Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Interview: Jenny Schmid

Curse of the Older Man, from the series The Downfall of Young Girls. Lithograph, 22 x 30"

Jenny Schmid is an artist and master printmaker working out of Minneapolis, where she is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and runs Bikini Press International, “the tripped-out print studio of her dreams.” It is from this studio where she produces her prints and plots her performances. Her work is informed by many diverse sources such as comics, rock music, feminist theory, illustration, Japanese woodcuts, medieval engravings and the art of Pieter Bruegel. Schmid deftly mixes these sources with her own signature aesthetics, comprised of a deceptive and improbable mix of cute and dangerous, rosy and troubled. In her intricate tableaux, big-headed characters that barely fit the scenic space of the paper have existential dilemmas while multiple stories unfold in relation to them. Schmid’s works are often informed by gender issues and address social concerns with a joyous, ironic detachment, ripe with humor and satire. In recent years she has started ongoing collaborations with other artists and musicians, animating her drawings in live performances conducted in public spaces.
This interview was done via email.

J. Roca.

The guys at Cannonball Press have stated that you were saved from an oppressive suburbia at 16 by printmaking. Jokes aside, can you expand on the central role of printmaking in your work and the possibilities it enabled in terms of accessibility and dissemination?

Printmaking is a place where I can use both my logical abilities and creative mind. The medium offers a lifetime challenge and as my skills evolve, the technical and aesthetic problems that I set up for myself demand more and more patience and focus. I get addicted to the feeling of total concentration as if it were a drug. I am attracted to how it demands an ability to work through complicated processes, but that you also have to pay close attention and be able to respond to what is happening in the moment, not just follow a rote set of instructions.

That said, I don't like the idea that the medium is the first thing I think of- I just honestly think that for my work, the medium offers me the best expression of my ideas in its ability to reference history, be direct and graphic and have an affinity with contemporary comics. I love the graphic image and have since I was very young. I also dig the tradition of satire in the history of printmaking, of inserting a sneaky jab into what seems like on the surface to be something simply funny.

Floating World, from the series The Downfall of Young Girls. Lithograph and ink-jet chine collé, 22 x 30"

By working in multiples (and sometimes making t-shirts, buttons, etc.) I create work that is more affordable and gets out into the world. I am flattered to be part of the community that Cannonball Press has created where young people can afford some of my work because, after all, they are my main inspiration and subject matter. Teens tend to really respond to my work too, and have asked me some of the best questions! Less obvious might be the possibilities embodied in my current explorations into vector drawings that can easily scale and translate into handmade prints, live projections and animations. I see a lot of democratic potential in this translation and my work in Philagrafika will reflect this new research.

The Charmer, from the series The Sleazy People. Lithograph, 11 x 15"

The live projections you do in collaboration with Ali Momeni and the flash animations you do with Patrick Holbrook are both very complex, each using different media like drawing, computer software, and music. Some of these drawings have, in turn, been blown up and made into linocuts. You seem to oscillate between traditional methods and cutting-edge technology, with various media mutually informing each other. Your large print at The Soap Factory can be read as a storyboard for a complex series of histories. Have you considered developing more narrative short films based on this or other prints?

At this point, I am feeling a little restrained by linear narrative and wanting to find more associative, subconscious links between events and characters to give the work more magnitude. That is why I recently turned to the panorama format for The Wild People and Fountain of Youth and the third in the series of digital and lithography prints, Animalandia. I wanted the panorama to be read in a narrative way AND simultaneously and I liked how the large format inspired both a linear and whole picture viewing of the pieces. But I did see the use of digital and drawn as related to and potentially becoming animations.

