Nicole Ringel Interviews Kimi Hanauer about “The Blob” and a Vast Array of Socially Transformative Art Projects in Baltimore
Kimi Hanauer is working hard to spread blobs all over Baltimore. Emphasizing the importance of art’s role in the context of daily, practical life, she calls art practice to be “radically open,” democratic, and therefore challenging to social institutions, and “alive.” Through many simultaneous projects including her involvement in work at Penthouse Gallery, Press-Press, Process Collective, and The Contemporary, Kimi has been creating partnerships and collaborations to produce “socially transformative” projects.
In the interview below, she talks about the philosophy behind her practice and the formation of Blobwork, Alloverstreet, The 100% Yes Manifesto, and Scroll.
Nicole Ringel: I guess to start it would be cool for you to talk a little bit about Blobwork, your manifesto about contemporary art practice.
Kimi Hanauer: Blobwork is a recent publication project I made. It’s sort of a pragmatic, eerie idea. It’s about unlocking the socially transformative potential of art that the reigning engagement-paradigm negates by calling us to be passive spectators rather than agents. Essentially, I think we’ve become prone to treat art passively. Not that there’s anything bad about that, but when that’s the only way we engage with art, it negates the potential of art to do anything because it necessarily places it outside of our lives.
The blob aims to unlock that potential of art to be socially transformative and treat participants or art-engagers as potentially active agents. The theory is about the reconceptualization of what art practice can be.
NR: Does that sort of connect back to the “epistemic failure” you talk about on your website?
KH: Yeah, I think that was a starting point that I wrote three years ago. I guess that’s where I explain the socially transformative power of art, but as I talk about it in this, the blob is like a futile attempt to give words to something that’s really hard to describe or talk about, even.
Basically, it’s nothing new; it’s based on John Dewey ideas from the 1950s that art exists within experience. It’s based on that, and Greg Lynn’s architectural model called “the blob,” which, in short, is a form that’s based in the constant integration of change and reaction to its site. It’s something that grows out of its site, rather than being plopped down onto its site. It can also be seen as a system of ordering. Because this is so elusive, I use explicit projects I’ve participated in to explain different aspects of it, and also explain that this is still a tentative definition for reflexive projects. I talk about my projects simply because I have most access to them, but its important to note that my work can be seen as based in a much larger tradition of other works which also resist the reification gestures and elitism that can be found within many art projects, communities, spaces, et cetera.
NR: Could you explain your work at Penthouse Gallery, and how those projects have been “blobs?”
KH: When I started writing Blobwork I was actually initially just writing about my love for Penthouse. Penthouse was started in late 2008 by a group of Baltimore-based artists (Andrew Lauman, John Jones, Zachary Utz, David Jacober, Alex Russel and Adam Beaver). It was this group of guys who built up the white walls and some of the spaces in the rooms. They had some shows, and then they left.
They created this space that was open, and allowed other people to move in and do their own work. And what’s awesome about Penthouse and is unlike other spaces in this building is that it has retained its identity as the “Penthouse” since late 2008 to today, while other spaces exist for a short while, do some awesome things, but are then wiped clean and made anew by a different group of people. Penthouse is the only space to have stayed what it is throughout such a long time.
One of the reasons it’s stayed what it is, is that when the guys built it up they created this elusive identity for it as Penthouse Gallery, instead of creating some sort of hierarchy or demanding control. This allowed other people to come in and take ownership over it for the duration of time that they were here, creating a rhizomatic network of collaborators. So it’s not something that is dependent on that group of guys. It’s a system of group work that isn’t dependent on one specific, static social group. It allows for a lot of different people and collaborators, whoever has access to the space, to come in and work on it throughout this timeline. It’s rad that so many different people, who may not even know each other, have collaborated and cared for this space in different ways.
One of the big aspects about the blob, that penthouse exemplifies well, is that it’s radically open. In order for something to be radical it has to question its own definition; so in order for it to be open, that means it’s not about just a state of being, it’s about being critical and active. Making an active attempt to be open is much different than being in a state openness.
It’s also funny, like, “It’s the blob!” The reason it’s funny is that it’s kind of impossible, it’s obviously full of paradoxes… The ultimate paradox of the blob is that its a call to action, but it calls us to embrace uncertainty and groundlessness at the same time. Action is this really definitive thing. So how do you do something concrete while embracing that you have no control? That tension is where blob-friendly projects can really flourish. Penthouse, and by Penthouse I mean all of it – its history, it’s collaborators, its events, its residents, its context, and any other constituent part – is all one art, one blob.
NR: Through your work in Penthouse, you and Lee Heinemann played a big role in starting the Alloverstreet art walk. When did Alloverstreet start? Could you talk about its organization a bit?
