TPT: How has being an artists influenced your curatorial work and being a curator influenced your artwork?
JR: As an artists who has participated in many festivals and exhibitions, I’ve seen a lot of work. I’ve seen it from the inside. So I’m familiar with many styles and aesthetics and have a sense of what is commonplace or unique in the industry. I understand an artists needs and when putting together a project I am able to interpret and more accurately fulfill an artists vision. Basically, I want to make it as easy and painless as possible for the artist to present their work – free of unnecessary burdens or limitations (as much as possible). Also, again in a practical sense, I have met a lot of amazing artists over the years and I have been able to call upon these resources and connections. Defibrillator aims not only to support local artists, but to invigorate the local art community by bringing international and out of town artists to Chicago. My history as an artists has helped make this possible.
In terms of how curating has influenced my work, I think of two things, First, I’m being exposed to much more work that ever before. I see a large number of performances and learn great deal from each and every one of them. This has refined my sensibility. I am able to envision and more accurately predict how a project might be perceived by a viewer. I notice trends and tendencies and human behavior and this awareness had filtered into my work. Secondly, my time is less fluid now that I’m administrating. So whereas in the past I may have spent a lot of time preparing and building a performance, now my work is more conceptual and DIY. I’ve embraced an aesthetic that is a little less perfect or labor intensive. I relish working outside my comfort zone and have enjoyed the fear and risk that are present as a result of working in this way.
TPT: Do you have an ideal context that you like to make work in?
JR: No. Does this answer surprise you? I really enjoy contextualizing and recontextualizeing work to discover who it changes based on environment and modes of experience. What happens when I take a performance that was designed for the street and reinvent it for the gallery setting? What happens when I take a duration installation-baed work and show it in a theatrical venue? I’m curious about these questions and find pleasure in re-presenting work in various situations.
TPT: Can you talk about the role of the personae in your work?
JR: I am myself in all of my work. Perhaps hyper versions, alter egos, or latent aspects of my self, but still me just the same. So even if I am embodying a giant lizard, I am still Joseph – just a primordial version of myself – myself in another diminution, perhaps. Certainly, my theatrical training has left its residue in my work, but I don’t think of my personas as entities other than myself with other motivations and other objective. Optimally, these characters are not only reflections of my self but the also embody aspects of humanity that the viewers can relate to and, possibly, recognize in themselves.
TPT: In Mastication, you “regurgitate” a line of kale leaves. Can you talk about the intention behind this action? Did that intention change once you were in the piece?
JR: It’s funny how things evolve. I was asked to create a performance for an exhibition called “Flip/Flop”. The idea was to have work that started as one thing and then became another: transformation. As is often the case, my body is the primary site for research and experimentation so I started thinking about how my body can change something, like food to shit or water to urine. I didn’t want to go there for this work, but began thinking oaf the mouth (and digestion) as a means to transform something. I actually made the tail for another project – one about evolution that embraced ideas I was having about vestigially. But I didn’t like that project and the costume was sitting unused in my studio. so I made ver fast, practical choices. In my work I often limit myself in some way – I cant move or I can’t see, or I can’t breathe. I knew I wanted to keep this element, but the costume wasn’t really restrictive. So I started thinking about the little arms that a Tyrannosaurus Rex have – that they are basically unusable. I decided not to use my hands for the performance. The intention didn’t change, necessarily, when I was in the piece, but because the kale leaves were closer to the floor, I had to use my hands to support my body when I bent down to chew them. I think my intention remained the same, though, it was just modified or adapted to fit the situation. Often I am inspired by nature or natural things. When I begin putting this work together I remember thinking about going to the zoo and watching animals eat – relating to them on this basic level and considering how it was similar or different from my own eating experience. This was the simple intuition behind the work and it was consistent throughout the performance.
TPT: What were some of your expectations/hopes (if any) of your audience?
JR: Gosh, I don’t know that I had any. I guess I always hope that I engage the audience. I worry that they will get bored when I show very minimalist work that isn’t very dynamic. This work was very linear. There were very few (if any) peaks and valleys. I’m a generous performer, but as I get older ad more seasoned, I just trust that this will happen. Or, perhaps, I don’t care as much if it does.
TPT: Were there any moments that surprised you?
JR: Yes, I’m always surprised about how difficult it is to chew for that long. Kale is quiet fibrous, so it was a little more work than I intended. I was sweating like a pig!
TPT: How was performing in Boston Different than making work in Chicago?
JR: I don’t think there were many differences in terms of geographical region. However, the large venue (The Pozen Center) was a challenge and it was interesting to see performance situated in such a massive space. The audience had to determine their physical relationship to the work- how close or far to be from the artists. This was interesting to me on a behavioral level.
TPT: What imprints did Boston leave on you?
