The Pop-Up Book Academy: An Interview with Sam Gould of Red76

Sam Gould introducing Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat

Sam Gould introducing Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat

Several weeks ago I found in my email inbox a listing of upcoming events produced by the Portland collective Red76. I regretted that scheduling would prevent me from catching all their activities during their East Coast events, but I would have been remiss if I had neglected to head north for the fourth installment of the Pop-Up Book Academy. Beside an active auto body shop in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I joined the audience for a conversation with Lize Mogel and Alexis Bhagat, author/editors of An Atlas of Radical Cartography, a compilation of 10 maps and 10 essays giving visibility to migration, surveillance, and globalization. (Previous Pop-Up Book Academy engagements involved lectures by Steve Lambert and Michael Rakowitz.)

Laid out on makeshift shelves of cinder blocks and plywood was a beautiful collection of well thumbed-through books on race, philosophy, cooking and art…and such assorted pop culture disasters as Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose by Paris Hilton.

But, this assembly didn’t just focus on socialites. Since their founding in 2000, Red76 has invited diverse audiences for shared talks about ethical responsibility into non-traditional venues. Recent used spaces have included laundromats, YouTube, institutional settings such as The Drawing Center and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and various taverns across Portland. An aspiration for their events is to investigate the possibilities and viability of gray markets, channels for skill sharing to achieve communal self-betterment.

Pop-Up Book Academy #4

Pop-Up Book Academy #4

All proceeds from the night went towards Red76’s newspaper, The Journal of Radical Shimming, and profits exceeded expectations. The collective redistributed the funds to other liked-minded, free printed matter.

More wonderful books.

More wonderful books

I had the good fortune to meet Sam Gould, a co-founder and Red76’s most active member, as he made tacos on the barbecue and have continued the conversation via email. He was more than gracious and provided incredibly insightful answers:

Daniel Fuller: As exhibition budgets shrivel due to the economy and funders are increasingly interested in community involvement, it’s interesting to see contemporary museums’ educational programming allowed more creative freedom. Examples include Machine Project at LACMA, Night School at the New Museum, The University of Trash at SculptureCenter, and more grassroots communal networks such as the Free Skools meeting in alternative art spaces across the country. Red76 has been organizing workshops, lectures and public dialogues in “non-hierarchical” settings since 2000. Can you talk about this pedagogical shift? Will educational departments working directly with artists in imaginative ways alter the role of the curator? Also, could you give us a preview of the “ad-hoc” schoolhouse Red76 will be creating this fall at the Columbus College of Art & Design?

Sam Gould: There certainly is a shift. I wonder why it has come about. I’d venture a few different reasons overall, but the dominant strains are, in my mind, two-fold.

For one, it’s a response, a shift by some away from object-making as a central mode of their practice. The origins of this aren’t, it seems to me, an aesthetic choice as much as a choice made out of necessity. I think one would see that a lot of the work that is cataloged as Social Practice, Relational Aesthetics, etc, etc… has its beginnings in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Why is this? Well, at that time you’ll remember there was also a pretty bad economic climate in the U.S. Secondly, it was the tail end of Clinton and his impeachment trials and the beginning of the Bush era. Each of those factors, rather arguably, played a huge role in the coming about of this mode of practice. It galvanized people politically who, while not being apolitical beforehand, felt forced to be more vocal and public with their politics. And in parallel, everyone (certainly myself included) was so broke that they couldn’t afford to make any work that didn’t already directly respond to their life already, at no extra cost. Therefore the work that came about was often rather ephemeral, experiential, mobile. So what does being broke bring about for a bunch of (sadly, mainly white) kids raised on punk, indie rock, and DIY youth culture? Potlucks, speakeasies, discussion groups, book clubs, zines, illegal restaurants, bands as art projects, communal living situations, making your own clothes—the list goes on.

Looking at this phenomenon through the lens of art, there are important historical points to note, and one should pay attention to how practitioners place themselves, or find themselves placed. It’s key to note that this is a decidedly different mode from a similar shift in the late 1960s/early 1970s with Conceptualism—which, arguably, was not all that far removed from the gallery world of NYC or, more pointedly, a response to the canon of art history. The work I’m talking about, in a contemporary sense, doesn’t have many roots in New York and the [art] market and at times, its origins are fairly far afield even from that of art history. As far as the New York/art market argument goes, of course, there are glaring exceptions to this argument: 16 Beaver, Empty Vessel, to name a few. But the majority of the people who may have been drawn to the “art capital of the world” in the late 90s just couldn’t afford to live there and make work. So, either they stayed in the small town or medium-sized city where they already were and got to work, or they were drawn to one.

