Photos courtesy the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Yoni Goldstein and Joe Iverson.
JENNIFER MILLS is an interdisciplinary artist who conflates art-making and art-selling in an ongoing exploration of the value of art. She uses her interactive performances and installations as a way to disseminate thousands of artworks for free or for prices as low as a penny. Jennifer is currently in residence at BOLT, a year-long studio residency in Chicago, and her solo show LOW MIDDLE HIGH will open September 5, 2012 at CULTUREfix in New York City. Jennifer lives in Chicago, IL.
OtherPeoplesPixels: I've read that you studied classical voice and performance when you were young, and you are well-versed in drawing, painting, video, and performance. Tell us a bit about your trajectory as an artist, and how you got to making the work you are making right now.
Jennifer Mills: Where did you read that?! Yes, I studied opera when I was little, because my mom signed me up for a youth opera camp one summer. I was so mad at her, because I had never opened my mouth to sing a peep in public and I was terrified. I spent the first day of camp with the fear sweats and going to the bathroom a lot, but I quickly ate my words and came to love it. Thanks, Mom. I studied classical voice all through college. It taught me a lot about the discipline necessary in a creative life. Studying voice made me interested in performance art, and all along the way I was just drawing and painting because there was always a 40% off coupon in the Sunday paper's ads for "Michael's Arts and Crafts Store."
September 2011 Art Prize Grand Rapids, Michigan Performance and Installation
OPP: You paint, draw, and make sculptures, but ultimately you are actually a conceptual performance artist working "to create a new system of defining value in the art world." Talk about why it's important to make art about the value of art.
JM: It's spectacular to see that a painting has sold for millions of dollars at auction, but I also believe anyone's creative work can be seen as spectacular. For me, there is some magic in selling a painting for $1. I like to think that the missing monetary value converts into a different kind of value, a kind of personal value that is more rare.
OPP: The thing that strikes me most about your performances, especially ones like Street (2010), in which you paint a portrait of anyone willing to stand on the X outside the storefront window you were stationed in, is the spirit of generosity and levity that seems to pervade these performances. There appears to be a real joy in the exchange between artist and viewer/participant, as opposed to the antagonistic relationship which can exist in a gallery or in a museum, especially with those not educated in art who often feel like they are missing something. Is this the whole point for you? Or is this just a nice byproduct of something else you are more interested in?
JM: To me it is a very important part of the whole, so it is so nice that you see that in the work. Thank you. I like to think that real joy and connection happens some of the time, and I always hope for more. I'm definitely working with and against the antagonistic exclusivity that exists in some art institutions, and that is something I like to parody and call attention to.
March 2010 Street Performance Contemporary Art Space, Chicago, IL
OPP: You've done several different performances where you make custom works of art for viewers after interviewing them, including Fresh Art (2010), Personalized Sculptures (2012), and Custom Made (2010). Could you describe the interview process? What's the interaction generally like between you and the viewer/participant?
JM: It's a little bit like being an untrained, pretty bad tarot card reader. We just get to talking! Sometimes I provide prompts like a question or some visuals I ask them to respond to. In a short amount of time with a little bit of information, I try to come to an educated guess right then and there about what kind of artwork they would like that I can make with the art materials I have stocked in the project's installation. It takes about 30 minutes to talk, be inspired, and make them art to take home. This project has usually been very fun, and sometimes extreamly meaningful for both of us. Of course, sometimes it feels like I'm grasping at straws too. We are just people talking and responding, so anything can happen. I'm now wondering if this made-to-order work is directly influenced by my time as a 'sandwich artist' in college. I loved that job.
December 2009 School of the Art Institute of Chicago Performance Installation Photos courtesy of Joseph Mohan
OPP: You often make very large editions of inexpensive originals, drawing each one by hand, as you did in (3.75/EA)(2009) and Penny Project, which began in 2009 and is still going, I believe. Why make such large editions?
JM: I can't really say, but right now I'm looking at a giant stack of cats I just painted for a project. I probably could have been doing a million other exciting things, but I don't regret a single cat.
OPP: Oh god, how many are there? Does your hand hurt?
JM: Let's just say I better get a job with health insurance soon before my hand falls off. Today I am finishing up a series of 240. I can usually do 100 a day. As far as how many 'Mills Originals" are out there, I think it is now close to 5,000. One day I hope to have a "99 Billion Served" sign above my head!
OPP: How important is it that these hand-made multiples look exactly the same, as if they were prints, not originals? Are you disappointed or satisfied with the variations that must inevitably occur?
JM: Variety is the spice of life! The more defects the better. I'm not perfect!
100 Stars Without Makeup
from TABLOID SERIES
OPP: You have a solo show called LOW MIDDLE HIGH organized by Recession Art Collective and opening next week CULTUREfix in NY. Could you tell us about the venue and about what new projects you'll be exhibiting?
JM: The venue and the collective are awesome. It is a beautiful project space on the Lower East Side that programs all kinds of amazing events and exhibitions. One weekend that I was at CULTUREfix, there was an art show, an experimental chamber orchestra and a comedian. I've been working with RAC for a few years, we came together due to the similar way the recession inspired our outlook on art. They are fantastic to work with. I'll be showing a ton of multiples which are for sale individually, a series of new paintings I have done of tabloid pages, and an installation of paintings with bulls eyes that you can win playing darts! I'm looking forward to it. It opens September 5th if anyone wants to come.
SARA HOLWERDA is a performance and video artist who uses movement and dance to explore the limitations of the represenations of the female body in western culture. Her references are varied and include painting, burlesque, vaudeville, movies, contemporary pop music videos, and YouTube tutorials to name a few. Sara recently received her MFA from Cranbrook and now lives and works in Chicago, IL.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your performances and videos involve movement and dance. Do you have a formal background in these fields?
Sara Holwerda: Yes. I figure skated competitively for over ten years, and, as part of my training, I did ballet and yoga. In college I took modern dance at the YMCA and fell into some barefoot dance performances with middle aged hippies in the woods. (I went to college in Ann Arbor!)
What stuck with me the most profoundly from my experiences as a figure skater are the athleticism, costumes, badly-cut music, and kitschy sensibility. I also spent a few formative years performing on a synchronized skating team with about twenty other girls. We were all dressed the same and had the same hair and makeup. We performed in circles and pinwheels and did kicklines... It was the closest I have ever gotten to being a Rockette, and it was bizarre in a lot of ways.
The experience of being active in a completely self-conscious way for all my teen years has followed me into my late twenties. Even though I'm only moderately active, I notice that much of my self-concept is still tied up in how my body looks and how it performs. There is something about being female that requires you to perform at some level all the time, and as an artist responding to this cultural condition, I feel the need to do performance work.
One and Three Women
OPP:In many performances such as One and Three Women(2012) or The Fall (2012), you perform with others. Are you always the choreographer of these performances or are they collaborators in creating the work?
SH: In both of those performances, I am the director, choreographer, and costume designer/seamstress. These two performances are an interesting comparison. In One and Three Women, I am performing with the group intentionally because this piece is about both the shared experiences between women and the ways one person can be split and see herself in parts. It's also personal in a lot of ways, and it felt natural to be in it. In rehearsals, my other performers helped me visualize the movements, and there was some collaboration in those moments. It was a choreograph-as-you-go type process, in which I would trap us or tangle us up and have to figure out where to go from there.
For The Fall, I had a much larger cast—five dancers, a singer, a Tree of Knowledge, and three paparazzi—so I had to be more prepared with my choreography. I drew diagrams and sent PDFs to everyone to make rehearsals go faster. The scale of the project made it difficult for me to both direct and perform effectively. I performed as a Marilyn Monroe imitator, because I felt I needed to return to that role—when I was seventeen, I performed Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds" solo in an ice show. That solo became an unintentional drag performance failure! My wig came off during a layback spin, and my middle-aged male partners were so nervous that they could barely velcro the "Cartier" on my wrists or lift me up. My inability to fit into this hyper-feminine role, which has been so iconic for so long, was part of my inspiration for the piece. Before I did this performance, I created the Marilyn fuchsia dress from that number as a burlesque costume, and I worked tearing off the costume bit by bit in The Fall. In retrospect, after going through the whole process of staging that work, I realized that I didn't need to perform this role. I learned an important lesson: with a large cast, I can direct more freely if I remove myself as a performer. I'm planning a re-staging of this performance, and I will not perform in it.
Marilyn mimicry duet/ burlesque
OPP: Can you talk more specifically about The Fall and explain the performance to our readers?
SH: The Fall is the kind of work I imagine myself doing more of, and it's probably the most emblematic of how my mind works creatively. There is a lot going on in this performance. I wanted to create a performance collage, with cultural, historical, and personal symbols and themes butting up against each other. The Fall is a theatrical spectacle that takes place in a restaurant/lounge, that puts the viewer in the position of guest/consumer. They are consuming the spectacle, all the costumes and dancing bodies, along with cocktails. The photographers are performing as much as the chorus girls, and the "star" is a lip-syncing Marilyn Monroe mimic. In this setting, the iconic Marilyn Monroe becomes Eve in the garden. She's a temptress and culturally understood as a sexual being and—maybe as a result—a tragic figure.
