CONTROLLING WHAT YOU CAN WHEN THINGS FEEL OUT OF YOUR CONTROL: The Importance of Art Making During a Crisis
Sebastien Chandonnet, Alexej Hrajnohaz, Dominique Victoria, & Blair Zollinger
Sebastien Chandonnet, Alexej Hrajnohaz, Dominique Victoria, & Blair Zollinger
When you feel like things are out of your control, what do you do to cope with that feeling?
Of course everyone copes differently, but personally I tend to depend on unhealthy mechanisms. I chain smoke cigarettes, drink excessively, eat excessively, and spend way too many daylight hours in darkness. However, I think that’s what makes my artwork so important. It’s my one mechanism that I can control amongst this chaos. It’s my essential business in this solitude, and my one personal relationship that isn’t restricted to six feet.
A lot of things feel out of my control right now. It’s hard for me to be in situations I can’t control. But I remember that as much as I feel out of control, there are always elements that are completely within my control. I try to zero in on those things in this time. I start with the most basic: my own person. I use self-care as a grounding technique ’cause no matter what is happening, the flesh suit we all live in requires maintenance.
I try to find something I can control, like how much time I spend on certain things, i.e. sticking to schedule. Anything that makes me feel like I have a handle on some aspect of my life. I try my best to keep myself occupied by drawing or playing games, so I don’t get caught up in my own spiraling thoughts.
What personal benefits do you gain from making art in a time of crisis?
Art gives me a mental break: time for my brain to concentrate on something other than the pandemic and its effects on my community, my family. It’s a way to pass time, and I really enjoy it! There’s a certain serotonin you get from making art you care about. I’ve found myself drawing more than I usually have in recent times, more silly things and not portfolio pieces. It helps keep my mind off of things.
What physical benefits do you gain from making art in a time of crisis?
It feels encouraging to have my hands in different media. The sense of touch is different now that we are all so aware of our hands and surfaces. Art gives me something to schedule myself around right now. I could be in bed, depression napping the day away, but I have things to make.
What are the struggles of making art in a time of crisis?
Personal space is becoming narrower as I live in a three hundred square foot apartment in an area where I don’t feel safe to explore. I also share this space with my seventy pound dog, Bruiser. Some days I feel suffocated in this space, but other days I feel comforted by its restrictions. The lack of facilities during this time is a huge hit, especially as a sculptural artist.
There’s a lot of pain and fear happening right now. It’s hard for me not to think of what’s happening to people. More black people are dying of coronavirus (at greater rates) than any other group. I’m in a good place in that all my basic needs are met, and then some. I’m okay physically. But I know what it’s like to not be okay, and I know that there are so many people who don’t have that in a regular everyday situation, let alone right now in a pandemic. Art can feel empty in comparison to everything happening right now.
Lack of motivation is a big one. Sometimes you have good days, where things feel okay, and then others you feel like a slug, and you get that guilt feeling of, “Oh, I should be doing work.” But we’re going through a pandemic, and everyone’s brains are a little fried, so it’s okay to take a breather every now and again.
How do you value your art? Does this impact how and why you make art during a time of crisis?
There has been an overwhelming sense of community shown throughout this pandemic. People are coming together to fight this disease. I believe artists will follow, making our own mark in history. It’s crazy to think about the fact that this crisis is so new and so rapid—it has changed our entire world within months. I look forward to seeing how galleries and other artists can come together after this time as well. I see my art as a visual representation of my thoughts, ideas, feelings, and just whatever is inside me. Art feels like a more complete expression of those things. The art I normally make is so full of thought and emotion, so the art I’ve been making during the pandemic has more to do with not thinking and just doing.
I have a lot of personal feelings toward my art, and the way I create is very much like personal passion rather than what idea will make me money. But also as an artist, I’m always thinking about the consumer and seeing my work through another lens, which also influences what I create and how it looks. I really value my work and it’s really important to me, so I’d say my work is ten times more important to me now than ever before. I already loved the projects I worked on, but now, because of the increased time I have by myself, I find myself thinking more and more about my projects. I’m always sketching or doodling ideas now, and it’s nice to feel like I’m being somewhat productive. Because all my projects are so near and dear to me, I feel very at home with them while creating. Just another place for my brain hole to explore while trying not to think about the impending doom!
If you do not make art in a time of crisis, why not? Is there something stopping you physically or mentally?
The financial impacts of COVID-19 are increasing at a world-wide scale. Like many others, this pandemic has taken a toll on my financial stability, and the total loss of facilities I paid thousands of dollars for is not ideal. However, I will find a way to adjust and move forward; that’s really all any of us can do.
The first two weeks of this, I couldn’t make anything. I have a studio to work in, and I still couldn’t bring myself to make something. But I really needed to do something, so I jumped into helping in ways I could—the most addressable issue was helping students in emergency situations. A few other student leaders and I started a fund, and we have managed to help a lot of people with immediate financial needs. I sent out so many messages and emails that first two weeks with all the information I could find on helping people with basic needs. I had to do something to help, whatever I could, before I could think about working on art. And now that I feel like I’ve done what I can, I have a little more space to create.
