Interview: Subtext Projects
by Claire Ruud
It’s refreshing to see the newly-minted Subtext Projects pop up around Dallas, an area well known for its inhospitable ecology when it comes to emerging artists and alternative spaces. Subtext, a collective of young curators and writers based in the Metroplex, caught my eye this summer with their first project, Everything Must Go. Curated by two of the three founding members, Alison Hearst and Erin Starr White (the third is Stephanie Ball Piwetz), Everything Must Go transformed Fort Worth Contemporary Arts into a storefront window display. The exhibition and an accompanying screening brought together work by artists who, in one way or another, engage with the idiom of marketing. Recently, I caught up with Hearst and White to hear about Subtext.
…might be good (mbg): Tell me about the impetus behind founding Subtext Projects.
Subtext Projects (SP): We saw a need for a dynamic, evolving organization to work outside of the institutional framework of the area’s gallery and museum scene. Our work together as Subtext Projects really gained momentum when Gavin Morrison from Fort Worth Contemporary Arts approached us about coming together during the summer to use the gallery for an exhibition. Once we began to discuss the possibilities for this collaboration, the two of us soon realized that we had been independently conceiving parallel projects and ideas—thinking of finding exhibition spaces, hosting renegade art exhibitions, sparking a dialogue in the area that was conspicuously absent. It seemed natural that we work together as a group to exchange ideas and formulate these projects.
We recognized that, while the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex has many art institutions, there is a dearth of collective, grassroots organizations and alternative spaces that successfully energize many other cities. We feel that this area has a wealth of serious, dedicated artists making quality work. It is our aim to create a space for their work to be seen alongside that of artists from across the country and the world. We believe that it is important for us to collaborate with area artists, bringing them into the group as joint curators, for instance. So far, the blending of work from local artists with artists from around the world has been successful in leveling the playing field, so to speak. Once the constraints of focusing on “regional” or “international” work are lifted, really interesting juxtapositions and conversations are launched.
mbg: On your website, you call Subtext “a democratic group.” Practically, how is the group organized?
SP: The members of Subtext Projects ebb and flow; there are the core three of us, plus guest curators and artists. Once the team has been set for a specific show, the members have equal voice in the project and are invited to contribute ideas relating to every aspect of the curatorial process. Ideally, this structure supports the free exchange of ideas amongst members and visiting members, and allows the group to function as an integral component of our area’s art community by utilizing the brilliant minds and talents of artists and art historians in our own backyard!
mbg: As you developed the mission and structure for Subtext, what historical or contemporary models were you looking at?
SP: In fashioning the framework for the group, we looked at contemporary collective models, such as Orchard in New York and Curating Degree Zero. Although we compared notes, so to say, with such collectives, our structure really developed organically from the perceived needs our community. It is paramount that our group enfranchises a range of views and approaches; this is something we attain by opening membership to a diversity of voices.
mbg: How did you develop your first project, Everything Must Go?
SP: We were given use of the gallery with the understanding that viewers would be barred from physically entering the space. As the gallery is affiliated with the University, they do not staff gallery attendants during the summer months. We immediately began to think about the implications of this format—for the viewer, the work, and the interaction between the two. From the outset, it was amusing and appropriate to exploit and work with the stipulations we were given.
As our planning for the exhibition took shape, a more nuanced view of this set-up developed. Fort Worth Contemporary Arts occupies a formerly commercial space in a mini-strip shopping center. This history became an added layer to what we started to see as subterfuge. By this we mean that, as we installed work, passers by took heed and began to scope out what we were doing; they thought we were having a sale! This was especially true during the installation of Chu Yun’s Unspeakable Happiness. We even had to turn a few people away. Ultimately, through the project, we wanted to explore the many facets of contemporary consumerism in our culture, as well as its ties to contemporary art. By featuring a semi-plausible site of commerce, a successful questioning of purchasing behavior and consumer expectation came about.
mbg: For me, Everything Must Go draws up a variety of associations, from the contemporary gallery system, to Claes Oldenburg’s The Store, to Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s Prada Marfa. What were your reference points for the project?
SP: Oldenburg’s model was certainly a part of our mind-set as we located and approached artists about the inclusion of their work. We also thought a lot about the shift during Andy Warhol’s career in the late 1950s, when he purposefully and definitively made the switch from being a graphic artist to a fine artist. His Bonwit Teller department store-window displays foreshadow Warhol’s later mining of consumer culture in his now ubiquitous artworks featuring commonplace goods, such as Campbell’s Soup and Brillo boxes.
But Warhol was very clear that the work he made after his declaration that he would now be an artist was to be given different consideration altogether. It served an alternative function to selling mass-produced, mass-consumed objects. Or did it? We were curious as to how work made in our postmodern climate fares when compared to advertising and commerce. Who makes such divisions and how does the placement of work in a window display alter its message? How does a work’s context deliver itself to the viewer, and how does the relationship between the two change, especially when the storefront is not a true, working storefront? There’s a palpable sense of rarification that occurs once the work is placed behind a glass divider; it was a bit shocking how the feel of the art changed. It was quite illustrative of contemporary modes of viewing objects of consumption.
Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s Prada Marfa is an interesting comparison; it also presents desirable commodities—shoes, in this case—that are unobtainable to the viewer in the closed, unoccupied “Prada” storefront. While certainly commenting on the gentrification of Marfa, it blurs the lines between sculpture, commercial display and advertising, which was a key interest of ours in forming Everything Must Go. Prada Marfa mingles the status-indicating effects of collecting and desiring luxury shoes and artworks through this type of display. The storefront pulls one in, almost as if a mirage within the desert. Our aim was to highlight the links between the storefront and the gallery space, with special attention to the mechanics of desire that operate within both realms.
mbg: Okay Mountain is planning an installation for Pulse that mimics the typical Texas convenience store. While your project references (somewhat) higher-end sales displays, I’m wondering whether you think there’s something about this moment that makes explorations of the commercial space particularly timely.
SP: Certainly the diffusion of opportunities to peruse and buy just about anything in every combination—be it on the Web where one can purchase everything under the sun, or the local shopping mall where a diamond watch and a salted pretzel are consumed as part of a weekend’s work—has promoted a sort of confusion regarding where we need to invest our attention. This glut of options, rather than opening a cornucopia of possibility, seems to do the opposite by boring us with material goods. When just about anything is readily available, acquiring becomes an empty gesture. So perhaps this is part of the reason that the system of rampant consumerism as diversion is being addressed. The seduction of an object lessens once it is yours—but the urge to own it is always there. We see artists really tapping into the vacuity and absurdity of such a vicious cycle. In mining this fertile territory, which may seem almost too easy, some truly provocative and edifying points are being made. There is undoubtedly not a dearth of material to investigate here, either.
mbg: What’s the next project you have in the works?
SP: While we are focusing on new exhibitions and creating proposals for local and statewide spaces, we are also keen to seek out other collective groups with which to collaborate. We are also currently developing film screenings, conducting artist interviews for our website, staging small renegade exhibitions, and hosting thematic talks and lectures for the Dallas/Fort Worth community.
Claire Ruud is Editor of ...might be good.