Archives, Artists, Interviews
Leave a comment

The Art of Cultural Fusion: A Conversation with Gitte Bog


The art world is a small world. As we move through it, it tends to shrink more and more. This was made clear when I found myself in conversation with Danish artist Gitte Bog. She was in town for two days completing two ongoing projects with parts that started in Chicago more than a year ago. Curious about her request for a sign that read, “I am looking for participants for two art projects relating to Chicago”, and her request for permission to sit at a table in the lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center, I asked her about her projects. While she described the one which was done for last year’s Vers10n Fest at the Zhou B Art Center, I realized that I had participated in it. My wrapper with its shot-in-the-dark translation of a Danish word into English was floating in the sea of colorful wrappers that she had collected over the years. Centered around language, taste and things lost in translation, the candies project is a perfect illustration of what is at the center of Gitte Bog’s practice: cultural fusion. As she sat in the lobby, I asked her to elaborate a bit on her projects, what keeps her coming back to Chicago and what makes our city different from the other parts of the world she has lived in.

Gitte Bog reads some of the questionnaire responses in the lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center. May 19, 2011. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel)

Tempestt Hazel: What’s your history with Chicago? When did you first get here and what brings you back now?

Gitte Bog: I did a residency here at threewalls in 2009. I was here for three months. So, I got to know Chicago quite well and I did some projects with the people of Chicago. I was invited [back] in 2010 by a non-profit art organization called People Made Visible, that runs a residency in West Chicago, to come and do a residency there. So, I’ve been back and forth a bit.

These two particular projects [happened] because I was in two Chicago exhibitions last year, [Territories for Vers10N at Zhou B Center and I’ll be your Mirror at Spoke Gallery]. I started these projects and they never really took off, they didn’t finish. So, I asked if I could sit [in the Chicago Cultural Center lobby] while I’m here to finish the project and they said yes. Barbara [Koenen] is lovely, and she said yes. It’s been really, really good. I think this space is good because there are not only artists that come through. I like working with all kinds of people.

TH: Right. The Cultural Center has a really great mix because it brings people that enjoy the arts–whether it’s architecture, music, exhibitions–it’s a little bit of everything. And a lot of tourists. So, I agree with you. This is probably one of the premiere spots to do something like this.

GB: Also, all kinds of ages and backgrounds, which is what I work with all the time anyway. I like to have a broad participation, not just one group.

TH: What will mark the completion of the projects?

GB: With this one, with the candies, it’s when there’s no more wrappers. Basically, the project is [this]: I took a text about Chicago–people don’t know what the text is about–and I picked out all the nouns.

It has to do with language. I thought of it when I moved to Mexico and I didn’t speak Spanish and how we sometimes, when we just have a few words, think we know a complete sentence. Sometimes you can guess [what is being said] and you will be okay, but sometimes it just doesn’t work at all.

So, this text is about Chicago. I’m not telling people what it’s about. I took out all the nouns and translated them into Danish because Danish is obviously a really, really foreign language to most people. It’s a very small language so it works well because most people would not have a clue what the words say. It’s an exchange. They get the candy, open the wrapper, then they write under my [Danish] word what they think it is in English. It’s just nouns and singular.

TH: Yes! I remember participating in this at Version fest last year at the Zhou Brothers Art Center and thinking, “I don’t know!”

[laughs]

GB: The idea is to have them all filled out and put them back into the text. Now, it’s obviously going to be some mumbled, jumbled text.

I did this in Mexico as well, some time ago. [Instead I used] personal stories of women who lived in the area where I was doing the show. What happened was [that] when I suddenly had all these weird words and very strange stories I started seeing images in my mind–almost cartoonish images of some surreal world where traffic lights are taking care of their babies and things like that. So, I started drawing. The idea here is similar. The text is about Chicago but it will lead into these images that are quite strange. Again, it has to do with this thing that I like, of not having so much control. [For example,] I initiated this project and then people take over, then I go back and I have to try and do something from what they gave me. So, the end product of this would be some kind of publication with illustrations.

TH: Would this have the original text or would you just be leaving it to the viewer’s imagination?

GB: I would like to leave it to their imagination. That’s where [it is] at the moment.

Participant Questionnaire that informs Sisters and Brothers. May 19, 2011. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel)

TH: This is one of two projects that you’re working on. Could you talk a bit about the second one that you’re here to complete?

GB: Right. It is actually a project that is growing. It’s called Sisters and Brothers. It has to do with a show I did at Spoke Gallery last year and I couldn’t be at the show. A lot of the work I do needs me to be in it—especially the food projects where I’m serving food. How can I make a participatory work when I’m not there in person? So, I’m always thinking about the connections of where I am at the moment and where the show is going to be. I knew that Mexico City and Chicago are sister cities—if you look at the forms [from the project], hardly anyone knows that. In Mexico even less people know. At least here you have a tourism center that shows it and in the airport there are paintings that shows it, but I don’t think people think much about it. So, I wanted to try and make a more personal connection with the people in Chicago and the people in Mexico. The people who I got to fill in the forms in Mexico were from more of a local community. Some were artists, some were neighbors, [and] some were people I worked with. It was really diverse—the answers that they gave me. [As they did in Mexico, in Chicago] they are filling out a really simple form where they are saying what would be the best thing about having ‘siblings’ in Mexico City. Then, I ask what they like most about their own city, where they would take people from Mexico if they came and it doesn’t have to be tourist places or well-known places. [Also, I ask] where they would like their Mexican siblings to take them in their city. That can be something like where they live or to the pyramids—it’s completely open. Then, there are three questions in the end that are quite important about which dish would you like to cook for your ‘siblings’, which song would you like to play for them or listen to with them, and what film would you like to see with them.

