Los Angeles

Wonderful Chaotic Shapes of Collaboration: Alexandra Grant and Chiara Giovando

Raul Baltazar, Zoe Crosher, and Chiara Giovando at work in the Interior Forest. | Courtesy of Alexandra Grant.
In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center
18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest is a multi-faceted project by Los Angeles-based artist Alexandra Grant encompassing a series of public drawing sessions, reading groups, artist collaborations and an installation at 18th Street Arts Center.

Chiara Giovando is an artist and the co-director of Human Resources, a Los Angeles arts non-profit that champions the work of performance artists and ephemeral or time-based art practices. Chiara was a participant in the Interior Forest, a project at 18th Street Arts Center that we organized around the work of the French philosopher Hélène Cixous. This interview stems from their shared concerns about collaboration, temporary works, and the economics and ethics of participatory art projects.
- Alexandra Grant

Chiara Giovando: For some time now you have been interested in collaboration. This shows up in your painting practice, where you develop a specific visual language in response to the work of different writers -- for example, your long-time collaboration with Michael Joyce. Could you speak about what these partnerships have revealed to you? How they affect your process?

Alexandra Grant: My work investigates where text becomes image and vice versa. I start with specific texts for these explorations in painting, drawing, and other media, and as a result have collaborated with many diverse kinds of writing and writers, both dead and living. My preference is to work with literary texts, both poetry and prose, that are full of imagery and signifiers and lend themselves to a mapping or parsing process.

When I began my career, I collaborated mostly with dead poets; Pablo Neruda's "El Gran Verano," for example, or Sylvia Plath's "You're" were favorites. Dead poets make for easy collaborators, but the conversation is ultimately imaginary and one-sided. Even when I worked with the verse of Wislawa Szymborska, who was living at the time, I didn't know her personally. I allowed myself such freedom, the freedom of mistranslation, really, to turn her "Possibilities" into giant spiderwebs of wire sculpture, with hubs at each line of the poem that begin "I prefer..."

I use painting as a place to map language but also to express my response as a reader. If I like a phrase, I can repeat it, expand it, change its color. If I have a negative response to a sentence, I can scratch it out, paint it over, and so on. I use painting as a platform for textual exegesis.

I'm often asked why I haven't written my own texts. Working with a writer or a text I admire is a commitment to an idea bigger than myself, and a commitment to make the text come alive. When I began collaborating with Michael Joyce, I had been searching for a living writer interested in having a real exchange and open to their work being transformed by me. I had approached several other writers and had been asked, "How will they (the audience) know the words are mine?" I attribute Michael's openness and generosity in part to his background as a pioneer of hypertext fiction, interested in a model of creativity affiliated with the idea of an "open source code."

"Second Portal (eye)," The Six Portals, 2008, Mixed media on paper, 115 7/8 x 80 inches. | Courtesy of Alexandra Grant.

I stumbled on Michael's work searching for the word "domesticity" on the internet and found his work "reach," a hypertext on the Iowa Review. Something in the DNA of the writing -- and at the time, I didn't know it was Michael's writing -- made me think, lightning-think, that this was what I was looking for. I recognized it. I didn't Google Michael; I didn't know who he was until later. I wrote him asking for permission to use his text in my work. I had already been drawing and painting a visual system of chains of words, all concatenated and linked. This was the perfect form for my collaboration with Michael, in which language was represented as being both biological and logical.

"babel," (after Michael Joyce's "Was," 2006), 2006, mixed media on paper, 80" x 264". | Courtesy of Alexandra Grant.

For many of the series I did with Michael, from "nimbus" to the "Six Portals," we discussed a theme and a format first. Then Michael would retreat to process and write, and then email me the text. Starting with his texts, I'd begin a series. In the case of the painting "babel," he gave me a novel he had written called "was." That was the longest text I had worked with to date -- and it became the largest painting I've ever made alone, a landscape with fore, middle, and backgrounds. The idea of a landscape of language echoed the themes of Michael's books.

With "Ode to Happiness," a text by Keanu Reeves, I had to sit with it for many months, until I woke up one morning and said, "Aha! It's meant to be a book." It was the first project I'd done separating the text from the image, which ultimately opened up new possibilities for me. In deciding on the artists' book format, I allowed myself to illustrate. "The Songs of Maldoror" -- a work I did for LACMA's exhibition "Drawing Surrealism" -- was text-specific and site-specific, in that I created both a unique vocabulary for that horrific text, but also a distribution economy; it was a newsprint piece that was free to be taken away by the viewer.

For each project, I not only create a specific formal response but also think through the ethics of the text, the economics of distribution and how the audience might receive the work. As a result, each project has its own unique vocabulary. And, as a series of works, they track my own evolution as an artist.

"Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest" at 18th Street Arts Center. | Courtesy of Alexandra Grant.

