Conversations On Everything: Interviews Winter 2021

Talking Books

“When we have access to one another in an authentic way then we’re going somewhere together.”

– Laura Moulton

Laura Moulton is focused. Even during a bustling meeting of the Portland Correspondence Coop with typewriters clickety-clacking, she can talk as if we are the only people in the room. I tell her about my projects on a local poet; she tells me about her writing practice and classes she teaches. We agree to keep in touch via letters instead of texts and email. 

But even before meeting in person in January 2020, I knew about her. Years beforehand, I wanted to take her class on The Lost Art of the Letter. Of course, as a fan of bikes, books, and libraries, I knew about Street Books, the organization she founded in 2011 that uses a bicycle-powered library to provide people who live outside with access to literature.

As I prepared for our interview, my questions were mostly about operating a street library, especially since my art practice is focused on publications, libraries, and what happens when they’re mobile instead of fixed inside a building. But I sensed that I was missing a key question: how Street Books relates to a socially engaged art practice. Our interview quickly revealed that the art happens when books, bike, and librarian intersect with their public.

Laura Glazer: How do you explain Street Books to kids? 

Laura Moulton.: I think the Street Books formula is pretty simple and it might be the same to kids as it would be to grownups, which is just that we are a bicycle-powered mobile library and we focus on people living outside or at the margins that might not access the mainstream county library. And that’s for reasons of systemic barriers like not having ID, not having an address. And I think that I would describe to a younger person that the core magic of Street Books is connecting with a person and getting them a book and getting them a good story and offering them another world outside of the world they’re sitting in at the moment, if they can use that escape. 

Laura G.: Does that escape work?

Laura M:. I think so. I’ve seen it so many times with patrons who are keen to kill an afternoon. A lot of the challenge of living without shelter and not having a spot to put belongings and things like that is just the tedium of killing a day.

And I’ve definitely had interesting conversations with people over time where they’ve looked for something that would just transport them, whether it’s sci-fi or fantasy. Or in the case of Ben Hodgson, who is now part of our team, he used to weigh whether to just kill an afternoon or to sort of enlighten himself. Given that he’s an incredible reader, it was always a dilemma for him.  Would he go with something that he called kinda “garbage books” or would he go with something a little meatier for his brain to tear into? 

Laura G.: Is Street Books a social practice project or a community service project? 

Laura M.: I think a lot of social practice projects often look like community service projects because there is a beneficial component to a community. But in this case, I feel like it began very much as a social practice project in its conception. I imagined rolling out this beautiful library, this sort of rolling case of curiosities, and drawing people in. And I imagined the conversations that we would then have.

In terms of it being community service, I think from the beginning this has felt to me like more of a collaboration, and that is because I’m showing up, and I’m showing up with books and reading glasses, but there is no requirement that says to a person that they have to come and engage in a conversation. Maybe they do want something like a book, and then they want to disappear. But what I found instead is that people facing enormous challenges in their lives, like, “What am I going to do next, where am I going to sleep tonight?” are willing to come and greet me or whatever librarian is at the shift and have a conversation about books. And in fact, bring their own insights and their own history with reading. 

Every encounter with the Street Books library is interesting and most of them are a little bit mind-blowing. I always leave having learned something or re-situated the way I thought about a thing. I look at it very much as, Street Books does provide a service—there are books, there are reading glasses—but the community component and that collaboration is something that I think has always had a life of its own and always been ever-present in those interactions.

Laura G.: That is such a great explanation! We spend a lot of time in this first year of the program and maybe throughout our time in the MFA really defining social practice. I was just in a workshop last night, talking about that exact thing, and I wish you had been there because that was perfect! 

Laura M.: It’s funny. I was looking back through notes I’d taken and I was looking at [Nicolas] Bourriaud. It’s that idea of relational art, and the thing that I liked was the idea that instead of encounters between a viewer and an object, it’s encounters between people that is the art and that is the practice and the work of community. Just the idea that the meaning is reached or encountered or elaborated on collectively, rather than in an individual consumption kind of way.

So we create this little intersection and people happen upon us, or they come and they say, “Hey, it’s the book lady. Do you have my book this week?” And I’m like, “Yes, I have your Gwendolyn Brooks poetry collection. How are you doing, Pamela?” 

We are not distributing sack lunches. We’re not handing out Q-tips one at a time, which I once watched this Russian Orthodox church do and it was really super bizarre. [Laughs] They would come to the corner of Fourth and Burnside at the Right to Dream Rest Area and they had like tweezers or something. I can’t remember what they clamped them in, but they would hand out Q-tips one at a time. Maybe they wanted to just make sure that a guy didn’t walk away with three Q-tips instead of two. [Chuckles] 

But anyway, it’s that idea that maybe the best social practice projects are the ones that benefit the community who take part in some material way. Like maybe there is a new revenue stream created. Maybe a young person is empowered to become a printmaker when they didn’t know what printmaking was. That is, to me, the best outcome. And it’s certainly not baked into a requirement for a successful project to be realized. But if it’s not, if it doesn’t somehow empower a community or make a shift in that direction, I don’t have as much interest in it.

I feel like the emphasis should be on participatory exchange in an authentic way. So it’s not one person offering a sack lunch to another, if that makes any sense. 

Street librarian, Redd Moon (right) talks with a Street Books patron in downtown Portland. Photo by Laura Moulton.

Laura G.: Based on what you’ve heard from patrons of Street Books, what’s their perception of the interaction? 

Laura M.: I think that people are really grateful to see us, that’s for sure. I remember that this project was supposed to be a three-month, neat little Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC)-funded project. And when I biked to Skidmore Fountain, as it was starting to get cooler in the fall of 2011, there was Keith, waiting with his books to return, and he checked out new ones. I realized all of a sudden this was not something I could just fold up and say, “Thank you for the great art project guys, good luck out there,” because he was camping in the West Hills and coming down to connect with Street Books and get more books. And he was a serious reader and a serious patron. That’s an example of the level of commitment and loyalty people have had over time, the community that’s been forged. 

The other piece of Street Books that’s been interesting is we have made it one of our missions to build a bridge—constructed of literature—between our patrons and the housed community who might be doing pretty well, but also recognize the importance of a good book and love books, too.

I’ve seen incredible conversations happen that feel like I’m listening to a workshop at a college level. Like a conversation between a guy named Mark who lived at the Right to Dream Rest Area and a housed dude who stopped to say, “What is this thing? what is this project?” They talked about Frankenstein and Mary Shelley, they talked about who was the real monster by the end of that book, what was Shelley’s intention and what was her message. I was in the background just having my mind kind of blown. I know that the guy who would go home to a house that night also was changed because he walked away reflecting on the fact that he’d just had a pretty heavy, interesting conversation with somebody who lived in a tent at the corner of Fourth and Burnside.

In terms of how patrons react and what the project is like to them, I feel like they are part of forming this community and they certainly have a lot of stake in it. We have had patrons come to our defense when needed, which was rarely, but they have been very loyal to the street librarians.

I had a bike stolen that was recovered within a week. Thanks to putting the word out on the street. It was stolen while I was out on the shift with the big Street Books bike. When my patrons heard that somebody had pinched my bike while I was out on a shift, they were livid and put the search on and it came back. One of my street librarians actually, Pépe, helped me recover it. There’s that kind of community at the street level. If you saw that German documentary, you saw one of the women outside of Sisters of the Road, just saying, “this library is not afraid of people out here. They treat us like we’re human there.” Of course that’s the case, right? But that is not what we see at the city level.

Laura G.: At what point in your life did you realize you could talk with people…that you could connect with conversation?

Laura M.: It’s funny, my dad used to make me do stuff when I was a little kid, like make phone calls to ask about hours of opening or go into a store and ask for something. I remember hating that because I felt shy and a little bit scared about it, but it actually served me in terms of daring to start a conversation with someone or take something on in terms of addressing something or someone. I have loved conversation with people, I’ve been fascinated by humans for forever.

I’ve thought about the genesis of Street Books and one of the things I loved was hearing stories from people that were different than me or that had had a different life than I had. I grew up Mormon and I was going to Brigham Young University and I worked at this place called the Food and Shelter Coalition. Basically, guys would hop off the train or they would drive up in an RV. It was a lot of folks living outside or out of vehicles that would stop in to get a meal. They often had emergency shelter just in the form of a voucher for a night or two at this hotel called the Hotel Roberts, which was so wonderful and dilapidated and classic, but now it’s been torn down.

I was tasked with overseeing getting the meal going and also arranging for this emergency shelter. They sat at this desk in this little waiting room as a result, and I had the most amazing conversations. At the time I was so sick of this shellacked, religious shininess up on campus and these guys—even though I would not want to romanticize their situations if they were not loving being on the road—those were such interesting conversations and I soaked them up. 

I think conversations have been part of what I love from an early age. That conversation in the very beginning with the first person that was living outside with a backpack was way more challenging than I would have thought because I realized how audacious I’d been in writing that RACC grant.

I realized I had never broken down what that would feel like, to approach someone who is sitting on a piece of cardboard or who was waiting at the MAX train stop with a number of pieces of gear that would indicate they’re outdoors. It was really scary for me to make that approach and I did so somewhat apologetically and like, “Hey, I don’t want to bother you.” I did have a guy holler at me that first season when I started my spiel, “Hey, I have an outdoor library here. And I wondered if…” and he was like, “No!” But aside from that, people were always cordial, even if they felt like they weren’t up for a book and they didn’t really want to have a conversation.

I didn’t get in their face. I gave them an easy out if they wanted to be unbothered and keep going. I was very aware of that space and not being like, “Hello, I’m doing a service and I’m here to make your day.” Nothing like that. It was always just about, “Hey, I’m running a library here. Could you use a good book today? No fees, no fines. There’s no money.” 

