Interview with Alex Mitcalfe Wilson on Para-

I got an email from Alex Mitcalfe Wilson about a piece he’s writing as part of Artspace’s critical texts series on W e l c o m e, the exhibition I was just in. The following is my response, containing his questions. The piece is in reference to the essay Para- and the accompanying sculpture.


Hiya Alex

Awesome thoughts, I’ll copy/paste what you’ve written and respond after just for ease:

First up, I just want very quickly to thank you for the essay, which I found very eloquent and thoughtfully argued. It really helped me to contextualise the physical component of Para in relation to a lot of new histories, discourses and contemporary realities.

As well as those historical and conceptual frames that come from your essay, I’ve been looking a lot at the material qualities of Para, and how it relates to its immediate context and its viewership. Generally speaking, I’ve been thinking about the physical installation in relation to three interrelated strands:

  • As an architectural or sculptural object that alters a space and conditions human experiences within it,
  • as a relational prompt which facilitates and draws attention to reflexive behaviours, which might be framed as a metaphor for other, related behaviours in different social contexts,
  • and as a symbolic object which makes visible the parasexual position of the Victorian barmaid as a metaphor for other, contemporary identities.

In relation to the first of these, I think that the construction of the bar from irregular scraps of wood and quite humble joining pieces gives it an air of temporariness, a conditionality and poverty. To me this links to some of the ideas in your essay, about the temporariness of an artist’s institutional platform and their position of subordination to arts institutions. The use of stain on all of the work’s visible exterior surfaces, while the interior is left uncoloured, also gives me a heightened sense of the importance of insides and outsides, echoing the idea that ‘outsides’ or visible identities are constantly reimagined and performed in relation to changing social contexts and power relationships. The patination of the copper from human contact is also a powerful aspect of the material work for me, being visually striking and also calling up an idea of how bodies and identities are altered and redefined by their interaction with other people.

In creating Para, what were the conditions and ideas that drove your selection of materials and the construction of that object? What are the associations that flow from its material form it for you? Did you conceive of it as a symbolic or metaphorical object to be read in the kind of ways that I described above? Was the physical installation built to a pre-existing plan, or some visual reference of a particular type of bar?

The temporariness and poorness was definitely an aspect I considered. My early thoughts around construction was to do it as highly polished and well-made as possible, or to do it as close as possible to how an actual Victorian bar would have been made and looked like (polished/reflective EVERYTHING), but material realities (costs, time, my own skill level) made that impossible. Which ties in again to the conceptual link between the material used and the marginalised artist’s position in society outside of art institutions.

The point about the stain is interesting – I actually hadn’t considered that conceptual view or basis to it, it mostly came down again to cost. Another small pottle of stain would have covered it, and I definitely had room in the budget I was given to buy one, but I didn’t feel so entitled to that money and consistently tried to use as little as possible. But I definitely agree with what you’re saying, I think the contrast between the inside and out is a really interesting one. It’s interesting to note that I never actually saw anyone look behind the bar at the unstained material other than to place bags behind it during the opening – except for my high school visual culture teacher who came in to look at the piece with me last Friday, who actually lifted the gates and stepped behind the bar.

I’m really pleased with how the copper has deteriorated – I don’t know when you saw the piece, but when it first arrived it was pristine, shiny, and bright. But even just after installing it it had deteriorated slightly from my hands, and my initial attempt to clean off the sweat with a cloth (which left marks in itself). By the end of the exhibition parts of it were a solid dark grey.

In terms of selection of materials and construction, after I got past the idea of making it as pristine or high-quality as possible, I started thinking about my own skill and financial status outside of the artspace budget I was given and decided to use as many free or recycled materials as possible. All the wood in the piece was found in artspace’s workshop, though I did order a piece of macrocarpa from trademe for the top (which did not arrive on time). The copper was also bought from trademe, from a guy who worked with metal as his dayjob and sold offcuts on the side – I get the feeling without his work’s notice.

In terms of associations, I think of it in vaguely gendered aspects – the blocky solid form of it is very masculine, but the shiny copper and the way it has subtly degraded could be read as feminine. I wanted to clash aspects of craft and contemporary sculpture – one a “woman’s field” and the other dominated by men. I feel the way it looks is also situated in a very definite location – it reads to me as very Kiwi, the kind of thing you might find in a backyard or a shed, and reminds me of tree houses I would build myself (also rather shoddily) as a kid. A neat, mostly unintended, additional thing is the printing on one of the boards on the front that reads “nonstructural”, which I intentionally left facing out as a small joke to myself mainly, around ideas of structuralism/post-structuralism, and the fact that a lot of the theory and research I do is based on critical theories of social constructivism.

