To Understand Each Other
Illia is an Art and Social Practice alumnus I have the privilege to call a friend. I don’t remember how our friendship evolved, but we have shared stories, meals, drinks, school projects, and dance moves. Sometimes we get lost in translation—I being from Colombia and he being from Ukraine— but he has always made me feel understood, even in the darkest alleys of homesickness.
In many classroom friendships, some things never get asked, as if life before entering an MFA program was a hazy horizon detached from the shiny present of graduate studies. But being in grad school is just the tip of the iceberg of tons of decisions and life turns that make us converge in the same space/time to share thoughts around the same terms and topics.
I’ve known Illia for two years. We have ideals in common and a shared interest in community exchange and care. But I didn’t know what his journey in art life was like. This conversation is an exercise in understanding my friend’s urge to cultivate solidarity and cooperation through socially engaged art.
Diana Marcela Cuartas: Tell me about your life before coming to Portland. How did you end up in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University?
Illia Yakovenko: My life before coming to Portland started in the city of Mariupol, in Eastern Ukraine, where I grew up and spent a major part of my life. I studied economics with a major in management in Donetsk, one of the regional centers in eastern Ukraine and a city that also influenced me and that I feel connected to. This was one of the cities that got taken over and occupied during the first Russian invasion in 2014. After finishing my education there, I went to Moscow. I got a job in a telecommunications company as a delivery boy, and because of my management background, I was able to “grow” and became a sales manager. I started learning more about art because there were more opportunities for that than in Mariupol, which was more of an industrialized town without an art school and just a few museums. In Moscow, there were big museums and a biennial, and I had access to all this art from other places. Now, I get that it was primarily sourced from the other republics, similar to how things happen in an empire. You could find Ukrainian or Central Asian art stored in Moscow or St. Petersburg museums in Russia just because they could do that.
So I started to get exposed to art, then I started volunteering at the Moscow Biennial, and eventually, I got into an art program at the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Art. Since then, I’ve been into art. So, if we go back to how I ended up in Portland, there is a part of my life in Moscow, which is when I switched to art and also into precariousness.
Diana: What do you mean?
Illia: When I switched my career to the art field, I lost my job and my security to some extent. I was also undocumented for a while, and Moscow is very strict with that. The police are everywhere, and if you don’t have the proper ID, they can deport you or detain you. I also became houseless for a while. I had to study and try to navigate the situation when I had nowhere to go. I would stay and crash on my friend’s couches, but there are limits to that. So I’d have to wander at night or go to the subway because it was open until 1AM. Then I’d hang out for 4 hours somewhere in the city in the middle of the night.
I started getting different jobs managing art projects, so I got some money, graduated from this program, and entered another one in St. Petersburg. It was The School of Engaged Art by Studio Art Group. This was when my interest in social engagement started. I remember there were major demonstrations in 2012; people would flood streets like Bolotnaya Square, punch police cars’ tires, and fight with the police for real. Then, I guess the Kremlin and Putin became paranoid that they could lose power and started introducing new legislation, reinforcing the police and getting equipment to suppress the demonstrations. These laws could imprison people for 4-6 years if they’re found guilty of fighting with the police or taking part in protests, creating an even more oppressive and authoritarian climate.
With all these things happening, artists had a special role in supporting the demonstrations by making posters or signs, looking for different ways to call for political action, or making art that addressed the political context. Some of my first art-making was with my friends, organizing an experimental school for gender studies in Moscow because there was a large clash of the Russian government against the queer, LGBTQ+ community, and anything that would be a disruption of the patriarchal gender standards. There were laws introduced that criminalized what they would call “propaganda,” basically anything that would speak about LGBTQ+ rights. People could get imprisoned if the government found that they are doing this “propaganda” for minors. So we were trying to push back and decided to come together and create this school and invite people.
It was a two-month program with three components: art, theory, and activism. We invited artists to share their art practice through talks or lectures, and we invited philosophers or people from the academy to talk about gender in relation to the Soviet Union. We invited activists to share resources about other activist organizations or events. We had an art laboratory where we produced artwork based on what we learned at this school and the experience of meeting all these people, and we were lucky to get away with it without getting in a lot of trouble. That was one of the first socially engaged projects I’ve been part of creating, curating, and making. We conceptualized it as a social sculpture.
Diana: So, in Moscow you were more exposed to art, and it seems like this was also pushed onto you by the context. I wonder, if the political situation had been different, would you be interested in art anyway?
Illia: I think the political situation made me interested in socially engaged forms of art. Because I was interested in art before but in more conventional forms, still very much confined to gallery or museum spaces. After these experiences, I realized that even in the gallery space, many artworks could convey a political message. After getting more embedded into this community of artists, I realized that people were actually part of the events and tried with their art to support political activism as much as they could. It was not like they just made art and talked about the experience.
So, my political engagement started in Russia, but by the end of 2013, another revolution was happening in Ukraine. I visited a few times to witness how it unfolded. The Ministry of Culture in Ukraine got occupied by activists and that event changed my perspective completely. I connected with the people who occupied it and went to a couple of meetings where people would gather at this large table to have a very horizontal type of meeting. They were discussing how they wanted to rebuild the cultural infrastructure of the country after the revolution succeeded. It was super interesting to experience that. It was very different from the Russian situation, where you can’t even come close to the Ministry of Culture building because it’s fenced out and the police guard it.
In Ukraine, after the occupation, you could enter the building; the guard was still there but did nothing because he was just a guy, who I assume was still coming to work because things were unclear. The Minister left the building and never came back. Most workers also did not come back to work, so you could access papers, financial documents, and everything. It inspired me to go back to live in Ukraine to become part of this process of changing the structures because they were very inert, in many ways similar to what the Soviet Union was: a very top-down corrupt system without any input from the art community. But in 2014, after the building was occupied and after the revolution, all these changes started happening, and people from the field started entering the Ministry of Culture, some new government institutions were created, and it became more functional. I got inspired by this change and its potential and moved back to Ukraine and lived there for almost four years before coming to Portland.
Diana: How did you decide to come to this specific program?
Illia: There was another part of my life when I went to Beirut, Lebanon, to another art program for almost a year. There I met Gregory Sholette, an American artist involved in socially engaged work with a very political practice. Meeting him, I learned he runs a program in New York, and the program’s name is Social Practice. Basically, this is how I learned about the term. I was already interested in socially engaged art and how to learn the skills to enable social engagement between people or communities. I was interested in working with people and improving that part of my practice. I started looking for opportunities to do that and found out about the Fulbright scholarship, which I was lucky to get.
When I was applying, I didn’t know much about other programs in the United States. I knew about Gregory’s program and was in touch with him. Initially, I applied with the hope that I would go to study in New York. But, because of the nature of Fulbright, they can send you to any school they decide is most relevant for you based on many factors, trying to find a place they can afford best. Eventually, they just told me where they wanted me to go to study. I learned about the program at Portland State while I was already in the process.
When it turned out they were sending me to Portland, I checked the PSU Art and Social Practice website. I saw they had a partnership with the Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School and the Columbia River Correctional Institute. As an international student, not knowing what to expect in the United States and struggling with the language and many other things, it was good to see that, structurally, the program had these established forms of co-creation available for students; where maybe I could plug in and not have to look for the opportunities myself. Because the whole experience of adjusting to this new environment is already a lot of stress and energy.
Diana: How did the experience in the program and the Portland context impact your creative process? How is finding community and trying to master “social engagement skills” in this specific Portland life?
I’m curious because your artistic practice emerged as a reaction to the political context you were immersed in before coming here and I don’t feel like PSU Art and Social Practice has a strong foundation for activism or political engagement.
Illia: It was definitely a difficult experience. I don’t want to necessarily say it was a “culture shock,” but it definitely felt very different. Like many things that were relevant to me were different here. I’m still learning and don’t fully understand how to operate in this context. Still, I am staying here longer and longer. It’s always challenging in general, and it’s not even necessarily a program-related thing. It’s just the difference in the context.
But there are some takeaways from the program, from this local context, and mostly from the people; either students or just people who I’ve met in my journey in the United States. I have learned many things that changed how I think about socially engaged art. Now I think about my practice in a way that not only creates antagonistic statements but also as a way of trying to be supportive of myself and the community I am part of. Compared to what I experienced in Russia or Ukraine, where art often came from this political necessity of pushing back against the government, art can be very vocal and very rough. There is also a lot of trauma but you kind of embrace this trauma and try to… I am trying to find the right words…
Diana: I’m thinking about the word “urgent.” At least for me, that also comes from a country where the context urges you to take action with your practice, to the point that sometimes it feels like it is kind of a privilege to create outside of those lines.
Illia: There is some art that makes some eyes feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to say it is “violent,” but you do some things and maybe you don’t like them but you still have to do it because it feels like a need to be dedicated to the political moment. I guess I’m trying to say that I have learned that it’s also important to take care of yourself and the community you work with. In this way, my practice became more about care and joy, or at least that is something I try to find for myself through my work. With projects like The Sea of Mariupol (1), I was trying to create a healing environment for myself, but with an approach where I could offer that framework to other people and see how it can be helpful for them to overcome the trauma of displacement.
Diana: I totally got that with that project. It was healing magic having all these people together, sharing a boat ride. It was a joyful moment that I didn’t know I needed, and it brought me feelings of home. It made me think that maybe because of the pandemic plus the political situation, the need for care has become more urgent too.
I would also like to hear more about the Center for Art and Human Cooperation (2). I love that the mission is “To support mutual understanding and solidarity through arts and culture.” Can you tell me more about the need for mutual understanding, care, and solidarity?
Illia: Because I went through all these experiences, meeting people from different countries and cultures, I have learned some things about the politics and the struggles that those people have gone through, and I can relate to certain things that people share. Even though the struggles everyone is exposed to are different because they involve different configurations of geopolitics, history, race, and all these complexities. They fall differently in different places for different people, but there are factors that are relatable for many of us. In my practice, mutual understanding means that people can learn about each other’s experiences and find something they can relate through, and build some bonds with each other that potentially creates some form of solidarity that can empower all of us.
Because of being in the United States and not being connected to anyone, people have helped me a lot. People from different communities with different experiences have stepped in and helped me navigate different situations. So there are two things: one is finding ways to relate to each other and know more about each other’s struggles, the other is to understand them not only through the mind, but basically to feel for each other. Is there a word for that?
Diana: I don’t know if I’m getting it wrong, but this “feel for each other” sounds like learning through feelings. A connection to share ideas, experiences, or facts by understanding each other’s feelings.
Illia: Things unfold differently in different contexts, but some things are common in terms of capitalism, colonialism, and extraction. People experience these things differently according to their own circumstances, but it is still part of this global capitalism and the extractivist paradigm we’re immersed in, which, eventually, everyone has to address in some way. It is mainly driven to help yourself, but if there is more coordination and solidarity, it would be easier to address these systems in a way that can benefit everyone.
Diana: Why did you choose an institutional disguise as the framework to start the conversation about mutual understanding with The Center for Human Art and Cooperation?
Illia: Part of the need to make an institution came from the fact that I’ve done small projects that get folded into this bigger framework, and putting them together multiplies its symbolic value. But it comes from the need for a sense of security as well. I’m not sure if it’s working out for me so far or not, but since there’s so much precarity in being an artist, an institution feels more stable. It’s more psychological, that, maybe if I express all these things in this form, then I feel more secure, that’s one of the reasons. Also, sometimes, when you reach out to someone and say, “I have this institution,” people get more interested in what you’re doing. But at the same time, it can be a challenge. I remember the experience of participating in the activities of the Ukrainian Day Festival. I didn’t know the organizers very well, and when pitching my ideas, I would bring the institution up, and the response would be, “Oh, but what is your institution? Is it a charity? Is it commercial?” It felt more challenging to explain an institution than just come as an artist. In certain cases, it can make things more difficult because people may ask more questions and can even feel distrust of you as an institution.
Diana: One more question: how do you explain social practice to non-artists?
Illia: I would have some examples of my own work to share, explaining my projects and that I try to create experiences that will help others to learn about the place I am from in a way they can relate to my experience and connect it to things that are relevant to the context they come from. Like with The Sea of Mariupol, people’s social interaction and the social part of the project’s design is part of my practice and the artwork itself. This is how I approach this question so far because everything can be social practice. But basically, social practice is when social experience becomes an integral part of the artwork.
(1) The Sea of Mariupol is a program created by Illia to celebrate and commemorate the city of Mariupol, Ukraine, with a series of community-oriented events at the Willamette Sailing Club to raise awareness of Ukraine’s situation. This event encourages personal connection by sharing experiences and stories during a boat ride guided by Illia in support of Mariupol and its people.
(2) The Center for Human Art and Cooperation (CAHC) is a project created by Illia as an institution committed to supporting mutual learning and solidarity through exhibitions, events, discussions, and other artistic activities to promote cross-communal and cross-cultural exchange.
Diana Marcela Cuartas is a Colombian artist, educator, and cultural worker transplanted to Portland in 2019. Her work incorporates visual research, popular culture analysis and collaborative learning processes in publications, workshops, parties, or curatorial projects as a framework to investigate the relationships formed between a place and those who inhabit it. With her practice, Diana is interested in subverting hegemonic structures by cultivating spaces to invite people to slow down, think together, share questions, and play more.
Illia Yakovenko is an artist from Mariupol, Ukraine and a displaced individual. He is a 2022 graduate of the Art and Social Practice program and a Fulbright recipient. Illia grew up in Mariupol, by the Sea of Azov, where he spent hot summer days swimming and sailing.
The first Russian invasion of 2014 turned Mariupol and eastern Ukraine into a frontline. Since then, Illia directed his art practice to address conflict, heal, and imagine a more equitable, inclusive and safe future. In the following invasion of 2022, the Russian military attempted to completely destroy Mariupol. Illia’s family was able to flee to Europe. Illia’s status in the United States or elsewhere is precarious and uncertain.
“When The River Becomes A Cloud” launched on June 9, 2022 after a 6-month exploratory pilot period of collaboration with teachers, staff and students at Prescott School, and evolved into a multi-year, collaborative public artwork throughout the campus. Prescott School is a Pre-K-12 public school in rural Eastern Washington. While developing the work, Amanda Leigh Evans and Tia Kramer – both program alumni who are interviewed in this issue – have been long-term artists-in-residence at the school.
