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Michael Shaw: this is the Conversation Art Podcast, the podcast that looks behind the scenes and between the lines of art and the art world. I’m Michael Shaw, and welcome back for part two of two with Joshua Citarella. I’m so glad you stuck around for the second part because, honestly, this is where the shit hits the fan. We finally get to that New Yorker article that I briefly referenced in the previous episode and that serves as a great launching pad for how he had made a living through his art and questions about how one can and should, maybe, make a living as an artist. Particularly in a place like New York.
We talk about the precarity of being a freelancer and quotes from, among other people, Mike Pepe, the writer who coined the term “cloud feudalism” and the artist and writer, Chris Wiley, who is an important figure for Josh, as well.
. . . . This is going to be kind of an abrupt shift. . . and that’s why I wanted to ask you about any possible envy, noting that you didn’t really seem to care, as you put it, it was something that was in the works for a while. It’s something that. . . I guess what I’m alluding to is that, an interview in The New Yorker is kind of a way of anointing them in ways that canonize an artist that sometimes other institutions (galleries and museums for example) can’t even provide. I did want to visit the paragraph where you are mentioned the most heavily. I don’t know if you have a copy in front of you. . . Or I can read it. . . it’s not that long?. . .
Joshua Citarella: Yea sure! I haven’t looked through it in a while, so. . .
MS: So . . .this is the profile of your frequent collaborator, Brad Troemel, and it’s from the January 30th, 2017 issue of the New Yorker and the article is called, “The Troll of Internet Art”. We should just mention that it mentions the Jogging, which was mentioned in the last episode. Here it goes:
“Josh was hunched over, drawing, on a pad that was connected to his computer, using a stylus to apply the finishing touches to a display image for their newest work. Citarella, who is a key contributor to The Jogging has a cheerful, laid-back demeanor and seemed unperturbed by, what he described to me, as his ‘dire financial situation’. In 2012, at the height of the latest art market boom, he had moved from doing freelance jobs with galleries and museums to selling his own work: highly polished composite images that he describes as “post lens photography” for as much as $15,000. He then spent the next few years making highly extravagant, highly unsellable art. He built a gallery in a forest with the money had pooled. He had an exhibition in London a week after a [the ending of a] residency and he said, “if it doesn’t go well I’m going back [to New York] on Sunday and looking for a job on Monday”.
I’ll just say that one of the things that was funny to me was your urgent concern for being employed again; were you performing for Adrian a little bit or was that the honest truth? Having had the experience of making a good amount of money selling your work, did you feel the need to maintain a level of income? What was going on there?
JC: Unfortunately that was quite real at the time. That’s part of the reason why we were creating so much work at the time. The more work we made the more opportunity we had to engage online and then potentially sell the piece. We were both in pretty bad financial situations . I then went over to London and the gallery I was working with was very supportive and paid for the creation of the work. We had a collector come before the opening of the show and then the works were put on hold for something like, six weeks, and then the sale didn’t go through. So it wasn’t really about that day turn around but more about the week long turnaround. So, the arc of my career and work after that kind of . . .The funny thing was, I think I’m pretty qualified, I’ve done a lot of retouching, and there were just no full time jobs available. The only thing was freelance or what they call “permalance”; which is pretty much what it sounds like. You work five days a week, normal hours, but you get no benefits or sick time, for about a month. You are essentially covering for someone who is taking a month off or something. Luckily I wasn’t in the hole from having to produce the work, but not having a steady income was just not working. I ended up working four to five days a week for three different employers on a freelance schedule. Some of them were day shifts, some were night shifts, they go through rotations. It becomes a twenty-four hour factory of immaterial labor. It seems so clear to me that with no opportunity for full time employment and the rapid outsourcing of labor. . . and just a general declining in expectations, which I think is something that I would say is true for most people within my generation; that really fed into my reality. I made a piece with the narrative of the person who is living in my apartment and has a similar job to me and, though he’s living in the city, he is living off the grid and is surviving off of solar panels and rainwater collection and he has to stretch his resources as far as possible.
MS: Help me understand though, why and how people get by and what is the expense reality? Help me understand why you felt the need to work full time. Were you in debt from SVA? What was the larger picture?
JC: I’m trying to remember exactly what it was at the time, but I had maxed out my credit card and had used up all of the last of my money that I had made selling work during the boom, and I wasn’t living extravagantly by any means, but to be an artist and live in New York, at around twenty-five years old or so. . .
MS: Do you mind me asking, it might be too direct, but. . . at the height of your selling, what was your income for the year?
JC: It wasn’t tremendous by any means, but I want to say that if you live in New York, you need to make say $40,000 to pay rent and live comfortably and it’s been a while since I did.
MS: You put it all out of your mind, apparently [laughs]. . .
JC: I don’t know if it’s wise to talk about these things or not. I know that there were peers of mine that were making many, many fold to what I was making at the center of this boom and bust market. I wasn’t at the center of this boom and bust; but I did benefit more than I ever would have thought. I don’t know if I should talk about it. . . I feel like my art dealers would get so pissed that I was even talking about this.
MS: Well, you don’t have to share it with them, and they may never know. The point is, and [to clarify] I’m not about pushing people to share how much they make on the show, but it’s more about a way to sketch out a picture of this scenario in which you were making a living off of your work. . . Then you mention maxing out credit cards. So I’m guessing that the scenario went something like, as your income began to recede, and you were reduced to a more modest income that you were leveraging the credit cards to kind of level things out. There by getting yourself to a point where you realize your very much in the red and you need to start reversing that ASAP.
JC: Yea, I think at that particular period, in some ways that I talk about doing art within the emerging market that is fairly unregulated, I felt the freedom that you can have when you aren’t concerned about your immediate well being all of the time. Then I was hit with a period in which I very much knew what that was like. I saw how much money floats to the top of the pyramid and the people who benefited most from it, and I realized what small amount of distribution of that money could make a material difference in my life where I wouldn’t have to worry about rent or freelancing. Even your emotional and mental well being of waking up straddled with debt and worried about how your going to make ends meet. I got a quick peek into the peaks and valleys within a two and a half year period, and that really radicalized me about this stuff in general.
MS: So, what you were saying sounds like a relativity issue. You mention how well some of your peers were doing and that implies that that awareness was really wearing on you. I just read a book about that called The Broken Ladder (Keith Payne) which covers, among other things, relativity in terms of our income. When we are perceiving that those of us are doing much better we feel much worse as opposed when you are doing something independently or when your doing something and feel like your doing more. Equality makes people happier. Do you think there was some truth to that idea?
JC: I think that’s a fair point. I mean, certainly we are kind of entering the age of wealth inequality, or the term that I like to use, kind of half joking, is ‘cloud feudalism’. I think I have to credit that term to writer Mike Pepe. The other thing that I’d have to point out is that you are perhaps pointing to a career jealousy, maybe? Certainly as a young artist, you can feel that. The way that I look at it now, I want to have the conversation on their terms. Imagine, two artists and one of them is selling $50,000 of art in a year and another is selling half a million in a year. Maybe I’m the guy on the lower end, and to be honest, in every measurable metric of evaluation is better than mine: it looks better, is more conceptually rigorous, whatever. . . Once you go through that path you begin to question, “Ok, so that artist is better than the other one. Fine; but is he ten times market value better than the little guy”? I don’t think that I was a good candidate to be in that market in general. I think that when we can have a conversation in terms of what the market lays out, then we can have a better conversation.
MS: Do you have a specific person, not that I’m going to ask you to mention them, in mind when you bring this point up?
JC: I’m creating a bit of a composite character, but yes there were certainly a number of people who were doing quite well monetarily. I guess that we are talking about this quite a bit and I should mention this, but there is a really great article by Chris Wiley, it’s called the “Debt Aesthetic” and it’s about the legacy of Zombie Formalism at the time.
MS: I’ll check that out. . . is Chris an arts journalist, what sort of writing does he do?
JC: He’s an artist and journalist, I first met him when he wrote a piece that appeared in Frieze about experimental photography, his own work is photo based as well as sculptural. He was always someone who provided some important guidance when I was really young.
MS: So a bit of a mentor, and a person that peaked your intellectual curiosity, perhaps.
JC: He was certainly also a part of that senior class that I looked up to when I was in school. I didn’t have a strong art history background as I was growing up, but one idea that always interested me, for better or for worse, was how the digital tools, specifically in Photoshop which I guess we are talking about now, were changing the way that images were changing the world around us. That led me to artists that were in the field of photography and were using some sort of digital intervention in their work. There wasn’t much of an entrenched path; it was still an incredibly new thing at the time.
MS: Ok, I’m still not done with the Adrian Chen excerpt; we still have a way to go on that one.
JC: [laughs] I’m rambling at this point. I’m sorry that I’ve led you down such a dark path.
MS: No, no. . . darkness is good. I’m still interested in your returning to the field of photo retouching. From my understanding, it’s very high paying. I’m guessing from the way that you described it that, maybe, its [pay rate] has gone down a little bit since some parts of the process are being outsourced to third world countries. In any case, you are doing it now, and your only doing it a couple of days a week. Presumably it pays a pretty good hourly rate if you can just do it a couple of days a week and that meets your financial needs.
JC: Currently, I’m really fortunate and I’m only working one day a week. Six months ago that was a very different story. I wouldn’t say that it pays less now, I’d actually say that it has stayed the same; but the quotas have gone up. You end up putting in quite a bit more labor and energy for the same amount of money. I guess it’s the leveling effect of new people coming into the marketplace and retouchers are generally skewed pretty young, I’d say, with having to be able to work with the technology. I’d say that the shipping of the work overseas has played a big role as well.
So, six months ago I was working four days a week and had a pretty large and unexpected sale and now I’m working only one day a week and taking a lot more time to work on a large scale project that I’ve been working on for about three months or something. That being said, once that runway runs out, your burn rate in New York becomes very high and I’ll probably go back to working almost full time if I don’t make another sale here soon. There are many people in this city and country that have it worse off; but when you run on that treadmill you can keep falling behind and you have to claim on future labor. I think the biggest thing that the market boom taught me is that with a relatively small amount of money, we could alleviate a lot of these pressures if we just had the political will to do so.
MS: Can you be specific about which piece sold, for reference? Do you prefer to remain private about that?
JC: Yea, it’s a funny story: as a photographer you can have an image that sits on the hard drive for a number of years and I had this collector that I had known and was friendly with and had been saying that he wanted to buy a piece for quite some time. Then one day he reached out out of the blue and said, “Hey, do you still have that piece? I want to buy it today.” It was funny, you know, the piece having sat in the hard drive for four or five years didn’t get any better. It’s the same file. Now it realized its’ value in the marketplace.
MS: Is it a big piece.
JC: Yea, its something like sixty by forty, which. . . . [chuckles]. . . I kind of think of things in terms of rent. . . . which would give me about five months rent. I think about things in terms of how long can I live off of that money.
MS: So you were able to sell this piece and it was a cash windfall and you felt that you could work less for a while; what did that look like with you and your employer? Did you discard one of your gigs? Will you return when you want the hours again?
JC: Yes, generally there are a few different people who need freelancers that are in the retouching business and you would email them or they’d email you at the start of the month and it would say something like, “We need people to fill ‘x’ number of days.” and I’d respond with, “I have these days available,” and they would book you as there needs are. Frequently you’ll also get an email saying that someone dropped out or we got a new workload and we have to hire on another person. The flip side to that is that as the incoming work fluctuates they can sometimes cancel on you with twenty-four hours notice or pull out last minute and you really have no form of recourse because you have no leverage to do collective bargaining. You’re just forced to become an entrepreneur.
MS: So there’s a dispatcher for the freelancers? That’s nice. . . It’s not very human in a way, but at least it’s nice in terms of your flexibility.
JC: As an artist, we appreciate that kind of flexibility. I also wanna say that that flexibility: another word for it is precarity and if an artist is spending all of their extra time making art and, you know, ‘fingers crossed’ selling that work; those peoples’
quality of life is dramatically reduced by not having those protections. So I’d be careful to praise the flexibility because what you exchange is kind of a losing deal.
MS: How so?
JC: I have always been a freelancer. I can’t imagine a future where I would have health insurance from any other source than, like, medicaid for all programs. When I went out to look for full-time, salaried positions, they weren’t available. Not to mention the lack of unionizing and bargaining for paid time off and all of those things kind of go out the window. The rate of pay is going to stay the same and a lot of those jobs are going to be moved overseas.
MS: The equation that your alluding to here is, stability and better income, but much less time to make your work versus much more time to make your work and much less income. It seems that you have been doing well enough with the latter and it’s the better deal. I think a lot of artists ultimately choose that route as well.
JC: My rent is $900. I knew another artist whom had been living in a rent stabilized loft for something like $100 a month, or some incredible deal like that, and if I had some incredible deal such as that I could just do gigs and odd jobs, cover my rent, and then spend the rest of my time making art. That might be a preferable option but I don’t think that we really get to choose these things. I think that we just make do with the situation that’s been handed to us.
MS: I understand, and I wouldn’t push back against that; but if you’re putting to me and a lot of other artists, those two options, especially with what you do, utilizing photoshop and working from the computer. How much work are you really going to be able to produce if your working forty plus hours using the same tool. How much energy and motivation are you going to have left. I think that’s something that a lot of artists have discovered and grapple with. That’s an issue that I’ve dealt with having avoided full time work like the plague. . . and to mention. . . nine hundred dollars doesn’t sound that bad for New York.
JC: Oh, I mean there are definitely people who end up paying more; I mean, it’s a small place but that’s about as good as you can do for the price unless you are living with a bunch of roomates in a larger space.
The thing that I would emphasize is that most people aren’t artists and wouldn’t choose to structure their day that way and they wouldn’t appreciate the flexibility and that goes hand in hand with a situation in which employers have a monopoly on talent in hiring someone for one or one and a half days so that they don’t qualify for any of the protections and they can keep rotating the workforce in and out, really all of those collective projects or collective bargaining projects really go out the window. Without those things in place, the macro economic problems shift towards worse off austerity and those are the same things that can kind of whittle away at any semblance of the middle class that I guess you could consider the artist as a part of in some way.
