By Courtney Lynne Carter
If you’re joining us for Part 2 of this conversation, be sure to take a look at Part 1, published by Title Magazine on February 5, 2020.
Storefronts, targeted advertisements, and online shopping comprise our daily transactional landscape. In the exhibition, We’re sorry, this item is no longer available, artists Maia Chao, Ilana Harris-Babou, and Korallia Stergides assume the guise of a salesperson to consider how we make meaning and ascribe value in such commercial spaces. Working across video and sculpture, they variously employ abject play, affective labor, and hyper-gendered performance to reveal the interplay between object and identity. These familiar spaces then become sites of material desire and messy self-discovery. What comes to the fore in the clamorous solicitation of attention is the absurdity and laboriousness of performing ourselves, and the very aspirations that make us feel valuable. This exhibition is curated by Courtney Lynne Carter, and on view at Haverford College.
Before the exhibition was even titled, I invited the artists to watch each other’s videos for the first time and then join me in a conversation about their practices, their works in the show, and the points of thematic connection among them. Skyping in from three different time zones and two countries, we shared a meandering and insightful conversation in two parts. In part one, we talk about disparate yet related topics such as salesperson characters, feminist filmmaking practices, humor as a tool for satire and self-discovery, collaborating with family, and the basement as an art studio. In part two, we discuss affective labor in performance, making art in a capitalist society, and the relationship between worth and value when talking about race and gender.
Courtney Lynne Carter (CLC): The first part of our two-part conversation left off with a discussion about who the intended audience of your videos are, an element of seduction in sales, and how we might think about the interrelated issues of attention, entertainment, and improvisation in your performances. That conversation reminded me of two books that I’m currently reading about capitalism and anti-capitalism: 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, 2013 by Jonathan Crary, and How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, 2019 by Jenny Odell.
Ilana Harris-Babou (IHB): I’ve read both of those books!
CLC: Oh, yeah! The How to Do Nothing book is all over Instagram right now, if the rest of you haven’t seen it. Let me read a short excerpt about attention and the role of the artist: “The artist [can] create a structure…that holds open a contemplative space against the pressures of habit, familiarity, and distraction that constantly threaten to close it.” She calls this “structure” an “attention-holding architecture.” In this sense, sustained attention isn’t just coerced by corporate marketing, but can be a practice generously offered and can also offer non-monetary value. Could you all talk about your thoughts on capitalism and attention in relation to your practices?
IHB: I use the syntax or the language of advertising as a mode of editing because these things are hooks we’re used to being pulled in by. With all these sans serif fonts and soft pinks and stuff like that, it seems as though companies really want you to think that they’re your friend, that they’re friendly. I use it as a way to kind of get into the viewer’s line of sight and then have something else weird happen within it. I make videos for a viewer who is as impatient as I am.
Maia Chao (MC): Yeah, I also question the affect of capitalism and wonder, “What are all the vehicles through which these ideologies are delivered?” Also, all of us are working with video editing. I mean, I definitely try to edit at a fast pace. What is the statistic about how many seconds someone looks at an artwork? Maybe it’s different with video, especially the kind of video we’re working with. But I tend to think about how to cut quickly and how to keep momentum.
IHB: When people talk about how quickly people on average look at a painting, I wonder if that’s actually such a bad thing at all. Why do we think that the person is having an invalid experience with the painting?
Korallia Stergides (KS): Sure, I was also thinking about the way in which institutions or galleries are finding new ways to engage more audiences, new audiences, and different audiences. And how that might end up ingrained in how people start to make their work in the first place. I remember having an exhibition one time and one of the specifications was “Make sure it’s iPhone friendly.”
