To celebrate the release of Swoon‘s new monograph, we have teamed up with Abrams to provide a unique promotional giveaway & editorial. All you have to do is use the word “Swoon” in a sentence and leave it as a comment at the end of this post for a chance to win a copy of her new book! We’ll select three lucky winners in total- so choose your words wisely and contribute your most creative sentences! Confused on what an award-winning sentence looks like? Bad sentence: “Basically Swoon’s stuff is pretty cool and kinda nice.” Winning sentence: “Awake forever in a sweet unrest, still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, and so, live ever– or else Swoon to death.”
If that’s not enough, we’ve also conducted an exclusive, behind-the-scenes interview that gives insight into Swoon’s work. Who knows- maybe you’ll find inspiration for your winning sentence! Read on to find out more about the process of creating her book, how Swoon rifled through her personal archives to create unique spreads, her surprising reaction when the book was finally in her hands, as well as her inspirational, one-of-a-kind mentality towards the creative process and more.
Zahra, linoleum block print in progress, 2006
Can you talk a little bit about how you first got interested and involved in art?
I was really into melting crayons on the radiator, my grandmother wouldn’t let me. I would sneak and do it whenever I could.
Your sources of influence seem as wild-eyed, diverse, eclectic and interesting as your work itself; whether art historical or folk sources, German Expressionist wood blocks, political poster art, pop culture & iconography, language of the street, dreams, signs, dumpster-diving….and on, and on. Can you talk about your vast pool of creative inspiration? What ideas, philosophies, music, etc inspires you the most, and how do you see these concepts playing out within your work?
There was definitely a point where I went from having other forms of art as my primary inspiration, to having the world around me start to become the biggest source of inspiration. I would say that this was a pretty good moment. I still look at art all the time, it’s still so important and sustaining for me, but lately I just love to look around. And I love to travel. Love to get lost on city streets anywhere I find myself. I love watching how people interact with each other, and with the city. Almost any phenomenon can represent some sort of lesson that translates into the next thing I make, from watching the behavior of water flowing around an object, to the cascading pattern of ferns down a cliff side, or the piling up of garbage on a street corner.
Installation views, PinchukArtCentre, Kiev, Ukraine, 2006
There’s a certain sense of Utopian longing within your works- of trying to change the world, with all its commodity culture, waste, and isolation, through alternate modes of living, or living as a “freegan” (living for free) as they’ve been referred to. You’ve hosted community dinners like “Grub,” made entirely from dumpster reclaimed food, among other projects…underpinning many of your works it seems that there is a huge emphasis on community. In a certain sense, this stands somewhat at odds with a contemporary, Western vision of the “artist,” as an individual producing items for consumption. How do you think your work fits within our notions of art & commerce, and to a certain extent, recontextualizes them?
That being said, it seems like the streets, with its kind of free-spirited equality, belonging to the people type of deal, seems almost the perfect stage to create your larger than life works. Can you talk about how you became interested in that?
Well, I’ll answer these two because they are deeply connected. Working on the street came first. The desire to make something that wasn’t an object, but an event, and which opened up a wall as a public dialogue just by taking place on it – all this came first. And then, I don’t know why, but all the rest followed in short order. One small action upon the city seemed to reframe my brain. I went from someone with no agency to change anything, to someone who saw by their own hand that, yes, you can change this one small corner of wall, and all of the reactions of the people who walk by – and this raises the question of what’s next? If you can make this small change, what other changes can you make? And what could we do if we all got together? These thoughts seemed to come tumbling in right after, and now it’s ten years later, and I’m still trying to figure out a thing or two.
On the flip side, how do you reconcile public practices in institutional spaces?
Hmm, how to say that? Institutional work – it’s easy — you just go inside a space, and you make a thing — it’s not raining, it’s not hot, and no one is gonna kick it down. It’s also pretty unlikely that it will lead you to the incredible places that work leads you when it takes risks by being a part of the lived world, but sometimes you can get further into a thought process when you’re in a protected space. This has a real and undeniable value to me. Sometimes I want the luxury of time, and the ability to compose things that just wouldn’t stand up in the outside world,. That is the function of institutions to me. The trouble arises when we start imagining them as the be all end all of art – or the arbiters of what’s good and what’s not. They are neither of those things. They are just a space to foster and protect certain kinds of creations.
In keeping with that, one of the recurring themes in the essays I read about you yourself are kind of like this pied piper, an inspirational figure and almost community organizer to all who work with you. Do you see your works as being attached to a kind of radical philosophy? Or yourself as a ringleader of sorts?
Well, I work in a group of ringleaders and pied pipers. We all get together and lead each other around in circles. Sometimes really great things happen in the process.
Where do you see the intersection between art and politics residing?
Ooh, no, can’t answer that one, always shifting, always occurring.
Can you talk a little bit about the collectives you’re involved in-how they started, and why?
All of the collectives I have been involved in arose out of the desire to do certain things, and the realization that those projects or ideas could only be realized with a group of bad-ass amazing people. The original desire was always the glue.