Gradually I got more confident and more recently now I’ve been really grateful for the excuse to say hello to someone who’s clearly outdoors and maybe struggling and to strike up a conversation; it’s like the ultimate pass. I don’t have to avert my eyes and walk around someone. Instead I can say, “Hey Mike, how’s it going? I haven’t seen you in awhile.” It’s been a huge game changer from that angle. 

Once you know a person’s name, you’ve got all the tools you need to greet them warmly the next time you see them. That is a gift that Street Books offers the fleet of eight librarians now and the board of directors. Everyone who’s involved has been able to have this opportunity to connect with people that were like statistics or that were the sad food bank advertisement with the nicotine-stained beard and the sad expression. It’s access to one another, which I keep coming back to: when we have access to one another in an authentic way then we’re going somewhere together. 

Laura G.: How you would do it differently as you were setting up Street Books, if you would do it differently? 

Laura M.: I’m not sure I would do anything differently. I think that part of the magic was maybe leaping or finding myself out on that bike, biking around and suddenly a little bit terrified about what I might have taken on. I feel like I gave people plenty of space, which I think I would do again. I think that was a really important part of it.

When I say it’s important to have access to one another, I also mean respecting someone. If somebody’s outdoors, they have no door you can knock on, they have no walls to protect them from other humans. If you’re outdoors, you are extremely exposed to the public and to the commons. Sometimes that means a great conversation with someone, but sometimes it means abuse. Probably more often than not, it means abuse or being swept or random kicks in the ribs at night.

In terms of whether I would do anything different, I think I would still be very careful about the approach and giving people space. But I think I’d be less afraid that they wouldn’t be receptive, because of course, humans, when approached with kindness and a gesture, under most circumstances are glad to return it.

Laura G.: In hindsight, would you have done different research on the community you were intending to serve?

Laura M.: I’m sure that I could have been better researched in terms of the numbers of folks on the streets and the factors involved in them arriving there in the first place, but I’m not sure that I would have changed up too much. I feel like my method was basic, and was pretty organic. I biked around downtown and just watched for where people congregate and that’s where I chose my two spots.

I started out Wednesdays at Skidmore Fountain and Saturdays in the Park Blocks outside the art museum. That was just based on a square in each case where I could see that people were sleeping and congregating. The next summer, Skidmore Fountain had been swept and I no longer went there because there were no people camped there.

I was lucky at every turn for the way I was received, and the way people responded. The passersby of means who were headed to houses or apartments stopped often and were really intrigued and excited about the project and would offer books. So, I got inundated with book donations that first summer, we got good press, which was totally accidental. We were in the Mercury and I think The Oregonian and there were some nice articles.

Laura Moulton on a discovered-bike in Peru, dreaming of a book bike there in 2017. Photo by Ben Parzybok.
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The founder of Street Books, Laura Moulton, with one of the Street Books bikes. Each bike holds 40-50 books, library cards, and check-out slips. A small shelf pulls out from the main cabinet, displaying additional books. Photo courtesy of Laura Moulton.

Laura G.: Why was it important to you to work with people living outside?

Laura M.: I was coming off that other ungainly rolling, beautiful object, which was the Object Mobile at Portland State  University and I was imagining what I could create that was mobile again. I don’t remember the process by which I landed on a library in the street, but I will say that for me in thinking about audience, which I think of like the community that becomes part of a social practice project, I think I was intrigued by the notion of drawing people in who rarely get invited to be a part of a project. 

The way we treat people living outdoors is: maybe they’ll be included back in the fabric of things once they have their shit together, or once they have an apartment or once they have fulfilled these metrics that we have somehow decided makes for a happy life. I was intrigued at the notion of starting from where everyone was and seeing what we could do, and seeing what would happen when people were invited who rarely got invited, or who rarely got to be known because they were defined already by where they were sitting outside the art museum, or what they were wearing, or how many bags they were carrying. It was kind of an experiment to see who would come, who could participate, who might benefit from it, and it was a happy outcome.

I feel like it’s something that took up its own momentum and drew together really fascinating people that were in all stages of outside on the way to inside. Some folks who have gotten into apartments still check out books from us, which is pretty awesome. They often will say, “I can’t find what I need at the public library, can I get it from you guys?” That’s always kind of a shot in the arm, you know?

Laura G.: I see that you have the title of “street librarian.” How did you come up with that title? 

Laura M.: Oh, man, I love that title. It’s like the best job I’ve ever had and it’s funny ‘cause we made it up. I guess I had to design that job title, but the street librarian with Street Books for me is someone who is ideally comfortable with a range of life experience. We try to make sure that we have librarians on the team that have lived experience outdoors or are living outside.

We hired a guy one summer who was living in his van. When I said, “Man, is this a lot for you to balance?” He said, “No, I can drive and park where I need to be a librarian.” I was thinking of the ways it might be hard and he was thinking of the ways it was more convenient in a way.

Our librarians typically are readers and love to talk about books, but they also maybe have lived experience outside or a social service background. We tend to get folks who are interested in this work because they’ve done similar work, and maybe this is refreshing because it’s stepping outside of some traditional transaction in social service work where someone’s required to do some things, to hit some metrics, to make some marks on a to-do list before they’re able to access this next thing. 

The beauty of Street Books is “no fees, no fines.” These books are for you. If you’re experiencing living in a car, staying at a shelter, living outdoors in the city, this project was designed exactly for you.

It’s not for the person that is listening to a podcast running in spandex that stops to say, “What is this?” In that way, it’s kind of deliciously exclusionary. If you can go to Powell’s and buy yourself a book, keep going, you know? 

I think the librarians are somewhat renegade, for sure. They’re not traditionally trained though we have librarians from Multnomah County that are on our board of directors. We use old-school library tricks like the card-in pocket. 

I love the adhesive pockets inside the cover. Plenty of our patrons are like, “Oh, I remember these!” It’s sort of old school and we track what books go out and how many by the cards. We sort of operate from the idea that people will have more pressing concerns than getting their library book back to us. We invite them to return the book or to pass it on to someone who might enjoy it so that they know it’s not high pressure to keep it in super nice condition, which is also an impossibility in a rainy winter in Portland. 

I think people appreciate the fact that there’s no money that has to exchange hands. There’s no fees, there’s no fines. Among our regular patrons there’s a great rate of return because they really make an effort to see us the next week and get our books back.

I remember a guy that was in his upper seventies named Fred, who came every week. When I tried to say, “If ever you run into trouble, Fred, and you can’t get these back, please just feel free to pass them on.” And he seemed kind of offended. He was like, “No, I’ll see you next week.” For him, that was a clear self-mandate. 

Laura G.: I’ve watched a lot of the videos on your website and the German documentary from 2019 is especially good. I noticed there’s something special and unspoken that happens as you’re helping patrons pick out books. How do you experience those moments? 

Laura M.: Early on I was so grateful for the little drawer that my brother helped me build on that bike because the Haley trike that I bought did not have that feature; it was just a box. The fact that I could pull that out and set the little kickstand underneath it so that those books were on display and then move back away from that meant everything in the beginning because people could amble by and just take a little gander. Then I would greet them from a distance and just say, “Hey, I’ve got books here. If you’re interested, this is a library, have a look.”

I remember that very first summer in 2011, a guy named Eric, who was a cowboy. He had a baseball cap that said “one way” that pointed to Jesus and he had these awesome cowboy boots—he was kind of a Wrangler, pearl button shirt guy—probably in his upper seventies when I met him. He just walked a wide berth around me for like a month and every day I’d greet him and say, “Hey, I got some, I got some books here, you’re welcome.” Finally, one day he came and then he just never left. He was an incredible Louis L’Amour fan. He checked out a cowboy book every week and I would save one for him so that I made sure I had one.

I encountered all kinds of reactions when I invited people to come look at the books. Sometimes they felt like it wasn’t for them. Sometimes they felt like they needed money and they wouldn’t be included. When I made that clear and I got better and better at saying, “This is a street library for people living outside, no fees, no fines. You’re welcome to take something if you see anything you’d like.” 

I would say, “Is there anything that you’ve been meaning to read or an old favorite that you’d like to look at again? We take requests and I’d be happy to bring it to you next week.” That was a great way into a conversation about books and about their favorite authors.

Very quickly someone could say, “I love crime, fiction, anything by Ann Rule, or true stories.” Over time, you get to know people’s likes and then it’s such a pleasure; you can see in them when you say, “Hey, I have the newest blah, blah, blah and I had you in mind, do you want to try that out?” They feel seen and recognized as the reader that they are and with the tastes that they have. 

I also see people who haven’t had great access to support and good education when it comes to reading or loving reading, so they are less inclined to read or feel like their skills are limited. I’ve plugged them into more basic texts over time. Children’s books, graphic novels, things like that. 

We can definitely adjust and plug someone into what is a good fit for them. I love gently teasing someone I know pretty well about what they’ve been reading or not reading, and joking with them and saying, “We want a full report on this next week. Like if this book on the power of habit really changes your life, will you come back and tell us? Cause I need some help on that.” There’s such friendship built into it and camaraderie.

Laura G.: When you were talking about the drawer being integral, can you say more about that? Was it that it allowed people that wide berth? Can you say more about the drawer? Can you describe the bicycle? That might be a good place to start. 

Laura M.: The Haley trikes, I think they’re still being made, I think they’re out of Pennsylvania. I found one on Craigslist that was just basically a plywood box mounted on a tricycle.

It’s a box with two wheels on either side and then a little seat with the last wheel perched behind. I bought that for a couple hundred bucks off of Craigslist. In fact, I think the guy gave me a discount when I described what I was going to use it for, which is pretty cool. Gotta love Portland and bike culture!

My brother painted it for me, added this kind of neat classic looking wood trim, and then added this pullout drawer so that the little drawer would pull out and it has a row of books inside. It can do a couple of paperbacks end to end and I carry about 40 to 50 titles on the bike at any time.