The "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest" project at 18th Street Arts Center is based on an exchange with Hélène Cixous and her book "Philippines." The book is about telepathic exchange and shared dreaming -- these subjects are the book's form as well as its content. The challenge was finding a way to represent the book -- based on the philosophy and autobiography of Cixous, as well as of concepts from Freud and Derrida -- that was equal to both its ideas and its form.

CG: You have been called a "radical collaborator" -- a term used in tech speak to describe interactive modular systems of collaboration; Wikipedia, for example, is a platform for radical collaboration. I like this in reference to your current project "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest"; a site-specific installation that is the result of a series of public drawing workshops you have held in the gallery at 18th Street Arts Center that respond to Hélène Cixous' book "Philippines," open through June 28th. With this project, there seems to be a shift occurring in your practice where you have constructed a system for large-scale collaboration that extends your studio practice into the public realm. What provoked this shift?

AG: The idea of radical collaboration speaks to the idea of collaboration as a methodology. The Encyclopedia Brittanica wasn't written by a single author; it was collaborative, but in establishing its authoritative voice, individual authorship was erased. In contrast, Wikipedia might be considered a radical collaboration. On that platform, authorship is open-ended, individual voices can be traced, and the technology allows room for debate. Definitions, in Wikipedia, are essentially shifting and living.

Drawing at "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest." | Courtesy of Alexandra Grant.

I've done collaborative work both inside the studio with writers and outside the studio as a teacher, a social practitioner (with projects like the "Love House" with Watts House Project), and philanthropic work with the grantLOVE project. Before the Interior Forest, I'd never directly involved or opened up the studio to the public. The main provocation was Cixous' book and her practice as both a philosopher and a playwright. But it was my own experience working with others in previous collaborations that gave me the confidence and skills to invite others to join me in an open studio.

Drawing at "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest." | Courtesy of Alexandra Grant.

"Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest" is really about sharing intimacy, reading together, and drawing together. Since January, we've been holding a bimonthly Cixous reading group, and I invited the public to come and draw with me for a period of seven weeks at 18th Street Arts Center. Both reading and drawing are activities that are generally done in solitude, that inspire the imagination and our fantasy lives. So in essence, both "Philippines" and "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest" are invitations to come together to contemplate the possibility of a shared dream.

CG: It is interesting that "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest" is opening in Los Angeles during the same time as "Urs Fischer" at MOCA, also a large public collaboration. In "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest" you name each collaborator while Fischer does not. What is the importance of naming each of the participants?

Drawing at "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest." | Courtesy of Alexandra Grant.

AG: I finally went to see the Urs Fischer installation at MOCA in Little Tokyo, and I understand why you and others have asked me to compare the projects. While my first reactions to seeing Urs' show at MOCA were about the formal differences and similarities of working collaboratively -- and the phenomenological response to all that clay -- I realized that the essential difference between the two projects was a difference of ethics and economy.

In "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest," my job as an artist was to offer hospitality, to welcome the participants and explain that they were the expected, but also unknown, other. Each person was given a tour of the project and an explanation of the concept of the show -- dreaming together, the perfect other, the work of Cixous and how I'd come by "Philippines." We talked about the materials, and yes, I reassured those who needed it that "everyone can draw." Then I explained that everyone who participated would be named, not only in the exhibition materials, but also in a book of signatures that will be part of the final piece.

I decided to make the economics transparent: when the drawing -- "The Perfect Other" -- sells, a donation will be made back to 18th Street Arts Center so that they can continue their mission as a nonprofit. Every participant knows where their generosity is going, that it is being paid forward. I'm not privy to the economics of Urs Fischer's project, but I'd be interested to read an assessment of the differences of the two projects in economic terms. It seems to me that Urs' relationship to his collectors and benefactors -- to the market-driven art world -- is reflected the work's authorship (identified in wall text as "Urs Fischer with the help of 1,500 people from LA").

To be entirely open, my entire residency at 18th Street had a budget of $5,000, which was distributed among collaborators, materials for drawing and sculpture, graphic design, and snacks for the many nights the public was invited to draw together. Friends of the project are joining me in a fundraiser from June 20 through 22 at ForYourArt so that we can make a record of the "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest" project at 18th Street Arts Center and its mirror-image project, which will take place in Paris at the nonprofit space Mains d'Oeuvres from August to October.

Interior Forest exhibition checklist. | Photo: Emily Butts.

CG: Urs Fischer has formally consumed his collaborators in his installation at MOCA by unifying the sculptural medium; all the works are made in grey unfired clay. In contrast, you have made available a multitude of colors and materials. Various drawing, painting, and collage elements are scattered about the gallery for use, thus making more explicit the individual voices that have come to participate. It seems brave to make a work like "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest." Your paintings have become so closely affiliated with you as images, even branded in a way, appearing on a recent clothing line by Clover Canyon. Can you talk about the position of relinquishing aesthetic control?

