Paul Amenta & Ted Lott in Conversation with Kevin Buist

Critical Infrastructure by Paul Amenta & Ted Lott. Bryan Esler Photo.

Paul Amenta & Ted Lott present Critical Infrastructure, in collaboration with DisArt. The installation creates an environment that addresses issues of accessibility in both form and function. The project reimagines the site by temporarily transforming a private space into a fully accessible public space, through a series of ramps and landings which welcome visitors and a wide variety of performances and interventions by other artists.

This interview, which took place at the ArtPrize Hub in Grand Rapids, MI on June 7, 2019, has been edited for length and clarity. It’s part of the Project 1 Exhibition Catalogue, now available to purchase.

KB

So what are you making for Project 1?

PA

We’re creating an accessible pavilion of sorts. It’s a bit of a theater. It’s a music venue. It’s a gathering space. It’s a bar. In many ways it’s like a nightclub masquerading as an art pavilion.

TL

We’re creating a frame for other collaborators to be able to express themselves. The hope is that we can create a frame that transcends a little bit of the sticks and the metal that we’re putting together, and to have it become a place where people have a great time. That’s the alchemy that we’re trying to work with right now: between us, and pieces of wood, and our collaborators.

Ted Lott (left) and Paul Amenta (right). Bryan Esler Photo.

KB

Who are some of those collaborators?

PA

They’re primarily local artists, performers, and musicians. Certainly we’ll be working with people that we’ve worked with in the past so you’ll recognize some of the folks. There’s also going to be a drag show[1] that DisArt’s going to be producing that’s going to be a pretty exciting project.

TL

You know one of the places that we’re hoping to transcend the construction of this is the idea of taking accessibility beyond just the basic math of the situation, and instead making it a welcoming space for everybody to enjoy performances and expression.

KB

Tell me more about DisArt.

PA

They’re collaborators on this project. We started talking to them and meeting with them prior to any design of the space. In some of our earlier projects that we worked on with them, their role was retrofitted onto the thing, so this time we really thought it was important to have them be part of the conversation from the inception. They’re collaborators not only in terms of design but they’re also heavily involved in the programming. They’re also creating what we’re calling this access infrastructure, with standards of accessibility that are not just physical. A large part of previous projects were about the physical accessibility of a site. Certainly that will be there… but they’re moving into this other territory of closed captioning, of live performances and things that are pushing that dialogue forward. That’s really important.

The Grand Rapids Ballet performs at Critical Infrastructure during Voices, programmed by DisArt. Kallie Spidahl Photo.

KB

How did that collaboration with DisArt begin?

PA

The relationship with DisArt began with a class that I was asked to teach at a college. A colleague of mine reached out and said, “Hey I’d like you to consider teaching this class about disability and art.” And I basically said, “I think you’ve got the wrong guy.” She kept pushing and said I had to meet someone named Chris Smit.[2] So Chris came and helped us navigate that space and we just became really good friends. We ended up working on a project with him for the first DisArt festival in 2015 and ever since then we’ve worked together. In the beginning it was about he and Jill Vyn coming out evaluating installations and exhibitions we were creating. His team was really great to work with, coming up with creative solutions.

KB

Paul, as you look at the trajectory of your work stretching back a decade or more, how do you link ideas of sculpture and architecture?

PA

I sort of look at myself as a fake architect really. You know—

TL

I look at myself as a fake artist. [both laugh]

Early rendering of Critical Infrastructure by Lott3Metz Architecture.

PA

Yeah, perfect. That’s why we get along so well. I know enough to be dangerous, basically. Initially it was more about space than architecture. How do you think about space and how does the object, which early on I was calling a performative object, how does that sit in a space with people in and around it? How does it get used? Back in grad school, as part of my thesis project, I was making bars, essentially, and I would co-opt the gallery opening reception. My job at the gallery at the time was to not only hang the show and do all the preparatory work, it was also to prepare for the reception and clean up afterwards. One of my jobs was I had to pour out all the drinks into a big thing, and it’s New York, so I take it down this really narrow staircase to the restroom and it was always a disaster. So I decided to create sculptures that people could pour their drinks into and it helped finish the piece. I would often describe myself as sort of a minimalist even though I really didn’t want to be a minimalist. I didn’t know how to do anything else so I would create these super minimalist pieces that the audience could sort of f*** up by pouring their drinks into it.

TL

You were a fake bartender too.

PA

I’m also a fake bartender. Yeah totally. [laughs]

I WAS THINKING LESS ABOUT SCULPTURE AND MORE ABOUT HOW TO ENGAGE AN AUDIENCE IN A SPACE.

Even though I’m not a performance artist, and I’m certainly not an architect, I was really interested in that engagement aspect. And then when I got involved in doing the SiTE:LAB projects, which was initiated by a project called ACTIVESITE back in 2006, it was about engaging spaces with site specific installations and engaging that space in an interesting way.

TL

That’s how we think about buildings in the city in our architectural practice: exactly the way that he’s describing thinking about the reception space or the space around the sculpture. Ultimately, when we’re putting something up, we have to think about how people on the street are going to interact with it and what their experience is going to be. We’re going to do the best we can for the folks we’re working for, and then there’s a moment where we just have to step back and accept the results.

