1.7 / History Lessons

Hooshing and the Nexus of Clothing: A Conversation with J. Morgan Puett

By Scott Oliver January 27, 2010

Image: Mildred's Lane. Courtesy of the Artist.

I met J. Morgan Puett during her Bridge Residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts this past fall. I knew little of her or her work, but was immediately struck by her warmth and charm, and by the language she used to talk about her practice. She refers to it as “a practice of being,” in which “an ethics of comportment” defines any engagement she might have—with students, collaborators, participants, or fellow artists-in-residence. But also with her son’s teacher or her car mechanic. Terms like hoosh, workstyles (a play on lifestyles), algorithm, emergent, entangled, and complexity pepper Puett’s speech, effectively communicating her expansive approach to art. She doesn’t often mention “social practice,” perhaps because her work has been socially engaged all along. But the term is also insufficient, as is “installation art” (a form her work often resembles). Puett’s work is difficult to summarize. It is sprawling, layered, immersive and open-ended. It is as intellectually rich as it is sensually pleasurable. It is narrative, process-based and participatory. In short, it is meant to be experienced, yet none the less fascinating to discuss.


The following conversation was recorded in Puett’s studio at the Headlands Center for the Arts on November 15, 2009.


Scott Oliver: You use this term hoosh or hooshing, which is not your term, but it is also not a common term.

J. Morgan Puett: No, it’s a term that I can only remember coming across as a child because my father was a Walt Kelly geek. Pogo, Walk Kelly’s Socialist comic from the late 1940s included social commentary, and anything that was politically relevant of that period was acted out by these swamp characters. Pogo was the opossum and he was a philosopher. Walt Kelly wrote in that deep, Southern, swamp vernacular and I grew up on this Pogo slang. So, my father was an enthusiast and a collector of all these things. He was kind of an amateur philosopher himself, and a beekeeper, writer, and banjo player. I thought that it (hoosh) was a word out of my childhood.

But Rebecca Purcell, who is one my dearest friends, was using the word hoosh as a styling term. I couldn’t remember where it was from and so we both started using this term. I found, in a deeper study later, that it was an old American slang term for anything, kind of like phew: “I had a hoosh of a night last night,” or “God, you’re all hooshed up,” or “What a hoosh this place is.” It’s a term that can sort of fit in, and replace or manage. It’s kind of a styling, or fixing up, or shuffling off, or hurrying out.

SO: It sounds like it has something to do with things that have had attention brought to them, or cultivation.

JMP: Well that’s the way I use it now as a tool, in my conceptual toolbox. Hoosh is now like an installation art tool. As an installation artist you are actually hooshing the environment, you’re giving a great kind of intention of placement or organization of things—or a situation, place, or clothing apparatus— a deeper conceptual impact. I’ve sort of turned it over and pushed it to have some conceptual use.

SO: The installations you make are so immersive. Would you say it’s related to that—creating a total environment?

JMP: Yeah, it’s hooshing an environment, hooshing a refrigerator, hooshing a bed, hooshing that wall, hooshing this little set for dialogue. All of that is folded into how I use it. I’m not using it in the deeper etymology of the word and trying to find out really where it came from, which is really difficult. As much as we found out, it wasn’t Pogo; it was Pooh hooshing Tigger out of the house or the bungalow.


SO: I eventually want to get to this idea of characterizing your art practice as a practice of being, but I think it really ties back to these boutique storefronts that you were doing and how those sort of became diagrammatic—I don’t know if that is the right word … informative? … .to what you do now.

JMP: They are very important. That whole period of my life really informs everything I do now. It goes back to when I was a graduate student. I was really interested in the same images as I am now, but I have gathered all this life experience and data. Now I can load things and go deeper. It’s just more and more iterations of the same interests. It’s all about dwelling, clothing, living, thinking, breathing; research, you know, being.

SO: But it’s all one piece?

