Dialects and Dialectics: Conversation between Chelsea Haines, Christopher K. Ho, and Eriola Pira
This conversation originated between curators Chelsea Haines and Eriola Pira and artist Christopher K. Ho in Ho’s Brooklyn studio this past July. Initial questions about Ho’s practice (i.e. Why did you move to the mountains in Colorado? Who is Hirsch E.P. Rothko? What is the relationship between painting, regionalism and fiction? Can storytelling build a more critical understanding of art history and the art world?) led to a broader conversation on regionalism, critical identities, and imagined art worlds.

Chelsea Haines (CH): Individuals in our field frequently take for granted an idea of the “art world” as a monocultural entity marked by dominating visual regimes and institutional sites: major museums, commercial galleries, the biennial circuit, etc. I have found recently that regionalism (what I would provisionally define art and artists who work outside the centers of the art world) sometimes can feel like an antidote to the mainstream art world—a break from experiencing the same types of work all the time. Have you noticed this as well? What is your definition of regionalism?

Eriola Pira (EP): I have found discussions and definitions of regionalism to be U.S.-centric in their scope and concerns. That said, writing today from Albania, the unfortunate binaries between center and margin—are in play just the same here and internationally. Art made in places like Albania is often looked at as the antidote to the mainstream international art world. (The terminology may change, with “periphery” replacing “regional.”) You have Harald Szeemann saying, “The future is in the Balkans. Because I think there is still some kind of subversiveness in the art here, which is more or less dead in the West.” Or Rene Block claiming that Kosovo’s contemporary artists are the new avant-garde. These are just two examples of an international super-curator traveling to an “undiscovered” locale, in this case, Kosovo, to seek out that whichlies outside and will hopefully save the art world from itself.
     This is a cyclical process, however. A particular region is given notice until the next locale on the international art map reveals itself and the attention (and funding) moves on, leaving the prior one exactly where the curators found it. This is true here in the sense that artists from a non-center in the U.S. can serve as an elixir to the mainstream as long as they either remain there or the location doesn’t strive to become mainstream in any way—lest it lose precisely what makes it reinvigorating and valuable.

CH: We can see this process in play now with the extremely interesting but complicated Afghanistan component to Documenta 13, in which Kabul is described as a site mysterious, exciting, and also dangerous—“under siege”—that exists in a kind of mirroring dialectic with the now monolithic Kassel institution.

Christopher K. Ho (CKH): One pitfall of approaching regionalism as an antidote or pendant to the mainstream is that it attaches the terms to one another, thus undermining their autonomous possibilities. That said, regionalism may present a viable alternative to the binary between center and margin. If approached less as a rear guard than as a side guard—as sitting outside the axis that connects a given binary’s terms, like an eddy to a gushing stream—regional art has the potential to generate other narratives, other discourses. I believe Chelsea touched upon some of these in a panel discussion at last year’s Miami Basel.

CH: That panel discussion looked at two projects that very much circled around notions of regionalism or regional artists and their relationship to the mainstream: People’s Biennial, an exhibition organized by Harrell Fletcher and Jens Hoffmann, and The Bruce High Quality Foundation’s Teach 4 Amerika. Both projects were organized by individuals who have received a fair share of recognition in the mainstream art world and wanted to explore how artists in the U.S. work outside of MFA programs and commercial galleries.
     The immediate skepticism regarding the projects surprised me. (Of course the setting of the panel was an international art fair, a sort of necessary evil that supports these types of talks, which I mentioned only half-jokingly in my introduction.) Some in the audience, like Claire Schneider, then Senior Curator of SMoCA in Scottsdale, criticized the organizers for not being “from there” wherever the “there” of the project may be. She argued that, not knowing the local histories and cultures, they did not have the right to make aesthetic or critical judgments. Considering the question of being “there”, I’m wondering if Chris might want to talk about his experiences in rural Colorado, and embedding himself as a regional artist.

CKH: I started my project in 2009, just after the economic downturn. My goal was to leave the New York art world, move to a small Colorado town as Hirsch E.P. Rothko (an anagram of Christopher K. Ho), and become a regional painter.
     Embedding is a perfect term! Like the avant garde, it has military connotations but, unlike the avant garde, it turns on observation and emulation. To observe and emulate is neither to impose your opinion, nor to critique, or even to take sides—operations now disturbingly doxa in contemporary art and academia. Embedding is a profoundly empathetic activity, and it is empathy, generous in its restraint, that I feel the cyclical processes that Eriola mentioned lack.
     My sojourn resulted in a semi-fictional memoir and modest abstract paintings. To those steeped, say, in art discourses of the ’60s and ’70s, the latter would appear utterly apolitical and innocuous. Yet can what appears innocuous in fact contain hidden potential?

