OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Alana Bartol

Wrapped Rocks
Performed at Artcite Inc. in Windsor, ON

ALANA BARTOL "hopes to create spaces in which transformation, moments of connection and reflection can occur." In both community-engaged and studio-based projects, she acts as a facilitator and a catalyst for communal creations, inviting viewers and participants to actively shape the work. Alana earned her BFA from University of Windsor in 2004 and her MFA in Sculpture from Wayne State University in Detroit. She has received numerous grants through the Ontario Arts Council, including the National and International Residency Grant to fund her upcoming residency with bioart pioneer Joe Davis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in spring 2015. She will also be participating in a six-week residency with Lucy + Jorge Orta at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Upcoming exhibitions include Bioart: Collaborating with Life at Karsh-Masson Gallery (Ottawa, Ontario) and Far Away So Close: Part III at Access Gallery (Vancouver, BC). Along with friend and collaborator Arturo Herrera, she will debut the first issue of ARTWINDSOR, a quarterly publication that focuses on art created in Windsor, Ontario, where Alana lives and works.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Do projects like Detroit Windsor Journal Project (2006), Wrapped Rocks (2009 and 2013) and Hands to the Earth: After cj fleury (2012) have a shared aim? How do these projects fulfill your conceptual concerns?

Alana Bartol: I am interested in how humans find, confront and engage with the living, non-human world. We are part of nature, yet we separate ourselves from it. We control, manipulate and contain it, while longing to find our place within it. My work is based in the idea of micro-transformations. Through everyday, individual actions, we can effect change in our relationships with the environments and one another.

In Wrapped Rocks and Detroit Windsor Journal Project, participants were invited to create an individual piece that is then presented as part of a larger installation. Often the methods of “art making” are simple, everyday actions: wrapping, arranging, collecting, tying, weaving, walking, journaling. If objects are produced, they often exist temporarily or are given away to the participants. For Hands to the Earth, the mandala was left in the community garden and dispersed by the elements. In Wrapped Rocks, participants have the option to contribute their rock to the pile or take it with them.

For the Detroit Windsor Journal Project, journals were created on the same day by hundreds of people of all ages in both cities. As the journals arrived by mail, my collaborator, Ben Good and I documented and installed the journals in the gallery. We invited the participating students to see the show. Many had never been to an art gallery and were excited by the scale of the project and the fact that their contributions were important and unique. I hope it instilled a sense of confidence and pride.

Since 2009, I have re-created Wrapped Rocks over five times in different environments including galleries and community organizations. In some spaces, what begins as a quiet, reflective activity slowly turns into a room buzzing with conversations. The first time it was created, a woman was adamant that I explain what the piece meant, “was it a comment on climate change or a reference to war?” My response was “both.” In all of my work, I am concerned with how we relate to the earth and one another. These relationships are deeply intertwined. 

Detroit Windsor Journal Project
October 2, 2006
A field trip was arranged for participants from Christ the King Elementary School in Detroit to visit the Elaine Jacobs Gallery where their work was on display.

OPP: How do you solicit participation?

AB: My approach has generally been to set up a space and invite people to participate. For example, Hands to the Earth began with a small group of community gardeners, but quickly attracted many people. There were many reasons for this: we were working outside, food was offered, it was part of a MayWorks celebration, it was promoted in various ways and it was visually pleasing. People wanted to be part of it. Passersby became participants, assisting in the design and placement of materials. One man went home and came back with yard waste from his garden to contribute to the creation of the mandala. Another man left and came back with a camera and a ladder so he could document the work. It is amazing to see how a work can have a  ripple effect in a community, even a small one can leave a lasting impression. I still get requests to re-create this piece by groups all over Windsor.

Hands to the Earth: After cj fleury
A community arts project in collaboration with the Campus Community Garden Project at the University of Windsor, local artists and community members.

OPP: Please introduce your curatorial projects Artist For Hire (2013) and Art S.E.A.L.S. and talk about responses from the public. Are non-artists generally surprised to find out the kinds of jobs artists do?

AB: Both projects arose from community discussions regarding the often-poor working conditions and levels of remuneration within the arts. In 2013, I had just finished a contract with the Ontario Arts Council, working with artists and organizations to develop community-engaged projects and secure grant funding. I was struggling to find a balance between my work in the arts and my own art practice, as is the case for so many artists. Artist For Hire: All Skills Required (2013) was a series of performances. I invited 16 Windsor, Ontario-based artists and arts workers/administrators to perform skills that they have used to generate income in the gallery space. These included housekeeping, dish washing, holistic energy work, dog walking, nude modeling, administrative, data entry and office work. Artist for Hire didn’t draw a large audience outside of the arts community, but it served as a starting point for these types of conversations in Windsor and lead to the development of Art S.E.A.L.S. (Skills Exchange and Learning Series): Survival Skills Training, a project I co-curated in 2014 with Andrew Lochhead.

