Interview: Jason Middlebrook

by Wendy Vogel

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      Jason Middlebrook
      More Art about Buildings and Food
      2010
      Commissioned by Arthouse
      Courtesy of the artist

      Jason Middlebrook’s project, More Art About Buildings and Food, will be installed in the second-floor Sue Graze Gallery at Arthouse from October 27 through January 16. He spoke with …mbg in September about his installation, then in progress.

      …might be good [...mbg]: Can you explain the title of this work?

      Jason Middlebrook [JM]: It’s called More Art About Buildings and Food, a riff on the Talking Heads album title of the same name, More Songs About Buildings and Food from 1977.

      …mbg: Can you speak about your project at Arthouse in relation to your previous project at the University of California Riverside, Live Building?

      JM: It was a very similar approach, where we removed material from one building that was slated to be demolished to be part of a museum expansion. That project was different, though, because I brought artists with me and each artist contributed their own sculptural objects. Here, there’s a little bit more diverse material, and I also collaborated in the sense that Arthouse found people for me to work with: a tech from UT named Rick Mansfield who is wonderful, and Margot Sawyer, who I stayed with. There were principle figures that helped pull this off, including the Arthouse staff, two different glassblowers, and a lot of Austin restaurants that helped supply the bottles. These bottles will be the platters on the tables that will serve food.

      …mbg: Can you talk about the genesis of the project? Did you come up with an official proposal after seeing the building?

      JM: Yes. Arthouse flew me down here right at the beginning of demolition, even before demolition. When I met with the contractor we walked around the building and looked at what was going to be thrown away. We saw a lot of steel; we saw glass; we saw wood. We flagged certain things to save, and from those materials, the inspiration formed.

      The idea was that I would use old materials from Arthouse to look at the history of the building, the history of Texas, and this food thing developed out of it. I asked people for family recipes passed down, similar to the way that the building is kind of passed down. The building was a department store, then a movie theater, and then what happens is the material is used in a functional way to make these tables, to make these place settings. On November 20th, we’re going to have this massive potluck where we’re going to make a lot of these recipes.

      There’s 177 cutouts on the building’s façade, and that was the new architects' vision. All of the recipes I collected will be written in each one of the boxes I painted on the wallthere’s about 177 recipes to choose from. Conceptually, these blocks represent the history of this building. They’re cut out. They have been removed. The recipes act in the same way: the recipes of your family reflect the stories of your family.

      …mbg: I know that you have referenced Gordon Matta-Clark and Robert Smithson as artists who have inspired you. Do you think about the Arthouse building in terms of geological strata, or in relation to Gordon Matta-Clark’s anarchitecture? This architecture, like Matta-Clark’s projects, reveals slices of the different eras of the building.

      JM: I think that those two artists are always on the tip of my tongue. Smithson is my hero because he dealt with entropy and this constant state of flux this constant biological, geological compression, an evolution that’s happening. Gordon Matta-Clark was more interested in exposing the architecture, and then he had a restaurant called Food, too. Rirkrit Tiravanija couldn’t have done anything like that without him. He was just a brilliant artist. I think I’m paying homage to him all the time by acting like the building is an active organism, by trying to activate the past into the future. I’m not being so aggressive as to cut, but rather to re-use, and though I’m reluctant to say it, recycle. It’s kind of like giving the building a second chance and giving the material a second opportunity.

      Oftentimes you see the strategy of re-use in the third world. For example, you’ll see a three-legged chair with a replacement leg that’s made from a different material. We’d just throw it away in America because it doesn’t look cool, but in college you’d just fix it because you’re poor. So a lot of times, the economy has an effect on this whole sustainable movement.

      I definitely don’t have answers to any of these ecological problems; I’m just trying to provoke the questions. I think that’s what artists do. I’m definitely part of some sort of movement, but the last thing I want to be is a “green artist.” I’m just like a filtering system, and I want to look at it a little differently, and that’s a really slippery slope.

      …mbg: I read in an article that you distinguish between your studio practice, your site-specific practice, and, for example with the UC Riverside building, an ethics of social responsibility that engages the site differently than in projects like the one you created for the New Museum. How does the idea of social responsibility figure in this particular installation?

      JM: Elizabeth Dunbar and I started talking about this component of food as a vehicle to broaden Arthouse’s audience, because food is so universal. I’m always all about these tropes that break down the art world’s barriers of class and privilege and access. Part of the problem with being a gallery artist is that you end up just making art for rich people, and other artists sometimes. Then there are large public commissions, like what I’m doing for the GSA [Government Service Administration] right now. They’re pretty amazing. They’re the art and architecture program that commissions work for all federal buildings, and great artists have participated, like Sol Lewitt and Richard Serra. Tilted Arc was a GSA commission. So I have this opportunity to do this GSA commission, and it could be community-based, but probably it’s going to be site-specific large-scale sculpture.

      To answer your question, there are three distinctive paths I’m taking: I’m doing these architectural interventions; I’m still showing in galleries to make a living; and that middle path is a practice of site-specific commissions. I see a lot of younger artists working that way. You can’t just make a body of work for a gallery and expect to sustain a career or interest. That’s an old dying model.

      …mbg: Going back to the project, who will be invited to the dinner?

      JM: The dinner is open to the public. It’s going to be a blowout. We’re going to have three bands that only play from the record More Songs about Buildings and Food. They’re only allowed to do covers, and I’m really into covers, because essentially you “cover” yourself when you make art, whether you’re remaking an old piece or if you have a new idea that has the same type of strategy. When you hear covers, it’s always a different interpretation. That’s why I want to have bands that will play from that record, to keep it tight, keep it specific. There’s the music, there’s the recipes, there’s the furniture; I like to kind of control it, but also to leave it open-ended.

      …mbg: I’d like to ask you about your aesthetic, which could be contrasted to sculptural practices such as the ones that were shown in Unmonumental at the New Museum. That show was framed very much as this post-combine way to bring different forms together that would have a different kind of allegorical impact, and the pieces often had a messy, unkempt aesthetic. The sleek furniture or some of your other interventions operate quite differently on a visual level. Can you comment on that?

      JM: I think that comes back to my relationship with beauty. I’m excluded from shows often because I make pretty art, even if it’s garbage. I saw that show and there was a lot of ugly art. I think it always gets labeled as “cool” on an aesthetic level, regardless of its meaning. If I’m guilty of anything it’s making art too pretty. I love drawing; I love working with my hands; I love the craft of it. For me to make something that is potentially ugly with the same materials doesn’t make sense to me. The idea is to take something common and make it beautiful. Or to take nature and that is beautiful and re-filter it and make it ugly.

      …mbg: Will this project be documented in any sort of way?

      JM: We’re making a catalogue with Sarah Greene Reed, a local photographer who’s an artist. I think the most important thing for me is to get the dialogue out there through conversations with people…I aspire to be like Mark Dion. Mark Dion is brought to various sites to do these hypothetical digs. I would not complain at all if my career led me into this sort of traveling show. It’s the way I like to work, to go somewhere and do exploratory projects. Ultimately, the way it’s documented is the effect it has on the economy, on the community of Austin, and Arthouse, and artists—in other words, on the public.

      Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.

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