Ristu Katsumata performs at Critical Infrastructure. Kallie Spidahl Photo.

KB

It seems there’s a common thread of thinking about how you can create environments that create meaning for people even if they’re not coming at it head on. Does that make sense? Even if people aren’t saying “Ok, I’m looking at an artwork…” That’s the thing with the reception, you never quite know if people are even talking about the work. It’s an interesting space to claim.

TL

One of the hard lessons of my graduate school was the idea that nobody cares about the big ideas in your building. You can have lofty ideas; you can have complex ideas; you can have mathematical ideas—but nobody really cares, right? The issues are how they experience it, how they use it, and how they feel about it. We don’t own it anymore. Once you’re finished with it everybody else owns it and establishes its value. We’ve actually been talking about that a lot lately as part of this work.

KB

There’s a certain way of working that you had set up with SiTE:LAB. How does that way of working either extend into this project or not? What’s remaining similar, what’s shifting and what’s new?

PA

This particular project [Critical Infrastructure] grew out of a proposal we were developing for a Bloomberg grant about a year ago. We were looking at a site in an area of town that we’re not from and started to ask the question of how you go into a neighborhood that you’re not a part of and create something for a community and what does that look like and—

TL

And what does that mean?

PA

And what does it mean, right. And should we even be doing it? So as the proposal started to develop it became very clear that what we were hoping to accomplish with it was to essentially create an infrastructure, a platform of sorts, for the community to then take over. Build a thing, get it started, and then walk away and say now it’s yours and do it with it what you want. Add on to it, tear down whatever. That led into this project where we’re creating a platform that we’re going to hand over to everybody else—the performers, the audience, the community— and the project is successful based on their participation at the site. We’re building out the space, this accessible space, and we’re asking people to come in and use it and abuse it however they wish.

Bryan Esler Photo.

TL

But this is quite an evolution in Paul’s career as a fake architect… [Paul laughs] you know because he’s talking about what I do all the time as an architect, right? This idea that we’re going to do the best we can for the folks we’re working for and then there’s a moment where we’re just gonna have to step back and accept the results.

KB

But you still have a responsibility of framing the activity. Framing that will enable certain activities and maybe discourage or lead people away from other activities. So what are you trying to encourage and enable in the form of the space?

TL

One of the things that we talked about immediately as a response to this specific site was how do we provide not just multiple vantage points but multiple performance points, multiple access points, multiple user points for varying things. We are anticipating that at one moment somebody is a spectator, and then maybe fifteen minutes later they’re a performer. If you look at the rendering of what we’re creating and you think that you see a thing that’s a stage, well that may be a stage but it may be a vantage point from a different perspective. Those are some of the ideas that have been carried forward from previous work that were happenstance previously, and we’re trying to be much more purposeful about the performance aspect this time. We’re trying to provide options and provide a landscape for that to happen. And that also goes back to the ideas that DisArt is bringing to the table about people being able to appreciate the work in different ways and making them able to do that. We’re trying to do that mostly by means of abstraction, or by pulling things away to allow those different things to happen.

KB

Talk to me more about the selection of this site. Where is this thing being built and why is it important that it ended up there?

ArtPrize staff photo.

TL

It was a very organic discussion. We always have sites in the back of our heads, with things that we’d like to do at them. I had just been through the Tanglefoot building recently with the new owner, talking to him about some of his goals for the building, and I remembered this back courtyard that exists at Tanglefoot. It really provides a good base for us to be able to work.

PA

Another key factor in making some of the final decisions was the history of the building: not so much that it was a manufacturing facility but that it has this really rich creative history. It’s been artists’ studios for three decades. We know many of the people that occupy the studios and with the focus on highlighting local artists as part of this project, it became really crucial that we highlight that cultural history that’s embedded in the building.

KB

I want to circle back to something that you said earlier about making sculpture but also making space, and the question of how it gets used. This is not a question that people ask traditionally about an artwork. Some definitions of art would even go so far as to say that art is something you do not use, it’s something you behold. Tell me more about that. Why are you interested in making artwork with this extra layer of interaction? How does it get used? And why is that important to you?

PA

I’m going to bring up a very specific artwork that I engaged with very early when I was in grad school at The School of Visual Arts in New York. Rirkrit Tiravanija did a project at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in which he created a full scale replica of his apartment in the gallery. That was remarkable in and of itself, but the really amazing thing was he convinced Gavin Brown to keep the gallery open 24/7. Anybody could come in at any time and they could do whatever they wanted in the space; they could occupy it There was a functioning refrigerator; you could order take out and put it in the refrigerator; you could come and play chess with your buddy; you could hang out and just drink; people slept there; people had other experiences there [both laugh]. I thought it was a brilliant co-opting of a private gallery space. He turned a private gallery space into a public space. I mean in a way the outcome of that project—the place was a disaster at the end [Ted laughs] just the graffiti everywhere and s*** everywhere, it stunk—but the idea of the artists tweaking the system a little bit, manipulating and co-opting that space: I thought was just brilliant. That’s what I was trying to do with my work to a lesser degree. I was trying to co-opt the gallery opening. There was always something to me that felt like… that you can’t quite get at with just looking at a piece. I’m really fascinated with that idea of giving up control. SiTE:LAB did a project[3] at the Morton House where I collaborated with Eric Kuhn and Premier Skateboarding.[4] We created this indoor skate park and we painted it pristine white on purpose because we wanted all those beautiful scuff marks to show up. In the beginning when I first started doing this it was hard. But as you do these things, those marks become way more interesting than the perfect cube or whatever.

