This interview is part of an ongoing conversation between two writers, Caroline Picard and Lara Schoorl, centering on their web-based curatorial project, Institutional Garbage. The online exhibition collects the trash and administrative residue from an idealized institution—whether a museum, asylum, or academy—featuring imaginary syllabi, fabricated archival recordings that document marginalized histories, check out girl manifestoes, scanned book excerpts, and posters from exhibitions that never took place, all produced by various artists, writers, and curators. The resulting conversation reflects upon that project and some of the works it contains, while refracting through what the future of museums might be, or how shifting geographic locations affect one’s thinking. Institutional Garbage was an imaginary space Schoorl and Picard set out to create; it developed from there, growing into itself through the array of others’ contributions. Like many conversations between friends, the transcribed discussion is another repository for ephemeral thinking. Another kind of trash, Frankensteined together via email correspondences, with whole passages forgotten and lost to flooded inboxes. Despite those many absences, relationships between work space and private space, curator and artist, friend and colleague, a city and rats unfold in discussion.
Caroline Picard: How did we start working on Institutional Garbage?
Lara Schoorl: To a certain degree, the collaboration comes from working together on your last curatorial project, Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening. That was the first project I helped you with, and both the process of installation and the fact that the exhibit populated the gallery with plants and plant-based works opened up certain spaces within our “work environment” that influenced our relationship. We didn’t know each other very well when I first came to Sector 2337, not personally or professionally.
CP: I like that our conversation about Institutional Garbage starts with a question of friendship. How do you trace the slip between professional and personal spheres?
LS: I remember a few moments specifically where we transitioned between work and personal space. The first time was while walking Wilfredo Prieto’s plant installation, Walk (2012), around Logan Square in a wheelbarrow; you and I talked about the Imperceptibly show, but also had a chance to let go of all the bureaucratic things that needed to be done for the exhibition, thinking instead in the moment about where the plant would like to go.
CP: It does feel like there is something important about not having a purpose when you’re becoming friends.
LS: Another moment was when we were stuck in traffic after a studio visit in Hyde Park. We’d just been talking to Tina Tahir—
CP: About what it would be like to have her installation crawl across the background of the entire IG show, like an ongoing piece that would creep around and grow like vines…it’s funny to think about that piece in relation to traffic.
LS: Traffic interests me because time is out of your hands in traffic. The car is always an in-between space, bringing you from one place to another—even without a destiny it will still bring you somewhere. You and I talked about friendship and how sometimes we choose a moment alone over seeing a friend, even if we’re visiting a place where friends live. We talked about work relationships also.
CP: Because my curatorial work started in my own apartment gallery, that private vs. public slip has always interested me. I always felt like public and private spheres pressured one another, but when I lived in the gallery, it was nevertheless impossible for me to draw real boundaries between the two. Maybe that’s one of the things that I fantasize about institutional spaces—those distinctions would be made clearer, I imagine. At the same time, I feel like Nam Chi Nguyễn’s Checkout Girl Manifesto emphasizes how sometimes the institution of a supermarket, for instance, falsely depersonalizes public encounters…
LS: Do you remember that time we made pizzas in your apartment after Magalie Guérin’s opening? That night I experienced moving between personal and professional space very consciously. The kitchen is a specific kind of space on its own with many associations, but that evening it was kind of a safe space for me where I could withdraw—even though it is an open kitchen and was right there where everyone else was. I didn’t have to engage with the party, but instead made pizzas with you. It became an intimate, non-work space just for the two of us, because we were cooking together and making up pizza baking techniques while everyone else was “at the opening” still.
CP: I like the idea that people can be inhabiting the same physical space, while nevertheless being in different modes. It happens all the time in the world—again, one person is buying groceries while the other is selling them; but maybe there is something peculiar about when two people come to be in the same mind-space (making pizza in a kitchen) while everyone else inhabits another mind-space. Maybe that’s how friends discover one another. Everyone hanging out at the after party still felt like they were at the opening, but you and I were in a different mode…that also seems to describe a nice slip between public and private.
