Meta-Practice, Research

Cultivating inefficiencies

As S. Barich pointed out to me, Jerry Saltz recently wrote:

“Like most people in the art world, I’m basically making this up as I go. The art world is about trying to invent new definitions of skill.” (Jerry Saltz, “Work of Art Season Premiere: Judge Jerry Saltz Recaps,”, June 10, 2010)

One of my skills, if I could call it that, is procurement. Even after all these years, I’m surprised at how much time and energy I spend sourcing materials.

Since I respond to the materials that I work with, I often can’t start a project until I have them in hand. Yet identifying and getting the right materials can take weeks. Beyond brushes, paint, paper, frames and the usual, Dick Blick and Aaron Bros aren’t much help. Besides, I’m too self-conscious a consumer; I know their target audiences are Sunday painters and scrapbook keepers. One must get creative.

As an artist, I’m constantly negotiating how to materialize my ideas. The frustrating thing is reaching limits persistently and pervasively — a recipe for pessimism, according to Martin E. P. Seligman in Learned Optimism.

For example, recently I envisioned producing a multiple: a circular, printed on newsprint in full color, of about 100 copies, at the size of a standard advertising insert, roughly 11×12 inches folded or 22×12 flat. This, it turns out, is not feasible. I’ve become a customer service nightmare, making ridiculous requests.

Digital printers don’t want to run newsprint (which is lightweight, only 16-18#s) in their machines; the lowest weight they’ll accept for double-sided full color jobs is 60-70#. Further, they’ll resist anything but standard sizes: 11×17, 13×19, 12.25×18.25. These sizes are efficiencies that work across multiple industries — paper mills, presses, reprographics — but not me, not now. What I need to use, like what I need to produce, are inefficiencies in the system.

Circulars are typically printed on offset web presses, the massive kind that fill warehouses. These presses take too long to set up to produce my piddly quantity. I could do it if I had to make like 5,000 copies, or had about $5k to spend.

Newspaper Club in the UK produces bespoke short-run newspapers. Too bad they don’t ship internationally. An article on Time reveals that Newspaper Club prints on large newspapers’ presses during their inactive times. I contacted some small, local papers to see if they’d bang out an odd job for me, and they courteously but firmly denied my request.

When I produced Sorted, a gilt badge, I contacted many vendors, who would only take on jobs with minimums of 200-250 pcs, way out of my budget. I finally found a vendor that specializes in badges for schools (such as “hall monitor”) that would make smaller quantities of custom badges at reasonable prices. So I took the same tack and looked up school newspaper printers. (I remember buying indie newspapers at Epicenter about home schooling; which couldn’t have had a large circulation.) But times sure have changed. It turns out the young whippersnappers today produce online school newspapers. Of course!

So maybe I have to do this myself. I could make a relief, intaglio or screen print. But that would mean four color separations and a week to produce the edition. The result would be Fine Art. Bummer. I’m just not interested in making a crispy-clean print to mat and frame for this project. I want to make a circular — a big, glossy, tacky, cheap, off-gassing circular. Viewers would handle it with bare hands. Gasp!

Now I’m thinking about freedom and familiarity, and how once again, even the most mundane materials are irrevocably tied with a feeling of constriction. That what I can imagine must be shoved through the machinations of capitalism and global manufacture, and it risks being extruded in unrecognizable form.

To make objects is to direct form-making. I don’t think twice about 8.5×11 inch Letter-sized sheets most days, but today, it seems oppressively inescapable.

The process of de-materialization is ongoing. I’m thinking more about making less. Returning to examples like Chu Yun and Jeremy Deller.

To be optimistic is to take a selective perspective. I’m refusing to let these vendors’ limitations become my own. This project will materialize with the right materials, or not at all. Time to get creative.

Art & Development

another entry in the “art takes you to some funny places” diary

Maybe it’s too soon to say, but based on my initial experience, being a curator seems like one part Director, one part Gopher. I expected to fetch odds and ends for the exhibition, but I was bit surprised how much artists entrusted me with creative decisions regarding their art. Guess I’ll just have to get used to it.