TL

It’s funny you would say that because one of our jokes about designing buildings in the city is that we know it’s successful if we see skaters on it. That’s how we gauge whether our urban work is successful: do kids want to like grind on it? The skaters have put their own meaning on that work. That’s when stuff gets rich; that’s when stuff gets meaningful.

KB

You mentioned including the audience, that the work isn’t complete until the audience adds to it.

TL

The idea of process art in this, to me, is very rich and important as we navigate this. We’re working with municipalities; we’re working with stakeholders; we’re working with people who’ve been there before and have their meaning already—in the place that we’re about to do something new on. And how do we respect that? How do we deal with it in a meaningful way, in an appropriate way? I mean those are all part of the process.

PA

And how do you welcome them to participate? That piece of it is crucial.

[1] London-based Drag Syndrome was scheduled to make their US debut at Critical Infrastructure on the opening day of Project 1, September 7, 2019. Invited by DisArt, Drag Syndrome features celebrated artists with Down syndrome performing in drag. Shortly after the performance was announced, the owner of the Tanglefoot building revoked permission for Drag Syndrome to perform, forcing DisArt to find an alternate venue for the show.

[2] Chris Smit and Jill Vyn are the founders and co-directors of DisArt, a disability arts and culture organization that believes expressions of a Disability cultural identity can transform society from awareness to understanding to belonging, creating a community that enjoys the full and equitable participation of all Disabled people.

[3] The installation was titled SKaTE:LAB and was produced on the occasion of ArtPrize 2014.

[4] Premier is a Grand Rapids skate shop.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer in Conversation with Kevin Buist

Voice Bridge by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Photo: Bryan Esler Photo

This conversation — which took place at the Herman Miller Flagship on April 30, 2019 in New York, NY — is part of the Project 1 Catalogue. Edited for length and clarity.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer develops interactive installations that live at the intersection of architecture and performance art. His large-scale interactive works have been commissioned for exhibitions and events around the world. Voice Bridge is a new site-specific piece for Project 1 featuring a sound system and 400+ lights that traverse Grand Rapids’ iconic Blue Bridge.

KB

Start by telling me what you’re making for Project 1.

RLH

I am working on a new project called Voice Bridge. The project is going to be an intervention on the pedestrian Blue Bridge in Grand Rapids, a large scale interactive light and sound piece. It’s basically a treatment of LED light fixtures that are very columnated, very focused, which make an illuminated pedestrian walkthrough where the lights glimmer. This glimmer is not random. The glimmer is actually responding to the intensities, the frequency, and the volume of the messages people record on an intercom. So the project basically asks participants to come in and leave their thoughts into a system that then visualizes this voice in conjunction with the past 400 participants. So for everyone who leaves a message, their messages gets added to this archive, this kind of urban manifestation of these voices. As you cross the bridge, you hear the voices of the participants over time. As new recordings get generated, previous ones get pushed one position further along the bridge until they disappear. The whole project is a bit of a memento mori, like a little reminder that these recordings are only taking place for a little while. Ultimately, it is a project that is out of control: nobody’s telling you what to say or what not to say. It is based on a lot of different experiences that my studio and I have been developing over the past twenty years on how to activate a public site with crowdsourced content.

KB

Back up a little bit and tell me about your practice overall, what you’ve been doing the past couple decades. What draws you to participatory artwork? That’s a thread that runs through a lot of what you do.

RLH

I started as an artist working solely in public art. My contribution—or my obsession —has always been the idea of creating platforms for self-representation, where people take over a public space. I want to make a contribution to a situation that is basically happening everywhere: globalization and capitalism are resulting in homogenization. So today, in every city, new buildings in Grand Rapids or Mexico City or Singapore are bound to be very similar to each other because buildings are no longer representing citizens. They’re representing the solution that architects, planners, and developers find optimum to create a living or working environment— so there’s an enormous homogeneity. Churchill said, “We build buildings, and they build us.” But that’s no longer the case. Now these buildings represent the capital.

ARTISTS CAN INTERRUPT THIS HOMOGENIZING GLOBALIZED VISION OF WHAT THE CITY IS SUPPOSED TO BE.

Interactivity is a way to turn the tables a little bit on those kinds of established power narratives. It’s a way to create an interruption in those patterns. When you look at public space, there’s not just homogenization that is at stake. There are other problems, like the corporate takeover of a public space like a shopping mall, which has a code of conduct and it has all of these different technologies and architectures to ensure that this is a consumer-dedicated space. As someone that believes that art should underline a more critical aspect of being a citizen, I want art to create the space that interrupts that and allows people to speak freely. I’ve worked a lot with voice, and I’m fascinated by freedom of speech—that more and more is disappearing. Many countries have, for example, now passed gag laws where you cannot criticize politicians. This is the beginning of some very dire outcomes, I believe. It hasn’t happened yet in the U.S. but we’re getting close and we must stop it. We must allow for people to be able to express themselves freely.