MC: As a group of artists working in video, it would be interesting to talk about display formats or alternative venues. I think it was Mika Rottenberg who talked about how video is sidelined so often because it’s such a flexible medium. Her strategy was to dictate the conditions of how a video is displayed and seen, so she often builds installations to contextualize how the work is encountered and sort of protect against it being subsumed by other things. With Gently Used, I was actually working with the Provincetown TV station to show my videos. There was an interesting sort of tension there between desperately trying to get people’s attention and then keeping the performance going for perpetuity it seems. I mean, the shopping network goes on and on and on and on forever. There’s this never-ending quality to it.
IHB: I feel like we often talk about it as stealing or grabbing or taking attention, which is what Jenny Odell talks about in her book. But I think that setting up an ideal scenario for viewers to see your work can also be an act of generosity in some ways. You’re giving them the time and space to sit with the thing rather than demanding of them to give time and space to the thing. You’re opening up a space for them to engage with the work.
KS: And giving them the option but not demanding that they be your friend. By friend, I mean whether they sit with you for an hour and a half and listen. But, you know, Deep Love just wants to be liked. Her desire is to like and be liked by everyone.
MC: I mean, we’re all playing these women that are sort of inviting people in or are oriented toward an audience. But they’re not really in positions of power, either. Questions about agency come into it, and I wonder where these things, people, or characters sit in the sort of commercial hierarchy.
IHB: In Human Design I imagined my character, as the video goes on, hurdling towards a space of decreased authority or agency. Referenced by the title, I was thinking about the provenance of objects but also of people. The language towards the beginning of the video comes from Restoration Hardware, but then I start quoting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I wonder if, towards the end, the character is looking for the origins of herself as much as she’s looking for the origins of this object. In the process, she becomes almost a caricature of the helpless artisan or craftswomen who makes things in Africa for others’ profit. I saw a catalog in Restoration Hardware advertising this multi-million-dollar chandelier. It read, “By purchasing these chandeliers, you are providing a life-changing source of income to women in South Africa who make the beads by hand in the artisan tradition.” And then there’s a picture of this blond designer lady surrounded by the smiling faces of African women. I was also thinking about the power dynamic between African-Americans and Africans in something like Roots, where the main character goes back to Africa for his own self-actualization as an African American. All of a sudden Africa becomes a place just about the past, not attending to the needs and desires of the present tense people who are there right now. And then, of course, the character ends up at the Door of No Return, a space which is understood as the last door people stepped through before getting onto slave ships. The precipice where a person transforms into a commodity. Needless to say, I felt increasingly helpless as I worked on this piece.
KS: In the live performance of my work when it was first shown, I was thinking about how to give agency back to visitors who might not usually “get” an artwork. The area where the work was commissioned and first shown was a run-down seaside town in England. Gentrification is slowly happening but there’s still quite a difference between the locals and the artists moving there. The locals are also probably voting for Brexit. It’s a really weird dynamic of people. There are a lot of arcades in that area, and setting up the gallery to be like an arcade was a way to get people to come inside. It’s a way of luring people in who wouldn’t normally go into one of those art project spaces. So then by removing the price, does that make them stay longer, engage more, ask more questions? Does that give them agency?
CLC: I wonder if we can think together about how we ascribe monetary value on immaterial or unquantifiable things, and the labor involved in disentangling that. For example, Ilana is thinking about racism, slavery, and design; Korallia is thinking about ecological crises and how fiction turns into fact; and Maia is thinking about family history and consumerism, among other things.
MC: I mean, I’m definitely thinking about emotional or affective labor. Some scholars that I turn to are Sara Ahmed, who writes on a woman’s complaint as labor, and Ann Cvetkovich, who writes about depression as a public and political feeling. We are all performing women trying to make something enticing. I also think about the labor behind these artworks or the labor in these performances. We all seem to be working really hard at moments to keep it going. Then the labor of cheeriness becomes visible, affect becomes apparent as a commodity, and the work of making the artwork comes through.
