Friday, March 27, 2009

Interview with Packard Jennings

Originally published in Soma Magazine

Destroy After Reading: An interview with Packard Jennings
By Jesi Khadivi

When I met Packard Jennings, a key player in the Yes Men’s recent New York Times spoof, I was stunned to see that he looked more like a sharp, young English professor than his molotov-cocktail wielding Anarchist Action Figure, the black bloc look alike the artist planted in big box stores. Surprising, because most of Jennings’ diverse oeuvre, which includes video, sculpture, print, and interactive work, is socially and politically inspired. His Business Reply Pamphlet, a hilarious step by step instructional illustration on how to overthrow the tyranny of a soul sucking office job, was recently exhibited at the Charlie James Gallery in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. The piece has a second life as a piece of return direct mail; Jennings collects business reply envelopes and mails the pamphlet back to anonymous sorting centers.

Jennings sat down with SOMA for a leisurely Saturday afternoon beer and talked about the evolution of his work and the role of humor in political art before heading into the museum’s aptly timed exhibition, The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now.

SOMA: How did you start making political and socially inspired work?

Jennings: I’ve been making political and social art for most of my life, but the shift into the public realm started around 1995. I lived in a warehouse in Oakland that overlooked a giant, day-glo Newport cigarette ad. After I figured out that I could access the billboard by a ladder at the top of my carport, I went up there and blacked out a tooth on one of the models. I always knew that advertisements affected us in our daily life, but I never knew how strongly until that simple gesture totally changed the atmosphere in my house.

In a field that is usually defined by the preciousness of objects, the billboard work was a healthy, almost Zen, exercise for me as an artist. It reminded me of what’s really great about making work, just doing it and letting it go into the world and interacting with a broader, non-art audience. Preciousness can intimidate people. I’ve certainly been in museums where people have felt that they are not qualified to express an opinion about the art. When the work is public, everyone feels like they have the right to an opinion.

SOMA: Is your public work ever funded by arts organizations or community groups?

Jennings: A grant from Southern Exposure, a non-profit gallery in San Francisco, enabled me to make my project The Lottery, a scratch off lottery ticket that would reveal a local’s story about their neighborhood. The idea was to transform a moment of inward focus towards community. They were available at four stores in San Francisco and Oakland and were free with the purchase of a lottery ticket.

SOMA: Do you ever collaborate on these projects?

Jennings: I collaborated with Steve Lambert on the Bus Bench project, a series of advertisements intended to neutralize advertising tactics like targeting children or manipulating peoples’ fears. We created a series of ads to counteract these practice and illegally installed them on bus bunches in the Bay Area. The anti-advertising ad we put on the bench correlated to the prominent concern in the area, which we determined by handing out surveys.

Steve and I collaborated again on Postcards From Our Awesome Future, a series of bus kiosk posters for the San Francisco Art Commission. We met with local architects, transportation officials and urban planners to discuss utopian visions.

SOMA: What were some of the key ideas?

Jennings: Re-wilding the urban population with plant and animal life that used to live in San Francisco. Another was finding alternate uses for parked cars. For example, a commuter vehicle could double as a library car, gym car, or a farmers market. They posters were particularly effective because the ideas were crazy.

This is the way that I think humor works in art work with a social aspect. It gives the viewer an entry point into radical ideas. When you laugh, your guard slips away. The key concepts behind the posters are actually great ideas. Naturally, you’re not going to have a dog park in a subway car, but it would be wonderful to check out books from a mobile library on your commute to work.

SOMA: Do you have hope for society and the city? You work has both utopian and subversive influences.

Jennings: I have hopes and fears. My work is rooted in frustration and a desire for self- empowerment, but also a real desire for positive change. Sometime that takes the form of something imaginary and utopian and sometimes it takes the form of exposing social problems. I’m still adjusting and modifying my strategy.

SOMA: One thing that is refreshing about your work is that although it’s often shown within a fine art context, its participatory dimension doesn’t seem coercive, which is often the pitfall of participation based works. Do you feel that any of your participatory works have been especially effective?

