Veronika Vogler and Adam Stennett talk, via text message, about his live-in performance piece, the influence of nature and how we are all capable of being an artist.
In 2008, after the crash of the art market, Adam Stennett found himself in a quandary that many were facing at the time of how to continue as an artist while sustaining an income. The Artist Survival Shack is designed as a performance piece, equipped with everything needed to live and paint, from an antique camp stove that uses kerosene to a biodegradable toilet that creates fertilizer. In preparation for his solo show at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc. this fall, Adam spent over a month living and working on 12 works for the show including object related pieces.
In late August, I had a chance to visit Adam at his remote Artist Survival Shack hidden in the brush of a Bridge Hampton golf course. He taught me to
shoot Zen archery, a Japanese martial art that focuses not on the violent outcome
but rather on the meditative process of movement. Weeks later, within the course of two days, Adam and I engaged in a 6 hour long text message conversation sifting through Heidegger, meditation and the tectonics of preparing for an exhibition while living in a 6.5 by 9.5 shack.
August 27, 2013, 9:10PM
Veronika Vogler How was painting under the blue moon the other day?
Adam Stennett The moon was insane. I could walk around in the field in the middle of the night, like it was twilight. Could have done without a light inside the shack. I think it made me a little restless, but in a good way. I ended up exploring the woods and perimeters in the time right around the full blue moon. It cleared my head and I felt like I can go back to the painting interacting with it more clearly. Nature is powerful, and I have been much more attuned to it with this project.
VV Nature is a very powerful and almost dark, if I dare say. The density of nature’s energy always translates into something dark but not in the same way as we traditionally attribute darkness to evil.
AS I often disconnect myself from the object I am painting and instead think about the light bouncing off that object and how that is actually what is translated by your eye and brain—light out of nothingness.
VV That is a very resplendent way of describing your process. Do you equate light with energy? How would you describe the relationship between these two aspects of nature?
AS Light is a signal that is just a translation of our world. Energy comes from within and can be found. It can also be transferred. I like to think of paintings as an artifact of a mark making process I attempt to see light, tune into its signal and transfer it through making marks. The painting as object becomes charged with the energy of that process over time.
VV Interestingly, I find that one of the most meditative and spiritually powerful artworks is Malevich’s Black Square which is coincidently devoid of color and confidently rests in the orbit of black and white.
AS Color is tricky. It can be used in powerful ways but it can also complicate and distract.
AS When I do use color I use it in a very calculated way. I spend at least an hour mixing the colors before I even start painting. I also keep written notes on my palate with a sharpie.
This might stem from the fact that I am color blind.
VV Woo! I did not know that.
VV Is the process of the mixing of the color in keeping with your meditative techniques? Do you hope to change perspective of the people who come across your work?
AS It definitely has meditative qualities but it is also probably stems from my experience of having to devise systems to effectively interact with color.
VV Beuys once said the following in his description of what an artist’s duty is, “The most important thing to is me is that man, by virtue of his products has experience of how he can contribute to the whole and not only produce articles but becomes a sculptor or architect of the whole social organism”. What do you think of that notion?
AS I love Beuys. I am interested in my work interacting with the viewer. For a work to be effective I feel like it needs to be able to push the viewer slightly outside of their everyday way of interacting with the world. It is in these moments that we bob up from underwater and get a glimpse from a slightly new perspective.
VV How important was it for you to interact with the viewer versus them seeing the final works in your show at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc.?
AS The final work needs to be able to stand alone. The interaction during the monthlong Artist Survival Shack project I feel is more of the meditative process. Each interaction causes an evolution of my mind and may help me find my way to my own personal understanding of the piece. I see the performative aspect of the project as something different from exhibition of the shack itself at the end of this process and I feel like the experience for the viewer will be quite different as well.
VV How has your work or your process been affected by your environment out there? Has it changed?
AS I’ve become more finely tuned to what I set out to find. It is not something that can completely defined but I feel closer to what feels right. For me making art is a subtractive process. It is as much about marking out what feels wrong as it is about marking what feels right. Big nature also has a way of exposing what is frivolous.
VV That is a very powerful notion. When you came out there originally, had all the work that you are doing been predetermined?
AS Over the course of developing the project I also developed imagery that had the possibility of becoming paintings. My relationship with that imagery changed over the process of developing the shack. Certain images were set aside and others were pursued. By the time of the monthlong endurance performance, I had a group of images that were all honed and I had subtracted what felt wrong. The approach of how to make those images into finished paintings is what was influenced during my time there. Each mark is a choice and each choice is charged with energy. I feel like those paintings are charged with the energy of my time.
AS I have also created some work that was unexpected and was influenced by the site of the project itself. It is always good to be open to what the surroundings have to tell you.
VV Are you referring to the t-shirts which you made? Do you consider the objects of your survival readymade sculptures after their utilitarian aspects have been exhausted?
AS Some of the objects I do consider readymades and they also function as artifacts of the process charged with their own energy. There are also some surprises that I have been working on.
