3.17 / A Living Thing That Changes

Inside the Artist’s Studio, Part 2: Jackie Im

By Michele Carlson June 14, 2012

Image: Et Al Library, June 2012; installation view, Real Time and Space residency, Oakland.

On a warm April afternoon, sitting in an airy Piedmont Avenue café in Oakland, the independent curator and artist Jackie Im is mulling over the crucial process of finding just the right space to write. Im and her collaborative partner, Aaron Harbour, are preparing to move their workspace back to the apartment they share as a couple after a three-month residency at Liminal Space, an artist-run venue in North Oakland. “What was nice about working at Liminal Space was there were no distractions. At home, we have two cats who are like, ‘Yay, you’re home! Look at me! Pet me!’”1 Im, who works primarily as a freelance curator, has no permanent office outside of her home, so workspace is often on her mind. You can almost count on running into her at Arbor Café in Oakland, hunkered down with her laptop and oversized DJ headphones. She explains that while she was writing her graduate thesis, she discovered, “I couldn’t function in my bedroom or the living room. But the dining room at my parent’s house really worked for me. It’s a formal dining room and never gets used, so it has this huge table where I could lay out all my books. I had my scanner there. And then there was a point where my parents said, ‘Um, we need our dining room back.’ And I was like, ‘But wait, it’s my office now!’” she exclaims, trailing into animated laughter. It seems that Im’s hunt to replace the dining room is surpassed only by her ceaseless quest for venues to exhibit the artists on her ballooning watch list.

Between sips of a latte, Im speaks easily about the artists on her mind. Her reserved demeanor gives way to an unencumbered energy that is infectious. She is casually poised but always quietly expectant. Her enthusiasm and verve are so easygoing that you often don’t realize what a force she is until she has already bowled you over. She ping-pongs between a light earnestness and a very sharp and learned eye for criticality and theoretical discourse. Im is an academic without airs. Today, her face is solidly framed by her thick, long black hair and heavy bangs, which are usually held back by small clips. Tucked into her long, pleated mustard skirt is a T-shirt with a printed image from Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s 1977 collaborative photographic project, Evidence. A monumental figure in the Bay Area, Sultan was a beloved professor at the California College of the Arts, where Im completed her master’s degree in curatorial practice in 2010.

Each spring, a tidal wave of new open studio events, MFA thesis exhibitions, and graduating artists flood the greater Bay Area. Im gleefully wades through the yearly deluge. She loves this energy and is drawn to emerging creative practices. She is especially delighted when many of these artists stick around the Bay Area, to which she is resolutely committed. Growing visibly excited, Im tells me about some of the artists who’ve graduated within the past five years with whom she wants to work but hasn’t yet. Her staggering mental Rolodex of artists operates much like a slot machine. She is constantly pulling a lever that shuffles artist, space, and concept. This is her creative practice, of which a large part is her imaginative and resourceful hunt for venues. In our conversations, Im spoke of potential exhibitions and projects in a plethora of sites such as museums, living rooms, stairwells, coffee shops, community nonprofit spaces, galleries, schools, and online. Every space is fair game—it just depends on where the slots land.

Im considers the practice of curating as a chance to provide opportunity and test the boundaries of traditional and expected art conventions. In August 2012, Im and Harbour will curate what she calls a micro-exhibition alongside a dozen other Bay Area artists in a three-bedroom house rented by S.H.E.D Projects specifically for the exhibition. S.H.E.D Projects is a nontraditional exhibition space run by Jonah Susskind and Emmy Moore, who typically produce exhibitions in a renovated shed in their backyard. Im shares their affinity for incorporating unconventional ingredients to spice up the usual curatorial recipe, undeterred by the potential for failure. She’s willing to experiment with venues and to break off pieces of her projects to form collaborations or create opportunities for others. For example, Im organizes an ongoing, monthly Asian film screening at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, where she invites other artists, writers, and curators to select and introduce underrepresented films instead of creating her own lineup to screen.

Im’s curatorial methodology evolves from these collaborations and perpetual exchanges with artists in the Bay Area. She is always thinking about new ways to challenge and develop the local professional arts community as well as to bridge divergent creative practices. The artist and curator Julio César Morales, with whom Im has worked since 2007 in various capacities, including as the curatorial assistant at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and as his current studio assistant, notes that “her dedication to this community is quite impressive…Her commitment to the Bay Area art community is intense. She demonstrates an uncanny ability to merge and interact with writers, musicians, artists, curators, and peers.”2 Im is a professional whose practice seems to follow the intuitive belief that the Bay Area is a place where art thrives in spite of the highs and lows of the commercial art market and anxieties around sales, or lack thereof. She takes personal responsibility to participate in and nurture this place. She believes that each person and his or her practice define the Bay Area; therefore, each individual has a vital stake and ability to build and impact this community. The professional realm of the art world is a multimodal and relational field in which everyone plays a role. Im doesn’t hold the Bay Area accountable for itself and instead recognizes the role she can play in the sustainability of the arts here.

