Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen in conversation with Zachary Gough



Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen are people who structure their lives around reading, writing, talking, making art, and imagining things with their son. They currently live, work, and play in Portland, Oregon, where they are wondering how to invent new realisms.

April 27th, 2013

ZG: How did you come to be showing with Jane at PDX Contemporary?

RP: When I first moved to Portland I started going to galleries and she was the only gallerist who would come out and talk to me, not that I was trying to show there or anything.  She was somebody who genuinely loves art.

AG: She loves talking to people too.

RP: The first time I went in there she talked to me for an hour.  And I’m a kid, right, in shabby clothes and everything, she knew I wasn’t going to buy anything.  Later, when we started doing mail projects, we put her on the list because we thought she was an interesting person. And she took notice, she also listened to the other artists who she was representing at the time, who had become friends of ours and they put the bug in her ear I think.

ZG: Do you find that, to a certain extent, anything you offer up to her has this understanding that part of how it’s made takes into consideration the idea that it will be sold?

AG: Not always.  With the first solo show we had there, The Classroom, we were a lot more conscious about that.  We had just finished the program at PSU and were thinking a lot about education, and so we did things like design a 16-week course, wrote a syllabus, and a designed/wrote a 300-page reader, which we tried to sell in the gallery.  So what you saw on the wall was a framed copy of the syllabus and the bound reader.  Our thinking initially wasn’t to offer it in a gallery, but then the opportunity to play with the conventions of commodity and gallery space seemed interesting. We were thinking how awkward but exciting it would be if a collector bought private tutelage, or group of collectors could form a small class, or a university could buy it, I guess.  Artists like Joseph Bueys or even Harrell Fletcher talk about teaching as their art practice, so what if we push that claim and try to sell it in the same framework as a traditional art object might enter the economy.

RP:  What we were trying to do, by developing and selling a course, and alongside it in the show, to offer free ‘classes’ in the gallery on saturdays was to operate a sort of inversion. We were thinking that to sell commercially the bit that looks like academic coursework is to point to the increased commercialization and financialization of learning and to offer free saturday ‘classes’ in a space that is recognized as blue chip, art market space is to possibly demonstrate what might be done about it.

AG: I think what’s interesting about both of those things is that what they alternatively did was show that you can’t buy and sell an education, because the actual learning is an immaterial thing that you can’t find an equivalent for in dollar amount.  And equally so, you think about the gallery as this commercial zone which is totally tied up in capitalism, but it’s actually one of the few places you can go and see high quality art for free with no expectation that you purchase it or pay admission.

RP: Well, we also have to make use of private spaces because there’s no commons left. We have to re-communize privatized space. We imagine a commons that can move. We might possibly to be able to imagine institutions that also move.  That is, they don’t fix themselves to a space or an idea and become immobile, existing to preserve only themselves and their relationships to these spaces and ideas.

RP: I mean we are anti-capitalist.

ZG: How does that work, how do you sell anti-capitalist work?

RP: We are not idealist.  We are not pure or stuck on being pure.  Well, we also live in a world.  So we try to problematize what we’re selling.

AG: I also think that anti-capitalist notions sell really well, especially in the art world.

ZG: Isn’t that inherently a contradiction?

RP: Yes. Antinomies are everywhere. Capitalism has been described as a moving contradiction. Also, our pieces that present themselves more in the language of critique rarely sell. But its all woven in I think.  We make very tame, smooth work a lot of the time more about the ways we come to and through knowledge, reading and writing etc. but I think we try to slip this other strain of thinking underneath, or behind it.

AG: Also, what’s with the obsession with purity? Nobody is outside and not implicated in the system of global capitalism to some degree.  What’s the expectation that if the artist is making a critique that they are somehow objective or without contradiction? It’s unrealistic. I don’t know if I would want to listen to that kind of artist.

RP: How do you forward a critique or an alternative when you’ve disappeared? What’s the point of making a critique if you’re off the grid? And that seems like what you would have to do if you didn’t want to live with compromise. We’re incredibly implicated in the system.  We teach at a University; we participate in the art market; we shop at grocery stores; we pay rent to a landlord.

AG: Those internalized contradictions that we all have to live with are numerous and interesting.  Lamentable, but interesting.  What is this journal topic?

ZG: Paradoxes and Loopholes.  Loopholes came up as ways to get out of paradigms.  But also as a way of interacting in this current society.  It’s almost a redundant question.  Everyone needs to navigate loopholes to some extent.  If you’re a non-profit and you’re swimming upstream, trying to get something done that doesn’t fit in the capitalist framework, you almost have to find these creative ways of surviving in the world.