Installation views, Deitch Projects, Manhattan, 2005
One of my favorite art projects you did was the “Swimming Cities of Serinissima,” in which you “barged” the Venice biennale with your ramshackle fleets of ships, built from the detritus and cast-away junk of dumpsters and trash. Your crew, too, has the almost pirate-esque feel of an outlaw armada, or at least communities on the edges of society. I imagine when you sailed into the biennale, it might have had the same affect when foreign fleets came to dock in new lands for the first time, kind of a sensation, a spectacle….can you talk about this experience? What did you learn, or discover along the way?
Well, we traversed the Adriatic Sea on our way to Venice. For those of us who had gone down the Mississippi River too, we discovered Italian hospitality to be a little bit like Midwest hospitality, but with even better cooking. There is a magic to boats and a magic to groups of people on a kind of a pilgrimage that people on the Mississippi and people on the Adriatic Sea both responded too with such warmth and intensity. In Venice someone said to me, Venice is a city of a thousand dreamers, but no one has seen a dream such as this. I wanted to cry.
Old Hickory and the Venetian police, Swimming Cities of Serenissima, 2009
You recently put out a book of your work through Abrams. It’s interesting that in addition to functioning as a more traditional artists monograph, replete with critical essays and full color images of your work, you also get access to more behind-the-scenes shots, images, photographs, and the like, whether a snapshot of Japanther performing at your opening, or spreads from what looks to be a hand-stapled ‘zine instructing the reader “how to change a subway ad.” This eclectic, broad-reaching look into your influences seems to be very much in keeping with the eclectic nature of your work itself. What went into determining the content for this book? Did you have to go through your personal archives? How was the editorial & images selected?
I spent two months going through my archives. It was very emotional to look at ten years of my life, and try to set it down on those pages. The people at Abrams were really open to including all of the little caveats and folds in my working process over all of these years, and that was pretty amazing, to be able to tell the story so completely.
Portrait of Silvia Elena, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 2007
Can you walk us through the process of creating a book such as this…where’d the impetus for the book come from? How did it come into being? What were some of the unique challenges or consideration, in presenting your art within this new context?
It started pretty simply, just when the people at Abrams approached me about it. The fact that they were the only publishers who were persistent enough to get me to sit down and do the work of making a book helped. I had always before been like, ‘sure, sure, I’ll do it’, and then I would just keep flying by the seat of my pants, and never sitting down to examine any of it. The hardest part for me was not making the book into another overworked piece of art – they kept saying ‘slow down, let’s just let this be a document’, when I would try to scribble and drool all over everything.
When reading over the essays included in the book, I loved the broad range of tone and writing styles. Everyone from Jeffrey Deitch, who presented your first NYC solo exhibition in 2005, to fellow long-term art related contacts, such as Jeff Stark who you collaborated with for your rafts project, contributed essays. Can you talk about the cast of writers that appear within your book? How did you select them and what do you think each of them offer, as far as insight into you and your work?
I tried to choose writers based on a project or section of the book that needed an essay, but in the end they just wrote whatever they wanted. It was pretty unpredictable. Chicken John wrote a brilliant 12 page essay that got boiled down to one quote. I asked Jeff to write about the Rockaway and he wrote an essay that is so sweet and loving that I am embarrassed to even have it published. P.s. It’s not about the Rockaway.
The Garden of Bling, Miss Rockaway Armada, 2007
In Lisa D’Amour‘s essay, she noted the boats mentioned earlier first began just as little moquettes in your bath tub. Such a beautiful metaphor in some ways, for how I see your creative process, as far as the element of taking something that seems ephemeral, impossible, or magical and turning it into something larger than life. How do you view your creative process? Where did the ideas for your projects come from, how you turn them into art?
Often they start as dreams, literally. Other times just pesky notions. Making is always a snowball effect for me. You just start. Start with something, it will grow. Model making is sketching in space. The first most important step is to be able to articulate the idea to yourself. Then, if it’s a really big idea, to articulate it to others. That’s not really an answer is it? Maybe I’m not yet ready to answer this one for real.
How’d you feel when the final project finally came back from your printers–what was the whole experience like?
Depressed. I feel bad saying that. A lot of energy and resources were put into making it, I am really lucky for that — and they did a great job, but I had the strangest experience of looking over it, and being like, what the hell is all this stuff? Is this what I have been doing with my life? It was confusing somehow. Like I was able to take a superficial view of everything I had poured so much soul and energy into, and from afar, without closer examination, it can all look like a bunch of romantic rubbish. Probably also something about the awareness of the passage of time going on there.
It seems many in the community, not just artistic, but beyond look up to you as a source of inspiration….what words of inspiration would you give anyone creative seeking a like filled with creativity?
Well, I guess my most important guiding principle is that it should always feel like being in love, if it doesn’t, change something, make less rational decisions, try to control your creative impulses less, and follow them to the ends of the earth a bit more.
Installation views, Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, Deitch Projects, Long Island City, 2008
All images from SWOON, copyright © 2010 Caledonia Curry, published in 2010 by Abrams, an imprint of ABRAMS.