I could pull this out and put a kickstand underneath it, then open the box and line the inner lid with books and just make it available for people to have a look at from a distance without committing. If they didn’t really want to be talked at, or if I picked up on a sense that they wanted to kind of scope it without too much chatter, I would definitely just sort of be quiet. 

I write about this in the book that I’m working on with Hodge. I had the sense when he came up that I could have spooked him very easily. And that was the energy he was giving off at the time because he was really struggling, and he was really not up for much in the way of conversation.

I really had this sensation like I could have overdone it once and never seen him again. So I was very warm to him when I would see him, but I kind of left him be in the beginning and then he became more and more familiar, and more and more comfortable. I feel like that’s the story of many patrons who might’ve approached sort of tentatively to see what it was.

Laura G.: I’m just looking over my next question and I think you answered it really well, regarding the design and aesthetics of the bicycle connecting to the work of Street Books. I’ve heard you talk about it being a cabinet of curiosities of sorts. It creates a safe space around it, but it’s also a source of curiosity. Do you want to talk a little bit about that dichotomy? 

Laura M.: I’m just now realizing that I can’t remember this artist’s name, but I bet you’ll know it right away. I went to the Tate in London and I saw these incredible cases, and it was based on excavations that this artist had done of the Thames River. Who is that? 

Laura G.: That’s Mark Dion!

Laura M.: That blew my mind, the idea of reframing items in a museum context that had been refuse just before. Maybe it’s the same notion, like I’m creating this object of, I think beauty, but also oddness, in a cityscape when there is so much that’s just urban and not art; like cold surfaces and steel and stone and nothing that throws a surprise at you, or that causes you to wonder.

I liked the idea of creating something that causes someone to pause and maybe wonder or admire, and then be intrigued. It’s like a set of reactions and those have to do with being surprised by what you have encountered.

Laura G.: I noticed that in one of the interviews that you’ve done, there is a mention of the five laws of library science.

Laura M.: I vaguely remember that. I loved that interview, but it’s been a while since I looked at that.

Laura G.: Are those part of what you think about?

Laura M.: Can you remind me what they are? And I’ll tell you if I think about them. 

Laura G.: They’re beautiful. The first law is books are for use. Second law, every reader, his or her book. Third law, every book its reader. Fourth law, save the time of the reader. And the fifth law, the library is a growing organism. 

Laura M.: Wow, where are those from? 

Laura G.: In 1931 S.R. Ranganathan proposed them as his theory of library science.

Laura M.: I would love to say that we have fully embodied that and that that’s integral to our mission, but I haven’t even thought about that in a few years. I will say that Hodge —who lived outdoors when I first met him and all these years later, has an apartment and is a street librarian for us—has a quote: “Street Books is the real community college. The university is a collection of books.” 

It would be interesting to try to get people college credit from standing around, having the conversations that we do, reading the books that they do, returning the books, and giving a sort of sometimes half-assed report. Street Books is such fertile ground for ideas from books, conversations about those ideas and a larger sense of ourselves as humans and what’s possible.

That’s the other thing. I’ve been really on a “what’s possible” bent, reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler and Emergent Strategies by adrienne maree brown. Leaping from that idea of possible futures, and the way we get there outside of traditional structures or systems.

I feel like that’s something Street Books has been able to do well. The fact that we’re still going 10 years later after this three-month art project, speaks to that idea of people showing up, loving an idea and just never leaving. That certainly describes our staff and our board and our librarians and our patrons and such support over years, sometimes by the same people outdoors for some time, willing to come back each week and find us for more conversation. 

Laura G.: Is there anything you would like to include that I haven’t asked you about?

Laura M.: I would just offer up Street Books as an example of a kind of project that offers the opportunity to create a space. That grants people access to one another in a new and safe-feeling way. I would love for projects like it, or projects of a similar nature, to proliferate across the globe because it feels like that might be what we’re lacking: access to one another in a genuine way where everybody’s safe to be their full selves.

Laura Moulton (she/her) is the founder of Street Books, a bicycle-powered mobile library that serves people who live outside in Portland, Oregon. In 2020 she created the Truth & Dare workshop, an ongoing contemporary arts and writing adventure she offers to high school students. Moulton is a writer-in-residence for Literary Arts and an adjunct professor at Lewis & Clark College. Her social art practice projects have included postal workers, immigrants, incarcerated women, and students. She earned an MFA from Eastern Washington University.

Laura Glazer​ (she/her) is a first-year student in the Art and Social Practice Masters of Fine Arts program at Portland State University. She graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography and lives in Portland, Oregon. An avid letter writer, she is a member of the Portland Correspondence Coop and creates artwork at the intersections of photography, design, publishing, and curation.

Art, Education, and Social Realms

“I think the story of who one is, is essential in understanding who one is. That is knowledge. The trick is gaining the tools and community to both express that story and to turn that knowledge into a revised world.”

– Nato Thompson

The Alternative Art School website banner. Image courtesy of Nato Thompson.

This spring rounds out a year in which many of our realities experienced peak collisions within the structural identities and systems we’ve been encouraged and enforced to rely on. The past year directed particular pathways of our lives, our movements and understandings. What emerged was an amalgamation of industrialization, white supremacy, and the patriarchal, capitalist economy. Evident and undeniable is the blatant devaluing of care, especially when that value is defined by a capitalist economy. I’m particularly interested in how we can come out of this as we are unable to ignore the behaviors that we can no longer condone or accept. How can we unlearn these oppressive systems, these problematic patterns of behavior? How can we attempt to reposition ourselves to rebuild, divert the current destructive pathway humanity is set on? I interviewed Nato Thompson of The Alternative Art School (TAAS), which started in the midst of COVID-19. I think one way to create a trend towards a new way of existing or living together, is to start with how we as people approach education and its access. Education and ways in which information is shared, taught, and consumed are perfect examples of one pathway or structure that we can approach differently. Below is an email-based dialogue that occurred between Nato Thompson and I regarding TAAS and social engagement through art.

Rebecca Copper: COVID-19 has provided a particular space for acutely questioning the systems that aren’t working for communities or individuals. In my opinion, the past year is not just symbolic, but is symptomatic. We are at a climactic point in our history. We are at a point where we have to ask ourselves, how are we going to continue to live? What can alternative ways of being look like? 

Nato Thompson: I agree with this. Certainly this epochal year should come with some realizations about how life can be different. That said, I also see a massive rush to get back to how things were. I fear the memo didn’t quite sink in. 

Quite honestly, I have never really believed social change comes just from consciousness raising. That is certainly part of it. But just because a majority of the planet wants to stop climate change, doesn’t actually change climate change. I think there are vast systems of production and consumption that are very difficult to both comprehend and make progress on. 

I suppose that gets to your second question about alternatives. I have always been a fan of the politics of tools. Like lifestyle anarchism or hippie culture or the Black Panthers or the Indignados in Spain, I like a form of activism that offers new modes of behavior– from how one eats, to how one habitats, to how one communicates. By creating different tools and different methods for constructing a world, one is able to facilitate a group of people embodying a politics more than just talking.

Rebecca: Tell us a little about yourself. What are you currently reading? What was the last meal you ate?

Nato: I read emails lately. Probably not that different than most. I have just been in high production mode this year with The Alternative Art School and a few other projects. I am not complaining but my educational or recreational reading has really taken a hit.

And as for a meal, I just ate an egg bite. I am on this keto diet which I have been on for over a year now. Do you really want to talk about it? Haha, talking about diets is really painful. 

Objects in Nato’s home that he admires. Image courtesy of Nato Thompson.

Rebecca: Can you tell us about The Alternative Art School (TAAS)? How did its formation come about? 

Nato: Honestly, it is the culmination of a lot of things, although one doesn’t have to have a PhD in higher education to see the overall need for new models. I used to organize a conference with my old job at Creative Time called The Creative Time Summit. It was a gathering of artists, activists and engaged culture makers from around the world. When Covid hit, I began to do interviews with artists on Instagram. And I realized two things right away— one, my network of insanely awesome artists was vast. Two, this internet-thing really can connect folks pretty well.

The other motivation was my own burn out from non-profits. I just got tired of the idea of grants and fundraising. It all felt like such a profound waste of energy and ideals. So, I thought having an online educational model that connected great artists from around the world, and could use affordable tuition dollars as its economic backbone, was a good idea. So far it has far exceeded my expectations.

I also have to give credit to this guy I call my Yoda. Zane Vella. He really helped me get over some of my trepidations about starting a business as well as navigating online technology. He kept it simple for me. I owe him a lot for that.

Finally, and most important, has been the conversations with artists and activists for decades. I don’t exist in a vacuum, and the instructors at the school, and many others I have had the joy of encountering, have been very helpful in shaping how an alternative world of values and capacity could function.

Rebecca: How does this school differ from other art programs? What is the goal of the school, or the collective of individuals who helped bring TAAS to life?

Nato: Well, the most obvious part is that it takes place online. I am not one to fetishize the online world in some Matrix way, but you can achieve a lot with the collapse-of-space that is the internet. We put this school out there with some insanely compelling artists like Janine Antoni, Mel Chin, Yael Bartana, Vashti DuBois, Tiago Gualberto, Mario Ybarra Jr. Trevor Paglen, and then we began to see what came back. While we don’t hold a doctrine of what can be taught, I think the aesthetic, pedagogical and ethical disposition of our instructors says much about who and what we are.

What we learned is that our school appeals to working artists around the world. It has very little crossover with traditional art schools, although I don’t like having a conversation as though we are in competition. What I realized is that what we are is a global online extension, almost a community of working artists that can be part of a dynamic embodied local life. 

We want to stay relatively affordable. We want to pay our instructors well. We want to produce an intimate safe space for our enrolled artists where we care for them and produce dynamic cross-race cross-gender cross-sexuality spaces with artists from around the world. 

Rebecca: Is TAAS accredited? 

Nato: No, TAAS is not accredited. It’s a series of intimate classes with some of the most visionary artists, curators, dreamers and do-ers from across the globe. That is what we offer. It sort of speaks for itself. 