KH: It started in December 2013. Alloverstreet is not really something I intended to start— and this is also one of the things about the blob— it’s not something that can be a structure that is just plopped down on a site. It doesn’t work that way, it can’t work that way. There have been many attempts to start art walks in this space years in the past that didn’t work, and I can’t say why they didn’t work but I do know that the approach that happened here with Alloverstreet was different. I wasn’t going out and saying, “Let’s start an art walk.” It was something like, “Oh, we had a show here” every month, and there was a space downstairs that had never been active before, and so I got two friends to have a show there, connecting them to people that lived there, and they had a show the same night we had a show here, and then another show at 405 jumped onto the same night. So it was something that just happened organically, and then kept happening every month with some light pushes here and there and some organization of press stuff.
NR: So it sounds like something that developed out of being connected to the artists and projects around you, rather than taking an administrative approach, saying “this should happen.”
KH: It’s not a hierarchical effort, but it is something that took intention. There is me thinking about accessibility and what makes sense, but the potential for this to happen has existed for years and has nothing to do with Lee and I.
I think one way to look at Alloverstreet in terms of architectural models is like a parasite. In that sense I don’t mean it as negative, but as something that is structural and a system of ordering that isn’t top-down and isn’t alienating to its host. So it’s something that makes sense for what this space is and this block is. It’s something that’s alive, so it’s always changing and is always a reaction to something; not only to the site but also to my own frustration with inaccessibility of many art happenings and events. Also it’s important for me to say, these projects aren’t anything new; they’re based in the tradition of a million other projects in the city and beyond that also attempt to resist the dominant structures around us; structures which may often be dictated by an instrumental and oppressive logic.
NR: In Blobwork, you talk a little bit about the difference between spaces “allowing participation” and spaces creating an egalitarian atmosphere. The latter sounds a lot more difficult— you talk about Alloverstreet as an example of it, but also cite challenges about the line between facilitating connectivity between spaces and preserving the spaces’ identities. Do you have any more specific strategies for accomplishing 1)this sort of egalitarianism and 2)this balance?
KH: In Blobwork I talk a bit about the difference between spots that portray themselves as inclusive or democratic and spots that actually do attempt to harness a sense of ownership for all individuals. I’m not sure if real inclusivity is possible, but I think Alloverstreet is an attempt. Alloverstreet is a project that grew directly out of its site, rather than imposed on to its site. Its a structure that is continuously adjusting and responding to the art spaces and organizations that participate in it. It is constantly informed and redefined as the site evolves. I think that approach or strategy (how it was conceived) is what differentiates Alloverstreet from past attempts at art walks or open studios in this same area.
Again, I talk about it using Lynn’s parasite structure — a way of ordering the various constituent parts without imposing an alienating structure onto them. It is a parasitic relationship that is active, unifying, compositional and supportive. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned from working on Alloverstreet, and one of the most defining characteristics of blobs in general — blobs cannot be plopped down onto their sites, they are always dictated by and born out of them.
NR: I actually semi-accidently picked up a copy of “I Don’t Care, I Love It”, the publication you worked on for The Contemporary, at the Guerrilla Girls lecture they hosted last fall. It was interesting to see the web of different important organizations in Baltimore… Was that sort of a starting point for your other projects?
KH: Working for The Contemporary definitely impacted me a lot. I worked on Scroll as an intern, and that was really rad because it was the sort of situation where there wasn’t really an internship program, there wasn’t any structure, we didn’t have an office. It started with Deana, Lee, Max and I sitting at the Bun Shop on our computers, and being like, “This is the museum!” And we created Scroll as a sort of platform for the intern team, something that can continue to happen every year as an all intern publication that acts on the mission and ethos of The Contemporary. It’s a platform that just gives young people of the team a voice, control and some power, really.
I think The Contemporary is another really good example of a blob, and it’s also a good example of an amazing work of art. The Contemporary shows art and has programming, but its process of creating the programming and projects is art as well. For example, just the Victoria Fu project alone, that wasn’t the art. It was just one part of The Contemporary; how its run, the programs, the context, the history, the interactions and relationships that are formed – all of that, that is one work. It’s just a big blob.
It’s like that saying ‘the end doesn’t justify the means’ – if the process is messed up then so is the work. The process has got to be honest in order for the work to be.
NR: I also wanted to talk to you about your partnership with the Refugee Youth Project. Could you explain a little about how that came about?
KH: I did that through the France-Merrick Fellowship, which is a program that MICA offers. I partnered with the Baltimore City Community College Refugee Youth Project, and there I developed this project with Leila Khoury. We developed a series of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) creative writing workshops that were based on the idea that literacy develops when someone has a desire to express something personally meaningful. We ended up working with this group of teenage boys who were writing crazy amazing poetry and yelling at each other to “be a man and write poems.” Amazing.
