Bad at Sports

Interview with Natasha Wheat

By Bad at Sports June 30, 2010

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.


Bean In, April 2010. California College of the Arts, San Francisco.  All images courtesy of the Artist.

This interview is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad At Sports and Art Practical, as well as part of B@S’ summer series exploring social practice. The conversation with Wheat took place on June 23, 2010, as she was preparing for her upcoming exhibition and temporary restaurant “Self Contained,” which opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago on July 13.

Listen to the full interview on Bad At Sports: Episode 252.

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Patricia Maloney: We are excited to speak with artist Natasha Wheat, who has an upcoming project at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Can you tell us about it?

Natasha Wheat: I will be working for a week in the 12 x 12 exhibition space, where I will be collaborating with a chef and constructing a temporary restaurant. The premise of the project is a conceptual orangery. Orangeries were ornamental gardens that were very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. The first one was built at the palace of the Louvre, and another was built shortly afterwards at Versailles to emulate the one at the Louvre. They were exhibition spaces for agriculture, but they were primarily exhibiting wealth, as they used huge amounts of resources and were unsustainable exhibition spaces. Servants were required to burn fires to keep the oranges warm so they could grow in places they weren’t meant to grow. I’m creating these parallels between the problematics of the exhibition space; being asked to do a socially engaged project in a museum; the history of these complicated exhibition spaces; and the exhibition of wealth.

PM: Many of your projects have existed outside of a traditional exhibition space. Is that a driving factor for choosing to focus on the orangery?

NW: In a way. I think this conversation of the orangery is not so much a critique of the institution as self-awareness of how my work exists there. I come from a school that is very skeptical of those spaces and skeptical of the potential of that opportunity being handed to you. However, I am also working as an artist, and these are the spaces where a lot of conversations happen. I try to be aware, rather than totally critical, of commodity-based culture in the arts, and of how my work exists within it.

PM: Can you describe what is going to happen with the restaurant? Is it going to serve diners in a traditional way, or how is it going to operate?

NW: The orangery came out of a project I did earlier this year at the California College of the Arts, called Bean In, in which I collaborated with chef Mark Gravel and designer Sarah Cline. We built an installation in the atrium of CCA where people could eat, have conversations, and attend lectures. It was like a soup kitchen, in that we served almost 300 bean-based meals throughout the day. We gave out bean plants, which we thought of as multiples; we wanted to problematize some of the parallels between art distribution and that of agriculture.

Brian Andrews: So what actually will be visible?

NW: I’m creating visual storytelling using exhibition language in a space that serves multiple purposes. There will be a chapbook available for people to read in the space; it is a compilation of texts by various artists, theorists, and activists around the cosmology of ideas for this project. The seating will be sculptural. There will be a vitrine with information about the history of orangeries. Much of that history I found by researching archives of woodblock prints from English newspapers in the nineteenth century. People can eat and there will be a film screening of La Commune (Paris, 1871).

BA: In many ways, it is reminiscent of Amy Franceschini’s Victory Garden installation for the 2007 SECA Award, which was more of an infographic or museological presentation, but constructed to communicate a different history, one outside the museum.

NW: That’s a nice comparison!

BA: When you say that the chairs are sculptural, are you trying to work in a visually directed way, or literally trying to make a space that is aesthetically pleasing, much in the way that a restaurant aspires to be aesthetically pleasing to support the food activity?

NW: It was out of necessity; people need a place to sit. I am conscious of what I am bringing into the space. I am making the seating from pallets, agricultural waste, and things that already exist, but would otherwise be discarded or not seen.

BA: If you are engaging with presentations of food and locality, what are people eating?

NW: There will be citrus-based meals served at the orangery. The opening will include a meal and readings from the chapbook. The rest of the week there will be marmalades available in the space. People can read and eat.

PM: The description of the seating reminds me of an earlier project that you did, Waste Stream Diversions, in which you and a group of collaborators collected old pieces of furniture, adapted them into sculptures, and reinstalled them in public spaces.

Waste Stream Diversions, March 2008. Mess Hall, Chicago.

NW: That was a project that happened in collaboration with three of the other keyholders from Mess Hall in Chicago. We created a task force and wore these ridiculous trash collector outfits. We scoured alleys for things that had been discarded, particularly MDF boards, these toxic composite boards from which IKEA makes a lot of its furniture. We wondered if there was potential to give these objects second lives, rather than have them sit out in alleys and become piles of mush over the course of the Chicago winter. There were some functional things built―Jane Palmer built solar cookers—but I was interested in problematizing their origins rather than creating something useful. So I reconstructed them as sculptural trees and placed them back in the alleys where we had found the original material.

