I lost my grandfather earlier this year and have since been navigating the complex layers of grief. After returning to work following my bereavement leave, I had a conversation with my coworker, Amy Bay, from Northwest Academy, where I serve as the Dean of Students. We discussed my desire to honor my grandfather’s memory by using his belongings to create something meaningful. Amy mentioned the work of Jodie Cavalier, who explores grief by incorporating her grandfather’s items into her pieces. Jodie’s exhibition, titled “Fool’s Gold,” was showcased at Holding Contemporary. I found Jodie’s work inspiring and was intrigued by her approach to grief. I wanted to have a conversation with her to gain a better understanding of her artistic practice and her relationship with grief. This conversation brought me comfort, as it allowed me to explore different ways of processing grief that aligned with my own experience within my family.
Kiara Walls: How are you?
Jodie Cavalier: I am doing okay. I have had a pretty rough year losing a lot of elders, so I feel I’m in the beginning and middle of multiple grieving processes. So it’s been a heavy start to this new year.
Kiara: Yeah. I can imagine. I resonate with that too. I’ve recently lost my grandfather over winter break, which has been my first close experience to grief. How have you been processing your grief? Because, you know, a lot of people refer to grief as a layer of an onion.
Jodie: I feel my onion has another audience that has grown inside of it. I think that when my grandfather died, it was very abrupt, even though he was older. He died from Covid, so the whole weight of the pandemic and all of those fears manifested in something. I think that people who have lost someone during the pandemic have maybe a different relationship to it because of that. I hadn’t really thought of that. Maybe that is part of the onion of grief, collective grief,around the pandemic. I do feel I started to process some of that when I was going through some of his stuff and then I was hit with both of my grandmothers dying in the last year, pretty close together. So it just kind of piled up in a way. I think I’m in the very beginning of it and trying to figure out what processing that is. I think that it’s so different for everyone and I don’t know what it is for me quite yet.
Kiara: I totally feel that. It also resonates with me what you were saying about how different people are experiencing grief at the same time, with Covid. That makes me think of the phrase “six degrees of separation,” but six degrees of grief and how we are connected in that way. I was actually introduced to your work through a coworker of mine over at Northwest Academy, Amy Bay. We were talking to each other about my grandfather’s passing. I was telling her about how I’m interested in collecting his items and somehow doing something with them. Then she told me about your work and your show at Holding Contemporary. I was really interested in your work and wanted to talk to you about your practice. I’m interested in hearing more about what helped you through this experience of grief and what your understanding looks like for you and how you process it.
Jodie: It was a natural kind of progression to make work about my grandfather in general. I actually made work about him before, when I was younger.
Kiara: What was that work of?
Jodie: That work was a lot about the body and when the body begins to fail. He had some health concerns and he had parts of his leg amputated because he had diabetes. I was really thinking about aging and the body and this kind of promise we think the body makes to us, and then breaks. We’re in this together and then our body starts to fall apart and you just feel betrayed by your own body. I think a lot of my work is really kind of based and seeped in the human condition. A big part of that for me and my lived experience is the relationships I make with other humans and even more specifically the relationships I have with my family. That has come through in the work for a long time in different ways. Some work is more overt than others. It came about pretty naturally to start to make work about or around him, ideas of grief, familial things, all of that kind of just came together. I was in conversation with Holding Gallery for years before we did the show, “Fool’s Gold,” together. I just didn’t feel what I was working on made sense in a gallery at that time. When they first approached me, I was doing a lot of community organizing projects and food projects. I don’t have a need for showing that for authoring the community work I was doing; the priority was different. When I started to make work that was more physical, fine art type objects, we revisited the conversation around having a show. I didn’t really think about it as processing of my grief. Now I think about everything as processing grief, in some way. But at that time I was just kind of going through the motions of remembering him in specific stories and his personality, and then going back to my grandparents’ house and taking random objects and remembering things from them. Then it kind of started to accumulate and just thinking about some of the things he believed in and hoped for, and all of those started to surface in a way where I was, I started having more fun with it. He would get a kick out of some of the things that I was making and messing around with, and whatnot. He was always a supporter of weird creative endeavors. He didn’t understand them, but was just supportive of them. I wish I could have shared with him some of the things I made. I think he would’ve got a kick out of it.
I made a lot of work and then kind of put it into a book form because I wanted to have them hold a different space. There’s a lot of writing that I had been doing for several years about my family, specifically my grandparents, but I wanted to have a place for those to exist alongside the objects. It was really fun. I got to work with Holding Contemporary and, and one of their designers, who is amazing. She basically just donates her time and service to working with Holding. She has a design job with a couple of other folks called Omnivore. Her name’s Karen Sue, we went back and forth with all of these kinds of ideas on how to put the book together so it didn’t just feel like another publication. We put a lot of thought and process behind everything.
Kiara: Yeah. This was beautiful (looking at the publication).
Jodie: Thank you.
Kiara: Was this at your exhibition opening?
Jodie: It was at the end. So we didn’t have a formal opening and instead we had a closing and book release towards the end of the exhibition. I was working on it alongside all the work, but in order to get the exhibition documentation photos, we waited until the exhibition was fully up and finished the design afterwards. My friend, Joanne Handwerg, wrote a really thoughtful introduction piece about absence and longing.
Kiara: I can see some of those details designed in the book. I’m wondering, on some of the pages we see the object and then on the page right next to it, there’s nothing there. Is that speaking to some of the themes around absence?
Jodie: Those two pages where there’s the image of the artwork and then next to it there’s a high contrast absence of the image. We talked a lot about ghosts and ghost images. Then also just the impression, something leaves too. There were a lot of really great conversations I was able to have where there were some aesthetic technical decisions, but they were all made from a conceptual and poetic place. It was fun to talk through what it means to have a certain kind of decision that impacts the reader and even things like paper choice and what that feels like. There’s also a clear film that also mimics that ghost quality.
Kiara: This is beautiful. It sounds like your process or approach with this body of work was an aesthetic approach, but also a theoretical approach, like bringing the ghost aspect into the work. I think the way that you present it is really amazing because from being the reader, I could sense some of what you were saying just now within this. Have you thought about where the work could live in the future? Once you’ve done this show, have you thought about presenting the work in other places? Or how do you feel about it being presented in other places?
Jodie: I’m definitely open to that.
Jodie: Yeah, they have lives, I think, where they exist in this one wave and then in book form. I was also pondering how objects could possess autonomy and be strong enough to exist outside of the exhibition. I’m not opposed to any of that. I have a practice, especially with object making, where I often Frankenstein old pieces together. I was brought up to be resourceful, so sometimes I take a piece apart and turn it into something else. I haven’t done that with any of these works, and I don’t know if I will, but I try not to be overly precious about some of the things. I think they have their own why, so why not.
Kiara: You said you don’t want to be overly…
Jodie: Precious, yeah.
Kiara: And you don’t.
Jodie:If I needed to use the base of this sculpture for something else and didn’t have the resources to make a new one, I would just have to make the decision to use it, you know? I also think that, for a lot of reasons, I haven’t had the luxury of having a place to store all these things. Maybe a storage unit or something, but I don’t want to end up with a huge collection of objects I’ve made just sitting there. It would be much better for people who enjoy and find meaning in them to have them. And many people do. That’s also why my work often fluctuates between objects and non-object forms, or even prints and works on paper that are easier to distribute or more accessible in that way. I guess I’ll have to think more about it, but right now, I can’t think of anything I would never give away, you know?
Kiara: Yeah, I get that. I believe social practice art could be an avenue where you don’t have to worry about those types of questions because there’s an ephemeral aspect to the practice. Can you talk a bit about how your work incorporates social practice art or share some projects you’ve done in the past that have incorporated social practice?
Jodie: Yeah, I never really thought of myself as a social practice artist, but I’ve had many conversations with other artists and curators where it becomes part of the conversation. I think of it as an intersection between my creative practice and social practice on a spectrum. Artists are probably somewhere on that spectrum of social practice. For me, I’ve been interested in the mundane, the domestic, and the human experience, especially as it relates to my family, storytelling, and narrative strategies. That blurs the lines between my creative practice and my home life, where a lot of what you might call social practice originally occurred, where those lines are blurred. In addition to that, my interest in teaching, cooking, and sharing experiences with others has built up in a way, as well as the community work I’ve done. So now there are different areas where you can say the community work I do is social practice, or the projects where I mail postcards, letters, and other print material, they have a history in that kind of practice. The way I bring those two ways of looking at the world back into the studio ends up being a blurry place where those two things exist. It’s not always clear, but sometimes it fluctuates. Over time, it changes. When I was a young student making a lot of work, I didn’t think about it in relation to the social practice art movement. I saw it as a separate thing, with some intersections with performance and music. Now we have a different language and a lineage of artists coming out of social practice, especially in this city. It’s a bit clearer now. I wonder how I or others might conceptualize or contextualize the work, not just the work I’m making, but the work others are making, in 10 years time. It could become part of that canon or have an offshoot or something like that.
Kiara: Yeah, that’s a really good question, and it’s something to think about. Before I found this program, I wasn’t really aware of social practice either. I believe many people have the capabilities of being a social practice artist based on what they do in their everyday lives. However, they may not formalize their practices in that way simply because not everyone knows about social practice. But I do sense that attention around it is growing, and I’m excited about that too. When I think about social practice, it makes me think about inclusiveness. It feels like a part of the art world or art scene that is more accessible.
Jodie: Yeah. I think that’s another intersection that I’ve thought about for a really long time, which is that I’ve always wanted my work to be accessible to non-artists. I think a big part of that was because I wanted my family to be able to experience my work and not being an artist shouldn’t be a barrier to experiencing it, and understanding it. That doesn’t mean that the work itself can’t be layered and have more theoretical or intellectual themes and experiences and takeaways from it. I think that for me, it’s so important when I’m working with an idea to try to translate it in some way, through objects or whatever installation, that is accessible.