MS: So in other words, the subtext of what you’re saying in regards to my point is that there is a certain amount of privilege– a lot of privilege– that goes into the freedom to make that choice in that freelance lifestyle. Is that right?
JC: I think the economic privilege of being in the artworld. . . there is such a cost or barrier of entry that is exclusively available to the leisure class. If you can’t earn an income than you have to be working a job somewhere else. Certainly, people have been doing that for a long time, but being on the ground in a city where those tensions are really apparent makes the situation a lot more polarized than it has been.
MS: Yea, I was going to push back on you in terms of the larger culture and lifestyle choice because you weren’t doing that in other regards. But when you put it in terms of being on the ground in New York and, perhaps, when your walking down the street (especially in Manhattan) you are subconsciously taking in these different segments of society. Maybe there is an amount of wariness or empathy towards those who don’t have that kind of luxury.
JC: Yea, I definitely have a lot of empathy because there are a lot of people who are in worse off situations than I am. I have been kind of entertaining this idea of something called “selfish socialism” which would be something along the lines of. . . you know. . . I would be able to be so much more productive if I didn’t have to worry about paying a certain amount of rent every month. I think that’s a really effective way or orienting politics around. . . you know. . . to change the subject. . on social media, individuals will tell you absolutely everything except how they paid their rent. If there is one thing that you can’t talk about in the art world is how you pay your rent, then that’s how you know where the tensions really fall down.
MS: Yea, well said; and that actually is a nice segway about something that I wanted to bring back up from earlier– that was–when I asked you about how much you were making when you were at the height of selling your work and, I’m not going to ask again about a figure because that isn’t the point; but you were concerned about how you were coming across to your dealer. I was thinking that that seems inconsistent with your objectives around challenging the status quo and the current market system. There seems to be a disconnect between there. Why do you think you’re so concerned about how you come across to these individuals? Why are you giving them that much power? Are you returning to some sort of private class with these folks?
JC: That’s a good question, I’m still trying to figure out if I am inside of the art world or outside of it. I think that if you could be financially untethered to the artworld, like for example, with things like Patreon, which I use and I know you use as well. . . I think you could imagine this long tail of culture where things become really niche-ified and people seek out their interests and then really support it. I think that those sort of platforms work better for platforms like Youtube and podcasting projects that are really episodic. Making a rarified art object that I’m making, doesn’t really do it that well. So, what I’m making is really too large to be seen online, the image I’m working on right now is eighteen feet wide, and it needs to be installed in a place that is set and designed for contemplation; in which case you’re essentially describing a gallery. When you’re aware of all of the economic issues surrounding the gallery, I still believe strongly enough in the project of making this work, that I want to reform the gallery but I don’t think I would do that at the cost of having to shift my artistic output to be something that was content oriented like producing videos or podcasts to be able to fund myself outside of the artworld. Infrequently making sales of art and getting a trickle of subscriber funding to finance other projects is this eerie middle ground that I’m in right now and, I imagine, a lot of other artists will be stuck in in the future. I would also say that the collectors that are fans and supporters of my work have generally met me and know me and how and what I make art about and what my thinking is. I just don’t’ want to unnecessarily air some dirty laundry that. . . it seems unnecessarily aggitative to dispense that information.
MS: Ok, that’s certainly an opinion, but it definitely seems very counter to that last comment about talking about everything in the artworld but class. It seems to reaffirm that particular angle.
JC: Well, I mean, I’ve pretty much covered the topic. I discussed the cost of living, and then when the money ran out, and if people want to go back and jot down the numbers, I guess they can. I just think that it would be in bad taste to. . .
MS: But see, that’s exactly the point that you didn’t make earlier; which is that we are talking about decorum. I mean, I did use the word “gauche” earlier, you know? When I set up the original question. So you were more than welcome, maybe you were being polite to me, to not refute me so overtly. But it would be ok for you to tell me that you’d think it would be a little rude to include numbers. This isn’t about a pinned down number. I’m just trying to point out that there is still an amount of squeamishness about certain things and that seems to me counter to a certain amount of freedom from the system.
JC: I’m not trying to avoid you. I mean, I’m just talking about it because I think you have a good point. I mean, maybe it’s something that I’ll think about for the future, but. . .
MS: I really apologize to you and your collectors or dealers if I was inappropriate or I crossed a line in terms of taste and sensitivity. It’s all about pushing back. . . you know?
JC: No, no. . . it’s fine. I’m baiting you a bit with this conversation. It’s not out of line at all.
MS: Ok, good. thank you. I’m not sure where to go at this point. I just so love the titles of some of your pieces on the UV Production House and I don’t know, perhaps we can just. . .
JC: Oh yea, I’ve forgotten that we had gotten this far and we still haven’t really talked about the work at all. [laughs] .
MS: Maybe we can just do this as a final part of our conversation, maybe I’ll just mention some of the pieces and how they sort of speak for themselves as titles and then you can focus on any one of them as you choose, and perhaps as I read them I’ll zero in on a couple that I find interesting.
The ones that are sticking out to me, and to add, all of these are priced included one here that is zero dollars, some that are five dollars, one is at twenty dollars; and this one is priced at $5000. It’s a woman on a stage on a seat that references a therapist’s couch with three panelist type people sitting across and looking at her and the piece is called, Seating for When The Panel Discussion Turns Into a Speaker’s Own Therapy Session About Anxieties Surrounding Technical Change. Another one is a wall mural, priced for $12,000, and its titled Have a Cord Problem And A Spare Half Hour? Try Using That Excess Length To Liven The Room with A Scene From Your Favorite Planet Earth Episode Including the Commercials That Aired During It. Then just a couple more. There is one piece that appears as if you have photoshopped what looks like Chris Burden’s Excavation Into The Ground piece with walls around it stuffed with art and it’s called, True Dedication: These Collectors Love Wall Work So Much They Don’t Even Own a Floor! And last, but not least, this one titled: For Only $6500 This Framed, Colorful Piece Could Be Yours It’s Called This Painstaking 2000 Piece WiFI Password Jigsaw Puzzle Will Likely Keep Your Airbnb Guests Busy Long Enough to Avoid Stealing Your Possessions. Those were some of my highlights. Did you have anything, in sum, that you wanted to add or say about those pieces. How are they selling? Perhaps we can begin there.
JC: One of the nice things about that site is, and I believe your looking at the site that was archived off of the etsy store after we had been kicked off for maybe the seventh time. . .
MS: Why were you kicked off?
JC: Um . . . We were kicked off for various violations of the terms of service that you’re supposed follow. You’re not supposed to sell any premade goods but a lot of groups have some sort of photoshopped version of a previously customized piece. I guess as a way to cultivate trust in their vendors, they had chronological sale histories available, that also presented prices. I think that maybe one of the silliest, and absolutely the piece we spent the most time on, was They Don’t Even Own a Floor, of which I think that certainly you’ve seen artists adapt a strategy where they will make a series of works and one of those pieces is a floor sculpture and then it’s almost formally identical to some sort of wall piece such as a painting because these things generally sell better and are easier to store and are easier to resell ; thus are made in larger numbers, and generally appear to the investor as money better spent. Yea. . . the money that we spent on that one is really not indicative of what most of the project was, but hits at the heart of what that project was really trying to do: which was show how the artworld is being shaped by these outside pressures of the market and of exchange value. If you’re a sculptor you’re opportunities to sell work are significantly diminished because everything is downhill after the exchange value of the secondary market. I think that’s what we’re trying to point out.
MS: What does that mean, “everything is downhill from the secondary market”? Does that mean that your work is going to go up independent of your own benefit after it has sold?
JC: Certainly that’s part of it, but I think of it more in terms of a preset of people who can fit into a market model and that the market requires large amounts of similar works that can be valued at the same rate. You, the artist can bring yours to market and the value realized at the auction house can then increase the value of my work. I think there is also a concern of the latent labor market ideology that is present in the art world in a way that potentially the history of these things have been affected by the market and may or may not shake out in the decades previous by certainly is present now. These are things that you can observe from a structural evaluation of the market but are never really discussed in the studio visit or press release or panel discussion. They are only really ever mentioned in certain articles and in certain comment threads.
MS: Now, the subtext of what you just said is this ongoing question relates to a question that I oftentimes bring up as a question of my own in terms of factions in the world as far as sensibility; like the painting / object faction and then the. . . I don’t know. . . photography/ sculpture/ conceptual faction for lack of better breakdown. This last piece that I didn’t bring up, that relates to that, is a picture that has a top half and a bottom half. The top half has some painted eggs and the bottom picture has some eggs that have been busted open The title reads: Stop The Bullying, This Painting Exercise Teaches Students That No Abstract Painting Is Better Than Any Other . I think it’s a good way to tee up a question to you. Are you cognizant of those sort of dichotomies within the artworld or do you specifically have an animus against object based, abstract art, maybe? Do you feel comradery with everyone across the board despite that joke or. . . how would you put it?
JC: I’m trained in Photography, most of what I do is photography, certainly in UV we made a ton of interdisciplinary work. I’ve made sculpture and web based work on my own. Photography, even in the secondary market is like. . . the highest growth is like. .. twenty percent. That’s the most. Certainly being n the edge of new media and photography, my kind of thing doesn’t occupy a very large place in the market. I wouldn’t say that I have any particular axe to grind with painting in particular. I think when you look at that, even though you may see “Abstract Painting” in the text, it’s really a shot at the market speculators that are looking to flip and buy these things to create a profit later which is the unfortunate tendency of how the market is set up in general. It’s really kind of inescapable. The only kind of leverage that I’ve put forth against someone is if that is something that affects the way that they create a series or collection of work.
This is something that Chris [Wiley]’s article kind of brings up: the conditions that we have set up right now really kind of push or force people to do that in the first place. I think, also, the process based abstraction of the market boom that we have been discussing is a kind of place holder or envelope for general financial speculation in art has participated in that to begin with.
MS: Indeed, some of your contemporaries are at the heart of that particular phenomenon, where some of the members, including one that was on this show are about your age. I don’t know if you have any kind of first hand interaction with them, but it’s an interesting. . .
JC: Consider though, that these are kids that paid something like, almost a quarter of a million dollars for their education and they live in a very expensive city where they are a part of a system that they had no part in designing. So, from their point of view they are trying to escape what otherwise looks like a lifetime of debt. It wouldn’t be great to completely fault these guys on their own.
MS: People have though. . . The way you put it before, it’s not the conditions that were created by them that these artists themselves, but the system. What is your feeling about the cognizance of that creation? Is this chaos at work, in terms of the art world or is it connected to the conservative aspects of the market that have been rising over the years that you described a bit earlier?
JC: I think at the time the art world tried to spin a sincere and emotional engagement with the process of, I guess painting, since that is what we are more specifically discussing here. For a period of time they used that cultural groundswell of impersonal connection, like for example, on social media; such as having a friendship with someone that you have never met in person. It’s a superficial level of engagement with people. It’s that kind of narrative that did not last for long. It’s a more structural, kind of birds eye view of these things, they can become assets. It can lead to these kind of indirect pressures that have been set up in a way that you could perhaps create a series of work that could increase in value, there is a clear incentive structure in place to keep you from creating a different kind of work for your next show. This is kind of how the zombie march begins to happen and people try to make the safe work so that they don’t have to go back to working full time freelance work. Certainly, we’ve all had to consider it. We;ve had to have conceived of the artwork as a commodity before we even make it, unfortunately.
MS: Right, right. . . Have you thought about regarding that piece that you sold to the collector, how that particular work will inform your future choices in terms of what you make?
JC: I guess it’s funny, from a photographer’s perspective, because you can always create these things in photoshop and you as an artist have a monopoly on your own inventory. Even if the photograph was taken years ago you can stitch up a new composition in photoshop and I feel like its got a little bit of a different. . . uh. . . it’s like a standing order, you know? Those things on my own, after the market demand. Certainly, I’ve spoken quite frankly with a specific collector about this. . . and it’s certainly not how people speak in public, but when one talks off the record, the subject comes up quite frequently. I feel like there is a lot of potential there if we just sit and have a conversation about the things that we are struggling with. There are solutions for them.
MS: Well, Josh, I want to thank you for your time and for your stamina. How are you feeling?
JC: Uh. . . you know, I think it’s pretty good, generally. In some far off world there is the potential that a collector will hear it and find it distasteful the way that I speak about artwork but at this point there are so few opportunities in the future that it makes much more sense to talk about these things openly.
MS: Well, thank you again, and it was a real pleasure. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
Episode 223: Joshua Citarella, New York-based artist, on memes, challenging established art world structures and being part of the pump-and-dump of the early teens (part 1 of 2)
Hello, and this is the Conversation Art Podcast, the podcast that looks behind the scenes and between the lines of art and the art world. I’m Michael Shaw, and welcome to the show.
This is episode 223, we have Joshua Citarella; part one of two. You can find images of Josh, past episodes, episode index, donate to the show, access the hotline, and more on the website. This is a humdinger of an episode: we talked for about two hours and forty six minutes, but who’s counting, and it got boiled down to slightly under one hour per part. I want to give a big shout out to producer and editor of the show, Andy Davis, who helped me boil down this episode. The good news is is that rather than waiting two weeks for the next part f the episode, you are going to get it next weekend. So not too much waiting for part two.
So a little bit of information about Joshua: he experienced a little bit of a boom and bust right out of art school, he’s a frequent collaborator with Brad Troemel, who was profiled in The New Yorker, whilst also featuring Josh. He’s very social media savvy– which is something we talk about. He thinks a lot about macroeconomic issues, political realities of the art world; an art world he doesn’t think is nearly as progressive as you might; for example. As we jump into the conversation we will talk about Josh’s early career path, perhaps, to give you a little set up.