Interactivity is also a way to create intimacy, and a way for people to relate to their city, to their buildings, and to each other. It’s an activity other than shopping to occupy space.

KB

You reminded me of something, yesterday I visited The Vessel. The new Thomas Heatherwick sculpture that resembles a huge basket made of staircases, it’s several stories tall, and it sits in the center of Hudson Yards, a development with a luxury shopping mall. They had rules posted on a sign, but they didn’t call them rules, they called them “vital behaviors.”

RLH

Vital behaviors.

KB

Vital behaviors. And I was like what’s a “vital behavior?” I read it and I thought, oh, this is just a list of rules. They’re things like don’t spit off the top, etc. But that’s a perfect example of a corporate public space, as you were saying.

RLH

I think Vital Behaviors is a great title for a show, you know. [Both laugh] I may steal that from you, it’s very good.

An early rendering of Voice Bridge.

I think that even at a time when we are seeing, for example, monumental interventions such as The Vessel in NYC, there is a blingy total message, it seems to say, “This is big and you are small, this costs a lot of money.” I think interactivity and specifically ephemeral public art, pieces that come and go, are instead exactly unmonumental. It does not send a message of intimidation. The message, instead, is of intimacy, it’s of relationships and I think that’s what makes it powerful— aesthetically, practically, politically.

There is a work that I’ve always been fascinated with by the artists Esther Shalev-Gerz and Jochen Gerz called The Monument Against Fascism (1986).[1] They were invited to do a memorial for the Holocaust in Hamburg. It consisted of an enormous phallic, black monolith, that protruded from the plaza in Hamburg. And people scribbled and graffitied it and over time it was designed to descend into the ground. And if you visit the memorial now you just see the footprint of the monolith which is now underground. There’s only a plaque that tells you what happened there. I’ve always thought the disappearance of that monument is a gesture that really allows us to scale up the dread of the Holocaust, you know, because how do you represent that? You represent that with disappearance. I thought that was so elegant. So my work is really about not creating a permanent statement but rather about an anti-monumental approach, something that’s unstable, something that’s ephemeral, people understand it as a performance, there’s an artificiality to the whole thing that I really embrace.

KB

Part of the design of Voice Bridge includes an element that both records voices and forgets, or deletes them. Talk about the importance of that.

Photos of Blue Bridge Amplified by Teddylogan Creatives

RLH

We live in a society of metrics where everything is measured and analyzed and classified. I’m complicit with that society; I mean my artworks basically observe people, listen to them, feel them, and then react to the presence of people. It’s very important that you think about that collection. So you’re collecting, you’re detecting, you’re recording. In my case it’s not about the amassing of an archive that then can be studied or used, —new recordings erase older ones. So we underline that fleeting moment where your voice will disappear, and how interesting it can be to listen to your voice in relation to the voices of others.

In projects such as this one, platforms where people can participate freely, if somebody says, “Will you marry me,” and the partner says “yes”, all of a sudden this recording has an enormous personal interest. Or maybe a participant starts beat-boxing, and then someone else sings over the beat-boxing and now they’ve created something else altogether. These creations are all part of being present in the space. It’s not about

memorializing those interactions. The disappearance is fundamental because it’s a reminder that this collection is taking place, and that it can be critical and poetic, and that it should not remain. This is all about being in the now.

KB

Unlike some other works in Project 1, you came to me with the idea for the location to do this installation. Why did you select the Blue Bridge as the location of Voice Bridge?

RLH

When we first started studying Grand Rapids, and especially in the context of the theme of Project 1—the idea of borders, of lines, of connections, pedestrian walking, of how to reconnect the citizen with their city—it seemed obvious to me that the bridge is one of the most salient infrastructures for that to happen. It connects two parts of the city, it’s pedestrian only, which is something that I think is already very majestic, when people feel an ownership of a place, they’re not concerned that someone’s going to run them over. It also has this idea of flow, the bridge not only connects but when you’re on it, you’re overlooking and hearing the flowing water of the Grand River. Streaming water is the metaphor of life itself, it’s the metaphor of dialogue, it’s the metaphor of time passing. It’s a perfect place to do this kind of project because it already has a message. The site is a civic infrastructure, nobody’s bringing you there because you can buy some stuff. I think that civic infrastructure’s fundamental, because—being a democratic socialist— I believe in the commons. Taxes are at work to provide tangible outcomes, that are required to create civility and to create a sense of public space.

KB

I learned in the documentary film about you, Megalodemocrat: The Public Art of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, that your parents owned nightclubs in Mexico City. Can you talk about that a little bit?

RLH

They were also pioneers in drag shows. In a time where Mexico was very homophobic, they were doing some quite pioneering work. I grew up around these artists and singers, and sort of cabaret style nightclubs and of course, this affected my practice.

