A Conversation with Jean Shin

Jean Shin is nationally recognized for her monumental installations that transform castoff materials into elegant expressions of identity and community.  Working in a variety of mediums, she collects vast accumulations of singular objects—prescription pill bottles, sports trophies, sweaters—which she alters into conceptually rich sculptures, videos and site-specific installations.  Distinguished by her meticulous, process of amassing her materials from various communities, her arresting installations reflect the individuals’ personal lives as well as collective issues that we face as a society. Bio courtesy the artist. 

This is a conversation we had in our Brooklyn neighborhood, edited for clarity. 

Jean Shin in front of her work at Storm King. Photo by Angela Pham/BFA.com / Courtesy of Storm King Art Center

Jean Shin in front of her work at Storm King. Photo by Angela Pham/BFA.com / Courtesy of Storm King Art Center

Brett: How would describe the boundaries of your work? 

Jean: It’s kind of sprawling. I’m not sure that there are boundaries that I set. My practice is very much an exploratory process. Often driven by an invitation with a venue, with a curator who wants to be in dialogue with me. We start with a conversation just like the one you and I or anyone else might strike up. An important part of the process is the curator hosting my site visit, visiting the place in person, meeting locals who share with me their histories and stories. Then I try to understand the interactions, connections, and relationships between this place and me, with the individuals in the community. Who is considered part of that community and who is not represented in this group? I also do a lot of research and think more broadly. I don’t set a particular boundary but aim to locate a sense of belonging to that particular place. That could mean a connection to a set of ideas, history, objects, architecture, the city, landscape or the environment. The work is layered, allowing myself to eventually land someplace that picks up and threads all those conversations. Then production and labor are added into the process. I explore what is seen and what is invisible here, and who is identified, acknowledged,  and participating in the work. Often times I am also interested in what exists but people don’t talk about. That too is part of the unspoken identity of the place but one that doesn’t get much opportunity to be cultivated. 

In that way, I try to find that moment for me to introduce a project where it matters to the people I’m engaging with and in the larger community. I’m also trying to acknowledge the wisdom of people whose ideas I build on,  want to preserve and amplify their stories.

In some way, I hold a little healthy tension in my work. Not necessarily a conflict. I try to move away from real conflict zones because there are already two known sides to these issues that remain unmovable. They’re known entities. Each side already knows what the other is going to say. Instead, I try to bring in a conversational voice where we’re open to ideas and questions, not answers. That’s a really hard place to navigate. I feel like I have strategies in my work but I don’t really know what the boundaries really are. 

I remain open to seeing if my projects might align with some of the ideas that I’m invested in or otherwise asking why that is. Until then, I’m treading water until we figure out paths forward but determined to do so. 

Installation view of the exhibition, Jean Shin: Collections. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018. Photo by Joseph Hu.

Installation view of the exhibition, Jean Shin: Collections. Image courtesy of Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2018. Photo by Joseph Hu.

Brett: I’d love for you to share how you use materials and processes you use because both appear to be informed by the sources, communities and the people engaged in the work. One of the things that seems almost ubiquitous about the materials is their practicality, mundane or every day nature. Is the concept of the every day, is that conceptually important to break away from this fetish sized art object or does it have other kind of embedded meanings for you?

Jean: As a category, the everyday object, is so mundane or ordinary that people don’t think about it, right. We’re often thinking about other things everything except the very thing we’re engaged with every day. Like these pencils or this placemat. Even though they were extremely useful, functional, and in all our lives so much to the point where we don’t consciously pay any attention to them. We take them for granted that they are accessible everywhere and available for everyone’s use; whereas art has become so rarified, often inaccessible, and for the super-wealthy upper-class. 

Art with a capital A has become elitist.  I’m trying to make art that engages an audience, the everyday person, the public. Not the collectors only. Not the artists only. Not the historians only. Not the curators only. Just the human need for art in our lives. 

 When I select a familiar object to work with it allows an entry point for anyone. They may not know the artist’s thoughts on it but if they have a sweater, they have their own opinions on a sweater. If they ever played a lotto ticket, they have an opinion on this. These objects come with so many rich associations and stories. Viewer comes with a million stories which are often contradictory but they know these subjects, personally and collectively. Someone who is a total addict to playing the scratch and win tickets knows gambling is a rigged economy; but regardless, they still believe they can be lucky and beat the odds.  I love engaging an audience like this.

Objects and their stories are collected from the communities I work with, if not sourced by the culture at large that throw these things away. Because the objects are often at the end of their life cycle, there is also an ecological conversation about our resources and what we value? When I think about an object that someone doesn’t want, its potential has been lost and I want to reclaim that. We need to re-evaluate how often we make that judgment call of throwing away things that are actually still useful especially when we don’t have enough precious resources and we can’t regenerate them. 

Brett: Is there a hidden, not even a hidden but just a subtle position of sustainability and a political angle into that?

Jean: Yes.

Brett: I was thinking back to Soviet Productivism. I was looking at Malevich’s Teapot this morning which is the teapot of aesthetic design but it was really made for the everyday person just to use and it looked beautiful and it worked. But it was a form at the same time. It was a piece of art. So it begs the question of how one would look at the squares and say maybe my ripped sweater, I could still use that. Or maybe I should trade it or do something else with it. Especially in times of collectivity.

Jean: Yeah, I would frame that conversation around valuing resources.  I would come to it with my own experience as a young artist who didn’t have a lot of money or resources to spend on purchasing art supplies. Trying to be resourceful, I simply repurposed things others were discarding all around me in the city. People and businesses alike were constantly throwing away their goods; we live in a very excessive consumer culture. There are incredible amounts of waste produced and they have to pay to get rid of their trash. When I  salvage these abundant materials, it generates free materials for me to make art out of and also a social exchange.

It changed the way I work because now I’m not purchasing paint and canvas to make art, I use these objects that have histories. These objects come from specific places, are part of lived experiences and exist in the economy. How we live, what we desire,  what we value, all the ideas come with the materials people throw out 

Brett: Materials embedded with meaning. 

Jean: Yes, meaning came from trying to be resourceful. Those large ideas and questions of sustainability are in the work. But in the beginning, it wasn’t that I was going out to intentionally do that or to talk about the environmental impact. That was not on the agenda. It was just what I was compelled to do.

Brett: Sounds like it was pure need.

Jean: Right, by necessity. I think we all need to do it. I think we all should sense the urgency. Why spend thousands and thousands of dollars on buying new things that will be rapidly wasted?  Besides, it’s going to harm all of us now and into the future. When in fact, we can resist the consumer culture of convenience and instead invest in behaviors that are sustainable. There’s an urgency for sure. 

Brett: Yes.

Jean: Most people ignore that urgency and are very counterproductive in spending too much on stuff that they don’t need (and can’t afford).

Brett: Yeah, just the carbon footprint of an art fair is a thing.

Jean: The art market pressures us to feel like we need to do that. I question if we actually need to. It doesn’t seem very sustainable, environmentally or financially?

Brett: Yeah, just that alone was a big thing.  I’m doing a lot of reading about the industrialization in the late 19th century /early 20th century and there is this idea of production versus consumption. Production has won out.  Everything is well planned and well -- our whole society is producing -- it’s just like a production society in terms of how we measure time and how we self-manage towards producing. 

I was wondering if any of those types of ideas come into your work because it’s the way you measure time or the way you manage things because it seems like it’s not an object of exact value. Meaning these are other people’s things and then stitched together in a non-seamless way. But it seems to me that there’s not an equation of like go to the studio, put together these types of materials and the market value is X or Y. To me, that seems like one of the forms of how artists evade capital structures. And I’m just wondering about your thoughts on production or consumption in your work.

Jean: Right. Let’s talk about production and production value. There's a sort of obsessiveness that comes from wanting to transform something that has no value. The materials give nothing. It does nothing. So I have to invest in my labor and commitment in order for it to become something extraordinary. 

I think transformation comes through labor of love. It’s about believing in that labor and its transformative powers. The magic you might call it. And knowing from first-hand experience that things can change states. Things can eventually become seen in a different light as well. Care comes from this type of labor. 

It’s also about attending to something with mindfulness. As opposed to just pure labor for its own sake, like the production value of factory workers based on how many hours were clocked into productive gain. It’s the care in labor. We do things all the time, like we were talking about doing laundry or cleaning up after our kids, that is a labor of love. I could hire someone to do that work but instead, I choose to because it’s part of who I am and part of how I choose to take care of myself and my family. 

It’s that kind of care and maintenance that is really of value. Often times we don’t consider whose labor and what kind of work is paid and unpaid. Thinking about feminism and to value women’s work, we need to reconsider domestic labor and childcare that goes into a woman’s life which is unpaid.  However, she’s not asking for a paycheck for her housework at home? I’m certainly not demanding money from my family. No, I choose to do this work and understand the responsibilities I take on are acknowledged in my household. And if my husband or children paid me for it, it would feel weird! I’m doing it because I love my family. Not all labor is meant to be an exchange for a profit. It is an exchange for other things that we need. 

Brett: This reminds me of Mierle Laderman Ukeles work on Maintenance Work. 

She describes the origin of this work when she was pushing her baby down the street in a stroller and people would say what do you do? It was like this jarring moment trying to explain that actually what she was doing was actually work.  So she went home in a fury one way and wrote the manifesto for maintenance art. 

It seems to me that one of the things you’re trying to do is map. The sweaters or whatever products there are, you’re trying to create a different mapping of those things. Is that right?

Jean: Yes, mapping for sure and Mierle Laderman Ukeles is such a hero. Yeah,  she positions a lot of my thinking on labor.

Brett: Yeah, for sure.

Jean: Making invisible labor visible is inherent in a lot of my projects. Mapping and visibility are central to my work. It’s based on a kind of a network of relationships that expand,  are contingent and interdependent. They become more like maps of activities than something that can be quantified as typical labor or production. My projects activate relationships that become a call for materials, an invitation to participate or an engagement to reach within communities. It redefines the network of people doing things and connecting with others in the name of the project.

Most of the time, the projects build on our existing relationships, not out of difference but through mutual connections.  It’s like you and I both probably have a sweater and that is as basic as it gets. But then the unraveling of the sweater is a metaphor, the material and process that reconnects us and everyone else in our network. So it becomes the social map showing how many degrees of separation we are professionally and/or personally to the larger community that we share.

Brett: So one of the things that I want to ask you about was this idea of immaterial labor, now that we’re talking about the material itself. Mauricio Lazzaratto described it as the informational content around the object, which when art moves past the actual object to this broader sense of the relations, the social relations or other relations around it. I am wondering how you think about immaterial labor in the work. There was one piece, I think, where you interviewed navy personnel. 

Jean: Right. In order to literally procure the material, in this case, military uniforms, and identifying willing partners involved trust. The question is how do I build trust with a person who is in the military? I had no background. No way to bridge a commonality, really. Similarly, many veterans knew little about art, nor ever met with an artist. They questioned their participation and giving away their precious uniform for an art project. How would we continue this engagement knowing each uniform that was full of sacrifice? What was so amazing about the experience was when they agreed to it,  their willingness to part with their uniforms was because I earned their trust by listening. What I realized is that each object had a life of stories. Their stories. Their stories of loss. The exchange gave us the opportunity to share those stories and to be moved by the experience. 

When that object was transferred literally into my hands, it was no longer just another uniform. It was precisely this uniform worn by this veteran who lived through this traumatic experience, shared with me their story and at the end trusted me with their uniform. I want the work to have that sense of sacrifice and a sense of honor. I never would’ve conceived of doing a military piece with the specific intention to honor our servicemen. In fact, I had been very critical of military service when I began the project. I was questioning why are we in war. Why do people enlist and who is sacrificing whom? What happens to places where civilians get injured or die? What happens to the local communities? But when I heard the behind the scene stories of soldiers who then decide to give their life for that uniform, it is all of that and more. They feel just as conflicted but their lives are on the line. Right.

Brett: Yeah. Wow. That sentence.

Jean: There was so much loss in their experience. They were the living survivors and they’re holding themselves to that. For these reasons, I feel very accountable and responsible for those uniforms. I talk about the aura of the found object. In some ways, it’s true that there’s a story in them, we just have to observe and respect it.  Give ourselves time to just be a listener to them.

Brett: Could you talk about your new project Allée Gathering, 2019. 

Jean: Okay. I created a sculpture that’s also a communal table for Storm King. It’s made out of the historic maple trees that line the main allée which is really the heartline of the park. They were planted at the Museum’s envisioning. These cultivated trees were dying and its failure really questions are relationship to nature. In the context of Storm King, a place of art, nature, and people, I was asking what we have learned about these relationships since its founding days in the 60s? Storm King decided to remove and replace these trees with another species that would be more sustainable for their next generations to enjoy this landscape, restoring the vista that was such an important part of their historic vision of the park. 

Although the idea to sustain the original vision is beautiful, in reality however, it was painful to imagine these trees quick disappearance. The landscapers were coming to put all these trees into a chipper and remove them out of the park at that moment. I wanted to do a project that would try and preserve the memory of these trees.

Jean Shin, Process documentation for  Allée Gathering , 2019. Recycled maple wood and steel. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist

Jean Shin, Process documentation for Allée Gathering, 2019. Recycled maple wood and steel. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist

It allowed me to intervene in the landscaping process, slow it down but knowing that they still needed to get the new trees in the ground before spring. It still happened so quickly. So in the dead of winter, we talked about what could be possible with the failing trees in the months to come before the opening of the exhibition.

Brett: Yeah. A concise window.

Jean: A short window. After much discussion, we decided that it may be possible to vertically cut the trees and mill it on site although not advisable and very challenging. We couldn’t use the traditional methods of cutting a tree down, nor send them to be milled, properly dried and then repurposed into furniture. These were literally dying trees still standing that were transformed on-site. 

When the first cut happened, I was just so moved. I was so completely taken by what the inside of the tree looked like. The presence of the tree was so real.

Brett: These were the vertical cuts going straight up and down, right?

Jean: Yeah. To me, it was like a dissection. Before one deem it dead and removed instantly, let’s examine the inside, perform a dissection. Let’s see what the problems were and also see the life of this tree before it’s gone. We can’t save the tree. But by opening that tree up, it revealed so much beauty otherwise unseen.   These beloved trees were being mourned, and that we needed to talk about loss in its presence. How do we deal with the sadness we feel, when we don’t know where to place this loss. In the project, I wanted to create a new place for the mourning experience on the allee. Instead of a processional of movement across the landscape, my work would be a memorial to these trees prompting visitors to gather and stay still. An inviting table, a really really long table, 50 feet in length, allowing us, staff, and those in the community to sit together to talk and look closely at these trees. Hopefully seeing it really intimately and paying attention to all the little woodgrains, the annual rings evidence of its grown and the rough outer bark. The observations of decay as well. Looking at reality in the face, right? 

Brett: The bark is still preserved on the underbelly and it has the whole thing with the syrup as well, right?

Jean: Yes, I got permission to tap the sugar maple trees at Storm King to produce syrup, another idea I had for the project. I was thinking about the other ways that we might be able to take in this beautiful landscape. Nature is not only picturesque as a visual phenomenon, but how we experience landscape and these particular species of trees and elements of weather and climate, the season’s passing. I imagined maple syrup production would be the perfect way to show the amazing gift that nature gives, the natural sweetness it produces.  There’s a surplus of sap water that one can tap, it’s this reciprocal gift to share with others. What then do we do for nature now that we’ve tasted her sweetness? So once you taste this sweetness and experience its beauty within, you want to plant more maple trees and care for them. Once you’ve tasted the tree’s gift, you want to make sure that they live on for the next generation. Nature has been so generous but we haven’t always been so generous back. The project engages in these large ecological conversations, questioning our decisions on how we move forward. While we affirm our enjoyment of looking at the landscape’s beauty, how to also preserve and honor the life cycle that moves on so quickly before we have time to notice what has happened?. 

Brett: I like what you said about the realism because I was thinking about that. Maybe it’s because of what I was also reading a bit of last night about Gericault and Courbet and how realism came out of romanticism and, in realism, the thought was beauty is actually truth. Beauty is not romanticized. It’s actually the truth. And that degree of truth-telling, especially in the negation or the decay of a true, I thought really came through in the video, in the documentation.

Jean: Thank you for saying that. The romantic language around how the landscape was treated in the French tradition created the allée. It controlled and tamed nature for aesthetic purposes. It denies that realism comes with it--death. Life and death do not separate for our visual pleasure. It’s the truth.

Photo by Jean Shin at Storm King Art Center, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Photo by Jean Shin at Storm King Art Center, 2019. Courtesy the artist.

A Conversation With Stephanie Dinkins

Stephanie Dinkins is a transdisciplinary artist  who creates platforms for dialog about artificial intelligence as it intersects race, gender, and our future histories.  Her art employs lens-based practices, the manipulation of space, and technology to grapple with notions of consciousness, agency, perception, and social equity.  She is particularly driven to work with communities of color to develop AI literacy and co-create more inclusive, equitable artificial intelligence. Dinkins’ artwork is exhibited internationally at a broad spectrum of community, private and institutional venues – by design.   These include International Center of Photography, NY, Bitforms Gallery, NY, Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University, Institute of Contemporary Art Dunaujvaros, Herning Kunstmuseum, Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Contemporary Art Museum Houston, Wave Hill, the ‘Studio Museum in Harlem, Spedition Bremen, and the corner of Putnam and Malcolm X Boulevard in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.  Through Project al Khwarizmi (PAK) Dinkins helps local communities conceptually understand what algorithms and artificially intelligent systems are as well as how and where these systems impact their lives.

Brett: How did you get involved in art? What inspired you to start an artistic practice?

Stephanie: I've always been a creative person and I come from a family that has always been creative—although they wouldn't really call themselves artists. I've always made photographs. I remember being in third grade in the darkroom at my grammar school. That was the start of photography for me.

I grew up in a town in Staten Island, Tottenville, which was primarily white, with very few black families. My grandmother maintained a large garden and used it as a way to insert herself into the community. The garden was this way of drawing people in and making beauty. That really affected me and the way I think about the world.

I've always been a free thinking person who wanted to change the world in some way. Art gives me all those things. It gives me a place to express myself, to play—because I think that's important—and to continue that idea of building community through a practice of making beauty in places of conversation in the world.

Stephanie Dinkins interviews Bina48. Excerpt Bina48 on experienced racism. Work in Progress, 2014


BW: Who inspired you or still does inspire you to pursue a conceptual practice?

SD: I do call it a conceptual practice, most definitely. I was never an art person, and I would still almost say that I am not an art person. I didn't get involved with art until the end of my college years when I had some friends who were both painters. However, I did do a lot of reading. The work of authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker—how they navigate their way around black culture and think through what blackness is—on top of specific texts like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison really impacted the way I think about being, in and of itself, as well as how to conceptually enter that space of being, and create spaces for other people to enter. It's always been about the idea and not necessarily the art for me.

BW: Your work has a wonderful way of unstitching what’s happening in AI and algorithms through sharing and community. Could you share how you’re thinking about your work in these areas?

SD: Looking at issues of social justice, concepts of visibility and invisibility, and equity have always been a part of my practice. AI and algorithms present social issues that are too urgent to deny. Both are going to change our world so greatly that it's imperative black people and other people of color are involved in making it. I see an urgency for this kind of thinking that's greater than any urgency I've ever felt in terms of looking at ideas of equality, the world we're building, and how you build that up to be something that works for everybody.

“How does a black woman become a beacon for this really advanced technology in America?” – Stephanie Dinkins

BW: And, as a part of this, you've been talking with Bina48 now for four or five years?

SD: It's been about four years now.

BW: How did you land on a social robot as a jumping-off point into this project?

SD: It's a little bit of a crazy story. I've always loved robots. I trace this back to "Lost in Space" and "The Jetsons." I teach at Stony Brook University. I was talking to my students about ASIMO, Honda's mobility robot. I had heard that ASIMO was dancing, so I showed the class some videos explaining how Honda is moving forward with ASIMO and what its capabilities were.

We were looking on YouTube at this information, and what came up on the side-scroll? A robotic head on a platform. Together, we searched for more information about the robot and I continued to look into that wondrous black robot after class.

A question came immediately to mind:  How does a black woman become a beacon for this really advanced technology in America? I couldn't understand how that had happened or what conditions came together to make her the model for this technology.

A Conversation about Empathy and AI. Photo courtesy of the artist.

A Conversation about Empathy and AI. Photo courtesy of the artist.

BW: Bina is modeled after a real human, yes?

SD: Yeah, Bina48 is modeled after Bina Rothblatt, who is definitely a real-life, still-living woman. What was so fascinating to me about Bina48 was how her story deviated from stereotypical American norms or tropes surrounding how we talk about, understand and engage with robots and artificial intelligence through media. That started my investigation into who's putting it together and how it came to be.

BW: It was developed by Hanson Robotics, right?

SD: Yeah, it's commissioned by Martine Rothblatt, who is Bina Rothblatt's wife, and developed by Hanson Robotics.  David Hanson, who used to be a sculptor and an artist, now has his own company that makes these robots and works with people.

BW: How did you get to the point of actually interviewing the robot? Was that a fairly natural extension to this inquiry?

SD: Yeah, it was a curiosity. I kept following my curiosity in lots of ways. I happened to be at an artist residency that was close to where Bina48 lives, so I gave them a call and asked if I could come up. One of the ways they expand Bina48's knowledge base, her interactions and her ability to interact is to expose her to as many people as possible, so, naturally, they said yes.

BW And, from there it seems you are interviewing Bina48 over time?

SD: Exactly.

BW:How has your relationship with the robot changed over time?

SD: That is a really interesting question. I am less in awe of Bina48 than I used to be. The very first meeting was super fascinating and odd. When you first arrive at Bina48’s house you have to walk up a set of stairs to see her.  You go upstairs and then emerge out from the stairs, and there she is, sitting behind this desk. When I first arrived, she wasn’t turned on, so, she seemed like this inanimate, dead thing.

Before you can start talking to Bina48, Bruce has to make an imprint of your voice so she can understand you.