HAZARD + WHITE
An interview with Schuyler Hazard and Laela White, conducted by Soo Kim
An interview with Schuyler Hazard and Laela White, conducted by Soo Kim
Dear Laela and Schuyler,
I’m writing to you from my kitchen table, rain pouring outside, and thinking about the times I got to see and think deeply about your work and practice for these past seven months. I remember teetering on the air mattress in Sky’s studio, looking up at a painting in wonder, so dense with symbolic and personal meaning—its attempts to sometimes coalesce and sometimes separate the medium with the mark making, the dual confrontational and empathic nature of the work. Or crouching to catch all the details of Laela’s sculptures and paintings, resisting such a strong desire to touch them, the work replete with a dark humor and pathos that was hard to shake off even well after our visit.
COVID-19 has changed the nature of our lives in so many profound and challenging ways. Our world has never looked like this, and we’ve had to make adjustments quickly and carefully in order to mitigate the dangers the virus can bring to us, individually and communally. As your teacher in the last year of your undergraduate life, it has been a poignant experience transitioning out of the space of intellectual and artistic investigation and experimentation, to trying to manage the disappointment of postponing the recognition and celebration you’ve earned.
But I also know you are tremendously resilient.
As things were closing all around us, you responded quickly and purposefully with Hazard + White, “a home gallery dedicated to facilitating group shows by Los Angeles art students in this time of uncertainty,” as you’ve described it. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear about your project. Instead of surrendering to limitations, you came up with a transformative response to a difficult situation. And you made space not for yourselves, but for your peers—others who are in the same altered place, at the cusp of moving from an art student to an artist. We artists have always served important roles during difficult times. We reflect our societies, bring together communities, and give voice to collective experience. In these times, when we are separated in new, unimagined ways, you have forged a path for us to support each other as the days and weeks pass.
Soo: Your first post on Instagram for Hazard + White (H+W) was a declaration/ mission statement/manifesto that contextualized this project as a response to the COVID-19 global pandemic—a forward-looking attempt to make space when space has been narrowly bound for everyone. What drove/inspired you to do this, to respond so quickly and openly? Was it something you’d been thinking about?
Schuyler: We were thinking about that the show and graduation were robbed from us, for lack of a better words—by nobody’s fault—and we wanted to create some sort of opportunity that would, in some way, make up for the fact that we would not be getting that exposure as students. And we wanted to create a space in which student artists would be represented in a professional yet accessible way.
Laela: This was also something that Sky and I had been thinking about and had wanted to do for a while. The timeline obviously got pushed up exponentially, but we had already been talking about wanting to have a space where we would curate shows of young and emerging artists, our peers, and people around LA. With COVID-19 coming in, it just felt like the time was now, and it was necessary to do this. Sky really took the reins and made it so that we would have a project that we’re excited about, to be able work toward together, since we were both beginning to feel apathetic about everything.
Schuyler: I feel like a lot of the momentum that we built up over the last term and a half just kind of dissipated when all of this happened. What was holding me back was that we didn’t have a space to create a collective that would be a good way to represent our friends’ work. But being confined to the house was actually a kind of blessing in disguise because there’s no other option but to do it in the house, and that immediately transferred into, “Okay, we have a space now.”
Soo: I was wondering if you had been thinking about this before, because you acted so quickly. I think a lot of us were just stunned. But the agency you both took to make this happen was a quick shot of relief when people needed it. I think that’s great. I also think it’s interesting and important that you describe H+W as a “home gallery.” What is the meaning in that for you?
Schuyler: I think the pandemic kind of leveled the playing field in terms of expectations about the institutional art world and the gallery system. It was something that I had been thinking about—how if Laela and I did something together, would that fit into the patchwork of the art world? Because no one currently has access to those hierarchical spaces where one would normally show their work, doing a gallery in my house felt like both a convenient and timely response.
Soo: In Los Angeles alone, I can think of several art spaces sited in homes: Domestic Setting, Bliss, and Park View, to name just a few.
The conditions of this time are unprecedented though, so even though there have been exhibition sites in domestic spaces, things are different now. I also like that the images from the first show you’ve curated—Apocalypse Now—has, by the nature of its site, domestic details in most of the installation shots. There are some works that are isolated to a more traditional way of documenting artwork, but in a lot of them you see intimate details. You see what kind of detergent you use, the color of your walls, the way that Laela’s sculptures are photographed on what looks like a glass tabletop so it floats—these are really nice details. And the sofa next to Jiselle and Chandler’s work is a nice moment of discreet domesticity that you don’t shy away from in the photographs. Do those hints of private spaces hold meaning for you?
Schuyler: I didn’t plan exactly where each piece was going to go, but once we acquired the work, the first decision was to put Holon’s work next to my washer and dryer. It’s a utility box, and you’re supposed to have easy access to it to grab things that you need. Holon subverts that by putting sharp medical objects in the box. Having a utilitarian object next to a washer and dryer seemed like the best place to put it, and I took that photo because I wanted to highlight the fact that it works in multiple settings, and that this is very much a home gallery. These are art works, but they can also operate in a domestic setting and have different connections than offered in a white-walled gallery setting.
Laela: I also think that it’s really important that Sky chose to have domestic objects in the documentation of the show. We’re not shying away from the fact that it’s installed in a house. It’s a kind of celebration, and an attempt to show that you can use what you have at your disposal—plain walls, surfaces, the space above your couch—and still be able to talk about these works in an art context, without it being housed in a white box. This is still an important gesture, and these are still important objects that we’re showing. I feel like the idea of a home is really important to both Sky and me, and I think that shines through in the way that the art pieces are being documented and shared.