I THINK THAT AN ARTWORK NEEDS TO BE LIKE A GOOD CLUB: YOU HAVE TO PREPARE THE LIGHTS, YOU HAVE TO GET GOOD MUSIC, THE DRINKS, THE AMBIENCE—

and I think with art it’s the same. But it is the people that really create the party. An artwork that exists outside of criticism, that exists outside of people viewing it and activating it intellectually, or aesthetically, or politically, is an artwork that is dead. As artists, we need to create a context that will invite the public to participate, and I think that’s really coming from that club culture. Marcel Duchamp said that, “an artist is a creator of context,” and I think that’s the case, too.

KB

You don’t work alone; you’ve got a sizable team. Tell me about the importance of the collaborative nature of your work and how you think about running your studio.

RLH

Oftentimes in the visual arts, we are still in this 19th Century romantic idea of the artist as this talented, inspired person in front of a canvas all by himself and that’s of course not true. At least not of many of the artists that I admire.

Photo: Bryan Esler

My job is to be interstitial and connect these different media that my collaborators bring, and I wear that with pride. Some people might say, well, “Where is the hand of the artist?” Well if you’re looking for the hand of the artist in my work, you’re looking for the wrong thing. This is not the kind of work I do.

Working in teams is also interesting because I think one of the aspects that nobody’s really talking about is the management of those teams. It is my job to look for ways for the team to maintain a sustainable practice and that means being able to pay people well and have perks and job security. I try to practice what I preach, and create a platform that is fair, that is just. For example my team has gender parity: it’s 50/50 from management all the way to programming and I’m proud of that because I think that we need to be more representative of what society actually is. I’m Mexican-Canadian and our team includes fifteen people from eight countries. Half of us are scientists or engineers or programmers, and the other half are artists or designers or composers. And so it makes for a really privileged brew of people to work with, and I’m so thankful for that.

[1] Monument Against Fascism descended slowly over seven years. Visitors were invited to scratch their names into the lead surface as a commitment to remain vigilant against the return of fascism. Once it fully descended into the ground a plaque was added that read, “In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”

Crossing Lines and Connecting Community

By: Mia Wallace

The Oxford Dictionary defines belonging – /bəˈlôNGiNG/ verb ­– as to “be a member or part of a particular group, organization, or class.” As humans, we belong to many different things and places. I have Irish heritage; I am an alumnus of Michigan State University; I am a graphic design student at Kendall College of Art and Design; I am a resident of Grand Rapids. Belonging is a common human experience that most of us need to survive. It goes beyond just being a part of a community but actually feeling like you deserve and are connected to that community. From the things I listed above, I am a part of all those various communities, but I only feel like I belong to a select few.

Before starting this internship, my sense of belonging in Grand Rapids was non-existent. I was in a new city with hundreds of different things to do and explore and become involved with, but I didn’t have a place to start. It was a very isolating time where I was within the community of Grand Rapids, but I didn’t feel like I belonged here.

This all began to change when I started as the Learning and Engagement Intern for Project 1 by ArtPrize. Assisting with art education events, programs, community engagement and volunteer recruitment, I slowly began to feel more and more comfortable and connected to this new city. Every event we worked at MLK  Park and Rosa Parks Circle brought me closer to the Grand Rapids community.

Every kid who thanked me for helping them with an art project and every volunteer that I got to know made me feel less like a visitor. All my co-workers and mentors who went out of their way to get to know me and make me spreadsheets of the best places in town made me feel welcomed and excited to be here.

The moment really felt like Grand Rapids was my new home was during the opening day of Project 1, when I got to see all the hard work and time everyone at ArtPrize put into this, including my own, come to fruition and see the community respond so positively to what we made together for Grand Rapids. It was the moment where I felt like I broke down these personal boundaries holding me back from connecting with my new city and crossing the line from out-of-towner to resident to valuable member of the community.

My decision to go back to school and move to Grand Rapids coincided with the production and launch of ArtPrize’s newest venture, Project 1. During an extremely transitional period of my life where I was crossing lines and barriers in my own personal and professional life, the five Project 1 artists were exploring the idea of belonging, crossing lines and connecting community into their artwork. During a time of so much transition, confusion and loneliness in my life, it was comforting to know that I was surrounded by and contributing to connecting the community to art that focused on a sense of belonging and pushing boundaries. Project 1 helped me connect and value the history, culture and community of my new home and feel like I didn’t just reside within the Grand Rapids city limits, but that I belonged here too.

Olalekan Jeyifous in Conversation with Kevin Buist

This conversation — which took place at Olalekan Jeyifous’ studio on May 01, 2019 in Brooklyn, NY — is part of the Project 1 Catalogue. Edited for length and clarity.

Olalekan Jeyifous is a Nigerian born, Brooklyn-based artist and architect. His work in public art, installation, drawing, collage, and design explores the past and potential futures of urban environments. For Project 1, Jeyifous presents a monumental sculpture titled The Boom and the Bust, referencing the historic and contemporary challenges of housing discrimination and the inequities of urban life.

KB

What are you creating for Project 1?