Michael Shaw: I feel like everything is happening really quickly for you. I mean, you have this career ascension and then this market correction or whatever you wanna call it even though it wasn’t. Then after two or three years you’re like in the thick of the scene in NY and you’re like, You know what, maybe this isn’t all that it was cracked up to be or this is disillusioning for me in some way. It all happened, it seems, in such a short amount of time. What are some of the main points as far as what it is about the Art World proper that disappointed you? I imagine that whatever things you’re going to say, whatever New York thing or universal thing, I’m just going to assume you can apply them to the artworld in LA as well, and perhaps any other bigger city.
Joshua itarella: Yea, there’s definitely something about NY, where the tension points are certainly exaggerated. These things are applicable to, just about, anywhere; though.
I graduated in 2010 with a BFA in Photography, and I think, shortly after that I got my first studio. I was kind of making work online and I was getting in touch with other artists and I was curating projects and organizing stuff. . . and I had my first studio visit with a gallery in the winter of 2011 and it turned into a professional working relationship that blew up. I want to say that I am certainly on the periphery of this thing: the market boom that there was so much press about in, I want to say, like, 2012. . . with it trailing out and dropping around 2015. My boom kind of followed those two events. There’s always the mythology or origin story of artists getting together and working together and harkens back to this time that artists were just making work because they loved it and they were vetting ideas within their community and they were collaboratively building a project. . . I don’t think that situation really populated for the artists working during that time because the second you were out of school, you were dropped into this thing. We had no kind of framework in which to evaluate it. I mean, you grow up hearing stories that you can’t possibly make a living selling work and working as an artist. Then everything you experience kind of creates, like, a feedback loop, where you’re left thinking. . . “Well, I am doing it. . . so. . .”
I mean, I graduated with kids that where already getting into lucrative gallery work before they graduated. But I think you’re right. . . there was a bit of a boom and bust in the market, which made those same kids really take a hard look at what they were making. I do think though, that that was a very formative experience for me and some of the other people that I was close to at the time. To get back to your real question, though, the things that I was dissatisfied with, I guess, in the art world, would be the transparency with which the market forces were shaping art discourse and patterns of collection programming from private spaces and commercial galleries, to museums. For, I guess, my specific group of peers it was very clear that the strongest influence and structure of the art world revolved around the art market . . . and even as we are talking about it, even on this show, you often say “Art World” as opposed to “art world”. I mean, the only commonality within the art world is the financial structure of the marketplace. Sorry. . . that’s a very long answer, but. . .
S: [laughs] No, no. . . it’s fine! No, what is good about it is the fact that you have the preface to the answer that was disillusioning for you. Which was when you talked about this artist, or these artists, that, a couple of years out of school, are working, selling, and making a living off of their work full time. You use the third person instead of the first person: did you do that consciously?
JC: I mean, maybe I misspoke with that. . . I mean, I had graduated and I don’t think it was the end of 2012 or early 2013 that I made a sale. But, by 2014 I already knew people from my class that were being courted by commercial galleries. They had reached out that young. I’m thirty-one now and that was. . . it was kind of troublesome, in a way. You know? How young can you find them? I mean, even with 89+, the show with everyone that was 21 and up at the time. . . .I mean, it’s just not fair to put these artists up on a platform where they maybe have a year of professional working experience and ask them to have something to explain. But that’s how network culture is shaping political reality or something like that at the moment.
MS: I agree on everything that you said, but I think it’s a tad disingenuous to talk about the phenomenon of young artists being plucked as a new thing; I don’t know if you necessarily said that but you kind of implied it. There’s a whole generation or two before yours where, for example, Columbia University and UCLA had students that were being just plucked from graduate programs and put into shows and some of them are launching careers that are maintained and some are launching very short lived careers, right? That’s been going on for a while. I guess, I wonder if there is anything different about the instance that you are talking about? One thing, it seems, and it speaks very much to the work that you’ve been involved with, is it’s very social media driven. You were coming of age in school as Instagram was born and growing; so maybe there are some differences there. I don’t know if any of your peers had any career ascension through their social media. Any come to mind?
JC: I’m tempted to say that virtually all of them formed their career that way. At the time we used to joke that curators were just browsing that ‘People You May Know’ algorithm. It was really. . . I mean you’re right in that young artists have always been plucked like that, but I guess the difference would be that, generally, those people would have been vetted by some institution before they were, kind of, inducted into the commercial artists class. I think the difference for us would be the ‘suggested friend’ algorithm I mentioned. 2013 kind of created a market bubble and feeding frenzy for young artists. There are a few things going on there that I think is, in part, resulting from the market recovery from 2008 that mostly drifts upwards and a renewed interest and enthusiasm for social media. That was kind of how I understood it, because not only were all of the other artists watching each other make work, but the social aspect of going to these events and being able to comment and exchange images through a kind of collector class– that thing didn’t really exist before. I guess, all together, it’s not surprising that it all collapsed. People did warn us at the time. I would say though, that yes, my social media influence was inextricable from that thing and I think there is evidence to support it, like. . . for example, there was ArtRank for, like, speculative investments which was fueled by and literally scrapped social media data to get those numbers.
MS: So. . .I did want to return to your collaboration Brad Troemel that you’ve worked with on this Jogger. . . what was it, a Tumblr blog?
JC: YEa. . . [laughs] it was called Jogging or The Jogging, people were never quite clear, but it was a Tumblr where there were a number of members in the project but people could also submit, so there are thousands of countries from all over the world that were featured on there.
MS: Got it. In any case, I want to refer to an article that was actually my first exposure to you and I didn’t realize it when we connected more recently that you were a part of that article until we spoke. So, for me, this was pretty much exactly a year and a half ago: New Yorker writer Adrian Chen did a profile of Brad Troemel, and before I want to mention a particular passage that involves you from that piece, was it at all frustrating for you that he was profiled and you were the ‘friend’ or the ‘assistant’, or was it nice that you got some press, at all.
JC: Well, they were kind of two different things: So. . . we were at the time in residence for a project that Tiffany Zabludowicz started where there was some unoccupied space in an office building overlooking Time Square and she invited artists to come and use the space. So, we were working on Ultraviolet Production House, which I’m sure we’ll get into later, we were completely. . . uh. . . let’s just say that if there was any project that was, say, post-studio, that was it. We were set up in there but just working on computers. The Adrian profile for Brad was something that had been in the works for quite a long time and was scheduled to have happened then that was kind of completely happenstance. I think that’s part of the game. We were collaborators but we had seperate careers and he was always mentioned in my projects and vise versa and so that’s just how it shakes out with the art world and the media.
MS: So it wasn’t a competitive thing. . . You didn’t feel envious or anything like that?
JC: No, no. . . I mean, we even talked about it, quite in depth. There was actually a period of time where each of us were making a new piece every day or day and a half, and the redundant notes in the network were just going up and up. I mean. . . yea, that’s just like, an effect of social media and something to be worried about for the future, but not us specifically.
MS: Do you think that being a native to social media makes you less emotional about it? Less sensitive to it than, maybe. . . late comers? In other words, how good are you at handling your serotonin levels when it comes to the effects of ‘likes’ and what not?
JC: It’s funny, you can theorize that but it does affect you. I think there are two ways that you can go about it. . . and I think that. . . There is a good example of. . . imagine that you spend three months working on a project and you post an image of it to social media and you get a few likes, then the next day you post a meme that you came up with in thirty seconds and it gets ten times more likes. . . A couple of weeks ago I had back to back posts that gave me similar results to that situation and it gives you a feeling of what the market wants. That being said, I think it would be a mistake to judge all of your creative risks based off of what social media gives to you based off of the numbers. If your looking for traffic, you might as well be in the pornography business. If you pick the lowest common denominator, it will work. Not to say that there aren’t interesting ideas that you can mine from that. When we would release, at the height of UV, maybe three different pieces in a week, we were both saying, “Oh, this is going to be the one. . . I put my money on that horse, it’s going to be the one to go viral. . .” We’re routinely reaching over a million people from one of these posts, a week. It’s always interesting to see how the numbers shake out. Some things, you may not think anything of, and it’ll end up being the one and it can inform you of what the hive mind is thinking. It’s not the responsibility of artists to shoot for those numbers, but rather to complicate them and be a tastemaker in most situations rather than be following the predominant taste of social media or culture in general, for that matter.
MS: Going back to the ‘tastemaker’ tendency or goal, did it ever occur to you to, maybe, tone down the meme posts on Instagram because it’s such an easy thing to pull off?
JC: Uh. . . I want to push back at that a little bit and say that. . . certainly you can regram one of these million plus subscriber accounts and if you’re going for likes that would certainly be the way to do it but those aren’t the accounts that I follow. What I look for are the accounts that are creating the content that those big accounts would be pulling from. I think that the cultural warfare of memes is extraordinarily effective. . .
MS: But effective at doing what?
JC: Effective at distilling an ideology down to a simple, maybe, two sentences that can radicalize people over time. Brad has been doing this even more than I have, but we are certainly talking about it all of the time. . . . I think most people are really unhappy with the way that the art world is structured and they’re, really unhappy with the way the world is structured in general. It’s not unique to our little professional sphere. But everyone is terrified of speaking out for fear of costing themselves professional opportunities in the future, right? So there is this kind of, like, unspoken power that you need to adhere to the rules and if you step out of line you will be punished. You end up spending, I mean, I’ve been doing this for eight years or since I graduated and I’m curious when holding my tongue and playing by the rules is going to pay off. I don’t think it’s going to. I think there is a narrowing corridor of opportunities in the future and I think the artists I looked up to, who are perhaps about ten years older than me, their careers. . . are not something that is possible for me, now.
MS: Why? What’s changed?
JC: I think its the cost of living– to be brief. That’s certainly something that we can get into later.
MS: We have a wait-list here, of ‘things that we need to get to’. . . Did you know that, were you aware of that?
JC: [laughs] I’m sorry!
MS: Come on, Josh! Get with the program, here! [laughs]
JC: Well. . . I’m, you know, weaving through a bunch of different stuff because there is a lot to pull from and it is certainly hard to condense everything. . .
MS: You’re just raising one provocation after another and I’m just going to be asking you questions until tomorrow, so I hope you’re comfortable.
No, but one thing that I just wanted to clarify was something that you said in a descriptor you were dolling out is, to summate, I asked you about these memes: If these memes are going to artificially get you more popularity, what about just toning down the artificial popularity and then. . . the gist of what you responded to that with was. . . something along the lines of ‘not following the rules’, right? If we boil it all down, if you use memes, which is a bit of a no-no for a traditional proper artist striving to be a part of an art world trajectory; that that isn’t done. In which case, fine. I’m all for alternative routes to success in the art world or success as an artist. But it’s just much more complicated than that because memes are so tied to the [conservative] right or the ‘alt-right’, but also, I don’t know, I guess it’s about easily consumable one-liners versus something more complicated, at its core. Which is somewhat naive to even mention because platforms like Instagram are built upon digestibility. I mean, you’re working with images and. . . come to think of it, a social media expert that we had a couple of weeks ago was saying that as opposed to a couple of generations ago, when we communicated through words, we’re now speaking through images. So, clearly part of understanding the language of imagery today is being able to access and utilize meme-like iconography in your own feed. I’m just trying to throw in a bit of complexity to the situation.
JC: I think there is, certainly, a lot of bad memes out there. The ones that don’t work or don’t have a great level of visual literacy. . . they don’t get distributed. There is already a bit of a pruning process or ‘survival of the fittest’ process in place. People don’t really get turned, in the case of the Pepe kids, by one meme. They get turned by constant exposure to these things over a long period of time. So, it’s about tiny bricks that begin to lay the foundation. I guess the other thing is, is that there is an analogy that we could make here in the way that I think the frog memes were so popular, in general, was the idea that mainstream ‘American’ neo-liberalism has become so weak and emaciated in its own arguments that it was really unable to stand up under criticism. I guess that if your ideology is so weak that it can be taken down by a six hundred and forty pixel meme, then it must not be a very strong thing to you. This is why I was calling it asymmetrical before, I think there are market structures and structures of prestige that you really can’t speak out against. They are not doing what they say they are doing or what we would want them to do in general. I think that if you can stand out a little bit and maybe take the risk, you have a leg up. I think some people are a little bit afraid of working with me because I’m not afraid of not holding my tongue. I’ve been fascinated by [what the right says about left-leaning meme culture] in that they say that the”left can’t meme”.
Obviously any sort of cultural or political movement is going to need a populist base, and I think that if you were to describe to the Pepe kids that made all of those horrific memes prior to the election, that process separate from the ideology, it would be similar to some of the things that attracted young artists to making art and using social media. So, its a mass, leaderless movement organized by creating digital images and performance type personalities that create cultural mutations, that contribute to some kind of major shift in political debate during a time in the nation’s history that is politically volatile. If you walk through it like that, I guess it would sound like California ideology or something like that, it sounds like the techno-hoax that myself and a lot of other people shared when we first starting making work, thinking that this social media thing with its one-to-one network was going to liberate art and get rid of the corrupt gatekeepers for the institutions and the artist would be set free. We’ve since then realized how flawed that strategy was.
MS: Are you then implying a part of your making or social media making, if they’re not the same thing, to be part of the left meme building.
JC: I might as well speak for myself, but it feels like a lot of the work is similar to that of being an anthropologist. As far as the meme strategy contributing to a political project: that is something that I’ve been entertaining but it’s not how it panned out. I think it may have something to do with the structure of the network and a general psych profile of the people that made those Pepe memes. There is a certain character profile. I guess, if your serious about shifting the debate, you start to realize that its market forces that are shaping the art world and its causing, what Mark Fischer calls, the Slow Cancellation of the Future was really important to me during the past few years. There is just not much of a solution for it in the art world proper. These forces do not emerge from the art world, so the way to correct them would be to get engaged in some kind of political project with a clear ideology that isn’t just about immediate frustration and ousting the immediate regime. It might be too. . . I don’t know. . .
MS: Well, let me put it this way, have you considered a tertiary theme that does address those things? What you have said here is that Joshua Cittarella’s IG is a combination of your art and memes that are perhaps a combination somewhere in between your art and something more aggressive, revolutionary, or a political thing that you were referring to? Did you think about having a strictly devoted feed where you can try those things out more aggressively?
