Artzpub caught up with Artist/Writer/Thinker Christopher Cozier on the eve of his leaving for a showing in New York at the Museum of Arts and Design. We asked him about the show, the Alice Yard art space and his body of work…
Artzpub: It’s been a big year for Alice Yard: Paramaribo Span a string of successful engagements in Alice Yard and now The Global Africa Project at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), NYC. Tell us a little bit about how you view the year and how Alice Yard became included in the show at MAD.
Christopher Cozier: Yes – it’s good that our ideas are being noticed and that they can be applied and tested beyond the physical Yard. Fingers crossed.
Lowery Sims first asked me to recommend some design-based work from Trinidad. I sent her links to various things and she was really taken by Marlon Darbeau’s work from the New Orleans show and to things like Draconian Switch. She was initially looking at steel pan and also at architects, so obviously Sean’s investigations came up. Our conversation shifted from Trinidad to the region and to one or two artists from Africa that I had met - people like Ugochukwu Bright Eke, who did a residency at Alice Yard, and Kossi Assou who was in Haiti on my last visit there. I was never thinking of my own work but then she began to research my stuff and realised that there was a design element that keeps coming up in my practice, over the years – the various rubber stamps, the mass-produced objects such as the Box of Fear, the various cards, and objects like the benches or peeras, for example. She was curious about our use of the internet and the dialogues and communities we have been constructing – the ongoing conversation with Sean Leonard and Nicholas Laughlin around Alice Yard and its networks. It all expanded from there and especially after we did the “Critical Space” clip on Youtube for the conference at MICA.
AP: Your old alma mater, MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) is “Co-organising an unprecedented exhibition of African art, design, and craft worldwide”. The show, co-curated by MICA’s own Leslie Hammond King and Lowery Sims, features a number of MICA graduates. It’s been described as one of the twenty top highly anticipated shows of the fall by New York Magazine. What, if any, is the significance of this for you?
CC: OK. I didn’t know that. Well, Leslie was one of my undergraduate lecturers and subsequently advised me in making my choices while applying to graduate school in the 80s. Lowery did studio visits while I was a graduate student at Rutgers but she may not recall. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. For some reason I was thinking more about our little John D, the one that was, back home. In my days it was just a few little wobbly brown stools and tables in a hot dusty room in a large, typical early 60s tropical institutional space. I can still smell the fermenting grain from the flour mills or hear the hiss of steam from T&TEC.
AP: Speaking of alma maters, John D. (John Donaldson Technical Institute) has quite a number of graduates showing around the globe at this time: the Marlons (Griffith and Darbeau), Wendell McShine and of course, yourself. Helluva coincidence.
CC: Not really when you think about it carefully. For example, John D gave me my start as a professional artist – a competitive and solid enough portfolio to get into university abroad. I did not do well in secondary school here so I couldn’t get into UWI. I was a reject from the conventional system even though I passed 11+ for my first choice school. I made doodles and paper planes with my O-level answer sheets. I was extremely alienated. I still have them in a zip-lock bag at home after smuggling them out of the exam room! Maybe they will become part of a future artwork in some way. John D. was my first real lifeline in a society with extremely limited educational and life choices and I gave it my all with that in mind. So, when I first returned to Trinidad after studying abroad, I wanted to be part of that and to follow on with that tradition (not the wobbly desks and the dusty space but the critical dialogues) to do the same for others in whom I saw the same struggle.
I remain astonished and elated at what was accomplished there for and by myself and others, for Wendell, Marlon D and G, Nikolai Noel and so many more. The things we take for granted here in Trinidad confuse me often.
AP: You were chosen to create “Now Showing”, the official image for the 2010 Trinidad & Tobago Film Festival. As a result, you ‘returned’ home this year, this being your first showing in Trinidad in a decade. ‘Returned’ is really is a funny term when you look at it because you live and create in Trinidad, though your works have been on tour in collections abroad. What work do you currently have on tour and now that you are ‘home’ so to speak, when can we expect to see the works here in Trinidad?
CC: Yes, I was quite surprised to be asked. An interesting question resides in this idea of “here” – my work resides where there is a context or space for it. We are talking about critical engagement and financial investment – about a responsive professional space for real growth. I would like Trinidad to be one of those kinds of locations as well. I remain optimistic. But then – look at where most Caribbean literature is written and also published. At the end of the day, “home” is wherever one can find some level of equality, dignity and way in the world.
One of my projects is now in Martinique after being in England and Spain, another is still in Canada, a collection of my prints were just on show in the US and Alice Yard is in two shows, the current one at MAD which opens this week and the other which opened in Miami/Basel and was in France over the last few months. The film festival image simply created a reason for me to do something in Trinidad. However on-line my work and ideas are always “here,” “there” or “everywhere” according to how you interpret “location”.
Made in China - Christopher Cozier
The “made in china” box came up in the development of the “Now Showing” image. So the process was a good one for me in that some interesting ideas came up that I would like investigate further, and it may develop into a show that I would like to do here in Trinidad. It’s been 10 years since that has crossed my mind…that’s exciting for me. Having that feeling or thought.
AP: In the short film “Alice Yard: A Work in Progress” by Darryn Boodan and Mariel Brown, you discuss Alice Yard as a conceptual enterprise. Sean Leonard describes the Yard as a place to PLAY. Nicholas Laughlin portrays the Yard as a freedom of the space. Expand on this for us, and give us an overview of where or rather what you see in store for Alice Yard’s immediate future and your hope for the contemporary art scene in Trinidad and Tobago.
CC: We are an actual and virtual yard, delineated/configured by creative interests. We are building a critical or investigative dialogue or conversation, a platform or context for creative endeavors. We are a “yes”... “go ahead” and “do it” space, not a “Trinidad not ready for that” or “people need to be educated” kind of space. We appreciate the value of dreams and self respect. We are both an actual physical space as well as a virtual one so the logical step is for Sean’s experiments with architecture as designing spaces for social interaction to keep expanding out into the region and the diaspora. For our recently accomplished (and of course celebrated) 4th anniversary, Marcel Pinas and Ann Hermelijn of Suriname, Sheena Rose of Barbados, Heino Schmid and John Cox from The Bahamas and O’Neil Lawrence of Jamaica joined us for a series of discussions and presentations as we try to figure how to facilitate each other’s interests. We are trying to figure how to move artists between these locations and build curatorial projects and exchanges.
AP: Chris you have always been a solo artist, in a sense. How is the experience different now that you're at MAD as part of a collective?
CC: I have never seen myself that way. I am always in dialogue with others about their work and ideas and my own. Roxanne Fung’s family bakery in St Anns made the bread for my Chicago installation of “Bread on Wheels” – the shape of the loaves suited the look I wanted, Kiss Bread for my Cuba installation of sandwiches. I have collaborated with Earth TV and later Richard Fung for my video works. And for this Alice Yard work, Marlon Darbeau, Sean and Murphy at the Callaloo Company – the list is long.
Work is also “produced” by someone simply looking at it or by someone choosing to create the situation in which it can be experienced and through critical reflection and so on.
There are many kinds of collectives. I have always seen my works as also being engaged in a conversation, as building a kind of critical architecture or context not just for my own interests.