Interviews

Meet the US Southwest’s Art Community: For Laura Copelin, “a Deep Relationship With Place” Opens Up New Avenues

An interview series spotlighting some of the creative community members in the US Southwest. Hear from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

Laura Copelin (courtesy Emma Rogers)

This is the latest installment of the interview series Meet the Art Community of the US Southwest. Check out our past interviews here.

Laura Copelin is MOCA Tucson’s Interim Executive Director & Curator and Ballroom Marfa’s Curator-at-Large. She recently relocated to Arizona from Texas, where she was Ballroom’s Executive Director & Curator. In Marfa she realized numerous exhibitions, commissions, installations, and publications in her five years with the art space including: the first US solo museum exhibition of Solange Pessoa, Longlilonge (2019); Candelilla, Coatlicue, and the Breathing Machine, featuring site-specific commissions from Beatriz Cortez, Candice Lin, and Fernando Palma Rodriguez (2019); the multidisciplinary, group exhibition and reader Hyperobjects co-organized with philosopher/professor Timothy Morton (2018); Tierra. Sangre. Oro. co-organized with rafa esparza, featuring esparza and Carmen Argote, Nao Bustamante, Beatriz Cortez, Timo Fahler, Eamon Ore-Giron, and Star Montana (2017); and six seasons of Artists’ Film International, the international video art collaboration headed by Whitechapel Gallery, with Brigid McCaffrey, The Institute for New Feeling, Arjuna Neuman & Denise Ferreira da Silva, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Carolina Caycedo, and Miguel Fernández de Castro (2014-2020). 

She is organizing The Blessings of the Mystery by Carolina Caycedo and David de Rozas, a commission-based exhibition focused on the landscape of West Texas for Ballroom, opening August 2020. She was previously Assistant Curator at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, and received a dual degree in Art and English from UCLA.

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Where do you consider home?

LA and Southern California are where I grew up, went to school, and where my parents are, so that feels like home, but I try to make home wherever I am. Learning about the plants and animals in different landscapes helps me feel grounded in a place. I miss the plants (and people) in SoCal, but I’m learning more about the Sonoran Desert and am still totally in love with Far West Texas and the Chihuahuan Desert. 

What brought you to Tucson, and when?

I moved to Tucson from Marfa, TX in June of last year, when my partner’s work brought us here. He’s a filmmaker and an artist and now works for PBS within the University of Arizona. We had been in Marfa for five years for my job so it was time to switch off, and then happily, I got connected with MOCA Tucson.

What is the first strong memory you have of art?

I’ve always loved making art, and I’ve always loved museums. I ended up applying to the art school at UCLA after I was there for a year studying literature, so I focused on art and poetry, and some art history. I have several strong memories of museums — LACMA and MOCA made a big impression on me growing up, and later MoMA and the Whitney, the Tate and the Pompidou — I was really lucky to get to visit these places while my brain was forming. From the beginning contemporary art in particular attracted me: those were the exhibitions I wanted to see, and the works that mystified and challenged me the most.

What are you questioning through your practice right now?

Place. One of the great privileges of curatorial practice for me is working to understand context — it is so important to the relevance of a project, and is also endlessly interesting. Locating myself in a place, ecologically, socially, aesthetically, is a process and informs the lines of inquiry that then determine exhibitions and programs. It’s about constellating particularities and relationships, recognizing existing affinities and initiating unexpected connections. To me, a deep relationship with place feels like it opens up an avenue to resist the monolithic and homogenizing energy of the hyper-commercial, globalized art world. Instead, I find richness in what makes a place distinct, what unique aspects and adaptations a place can contribute to a larger conversation, without being subsumed by it. It’s been interesting for me to work outside of major cities, and to see the texture and importance of what is going on between the coasts. 

What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a full schedule of exhibitions for MOCA Tucson, stay tuned! And will open an exhibition at Ballroom Marfa as soon as it is safe, with Carolina Caycedo and David de Rozas called The Blessings of the Mystery. Carolina and David have made a whole suite of new work and a sweeping new film that explores the many histories and claims on land in West Texas. It’s the result of several years of research and is a massively ambitious project the artists have realized and that Ballroom commissioned. I am also deep in the research process for an exhibition that will debut at Ballroom, then hopefully travel to Tucson and elsewhere called Desert to Desert, which will connect artists working in or on desert ecologies across the globe. This has been in the works for several years and I’m excited to see it realized in the semi-near future.

What is the most impactful or memorable art experience you’ve had in the last year?