JC: I had considered it. I have not elected to go that route because I think that, I want, to paint a picture that is about how all things related to each other. You can imagine a meme account that gets more attention from followers, but making memes and running a meme account is quite a bit of work. I think there are people who are serious labor organizers who have decades of experience doing this stuff and if you want that kind of shift in the public debate, you really have the best chances of doing that amongst a community in which you are already a member. So the idea is, that if we can create enough dissent in the art world of people who are dissatisfied with the way the systems are working, you have to point that thing out and then you have to come up with some solutions and then people come together for the sake of the project. The single solution to this that we were referring to earlier is the cost of living, or the cost of rent, healthcare, housing, things that are very outside of the art world. I think very little overlap with those fields.
MS: That’s actually a great tee up for what I was going to ask you about anyway. . . Let’s just say that your work, based off of what we have already gone over here, definitely has political concerns in a very subtle way. In what extent have you addressed dealing with those things head on. I think, what I understood you to be saying just now, is that you’re intent on focusing the market of the art world in ways like that. But, I don’t think that you could have gone through this self aware trajectory without considering getting involved in more specific endeavors related to the world at large. Does that make sense?
JC: Yes, absolutely. I want to say that a large portion of the art world operates under the assumption that being a cultural producer or being a producer is an inherently left position. I think the events of the past few years have really, if it wasn’t obvious before, proven that the artworld is a radically deregulated market that, most of the art, even though it may discuss its own progressiveness, the way that it functions is deeply reactionary. You can measure that in aesthetics as well. Especially during the market boom, most of those works were. . . uh. . . priced lower as they had been made and debted through the markets earlier. You can untangle this idea that being an artist makes you a good progressive, I think that you can open up different ways for you to consider your political engagement. The other thing is, for example if you’re a sculptor and you’re going to need a fabricator, your going to go and hire an expert in the field. You’re not going to go and learn how to weld from the ground up. So the idea that artists need to all of the sudden switch their career paths and become political organizers is, I think, very flawed because we have very little experience doing this. The artists we talk to are people who are settled with mountains of student debt or a tremendous cost of living because they have to be in these port cities that serve to cultural hubs for a long shot of making it in the artworld. Those are the people that we share a political affinity with because we share a similar grievance. They cover this really well in a book titled, Rendezvous with a Blue Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society. He talks about creative neighborhood revitalization, the creative class, the neighborhood accumulated by artists. . . all of these things are products of a right wing shift that has been happening for about forty some odd years in the US. They are not guided by themselves, they are guided by a larger macro economic problem. If we are serious about correcting the public debate and then allowing institutions to do what we would want them to do as cultural actors, we have to correct some of those economic and political problems.
MS: Well said. . . I do have a couple of thoughts in relation to that: One is that particular with your second to last point, which reminded me of Andrea Fraser, who hones in on questioning the economics and the “leftism” or “progressivism” of the art world and what not. That’s a very simplistic way of paraphrasing what she does. . . But you brought her to mind. The second being, as good and true that all of those points are; I think the sentiment that your transitioning from artist to political organizer is, maybe, a little bit of a cop out. Especially with all of the evidence since after the presidential election of citizens doing just the opposite– going out and getting more politically involved–I guess I’m just not advocating for you to become an activist instead of an artist, but I’m wondering how one can reconcile a lot of intellectual or political integrity on macroeconomic issues with being a part of the system, ultimately?
JC: Yea, maybe it wasn’t the strongest analogy. Rather than learn the minutiae of politics from the ground up, perhaps getting involved with an existing organization that you are in line with, is a better option.
MS: You clearly have thought about this a great deal, but the gist of my earlier question was, artists who grapple seriously with politics and economics in the world at large, even outside of their own art making question the relevance or impact of what they are doing with their own art. So to what extent have you thought about integrating something else, bringing something else into your art making, doing something extra-curricular in addition to your art making, etc?
JC: In response to the response that you should orient your artistic output, in response to the immediate political concerns. . . for one, I tend to think about art in terms of a longer project and I think about how things will age and people, twenty years from now, may not recognize the specific naming or decision that’s up on the newsfeed that week. I’m gonna paraphrase Mark Fischer again and say that the system thrives on this kind of direct action. To think that you could, through making memes or paintings or whatever, could overthrow the existing order is a total failure and I think you could even exemplify that with decades of immense protest in the street where they have not had tangible political effects. As long as I have been an adult, we have been engaged in overseas wars that have had mass demonstrations throughout the entire world and they have had zero effect. We’re still there. So without getting too dark, the way that I think you can address it is through indirect action. If you can understand the cost of living as the thing that reduces an artists ability to take creative risk, they can’t really afford to make new work or take a risk because they are so financially strapped to trying and paying rent. You need to understand that it is the indirect pressures that are creating the contours of our cultural discourse. Then you start to articulate what the political project is that you want to be a part of. You put them in order and you realize what those priorities are for you. I think, for example, the #dearivanka stuff was so hypocritical and embarrassing to the resistance. I think the opportunities to cultivate change are very small and if your indebted to the billionaire collector class, there really isn’t a way out of it. It’s not a good strategy in my experience.
MS: So in other words you are presenting a sort of Nietzschean sort of world and art world view, essentially?
JC: No, I think I’m an optimist, actually. I dont think its that dark or nihilistic. I think there is a very real political reality in which we could have de-commodified health care in the next five to ten years and after that I think the inertia of the project would inflict us to have to consider de-commodifying housing. I think there is a real political reality of that, but it means that people have to become a part of a project. I come from the art world, not politics, but the formative experience of being put through the ringer of the market and really caring about art and believing in what it can do then. . . you know. . . leads me to believe that those are the answers. [laughs]
MS: You seem to have some optimism about some larger issues within the art world and just before that you sounded pretty pessimistic about changing things. Are you maybe, thinking that you have a certain amount of ambition to, as you said earlier, having long form projects that look to change things?
JC: Yea, I’m thinking of the way that I go through social media, and what I think that a lot of people go through social media: you follow a lot of people and then there are a handful of people that you really trust as a source of opinion and a source of news. I think that speaks to, even, the renewed trust in podcasts after a falling out of trusting the main news agencies after this election. People have few people that they trust and if your honest with your audience, the art world really has the ability to show its politics. I think we’ve seen that a lot of them are a lot further to the right than a lot of us anticipated and I think those are the people that. . . if you are an artist, your financial struggle and your lack of health insurance and all of this stuff, isn’t as relatable to others as we may have thought. I think the other artists that we know that are struggling, which I think is most artists, they are the people that are prone to hear it.
MS: So in other words, my question was about your relative optimism and what I understand that you think, by continuing to plug away as an artist that challenges the powers that be, if nothing else, we can begin to chip away at this portion of the art world that is representing us in too right of a way.
JC: Yes, totally
MS: Ok, that’s going to be it for this here episode, we will continue next week in part two. We will reference that New Yorker piece about Brad Troemll, but included a healthy excerpt on Joshua, which will be a great launching pad into talking about his current day job and current status and path with the height of his market career a few years ago. Stay tuned for that next week.
Episode 219: Margaret Carrigan, Brooklyn & London-based freelance art writer, has questions about Jerry Saltz’s Pulitzer.
This is The Conversation- it’s episode 219 with Margaret Carrigan. She is a Brooklyn and, sometimes, London-based art writer. I am Michael Shaw and the website for this podcast is theconversationpod.com where you can check images of Carrigan out and about in London and New York monitoring a panel and you can also see several images from Jerry Saltz’ Twitter feed, including one that was deleted.
We originally reached out to Carrigan after the publishing of her article “Jerry Saltz Has a Pulitzer and I Have Questions”, which was in The New York Observer a month or so ago. She turned out to be a great choice, she was really fun to talk to while she’s doing a bit of a bi-coastal cross pond, experimental thing. She’s going to be in London the rest of the spring and over the summer. We also talked discussed covering art fairs and her experience at Frieze among other places. Lastly, we discussed what it’s like surviving as a freelance art writer, which is kind of a hard thing to imagine.
We talk in depth about the Jerry Saltz situation and some other things. On the back end I will read some excerpts from the Weiss Links that really caught my eye. Also, I am looking for some folks to help out on the Podcast, if you are interested, we’ll have some more details on that, also on the back end.
Let’s jump in with Margaret Carrigan, right now:
Michael Shaw: So Maggie, we just came in with a little bit of [Rod Stewart’s] Maggie May, I hope you don’t mind. [laughs]
Margaret Carrigan: That’s totally fine! In fact, a little known thing: there was a Rod Stewart impersonator in my hometown. . . for no apparent reason. . . and he was in every major holiday parade. So, that song is pretty close to my heart.
MS: Have you ever been roasted or celebrated with that song in your life?
MC: I think it’s usually celebratory, but as an adult when I really listen to the lyrics, I don’t know if this is the kind of association I want with this name, but alright. . . fine. [laughs].
MS: So you’’re in London right now, whereabouts are you?
MC: I’m currently in Camberwell.
MS: How’s that?
MC: I’d say it’s kind of like Brooklyn.
MS: Awe! The Brooklyn of London! Lovely. . . . How many freelance opportunities are there in London that you wouldn’t have in NY?
MC: It’s been really interesting because I didn’t know what it would be like when I got here but I do think that there is a sincere interest from a lot of the New York based publications that I work with to have more international coverage. They don’t have as many correspondents in as many places as they would like; especially as so many are forced to downsize or cut costs in different ways. Even if they have an editorial team in London, for example, they’re interested in having one or two freelancers on the ground covering that area and so I have a lot more leeway in covering things throughout the UK and Europe, which I didn’t expect. I thought I’d be covering things that were happening in New York from a distance. It’s been good, its been a good exchange.
MS: Meanwhile, as you’ve alluded to, there’s the reality of publishing: whether it’s the near dead ‘print’ or the not very lucrative online publishing. . . I mean, it’s amazing to me that you are, theoretically, making a living as a freelance arts journalist. I don’t know how much detail you want to get into in regards to that, but perhaps you could just start on the safe side by explaining how that can happen.
MC: That is a question that I ask myself everyday. Not because of a “Wow! I’m doing it!” sort of thing, but more of a “am I doing it?. . . ” sort of perspective. I have to be painfully honest about it: it’s not easy. I have put way too much on my plate at once or pushed myself too hard to my own detriment: physically, emotionally, mentally, whatever. . . I wouldn’t recommend it, or I wouldn’t recommend the way that I’ve done it to other people, necessarily. That being said, I don’t want to make it sound like I’m some workaholic. I’ve been very conscientious about taking time for myself and appreciating that in a capitalist system you have to be very mindful of what you need too. You are not a machine. For me, it wasn’t a conscious decision to go freelance. Once I found myself in that position I took as many opportunities as I could. I felt lucky in that I had a good relationship with several editors already and they reached out to me, once they knew that I was writing, with stories that they could sign out. I think it really came down to not being afraid to cold-call people and say “Hey! I’m freelance and I’m hard up! Whatchu got?!”. That worked for me last summer. The problem was, I was working way to hard and way too long for the kind of money that you get for freelancing. I would say that my personal project in the past six months has been to recalibrate how much I’m writing and what kind of projects I want to focus on. It was actually a huge luxury to even have the time, money, and headspace to do it and it all came from doing too much too soon.
MS: So, there was a time where you were doing eight articles at a time and probably feeling like you were drowning in them, kind of thing?
MC: Yea, yea. It’s incredibly difficult too when you’re first starting out and you don’t know publishers’ editorial schedules and you don’t know how they work or what they are expecting from you. Once you have fielded the depths of all of the kinds of publications you are trying to work with, you can get a better gauge on what you and they need. Some will have a twenty-four hour turn around and they also need to edit in that time, and then there are others who will get around to it in a week or so. Time management is the biggest hurdle within freelance, or at least that was my experience, that with dealing with my own personal ability to churn out words and work with numerous publications at once and not have those expectations be as well defined.
MS: I think that term “churn out words” is going to have to be one that we revisit in a couple of minutes. I’ll save that for a little later. You mentioned cold calling before, but you also mentioned that you had a bunch of editors that you had been working with so you could reach out to them. How many people did you actually end up cold-calling?
MC: I’m trying to think now, it happens pretty organically, perhaps you are at an opening or something and I would meet an editor and I would tell them that either I was very familiar with it (if I was) or that I wasn’t at all familiar with it and I’d ask them to tell me about it. It was less about pitching, it was more about the time it took to meet new people and to be at the right events especially on the nights that I’d really rather stay in. When I say it out loud it sounds really basic. Just show up to places and talk to people.
MS: It doesn’t though because when I hear ‘cold-calling’, I think emailing an editor with your CV and all of that, but what you’re saying you did actually makes more sense. It seems a lot more productive. I wouldn’t even categorize it as a cold-call, I’d categorize it as meeting them, and then pitching yourself.
MC: I guess it’s just more, you know, using classic business terminology here, networking. That was something that I thought a lot about. I did some traditional cold calls but I’m not so sure that they were successful. The sociability factor helped more than anything. I think that having a relationship with an editor gives you the opportunity to introduce yourself, and to give them thirty minutes to seeing who you are rather than the other way around. It goes a long way, especially with this, sort of, spread out publishing environment with so many freelancers out there. Obviously the editors are on tight deadlines too and they want to know that you seem like a trustworthy person that will turn in a story on time.
MS: Mmm. . . yea, right, I see what you mean.
MC: . . . and I actually have another thought on the topic. . .
MS: Yea! Please! Go for it. . .
MC: I’m trying to think about this from the perspective of someone listening to your show who may be thinking, “Oh, I want to go out and meet editors. . . This sounds like a good approach. . .” It can be really overwhelming to introduce yourself that way. It took me a really long time to even say that I was a writer. I just want to clarify that I had already had a job writing for a magazine when I had started freelancing and I already had a relationship with an editor. Once there was a certain amount of bloodletting that had happened at that publication, there was word on the street that there were a bunch of writers available for work. So, it wasn’t so much me knocking down doors and demanding a job. But it was a great learning experience in regards to seeing the publishing industry now. It’s not necessarily a closed circuit or an insiders game; but everyone is so pressed for time and everything’s so insular in some ways that when there are writers out there that they know of or have worked with in the past that are available, a lot of people just gravitate towards those people. That being said, I’ve also experienced the exact opposite of that, where I have been on the outside of that circle and I’ve had editors reach out to me simply because of the comments that I was leaving on their website.