JR: I have a perception of Boston as an intellectual city, and certainly, I feel that the students ad artists I interacted with were very smart they think about their work. I appreciate that. I don’t know if I can accurately make this assumption, but I feel like Chicago artists might be more visceral- producing something that comes from impulse or instinct. I felt like the Boston artists and the students were really contemplating their work- they were thoughtful. I felt like they were eager to learn and experience something. I felt a sense of community surrounding performance and found it exciting.
TPT: What is the role of repetition in this work?
JR: I was thinking more about minimalism, but now that you mention it, repetition is often present in my work. I think it represents life and labor. Every day we brush our teeth and go to work and do the same thing every day. Repetition is life.
TPT: Did you fabricate the lizard costume? What is the role of sculpture in your work?
JR: Yes, I made the costume. I’m always interested in modifying my body, misshaping it and playing with proportion. Objects and sculptural costumes often limit my mobility or senses in some way- they often serve as restrictions. This, too, is a comment on life. I’m curious about how we can prosper or thrive in situations where we are limited. I’m also interested in impact and seductions. Sculptural elements are integrated in an effort to lure in the viewer. These elements give them an access point that has a visual appeal so that they might stay a little while in my little world and reflect on what I might be trying to communicate.
TPT: Can you talk about the role of the grotesque in this piece? What about humor?
JR: I’m interested in that place between the grotesque and humorous. I think the line is very thin. Early in my career, I noticed that people saw humor in my work. I didn’t try to insert it, it just happened. So now, I embrace it. I think my fondness for the grotesque or strange imagery comes from my appreciation of Butoh. I’m interested in moments and things that are strange in a sort of anthropological or psychological way – how we react when we are confronted with this sort of imagery. For me, humor is a coping mechanism. I’m inspired by my own experiences when I see something weird and I laugh because I don’t know what else to think or do in that moment of discomfort. I enjoy mystery and relish an opportunity to make the viewer wonder.
TPT: What is inspiring you at the moment?
JR: Fitness…America’s obsession with being lean, strong, and attractive. Vanity and sacrifice. Devotion and Dedication. Work and transcendence in regard to physical exercise and how this relates to performance art.
TPT: Who/What is influencing your work presently?
JR: I am really interested in young/ emerging artists. I’m looking at the choices they are making and wondering why they are making those decisions. Young artists are in tune with popular culture or possibly, a particular subculture. I’m looking at these young artists’ work and thinking about where it is coming from- what impulse are they responding to- what aspects of our culture they are influenced by and are thus representing. I’m looking at a lot of proposals and a lot of artists’ websites so I am influences a lot by other artists and more so, how they are representing their work.
TPT: Any words of wisdom?
JR: I noticed a transformation in my work when I began to make things that I wanted to see rather than work that I felt others wanted to see. I make performances now for myself, to satisfy my impulses to make images or actions come to life. I still consider the viewer, of course, but this takes a back seat. I don’t know if the work is stronger now, but it comes from a more interesting place. This quality is tangible and lends the work a texture that wasn’t there when I was creating perfromeacnes that I wanted others to “like”. I have found that if I like it and feel a connection to it, the work will resonate and be well received.
Philip Fryer: Can you expand of some of the objects and actions used in your piece?
SS: I work site-sensitively and have been creating most of my recent work outside of designated art contexts. Travel is essential to my practice. Second Skin was an exercise in merging multiple contexts through body memory. Every time the body inhabits a space, it collects traces. The objects, materials, and actions were some of my conscious collections from places I have traveled in the past year.
Small fans were ubiquitous in buses in the cities I traveled in Mexico, as well as dried arbol chillis. I wanted to ignite my audience’s sense of smell, so I tied the arbol chilis to small flesh colored fans to spread the faint aroma that I remember from the food markets in Oaxaca City. This piece was intended to be viewed from the street and/or inside one of the storefront windows. I wanted to break the barrier of the “Performance space” and let the viewers know that they could enter, despite the way the space looked. I summoned the audience into one of the windows and invited the audience one by one to hold eye contact with me through the fan. As we connected with this intimate action, they were able to smell the chilis and given the sensation of feeling air on their face.
The other action I engaged in occurred in the 2nd window. I had arbol chilis in my shirt that fell to the ground as I peeled my shirt up. I repeated the action of peeling my shirt off of my body, reaching above my head and exposing my back. The back has become an important to my recent work. It is one of the strongest and vulnerable parts of the body. It is also a gender neutral. With each reach, I balanced on my tip-toes. As my heels lifted, soft sound could be heard. I recently went on a family vacation to Disney world. While I was there, I recorded t-shirts that I saw people wearing. I was intrigued by
1. What people chose to put on their bodies (their second skin)
2. The absurdity of these phrases taken out of context.
The sound piece is a recording of me reading the t shirt phrases as montone as possible, trying to neutralize each word.
