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The Writing Life: Laureate Lounge, Part 2

2015 May 13

The Writing Life

laureate_loungeEditor’s note:
 This is part two of a  discussion with between Wren and Coffee House Press publisher Chris Fischbach and independent curator Sarah Schultz 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 (there is even a Cocktails at the Castle reception this Friday, if you are so inclined). You can find part one of this discussion here.

Hazel & Wren: Can you talk about some of the Laureate Lounge exercises please? (What are some of your favorites? What do you and the writers hope these will provoke for the audience? How are they “inspired by the real and imagined habits of Nobel Laureates”?)

Chris Fischbach: I think the key here is “imagined habits.” We knew we didn’t want to create an exhibit that people could just look at and think about. The dynamic of curators/artists/institutions being an “active” presenter to a “passive” audience is one that Sarah and I are both interested in shaking up, or turning on its head. So, we knew we wanted to create a space where writers could employ their talents to in turn create spaces for visitors to be creative.

So, we set up only a few restraints. The writers were tasked to create some kind of activity that included their writing, that was instructive, had something to do with the idea of “how to win a nobel prize,” and that encouraged activity that could be in the lounge itself, the rest of the castle, and/or the community at large.

Sarah worked with Janaki and Rachel to develop their projects. Because each of them work in the theater / social practice world, their projects took up much more space, employed props, and have a real physical presence in the lounge. Working with Andy and Sun Yung as Coffee House Press writers, we went a little more analog, and they each created a list of prompts/ instructions that were then put on postcards, which are on display / available in the lounge. You can fill them out there and take them, leave them, deliver them to others in the castle or elsewhere, or actually put them in the mail.

They include instructions like, from Andy:

  • Read Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (or skim it) and try to determine which aspects of it could be used to justify dumping your college boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • Choose an important email in your inbox that you must reply to soon. Write out the response by hand, then type it out. Ask if the recipient notices anything different afterwards.

And from Sun Yung:

  • Walk up the stairs as though it’s the last staircase in your city. What memory appears with each step upward?
  • Consider this quote from Toni Morrison: “As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.” What positions of trust and power do you hold, and what new dreaming do you need to do?

Sarah Schultz: I won’t pick favorites. I love them all! Sun Yung and Andy’s postcards most directly tie to our initial idea for giving visitors tips and instructions for writing something in the vein of a Nobel Prize winner. Although, I will note that they come at task very poetically, politically and even abstractly. I love trying to figure out which writer Andy is referring to when he asks you to “Search your email, texts or chats, and see if you can find an instance of someone calling you “hysterical.’”

Rachel’s is a performer and playwright and her large elegant posters function like a set of stage directions for the audience. They have a wonderful presence in the gallery and the texts read like poems or scores inspired by the work of four women writers.   Rachel and I spent a lot of time talking about who wasn’t well represented in the history of the prize, and wanted to find a way to emphasize the work and lives of some of the women who won.

Janaki Rampura’s projects are active and a little cheeky. It’s Not that Hard to Write a Book creates a step by step set of instructions inspired by particular Nobel Laureate works. All you have to do is type your answers on the cards and voila, you will become a published author. (And I love her instructions for Explosive Drawings that connect acts of imagination with the destructive power of dynamite. Without being heavy-handed, it might make you pause to consider the irony of so much financial and generous largess!

H&W: Do you see The Laureate Lounge existing in any other capacity after the end date at ASI?

CF: Maybe? To me the answer to this is largely abstract in that I hope it has some impact on visitors and on those people that participate in the activities. Meaning that I hope they think about the ASI differently, how one can interact with a text, the different ways of “writing,” and how literature and writing can activate not just a space like the Laureate Lounge, but a museum in general, and beyond.

SS: I feel like the project was specific to the context of the Nobel Creations exhibition. It would be interesting to talk with the artists about their experience and if it prompted any ideas that they wanted to continue with in future. I feel very confident that the American Swedish Institute will keep experimenting like this in the future.

H&W: What are some of the most exciting trends you are both seeing in arts organizations with audience engagement?

CF: I don’t know if it’s a trend or not, but I’ve been noticing and thinking a lot about the shifting hierarchy of value around professional and amateur artists. Meaning that it’s not necessarily that a professional opera singer is more valued that someone participating in a community sing-along.

I also am really enjoying anytime an artist gives any kind of tour. Of anything. To me, that’s an example of what I call art-ish. It might not be what most people thing of art, and it’s hard to measure its “excellence,” and that doesn’t matter. There is much less pressure when things are “art-ish.” Throwing traditional measures of success out the window.

SS: Arts and cultural organizations are experimenting with audience engagement in all kinds of ways. I love to see how humor and playfulness has infiltrated  organizations in ways that complement and enhance their scholarly and educational missions. (For example, the Minneapolis Institute of Art has really knocked it out of the park with their 52 surprises to celebrate their 100th anniversary which included pop-up waltzes, ice sculptures and reproductions of beloved artworks around town.) Museums are also becoming more generous and inventive with how they use and share their collections and resources, as illustrated by what ASI has done with the Nobel exhibition. I would also highlight the institutional support for artists who work in socially-engaged, participatory and performative ways as a significant and growing trend. Most importantly, cultural institutions are getting very focused on realizing their social and civic potential. I think they are moving beyond easy definitions of participation and engagement and are trying to actively define how inclusion and equity can be part of their vocabulary, core values, and everyday work.

H&W: Is there a particular challenge to audience engagement that you’ve encountered, either within your own work, or observing other organizations at work? If so, what are your thoughts on how to tackle that challenge?

SS: The biggest challenge is to keep the needs and experiences of the audience at the forefront of your design. It’s easy to get seduced by your own cleverness or to overestimate and even underestimate your audience. As my former colleagues and I would say, “Let’s make it simple but not simple-minded.”

CF: One challenge is when cultural institutions that implement audience engagement programs think of it as an art of their marketing department, serving to reinforce and support traditional programming. Letting audience engagement shape the core is much more exciting to me, but it’s scary. Also, it’s important to remember that if you want to reach diverse audiences, you need to go out into the community—don’t expect them to some to you just because you invite them. Not everyone will always feel welcome. It’s up to the institutions to make themselves feel vulnerable.

H&W: Do you have any favorite arts organizations that you look to for inspiration when working on programming and/or audience engagement?

SS: I’m a big fan of what Chris is doing at Coffee House Press and of course the American Swedish Institute, Northern Lights, Works Progress, Bedlam Theater, the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, the new Can Can Wonderland and Public Art St. Paul with their City Artist in Residence program. There are so many individual artists in the Twin Cities I could name. In New York, I love to check out what is happening at Governor’s Island, the Queens Museum and of course Creative Time. The artist-run space Machine Project in LA, in fact, the whole city of Los Angeles is an inspiration. I just came from Open Engagement, an annual social practice art conference that was held in Pittsburgh and was blown away but what was happening in the city. I think we’re in the middle of a movement, not a trend!

CF: Open Field was huge for me, and everything Sarah and her team did at the Walker. I also love Machine Project in LA, Works Progress here in town, Northern Lights / Northern Spark, the ASI itself, Common Room (out of the Soap Factory, run by Andy Sturdevant and Sergio Vucci), Floating Library, the Library as Incubator Project,  Proteus Gowanus in Brooklyn, Public Art St. Paul, Amanda Lovelee, Molly Balcom Raleigh, Ring-Ring Poetry,  . . .

Editor’s Note: What movements and shifts in the arts world are you noticing? What other organizations do you look to for innovative programming?

(Pssst: It’s Online Open Mic day! Head over to leave feedback for our lovely writers.)


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!