FLIGHT PATTERN 3e: Chelsea Haines
In the beginning, Chelsea Haines puts on her coat. She walks across blonde wood, gives a nearby table the sideways, did-I-forget-anything glance, and is satisfied. Maggie Ginestra, ever satisfied, fills her eyes with a tall and cosmic tapestry that hangs behind Chelsea with the presence of midnight. Then out they go, into the street, into February in New York. Finally they settle into a table at the Ginger Man pub, where they are swallowed by tans, browns and dim beiges. They share a pretzel. They break bread. They break tradition: no tequila this time, but beers and ciders in sweet and varied glasses. They share in the dim light and in the intimacy of what matters. –Liat Berdugo
UNINTENTIONAL MEANINGS: Toast #1, Pilsner
Maggie Ginestra: Are you tired of talking about the Lovasic Estate Sale [at the Pittsburgh Pavilion of the 9th Shanghai Biennial]?
Chelsea Haines: No, I feel like I don’t talk about that project enough actually.
MG: That is such a layered thing that happened! I know you’re thinking about translation in a porous way. The layers of translation here seem like a mirror hallway.
CH: I was invited to curate a city pavilion for the Shanghai Biennial in 2012. Jon [Rubin] and I came up with a bunch of different proposals, many of them having to do with translation. Pittsburgh is so Americana, so working class, and the thing about translating that in an international biennial framework was odd. Despite the Shanghai Biennial’s insistence on the particularity of cities, biennials are generally all about universalism and globalism, often showing difference as a way of eliding difference: here are all these different flavors of the same global product. And we wanted to resist that a little bit. A lot of the works that Jon had proposed dealt with the impossibility of translation. He talks about art as this threshold that you have to encourage people to cross. I think that was the first time I was really involved in building that threshold, thinking through what exactly that is. To be totally frank with you, a number of the ideas were shot down by the Chinese government because they were cautious about having spontaneous actions. You can get away with a lot in China, but they don’t like work that they can’t see in advance. Eventually, we thought, OK, if what they want is a object-oriented understanding of a particular place, we’ll actually buy part of Pittsburgh and send it to Shanghai and show it there.
MG: You decided to achieve that simultaneity a different way.
CH: We bought an entire family’s estate sale in Pittsburgh and shipped it to Shanghai where it was sold off at the biennial. We wanted to question how this family–the Lovasik family–how do their things change when it’s put in an art context in China, and how does it change when these now art objects are sold off? We wanted it to be a commentary on circulation, but also on loss and death. The Lovasik kids sold the estate after their father died and their mother was put in a nursing home. Part of the project was a curiosity about what happens to our things when we die. We accumulate objects around us constantly. We attach our identities to our homes and our clothes. What happens when we’re no longer around? These objects continue to circulate in some way. And so what happens if they’re spread around a place like China instead of sold at an estate sale in Pennsylvania? We thought there was a kind of poetics in this.
The Chinese audience loved the project because it was an American novelty. I don’t think it mattered to most of them that it was one family–it could have been a general store. People came in and wanted to buy the entire estate from us.
MG: What did you do?
CH: We said no.
MG: What was the rule that you ended up making?
CH: We sold everything for the price value they would have sold at in Western Pennsylvania if they had sold individually. In the catalogue for the show we listed the price of every single item. At first, we thought, maybe this will be too expensive for the audience, but it wasn’t. People were offering us two, three, four times the amount we asked for an object. We weren’t interested in bidding. And we wanted to keep the project alive until the last day of the exhibition. We couldn’t sell everything at once, and that was just the rule.[Also see: An interview with Jon Rubin on The Lovasik Estate Sale.]
WRITING HISTORY AGAINST THE GRAIN: Toast #2, Gluten Free Amber Ale
CH: The social practice movement in the United States, which I am sympathetic to and broadly aligned with in general…is paradoxically a very enclosed and specialized field. It has a very particular language that some would call jargon. People go to school to spend two years training how to engage with communities as an artist…
MG: …and in a way trick themselves out of knowing how.
CH: Exactly. It’s funny. There’s an artist I’m working with now named Dor Guez. His mother is Christian Palestinian, his father is Jewish Tunisian and he works between Jerusalem and Jaffa. A lot of his artwork deals with communities and histories that quite frankly the Israeli government would like to ignore. I saw him at a panel recently with four or five artists from the US and Western Europe and the questions and concerns they had didn’t really seem to apply to his practice and vice versa. The word “occupation” is thrown around a lot in these types of discussions, which obviously has a different meaning in the US than it does in Israel-Palestine. And “collaboration” is another loaded term because “collaborators” are also a euphemism for Palestinians who collaborate with the Israeli government. We have internalized a very specialized language in the field of social practice, but somehow we believe that this language can apply universally.
MG: To me in this moment, that language feels rife with paranoia.
CH: Because it’s shoving the foot in the door of the art establishment by claiming it’s something else, which it both is and isn’t. I worry sometimes if the rhetoric is not so beneficial. I understand the need to make social practice legitimate in the art world. I’m split. A lot of the work that I’m interested in has been this social practice, politically engaged work–often pretty American, because I’m American, from Pittsburgh, and live in New York–and I guess it resonates with me.
MG: In terms of your public-facing self, you read like a person who is thinking very internationally.
CH: More and more I’m working internationally. I see the need for Americans to understand what is happening in other parts of the world and to understand how the social and political meaning of artwork changes in relation to its geopolitical context. In many parts of the world responsibility has fallen to artists to write a history that refutes the dominant narratives of nationalism. The project that I’m working on with Dor is called The Sick Man of Europe. It is a term that was used to describe the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, as a deficient, sickly, backward empire. Dor is employing that term strategically to think about the political landscape of the Middle East. He is telling the stories of soldiers who were conscripted into war in different countries and the impact militaristic nationalism had on them.