Kiara: Yeah. That makes me think about how earlier in the conversation you were talking about how you were speaking with Holding Contemporary, and you were thinking about the work that you were making at the time, you didn’t necessarily want to formalize your community work in a gallery space. Is that also talking about how you’re translating these things? How do you feel about your role as an artist and when you’re doing social practice projects or events with your community, and how do you formalize those things? What are some thoughts you have around authorship?
Jodie: Yeah. That’s a great question. When I’m doing community work or collaborative work, I’m not interested in authorship. I suppose in a way, it’s important for my collaborators on those projects to share that value. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be aesthetic or considered in those ways but there’s definitely something else to prioritize in those contexts. I worked with Amanda Lee Evans, for example, who had a big project called The Living School. She brought me into work with one of the youths that lived on the site. It wasn’t a formal mentorship, but it was based on the social practice program’s mentorship program. I ended up coming over to work with one of the youth there, Zira, weekly for months. For me, the relationship that we built together around being curious about art, cooking, talking and learning about her and what kids are into,that became the priority, and everything else kind of fell away. I didn’t need to document the work we made or the fact that we were doing this. I remember thinking that I could go through those processes, and that this relationship was also a project, but I didn’t think we needed any more pictures of an artist hanging out with kids. I’m also not one to take a lot of photos,. I think that’s a very specific kind of thing. But for me it’s so much more about experiences than it is about an image or a specific aesthetic or something that might be clearly “Jodi’s work.” When you look at all my projects together, you’re like, oh yeah, there’s an aesthetic at play here.
Kiara: There’s an aesthetic at play?
Jodie: Yeah. There’s an aesthetic maybe at play, but it’s not stylized.
Kiara: I feel the aesthetic could be the experience.
Jodie: Yeah. There’s consistency. Going back to the full school exhibition, people talked so much about how they felt in the space more than they talked about the objects. That didn’t to me mean that the objects weren’t powerful. It was all working together, but it really is so important for me to think about , what people experience and what they walk away with. And so there were so many decisions made in that show to really guide viewers through that. And so, even when you see a wall of a bunch of old stuff, at a certain point you’re not even thinking anymore about it being an art show or a collection of works or what is real and what is old. You start to recognize the feeling of experiencing somebody’s collection of things where the handmade stuff and the real old stuff blend in together at a certain point. And it doesn’t matter anymore because you transcend into experiencing the entire installation as one big thing.
Kiara: I really appreciate that description cuzI’m a visual thinker, so when you’re describing these things, I’m thinking about experiencing the pieces and going through that. I wouldn’t call it a separation, but, out-of-body experience comes to mind because it seems like you’re zooming out, and that it’s bringing in more thoughts and feelings that are not necessarily related to the object or art itself. But those feelings are coming out of that experience looking at this piece of work.
Jodie: Off course I have an experience that I’m attaching to the objects and all of that. But again, there are so many visual cues that lead a viewer to, not necessarily interpretation, but just narrative, because I also think it’s, it is all about storytelling. I think that especially in this show, the objects are all about storytelling. There are lotto scratchers and tools that have been used, and other really handled objects, ceramics and clay that you have to handle and manipulate, so they have their own history. Everything is loaded with meaning and story. And so I’m guiding viewers into that. I’m welcoming them into that and guiding them through it.
Jodie: But I think the more meaningful things that can come out of it is how someone can be reminded of their own personal experience, and maybe their own experience with their elders. And I had a lot of people who were like, Oh my gosh, some of these objects reminded me of my father, my grandfather. Because they are not that special: there’s an old pair of pliers. And to me, those pliers are special because my grandfather held them and used them, but they’re also just anybody’s grandfather’s pliers.
Kiara: Yeah. It reminds them or it resembles something from their elders. Yeah. And I think you’re talking about storytelling, how the object has a story story in itself, but you’re also inviting the viewer to go through their own story by asking what memories are sparked from me looking at this object. And they’re going through that process of remembering. It’s that sentimental value. Although it is a common object, it’s able to spark sentimental value for viewers that are interacting with the work.
Kiara: Yeah. Definitely. This is my last question. Are you working on anything currently that you can share?
Jodie: Oh I’m always working on a bunch of stuff. It’s not all finished, but I had a show in Santa Rosa. I got that work back pretty recently, and so I’ve been unpacking that and figuring things out. I am also going togo back to that similar area in Northern California for a residency later this year. And I’m working on another publication. And I’ve been kind of working on this project in the background for a while now, I guess years now because, you know, the pandemic has warped us into years now.
Kiara: Yes. Definitely.
Jodie: But it is a book that has recipes and prompts and invitations.
Kiara: Hmm. Is it tapping into your interest in Flexis?
Jodie: In some ways, yeah. But it’s also related to the fragment of remembering
Things. Like how a lot of the domestic kinds of tasks that my grandmothers did and what I remember and don’t remember from that time. So it’s in the middle state. It’s not in the beginning cuz I’ve been working on it for a while. But I’m gonna be able to spend some time out at this pretty cool residency and they actually have a really nice cooking setup. So I think what I wanna do is focus my time more on some of the actual food projects that might be included in it. Cuz I have a lot of the other more poetic gestures that might be included. And I need to buckle down and get some of these more practical, straightforward recipes down on paper.
Kiara: That sounds really exciting. I just love and appreciate the fact that you’re creating work for your grandfather and now you’re creating work for your grandmother’s grandmothers, and I think that’s really beautiful. I’m excited to see the publication.
Jodie: Yeah. Thanks. We’ll see what it becomes. I’m excited to spend some uninterrupted time and really turn it into something.
Kiara: Definitely. Yeah. Well, let me know.
Jodie: Will do.
Kiara: Thank you so much for your time.
Jodie: Thank you.
KIARA WALLS (she/her) is a social practice artist, educator, and dean residing in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelors of Art in Graphic Design from California State University of Northridge and a Masters of Fine Arts in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University. Walls’ work explores the layers of Black sovereignty through creating conversations, film, and site-specific installations. Her practice often involves community engagement and collaboration, inviting participants to join in the creation of the work. Walls seeks to engage in dialogue and reflection on themes related to trauma, identity, healing and intimacy. In her project, “The Black Box Experience Series”, Walls’ invites audiences to join the conversation around “What would reparations look like today?” through stepping into an experience other than their own. Walls has completed residencies at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California, and Sunset Art Studios in Dallas,Texas. She was awarded the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art Precipice Grant for her collaborative project “Kitchen”, which explores the relationship between hair and intimacy while centering the experiences of Black clientele and natural hair practitioners. Walls seeks to challenge and disrupt systems of power and oppression while empowering and elevating the voices of marginalized communities.
Jodie Cavalier (she/her) is an artist, educator, and artist administrator living in Portland, Oregon. She earned a BA from the University of California, Berkeley and an MFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been exhibited with Converge 45’s Portland’s Monuments & Memorials Project in Portland, OR; the Schneider Museum in Ashland, OR; the deYoung Museum in San Francisco, CA; the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, CA; CoCA in Seattle, WA; Practice in New York, NY; and Städelschule in Frankfurt, Germany; among others. She has participated in residencies such as ONCA in Brighton, England; the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, UT; Wassaic in Wassaic, NY; and AZ West in Joshua Tree, CA.
Lillyanne Pham with Kim Dürbeck
I’ve focused on offline place-based cultural practices in my past interviews; nevertheless, a large part of my art practice interweaves online and offline neighborhoods. For my last interview this school year, I wanted to highlight the power of digital cultural work, specifically an online neighborhood special to my heart; @vietnamemes__, created by Kim Dürbeck in 2017 on Instagram. Kim is a Norwegian-Vietnamese creative who has brought worldwide Vietnamese communities together through music and memes. The following interview expands on the impact of, the values behind, and possibilities of his memes.
Lillyanne Pham: How did @vietnamemes__ start and how does it function or where does the content come from?
Kim Dürbeck: I started doing memes because I used to work the night shift. It was very boring and I guess I had to be creative. I was chatting with my friend and I decided to make a meme to send to her. It was this meme; my very first meme.
It combines a trend “Netflix and Chill” with a Vietnamese legacy “Paris by Night.” I guess we all have “Paris by Night and Chill.” We all, as Vietnamese diaspora, grew up with the show and we know, “Netflix and Chill.” It kind of makes you feel like home in trending humor. I was very strict about not making fun of us as Southeast Asians, as most memes used to be back then. Humor like… “Only straight A students are Asian” or “All Southeast Asians are doctors and lawyers.” I wanted to focus on nước mắm, all the beautiful culture we have, and then present and combine all the richness of our culture in a Western world.
Lillyanne: Here is a photo of my mom’s reaction to one of the memes you posted. I regularly send them to her but she doesn’t always get it. As you can see, she “disliked” it. What have been the various relationships you’ve made through the memes? What kind of conversations are created around the memes?
Kim: I connected with many Viets who grew up around Europe. We connected because most of us were children from refugees. We all were in the same situation – parents coming to a new country having to start their life over again. Kids being bullied for being different. Everything on a budget. The struggle with growing up with trauma, PTSD, parents yelling at you, social control, different levels of assimilation, violence, saving money, and of course, combining our food habits with everything. Nước mắm all everything.
These topics were the beginning. I started only to get followers from Europe. A lot of people texted me and wrote that they could see themselves in the memes. This encouraged me to go forward and keep making memes. A lot of people texted me like, “Hello, I grew up in a small city outside (a capital city) and I was bullied,” or “My parents never understood me. Thank you for sharing memes. It makes me feel less lonely and understand my culture,” or “It makes me understand,” or “Cherish my culture even more.”
