Abandonment issues

“I had a notepad. And if I saw something that was not for sale, I’d still write it down. If it was something that was for sale, I would usually go back and buy it.”

M​y artistic practice has recently been focused on objects: our relationships to them, and the distinction between collecting and hoarding. I spoke with my dad Jon Aasness to get his insight as a person interested in objects and their histories. He is a retired employee of the Southern California Gas Company, and the first person to introduce me to the magic of “junk.”

Jon Aasness surveys the items in his garage

Caryn Aasness​: Do you collect anything?

Jon Aasness​: I don’t have any official collections, I don’t think, but I collect a lot of things. At some points I collect cars. I try to limit my collections.

Caryn​: What makes a collection official? You said you don’t have any official collections?

Jon​: Yeah, you know what I think? I think part of that is being organized versus just, some of my stuff is unorganized. So I wouldn’t consider it an actual collection [if it is disorganized]. When I think of if I had a collection, I would have the case to put the things in and to display them.

Caryn​: Where have you found some of your favorite objects?

Jon​: At abandonments. I’d go to an abandoned house, where I’d have to be there for work and find interesting stuff. Architectural salvage type stuff, where it’s just like, oh, man, that is cool. I’d love to drag that home but I often didn’t, because they’re either big or I don’t really necessarily need it in my home.

Caryn​: That kind of leads into another question I have, which is, if something’s free, how do you decide whether or not to take it?

Jon:​ Yeah, that’s a good question. Because it used to be that I would bring home tons of stuff and stuff that I didn’t need. But now I try to get stuff that I know I could use, or that I need. I have to force myself but you know, small house, I can’t bring a ton of stuff home. Sometimes I’ll say, Oh, you know what, somebody else probably could use that more than me. And I will let it go. That’s how I justify leaving something that’s just killer.

Caryn:​ If it’s in an abandonment, are there going to be more people going through the house after you?

Jon: ​Yes. So that was one of the things. Well, when I worked in Redondo Beach, I would cheat a little bit because they have a board in the office, and I just go in my office, and I’d look and there’s a board of upcoming abandonments, and I’d write down addresses. When I worked the four to midnight shift, and I had downtime, sometimes I would get to work and there would be nothing for me to do. So I just go to those abandonments. I could write myself an order to pull the meter and be able to check it out. And typically, we would be one of the first people on that abandonment.

Caryn:​ Does it usually feel like people who were moving out had time to move out what they wanted? Or do people just kind of up and go when they leave a house?

Jon:​ It is a mix because that was a kind of a unique deal timing wise where people that lived in that house for 30 years and paid $100,000 for it, now sold it for $900,000 and they left the bulk of their stuff. They just pocketed a ton of cash. And they weren’t concerned, they were going to buy all new stuff so people would leave just everything. The garage will be completely full and they just take keepsakes and leave everything else and it was interesting, interesting times.

Caryn:​ So it’s not like those people in those houses got kicked out?

Jon:​ No, they were selling and builders were buying the lots. Yeah, that’s what an abandonment is. You go and remove the meter. And then the crew comes and picks it up in the street and pinches the gas because they’re gonna tear the house down. So it was different, I mean, there was a time in 2008, 9, 10, where there were just tons of foreclosures, that was different, those people were leaving, and they didn’t necessarily have a place to go. So they left a lot of stuff behind. That was different. That was sad. The other one was, like, they hit the lottery, and just bailed, two very different things.

Caryn:​ How did you first become aware of hoarding?

Jon:​ That’s one thing about my job—going into people’s homes, I saw a lot of hoarding for the last thirty plus years. Thirty years ago, I didn’t know that it was hoarding. I just thought, how can they live like that? There’s a trail leading to the bathroom, the kitchen, and the bedroom; everything else is just piled up to the ceiling.

Caryn: ​And probably not a trail leading to the water heater.

Jon:​ Yeah, exactly. I was a nice guy. So I would make a trail if I had to, to get them some hot water. I don’t know if I told you that story about out in Huntington Beach, a multi million dollar neighborhood. This gal, she didn’t have any money but she probably inherited that house. She didn’t want me to look at her water heater. And I told her, “Well, I could look at it.” And she goes, “No, no, no, I don’t want you to go in the garage.” And I had already been in her house. It was disgusting. Animal feces all over the place. Probably human feces as well. But I went out, and she said that the rats have been eating through her water heater, so she knows it doesn’t work. Hmm. And I was able to get it working. She hadn’t had hot water for probably a year. I had to be there. Because the gas was shut off to the whole block or whole neighborhood. We had to go in and restore. Turn the gas back on and stuff and you can’t just say, okay, well, I’ll turn it on. You’re responsible for it in the house. It doesn’t work like that, you know, I can’t turn it back on unless I look at every appliance. So she was embarrassed. And I totally was decent, treated her decently, so she let me in. She just assumed that the water heater quit working because of the rats. That was the one where she said that her neighbor had complained. So the city sent an exterminator to the house and killed, I think it was 16 rats in that one day, then had traps set. And she said she kept hearing them going off all night long. She was alone with a tiny little dog. It wasn’t a chihuahua, it was something smaller than a chihuahua. She wouldn’t set the dog down because of the rodents.

