Clark Buckner Curates Stephanie Syjuco: An Experiment in Exhibition Practice
I rode my bike out to Stephanie’s studio on a warm Wednesday morning. The sky was clear, and the breeze blowing off the bay felt fresh against my face as I wound my way around the potholes on 3rd St. out to Yosemite.
When I still was gathering myself in the loading-dock of the large, grey, industrial building where Stephanie works, she emerged from the open garage with a smile on her face, and her hand outstretched.
“Are you Clark?,” she asked.
“I am. Are you Stephanie?”
My question was only courteous. I had seen Stephanie’s picture on her website, and recognized her immediately. Nevertheless I was struck by how attractive she was in her tank top and jeans, and surprised by how young she looked for someone already so successful.
“If you don’t mind,” she explained, “I’d like to get some breakfast before we start,” and motioned towards the street.
Outside, a shiny, silver, commissary truck sat double-parked with the flap of its side-panel open. I pulled my cap down further over my face to shade me from the sun, and Stephanie asked if I had had trouble finding the place. I told her my ride was the perfect way to start the day, and in fact I’d been to the building before: once for another studio visit, and once to visit a friend who used to live there.
“Am I right?” I asked, “Didn’t this use to be a live-work space? And wasn’t that ended, for one reason or another, back in the dot-com days?”
“Things got ugly around here,” she told me. “You’d run into people in the halls, who’d lived here for years. And they’d sort of grunt at you.”
While Stephanie bought her breakfast, I let my eyes and thoughts wander, and started to take random snapshots.
When we walked into Stephanie’s studio, she told me she shared the space with another artist. I noticed one side of the room was more cluttered than the other and parked my bike against an empty wall. In the center of the studio, Stephanie had placed two chairs. She had already met with the three other curators involved in the project, and she at least had established a way of working – if not already grown tired of the process. I filled my water bottle in the sink, and we each took our seats in a very business-like fashion.
Stephanie began the conversation by expressing some frustrations with the project. She said that I should see the space. It was an actual garage, where cars parked during the day and her work would not be well protected. The walls were cement, and apparently it was windy.
I had no intention to make difficulties for her, I explained. In fact, I hoped to be as pragmatic as possible in putting together the show. My wife was due to have a baby at almost exactly the same time as the opening. I would be teaching two new courses in the fall, which still required a good deal of preparation. And I had video projects I hoped to complete before the end of summer. I did not have much time or energy to devote to the show, and I didn’t think Michael had been realistic when planning such a big production with so little time to prepare.
Reflecting on it subsequently, I’ve also realized that it generally isn’t my way to pick out and display artists’ work. Instead I have invited artists to make use of the gallery, or orchestrated groups of artists to present their work together, and I have supported them in their projects. Of course I exercise my judgment in the process, but through my critical exchange with artists about their work and its presentation, rather than by making choices for them. So I felt uncertain about how to proceed.
I asked Stephanie if she would mind if I took her picture, and set off the flash in her eyes.
Having conceded the limitations of the project and our involvement with it, we started to talk about Stephanie’s art.
I told her that her work reminded me of Michael’s, and that his work had me thinking about the persistence of aesthetic enjoyment in so-called conceptual art. While clearly he was interested in ideas, Michael’s articulation of his ideas still seemed to be rooted in sense perception and its pleasures. His pieces were orchestrated experiences, which provoked feelings as well as ideas and could not be distilled to mere propositions no matter how much thinking they inspired. Stephanie’s work seemed similar at least insofar as she moved freely between media and put them at the service of her ideas; nevertheless she produced objects and images.
My analogy was too abstract and fell flat. There was an awkward silence, and I asked Stephanie about her video, Body Double (Platoon), which had caught my eye and now was playing on the monitor behind her. To make the piece, Stephanie had re-edited the entire Vietnam War Film, Platoon, by covering everything except the images of jungle foliage with black squares, and by removing the soundtrack. She had learned that the Philippines, where her family comes from, often double for Vietnam in Hollywood movies. She planned to make two other parts to the piece, using Apocalypse Now and Hamburger Hill.
I was struck by the way Stephanie had transformed the narrative film into a documentary, focusing on the process of making the film rather than the story it tells, approaching the Philippines as an artifact rather than a set, and exploring the relationship between reality and illusions through the use of the Philippines as, what she calls, a “body double.” Stephanie added that the video might be thought of as a home movie, insofar as it explored the place of her family’s origins. She also pointed out that the black squares in her video create beautiful, geometrical patterns, reminiscent of minimalist painting. And, in this light, I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition between nature and civilization in the opposition between the jungle scenes and the minimalist abstractions. But what to make of the obscured war footage?
