Vignettes has a major crush on Georgetown based contemporary art gallery The Alice. It is run by four brilliant individuals, two of the most recent additions to their curatorial team are video artist, curator Molly Mac and architect, designer & photographer S. Surface. We asked them to join in on our Curator’s Corner series and these are the words and insight they shared!
Molly Mac: Hello! Just left The Alice… and it smells like old beer and overripe flowers.
S. Surface: That’s hot.
MM: not NOT hot.
SS: Right? Right.
MM: Sitting with this is not NOT a peep show is interesting in context of everything else: intense political climate and nonsense going on right now in the RNC media.
SS: I hesitate to call any of it nonsense. It is completely sensible. It is a manifestation of our economic and social systems working exactly as they are designed to work. It scares me when people dismiss this behaviour as nonsense rather than the most logical possible outcome.
MM: I agree… I totally used the word nonsense to breeze over stronger feelings.
SS: I love that we can intersperse these conversations as embedded dialogues within our curatorial process. And surround ourselves with art that makes this happen!
MM: Yes. I especially appreciate the curatorial conversations that push back and remind me that I don’t need to tiptoe with polite language.
SS: I’m a Sagittarius, which apparently means I blithely steamroll into the rude on a regular basis. You have experienced the kinds of programs I’ve suggested at The Alice: things that would horrify a lot of people. Like hosting the event “Is it rude if I ask how you pay the rent?” – our internal conversation about our gallery’s finances in front of, and in dialogue with, a public audience. And you are all so game for it. That is another thing I love about you and Julie Alexander and Julia Freeman. It’s a major support system and we trust each other. We work through stuff where there isn’t instant organic agreement.
MM: I loved that public internal financial conversation. And more generally, I appreciate how we are four curators with different art trainings, tastes and assumptions and those differences bounce off of each other. The way we balance that with more urgent desires to support art demanding change on its own terms, is really cool. I’m learning a ton, rethinking a lot. I also feel like the sense of humor is key with our group. It gets really serious and then interspersed with awkward body comedy.
SS: It’s essential. Also, the meals. You can’t dine together unless you’re willing to evoke bodily functions. We’re all working through body-based things in our own ways. For some of us (me?) race and gender-delinquency are very much part of that… others it’s parenthood, internal organs, and drinking a ton of coffee…
MM: Yes – too much coffee. And I think a lot about bodies (my body?) in time. How awkward and violent it is that we learn to understand our bodies, emotions and social interactions within a capitalist sense of time. There is something about “the rot” of The Alice that implies a critical bodily pause in the middle of an unresolved (unresolvable?) thing. And then I always kind of think that rot feels like the wrong word because it implies decay… but maybe on the positive it is more like fermentation? In keeping with these bodily terms, I totally appreciate the way that your show Legal Tender did the work of complicating the relationship between romance and finance.
SS: I think about how rotten things can be either integrated in a healthy way (compost and renewal) or excised and burned (surgery).
MM: That’s like a poem. (compost vs surgery)
SS: I have been loving how you push the writing component of the project – turning The Alice ourselves (ourself?) into writers, as much as commissioning and inviting writers orbiting the collective.
MM: I enjoy the way The Alice encourages writing about art, writing around art and writing through art for sure – this has always been a very important thing to me as an artist. I like being able to encourage an environment that blurs the boundaries of those disciplines.
MM: I also just love the writers we get to work with at The Alice – super generous with their time. They totally play with us.
SS: And they’re also all really good writers. We are good at picking people who are combinations of strong artists and contributors, and fantastic humans. I’ve never met anyone involved with The Alice (collective members, artists we’ve shown, writers, even everyone’s dates, partners, kids or friends) and thought, “Wow, what a fool.”
SS: Now I’m just expelling a list of all the things I love about you all. But something that has struck me – not that I’m surprised, but it is always surprising to be treated with so much love and respect, somehow – is the amount of supportiveness within. It’s not like we are perfect (the unanswered email is a thing and I am especially implicated there) but generally, we are good to each other.