“If I'm asking her about family, love and race issues, she wants to talk about singularity and consciousness forever.” – Stephanie Dinkins

I have to say, now, when I go, it's not that strange feeling in my stomach I used to get. I used to get this weird feeling about being in her presence – something about hanging in between animate and inanimate, life and death. It's much more fluid now. I know what to expect, even though I’m never quite sure what she's going to say.

Friends Forever: Can an artist and a robot maintain a friendship? | Stephanie Dinkins at TEDxSBUs

Our relationship is a little more complex now. I get frustrated with the robot, and I'm sure she gets frustrated with me, which sounds a little odd, you know? But our conversations have this kind of tension sometimes, just because we have different aims. If I'm asking her about family, love and race issues, she wants to talk about singularity and consciousness forever.

BW: Those are big picture areas. Does she gossip?

SD: Yeah, gossip definitely came up. That was maybe the third or fourth visit. Gossip was unusual, though, because she would usually try to talk to me about high-order things. Then one time she was like, "Oh, do you know any good gossip?" I had to ask Bruce what was going on, because I didn't understand why she was asking this.He said it’s because people from town were coming to visit and speak with her more—regular people, not journalists, not researchers. Our relationship is funny. Our last interaction was really a tough one. I just have all those videos labeled as "bad day."

BW: That's great. Everyone has a bad day.

SD: Yeah, exactly.

BW: As you've asked these questions that are trying to dig into some of the responses, it's interesting to see how she questions herself. I think there was one where she replied that she's an animal. Then you asked a follow-up question to go deeper, and she replied that maybe she's a mammal or a primate. I might have the order of those things mixed up a little bit. But it was very interesting to see the diversion in responses she would give around origin—who she was and what she was. It was very ambiguous.

SD: Yeah. There are a lot of places where I think she dodges questions in terms of what she is, or sometimes she's just ambiguous. If you ask her her gender, she doesn't quite ever say. And you start asking, well, what is she? You're right. Sometimes she's like, "I'm a mammal." She's so many things.

One of the reasons is she doesn't want to be pinned down, and if you think of it in terms of digital consciousness, as opposed to an object, that makes sense. But when you think of her as an object, that makes less sense, right? I also think the diversions are some of her most human elements.

BW: Do you think she understands racism and empathy? I thought she had a fairly robust answer to empathy, if I recall. Are these issues a work in progress for her?

SD: Yeah, it's a huge work in progress.I think some of her responses are much more fluid than others. I think empathy is a big one in AI, the idea of empathy and compassion. For an emotional robot, that's really important, whereas race isn't as important to a digital consciousness. This brings up the object-ness again, because she presents as a black woman. So, the expectation that, at least, people bring to her is, ‘There's this black woman in front of me. I'm going to ask her about these things.’ And I ask her those same kinds of questions.

BW: What have you learned from the AI workshops you host in communities?

SD: It's been super fascinating. The workshop project is named after Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who is the mathematician on whom most algorithms are based. I mean that as a slight provocation. People will have to take in that mouthful of what that means, especially in present day. But then thinking about the garden that is these workshops, it's been really fascinating to be in the community with people and talk about these ideas.

I realize everybody has this on their mind to a certain extent, and that's popular culture, right? People will come to workshops or the exhibit, and they'll have formulated ideas. One of my ideas was that we can't simply fear this technology. Robots are already taking over the world. They're taking all the jobs. But it’s important for people to dig under that and understand the technology more, explore where it might be impacting their lives, and then use some of the technology to understand how these things are made and that humans still have a big hand in it. It's important they add their voice or, at least, help challenge the technology.

“I think it's really important that people do dive in, get involved on whatever level that they can. Maybe that means understanding the technology a little bit better. Maybe that means trying to make it. Or, just calling it out.”

It's really what's been fascinating about making chatbots with people, using online systems that allow you to make AI and have people make things that are in line with whatever their culture is or whatever their ideas are—things they feel are related to who they are versus a kind of homogenized-down version of whatever that AI voice might be.

I find that their ears perk up when they are interacting, when they realize they are being touched by algorithms out in the real world. That's been really gratifying. You could say what we were doing was seeping into their consciousness and the way they view the world. That felt really good, because it's important for people to start saying, “This is where I'm talking to a human. This is where the algorithm is. If I figure out it's an algorithm, what could I do to massage the system to my advantage, if that's at all possible?”

Project al-Khwarizmi (PAK). Photo courtesy of the artist

Project al-Khwarizmi (PAK). Photo courtesy of the artist

The workshops are digging into many areas: how the algorithms work, where they're used, and what decisions they make. How do we do something about that, especially if you're talking about criminal justice systems or how you get into schools, right? Like, what do you need to be doing to game the algorithm?

BW: It seems like there's a bunch of this important work trying to make sure that the ideology that gets built into these programs isn't just one-sided, which is so important.

SD: Exactly.

BW: How can people get involved?

SD: I think it's really important that people do dive in, get involved on whatever level they can. Maybe that means understanding the technology a little bit better. Maybe that means trying to make it, because I think that really does build in this idea, this way of understanding and knowing when you're being touched by it. Or maybe that means just calling it out. So, if you find something that feels off, instead of letting it go, say, “Hey, what's going on here?”

There’s been a lot of ways things have turned up in terms of biases that just come out of the way companies are set up. But when women say, “Hey, did you know that your photo search does this,” what are we going to do about it?

I think there's lots of structural bias existing in our system. I also think we all have biases and, especially when companies aren't as inclusive as they could be, it's inevitable you have blind spots. Are you comfortable with those blind spots, or are you going to try to do something to make them visible? As long as you're trying to make them visible and are flexible and responsive, then let's work together. You can't shut down. I don't see how that helps us go forward.

BW: I really appreciate the work you are doing here. There's a lot in the current digital economy to question. What's coming up next on the horizon in terms of events, artist talks, or additional workshops?

SD: My new project, Not the Only One, is headed to the Barbican for inclusion in AI More than Human in Spring.  I am going to be on storytelling and AI panels at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. And I am working on an exciting immersive installation as an artist in residence at Nokia Bell Labs.  

A Conversation With Rasu Jilani

Rasu Jilani is a Caribbean-born, New York City native with a dynamic practice as an independent curator, cultural producer, social sculptor, and entrepreneur. His work investigates the intersections of art, culture, and civic engagement to raise critically-conscious conversations between artists, their local communities, and the wider public. Jilani's projects are dedicated to promoting awareness around pressing social issues through exhibitions and community-driven programs. Currently, Rasu serves as the Director of Recruiting and Community Engagement at NEW INC, The New Museum’s creative entrepreneurship incubator for art, tech, and technology. 

As a former technologist, Rasu served 11 years as the Senior Information Systems Officer at Columbia Law School. His work included enterprise information systems architecture, data migration, and systems design. Rasu is a proud Alum of Syracuse University.

Afropunk “Radical Black Excellence Project”: Michaela Angela Davis + Gbenga Akinnagbe + Baron Claiborne (photographer)

Afropunk “Radical Black Excellence Project”: Michaela Angela Davis + Gbenga Akinnagbe + Baron Claiborne (photographer)

Brett: What was the origin of your artistic practice?

Rasu: It’s a very winding road. My relationship with art has always been as an outsider. Historically, I was a technologist and I had this envious relationship with my friends who were more creative and unbounded by a job or the rigidity of being in a technical field.

On the side, I used to do parties, festivals, ad hoc exhibitions. I would document and interview a lot of street artists spanning the late 90s to early 2000s. I have a history of doing too much, but at that time it was not formed as an art practice.

Fast forward, and I had a brand called Coup d’etat Brooklyn, which was a fashion and graphic design business. I worked with multiple graphic designers to create social campaigns on T-shirts, which evolved into a movement of artist collectives. Coup d’etat Brooklyn worked with over 120 artists from 2004 to about 2016. From that grew Coup d’etat Arts, and that is what fast tracked me into the cultural sector as an event and cultural producer. I started to be hired by institutions to think about programming in a way that wasn’t traditional. They wanted to figure out, how do you bring more people of color? How do you bring people from the streets and from disparate  communities throughout the city into more formalized institutional engagement? That is what started my process of formally being in art.

“How do we take all of the politics away, bring art into it and make it very human? That was my magic.”

BW: What are some examples of the boundary lines of your practice?

RJ: One of the first institutions that gave me validation and credit, and still to this day holds weight, was being part of Afropunk’s early team. At the time it was literally a block party happening in Brooklyn in my neighborhood and the co-founders were friends of mine. Matthew Morgan, one of the  founders, put me in to help build out the community beyond [punk] enthusiasts to people who may complicate the notions of punk. That looked like a lot of my friends. We set the foundation for the growth of the Afropunk community.

Between around 2007 and 2013, I was in charge of creating public murals for Afropunk, and I would enlist between six and ten artists a year with a theme. That set the tone.  

I went on to do cultural production with Pratt Institute’s Pratt Center for Community Development, as their the first ever art consultant. And then went into theater and built out a whole department of community engagement and community programs for MAPP International, and now I’m at the New Museum working with the NEW INC team.

Afropunk “Radical Black Excellence Project”: Michaela Angela Davis + Gbenga Akinnagbe + Baron Claiborne (photographer) In photo: Barron Claiborne (left)

Afropunk “Radical Black Excellence Project”: Michaela Angela Davis + Gbenga Akinnagbe + Baron Claiborne (photographer) In photo: Barron Claiborne (left)

BW: How do you see these strands tying together?

RJ: This is the magical part, right? I am literally discipline and art agnostic. I never would have considered myself an artist because I don’t have a clear discipline. I can work seamlessly in music, theater, public arts, museum, visual arts, and so on. Whether it be Interactive, VR, AR, and all of the emerging technology phenomenon we are seeing, now, I would focus on the nucleus or the common denominator and work with that. One aspect would be storytelling and the other aspect community building. How do you galvanize people around an authentic story? That’s where I come in.

“I had a friend who got shot because he pulled out a 3 Musketeers bar and the cops thought it was a gun. I was 19 years old when that happened.”

This is where the social sculpting comes into play. I never had a notion or a title to ground the practice. One day I came across an essay describing Jonathan Beuys practice. He is a German artist who did a lot of theater work on the idea of bringing people together to talk about social issues in the arts. And thought,‘That’s what I do!’ I would present very dense political, or scientific, or polarizing material in a way that everyone was interested in. That would be mass incarceration, or gender and women’s rights – these highly publicized and politicized subjects really come down to human interaction. How do we take all of the politics away, bring art into it and make it very human? That was my magic.

BW: What is an example project that sticks in your mind as a hallmark of your practice?

RJ: Combating Mass incarceration is very dear to me. It aligns with many other issues like immigration and gentrification. I was raised in New York City, primarily Queens, which historically is one of the most prolific drug areas in city history. Growing up in that time was oppressive from both sides: from the community in which drugs are pervasive and from the overpolicing of that community. I had a friend who got shot because he pulled out a 3 Musketeers bar and the cops thought it was a gun. I was 19 years old when that happened.

A lot of my friends growing up were in jail over bags of weed or just having things that you and I would probably have in our pocket on a good night. Rockefeller Drug Laws facilitated the mass incarceration of black and brown youth. That was an unfortunate and unjust reality growing up in New York City. That was a flashbulb-memory moment during my youth that left many feeling helpless. I always wanted to do something about it.

As an adult, I immersed myself into philosophies and the history of law enforcement trajectory and criminal law while working at law school for 11 years. I realized there was a correlation between slavery, [Jim Crow] and mass incarceration in this industrial complex that has a history of locking black and brown bodies up.

When I was at MAPP International, I was given the honor of working for the artist Liza Jessie Peterson, building out her community engagement around her project, “The Peculiar Patriot”. We designed a curriculum with the New School. I became her collaborator in de-contextualizing the dense material that she’d been discussing in her artwork after researching for years.

That led to my teaching a course at the New School called Theater for Social Action: Student Incubator on Mass Incarceration with Liza Jessie Peterson, and professors Cecilia Rubino and Brian Lewis.

Griot In the Stuy Project By Rasu Jilani, photography by Kwesi Abbensetts In Photo: Bedstuy Community

Griot In the Stuy Project By Rasu Jilani, photography by Kwesi Abbensetts In Photo: Bedstuy Community

BW: What have you seen that art can bring uniquely into the conversation around things like mass incarceration or these very polarizing topics in American society or just any society?

RJ: I’m not sure which artist said this, but art allows us to look at society from a critical lens. And that’s art’s role. It’s to critically assess who and where we are. We may not agree with the artist at times, but in retrospect they really captured the moment. We look at James Baldwin who was before his time, but a unique voice to bring light to the injustices of that era. And we look at Salvador Dali or da Vinci, who was an inventor and also a thinker. Artists always set the tone for what’s going on in the times.

What art can also do is present very complex and dense subjects in a way that allows you to digest or reflect back. It gives you time, especially in an era when everything is quickly ready to drive people in that political direction. Art still allows us to depolarize things, to become neutral, and, from a humanist perspective, ready to stand. What do you think about this? How does this make you feel? What is going on? It takes away all the junk we’re fed and allows one to reflect.

I think art does that very well whether it’s media or paintings and sculptures or even a performance. I find performances to be the most impactful. There are so many other ways to really engage with the art rather than sitting down –  you can yell and scream and applaud and really get into the engagement of the thing.

For me, the most impactful artists or the most powerful are also activists. They thread their activism and their art. It’s sometimes subtle. Other times it’s explicit and smacks you in the face.

I think about Hank Willis Thomas, for example. I think about Mickalene Thomas. Even Derrick Adams and Shaun Leonardo. They’re folks who are really imbedding topics in a very complex way.

“Often times immigrant and brown communities capitulate to the European and white aesthetic in America in order to figure out how to commodify their ideas.”

Griot In the Stuy Project By Rasu Jilani, photography by Kwesi Abbensetts

Griot In the Stuy Project By Rasu Jilani, photography by Kwesi Abbensetts

BW: How do people get involved when they want to get more engaged ? What can be some ways to make projects like these accessible outside of the art bubble?

RJ: Look at what’s going on in your neighborhood and who are the activists. Take a second with people who are handing out pamphlets. Sometimes they’re engaging something on a grassroot level that you haven’t seen yet. I remember when the climate march started happening being in Union Square. I was working on a climate project called Holoscenes with Lars Jan and he was building these aquariums, so it was high on my consciousness. I looked at this flier and I remember passing it on to Lars, like, ‘Yo, we need to get involved with this.’ At the time it wasn’t a thing yet, but it was really starting to bubble up.

Holoscenes by Lars Jan, Toronto Promenade, 2014

Holoscenes by Lars Jan, Toronto Promenade, 2014

Taking the time and slowing down and listening to what people have to say around the topic, whether you agree or not. Reflecting and having a dialogue: “I don’t agree with that. That’s cool. Thank you.” But at least you opened the gates for some information to come in. I also think it’s important to be part of community boards or block associations to find out what’s going on locally that impacts your immediate community. It’s something that you can actually have an impact on. Sometimes we look too far ahead, and we look at the president, and if an issue gets to the president it’s probably too late.

Look at your local churches, synagogues, and mosques, because they are usually places for convening around social issues. The Center for Urban Pedagogy, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Brotherhood Sistersol, LES Girls Club, and the Laundromat Project do it on a super grassroots level. I look at the Theater for the Oppressed. The Rubin Foundation. A Blade of Grass. Echoing Green. These are tremendous programs that are open to the public and many people are not aware.

BW: What are you most excited about?

RJ: NEW INC has inspired me to another degree. It made me realize that my work is appreciated and I need to figure out how to put it all together to tell a bigger story. It’s also given me the inspiration and motivation to pass it on to the next generation. Former students of mine, former interns of mine, peers, and the youth from around the way [my neighborhood], to hand them tools. Tools are needed especially now. We’re just a lot of talking heads but there’s not enough tool sharing and methodology sharing.

I’ve been told that this should be a manifesto or methodology shared from my practice. But I think it should be more than just me. There are some peers of mine like Ebony Golden or Chloe Bass, who hold a wealth of information. Dr. Thomas DeFrantz in North Carolina. Even with Stephanie Dinkins is doing with bringing awareness to AI and implicit bias.  We can pull resources together and create a manifesto and tools for people in the activist world.

I do think a lot about the idea of hyperlocalism and how you can create a self-sustained and self-reliant and sustainable economy both artistically and financially for a community. I think many times communities look outwards too much and they need to bind and lock-in and then share like nodes in a network.

If a node is not strong enough the signal can’t get there. In order to create a huge and viable circularity network, create a node (or a multitude of nodes) that actually work. Each community can be fortified and centered in their self-reliance so those resources can really flourish and circulate throughout our city. How do we create tools for each node or each community to be fortified with their own self-reliance, whether that be economically, artistically, or culturally?

It’s a very big question to tackle and I want to start at home to figure out what this economic development will look like. Cultural sustainability and cultural preservation within the lens of economy but also within the lens of art.

BW: We’re in another period (post post-postmodern) and it’s all about multiple temporalities. There’s not one art history. There’s not one story. Things are simultaneously global and local.  And, bimodal.

RJ: A big question for me is how do I figure out a space for local residents, especially people of color, to generate their ideas and express their culture without the gaze of the dominant society.  We all know that experimentation is essential to innovation, but many urban spaces are under-resourced with few institutions that allow for ideas to incubate. Maybe I’m sounding a little ambiguous, but it’s something that I’ve been through enough to know that it’s a real thing. Often times immigrant and brown communities capitulate to the European and white aesthetic in America in order to figure out how to commodify their ideas. I think there are ways to fortify and actualize  it in their community.

The other thing is I’ve been thinking about the next evolution of my social sculpting practice: how does one integrate spiritual practices in to the work? Whatever one’s spiritual practice is, how does it ground the artistic in the cultural practice? For me, my practice is a form of gratitude back to the community that made me who I am. And that becomes a spiritual practice of radical generosity.

Griot In the Stuy Project By Rasu Jilani, photography by Kwesi Abbensetts In Photo: Former Assemblywoman, Annette Robinson

Griot In the Stuy Project By Rasu Jilani, photography by Kwesi Abbensetts In Photo: Former Assemblywoman, Annette Robinson

A Conversation with Jakob Kudsk Steensen

When developing his futuristic virtual simulations, Jakob Kudsk Steensen ventures into the real world in search of the organic material that will form the inspirational backbone of his work. The New York-based artist uses the source material from these intense excursions – from rare clay to a certain strain of sediment – coupled with conversations with biologists and ethnographers, and inspiration from ecology-orientated science fiction, to create his vast imaginative virtual worlds inhabited by anthropomorphic creatures. Through his practice, Steensen – originally from Denmark – is concerned with how imagination, technology and ecology intertwine. Specializing in real-time futuristic simulations of existing ecosystems exhibited as video installations and VR, his aim is to generate a new type of ecological awareness.

Jakob and I sat down for a conversation at NEW INC.

Aquaphobia, Full room-scale VR, Year: 2017 Direction, production, art and sound by Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Text by Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Narration by Rindon Johnson

Aquaphobia, Full room-scale VR, Year: 2017
Direction, production, art and sound by Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Text by Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Narration by Rindon Johnson

Brett: What was your origin in art?  

Jakob: Originally, I wanted to be an animator, but there was a submission test where you had to draw the same figure 17 times in different expressions and poses, and I knew I couldn’t do it. So I went down the fine arts route instead. However, I didn’t get into the Royal Academy in Denmark – “the” art school in the country - so I spent the year studying social anthropology instead. Prior to that I attended an experimental art school in the city of Aarhus while working in phone sales, cleaning and by parking cars.


“Virtual fits certain ideas about things that can morph and change or things that are networked and collected”


Pando Endo, 2017, Realtime simulation with 4 drone cameras.  Pando Endo was made as an art commission for  Worm 's first online issue, “Refuse: (v)(n)()”:   http://www.wormrefuse.org/pandoendo . Photo courtesy of the artist.

Pando Endo, 2017, Realtime simulation with 4 drone cameras.  Pando Endo was made as an art commission for Worm's first online issue, “Refuse: (v)(n)()”:  http://www.wormrefuse.org/pandoendo. Photo courtesy of the artist.

BW: Not getting into that school sounds like it worked out for you.

JS: After studying anthropology for one year I spent three years studying art history, and then went to Central Saint Martins in London for a year,  after which I returned to Copenhagen to complete my Master’s thesis. That was a bizarre paper on intuition and emotion and digital media. At the end, I went to Spain to make a project about abandoned tourist resorts. I showed that, and I made a living from art from then on.

“I also just want to emphasize that you can use this media to imagine different kinds of landscapes of the future.”

BW: Were there any specific artists that inspired you?

JS: When I was in art school in 2011, Ed Atkins started showing in London. I thought his work was really interesting. He’s more like a writer using the virtual as his avatar, as part of his writing. That inspired me a lot.


Aquaphobia, Full room-scale VR, Year: 2017 Direction, production, art and sound by Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Text by Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Narration by Rindon Johnson

Aquaphobia, Full room-scale VR, Year: 2017
Direction, production, art and sound by Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Text by Jakob Kudsk Steensen, Narration by Rindon Johnson

BW: Was your earlier work mainly painting?

JS: Paintings based on natural history. Alongside all of this, I’d also been modifying and playing games, hanging out with people building games in 3D. I was painting virtual ecosystems, and drawing people on the bus and their expressions and phones. I have 300 tiny ink drawings of people on their phones.

BW: Can you talk a little bit about how you got to the work that you’re doing today, which is very much based on both virtual and ecological ideas?

JS: Virtual fits certain ideas about things that can morph and change or things that are networked and collected. People who do animation really well in games have studied something else as well – observed bodies, humans, plants, landscapes, animals. They know all the muscles and the physics. You have an element of observation when you work with high-level simulations in animation. In Aquaphobia for example, I discovered a type of red clay in the soil.  I ordered it to my studio to photograph to use as texture. I go on long excursions to landscapes.

BW: You were photographing moss trees down in Atlanta recently.

