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Behind the Salons: An Interview with Ania Szremski and Rebecca Hernandez

I recently met up with the two women behind threewalls’ current threewallsSALON series, Ania Szremski and Rebecca Hernandez.  Both are currently studying for their MA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and have a breadth of knowledge about, well, the idea of knowledge itself.  We covered a range of topics, from our realization that we each have an apparent “imposter complex” to professionalization of the arts, relationships between science and art, and free schools.

Unschooling Arts Education Salon. Threewalls Gallery. March 29, 2011. (Photo credit: Jennifer Nalbantyan).

Jennifer Nalbantyan:  Are you originally from Chicago?

Rebecca Hernandez:  No, I’m from New York.  I came to Chicago for graduate school at School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and it was also a conscious decision to leave New York.

JN:  Why is that?

RH:  Because of a lot of things, like the cost of living, and also just the density— the difficulty of finding opportunities there.

JN:  What about you, Ania? Are you from Chicago or did you migrate here like the rest of us?

Ania Szremski:  Sort of both.  It’s funny because I gave a guest lecture in someone’s art history class the other day.  The students also asked me what my background was, and I couldn’t remember [laughs].  I couldn’t remember anything before graduate school.  I really had to pause for a long time…“Who am I?”

RH:  Maybe it’s imposter syndrome, which is something that I’ve been reading about.

AS:  I do have imposter syndrome!

JN:  I was just talking about imposter syndrome the other day!  I was talking about imposter syndrome in the context of being an artist without having studied art professionally.

RH: You know, I had never heard about it and I was reading something last weekend then I posted something on my Facebook page that had the definition of it and link to the Wikipedia site.  I was like, “Fake it ‘til you make it!” and I’ve never had more comments on something I’ve posted on Facebook. And then I was reading about it and they say it’s most prevalent in the academic world…

AS: There aren’t really objective markers for success, and so you constantly feel like, “Is this really good?  And am I actually a total idiot…?”

RH:  It’s especially true, I think, when you’re a graduate student, or maybe even earlier in your career when you may be jumping from one area of interest to another and sort of migrating instead of being on a really traditional trajectory.

JN:  Wait, I still want to know where you’re from!

AS:  [laughs] I lived in Chicago from the ages 6 to 17 and then I came back here for grad school at SAIC.  My family is originally from Poland, so when I was 17 I actually went back to Poland to study.  I ended up going to France to do my college education and I got a job in South America….it’s a complicated story!

Unschooling Arts Education Salon. Threewalls Gallery. March 29, 2011. (Photo credit: Jennifer Nalbantyan)

JN:  Wow, you’ve been around.  How did you get involved with threewalls and with the Salon series?

In the Fall of 2008, I started an internship at threewalls and curated the Salon series last year. That one was a bit more esoteric and more about artistic practice, but it was definitely related to this series.  What I was interested in was different ways of looking at knowledge and how it manifests in different trends within the visual arts:  things like research-based artistic practice, mapping, using the internet, different things like that.  Rebecca started interning the same year I did.

RH:  Yeah, I had met with Elizabeth two weeks after I moved to Chicago—because I had heard about threewalls when I was in New York and was interested in working with them.

JN:  How did you hear about threewalls in New York—word of mouth?

RH: Well, I did a lot of research on Chicago organizations before I decided to come here for graduate school and I actually knew some Chicago artists who had relocated to New York, and I was really interested in the kind of programming that they were doing; I knew that when I came here I wanted to not just focus my efforts on school—that I really wanted to make a connection to the Chicago art scene through another avenue. So, I started at threewalls right when I started school.  I started as a development intern and was working mainly on grant writing and then shifted into organizing programming for this year, and started working on organizing the Salon series with Ania.

AS:  Rebecca and I had been working on different projects at school because we’re in the same program and so it just seemed like a natural thing to work together on Salon.

JN:  What is the meaning behind using the word “Salon” for these conversations?

AS: That’s something that Shannon came up with.  The idea was to play on the traditional 18th century literary salon, but to sort of turn that on its head.  Instead of this being an elitist thing, it was supposed to be a democratic platform for conversations, to de-hierarchize the artist panel discussion.  So, instead of having these privileged speakers that people ask questions to, we wanted to bring everyone into conversation with each other.

JN:  How did you select the topics for this series, @work?  Did you draw a lot from what you’ve been learning in your MA programs?

AS: Through many months of discussion.  We just talked and talked and talked.

RH:  We spent many days at threewalls sitting two inches away from each other with our laptops, doing research.  And I think it also relates to some of the things that we’re interested in within the art field and being interested in the way that the arts play out in Chicago.

