Rachel Alliston Interviewed by Grace Euna Kim
Grace Euna Kim sat down for an interview with Rachel Alliston, Berlin-based director of Decad art space and publisher of Press LMP, both based in Kreuzberg, at the suggestion of BOSmagazine in Spring, 2016.
Grace Euna Kim: It’s interesting how the different facets of your background manifest in your artistic output. You have studied art history at the University of Bristol, architecture at Pratt, visual art at Hunter College, and most recently you earned an MA in sculpture at the Slade School of Fine Art. Would you share your reflections on how this journey has led you to where you are today?
Rachel Alliston: In all of these different moments, I’ve been circling the same pool of interests. I’ve always felt that what’s distinguished by the academic metric is cohesive in the studio. When I was first studying art history, in Bristol, I was most interested in the social use of architecture and image, as well as in the establishment of place or institution by an artistic practice. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Donald Judd’s work in Marfa. I then went to graduate school for architecture, but found too little time for questions of social-architectural integrity and experimental approaches to building, so I dropped out of the program after the first year. I went to work for an architecture collective which was more focused on urban installation than permanent structures, and later worked for a couple of different artists, before deciding to study art at Hunter. I went from there to do an MA in sculpture at the Slade School in London. And have since been living and working in Berlin. I would say that the change of cities has affected me – and my work – as much as the different departments of my formal education have.
G.E.K.: You’ve spoken about creating a counter-narrative to the museum. Much has been written about the destabilized role of the museum and its value systems in the wake of neoliberalism. Is this what you are addressing, or do you see it as a more universal intention?
R.A.: I find the flexibility of the museum model to be exciting, as much as art practice that extends beyond traditional sites and formats. I am particularly interested in work that allows for an intersection of the two, institution-making and art-making. Some of this work has been commercially driven and some has pointedly not been: Judd with his foundation; Rick Lowe at Project Row Houses; Theaster Gates with the Rebuild Foundation; Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ at the NYSD; Gordon Matta-Clark at White Columns; Jonas Mekas at Anthology Film Archives; AA Bronson at Printed Matter; Paul Chan with Bandlands Unlimited; and Tauba Auerbach with Diagonal Press. There’s Mark Bradford’s recent work at Art + Practice. There’s Andrea Zittel and Christine Hill. There’s Laurie Jo Reynolds with Tamms Year Ten. Then there’s Gavin Brown, Margaret Lee and Emily Sunblad. And before all of this, there was Beuys in Düsseldorf. The combinations that I’m making present certain problems. They’re problems that I’m very invested in.
When I look at my own work, in studio and in cultural organizing, I can only consider art-lineage in equal part to the framing of contemporary social contexts. So my first instinct is to respond to your question by suggesting Decad, to use that project as an example, as work after institutional critique. I’m offering an institutional response. It would be great if Decad allowed space for art historians and curators to engage with practices that are community-based or socially-bent without requiring them to take this type of work on as a specialty. And I’m excited by the idea of people speaking of institutions, socially-engaged works, and gallery installations without stopping to acknowledge some sort of artificial distinction.
I can only understand art practice as being entwined in broader social makings. Socially-engaged practice might be taken as the most immediate form within contemporary art in this sense, but in the long run I don’t think that’s true. All art-work is somehow akin to social organizing; it’s a social contribution, in whatever direction. In that respect, I can speak about my work at Decad as serving a counter-narrative to large international museums more empowered within the system of global neoliberalism. Or, quite differently, to talk about my work in organizing and publishing in relation to the sculptures and videos that I’m making in my studio. It’s one circuit of exchange in which all elements are interdependent. None of the sites, objects or people can be read without understanding the shared process of their production. It’s a cycle of fabrication, publication and discussion by which there’s constant feedback.
G.E.K.: How do you envision the growing role of Decad and Press LMP, and how has the context in Berlin strengthened or hindered you so far?
R.A.: Berlin has enabled both projects in really foundational though different ways. Decad I began quite casually in London. As a student at the Slade, I had access to all of these spaces and facilities that belong to UCL, as well as opportunities to engage with city-led initiatives, which begs a discussion of the interdependence of elite universities, urban gentrification and art production, but I will leave that for the moment. I started occasionally to organize exhibitions and lectures because of the easy access to functionally empty space, and as an opportunity to achieve some objective distance from my sculpture-based work in the studio. The organizing has also allowed me to draw on my combined experience in art history, art practice and design in novel ways that I’ve found to be worthwhile. But in London, or in New York for that matter, I would never have considered attempting to open a permanent space for the project.