I don’t know that I ever heard [the term] hoarding thirty years ago. It was more just tied with disgust. I mean, you didn’t think about maybe some mental illness working, with something that drastic. I mean, I was in a house one time where there was just stuff everywhere. The floor was like a hoarder’s house. But it was all pornography. That was in Santa Monica. And I was just blown away, like, oh, my gosh, and to see this person standing there in this filth, and just like, oh, my, but I would have never called that hoarding. It was just like this person is just sick. I mean, there was really, really not any furniture or anything. It was just like, wow, what the hell? And at work we would all talk about it. Everybody saw it. We come back at the end of the day and say, “This is the worst one I’ve ever been in!”

Caryn:​ Is there anyone whose collection you admire?

Jon:​ One that probably got me started on my collecting or my interest in junk was a farm that I went to in South Dakota, one of my dad’s relatives. He had probably a couple hundred thousand things. I mean, just an unbelievable collection. Little bit of everything—antiques, oddities and just bizarre stuff. His house, his barn, his outbuildings, everything was just packed full of stuff. And I remember being there as a kid. I was probably eight or nine. And he gave me a Dr. Pepper sign. It was new old stock. It was still wrapped in paper. But he had probably 12 of them. He pulled one out and gave it to me. And I was like, oh, this is cool. I was a kid, but I love Dr. Pepper. And it was advertising! That guy had just an unbelievable amount of stuff. And he let people go through and look at his collection. He had stuff displayed, hundreds of thousands of pieces. Some of them are just amazing. But it wasn’t dirty, just dusty and stuff. It was a barn, but he had stuff displayed like this was a kitchen from the 1880’s or whatever. This is a way a kitchen would look in the 1880’s. Just everything you could imagine. This guy had at least one of everything that had ever been produced. I mean, it was incredible. But he just had always been a collector. He just had a regular nine to five job, but he just collected from an early age, and he just appreciated older things. That one stuck in my head. I still have the sign that he gave me.

Jon’s photo of some of his advertising collection, including the Dr. Pepper sign he was given as a child that inspired him to collect
Jon’s photo of that one radio he found at an estate sale that is similar to one he remembers from his childhood

Caryn:​ Are there objects that you have gotten rid of that you still think of?

Jon:​ Yeah, it’s kind of interesting that collecting was the kind of thing that’s completely different now. Because back in the day, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of something because there’s always something better. So usually, when I got rid of something, it was because I had my eye on something else. And it was the kind of thing where you can wait a couple of weeks and something interesting is going to pop up in the area that we live in. There were so many cars and nobody cared about them. And usually, you’d find something even cooler than what you had but there were a few cars I regret selling. But I still probably would have sold them because there’s something even more interesting in that next garage that I go in or whatever, but I still maybe regret selling a couple of cars.

Caryn:​ Can you talk a little bit about your mental map of all the cars on your work routes?

Jon​: Yeah, I actually had notes, I had a notepad. And if I saw something that was not for sale, I’d still write it down. If it was something that was for sale, I would usually go back and buy it. But I did. I kept track of cars when I was working in Redondo, and then I was working in Orange County. And I typically have twenty, maybe thirty cars that I knew where they were, and maybe check up on them every once in a while. I just was looking and I actually found one of my old notebooks. It was from 2004. Because I knew in downtown Huntington Beach there was a garage that I went into, where there was a Porsche speedster sitting there. I asked and it was not for sale. But it was kind of an interesting situation. And that’s the thing, they all have stories, it was her husband’s car. He was no longer living. He was a mechanic. He had tons of parts, he probably had other hundred thousand dollars worth of Porsche parts sitting in the garage there, but she just wasn’t at the point where she was going to sell anything. I never even went back and I just had it in my notes. And then I was like, I know, I wrote that down. And I went back and found it. It’s sitting on my nightstand right now, that address.

Caryn:​ How do you know when to get rid of something?

Jon:​ Well you know me, I don’t get rid of a lot.

Caryn:​ I don’t think that’s true.

Jon:​ I mean, I used to just collect stuff. Just, it was cool. But at that point, it becomes like a hoarding situation where nobody’s enjoying it. You see those shows, and it’s like, oh, yeah, I know, there’s some really cool stuff in that room, from an eight foot ceiling, you know, you get down about seven feet. That’s where the cool stuff is. But somebody could get some joy out of it if you pass it on.

Caryn:​ Final thoughts?

Jon:​ You know what I always pictured, like having a collection, for me, it would probably be automotive related. Like, if you go to the Petersen Museum, you see how they display stuff, it’s like, not just the cars, they’ve got their cars laid out. And then they have cases with radios or carburetors or different things. When I see that it’s like, wow, that’s what I would like to have, where you can just appreciate it. That’s my collection, not just something that I purchased but you could actually appreciate it, not sitting in a box somewhere in the attic. I would like to organize my garage one of these days and get some stuff up on the shelf.

Jon’s Photo of a displayed collection of automotive memorabilia at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles

Caryn:​ If you could ask the reader of this interview a question, what would you want to know?

Jon:​ If they had the space and money, what would they collect? Or, if they ended up with someone’s collection, would they keep it, or any of it?

Jon’s photo of a Cushman scooter he sold looking small on the back of a semi truck

Caryn Aasness​ is an artist and grad student living in Portland, OR.

Jon Aasness​ is a retired gas company technician living in Long Beach, CA.

To Whom It May Concern

“They never forgot that people helped them when they needed it. This is what we did.”