Fountain of Youth (2008). Lithograph and archival inkjet, 26 x 90"

The first animation I did with Patrick Holbrook, Minneapolis has a strong narrative and meaning- the corruption of the iconic teenage girl. I wanted to give a very direct, if absurd, explanation as to why my girls' heads are so big. Patrick did all of the animating in that project, as I was unfamiliar with Flash at that time, and Dave Schroeder did the sounds and music. I was using the tablet pen to draw into PhotoShop and learning the trickery of this indirect drawing tool, where you are looking at the screen and drawing on a tablet. This was my first collaboration and it pointed me in some fresh directions. Patrick is a unique person in that he has an interest in technology but such a funny and inventive approach to narrative, where it all has complex meaning but it would never be something you could figure out on the surface. We have these great brainstorming sessions where we make lists of themes rather than making a storyboard. Patrick just says stuff like "interspecies communication" and we laugh hysterically but then it works its way into the project in ways that are surprising.

Video stills from Utopia: In Progress. digital animation.

For the second project, Utopia: In Progress (2007) we tried to free up the narrative and I think, in some ways, it is successfully confusing. For this project, I started drawing directly into Flash and was able to have some involvement in the technology. Patrick is also such a good teacher and I was also working with a graduate student printmaker, Nicholas Conbere, to figure out how Flash would work for us and consider the relationship of printmaking with animation.

I love learning new techniques and animation seemed like such a natural direction for my cartoon-influenced work. I also like thinking how the image can travel and be manifested through different media- sometimes scanning, resizing, copying, hand-tracing, photo-exposing, hand-printing, etc. to move through the full range of technologies from every era. The computer and ink-jet printer and I have grown up and developed together and the people from my generation using digital technology for creative purposes come from an era where we had to teach ourselves or each other. I like to call myself an outsider animator, as my process is ridiculously slow and probably more invested in drawing than animating. The tablet pen has allowed me to free up my drawing style a bit, as editing is so much easier than when dealing with pencil and eraser. I even format my etching compositions by resizing and positioning scanned drawings in the computer and printing them out and then transferring them to the plate with soft ground- kind of a sacrilegious marriage that is a mixture of New World efficiency and Old World labor.

The Eyes and Ears and The Truth Itself: No People Allowed

My live animation performances with Ali Momeni and Minneapolis Art on Wheels have been exciting and challenging. Its invigorating to experiment with someone who is on the forefront of creative technology but who still appreciates drawing and manual animations. Projecting outside to a sometimes unsuspecting audience and working live with a loose narrative as in Battle Scene puts a spin on the sense of control I often have in printmaking. I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity and I hope to continue to work with Ali and MAW.

Jenny Schmid and Ali Momeni performing The Eyes and Ears and The Truth Itself: No People Allowed

The Pathetic end of Machismo. Lithograph, 15 x 20"

Young women are often portrayed in your work. Does your work embody a sort of tongue-in-cheek feminist aesthetic?

I have a background and interest in politics and do a lot of research on feminism as gender liberation. I feel strongly that individuals should be able to define themselves and not be oppressed by gender expectations and that is how I define feminism. I have no idea why some people think feminism is some kind of dirty word- feminists invented free love, which is essentially the idea that you get to love who you want and be with who you love. Feminists invented sex for fun by advocating for birth control. And I love working with young people and seeing how they creatively resist mainstream gender expectations.

Teen Boy Cataclysm, from the series The Teens. Lithograph, 13 x 19"

In my more recent work, I have actually been portraying a lot of boys and they are often lounging around, reading or otherwise functioning as the object of the female gaze. I like flipping traditional roles and also have been portraying girls as skateboarders, drummers, or pirates. I love people who are willing to be themselves and fly their freak flag no matter what, and I am on the lookout for them in my daily life. I also enjoy how humorous images can coax a viewer into the work and maybe into a discussion that they would otherwise shy away from. My most popular print to date has been The Pathetic End of Machismo which employs a style not unlike a turn of the century political cartoon aesthetic to address a future moment of triumph!

Rock Dove; Buffalo Girl's Revenge. Lithograph, 15 x 20"

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Letter from Queens

Last Thursday the Philagrafika crew boarded a rented vessel and set sail towards the Corona Park in Queens, where Duke Riley’s
Those About to Die Salute You, was going to take place. Riley’s performance extravaganza was fashioned after a Naumachia or Roman live naval battle, which in this case was set as a battle between education staff from museums of the five boroughs of New York who built the ships and manned (womanned) them.