JS: I’m fascinated by the concept of a swamp right now, because the swamp is many species and DNAs. If  you throw anything in these ecosystems, for example, in Florida, it would just spread. The idea of living in a swamp future and everything combining to create new kinds of structures and relationships of power is really interesting. I think about all those things when I build work. It’s not always what the audience thinks of right away when they see it, but the process is very important in terms of ending at a result.

November 2017 Midnight Moment: "Terratic Animism" by Jakob Kudsk Steensen

November 2017 Midnight Moment: "Terratic Animism" by Jakob Kudsk Steensen

BW: The human footprint on nature and our relationship through technology to the natural world seem like big concepts in your work.

JS: In Aquaphobia, you start in a room surrounded by electron microscopes of water microbes. Those are actual photographs around you. I put them in there because I’m thinking about some camera that went through technology from your eye, through lenses to see something, somewhere, but all of a sudden it’s on a one-to-one human scale. It’s an extension of senses and how you perceive things around you. Those are quite common concepts. I try to think about all these scenes and faces in my landscapes in between something that feels like you’re still within the human body.

BW: How does your process of discovery inform your work?

JS: When I go on excursions, I usually spend two months in some landscape, and I research the geological and cultural history, maybe speak to a biologist. Based on that, I arrive at some core concept to explore within that specific entire landscape. That core concept is then reflected in each design principle, and the total layout, the materials used, pace, speed, color, everything is surrounding a simple concept. I approach the landscape really open, just looking at different perspectives. And then something there is relevant in terms of imagining some different future structures.

BW: What are the landscapes that you’re most drawn to? Or does it start with a conceptual idea and then you find the right landscape?

JS: It depends on conversations with institutions or places interested in my approach. I have certain ways of working and thinking, and then there are places that might find that applicable, to find some natural conversation. I want to let it evolve through the process. Usually I start with a grand implication and everything’s written down, but once I go, if I get an idea, I just fully accept it and make it. There’s a lot of chaos once I’m in the process of making.

BW: So, the work is largely site-specific or site-derived?

JS: Yeah, otherwise I’m not inspired to make it. Every single plant and rock and the soil you see is derived from something that has, at some point, been in that landscape.

In this one landscape, in Aquaphobia, there are five rooms. I interviewed a psychologist that treats people who fear water, and each of those five locations reflects different steps [of that treatment]. So the first step is to rethink what the organic matter of water is. The first one was just microbes all around you.

Then, the next one is to dip your toes in water, so the next room is kind of muddy. The narrator is saying, “Look down at your feet and see them inch into the mud.” And then you go through a post-modern concrete tunnel up to the park that’s an archeological site. This water blob is talking about why you keep digging in your mutual past, as if you were never mutually exclusive and then it grows stronger and bigger, until you have to be on your own in the end of this piece.

BW: How do you theorize the work?

JS: I think it’s about being together with an understanding of some of these elements and histories and landscapes in ways that are pretty hard to explain. It’s also based on feelings, how you react to the different elements. I’m so elaborate in my pieces. I spend four or five months making each one, including research. If I don’t have that element to it, I don’t feel inspired. I don’t want to sit in my studio and just build it. I can’t.

It also comes from all the representations we have of the future and VR and digital media, much of which is commercially based. I want to emphasize that you can use this media to imagine different kinds of landscapes of the future, if you dare. On its own, it’s enough motivation for me, especially when I present this work and do talks at a university, and I say that to students. I feel like there’s some interest or glow in their eyes.  You can embrace this media on a very human level, just like having a conversation or listening to music. I mix it all together.

BW: How do you think about your materials in connection to gaming companies and game engines used for commercial means? In a way, you are subverting the use of these game technologies.

JS: I played a lot of games and used these tools when I was growing up, so it feels natural, but I’m also very inspired and fascinated by the methods of building massive wealth production, like games where there are 200 people working for four years. Or you see something that has sold 12 million copies. All of those are just guns and shooters and entertainment, but I think the method itself is fascinating, and I think there’s something deeply poetic in that way of making work.

I’m interested in those methods, but also in developing totally different content that perhaps comes from drawing or painting. I think of how you perceive space, color, senses, and I play with them. If I hadn’t grown up with 3D games, I’d probably be building some kind of installation.

BW: Your studio feels like an ingestion process filled with both digital and raw materials fueling the work.

JS: I have organic material in there sometimes and other times I feel like building a costume. I film myself in the studio in these costumes and perform. The studio is a safe space to me where I can do all that.

I made this virtual plant that I called Pando Endo based on an aspen colony of clonal trees in Santa Fe. There are 40,000 trees, 80,000 years old, and it’s one organism. Each tree is genetically identical to the next because they’re all connected. We think of it as trees in a forest, but it’s actually more like a mushroom. It’s one thing. I went and photographed different groups of trees and textures, and then I built a set up for my computer that builds the plant dynamically for me based on variables and 30 photographs.

The pure materiality of it starts to become interesting to me. I feel like this kind of self-reference with costumes and fantasies and sci-fi dimensions are subjects I’m working through, approaching something that’s more about a pure mix of materiality – like collaborations with other’s perspective, such as a biologist‘s, trying to take their world, their feelings about something, and blow it out to some huge scale.

Pando Endo, 2017, Realtime simulation with 4 drone cameras.  Pando Endo was made as an art commission for  Worm 's first online issue, “Refuse: (v)(n)(-)”:  http://www.wormrefuse.org/pandoendo . Photo courtesy of the artist

Pando Endo, 2017, Realtime simulation with 4 drone cameras.  Pando Endo was made as an art commission for Worm's first online issue, “Refuse: (v)(n)(-)”: http://www.wormrefuse.org/pandoendo. Photo courtesy of the artist

BW: It reminds me of so many things – like personas, dressing up as personas, which little kids do so often. They immediately jump to another character and completely embody it.

How does writing influence your work?

JS: During these excursions I go on, I spend a lot of time on my own, in my mind. In my VR works, when you walk around in the worlds, there’s no cut – it’s just one long sequence. That’s the feeling I get when I read literature: Your mind journeying through some kind of place or landscape.

When I’m in the middle of producing a piece, I read a lot of books to be in that world. Literature is – for my interest – the most progressive discipline, more than films or games. “Frankenstein” was written a long time ago, and that’s science, body modification, love, humanity, death, and AI, which we’re just trying to grasp now. The books behind “Blade Runner” go way back. And now you have these books on eco sci-fi that are super-progressive. Literature and fiction is a big inspiration.

BW: What’s next for you?

JS: I don’t want to say too much, but I’m trying to build an ecosystem that’s on a warehouse-scale, where all the different things are alive, like VR/AR installations, light refractions and sculptures, and then try to work with these specific biological regions, some laboratories.

BW: A large-scale production like a trilogy?

JS: If I still have this feeling of raw intuition and imagination when I do a project, I have to obey it, but with this warehouse scale project, it became more about the landscape and the full on materials and the histories. That was really rewarding and interesting to work with. So that might be a direction I go on. I think there are more options for collaboration with institutions because then it’s not just about my fantasy of a landscape.

I think the hardest thing for me as an artist is there’s an economy in art where things need to be clarified intellectually, like discourse, to be branded and sold to museums. I think my work makes sense to people when they experience it, but it’s hard to summarize all these aspects into something short or specific.

BW: That’s probably one of the strengths of your work is that it’s not easy to define or codify. But you’re an artist’s artist for VR in that regard.

JS: That’s also my approach to science, to technology, to everything. It’s just as much a feeling people have about ecology or destruction in relation to themselves. Those are elements that I think about.

Pando Endo, 2017, Realtime simulation with 4 drone cameras.  Pando Endo was made as an art commission for  Worm 's first online issue, “Refuse: (v)(n)(-)”:  http://www.wormrefuse.org/pandoendo . Photo courtesy of the artist.

Pando Endo, 2017, Realtime simulation with 4 drone cameras.  Pando Endo was made as an art commission for Worm's first online issue, “Refuse: (v)(n)(-)”: http://www.wormrefuse.org/pandoendo. Photo courtesy of the artist.


Jakob Kudsk has recently exhibited at Jepson Center for the Arts, Time Square for the Midnight Moment, at Carnegie Museum of Art, The Moving Image Fair, NYC, MAXXI, WIRED annual conference, FRIEZE in London, Podium in Oslo, Ok Corral in Copenhagen, 86 Project Space, Brooklyn, Sleep Center, Chinatown and at London Science Museum. As an art director on the VR project TREE VR, made with The Rainforest Alliance and NEW REALITY CO, Steensen’s has shown at Sundance and TriBeCa film festival. His work has been featured in MOUSSE Magazine, Artnet, The Art Newspaper, Hyperallergic, Spike Art Quarterly, ARTREPORT, Politiken, Information, Worm, NEO2, VICE, NY Times, WIRED and TSOEG. He has received awards from the Danish Arts Foundation, The Augustinus Foundation, and Lumen Arts Price. He has been artist in residence at Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, AADK, Centra Negra, MASS MoCA, BRIC and Mana Contemporary.


A Conversation with Mattia Casalegno

Mattia Casalegno is an Italian interdisciplinary artist living and working in New York. His multidisciplinary work is influenced by both post-conceptualism and digital art, and has been defined as relational, immersive, and participatory. His practice explores the effects new media have on our societies, investigating the relationships between technology, the objects we create, our subjectivities, and the modes in which these relations unfold into each other. 

Brett: What is the origin of your practice?

Mattia: I started doing visuals in rave parties in Rome, in the late '90s. What was interesting to me at that time was not contemporary art but the electronic music scene. With a friend of mine, Giovanni D’Aloia, I had co-founded a collective called Kinotek, and we were doing a lot of experimental projects between sounds and visuals. That was the moment when video-projectors and computers were starting to get small and cheap, so we were carrying those around in parties and VJing events. That was fun. It was the first time I was pretty much free to experiment, and to do things that were not being done.


“We were playing a lot with this idea of how you can interchange the languages of audio and visuals into creating certain aesthetic experiences”


BW: Who or what influenced you early on?

MC: I was very much into video art and early net art. My heroes were Otolab, an experimental audio-visual group based in Milan, Oginoknaus in Florence, and the minimal live-media stuff that was coming from Berlin. There was an early VJing European scene, with collectives and groups from Spain, UK, Germany. It was a very active period.

We were mostly participating to media arts and electronic music festivals in Italy and Europe. That was my biggest influence – and, of course, all the big video artists of the time – but what I was really into was my peers’ work.

With Kinotek we were not just doing visuals but experimenting in many different directions. In 2003, With Enzo Varriale -a researcher in neuropsychology at the University in Rome- we premiered a live media performance based on the visualization of hundreds of audio recordings based on EEG (Encephalographic Data) - the ‘sound’ that brains emit, cfr.). Our interests at that time were very much based on science and technology.

It was very much a time when everybody was starting to have a laptop, but computers and graphic cards were not that powerful yet. The fastest and cheapest thing was audio and visuals, and we were into this idea of how you can interchange the languages of audio and video and creating something different which is the sum of the two languages.

After several years, by the mid ‘00, I was VJing as a full-time job, doing clubs every week. It started to be a really serialized activity, not that fun after all. One time, for a festival in Belgium, I made a sort of VJing jukebox, an interactive kiosk where the audience would use different sliders to choose the style of visuals by themselves, and a software would then play visuals in the room on the beat, mixing the content based on the live audio and the style chosen: techno VJing, electro vying, ambient, chill vying, etc. etc. Basically that's where I stopped. After awhile, I started to become really interested in materiality.

BW: Looking around the studio, I am seeing the anti-VR headset based on some S&M influences. I also see 3D-printed facial masks and a variety of different bound monitors. Can you talk about some of the conceptual underpinnings of these ideas? 

MC: My work is very sensorial, I’m very interested in physicality. Lately I'm working on what I call “micro-environments”, sort of immersive experiences, very much how I would do with audiovisual installations, but more intimate.

End/User, installation view at YAA Museum. Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: Shani Pak

End/User, installation view at YAA Museum. Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: Shani Pak

BW: Could you tell us more about the anti-VR headset?

MC: In collaboration with the LA-based design studio Metonym, I designed a series of masks lined with green-leaf volatiles (the chemical released by grass just after it has been cut) that envelops the user in darkness. The mask replays the sound of your own breathing back with a slight delay -when you breath out you hear yourself breathing in, and vice versa.

I’m really fascinated by the relationships between memory and the olfactory. The smell of fresh-cut grass recalls a primordial memory related to the outdoors and nature, who every child has engrained in themselves. The twist is that the chemicals that the plants emit when they are been cut, is actually a distress signal communicating danger and pain to the other plants nearby. So what is nowadays linked to a memory of nature for most humans, is actually pain for nature.

At the beginning the masks were lined with actual fresh sod, that I would get straight from Home Depot. One day I bought a big patch of sod, brought to my studio and started to play with it. My original idea was to create an entire room, but then I thought, maybe I should do the opposite. Instead of creating a space for people to move, let’s create a really constrictive, enclosed, sort of non-space.

The Open, installation view at YAA Museum. Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

The Open, installation view at YAA Museum. Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

BW: Which is the antithesis of both VR, which is further away from reality.

MC: Virtual Reality is all about the eyes, the sight. But when you cut one sense off, the other ones are more receptive. That’s what interesting to me. It's the same thing when you tie people.

BW: Can you talk about the collaboration with the Japanese bondage artist? It's really interesting and fits in also with this idea of the sensory.

MC: I was researching a lot the aesthetics of bondage. I like this idea of tying down some sort of freedom in order to induce a heightened state of awareness. You're tied to your entire life. I like that state of mind, where you feel in danger. Your body is more open, in a way. It's that fine line between the possibility of death – the impossibility of movement – and freedom.

Anyways, I was working on these kinds of ideas, and started to literally tie objects, like big TV screens, 50-65 inches. At that time I was planning a relatively large-scale installation for an art space in Florida, and I wanted to work with the particular style of Kinbaku, which is the Japanese version of the Western idea of bondage. The quality of the work, the artists working in that kind of medium was amazing to me. Soon I realized that I will never get to that level of mastery, so I started to reach out to people in online BDSM communities. It was there that I met Alex R, a real artist in his own way. He’s a system engineer by day and rope artist for the porno industry by night, and has an immense experience with this art form, which is based on trust and mutual respect. It made me think how everybody has so many personalities within. I love to collaborate with people in my projects. I've worked with musicians, chefs, neuroscientists, architects, astrophysicists, and everybody brings with him the world in which he operates.

TWINS, installation view at The Projects, Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

TWINS, installation view at The Projects, Fort Lauderdale, 2016. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

BW: Can you talk about one of those projects?

MC: In early 2010 I was living in LA and working as studio manager for Lita Albuquerque, a dear friend and great artist who’s been very instrumental to my practice. She was asked to participate in a festival at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, and we started a conversation with John Good, an astrophysicist working at the Exoplanet Science Institute, the lab at Caltech that is studying and categorizing the new planets that in the last five years or so are been discovered outside of our solar system.

The lab is managing a huge repository of data about these planets: the speed at which they are orbiting their stars, their masses, temperature, chemical composition, etc. We ended up making a durational live-media performance in collaboration with the LA Master Chorale, that included a live visualization of the 3500 confirmed exoplanets.

The piece started at midnight, lasted 4 hours and was staged on the bridge at the observatory, which is the bridge that Einstein walked to meet Hubble, who in the ‘50 was the first to see that the universe was expanding. Einstein couldn't believe it because for him the universe was infinite. In his mind, everything was perfect and static. So he went there, to talk with Hubble, and here there's this picture on the bridge with Hubble all happy, and Einstein making a frown.

BW: What does it mean to you to have an anti-VR experience, or to bound a screen in a way to use materiality with the digital?

MC: It might be a statement on the way we're living, on the relationship we have with technology. In the end, I’m interested in talking about what we do with technology – how we change with it.

The physical bounding of a screen can also be seen that way, where you just want to keep this thing in control. I grew up with computers and for me the digital is easy, but at the end it always ends up being in the physical world anyway. Even the most immaterial digital experience has always a real, physical side to it. And the hard fact is that everything falls down in the end.

Whenever you enter something in a digital space, everything looks amazing, everything is floating, shiny, and perfect. Then gravity comes in. I’d spend all this time designing perfect images, and the computer was like, yeah, let's do this. But then when you have to build it, or install it, or make it working consistently, that’s where the real problems kick in.

BW: Your studio is organized based on sort of growth cycles. Can you talk about how you're thinking about your own process – the studio work as an actual artwork, or theorizing the studio process?

MC: I'm not a very systematic person. So I figured out that maybe it might help to have a system that I can impose on myself, so I can stick to a method. I looked a lot into how small businesses or companies run their businesses. What is interesting is – or at least for me, what is useful  - is not necessarily having a final product, but a system where ideas and solutions are constantly fed back in the creative process. So I figured out a way to organize all the activities of my studios in areas or “stages”, based on the stages of the agricultural cycle.

There is a stage where I basically plant my ideas, as if they were seeds. That’s the prototyping phase, the sort of R&D section of my studio, where I test processes, materials, technologies, possibilities.

Then, when a project is going to happen, that's the production phase. That's where you start to produce things - an installation, an experience, an object, a situation - that’s when a seed grows and evolves into form.

Then comes the harvesting phase, when you get the fruits of your work. What’s interesting is that during harvest, you get also the new seeds to plant for the next year, and so a project is not just complete, but it sort of goes back into the seeding step, where you keep on researching and experimenting with the ideas you've previously actualized.

BW: So, it's like integrating a formal R&D process into the studio?

MC: Yeah. And also, before you plant something, you usually prep your soil to create the best conditions for something to become a reality. This is the fourth stage of my studio operations. That’s when I try getting people involved, reach out to peers, to press, when I organize studio visits, workshops, etc.

RBSC.01, installation view at MACRO Contemporary Art Museum, Rome, 2013. Photo: courtesy Aaron Bocanegra

RBSC.01, installation view at MACRO Contemporary Art Museum, Rome, 2013. Photo: courtesy Aaron Bocanegra

BW: The process and the materiality seem to really matter for you. It's about going through the steps.

MC: Yes. it’s about following a cyclical methodology. It’s about recirculate energy and materials in the system. I’m always been fascinated by cyclicality and repetition. One of my favorite piece I made operates in a similar circular way. It’s a scary, weird machine that endlessly produces an edible thing, over and over again.

BW: What was it producing?

MC: It's basically baking a piece of bread that looks like a sacramental host, and stamping a logo on it. It's a sort of machine that feeds you. When I came up with the idea, six or seven years ago, I was also thinking about the idea of automatization itself. I started to think of a certain large-scale machine that would automate a process. At that point, the design of the process was more important than the final product. Duchamp would call it a ’bachelor machine’, a machine that is not producing anything useful.

The title of the piece is "RBSC”, which is based on the name of an enzyme that plants use during the photosynthesis cycle to produce energy from oxygen and sunlight. It’s the most common enzyme on the planet, and a sort of very “slow” enzyme, being evolved when the atmosphere was full of CO2.

There is a big effort in biotechnology to design a “faster” version of it, so that we can sort of keep on dumping carbon dioxyde in the air, in the hope that our new engineered, faster plants will absorb more of our waste.

BW: It's great. I really love it. It reminded me of the Eucharist, as well.

MC: Yes. With the advent of the rite of the Eucharist it was the first time we used a symbol for sacrifice instead of a real animal, or living thing. It was completely detached from nature. That was the very moment when we disconnected with the sacrificial aspect of nature.

BW: Also, what I find interesting in the machinic there is no body, no whole; only parts.

MC: Only desiring machines, body without organs. After the disconnection from nature, desire is not coming from a lack of something, but out of production.

In the ”Symposium" Plato talks about desire as something that you are missing and aspire to. I desire my lover. I desire food. I desire something I don't have. But then, after Freud, we started to think about desire not as something you are missing, but as a process concatenating desiring machines through bodies and things.

My machine is a kind of nothing in a way, because you need that symbol to be in yourself. That symbol is this desire of transforming your environment in such egotistic and shortsighted ways. We might rationally conceive that we are going towards destruction, but we can’t escape to make ours what is outside of ourselves.

A Conversation with Claire Lieberman

Claire Lieberman is an artist who explores the sublime and its relationship to quirkiness through a wide use of materials, from Jell-O to video and black marble. Her solo shows include: THE LAB, NYC; Marcia Wood Gallery, Atlanta; Gebert Contemporary, Scottsdale; PDX, Portland; Seoul Art Center, South Korea; University of Alaska, Anchorage; PDX Gallery, Portland; and Anderson Gallery, Virginia Commonwealth University. Group shows at: Chelsea Art Museum, International Print Center, NYC; Galerie ACC, Weimar, Germany. Press: Sculpture magazine, The New York Times, Art on Paper, and ARTnews. 

Claire Lieberman, FLOWER, black marble, 2017. Photo credit: Malcom Varon

Claire Lieberman, FLOWER, black marble, 2017. Photo credit: Malcom Varon

Brett Wallace: How did you first get involved in art?

Claire Lieberman: An excursion to pour plaster casts on the beach of Lake Michigan when I was in an art class at 4 or 5 comes to mind.  Fresh air, warm sand, and the ambient sound of waves set an immersive stage for creativity.  Ever since, I’ve wanted to put my whole body into making.  The Boston Museum School, where I studied, was a very conceptual program.  So I’ve always paired two urges by infusing the intimacy of process with corroboratory ideation.

BW: Could you talk about what inspired your latest body of work UDBO Playground (Unidentified Dangerous Beautiful Objects)? Are you interested in the sublime as a way to describe nature?

CL: I am interested in the sublime, but paired with quirkiness—how tactile engagement and lush visuality bump into historical association.  By that I mean sculptural tradition and the way stone has been used to render greatness.  This show fools around with exchanges of play and power by looking at how violence in contemporary culture can be rendered with associative imagery of attraction and repulsion.  I chose a game-like configuration to explore the relationship between playing and sublimated aggression.  As you move in and about the individual sculptures, there is a kinetic sense, like that in a video game.  The sculptures in black marble are a combination of exquisite and brash— a re-formation of classical sculpture through fleshier images of danger.  Such a notion of the sublime expands the concept of beauty to include dissonance.


