HERETHEREHERE: An Interview with Jon Rubin

Jon Rubin. HERETHEREHERE (excerpt), 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

HERETHEREHERE documents the one-and-a-half mile journey from the Jon Rubin’s house to Pittsburgh Center for the Arts by walking through the houses of his neighbors along the way. A slow tracking shot glides through the living spaces of each neighbor’s life, linking one interior space to the next. The video runs forward then backwards in continual loop. It premiered at The Artist of the Year 2011 exhibition where Rubin was recognized for the significant impact his work has made in the Pittsburgh community.

Jon Rubin’s work explores the social dynamics of public places and the idiosyncrasies of individual and group behavior. Locally, he’s well known for being the founder and director of The Waffle Shop, a restaurant that produced a live talk show with its customers, and Conflict Kitchen, a take-out window that only sells food from countries in conflict with the United States. Other projects have included Never Been to Tehran, a worldwide network of exhibitions that asked its participants to imagine (and recreate in photographs) the Iranian capital city, and Independent School of Art (ISA), a free and experimental art school in San Francisco which operated on a barter system. Rubin is currently Associate Professor in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

Sarrita Hunn: You are originally from Pennsylvania, correct?

Jon Rubin: Yeah, I was born in Philly.

SH: Can you give a bit of timeline, including when you lived in the Bay Area?

JR: I moved out to the Bay Area (specifically Oakland) in 1991 to go to graduate school at California College of Arts and Crafts (currently California College of the Arts). I ended up staying there till I took the job at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). We moved to Pittsburgh in 2006.

SH: How do you describe living Pittsburgh to people who have not been there?

JR: I tell them that coming from the liberal bastion of the Bay Area it was pretty hard for me and my wife—there really was a bit of culture shock. But now, after six years, we both love it. I live two miles from my job, own my house, and live on a street where our eight-year-old daughter can spend an entire day running around with her friends without us having to watch over her. The city is inexpensive and a great place to experiment, and as I always like to create work in the city I live in, it’s worked out ideally for me. I still wish there was more happening, and that Pittsburgh’s art community held itself to a higher standard. The art ecosystem here is missing a middle ground. There are some great institutions at the top of the food chain like The Andy Warhol Museum, Mattress Factory and Carnegie Museum of Art, then a vast and sparsely-populated middle ground with few interesting non-profit or even for-profit spaces, followed by a relatively active and scrappy DIY community. Part of that is due to the difficulty of maintaining a critical mass of cultural producers. We have some great students that come out of our program at CMU, but unlike the Bay Area, many of them leave. I do think this is very slowly starting to change however, and I’ve been thinking more about how I can help accelerate that change.

SH: How did Pittsburgh itself effect the first projects you created there?

JR: Right before I moved to Pittsburgh, I was running the Independent School of Art (ISA) for two years in the Bay Area. The ISA was a barter-based nomadic art school that fundamentally questioned what an arts education would look like if you removed all of the institutional trappings and economic burdens from it. It was a great experiment and tremendously instrumental in how I think about my practice and teaching today, but with a new baby, it was just not going to support my family. I ended up taking a real job at Carnegie Mellon. It’s really an ideal situation for me as they hired me to do exactly what I am interested in, not to just be a miscast sculpture teacher or something, which is where you often find socially-engaged artists landing in the hyper-rigid structure of art academia. This does seem to be slowly changing though as new socially engaged art programs are popping up here and there. Anyway, after the experience of the ISA, I knew that I wanted to challenge the way I teach and make work in the city that I live in. I started teaching my classes in vacant storefronts throughout Pittsburgh. The rents were insanely cheap and it was an ideal way to get away from teaching “campus art,” and an interesting way of leveraging the resources of the university out into the city. The Waffle Shop grew out of one class that I taught, and the Conflict Kitchen grew out of the Waffle Shop. I started and continue to run the Conflict Kitchen with one of my former students, Dawn Weleski, who used to work for me at the Waffle Shop.

Both projects have provided a lot of jobs for students, ex-students, and folks from the city, and I definitely feel that I would not have been able to make a go of either project if I was starting them in San Francisco. There are several reasons I say this. First, it’s just too expensive in SF to experiment with a cockamamie art/business scheme without significant initial capital and a clear plan. Second, Pittsburgh is just dying for new cultural initiatives, and happens to have a significant philanthropic community that is always looking to support what the city government does not, which is quite a bit. Both projects have also received a lot of attention here locally, almost within weeks after opening them, and I really feel they have in someway changed the way the city sees and presents itself. The projects are included in a lot of the city’s travel guides and marketing, which I actually think is a good thing.

SH: The projects you have already mentioned (The Waffle Shop, Conflict Kitchen and Independant School of Art) and Never Been to Tehran are probably your most known projects. What projects, not on this list, would you consider among the most rewarding or successful?