When I got to Berlin, I was keenly aware that I’d arrived after the city’s post-Wende heyday in the sense that artists, curators and writers were having to spend a lot more time at their day jobs than they had previously done. The cost of living in Berlin had risen drastically; people weren’t able to dedicate as much time and focus to their creative work. Still, compared to London or New York, the rents were lower and the spaces were larger. I started to look around for something that could accommodate both a co-working office and an art space. It was only by renting out desks that the project could have been at all financially feasible.
During that search for a space, I became increasingly aware of the lustful tones people took when talking about “old contracts” in reference to people who’d been living in the same apartment for fifteen, twenty, thirty years and so were still paying pre-gentrification rates. A lot of this talk, about rent and about the changes that the city had undergone, clearly suggested New York. And yet, even though Berlin had already been altered by its international popularity, the city still reminded me – in some ways – of New York when I was a kid in the eighties. Because of this, in thinking about starting a not-for-profit art space, I was absolutely not thinking in timeframes of a year or two. I wanted to find something with a long-term, essentially rent-controlled, contract in a relatively central location. After eight months of looking, I did manage to find that. Having a committed space has informed the larger project in a number of ways.
As for Press LMP, Berlin is important in two respects. One is that there are so many interesting art writers and art historians in Berlin, a lot of whom are staying for a summer or a year or maybe two, so I’ve been able to meet potential collaborators without having to concert much of an effort in that regard. Second, the body of publications that I’m interested in building through Press LMP is in part specific to Berlin. As I plan it now, the house will publish four types of book: essay collections; exhibition catalogues; artist monographs and single-author criticism. I intend the exhibition catalogues to draw heavily on what’s being done in project spaces in Berlin. These off-spaces are sites for really important work and I am eager to develop a readership that brings that work into contact with people in other cities and countries.
G.E.K.: In light of the economic, political and social contexts that frame visual production in public space, what challenges and potentialities carry particular meaning for you as a contributor to its discourse?
R.A.: My primary concern is to find openings for cultural production that do not enable further exclusivity or exploitation, whether that be of art practice, public space or community. Public art in New York and London is often a really challenging thing for me, and I’ve begun to assign work that’s being done in public space as belonging to two factions – that which benefits and is driven by real estate development and that which breeds space for inclusion, cultural exposure and social diversity. It’s important to me that I contribute to the latter.
G.E.K.: In your art practice I find an interesting tension between issues of private and public space. This seems most complex in your recent Property of a Private Collection. What inspired you to explore Bunny Mellon as a subject, and how would you situate the work in relation to your output at large?
R.A.: I would say that my work in grad school was more directly turned towards the tensions between private and public space than it is currently. In the last few years I’ve felt less compelled by interrogating the public-private than by the exchange that people and objects undergo in socio-cultural settings, exemplified by the transit of humans and artworks through art institutions. I’m also interested in the way that the art world affects non-art markets at various scales, and the way in which artists and collectors gain or serve cultural capital. Which is to say that I haven’t eliminated my attention to the different operations of private, public and commons, but am now driven to situate that attention a little more specifically.
This applies to my most recent series of works, Property of a Private Collection, which centers around the figure of Bunny Mellon. Mellon was a designer, a garden historian, an art collector, a political donor and a cultural philanthropist whose life spanned most of the twentieth century and some of the twenty-first. She was made super-rich first by her father and again by her husband. I found this financial and cultural empowerment interesting in as much as it depended on her associations with men. She was able to contribute and affect – in separate avenues – art and politics, but only with the permission of her financial custodians.
I first heard of Mellon when she was found to have illegally donated to John Edward’s 2008 presidential campaign in the US. I was then reminded of her after she died, when I came across her obituary on the front page of The New York Times. I was initially curious because that space of the paper is usually reserved for artists or athletes. And here the headline was advertising “an Heiress Known for Her Green Thumb.” In reading the article, I was overwhelmed by the way in which all of my research interests as an artist seemed to come together in the narrative of Mellon’s biography. As I developed the project, I also became interested in her as a complement to myself, she as the collector and I as the artist. We seemed to offer (very) imperfect mirror images of one another. Mellon founded a non-profit on one of her intensely expensive and beautiful properties, which was dedicated to the study of horticulture and the joint histories of botany and garden design. Mellon’s life and institution, and her relationship to art, somewhat perversely lent heterotopia to the day-jobbing artist in Berlin, trying to start a space focused on non-object-based art practices.