Two items I found myself chasing down recently:

78-rpm records. N. Sean Glover’s cardboard record player works better with fatter grooves. A Jackson Five 33 had to do for the opening. (It seemed fitting because “I Want You Back” was on heavy rotation in the shops while I was in Manchester.) But today, at the East Bay Depot for Creative Re-Use, I scored two 78s — Sarah Vaughn and the Benny Goodman Sextet.

Butane. David Moises’ Egoshooter is a modified barbecue lighter. Lighters can go in the mail completely emptied of fuel, so it was my job to re-fuel it for the exhibition. The gallery (understandably) didn’t want visitors to get hurt, but I just couldn’t show the Egoshooter disarmed — I was plagued with memories of grad school critiques of art “with no teeth.” Not having ever owned a refillable lighter, I wandered the aisles of CVS before I realized that, of course, butane is probably kept behind a counter, next to cartons of cigarettes. The CVS in North Oakland, formerly Long’s, was sort of an ideal place to find such a slightly obscure, anachronistic item. (It was also the source for my new white painter’s pants. Maybe I’m projecting, but I get a lot more respect at Home Depot when I’m wearing proper Dickies.)

Art & Development, Community

Problems and solutions

You could think of art as a series of problems and solutions. There are visual or formal problems, of course. But it’s a month away from the Galleon Trade exhibition at YBCA (opens September 4), and I need to solve technical problems.

Working in different media is challenging, but it’s great because I’m constantly dipping into new fields of knowledge. Right now, I’m learning about DC (direct current, as opposed to AC, alternating current), and solar power and batteries (both of which are 12 volt DC).

Mostly, I get by with some how-to books, videos and reading Wikipedia. But some problems are too complicated or unique. I wish I had a go-to tinkerer, a mad scientist who lives in a crappy Victorian surrounded by guard dogs in West Oakland, like in Ang Lee’s Hulk. But in real life, I turn to artist-friends like Erik Scollon and Chris Bell. In addition to their technical knowledge, they have experience and, critically, access to resources.

This is about as far away from the artist-genius myth as you can get, but it’s true: sometimes problem-solving hinges on procurement — sourcing the bits and pieces that add up to make installations. One of my biggest challenges is the extreme segmentation of our late capitalist markets. There’s only so much the average shopper needs from an art store, hobby shop, fabric store or hardware store. Then there are artists. I have to source materials in quantities large and small from random outlets. My installation will be comprised of materials from solar companies, battery distributors, Urban Ore (a recycled goods shop in Berkeley), a specialty industrial electrical connector manufacturer, a marine supplier. In my research, I’ve also purchased goods from a train hobby shop. Art takes you to some funny places!

I shared a moment about this with Jessica Tully. She is using a special aerosol chalk in her Syndicate spray stencils. When she called local hardware stores to get more chalk, staffers often suggested spray paint. Sometimes they’d say that spray chalk doesn’t exist. I get similar responses too, and they’re not helpful. Nobody likes to be told we’re making stuff up. We’re not yahoos, we’re just artists. Trust us!


Getting Back on the Screenprinting Horse

“Art takes you to some funny places.”– Mario Ybarra Jr.

Just got back from Creative Screen Tech of San Leandro, CA. It’s a screen equipment and service shop, and was recommended by Thien Pham, the artist behind the brilliant I Like Food restaurant-review-as-comic-strip. CST will output film from my digital file and burn a stencil onto my screen.

The last time I used my screen was 10 years ago. I don’t have access to vacuum exposure units, and besides, I never did well with photo emulsion anyway, so CST’s help is crucial. I’m working on a booklet project, and I think screen printing is going to be the best method for achieving a desired effect.

The only thing I’m worried about is that my screen needs to be washed out. The stencil was hand painted with Speedball screen filler. I hate Speedball products — they’re for hobbyists, and are low quality. But when you’re inspired and faced with the task of supply procurement, which could take hours, Speedball’s wide availability is dangerously appealing. As Leland Wong points out, screenprinting is getting more specialized and expensive. When I took my screenprint class 10 years ago, there seemed to be many more local vendors.

I just hope these CST guys are able to wash out the embarrassingly nineties stencil.