A student working as part of Chemi Rosado-Seijo's Taller Vivo: Salón – Sala – Salón (Live Workshop: Classroom – Gallery – Classroom), 2014.
For the past five months, the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico (MAC) in San Juan and the neighboring Rafael María de Labra School exchanged institutional spaces for the duration of Taller Vivo: Salón – Sala – Salón (Live Workshop: Classroom – Gallery – Classroom), a project made by artist Chemi Rosado-Seijo in collaboration with the de Labra School teacher Rita Duprey and young students from the school. Here, Rosado-Seijo discusses the project, which probes the interconnected histories of both buildings, the role of each institution in the local community, and the intersection of contemporary art and public education in Puerto Rico. The project is on view at the MAC exhibition gallery at the Rafael María de Labra School until December 21, 2014.
I'M A SOCIALLY ENGAGED COLLABORATOR, a community-based cultural activist, and an artist who makes paintings and collages from life at specific sites. I’m interested in architecture, history, art, and local knowledge. I begin projects by getting to know the community that will be involved in the work. Then I make an aesthetic proposal that is developed with the people from where the project is taking place, as well as other individuals who become collaborators, helpers, and participants in the process. The museum in San Juan asked me to come up with a project that would involve its neighbors in a celebration of its thirtieth anniversary. This was a moment to address the history, function, and imposing architecture of its 1918 building, which used to be part of the public school behind it. Older students had told me how excited they had been to have the building reopen after a lengthy restoration, but it became a contemporary art museum in 2002. I perceived that since then, these structures and sites of education where culture is built have been somewhat distanced from one another, so I proposed that a classroom become a museum gallery, and that a museum gallery become a classroom. This crossover, this overlapping, was a conceptual collage of the similar yet different realities of the two establishments.
I was interested in how architecture would affect the students’ experience, and how students would affect the museum experience. The museum became a more active place, full of adolescents every day from 8 AM to 2:30 PM. Math, science, and Spanish teachers used the art on view to teach their curriculums. The museum lost its sepulchral silence and became a school again, which for me was a surreal experience. Students reclaimed the old building: We literally opened a door and created a passageway between the institutions. The school gained a calm, reflective exhibition space, and art spectators experienced life at a public school on their way to see videos that would normally be displayed in a museum.
Rita Duprey, a Spanish teacher at the school, asked for an artist intervention in her class, so I directed a weekly art workshop for her students which involved other artists and museum educators. We focused our conversations and drawing, collage, and sculpture projects on the museum building as well as on language and mass media communications in Puerto Rico. The immediate results were incredible. We formed groups within which students chatted in the classroom, proposed techniques, and then worked eagerly on their own creative projects without much input from me. For instance, one group made frottages of all the names of past students carved into the bricks of the museum and wrote stories and plays about their possible lives. Another group wrote words and definitions from their everyday language on Post-it notes and made a community dictionary, which the museum will publish. By the end of the project, the students realized that they are artists too; our original perceptions of each other changed.
We developed a unique model to creatively have an impact on Puerto Rico’s traditional academic system and to positively intervene in the lives and educational experiences of teenagers, teachers, and artists. This project challenged the established structures of the school and the museum almost every day, but no one ever said No to anything. The project is still mutating; we are designing new initiatives to keep the exchange alive. Now I know that I want my future work to involve teenagers, schools, and teachers—things I thought I would never like!
Left: Futurefarmers, Tree University, 2013, pencil-making workshop, July 22, 2013. (Photo: Emily Evans) Right: The stump of the felled Norway spruce. (Photo: Liana Mestas)
Tree University is a site-specific project created by the collective Futurefarmers that was inspired by the life and work of Henry David Thoreau. Developed for the exhibition “Walden, revisited” at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, the work centers on a fallen Norway spruce in the middle of the park. Here, Futurefarmer Amy Franceschini—who founded the group in 1994—discusses the project. “Walden, revisited” runs through April 26, 2015.
TREE UNIVERSITY grew out of a lineage of “free school” projects that Futurefarmers had been organizing. We had been wanting to create a whole “curriculum” from a tree for a while. When the deCordova approached us for this show, a reexamination of Henry David Thoreau’s work and the site of Walden Pond, we proposed to do it there, but the cost of bringing in a tree or felling a tree was prohibitive. A few months after our first conversations with the museum, we got a call. Dina Deitsch, the curator, told us that Hurricane Sandy had felled a Norwegian spruce tree on their property. So we opened up the conversation again.
