Monday, March 15, 2010

Factory as Studio as Art as

Guest Blogger:
Diana Nawi
Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Much of the discourse surrounding the studio focuses on the notions proposed by the phrase “studio as X” or, conversely “X as studio”: studio as site, studio as laboratory, studio as workshop, studio as utopia and so on.1 This impulse to create a parallel or figurative stand-in for the studio as something else, something perhaps more familiar or everyday, points to the unfixed function of the studio, both historically and in the contemporary moment. This text is a proposal for an expanded version of studio as X model, one suggested by Caroline Jones in both her book and her recent lecture at the MCA.

In her book Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist, Caroline Jones’s suggests that the 20th century proposed both a model of the studio as it is commonly mythologized through the Abstract Expressionists (site of tortured loner genius men who experience fits of creative energy)2 and through the practices of artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Smithson, which offered new or changing paradigms of the studio (the Factory and a representation of “post-studio”). In a talk she gave at the MCA in mid-February, Jones picked up on some of the themes she had introduced in her book, developing a complex metaphorical relationship between artistic practice, new media, production site, recording, physics, and laboratories (admittedly, things got hard to follow). Before she took a turn for the specifically scientific, Jones went beyond Warhol’s factory model, extending it to the use of actual factories as spaces for the creation and display of artwork (DIA and MASS MoCA were examples). Although I found her conclusion, in the realm of physics data, unclear, what I would propose are recent historical and contemporary groundings for her exploration of factories and factory models—studio as factory.

The following is a brief discussion of a few of the projects that came to mind as Jones elaborated on the role of the factory and production in her talk, something I have been thinking about since first encountering her work a few years ago. A larger project would perhaps extend an exploration of the studio as factory into the many related issues that this suggests—labor, gender, race, technology, production/productivity—and trace a history of this in the 20th century that begins with Jones’s analysis of Warhol’s Factory and creates a network of related historical and contemporary paradigms that fortify and interrogate the way in which studios mimic the structures of existing economic and industrial models.3

The most relevant, and surprisingly unmentioned projects that came to mind during Jones’s talk were two 1960s programs that married technology and art and which Pamela Lee describes in the introduction to her book Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (MIT Press, 2000). Lee discusses Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), a program inaugurated in the mid-1960s that desired to help any artist with “a technical problem, or technologically complicated and advanced projects be in touch with an engineer or scientist who could collaborate with him.”4 Lee also writes of the Art & Technology Program (A&T) created in 1966 through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) under the guidance of then curator of modern art, Maurice Tuchman. Although Lee uses these (difficult if not somewhat failed) projects to introduce one of the major themes of her book–anxiety surrounding changing technology—her brief history of the four-year A&T project, which like E. A. T. paired artists with corporations in residencies of sorts in order to make art using new technology, seems relevant to Jones’s invocation of the factory as studio model. Jones’s discussion of particle acceleration or increased data-collecting capabilities on the part of scientists, while interesting as regards the introduction of new technologies and as a conceptual counterpoint to art history-only arguments, would have benefited from an exploration of E.A.T. or A&T as real-world (and concurrent with her era of focus) models of her metaphorical parallel.5

Tuchman’s introduction to the report produced on A&T explains his conception of the project and his motivations for pairing artists with giants of Southern California technological and industrial production including IBM, Lockheed Aircraft, Hewlett-Packard, Twentieth Century Fox, and RAND Corporation among others. He states “I became intrigued by the thought of having artists brought into these industries to make works of art, moving about in them as they might their own studios.”6 Some of the projects functioned as intellectual or critical residencies within corporations (John Chamberlain at RAND; definitely worth reading about for the artist vs. squares tone of the whole project), while some clearly made use of (or tried to make use of) the technologies and resources available (Richard Serra at Kaiser Steel; not surprising…). But it appears, in keeping with Tuchman’s original conception for the A&T, that all of the projects reinterpreted their host companies as studios, new contexts and sites for experimentation and production.

In the contemporary moment, a 2005 project based out of Artspace in New Haven, Connecticut titled Factory Direct: New Haven employs a similar model to A&T.7 Organized by Denise Markonish, then curator of Artspace, the project placed ten artists in residencies at Connecticut businesses. The artists were given access to the technologies, materials, and specific histories of these diverse companies, ranging from a company that produces coin-operated binoculars to a commercial rose grower to a fire alarm manufacturer. This project not only referred to the history of artistic production within the construct of another site or entity, it challenged the discreet role of the studio and allowed for works which extended a notion of site-specific into a production-based model. 

Similarly, the studio as factory model seems applicable to a number of works and projects by artists who are interested not only in the exploration of a factory model as a means of production, but also as content for their work, both formally and conceptually. Embedded in the metaphorics of the factory is a rich history of industrial development, politics, and socio-economics, as well as a commentary on the function of labor in artistic practice. 