The performance had three main parts. First, viewers were greeted by servers wearing feathers. They were staring, stomping, hissing, and passing out pomegranate drinks. After everyone was served, the chorus line of servers performed the second part: the champagne parade, in which they held bottles above their heads as they did an aggressive song and dance number. While this was happening, a Tree of Knowledge was juggling pomegranates. The two Marilyn Monroe figures were frozen, coming to life every once in a while to do a little shimmy and sing a bit. The paparazzi were mirroring the chorus line, snapping pictures of the chorus and the audience. The third section was the musical mimicry. One of the two Marilyns sang a mash-up of the "Diamonds" number with Nicki Manaj's "Super Bass" while the other Marilyn lip-synced. All the while, the chorus line was chiming in, and the paparazzi were snapping pictures. The mimicry/ lip sync became a burlesque with the second Marilyn taking off the iconic costume piece by piece, throwing it to the chorus, and finally slinking off the stage to join the hissing chorus line. The next time I do this, I plan on having more Marilyns, maybe interacting with video projections, and I would like to make the environment more specific, getting the details just right. It was a huge production for me at the time, and I tested the limits of what I could do with the resources I had. I learned a lot, and now that I've already made all the costumes, written a script, and have had the experience of performing it, I can think about improving the rest of the work. I want it to be a surreal experience that takes place in a working bar that has been transformed into a pop culture Eden.
Chair Dance II
OPP:Chair Dance II references stripping, in general, and Flashdance, specifically—at least to someone who grew up in the 80s. You start by simply performing standard sexualized gestures that we all recognize from movies about strippers, and perhaps real strippers. But that mimicry quickly becomes a struggle.
SH: That film was definitely in my mind, as well as the "Mein Herr" number from Cabaret. Also, when I was researching burlesque performances for The Fall, I noticed the chair reoccurring as a prop. It's definitely a sexualized prop, and you expect the female performer to behave a certain way with it. The dance is metaphorical, with the chair as a stand-in for the male viewer's body. In the dancer's interactions with the chair, there's a metaphor for an idealized sexual relationship or encounter. The woman is performing for the pleasure of the man, moving in ways that are objectifying her and making her physically vulnerable. Certainly, it's fun and possible to do these dances for one's own pleasure, but I'm not sure everyone doing or watching a chair dance is cognizant of the implications of it.
I also researched chair dances via YouTube tutorials and found the whole thing a bit absurd. In one video a woman is counting off seductive gestures in eight counts, like "and rub his thigh, six seven eight." It seemed so crazy, this choreographed sexuality. I wondered what was being left out. In working with the chair, I realized how limited the motion is for the performer, and thus, how limited the metaphorical relationship is. I was also researching other more violent dance forms, like the turn-of-the century Parisian apache (AH-PAHSH), where a woman is dragged, thrown, and strangled in a dramatized street fight between her and two or more men—usually, she's playing a prostitute, and the men are her pimp and her client. I wanted to explore the kind of danger a woman can experience if she presents herself in such a practiced, sexualized manner, and how far from ideal the relationships she gets into could be.
OPP:What was it like to make this video? Did your personal experience mirror the metaphor?
SH: Making this video required a great deal of training and rest. For about three weeks, I practiced prop falls and stage fighting moves with a mat every other day. On the days in between, I would go to the gym and focus on my core and flexibility. The shooting of the video took two days. The first day, I didn't get the framing right, yet I performed my whole routine several times full out anyway, foolishly exhausting myself. I got caught up in the performance, and forgot that it had to read on video and that I may need to save some energy to shoot it again. On the second day of shooting, I got the framing right, choosing a tighter shot that showed the camera in the mirrors. I performed several times. Finally on the last few takes, I had the right amount of abandon in the falls and had a good sense of improvisation—even though, by then, I had my routine down. Somewhere toward the end, my right shoulder began to hurt, probably from falling on it for two days. It got really tight and I lost some feeling in my hand. I had to sleep sitting up for two weeks, taking nightly Epsom salt baths to relax enough to sleep.
Chair Dance II was also an emotionally challenging piece to make. I'm a survivor of domestic violence; nine years ago I was attacked by an ex-boyfriend. The situations I was putting myself into with the chair definitely paralleled my attack. I never intended it to be a re-enactment or strictly autobiographical—until I saw the footage, I didn't realize how powerful the connections were. Even though I am no longer at the mercy of that experience—I've had time, therapy, and a wonderful husband to help me heal—I need to acknowledge my history when it appears in my work, and I need to be kind to myself in my process. In this piece, I did everything I could to make sure I was always in control, even when it looks like I'm not, and that allowed me to wholeheartedly explore the chair as a prop and a violent metaphor without being overcome by my own personal history.
Put a Ring on It
OPP: Your stop motion animations Put a Ring on It (2010) and Candyman (2011) explore the representation of women's bodies in contemporary music videos and are set to the pop songs by Beyonce and Christina Aguilera which give them their titles. Why did you choose stop motion instead of live performance for these pieces?
SH: This is a great question. In these works, I was very interested in the way that stop-action animation in particular depicts an illusion of motion and how each frame is mediated by an outside force. In other words, the paper legs I use in Put a Ring On It cannot move themselves, and must be arranged very carefully in every frame. I see this level of mediation in all our pop culture images, from stylists, makeup artists, editors, Photoshop, and social norms—every image we see is carefully composed, every movement is carefully choreographed. It's an unnatural, artificial presentation, and I felt animation as a process expressed these conceptual concerns. In Candyman, animation allows me to create the illusion that I am a blond, a redhead and a brunette in a trio, dancing with a sailor's outfit on, none of which are true outside Photoshop and sequential imagery. I liked how false the image is, and how weird and jerky the animated movements are.
I could also dismember the body in Put a Ring On It,which would be harder to do in performance! I also like the flatness of cut paper and the composite digital image. It reminds me of paper dolls and makes the animations feel a bit playful and childlike, which emphasizes the fact that young girls model behavior from these videos. There are hundreds of videos posted to YouTube with girls mimicking Beyonce. Making my own frame by frame imitation of that video felt like the most absurdly devoted way to re-create it, using the most simple and helpless materials.
OPP: Post-feminism is a term I hear as often as post-racial, and I'm shocked that anyone thinks we are post-anything. Why is it still important to be making work about the representation of women's bodies, roles, and movements in art and pop culture?
SH: I'm so glad you asked this! I was lucky to work with the wonderfully feminist-friendly Mark Newport in graduate school. He is a great supporter of my work, and since he responds to cultural gender norms directly in his own work (re-imagining hyper-masculine superheros and football players), he is engaged with the issues I'm dealing with and gave me a lot of thoughtful feedback. Unfortunately, I've also experienced quite the opposite male perspective as well. Recently, a few male artists and academics have reacted to my mimetic performances as simply seductive acts, adding to all the other images of women being seductive. They refused to engage with the feminist discussion that is the content of my work, could not acknowledge that I was challenging the male gaze by photographing and video taping myself, and didn't seem to understand the decades of female self-portraiture, body art and performance art that I am in dialog with. They acted as if there was no need for this. One even said to me, "There have already been like, four or five waves of Feminism." This floored me! He displayed his devastating lack of knowledge and dismissed my work in one fell swoop. This kind of ignorance of Feminism at the highest levels of artistic production and discourse proved to me that it is important to continue making this work, and that it is important for all women to continue to cast a critical eye toward the culture they consume and the messages they are receiving.
Certainly, Feminism has evolved. After all, I can call myself a feminist and still wear bras and shave my legs. But I agree with you that terms like post-feminism are premature, and worse could be part of a movement toward what author Susan Douglas calls "enlightened sexism." We're in a strong backlash, and there are daily reminders of this that reassure me that I need to keep making work. It's 2012, and being a woman is still fraught with demands on our bodies and roles. I walk down the street, and a stranger demands I smile. I see an ad with a close up of a woman's wet lips putting something in her mouth. I hear of another state threatening to take reproductive rights away from women. I see another Judd Apatow comedy using pussy, having a vagina, or being gay as the worst-possible, "hilarious" insult one man can hurl at another man. I hear about the struggles of women to give birth on their own terms: without lying down, without an unnecessary C-section, without being rushed to labor by an impatient doctor.
It's dangerous to be a woman in this culture, and if we're not careful, we will all believe our greatest value is how we look, how we move, and how well we can please others. Through my work, I aim to expose these dangers, to reveal the absurdities of what culture expects of us, and to imagine new possibilities for expression.
As long as Kelly Ripa is on TV in her skinny jeans, breezing through 1950s housewife duties without a man in sight and telling me how I can be "even more amazing" with a new kitchen appliance, I have more work to do.
Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick Video Still of performance 2011RYAN WILSON KELLY references iconic figures from history, pop culture and myth in his allegorical performances and videos. Hand-made props and sets feature prominently, often adding humor and humility to his exploration of the solitary figure engaged with his own existence through creative labor. Kelly teaches at both the community and collegiate level and is also involved with several puppet theaters and theatrical prop construction for low budget films. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.OtherPeoplesPixels: You have both a BFA and an MFA in Ceramics. How did you end up working more in video and performance with an emphasis on costumes?Ryan Wilson Kelly: This is kind of a curious path, I know. I think I fell in love with all of the process and the challenge of mastering such a demanding material. It demands a strong work ethic, which meant that I was surrounded by other dedicated people. I fell in love with the huge history of this material and how it really mirrors the history of human development and technological advancement. Its stigma as a “craft” media and association with the decorative arts also fed my interest in alternative histories or lesser-known historical narratives.