Soo: it’s interesting to consider how siting an exhibition in a domestic setting changes artwork, but also how the domestic setting is altered by the exhibition. Currently, we are largely relegated to our homes and our private spaces; we understand and experience our personal spaces differently because we occupy it so much. So when you show artwork in yours, it also shifts an understanding of the personal. I think about not just how students lost access to labs, but also your studios. For artists, our studios are a lab of sorts, and you go home to a separate place. But it’s all the same now. It’s a nice context to think of the boundaries between your artistic practice and your personal life.
Schuyler: Normally I’m very reticent when it comes to inviting people into my space. I’m not very neat, and all of my objects that I’ve saved over my lifetime are in this space, and they’re all very important to me. When I have people over, I get very stressed out that everything needs to be clean—and it never is—and that restricts me from having people over. Being able to take pictures of things in my house and not having to let people inside is a great balance. I haven’t hung any work in my bedroom, so you still don’t see where I sleep.
Soo: It’s also accessible only online for the time being. Are you thinking of online encounters as a viable or changed space to show artwork now that is different from the past, or is it more of a functional way of showing something that does, in fact, exist in the world, but not accessible right now?
Laela: The last one [laughs].
That was a definitely a big reason for us to curate in a physical space. We could’ve easily asked people, “Hey! I liked your painting. Do you have a good picture of it so we can put it in a digital gallery where it will exist on a digital platform?” But we still wanted the heart and the labor, and the physicality of it actually being installed, actually in a space, actually in conversation with walls, the floor, and other things around it. When we first started, we thought that this quarantine thing would only be two weeks, and we would have a short window, maybe once a week, where Sky and I would invite people to come over to her place to see the show.
Schuyler: Oh, how wrong we were.
Laela: That’s obviously not the situation we are in now. OH, HOW WRONG WE WERE! So for the time being, this will be a physical-but-only-through-virtual- means gallery. But in the future, we want to open the space to people.
Schuyler: It’s a challenge. You’re inherently creating a push-pull with the audience because you’re only showing them what you feel comfortable showing them and not the entire layout of the house—you don’t get that—so you’re left wondering what the rest of the house looks like. Are we going to see a shot of the bed? Are we going to see what the kitchen looks like? What is this amorphous domestic space that we’re only looking at through a peephole? I think that’s really interesting.
One of the first things we said is that the shows need to exist in a physical space. When you’re curating pictures for an online space, it’s lacking something. I don’t want to call it agency, but you’re arranging photos—it’s almost a collage when you do that. But if you’re putting the work up in person and making more decisions guided by space and objecthood, that allows you to show work in a way that has considered it as an object and the parameters of showing that object. That takes more time and effort, and has a more cohesive result, in my opinion.
Soo: Yes. I think those domestic details carry with it a sense of intimacy that’s evades the sterility of the white cube exhibition space. I agree with you, your description of moving pictures around, of seeing so many images in a uniform context, we have so many experiences of that. From grad school applications committees to grant panels, you see the same placeless context over and over and over again. Situating it, I think, gives the artwork space, and also a sense of intimacy. There’s something that anchors it and tethers it to the real world, which is something we feel a little bit of alienation from because of all of this quarantining.
Schuyler: Everything is being pushed online and detached from how it is physically, so keeping that consistency is important, and it sets apart the gallery from other responses to the pandemic.
Soo: You stress that this is a space and platform for art students. How are you, or will you, engage in that group as an audience and as participants?
Schuyler: In almost every class or lecture, or any other situation in which you have a “successful” artist talking to a group of students, if you ask them how they got to be successful, what path they took . . . They’re all completely different. A lot of them say it was luck, being at the right place at the right time. And if you ask anyone, they will say that there is no direct path to becoming a successful artist, that it just takes a long time, and it will work out if you continue to do your work. That’s great, but in every other profession, there is a course that’s lined out: you go to grad school, then you get a job, then you rise up in the ranks of the job. The art world isn’t like that, and there aren’t enough places where student artists are solely shown and appreciated in that way. And I feel there aren’t enough spaces that exist solely for art students that have agency and professionalism.
Soo: Or that it doesn’t cross institutions—it’s very specifically Otis or another school. Every school is very self-contained within their own institution.
Schuyler: Or they’re in a bubble of a collective, and the friends of the collective, and there’s not a wider audience. Putting this on Instagram, we can get people from a lot of places to see it.
Laela: I definitely feel like showing student work is really important because so often students can feel discouraged about what they’re making, or feel like the kind of work they make is not represented, or they don’t see it in physical spaces that they look up to. Also, because we’re “students” and we’re barely going to be coming out of school—we haven’t earned our stripes—no one is going to immediately see us as professionals. We probably won’t be taken seriously for a while, and that’s just what comes with it.
Schuyler: It’s kind of bullshit though.
Laela: It is bullshit! But I feel though those limitations are what they are, and you can either let them define you and put you down, or you can try to work outside of those parameters and say, “Fuck it, I’m going to make something for myself then.” The kind of work I make now, I know of a lot of artists that I like that show their work in unconventional ways or do things unconventionally— had I seen something like this when I was a sophomore, I probably wouldn’t have dropped out. It probably would’ve made me feel more motivated, like, “Okay! I can make something like this for myself, this is possible!”