In the program trip during 2021-2022, we visited Prescott Elementary School and participated in exercises with Amanda and Tia, and the students, faculty, and staff at the school. We sought to complete a participatory course on the campus: each MFA candidate was paired with an elementary school student and created unique choreography that happened consecutively throughout the playground and landscape around the school. We also enjoyed in-depth conversations with Tia and Amanda about the inception of their collaboration, the value of sharing language from the program, and the beautiful endurance required for public art projects.
It’s thrilling to see the project evolve and learn that “When The River Becomes A Cloud” will result in large, permanent public artwork. A continuum for those who came before and will come after.
Reading this issue of the SoFA Journal is especially enjoyable because we get to have a window into names and projects connected to the program. We see how they came together, where they lead, and what social practice artists do after their time at PSU.
We selected this image for its impressive birds’ eye view of the project, and because of the sweet memory of the school last spring. Someone threw a snowball in their choreography. There was clapping and stomping at the start. Hopscotch. The exercises inspired us beyond the visit to dream up performance scores, make more art with children, and collaborate with one another in big and small ways in our own practices.
Gilian Rappaport and Luz Blumenfeld
Letter from the Editor
What is Social Practice?
When you tell people you are getting an MFA in Social Practice, they always have follow up questions. Often no matter the definition you give, your conversation partner will say something like, “So you make murals?” or “Like art therapy?” Nothing against murals or art therapy, but no, that is not exactly what we are doing here. What we are doing is varied and vast and has been going on for a while. The A+SP program at Portland State University started in 2007 and around 70 artists have graduated since then. For this edition of SoFA, each current student in the program was asked to interview a program alumnus. Through the interviews, we see glimpses of how the program changed and grew based on who was taking part and how social practice has changed and grown as a field.
I wanted to take this opportunity to crowdsource. Who better to sympathize about the challenge of defining social practice than our predecessors? How do the many alumni of our program describe the field in which we work and play and dig and live? I looked to the Terms and Topics formulated by program founder Harrell Fletcher and imposed a small self-initiated artist residency within the interviews of my colleagues. I asked them each to add the question, “How do you describe social practice to non-artists?” to their interview. Some chose to include the question in the published version of the interviews you are about to read, and others did not, but the responses they shared with me began to paint a picture of the expansive field of social practice and reminded me why I found it captivating to begin with.
Avalon Kalin, alumnus of the program’s first graduating class, told Becca Kauffman that social practice is “a tendency in art.” He also introduces a game that he and Becca play in their interview, and you can play it too. Constance Hockaday told Gilian Rappaport, “I like to take risks in public with people. I like to make magical things happen— unexpected happenings… It’s about getting the audience to take the risk with you.” Salty Xi Jie Ng claims, “The work makes you as much as you make the work.” Salty’s work feels intimate and humorous and her conversation with Nadine Hanson feels the same.
As Mark Menjivar puts it, “Some people self-identify as social practice artists, other people don’t.” Not everyone uses the term social practice. Some find it easier for themselves and their potential participants or collaborators to relate to other terms like social sculpture, social art, and socially engaged art.
Tia Kramer calls herself a social choreographer and uses the term socially engaged art because it “makes more sense in the rural context.” She shares in her interview with Marissa Perez that working with a small town community has meant explaining less often what she does, because the people around her have already been a part of it.
Overall, there is a sense that, while pinning down social practice can be difficult, it allows immense freedom in terms of how it is practiced, where it happens, and how it can serve the artist and others. You will probably notice that when many of the artists interviewed talked about how they share the idea of social practice with others, they talk about starting a longer conversation; they describe what sounds like the beginning of a relationship being formed, a collaborator being recruited, a social practice project being born.
– Caryn Aasness
A Sense of Unexpectedness
Tia Kramer is a social choreographer and social practice artist. She is embedded deeply in Walla Walla, Washington and her work taps into many different parts of her experience and community. I’m interested in the ways that people use their practices to explore the places that they live and to ground themselves in the people around them. I was drawn to Tia’s recent series of “performances for one.” In one called, What You Touch You Cannot See, she choreographed a performance for her mail carrier, Phil, where each person on the mail route sent Phil a package filled with stories, drawings, plants, and poems about the things he had delivered for them. In another she created a walk home filled with synchronicity, messages written on sandwich boards, and a parking lot light performance for her friend Guillermo. Tia is so skilled at creating projects that reveal and strengthen the ways we are connected. It was such a pleasure to hear about Tia’s experience working with the different layers of her community.
Marissa Perez: Let’s start with: how do you define social practice? And specifically, how do you define it for anyone who’s not familiar with the term? I’m also curious if you still call what you do social practice?
Tia Kramer: Yeah, that’s a good question. One of the things that’s been interesting about being in a small community is that when I was in the program, that question felt really important because it is a question I was asked all the time: What is social practice? And how do you define it? But now, six years into my life as an artist making public socially engaged art here, people know me and my work in the community–non artists know me and my work–and so I don’t feel like I have to define social practice very often. They just know, “oh, that’s Tia’s practice.” And now that fellow PSU graduate Amanda Leigh Evans is here they might say to Amanda, “Oh, I think I know a bit about what you do.” I don’t end up defining it a lot. And simultaneously, Amanda and I are often working on defining it together.
In recent years, when people I don’t know ask about my practice I begin by saying that I’m a social choreographer. I’ll say, “I’m a socially engaged artist, which is a little different than what you might expect an artist to be. I don’t necessarily do painting, but instead what I’m interested in is the interactions between people and creating creative experiences for groups of people that shift who is the artist and who has agency and who has power.” Then I’ll say, “Specifically, I am a social choreographer. I have a background in performance and I think a lot about choreography— creating movement for and of people. I choreograph experiences for a group of people that change their perception of each other and their everyday life.”
I also use the term “socially engaged art” more than “social practice,” because that makes more sense in the rural context.
Marissa: Yeah, and it feels like it makes it an active term so then it can click for people a little more.
Tia: And socially engaged art has the word art in the definition, which is helpful. It says I’m inherently working with people in my creative projects. That’s enough for me to then follow with: “for example, as a social choreographer, I created this performance for one person, for my mailman and this is what it looked like…” Or, “I’m an Artist in Residence at Prescott School and instead of teaching art to kids, Amanda and I are collaboratively making art with kids so that their voices have agency. We don’t know what the outcome is going to be.” There’s a sense of unexpectedness, in all the things that happen within our practice, but we’re really facilitating that experience.
Marissa: I’m curious about your process of feeling rooted in Walla Walla and how it has affected your practice? How has your practice also affected the ways you are rooted in place?
Tia: I really love this specific question, because I think that both of those things are deeply true in a smaller place. I’ve lived in Seattle, and I moved to Walla Walla in 2016. My current collaborator, Amanda, moved from Portland. I went through the program in a small town and I’ve mainly been doing socially engaged art in a small place. That isn’t true for Amanda and she is constantly surprised at how different social practice is, and the ramifications and the implications of the work are in a small place. In some ways it is a different practice. In a city, you can go put signs up around your neighborhood as an anonymous person. But in a small place, if you put signs up around your neighborhood, most likely people will learn that it’s you that did it and then they’re going to ask you about it. And if they don’t know it’s you, they might think, “Oh, it’s part of a class or a project or an initiative.” So the implications of these actions become different–anonymity isn’t present or possible in the same ways. Because of that, there are positives and negatives that come with those implications. The positive is that there’s potential for deeper work and for complex layers of participation.
When I lived in Seattle, and in urban places, I wanted to create experiences that were slow and intimate. And then I moved to Walla Walla. Here EVERYTHING can feel slow and intimate. I think I realized that, in order for a practice to be meaningful to me here, it has to get more specific and less generalized. I would also say that, now that I’ve been working here for six years, all of my relationships are deeply intertwined with the work I do. Even the relationships I have as a parent– the kids in my life know the projects I’m doing, or they encounter me doing my work in the world, and so do their parents. So there’s a really inherent interconnectivity between my social practice work, my community, and the community at large.
I also know so many people from my work! For example, the performance I made for my mailman was created with 87 people on his mail route, which means that’s 87 more people that I have relationships with in a tiny town where you bump into people all the time. And that’s just the relationships developed in one project. Because of that, there are things in my practice that I don’t do as much anymore. Now I am more hesitant to build really deep, intimate relationships, because I’ve done that with so many people, and now I have a lot of social obligations.
Marissa: Are there ways that you felt that you needed to be rooted before certain projects were possible?
Tia: I strongly believe that social practice artists should be really careful to consider the “service” or “do-gooder” components to their work, both intended and unintended. I feel strongly about that. The choices that we make as social practice artists have implications on people and those implications need to be considered. For that reason, I feel a really strong obligation to do antiracist training and to work on myself as a white person collaborating with POC artists and communities, and I need to deeply understand what that means in a small town context. For example, I really emphasize building trust, and ethically following through on projects. I did a theater piece where I constructed a theater performance based on the stories of immigrants in the community. And the people who were in that project with me saw how carefully I considered every step, like getting their feedback on the script and asking for their input on the performance. And when we invited their families we wanted it to be fully accessible, so we paid for their tickets and provided childcare and simultaneous interpretation. That level of consideration has had unexpectedly long term consequences. Now when I ask them, “Can I meet with you to have coffee to talk about a new project I’m thinking about?” they are often curious and say yes, because we feel a mutual respect and connection to each other. That makes my work possible. But sometimes that is also a burden. It’s a lot of work to hold those relationships. It is emotional labor.
When I look at the work Amanda and I are doing together as Artists in Residence at Prescott School [a preK-12 public school in rural Eastern Washington], I think that the work that I’ve done in the community to build trust has paved a way for us and for her, as a newcomer, to just dive right into a project. There’s levels of trust that have to happen and that trust takes time to build.
Marissa: Yeah. It’s a complex answer and also very simple. I’m wondering about how you use relationships in your work. I’m curious about how you’re being strategic with your relationships.
Tia: I would push back against the word strategic, although I think that that makes sense. But it just has a slightly extractive quality to it. I do think there is strategy, so I’m not ignoring the fact that I’m being strategic— but I would say that I’m consciously working to build relationships that are outside of my inner circle. I know what my family knows and what I have been exposed to in the world, and I see how communities, even in a small town, get super isolated. I’m interested in how we disrupt that isolation. How could I meet someone that I wouldn’t have met or learn something new that I haven’t learned? And some of those relationships become really close friends and other times those relationships are with people I just bump into at the coffee shop, who might say, “thank you for that weird thing you did.”
Marissa: I get that. It does feel bad to hear the word strategic in these contexts because it feels related to networking. Whereas I feel like what you’re doing is more careful than that, like you’re being careful because you’re trying to create care.
Tia: I might even separate careful into two words: “care” and “full.” Much of my work is based on the feminist ethics of care, and now, because I have worked with feminist care ethics for a long time, I also find myself pushing back against those philosophies. I find myself resisting projects that require too much care. I just want to make.
Marissa: That brings me to my next question. It seems like the project with Amanda at Prescott School is not necessarily super different from your other work, but might be part of a departure from your more one-on-one intense relationship-building practices. How are you feeling about this project? And where is it fitting into your practice?
Tia: What I would say about the work with the When The River Becomes a Cloud project, is that the work is merging together all of these different aspects of myself. I have a seven year old and a three year old and I have been making art with them since they were little. Through the pandemic, we made an imaginary zoo that had hundreds of imaginary animals that you could visit in the park. I have so many practices around my work with kids that I haven’t formalized yet, and this project formalizes many of them in a very concrete way. I think that the project launch was about helping the students see the dissolving of the boundary between life and art, or between performance and life. We were very intentional and this is where I get into strategy. The students at Prescott School had not had an art teacher at their school for eight years. It’s a pre-K through 12 school, so they haven’t had any exposure besides what their teachers show them. So of course, the very first thing students think is: “Oh, you’re a public, professional artist. That must mean you’re going to make a mural with us.” From the very beginning, we wanted to challenge and expand their notions of what art practice can look like. We wanted to crack open art, and that’s what social practice does, and that’s what performance can do. It can really shift us to ask, “Are we performing? Are we part of this project or is it for us? Who is the audience?” Unlike with a performance for one person as the audience and a huge team of performers, this initial project with the 330 students at the school was a project in which every person was both in it, part of it, and also the audience for it. We created an immersive experience that’s very unusual in a rural context. In fact, I would go so far as to say it was radical for these kids.
Marissa: So in your performances for an audience of one, you create an immersive experience for one person. I’m curious about how the experience of creating this performance affects the performers and their relationships with each other and the audience members?
Tia: To describe this let me step back, a typical format for theater might be a solo performance, one person performing for a big group. My performance for an audience of one flipped that form. I created a performance in which a big group of people performed for one person. Conceptually that is very concise. Everyone who’s invited to participate understands the shift in framework. They find unexpectedness in the form which often inspires their participation. Participants really go all in in a way that’s beautiful to witness and experience. The form ignites the imagination. Very early on participants can understand that as they’re engaging in the process they are getting something out of the performance, which is really different than if you’re performing for a big group. If you’re performing for a big group, you immediately can imagine the audience and you almost disassociate, like, “Okay, this part of myself is behind, and I’m going to just place it this way.” But if it’s for one person, you know how to create a one on one interaction and you know that your experience of what you present to someone is going to change that person, and they are going to change you, because that is an experience we all have on a daily basis. So what I found to be really beautiful is that what I’m often using for these “performances for one” are pre-existing relationships that I’m taking out of one context and putting into another.
I think that in the example of the performance for Guillermo, he knew all the people that were performing except for a team of musicians and some dancers. And now, two years later, when he bumps into those people he didn’t know, he finds it to be really awkward because he knows nothing about them but knows the other participant might know a lot about him. But, all of the people who participated who had pre-existing relationships with him, those just got even deeper after the performance. However, it was different for Phil, the mail carrier, because in that performance, What You Touch You Cannot See, some of the people who participated were friends, but many of the people he didn’t know. But he knew a lot about them through their mail. Their participation created a new bridge. Once he opened the package that they gave him and the insight they gave him into their life, when he bumped into them on the route, he’d be like, “thank you for that thing you did for me.” And then they would respond, sharing about this new knowledge and experience they share in common. That’s a new starting place for a friendship or a relationship. So I think there’s a lot of relationships that he has that are dramatically different now. And he’s gonna probably be on that mail route for the next 20 years. So it’s also interesting to see how those relationships are changing.