OJ

I’m making a steel and wood sculpture that’s about 25 feet in height. The sculpture is looking at the discrepancy in urban development, the idea that while there’s an enormous amount of development occurring in the downtown area, there’s certain marginalized groups—Blacks and Hispanics in particular—that don’t have the same access to it. The sculpture creates a visual juxtaposition. It is this large, almost triumphant, quasi-brutalist, modernist-looking sculpture, a bit of an abstracted building, a large tower. It’s segmented, or bifurcated, and in the center, it’s abruptly disrupted by a steel grid with a bunch of much smaller scale models of homes. This speaks to how housing is being bought out by a lot of out-of-state investors that are driving up prices, making it difficult for a certain segment of the population to gain access to housing. Even though if you just look at the statistics, development in Grand Rapids seems to be going very well.

KB

Tell me more about your background and your training. How did you arrive at creating public art in such a large scale?

OJ

I was trained as an architect at Cornell University, and then transitioned into visual art fairly early. When I graduated I didn’t go to work for a traditional architectural practice.

Olalekan Jeyifous, The Boom and the Bust, 2019. Bryan Esler Photo.

Instead, I went to work for a multi-disciplinary design firm called D-Box. They did a lot of really interesting things, like speculative set design, and I was creating computer-generated imagery (CGI) backgrounds. I was given an enormous amount of freedom to conceive of stage sets for these scenes. After four years of working for this firm, I was invited to participate in an exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was called Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor. Fifteen artists and architects were invited to reflect on Harlem and its evolution. Being part of this exhibit was an incredible experience. But it was a conflict getting a taste of this incredible freedom and opportunity to really create the ideas of my mind but also having to work, so I quit that job to pursue art full time. Having an architectural background is interesting because architecture—as kind of public imaginary—is supposed to solve problems, but a lot of the work I do is more about generating discourse and inquiry around particular issues.

KB

The work you’re creating for Project 1 has an echo of your earlier set designs.

Sculpture by Olalekan Jeyifous, titled "Crown Ether". Photo by Andrew Jorgenson.

Olalekan Jeyifous, Crown Ether, 2017.

OJ

I think so, and that’s an important aspect of public art. In an earlier public artwork, before Project 1, I got this Coachella commission that had interactive elements: a three-tiered plinth where festival-goers could sit, and large, branching, tree-like columns they could lean against. Public art appeals to me because there’s a high visibility for the artwork and a lower visibility for myself as an artist. It’s not like walking into a white-box gallery that proclaims, “this is my show.” Public art really allows me to center the art first, and put it in front of a larger public audience.

KB

Where do you look for inspiration? What do you look at; who are you reading?

OJ

My inspiration comes from everything that I am interested in. A lot of my work is inspired by science fiction. I would say even this work for Project 1, with this larger piece incepted by smaller pieces, can be approached through a sci-fi lens. Science fiction takes contemporary issues and exacerbates them or resolves them but in a very tenuous way. That’s what I’m interested in doing in a lot of my work. I look socio-political or mytho-cultural ideas, utopian or dystopian ideas, and project them into the future.


There’s a book that really inspired a lot of my recent work by China Miéville called The City & The City. It’s about two cities that literally occupy the exact same space in fictional Eastern European twin city-states. People are not allowed to engage or interact with the other city and the other city’s inhabitants at all without going through this bureaucratic process of officially crossing the border into that other city. Once you’re in that other city you can’t interact with individuals from the city you just left, but they occupy literally the exact same space. They’re walking back and forth on the same sidewalks; they’re going into the same shops. They’re differentiated by very subtle differences: body language, clothing, language, their inflections, the way they move. It’s such a fascinating concept that describes how from a very young age, children are conditioned to recognize inhabitants of the other city and to follow this pattern.

It makes me think a lot about my neighborhood in Brooklyn, Crown Heights. I see the same thing as that sci-fi story happening between a lot of the new arrivals to this community and the longtime residents. Unless they’re going to the same bodega, and one opens the door for the other, there’s very limited interaction between them. You can see walking up and down the streets literally two different sorts of inhabitants occupying the same space.

That led me to think about ideas of community, gentrification, and evolution of neighborhoods, but also the idea of the way neighborhoods are developed, their ownership, and who they’re for.

KB

Let’s talk about Lagos, Nigeria. This is a city that looms large for you, right?

OJ

I was born in Nigeria, but I’m not from Lagos. I was actually born in Ibadan, hours away from Lagos, and then moved to Ife, a neighboring city of Ibadan, when I was young. When I returned to Nigeria after many years, I went to Lagos. It’s almost like I haven’t quite been all the way home yet. I’m just fascinated with huge megacities. For me, Lagos—being born in Nigeria, and from Nigeria—is the perfect place to really think about cities. The 20 plus years away helped create a detachment that is potentially an advantage for the freedom of creating certain types of work, but also induces certain blind spots because I’m not from there. Within that context, I created a project called Shanty Megastructures about Lagos.

Olalekan Jeyifous, Shanty Megastructures, 2015.