IHB: Yeah, I think about these different spaces of creation, you know, like the artist studio, the kitchen, the sound stage, the man cave or something. And I wonder why some forms of labor are revered and others are considered mundane within those spaces. What happens when you mix those things up? Why do we imagine this genius designer out in a bucolic landscape finding inspiration versus, you know, someone heating up a TV dinner? Why do we think of those things as different? We just project so much on this genius flâneur flinging paint on white walls, you know? The artist as that character. As opposed to the artist as a hot mess. The artist as a set of bad ideas.
KS: There doesn’t seem to be equal societal value in having that time to even think.
MC: I’m also thinking about how transparent value becomes in our world. There’s an interesting meta-question about how we are, in a way, narrating the value of our own artworks even as we talk about them now. I wonder about the discursive production of value, and how we all co-construct that. And how it’s also a shared thing. In order for an economy to work, we all have to acknowledge what five dollars is. There’s this mutual agreement.
KS: And how the performance might reflect that.
CLC: It’s interesting to think about how you produce value in your work, Korallia, because you’re not actually selling anything and you’re not explicitly talking about money. But I think that you’re still working in a similar vein to Ilana and Maia. I’m especially thinking about the scenes in the very middle of your video that seem to go on for too long, where you continually miss getting the bubble prize that you want. It’s not working. It’s this kind of chance thing that is, in my mind, a crucial part of the video because it seems to derail your improvisational momentum. I think there’s this element of chance and risk in your piece that informs a kind of social transaction between you and the arcade machine that makes those items more valuable.
KS: It’s almost like not knowing if you have enough money to buy something in the shop. Or your card is failing. I was interested in how that moment became a disruption for the smoothness in being able to acquire something.
MC: I am very interested in this exercise of ascribing value through language—the performance of meaning-making and value-making. I guess that’s what selling something is, convincing people of its value. Trying to continually, non-stop generate value was an interesting exercise for me in my work. There was this absurdity of figuring out all the possible uses of something or all the things we could turn into assets or perks. I’m also really interested in the moment when the economy brings two people together, like at the counter, the sales point, or the point of purchase where the cashier meets the customer, and there is this momentary relationship and ritual upholding of value. What are the physical structures, like the transaction window, where regimes of value are upheld or made to collapse?
IHB: The first thing that struck my interest when I started sneaking around the new Restoration Hardware store in Manhattan was that all these African carvings and Buddhas and objects like this were actually not for sale. This art historian Kristina Wilson is publishing a book about advertising rhetoric for mid-century modern furniture. In the same way as Restoration Hardware, these mid-century modern stores would also advertise that their tchotchkes and things from Africa and Mexico were not for sale. They would say that they’re just there to bring entertainment and excitement. So, this art historian is talking about how they almost existed to emphasize the whiteness of the furniture, the wildness of these objects, and the capacity of these clean lines of the furniture to kind of contain this wildness and hold it within them. And by doing that, they name the worldliness of the owner of the furniture. So, in that way, the objects become metonymic for peoples in certain ways and experiences.
CLC: Well, if you want to really boil it down, the people and the objects in all of your videos somehow take the forms of a salesperson and product. Your voiceover narration, or improvised storytelling, work to increase or question that object’s value. And through tone, affect, and narrative, you create something like your own economy. In this sense, I am referring to economy as both a sales structure and a way of interacting with people and with objects. I believe this remains true whether or not the objects are for sale, like in Maia’s case where she literally sells them on Ebay and actually sold some of the objects back to her parents, who wanted them back once Maia and Zoe rediscovered them. And so, the moments of glitching, pausing, or losing control of the performance, I think we could describe as moments where the economic systems that you’ve built begin to break down. They begin to show their cracks, and they reveal the cracks already existent in our “real” world.
We’re sorry, this item is no longer available is on view and open to the public from February 6 – March 6, 2020. To learn more about the show, gallery location, and hours at https://weresorryexhibition.wordpress.com/.