This leaves one nagging question: if this work doesn’t have its origins, per se, within the linear history of art or its strongholds, why is it classified as such? I think there are a number of arguments for this, not all sufficient. In the end it’s more of a happy accident, or perfect storm-type scenario. Most socially-minded practitioners were, prior to their current methodology, making things—films, sculptures, photos, paintings—and were drawn away as much by interest as by economic necessity. Their hearts still believed in the pragmatism, the usefulness, of art. So, even while abandoning many of its more recognizable tropes, they didn’t want to give up the mantel. Secondly, it comes down to what art allows and justifies; hybridization. As an artist, you can utilize aspects of a myriad of jobs, be that sculptor, social worker, musician, chemist…And in the end, that conglomeration is called an art practice. Methodologically, the ends justify the means.

So why is this work associated with museums? Well as I mentioned, it is because the practitioners believe it to be art, and see the usefulness in art making and that it doesn’t combat with their social and political motivations. For the most part, I am wholeheartedly in that camp. Secondly, and this is where it gets murkier, the association is due to a certain degree of laziness. Like many other artists, I’m in this camp as well, and more often than I’d care to be. Not all of this work neatly fits within a gallery context and would be much better served, and far more pragmatically applied, in a context decidedly outside the physical gallery environment. The dominant factor that creates this laziness is economic. As much of this type of work is nominally “anti-capitalist,” or at least cranky with capitalism in general, it can’t shake the fact that it lives in a world where money pays school debt, child care, health care, rent, food, and drug habits. You have to pay the bills. So, sometimes the square peg goes into the round hole, for better or worse. On occasion, the compromises that are made are more than acceptable. Possibly better. Arguably on a decent amount of occasions, the compromises that are made are in glaring opposition to the concept of the work. To me, though not everyone within the art world would agree, setting up a “free school” in a museum that you have to pay $15 a head to enter is not, by any sense of the word, free.

And here is where the curator, within the modernist, object-based, Alfred Barr sense, enters the picture. If you are dealing with work whose strengths and concepts rely on mobility, ephemerality, and accessibility, among other points, it suits you to vacate the gallery. On some occasions, there are projects by artists who work within these methodologies wherein existing within a gallery context is not conceptually incongruous. Often that is not the case.

So is it a natural fit, then, for education departments to take the reins? I’d say yes. While all socially-minded projects are not pedagogical in nature, the experience of them is. If we are to agree and absorb the philosophies and practices of William James and John Dewey, and accept that experience is the basis for education, inside and outside the purview of the school or institution, then museum education departments are the perfect fit, and allow experiential work to flourish in its natural environment—the world outside the gallery walls.

Is this to say that experiencing a project or individual artwork within a gallery is then a false experience? Of course not. But the gallery is a highly codified and hermetic environment. The world outside of the gallery, however a work might try to create specific outcomes, is anarchic and prone to a multitude of possible outcomes and realities. A project should only utilize the gallery if the hermetic or codified nature of the gallery adds, rather than subtracts, from the experience at hand. I’m sure there is a certain amount of antagonism within the curatorial realm in this regard, but there needn’t be. What’s at hand is pragmatic. Education departments, rather than being the interpreters of the work within the museum, as they have been historically, are becoming the curators of the work that naturally fits outside the museum physically, while philosophically within it.

I think there’s a lot more to be said in this regard. Certainly I’ve drawn up some aggravating contradictions, and problems as to the origins and philosophies of this type of work and the contradictions of it in practice, among so so much more! But, I’d have to write a whole book to suss those areas out. So, I’ll leave the rest for people to argue about.

In regard to Columbus, we’re taking part in an exhibition called “Decent to Revolution,” which is curated by Jim Voorhies at CCAD’s Bureau for Open Culture. We’ve worked with Jim before and it was a really wonderful experience. We’re excited to find ourselves in Columbus again, especially since it affords us the opportunity to collaborate with Jim on another project. Our contribution to the show is something we’re calling Surplus Seminar and its aim is to create a variety of environments to discuss the notion of our ideas and the seemingly trivial information we so often encounter within the the day-to-day world as analogous to surplus goods and that its repurposing and reuse is of benefit. The aspect you brought up is an experiential school as collective building project called Anywhere/Anyplace Academy (AAA). For a month we’ll spend most mornings in a parking lot in Columbus fashioning surplus materials into a building whose intent is to be a learning site, or schoolhouse. All the while we’ll be considering, well, what do you need in an environment to learn? What’s a proper learning environment in a universal sense, but also in a very specific and localized way; for Columbus, of Columbus? In the end what we’ll build will be available for continued use for those who want it, and if it isn’t needed, then it just gets taken apart and used for other purposes.

