I've been looking forward to Jesse Sugarmann's Lido (The Pride Is Back)— easily my most-anticipated TBA:11 offering.
It's billed as a minivan ballet of sorts, in which three Chryslers are parked on 42 air mattresses. The air beds are inflated, forcing the bulky vans to rise into the air (and possibly topple into a pile-up). As awesomeness would have it, the performance debuted this afternoon at 4 pm and is set to rise up again, tonight at 7. (Two more performances are scheduled for Sunday, also at 4 pm and 7 pm, and if you can't make it to any of these performances, video documentation will be on view at Washington High School through the duration of the festival.)
I arrived at this afternoon's performance a little late— the minivans were already at full mast— but I got a taste of Lido in motion a few days ago.
On Thursday, TBA:11's opening night, in place of Sugarmann's performance was a video of the project, shown in a darkened Room 103 of Washington High School (the same room where Ghost Mom played an amazing set last night). The video documented a Lido test run, shot at Sugarmann's Springfield, Oregon alternative gallery space, Ditch Projects.
There are several compositional aspects that I heard people noticing aloud as Lido looped a few times through— sonic qualities being the first. 42 air mattress turned on all at once sound remarkably similar to an airplane that's revving its jets on a tarmac. When the air mattresses reached full capacity and cut off, ending the noise, I heard a woman behind me say reflexively, "Oh, thank God." People chuckled at her reaction, because, yes, the sound elements are fairly abrasive. (Personally, I enjoyed this aspect of Lido, but I have a sweet spot for the subtler qualities of noise— how you can hear all these relational frequencies as they cancel out and harmonize with one another.)
Aside from sound, a girl sitting next to me noted the anti-climax of the piece: The minivans never topple or crash in this particular performance. They start flat on the ground, and as the mattresses inflate, back ends are lifted towards the ceiling, while front bumpers nose towards the ground. The end result— three minivans held in 50ish degree angles— is full of tension, and as various camera perspectives are employed, it feels like that scene from The Matrix where Trinity pauses mid-air, kicking ass with the camera panning around her.
The anti-climax was also true of this afternoon's live performance. As I stood in the sun, watching the mattresses slowly deflate, the anxious formal slant of the minivans suggested multiple line graphs, all tracking a negative relationship between undefined variables (if a vehicle's front is to be read as the direction of the graph).
I'm not too sure about what I'm supposed to take away from this— what values I'm being asked to apply to the aforementioned variables— but I'm convinced of the work's physical greatness: Lido is elegant and badass, inventive and singular. Unlike anything I've seen.
Though I'm told the piece is a monument to Lee Iacocca and his reign at Chrysler, the tension I read in the work describes what the auto industry must be feeling right about now. Oil is running out, people are shouting for green transportation, and nobody seems to know what to do next.
While I can't claim to have gleaned any solutions from Sugarmann's piece, it's the highlight of my TBA:11 so far. It'll be in my thoughts for some time.
For more insight on Sugarmann, his work, and the intentions behind Lido, click past the jump for an email interview with the artist (plus links to visual aids!), and check out my piece from our TBA:11 print guide.
Matt Stangel: When did you start working with cars? And what mediums did you work in before that?
Jesse Sugarmann: I started working with cars in 2008. I had been doing video work up until then, a lot of stuff with found footage, which pulled out latent social statements from junk cinema. My relationship with cars was something that had always been at odds with my creative practice. My interest in cars is obsessive, not in a good way, more like something that slowly scares you, like high blood pressure. I’m always thinking about cars. Like, as I type this, I’ll switch over every 15 minutes to see what cars came up on Craigslist. I spend a lot of time working on cars, and I have this annoying compulsion to ask people about their cars when I’m talking to them. My larger problem was that I would rather be working on cars than working on art, a problem that had no real consequences until I entered grad school. I had to find a way to fight this compulsion…and the best answer was to fold my obsession with cars into the work. It’s actually been a really successful formula for me.
MS: What was the first automobile-based project all about and when did it happen?
JS: I actually started off with a series of sculptures. I was working with 80’s Toyota Vans at the time, which I drove and owned a lot of. They’re mid-engine, so you drive them sitting over the front axel and really pressed against the windshield. The experience of driving a Toyota van feels as dangerous as a riding a motorcycle…a feeling you can usually only get out of older European convertibles. So I spent a lot of time imagining what it would be like to crash one of these vans. And I made a series of sculptures these worked from the interior perspective of the van, splaying interior parts into these explosions.
These sculptures were sort of frustrating in their immobility, and the push to create crashes in real time felt like a natural trajectory to pursue. So I began creating these first accidents. The accidents are sculptural conceived, dealing with the car wreck as a spatial problem. My theory was that, if a car accident was the problem of a car occupying the wrong space, I could create sculptural car accidents by simply sticking cars in spaces they did not belong in.
MS: Why did you choose the car as a performative object?