AG: We talk about that. We’re artists and we’re trying to find ways to be resourceful and survive. (We could be more imaginative in this respect I think.) But if we really want good role models for loopholes, we should look up to the men and women in the boardroom.

ZG: Like that’s what they do too.

AG: Fuck yeah! That’s the whole thing.

ZG: It’s so funny, loopholes becomes not this random small thing that happens once in awhile if you’re really sneaky, but it’s how everything works.

AG: It’s the permanent state of exception. Look at the Keystone pipeline or the Grand jury resistors, it’s all details.  Just redraw a tiny line on the map and then, the problem is solved.  We’re all using similar tactics, we just don’t have the same amount of resources.

RP: I want to emphasize that not everything we do is in the vein of capitalist critique.  We do a lot of work around books.  We’re really interested in how imagination works, how things are translated in our minds, the experience of submersion in a text and then the process of exporting that author’s subjectivity and voice into your lived experience.  And I don’t think that’s necessarily a partisan political stance, it can have that aspect to it, but the impulse isn’t a partisan political impulse.  And that stuff sells.  It’s easy to sell it.  And if I don’t have to go into wage labor, I’ll do it.

RP: I’m sure you’ve noticed this obsession with the creative class in the last 10, 15 years.  What we see, or what I see is that with the rise of “creativity” comes the death of the imagination.  The way that creativity exists in rhetoric now it’s so tied to technological innovation and a productivist attitude.  It has to be a productive creativity, there has to be something that comes out of it.  But let’s just stop and imagine new worlds, we don’t have to manifest them immediately.  There’s a potency to imagination that can lead to creativity, but creativity should not be the end goal.

AG: We’ve also seen all these technologies democratized. So many people have video editing software, and all these creative tools for broadcasting and visualizing their daily life.  And it seems that there’s this blossoming of creativity, looking at youtube – people are so amazing (and so boring).  But it seems that people are just reordering things within a standard frame.  Creativity has been standardized.

We got involved in this reading group at the end of last summer and the first text we read was called The Problem with Work, (Kathi Weeks) which is an amazing marxist/feminist critique of the work ethic in the United States.  The last chapter is all about how to develop post-work imaginaries.  She looked at the history of utopian forms, people like Thomas More who wrote Utopia and other science-fiction authors, but also other writers who were writing about the politics of hope.  Imagination started becoming super interesting.  Concurrently, we started watching our son, Calder, who has the most amazing imagination ever, and realized our own intense deficiency in that department.

ZG: Do you two do exercises, or do you just watch him and are like, ‘wow, I want to do that too’?

AG: We should start doing exercises.

ZG: How do you cultivate imagination?  I mean, I don’t think I even thought of creativity and imagination as separate, but of course they are.

AG: I like the idea of imagination exercises.

ZG: We should come up with an exercise right now.


RP: It’s hard, imagine that.

AG: It reminds me of Tom Friedman, he kept going into his studio and would stare at a white wall for an hour, or a certain amount of time everyday, but that’s all he did in his studio.  Just forcing it on yourself, maybe?

ZG: I feel writing is a good tool for imagination.

AG: What about making it communal?  That seems really important – public imagination.  Because what we’re talking about isn’t individual reverie necessarily.  We’re talking about how to actually imagine something a different normative structure that’s feasibly put into action, and maybe even comfortably put into action.  I feel like I can imagine lots of things, but am I actually going to do them?

ZG: But those are different things.  Isn’t the beauty of a good imagination that it doesn’t have to be possible? It’s not tied to that.  Or is that not worth imagining.

RP: I think the thing is that we don’t even know what’s possible, because we’re so colonized by what we believe is possible.  And that’s I think part of the problem.  Maybe if enough of us had imaginative wondering ways it could create new possibilities, and a new kind of creativity that is not Wieden and Kennedy telling us what shit we want.

ZG: So we almost need a situation where you’re free to imagine whatever you want, and it doesn’t have to be functional, but in the back of our minds knowing that maybe we will find something that will be of use to us.  But that’s not the goal.

AG: Yes, a strategy that is indirect.

RP: Going back to Utopia, it’s interesting that it’s become a bad word.  That’s problematic to me. The writer David Graeber has this line “the problem with utopia is having only one”.  Like if we had millions, that would be amazing.  What would come out of millions of Utopias?

AG: The other thing I took away from the Kathi Week’s book was that when she was talking about utopias, and utopias created in literature and art and things, she was really critiquing utopias that are blueprints.  And she valorized ambiguous utopias.  Imaginative projects that start out not knowing what they are going to be, that have necessary holes in them.