MS: That’s impressive. . . Well, let’s go ahead and return to a couple of things. What you’re describing about being a freelance arts writer sounds similar to being an artist in terms of networking and, I’m going to make an assumption here, most arts writers, critics, or journalists are a little less timid in terms of networking (maybe?) than artists, maybe that’s wrong? I was going to ask you in any case, where do you see yourself on the introvert / extrovert scale?
MC: I’m so glad that you brought that up because I feel that I ask this question of other people all of the time. I would say that I’m a hard middle. I can be extroverted and I really enjoy being social and I don’t necessarily mind, just, talking to strangers, but that’s not where I derive any sort of rehabilitation from. If that’s the right word. . .
MS: No! That’s the perfect word!. . .
MC: [laughs] If I need to feel better about myself I go alone. Once I’m out in the world I usually acclimate and it’s fine.
MS: You’re a good code-switcher in other words. . .
MS: I’m glad that you understand the definition because not a lot of people seem to be unaware that the introvert / extrovert scale isn’t some kind of superficial thing. As an introvert you restore yourself and gain energy from being alone and being an extrovert you do the opposite. You restore and gain energy from being around people.
So let’s get to the reason that we reached out to you, and that is your article on Jerry Saltz’ Pulitzer Prize. For those who haven’t read it, I’m going to do a very patchy job of giving a synopsis. Essentially you admit that you have enjoyed his writing and have, in fact, have found his writing to be very clear and he has covered a lot of important shows and important artists, but in recent years you have observed that he has been overdoing it with the, sometimes, inappropriate or risque selfies and you use the word “bro” a lot. Then, in particular, he wrote about his struggles as an artist and his eventually becoming a critic. You put forth a question of whether or not that article had something to do with him getting a Pulitzer and that was ultimately one of your biggest complaints.
MC: I can’t attest to the committees leverage or ties to that particular article in their decision to award him, I know it was listed among the essays that they cited as a reason for his award. I don’t know what way those were listed either; if it was a hierarchical thing where they thought that these were the best and then they listed them top to bottom. . . I’m not sure. I just remember reading the article and appreciate the candor of it and I appreciated that the origin story of Jerry Saltz is important to the way that he writes and I think it’s very true for him. I don’t think it does a lot of service to the artists that he is writing about. That’s what bothered me in this particular citation. It just seemed like, amongst other things, of all of the things that he has written about over the years, for him to receive a Pulitzer (after having been nominated in the past) at a time when he is maximum persona and minimum criticality. . . that frustrated me. This ties into other frustrations that I went into within the article, which includes the certain amount of (I think I use the term) buffoonery in the way that he presents himself. If that’s really the way he his and that’s the way he views himself, and he’s just having fun with it, then that’s great. This wasn’t meant to be a take down of Jerry Saltz and his nomination for the award because I do think that he is a talented writer. It’s more about, you know, what the public is expecting out of criticism that really got me fired up because it is such a prestigious award and a lot of people buy into his criticism in that way. The only thing that I could keep coming back to about why he would receive this award was that, perhaps, he was just funny or had a sense of humor that was a part of his approach. It got me thinking about, you know, whose expense is that humor coming? And also, then, why doesn’t arts criticism have more humor in it? That can be a larger question. . .
MS: Well, you made me realize that whatever you say about Jerry Saltz and / or his writing as a critic, and he was awarded as a critic, it’s so true what you implied that it’s so much about him and his persona. Logically speaking, a critic serves the reader, they don’t serve themselves. It doesn’t become about them, it becomes what they are writing about. He’s flipped that model, and some may say that that is really kick ass and whatnot. . . but I feel that opinions are divided pretty strongly amongst readers. Would you agree?
MC: Yea, I think that is the thing. That is the quandary that I would think that my peers in the art world have right now. They read him because he’s writing about the big artists and the big shows. Its accessible, clear writing, and that’s all important stuff and I don’t want to diminish that at all. Then, on the other hand, I remember in grad school we watched snippets of his Work of Art show that he did and we had a day of discussion about Jerry Saltz. It’s getting people talking about art in new ways, too, and not so much about the art that he’s covering, which is perhaps the role of the critic. I’m being very cagey about this because I think what Jerry winning a Pulitzer did for me was illicit an observation that the problem is more than just him. He just happens to have a big personality. I think the problem with arts criticism right now is way bigger than just him. It’s not about him at all. It’s not just about one person. I think he’s a symptom of a larger issue where, to survive as a critic you basically have to be a personality, you have to be a media personality. I don’t know that I want all of my criticism to come from media personalities.
MS: Well, to push back on that a little bit, other than him, how many big personalities in criticism are there? I mean, I think other art critics are very modestly profiled. Don’t you?
MC: I would agree. I don’t want to put a number to it. I would say, an art critic of equal stature is obviously Roberta Smith, who is his wife. I think that’s such an interesting dynamic in that, and I tried to touch on it lightly in the article, because she has such a different approach to art criticism than he does. I don’t know if that’s something that is dictated by the fact that she works for a place such as the New York Times versus New York Magazine or if it has to do with their own personal ethos, the way she approaches art, or just how she likes to cover things. I couldn’t tell you, but I will tell you that I know Roberta and I trust Roberta’s opinion just as much, if not more, than Jerry’s and she approaches it in a very different way in which her personal life is removed from the criticism and I learn more about the artist everytime I read something of hers.
MS: Do you learn a lot about the artist when you read him?
MC: I’m struggling to have one come to mind, outside of, you know, the James Franco piece.
MS: Yeah, absolutely. . .
MC: . . . and, you know, I already knew who James Franco was. That was an act in and of itself, I thought. James Franco, you know, I guess you could consider him an artist, I’m sure he does, he may well be, I don’t know. I haven’t seen his work in person. But yea, that was the one time where I felt like I walked away from an article by Jerry feeling like I knew something about an artist that I hadn’t known before, and I had a really hard time thinking of James Franco as just another artist.
MS: I understand you got unfollowed by Jerry. Were there any other results of that article that come to mind?
MC: You know, I was expecting a lot of hate mail in regards to that article, but the biggest thing to come out of it was: I got one piece of legitimate trolling and then, other than that, it was just the opposite. It was an inundation of people saying that they had felt this way for a while but hadn’t put words to it. I got a lot of feedback from artists mentioning that they had wondered why they had been frustrated with arts criticism and things that I said helped them solidify that and so that was very telling for me. It also made me question, you know, if so many people already felt this way, why hadn’t it already been said?
MS: I wonder how many of the Pulitzer Committee is composed of art people as opposed to culture people. Do you happen to have any idea?
MC: I don’t, I looked into that and I wasn’t able to get too much information on it. It got me thinking about a lot of things in terms of arts criticism today because I know that they have to equally distribute the criticism award across all sorts of visual criticism: arts, architecture, design, literature, books, whatever. . . So art isn’t going to be the biggest winner every single time. But I do think that there is a certain level of congruence between visual culture and art writing that happens today. I don’t inherently think that’s problematic, I think that’s interesting. Where I think the Pulitzer Committee, and I’m making a lot of assumptions here (I just want to preface), that in order to be an art critic you have to write so much about traditional forms of art and, like I said, Jerry covers the big artists and shows in NY, but isn’t writing particularly avante garde criticism or changing the face of criticism especially as we keep talking about how global the art world is becoming, he keeps covering the same people in the same spaces. It doesn’t necessarily seem innovative to me. So I wonder how much of the Pulitzer Committee is made up of people involved in “art” and I’m wondering how they define art and where they define art to be happening.
MS: I think there is something to be said about what you’re saying in regards to the accessibility of his work, that it’s with a culture magazine or popular magazine and not an art magazine. It puts him much more on the radar than the Roberta Smiths’ and the Artnet writers and so on.
MC: I totally agree, and that leaves something to be said about arts criticism: there are so few arts critics on staff everywhere you go, now. I think there was something published a while ago saying that there are only ten full time art critics across the publishing spectrum within the US. It’s a really small pool if that’s what we are considering to be a successful art critic these days.
MS: So, it feels like we are maybe overly distributing to him. . . though I realize I brought it up. . . but I wonder if one of the bigger take-a-ways is that he is someone in the art world who has this huge following, I mean, it’s what. . . half a million Twitter followers or something like that? I think that as people in the art world where everything is so niche and small compared to the rest of the cultural world, it kind of makes us wonder, you know, how can we gain some of that mainstream audience. I guess, if your going to come up with a short answer, you could say that, well, he was on reality television and that’s how it happens. I mean, is it any more complex than that?
MC: I don’t know, I mean, that’s a really astute point that you made as to how any one gains power in the United States these days. Maybe that’s just the road that we are headed down, the biggest example being the President of the United States, being on reality tv must make them qualified. That’s a huge leap in logic, obviously. What this brings to mind for me is actually something about. . . . well, have you heard of the book What Happened to Art Criticism?
MS: Who is the author?
MC: James Elkins. . .
MS: I have not, tell me.
MC: It’s a really small book, maybe one hundred pages. Full disclosure, Elkins was my thesis advisor when I was in grad school. I didn’t read this because he recommended it to me, I actually encountered it after grad school and thought, “Oh, I should probably read this.” It’s a great read, he wrote it back in 2003, and I think it’s still relevant now, fifteen years later. What he says is that there is more arts criticism being made today than ever before, but we have a ghostly readership. No one knows how many people are reading it and no one really knows who is reading it. I think that’s why someone like Jerry has so much command right now. He has an easily quantifiable audience. I thought that was so interesting because, even as a writer, I don’t know exactly who is reading my work. I don’t know what dictates the interest at any given time in a certain artist or anything like that. I also think that’s reflected in the market reportage that we see in the art world today. It’s just another way to quantify interest in art. Perhaps that is a little tangential to the question that you are asking, but when you say something like, “Is it just because he had a tv show?”, I think the answer is that there are all of these other metrics in place and all of these other forms of media that are really lacking in art criticism. I don’t know if there is a way to quantify who or why people are reading arts criticism these days. I think that a lot of publications are trying to figure that out right now. I don’t think I answered your question entirely, but that’s where my head was at when you asked that question. Unless you have the benefit of a large social media following or a page in a major publication, there is no way to really tell what is really good criticism these days, but there is the ability to be seen.
MS: There are a couple of good points that I want to bring up on the heels of that that sit around the heels of the concept of our “audience”. One of them comes directly from your piece on Frieze New York with The Observer. Your title for the piece, “Frieze New York is Splashy and Instagram Friendly”, most specifically the part that I wanted to get to was the paragraph, and I’m just going to quote it here:
“But with the endless international schedule of major art fairs like Frieze, Armory and Art Basel, and the countless small satellite fairs that pop up around them, it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between them and the artwork they present, new layout or not. This is bad news for exhibitors who often pay hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to participate in art fairs in order to get their artists seen, which in turn prompts them to often bring the brightest and biggest works they’ve got in hopes that they can snag some free marketing via Instagram popularity and “best booth” roundups—something I’ve been guilty of writing more than once.”
I don’t know if that’s a good segue or not, but in reference to that last line, you have written a few “listicle” pieces. You know, the “top ten this” or “top ten that” kind of thing. . . To what extent are you writing those pieces to pay the bills and are you interested in that content?
MC: Hmmm. . . That’s a really good question and I think about it a lot. I don’t necessarily hate those pieces, I don’t really ever pitch them, though. I do think that they generate a lot of interest, or at least clicks. Just because if its a listicle people know it’s digestible. That’s fine by me. I would rather have people interested and clicking rather than just dismissing it.
MS: Doesn’t that just go back directly to what we are talking about in regards of this unknowable audience. How much of the audience is more interested in listicles than say heavy, or dense art critical pieces.
MC: This gets into something that I think about a lot. It refers back to anti-intellectualism in the US these days more than it says something about a listicle. I do think, or I at least hope that, people want more than a listicle but they aren’t sure how to ask for what they are looking for. A listicle is a safe bet because you can interject a lot of good information into it and if you have a good writer for it it can become good writing and it can be interesting and informative. They can throw them all together or they can make them puffy and funny. It’s all useful and I think they all have a purpose. I will say that, in my personal experience, that the most attention i get for an article isn’t ever for a listicle; its for opionionitive pieces. It’s for something in which I really present a perspective.
MS: Can you give us an example, since your mentioning it, that comes to mind?
MC: The Jerry Saltz article was a big one. I wrote a piece on Egon Schiele and why his work was censored and it became more of an inquiry into censorship using a 20th century artist as a point of entry in order to discuss censorship and the limitations around what we can display either publicly or online and have it deemed ‘acceptable’. That actually was a very slow burn, but I realized that the page views on it were amongst the highest of anything that I had ever written. It didn’t get a lot of media attention, whereas the Jerry Saltz article did. That was lot of other media people seeing it and being like, “what’s this?. . . ” and sharing it versus something that was more organic. It was just people saying to themselves, “Yea, I don’t know what’s going on with censorship these days and I like art and perhaps I’ve heard of Egon Schiele. . . yea, I’ll click on it”. I thought that was a really interesting case study in that. It was me looking at a precedent in censorship and looking at it in the world today and trying to relate it to things that we are experiencing everyday within our own society and it did great. There are other articles that I have poured a lot of heart and soul into and this was more of just, my own personal thoughts. It seemed to have really struck a nerve with people. I guess that is where people are craving more opinion based writing as well as critical content; they also want to understand what they read.
MS: Yea, that makes sense. I mean, that’s the classical case of the ‘newby’ to art, or someone who doesn’t consider themselves knowledgeable about art saying, you know, “Oh, I don’t know what it means. . .” and doesn’t feel bold enough to weigh in because they assume they would look like an idiot.