As the Letter Writer in Residence at the Living Letter Office (​1)​ this term, I did not anticipate performing the role of a private scribe​ (2)​. While most of my postal practice during the residency consisted of discovering and sharing relevant information with new and established correspondents, it was not until I presented my work to the Art and Social Practice class that I encountered my first participant. A few weeks later, this person and I met via Zoom and they dictated a personal letter while I wrote it down, later typewriting it and mailing it to their recipient. Correspondence is a family trait, as my mother was a letter writer for the United States government in the late 1960’s. While her work was in the category of civic writing and mine in the personal, their intersection demystifies the perception that letter writing and reading are solitary activities.

Laura Glazer​: Hi, Mom!

Rita Glazer​: Hi! How are you?

Laura​: I’m good! You’ve mentioned that early in your career, you worked as a professional letter writer. Do I have that right?

Rita​: That’s correct.

Laura​: What was the year that you started?

Rita​: I started I believe, in 1967, which was the year I graduated from college. When I graduated, I went to Israel for eight weeks. And when I came back in late August, I think I went to work for the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), sometime in September or October of 1967. I can’t be more specific than that, because it was a long time ago. And I was there for I believe, three years. Again, I can’t really be 100% specific.

Laura​: What did you study in college?

Rita​: I have a bachelor’s degree in sociology. I’ve been trying very hard to remember how I got this job and I can’t. I must have applied for it through college. But I feel like I knew someone that mentioned it to me.

Laura​: Where did you go to school?

Rita​: George Washington University.

Laura​: Were you excited to start work?

Rita​: I was excited! I was working for the anti-poverty agency, which is what I wanted to do anyway. I have a feeling that I applied because I really wanted to work there.

Laura​: I’ve never heard you say that. Can you say more about why you wanted to work there?

Rita​: It hadn’t been around for very long and I liked what they were doing. I mean, they had all these anti-poverty programs. I thought that they were doing really good things. This is the era of Bobby Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, who was our director, and it was the whole Kennedy family thing which just enthralled me. I liked what they were doing, I liked what they stood for. I felt like they were doing something for this country and I wanted to be part of it.

Laura​: Did it crossover with your academic studies?

Rita​: Well, I had a degree in sociology, and writing letters, which is not what I had planned to do with my life, to be perfectly honest. But there was a certain element of being able to respond to people properly and understand what they were saying and understand what we could do. I’m not probably expressing that the right way. But I think it did enter into it. I think a lot of what I studied and did, especially my senior year, and I can’t remember what that was, all kind of fit together.

Laura​: How did it work?

Rita​: When the letters came in, they came through our office. They were logged in by the office secretary and the manager assigned the letters to us, the writers. She divided the letters up based on our experience with the subject matter and on the relationships we had developed with the subject matter staff.

One of my areas was Legal Services, which we all fought over, because they had nice young lawyers there! But it was a nice group. We were all idealistic young people that wanted to work for the anti-poverty agency. I guess that’s it: idealistic. Do you want me to go into what we did?

Laura​: Yes.

Rita​: Say we got a letter from a constituent or we got a lot of letters from Congress who would either be writing us directly, or they would be forwarding an inquiry from one of their constituents. I’m trying to think of what they might ask. “I live in a very rural area in Kentucky and I need some legal assistance,” they’d written to a Congressman. “And I don’t know how to get it.” This person knew about Legal Services, but there wasn’t anything there [in Kentucky]. What could this person do? So the Congressman forwarded it to us, because Legal Services was part of the OEO.

I kind of knew some answers. But the best thing to do was to go to one of the lawyers in Legal Services, which we did. He’d read the letter, and we’d talk about it and he’d give me, “Well, given where she’s located, which is like 200 miles from the closest Legal Services place, we would need to get in touch with that Legal Services agency there and see if we can arrange for them to meet.” I’m kind of making this up but that’s the kind of thing that we did and it’s been a long time since I did it.

I would write the Congressman back, not the constituent, because the Congressman is the one who initiated it. There was a format that we had to follow when we wrote a Congressman, which was easy. So we’d write them back and say, “We have researched this, we have spoken with Joe Smith, in our Legal Services division, and his recommendation is thus, thus, and so. If you wish we can attempt to make contact with her or you can, it’s your call.” Beyond that we didn’t do much in the way of follow up, it wasn’t our responsibility to follow up, our responsibility was to get the information out.

We would get letters like that all the time: “We need help,” or, “How do you resolve this particular issue in terms of community service?” There used to be community action programs and I wish I could tell you what they were. But they were like the programs that you see in your city now, helping people find housing, things that people need to be able to do to live in a community and to have a community be responsive to their needs, too. We had Legal Services, we had Indian Affairs, which is who Dan worked for—the guy in my building that I went out with.

Laura​: You could get letters from Congress people as well as directly from citizens?

Rita​: That’s correct.

Laura​: How would they have known to send it directly to you? I mean, citizens.

Rita​: Well, the OEO did not exist in a vacuum; many people knew about it. They may have seen a Community Action Program set up in their community and gone in there and said, “I would like to do ‘X,’ how do I do that?”

Or perhaps, you came in and said, “I have this idea for setting up a Spanish language program in four counties in the state, with this local Community Action Program, which is in a small town.” I would say to this person, “We can help you once you can get something established. What you should do is write to the federal headquarters in D.C. and tell them what you want to do and it will work from there.” I guess I’m saying it was a collaborative effort on the part of the subject matter people (the lawyers and whoever was working in the various divisions), Congress, and the individual citizens.
I can’t say with certainty that 50% of the mail came from Congress versus 50% from individuals. But a lot of our work was congressionally-based. We always joked that we would love to meet some of them, which is something we never did.

