Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Interview: Gunilla Klingberg

Mantric Mutation, 2006. Screen-printed stickers on walls and floor, laser-cut texts in mirror, surveillance mirrors, light tubes. Installation view at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

Detail of Mantric Mutation.

Swedish artist Gunilla Klingberg has worked with many types of consumer goods, including their branding and logos, combining them physically or graphically to a point where they lose their individual forms and become altogether new. Klingberg has used paper and plastic bags from supermarkets, cheap rice-paper lamps, surveillance mirrors like the ones used in convenience stores, neon lights, plastic flowers, fans, and in general any product that is readily available in a consumer economy. She often combines logos in geometric patterns so that they become pure form; distinct brands are only recognizable upon close inspection, their communicative role neutralized. Klingberg’s art is a poignant take on the pervasiveness of corporate persuasion in our daily lives, while at the same time it turns consumer products into beautiful, seductive environments that immerse the viewer.

This interview was done via email.

J. Roca.

Seven Eleven Twist, 1997. Paint on wall, surveillance mirrors.

Jose Roca: In your works you have taken different ready-made forms, patterns, and simple commercial objects, and through repetition you have done all-inclusive sensory environments. Print in its various forms appears to have been instrumental in your work as an iconographic source and also as a medium. Is this a correct appreciation? If so, can you elaborate why and how?

GK: Before studying art I was a graphic designer. The logos I use for my patterns are all taken from cut-price supermarkets or gas-stations around the corner and are not glamorous- they represent brands we do not identify with, brands that are instead a part of our everyday doings and rituals. The logos, as well as the shops, are big chains that look more or less the same all over in the Western world, and often even have the same owners. Printing as reproduction is then a natural choice since both content and technique/medium have the same socioeconomic reference.

Brand New View, 2003. Laser-cut adhesive vinyl.

JR: In your installations, one is drawn in and seduced by the visual beauty of the ensemble, but on close inspection one discovers a more troubling matter in the form of logos of corporations and companies. Is this intended to provide a reflection on consumerism or globalization, or are you interested more in the loss of the communicative power of these images once they are subsumed within a larger composition?

GK: Both, I would say. I experience a lack of essential symbols in my own culture. In some cultures ancient symbols and images still play a vital role and I am interested in images used for spiritual guidance, like the Buddhist/Hindu mandala, a cosmological diagram used in meditation. My forms and patterns consist of the Western street iconography, and become images of how our daily rhythm of commonplace doings blends with the advertising and enters deep down into our lives, homes and minds. They are a link between our public and private spheres, maybe even to the collective unconscious. I work with the distant and the close details: the patterns fluctuate between the abstract and the recognizable, and the images almost dissolve. One could get lost in the patterns.

Cheap High, 2000-2003 (with Peter Geschwind). Plastic bags, tape, electric fans.

JR: Your work is an ironic commentary on the role of advertising (faith-enhancing, form-based strategies), underlining the pervasiveness of branding while breaking down the communicative clarity of the individual logo?

GK: In a way yes, but I think that pictorial language and color works in an archetypal way as well, where the actual message could be secondary. Many brands have a seductive and even psychedelic potential that I use to generate a clash.

JR: Coming back to the mandala forms, I know that you visited India and were struck by how many Westerners are traveling there seeking a form of spirituality, while at the same time Western companies are furiously peddling their brands to enhance consumption in one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. How did your trip to India affect your artistic output or your view of the world?

GK: It seemed evident that India is a place where spirituality and commercialism, rich and poor, old and new come together and merge in an almost brutal way. These travels were a starting point for the works I am doing now where the function of contradictions is often essential.

Cosmic Matter, 2007. Printed packing-tape, polished metal. Installation view at the 10th Istanbul Biennial.

What ideas do you have for Philagrafika 2010?

GK: I am planning to collect material on-site. In some way, the work will reflect part of the city environment.

Interview: Eric Avery

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Doctor, 1974. Black and white photograph.

