Eric and Heather ChanSchatz
Photo credit: Lindsey Rubin
Whether or not the work is commercial in intent or self-consciously counter-culture, part of art's allure emerges from the idea that the artist is a renegade figure whose vision is unique. Yet two of today's most thoughtful and thought-provoking artists produce work which is startlingly original because it calls into question clichés about individual creativity.
For the past ten years, Eric Chan and Heather Schatz have been creating work together as ChanSchatz. Husband and wife, the two met in 1990 during a freshman figure drawing class at the University of California, Berkley. They allegedly finished each others' drawings and have been collaborating ever since.
Critics like to link ChanSchatz's creative process and their visual products to reference points ranging from nineteenth-century German zoologist Ernst Haeckel's series of lithographs entitled "Art Forms in Nature" to Baudrillard's theories on fetishism. On the Grand Art's site, for example, a new York-based writer named Bennett Simpson contended that "ChanSchatz (Eric Chan and Heather Schatz) have been producing one of the most complex and obsessive art and technology projects of its time, one that might be likened to a kind of taxonomy of graphical fetishes." And in an essay on the Akylic site, critic/ curator David Hunt wrote, "For Eric Chan and Heather Schatz, the artistic duo known as ChanSchatz, a Modernism focused on apprehending the perfect essence can, likewise, only lead to a gratuitous mannerism - the kind of regressive, backward looking stance so at odds with their positivist, digitally inflected vision."
But these lofty approaches to ChanSchatz's work risk isolating the work and tangling it up in esoteric alienating theory, when the most compelling component of their art is not the images themselves but the curious, generous and accessible nature of their process. What makes ChanSchatz's work most interesting is that they are not the ones who make it. Instead, they invite guests to design their own images which combine various colors, text phrases and forms culled from their vast drawing archive.
Over the years, they have asked fellow artists, students, friends and friends' friends to pull together elements from their library of geometric imagery and then they have shown these works in venues such as LA's The Happy Lion, New York's Apex Art and galleries in Cologne, Berlin and London - their show at Albion in London is on until 25 April.
Over email, Eric and Heather discuss "PTG.32 APUS" (short for "Painting No. 32, Art Project United States"), a 14ft. panoramic "collective portrait" which represents the design preferences (taken from a range of 12 phrases, 28 color combinations and 32 motifs) of service personnel ranking from an Army private to a Marine Corps captain. According to Hillarie M. Sheets in The New York Times, "more than half the troops chose the phrase 'globally linked.'" Which is an idea that appeals to many, but few have been able to realize it as successfully and sensitively as Chan Schatz.
Eric and Heather ChanSchatz, "PTG.54 APUS", 2007-2008, War and soldier series (Black, red and orange painting). Screenprint on silk and mirror polished stainless steel with etching, 68 x 154 inches. Collection of Michael and Roberta Joseph.
Ana Finel Honigman: How do you select the guests who you ask to select images?
Eric and Heather ChanSchatz: For the past ten years, in the case of many of our projects, we have invited guests into our work, into our process, and at times into the production of our artwork. When we were conceiving the first project of this series, we invited our colleagues. These included schoolmates, fellow artists, writers, and friends. Looking back, this seems to make sense because, we suppose and without realizing it, the project was about us; our immediate community. It was also organic. The first project was a performance event, where we created objects for the initial groups of guests we invited. Then during the event, we performed the piece where those in attendance were invited to make selections and also be guests of the piece. We did this for the first four projects, all of them performances. However, in each of the following instances, the guests were selected differently. In one instance, the collector who commissioned the event selected guests. In the next case, a curator of the institution selected the guests, and in the last instance the arts committee of the institution selected the guests.
AFH: What is an example of this system working well?
E&HCS: This has been the pattern, where each project has a specific and identifying point of view. For example, in our project for Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY, the guests were the board members and staff members of the museum. This project was conceived as a portrait or biography of the Albright-Knox. In the case of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York, the ACF worked with us to invite fellow institutions and individuals who had a particular significance or relationship to the ACF. This project was not so much of the institution itself internally, but more about its relationships to others and its cultural community. There are projects where the choice of guests is driven by our interests, or our location. Our current project based on our immediate block in the Meat-Packing district in New York reflects how the neighborhood is changing, both from an urban design standpoint, but also in demographics. Today, we had a fascinating meeting with the Friends of the High Line who were extremely helpful in regards to what you're asking. At the same time, we've also been working on a project where our guests are soldiers based in Iraq. In addition to being aware of the war, we realized that we didn't know anyone who was a soldier, or directly involved with the war. We wanted to work with guests who are located quite a distance away.
AFH: Are you interested in tracing social networks through this process? Do you see this as possible study in the whole "6 degrees of separation" theory?
