By Zachary Rawe
“The dogged, defensive narrative of stiffness of a paranoid temporality, after all, in which yesterday can’t be allowed to have differed from today and tomorrow must be even more so, takes its shape from a generational narrative that’s characterized by a distinctly Oedipal regularity and repetitiveness: it happened to my father’s father, it happened to my father, it is happening to me, it will happen to my son, and it will happen to my son’s son.”
-Eve Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think this Essay is About You.”
Zachary Rawe: The way in which you repurpose objects feels more akin to a type of resourcefulness as opposed to recycling, can you speak towards the way you figure out what else an object can do? To take this a bit further, we can easily understand the political necessity for recycling in relation to environmentalism but maybe you can speak towards a political necessity of resourcefulness? Certainly there is overlap, but maybe it would be exciting to focus on the maneuver of repurposing, itself.
Jake Beckman: To me the distinction between recycling and resourcefulness in this context boils down to the degree to which an object’s identity is “reset” or destroyed in the process of its repurposing. How much has an object’s identity been digested? For recycling, the object’s transformation back into a material is nearly complete, to a commodity or raw material. I see parallels in an ecosystem where detritivores such as fungi accomplish this task, breaking down otherwise inaccessible complex molecules into simpler, more energetically accessible ones. This catalysis is essential for the functioning of the (eco)system.
Prior to a few years ago, I would typically purchase raw materials and make works from those materials. Depending on the subject and the piece, I would take great pains to fabricate the effects of history on a surface, and yet was reluctant to use any of the historically meaningful objects I had collected in my studio. They were perhaps too precious. Or I felt that any work I envisioned making with them had to in some way commemorate their story; a constraint which had the effect of rendering the objects both unapproachable and already complete. Any objects that I did manage to sneak into a piece often struck a tinny, nostalgic chord.
A few years ago, I set out to reinvent my working process. I outlined a list of intentions for approaching the process: “To approach your work with a spirit of openness. Be bold. Experiment. Play. Fail. Invent. Be courageous in the topics you take on, and be discomforted by their potential. Establish a structure that is conducive to this type of openness. Leave room for chance. Don’t think a thing to death; make it and learn from it. Work to develop a visual language that honors and propels your voice.”
I thus began composing with objects in a way that maintains their identity as part of the work. Meanings and associations inherent to an object are present in the new work and inform how it is read, but that history isn’t necessarily the subject of the work. That’s the difference, I think. The work is looser, feels more open and less-resolved. But it’s also more experimental. And right now, I’m trying to address topics in my work that I don’t yet have visual language for (such as issues related to race, class, religion, scarcity, consumption, power, value, and myth-making). I see this working process as a cauldron for developing that proto-language.
And I just realized I didn’t really answer any of the questions you posed. I think resourcefulness is politically important and empowering because it has the potential to provide an alternative to the dominant role we all play as consumers in our consumer driven economy. Fix it. Make it. Alter it. Invent it. Don’t buy it if you don’t have to. As far as how I figure out what an object might do, there is a lot of trial and error. For mechanical items, I’m often just taking them apart and poking around with wires to see what happens. I have some practical experience with electrical and repair work that comes into it, but there’s a lot I still have to learn. Finding dumb machines with slow motors is the best because they’re usually pretty robust and I don’t have to do a bunch of coding with microcontrollers to get them to do something. Toys are generally too cheaply made with plastic parts to offer any good mechanical parts. Printers are amazing, but most of the motors inside them fall into the “I have a lot to learn” category. Otherwise, it’s pretty wide open with objects that satisfy the need for given form, material, color, etc. are being fair game.
ZR: Here is a blunt question, is it comically sad how little some of your objects can move? I’m thinking of the ax that is mounted to the wall that has a base ticking like a clock that is too slow.
JB: Yes, I suppose that could be it. As machines, they’re pretty pathetic and distinctly fruitless. They aren’t particularly useful, either, at least in a conventional sense. I’m hoping that they operate more metaphorically as machines- examiners of a “change” function that weasel around in the back rooms of language. The machines that move are cyclical and at times meditative, but they aren’t meant to be commemorative, or, for instance, in the case of the axe, aren’t meant to wax elegiac about some romantic bygone era of hard work and connection to the land (that would probably have been the piece I would have made a few years ago if I had used actually gotten around to using the axe). I see them as pieces that mark time. Being at RAIR was eye-opening in many ways. The staggering volume of daily waste was both unnerving and numbing. But something about being so close to an object’s impending endpoint (in the form of machines that pulverize, process, and package in order to make space for more waste), gave me license to treat objects simultaneously as an entity with history and a material with plasticity. I diverted a partially damaged piano, for instance, moments away from being crushed, into the studio. As a musician, I grew up with a deep reverence for instruments, and yet in that context I felt free to dismantle, dissect and otherwise destroy the piano for the purpose of repurposing it.
ZR: After speaking, there is certainly a lot of literary content that informs your work. Do you mind giving us two or three specific texts that were either particularly informative or that you are currently reading?
JB: I read pretty eclectically. I’ve recently been reading books on race and racism, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I also just finished a book about fear and creative practice called Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. On my shelf of upcoming books to read are Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
ZR: You have a very active practice when in residencies, specifically you discussed having a goal of an artwork a day while on residencies. I’m wondering if you could, almost poetically, discuss what happens after they are made. Do they get documented and put back into the fold of studio storage, waiting for their next moment to be repurposed again? Do you cannibalize works for the next? Do they get tucked away in storage, as an assemblage that found its own internal resolve? If you do a little of each, what makes something stay put as a finished work, and what gets reincarnated two more times?
JB: At this point, old habits die hard. Even though I assemble the prototypes from castaways and found objects, the finished objects somehow transmogrify into something precious. And so I dutifully document and file them away until some future date at which time they might reemerge and be shown with all of their companion prototypes. Admittedly, I find the objects strange and yet I’m captivated by them. They seem to exist somewhere between a question and an answer, and so it does feel a little absurd to treat them like finished objects. But, if nothing else, thinking about it makes me chuckle, so that’s worth something, I suppose.
Jake Beckman is a Philadelphia-based sculptor and installation artist originally from Cleveland, OH. He graduated with a BA from Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA and a MFA in Sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI. He has exhibited nationally and internationally and most recently has had solo exhibitions at The Delaware Contemporary, in Wilmington, DE, The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Pittsburgh, PA, and SPACES in Cleveland, OH as part of the SPACES World Artist Program Residency. His public art projects are on view in numerous locations including on the grounds of Swarthmore College, at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, and in the Smilow Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In 2017, he completed a residency with RAIR, the Recycled Artist in Residence program in Philadelphia, PA. He is currently an assistant professor at the Community College of Philadelphia teaching 3D-Design and Ceramics.
Zachary Rawe is a painter and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. Rawe creates anxious images and texts invested in affective responses generated from the dissolved relationship between work and leisure. Rawe tracks his shifting investments on Instagram at becoming_anti_work and their website is zacharyrawe.com.