Artists Move In—& Look Outside

Nicolás Medina Mora Pérez PhotoA group of construction workers got used to seeing a young woman in an apron wave at them from the weird building across the street. Then one day she brought them free apple pie. It was Southern hospitality, she explained.

Call it lunch. Or call it art.

The apple pie came from one of five artists who moved last Wednesday to Artspace in the Ninth Square. They will live together at the gallery for 13 days. During their stay at the gallery, each artist will work on a project of his of her own, with the only condition that it involve the surrounding community.

The artists are EmceeCM, James Holland, Ariana Jacob, James Sham, and Rebecca Parker. Their projects include foraging for edible herbs, walking the nine squares barefoot, interviewing conservatives, conversing with clergy members, and baking apple pie.

The project is called is Insite/Out. It is the brainchild of Ted Efremoff (pictured bellow), an artist and member of Artspace’s visual arts committee. He got the idea during a staff meeting held in front of the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling windows.

The artists will stay at the gallery until Monday June 18. The show will remain open until July 6. The gallery will hold a public opening Friday night from 5 to 8 pm.

“There was a group sitting on the bench on the other side of the window,” Efremoff said. “They were having their own kind of meeting, except that theirs looked a lot more fun than ours. We were having two parallel meetings, and the only thing that separated us was this thin glass wall.”

From that moment, Efremoff said, he began reflecting on the complex relationship between artists, their galleries, and the communities that surround them. He explained that although artists are sometimes thought of as “agents of change” who can “improve” a community, the influence of the community on artists not given enough attention.

Hence Insite/Out, which paradoxically brings the artists to the gallery in order to send them out into the city. The project explores the artists’ interactions with the community, and the mutual influence that the two groups exert on each other. Artspace’s tall, “fishbowl-like” windows have become an invitation for passersby to look at the artists, and for the artists to look at passersby.

God Explained To The Aliens

At the center of the gallery I found James Sham. Sham’s (pictured above with Rebecca Parker) project is to interview members of New Haven’s clergy in order to “translate their faiths into a language so simple that even someone who doesn’t share any of [their] background could understand.”

He does that by asking priests, pastors, ministers and others to imagine that they have to explain “their entire world-view: cosmology, creation story, and everything else” to aliens.

“The idea for this project came after I learned that the Vatican was hosting an academic conference to figure out the church’s theological position in case extraterrestrial life was discovered,” said Sham. “It felt like the perfect combination of science and imagination.”

Besides the conference, Sham said, another source of inspiration was the Voyager Golden Record, a phonograph disc that was launched into space as “humanity’s presentation card” for a hypothetical alien civilization. Sham felt that the record lacked an adequate representation of God and religious belief, and so he set to fill in the gap.

“It’s not that I actually want to launch the interviews into space, but I think that the idea is a useful though experiment,” he said.

Thus far, Sham has spoken to clerics as diverse as Alex Dyer, who is behind the jazz services at the Green, and Enroue Halfpenny, a local Yoruba priest. He said that the conversations are more like “seminar discussions” than heated debates.

“The idea is to give them a platform and to engage them in dialogue,” he said.

When asked about his own religious beliefs, Sham called his religious background “hybrid.” No, he couldn’t elaborate.

“What I do believe,” he said with a snaky smile, “is that I certainly don’t know anything comprehensive about the universe, which means I’ll always have a use for the concept of God.”

Southern Hospitality

Sitting next to Sham during an interview this week was Rebecca Parker (pictured above), a native of Knoxville, Tennessee. Parker said her exploration of community begins with reflections on her past. She’s been baking batch after batch of apple pie at the gallery’s small, cramped kitchen.

“A lot of things in my work have to do with my upbringing, and the way that my mom taught me how to be a woman,” she said.

Parker’s project at Insite/Out is an investigation into Southern hospitality and politeness, which is meant to bring people out of their ordinary states of mind. After all, it’s not everyday that a neighbor offers you free apple pie in Connecticut.