Crisis Free Art Criticism Salon. Audience members and Panelists. Threewalls Gallery. Chicago, IL. March 2011. (Photo credit: Nicolette Caldwell)

JN:  I know you’re not working on a thesis yet, Rebecca, but do you have topic that you’re studying or focusing on right now?

RH:  I’m spending most of my time doing research on the collaboration and relationship between art and science.  I have an internship right now at Northwestern University and I’m doing research for one of their projects; the basis of my work there is researching collaboration between artists and scientists.

JN:  Is it for the art department there?

RH:  No, it’s actually for the Center for Talent Development, which has a lot of different programs but the one program that I’m working with is a math and science enrichment program for middle school students.  The reason I got connected with that project is that one of the faculty at SAIC in the arts administration department, Rhoda Rosen—who was one of my teachers and she used to be the curator of Spertus—now works with that project.  So she was brought on board to work on ways to bring arts into that enrichment program.  They’re doing some art programming with those students in their summer program and then they’re working on developing an art exhibition with those students—but I’m not directly involved in that part of the program.

JN:  Do you have other interests in the relationship between art and science?

RH:  Yeah, I’ve been researching art and science and also art and other disciplines since before I came to Chicago.

JN:  So, what’s an example of the way that the two interact?

RH:  Well, I started looking at how artists and scientists collaborate together and looking at some art projects that happened in the 90s, like Mel Chin, who was working with scientists to realize his art projects and that research developed into a lot of different paths—I was looking at how artists work with other disciplines to problem-solve for social issues, and now I’m really looking at how the arts( and specifically how art history and art criticism) have ignored this sort of relationship.

I would say that the majority is happening towards the science end because that’s where the funding is. There’s not much funding in the arts in general, but certainly not much funding to bring other disciplines into the arts.

JN:  Yeah, I haven’t really thought much about that perspective—the fact that lack of support for the arts not only impacts the arts but impacts being able to bring art into other disciplines.

AS:  Or even conversely, the lack of support for arts can encourage artists to also start bridging their work into other disciplines.

JN:  I know that part of the premise for the Unschooling Arts Education Salon, which I attended, is the idea of the blurring of these different roles with the art professions.  It does seem like there are more people now who are both artist and curator, or both artist and art historian, or some combination.

AS:  Yeah, that’s actually one of the things we were interested in exploring; it relates to the last Salon series too—different ways that we’ve been thinking on a very meta level about knowledge, what knowledge is, and the blurring that happens, whether it’s in artistic practice or in professional practice.

Crisis Free Art Criticism Salon. Audience members and Panelists. Threewalls Gallery. Chicago, IL. March 2011. (Photo credit: Nicolette Caldwell)

JN:  There seems to be a lot of emphasis on examining the institutionalization of the arts.  The Unschooling Arts Education Salon seemed to present a somewhat paradoxical task of tackling this topic within a structured setting comprised mostly of art educators, students, and administrators.  Did this present a challenge for you, or did you find it difficult to negotiate the premise behind even talking about unschooling arts education—that the debate itself is birthed out of conversations happening within art educational institutions?  And did the conversation meet your expectations?

AS:  This is something that we’ve talked a lot about.  We tend to frame these kinds of discussions with a particular type of language, and the fact that we do that is definitely a result of our studies and our academic environment.  So there is the risk that, in the very framing of a discussion, that act can be exclusionary.  But, on the other hand, a lot of different types of people come to the Salon, and the fact that there are so many SAIC people at any given event is just a part of the fact that there are, like, millions of people who go there or have graduated—you just cannot escape that fact within the Chicago landscape.  But in terms of whether the conversations meet our expectations, you can’t really have an expectation.  There are always points that we hope we can hit—but we also try to moderate with a very light hand, and let people bring up what is important to them and take it where they want it to go.

RH:  Yeah, I was having a conversation this week about the Salon and how it differs from the original Salons that took place.  And, you know, I think partly, we have a different culture here and they can’t operate the way they did then.  But we were talking about having a Salon where a number of people come together, ideas are discussed, and then you run into those people the next day at a café, and then you run into somebody else and how that’s the way that those conversations really start to develop—after repetition.

AS:  It’s sometimes more about bringing people together than the actual content itself—I know some people have gone on to do projects together afterwards.  I would also say that the opportunities that you tend to have for discussion and conversation are often highly mediated.  So there’s something very positive about being in an environment that is relatively less moderated, even if we don’t “solve the problem,” or even if it’s not this really elevated level of discourse.

JN:  Did you anticipate the direction the conversation took at the Unschooling Art Education Salon towards the topic of free schooling?