But making static objects has always left me dissatisfied. Even in undergrad, I was creating interactive and kinetic pieces. I just don’t like it when things are done.
In grad school I think the box was a bit too confining, and I was encouraged to choose the material that was appropriate to the idea, not force the idea into the material. This was very liberating. By incorporating other materials I felt that I was only using clay where it was most needed and hence more valuable to the idea as a whole. I should say that I was (and still am) using large quantities of clay to sculpt heads and props that I then make a paper mâché shell of. So clay is still an essential part of my process.
Making things that looked like props led very quickly to me using them as props and now to my developing interest in performance and video.
The Clay Studio, show of props 2008 Installation shotOPP: The props and sets for your performances are well-crafted and wonderful as objects by themselves, as you showed when you exhibited the props for Herculean: On Artistic Labor at The Clay Studio in 2008. Can you explain the balance of time between creating the props and sets, conceiving of the performances and actually performing? What’s the most pleasurable part of your practice?RWK: Its hard to say how much time I spend researching. My diet of media, books, film and image research are as much a form of entertainment as they are formal inquiry. A film I may have casually seen five years ago or a short story I read on vacation may suddenly click as a visual or narrative reference that needs to be reinvestigated. Certainly when I fixate on an idea for a project, I try to immerse myself in the subject through reading and watching films, but I’m not an academic. I have the freedom to be a bit loose with the details or to mix my metaphors to reach an artistic end.I think the making of objects is the most time consuming but still the most pleasurable part of my practice. I am never as fully engaged as when I am in the throes of a project, working on five different things simultaneously, painting a backdrop, sewing a costume while the paper mâché dries, painting and re-painting, building props out of wood, carving foam etc. I used to have the feeling that after making an object, no matter how long it took, when I was finished, the object was dead to me. I think that, in some way, by creating objects that are meant to be performed with, I’m holding them in this creative suspended animation. The creative energy still lives with the objects for me when I’m performing with them.
Let me be your scapegoat 2012 Documentation of performanceOPP: Many of your costumes are huge heads that make the performer look like a pez dispenser, creating a comic sense of inflated self-importance (or inflated cultural importance?) for the figures represented. It doesn't seem to be a jab at the actual people (or animals, in some cases), but rather at our collective relationship to them or to the ideas they represent. Response to my read? RWK: I think you’ve got it with your parenthetical “inflated cultural importance”. Wherever I use the oversized head in my work, it is more my intention to visually emphasize their significance, to increase scale so as to increase the sense of significance. I know the awkwardness of the scale can be seen as humorous, but I hope that it acts more as part of the visual welcome wagon, an entry point rather than a diminution of the subject through humor.I should say that this is also coming out of a love of objects that I’ve seen: old masks, puppets, carnival costumes and paraphernalia from old pageants and political campaigns. By making things that are informed by these references, I hope that they carry some of the spirit of them, too.
A Congregation of Loose Associations 2005 Detail of the three celebrated figures, Vaclav Havel, Madeleine Albright and Lou Reed Earthenware with encaustic wax on crushed velvet pedestalsOPP: What are the heads made of? RWK: My process for making the heads is still linked to my training in ceramics. I start with a plaster “dummy head” and add onto that with clay, fleshing out the features. Once the sculpting is done, I cover the clay in plastic and then in several layers of paper mâché. Once this shell of paper mâché has dried, I cut it off the original form. These sections then need to be reattached, repaired and painted. This leaves me with a relatively lightweight and durable version of the clay original. OPP: Talk about the aspect of your work where other people are wearing the heads, not just you. Is it important to have viewers interact with the heads? RWK: It varies from piece to piece. I do value the activation of my work, though I don’t always engage my audience with direct physical interaction with the pieces. I think it is entirely dependent on the idea. But wherever possible I like there to be some souvenir element or physical interaction to reward and engage the viewers.
Souvenir polaroids in the image of Whitman 2008 Souvenir polaroid photography courtesy Francis SchanbergerOPP: I've noticed that your performances often revolve around hyper-masculine icons from history, myth and pop culture. Superman, Teddy Roosevelt, Walt Whitman, and Hercules are a few. RWK: It makes me laugh to think of Walt Whitman as a hyper-masculine icon. Perhaps through the virility of his poetry and the awesomeness of his beard he could be grouped this way. Let me say that the fact that my references are all male stems from my knowledge that I am usually the one acting out the character. Even though me dressing up as Teddy Roosevelt is as much a form of Drag as anything else, I feel like I can more convincingly pull these characters off. I am also gay, and I think that many of my choices represent a type of masculine identity that I am drawn to and aspire to.
What I would add to your observation is that each of them is singular or solitary or were seen as acting without the help of others. They are each engaged in some sort of heroic or exalted labor or pursuit that is to varying degrees an allegory for my own artistic labor. And yes, my use of them is not meant to be a direct association of myself with them, but rather they are allegories for what I am striving toward. OPP: That’s actually closer to what I meant. I should clarify. I see the traditional literary hero as a particularly masculine construction. When I say that, I’m not talking about biological gender; I’m talking about the collective cultural associations with gender. By hyper-masculine, I was referring to the qualities associated with the traditional hero, the qualities you mention. Solitary, engaged in exalted labor, acting without help: that’s definitely Whitman. I love that you say performing these characters is a form of Drag, because Drag is about performing gender and the collective cultural associations with gender. There is an inherent critique of those associations in Drag, as much as there is pleasure and humor and an engagement with those associations. It seems that the nuance of your performances revolves around this paradox: that you are both critiquing and aspiring to these qualities. Fortress of Solitude Performed in september of 2009 at Allegheny College's "8 hour projects"OPP: Could you pick your favorite piece that functions as an allegory and break it down for us? RWK: The piece that I made for the Eastern State Penitentiary, Crusoe’s Cave, is a favorite of mine. For this project I was invited to make a piece specific to the space, an early 19th century prison designed on the Quaker principle of penitence through solitary confinement. The environment itself was so loaded and fit so well with the idea that it had an amplifying effect on the piece as a whole. What’s even more is that I am distantly related to Alexander Selkirk, the marooned sailor whose real life story inspired Daniel Defoe’s work of fiction.For this piece I made a costume and props to turn the already cave-like, crumbling prison cell into a tableaux of Robinson Crusoe’s domestic life. I recreated the many handicrafts described in the book. Through this process and through my research, it seemed that the mastering of these crafts served to keep at bay the gnawing existential doubt that he would ever be rescued. This satisfied my over-arching theme of the solitary figure engaged in labor, but also drew a correlation between Crusoe’s labor and the activities and those of the former inmates of this cell.
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters 2012 Documentation of performanceOPP: What are you working on right now? RWK: I am currently working day and night to finish props for a show opening May 4th at Napoleon Gallery in Philadelphia. The theme I’m working with here is the 19th century paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope who lived most of his life in Philadelphia (where I now live). Cope was famously one of the two chief participants in what is referred to as the “Bone Wars.” He and his rival competed to unearth, catalogue and name more extinct creatures than the other. I am focusing here on the end of Cope’s life, where he died alone and broke in a crowded row-house in Philadelphia, piled high with papers and specimens, plagued by nightmares and fever dreams that he was being eaten alive by dinosaurs. For the performance, I’m turning the gallery into a tableaux of his crowded study. I will cycle between examining and documenting specimens and throwing myself on a cot to cue a projection of his fever dream. In the image above, dressed as Cope, I am shackled to a mountain top where a Pterodactyl comes down and eats my liver, a direct reference to the Prometheus myth.
MEG LEARY is a Chicago-based performance and video artist who uses music theory strategies and music materials such as cassette tape and vinyl records to evoke the body in relation to objects, space, and sound. She is a classically trained vocalist, who often references this history in her visual and performance work. Leary received an MA in Performance Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2003) and an MFA in Performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006). Her upcoming performance and exhibition Muses & Valkyries opens on May 18th at Thalia Hall in Chicago.OtherPeoplesPixels: You have an interesting history. You were trained as an opera singer at a young age. How does this early education in music affect the work you make now as a performance artist? How has it been awesome to have this other context informing your work? Meg Leary: It’s funny. I never felt fulfilled by the technical expertise of opera. Being a classical singer it is not unlike being an athlete in which you train your mind and body to act in expectable outcomes. What always interested me was the failure of these things: stage fright, voices cracking, forgetting the words to a song. These things seem like less explored territory than the perfection of musical phrases - there are other people who do that better and have a concrete interest in that.The feeling of using your voice to fill a space and impart emotion is the thing that I loved about opera. I still that get out of my work, but I get to explore the performative context of this act rather than the mimetic repetition of a musical score. I am really interested in the artifice of the “Diva” and use this as a tool in my work, particularly around issues of the body, gender, and queerness. As a “fat lady who sings,” I like to play with the viewer’s awareness around the cultural associations and stereotypes about classical singers.