I feel as though you see student artists, you see midcareer artists where they have some traction, and then you see really big, successful artists who are making loads of money, and you see art teachers who have an art practice— that’s not a bad thing! You see art teachers who have an amazing art practice, but for whatever reason, they maybe decided to focus on teaching people instead of trying to become billionaires. I feel like you don’t ever really see the in-between of a student and a midcareer artist. What the fuck happens in between? And I feel that Sky and I are at least trying to show one path. Like we’re gonna make a space, and we kind of know what we’re doing, but we’re not professionals at this—but we’re going to do our best. And we’re gonna show work that we think is good. We’re going to utilize the tools that we’ve acquired and learned in our path at school.
Knowing that a bunch of art students across the board are also going to be experiencing this same thing of treading water and trying to figure out what comes next—not just at Otis—we want to facilitate a certain kind of possibility for people to submit work to us, or maybe they start their own at-home gallery, and that’s pretty fucking cool. So that’s where that whole thing came from.
Schuyler: This home gallery is like a very small crowbar prying open the doors of the gated art world. Just a little toothpick opening it up a tiny bit so that maybe somebody, somewhere, sees the work and appreciates the agency of art students and their work—sees the effort that’s been put into it, sees it as a valid enterprise and a valid space for this work that’s not so delegated.
Soo: You’re thinking about art students as both your audience and participants because it gives the artist/student an opportunity, but it also opens up more space for, for lack of a better word, experimentation. You two just spoke a lot about the professionalizing of art. Art is a business, so of course there is that professionalizing, but at the same time I think that there isn’t as much space for failure in the art world. I mean, people like to talk about everyone embracing failure and how vital a process that can be with one’s practice— but not really.
Schuyler: They just don’t mean it.
Laela: That’s bullshit!
Soo: But I like that—and perhaps this is me overreading or misreading— the premise of your gallery is art students. You could just say artists; you don’t have to say art students. You could’ve just slid that in, but instead you declare it as art students up front. You set it up as a group still studying art. It’s not a formulaic continuum—of setting up a practice that’s set in stone, and I like that kind of irreverence or experimentation that the term art student or artist student opens up. It’s not so much about a certain history or chronology or pedigree that determines whether you are exhibited. I think that’s pretty exciting.
Schuyler: In some ways it’s a big “fuck you” to the gallery system, which is so exclusionary and so particular. Everybody’s trying to get into that, for the most part, or is taught that they should get into that. However, creating a space that then blocks the gallery system out, and is solely for student artists, is almost a small act of anarchy.
Soo: I think after this, after seeing so many constraints in place, maybe more people will think of different ways of showing art. You know this was a good catalyst for you, so perhaps other people at this very moment are also catalyzing, thinking similarly, or wanting to do something.
Laela: I am all for people trying to find their own path and starting their own thing. You know, the whole “for them, by them” type of deal—I think it’s great. I don’t agree with much of the big gallery shenanigans. So I think if everyone mobilized and formed their own collectives, and then they only communicated within other collectives, as opposed to operating through a big gallery, I think that would be cool.
Soo: I think you’ll come up with some more ideas during this quarantine about how you will engage and enlarge the crowbar. Laela, you mentioned a moment ago that if you had seen an example like this when you were a sophomore, it might have gotten you more excited to do other things. I also think the situation will make us think of new ways to make and show art. I like to think about not just the making of our own work, but to think and ask, what world do we want our work to live in? Do you want it to be within a sort of system that’s been entrenched, that’s market-driven, that’s rooted in the history and legacy of the capitalist art market? Or can we try for something else? What do you want from making that effort? I think this project brings up a lot of these important questions that will remain effective, promising, and inspiring after all of this.
Laela: Thank you!
Soo: You guys are funny, and there’s humor in the first exhibition’s name: Apocalypse Now. Do you want to elaborate on that title choice? As well as your decision to call the gallery Hazard + White? Show me how funny you are.
Laela: Three weeks prior to coming up with the name Hazard + White, we were having an early dinner. Sky and I were talking about having an exhibition space in the future. Sky said she would want to name her gallery after her last name, Hazard, and then she suggested using both of our last names if we did something together. I said I had no interest in my last name, White, as the name of a gallery; it sounds racist as fuck. I would rather come up with something witty.
Schuyler: Or silly.
Laela: Or silly. White is just an adjective. There’s no funniness in it. It’s not even a funny color. It’s white. Maybe if my last name were magenta or fuchsia, but it’s not. Anyway, we were discussing it again after the quarantine began, and I was trying to think of a good spin. I had a tab open for Hauser & Wirth and realized it’s the same number of syllables and the same initials. I realized it would be hilarious. And it worked!
Schuyler: Hauser & Wirth has a big presence in Los Angeles.
Laela: It’s a very stuffy space as well. I felt we were the opposite of that, which is also funny. Then it was time to do the logo—they have the simplest logo ever—so that was quick and easy.
Schuyler: But it’s different enough so we can’t get sued for copyright infringement.
Laela: I made my own typeface, but I based it on theirs. That was that. Sky came up with the title for the first show—I’ve never seen that movie.
Schuyler: Oh, the movie is alarming. The content of the movie has nothing to do with our show. The movie is a bleak representation of the Vietnam war for United States soldiers. It focused on the horrors that occurred in Vietnam while the US forces were there—horrors committed by the United States military, which were unnecessary and dehumanizing to the local population. It’s about war—violence, othering, trauma—especially in guerilla-style warfare, as the death of morality. I tried to rewatch the beginning, it’s so violent.