We feel that the continuous model of the “prototype” is quite liberating when creating work that is site/situation responsive. Most of our work happens on or in a site for a specific duration. We set up parameters beforehand, but the production happens within a spirit of readiness. You can figure out many things through quick prototypes—there is not time for perfecting, which often can cause paralysis.
As we got to know the tree, working with a group of people who participated in workshops at the site with us, we linked what we were learning with specific histories connected to Thoreau’s life. One such history turned out to fit wonderfully with our shared desire to write down what we were learning. We had invited an arborist and microbial ecologist to introduce us to the tree—to help us listen to the tree, taste and touch it.
One Thoreau quote that influenced the “Tree U” was, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” This was a meta line that guided our inquiry throughout. Thoreau’s father was a pencil maker and Thoreau improved the pencil by introducing a clay binder made with clay found at the bottom of Walden Pond. Mixing this clay with graphite revolutionized pencils. This vignette related to our early conversations about tools with the workshoppers—what tools do we have among us, what tools scare us, oppress us, liberate us, etc. One tool we agreed was still very powerful was the pen, or in our case the pencil. So we set out to Walden Pond to harvest some clay. We bored to the bottom of the lake and collected enough clay to run a pencil-making workshop at the museum using wood from the tree.
After we did the pencil-making workshop, we had a competition between a chainsaw expert and a two-person sawing duo to cut the tree in slices. Then we ran a two-day workshop where we took one of the slices of the tree and cut it into wood type. We used simple chisels to form type and then used the remains of the slice to lock up texts drawn from the workshop or Thoreau directly. One passage we extracted from chapter six of Walden was: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. When visitors came in larger and unexpected numbers there was but the third chair for them all.”
This resulted in a series of broadsides that read:
Heinz Mack is an artist who primarily works with light and is a cofounder of the international artists’ network ZERO. Mack speaks here about the so-called Sahara Project, a series of installations he made in the Tunisian desert from 1962 to 1976. The project is featured in the exhibition “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s–60s,” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, until January 7, 2015. Mack’s concurrent solo exhibition, “From ZERO to Today: Heinz Mack, 1955–2014,” also runs at New York’s Sperone Westwater Gallery until December 13, 2014.
WHEN I WAS IN NEW YORK IN 1963, I was searching for new materials, hoping they would give birth to ideas. I received a tip from Nam June Paik, who told me to look at one of these appliance wholesale stores on the Bowery where I could find something for very little money. What I chanced upon there was an aluminum honeycomb material that is patented and produced by a company in California––a material I had never encountered before in Germany. It was malleable, and by stretching it I realized that its structure was quite similar to structures in nature. For example, when you look at a leaf through a microscope, you notice that the organic matter is arranged in a way that gives stability to the entire surface. I later learned that the stable and light material I found on the Bowery was also used to fabricate airplanes, rockets, and military vessels. Many things we discover in nature are converted into industrial forms, and I find the interaction between the two striking.
I grew up in the countryside, which was rich in farmers’ fields and surrounded by forests. The farmers created artificial surfaces on their fields by making grooves with the plow. I was impressed by these fields’ high, golden grain, blown by the wind so their surface mirrored the waves of the sea. I had a similar sensation later in my life while in the Sahara desert––the sand dunes took on the form of an endless, radiant ocean. I began to conceptualize the Sahara Project in 1959 and went to Tunisia in 1962. I dismounted some mirrors in my hotel’s bathroom there and placed them into the sand in a line so that the reflection of the sunset hit them directly. The intention of this work was to create new sensations of beauty there and to experiment with the appearance of light, which at a distance appeared like a mirage. This was documented in my 1968 film Tele-Mack and in photographs taken of the work by Thomas Hoepker in 1976. Afterward, we published the book Sculpture Safari: Photographic Interpretation of Artifacts in Nature with Rizzoli in 1977.
I am mostly impressed but sometimes depressed by technology. What does it mean to be impressed by a branch of knowledge that has been used as an instrument to systematically kill people and nature? Developing and mastering technology is one of man’s finest abilities—it’s in his constructive spirit. However, the dialectical irony is that technology is also always capable of destroying humanity. I’m reminded of Goethe’s poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which argues that as soon as you start to learn a technique, it captivates you, rules you, and autonomy is lost. You become dependent on it. It has to be a conscious decision to remain as free as possible. With reservation and intelligence, humanity can remain at a critical distance and optimize technology for the future.
Screenshot from Maya Lin, What Is Missing?, December 2014.
In 2012, three decades after ground was broken for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial, artist and architect Maya Lin unveiled her final memorial: What Is Missing?, a multimedia project and interactive website charged with garnering awareness of and offering remedies for the mounting biodiversity crisis. Here, Lin discusses this work. An exhibition that focuses on the project and related sculptures is also on view at the Nevada Museum of Art through January 4, 2015.