MC: Absolutely, and that in and of itself is emblematic of a bigger problem with the ‘art world’, per say. I think there are a lot of things in the art world that are intimidating, even for people working within the industry. I don’t know how many times I have just nodded along to someone who speaks international art English, man.
I think that it has more to do with our cultural evaluation of art right now, which I think is really, really low. That also feeds into that idea of ‘what happened to art criticism?’ In the US at least, education around art is really non existent or really piecemeal, coming from a lot of different private institutions– with the funding for those types of programs also being really low. I think we’re seeing that play out on a major scale right now. We have so many people interested in seeing art and we have so much art writing and so many changes all at once and people are interested in seeing how that pans out and really understanding it. They don’t know how to ask the right questions, though, or know how to appropriately appreciate it and know that it is in fact for everybody. I find that to be incredibly fascinating; which brings us back to something I mentioned earlier: why I find this connection between visual culture and art today to be so interesting and not necessarily bad.
MS: Well, I don’t know if I can segway from that, but in terms of what you mentioned a second ago, in terms of the intimidation that you described, even within the art world, but also this separation (especially in the States) of high art and ‘the people’ because of lack of education and so on. . . I feel like that can be incorporated into something else that I was interested in mentioning, from another section of that article on Frieze, you mention that most collectors are directly invited to these fairs and don’t pay entry fees. [To quote from the article]:
“They’re ushered in by VIP car services provided by BMW to snap up the work they like the best. Meanwhile, members of the general public pay $74.50 for a full Frieze one-day package this year—plus a $4.50 service charge.”
That made me think, other than the collectors, their friends, and critics like yourself, who I presume, got a press pass, who is paying $75 to go see Frieze?!
MC: I don’t know! I’m so glad you asked that, because I don’t know!
MC: I actually went to the Armory this year on a day that it was open to the public and there were so many people there. It was crazy! I realized how different my experience of art fairs had been because I was going during VIP time with my press pass. I think that that is also very telling. People are excited to go see an art fair? People in the art world hate going to art fairs, we complain about them all of the time. So there is a disconnect somewhere. I think that us in the art world are so disillusioned with fairs, perhaps being inundated with them all of the time has left us unable to see the change that they are actually creating. I don’t know that I want a commercial art fair to be the change that we see in the art world today, but if people are responding then that means that something is there and we need to pay attention to it.
MS: You know, I was just thinking that, here you’ve written this piece on Frieze NY, and you, just now, have expressed your distaste or frustration with art fairs. What would it take for you to put your foot down and say that you don’t need to cover another fair for a while?
MC: I have to be completely honest with you: I have actually never thought about saying that. I guess, to a certain extent, I’m still interested in covering them because I think that there is something happening that makes them worth watching even if they are tedious at this point.
MS: What about them is worth watching, then?
MC: That so many people feel obligated to be there versus the people who just go on their own time. This doesn’t even have to do with critics and VIPS and all of that. It’s also the galleries that feel that this is the only way that they can keep their business alive; by participating in these very expensive fairs. So, I don’t know if the perceived shackles that the art world seems to be in is real or not, but they are unlike any other industry trade show; which is inherently what they are.
MS: Yes, but they are probably also like any other industry trade show because people go there and lose money, right? [laughs]
MC: Exactly! [laughs] To get back to your question around not covering them: I think that falls back to, maybe, defining better what art is and isn’t doing. Once I know what they aren’t doing, I might know better whether or not it’s worth covering. They still seem to be doing something though, and we all seem to be trying to get after the nugget of that ‘something’. On top of that, to be completely honest, I think I would need a better day rate on my freelance schedule to decide not to do that.
MS: Sure, which goes back to the listicles, I think. You have the Egon piece and the listicles and you can do both and have some income from the list piece and with the Egon piece, it may be satisfying in a different kind of way, but you don’t know how it will perform. That being ok because it feeds your intellectual soul and so on in the process.
MC: I will say, with the listicle, that it can be academic. I did a listicle for Artnet on Michaelangelo that had a lot of art history and citations thrown into it. I did think that that was a really interesting observation in that people really did want to know these things and were able to access it through traditional art historical writing with something like a listicle that was perhaps more approachable.
MS: I think that’s a great point, mentioning that Michelangelo piece that you did because it did contain a lot of information that most of us don’t or didn’t know about Michelangelo and it has pieces that, I’m sure, a lot of us didn’t know were Michelangelo pieces. It was a nice way to become much more educated about the artist and his most important works.
MC: Yea, definitely. I think there’s potential for listicles yet if we can figure out how to use them and use them well.
MS: May I add that we also need to think of a name other than “listicle”. [laughs]
MC: [laughs] Absolutely, perhaps we’ll brainstorm some ideas.
MS: So, you’ve alluded to some of your experiences [as an arts writer], perhaps you can answer to some more specific things. Perhaps, what are some of your big takeaways as someone who has covered the art world for the past several years? What have been some seminal or big moments for you.
MC: I think my biggest take away is that I’m constantly floored by the remarkably intelligent people that are working in publishing. They aren’t going away because these giant groups are going away or shuttering.
MS: That comment reminds me of Interview Magazine folding. Do you know anything about that? I was just reading about it before our call and I guess it’s on my mind because we have a situation here where editors are actually owed thousands of dollars from the owner of the magazine. Do you have any familiarity or thoughts on that?
MC: I have so many thoughts on that. . .
MS: Excellent, well go ahead. . .
MC: As you know, I was editor at Modern Painters, and that was a similar situation where she was failing to pay her employees and freelancers on time and it really devastated the entire media company she had built. You can Google her and find out a lot more about her quicker than I can actually share; but that was a seminal moment for me. There are people who see exploitation as a way to get what they want to do, done. They’re really not afraid to do it that way either. In the case with Interview, I see them as being very closely aligned. They are both individuals with a ton of money and why they can’t pay a couple thousand dollars to their employees in a timely manner is a big deal. That, for me, was my closest experience in understanding in just what way power is wielded in the art world. That is largely through money. Who has it and who doesn’t. You can very quickly and efficiently suppress a lot of people by not paying them. That is eroding our evaluation of culture and how we get our news in general. What we are seeing with Interview is an established publication becoming owned by individuals who never saw the value in the creative output that goes into those pieces that fill the magazine. They think of that creativity as just another sellable good, of which can be outsourced anywhere to anyone and I think it speaks to a larger cultural and systematic problem regarding our value of creativity. I think it has to do with an inherent lopsidedness that we are seeing across all culture and politics right now in how people choose to spend their money.
MS: Yea, well. . . let’s not end on that. [laughs]
MC: I think that this is a problem because it reduces diversity of writing staff, right? The people that really need the paychecks to cash to continue writing are often from a background that hasn’t been involved in the art world before. That’s just, incredibly important to note. We’re avoiding a huge conversation that needs to be had when you make writing, essentially, something that only a handful of people can do based on how little they get paid. So. . . people with other sources of income and less student debt.
MS: Well yeah, I mean, it’s yet another example of something that is happening in the art world as a whole, right? For the most part, it takes a certain level of flexibility and accessibility and resources in order to participate on any level.
So, tell me, you’re in London, what do you have coming up in terms of shows that you are excited to see that you haven’t seen yet.
MC: The one I’m really jazzed on seeing is the Joan Jonas show at the Tate [Modern] . I think he’s a phenomenal artist and I can’t wait to see that in its entirety. I do think there is a lot of attention in the UK given to installation and video work right now. Maybe for longer, I’m not an authority on the subject. I think that I see that integrated so often incorporated into public programming and institutions alike here.
MS: Well, that’s great and I look forward to seeing and hearing more about that. . .
MC: It’s been an absolute pleasure, and thank you!
MS: . . . And we’re out. Thanks again to Maggie Carrigan for her time, it was a pleasure talking to her and I hope you guys enjoyed that.
[End of transcript for 219]
Episode 220: Lucas Spivey of the Mobile Incubator Project and the Culture Hustlers Podcast: June 29th, 2018
This is ‘The Conversation’ and this is Episode 220 with Lucas Spivey. He is the creator of both the Mobile Incubator and the Culture Hustlers Podcast. You artists listening to this episode; creators of all kinds really, for that matter, will especially devour this, I think because part of Lucas’ mission is to help make artists self-sustaining. He’s traveled the country in his vintage R.V which he has transformed into this Mobile Incubator. There, he consults with creatives, he hosts pop-up shows, and he records his podcast. He is a guest courtesy of the great Katrina Neumann, past guest of this show. In addition to talking about the Incubator and his podcast, we also talk about the wisdom of Kevin Kelly’s’ 1000 True Fans and he shares all kinds of wisdom for artists, and even for my podcast.
I’m Michael Shaw, the website for this show is theconversationpod.com, where you can find images of Lucas’s Incubator and shots on the road. He’s been all over the place with this thing— and he’s going to tell us all about it. There’s also a bonus that comes out of it, of which I’ll get to at the back end. Also on the back end, I’ll read a couple of intense reactions to the end of Interview Magazine and the beginning of Gagosian Quarterly.
(Intro clip of Lucas)
Lucas Spivey: The reason I wanted to be a teacher is because I felt that there was something wrong with education; I could feel it in my bones that it wasn’t working, for artists in particular, the way that it was done. I remember going home and talking to my Mom and telling her that I “hate the way that they grade, I don’t understand why I have to take these tests that prove that I learned something that was subjective in the first place”.
Michael Shaw: What grade was this, when you were asking her this?
LS: Probably sophomore year of high school.
LS: . . . and my mom is a total badass and doesn’t take any whining, and just threw it back at me and said, “Well, why don’t you become a teacher and change it?” Which was very powerful for me and it stayed with me and carried over. . . it’s become a bit of my mantra: don’t complain. Don’t bitch, don’t moan. . . do something about it or just shut up.
MS: Wait a second, before we move away from that subject, I’ve gotta say, artists love to complain, right? So you’re really stepping on one of our bread and butter things.
LS: Yea, art is definitely a great format for complaining.
MS: Exactly. . . Anyway, continue.
LS: That is true, but I wish the world was different and I think the great artists separate themselves from the complainers by actually proposing a solution after the complaint.
So, I thought, “Ok, I’m going to be a teacher and I’m going to change this.” So I went to art school with the plan that I was going to get my teaching certificate. I graduated in 2009 with a BFA (Bachelors Fine Art) in Interdisciplinary Visual Art with a Minor in Art History, I was not steeped into any particular medium at all and I tried everything because I wanted to be a great teacher, I didn’t want to focus on just one mode or medium. Then I went out and started teaching— I was directing at an all ages gallery, I was an arts and crafts director at a camp, I taught a class for a homeless shelter. . . I was working after school as a tutor with the YMCA, I was volunteering in classes. . . Yea. . .
MS: So let’s just fast forward and we can fill in the gaps if we need to. Let’s fast forward to your Mobile Incubator project which is where you take this R.V. around to various arts organizations . . .
LS: Gathering places of creativity. . .
MS: Yes and to clarify, you’re not working exclusively within the fine arts, you’re working within the “Arts” with an “S” at the end. You work with designers and musicians. What percentage, would you say, are fine artists?
LS: Well, I’d say about half. I want to serve all eleven culture industries, but I’d probably say that about half of the people I work with are visual arts students. Then, probably after that is performers, then musicians, and writers. Art and Design is pretty comparable, except for when you get into, like, Industrial Design or Product Design and stuff like that.
MS: Are there eleven exactly? Is that part of your education?
LS: There are disagreements on how many there are exactly: but the typical thought is that there are about eight to ten forms of media, depending on how you feel about adding media found in Game Art into a separate industry. Then, I separate out Performance and Music from each other. I also disagree with some of the industries that they have listed. Some of them are titled, like, TV or Radio. I find it ridiculous because we don’t even call it that anymore. Radio is referred to as Podcasts and and TV is typically Youtube. Visual Art has always been my strong suit as far as art and culture is concerned.
MS: Do you, from a macro perspective, have any takeaways or observations about Artists with a capital “A” versus other types [of creatives]. Do you see any commonalities? To set it up in a particular way: when people say that they are an Artist versus a Fine Artist, that has a certain kind of meaning. Then there is when an artist can say that they are an artist, and also a musician or filmmaker or what have you. Being an artist, when you hear someone say that they are an artist, it reverberates in a certain way.
LS: Totally, I mean, we can go hours unpacking that, right? Whether you are a musician or a poet or a painter. . . . I mean, there are painters that paint commercially and painters that paint because they are visionary. It’s the same with music. There are people who make commercial music and people who make visionary music. They are using the same instruments and / or their voices; and yet their approach is completely different.
MS: Yes, I think that visionary is a good word, for lack of maybe, potentially, an even better one. It’s something about exploration versus selling a product to some extent.
So, what have been some of your seminal Mobile Incubator problems? What has that process been like? Was there a certain amount of nervousness when you first showed up with this thing or did you already have a calendar that was filled up with activities? Have you ever done it in a rogue way and just showed up and tried to get things going that way?
LS: I’ve done all of those things. I didn’t have a plan when I started. People come up to me all of the time and tell me how great of an idea this is and I’m like, “I didn’t come up with this idea. People told me that I should do this. I just wanted a cool office for me. I didn’t want to share it, it was for me”. I didn’t want to pay rent on an office, I just wanted to build one and then park it in a driveway and not pay rent, and I wanted it to be cool. Then I drove it around the country, and I just wanted to talk to people and find out what the status was and I made no money. I drove three thousand miles from September to November of 2016 and I made no money, I just talked to people in my office. I recorded some of it for posterity, but at the end of it I was completely and utterly broke.
MS: You were losing money because you were spending on gas and whatever expenses?. . .