PF. How is the body a place?
SS: It contains the soul, the memory, it is home to billions of organisms, the kind of creatures that live on your eyelashes. It is an ecosystem.
PF: What memory/impression did Chicago leave on your body?
SS: I have done this action of reaching up on my toes countless times, both in pieces and in my daily life. It was particularly difficult in Chicago. Trying to maintain eye contact through the fan before this action threw off my balance. I had to learn how to negotiate how unstable my body felt in a way that I wasn’t expecting or used to.
PF: Would you say that your work has the “Boston flavor”? If so, how?
SS: Like I said earlier…places leave traces. I’ve been working in Boston for almost 15 years. It definitely has influenced my process and esthetic.
PF: One of your actions was interrupted, how did you deal with that? Is this a common occurrence during your work?
SS: This is where the word “performance art” can cause some trouble. If people think they are watching a “performance,” as defined by traditional performing arts disciplines, there can be the expectation that the audience’s role is to sit stagnant, waiting to be entertained. My work is just as much about my audience’s experience as my own, so I want them to experience my work in ways that feel authentic. When an audience member unplugged my fan during my performance, it was an indication that I was successful in this intent. This doesn’t happen to me very often, but when it has, I don’t judge it. It’s just another form of witnessing. I used it as an indicator to move on to the next action of my piece.
PF: How has being an artist influenced your curatorial work and being a curator influenced your artwork?
SS: Both my artistic and curatorial practice work in symbiosis. I believe that artists have the responsibility to champion the work that inspires them. I find it helpful to my own practice to experience the work that other artists are making and hear what artists in other places are inspired by. It keeps me motivated and my work current. Joseph sums up the Artist/Curator relationship really well!
PF: How has teaching impacted your practice?
SS: Teaching is like any collaboration in that it has forced me to identify, distill, and communicate processes and strategies to others. It has made me more patient, and it’s helped me look at experiential art differently. One of the most challenging parts of being an artist is the balancing act between creating a consistency in your work while still being able to work outside of your comfort zone to ensure growth. Having the opportunity to watch someone else work through their process has inspired me to push myself in my own practice.
PF: Shorter, timed performances were absent in your work for a while, can you talk about returning to this format?
SS: I would disagree with that. Through Adventures in Being, I have done many shorter, pieces. My rule for that project is to stay in a space for as long as my body or the space will allow. Sometimes this means 45 minutes, sometimes this means 45 seconds. Regardless of how long my pieces actually end up being, I consistently approach my work with the intention that it will be a durational work. I always prepare to be invested in an action for the long haul.
PF: So, you consider your piece in Chicago durational?
SS: Yes. It challenged the parameters of real time.
PF: Do you consider your Adventures In Being project to be an active part of the piece you did in Chicago, or is it non-canon?
SS: Adventures influences all of my work. It was that project that took me to Mexico, and the other places I was channeling in the piece.
PF: Sound has always been a key element of your work, how has it evolved into the form its currently in?
SS: I collect sound in the same way that I use my sketchbook. It is a way that I process and remember a context. In my pieces, I want to reward the curious witness. Soft sound has been a material that I use for this. It’s like when child is having a tantrum or crying… they say that whispering to them will force them to quiet down so they can hear you. This interrupts the act of crying, shifts their paradigm. Soft sound is my way of creating an experience that shifts the audience’s paradigm.
PF: Can you talk about the choice to use nudity in the context of Defibrillator?
SS: I wanted to expose my back. One of Joseph Ravens’ inspirations for opening Defibrillator came from an experience where he was censored for using nudity in a storefront art space. I respect that his response to being censored was to take action and create the kind of art space that he would want to work in and is sharing it with other artists. It’s a great example of someone “being the change”. Choosing to use nudity in the windows was a nod to Defibrillator’s story. Seeing a body (especially a nude one) behind glass also conjures ideas around voyeurism, creating dialogues around the role of the viewer and the action of witnessing.
PF: What are you studying? What’s inspiring you?
SS: I just finished curating an exhibition called INSIDER/OUTSIDER that featured artifacts from live art pieces made in non art contexts. I have been looking at a lot of current work that is being made outside of spaces designated for art viewing. I am interested in the interstices between art and everyday life. I have been reading anthropological and philosophical texts on how people experience space, contemporary theories on the new/ modern body and the collective body, and following fitness tribes that advocate for group movement practices that navigate the natural environment. I am also studying Sadhu Ascetic practices and how this informs cross cultural understandings of the body, place and time. Another way teaching has influenced my practice…it has inspired me to read more!
PF: What’s next for you?
SS: In February, I will be traveling to India with Daniel S. DeLuca to research and make work around the context of the Kumbh Mela!