JMP: It’s all one thing. I was thinking the other day about the early experiments I was doing as an undergrad and how they would have these elaborate subtitles. I was trying to encapsulate my everyday experience into this one thing. It’s impossible.

SO: That’s why titles are so hard.

JMP: They’re so dumb and depleted; sometimes I get so frustrated with them. 

SO: But I think when they work, they open things up.

JMP: But you don’t want to depend on the title. You want things to be in collaboration and in dialogue. The title can enhance, but not take over. But when I was in graduate school, I was thinking about dwelling, clothing, and all these things. I sort of tripped upon an idea that led to thinking about clothing and living in your clothes. I started looking at Walker Evans, Dorthea Lange, and all this incredible WPA photography from the Depression era. I was fascinated by how those beings were in their garments. That drew me: how do you live in garments like that? I was struck by how beautiful they were and I just followed that. I tapped into the fashion department, I heard they were taking a field trip to the Metropolitan (Museum) in New York; I wanted to see those clothes in the real. It turned out to be a big turn in my career. I got there and the curators said indignantly, “Honey we don’t collect those things, we certainly wouldn’t have that. Those things were quilts turned dust.” That adaptive reuse of something stunned me; something becomes something: a piece of clothing becomes a rag, becomes a dolly, becomes a chair covering, becomes a pillow, becomes a quilt.

SO: And that’s why there were no examples of the clothing?

JMP: That’s why they had nothing. And the signal she was sending to me—this was back in my early institutional critique period—was that they are just collecting this aristocratic, Eurocentric, white slice of clothing. Not intercultural, not inter-social, just completely with blinders on, and all about class, which is what culture predominantly is. It really turned me away from the kind of art education that I grew up with.

But suddenly, in the presence of that beautiful archive, I was going nuts looking at these things. I suddenly realized a deep passion in myself for textiles and clothes. The world opened up to me: “This is a body of work that I can spend the rest of my life on; I am so going to go there.” I ventured into reenacting those Depression-era clothes. I was a self-taught seamstress, always making my own garments and clothes, and that’s what led me there. It was an epiphany and set off accidentally. I actually naïvely stumbled into the fashion world from just thinking that it would be cool if this intervened in the fashion system and came back on the other side at the Goodwill store. And that has happened.

From Exode to the Corporeal Conversation, 2006. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Jorge Colombo. Style/Art Direction: Rebecca Purcell.

SO: Would you say you were working in the realm of high fashion?

JMP: That’s not the way I thought of it, but the conceptual level of where I was working immediately put me into high fashion. I’m still there, in the fashion realm, and it’s good. I want to play with that.

Some of my critics were like, “What is this Depression-era clothing doing in high fashion?” That was really intriguing to me.

SO: When did that get stratified?

JMP: That wasn’t my doing; that was the industry’s doing; they want to control who and what you are. With my art practice, I was moving into a curious space and realized I knew how to move out of this very over-coded and exclusionary system of fine art, and be an expansive public artist.

SO: So it was a way of doing away with all those signifiers of art?

JMP: I don’t think I was so aware of that at the time. I think I only saw a place where I could have the freedom to experiment as a young artist. I always have been so in love with the complexity of installation art; even as a young girl and a little kid, my environments were everything. With public space, I could get a storefront and I wasn’t thinking about the difference of crossing that threshold, although I was aware of that threshold and of going there. I had these arguments with my friends, who saw me moving into the realm of fashion, although that’s not where I was, I knew nothing about fashion. I was still an installation artist, I just found a way to gratify my material need by constantly finding a way to keep moving and keep rearranging. A storefront was an ideal space to do that. Why wait for someone to just give you a lot of space? A storefront created an immediate public interaction, so when people came into the store, I wasn’t thinking of myself as fashion designer, I was thinking, “Welcome to this experiment.”

I was very naïve in that world and I completely had no clue of what I was getting into. What was also compelling was what I learned on a day-to-day basis about things that you don’t learn in art school and as an artist, such as how to run a business, how to find people to help you, what a community is, what a commodity is. I learned everything on this absolutely door-stoop level and the immediate public level. I was so seduced by that.


