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Mi casa, tu casa: Fluent~Collaborative and testsite

Every 8 weeks or so, Laurence Miller opens his house to a bunch of total strangers. Miller’s home doubles as testsite, the exhibition space of Austin’s Fluent~Collaborative…

testsite 04.5: Based on a True Story (Exercises in Reading and Writing). Alejandro Cesarco & Gabriel Perez-Barreiro; Installation view.

Every 8 weeks or so, Laurence Miller opens his house to a bunch of total strangers. Miller’s home doubles as testsite, the exhibition space of Austin’s Fluent~Collaborative, where Miller plays host to artists and writers who collaborate and welcomes viewers in to see the results of their work. Testsite is both home and gallery—part private living room, part public salon. And it is always full of people.

Testsite accounts for much of Fluent~Collaborative’s visibility. In the past 18 months Miller has hosted eight collaborative teams, and the ninth testsite installation is currently in progress. These installations represent one aspect of the organization’s larger objective, to ‘increase awareness of new developments in the contemporary visual arts and the ideas and issues that inform contemporary culture.’[1] Ideally, each testsite collaboration challenges the traditional roles of artist and curator so that both have the chance to move beyond their usual patterns of production. Alejandro Cesarco, a recent testsite artist, remarked that what makes the project unique is that it ‘precisely defines itself as a place of experimentation’ and that it ‘eludes[s] the ideological-curatorial weight and resulting restrictions usually associated with art institutions.’[2] The goal of this unusual cooperation is to energize Austin’s art community and, in turn, to send something of Austin out into the world. Gradually this project has met an increasingly international body of participants. While many of the recent testsite endeavors have been staged by artists and curators living in Austin, the last three have involved artists based elsewhere in Texas, in New York, in Spain, and in Finland.

A committed personal and professional network makes Fluent~Collaborative work. The organization was founded in early 2003 by Miller and Regine Basha. Now adjunct curator at Arthouse, Basha remains connected to the Fluent~Collaborative as a consultant, while Dave Bryant of FreshUpClub and Elizabeth Blackburn provide essential creative, logistical, and technical support. But above all it is Laurence Miller who propels the endeavor, supplying much of the conceptual drive and organizational structure that power the program. It’s no coincidence that testsite is located in Miller’s home, because he often seems to be living the collaborative concept. Having served both as director of AMOA at Laguna Gloria and as one of ArtPace’s founding director, Miller has the obvious credentials for managing this kind of creative enterprise, and he knows the people who can make it succeed. Funding, for example, comes from a private source. With this private funding comes the freedom to pursue innovative projects without the limitations that can hamstring a more institutional outfit.

testsite 04.4 ~ Annette Lawrence and Annette Carlozzi....Photo by Shaune Kolber

For Miller, staying away from the institutional model is of the utmost importance, not just for the sake of Fluent~Collaborative’s work, but for the benefit of Austin’s existing arts institutions. With a relatively small local pool of financial resources, the last thing AMOA, ArtHouse, UT’s Blanton Museum, and Austin’s other larger art venues need is more competition. Instead, Miller sees Fluent~Collaborative as a complementary resource for those larger institutions, a third entity able to draw together the rest of the art community and to encourage cooperation among the institutions in the interest of strengthening contemporary art in the city as a whole. In its first year and a half, Fluent~Collaborative already has cooperated with Arthouse and UT’s Blanton Museum in hosting visiting artists, and it has brought a number of prominent national curators and arts educators to Austin. The organization’s newsletter …might be good helps keep people informed about current art events as well as news items relevant to the art community in Austin.

Site-sensitivity: testsite 04.4 ~ Annette Lawrence and Annette Carlozzi

Testsite’s intimacy, the closeness of a domestic environment, is a crucial aspect of the project as a whole. But it’s not without pitfalls. September’s testsite collaboration between Annette Lawrence and Annette Carlozzi demonstrated the difficulties that the home/gallery can present when one or the other aspect is allowed to dominate. Artist and curator, respectively, Lawrence and Carlozzi set out to develop their work synchronously, Lawrence’s sculptural object evolving in tandem with a poem composed by Carlozzi.

Lawrence’s object was made up of carefully wound balls of string salvaged from the artist’s previous installations. To indicate where the string came from, color photocopies of installation shots of older works were spread out on the coffee table in the center of the room. In those earlier treatments the string was stretched long, pulled tight, an utterly linear reflection of the space in which it was integrated. Compared to the grand gestures reproduced on the Xeroxes, the testsite piece appeared quiet, even stifled. In part it was the wound-up, compressed balls of string that made me feel the work was overly constrained, but the entire composition reinforced that tightness. There was a lack of larger reference in the string balls, and the overall composition of arcs nested inside one another, their trajectories marked out by the string, was totally self-contained. The problem, I thought, was not that the object was so inward-turning, but that the photocopies prevented a reading of the piece as autonomous. Given that extra visual information, I found myself expecting something more. Instead of being smoothly incorporated into the testsite work, say, as a sort of archaeology of Lawrence’s practice, the photocopies set up an unnecessary comparison between the string at testsite and the string in its previous incarnations. They also obscured the nature of the collaboration between Lawrence and Carlozzi, putting too much emphasis on one participant’s body of work.