CH: In this sense your project is akin to Teach 4 Amerika. Some people were adverse to that project because it seemed like the Bruce High Quality Foundation was going to other places and preaching to them about the arts education system. As far as I know that wasn’t the case; it was an attempt to build and strengthen a cross-country network and see what kinds of self-organized pedagogical systems have been developing as alternatives to the $100,000 MFA. I wonder, however, what came out of those conversations in terms of a sustainable network or alliance?

EP: I would like to press that question too. What I would like to see—what I think all three of us are arguing for—is a discussion of periphery or regional art as such. Or to rephrase it as a question: if art grounded on taking sides, critique, and advancement results in a fairly normative and academic discursive art that exists within a certain set of aesthetic and cultural codes, what would an art based on observation, appreciation, and emulation lead to? How would the result not be—or not be perceived as—unsophisticated or merely derivative and hackneyed?

CH: Perhaps one solution is to forgo our original definition of a monocultural art world with regional or peripheral activities around it, and to characterize and approach the art world as heterogeneous—as various art worlds. Instead of center and periphery, in the contemporary moment different types of artists and art worlds are rather situated on top of each other in the same locations all the time with varying degrees of interaction. There are so many artists in New York, for example, who are completely unrecognized by any of the standard forms of valuation by the mainstream and don’t even really know (or care) about “our” art world. I certainly feel like the most recent Whitney Biennial was steadfastly, though perhaps unknowingly, regional in its output. I think regionalism can and does move beyond the boundaries of geography more and more.
    I feel quite torn with the argument regarding observation and appreciation versus criticality. On one hand, I totally support Eriola’s comment that the only way to further the potential of art is to critique, discuss, and debate. At the same time I also feel an attraction to understanding art and its place in the world in a more contemplative, perhaps generative sense. Maybe there is another element at play that we are missing.

CKH: “Generative” may be the key. It points to what I see as a necessary corollary to regionalism: fiction. Fiction augments regionalism in at least two ways. First, fiction prevents regionalism from being merely hackneyed or derivative by insisting on a fanciful, even idiosyncratic, dimension. Second, fiction has little or nothing to do with a periphery feeding or reinvigorating the center. It sidesteps the problem that Eriola highlighted earlier: how regional practices are valuable to the main only in as much as they remain on the margins. Synthetic rather than assimilative, fiction concerns the creation of complex, autonomous worlds.

CH: Eriola, I know you have been researching fictional artists for some time. What are some of the key projects merging fiction and regionalism from the past few years?

EP: Fiction and many of the issues we’ve already discussed in relation to regionalism are key to the conception and reception of Iris Häussler’s multilayered installation that recounted the life and work of the recluse artist Joseph Wagenbach. Presented in 2006 as a part of the “Municipal Archives,” Häussler was careful not to have this project seen as art despite her studied and skillful attention to producing every aspect of Wagenbach’s biography and artistic output, displayed in a downtown house in Toronto. Wagenbach’s work was immediately welcomed and acclaimed by the mainstream press and art world. The allure and power of such an outsider artist to the public’s imagination was so strong: that when it was revealed that Wagenbach was nothing more than a figment of Häussler’s imagination, people such as novelist Martha Baillie refused to let go, writing: “The Joseph Wagenbach I’d created in my mind, [ . . . ] nobody could take from me, not even Iris Häussler. He was mine.”
     Häussler’s creation of Wagenbach and of his work is all of the above adjectives that we had set against each other. The discursive nature of the project does not deny it the contemplation, observation and generative energy that Häussler put into making and demands of us in experiencing it. This is a project that not only led to a longer-term one for the artist that continues to create and simultaneously preserve the legacy of Wagenbach, but also denies the short-lived life cycle and fast-consumption that is the fate of many an artist – let alone a fictional one. This is what makes Häussler’s work and her use of fiction so effective, poignant and engaging. Similarly, many other fictional artists’ projects strike a delicate balance between these affective qualities and the conceptual even when the work does not manifest itself visually.

CKH: Häussler’s project embodies precisely the synthesis that I find lacking in most projects concerning regionalism. She shifts the frame from assimilation and power hierarchies to a fictive universe that is both uniquely her own and outwardly oriented towards a viewer.

CH: Perhaps the most interesting aspect of regionalism is not its relationship to a pre-existing art world at all—rather it’s the unique inward worlds these artists create for themselves.

Chelsea Haines is a writer and curator based in New York, where she is a doctoral student in Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Christopher K. Ho, born in Hong Kong, is a New York-based artist. His upcoming exhibition will be on view at Forever & Today from January 10-February 24, 2013.

Eriola Pira is an independent curator and the Program Director of the Young Visual Artists Awards, a 10 country network of artist awards in Central and Eastern Europe and residency program in New York.