SS: For example, when there was no way I could get my show up by the intended date, and there was NO admonishment from any of you. Just 100% support, “We’ve got you covered,” help with installing, and Julia viewing it as an opportunity to host Meg Hartwig’s construction performance during the interim week. That completely blew me away. Instead of scolding me for missing a deadline, you all not only supported me in setting that boundary for my own health and for the quality of the show, but also seized an additional opportunity for yourselves. That gave me the emotional support to bang out Processing and Legal Tender, of which I’m super proud. Disability justice in action.
MM: I agree, there is a community drawn together within and around The Alice and our approach that thinks about the relationships of power and ego and community in meaningful ways. Running a gallery, there could be so many things to get hung up on and frustrated by, but it’s more like: What can we do together and be present for in a healthy way? What kind of conversations can we start? How do we support artists to have conversations they want to have on the artists’ own terms? I am always interested in conversations from outside the Alice that ask professionalizing questions about how The Alice will grow or sustain or establish itself further. As I see it, what it is, as it is, is the point.
MM: That said, what is it in November? If you can even fathom November through the amount of work you have for the Seattle Design Festival.
SS: We haven’t discussed this yet! So it’s completely up in the air. But I’m specifically hoping to present work that deals with incarceration and liberation; that straightforwardly addresses the relationship of the aforementioned to reproductive justice, labor, and handicraft. I can say that I love The Alice for providing opportunities to test what exhibits are capable of accomplishing. My own ambition is to curate shows that not only function on their own terms (you don’t need any explanatory text to get something out of being there) but whenever possible to make each exhibit work on multiple levels within our community, particularly when upstart galleries like ours are so often received as bellwethers of gentrification. How can exhibitions grow and sustain our communities and our neighbors? How can we max out what we get from putting resources into this space, to basically build ourselves and our neighbors a BOGO deal? If we are strategic, we could get a good art exhibition… PLUS some other stuff! Relationships with community? Better urban policy? Keeping Seattle art and artists in dialogue with the total art world? Letting artists do their thing in their own ways and trusting their Project Diana contributions? Whatever! Best of all: we don’t pressure every show to work that way. (Sometimes it can feel like fulfilling the greatest possible potential and making the most of opportunity, other times like a burden loading on more than a lil’ exhibit can or should bear). But it can happen when it makes sense and feels right. It’s been great to go back and forth between our textural, material-focused shows and events, and ones that are explicitly topical.
SS: Speaking of which, I’m very interested in the work that you were doing when I met you, with people who are incarcerated in Purdy. Can you tell me more about your past and present practice? What are YOU planning for October? Your show “i wasn’t just saying what you wanted to hear…” transformed the physical space of The Alice in a way that none of the other shows have done before or since.
MM: First, I have to say I’m inspired by that list of hypothetical questions you just asked about exhibitions and ideas and community. They all come back to implicate viewers, makers, curators and and to put their politics on the spot – but you match that with a desire to keep up a sense of humor, beauty and play while you do it. Lots of layers to this work.
MM: To answer your question about past and present practice- I’ve been in a lot of different contexts and applied my creative practice to a lot of different kinds of projects. I definitely spent a long time as an academic artist/artist academic studying at and sometimes teaching in several institutions. NYU (English, Sociology), UW (Printmaking), Hunter College MFA (Combined Media Art), DXarts… Regardless of medium, I am always committed to a critique of media rhetoric patterns and an interruption of a “rational” capitalist understanding of time that lacks empathy and awareness for the bodies that are trying to keep up with it. To that end, I’m always interested in facilitating non-linear art experiences – via installation, performance curating and creative education. One strategy is to choreograph environments where a reader or viewer or listener encounters simultaneous narratives. “i wasn’t just saying what you wanted to hear…” was all about that. 5 works were positioned like 5 characters in the gallery, literally having conversations with viewers (most even addressed the viewer directly as “you”), but also having conversations with each other.
