21 November, 2012

A Culture to Be Known: an interview with Ernesto Pujol

Ernesto Pujol is a site-specific public performance artist and social choreographer. His undergraduate studies were in humanities and fine arts, followed by graduate work in education, media, and psychology. Pujol has an MFA in interdisciplinary studio practice from The School of The Art Institute of Chicago. He has taught at the School of Visual Arts, Cooper Union, the Rhode Island School of Design, Pratt Institute, Parsons The New School, Bezalel Academy of Art & Design, and The Maine College of Art. Since 1999, Pujol has been field training graduate and post-graduate art students in site-specific art work. Pujol is interested in the notion of the artist as citizen, the citizenship of museums, and the citizenship of art itself in the evolution of American democracy. Pujol believes that the creative critical thinking tools of American artists are integral to the sustainability of American democracy within an increasingly diverse society. He strives to reclaim public spaces from clutter, noise, and speed, temporarily eliminating distractions, generating silence and solitude; transforming them into sites for interiority, for the reawakening of basic consciousness. Pujol has served with the New York State Council on the Arts, the Academy for Educational Development, and the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, DC.

Production image from Tzofia, 12 hour performance, Tel Aviv, 2008.

Ernesto, thank you for offering to speak about your life and work in a political context.  Your article in ArtEast was one of my absolute favorite artist-reflection pieces.  What was your perception of the US in your youth and how has it developed, now, having lived here for so many years?

EP:  First of all, I would like to clarify for your readers that I am not a foreigner.  I am a US citizen.  But I grew up as a US citizen in the Caribbean region, where people refer to America as “The Mainland.”  I recently discovered that they do the same in the Pacific, in Hawaii. It seems to be a periphery-to-center dynamic, colonial.  During my early teens, the US was the source of my popular culture, while Europe, specifically Spain and England, were the source of my so-called high culture.  Having lived in New York for 27 years now, our situation feels like the end of an empire, surrounded by an increasingly impoverished society.

Are the arts an effective way to address this country’s dire situation without being dismissed as another form of rhetoric?

EP:  I believe that art is language, and that all language bears the possibility of communicating information that leads to evolution.  When was the last time that the arts addressed “this country’s dire situation,” as you say?  From my own experience, it was during the 1980s and the AIDS crisis.  Many artists made work about AIDS or put their creative skills at the service of activist groups such as ACT UP.  And it was very effective; and people paid attention to the issues.  I think that the arts need to claim that role again.  In many ways, other than the lack of government issued funding, no one is holding them back but the art world itself.

There seems to be a fairly consistent triad that energizes your most recent work: landscape, community, and self.  How did you arrive at these elements of your practice and how has their significance been maintained?

EP:  I am not interested in self-expression.  I am an itinerant artist, a conceptual “portrait painter” through site-specific durational performance art.  I reveal the unseen about places, in a very psychic way, Jungian.  I am commissioned sited projects by museums, universities, and festivals, as the intimate portraits of people and places.  I have always been interested in art as language, in the evolution of audiences, and in increasing the relevance and role of art in society.  I have sustained these interests at great personal expense—at great sacrifice.  Long ago I chose not to seek tenure in any of the schools I was invited to teach, so as to remain free, objective.  It has been a great adventure, but an austere one.

I also appreciate how these elements of your work translate your concepts and methods to a broader audience.  You very arduously educate the public about some specific, and easily overlooked, issues regarding ecology, U.S. culture, and contemplation; encouraging people who aren’t necessarily “in the arts” to see this world—and the people in it—more directly and to think outside of the box.  But, yes!  . . . tell us about the art advocacy and the broader education, thereof.  When you make logistical arrangements with various groups, are you also reaching-out to promote the arts in general, or is this widening base of support (among diverse art communities, naturalists, civil leadership, etc.) more of an incidental gain?

EP:  I come from a family of committed educators.  My mother was a famous educator, very much ahead of her times, in terms of ethics (values) and rights.  I believe that the art world has dismissed a great part of our mainstream population as too conservative, politically and religiously.  We have dismissed them as hopelessly uneducated, sort of beyond redemption.  Part of it is an urban cynical snobbery, and part of it is a secret fear.  Many artists are not just disconnected but secretly terrified of audiences.  Yet those are the very masses of voters who put retrograde presidents in the White House, creating setbacks, for years.  The art world cannot continue to ignore them; it risks everyone’s future in doing so.