Some of us who work with art, when confronted with a difficult situation, force ourselves to realize that, despite the magnitude of the problem, there are more crucial things in the larger scheme of life. Art is important, but it does not save lives.

Well, sometimes it does: Eric Avery's is one of those rare cases in which an art practice is intimately linked with a life-defining situation. While often artists have another profession, it is rather unusal to have a practicing doctor that works with equal passion on art-making. In Eric Avery’s work, two professions that appear to be radically different come together naturally within the same practice. Trained as a doctor in a rather difficult time in American history, Avery started early to use his artistic output as a way to raise awareness towards pressing health issues. Ignorance can equal death, as one of the eary mottos by Act Up warned. Or, as he put it in a print done about a refugee camp in Somalia, “Food is medicine.” Some of his prints have a distinct political purpose. As we all know, the official treatment of disease is informed by political agendas that vary in relation to the social group that is endangered. Since the late seventies, Avery has been an active printmaker. In the last few decades he has done performances in art settings in which he tests visitors for HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, and other diseases. His prints hark back to the history of printmaking as a way to spread a message and to reach a larger audience in public space. His long career can be looked up on his aptly titled blog, DocArt.com.

This interview was done via email.

J. Roca.

Amnesty International Poster, Laredo, Texas. Xerox, 16" x 11"

Jose Roca: You studied Medicine and are a practicing doctor. How did you become interested in art? When did you start making artworks and participating in exhibitions?

Eric Avery: I was cutting linoleum blocks in Pecos, Texas when I was 13, printing note cards that were sold in a yarn shop on Highway 80. I'm still cutting linoleum 47 years later. Printmaking has been a curse. I majored in art at the University of Arizona. I had a terrific printmaking teacher/mentor Andrew Rush. This was the Vietnam War time. My draft number was 7, so I would have gone to the war if I hadn't figured out how to continue my education. Andy said I always talked about being a doctor. He suggested I give it a try. I didn't think it was possible because I was an artist. Andy said I would always make prints and suggested I go have an interesting life and that my prints would fall like dandruff on my trail.

I took some science classes. I loved Biology and didn't have to take Calculus. I did good enough to get into medical school at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. This was during the early days in the development of Medical Humanities in the United States. I made prints all through my medical school years in Texas and then in New York City during my psychiatry residency training. In 1972, I silkscreened all 700 of my medical school's yearbook covers. My first exhibition was after medical school in 1974.

Las Dure Refugee Camp Certificate, 1980. Woodcut, 12" x 16" edition: unique.

My first real woodcuts were made in Somalia, in a big refugee death camp in 1979 and 1980. If I didn't make prints in that place, I think I would have cracked. When I returned to Texas, I left the practice of medicine. I worked through all the death with my printmaking and had an important exhibit, "Images of Life and Death," in 1982. During this time, I added papermaking so I could print from three-dimensional wooden templates.

I've been making prints and paper and exhibiting regularly since 1982. In 1992, I returned to practicing medicine and became a psychiatrist specializing in caring for people with HIV/AIDS. I would have cracked during the really bad AIDS times if I didn't make prints. Cutting wood and linoleum, hand-rubbed printing, beating paper pulp from my work shirts, pressing paper with my hydraulic press- all of these physical acts move trauma from the brain out through the body. Printmaking is good medicine if you've got a lot of distress and emotional pain. The prints can be hard to look at and live with. They are almost impossible to sell. I've made a lot of prints related to HIV/AIDS. A bunch of my medical-related prints are in the ARS MEDICA Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They are a part of the print history of the AIDS pandemic.

Healing Before Art: Public HIV Testing Action

Installation at Mary Ryan Gallery, New York City, 1994

A clinical art space to be used for the public HIV testing of art world representatives (artists, art dealers, collectors, curators).

Here, artist Sue Coe’s blood is drawn by Phil Muskin, M.D.

JR: Your work is often performance-based, doing medical tests in the context of an art gallery. Is the main intention of the work primarily to raise awareness of pressing health issues?

