JOSEPH G. CRUZ investigates the methods by which culturally and historically significant sites and events accumulate meaning through their varied representations. These subjects, such as the Matterhorn and the first walk on the moon, are starting points in his research-based art practice. The resulting installations include found objects, sound, text and sculpture and exploit the vernaculars of set design and museum display. In Fall 2013, Joseph will be an MFA candidate in Sculpture with a minor in the History and Philosophy of Science at Notre Dame. He recently completed the year-long BOLT Residency at the Chicago Artists' Coalition; his solo show in the BOLT Project Space opens on September 6, 2013. He will also be representing BOLT at EXPO Chicago in a booth that was juried and curated by Dieter Roelstraete. Joseph currently lives in Michigan City with his wife and their dog; at the time of this interview, they have a daughter on the way.
Research plays a big role in your art practice. To what degree are your
research and the creation of objects intertwined or separate and
distinct modes of thinking?
Joseph G. Cruz: My work is
fueled by a love for the research, but I don’t make a distinction
between research and creation in my practice. I see both as modes of
exploration. There is a phase of research that is exclusively reading
and field research. Then there is a phase of object-making that
is like thinking with my hands. Sometimes I create a system by which the
physical objects do the research by transcribing subjective, historical
texts into “objective” data and translating them back into other subjective formats like sound. 12 transcribed notions (2012) and my Alfred Hitchcock’s "The Birds" piece (2010) are specific examples of how the work translates historical texts into subjective formats.
My enchantment with research isn’t just a love of discovery. It's also a love of the inventiveness of creating seemingly random contextual connections: historical, technological, cultural, scientific, pop, whatever. I tend to limit the object making to processes and materials defined through the research. Then I mix and match methodologies from the connecting topics I discover to create conceptually driven work.
Each body of work examines a particular cultural, historical or scientific subject, as if it were a leitmotif in a larger story. I work on different pieces within a body of work simultaneously and always think of them in relation to each other. The individual pieces can exist as autonomous objects, but they can’t come to full fruition unless they are viewed in context with one another.
OPP: What kinds of creative endeavors were you engaged in when you were younger?
JGC: My junior high and high school years were all about skateboarding, surfing and DIY music culture. I started off playing bass and drums in a number of different bands, playing everything from hardcore to instrumental scores. The board sports are all about original interventions. Skateboarding revolves around how you use the skateboard in relation to architecture. And surfing is much more creative and expressive than most people realize. It's all about creative adaptation. You have to anticipate the way the wave bends and flows and find a way to perpetually keep sliding down the face.
Those years were about creating new forms of agency and identity, although how successful or aware of that fact we were is another story. Now that I think about it, that time was probably the most important formative aspect of my artistic personality. The practice just evolved into a more abstract, social architecture.
OPP: In 2012, your solo show not a fact, still extremely real at Comfort Station in Chicago revolved around various representations of the Matterhorn,
employing and commenting on romantic, historical and scientific
narratives. The Matterhorn is the subject of all the work, and yet it
isn't. What's the real subject?
JGC: First off, thank you for asking that question. It’s true that my interest is not in the Matterhorn, per se, but rather in its agency and how it presents itself to us over time and how that has changed. I’m not pretending we live in some sort of Tom Robbins-style existence in which objects think and feel like humans. I’m thinking more of observing an object—in this case, the Matterhorn— over a larger span of time, to the degree that we, as individuals, have less control over it. The historical object gains its own agency. To paraphrase Werner Heisenberg, it's important to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.
The subject of this body of work is more of a verb than a noun for me. I’m trying to understand it through a trans-contextual
investigation. That's the reason all of the works in that show reference different modes
of knowledge production.
It starts with Edward Whymper, who triggered the golden age of alpinism with his worldwide tour of lantern lecturers about his first ascent of the Matterhorn. Four people died on that climb, and that’s where the proclivity toward spectacle emerges. I made a few pieces that mapped the romantic language from these lectures and translated it into a player piano piece. Kant’s writings about the sublime point outward via the Swiss Alps, and we see the techno-contemporary sublime via the Large Hadron Collider, which sits under the same ranges. Many years later, Disney created a famous roller coaster, and the Matterhorn now exists in many of our computers as a generic default screen saver. How do we understand the Matterhorn today? Why do we understand it that way? What are the implications or symptoms involved with that understanding? I guess it is more about mediation in scale. The Matterhorn is basically a soap box, and its repetition in the show hopes to dissolve itself. Think Marcel Broodthaer’s Department of Eagles.
OPP: I like the idea of the Matterhorn having agency and asserting itself over time through these various representations. But each of the instances you mention can also be viewed as a kind of violence to the mountain or toward nature in general. They are attempts to dominate the site of the sublime experience, to beat it into submission, to tame the shrew, if you will. So, does the Matterhorn gain its agency through the accretion of representations, in spite of them or through your side-by-side presentation of these representations?
