Monday, May 31, 2010

How opportunities for space have evolved my practice

Sara Schnadt

Performance/Installation Artist

I borrow from several disciplines for my work, preparation, and space needs. Perhaps as a result, I am highly adaptive and conceive of projects around the logistical parameters at my disposal. Early on in my practice when resources were slim, I would intuitively develop ideas for installations and props based on the quantity and weight of materials I could carry on a bus. I would also consider all of my free brain space, and any activity that stimulated my creative process, as my studio space and practice. Many of my ideas would crystallize while walking down the street, listening to another artist, or seeing work. Realization of an idea would happen on site during the performance, usually as a durational event in a specific site.

This model worked well for many years. In 2006, the ante was upped when curator Julie Laffin invited me to create a site-specific work at the Chicago Cultural Center for the Site Unseen festival. This annual interdisciplinary event has taken over the Cultural Center for one night each November for the past six years with works developed to respond directly to the building. As I gathered myself to develop this new work, I took stock of my practice.

Before this invitation, I had created performances responding somewhat thematically to site, but this was my first substantive opportunity to respond to the architecture and history of a space. It profoundly expanded my work's scale, conceptual depth, and sculptural inventiveness. Prior to my MFA in performance, I had formal training in sculpture and scene design, as well as modern dance and choreography. As I took stock, I realized that eight years after enjoying regular access to a movement studio in graduate school,  my natural idea development had drifted away from movement vocabularies almost entirely. I was  becoming aware of the value of space - that it is instrumental in defining my sense of possibilities.

Re-Trace for Site Unseen at the Cultural Center (Chicago's first public library), compared contemporary and historic relationships to information access and delivery. It also included  a custom-built 30' screen spanning the space, an immersive projection system, and a room-scale projected text array. The performance included task, found movement and abstract dance.

Since, I have created several more works around the theme of information access and technology innovation that are increasingly ambitious spatially. The most recent of these, Network, is currently installed at the Hyde Park Art Center as part of Spacial City. Network spans 2 stories, is primarily up in the air, and was built entirely on a cherry picker.

Each piece since Re-Trace has followed a similar production process. There has been a response to a dynamic site or situation, a phase of intense research and detailed idea development in drawings, material tests and sometimes rehearsal. Then there has been a rather unwieldy build process taking over every inch of my apartment/small spare bedroom studio like a spacial jigsaw puzzle. And finally, an intense install with helpers to get the installation components of the piece up in a few days.

Last spring, just as I was pronouncing this process with great zeal as my studio practice for a rather public blog, I hit a  wall with working this way.

I found myself booking 2 projects with large and labor-intensive install processes back to back, this time without securing any helpers. About 10 hours into the first I realized that I wasn't crazy, I was simply craving time alone in a large space where I could think about my work. Time to look at the visual elements of it, consider where my decision-making could be pushed further, and develop more intimacy with the work than is possible with a piece-meal build process in a small domestic space and a delegation-heavy install process on a tight timetable.

As a solution, I decided to use an Illinois Arts Council Artists' Fellowship grant I had just received for a trial period of dedicated studio space. This was a huge step for me as an artist trained during my graduate education in performance at the School of the Art Institute to think of creative practice exclusively outside of the box of a classical modernist practice. But I was seeing all too plainly from my compulsion for herculean solo install experiences that a practice just needs what it needs. And so I set up a studio.

The financial investment in a studio was also a huge conceptual leap for me, a leap I was only able to make because I had dedicated funding for it. Funding to think bigger around how I set up my life. The grant is no longer financing my studio, but I now see it's value and have adjusted my finances to make the studio a priority.

The space was a 1-bedroom apartment behind my own and included research space, drawing and collage space, material storage where I could see everything as if it were a giant palette, an installation test room, and room for movement work. It was fantastic. It also pushed me in new and humbling ways. It was several months in before I could work consistently for its own sake and for pure exploration. I have always been project-based, and so attempts at all-out play feel to me like working in a creative vacuum.

But even my first rather timid attempts have yielded ideas that are a more 'out on a limb' aesthetically than previous work. And having fleshed-out ideas ready-to-go has also meant I can  take advantage of opportunities at short notice. The most exciting of these so far has been the Loop Alliance's Pop-Up Art Loop program, where I was a pilot artist last winter.

After seeing the benefits of space on my practice, I am also reducing my work schedule to have more time there.

I have yet to take full advantage of the dedicated movement space in my studio. Two recent pieces, Re-Trace and Reading Gestures (also for Site Unseen), have very developed movement ideas. Other works are built primarily on task, with a strong emphasis on installation and a very light or process-based live presence. My 2007 piece Connectivity for the MCA's 12x12 series, for example, involved 'building the internet' as a durational performance over the course of a month.

Three of my most recent pieces don't even have a live element. I imagine this is a result of the intense spacial stimulus provided by recent opportunities and studio space. Pure installation may even be a resulting new direction that will run parallel to my performance-based practice.

I can't help but wonder how I can also push the movement elements of my work.  Last month I moved into a new and larger studio that includes much more space for movement. If I can manage it financially, I will also try adding occasional rehearsal time at a local dance studio to see where that can lead.

Now that I know space to present and especially to create work defines my sense of possibilities, my process and even my creative scope, going forward I will continue to seek out opportunities to 'up the ante'.

Sara Schnadt is a Chicago-based artists working in new media, installation and performance art.  She has shown her in work in Chicago with Pop-Up Art Loop temporary gallery series, 12x12: New Artists New Work at the MCA Chicago, Looptopia, the Site Unseen Performance Festival, Antena Gallery, and the Hyde Park Art Center. National and international shows include Exchange Rate public projection series in LA and New York, Upgrade! - Chain Reaction in Skopje, Macedonia, CINEA Paris, FreeManifesta in Frankfurt, and the Busan Biennale in Busan, South Korea.  Sara co-curates the IN>TIME Performance Series and is co-founder and technologist for the Chicago Artists Resource website at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.

1. Continuity, 2009, photo: John Sisson

2. BJ Krivanek's sound installation for Site Unseen, 2008, photo: John Sisson
3. Re-Trace, 2006, photo: Rachel Aherin
4. Network, 2010
5. Builting Network, 2009, photo: John Sisson
6.-9. Studio shots
10. Network, 2009, photo: John Sisson
11. Connectivity, 2007, photo: John Sisson
12. Connectivity (condensed), 2009, photo: John Sisson

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