Rebecca: Do you think all art is social?  

Nato: I think all things are understood in relation to other people. We do not produce meaning by ourselves but in fact, meaning is created collaboratively. So in that sense, all art is social. 

Rebecca: What about social practice? Do you think social practice has a particular connection to education and learning? Does that connection differ from other forms of art? 

Nato: Well, I do think there are many different kinds of art and different kinds of social practice. It’s almost too complex to make sweeping generalizations. With that said, I can speak about tendencies in the genre that could answer the question. Certainly some of the concerns that some social practice artists tackle deal with people or groups of people in the world. This reliance on communication and navigating different backgrounds and ways of knowing can often lead one toward concerns around race, class, gender, sexuality among others. There is also some knowledge around radical pedagogy and different methodologies by which communication and learning occurs. 

Rebecca: Do you consider The Alternative Art School a kind of socially engaged art project? 

Nato: The school itself isn’t. I think there are many kinds of art taught at the school and they fit different genre categories. Certainly we do emphasize artists who approach their work with a sensitivity and knowledge that the art meets the public and in that, we must navigate the forces that shape what the public is and can be. This basic approach can apply to painting, sculpture, video, performance. 

Rebecca: How much autonomy do students have as participants at TAAS? 

Nato: It is a platform by which intimate encounters occur online between artists. They are pedagogical experiences where art is produced and relationships are formed. Artists are able to participate in any manner that doesn’t infringe in a problematic way with the experience of other attending artists and instructors. This is called, basic needs of being with people.

Nato’s view when answering these questions. Image courtesy of Nato Thompson.

Rebecca: How does the school approach different ways of knowing? 

Nato: I think art can be seen through the lens of ways of knowing. Our various instructors and students come at this from a variety of approaches. Some prefer non-hierarchical collective working. Some prefer embodied experiments. Some prefer learning de-colonial art history from a teacher. I think that there are a myriad of ways one can learn and we are interested in deeply exploring that as a community.

Rebecca: Can you share an experience where you relied on what you learned through life experience rather than through a class or something you read in a book?

Nato: I grew up poor. I grew up with different communities of race. You can’t teach that. It’s in me. 

Rebecca: Historically, experiential knowledge has been not respected within Western academic spaces and institutional educational settings. What are your thoughts on experiential knowledge?

Nato: I am not convinced that this kind of knowledge hasn’t been respected. The realm of higher education is quite vast and certainly there have been thousands of incredible professors who understand this and appreciate this very important piece of knowledge. Paolo Freire, who teaches this, had massive effects in so many different fields. So too Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologist, who speaks to this very point. 

I think the story of who one is, is essential in understanding who one is. That is knowledge. The trick is gaining the tools and community to both express that story and to turn that knowledge into a revised world. 

Rebecca: What about care? How does care labor fold into TAAS?

Nato: Caring is an important ethos, technique and historical lens. We approach our community with care and we build our environments with a sensitivity to those in the room. We build art feedback sessions with an understanding of care. And we also understand seeing world history from the lens of care has both a sustainability bent to it as well as a female one. For these reasons, we truly appreciate care.

Rebecca: How much does art contribute to the act of creating new ways in which we can choose to live? 

Nato: Good question. I am never a fan of generalizing about art. It’s like being a fan of electricity. It’s a medium with potential. The question is what do you do with it. In general, I think in its better moments, the arts offer a way to think about the world in a non-transactional manner. It can offer different sets of values or even emotions that broaden our sense of what is possible, and how things are possible. 

Rebecca: What does your ideal future look like? What is utopia to you? 

Nato: Oscar Wilde famously stated that no map can be perfect if it doesn’t contain utopia. I do feel similarly in that you need a north star. But I do caution that often the downfall of many artistic projects is the obsession with perfection over the pragmatics of collective action. That constant battle to live up to dreams, but to also be pragmatic enough to make dreams, is a healthy tension so long as it doesn’t stop the dreamers from doing. 

In that sense, even with a healthy pragmatism, I think the future is mixed race, mixed class, focused on sustainability and care, and able to circulate economies and capacity in such a manner that we elevate each other enough globally to shape a more compelling and strange future collectively. I think it is even achievable. 

Rebecca Copper​ (b. 1989) reflects on her lived experiences through art projects that range from socially engaged art to modes of individual creation such as film photography and video. Rebecca is interested in experiential knowledge and how people are influenced in mediated ways. She works through themes such as: phenomenology, intersectional feminist politics, American education, and institutions of care. She is currently an MFA candidate in Portland State University’s Contemporary Art Practice: Art and Social Practice Program. Recently, she worked as a research assistant for the Art and Social Practice Archive which is housed within PSU’s special collections and finished a fellowship with the Columbus Printed Arts Center in Columbus,

Nato Thompson is an author, curator, and what he describes as “cultural infrastructure builder”. He has worked as Artistic Director at Philadelphia Contemporary, and Creative Time as Artistic Director and as Curator at MASS MoCA.

Thompson organized major Creative Time projects including The Creative Time Summit (2009–2015), Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy (2016), Kara Walker’s A Subtlety (2014), Living as Form (2011), Trevor Paglen’s The Last Pictures (2012), Paul Ramírez Jonas’s Key to the City (2010), Jeremy Deller’s It is What it is (2009, with New Museum curators Laura Hoptman and Amy Mackie), Democracy in America: The National Campaign (2008), and Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot in New Orleans (2007), among others.

He has written two books of cultural criticism, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century (2015) and Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life (2017).

The Alternative Art School is an online art school that features live courses with internationally recognized faculty from around the world. In addition to instructors, the enrolled artists also come from different corners of the globe. This produces a dynamic and energetic community.

Diversity In Art

“When we get into conversations about how diversity is actually used and implemented, it’s often used and implemented…to not have to name white supremacy or patriarchy or sexism as a system. When we talk about systems, we talk about power. Diversity is something that can be used to mask the fact that power isn’t changing at all.”

Darryl Ratcliff

The following conversation is a transcribed episode of my Instagram TV and Zoom conversation series, Black Box Conversations. The series, which I moderate, aims to create safe spaces where People of Color can hold meaningful conversations centered around their human experiences. In our conversations, my guests and I explore topics that aren’t comfortably discussed within the Black Community, such as anxiety/depression, PTSS (post-traumatic slave syndrome), and spirituality. Each guest leaves the space with a renewed sense of healing and centeredness. 

An extension of my interactive installation project, Black Box Experience, the Conversation series developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to continue fostering relationships while also staying socially distanced. In this episode, I had a chance to speak with Dallas-based artist Darryl Ratcliff about diversity in art. I had heard of Darryl and the amazing work he was doing around Dallas but had never formally met him until this conversation. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that he was also aware of the work I was doing in the Oak Cliff/Bishop Arts area. We discussed different things that came up for us when various institutions began their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives over the summer of 2020 as a response to the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Black Box Conversations flyer with Darryl Ratcliff 
Michelada Think Tank Poster for Otis College of Art and Design (2015)
Diversity is for White People  Art(Con)spiracy art auction (2015)

Kiara: Hello everyone, my name is Walls and this is the Black Box Conversation series. The Black Box Conversation series aims to create a safe space where POC can hold meaningful conversations centered around their human experience. Today, we will be speaking with Daryl Ratcliff about diversity in art. I’m really excited to be talking about this topic with you. I’m gonna turn it over to you.

Darryl: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me on Black Box. And thank you for the work that you’re doing and creating the space for these important conversations to happen. And thank you for inviting me to have a conversation with you on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart and to my practice. I’m Darryl Ratcliff. I am an artist based in Dallas, Texas, a city built on stolen land, built by stolen labor, namely the land of the Capo and Wichita. I am an artist and a poet. With my co-founder Fred Villanueva, I am co-founder of a Black lab space called Ash Studios that has existed near Frazier Park, South Dallas, since 2012. I’ve worked with over 1,000 creatives of color in Dallas, and have had over 35,000 people from our community in our space. I’m also the co-founder of Creating Our Future and Michelada Think Tank, which works on equity around the country. And last, but certainly not least, co-founder of Gossypium Investments, with my amazing co-founder Maya Crawford. Gossypium is an old Latin word that means cotton. And we chose the name for our company to really reflect our shared heritage as enslaved people. And also Beam in Dallas, which was once the largest import for cotton in the country. And so my work and practice is very broad. It covers a lot of names, a lot of things dealing with cultural equity, dealing with structures, dealing with taking very small gestures, and seeing if they can scale. You know, the themes are hosting brunches—shout out to Dallas Mimosa Club. And Margarita Think Tanks, and kind of seeing how you can gather people and actually change policies and structures, which I’ve been very grateful for, and that helped your and my careers.

Kiara: Thank you so much for sharing everything, that was awesome. Our topic today is diversity in art. So we have a different type of introduction. I’m going to let Darryl introduce it.

Darryl: Yeah. So there’s an essay that I really like, called Sick Woman Theory by Johanna Hedva, which was written I believe in 2016. It is a piece of writing that very much changed my life and packed up my life quite a deal. I encourage folks to check it out…it is online, I think in Mask Magazine, you can find it. There’s so much that they were accomplishing in a six part essay as a queer person, a colored, disabled person. In the first part, they’re reflecting on protests, thinking about the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests, what does it mean to protest when we physically can’t be in the street, and how the concept of bodies in the street as protests will always make it visible. Those that can’t are some of the most marginalized folks. Then it transitioned into this really interesting conversation about the author’s personal illnesses, both physical and mental. For me, the last two parts actually get into what the Sick Woman Theory is, the idea of womanhood in a very kind of expansive way, also acknowledging the limitations of the term. Then thinking about care and thinking about how you build communities that care, and specifically how capitalism makes care and sickness temporary. And they reflect on how for folks who live in systems of oppression, those systems make them sick and in a way that isn’t normally recognized. Interesting enough, you see more and more national health organizations recognizing racism as a real disease that’s a community health issue. They’re also recognizing how these traumas affect our body. It really helped shift me into thinking way more deeply about care, diversity, equity and what follows through building systems of care. So I was like, Okay, talking about the Sick Woman Theory will be interesting and perhaps not the standard way to start off the conversation that, you know, a lot of us have had.