The poster for the film includes a napalm sky, helicopters, a marsh, and desolation in a paradise-like setting at the end of the world—I immediately thought of the connection to our new everyday. We Photoshopped downtown Los Angeles into the movie poster, and put the COVID-19 microbe as the sun. I was just playing around in Photoshop because I thought that would be funny to post on my Instagram, but then we realized it would be fitting for the show. Some people might think that it’s cheesy to use a movie title and poster as press for a show, but that’s in line with what we’re doing.
Laela: We are cheesy.
Schuyler: We’re cheesy people.
Soo: I just have one last question. Time feels different now that we are separated from one another. We’re also spending even more time online: for work, for school, for buying groceries, for everything. Do you think about our changed sense of time in presenting your shows? For example, in your opening declaration, there’s a recurring phrase you use: “now is the time”. I like that refrain—it’s optimistic and it’s open, but it also reinforces that this is a different kind of time, a different sense of time passing. You use it at least four or five times in your initial statement to differentiate the past from the present, or a call to action. What do you think of that refrain now? What do you think of this idea of time?
Laela: Personally speaking, time isn’t real.
Schuyler: It’s a construct.
Laela: My entire perception of time is already weird. I already think like that—even when there were systems in place. Even when I had to be in certain places at certain times, but now everything’s loosey-goosey. I’m not watching the time per se; I still have to show up to Zoom meetings on time, and those waste a lot of time. Time feels gelatinous now. It doesn’t feel like it’s a real thing. It just feels like, “Oh and then 3:00 p.m. passes.” I can’t touch it. It’s even more intangible than it was before.
Soo: I know. Time seems to go by so slowly, and then I look up and it’s three o’clock. I think it feels that way because we’ve lost a certain amount of structure and routine, yet the expectations of work and school remain— but we’re also moving less or slowly.
Laela: Not leaving the house is different. It’s been raining recently, but before it was raining, I would go for walks and that helped me re-center: “It’s four o’clock., and I can see where the sun is, I understand that.” However, being in the house when it’s gray outside all day, and I’m staring at screens, then staring at paper, then staring at screens again—my days melt into one another. I don’t wake up really early, which is weird for me.
Now I shower at night, which is also weird for me. Also, in a broader sense, it feels as though there was a definitive point at which there was then and now, which relates to what Sky mentioned earlier, where “now is the time.” That was the beginning of the end. Our sense of normalcy, our ability to go out freely, our not being afraid to interact with one another or touch someone or speak to someone, or even be in the same room with someone—that point is gone. Now it’s as if we’re in this new realm, this new age we need to navigate. We need to re-center ourselves and take advantage of this time. That was a big part of that declaration.
Soo: It is very optimistic and open. I really was so happy to share in that through the writing.
Schuyler: I think “now is the time” had to do with so many different things— it was our way of coping with the fact that everything had been turned upside down. This project is one thing that we can control. We can redirect any energy from being physically canceled into this project. We needed to share what we had come up with as a way to deal with these circumstances, and we needed to open our project up to other students.
Soo: I think it’s really wonderful that these things were percolating between you two before the pandemic, and then they came to fruition because of the pandemic—it happened really quickly, with so much energy, openness, and optimism—that it simultaneously addresses some of these difficulties and some things that can change from everyone being so upended and turned upside down. I think H+W is a really multivalent project that makes space for a lot of things to be reconsidered. That’s all I’ve got.
Schuyler: I think that we’ve got more than enough to make a two-page spread.
Laela: Oh yeah.
Schuyler: We should set this at eight point type size.
Soo: I like tiny type.
Laela: We’ll attach a magnifying glass to the page.
ROOM 225: Our Reflection on the Sudden End of a Powerful In-Real-Life Working Dynamic
A possible memory:
I am trying to get through the door of room 225 to have a meeting with my mentees. With one hand, I’m pulling my cart full of Girl Scout cookies for sale, and in the other hand, I’ve got Lil’ Griff (my service dog) on his leash and my cup of tea. I’m trying not to spill the hot tea on Lil’ Griff as we navigate around Margaux’s encroaching pile of industrial and geological odds and ends that she’s going to use for future art pieces. Margaux is sitting cross-legged making a small painting—or sculpture—in the middle of the mass of material. Estephany, who held the door open for me, has gone back to painting at her easel. She is hunched with concentration on a loosely rendered image of a little girl. On the other side of her wall, Lanise is painting among her stacks of large finished canvases of radiant African American men and women, talking with a new potential model/friend. As I squeeze past, I glance—but I don’t want to intrude— to see if Xepher is behind her black lace curtain; she’s got her table pushed out to make room for all the free stuff she gets in the mail for being an influencer, as well as one of her photographs and a painting or two. She’s not there, probably rolling down the hall on her heelies. Moving past this crowded entrance, Dallin’s studio feels spacious because he and Maezee have removed the wall between them. This spaciousness amplifies the presence of a tiny model on his table: a miniature environment for contemplation with static grass on rolling hills, white caves and rocky plinths with moss and plants grow out of their crevices. Maezee’s colorful crayon- scribbled butcher paper has large chunks cut out and dangles floor to ceiling around the back wall, giving the impression of a child’s drawing grown to theater-set size. Her collaged figurative photographs, conflating men and women’s faces and bodies using this set material, are pinned at the imaginary border of her and Dallin’s studios. Sarah’s potpourri of fabric, wicker, and lace pour out of her studio, and I try not to step on a sparkly domed button while turning my cart around to settle down. She has made a new piece on patched-together, Bavarian-themed cloth, upon which she painted a sardonic cartoon strip of herself and a friend philosophically conversing. I find a spot to park my cart, my dog, and myself. I look at Sasha’s three walls of her colorful, crisp, cartoon-like heads—a trademark for her—and I see the new development: the large canvas in the center depicts a full figure! Well, at least to the waist. We all gather in a circle to meditate for two minutes and catch up about the week. — Ingrid Calame
The following is a conversation of the Room 225 Senior Studio Mentee Group on April 8, 2020, after Otis College of Art and Design shut down for the semester on March 13, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We spoke from various locations via Zoom video conference following the shelter-in-place government orders. Participants: Ingrid Calame, mentor Estephany Choi, Lanise Howard, Dallin Moe, Sasha Oratz, Margaux Rocher, Sarah Schoenberger, Maezee Tailes, Xepher Wolf
Ingrid: What was it like working together in room 225?