I am very interested in taking the best of contemporary experimental, interdisciplinary art to them.  If they do not come to the mountain, the mountain (the hills!) must go to them.  They must not remain undisturbed, complacent.  I am interested in challenging their assumptions and broadening their horizons, demonstrating that we are one and the same people.  I actually believe that they have a lot to contribute to the global dialogue.  We say that we love globalism.  Indeed, we seek the story of every other people, of distant tribes and remote villages, all but our own.  The art world is embarrassed by our regional unsophisticated stories, south and west.  But we must face them and generate a new enlightened regionalism, interconnected.  We must practice an internal globalism in America.

Wow.  Fantastic points.  On a related note, you’ve worked in coordination with a number of organizations and government agencies to realize your projects: Good Works Foundation of Los Angeles, The Land Institute, U.S. Art in Embassies, various Museums; and you have served on the New York State Council on the Arts and as a Consultant for the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico.  Is diplomacy a skill that you recommend for artists of the current era?

EP:  Yes!  While no one taught me diplomatic skills in art school, I could not do what I do without them.  I would not accomplish anything. I have had to work hard as a cultural diplomat, as an ambassador for contemporary art interventions in the public sphere with the Cuban communist government, with Republican conservative Christians, with Mormon politicians.  All very delicate.
I have had to translate to them what I wanted to achieve in their communities.  Every place has gatekeepers and stakeholders.  Diplomacy is a skill I learned from my heroic mother, who integrated her school, which I later perfected on the road.  Art schools need to teach students how to work with people as peers, as true collaborators, not merely as studio and project assistants.  Interdisciplinary practice does not consist in more complicated research, expanding the texts that inform your process.  It actually consists of dialogue with experts who are as empowered as you are, or more.  It is humbling.

Image (above):  Awaiting, 12 hour performance, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2009.

Do you have formal training in choreography, art direction, or curatorial duties?

EP:  I am self-taught in all those fields. But as you stated in the beginning, I have a very broad formal education: in humanities, philosophy, religion, psychology, media theory, and visual arts.  And everything is connected.  And I am an observer of people, a good listener—and a quick study.

Production image from Memorial Gestures, 12 hour performance, Chicago, 2007.

Do you find some political value in your ability to organize and engage large numbers of people?

EP:  Yes, I could not do what I do without a certain political mass quality that is nothing less than charismatic in terms of engaging hundreds of people to follow me into the dream and the labor of a non-profit project.  It becomes like a poetic political campaign, but one created for their behalf.  It is for them.  They own it.  They take it over long before I leave town, and certainly afterwards.  It is funny that you ask, because I have sometimes thought of running for office.  But it would have to be on a very small scale because I dislike large bureaucracies.  Part of enjoying what I do has to do with sidestepping all local red tape and going directly from conception to production to enactment, in free flow.

Tell us a bit about “The Field Schoolinitiative and how you see these programs developing in the coming years.

EP:  The Field School is something humble that developed organically, through graduate students wanting to study and work with me during and beyond school.  For years, I have turned every project that has been commissioned to me into an ephemeral school.  We need more training like that, beyond school walls, in the field.  I would like to see more art schools with experimental storefronts and partnerships with hospitals, clinics, etc.  Art students should intern in places other than galleries and museums.  Art students are always looking for content; that is the great worry of youth, not having something to say.  Volunteer in a dog shelter, in a small organic farm, in a poor nursing home one long hot summer and you will have a lot to say by fall.

What is your take on artistic skill—do all people have the capacity to be artists?  What about the ability to see things from an artistic perspective?

EP:  Are you good at everything?  I do not believe that everyone has artistic skills, just like I have no mathematical skills, nor am I able to withstand the sight of blood and open wounds.  I could not be a mathematician or a physician.  Yet, if we provided universal education as a right for all our people, all people would enjoy some form of more complex intellectual life.  And all people would be creative, at some level, because creativity is at the core of every discipline, its research and analysis.  Not everyone is a surgeon.  Not everyone is an artist.  It would be naïve to think so— sentimental.  But everyone is potentially creative.  Regarding everyone seeing things from “an artistic perspective,” I am going to assume that you mean from a creative critical thinking perspective.  Everyone is capable of that, given education, openness to experience, ongoing curiosity, and humility.

More and more in recent years, I’ve come across various reports that MFA’s are a worthless degree (here and here) not to mention seeing, first-hand, a growing number of disenfranchised artists funneled into a work-force that is predominantly industrial and commercial, by design.  I found your article for “dis magazine” online to be extremely relevant to shaping a more appropriate trajectory for artists.  Could you build on any of the specific points from that article with examples of programs that may be best-case examples of the innovations you recommend?