The setting was quite impressive; the grounds of the 1964 World fair and its modernist ruins were more than appropriate for Duke Riley’s festive anachronism. Duke flooded one of the reflecting pools, which had remained dry since the fair happened more than four decades ago, and built inside it a theatrical set that reminded of a Roman Colysseum, which was used as a backdrop for the action. The Unisphere, a hollow steel world globe that could be seen in the background added to a sense of fabricated grandeur.

Rebecca, Caitlin and fellow conspirator Annabelle show off their Roman sandals over the etched granite floor right by the

Toga attire was strictly enforced, and we obliged, sandals and all. When we arrived people were already revved up. Copious free beer and a live band were not unimportant in setting just the right mood. On the sides of the pool and on the bleachers there were boxes with a seal that said “By Royal Decree of the Emperor Do Not Break This Seal Until Instructed by Judas Priest”. They contained ripe tomatoes that, it seems, an intern had spent the whole afternoon microwaving so as to achieve the perfect consistency for throwing at the boats and their crews. But people were impatient, and when the first tomato was hurled there was no holding back and mayhem ensued.

Cases of ammunition...

The Queens crew enters the battleground.

The Queens boat sailed into the scene and was bombarded from all sides; it was a miracle that the boat did not capsize at that intense moment of collective release. Somehow it survived (and went on to ultimately winning the battle!). The other boats soon came in, one by one, engaging in all-against-all chaotic warfare. Crews tore at each other and tried boarding maneuvers, but the public seemed not to take sides and just attacked whoever was closer to them. Many viewers tried out in the flesh what art theoricists (which have probably never eaten an artist-prepared Thai meal) term Relational Esthetics, and waded frantically in the knee-deep pool, taking active part in the battle. Rock music blasted from speakers on one corner of the pool and a live narrator tried without much success to make sense of what was having place, let alone be heard. The last ship to enter the battle was a “Trojan Pig” created by the Museo del Barrio, which sported a water hose that was used as a cannon against the other boats and the public. It seems that -in a reversal of the metaphor- a rival crew entered through the pig’s nose and attacked them from within, because the pig quickly withdrew and hid behind the protection of the backdrop.

Duke Riley is no stranger to naval warfare. In one of his best known projects, After The Battle of Brooklyn (2007), he built a fiberglass and wood mini-submarine which ventured too close to the USS Queen Mary II and was detained by the NYC Coast Guard, who confiscated it.

Libertas Aut Mori (2007). Composite tiles and cast acrylic on wood panel with custom steel frame, 96 x 96"

Duke Riley navigating the Acorn in the Hudson river

After venturing too close to The Queen Mary II, Duke gets busted!

His way to get back to them in retrospect was to build a scale model of the QMII, which was set on fire at the end of the Queens battle. The blazing ship in the middle of the debris-strewn pool was quite a sight, both beautiful and menacing. It turns out it was loaded with fireworks, which started exploding as an appropriate climactic ending moment. But the ship was already capsizing, so the Roman candles were shooting their loads haphazardly in every direction. The crowd ducked as the colored lights blazed right above their heads. Luckily nobody was hurt despite the ardor of the fighting, the tomato-pelting and the fireworks. Everyone wondered how Duke Riley had gotten away with such a complex project, since in America everything happens or does not happen because of liability issues and the fear of getting sued. As critic Jerry Saltz put it, the Queens Museum “either got every type of permit in the book or violated every city code imaginable.” I recently asked Duke, who has said that his work is about “the space where water meets the land, traditionally marking the periphery of urban society, what lies beyond rigid moral constructs, a sense of danger and possibility” how would he further characterize his practice, to which he answered: “Um…, breaking the law?” His demeanor and work prove that his interest in pirates is more than skin-deep, and that this freedom is a result of a genuine way to embrace life, not a pose. The project he is preparing for Philagrafika is no less complex and thorny than the Naumachia and also ridden with pirates, islands, plots and subterfuges, but we do not want to give it away so you will have to stay tuned to the Philagrafika blog and website to find more about it.