I’m really interested in what role artists can have in producing new histories from the archive. It’s not necessarily reshaping a modernist canon or reshaping the process of history-writing, but making sure that something is not cancelled out of the historical register. That’s what I’d like to think about. I would like to try to open the doors of the socially engaged art world a little more, try to really investigate what terms mean, not to make a glossary or a dictionary but to…
MG: To turn them into tools instead of labels, maybe?
CH: Yeah, exactly.
MG: So I feel like what we’re toasting to here is maybe recovering histories.
CH: Walter Benjamin says to brush history against the grain. I think about that a lot. Like being a fish swimming upstream.
MOMENTS OF RACE: Toast #3, Cider
CH: I’m getting my PhD in art history at The Graduate Center, CUNY. My dissertation research at this point involves me sort of becoming a white “expert” in the Middle East, which is really not something I ever planned for myself and I still have misgivings about it. But at some point, I felt strongly there’s a contribution I could make, and that’s just what I’m going to do.
MG: I want to ask about a “moment of race” of yours, even though we are two white women having a conversation.
CH: Being in Israel and visiting the West Bank over the summer was a really eye-opening experience. I started to understand how asymmetrical every power relationship can be. Representation continues to be a very real struggle and it’s not any single person’s fault. It’s a structural problem. I went to a seminar in New York recently on Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, and there was the panel conversation afterwards. It was a great, nuanced conversation, but looking at it structurally it was all Jewish Israelis or Jewish Americans at the table, and one Palestinian…. It’s hard, because I think we can recognize our own privilege only in certain circumstances. I certainly think that I travel more easily because I’m white. I did have problems at the Tel Aviv airport. I was detained, because I’m a young woman, I was traveling by myself, and I’m not Jewish. So I was suspected to be a peace activist or possibly even a terrorist. It was strange too, because that was the first moment that I was ever questioned at an airport. I’ve traveled a lot. They look at your passport. They look at you. I’ve just walked right through. That’s pure entitlement to me, being a white person with an American passport. In Tel Aviv all these people were walking in front of me and going on the plane while my motives were being questioned. It was the first time I felt like a second class citizen.
MG: You trusted that you could get out of whatever situation?
CH: Yes. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I wasn’t. If I wasn’t white and American, I probably wouldn’t have been so calm.
MG: Your privilege was still holding you safe in that moment. There are moments, I’m sure, where it could not. Since it was a more institutional moment.
CH: As a woman, I think I experience questions of instability and uncertainty all the time just walking down the street. Which is not the same thing as experiencing things through race. If I was a black woman, for example. Things would be different. Walking down a street in Mumbai is different from walking down a street in Detroit is different from walking down a street in New York. And It’s interesting that you started our conversation on the question of translation, because I think translation is a problem of how you bring your personal experiences to a conversation. In order to study blackness, we also need to study systems of whiteness. That’s something you need to think about as an academic too. If I’m writing an art history about projects in the Middle East, how do I also bring that to bear on the framework of art history and exhibition history and a very white and often quite frankly racist structure? Many, many years ago DuBois asked the question “what does it mean to be a problem?” Or rather, what does it mean to be told you are a problem because of the skin you are born with? We don’t deal with these questions enough in art history.
MG: Where is the problem?
CH: Simultaneous sight and blindness. To see things in yourself outside of a framework that is may be the dominant one, or you’re attempting to see yourself through a dominant framework but it’s already displaced. Part of the project I’m working on with Dor is asking through these soldiers’ “defects,” their sicknesses, can they can see a political landscape or see a historical landscape in a way that a historian might not?
MG: That’s great, and kind of taboo.
CH: I don’t want to romanticize it too much.
MG: No, you don’t want to romanticize it, but access to critique of power or voice through disability or disturbance or fracture from the norm, which comes from trauma or disadvantage.
CH: The art world is a place that often doesn’t really show its scars. It’s almost an act of violence in a way to not allow people to get upset, to not allow people to resist interpretation, or to frame their work in a certain way that denies its politics.
MG: But we do need to gesture toward our ideals somehow.
CH: And art can be such a powerful way to do that. You can get away with more with art.
CHELSEA HAINES is a curator and writer based in New York. Since 2009, she has organized exhibitions and public programs for institutions such as Independent Curators International, Nurture Art, Portland State University, the Shanghai Biennial, and the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School. Her curatorial research combines broad interest in underrepresented narratives of race, gender, and class with an emphasis on close working relationships with artists. She has curated solo exhibitions of the work of Jon Rubin and Theaster Gates (co-curated with Carin Kuoni), and group exhibitions on themes ranging from fictional artists to the body as translation device. She holds an MA in Visual Culture Theory from New York University. Haines is currently a PhD student in Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY, where she is a Presidential Research Fellow at The Center for the Humanities. She has held curatorial residencies and research fellowships at the International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP), Residency Unlimited, and Artport Tel Aviv. Haines is currently a contributing editor of Guernica and editor-at-large of The Exhibitionist. She writes regularly for publications including Mousse, BOMB Magazine, Journal of Curatorial Studies, and the online edition of Artforum.
FLIGHT PATTERN is a bimonthly interview series that traces the curiosities and affinities of Liat Berdugo (San Francisco) and Maggie Ginestra (Philadelphia). They invite curators to sit over a flight of tequila, making three toasts. The toasts are three take-offs, and o where will we land?