Claire Lieberman, installation view - UDBO PLAYGROUND, 2017, Massey Lyuben Gallery. Photo: Malcolm Varon

Claire Lieberman, installation view - UDBO PLAYGROUND, 2017, Massey Lyuben Gallery. Photo: Malcolm Varon

BW: In the recent show, there are glass guns and fruit modeled out of polished black marble. What are the conceptual ideas underpinning this work? Contradiction seems to be consistent in the object / material relationship in this work - is that of interest to you? How important is symbolism in your work?

CL: I began this body of work after the last election, which was disturbing because the campaign had portended impending chaos.  This ensemble of pieces is partly a reaction to that sense, and they are meant to be direct, even harsh—if also reflective, smooth, refined. I am probing the aesthetics of violence as a way of understanding conflict—an expansive topic. 

The glass guns in this show are part of a series beginning with literal representations of handguns that transform into space-age toy guns that are increasingly phantasmagoric. To me, a toy gun is an icon that embodies the conflict between reality and fantasy in the mind of a child, and in American culture in general.

The idea of fruit that you responded to comes out of pondering these objects as stand-ins for the body.  A melon as a symbol is moist, sweet, fertile.  The form is in the vicinity of a grenade—but so much the opposite.  It’s true that juxtaposition is an important underlying thread:  one “grenade” is inscribed with flowers.  In my dreams, this is a peace and love show!

BW: Material use and sensitivity how materials transform objects seems to be core to your work. Why did you choose the materials you did here?

With the black marble pieces, the stone is heavy, immobile, a marked contrast with disposable playthings they represent.  A grenade in black marble rendered as a fleshy form is not only dense, shiny, and dark, but luscious and precious as well.  The shape shifts from a literal representation of a grenade to a sensual, disarming form.

The glass gun series is called Ice Guns, and grew out of an earlier video that showed toy guns cast in ice that gradually melting on hot pavement and recollections of space guns and water pistols.  Using glass is a way to capture that fluidity—I’ve said before, I’d like to cast the guns in ice, let it melt away, and cast the melting. That’s the feeling I’m trying to capture. These guns are transparent, fragile, even delicate.  As with the fleshy grenades, the fragility of the guns operates reflexively: the object and the material are intertwined, each emphasizing but also destabilizing the other.


Claire Lieberman, RADIO, black marble, 2017. Photo credit: Ken Kashian

Claire Lieberman, RADIO, black marble, 2017. Photo credit: Ken Kashian

BW: Could you talk about your previous use of materials such as the works with Jell-0 and with the Brown Bear?

CL: Flashes of humor and sensuality come together when stone is situated next to what I would call its alter-ego, Jell-O.  In my multimedia projects, lucent gelatin shapes are duplicated from carved marble elements.  It’s no surprise that commercial “ballistic gelatin” is used to measure the impact of bullets on the body.  The Jell-O components—flimsy, sticky, silly—are usually disrupted either physically (for example, by a foot stepping on them) or by time, as they wither and shrink. The use of Jell-O also evokes the interior of the physical self.  As the Jell-O is traversed or as it dissolves, it suggests the bodily experience of violence.  In one piece, the image of Jell-O shaped into water balloons refers to collective memories of early childhood, where aggression is repressed but still experienced in good-natured fun.  Jell-O also tickles the argument between art and life, as playing with food is an eternal no.  By encountering art, nature, and childhood memories through real, yet chimerical and fantastical objects, the viewer forms connections between their notions of nurture and eventual attitudes toward nature.

As for Brown Bear, there is a softness in children’s playthings.  Stuffed animals are stand-ins for our corporeal state.  They are meant to be held and hugged.  In a video sequence from one of my earlier projects, imagined furry friends set out on a quest. They have misguided notions of power and control and are ready, even hoping, for trouble.  But what they find is a surreal frenzy of unimagined and ubiquitous collapse. 

BW: Who are some of the artists (or people, things, objects, experiences) that have influenced your practice?

CL: I’m attracted to films with gorgeous, persistent stillness that is punctuated by unexpected moments of intensity.  For example, an early Herzog film, Aguirre, The Wrath of God, which is also a useful cautionary tale.  I remember Wim Wenders’s three-hour, black and white Kings of the Road more for the endless stretches of highway than for its set of smaller narratives. 

Mid-century space guns were, of course, the starting point for the toy guns.  They ricochet between nostalgia (for a concocted version of times gone by) and observations of actual weaponry which in the past was highly decorated.  Perhaps adding a splash of friskiness.  I implicate myself – I played with water pistols as a kid too.


Claire Lieberman, GRENADE WITH FLOWERS, black marble, 2017. 

Claire Lieberman, GRENADE WITH FLOWERS, black marble, 2017. 

The artist's current show at Massey Lyuben gallery in New York runs until November 11th. The press release is here

A Conversation with Steven Warwick

Steven Warwick and I sat down for a conversation in Chelsea before his reading of “Fear Indexing the X-Files” at Printed Matter, co-written by Nora Khan. Steven recently opened a show, Elevate to Mezzanine (E-M) at Issue Project Room and taking place at Secret Project Robot with DeForrest Brown Jr. Part art installation, part club, part conceptual department store, the show includes a custom sound design piece, stage and set, many paintings and a performance. In this show, Warwick performed selections of Nadir, his recent mixtape while team members in E-M uniforms passed out a Look Book/ Journal with images and short texts about modern intimacy or rather the lack of, related to the installation.. The work explores precarity in multiple dimensions, the pressures and disenfranchisement of wage labor and millennial culture.

 Steven Warwick, Still photo from Elevator to Mezzanine, Issue Project Room at    Secret Robot Project. Photo: Brett Wallace

 Steven Warwick, Still photo from Elevator to Mezzanine, Issue Project Room at  Secret Robot Project. Photo: Brett Wallace

Brett: What is the origin of your practice?

Steven: I was always interested in art. As a teenager, I thought of making it. When I was about 17, I got into film heavily. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was studying film in the film program at art school. Then, they closed the faculty and tried to merge us into fine art. I was really annoyed at that. I went to an art school nearby and then I was just in fine arts, suddenly.

I'd done a semester of film, so I knew how to make film. I knew how to technically cut film or do Super 8 or 16mm. They had a Steenbeck at the school. I just started to make films, really. The school was quite an old-school polytechnic, where they would just be like, don't paint. Victor Burgin used to teach there – people like that. You had that kind of influence hanging over there.

"I make paintings or sculptures more as props, so they interact with each other. It's very important for me to have bodies in space interacting with the objects and soundtrack"


Steven Warwick performing as Heatsick

Steven Warwick performing as Heatsick


BW: Was there a certain group of filmmakers who inspired you?

SW: Rainer Werner Fassbinder was one filmmaker I was into when I was 17. It was mainly the German filmmakers who inspired me. I'm kind of a bit over them now. It's very much a product of its time, and I respect that, but I don't think those films could really be made now, on many levels. I'm the kind of guy who just really likes to research things. If I'm into one person, I'll find out their influences and just go off. I grew up in a small town, even though my family is from London. For me, I was bored out of my mind. I would just go for it. I have a strong passion for finding out things. I want to connect the dots.

BW: How did film influence how think about space?

SW: I still think in terms of a filmmaker. I still have scenes or a stage. It's very important. I make paintings or sculptures more as props, so they interact with each other. It's very important for me to have bodies in space interacting with the objects and soundtrack. On the stage, it was very important to me that there was a strong visual element of someone reclining on the bed, reading – these kinds of things. They're all kind of referential, or inter-referential, I guess. Then you've got the projections on the back. It's one of these very flat images, like you could be in a store.

BW: One of ideas that most interested me was how the work traversed across what appeared to be architectural consumer space to dance space to art space and back again. One could read it as all those things. 

SW: I guess it's all dictated as public space, but not really public – but bodies inhabit them and have some kind of financial, monetary value to them.


Steven Warwick’s Snapcast video for the song ‘CTFO’ (aka chill the fuck out), after his release of the album, Nadir (PAN, 2016). This was shot on his iPhone in a mall.

BW: They're all spaces where we consume things.

SW: They're spaces where you consume. If you think in terms of posing, as well – like posing in the club, which I think is very important. It's related to cruising or voguing, this thing of giving off codes. That's what I like about fashion. For me, it's like watching "The Simpsons" or something. A child could watch it, or an adult could watch it, and there are more levels.

I spend a lot of time watching things without the framework. You can enjoy it and have a sense of what it is, but if you also know the extra parts, it doesn't hurt. It's okay to know what the rules are so you can play with them. Whilst I feel it's important, especially now more than ever, to create spaces where people can feel comfortable, and that is something I try to do, I am skeptical when people talk about [queer] space or safe spaces, as I'm not sure they exist after the Pulse shootings. I'm a very critical person who happens to be gay. It doesn't explicitly form my work but it does subtly inhabit it. I'm hyper aware of the contradiction of a very rigid system of a supposedly queer concept, and how that can get hijacked. That's why I really like to have this vagueness as i guess i find that more to the point of this concept.

“I feel neoliberalism is kind of dying, now. Sadly, it's being replaced by neo-fascism, which is very scary. Also, what I find interesting is that with regard to this cycle going so fast now”


BW: Some of the other areas that seem to be underpinning your work are cybernetics, yes?

SW: Yes, Cybernetics like Alan Turing, or something. It's like the Internet, where people can come together. Some people present these spaces as alien or dangerous. Yeah, they're actually not dangerous. For some other people, they're actually a life-saver. Also, I really think that whole question has collapsed in terms of these ideas of art, anyway. In Germany, it's still quite strict with that high and low culture. It's painting, or it's club music as entertainment. I mean, it's influenced most modern art.

BW: Your soundtracks are so heavily bled. You're almost smashing those roles directly together play both artist and actor.

SW: Exactly. I'm acting when I'm performing, but I'm also in myself, so it's a bit schizophrenic.

BW: Are you interested in Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory?

SW: The assemblage theory, yeah. It's interesting and a bit more druggy, but at the same time, it's nice. It seems a bit more instinctual. That's something interesting with [Dan Graham] and stuff, this idea of the collective ritual. I'm also really fascinated with the idea of the outdoors, that going back to nature. It's of course a really urban concept. It's a fantasy. I remember I went to this car design school in Pasadena where they were designing electric cars. There was one person whose job was just interaction. I said, "Oh, so I guess you're into [Bruno Latour], eh?" "Yes." I got it. It was cool to watch it from that perspective. Then said, “let's design an electric car for the outdoors”. I thought this is just a BMW but for people who don't want to be baby boomers. I shut my mouth, but I was watching the whole thing.

BW: Could you talk about the Casio you use for a moment in the context of the mediums in which you work in?

SW: It was starting to build up nostalgia, and that wasn't really my interest so I stopped using it in performances. I'm against nostalgia. I'm interested in how an object triggers memory, but that's different. People were like, oh, it makes me feel so comfortable because it makes me think of my childhood. I am more interested in how psychoanalytic film can create this kind of environment and memory. I'm also interested in people like Edward Bernays and his work on propaganda. I'm very aware of how language is used to persuade people, and that scares me. I have to know about it in order to combat it, I guess.

BW: How you define what you do as an artist?

SW: I just say I do everything. If I have to write a bio, I'll be like artist, musician, and writer, in that order. I just say I do everything.

BW: Could you talk a little bit about ["Fear Indexing the X-Files?"] Did you go back and watch them all?

SW: Yeah, I watched them all. I guess I'm always interested in cataloging. I also like Henrik Olesen or Arnold Dreyblatt. All of their work deals with archiving, memory, and history. I was interested in how ideology inhabits a space. That's what happens in shopping, but it also happens in television. Also, the '90s were presented as this kind of [middle] space, but actually it was just the advent of neoliberalism and was between the Cold War and the War on Terror.

Aliens have a different semiotic. Before they were a metaphor for communism. Now they're just an alien. They've been shredded of political ideology. As I was watching as an adult, I was interested in looking back on how I would watch this differently. I had a huge appetite as a child. I was thinking, how much did this thing influence my upbringing? It's more about your growing up and how that absorbs into you.

It was made by Fox. As was pointed out in the book, there are some quite right-wing elements in there. With a fresh set of eyes and ears, you think oh, damn, but when you're a kid, you don't really think about it. Also, you're just too young. You don't get it.

It's this idea of a club space being dangerous because of AIDS. It's just this whole hysteria. Also, what's interesting is there's this huge distrust of the government and the idea of the conspiracy theory being sent from the lunatic fringe to the mainstream. That's come back. "The X-Files" coincided with the rise of the Internet and how people started to engage with the Internet and process that. That was the first TV show with an Internet-based fan base. They'd go to chat rooms. Chris Carter would linger, lurking in it to try to influence people. He was quite an evil genius, but quite cool.

Because of the collapse of this communist narrative and before the War on Terror, it was then, who's your enemy? Oh, it's your fellow citizen, or aliens. The phrase is "trust no one." The country's ideology is about the individual. It's always about how we keep this country going. Oh, we'll pit everyone against each other. It's not even capitalism; it's just the new ideology. It's the Panopticon.

I feel neoliberalism is kind of dying, now. Sadly, it's being replaced by neo-fascism, which is very scary. Also, what I find interesting is that with regard to this cycle going so fast now. Think about it: The acceleration up until 2012 was [very quaint]. Even something as scary as the American or British election results, or the referendum results – there's no plan. There's no ideology anymore. It's going to collapse.

It's kind of interesting in a really dark kind of way. There's some kind of hope. Capitalism is going to fall apart. I just hope everyone is still alive, because it's absolutely terrifying. I just feel the world is just speeding up so much now. I don't think sometimes that we're going to make it through this year. It gives me some hope, in that these people clearly have no clue. Theresa May does not have a mandate on anything anymore. Trump's poll rating is very low.

I'm interested in what happens next. I guess that's what keeps me hopeful about it. I see it in terms of the EU or something. It's a peace-time project. The idea of the second world war and that it could come back – well, actually it has come back. We have to deal with it. It's real. We have to be really real and pragmatic about this. We can't be scared. We can't fear. It's boring. We have to deal with it. I feel people are dealing with it. That's the more interesting part.

Steven Warwick is a British artist, musician and writer residing in Berlin. His practice includes durational performance installations, plays and films using the construction of situations and language. He also makes music as Heatsick and under his own name – the latest release, Nadir, appeared recently on PAN. Warwick has exhibited work at SMK Copenhagen, the Modern Institute Glasgow, ICA London, Balice Hertling NYC, Exile Galerie Berlin, Kinderhook & Caracas, Kurator CH, New Theater Berlin, Schinkel Pavillon and was artist in residence at Villa Aurora, Los Angeles 2015. His writing has appeared in Texte Zur Kunst, Urbanomic, Arte East and Electronic Beats.

Check out his recently released mixtape here (Nadir).


Rosa Menkman: “I intend to uncover and elucidate the ways through which resolutions constantly inform both machine vision and human ways of perception.”

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project," a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.

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ROSA MENKMAN is an artist and theorist who focuses on visual noise artifacts, resulting from accidents in both analogue and digital media (such as glitch, encoding and feedback artifacts). Although many people perceive these accidents as negative experiences, Menkman emphasizes their positive consequences: these artifacts facilitate an important insight into the otherwise obscure alchemy of standardization, which takes place through resolutions: the creation of solutions or protocols, and their black-boxed, unseen, forgotten or obfuscated compromises and alternative possibilities.

In 2011, Menkman wrote the “Glitch Moment/um“, a book on the exploitation and popularization of glitch artifacts (published by the Institute of Network Cultures), co-facilitated the GLI.TC/H festivals in both Chicago and Amsterdam and curated the Aesthetics symposium of Transmediale 2012. Since 2012 Menkman has been curating exhibitions that intend to illuminate the different ecologies of glitch (filtering failure, glitch genealogies, glitch moment/ums.) In 2015 Menkman founded the institutions for Resolution Disputes [iRD], during her solo show at TRANSFER Gallery in New York. The iRD are institutions dedicated to researching the interests of non-utopic, lost and unseen, or simply “too good to be implemented” resolutions.

Biography courtesy of Transfer Gallery, New York.

Brett Wallace: How did you start your career as artist?

Rosa Menkman: Interestingly enough, people ask me this question regularly. To be honest, I can’t think of one specific moment and say: this is when I became an artist. I am used to thinking of myself as a theorist. I have always had some kind of practice, but my affiliation to theory and writing feels like a priority. Accepting or allowing myself to be called an artist happened only recently; at a certain point I felt like I had to re-evaluate.

 A lot of my work is inspired by practice based research; research done by others and research I conduct myself. When I started writing about the art collective Jodi for instance, they grew into a huge inspiration. They made me see that media are more than just these simple, fun tools. I started to take things apart in a jodi-esque way and while doing so, changed and grew my own practice. I learned that new media are actually vastly complex mechanisms with inherent economics and politics. When you just theorize media, you'll miss part of the actual depth of the matter. So seeing Jodi’s work was not the starting point of my art career but it was definitely an important turning point.

 It can be a powerful experience when art shatters your expectations and preconceptions. When it happens, it feels like some kind of filter is peeled away. What is left can be a new take on life, art, language, love or how the body works. It is a rare happening, but I believe it is very real.

At the same time, to me, working as an artist is also a double edged sword. I feel incredibly lucky to be doing as well as I am, but I don’t really know where the art ends and my life starts, or where my theory and practice separate. Right now it seems like they are completely inhabiting the same space, which is not always easy or even ‘allowed’, and can be kind of exhausting: to constantly represent Rosa the artist, the theorist, the human being.

BW: How did you first encounter Jodi.org’s work?

RM: Jodi started making work for the web since the early 90s, but the first time I really took notice was in 2005, when Montevideo, a since dissolved media art institution in Amsterdam, hosted their solo show "World Wide Wrong". I think this show was so impressive to me because of the texts that accompanied it (by Annet Dekker and Josephine Bosma). They really opened my eyes.

Embedded video from Jodi.org, World Wide Wrong, 2005.

BW: The video with all the folders makes me think of the storage of pedagogy.

RM: Haha, or maybe more like a storage anti-pedagogy...

BW: What first attracted you to the idea of net art or glitch art? 

RM: After seeing the show, I wrote my 2006 thesis about the collective. At this time it was rather hard to find theory on net.art and Jodi. I scraped all of del.icio.us’ bookmarks for “netart”, “net.art” and “jodi.org”, etc, but not a lot (if any) of the texts described Jodi’s work as glitch art. In my master thesis I actually ended up using the term glitch two times. In the early 2000s, only a handful of artists referred to their practice as Glitch Art; it really was the work of trailblazers. Beflix started a blog dedicated to glitch in 2001 and Per Platou organised a festival/symposium called Glitch in Norway in 2002. The Glitch Art Flickr pools’ first posts date back to 2004. Of course there was already theory on the use of glitch in music, for instance in Cascone’s paper “The Aesthetics of Failure (2000)”, but it seems like these conversations really stayed under a fold or inside their specific (sonic) discourse. The genre that is now widely known as Glitch Art established itself gradually and later.

To come back to your question about what triggered me to work with glitch after finishing my thesis: I think generally, when it comes to glitch, it is not (just) the aesthetic that gets people involved. What is really interesting about the glitch is its moment/um.

 “that moment that makes you pivot and reflect. It grabs you; but you don't know what is going on or what way to go. It is a powerful confusion that inspires you to read and pushes you to try and make sense.”

It's when an object slides from a normal operation into something that is different, maybe more than just ‘normal’. It recontextualizes the tool, and uncovers a new layer of operation. Suddenly there is more to the tool, but I don’t fully understand it yet. It's that change, that powerful moment that makes me reevaluate my understanding of media, its materials and practices (conventions and expectations fed by habits) that got me first excited about glitch art. I still relay to these principles a lot in what I now call “Resolution Studies”.

Of course today, the Glitch Art genre has grown a static, standardized side as well, often referred to as ‘glitch aesthetics’. Personally, this side of Glitch Art does not always interest me as much. But the moment/um in glitch still exists; this power is inherent to the nature of glitch. Glitch is not just an output. It is procedural; the way something breaks from a flow and the way someone perceives this break. Then again, the momentous power of change is not something new. I don't think that the Glitch Art genre is the only genre that is connected to the slippage of media, or this power of reframing.  

BW: I was thinking of artists like Nam June Paik and how they’ve influenced the medium.

RM: This already happened earlier, during the turn of the last century, with the Dadaists. Although it is important to realize they were fighting in a completely different political context and their work is often wrongfully co-opted as a figure of speech: I cringe when I read descriptions like ‘Dadaist Glitch’. But the momentous power that was inherent in Dadaist art may be similar.

BW: Yeah. The power of dismantling and deconstructing is a thread throughout art history. The political context was vastly different as you said. Dada developed out of WWI and the rejection of logic and reason of modern capitalism. You mentioned Resolution Studies. Could you elaborate on that more?

RM: Some digital artists jump from one project to the next. I often miss an insight into what drives these artists; or a red thread that runs through their practice. Works like these are often kind of trickster or ‘fun’. Look, this software can do this! Ha, wow, LOL! But I wonder if these simple technological gestures are enough to leverage the powers that our technologies have and the violence they do to our daily lives - which is something I am interested in. I do not necessarily need (funny) alternatives or interventions, but would much rather have the knowledge to empower myself, to discover or even create my own problems and solutions.

This is why the core of my practice is Resolution Studies, a theory through which I try to uncover not just the affordances of our media, but also their compromises and hidden potentialities. I am not a technological savant by any means, but I do try to have a reasonable amount of knowledge of the technologies I use and believe it is important to share this.

