Amber Ginsburg and Marissa Lee Benedict On Bio-Plastic and Collaboration

Amber Ginsburg exhibited work from her ongoing project titled “Past Present Perfect” at the Chicago Artists Coalition last February in a Hatch Projects group exhibition named “Value: Assigned, Transposed, and Imagined” curated by Happy Collaborationists. During the exhibition, Ginsburg started collaborating with, previously featured Make-Space artist, Marissa Lee Benedict. In the gallery, the two embarked on an exploration that combined Benedict’s experiments with bio-plastic and Ginsburg’s interest in using five hundred potatoes from a piece that was already on display.

Last month Ginsburg and Benedict met me at the CAC gallery to answer some questions about the collaboration and to show me the process of making bio-plastic in the gallery. Below you will find Amber Ginsburg talking a bit more in-depth about her pieces in the exhibition, later in the interview Marissa Lee Benedict joins the conversation about collaboration and bio-plastic, lastly the two show me how to make bio-plastic!

Amber Ginsburg on her artwork at Chicago Artists Coalition

Ginsburg’s “Past Present Perfect” project addresses an imagined future for dishware–exploring dishware as a relic of cultural practice of formal dining. Ginsburg considers the gallery as “a museum of the not-yet-happened, the works on display are encounters with fragments of dishware based on a future when we have forgotten their intended purpose. Abstraction implies the cognitive distance between a time when the actions around eating were understood and a future when an archeologist attempts to interpret that knowledge.”

Amber, you talk about dishware and its intended purpose—do you consider dishware a tool? If so, how?

AG: The words you have chosen to ask about my work, “relic” and “tool”, speak directly to my interests in how objects function as cultural symbols and actors that provide agency at the same time. At one end of the timeline, which we will call the relic, the accumulation of past narratives about an object form a sequence, a kind of narrative DNA. Like memory, the knowledge that sticks tells us something about ourselves. Dramaturges, the folks that decided what objects are on view in a movie or play, have a particularly savvy sense of how dishes become symbols. In an instant, we can discern era, class and sometimes even the emotional tone by glancing at the objects of the table. Dramaturges tap into our cultural understanding of dishes, the way in which we activate the “relic” memory in objects of the table.

But once in use, the role of the object changes and they simultaneously become a tool animated by the user. This is a switch in agency. As protagonists acting upon the object, we become as much the “changers” of the story as the inheritors.

Dishes, particularly more formal-ware, captured my interests as “transitional objects.” If objects can be narrators, dinnerware is at an interesting and confusing moment. Totally recognizable and quick stand-ins for all sorts of ideas about home, family, habit and culture, they are simultaneously being booted out by the pace with which we live our lives. The way we use formal-ware is at odds with the ways we imagine their use. I am drawn to this flux in the use and understanding of dishware.

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How is the work you exhibited at CAC—Toll, Drawing set for Eight, Break, and Charge—the next iteration of the Past Present Perfect projects?

AG: Past Present Perfect is an ongoing project playing with dishware, pulling out various behaviors and patterns associated with these objects. Exhibitions become moments to edit research and test new ideas. Two of the works, Drawing Set of Eight and Charge, in some form, have been exhibited before but the HATCH exhibition at the Chicago Artist Coalition also featured new works and re-orients the old. In this instance, Drawing Set for Eight is the trace, in graphite, of the actions of a formal five-course meal served at the Chicago Artist Coalition to the eight artists working with our curators, the Happy Collaborationist.  It is a way of preserving a mode of dining—slow and choreographed for this group, freshly formed. This was a charmingly and somewhat awkward first date for us. 

Charge, a cyanotype lit by 500 potatoes powering 100 diodes, is in its second iteration, but has changed. This work became the nexus of the show, combining elements of other works.  Rather than isolate the Cyanotype, the residue or shards from breaking two person-high columns of dishes, was placed under and on the table where Charge sat. The dishes were an artifact of the 16 mm film Break. Charge also became a central element in the exhibition because it changed over the course of the exhibition. Thinking of the gallery as an auxiliary studio, the three-week exhibition became a time to contemplate and experiments with the shards and the potatoes. This was a subtle but important shift in the way I work. I have used the gallery as a site of production before, but always towards a more known outcome, like the production of 1000 replica WWI terra cotta dummy tests bomb at the Soap Factory or creating doorknob “worry stones” at the Museum of Surgical Science. In these instances, the exhibition became a site of production and accumulation through participatory skill sharing and making.