Jennings: I made a creative dissent workstation for my exhibition at the Catherine Clark Gallery. The public had access to a computer and camera and they could make one of five projects. For the newspaper project I provided a template for people to write the news however they saw fit. One person even put up a newspaper headline that said “Subversive Artist Demanding High Prices.” They totally ripped on me and put it on the wall, but I left it there. Free speech.

Another part of the work station was the “What the Fuck” sign that could be checked out of the gallery. The idea is to go stand next to the people with the signs for things like Subway sandwiches. Steve Lambert and I were discussing that the only way you know something isn’t advertising today is if there is swearing in it. Everything else adopts a subversive strategy to sell something. It’s really hard to tell.

SOMA: A Dada artist once said , “With its victory over the mainstream complete the avante garde has ceased to exist.

Jennings: That sounds about right.

SOMA: I think about that every time I watch MTV on an airplane.

Jennings: Everything that can be absorbed, co-opted, and sold will. That’s what the Anarchist Action Figure is about. It’s about the ease of commodification of radical ideology. I knew that it would be desirable

jesi khadivi interviewed for whitehot magazine

originally published in whitehot

Noah Becker: You signed on with Whitehot from our Berlin office. After a great run in Berlin you moved to LA, now you are returning to Berlin. Can you talk a bit about your sense of logistics and how your projects fit into this migration?

Jesi Khadivi: Los Angeles was my “year on the mountain,” so to speak. My husband Paul and I lived in Ed Ruscha’s old art studio in the Echo Park hills where Ruscha made paintings of words being smashed or set on fire way back in 1964. Paul and I used our time there to make as much work as we could in relative isolation. Los Angeles has a thriving art scene, but is also one of the few places in the United States where one can experience country living in the city. As much as I enjoyed a peaceful place to work, Los Angeles is just too sprawling for me to live there long term. We love the energy of Berlin and its location in the center of Europe. It’s an amazing place to work.

NB: Tell us about your Gram Parsons project?

JK: I was working at the Edward Thorp Gallery in New York City at the time and was putting out feelers for extra work. I enjoyed working in the arts, but wanted a side project that was…different. I had graduated from Eugene Lang with a degree in Art History and Critical Theory in 2004 and after a year of working in a commercial gallery I wanted to do something more academic. I wrote to an old professor of mine, David Meyer, and asked him if he knew anyone looking for a research assistant. Much to my surprise he said, “Yeah, me.” I set out for something academic, but that’s not what I got. Instead I traveled between New York City and Los Angeles for two years interviewing musicians, guitar techs, and groupies for David’s biography of the late country rock icon, Gram Parsons. Basically I spent two years in cowboy boots immersing myself in LA rock and pop from the 1960s and 70s. It was a delight working with David and all of the hard work paid off, Twenty Thousand Roads was named one of the “Top Five Rock Books of 2008” by Rolling Stone and “#1 Rock Book” by Uncut Magazine in the UK

NB: You are opening a new space in Berlin. Is it top secret or can you let us in on some details?

JK: The space is on Kreuzbergstra├če. My partner, the painter Paul Tyree-Francis, and I just signed the contract, so obviously the opening date is still in flux. The name of the space is Golden Parachutes. We'll be showing work by emerging contemporary international artists. In addition to a solo and group exhibition we'll host weekly film screenings and other assorted events. Although Golden Parachutes is a commercial gallery, Paul and I are both really inspired by hybrid venues that offer space for critical reflection and investigation. Ideally, we intend to offer our space to reading groups and plan a few ourselves. We've begun to plan our exhibition schedule and a few events, but I'd prefer to keep those details under wraps until they are closer to finalized.

NB: Do you drive a car or a bicycle in Berlin?