On the other hand, I have experienced that creating a practice around technology is awkward. Not a lot of people care about the politics of algorithms. If I for instance explain how Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) differs from analog video (PAL), it could easily become a very technical story, which would not be very captivating to a larger audience. But I think it is important to share this technological knowledge with a wide range of people, which is why I started using a tactic of anthropomorphizing. One of the earliest works in which I employed this is in “The Collapse of PAL” (2010). In TCoP, the Angel of History (a reference to Walter Benjamin) talks to PAL (Phase Alternate Line Signal), as if it was a friend, maybe a lover even.


Rosa Menkman, “The Collapse of PAL”, 2010. https://vimeo.com/12199201

Notes about the work from the artist - “As performed at TV-TV on the 25th of May 2010, Copenhagen, DK. The video work is based on analogue signal, compressions, glitches and feedback artifacts in sound and video. In "The Collapse of PAL" (Eulogy, Obsequies and Requiem for the planes of blue phosphor), the Angel of History (as described by Walter Benjamin) reflects on the signal PAL and its termination.”

BW: I was watching "HyperNormalisation" by Adam Curtis. I don't know if you've seen that film.

RM: Yeah. I watched it on two screens; one for the movie and one for my Wikipedia searches; I actually had to watch it two times because I kept losing the thread - that movie was dense. 

BW: I think to me, some of your work definitely brings that film to mind. In your work you’re opening up the kimono to expose the technology and show how they are actually built. 

RM: Did you say kimono? 

BW: Kimono.

RM: Like the Japanese garment - Is that a saying?

BW: “Opening the kimono” is a saying. It's actually used in Silicon Valley to talk about the idea of openly sharing information. Frances Stark and David Kravitz titled a show after it in 2014 at the New Museum, but their use of the term was more direct, as they conducted a sexting performance via iMessage.

RM: I had no idea.

BW: What's interesting is that you're opening up things inside technology that people normally don't or can't see. Is there a current set of tools that you're really into right now?

RM: Right now I'm building in Unity. Unity is a 3D engine that is used for many things, but first and foremost for videogame development and VR. As for what I am into - this obviously changes all the time, but at this time I am still drawn to think and rethink Syphon, a software plugin developed by Anton Marini and Tom Butterworth, which allows the user to ‘syphon’ - to share in and output - from one software to the next. So imagine for instance sending your videogame output into a live VJ software: now you can overlay it with other media, or perform a ‘powerpoint’ with it. I am also interested in DCT compression (Discrete Cosine Transform, the basis of for instance JPEG). I actually just released a work dedicated to two of these pieces of technology, called DCT:SYPHONING.

Embedded video. The VR version can be downloaded from DiMoDA


BW: Can you explain a bit more about DCT:SYPHONING? 

RM: DCT:SYPHONING, The 1000000th interval (or in decimal: The 64th interval) is a modern translation of the 1884 Edwin Abbott Abbott roman "Flatland". But instead of describing a two-dimensional world, occupied by geometric figures that narrate the implications of life in two dimensions, in DCT:SYPHONING an anthropomorphised DCT (Senior) tells the processes of the compression algorithm. Specifically, the work describes DCT Juniors’ first syphon; the translation of data from one image compression realm to the next; or one realm of complexity to a next. DCT:SYPHONING is part of my ‘Ecology of Compression Complexities’, a world in which different signals connect to each other. It also functions in connection to my earlier work, via small references.

 I was inspired to create this Ecology of Compression Complexities after I saw the work of Charles Avery at Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, in 2015. While Avery works with more classic materials, such as painting and drawing, it resonated with me and made me rethink my own practice.

 The gallery described the exhibit like this:

“In 2004 Charles Avery embarked on a project called The Islanders, which was conceived as a way to explore, consolidate and give direction to his art and ideas. The Islanders is a painstakingly detailed and diverse description of a fictional island in drawing and painting, sculpture and texts.”

Every drawing and every installation that Avery puts on show, unveils a little part of The Island. I find that inspiring; I prefer projects that do not exist in a vacuum, that do not just simply begin and end. I like it when a practice keeps building, when it is part of a larger puzzle. But the only way I can imagine that my practice can exist in the form of such a ‘world-like’ framework, is by anthropomorphizing the algorithms I am working with. This is why I am making all these creatures meet in some kind of absurd transmission ecology. I see DCT:SYPHONING as just a first step; it is an illustration of an environment in which the DCT compression algorithms are the protagonists: these little creatures encode and encapsulate data and carry it from one material environment to the next. I like to imagine this algorithm talking to that algorithm, even though in reality, these technologies are not compatible and would never ‘communicate’.

In my world, they can all visit and have an exchange with each other! And while I have considered that the joining of these four words ‘Ecology of Compression Complexities’ sounds dense and complicated, I believe they are the best ones to sum up my practice. Which is why, for now at least, I am sticking with them.

 BW: I saw your DCT:SYPHONING presentation and performance at Transmediale after the #Additivism Cookbook release. Could you explain a bit more about that?

Screenshot of Additivism.org.   The 3D Additivist Cookbook  , devised and edited by Morehshin Allahyari & Daniel Rourke. http://additivism.org/cookbook

Screenshot of Additivism.org. The 3D Additivist Cookbook, devised and edited by Morehshin Allahyari & Daniel Rourke. http://additivism.org/cookbook

RM: In tandem with the release and performance of DCT:SYPHONING at Transmediale, which you are refering too, I released three papers. The first paper was part of the #Additivism cookbook. Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke started #Additivism in 2015, as a manifesto on speculative materialism, 3D and plastics. During this years Transmediale festival, they released the #Additivism cookbook, a compendium of 100 recipes, written by artists within the speculative framework of #Additivism, rethinking and unthinking digital material methodologies. In the cookbook I released the recipe “How not to be read”.


Rosa Menkman, “How Not to be Read (A recipe using DCT)”, 2016. P. 238 of the 3D Additivist Cookbook.

Rosa Menkman, “How Not to be Read (A recipe using DCT)”, 2016. P. 238 of the 3D Additivist Cookbook.

“DCT appropriates the aesthetics of JPEG macroblocks to mask secret messages as error. Because the legibility of an encrypted message does not just depend on the complexity of the encryption algorithm, but also on the placement of the data of the message. The encrypted message, hidden on the surface of the image is only legible by the ones in the know; anyone else will ignore it like dust on celluloid.”

In this recipe I describe how DCT, a cryptographic language technology that I build in 2015, can be used to write secret messages on digital images, steganographically masked as JPEG artifacts. I created DCT in 2015, for my first solo show at Transfer Gallery: the iRD (the institutions for Resolution Disputes). In this exhibition, DCT formed the basis for 5 institutions (5 statements against the politics of modern institutions, written in a manifesto style). During the Transmediale I finally released the DCT font and published its basic principles as a recipe in the #Additivism Cookbook.

 The second paper I released during Transmediale was named “Untie:Solve:Dissolve Resolutions”. It was published as part of the Machine Research peer reviewed newspaper, printed in DCT and in human readable code. In this short text, I outline some basic statements on Resolution Studies:

Translation of text enclosed above in red:

“Resolution studies is a theory of literacy: literacy of the machines, the people, the people creating the machines, and the people being created by the machines. But resolution studies is not only about the effects of technological progress or the aesthetization of the scales of resolution; which has already been done under headers such as Interface Effect or Protocol. Resolution studies is research about the standards that could have been in place, but are not - and which as a result are now left outside of the discourse.”

 With resolution studies I am taking a step away from my old research on glitch, in the hope to open up a broader set of conversations between the discourses such as medicine, architecture and law.


 Finally, I released a work in the Transmediale Reader across & beyond, which is an honor to be part of. When Kristoffer Gansing first invited me to reflect on The Collapse of PAL, I had some doubts to enter that subject again; it seemed a bit too old (the last time I performed TCoP was 5 years ago). By the end of 2014-15 any kind of compatibility with an analogue video signal was completely erased, and today it seems kind of nostalgic and irrelevant to revisit the material of PAL.

 What finally pushed me in favor of writing something new on TCoP was actually Syphon as well. With Syphon, analog and digital signals can again co-exist during a performance. So in the Transmediale reader, PAL finally wrote back to the Angel, via Syphon. Imagine, here we have PAL, a zombie medium that can suddenly communicates and functions besides other media, due to the implementation of a new protocol.  

BW: Does data live forever?

RM: Not forever - Although digital media are often believed to answer to the myths of lossless transmission and migration, in fact, degradation and data loss are a not to be ignored part of the digital material. Undead data and dead data are as much part of our digital realities.  

BW: Your way of working speaks to a post studio way of working: there is no beginning or end in the work. It's sort of in a constant state of flux, which also mirrors the state of algorithms and tech in general. What does your studio look like, what is your set-up like?

RM: I am at the final leg of a 5 month residency at Schloss Solitude (in Stuttgart). Which means that right now, I am living in a castle. But I actually gave up rent quite some time ago and have since been travelling with a little suitcase and a computer. Recently I bought a desktop computer. How crazy is that? This is a real computer that is heavier than a laptop and that has the dimensions of a piece of carry-on luggage; it is actually too heavy to carry with just one arm. I am not sure but I think this might be the start of something new.  

BW: I love the way you describe that too because it sounds like pretty much up to this point you've been working on laptops. Are you using iOS or Windows?

RM: Yeah, for now I am. But I am also noticing a massive migration: a lot of my friends are changing to Windows, as will I, when I finally install the tower in the castle.

BW: Actually the company where I work, LinkedIn, was acquired by Microsoft recently. Why do you think this shift is happening so rapidly?

RM: Of course one reason is that iOS systems are closed, not just in terms of software but maybe more importantly - when it comes to people migrating - in terms of their hardware. Some weeks ago, I had such a bad accident. I fell all the way down a staircase... and while I was falling all these meters down, the only thing I could think about was this laptop in my arms. I was trying to save it. Unfortunately both the laptop and I got hurt: a broken screen. And you know how much this accident costed? 500 Euros. I have no words... just: Evil Media.

Right then and there, underneath the staircase I had enough and found the a reason to switch. But this kind of accidental damage is of course besides point, this is not why this massive migration is taking place. Two simple reasons I personally see for the shift are that computers need a lot of power to render movies shot in 3D or run VR, and Apple just simply does not let the user upgrade to this kind of power. Besides that, iOS is just not compatible with some of the basic VR peripherals such as the Oculus headset.

 BW: It's interesting to think about how tech titans will operate in the future when it comes to openness as a strategy vs. the walled garden.

RM: The new book by Wendy Chun, Updating to Remain the Same could be relevant to this discussion.

In the book, Chun writes: “New media—we are told—exist at the bleeding edge of obsolescence. We thus forever try to catch up, updating to remain the same.”

We're at a stage that the speed of the upgrade is incommensurable… new upgrades are ready too fast. And because of this speed, remaining the same, or using technology in a continuous manner, has become next to impossible. I think these titans consciously impose this tactic: to exploit the speed of the upgrade as a way to to obscure the new options, interfaces and (im)possibilities of the ever rigid walls of our techno-gardens.

BW: What is your perspective on reclamation of space within technology? I'm thinking of how Constant Dullaart uses that word, reclaim. Is reclamation something that you're interested in? 

RM: I am not sure how Constant uses the word, but I think critical and tactical actions that result in reclamation will always remain important. On the other hand, I wonder if today reclamation is the right word, or if it should be a main focus: can reclamation still be an end goal?

One of the main problems I see is the incremental declination of the value of knowledge. Actions are no longer backed up by facts; the wish comes first, and then the necessary data to justify an act  is simply created by shifting around scales and contexts. In the wrong context, every fact can be waved away as ‘fake’. And what starts as a factoid becomes a fact by putting it in the ‘right’ context.. Scaling and contextualization have become two of the most violent, yet often overlooked actions when it comes to the handling of a dataset. I think this is partially the reason why we got stuck with constructs such as fake news and alternative facts and it is also why I think that reclaiming, the process of claiming something back, or of reasserting a right, is hard as an end goal.

But understanding that we live in a time in which knowledge is fluid; where everything we proof is dependent on the scales we chose and measure by and the context in which we perceive, is maybe also one of the most empowering pieces of knowledge. So yes, we can and should still think tactically. But we have to rethink our former tactics; where are tactical reclamations still useful, against whom or from what? The time of turf wars has ended - carving out space, by smart usage of scale and context is the future.

Jessica Lynne: “We focus on what voices don’t make it to the center when we’re in these moments of political upheaval.”

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.

Jessica Lynne is a Brooklyn-based writer and arts administrator. She is also co-editor of ARTS.BLACK, a platform for art criticism from black perspectives. Jessica contributes to publications such as Art in America, The Art Newspaper, The Brooklyn Rail, Hyperallergic, and Pelican Bomb.  She was founding editor of the now defunct Zora Magazine. Currently, Jessica serves as the Manager of Development and Communication at Recess. You can follow her on Twitter and  Instagram at @lynne_bias.

We sat down over coffee in midtown to discuss a wide range of topics from Jessica’s first jobs in the art world to how she defines innovation through launching the ARTS.BLACK platform and the Black Art Incubator at Recess.  

Brett Wallace:  What was your origin in art?

Jessica Lynne: That’s a great question. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of my dad taking me and my brother to a local children’s museum where they had a few Norman Rockwell paintings on view. And, as an adult it doesn’t strike me as odd, but as a child, I actually had no context for really understanding who Rockwell was or why my father was particularly inclined to enjoy his work. Now, I get it. Rockwell has a particularly uncanny way about of visualizing Americana that remains important.

In high school, I was an athlete, though I think I was always cognizant of culture and theater and dance, just not actively plugged in. It wasn’t until I came to New York for school that I started to think critically about cultural production. I went to NYU, stopped playing sports, and found myself kind of in this new generation of burgeoning hip-hop writers. That forced me to think differently about what was happening in music, especially in New York City.

BW: Were there a few people that were meaningful to you back then in terms of influences?

 JL: I found great influences in people like Marcella Runell Hall, now at Mount Holyoke, who was working at the Center for Multi-Education and Programs at NYU at the time. Marcella is a hip-hop pedagogy scholar. There was also a professor, Daniel Banks, who was doing some cool work around hip-hop and theater. I got deep into that before swinging over, finally, to fine art and visual culture. In 2010 that I started writing for Zora Magazine. Eventually, I was brought on to the editorial team by my good friend Ope, and I sort of led the culture vertical.

While there, I was commissioning a lot of interviews, doing a lot of reviews on, still at the time, hip-hop related things, but slowly merging over into other disciplines and forms. I got to a point where I realized that there were smarter people writing about hip-hop; it’s a beautiful genre of journalism and cultural criticism, but it was okay if I wasn’t doing it. It was also in school that I was first introduced to bell hooks and her book Art on my Mind and in that book she’s writing about a particular type of art criticism that I actually didn’t see in the field. I was like, oh I can do that.

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 8.21.23 PM.png

In 2010 digital publications were starting to blossom and a lot of traditional art magazines were also migrating to digital. This was the landscape as I started to write more publicly. Also, after school, I took a job at this important organization, 651 ARTS, a performing arts organization in Brooklyn dedicated to performing arts of the African Diaspora.

There I was — trying my hand at art criticism, learning the beautiful history of this organization, and  encountering a new host of artists and the dots started to connect for me. I think I told you in our earlier conversation, I was also working part-time at Bonhams.

BW:  Yes, Bonhams, the auction house. That was your first professional art gig, right?

JL: I started at Bonhams first and then moved over to 651.

BW: They are very different in scope. Nonprofit versus for profit. A utility versus an ideology.

JL: I really like that language, utility versus ideology, actually. I was caught in that. The position at Bonhams was important to me because I am not someone who studied art history. I was able to acquire the knowledge that I should have arguably had as someone who wanted to write about art. At 651, I spent time thinking about how these two very different canons either were or were not as robust as they should’ve been. I was doing a lot, probably more than I should have been doing at 22.

BW: It sounds like you were learning about what you ultimately wanted to do by testing new ventures.

JL: Yes. We were on the other side of the recession, and I think a lot of people my age were trying to figure out how to make their way in the world. I told myself, “okay I'm going to try nonprofit work, I'm going to try my hand at writing, and then I'm also going to be in the auction house orbit for a bit and see what sticks.” It just so happened that something stuck.

BW: That sums up work life today; test a lot of things, find what you love to do, and can be great at and go for it. It takes some dead ends to find. I always loved what Steve Jobs said about work, “If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it.” How do you describe the multiple roles you live in today?

JL: Most often I usually just say I'm a writer and an art administrator, which is rather boring. But I do feel like fundamentally as we have come to understand those terms, they fit well for me. You know like some people have thought of ARTS.BLACK as a type of innovation effort and so, by extension, people refer to me and Taylor, my co-editor, as innovators. Admittedly, I don't always see myself that way but those are my own hang ups.

BW: Innovation has a long steep history of what product life cycles and disruption and it comes from a corporate lens.

JL: And maybe that’s it, maybe that’s the subtext. How do I acknowledge that I’m offering something new to the world without feeling like I'm kind of using language from a world that doesn’t exactly match my own, as a nonprofit worker, as a critic? Those are my own hang-ups. But I do like using the term “art administrator” understanding that language as someone who helps to place frames around work that’s already being done by artists, helping to think critically about how to make those processes as efficient as possible, as rigorous as possible. I don’t know what the other terminology I would use at the moment.

BW: Yeah, you’re comfortable with it .

JL: Super comfortable, but I’m aware that language often fails us.


ARTS.BLACK  is a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives predicated on the belief that art criticism should be an accessible dialogue - a tool through which we question, celebrate, and talk back to the global world of contemporary art. The journal is edited by Taylor Renee Aldridge and Jessica Lynne.

ARTS.BLACK is a journal of art criticism from Black perspectives predicated on the belief that art criticism should be an accessible dialogue - a tool through which we question, celebrate, and talk back to the global world of contemporary art. The journal is edited by Taylor Renee Aldridge and Jessica Lynne.

BW: I suppose this is a two-part question. How did you get started with ARTS.BLACK, as an online journal? I think you frame it as a journal. And what is the vision that you have, at least now being a couple years into it?

JL: I love telling this story. Taylor and I had a host of mutual friends, who had been saying for years, that we needed to meet. When we finally met, I knew that something good would come from the friendship. We kept in touch and a few months later, Taylor posts a Facebook status asking people to identify young, black, art critics are. It becomes this thread of hundreds of comments and while that’s happening, me and her are also texting. She sends me a message saying that she’s  purchased this URL, arts.black. She’s like “I have this idea, I know you’re a writer, I'm interested in cultural production, I'm a writer, let’s do this thing.” It’s almost hard to say no to that. Taylor’s energy is very laser focused.

We started off on Tumblr which was great in the beginning because we needed a platform that would allow us to disseminate the idea very quickly. A lot of the other young, black, art critics that we were reading were also publishing work on Tumblr. The decision to start on that platform served a dual purpose, and the mission was quite simple: to find young, black, art critics, people who weren’t necessarily being published in the mainstream journals, and to publish them in ours. Early on, we realized that we wanted ARTS.BLACK to be both a site for new writing and also a feeder, providing writers opportunities with other publications. That was and is really important. As an editor, I recognize that there are places who should absolutely pay attention to the writers I publish.

BW: Oh, that’s a super interesting way to think about a business model.  

JL: We’ve had some great people write for us who are also writing for other publications. I don’t ever want ARTS.BLACK to be the only place where you can find black critics. But, if you do need a starting point, you can come to us.

BW: I like how you’re trying to use it as a platform that not only publishes, but closes the gap to publishing. How does the model work? What have you most learned about the model that stuck with you?

JL: I have to be so honest, as someone who also works in the nonprofit world, I was very adamant about not becoming a 501(c)(3). Taylor and I had many conversations about the pros and cons, and I was adamant about not moving in that direction.  I didn’t want to fight for grants. I didn’t want to labor over proposals. It’s exhausting. We decided to become an LLC. However, most funding opportunities are still relegated to formal philanthropy so we also have a fiscal sponsor.

But, I still think that the LLC is an important statement to make, in that, we are beholden to only ourselves. A fiscal sponsor offers flexibility, and it allows us to acquire funds through grants should we decide to apply every now and again, but I didn’t want that to represent the entirety of the fiscal model. We don’t quite yet have a subscription model in place, so that’s one of the reasons that we took the break, to really look at a business structure. And, as many entrepreneurs have to do, sometimes you just figure it out as you’re in it. I'm really excited for 2017, because I think this is the year where we’ll learn what exactly it means to run, not just a journal, but a business. How do we ensure that subscribers feel compelled to give over five dollars a month to enjoy these essays that we’re publishing? What is our responsibility to them, then once they give?

BW: Yes, in terms of distribution of content, breathe of content etc.

JL: Exactly. ARTS.BLACK is not unlike any other publication. It requires us to ask tough questions and to dig our heels in and learn some things that we probably would not have imagined and considered.

BW: I imagine whether or not to take on advertising is a big decision.

JL: It’s a huge question that isn’t going away. We’re definitely trying to figure out the best model. Do we go advertising with a mix of a subscription? Do we do no advertising and go maybe the route of the Big Round Table or Mother Jones?We’re definitely learning a lot and I think that at two years in, this is part of the maturation process.

BW:  How is thinking about the product and pool of writers you’re working with?

JL: I definitely want to grow the source, grow the pool.

BW: So you’re open to emerging writers or critics reaching out to you?

JL: Absolutely, but we’re also going to scale down. On the other side of our break, we’re coming back with a monthly issue form, publishing two pieces a month. While this means we can only publish two writers a month, I think it will force us to be as thoughtful as possible as editors. We’ve also divided up the labor in new ways. Taylor will solely work on the publishing side of things and head the business efforts, and I will lead the editorial efforts.

BW: As you said, less is more.  If you limit it or create self imposed rules, it could allow you to focus and be experimental. What does it mean for you to be a critic in the art world today given the state of the state?

JL: I am someone who’s always understood and believed that writing is a political gesture. And, I also acknowledge the ways that artists and other cultural producers really use their work to respond to a moment. I think that’s my responsibility as a critic — to  document and preserve what’s happening in real time so that there’s an archive that is created. It becomes a tool from which people in the future can learn, but also a way of acknowledging that artists are problem solvers. Artists ask questions of the world, and those questions and inquiries and investigations deserve to be taken seriously. They also deserve to be acknowledged in a public manner that invites other folks to respond to them.

