Thursday, August 19, 2010

Five Easy Pieces on “The Space of the Artist”

Cauleen Smith
Artist in Residence

I’m only in Chicago for 8 weeks. I’ve been here a month, and have a month to go. I am loving it here.

“I Love You, Chicago!” Ballon Vendor at the Bud Biliken Parade Aug. 14, 2010. C. Smith

I am here because I want to make  a film, objects and sound pieces  about and for this city. My project is an insane sprawl. (You can read about it here:  ) So I hope you’ll forgive me if my thoughts seem didactic, shallow,  or plain simple-minded. I’m sure they are. I spend all of energy on running the streets, meeting people, and making stuff in my studio -  every day -  in the hopes of getting something off the ground before I leave this amazing city.   Thanks to Studio Chicago for giving me opportunity to think about something other than marching bands!

Caveat: The studio is private space, not a public place. Even when used as the stage of performance-- even when used as the place of display-- when anyone other than the artist enters an artist’s studio they have entered a space of the artist.  So I’m only talking about my studio, not all studios, not the conceptual notion of a studio, not the problem of the studio- just my studio.

Here we go:

1.    Having a studio is a privilege. When I have a studio, I can do things and make things that I cannot do without a studio. The privacy of a studio makes thinking out loud (and acting on those thoughts) significantly less embarrassing that it could be. I know a lot of people enjoy doing private things in public space. I know that even more people get off on seeing private things being done in public. I also suspect that no one will believe me when I say this, after all I am a filmmaker, but I’m just not into that. I think privacy is precious. A lot of people don’t have it, you know? They have to love in the streets. Fight in the streets. Think on their feet on the streets. Back home, I have a key to a door that leads to four walls that frame some floor and hold up a ceiling. That is privilege. (I greatly value real estate in general. It’s one of the few forms of economy beyond trade that I well understand.) The stakes of the studio circulate around class, mobility,  and capitalization (i.e. how much money/ juice/hype you got?). What I understand about the economics of the studio is that, within studios, objects can be made. Objects can be traded for other resources. This is a good thing for the artist because it allows them to keep their studio. I am aware that there are artists who de-materialize or re-cycle everything. They make ideas. That’s awesome. I suppose they’d find my studio abominable. 

Crap everywhere... Chicago 2010. Three views of my public studio at Sullivan Galleries, SAIC. C, Smith

There’s crap everywhere. My studio is a place and a space for things that can turn into other things. My light kit turns unexposed film into a movie. My Sharpies®  turn perfectly good paper into storyboards (maps towards unrealizable dreams). My books turn into reminders of things I know and the things I need to get around to knowing. Everything-is-everything up in that mug (my studio).  How many people get to have a space like that? Privilege.

2.    Because thinking and dreaming really can happen anywhere to extraordinary degrees of radicality -- which is why mass media goes to great lengths to prevent thought --  the studio is a place to  work. It can be called an office (which is just not sexy). It can be called a spare bedroom (I like this one simply for its inference of hospitality which I’ll come to next).  It can be a garage. The studio is a physical space in which to work. I never went to art school. I suspect that has something to do with how LITTLE anxiety I feel when I enter my studio. (I wish I could say the same for entering editing rooms!) There are definitely days where I do not get anything done. Usually when that happens, I stay away for a day. I either do not work at all, or I find some work to do that cannot be done in my workspace.

Ping Pong Intervention #01: 1: Limited supply of Paddles. 2. Hiding Paddles. 3: Paddles modified after they were returned. Time cycle: 48 hours.   2010. C. Smith
This project is one intervention in a series of five in which I engage with the “art project” undertaken by BAD AT SPORTS. They installed a Ping Pong Table as part of their residency in the Sullivan Galleries. The table is very popular with the new residents who are participating in Mary Jane Jacob’s Studio Reader Class. The piddling sound of the bouncing ball drives me insane. It creates a cognitive dissonance between my own focus on work and my studio-mates focus on socializing, unwinding and expelling anxious energy.   I removed all but one Ping Pong paddle. I hid them. Then I told everyone that my studiomate, Georgia, had stolen them. It was much quieter after that; but some poor student did try to play ping pong by him or herself with the lone paddle. So I took that one too. After a day and a half, I was told that the removal of the paddles was considered a theft and that the authorities would have to be alerted. I take threats of police very seriously. I returned the paddles. Ping Pong games immediately resumed. The following day, the paddles were labeled with “SAIC”  in permanent marker.