ONE COULD ARGUE that none of my memorials have been monuments. Rather, they have been antimonuments—even the Vietnam memorial. I like to reinvent things, to question the assumption of a form. This fifth and last work in a series that engages the monument raises the question again—what could it be if you freed up the form, completely; if you allowed it to exist in multiple forms and multiple sites, whether permanent, temporary, or virtual? For instance, the website features a map of the world accessible in three formats: the past (an ecological history of the planet told via firsthand accounts), the present (a map of the work currently being done by environmental organizations), and the future (launching on Earth Day 2016, this feature will imagine plausible sustainable futures).
I’ve always known that What Is Missing? will be my last memorial. For me, memorials have never been about loss, or about the past for the sake of the past. They’re teaching tools; they’re educational. They ask if we can reflect on our past in order to help guide us to a different future. In fact, I hope this work won’t be a memorial in the end, because if we all try to do something for the planet there might not be a reason to memorialize. So in that sense, What Is Missing? is a true antimemorial, because it’s trying to prevent a memorial from being needed.
I’ve always cared about the environment, and I know I’ll be working on this topic for the rest of my life. The environmental movement is so much more complex now than when it started—since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. In the late 1960s, Lake Erie’s tributary rivers caught fire because of industrial waste. Remember the “Keep America Beautiful” ad campaign that pictured the Native American crying because people kept throwing litter out the window? At that time, pollution was very visible: Our rivers were clearly toxic, and the air was so bad in this country, it was truly killer smog. We only respond when we see an enemy, and pollution was then a visible enemy. Now, so much is degrading on a day-to-day level and there are so many different crises. Take climate change, which is slow-burn invisible. Al Gore put it well in An Inconvenient Truth: When you put a frog in lukewarm water and slowly heat it up, it doesn’t even realize what’s happening. Intellectually we know, but we are not moving fast enough to change course.
We tend to isolate and solve problems in a linear fashion, but the solutions that we need for the environment require a much more holistic approach. If we’re lucky, we’ll move on climate change because it’s perceived as such a great threat, but my concern is that the species and habitat issues are going to be left to be solved later and we’ll miss the opportunity to combine these two critically important issues—protecting habitat and restoring degraded habitat—from forests to grasslands, creating natural estuary buffer zones along coastal areas that would not only protect us but would absorb a significant amount of carbon emissions as well as substantially increase biodiversity and species protection.
But the issues have to be made relevant to us, and they have to be both global and local. That’s what What Is Missing? is trying to do by asking people to share personal stories. We are getting people to reflect and engage on a personal level—getting people to connect back to nature—as well as showing what each one of us can do to help and how you can help environmental groups at both a local and a global level. I’m not trying to be anything other than a lens that points out certain things. Science fiction and art have always imagined the future before the rest of us got there. For example, when you evoke an image that the entire world population—living at the density of Manhattan—would fit into Colorado, the initial response from a person is, That’s it?? Moreover, to mitigate climate change would cost $700 billion annually—and that is approximately what we spend on cigarettes and a fraction of what we spend on defense budgets. It’s an idea that shifts our thinking patterns. We require a little reconditioning, little brain exercises that might help us think this is solvable. The question is, Will we move on it? It’s still to be seen. But it’s eminently solvable. With the scale of us and the scale of what we do, we can put this in check.
The artist Renée Green is well known for working with a wide array of media, which often converge in layered installations. Here, Green shares “doubly transmuted” pieces from the introductory essay in her new book Other Planes of There: Selected Writings (2014), which surveys her writings between 1981 and 2010 and was published this month by Duke University Press.
AS A PRELUDE TO OTHER PLANES OF THERE, I offer these recently written and doubly transmuted excerpts from the book as one way of telling a story, titled, for example, as “Other Planes, Different Phases, My Geometry, Times, Movements: Becomings Ongoing.”
When I look at the many shelves of books in my library and focus on the section of books and catalogues in which my work resides, the titles and covers all look interesting in their own way, yet I continue to search. I don’t find what I’m looking for, it hasn’t been made, yet I can imagine something other than what I’m finding. I return to the manuscript of this book you now read. I think about the vast breadth and varying depths of the events and encounters throughout my life as an artist and as a writer as I select what to give you at this time. I don’t think of this as the definitive book of my work, as I’m still alive, writing and working, “wondering as I wander,” yet there are some combinations and words I’d like you to be able to read, which I haven’t yet read elsewhere. For that reason I feel compelled to give you these words.