LS: Yes, this flexibility of perception of space is what perhaps I like about smaller institutions because it allows for or invites other institutions inside them. Like Laurie Palmer’s Lichen Museum at Sector 2337 last year, or Jeanine Hofland’s A Petite Fair or all the platforms that make up The Volta.
CP: Yes, that’s nice…I think of how sometimes 501c3’s will operate as umbrellas for non-501c3 artist collectives so that they can get funding without official nonprofit status.
LS: That leads me to a question I have for you: Institutional Garbage is the title of our exhibition, but it also is the institution. It is a concept and a name and a space. What kind of space do you think Institutional Garbage has become?
CP: Ha! I don’t know. A repository? There is something that feels very different to me about curating a show on-line. Usually when I’m a week away from the opening, I have a good sense for what a show will feel like. I can look at the works in space and see the intuitive connections growing concrete. I didn’t have that feeling with Institutional Garbage. I could think a relationship between, say, Naqeeb Stevens’ film in which he builds a wall, or the scanned excerpts from Suzanne Scanlon’s novel, Promising Young Women (Dorothy, 2012), but I couldn’t see the relationship in the same way. But maybe that also is a way of answering your question, because if Institutional Garbage is an institution, then it is hard to grab onto. On the one hand the works collected together evidence the institution behind them; on the other hand, it’s a little difficult to have a clear overview of the whole digital space in which the exhibition occurs. I always loved that it becomes an archive for something that never existed in the first place but nevertheless nests in an imaginary past and future. That reminds me of the curatorial posters that we included, featuring imaginary exhibitions that curators proposed in 140 characters or less. I wonder how those increase one’s sense that Institutional Garbage is an institution?
LS: It took me a while to understand exactly how you envisioned the posters. In hindsight, I found it generally difficult to visualize this project because everything was so conceptual; even now, the most material understanding I have of its parts is through a computer screen.
CP: That’s so true! That’s part of what makes it slip in and out of authority, somehow….
LS: I always find it difficult to materially visualize things that have a form but no content (yet)—
CP: Wait, what do you mean?
LS: Like language, or, indeed, the idea of a future poster archive for exhibitions that happened in the past, or might happen in the future. That’s also partially why I don’t understand or like pure Conceptual Poetry.
CP: I don’t know if this relates to Conceptual Poetry, but it is funny to think about the entire B section of the exhibit as an institutional retrospective celebrating its exhibition history.
LS: Ha, yes! I’m sure this can be used as a marketing strategy. We could organize a fundraiser for a fake anniversary and raise money for its future. Perhaps that is how institutions survive? Feeding their own fantasies.
CP: It makes me think of the Orson Welles movie, F for Fake…the forgerer wears an amazing Hercules belt in that movie.
LS: After we received exhibition proposals for the posters, I could envision the posters, suddenly, even though they hadn’t yet been designed. In a way seeing the proposals was a step that helped me visualize the whole space of Institutional Garbage. Perhaps unconsciously or automatically, I suddenly knew that this project, Institutional Garbage, was going to be a place (in addition to a name) in which people had made and thought things, and which potentially would inspire creation also. For example, Stevie Greco’s proposal for the permanent exhibition, Everyone is Pretending, or Renan Laru-an’s A Voyage to New Guinea, and The Moluccas are both proposals that express the thoughts of a person while adding to the existing idea or template even of “the” poster. Reading the proposals, a context was provided for these templates that make up the imaginary history of Institutional Garbage. Before knowing the proposals, just the idea of those posters mainly pointed inward or to themselves and the institution Institutional Garbage. Putting the proposals of different curators from around the world on the posters opened them up and anchored them in an imaginary but personal world. Like you said, I could think the posters to a certain degree, but not see them and their place (the institution’s history) until we received the proposals.
CP: I like this idea of siteness, or location because it goes back to the digital realm for me again. Institutional Garbage is a “real” place and it’s a place we can all visit, but somehow I feel like it nevertheless remains remote. I wonder if that just echoes through the way we privilege material things.