EA: I've used a lot of the print forms but I was always working to get the prints off the walls and connected to the life I was witnessing and living. After working in Somalia, I quit practicing medicine and didn't see patients for eleven years. I lived on the Texas-Mexico border and worked to help Central American and Haitian refugees fleeing for their lives. Their human rights were being abused by U.S. immigration policy. I made some really good prints about the war in Central America and about how I felt about my country.

Sixteen years ago, when my friends began to die in Houston from AIDS, my life turned back to the practice of medicine at my old medical school, The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. I've worked as a psychiatrist in the HIV Clinic and on the medical wards since then and my prints, print actions and installations have been about health matters.

At UTMB, the Institute for Medical Humanities had developed into a multidisciplinary humanities program. I'm the visual artist on the faculty. One day of my week has been protected for me to work on the connection between visual art and medicine- to reflect upon what I do in my clinical practice.

JR: A practice that involves art and medicine would seem a sleight of hand, but it seems to have come naturally to you.

EA: It might be so now, but it wasn't thirty years ago. I've always thought that the relationship had something to do with space. I used photography to look at the literal spaces of healing. As my artistic and medical practices grew, I was able to ask art museums wanting to exhibit my work if I could create healing spaces in their museums. I flipped functions. Printmakers are always working with reversals. Several anthropologist friends helped me understand liminality and the neither/nor.

Allen Kaprow's blurring of the relationship between art and life was an inspiration. Warhol did it. It's an old story. I just blurred the line between visual art and medicine. I used my prints in clinical art spaces where medicine was practiced in the aesthetic dimension. Doctors practicing medicine in an art museum- it's a subversive practice in liminal space. Each art/medicine action has had an educational and instrumental purpose. A number have been done on World AIDS Day. They also raise conceptual questions about the relationship between visual art and medicine. I'm really proud of the questions my art/medicine actions have raised about the function of art museum and gallery spaces. Wouldn't it be fantastic if you went to an art museum for health care? I have only a small audience, but the print form, historically connected to social content and information dissemination, works for what I've tried to do with art/medicine.

JR: Speaking of dissemination, we are on the verge of the first pandemic in the new millenium. What are your ideas for Philagrafika 2010?

EA: Your blog posting of the Poli/gráfica de San Juan was an inspiration. Miler Lagos’ woodcuts on tree stumps led me to propose text woodcuts on The Print Center toilet seats (that would imprint bottoms) perhaps something related to HIV risk reduction. Jose Carlos Martinot’s printers in palm trees- why not health-related information on toilet paper, or printed wallpaper in front of the urinals?

I'm also excited about my proposal of prints depicting wounded Adam and Eve on the wall of The Print Center. These 3'x6' linocuts of Adam and Eve (via Durer, Cranach's first couple) will have them being attacked by vectors and modes of transmission of Emerging Infectious Diseases. The snake will be coughing Avian Flu. Title of my piece might be: "So Who Needs The Snake In Our Garden Of Eden." From these key index images I'll have other printed and photographic images that relate to the various infectious diseases.

And I am trying to conceptualize a small booklet or pamphlet that will work with the prints. When I last wrote to you I remember writing that we were just one mutation away from a pandemic. Recently the World Health Organization officially moved H1N1 to Level 6 pandemic status. By next winter's flu season, we are afraid that H1N1 will return in a more virulent form. The worst fear of Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, is that H1N1 will mix with H5N1 (avian flu, but anything can happen with the influenza virus).

I'm trying to connect my prints to Philadelphia and infectious disease. In 1792, the Yellow Fever was so bad in Philadelphia that the United States Capital moved to Washington D.C. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson fled the city.
One of the first water treatment plants was built in Philadelphia in 1811 on the Schuykill River. I've got a great photo of this federal building with the Philadelphia Museum looming in the background. I don't know if the water treatment plant still exists. There is an inverse relation between amount of water flowing through a house and infectious diseases.

Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2000. 2-color lithograph with linoleum block print on mulberry paper collaged into molded paper (made from used surgical green towels) woodcut frame. 44" x 31" edition: 10.