DF: Is an art exhibition really an exhibition if no art is exhibited?

SG: Rather than go on at length I’ll just answer this simply; it’s all art. You don’t need an object to make it so. Art is the space which we define for questioning. Objects, or the lack thereof, are placeholders for ideas and propositions.

DF: If it’s a truism that “all politics are local”, can politically-engaged artistic conversations ever be global, or are they more effective on the regional or local level? How do like-minded people gather for debate without overt excessive back-patting?

SG: The misnomer of most work that falls under the categorization of Social Practice is that its goals, interests, and desired outcomes are the same. This is most certainly not the case. In some cases work that is nominally the same, looking at it from the outside – mobile, ephemeral, discursive/dialogical – is anything but. Its goals and desires are decidedly divergent from its methodologies. For instance, it seems to me, Red76 and the work of Anton Vidokle (Night School, The Building), while seemingly utilizing similar tools or methodologies, are entirely different from one another in desired outcome. Anton’s work, while much to be admired for a variety of reasons, is firmly rooted within the museum and the art world. I doubt it could exist without the institution or the academy. It’s a parallel vein within the same circulatory system. And Red76, while not at all adversarial in nature to the institution or the academy, utilizes those systems as tools within a tool box. As a practice its concerns are different.

In some instances the political and philosophical desires of practitioners are neck-and-neck, while their methodologies are dissimilar. Red76, along with groups like Just Seeds, Temporary Services, or Center for Tactical Magic, for instance, are often linked together under similar banners of practice, which I’d argue isn’t the case. We do different work. However much I may admire Aaron Gach, or Josh MacPhee and Dara Greenwald, we don’t have the same job. While our allegiances are similar, as well as our desires, when you dig deep the methodologies vary. They begin within philosophy and experience, they are applied and subsequently diverge in practice, and reconvene, again, with our environmental, social, and political desires. I view this as a strength. The weakness lies in the single banner of Social Practice, or whatever you want to call it. Seen as divergent practices with similar desires, when these practices converge there is an opportunity to create some really generative and exciting ideas. What most people get hung up on when the work is of a political strain is its efficacy. If seen as varying practices, with varying methodologies, yet linked philosophies and desires, then those convergences could be far more thought provoking and fruitful. The back patting could lead to something rather than deflate the room as it all so often does. I think one of the major faults of most gatherings like you mentioned is a desire for unity, wherein the real strength at hand is difference. With all this in mind if practitioners with shared affinities entered a room looking for difference in method, but unity in spirit, we may be onto something. The goal isn’t to link methods to create a centralized whole, but to flatten the method and augment spirit and energy. Dispersal is key. That horizontal augmentation is contagious, and generative, like a wave. Spread out it breeds action in the strangest of places and most unlikely of ways when it reacts to the topography of the land.

This situation seems to come up a lot when I lecture. Depending on what sort of crowd I’m speaking with – usually it’s an arts audience or an activist audience – I’ll get different critiques. These arguments often fall into two categories, efficacy (activists), or sincerity (artists). The arguments arise because of the codification we often feel is necessary when we share similar desires and outcomes. We all feel like we should be working in lock-step. My head agrees, but experience tells me otherwise. Where I feel most at home is when I’m speaking to people with experience in educational situations, institutional, ad-hoc, or otherwise. The work I feel most aligned with creates environments to engage – not necessarily, answer – questions. There’s an important difference between these distinctions within a political context. The work, in an artistic sense, that I’m involved in creates zones in which to engage your desires, question your efficacy, and imagine a practice outside of the space in question. It is an educational zone, based on experience and within an experience, but it is not the zone or the experience which is the topic of discussion. In a medical sense, it’s more like therapy than it is treatment. So these conversations can be decidedly global if based on global experience, and a belief in collective (read; global) thought leading to individual (read; local) action. Again, this idea of convergence, consideration, and dispersal. When one leaves that environment, they have to decide how they are going to engage their experience outside the realm of discussion and contemplation.

DF: Red76 recently completed the Revolutionary Spirit project, a two-year long investigation into encouraging open questioning. Hundreds of ephemeral ideas were generated, but an answer, a definitive solution, was never discovered. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be. As there is often already a public mistrust of theory-laden contemporary art, how do we build new audiences when the payoff is not a consumable product, but risk, vision, and thought?