Mika Rottenberg’s videos feature women in constructed sets that mimic a (typically uncomfortable and counter-productive) workspace engaged in some form of production. Often a play on a Ford-like production line, Rottenberg’s videos toy with the aesthetics, gender, and product of factories having the women in her video do and create things in highly convoluted, unreal, and inefficient ways. Likewise her contemporary, Phoebe Washburn has employed ramshackle constructions filled with strange, almost scientific looking tools, to suggest the spaces as the site of alchemical production. In a 2008 show at Zach Feuer Gallery, New York, Tickle the Shitstem, Washburn indeed made something: branded T-shirts and brightly dyed-sea urchins and pencils. Moving through what appeared to be many steps, including resting in jars of dye, the sea urchins were attended to by interns who ran the “assembly line,” selling the finished sea urchins in small plastic ziplock baggies marked with stickers reading “ORT” (a deal at only $5!), while the T-shirts were elaborately washed and then also marked with the word “ORT” and sold (less of a deal at $25). In a similar manner, in a 2008 exhibition also at Zach Feuer Gallery titled Stripe Factory (also held at Sister Gallery, Los Angeles - now Kathryn Brennan Gallery - , and Kavi Gupta, Chicago) Danica Phelps had artist assistants in the gallery making striped paintings. Reinterpreting an ongoing painterly vocabulary Phelps had been using for a number of years, this project, which lasted beyond the construct of the show itself, allowed a buyer to call in and order one of her stripe paintings (priced at fifteen cents per stripe).8 The work would then be made on the spot, turning the gallery into both a made-to-order factory and a studio and later turning her studio into a made-to-order factory. 

The work of Rottenberg, Washburn, and Phelps blurs the line between production and reception suggesting a strategy that employs a factory model as means to clarify, fabricate, critique, or expose their own labor. 9 These works constitute a small sampling of what is out in the world, not simply representing the studio, but challenging our relationship to it while pointing to its economic, social, and creative function. The idea of the studio as factory seems as good a simile as any through which to understand many of the underlying theoretical implications of artistic production of the second half of the 20th century through the present moment. The factory as studio opens not only onto art itself, but more importantly moves away from self-reflective representation to the much broader context for the making of artwork, pointing to the economic, social, and political forces which shape production. 

Diana Nawi is the Marjorie Susman Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Prior to her position at the MCA, Nawi received her MA from the Graduate Program in the History of Art at Williams College and worked for two years in the curatorial department at MASS MoCA. Nawi’s exhibition, This is Killing Me, focused on the relationship between artmaking and anxiety is currently on view at MASS MoCA through April 15. 

1 Much of the MCA’s promotional material for their current exhibition Production Site employs this phrasing. Studio as party!
2This triumphing and mystifying of the studio is perhaps best embodied in Hans Namuth’s photographs of the New York School painters and his much reproduced film and photographic representations of Jackson Pollock at work in his East Hampton studio from 1950. See Caroline A. Jones, Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
3The studio as factory is by no means a new model or one excusive to the 20th century. In fact I would argue that medieval and Renaissance workshops functioned in the same way, mirroring the economic, technological, and social of the means of production of their moment. My argument in this text is confined to a small sampling of late 20th century models, but a more comprehensive exploration of this model would extend into a much longer historical timeline.
4Experiments in Art and Technology, E.A.T. News 2, no. 1 (March 18, 1968) as cited in Pamela. M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 13.
5 Lee writes that “the move from studio to industry was hardly new to the annals of modernism: witness the Constructivists, the Bauhaus, the pretensions of the Futurists…” Lee 12. The model of studio as factory could be extended to studios throughout art history, but here I sight the A&T program because of its use of actual factories and its technological relevance to Jones’s project.
6 Maurice Tuchman, A Report on the Art and Technology Program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967-71 (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971), 9 as cited in Lee 11-12.
7  Factory Direct: New Haven, Curated by Denise Markonish, Artspace, New Haven, CT, 2005.
8 See “Stripe Factory, Danica Phelps” on the website for Kathryn Brennan Gallery for a comprehensive explanation of the project. 

Image Credits and Captions from top to bottom:
Mika Rottenberg. Dough (video still), 2006. C-print. 16 x 20 in. Edition of 7 + 2AP. Image from Nicole Klagsbrun website.
Phoebe Washburn. Tickle the Shitstem (installation view). 2008. Mixed media. Overall dimensions variable. Image from Zach Feuer Gallery website.
Mika Rottenberg. Dough (video still), 2006. C-print. 16 x 20 in. Edition of 7 + 2AP. Image from Nicole Klagsbrun website.
Danica Phelps. Photograph of Stripe Factory workers. 2008. Image from Kathryn Brennan Gallery website.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,
    My name is Jane Gavan, Im an artist researcher from Australia.
    Im very interested in the Factory as Studio concept Diana is exploring, and have placed it at the centre of my doctoral research, which is a case study where I am conducting participant action research in a factory in Belgium this Nov/Dec. I would like to invite you to keep an eye on developments of the project on the bloglink below. Comments and feedback from this audience would be most valuable to the study.

    Developing a practice-based framework for artists and designers who choose to work within industrial communities.