Laura​: The people who wrote to you?

Rita​: No, the Congressman and their offices. We always felt like, we supported them, we helped them out and that the least they could do was meet us. But it was okay!

I wrote a lot of letters. And we used typewriters. We didn’t have anything else. If you made a mistake, you whited it out. Eventually we got the typewriters; I think we got Selectrics at some point.

We had a secretary in our office, Elena Halfmoon. She was a Nez Perce Native American. OEO had gone to her reservation and recruited several people from the reservation to come to Washington to work for OEO.

Elena was just the coolest person in the world. She was very unworldly and the unfortunate thing is she got caught up in things that were going on and she became an alcoholic; she was not an alcoholic when she arrived. People looked after her and they got it straightened out. But she did eventually leave and we heard, much to our sadness, about six months after she left, that she committed suicide.

In theory, it was a good program to bring people from the reservations to D.C., but it really wasn’t. But they learned a lot from Elena and a couple of other people who came from the reservations and they developed programs for them. They recruited them to work and they wanted them to work, particularly the Native Americans, they wanted them to work in the Native American programs and that was the goal. Elena was not going to stay with us forever.

I have not thought about Elena in a long time. She was just a lovely woman. She was very talented, too. She wasn’t a letter writer; she was our secretary. But she would read the letters when they came in, and she would come up with suggestions. Then when we drafted our responses, every once in a while, she’d say, “You know, I don’t think this is a good answer.” She was usually right.

Laura​: Let me make sure I have the process correct. Who would receive the letter? Like, would Elena get the letter and then route it to the correct letter writer?

Rita​: No. Elena logged them in and the manager did the routing.

Laura​: What were the other areas that the other three letter writers did?

Rita​: I had Legal Services. And they gave me the Native American program. I can’t remember the exact name but it dealt with Native American reservations. I’m not sure that Elena did the routing. We had a woman whose title was something like
“Congressional Liaison.” Her name was Robbie.

Laura​: How old were you at the time?

Rita​: I was 21, 22.

Laura​: What were the other areas? Like you were Legal Services and sometimes Indian Affairs, but what were the other buckets? They don’t have to be exact. I’m just trying to get a sense of the topics that were addressed. Do you need to look at that ashtray?

Rita​: You’re so smart. [Exits the room and returns holding the ashtray.]

Laura​: Let me take a picture of that. You want to hold it up? Hold it a little bit higher.

Rita Glazer shows her daughter a commemorative ashtray from her job as a letter writer for the United States government. Each icon represents a department within the Office of Economic Opportunity. The bottom of the ashtray (not pictured) is signed “With best wishes from Sargent Shriver, 1968.”

Rita​: It’s signed on the back, “With best wishes from Sargent Shriver 1968.” Community Action Programs, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Foster Grandparents. Migrant Opportunities, Indian Opportunities, Green Thumb, Legal Services, Job Corps. VISTA, which is Volunteers in Service to America, which was the domestic Peace Corps. Upward Bound and Health Right Programs, which I have no memory of. Head Start, which was the preschoolers and in the center, of course, is the OEO emblem.

Laura​: Do you think you ever used it as an ashtray?

Rita​: No, never. I would never have done that.

Laura​: For all of those units that you just read, was there a letter writer for each of those?

Rita​: Not exactly. It got to a point fairly quickly when it was very clear that some areas were of more interest to me than other areas and the same for the other letter writers. I think it was the sort of thing where you just kind of fell into certain specific areas but you weren’t limited to those.

Laura​: How many letters were on your docket at one time?

Rita​: I suppose we could have written 15 to 20 letters a day, maybe more? A lot of it was boilerplate. “Thank you for your inquiry about whatever, of whenever.” This is what we did, we wrote letters. So 15 or 20 letters a day is not bad. Sometimes we would draft them on the typewriter and they would be okay. Or sometimes we draft them and we make changes and give them to Elena and she would type them. Elena could type like 150 words a minute. Unbelievable how fast she could type. If we were really busy we’d draft out a letter on our typewriters and give them to Elena. If we wrote them at 10 o’clock in the morning and gave them to her at 10:30, they were done by noon.

Laura​: Would you draft a letter on the typewriter or by hand?

Rita​: Yes to both, I think. Sometimes you just pick up a pen and you write—that happens to you, too, I’m sure. I think it was more typed, just because it was easier, but I don’t know.

Laura​: So you would draft a letter and then would you take it to a subject matter expert to review? Or was that only certain times?

Rita​: Possibly. We may have gone before with the letter that came in if we didn’t think we had an answer or if we got the letter and said, “I’m thinking that this would work,” we’d draft it out. Then, depending on our level of confidence, we would go with it or if we had had similar inquiries, we were comfortable enough to write our own letters using previous letters as guides. As the months wore on, we would spend less and less time having to do actual research, we knew the answers.

Laura​: That was going to be my next question: did you know the answers going into the job?

Rita​: No. We learned, we would study, we would collaborate.

Laura​: What was the name of your division?

Rita​: Correspondence Control Unit. Very unromantic. We were part of the Executive Office of the Director. The director’s office was on the top floor, I think it was the tenth floor and that was Sargent Shriver. We were on the third or fourth floor. We had a nice big space. We each had our own desk and Elena was in the middle of it and there was somebody on the other side. Then there were two separate offices, one for Bill who was the boss, and then the other one, Robbie and Jan were in. And they all smoked. Of course, we did too, at that point. Everybody smoked so you didn’t notice it.