Marissa: My dad was a mail carrier for 30 years, and he was a rural mail carrier. And just reading about the project, it felt special to me. And it does feel like such a ripe place for socially engaged work, because it’s a place where there’s so much social engagement and you can’t see it. It’s like my dad, if he’s talking about a customer, my mom will be like, “and what’s their address?” And he can recite their address right here. He’s got them stuck in his brain. You know, all the exchange of information is there, just without the personal connection and you just made a spark to be like, “Look, it’s just one little thing that it takes.” And that’s really special.
Tia: Yeah, it’s interesting, because Phil will say, like, “Hey, Tia, do you know, Bob? 1826 Newell!” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I know, Bob!” He can recite 400 addresses by heart, which is really amazing.
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.
Tia Kramer (she/her) is a social choreographer, performer, artist, and educator interested in everyday gestures of human connection. She creates experiences that interrupt the ordinary, engaging participants in embodied poetry and collective imagination. Tia holds an MFA in Art + Social Practice from Portland State University and a Post Bacc in Fiber + Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Currently, Tia is developing When The River Becomes a Cloud (2022-2024), a collaborative public artwork as part of her long-term Artist-in-Residence at Prescott School (PreK-12) with Amanda Leigh Evans as part of Carnegie Picture Lab’s Rural Art Initiative.
A Closeness To Life
I was introduced to Salty Xi Jie Ng’s work through my twin brother, Nolan, whose time in the Art & Social Practice program overlapped with Salty’s. I was, and remain, so drawn to the intricate yet inconceivably vast spiritual landscapes that are created and explored in her interdisciplinary practice. In my own work, I’m feeling curious about fantasy as a tool and site of social engagement and performances of the everyday, themes which I see represented in Salty’s projects. We met for the first time via phone; Salty, in Singapore, and me, in my apartment in The Bronx. She was patient and warm as I asked her some questions about her life and art practice, and she shared some of her cosmic wisdom.
Nadine Hanson: Do you have a morning routine?
Salty Xi Jie Ng: I love that question. I think about my morning routine all the time. How can I actually do it better? I wake up and I make my bed, and then I have a customized stretching sequence that I made for myself and what my body needs, although it probably needs updating, and it ends with some qigong and brushing of excess energy from the body and petting the body to awaken it. After that, I will take a quick shower, because it’s hot in the tropics so a shower is necessary every morning and refreshing because it’s very hard for me to get out of the hypnagogic sleep state. After that, I’ll make breakfast which is usually fruit, oats and an egg. So that’s the morning routine.
Nadine: Where do you feel the most calm?
Salty: When I’m with a bodyworker or therapist I trust, or in the arms of my partner when we cuddle, or a moment of meditation where I reach a sense of spaciousness.
Nadine: What is your favorite piece of clothing?
Salty: There are too many pieces of clothing that I feel attached to. When sorting through my life’s possessions recently, I found about 50 pairs of old, saggy, crunchy underwear I’d kept since teenagehood. I kept some to make a shawl of my teenage girlhood.
Nadine: Do you identify as a social practice artist?
Salty: I identify as an artist who makes a whole spectrum of work, including social practice, performance, film, installation, writing, movement, and so on. I think it’s important to be as expansive as one can be because there’s many ways to express oneself for different seasons of our lives. Working relationally is just one approach or one tool that I might have, one response to a context. I’m at a time where I really want to allow myself to be, and be seen as a whole spectrum of things.
Nadine: How do you explain social practice to non artists?
Salty: Art that is made in collaboration with other people, that is not focused on making objects, where the shared experience is the art itself. I think the ways that shared spaces in socially engaged art projects unfold can be very mysterious and alchemical, even if there’s a methodology and a lesson plan. I think about how all the energies of people and their histories intersect, and how we change each other through the ways that we spend time together in those spaces—there’s something very cosmic about that. The work makes you as much as you make the work.
Nadine: Could you tell me a little bit about what draws you to making work on the subject of intimacy?
Salty: In my life, outside of artistic practice, I’ve always been drawn to intimacy: I’ve always wanted to come closer to life in any way that I could, to the sense of being alive and uncovering things. I remember feeling that from the time when I was a child. Now, I think of much of my work as creating spaces for intimacy. In The Grandma Reporter issues 2 and 3, I investigated the subject of intimacy with senior women in Portland and Singapore. Now I’m thinking a lot about eroticism—also a closeness to life, a sister to intimacy which vibrates at another tone.
Nadine: In your project “Not Grey: Intimacy, Ageing, & Being,” Zubee Ali describes her first love affair with a woman and says: “she introduced me to love– being able to love another and allowing myself to be loved.” In your experience, how can one allow oneself to be loved?
Salty: By first learning to love oneself and then saying to the universe, let me be loved– by the sun, the sky, the moon, the wind, the waters, and then, maybe, by someone. But know it will most likely bring a good amount of pain! You must be ready. Often you have no choice; it will come even when you are not ready.
Nadine: Have you ever been in love?
Salty: Oh many times. Always, forever.
Nadine: Do you think that part of love is fantasy?
Salty: Part of it, yes. I think that when we start loving something, there’s always a sense of projection– a sheath of fantasy– around it, whether that thing is a person, a subject, a theme, an animal, an idea. I’m very interested in that sheath of fantasy, in the space of the semi-fictional. As you love something longer, you come, perhaps, to painful truths about that thing, which are necessary to experience.
Nadine: Could you articulate how you interact with fantasy?
Salty: I think and I propose that collaborative art spaces are semi-fictional worlds because we are birthing into being a kind of relational experience that did not exist before. Just by sharing space in the ways we do, we are making a future we want to see and be in. In that space of semi-fiction, new ways of being and being together land softly; new visions of life coalesce like rain clouds, new truths emerge. Fiction and reality cannot do that alone.
Nadine: What has performance allowed you to do in your work?
Salty: Performance takes me to an altered and heightened state of being, where I think performers channel and access different energies.
Nadine: What do you think those energies are?
Salty: [laughs] What a metaphysical question. Energies from other realms and dimensions, energies from nonlinear time and space. Whether consciously or unconsciously, performers access myths, messages from other entities, histories of a place, and more. An entire field is speaking to them.
Nadine: What have you been up to since you’ve graduated?
Salty: I made The Inside Show in collaboration with inmates at Columbia River Correctional Institution. I got a job as artist-in-residence in 2019 and 2020 at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, where I made Words of Support, Faculty Relations, A Whaling Descendant Performs In Four Acts, and The Alternative Moby-Dick Marathon. When the pandemic hit, I came back to Singapore and really struggled with mental health. For five months as the artist-in-residence of a Singaporean mall, I ran Buangkok Mall Life Club, a retail unit turned art space. Then, among other projects, I worked on Not Grey: Intimacy, Ageing, and Being, STREET FOUND, and Dear Singapore Art Museum Acquisition Committee, from which emerged my curator persona Sheralynne Dollatella-Wong Jia (MA Curation, MA Arts Business). She challenges museum practices, specifically around acquisition. It was a response to being part of the international contemporary art world while feeling disturbed by the way it operates. Recently, Sheralynne worked with the Museum Why network in Scandinavia for their symposium rethinking museums.
Somewhere in there, my paternal grandma, whom I’m very close to, passed away. Soon after, I began a residency at the Singapore Art Museum. I spent my time there processing the early stages of grief, from which emerged Baibai Research Group, a growing body of work on expanded spiritual expressions stemming from Chinese ancestor worship, the spiritual lineage I carry. There is learning about syncretic Chinese religious practices in Singapore, grieving in public, working with non-human collaborators, and being able to connect with people around my generation in Singapore on a subject we don’t quite engage with together. It’s a beautiful opportunity to re-imagine the ritual practices I grew up with.
That was a lot! Currently, I’m taking a pause to re-envision my practice. My friends could not believe that I would have no projects lined up, because I’ve been going nonstop for so many years but I think that recalibrating is so important. Life can be so many ways. I’ve been on a quest to sort through my entire life’s possessions. Given I’m a hoarder, this has been a mammoth task. I’m determined to finish because I think it will create the space to re-envision and make space for new things to enter my life. It’s already happening.
Pausing on big projects has also been about detangling my sense of self-worth from the work I have lined up, or lack thereof. People don’t talk much about the toxic culture of production and competition perpetuated by hegemonic art world forces. I want to live in a world where artists’ creative gifts can be honored and met by the world in healthy, sustainable ways.
Nadine: Ritual has come up in your work, and in an interview about your recent project, “Baibai Research Group,” you talk about “ritual as wish fulfillment.” Would you be able to share some wishes that you’ve fulfilled (or hope to fulfill) through ritual?
Salty: My paternal grandmother’s safe passage to the next realm, which can be prayed for through certain prescribed rituals, or rituals one can invent. The ability to communicate with departed loved ones just by being in a space of ritual. Contributing towards them having an ample and interesting afterlife— in Chinese ancestor worship, paper effigies are burnt to send gifts to the other realm; for example, a dog to annoy my paternal grandma since she hates dogs, and a vespa and cigarettes for my paternal grandfather. The releasing of old traumas or stuck feelings, while meeting selves or a renewed self that can come through performance— ritual is performance.
Nadine: Do you have any advice for how to care for oneself while making socially engaged work?
Salty: Here are some thoughts, and I’m telling this to myself as much as sharing with you. Establish healthy boundaries around communication via text and email. Take at least one day off a week where you don’t work or think about it (try!). Be able to envision, as much as possible, the many kinds of labor involved so you can pay yourself appropriately, or expand the team and learn to share, outsource, delegate, trust. I am a big empath and easily affected by the energies of others. By the end of the day, I always shower, stretch and do some qigong exercises to release excess energy. Spending time alone is really important. Part of that time can be spent reflecting on what part of the work brings you joy and curiosity, and how to keep connecting with that while a project unfolds.
Salty Xi Jie Ng (she/her) co-creates semi-fictional paradigms for the real and imagined lives of humans within the poetics of the interdimensional intimate vernacular. Often playing with relational possibilities, her transdisciplinary work is manifested from fantasy scores for the present and future that propose a collective re-imagining through humour, care, subversion, play, discomfort, a celebration of the eccentric, and a commitment to the deeply personal. Her practice dances across forms such as brief encounter, collaborative space, variety show, poem, conversation, meal, publication, film, performance.
Nadine Hanson (she/her) is an artist based in New York City who, for the last decade, has worked service-industry positions in bars, restaurants, hotels, and other people’s homes. Her occupational experience informs her interdisciplinary practice, which uses collaborative approaches to performance, writing, and experimental documentary to explore commonly under-valued and feminized knowledge bases and forms of labor.
The Intersection of Process and Material Outcome in Socially Engaged Work
Before coming to PSU’s Art + Social Practice program, my practice revolved mostly around material objects; I took photos, I painted, I made collages. While I greatly enjoy (and still do) these things, I wanted more from my art practice. I wanted collaboration and conversation, public interaction and personal storytelling. I wanted social practice before I knew what to call it. But sometimes I struggle to figure out where my past interest in material forms fit into my socially engaged present. I still want to make things, but I want to do it with other people rather than alone. How do I create objects in a socially engaged way? What do I do with the subsequent objects? What physical matter comes out of conceptual projects? I hoped to answer some of these questions with Zeph, whose range of work often contains physical materials and objects in some way or another.
Olivia DelGandio: I want to start by talking about Glimpses of Future Genders and Sum of its Parts. Could you tell me about the ideation process for these projects?
Zeph Fishlyn: Those projects were very experimental in terms of format and engagement and were much more focused on process rather than product. The first version I did was at San Francisco Pride and it felt like a fun experiment to do in a setting where people were already pretty willing to participate in things. So I sent a few disposable cameras off into the crowd with a set of instructions and was super curious about what I might get back. I also really wanted it to be a physical experience where people had to hand something off to one another and then physically mail it back to me using a pre-addressed envelope. It was like an old school, pre-social media experience.
Olivia: That sounds like such a fun experiment. I’m thinking about how you had no idea what you were going to get back. How did you let go of expectations for a certain outcome since you couldn’t control it in the slightest?
Zeph: Well, the first time I did it I was kind of just like “this seems fun” and wasn’t super concerned with the outcome. Of course, I wanted the cameras to come back to me but I was more intrigued by the possibilities that a project like this could hold. I even found some joy in accepting that maybe nothing at all would come of this project.
Olivia: Socially engaged work is so centered on process, this work really exemplifies that. It’s less centered on material outcomes but you did have a collection of physical photos at the end of these projects. What did you do with those?
Zeph: I have them documented on my website but I never really did anything more with them.
Olivia: I think that’s something I struggle with as a social practice artist. I’m always wondering what to do with the results or physical manifestations of a project. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Zeph: In an ideal world, I’d like to have both a project focused on process and also an interesting material outcome. I think it’s especially important to have something physical to share with those who couldn’t engage in the original project.
Olivia: Me too. In looking through your website, I noticed a lot of your projects have a material component to them. Could you talk about the importance of material making in your work?
Zeph: I really enjoy the experience of having something tactile in my hands and the exchange of materials from person to person. I come from a background of visual art so I was definitely more object oriented before coming into the program but I was never interested in things that just sit on a wall as decoration. I want exchange and interaction and I think involving people’s physicality instead of just the way they think creates interesting conversations. There’s a pleasure and engagement piece for myself as an artist.
Olivia: That’s really interesting. I also want to talk about Those We Glimpse. I’m really interested in doing a project focused on queer storytelling and want to know more about your experience with this project. Did you personally talk to everyone who had a story to share and record the stories yourself?
Zeph: No, I worked through a series of installations. The first installation was made of queer stories from my own family and I asked people to write in stories from their own family that alluded to some history of queerness. Then they hung those stories on the installation and the new stories became the core for the next installation where I invited people to come, read these stories, and contribute their own.