But the work’s position within the space, Laurence Miller’s living room, caused more trouble. Mounted on a narrow wall nearly perpendicular to the entrance, the concentric string circles were inconspicuously situated opposite artwork unrelated to the testsite installation, art which was, in fact, part of Miller’s own collection. The perfectly neutral living room (off-white walls, dark floors, doorways discretely hidden behind screens) absorbed the testsite work right into its existing arrangement. Carlozzi’s poem, read by Austin poet Ana Sisnett, drifted down from hidden speakers as if to pull the rest of the room together. But the connection was obscure. That this poem developed in tandem with the string object, that they were two aspects of the same piece, was not immediately clear.

On the other hand, maybe this was part of the point: integrate the new work into the existing space and make it inconspicuous. Testsite is, after all, a distinct kind of space, intimate and casual, and the work should respond to that. But what troubled me was that the installation of Lawrence’s and Carlozzi’s work provoked the impression that their new collaboration was part of Miller’s collection, rather than a ‘guest’ in that context.

testsite 04.6~Jani Leinonen, Riiko Sakkinen & Neil Fauerso.... Installation view

Give and Take: testsite 04.5: Based on a True Story (Exercises in Reading and Writing). Alejandro Cesarco & Gabriel Perez-Barreiro

October’s collaboration between Alejandro Cesarco, an Uruguayan artist living in New York, and Gabriel Perez-Barreiro, curator of Latin American painting at the Blanton Museum, avoided the exhibition space/living room conundrum entirely. Despite the heavily conceptual nature of the piece, it made use of a very traditional repetition of framed works on paper hung in regular intervals on the wall-just as in a gallery. Each frame contained a photocopy of a different English translation of the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno. Confronted over and over with subtle variations on the same story, I found myself looking for differences among the translations. The chapter headings from If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler printed below the cantos left the impression that Calvino would have approved of Cesarco’s method, the same story told multiple ways, subtly altered by the subjectivity of each translator. Cesarco’s appropriation of these works reveals translation to be a fragile mode of description.

Cesarco indulged in his own translation work as well. Discovering that the Uruguayan poet Idea Vilariño‘s book Poemas de amour had never been published in English, he produced an unauthorized English version as a meditation on language and on love (true to the original). By now it should be clear that the collaborative aspect of this particular project was minimal. Perez-Barreiro’s role was that of facilitator or distributor, and he worked with the artist primarily in the very early conceptual stages and later only as far as Cesarco needed help navigating Austin’s libraries for research. Now, after the initial productive phase is over, Perez-Barreiro is responsible for ensuring that Cesarco’s work continues to circulate beyond testsite. In particular, Perez-Barreiro’s current role now is to find a select audience, member by member, for the artist’s translation of Vilariño.

Jani Leinonen, Riiko Sakkinen...Earn Money Without a Job! (at The Bower)...Outside view from South St. Mary's Street

Miller’s collection was gone from the walls to make room for Cesarco’s series of photocopied Infernos; through circulation of the components of the work, Cesarco and Perez-Barreiro continue to move the piece beyond the testsite space. But as a result there was little left in the room to indicate that the space is part of a home. So which is better, more or less evidence of the dual nature of the little testsite room?

Out of the box: testsite 04.6 ~ Jani Leinonen, Riiko Sakkinen & Neil Fauerso. Boz Ulu Delgin (at testsite); Earn Money Without a Job! (at The Bower)

The present Fluent~Collaborative project is split in two, a division that blurs the residential associations of the testsite venue. Part of the current project is installed at testsite and on a Guadalupe Street billboard in Austin(which has since been papered over), while the other component is housed at The Bower, an exhibition space and the residence of Joey Fauerso and Michael Velliquette in San Antonio. Jani Leinonen and Riiko Sakkinen, two Finnish artists living in Helsinki and Madrid, respectively, worked with Los Angeles-based poet Neil Fauerso to create the installation at testsite. Fauerso composed a short, enigmatic poem for the exhibition announcement which is available at the project website, though it’s not on view at testsite. The relationship between the poem and the rest of the installation is tenuous, but Fauerso’s ambiguous description of the scene and characters does set up a particular attitude toward language I can’t help but see in the rest of the work. The ambiguity of the poem is amplified in the testsite space, which is covered from floor to ceiling with a single repeated advertisement written in a language no one can read. Fauerso devised the gibberish ad copy: Cül Ev Atavanc, Romern, Esjiha? The words evoke multiple linguistic families, and the meter of the syllables feels intelligible—as if we’d understand it if only we read it through one more time. On the other hand, it also reads like a code in which the letters of English words were transposed in a logical pattern we could decode with more patience.