MM: The October show at The Alice will be an exhibition series with six performance artists, writers and comedians. I am interested in the difference between soliloquy (spoken to self regardless of anyone being there to hear it) and monologue (taking up space in a group setting with a prolonged personal address). I’m hoping this series will be a particularly poignant platform in opposition to media rhetoric leading up to the 2016 election.
MM: Last thing! The work you mentioned with people incarcerated at Washington Corrections Center for Women was an ongoing creative consulting project with Lillian Hewko: a good friend, badass attorney and abolition activist working to keep families and communities facing incarceration intact. We were thinking about how even “well-intentioned” media coverage often fuels stigmatization of incarcerated parents, and we were brainstorming for ways to support ongoing media education programs that might offer incarcerated people a platform to express and edit themselves on their own terms (rather than in support of specific legislation or to illustrate a predetermined documentary narrative).
SS: So, I’m into self-critique by institutions who own their flaws and actively make them transparent. It’s a form of magic or alchemy: setting an intention to make the changes required by the critique. Let’s go there. What challenges you as a curator with The Alice?
SS: I think a lot about the fact that our space is not wheelchair accessible. An upper-story walkup is where we are: we can afford it, and I love the community within the building and neighborhood. But I would love to one day have a fully accessible space where we can welcome everyone. We have attempted to make our programs physically and geographically accessible via remote access and teleconferencing. But there are artists with disabilities I’d love to exhibit, who wouldn’t be able to get upstairs to install or attend their own opening receptions. How do you welcome someone into that constraint? We do exhibit geographically dispersed artists all the time, who ship their work to Seattle but can’t physically attend. Yet this feels different. Then, there’s money. I dream of eventually compensating ourselves, and every artist who shows at The Alice, whether or not their work sells. Especially the ones who make new work to exhibit with us. Finally, there are the known real estate implications of art galleries opening in neighborhoods. Somehow these all distill down to money, resources, access. OK, that’s it for me.
MM: Transparency is the first step yes, though it doesn’t deserve applause in itself. I’m eager to see more institutions holding themselves accountable to act on the flaws they recognize. Personally, I feel like The Alice can and should be accountable to the issues of accessibility and compensation. It would take a different kind of urgency, investment and imagination from all of us to address these things… but practically it would mean relocation, boundary-setting and a more radical and creative approach to resources. Maybe an additional use of our time to help connect artists with funded institutions that can support their work? Why is the 50/50 split (which the Alice adopts) a given art world standard that gives the gallery the power to pay the artists? If we don’t pay an artist fee up front, what would happen if we considered artists in the position to pay galleries what they determine is fair? And, do we need deadlines to hold ourselves to addressing this stuff?
SS: Right. If nothing else, it’s worth testing out many ways of doing things. I like that approach of seeing how it goes based on empirical results, asking: “What’s the worst that could happen if we tried this new thing once?” Especially at the stage and scale we are in right now.
MM: Can you tell me your story about how you got involved with the Alice?
SS: I’ve been going to their shows since they opened on Valentine’s Day 2015 and got to know the co-founders Julia and Julie through chatting with them. Back in NYC, when I was curating as Generis Projects, I exhibited Nicholas Nyland, who’s also shown at The Alice. We bonded over sharing an artist! And Julie is a huge fan of the painter Yevgeniya Baras, who I knew from NYC and her collective gallery Regina Rex. Being an independent curator was fun and rewarding but difficult. It always required a community of people helping with the logistics, as this work is impossible alone. I was interested in the structures of the artist-run collectives, collaboratives and other experimental or hybrid project spaces I frequented – like Essex Street, Regina Rex, Harbor, Company, Penelope, TSA, Underdonk, Transmitter, Signal, 99 Cents Plus / Handjob, Kimberly Klark, Cleopatra’s, Blonde Art Books, Jonald Dudd, Silent Barn, Vanity Projects, P!, Essex Flowers, Beverly’s, Trans Pecos, 247365, Helper. There was so much social and intellectual support in the communities they created around them, some of which happened to overlap with you and Julie. They’re bigger and smaller groups of people who choose to work with each other because they admire each other’s approach. It’s the vibe of forming a band versus that of getting assigned to serve on a task force or project team in a corporate setting, you know? At some point, I told Julie and Julia if they ever wanted additional people to join up I’d be interested. When the time came that they did want additional people, they asked me. Now here I am – we took the chance. Pretty simple!