EP:  I have written so much about this.  I am interested in American art training reform.  I believe it is in crisis; much of it is morally bankrupt.  There are some new graduate programs developing, new or reinvented, but I do not think it ethical to promote one program over another through this venue.  So, let me just say that all students need to take control of their education and lead it assertively where they want to.  The problem is that, in order to do that, you need to know who you are, that is: where do you come from and where are you going, individually and collectively?  And those are tough questions because we live in a culture of entertaining spectacles that keep you distracted and immature, infantilizing everyone and everything.

Writer Carol Becker has said (and I am probably paraphrasing her incorrectly) that sometimes we seem to be a country without culture, having instead a mammoth entertainment industry.  If you add our advertising media to that, and the new information technologies as multiple 24-hour portals, that leaves the American persona with no time for silence and solitude—for reflection.  I do not believe that we will survive for long like that.  An increasingly impoverished diverse society needs to reflect.  Democracy can only survive if there is space for reflection.

Farmers Dream, Dreaming Kansas, 12 hour performance, Salina, Kansas, 2009.

I’d like to hear more from you regarding the state of our culture.  Your description of the Dreaming Kansas project describes a region that is often hijacked by electoral politics.  The text is furthered by mourning the loss of something that runs deeper than demographics: the loss of a rural American culture whose values and traditions were intrinsically dependent on survival with the landscape.  What else has the country lost by way of losing our rural, farming families and communities?

EP:  It has lost a connection to the land and its resources and cycles that, although far form perfect, it was intimate.  We need to reconnect with our environment and food sources.  It is time that visual artist residencies should begin to take place in nature preserves and organic farms across America.


Image (right): 
Farmers Dream, 12 hour performance,
Salina, Kansas, 2009.

Discussions of an American culture—with its origins in multiple waves of European settlement—are under increasing scrutiny for the massacre of indigenous peoples.  As someone who was born and raised in the Caribbean, you are no stranger to the traumas and injustices that are carried through the generations following the European Conquest.  How have you formed an appreciation for any traditions of “American” culture at the expense of such extensive bloodshed?

EP: Indeed, I was born and raised in the Caribbean, specifically, in Cuba and Puerto Rico, two little countries that historically were and remain under US influence.  In the 1960s, my parents were young progressive professionals, intellectually interested in the Christian democratic socialist politics of Scandinavian countries.  They were socialist pacifists; they were not communists.  America has yet to learn the difference between militarized communism, as a form of fascism, and liberal socialism as an evolution of democracy.

In my case, both of the islands where I have a family heritage witnessed their native indigenous populations wiped out early on and replaced by African slave labor.  My white European family owned slaves until Emancipation and remained white until the Cuban Revolution of 1959, when it began to mix, slowly.  I grew up surrounded by that new cultural mix.  American culture is very new yet complex, where people are just beginning to consciously mix rather than blindly assimilate.  But its native peoples remain one of its great shames.  They remain a muffled voice.

Nevertheless, there remains an openness to North American society.  There are castes, but it is not a caste system.  There are aristocrats, but there is no aristocracy.  There remains an upward mobility, through an increasingly hard to come by good education and hard work, in spite of widespread corruption.  The genocide of the Native Americans was horrendous, and their situation remains tragic, but when you read the great innocents of the West, like Willa Cather, a book like My Antonia, there is still an American seduction that makes one wonder about possibilities.

A number of your projects are located in remote and sparsely-populated regions—I’m thinking of Utah (UTEHAUS  and Awaiting), Kansas (Dreaming Kansas), and Hawaii (Walking Ground).  What is it about your imagination that responds to these locations?

Speaking in Silence, 12 hour performance, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2010.

EP:  I believe that everyone has the right to culture.  And I mean critical culture rather than entertainment.  Critical culture is a human right.  I am fascinated by isolated peoples, particularly the landlocked. I grew up in islands, locked by water, surrounded by deep dangerous waters.  When I finally travelled to the Midwest, I fell in love with the prairie.  I had finally found a safe ocean where one did not drown or was torn apart by sharks.  The prairie has the same horizon and sky as the ocean, endless, dreamy.  But returning to your question, I feel a deep compassion.  I work long at having a generous practice.  It is about love.  And there is no use in preaching to the choir.  That is easy, intellectually lazy.  I do not care for artists showing to artists.  What is the social gain in that?  I prefer to face my fears and test my beliefs.  I have sat down with hunters and ranchers to dinners.  When you dine with conservatives, you get to know your true beliefs and you might just find your true strength in your vulnerability.

Inheriting Salt, Installation, New York, 2007.

And yet, you work in New York City!  How do you merge these high-contrast environments into a coherent lifestyle and art practice?  I hear that you are even making weekly trips to upstate New York.

