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The Writing Life: Laureate Lounge, Part 1

2015 May 6

The Writing Lifelaureate_loungeEditor’s note: Today’s arts world is a shifting one. Arts organizations are moving from traditional (and sometimes elitist) modes of art presentation to more collaborative, grass-roots, and innovative ways of engagement. One of the organizations I admire that is addressing this shift in a very successful and intriguing way is Coffee House Press. I asked CHP publisher Chris Fischbach and independent curator Sarah Schultz some questions about the changing arts ecosystem and their recent collaboration, The Laureate Lounge, with (and at) the American Swedish Institute (ASI). The Laureate Lounge is “an inventive space inspired by the real and imagined habits of Nobel Laureates” where participants dig into their own creativity by completing short exercises created by four writers and artists (Rachel Jendrzejewski, Janaki Ranpura, Sun Yung Shin, and Andy Sturdevant). The exhibit is part of the larger Nobel exhibit at ASI, and goes through May 24. Today, I’m sharing part one of my discussion with Chris and Sarah (part two will be on the blog next week).

Hazel & Wren: Can you talk about how this partnership with the American Swedish Institute came together?

Chris Fischbach: About a year ago, Coffee House placed poet Ed Bok Lee in residence in ASI’s library, as part of our CHP: In the Stacks library residency program. Not knowing Swedish, but drawing on context, he created a series of “metatranslations” of poems he found in the archive. On top of that, a number of one-minute films were created that in turn translated those poems onto screen. The ASI even fashioned a whole exhibit around this project.

Having felt that that collaboration was a success, when an opening came up to create an exhibit for the larger Nobel exhibition, they decided they wanted to have one based on the Nobel Prize for Literature. So, naturally, they thought of us.

H&W: How did you select your four writers/artists for the Laureate Lounge?

Sarah Schultz: Our main goal in creating the Laureate Lounge was to introduce audiences to the diversity of creative work and practices by Nobel prize winning authors and to inspire them to create something themselves.

The Nobel Prize is a big deal. It is the largest and most prestigious award in the world. Your chances of winning one are pretty slim even if you are already a highly accomplished writer. Imagine your chances if you aren’t! Chris and I had a lot of fun trying to figure out how an average person might actually go about winning one. What were the secrets of the prize-winners in literature? How did they manage to write that book? Come up with that idea? Stick to it for so long? Chris and I talked about writers we thought would be interested in using the work of other writers for as inspiration. I worked with Rachel Jendrzejewski last summer at the Walker as part of Open Field and knew that she was really skilled at writing in ways that prompt participation. I’ve been a fan of Janaki Rampura’s work for a while. So this was a great opportunity to work with her.

CF: We wanted writers we knew that would be interested in crafting a piece that somehow would enable visitors to participate, rather than just create something to read or to look at. I’ve worked closely with Andy and Sun Yung before, and knew they would get it, and Sarah had worked with Rachel and Janaki in her former role at the Walker Art Center.

H&W: What kind of experiences/thoughts do you hope the audience takes away from the Laureate Lounge?

CF: That literature is something that can be experienced in ways other than just reading. That reading isn’t necessarily a passive experience, but that it’s always participatory—this exhibit makes enacts that literally.

SS: I hope that people are reminded about the many ways they are creative in their own lives. I also hope that they are motivated to read the work of some of the authors. I know that was inspired to read the work by the Swedish writer Selma Lagerlof, who won the Nobel Prize in 1909. I hadn’t heard of her before this project.

H&W: Chris, I found a quote of yours on the CHP blog where you said that CHP has been  “transforming from being solely a publisher to becoming a cultural organization that produces both books and programming,” as two ways to reach your audience. What have been your guiding principals through this transition at Coffee House Press? Who comes up with the programming ideas? 

CF: Another way that we put it is that we provide “nontraditional ways of accessing the reading experience.” I’d add “writing experience” to that as well.

Our goal is to connect writers and readers. Publishing books is the historical and primary way we achieve our goal, but it’s not the only way. Programming, residencies, experiences, we’re open to it all. It’s about creating different kinds of spaces for both writers and readers to encounter, enact, absorb, create literature. To demystify it. To find new ways for writers to put their skills to work that is outside of the book paradigm.

We want our books and writers to be catalysts for new art. And we want them to be available to other people and organizations to help them achieve their goals, or fulfill their missions.

As for who comes up with the programs, it’s usually a group effort. It’s true that I sometimes get credit for the whole “Books in Action” initiative, but it’s really about having a great team that’s all on board, coming up with ideas together. And it’s also about being very willing to sit down with new partners and collaborators and brainstorm. Sarah is my favorite person to do that with.

H&W: Sarah, I’m interested to hear how you approach working with so many different organizations as a freelance curator. Do you immerse yourself in their mission/past work, or do you try to focus on the future of what you are curating with them?

SS: Context is always the most critical part of curating or designing any project. I start by looking at what we might build from within the organization and how we can be responsive to the local community and situation. Then, I try to stretch what is possible or even sensible. I learned this from working with so many creative people on Open Field at the Walker. I am super collaborative and like to toss around ideas even if they are ridiculous…actually, especially if they are a far-fetched and a little uncomfortable. It helps move you beyond what you already know. It is always exciting to walk into a new situation and be surprised by what is possible working together.

Working with Chris, the artists and the team at ASI was inspiring and fun. We came up with scores of project ideas.  It’s always challenging to have to choose between great ideas. The ASI staff was very inventive in helping us pack a lot of activity into a small space!

Psst: Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview next week!