PM: You were very involved with Mess Hall when you were there, and I’m curious to hear more about that organization.

NW: Mess Hall is an experimental cultural center in Rogers Park that was founded about six years ago. The building’s landlord was very interested in what Temporary Services was doing and had this space he was willing to lend to people. Temporary Services got a group of people together who decided they wanted to honor the enormous privilege of having a rent-free space. Mess Hall operates on an economy of generosity, in that no one is charged for anything there, all the events are free, no fundraising happens in the space. I think it is an interesting model from which to generate culture. Over the years, people have come and gone, and now I think there are eleven keyholders that co-run the space.

Most of the programming comes from proposals, so it is not a space that is managed; there is no hierarchy. The keyholders approve the proposals and someone takes on the responsibility for making it happen.

PM: How did you become involved there?

NW: I was moving to Chicago and a couple of people told me about Mess Hall—Amy Franceschini and Harrell Fletcher mentioned it to me in the same day. I was intrigued by the work they were doing, as I was doing similar work in my neighborhood in Los Angeles. It was a great fit right away, in terms of our interests and practices. Many of the people running the space, such as Claire Pentecost, were much further along in their practices than I was, and I had the opportunity to co-operate a space with these amazing artists whose work I was really turned on by.

BA: In mentioning those names, the generational difference stands out to me. They are pioneers in social practices, and I am interested in examining the effect of institutionalizing social practice, at least in an academic context. Does its formalization make you operate differently, or do you see yourself approaching a project in a fundamentally different way from some of these other artists?

NW: Absolutely. I think things have changed dramatically in the six or seven years I have been working in a non-studio based practice. And I see radical differences between how people operate here and in Chicago. I think that is primarily because there is a social practice program at CCA and a similar program exists in every major West Coast city, particularly Los Angeles, Portland, and San Francisco. These programs have had had a large impact—in the sense that social engagement becomes a starting point rather than an interest. This allows the practitioner to take for granted that this way of operating has been legitimized in the art world. So, you can have a very nuanced dialogue around social practices now, whereas I don’t think that opportunity existed even a few years ago. But at the same time, I am skeptical about people trying to have a socially engaged dialogue in the art world through this professionalized methodology. Going to graduate school is not just about your own personal research endeavors; it is also about a process of professionalization.

BA: A lot of uncertainty emerges in the ethics governing the relationship between the artist and the community they are working with. Politics come out of that as well; it is strange when that becomes institutionalized.

NW: I think there is less room for dissension in an institutionalized social practice arena, compared with people who had developed autonomous practices and met up with each other along the way. Which is how I found much of the work in Chicago to be. I have no idea how things would change if the School of the Art Institute of Chicago created a social practice program, but when everyone is getting the same education, there is a lot more consensus in thought, and that is a little disconcerting.

PM: If everyone is reading the same texts, the dialogue around certain critical theorists starts to shape their practices, perhaps more than through direct engagement with the community, or by identifying how one can act in the community. That is not to disparage the effort to create a critical rigor around what is doing by any means, but the yield is certainly different, I think.

NW: The histories of the cities also bring about a different kind of nostalgia and way of operating. In San Francisco, the convivial experience seems to be investigated a lot more, which may be the influence of this city’s hippie culture, or even The Diggers. In Chicago, there is the influence of the labor movement, and a more militant activist history.

PM: After Chicago, you were in Portland, where you produced Project Grow. Can you talk about that project and its influence on you?

Project Grow, ongoing, from November 2008. Portland, OR.

NW: I thought I would be in Portland briefly and was looking for a temporary job. I came across a factory that worked with people with developmental disabilities that wanted to hire an art instructor. It’s a factory where individuals made pennies a day performing factory labor, and these programs, which are called sheltered workshops, exist all over the country. There was no art program, but the factory needed to fulfill a state mandate to have an art instructor. It was really disturbing. There were two vacant lots on site, and I proposed creating a farm for this location, not expecting it to happen. I think the factory director said yes without any expectation that this utopian project would happen. But we spent the next year and a half trying to make it a reality. It is now an art studio and urban farming program.

This project created a radical shift in my practice. Previously, I would create temporary, autonomous spaces, but with this project, that was not really an option. I had this deep commitment to these people; I spent every day with them for over a year. It became a way for me to see if I could create something that could exist apart from me. I was able to hire five artists and farmers who now co-run the program. There are twenty-five developmentally disabled people participating. Their practice can exist anywhere on the spectrum between art and farming.