E&HCS: We have been interested in communication and social exchange. In exploring this from our original vantage points, we were simultaneously interested in the social economic angles but we also might have considered, along the way, new economic and social models. For us, in our art-making, we worked through aspects of production, specifically the economies of production, and when we created projects, they were always saturated with the people and individuals of the contexts we were working in. On the other hand, our long-developing drawing project that is the basis of our visual language has facilitated or maintained other project work. We view the establishment of our visual language as a distinct body of work.
Rather than needing to focus only on the "relational," we've always had other interests that for us drive the work. So, regarding your question, we've found that in whatever sphere, whether cultural, institutional, commercial, public sector, etc., parties are connected. With this as a given, ideas of connectedness, or networks, became absorbed into other interests such as wanting to work at different scales, or studies determining the ideal number of individuals in a village, or group psychology.
Eric and Heather ChanSchatz, "Together", Albion, London (installation detail), 2008
AFH: After all this, are you finding that we do live in a 'small world'? Or is the opposite being demonstrated to you through this process?
E&HCS: The answer to that can vary, depending on how you decide to look at it. Like everyone else, we can see that the world is changing in terms of certain types of connectedness, even though not all information is accessible or being shared equally. We have also found that communities can be disconnected, hermetic, and sometimes inaccessible. This site-specificity is subtle. Perhaps it is based on individual characteristics that are aggregated. Perhaps, one of the defining aspects of the time in which we live is individuality vs. homogeneity. Or maybe it is the balance between transplanted cultural identities tied to specific places and communities versus those being copied. This seems to taking place everywhere. Is proximity being breached and giving way to a new kind of cross-cultural exchange? We tend to see the richness in such complexities.
AFH: What do you think of the current Whitney Biennial's focus on the Lower East Side social network and exposing the social aspects of artistic exchange?
E&HCS: Moments can define places as much people and places can define times. Certain situations or occasions such as a show can bring attention to this, but there has been a rich set of trajectories leading to where we are today. Art that runs parallel to culture is often in synch with time. Or a reactionary voice can provide alternative narratives and even foreshadow, or be visionary. Ours is the generation who brought forth technology enabling social networking and now commonplace, peer-to-peer exchange. From music to publishing to politics, this is beyond grassroots. It is beyond the representation of the individual. This convergence has been able to happen and now, networks of exchange, which have previously existed, will offer greater visibility to many more in our midst.
AFH: Who is the most random person, or who are the most random people, included through friends inviting friends?
E&HCS: A student put his invitation to participate in our recent project on eBay. The participation was purchased with instructions to complete the selection sheet and complete the project.
AFH: Do you edit and reject guests or are your initial guests completely free to pass the invite along?
E&HCS: There have actually been instances when the guests were not invited by us. There were projects with university students that resulted in different bodies of work in which we organized the process so that each individual we were directly working with was a "host" who invited guests to participate in the project. It was important to let the guests come into the project entirely without our control. Sometimes the process is reversed, as it has been lately. We are currently working with families who have requested that they are the guests. We have enjoyed this "community type" of guests, where the relationships have a distinct specificity.
AFH: Do you consider this process as curating or art?
E&HCS: That's a good, possibly intimidating question. The notion of a curatorial aspect had never really entered into our main consciousness or dialogue. We've never referred to our process in those terms. We have though observed that our process brings together a multi-part constituency and that this is done in the service of the project and artworks. On the other hand, the guests' selections and how they are done physically on objects, or recorded in video works and through written correspondence text pieces, these are all artworks. The process is a little of both.
Eric and Heather ChanSchatz, "Analysis PTG.06 HMA Film Committee (the glow from that fire can truly light the world)", 2007-2008. Wall painting (pink and green painting).
Screenprint on silk and mirror polished stainless steel with etching, and acrylic on wall, 28 x 36 inches and 68 x 64.5 inches overall.
AFH: How do these works function as portraits?
E&HCS: The works and projects operate on various levels. We've had to come to terms with the word "portrait" and the genre, the traditional notion of portrait such as representational painting, or a photographic sitting. For us and the development of the work, the notion of the portrait is not fixed, it is not based on a constrained mode of seeing or interpretation. In fact, from a standpoint of our working with specific individuals and guests, these pictures are quite realist. Not being limited by a traditional genre definition or discipline practiced for centuries, we've been exploring portraiture in a more literary sense. In literature the idea of the portrait can offer insights or analysis beyond the superficial. We've chosen to work in a way that does not engage the viewer with the subject portrayed looking out, with a gaze or an expression directly at the viewer, but rather, it is reversed. The viewer has the opportunity to see into a different context, a place of identity, a "social landscape", or a picture that portrays a person or a community who has a direct connection to the work.