Olivia: Did you have a favorite story from that project?
Zeph: There’s one I love about two aunts dying in bed together and it was so simple but it had me picturing whole lives for these women. It really made me think about the power of imagination.
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 in a caring manner. 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.
Zeph Fishlyn (they/them) is a Canadian-born, SF Bay Area-based interdisciplinary artist, educator, and cultural organizer. Zeph’s participatory projects, drawings, objects and interventions cultivate social and ideological mutations in urgent times. Zeph is a serial collaborator with groups taking creative action on economic and racial justice, climate change and LGBTQ liberation— including the End of Isolation Tour, Beehive Design Collective, Greenpeace,the San Francisco Anti-Displacement Coalition, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, Heart of the City Collective, the PDX Trans Housing Coalition, and the Center for Artistic Activism. They played key roles in creating and maintaining collective spaces for artists and activists, including Lobot Gallery, a live/work/event space, and the 2027 Mutual Aid Society, a resident-run affordable housing co-op.
Small Things Become Huge
Avalon Kalin is an everyday artist. He makes small works about little things, big works about small things, and smaller works about bigger things. No matter the size of the work or the subject matter, the scale of his appreciation for the delights of this world is consistently enormous. He is seeking the sublime.
When I first encountered Avalon’s art, I was struck by the profound, deceptive simplicity of it all. Photographs of incidental light patterns in the library? A drum set drum circle? A micro sensory field trip? (The instructions read: Today, I went on a “micro sensory field trip” by laying on the ground and looking at what I found there. You should too. Lay down somewhere. Look right where your face is. Look right there. Observe the microcosm. Small things become huge. Walls are good for this too.)
With Avalon, small things really do become huge. There is a palpable nowness in his work, an identification of what’s here now, why it’s worth attending to, and how you can get involved. He’s really good at marveling, and he’s invested in making something you can marvel at together.
It’s especially exciting to witness this knowing that Avalon graduated from the first ever class of the PSU Art and Social Practice program, 2007-09, a time when social practice was just starting to be recognized in academic and art institutions, and was, at least judging from his prolific body of student work, more freeform and experimental as a result. In our conversation, Avalon dropped one philosophical doozy after the next, and left me feeling inspired to look deeply at the small things, and make them huge.
Becca Kauffman: So how did you find your way to the Art and Social Practice program?
Avalon Kalin: This is such a fun story. I love telling it, because it’s a true story of synchronicity, and I’ve heard that if something synchronous is happening, you’re on the right track. So the story is, I’m an undergrad studying design at PSU in Portland. I know of Miranda July, and I stumble upon her project with Harrell, Learning to Love You More, online. This site moved me so much personally. It challenged me, and then won me over. And then I had to reconsider my whole life. That night that I discovered the website, I wrote a map of my whole life on a piece of paper. You know, you put your name in the circle in the middle, and then you put branches off, like rays or octopus legs, and all the things that are important to you: family, art, music, health, romance. Just so I could like meditate on what the heck I was going to do. I was hugely affected. And I go to class the very next day, a typography class with Lis Charman, who’s an amazing designer and teacher at PSU. We’re sitting there, class is about to begin, she picks up a piece of paper and she goes, “Oh, this must have been leftover from Harrell’s class.” I said “Harrell’s class?” and she said, “Yeah, Harrell Fletcher.” I said “Harrell Fletcher? Does he teach here?” She said, “Oh, yeah, you should take his class, you would get along famously!” Oh my God, you know! Becca, I had no idea that he lived in Portland, I had no idea that he taught at PSU, and I had no idea that I could take his class. This is one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me. When I took his class, actually, he said I was the first student he had who knew his art.
The first chance I got, I went up to him. I said, “Can I buy you lunch and ask you about your art?” He said, “Well, you don’t have to buy me lunch. I have to eat anyway.” And I just said, “Where did your art come from?” He always spoke plainly to me and he was always very generous. He’s been like a mentor or a friend ever since.
Becca: Everyone that I’ve known in the program found out about it in a social way, by someone just verbally handing off a suggestive seed that ended up growing into a whole new chapter of our lives, including myself!
Avalon: Don’t you feel like you’re invited by fate a little bit?
Becca: It’s funny, because when I look at your work I see a very Harrell-esque style and approach. There’s this clarified, direct simplicity. Your projects are sensible, but also philosophical. Is that the kind of work you’ve been drawn to from the start, or has there been an influence, having worked closely with Harrell?
Avalon: That sense of wanting something sensible, I really appreciate that word. That has always resonated with where I’m at as a creative person. This gets back to my interest in graffiti removal. In 1998, I began photographing it; in 2001, the film [I helped inform], The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, was released, and it showed at Sundance, and that really opened my eyes because I was a writer of that. It was based on my creative practice, and it was so interesting to people. It got into the back of Art Forum magazine, and I was just a kid, you know, I was like, in my early 20s, and it opened my eyes that my ideas were valuable. And, you know, artist to artist, talking to you, Becca, I could see my way of being in the world was valuable to people. You know, how do you tell someone that your ideas come from the way that you walk around or who you are? It kind of doesn’t make any sense in this very appearance and productive based society. But I can see that now. I’m in my 40s and I see, oh, okay, my art practice came from the way that I responded to being in the city; what I was looking at, what I was seeing, how I was feeling. And only when I had a chance to communicate that, did it lock in that I could keep communicating with people about that. And so that’s very poetical, isn’t it?
When it comes to Harrell, it was as if someone had given me the go ahead to do what I was already doing. Jen Delos Reyes also encouraged me, saw what I was doing and pushed me forward. The title Student Work, on my book of student work, really comes from her identifying that my whole practice was very much like an apprentice to the people I was interacting with or what I was doing. It was a great lens to look at my work, all of it is just student work, because there’s a sense in what I’m doing, like you said, making sense of something and making it clear, and re-presenting it, that makes the whole world like a library, and makes you the curator of that library as an artist to bring it to people.
I would describe some of Harrell’s art as poetical action art, and I also describe Harrell’s art as coming from institutional critique. Watching a professional artist manage the context of their work through their words, through what they talk about and what they don’t in given situations, is fascinating. Harrell is presenting the world to itself, and trying to pin that down, that’s why it’s art. I think Harrell’s bias is towards documentary, towards using social practice to humanize — and this is my language, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say this— but I believe myself that we are in an era of awakening to humanity, especially in the West. For me, Harrell’s art represents this huge philosophical shift of recognizing the connections we have to each other, to the institutions around us, to our work, to our life. Social practice is being connected to everyday life. That’s huge for me; you can see that in my work before I met him, and you can see how meeting him and doing the program was just a total license to ill. I did 40 projects in the two years I was there. It was two of the best years of my life. I always say that to people, because I felt really nurtured to do that.
Becca: How does your background in graphic design serve and inform your social art making?
Avalon: I was always interested in how I could use graphic design to get other people to participate in it. It’s an art form that’s very interested in communicating with the audience. Design often incorporates words, that’s one of the definitions of design, right? It’s art with words. So that relationship is always there. The design problem for me was, how can I use design to get people to interact with me? I think one of the great things that comes out of social practice is an emotional intimacy that’s not possible in other forms. It can be, but maybe it just opens it up to a range of experiences that you can’t find through other mediums.
Becca: So now, years out of the program and having been in the inaugural class, how do you explain social practice to people? How do you talk about social practice out in the world?
Avalon: I tend to call it social art. And I have a hard time. I have a hard time explaining social art to people. I don’t even get to social practice because I just have to say, you know, it’s art that involves working with people. And sometimes it’s public art, but it doesn’t have to be public art. That’s what I end up saying.
Becca: I’ve also chosen to use the term “social art,” because I think it actually does the job of plainly describing what it is more than “social practice” does. “Practice,” I think, confuses people who don’t run in art circles or something.
To what do you attribute the social nature of your art making in the first place? Why is that interesting to you as a central component?
Avalon: I like what Harrell said about it one time, and I’ll also say my version: “At some point, I discovered that I wasn’t that interesting.” At some point, I realized that what was going on around me was way more interesting than what I was going to find in myself. Now I say that only as a reaction to what we were taught art was, which is you have to reinvent the wheel, it all has to come from you, it’s the myth of originality. And we all know mastery is actually mimesis and copying very well until you find your own voice. And then what’s your own voice, but a way to advertise emotions? To be a part of something? It’s such a great question: why be social?
Becca: When your art is social, is your social artful? How is your art making integrated into your daily life? And your daily life integrated into your art making?
Avalon: I want to keep [the readers] very interested, so I’m gonna drop another big quote. So a really well known and beautiful poetic action artist, Mierle Laderman Ukeles from New York, came to PSU and she gave me a huge compliment when she was answering someone’s question. A friend of mine, a student at PSU who was an undergrad, Roselle Medina said, “What do you see is the future of the city and us being in the city? How can we reimagine the city?” Her answer was, “We must reimagine our relationship to the city. We must reimagine what a city can be. Just like in Avalon’s art, we mark the world by looking at it.” My heart exploded, my head exploded. I felt so seen and appreciated in that moment. Someone had shown a video that I had made about looking at the world. It was about seeing things that aren’t there, that are kind of there. I think you can apply that to everything that the artist is doing who is involved in everyday life. I would say it is a constant invitation. My ideal would be to wake up and walk around my neighborhood with a camera, and to come back and to make a book, or post something or make a video, or have a symposium or have an event at my house. I hope everyday to be able to do that.
Becca: I see this thread between your practice of deep looking, observation and noticing, and your spiritual life— which seems really active, I gather you have a strong meditation practice— and the documentary nature of your art projects. So I’m wondering how you identify a project inside of these daily ways of seeing and experiencing and how you turn your curiosity into a tangible idea?
Avalon: That deep looking practice was a way for me to synthesize the practice that I had that produced my art. My wife Posie really helped me to create the context so I could understand what was happening. I did the Walking School in 2016, and the Walking School is also a practice that involves what I’m now calling “deep looking.” Deep looking is based on the idea of deep listening, but for all beauty. The word “looking” doesn’t even quite do it, so I might have to change it. Pauline Oliveros coined the term deep listening after she released an album with some friends called Deep Listening. And the way she puts it is so amazing, she says that deep listening is a way to have beautiful experiences with sound wherever you are, by dreaming, by feeling, through listening, where your feet can become your ears, for example. I really resonate with this. I read The Ignorant Schoolmaster by Rancierre, and in that book, he says, the three questions an emancipated intellectual asks are: What is it? What do I think of it? And what do I make of it? I love this idea that there could be a recipe to just engage in something. So I wanted to share this as a practice, because that’s what was happening to me way back when I was walking through Portland and documenting graffiti removal, and putting that into zines. Deep looking has been a way for me to keep engaging in that as a practice and it marries really nicely with documentary art. My ideal would be, every time I engage a work of art, I have some aspect of everyday life included with it. I’m heavily invested in art and creativity in everyday life. And that’s okay that not everybody is, and I don’t think we should make social practice synonymous with art in everyday life. That’s not fair to everybody and it wouldn’t make sense, because social engagement has a wide range. But that’s really, really huge for me.
Becca: So making documentary art is how you catalog the everyday?
Avalon: I obsessively like to put very intuitive things into sensible situations, because it’s a marvel. And that’s what happens when you make a work of art, it’s something you can marvel at, even by stepping back from it, isn’t it? As artists, we want to be engaging with something that keeps going in some way. If I’m going to share, I have to invest time into the “what.” That’s evolving for me as an artist, I think it does with a lot of us, especially who have a range. It’s a problem for people who have a range. Now the opposite problem for someone who’s focused on a craft is, well, where’s my range? And then the problem with us is, I have a range, where’s this going to go? How can I present this? So the solution has been to create a practice that synthesizes these, and it’s still going.
Becca: I was curious about where your work is showing up presentationally these days. Because I’ve really only seen it in this compilation that you published of your student works in 2015, and also the documentation of your graduate exhibition, which, from what I can tell from the photographs, it looked like you kind of transposed and magnified all of these fine details from the cafe where you were an artist in residence into the gallery. I thought that was a really effective formalization of the time you spent there as an AIR. What are you working on right now?
Avalon: Before I answer that, and I have some that have happened lately that I want to share with you and the readers, and they can see some of the stuff and read some of the stuff. But first, I wanted to say that we can use this interview to do a short art project, if you’d like, I have a project that is based on a word game. Actually, this would be the only time that it had ever been performed publicly, if you’d like to do it. It was created by Norina Beck and myself. And it’s a word game, it’s very easy to play. And you can take this project with you wherever you go. And anybody who reads this can do this. So would you like to do that now?
Avalon: I can answer the question. Then we’ll do the game. I was interviewed by The Stranger, which is Seattle’s main alternative weekly, four months ago about graffiti removal. I think people will appreciate that I was approached as an artist by a newspaper. And then I wrote an article for the Goethe Institut not too long ago about graffiti removal. This idea that everything we do has artistic merit is distinctly charming. Me and you could talk a long time about art, because the sensuous quality of art, I see that in your work, and also the transformational quality of sensuousness. And that’s kind of orbiting around the moment of the artists in the world, because it’s really sublime to do that. There’s that relational moment that can’t happen in other places. The documentary art is really to share that with people. That’s how people end up finding my work. Ideally, I would be an artist that was known to be spread through friendship. That’s what the situationists did, where they used to give their magazine for free by randomly selecting numbers and addresses— the whole sense of art really belonging to us. It doesn’t belong to the art world people. Art belongs to us.
Becca: You were going to introduce this word game.
Avalon: So this word game was created by my friend Norina. It’s a perfect game to play when you’re making food with someone. Breakfast, dinner. There’s two games: one is “Opposite of…” and the other is called “Is Like…” “Opposite of…” is where you say something, and then the other person says, “That thing that you just said is the opposite of…” and then they say something else. Then you take that and you say, that thing that they just said is the opposite of, and you say something else. So, you’ll see the fun of this game is that anything can happen. And actually, the less accurate, the more interesting and poetical the game becomes. One example would be a tree. And then someone might say, the opposite of a tree is roots, right? That’s very physical. And then someone would say, well, the opposite of roots is… today. And then another person could say, well, the opposite of today is timelessness. So it just goes wherever you want to go every time you do it. So do you want to try it?
