The Art and Social Practice Archive in the PSU Special Collections (which Luz and Lo talk more about in their interview in this issue) is a treasure trove of documentation and ephemera from socially engaged projects from all over. I have been lucky enough to dig through it this term. When I was looking online for social practice projects that should be added to the Archive, I found some projects by PSU A+SP alumnus Mark Menjívar that really struck me. Over the next few weeks I kept coming back to Refrigerators on Mark’s website and in my memory. It felt mysterious and intimate and funny and touching. I love the idea of making work about being in other peoples’ houses. I made a piece once collecting one spoonful of peanut butter in every house I went into and adding them to a jar I carried around with me. When the prompt came up to interview a program alum, I knew I wanted to talk to Mark and ask him about this and other projects, his time in the program, and how curiosity finds a home.
Caryn Aasness: I was looking at a lot of your projects and I was specifically struck by the Refrigerators project. I’ve been interested in making work about being in people’s houses and documenting the way they live and I think specifically refrigerators and kitchens and food are so interesting. Would you consider the people whose refrigerators you’ve photographed to be participants or do you have another word for it?
Mark Menjívar: Oh, yeah, if I can, what I’d love to do is tell you more about the project, and there’s actually a really deep connection with the PSU Social Practice program inside of that project.
Mark: My background is in social work— that’s what I studied in undergrad and I came to the arts through the field of documentary photography. Really that refrigerator project was the first project I ever worked on. It came from us working with another artist on a documentary about food and hunger in the United States. We were traveling around— we traveled to like 35 different cities in about a five year period. And while we were working on a documentary, I started to think about another way that I could begin to bring visuals to hunger and food insecurity and just food issues in general, and I tried all kinds of different things. I was cutting food items in half, I was photographing tables after meals, and then one day I was in my kitchen doing that thing where you stand in front of the fridge and you’re hungry but you’re not but just looking; I probably was processing some emotion. And I was like, Huh, this is super interesting, right? The refrigerator being the space that’s really private, but it’s also shared. It’s a constant in some ways, but it’s always changing. So I made a photograph of it and back then I was photographing with a large format four by five camera. So I was getting under the cloth and it took a lot of time to do it. I made a photograph of it and when I got the film back, I was just really moved by the visuals, and then I started to see that there were so many layers to it: where the food was coming from, where it was going, the labor ethics behind it.
So what I decided to do was set out and start photographing a number of refrigerators while also thinking about diversity— not just gender and race and geographic diversity but paying attention to economic diversity as well. Inside of the project, there are people that are just coming off the streets from experiencing homelessness and there are people living in penthouses on Fifth Avenue in New York City. For me, it is interesting because I came at that project through the field of photography, but also as a social worker. There was something inside me that was like, How can I make work with people, not just about people, and I think I was trying to understand what that meant— it means something very different in my practice now. Then, it was about not just trying to get as many people as possible, but trying to really spend time with people and to get to know them. And each refrigerator was accompanied by how they identified their work, what city they lived in, how many people were in their household, and then some kind of information that I learned about them. I tried to return as many prints to people as possible. I was thinking about it not as an equal exchange, but as reciprocity.
Then I started to have exhibitions in different communities and I was like, Oh, we should reach out to the food bank to partner together. Oh, we should reach out to this food justice organization and do something together. Slowly what happened is, I began to care more about what was happening inside the gallery space than I did about what was on the walls. I think that was my first realization that a practice could expand out from just photography. And then, this is the part that connects to the program, I had an exhibition at a gallery in Portland, at a place called Ampersand— they’re not around anymore but they used to be on Alberta. It was a really, really great space and I partnered with Janus Youth Programs, which was an organization that was doing urban farming there in Portland, and also a part of the slow food movement. We partnered together for the exhibition and before opening to the public, we had a big potluck meal where everybody came together and they shared the work that they were doing. They were actually working in the same neighborhood but didn’t really know about each other. The youth from the Janus Youth Program became docents for the exhibition for the opening the next night, and they were talking about not just the work, but about their neighborhood, and food issues inside of it. At that opening, a number of the social practice students from PSU came, including Nicole Lavelle, and Nicole came up to me and said, Hey, we’re from the social practice program. And I said, I have no idea what that is. And she said, Well, you’re doing it! I was like, What do you mean? I didn’t come with any art historical background. It was through my conversation with Nicole that I learned about Jen Delos Reyes and Harrell Fletcher and I was thinking about grad school at the time. So I ended up applying and that’s how I came to be enrolled. So I found out about it all through the opening there in Portland.
