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.