April 25, 2011

Shop Talk 2 Respondent: Erika Staiti

Stephanie Syjuco, Shadowshop, 2010–11; photo: Dominic Santos

On Thursday, April 14, Open Space and Art Practical hosted the second of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s multiartist project Shadowshop, on view now. Today we present three responses to that evening. Do join us for the last evening of discussion on Thursday, May 12. Please welcome poet Erika Staiti.

Suzanne Stein, community producer at SFMOMA, and Patricia Maloney, editor of Art Practical, begin the second Shop Talk conversation with opening remarks and a useful framework. They pose two questions [What is the perceived value of the artist’s production, or practice, and how does it change as art or artist traffic in different environments? and What are the economic realities for artists?]; identify six overarching categories [sustainability, autonomy, transparency, authorship/anonymity, valuation, and motivation]; and use quotes from the respondents to the first conversation to provide context for the group.

Amanda Hughen, Shadowshop participant and Shop Talk presenter, is the first to respond. She says that for her, being an artist is less about being successful or making money and more about her identity as an artist. She thinks through the idea of what it might mean to “cling to an identity.” Following her comments come others, about what we consider “work” and how people see the world through their own filters. The contributors start with themselves, their experience, or their practice or their thoughts, and end with a general idea that could be expounded upon should someone choose to pick up the conversation from there. The discussion is organic and inclusive, an open field where anything can come up.

Then, a shift in dynamic occurs. Someone voices a strong sentiment about Shadowshop — how it strips the intention and spirit of the artwork it holds; that if the same piece can sell for $1,000 in a gallery and it sells at Shadowshop for $200, it is not the same work. The work is likened to a cheap object rather than a piece of art worthy of its price. Hughen mentions that she has two different works in the shop — mugs crafted specifically for Shadowshop (made under the name Sweat Equity and Co.) and also some of her prints with her name on them. She says in the shop environment she is more comfortable selling the mugs than her own work. There’s some discussion about whether artists feel they can put their participation in Shadowshop on their resume, or more accurately, whether they can put SFMOMA on their resume. Another person discusses his opinion that both curator and artists could have been more thoughtful about their participation; that artists don’t know how to price their work; and that it would have been a very different project if the artists contributed their own work set at the price that it cost them to create. I nod along to some of these comments, but gradually I become alienated from the lines of thinking in the room. The conversation has shifted in style, from an open exploration to targeted complaints and criticisms.

By the end of the evening, the room feels different. I am thinking about the opening remarks that are fluid and thoughtful and non-dominating in nature, and realize that that mode had given way to strong statements and presentation of opinions as fact. What these dominating positions do in their strong assertions is take up the open space, and subsequently, new ideas are unable to arise autonomously from neutral and uncharged ground. The comments that follow present themselves in opposition to (or at minimum with reference to) the dominant position. Jasper Bernes notes that the predominant position held in the room is one that upholds the current art market as ideal model.

As people rise from their seats to mill around or leave the room, the air is heavy with questions, many more questions than answers, yet again. This could be an endless discussion. I think about the nature of the open forum and what a more structured open forum might look like. I think about what the conversation would have been like if it had taken place outside of SFMOMA. At the same time, I am wondering if location and structure have anything to do with the ways people talk when people get together to talk about issues that matter to them.

Many ideas and concerns and opinions are aired in the discussion that I don’t mention here. But overall, there is a feeling to me of unwieldy, un-digestible, un-absorbable content. It is not that any of the concepts are difficult to comprehend. It is that something very present under the surface is difficult to comprehend. Or that there are such a variety of positions that it is impossible to hold on to all of them. I am interested in what is happening underneath the surface of both the speaking voices and the silent voices.

For me, Jasper Bernes nails it right here: “Sometimes it seems as if money is the thing art is most about. Or put differently, I have often thought that money is the one medium in which all artists work.”

I can’t believe how steeped in money the conversation is. Nobody can get out of it. It is what is being said and also what is not being said. I find myself wondering in what kind of universe the opposite might be a reality — where stockbrokers get together on a Thursday night and talk about art practices.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am a poet. Making a living from my art is not an option. Poets talk about community, cultural/social capital, power structures, lineages and affinities (or at least, the world of poets that I am a part of does). As I am sitting in the SFMOMA Koret Visitor Education Center, I am wondering to myself how it is possible that a group of people — many of whom are referring to one another by first name, all working in the same city in the same general sphere of visual art, in a city with a somewhat complicated relationship to the field of art on a national scale, in a country that completely devalues all artists, period — sitting in a room together on the second floor of their museum of modern art to talk about a project that specifically, intentionally, and provocatively brings together 200 artists — who all live and work and make art in this same city; who are either part of the project, or in relation to people who are part of the project, or who have some investment in the project, because they’re sitting there talking about it at 8 p.m. on a Thursday evening — I am wondering to myself how it is possible that hardly ever do the subjects of community, social capital, power structures, lineages, and affinities come up. These subjects are throbbing under the surface of the talking, but it seems to me they are rarely addressed directly.

In my previous post I asked some questions about inclusion and exclusion that I still wonder about. Did Stephanie Syjuco invite artists whose work she was most interested in? Were they her friends? What was the selection process? Did people who were invited decline? Why would someone accept or decline the invitation to participate? What does it mean for artists in the community who were not asked? What are their feelings about not having been asked? What was the thinking behind her choice to ask 200 artists instead of 20 or 800? In the discussion, a participant in Shadowshop mentions that as an emerging artist, she felt she had no choice but to say yes. She couldn’t afford to say no. Someone else says, “You can always say no.”

There have been, and will continue to be, many conversations taking place outside of the SFMOMA-centered Shop Talk about Shadowshop and the various nerves it has struck. Conversations among friends, in living rooms and coffee shops and bars and openings, in the comfort and security of one’s inner circles of intellectual and aesthetic camaraderie. Maybe through the public conversations, as well as through all of the personal ones, there will be a shift in perspective. Or maybe a moment has been marked in collective local history. Or perhaps nothing happens at all.

Whether you were present at Shop Talk or you’ve taken part in a less-public dialogue, what has felt the most useful and relevant to you in your conversations? Are any of your concerns not being addressed? What is getting overstated? What is left out?

Erika Staiti is a poet living in Oakland, CA. Their recent chapbook, in the stitches, was published by Trafficker Press.

Comments (1)

  • It is unfortunate that this mercantile attitude has permeated the art scene as well. However it is also understandable considering the scarcity of opportunities for artists during recent years. But not only artists suffer, a society without art (fine art, music, theatre, film, etc) is not a society but a horde of yahoos. Thus the failure of our government (both local and federal) to fund the arts secures the downfall of the Empire.

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