AG: Seeing all the clay, my companions and I couldn't help but think of words like Pompeii, funeral, zombies, cemetery, death... I didn't dislike the installation, it just seemed -- and forgive the lack of criticality here -- sad. What struck me formally is that it seemed like each person's contribution was solitary, like an individual tombstone. In contrast, the painting in "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest" appears surprisingly seamless, which I attribute to the unifying principle of Hélène's book. We were all working together to tell a story that was big enough for all of our voices. And though I love color in my own practice, I can only claim to have offered it as one of many options. I did try to insert large neutral negative spaces and would turn away only to find another person had filled them up again with words and images. I worked alongside other artists until the very last minute, never having the chance to editorialize on my own.

There's one area that has a word in a bubble -- someone painted an homage to my older work! I found it funny that the only visible "Alexandra Grant" was painted by someone else. I have moved on from that work because it has become a brand, literally -- the grantLOVE project.

You ask about relinquishing creative control. I've always felt that the best works of art should be able to stand on their own, without the props of explanation or posturing. Perhaps this was the same sense that Michael Joyce has about his texts when he sends them to me, that they will somehow last, stand up, and be understood. My work -- not always, but when it is successful -- has a strong voice even when I'm not there. My new series of paintings and sculptures called "Century of the Self" became the basis of a clothing line with the Los Angeles brand Clover Canyon. Rozae Nichols (the force behind Clover Canyon) is an expert collaborator who respects imagery and art. Rozae is also an expert at two things that I'm not: designing for the three dimensions of the human body -- the curves of the female body, in particular -- as well as for the fourth dimension of movement through space and time. What the Clover Canyon team did was bring my 2-D work into four dimensions, and I am still thrilled by their creativity. In sum, I trusted them, and that's how I work best.

Clover Canyon + Alexandra Grant Collection. | Courtesy of Clover Canyon.

CG: You have said that when Hélène Cixous invited you to respond to her writing, she asked that you focus on "telepathy" and the idea of the "perfect other". Your response was something like, "I'm not sure what telepathy is!" Instead you are building the place in Cixous' text that the perfect other exists, the interior forest, so you are building a space of potential. Is this also a space of exile, another thread that runs through "Philippines"?

AG: About four years ago, Hélène entrusted me with a manuscript of Philippines with her own notes for her publisher. Both honored and terrified, I retreated and read the book for a year, and returned to her with a list of twenty or so questions, mostly wondering about her neologisms --"letherature"? I didn't know what she meant by telepathy but felt a responsibility to understand. Here was a writer who had founded Paris VIII with Michel Foucault and read to Jacques Lacan when he was going blind. I was aware that I was being transmitted to -- no, I was aware that I had received a transmission, and needed to understand it better. On my second visit to discuss "Philippines," Hélène explained that "telepathy is one step further than empathy."

I went away again to meditate on that idea and on her writings on collaboration in theatre. I realized that by "telephathy" she might mean a sharing of emotion and thought, of dreaming and reality that doesn't privilege one person over another. Or, in philosophic terms, an experience of emotion that doesn't privilege the self over the other. The "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest" is about telepathic communication -- a kind of communication where emotions and memories are shared without privileging one's self over the other.

Ultimately -- and I just realized this now -- what she was really talking about was love. Loving through memory and distance -- even the distance between the living and the dead. At the time she wrote "Philippines," Jacques Derrida had just passed away. They were the closest of friends. In "Philippines," she writes that she imagines he's still her first reader.

So I wouldn't say exile, but rather distance. Bridging the distance between the self and the other.

Drawing at "Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest." | Courtesy of Alexandra Grant.

CG: Do the jumbled shapes and chaotic spectrums of an open collaborative artwork somehow reflect a space of painting? Painting as a space where aesthetics are not bound to an individual but are adapting to circumstance?

AG: I returned to the studio this week, to my solitary work. And I made myself laugh when I found myself yearning for someone to surprise me and draw a deep-sea diver or a serpent in the middle of my work. I missed the Interior Forest. I would never just draw a deep-sea diver or a serpent on my own, I thought. And then I asked myself, why not?

The experience of the Interior Forest -- of trusting, of drawing together -- suggested, both to me and to some of the other artists who joined me, that as artists we can and must open up how we draw. As Whitman famously wrote, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes." The experience suggests to me that painting, in fact, is a collaboration between the painter and the many selves she contains.

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Starting today at 11 am, you can come to ForYourArt, 6020 Wilshire Blvd for the Forêt Intérieure/Interior Forest fundraiser and purchase a tree drawings donated from over 100 artists! The hours of the fundraiser are Thursday - Friday, 11am-6pm, and Saturday, 11am-8pm, with the Live Auction and Party closing at 8pm. Or bid online one-of-a-kind sculptures here:

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Top Image: Raul Baltazar, Zoe Crosher, and Chiara Giovando at work in the Interior Forest. Courtesy of Alexandra Grant.

About the Author

Alexandra Grant is a text­based artist who uses language and networks of words as the basis for her work in painting, drawing and sculpture.
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