Shattering 2011 Performance documentationOPP: How has it been difficult to have this other context informing your work?ML: Because I began in music, my creative vocabulary is very much based around music theory and principles. When I am thinking about art making, I can’t help but associate what I am doing with sound. So things like improvisation, harmonics and sampling are the concepts that I think about. This seems really natural to me, but in a visual art context, it sometimes feels like I am bi-lingual, constantly relating my first language to this new context. Ultimately, I think what I am trying to do is to break down the barrier between the two by taking music ideas into the visual and the visual into music.OPP: I see your work as falling into two distinct camps: work about audio artifacts and their cultural implications, as seen in the Silly Putty Works and your formal paintings made with cassette tape, and work about sound itself and how we experience it, as in your performances, installations and videos. Could you talk about how each of these informs the other? ML: In my mind, all of my work has the same message but is presented in different mediums. In practice, the formal work I do is a way for me to work out micro problems within macro ideas. By pulling out one idea and working with it in a very different way, it creates a more rigid frame with which to think about things, sort of like re-creating a social construction in order to expose it. I think that by working in these very different ways I am playing out the tension between my intuitive process and the very formal training I received.
Untitled, Silly Putty Work 2011 DetailOPP: Your piece Douse the Diva has been both a live performance and a video exhibited in a gallery. Do you think one way is more successful than the other? Did the different forms drastically change the responses of viewers in any way? ML: I always think that my live performances are more successful than my videos. Maybe because my early training was in performance, and I feel more comfortable in that vein. I am really attached the ephemeral nature of performance because I enjoy improvisation. I think one of the best moments of Douse the Diva is when I wipe my face with my dress. That was a spur of the moment decision in that particular performance that I have kept in subsequent performances.What I appreciate about video is the ability to make something new out of a performance - not to mention having it seen more widely. It is pretty rare (with the exception of Tapehead) that I have felt that a performance would be more successful if it began as a video. Ultimately, in a video, your image and your performance are mediated by so many factors (camera angle, recording device etc.). But, in person, you are actually confronted by a real live person - a video can never capture that energy. Video is a lot safer/ more controlled, and the responses tend to be more muted.
Michael Jackson, Off The Wall 2007 De-magnetized cassette tapeOPP: Cassette tape makes a recurring appearance in your work. It's been in your abstract paintings, your video Tapehead (2010), and you made a wig out of it, which will be part of an upcoming performance. Could you talk a little bit about the significance of this material to you personally and in your work?
ML: I just think it is exceptionally beautiful material. The varying colors, reflection, and possible textures are really exciting to me aesthetically. I also think that it is a very poetic material; it is a constantly-degrading and delicate material with such a limited lifespan. I love the idea of a mix tape. It is such a powerful gesture and makes you so vulnerable and was something I did ALL THE TIME as a kid. I have a big box of all my old mix tapes I made, and they are artifacts of particular times in my life. I play the tape I made for my first year of college, and it is a snapshot of the emotion, angst and frenzy I felt… it’s pretty funny to listen to a tape of Mazzy Star and Nine Inch Nails and remember that I was singing Mozart all day!
I use cassette tape in my work as a metaphor for hidden information, which was the impetus behind the decision to make a wig out of magnetic tape. Hair is this thing that has enormous cultural significance, but it also contains so much information about your body (DNA, toxins, etc.) and can be analyzed to extract information. I think cassette tape is a lot like this… run a magnetic tapehead over it, and it reveals a wealth of information about sound, the person who made the recording and the culture it came from. I particularly love the paintings I have done where I use a recording of a loved one’s voice to physically put them into the painting. It may not be that evident to the viewer, but the work is imbued with the ineffable quality of that person’s voice.
Playlist 4 2006 Oil paint, plaster and cassette tape on canvasOPP: Oh, I love that idea! There is always so much buried personal information that is unaccessible to the viewer in paintings anyway... well, all art, really. That makes me wonder about Tapehead, in which you essentially lick the entire length of tape from an unidentified cassette, at times lovingly and sensually, at times violently. There’s a lot going on in this piece. While watching, I am thinking of your tongue as a playhead, of the difference between the voice in the video and what appears to be a mass-produced cassette and of the metaphor of your personal and emotional relationship to whatever music is on the tape itself. Is there any special significance to the cassette you used to shoot this video? ML: To be honest, I did so many takes of this video that I don't know which album is the one that ended up in piece. The action is based on a sketch I saw by the poet Stevie Smith where a woman is holding a cat and saying "I love you so much I could eat you." I wanted to have that kind of physical interaction with music - almost consuming it. That feeling is not limited to one artist or tape for me.
Tapehead 2011 Video (in frame)OPP: You are in the middle of planning an ambitious performance event at Thalia Hall in Chicago. Can you tell us about the space and what you have planned? ML: Yes, I am going to be doing an exhibition of visual and performance work called Muses & Valkyries beginning on May 18th at Thalia Hall. I am thinking about this exhibition essentially as a collaboration with the architecture. The space has been empty since the eighties and the walls are crumbling and filled with junk. I am using the space as a vessel for thinking about cultural memory, so the show references many eras of performance production from Wagner’s Ring Cycleto Michael Jackson’s Thrillerand will include sculpture, performance, music, and dance. It will also be the first time that I have performers re-creating some of my past performances.One of the unique aspects of this work is that it I get to take over a whole building for the performance, and then have an ongoing exhibition of the documentation and materials from the show that will exist in the storefront gallery after the performance is over. It is a rare and special thing for a performance artist to have the opportunity in the immediate to think about how the work will live on after the performance ends.
Simulacrum Series Family Portrait 18" x 24" photograph
KEARY ROSEN is an interdisciplinary artist working in drawing, photography, video, performance and kinetic sculpture. He often references science fiction narratives and imagined technologies from the past, exploring language and its associative meanings, as well as how our relationship to technology reveals our emotional experiences as human beings. Keary Rosen received his MFA from Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts in 2000. He currently lives in Raritan, NJ.OtherPeoplesPixels: In your statement, you acknowledge the influence of sci-fi on your work. Tell me about your personal history in relation to sci-fi. What's your favorite sci-fi text of all time?
Keary Rosen: I naturally gravitated to science fiction writing because I appreciate the sometimes fantastic and covert ways the genre attempts to grapple with certain philosophical quandaries that I am interested in (issues of racial equality, issues of quality of life, issues of power, issues of surveillance, artificial life vs. organic life).
There are a number of novels and short stories that I’ve read many times. I don’t have a single favorite… I’ll give you a list of works that never fail to inspire me: 2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, R.U.R. by Karel Capek and the whole Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams.
In addition to written works, I’ll geek-out even more by divulging that I’m also a huge fan of sci-fi television and cinema.
I’ve begun paying homage to my favorite sci-fi works in the drawing series M-Class Planet. In these drawings, I’ve inserted myself into imagery I’ve either appropriated directly from a visual source or gleaned from specific narrative descriptions. (I am a droid. I am Dave Bowman piloting the space pod. I am Powell on the back of the of the robot chasing Speedy. The robots rebelling against humankind are modeled in my image.)
Droids 25" x 31" Graphite on 4 ply Bristol Paper
OPP: One of the interesting aspects of sci-fi movies and TV in particular is the way the visual representation of the future is quickly dated. Like, in 80s movies, the things the computers could do were amazing and fast, but they still had an MS-DOS interface, which is laughable now. It seems that your work is exploring specifically these outdated projections of future technology in your life-size sculpture 1.530R The Robot. That's no Cylon! It's more like Rosie from the Jetsons. I'd love to hear more about this piece. What was the video projected on the belly of 1.530R The Robot?
KR: 1.530R The Robot is an amalgamation of many atomic age tin toy robot designs from the 1940s -1960s. I’ve always been interested in automata, and tin toys are a modernist/contemporary continuation of that tradition. I like the idea that a simple or low-tech device can generate movement.
It’s true, 1.530R is no Cylon. I chose to create a form that looked dated because I wanted to reference a time period that began using media and commerce to popularize this kind of image as a symbol to represent a preoccupation with the technological advancements that were taking place and how they might impact the future.
1.530R The Robot is a seminal work for me. Within this work was the genesis of a lot of the conceptual ideas and working methodologies I’ve explored. It was the first time I used the robot as a form, and it was the first time I worked collaboratively on a film.
The 16mm black and white film that is projected onto the belly of 1.530R The Robot was conceived as a B-Movie style horror story/critique of our current mental healthcare system. 1.530R The Robot was an actor in the film. In the installation, 1.530R The Robot doubles as a film artifact and projection screen.
The Atomic Treatment Installation Installation includes: an antique iron and marble theater table, two antique theater chairs, a 1950’s 16mm film projector, a 1960’s reel-to-reel tape player and 1.530R The RobotOPP:The Barker is a kinetic sculpture with sound. It appears to be an alien life form, either kept alive or imprisoned in a glass vitrine with a speaker. The viewer is able to hear its booming voice spout "excerpts taken from an early 19th century American Dictionary." It's gross, in an awesome way, to watch this creature speak, and the timbre of its voice creates the sense that what it is saying is very important, despite the fact that it doesn't seem to be. Why did you choose the dictionary as a source, and how did you decide what it would say?
KR: The Barker was a real breakthrough, in terms of technology and studio process. Up until this piece, the kinetic devices in my work were mechanical in nature (gears, motors and belts) and the forms were generally composed of rigid materials such as ceramic and steel. I would spend a great deal of time tracking down parts or fabricating custom gadgets. In The Barker, I began working with cast silicone and, most importantly, digital technology.
I was invited to participate in the testing/evaluation of a new user-friendly and multi-functional robotic motherboard through an outreach collaboration between The Pittsburgh Art and Technology Council and Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Laboratory. The robotic motherboard made function control and response a simple matter of programming. I had gone from analog to digital! The motion range inherent in the robotic motor and motherboard naturally suggested speech patterns and I went from there.