MM: Forming a band is a great way to put it. I also remember a late night after an Alice opening at 9lb Hammer daydreaming about our first Alice album title, Screaming Diarrhea… <3 <3 <3 Next step is to get Julia and Julie to join us and get bowl cuts.
MM: When I was in NYC I was very interested in the artist-run spaces you mentioned as well. I moved to Seattle in 2011 and had a hard time finding a creative community (which is my own awkward fault – not Seattle’s fault!). I got involved in The Alice because I was a big fan of what The Alice was doing, and then Julia invited me to “join the band” in a more official capacity in late 2015. (Full disclosure: Julia is one of my best friends and we met while catering weddings and corporate events at the Ravishing Radish). In February “i wasn’t just saying what you wanted to hear…” was my first time in an official curatorial role – but I had been doing installation, collaborative performance work and organizing events for a long time – so it was kind of a natural extension of what I was already doing.
MM: I do have to say that we were all eager to ask you to join as the 4th Alice, but we also really expected you to be too busy with your work and speaking and teaching and and… now Seattle Arts Commission! When you said yes to joining us we were really excited to get to know you but also excited that The Alice was an effort you wanted to be a part of in relation to all those things (lesson learned: just ask the people whose work you admire to play with you!) I am continually inspired by the breadth of projects you take on and how you hold your politics and spirit through all of them. Julie and Julia do this too – teaching, administration, advising… it’s awesome.
MM: Speaking of that breadth, we can’t do this whole conversation without me saying a big congrats on your new (very official!) appointment to the Arts Commission! But congrats aside, I’m interested in how you developed your community-building approach and where you learned your skills as an organizer. Can you tell me more about your relationship to punk and DIY music scenes in the Pacific Northwest?
SS: The 90s punk and hardcore scenes between Seattle and Portland grounded me as an artist and organizer, definitely – the DIY ethos that you don’t need to wait for permission or money to get things done. When I started going to shows on my own in the mid 1990s, I loved music but hardly knew anyone. I started photographing shows as a reasonable excuse to be up front while hiding behind a task. This was obviously before the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras and digital cameras, so people noticed the SLR and flash. Bands started asking for prints and scans, so that’s how I got to know everyone. In 1999-2000, when I was 17-18, I was one of the co-organizers of the first Ladyfest in Olympia, which was as much about visual and performing art and skill shares as music. That was probably my first proper curatorial and collaborative endeavor – I described it for the Riot Grrrl Census. Most recently, I exhibited drummer and vocalist Hozoji Matheson-Margullis of Seattle bands Lozen and Helms Alee for her first visual art installation, which took place as part of the Spaceworks Tacoma storefront program. She selected song lyrics from each band and let me typeset them into visual arrangements that were printed in vinyl lettering and installed alongside the work of photographers Michael Vahrenwald and Evan Soto (Evan is married to the high school friend who got me into hardcore.) There are tons more artist-musicians I’d love to exhibit or collaborate with someday through The Alice, and also as a designer. Our work with The Alice and how we all relate feels like a natural growth from those beginnings.
SS: This got pretty long! Is there anything else you want to mention before we stop?
MM: I feel like we could go and go, which bodes well for 2017 🙂 Thanks for sharing so much and thanks Vignettes for giving us this chance to chat – looking forward to continuing all these conversations <3