LS: I have thought about that as well and how through Mia You more artists and writers from the Netherlands became part of Institutional Garbage. Mia and Maarten’s project, The Multinational Book of Contracts, comprises draft contracts. They consider contracts, a generally mundane format, as experimental platforms through which they invite writers from different countries to interrogate bureaucratic relationships. Similar to the posters or perhaps Institutional Garbage as a whole. A contract, a poster, a concept or an exhibition are in a way empty vessels. The people or things that add content to them, fill them with emotions, creativity, thoughts. For me, it takes those people, what they make, write, say and (corollary) their location to comprehend the exhibition. To despite being on-line make it tangible for my mind. So, yes, perhaps, its place-ness through contributors in different parts of the world definitely became amplified because it is what holds everyone together. The works do also but I think other than you and Pouya Ahmadi, the graphic designer who created Institutional Garbage visually, and me, no one really knew what other works were in the show.
CP: I feel like we are talking about structures, now. Like how the contract, while rarely public, effectively shapes space and relations. Similarly, Pouya’s design shapes an experience of the institution.
LS: It does, and one that was new to us too. During the production of Institutional Garbage, we were both away a lot. You went to Berlin, I went to Los Angeles, you went to Philly, I to Iowa City, we kept communication throughout our or each other’s absences, and brought those new places into our conversation.
CP: Our conversation refracts through locations. I feel like a similar thing happens with the artists and writers you curated, because the network of participants started to extend outside of Chicago. Does that make sense?
LS: Around this time was when the rat situation in my house got a little out of control; I caught one of them in my room, just walking behind my books in no rush to leave, but slowly wandering back to the vent she’d probably come from. It was at 1:30 am on a Tuesday, I think, I was half-naked, half asleep, and felt both intruded upon as well as an intruder.
CP: The rat is so important! For one thing, it is tied up with the city’s infrastructure. Chicago has a terrible problem—budget cuts in pest control combined with two warm winters has made the rat population explode. Tying that conversation back into Institutional Garbage, the rat becomes a kind of accidental, maybe even “feral” presence. It is metaphorical and actual, emerging from a network of causes (symbiosis, government corruption, global warming), but because of all of the associations surrounding rats, and perhaps also the way they live underground, are intelligent, there is a kind of shame and secrecy associated with them.
LS: Yes, but who/what decides that I can live here more than the rat? I mean, of course, I pay rent etc. but I had only lived in the apartment for eight months and me (and people like me) moving to Logan Square/that neighborhood is part of the gentrification happening (t)here. Real estate companies are tearing down old buildings and replacing them with glass high rises; it disturbs the rat colonies underneath the old buildings, and so of course the rats seek housing elsewhere.
CP: Yes, why you and not a rat? Why does that seem like a rhetorical question? Especially when rats rely directly on human infrastructure. I’ve even heard that they are less nocturnal because they don’t see humanity as a predator. Maybe we are another, albeit fraught, companion species. When you and the rat see one another in your bedroom, you experience a reciprocal moment of recognition at once personal and systemic.
LS: Do you think we really consider non-humans as they are? Or will they always be used just as metaphors?
CP: There might be another kind of slip there that parallels distinctions between public and private—divisions bound up in patterns of society, how we define and then signify labor or leisure. Even your kitchen example is a good one because I think it’s unclear whether you and I are working to make the pizza for others as a type of labor, or whether we are making something for our own satisfaction. (I too am often happy to have a task at a party as it seems to offset the intensity of social engagement). At the same time, there is so much urgency around validating domestic labor, and validating that labor according to the terms of our capitalistic society. I think there is a similar kind of slippage around nonhuman or more than human kinds. Can we really engage these others seriously on their own terms? What would that mean? Global warming insists we take the biosphere literally. The Louvre flooded last spring. The photograph that documents the Greco-Roman artifacts on file cabinets is not metaphorical, even if it has metaphorical resonance. The rat in your room stops being metaphorical. Perhaps also, because of your encounter with that rat, you suddenly have trouble articulating why it should be killed off no matter what.
LS: Thinking about Institutional Garbage, I wonder what it does? It started local with the Hyde Park Art Center, you and then me, but then, as you mentioned, grew beyond Chicago and outside of the United States. I wonder if the exhibition is more than a generator of ideas, if it is a place for creation as well (for other people than those who created works for it!), and how its online location might alter the definition of local. What do you think?