SO: What precipitated the transition from doing the storefront boutique as installation art?

JMP: What was really rich for me about going toward that whole realm of clothing and dwelling was the belief that clothing is an intersection of all of these modes of thinking. Clothing is one of the most symbolic systems that is used, negotiated, and abused. Somehow we have to deal with this on a regular basis, all over the world; it is the most universal mode of communication that we have. That has driven me again and again back to clothing, and clothing to dwelling, dwelling to living, and living to thinking and breathing.

But my installation practice in those storefront spaces, and that entire experience as a fashion designer, particularly in the early ’90s when I came to New York—that period for me was an opportunity for me to be interstitially free. I was between fashion, architecture, and fine arts. Fashionistas were like “Oh, she is just too conceptual.” All my friends in the art world were like “Fashion chick, no. Taboo.” Architects were not giving me the time of day because I did not have the license, but I was doing all that architecture work and other people were getting the credit for it. But I found huge amounts of freedom in that. I have always considered my practice as social public practice. It's interesting that the terms have grown up to what I fit into now.

SO: That leads to a whole series of questions. If every aspect of life can be considered part of an art practice, does that simply make some questions about why you are doing something at any given moment less confounding? I mean, is it practical in the sense of being a whole person, or living a synthetic life, rather than a fragmented one? Does that make sense?

JMP: Yes it does, but I don’t know if I am going to answer it correctly. I think our being is political, I think my involvement with my everyday life is political, my reclaiming my domestic domain as a single parent—as an artist who’s trying to make ends meet week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year—is political. I have been in that world of high fashion and capitalism, and it’s horrific. I’ve come through it; I went into it



Listen to Scott Oliver's conversation with J. Morgan Puett on Bad At Sports: Episode 231.

JMP (cont.): as a political being and I’ve come out of it on the other end a more curious, intellectual being and a more political participant in the world. I want to be a part of the greater discourse on some level, even if I exist as kind of a habit-breaker in that system, or as an interventionist, which is not how I usually think of my practices and myself but I’ve often gotten categorized that way. I really believe that it’s political more than spiritual.

But ultimately, if there is anything spiritual in what I do, it’s my interest in a shared experience. I’m interested in identifying our shared experiences, in creating emergent situations that are about and which encompass shared experience, which then goes into collaboration and more.

SO: I guess—and I don’t think I’m the only one who would make this critique of such a socially engaged practice as an artist—does it objectify those things that used to fluidly be part of everyday life? And does it start to create a situation of alienation for those people who don’t make a living from it or have a career doing it?

JMP: Interesting …

SO: It’s really about creativity and where creativity exists in peoples’ lives. My question is more about how artists get these opportunities to highlight their interests and endeavors in the public realm and all these other folks don’t; there is a line in the sand in the larger cultural sphere.

JMP: There’s this huge, historically romantic baggage we have, there's nothing we can do about it. I think it’s slowly moving but we can only do what we can do.

Mildred’s Lane

Barbie's Bruegal Picnic, 2009. Picnic at Mildred's Lane. Courtesy of the Artist.

SO: I want to ask you about Mildred’s Lane. There’s an illustration on the website that’s like a cartoon of a sign post, and one of them says Basel, and the other ones are also pointing toward the art world, but Mildred’s Lane is pointing in the other direction. Do you see Mildred’s Lane in conversation with the art world?

JMP: One would hope so, but you know that’s a complex, subtle kind of gesture.

SO: No, I think it is interesting. Rather than saying screw the art world, your relationship to the art world …

JMP: It’s about difference.

SO: You see it as complementary, then.

JMP: I see it as just difference.

SO: I thought the illustration was funny, but also wondered if this characterizes how you feel about Mildred’s Lane. Is it in opposition or an antidote to the art world?