Kiara: Oh, for sure. When I read the text, I was like, Wow, I just gained a lot more perspective. And to be honest, prior to reading the text, I wasn’t in that framework of thinking, like how the Sick Woman Theory could relate to the Black Lives Matter movement. I didn’t make that correlation, you know. After reading the text, I gained a different perspective. But I definitely agree. So the first question is, how would you describe diversity in art?

Darryl: It was interesting when I saw that question. The first thing my mind went to was some work that Michelada Think Tank did, I think in 2015, and it was a little poster print out that read “Diversify it for White People.” And I actually made a painting for an art charity fundraiser, where I had a little stick figure, and then painted the words that diversity was for white people, which I don’t think was what they were looking for in their charity auction. But so I think that’s where I want to start—with that answer for the question, what is diversity? Diversity is for white people. What I mean by that is that yes, on one hand, there is a real definition of diversity. People with differing beliefs, backgrounds, cultures, religions, ethnicities, on and on and on. And that’s clearly beautiful, wonderful, lovely. However, when we get into conversations about how diversity is actually used and implemented, it’s often used and implemented as a way to shield from white supremacy. As a way to not have to name white supremacy or patriarchy or sexism as a system. When we talk about systems, we talk about power. Diversity is something that can be used to mask the fact that power isn’t changing at all. You can be super diverse, and still have white people making all the decisions. So you have no change and power. You can have a Black or brown face, even as a leader of an organization, but still have a mostly white board of all rich white people. And once again, you may be diverse, but that doesn’t mean that you’re anti-racist, it doesn’t mean that there’s been any meaningful shift in power.

Kiara: Oh, sure. I definitely agree with that. I find it interesting…I feel like with the most recent protests, a lot of different institutions and organizations have implemented different DEI [Diversity Equity Inclusivity] initiatives. I see that as being reactive, and not necessarily proactive. I can tell that most of these things are happening out of fear, to be honest, because they’re afraid of getting any type of backlash associated with that. They weren’t necessarily doing those things before the recent protests; they weren’t doing them at all, really.

Darryl: How did you feel when you saw all the art or some of the art organizations putting Black Lives Matter statements out this summer?

Kiara: Honestly, I was just like, “Okay… anyways,” you know? It was crazy because I saw some institutions and you go to their website, and it’s like, right at the top, right. It’s like, a quote or a statement. I’m just saying this doesn’t feel authentic. This is the first time I’ve ever seen you guys address anything at this point, you know what I’m saying? I feel like this with Instagram, too. There were a lot of different initiatives and it just felt like advertisement. People are just acting out of fear. It’s like they were thinking, “I’m just going to post this just so people don’t think that, you know, I might be racist,” but it’s like, you can’t just post something and make one statement, and not put the work in continually. And if you don’t truly feel equity within your spirit, or you don’t feel like you want to take on that type of role in your organization, it’s never going to give you the type of results that you’re seeking by doing that, or by subscribing to that. Does that make sense?

Darryl: That makes total sense. It is nice to hear some things echoed. My friends and I were kind of joking when those statements started coming out…we’d be like, “Oh, Black Lives Matter…I guess.”

Kiara: Yeah.

Darryl: The feel is like, “I guess,” because I don’t believe you when you say that. You also bring up fear and I’m really interested in what folks and institutions are afraid of. Because on one level they’re afraid of being accused of being racist. But then on another level, I feel like they’re afraid of losing power and giving up power and I’ve been also thinking a lot about the apology, how the work is never perfect…how I refer to myself as a person who tries but not a person who is perfect, nor will ever be perfect, as well as continuously dismantling all the systems that I represent that need to be dismantled, mainly patriarchy, mainly sexism. Just coming from a place of intersectionality…I will always be a work in progress therefore I will always fuck up. What are these people so afraid of, Kiara? What are they afraid of?

Kiara: They’re real scared. I think two things are going on here. I feel like it’s fear, but it’s also a little bit of fear of white guilt, you know? Sort of like the aftereffects of that. When you’re in a position of power it’s really hard to hold yourself accountable for something like that. I feel most recently, more white people are getting held accountable as in like, losing jobs, losing endorsements, losing friends… it’s a whole thing. It is kind of like a no tolerance policy that I feel. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. But I feel like, as far as art institutions go, they’re already built on not being inclusive. Just the idea of an art institution, like a museum, is exclusive. The people that go into museums, I feel like it’s a different type of vibe, it’s not welcoming for all different types of communities. That is based on what type of collections they hold in that space, or what type of talks they hold in that space, or what type of artists they’re choosing to display. 

Darryl: Yeah, I’m happy that you brought up things like the museum and those institutions because I think a lot about them and how they function. I would argue that, by and large, arts institutions, function in a way that they were built, which is to preserve white supremacy, to be the cultural expression of a set of values made by their creators, who were capitalists, who were plunderers, who often and to this day make their fortunes off of human suffering and exploitation. The art world serves to basically take dirty money and make it clean. You do a ton of bad things, or maybe your family doesn’t tell you at the end, or maybe you didn’t do it but your family did it, you know? But you sponsor a window in the Museum, get your name out there and now it’s like, no one’s going to remember, the public won’t remember the dirty deeds. They’ll be like, Oh, what a lovely philanthropist Kiara is, I mean, look at this park that they built. I’m based in Dallas; for those less familiar with Dallas, there’s a park called Klyde Warren Park. Most people love the Klyde Warren Park; it is a nice park. I like the Klyde Warren Park. But the Klyde Warren Park is named after the son of Kelsey Warren. Kelsey Warren is the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners. Energy Transfer Partners built the Dakota Access Pipeline. People don’t know what the whole movement was about, and that it originated in Dallas. People in Dallas won’t know that this person is making their money by an attempt to uproot Indigenous lands and sovereignty as well as employees, and commit environmental genocide. They’ll be like, What a swell guy who built this park for us. Right? And his kid—because kids don’t know what their parents do most of the time growing up—like this is mom and dad—so for that kid, Klyde, it was like, Dad built a park in my name. And there’s a myth. Art institutions, a lot of cultural institutions, nonprofits, philanthropy, they serve to preserve the myth of white generosity, white philanthropy, privilege, while preserving all the power and thinking around that as well as masking all the crime.

Kiara: Trifling. 

Darryl: No one likes to get to the scene of the crime…this is what I’ve learned. 

Kiara: No for sure, they’re not ready for the truth. The second question is— I want to make sure that I’m pronouncing her last name right.

Darryl: Oh, uh, wrong human. A little known fact, I actually grew up with a pretty strong speech impediment. So I’m like, I don’t know how to pronounce words. This is amazing that I’ve come this far.

Kiara: You know what’s crazy? I had a speech impediment growing up.

Darryl: Did you do any speech therapy? 

Kiara Walls: I did. I did speech therapy when I was in elementary school. I didn’t realize that’s what it was because my mom would just tell me like, “Oh, you’re going to your fun class.” I was like, Okay.

Darryl: Well that’s very nice. My parents just told me it was speech therapy.

Kiara: No, my mom didn’t tell me until much later.

Darryl: My parents were like, “We gotta stop these kids from calling you D-d-d-darryl”. 

Kiara: Oh my gosh. Well, look we made it out.

Darryl: I know it might be a microaggression that you call me articulate, but I also work for it so thank you.

Kiara: Period. My next question is, so Hedva described the Sick Woman Theory in this way: “The body and mind are sensitive and reactive to regimes of oppression, particularly our current regime of neoliberal white supremacists, imperial capitalists, cis hetero patriarchy.”  What role do you think the art world plays in this theory? Is the art world subscribing to this notion or actively seeking out ways to promote repositioning?

Darryl: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, so first, I feel like it’s important to acknowledge there’s multiple art worlds. And I think a lot in this conversation refers to the more traditional Eurocentric art world that does monopolize most of the resources and power, and in the context of the United States and Europe, for sure. But there’s still other art worlds that I think it’s important to acknowledge. There’s folks who are organizing for good, there’s smaller independent teams. There’s People of Color, Black-led groups or folks who are working really hard to dismantle some of these systems. And I think it’s always important to acknowledge that, because sometimes I feel like the efforts of those who are trying to make something good happen don’t get acknowledged enough. Just before coming here, scrolling on Instagram, I saw that Black Futures Fund had just opened their application and just like, oh wow, look at a beautiful model of Black people raising money trying to help other Black people, and create these new system resources and support. So that side of the art world I think embraces the systems of care that are also present in Sick Woman Theory. However, the Eurocentric art world does not. Because as said earlier, it perpetuates… it exists to preserve live systems. It really just blew my mind. When I truly realized that most of the art in a museum was from white people. And a museum is a place that says, This is what’s important. Good for everyone who has had the privilege of going to a museum, or accessing a museum, but you get bussed on your school trip once a year, you look around, and all the important things are white. What is that doing? I love the words that Hedva uses, because they’re very specific words, very specific meaning, like that imperialism part—we don’t often talk, even in this kind of context, about race, about imperialism, about even some of the privileges that we don’t like to admit we have as Black people in the context of the United States, but that in some ways, there is a benefit from living in an imperialist country, that Black brothers and sisters who don’t live in imperialist countries don’t have access to. I appreciate the specificity because it lets you have a more nuanced conversation. 