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Jackie Im with Kevin Clarke (left) and Aaron Harbour (right) in the front window of MacArthur B Arthur, Oakland, November 2011. Photo: Mik Gaspay.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Im grew up in the Sunset, a diverse neighborhood bookended by Golden Gate Park and the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. She is the youngest of three daughters of Korean immigrants who owned and operated a local bakery. “As long as I can remember, I was always drawing. My parents would go for long dinners or lunches with their friends. I would be the only child…and wouldn’t have anything to do but read or draw.” From an early age, she was encouraged to follow her creative impulses and attended Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA), a public magnet high school focused on the visual and performing arts, where she developed her skills as a painter. Im retains art making as a strategic part of her creative practice.

She left the Bay Area to attend Hampshire College, in Amherst, Massachusetts. But after one year, she transferred to Mills College, a liberal arts women’s college tucked into the Oakland foothills. There, she “studied art history with Moira Roth and gradually took all of their art classes,” enough to complete a minor in studio art, but it wasn’t until her final semester at Mills that Im began curating, as part of a museum studies workshop. Im had an epiphany. She realized, “This is a different way of creating, of being creative and of working with artists really closely.” She had found her medium.

Since then, Im has held a multitude of roles at numerous Bay Area arts organizations, including Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Intersection for the Arts, ProArts, Walter and McBean Galleries at San Francisco Art Institute, the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, Kearny Street Workshop, and Queen’s Nails Annex. Im explained, “I want to feel like I’ve taken a risk and feel like I tried something.” She has prolifically and unrelentingly tried more than most. Im’s diverse experience coupled with her history of making art establishes her as an insightful, discerning, and resourceful force. The artist and Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA awardee Jerome Reyes is a longtime colleague and friend of Im who met her when they both attended SOTA. Reyes notes, “Having worked with so many versatile artists, Im has become a walking Swiss army knife.”3 She has a dogged determination to create opportunities and nurtures them to grow into long-term affiliations that have the potential to feed the community at large.

Currently, Im spends most of her time programming for MacArthur B Arthur, an alternative project space near the Temescal neighborhood in North Oakland. Kevin Clarke founded MacArthur B Arthur in 2009, and Im and Harbour came on board as curatorial collaborators in 2010. Im and Harbour alternate with Clarke, programming every other month. The gallery and project space has little overhead; it is not beholden to a board or endowment or to sales for its survival. Therefore, Im strives to make this venue a space where artists take risks with work they might not make

otherwise. She strongly encourages artists to “do what really excites them…even if it is something totally weird or different from their expected practice,” because taking risks is what excites Im about her creative practice.

In April 2012, Im and Harbour curated Additional information will be provided later, their first solo show at MacArthur B Arthur, with work by the multimedia artist Anthony Discenza. The exhibition combined text with audio pieces; both the curators and Discenza considered it a “workshop exhibition, in which a lot of the works are not necessarily finished products.” When Im and Harbour met with Discenza, she mused that he seemed to be in a place where he was questioning his current work. “He mentioned that a lot of things come to fruition for him when he is working on an exhibition because it means the work is going somewhere. And he’s forced to think about them…We wanted him to realize his works on his own terms.” For Im and Harbour, that meant offering Discenza a curatorial landscape where he felt free to use the exhibition space as a laboratory to generate new ideas and dialogue versus finished pieces or cohesive bodies of work. Along with describing the concepts behind Discenza’s work, the curatorial statement also claimed a collaborative goal for the show: “We (the curators and Discenza) would like to posit that the remodel of stuff into art is a murkier business than the standard division between studio production and exhibition display acknowledges…We intend to leave open the question of what constitutes a finished work, both in words (via artist/curatorial statements) and in space, by situating both the context and presentation of the work as things most unsettled.” Im and Harbour openly put to task the idea that where and how one views art affects the meaning produced around those works and their makers. The artist, curator, and viewer are constantly in an evolving tension that, for Im, is where the creative process is at its best and most challenging. 

Im has particular affinity for new media and sound. She is interested in what she terms a dematerialized or post-studio practice but also appreciates works that don’t take themselves too seriously. She trusts the instincts that draw her to an artist’s practice. Im seeks evidence of an earnest investigation in an artist’s work as he or she engages with a form, concept, and medium. What draws her to a work of art isn’t always quantifiable; it is more likely a frustrating, abstract spark of interest detected from a place of personal intuition. This instinct is what lingers and drives Im’s urge to explore and invest in an artist’s entire practice rather than just the things made. She strives to engage with the evolutionary ebbs and flows of an artist’s production and to understand the spaces between exhibitions and finished works. 

