April 04, 2011

Shop Talk Respondent: Erika Staiti

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

On Thursday March 24 Open Space and Art Practical hosted the first of three conversations organized loosely around issues and themes raised by Stephanie Syjuco’s multiartist project Shadowshop, on view now. Today we present four responses to that first evening. Do join us for Shop Talk round two, on Thursday, April 14. Please welcome poet Erika Staiti.

The first Shop Talk conversation took place on March 24. I took lots of notes. My notes look like a skeleton of the conversation. I’m sort of fascinated by this skeleton because it is totally not useful.

What I have gathered from scanning my skeleton and my memory of the event is that the best use of my space here will be to organize the conversation thematically rather than episodically. This method leaves many large holes in my account. My intention is mainly to distill certain items from the first conversation for possible elaboration and rumination during the second conversation on April 14. I am inserting some of my own questions and concerns, as well, so this account is super messy and complicated. Much like the issues seem to be. Plus, I’m a poet. My perspective is colored by the fact that I don’t ever expect to make a living wage from my art. It is just not part of the package.

I. Artwork and/or Commodity

All Shadowshop items were considered “wares” rather than “art” because of the way the museum is required to handle artworks.

Megan Brian, SFMOMA staff who is the project manager for the shop, recounted the many stumbling blocks in the process of establishing Shadowshop at SFMOMA — the museum had to create an entirely new PLU system; a new inventory process; organize pick-up/drop-off times for artists; pay wages for the shop workers; etc. To me this was exciting — the unexpected intervention, the pre-performance performance, the dance of making the dance possible. The “little guy” whose presence requires the large institution to reevaluate and revise its established rules/systems.

Mentioned often was the fact that the large majority of objects in the store were souvenir-like rather than “art.” They were created specifically for the use of the shop and different from the artist’s actual body of work. Patricia Maloney says here: “[Syjuco asked artists] to consider other means of creative output that would fit within a commercial context.”

Does the art in Shadowshop feel more like “commodity” than “art”?
— If so, is it because of the request to produce items “within a commercial context”?
— If so, is it because the work gets sold in plain sight to plain people?
— If so, is it because artists had to become a part of the business process, setting their own prices?
— If not, why not?

What if the store was filled with artists’ “real” work, set at “real” prices (whatever that is)? Would that have been preferable? What would have been other options?

A prevailing concern was whether or not the request to participate distracted from one’s main practice. SFMOMA’s Soap Box Derby was mentioned, first by Renny Pritikin here and again at the discussion, as another instance of local artists being asked to create work outside of their usual practice. Many consider it a distraction, but feel compelled to participate because it is a community thing that they want to [or feel they have to] be a part of. Presumably there were also artists who enjoyed the challenge of making something new, and then incorporated that work created for the specific project into their body of work (if it makes sense to do that).

Megan Brian said most visitors treat the space like a store rather than an installation or performance piece. The immediate impression is “shop” because most expectations of a shop are met in the space. We’re conditioned as consumers to read the signifiers (price tags, register, sales person, etc.). Someone else noted that the immediate understanding of a consumer environment dominates any other possibilities or implications for the space.

What are the benefits of thinking about Shadowshop variously as a “museum store” / “installation” / “performance piece” / “pop-up shop/gallery” / all of the above / what does it model, what does it activate / how is it *not* any of those things … ?

One woman at the discussion was a self-proclaimed “consumer” (not an artist). She says she loved the shop because she was able to acquire affordable art by local artists whose work she admires.

An artist at the discussion responds that the shop, while being positive for the consumer, could be negative for the artist — it devalues artwork into commodity. When the shop sells out of a product, it creates demand for more of the product, thus creating more work that distracts the artist from his/her own practice. He says (paraphrase): “Worst case, you’re successful, i.e., the demand increases, and you make more of the same.”

“Devalue” was a word that came up frequently. Amanda Hughen re: labor. She commissioned artists to produce her artwork for her and asked them to set their own rate of compensation. Some over-charged for their labor, others under-charged for their labor.

II. Artist’s Autonomy
(Christian L. Frock discusses “Alternative Autonomies” — see here.)

Artists set their own prices and get 100% of the proceeds from the sales!

This statement seems to get all the emphasis, everywhere. One could think this is the core ideal of the project. Is the fact that this occupies the main stage in any way obscuring underlying problems? Is it productive to keep saying this without exploring the deeper implications of it? Are there conditions under which these circumstances are replicable? Is this the ultimate goal?

Renny Pritikin’s “whispered question” — “Isn’t selling one painting, and getting half the sale, an easier way to make a buck?” Amanda Hughen answers YES.

III. “Shadowshop raises more questions than it answers.”

I heard this said a number of times in a number of different ways.

IV. Heat Cred / Street Cred – (it goes both ways)

— Artists getting SFMOMA name = Heat Cred
— SFMOMA supporting local community = Street Cred

How do artists feel about SFMOMA patting its own back about its generosity toward the local community through this project?

“Wow, thanks, SFMOMA!”  / OR / “Thanks, but no thanks.”

V. Community

Amanda Hughen — “Community through commodity”

One artist who has artwork in the shop and is also employed by SFMOMA says: “It was socially problematic.”

What are the benefits of, or motivations for, participating? — Place the following in order of importance:

— Having work/presence in SFMOMA
— Getting 100% of the proceeds of your artwork and getting to set your price
— Participating in a community event

Here are some other questions I’d like to see addressed:

1.  Inclusion/Exclusion – Syjuco says “[Shadowshop] comprises a partial snapshot of a vibrant and interconnected art scene.”

— What was Syjuco’s method for selecting/asking artists?
— Did artists feel they had a choice to accept or decline? Why or why not?
— What does it mean for Bay Area artists who were not asked to participate?

2. Names/naming as a way of drawing community lines

Would as many people have contributed if Shadowshop wasn’t at SFMOMA? Would as many people have contributed if the artists had to be anonymous? [Institutional sponsor and self/artist/ego — two sides of same coin? Names, reputations.]

What if the names of the artists were removed, and the name SFMOMA was removed?

What would be left? Whatever is left — is it valuable to the artists, the community, the hosting institution, the consumer?

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

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