AS:  Yeah, you know, there were a lot of personal stories about people’s free school experiences—I didn’t anticipate that.

RH:  I think it’s also interesting because—and it’s not particular to the Salons because it happens with dialogue within the arts in general—is that we use terminology that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

AS:  Chicago has an interesting history of free school that has kind of petered out and that’s now starting to see a resurgence.  There’s Co-Prosperity Sphere school, which you do have to actually pay for–and then there’s initiatives at Mess Hall in Rogers Park and Brandon Alvendia is doing a similar thing at his new space.

Curating the Turn Salon. Audience members and Panelists after salon is dismissed. Threewalls Gallery. Chicago, IL. February 2011. (Photo credit: Nicolette Caldwell)

JN:  So what is your take on free schooling?

RH:  This is definitely one of my interests.  I’m interested in free culture in general and open source, whether that’s describing something online or something that’s happening in the physical world, and I’m really interested in knowledge sharing and how we look at who has access to that knowledge, what kinds of knowledge we privilege.  So, for me, the idea of a free school is wrapped in that larger context.  I also am really interested in the state of education and the cost of education.  I’ve certainly been influenced by some of the debates that are happening in Europe around the cost of education.  I think that those conversations are less public in the United States than they are in Europe, but certainly the student protests in New York and California last year are meaningful as well.

I’m certainly not an academy basher—I’m part of it and I’m happy about being a part of it—but I also think that there is not one or the other way of learning art or learning other kinds of information or finding your way to the arts, whether that’s as an artist or an art appreciator.  So, I’m interested in the way these kinds of educational settings operate as an alternative but also alongside a traditional institutional education.

JN:  Do you think there may also be a risk of a kind of watering down of the discipline of art—that if it became so free and open for anyone to add to this knowledge pool, that it could jeopardize the level of scholarship within the field?

RH:  I don’t think so.  I think the development of free schools would have to be so far removed from where they are now and where they seem to be going in the future for that to happen, and I think that there is so much investment in the highly academic scholarly arts that I don’t really see a risk of that happening.

AS:  When you look at how some of these free schools actually work—for example, when you look at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, which those artists claim is sort of an answer to exploitative hierarchical systems—it’s really just reproducing the system of the academy in another context.  You still have classes, and you still have class leaders.  Zach Cahill brought it up in our Salon—he said, it seems that we have some kind of innate need to self-organize and perpetuate these hierarchical systems.  So, I feel like the idea of a free art school, as being a radical strike against something that we already have, is not going to happen until the structure itself radically changes.

I really like the idea also of free knowledge sharing.  Rebecca and I were talking about the free schools in the context of AAAAARG.ORG and open source and Wikipedia.  I love all that because I’m a direct beneficiary of that in my work, but I also have the same concern that you brought up about value trickling away. And this is where I start to sound pretty crazy.  I think this comes from going to school in Europe.

In many of the countries in which I’ve lived, which are social welfare states, and school is for free and it is something the state is supposed to provide for citizens, you had this kind of medieval set-up where you were the ignorant apprentice in darkness.  Your professor was the master who you had to kind of worship for him to show you the light [laughs]—that’s something that is weirdly precious to me.  I had to really struggle for my studies, and I would go to these medieval libraries where you have to go through many, many steps just to get a book…[laughs].

But overall, I see the ideal arts ecology working with all of these different forces together—the institution, the academy, and these alternative, open platforms.

RH:  I agree.  And I think that high levels of participation is how you get around some of those issues.  For example, the way that you increase the value on Wikipedia is that you have more people participating in the knowledge creation that’s on there so that there is a conversation about the knowledge and not one person putting information out there and people thinking that it’s the gold standard.

Curating the Turn Salon. Audience members Happy Collaborationists Directors and Panelist Eric May of Roots and Culture talk after salon is dismissed. Threewalls Gallery. Chicago, IL. February 2011. (Photo credit: Nicolette Caldwell)

JN:  I tried to come up with an analogy in order to try to understand why this seems to be such a dilemma within the art disciplines in particular—at least in the realm of education.  For example, we don’t expect a biologist to get the consent of or input from the general public about some theory she is testing, or research she is conducting before it becomes knowledge available to everyone.  I know it’s a difficult issue because art is both a discipline but is also heavily tied to culture and therefore depends on the constant intersection with a public sphere. But why do you think those who specialize in arts fields don’t feel comfortable with a similar level of autonomy in the discourse and research within the art fields?

AS:  I can just say that that question is one of the great unresolved mysteries of the arts.  That’s something we talk about all the time in the program [at SAIC], and it goes to the issue of value.

