Other Investigations: Alicia Chester

Previously featured on Make Space back in August, Alicia Chester now gives us some insight into her practice and process, as well as talks about her experience at ACRE Residency last summer. Check out her work IRL, along with Ellen Nielsen, Alicia Chester, Oli Rodriguez, Kate Hampel & Aiden Simon, in trying to be cute bc the abyss curated by Alicia Eler at Co-Prosperity Sphere.

On process:

I used to work in quite discreet photographic series one at a time, but these days my projects tend to be very long-term and collaborative in nature. As a result, production ebbs and flows with different projects simultaneously, often dependent on other people and often without a clear finishing date. I’m much less concerned with a series of work appearing coherent than I used to be and much more interested in what I can learn through creating it, whether it ends up really working or not. I spent a ton of time and money a year ago on a weird sculpture involving live Christmas trees tied together. Ultimately, it never worked the way I envisioned, and I would never exhibit the work or consider it finished. But the idea had been stuck in my head for a couple of years and needed out, and I learned so much and had a blast doing it. I guess I’m more comfortable with failure than I used to be, and that has only happened because I’ve become more confident in my work whether anyone shows it or not and more comfortable with my little place in our Chicago art world.I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that I am not represented by a gallery and have never exhibited in a commercial gallery, so I have not had the pressure to produce the quantity or type of work that is salable. This has both up and downsides. Anything can change in five or ten years or more, and I would still welcome the opportunity to exhibit more and exhibit commercially, but right now I am also fine with not doing this and just treating everything as a fantastic experiment. I feel like I have more ideas than time or resources to produce. I’m in a place now where I love existing between the roles of artist, writer, curator, and academic, although that does divide my time. I’m also in a place where I enjoy an open-ended process, as I feel I gain as much through the process of creating and collaborating as I do through the finished product, and that feels great.

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I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that I am not represented by a gallery and have never exhibited in a commercial gallery, so I have not had the pressure to produce the quantity or type of work that is salable. This has both up and downsides. Anything can change in five or ten years or more, and I would still welcome the opportunity to exhibit more and exhibit commercially, but right now I am also fine with not doing this and just treating everything as a fantastic experiment. I feel like I have more ideas than time or resources to produce. I’m in a place now where I love existing between the roles of artist, writer, curator, and academic, although that does divide my time. I’m also in a place where I enjoy an open-ended process, as I feel I gain as much through the process of creating and collaborating as I do through the finished product, and that feels great.

On material and medium:

I work in lens-based media (analog and digital photography, super 8 film and HD video) and photo-based installation, and I also occasionally curate exhibitions, which I love to do collaboratively with other curators and artists. Over the past couple of years I’ve started to become a writer as much as a visual artist, and I consider writing as another medium rather than a totally separate form of creative production. Each medium informs the others in an interdisciplinary practice for which photographic media serves as my central concern or touchstone. My artistic practice has gradually evolved to be based less on daily practice and concerned more with conceptual and longterm projects. I realized that, for me, art operates as philosophy and as a structure through which to think about history, culture, and modernity. This flows through my visual, written, and curatorial production.

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My projects are united by an exploration of the nature of photography, and one overarching issue concerns performance in relation to photographic media. I have worked with portraiture to emphasize the mediated confrontation a photographed subject presents to a beholder. This spring I am working on an installation of looping super 8 projectors to simultaneously screen around fifty reels of film I shot as still portraits at ACRE this summer, in which I requested that each subject simply look into the camera for the duration of the reel, although the background may be moving. I want the projectors to have a noisy physical presence, highlighting the materiality of the medium, while juxtaposing the incongruence of each subject’s still pose with the flow and repetition of time presented by the film. If it works, it will be installed at my ACRE show in June.