There is an inherent absurdity of this grotesque form doing anything, much less giving advice or information. I culled its script from a 19th century American dictionary, because I wanted to work with codified, authoritative, precise, and potentially dated definitions of words. The words I chose to look up included: origin, creation, death, reason, aggression, animal and breed. I selected excerpts from those word definitions and their lists of examples for The Barker to blurt out. The statements ultimately become disjointed tidbits or morsels of much larger abstract concepts we have attempted to explain.
The Barker put me on a path that ultimately led to the work I am currently creating. It is an installation that consists of a landscape environment inhabited by three Komodo Dragons that have the ability to sense and speak to viewers (I am utilizing the same digital technology used in The Barker). Each creature will have a unique voice and perspective, both literally and philosophically. They will be on top of and surrounded by rocks of various sizes and shapes. These rocks are cast out of urethane resins.
The Barker 28” x 38” x 63” Birch Plywood, Oak, Poplar, MDF, Naugahyde, Acrylic, Silicone, Qwerk Robotic Unit, Motion Sensors, Speaker, Light Unit.OPP: You've done several collaborative videos with Kelly Oliver, in which you write and perform the text and she films and edits the visuals. How did this collaboration evolve? Is there any back and forth, or do you each stay in the roles you've chosen?
KR: Kelly and I met in art school. At the time, she was studying painting before gravitating toward film. We’ve been married for 10 years. Her method of making video is very poetic and indirect, based on edits of disjointed and mysterious images. The pacing and narratives emerge and submerge. My text pieces work within these same parameters. An important part of my process is to establish a rhythm and character that feels appropriate in regard to the content. It seemed like a natural progression to collaborate on work together, and the results have shown around the world at film festivals, galleries and museums.
Second Firing Running time: 2 min 30 secOPP: Writing and language is a recurring part of your work, whether it is the monologue of The After-Dinner Speech, the appropriated statements of The Barker, or the non-sensical poetry of First Firing or the Lincoln Library of Essential Information Volume I and Second Firing, in which the audio is a running list of words that are linked more by sound than meaning. (My favorite phrase is "placenta polenta placebo gazebo.") Has language always been a part of your art practice? Could you talk about how you approach writing?
KR: I created my first pieces built around words and the spoken language as an undergraduate. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in oral and written communication.
I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about my writing process. Whether I start with research, accumulated stream of consciousness writings or wordplay, it always eventually transitions to a process of editing and composing.
When I complete a written work that I know I will read for a recording, I begin to experiment with voices. The voice I choose determines the speed, emotional responses and mood.
OPP: Tell me about a piece from your past that you think was a failure, but taught you a lot about your work.
KR: Why? What did you hear? Were you at that opening where the Mars Rover’s battery died?! Seriously though, I’m that person who likes to work through the burn. If something isn’t working, I have to keep at it until I am satisfied.
Untitled, from the seriesSpawn 2007 Colour photograph 24 x 32
OtherPeoplesPixels: Your Spawn series spans three years from 2007-10 and depicts both a pregnancy and the subsequent infant and toddler in striking domestic settings and landscapes. I assume the subjects of each photograph to be you and your own child—how much of this work is performative and how much of this work incorporates restaged moments of your own motherhood?
Lindsay Page:Spawn was an examination of the contradictions I felt transitioning into motherhood. There was simultaneous exhilaration and intense anxiety, gain interlaced with an overwhelming sense of loss. It was a messy time that seemed continuously at odds with the societal narrative of birth and motherhood as exclusively celebratory. In addition to being beautiful and transformative, to me there was something somewhat monstrous about pregnancy, where the body acts with a will of it’s own creating this unknown presence. When my daughter was born I felt overwhelmed by a sense of disappearance, that my self identity (and my identity as an artist) was being eclipsed by this generic label of “Mother." So I started to create these images as sort of a defense against invisibility. There is this inescapable proximity that accompanies early motherhood so it seemed essential that she be included in many of the images, though doing so felt somewhat exploitative. This is probably the series I am most conflicted about making. Motherhood is a difficult terrain to navigate in art, as there are so many clichés and stereotypes that one can fall into while making, or that viewers can’t escape when looking. It is difficult for me to know how the images read, but for me both the making of and the resulting images are problematic, awkward and discomfiting, which seems appropriate to the discussion.
Old lady 2010 Color Photograph 30 inches x 40 inches
OPP: Tell me about your recent photograph Old lady.
LP: My mother is sick and I guess in response to that I have started to project images of mortality and aging onto myself and those around me. As I get older I see glimpses of myself as an elderly woman, see how my physical self will shift in the years ahead. I think anyone with kids is acutely aware of their physical vulnerability, as soon as they are born you start to worry about them dying. I began to think about my kids gradually growing old and the impossibility of my witnessing them in the last stages of life.
LP: I am also interested in the complexities of play, how children’s games can seem simultaneously innocuous and sophisticated depending on the viewer’s perspective.
OPP: Adult human forms wrapped in white fabric appear in your photographic series Basement Performances. Your recent photograph, Octopus features another human form entirely encased in white. In this image, the form is that of a child and the white fabric appears to be a hooded sweatshirt worn backward, a pair of tights worn on the legs, and two more pair of tights tucked into the sweatshirt and held by the hands to give the playful yet eerie appearance of the figure having eight appendages. Tell me about the connection between the two photographs. What served as your inspiration for Octopus?
LP: There is not much of a connection conceptually between the two images. Basement Performances were much more about the ways in which we reinvent ourselves in our private spaces, often as a more empowered figure than we actually are. I was also interested in picturing longing and in engaging a discussion about substitution. Octopus is more ambiguous and somewhat exploratory. Again I am thinking about the complexities and contradictions embedded in childrens’ play and the ways in which an image can unnerve a viewer without it being clear exactly why. Photographs of children pose questions about power relationships (photographer/subject, adult/child), as well as exploitation and I am interested in building on the tension that this creates both for maker and viewer.
Octopus 2011 Color Photograph 30 inches x 40 inches
OPP: In your three channel video installation, I'm building you an army anonymous hands create twelve paper soldiers who, as completed, salute to the camera and join each other in a large grid. Who is the “you” in the title for whom the army is built? Can you speak about the conceptual concerns for this video installation?
LP: There is a specific “you” the piece refers to, but it is never revealed. The piece is about power and powerlessness and the interplay between aggression and passivity. It stems from a desire to transform the individual into a group, to multiply the self in order to enact change that the individual alone cannot. The impossibility and futility of this act of sharing the self becomes more and more evident as the group accumulates and begins to dissemble and fall apart. It is the repeated gesture of the attempt at this, despite the impossibility of it, that most interests me. There is this repetition of and insistence upon an action that can never extend beyond itself. The effort far outweighs the result, and the piece sort of sits as this doomed heroic gesture.
OPP: A life-sized form resembling the paper soldiers in I'm building you an army appears in your photographic series Basement Performances. Tell me about the Basement series and the significance of both the paper soldier and human forms cut from paper more generally, in your body of work as a whole.
LP: I have always been interested in the ways in which objects can be activated through art. Puppetry and animation transform objects into something beyond their materials and there is then this potential for a viewer to be affected in an unexpected way. No matter which media I am working in, I need to include this kind of tactile building element. I am interested in apparatuses / constructions that are obvious and flawed as a way to insert my presence into the work and connect myself as a maker with the audience.
Untitled, from the series Basement Performances 2005 Color photograph 30 inches x 40 inches
OPP: What are you working on now? What is next for you?
LP: I am currently working on a large installation piece called, Erasing Machine. The piece, employs kinetic sculpture to facilitate the erasure of knitted photographic portraits. The public is asked to submit photographic images of individuals they desire erased from their memory. They are not asked to identify themselves or disclose their reasons for the desired erasure. These photographic images, once converted into “photo blankets” are slowly and publicly erased throughout the duration of an exhibition. I hope with this piece to engage discussion about the relationship between photography and memory and raise questions about ownership of images, representation as well as power and violence.
The Love Renegade # 4: If I Said It 2010 archival ink jet print
OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell me about The Love Renegade and what inspired the shift in the perspective from which you are working.
Elizabeth Axtman:The Love Renegade came to be while sitting in a restaurant. I was trying to understand my own heartache, heartbreak. I was reeling from being betrayed by the person I was closest to (and please believe it was on someDynasty, Melrose Place, Gossip Girl level of betrayal… I have regretfully discovered the shit they write on these shows really happens to people in real life) and I was trying to figure out how was I going to get past it. I was surprised that within the pain I was feeling I could also reach feelings of compassion for this person. I was beginning to understand that people who harm others are in far deeper pain than the people they offend. This gave me mild comfort and any amount of comfort then was worth investigating. I wanted to know everything about love, forgiveness and compassion; how people were able to find it and how people were able to implement it. I started reading and watching everything on the subject. It began invading me from every angle, so much so it was finding its way into my work. Suddenly, I wanted the art I made to be more than calling racist assholes, racist assholes. There are enough artists of color doing that shit already (I wouldn’t be missed) with plenty of rich white art collectors/curators financing it (a very dysfunctional cycle). So The Love Renegade came from where so many other art works come from: heartbreak and the journey out of it. The difference now is that the journey is one of love, forgiveness and compassion.