BA: How much are you getting them off the assembly line and getting their hands dirty?

NW: For the most part, everyone is making art and farming full time, although a few people chose to continue to work on the assembly line. None of the behavioral problems that existed while they were working on the assembly line have been in evidence in Project Grow. But the factory has to be there for the project to exist. It couldn’t exist on its own.

PM: Does the funding come from the state mandate, or also from the sale of the art and the food?

NW: The economy of the project plays a significant role. The individuals working at the factory were getting paid very little for piece labor, and we wanted to abolish this idea that some people’s labor was worth less than others’. So everyone in our program was paid minimum wage, plus whatever commission they would earn from the art they would create. The five people who operate the program are paid as providers, who are individuals that provide services and job opportunities. The providers are paid from the funds the farm generates; the farm runs as a CSA, which is community-supported agriculture. It is a small amount of money, but enough for the participants to make minimum wage.

BA: I am curious as how this project relates to your most recent work, the American Seed project.

American Seed, March 2009 to present.

NW: When I was working on Project Grow, we were unable to grow many things because of our specific climate. Also, I was at a residency in Europe during the Obama campaign, and it was interesting to see how Americans were projected as having a uniform identity. We live in this absurdly large country with an incredible diversity of agricultural and human cultures. What would it look like if I exported the complexity of these cultures as a uniform product? I researched indigenous plants and what that concept means. There is whole political system about what seed you can grow where. I created a product called “American Seed” that was based on everything that could grow within the borders of the United States and had been determined to be indigenous. I exported them to people who tried to grow them in other places. There was the potential for them to become invasive or not grow at all. There was an aggressive element to it, as it was a dystopian growing project.

BA: Is it an inversion of the Monsanto model, which tries to claim copyright over varieties of various plant species? This is perhaps positive American imperialism?

NW: I don’t know that it is a positive imperialism. I was intrigued by the idea of exporting American Seed as a cultural export.

PM: One could draw a comparison to the CSA model, and in a way it represents both ends of the spectrum of food production in this country. The hyperawareness of where and by whom something is grown versus industrial agricultural, in which the conditions by which something is grown is almost irrelevant, in comparison to the scale at which it is grown.

BA: I think the utopianism we imbue in local agricultural production results from the environmental conditions of living at the edge of the San Joaquin Valley, where we can grow almost everything. It is easier to possess that framework for thinking because it is operable here.

PM: Because of where we live and the year-round cycle of crops here, it actually feeds into a dystopian sensibility around consumerist culture—the idea that because we can grow so much here, we are entitled to have access to all the food we want, and as specialized as we want it: heirloom, local, and organic, for example.

NW: That was part of the conversation around American Seed—the desire to grow everything and the impossibility of that. Both American Seed and Project Grow foreground problematic social situations with metaphors created through plants.

PM: As someone who is building a socially engaged practice, to what extent do you need to negotiate your practice in response to the community or audience in which you are operating?

NW: I am skeptical of the term community and hesitate to define one. When we define communities, we negate and deny all the incredible diversity that exists within or outside of it. We create a non-community when we define a community.

It is extremely complicated working with people, especially spatially. When I enter a social space, it is really important to have an awareness of what is going on, but it is equally important to not make assumptions about the needs people have.

PM: At the same time, we’ve moved so far away from the idea of the autonomous art object, as well as the nineteenth- and twentieth-century ideas of housing these objects so visitors could come access a singular history about them. My use of the term community is a very loose one to describe a consciousness of engagement. That someone who is interacting with a work of art is bringing meaning to it. In the term community, there is a consciousness of the exchange that can happen amongst a group of people at any one time.

BA: A lot of the earlier practitioners had to contend with the idea of the art object, both its historical role and within the market. You could go to art fairs and see the pots in which Rirkrit (Tiravanija)’s pots cooked, because that was a sellable object. There was almost an anxiety about the art object that seems to have eased.

NW: There is a huge tendency amongst social practitioners to eschew object making in general, as a result of seeing Rirkrit’s pots being sold. There is this notion that documentary relics de-legitimatize what happens in the work. An anti-aesthetic sensibility is prevalent because of skepticism around commodifying things after they happen. If you build something in an attempt to resist that commodification, and it then becomes a relic within that system, it has the potential to lose its voice.

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Currently based in San Francisco, Natasha Wheat is an American artist whose work attempts to understand and interrupt the way that human beings exist together. She is interested in the social hierarchy of space, utopian attempts, and the tension between exclusivity and inclusion. Her recent work examines agriculture in relationship to human culture, distribution, and control. She received her BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2008.

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