Riiko Sakkinen... Earn Money Without a Job! (at The Bower). ...Detail of Spanish talavera plate series.

Five blocks away on the Guadalupe billboard the posters are cut loose from the gallery context. The wall they’re mounted on is one of the only places in central Austin you’ll ever see mounted posters since the city outlawed postering a few years ago. In spite of this novelty, I’m guessing that most of the traffic that passes them every day won’t even notice that the words make no conventional sense. This comes in part from the repetition of the motif. I can imagine seeing it over and over again, and believing that it must mean something, but that the failing is mine, that I’m just not capable of figuring it out. Still, the posters read clearly as advertisements. The large yellow block of text at the top, phrased in a question, is the primary clue (‘Boz Ulu Delgin’ ‘Itwafs q yepum?’). Just as in a conventional ad, the two indifferent-looking women stand in for the reader, their eyes turned out of the space of the poster as if they were being addressed by the headline. Judging by the reiterated color, the message of the headline is repeated in the yellow oval at the bottom of the page, with the fine print on the right spelling out caveats that no one will ever comprehend. What exactly is being sold here? The message gets lost in the text, offering nothing to the reader, teasingly exposing the emptiness of the relationship between advertisement and consumer.

At The Bower, meanwhile, the critique of cash and consumption is more fun: witness the giant Scrubbing Bubble Leinonen and Sakkinen painted on the building’s curved street side window beneath the motto, ‘Earn Money Without a Job!’ In San Antonio the two artists have installed work they’d made previously and independently of one another, but they organized the space ‘in an aesthetic cooperation,’ as Sakkinen puts it. Their common interest in images from consumer culture keeps the installation cohesive. Leinonen’s working clothing catalog, most of which is written in Finnish, from which the viewer can order strikingly out-of-date knitwear by phone, lists the artist’s cell number. Leinonen hopes this will expand the relationship between artist, art, and viewer beyond the conventional gallery space. So far, he says, about fifteen people have called him, most of them fairly skeptical of the operation. The catalog itself consists of period photographs circa 1979, but according to the artist, many of its illustrations are painted versions of photographs executed by Russian artists who formerly worked as propaganda painters. Zooming in on the content of the catalog, Leinonen has also installed several of his own outsized paintings of men and women’s swimsuit bottoms on fragmented torsos.

In his contribution, Sakkinen offers the U.S. market a small shelf of Spanish cola products bearing obvious knock-offs of Coca-Cola’s famous red label. These varied interpretations of the Coke label are testament to the wide-ranging power of that brand, an index of its global saturation, which the artist suggests can only be appreciated in the U.S. Sakkinen’s playful obsession with trademarks is also evident in his works on paper, humorous but dark drawings in which familiar cartoon figures from consumer products are distorted and, at times, dismembered by superimposed slogans done in drippy watercolor. Sakkinen’s series of Spanish talavera plates, hand painted with tongue-in-cheek mottos (‘We hate Sweden,’ ‘More Money, Please’) expand his playful belligerence towards global mass production to include these more artisan and nationally specific objects.

Perhaps unintentionally, the testsite-Bower collaboration takes a step towards more closely defining the nature of the testsite space. In comparison with the inclusive layout of The Bower, testsite appears to be more compartmentalized as a structure. The Bower has a definite lived-in quality because the main living space is contiguous with the exhibition space, and both are totally open to one another. As a result, testsite suddenly seems to have more affinities with the traditional white box. This is particularly true in the current show because all doorways leading out of the installation room are screened off with white shades, and the complete coverage of Fauerso’s, Leinonen’s, and Sakkinen’s posters further compounds a diminishing of the space’s domestic associations.

In its first two years, Fluent~Collaborative has made important inroads in contemporary art in Austin. Most importantly, as the last two testsite collaborations have shown, the organization is succeeding in opening up to attracting younger, international artists and writers, and this might be the most promising aspect of the whole undertaking.

1. Fluent~Collaborative web page. (http://www.fluentcollab.org/about.php), n.d., accessed 5. December 2004.

2. Correspondence with the author, 6. December 2004.

Images courtesy testsite and The Bower.

Heather Mathews is an art historian living in Austin.

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