How did you initially become involved with the Albany Bulb? Do you have a personal stake in the Bulb or did you see this project as being an opportunity to get involved in a meaningful way?
The other three women [Robin Lasser, Danielle Siembieda, and Barbara Boissevain] explored the place already and had started working there when Robin pointed it out to me. The place sounded very interesting and inspiring, it made me curious. Exploring and investigating a place is not unusual for me and is an important part of my art practice. My work revolves around questions about public and private spaces–how art could leave the white cube and can be something accessible to everybody, industrial urban systems and their material, and after all, utopian created places. All these seemed to be a perfect fit with this unknown place called Bulb. Also I had just moved to the East Bay several weeks before and was exploring my new environment. When I am new to a place I love to look for something that’s going on behind the scenes, to leave the regular path and find something under the surface.
How has your creative work changed or been affected by the Bulb?
Most of my projects are site specific and these sites are often without connection to art in the first place. For me it is very important to spend a lot of time at the places where and about which I am working, whether at an observatory, a parliament building, outside in public or, like recently last autumn, in an abandoned Soviet swimming pool. The most boring places seem to host an unknown parallel world inside of them with their own language, rules and aesthetics. I love diving into these small unknown societies and worlds. I think being at the Bulb was just as different as all these places. My approach to new sites is often pretty neutral, nearly purposely naïve. I am interested in the way people live, what they’re thinking, how they interact and what is important for them.
This kind of investigation was not new for me at all. I knew that their social-economic situation was pretty bad and their destiny had led to homelessness at one point. I am really aware of this. But when I was there and I was spending time, I was focussing on different things. Almost like having two brains and one of them is detached from standards and requirements of society and approaches everything from zero. I think something like a shifted mind is also necessary once we look at art in general. Later both worlds have to meet again: the tale and the reality. With this attempt, I went there and met people and saw ways of life that were very similar and close to my way of living but still had something different to it. Something secret, somehow nearly utopian. I was also very interested in the formal decisions that were made at the Bulb. I am not sure if all of them were intentional but a lot of them made prefect sense in an aesthetic point of view. They seemed to be based on quite a bit of cultural history. I found it interesting to see how formal decision making seemed to be influenced by cultural socialization.
Can you talk a bit about your specific artworks in the show? How did you marry the subject matter with the medium?
I think in my art I am transforming my personal experience–a whole situation–into a visible state. At the Bulb, ugly and beautiful are close together and in many cases it doesn’t take much at all to be either the one or the other. Maybe that is part of the reason why I have allowed myself to a more pretty look than I have in most of my projects. But the pieces still contain both: beauty from far away, ugliness if one takes a closer look. Material and formal decisions are influenced by constructive strategies at the Bulb and some parts are even donations from residents. The spinning and moving image is also a reflection on life at the bulb. It is hard to capture what exactly the Bulb is and what it could stand for. It has several layers and is always in transition, it is confusing and terrible and wonderful. There are too many points of view to take. It is many things at once.
Is any of your work on the Bulb? If so, do you think it will remain? How do you feel about some of the art there being preserved and while others are destroyed? How do you feel about the decision to keep the art but evict the residents?
I have none of my art at the peninsula. But as I have worked a lot in public space I have experienced similar situations. I want to give an example here, a project that I have worked on with my artist group Upper Bleistein: it was a long-term communication project in public space, a continuous storyboard with us three women as the protagonists. The chapters showed up in public on a regular basis over about 3 years and people saw them, were able to get in touch by calling the number on the posters or just collected the episodes. Many people followed the project like a blog from a parallel world. Then a gallery wanted to show the entire thing. And our very clear and instant answer was: “No. No way.” We felt like the gallery didn’t understand the project at all. The situation and sudden appearance in public and the shred of art woven into daily life, into a real situation, was an important and huge part of the piece and an indispensable ingredient. Even if I have no art at the Bulb, I feel similar about the work people have made on site. I see the environment around as a big part of the pieces themselves. They show up very spontaneously and are integrated in life, ready to touch. Taking both apart would take the life out of them. I also don’t understand the nostalgic idea of keeping just the art and not the flourish, the strange life that happened around it. It seems somehow wrong. To me both go together.
All photos by Timothy Andrew Photography.
The exhibition Refuge in Refuse: Homesteading Art & Culture Project will be on view until March 14
About the Author:
Elena Gross is a CCA Extern for SOMArts Cultural Center and a graduate student in the Visual & Critical Studies program at California College of the Arts.