OPP: Humor is still present in your Love Renegade work but is differently approached. Your video Dark Meatfrom “before” is disturbingly funny; splicing a Stone Phillips interview with famed serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer (Phillips asking Dahmer “Did race matter?” in regard to his victims and Dahmer answering it did not by citing the various races of three of the men and boys he killed) intercut with the man-eating plant, Audrey II, from the cult-film The Little Shop of Horrors asking to be fed (“Feed me... must be fresh... must be black”).
The Love Renegade #2: Forgive Me (series)
archival ink jet print
20" x 24"
text: You didn't deserve that, your were so good to me. I am so Sorry.
Your piece, The Love Renegade #2: Forgive Me which features a newspaper headline and picture of actress Sandra Bullock’s ex-husband Jesse James after news of his infidelity was publicized. The headline quoting James reads ‘I am the most hated man in the world.’ In a thought bubble pointing to James’s head drawn on top of the clipping, you (as The Love Renegade) have written, “You didn't deserve that, your were so good to me. I am so Sorry.” Part of the humor in the Jesse James forgiveness piece functions with our knowledge that collective forgiveness is unusual in our society. Can you speak about how humor plays out in these two pieces and more generally in your work “before” and “now,” as The Love Renegade.
EA: Regardless of the shift in my art practice… humor remains a constant because it’s such a big part of who I am (but I’m learning not everything I make has to involve a joke). I worship comedy and everything about it. My interest (obsession) with comedy has always made me feel like a bit of an outsider in the art world, because so many of my artist friends worship everything about art: theory, history, current events aka art gossip…. and I don’t. I mean seriously, the only time you might catch an art theory book in my hand is if my friend asked me to hold it for them while they tied their shoe. Nothing about MAKING art bores me—in fact it thrills me but getting trapped in a conversation about art theory makes me wanna blow my fucking brains out.
In the piece Dark Meatthe humor I used is a way of softening my screams of “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?” I was pissed at how little Jeffrey Dahmer was taken to task on the subject of race as well as by how little a black man’s life is worth in our country. Had the roles been such that it was a black man killing, raping, dismembering and eating blond haired white women……this country would go buckyballzbananas and reinstate lynching. In the video I used an interview with Stone Phillips and Dahmer because it was the first time I actually saw anyone ask him about race. In the interview he lists the race of all of his victims except for the black men (which were the majority of all of his victims). His inability to mention them spoke volumes to me. I mix in the man eating plant, Audrey II from the Little Shop of Horrors to fill in the gaps of Dahmer’s lapse in memory of the 11 black men he assailed. To me the man-eating plant is what lurked behind Dahmer’s blond hair and blue eyes, which helped him stay out of jail 18 victims too long. Dahmer’s desire and repulsion in regards to race and sexuality were off the fucking charts. I’m not done with him yet.
I like that you mentioned “collective forgiveness is unusual in our society,” in regards to my Jesse James piece. I’ve had a few people tell me how soft my work is now that it’s focused on love and forgiveness. I never get my back all up about it but I laugh to myself and think “this muthafucka has no idea how hard it is to be loving to someone who acts so ugly and hateful.” I still have those knee-jerk ego reactions where I want to tell people about themselves (harshly) but I check myself, because now I’m more interested in starting conversations then ending them. I am all too aware that we live in revenge culture and how that is far too often people’s line of defense. The entire series is about getting people to hopefully see that they too have been untoward to someone at some point or another and have desired to be forgiven and loved anyway. It’s about how often we forget those times and withhold the very thing we desire when the roles are reversed. It’s about squandering an amazing opportunity to be compassionate just to appease our egos.The unconscious hypocrisy is rife with humor to me Every person in The Love Renegade series are just stand-in’s for us. Ha! and Got Ya!
The Love Renegade #6-307:Love Letters (Make It Rain) 2011 Mixed Media
EA: I chose them because I think they have on several occasions acted a hot ugly mess in front of a camera that broadcasts to millions of homes all over the world. They have encouraged and condoned: greed, racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and revenge... your basic asshole behavior. We are all guilty of these things in our lives (varying degrees of course) and if you say you aren’t, you’re a liar and not ready for this work or conversation. I’m just posing the question: what can change in your life if you show love to someone who is acting in its opposition?
OPP: As I understand, a great number of letters were mailed over the course of the exhibition—have you received feedback on the project from participants or other viewers? Have the letters worked?
EA: I was thrilled whenThe Kitchen told me that over three hundred letters had been sent during the course of the exhibition. I received beautiful letters sent to me by people telling me how my work has touched them. The response was really great from participants and folks who just happened on to my website. I’ve had an art space in New Zealand show interest in having the Love Letters come all the way across the world. Folks have been in to it. Have the letters worked? I know Glenn Beck is no longer on the air and Fox News has been trying to tone it down. I also heard some state was trying to ban Westboro Baptist Church from attending funerals… it was kind of eerie how it was happening all around the same time. It isn’t so much what I want to see happen in these figures’ lives as what I want to see happen in everyone’s life. I desire to see people take responsibility for the energy they bring into the world and make far less decisions on behalf of their egos. Take my word for it: I am a recovering egomaniac and as such I know I’m responsible for the emotions I choose to experience and the behavior I choose to express… I no longer put the blame for these things in another’s hands.
OPP: You exhibit widely, how does working toward a deadline for a show influence your process? In fact, your first solo exhibition with the San Francisco Arts Commission is currently up—what are you working on for the show?
EA: Well I like to call “deadlines”, “time frames” it has a better ring to it. They definitely influence me to throw things across the room, bang my fist on the table, hurl expletives at my computer that would make a Boston Bruins fan blush, then apologize to my computer with the following: Mommy didn’t mean it, I’m just under a lot of pressure with these “time frames,” and no sleep. Time frames motivate me to get the shit done, it’s a part of the creative birthing process. There will be pain and there will be joy.
Yes, I’m working on a year-long (hopefully just a year) project entitled The Love Renegade #308: I Love You Keith Bardwell (Phase I & II). Keith Bardwell is the latest person to catch the attention of The Love Renegade, because he refused to marry an interracial couple in 2009… you heard that right, 2009. Bardwell (an elected official) explained his refusal to marry the couple was, because he “had seen countless interracial couples where the children were rejected by family members, and he didn’t want to see that happen again.” The piece consists of interviews of biracial people from adulthood to infancy, kindly letting Bardwell know that they are doing well and his concern for them isn’t necessary. Alongside, interviews of interracial married couples telling the viewer why they wanted to marry their partner. In this lens love (not race) can become the forefront of how these partnerships began and biracial people are given back their voice in order to speak on their own behalf. Upon, hearing from the source any viewer who has shared in these sentiments will be left to address what’s truly resting behind their concern for the children. It’s a long work in progress.
EA: Yes I do. 1. Don’t listen to anyone who encourages you to live Plan B. 2. Tell your ego to fuck off on a regular basis. 3. Know your self worth as person and an artist. 4. Be kind. 5. Be relentless. 6. Don’t be afraid to go by yourself. 7. Tell your ego to fuck off on a regular basis.
An Interview with David Kagan: By OtherPeoplesPixels The Year In Review (Live Performance) 2011 Mixed media
OtherPeoplesPixels: For your recent series The Year In Review you composed music with an electronic producer, shot short films to accompany the tracks, pressed vinyl, and staged live multimedia performances. For your previous series, The Redacted Bunny, you incorporated painting, installation, photography, and video into the structure of episodic television. How do you select the combination of media you use for each project?
David Kagan: I spent a long time trying to separate my “lofty artistic aspirations” from my “lowbrow” pop cultural interests, and found I wasn’t having very much fun making art. The Redacted Bunny was a turning point: I was finally able to openly acknowledge how pervasive the influence of television, especially bad television, had been on my life (my earliest memories are probably of The Love Boat). Hence, the work took the structural form of an episodic show. The other media included in the project followed on the basis of necessity: a cast of actors was required, therefore I fabricated costumes to alter my appearance and created a chorus of puppet co-stars. I needed sets, so I collected objects from thrift stores and I painted backdrops. A series of photographs were taken of myself and the various characters to serve as conceptual “film stills.” In exhibiting the video work, these additional elements sometimes served as installation environments.
With The Year In Review, I sought to fulfill a nearly life-long ambition to record an album. But I didn’t want to do a half-assed job, so I set out to fully mimic the entire structure of a proper pop album ad campaign. My first love is video, so of course each of the tracks had to have its own short musical film. I’m an avid music collector (especially of electronic disco from the 70s, incidentally the style emulated in this project) and wanted to create a beautiful, fetishistic, and perhaps useless object. Hence, I had a limited run of records pressed with colored vinyl, full jacket artwork, and inner sleeve liner notes. The most exciting part of the project, however, ended up being the live performances, which I think of as “promotional appearances.” I had never sung live in public before, and I have terrible stage fright, but I wanted to push my art further outside of where I feel safe. I call these events “un-performances,” as I make no claims of having a good voice or any sort of stage presence; when in the gallery setting, I stand rather motionless and expressionless, and blend in with the other installation elements, my voice having no more importance than the projected videos, records, or other objects.
Still From "Patron Saint Of Collapsing Art Markets" (part of the The Redacted Bunny series) 2009
OPP: You star as yourself in each aspect of The Year In Review—using yourself as a test subject to explore your interests in identity construction and iconography. You also star in The Redacted Bunny but as the character Bunny Boy. Can you speak about your performative role in each series and how performing as yourself may have differed from performing as Bunny Boy?
