Interview: PODA Artists at Discovery Green
by Wendy Vogel
Sponsored by the Houston Arts Alliance, the American Association of Museums, PODS Houston and Discovery Green, the Portable on Demand Art Project (P.O.D.A.) challenged eight local artists and art collectives in Houston to create artworks that would be housed within a PODS storage container in public spaces around Houston. The first leg of the PODS’ journey was at downtown park Discovery Green from May 19th to June 5th. The results were as varied as the artists’ practices.
Aerosol Warfare created a graffiti art mural and materials for tagging, METALAB concocted a three-dimensional puzzle as playspace, Anthony Thompson Shumate turned his PODS container into an immersive shower of light, and the artists of BOX 13 ArtSpace dreamed up a fictional museum based around the Wunderkammer called “Box of Curiosities.” Lynne McCabe created an immersive video based on interviews with local Houstonians and housed it in a PODS container filled with boxes. Artists whose works extended outside the PODS included Gabriel Martinez’ bench sculptures crafted from a disassembled PODS container, The Joanna’s transformation of their PODS unit into an open stage for performances, and Jillian Conrad’s POD-as-diorama, where the interior was viewable only through small portals on the PODS exterior.
Below is an email Q&A I conducted with the artists. If you missed the PODS at Discovery Green, keep your eyes peeled to Houston Arts Alliance’s website for details about their next location. The PODA projects will be on view until the end of 2011.
…might be good […mbg]: PODS units are generic, provisional storage structures that are typically considered part of the domestic sphere. Reappropriating the PODS to serve as individual "galleries" or display spaces for artwork is an unusual idea for a public art project. Can you share what qualities of working with PODS drew you to the project? What did you find challenging about working with and in them?
AEROSOL WARFARE [AW]: The idea of having a portable gallery space available to the public was a great motivation to jump on board with this project. As urban artists we thrive on any large-scale canvas we can use to bring our art to the public. The challenges included creating artwork that would give the PODA a sense of depth, shape and life beyond its flat surfaces. And working inside of the PODS during the day was like being in an art sweat lodge.
BOX 13 (Elaine Bradford): I personally love the challenge of installation work in which you have to build something to fit within a certain space instead of just making objects that will hang on walls or sit on the floor. I love to create environments that viewers can experience on different levels, so the PODA project was perfect for all of these reasons. Since BOX 13 ArtSpace was working as a group, and we have 14 artists with different working styles, it was of course a challenge to get everyone organized and figure out who was doing what. Working in such a small space was an extra challenge, but a small group of BOX 13 members came up with the amazing concept of the Box of Curiosities. Creating a tiny museum inside the PODS container really enabled everyone to contribute in their own way.
JILLIAN CONRAD [JC]: I really liked the utilitarian nature of the PODS. I'm drawn to everyday materials, especially generic construction materials, so this was an ideal starting point for me. I knew I wanted to create a light-based installation and turning the POD into a giant diorama allowed me to create specific, controlled views of a world inside the container.
THE JOANNA [TJ]: The Joanna is a domestic space turned exhibition space, so the transition to a PODS brand container wasn't too much of a stretch for our regular programming. The PODS being a much smaller venue was what made the decision-making process difficult. In the end, we decided the space was best used as a performance space, as opposed to a space for showin’ stuff.
GABRIEL MARTINEZ [GM]: I was drawn to the overlap of the the private, semi-private and public spaces involved in the show. As an artist, I participate in the maintenance of these terms as distinct categories, but I’m not sure they’re actually different anymore. Public art has varied cultural, legal and financial implications which seem to disappear if not addressed. I find the linguistic strategies of framing the spaces and ideas challenging. A good place to start was thinking of how the spectator is constituted by the language of public art— the ways that words like “community” or “public” can be invoked and by whom.
LYNNE McCABE [LM]: I was conceptually drawn to the PODS because it seemed like an apt space to continue to investigate concerns in my work relating to public and private space, domestic labor, currency and exchange. In this piece, I am interested in the totemic nature that our material belongings take on in this age of nomadism, forced migration and familial distance created by a global capitalist economy — an economy that over the last century has produced a need for transient and migratory labor, that in turn has given rise to a need for an object like the PODS.
METALAB [ML]: At first we thought of filling the entire PODS container with stuff from floor to ceiling, as many units probably are in the corporate warehouse. Instead of heaping one's unwanted things inside, we decided we would design a method to unpack and repack the objects as a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. When we realized that idea was cost-prohibitive, we scaled back to a few removable puzzle pieces that would become lawn toys and furniture.
…mbg: I've noticed that the PODA projects fall roughly into two categories: those that treat the PODS as immersive environments and those that play with the boundary between the interior "private" space (the PODS) and the exterior "public" space (Discovery Green). How does your project consider the relationship between those two spaces?
AW: We wanted our PODA to work on several levels. We first addressed the outer walls by creating traditional graffiti art in a vibrant array of colors. Our goal was to bring a visual pop to the Discovery Green landscape. From a distance, it is visible and intriguing. Upon closer inspection, the different elements begin to identify themselves. The interior is interactive. We provide the tools and space to give the everyday person an opportunity to be a graffiti writer. Leaving your mark is human nature, and we think deep down inside, everyone wants to leave his or her mark and write on walls.