JS: Sort of inadvertently. I’m not the type of person that derives any pleasure or energy from being in from of an audience, and thus I’ve always been really comfortable with the accidents existing within the capsule of video. A curator down in LA, Jan Tumlir, asked me to participate in a show he was putting together, and initially we had just planned to exhibit some Ford Explorer floor mat sets I had woven on a jacquard loom. But he saw the car accident pieces and convinced me to create one as a live performance. That was Red Storm Rising, the first piece I did using Aerobeds to lift a car. I was leery, but it ended up being a profoundly positive experience for me, and the audience got a big kick out of seeing the work live. Response to that piece has been wonderful…and now creating these accidents as performances is something I consider in my process.
MS: What's the budget usually like for your pieces? Seems like it could get pricey.
JS: Yeah…it does. This is what I spend all my money on. I think what I spend on my projects is similar to what someone who owns and maintains a SCCA car spends. Or at least that’s how I justify it to myself. It’s an expensive hobby…and I’m OK not owning a race car. Well, really just because my friend Tim lets me drive his race care at autocross events.
MS: Have you gotten any financial help for your projects through grants, fellowships, etc.?
JS: Yes, I’ve been lucky, and some people (particularly the University of Oregon art faculty) have seen enough in the work to push money towards it. And, of course, PICA has given me this wonderful opportunity. There is no way I would have been able to afford to make Lido without PICA’s support. They’re allowing me to function on a level I’ve never been able to before, to be as ambitious as I care to be.
MS: Do you rent forklifts and other heavy equipment, or do you have access through a more personal avenue?
JS: Yes. Springfield Rentals is my jam. They rent me a 3 ton all terrain forklift that I get to drive down Main Street to my shooting location in Springfield. And they even made me some custom forklift tongs. They are so rad.
MS: I really like how sounds progress in your pieces— particularly when you're burning out engines and playing keyboards with forklifts. It seems like sound was your interest in pieces like "I'm on Fire" and "General Motors Unity Structure III." What were you exploring, sonically speaking, with those pieces? And does sound continue to be an active focus of your practice?
JS: Yes, it’s focal. Music and sound are constantly in my thoughts…and in general. I mean, I listen to music all day, every day. And the pieces you mention exist as musical compositions. These car accident projects are really about finding beauty in disaster or beauty in trauma. And the sound is really part of that; taking these brutal tones and combining them to create something as delicate as a melody.
MS: So, it looks like you've endured quite a few automotive traumas for your pieces. Have you ever gotten hurt in the process?
JS: I’ve messed up my back pretty bad, and I have whiplash all the time…and after Grand Am Reflection I had a headache that lasted for 2 days. I think the worst thing is that in the last 5 years I’ve gotten about an inch shorter. But no broken bones. In general, I’m a fairly battered person. My hands and arms are always covered in cuts and bruises from working on cars all the time, and I wake up every morning aching. Yeah, I’m a mess. I bought this book on yoga that I’m totally going to read.
MS: How many times have been in a car accident in the name of art?
JS: It depends on your definition. I did a series of projects where I would jump out of cars as they were about to crash into things. Man, my back hurts just thinking about this stuff. Let’s say 30.
MS: How much does safety play into the planning of a project?
JS: I’m pretty careless when it comes to risking minor injury and and muscle/tissue damage. Anything over 25MPH I’ll wear a helmet for, and I take the airbags out of cars so they don’t blow up in my face. When I’m actually lifting cars, the approach to safety protocol is much more deliberate — I’m fine with getting banged up, but risking death is kind of dumb. I’ll also have people helping me on lift days, so I’m responsible for their safety as well. The main thing we do is work slowly. I know where everyone is at all times, and we discuss every step of the lift and where each person is going to be. Finding the balancing point of the car is tricky…but once you have it, the chances of it falling off of the forklift are pretty slim.
Performing in front of an audience is another thing. I’m actually taking the fuel systems out of the vans I’ll be using for Lido, and no one will be allowed within 30 feet of the lifting vehicles.
MS: Some of the earlier works on your website seem to speak to the environmental implications of car use. Especially the "Fresh Aire" series. Later works appear to inquire into the social identity of the car, rather than the political, and the newest works feel almost formal (for instance, "Silver Anniversary VI" and "Silver Anniversary III"). Where would you say your work is going?
JS: I got my MFA at the University of Oregon, and I used to get all of these emails from the public server about art shows that I could apply to be in. Twice a week I would receive a 2000 word email about some art show someone was putting together, and the last sentence would always be like “all work must be about the sustainability or the environment.” I mean seriously, this was the case 90% of the time. And I was annoyed with the permissions that the sustainability movement had granted itself, and the way in which they were looking for “likeminded” artists. So I started making work about sustainability, but in the most environmentally caustic ways that I could think of. And I would send them these pieces and they wouldn’t even write back. But I liked them.
But yeah, the environmental work was more of a reaction. The social identity of the automobile is much more at the root of the work’s trajectory, looking at the automobile as a system of human representation, looking at the auto accident as an abrupt social exchange. The recent videos are more formal because they are like little monuments, physical enactments of the glass sculptures.