AFH: Since these are visual portraits, that exhibit peoples' tastes and interests instead of their natural physical form, do you feel that these might be something like the profile pieces magazines often run around peoples' apartments or wardrobes?
E&HCS: For us and our interests, the exploration regarding the exchange with our guests has been kept fairly separate from the visual issues that we are addressing and working through in the projects and artworks. For us, they are two distinct systems. Perhaps one could say that the work can be read and can be seen as ours, and that within this context there are a great number of possibilities. Each of the series has is own distinctness, yet remains a member of the overall family. We've thought about the personalization of spaces. We've thought about the workplace, and the office cubicle environment that individuals personalize. For us, the idea of environmental design was an early topic. We became familiar with Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language" which went in-depth about how, over history, and through a myriad of situations, we have created our environment.
AFH: What are the main differences for you when working with people in the visual community and those who are outside it, and therefore might have reservations about art and artistic practice?
E&HCS: We find that there is no substantial difference between insiders or outsiders of the arts' community. The questions raised are basically the same. In both contexts we find people to be conscious of the gesture we are making.
AFH: Do you relate differently to people cognizant about art versus those who aren't?
E&HCS: We establish connections and relationships through conversation, interview or the selection sheets. Whether this objectifies the process or uses it as a more passive means of communication, the threshold for exchange is crossed. It has been interesting to situate people within art. Regardless of the source, guests can be curious, critical and supportive. We consider these reactions as part of the process as we probe into the more complex issues of the individual versus the community or collective gesture.
A guest may respond to the process one way as an individual, and then feel differently when considered part of a group or community. Regarding other industries or spheres from another point of view, we have take the opportunity to extend how art has routinely built on or incorporated the practices found outside of itself. Art may not be that foreign to the rest of society.
AFH: Is there any part of this process that relates to literary theory?
E&HCS: Incorporating our visual characters from our large and on-going drawing project, along with the interview and written elements with the project guests, we've tried to harness a variety of approaches to manifest an accounting of local identity. In referring to the work as "social landscapes", we're recasting abstraction and the role of our process as vehicles and an environment for individual expression and a blurring, or closing of the reader/writer gap. Perhaps this is something taking place in our generation, the shift away from readers or viewers vs. authors, to the world of both. There is no separation or division. One can be both.
AFH: Would you describe these works as the illustrations of your exchanges?
E&HC: In the projects, we've activated carefully chosen elements to make material exchanges with our guests. The work we create has not only images based on our reactions to the guests' project selections, but we incorporate images of a local cultural mythology. For example in the current work at Albion and in the Hunter Museum of American Art work, we created compositions in the form of crosses and firearms. For us, these elements are fixtures that are inescapable and foundational to the meaning of how the community we engage is viewed or can view itself. For us this work is about identity and place.
Eric and Heather ChanSchatz,"Together", Albion, London (installation detail)
"PTG.97 HMA-UTC", 2007-2008
Screenprint on silk and mirror polished stainless steel with etching, and acrylic mirror. 79 x 123 inches (201 x 312 cm), 104 x 207.5 inches (264 x 527 cm) overall.
"The Gift", 2007-2008
Thirty-five PLW sculptures. Screenprint on silk and chrome hardware. 20 x 20 x 6 inches (51 x 51 x 15 cm) each, 96 x 96 x 18 inches (244 x 244 x 46 cm) overall.
Photo: Ed Reeves
AFH: How does working together affect your marriage, and vice versa?
E&HC: We've never thought about this. We've never discussed this. We met early in college, and also we didn't have separate careers as artists to begin with. Our process was born out of an immense drawing project. We had to create not only a new visual language to create art with, but also a verbal language, perhaps a subliminal language, to communicate with each other artistically. For us, this is how we have evolved, where one might say the relationship and the practice have been strange mirrors of each other. Not in any literal sense, but rather that there is an insular, linguistic core, and then there is an open and porous externalization.
AFH: Do you each have signature separate interests that you then feed into the process, or do you fundamentally share the same taste?
E&HCS: For us, it's the mis-communication. We often mis-interpret what each other says or may mean. That's fine. Also, though we may arrive at a same solution for a situation, the majority of the time we bring different views to the table. We're each quite different.
AFH: Do you think that we live in a "couples culture," as many single people complain, or do you feel that your level of compatibility is seen as an anomaly?
E&HCS: Don't know. But thanks for a perceived "level of compatibility". Though it's probably fair to say that we're compatible, in the sense that we've not forced anything, the reality is that the situation is fluid. Working together is second nature. The compatibility factor is probably being mistaken for a situation where those involved are taking equal responsibility for the work. For us, there is a distinction.
AFH: Off the personal and on to the political, how do American GI's images differ from your previous projects?