We were all very close, we worked together. Even the lawyers down the hall—to some extent we didn’t have anything in common with them—but we did: we’re all about the same age—they were a little older actually. But I go back to what I said earlier, we wanted to be there. Grandma said it best years and years and years ago, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” You get along with these people. Believe me it wasn’t hard, they were good people, they were fun people.

It sounds like there’s a lot of responsibility. But it wasn’t hard. I think it wasn’t hard, because it was interesting. Because I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed the whole process of getting the letters, of trying to understand what it was that they were asking or talking about and talking to those who knew. I keep going back to lawyers because we had a lot of legal services questions. Being able to take what they said and make sense of it and write something back to somebody to whom it mattered. Every once in a while, we would get a letter thanking us from a Congressman, thanking us for helping out so and so, that we really did help them out and they appreciated it. We kept getting funded so we obviously we were doing something right.

Laura​: Do you feel like you were really helping?

Rita​: I think we all did. I think it was a time when that needed to be done. Not that it doesn’t need to be done now. But it was after Kennedy died and there was just so much going on. There was so much poverty and nobody was addressing it. LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson) came up with this Office of Economic Opportunity idea and ran with it. I was just on the inside, I didn’t physically do anything to help anybody because we were the headquarters. The headquarters people made the decisions that went out to the lawyers, the Legal Services offices, all these other offices, Indian Affairs and whatnot. It went out to those offices in the field and the country. The money went out there and helped people, made lives better. Eventually it went away.

Laura​: Where did it go?

Rita​: It got broken up after a while. There were people that didn’t believe in it at all. Some of these programs, like Head Start, in some form still exist, I think.

Laura​: And so does VISTA, we know that.

Rita​: So does VISTA.

Laura​: When you say it got broken up with, which thing got broken up?

Rita​: The Office of Economic Opportunity went away. And its programs were dispersed. Beyond that I couldn’t tell you, but we know for a fact that they still exist in some form or another. I don’t know if Head Start still exists as Head Start but it’s preschool; it laid the foundation for things to follow.

Laura​: Here’s a question that’s brewing in my mind. How did you—who grew up as a white, middle class, Jewish girl in a family that had both parents and you had two older brothers and extended family nearby—have an awareness of what an anti-poverty program might be addressing? Because that’s not where you came from.

Rita​: No, it isn’t where it came from but I came from a Jewish family. I came from a family whose parents and whose grandparents came from Russia and lived a very poor existence, were fortunate enough to find people to help them. Especially when they came to this country. One great uncle came here who came here first and left everybody behind. He managed somehow and somebody took care of him, I guess, through some Jewish social service agency, which was big in Europe. He did well enough that he was able to save enough money to start bringing his family here. But they never forgot how they became successful, they never forgot how they not just survived, but lived, when they came to this country. They never forgot that people helped them when they needed it. This is what we did.

Laura​: When you were in this position did you have a visual sense of who you were helping? How did you envision the people you were receiving letters from?

Rita​: Well, that’s an interesting question. I can tell you better by answering that we used to see people in the building. Constituents would come to the building. They weren’t coming to see us. They may have been called to come to the area by a Congressman.

Laura​: Did you ever hear back from a citizen who contacted you directly?

Rita​: Off the top of my head, I have to say no, I don’t think so.

Laura​: Were there any requests for help directly from citizens that stand out in your memory?

Rita​: No.

Laura​: Do you ever remember receiving a letter and being upset or sad?

Rita​: Yes, I do. Every once in a while we would get a letter like that, where you just kind of put your head down on your desk. We got quite a few a week; we got more than we should have. But things were tough, we were just beginning to discover the levels of poverty in this country. Back in the mid 60s. That’s not to say we didn’t know it was there, but nobody did anything about it. And all of a sudden, people are realizing that we have people here who don’t have anything to eat. We have that now, too, for different reasons. But we had people that had no food. “Homeless” was not a word that you heard. But you did hear about people who didn’t have enough clothing to keep them warm and they didn’t have enough food—maybe food for one meal every couple of days and that was it. You didn’t hear much about that. But it existed. It still exists, even without all this, with COVID; there are a lot of people that don’t have enough food to eat.

Laura​: Were the letters sent from all over the country?

Rita​: Yes.

Laura​: Did you actually handle the original letter?

Rita​: Yeah.

Laura​: Were there lots of formats and handwriting? Were they handwritten or typed?

Rita​: They were probably handwritten. I’m guessing that people did not have much access to typewriters. I honestly can’t remember.

Laura​: That would make sense, though. I forget that during that time period, typewriters are very similar to computers in that they were expensive.

Rita​: That’s right. Let’s face it, if it comes to a question of typewriter or shoes, I’m going to get the shoes.

Laura​: You said that a lot of the letter was boilerplate. Do you recall a time when you included something very specific and possibly personal, like a personal response, in addition to the boilerplate?

Rita​: We weren’t supposed to do that, it wasn’t appropriate. We did sign letters and I’m trying to remember who signed them. We must have gotten the lawyers to sign the letters, or the subject people to sign the letters. That would make the most sense. I wouldn’t have signed them.