EP:  I came to NYC to study, never planning to stay “forever.”  I am still not planning to stay forever, although it has been 27 years.  New York is a crossroads.  I live in Downtown Brooklyn.  It is filled with immigrants, expatriates, refugees.  I live in a very tight community and talk to my neighbors daily. I know my shopkeepers.  I live in an urban village under the shadow on New York.  And I recently acquired a very small old cottage by the river, upstate, so now I live in two villages, an urban and a rural one.  I negotiate the city down to a human scale.  I think that many shy people do.

You make concerted efforts to promote community and a relationship with our environment; what about contemplative meditation . . . do you see yourself as an advocate for meditation in daily living?

EP:  I was once a cloistered monk in a monastery, a contemplative.  I have found that I have a remarkably strong, rigorous foundation in the combined practice of study, meditation, contemplation, mysticism.  I thought that everyone secretly had it but it seems to be rare.  I used to meditate very consciously but now it is second nature.  It is organic, fully integrated into my days, like water flowing among rocks.  My art work is imbued with it.  But I define spirituality as something imbued with the human spirit.  So, everything is spiritual.  And everything is silence.  This conversation is part of my silence, because it is “right speech,” so it comes from my silence and feeds my silence.  I live a meditative day.  Nothing is outside the realm of meditation.

Meditation is often described as self-cultivation, self-reflection, self-help, etc.  Isn’t there a risk of cultivating so much of an individual’s notions of self that concepts of the collective and the political can become neglected . . . or ignored, altogether?

EP:  The narcissism of our culture appropriates everything.  But meditation is not narcissistic.  I think that that popular definition of meditation is a misunderstanding.  Meditation is self-less.  It is about the no-self.  In other words, meditation is not about self regard; true meditation is not related at all to what is commonly known as self-help culture.  So, there is no war between it and social presence or social practice.  In fact, I cannot conceive of having a political life, individually or collectively, without a rich interior life, without meditation.  Otherwise, that political life is superficial, flat, reactionary.  That is the problem with our political space, it does not include time for silence and solitude, for meditating complex situations.  We should not think that our 24-hour news culture is any better prepared to decide anything if it never takes time to meditate the news.

These narcissistic tendencies are precisely what prompt my questioning . . . meditation and Eastern practices as they have come to be known in the US seemed to flourish during a time of prosperity and a rampant commodification of our own culture.  Eastern philosophies, deities, and religious practices appeared to be profitable "trends" for the privileged.  I think mostly of yoga and meditation retreats.  How could the benefits of something quite accessible—like meditation—reach a wider socioeconomic base, in order to help people who could benefit immensely from releasing their own egocentric ways?

EP: I think that you are showing your prejudices here.  But that is okay.  We have all had cartoonish experiences with transplanted imported Eastern practices.  Buddhism is the spiritual practice of millions of poor citizens worldwide.  In North America, it may be currently associated with a cultural and intellectual elite, with amazing figures such as John Cage, for example.  But I do not sell meditation any more than I sell spiritual practice.  Spirituality is nothing but whatever is imbued with the human spirit.  Anything filled with the human spirit is spiritual.  What is the so-called human spirit?  It is the desire to transcend.  How do we transcend?  We transcend through creative thought and the suspension of tired thought.  We transcend through our intellect, our imagination, and the wisdom of the body.  However we reach that interior life, through meditation, yoga, etc., it does not matter.  The point is to achieve interiority.  “The masses” do not need to meditate.  The masses simply need to be less distracted and more conscious, however they achieve it.

Baptism, work in progress, Maine, 2008-12.

Please tell us about your upcoming projects so that our readers across the US may experience your work (wherever they may be?)

EP:  I am developing several new projects in the US and abroad for 2013, but it is truly too early to announce them, as they are all in their very early stages.  So, please stay posted.  In the meantime, I just published a book called “Sited Body, Public Visions: silence, stillness & walking as performance practice.”  It is available through McNally Jackson Books, the independent publisher: http://www.mcnallyjackson.com/bookmachine/sited-body-public-visions.  It was a labor of love, which I would like to share with your readers.

Thank you. I hope that we may share your upcoming projects with our readers when the time is right.  For now, we have a few additional links where people can find more your work:

Two additional publications with essays by the artist on American art education reform:

16 November, 2012

Joshua Hagler: explores US history for lineage of the "decadent now"

"Red as Fever and White as a Ghost"
(after The Death Struggle, 1845, Charles Deas)

oil on canvas
, 83" x 60", 2012

About Josh's recent series, "The Unsurrendered"

Since receiving an invitation to join the political art project USSSA, I've begun developing work informed by 18th- and 19th-century American Western Expansion, the removal of Native Americans, and superheroes as vehicle for conflict, transformation, and fantasy. Searching for a uniquely American mythology in a rapidly changing world, I wonder whether globalization is quite so new as we imagine it to be.  I am reminded that the myth of the American West would look strikingly different if not for the economic depression in Europe that brought new immigrants here to paint it.  The work is self-conscious, ironic, and anachronistic with respect to the racially awkward position and historically inaccurate tradition of American frontier painting.