So many actually: rafa esparza after he broke himself out of a concrete column in front of the White House during his performance, “bust”I’m always astounded by rafa’s focus, integrity and bravery; visiting FLORA arts+nature in Bogota, a super dynamic complex brimming with the energy of artistic practice, as well as seeing a collection of Abel and Wilson Rodríguez’s astounding paintings of the rainforest at Instituto de Visión; and recently seeing Alison Gingeras’s New Images of Man at Blum & Poe and Qiu Ying’s incredible scroll paintings from the Ming Dynasty at LACMA — that exhibition and the inexpressible quality of those masterpieces totally floored me. I mean there are really so many more though…

When you are working a project do you have a specific audience in mind?

Yes and no. Obviously I want my projects to be relevant to a broad swath of people, and try to do what I can to frame ideas clearly and to make artists’ work accessible, while also not underestimating the visitor. For me, it feels like viewers complete the work — artists aren’t working in a vacuum, and the public is participating and co-creating culture. So it’s my job to gather the resources and set the stage and then to get out of the way. That’s when the magic happens, when art sparks new ideas and new ideas manifest artworks. 

What questions do you feel aren’t being asked of or by creative people in your community?

I feel like creative people always give more than they ask for — it’s so important to re-assert again and again that artists’ work is valuable and that they deserve to be paid fairly. Sometimes, and for some people, I know it can feel difficult to ask for proper remuneration, but it’s so important and sets a standard.

How do you experience art and culture?

Through every channel available to me, it seems. Lots more email and online reading than I’d like, especially now, with COVID. Otherwise it’s normally through studio visits, books, magazines, concerts, visiting other exhibitions, making exhibitions, going to readings, performances, galleries, art fairs, etc, etc. It’s very relational for me — I’ll pick up on something that interests me, suddenly find it popping up everywhere, and I’ll try to follow the breadcrumbs. I learn so much from being in conversation with friends and artists, I am always interested in what excites the people I’m in dialogue with — curiosity provokes more curiosity, just like generosity creates more generosity.  

When I feel optimistic about “the art world” (the many art worlds, really), I’d say we’re all creating culture collectively, making and affirming and looking and looping back and criticizing and questioning and undoing and redoing. It all creates this weave that gets stronger the more people participate, the more that gets added into the mix. Also, I can’t not think of culture in the bacterial sense, and the same logic holds there, the more diversity in a system — like a ferment, a microbiome, a layer of soil — the more resilience and health and vibrancy. The incredible artist/activist/ecologist Nance Klehm made that comparison in a class she was leading, and the idea has never left me.

Who in your community of artists, curators, archivists, organizers, directors, etc. is inspiring you right now?

I am inspired by so many, but am moved daily by the persistence and kindness of my friends and colleagues at Ballroom Marfa and MOCA Tucson — nonprofit work is not easy and these exceptional people do it with thoughtfulness and great care. 

Being in dialogue with artists is such a tremendous privilege, and resets my mind and spirit — helping me, and all of us, imagine that other worlds are possible. I am so grateful for the practices and generosities of artists like: Beatriz Cortez, rafa esparza, Carolina Caycedo and David de Rozas, Candice Lin, Cecilia Vicuña, Eileen Myles, Mark McKnight, Emilija Škarnulytė, John Finneran, Miguel Fernández de Castro, Michael Dopp, Isaac Resnikoff, Solange Pessoa, Fernando Palma Rodriguez, Randi Malkin Steinberger, Asher Hartman, Saewon Oh, Brian Briggs, Megan May Daalder, my partner, David Fenster, and so many others. All of these brilliant people have totally flipped my thinking and my way of being in the world. 

I am constantly inspired by dear mentors and friends who have shaped and supported me, exceptional and wild thinkers like Elsa Longhauser, Nance Klehm, Timothy Morton, Jay Babcock, Fairfax Dorn, Virginia Lebermann, Mark Allen, Rob Weiner, Liana Krupp, Elise Pepple, and from long ago at UCLA, Lari Pittman, Cal Bedient, Mary Kelly, Barbara Kruger, and Saree Makdisi whose lessons continue to guide my thinking. 

In this immediate moment I’m also totally excited about what Natalie Diaz is up to at Center for Imagination in the Borderlands; am constantly delighted by Sarah Cooper’s many activations and events across LA; really hope I get to see Claudia Rankine’s play Help; try to never miss an exhibition at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography or a reading at the Poetry Center — Li-Young Lee’s latest was electrifying; and am totally in awe of local activist or nonprofit groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, Native Seeds SEARCH, and No More Deaths.

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