Laura​: It strikes me that you were a connector. You and I share that trait which I realize as I listen to you talk about letter writing. You were an intermediary between the constituent and the answer. Like connecting people to information that they need and don’t know how to find. Were you considered clerical?

Rita​: No, we were not. We were considered professional.

Laura​: Did you have to take a civil service exam?

Rita​: No, not for this. I had done that before for some summer jobs. I applied for civil service, taking typing tests but not for this. This was considered professional.

Laura​: Oh, before I forget—this will be the last question—on what occasion did you get this ashtray? And why were you given an ashtray?

Rita​: You have to remember, this was 1968 and everybody smoked. That’s number one. At the time that these were being sent out they were not given to employees. I had a friend who worked in Sargent Shriver’s office. I went up there and they were in the process of wrapping these gifts which they were sending to Congressmen and people of influence. I said, “Can I have one?” “No, we can’t give these out.” I remember saying, “Who’s gonna know?”

Laura​: Well, this has been awesome.

Rita​: It was great to talk to you. This was the longest conversation you and I’ve had in a long time and who knows when we’ll do it again.

Laura​: Okay, thanks, mom. This was awesome.

Rita​: This was fun.

Laura​: Bye!

Rita​: Bye!

This interview was conducted over Zoom on Monday, November 30, 2020.

(1) An office and residency I created in the Art and Social Practice program’s classroom and studio space on the Portland State University’s campus

(2) Someone who writes (and sometimes reads) letters for someone else

Rita Glazer​ is a lifelong resident of the Washington, D.C. region. She worked in the defense contracting industry for over 25 years while raising her daughter and caring for her husband during his terminal illness. She is an active member of her synagogue, reads ​The Washington Post​ everyday, and dreams of sunny days in Hawaii.

Laura Glazer​ 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.

Answers Without Words in Oregon Arts Watch

Beyond the walls: A social practice project goes global

Answers Without Words, a photography project, fosters creative dialogue between incarcerated artists in Oregon and photographers from around the world

I am watching a group of men set a scene to be photographed. Ben Turanski, one of the prisoners at Columbia River Correctional Institution, indicates I am witnessing “prison innovation” in the works. He and some others are turning one corner of a classroom space at CRCI into a faux hospice. He twists a long piece of plastic wrapper into a cord, like an IV, attaching it to the wrist of Joshua Wright, who is lying on a makeshift hospital bed. Now done setting the scene, Turanski sits beside Wright and takes his hand.

From several feet away, Ben Hall takes a photo with a digital camera. When I ask him about what is happening, he indicates that the scenario he is photographing is inspired by his time working hospice in prison.

Click on the link above to read more.

Harrell Fletcher: Notes On Claiming


What I wanted to write about today is the concept and practice of “claiming” in relationship to art and specifically social practice. I’ve always struggled with how much students and artists need to know about art to be able to function effectively as artists, sometimes I’ve felt like it might be better to know very little (so as not to be limited by existing frameworks and models), and when it comes to the MFA that I currently am in charge of I encourage people who don’t have undergrad degrees in art to apply, and we have happily accepted folks with degrees in lots of other disciplines, many of whom went on to make amazing art work. If it were in fact up to me, I’d also potentially accept people with no undergraduate degree at all just based on their work and life experience, but the university won’t go for that. 

At the same time my own knowledge of art history has been very influential on my practice and informs a lot of the work I do in a wide variety of ways both conceptual and aesthetic. Duchamp’s readymades, and Richard Prince and Sherry Levine’s work using appropriation have been very important to me in developing my own practice and projects. I was thrilled as a young student when I learned about those approaches, so it is always interesting to me how presenting those concepts to my own students can have such emotionally negative reactions, they seem to feel that those artists were cheating, and think that their success somehow undermines the students own skills in more traditional artist techniques. I’ve seen undergrads brought to tears when learning about Duchamp and his status in the world of contemporary art.

[The American War. Harrell Fletcher]

Anyway, what I wanted to write about here is the potential use of what I’m going to call “claiming” as an artistic method. What I’m talking about has all sorts of potential applications from ones that are just expansions of readymades and appropriation, which is in many ways what I was doing with my project The American War (though I added in site-specific participatory events as well), to other uses which start to operate further afield partly because they can function outside of the need to create some kind of object that can be bought and sold and displayed in an art world venue. I recall that Fischli and Weiss had a project in the late 90’s as part of the Munster Sculpture Project where they just claimed a community garden as their project and directed people to go see it. Actually, I just looked that up and it turns out it was a garden that they had constructed to look like a community garden and it was temporary just for the exhibition time, so that doesn’t work as an example of claiming in the sense that I’m talking about. (Though it does fit well into another topic I’d like to write about sometime which is how prior to the use of the internet it was sometimes hard to find out accurate details about temporary projects and through the reliance of limited documentation or even just word of mouth artists would often be inspired to create something new based on a misinterpretation or lack of details of something that had happened before. That might be something that is being undermined now by so much digital availability to vast documentation and information on the web.)

So let’s just say Fischli and Weiss had not created the garden, but had instead just claimed it, would that be valid? For me it’s no different than a photographer taking a picture of a garden (or any other pre-existing thing) and then presenting the print as their work. Some would say that the formalization of the photograph (composition, technical elements, printing, framing, etc.) are what makes the photograph art, which from my point of view (as a fan of appropriation) isn’t necessary to call something art. It’s really just the act of calling it art that makes it art, but in the case of an artist claiming a garden (or any other pre-existing thing) as their art, there are still various formalizing aspects to doing that.