However, I also feel like you lose some of the story and the plainness of knowing and being exposed to more diverse work—for example, women are half of the population but like maybe 4% of the museum. Though 2% of the museum is Black people. Wow. Like, you know, that’s wild, that is wild. And these places say that they serve a public. Anyway, it gets me a little fired up. So no, I don’t think the art world cares. One more thing, I think about my brothers and sisters who are trying to create change from within. I’m a person who is privileged enough to often float in and out of that space. Sometimes the end space just kicks me out. Get the fuck out of here, Darryl. How those spaces treat people who are actually trying to change the system, right from the inside, is trash. They treat those people like trash, like they treat the world for the most part—not always, there’s thankfully some exceptions. And thankfully, in some institutions it’s getting better. But when you talk to a Black or brown curator at a major institution, when you talk to the person in charge of education, and you talk about the battles they have to fight inside the institution, with boards, with directors, with people in marketing and communications, with development—there are often stories of being constantly questioned, of being overworked and underpaid, and the value of that every turn. There’s a way in which the art world chews up cultural workers of color. I would also argue the art world chews up most artists of color as well. That’s something I’m personally concerned about, in this moment where, quote unquote, Blacks— it’s trendy, or trending. I am worried about, you know, some of these young artists, younger artists, newer artists, like what happens to them? Five years from now, if the art world does what it has historically done, this isn’t the first time that Black has been trendy. Which is go back to this bullshit, and, you know, not care, just discard and dispose. 

Kiara: That definitely resonates with me for sure. There were a lot of different things that you touched on just now. But I really appreciate your naming of how difficult it is to have POCs as a part of larger institutions that are trying to make changes from the inside out. I think what we see a lot of is like, okay, this person is hired as the head curator, like how you mentioned or like, this person is hired as whatever in the education department, and it looks good, it feels good to have that person in that position. But I know, I’m myself questioning, what does that actually entail on a day to day basis? Like, how do they feel stepping into that role? And also, how do they deal with…I don’t want to say, pressure, but I would moreso say like, how do they deal with the fatigue of always having to be “on” in that space? Because I feel like being hired as a Person of Color in those types of positions, you don’t have the luxury of relaxing. I mean, I don’t want to say relaxing, either. But I would think that it would always feel like you have to do more, or even though you’re already in this position, you still have to prove yourself every single day. You know, and what does that do to your spirit? Like, what does that do to your mental health? Are there supports for that within that space? Because really, it’s about retaining the person too— it’s really easy to hire a Person of Color, but I think there should also be other things set in place to help support them while they’re doing their work. 

Darryl: I totally agree. I was smiling when you said it’s really easy to hire a person of color. I was like, I don’t know, it’s amazing…People of Color go missing when institutions need to hire sometimes. Institutions tell me they can’t find any they don’t know, they can’t find any qualified People of Color, they can’t find qualified artists of color. It’s kind of like they just disappear…it’s magic. The other thing about that kind of system of care, there’s also the fatigue of having a counterpart in your institution who is white, and they’re getting paid $35,000 more than you and you’re doing more work than they are. And you know that and you’re like, what the hell? Then you get upset at your institution about that. Then it’s like, Oh, well you know, we tried to work with one of y’all and they weren’t a good team player. Yes, all that to say is there are not proper systems of care.

Kiara: I agree. Okay, so this is also a question about one of the quotes from the essay: “The sick woman is told that, to this society, her care, even her survival, does not matter.” What connections can be made between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Sick Woman Theory? And you touched on this earlier when you were describing the essay. Can you elaborate on that?

Darryl: Sure. I would say, for me, it’s a question of, who do we center? One of the most beautiful things, and one of the reasons why the Black Lives Matter movement has been successful, is that it’s a movement that has centered and been led by queer Black women. And I think that critique of the civil rights movement is a valid one. And at its core, I feel like this Sick Woman Theory encourages us to center who has the least visible amount of power, or who the current systems of oppression attempt to disempower the most. I also think that there’s an intersectionality there that is interesting, because I think sometimes when you look at the history of activism, unfortunately some more traditional organizing spaces, as well as live spaces, have not always been spaces of care. And there hasn’t been a centering of care, which, you know, burns people out. In many ways, there’s a lot of overlap between the Sick Women Theory and the strategies that folks who are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the defense of Black lives, are using to create and be more mindful than some of their predecessors, on the importance of care. So that was one thing. And then the other thing that’s really interesting for me is once again thinking about the different ways that people can support movements. People sometimes can’t physically get to a protest, but you know, in a time of COVID and pandemic, for people who are higher risk, which is a lot of Black and brown people, you might be risking your life going to a protest, or you have to work because we’re in a capitalist system. You can’t go to the protests, because it’s at three on a Saturday and you’re working a double shift in the service industry job. What is the role for those folks? I don’t know, I’ll just speak for myself. I haven’t always been as thoughtful about who can’t be in the room. I think Sick Woman Theory encourages us to be more thoughtful about that.

Kiara: I didn’t have that perception before but after reading this text, I was mind blown. I’m like, whoa, I’m glad that she wrote this essay. And I definitely think that everyone should read it. Because I do feel too many times, there are people who are excluded without you even really knowing unless you have someone close to you who may have a disability, or someone that has something else going on, so you become more aware of these dynamics. Unless it’s kind of in front of you, you’re not really noticing it, you know what I’m saying? Especially with all the protests and everything happening, too. But I also like that you mentioned creating just a place for care. When I first read that, the first thing that popped into my mind was like, Oh, a safe space. I feel like those two things are different, though. Because I feel like care is actively caring for someone, like checking in on them, or just being empathetic, there’s emotions tied to it. And a safe space is moreso like, naming it as a safe space. But it’s always not-safe. Because, you know, we can name a space as being safe, but unless we’re actually doing the work to make it safe, it’s just, you know, it’s not really that safe. You know what I mean?

You can read Sick Woman Theory by Johanna Hedva here.

Kiara Walls is a teaching visual artist originally from LA but now stationed in Dallas, Texas. Her work is centered around increasing awareness of the need and demand for reparations to repair the injuries inflicted on the African American community. This interpretation is seen through many forms including drawings, sculptures and video installations.

Darryl Ratcliff is an artist and poet based in Dallas, Texas whose work engages communities and mobilizes social issues. Ratcliff is the cofounder of Ash Studios, Creating Our Future, and Michelada Think Tank. His cultural projects have taken place at Carnegie Mellon University, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, California Institute of the Arts, Nasher Sculpture Center, San Diego Art Institute, Cue Art Foundation (NYC), New Arts Center (Boston), and Japanese Cultural Center (L.A.). Ratcliff is an arts writer who regularly contributes to The Dallas Morning News and D Magazine.

Taking Up Brown Queer Space con Dorian Wood

I mentioned to the staff at The Broad that I wanted to infect the Tulips Jeff Koons sculpture—they just didn’t seem to belong to the space. They were soooo Disney and consumerist I wanted to infect them, put a hex on them…

Dorian Wood

Carlos Reynoso: I reached out to you because your work is extremely moving to me, from your illustrations to your performances. Todo tiene corazón and feels extremely honest. How did your journey begin?

Dorian Wood: Ohhhh um well, it started with I guess mi abuelita, who played the piano. She moved to NYC from Costa Rica and she was very influential to me. I started playing music as a kid in LA, that’s where I began as an artist. I am also very inspired by mi mama, she encouraged me to play music and sing. I began playing music and started touring and that opened up other opportunities for projects and other avenues. 

Carlos Bio: Gracias, I love your music and really enjoy seeing your performances. QUE TALENTO [how talented]! [Laughs]

Dorian: Aye gracias! [Laughs]

Carlos: Now for the next question— what influenced you as a youth? I know that sounds like a cheesy question but that really interests me.

Dorian: No no, not cheesy at all, well honestly mi mama really influenced me. I loved watching her while at home— she would sometimes play Liza Minelli. [Laughs] She loved Liza. I would sing with her. She also loved Motown and would always have music playing. She would also play me and my sisters Chavela Vargas. I loved listening to Chavela as a kid. Her music is so beautiful. I guess also growing up brown as a kid in LA influenced me. I felt neither welcome here nor there, like Chavela said, “Ni de aqui o de aya.” My mother would always express her distrust of the U.S. She would say, “Este pais USA la gente” [laughs]. She was very honest and also expressed her opinions on Costa Rica and how things were there too, very honest. I was born in the U.S., but my family is from Costa Rica. I grew up around a lot of Mexicans and I love the culture and love visiting Mexico, but it’s not culture [to me]. I am also all about taking up brown space and colonizer money as a brown nonbinary queer artist. 

Carlos: Tu madre sounds like mi madre. I can relate [laughs]… Gracias.

Dorian: No problema.

Carlos: Your bio and artist statement to me always seem to come from the heart. You incorporate English and Spanish and it feels very approachable, unlike conventional artist statements that feel at times very institutionalized. What is your writing process, putting your work into words?

Dorian: Thank you for that. Oh that’s a tough one… Well it’s a bit hard. I do agree with you that institutional spaces have a very specific way of describing work. I sometimes avoid going to artist panels or Q&As when I know the conversation is going to be dry and boring and not at all a representation of the work. I also have avoided speaking to artists I admire for fear that their description of their work will be, I don’t know, boring, like, “It’s an exploration of the deep…something.” I sometimes hate it when spaces ask me to write up a statement. I don’t look forward to it, I just type up like three sentences and hope that’s enough [laughs]…but I don’t know, I agree with you. 

Carlos: One performance of yours that moved me and I am extremely grateful for is the hex on Jeff Koons at The Broad in 2018. Can you tell me more about that performance? 