I have no resentment, ambivalence, or confusion about what my studio is for. It is a space for production. The production of thought. The production of actions. The production of objects and images. It’s all good. No one necessarily needs to see the stuff that is made. But it generally needs to be made; and for me, the studio is a place to make it.

3.    The studio is a great place to practice hospitality. Tea tastes better in my studio because the comfort, the ease, the slowing down of time when company enters the space is so incongruent with what generally goes on in my space. I don’t always get a chance to clean up before I have a visitor. So being able to sit them down and give them some tea (one of my colleagues always has cookies too and I love that) makes a person feel wanted and welcome in a space that, in its very conception, has no space for them.  There are some essential tools for the practice of studio hospitality. I value these tools as much as my cameras, and my mac tower (almost). My tools for trading in hospitality - in case anyone is interested - are:  toaster oven, water kettle, refrigerator, coffee mugs, tumblers, bottle openers, cutting board and pairing knives, yoga mat, rug, exercise ball covered in fur, music, Makers Mark (a little goes a long way. you don’t need ice or mixer ,and anyone will drink it if that’s all there is), fizzy water, some-thing to look at, admire or criticize, and art supplies that can be shared and used easily by all (video cameras, paper, etc).  Being near a Trader Joe’s is extra wonderful. Once I am in the studio for the purpose of hanging out, I may not want to break the spell by breaking for a meal so stocking up on foods is good.  The studio is really good for creating the psychic space that pulls one away from the out-there and towards the in-here. When I’m spending time with friends in my studio, it is all about exploring the in-here.  Sometimes, I like to see how long we can hang, and what kind of work gets done while we are there together.  I’m always amazed that we do indeed manage to do stuff in spite of ourselves. Usually it’s a call-response kind of thing. I might show a video that I’m editing. Or someone will hook up their camera and show some snaps of something. In the studio space, conversation can take shape, become forms, spring into actions,  produce images, and solder connections . But this can only happen if the space is not just safe for me, but for my guests as well; hence the essentialness of hospitality.

4.    The studio is a site for judgement. It does not matter what anyone says, the fact is that when someone  enters an artist’s studio, they judge that artist. Visitors/Observers form  opinions about work that is not fully formed and hold those ideas way past the point that you’ve long discarded them, or transitioned them into something entirely new.  Frequently the visitor is there - has been invited there - for specifically that purpose. Crazy, that we do that to ourselves! But it can be profitable for some (not me, but yes, for some). A person enters the studio of an artist and naturally, they start looking around, looking for something “interesting”. Something “cool”. Something to borrow, something to buy. And you know the rule: Once you let them in, they get to bite you.  This is why folks don’t want people rolling up into their studios unannounced. Once one enjoys the privilege of a studio, one also feels entitled to having a certain amount of control over how they will be judged, and on what terms - I wanna have a say in who bites me. Is that asking so much?  So some things must be hidden. Other things must transition from just-sitting-around to now-being-displayed.  This can be hazardous. Little toxic puddles where a probing visitor may have knowingly or unknowingly taken a dump in your private world can stink up the place for days.   That is always an unfortunate by-product of welcoming someone into one’s studio, one’s  world, one’s life. There are rewards as well. That’s why we try to let the right ones in, right? 

5.    This last piece is more of a caution, that I give to myself when I’m tempted to drag something into my studio even though I don’t know why I’ll use it, or because I want to store it and there is room in the studio and there is no room in my bungalow.  The fifth rule of studio club is: You must accept change. And you must protect your work.  You must never remain static. A studio is not an archive. It is not a museum. All beings and things have energy; move it in, move it through, move it out. Make room for growth (and rent a storage unit or build a shed for all your old work). Let the light in. And shut the B.S. out.



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