JK: Bicycle, of course.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

clui: Examining America's Infrastructure

The Center For Land Use Interpretation, or CLUI as it is more commonly known, resists moralizing about the environment. Founded in 1994 by artist Matthew Coolidge, the organization functions at the nexus of art, urbanism, and environmentalism. Not quite an art collective or cordoned off group of scientists, the Center for Land Use Interpretation has enjoyed tremendous acclaim within arts communities (the organization was included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial), due in no small part to the organization’s conceptual underpinnings and tendency to mine the look of vintage Americana in the service of conceptual art and science. CLUI’s aesthetic is more like a dusty old office full of cool books, pictures, and maps than the organic, streamlined shapes of much contemporary eco-inspired architecture and design. Harkening back to the institutional penchant for instructional films in the 1950s and ‘60s, the center presents dispassionate yet informative photo presentations on environmental themes, such as waste management and oil production, at its Culver City office, an unassuming ground floor space on Venice and Bagley adjacent to the equally mysterious Museum of Jurassic Technology. Their recent exhibitions, “Post Consumed: The Landscape of Waste in Los Angeles,” which opened last May, and “The Trans-Alaska Pipeline,” which opened November 14, 2008, both garnered high praise.

The peripatetic organization uses the entire United States as its playground. The center currently has six sites in the United States: the main office in Culver City; a satellite office in the graying factory town of Troy, New York on the Hudson River; the impressive and expansive American Land Museum, on the periphery of the salts flats of Wendover, Nevada; another office housed in an old junk yard in the industrial fringes of Houston; and finally, the Desert Research Station in the Mojave, a research and exhibition facility that functions as a satellite to the Culver City Space. CLUI supplements their extensive infrastructure with touring shows: “Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry” is currently on view at University of Houston and “Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes” is showing in Pittsburgh.

At first glance, CLUI’s exhibitions can seem ambiguous and difficult to gauge. Their detached stance borders on mysterious, partly because CLUI is not trying to push an explicit agenda other than “understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the Earth’s surface.” Rather than directly lambasting social ills or positing utopian visions of the future, the organization explores America’s infrastructure and developed landscapes in rigorous detail. Everyday objects are presented on pedestals and classified with placards in their exhibition spaces and video, and their photo-presentations are always devoid of leading commentary. While the guise of complete objectivity is na├»ve, if not impossible, CLUI’s mode of presentation does enables its audience to understand post-industrial landscape as an ecosystem in its own right. The main interest of Coolidge and his team of geomorphologists, environmentalists, scientists, architects, and scientists lies primarily in cataloguing industrial ruins and the hidden places that nonetheless greatly impact our daily lives. In other words, CLUI does not seek to bring nature closer, but to explore human interventions in natural landscape.

They do so through a diverse program that encompasses multiple exhibition spaces, site-specific works, a quarterly newsletter called The Lay of the Land, and a thriving publishing series dedicated to exploring the urban fringes of the United States and military test sites. Think Mike Davis makes field guides. “Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America,” one of CLUI’s most popular titles, is a curated guide to the American landscape that explores sites they believe are “windows into the American psyche.” You may be able to find some of the show caves and ghost towns CLUI visits on tourist maps, but you’d be hard-pressed to find the pit mines, soap factories and landfills that comprise most of the journey. As “Overlook” suggests, CLUI doesn’t shy away from a good old-fashioned field trip. The organization has orchestrated trips to potato chip factories, abandoned launch pads, and power facilities and a visit to a waste facility was offered as part of last year’s “Post Consumed,” which chronicled the life of consumer waste from curbside to landfill through documentary videos, and by isolating and classifying common pieces of garbage. One of CLUI’s slyest site-specific works is Suggested Photo Spots, an ongoing riff on Kodak’s signs at national monuments and parks. Initiated by artists Melinda Stone and Igor Vamos back in 1997, the project involves installing signage at such unlikely points of interest as wastewater treatment centers and the Kodak headquarters.

CLUI exists in the hazy area between art and pedagogy that is becoming increasingly popular both in Los Angeles and internationally. Their stark, holistic approach could alienate viewers looking for an easily digestible call to action. However, their rich investigations of industrial, urban and suburban spaces is minimal, direct and revelatory, without the sensational or trendy modes of presentation that we sadly find so often in socially or politically based works.