Interview With Renee Couture, Part 1

This is the first part of an interview conducted via email with Renee Couture, an artist working and teaching in Douglas County, Oregon. Her work often deals with issues of productive and/or repetitive work and its connection to our lives, as well as the relationship of human communities to the environment. Couture’s website is: http://www.rcoutureart.com/ .

In encountering your art, one of the first things that comes to mind is a question Duchamp posed: “Can one make works which are not works of art?”. Many of your “works” are about work; do you see a strong distinction between art (the kind you do, or any art) and work? Is the relation between the two a kind of continuum? And if so, what makes the “art” end of the continuum different?

I think this might be a question of intention, and the artist’s or viewer’s willingness to consider a work as art, or not. For example, the Walker Art Museum in Minnesota had an exhibit of Eva Hesse’s sketchbooks, working notes, diaries, and experiments on display. What did Eva Hesse think of these objects? What did the museum think of these objects? How are these objects displayed, and how did the display impact the way in which viewers engaged with these objects? Another example is Gabriel Orozco’s first solo show at Marian Goodman Gallery where he presented Yogurt Caps. The work consisted of four yogurt caps; each wall consisted of a single cap placed in the center of the wall. During the opening, viewers walked in, and then left. And then they came back and really interacted with the space.

In my case, questions surrounding  work and labor – such as our cultural relationship to work – are where my intellectual inquiries begin. So what is work? In my mind, work is anything that we spend our energy on – which is great because my life and my studio practice overlap; I draw from my life for my artwork. Where does one stop and one begin? Sometimes I don’t know. Sometimes I question myself; sometimes my practice reveals my own biases. Maybe the only difference between one end of the continuum and the other is how I’m thinking about it, what my intention is, whether or not I’m documenting it.

That said, I do think of one’s studio practice as a practice and as work. A studio practice can be bliss, can be fun, can be drudgery, can be painful. Thinking back to Bruce Nauman, who asked the question, “what is art?” shortly after he finished with graduate school and he decided that he was an artist and therefore anything he [does] is art. That revelation expanded his studio practice in exciting ways. Think of what Mary Kelly did with her Postpartum Documents, Merle Ukeles Laderman with her Maintenance Art project, or the work of many artists in the 60s and 70s, where their art was their work and their work was their art. Today Santiago Sierra continues this, though thematically a bit different, but the idea of exploring labor is present.

My husband and I got an exhibit postcard in the mail from a friend once. He said, “gee, I wish I could send out a postcard for when I go to work this coming Monday. It would say my name, and then : reviews timber contract.” On the one hand, he has a point in questioning why the work of an artist should be “celebrated” when everyone else’s work is not. But on the other hand, much of the work artists do is hidden until it’s shown in a gallery, online, on the landscape, etc. Even then, within the final product or object, much of the work involved in the conception and making is missed or hidden. The artist may or may not “get paid” (i.e., sell) the work he/she produces. Does that mean the artist has worked for free?

Does the work have to be shown in a gallery to put it on the “art” end of the continuum? But that would take us into the territory of discussing the Artworld, with a capital A. What I will say is that I know I don’t consider all the work I do each day to be considered “art”, but there are times that I will document work I do with the intention of it becoming art. So I suppose the answer to the last question is a combination of variables of the artist deciding what will or won’t be art, a gallery owner/manager/collector deciding if something is or isn’t art, and the viewer deciding if something is or isn’t art. I mean, we’ve all been in a museum or gallery where a viewer questions whether or not object in that space (gallery, museum) is art, or “something a six-year old could make.” That said, I suppose the continuum shifts depending upon who you speak with.

In your statement about your “work-related” art, you note that “we live in a work-based society”. I wonder to what degree your art might constitute a critique of that society or a reinforcement of it. On the one hand, your emphasis on the product of daily activities stands in contrast to what we might produce in “jobs”. On the other hand, these works seem to be part of the pressure exerted on members of society to accumulate and produce something no matter what. Do you see your art as simply a commentary on this situation, or a step in changing it? If a step towards change, how so?

I think my work is an attempt to understand something and/or to call attention to something. I don’t think of my work necessarily [as] trying to change things. I think of myself as an observer, a record keeper, a researcher, a critiquer, a maker, among other things. My role shifts during different parts of the process and studio practice, and perhaps my role changes with each work or body of works. I suppose some viewers will see the work as a critique, while others might see the work as reinforcement, and other might see the work as observation.