LS: Yea. . . I was staying with friends and stuff, so it wasn’t too expensive; but the whole premise of that trip was just to talk to people. I wanted to continue consulting, since that’s what I had been doing since receiving my MBA, and I wanted clients across the country. I didn’t want to be stuck in one place. I wanted to work, virtually, all over. So I thought, “Oh, I’ll just drive around the country in my cool office and I’ll drum up clients—and I got none. [laughs]
MS: Well, one of the questions that arose when you mentioned just wanting to have your office, not share it, and just park it in the driveway. . . you know. . . the question that comes to mind for me, and it’s a very practical one, is whose driveway? I’d assume that you’d have to do some sort of negotiating for places to park it at some point, correct?
LS: Yea, what I found out was that people were not as interested in my consulting services as they were in my office. I’m a great consultant, but there are a lot of consultants out there and it actually takes a lot of time to build up rapport and trust. Simply visiting a town for an afternoon doesn’t really build rapport and trust; but the trailer was unforgettable for people. They were totally transported to another place, they could not think or feel as the normally do. They forgot what they were doing, they forgot their PR script about what it is they do, and they were just human beings for the time being. I thought, “Well, that’s the power of art right there.” When you step inside of something that is artistically done you can’t take all of your hang ups in with you. I just thought, “Wow. . . ” The trailer is really beautiful inside, it has a wooden mosaic that I assembled by hand, a mosaic table by Kate Jessup, an incredible mosaic artist. There’s sconces by Graypants Inc., not to mention the trailer itself is also a 1950’s design icon by Robert Gray. I realized that art has the power to open people up and get the real story from them. I mean, you and I are talking right now a few thousand miles away from each other, and we are able to do this because we are creative and passionate people. But sometimes, people who are running a business forget about the power of art and it’s kind of hard to sit them down and take them away from their troubles. . . and that trip, though I didn’t realize my initial goal, and with their feedback, I realized what it was I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to travel with this thing around as an office in which to have conversations about art and business. I thought, “Maybe I’m not meant to be a consultant and maybe I can find a way to make these conversations helpful, and that can be my business”.
MS: So let me clarify what it is I know of your experience that you have with your clients or patrons: you go in and sit at this table within this mobile home that you have designed or curated and your immersed in this installation, essentially. Was it that these people were humbled by the environment, maybe? I don’t want to over dramatize the situation. . .
LS: They were enchanted.
MS: . . And there was something about their being enchanted that granted them some level of honesty to the way that they spoke, rather than the PR thing that you referenced?
LS:I think that to open up requires an incredible amount of trust. How are you going to open up to a stranger? How are you really going to trust that what you say to them is. . . there are so many things that can go wrong when you open up to someone. You can offer a NDA [Non-Disclosure Agreement], but the second you whip one of those out, they begin to think, “Uh-oh, there is a reason why I have to sign this. . .there must be trouble afoot.” If you bring an NDA out to a CEO, they don’t think anything of it. You hand one to an artist, and they immediately clam up. Even a microphone will make some of them clam up. I needed something that made them feel safe and inspired and wasn’t about stealing information. Some artists, you know, once they figure something out that works for them, they don’t want to share it because they are afraid someone will replicate it.
MS: I’m sorry, just to clarify what this dynamic was like, are we talking about you offering free consultation services in order to build that business at a certain point, or have we transitioned into something more collaborative? How would you describe it?
LS: I didn’t know, at the time, what it would be but I figured at the very least I’ll have more friends. If you ask other people, they’ll say that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I guess that’s true. I just didn’t want to pressure sales too much, and I also didn’t really know what to sell them because I learned immediately that the people that I really wanted to help–the individual artists— they couldn’t afford me. The only people that could afford me were the established operations or larger organizations and I didn’t want to help them. I don’t want to work with people who have already made it. I want to work with people who haven’t made it but they don’t have money for an individual consultant. That is why I didn’t drum up any clients. I realized that this model is too expensive for them.
MS: How did you figure out, then, to support this business in which your target client is one who can’t afford you?
LS: I think there are multiple ways in which to go about it, and they are ones that artists are already familiar with: the first thought is to form a charity. One group creates a service to be rendered to another group. That’s Health and Services, that’s Arts and Culture. At the time, I had just left my position as the director of a non-profit, but I knew that that was limited, because you have two different groups of people to convince: you have to convince one group to give you money and another to get on board. I didn’t want to serve two masters. Then I started to think about what I’d learned from MIT, which was: scale is a way to bring down price point. I thought, what if I had a great conversation with an artist and I didn’t charge them anything, but now I have a recorded conversation. Maybe there is a way to monetize that. Maybe I don’t need much money per artist if I am reaching a lot of artists at the same time. What I did was do a blend of both: asking for donations or charitable gifts, building podcast stuff so that I could reach more people per moment. For example, the first money I ever got for the Mobile Incubator was from the Boston Center for the Arts and I won their Summer Public Art Residency and (I love giving out numbers for stuff like this because I think it’s really helpful for those that are listening) that budget was either six or seven thousand and then the city of Boston kicked in another thousand dollars. So I had this budget that allowed me to park it in downtown Boston and then just interview artists. I started with Boston in particular ( I should add that it was the Boston City Arts Commission, they need credit), because they gave funding for live streamed workshops. So I would conduct an interview and consult for an hour and it would be live-streamed. So anybody could tune-in, anybody could ask questions, and I thought, here we go! I’ve got this grant funded thing, and whenever I do help people, it’s recorded and is helping other people as well. It’s helping more than one at a time. I’m really bringing down the price point and I’m not having the artist pay for it, a non profit is paying for it. So I’m like, “Ok, here we go. Now I can finally work with individual artists.”
MS: Did you become a 501(c)3?
LS: No, I have a fiscal sponsor, which is something that I’d really like to make your listeners aware of, if you don’t mind. . .
MS: We need one, actually [laughs].
LS: Yea? [laughs] The way a fiscal sponsor works is. . . you know, I’m a for-profit and you as an individual artist are also a for-profit unless you are filing separately. The government assumes you’re a for-profit. Now if you want charitable income it has to go through a fiscal sponsor. I had a gift of three thousand dollars from this woman, and she wanted a tax write off. I processed that through the Arts and Business Council, who is my fiscal sponsor, and they take six or seven percent of that because they have to work and file all of this stuff. They take the initial check, take their fee, and then write a new check to me.
MS: Seven and a half percent. . . Is that a good rate, or. . . ?
LS: I’ve seen anywhere from five to eight percent. Seven and a half is good. Arts and Business [Council] is one of my favorites to go through.
MS: Is this a Boston thing or is this a national program?
LS: They have chapters all over the United States.
MS: Do they have one in California?
LS: Let’s see. . . I can’t recall. . . I feel like there are a lot of competitive programs in L.A.. They have one in Miami, Nashville, Chicago, Boston. . . they had one in New York but I feel as though the New York Foundation for the Arts kind of blows them out of the water. I think there are a couple of other chapters. There are other ones for different industries and types of enterprise, too.
MS: So, just getting back to you being in your Incubator, and funded through the Boston Arts Council, and your having these recordings and its being live-streamed so other people can
hear. . . were you able to quantify how many listeners you were getting? If not a total, just by the number of calls you were getting or anything like that?
LS: I did ten live-stream workshops and some of them were big hits. One of them had eight hundred views. I was experimenting with Pariscope Live and Facebook Live and I tried them at different times of day and I was shocked with the variance. With some, the content was awesome and we’d only have, like, twelve views. It would always be because it was the wrong time of day or the wrong day of the week. I just played around a bit because there really wasn’t a whole lot at stake. Since I launched the podcast in December, I’ve gotten a few hundred listens per episode. I haven’t really pushed it hard, at all. I’m just working on it and keeping adding to it. I’m working on the second season, I can go more into what I am going to do with this season later, but yea, I’ve got some big plans [laughs]. I’m not worried about the low listenership right now because I have some big plans for the future.
MS: Well let’s talk about some of the more seminal or bigger engagements that you’ve had. Whether it’s a project that someone was doing, or one of those guests that was involved with a project. . . What would be the most interesting thing for you to talk about?
LS: Well, over a year and a half I have driven over twenty thousand miles and I have interviewed over two thousand individual artists, designers, writers, and musicians. I’ve done that in forty-two states, so I have a wide net to choose some really incredible stories. There are a couple that I keep coming back to, and it’s always in the most unlikely places. I don’t think that they shine because of how amazing they are but because of how resourceful they are. I think of places in New Mexico, Nebraska, or Vermont; places that make you question, you know, “What is out here? How are these people doing this? And they are thriving?”. In Lyons, Nebraska, which is a small town, I want to say, its population is either one thousand or a little under a thousand people. It sets a textbook story of Main Street just fading away. The agricultural industry went down thirty or forty years ago depending on who is telling the story, and that was their life blood. I had rolled in there because an artist named Matthew Risotto told me about this project that he did there that was an Art Place America Grant recipient They took a storefront that was downtown that had basically fallen down except for the facade. It’s a storefront and that’s it: there’s just nothing there, grass growing right behind the front window. That facade had became a symbol of lost hope. They wanted to revitalize it and they brought in some engineers and some artists and they ended up creating a set of bleachers that folded down from the facade. They’ll tow out a projection screen from behind a trailer, and they’ll play movies, right there on Main Street. In a town that small, you can shut down Main Street. Next door to that storefront, there was a man named Bill Hedges, and Bill had worked in that building when it was a theater, growing up. Bill’s retirement age, so about fifty years ago he worked as a projectionist in that building. He found out about twenty years ago that it was closing down, and he bought up all of the projection equipment. He put it in his attic, and then five or ten years ago they found out that they were selling the building. So he bought the building, went in, and placed all of the projection equipment right where it stood originally. He started making his own films there. He turned it into a cyclorama where he could make his own movies. So, right there, in small town America you have this outdoor movie theater and a cyclorama where you can watch and make movies. It’s a really incredible story.
MS: Where is that in Nebraska, in case anyone is in the area?
LS: North of Omaha, about a half an hour?. . .
MS: Ok, so what about another project?
LS: Something that might be inspiring to your listeners may be this group called Meow Wolf. Are you familiar with Meow Wolf? Meow Wolf was a collective of artists in Santa Fe; and what I mean by collective is. . .there were visual artists, graffiti artists, performers, film artists. . . your art school people. [laughs] They had been working under this banner for many years and they just kept growing and growing and having bigger and bigger events around Santa Fe, they had founders but it was kind of nebulous. It was just a collaborative effort and everyone benefited equally from all of its parts. Flash forward (because I’m skipping a lot of the story) and they receive a gift from the author of Game of Thrones, what’s his name? George RR Martin?. . .
MS: Yea. . .
LS:. . . and they purchase a bowling alley and they launch a kickstarter and they are able to pay all of these artists to refurbish this massive space. There is an exquisite, full scale, fucking Victorian house in the middle of this bowling alley. You enter this refrigerator within the kitchen of the house, go down some stairs into a spaceship, walk through the spaceship into a hall where you enter into a forest, where all of the trees are glowing and then you see this yeti monster. . . and it just keeps going and going and going. You walk into a theater and you realize that part of the theater is a school bus. It’s just incredible what they did. They have a stage for performers. Now, they want to open up a second location. So, how do they do that? They did the first one with a big gift and a kickstarter. For the second one: investors. You can invest and buy shares in Meow Wolf. They successfully funded that through investment and now they are building a second location. That’s just crazy!
MS: Yea I looked at the promo video, which was essentially what it was, on Youtube; to see the installation you just described and I certainly remember some very passionate visitors and one of the last ones made mention that there really is no way to really get a sense of this thing unless you visit it in person.
LS: Yea, there’s no way to do it over radio. . . you can’t even do it over video.
MS: Right, right, right. . .So just to clarify: the business model for them, was significantly funded and they got to build this thing, be able to pay themselves (I’m not sure if you know that, or not?), or was that George RR Martin for the first one?
LS: I have the numbers from how much money they raised. . .
MS: Sure!. . .
LS: For the final investment they raised 1.3 million dollars from 621 investors. That was for the second location. For the first project, utilizing the kickstarter, they raised $105,000 from 880 people. I’m not sure how much Mr. Martin gave, but I think that it was enough to purchase the bowling alley, maybe stabilize it and do some improvements to it. I know it’s publicly available, so your listeners can look that up if they’d like.
MS: I think embedded in my question as I’m asking it is: Even with this spreading of donors and investors, it sounds like even with this being as ambitious of a project as this is, it’s still a side project of participants in this group; to the extent that they don’t make a living from it, each or individually. Does that sound about right?
LS: I don’t have the info in front of me. I do know that they paid their artists, though I don’t know how much. I know that in the beginning of this organization, Meow Wolf, that nobody was getting paid in those projects. In the beginning of those collaborations like that, you just pay for your materials, every one invests and works on it, and you just do something crazy with time and love. Then hopefully all of the cash costs are paid or returned, but no one gets paid. Then you grow that over time. I don’t know how many they employ, but Meow Wolf is a big entity now. It’s way beyond a collective now, its an organization that has raised millions. I wish I had the statement in front of me to say their statement now, but it is not a small organization anymore.
MS: Right, gotcha. . .
LS: This is a job creator at this point. It’s not a small thing anymore.
MS: I am interested, a part from that in one observation from the videos is the popularity of the project. . . How accessible it clearly is. . . You can go down a lot of directions within that, but one route I’d like to examine is there a tendency for accessibility for mainstream appeal? From the little I know about your organization, there is a bit more accessibility and you seem to not be particularly interested in crossing over into the Art World with a capital “A’? You know what I mean. . .
LS: Yea, and it’s funny, just yesterday somebody sent me something with a Jerry Saltz post where he said that you only need eight people to like your art: which was a couple of collectors, a couple critics, a couple patrons, and that was it! It’s true because those curators have to please hundreds if not thousands of people and the same with the critics, but the patrons is where your ground is. The patrons, though, want to please the people that come over and look at the art. So, I mean, this idea that you can be a genius on an island that only pleases a few people who “get it” is bullshit. You have to make more than just a couple of people happy. Jerry [Saltz’] point was “don’t try to be everything to everyone.” There is a great piece out there called 1000 True Fans [ Kevin Kelly], and every creative person should read it. His premise is this: if you find 1000 people that resonate with you across the world, not locally because anyone with a wifi connection is international. Those 1000 people will never forget you. They will be talking and thinking about you for the rest of their life;that’s how much you needed to reach them. When you think about it you don’t relate to everyone in this world.