I guess I could find the similar pattern in our second generation by just referring to my own third culture or upbringing. I started to reach an even bigger audience when people started sharing. I reached Paris, Berlin, Canada, America and so on. I even chatted with the Vietnamese diaspora in Latin America and Iceland. Then jokes were, “OMG do you have nước mắm on tacos over there?” or “Iceland is so cold the nước mắm is always frozen around here!”
Then I hit another audience–Vietnamese students studying abroad; a whole new generation of lonely Vietnamese students texting me, “I miss Việt Nam so much and I am here all alone and I can’t go home,” because of Covid or economic reasons. Vietnamese students developing their identity abroad.
Many of these Việts also discover musical or art culture abroad. And I was combining music and memes where I often reach creative Vietnamese people. I try not to use too much of a commercial approach because I want to support the Vietnamese people who don’t get a lot of support from home because their parents never understand what they want to accomplish. For me, it’s very important to be yourself no matter what kind of culture you grew up with. Like, if you are Vietnamese, you could get pushed into studies you really don’t want to go for. Or these unwritten norms about how a Vietnamese person should be. I think it is important to support people to break out of the stereotype and go for alternative art, music or business. I think the humor and memes make this clear subconsciously or obviously, and maybe people can find themselves in the humor that also motivates them to go their own way for personal development.
I used my platform (@vietnamemes__) to discover and promote these individuals. This inspires and motivates more people in either fashion, modeling, music, art or food. I think it is a duty we all should have to support each other and our Vietnamese worldwide community.
Lillyanne: As a traveling artist actively researching different Vietnamese diasporas, what has impacted you most on your ancestral journey?
Kim: As a traveling artist pushing modern Vietnamese culture, I met a lot of people supporting the memepage and community. I was recognized in the streets and in the stores for my meme page and they often mention my music as well. I’m sure my music got more attention because of the meme community. I also developed some kind of aesthetics around the memes. And the way I post combined with my music– I started to get connections and invitations all over the world.
I also push Vietnamese electronic music in my stories and in my videos. So, other Vietnamese people can discover that, if you are Vietnamese, growing up like we all did, going for your dreams, you are not alone. People found each other, started working together, or even building each other. For me, it was so nice to see that there are so many like me all over the world. We understand each other. I think we have been longing to be understood; therefore, we support each other and end up working together somehow. For me, the art of music and DJing has been my platform. So many talented Vietnamese artists that I never would have found if it wasn’t for the community.
Lillyanne: How do technologies (digital or not) fit in your ancestral journey?
Kim: Social media has been everything. I know most Vietnamese people in Việt Nam use Facebook. But, if you are a little more curious, or from the newer generation, they choose Instagram and the next generation, TikTok. Digital has been the ultimate tool to build this community. I don’t think I would reach this level without digital tools. I think I was right on time to make @vietnamemes__ on Instagram when I think about how our second generation grew up and dived into Instagram. There will probably be different platforms where they need a community in the future. Maybe, there will be a metaverse Vietnamese community in 3D in the future where we sit on the floor eating dried squid and listening to Cải lương techno. Who knows?
And humans can’t live on Earth because of nuclear war. So humans travel to different planets. And the Vietnamese human diaspora choose Venus because it’s cheaper and you can grow herbs and fish much easier because of the weather or something. And Venus always has grocery sales in the supermarkets. Maybe Venus becomes the next Vietnamese planet just because Việts adapt so well.
But, without having to joke about this galactic Việt diaspora, I can say that digitally I have connected. Physically, I have traveled to various countries and met people just like me with the same upbringing. We ate together and talked about the same challenges we all had as the Vietnamese diaspora: how hard it can be to understand our parents’ mental health and our mental health and then try to make it work for everybody, how food is our love language and sometimes money but not talking about feelings, how people were bullied in elementary school or at work for being different, or topics about how hard it can be to be gay, or just talking or learning about sex in the Vietnamese community.
After a while, I combined my memes with pictures from google and then people started sending me memes to make it grow bigger. I have a combination of people sending me and creating memes from pictures I find online. Sometimes, I add a funny text or just the picture speaks for itself.
Lillyanne: When I see your memes, I know the references. They are on the tip of my tongue. I often think about how I never would’ve been able to make these connections in one meme. I grew up for eighteen years in a small town without knowing much about Vietnamese people outside of my family. Now, I live in the largest Vietnamese population in the US. But how I experience my culture is always hard for me to explain. What/Who/Where are your influences in shifting Vietnamese humor and music before you started making? And also your influences in your practice?
Kim: The influences came from my own upbringing and what I experienced myself. Vietnamese people are so strong in “doing it our own way.” I guess it brings a lot for us to see and laugh about that. Maybe we think it’s funny because we have both of our feet in the Western and Vietnamese culture. For us, we see a washing machine on a motorbike and we’re shocked, but for them it’s just moving a washing machine. I also follow a lot of Vietnamese accounts because in the beginning when I started the meme account I followed all Vietnamese people I could see on Instagram.
Lillyanne: I love how you talk about being basically a digital cultural worker, shifting how memes are produced about us and how humor can expand conversations on so many levels of our lives. Was this always your intention or did you discover this part of your practice during the process? Do you have plans to grow or change your meme and music practice in the future? Are you experimenting with other mediums or ideas?
Kim: I would say it changes all the time with the trends. My music also changes through time, it has happened before. Yes, I would say that I discovered this part during the process.
Kim Thanh Ngo aka Kim Dürbeck, Born 5 of October 1986. Norwegian-Vietnamese producer, composer and practitioner based in Sandefjord, Norway. Co-runs independent record label LEK REC based in Oslo. Play and produce electronic music like Ambient, urban club music, Experimental club music and scoring commercials or theater.
Lillyanne Phạm (b. 1997; LP/they/bạn/she/em/chị) is a cultural organizer and artist living and working in so-called East Portland. Their personal work centers on ancestral wayfinding, nesting, and communicating. Her current collaborative projects are a queer teen artist residency program at Parkrose High School, a canopy design for Midland Library, and a youth program at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. LP’s work has been supported by Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Mural Arts Institute, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, the City Arts Program – Portland, and the Dorothy Piacentini Endowed Art Scholarship. For more work visit: https://linktr.ee/lillyannepham
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.
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.
Portland based Physical Education (P.E.) is comprised of dance and performance artists keyon gaskin, Allie Hankins, Lu Yim and Takahiro Yamamoto. P.E.’s vision is to offer performance audiences, artists of all mediums and curious individuals, immersive methods of engaging with dance and performance. The group sat down for a fun and enlightening conversations about the origins of P.E., and the role it plays in each of the dancers lives.
Spencer: So to begin, I’m curious to hear how PE started? What is the origin story for the collaboration?
Silence, then everyone bursts out laughing….
Allie: That is pretty much it in a nutshell.
Lu: It started out of conversations in 2013 about wanting and needing to engage with dance and performance more critically during a project that Taka, keyon and I were involved in. We decided to start a reading group and Physical Education was the first name that came up for it. And Allie was like, hey I want to come.
keyon: No, that’s not right. Because y’all met and then I was like, “hey I want to come.”
Lu: Oh yeah yeah, so we had decided to meet, and I think you (keyon) were out of town for the first one so you knew about it but you were out of town.
keyon: no it was maybe just you two (lu and taka) and then we joined.
Allie: And it was really like: would choose an essay to read and then another one. And we would get together and talk about them, and we would also drink and eat and go off on whatever tangents. Just let it go as long as it went. And then at some point we said “oh, what if this became an open public thing where people could just come and discuss?” There is no rigid sort of way to talk about these texts, and we can just be in a room with a bunch of people. Then we got the Precipice Fund and that’s when things went public.
keyon: At its core was this thing of “come as you are,” and all levels of engagement are valid, and it was really fun. That was a big part of it too, it was super social, amongst the four of us, and kind of like an alternative criticality where we could really be able to go deep. And that was the thing about keeping it small, at first, was to not have that kind of pressure to say the right thing. Really being able to be with friends and talk shit and recognize that “I don’t know how much farther the conversation can go when the structure is so lucid and social and always so layered.”
Spencer: Were you responding to the lack of something in Portland, or the lack of something in the dance community through its inception?
Taka: I think we liked the fact that we geeked out on Martha Graham.
Lu: I don’t know what you are talking about.
Taka: You don’t know what I’m talking about? We were talking about martha graham, and I didn’t know much about her, but for Light Noise we geeked out on it, and we read something. And we talked about how she was a force of presentation. Something like that. Right?
Lu: Yeah yeah we naturally started to talk about the research that was behind that project. And I don’t think that was something I had personally engaged with so much in other dance processes and that was exciting.
It wasn’t so much out of response to lack but it was more, “oh, this is nice, we need to keep this going.”
Yeah, I remember being really excited about the idea because I think many of us, when we make work, were reading a lot of material. That peripheral inspiration that comes into the picture when you’re making a thing, and just sort of just being able to process through the ways we got to different ideas. This associative thinking that often happens in making work, and often trying to read pretty heady texts around performance. And I don’t really consider myself an academic or anything like this, and so sometimes being like, “oh this is hard to read alone because I wanna try and talk through this with other people, but who can I do that with?” And this seemed like a really good opportunity to do it with people that I trust who I can ask questions around, and I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room or anything like this or already know the answers. And that’s what was exciting for me.
And keyon introduced the component about the video, not just the reading.