SG: Rather than that there was no answer discovered I would argue that there were many. The multitude of opinions, ideas, and conclusions developed over this two year period of intense questioning regarding our history as a country and the philosophical as well as actual nature of American democracy, was the core of our undertaking. As I’ve mentioned before, the root of Red76 projects are based in experiential learning. Were everyone to come out of Harvard, or Yale, or the Rhode Island School of Design for that matter, of the same opinion in regard to what they experienced, and in turn learned, while in attendance you wouldn’t likely call it a school, you’d more likely call it a cult. Creating some sort of cultish movement about how one is supposed to engage their world – politically, socially, environmentally – is of no interest to me. Discussing a set of political philosophies, ethical considerations, and their application within the world outside of the space which we created is of concern to me. I think it is a pragmatic and useful practice. Again, unfortunately, it comes down to classification. If people recognize a certain strain of practice, social in nature, and often dialogically based, they won’t expect or even desire an outcome in relation to the project itself. What they will, and should, desire is the ability to engage, feel welcomed, and direct and be directed by the environment in which they have chosen to enter.

DF: Thinking about The Journal of Radical Shimming, which came out of the Revolutionary Spirit project, how can you utilize newspaper distribution or a channel on YouTube to give further moveable legs to dialogues that previously happened under one roof?

SG: The utilization of various types of media is vitally important to this type of practice if it wishes to be successful (read; generative). Ideas need to move, and ideas need to be free of the constraints of environment so that they can get reformatted and retrofitted to the multitude of experience that creates our reality here and now. With this in mind tone and application is incredibly important when developing media of this sort. Accessible media, media which is free, or of nominal cost, media which implicates the reader into the ideas and propositions which it elicits rather than dictates or speaks down to them, is key. What this sort of media implies is anarchic, it implies movement, and malleability. You’ve succeeded When the reader, while not having been present at the time of the project or conversation which spurned the media in question, feels as if they could imagine themselves there, or that the project could easily be created by them, and should be created by them if they desire it to be. Parallel to this, the knowledge that this type of media will be produced in tandem with gatherings under a single roof for a limited duration, with a limited number of people is incredibly important. When participants understand that the conversation and ideas generated within one room not only can, but will, leave the room in another form (be that a newspaper, zine, blog entry) it gives weight to those ideas with the knowledge that when people meet again their ideas will have been imprinted with their experience with the world outside that room. The dialogue in question in this scenario, when media is applied to the conversation, becomes generative and anarchic. Once it leaves the room and heads out into the world the ideas are out of your control. While unnerving for some who desire absolute control and authority over their ideas, for many others the anarchic quality of this type of mediated dialogue creates associations and breeds new thought which wouldn’t necessarily arise in a closed environment.

DF: With the use of Skype and various other technologies, it seems like the art world is getting smaller and smaller. We can now receive nearly instant calendar updates from organizations such as Temporary Services, C.Cred, Basekamp, the Baltimore Development Cooperative (BDC), Oakland’s infoshop, Mess Hall in Chicago, (the list could go on and on…), collectives that focus on affecting their own communities. As the world opens up and various national/international scenes are brought to your attention, do you find that methodologies and your goals, are increasingly similar?

SG: Somewhat so. A lot of methods are similar, where they begin to fragment is when they hit the ground, when they become local. I find this incredibly interesting. Groups, seemingly doing very similar work, encountering very different outcomes, very different personal and aesthetic narratives.

Some practice is decidedly interested in affecting the here-and-now of their localized environment and in that sense the methods are somewhat fractured by their environment. Other practices are concerned with global (or possibly it’s more apt to say, philosophical) concerns and are more affected by personality than environment. Many of these groups do share similar methodologies, and with that in mind, as everyone is different, and the immediate goals and interests are as varied as each individual is different, you apply these methodologies in different ways. You’re interested in each other’s work for many reasons, some aesthetic, some practical, some philosophical, and you pick and chose methodologies like choosing tools from a tool box. You use whatever works best to get the job done. But while the methodologies may be similar the application which those methodologies are applied is as different as each problem or political or aesthetic scenario is different. If I find it applicable to look at it in relation to styles of music, you’re going to have groups that, nominally, fit within the same genre, have similar line-up’s, use similar instruments and gadgets, but in the end, they can only sound so much alike.

——

I truly can not thank Sam enough for the tremendous conversation and wonderful insight into his practice.

Please follow Red76 via their website: www.red76.com.


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