Screen Shot 2017-01-22 at 8.36.21 PM
[photo credit: Fischli/Weiss: Garten, 1997/2016. Bild: © Fondation Beyeler]

Let’s once again take the garden as a hypothetical example even though in reality it wasn’t done in the way that I thought it was, but let’s suspend reality and pretend that it was. If that had been the case then the project would have been formalized by its inclusion in the program listing along with the other projects that were a part of the show, it would have been on the map showing where all of the sculpture projects were located, there would be a title, description, etc, it would have been included in the exhibition catalog, it would have been documented and re-presented, basically anything that would have happened to a constructed outdoor sculpture that was included in a major exhibition would also have happened to the pre-existing, site-specific, ongoing garden or whatever.

There is a potential problem with this approach that goes beyond just being valid or not as art. It could also be thought of as an imperialistic approach in that the artist without having actually made anything other than a claim, would be seen as the author of a project that someone else or some other group actually created and maintained. This hits on something I’ve also written about related to crediting, and I think it is applicable not only to conceptual claiming projects, but also to almost anything that involves other people’s un-credited contributions to art projects from assistants, fabricators, silent collaborators, participants, etc. In the case of the garden and projects like that it is simple enough to find out who actually created and maintained the garden and then to get approval from them to use the garden as part of an art project and credit them for their role. If it is possible or desirable to share funding then that can happen as well. My sense is that most people would happily have their garden (etc) included in a major art exhibition, especially if they are getting credit and potentially even payment.

Ok, so what if the claimed pre-existing thing isn’t part of a major art project. It can still work without any validating institutional approval or inclusion (though as with all art, that makes it easier to be seen as significant and valuable). There are still other ways for artists to formalize their claim. They can program their own event related to the site or object, they can document it, title it, etc. and then just put it on a website, make a zine about it, present it at a lecture, etc, etc. It could also be more than a single claim, imagine for instance a series of spots that an artist locates and formalizes to go together, like making a music playlist the artist could suggest that people check out a certain tree, talk to a particular person at a store, look at a specific book at a library, eat a suggested item at a food cart, etc. all in a detailed out sequence with potentially added information about each location, sort of like a walking tour of the senses. This selection of claimed spots could be made available in a variety of forms, for instance maybe published in a local weekly newspaper or put up as a flier, or just told to a set of people, and in that way becomes applied and no longer just an idea, then can be listed on a resume, presented in lectures, printed in publications etc, just like any other work of art.

[A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey by Robert Smithson (1967).]

A related example that also had a huge impact on me were two works by Robert Smithson, his 1967 photo article A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, in which he describes in a very conversational tone a set of “monuments” which he observed which were in reality industrial units and piles that he was giving extraordinary significance to, basically treating things like art that weren’t intended as art. In a similar piece, The Hotel Palenque from 1972, (initially presented as a slide lecture, and later published in a Parkett magazine where I first encountered it) Smithson details with photos and more nonchalant but validating language a hotel in Mexico that he stayed at which was undergoing at the same time a process of literal construction and de-construction. The only real difference between the Smithson pieces and what I’m suggesting is the way that an audience can be invited to participate in experiencing the chosen claimed places, objects, sounds, etc.

I think the concept of claiming has all sorts of potential artistic and curatorial applications and would be a welcome addition or even substitution for much of the work produced currently by art students and other artists, who instead continue the largely futile production of studio based objects in the hopes of showing and selling in galleries, which is very unlikely given the high volume of art object production and the scarcity of status quo venues.


Mining Resources at the Crumpacker Family Library

April 10th, 2013

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Featured books on Activism in Art The Anne and James F. Crumpacker Family Library is the region’s most comprehensive visual art resource open to students, researchers, docents, staff, and free to the public. The Library’s collection of more than 35,000 volumes originated in 1895 and includes current and historical periodicals, art archives, and resources specific to the Museum’s history. Located on the second floor of the Mark Building, a former Masonic Temple, the Library’s comfortable reading room, much of the decor and furniture from the period, and irreplaceable, non-circulating collection provide an urban retreat for anyone interested in art.”

Special thanks to the Library Director, Debra Royer, who was very knowledgable and more than willing to help in searching and minging the Library for not just activism in art, but also the rest of the Journal’s themes and assisting the other Social Practice Journal’s editors. 


“Change is inevitable, growth is optional”

-writing on the wall

Originally I thought an anonymous bite of genius found scribbled on the restroom wall, but with more research found it has been quoted by John Maxwell, the evangelical Christian author, speaker, and pastor who has written more than 60 books, primarily focusing on leadership. I am not sure about the author, but the quote is pertinent. It is nevertheless one of many versions of quotes pertaining to this basic human experience. I believe that it is at that very first experience of change that provokes us to express our emotion and reaction to change.

Activism encompasses many qualities that function transcendentally in art; from traditional graphical forms, to performative, to participatory. There are many forms of art that have been used as tools in social movements throughout history. It has only been in the last century that art has been recognized as a used tool, other than for aesthetics for dissemination of information or education. Different forms of counter-institutional art, the Dadaists for example in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, have developed in order to incite a social conscious change. But there are other examples of activism within art that are not visual, as in the Theater of the Oppressed developed by Augusto Boal in the 1960’s influenced by the work of the educator and theorist Paulo Freire.