It was also nice to have a group of folks that were interested in be just working, everyone was kind of thinking in other ways and some of the texts that we were using were by architects, and it felt like a group where we could really push our understanding of performance and these sort of things to allow more space within that. I don’t really feel that it really felt like a lack of Portland, I also feel like it feels very of Portland in a way. Because I do feel like a lot of times there’s more crossover between disciplines and genres aren’t so important. There’s more room to play in between them and I feel like this group was generative for me for that.
Somebody said, “when we went public.” What led to PE going public and how did it change the nature of the group, do you think?
People were knockin’ on the door asking, “you have a reading group? How come I can’t come?” And we were like, “well, you can’t come because this is just something we do! ‘Cause if we let you come, then we’re gonna have to let everybody come and then we’re not gonna have this nice, intimate group anymore.” I can’t remember if Precipice Fund sort of came up and then we thought, “oh, actually, what we’re doing could really work with this grant.”
We changed it a lot. I mean, we haven’t had an intimate, just the four of us, reading group since then. I don’t think.
We had our beach week.
Oh we did. We had our beach week. Yeah, that was cute.
And I miss that dynamic a little bit. I mean, none of us are ever in town anymore anyway. It’s interesting thinking in terms of fun and leisure versus work, the way it’s gotten a bit muddy. One unspoken agreement that we’ve all had is, we’re not gonna do things if it’s not fun. But, that being said, it can sometimes be a little stressful or unwieldy because we’re like, “oh shit, this fucking deadline and I’m in New York and I’m in Stockholm and I’m in Japan and I’m in Minneapolis and who the fuck’s gonna do the Google Doc?” And it can kind of become this scramble which I think can be stressful but also it’s fine. We’re not professional. This is not a professional organization, we’re not a fuckin’ 501(c)(3), we’re not tryin’ to have this cohesive way of working. We’re just trying to make it work when it can. But sometimes it does feel like, “oh, I wish it could just be us in a room, drinking wine and talking about whatever… more… fun.”
I have this question around workshops in general and the idea of that form of the workshop or even the name of the group, Physical Education. Who’s teaching, who’s learning, and what has the project taught you over the years?
Well there was a class that I wanted to do, and then Physical Education was the perfect excuse to put it out in the world as something that could be associated with reading, performance, and artists lectures. That it can exist in the same sort of realm and programming as these other things and that a physical embodiment of whatever ideas that get presented in that workshop can then lead to a different type of understanding of the other events going on around it.
So a class might be like: have a conversation about some essay, and then we also hear Samantha Wall talk about her process and then we have this artist share and then we’re gonna go get really sweaty in an aerobics class, but then all of those ideas are carried with you through that class and maybe they’ll come up or maybe you’ll think about them differently after you’re sweaty and tired. You might take your own physical embodiment of ideas to a performance that weekend that you then watch and maybe all of these things kinda can get carried through those various experiences so you’re coming to a performance with new lenses. So that was TRANSCENDENTAEROBICOURAGE. But we’ve taught a lot of different workshops.
I’ve been thinking about the workshop versus the formal performance, too, and how those things might relate to each other, build off of each other or be in contrast…
I definitely feel like this group, I’ve been thinking about the name, and just over the years thinking about how things have shifted and changed, in my work, and especially in relationship with this group. I think for me, something that I’ve really been coming to a lot lately is less delineation between all of these things: between my living experience and my work, sales, and art. It’s also heinous that art, in this very Western way of looking at it, separates everyday living experience. It’s interesting to think hoow so much of what we look at are objects from the past are functional objects as well.
I think this group and Physical Education thinks about how our bodies are always teaching us and this way in which we can always be learning. Thoughtfulness and conceptuality and all of these things exist in the world that we’re in all of the time. It doesn’t have to be this kind of elite or separate kind of way of thinking about work and art in relationship to the body and embodiment and these practices. I don’t know, that’s kind of all over the place, but I do feel like this group has helped me… we talk about it as a support group sometimes. And I think there is space for all of that to kind of be in there and mix around and chew on.
It’s not just people asking me what is Physical Education, it’s the fact that I’m actually wearing a PE shirt as a form of my outfit (points to shirt). We sold 30 shirts last sale, which is kind of big but we are not making a lot of money off of it, so it’s more we’re having fun with the designs, and that’s actually what you kind of talked about?
I’m also thinking about something you (Lu) and I talked about when we were out one night. Something that happened in Amsterdam. Someone had brought you out to teach a workshop and you showed up and you did something very unconventional: you didn’t structure it like a typical workshop. And you showed up in a way that they kind of questioned you about it, like, “oh, but aren’t you going to teach them something? Aren’t you going to do something?”
We had this conversation around the notion of “you asked me to come engage with these people and I’m gonna do that and it’s not my fault that you wanted it to look like a lesson plan. I’m bringing myself and my experience to this room right now and so are they and we’re gonna go ahead and do that thing.” I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but something around that, which I’ve been thinking a lot about since Physical Education began. What is it to get hired to come and teach a workshop? What’s the responsibility in that? How have I been thinking about that responsibility? How have I been taking on so much… I get so stressed about the idea of teaching, because I’m like, “what if I’m not smart enough? What if they hate it? What if they don’t have a good time? I forget that just the act of showing up and bringing all of my years of experience in this field to the room with other people, there’s already so much there, there’s more than enough there, and to be able to be flexible in that environment instead of grasping on to some lesson plan for the sake of controlling the situation. I’m thinking a lot more about that in terms of teaching.
That idea of expectations is really rich. It’s something to play with too. And just challenging people’s expectations of anything, especially around teaching and the labor because so much of it an honorarium or whatever and it’s underpaid for what really is. I’m curious, how much space do you want PE to take up in the bigger picture of each of your lives? Where do you see it fitting?
I mean, it’s shifted a lot over the years. It’s different all the time. I was just watching this video montage of this performance that we did in 2014? thinking to myself, “aw, look, we’re babies!”
We were really actively working through ideas and trying things out and for all of us. Those things developed into what our next work was going to be. There’s something potent about that time we formed and when we started doing stuff together that has had such an effect on all of our practices that I think now when we get together it just feels different. We’re just, not so young anymore.
Hate to go there. Not that we’re old, but it is a different kind of support and a different kind of decision to come back together and keep doing things together then it was.
When I think back to that time I’m like, “Look! Think about the potential here. Physical Education is going to become this giant, wonderful sustainable thing that’s gonna support our work and support us as friends and it’s also gonna bring a bunch of people together, and it’s gonna be this vehicle for all these things to happen all the time. There’s a future here.” And then years go by and then all of the other things that have to happen in life start to happen and you’re just like, “oh, it’s just kinda gonna look like this for now. And oh, then it’s, oh, it’s gonna look like this today…”
This is the part about getting older?
I don’t have that much time or energy anymore, but I really like these people, so I’m gonna keep investing in it in whatever way feels reasonable. I was thinking about your question of how much space do I want this to take up and I think the answer to that for me is I want it to take up more space because I want to remember what that energy felt like. But I also sometimes need it to take up a whole lot less space. The administration that has to go on around it. I’ve never been good at that, and I forget that when I have these big dreams, I’m like, “oh no no, but I hate admin work.” Physical Education’s always somewhere around here, and then every once in awhile, I’m lucky enough to have it be the focus, but it has to be super flexy.
I love that about it. I feel like I never really had expectations at all of what it would become, although I’ve always been like, “oh, we’re doing this?! Yes! Sure!” It’s this fun, mad, flexy thing.
It feels like it does take up the amount of space that we have capacity for. So sometimes it is smaller, and it isn’t happening sometimes because we don’t have the capacity. But I like that, I think it is a different thing that keeps bringing us back together but I do really like these folks. I love the stuff we do and it still feels like a space that even though it’s a very different way of pushing back or doing things. Think about the works we did at Composition. How different, and similar. But it is still pushing, it’s still a generative ground. It still feels like a generative playground in that way.
Things always happen when we come and do these events and spend a substantial amount of time together in a space–it feels like a magic. Sometimes trouble comes through and we’re not quite sure what’s gonna happen. We better be ready. This time there better be a nurse practitioner in the audience-
Everybody knows that Physical Education is something that we do, but we are not of it. I was thinking about it. It’s like, “remember Allie of Physical Education?” And nobody’s gonna say that to us. So this entity is so interesting because the sense of belonging is so not, it is a part of our life.
I kinda like the idea that everybody’s in Physical Education, whoever is engaged with it. Maybe we’re the little nucleus or something that’s keeping it going or maybe the heart of the thing, but everybody engages, you’re always kind of a part of it.
Well and it’s definitely kind of a lens, I think, or a method of thinking that once someone understands a lens, they can then apply it whenever. It’s like that idea, there’s new ideas around exercises or it’s actually any steps or exercise or going up the stairs once is technically exercise, so you can kind of claim it in that practice and extending that to art I think is really empowering to say, “actually, this is performance, or this is an artist’s practice, even if it’s just sitting in a room and talking or something.”
Or microdosing on mushrooms on the coast in a cabin.
Yes. In a wetsuit.
Wearing a wetsuit.
Those fucking wetsuits.
So for the third issue, I’ve been interested in this idea of recreation. I’ve been thinking about projects that are recreational in certain ways either through using forms of play or relaxation or leisure in what they’re actually doing. From there, I got more into this idea of what does recreation actually mean to artists? Are artists, on some level, always doing both work and leisure? As an artist, the assumption is that you’re doing what you love.
I wanted to start there, thinking about your book I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About in My Song, and thinking about that idea of an artist’s life, and what that means. Maybe you would want to talk about the genesis of that book and how it came about?
