Roughly once a month, we pose a question to artists about an issue they face in their work and lives.
Often, creative work defies easy categorization. We asked a group of artists working in intriguing ways, What challenges do you face when asked to name a category for your work?
Liz Nofziger, site-specific installation artist
My work doesn’t fit neatly in any category. “Site-specific installation” captures the majority of it quite well, but if the person I’m speaking to isn’t familiar with the genre, this doesn’t help. I use a broad range of materials and practices to suit each specific project, most of which are short-lived. I find that I end up describing the process of making the work, and the physical/personal experience of the work. The end product is most commonly not tangible or fixed as it varies based on individual experience and interaction with the work. I think the most honest thing I can say about my work is that it is impractical, but I can’t help myself.
Kirk Amaral Snow, sculptor
The most important thing in my mind is to use a term that creates the right relationships. Intermedia and Interdisciplinary are terms that I use, but they are pretty nondescript. They lead to discussions that are about Art Practice rather than describing the work. These days I reserve them for my bio.
I have decided for most purposes that the work is Sculpture; it is materials in space, even if one of the materials is sometimes the body. This allows the pieces to engage the conceptual conversations that interest me (the shifting meaning and value of materials; the visual language of building and construction) without getting too bogged down in the minutia of categorization. Maybe the term simplifies the work, but I am all for a bit more modesty in the way art is written about!
Halsey Burgund, sound artist
The biggest challenge for me as a sound artist is not so much which category to choose but rather how to explain what that category means. As far as I can tell, sound art isn’t clearly or consistently defined (how is it different from music? can it be combined with visual/sculptural elements without becoming something else? etc) and more importantly, it is less well-understood by the public.
When having a conversation with someone, writing a description as part of a proposal or giving a talk, I often have to spend a significant amount of time establishing a baseline contextual understanding of the genre before launching into the fun part which is to describe what I do specifically, how I do it and what my motivations and hopes are for the work. If I was a painter, I could say “I make paintings” and then move on to the more interesting discussions immediately, but unfortunately, I find myself using up valuable time/focus/word-count on basic explanations first.
I will admit, however, that despite the frustrations, being forced into these sorts of descriptions and conversations often lets me see my own work in different ways that are enlightening, so as with most things, there are two sides.
D.K. McCutchen, writer
It’s challenging to articulate an “Elevator Pitch;” to quickly categorize my work in a fast-paced world that won’t wait around while I fumble to describe how multiple genres intertwine.
I’m fascinated by creative nonfiction (CNF), but don’t interpret it as simply using fictional concepts to tell a “true” story. I don’t really believe in truth. I do believe in Points of View, and everyone’s differ. That’s one soapbox.
Another conflation of genres, in my work, is science and experimental fiction. I did a CNF thesis for a Fiction MFA, with experimental writer/mentor John Edgar Wideman. I wrote experimental CNF and published The Whale Road, after repeatedly hearing from publishers: “Love the idea, love the writing, but why did you write it that way?” I still get that.
Now I’ve added speculative fiction into the mix. I teach science writing and keep up on the latest research. I write to imagine our world in the near future. As we remove species, add climate change, and stir, who will we be? I experiment with language, science and worlds. We lose language as we lose species. If cats are long-gone, what happens when Sandburg’s “… fog comes on little cat feet?” Everything’s connected.
Recently my pitch became: “my work is sometimes-erotic, post-apocalyptic, gender-bender, speculative fiction.” But then a prospective editor suggested it might also be categorized as YA….
Deb Todd Wheeler, sculptor, inventor, and media artist
So I guess the question I ask back is: who is doing the asking? If it’s me asking myself, which I often do, I tend to get caught up in the “expertise to enthusiasm” ratio. My projects lead me into arenas I feel I have no business sticking my nose or hand into, like say, photography (MCC finalist 2011), but once an idea takes hold, I can’t help but become as much of a sponge as I can, bothering friends and friends of friends for advice or collaboration, and let myself enjoy discovering the material. I suppose that puts me more in the category of Life Long Learner, with the acknowledgement that I will never really have any solid expertise. But if it’s a question about which grant to apply for, or which box to check, that’s a bit tricky. I imagine organizations need to keep the categories pretty general so that artists can be evaluated based on the relation they have to others working in a similar vein. For me, the challenge really is to stay on top of the conversation my work is engaged in, and leave the job of defining it for when I am at my desk and not at my workbench!
Kirk Amaral Snow (kirkamaralsnow.com) is an intermedia artist whose practice investigates the relationship between the built world and performative aspects of culture. He is co-editor of the online arts journal Temporary Land Bridge and Director of Career Services at Montserrat College of Art.
Halsey Burgund (halseyburgund.com) is a sound artist, musician, and installation artist. His work was recently included in the group exhibition Twelve Nights at Boston Sculptors Gallery, and his audio accompaniment for Water Stories (with paintings by Anne Neely) is on display at the Museum of Science Boston.
D.K. McCutchen (blogs.umass.edu/dkmcc2) is a writer who teaches at U-Mass Amherst and was recently in residence at Vermont Studio Center. She is the author of the book The Whale Road, her essay The Zen of Kakapo Poo – Redux was published in the Fish Prize Anthology 2014, and her story The Greening was published in Route Nine Omnibus Edition in May.
Liz Nofziger (www.nofzilla.com) is an installation and public artist who is currently Artist-in-Residence at the Boston Center for the Arts. BOUNCE, her mutant amplified pingpong table, is set up for play on the plaza at the BCA through 10/15.
Deb Todd Wheeler (babel.massart.edu/~debtoddwheeler) is a sculptor, inventor, and media artist. Her solo exhibition … in the atmospheres will be at Miller Yezerski Gallery 9/5-10/21, opening reception 9/5, 6-8 PM. She’s also in the group show Forecaster: Eight Artists Explore the Nature of Climate Change at Northeastern University’s Gallery 360 (10/1-11/5, opening reception 10/9) and will have work in Walden, revisted at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum (10/31-4/26).
Images: photo by Melissa Blackall Photography at Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, Liz Nofziger: BOUNCE, July 24-October 15, 2014; detail of work by Deb Todd Wheeler.