Thursday, September 23, 2010

Of, By, and For

If you’re planning a visit to the Boston area between now and November 19th, do yourself a favor and check out Of, By, and For: New Work by Dainel Peltz and Paul Notzold, presented by the Cambridge Arts Council in collaboration with independent curator, Liz K. Sheehan. By way of full disclosure I should note here that Paul Notzold is a friend of mine and I’ve been following his work, collaborating with and assisting him for several years. We’ve worked all over the country together, even campaigning for Barack Obama in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania during the final days of the 2008 election. Equipped with laptop, digital projector, and the text messages of accidental accomplices, Notzold’s ongoing TXTual Healing, has brought him around the world and back to Brooklyn.

Very simply put, Paul’s work cannot be put very simply. When you stumble upon “a Paul Notzold,” it’s usually not in a gallery or coffee table book, unless you’ve visited Of, By, and For or flipped through Street Art and the War On Terror. I suppose this condition isn’t exceptional considering other works from the monumentally famous, like the work of Christo and Jeanne Claude, to the nearly invisible, like all of the street art we ignore every single day. But you’d have a hard time seeing Notzold’s work during daylight hours at all if not for this exhibition and aforementioned book or the forthcoming Trespass: A History of Uncommissioned Urban Art. Due to the ubiquity of the digital projector in Notzold’s work, a very low level of light is required to actually see a particular piece. Additionally, the inexpressible quality of nighttime and the element of surprise combine to absorb people’s attention, as Paul says, “when they come into a situation with a preconceived idea and then are met with something else that they don't know how to define.”

More importantly, upon initially happening upon this work, the viewer is invited to become a participant, one of many, in the accidental transportation from the world of potential and theory to the world of kinetic and practice. This act of participation immediately transcends the interaction, or lack thereof, we have with the art world every day. Unlike passively walking through an arched doorway, viewing a painting, hearing a song, etc., when an individual unwittingly makes the leap from zero to artist literally in seconds, he or she becomes an author of a soldier’s monologue, graffiti, hip hop, the thoughts of a woman engaging in sexual intercourse or, in the case of this work, the United States Constitution. Far from merely providing a massive, public-space message board, Notzold sees his environments as a stage upon which his intervention provides context by working with the surrounding architecture and utilizing some relevant content to create truly unique work.

SS: Tell me a little bit about your work in Of, By and For.

PN: The show, Of, By and For curated by Liz Sheehan, is about site specific public art/design, and in this case Cambridge was the site Daniel Peltz and I were working with. The work I did for the gallery involved showing documentation of a night of projecting in Inman Square. The gallery has photos from the evening and a large paragraph of all the texts chronologically ordered from the evening displayed as a framed poster. I also installed an interactive piece asking visitors to the gallery to finish the phrase via SMS, "We the People...," essentially inviting people to finish the constitution in one text message.

SS: I know there are those who hold the opinion that once a street artist, outsider artist or "urban hacker," as you've been called, has a gallery show, he or she then ceases to have what music critics might call "indie cred." How does this show differ from some of your other, specifically public space, projections or street art?

PN: The gallery will always be a part of the art world. I think it's a good place to show documentation, or to think about expressing your ideas and work in a different way that suits the space. I like to react to the gallery as opposed to depending on the gallery. I welcome the day when I can shake "indie credibility" and simply be credible in whatever space I am invited or want to work in.

SS: How comfortable are you with the labels, “street artist,” “outsider artist” and “urban hacker?” Do you think one suits you and your work better than the others?

PN: Well I think labels tend to work as marketing devices, I like to think of my work as public space interventions, asking people to perhaps behave or think in a way that they may not have expected from being out in an urban or public setting. But I think Street Art is the label that the mainstream has been given to qualify uncommissioned public art, and I'm fine with that.

SS: As an artist myself, I've had to field some version of the question, "What's the point?" or, as Cynthia Freeland's book title asks, "But Is It Art?" So, what is the point of this specific work and your work in general?