A note to myself: “A certain boredom with ‘artist’s books’ and ‘artist’s writings.’ What about writing? What about one’s perspective as it is informed by living and thinking and feeling and enacting? In this case, to enact living and thinking and feeling as an artist. Can I think of examples? And beyond. Ongoing becomings. Limiting classifications challenged. More paradoxes of democracy. Letters of all kinds.”
When reading particularly about art, sometimes it seems that the twentieth century ended in the 1960s. In terms of any hopes and dreams. Afterward everything that followed became post- or neo-. Strange to be born in and grow up in a time that appears to be an extension of something perceived to have been authentic.
If one carefully reads what was published during the years even from one’s birth to the present, what can be discovered can astonish, as well as satisfy nagging curiosity, temporarily. The ah-ha! effect. Speculative puzzle parts click into place, for a moment.
The story I have to tell is an artist’s story. This becomes the story of many people through time. It is a growing seed. There remain things to know and to acknowledge that are still difficult to calmly discuss, as Jimmie Durham says; or difficult to more broadly recognize, such as a claim to multiple histories and a willingness to accept the range of participants in shaping these, despite the immensity of words circulating and despite the passages of time.
Other Planes of There contains writings that provide intimations to my works, written works that include essays, fiction, film, and audio scripts, and those that exceed a category, as well as writings that approach the works of others. The book is divided into five sections: Genealogies, Circuits of Exchange, Encounters, Positions, and Operations. Each section contains writings that span stretches of time and locations, yet share a relation. This is not a memoir meant to describe a life, but is rather a selection of primarily published writings, written in different parts of the world at different times during my life as an artist between the years 1981 and 2010, in relation to different works—considered in an expansive sense of the word—made by myself or made by others.
View of “Allison Smith: Set Dressing,” 2014–15. Photo: Michael Tropea.
In “Set Dressing,” Allison Smith’s first solo exhibition in Chicago, the Oakland-based artist shows photographs taken at living-history sites such as Colonial Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, where quotidian stories of American settlement and handicraft are daily reenacted and displayed. Smith’s art subtly revises America’s nationalist creation myths through interventionist tactics such as appropriation and humor. “Set Dressing” is on view until January 31, 2015, at the Arts Club of Chicago.
I WAS RAISED in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and was always aware of a strong patriotic aesthetic in my surroundings. My father worked for the CIA, which was terrifying for me as a child. I didn’t understand what his life was like or who he even was. As a family, we attended Civil War reenactments and country fairs where people performed history. Our home decor was 1970s-style colonial revival. Moreover, my ancestors had had cotton plantations—I know the names of some of the slaves they owned. I see my upbringing as having been a historical reenactment in the everyday. All of this, combined with my own queerness and coming out at an early age, produced a lot of anxiety and shame—inner battles, if you will. Through my work, I spy on the past; I’m both curious and critical. At the same time, I accept that I am a product of it.
I think I have been attracted to working with reenactors because there is a strong sense that they would have a radically different perspective from my own, or that I wouldn’t be welcome in their world. Still, there are moments of redemption and reconciliation when I realize what a wide spectrum of people engage in that culture, whether for personal or political reasons. I have worked with war reenactors as well as people who practice early American trades. Often I find that even as they don’t consider themselves artists, they have a similarly deep investment in what they’re doing. Interesting questions always come from these interactions—for instance, questions of how categories and economies of art and craft are understood. There is a frame in the show (Mirror, 2014) that was made outside Boston at the Old Schwamb Mill, the oldest continuously operating mill site in the country. It’s been making circular and oval frames for 150 years. This one was hand-turned by a man named David Graf on an original nineteenth-century lathe. My ethical framework is to give as much credit as I can to the people I work with, and to sometimes downplay my authorship, even though I identify strongly as a maker. I see myself as a jack-of-all-trades and, decidedly, master of none, preferring to give light to the moments of conversation between things.
Some of the photographs in the show were taken at Colonial Williamsburg, which has a main street with blacksmiths and basket weavers, tailors, potters, and so on. Hand Dyed Wool, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, 2014, builds on a photograph I took in a weaving studio where I found a rainbow spectrum of wool hanging to dry. The image is mirrored, printed on linen, and sewn into a protest banner, so what appears is a yonic image in the center. It’s a familiar feminist gesture, but I think it also suggests the erotic possibilities and the fetishism of reenactment culture in general. Another piece, Pockets, Lowell, Massachusetts, 2014, suggests the lesbionic potential of pockets that colonial-era women wore under their dresses, before their clothing had those utilitarian features built in.