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Artists + Institutions: Can We Find Common Ground?

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Artists+Institutions Summer Salon Series, 2012. Table setting by Notch. | Photo: Courtesy of Mak Center.

In Partnership with SOC(i)AL: Art + People A series of discussions around LA about Socially Engaged Art, September to November 2012. Instigated by Anne Bray of Freewaves.org

On Thursday October 4th, the Mak Center is hosting a free public salon entitled Artists+Institutions: Common Ground at the historic Schindler house. This "real-time, dynamic public performance" is the capstone event to a series of intimate summer salons with invited guests who represented various positions and roles along the continuum of artists and institutions. The entire project is a collaboration between artists David Burns and Sara Daleiden, Mak Center director Kimberli Meyer, featuring Sarah Beadle and the collective Notch as well as artist Christina Sanchez. I sat down with Burns, Daleiden, and Meyer to discuss both the summer salons and the upcoming public event, as well as what challenges and urgent concerns drove them to produce such an ambitious dialogical project. We explored the real or perceived chasm between the needs of artists and the needs of institution, wondered how to negotiate that rambunctious terrain together, and acknowledged that in coming to essential understandings, we have more power to collectively change the structure of things than we think.

Sue Bell Yank: I came to the July Salon, and I was wondering what the impetus was of this whole initiative, and how the public event caps it off.

David Burns: To explain the origins, Fallen Fruit working with LACMA was the original thought bubble, which was from a conversation I had with some of the artists who were going to be working on the November 7th 2010 Let Them Eat LACMA event, who were really just confused about how you work with an institution as an artist and how you deal with things that are really pragmatic, like legal, emotional, or whatever. And that conversation kind of faded because I was working on that project, and afterwards, it didn't leave my brain. I approached a few people about making something happen not knowing what that would be, maybe thinking bigger, or in a different way. Something that was more formal and organized. It occurred to me that one of the best choices was to approach Kimberli [Meyer] as a partner/collaborator, and we started talking, and she said, "Hey, I think this is something Sara [Daleiden] should be involved in" and then within half of a meeting I was like "Oh my god, this is probably the right thing, let's move forward somehow."

Sue Bell Yank: How did you two [Kimberli Meyer and Sara Daleiden] find your way into this idea, what did it mean for you?

Kimberli Meyer: I immediately thought it was a good idea, not knowing what kind of form it would take, that actually took a little time and it wasn't until the three of us got together that we really nailed down what the form was, but I think this idea of trying to find a space, a neutral territory in a way, to talk and bring people from various sides and positions together to have candid conversations was very appealing to me. Partly that has to do with the kinds of questions that we ask ourselves internally a lot at the Mak Center that relate to the roles of us, the Mak Center staff, the roles of artists that we work with, the roles of curators that we work with, and everything in between. I feel like more and more that people don't just have one role, that there are multiple roles and there is a whole continuum. It seemed like a good idea to give that more outward form.

Sara Daleiden: This is a totally unique collaboration for me because I have empathy and connection in two different routes. Kimberli had spoken to me about it because I had collaborated with the Mak Center on a whole slew of projects in the last seven years, and I really appreciate the Mak Center institutionally, I can't compare it to any other institution in my life in terms of how experiments can happen and how it can both exist in the landscape of institutions in Los Angeles, but how it's scale and flexibility allows for a certain kind of production and thought that I just think is rare here. And with David I just feel a comparative practice, I mean you talk about LACMA, I can talk about [The Los Angeles Urban] Rangers and MOCA Engagement Party, you know, and there's all these sets of questions. What does it mean when artists are acting like institutions, taking a lot of the producing roles on...maybe that we want to, part of it's just great, deep frustration, part of it is registration of the economic climate we're in now. My hope for this program that has come out of the summer salons, and I'm excited for this moment of congealing it publicly with this event, is that these core questions get us to ask how we want to structure production. Whether it's the institutional end, or the dynamic between the artist and the institution. Questions like, for those of us coming out of social and public practice, what is needed to encourage and support these practices? From the artists' perspectives, how do we get funding when the economic climate has changed so much, and the political layers associated with that? To me, there always a deep layer about labor going on, and the history of how labor has gotten defined in art production that's up on the table. It's painful at moments, but there are things about that we can adjust. I think those are some of the core motivators that I saw, and I saw these two different frames on it by working with David and Kimberli. I've seen those questions come up in the salons because we have a range of people that conceptualize themselves in those roles and sometimes multiple roles that have been at the table in those discussions, so they already naturally themselves are negotiating, just like the three of us. There is no polarization, like you're just an institution, you're just an artist, it's already this hybrid zone of action.

Sue Bell Yank: Can you guys talk a little bit more about how you invited participants to the salons? It seemed curated loosely to some extent, but I wonder what the process was and how you felt people actually ended up showing up to that.

Kimberli Meyer: Well, between the three of us we made a really big list, I mean, a huge list.

David Burns: Well, it wasn't super huge, it wasn't thousands.

Kimberli Meyer: No, it was, I don't know how many it was, hundreds.