Parker said that leaving the South has implied a long and complex process of negotiation of her heritage. As a feminist, she said, she’d prefer to forget some aspects of the gendered, hierarchical society she left behind. She finds other aspects of Southern culture beautiful, fascinating, even useful.

Take politeness, for example. On the one hand, it can lend itself to hypocrisy. Are acts of kindness done out of noblesse oblige still genuinely kind? On the other hand, they can enable people to correct bad first impressions. If you are forced to be nice to everyone, even to those people who give you a bad hunch, you might stick around them for long enough to discover more pleasant aspects of their personality.

Parker has interacted with the inhabitants of Ninth Square in a number of ways. She installed a swinging love-seat outside one of the gallery’s doors, from which she waves to families and sometimes sits with children. She cooked a full formal dinner for a group of construction workers doing street repair work across the street from Artspace.

“I asked them about hospitality, whether people from New Haven are good neighbors,” she said. “I got very different answers. One of the workers said that people were very cold, but another one said the opposite. He said: ‘What you put into the world is what you get.’”

The Map Of Bodily Experience

Attractive an image as is the fishbowl metaphor, the artists were quick during a conversation at the gallery to question the validity of the analogy. At least the part of the analogy that implies comparing them to fish.

“Where did you get that from? From Ted’s poster?” said James Holland (pictured). “I think he means the space is like a fishbowl, not us. We are not passive art objects on display.”

Holland has been taking barefoot walks across New Haven in an effort to map the city’s “psychogeography.” Psychogeography is a concept invented in the 1960s by a group of French artists and political radicals known as the Situationists. They were interested not so much in the physical measurement of space as in the emotional dimension of places—the way that cities make people feel.

In true Situationist style, Holland strolls around the city with no particular plan, asking the people he encounters how they feel about the places where he meets them. Thus far he has encountered all kinds of people, from homeless women sitting on the Green to suited-up businessmen smoking cigarettes during their lunch breaks. He records his walks and conversations with a camera, then presents the video at the gallery.

It all sounds pretty straightforward, except that Holland conceives of his camera in a way that’s radically different from that of a TV reporter or a documentary filmmaker. Instead of carrying the camera in his hands, pointing at the faces of people, he has mounted it on a backpack-like contraption that holds it high above his head, facing straight down in a bird’s-eye-view angle.

“It’s not about the eye, but about the full body,” he said. “I like to think of it as an extension of my spinal cord. I wanted to find a way to anchor the image to my physical self.”

Holland wants to avoid the predatory, voyeuristic quality sometimes associated with artistic observation. He said that his harness serves two functions: On the one hand it allows him to look at people in the eye without the barrier of a lens, and on the other it calls people’s attention.

“I’ve heard all kinds of things,” he said. “People have told me that it’s a fishing rod, or an antenna. It’s a good excuse to start a conversation.”

The Poetry Of Useful Things

At the front of the gallery is EmceeCM’s space (pictured at the top of this article). The artist, who is also known as Colin McMullan, is interested in the bits of nature that are hidden across the urban landscape. Throughout his stay at Artspace, he’s been foraging around New Haven for edible herbs and plants. The floor of his part of the gallery is covered with berries, leaves, rocks and pieces of bark—the bounty of his expeditions.

“I’ve been spending my time expending my knowledge about the uses of wild life,” he said. “It’s a way of exploring the city that isn’t just about the urban experience.”

Practical knowledge is extremely important to EmceeCM, who said that he doesn’t believe in useless art.

“Everything that I do has some kind of educational or useful value,” he said. “I don’t want to make art that doesn’t have a purpose.”

EmceeCM’s exploration of useful art also has a strong political background. The artist explained that he feels very uncomfortable participating in a cultural practice that only exists for the benefit of the rich, who are the only ones who can afford the money and leisure necessary to enjoy high art.

“Having a regular set of tasks to keep you busy, like growing your own food, cooking it, maybe even building your own house, is the way life is for most people,” he said. “It’s also something that the rich have handed down to other people to do for them.”