VV It is really inspiring how much you are able to accomplish spiritually and artistically while out there. Can that energy be shared or transferred? Have you given any thought to a private artist shack residency where an artist can borrow your shack? I would very much like to see this work.
AS Sharing is the best thing to do with energy.
VV Are there any objects that you would not opt to part with after the exhibition comes down or has their ‘use’ for you been fulfilled while you are in the shack?
AS There are many objects that I love, mostly for the energy they were charged with before they came to me. That was part of my reason for selecting them. I have held them for a very special time but I am also excited to pass them along to the next hands that will love them.
VV That aspect of detachment is very in line with what we are discussing.
August 28TH 7:20 AM
VV How has your sense of awareness changed or has your intention of action shifted in any way while being in nature?
AS At first it seemed to slow down. I became much more aware of slight changes like small changes in the wind or the clouds. I also became attuned to the way that the sounds of insects change throughout the day. I feel like I could tell you what time of day or night it was just from the sounds. Nature becomes much louder at night. The field and woods that surround me have become a bit of a cocoon. It will be quite a sensory shock when I leave the shack and greatly expand the variety of what my brain is processing on Sunday.
VV What is the farthest distance you have wandered away from the shack?
AS The perimeter I have given myself is based on the field and elements of the landscape. I would say that distance is no more than 200 yards. The only exception was 27 days into the experience. The gallery and I had talked about having a small reception a short distance up the hill from the shack so I could thank the supporters of the project, give a short talk and then bring them back down the hill to experience the shack. I was whisked up the hill, spoke for about 15 minutes and was whisked back down the hill to the shack. I was shocked at how disorienting this was and what a pronounced effect it had on me mentally and physically.
VV It seems natural that the routine that you have established while in the shack has shifted your awareness. Do you think it will be possible to maintain that level of awareness once back in the city milieu? And by awareness I am also referring to your level of attention while painting.
AS The shack, although small, is actually very much like my studio in many ways. Being closer to nature has been both enlightening and distracting, but I wouldn’t wish it to be anything else. The biggest advantage to making work in the shack is that I have been able to remain in the same headspace for an extended period of time. I cannot leave. I have no other priorities. My focus is distilled to the most basic needs for survival reacting to and interacting with nature and art making. I have spent about 16 hours a day in an art-making headspace. That is to say, being on a level different from the everyday way of being in the world. It is quite rare for me to be able to do that in Brooklyn.
VV Yes! One has little time for self-reflection in Brooklyn. It seems as though the mind goes into visual and auditory overload and somehow ones senses become paralyzed. The meaning of being becomes secondary. In the ontology, one of the questions asked in order to explore relevance is ‘What features are essential, as opposed to merely accidental attributes of a given object?” How would you answer this question?
AS An awareness that definitions are, by nature, a closing down of possibilities would guide me. What we think is essential often proves not to be. In the same way, what we often see as accidental proves to be more true than the intention. Being open to the essential. A closing down of possibility.
VV How do ethics play into defining the essential? Can you talk about the golf balls you have been collecting? Not surprisingly because of his Nazi association, Heidegger minimized the role of ethics in his exploration of “being.”
AS I am remembering now how my Heidegger seminar in college was a 3 hour class and how it took 3 hours to get into the proper head for that. There were 10 students in the class and we would walk out in a daze- Actually very similar to how I felt when I briefly left the shack the other evening. I remember how I averaged about 10 pages an hour reading Being and Time. I always joked that was my Heidegger speed limit.
AS I began researching golf-related artifacts and started coming across golf balls with corporate logos. I then came across golf balls with the CIA seal and gold balls with the FBI seal. I even came across a golf ball with the seal of Congress. That is when I started investigating the companies and corporations who are the largest political donors and who spend the most on lobbying. I also looked into companies that make high profits but pay very little in taxes. Then there were ethical considerations and scandals, including ties to Nazi atrocities. It appeared to me that this was fertile ground for exploring a new work, so there will be a piece in the show that involves 20 golf balls hung on the wall in a cabinet display case.
VV What is your position regarding the kinds of political action that should be taken by artists?
AS Political works are tricky because they can easily be very limited and closed. For a work to be successful, it needs to open up the more you look at it and experience it. If there is one specific point, then once you discover the point the work kind of dies. There need to be elements that lead you on, but there needs to be an opening up of possibility from there. It is possible for a political work to do this, but it is easy to make one that does not.
I do feel like all of my work has a voice that may have some political edge to it.
It is never a good idea for an artist to listen to what you “should” do.
VV It seems that you are very in tune with the truth that art is able to capture and engage an ever-growing commentary on life today. As long as there is freedom, do you believe that every human being is capable of being an artist?
AS We are all making art all of the time. Most often we are not aware.
VV That is the beauty of it all. Santayana wrote, “To feel beauty is a better thing than to understand how we come to feel it”.
AS We are all capable of being aware so we are all capable of being artists.