Caryn: That’s really cool.
Mark: I started making that work in like 2007. So it’s been 15 years.
Caryn: Do you find yourself still looking in people’s fridge?
Mark: You know, I always peek. I’m the kind of person that I want to see and know everything. That can be like fridges, or information. I’ve just always been kind of curious about things. It doesn’t happen as often now, but people will send me a picture of their refrigerator or someone else’s refrigerator, just like on a phone. Or if there’s anything that has to do with refrigerators in the news or in a magazine, it always gets forwarded to me which I love.
Caryn: So, projects live in different spaces and in different containers, but when you present a project somewhere, how do you decide what information is important for people to know?
Mark: Yeah, totally. It’s a great question. So one of the things that I know about myself is that typically when I write, I write really short and small amounts. But as you can tell, if you ask me a question, I mean, I’ll talk for days, right? And it’s like there is a real disconnect sometimes between the writing about it and the talking about it. I think for me, this is my preferred way of sharing— I prefer to talk about the work because there’s nuances and communication and questions and the back and forth inside of talking about a work that you can dig into those things. With writing it’s more challenging to do some of that stuff.
Caryn: You’ve made multiple books, but when you’re working on a project that feels kind of like a collection or like there can be multiple elements, how do you decide when it’s ready to be that book and if there’s more later where does it go? How do you feel about containers and the limitation or opportunity of them?
Mark: You know, I really love books. I love reading, and I love books as objects. I love the process of making books. I think I was also really influenced by the PSU program. We’re kind of always thinking in publications. Maybe like a year ago, I was hanging out with Paul Ramirez Jonas, the artist who’s now at Cornell University, and I gave him a book that I made and he was like, What is it with all you PSU people always making books? And so I think we’re always all doing that. But for me, there’s a couple of things that I really liked about making publications. One is I do love the process and how collaborative it can be with designers or with other people that are thinking around it. But also it allows you to experience something in the intimacy of your own home— it’s something that you can give away. I really love making books but, almost equally, I love giving away books. It’s important to me to be intentional and find funds to pay for the project and to compensate people that are in the process of making it, and then being able to gift the book at the end. But you make a decision— you choose to do something and then you move forward with it and like, if I was to go back and do the Refrigerators book today, I’d do it differently. And there’s something I like about that. We think something has to be permanent if you put it inside of a book, but it can be changed as well. It’s kind of like an exhibition, right? If you do a project somewhere, it looks one way and then if you iterate and you do it a year later or in a different city or in a different space, it changes and it looks a little bit different. So I try to not think about it too much after it comes out. You share it, but there’s more books to be made or more iterations of a project.
Caryn: When you start a project from a point of curiosity, and then you want to present work to an audience, are you more interested in conveying what that curiosity looks like and feels like? Or are you more interested in conveying the answers that came out of the questions you were asking?
Mark: I think a lot of times what I’m trying to do is invite people into something I am curious about or have questions about. I’m like, Hey, this is who I am and this is what I’m curious about and I would love to invite you to think about that with me or participate inside of this. So I don’t see it as trying to go to somebody to figure something out, but it’s just maybe them sharing a response or what they think of something. You know, one example is the project I did called the Luck Archive, where I came across four four-leaf clovers in the pages of an old book, which made me incredibly curious about the concept of luck. So I started talking to people about it, I was just so moved and fascinated by what they were sharing with me. Then I started to think, Well, how do you hold onto that or how do you organize that and make a way that other people can potentially have a meaningful engagement with that same material? So that is a lot of what drives my work: how can I have a meaningful engagement with somebody or something? And then I’m just trying to find a way that people can potentially have their own meaningful engagement with that thing or that person.
