about his work at avalonkalin.com. Recent shows and projects are on instagram @avalonkalinworks, and you can read and subscribe to his newsletter, Deep Looking, at http://deeplooking.substack.com/
Becca Kauffman (they/them) is a social artist based in Portland, OR and Queens, NY practicing art as a public utility through interactive performance, devised gatherings, and neighborhood interventions. Their work has taken the form of an unsanctioned artist residency in Times Square, a public access television show, T-shirts functioning as conversation pieces, a pedestrian parade with a group of fifth grade crossing guards, and the persona-driven musical performance art project Jennifer Vanilla. A member of the experimental Brooklyn band Ava Luna for ten years, Becca is currently an MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. You can listen to their new Jennifer Vanilla album Castle in the Sky wherever you find music. @pedestrianvision @jennifervanilla
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