Jen Delos Reyes:
For sure. In the intro to that book, I talk about hearing this song for the first time when I was in graduate school, which was written by Thomas Dorsey and performed very famously by Mahalia Jackson. She’s singing clearly from a voice which is her own, but a perspective which the listener could read as the space she occupies in her life. The song is about a gospel singer who is talking about the fact that in her work, her craft as a gospel singer, that she can’t sing these beautiful songs and then live a life that doesn’t feel like it actually upholds the art that she’s putting in the world. The refrain is that “I’m gonna live the life that I sing about in my song.” That felt like a complete revelation hearing that in grad school, and saying, “Yeah, actually 100%. I want the exact same thing. That what it is that I do in the world as an artist, I want it to be completely in line with my values, all my values. And my life practice.”
I guess it was at that point that it really felt like it was a goal. It felt like something almost impossible in some ways. It was definitely in my mind from that point on. I think it’s hard to disconnect that too, especially when, as an artist, a lot of the work you do is about lived practice, lived experience, and being with others in a lot of ways. I think that was really the first seed of that project, and I didn’t really realize it at the time, other than just having this general admiration for that way of living and working, and that connection to what you do in the world, especially as an artist. I also mean that for everyone. I don’t think it’s just for artists at all, to be able to live in that way.
Fast forward years later, half a decade later, and I’m invited to do a residency as the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. I’ve been working with this great coordinator there, she’s fantastic. I’m actually really struggling with what I want to do at this residency, like what is the frame for it, what is the structure? At one point she asked me, “Well, what could you do, or what would you do if you could anything? If you could really do anything, what would you do?” My sincere almost immediate answer was that I just want to live. I meant it, but I meant it in this way that I was I want to live with intention and with value, in the vein of I’m Gonna Live the Life I Sing About in my Song. It ended up that I started using that residency, which I think was in 2013, on doing research into intentional living, intentional communities, and utopian impulses. Groups like the Shakers, for example. Other groups in the US, especially that were easier to research and very possible to even visit.
In particular, I wanted to connect those sorts of groups and impulses to artists who are clearly inspired by some of those radical approaches, or different ways of being in the world, and with each other. That came together in the form of the book. In a lot of ways, I feel like the book is a failure. It is an interesting series of cases studies of artists who I really feel do justice to that Mahalia Jackson song. They’re people whose work I admire greatly, I also admire them as people, and what they have set up is incredible and completely inspiration, and so different. The main people in the book were J Morgan Puett, and looking at Mildred’s Lane, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and looking at the work she did with the New York City Department of Sanitation as the official artist in residence. Then Ben Kinmont and his Antinomian Press, and his work as a bookseller. David Horvitz, and I just feel like everything in his practice is so just emergent from his personal life and relationships in this really beautiful way. And Fritz Haeg, and his embodied practice, but it’s also his communal practice and how he builds community, especially for artists.
All of these people were inspirational for me, and in very different ways. I showed a lot of examples of how an artist could be in the world. Basically everything I described in terms of their primary activity is not necessarily what most people think of as art: like running an art school in your home or starting a bookstore, or foraging for mushrooms, or whatever. All of these things aren’t necessarily the things that we think of when we think of artists, but they’ve been able to structure their lives in a way in which that is something that they get to do. I had hoped and intended that the book would serve as a roadmap for anyone to be able to take inspiration from that and do it, but the truth is, it doesn’t feel like that and it doesn’t read like that.
It’s fine, because in life, there are always more opportunities, and I feel like that to me, has then given birth to this new book that I’m working on that I actually feel will do that thing that I wanted it to do, that is about like, well how can we all live lives of meaning and value and look at our daily activities, and really keep them in connection to what is happening in the world, and not separate them because we are in a moment of social crisis, economic crisis, environmental crisis. We should all be crushed under the weight of how horrible things are in the world right now.
I’ve been reading your lecture What We Want is Not Free, which mentions all of the unpaid labor you put into Open Engagement. I think dovetailing with that, I’ve been thinking a lot about labor, and how normally we have to do stuff that we don’t want to do because it’s what pay the bills, or it’s what basically helps you survive. How do those two things relate to each other? There is this balance between precarity on the one hand, and utopian aspirational values on the other hand. Where do those two intersect, and how do we shift from one to the other?
Jen Delos Reyes:
What a big question. I feel like I have so much to say about that right now, that I’m a little bit like, “Well, where do I start?” One of the first things I’m thinking about is this idea that … and this is a little bit like some of the feedback I had gotten from the I’m Gonna Live the Life book, this idea that to be able to operate in the way that these artists operate from, is a privileged position. That not everyone gets to make these choices and to live in these ways. Which isn’t necessarily wrong, in a lot of these cases, there are instances in place or structures in their life that allowed them to do work for free. Here’s a great example: when I was talking to Mierle Laderman Ukeles, I asked her, “How were you able to be the unpaid artist-in-residence for 40 years?” The reality is that her husband, Jack, helped to support her and make that possible. I think that there’s just not enough transparency around economics, around the problematic structures especially in the art world, around class and privilege that people don’t talk about. This makes it possible for certain people to do unpaid labor, that then helps them to get better jobs within the system.
Let’s talk about unpaid internships. Those are very privileged positions, you can’t be someone from a struggling economic background and think that you can do an unpaid internship and live in London or live in New York or in LA doing this great internship with the Getty or something, and just be able to live. Think about the amount of privilege that one needs to have to be able to do that. When I would talk about, and this was actually with that same amazing residency coordinator, Megha Ralapati. That I was, “Talk about how I want everyone to be able to take inspiration and live these lives, like their lives, with integrity and with purpose and to have a life philosophy that guides what you do in the world.” She’s like, “That feels so privileged. What about the people who are working these jobs that they can barely pay their rent, there’s so many unpaid bills. There is a way in which some of the models, the case studies are not feasible for most people, but I think what is actually possible is that we can still make small and micro decisions within our lives that are within our value structures.
It might not just be on the same scale, but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do that because I do believe it will still have an impact. For example, here’s one that I actually think works with this okay, well economic pressing matters of daily existence. Someone like Fritz Haeg is very critical of fast fashion and over consumption, and is someone who’s making and knitting their own clothes. That is not a thing that every single person can do. One, because maybe you might need to gain that skillset, you never learned how to sew, or you don’t have the hours and hours and hours it takes to be able to sew a garment, or knit something. But, you do have the ability to say, “Okay, I do not agree with the exploitative labor practices of fast fashion, and I don’t want to go into one of these chain stores and buy something that I know is basically made by someone who is not even paid close to a living wage, is essentially a slave in another country, and be a part of this chain.”
What can you do to actually stop that cycle? One, you could not buy new clothes. It would actually be cheaper for you to go to a thrift store, to go to a Goodwill, to buy clothes in that way. Everyone would be better served if they also had a better understanding of who they were as an individual and what they wanted to communicate in the world, and not be so seduced by advertising, honestly, and current trends because then you’re in this other cycle of trying to purchase things that will make you feel a certain way because it’s like you haven’t … this sounds so new-agey, but I think it is part of it, like that’s a lot of the inspiration behind some of these artists that I’ve been so enamored with in this book. It’s about actualization. It has a little bit to do with actual knowing yourself and what that means, and then your messaging. I actually think that it would be such a radical act if people took aesthetic control of their lives in the same ways that artists do, and would define what it is that they put out in the world in a daily, every day way.
I wanted to pull back for a second and go back to this question of how do we quantify the work we do as artists? I wonder how we cash in on this work we do just to survive in the first place.
Jen Delos Reyes:
Oh my God. Okay, thank you for bringing us back to this survival question ’cause it got lost in that storm of soap box passion.
I’ve been thinking about this book by Julie Rose called Free Time. I don’t know if you’ve read it, it’s pretty remarkable. Her position is just not one that I had ever heard before, but it made so much sense. She’s framing free time as a social justice issues. She’s says, “The same way we think about the distribution of wealth and resources, we need to think about the distribution of free time.” It gets very complex in terms of how she defines free time, and how that’s measured. It’s a beautiful book. I can’t recommend it enough.
Then it’s like, how do we think about our work as artists? I definitely want to answer that question. You already have a little bit of insight into where I’m at in terms of a position on free labor and needing that to shift. How do you even look at all the problems around being an artist and labor? One, I’ll say that in this country in particular, there is this expectation that artists will work for free. That we are not valued, like people are not valued who are artists, but art objects are. I’m like, “Can we get that to shift a little because if you don’t care for the people who make the work, then you don’t get those beautiful objects or experiences.” Part of caring for artists is actually being able to pay them a living wage.
I guess I don’t like the framing of how do we cash in, or capitalize? Because those reinforce problematic structures of capitalism that I wish we never had. I think it takes radical imagination to be able to think differently about what those governing structures are. Let’s not go into fantasy world. Although, I do think that science fiction and fantasy are very important because it does get us to exercise our muscles and think about other ways and other worlds, which I think we desperately need. We do live under capitalism, we do need to survive, so how can artists ensure that they are paid for their work?
Look, in our world right now, there are actually countries where this happens already. I am like, “Hi, I’m from Canada. We have CARFAC, artist run culture, artist led culture fought for this, and then it became government sanctioned.” Now this is the set regulation of how artists are paid for all their labor, and it’s incredible. It breaks down what an artist should be paid for a workshop, for an artist talk, for a group show, for a solo show, for a write up in a publication, for this, for this. It goes over all these different forms of labor, and then it says like what the percentage rate should be. Then the great thing is that it’s scalable, so it’s not just like an institution looks at it and they say like, “Oh, that’s a shame ’cause we don’t have $1,000 in our budget to be able to pay for a workshop.” It’s scalable in that what the artist is paid in based on what the annual operating budget is of the institution. If it’s a bigger institution, then you get paid more. Then also it’s a pay range based on if it’s a solo show, you get paid more than if it’s a group show. Just all these things that take into account how much labor is expended and how an artist should be compensated.