I do think that people have the desire to feel productive, and to do something they can feel good about or are happy doing. But there is also this pressure, for people who have a wage-job, to produce and be productive, to be able to measure the productivity, to earn their pay. This is especially true now in our current economic time.

Also, our jobs are such a large part of our identity, not just how we see ourselves, but how others see us. I suppose the questions now is, what do we produce? Are the things that we produce necessary? As a society, we’ve certainly mastered accelerated obsolescence. And creating specialized objects for everything. How does that impact our creativity, our ability to repurpose objects within in our lives, to see another or hidden potential within an object? Since the industrial revolution and most definitely in our post World War II society, most people no longer work for themselves, that is, they work for an entity that pays. There is an even greater separation between work and leisure, work and pleasure. The home has become a site of consumption as opposed to production. There is a greater distancing between our professional lives and our private lives. Also, the advent of “specializing” we’ve lost generalized knowledge. We lost a seasonality that used to be present…now, instead of working in a seasonal way, completing activities that shift throughout the year, we do the same activities each day. How does that impact how we engage with these activities? These are some of the things I’m thinking about when I’m working.

What do you see as being the difference between work and labor? What about “activity”? How would you relate the concepts of work, labor, and activity to art?

Certainly when I think of “labor” I’m think of something that involves a physicality – an activity where the body is a tool, an activity where muscles are engaged, an activity that physically tires or strains an individual, an activity that is physically engrossing. “Work”, I suppose, involves the mind; it’s also a place where one does one’s job (“I have to go to work”). Of course, these are not entirely separate. Even though I’ve described them as quite different, I believe there is an overlap, like in a Venn diagram. And a “job” is something one does for a wage. Of course, an “activity” is some sort of action that one does when working, laboring, or at one’s job. It is the activity, or more correctly, the output of that activity this is measurable and measured to determine one’s productivity.

But I think that artists work and labor within their practices, each in his or her own way, and perhaps with a different amount of emphasis placed in these areas. Part of the process is researching, thinking, writing, and planning; and then physically making the work. The end result is the accumulation of the various activities that the artist employs within his or her studio practice.

Another theme that I see reflected in some of your works (“Blind Flicker of Nerve”, “Over and Over”, “Labor Day’s Labor”, etc.) is the theme of repetition and habit. These works seem to touch on a kind of obsession related to the repeated act, but to me they also recall Michel Foucault’s analysis of how, in society, the individual/subject is created through habits/activities that are part of a network of power. Do you feel that the sort of repetitive activities your art deals with are a product of the individual, or do they form the individual? Or is it somewhere in between?

Am I allowed to say both? Because I think the relationship is cyclic. I think Louis Althusser points to this in his discussion on Ideological State Apparatuses.

I think perhaps a factor is how engaged the individual is when completing the activity. Is the individual completing the activities with the sort of dismembered gestures of one who is alienated from the activity or mentally disengaged; or is the individual completing the activity in a way that is thoughtful and focused?

There are most definitely habits/activities that are part of a network of power that shape the individual in a variety of ways – how we think about things, our muscle memory, ……. Our body becomes an archive of the activities we do – we see it in the body of retired ballerinas or football players, workers having carpal-tunnel syndrome, or chronic headaches or ulcers due to stress, for example.

Also, studies have shown that the more education one has, the more one’s identity is derived from his/her job.

Our bodies are also not entirely our bodies. Our bodies “belong” not only to us, but also to our culture on a national, state and local level. We see this all the time in legislative acts on women’s reproductive rights, the Death with Dignity Act and objections to it, to name a couple of the more polarizing examples. They belong to families.

In connection with the above question, do you feel that art has a shaping effect or a shaped effect in relation to the artist? Does art come from the artist, or does the artist come from the artwork?

I think what you’re really asking here is what the relationship is between the artist and the work, and the question implies that the relationship is hierarchical. Really, this relationship is a dialogue between the artist and the process. The artist and the process are partners in creating a finished work. So, to answer the question: I believe that both happen within an artist’s practice, a give and take, so to speak, of shaping and being shaped.

But I think it depends upon one’s approach to that particular work, or why one is making the particular work of art. If the artist already has a firm position on the theme or content that he or she wants to present within the work, then the artist has a shaping effect on the work. If the artist is using the work to explore or investigate a question in an attempt to find a position, then the work shapes the artist. Work comes from the artist, and work makes work.

Part 2 will follow shortly. –Raino Isto

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