I was also interested in the ways that our separate claims to power were framed by feminine decoration. Before starting the series around Mellon, I had been working for several years with ideas of the social substance of ornament vis-à-vis contemporary art. In my sculptures, I had moved between relying heavily on visual references to architectural addenda such as moldings, finials or small fixtures, and a consideration of abstract sculpture itself as intrinsically ornamental. Meanwhile, in my videos I had been working to conflate the distinct images of women and buildings, and to suggest discussion as adornment. In all of this work, I was offering an interpretation of the interchangeability of contemporary art and art-talk, and considering fine art and the texts surrounding it as decorative social elements that co-opt their viewers. This sounds awfully cynical and I guess it was, but at the same time I was actively seeking to engage in the production of both art and discourse. I was never attempting a dismissal.
When I came across Bunny Mellon, she brought these various trajectories together in a really sound, successful way. Even her name served a purpose, suggesting an animal and an edible object in a combination that sounds totally precious in reference to a woman, especially one of such a high social standing. The name even volunteered a sculptural association. And there was the slight slippage between her spoken surname and its written form. Bunny Mellon was this found combine of high culture, the sincere maker and financial corruption or compromise. There is no way that I could have written her better.
As I was developing Property of a Private Collection, having drawn the title from art auction house standards, I was continuing to develop Decad both in terms of its program and its physical space. At that point, I found the conceptual distance between the institutional work and my studio work to be frustrating, a discontent that led me – in a really base way – to decide to use Decad as a set for the new video. My own hesitations about contributing to gentrification by working as a foreign artist and organizer then began to make its way into the work. Early on, I had decided to depict Mellon by using two actors for a variety of reasons. One was to acknowledge this warped correlation between myself and my protagonist. There was also a reference to my compensated work as an assistant to older, more accomplished artists. And third, there was a desire to describe Mellon, both in her youth and as an older woman. Initially this was to consider the different visual and social values we assign women based on their age. I chose two actors, a Brazilian filmmaker in her thirties who had been living in Berlin only a few months and a German worker who was largely without a professional specialty, who was in her sixties and who had been living in Berlin for forty years. With these two, I couldn’t ignore the differences between the new-Berliner and the old-Berliner, not connected to the women’s physical age but as a social definition of behavior, presentation and character. Eventually, I came to see the two women as personifications of two different versions of Berlin.
During the restoration of Decad’s current storefront, I decided to include in the video, footage of construction workers gutting and renovating the space that Decad was to expand into. This reinforced both the act of renovating buildings for cultural work and higher rents, as well as including men in a more peripheral way to my and the actors’ and Bunny Mellon’s work. There was this monument of a building being worked over, and then the important detail that those men doing the labor were not speaking German but Polish; they in fact lived in Poland and drove into Berlin for the better-paid work. You can watch this continuous cycle between culture and city and workers and money within the confines of this one space and this one video.
G.E.K.: I feel a sense of institutional critique in the works, and also a critique of Bunny Mellon herself but more as a reflection of the systems she was implicit in. At the same time there is a sense of admiration for her, perhaps for how she navigated the gender politics of her time and created an autonomous space. How would you respond to these impressions?
R.A.: I am critiquing myself and the development of Berlin and the social nature of art-work today and Bunny Mellon. I went about making this video explicitly as a post-feminist biopic, and very self-consciously so. Normally when I hear someone use the term post-feminist, I feel a nauseous tug at the stomach and I have to roll my eyes, but I think that “post-feminist” can work propositionally within an artwork. I didn’t by any means want to tear down the character of Bunny Mellon. I’m fascinated by her character and her story. I have great respect for her accomplishments as a designer, while remaining aware that she was enabled in her work by social inequality. Besides founding the Oak Spring Farm Library and its subsequent incorporation as a horticultural foundation, her own design work included the Rose Garden at the American White House as well as its East Garden, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library’s grounds and the historical restoration of the potager du roi (the king’s vegetable garden) at Versailles. She also supported artists and other designers by buying their work and promoting it.