Estefany: It was fun. We were silly. I just messed around a lot [laughs].
Margaux: It was very funny. Estefany and Lanise were a perfect duo. I was their biggest fan.
Lanise: I miss being silly. I miss it so much.
Estefany: Me and Lanise goof around a lot. We vent our frustrations by being silly. She’s next to me so it’s easy to bother her [laughs]. I wish I could’ve been goofier around other people, but there’s this connection between me and Lanise. Everything is funny. We have a lot of similarities, not as artists but as people—as friends.
Lanise: We didn’t have any walls up most of the time, so we could be ourselves and be as silly as we wanted to be. It was fun. I tried to motivate her a lot.
Estefany: I’m not gonna lie, I was lazy. I was a lazy girl [laughs].
Dallin: You got stuff done, though.
Lanise: You did get stuff done. I think you wanted to have fun. Now I’m wishing I would’ve had more fun with you before the quarantine, but I was so focused on painting, all I could think about was work.
Estefany: I was trying to have fun ’cause I knew this was coming. Like I knew something bad was gonna come, so I was getting my fun out of me. Toward the end of the semester, I had a heightened anxiety. I’m not gonna lie— toward the end of the semester, I came to the studio drunk a few times, but I realize I—
Sarah: Brooooooo, she was just like, “I came to the studio drunk a few times”!
Sarah: No, that’s awesome.
Sarah: This is cool—it’s like confession time.
Dallin: It wasn’t too much of a secret. She didn’t hide it too much [laughs].
Sarah: Oh never mind, I was probably gone [laughs].
Dallin: Honestly, working in room 225 was the best part of Otis for me. I lucked out with my studio mates. We all connected at somze point. It was enjoyable to work around them and be inspired by their talent.
Xepher: I think we had a really good group. I know that I keep to myself a lot, but I felt like I got to know these guys and that was really satisfying.
Lanise: And then it got pulled up underneath us like a rug, but it’s all good.
Ingrid: How did being surrounded by other people help you develop?
Sasha: When you’re in conversation with other artists, you give each other the tools to grow. Dallin and I collaborated last year. Being across from each other in the 225 studio this year was an interesting experience: we watched each other progress and had insight into each other’s process from our collaboration.
Ingrid: All of you have made giant leaps, but you show it in different ways. Was there a time when you came into the studio and were surprised by someone’s growth, a move they made in their work?
Dallin: Margaux’s photo abstraction pieces—she would freaking work on that for hours . . . Xepher moving away from what professors were telling her to do and toward what she was inspired to do—her Instagram and photo work— because she was deeply involved in that . . . and Sasha zooming out from painting only the head of her figures, the rest of the body was exciting.
Margaux: Yes, seeing the body was interesting.
Lanise: The way Sarah’s paintings transformed was freeing. When she started painting on fabric and incorporating knickknacks and text, they became intricate and complex; I could look at them for long periods of time. It was great that there were a lot of painters—you know I’m partial. I love looking at Margaux’s photo/paintings, seeing all the textures and topography. Her paintings are both sculptural and immersive. I was excited to see Estefany’s paintings go back to portraiture and the domestic, because I think that that’s what she’s really into. I was interested when the bodies started to appear in Sasha’s paintings. Xepher’s Instagram thread and printed photographs were really cool—I enjoyed the color narratives she put her Instagram character-self into. Watching Sarah, Maezee, and Dallin experiment with installation was inspiring. I was always curious to see what Maezee was working on because it would always be something different, so I’d peek over to see what she was up to. I was excited to see Dallin’s model for his installation, but I’m sad that we didn’t get to see the actualized piece, due to the school shut down. Hopefully we will one day.
Ingrid: Can you share a “what the fuck?!” moment: fear, loathing, or humor?
Dallin: Estefany’s singing late at night to Lanise trying to work. [laughter]
Ingrid: What was she singing?
Dallin: I don’t even know. Lanise: She was always singing Mariah Carey or something from the ’90s or early 2000s [laughs].
Ingrid: Do you have a good voice?
Estefany: No, I don’t. [laughter]
Margaux: Do it! Do it! Do it!
Estefany: You guys want me to sing?
Estefany: Alright hold on... I’m so nervous.
Dallin: You’re on the spot.
Estefany: You want me to sing for real?
