April 07, 2011

Bohemia of Finances (pt. 5)

photo by Stephanie Syjuco

In “I Dreamt I Was A Nymphomaniac,” Kathy Acker somewhat wryly describes the art world as “the bohemia of finances.” Still, questions of money and capital in the art world continue to transpire. Occasionally I will post discussions with artists and curators about the economics of their practice. This fifth installment is an e-mail conversation with local artist Stephanie Syjuco.

BB: Could you describe your practice for SFMOMA blog readers in broad terms? Here it would be great to have an introduction to Shadowshop of course; but what other kinds of works have made up your practice over the last few years? How have these pursuits interpenetrated with the necessity of “making a living?” (say as much as you feel comfortable)

Stephanie Syjuco: My recent projects have been interested in how people relate to objects, with a focus on how things are crafted, traded, valued, and exchanged. I actually come from a fairly traditional sculpture background and feel strongly that this influences the relational situations I set up because they’re so hinged on our perceptions and activities with objects and things. Moving from the creation of discrete objects and installations into a wider field of activities has been pretty recent, though. I think it was because I wasn’t satisfied with making lumpy, “dumb”things that would just sit there in gallery spaces and not really implicate anything or anyone in a direct way. I wanted to make nervous objects, things that were contingent upon their viewer for value and even changed allegiances or identities at different times. Making things that are in some way self-conscious commodities is one way of trying this out.

On a super practical matter, making things is highly problematic – things take up space, can cost a lot to fabricate, are hard to sell because they can be hard to display or collect, and use up physical resources that can be depressingly weighty in their environmental impact. Very few of my things ever sold, anyway, and this was a bummer because they get packed up and sit in my studio in large boxes, taking up way too much space. Half my studio is storage of things, old artwork. It sucks. In order to try to avoid this, I’ve had to resort to having things be either relational so they would at least “go away” afterwards or be able to be distributed or sold cheaply and easily so they wouldn’t sit like luggage in my studio after a show is over.  It’s very practical, actually!

BB: In Patricia Maloney’s recent review of Shadowshop, she suggests several contradictions proposed by the work. One of them is that Shadowshop’s success as a retail enterprise both challenges and seems to reinforce market ontology. With the result that artists involved are making money, something not always guaranteed with other parts of their practice.  I read that as suggesting that the “visibility” which Shadowshop effects as a result of that money-making is one tethered to the fiscal, distracting therefore from the “conceptual, aesthetic, or critical concerns that signify them as artists.”

What’s your take on this?

SS: I think her read on Shadowshop is spot-on in this way. What has gotten lost in the general discussion about the project is what I would consider an intrinsic and pretty problematic aspect of it – that the artists were invited to essentially address their own commodification. Many viewed being able to participate as an act of generosity on my part, which is partly true because I spent and still do spend a lot of time and energy keeping it up and running for the sake of them claiming 100% of the sales proceeds. But on the flip side you can look at it that they were invited to be represented in the museum only by the side-door of something that can appear to be a gift shop – a far cry from the hallowed halls of how “real” art is displayed, and this can degrade or even subvert their perception of themselves as fine artists. Some approached this by getting excited that they could have a cheaper distribution outlet than what they normally sold their “gallery” work for. Others took the opportunity to display rather expensive works that are hard to distinguish from their “art” art. Some went off on tangents and created works that were playfully ironic of their own practice. It was a real free-for all as to how the invited artists decided to position themselves in relationship to creating commodities.

You can’t believe how many visitors to Shadowshop peruse the wares and exclaim how high the prices are on some things – things that they don’t understand are part of a lineage of an artist’s practice and is actually quite a bargain when considering how expensive a similar object would be sold through their galleries. It opens up a dialogue with the Guest Workers (as the Shadowshop sales people are fondly called) as to what it is the visitor is looking at and why they value certain things above others.

BB: In much of the work of yours I’m acquainted with, there’s an implicit critique in the commodity, especially as the emblem of global exploitation. I mean, there’s a lot of play in that critique, so I’ve been drawn to the appropriation of places like Ikea, whose brand can’t be dissociated from their labor policy or their familiarity in, like, all of our homes.In a sense, Shadowshop is a lot different in form than those works. How do you narrate this relationship, this new project, and an established body of (diversely executed) works?

SS: When I was approached by SFMOMA to propose a “relational” work for the gallery I began thinking on what kind of situation would draw in the public in a comforting, familiar manner. Stores and commercial spaces are extremely comforting to people, as they offer up objects that consumers are then supposed to peruse and hopefully feel they can access a part of by purchasing. Museums are spaces of icons, in which the displays are held up as canonic and exemplary. At Shadowshop, there is the opportunity to access a work (whether its perceived as an artwork or just some weird object or tchotchke) via purchase, and that is really unusual for a museum, perhaps even fights against the point of a museum.