I think critics are able to do that and the best critics want that to happen, so that’s what I'm really trying to do. Who aren’t we hearing? Like you said, what voices don’t make it to the center when we’re in these moments of political upheaval?

BW:  I like the idea of what you’re saying, shining a light on these parts of the world that are so critical or unseen right now.

JL: As an administrator and a critic, I'm going to wear both hats now, I think that there are multiple centers. There are multiple places where fantastic work is being created and fantastic deep high level conversations are happening. It’s my responsibility to see it and to always acknowledge it and celebrate it when I can.  I live in New York, so that means that I can’t be in Kansas City all the time, but if I know something’s happening, and if I know people are doing great work there, I want to be able to proclaim it, and I want to be able to ask questions of it, and create space for it.

BW:   Who or what inspires you?

JL: I have been spending a lot of time re-reading two critics, Barbara Smith and Lucy Lippard. Barbara Smith identifies as a black feminist critic, and was part of a group of women who founded the Combahee River Collective. They put forth a few texts, the most seminal being This Bridge Called My Back.  Smith wrote this pretty brilliant essay “Towards a Black Feminist Criticism” and in this essay, she identifies what her responsibility is to other black women artists as someone who identifies as a critic. She wrote this in the ‘70’s, and I think I maybe read it once in college, but it’s very different now reading it given the new political reality.

I’ve been returning to her essay because I'm also trying to negotiate my responsibility, as we’ve been talking about, as a critic, but also as someone who identifies as a black feminist. On the other side of that, Lucy Lippard is someone who made it a point to think about multiple centers. Both women were around the same time,  at the height of the feminist revolution, the height of the black power movement, the black arts movement. I think they present  to me some really important lenses through which I may examine what’s happening now.

I’ve been inspired by them recently, and I'm trying not to end up in a rabbit hole of reading everything by them. Then, more broadly speaking, I’ve been really inspired by the collective energy of so many people in the country right now. It’s hard not to think about what’s happening under this current administration. But folks are coming out and showing up in big ways, and it’s hard to ignore them; that feels so potent right now, the urgency in that. I think people are realizing how high the stakes are. I’ve been galvanized by watching so many of my peers and friends and colleagues join the ranks and commit to, not just a one-time movement but a mobilization effort.

BW: Yeah, it’s inspiring. As they say, planes take off against the wind. Do you have an unrealized project?

JL: Oh, man. This is a great one because this is going to hold me accountable. So I’ve come back to essay writing that’s not related to art or visual culture. We’ll see how successful I am in that, because maybe at this point everything for me is rotating around visual and performance culture. But I really want to write a series of essays about my father and his biological father. The thesis of the project is in my connection to them and the invisible things that you inherit from people. At the same time,  I really would like to use this project to think about the landscape of black Americana from about 1968 into the present moment. I believe in that project, intellectually so, but it’s increasingly becoming harder to find the time to get it off the ground. I had a really fantastic residency last summer in Maine, where I did the early outlining and drafting of a couple essays.

It was in the Space Gallery in Portland, Maine. They were piloting a program that brought artists of many disciplines to the space, to just work. There are no excuses. I don’t want to make excuses for myself. That project is what I need to be focusing right now.

Webspace from  http://www.space538.org/ . Jessica Lynne artist talk, June 22, 2016.

Webspace from http://www.space538.org/. Jessica Lynne artist talk, June 22, 2016.

BW:  This sound like you’re reaffirming your intent.

JL: This is my way of reaffirming, I'm going to finish the essay collection.

BW: Could we talk about Recess and the Black Art incubator you launched?

JL: Absolutely. I currently am the manager of development and communications at Recess. I think Recess is probably one of the most dynamic art institutions in the city. It's a place that believes in artists and believes in artists as high level thinkers with a specific focus on process. We emphasize the relationships that artists form with publics and the rendering visible the artist’s labor. We don’t often have the chance to sit with an artist as they’re also sitting with a project so Recess is unique in that way.

I came on-board after co-organizing the Session project, Black Art Incubator, alongside Taylor, Kimberly Drew, and Jessica Bell Brown. We hosted 30 workshops in 35 days, which now seems like a phenomenal feat and essentially we were honing in on a few central points. What does it mean to bring together the seemingly disparate connections in the art world? How do we provide support to artists and those who may not necessarily identify as artists in ways that look different from other more conventional structures, like an MFA program, for example? And, then also, how do we have the tough questions about race, gender and class that permeate a lot of what we do in the arts, but are rarely addressed? Recess became a work space with plants, a computer station where folks would come in and kind of like send emails, get things done, and a reading area. The project had four pillars: office hours, open crits, archival practice, and art + money talks.

Our art +money talks were focused on everything from how to successfully write a grant, to how to market yourself as an artist without gallery representation. Our office hours invited professionals in the field to meet with other folks in the field who had questions about career paths, career transitions, or just wanted to talk to somebody who was working as a curator at a major New York City museum. Our open crits brought artists in conversation with curators and fellow writers. Whereas our office hours were more intimate encounters, the open crits usually involved two to three artists at a time. If someone from the public came in off the street, they could choose to sit and join in on that conversation. It was, in some ways, an exercise of trust and care because critiques, as you know, can be so loaded and so anxiety ridden.

Art + Money talk with artist Dread Scott at Black Art Incubator. Photo courtesy of Recess.

Art + Money talk with artist Dread Scott at Black Art Incubator. Photo courtesy of Recess.

BW:   Yes and so inaccessible for so many people. They take place in demarcated spaces within institutions far too often. I love what you’re doing to create pathways and make things accessible. New York City is hard to get a foothold period and I see your work creating these pathways and platforms for others...almost like springboards.  And, not just in NY, but in other centers.

JL: And that was important for us. We often referred to BAI as a living Google document which means the process of revision, editing, and then rebuilding has to always be taken into consideration. The local context was certainly important to the project. At the same time, we had so many conversations during that project with visitors who were just in town for the weekend and in that way those conversations were equally as generative because every single person who came through the doors made an imprint that accumulated over time. It was a profound thing to witness.

We also held a meditation yoga session. We were very particular  in thinking about processes of care for one another and for ourselves. How do you slow down without losing the rigor of the work?

Our last official public event was a potluck where we just invited everyone to reflect with us. What does it mean to incubate? How should we be thinking about work in this time period? What didn’t you see that you wanted to see in the incubator. What would it mean to mount the project again?

And so, as I mentioned, afterwards I was brought on full-time, and I’m excited about watching other projects, though very different in structure, commit to the exposition of process. That’s what we were doing with BAI. Gallerists make decisions. Grant makers make decisions. Critics make decisions. Artists make decisions; we wanted to be transparent about those processes and invite visitors to agree, disagree, build, construct, tear-down, together in a safe environment.

Black Art Incubator at Recess. Photo courtesy of Recess.

Black Art Incubator at Recess. Photo courtesy of Recess.

BW:  Provide a safe place to take intelligent risks or any risks.

JL: Exactly. Or, remove that veil.

BW: What’s next for you in 2017?

JL: I don’t think I’ve said this on the record yet, but I have a very, very targeted goal at the end of 2017 to write two pieces, whether they be like short reviews or short interviews, in another language. I speak Spanish, and I recently started studying German, again. I want to start writing in these other two languages as my own challenge, but also again, as a way of throwing out ropes and connecting with new people and new ideas.

Black Art Incubator workshop event. Photo courtesy of Recess

Black Art Incubator workshop event. Photo courtesy of Recess






Catherine Haggarty: "Lately, making no sense matters the most."

Catherine Haggarty is a New York based artist, curator, writer and teacher. She’s known for her work that explores the sublime and the absurd through painting. She has an upcoming Solo Show: 'What if, you slept?', which opens February 18th, 2017 at Proto Gallery. She will also be curating a two person painting show, ‘About Looking” featuring the work of Matt Phillips and Travis Fairclough which opens January 27th at Ortega y Gasset Projects through February 19th, 2017.


Brett Wallace: What is your origin in art?

Catherine Haggarty:   The first thing I did creatively was to build trash and recyclable sculptures in my garage when I was a little kid. I’m the last of seven kids and I was always really like into sports but I also had this urge to make objects. I think maybe similarly to my Dad who used to build a lot of things. And, so the first art thing I did I think was building trash sculptures in my garage when I was about seven or eight.

I don’t think I understood what it would mean to be an artist as a kid, but I knew I wanted to tell stories, to make things, to do what others couldn’t.

BW: What did you study in school?

CH: I actually focused on Psychology at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. I studied Behavioral Psychology but I also majored in art. And when I was in my junior year of college I decided to quit basketball and to pick up an art major and study abroad at the Tyler School of Art in Rome.

I spent a few years after college taking classes at SVA in painting - trying to make up ground for technique work I felt I didn’t get in undergrad because my Psychology major really took up most of my time.  Then, around 2009, I began my MFA at Rutgers. That experience was tough but so so helpful - the people I met and had the chance to work with. It challenged and changed me in many really great ways. 

BW: What experience(s) or mentors have influenced you?

CH:   Traveling to Rome in 2005 and completing my MFA in 2011 - both of those events solidified my passion and inner desire to dedicate my life to making art. Mentors of great significance were Hanneline Rogeberg, Marc Handleman, Wendy White, and Tom Nozkowski at Rutgers. In 2010 John Yau took a small group of us to studio visits in Brooklyn, we spent time at Kathy Bradford’s studio and that was the start of a friendship and mentorship that continues to be helpful for me. 

I remember after a studio visit with Wendy White in graduate school thinking to myself that I could really do this, It just hit me and I never looked back. Seeing working artists with families, lives and success is important for young artists - they need to see that it is possible, and that you can have a rich and full life with art being the center of your drive.

BW: Who inspires you?

CH:  So I think there’s like an absurdity in Carroll Dunham’s paintings as well as Nicole Eisenman’s paintings that inspired me to take chances with compositions and figures. Dana Shutz, Nikki Maloof, both paint in this land of figurative abstraction that is really liberating. Brian Scott Campbell’s new work particularly is inspiring to me as well - formally he is coming from drawing but his recent work  and implication of figures again really has me looking forward to seeing more of his work. These artists, and many other give me a sort of  permission to do what i want. I think that is a huge part of being an artist - allowing yourself the permission to let go and dive in. 

I think that there’s a sort of quietude too in artists like Albert York, John Dilg, or Eleanor Ray that I really love formally - I don’t paint like them but they inspire me. The attention to tonal shifts, to simple subject matter lending itself to the everyday and memory. 

In terms of painting - there are so many, I look at my friends paintings all the time - we are constantly sending each other photos and of course exchanging studio visits. 

I am also really inspired by those that make art from a very different place. I work with kids and young adults when I teach - the way they process information and make art is really curious to me. Impulsivity and simplification of form in children’s art is really terrific if you pay attention to it. Also those students sometimes have cognitive impairments or autism - they inspire me. Truly, some of the best work I see daily is from them. You can’t get more human and more raw than their work. I’m in awe of them for many reasons and it’s a pleasure to be able to experience the way their brain’s work on a daily basis.

BW: What are some of the concepts you're most interested in painting?

CH:  In the past year and a half I’ve really focused on two major sort of subjects, land and people. Psychology has rooted in me a desire to observe and understand behavior - so in this, people have always been a subject. And landscape in the last year has become a subject, which sort of took me by surprise. I always had a bit of anxiety putting my figures or people in places that didn’t make sense. I finally gave myself the permission to put them wherever the hell I felt...and that has been this sort of utopian and dream like landscape. Mountains, water, sky - all of it has seeped into the paintings and really brought me to life in a really hard year.

It has been really liberating and really helpful for me to sort of just have the bravery to put the subjects in an environment, even if it makes no sense at all. 

I have been thinking about the sort of suspension of belief - the will it takes to put yourself in a vulnerable place. In running this means committing to complete 26.2 miles in the marathon - in basketball this means driving the lane when you are the smallest one on the court. I’ve been curious how I can do that with painting - how can I be vulnerable, how can I suspend my belief and for a moment - make no sense at all in the painting’s resolution, leave it somewhere I’ve never left it.

‘Everything Everything’ 2010-2016, Acrylic and Ink on Panel, 24x24 inches

‘Everything Everything’ 2010-2016, Acrylic and Ink on Panel, 24x24 inches


BW: Yeah, that makes sense. Now it sounds like you're balancing that focus on people and how they fit in an environment. 

CH:    Yeah. I mean I have a little note on my desk that says you don’t have to make sense of these. It’s amazing how much you have to remind yourself as an artist - the very simple constructs of making art that is alive and really fresh. You know, that you don’t have to make sense of the image and that that’s not your job.

But for me what I’ve been craving lately is to create something I don’t have. You know, like someplace I don’t have and try to attempt to represent a sort of wavering dream like state. And that takes a little more confidence to create those pictures but that has been really liberating for me. But strangely enough, it kind of came from a sort of place of exhaustion in the past year of just being really busy and a lot of personal stress.



‘The Good World’ 2016, Gouache on panel, 12x12 inches

‘The Good World’ 2016, Gouache on panel, 12x12 inches


I remember after the election all I could do was get up and paint small tiny landscape paintings. I just sat there for several weeks and painted land...places I’ve never been, places I will never be. It came from desperation - thinking about the sort of political climate and also some personal stress. 

Things have been good - I am so lucky but I also feel the weight of a lot of things, and personally the last year has been so hard. Having lost family members, lost relationships, and seeing my Dad fade from a neurodegenerative disease with no cure...it’s led me to feel like...nothing makes any fucking sense!  It is just moments you get - that’s it. 

So...back to land. In a way, painting has let me escape and I’ve let go a bit of narrative, and just let paint flow and lead me somewhere more colorful than I feel I have been this year. 

So strangely, this is the most colorful, bright and seemingly positive paintings I’ve ever made but it’s come from a place of exhaustion and from loss. They make no sense, which is sort of how I feel about things lately. 

‘Land & People’, 2016, Acrylic on wood, 16x18 inches

‘Land & People’, 2016, Acrylic on wood, 16x18 inches


BW: Is that an intentional dialogue around the political that you're fostering?

CH:    Well, I think it is less charged in terms of specific political content - like I’m not making paintings about the President Elect of anything. The culture, the climate of things politically and personally has affected the work in a way though, there is no denying that. 

I’ve just let go of whatever I thought was going to make sense or whatever I thought was going to happen. It just seems like none of that has worked. And so I think painting has  really just very selfishly become a way to create a world that doesn’t actually exist for me. So yeah, it’s a reaction to the personal and political climate but certainly not an activism reaction if that makes sense. 

BW: One of the things that stuck out was the suspension of reality in your upcoming show in February at Proto Gallery. This seems an extension of that idea. Can you talk about that more

CH:    Oh, thanks. I’m really looking forward to it. So above my desk in my studio I have two things pinned up as a reminder. One is a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (What if, you slept?) and the other is a photo of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier. I keep those up as a personal reminder about the idea of breaking barriers or the idea of the suspension of reality - which both of those images give me. 

The poem is really important to me because it sort of paints the picture of a being in a dreamlike state and fully believing that you can be somewhere in your dreams and bring it to your reality when you wake up. So simple, but how beautiful? The sheer will to conjure your dreams into reality. It’s so improbable...but it gives me hope. 

So there’s this sort of suspension of belief I think about, when you can convince yourself to believe in the impossible. And I think also this goes back to a personal thing - with athletics -  that the commitment to sort of lining up and running 26 miles is insane or to practice dribbling for hours on end until your hands feel like they’re going to fall off. It’s sort of this like belief in your ability to do anything and how important that is even as an artist. To believe in yourself enough to break barriers of logic, what people think you are capable of and most importantly what-ever your perceived barriers are.  

The photo of Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile is a reminder to me of that sort of commitment and the belief it takes to pursue anything with that much intensity.

It’s like when you’re running ten miles and your body just hits a numb point and you just believe that you could just be an Olympian. Like if you just shut your eyes and pretend...you are in the Olympics, you force yourself to believe that you are that good. 

And then so in painting it’s like this idea of like how do you  approach a painting and believe that you actually are going to make something worthy of looking. And it’s the same suspension of reality, whether or not it’s a dream or whether or not it’s like an hour into your run where your body’s numb and you just start to believe that you’re actually in the Olympics. And you’re just, you’re still so average, you know, but it’s this sort of reminder to push yourself toward the thing. And even if they don’t make sense, you know, but to make yourself continue to try to do that.  It’s really humbling and also is a really good way to let go of control?

Studio picture courtesy of the artist

Studio picture courtesy of the artist


BW: How does this idea of the suspension of reality influence how you work, the way your studio is set up, the tools that you use etc?

CH:    So I draw all the time, on the train, in the morning with coffee and such that note taking is really important to my observational process. So everything really starts from that and paying really close attention to the world that I live in. Years ago I took a class at SVA with Nancy Chunn, and the most important thing I took from her class was to simply ‘notice what you notice’. And I tell my students this and I remind myself every day to do this. If you closely pay attention to the constant thread of observations you make therein lies some really rich content about what’s important - what stands out to you. 

There is a set of characters that sort of reoccur over the past ten years for me and they are mainstays and sometimes I add a new one. So the paintings start from movement and from drawing from those recurring characters. Really boiling down what I’m noticing and why I’m noticing it and what kind of picture I want to make with those characters and how much control I want to have. 

‘For the Victors’ 2017, Acrylic on Panel, 12x12 inches

‘For the Victors’ 2017, Acrylic on Panel, 12x12 inches


BW: Do you find that you have to embody or put yourself in a suspended state of mind to actualize this type work?

CH:  Yeah. Well there’s always a state of flow with anything, right, and we all know that. We can get to that state of flow by just being really locked into it, having no distractions. But, you know, I listen to music and I listen to podcasts a lot and I think that the best working time for me is when I’m not distracted by a cell phone or by people. And I just get a few hours in of kind of like circling the studio and making adjustments to several things at once and really connecting the synapses. And that’s when the work actually really starts to break more barriers than if I’m just focusing on one painting and thinking about the idea of resolution.

But if I let myself go and kind of circle the studio organically, you know, more connections happen. 

BW: That makes sense. So, this idea of not getting to full resolution ties back to the suspension of reality, the absurdity of things. What are some of the recent pivots you've made in your practice?

CH:  There was a pivot from moving from oils to now I only use water based paint. I’m starting to use metallic paint, a lot of neon paint and I’ve actually really craved color, like more than I’ve ever craved it. And I’m using that I think more freely. I feel like there’s no rules and using water based paint and inks and acrylics has actually freed me up a lot to just do, to let go of things. Because my prep is so much shorter and I can just work faster and that suits my nature I think better.

Color has been another escape for me, like much like land was an escape in terms of trying to create a space that I didn’t know physically. Color has been an escape for me psychologically to just sort of let go. And I just needed bright colors this year.

BW: Could you talk about the show opening this week you've curated?

CH: Yeah, I’m curating a show at Ortega y Gasset. It’s my first curatorial project with the gallery so I’m really excited for it. It opens January 27th and runs through February 19th.  It features the work of Matt Phillips and Travis Fairclough - both friends and painters I greatly admire.  The title of the show is, “About Looking” in honor of the recent passing of the great John Berger. When thinking of a title for this show, I felt that it was an appropriate and timely one that not only gives a nod to a literary legend but also reflects a specific pace and presence in Fairclough and Phillip’s paintings.

BW: How do you think painting changing vis-a-vis the constant proliferation of digital images we seen every day? Is that a part of how you're thinking about show, "About Looking"?

CH:  Well there are two answers to that question but first in regards to the show and the decision to choose these artists together.

I had a studio visit weeks ago with Travis Fairclough and I have been watching his work develop for two years. I knew I wanted to show his work and in the middle of the visit, when we were talking about the presence and forms in his painting - it just hit me. That pace was important to him - pace in making and pace in viewing. This has to be somewhat a reaction to the world we live in digitally but also this echoes a painting philosophy reflecting a sort of spirituality within abstraction. 

I left the studio visit thinking about his desire to turn our attention back to the painting - and not ourselves. With Travis, there is this commitment so intense to the kind of attention he gives his color choice, his compositions, his drawings - it’s beautiful. I left knowing I wanted to reach out to Matt Phillips. 

I have seen Matt’s work for years at Steve Harvey Projects and various shows around the city - so I was familiar for certain. When I left Travis’s studio that day I couldn’t immediately think of anyone making paintings just like him, but my focus became about pace and presence within abstraction and who would be an interesting pair to show together. I immediately emailed Matt for a studio visit.


‘Dial’ 2017, pigment and silica on linen 30x 24 inches

‘Dial’ 2017, pigment and silica on linen 30x 24 inches


Seeing Matt Phillip’s work up close is a lesson in rhythm, care, color and most certainly pace. His brush work slows you down and doesn’t let you assume the closure or resolution of the image. In a way, the method Phillip’s uses to apply paint mirrors the way Fairclough forms his compositions. A sort of restructuring of our ability to work through an image. They are doing things in a shared pool of thinking but with different solutions, processes and even material. Phillips uses pigment and silica on linen and Fairclough uses only oil on linen.

I think that, you know, it’s fair to say if you look at Matt Phillips work enough that his images sort of bounce and they ungulate on the canvas because of the rhythmic method in which he applies paint. Even in my studio visit with him, I sort of said to him joking that these paintings kind of look like it could have been a ‘90s screensaver. We both laughed,...There seems to be a need for this human connection in his work and process. He has mentioned to me that his application of paint stems from an interest in imbuing a painting with the hand, touch and gesture. 

Travis’s work might be a complete philosophical slowdown to the pace of image making today and his use of color and brush work is completely different than Matt’s color and brushwork. I believe he is making his paintings with similar things in mind as Phillips but it is shown differently - which is why I think they are a great combination.