JGC: Well, we’re not talking about actual mass, but the more
abstract materiality that both stems from and is the representations of
it. According to material culture studies,
an object gains agency when used by humans for specific means. Things
do far more than simply effect what humans do; things transform and
impact the specific way in which human beings perceive and understand
Mediating representations act as surrogates in that they not only stand
in for the thing, but also
create a new psychological space for the thing. The
simulacrum doesn't give us the real thing, but what it gives us is still
real. Not many of us have been to the moon, but we have a general
agreement on what the moon is. This is more real than the physical
experience of the moon. So there are shifts in the historical
understanding of the Matterhorn as these representations accumulate,
although I wouldn't say those shifts are necessarily linear.
OPP: Several earlier pieces—10 milliseconds of Utopia (political illustration?) (2009), re-entry shock
(2008) and everafter (2010)—employ the visual motif of suspended
taxidermy animals. They are suspended literally and transparently on
strings in the air, indicating a suspended moment in time. The fact that
we can see the strings relates to something you say in your statement:
"The work seems to be telling a story while talking about how the story
is being told." In what other ways do you talk about the story being
told while telling a story?
JGC: I try to operate in a similar way to The Colbert Report or The Daily Show. The humor and umph in these shows doesn’t lie in the specific news story. It is in how they float around the periphery of the implied rhetoric and in the semantics of the stories being told. It’s that periphery which most interests me. I try to create an “and/or” situation when deciphering information.
Most of the pieces you cite were made during undergrad and were seeds for my current practice. I worked at the Field Museum, doing soft-sample taxidermy in the Ornithology Department. I was thinking about how visual rhetoric functions in dioramas, both from the audience’s point of view and from backstage.
My installations are like dioramas or movie sets that the viewer can walk around. I present a well-crafted front view, and then I exaggerate physical set-building methods “backstage.” I place spotlights on the extension cords and unpainted stage supports, exposing the hardware which supports the façade. All this is only available once you walk around the “set.”
The installation If one looks down at the earth from the moon, there is no virtual distance between the Louvre and the Zoo includes a sculpture that references a landscape or a meteorite of sorts and looks like a scale model. From one side, it looks like a big rock on a pedestal. But when you walk around it, the pink insulation foam out of which it is carved is exposed. The illusion is revealed. A piece of glass cuts through the two sides, so that you can see a reflection (the façade) while simultaneously peering through the transparent glass to see the foam.
With those taxidermy birds in mid-flight, I aestheticized the strings that support the frozen moment in order to shift the viewers’ attention from the spectacle to the geometric structures and shadows of the strings which metaphorically and literally hold them up.
You were a 2012-2013 BOLT resident at the Chicago Artists' Coalition in
Chicago. You have a solo show coming up in the BOLT Project Space and
you'll be representing the residency with a project at EXPO Chicago in
September. Will you give us a sneak peak of the work you'll be debuting
at one or both of these venues?
JGC: I am really excited and honored to be doing these shows and a little intimidated about representing BOLT at EXPO. It’s a young program that is really special and has some wonderful people behind it. It’s amazing how much momentum it has gained in only two years, but it still needs to be recognized and understood for how amazing it is outside of Chicago.
Assembling Vestiges, my solo show in the BOLT Project Space, loosely borrows its name and strategies from Deleuze’s assemblage theory. The jumping off points for this show are representations of late 19th century polar expeditions, space exploration and satellite imagery. It takes on a lot of curatorial strategies influenced by Thomas Demand’s La Carte D’Apres Nature at Matthew Marks Gallery and Mark Dion’s OCEANOMANIA at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, in that it involves time travel, actual artifacts like crystals from Antarctica and lunar meteorites, a couple of works from other artists (like a commissioned Turner reproduction). All of the pieces are vestiges of the research and some are vestiges of actual sculptures. For example, there is a series of broken silica molds and bronze slag. These are byproducts of sculpture, but the sculpture isn’t present. In this new work, I’m employing a more complicated notion of how the story is being told by presenting the agency of the environment (i.e. polar weather) via the color shifts that result from the extreme cold in Herbert Ponting’s first film of the Antarctic. It’s a very different show for me and a big experiment in moving my practice forward.
The EXPO booth is a satellite installation (forgive the pun) called Assembling the Lunar. It includes a sound installation which translates a recent topographical mapping of the far side of the moon into sound frequencies, a microscopic illustration of the night sky on the night of the first moon walk, a generic collectors’ edition lunar meteorite, and miscellaneous formal moves that reference horizon lines.
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and spiritual significance of repetition in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage 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. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.