JMP: No, it’s not in opposition to anything; it’s adding on. My friends have this nickname for me, “adder-on-er.” In my art practices I say, “We are going to do this, and then do this, and then this.” But that’s just the way we mushroom, we are just these rhizomatic things that are constantly expanding.

Mildred’s Lane is a collaboration, between Mark Dion and myself, in which we’ve turned our 92-plus-acre property into a new contemporary art complexity, which is another way of saying, an interesting experiment as a museum. But it’s not really a museum, although it’s produced all of this history.

SO: A living museum?

JMP: It’s a living museum, thank you. And what’s interesting about Mildred’s Lane is that we didn’t realize we were producing history while we were doing it. We suddenly came to a point in time, a turn in our lives, as turns go, where it seemed really evident that there was this history there that we needed to fix and decide how to move forward. So now we have, in the interest of producing history there, invited our friends and colleagues to collaborate on the project of turning the site into a living, breathing, active site. It’s about domesticity, art, architecture, landscape, all these things complexly entangled.

There are about a dozen discrete projects going on at any one time, all the time. They are long-term, slow projects. There’s no exhibition space, the place itself is an explanation, ongoing. Whenever you come to visit, you get what’s going on at that moment, be it in midwinter or midsummer. We have lectures, visiting artists from all over the world, peers doing landscape projects or interventions, or building some kind of vernacular dwelling. It’s an out-of-pocket experience for us; we are not a non-profit, and I have a big political bone to chew on about this. We are in this conundrum of not being private, meaning the exclusivity of that term, but being non-profit is more exclusive and more tainted and muddled. I could go off on that tangent for a long time.

Caught in this conundrum, which is a good place, again getting caught interstitially between all these different worlds—caught between academia, science, art, and architecture. It’s really a nice little place of entanglement where experimentation can happen and actually be meaningful to people who come there. The things work, really, it’s our friends who are collaborating and slowly building, modifying, and curating this mushrooming thing. I can’t even explain it; it’s something that’s just magically, but intentionally, happened. It’s this softer or slowed movement of involvement in curation and collaboration.

SO: You’ve actually involved students in the project.

JMP: The interesting pedagogical aspect and the strategy of it is that we are not interested in institutional critique as it was in the ’80s and ’90s. Instead, we find an intersection, way, or platform to co-evolve with institutions where people can actually get involved collaboratively, evolve, and learn together how to rebuild or reassemble. In terms of researching, and rigorous education, how do you rebuild something that’s grown so static, determined, and about capitalizing the institution? This is kind of a generosity project; we are giving over our land and turning it into a life experiment. We have invited a series of institutions to be involved, including the School of the Art Institute, which bowed out sadly; Columbia University; Parsons New School; and CCA here; and various other schools.

SO: Do you know Rural Studio?

JMP: I know about them. We are not the only one out there, and there’s a whole history of these spaces. We’re kind of in that tradition where people take it upon themselves to redefine what their terrain is, be it romantic, poetic, or pedagogical. Mildred’s Lane has ambitiously taken this on and the schools are handpicking the students because it’s not a studio practice, it’s a socially engaged practice. You come to reinvent the world; you come to reinvent the way you live day-to-day. You break your habits; you follow these modes of being, this ethics of comportment. We’re living, sleeping, drinking, researching, reading—doing everything with each other side-by-side. You’re actually exposed to an intensive living situation that you cannot get in an institution. In our classroom, you have at least two dozen international artists sitting next to you at dinner every night; it’s just a very different strategy. When you’re living it, you’re living it. I hope I didn’t sound too pretentious; it’s actually just really beautiful.

SO: No, I mean I think that idea of embedding the educational process into it …

JMP: In my opinion, shared experience is absolutely what we as a species want more than anything. Think about it, what is beautiful in your life? You don’t remember reading Dante, you remember arguing about it over the dinner table. It’s the shared experience, the dialogue, the conversations, it’s how we are interpersonally—those are the things that change us and move us and build us and produce us. That’s what we do in Mildred’s Lane in the interest in producing more complex and contemporary histories. History for me is a contemporary term; history is fiction, so we can take charge of it. It is pressing all around us; past, present, future, all of these times are all around us all at once. That’s the way we embrace it at Mildred’s Lane.


