Essays

Are Residencies Relevant? An Exploration in Nature

by Sarah Walko on August 23, 2012

One of Jordan McKenzie's "Woolworths Death Masks"

One of Jordan McKenzie’s “Woolworths Death Masks” (images courtesy the artist)

“All resistance is a rupture with what is. And every rupture begins, for those engaged in it, through a rupture with oneself.”
Alain Badiou, Metapolitics

Often the role of an artist is simply to disrupt and create a perceptual shift. This past April, I was invited to participate in a residency program where the studios were on the outskirts of a small town, scattered among a forest. The residency promoted its relationship between artists, nature and quiet contemplation. Upon arrival, I was confronted with this somewhat contrived environment, but also with performance artist Jordan McKenzie.

McKenzie traveled from the UK to Connecticut to partake in the residency. His work primarily engages with the urban context and culture of London, where he lives. For example, his Woolworths Death Masks are a series of sculptures made from pick ‘n’ mix sweets bought on the last day of trading at the iconic shop Woolworths, a branch of which was situated on the main street of the neighborhood where he lives. The work commented on economic uncertainties and the biting effects of the recession on the lives and businesses of a community in East London.

So what was he going to do for a month among the idyllic birds and a group of artists with primarily studio-based practices? McKenzie and I shared a wall between our studios and entered into a dialogue as we worked each day and talked each evening. The practices we each undertook showed our digestion, distillation, process and execution of our very different work within this common context. The discussions we had about this were the impetus for this article.

Outside

We started our investigation with the word “outside.” McKenzie said, “It’s a big word, ‘outside’” —

One which is used often when talking about residencies and their usefulness to artists: “a chance to work outside of your usual context,” “a way of working outside of the pressures of making money, exhibiting etc.” Often these opportunities are cherished by practitioners and actively sought as a way of examining their practice. But what are the limits of this as a process of creative encounter? Does the notion of a “residency” for an artist carry with it certain assumptions: geographical, cultural, economic etc.?

McKenzie is an artist with a peripatetic practice; he actively chooses to not have a studio through which to filter his experiences. He wanted to participate in an experience that offered a radically different context. He was interested in something that would test the limits of his practice and act as a counterpoint to his usual work. That work often examines the limits of participation — class, cultural, economic — within his community, as in his video “Monsieur Poo-Pourri Takes a Tour of His Estate,” which features McKenzie dressed as his performance alter-ego Monsieur Poo-Pourri. The video puns on the notion of the “estate” as both a country retreat for the rich and a residence for poor and low income families where McKenzie lives, while the figure of Poo-Pourri satirizes the growing contempt that England’s current coalition government has for groups experiencing economic hardship, creating national cultural divisions.

Miwon Kwon has forcefully and elegantly warned against the tyranny of the Easy-Jet artist who swoops into a site to “perform” engagement:

… the current socioeconomic order thrives on the (artificial) production and (mass) consumption of difference (for difference’s sake), the siting of art in ‘real’ places can also be a means to extract the social and historical dimensions out of places to variously serve the thematic drive of an artist, satisfy institutional demographic profiles, or fulfil the fiscal needs of a city.

McKenzie makes and exhibits his work in the large housing complex where he lives (the Approach Estate, Bethnal Green in the East End of London). Within this context, he is an artist in residence but also a resident. His actions and work are invested in and contingent upon the site where he lives and involve continuous negotiations with the members of the estate, as both an artist and an active community member.

He explained:

For me, the validity of being on a residency cannot be about the freedom to produce more of the same. I do not want to be outside the pressures of making money, exhibiting, working etc. as I think it is within and through these very intersections that work is generated. So, I think that it is this kind of investment and absorption within a context that a residency should foster.

McKenzie and I continued the conversation after we left the residency. He told me some of his reflections after he returned home:

The residency that I experienced operated through a spectrum of high modernist clichés that surrounded what it was to be an artist and the modes through which work was to be produced. A rampant individualism, a singular encounter with “the landscape,” a retreat, a notion of the kinds of isolated and decontextualized positions within the “studio” that actively attempt to wallpaper over the ontological ruptures that I believe should occur and impact upon the artist within these new encounters.

In a sense, these modernist principles that often underpin the idea of residencies become even more compacted and problematic if an artist places socially contextualised performance at the heart of their practice. As Suzanne Lacy, artist and founding director for the Center for Art and Public Life observes: ”As an activist artist, the question is the balance between socially purposeful and aesthetically purposeful activity. Today’s aesthetics demand both process and spectacle, engagement with real world issues and people outside the arts …”

Artist Ole Hagen performing at LUPA 9 (image via Facebook)

Though I don’t often directly involve people outside the arts to make the work, I am interested in how the site and context of work engages with non-art audiences. A project that I have instigated on my housing estate, co-curated by artists Kate Mahony and Aaron Williamson, is LUPA (Lock Up Performance Art). This is a once monthly performance art event for both art audiences and members of the estate where I live. We put on an hour’s worth of contemporary performance from an old lock-up garage on the estate. It is extremely low-fi — we advertise the events on Facebook, serve alcohol from the boot of a car and get our electricity from the shop opposite by way of an extension cable. Each month the residents of the estate receive a newsletter and come and see the performances or watch them from their balconies. The inclusion and invitation to these non-art audiences coupled with the fact that I am not an outsider (I live on the estate) has led to a huge amount of support for the event as residents have seen the grim car-park within which the garage stands and the surrounding area (which is used mostly for drug dealing) transformed for a short while into a social space for art, conversation and community. This project is not about “bringing art to the people” but about mutually sharing space and framing space in different ways. LUPA is an invitation, not a sermon.