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Jackie Im at Real Time and Space, Oakland, June 2012.

Reyes observes, “There has been this unsaid rule of artistic support that we have with our class. I see Jackie continuing this with the artists/friends she works with now and the complexity of those long-term relationships. She’s constantly countering and inquiring about your research methods and overall approaches in a casual way that builds over time with the people she works with.” When you hear Im talk about art and artists, you get the sense that she wants to watch an entire career develop, not just one project. Im is a fan, and she’s in it for the long haul. And like any fan, she jumps in feet first.

Im and Harbour make it a priority to conduct studio visits with artists they hold in regard, even without a specific project in mind. For Im, studio visits are important, not only to see what artists are interested in but also to build ongoing conversations with them. As a result, many of Im’s projects develop from her vigilant and active work at fostering relationships with artists. For example, regarding a studio visit with the multimedia artist Torreya Cummings, Im noted, “We didn’t have any shows in mind, but she had a version of the piece that would later be in Expanded Field [at MacArthur B Arthur] in her studio, and we were both really struck by it. It sat with us for a really long time. We came across a few other artists who were working with the same ideas. So the show was really dictated by the works that we were seeing.”

In addition to her regular curatorial projects, studio visits, and programming, Im is also an editor at Artcards, an extensive online source for nationwide art happenings and reviews. Between residencies at Liminal Space and Real Time and Space, an arts residency in Oakland’s Chinatown, Im prepared to present a conference paper of her research on popular culture, nostalgia, and reenactments at the Arts Center in Corvallis, Oregon. However, this list doesn’t even begin to approach the innumerable projects she has in reserve. She is an incubator for ideas and seems to approach whatever her current situation is as something that could grow into another project or relationship down the road. Im is not a dreamer. Her drive goes beyond ambition, and she fully intends to realize it all. She very calmly dares you to give her the when and where.

Im collaborates with Harbour under the name Et Al. They show a tenacious will to be active in the community and incessantly conduct studio visits, meet with artists, and attend an impressive number of art functions. Their most recent creation is Et Al Library, a portable public resource, which is culled from their personal collections. A listing of Et Al Library’s available books, periodicals, CDs, records, and movies can be found on an extensive and growing public Google document. These are the accoutrements of years of research and collecting that they refuse to let sit around and collect dust. This is the couple’s home library, but occasionally portions of the library travel as elements of the residencies they’re awarded.4 Im’s work is rooted in a generosity that allows for an entire professional practice centered on curating opportunities and support. She excitedly explained plans to create a similar public library for art and exhibition equipment, such as projectors, screens, monitors, and so forth. “What is a service that I can offer to people?” is the question that often frames her projects and has been at the heart of Im’s interdisciplinary practice, long before generosity and community became mediums in the art world.

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Et Al Library, June 2012; installation view, Real Time and Space residency, Oakland.

Im tries to see her curatorial practice as a creative collaboration. “I don’t want to be one of those curators who goes into a studio and goes, ‘That…that…that.’ That’s not interesting to me, and if that was the case, I’d just do collection shows at a museum all day…That notion of curator makes me so uncomfortable. It reduces the artist to the point of being a peddler of the things they’ve made.” Im’s practice suggests that there is a great need for arts professionals to scrutinize how they interact with one another and to poke and prod at the boundaries of the traditional landscape of exhibitions and arts dealings.

Im is astutely “aware that an artist’s practice is a living thing that changes constantly. It’s not just being in your studio by yourself and coming out with a fully formed thing. It’s through conversation and someone coming in and giving you a critique.” She surmises this methodology is rooted in being around artists and being someone with a background as a maker. If one considers the creative practice by nature “a living thing that changes,” then Im’s practice suggests the other aspects of the professional landscape should be in flux, too. Perhaps being in the art world needs more exchange. What if artists, curators, writers, administrators, gallerists, collectors, and all those invested in the professional arts engaged in a creative conversation that was considered to be a living thing? Im demonstrates that the challenge is not simply the city where we choose to live and work or what that place can offer us. Im suggests that if we want our art world to change, then our individual practices are in need of questioning. Most importantly, her practice proposes that we all have a hand and a stake in the survival and growth of a living and breathing arts entity.

 

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NOTES:

1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the author’s interviews with Jackie Im, March 12 and April 30, 2012.

2. From the author’s email correspondence with Morales, May 29, 2012.

3. From the author’s email correspondence with Reyes, May 24, 2012.

4. Et Al Library can be accessed at Real Time and Space through July 31, 2012.

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