What I did for the exhibition in Chicago is I got some of the food they chose in Mexico, I quite like that social thing where people eat something–I work a lot with food [and] popular culture–music and films. Also, the places that people said they would like to take their siblings, I took pictures and displayed them on the walls so people could see where people had chosen. It’s a much more, well, it’s people that don’t know each other and it doesn’t really matter too much, but they are bringing something personal–like a playlist of music that is completely random and diverse because of the people I asked. There were different ages and backgrounds.

Here, we were doing it at Spoke, so there were not that many [people] that filled it in and they were mainly artists that filled them in. So, I thought I have to go somewhere where there are more people who aren’t only in the Chicago art world, which is why this is a brilliant place to sit and have them fill this out.

And actually, this is not really finishing–this is actually going on and on and on. Now, these forms will make up the content of the exhibition in Mexico, which will not necessarily be shown in a gallery. It could be in any kind of public space. So, when I’m saying exhibition I mean showing it to the public. They can then fill out more forms. That means when it comes back to Chicago at some point it will have grown even bigger. I’m trying to make an exchange that moves back and forth all the time. So, we have an organic growth of the project.

TH: Which is what you think of with a sister city–you would think that it would be that type of exchange. What’s the point of having a sister city if you’re not having a cultural exchange–in this case between Chicago and Mexico City?

GB: Yea.

West Chicago Fusion Food cookbook. May 19, 2011. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel)

TH: This is a good segue into the cookbook that you’re presenting, West Chicago Fusion Food. You told me briefly about the coming together of the dishes, but do you have any particular favorites?

GB: I like the recipes that are a mix between Mexican and traditional American food. There’s one [served on a skewer] that was a very big hit–I was serving it at Blooming Fest. It was made up of cheese, cactus, plantain and you dip it in chili sauce. I thought it would be very rich, it was very strong in its flavor. But that was the one people really, really liked.

TH: That sounds amazing! To shift gears a little bit… what have you learned from your travels and from living in different cities, and how Chicago has compared to those cities?

GB: I will say that it feels really like home here [in Chicago]. It’s really strange, but from the very first moment I came to Chicago it felt like a really open city. And what I really like about the city as well is that people seem to have time. When I was [doing] participatory work in Mexico, the people were really enthusiastic and they all wanted to take part–they love it and are really excited. Almost to the point where it’s overwhelming. In Europe, I think we are more reserved on that aspect [of participation]. We really like working together as teams, but when it comes to participating in something that is just happening in the spur of the moment, we…

TH: It takes a little time to warm up?

GB: Yes, exactly. Actually, I’m not that good at participating! [laughs] So, I’m really concerned that people feel comfortable and that they are making the choice of participating. I have been in situations where you were asked to participate in something where it’s not a choice and you feel forced because you are in the setting or you come to a gallery and they make a performance and say, “You do this…” and [you’re thinking], “No…” I’m not very good at that. So, I think it is really important that people feel like they can come up to me and they have chosen that they want to do this.

Gitte Bog talks with a participant in the lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center. May 19, 2011. (Image Credit: Tempestt Hazel)

I think here in Chicago, people have been really good because they seem to really like participation and they are just completely calm about it. It’s somewhere between Mexico and Europe–they’re just really good at it. And they seem to feel really comfortable about it. It is a joy being here to work with them. Also, the stories that we exchange while we’re doing it are so important. They are curious and want to know what I’m doing. They don’t worry too much about understanding it. They just like to know why I’m doing it and where I come from. So, we just talk about really nice things–we’re exchanging stories as well that have nothing to do with the project.

TH: That gives you a very different experience than the typical tourist would coming to the city–being able to sit down and have conversations with Chicagoans. But, to wrap this up…I want to ask you a million more questions, but I won’t do it. What’s next for the projects and your practice?

GB: I’m actually doing quite a few different projects at the moment, just starting them off. Lately, I have been really into documenting or making something that people can have after–so they can see the evidence that they participated in something. I am working on [the book of illustrations] at the moment–I left that project for quite some time in Mexico City. I didn’t make any illustrations and it’s not before now that I actually started producing the images that fit to the text. And obviously this project, the one with the candies, is the one of the ones I will be working on because it needs to be made into something that people can have as well. I don’t know if it will be a book or a fold-up of some kind.

I’m also working on a project which has to do with the world map.

TH: I love mapping.

GB: I do a lot of work with maps. But I’m not going to tell what it is now because it would ruin it! [laughs]

TH: More work with fusion? When we first met you were talking about the idea of fusion in your practice–food fusion, language fusion, cultural fusion.

GB: Yea. I’m also doing a project that relates to dancing of other cultures as well–and all those popular cultural outlets I love. I base a lot of work on that.

TH: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Good luck with these current projects and I look forward to seeing more of what you do in the future–and hopefully trying some of your recipes.

GB: Yes, thank you!

Learn more about Gitte’s work at:
www.gb09.com

Learn more about Chicago’s Sister Cities:
http://www.chicagosistercities.com