Detail from "Red as Fever and White as a Ghost"

My new paintings find levity in willed amnesia and pop culture diversion, both at once nostalgic and irreverent toward lost or misunderstood cultural traditions.  I am fascinated by the value-laden implication of progress as virtue both then and now.  As a sensibility of the “decadent now” emerges from the perceived sexiness of a newer, hipper globalization, I want to turn the same sensibility toward an older form of globalization as a strategy for satire.

"We Got a Brand New Dance and there ain't no Shelter from the Rain"
83" x 60",
oil on canvas, 2012

Questions arise about what we conveniently omit from the frame in favor of a more triumphant narrative of progress and what we idealize and fantasize about once we become overwhelmed by its day-to-day workings.

06 November, 2012

Where Labor Kneels, Gardens Grow:
an Interview with Christy Roberts

Artist and educator, Christy Roberts, creates experiences, interventions, and objects that explore the tension between humans and their physical, social, and psychological environments and power structures. A native of Southern California, and the daughter of retired police officers, Roberts holds Bachelors Degrees in Philosophy and Religion, a BFA in Studio Art, and an MFA from Claremont Graduate University, acquired in 2011.

She has participated and organized at/with The California Poppy Collective, The LA Art Union, Occupy LA, Occupy Riverside, The College Art Association, Pacific Standard Time Performance Festival (with Mark Di Suvero, Leslie Labowitz Starus, and Suzanne Lacy), The Girl Scouts of the USA, The Foundation for Art Resources, The Craft and Folk Art Museum, The Los Angeles Municipal Gallery, For Your Art, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, RAID Projects, Autonomie, Summer Camp's ProjectProject, 18th Street Arts Center, Greene Park Gallery, CSU Long Beach, and Track 16. Roberts has been reviewed by Another Righteous Transfer, Artillery Magazine, and was one of LA Weekly’s “Best of LA People”, 2012. She was also a guest blogger for Art 21 Blog, writing on Occupy and the forming of an art workers' union.

Christy, I’m reaching out to you as one of the artists living in this Los Angeles art environment.  Art and politics are not a crossroads that can be avoided, here.  It’s evident in the streets, on the blogs, and inside (or outside) the exhibition spaces; it’s evident in the art of Occupy LA, the “Chalk Massacre” at the Downtown LA Art Walk, and the work of such artists as Suzanne Lacey and Olga Koumoundouros.  Describe your role in the LA art community.

  As far as my role in the community, I feel like I’m an observer and advocate.  I feel that I best serve the community by trying to be a better me and that includes making art.  I don’t claim my work to have any kind of transformative power other than for me.  If I become part of the solution, that’s something.  I do, however, know for a fact that art is powerful and does possess transgressive and transformative properties.  There is immense power in the absurd.  The “Gnome Strike” in Poland, also known as the “Orange Alternative,” is a great example.

I was disappointed by the initial backlash Occupy LA
received for the first Chalk Walk.  What people didn’t realize is that it was always meant to be peaceful.  There were children participating too.  The police honestly did escalate things by using excessive force with a tired crowd that had been pushed to the limits with the previous chalk arrests.

Tell us more about that . . .

CR:  My parents are both retired police officers.  Whenever the subject of police conduct is brought up, I’m the first to try to look at the situation from all angles because I’m intimately familiar with the human side of policing.  However, everything I know about law enforcement has been changed.  They are not leaving avenues for escape, the way they treat people—once in custody (especially after the OLA eviction)—is questionable, and with what happened in Anaheim and Fullerton . . . for the first time in my (obviously privileged and slightly removed) life I’m afraid of what seems like vigilante mob actions performed in the name of public safety.

And we haven’t even gotten to MOCA and the problems with the ever so celebrated Pacific Standard Time Festival and its attempt to commodify the ephemeral.

Right.  I plan to interview a few more artists from LA so don’t feel the need to address it all at once!