With these vast examples of activism manifesting within art it was hard to only pinpoint one word or one overarching phrase that would produce results in one find. I realized that this also means people have different in interpretations of what or how activism may be represented in art. This display is a result of that realization. I tried to initiate various searches using the Library’s Online Collection Database to produce this exhibition of books that either ARE examples of activism, represent social activism within their pages, or are collections of thoughts and works of artists. My hope is to introduce community to different forms of art and to invite community to run their own searches based on their own interpretation of what activism is to them.


Ault, Julie, Brian Wallis, Marianne Weems, and Philip Yenawine. Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America. New York: New York UP, 1999. Print.
Chandler, Annmarie, and Norie Neumark. At a Distance: Precursors to Art and Activism on the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2005. Print.
Cushing, Lincoln, and Tim Drescher. Agitate! Educate! Organize!: American Labor Posters. Ithaca: ILR/Cornell UP, 2009. Print.
Doherty, Claire. Situation. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2009. Print.
Douglas, Emory, Bobby Seale, Sam Durant, and Sonia Sanchez. Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas. New York, NY: Rizzoli, 2007. Print.
Fletcher, Harrell. The American War. Atlanta, GA: J & L, 2006. Print.
Frascina, Francis. Art, Politics, and Dissent: Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1999. Print.
Heyman, Therese Thau. “Patriots and Protestors.” Posters American Style. New York: National Museum of American, Smithsonian Institution in Association with H.N. Abrams, 1998. N. pag. Print.
Higgie, Jennifer, Hugo Ball, Henri Bergson, André Breton, Dan Cameron, Leonora Carrington, Hélène Cixous, Marcel Duchamp, Marlene Dumas, Alex Farquharson, Dan Fox, Sigmund Freud, Girls Guerrilla, Jörg Heiser, Dave Hickey, Hannah Höch, Jo Anna. Isaak, Mike Kelley, Barbara Kruger, Nathaniel Mellors, Tom Morton, Claes Oldenburg, Francis Picabia, Arnulf Rainer, Ad Reinhardt, Peter Schjeldahl, Carolee Schneemann, David Sedaris, Robert Smithson, Frances Stark, Kristine Stiles, Anna Tilroe, Hamza Walker, Sheena Wagstaff, and Slavoj Žižek. The Artist’s Joke. London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2007. Print.
“Outrage And Sympathy: Artists on Injustice.” Des Moines Art Center: Gallery Guide (1991): n. pag. Rpt. in Gallery Guide. Comp. Lea R. Delong. Des Moines: Des Moines Art Center, 1991. Print.
We Need to Know Where We Have Been to Know Where We Are Going: A Collaboratively Written History of Art and Social Practice. LaVergne, TN: [s.n.], 2010. Print.



Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen in conversation with Zachary Gough



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

April 27th, 2013

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

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

AG: She loves talking to people too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RP: I mean we are anti-capitalist.

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

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

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

ZG: Isn’t that inherently a contradiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

ZG: Like that’s what they do too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG: We should start doing exercises.

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

AG: I like the idea of imagination exercises.

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


RP: It’s hard, imagine that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG: Yes, a strategy that is indirect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG: So how do we make an imaginative exercise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

AG: That sounds like a real-time event.

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

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

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

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

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

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



Mining Resources at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art (PICA)

Resources on Activism at PICA

Abner, Holly, Travis Hale, Kevin Kaempf, Jeff Kowalkowski, Heather Lindahl, Bill Talsma, Michael Thomas, and Mary Zerkel, comps. AMERICA/N. N.p.: Half Letter, 2013. Print.

The book is the culmination of a project to investigate the US Constitution. Lucky Pierre, collaborative group working in writing, performance, and visual forms, invited 24+ artists, activists and scholars to present a section of the Constitution during a 13 hour performance on November 6, Election Day. It is inspired by the 12-hours of presentations on Election Day. The publication includes a handy pocket constitution and documentation of the day along with the text and images from the presentations. And it looks really good. America/n (the book) was released on Inauguration Day, 2013. http://www.luckypierre.org/current/america-n.html
Bondt, Sara De., and Catherine De. Smet. Graphic Design: History in the Writing (1983-2011). [London]: Occasional Papers, 2012. Print.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. [Dijon]: Leses Du Réel, 2002. Print.

Cotton, Charlotte. The Machine Project: A Field Guide to the Los Angeles County Museum of ART. Ed. Mark Allen, Jason Brown, and Liz Glynn. Comp. Mark Allen and Joshua Beckman. N.p.: Machine Project, 2010. Print.

On November 15th, 2008 Machine Project was invited to visit the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, orchestrating ten hours of performances, workshops, and events experimenting with LACMA’s expansive grounds and enormous collection of stuff. http://www.machineproject.com/files/pdf/MP0806_LACMA_Final.lo-res.pdf
Garrels, Gary, Kara Kirk, Jim Lewis, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Andy Warhol, and Photographer-Robert Frank, comps. Public Information: Desire, Disaster, Document. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1994. Print.
O’donnell, Darren. Social Acupuncuture. N.p.: Coach House, 2006. Print.
Raunig, Gerald. Art and Revolution: Transversal Activism in the Long Twentieth Century. N.p.: Semiotext(e), 2007. Print.
Wilson, Preface-Wil, and Forward-Patsy Phillips. Manifestations New Native Art Criticism. Ed. Nancy Mithlo. N.p.: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2012. Print.