Courtney Lynne Carter is a curator, writer, and educator based in Philadelphia. She is currently the Post-Baccalaureate Fellow for the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities at Haverford College, where she is the key coordinator for student and course-related exhibitions, and works on the exhibition team that manages Haverford’s four contemporary art galleries. Her recent curatorial projects include Your Special Island, featuring Andrea Chung, Rachelle Dang, and Ming Wong; and Consent to Be Seen, a solo show of Riva Lehrer’s work. She has previously worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Yale-NUS College in Singapore; Oh! Open House in Singapore; and Amazement Square Children’s Museum. In March 2019, she attended the Independent Curators International Curatorial Intensive in New Orleans. She graduated from Haverford College with a BA in English.
Maia Chao is an interdisciplinary artist from Providence, RI who works in video, performance, sculpture, and social practice. Guided by an abiding obsession with social norms, Chao’s work explores play and absurdity as subversive and emancipatory tools for collaboration and collective imagining. She is co-founder of Look at Art. Get Paid. (LAAGP), a socially engaged artwork that pays people who don’t visit art museums to visit one as a guest critic. In partnership with the Massachusetts Cultural Council, LAAGP is set to launch across a cohort of art museums in Massachusetts in 2019–2021. Chao has shown at the Hudson D. Walker Gallery, Provincetown Art Museum, Brown University, RISD Museum, Tufts University, Parsons School of Design, and The Shed. In 2018, she completed a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, served as Andrew W. Mellon Artist in Residence at Haverford College, and received a Van Lier Fellowship from the Asian American Arts Alliance of NYC. A Fulbright grantee and Creative Capital finalist, Chao holds a BA from Brown University and an MFA from RISD. Currently, she is an artist in residence at Pioneer Works and teaches sculpture at RISD.
Ilana Harris-Babou is an interdisciplinary artist from New York, NY, and currently based in Williamstown, MA. Her work spans sculpture and installation, but is grounded in the practice of video. She references the language of cooking shows, music videos and home improvement television, using the aspirational tropes of popular culture as a trojan horse to get into the viewer’s line of sight. Once seen, the work distorts and distends the abject failures of material desire. Her videos reference these genres to confront the expectations of the American Dream, mining the ever-unreliable notion that hard work will lead to upward mobility and economic freedom. She has exhibited throughout the U.S. and Europe, with solo exhibitions at The Museum of Arts & Design (New York) and Vox Populi Gallery (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania). Other venues include: the de Young Museum (San Francisco); Abrons Art Center (New York); the Zuckerman Museum of Art (Kennesaw, Georgia); Le Doc (Paris, France); the Jewish Museum (New York); Larrie (New York); Recess Art (New York); and SculptureCenter (Long Island City). Harris-Babou has received awards from the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, The New York Community Trust Van Lier Fellowship Program, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Siragusa Family Foundation, and recently received the National YoungArts Foundation’s Jorge M. Pérez Award. She previously taught in the Sculpture + Extended Media department at Virginia Commonwealth University as a Fountainhead Fellow and is currently a Visiting Artist at Williams College in Massachusetts. She received an MFA in Visual Art, New Genres from Columbia University.
Korallia Stergides is an interdisciplinary artist based in London and Cyprus. Her work is process-led, using choreographic and spatial processes to interweave experimental film, voice, poetry, performance, and installation. By doing so, she creates fiction out of fragments to make playful discoveries in live and mediated spaces. She collates improvisations and serendipitous experiments into an archive of content and memory that she can recycle in eventual works—a trace of process as well as a product in its own right. She has exhibited her video and live performance internationally in galleries and festivals in the U.K., Cyprus, U.S.A., Greece, and Iceland. She has completed residencies at The Institute of Contemporary Art, Chisenhale Gallery & Channel (London); Arts Catalyst Digital Residency (London); The Natural History Museum (London); The Watermill Centre (New York); and The Old Vinegar Factory Mitos (Cyprus); among others. She is currently a student in the MA Fine Art Media graduate program at the Slade School of Art, University College London.
Lead image: Installation View, We’re sorry, this item is no longer available, Haverford College, February 6 – March 6, 2020, Photo: Lisa Boughter.