Becca: Yeah, let’s try it.
Avalon: I’ll start with: walls. Now you have to say “the opposite of walls…”
Becca: The opposite of walls are… fields.
Avalon: The opposite of fields is… pine cone.
Becca: The opposite of a pine cone is… a dew drop.
Avalon: Beautiful. The opposite of the dew drop is a ray of light.
Becca: The opposite of a ray of light is a piece of coal.
Avalon: The opposite of a piece of coal is a train locomotive.
Becca: The opposite of a train locomotive is complete stillness.
Avalon: Beautiful. The opposite of complete stillness is American politics. [both laugh]
Becca: The opposite of American politics is…
Avalon: I’m so sorry for invoking them.
Becca: … Pure atmosphere.
Avalon: Yeah, pure atmosphere. Pure atmosphere is the opposite of… we’re stumping each other on this one. I gotta get out of this one. The opposite of pure atmosphere is… a carpet asking you to sit on it.
Becca: The opposite of carpet asking you to sit on it is… a surface that says nothing at all.
Avalon: So you can see this is a fun game. It’s just inviting you into metaphorical crossroads together, and the funny thing is, you can move around from being literal to funny to poetical to, you know, all of a sudden, something comes out of nowhere, and it’s just exciting and funny.
Becca: That’s great. I’ll introduce that into the program, I think people will get a kick out of it.
Avalon: I always thought this was a wonderful little work, because it’s something like a social work, you can pick it up wherever you are. Anyone can do it. In a way, it doesn’t exist unless you do it, which I also like… I think Norina probably invented it, and I was the artist who was like, this is an art project.
Becca: That’s one of the things that inspires me about your work is, what you just said, it doesn’t exist unless you do it. It’s a bold act to decide that something is art, and not many people would construe a kitchen game while you’re preparing dinner into an art piece, but by saying so, it makes it one. Do you have any thoughts about the way certain social projects of yours function as a kind of framework to pursue and explore relationships with other people?
Avalon: I am fascinated by the question because I’m worried about the antisocial nature of consumerist society. I’d never really dreamed that social practice would be a revolutionary act. And I’m afraid it might happen. I’m not too afraid, though, don’t worry. What I love about social practice is, I think it’s a tendency in art. The question for me exists in a space where we’re invited down the path of technocracy and VR, interacting through media. What I’m attracted to is to be together in ways that there’s live feedback in the live world. For me, social art is about the agency to give and ask and care about that question. To say, what does it mean that I’m even asking that? What’s my relationship here to the world? So the question is, what’s my relationship through my art? What’s my relationship to others and what’s my relationship to myself becomes what’s my relationship to the world? And this brings us back to my deep philosophical idea that we are all connected, everything’s connected, and we’re living in a time that literally doesn’t understand that, that’s still holding on to this Cartesian logic that believes things can be discreetly separated in a mechanical universe. And that’s all been debunked, but we’re still there as a culture. We’re waking up to reality, which is also an ancient reality. Can I use art to pursue a relationship? I’m like, oh God, yeah. Because the art process is a way for me to do that, isn’t it? I want to sit on that question forever.
Becca: Do you feel a connection between your spiritual life and your art making? Is there a direct line there for you, in how you approach it?
Avalon: Yeah, because spiritual life for me is quite simple. What I’ve noticed about my work is—and this is what you see all the time with your cohorts and other artists and yourself— this art is fundamentally about me being in the world and my relationship to being in the world and my relationship to the world. For me, it’s just that simple. I remember Harrell half-jokingly talking about this one time with me. He had some really ridiculous scale that he started off really small, and he was like, “And this thing is just advertising this thing and that thing is really just advertising that thing,” and I think he might have said something like, “Well you know, the flower’s advertising colors and petals,” and he went all the way out to like the whole universe, you know, it’s just advertising this universe really. It was hilarious. And it’s so true. Spirituality for me is being here with you, it’s just being alive and knowing that that is more important than how I appear, or what I produce.
In the city, the secular cities and institutions, people hate the spiritual stuff, because there’s so much baggage with spirituality and religion has been abusive, really, right? So I get it, I get the reaction against spirituality. But the truth is, spirit is a word for the profound experience of being alive. You could say, “profound emotional and psychological experiences,” or you could just say, spirit.
Becca: Do you have any favorite quotes to share?
Avalon: This is from way back. Here’s a good one. Paul Klee, he said— and social practice really understands this: “Art does not make visible things. Art makes things visible.”
Becca: Wow. Yes, noticing is an artform in and of itself. Art is like one big arrow.
Avalon: I love it. And so there was an introduction written by Sibyl Moholy Nagy for this Paul Klee book, Pedagogical Sketchbook, and she quoted [the poet] Novalis and I’ve never found this quote anywhere else: “Give sense to the vulgar. Give mysteriousness to the common. Give the dignity of the unknown to the obvious. And a trace of infinity to the temporal.”
Becca: Are these guiding lights for you in your own work?
Avalon: Oh my god, yeah, this quote just resonates so much with me. I can just meditate on this as what’s happening in the art that I love… It really comes down to, what’s alive for you right now? What’s alive for me is “give sense to the vulgar.” Because, first of all, what’s vulgar? What does that mean? Disgust is a powerful emotion. It’s almost autonomic. Don’t think anybody’s above it. Everybody has something that’s vulgar to them or that they’re disgusted with. So the idea of “give sense to the vulgar” is very interesting.
Becca: “Give sense to it.” Like, name it, notice it, realize what’s there and what are you pushing up against, what feels challenging or repulsive… And what kind of indoctrination is involved in that, or subjective felt experience.
Avalon: Yeah. So bringing that awareness in, that’s what poetic documentary art gives me a chance to do. I am so grateful meeting someone like you who sees the range of my work, you know, who sees the different things as being valuable, because some people will see one thing or the other, but seeing multiple things, it’s like, Oh, I see what you’re on about. I took pictures of the lights in the PSU library. They were beautiful to me. I took the photographs and I printed the photographs and I put that in the book. To me, that’s the “dignity of the unknown to the obvious.” Literally, let’s bring lights into this photograph. Everytime I walked in the stairwell, the invisible was being spotlighted, in that sense. But I ended up going into the spotlight by taking pictures of them, I guess. It’s like the artist is carrying around a lamp, and the art is a way for them to bring that lamp space back to other people. It’s very interesting, because when you start to separate, well, where does life end, and art begin? That’s really what’s happening.
Honestly, the staying power of this stuff is its subjective value, its poetic value. For me, the real value is talking about the stuff that we’re talking about. As somebody who’s been through the program and looking from the outside, or anybody who’s reading this, it’s the meaningful experiences that are the purpose of the work.
Avalon Kalin (he/him) is a graphic artist who makes documentary and social art connected to everyday life. He is the co-author of “The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal” film produced by Matt Mccormick and he studied under the first Social Practice MFA program with Harrell Fletcher and Jen Delos Reyes at Portland State University. His work has shown in institutions and perhaps more importantly between friends. He collaborates with his wife Posie Kalin designing installations and products. Recently, he founded The Walking School. Find more about his work at avalonkalin.com. Recent shows and projects are on instagram @avalonkalinworks, and you can read and subscribe to his newsletter, Deep Looking, at http://deeplooking.substack.com/
Becca Kauffman (they/them) is a social artist based in Portland, OR and Queens, NY practicing art as a public utility through interactive performance, devised gatherings, and neighborhood interventions. Their work has taken the form of an unsanctioned artist residency in Times Square, a public access television show, T-shirts functioning as conversation pieces, a pedestrian parade with a group of fifth grade crossing guards, and the persona-driven musical performance art project Jennifer Vanilla. A member of the experimental Brooklyn band Ava Luna for ten years, Becca is currently an MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. You can listen to their new Jennifer Vanilla album Castle in the Sky wherever you find music. @pedestrianvision @jennifervanilla
I wanted to be a photographer and then I didn’t. Well, that’s kind of true. I have always wanted to take photos because I believed they were the fastest way to make, share, and keep beautiful things, especially beautiful things that were too expensive to own. I studied photography in college and before I graduated, I told my classmates and professors that I wasn’t going to earn a living from it. (I wish I had thought to ask myself what I would do instead but eventually I figured it out. Kind of.) If you asked me why I didn’t want to earn a living as a photojournalist or commercial or editorial photographer— all of which were natural and available next steps after graduating— I would’ve told you that I couldn’t stomach anyone directing how I saw and photographed the world; I only wanted to see what I thought was in front of me or what I created with other people. While I adore my undergraduate professors and think of them daily because of the work ethic and technical skills they taught me, I wish Eliza Gregory had been in my undergraduate life. I imagine how the development of social practice as an art, along with her collaborative and participatory project experience, would’ve helped me develop a career for myself as an artist and photographer sooner and more confidently. After our conversation, it was clear to me that while I consider myself an artist, I’m as much a photographer as I ever was and ever wanted to be.
Eliza Gregory: Hi!
Laura Glazer: Hi! So nice to meet you.
Laura: Thank you for making time to talk with me.
Eliza: Oh, of course. It’s fun. I wanna hear about your New York Public Library Fellowship. That sounds so amazing.
Laura: It was amazing and I feel pangs of missing the place and the people.
Eliza: How long did you hang out there for?
Laura: I was there for three weeks. I gave myself one of those weeks to acclimate, so it was really two intensive weeks on-site in the library’s Picture Collection. I will return in March to launch the publication or at least do a work-in-progress presentation.
Eliza: Tell me a little bit about it. I am so curious. I want to hear about that because I’m teaching my students right now about visual research and also thinking about how to integrate that into my own projects. And it’s just fun hearing about what you found and what you’re making from it.
Laura: Well, I went there for the first time in 2018 and I casually gave them my business card and said, Contact me if you ever need another person to do an Instagram takeover. And they did! So in 2019, I did a takeover of their Instagram using the digital collection from home in Portland.
Laura: Of course, I had this deep desire to know what it was like to actually be in the Picture Collection doing research—do people talk to each other? Are people looking at what everybody else is looking at?—I had this longing to know what it was like to physically be in the place.
Last year I spent a lot of time researching the Picture Collection and Taryn Simon’s project on it called The Color of a Flea’s Eye. Then in November 2021, I visited New York and stopped by the Picture Collection to say hello to the librarians and to see Simon’s exhibit.
A few months later, I interviewed Jessica Cline, the Picture Collection director, for the Winter 2022 issue of SOFA journal and she mentioned that they were launching a fellowship. I applied and was accepted as one of four fellows. My project evolved while I was there and I’m calling it See Also, a phrase that comes from a library term for a cross reference.
Eliza: That’s great.
Laura: Instead of researching a subject heading within the Picture Collection, I essentially researched the researchers.I started with what they were researching, and then went into a “see also” of, Oh, you’re researching Mary McLeod Bethune? What else do you do? Oh, you design custom flamenco dresses. Great. Can I come to your studio and see them? Okay. I’ll see you on Monday.
Eliza: That’s so rad. Oh my God. I love it. I’m like an—I don’t know what we’re calling it—affiliate or something of this new foundation called the Flickr Foundation, where Flickr, the photo platform has gotten some money to try to make a 100 year plan to think about what it means to conserve the 50 billion photographs on Flickr right now! What does it mean to treat that as a site of cultural heritage and actually think about how it is preserved going forward?
Of course, the way I think about it is like what you’re doing there. When and how do those pictures come back into the world? Or when do they become objects? When do they stay digital? How do people use them? How are people interacting with them? One of the great things that George Oates—the woman who is the head of the foundation—is talking about is, What’s the role of ritual in communication and is there a ritual-like translation that happens every few years from whatever the current format is into the next format? Because that’s what’s happening all the time, you know? Are we even gonna have JPEGs in a hundred years? What’s gonna be the equivalent mechanism for accessing visual data? So from what you’re saying, I’m like, Oh, this is so great! It ties in with other random things I’m thinking about. I don’t really know how they all come together in my own practice.
Laura: Well, that is one of my questions for you. Where are you right now with the intersection of photography and socially engaged art? That’s a big question and I just asked it casually like it’s small talk!
Eliza: There are a few different ways I talk about it.
In my own practice, I was really interested in telling stories about people. But as soon as I started to do that, I ran into all these ethical questions about the objectification of a person. When we literally make an object out of a person—the photograph being the object—what are the ethical implications of that? I started to solve those problems or engage with those questions through social practice mechanisms. That’s how I got to social practice, because I just started to build out the relationships and the accountability and start questioning each choice that you make in the process of representing another person or representing a story. Then through that interrogation, I started to have more and more other stuff going on in my work that was not the picture, but that still was connected to the picture. That’s what I really look for now when I’m engaging with other photographers’ work—what is happening outside of, around and beyond the picture?
I think photography is such an amazing tool and it’s used in so many incredible different ways now. Sometimes I have an optical engineer come into my History of Photography class, and he talks about all the different lenses that go into a Roomba or all the different lenses that are inside of the way we read COVID tests.
Photography is everywhere and trying to say anything clear about it is really hard because it can mean so many different things. Along with that, we’re inundated with photographs. We look at them so much. I feel like the historical fine art photography dialogue of the last 70 years or so—where there was this big fight to make photography be seen as a fine art and then to fetishize it—has become really obsolete. That dialogue was all about telling a story and having layers of information in the frame and this myth that you could get a lot from the experience of simply looking at a picture with nothing else going on.
Now I think it’s very clear that a picture can mean one thing in one context, and the same picture can mean the opposite thing if you have slightly different information surrounding it or a slightly different location that it’s being viewed in or a different caption or a different picture that’s next to it. I really believe that to make art using photography right now involves really engaging with the context in which it’s going to be viewed, which includes thinking about the audience that’s going to see it. What does that particular audience bring to that experience and the location it’s going to be viewed in, and the visual material that’s surrounding it; all of that has a lot to do with social practice.
I think the people who are making the most exciting lens-based work are engaging with all that stuff. They’re engaging with the context, the audience, and they’re also engaging with all these other aspects of making art that are happening around the picture. And then there’s still a picture sometimes in there somewhere. [Laughs]
It can be really good. Pictures are still really amazing and really fun to look at. They do communicate a lot and they are powerful. I think that’s why it’s so much fun to be engaging in these questions—photographs can accomplish so much and they’re also so limited.
