This is the second 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/ .
I am fascinated that you have in a way divided your work (in terms of how you present it on your website at least) into works about work and works about (land) use. The work/use dichotomy seems to me to raise a lot of interesting points. The cautionary reminder that seems to me to be present in works like “Kindly Use” and “In the Quiet of These Great Distances” sets up a tension between “using” and “using up” resources. Do you see the artist as a person who is uniquely positioned to appreciate the need to “use” materials without “using them up”?
I actually see the themes as more related than separated, despite their separation on my website. I see the works of land use as an extension of my works that are specifically about work. Where Marx spoke of a worker’s alienation from his/her job and jobs [being] comprised of dismembered gestures, bioregional ethics explores the other side of that coin. Through the lens of bioregional ethics, I’m starting to explore how one can work in an engaged way, full of thoughtful gestures. I’m thinking about places where a mindfulness is added to one’s action.
For me, the dichotomy between work and use is a modern invention, if you will. It is the issue of scale. On a small scale, we can use resources, and we can be engaged with our actions. On a large scale, we use up resources and tend toward dismembered gestures. This division between work and use is possible due to series of networks that have made our lives easier. But these same networks have produced a disconnection between the individual and resource at the beginning of the system [and] from the individual and commodity at the end of the system.
I see the work “kindly use” as simultaneously cautionary, but also celebratory. The locations where those signs were placed were near privately owned ranch lands – family-owned businesses run by people who are engaged with their work/labor actions. With the body of work, “In the Quiet of these Great Distances”, I am exploring a gray area of use.
I think artists are certainly in the position of needing materials for the purposes of producing their work. Considering that artists now will often select a material specifically for its cultural connotation, or its meaning, artists are able to see past a material’s usual or typical use. And hopefully using as much of a material as needed to experiment and produce the (art)work he/she is producing. There is also the idea of exploration of intellectual material, of making many works exploring a theme or exploring something deeply – to generate instead of simply consume. There’s also that notion of where the artist can be generous, and where to hold back – to not “use everything up”, to leave space for the viewer.
Do you think art also potentially “uses up”? For example, is there the danger that art “uses up” its subjects by bringing them into the light and thus laying on the table all the meaning they had as parts of our everyday lives? Or does art give its subjects a new kind of vivacity in bringing them to light?
I hope not art doesn’t “use up” its subjects. But it’s certainly possible, both on an investigative/intellectual level, and on a materials level. I mean, how many themes are there really that artists work with? It seems there are a couple dozen general themes. It would be incredibly limiting in that once a theme would be explored, it couldn’t or wouldn’t be explored again by other artists in different ways. Is it that the artist and the art uses up its subject, or does the artist exhaust the subject for him- or herself? Perhaps that’s sort of the same thing. I think that art can explore the various meanings or lines of inquiry of a subject. Expand what it is until it collapses (or until the artist collapses).
In terms of materials, there is no such thing as a “pure” material or medium. All have histories and are imbued culturally in some way. The way in which the materials are used is another conversation. Materials or modes of working which may have, at a certain point in (past or recent) history, been avant-garde can become a modes of working or materials that are commonly used.
I guess I would say that if art “uses up” its subject, material, mode of working, it would do so for a period of time, but they will emerge again. I also think that an artist needs to honor him- or herself, that is, to do what he or she feels compelled to do. An artist can give bring new life or vivacity to a subject, material and way of working, exposing something hidden within the subject and within the artist. There’s an exchange. It’s a dialogue. A dialogue between artists of different eras, artists in different places with similar and different thought processes; a dialogue between the artist and the subject; a dialogue between the artist and the material and process; a dialogue between artist and viewer.
I’d like to touch briefly on how viewers might encounter your work. How important is “making a statement” to the experience of/encounter with your work? What I mean is that, given the fact that a great deal of your work comes from everyday activity, it seems possible to encounter things like dryer lint, floss, potato chips, firewood, etc. without linking them to broader political implications, but simply pondering them as things and materials. Do you feel that your work “must make a statement” in a political or social sense? Or is it sufficient that it simply allows people to contemplate their relation to things and activities?
I think artists make work for different reasons. Some artists want to make beautiful objects, functional objects, a record of a place or moment, a record of a thought, or to make a statement, among other reasons. My work is usually driven by a curiosity, something I’m trying to make sense of, or come to some sort of position on. My work is a record of thought and investigative actions.
That said, I think our lives are political, whether we know it or not. Often we think of politics as something that happens in Washington DC, or among politicians. But I think how we live our lives is political. So, while I don’t necessary think that art must make a statement, I think I am interested in exploring the political within my work and attempting to communicate something to the viewer. Is wanting to “make a statement” the same as wanting to communicate something?
Since post-modernism, the relationship between viewer and artists, viewer and work has shifted. The viewer has more responsibility. The viewer has to do more work in the viewing process – to ask him- or herself questions about materials, about how they are used and displayed, about the title, about the work’s relationship to other that artist has made or other objects that share its same space. Each viewer brings his or her own subjectivity to a work when viewing. Roland Barthes, in his essay Death of the Author – a basic read for all grad students – explores this idea. As an artist I have to trust the viewer to make their own understanding of the work, whether the viewer looks at the pieces purely in terms of its formal sensibilities, or if the viewer will engage on a deeper level with the work, and whether or not my intention comes through.
Finally, I’m curious about the idea of art as “gesture” (as in your work “Small Gestures”). How do you conceive of the idea of “gesture”? Would you say that all art represents a “gesture”, or is it one kind of activity which art/the artist can engage in? In describing “Small Gestures”, you called it a way of acknowledging “work” that people do, so in some way it completes a circle back to work. In some ways I get the sense that the gesture “says a lot but produces little” while work “produces a lot but says little” (or at least we don’t usually listen to what it has to say). Do you see a sort of reciprocal relation between work and gesture? Between art as work and art as gesture?
The idea of “gesture”… if you look it up in the dictionary, its definition as a noun refers to movements that express thoughts and emotions, and any action of courtesy. In that way, “Small Gestures” is both because it is a record of movement and a courtesy.
Why not acknowledge the work people do? It seems as though, as much as we may work, that it becomes invisible because it’s taken for granted, or because we operate on auto-pilot, or because it’s an expectation within our work-based society. Do we really see the “fruits of our labor” anymore? Within some jobs, certainly, within others, no. Have you ever gone home after a day of work and wondered what you did that day?
Your assertion that “gesture says a lot but produces little while work produces a lot but says little.” is interesting to think about. Some gestures “speak” more “loudly” than others, just as some work produces more, while other work very little. Maybe work and gesture actually need each other; that there is not just a reciprocal relation between work and gesture, but that there is a symbiotic relation, too. Without one, what happens to the other? Where is the overlap, or convergence of the two?
Art is so many things. Art as work, art as actions, art as gesture, art as thought, art as leisure, art as community, art as history, art as work, art as commodity… I do view art, the making of and the final product (if one exists) as the accumulation of movements, and as an action intended to communicate with or affect the viewer.