Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Stuff and the Studio

Jessica Cochran
Curator of Exhibitions and Programs
Center for Book and Paper Arts
Columbia College Chicago

In my room, No. 13 on the fifth floor of the Hotel Carcassonne at 24 Rue Mouffetard, to the right of the entrance door, between the stove and the sink, stands a table that VERA painted blue one day to surprise me.  I have set out here to see what the objects on a section of this table (…) might suggest to me, what they might spontaneously awaken in me in describing them: the way SHERLOCK HOLMES, starting out with a single object, could solve a crime….

-Daniel Spoerri, in An Anectocted Topography of Chance

I recently began working at the Center for Book and Paper Arts as Curator of Exhibitions and Programs, and so I have been spending ample time thinking about artists’ books as they relate to just about everything- contemporary art production, discourse, literature, me, curatorial practice, Chicago, and, of course, the studio.  The following blog post is about an artist’s book project that relates to the studio in a big and fantastic way.  A big thanks to Steve Woodall, director of The Center for introducing me to this project.   

In 1961, Fluxus artist
Daniel Spoerri initiated the project An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, for which he pieced together a written history for 80 objects found on a blue table in his Paris hotel room, where he lived with his wife Vera.  His and the reflections of several friends, including artist Dieter Roth, and anecdotes for each object were compiled into an artist’s book- a choppy and extensive text that relayed the discursive nature of his table and its “chance” constellation of material objects.

The list of objects is long, and it certainly made for a crowded table.  Candles, screws, coffee, tubes, corks, nails, knives, wine, jars, pens, paper clips, crumbs, stains, matches and jars are just a few of the items chronicled, and, though I am not sure if he had a different studio, they suggest that this residence certainly functioned productively.  Page after page, the objects are points of departure for stories, memories, exchanges (between Spoerri and the other contributors), inside jokes and definitions.  Some entries are merely a sentence, and others go on for pages.

For example, the entry for ‘chunk of white bread’ looks like this:

Why does Spoerri’s artist’s book, a self-reflexive and ambitious undertaking, provide a useful framework for thinking about the studio today?  In short, because studios are places where stuff matters.  They will always be places where stuff matters. To that end, in the introduction to The Social Life of Things, Arjun Appadurai discusses things and how they gain meaning by way of human transaction and interaction. 

Even if our own approach to things is conditioned necessarily by the view that things have no meanings apart from those human transactions, attributions, and motivations endow them with, the anthropological problem is that this formal truth does not illuminate the concrete, historical circulation of things.  For that, we have to follow the things themselves, for their meanings are inscribed in their forms, their uses, their trajectories.  It is only through the analysis of these trajectories that we can interpret the human transactions and calculations that enliven things.  (Appadurai, 5)

In other words, embedded within the exchange of objects is the “flow of social relations”(Appadurai, 11). As an artwork Spoerri’s book carefully tells his history of social relations as they are held in certain objects.  The loaf of bread that had a slice cut out from is the starting point for the beginning of a narrative-- a visit by someone named Renate Steiger.  Futher investigation might tell us who Steiger was, and why he was there.  To that end, the term ‘chance’ in his book title only partially explains the objects on the table.  They really are a deliberate practice made visible: an ongoing series of decisions that result in works of art, and an artist’s life lived. 

That Spoerri presents this project as an artist’s book is significant.  According to Johanna Drucker
, the artist’s book throughout the 20th century has often served as document.

As a document, the book becomes a space of information. (…) This use of the book seems almost obvious, something one can take for granted.  In fact, the forms by which their presentation is realized ranges from banal to the extraordinary… (Drucker, 335)

Spoerri’s project is inherently relational, but its discursive nature is manifest in an ‘extraordinary’ book form much more effectively than if he had created a painting, series of photographs or sculpture.  It allows for typographic liberties, and myriad narratives- both layered and broken.   The book is bound by two covers, which physically contain a beginning and an end. And finally, the reception of his work is amplified for that the act of reading a book is at once investigative and intimate, making it easy to fully engage in the text’s stops, starts, twists and turns.  From concept to form, the work is resolved, and we can really explore the objects on Spoerri’s table. 

It seems to me, that Spoerri’s project reflects how an artist’s personal objects can be granted truly dynamic agency by an artist, as opposed to a curator, critic or historian.  But even more remarkably, as an artist’s book it expansively makes visible the dialogic process by which that stuff in the studio begins to gain meaning in relation to artwork and vice versa. As Kirsten Swenson points out in her essay, Potraits of the artist with work: Eva Hesse, the studio “emerges as not so much a place for work, but as a place for displaying, staging and acting, while also functioning as a compendium of external sources (…) (the) studio is anything but cloistered; it is a crossroads of diverse practices and source as much as  it is a private space of production.”  In other words, the studio is where objects gain symbolic value and narrative currency, and this happens by way of studio visits, talking, people visiting, artists hanging out.

In a deeper reading, his project is an art object—and from start (his first written anecdote about a piece of white bread) to finish (an artist’s book that was also the exhibition catalog for a related commercial gallery show)—it is kind of a double agent.  It maps out for us both actively (in its text, which describes its coming into being) and passively (through its own life as an artwork) how art objects gain momentum as art.   After all, the legitimization of any art in the field of production is nothing if not a social project. 

Or, maybe in the end it’s just about the life of his stuff; his stuff, and our stuff- the things that clutter our creative spaces.  And what’s great about that?  I’ll tell you.  All the while-- in our studios, administrative offices, writers’ lofts, junk drawers, bedrooms, “rooms of our own,” and kitchens alike-- the objects we keep around us continue to shift and change-- from handwritten letters to printed out emails, record players to iPods, and Wonder Bread to Whole Foods baguettes.  At the end of the day, though, they are just our lovely vessels, and the stories stay pretty much same. 

A view of my father’s home library/exercise room/storage room in Minnesota- he is a scientist, a keeper of stuff.  Each time I visit, I check to see what new objects have moved or been added, or what might be missing. 

How can everyday life be defined?  It surrounds us, it besieges us, on all sides and from all directions.  We are inside it and outside it. 
-Henri Le Febvre, in Clearing the Ground (1961)

Works Cited:
Spoerri, David. An Anecdoted History of Chance. London: Atlas Arkhive Four, 1966.

Appadurai, Arjun. The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Drucker, Johanna. The Century of Artists' Books. New York City: Granary Books, 1994.

Swenson, Kirsten. "Portraits of the artist with work: Eva Hesse.” The Fall of the Studio: Artists at Work. Ed. Wouter Davidts and Kim Paice.
Valiz, 2009. 

Jessica Cochran is currently Curator of Exhibitions and Programs at the Center for Book and Paper Arts (Columbia College Chicago), and Director of Exhibitions at the O'Connor Art Gallery (Dominican University).  She has previously worked for Art Chicago/NEXT as Director of Marketing and Programs and Around the Coyote as Visual Art Coordinator.  Her writing has appeared in Proximity, Newcity, CS and Curating Now.

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