CR:   . . . some of it started to feel “Hard Performance Café.”  The next step would be you could order some chicken alfredo and eat under a photo of Abramovic performances and every 15 minutes there’s a reenactment of Chris Burden’s “Shoot.”  Some of the most powerful art has to be experienced in-person and so much of performance is about presence.  It’s just about being there and immediate; being immediately accessible to the moment.  A performance document is not necessarily the same as a finished art object.  One of the things that I love about performance art is that as a community we ache for it—we, in turn, decide what is seen.  Commodifying performance takes away from the act itself in addition to creating a market conversation; oftentimes the market determines what is seen and I don’t want to see that happen to performance.

Besides, performance is more alive in the mythology of storytelling about “what happened” than it is in a document.  I’m glad the LA art community had the chance to celebrate its own history, and I even participated in some of the projects, but we have to “be careful with the present [we] create because it should look like the future [we] dream."

"Make-In" at Autonomie Gallery, 2011
Artists and guests made blankets for people living in the Occupy camps in anticipation of the winter nights.

Is there some way that art communities from across the nation can help?
CR:  If the art communities and/or activist communities in other locations want to “help” LA, I’m sure they are all already aware that the best strategy (be it cliché or not) is always to think globally, act locally.  Orange County Law Enforcement and LAPD, the CCA (the agency responsible for the gentrification of Downtown LA and the media backlash against the Chalk Walk), MOCA, etc. are not regional problems.  I think we have to continue to demand accountability from ourselves, our communities, our elected and non-elected representatives, and the institutions that were created to serve us.  Demand accountability and organize and never doubt the power of process.  As they say, Utopia is a journey, not a destination.

I think that is such valuable advice as art communities across the nation continue to struggle.  Artists are such an ambiguous yet eclectic demographic that solidarity can easily be confused for nepotism, trending, or just glomming along for another show.  The bottom line is that the degree of resistance to—and devaluation of—the arts in this country is relentless on so many fronts: economic, cultural, social, ecological.  Am I off-base?  Can the deep-seeded traditions of capitalism and self-interest in the arts be transgressed?

CR:  Well, art is older than capitalism so I’m going to say “yes.”  Anarchism is a belief that values the individual and holds the individual accountable for their role in the community.  I believe in multiple intelligences, people enacting within their own distinct way of life.  I think it’s unethical to expect the same contribution from everyone, but it’s just as unethical to give no contribution.

I first became familiar with your work through your writings (see “Occupy a Living Wage” on the Art21 Blog) and features such as LA Weekly’s “Christy Roberts, The Guerilla Johnny Apple Seed - Best ofLA People” and on Carol Cheh’s “Another Righteous Transfer.”  How is it that online publications are playing out to be viable forums for contemporary artists?

CR:  A huge component of contemporary culture, and thus contemporary art, is interface.  A lot of important discussions happen in facebook groups and google groups (resulting from posted articles) and those discussions can often provide the momentum for panels, exhibitions, critical essays and even movements.  Of course the interpersonal connections made in the physical vs. over social networking is complicated and thus they are supplemental, not substitutional.  Online forums are important for me, personally, because I don’t live in the city and can’t be physically present at every event.

I don’t think information that we get from blogs/online publications vs. information from printed publications is better or worse, but the interface for the online publication is just so accessible and often free.
 It’s difficult to decipher credible information sometimes (I see so many brilliant people surprisingly mistaking an opinion piece for objective “just the facts” journalism), but that skill can be partially developed through reading what kind of ads the publication targets its readers with.  Are they selling you gold and survival kits and claiming that Obama is a Socialist?  Then the agenda of the whole site is obviously questionable.

What I think is most valuable about the progression of online publications is that it shows how competition for accountability and legitimacy is just as mobilizing as competition for economic gain.
 I think that interface and process are so integral for humans and obviously I think it’s good for artists to have a presence in the interface and process of the digital machine.

"Deforested, Defrosted" 2-hour performance for Irrational Exhibits 8, curated by Deborah Oliver for Track 16 Gallery, 2011

Help us understand your art practice.  You’re a self-proclaimed conceptual artist—do you have experience with traditional media, as well?

  Well, on facebook I’m a “conceptual artist.”  I think that alludes to the humor in trying to quantify or qualify one’s practice.  I think just “Artist” is most appropriate, although I don’t mind when I’m described as and artist and activist.

“You’re a Conceptual Artist, not a painter,” is also what a previous art professor told me in my second crit.
 While it is clearly a slightly antiquated and compartmentalized term, I do think it describes my process: I start with an idea and use whatever will best serve the idea . . . except a painting (but no promises.)