Philagrafika 2010 will be happening during flu season. There should be a vaccine by then. But I want my piece for The Print Center to do something to educate about flu protection- something as simple as cover up each cough and sneeze or you will spread disease, or about the importance of hand washing. I was amazed in my HIV Clinic that my undereducated patients don't know what a virus (HIV) is, so I made a printed book to educate them. I might make a book about the influenza virus.

JR: It could be said that you are countering the dissemination of a contagious disease with the dissemination of information.

EA: You write so eloquently about printmaking as form. I think my work has something to do with what Philagrafika is about. As a psychodynamic psychiatrist, there is a natural connection between the unconscious and disease. Getting better involves connecting what's under to what's out. With prints, I'm thinking about Goya's Disasters as access to the worst in humans and his prints' dispersal and dissemination as connected to healing. A social worker gave me a line I use with my patients, "Getting real is the only way to heal." Emerging infections are a real problem. Avian flu is killing children in Egypt today. We are a mutation away from a global pandemic. As a printmaker I know a lot about the graphic and as a psychiatrist, I know a fair amount about the unconscious. Art as medicine: Why not?

Johnny Garrett is Dead. 1992. Woodcut on machine-made Okawara paper. 36" x 48" Edition: 10

Johnny Frank Garrett was just seventeen years old when he committed the brutal murder that sent him to death row. He was chronically psychotic then, a victim himself of unspeakable brutality throughout his childhood and formative years. Treated like an animal for most of his young life, he responded by behaving in the only way he had ever known- violently. Society should not be surprised; the priorities are all too clear. There is little money available to help abused children but plenty available to punish or kill them when they, in turn, offend by doing violence to others.

Now, the poor, damaged, confused life of Johnny Garrett was drawing to its end. What was he thinking, with just ten minutes’ existence left? What goes through a person’s mind at a time such as this?

We were some twenty Amnesty International members and other opponents of the death penalty gathered together. I like to think we were a dignified group with our simple handwritten signs, making our witness and our protest. Rain-filled clouds scudded by overhead and we huddled together for warmth, our candles flickering points of light in the gloomy night.

A few minutes before midnight, “they” arrived. A rowdy crowd of about 80 college students, mainly white youths in baseball caps. They had come to celebrate the death, to gloat over Johnny’s fate, and to taunt us. They taunted us because we cared, because we care about a man’s broken life and a bigger principle: that governments have no right to use the power we bestow on them to kill us.

“Kill the freak.” “Fry him.” “Remember the nun.” Their ignorance was extensive. Texas kills by lethal injection, not electrocution. They did not know Johnny’s history. And they did not know that the murdered nun’s convent community (together with the Pope and all Texas’ bishops) have appealed vociferously for clemency. They wanted their beloved Sister Tadea Benz to be remembered not with another murder, but with forgiveness and mercy. Their pleas for compassion went unheeded.

We stood in thoughtful silence under a stop sign. The mob roared its approval of Johnny’s murder under a dead tree. They counted down to midnight and the moment of execution. Voyeurs in the night, cheering as the hour struck.

Revenge is ugly. At least one death penalty supporter was so appalled at finding himself part of the grotesque display that he crossed the road and silently joined us. AI recruited new members that night.

Cameras flashed and snapped as the media came and went among us, seeking the usual superficial stories, bereft of depth or insight. I was asked what I thought of the circus under the dead tree. I said it epitomized so much that’s wrong with the death penalty. Executions encourage our most primitive instincts; they set a brutal and dangerous example to society. In short, they bring out the worst in people. The world is sick enough already, I told the reporter. Shouldn’t we be striving for a better way?

From "Witness to an Execution: Thoughts on the Killing of Johnny Garrett", by Mandy Bath ( A.I. International Secretariat, London, 1992.)

Monday, June 08, 2009

Interview: Carl Pope

A Celebration of Blackness, 2006. Letterpress poster.