Also, the authorship of all items in Shadowshop is fully transparent: names and even bios or project descriptions from the artists are attached to everything, hopefully creating a personalization between the “commodity” and the “consumer,” which is quite different from how people usually perceive of purchasing when walking into a store. Maybe this identification of authorship is one way to attempt to create a linkage between the maker and the consumer, a less alienated form of production and consumption. In this way, perhaps its similar to my tactic employed in “COPYSTAND: An Autonomous Manufacturing Zone” at the Frieze Art Fair in 2009. In that instance, I hired five young artists to display their own performative production of artwork counterfeits, putting an authored spin on what is usually veiled or hidden. That there is a source to the production and faces attached to the labor are very important to me.

photo by Stephanie Syjuco

BB: How have you thought about Shadowshop’s relation, specifically, to the SFMOMA? It seems to me that the SFMOMA institutionally represents something that’s a little paradoxical. On one hand, an institution devoted to the education and enlightenment of the citizenry, an amazing resource for anyone interested, or potentially interested in art. On the other hand, as these posts in part have shown, the art world which SFMOMA traffics in is not one that’s free from the trappings of high finance and capitalist exploitation: far from it. How do you think Shadowshop fits, then?

SS: Originally, the curators wanted me to propose something that happened off-site, outside of the museum. The thought was that things were much more interesting outside of the museum, why would one want to activate a space within it since it can come off as institutional critique in a boring way? My opinion differed because of my relationship to the museum as an artist who has for years been trying to relate to the aims of the museum as both an insider and outsider. Artists make pilgrimages to these sites to evaluate their own work against what is held up inside them. There can be love/hate relationships with museums because they give artists visiting access and then excludes the work of most artists at the same time. It’s the nature of the beast, not a direct fault of the museums, of course. That’s their job, to define historical periods and relate positions via chosen contemporary works. Anyway, I wanted to exploit this push-pull relationship by both opening up a field for a wide variety of artists to play within, but at the same time, have an extremely restricted space (a store) for it to point out the discrepancies between inclusion and exclusion. I mean, it’s like, “sure, you get your work in the museum, but it’s in (insert sarcastic tone here) the giftshop…

I’ve been thinking about how to make works that are bilingual or trilingual – that read as vastly different things depending on how you spin them. Opening a store in a museum sounds like a crass, commercial thing to do. Making the museum pay for all the support structure, credit card fees, etc., of such an endeavor in order to give 100% to the artists is yet another contradiction since all stores or middlemen take at least 50%, right? Under the guise of the work being an “art project” literally thousands of actual business transaction can take place that mimics a capitalist system we are all familiar with but yet tweaks the channels, the rules of the game, in some way.

But hopefully everyone had to deal with a certain amount of paradox to support Shadowshop: the museum had to configure new policies to actually have a project that sold works and let people touch things (contrary to what people think, Shadowshop is technically in a formal gallery space where items are usually not to be touched). Artists have had to define how they see themselves as “represented” in the store. Am I, as the artist, the “curator” of Shadowshop and are they in a “show” at SFMOMA, or have they simply been invited to put commodities in an art work that acts like a store? Do you list this on your resume that you are “showing” at SFMOMA? What does everyone gain by such an endeavor? Does the museum gain cultural capital by looking “inclusive”and representing the local artist community, albeit temporarily? Do the galleries who represent the artists gain by having their artists “in SFMOMA” but lose by not getting a cut of sales (this has come up!).

Some artists have been upset that they can’t “apply” to Shadowshop and add their wares apart from the original 200-or-so invited artists. There have been ruffled artist feathers about where their wares have been placed in the store (top shelf vs. lower shelves, etc). And while the museum plays a huge role in supporting the project with a budget, a wonderful project manager, and more, a lot of it is physically ME stocking, restocking, returning emails, packaging, pricing, labeling, etc etc., and it’s been hard to deal with frustrations that have arose with artists not realizing how much work it takes for items to be included. Perhaps it’s because the project is at SFMOMA, they think the museum’s resources are endless. But we have a limited budget and limited resources and I now sell some of my own commodities at Shadowshop to be able to actually pay myself to so I can restock other people’s things and keep the system flowing.

As the instigating artist of this project it’s become a huge experiment in addressing what are extremely blurred boundaries of the definition of art, consumer objects, and how we are “supposed”to relate as players on all sides of this process.

I could go on and on about this stuff and how weird and strange this negotiating process has been with all players involved…

I do feel this has been a labor of love for me – a sort of love letter to an art community that I have been a part of for so long and want to see supported, economically and representationally. If the adage “money talks” holds true, then there is strange, vocal value in the commodities offered there: so far we have taken in over $65,000 in sales since opening on November 17, 2010.

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