Around 1993 I started to make really bad paintings and that continued until I received an art education and became free of the parameters my middle class upbringing had set upon “art.”
 The first critique of my paintings was enough to make me reconsider the medium.  I threw myself into mediums I excelled at: drawing, sculpture, installation.  After a trip to New York in 2008 exposed me to a wider conversation than I had known before, I became interested in video and performance.  By the time I was entering grad school I was heavily committed to everything but painting.  Now I would say that I’m committed to all art mediums, but not to using them, myself.

Art schools have fairly strong, on-going debates about including traditional media in their curriculum.  As a 2011 grad, what's your take?

CR:  I don’t paint.  But some paintings are really great.  Some sculpture is really great.  Some of everything is really great.  I think we need more, not less.  Meaning that I think more schools should include post-studio education.  As I was saying earlier, interface is crucial to our culture.  Post-studio and New Genres practices often encourage the kind of critical thinking that helps navigate interfaces.  I don’t think traditional media education should diminish, but I do think that if New Genres and post-studio were as widely taught as traditional media, you’d have mechanical engineers who not only like Kandinksy, but who think like video editors and are familiar with the Situationists and that just seems like the more holistic pedagogical approach.

How is it that colored chalk has become such a volatile medium (as exemplified by art activists in LA?)

  I think the chalk is interesting.  I don’t want to limit anyone’s free speech, but certain messages and expletives . . . I think that parents have the right to walk down the street without their kid reading “fuck police, fuck state, fuck this/that” all over.  And logically, I think that may be the reason for the initial chalk arrests.  On the other hand, I think parents having to do a little bit of “parenting” in exchange for free speech is crucial for our civil liberties.  The legal precedents for chalk show that it is not considered vandalism to use the chalk.  The LAPD themselves seemed unclear of the charges whenever they responded in the media.  The most recent “Chalk Walk” saw peace and fun and no arrests for chalking.  I don’t know what the future of the chalk issue holds.  It looks like it’s being diffused through the de-escalation of enforcement, but I can tell you why it was potentially powerful.

Absurdity has a tremendous amount of power to inspire direct action.
 “The Gnome Strike” (a.k.a. “Orange Alternative”) in Poland was a gathering of students, marching in gnome outfits for gnome rights, that prompted the beginning of the Polish Revolution.  In the words of Waldemar Fydrych:              

             The Western World will find out much more about the situation in Poland from
   hearing that I was sent to jail for handing out sanitary pads to women, than
   from reading books and articles written by other members of the opposition.
  Can you treat a police officer seriously, when he is asking you: "Why did
  you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarfs?"

The chalk is absurd. It’s something that people buy for children to play with. The absurdity that a “toy” could bring on riot police is a powerful statement about the current climate of free speech regulation.

Sequence from Christy's untitled performance for USSSA's "artist-organized rally" in Pershing Square, 2012

. . . and so you chose to perform with chalk for the USSSA rally in Pershing Square.  How did you muster the emotional resolve to take that risk?

CR:  First of all I had spoken to my family about what I was and was not willing to be arrested for and talked to them about my investment in the movement because with my investment there’s something additional: it may become my parents baggage more than it might be for the average parents, due to that fact that they are both retired cops. It’s really because I love and care about them and they often see the idea of being a dissident as hurtful and offensive and I needed them to understand what I was willing to risk; our freedoms are not about a “smash the state” mentality—our basic freedom of expression was up for debate and it had just gone too far. 

When I stood up there it was almost like I had their blessing, if you will.  I know that sounds ridiculous to care about your parents’ blessing.  I would’ve done it without their blessing, but knowing they understood and supported my conviction gave me a little more courage.

Tell us about the “LA Art Union” [UptheArtUnion.tumblr.com] and your role within the group and its activities.

CR:  Last November the infamous MOCA had it’s annual gala.  The “entertainment” for the evening was Marina Abramovic and Debbie Harry.  What ensued was a giant labor/class/gender/race/generational mess that prompted essays, publications, panels, and protests.  After the protest of the gala itself, a group of artists got together and began discussing unionizing.  The conversation spilled onto the google group and facebook group for AAAAAA (a loose affiliation of LA-based artists and culture workers interested in Occupy).  A meeting was desired and I decided to attend the first one, which was held at Human Resources.  We’ve met monthly (and sometimes bi-monthly) since.  We’re currently working with other LA labor groups, conducting design workshops in solidarity, and we’re looking forward to a possible campaign on unpaid internships this fall.

The “LA Art World” is a very different beast than in other locations.
 We are breaking new ground here, so it’s a complicated process, but I think we’re doing it right for us.  Right now, we’re focusing on solidarity, information, and mutual aid.

Was there a single moment that prompted you to become “an activist”?