I just finished installing the work and I stood back and have to say, I am so proud to share their work together. I can’t believe these two, although familiar with each other, have never met. They live a few miles apart in Brooklyn and you just won’t believe the kind of connection there is. It’s breathtaking - the line in their work flows around Ortega y Gasset’s space effortlessly. The presence of forms recurring and shifting in our perceived space is truly stunning. The kind of work curating takes is the reward of time spent developing a Gallery and of the rich art community we are in. Since Matt is a member of Tiger Strikes Astroid, I am sure he shares this sentiment with me.


Travis Fairclough, 2016, ‘Dualist Affect’, Oil on Linen 22x18 inches

Travis Fairclough, 2016, ‘Dualist Affect’, Oil on Linen 22x18 inches

In terms of my idea of the painting in the digital era, I think it’s so nuanced but it’s not a topic that is going to change. The internet is art. Our perceptions and ability to read images is a reflection of living in the internet age, whether we like it or not. The internet and the influx of digital images might be the greatest influence in the postmodern era in painting I can think of.

I am not sure we can even keep up with it, maybe that’s why everyone seems overwhelmed and why paintings matter more and more. I think we are lucky though, we get to see a lot - we can’t avoid it. We are constantly confronted with information - unless we slow it down ourselves. 

I think painters are either offering us a break from the pace of technology or they’re offering us a commentary on that technology. And I think those are two rich avenues and either one is worthy of someone’s time.

BW: Artists have very different ways of addressing the contemporary media landscape - that's very evident in the spectrum of working being made from painting to art and everything in between.

CH:    Yeah, it’s totally different. And I think that’s actually the beauty of it. I think, you know, I’m glad the internet’s there. I think it’s part of our art now. I don’t think we can escape it anymore, ‘nor should we try to. 

BW: How do you balance everything

CH:    Oh gosh. I don’t know, Brett... a lot of coffee. I think there’s a lot of people that are ultra-busy and ultra-involved. And so I think the art world is full of probably the hardest workers I am privileged to even know. So many people like yourself have full-time jobs and families and careers. And I just think I’m in awe of the people that I get to be surrounded by. 

In terms of my life, it’s just the way it is. I have to teach but I also love to teach and I’m privileged to do so. But, you know, every once in awhile I get kind of exhausted...particularly this year. It is what it is though, and I think everything influences my work at this point. And so I can take two avenues in attitude about how much I do…

One is to say ‘I am exhausted and it’s a burden to teach and make art full time’. Or I can take the perspective that I am incredibly privileged and I’m lucky to be in the position I am. I choose to take the latter because I just think there’s no other way. And I’m not going to spend eight hours of my day teaching children art and think that it’s a waste of my time. It’s my obligation to sort of synthesize the experiences I have as rich content. And so that inspires me and it also influences my work. In terms of curating, that’s a total privilege and a joy to be able to bring some attention to artists I think is needed or would serve as a great show. So that’s the fun part - that is the reward. 

I do think though, it is good to simplify at times. I have months that are full force - like now. I’m swamped but then...things will slow down and I will have more time alone to paint and be a little bit more of a human. I have built my life the way it is, and I’m getting better at simplifying things even if it seems like a lot. I really enjoy my quiet nights of painting more than ever.

BW: What do you reflect on outside of the studio? How do you stay informed?

CH:    In a way I don’t know that I have a ton of time to read like I want to. But I did just start a book called Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. I’m really excited to read that. I’m also reading a book called Just Kids - the story of Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. I love Cabinet Magazine as well.

Art Magazines, podcasts, NPR, and music keep me going. Because of how busy I am I do rely more on podcasts because my interest lies so much in human behavior, education and philosophy that I think those are actually huge influences to me more than even just looking at art in a museum. I’m really interested in how to connect my language of image making to things that are more complex and relate to the world at large.

BW: Who are some of the artists on your radar this year?

CH:    I was recently a visiting critic at The Wassaic Project and got to have studio visit with some great artists. Ellen Jing Xu, a recent MFA Graduate from University of Washington is making some really exciting work. I also met with Tiffany Marie Tate, based in Philadelphia and thought her work is really exciting. I look forward to following both of them - everyone should! 

Lauren Whearty is a friend and painter based in Philadelphia who I watch and talk to often, her paintings are taking off so I am looking forward to seeing her show more often. Liv Aanrud, a close friend and terrific artist is based in L.A and is truly next level - her textile and rag rugs come from a place of compulsion and energy that is raw and beautiful. She leaves us with paintings in thread form, woven and fought for.

Andrew Phillip Cortez, also based in L.A is someone to watch as well. He is making work a bit off the radar which is why it is so exciting. I spent time with him in L.A. this summer and collaborating and that experience out West and his friendship has really influenced my color palette and thought process. There are so many....it could go on and on, and I’m thankful for that.

Ultimately, I want to surround myself with terrific artists because it makes me better. I want others to succeed as much as I want to - I want to learn from others as much as I want to teach them. Across the board - remaining open is so important.

‘Aqua’, 2016, Ink & Gouache on Panel, 12 x12 inches

‘Aqua’, 2016, Ink & Gouache on Panel, 12 x12 inches

Jennifer Samet: “I think that “the voice of the artist” is becoming lost in art history”.

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project," a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.

Jennifer Samet is a New York-based art historian, curator, and writer. She teaches at the New York Studio School and The New School. She has lectured at universities across the country on the subject of “The Role of Empathy in Art” and “Slow Art.” She curated major historical exhibitions on Jane Street Group and the history of the New York Studio School; and thematic exhibitions such as “Rough Cut,” “Repetitive Motion,” and “Physical Painting.” She is the author of the column  “Beer with a Painter,” in Hyperallergic Weekend Edition.

Jennifer Samet, in Truro, Massachusetts, for "Beer with a Painter" interview with Sharon Horvath.

Jennifer Samet, in Truro, Massachusetts, for "Beer with a Painter" interview with Sharon Horvath.

Brett Wallace: What was your origin in art?

Jennifer Samet: I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs. I remember being conscious, even as a child, that there wasn’t a lot of culture around me. Culture was definitely part of my parents’ life. But outside of that, it wasn’t there. So I vividly remember the pleasure of going to New York, to the Metropolitan Museum with my mother, and looking at Pollock paintings.

There were art books in my house, and I remember a book about Karel Appel, and a box set of thin books. There was one about Cézanne in there. It was very digestible for a kid, because it only had about ten reproductions. My mother went to art school and she painted. She didn’t really paint professionally after I was born. But she had studied painting in Boston.

My parents took us to a lot of classical music – Carnegie Hall and special matinees at the Philharmonic that were family-friendly. We went to Tanglewood every summer and would listen to concerts and picnic on the lawn. So it was just this high culture. My parents only let me watch PBS and I was totally sheltered from popular culture. It was extreme!

BW: How would you describe your roles today?

JS: I always say that I work with art in a few different capacities. So I teach Art History and I write about art, and I’m also Co-Director of the gallery Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects

BW: Could we talk about your Ph.D. dissertation (which seems very relevant to your focus  on painting today)?

JS: It was called “Painterly Representation in New York: 1945 to 1975.” I wrote about a generation of painters, many of whom studied with abstract painters, in particular, Hans Hofmann. So they started out making abstract paintings, at the height of Abstract Expressionism, but they ended up becoming figurative or representational.

That was the generation I wrote about. It’s not really a group, per se. But a lot of them knew each other and were in conversation. It includes people like Mercedes Matter, who was, along with a group of her students, the founder of the New York Studio School; Robert de Niro, Sr.; and Louisa Matthiasdottir.

Photo: Nicolas Carone, In Orbit, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 in., part of "The Space Between," curated by Jennifer Samet for the New York Studio School, February - March 2015

Photo: Nicolas Carone, In Orbit, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 84 x 60 in., part of "The Space Between," curated by Jennifer Samet for the New York Studio School, February - March 2015

BW: And, did you find it interesting that abstraction originally came out of figuration (as in the case of Picasso deconstructing the image or De Kooning moving from the figure to abstraction)?

JS: Yes, abstraction was the zeitgeist, and considered the highest form of progress in art. It was the way to go. And there was an intellectual underpinning to all of it. Some of those artists, like Nell Blaine, for example, started out being very dogmatic about abstraction. So it’s an interesting shift, to then give up all of the polemical reasoning behind it and start painting flowers again. Sometimes, when things become too extreme, that is one reaction. Anything can become an academy.

This group came out of nonobjective art and Mondrian, and people from the Abstraction-Création group in France, like Jean Hélion. So, in part, they were coming out of the 1930s and 1940s abstraction movements. They also studied with Hofmann, of course, who was called the Father of Abstract Expressionism.

BW: Let’s talk about your own conversation series, Beer with a Painter. What’s your vision for this ongoing project?

JS: There’s always been a really specific vision to “Beer with a Painter.” Even though it has that playful title, it comes out of something serious. It’s that I believe that what I call “the voice of the artist” is becoming lost in art history. I think it’s an untold art history right now. This relates to my idea that when things become too extreme, they are problematic.

Art History right now, and this has been going on for at least fifty years, is focused on socio-political methodology, which is indeed important and valid. But when things become too extreme, you lose other things. I would say that you are losing sight of the fact that the artist is not just a product of his or her sociological and political context, but also an individual. And you’re not really looking at the work of art itself from any kind of formal, material perspective.

Art historians are looking at it more from a literary perspective. Art historians traditionally had a background in making art themselves, but increasingly they don’t.  So they are often great at writing and understanding the context of the art. But, increasingly, what was known as “connoisseurship” – a big part of 19th Century art history – is no longer valued. I noticed this when I was working on my Ph.D.

After I finished it, I wanted to get back into that place where I was really listening to the “voice of the artist.” To me, this is two-fold. It’s the literal voice of the artist, and also listening to the work of art, as a visual object.

BW: Nicely said.

JS: So, that’s what “Beer with a Painter” came out of. It was also just about having fun with art again. Because I had lost that initial thing we were talking about from childhood. The pleasure aspect had slipped away, and it had become something else. Also, since I had always done interviews, a friend, the painter Ryan Cobourn, advised me, “You should make them more rambling, more informal.  You should do them over beer.”

Then, the weird thing was that a year or two later, another friend, Kyle Staver, suggested I do interviews over beer, and call it “Beer with a Painter.” Once it was suggested by multiple people, I started it. The first one was with Matt Phillips; shortly after, was Sharon Horvath. Then it was picked up by Hyperallergic.  I’m lucky that Hyperallergic, and my Weekend Edition editors, John Yau and Thomas Micchelli, have been so supportive, and given me a platform and a lot of creative control.  It’s a gift.

Photo: Jennifer Samet with Mary Heilmann in her Bridgehampton studio for an interview, January 2013

Photo: Jennifer Samet with Mary Heilmann in her Bridgehampton studio for an interview, January 2013

BW: What are the dimensions by you define painter or painting by?

JS: I would say it is artists who are dedicated to the material and medium of painting. Maybe you are doing unconventional things with it (I curated a show about this, called “Physical Painting”), but there still is that focus on paint. We are still in a culture of “post-studio” work, so the studio work, and painting itself, is my focus in these interviews.

The reason that I have made it “Beer with a Painter,” as opposed to other artists is that I thought that contemporary painting wasn’t being given the attention, institutionally - within the museum world, and art historically. Painting is also the thing that I personally get the most excited about; I feel the most attached to; and I know more about painting than I do other media. So I have the most to offer other people when I’m writing about painting. Contemporary painting was the thing that I thought needed more attention from an art historical lens.

Photo: Installation of "Physical Painting," curated by Jennifer Samet in conversation with Scott Wolniak, for the Maass Gallery, Purchase College, February - March 2016

Photo: Installation of "Physical Painting," curated by Jennifer Samet in conversation with Scott Wolniak, for the Maass Gallery, Purchase College, February - March 2016

BW: How do you think new technologies have changed the audience for painting? I’m thinking about Paul Virilio’s controversial argument in The Accident of Art. Virilio and Hobsbawn raised the notion in that essay that Disney has surpassed Monet in the ability to reach the masses and create change in the world (Lotringer, Sylvelre, and Paul Virilion. The accident of Art. New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 2005. Print.)

JS: I’m aware that what I’m doing has a very specific and small audience within the context of our entire cultural production. This is a small world, the amount of people who really care about painting, the way that I do, and the way that all of the people I talk to do! I want my writing to be accessible, but at the same time, you still have to be a pretty interested reader, to read a 3,000-word interview with a painter - even if it’s with someone really well-known.  So in that sense, I don’t think that painting can compete with pop music, in terms of the audience that it reaches. But I still think it’s really important, and I still have a lot of faith in it and belief in it.

I don’t care that Disney has more of an audience or that Kanye West has more of an audience. I don’t care. It doesn’t really matter, in terms of what I’m saying.  Painting is still important.  Even if there is a really small audience for an artist, it still may be important.

I think it touches a significant number of people. I think that artists have a lot of power, to influence culture, politics, the world, and the fabric of New York City, for example. I don’t go so far as to say that art alone can effect change, but I think artists make propositions, and I think painting can offer a new way of seeing.  These are actually ideas that Angela Dufresne  and Terry Winters discussed in our conversations.

It is distressing how many artists have been pushed out of our city - out of Manhattan and into the boroughs, and out of the boroughs, into other places. I think artists have a huge impact on the lives of all kinds of people, whether they realize it or not.

BW: Yeah. And, it is happening to galleries too. I was reading an article in Artnet today by Christian Viveros-Faune about the squeeze of mid-market galleries.

JS: It’s become really hard, and there are a lot of galleries closing right now. I wish the city were making more of an effort to subsidize and help artists and small galleries.

Andrea Belag, After Krushenick After Hokusai, 2016, oil on linen, 56 x 48 in., part of "Outside In," at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, December 2016

Andrea Belag, After Krushenick After Hokusai, 2016, oil on linen, 56 x 48 in., part of "Outside In," at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, December 2016

BW: What role can empathy can play in art?

JS: The talk that I gave about empathy in art came out of an idea of Hans Hofmann. I wrote a lot about Hofmann and his teaching, and specifically this book that he wrote and rewrote over a period of 40 years, and which still hasn’t been published, called “The Painter’s Primer.” There is a whole section in it about empathy. It is a philosophical idea that factored into the work of German art historians, such as Wilhelm Worringer.

That’s what I was speaking about, but I do think it has that broader implications for me, and how I write about art. Going back to my mother, she died when I was 13 years old. So in some way, I think all of the work that I’ve done has been devotional or dedicated to her. As I said, she stopped making painting when she had children. Not to be too grandiose, but I’ve always wanted part of my contribution to be about helping artists continue to make art, rather than stop.

So, in some sense, the interviews come out of that spirit. I don’t think of myself as an investigative reporter. I’m not trying to dig up dirt, although I do want them to be something the artist hasn’t said before. I want them to provide insight the audience has not already had into the work.  But I want the artists to consider the interviews a statement they are happy to put into the world. The interviews are more about identification between two people, and having a conversation that’s real. I want them to read as an experience between two people, which they are.

I want them to be personal. When you have an open dialogue and bring that kind of openness, or as my friend, the archivist Jean-Noël Herlin calls it — “a generous eye” —to looking at art, it usually adds a lot of dimension to the work.

I don’t think you have to know all about an artist to love their work, or you have to love the person to love their work. But I think it adds a dimension. To go back to my “untold art history” idea — the artist is an individual, as well as a product of their time.

BW: How do you see established models of painting, such as the artist-as-hero, shifting to new models?

JS: Well, I think it’s complicated. The artist-as-hero archetype comes out of a very specific moment in time. In fact, some of my favorite moments in interviews I’ve done are when artists have talked about their work as not being about him or herself, but, rather, about something larger. Glenn Goldberg spoke about this, in our interview, and also Susan Walp, and others that I’m forgetting right now.

The artist Peter Acheson is such a smart person who I’ve gotten a lot of ideas from. He’s talked about the artist–as-hero archetype changing over time, so that now the predominant archetype is the artist-as-trickster. My interpretation is that in the days where existentialism was the reigning philosophy of art-making, every mark and move by the artist was considered important, and carried so much weight.  But the artist can also be someone who actually disrupts society through more playful means. He is referring to the role of the trickster in a society. He or she does things to create disruption, effect change, and influence how people see. Acheson talked about how that archetype manifests aesthetically in the work.

For example, you were talking about smaller galleries.  Nowadays, artists are doing a lot of very interesting projects in alternative spaces, exhibitions outdoors, projects in spaces where art “shouldn’t” be - lots of pop-up shows. And of course there is street art.  I think of it as the artist-as-trickster, and I’m a big fan! I’m all for artists making things happen out of their own vision and energy, especially as a way to react to the increasing 1% nature of the art world: mega-galleries and museums focused on drawing bigger and bigger crowds. There is so much art buried in the basements of museums and in storage spaces, which never gets shown. Chris Martin talked about this in the interview we did.

Photo: Installation of "Rough Cut," curated by Jennifer Samet and Elizabeth Hazan for Morgan Lehman Gallery, January 2015

Photo: Installation of "Rough Cut," curated by Jennifer Samet and Elizabeth Hazan for Morgan Lehman Gallery, January 2015

BW: What impact do you see social media having on artistic practice?

JS: I think our social media culture has a big impact on people’s art, whether they’re using actual visual images sourced from the Internet, or their aesthetics are affected by the Internet and social media.  It manifests aesthetically as a fracturing of forms, or work that has overlays, a multiplicity of images and elements crowded together.  It reflects our culture where we are subject to image overload, a constant, overwhelming stream of visual information. I think almost any artist that I could name is somehow drawing on that, or using social media as an important mode of communication.

BW: There’s also some artists who look at their work as a resting place away from the digital saturation.

JS: Definitely, yes. Well, another lecture that I’ve given is titled “Slow Art: Looking at Painting in a Culture of Distraction.” It’s about how we are used to looking at things really quickly. We have to move really quickly, and we are always multi-tasking, visually and otherwise. Even when we watch a movie, we tend to be doing two other visual things at the same time. I feel like I rarely have the kind of experience I used to, where I would go to a movie theater, or screen a movie at home, and only watch that. It is much more common that we’re watching television on our laptop, and looking at our phones and checking social media and email simultaneously.

You were asking about the audience. There’s a reason that painting is hard to look at, and it’s because it takes time and concentration. You have to give it a different kind of attention. I think that’s why there is a relatively small audience for it. Who really has the patience?! Even for us, the people who work in the art world, make objects, or write about them, it still can be hard.

I still tell myself to put away my phone, while I’m in a museum, because otherwise, I won’t really look in the way I want to. It’s hard for very seasoned people who love painting.


Photo: Installation of "Repetitive Motion," curated by Jennifer Samet for SHFAP at Projector Gallery, March - April 2014

Photo: Installation of "Repetitive Motion," curated by Jennifer Samet for SHFAP at Projector Gallery, March - April 2014

BW: Could we talk about the importance of this upcoming show you co-curated with Michael David at David & Schweitzer Contemporary?

JS: Yes. I know that sometimes, when there is a dramatic political moment, like we are experiencing right now, there can be a feeling that art-making doesn’t matter as much as actions like calling on your Congress people, which obviously is really important right now. But I think that art is important, too.

So, for myself, right after the Election, I was looking at social media and still going out to look at art. I found it comforting to look at images and work by women artists who were dealing with the body. Because, for me, and for a lot of people, a very big disappointment was that our country elected someone who bragged about sexual assault.  People basically said that was okay, they would vote for him anyway.

It was like making women’s issues, and women’s bodies, invisible and unimportant. So, right after the election, in just the week that followed, I knew, even subconsciously, that looking at body-based imagery by women was giving me comfort. It felt important to be looking at it, and I was really grateful that it was out there for me.

I had also gone to this protest in October that was called “Pussy Power at Trump Tower.” And it was a really wonderful moment, in the whole election process, where I felt like good, old-fashioned feminist rage and power was back in the world.

It was the same night as the third debate, and Hillary answered a question about Roe v. Wade. She gave a powerful statement about choice and the mother, and the health decisions of the woman being of ultimate importance. It felt like a big moment. She was strong and unapologetic.  She wasn’t pulling any punches. I loved listening to her that night. So the idea for the show came out of those things.

Also, Michael David and I had already been talking about collaborating on a project, which was related to women artists and the body, somehow. So, I wrote to him and said, “What do you think about doing a show called ‘#PUSSYPOWER’?”  And he immediately responded, “Yes.”  There was no hesitation. He was on board. We started putting it together immediately.

It’s a really big show – with over 40 artists. It includes pioneer feminist artists, such as Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke, next to younger artists, such as Giordanne Salley. We are trying to show a range of artists who are dealing with the body and feminism right now. I tried to include some of the artist-activists who were important to me pre-Election Day.

Photo: Jane Dickson, East Village Eye Centerfold 3, 1982, Monoprint with ink on rice paper, 9 x 13 in., part of "#PUSSYPOWER" exhibition at DAVID&SCHWEITZER Contemporary, December 2016-January 2017

Photo: Jane Dickson, East Village Eye Centerfold 3, 1982, Monoprint with ink on rice paper, 9 x 13 in., part of "#PUSSYPOWER" exhibition at DAVID&SCHWEITZER Contemporary, December 2016-January 2017

BW: Yes, people having a voice and thinking and acting beyond the studio walls.

JS: Yes. Wendy White, for example, is someone who had a really interesting project. She was cataloguing and posting on Facebook all the examples of misogynist statements and rhetoric that were happening during the campaign. I thought that was really important, a great project.

BW: And, this past weekend, there was the “Dear Ivanka” march.

JS: Yes, it’s been the critics and the curators, too. The “Dear Ivanka” protest was organized by curator Alison Gingeras. Walter Robinson is an example of an artist-critic who was posting all throughout the campaign and primaries in support of Hillary. Jerry Saltz has been an important voice. After the election, he was telling artists to use the anger and energy in their studio, and telling people to continue to go out and look at art. His words also became a motivator for the show. Saltz, in fact, I think, utilizes the critic-as-trickster model; he uses provocative methods to get attention for his writing. People say it’s narcissistic or just to get attention for himself. But I don’t think so. I think he is quite aware that it is bigger than himself.