CP: I wonder how seriously we take Rowland Saifi’s imaginary curriculum. Is his text simply an abstract and creative torque of the syllabus format, or can use it as a teaching guide, willing the reader to implement ideas? Maybe I can turn the question back on you in a slightly different way and ask how this project might have influenced your thinking as you drove across the country this summer?
LS: Mm that is a nice question. It sometimes became unclear what influenced what—if Institutional Garbage influenced what I paid attention to, or if what I saw while driving influenced my understanding of Institutional Garbage. For example, as I mentioned in my notebook, we were held up by a traffic jam as we drove into Memphis, TN on our first day. It turned out that a #BlackLivesMatter protest had occupied the bridge on the I-40W. Another driver explained that the traffic stopped because of the protest; he seemed annoyed at first, but I later saw him dancing to the radio with a woman from a neighboring car. All drivers had to wait, had to just be there on the bridge together. Automatically, I started thinking about systems and institutions, about racism and freedom, traffic and time. About how I wanted to write to you about this. How collectively Institutional Garbage was made, how collectively all drivers–strangers to each other–waited on the bridge, how we (humans) seem able to collectively engage while expressing individual thoughts and desires, yet it is considered rare and special when that happens. I find it difficult to word this in a meaningful way, but maybe that isn’t necessary.
CP: Did it affect the way you saw the US landscape also?
LS: While driving through Utah and looking at the red rock formations in Capitol Reef, I understood baroque a bit more. The rocks are excessive, they curve and fold, you can’t see behind them, but also you don’t have to, because you will when you get further along the road. And if you don’t you don’t and you can just look at the rock close to you and think beyond them. The horizon is relative. Or actually, the horizon doesn’t exist? Those rocks have been there for ten thousands of years, altered and continuously altering still. We also love views, but it’s actually hard to see a view. We can look at a view and think about it, and we should do that, but I also think it’s important to not forget about what is at a close distance, because that you can see. I think that’s what I like about the baroque, it is very aware of filling a view but it doesn’t ask you to see it all, you can just pick one detail at the time while leaving the whole somewhere else for a while. Similarly, I think Institutional Garbage is populated with so many works that you can’t see all at once nor do you have too. Most of the participating artists, authors, and curators are people we knew, or at least we knew their work, we did not look beyond a horizon to find a “perfect” artist, but then IG moved at times out of sight through itself and the participants.
CP: So often institutions impress me because I feel their authority through behavioral restriction. But I think that restriction also creates parameters that make relationships meaningful, maybe even to the extent that friendship becomes possible. Tell me about the Lorine Niedecker Laundromat poem? You sent it to me in a text and it inspired me to text a picture of fingernail clippings that I found on a desk.
LS: Lorine Niedecker is perhaps the Institutional Garbage artist par excellence: choosing not live in the avant-garde poetry centers but in (or “on” though it isn’t really an island) Blackhawk Island, writing so many letters (paper trash!) in her extensive correspondences with many of the avant-garde poets of the such as Louis Zukofsky, Ezra Pound, Basil Bunting, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Harriet Monroe, but also with her neighbors and friends, and not committing to or caring to belong to a movement. So, yes I think you are right about friendships being possible because of certain parameters; of a town on a river, of an art world, of an imaginary institution in which you see each other in proximity and then grow into new parameters because of each other.
“Laundromat” I shared with you because I thought you’d love the word “sudsy” too. It seemed like a Caroline word.
Caroline Picard is a writer, publisher, and curator. Her writing has appeared in Artslant, ArtForum (critics picks), Flash Art International, and Paper Monument, among others. She is the Executive Director of The Green Lantern Press—a nonprofit publishing house and art producer in operation since 2005—and the Co-Director of Sector 2337, a hybrid artspace/bar/bookstore in Chicago. www.cocopicard.com
Lara Schoorl is an art historian and writer from The Netherlands based in Los Angeles. In her current research she is defining a contemporary baroque perspective and an understanding of the fluidity of our world through stone. Her writing recently appeared in the co-authored book the end of may and is forthcoming in Sisternhood, an anthology of non-native Anglophone women writing in English.