Estefany: Okay, [singing] I still believe something, you and me will fa—I don’t know—never mind. [laughter and applause] Okay, I know a moment. I walked into the studio, and Sarah was laying on the floor, talking on her phone, and I realized, wow, we are allowed to be ourselves at this school, in these studios. That’s what I appreciated the most—that we could be relaxed and be ourselves.
Sarah: Well I’m also not the best example because I have problems with authority.
Estefany: Oh . . . [laughter]
Estefany: There were times I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. It was pretty embarrassing, but I think ultimately the most important thing for me was to listen to other people, how they interpret my work. Ingrid: I need to leave you guys, but feel free to keep talking.
Dallin: I just wanna say one more thing before you go, real fast.
Dallin: I lucked out with whom I got as studio mates because I felt so supported by literally everyone in the studio. Like staying up late and talking to Maezee about my stress, or talking to Estefany about how we both feel lazy, or anything I needed to talk about. There was just so much love and support that really helped me get through this year. It wasn’t the easiest, so thank you.
Postscript from Maezee, via Text Message: I’m sorry for not talking during the Zoom. I was nervous. I want you to know how amazing this group was—welcoming and sweet to talk to. It was kinda like family. I mainly would work late nights or during lunch. Sometimes my work gets me emotional, and whoever was in the studio to talk to, it was helpful. Margaux and Dallin always had the right words for those moments. Sarah and Estefany were always funny. A few times, out of the blue, Lanise would say something I needed to hear. It would make my day. Everyone would play music and just have fun. Thank you for being an amazing mentor to all of us, and for always being there for me whenever I cried LOL.
VIRTUAL BANALITY: THE EXISTENTIAL DREAD OF A BORING SPECTACLE
Estefany Choi, Sarah Schoenberger, Dominique Victoria, Felix Xiao-Yu Wang, and Jack Williams converse on Zoom
Estefany Choi, Sarah Schoenberger, Dominique Victoria, Felix Xiao-Yu Wang, and Jack Williams converse on Zoom
Jack Williams: As we shelter in place, we are witnessing the global COVID-19 pandemic as virtual reality from our homes, via screens and thirdhand media. This has me thinking about the “apparatus.” Further expanding Michel Foucault definition of the apparatuses, I shall call an apparatus literally anything that has the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control, or secure the gestures, behaviors, opinions, or discourses of living beings. This includes prisons, schools, factories, and juridical measures as well as pens, cigarettes, computers, telegraphs, telephones writing, literature, philosophy, and language itself. The apparatus forms the hierarchical power structure that creates subjectification. The apparatus stands in opposition to the living beings within its power structure. Marshall McLuhan described a prosthetic apparatus as something to serve normalization. It amputates the unwieldy biological human element to opt for robotic or mechanical processes. What are you thinking about the horror or boredom of this COVID-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place orders and our dependence on the apparatus?
Dom Victoria: People don’t think about all the ways their info, email, and text messages are being stored. It makes me uncomfortable knowing that these companies don’t care about people and that I don’t have a say in who gets to read my information and who doesn’t. We need to use tools to stay connected that are simultaneously collecting our information. By this process, these companies control people. People are getting in trouble for private messages they send over Zoom because all the messages are recorded in an end-of-chat text that’s only available to the meeting host. It’s a new surveillance state and the public is not paying attention. I’m sure these companies are going to use our information against our interests.
Sarah Schoenberger: I wonder if I will ever feel safe in any system. Foucault’s definition of the apparatus everything that serves to control or influence us— will forever be the background noise to how we live our lives. Can we conceptualize anything that influences or shapes us that truly has all of our best intentions at heart? COVID-19 feels apocalyptic. Outside of 9/11, the younger generations haven’t experienced a war on our land yet that has greatly affected us as civilians. Not much has dramatically changed the functionality of the day-to-day in our lifetimes.
DV: AIDS was the last epidemic that we can relate this COVID-19 pandemic to. Before that there was the 1917 Spanish flu pandemic.
SS: Were people less social during the AIDS epidemic?
DV: Yeah, in the sixties and seventies there was a rise in queer culture and gatherings, clubs and parties. As the AIDS epidemic unfolded, people didn’t go out because their friends were dying in large numbers. It was tragic to go to the clubs with only a few faces left of their familiar crowd.
SS: That is so terrifying. That probably felt apocalyptic.
DV: Yeah, and especially the dissonance between communities: seeing your community dwindle and die while people in other communities totally ignored the disease. It is happening with our current pandemic too. Black and brown people are dying of coronavirus at a higher rate than other ethnicities, but the US government isn,t helping. They say, “Why are you all dying of this more than us white folks?” Like we all know why?! I say stop asking pointless questions and do something.
JW: In our current pandemic, I am curious about which labor has been deemed essential so that it can remain open for business. The bubonic plague in Europe took place in the late stage of the feudal system. Perhaps we are in the late stage of capitalism.
SS: Felix, we both do work regarding postwar trauma, I explore the psychology of preppers and survivalists and you explore hoarding. Is this shelterin- place COVID-19 experience influencing your thought process and work? Was it you who was talking about one of your family members having a room full of toilet paper?