Caryn: Thank you. Yeah. I’m sure it changes with every project. How do you go about finding participants? Do you find it easy? Is it a struggle?
Mark: I think there’s different concentric circles, right? A lot of times I’ll work with family or friends inside of things, maybe that’s a starting point. I have a great relationship with my parents for the most part, but you know, it’s always interesting to ask them to describe what I do. They’re like, Oh, I don’t know, you’re just doing these things. But I really love working with people that I don’t know already— sometimes I’ll use the word strangers, but that doesn’t feel like necessarily the right word— but people that I meet, whether that’s on airplanes or in organizations or in my neighborhood. I think context is such a huge part of the work. So if I’m invited to work in a place in a different city, or within a certain institution, I think about what the places are that I’d be spending time in and who’s the audience for this project? And then how can you include the audience in the work, how can they be a part of the work as well?
Caryn: Yeah. I love what you said about your parents. I always like to ask artists, How do your parents describe your work?, because it gets to something really interesting.
Mark: Yeah, I mean, the thing that’s nice for them now is that I am a professor, so they’re like, Oh, he’s a professor. So that gives them an easy way of describing it.
Caryn: How do you describe not just your work, but the idea of social practice to people who don’t consider themselves to be artists?
Mark: Often, what I say is that it’s projects that are participatory and collaborative. I said this earlier: not just making work about people, but making work with people, and that can look so different. I teach social practice as well. But the thing that I really tried to do is to break that down. It’s easy to say “social practice” or “new genres” or “public art” or “relational aesthetics” or whatever terms we want to use, but what are we really talking about? If you can break it down, it is about participation. It’s about collaboration. It’s about site specificity. It’s about the consideration of ethics. It’s all of these different pieces that make up what can be considered a socially engaged art practice. Some people self-identify as social practice artists, other people don’t. Sometimes people that are working in the studio have participatory elements inside of a certain project, I think that’s really great. It shouldn’t be something that’s off limits to other people, in the same way that if I want to make a painting I feel like I should be able to do that; if I want to make a film or do a performance, I should be able to do that— dive into those areas.
Caryn: Yeah, for sure. You mentioned you didn’t necessarily know about this way of working or think about it, but someone told you you were doing it. So how has your work changed because of the program, and then how has your work changed since you graduated from the program?
Mark: So my mind goes to two different areas. One is that all of a sudden, I had this art historical context, right? I had people pointing to all of these projects that had happened. I had no idea— before I came to the program, I studied social work in undergrad. I never took an art class. I had studied photographers, I mean I was looking at books and going to exhibitions and doing those types of things, but like, I had no clue what Fluxus was, or who so many of the artists were that we talk about, you know, Project Row Houses or Mierle Laderman Ukeles. I had no clue who these people were. So I think just learning about that gave me this place to be like, Oh my goodness, the things that I’m interested in actually exist inside of this contemporary art world. It gave me so much possibility of what could happen. And then just getting to be in relationship with such great artists in the program, and visiting artists who came and visited the program. That just totally changed the way that I thought about my work and thought about the possibilities of making work.
It’s interesting, because after I finished, I kind of always had one foot in the world of photography and audio. I made a living before I was teaching as an architectural photographer and documenting collections, so I kind of always had this medium specific approach to my work. But since leaving the program, it’s been funny, I really moved away from the field of photography, like I really don’t make photographs. I use photographs inside of a lot of projects, but I think that the idea really has become the most important thing, and then using whatever medium possible to achieve that idea and always trying to do that in a way where I’m creating some kind of project structure that people can participate in. But I think it’s really freed me up to work in a lot of ways— sometimes it’s a screenplay that was unpublished for 15 years, other times it’s a project working with 400 high school students to build new monuments for our city, or making a fairly traditional documentary about the oldest prison cemetery in the United States. All those things are projects that I’m working on, and they all look so different. From my perspective, I see a thread that pulls them all together and connects them all, but then from the outside, at first people are like, What are you doing? And I don’t feel a ton of stress anymore to feel like it has to be super cohesive. I am drawn to these projects for different reasons. And I like having that freedom of flexibility to work. Whatever each project calls for.
Caryn: Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to share?