DK: There’s no difference for me between playing “David Kagan” or a man in a rabbit suit. The two main characters in The Redacted Bunny, the transsexual mother and human-animal hybrid son, were basically my id and super ego, respectively. I never viewed them as anything other than myself in drag, playacting wild fantasies and darkest self-doubts. Eventually, though, I did come to see that the style of this work—the bright cartoon colors, camera hamming acting, and ceaseless, rapid-fire editing—created a distraction from what I was actually interested in: identity construction.
I found a more direct route to this line of inquiry by dropping the masks and wigs (well, not completely…) and using the material at hand-myself. In The Year In Review, I am “David Kagan” throughout the project, but it’s actually no more or less “acted” than the work that’s come before. Some of the song lyrics are culled from actual email exchanges with curators or quotes from art critiques I’ve had. I had to say the line (which is a quote of myself) “I do primarily video work” over and over a while back when I did a live performance of The Whitney Biennial Song. It sounds really awkward or trite to me, and yet the phrase still comes out of my mouth from time to time in daily life. It’s funny when I catch myself actually saying these things that I’ve used as song lyrics. It makes me realize that I’m acting all the time. I’m very intrigued by the prospect that I might actually be an incredibly insincere person.
OPP: Do your live performances and performative videos incorporate improvisation or do you stick to a predetermined script?
DK: I tend to be very scripted, in general. In my art and my life-it’s when I say things without first practicing them in my head that I get in trouble. Generally, the end product ends up being about 90% planned with a 10% margin for error. I guess I’ve set this strategy up for myself, almost unconsciously, so that the work has a system of internal flaws (the beauty is in the defects after all). Case in point, I shot a video, All The Conceptual Art I’ll Never Make on a rural road in Wisconsin last summer. Basically, I had to walk up and over a horizon line and traverse the better part of a mile up to where a video camera was positioned, and then sing a chorus. The whole endeavor took about ten minutes. The landscape in the camera lens was perfectly desolate—a lonely road cutting through rolling hills of corn. The only problem was that I couldn’t stop the flow of traffic, which occurred arbitrarily: sometimes three cars would pass by in two minutes, then half an hour would go by with nothing. I had to accept that whatever was going to happen was out of my control in this respect.
OPP: How do you think the concept of “endless hope” that you speak about in your statement for The Year In Review shapes your work and your artmaking process more generally?
DK: My knee-jerk reaction has always been to declare myself a pessimist but for some reason I am continually putting myself in situations where rejection or failure is a very possible outcome. Whether it’s applying for funding or a residency, submitting work for curatorial review, or doing a live performance with little practice or experience—I seem to just keep going regardless of what happens. Indeed, I guess my mantra is “turn your liabilities into assets.” That’s why the subject matter of much of my work is the absence of success: in The Whitney Biennial Song, an invitation and submission to a museum exhibit inevitably yields the sound of crickets chirping; Epic Pfail is about contacting a prominent artist after I’ve had a workshop residency with him and never hearing back. I’m seeking to infuse these events with a sense of purpose, by incorporating them into my work and seeing them not as mere disappointments, but key components of my art career.
OPP: The Redacted Bunny, was recently included in the Art Video International Film Festival at Cannes—congratulations. When screened at festivals is the series shown as episodes interspersed among other work or edited together sequentially?
DK: Actually, thus far it has always been screened as a single piece, but with the episodes playing non-sequentially. I chose this format as a strategy to more actively engage the viewer, forcing him to make sense of the work and construct it as a whole for himself. By nature, an episodic serial demands passivity: the spectator gives himself over to a narrative (if properly engaged) and lets it wash over himself from episode to episode, week to week, year to year. There is a sense of familiarity and stasis, especially in the sit-com genre. This is the antithesis of what the type of art I’m trying to make does; I require an obstruction, a visible thread that if pulled could unravel the very world I’ve painstakingly created.
Post x 5 Modern Tea Party 2011 Single channel video 5 min.
OPP: One of eight short films made to accompany the album tracks in your series The Year In Review features your parents and your partner. Tell me about that film. What was it like making work with your family?
DK: This is the short video Post x 5 Modern Tea Party. It was filmed over the forth of July weekend last year—the hottest two days of the entire summer! Conceptually, I’m sort of flippantly addressing the impossibility of there ever being another over-arching art movement (too many cooks in the art kitchen I suppose). It’s made all the more ridiculous with the visuals of my parents, John and I doing a synchronized dance routine in our bathing suits throughout. My ulterior motive was really to share my art making practice with the family—to include them in the process. I was attempting to foster an interaction that was outside of our normal engagement, and I wanted a record it for posterity. Of course, they might beg to differ, and see it less as collaboration and more as exploitation! My parents, though, still break into the dance moves from time to time when I see them…
OPP: How do you seek out support for your work in the form of feedback from other artists having recently graduated with an MFA from Hunter College? Are you rooted to a community of artists where you live and work in New York?
DK: This is something I’m currently sorting out, as I’m just out of grad school. A large part of why I did an MFA was to build a network of artist friends and associates. I value these relationships with former classmates and professors—and try to be diligent in supporting their exhibitions, lectures, open studios, etc. Some schoolmates have been organizing a series of studio visits, which I plan to get looped into soon, though I guess I am still taking a break from three years of art crits!
I live on the Lower East Side, and will be doing a studio residency in my neighborhood early next year (AAI - Artists Alliance Inc.). I'm definitely looking forward to meeting some new faces and making art locally, but I have a hunch that the base of my community will remain tied to my alma mater.
OPP: What is next for you? What are you working on now?
DK: I’ve started work on more music—I’m fairly invested in that endeavor right now. It picks up thematically where the last album left off—crawling from the wreckage of an MFA program as it were. I’ve been reading books on the evils of religion (Christopher Hitchen’s God Is Not Great, Sam Harris’ The End Of Faith). It’s coloring my world right now and I’m sure it will influence the work. Love songs for atheists, perhaps?
I’m also very pleased to say that I’ve received a grant from Art Matters funding a project in Ghana early next year. I’m fascinated by the country—it’s where my partner is from and I’ve been just once before. I’ll be collaborating with musicians, both traditional and pop, on a filmic/music project. It’s still a bit loose as to what final form the work will take, but I’m interested in continuing to push myself further outside of what’s familiar, comfortable, or easy.
2010 Was A Rough Year Installation Image, Thomas Robertello Gallery (Chicago) Stained glass window and video documentation of stand-up comedy performancesOtherPeoplesPixels: In your artist statement you discuss your attempt to give the cliché new and personal meaning. Those ideas apply especially to your series I Throw Myself At Men, as well as your projects, Lilly invites you to come watch the sunset with her, and 2009 was a rough year. Let’s talk about how your shifting media throughout and within each these three projects effects your viewers’ interpretation of the clichés you’ve addressed. Do you yourself gain further insight from exploring the clichés from the multiple “angles” of photography, participatory websites, performances, labor-intensive constructions, and installations? LillyMcElroy: One of the main reasons that I make art is that I want to be able to communicate ideas. The advantage of having a multi-disciplinary practice is that I try and figure out what kind of media best conveys the concepts that I am interested in. Also, no singular project has really provided me with complete answers or explanations to the things that I am curious about. Using a combination of media allows me to keep hacking away at an idea.OPP: What comes first in your art making process—an idea about a cliché or an idea for installation or performance, or do they occur to you simultaneously?LM: I would say that my ideas mostly come in the form of whims; a moment when I want to see what will happen if I perform an action or ask a question. My projects all begin very simply and I wind up using a lot of cliché’s because they are an effective way to communicate ideas or maybe that is just the way by brain works. I think very literally and a lot of those thoughts are clichéd. However, that thought process allows me to introduce a lot of humor to the projects. Ideas generally come first, cliché’s are just another interesting tool to work with.
Truck Stop 2004 C-PrintOPP: How do you negotiate trust and vulnerability in your work—or do you think about the interactions involved in your performances as vulnerable or requiring trust? Are you nervous about potential outcomes before lying down in a nightgown in public as you did inLocations, leaping at strangers in bars as you did in I Throw Myself At Men, or performing other people’s jokes on stage as you did in 2009 was a rough year—or are you generally faithful in your attempts at connecting? LM: For my projects, I often approach strangers or am in situations where I do not have complete control. I make myself, at some level, vulnerable to other people’s responses, but I suppose that may be one of the reasons that they choose to participate in my projects. The fact that I am vulnerable or at least making an earnest request makes it possible for them to trust me enough to participate. Hugging a stranger on the street or allowing some woman you just met at a bar to leap at you takes a little bit of bravery or trust. To be honest, I am often surprised that people are willing to participate. Ideas about vulnerability are most interesting, for me, in the Locations series. By lying down in public spaces, I was making myself physically vulnerable, but that action became aggressive simply because it was an interruption. I am interested in actions that can signify more than one thing, behaviors that are simultaneously loving and cruel.However, I am always nervous during my performances. That is part of the reason they are interesting to me and possibly part of the reason that they are successful. I am genuinely trying to connect with people and therefore the possibility of failure exists. I know to stop working on a project or performing an action when I am no longer nervous. Doing stand-up was a whole other type of experience, though. There was a lot of adrenaline and the moments when I actually got people to laugh at the jokes were intoxicating.