I think that we need a system that is more like that here. People need to operate in that way. There are amazing groups like Wage, who are advocating for those sorts of structures. I think it starts, also this goes back to this, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter. These systems are so strong, the institutions are so strong. I just have to do it.” I’m like, “No, actually, you don’t. You can bring up for yourself as an individual, as an artist, what your value is, and the fact that you can resist. If an institution is not going to pay you for you work, you can say, “thank you, but I actually have decided to make a choice in which I no longer give my time for free. This is not free.” I guess I’ve gotten to a place of deep frustration around that, and that has come out of years and years of free labor and being exploited, honestly, by large institutions and doing work that no one really told me that I shouldn’t be doing, or that should be only the work that a full time tenure track or tenured faculty does, that’s not your work, you don’t do that ’cause that’s not paid. You’re just adjunct, you’re responsibility is just that one class.
Then we get so, I don’t even know. I think that yeah, it begins with artists actually making demands and then resisting institutions, and calling out and calling in institutions to be able to join and to make this right. For me, part of how I’m making this right is that Open Engagement should actually be a model of sustainable artist led culture. I do not want to do any work anymore for Open Engagement in which like if we were to be transparent about it, and you were to see the inner workings, I want to feel good about it. I don’t want to feel like, “Wow, we really modeled a piece a shit.” No one needs to be working for free. That’s not what I want. Why would we model that? I want us to be an example, and I want us to show larger institutions that these changes actually can be made. Part of that change is valuing artists for their labor.
The other thing too, is like I don’t know, this like, “Oh, well, you could commodify the thing that you do in your life that brings you joy and does this thing, and sell it to an art institution.” Yeah, you could, but you could also just do it for yourself and for your life. I do a lot of these things that yeah, I guess I could do that as public programming somewhere, but I’ve just made that choice that it’s like, “No, I don’t frame it as ‘this is an art project.’” It’s just part of my life practice. I think that that is actually important for us to be able to do, that you don’t have to commodify everything in your life. You don’t have to make everything a project. I think that’s part of what we need to model, maybe as artists for other folk, is that it’s like we can just do these fun and creative things, and you don’t have to call it art. They can just be like what you do because it’s what you want to do in your life.
Yeah. It gets so confusing. Thinking about transparency around boundaries, too. The willingness to say that even if something looks like an art project, to say like, “This isn’t art. Or this is just part of my life practice, I’m not trying to think about this in terms of that bigger, that labor piece, or something.” And setting boundaries where you are able to not so much clock out, but check out from thinking about the thing … or check out from relating to the thing as labor because ideally you want it to be a source of strength, inspiration, resiliency, fun, any of these other things also.
Jen Delos Reyes:
Oh my God, yes. I’m happy to hear you say that because part of the definition of recreation is well, one, you can look at it as like re-creation too, to make a new, to do over. It’s like this practice that’s a constant re-creation. Then it also is supposed to be restorative and revive, that that is like it when you break down the definition. It’s from these words that mean those things. It’s like it is something that we need to do for ourselves to I think, be able to do the work better. It should not be seen as frivolous. I don’t think it’s frivolous. It’s like insert Audre Lorde quote here about self-care being a form of revolutionary practice. It’s guerrilla warfare in a way, because if we care for ourselves, we can do that important work in the world.
Yeah, and it’s only frivolous in the capitalist lens of the important thing is the work, and then the free time is where you get to mess around and do whatever you want. That speaks to a lack of intention, where you’re not thinking about either necessarily, in a very wholistic way.
Jen Delos Reyes:
I just had one last question. What do you like to do in your free time?
Jen Delos Reyes:
I wonder if part of this is about a mind shift, just that even to say like, “Okay, well there is a certain amount of time that is “free time”.” Maybe that’s not even the best way to look at it. I often think about this Annie Dillard quote that has been something that helps guide what I do on almost a daily basis, and was thinking about it even this morning walking to work. The quote is also so simple, you’re like, “Yeah, I know. That’s basic math in a way. That’s basic time math.” What Dillard says is that what you do every day, every hour, of course becomes how you live your life. To think about all time as being equally important and how your life is lived.
I do try to have everything feel values aligned for me, and part of that is why am I here at this job right now even? I’m here because I believe in this mission of urban public research university that it is a majority minority, and it is about access and the most affordable education possible. That that is important to be here and to support that. Or-
On spring break, no less.
Jen Delos Reyes:
Yeah, on spring break, no less. I don’t know, I guess I’m just trying to think of all time as so valuable. The other thing that I’ve often said, now I can’t think of who said it, is that time is the most valuable thing we have to give each other, and that that is so meaningful. I guess I try to think very intentionally about how I spend all my time, not just the time we like to think of as free time. I want to be able to look back on my life or have other people look back on it, and for there to feel like there was meaning and purpose and value in all of it, in all of the time that was spent here and with other people.
The Portland Museum of Art & Sports was located at Portland State University’s Rec Center. An institution within an institution, the museum was founded in 2015 as a dynamic space dedicated to the exploration of two subjects that are rarely paired together: contemporary art and recreational sports. Through installations, events and programming that showcased local to international artists the museum explored unconventional situations for engagement to activate the spaces where art and sports intersect. Anke Schüttler and Lauren Moran, the founders and curators of the museum, reflect on the process of bridging divides, pitching art projects, and recreation in art.
Photos by Anke Schüttler
Lauren: We were talking about recreation.
Anke: Yes, I realized that both sports and art can be seen as a means of recreation.
Lauren: For most people, yeah.
Anke: It’s funny because when we were thinking about this museum we were saying sport and arts do not really go together so well or they are usually not seen together, though there is this connection that I actually have never thought about before. And also ironically when we were talking about doing this project at the rec center, we were both saying ‘I’m not exercising a lot at the moment and maybe that’ll get me into exercising more’ and then we actually never got to it really.
Lauren: Yeah, we were so busy working on all the projects and installing all the art and working with all the people at the rec center that we left out the recreation part.
Anke: The fun part… I mean it was also fun to do the project obviously. Earlier I was asking you about your relationship to art and if you would think that art is a form of recreation for you?
Lauren: When you said that it made me think of how it’s probably just as likely to be a famous artist as it is to be a pro sports athlete. They’re probably both as rare, but I’m sure athletes make more money.
Anke: And also probably they wouldn’t say “yes, I do sports for my recreation.”
Lauren: I would do art for my recreation. Right now I don’t think I would do social practice art for my recreation. My recreational art is making things out of clay.
Anke: Oh, yeah. Me, too. Thanks for reminding me!
Lauren: Forms of art I find relaxing are not the kind that I do for my work lately. It’s a little too much like a real job now. I actually started off this year thinking about this topic, maybe recreation or our discussion last year about what you would do for fun and how you could make it into a project? When I did the karaoke project here, or a walk in the woods, various things, sometimes it started to feel like work and I’ve been contemplating that. It was fun, it just felt like the expectations were different … And also I wasn’t consuming it. I was creating the experience, which is a lot more work.
Lauren: Anyway, exercise and sports is something I was always an observer of and that continued with our project. We were looking at it through this conceptual lens.
Anke: I really liked how this serendipitously came together, being offered the residency at the Rec Center. We went to have a look at what we could do there and while walking around you pointed out how this looks like a museum building-
Lauren: Right, it felt like a museum tour.
Anke: Yeah. I really liked that and ever since you said that I thought “for sure, there are so many aspects to that building that have a similarity to a museum.”
Anke: The concrete walls and all the coloring.
Lauren: I wonder if a sports person would go to an art museum and be like ‘oh, you could really play basketball in here.’
Anke: That’s such a funny idea, yeah.
Lauren: It’s interesting to come at non art things from that lens of everything is you know-
Anke: An art space.
Anke: I definitely have that lens a lot and I really love that.
Lauren: Me, too. So that’s how it started. We took the tour and we were like “Oh yeah, this is like a museum tour. What if we make it into a museum?” And then we-
Anke: Slowly took it over.
Lauren: Slowly developed these personas, right?
Anke: Yes, thinking about our role and deciding that we were both co-directors and co-curators for the museum. And when I started having that as my signature in my email people from Germany were like “What? You’re a director of a museum now? That’s so cool.’ I really love how that took this extra turn that I didn’t expect at all.
Lauren: I remember Harrell even saying, “you know, PSU doesn’t have a museum yet. Now it’s getting one, I guess.”
Lauren: So we were really asking what do we do as museum directors and curators … in this museum that we just decided was a museum?
Anke: Yeah, and finding all the artists was fun, thinking about the artists we know that work in that intersection between art and sports. It’s exciting how many things we found and so many different, very diverse works.
Lauren: Right, at first we thought these topics don’t have a lot of overlap, but then we found so many overlaps.
Anke: I really enjoyed when we were taking care of where the art would be, relating the art to the space. That’s a thing that you can’t do in a museum because the museum is just empty and without any personality before you put the art in, and I think that made this project so strong for me.
Lauren: Yeah, yeah.
Anke: Like putting the work that Adam Carlin did about lifting heavy things into the weight lifting room or –
Lauren: The videos with the ping pong balls with the ping pong table. That’s a good point. If it was just a regular museum we wouldn’t be able to make those connections at all.
Anke: And then some people got really into it even though they’re maybe usually not into art or wouldn’t go to a museum, but suddenly they got really excited about the work being at the rec center.
Lauren: I think that happened a lot. With the art and the context, I think it worked both ways. Sometimes we asked:’What can we fit into the space?’ and then sometimes we would find the artist and decide:’ this art would fit perfectly here’.