MS: Speaking of the "Fresh Aire" series, what happens with the cop at the end of the first installment? Were you doing that to a stranger's car? Or his? Or yours?
JS: No, that was my truck, but someone called the cops on me because…well, I don’t know, I guess they figured that what I was doing was illegal. The worst part was that I had been filling the bags for almost an hour at that point, and I was all light-headed. And I knew that the whole thing was blown unless I could get the cop to come into the shot. So when he got there I had to just stare at him and not say anything until he walked all the way up to me. And that made him all tense — he kept asking “what are you doing” and I just kept staring at him. Oh, and the best thing was that he had some civilian ride-along in the car with him, some sort of prim middling woman. She gave me the hardest look.
MS: So, I wanna get into your TBA project. According to the notes on PICA's website, your installation addresses Lido Iacocca, and in the past you've done the same with pieces like "Light for Lee Iacocca." Why the interest in Mr. Chrysler? Any relevant history about him that you could share?
JS: I grew up during the time that Lee Iacocca was an American hero. His status as the greatest businessman of all time was taught to me as fact in a middle school classroom. So I’ve always related to him with that sort of distant fondness you have for someone you were taught to perceive as a hero (instead of, you know, deciding that for yourself). And that’s a flimsy and polar fondness. As a child I was taught that Bill Haley and his Comets was the greatest Rock and Roll band to ever exist and that Rock around the Clock was the greatest Rock and Roll song ever written. Again, this was taught to me as fact. And, of course, now I know that’s wrong (my apologies if you’re a huge Bill Haley fan). But Bill Haley is either on or off a pedestal for me…he’s never just a normal musician. And it’s the same for Lee Iacocca.
But Iacocca has stayed on his pedestal. I still think of him as a hero, and I think that the minivan is one of the great inventions of our time. It’s the symbolic edifice of the nuclear family…and I think it’s sort of beautiful. It’s roughly the 25th anniversary of the American minivan this year, so I’ve been thinking about minivans a lot.
MS: In "Light for Lee Iacocca," I read the various panes of tainted glass like tiered corporate management models, and the black light as the diffused leaders at the center of these organizations. How far off am I? What does Iacocca mean to you in the context of that piece?
JS: I think of them as optimistic eternal spaces. Tinted automotive glass creates a definite balance between personal and public space. Automotive tint is designed to create a public face for the automobile while creating an autonomous, private interior for the driver. The intention of the sculptures is to interrupt that separation and play with that balance, using the broken separation of the public and the private to create a new, expansive space (the repeated, perpetual reflection of mirror on mirror). So it salutes the public face while making a sentimental effort expanding the personal/private individual…which is pretty much what any monument is trying to do. Let me know if that got too cryptic.
MS: "Lido (The Pride Is Back)" seems to combine the physical gestures of "Red Storm Rising" with the mythology of "Light for Lee Iacocca." How do those pieces relate to your TBA installation and performances?
JS: Yeah, that’s exactly the idea. Lido (the pride is back) is a celebration of the minivan designed to honor Lee Iacocca. “The pride is back” was the new motto of Chrysler when Iacocca took over. It’s a temporary monument to Iacocca that utilizes the social magnet of the car accident.
MS: Will there be other objects on view, apart from the central installation?
JS: There will be a video of the performance on display inside the school…but no, no other objects.
MS: There's a lot of buzz about Ditch Projects here in Portland. Has your curatorial role shaped your practice in any way? And, could you explain Ditch for my readers?
JS: Ditch Projects is an artist run space operating out of an old mill in downtown Springfield, Oregon. We’re going into our fourth year of existence and have ten members. We have no direct relationship with the University of Oregon, although most of our members have attended or teach there. Our gallery space is rather large, roughly 2500’, which creates a venue for local artists to pursue large-scale projects (and serves as a seductive carrot for convincing out-of-state artists to show in Oregon). Our overall goal is to show visual and performative work that would otherwise not have a home in the area. The members of Ditch Projects also engage in a collaborative creative process, creating pieces and entire installations under the Ditch Projects name. One can learn more about Ditch on our website, www.ditchprojects.com.
I think that my curatorial role at Ditch has affected my own practice at a base level. The people I have met through (and in) Ditch over the last four years have made my life more interesting. Visiting artists have walked through the door with ideas and ways of thinking that I had never encountered before, and those interactions have opened me up the way I process my own ideas. It’s like being in a constant master class. The whole experience has made me smarter and more flexible, which has been incalculably valuable to my own practice. It’s made my practice my interesting to myself. God that’s hokey. I’m giving up my full time Ditch membership next month because I’m moving to Bakersfield….so I’m a little emotional about it right now.
MS: Did you have much of a relationship with the Portland art scene before starting Ditch Projects? Did you intend to open roads between Springfield and Portland with the project, or was that just more incidental?
JS: Goodness, we were so surprised that anyone in Portland cared. It’s been amazing. No, when we started Ditch we were thinking locally. We didn’t imagine that anyone would drive down from Portland to see a show. So the relationship we have now with Portland area artists and art infrastructure has been continually surprising and delightful.