Working with the Happy Collaborationist, the very first thing they said was “You should do what you want.” I was inspirited by their rally to action and even though there was very little time before the opening, I took them on their word and created Break, a new work produced for this exhibition. Break is in 16 mm film, a material I had wanted to test.  I have been collecting research on different cultural interpretations of plate breaking for a few years, as well as collecting dinner plates.  I knew I wanted to do a project that isolated and repeated plate breaking over and over, but I could not settle on the form or the material of the project.  I was at a talk on a work in 16 mm film and much of the discussion centered on issues of sentimentality, the archive, and the transitional nature of 16 mm film, which Kodak has announced it will discontinue. Listening to the debates about 16mm film was like an audio mirror into various ideas I had been exploring about dishware. I knew I wanted to pair plate breaking and 16mm film as an abstract material pairing—materiality fraternal twins in parallel cultural flux.

Projected on opposite walls was the image of people approaching a column of plates and, in any way they chose, breaking them. Never able to see the two columns at that same time, the audience looked from one wall to the other, with 150 feet of exposed 16mm film looping in the center of the room. The exposure of this multi-variant action of the break, from anger to joy is visually linked by the exposure of the film slowly wearing away as it circles through the room between the images. 16 mm film is a new material for me. Not only will Past Present Perfect continue through bio-plastic research, but I am interested in finding out more ways to play with 16mm film to talk about transience.

Toll, a sound piece pulled from Break, greeted visitors at the door of the gallery. Slowing the soundtrack from breaking the dishes, drawing out each instance, produced an unexpected result—it sounded like bells tolling.

Marissa Lee Benedict joins the conversation

Amber Ginsburg said she felt like she wanted to work with potatoes and dish shards at the Chicago Artists Coalition, but was not exactly sure what to do. Knowing Marissa Lee Benedict had done some experimenting with potato starch as a basis for creating bio-plastic, Ginsburg invited Marissa to join her and started milking five hundred potatoes for starch. During the exhibition the two embarked on an ongoing and rigorous exploration that will continue until Benedict and Ginsburg develop a mixture that allows them to cast the bio-plastic. 

Could you briefly explain the bio-plastic project?

MLB: The bio-plastic collaboration Amber and I are beginning to embark on is exciting as it is still in a stage of research and experimentation: the point where everything has potential and exists in a state of “becoming”. Many of my collaborative partnerships begin by chance—passing conversations that reveal overlapping bodies of research, shared material interests, etcetera—and are followed up by a desire to engage a collaborator more deeply on a personal, material and intellectual level.

My interest in bio-plastic evolved a few years ago, as part of an ongoing desire I have to generate embodied knowledge (the knowledge you gain by understanding something through sensory means, by touching it, smelling it, cutting it, making it, etcetera) about seemingly abstract materials (plastic being typically one of the most industrially produced, inaccessible, formless materials that we encounter on an everyday basis). A few years ago, I began playing with a homemade potato starch bio-plastic recipe I found on the Internet, posted by a young scientist named Brandon. Although the material was engaging—in particular because it is created through a very direct, accessible, domestic process—I never found an appropriate conceptual framework with which to discuss homemade bio-plastic, so I put it aside for the time being.

Amber’s invitation to transform the potatoes from Charge has been the perfect, serendipitous overlap in our practices, and is a chance to begin the conversation anew, in a different context and with a different set of relationships to draw on.

AG: On a purely instrumental level, I have wanted to work with Marissa for some time. The bio-plastic became the calling card.

How did this collaborative project come together between the two of you and what role does collaboration play in your practice?

MLB: I first met Amber a little over three years ago when she gave a talk at the Sullivan Galleries on her project re⠂pur⠂pose: A Work in Material Gestures, done in collaboration with Carla Duarte and Lea Rousset. I was immediately struck by Amber’s dedication to process, dialogue, generosity, collaborative exchange and material investigation. Since that first introduction, Amber’s work has continued to inspire me, engage me and resonate with my own interest in the intersection of material, making and meaning. Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of being involved in a few of Amber’s projects as a participant, so when this serendipitous overlap in our material and conceptual interests occurred, I jumped at the opportunity to work with Amber.