JR: I’ve been working for almost 20 years so there are a number of projects that were rewarding and some that I look back on as successful. While I was in grad school, and for about six or seven years after, I collaborated exclusively with artist Harrell Fletcher. We did a lot of projects together that still inform both of our practices, including Gallery HERE, Anthony, BOY, and Some People We Met, Some Stuff We Borrowed. Funny, we had a penchant for super flat, deadpan titling. This was a time when no one was interested in or talking about “socially engaged art,” but we were really excited to be making work that we felt was not just about the world, but of the world. We were both really interested in the idea of a true story, and even more so, in how we could construct or play around with the truth.

I later created some early quasi-institutional projects that I’m still interested in like, The Horse, FREEmobile, and the Berkeley Senior Center Show, which was a cable access show where I would meet a new person at the senior center during their lunch and then follow them home for the day. There was some strange stuff that came out of that and it was probably a big influence on starting the Waffle Shop’s talk show.

Recently, I created two projects that don’t get a ton of attention, but I’m very fond of. One is called, Thinking About Flying, and involved the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver raising a group of homing pigeons that were given out daily to visitors, who were able to live with the birds for several days before releasing them to fly back to the museum. The project lasted for about a year, with over a 1000 people taking home pigeons, and I was really interested in how the project stretched the institutional capacities of the museum. They were really great to work with over there, exactly the type of anything-goes partner you need to pull off a complicated project. The other recent project, which I worked on with Dawn, was The Speech of the Swans. It involved two actors portraying Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez on a lake in Brazil, giving swan rides to the public and delivering weekly speeches taken from interviews with the public where they embodied the often irrational views people projected upon them. The speeches nicely confused what was the truth of people’s opinions into a false identity for each president.

[uds-billboard name=”rubin”]Jon Rubin. The Lovasik Estate Sale, 2012. Courtesy the artist. Photos: Tom Little


SH: Could you describe The Lovasik Estate Sale, a new commissioned installation that opened this month at the 9th Shanghai Biennale?

JR: Basically, this year’s biennial is trying this very interesting curatorial model – in addition to their usual curation of artists, they also invited 30 international cities to have pavilions in a variety of spaces in Shanghai. [Independent curator] Chelsea Haines was selected to curate the Pittsburgh pavilion and she in turn selected me. Our pavilion is in an old apartment building that also used to be a retail store, and we are on the same floor with Berlin, Tehran, and Ulan Bator (Mongolia). Obviously, the fact that Pittsburgh was included at all was really surprising; I think it says a bit about the energy of recent cultural activities here. Beside the stalwarts of the Warhol [The Andy Warhol Museum] and Mattress Factory, Astria Suparak [Director and Curator] has been doing some amazing shows at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University that have really put the city on the map.

For my project, I purchased an entire estate sale of a working class Pittsburgh family, shipped it to Shanghai, and am having the sale in the Pittsburgh Pavilion during the full run of the exhibition. Over the course of the exhibition, visitors can purchase objects from the estate and take them home. The installation essentially dissolves as the exhibition continues, and the final object sale will take place on the last day of the biennial. The proceeds of the sale will go into purchasing an equivalent Shanghai estate and shipping it to Pittsburgh for exhibition and sale.

Pittsburgh has the second largest population of elderly people in the U.S. We have this remarkable age gap in the city, with a lot of folks who never left after the collapse of the steel industry, and others who left and never came back. The family I found had some amazing stuff, from multiple time periods, including a ton of photos and photo albums they no longer wanted. After three generations living in one house they decided to sell everything when the father died and the mother was placed in assisted care. Estate sales are pretty common American phenomena, but they’re a huge industry here, so it was not very hard for me to find folks who were interested in selling. The installation at the pavilion is set up exactly as the estate was laid out, with all of the same prices being converted into local currency. It’s an interesting portrait of this family and to a greater extent the socioeconomics of death, which is very culturally determined.

What has been interesting, and I couldn’t have totally predicted, was how fascinated people in Shanghai have been when they walk in the room. There is this rampant capitalist-style consumerism in China, with a real fetishism of the new. As they had much more experience shopping than museum going, viewers had no trouble switching roles into consumers, and this created a market-like environment for the whole project. For the first week of the exhibition, which coincides with China’s national fall holiday, people literally overwhelmed the project, and we had to limit sales to one item per person and cap the number of items sold each day. There was some cognitive dissonance as it dawned on people that all of these possessions belonged to one Pittsburgh family, but instead of turning people off, it actually accelerated their desires to own these items. In a land of the new, these old and foreign possessions actually took on a different fetish value. Another interesting factor was that many of the items on sale were actually produced in China for an American market, so they were seeing these things that we made in their country for the first time.



The Lovasik Estate Sale, a commission with Jon Rubin (organized by independent curator Chelsea Haines and sponsored by The Andy Warhol Museum) will be on view at the Pittsburgh Pavilion of the 9th Shanghai Biennial until December 31st, 2012. http://lovasikestatesale.tumblr.com/

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