I recently created a video installation for Industry of the Ordinary’s Portrait Project at the Chicago Cultural Center, employing similar concepts of posing for the camera and the relationship of still and moving lens-based media. I am also working on a long-term project to remake every video by Vito Acconci in the collection of the Video Data Bank with my friend Andrea Slavik, in which we collaborate with (mostly) women artists based in Chicago. The concept is not to pay homage to the originals but to use them as flexible scripts to explore the intersections of performance and video, to investigate what changing the gender dynamic does to the performances, and to measure the historical distance of forty years. The relationship of performance, time and photographic media examined in this work is part of my larger inquiry into photography and modernity.

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On her research process:

I definitely get the most ideas for projects while reading or while attending lectures. Often while at a lecture at the MoCP, the Art Institute, or the Graham Foundation, I’ll be furiously scrawling notes not about the lecture itself, but about the avenues of thought it sends me down. Sometimes this happens to me at movies as well. Being alone in a crowd seems to generate ideas. I usually have an intense and short burst of ideas, some of which pan out, some of which sleep for a long time, and some of which best live only in a notebook. I also love researching artwork and exhibitions for online reviews and interviews, the most rewarding of which was probably for an in-person interview I conducted last October with IAIN BAXTER& for ArtSlant. It required some intense preparation since he’s had such a long and varied career.

For my personal research and work, though, I usually admire artists for one or more of three separate reasons, all of which touch on the elements of surprise and wonder: 1) s/he works with concepts and concerns similar to mine, but more brilliantly and insightfully, 2) s/he produces work I never could because s/he possesses skills I never will or because my brain does not work in the same way, and 3) s/he has successfully and consistently achieved the elusive marriage of relevance and complexity in concept with competent and masterful technique, resulting in something poetic to which I keep returning and seeing something new.

For example, Christian Boltanski works with concepts centering around photography that I find intriguing, so I always like to look at his work, but his choice of aesthetics is often too kitsch for me. Over the years, I have kept returning to some perennial favorites, including Francesca Woodman, Annette Messager, Ana Mendieta, Joseph Cornell, Richard Diebenkorn, Wayne Thiebaud, Agnes Martin, and Manet, all of whom produce(d) work radically different from my own but that hit me in the gut each time. Among work that best fits my third category, however, are Robert Morris, Rachel Whiteread, Chris Marker,  David Hartt, and Gordon Matta-Clark. For writers, I greatly admire Rebecca Solnit’s ability to engage history in a personal and passionate way and to connect seemingly disparate concurrences into a big and extraordinary picture. If I were stuck on a desert island and could only view and think about one artist for the rest of my life, though, it would probably be Matta-Clark. He always astonishes me.

On space and site:

In brief, Chicago is amazing! The combination of being affordable, friendly, and having spacious studios and apartments while still being a large city full of amazing artists, curators, and creatives is unbeatable.

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Have you participated in residency programs before ACRE? If so, which ones, when and where?

ACRE was my first! It set the bar high.

What has your experience at ACRE been like? What kinds of projects or adventures did you participate in? At the time, what was the most valuable aspect of this residency in particular? Has your experience at ACRE affected the work you are making in the studio now?

The residency was a truly magical time when, for the first time in my life, I had no obligations other than to dream, make work, and make friends with similarly driven and creative people. Definitely the most valuable aspects of the residency were the time and resources to make work (this is not specific to ACRE but to residencies in general) and the people I met (this is specific to ACRE). I haven’t participated in any other residencies, but from many friends’ stories, there are few in which so many truly talented people come together and form such a strong and supportive community that carries beyond the residency into the future, through personal relationships and through exhibitions and performances. The relationships and friendships I formed in the two weeks in Steuben will be with me for a long time. It’s an amazing experience to be able to talk about crazy projects and ideas for two weeks with people who get it and are excited about it. It was common for artists who previously didn’t know each other to collaborate on large projects during the residency. Community, collaboration, and experimentation are part of the ACRE culture. Some particularly fond memories are of conversations by the bonfire, stargazing, floating down the river, and listening to music on performance nights and in the silo. During the residency and since, ACRE has impacted my career as an artist in numerous, far-reaching, positive ways, and my life continues to be richer for it.