It was increasingly difficult for me to “find” context for me to engage with while on the residency. My residency companions came from many different and varied disciplines, and possibly it may have been beneficial for me to have been on a residency with other artists who placed performance as a central part of their practice. I felt to an extent that I was making art for participants who were extremely comfortable with the form of the residency, so to critique it would have made no sense to them and would not have been of any value. The only permanent members of the park were a groundsperson and an administrator, so I struggled to find a meaningful way of engaging with the surroundings. At one stage I made a picnic of food covered in fish juice to try and invite the wild animals into my studio to see if I could include them in some way. Sadly, they declined my invitation.

This isolation, coupled with very little access to materials other than those in the park, meant that the idea of nature became monolithic, making the notion of “landscape” purely beautiful and awe inspiring, enfolding us in a kind of perpetual engagement with the sublime.

Interestingly, the perceived assumptions of the needs of the artist as wanting singular and insular creative engagement through a kind of Waldenesque swoon with the landscape made by the facilitators of the residency came into sharp focus around issues of disability and access. One of the practitioners who had a congenital hip condition was given a beautiful studio, but was too far away from the communal house where we were staying. The artist had difficulty accessing the facilities of the house, as the steps were too high for him to comfortably negotiate. It seemed as if the assumed “higher” ideals of the creative process were being catered for, while the real material conditions that frame and enact that creative process were largely ignored.

Inside

From my materials to my concepts, I work very differently from McKenzie. I did embrace the quiet solitude and think space for writing and editing film and also working through my ideas. I live literally beneath the Manhattan Bridge in New York, and the subway runs across the bridge throughout the night; I can hear it in my bedroom. Quietness for full focus does not come easily everyday. I will admit I brought Thoreau’s Walden with me, as it had been sitting on my shelf to be read for a long time and I thought it would help me work through ideas for the film project I wanted to focus on. I ended up only reading sections and found the introduction by Bill McKibens the most illuminating for my research.

The concern in my work is not a simple communion with nature, even though I use a lot of natural materials and settings. It is about a philosophical and psychological approach to discussing relationships between the self, community and environments through objects and storytelling. Two questions Thoreau proposed in Walden — how much is enough? how we do we really know what we want? — were questions I used as springboards for thinking through these narratives. He uses the word “outside” to mean going far away from culture (which could be done in ways that don’t have anything to do with being outdoors at all, if one chose), and the “enchanter” is his character for culture, which can take us very far from ourselves. It causes us to need it and can push away self-reliance. Walden was Thoreau’s treatise on civil disobedience, but I found these questions relevant to why artists are artists — to only operate outside of imposed systems.

I find these questions applicable to McKenzie’s work, too. As he told me:

The premise upon which the park ethos was built did not address the ontological processes of knowledge and how that ontology is intrinsic to creative production. I felt I was walking into a situation where the “freedom” to create was built upon a series of (supposedly) neutral assumptions about nature and creativity that in fact were prescriptive. As a politicised queer performance artist, I have always felt that “nature” has been the smoking gun forcefully placed against our heads. These assumptions dominated the larger ideological contexts of the residency and the surrounding, overtly straight culture of rural Connecticut.

Perversely, rather than feeling free to challenge my assumptions and creative processes, I felt all that I could do was to make a piece of work that overtly staged queerness and, by implication, engaged with (unfortunately) nature. The piece I created was rather combative in some respects. Dressed as a monstrous and pissed-off drag queen stomping through the forest with a gun, while challenging, did not offer the kind of nuanced engagement with place and site that my work at home contained.

A quieter sense of critique occurred through my involvement with Thanatopolis, a space in the park that focused upon memorialisation and remembrance. Once again, the inherent politicised contexts regarding death and dying were not explored or engaged with. The images and sculptures contained in this memorial site were environmental, poetic and “spiritual.” I wanted to trouble this archive of remembrance by employing the overtly nostalgic and memorialising strategy of writing and reciting a poem that addressed queer history. I hoped that it would sit alongside the other testimonies and enter into a dialogue about inclusion and exclusion, the politicisation of death (the AIDS crisis in the ’80s and the lack of adequate health care and prejudice in America at that time), and the exploration of alternative histories. This seemed an altogether more subtle approach to context, and one that allowed for contemplation and response, a sharing of the space of the memorial park rather than the negation and satire that my drag queen persona occupied.