Felix Xiao-Yu Wang: Yeah, I remember growing up among hoarding family members, because they had been through wars and famines. I don’t hoard—I do not have enough food for two weeks—I go grocery shopping all the time because I don’t feel financially comfortable buying a lot of food at once. These are two kinds of scarcity. I think everyone is supposed to be hoarding a little bit now, during the pandemic. If you manage to hoard enough food, then you don’t go outside, and that makes you safe from the virus. If you have to wait on a check, then you have to go outside more often and are potentially exposed to the virus: you have to fight between fears.
SS: It’s disorienting that society generally views preppers, survivalists, and hoarders as extremists, but now it’s inverted and everyone is scrambling to do exactly what they do. Fear is the new status quo. Survivalism existed in a different context before this. It makes me question sanity in general. My judgments of people who I think are insane could be wrong because I haven’t experienced the right context of dystopia.
JW: This brings me back to what made me think of starting this conversation on “virtual banality” in the first place. I have been watching a lot of sci-fi movies and thinking of the sensationalism of virtual reality, in movies like Videodrome, The Matrix, or Total Recall. Now that we’re in a state as a society where we can deal with this quarantine with video calls, WhatsApp, and Discord, the experience of virtual reality is as boring and banal as a Zoom conference call. In a lecture called The Slow Cancelation of the Future, Mark Fischer talked about the development of the industrial revolution producing factories to kill feudal wealth, which in turn produced boredom, and then culture produced entertainment to kill boredom, and that produced anxiety and restlessness: “Being in the twenty-first century is to have the twentieth century on high definition screens.”
FXW: I think about digital image hoarding. We casually take pictures of everything. What happens when we don’t go out? I take way less photos in quarantine. What does it mean when we replace media with experience, quarantined indoors?
JW: Or when our interactions with the outside world become media?
SS: Yeah. After this shelter-in-place order is lifted, in the short term people will want to go out, but in the long term, we will be accustomed to socializing at a distance.
DV: We are living reality TV, like the shows based on secluding people as a group. I could see people getting addicted to this kind of life, like they get addicted to those shows.
JW: The fake-candid parts become almost the hyperreal version of what we thought our social lives used to be.
SS: I would not put it past the technocrats and employers to use this as an excuse to isolate us further. We will be already trained to stay in our “zone.”
DV: As a sex worker, I did all kinds of things where it was me on one end, a person on the other end, and I never knew or saw them. It’s already standard for some jobs.
JW: I read an essay that posed whether the postapocalypse can actually be “post.” The idea is that an apocalyptic story is always fueled by the reassurance of a witness to represent it: the fact that people see the event means it is not the true apocalypse. The anticipation of the inevitable allures us and terrifies us. Our current situation with the novel coronavirus makes me wonder if I will be witnessing an apocalypse.
SS: I think that we often interpret “apocalypse” in the way some people perceive the symbolism behind death, meaning the end of an era. There can be a multitude of apocalypses outside of religious connotations. The idea of a postapocalyptic society implies a long-term consistency after the event, and the terminology revolves around the past, disregarding future forms of collapse. But there will always be apocalypses as long as we have concepts like war and disease. By that interpretation of the terminology, you can’t draw a line in the sand between what is pre- and postapocalypse. “Post” means it’s over, and it’s never over.
JW: Being a millennial, we are tied to the notion of apocalypse as it is tethered to the millennium. The millennium is a thousand years up to apocalypse, and the apocalypse is the end of the millennium—it’s a feedback loop.
DV: And our generation is continually met with all these major world catastrophes, over and over again.
Estefany Choi: Well, in every generation there is always some kind of catastrophic trauma.
DV: But it has been so continual for us—we have been hit over and over again with world-changing situations.
EC: Right, like 9/11 and the war in Iraq.
DV: Even before that, for the oldest millennials. Many of them were kindergarteners and preschoolers when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. They had been learning about the people on board, especially the elementary school teacher. And then they watched the explosion on live TV, killing the people they were learning about. They were only four-year-olds!
EC: We have a lingering feeling that there is going to be some form of doom coming, and that is part of life. People are going to die. In 9/11 thousands died, and in this pandemic there are already more casualties than 9/11. How do you process all of what’s going on? How do you process the casualties?
DV: A lot of people said this type of pandemic would be the cause of big change and warned us that the state of the US health care system was not ready for this inevitable disaster.
FXW: Our generation has humor geared towards expecting an apocalypse. I think of the “this is fine” meme. I wonder how our humor will evolve with this pandemic and other global events— like the continent of Australia was on fire this year—how does a continent catch on fire?
JW: The Amazon was on fire too.
FXW: And the threat of nuclear war. It’s a lot. When you live in a constant state of chaos from the moment you are born, you get to the point of laughing at some of the terrible things we laugh at.
SS: Humor is now seen as a means of control. Memes are a vessel for carrying information. We distrust what boomers put in the media, and so our memes are a form of coded news. Memes bond us, make information digestible, and are now seen as a form of social currency, therefore they have underlying layers of potentiality for agenda- centric influence.
JW: I want to end with a Sigmund Freud quote from Civilization and Its Discontents and have each of us share a short phrase. “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on him and they still give him much trouble at times. . . . Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interest of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike skin.”
EC: That shit’s complex. You have to adapt to things and stay positive.
SS: Surrendering humanity for efficiency.
DV: I cannot wait to be out of academia and stop hearing quotes from men who have done copious amounts of drugs and terrible things to women.
JW: And who only use male verbiage to describe it.
FXW: The internet is a prosthetic device we do not own.
JW: This is something. Toll the bell. Wash your hands.