Laura: In what you were just saying, I imagine the picture just getting smaller and smaller and smaller and the people in the picture getting bigger and then the image is super tiny. The image is becoming less and less of a focal point.
Eliza: The flip side is I’m still teaching in a photography program and there are so many skills involved in controlling what goes into a picture, how you make an interesting picture, and how you get something that has nuance and that is interesting to look at more than once. How do you make a picture that unfolds more and more meaning as you engage with it? There is still so much to talk about within the frame—it’s not like that’s gone away, but I think in terms of building lens-based artists now, I really try to bring in all those other questions.
Laura: What is the relationship between your teaching practice and your art practice?
Eliza: That’s a good question and ever-evolving. Recently, I’ve really been trying to connect them in a big way. The venn diagram of my practice and my teaching is almost a single circle. I’m trying to make art through teaching, using the social architecture of the classroom as my project structure in a certain way. Within that, I engage my students in this back and forth dialogue. I offer a bunch of research and ideas to the students and they respond to that by making art, and what they make influences my next class and my own artwork.
I’m learning from them, they’re learning from me, and they’re influencing what I’m making and I’m influencing what they’re making. I’m using the timeframe of a semester and the social form of a class to create a container in which they make things on their own, but those things come together to become a cohesive product that we bring to a public.
Laura: Can you give an example of that?
Eliza: I’ve thought about creating a public presentation of our work in three different ways. What are the main mechanisms through which pictures meet an audience right now? Exhibitions, the internet—which could involve social media as well as a website, which functions as an online exhibition—and then through publications.
I’ve been testing out all three of those as the containers. We’ve done a couple of different public exhibitions and we’ve made that set of books called Books About Place, and we’ve done an online exhibition through building a website.
Laura: That was a great answer! I’m teaching for the first time in person this term and your answers are really powerful as I make my lesson plan for tomorrow; I’m teaching a class called Ideation in the School of Art and Design’s CORE program.
Eliza: Tell me about that! That’s actually something I’ve been struggling with. I’m teaching an elective course that’s all about relationships to land. We’re working toward an exhibition that will be about our understanding of relationships or lack of relationships to land, what that means, and what that looks like.
I asked students to bring in five experiments that they had done–potential projects that they might engage with or that they might want to do, a little sketch of five different ideas. But that turned out to be really, really difficult for my students this term; they’re not used to coming up with ideas like that. They were stumped by that and I had thought that would be a great starting place or an easy first step. They really weren’t prepared for that exercise.
And I thought, Oh my gosh, what does it mean to have an idea? What are the tools? What are the tools that I use to have ideas and how can I offer that to them? So, I want to hear what you’re doing because I think you might have the answers for me.
Laura: I was the teaching assistant for this class last year and we set up the use of a field notebook. Every week the students were responsible for making something on at least four pages in the notebook, and often we would give a prompt.
For example, I was just grading week two’s assignment where, as a class, we took the streetcar to this little-known park in downtown Portland called Tanner Springs Park. Only one of the 22 students had been there and most had never ridden the streetcar. So the field trip became a series of “firsts.”
Then we spent half an hour in this one block by one block park, picking out at least 10 things we found curious. In their field notebooks they could do written descriptions, drawings, or take photos to print out later and then add to the notebook.
That’s an example of how we’re using experiential learning to practice noticing. I also did a brief introduction to Sister Corita Kent’s use of viewfinders. I gave everyone slides and told them how to deconstruct the slides to remove the film and just use the holder as a viewfinder. I think most students forgot to use it because it was so exciting to be in a new place in a really beautiful park in the heart of the city that they almost didn’t need to focus in that way. The next class we will be talking about that experience and how to continue extracting ideas from it.
Eliza: That’s so cool. I love that and it’s very validating. I impulse-bought 18 scrapbooks and gave each student a scrapbook. My students have also struggled with layout and understanding the aesthetic language of the arrangement of elements on a page. I ask them to deal with context all the time, and you have to build up a little bit of a design sense for how to build that context visually. That was something we learned last year when we did the books with them. These students have never made scrapbooks, they’ve never arranged things with visual intention. I’ve also been having them try to make some pages in their scrapbook just to build up a practice of recording their ideas in an aestheticized way as opposed to just a linguistic way.
Laura: There was also a presentation I gave on wild note taking. I went through examples of writers and artists who use the context of the page to explore their thoughts visually and in text form. For example, Oliver Sacks is documented as being an annotator and his notes are really great. I’m happy to share the deck with you.
Eliza: I would love that so much. That would be a huge gift. Thank you.
Laura: I would be honored to share it. I like thinking about more people being exposed to methods for turning a page of notes and thoughts into an artwork.
Eliza: Me too. I grew up having what my mom called “the art center.” It was this little set of cubbies that she got. It had weird stuff for collages and pens and paper and we had an Apple IIe and so for a long time there was all the extra printer paper with the funny little things on the side.
It’s still there in my parents’ house, this weird pile of stuff to make things. That was just something that was always available and I made scrapbooks and stuff like that. My students are not coming from that same environment. That has been good for me to realize and then try to offer that in a way that makes sense for where they are now and for what we’re doing.
Laura: I’m curious, where did you grow up? Where was “the art center?”
Eliza: In San Francisco, in the Richmond district, in the fog.
Laura: I’ve been reading about your work and studying your projects and thinking about San Francisco as this core place in your practice. Is that true?
Eliza: I’ve had sort of a moving practice because I have lived in a bunch of different places. But I did grow up in San Francisco and then I lived there again recently. Now I live in Woodland, California, which is close to Davis and close to Sacramento. It’s a town of about 50,000. I’ve lived here for five years, but I lived in San Francisco for seven years before that. I was making a lot of projects there and my parents are still there. Definitely that’s my hometown, my “home place.”
Laura: Would you consider California more broadly as a core place in your practice?
Eliza: Definitely. I’ve also lived in Southern California a couple different times and my husband is from Southern California. We go there a lot because his parents are in Santa Barbara now. In our family we have this sense of a California identity that includes relationships to a bunch of specific locations within California.
Laura: When you were talking about the social form and photography, it reminded me of when I was studying photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and declared, right before I graduated, that I wasn’t going to earn a living professionally from photography because I really wanted relationships with people to be primary and photography to be secondary. I didn’t know about art and social practice until 2017—like 20 years later! For you, were those things always running alongside each other? How was photography connected to people in your early life? How did you find this direction?
Eliza: I studied photography. It was actually accessible in my elementary school. I took my first photo class in seventh or eighth grade, and then was able to do a class or two in high school and then in college.
In my family there are a lot of people who had made pictures in previous generations. I also saw examples of a visual record of a family life coming from both sides of my family back a couple of generations. I had lots of pictures of people around me, in these subliminal ways. I like people and I’m curious about people. I also felt an interest in service. What does it mean to be of service and also to make pictures? I think those were questions that maybe I couldn’t articulate so clearly, but that were operating behind the scenes.
Somebody gave me this book called In Our Time: The World As Seen by Magnum Photographers, which is a collection of greatest hits of Magnum photographers. That was when I was in high school or eighth grade or something. I really thought that book was amazing because I was looking at these pictures of people from all over the world, and conflicts, and history, and was thinking, Oh, this is a way that I can learn about other people—through looking at pictures—and that seems useful. I had that in my mind as what I wanted to do, but I didn’t really want to be a war photographer. I tried being a journalist and worked for the school paper in college. I also had some jobs photographing community/university partnerships when I was out of college working in Arizona and I like that kind of documentation, but I really like the capacity for art to ask questions as opposed to trying to answer questions.
Basically, I was interested in the idea of making pictures in order to help people understand each other and build compassion. But my first efforts at that just isolated people further and accentuated differences.
I went to work for the International Rescue Committee which was providing social services in the refugee camps in the western part of Tanzania. That’s where I made some of these pictures and I thought, Oh, well, you know the culture of Tanzania in these refugee camps and the town where I’m living is really different from what I grew up experiencing in San Francisco. So won’t that be interesting? I’ll be able to build this common ground by showing an audience that I have access to what I saw and experienced in this other place.
I showed these pictures to really wonderful people who taught at Arizona State University like Stephen Marc and Bill Jenkins. They said, Eliza, that’s not what’s happening here, we are not seeing what we have in common. We’re seeing differences here. Also, you are a white woman taking pictures of Black people in Tanzania and you can’t bring that back into an American context and have that just be not a big deal.
I was trying to make pictures of people in one part of the world and show them to people in another part of the world and that just accentuated differences as opposed to highlighting what we have in common. So I was like, Oh, well that was a bust. So what am I gonna do? How can I solve that problem?
Then I thought if I can’t make these pictures that are going to talk about compassion and common ground through that mechanism, what if I take pictures of resettled refugees in Phoenix because these are people coming from cultures all over the world, but then have to adapt to this place and the place will be recognizable even though aspects of the life that these different families are creating are different. Maybe that is the visual entry point for me to create this dialogue that I want.
Then I worked with a nonprofit organization in order to meet resettled refugees living in Phoenix whom I could ask to photograph. Through that process, I had a whole different kind of accountability. They were a really wonderful organization that built relationships with their clients. They were the ones who helped me realize that we have to get the clients who are in the pictures to be able to see the show; you can’t just take a picture of somebody and then show it to somebody else and have that not be weird. You have to make it possible for them to access what we’re doing together.
We were able to create an opportunity to show the work at the ASU Museum of Anthropology, which of course is a little weird. I mean, anthropology as a discipline —there are a lot of things to be unpacked there. But that was where we were able to show the work. Then we got this corps of volunteers to actually drive people to the opening reception because a lot of resettled refugees didn’t have cars or didn’t have easy access to transportation to get on campus. And a college campus by itself is not easily navigable to someone who hasn’t been there before.
All of a sudden I had this partner that could bring up the logistical issues that were connected to the ethical issues, and then we could solve them together. Going through all of that, I started to become more aware of what I was doing and the implications of what I was doing. That fed back into how I started to build projects and how I started to conceive of structures.
Laura: That was great for many reasons. The first of which is I just got off the phone with Wendy Ewald.
Eliza: Oh, she’s the best, what an amazing person.
Laura: She’s boarding a plane to Portland to be a visiting artist for the next week at Dr Martin Luther King Jr School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA.) Hearing you talk about Tanzania means that, of course, I’m thinking about Wendy. What role has Wendy’s work played in your practice and projects?
Eliza: She is really somebody I look up to a lot and I’m thinking about a lot. Certainly the shift in the last couple of years toward trying to make art through teaching comes directly from being exposed to her projects through Harrell and through the Art and Social Practice MFA Program. Also through Julie Ault, who turned me onto this documentary that you may have seen called Stranger with a Camera that was made by Elizabeth Barrett from Appalshop—she made a film about Wendy, too. It’s all part of this same community of people thinking about some of these issues around representation and storytelling and what it means to support people telling stories about themselves. One of the things that Wendy says is—I can’t remember whether it was in a conversation with her or something I read—you’re making art through teaching, and the students are making these photographs, but they have to make good photographs, you’re teaching them how to make good photographs.
It all starts there. The teaching has to be really good in order for the rest of this to work because that’s the exchange where it all starts. If you, as the teacher, aren’t helping the student really make something that they can feel proud of and that they feel expresses something that is important to them, then all the rest of it will collapse.
Laura: When you’re talking about Wendy saying you’re teaching them how to make good photos, what does that mean to you?
Eliza: I was thinking that in this context I don’t know how to measure what I’m doing against “good photographs” as a standard, because I think what I’m teaching them to make is so much more amorphous. I don’t exactly always know what’s happening in what we’re doing. But the way I connect what I’m doing now to what I just talked about with Wendy is that it’s really important to me every time that my students feel proud of what they’ve produced. I’m really looking for that as one of my evaluation metrics as opposed to a grade.
Part of what I think can happen through a “teaching as art making” structure is that it allows the students to make something more sophisticated and different than what they could make on their own, which allows them to feel surprised by themselves and excited about their work in a way that can be a type of momentum that carries them forward once they’re outside of that class structure.
I think a lot about teaching as building my students’ muscle memory—the way you would on a sports team, practicing drills so that when the time comes for the game your body just knows what to do. I ask myself, How am I leading them through a series of actions that they can then repeat afterwards, even if it’s in a totally different context or with a totally different outcome? How do I allow them to feel comfortable and empowered doing a series of things that then will let them do that again without me?
Laura: In what ways have you observed that happening?
Eliza: Some of it is what I hope is happening, because I’ve just started my career as a college-level teacher, so we’ll see. Some of that takes a little while to come to fruition and to understand if it’s really working and certainly there’s always room for a lot of improvement. This is sort of a madcap way of teaching because it’s different every time and you’re always figuring things out and you’re making art as it’s happening and making art is a notoriously unwieldy and unpredictable process. You’re throwing students into that and there’s a lot of discomfort and frustration for them, even as they also grow a lot through it.
One answer is—I have no idea. But another answer is, I did have a great chat with a couple of students who graduated last year. I had them all year last year when they were seniors at Sacramento State. Now they are creating exhibition opportunities for themselves, and they’ve applied successfully for things and they are operating in the world as artists, and that’s what I’m aiming for and that was really exciting to me.
Laura: Can you tell me a little bit about how you think about exhibiting social practice work in museum or gallery environments?
Eliza: There are a bunch of ways in which that can work really well. I have been thinking a lot recently about what it means to invite the audience into the research in a research-based practice, whether it’s a social practice or another kind of practice.
Thinking about the scrapbook again, what does it look like to let an audience see my ideas developing? I’ve done that in two ways in the last two years. Last year, I put a lot of the students’ work on display. I basically cherry-picked four people from each of the previous two years whose work had been not necessarily the best but the most interesting to me in terms of ideas that I want to be carrying forward in my own work.
I was trying to show some back and forth. First, these students made this work in my class based on the techniques and ideas that I offered to them. It’s connected to me and my work, even as it’s also their work. These are the works that I’m the most curious about and that I’m still thinking about and want to take forward. Whether it’s because of the aesthetic solutions they came up with, or the subjects they photographed, or the way they put things together, or the research they did, each one was a little bit different in what they showcased. I showed that alongside some of my own experiments and messy notes and things I’m working through in my own practice.