Carl Pope, an American artist working out of Cleveland, understands the power of art as a tool for social change- his whole body of work deals with social issues, including but not limited to race and class. Because posters allow immediate access to the public sphere and enable conversation with a broader audience, he often chooses this medium for his work. Pope uses letterpress posters as both single images and large, visually striking installations. His interest in addressing the community has also led him to use billboards in public space: A Celebration Of Blackness, commissioned by the Mobile Art Museum in Mobile, Alabama, is one such project. Pope began by asking local individuals, “What do you think when you think about blackness?” Ten of the more than 300 answers ended up as single posters; five were selected for a city-wide billboard campaign.

Billboard for the Mobile Art Museum, 2006.

Poster for the Black Is Black Ain't exhibition, 2008. Letterpress poster, 24 x 18 inches.

Pope has also done more intimate work, like performances where he marks his own body. Last year, Pope produced the poster for the “Black is Black Ain’t” exhibition at the Renaissance Society in Chicago which, in the tradition of his previous work, deals with charged subject matter by downplaying it with a bit of sarcastic humor. Nicholas Mirzoeff has stated that Carl Pope is “doing the hard work of imagining a future for the United States at one of the bleakest times in its history. His work is at once a form of geography, reimagining and imaging the forgotten histories, people, and places in America and a new psychology, creating a state of mind capable of sustaining the shocks of the present. It's soul food for the mind, in sharp contrast to the quick hit of consumer pleasure that dominates the art market, and it's all the more important for that.”

This interview was done via email.

J. Roca.

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses, 2005 (ongoing). Letterpress poster installation, dimensions variable.

Jose Roca: In works like Palimpsest and The Bad Air Smelled of Roses you use diverse forms of imprinting to address very personal issues. Can you describe those works for me?

Carl Pope: What do you mean by imprinting?

JR: I use imprinting instead of print to refer to a mark (potentially repeatable) that is made by a matrix on a support. In the case of Palimpsest, the imprinted surface was the body, whereas in The Bad Air a commercial form of printmaking (letterpress posters) is used to address personal questions. I just wanted to know more about the impetus behind two works, which, although apparently very different, I find profoundly related.

CP: Oh ok…

My attraction to text began as a child artist in photography. As a child growing up in the 1960’s, television, advertising and news media had an unparalleled effect on me in those formative years. As a result, text has been the only formal aspect present in the entire body of my work. Working as a commercial photographer for many years added to my understanding as to how to incorporate text with imagery or to form imagery with text. I realized after doing a number of projects that I am basically a storyteller, and that realization led me to consider many of my artworks as writing projects. Other things occurred in my practice in the late 1990’s; I split my practice into public art projects and private projects as I began to become more interested in text and narrative structure.

Palimpsest (1999) was my first private writing project where I used my body as a surface of writing and a contested space in terms of black history and identity. I wrote on the surface of my body using branding, surgical cutting and tattooing. I was and continue to be interested in why people in the West chose to construct and/or reconstruct their identities through body modification/writing. I felt it strange that black artists exploring identity in the 1990’s did very little work that used the body and I wanted to open the conversation up by returning to the body. Well, that piece came at a conservative, post-black moment where “identity” was dead and [for] black artists, using the body was “out-of date” and forbidden.

The Bad Air Smelled of Roses (2005 until now) is my second private writing project where the text provides the image. I was introduced to letterpress printing by Amos Kennedy and spent a year in York, Alabama making posters for this installation. Each poster is an answer to the question, “What do I think of when I think of Blackness?” The answers I printed referenced a variety of sources from Freud, Lacan, Ellison, Reed, etc. I wanted to make a “forest of signs” that articulated the concepts of Blackness much like stars articulate the blackness of outer space. The Bad Air has a narrative structure created from answers to a question [accompanied by] footnotes.

A Celebration Of Blackness, 2006. Series of 10 letterpress posters, 24 x 18 inches each.

JR: You are planning to do a project for Philagrafika that could be described as a branding strategy for cottage industries. Can you expand on this?