BOX 13 (Tudor Mitroi): I feel that the "Box of Curiosities" leans toward the "immersive environment" category. In our case, the fully open door of the PODS container and the fact that the Box it is purportedly a collection of objects belonging to human history and natural history also creates a relationship with the outside environment, like seeing the contents of a museum from the outside.
JC: I liked the idea of creating an environment that is only partially on view from any single vantage point. The small viewing portals also do something to perceived scale, seeming to enlarge some things and shrink others. I think the process of knitting the images together in one's mind, of trying to make sense of the whole without being able to actually enter the space, is exciting because the environment always remains just out of reach.
TJ: We decided to keep our PODA open by means of tearing a wall down and allowing the public access 24/7. Our goal was to create a democratic space available for use between the scheduled performances.
GM: I didn't want to turn a blind eye to the tacit issues of mobility and access inherent in a public art show, especially when I factored in the particular conditions of Discovery Green and the PODS. the idea of securing the artwork— locking it up to protect it from a potentially hostile public— drove me to make something that could be stolen or destroyed or used or ignored. I wanted to make something that “considered the relationship between those two [public and private] spaces” by sharing one of those spaces with strangers who need not engage with it on my terms. Disassembling the “gallery or display space of artworks” and making benches from the pieces was my attempt at raising some of these issues.
LM: For the last number of years, I have been exploring through my work the space created when the art world and the domestic are called into conversation with one another. It struck me that this project, sited in a container for transition, offered an opportunity to further explore this liminal space. One of my main concerns with this project has been how to make the PODS, an object that is made solely for containing private objects, public and permeable. Intending to address this contradiction, I created an audio archive of the project that exists separate from the PODA container and can be accessed, for free, via cell phone. (To hear Moving Stories, call 713-481-9538.)
ML: "PLAY" was a theme that we returned to throughout the project with our students as a way to engage children and adults in the park and in the PODS container. The use of interactivity without being overly prescriptive was our goal when programming the space. The puzzles pieces don't make a recognizable figure when assembled and don't make very comfortable furniture. The "xylophone" wall inside the PODS container doesn't play a tune very well but still invites curious interaction and is visually expressive on its own. The word "PLAY" inscribed in the exterior wall panels may be legible to some visitors, but not all.
ANTHONY THOMPSON SHUMATE [AS]: When I was approached with creating a project, I kept thinking of the annexed crate spaces in Miami during the first Art Basel Fair in 2001.
I was interested in working in a space that was prefabricated and open for interpretation. It was a blank but defined space. From there, when I thought of the project, I wondered how to think of it as an installation space that could travel. It was only when I met the other artists and discussed what they were working on that the exterior of the space would become an obstacle to cope with— definitely a shift in my paradigm. My work inherently attempts to control all aspects of the viewer experience so my only option was to deal with the interior of the POD in an immersive way.
…mbg: From an artist's perspective, what do you think makes a public art project a success?
AW: A great public art project contains elements that engage the everyday viewer. When you make people stop and break away from their daily routine to interact with art, be it physically or mentally, then the project has been successful!
BOX 13 (Michael Henderson): Whether it succeeds as art is of course a huge question, but I think public art needs to: 1) be situated in an environment that is open to the public, 2) use the environment as a context that contributes to the meaning and purpose of the work, and 3) provide the public something to look at and think about.
JC: This is a very difficult question to answer, but I can say I've learned a lot about the gap between what I think the work is about and how people actually interact with it. During construction, I was moving back and forth from inside of the POD to the outside, trying to see how the piece changed through the viewing portals. My able assistants, Jack Eriksson and Francis Giampietro, were essential in helping me fine-tune this aspect.
TJ: It’s successful when it doesn't look or feel like public art. We all know what that means, I think.
GM: I have a love/hate relationship with public art. I love to hate it. It’s not really public, and it’s not really art. At its worst, public art seems to be a lamentation of something that was never really there in the first place. Most often it is used for other means: to make someone look good or to cover over something. The problems that public art faces before it’s even installed is what interests me. It might be the inherent failure in embarking on a work of public art that makes it infinitely demanding. I don’t know if success is the right word, but I think art that makes one examine their own opinions is on the right track.
ML: Public art is a success when there are multiple narratives at work. If a commissioning agency or artist sets out to make something "fun" or "conceptually engaging," it's usually a failure. It’s more interesting when the real intention is masked as something else: for example, a public waterworks infrastructure that happens to become an outdoor shower when a hand pump is activated or a fabricated tree that becomes an evaporative cooling tower on a hot day. These are some projects on which we've worked with Matthew Geller that, in our opinion, were successful as public art.
AS: The openness for viewers is the most important part of the process. Traditional public art has had to be more concerned with the long lifespan of the work and the universality of the message. The PODA projects allowed more of a middle ground between gallery-style work and public art. In terms of public art, these works are very temporary, and this aspect of the project allowed us to explore and create things that would not normally last for years in a demanding outdoor environment.
Wendy Vogel is Editor of ...might be good.