This interview with Kari Conte, the Program Director at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn, New York took place while wrapping up my residency at the ISCP in late 2010. This edited transcript was produced in early 2011.
"In Conversation: Kari Conte and Michael Jones McKean "
Kari Conte: Your work often combines artifacts with present-day objects – what is your interest in creating this recontextualization?
Michael Jones McKean: I like how time embeds itself inside objects very differently. Take an iPhone, it has a very particular time signature, a steep one, so that today when we look at an iPhone 4 it lives on the edge of newness, but in five years it will look positively archaic. On the other hand, a meteorite, a piece of petrified wood or a Windsor chair all have more protracted time signatures – they move so glacially through a continuum we can’t understand their time stamp. By docking and grafting different kinds of objects together I’m trying to build an object harmonic that collapses some imposed hierarchies, builds some new metaphors and hopefully finds a fragile, momentary solidarity between objects.
KC: For your work included in the Quebec City Biennial you purchased 50 acres of land in Canada – what was the impetuous behind this project?
MJM: I got very interested in a relatively small piece of land in Northern Quebec in a remote area about 400 miles north of Montreal. The site is in the middle of hundreds of square miles of forest. Not surprisingly one of the major industries in the area is logging, so land use has a direct and palpable relationship to the area’s economic well being. To complicate matters - the land I purchased was nearly entirely clear-cut – rendered essentially worthless in the relation to the local economy.
The region has this peculiar feeling of being deeply isolated, yet everywhere a human imprint is aggressively visible. Imagine driving 16 hours through mountains and forests, 3 hours on dirt roads to arrive in this primordial land with no sounds, no people – yet you find yourself within an endless grid – a forest of trees gridded for cost-effective harvesting and management. But everywhere within this engineered reality nature is silently trying to reclaim a more fluid, if to us, chaotic order. The experience was totally uncanny – like something out of some Borges story.
KC: Why Canada?
MJM: The project compressed all these small artifacts from around the world and I wanted to have an actual, real section of Canada in the work. When I say it, it sounds extreme, but there was something very logical to me about this decision.
For the exhibition I was given this funky space in downtown Quebec City. In it I organized a black lacquered piano, a hand knotted rug from Afghanistan, a meteorite from Argentina, a piece of petrified wood from Arizona, some bags of topsoil, Nivea skin cream, Tiger Balm ointment, orange juice and some Evian water I bought at a dollar store across the street. After these objects were in place, I arranged on the floor two groupings of Polaroids I took of the land. These Polaroids were then re-photographed creating a photographic doubling of the space. For the exhibition the original Polaroids were removed leaving this nearly invisible gesture - photographs of photographs - as the only evidence of the land. They became a fragile echo, a nearly undetectable hinge psychically binding the land within the installation.
The idea of ownership factored into the project heavily, a concept that has lived in previous projects as well. I think when you divest yourself of liquid capital and trade it in on object, a thing, a certain amount of bullshit melts away. Something abstract becomes factual, definite, and direct. By extending an artwork into the realm of stewardship, one becomes not only conceptually invested, but also physically, legally and economically wed.
KC: So what will you do with this piece of land?
MJM: I’m going let things revert to a more nature order. The idea that within this huge forest of bastard trees exists a small plot of land that disobeys the surrounding logic, unaffected and undomesticated is very exciting to me.
KC: There are a few great precedents of artists buying pieces of land.
MJM: Sure there is a long history - like Gordon Matta-Clark, Andrea Zittel, Judd, Roden Crater, more recently Rirkrit Tiravanija.
KC: Often your work very specifically points to the origin of the materials that you use–for example petrified wood from Arizona, an Anthropologie blouse, OP (Ocean Pacific) windbreakers – what is your intention in this specificity in the representation of your work as opposed to a description of ‘mixed materials.’ It seems like a key part of how you present your work.
MJM: In some small way I’m trying to understand our conceptions of materiality and the ways that meaning attaches itself to objects - hermeneutics, semeiotics, economics, poetics, emotional, spiritual, political, gendered, commercial, racial, erotic, the list could go on. So an Ocean Pacific windbreaker operates as a placeholder for several kinds of emotions and concepts that conjure a very different discourse than say the reverie a Starter Jacket evokes. But really your question is about relationships - each object, each technique, each material has many jobs to do conceptually and compositionally within a sculpture. They are finding a way to be in concert within a field of other objects and techniques and images where nothing is ever neutral. And there is nothing algebraic about this arrangement – I feel like I have to relearn everything each time I make something.
KC: You produced an 80-foot rainbow over your studio in Virginia – how did this project originate and what was the trial and error process?