E&HCS: Some of our earlier projects were quite informational, or on another extreme object-driven. Meaning the work revealed itself to the viewer as a process of visual elements, or the process was the artwork. In other cases the artwork was an object typology that we were investigating, such as architecture. This probably explains our different image types. We generally discuss this in terms of the different visual narratives, or the specific type of space and figures in the painting, or the specific identity of the characters. In the case of the soldier and war paintings, we created a series of visual conventions for the subject of the work including the theatre of war, our visualization of the geographical location, and for specific solders and military personal in each painting. In a descriptive sense for the soldier and war paintings, this resulted in pale sand and flesh tones, blood reds with formations referencing explosions or war machines, and the creative camouflage used in the work. As with each of the different series, the vocabulary, scale, and picture-making has become tied to the specific subject. It's apparently clear how the soldier and war images differ from the coal miner series or the interiors series, which are distinct from our project with the city of Chattanooga, TN.
Eric and Heather ChanSchatz, "PTG.48 DMZ-Coal", 2007-2008, Coal Miner series (Black and grey painting). Screenprint on silk and mirror polished stainless steel with etching, 70 x 106 inches (178 x 269 cm). Private Collection.
AFH: What was the process you went through to find soldiers interested in participating?
E&HCS: We realized that it would be difficult for us to visit Iraq.
The conventional means of communication were also difficult. The military does not use standard mailing or email addresses. This is especially the case with remote compounds or mobile units. We learned that camps are temporary installations usually in a militarized zone like Bosnia or Iraq. Forts are permanent installations. After considering various avenues, we were fortunate to work with two foundations who establish video and high-speed internet communication for military personal and their families. We modified our process, the selection sheets, the invitation, and the overall formant so that the project could be made available to the soldiers. This included a poster announcement that was printed on-site in the Iraq locations and an easily accessible online webpage. It all worked well. We were contact with soldiers at various locations including Camp Taji and Camp Fallujah for example. Stateside, we visited military bases and met with soldiers one on one, and we also met the families of military personnel.
AFH: Was the US military supportive of the project?
E&HCS: In addition to the online communication and in person visits, we were also in contact with key military personnel. We were supported by command Information and various Public Affairs Offices. We were escorted onto forts and bases such as Fort Hamilton to meet with soldiers. Our project was supported in the military newspaper. General George Washington started the military press to establish to spread accurate news amongst the troops. All military bases continue this practice today.
AFH: Were most of the soldiers interested in art, or knowledgeable about it?
E&HCS: They were certainly comfortable to participate in a process that would result in an artwork. The process of participating and making choices was very welcomed. There was no difficulty in the idea that their choices would form the basis for an artwork. And they especially connected with the idea that their selections, as individuals, were what was important to the overall output. Though we could not tell how specifically educated they were about art per se, they were serious and did not trivialize the exercise, which to us was an indication that they felt the process itself was valid and worth spending time on. That the process of being the "subject" of the work was a valid and worthwhile one.
The military personal were in many instances more decisive in their selections. There seemed to be a general comfort felt on their part in relation to the abstract nature of the images. These they assigned quickly to one idea or another. In one case and this was not unusual, a Navy Captain noted that he saw a direct connection with one of our shapes as it related to the sea. For others, the association operated on the level of symbol, icon or pattern recognition that was part of their training and focused military activities.
AFH: What are your overall impressions of artists and film-makers' engagement with the war?
E&HCS: From the artist projects and films that we are familiar with, the approach in most cases has been documentary or political. The projects have been very important in sharing with the public necessary images and stories otherwise withheld, or simply too hard to cover. It's also important that artworks voice strong sentiments and points of view, and that films and video work find ways to access the scale as well as record this defining moment of our generation. There have been a few examples where the reality of what is taking place and what mainstream filmmakers have done, though dramatizations, are not all that different. Several of the independent documentaries are very compelling.
AFH: How does your work differ from these depictions?
E&HCS: In our work, we have concentrated on the soldiers that we've been in touch with. It has been more psychological than documentary. In a recent discussion with a viewer of the soldier paintings, the viewer expressed for him a connection to people that he will not meet. Of course, such an impression is not exclusive to art, but the fact that through artworks there may be a resonance to collapse or bridge space and time is interesting to explore.
AFH: Are you often surprised by an individual's selections?
E&HCS: Each set of selections by a guest is astonishing to us. It is many things. They are documents of free association, moments of intense concentration, forums to piece together a personal statement, and to each guest most likely something personally theirs. Our exchange in most cases is on-site, in real time with the guests. It is always astonishing to see the selections, the choices and decisions, the comments. We get to be viewers, and any flashes of 'surprise or emotion are more excerpts/sketches of understanding to what someone is thinking about or abstractly seeing. Pretty much, it's a revelation each time. It's a combination of a learning experience and a profound starting point.
Eric and Heather ChanSchatz
photo credit: Amy Stein