CP: I have titled it “The Philadelphia Cottage Industry Association Ad Campaign Project” (PCIA). President Obama’s administration has plenty of plans: The Economic Stimulus Plan, The Energy Plan, The Medicare Plan, The Environmental Plan, and the list goes on. There is an expanding network of interconnecting plans centered on a basic plan for economic recovery. While Americans are waiting for these plans to succeed, what can be done to inspire grass-roots economic vitality right now? What can be done to create and promote products and services in order to keep money circulating within neighborhoods and small communities? A revival of cottage industries may provide some solutions to the mounting challenges many are facing in this economic crisis.

A cottage industry is a small business where the creation of
products and services is home-based, rather than factory-based. Many people operate cottage industries in addition to full time jobs or depend on it as their main source of income because of the current recession. Home-based businesses can create stability in their neighborhoods since their income is usually derived from the communities in which they reside. Communal bonds are strengthened and trust is established through successful and affirming business transitions between members within a community. As a result, the circulation of money and resources will revitalize and support those living in the neighborhood.

The Philadelphia Cottage Industry Association Ad Campaign Project will consist of a series of billboards of various cottage industries in two areas of Philadelphia. An outdoor installation of them will be displayed in each side of town to promote home-based businesses in that area. An indoor [installation] will be exhibited at the Tyler School of Art.

The goal of the PCIA Ad Campaign is to heighten the public visibility of the city’s cottage industries, to generate new customers, and to create a trend to support home-based businesses as a way to strengthen the economic and communal vitality of a neighborhood, town, or a city.

JR: This dovetails beautifully with the ideas put forward by the founder of Temple University, Dr. Russell Conwell, who in his famous speech “Acres of Diamonds” said that you need not have to look for opportunities or resources far or abroad, but rather realize that they can be found in your own community. His famous motto was "dig in your own back-yard!" Were you aware that the original intent of Temple University was to educate primarily the working class, and was located in the North Philly district as a philanthropic strategy to revitalize that part of the city?

CP: I understand that Temple University is a socially engaged institution and Philly has a long history of commitment to humanitarian causes, but I didn't know about Dr. Russell Conwell specifically.

The dedication of individuals like Dr. Conwell can influence a community for generations. In one of his last lectures, the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida announced that 9/11 marked the beginning of the Age of the Individual. Our ability to affect the world has increased, as evidenced by the horror of the destruction of the World Trade Center. If we are living in the "Age of the Individual" where small groups or an individual can wage war with an empire, then a small group or an individual can usher in tremendous healing and transformation, right? One of the goals in my recent work is to inspire and challenge those individuals whose destiny is to be an effective catalyst at this time in history like Dr. Conwell was in his...

To "dig in one's own backyard" has become a necessity for Americans since the economic collapse has signaled the decline of the American Empire. The corporate consumer mindset made Americans believe that we want the same things in the same way, no matter where we live. Digging in our backyard will cause us to discover our uniqueness. It leads us to experiences of authenticity and to our true selves instead of being unidentified cogs in an imperial/corporate machine. The current economic collapse is influencing people to create new relationships and alliances in their local community that are rebuilding [the community's] institutions. America has experienced the freedom and independence that money can bring, but our humanity suffered because it caused us to conduct our relationships with people and the cosmos with a market-driven, consumer/manufacturer consciousness. This creates misfortune because human relationships and communities are built through an active gift economy and not through viewing people as consumer items. It's no wonder why divorce is so high in Western countries. Therefore, this new trend of "digging in one's backyard” fills me up with gladness and despair. On one hand, I've seen communities improve and people recognizing the need to work together while breaking through historical boundaries of separation. On the other hand, the predatory elements in big business and government have turned their eye from world domination to a surreal post-post-post-colonial/disaster capitalist vision of bankrupting the national treasury. If Dr. Conwell was here to today, I am sure he would be surprised at the web well of meaning and complexity his famous slogan has accrued by those who are for and against his vision of social justice and balance.