Art Talk with Visual Artist Caroline Mak
Greensboro, North Carolina
One of Caroline Mak's projects during her residency at Elsewhere Collaborative was "mending" holes left by previously installed artworks.
This past March visual artist Caroline Mak held a residency at Greensboro, North Carolina's Elsewhere Collaborative, an artist community that describes itself as "a living museum, project site, and interactive archive set within a three-story former thrift store." Mak spoke with us via e-mail about her provocative and productive residency at this unusual art space.
NEA: What?s your version of the artist life?
CAROLINE MAK: I make work as much as I can. I have had a number of day jobs since finishing my MFA, often five-days-a-week jobs, which greatly limited my time in the studio. But in the past year since losing my primary day job, one of the upsides I discovered was that I was able to spend more time in the studio and could apply to residency programs outside of New York City. I'm also lucky enough to have started my own business this year (oddly enough, an artisanal soda company), which allows me to have a more flexible schedule than my previous day jobs.
NEA: In five words or less, how would you characterize your residency at Elsewhere Collaborative.
MAK: Provocative, often uncomfortable, incredibly productive.
Detail from Mak's "Wall Wound" project.
NEA: What did you work on while you were at Elsewhere Collaborative, and how did the unique environment there impact your project?
MAK: The amount of physical material there is so shocking upon first encountering the space, and did completely overwhelm me at first. I decided that instead of directly dealing with the piles of second hand objects and making work from that, I would respond specifically to what was NOT there. I had a 3-pronged approach. First, I found a wall that was oddly empty, one that was the home for an older unsuccessful installation, and had become a wall with large cavities in, and decided to repair it in a manner analogous to that of a healing wound, but contrary in that it would ultimately be a futile process, in that most repair works done on a building as old as the one Elsewhere inhabits is often an exercise in futility. Using found thread, yarn, trimmings and buttons found in the "collection", I very slowly, over the course of 4 weeks, started sewing and darning the wall together.
This made me think about the other dismantled installations that used to exist in the Elsewhere Collaborative building---why were they no longer there? I created a series of wall texts for all the installations that had been taken down, adhering the texts in their previous locations, often next to a new one, creating strange disjointed memorial plaques.
The traces of a century of wear and tear had left its mark on the wooden floors, leaving some bizarrely wonderful gouges in the floorboards. I made a series of silicone casts of the various negative spaces, and framed them in found wooden frames.
Mak made silicone molds of gouges left behind in the studio floor from previous projects.
NEA: What would you say is the most important thing that an artist residency offers to an artist?
MAK: Having done a few residencies now, each one varies so much in what they offer each artist. In most cases, it's the gift of time and space---something especially important for artists working in cities like New York. In a lot of cases, especially for a site-specific installation artist like myself, it's that challenge of working on a specific project, that extra push that you need to make a body of work, or the chance to respond to a completely different set of parameters than what you are used to addressing in your usual studio and practice.
NEA: How important would you say your residency at the Elsewhere Collaborative was to your art practice, and why?
MAK: It was important in how it made me think very much about what it means to make work in a place where I had to relinquish control of a piece completely. It many senses it's very much an outsider artist residency, unlike the other residencies I'm more familiar with. And they work in a manner and in a place that is challenging on a number of levels, from the location (which is an old former thrift store) to the working conditions (visitors to the museum often come across working artists), to how they consider art made by the residents there to be integrated within their 'collection and their space'. While I may not have always agreed with all theoretical aspects of their curatorial practice, the room for debate definitely pushed me to think about my own practice and what I value. Is it making work in a clean white studio? Is it making installation work that responds directly to a specific space and time, yet knowing that it may be de-installed and removed a month after its creation?
A display of the silicone molds Mak made of gouges left in the studio floor by past residents.
NEA: How does the atmosphere at Elsewhere Collaborative foster creativity in a way that?s different from working in your own studio at home?
MAK: Living and working in a state that I'd never been to before was a critical part of this residency, specifically leaving New York City. It's often hard to work without distraction in New York, and so many people there are involved in the art world on some level that you often forget that making art is very much a foreign career choice for the average person. Living in North Carolina meant interacting with an entirely different audience. In addition, the other residents and staff members at Elsewhere were not always in the visual art world---while I was there one of the residents was an anthropologist---so you're given opportunities to converse with a variety of people. The unique living and working situation also meant that there was no escape from the effect your work would have on other members of the Elsewhere community---for better or worse, you would have to deal with the reactions to your process and the development of your piece on a daily basis. Everything is on view; there is no privacy, unlike my own studio where i can control my input and output, which is why this residency was often provocative and challenging.
NEA: What would you say is one of the most important things you accomplished or produced during your residency at the Elsewhere Collaborative?
MAK: I was able to create an installation that I had been mulling over for some time, and had never found the perfect site for. More importantly though was the opportunity to utilize my time there to really solidify a lot of conceptual and theoretical issues about my own practice as an artist that I had been thinking about---that was absolutely priceless.
NEA: Any last words or anything you?d like to add?
MAK: I want to emphasize how important it is (and also how grateful I am) that organizations like the NEA support residencies for artists, especially in an economic down turn. Without economic support, working artists like myself would never be able to attend many residencies, and for me, the opportunity to leave my usual home in New York to make work is critical.
Photos are of projects Caroline Mak worked on during her Elsewhere Collaborative residency; all photos courtesy of artist