“I feel that there are all sorts of losses that we are experiencing in not using our hands and bodies to work anymore, so that we are tired at night and can actually sleep well,” he went on. “Instead, we take all these pills and medicines that we don’t really need.”

Beside his foraging expeditions, EmceeCM is offering his time to do odd-jobs for free. He’s advertising his skills with a large sign posted on one of the gallery’s windows, together with an accordion-style booklet the size of a business card that lists all the different kinds of work he’s done.

“I don’t actually make any money off my art,” he said. “I make a living by doing odd-jobs. I’m probably loosing money right now, because the stipend that we are given here is very small.”

EmceeCM noticed that some of the trees that surround the gallery were in a poor state. Since nobody was taking advantage of his services, he decided to “let the trees hire him” and clean them up. He cut off the trees’ dead branches and piled them in the floor of the gallery. He then used some of the twigs to fertilize the trees’ tiny patches of soil and to build small fences around them.

“It’s kind of poetic, using the dead trees to help the living ones,” he said as he gazed out of the window.

Translating Conservatism

At the center of the gallery is the office of The Campaign For Considerately Questioning Democracy, Ariana Jacob’s project. Jacobs has been traveling around the United States to ask to conservatives and libertarians about their political thought. The idea, she said, is to test the limits of public discourse and to “translate” right-wing ideas into a language that liberals and social democrats like herself can better understand.

Her “office” consists a desk littered with books about politics and New Haven. Leaning against the walls are bright-colored signs with legends like “How can we provide help without it becoming a disincentive for people to help themselves?”

Jacobs has found her encounters across America enlightening, even when people have not always reacted well to her project. One man at a gun show in rural Washington State told her that, since she is “a left-winger, [they] had nothing to talk about.”

It turned out that they did have things to discus.

“He helped me understand why some working-class people vote Republican,” she said. “They believe that the Democrats are artificially creating this underclass of unemployed people who live on welfare, who then vote for them and keep them in power.”

New Haven’s own conservatives have also proved extraordinary partners for political conversations.

“I met Richter [Elser, the leader of New Haven’s Republicans],” she said. “It was crazy—he was everything that you would hope a liberal would be in other parts of the country. If people from my super-liberal community knew that Republicans like Richter exist, their perception of conservatism would totally change.” 

Jacobs has also had deep discussions with the right-wing of Yale’s undergraduate body.

“I met this young man who was in one of the right-wing parties of the Yale Political Union,” she said. “His conservatism was different from anything I’d seen before. It was extremely philosophical. He said that he had been raised Christian and then lost his faith. He later returned to the church not because he believed in it, but because his debate club made him realize how much the Western tradition had shaped him, and he decided to consciously embody that.”

Campsite, Sleepover, Squatter’s Commune

When asked about the experience of living together, the artists all answered that they’ve been having a great deal of fun. They called the gallery a “campsite,” a “sleepover,” and a “squatter’s commune.”

“It’s like your dad just lost his job, but he’s too proud to admit it,” said Sham. “So you’re staying at houses where people have left for holiday ‘cause that’s where it’s warm.”

The artists will stay at the gallery until Monday June 18. The show will remain open until July 6. The gallery will hold a public opening Friday night from 5 to 8 pm.

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posted by: Bill Saunders on June 15, 2012  11:28am

Is it art, or is it a Zoning Violation???

posted by: robn on June 15, 2012  11:48am

Great idea. Somebody should make a TV show about this.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 17, 2012  10:04pm

Your Right, ROBN!

This is perfect reality Television.

Six Artists of privilege save the world by squatting in a public artspace.

Economic Stratification is explored/exploited, as these nee’r do wells take advantage of a $24,000 luxury apartment, while across the street and around the corner, ordinary people struggle with $1800 rents, some subsidized by the state.

These people sitting on boards making decisions need to realize that people don’t need to be accosted by some faint vision of art. 

Art engages by it’s very nature.