PN: To paraphrase Philippe Petit right after being brought down from wire-walking between the twin towers, "'What's the point?' is a very American question." And he couldn't believe that was the question all the reporters wanted to ask immediately following one of the most amazing public performance pieces ever. Now, I'm fully aware that I'm not wire-walking between two towers, but what I do get from what he said is that feeling of pulling something off in public space that isn't advertising, or evil, but still wasn't supposed to happen, creating an experience that doesn't conform to expected behavior. And [in my work] by involving the public in the creation of the performance that happens in public I think they get to share in that feeling of looking at public spaces a little differently.

SS: But is it art?

PN: Of course it is.

SS: I remember when I was traveling with you, doing our little part for the Obama campaign, we got yelled at a lot. I understand that people express their political beliefs in a number of different ways. Some hand out pamphlets. Others (I'm looking at you University of Cincinnati Bearcat fans), like to scream "FAGGOT!" in the faces of total strangers.

PN: Well the funny thing with the Obama roadtrip is that we had a tight reign on what was allowed to be displayed. But seriously, I enjoyed seeing just what happened when the public was asked to participate in such a clearly one-sided political discussion. When I typically do these projections, there's no filter and everything can be seen. I love all the content that comes in, from the banal to the insulting, to the profanities, to the profound, thoughtful messages. I like to think that I'm capturing a moment of what we are thinking about and the language we use. For the most part things go very well, but occasionally I think it blows some people’s minds when they come into a situation with a preconceived idea and then are met with something else that they don't know how to define. It's like people that hate to be surprised, they get almost violent or aggressive because something is out of place and unexpected.

SS: How did you start doing this work?

PN: I started this work as an interactive theatrical exploration. What happens when you hand over the creation process to the audience? At the same time I was playing with the mobile device as a medium for story telling, not just through SMS, but through all of it's media capabilities. And what kind of stories can be created when these devices are networked. I've always been active in performance and music. But with TXTual Healing there was a maturity to the purpose of what was being done, something I felt others would be able to participate in that shifted typical thinking of public space and the device in their pocket.

SS: I know you and your wife are expecting a baby. How does this imminent arrival change the way you think about your legacy? Your work doesn't live, except in the thousands of photographs snapped by passersby and participants all over the world. How much do you care if people remember you or your work?

PN: I really like the idea of having a part in the evolution of technology art, or street art. Especially with so much imitation that I see now, you'd hope you get a little credit for what you did, or how you may have influenced someone. Most importantly, if I can influence people to get out and start taking more control over their environment, we may all start to get more active in shaping what is happening around us, and not just leaving it to those with access to more powerful media.

SS: It's funny. Rereading the last question, I began to feel like your work is in a large way like every other piece of art in the world with one key difference. My wife and I have a print of a painting I'm very fond of, El Jaleo by john Singer Sargent, outside our front door in the hallway that's about 17" x 26", tiny and virtually lifeless compared to the original. But there it hangs, a vague pretender to the throne, a copy like much of everyone's art and music collection. If I wanted to go visit it, I could literally get into my car and go see it right now. Depending on traffic it's about an hour away. Does it bother you that you have no "originals?"

PN: I think you are referring to the ephemeral nature of the pieces. That's where the documentation comes in to show the originality of the whole concept.

SS: Would you say it was a goal of yours to have a permanent installation in a collection somewhere? Keeping in mind that your work has a shelf life, how much do you have to think about topicality when planning a piece?

PN: I think everything is site specific, including the subjects that I want to emphasize. And because the work is interactive you really have to think about the audience and what they might react to that will bring out more profound or surprising results in the piece. The documentation of the creation of the work is as important as the work itself, to have a running installation in a collection would be great, but most likely it would be an expression of the documentation. What did Munich say? What did they text in Beijing? What was being texted that summer in France? In my case I think the body of work is growing much larger than one particular night of projecting.

More information about the show, artist bios, hours and directions can all be found here.

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