For Art S.E.A.L.S., nine artists from Windsor and Hamilton, Ontario each presented a skill they use in their art practice at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market and the Windsor Public Library and a “non-art” skill used in employment outside of their artistic practice at the Art Gallery of Windsor and the Workers, Arts and Heritage Centre (Hamilton). Audiences in both cities were curious about what it was like to work as an artist. There was a lot of interest in having conversations with the artists to gain insight into their working processes and the ways in which their work outside the arts influenced their artwork. It broke down the audience/artist barrier. Depending on the nature of the “performance,” audience members felt comfortable approaching the artists and initiating conversations. It made visible and acknowledged the time, materials, resources and labor required to create artwork.

Artist For Hire
Srimoyee Mitra, Curator
Skill: Cleaning
While pursuing her MA in Art History, Mitra worked as a housekeeper.

OPP: How persistent is the myth of the starving artist?

AB: The myth of the “starving artist” does persist and is somewhat warranted. Like many artists, I have held a number of jobs including a nude model, factory worker, cashier, server, janitor, educator, arts administrator, sessional and adjunct instructor, arts consultant and grant writer. I also worked as an employment advocate and a career counselor for art and design students. I have had a lot of experience working with people in the arts and it is incredibly difficult to make a living as an artist without additional employment or another source of income or financial support. Many artists can expect to spend 75% of their time on administrative work for their practice: responding to emails, applying for exhibitions, balancing budgets, promotion through social media, updating websites, organizing documentation, adjusting images and writing grants, creating application materials or developing proposals. On top of that, you need a space to create, time to connect with other artists, resources and tools, the ability and means to travel and take time off work to participate in residencies, professional development activities, conferences, workshops or exhibitions. These are all important aspects of a career in the arts. In my experience, these are not skills that students of art always learn and they are not easy skills to attain. If you have representation, a dealer, curator or agent might do many of these things for you. However, if you don’t create works that can be distributed in the commercial art market, you probably need to learn how to do most of these things on your own or find good collaborators. Skill sharing and bartering are central support systems in many arts communities.

Un-camouflaging #16
Photo Credit: Brigham Bartol

OPP: What's a ghille suit? Could you explain the idea of "un-camouflaging?"

AB: A ghillie suit is traditionally worn by military snipers and hunters to camouflage the human body in natural landscapes. It is created with a combination of synthetic and natural materials. I order ghillie suit kits from hunting supply stores. I sew the netting into wearable forms and tie the jute onto it. Burlap and other materials can also be used. It is a time-consuming process. The colors, textures and form are important considerations. Plants, grasses and other natural materials from the landscape are then gathered and woven into the suit. When moving through various landscapes, the threads of the suit pick up leaves, burs, sticks and sometimes garbage from the environment.

I find inspiration in environments that are familiar to many North Americans: urban pathways, community gardens, parks, domestic spaces, backyards and suburban neighborhoods. The term “un-camouflaging” explains what I do as Ghillie. A shift between concealing and revealing is integral to the work. I began to do public walks in the suit, deciding where I might stop to camouflage and choosing when to reveal and conceal myself, altering my form. The suit allows me to become part of, while also standing apart from, the landscape. As Ghillie, I am still and quiet. I do not speak or respond verbally. I become invisible and watch, much like a hunter or sniper. I sit, stand, crouch or sometimes fold my body in on itself, becoming a pile of grassy material.

I first learned about ghillie suits when I was living in Vermont, but the character Ghillie evolved after I moved back to Windsor, a city fraught with many environmental and socio-economic issues. Around this time, I was reading trickster stories from different cultures and began thinking about how these tales often revolve around modes of survival. These stories offer insights into how humans make choices about what we need and value and how those choices affect the world. In Windsor, Ghille may serve as a foreboding or protective guardian figure, but she is also a trickster of sorts. She moves between human-made and wild environments. As a non-human entity that can travel between worlds, she embodies the masculine and feminine and transcends the body.

Ghillie Crossing
Photo Credit: Brigham Bartol

OPP: If money and resources were not an issue, what's your fantasy community arts project?

AB: It’s hard to imagine a project where funding, time and resources are not an issue! I would create a sustainable community arts project that could serve as a support organization and residency program of sorts for artists. The program itself would be envisioned as a community arts project, one that would allow artists to work alongside professionals in other fields and be properly compensated for their time, much like the Artist Placement Group, a radical artist-run organization founded in Britain in the 1960s that temporarily “placed” artists in businesses and government offices. Though each artist was paid for their time, labor and expertise, there was no expectation that they produce ideas, objects or projects for the place of work.

I have always found ways to work and create opportunities for other artists to work in spaces where they “don’t belong.” Artists, through their inherent creativity can bring new insights, perspectives and ideas, contributing to and transforming society. Bioartist Joe Davis is a great example. An Artist, Researcher and Scientist, working in the Biology Department at MIT and the George Church Lab in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, he is able to connect with scientists and collaborate with them to realize projects that most artists could only dream of creating. 

In my hypothetical program, a team of artists and professionals from other disciplines would work to develop the project philosophy and program structure. Securing places for artists to work would be part of my job and practice. With a supportive work environment, a good wage (including benefits) and a schedule that allowed me to sustain my practice, it would be a dream job.

To see more projects by Alana, please visit alanabartol.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.