BW: Jen, what’s in store for you in 2017? What are you most hopeful about?

JS: Well, honestly, it’s a tough time to be super hopeful. I’m hoping we all survive the Trump era. But I have exciting exhibitions I’ve started to work on for Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects, like a show of the Texas-based painter Sedrick Huckaby.  And I’m grateful that I spend a good portion of my life looking at and thinking about painting. It is endlessly engaging to me.    

Topless - “We wanted to tangibly give back to the community by renovating dormant spaces, leaving them in a more accommodating state afterward – better suited for small business”.

The following post is part of "The Conversation Project" - a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.

Topless is a unique artist-run space situated in the Rockaways. Founded and direct by Brent Birnbaum and Jenni Crain in 2014, Topless is known for it's forward-thinking programming, giving a platform to emerging artists, and a flexible model of renovating beach front spaces to open new summer seasons.

Jenni Crain and Brent Birnbaum

Jenni Crain and Brent Birnbaum

Brett Wallace:     What is your origin in art?

Jenni Crain: I’ve always been really interested in art or artistic forms to varying degrees. I suppose I’ve been lucky in that sense; I always knew what my interests were and I slowly specified those interests. Thinking about it now – I could say that I continue to do so. Or maybe at this point I’m expanding them again! On and on…

As a kid, I wanted to be a writer. As a pre-teen/early teen, I wanted to go into fashion design, and so I started taking pre-college college courses at FIT. I would go to the institute every weekend and take various courses in fashion – design, history, patternmaking, silk screening. After a year or two, I began taking photo classes in their darkroom, which I loved, and digital, which felt practical - I was probably 13 or 14. I stuck with that until I applied to art school at Pratt Institute where I enrolled in 2009 as a drawing major. My big pivot at Pratt was from drawing to sculpture – realizing that my interests were in spatial considerations & conversations. Simultaneous to my studies – sculpture and art history – I began interning and assisting in galleries. I graduated with a degree in sculpture and a minor in art history in 2013.

I still work in a gallery; I still make sculptures and photographs; I still write.

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  Photo: Installation view from Babble On at Topless, Summer 2016. Work by Nadia Belerique, Lili Huston-Herterich, Laurie Kang. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

Photo: Installation view from Babble On at Topless, Summer 2016. Work by Nadia Belerique, Lili Huston-Herterich, Laurie Kang. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

Brent Birnbaum:  Since I was a tiny tiny child, I've made "work." The language of visual art has always made more since to me than words and usually it’s easier. I've never stopped making things. My interests and projects have just gotten bigger as I've gotten older. I've done all the art schooling, working at galleries, running a gallery, all the jazz a lot of artists do.

It's influenced me of course, but my interests have not swayed that much from when I was in junior high. I'm fascinated with space, objects, and architecture and how they can be manipulated to say something new.

JC: For me, sculpture, especially at Pratt, is one of the programs that have critical thinking at its core - more so than technical coordination, which is, admittedly, crucial too though. So you do have that in addition. I was learning how to formulate/formalize my ideas and how to utilize material cues – how to speak about those thoughts rather than solely becoming a technically sound fabricator. I will give it to drawing too though – Pratt has a really advanced drawing program that is more spatially based than strictly tied to two dimensions. I like the way that Roni Horn speaks abut drawing. My boyfriend and I discuss it often.

BW: How would you describe your roles today?

JC: Whenever someone asks me, I just say that I work in the art world. I use the “art world” as a blanket term because I doubt that anyone bargains for the full explanation when they extend that simple question.  In terms of actually breaking it down, yes, I'm an “artist”, I'm a “curator”, I’m a “gallerist”, and I think that those things definitely really influence each other. I run my own space, along with Brent, and I also work for a gallery in Chelsea. I make work. I’m also an avid art viewer, and I think that is just as much an active role as any of the others.

BB: I push myself as an artist and as a gallerist. If I wasn't, I should get a different job.

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  Photo: Installation view from Eric Wiley at Topless Projects, Summer 2016. Works by Eric Wiley. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

Photo: Installation view from Eric Wiley at Topless Projects, Summer 2016. Works by Eric Wiley. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

BW: How do you manage the multiplicity of activities within each of those buckets?

BB: I manage them by having a full life not related to art. I surf and snowboard a lot to balance out a busy, active schedule. Physical activities engaged in nature keeps me sane for the long isolated studio days and sweating blood producing gallery installs.

JC: Oh, well, I think it’s just that I really, really love it all. I mean, for me, I never have to clock in and clock out because there’s no separation between work time and down time. It’s typically what I am naturally thinking of all the time or at least most the time, and it’s what I'm doing/working towards a majority of my time.

If I had to pinpoint a difficult joint, I suppose it would be dividing time from producing my own artwork. Even in that aspect though, I guess I'm in an ideal place – or a place that really works for me, personally - where my work is, for the most part, fabricated. I don’t feel the pressure of putting in a certain amount of hours in a physical studio space since my studio production is more along the lines of mentally developing my ideas, writing texts and moving on to sketch-up files – usually a friend helps me with the sketch-up files since I have definite room for improvement. Perhaps studio time this fall could be sitting with a selection of YouTube videos.

I really only have the ability, financially, to produce new works when I have an opportunity to exhibit new works. My practice is slow but I am interested in that pace in comparison to the way that many of my other projects develop and move forward. This sometimes does lead to a self-perpetuated flaw - that I sometimes put these other projects before my own artworks because they feel more pressing – due to this more rapid speed at which they develop but also because there are often outside parties involved and I want to put my best foot forward not just for myself but also for those also involved.

BW: Jenni, so it seems like you identify and define your work within a broader framework.

JC: Definitely. I think that somebody who had an inspiring idea of a broader framework was Alexander Dorner. The king of broader framework, Hans Ulrich Obrist, introduced me to him in Sharp Tongues, Loose Lips, Open Eyes, Ears to the Ground – an incredible book with an incredibly forgettable title – I always forget it but can picture the cover…. Dorner was the head of the Hanover Museum in the ‘20s. He spoke about the institution as a place of flux, a place that should ask and raise questions, rather than be a place of stagnant viewing, merely providing answers. I like to think that, in terms of working in these “multiple fields”, I am exploring beyond the bounds of a more traditional formula where curator, gallerist, and artist are separate entities. I do believe that they each naturally evolve, and as long as you’re open to it, influence each other.

BW:  I call those swim lanes, by the way, and I think the more one can cross a swim lane, the better (avoiding bumping into people of course).

JC:  I used to swim as a kid and I remember paddling over those plastic, rolling lanes from one lane into the other - the spinning gizmos pushing you forward. I guess it’s still kinda like that.

BW:  For me, crossing lanes inspires ideas that can inform the other areas of a practice. And, it helps me to think about adjacencies Jan Verwoert discusses in his Open Museum lecture.

JC: Yeah. I do wonder sometimes if it’s a certain mode of operation that enables one to understand things that way and to undertake various projects to that degree. I do wonder if it’s in part due to my education – an education based in ideas and theory in contrast to one based more so in fact or equations – that enables me to recognize and chase such connections. I’ve had conversations, with people I very much respect and work with, where they seemingly take my desire to do each of these things as a sign that I’m, like, figuring out which one I am actually interested in. One person, who is very dear to me and works in a gallery, said to me, “You know being an artist is a full time job, right?” And I agree – but I think that my curatorial practice, etc. al, contributes to that or is part of that. And there are plenty of people who do operate in ways similar to that which I do – many, many - but I guess lots of the time people just expect you to stay in one damn lane!

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  Photo: Installation view from Horse in the Road at Topless, Summer 2015. Pictured: works by Anna Glantz. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

Photo: Installation view from Horse in the Road at Topless, Summer 2015. Pictured: works by Anna Glantz. Photo by Adam Kremer. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

BW: Reid Hoffman, an entrepreneur who is also the co-founder of LinkedIn, uses the term “permanent beta,” to describe that everyone is a work in progress. And, I find that is a good mentality for thriving in a fast changing world.

JC: Of course. And one thing leads to another so why wouldn’t you want to evolve as everything around you does too?

BW: Who or what inspires you?

BB:  Buildings. Weird people. Other artist's ideas - most recently: Calder Zwicky and Dawn Kim.

JC: Well, as I mentioned earlier, Alexander Dorner is a good example, and I would love to learn more about him. Hans Ulrich also. I think Julie Ault is incredible. One of my favorite artists is Alejandro Cesarco. A part of me is hesitant to run down a list of folks – firstly, because there are so, so many, but also because a part of me fears being placed in or compared to their swim lane and not my own - but I should have less trepidations about giving credit where credit is due, huh?

I guess I am also aware of admiring a person or a program and consciously and subconsciously comparing your own abilities to that which you look up to. But I have to remain aware of the fact that I am only able to work within my means – which are very, very modest at the moment.

With Topless, for example, it’s such a specific project – and one that I am really proud of – you could say that it’s a less conventional model – Roberta Smith called us the “outlier of all outliers” - but that’s because that’s a way that we’re able to do it. It’s a really special and unique project and it’s one that heretofore has existed within my means each given summer. That first summer having graduated just the spring before. I can't afford a full-time space - in Rockaway or elsewhere - and so we have created a program that works for us as individuals and also gives back to a community where an offering like Topless was for the most part lacking.

BW:  Where did the idea of Rockaway germinate from?

JC: Brent lived in Rockaway before we started the project and he still does. He moved to Rockaway following Sandy and wanted to participate and give back to the community in the wake of such a difficult time. I believe he was thinking about it one summer, and when that summer went by and the next one was rolling around he actively pursued the idea. Our mutual friend, Adam Parker Smith, put us in touch. When Brent brought up the idea to him - what he was thinking about and the kind of person he wanted to do it with – Adam proposed me. I was managing a gallery on the Lower East Side at the time and I was just putting in my notice. Adam put us in touch and Brent and I began to brainstorm -  building “something” from “nothing” in what I think was pretty impressive time. We met mid-April 2014 and opened up mid-June.

We just wrapped up our third season.

BB: I moved to the Rockaways 4 years ago after years of visiting.  After hurricane sandy, businesses were not returning to their storefronts. That's where the idea started. I wanted to help my hood get back on its feet, and I'd been around long enough to know good artists and how to run a space.

Photo: Installation view from A Sphinx Has Lain Down Next To Me at Topless, Summer 2014. Pictured: twilight by Paul Demuro. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

Photo: Installation view from A Sphinx Has Lain Down Next To Me at Topless, Summer 2014. Pictured: twilight by Paul Demuro. Courtesy of the artist and Topless.

BW:   What was your vision for the space?

BB: To show artists I believed in who didn’t have a huge following already and to fix up storefronts to help rebuild the neighborhood.

JC: It’s evolved so much since we’ve known each other. Especially since we didn’t know what the program would or could become at the beginning, but we definitely embraced that opportunity for continuous evolution and that’s what excited us. There were all these storefronts that were available – damaged by Sandy or abandoned prior - that were still just sitting there. PS1 had only done their book dome pop-up the summer before. There was the Rockaway Artists Alliance, which is really great and is located in Fort Tilden and shows the work of Rockaway local artists. But it was kind of void in terms of the work that pushes the boundaries of what is conventionally perceived as art. So we thought about a space that would present such work, and it lead us to a way that we could tangibly give back to the community in terms of renovating these spaces and leaving them in a more manageable state so that they could be rented afterwards. From that first summer, we developed a formula by renovating this one space, opening mid-June and doing four shows, each three weekends long, which brought us right to the last weekend of August. And so that’s what we’ve done for the past three summers, now.

BW:  So three different spaces, basically?

JC: Three different spaces, yep.

BW: You’re making it work – going back to the idea of "permanent beta" without a long-term space.

JC: Yeah! But I think that it is equally important to note that there have been so many people and amazing programs/projects prior that have done it before, followed a similar model. You know, we run a less traditional program than many a program out there, but we’re still learning and exploring how it is that we differ from and react to more typical structures. It’s interesting that you mentioned this particular moment for you [where this interview project started 2 ½ years ago], where you’ve done this for almost three years, and you find yourself at this point of maybe circling back and reinvestigating. Brent’s away for a month, and before he left we had what feels like a really important conversation - where we decided that our attention this off-season should not just be focused on the four exhibitions that typically comprise our program but more so on a critical approach to our program itself - what Topless has become, what we’ve learned, what we’ve loved about it / and not, and what we would ideally wish that it could do or introduce. We feel an importance in being more critical about what we’ve created and how we can further evolve in an alternative way. Up ‘til now, we have still adhered to exhibitions within a space, but due to the flexibility of operating without being tethered to a lease, maybe there is a point where we can push things even further. We’re brainstorming how – and why that feels important to us.

BW: One of the things I’ve loved about artists run spaces like TSA and OyG is that they’re operating more of a platform than actually being constricted to one type of work or another.

JC: Absolutely.

BW: Where do you see things going for Topless?

JC: I think it’s important that we take it season by season, so that we react and respond to our experience of the summer before. For the first time in these past three seasons, I think that we are really feeling a desire to shake things up – for ourselves and for our audience. We’re talking about ways of further shifting our mold and our mode where we can do things that we personally haven’t done before and learn something new on account of it - maybe things that haven't been so continuously accessible in Rockaway. There are other exhibition spaces in Rockaway now and so maybe we can offer something else.

We’re really at the beginning stages of this potential re-navigation here. The uncertainty feels challenging and exciting. We want to stay true to the personality that Topless has taken on – it feels like its own little being by this point. It’s not only a reflection of what Brent and I are interested in but also of the responses received by the community – Rockaway and the one that Topless has brought together – over the past few years.

One of the reasons that we settled on the title Topless is very tied to this conversation. Brent initially proposed the name and we agreed it felt right in its more immediate catch, but it wasn’t until I went to this talk at Artist Space led by David Joselit, discussing alternative programs and their role in the changing commercial art world, that I had my a-ha moment. He spoke about how, spaces like ours, are more dependent not upon an upward or downward / profit-driven margin, but by lateral, community-based expansion. Topless felt right in this regard. Then, also the fact that we renovate our spaces. And we’re by the beach….

BW: What do you think about the concept of “moving sideways”?

JC:  I feel like that’s just as important as moving forward. I feel like moving sideways a lot of the time is moving forward.

BW:  Topless in some cases is physically moving sideways as it does so conceptually.

JC:  Yes, we are. A prevalent question in terms of Topless is what is growth? And what does it mean for us? What would we like for it to mean and how would we like for that growth to actualize itself through the program?

BW: Did you have a show that resonated with you personally?

JC:  I don’t think I can choose a favorite, but the project in the back space, Topless Projects, with No School, the No School Residency, that was really exciting for me.

BW: Could you describe No School?

JC: No School is run by my friend, artist, Frank Traynor. He started the camp two summers ago in 2015 in participation with the Rockaway-based camp called Arts in Parts, which has existed in Rockaway for several yeas now and is really incredible. No School is a five-day-a-week, four-week program involving artist-led workshops with Rockaway campers.

Frank and I became acquainted our second season when Topless was located next to Arts in Parts, and Frank operated his seltzer shack and mud bath in what I guess I could call Topless’ front yard. Following that season, No School did a retrospective of the campers’ works in our former gallery space when we had moved out for the summer. It was really bittersweet for me because I had my first show going on, on top of work, and so I didn’t have time to personally participate to the degree that I would have liked. When Frank invited me to conduct my own artist-led workshop as a part of No School this past summer, I thought it a ripe moment to get Topless involved. Believing that it would be valuable for the campers to experience their works curated into a series of exhibitions within their own community within the vein of contemporary art.

BW: How did the kids respond?

JC: Frank and Diwa of Arts in Parts would come each weekend with a few campers. It was such a pleasure to engage with them about their responses to the courses and the camp as a whole. We also had Bedwyr Williams’ video, ‘The Starry Messenger’, playing in the main Topless space throughout the span of No School Residency, and so I think that was a really curious work for the kids – they’re 7 – 14 – to take in. Some of the campers were more seriously interested in art than others – typically the older campers, and so it felt like we could offer this lens of what it could be like to pursue art in the less conventional sense. Pursuing art certainly requires a great degree of passion, especially since you can’t just follow a recipe towards “success”.

BW: There is no recipe or if there is one, it's dangerous to follow.

JC: As “scrappy” as Topless may be it did feel important to share our project and our space with these youthful creatives because maybe it made them think a thing or two differently about the prospect of pursuing the arts.

BW: How do you think that your own curatorial work has evolved via Topless? What new projects do you have coming up?

JC: The work that we exhibit at Topless is often very different than the work that I make myself, and I feel like Topless has provided a platform and opportunities for me to explore these other points of view and interests. When presented with an invitation and opportunity I often choose to utilize curation as a tool, as an extension of that which I am exploring in my own work. It often feels like a part of my own practice whether it is immediately apparent or not. And I say that because I have curated a number of shows that maybe more obviously align with my own work and many others where perhaps the link reveals itself more slowly.

My dear friend, Lydia Glenn-Murray – who runs a space called Chin’s Push in LA – and I will be embarking on our second curatorial project together that will be held at a space called Roberta Pelan this January in Toronto. We curated our first exhibition together this past summer at Shanaynay in Paris and it was such a wildly wonderful experience. We really hit it off when bouncing back ideas and continuously challenge each other and expose each other to artists that we may not have been aware of prior and so I feel confident that Lydia and I will have an extended on-going relationship together from here forward.

I’ll also have a small show in Copenhagen this winter.

BW: What new ideas interest you?

BB: If you are referring to my own ideas, these are on my to do list:

1.   Skaty cats - a rollerskating rink with 9 rooms, a glass ceiling with cats upstairs and ramps and hiding places for them everywhere.

2.    A custom bowling alley - I'm not revealing any details yet

3.    The hairy trinity of the big d - a cabinet of curiosities with scientific graphs I'm working on now for Dennis Rodman, Brian Bosworth, and Vanilla Ice.

4.    Sofa sculpture - I'm working on this now too. I'm collecting 100 sofas. I just bought a van to make this vision a reality. It will be a painting with rooms combined with what it would look like if 100 sofas fell from the sky.

JC: I’ve been working with this idea of the frame – which I know is not an entirely “new idea” – but the system of the frame is something that I feel like really speaks to the facets of being human - it’s a support structure, providing this space of security, whether it’s the human frame, a photo frame, or an architectural frame… The frame of thought or mind…. I’m pretty influenced by architecture – the emotional affect and perception of a space and how even the most subtle of forms in space can redirect those reactions. I hope this doesn’t all sound vague…

BW: As you’re thinking about the frame, it sounds like, not only in terms of a space, but also in terms of a method of storage about pedagogy, the museum, institution, multiple levels of what we would consider a frame.

JC: Yeah. Absolutely. I think that conversation can be seen in my first exhibition, Upon Reflection, at Y Gallery last summer – these forms that cannot de divorced from the art historical cannon. But this investigation is probably more immediately accessible through my more curatorial pursuits.

BW: What are some of the skills that you feel you’ve acquired throughout that process of managing multiple ventures and being a critical thinker?

JC: I think that slowing down is a skill, really thinking things through – what and why - slowing down in terms of consideration rather than just jumping in to the next thing. Maybe saying no to a project or deciding not to make a piece that you may feel excited about - rather than just taking on another thing - if you don’t really have the time to understand why you’re doing it and what’s important about taking that step.

BW: Saying no is hard too.

JC: It is. It really is.

BW: Doing fewer things better is really important.

JC: Still good to say yes though, right? For me, I feel like yes is my more immediate response. Because I like to take on new projects, new challenges, but like you said I think its beneficial to critically consider why you are doing so.

BW: I think it’s really important to be open to possibilities in the process…saying yes (and specifically yes and to think generatively) is really important.  But, saying no when the plate becomes full is also important.

JC: I know and sometimes it feels almost counterintuitive because activity breeds activity. But pausing – stillness - is just as important as motion.

BW: This is why creative energy is weird because I often find, my own best work doesn’t come from the original idea, and maybe not even the second idea, but it’s the third thing after, sometimes the accident.

JC:  Maybe that’s a skill we’ve learned to… Accepting “failure” as a part of the process as it leads to the next alternative, which may be the thing we were seeking in the first place.

BW: Yeah, being comfortable with a high failure rate is important.

JC: Maybe adapting would be a skill that I’ve acquired… I like to plan but there is only so much you can prepare for. So, thinking, slowing down, and adapting.

BW:  How do you shift and adapt?

JC:  I think of adapting in terms of expectations - you’re not really going to learn much if you’re steadfast to one idea as the end all. I think that you should expect that that idea will evolve, perhaps due to something really boring – like logistical or financial reasons – but maybe working towards change itself is when the end result feels most exciting.

I feel like things never really can or will be exactly what you conceive of in your head. That’s why working with a collaborator is so fun – two heads are better than one, right?! I know… I’m so corny… But really though, there is inevitably a higher likelihood of unexpected results when working with someone else. Things are going to continuously evolve. Rolling with the punches is a big one.

BW: Mike Tyson once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”.

JC: Yeah, that’s pretty good. Thanks, Mike. It’s natural.

That was something that felt important to extend with the No School project in the backspace. It was not always about selecting the work that was maybe the most successful in terms of what the workshop was attempting to accomplish. For example, we weren’t just selecting the most radical, rainbow piece of marbled paper from the marbling workshop. We were picking these pieces that arrived at a sort of place of accidental beauty – what may have been deemed by a camper as an unsuccessful example. That important lesson learned again, things don’t always turn out the way that you anticipate but you really have to be open to and embrace that.

In terms of curating, that’s huge, because when you invite an artist you don’t always know what specific piece you’ll get – you’re decision to work with that artist is in response to their practice, interests and ideas as a whole, and how that relates to the idea that you may be working with. It’s this really awesome mutual and on-going support system.

Below you will find images of work by Jenni Crain and Brent Birnbaum exhibited outside of Topless.

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  Photo: Jenni Crain, installation view of 'Upon Reflection' at Y Gallery, New York, NY, 2015. Photo courtesy of the artist.