MS: For sure. . . Ok, so let’s just take our respective podcasts as talking points. . . What are some of the things that we can do to cultivate those 1000 people?
LS: Well, kind of like, imagine them on the other end. I’m not making this podcast for the artist that has already made it. It’s not for you, I’m glad if they like it, but it’s not for them. It’s for the person who has zero income in the arts or maybe they have $30,000 from it. . . but it’s not enough to live on. It’s a side hustle, they have another job. They don’t want to be a moonlighter anymore. That’s who I make the podcast for. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, there was half a million of them a few years ago. That may have gone up or down, I don’t know. I’m assuming with the gig economy that it has gone up. So of that half a million, how many are actually ready? How many want it today, they just need some practical steps. I imagine them on the other line: maybe it’s a retiree, maybe it’s a college dropout. I think my audience skews younger, but I try to imagine them, you know, biking to work, and they don’t want their job anymore but they can put this podcast on. I try to put myself in their shoes as much as a I can.
MS: Ok, so let’s say that that’s step one: addressing our specific listeners, these are the types of people that are listening to us. Once they are listening, what are we going to tell them to do?
LS: We have to give them something that actually solves their problem. To me, I could create a podcast that’s just inspirational, and I just say fuzzy platitudes, which there are plenty of them out there and people eat it up.
MS: [laughs] By the way, and hold that thought, there are a ton of entrepreneurial podcasts out there and they’re all probably similarly mediocre, if that, and I don’t know how well this resonates with you, but it feels like there are a lot of podcasts in which the host talks to an entrepreneur, the Tim Ferris model, and it seems incredibly over saturated. What are your thoughts on that?
LS: I agree, and I think they pump people up to fail. They say that if you just believe in yourself something good will happen. . . and that’s just not the case. It’s not fucking true. It’s not about believing in yourself, you have to actually make the world a better place in some way and the only way to do that is through blood, sweat, and tears. You don’t just do that by believing in yourself or “what you love”. You also don’t teach entrepreneurs by filling them full of platitudes. There are so many fucking Instagram accounts where it’s like, you know, “if there is a will, there’s a way!” and there’s a image of, like, a dude climbing a mountain. It’s just like, what did you actually do for people?
MS: Well said. You definitely hit the nail on the head in regards to what not to do when you’re cultivating your 1000. So let’s get back to what you were saying before.
LS: Right, right. . . Well, you went to art school, right Michael?
MS: I got an MFA, yes.
LS: And I’m sure that most of the people that listen to your podcast went to art school, I’m assuming?
MS: Uh.. yes, that’s probably a safe bet, the majority for sure.
LS: Yea. . . I think back to what I think were the best times in art school, you know, beside the drugs. . . and I think it was the visiting artists. They were awesome. When you got to meet an artist and they weren’t there to give you a grade. They were just there to show you how to make stuff and talk to you about what they do. We all loved it, it was such a breath of fresh air to get a glimpse into what a working artists’ life is like. I thought, what if I could do that, and at the end of every podcasts, there are questions from real artists that are listening in.
MS: I do want to go back a bit, as I feel we haven’t really touched the surface of the 1000 fans question. . . Do you think that your addressing that base by speaking directly to those people? I feel like I’m repeating myself here, but maybe we can tick off some bullet points of what one can do to build those fans. Let’s just take the podcast model for an example. What is it that I’m not doing, specifically with The Conversation, that I could be doing to cultivate those passionate 1000?
LS: I think about this a lot. I think podcasting is something where you really think about your fans. I think podcasting is a really intimate form. With broadcast media it’s one of those things where you have access to a lot of people but it’s also really intimate. 1000 true fans, it’s hard to tell where to start. If you are a podcaster that’s listening to this, you should listen to the episode I did with Jake Shapiro, who is one of the co-founders of the Public Radio Exchange. He talks about the 1000 True Fans (Kevin Kelly) and I asked that question to Shapiro, it was actually a call in question, which is funny, and the question was basically, “What are some of the alternative ways that a podcast can get revenue?” and Jake said that you start with an amazing product. You start with something that is so cool and so good that you can’t find it elsewhere. You need to start by just hitting play and just doing it. But it eventually has to get so good that it’s undeniably good and if someone tunes in, they are going to love it. It can’t be a podcast that already exists. I modeled my podcast after How I Built This, which is a podcast. . .
MS: Which is something that you were blasting on earlier, right? [laughs]
LS: Well, it’s a great podcast, it’s one of my favorites– please listen to it. But my criticism of it was that it didn’t help the moonlighters because your only interviewing artists who have multi-multi-multi million dollar operations. You’re only interviewing Kate Spade or Lady Gaga’s talent manager or the person who invented Larabar. They aren’t individual artists, they are so far away from being an entrepreneur anymore. They’re not starting things up–they’re late career. Kendrick Lamar is not going to give any practical advice to a young rapper. So, I need a podcast with people who have just figured it out. Pre-entrepreneur, side-hustler, moonlighter. . . I wanted something that spoke to them. It would have been great to have the big names of the world. I’d love to have Marc Maron on the show, that would be great, but instead I interviewed this guy named Rick Jenkins who founded the Comedy Studio, which was a comedy club in the attic of a Chinese Restaurant for twenty years, and he just moved into a brand new, sparkly location– after twenty years of cobbling it together. That story resonates with people, with the people who want to grow. If you just want to hear platitudes from famous artists, then there are plenty of podcasts for that, but if you want practical advice from someone who is reachable, that’s what Culture Hustlers is for.
MS: When you mentioned these big names, I was thinking, do you think that I could be better served to have on some bigger names?
LS: If they fit your listenership, sure. You could have Barack Obama on the show, but not if he’s going to talk about Syria, right? It still has to work toward your listenership, because if you try to cater to everyone you’ll water it down. You can’t do that. You have to focus on your tight audience– your 1000 people.
MS: So, you mentioned that one of the things that you want is to, you know, put out great content. You want to have a great product. Something to that effect. . . I’m hoping that this is a great product that we are making right now, but a part of that, maybe you can think about what we should take out to make it a better product, what other constructive criticism do you have for this show? Should I make my intros shorter? Should I be more self confessional in my intros or just generally? Should I add music to any part of the podcast? Does any of that come to mind?
LS: Man, you’re really putting yourself up for critique. . . [laughs]
MS: Yea, I guess I am. . . I guess I am. . . I’m trying to take advantage of my guests’ wisdom.
LS: Thank you. . . I think, well first of all, god damn. . . that’s just the spirit. Always get in front of people and say, “What do you think?”. Actually on that note, ask people for feedback. Your listeners are probably better to answer that than me.
MS: I do struggle with that, because I have said in many episodes, you know, “Do tell us what you think. . .” and perhaps for my benefit but not to my credit, it seems to have been mostly positive feedback and rarely criticism.
LS: Maybe I’ll be that person then. . .
MS: Yea, be it!
LS: Anonymous feedback is so good because it’s real. Your friends and family are only going to be so critical. I think that there is another podcast called The Art Marketing Podcast, put out by Art Storefronts, and one of their episodes is called the “Does My Art Suck Contest”. Basically if your art, podcast, writing, or whatever is only being shown up to or supported by friends and family, you don’t know if your art sucks yet. You can’t know. It’s only when people start buying tickets or paintings or renting your whatever. . . it’s only when strangers start paying money, that you’re going to find out. They’ll leave comments, and they’ll be glib. I would say for a podcast, it comes down to what your listeners want; but for me, I was doing hour long interviews and I cut them down to a half hour and I honestly wanted to cut them down even more because I just imagined, or felt like, I needed to be a curator and take away what doesn’t need to be shown. I think another one would be: I asked my team for feedback, because I have an editor and producer and they help me out. They said, “We want more of you.” I don’t think that’s true of every podcast. But they said, you know, “Luke, you’re traveling around the country and doing this. What do you think about current events and what do you think of these places where you go?” I realized that, you know, I was just asking short and premeditated questions, not having a conversation like you are. I realized I wasn’t being as much of a conversationalist. That was their point. So this next season I’m going to be putting in a lot more of myself into the conversation and into the intros as well. I just let people around be guide me. It’s not about what I want to do, or what they want, it’s about the intersection and refining of that over time.
MS: Well, I’ll just take this time to remind listeners to, please, give us your feedback. Is there a platform where one can give anonymous feedback without being traced?
LS: Anonymous feedback is great, but another great solution is emailing feedback– when someone is emailing you, they aren’t concerned with what other people are going to think about what they said. They know you know, but it’s better than a social media platform. There are also surveys, which are completely anonymous, but you aren’t making a direct ask like you are with an email. Hopefully you also have a few friends that you can reach out to and they’ll always be honest with you. I sent out some stuff to some graphic designers I know for some feedback, and they just tore me apart. I just thought to myself, “God, what a blessing. . . “ [laughs]
MS: Yea, good for you. That’s some real emotional maturity there. . . So, I guess I’ll add, and you’ve kind of already answered this, but perhaps you’ll add some nuance to it. Since this podcast is primarily for artists, some writers and gallerists and so on. . . let’s say you want it get some feedback, and I’ll include myself in this equation because I definitely have a hard time getting honest feedback because the studio visit is complicated. You can ask people to give honest feedback, and some will take the opportunity, but it puts them in an awkward position because they don’t want to be the bad guy. They don’t want to be the hit man or bad cop. . .
LS: Ask them what you can do better.
MS: Ok, that’s a great way to put it. Yea. . .
LS: Inviting people to criticize you is kind of, like, “Ok, now I know a bunch of things that particular people didn’t like”. But I don’t really know my way forward. But if you ask people what you can do better, that’s probably a little better because they get to affirm you.
MS: I hate to be so demanding as a host, to my guest, but I think I have an IOU form you Lucas, that reads “IOU feedback on your podcast”, because you answered me by saying how I can get feedback, but you didn’t give me your feedback. That’s fair because you probably haven’t listened to enough of the podcast but when you do. . .
LS: I think that my main criticism would be the length. . .
MS: Ok, so should I aim for an hour? Fifty minutes?. . .
LS: Yea, I think a great podcaster is also a great self editor and self editing is like the artist that has a show and wants to have everything they’ve ever made in the show. Less is more. Self editing is really important.
MS: Well, I think that’s a great note to end on, don’t you?
LS: Yea, I think that’s great.
MS: Thank you so much Lucas, it’s been great talking to you, it’s been very informative too.
LS: I’d also like to mention that, if anyone needs advice, I have a hotline that you can just call or you can Facebook or Instagram message me. So. . .the hotline number is 978-712-8858. Just tweet or Instagram @mobileincubator. If you call in and record the questions, just include your name as an artist, and we’ll put it on the show. There are a lot of ways to get involved, and if anyone wants the Incubator to come to their town, let me know and I’ll put it on the route. The other thing is, if anyone wants to start an incubator, I am taking applications. I have some people interested and I hope to have eight of them going within the next five years.
MS: Great! And since we are still recording, you are having me on your season two as a guest, correct?
LS: That is correct.
MS: Alright, we have it on tape so I’m holding you to it [laughs]. Thanks again Lucas and don’t go away. And we’re out. Thank you again very much to Lucas for talking to me, we spoke a bit further for a bonus segment as well. Before I get to read a couple of responses to an article called “Why the Passing of Interview Magazine and the rise of Gagosian Quarterly represent a new era for the Art World. I want to briefly remind you that this is a listener supported show and your support really does keep this show going. I want to thank everyone who is supporting the show via Patreon and to those who have generously donated to the show. We have new bonus show with Lucas, this bonus episode, he discusses in greater detail the 1000 True Fans idea and involving quintessential artist questions. So, for a one time donation of thirty dollars or an ongoing of monthly payments of five dollars a month on Patreon, you will receive this new bonus episode along with the other five bonus episodes. You’ll also receive my undying love and more, so. . . if you can support the show that way it would be great. You can also support us by following the show on social media @artistpodcast, you can go to Apple Podcast and leave a great review of the show there so that more people can find us. Thank you very much in advance. I also wanted to take a moment to thank Kate Mitchell for all of the tremendous work that she has done in helping out with the show. She’s about to begin an artist residency and then she is moving on. Thank you so much Kate, for everything, but you are always welcome back if you want in. Thank you also, so much to Andy Davis for all of his help, and thank you to newcomer, Megan Bickel for your help.
Following our brief mentioning of the ending of Interview Magazine with Margaret Carrigan, I wanted to include some rather interesting observations from an article by Richard Polsky for artnet News titled, “Why the Passing of Interview Magazine and the Rise of Gagosian Quarterly Represents a New Era for the Art World: Some of the most inventive writing and ambitious art coverage is happening in the pages of art-marketing magazines. To which these writers responded in the following ways: Jerry Saltz wrote, “laughable article plays undertaker to art criticism. Mourns loss of Interview Mag, posits “washly illustrated” Gagosian Quarterly, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Hauser-Wirth, and catalogs to “pour wine, put on jazz and kick-back. Babe, none of this is criticism, it’s ad copy”. From writer and curator Brent Burquette, “LOL Richard Polsky, my method would be stealing as many copies of this Gag Gomo MAg as possible, getting wasted on IC-Light Mango and pissing it all out before lighting the stack on fire, all the while listening to the Brown Angels debut LP. Finally from art writer Greg Allen, my wood stove was insufficient, but I had two fingers of bourbon to warm me, no phone, no kids, NPR turned low, the smell of the perfume ads. The magazine and I, still in love, still at the work of making criticism that I hope will matter to Larry”. And finally, for real, from artnet. . . This is a little joke, to warn you. “Larry Gagosian came up to me the other day & and told me one of his best friends had just died after a sudden illness. I said ‘What did he have?’ He said, ‘Oh, a nurse painting, a couple of Basquiat drawings & a pretty good Warhol.’” That’s enough joking for this week. Thank you so much for listening, and do let us know what you think.