Collaboration partnerships have become an integral part of my studio practice. My engagement in “duologues” (a dialogue or conversation between two persons) is an extension of my desire to engage in a dialectical practice: a method of discussing the integral, and interdependent, relationships between pairs of apparently opposite or distinct things (re/action, dis/order, dis/connection, un/known, un/certainty, etcetera). I feel each collaborative partnership I participate in provides me (and hopefully my partner) with a new set of skills, a new perspective on artistic potential and a greater engagement with the world.

AG: Most of my work is collaborative.  I tend to link with my collaborators in two ways. Either I work in parallel with people, studio mates or artists working on similar research and through conversation collaborative ideas emerge seamlessly. The other way is more calculating but ends up being open-ended. I often invite someone to join a project because they have a particular expertise I would like to learn.  Inevitably, the specificity of the invitation melts away and the project changes and benefits from the addition. This is already the case with Marissa.

What are your thoughts on the terms ‘social scientist’ or ‘domestic laboratory’ and how they affect your collaborative process?

MLB: I have been talking quite a bit these days about Claire Pentecost’s proposition for the artist to act as a “Public Amateur”. In Claire’s words, the artist as Public Amateur “… becomes a person who consents to learn in public. It is a proposition of active social participation in which any nonspecialist is empowered to take the initiative to question something within a given discipline, acquire knowledge in a noninstitutionally sanctioned way, and assume the authority to interpret that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.” As our world paradoxically becomes simultaneously more interconnected and more inaccessible—and the gap between abstract information and material knowledge become greater and greater – this position of the artist as a “Public Amateur” becomes an increasingly critical one, and one that is forwarded by the openess of a collaborative practice. By taking a material such as a “plastic”—which is somehow so abstract and nebulous in it’s origin (I’m thinking of Barthes’ essay in Mythologies on plastic or the 1958 documentary “Le Chant du Styrene”)—and “domesticating” it in the public sphere (in the gallery), I feel we are reasserting our right to material knowledge and history.

AG: I could not agree more with Marissa.  I would add that the gathering information, social, within the sciences, in a kitchen or the laboratory all tend to be ongoing endeavors. The assumption is that the experience or the body of knowledge will be added to, passed along and/or shared.  I am interested, both as a way propelling and perpetuating projects, and as away to offer agency to the audience, in providing scenarios in which things are not done. I think social scientists or domestic laboratories are useful terms for talking about projects that resist the authority of the finalized art object.

Does the process of making the bio-plastic act more of a facilitator for audience engagement and discussion than it is about making the actual product?

AG: I suspect the role of the bio-plastic will change over time. At the moment, I think it is an excellent fascinator for engaging the audience in a process and for opening up the gallery as a site of investigation.  As we play, test and learn, that may change.

MLB: I couldn’t agree with Amber more. I believe the role of the material will shift over time, but I would guess that the process of making the bio-plastic will continue to take on the role of a facilitator or an intermediary: acting as a connector between Amber and myself, a conduit for audience engagement and curiosity, and — perhaps in a more literal, material way — a binder gluing together the shards from Past Present Perfect.”

Step by step process of making bio-plastic with Ginsburg and Benedict

Make or purchase potato starch. If you want to make it, youtube has some great how-tos, which, in fact, is where Marissa and I learn the recipe below.
Make or purchase potato starch. If you want to make it, youtube has some great how-tos, which, in fact, is where Marissa and I learn the recipe below.
Make or purchase potato starch. If you want to make it, youtube has some great how-tos, which, in fact, is where Marissa and I learn the recipe below.
Add one teaspoon of glycerin and one teaspoon of vinegar.
Add one teaspoon of glycerin and one teaspoon of vinegar.
Mix over a medium heat. Keep it moving.
Mix over a medium heat. Keep it moving.
It will get gummy and then clear as it bubbles. Once clear give it a good final mixing and …
It will get gummy and then clear as it bubbles. Once clear give it a good final mixing and …
Spoon it onto a silicone or greased surface.
The bio-plastic will harden as it cools.
The bio-plastic will harden as it cools.
The clear formula is from sifted potato starch and the dark is from slightly impure starch “contaminated” by small bits of potato (unsifted). Both shrink and harden. They can also be spread thin and made into “sheeting."
The clear formula is from sifted potato starch and the dark is from slightly impure starch “contaminated” by small bits of potato (unsifted). Both shrink and harden. They can also be spread thin and made into “sheeting.”