NR: The France-Merrick Fellowship funded the partnership between Press-Press and the RYP, but how did you hear about their organization and what inspired the conception of the project?
KH: I got into doing this project, on a personal level, because it was an attempt at creating the experience I wanted to have when I first emigrated to the United States. It was a project that was created for this specific group of kids and, at the same time, was something I grew from and needed to do. Being able to speak the English language and knowing cultural cues is a super powerful and deceiving thing. This is something I’ve learned as I’ve transitioned from being and feeling foreign to, I think, being able to totally fit in as a white girl with an American accent. Obviously, people treat you differently when you can neatly fit into the image of a nice white girl and when you cannot. We know this very well: superficial factors, like your accent, your ethnicity, your social standing, et cetera, will determine who, if anyone, will listen to what you have to say. This project attempted to negate that power structure through the use of the English language and a contemporary art language.
The 100% Yes project came out of the tension I was talking about earlier. We were having these heavier conversations with the group about the things they brought to the table. For me, 100% Yes was an attempt to create a type of concrete and resilient positivity that may be based in hardship, traumatic experience or anger. I feel like that’s the strongest type of positivity because it’s not blissful or ignorant, rather it embraces the complexities and paradoxes we are entrenched within.
NR: So beyond just providing an artistic outlet for the youths you worked with, the 100% Yes Manifesto project was challenging in that it forced viewers out of a passive role when you asked them to participate. I think this is super cool because it makes art an integral tool for the youths you worked with— the project gives them power in creative expression. Then, viewers’ reactions to the work are “blob”-like because they are put in a participatory position. They’re given agency when asked to contribute to the project.
KH: Yeah, in a sense it asks a lot more of people than to just go into a gallery space and look at stuff. It asks you to necessarily participate in order to experience the project, which again, goes back to some of the ideas about the blob treating its participants as agents rather than spectators. The project wasn’t really geared toward the art crowd, but we did set up specific platforms that allowed the participation of outsiders and enabled them to get a taste of the project. The expanded manifesto we just put out is one of the ways that people got involved by creating their own contributions during the open work hours we set up. We also had some visiting artists and series of workshops we hosted in partnership with MICA’s printmaking and interdisciplinary sculpture departments.
NR: It sounds like a difficult thing to facilitate/curate. Did you have any specific strategies for providing viewers with enough information to participate?
KH: I think the hardest thing was framing it, explaining what everything is. Even putting the book together was really challenging, figuring out what sort of language to speak. But I think we did create the opportunity for participation, or just a taste of what the project was itself, which was actually inaccessible to an outsider. The project itself was our experience with the kids; that was the most important thing. You can have a taste of it, experience it in this way or that way that we are setting up for you, but the real work is our experience and it’s not made for you. Choosing Current Space as a site was a sort of affirmation of the amazing work these kids do. It was also incredible to see them write all over the gallery walls at Current and then take that space over when they announced their original set of ideals through a megaphone at the opening to a big foreign crowd of art kids. It’s like, we used the art language just like we used the English language, but we used our version of it and had the kids take it over.
NR: An essential part of working “blobs” is to have a community of participants and contributors to constitute the “creative, open ended dialogue” that “places social interaction at its center.” It seems like Baltimore is an excellent place to put that into practice; you’ve talked a little bit about the accessibility of the art community in Baltimore, and the variety of opportunities for young artists here. Could you expand on that a little?
KH: There’s a super thin line to walk when thinking about accessibility. Something that strikes me about Baltimore is that there are a lot of gaps between communities that exist in the same place, or even between the different arts communities. In my mind, my immediate thought is always about closing those gaps — but that’s not always the right thing. Spaces and communities may depend on their independence, becoming accessible to larger audiences is not always helpful, sometimes it can be harmful to a group’s integrity or identity.
One thing I do know is that I’ve been very lucky to have been so warmly supported by some amazing people that make up various art communities here. Its really inspiring for me to live in a place where there are these rad young women in the arts with positions of power as creative directors or chief editors. It’s inspiring because it allows me to feel represented in the spaces I inhabit and that, then, allows me to feel enough of a sense of ownership to want to keep improving and growing this space. Every single person who lives here should be able to feel that way, and it feels messed up that I am enabled to feel that way as an outsider, while the majority of actual locals here maybe aren’t.
NR: Thank you for talking about this today! I can’t wait to see your future projects.
Author Nicole Ringel was raised in Frederick, Maryland and is currently pursuing a BFA in Studio Art and Art History at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. She is an artist and reader, and is especially interested in community and socially engaged art.
To read more about Kimi Hanauer’s projects, check out her tumblr site here.
Top Image: by Nicole Patrick
Pooch At The Penthouse, curated by Kimi Hanauer, Shelby Norton and Clare DiSalvo. It was a show for dogs in December 2014.