This year I showed the work of other artists who are doing things that I’m really interested in—who are pursuing similar ideas and lines of inquiry to me, but have actually been able to make an aestheticized thing as a result of that. Whereas I’m just reading the books and thinking mostly about this particular project and still fussing around.
In some ways, those are two efforts of showcasing a social practice because I’m making this art with my students and I’m making this art through dialogue with my colleagues and with other artists. I’m trying to show all of that even as it also functions as a conventional sort of visual art exhibition experience.
One thing was really exciting to me in the first show and it has informed a lot of what I’m doing now. This nice guy and his partner were in the show and he said to me, “It seems like you are really good at connecting with your place. Could you teach me how to connect with my place? I want to be able to do that.” I was like, that’s so wonderful, what a great idea! Maybe that’s what the [Placeholder] project is: allowing the audience to come with me as I try to connect with my place and then offering different strategies for how that could happen for you.
In the little show I did this year, I put in Travis Neel and Erin Charpentier’s project called The Mesquite Mile.Travis and Erin were in the MFA Program when I was. Now Travis teaches at Texas Tech in Lubbock and Erin is a professional graphic designer. That is a really social practice-y project where it’s all about these partnerships and relationships and transplanting native plants that are seen as weeds for ranchers into the urban core of Lubbock and creating the native habitat in the city.
They’re doing curb cuts and getting memoranda of understanding with the city so that they can reorganize people’s yards in a way that the water flows properly to irrigate the mesquite trees they’re transplanting. This is such a cool project where all sorts of different crazy stuff is going on that’s very much about people connecting with each other, as well as people connecting with land and understanding the history of this land and the native plant communities that are past and present.
In order to put that on display, they have this wonderful video that they commissioned of a mesquite tree being dug up from a ranch, carried into the urban core, and then being replanted in somebody’s yard. That was on display and they sent me some photographs that document the project.
There’s this really interesting thing that the program helped me identify, which was, in social practice, if you can make the documentation of the work as sophisticated and rich as the work itself, then you can show it. That sometimes is a pain in the butt and it doesn’t make sense for every project. Sometimes the real-time enactment of the project is the main thing and it should be the main thing and telling the story of it afterward doesn’t need to be as complex. Certain projects have a great, really quick story that can travel far beyond the initial audience of the project very effectively.
Sometimes the story is more complicated or more fragmented and can’t be condensed so easily. In that case, sometimes it makes sense to take this other approach. Certainly, I’ve enjoyed taking that approach and making publications and things that tell aspects of the story of what I’ve been doing and invite the audience into those phases of a larger project.
Laura: What are some details of your non-professional and non-artistic life?
Eliza: It’s very chaotic! I have my studio and it currently looks like a hoarder palace. It’s really a mess. I have 10 chickens in what I call my dystopian garden because I let them free range in there and they just dig everything up and destroy everything. I have two dogs and then I have two daughters who are 10 and 3. And my husband Ryan works at UC Davis, running the Center for Community and Citizen Science, and that’s what brought us here to the Central Valley.
Laura: It was really nice to hear you talk about showing artistic research and process in a museum environment because I gathered all this research at the library and what I find myself talking about is my process. When I share that with people, they get so excited. They’re like, You ended up in that person’s apartment at midnight after going to a bunch of gallery exhibits?! That is truly how I roll in the world; I could end up in Paris tomorrow if I ran into somebody on the street and we started talking and they’re like, I gotta go to Paris. And I don’t want the conversation to end. I’m gonna go with them.
Eliza: That’s awesome.
Laura: I have all of this documentation that I’ve organized and I’m really eager to share, but I’m still figuring out how to do that. I usually make a publication and we have a museum exhibit in June, and I’m wondering how that will work. Hearing what you said is really validating.
Eliza: Julie Ault told me something that has really helped me a lot. She advocated for inviting the audience into the research. But she also said, you have to chart a pathway through that research. You don’t want to just put everything out there for people, because that’s just making them do all the work. You still have to lead them through what they need to experience in a way that is satisfying and exciting for them. That’s what a publication often forces you to do because you have to make choices— you can’t just put everything in there. That is often a linear pathway. But whether you’re doing that in an exhibition or in a publication or in a talk or whatever, that’s been a really nice idea for me to hang onto, that you’re really leading somebody down a path and you don’t want to put the onus on them to take everything in and sort it.
Laura: I think that having a background in photography is a good foundation for making those pathways.
Eliza: I think you see Julie doing that really well in her books and in her writing, and you also see it happening in Group Material, in the AIDS timeline shows or all those early shows where you have tons of material there, but it never feels like too much, it feels like everything is interesting, everything is worth your time. That’s something I talk about a lot with my students. How do you reward the audience for the time that they’re spending with you? Are you meeting expectations or not? Are you rewarding that attention?
Laura: What does reward mean to you?
Eliza: It means, is the audience getting something out of it? Are they able to engage? Are they taking something with them that they want? Are they having an experience that feels satisfying?
Laura: I have way more questions than we could ever get to, and I love that our conversation had its own pathway. Let’s do a few lightning-round questions. What year did you graduate from the program?
Laura: Did you live in Portland when you did the program?
Eliza: No, I lived in San Francisco and we spent every May up in Portland. The first time my first daughter was eight weeks old and we just moved up there for a month with her and it was so amazing. Harrell and Jen were so great and said, You can bring her to everything. My husband sat in the Park Blocks holding her until she got hungry and then he would bring her into the classroom and I would feed her and then he would take her out again.
Laura: One of my classmates has asked each of us to ask our interviewees a certain question. So this is a question coming from Caryn, who’s in my cohort: how do you explain social practice to non-artists?
Eliza: I always say it’s art that is made using social interactions as a core component of the work. Often I follow up by saying it can be a non-object-based practice, but it doesn’t have to be. Then I sometimes follow that up by saying my practice uses photographs, interviews, relationships, experiences, events, publications, and I layer things all together.
Laura: Is there anything you want to tell me about that I wouldn’t know about or I haven’t asked you about?
Eliza: I do think a lot about the program and how it functioned, especially because I’m an educator working to educate artists to become social practice artists and photographers. In all my educational experiences, I feel like there are things that I took away as they were happening and then there are things that I’ve gotten from them later. There’s this kind of half-life of really good teaching that unfolds as you move through your life and things resurface when you’re ready for them. There are certain things that were offered to you as a student that you weren’t ready for yet, and I’ve found myself able to access those ideas later and they’ve started to make more sense later.
I think about what it means to teach like that. What does it mean to offer my students things that they can learn from in this moment, but also offer them things that maybe will serve them well later or become relevant later or unfold in their lives? I think some of the things that the program did like that for me was this experience of being in a project. When you’re in the program, you’re a participant in somebody else’s project and many times as social practice artists, you haven’t necessarily had that experience before because you’re usually the architect of the experience. I think that’s really, really valuable and wonderful.
Laura Glazer (she/her) is an artist using curatorial strategies to share exciting stories that she finds in places she lives and visits. Her work is socially-engaged and depends on the participation of other people; sometimes a close friend, and other times, complete strangers. Her background in photography and design inform her social practice, and her artworks appear as books, workshops, radio shows, zines, festivals, exhibitions, installations, posters, signs, postal correspondence, and sculpture. She holds a BFA in Photography from Rochester Institute of Technology and is an MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. She is based in Portland, Oregon, after living in upstate New York for 19 years. Visit her website to see her projects and follow her on Instagram for updates.
Eliza Gregory (she/her) is a social practice artist, a photographer, an educator and a writer. She has collaborated on her projects with the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Wave Pool Art Fulfillment Center & Cincinnati FotoFocus, the Portland Art Museum, SFMOMA, the Arizona State University Museum of Anthropology, Southern Exposure, the HeadOn Photo Festival in Sydney, and the Storefront Lab, among other institutions. Eliza’s work focuses on identity, relationships, and connections between people and places. She builds complex project structures that unfold over time to reveal compassion, insight and new social forms. She currently teaches in the photography program at Sacramento State University.
Moving Slowly to Move Intentionally
For this conversation, I talked with Rebecca Copper, who I met for the first time that day on Zoom. She lives in Ohio with her son, partner, and mother, and I live alone in rural Tennessee.
I was initially interested in talking with Rebecca since we are both lens-based artists, but looking more closely at her work, I noticed several threads connecting our practices: care, preservation, and intention. Our conversation brought new insights into questions that have been rolling around in my mind throughout my first semester in the program: how can photography be truly collaborative? How can art help people connect? How do we care for each other?
In this interview, we talk about her project the Single Parent Archive, which centers the multiplicity of experiences connected to single parenting; how her practice is changing, and the possibilities of working slowly.
Morgan Hornsby: How do you describe yourself?
Rebecca Copper: I would describe myself as an introverted person, a deep thinker. I really don’t do well with surface level conversations. But I’m also very interrogative and investigative, like into perception and reality, like, why do we do what we do? Why is it that we exist? But also caring. I am a very caring person and easygoing, most of the time.
Morgan: How would you describe your practice?
Rebecca: My practice is in flux right now. It’s definitely something that I use to interrogate my experience and develop a better awareness of what’s happening around me, which can also then acclimate how I respond. Since graduating, I’m not removing myself from a social practice engagement, but I am leaning more into the lens-based questions that I have. Within my last year of the program, I was able to connect the way in which I use the camera and how I approach social practice. But now I’m investigating, like, what is the technology of the camera? How does it collapse the things that we experience, something that’s three dimensional, and flatten it into a two dimensional representation? And how does that affect how we engage with people in real time? Especially as someone who’s using a camera to either capture a person or an object or a landscape. What is the implication behind that relationship of the camera and what you’re photographing?
Morgan: How do you explain social practice to non-artists?
Rebecca: I explain social practice to non-artists as an artistic practice that isn’t based on the outcome of physical objects, like a sculpture, photograph, painting, etc. These things can be a part of social practice, but what is considered the “art” is engagement with other people; like the development of a relationship or learning something together.
Morgan: You mentioned interrogation and care in how you think of yourself. I thought that was interesting, since I see those threads in your practice as well. Would you want to talk more about that? How do interrogation and care work together in your practice?
Rebecca: I think it comes from a concern— a concern of the systems that we live within and the lack of care in them. So that interrogation comes from that concern. I think most people do care. So how do we shift the way that these processes or these algorithms that have developed over time that manifest how individuals can live or restrict the ways in which people can live? How can we work to shift the ways that these systems work? To show that they can be a foundation of care? That’s more of what I’m interested in.
Morgan: I see. Did working on the Single Parent Archive teach you anything different about care in the context of the system?
Rebecca: Most of my adult life has been as a single parent. I connected with my collaborator for the project, Marti Clemmons (1), through that experience. Once I graduated, I needed space to regather everything and refind myself away from the program. That taught me that it’s okay to approach projects in a slow manner. Within the art world in general, we’re encouraged to produce quickly and produce a lot. Coming from that space of care, I think that moving slowly opens up space for moving intentionally.
Right now Marti and I are doing this slow communication— we’re actually letter writing back and forth like, Okay, what do we want to do with the archive? What do we really want the archive to unfold as?
So we’re doing the slow form of communication, as we both have to maintain care for ourselves and our families, which takes time. And to be able to push the archive along, you need resources, you need time and effort. But it’s really hard to maintain both, especially something that can be so exhaustive of your time as creating art or developing an entire archive dedicated to single parents, and then making sure that you can provide something that is supportive to the single parents that you’re engaging with.
The Single Parent Archive has definitely helped me recognize that it’s okay to move slowly and it’s okay to even prioritize someone who is the creator, that you also need care in that mode.
Morgan: Absolutely. How have participants responded to the Single Parent Archive?
Rebecca: Well, I’ll give you two examples: one where one of the parents was like, “This was great” and then another, which was more like, “This was really hard.”
My first single parent that I collaborated with, Amy Schuessler, contributed a tri-series collection she had already been working on. The writing was a narrative. It was quasi nonfictional, but also quasi fictional— it was this blurring of reality, like an illusion. She used a muse to represent herself and her own experience of what it felt like to be a single parent, which was a desire to be able to breathe underwater, and feeling like everything around her was suffocating her and that she was drowning. Then she created a collection of drawings that were based on this idea of triangulation. Then she took her own photographs of water in different spaces and then collected a bunch of found photographs of domestic housing that was being flooded.
What I was able to do with her was to organize the collection and have it reviewed by an editor. Then we published it into a book, like a formal physical book, and she has copies she is able to give to people, and people can also buy them online for like $10. And so for her, the project was able to take something she had been working on and manifest it in a really tangible way. She said it was a really nice experience for her just to be able to do that.
Then, I was working with Peter Freeman, who became a single dad later in life. And his children, two daughters, are older. His daughters interviewed him about their experiences, starting with the basis of food. His family was very traditional in a Western kind of view in the sense that he worked, and his wife did all the cooking and cleaning. When she died, he was like, Oh, I can’t cook. How do I make things other than grilling meat on the grill outside? So he used his wife’s recipes and kind of developed his way of cooking. So it started with that as like the foundation of the conversation and it kind of bled into other things.
But he emailed me and said that it was a really hard discussion, which is something I didn’t read; I had found it touching and magical. And after, when I was talking to one of his daughters about it, it sounded like there were a lot of tensions that came up that they didn’t really address, things like him getting remarried. But for him, it was something that forced him to have to revisit those tensions that maybe hadn’t been really spoken about. But also do it in this manner where the audio is being recorded, and then transcribed and edited, and then also made public. I had to pivot in how I was viewing the way I was working with people. Each time I would work with a parent, I would ask them what the ideal way to house or showcase whatever it is that they were sharing, whether it was a drawing, a poem, or a photograph. Then I would have them review it and approve it. I wouldn’t share anything that wasn’t something they approved. But it was interesting that the process in general was difficult for Peter to deal with.
Morgan: In this project and in your practice, I see how you often start from personal history and shift to more communal history. Would you want to talk more about that?