Unrelated to her professional accomplishments, I found some of the online images of Mellon to be quite painful. There are photographs available of her when she was a young woman, and lots of images of her in middle age when she came to hold a greater socio-cultural significance, in large part due to her second marriage. In these earlier photographs, she’s very well presented. She clearly cared about her clothes and to a certain extent the way she looked. But in the last years of her life, she had gone blind as a result of macular degeneration. She wasn’t able to garden any longer; her personal presentation changed. Even the visual appearance of her eyes was affected. There are several photos, presumably taken by paparazzi, of the same woman not looking her best shortly before she died at 103. These images made me all the more aware of the way I wanted to frame this person. I included in the video the fact that she went blind as a result of gradual systemic degradation, which ended her ability to produce as an artist. What I didn’t include, though it was a difficult decision to omit it, was that she died of stomach cancer. It’s sometimes difficult to navigate the social responsibility of an artist, in form and in content. I wanted to be clear in the video in two respects: that I do admire this woman and that I have strong objections to the system that produced her. In the presentation or representation of women, this is what I can do, within an atmosphere that is still very violent in the – mutually influenced – visual and social treatment of gender.
G.E.K.: You have noted Feminist Realism as an important concern in your practice. What does this term mean for you personally and as a mode of inquiry?
R.A.: Feminist realism is a term that I sometimes use in discussing my work, arguably unfairly. It’s a name that normally belongs to a movement within economic theory geared towards the re-evaluation of what has traditionally been held as women’s work, as a means by which to level the gendered field in both micro- and macro-economies. When I use the term “feminist realism,” I have this in mind, but I am also interested in tying to it feminist art histories as well as the historical implementation – by artists and critics – of realism.
When I saw photographs of Bunny Mellon’s many homes with her collections in situ, I had to think of nineteenth-century realist painting in respect to the still lifes and portraits that included workers’ possessions and geographical framing. Mellon allowed fine art a place indistinct from folk art and antique or vintage objects in this way that was at once elitist and egalitarian. She had so much money that an object’s financial value seemed to have lost all bearing. It wasn’t relevant to her enjoyment. Nor was an object’s preservation. The hierarchy between a wooden rake, an herbal topiary or a van Gogh oil painting was flattened while she dedicated herself to the preservation of books on botany and gardens. It was an unusual prioritization. Mellon’s domestic exhibitions of culture and wealth were rendered in high-gloss as still lifes themselves when carefully lit photographs of her home and privilege were published in magazines like Architectural Digest and Vanity Fair. This inverted correspondence between the artist and the viewer – or the artist and the collector – was curious to me. It still is.
At the same time, I am interested in the inversion of what is realistic, or what is deemed inevitable. This applies to the production of art but also to the production of society. By the term “feminist realism,” I mean to gesture towards this social-visual complex without trying to deny viewers their own reception of my work.
G.E.K.: What’s next?
R.A.: The lecture program at Decad is ongoing, and next year we’ll start a regular exhibition program in the storefront. I’m working with a number of people on the project now – Eva Wiedemann who is an arts lawyer, Julianne Cordray who is an art writer, and Ignas Petronis who is a curator. At Press LMP, there will be the release of the print edition of an exhibition catalogue edited by Mareike Spendel. It is the press’ second publication. A third book is currently in production, this time a typology of the project space written by Heiko Pfreundt. And in the studio, I’ll keep making the sculptures and videos. All three of these sites – studio, Decad and Press LMP – are necessary to start to diagram the cultural-productive circuit of exchange that we run.
Rachel Alliston (b. US, 1984) is an artist based in Berlin. She studied visual art at Hunter College before earning an MA in sculpture from the Slade School of Fine Art. Alliston’s work encompasses both studio and institution. To date, she has founded two institutional works, the not-for-profit art space Decad and the art-book publishing house Press LMP. Her work in the studio consists primarily of sculpture and video.
Grace Euna Kim is a Berlin based artist and researcher working at an intersection of visual art, performance, urban and social intervention. Recent projects include Walking into Forgetting lecture performance at the Museum of Nonconformist Art (St. Petersburg), Waiting Room performance installation at Flutgraben (Berlin), and Imaginary Playground solo exhibition and performance, Incheon Art Platform (Incheon, S. Korea).