SO: I wanted to ask you about parenthood and how that’s changed your practice—changed your thinking about your work. What does it mean for you?

JMP: Big subject—it ties into Mildred’s Lane.

Well, you know the thing children want the most is security; they want stability, and a sense of place. And one thing we as installation artists, or practitioners, are good at doing is place. I think that I took that on politically as a single mother. I mean there was a moment when I realized, “Oh my god, this is really critical to the future of that person and all of my friends’ kids that are embodied and connected to Mildred’s Lane.” I remember when I was a kid, how we had a place like that. My father and his buddies started a yacht club …

SO: Ha ha ha—sorry I laughed.

JMP: No, a yacht club in an ironic sense. It was a bunch of bohemians who started the Valdosta Yacht Club on this teeny lake, and all they could afford were these little wooden snipe-class boats. They sailed and just created a whole yacht club. They all learned banjos and guitars, and picked and grinned. We went there every weekend of my life. It was a social, creative, dynamic space: kids were swimming, we were making sculpture of pine cones, putting them on fire and setting them onto the lake. It was a whole world for us, this community of people from all of these disparate parts of society. They were wealthy politicians, poor beekeepers, or the poorer students who were interested in sailing. It was just a weird cross-section of lives, class, and race. It was a place where we could actually be completely free socially and all these people could engage. I remembered how fantastic that was and I think that it was so important to my development as a person.

In my situation as a woman, mother, and single parent, I wanted that experience to also happen for my child and all of my friends’ children. It was already happening; we already established this thing where Mark and I were bringing our students there. Our friends who were students grew up, like Allison Smith, who created one of her most famous projects at Mildred’s Lane, The Muster (2004), before going on to do it as part of the Public Art Fund in New York. Dozens of projects like that, so many people have contributed. We asked ourselves, “How do we share with our peers and our children, and give back to those people?” It was just a matter of finalizing it, and saying, “We call it this.” That’s all it was, it wasn’t anything extravagant or driven by anything except organizing and taking control of our futures and histories. “Let’s produce history, let’s continue doing this with a more rigorous mode of practice or involvement.” And everyone has stepped up to the bar and continually does so; it’s just mushrooming out.

Allison Smith. Self-Portrait as Mustering Officer, Fighting for Trench Art, 2004. Courtesy of J. Morgan Puett. Photo: Bob Braine.

There are all these other organizations that we’re now connecting to, so I think it’s going to develop into something really nice in the future, where there can be an alternative pedagogical strategy, where we are not frustrated professors stuck and frozen unable to actually practice anything in an institution. The institution is actually going to have to let go and recognize that we have actually regained that territory. And for me as a woman, teacher, practitioner, and mother, how in the hell do you think I’m going to exist? I think it’s a very political moment. Mildred’s Lane stands for that, represents that, affords and allows a freedom in experimen-
tation that would never happen for somebody like me.



J. Morgan Puett is Co-Director of Mildred's Lane, which is located in Beach Lake, PA. She is currently an Artist in Residence in conjunction with her exhibition "{of, with, as, for, them, and, it} Workstylings" at Alexander Gray Associates in New York, on view through February 6, 2010.  Additionally, she is a 2009-10 Smithsonian Institute Artist Research Fellow and a 2010 Artist in Residence at Queens Museum in New York. Past Projects include That Word Which Means Smuggling Across Borders, Incorporated and Department (Store).

Scott Oliver is a sculptor and project-based artist living and working in Oakland, California. He has written catalogue essays for Southern Exposure, The Present Group, and independent curator Joseph del Pesco. Oliver co-founded Shotgun Review, an online source for reviews of Bay Area visual art exhibitions, with del Pesco in 2005, and was a regular contributor until 2008. He is currently working on an audio walking tour of Oakland’s Lake Merritt.

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