AG: This has made me want to take notes on Calder’s play.  The other thing that’s interesting to me, and maybe useful for developing structure for imaginative exercises: for him, there are certain things that can be pretend, and there are certain things that cannot.  But for us, those rules are really hard to determine.  He obviously has changing notions of what realism is.  So how do you establish, or destabilize the real before you attempt to have these imaginative exercises?

RP: So, this is a bamboo stick with a bit of blue tape on it.  Today it’s a sledge hammer, yesterday it was an oar, and a magic wand.  But you can’t revisit it as the object it was.  Like tomorrow I can’t say “ok, give me the sledge hammer,” he’ll be like “we don’t have a sledge hammer”.  This might not be that same object ever again.

ZG: Does he remember it as having been once a sledge hammer?

RP: Yeah.  He’ll be like “papa, it’s not that anymore!”

AG: “Get with it”.  That whole thing of objects is really interesting too. And that’s why I’m still compelled to make objects.  We could go all day without having toys, but he always is looking for something tactile to turn into something else.

ZG: I once took a philosophy class, philosophy of aesthetics, and play came up, and we were trying to figure out what play is, and we came to this understanding that in order for play to happen, the rules have to be in flux.  Like just playing soccer is not play, but if you say “ok, now everyone can play with their hands too”, or instead of having two nets you have three nets and three teams.  It’s like those drinking card games where the winner of the round gets to make up a new rule, if you play the seven you have to take three shots or whatever.

AG:  That seems really useful to think about in terms of play and imagination.  In terms of thinking of alternative public space, it has to function like that.  That’s where institutions become so problematic, when their rules can’t change and they can’t play any more.

RP: The institution becomes a self-preserving island.  It loses all use value.

AG: So how do we make an imaginative exercise?

RP: It’s almost like that’s it.  Imagine an imaginative exercise.

ZG: If we can’t do that, our imaginations are weak.  What about imagining three interesting conversations.  Because it needs to be a chain of events.  It’s a back and forth thing, where you need multiple influences that change the outcome of the situation.  You can’t just imagine one thing, you need to imagine a set of parameters that define the outcome.  It’s kind of the creative process.

AG: Do you mean having a conversation with someone who’s not there?

ZG: A really great conversation is nice because you can’t have it alone.  So how do you imagine a nice conversation? You need to have factors, or understand these characters and their motivations, so that that can lead to this situation that you wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.

AG: That’s also a really good imaginative exercise because it makes you realize how multiple you could be, or are already. It reminds me of something we were reading about the literary device of apostrophe–the moments in literature where a character suddenly breaks into something like “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!” addressing some absent person, or idea, or thing or form. The character is having a projective conversation, ‘free indirect discourse’ is how it was talked about in the text.

ZG: Here’s one: Ok, you’re in a group of three and each person imagines a character, and where they are in their life.  And these three characters have a dinner party or something.  Then individually, each player writes a story of how the conversation goes over the course of the dinner, and you come back together and you have three different stories, three different characters, three different situations.

AG: That sounds like a real-time event.

ZG: You could do it over dinner.  And you could do it quickly, like once you have your characters, you have ten minutes to think up a scenario, then you share and do it again.

RP: But building on the previous scenario? Like what you said, it’s this thing that takes multiple partners, to make it really good.  It’s revelatory, because it’s not all in your head.  You hear something and it changes how you were thinking about the thing.

ZG: So you really need to be in a listening space.

AG: It’s a little bit like an improv prop exercise.  But doing a similar structure, where everyone gets an object and there are no rules beyond that, just imagine a sculpture or a story or something.  Having something to grasp onto, another person, or a site or an object seems useful.  …  I read a really amazing article in our contemporary theory class in undergrad called Spontaneity by Keith Johnstone, theatre theory dude or actor I think. It was about play and how important it is in improv just to say ‘yes’.  To say yes to your own impulses and those of others, just in general to embody a spirit of yesness.

RP: The spirit of saying yes is also really scary.

AG: Especially since we’re interested in strategies of creative refusal.  Saying ‘no’ to work, or saying ‘no’ to productivist values that we’ve internalized. And this becomes important looking at the idea of immaterial labor which has been described by a number of theorists and has resonated in the art world, because of the nature of creative work I think. But, in their formulation work and labor have fundamentally changed. Our labor has been largely intellectualized, made flexible, and through devices like cell phones and social media a full-time/anywhere/on/off-the-clock kind of endeavor, therefore organization and solidarity among workers is fractured, there is nothing common to leverage or organize around, the only thing one has is the strategy of refusal–to retract your labor.  Saying no is the only thing that a lot of people have left in terms of protest.  Looking at Guantanamo, it’s fucking insane that the only thing they can do is not eat, and they aren’t even allowed to do that.