I definitely conceived the piece more in the latter two ways that you mentioned rather than the first – I wanted to point out the construction of behaviours and attitudes in varying situations via the prompt of the Victorian barmaid and her example.

I worked without any reference point and from a very rough sketched plan with basically guessed measurements – working from my own height and what would be the ideal height for me/others to lean on, for example.

When I was speaking with Ahi Rands and Anna Gardner about your work, they said that many people interacted with it in ways which were strongly conditioned by their experiences of the contemporary bar; speaking of how people immediately leaned on the edge of the work and surveyed the gallery as they might a bar and describing how people outside the bar would speak to one another while ignoring a person who was in close proximity but behind the bar. Similarly, I also found myself automatically using the surface of the bar to hold my books and bag, while I was in gallery looking at the work last week, something that I would hardly think of doing with a sculpture that lacked Para’s echoes of a familiar space which is bound by less formal (but still tightly coded) expectations than the gallery.

Did you intend for the work to be interacted with by gallery-goers as a practical and familiar material object, as well as an aesthetic object? What have been your observations and experiences of how Para has been used or interacted with by gallery-goers?

I may be mistaken but I also vaguely recall one of the Artspace staff saying that you had spent some time inside the work during the opening. Was that the case? If so, how did you experience that position? What have your experiences been of moving around and within the work? Do you feel that it is able to reproduce power relationships of the kind hinted at by Anna’s story of people ignoring a third person behind the bar?

The way people reacted with it was vaguely intended. I definitely intended for it to be a bar – to be potentially basically functional as a simple one. As soon as I realised how people were going to interact with it I realised that it was something I wanted. It was most obvious during the opening – at which I was, yes, behind the bar itself. Most interestingly were the ways people would react to me both as barmaid and as the opposite – on one hand, I had people asking if I had a bin behind there, if the essay was a drinks menu, was I was serving and how much; but on the other I had multiple people bringing me drinks under the assumption that I wouldn’t leave the bar for the duration of the opening (I was pretty flexible about that and left it a few times).

The bar definitely operated exactly how I intended it to – it created a definite and tangible separation between me and the “punters”, and created a space that I could observe from essentially without being seen. Even people who had come up to the bar specifically to talk to me would turn their backs and lean on it when someone they knew came up to speak to them. The bar definitely succeeded in creating a zone of conditional power – standing behind it you feel untouchable and important.

I also wonder about the physical work’s relation to the types of digital interaction that you outline in the accompanying essay. Is the license that it provides some people to transgress the hands-off / distanced aspects of the gallery’s expectations any kind of mirror of how similarly synthetic digital spaces provide a way of temporarily and safely transgressing dominant expectations of sexuality and gender to various ends?

Yeah, I definitely think so. The way you put this also makes me think of how, while the piece transgresses the “no touching” rule of most galleries, my placement behind the bar becomes a replacement for that. I am distanced and untouchable, both physically and otherwise. I think this mirrors online interactions – while some aspects become “touchable”, like transgressing dominant expectations to a potentially larger degree of safety than you could offline, other aspects become out of bounds.

To me, one of the most affecting aspects of the work is suggested in your pull-quote on page two of the essay, which differentiates the condition of parasexuality from an experience of difference characterised by denial and punishment, although the boundaries of parasexual agency are still frequently defined by those with the power to deny and to punish those of whom they disapprove. Because “acknowledgment and accommodation” can very readily be deployed to hegemonic ends, as a means of fitting an ‘other’ into a dominant framework without overturning that framework’s central assumptions, this observation is a powerful reality check for institutions and practitioners, such as myself, who operate from a position of privilege while seeking to collaborate with minority-identifying people towards progressive ends.

On the last page of the essay, you also talk about how galleries gift conditional power to minority-identifying artists, in a way that is inherently temporary and, I think, predicated on a lot of assumptions about how those artists ‘ought’ to relate to the institution (all the way from which kinds of discourse are acceptable and which are too ‘out there’, through to questions about the kinds of clothing and ‘conduct’ that are expected when an artist is on public display).