Mark: I will say this: one of the things that I think I found to be the most meaningful when I was in the program was getting to work so closely with great faculty. And I found that really trying to dive deep into those relationships was one of the most important things for me. I’ve now been out of the program for eight years or something like that, and so many of the relationships that I developed while I was there with visiting artists and professors still endure to this day, which I feel really really grateful for.
Also, one thing I think you’ll be interested in, I dropped a link to a project that I don’t have on my site or anything like that. You may not have found it or seen it, but this is for this virtual residency that I’m a part of right now. Because of some of the projects that you’re interested in, you may be really interested in this project too.
[Mark sends a link to THIS project in the chat]
And so it actually started because for 10 years, I was collecting security questions. So we pulled it together and this residency basically just let me work with their web developer and built up this site for me. So what you can do is, there’s this kind of ridiculous list of like, 140 security questions, and then you get to respond to it, but if you click on the responses, you can go in, you can click on the security questions, and there’s over 1,400 responses inside of there as well. I thought I’d share this because of your interest in Refrigerators, because it’s an archive, you know? Another way that I talk about our practices is, all I do is activate archives, and sometimes those archives already exist, and then other times what I’m doing is building those archives in collaboration with individuals and communities, and that can be based around ideas of capital punishment, or immigration. It can be around security questions or refrigerators or oral history.
Caryn: I love that. And this project is really exciting. I love Google Forms, which, this is not a Google form, but it feels like that: collecting answers. I’ve been thinking about doing a project around asking people to retire or give me one of their passwords because I have this feeling that a lot of people are like, really proud of their passwords. Like, It’s funny, but I can’t tell you what it is because it’s my password. So I want to take those passwords and retire them to some kind of hall of fame. So I really appreciate you sharing this project.
Mark: Yeah, super cool. With this one, there’s anonymity built into it. I really went back and forth about having people include their name or anything like that. But then also because of the nature of security questions, the anonymity kind of lends itself to this thing. It’s kind of baked into it. This project I had originally envisioned as being like a street interview project, where I’d go out with a handheld camera and a microphone and interview people on the streets about it. And then it just kind of morphed into this. And this is a great example, you could easily do a publication with this, but then I’ve really been in a space where I’m like, I can make websites and it can like exist in this digital space. And you always deal with the issue of what’s going to happen to it in like, five years.
Golly, now I’m like, telling you all these things. Here’s another project that I actually did when I was in the program. My grandmother, she’s 92 now, and she calls every person in the family on their birthday, and she sings Happy Birthday and plays a little music box. So I started to think about all the people that are alone on their birthday. This has been up for a long time now, but if you click on Alone on my Birthday, there’s a video, it’s my grandmother singing Happy Birthday to whoever’s there, and then at the end, a little message like, “I hope you don’t feel alone on your birthday.” The hope is that if somebody’s googling “alone on my birthday,” or something like that, they would hopefully stumble across this website.
Caryn: Yeah, I love that. Like you said, there’s issues with things existing on the internet versus existing elsewhere, but some things just feel right on the internet. Some things feel right as a book. I love that you’re doing lots of different things and also projects that exist in multiple formats.
Mark: Oh, well I mean, I’ve always been the kind of person that I just have a jillion projects going on, and I’m always working on all of them, like all the time. So anyways, I thought it seemed to me like it was something that you may be interested in just because of these other projects we were talking about, and then the internet made me think about my grandmother.
Caryn: The Internet made me think about my grandmother. That might be the title.
Mark: There you go. Exactly.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) will be a 2023 graduate of the Art and Social Practice program. They ask questions, draw pictures, and try to remember to document everything. Caryn is originally from Long Beach, California and is living in Portland, Oregon. They have yet to make a book but are still considered “in good standing” in the program. You can find more of their work at carynaasness.com and on Instagram @levelyellowproblemchild.
Mark Menjívar (he/him) is a San Antonio based artist and Associate Professor in the School of Art and Design at Texas State University. His art practice primarily consists of creating participatory projects while being rooted in photography, oral history, archives, and social action. He attended McLennan Community College, holds a BA in Social Work from Baylor University and an MFA in Social Practice from Portland State University.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program