David Burns: Hundred plus, a little over a hundred.

Kimberli Meyer: I guess we were just trying to think of people who would be representative of different positions along the continuum of artists and institutions. Ones who have been active in some way, and certainly in the artist category we had a tendency to choose artists who were not doing traditional studio-based practices that would have a dealer and then would get a big show at a major museum, that more traditional way, we were looking at artists who were working collaboratively or performatively and were apt to be involved in these kind of education programs that were trying to become more relevant like Engagement Party, or like the Hammer's Public Engagement program. We felt like, that's one of these areas where it becomes really interesting in terms of labor and in terms of what art means because it's in a certain context, it's in the education department versus the curatorial department. So we tended to invite those artists rather than those with standard studio-based practices. We also wanted to invite some funders because we felt that was very much part of the equation, curators, people from education departments, and also people from smaller organizations that fit that hybrid role. Once we got that list together, we felt it was important not to "curate" each particular dinner, we said, "okay, here's our list, here's the dates, first come first serve." We actually didn't want to make a hierarchy within that list.

David Burns: No place cards, everything was as anonymous as possible.

Kimberli Meyer: So what was interesting to me was the mix that you got. There was a certain amount of control and there was a certain amount of chance. It was the summer, so who knew who could come at what time, and nobody knew who else was going, so each time we got a really great mix.

David Burns: It's sort of like the conversation you have on the side, with your friend or you peer, or someone you are aligned with. It's that side chat where you are critical or congratulatory or both, but it's not the conversation you're willing to have with a group because you feel like there's no place to have that conversation. It's not like what you're saying is negative or bad, in fact it's probably essential, you're just not sharing it with the whole party. For this version, we have the opportunity to bring the public back into the conversation, which I think is amazing, it's incredibly good fortune. Because I think having it be a bit exclusive at first is a necessary thing, so the conversations can be neutralized or equitable.

Sara Daleiden: When you're dealing with terrain that's tense, that's shocking or that we don't quite know how to manage, it's like setting up a platform to process, to collectively process. I think when you're in process mode and not in statement mode, it's important to have some boundaries. That's one of the things I'm curious about for next week, how much it still feels like a process, like a public process.

Sue Bell Yank: So the questions that you are providing to the public, are those meant to deepen or to broaden? To deepen some of the issues brought up in the salons, or to open it up again?

Sara Daleiden: I think they are remixing the original questions brought up at the summer salons. We had so many, that these are refinements. So in some way we are actually going into public dialogue with the similar questions. So it's an interesting question to see--

Kimberli Meyer: --which way it goes. I'm certainly interested in broadening the discussion to a certain extent. It was perfect, it couldn't have been any better to have that limited group over the summer. It had to be that small and it had to be that kind of a group, but now what I'll be curious about is that we will broaden it and get people who have varying degrees of involvement in the art world and may even be on the outside, I'm curious about where the conversation will go. There is this propensity we have in the art world to just talk to each other, to just talk to ourselves. We get very wrapped up in our concerns and I'm curious, to somebody coming from the outside, how is that going to look to them. Like the questions of labor in the art world, nobody gets paid very well. Some of us don't get paid anything, most are grossly underpaid, there's a few people in the art world who get paid a lot, but mostly it would collapse if not for underpayment. But that's kind of true in the world at large. So if you have someone coming in going, "well, yeah, that's the way capitalism works, why the hell should art be any different?" That's the kind of thing that didn't happen in the summer conversations but I would welcome that.

David Burns: The original salon questions were generated anonymously by the group, so they really are self-reflexive to the individual that wrote them. In terms of the questions for the public, the repeats, because there were duplicate topics and language, those were removed. And from that, the choice-making was about non-repetition and clarity. So we kept whatever was the clearest question. Because some of the questions were essays. So that was the editorial process, to keep vibrancy and to keep the topic changing so the conversations don't get stuck.

Sara Daleiden: I'd like to give credit to Anne Bray in all of this, whose a huge influence to me in my practice, conversational practice. It was a natural alignment for us because she structured the whole SOCiAL: Art + People series through questions, because I think that's how she stimulates public dialogue, so we feel flexibility with one another to be able to put out ideas without everything having to feel so position-based. I think her argument would be that, in terms of civic dialogue, we tend to not say things and not engage each other because we think everything has to be so determined. We have these polarizing political parties, which is just an example of that. I think there's something about the listening you brought up earlier and the formation of a very good question, which is part of the collaborative production of all this. We're trying to articulate questions because we all seek orientation right now. We really need it. It's very disconcerting, it's discombobulating to be practicing in the market, in these institutions the way that they are right now. No matter what your position is, I think.

Sue Bell Yank: And I think that we're seeing all of this just unfolding right now, in the world at large, not just the art world. The way that media and production is shifting, it's going to drastically change society and it's all just playing out.

David Burns: I completely agree with you. From the research and recent projects I've gotten to work on via Fallen Fruit and the things I'm seeing happening to the organizations we pay attention to as markers, I completely agree. The nature of what you're describing will probably be transparent and it will be impossible to unwind.