RH:  I actually think that science is maybe on the other side of the spectrum in a way that is detrimental to science and detrimental to the public understanding of science, and this has certainly been part of the research I’ve done—in terms of the relationship between the amateur and the professional.  And yes, there has been little questioning of the expertise of science, but that has to do with the isolation of the sciences and how little public understanding there is of what scientists do.  And there has been an effort on behalf of some scientists and science sociologists to look at—and this sort of free school effort is not just happening in the arts, it’s happening in the sciences and there are free schools that are dedicated to science and there are sort of open, DIY science labs: there’s a lab in California called Bio-curious and that was a lab that was set up by a woman who, when the market crashed, all this science equipment became available and she spent like $35,000 and bought like half a million dollars worth of science equipment or something like that and then she set up a garage space where people could just come—I believe that they had workshops—and people could just come and do experiments.  But there were also people who were citizen scientists who were interested in working on their own way to solve a scientific problem or biomedical problem.

So, there are people—certainly not interested in doing away with the academy and the professionalization of science—but who are interested in creating a strong relationship between them, because they can help each other out.  So, the citizen scientists and the general public, who just has a general interest in science, can learn from professional scientists, but also that the citizen scientist has something to teach and can have a practice that generates knowledge for the [professional] scientists.

JN:  As I was thinking about the possible reasons why this shift that you point out towards more specialization through various art degree programs (but also more fluidity between the lines of art professions), one of the things I came up with is that it may be part of a larger economically-driven trend in this country that calls for people to become increasingly flexible in the marketplace but also to achieve increasingly specialized credentials.  What is your take on the primary reason for this shift within the art professions?

Image used for Salon series, @work. Photo courtesy of threewalls.

AS:  There’s a book by Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism.  They talk about the very late moment of capitalism that we’re in as characterized by the network; it’s a very horizontal thing, where you don’t start your career at a bank as a teller for fifteen years and then work your way up.  It’s the kind of a climate where we consider it of great value to have the freedom to work in a place for just a short time, and be able to quit if you want and find something else.  So you do have to have all these different skills and your expertise is spread out, as opposed to being concentrated in one place.  I think the inter-disciplinary in arts professions is also part of that trend, and that goes into the point I made in the Salon about the instrumentalization of the arts, which caused a lot of eyes to roll, apparently [laughs], but which I think is an important point.

JN:  What do you mean exactly by “instrumentalization of the arts”?

Oh, part of it is that Richard Florida’s “cool cities” idea, to use creatives to attract business in the city, and to harness creativity for these economic ends.  Part of that is getting artists or creatives to work synergistically in a graphic design company or a biotech company, and these different business environments where their creativity will improve the work process.

RH:  Right, or even seeing the arts as only valuable, in an education setting for example, when it helps students learn science and math.  That, on its own, it’s not a valuable enough learning tool, but that it needs to be in service to something else.

But, you know, I think that greater specialization is just something that is happening in every knowledge sphere and it has to do with the way that knowledge has developed over the past hundred or two hundred years—that you have ever-increasing numbers of people studying certain interests and so the development of knowledge in that area that leads to increasing specialization is somewhat inevitable, and that’s not to say that it’s a good thing. Especially for somebody who’s researching interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary practices, I think that hyper-specialization is a huge barrier to those kinds of relationships.

I also think that part of this increasing trend of individuals in the arts inhabiting different roles has to do with work that’s happening outside of institutions in which we don’t have an art culture anymore where there are only a few art organizations being the arbiters of taste, that you know, “This is the exhibition,” and only the artists that exhibit in this sphere are the artists, and so when you have greater opportunities or greater number of spaces for exhibition and art practices, I think it’s inevitable that you have people who are interested in finding ways to work in those environments in multiple ways.

JN:  Wow.  This got really heavy.  So, uh, what’s your favorite smell?

AS:  [laughs] My favorite cookie is chocolate chip pretzel at a café that I go to—it’s an amazing cookie.  I live in Rogers Park, and on Devon there’s a café called Stella’s.  They have really good coffee and then these chocolate chip cookies with a big pretzel baked on top of it.

JN:  Mmm, that does sound good.  Rebecca, favorite smell, favorite flower…? [laughs]

RH:  Hmm…well, I’m really into mushrooms.  I did a lot of research on mushrooms in the Spring and how fungi can save the world.

JN:  Ok.  So are you into that kombucha potion drink?

RH:  Yes, I am… I like the word “potion” for it – I actually brew my own kombucha.

JN:  Awesome! Thanks!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.



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