The Philagrafika crew.

P.s. check the videos for some live action!!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Interview: Barthélémy Toguo

From the series
The New World Climax, 2000. Woodcut.

To say that Barthélemy Toguo is a multi-media artist might be an understatement, since Toguo not only works in painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, performance and installations, but he often mixes them in a single work in which the viewer is immersed.

Born and raised in Cameroon, Toguo moved to Europe to study and ended up living for extended periods in Germany and France, where he ultimately settled. He has exhibited extensively, including the Guangzhou Triennial, China (2008), the Tessaloniki Biennale, Greece (2007), the Seville Biennial (BIACS), Spain (2006), the Busan Biennial, Korea (2002) and the Dakar Biennial, Senegal (1998), among many others. He was also part of the celebrated traveling exhibition Africa Remix.

Toguo has always been socially and politically engaged; he was the only artist that declined participation in the 2007 African pavilion in Venice, on the grounds of the questionable sources of the money behind the Sindika Dokolo Collection: "What guides me is a constantly evolving aesthetic but also a sense of ethics, which makes a difference, and structures my entire approach." In the last years Toguo has been working on a residency project in his native Bandjoun, scheduled to open by the end of 2009.

This interview was done via email.

J. Roca.

The New World Climax, 2000. Installation with wooden seals, table, prints.

José Roca: For your installation The New World Climax you made oversized wooden seals that resembled the ones stamped on your passport. Can you talk more about this project?

Barthélémy Toguo: Sometime by the end of the nineties I realized that my passport was completely covered with multiple stamps on every single page, which could be read like an engraved novel-illustrating the difficulties that I encountered in order to obtain a visa, or to cross borders between countries. At that time there was in Europe the beginning of the fear of the stranger, the immigrant, which led to the closure of frontiers and the promulgation of new immigration laws; in short, an obsession with the impending danger of “invaders”. In order to illustrate the difficulties I experienced in embassies, airports and border posts, I decided to create The New World Climax (2000), for which I turned the stamps that I had in my passport into gigantic “rubber seals” in heavy, massive wood. I chose sculpture as a medium because I found it appropriate for a first approach to these issues, since the weight, mass, volume and matter illustrated the heavy burden of this obsession.

Toguo performing The New World Climax, 2001.

With the first public presentation of this sculptural work at the House of the Cultures of the World in Berlin in 2001, I included a performance in which I paid homage to immigrant workers, those who build entire nations with their physical work. Clad in typical worker’s clothes, with a tape that played the music of “Bach of Africa, Lambarena” on my back, I lifted those heavy stamps from the floor with difficulty and then placed them on a large table, causing an enormous noise. Then I made impressions with the stamps directly on paper, a stamp on a passport. This work does not result from a scripted narrative, but rather evolves randomly, like the images of an ever-expanding card game. The issues at play are interpreted as sculptural forms (the stamps), which are then used as a parody of the administrative gesture in order to render a trace, giving the status of the unique object to the resulting documents. The New World Climax is encompasses these three artistic disciplines, sculpture, performance and printmaking.

From the series The New World Climax, 2000. Woodcut.

JR: Some of these prints look like fingerprints, which is striking because in recent years beyond the stamps, you are required to leave an imprint of all your fingers when entering many countries like the U.S. Was this a coincidence?