I throw myself at men - #12 2008 Digital Print 30 by 40OPP: Did any of the men in your series I Throw Myself At Men not attempt catch you?LM: Yes and I just bounced off of their chests. OPP: Were there any contributed jokes that you were uncomfortable performing at comedy clubs in 2009 was a rough year?LM: I didn’t tell any of the racist jokes and I partially feel like that was a cop-out. I was supposed to be telling all the jokes that people sent in, but I couldn’t. OPP: How does the idea of failure factor in your bodywork as a whole?LM: Failure is key or at least the possibility of failure is key. Without that possibility there would be nothing to root for. It would be like watching a sports movie without the underdogs.OPP: You’ve written about the gestures that you enact in your performances as simultaneously loving and cruel. Can you give me an example of how that duality plays out in a particular piece? LM: Hugs is the first piece that comes to mind. For this video I hugged strangers without asking their permission. A hug, a loving and tender gesture, became aggressive and selfish. My behavior was a demand that people engage with me and there is something very mean about that. That said, there were a few moments of legitimate tenderness in the video, moments when my gesture actually felt wanted. That is what I mean by loving and cruel.OPP: Your drawing and paper mache installation, I kicked a dog implicates you as either having kicked what appears to be a friendly non-threatening dog, or wanting to. How does your Dog series factor into a body of work concerned with implicating yourself and others? Was this an attempt at making it clear that you are aware of your complicated position in your work—or did you just want to be sure and eliminate the possibility of ever being able to adopt a pet? LM: That project had a lot to do with frustration, with wanting to destroy or reject something lovely because of desperation.
OPP: What are you working on now? LM: A bullmastiff named Buttons saved my dad when he was 11. Right now I am working on a sculpture of that dog.
OtherPeoplesPixels: You describe exploring technology in your work both as subject and media. In doing so your primary media are installation and performance. Let’s talk about the relationship the performances and installations have to one another in your artmaking process and how the combination of disciplines plays into how viewers perceive your work in varying locations.
Sara Schnadt: I am trained as a performance/installation artist so I naturally think about ideas as live gestures and environments at the same time. Space, architecture and gesture are fundamental to how I think. In the past four years the installation component of my work has developed to the point where the intention holds up without the live presence. This has opened up the possibilities for my work in terms of where and for how long I can show a work (a month with regular performances versus an evening) which has been exciting. Most of the time a live activity is integral to my work, though. It's at the heart of the work's concept, like building the internet in Connectivityor creating versions of the universe in Drafting Universes. I also sometimes use found movement in a similar way to how I consider found objects. I see them as materials with a previous life and history. For example my piece Reading Gestures uses found pedestrian movement—body language that people use to create a private space in a public library in order to get lost in what they are reading. It was created for a space that was the Chicago Public Library's reading room from the 1880, through the 1980' and drew from images of readers spanning this time period for movement material.
I do have two recent pieces that are installations without a live element. But one of these is an adaptation of a performance remnant—a mistake when the room-scale installation component of my Connectivity piece (a representation of the Internet in string and wire) was sent back from an international show as a compact three foot ball. The other, Network, is the idea of a gesture in string—a virtual network structure cutting across an ordinary space. But even this piece is going to become a performance in it's next iteration.
When I am there live inside of my work, the audience tends to take on an engaged spectator role or sometimes they respond like they are seeing the inside of my studio and are interested in getting close to the creative process. When I am not there live (either during the run of a piece with scheduled performances or with my pure installation pieces) I think that the audience experiences my work more actively and intimately because I am not there to serve as an intermediary. The experience of the work is much more charged when I am there live however, and there is a place for both kinds of engagement in most of my work.
Connectivity (Condensed) 2011
OPP: In reviewing the performances you’ve created in the last decade I am especially interested in noting each work’s duration. Many range from one to three hours performed multiple times over the course of an exhibition while others occur once and last a few days. Could you speak about how you determine the duration of a performance?
SS: I consider the format of the presentation opportunity as part of the site or situation I am responding to. In most cases, the overall duration or run of a piece is a response to the opportunity (a one-night-only, site-specific performance festival versus a month-long run in an exhibition space). If I have the time to create a series of performances within a larger exhibit time-frame my preference is to perform for three hours at a time. This gives a focused enough time window that you can have a decent accumulation of audience (which really gives the work energy) but also is long enough to push me beyond my comfort level for stamina. Pushing past this point, which happens usually about an hour in for me, puts me in a heightened meditative space and makes the performance more transformative because I really become part of the work.
Connectivity 2008, 2007
OPP: I am similarly interested in your costuming in the performances you’ve created in the last decade. In Drafting Universesand Continuity you are dressed in what could be interpreted as business attire, and in Network and Network Hub you are dressed in everyday attire, while in Connectivity you wear a custom-made orange jumpsuit that could be described as both futuristic and prison or inmate apparel-inspired. What factors go into your costuming choices?
SS: I think of the costume as part of the sculptural element of each piece. Some of my work is more abstract and some more pedestrian in it's vocabulary, and so the costumes vary accordingly. If there is a real type of person I am embodying for the piece, then I will put together a costume that suggests this person. For Continuity my intention was to be dresses in historically-ambiguous travel attire, since the piece included a large collage of travel images from a wide range of historical sources. I also chose the color palette of this costume to match the piece. For Drafting Universes I was a scientist or science worker, but I also wanted to keep the read very open so the audience could make a variety of references from my activity. I actually rotated through three costumes during this performance because it was a little tricky to get the balance just right. Also the installation element is very abstract visually, so a lab coat was just too literal. I will fine-tune the costume more for its next showing.
For the building of Network we are wearing street clothes because the installation process is not part of the work. With Network Hub, (a piece about airplane flight patterns) I am shooting for a balance between a pilot and a stewardess, since both those roles facilitate flight. Also, simple lines and a single color look good formally with the piece. I have worked with a fashion designer for one on my pieces, Chicago-based Agnieszka Colon. She lent me a gown that she made out of a woman pilot's flight suit, which I wore to be both an architect and municipal worker role as I 'built' the Internet in my piece Connectivity.
Chicago Artists Resource (CAR)
OPP: Connectivity celebrates Web 2.0, the collective activity of creating and sharing information online. Web 2.0 is integral to the website and online community you created as co-founder and technologist for Chicago Artists Resource at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Do you consider yourself a hybrid artist in that you work at the intersection of art and technology in both your work as an artist and your work with Chicago Artist Resource? How do the two inform one another?
SS: Yes, absolutely they do inform each other. And yes, I do consider myself a hybrid artist. Or just an artist with multiple intersecting interests. I got involved with arts administration early in my career. I wanted to understand the infrastructure around artists' practice in order to give my own work a context and to participate in activities that enrich this infrastructure and allow me to be part of something greater than myself.
My work with CAR has directly affected my art practice. It has expanded my art network both locally and nationally, inspired me to focus on technology innovation as a central theme in my art, and shown me that I can pull off large complex projects. The scale and ambitiousness of my art has grown as a direct result. My art practice also affects my work with CAR because I am much more effective as an advocate for artists' professional practice when I am actively practicing myself. In terms of working at the intersection of art and technology, this is just where I feel most engaged.
OPP: You keep a research blog that is accessible from your website. How do you approach researching some of the specific details and networks that appear in your work? How do your viewers tend to engage with the information you present to them both online and in exhibition spaces?
SS: I've realized over the past few years that the scale, complexity and processes in my art have been informed by my work with Chicago Artists Resource. Overseeing development of this large and comprehensive web site has involved a lot of research on professional practice content for artists. A taste for research-intensive creative process has since become part of my art. Sometimes this has meant researching global internet access, sometimes data visualization, sometimes found movement, and sometimes large quantities of images. Sharing interesting information that I come across on my blog is something I do for further background on projects, and because some of the stuff I've found is really fabulous. In addition, some of my finished projects include specific information that is relayed as part of the work's concept. When this happens I think of the art as a data visualization, and it has to be clear, direct and informative. I never want my work to be dependent on reading the label to get its ideas across. Other projects are supported by my research, but factual data is distilled and abstracted in the final piece and has become something else, more aesthetic.
OPP: What is next for you?
SS: What's next for me job-wise is finalizing plans for national syndication of CAR, which I've been working on for the past year. I'll also be overseeing the upgrade of the current CAR site so that the interface is more user-friendly and the large quantities of content on the site are more prioritized to artists' interests. And on September 29th, I’m moderating a panel on social media strategies for artists at Chicago Artists Coalition.
Art-wise, I have a solo show at Counterpath Gallery (Denver) which opens September 2nd. I'll be their inaugural show. And in October I'll be doing an 'Artists Connect' talk at the Art Institute of Chicago, discussing my work in relation to Agnes Martin, Sarah Sze, Olafur Elliasson and others. For the end of the year I’m learning to code and developing an interactive data visualization for the Apps for Metro Chicago Competition, based on data from the city’s new open data initiative. I am also beginning to develop a new movement/new media/installation work that involves performing a social network.
Longer term, sometime next year, I am doing a project at Minus Space (Brooklyn) in their new Dumbo space. I’m excited to work with Minus Space because their invitation to join their flat file has really influenced my work over the past two years. Applying the lens of minimalist reductive art to what I do has egged me on to try new directions and distill my ideas into simpler forms.