Dorian: Oh my god I’m surprised they let me even do that, it was not something I had planned on doing but they decided to invite me as a part of the show En Cuatro Patas and it was kind of like that si saben como me pongo por que me envitan…moment. I had an idea for what I wanted to do as a piece. I mentioned to the staff at The Broad that I wanted to infect the Tulips Jeff Koons sculpture—they just didn’t seem to belong to the space. They were soooo Disney and consumerist. I wanted to infect them, put a hex on them… [Laughs] You know she was coming for him, OKAY. After I explained my idea the staff all agreed and were very supportive of the performance. The day of, I was very nervous. I knew I would end up naked and go all in masturbating and go all balls in…I wanted to infect the space and let the audience know that the sculpture was very much infected and I made sure to tag Jeff Koons in all the videos and pictures of the performance. I wasn’t sure if it was art or not but I’m glad I did it and I still believe that space to be hexed. The infection lives on. [Laughs] 

Carlos: I’m so glad you did [laughs] and I wish I was there in person, when I saw that performance I was like, FINALLY! [Laughs] Okay only three questions left. How do we take up space as brown queers in art institutions? 

Dorian: Well, by understanding that we are all individuals, I really appreciate how a lot of brown artists are exploring individuality. Just because we are all brown doesn’t mean we are similar. I have also never liked that we all need to be “inclusive” because to me it’s like inviting someone over to your home. If so, your guest can eventually be asked to leave. I have been very open about not belonging to any group. I like to be an individual. I haven’t always been nonbinary and genderfluid. I like to explore identity. 

Carlos: Gracias and I feel you, that resonates with me and I really like how you describe inclusivity in the context of white supremacy. Thank you for that. Who is your primary audience when performing?

Dorian: People….

Carlos: Okay final question because I know you have to go, I don’t want to take up too much of your time. What projects are you thinking about now or in the future?

Dorian: Well, right now I am in Spain working on a residency. I have been up here while on tour but the last month I have been focused on a performance here on sound and movement. I have invited audiences to come and experience the performance and to lay on pillows throughout the space. I am also working on a project in tribute to Chavela Vargas. This project is very special to me and I will be working on that once I get back to LA—speaking of which I feel super homesick. I miss Los Angeles. I fly back on Friday and I will be so happy to be home. The Chavela Vargas project is very exciting. I hope to go on tour and possibly a new album— there are a lot of possibilities. There are other projects in the works for next year that I can’t talk about yet but more to come for sure. 

Carlos: Well muchas gracias for taking some time for me, I know I’m not a professional interviewer, but I did my best [laughs] and I can’t wait to see your future projects and hopefully catch a performance, I’m hella homesick too, I miss Los Angeles…

Dorian: No problem corazón, I appreciate the work you do and good luck with school. Bye….

Dorian Wood (they/them) is a 41-year-old nonbinary, multidisciplinary, self-taught artist based in LA. Their work explores queer identity through music, illustration, and conceptual performances. Currently Wood is in Spain wrapping up an artist residency. 

Carlos Reynoso (he/him) is an intersectional Mexican Queer artist born in Mexico, raised in Cali and living in Portland, OR. In hopes of cultural preservation, his work focuses on the stories of brown, queer, and working class people from his upbringing in Los Angeles. 

Naming the Trickster

“One could say… that tricksters are the ones that have the necessary tools to positively transform a museum with a 60+ year legacy devoted to preserving settler colonial stories and objects.”

– Elario Andreini

In the summer of 2019, I was spending time just outside Timber, Oregon, a tiny rural town in Washington County, and the traditional homelands of the Tualatin Kalapuya and the Tillamook, Clatskanie, Nehalem, and Chinook. I was the inaugural guest at a fledgling artist residency. The residency was engaged in a visioning process to figure out what it wanted to be, and a self-audit into how to support itself financially. I had been accepted to the residency after proposing a project exploring the ways that people value a place. I spent a week making drawings of the land in a dilapidated but charming barn, hanging out with the artist who was managing the retreat, and going on hikes with the nearest neighbor, who was becoming a fast friend. I began researching the site and area with an armful of books on identifying birds and plants, the history of the timber industry, and folkways of people native to the region. In particular, I was interested in land ownership.

The current owner had a direct lineage to the first white settler of the property, who had first arrived in the late 1800s. As I bumbled through books and online resources, I began making calls to any archive I could find. I was connected to a museum I had never heard of—the Washington County Museum in nearby Hillsboro. I chatted on the phone with one of the volunteer researchers, who were the on-site gatekeepers and resident experts for the region’s archives that were located there. I went to the museum on a Tuesday hoping to learn more about the region, and find records of ownership and ephemera related to the site.

When I arrived, things were clearly afoot. The museum was closed, but I was cheerily greeted, and asked for forgiveness for the disarray of the main gallery. The museum was between exhibitions, and I hadn’t the faintest idea of what was taking place there. Within the last couple of years the museum had begun to undergo a significant transformation. Nathanael Andreini had been hired as the Education Director, but had been appointed as the Museum Director after a transition in leadership. He was soon joined by Molly Alloy as they assumed shared leadership as Co-Directors. What was happening at the museum was a re-thinking of its roles and relationships to its communities.

It had traditionally been a historical museum, largely documenting the region’s early pioneer days. Molly, Nathanael, and the staff at the museum had undertaken a process to expand the histories being told to include narratives from the diverse populations who live there, and the 10,000 years of Native history which had gone largely unaddressed in the museum’s historical interpretations. Within six months of my first walking in the door of the Washington County Museum, they had launched a major rebrand, renaming the institution the Five Oaks Museum. The Five Oaks refers to a local landmark consisting of a grouping of five trees, and known as a traditional gathering site of Native Peoples, fur trappers, and settlers, which still stands alongside what has been a major transportation route for centuries. The renaming of the museum works to acknowledge and center the long history and contemporary contexts of the diverse communities of the region. In this interview—conducted in the Fall of 2020—I sat down with one of the co-directors of the museum, artist, and friend Nat “Elario” Andreini. I started off by asking for clarification on what Nat would like to be called during the interview, and to both of our surprise, we ended up talking about the importance and power of naming, unconsciously against the backdrop of the museum’s undertaking. 

Elario Andreini and Molly Alloy at the Five Oaks historic site in 2019. Courtesy of Victoria Sundell / Five Oaks Museum.

Jordan Rosenblum: Thanks so much for taking the time to connect and chat, Nat. Actually, I realize I should check in about your name. I know you have been considering having people refer to you as Elario. Have you transitioned to using Elario as your name full-time now?

Elario Andreini: No, I haven’t. 

Jordan: I think your consideration of the name change is super interesting. Would you be willing to share some background about it? 

Elario: Sure! It’s an epic tale. On the Italian side of my dad’s family, there had been a tradition where boys were given the middle name of their great grandfather’s first name. My great grandfather, a poor immigrant from rural Toscana, was named Giovanni—which according to tradition should have been my middle name. However, my family broke with tradition and ended up naming me after my grandfather instead. His name was Aurelio. Aurelio means “golden.” I just love that name. The golden boy. My grandfather, though, had adopted the anglicized name “John” to hide his Italian identity, and didn’t go by his given Italian name. Because of that my parents chose John as my middle name! I never liked the fact that they had given me that name.

Just last year I began to play around with giving myself a new name, and I decided to go with “Elario,” which is close enough to Aurelio—the golden boy that never was! Elario comes from the Latin word ilaria, which means hilarity or humor. It captures more of my spirit. 

Jordan: About 15 years ago, while in high school, I had a phase where I wanted to rename myself Gray Specter. I went as far as to talk about it with my parents. I was choosing a name that was intentionally evading connotation. A name as devoid of a past or ancestry as possible. This was definitely informed by an anarchist ethos, and kind of in line with the anarchist slogan “No gods, no masters.” If I were to choose a different name now, I would probably reach back to something that was deeply ancestral, skipping the names of the previous few generations, all of which were anglicized. Assimilation is of course a major issue with immigrants of all kinds, and I think this is also true for white folks who emigrated three or so generations ago, as increasingly more groups were now considered white, where they hadn’t been before. Which is the case for my family, one that identifies as white and Jewish. I think it’s interesting—and hopeful—to see this issue of naming, or renaming, as part of a bigger cultural evolution. 

Elario: Yeah, totally. Assimilation was certainly the backdrop for why my grandfather would have changed his name to John, and also why he never spoke Italian in the house. Whereas his own father was an immigrant from Italy, and only ever spoke Italian. My grandfather grew up in a bicultural household, yet chose to really dominate his offspring by flexing his white American identity. The cornerstone of success for him was power, money, and performative wealth, and the use of manipulation and violence to keep his reign. 

A few years ago, I began learning about and engaging with decolonial practices in various spaces: institutions, communities, and maybe most importantly, within myself. The journey to decolonize my thoughts and my soul is painful but really important. It’s a constant confrontation against ingrained habits, including questioning the part of me that is trying to do the decolonial work. Like, how do I know this inner voice has the right answers for what I’m going through?

A life-changing inquiry emerged this month that was inspired by years of personal conflict and tension perpetuated by an Italian identity in my family. That identity has always preoccupied the dominant family narratives on my Dad’s side… all the pomp and machismo and biting humor, as well as the fast cars, bad spending habits, and dramatic marriages and divorces… everything. So I reopened my old Family Search profile to do a little research about my paternal grandmother’s ancestry and family lineage. And there I was at the age of 46, with a few dramatic marriages of my own under my belt, finally opening the seemingly buried files on my grandmother.

My grandmother—Nana, as I called her—passed away in 1998. We were very close and connected through our shared love for the ocean, music, and golf. For most of the 90’s, my father and grandfather were not speaking to me. So when Nana died, that side of the family organized and attended her funeral without me. It was about a week after Nana’s funeral that I was actually informed of her death. It was really brutal.

But, what I learned on Family Search was that Nana was an Indigenous woman. Both of her paternal grandparents were descendants of Weskarini Algonquin, Atikamekw, Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Metis and other folks of mixed Native ancestry in what is now Eastern Canada. I learned that many of our cousins and family members are still in those places, living in cities and on reserves—the Canadian term for “reservations.” This was all easily accessible on the internet, but had been suppressed through internalized racism and white supremacy—which are ever present in my family today. And I believe they’re the very same antics that barred me from attending Nana’s funeral back in ’98.

