Other Investigations: Matt Austin

Matt Austin is a pretty prolific artist, educator, and organizer based in Chicago, IL. He is also the founder of The Perch, a creative platform for social exchange through collaborative programs and projects such as book publishing, symposium dinners, public programs, and so on. Matt collaborates with his equally prolific brother Jeff Austin (who we’ve worked with in the past) in several capacities including The Perch, where he serves as the Director of Education. For these straightforward features, I usually try to write the artist’s bio in my own voice, in order to give the content a more personal feel. But, Matt sent me such thoughtful writing about his practice and his work that I have to share it as he wrote it (quoted text is directly from the artist). Matt’s practice is exciting and inspiring because I feel personally aligned to the way he approaches his multidisciplinary practice. It seems that through every experience, whether art related or not, Matt strives to experiment with process, connect with people, and foster exchange in the most genuine way.

“Matt Austin is an artist and educator based in Chicago, IL. Matt tends to apply his approaches to art making in all facets of his life: working, teaching, getting older, having dinner, etc. Though his practices vary widely – from making photographs to publishing books, hosting dinners to building benches – his work remains focused on the importance of honesty and learning from others. Many of his creative projects are motivated by tragic experience and frequently engage the idea of learning to appreciate through embracing difficulty. Inspired by failure and often motivated by fear, he mostly demonstrates his enthusiasm for living by trying.”

"From Downtown (We Got This)" installtion by Matt Austin and Jeff Austin at MCA Chicago
“From Downtown (We Got This)” installtion by Matt Austin and Jeff Austin at MCA Chicago

This past summer, Matt, Jeff, and The Perch were featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago’s “Word Weekend” event. They participated in a small publishers book fair, presented Matt and Jeff’s collaborative artwork “From Downtown (We Got This),” and recreated Matt’s Perch Office from his recent residency at the Smart Museum. The Perch is in the process of publishing several book projects (check out the list on their website) and they were part of Medium Cool this summer. Most recently they hosted Jovencio de la Paz and Dan Paz for a short weeklong residency called BEGINNING WITH A MOVE-IN, A HUMBLE RETREAT FOR SEVEN ACTS WITHOUT AN AWARDS CEREMONY. Matt is working on lots of upcoming programming, make sure to keep up with The Perch this fall season!

On his practice:

“Since publishing my most recent book, The Shape of Spilled Milk, my practice has shifted greatly – from having primarily focused on making photographs for gallery exhibitions and book projects to taking on new approaches to writing, storytelling, and bookmaking. I’ve also been exploring more experimental ideas with my teaching practice, as well as trying to create more interesting and engaging platforms for others to express their ideas with one another.”

Recently, Matt has launched a “Custom-Order Perch Notebook” initiative at The Perch, where the customer describes an experience or feeling that they would like recreated through the experience of a notebook. The Perch responds to their request through the book’s design. The notebooks are hardcover, roughly 5.25” x 7” and include 128 blank pages for the customer to fill.

This initiative is not only about creating custom notebooks but about a more thoughtful gesture at understanding each other. Matt elaborates, “The notebook will end up existing as an example of effort put forth to understand one another. Also, as a sort of ‘thank you for inspiring’ gesture, we’ll be gifting this opportunity out to one new person per month for free, to feature them, their description, and our collaborative notebook.” He sent us an excerpt from a recent order: “For Mike, it should feel like someone charging towards a group of mountains (maybe the Grand Tetons, or Cascades) or running full-on into the ocean without checking to see if the water is freezing cold or not.”

On the history of The Perch:

“The Perch is a project I created in 2012, it will actually be exactly 2 years old on October 27! Initially, the project was inspired by one of my best friends (and past roommates) – Victor Yañez-Lazcano, and the dinners he would host in our apartment – I wanted to create a similar atmosphere to a warm dinner party, but also carry that kind of intimacy and warmth into a variety of learning opportunities. The Perch first started as exactly that, a dinner party venue that openly advertised its interest in the guests learning from one another. I wanted The Perch to be a place where people could feel not only comfortable with their participation in something that required sharing their thoughts, but also empowered and excited by their own contribution, and to be able to see the visible impact of their presence. For every dinner event, we ask that with their RSVP of wine preference and dietary restrictions, the guest agrees to be prepared to respond to a prompt that will centralize the dinner conversation that night. By the end of the night, they’re also expected to engrave whatever they want into the bench that they sit on.”

On education and access:

Matt teaches art courses to high school students and younger, and as an educator for nearly 8 years, a consistent topic in his classroom is identifying and defining the source(s) that make an individual reluctant to exchange. He expands, “In both the classroom situations and in the projects with The Perch, I try to create an opportunity for a person to leave their apprehensions at the door and indulge in the capacity of their own presence in a room with other people. As The Perch has grown internally and in the number of affiliates that have been involved, I’ve realized that much of the project’s motivation comes from my experiences with formal education throughout the course of my life. After having completed my undergraduate degree at a well-recognized arts college and witnessed many of my students graduate high school and enter into that same path, I’ve become increasingly interested in alternative options in education that don’t involve a heavy amount of guilt or pressure (or debt, depending on your background). For my students and any other person that doesn’t have the option to experience education in any other way, I want to create that opportunity through The Perch’s efforts.”

At the moment, The Perch creates access through several initiatives: Through book publishing, they award a completion-dependent scholarship, where The Perch pays for materials and teaches an artist how to hand-make the edition, the artist completes their book, and 100% of all book sales go to the artist. They also host dinner symposia with complimentary food and drink in exchange for participation in discussions. In addition to coordinating public programs with institutions like the Smart Museum and the MCA Chicago, they have a partnership with ACRE Residency where they work with artists to redefine the value of an exhibition through the use of The Perch’s space and abilities. Lastly, they will soon offer free courses taught by and for the interested and engaged individuals within their community.