I think about how combining the two things or maybe inserting the art and deciding it was a museum in a non art space, when we gave the tour it just had this amazing sense of magical realism, you know? That was really special. I always try to seek that out in projects and that was one of the times I feel like it was really successful. Especially with the water dancers in the pool…
Anke: Or the runners…
Lauren: Yeah, with the treadmill pieces.
Anke: Yeah, the treadmill pieces were amazing.
Lauren: And just everyone being active in the space, doing their thing at the gym.
Anke: Activating it so nicely without the intention of activating it. That was very magical.
Lauren: There was definitely just a magic to that that I can’t quite put my finger on, but I feel like I learned a lot from.
Anke: I guess it goes both ways, right? Because it’s an already active space, the running would happen with or without the art, but it’s funny when then you have someone coming in for the art and wanting to look at the art, and they obviously also have to look at the runner in front of the art. Suddenly you end up with this combination of something that’s intended to be art and something that’s just an everyday life activity but in that context you cannot separate it from the rest. You cannot not see the runner in front of the art.
Lauren: So it just becomes all part of the experience.
Anke: It’s sort of like we were seeking out the side noise, which in more traditional art is usually excluded, right?
Lauren: That’s interesting because if all the stuff had just been in a blank space it would have been way less interesting. It needed the people around it to be fully experienced really. It just needed the place itself.
Lauren: This is a different topic, but something that I really liked about the project that I’ve thought about ever since is how we worked with really famous artists who are internationally recognized, like Hank Willis Thomas for example, and actually, officially got permission from him to recreate that exhibition. But then we also worked with local artists. We worked with students at PSU. We worked with people that we met in the Rec Center that happened to have some sort of connection to art or wanted to try something out. Like Konani with her body drawings. She just wanted to try that and we made it happen. We had this complete collapsing of art world hierarchies where we were mixing all these things together, which is something I always try to think about, too: collapsing the hierarchies or questioning hierarchies of cultural capital. Also the people looking at the art in the Rec Center who are there maybe they know about art, but maybe they saw it all as the same. Probably not that many people knew who Hank Willis Thomas was. That’s more of an art world context and in the Rec Center the artists were on a whole different playing field with a different audience. I appreciated that combination of a range of different artists being put on the same level.
Anke: Which probably not all artists would like or agree with, but I can relate to that idea and have been experimenting with that a lot in more recent projects, too. It wasn’t something that I was thinking about in that moment as much, but now that you point that out it becomes very clear to me that that’s maybe the first project where that just happened.
Lauren: Yeah, same. I don’t think we were doing it intentionally at the time. I think we were just trying to find whoever we could in all different capacities that was related to sports. Also wanting to work with the people in the space as part of the residency. It kind of just came all together naturally, which is cool.
Anke: Totally. Do you want to talk about how this project influenced you?
Lauren: I think it was one of the first times I had to pitch art to a non art institution and audience. Which is something I’ve engaged in since then and it’s always an interesting challenge to convey a conceptual art idea or to make sure it works on all the different entry points, of how people can access it. You can be an art person and appreciate it and you can not know anything about art and appreciate it. Navigating those conversations with all the people we worked with at the Rec Center, convincing them of certain things that maybe they didn’t fully understand or us just not thinking of things that were important to them in those negotiations was educational. When we had the Museum logo and they wanted to put the PSU logo on it and we had to say no. Or when we wanted to put all this controversial art in the lockers and they said ‘well, you know, you really gotta think about people just opening their locker and wanting to have a recreation moment and then maybe they don’t want to see really shocking art about racism’, which is fair.
Anke: Yeah, that was one of the first projects that we did while being in the program and you saying that makes me realize how much more I’ve been thinking about interaction with the people that I’m working with or working for in my projects since. I think we had a long phase of being on the nerves and frustrated, wondering how we could navigate the situation working with all these people or make everyone happy. We were less attuned to talk to a person and listen to what they want. Also somehow there was this clash between us being artists and them coming from the sports side and a funny misunderstanding about aesthetics. Having very, very different aesthetics often was problematic. We wanted things to look contemporary.
Lauren: We didn’t want it to look like an advertisement for the Rec Center. Even if there was a lot of crossover, I think we were still having different intentions within our institutions. Not in a bad way, just coming from different worlds.
Anke: We had another magical moment when we were doing this participatory piece where we were asking people to write notes about crying in sports and so many people were excited and responded to the prompt.
Lauren: Oh yeah, that was amazing.
Anke: Which seems so unusual, and made us realize: ‘Something that really works here are participatory projects.’
Lauren: There was always the question: ‘is it gonna work?’ The crying in sports project got us started. It was a very encouraging start because we got so many good submissions.
Lauren: What influenced you about the project?
Anke: I feel like I’ve done other projects a little bit like this before where I would be in a non art space, inserting art that’s related to the space. But I think it was the first project where that was really clear and really intentional. We’ve talked about this in the beginning. That was one of the parts that I enjoyed a lot and have been thinking more about since, it has been one of the main aspects of that project that worked well for me. And the activation part is interesting to me. I like that we had scores for people to activate and it really depends on the space whether you can do something like that or not.
Lauren: I liked the project when we asked people what reminded them of art. You could do that anywhere and it’d be great.
Anke: Yeah. It’s funny because it’s very related to us noticing that this space reminds us of a container for art.
Lauren: Right and actually it’s interesting because that was the last project we did so we really brought it back around.
Anke: Oh, I never thought about it that way.
Lauren: I didn’t either.
Anke: That’s a cool thought. Going for a loop.
Maria del Carmen Montoya is an exuberant, warm and concise artist whose desire to create meaningful connections with people is contagious. I was lucky enough to talk with her about her creative passions and to learn what motivates her work as a collaborator in Ghana Think Tank and educator at George Washington University Corcoran School of Art and Design.
Within the world of Social Practice, Ghana Think Tank is a renowned international collective that flips the script on traditional international development by setting up think tanks in “third world” countries and asking them to solve the problems of people living in the “first world.” Carmen joined Ghana Think Tank founders Christopher Robbins and John Ewing in 2009 and since then they have founded think tanks all over the globe and at home in the US, always challenging the common assumptions of who is in need and inverting the typical hierarchy of expertise. For example, in the Mexican Border Project, Ghana Think Tank collected problems on the theme of immigration from civilian “Minutemen” and “Patriot” groups and brought them to be solved by undocumented workers in San Diego and recently deported immigrants in Tijuana. When Ghana Think Tank looks to undocumented workers, deported immigrants, Moroccans or Iranians for solutions, they elevate their knowledge, a wisdom often dismissed by systems of power in the name of “progress”. Ghana Think Tank’s act of listening is radical, deeply affecting both the interviewee and those who are seeking solutions to their problems.
At the start of our interview Carmen told me about a very important aspect of her identity: where she is “from.” Having grown up on the northern outskirts of Houston, TX in a neighborhood she called the barrio, gave her rich and complicated experiences of both belonging and exclusion, often being seen as the indigent other. She draws upon these experiences when doing her work. She has returned to Houston, a number of times creating work there with Ghana Think Tank.
Currently, Carmen loves living in Washington, DC, a city that is “ostensibly, the seat of political power in United States.” Here she holds a post as Assistant Professor in Sculpture and Spatial Practices at George Washington University’s Corcoran School of Art and Design. Carmen is married to a supportive artist and has two young children who can often be seen helping with her art projects.
TK: I would love for you to begin by talking a little bit about what you mean when you say that you are “interested in the communal process of meaning making?”
CM: Yeah. It’s kinda meta right? As far back as I can remember in my life, my experiences have felt most real when they have been shared with other people. For me, participation is critical to understanding the world I live in. I learn by doing. But I’m not naive about this idea of participation, especially in the context of socially engaged art. We’re all at different places in our lives. Sometimes we can’t come to the same place, emotionally, physically, conceptually for so many reasons like our access to resources, our age, our daily routines. I believe artists must work to create opportunities for people to be present and to bear witness even when participation is not an option. Sharing an experience makes it possible to refer to it with other people. If you did it alone, then you have yourself. But if you did it together, there are all these other eyes and minds on this thing that happened. When we share a moment, whether as participants or as witnesses, we can try to understand it together. For me it is the most honest and effective way to know things. This shared knowing sets the stage for collective action.
TK: Yes. That resonates deeply with me. And given this experience it makes sense that your work is based in conversation with individuals and groups. Can you share with me a particular conversation in your life that was catalytic for you?
CM: Oh yes. So we [Ghana Think Tank] were working in Corona, Queens as part of the Open Door Commission at the Queens Museum. John [Ewing] and I had gone to a community teach-in for young men about how to act when approached by police on the street. Police harassment of young Black and Latino males in Corona continues to be a huge problem. We were still in the research phase of the project and we wanted to learn about how community members were coming together to help each other address this issue. The room was full, interestingly enough, of grandmothers. John and I didn’t look like anybody else in that room. We were definitely the outsiders, a position we often find ourselves in when implementing the Ghana ThinkTank process.
After the presentation one of the women, came up to me and she introduced herself. She was very proper and well spoken and she said, “Good evening, my name is Violet. I’m an octogenarian. Do you know what that is?” I thought to myself (Thank god I know what that is!) I said, “Yes, Are you 80? Or 81? Or 84?” She smiled and she said, “What are you doing here?” It was such an open, honest, but pretty aggressive question. And she was looking at me; usually people look at John but she was interested in what I was doing there. I responded, “Well, I’m an artist and I’m here to listen and to learn about the concerns of your community.”