  I suppose “struggle” was engrained in me through my mother, who was the first female police officer to be granted the use of a gun in our area.  She faced all of the misogyny and gender discrimination one would face as a pioneering female in her field (combined with anti-Semitism, which she talked about less) and I think I began absorbing the Labor and Womyn’s Movement in the womb.

Subsequently, when the first Rio conference was happening in '92 my class did a lesson on the rainforest.
 I wrote to President Bush Sr., urging him to sign the treaty and in reply I received a letter telling me not to do drugs and to stay in school.  I promptly subscribed to Greenpeace’s kids program.  Later, in 8th grade, I was sent to a summer camp called Sierra Service Project.  My counselors were human rights lobbyists and activists.
 It just kind of grew from there, watered by the usual—suburbia, punk rock, authoritarian household, etc.

Poppies seem to have a steady presence in your life, writing, and art works.  How did that transpire?

  Quite mundanely, considering how much room they take up in my life.  The Poppy Project is really about the loss and reclamation of the commons.  My father was diagnosed with pretty advanced bladder cancer a few weeks before I started grad school.  A lot of major things in my life were changing and I was trying to deal with what felt like tremendous loss and vacancy.  I started noticing vacant lots around my house and that developed into a project of documenting the lots.  I grew so fond of them that I felt like I had to save them from the inevitable development that would occur as the economy picked up.  I was causally talking to a good friend about guerilla gardening and how I didn’t like the idea that the garden would be vulnerable.  It just clicked somehow, rather quickly, that it is illegal to pick California Poppies in California because it’s the State Flower.  As a child they teach you never to pick them.

I began researching the legalities of the poppies and decided they would be the perfect tool to wage an environmental and aesthetic reframing of property and potential, which in turn resulted in the “California Poppy Collective.”  Since then, they have had a dominant presence in my art practice and my personal life.

Please tell us about any political events (less art-based) that you have organized, prior to 2012.

  I’ve worked both inside and outside the system.  I started organizing in middle school and high school, was Vice President of Advocacy in undergrad (and worked with PETA, Sierra Club, Blood Bank, time banking, Amnesty International, and Oxfam) and participated with various political organizations since.  After graduating with a Philosophy and Religion degree in 2005 I, believe it or not, worked as an events coordinator for a local chamber of commerce while looking at law schools to apply to.  It was a nightmare for my political integrity.  That experience was enough to prompt me to go in the absolute opposite direction.

After that and prior to starting grad school, I work with a homeless advocacy organization, setting up donations at Warped Tour.

Do you have any “words of wisdom” for artists looking for work?

  I think everyone has different limitations.  I don’t know if I have anything universal to offer.  I’ve learned to be aggressive.  I send CV’s and cover letters to places I want to work at, regardless of whether or not they have posted openings.  As far as teaching is concerned (I love teaching, personally, and really want to teach), there are a lot of private schools and community colleges that don’t post available positions.  Get to know the communities you want to work with.  Unfortunately, it’s still a lot of who you know.

DON’T work for free.
 I repeat, DO NOT work for free.  There is always something available to trade, whether that’s resources, access, or economic compensation.  When you work for free you affect everyone by saturating institutions with free labor.  We’re all in this together.  GET COMPENSATED. 

What are you currently reading?

  Failure, edited by Lisa Lefeuvre about the concept of . . . (surprise!) failure in contemporary art.  I hate to be a cliché, but I am very much dealing with feeling like I am not where I wanted to be by this age.  I’m still very much dependent on the help of others (namely, my parents) and while I feel exceedingly capable in some areas, I seem to have epic fails with everyday tasks.  A new series is developing as a result.

I’m also reading
No Trespassing by Anders Corr for research on squatting for the Poppy Project.

Well then!  Tell us more . . . do you have any upcoming shows that we can attend?  Art projects that we can follow?

CR:  I’m included in a really exciting group exhibition at the Begovich Gallery at Cal State Fullerton, entitled Interstice: New Economies for Creative Communities, which opens November 10th.  It focuses on socially engaged work that has politically radical undertones.  Also on Election Day, November 6th, I participated in the Eternal Telethon, sponsored by BESHT at the Pomona College Museum of Art.  The Eternal Telethon is an online, artist-run telethon whose goal is to raise funds to build a convalescent home for retired artists located at the Salton Sea.

Early in this interview we spoke about the merit of online resources: what are your favorite ways to keep informed of what’s current in LA art and politics?

  Some great blogs/outlets are:

My friend, Cliff just started writing for http://www.laimyours.com/contributors/
LA Weekly has great Art writers:

Thank you for such personal and vigorous responses.  You are definitely an artist to watch!

More about Christy Roberts can be found here: