Meta-Practice, Research, Thought Experiments in Agency

Ways and Means: Points of Reference

A few past notes and new points of reference related to my Ways and Means project, on view through October 15 at Kala Art Institute.

Ways and Means came out of my Inter/dependence ‘zine, a report focusing on self-organizers. I loved the way Adam Gopnik wrote about Jane Jacobs’s interest in self-organizing [emphasis added]:

[In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs] told the story of a little girl seemingly being harassed by an older man, and of how all of Hudson Street emerged from stores and stoops to protect her…. She made the still startling point that, on richer blocks, a whole class of eyes had to be hired to play the role that, on Hudson Street, locals played for nothing: “A network of doormen and superintendents, of delivery boys and nursemaids, a form of hired neighborhood, keeps residential Park Avenue supplied with eyes.” A hired neighborhood! It’s obvious once it’s said, but no one before had said it, because no one before had seen it.

The book is really a study in the miracle of self-organization, as with D’Arcy Thompson’s studies of biological growth. Without plans, beautiful shapes and systems emerge from necessity. Where before her people had seen accident or exploitation or ugliness, she saw an ecology of appetites.

Adam Gopnik, “Jane Jacobs’s Street Smarts,” New Yorker, September 26, 2016

This sense of acting out of necessity, or appetite—the agency and empowerment of creating a desired condition to exist within—is a huge inspiration to me.

Most of the activity kits in Ways and Means have two components: printed ephemera, housed in a canvas tool pocket or pouch (which can be attached to an apron, belt, or garment). The pouch is important to me, as I see a strong connection between physical agency, and social or political agency. Freedom is first and foremost about mobility. And feeling free—say, as artists—means that we don’t have to shape our lives around systems whose values we don’t believe in. In many ways, the project is about recognizing the tools, skills, and resources (read: each other) that we already carry, made physical by the tool pouches.

Activities housed in canvas pouches, displayed on a wall. Participants can attach them to garments using the snaps. Supported by a Fellowship from Kala Art Institute and an Artist-in-Residence Workspace Grant from the Center for Book Arts. Photo: Jiajun Wang

Activities housed in canvas pouches, displayed on a wall. Participants can attach them to garments using the snaps. Supported by a Fellowship from Kala Art Institute and an Artist-in-Residence Workspace Grant from the Center for Book Arts. Photo: Jiajun Wang

With that in mind, Chelsea G. Summers’ “The Politics of Pockets” (Racked, 9/19/2016) is an intriguing history of pockets from a feminist perspective. It starts with the fact that in Medieval times, men and women carried pouches attached to their waists. (The following several hundred years of gender-policing-via-pockets seem like an aberration to me.) The essay also touches upon the intersection of pockets and bicycling—again, mobility implying freedom.

One of the responses to Ways and Means has to do with the number of components involved. As there was a lot of letterpress printing, the process was particularly preparation-intensive. Here’s how I kept track of things:

Workflow spreadsheet for managing each activity kits across multiple stages.

Workflow spreadsheet for managing each activity kits across multiple stages.

I am not saying this level of nerdiness is always warranted, and I think many people would chafe at organizing creative production this way. But letterpress printing takes a special kind of detail-oriented person—hence the aphorism, “check your ‘p’s and ‘q’s.” This chart was useful for getting all the pieces—plates, type, paper, board, fabric—in place before I started printing. And getting different activities to converge at similar stages was helpful, e.g., buying paper in one trip, or binding all at once. Seeing that things were in-progress helped me stay focused; there is always something to do. And when you’re working in more than one space—such as a studio and printshop on opposite ends of a complex, or a home studio and a printshop in another borough—it’s nice to remember to pack the right materials for the day’s tasks.

A minor innovation that took a while for me to arrive at is this (it’s also a peek at a forthcoming activity):

A chart of printing passes.

A chart of printing passes.

Some activities entail multiple printing passes using different inks and media, and it could get confusing. I found that charting it this way helps me to visualize the steps, and prepare the plates and type accordingly. I may have even saved myself a fourth pass on this one. Pass 1 is done, 2 and 3 remain. To be continued…

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Meta-Practice

Center for Book Arts Residency Notes, Part 1

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Ways and Means tool roll, 2016, two-color print of line cuts, linoleum, and moveable type (not shown) on canvas.

For the past three months, I’ve been taking classes and doing lots of letterpress printing at the Center for Book Arts in their Artist-in-Residence Workspace Grant program. It’s been neat to get to know this compact Manhattan non-profit printshop, bindery, and gallery, and the community that keeps it running and makes it vital.

Right after returning from Kala in February, I dived straight into a five-day, intensive Bookbinding class at the Center for Book Arts. The class was taught by Nancy Loeber (see her beautiful books of reduction woodcut portraits). I loved the pace of the class—she kept a phenomenal energy up, and exposed students to a tremendous amount of technical knowledge. We made many different soft and hard cover book structures, made our own book cloth, and practiced techniques to make our books more precise and tidy. The class was also a great way to spend time at the Center, and get to know a few of my fellow AIRs, Scholars, and other students.

I learned about pressure printing in a fun weekend class with Macy Chadwick. I’d never heard of pressure printing before. It’s a sort of ingenious process, similar to collagraph. You make a plate out of paper or other thin, flexible materials, only instead of inking up the plate, you sandwich it with your printing paper that you set in the grippers. That all goes around the cylinder, where your paper picks up ink from a thick acrylic plate. The result is a print that is mostly solid, with texture and ghostly halos. It’s loose, quick, and experimental—qualities that are opposite of most other letterpress methods.

I also took a broadsides letterpress printing class with Rich O’Russa, who encouraged my wacky experimentations printing on cloth and locking up type on angles. It was a great way to get more practice setting type and learning the quirks of some of the Center’s seven letterpresses.

After taking these classes and the Renter Training class, and printing during the Supervised Printing nights, I was recently given the go-ahead to print unsupervised in May.

I’ve been printing activities for activity kits using moveable type, linoleum, and polymer plate.

I find setting moveable type to be incredibly time-consuming, frustrating, and both antagonistic and contiguous with my typographic sensibilities. On one hand, I have a pretty good sense of typography from doing graphic design and calligraphy, so the shapes of my typeface of choice, Lydian, is familiar. On the other hand, my discernment is also the source of friction—it’s hard to express how much it gets my goat when I find an italics or condensed letter in the roman job case, or worse, in my lock-up when I’m already on press.

Letterpress is physical in the extreme. Every letter, every point and pica of space, has to be accounted for with a corporeal material, which has to be stored and organized to some extent in a communal printshop. The reward is an ineluctable perfection of slight imperfection, that polymer plate doesn’t achieve. After setting type for a few projects, polymer plate feels so fast and painless—and the painlessness is both relaxing and unnerving. I got the feeling I’m not learning anything right now. But it’s also nice to go home at a reasonable hour.

The Center is located in NoMad. As the site is not capacious, and is also used for classes and events, it is helpful to approach with flexibility, cooperation, and forbearance. The location is great—close to many options for transportation, food, and art stores around 23rd Street, Madison Square, and Koreatown.

The 2015 Workspace AIRs’ exhibition, along with two other shows, are on view through June 25. Stop by to see eclectic interpretations of the book form; you will also see the studios as well.

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Meta-Practice, Thought Experiments in Agency, Travelogue

Kala Fellowship: Residency Notes, Part 1

Notes from the first half of a printmaking residency in Berkeley, CA.

printshop

A view of Kala’s printshop.

[Note: Kala is redesigning their website—sorry for links that may soon break.]

What

I just wrapped up my first of two stints as a 2015-2016 Fellow at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley, CA. Kala is a 40-year-old non-profit arts organization, at the heart of which is a massive print shop in the top floor of a former Heinz ketchup factory. Their printmaking facilities span etching, stone lithography, relief, letterpress, and screen print. They also have an electronic media center with a 44” printer, a darkroom, and a shooting room. Around the corner, they have another space, which includes a gallery, collections, a classroom, and three project space/studios.

It’s like an Artist’s Playland.

As a fellow, I receive access to the printmaking studio, free tutorials, a free class, the use of a 100-square-foot private studio, a discount on classes and purchases, and a stipend.

repeat

Demo from the Repeat Pattern Screen Printing class with Emily Gui.

studio

Studio 270º.

When

The fellowship lasts up to six months. I’d heard that a few past Fellows were able to be active all six months, but many were not, likely due to finances or jobs. The Bay Area’s high cost of living is another limiting factor, for international artists and at least one other NYC artist I’ve corresponded with. I have also been told that many Fellows schedule their stints towards the end of the Fellowship period.

I committed to 2.5 concentrated months due to finances and logistics. I just wrapped up a 4.5-week stay from early January through early February. I will be back for a second stint in June and July to make more work and to install my work in the Fellows’ show and attend the opening. The exhibition is scheduled to open in mid-July.

I was mostly focused on studio work, but I was able to visit the re-openings at Berkeley Art Museum and the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, and Related Tactics: Declarations for the New Year at Southern Exposure. I also enjoyed the Kala Artists’ Annual in the Kala Gallery (on view through March 26)—it’s a great way to be introduced to the work of the AIRs that I was working alongside, and be inspired by the range of work and media.

Actually, I’d been in a Kala Artists’ Annual many years prior. I interned there after undergrad, and used the presses for my reduction woodcut prints. In the intervening years, I visited the gallery, wrote about an exhibition, and submitted applications to the Fellowship program. I think my familiarity with Kala, printmaking, and the region were very helpful in my planning and expectations.

Where

Artists couldn’t ask for a better location. Just across the parking lot from Kala are a large hardware store and Looking Glass Photo & Camera, probably the best photo store in the East Bay. Across San Pablo are independent businesses Discount Fabrics, MacBeath Hardwood, Ashby Lumber, and Urban Ore (building materials salvage). An art supply store with a decent selection of printmaking supplies and paper is located 1.5 miles away.

You can also find Kelly Paper in Oakland and TAP Plastics in El Cerrito. (I don’t usually promote chain stores, but I missed these two after I moved to NYC, which lacks adequate counterparts.)

Just across the street is Berkeley Bowl West, a fantastic grocery store with prepared food. Its produce section is probably bigger and fresher than anywhere I’ve been. You get healthy grab-and-go food or stock up on groceries in the Kala kitchen. It’s a major perk of the location.

Kala’s split spaces—print shop and gallery—are located on different sides of the same block. To access one from the other, you can walk through loading docks and a parking lot, a sidewalk that fancifully circumnavigates trees along car-heavy San Pablo, or through neighboring JFK University and more loading docks. It’s not far, but it feels like it is.

This part of West Berkeley was industrial, and the building has its own monolithic architectural beauty. However, artists should note that access is easiest for those who can readily climb a short ladder, walk steep ramps, and climb stairs.

I borrowed a car, which made a world of difference for my commute from the peninsula (south of San Francisco), and getting supplies. West Berkeley is not very close to BART (the subway/commuter rail system). For artists coming from out of town, I recommend staying as close to Kala as possible. If not, having a car—and a high tolerance for traffic or the willingness to commute during off hours—will be useful. At the very least, I think you’d want a bike and a bike map.

Who

This year there are eight Fellows. Kala also has about 50-70 artists-in-residence (AIRs). The AIR program is similar to a membership, allowing access to the print shop and media center. For local artists working in print and digital media, the AIR program’s tiered rates can help make it a great alternative to a private studio.

I really looked forward to becoming part of this Kala community. When I interviewed Kevin B. Chen for my ‘zine, CO-LABORATION, he said:

As a young person, Kala Art Institute was an amazing place to be—a shared facility for printmaking with an ethos of collectivity and collaboration. This was seminal in my thinking about artistic practice as part of a larger dialogue, a community. It was (and is) a real community of artists whose ideas and work didn’t exist in the vacuum of a solitary studio, but rather was in the open and collectively shared. The notion of gestalt—the whole is more than the sum of its individual parts—took root for me then.

At Kala, I encountered these moments of serendipity. It’s a communal space, so I admired Emmanuel Montoya’s oversized woodcut prints, and the nearly silent way he and his assistant worked together. Having only ever seen monoprinting with oils, I was impressed by how an artist used watercolors on her acrylic plate, and she kindly explained the process. Often the print shop felt like an atelier—artists were quietly engaging their solitary studio practices, respectfully allowing others to do the same. Then, someone might put on the water kettle, and gradually artists gathered for lunch, and there’d be a friendly, energetic dialogue.

My most meaningful instance of serendipity is being a concurrent Fellow with San Francisco-based Leah Rosenberg. She began her stint in January, too, following her residency in Omaha and project in Hamburg. In the past, she and I collaborated with the late, painfully missed Susan O’Malley. Re-connecting with Leah, at Kala (where Susan’s “Be You” mural for Print Public is just across San Pablo) was some sort of cosmic gift, a confluence of Kala’s mysterious ability to survive an economic environment hostile to arts organizations, the jurors’ visions, and our own good luck. We are collaborating on a participatory project for the exhibition in July. It was also so nice to have a buddy. Doing a residency can be isolating—you’re away from your home and partner, and somewhat at the mercy of an institution yet on a self-directed journey, so having someone to share the experience and mutual support is strengthening.

How

Fellowships are awarded via an annual open call juried by outside curators and artists. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve applied. I submitted an application last spring, and got an email requesting confirmation of my interest in summer or early fall. I’m finding that artist’s experiences of residencies are highly shaped by the liaison, and Artist Programs Manager Carrie Hott (see her work, which I’ve mentioned here) was professional, responsive, interested, and interesting.

The Fellowship seems set up to support artists and let them get to work. At the Orientation, Studio Manager Paper Buck (see his work) asked us what media we’d like to use, and what tutorials we’d need. On the spot, he incorporated a screen coating and exposing tutorial. Carrie handed out keys to residents and fellows. That was day one. We were free to access the studios 24/7.

letterpress

Changing out the tympan in a Vandercook letterpress tutorial with Carissa Potter Carlson.

Kala relies on an honor system, and trusts AIRs and Fellows to work within their experience levels. If you are fluent with a piece of equipment, they might briefly talk it through with you, or they might leave it at that. If needed, you can request a tutorial. Brief tutorials are free and scheduled with individual staff members and teachers. You can also request a longer tutorial—available to AIRs at an hourly rate of $40, which I think is very artist-friendly, and free for Fellows.

Kala also offers a free, completely optional class to Fellows.

It took me about a week or two to get rolling in the print shop. When I was eager to get a screen printing refresher, an AIR was kind enough to walk me through it.

Kala’s requirements of Fellows are minor—donate three works (typically editioned work) to the permanent collection. Include credit lines. Submit good photo documentation. That’s pretty much it.

Why

I had an overwhelmingly positive experience over the past few weeks.

I’ve been exploring artists’ agency and interdependence, and want to make activity kits along these themes. I shipped my sewing machine to Kala, but ended up wanting to use my time at Kala mostly to print; I can always sew back in NYC. I did a lot of screenprinting on fabric, a little bit of letterpress and polymer plate, one woodblock (thanks to encouragement by KBC), a little participatory project, and the collaboration with Leah.

splitinkwell

Big roller, split well, birch plywood woodcut

I had books about artists’ self-organization and alternatives, but put off reading them. Printmaking is preparation-intensive, and I felt like I had plenty to do in the print shop everyday. I’ve been mulling these podcasts and articles.

If there was any stress, it was completely self-inflicted. At residencies, I am quite aware of the many artists who would like the opportunity I have, and I tend to want to earn the right to be there by being very productive. But the creative process isn’t linear. And I dabble around in too many media for processes to go perfectly every time. I usually reach a point where I have too many ideas and not enough time left, so I try to simplify and prioritize. The hardest part is letting go of what I can’t or needn’t do. For example, I re-printed a three-color repeat pattern screen print on 10 feet of fabric. It took me about 1.5-2.5 hours every day for six days. If I were able to let go of the flaws and mistakes of the first print, and adhere to my list of priorities, I would have moved on to other projects. But I was obsessed: I knew I could make it better.

Printmaking can be highly technical. For some, its established markers of craftsmanship can make it intimidating, and mastery expressed in minutia can make it seem arcane. But printmaking can also be looser and inventive. I like how you can also make it up as you go along, like making jigs—improvising and refining combinations of materials, time, pressure, and alignment. A folded playing card is a great tool for picking up prints from the press. A “jigsaw” woodcut of squares and triangles could be done in minutes on a miter saw. A plastic sheet can be a backing for screenprinting a t-shirt, or a tympan for printing a woodblock. Do whatever works.

pulleysystem

I devised a simple pulley system for printing and drying yards of fabric.

 

 


 

Thanks so much to Kala Art Institute, its funders, staff, interns, the jurors, AIRs and fellow Fellows for this tremendous opportunity and amazing experience thus far…

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Open Studio view, December 11, 2015. LMCC Process Space on Governor's Island.
Meta-Practice, Thought Experiments in Agency

LMCC Process Space Residency Wrap-up

What, who, when, where, how and why my first NYC studio residency.

I just completed my first studio program in NYC! It was great to have a longer residency and stay at home, allowing me to balance personal and financial responsibilities, while at the same time building my community of fellow artists here in NYC.

What: The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council turns unused space into studio spaces for visual artists and performers. Process Space is a process-oriented residency located on Governor’s Island. It’s located in the upper floor of a former military warehouse. The space is several thousand square feet, which is divvied up by tensioned partition walls into smaller spaces of various sizes, each with three walls, facing one of two hallways. I received one of the larger spaces, lucking out with a great view of lower Manhattan across the hall and in the windows of my neighbor’s studio.

View from my studio (through poet Anselm Berrigan's studio).

View from my studio (through poet Anselm Berrigan’s studio).

Process Space is mostly a studio program, with two Open Studio events. LMCC organizes one potluck and ranger-led tour of the National Parks’ historic sites.

Some of the AIRs self-organized our own work-sharing events and a studio visit from a curator.

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Ben Hagari discussed his photo with the other AIRs during a self-organized pre-Open Studio walkabout.

Who: There were 20 artists in residence for the full duration, as well as performers who accessed the rehearsal spaces in shorter durations. Of the 20 longterm artists, most were visual, some were literary, and a few were performance. I was also very happy to see that women and artists of color were represented. I really liked my cohort—they’re very smart, with well-developed and unique practices. I think we got along really well and I felt a strong sense of allyship.

LMCC has an energetic staff. They take event planning and promotion of Open Studios seriously! In addition to presenting your work inside your studio, you can also propose a reading or performance, or exhibit work in the adjacent gallery. I didn’t elect to do either, mainly because the deadline for proposals snuck up on me, and I couldn’t dedicate enough time to develop anything on top of what I planned to show in my studio. There’s also a former resident who is a part-time on-site assistant, who has a studio on the island as well.

When: Each year there are two sessions: Fall and Spring. The fall session ran from early August to mid-December; our Open Studios were in late September and in early December.

(In hindsight I realized that the December Open Studio, because it’s on a weekday during the island’s closed Winter season, is less well-attended, but that was the one in which I had more work, and more finished work, to share. Since the summer season has more visitors, the Spring session has the small advantage of having more visitors at the end of the session. I couldn’t make the spring session due to travel, but for future residents this might be a minor consideration. But obviously, prioritize scheduling studio access.)

Where: The studios are located on Governor’s Island, a small island just a short ferry ride from lower Manhattan.

Governor’s Island is a unique partnership between a national park and the City. There’s historic, well-preserved military buildings, and then beautiful, new park lands that are continuing to be developed. There’s tons of programming during the summer, and it’s unusually interesting—a scrappy art fair, 1920’s-themed dance parties, vintage baseball games, VW bus shows, and lots of food trucks, as well as a beer garden. Many other art organizations ran programs there too, such as residencies, galleries, and public art installations, too. There’s also an outdoor tent for concerts, which is located next to the studio building, for better and for worse.

The Statue of Liberty seen from the ferry on a beautiful day.

The Statue of Liberty seen from the ferry on a beautiful day.

A recent view of the Statue of Liberty at sunset, also with the Staten Island ferry.

A recent view of the Statue of Liberty at sunset, also with the Staten Island ferry.

There are spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty from the island and the ferry. The studio building’s north windows overlook Lower Manhattan. When the sun set, the light reflected off the skyscrapers in directly onto my studio walls.

Sunset view.

Sunset view.

My silhouette on my studio wall, formed in sunset light reflected from skyscrapers.

My silhouette on my studio wall, formed in sunset light reflected from skyscrapers.

How: This program is by nomination only. I am grateful to my nominator, whose show I installed at LMCC’s Governor’s Island gallery a few years ago. That was my first and only visit to the island prior to the residency, so it was nice to complete the circle by returning as an artist in my own right.

The only access to the island—and thus to the studios—is by ferry. During the public season in the summer, the ferry runs from early morning to 7pm, and on the weekends. After the public season ends, the ferry runs until 6pm weekdays only. For artists whose work schedule lands squarely during the work week (including myself, at times), or who have childcare issues, this means that studio access is a real challenge.

Getting to the island is a big part of this residency experience. When I heard I was nominated, I reached out to two former residents seeking their advice. They were both generous in sharing their input and encouragement. (It was especially kind considering that one artist was a stranger, whose work I’d admired from afar.) Their advice to me basically consisted of two points:

  1. You’re going to miss a ferry by a few minutes, and then have to wait an hour.
  2. Keep your project simple. Don’t get too materially or technically involved.

Though I thought that being armed with tip #1 would help me avoid missing the ferry, I did, over and over, often by minutes. Some of the time it was my own fault. I learned that if I’m not focused on getting ready two hours before the ferry, I won’t make it. Some of the time, the trains were running slow, and I’d miss the ferry by three minutes. That was a huge test of my coping skills. Even worse, I’d sometimes try to run small errands, and then miss a second ferry in the same day.

Tip #2 was helpful. Focusing on research rather than production saved my back a lot of strain. While I kept my tools and materials to a minimum, even the minimum is a lot when it has to fit in a backpack, or on a wheeled cart that you’re carrying up stairs in the subway during rush hour. It’s possible to take a car on the ferry, but deciding to keep it simple meant I didn’t need to deal with the logistics that involves.

Moving out. My last load after backpacking things home over several days.

Moving out. My last load after backpacking things home over several days.

It was interesting to get to see more of the harbor, and become part of its rhythms. When the President and the Pope fly out of the heliport next to the ferry building, you learn about MarSec levels (as you’re not going anywhere… but then you get to see a Chinook). Oddly, I think I’m going to miss the ferry itself, especially the Coursen. It’s an interstitial space where the anxiety about possibly missing the ferry melts away. You can be calm, observe the light on the water, get some sun on your skin, and enjoy a short journey. I couldn’t help but envy the crew a tiny bit—it seems like a cool job.

Why: I conducted the research phase of my longterm project, Thought Experiments in Agency. In the beginning, I read a lot—reviewing Tom Finklepearl’s What We Made (again, the introduction is highly recommended!), and reading Julia Bryan-Wilson’s Art Workers and Greg Sholette’s Dark Matter. Later, I also read much of Mobile Autonomy (Dockx & Geilen, eds.).

For the first open studio, I conducted the Artists’ Personal Impacts Survey. I raffled off my Mini Irrational Exuberance Flags. It was difficult to part with them, but seeing how excited recipients were made it OK.

There were 112 visual artists who responded to the survey. There were 40 questions in the survey. There were about 30 questions that were quantitative, and many of those used a 5-point Likert scale. So I did a lot of number-crunching. There were 10 qualitative responses, and the written answers, once compiled, totaled 60 pages. It was great having a huge wall I could dedicate to just looking at the written responses.

Process notes.

Process notes. At right, photos in writer Jessie Chafee’s studio.

I made an oversized table to categorize responses. Categories formed rows; survey questions were the columns.

I made an oversized table to categorize responses. Categories formed rows; survey questions were the columns.

Sketch for a Venn diagram summarizing how respondents will take steps to create or strengthen a more desirable art world.

Sketch for a Venn diagram summarizing how respondents will take steps to create or strengthen a more desirable art world.

Inter/dependence zine launch, with flag and data visualizations.

Inter/dependence zine launch, with flag and data visualizations.

I made a ‘zine, with a 2,000 word essay. Fellow AIRs provided me with great feedback, which was deeply gratifying. I haven’t done any “serious” writing in a while, so it was nice to receive encouragement and validation.

Drawing and necessary drawing tools.

Drawing and necessary drawing tools.

I also did some drawings. A funny thing happened—I finally had a need for the metal eraser guard I saw in other people’s tool boxes in art school. I never owned one or needed one before this, and adding one to my toolkit now seemed comical. I also hand-lettered some quotes, turning the wall into a mind-map of sorts.

I sewed a flag, and painted a t-shirt. See more photos, or order or download a zine.

Fabric paint on tee. I'm thinking this shirt should only be made with the sleeves cut off. The tie-back can be optional.

Fabric paint on tee. I’m thinking this shirt should only be made with the sleeves cut off. The tie-back can be optional.

I pretty much did everything I set out to do. Originally, I set a goal of spending spending 60 days in the studio over the 5-month period. A number of factors conspired against me: the session was actually 4.5 months, I moved houses unexpectedly, I got a job promotion, and some tasks were better done at home (where there was a computer monitor or sewing machine). In total, I spent 32 days at the studio. That’s much less than 60, but I exceeded other goals. Moreover, I feel prepared, focused and also liberated to move forward with other production.

I’m so grateful to LMCC staff, Hank Willis Thomas, Youmna Chlala, Saul Melman, survey respondents, ferry crew, Open Studios visitors, and fellow AIRs who participated in self-organized events, gave me feedback, or otherwise offered camaraderie. Thank you.

Christine Wong Yap was a participant in Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Process Space artist residency program.

Inter/dependence was developed as part of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Process Space artist residency program in 2015.

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Meta-Practice

Artist’s Inventory Software Reviewed

My highly-opinionated takes on Artwork Archive, Art Cloud, Gyst, Artwork Inventory, and Tessera.

 

When I first reviewed art inventory software, it was 2008: the dark ages. In 2010, I started using Flick!, a Filemaker-based program. It seemed like the best option at the time, and in retrospect was laughably affordable at only $30 for a one-time license purchase. It has room for improvement but works fine for my needs… for now…

Recently I researched current art inventory software for artists (not for galleries, those are too expensive and sales-oriented). Judging by the more crowded market and higher prices, entrepreneurs have been paying attention. But none of the products soar.

CRITERIA

For my first criteria, I refer to the CALL workbook from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, which identifies the basic functionalities required of inventory software:

  • Inventory number
  • Title
  • Date
  • Medium
  • Size
  • Images
  • Locations (current/home)
  • Value/Price
  • Exhibitions

The CALL workbook also suggests tracking contacts, but I’m not sure why you’d need to do it inside your inventory software, and not your native contacts app or Gmail.

Second, I’m not interested in turning my art practice into a profit generator, so I don’t need my inventory software to be sales-oriented. I have other software for bookkeeping and making invoices.

Third, I’m looking for usability and stability, to insure that my investment of labor and time will not be lost. Depending on one’s practice, it could take 10–40 hours to populate the database with existing works, and then a few hours every month to update it with new works, loans, etc. The software should be stable and operable for at least 5 years, if not 10 or 20, and ideally, 50 to 100. That means the start-up tech companies won’t fold, radically change fee schedules, or stop releasing updates for future operating systems. There’s a lot at stake—choosing this software is essentially betting a longterm stake on a developer’s longevity and commitment.

And if it all goes pear-shaped? My fourth criteria is that the software should have clear export functionalities. At minimum, you should be able to easily attain a CSV backup. That’s a common standard, but I still feel a tiny bit more secure with Filemaker-derived software, due to the durability of Filemaker itself.

To CLOUD OR NOT TO CLOUD

The first decision an artist may want to make is whether you need the software to be based on the cloud, or downloaded onto your computer. On the cloud, assistants can log into your account from any location without having to download the software. But when the software’s on your computer, you can work on it whether or not you have Internet access. Some cloud-based software boasts daily back-ups; downloaded software should be regularly, manually backed-up to an external hard drive or cloud.

I’d prefer software that automatically backed itself up. However I found the limitations of the cloud-based software were more significant and inconvenient than the relatively minor convenience of automatic back-ups.

 

CLOUD-BASED

 

The first screen upon log-in is the Location view.

Artwork Archive: The first screen upon log-in is the Locations pane.

Artwork Archive
https://www.artworkarchive.com/

Cost: $19/month
(Free and cheaper plans are available; I focused on comparing plans for professional artists.)

My take: Beauty, not brawns.

Pros:

  • Clean, easy-to-read interface.
  • Export to CSV feature.
  • Clean, attractive “reports” (printouts).

Cons:

  • Too simple. It’s not robust; the number of fields are too limited.
  • Too sales-oriented to me.
  • Artwork Archive has a strange organizing principle for their menu: Artwork, Locations, Contacts, and Insights (reports). During my testing, I kept ending up in the Location tab, but I’m only interested in locations as they pertain to artworks—the two are not of equal importance to me. It seems over-enamored with mapping.
  • Lacks a field for exhibition history (part of our first criteria); you have to add a new location for every exhibition, but if you have more than one exhibition at that location (such as your regular gallery), it could get confusing or complicated when you search for the work in an exhibition. You also enter dates as specific dates, but just because the exhibition ends on a certain date, doesn’t mean that the work will be received back right after.
  • Limited edition runs are confusing, because it automatically assumes that the location is your inventory. You can’t change it unless you register a sale. But what if part of the edition is at a gallery on consignment, or at the print shop that made it? What if you donated it, but it may or may not sell? What if it’s in transit?
  • The Reports feature is not very robust. To make one, you download a PDF. You can’t preview it first. You can’t seem to adjust the typography or add headers.
  • You can append which competitions you’ve submitted the work to, but that seems of limited value since nowadays so many calls are hosted on Slideroom or Submittable, where you look up that info.

A note about website integration: You can integrate your inventory with a website. I asked to see an example, and it prominently features the Artwork Archive menu bar at the top. Even if I used and recommended software to my friends, I would not want my portfolio to be branded by a product so unsubtly.

 

Too harsh?

ArtCloud: Multiple required form fields.

ArtCloud
https://www.artcld.com/

Cost: $19/month
(For $49/month, they’ll also host a website)

My take: If you need a cloud-based solution, go with Artwork Archive.

Cons:

  • Poor, annoying user experience. Dimensions, medium, and pricing are all required before you can create an artwork record. That’s not always possible. For example, if you’re having the work fabricated, or you’ve already shipped off the work, you can’t measure it. Further, artists who are represented by galleries don’t set prices. You should be able to create a record with the info you have and fill in blanks later—you shouldn’t be forced to make something up in order to save a new record. These are completely arbitrary limitations. Another example of this is that the inventory number field only allows numbers, no letters, dots or hyphens (the CALL workbook suggests including your initials, and possibly a letter to indicate a category, such as “P” for “painting”).
  • Buggy. I signed in for a trial, and created a new record, got a pop-up that a new record was created, but it’s nowhere to be found. I tried it again, with the same result, with the additional bug that the image field is no longer clickable.
  • It’s like an inventory system for an art business, with “Artwork” sharing the main menu with “Merchandise,” “Clients,” and “Invoices.”
  • No field for exhibition history (part of CALL’s criteria).

ON-PREMISE

 

Afterimages await.

Gyst: call me a design snob.

Gyst
http://www.gyst-ink.com/software/

Cost: $59–129 one-time license.

Note: I reviewed the webpage, but didn’t download a trial.

My take: Too many bells and whistles.  

  • Aesthetically challenged. The interface looks less goofy than it was years before, but it’s still visually harsh, with white text on solid red backgrounds (which may not be accessible to vision-impaired or color blind users).
  • Gyst is still a confusing amalgamation of an inventory system, resources (“Business Issues Advice”), and other functionalities of questionable utility, such as an artist’s statement archive, résumé archive, and bibliography (which text-editing software would be better for; they even suggest importing your grants and proposals from Gyst for “use in a word-processing program to fine-tune, spell check, and format”). Other potentially useful functions are underpowered: in the screen shown above, you can list expenses, but don’t count on basic calculations like multiplying the cost per unit by quantity.

 

Better a live donkey.

Artwork Inventory: a workhorse.

Artwork Inventory
http://artworkinventory.com/

Cost: $150 flat-rate license

My takeaway: A homely contender built with actual artists in mind.

Pros:

  • This came highly recommended by a gallery owner and artist who used it for years.
  • From the video, it looks like there are a wide variety of reports which artists actually use, such as price lists that are handsome enough to put in a gallery binder.

Cons:

  • It looks like Filemaker. The interface is small, pinched, and cluttered. A zoom feature would be helpful.
  • It behaves like Filemaker. Knowledge of Filemaker is not common among artists, and the learning curve can be intimidating. In Artwork Inventory, you navigate between buttons on the screen and in the menu bar. Even knowing how to use Filemaker, I found it a bit frustrating to get familiar with all the buttons and they way they are organized.
  • I watched the intro video and browsed the site, but there’s no contact info for support. I’d be nervous that software developed and maintained by a lone individual doesn’t offer any customer service. Maybe there is customer service only to existing customers, or maybe not, but there’s no way to ask first. The risk of the software not being updated for future operating systems feels larger when there’s only one person behind it.
  • You can’t drag images into the image field. That’s a minor detail that will add up when you’ve got dozens of artworks to inventory, or if you want to include multiple views per work.

There’s a tab for “website management” where the inventory software might become integrated with a website, which is smart and ideal, but there’s only sales language on it, no examples of actual artist’s websites produced with this integration.

 

 

One of Tessera's many windows.

One of Tessera’s many windows.

Tessera
http://arawak.com.au/

Cost: $249 flat-rate license

My take: The top of a small heap.

Caveat: I currently use Flick!, Tessera’s predecessor software, so it was easier for me to pick up its behavior. 

 

Pros:

  • It’s artwork-centric. It’s robust and customizable. There are lots of fields, including exhibition history.
  • There’s a help desk, and they responded to me.
  • You can export the data to Excel, or various formats. It doesn’t appear to include images, but it’s better than no export function at all.
  • You can drag images into the image field.

Cons:

  • It’s based on Filemaker and imposes some of Filemaker’s learning curve on new users.
  • Like its predecessor Flick, Tessera is really quirky. You can edit in some views and not others and often end up in odd views, having to find the close button on the pop-up window, or the back button. It’s a lot of mousing that would be better replaced with quick keys like shift-left arrow to go back, or command-w to close windows.
  • The customizability means there’s a lot of setup. Many fields have pull-down menu lists so you can create and select items from value lists. This way, info is presented consistently so records are easier to sort and filter. But that means entering value lists in a new view every time you want to add a new value. A smart way to do this is to enter all the values in your list at the get-go, but few artists who currently lack inventories will have that information organized and available.
  • Oddly, exhibition history does not have a values list, so then you have to re-type or copy/paste the name of each exhibition. This means it’ll be harder to search for everything that was in a particular exhibition, as typos will interfere with results.
  • A major flaw is that you can’t print a view. You can filter and sort results so you can see what you want on the screen, but then you have to take several steps to set up a new printing layout to re-create and print it.
  • Editions work strangely. There aren’t separate records for the editions. They just count them as multiples of the same thing. So then you can’t track which one is sold, who bought it, etc.
  • You can paste in information in the record, but it appears that you can’t attach info, such as an illustrated document detailing installation instructions, condition reports received from institutions, etc.
  • The dimensions don’t automatically convert. The price doesn’t include currency info. None of the other software offer this either, but Flick!, Tessera’s predecessor, did. It’s too bad this feature didn’t carry over.
  • The voiceover on the tutorial video isn’t properly mic’d. The echo makes it difficult to understand.

In summary, there’s more products, they’re more expensive, and they’re smarter and better looking. But few developers really understand what artists need, skewing instead towards art-as-business. Those who can offer power and flexibility make sacrifices on aesthetics and usability.

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Meta-Practice

Artist’s Resource: Creating a Living Legacy

Artists, get organized now and so you can thank yourself later.

I stumbled upon Career Documentation for the Visual Artist: An Archive Planning Workbook and Resource Guide (7MB) from the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) program. It’s a thorough introduction and guide for artists for creating physical and digital archives. I highly recommend artists take a look. It’s a worthwhile thing to get organized, maintain an inventory system, and make sure your work is stored safely.

CALL workbook

I have a few systems set up, but could use improvement. I’ve adopted practices as I see how they make sense for where I’m at. But I should be thinking about what I’ll need in the future. For example, CALL recommends signing and writing an inventory number on every work of art. I have an aversion to signing my art, but will try to create ways to at least make sure my work is labeled somehow. They also suggest including your initials in your inventory number, which makes sense for galleries that work with multiple artists, but seems overmuch for my own work. Then again, my signature is inscrutable, so I suppose initials will help others. 

 

I  recently revisited my one-year goals, and wrote new ones. (I started this practice in June a few years ago,  so my “goal-year” begins and ends in the summer. It’s anachronistic, but increasingly feels right to me. Since moving to NYC, my life has become more affected by the rhythm of art “seasons”—intensive fall and spring activity, followed by slower summers. The relaxed pace in June and July offers a chance to get perspective. I feel more confident entering fall with fresh energy, and having a sense of purpose in the spring. My new year’s resolutions are more like mid-year reviews, where I check my progress or modify goals if necessary.)

It was useful to see these reminders about how to write goals in the CALL workbook:

S.M.A.R.T. GOAL:

S-specific, M-measurable, A-attainable, R-realistic, T-timely.

  • Specific goals depend on who, what, where, when, which, and why.
  • Measurable is accountability and tracking progress.
  • Attainable is a goal that motivates you towards achievement.
  • Realistic is a goal within your current abilities.
  • Timely is a goal with a time frame.

Suggestions:

  • Make all goals concrete.
  • Make the goal something you can clearly state in one sentence.
  • Make a clear end point. The accomplishment of the goal should be definite and visible.
  • Make sure the goal is something you can complete—factor in time and space restrictions.
  • Set a realistic date for completing your goal.

 
It is worth pointing out that this comes from an artist’s foundation—an example of an artist (or her legacy) occupying multiple roles within art ecologies. It’s a great example of what artists (or their executors) can give to other artists. Thanks Joan Mitchell Foundation!

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Meta-Practice, Research

Returning to the Crossroads: Life as an Artist

Wise words from the sage San Francisco Bay Area based artist Jaime Cortez, via the Congratulations Pine Tree podcast:

“As you go through your artistic life, the basic questions are always the same. How are you feeling about your work? Do you feel like it’s getting recognized and supported? How is your financial picture? How is your courage? And it’s always those variables, but they’re in different measures. You keep coming to the crossroads and the crossroads is always the same one, but every time you come to it, you’re gonna formulate a slightly different answer. Sometimes your courage is very high, but your finances are crappy. Sometimes you’re actually doing OK financially, but other pieces of your creative life are not so great. I think to me being an artist is about re-negotiating the same variables again and again to deal with your changing life, and you have to keep adjusting and re-adjusting and re-calibrating your decisions.”

Jaime Cortez, Congratulations Pine Tree podcast, Episode 19: “Naked Penises and Pine Cones (with Jaime Cortez,” December 28, 2014
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