And she said, “Oh, an artist! So are you a painter?” And I said, “No”. And then she said, “Oh then you draw really well?” And I said, “Well, not really, I mean I draw ok but not great.” That seemed to peak her interest. “So what kind of an artist are you?, “ she asked. It was such an intense, existential question to have in that very moment. I don’t know where it came from – but I said, “Well, think about what a painter is doing when they render a landscape, it’s never exactly like the thing that’s out there in the world. The artist is asking you to look at the fields, the sky, the horizon in another way. And, that’s what I’m asking you to do, only we’re talking about people and relationships.”
She took a moment to think and she said, “Oh! Well, then I see you are an artist.” I felt so entirely validated in that moment. This brilliant, engaged woman understood the value of work like this and that it is art. I am so grateful to Violet for asking her questions in an such an exacting way. She wasn’t trying to make me feel good or give me an opportunity, she wanted to know for herself what on Earth I was doing there. That exchange gave me the understanding and language to express what I’m doing in a way that nobody had ever done before.
TK : You mentioned your work in Queens, but you also have spent a lot of time in conversations with your think tank teams in so called “developing” or “third world” countries. Can you share an example from a specific team that you have worked with closely?
CM: Sure, in 2013 the US State Department and the Bronx Museum selected Ghana Think Tank to do work as cultural ambassadors in Morocco. The idea was to activate a full range of diplomatic tools, in this case the visual arts. American artists were sent abroad to collaborate with local artists on a variety of community based projects in hopes of fostering greater intercultural understanding.
We arrived in a small Moroccan village, just about 45 minutes outside of Marrakech. And there we were working with the really lovely folks, at Dar al-Ma’mûn, an international residency that focuses on artists and literary translators. They have one of the most active translation centers in all of that region focusing on French, English, Arabic, and Spanish. And they connected us with a group of artists and teachers that were working in the area. This group melded magically.
As part of the project we transformed a donkey cart into a solar powered mobile tea lounge. We used to travel around the more rural areas asking Moroccans for help.
One of the problems that we brought with us to Morocco was that even in cities people find ways to isolate themselves from each other, the doors of home are hidden by shrubbery, they tend to face away from the street if possible. The Moroccans were really interested in this issue of social isolation. They said, your culture is totally obsessed with single family homes and maybe it’s really your architecture that’s your problem. You should have architecture that’s more like ours. In the Moroccan riad doors all face a shared central courtyard and you can’t help but see each other when coming and going.
This suggestion became one of our most ambitious and far reaching projects ever, The American Riad. We’ve teamed up with Oakland Avenue Artist Coalition, the North End Woodward Community Organization, Central Detroit Christian CDC, and Affirming Love Ministries Church, to build a Moroccan style riad in the North end of Detroit. This art and architecture collaboration will transform abandoned buildings and empty lots into affordable housing around a shared courtyard filled with edible gardens. The site will be deeded as a land trust and an equity coop to ensure that the homes remain affordable in perpetuity. One of our main goals is to create an art based model for introducing art into a community while simultaneously resisting gentrification. As you can imagine taking on this complex solution really intensified our relationship with the Moroccan Think Tank.
TK: How does this team and other people you know in that region of the world perceive and understand Ghana Think Tank’s work?
The Moroccan Think Tank was really interested in why outsiders were there, in their rural communities, asking for assistance. Some found the process novel and an opportunity to take a stab at American culture, most were truly interested in trying to help. They also found it very interesting to consider the heterogeneity of the United States.
For example, during another session in the mobile tea lounge, we found ourselves once again analysing this problem of social isolation. One woman brought forward a beautiful quote that said that a neighbor is your responsibility and that includes anyone living up to 40 doors in any direction. Many people that day suggested we look to the Qur’an and the Hadiths to find our answers. This project was the first time that we had been able to discuss the solutions with a think tank face to face in real time and ask immediate follow up questions, “How can we bring the Qur’an as a recommendation to people living in America?” I asked. “ People follow so many faiths and belief systems it will be difficult for them to accept.” To which she replied aggressively, “You, in America, don’t even know our book. Americans don’t read the Qur’an, they burn it!” The conversation suddenly became very intense with people yelling angrily in many languages. I remember Sarah, my translator, putting her arm across me and yelling, “Don’t blame her, she’s not even really American, she’s Mexican.” Some people seemed confused. “No, no, I am American, well, sort of, Mexican-American. It’s complicated.” I interjected. Abid, the donkey cart driver, whistled loudly and we all quieted down. Then the woman asked me if I had ever read the Qur’an. “No,” I admitted. This was a real wake up moment for me because I had studied philosophy and theology as an undergraduate and had read many cultures’ holy books. “Well, why don’t you start there,” said the woman. What a beautiful, gentle and potentially enlightening intervention. This solution resulted in a series of Qur’an readings all over the country in libraries, schools, and homes (starting with my own) and on one windy roof-top at Portland State University as part of Open Engagement 2013.
Another exchange that might help answer this question took place in a rural olive grove on a warm afternoon. The project was being funded in part by the US State Department and there was significant oversight by that office. Several of the problems that we proposed taking to Morocco were considered “inappropriate,” problems like childhood obesity, lack of political freedom in the US and PowerPoint as a brain-numbing presentation tool. The reasons varied with the most common being that “The Moroccans just won’t understand. They don’t have the context for this.” This type of paternalism is a big part of what Ghana ThinkTank is responding to and we were determined to bring the problems that Americans had submitted– all of them.
We often try to work with groups that already have a relationship with each other because it tends to create a comfortable scene and fuels conversation. That afternoon we had been invited to meet with a philosophy study group. As we sat among the trees, the participants slowly passed the problems around the circle, really pondering the issues. After some time one young man stood up and said, “I see! For Sartre, the other is hell but for Ghana ThinkTank, the other is the solution!” What a moment! This was the most succinct and accurate statement ever made about our project.
TK: Your Mexican Border Project differed from many other Ghana Think Tank projects because many of the people you were working with were in precarious legal situations and much of the work had to remain anonymous. One aspect of this project included collaborating with Torolab, and award-winning Mexican art and design group to “create a border cart designed to help people cross the US/Mexican border. Outfitted with interactive screens, the cart allowed people to present problems and give solutions pertaining to immigration and the border, creating a public think tank about the border, at the border.”
What surprised you most about working on the Mexican Border Project?
CM: It was so surprising. It was really, really surprising what happened when we went to the border. We were on the Mexican side of the border and we wanted to cross with the cart into the US, so we were traveling against the power dynamic. We had worked on the border cart for months and not just us, all the wonderful people at La Granja, Torolab’s community base. Through all this work, the object had become quite precious. All the times I’ve crossed into Mexico, it’s no big deal. The lines are short and move fast. But getting in to the US is a lot harder. We were concerned that the cart would get confiscated and we wouldn’t be able to complete the think tank session. Add to that that every single time I cross into the US from Mexico, I am “randomly selected for additional screening,” every single time. What if they confiscate the cart? What if one of us, probably me because I’m the Chicana, gets arrested? We made copies of passports, had important numbers set in our phones. We had this idea in our minds that the border patrol were going to make things really hard for us.
So there we are with the cart and we’re pushing it along the pedestrian lane. It’s brightly colored and we’re talking to people, inviting them to sit and chat, to have a drink– creating quite a ruckus. Of course the Border Patrol stop us and ask us what we are doing. They are armed, in riot gear, because I guess that is what they wear all the time now and not smiling. I took the most honest route I could and I just said, “Well, we’re here on the border, we’re artists, we’re trying to open a critical dialogic space about immigration. And we want it to be in conversation with the people who are living their daily lives on either side of these issues. And so we thought the best place to do that would be here on the border itself.”
It was amazing. The Border Patrol guys looked at each other and they were like, “Wow, yeah. We really need that. We REALLY need that. Nobody is asking us about that.” One guy got on his walkie-talkie and called up ahead to ask for help. “Where do you want the cart?” he asked me. “Uhmm.. up there?” I said. Just then two other border patrol showed up and the four of them hoisted the cart up and over the barrier and we were on our way. It was AWESOME. I was completely set to be detained, to have my passport confiscated, to have the cart impounded and to have to call my husband from a border town jail. None of that happened. All we did was talk to real people in real language. For me, it was one of the most enlightening moments of this project and there have been many.
TK: Did, that cause any shift in the project? Was there any action that changed because of that experience?
CM: I don’t think it shifted the project at all because we were set to do this one way or another. Our plan was the same as always– be respectful, try really hard and deal with the consequences of whatever happens. What I do think it did in that moment, when people saw the border patrol agents carrying the cart, is that it lifted some of the fear of interacting with us. I think on some level it might have even given us a little bit of legitimacy. A lot of people were really suspicious. It’s a scary topic, immigration and one’s status.
TK: Based on your diverse experiences, what advice you would give to young social practice artists?
CM: Pose your own questions. There is something very different at stake for participants, for community liaisons, for institutions, and for the artist. And I think it’s really important to do as much as you can to bring those concerns into conversation with each other. I always try to be honest about what is at stake for me personally in any project. So when we worked on the issue of climate change, when we worked with the immigration conundrum on the border, when we addressed police abuse of power in NYC, I look for my own story in that. And I am prepared to be the first to share. What is at stake for a participant is real. What is at stake for you is real. What’s at stake for the institution is real. It is essential that everyone is bringing what’s at stake for them to the table in an open, honest way.
The other thing is that I think it is important to create more space than you take up. As socially engaged practitioners, working in communities, we are taking up space. People have things to do and they are taking time out of their lives to speak to us, to participate, to contribute to our projects, they help us build them, to implement them. And so it is important to not be in denial about that, about the space that we’re taking up in people’s lives. I think one of the ways that we create space is when we pass the mic. By that I mean when we create a context for people to talk about what’s really important to them. This is what allows the work to become their work too.
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