My art is influenced by alchemy and is an exploration of crossing between insular and exterior worlds. I work with many objects that we surrounding ourselves with both intentionally and unintentionally, mixing them with text. In alchemy, experiments and inventions occur in communion with nature and culture, and one goal of the alchemist is personal transmutation, or gaining “the philosopher’s stone.” Alchemy uses a complex system of individual and universal symbols that integrate the self with the external to elevate consciousness. It does this by adding code to materials, just as nature does.

Goethe studied alchemy as well, before he went on to write his literary works. His study and practice contributed greatly to his development of plant morphology and extensive writings on color theory. He believed that the processes that underlie plant growth are reflected in our spiritual development as human beings. Nature was not only a book of  knowledge of the laws of sciences and systems but also a book of knowledge of the individual self and the collective culture. He made an important contribution to bridging the connection between alchemy and modern science.

At the residency I spent a lot of time outdoors, filming, collecting materials and recording sounds. The film I made, titled “Lux/Nox” and currently in post production, is a collaboration with artist Malado Baldwin that explores transformation and the act of shedding cultural biases and myths through a series of choreographed rituals we designed. I wondered if I could enter that territory without becoming either too cryptic and noncommunicative or too sentimental, and in that process I did confront the question that Thoreau posed: “Who are we without oneself?” What story are we telling when we are not telling our own story?

Anthropologist Wade Davis gave a lecture where he spoke of the time he spent with the Chinchero people of Peru and a ritual he participated in. Once a year the fastest boy in each hamlet is given the honor of becoming a woman. For one day he wears the clothing of his sister, and for that day he leads all able-bodied men on a epic run up and down the mountains for 24 hours. The ritual reinforces the act of going to the mountain as an individual and, through exhaustion and sacrifice, emerging as a community, as well as having the vortex of the feminine (believed to be a source and manifestation of power and magic, organic to all women) brought to the mountain. Davis said, “All people are simply cultural options, different visions of life itself making for completely different possibilities of existence.”

McKenzie’s performance brought this to mind, as some of the surrounding areas of conservative Connecticut were seduced by the “enchanter” of vacant American consumerism, highlighting our need to bring forth human imagination. By critiquing and offering alternatives for how we live, as well as demonstrating possibilities, roles and the power of performance, rituals and ceremony, I see some overlapping concepts in McKenzie and my work, even though they are executed quite differently.

Performance

One of Jordan McKenzie’s “Woolworths Death Masks” (click to enlarge)

In our conversation, McKenzie reflected:

Residencies can extend one’s practice in new and interesting ways, but often they fall short of the complex engagements with context and site that many artists are exploring. I do not leave home to encounter more of the same, and neither can I be the Easy-Jet artist tourist. I do not think that I avoided being a “witness” to the site — my combative resistance didn’t facilitate dialogue in the ways that I would expect back at home, but certainly I experienced the kind of ontological rupture that I hope will stimulate a lasting change in my work and in the ways I would approach residencies in the future. For me, to simply offer creative space in which to make work is not enough. Residencies need to foster and openly engage with their contexts and constantly question the limits of their usefulness to practitioners, to communities and the wider culture that they should be a part of.

I agree with this statement about the role of residencies; however, I also think that most residencies inherently make artists  question their practice and try out new ideas, as any contextual change will. It seems that the challenges McKenzie faced brought him out of his usual approach to working and out of the urban environment; he would not have made this piece otherwise. One of the aspects of the residency I found most valuable was our after-dinner conversations and revisiting this same set of questions each day with more insights. All of the artists in residence with us at the time were very different. The first night I arrived, I remembered a question Karl Jung asked: “If all of life is a dream toward you waking into consciousness — why have you just created the situation you are in with these characters? What do they teach? Why here?”

When I first arrived and explored the grounds of the residency, I came upon the lake that covers a significant portion of the property. I noticed two rowboats near one end and imagined that I’d get up early in the morning to go out in one of them and make sound recordings and film. I did end up in the middle of the lake in a rowboat, but it was accompanied by the groundskeeper to film McKenzie 20 feet above the boat, on a crane, dressed in drag and freaking out in nature. That sums up my experience with the residency overall: it was very different than I thought it would be.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/dedler Don Edler

    Residencies are relevant. They may not be for every artist, but they are relevant. This article seemed to focus more on the relevance of nature to the work of one particular artist at one particular residency rather than dealing with the relevance of residencies overall. Most residencies are not about providing artists the opportunity to experience nature, they are usually about providing artists the opportunity to focus on their work outside of the usual context (limited studio, jobs, limited resources, familiar environments.) This opportunity can be critically important to allowing an artist uninterrupted time and mental space to create work.

    • jonbeer

      They are relevant, and obviously may not be for every artist. I would agree that the title is not quite what the piece was about, and would add that in addition to providing the artist to work outside their usual contexts, residencies also provide the opportunity to create work outside expectations, in whichever form they come. But that opportunity is also up to the artist and their creativity. (Creativity also takes time. Only after completing a two month residency, did I realize that I probably needed at least another two months to really discover something. There is a reason that the artists involved in dOCUMENTA get two years to work, and why the Rome Prize is a year.) Perhaps the question isn’t relevancy, but what conditions might foster a more creative experience for the artists involved.

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