These last questions relate to such issues of power and authority in the creation, display and interpretation of art and are really broad, but I’m very interested to hear your thoughts on them.

How do you think arts institutions might engage with minority-identifying artists to go beyond a state of temporary accommodation within their own comfortable paradigms?

I am unsure if this is feasible without destroying the comfortable paradigms of existing institutions. The artworld as it is currently both focusses on and is run overwhelmingly by those with power in society – and it’s like you said, acknowledgement and accommodation can be deployed to hegemonic ends, often without intent. I think the way minority artists are currently represented in the artworld is a prime example of “fitting an other into a dominant framework without overturning that framework’s central assumptions’, and I would question the worth of keeping that dominant framework. Is it possible for a majority power to understand to the proper extent? For example, is it possible for a white curator or gallery director to understand the frameworks of tikanga to the extent that they are able to represent that or show artists that represent that without appropriating or exploiting, intentional or otherwise? I would say that at the very least minorities need to be involved to a much larger extent in the higher rungs of the artworld as a whole – honestly something I don’t see changing without larger social change.

What might it look like if an institution was to take a transformative or liberatory approach to minoritised artists and publics?

It’s interesting that you’ve used those words – transformative and liberatory. In my own work at the moment I’m trying to challenge my own views on justice, power, and punishment, and am reading a lot about community-run transformative justice. TJ is victim-led and prioritises the needs of the victim over all while still acknowledging the humanity and needs of all involved – victim, perpetrator, and community. Its main purpose is to address violence, primarily, resolving issues while at the same time looking at the structural causes for that violence – like, for example, why people of colour are overrepresented in drug-related crime and have a high rate of reoffending – likely because after being convicted once, finding work becomes significantly harder and drug trade becomes the only way to make the rent and put food on the table. Transformative justice recognises that these issues exist and challenges them while also punishing perpetrators of violence.

So thinking about this as an approach to minorities in the context of art institutions, perhaps we need to be doing the same thing. Recognising that art does not exist in a vacuum, and that after an exhibition is over those minority artists often go back to their lives – which usually involve struggle. While not “feasible” for most smaller galleries (those more likely to show minority artists, to be honest) due to other structural issues, an aspect of a transformative approach could be ensuring that artists fees cover the cost of living during setup of the show or time costs – something that artspace was honestly fantastic with. But again, it ties back into prioritising minority voices and representation both in exhibitions and in managerial roles.

Which changes, if any, to institutional structures and habits do you think are most immediately necessary? And how do you think these dynamics of privilege and power might be challenged in other relationships within the art-machine, like that between artists and critics or teachers and students?

There are definitely strong dynamics of privilege and power within the artworld, especially relating to critics – it’s my understanding that this tends to be a relatively slow-moving area, and though I don’t have any statistics to support my claims I would assume that the majority of them tend to be old, cis, het, white, wealthy, able-bodied males. You have to question the ability of such people to connect meaningfully with a piece that may be about struggling under oppression or under systems of society and the state that specifically do not include you and make things harder as a result.

I think back to my high school teachings, too, and about an article I read about neoclassicist/romanticist France and how art theory and critique was encouraged to focus on the aesthetics and visual techniques rather than meaning as a way of ignoring any message, in an era when certain strands of art were heavily critical of society and the state. I feel this as had a massive influence both on the teaching of art history and of the art critic industry – often a piece with an important message that is central to its very existence will be reduced to an article about use of colour or line; or a piece about a minority experience will be dismissed as “too specific” or “not appealing”.

If it were up to me, institutional change would be massive and it would be radical – and not just in the artworld. But as it stands, the way forward is diversity and inclusion – but not in the tame, assimilationist, liberal way of fitting an other into a dominant framework. Diversity needs to include the ability for minorities to actually change things – to enter this system, this framework, and to be able to challenge it safely without danger of being re-excluded. The framework needs to be open to change in the first place, and those with systematic power need to be willing and understanding of the fact that making positive change for minorities means giving up the power we/they have over them/us.

Cheers, I enjoyed answering these! Let me know if there’s anything else I can do, or if you have any more questions.

Additionally, would you mind if I published my reply on my blog? I think there are some really nice/solid/important points from both sides here and I’d be keen on sharing it.

Many thanks,
Jen

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