Sue Bell Yank: It will be constant paradigm shifts.

Sara Daleiden: And just to go to the other side of it, maybe in our innocence and naivete, I also feel like there's this other layer to this project - I always think about how to produce intimacy. We don't even know how to converse or interact with each other, and that informed the structure of what we did with the salons. This is kind of like a baby step into a public forum with bigger numbers, like how do we retain that sensation?

Artists+Institutions Summer Salon Series, 2012. Table setting by Notch. Photo Courtesy Mak Center
Artists+Institutions Summer Salon Series, 2012. Table setting by Notch. Photo Courtesy Mak Center

David Burns: Maybe that's why the number of chairs at the tables are so restricted.

Sara Daleiden: I think we're still training in it. We've forgotten some of it.

David Burns: I think intimacy is critical and necessary, that was one of the things that we all were on the same page about, was keeping it really real and vulnerable.

Sue Bell Yank: And I feel like Notch plays some role to that effect.

David Burns: Huge.

Kimberli Meyer: Definitely.

Sara Daleiden: Absolutely.

Sue Bell Yank: Social lubricant.

Sara Daleiden: Generous and thoughtful, and aesthetic too. To remind us that that was a value that drove us all to be in the arts, too. Poetics. Aesthetics.

Sue Bell Yank: So what's next with these salons? Is this a sustainable format? What do you hope will come out of this experiment?

Kimberli Meyer: There's the conversations we have within our organizations to keep ourselves in check and provide some kind of easy way for people to criticize us, accountability, which basically serves the institution's own ends and own mission; and then how do you make that something that's more broadly applicable to the field itself? And that's more complicated. With our organization, it's always easy to bring in trusted advisors to have these discussions but from there it's harder because there is such a wide range of activities and needs and perspectives and financial situations. It's a really good question, what's next. Do we need more of these kinds of conversations? If so, how will they function? I think that's a huge question.

Sue Bell Yank: And these salons have managed to walk that line really well. I think you're right, I think it can tip over into "we are not talking on the same page, you're over here and I'm over here and this is not helpful at all," and then there's the internal, like "we're going to focus on these specific issues that only have to do with our situation," but then how do you bridge that gap?

Kimberli Meyer: What we're up to is that we're addressing the whole ecosystem, because essentially that's really where we all are sitting. That's the larger context, and in some ways, we have more control than we think if we act that way about how to construct that ecosystem.

Sara Daleiden: Is there a reason to, annually or biannually, have a salon series to take the temperature and reset the questions?

Kimberli Meyer: I'm curious, if we did do another salon series in a year or two years, even open it nationally and internationally, would the questions change? That would be really interesting, to see how we're all doing, what the conditions are like, whether things are shifting in one direction or another, what the concerns become.

David Burns currently lives and works in Southern California; his BFA is from CalArts and he received his MFA from UC Irvine. His recent projects have been presented around the world; The Getty Center, Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art, The Tate Modern, ARCO 2010 Madrid, Seoul Museum of Art, Ars Electronica, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Netherlands Architecture Institute at Maastricht, The Canadian Centre for Architecture, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, The Armory Center for the Arts, Machine Project, and more. Reviews and publishing on his recent works may be seen in The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Art in America, ArtForum, Artillery, X-tra, Cabinet, Los Angeles Magazine, The L.A. Weekly, The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest and others. Recent curatorial projects include: Artists+Institutions at MAK Center, Los Angeles, Sight Of Place for University Art Galleries at UC Irvine, Let Them Eat LACMA for The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Fallen Fruit of Utah for Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, The Drama of the Gifted Child for The Armory Center for the Arts, BUMP for Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and Embodied Technologies for Art Interactive & Leonardo.

s(o)ul, through the direction of Sara Daleiden, focuses on cultural production and exchange through the creation of social interactions in developing landscapes. With a relationship to the arts, education and advocacy, s(o)ul consults with nonprofit and for profit entities, as well as cultural workers from many disciplines. With bases in Los Angeles and Milwaukee, the agency offers initiatives and platforms which encourage active interpretation and embodied exploration of local places valuing public space, civic participation, economic sustainability, pedestrian awareness and celebration of difference. Collaboration has been project-based or ongoing with Being Pedestrian, CicLAvia, Freewaves, Friends of Blue Dress Park, Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, Los Angeles Urban Rangers, MAK Center for Art and Architecture, Milwaukee Artist Resource Network, MKE<->LAX, and Suzanne Lacy.

Educated and trained as both an architect and an artist, Kimberli Meyer has been the director of the MAK Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House in West Hollywood since 2002. She has initiated and curated many programs at the Center, including How Many Billboards? Art In Stead, which presented 21 newly commissioned artworks on Los Angeles billboards, co-curated with Lisa henry, Nizan Shaked, and Gloria Sutton; and Sympathetic Seeing: Esther McCoy and the Heart of American Modernist Architecture and Design, co-curated with Susan Morgan.

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