A lot of urban development in Nigeria is massive, and it doesn’t really focus on marginalized communities. In Lagos, some 65% of the urban inhabitants reside in informal settlements. These communities are at best ignored, but at worst they’re bulldozed and actively destroyed. So I wanted to create these colossal developments that reflected the building typologies and the language of informal settlements. It became a very interesting conversation about, “Is this utopian architecture?,” “Is this dystopian architecture?” And so when I presented the work in Nigeria, I gave a lecture to architecture students at the University of Lagos. After I presented the work it was kind of eviscerated by one of the students, it was called, “ruin porn for Western media,” There was a round of applause, but then another student stood up and said, “You know, we have to challenge our ideas of why this is ‘ruin porn’ to you. This looks like very interesting architecture that makes use of local materials and that grows organically, that is community-minded, that focuses on sustainability and natural resources.”

In a place like Lagos, there are so many contradictions and juxtapositions. There’s all this development, and there’s a lot of wealth, but then there’s a lot of poverty. There’s a lot of infrastructure, but then there are also a lot of disruptions to the infrastructure. There’s a major economy and investment, but simultaneously there’s a huge informal economy that occurs simultaneously.

FOR ME IT WAS REALLY ABOUT GENERATING THAT DISCOURSE AROUND LARGE-SCALE URBAN DEVELOPMENT AND WHO IT’S FOR.

KB

Yeah. I want to circle back to something you said a minute ago about visibility… When there are narratives formed around cities, who are the characters in those narratives, and who’s visible? And when we imagine futures, who do we imagine them for? It seems we have a responsibility to imagine who belongs in a city, and how the built environment can play that out for good or for ill.

OJ

That idea of belonging all comes back to who’s telling the story. And that’s why there’s a large push for voices that you don’t normally hear from. There’s an incredible amount that those voices can contribute to the realm of creativity and art and history and more. It’s been proven that those voices are compelling and interesting. For the longest time Hollywood, for example, wouldn’t invest in certain kinds of movies because they didn’t believe they would draw audiences, and now that’s being disproved. You can see a direct response to a film that features an all-Black cast but still does ridiculous numbers. That idea can expand into urban planning and city policy. The voices of particular communities have an enormous amount to contribute that benefits everyone, whether you look like this individual or not. You don’t lose anything by adding voices to the conversation; you literally only gain by adding voices. There’s an idea that one space becomes diminished as another voice gains, but that’s actually not what happens. Instead, you get an enormous amount of stories and perspectives to choose from and to consider.

KB

How does the design of space, cities, and buildings affect who feels like they belong in a given space?

OJ

People don’t understand that everything is designed. A stop sign literally does not have to have eight sides; someone made a very clear decision to create a graphic standard that we all accept. On a larger scale, it’s design decisions that put a particular highway system through a poor neighborhood. Only when it’s that broad and impactful when it’s clear that the powers that be are putting something through a certain community space that they wouldn’t put through another community space does it become apparent that we should have a say in the way cities are designed. ■

Heather Hart in Conversation with Kevin Buist

Heather Hart’s, The Oracle of the Soulmates, 2019.
Bryan Esler Photo

This conversation — which took place t the ArtPrize Hub in Grand Rapids, MI on May 17, 2019 — is part of the Project 1 Catalogue. Edited for length and clarity.

Heather Hart is an inter-disciplinary artist exploring the power in thresholds, questioning dominant narratives, and creating alternatives through viewer activation. Her submerged rooftops, complete with shingles and dormer windows, encourage visitors to climb on top and inside and contemplate regional oral histories, as well as serve as a stage for performance. The Oracle of the Soulmates features twin rooftop sculptures at separate locations.

KB

What are you making for Project 1?

HH

I am making two participatory, roof-shaped sculptures called The Oracle of the Soulmates.

KB

Tell me more about the term oracle. That’s a very ancient term and an ancient idea, obviously. It also refers to oration and storytelling. How does that relate to these sculptures?

HH

You learn about oracles through oral history. It’s passed down from person to person. There’s not a map to an oracle that you can just learn about in class. But there are also people or objects or sites that give you guidance and insight to yourself, to truths.

I WANT PEOPLE TO BE PHYSICALLY ENGAGED AT A DIFFERENT LEVEL AND THEN THINK OF THEIR POSITION IN THE WORLD IN DIFFERENT WAYS.

So the oracle is basically a metaphor for the kind of self-discovery or self-awareness gained through the work.

I want to slow people down and get them to look at things that are around them every day. So I use utilitarian building materials to create these sculptures. It is an everyday object pulled into a different context.

KB

What is the significance of doing two?

HH

Heather Hart, The Oracle of the Soulmates, 2019.
Bryan Esler Photo.

I was thinking about the opportunity of making a diptych of the Oracle rooftops and how context shifts the content of the work. Whenever I make an object in one place, it changes if I put it someplace else. It changes because of the environment, because of the people around it, because of the history and the context of that space that it’s in. I thought it’d be really interesting to have these sisters—these twins—in different parts of the city. It’s a metaphor for these sisters that grew up in the same space. They’re built out of the same materials and have the same form, but they have completely different lives, in a way. It asks the visitor to explore why that happens. The objects being the same in different spaces—one downtown and one at MLK Park—will take on different content.