Rebecca: Thinking about being an outsider and preservation, there are historical ways in which institutions will say, Oh, this is a value to us. So we’ll take it and we’ll put it here and then we’ll study it. So for me, my only expertise can come from my own experience. So rather than trying to be an outsider moving into someone else’s experience, I start with my own. And that way I can build on that and then see how that can relate to other people– even if their experience is wildly different, maybe there’s one connecting point.
Morgan: How do you see the relationship between care and preservation?
Rebecca: I think historically, preservation in the form of archives, museums, or even educational textbooks, has been aggressive and violence-based. The mode of preservation through an archive, historically, has been to take an object and remove it from a community and put it in a space where that community doesn’t have access.
These are ideas that I read in Ariella Azoulay’s book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, which really kind of transformed the way that I viewed taking photographs. I also come from a background of working within a textbook through an educational textbook publishing company. So knowing the process of how educational materials are created, and the things that they pull from historically, I’m interested in how we can approach preservation, because I think it is important. Things that exist in other places, outside of our own experience, are important. But is it okay for anyone to go to a different place and extract from that community? Especially if it’s an object or an experience that is sacred or even useful to that community?
With that in mind, how do you preserve something? That’s something I’m still investigating within my own individual practice of taking photographs— like when I create a photograph, even if it’s not with a human being, let’s say, a tree, I’m still taking something from that experience. That tree can’t communicate with me, but what am I doing when I’m doing that? And I don’t know if I have an answer, necessarily. But I think just even asking the question can open up an avenue for finding out what that means.
(1) Marti (they/them) is an Archives Technician at Portland State University’s Special Collections and University Archives located in the Millar Library and previously worked as the Archivist for KBOO Radio. They are interested in using archives as a place for Queer activism.
Morgan Hornsby (she/her) is a photographer and socially engaged artist. She was born in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Kentucky and currently lives in Tennessee. Her photographic work has been featured in publications such as The New York Times, NPR, Vox, The Guardian, New York Magazine, and The Marshall Project. www.morganhornsby.com @morganhornsby
Rebecca Copper (she/her) is an interdisciplinary artist based in the occupied lands of the Shawandassee Tula, Myaamia, and Kaskaskia people (Cols. OH). Her practice centers lens-based theories and socially engaged art praxis. She is an alumni of Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Most recently, her short film, Colitis (2021), was chosen for the Film Diary NYC 2.0 2022 film screening in Bushwick, NY and she was awarded a curatorial residency at Wave Pool in Cincinnati, OH. https://rebeccalcopper.net
After We Die
When did you first think about your life and death? It could be in your childhood, when you first noticed that life is not forever. Maybe it was when you lost someone. Or when you recognized love in your life. Some people might think of life and death more often than others, but everyone has thought of it more than once in their lifetime.
Death is one of those universal topics no one can escape from, yet it is very culturally specific. Regardless of who you are— your race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, whatever country you live in— death comes once in a lifetime for everyone.
With a few of my Japanese friends, I have been in this workshop called Ending notebook for the last 8 months. The Ending notebook is a Japanese written workbook that helps design your life, and the end of your life, while answering many questions about friends, family, emotions, health, medication, funeral, assets, and will.
I found Amanda Leigh Evans’ “When I Die” project very similar to “Ending notebook.” But it is, of course, in English, and for people living in the USA. From this interview, I hoped to find common values and differences within these two conceptually similar but culturally distinct projects, and to get some input from her experience witnessing people facing their own death as she ran the workshop.
Midori Yamanaka: What did you eat for breakfast today?
Amanda Leigh Evans: I had an egg and a piece of toast and a cup of tea.
Midori: Nice. What kind of tea do you like?
Amanda: I drink Earl Grey tea every morning. I don’t drink coffee. I drink tea.
Midori: When did you stop drinking coffee?
Amanda: I mean, I will drink coffee recreationally. I drink coffee once every six months.
Midori: Interesting. Alright, let’s get started. So I followed your project “When I Die.” It’s very interesting, because I find that this is something very universal. It’s something that everyone has to think about at some point. What made you do this project?
Amanda: Yeah, so at the time I was finishing my MFA in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. I was thinking about bigger experiences that everyone will have at some point in their life.
I was particularly interested in death for personal reasons, people close to me had passed away at significant points in my life. I don’t make work about death anymore. The project that I made was in 2016, but I don’t really engage that topic anymore in my practice. But I am interested. Other concepts that are related to— I feel hesitant using the words “universal human experiences” because I don’t know if that’s quite it— but experiences that many people can relate to.
I also was thinking about how death is a topic that in American culture often doesn’t get addressed. There’s a lot of silence around preparation for one’s own death and isolation in that experience. I was thinking about ways to kind of playfully normalize that.
And that’s how the project came to be.
Midori: Very interesting. I noticed that all your other projects are related to ceramics and permaculture. Is there any relationship to, or inspiration you got, from this project and your other projects?
Amanda: Yeah. So the connection is that during my thesis in the MFA and Social Practice program, I was working on a project that was meeting with people one on one to design their own ceramic urns for burial.
That kind of came out of this longer-term interest I have in ceramics being both a functional and conceptual medium at the same time and a really relational medium also. Often in my work, I think about ceramic objects performing multiple functions simultaneously, and I was particularly interested in thinking about how ceramic urns could be both a sculptural object that someone would live with, that they would have in their home throughout their life, and then they would be buried in the urn when they die. And maybe during their life while they have this jar around the jar could also be used for other purposes, like fermentation, making kimchi or sauerkraut or something like that. I was really interested in how we live with death, how we live with our own mortality, and how that object could represent this ability to live with one’s own death and normalize that inevitable end.
This object could then have multiple lives in a way, like it would have this living moment while this person’s alive, and then it would become this other type of object. So that’s the connection between the “When I Die” work, which is in a document that’s an artwork, and the rest of my practice. I found that work to be very meaningful and it very much required a strong level of responsibility to the people that I was meeting with as part of that project where some of them were experiencing a terminal diagnosis.
I realized that at that time I was also doing work with young people, and I realized that that was kind of more the direction that I wanted to move into in my practice. But I think the project was significant for me in terms of the way that we build relationships with other people, and then our responsibility to those relationships.
Midori: Interesting. It is true that both a human body and ceramics all go back to the soil.
So you researched very deeply about Oregon’s law for this project. Is there anything surprising or something significant that you remember?
Amanda: The most significant thing about it was that you need two witnesses to sign your will in order for it to be valid. It was really important to me that when I made this project that people could actually functionally use this document.
Again, I think that goes back to my values as a ceramic artist and wanting to make work that is functional and symbolic at the same time. If people were to use this document and then it wasn’t legally valid, then I feel like it kind of misses an opportunity there for it to become more interesting and integrated into someone’s life. So that’s why I did the research on the legal aspect of creating one’s own will. In some states, I don’t think you can legally create your own will. You need some official person right now, but in Oregon you can. And then there are just these criteria that have to be met like having it signed by another person. Ideally, it would be signed by a notary, but I think having two witnesses makes it more likely for it to be valid.
Midori: Interesting. I didn’t know that.
Amanda: And I assume the laws have changed since I researched them because that was six years ago. So…
Midori: Right. It is true that the law changes a lot. So you hosted this workshop with many people together working on this. Is there anything interesting you found doing during the workshop?
Amanda: Well, there were a lot of creative people there. I’ve hosted the workshop twice. I’ve also heard that people sometimes download this document and use it. So I don’t know what those people did, but, because there were many creative people who attended these workshops, there were some interesting answers. And the document itself is a bit unconventional. It’s different than some will templates that you can download from the internet. It does have a few practical questions to it, but it’s really kind of oriented toward how you want to live your life now before you die.
Amanda: It documents how we think about how we’re going to use the time that we have. We take that knowledge into our bodies. I think as I get older, I start to get a better sense of that. But when I made this project, I was in my mid-twenties, mid-to-late twenties. And so I think for me in general, time is something that is difficult to understand, like the concept of time, the concept of a decade, the concept of a lifetime. Even the concept of the death of my own parents. I keep thinking I have more time with them than I probably do. They’ve always been around, and so I just kind of assume they always will be around, but they won’t be. And so a lot of the document is really contending with how you can make sense of the time that you have available. And of course, nobody knows how much time they have, but I’m trying to have an embodied sense of time.
To go back to your question, I thought about the exercises and the documents that are related to one’s own concept of time. It was interesting to see the responses of the people in the workshops and how they process time through their own bodies.
And then, of course, there were some really outrageous and inventive burial options that people included. And again, I think it’s because of the fact that there were artists there who are thinking about that differently than maybe a general public could have.
But I think the document also is organized in a way where it kind of re-visions what it means to celebrate a life once a life ends. And it’s influenced by many wonderful thinkers who are revisioning what a good death looks like.
There are so many people in the US right now, or at least there were at that moment, rethinking death practices in our culture. I think with the pandemic, there are probably so many more people thinking about that now.
Midori: Right? This kind of project opens people’s eyes. If we don’t do something like this, we probably don’t even pay attention to how much time we still have until the end of our lives.
Is there anything specific that this project made? Did it make you do something differently?
Amanda: Well, I would say that since this project is really oriented around one’s own death and some of the practicalities that a will outlines— who do you give your stuff to and what kind of funeral do you want and how do you want to be buried? — the majority of the text is about trying to embody and understand the time that one has and how to live. So since then, I’ve been personally interested in making rituals and even ceramic objects that help me to try to understand my own relationship to time.
I’ve been working on this personal series of work for a few years, but I haven’t really posted about it because I don’t know when it’s going to be finished. It’s a series of objects that are timekeeping devices, and some of those timekeeping devices are thinking about the cycle of a year, the cycle of a season like an equinox or a solstice, and then also a way of measuring years of one’s life. I think that that’s been one of the biggest personal takeaways of the project for me; understanding the micro and macro aspects of time in one’s own life and how one’s life connects to this broader line of the human story. It’s caused me to think differently about the way that I spend an afternoon or a month or a season or a year and I know that that project influenced me in that way. I think also getting older has influenced me to think about that more too.
Midori: True. I hear you. I really hear you. That’s very interesting.
How about for the participants? What could have impacted those participants or what did you see through them? How did they react?
Amanda: Yeah, well, I noticed that asking people to reflect on how much time they might have left was a very emotional experience for some people. It doesn’t surprise me because it is a big thing to reckon with, but I was surprised by how many people hadn’t thought about that or spent time thinking about that because I was so deep in that mental space of reflecting on death for several years. It was so normal to me to be thinking about one’s own mortality that I had maybe forgotten about how unusual it is for someone to be reflecting on the time that they have left. So I think this project plus the ceramic project I was doing about death really made me recognize the responsibility that an artist has in facilitating a sensitive project and the importance of doing that well and thinking through in advance all of the reactions that people might have to the project. And what an artist’s responsibility is to the project after it ends. And that,, in part, is one of the reasons why, although death is a huge topic and I thought you could make a lifetime of work about this, I realize I don’t think I want to make a lifetime of work about this.
Midori: Okay. Well, very interesting.
I’ve been working on this very similar project with my friends for the last 6 months or so. Some of them want their ashes and bones scattered. They just want the ashes to be floating in the air. Or they just, you know, disappear somewhere. But a lot of states don’t let that happen by law. And in Japan, it’s kind of gray, they don’t say we can, but they don’t say we can’t either. So it’s kind of like you could, but maybe not really legally…
Is there anything like that? Something not really regulated or organized by law?
Amanda: Yeah, actually Harrell [Fletcher] was part of the workshop and he was talking about a green burial, which requires just the body being buried in the ground without a casket, without embalming. Washington State has a green burial cemetery. I also think there might be one in North Carolina… I know there’s one in Washington and basically bodies get composted.
Midori: Right. Right.
Amanda: I think that’s really interesting, and I wasn’t able to go very deep into that because of the ceramic project being oriented around cremation. But I think that maybe shifted my own views on how I would want to die, because I think about ceramics, the carbon impact of firing, the ceramic objects that I make and how much fuel it takes to make a ceramic object. And cremation is a very similar process. It’s kind of billed as being more environmentally sustainable than embalming, but it also has its issues. So I’m really interested in green burial solutions. The idea that one’s body could become nourishment for a tree, for example, feels more in line with my own interests. Nature and cycles of participating in natural cycles. And so that one particularly stood out to me. And then there were some very inventive ideas about where people’s ashes would be scattered. Someone had something about ashes being scattered among orca whales, which, yeah, a question about the legality of that, I’m not sure.
I know in the US there are strong restrictions for that. I’ve also heard many stories of people doing it anyway without suffering a loss. I’m curious about that, like the laws that we have for scattering of ashes, what the actual effect of that is and how people decide to follow that legally or decide to transgress that in order to honor their loved one. I don’t really know much about that, but I am curious about those laws too, and what they allow for and how some people choose to move around them.
Midori: Yes. Yes. One of my friends’ ashes were separated in a couple different places. Some parts are buried in his family grave in Japan, and other parts are buried in the States with his own grave. And some of his ashes were scattered from the sky by his students because he was a pilot and that was his will. That’s what he wanted.
I also heard that people scatter ashes at Disneyland, at the Haunted Mansion. Of course that is illegal. When it happens, Disneyland people need to rush with a special vacuum to collect the ashes that were scattered in the air.
Midori: Yeah, my friends who used to work in Disneyland told me that story.
Amanda: That’s fascinating. I feel like there could be a whole project about that, how and where people scatter ashes and the ways that other people contend with the scattered ashes.
Midori: Yes. There are different travel experiences for ashes.
Midori Yamanaka (she/her) is a social practice artist and educator born and raised in Japan, 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. 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. https://www.midoriyamanaka.com
Amanda Leigh Evans (she/her) is an artist, craftsperson, educator, and cultivator seeking a deeper understanding of our social and ecological interdependence. She makes ceramic objects, gardens, books, websites, videos, sculptures, and long-term collaborative systems. Evans holds an MFA in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University and a Post-Bac in Ceramics from Cal State Long Beach. She was raised in the Inland Empire and in rural Nevada County, CA, and lives and works in the Pacific Northwest. Currently, Evans is a Visiting Assistant Professor teaching ceramics and social practice at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA. https://amandaleighevans.com/