Nana laughing, circa 1980. Courtesy of Addi Andreini.

OK, so back to the whole name question… I decided to choose a name that does not erase Native power, is not biblical, and simply doesn’t hold such painful memories. 

I chose Elario because it’s a personal refresh on what it means to be Italian, while dissociating the bad actors in my family. Elario is a name that holds joy and happiness. Yet, it’s also just a name, a badge. Names and monikers are extremely important. They can either hide or reveal an identity. I’ve played with the use of names in my art practice many times over the years. I’m enthralled by the power of names, and how they can hold simplicity or complexity. 

Jordan: Let’s talk about that. How have you worked with this idea of hiding or revealing identities in your practice? 

Elario: Since I can remember, I’ve been very predisposed towards performance. When I was a little kid, I formed bands of friends in the neighborhood to do performances. We had a breakdancing club at one point, and would host community shows in this little toolshed in the backyard. We outfitted it with red and white “strobes” that required rapid flicking of the light switch. We had a dusty turntable, played old records, and would have shows for three or four people. These early experiences really informed what would become my artistic practice. I would practice drawing and photography—but was always looking for the medium to adequately express an idea, and that seemed to keep leading me to performance. When I was doing performance work from 2000 to about 2010, I worked under different names. I was largely hidden behind a moniker to obstruct my personality. In the way someone who’s changed their name for the Hollywood stage does so to evoke some sort of brand. That’s what I was playing with—kind of guerilla marketing for one’s own brand. It can center the idea of what you’re doing.

Jordan: Have you ever performed under your own name?

Elario: Not really. There was a couple years where I was doing a lot of DJ work and not doing any sort of performance alongside that. It was just “Nat Andreini at Tiga on Tuesday night from 7:00 to close.” When I did original performances I was behind a moniker.

Jordan: I am curious about a personal aspect of this. Does the idea of performing under your own name make you uncomfortable? What’s your relationship to having a public persona? 

Elario: There’s definitely psychological aspects to it. In my early 30s—I’m in my mid 40s now—I learned that there’s family lore on the Andreini side that our people had been jesters in the Medici court. And I thought— “that explains a lot!”  It’s not necessarily driven by something deeply psychological or emotional that I’m trying to hide—it’s more that it feels deeply embedded in me. 

Jordan: I am curious about how your identity as an artist—or your earlier work where you might have played the role of the jester—meets your current work as a co-director of the Five Oaks Museum alongside Molly Alloy.   

Elario: There are two main themes in my work. One is identity, and the other is community. These have been underpinning my entire life. The identity piece is exploring the tension between an authentic self and a social construct of identity, and that liminal space between them. It’s been a cornerstone to my work as an artist, and also as a person just trying to navigate life. 

The other part is community, because of the tensions I experienced at home growing up. I was raised in communities because my home life was not stable. I was the sort of orphaned friend, often staying in other people’s homes, often there at other folks’ holiday gatherings, and sort of bouncing around from about third grade onward. 

The community aspect of my work today is informed by the various communities that welcomed me when I was young. I grew up in a part of the Bay Area that is super diverse. I am so grateful for all those families and friends that helped keep me afloat during tough times. I also thank skateboarding. We were just part of a really big, huge skate family. These experiences of community never left me, I haven’t been a part of anything quite like that since. 

So those are some of the personal aspects of identity and community. Now, it is more like being a part of something and working toward engendering community and making safe space for community. Those types of things are really important to me in my work and at the museum. 

Jordan: I was looking recently at your personal website, and specifically at your older artwork that predates your position at Five Oaks. My perception was that there was lots of work there that was self-aware, and kind of ironic. For example, the photo on your landing page is of you in front of a giant Ellsworth Kelly painting, in a pose that I’m not exactly sure how to describe…

Elario: The Burt Reynolds!

Elario Andreini posing in the “Burt Reynolds” in front of paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, Dia Beacon (Beacon, New York); 2013. Courtesy of Elario Andreini.

Jordan: [Laughs] Of course, the Burt Reynolds. I am curious about the play that’s happening there and the posture that’s being assumed. I am not being critical of this at all, but am curious about your relationship between making work that has this postmodern “wink and nod,” alongside your work at Five Oaks, which feels really heart-centered. Do you see this as something that has shifted for you towards greater sincerity? Or are these two approaches that you can hold at the same time?

Elario: I want to say it is a shift, but I’m not sure if it is yet. In some ways, my current work is new territory for me. It aligns with personal changes and personal growth. There was a major shift for me on March 11, 2011, the date of the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and the huge humanitarian crisis that ensued. I was living in Japan at the time. Up until that point, my work was very tongue in cheek, just like picking a scab. The audience was the scab and I was the one picking it. I was performing, but to whose benefit? 

On March 11th, all of these things from my past just disappeared with the catastrophe. The relevance of what I did prior to being there, aside from teaching, just didn’t matter. “It’s not gonna save anybody and it’s not gonna help anybody through hard times.” These were the kinds of thoughts that I was having at that time. But, I may think a little differently now. It was just so harsh bearing witness to that much death all at once and being so close to the harm and destruction where entire communities of people were wiped out. That had a huge effect on me. “What am I going to do to leverage everything I have? For the betterment of folks’ lives around me? What tools do I have already?” Those questions are what led me into a graduate program as a way to try to make some formal sense around what a truly responsive art practice, or work as an educator could look like.

Through experience, I learned that the thing I really loved about making participatory and socially engaged work was the interface of co-learning between audience, participants, and artists. It is why I decided to transition to education work in the first place, in order to really exercise those tools. I also wanted to bring performative elements into a classroom. 

In grad school at Teachers College in New York, I curated some shows and organized a big symposium highlighting creative responses to the catastrophe in Japan. I worked with socially engaged artists, illustrators, filmmakers, and other folks who were doing work that was positively impacting those communities back in Japan. That work really excited me and I got to play a small hand in large-scale organizing work with schoolmates, professors, and university staff members.

Jordan: Can you tell me about someone creating socially engaged work at the time that you were excited about, or projects that were having the kind of impact that you were interested in?

Elario: A group that I was really excited about was Chim-Pom. Prior to 3/11, they were staging events that could be seen as performative protests. Right after the Tsunami—despite this influx of scientists and humanitarian aid workers flying in to help with the nuclear cleanup and with tsunami survivors—the Japanese government perpetually failed to acknowledge the continued dangers and risks from the radiation at the nuclear site. 

In one of Chim-Pom’s projects, they snuck into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant—which was officially closed and guarded—and in full-on radiation protection gear, they created a performance in a super visible location. They knew that the activity would also trip the surveillance cameras on site. 

When the media started to cover what had happened, they kind of activated that piece, and ultimately were helping regular citizens find out the truth about what was happening at Fukushima. That was really radical work for Japan—there is not a culture of dissent there, and this was a big deal. 

Jordan: So, in some ways, that might be an example of a performance, or project, that embodies these two kinds of approaches we’ve been talking about. I am interested in how we think about the role of the prankster. In the West, I think we associate it with something like Duchamp’s Fountain, and through work made in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s kind of a hallmark of postmodernism. But if we think of it as the spirit of a trickster, the sensibility has been around for millenia in many traditions and traditional cultures. In Pacific Northwest Native traditions, the raven is an embodiment of the trickster, and also carries transformative power. In many Native traditions in North America, it is the coyote.

Even if someone moves towards a heart-centered orientation in their work, I think they can revel in the humor, and pleasure and power of work that is mischievous, instead of severing or discarding it.  

Elario: I agree. One of the main focuses of my work prior to 3/11 was basically teasing toxic masculinity. Some of the best folks who are most poised to critique toxic masculinity are men themselves. We did this thing called the Mustache Club in 2000-2001. No hipster had a mustache back then. We started that. We didn’t mean to. I wish it didn’t happen, but it did.


We were just going around getting as many people as we could to have a mustache, but no one wanted to participate. It was just me and one other friend who committed to having a mustache for about six months. In this case, playing the coyote was definitely a leveraging of my whiteness, masculinity, and positionality, knowing that I could pass in various arenas, with and without a mustache. We were treated totally different depending on where we went. In dive bars and trucker bars we passed, but in other spaces there were more than a few tense moments where white hipster types berated us for being in the “wrong bar,” can you imagine? The irony! This sort of anecdotal, playful data collecting was huge in my work.

As we reprogram the Five Oaks Museum, one could say that this energy we are talking about is being deployed, and that tricksters are the ones that have the necessary tools to positively transform a museum with a 60+ year legacy devoted to preserving settler colonial stories and objects. 

Elario Andreini (he/him) is a heart-centered collaborative leader and artist doing the important work(-in-progress) of decolonizing and decentering, while uplifting BIPOC artists, curators, historians, and other cultural producers at the Five Oaks Museum. As an artist he has exhibited, facilitated, and curated projects and programs for a number of sites, including Japan International Cooperation Agency, University of Victoria, Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, ABC No Rio, Singidunum University, Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, University of Oxford, and Atlanta Contemporary, as well as in various parking lots and abandoned buildings. He received a BFA in Printmaking from Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2005 and an MA in Transcultural Studies from Teachers College, Columbia University in 2014.

Jordan Rosenblum (he/him) is an artist, designer, and educator based in Portland, Oregon. His recent work explores land value, human relationships to time, and the role design plays in interpreting our environments. Jordan’s socially engaged projects include exhibitions and workshops, publications, and visual art. He teaches at Portland State University, works as a visual designer, and co-directs the RECESS! Design Studio (in affiliation with the King School Museum of Contemporary Art)—an artist project that explores the power of design with elementary school students. Jordan received his BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and in Fall 2018 he began graduate studies in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice program


Journal Concept and Advisor
Harrell Fletcher

Salty Xi Jie Ng

Emma Duehr Mitchell

Laura Glazer

Rebecca Kauffman

Logo Design
Kim Sutherland

Special Thanks
Eric John Olson

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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