MJM: I started working on it almost eight years ago. It spawned from an accident while I was documenting a project that contained a misting component – suddenly a faint color prism appeared, very much by accident. I put a memory-hold on that moment with thoughts that maybe there could be a way for an actual rainbow to exist within a project. A few years later I was working on a public project and was struggling with how to reconcile the way my work behaved indoors within sanctioned art spaces in relation to a more borderless outdoor space - the translation was failing. This crisis dug up the memory of my accidental encounter with the rainbow. I began to think that if I were to ever work on a public project again it would be a huge mistake, a missed opportunity really, to simply tweak my work, whose DNA is so bound to the rules of codes of galleries and museum spaces to fit into the public realm. The rainbow was something that could operate on a civic scale, yet be spatially untethered, placeless, fleeting. Born out of a crisis, that epiphany stirred up a list of technical problems to be solved to make it actually work, ones I’ve been working on for years now…
There’s open-endedness to the rainbow that’s very attractive to me. The project doesn’t settle down as one might expect into its more kitsch, graphic symbol – it lives as an actual rainbow does, ghostlike and strangely unknowable in all its phenomological insistence.
KC: The British artist Simon Fugiwara creates fictive archaeological digs that also reveal his own history and identity is subtle ways. Your cv indicates that you were born in Micronesia - does your work also include elements of autobiography?
MJM: Some artists embrace autobiography as their subject matter – it becomes part of the content of their work, how we’re intended to engage the work. I don’t use biography so explicitly in my work, but of course I can’t escape all the things that make up who I am: the books I’ve read, the people that I’ve met, stories I’ve been told, technology that I use, all the tacit yet essential details of one's life like growing up in an empire or always being able to plug stuff into a wall and energize things. These details become part of the white noise we’re enveloped within while making work - I'm just not trying to modulate that noise so specifically as to render it the content of my work.
KC: But it seems also like your work, somehow must be tied to this fact that were born there and this kind of epic exploration and adventure…
MJM: It is possible, but I also wonder if this has something to do with our yearning for more cogent narratives. That said, I totally agree that being born on a remote island in the Pacific is a hard bit of biography to escape. I remember having this big globe in grade school growing up. All my classmates would point out where they were born, most found a small section along the eastern seaboard - Michigan was unbelievably exotic… But to spin the globe totally around and say “I was born there” – that was crazy.
KC: I was wondering how you approach the systems and the ‘power of display’. In some of your work, you include objects that are reminiscent of pedestals and in other work you include vitrines. So, are you interested in the underlying politics of display?
MJM: I’ve always been interested in how objects and object placement can work as signifiers and this, in someway, relates to the politics of display. But when I think about the phrase ‘politics of display, and even ‘signifier’ it conjures up this discourse that seems late – like it had a moment. Not that the intellectual kernel of those queries aren’t relevant to us anymore – it is more that the language we have borrowed and constructed to discuss them has ossified their development and meaningfulness for us today - but this is tangent…
On the most basic level a sculpture is simply a small, volumetric displacement that has a slightly different gravitational pull than the space the sculpture sits in – a slight shift in harmonics. Sculptors try to manipulate this harmonic - if one puts an object on top of a table there is different kind of politic involved than deciding to put it on top of a white MDF cube. Arranged objects in a grid perform differently than a pile. A vitrine? A shelf, mosaic or veneer, knee high or waist high, a stage or a plinth, a flower on a fish stick box – it’s endless yet these decisions makeup the essential DNA of a sculpture. When we look at an artwork we are really standing in front of a series of ‘yeses’ that the artist made. But this narrow bandwidth of ‘yeses’ is miniscule in relation to the overwhelming number of ‘no’s’- some silent and already determined, others in play, hard fought and painful, to make a work manifest.
KC: You’ve shown your work a lot outside of ‘art centers’ in the US. Can you illuminate on the trajectory of your career and practice working outside of these ‘art centers’ in more regionally based institutions?
MJM: It wasn’t a strategy to exclude places like New York or Berlin or LA early on – my logic was more straightforward - I simply worked on projects where people asked me, but this is how most artists work. In retrospect, I suppose in many ways the arch of my practice has not followed a typical path. I went to a small liberal arts college in northern Pennsylvania where I played basketball for four years – from there I got a masters degree in ceramics. I was lucky to get a few residencies right out of grad school, but they put me in locations far outside art world hubs - off-the-grid places like Provincetown, Omaha, Kansas City, Montana, Central Michigan and to a lesser extent even Houston.
KC: I imagine that working in a place like Kansas City gives you the opportunity to build large-scale new commissions that might not happen at such an early stage in your career if you had not gone all over the country bit rather worked in New York.
MJM: Yes, I think that’s true. I’ve been fortunate to make some large-scale projects, ones that probably would have been impossible to make if I had moved directly to New York City after school. One’s conception of space is so different when you live in New York City versus, say, Omaha. It is not that one city grants more psychic latitude to work more ambitiously, it’s just that in Omaha it is actually physically and economically easier to pull off larger materially based projects. But it is also essential to remember that this ease is purchased at the price of other important things that New York City affords to artists…
KC: You generally tend to work very large-scale. The size of your studio at ISCP has necessitated that you work on smaller-scale projects – how has this affected the way that you work?
MJM: Moving here I knew that my studio would be smaller than where I’ve recently been working. That said, I showed up at the ISCP interested in trying to make some smaller, more discreet sculptures. I got into a very solid rhythm and ended up being very productive. I suppose in a classic sense the restraints created a fruitful tension that freed me to make some work I probably won’t have given myself permission, or even thought to make at my studio in Virginia. It’s counterintuitive, but working in a small space actually opened up a lot things for me.