Every place that I go, I understand a little more about humanity and understand a little bit more about each of the cities that I land in. But the roof has remained the same everywhere I go, with the same form, because it’s a metaphor for me. Whether it belongs or doesn’t belong depends on the dynamics in those spaces. So the process of having conversations with people and seeing who’s inspired to activate it, about digging into local archives or researching histories and finding what the intersection is between my narrative and the space is super important for me. That is why I leave the interactive heart of each of the Oracles to the end of the process because I really want to have that be influenced by my own experience. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I’ve grown into a practice that requires a lot of people, a lot of hands, and a lot of communication. It’s all a process and it’s all communication and it’s all that big question mark that I think makes a studio practice really exciting.

KB

So what draws you to making participatory work?

HH

When I was an undergrad and trying to find my language in sculpture, I was really frustrated at how dismissive viewers could be to things like painting. They would view something and think they understood it right away and moved on right away. And so I was enticed to make something that demanded more of them, asked them to be more responsible in the viewing process.

KB

So The Oracle of the Soulmates will host performances and other activities on these rooftops. How do you determine when to cede control to the creative activity of others and when do you feel the need to kind of hem in what is happening in that space?

HH

I have my own initial concept of it being site-specific in my intersection in that site. But then the visitors come and activate it and bring their own concepts. I like to have conversations in the beginning and talk with people.

I want the rooftop to host activations that don’t just treat it like a stage. I want the rooftop to be a player in the activation. So if it’s a dance performance then perhaps they don’t just use the top surface but maybe they go underneath or around or maybe the concepts involve this rooftop in some way. If it’s a violinist maybe they pick a part of the roof that’s really precarious or inspiring to them or maybe they walk in different places, or maybe they have a performance in different corners of the roof or underneath. Maybe the audience sits on the roof and the performers in the grass. The site-specific heart of the Oracle, that exists underneath each roof, will also inspire the concept of both and therefore the activation themes.

Lady Ace Boogie performing on Heather Hart’s The Oracle of the Soulmates for opening day of Project 1: Crossed Lines. September 7, 2019.
Bryan Esler Photo.

KB

You’ve spoken in the past about your rooftop sculptures, and the performances they host, as “claiming space.” Tell me more about that.

HH

The idea of claiming space comes up a lot for me. I think about that space of power that happens at thresholds. The roof is an in-between space, literally between the inside and outside, between public and private. If someone climbs onto one of those, they’re claiming that space, with a perspective shift on the world. And what, prospectively, would be happening at its twin rooftop, at the same time in this different context?

You know, as American Black people, we are kind of bequeathed the trauma that began when people were stolen from their homes and brought to this country. There was no space of our own to claim. The only territory that we were able to keep with us through generations was psychological space: oral histories and oral tradition. I’m thinking a lot about the audacity of claiming space. That’s not something we’re traditionally taught as Black people, to audaciously claim space, to think in terms of large-scale sculpture and mark your territory and shout your power from that space.

I think about the white male sculpture in that kind of audacity too and how few Black sculptors are making monumental works. You know, when I’m giving a lecture there’s inevitable a student or somebody who asks me if I made every-thing myself. I answer that by asking them if they would have the same question for someone like Richard Serra or Mark di Suvero, and why? The expectation and the power that comes in such monumental form of art is something I want to tease out.

KB

You talked about claiming space and thinking about this idea of Blackness. How do you think about those ideas in relation to architecture and the built environment?

HH

Architecture has such a huge impact on how we move through space, how a city is built, and it impacts equity and access. In my practice, I think about how people move through the architecture that I build in relation to one another, in relation to someone who’s not accessing it, in relation to the ground or the sky. They have free rein in that space and time to be the author of the narrative themselves. Thoughts about Blackness and architecture and power are swirling through my head a lot. I think about my great grandfather, who moved north ten years before the Great Migration and built his own house. I think about how that kind of skill really didn’t get passed down through the generations. My dad learned from his friends how to build when he was younger and I learned from him. Carpentry is an oral history. So I think about these oral traditions. I learn something and it transforms every time I build things because I build with different teams and they have their own oral histories. Names for things change, concepts and efficiency changes, access to materials change. It’s interesting thinking about how I am in all of these different spaces: as a woman, as a biracial Black woman, and how am I claiming my space through the process.

KB

Is the idea of home something you think much about with these works? The size and structure of these roofs call to mind single-family homes. Is that something you’re thinking about?

HH

Absolutely. The roof literally was inspired by the home I grew up in and also the house that my great-grandfather built. The Oracles are the size of a house. I like to have people bring their frames of reference. I’m thinking about housing and the stability of having a home in today’s economy and society. It’s obviously referring to a home just in the form, but it’s also an attic that is disjointed from the actual home. The attic is where you keep your things that you want to keep secret, the things that you want to throw away but not really yet. It’s the things that horror movies are made of. Attics are where slaves were hidden by Quakers and people on the Underground Railroad. It’s a threshold space, where people are about to have power in their lives or hold memories where they used to have power in their lives. I think about the idea of these small details with this big monument, all centering on home. Whether we’re thinking about thresholds or home or oral histories or building or access and equity, they’re all existing side by side. ■