BT: As an immigrant, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I have realized how deep is the desire to leave, to travel, and discover. Exile is a notion inherent to the human condition regardless of race and cultural provenance, and even more so in the last century since technology has made it easier. Men and women are always potential exiles, driven by the urge to travel, which makes them “displaced beings”. We go from one place to another by different means, carrying our culture and encountering the other. Of course, this encounter can be beautiful or difficult. Travels are enchained by the brakeless rhythm of our society. We are constantly in movement. So, more than ever, this notion of traveling, of being in transit is current, under different forms as society evolves. By the same token, travel is increasingly difficult as administrations everywhere put in place new measures and laws to halt migratory flux; getting a visa and going through a border have gotten increasingly difficult. Having experienced myself these difficulties since I travel so much, I saw early on that the worst was about to come in relation to individual rights, put into question by biometric passports. I could see that powerful countries were putting together a new type of passport, which other countries would be expected to follow. Every human being would have to leave their fingerprints, a photo of the iris of their eyes, or an imprint of the shape of their face… even a blood sample in order to have their ADN information. You see how to travel becomes another story… In short, it was not a coincidence, I could see it coming, you could see it in the nervousness and arrogance of administrative staff everywhere, with their lack of sympathy and courtesy. The last straw was September 11,
 2001, which would topple conventional logic and create new codes of “illogical logics”.

View of Heart Beat, 2008. Baltic Art Centre for contemporary Art, Newcastle, UK

JR: Your work Heart Beat consists of a wall of newspapers whose text has been blocked with black ink, leaving only the images to provide the narratives. Were you interested in providing a more intuitive, less narrative approach to the way information is presented?

BT: After I finished my project
Conversation with Frau Schenkenberg (1995) done with the aid of a Berlin journal, I understood the place of the image and its importance within a newspaper. But for more than a decade I have seen to what extent information is manipulated in the media, which of course has been happening at least since World War II and the Cold War. For me information is essential: I am always online and listen to the radio all day in my studio, I love newspaper headlines, and like to compare them in regards to the political slant of the media. It is for me a vital urge; I need to be aware of what is happening worldwide.

Heart Beat, 2008. Views of the walls.

This overdose of information, scoops, and scandals, both intoxicates and inspires me. You have to have some critical distance vis-à-vis information, precisely to be able to tell intoxication from information. But “intox” is also a formidable source of inspiration! In 2008 I created Heart Beat at the Baltic Art Centre in Newcastle. I decided to censor all texts of an English journal, with the help of students at Northumbia University in Gateshead. The premise of the piece was to use a marker to black out the articles and leave only the images, proposing a new newspaper that only has the photographs as a direct interpretation of what the viewer is looking at. The spectator not only has to make his/her own newspaper, so to speak, but also enters a sort of universal discourse through photography, and the results are sublimated by the graphic dimension of the ensemble.

Heart Beat, 2008. Detail.

JR: The installation also included drawings, paintings and sculptural elements. What was the purpose of these?

BT: Since Heart Beat is an installation, it automatically becomes an arrangement, my own way of organizing knowledge, a mise en scene like in theater. For me, an installation is a whole environmental proposal, and it has a single goal which is to include the viewer within it. Drawings, sculptures, videos and photos… it all contributes to creating a rhythm, a choreography that rewrites the stories proposed by the newspapers.

View of Bandjoun Station, Bandjoun, Cameroon.

JR: Changing the subject, I learned that you have started a project in Cameroon, slated to open in November 2009, which mixes art and agriculture. Can you talk about that?

BT: The project is titled Bandjoun Station, it is a very personal project sited on the high plains in West Cameroon, what we call the Grassland. There, I have created an art center to celebrate art and culture in all of its forms, a residence for guests (artists, choreographers, cinema directors, ethnologists, historians, doctors, researchers, etc) from all over the world that will come and realize their projects in relation with the locals and their environment.

Bandjoun Station aims to encourage the local population to develop a healthy form of agriculture geared towards local consumption and not towards industrial production in order to attain self-sufficiency. Right alongside this form of agriculture there is a large coffee plantation; ours can be seen as a critical gesture that amplifies the artistic act that denounces what Léopold Sédar Senghol used to term “the deterioration of the terms of exchange”, where the export prices imposed by the West penalize and harshly impoverish our farmers in the south.

Farmer working on the agricultural project, Bandjoun Station.