Stephanie’s reference to geometry reminded me of the image I had selected from her website for the project’s postcard. She grabbed a framed copy of the print from her desk. Its called Interpersonal Relationships. Stephanie made it for a benefit at The Headlands Center for the Arts, by charting all the local, art-world luminaries, who had slept together. She added the disclaimer that she had constructed the image on the basis of rumor and conjecture as well as established fact, so the piece presented a map of how she sees things rather than what actually is the case. Copies of the image were distributed to high-end contributors to the Bay Area art-world as a voyeuristic peek into the private lives of artists, not unlike what they often already enjoy in artwork, as well as a record of a surplus activity and enjoyment, which they inadvertently help sustain. The image looks like a map of the constellations, and tells stories like the stars recount myths. But the piece also again begs questions concerning the relationship between art and science, reality and illusion.
On her desk I noticed a catalogue surveying Stephanie’s work, and I flipped through it. Among other projects one called, Planned Obsolescence, caught my eye. Stephanie had posted a phrase high on an external wall of The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, which she had found in an Esperanto text book. Translated into English, the phrase means, “Together in our flying buses we will one day travel to all parts of the world.” The phrase reflects the utopian aspirations of the 19th– Century movement that created the language as a means to end strife between human beings through understanding. The piece seemed both playfully to mock the absurdity of these aspirations, and thoughtfully to mourn their disappointment.
I also noticed documentation of a piece, titled After Hours Office Interventions, which Stephanie performed while working at the Exploratorium Museum. She disseminated bright red replicas of floppy disks, made with foam board and contact paper, by leaving them on desks throughout the empty offices of the museum. I had seen other works of hers made with this material, including replicas of mod, dated tape players, and I asked her about it.
“Your work isn’t medium specific,” I noted, “but you often use this stuff.”
“Foam core and contact paper,” she answered, “It’s an architectural tool. I feel like I use it to build new worlds.”
“Or at least to reveal the modeling implicit in this one,” I added
I asked if I could see more work made this way and Stephanie pulled down a sculpture, called Unsolicited Collaboration with Sean O’Dell. It looks like several logs that have been carved and stacked, and is based on a drawing by Sean O’Dell. Stephanie talked about it as a bastard love child that the two of them had produced together. I was reminded that Harrell Fletcher had shown photographs at Jack Hanley of pictures he had taken of Sean O’Dell’s work and workspace, while Sean had a show in another room in the gallery. I wondered about the personal aspects of these artists’ fascination with Sean O’Dell, and noted how artists seemed to write each other into art history with their collaborations and playful nods to one another.
Before I left, Stephanie asked me about myself and told me that, given the nature of Michael’s project, she hoped the show might be a reflection of my work as much as a presentation of hers. She asked me about my curatorial strategy, and if I had favorite shows among those I had orchestrated.
To explain my practice I had to talk about how the community-based, not-for-profit where I work, MISSION 17, first developed; and how I came to be involved with curating. Towards the end of the dot-com nineties, I rented a studio in a group space, called The Blue Studio, which was then located in three thousand square feet of a warehouse at Third and Townsend by the Ball Park. The building was a dusty wreck, and we were threatened with eviction until the boom went bust. When commercial rents returned to somewhat reasonable rates, the fellow who ran The Blue Studio invited me to become his partner in the business. We found a sixteen thousand square foot space on the corner of Mission and 17th Streets, built it out, and moved.
MISSION 17, I told Stephanie, grew out of the studio. It is indirectly subsidized by the artists who work there, and was originally conceived as a way to contribute to the life of the place. The dot-com phenomenon had been so devastating to the Bay Area art scene that there were few good remaining outlets for local artists. And I was finishing my graduate studies, making other changes in my work life, and getting more invested in San Francisco as my wife, Jennifer, and I made our home here. My only clear critical intention was to emphasize the sophistication of the Bay Area art scene, in distinction from the all-too-cool hipsterism of the Mission School, which recently has been so prevalent . My ambitions were originally very modest, and I was motivated in many respects by my enjoyment of putting on Open Studios events with other artists and crafts people. But the artists I have worked with at MISSION 17 have had high standards. They have taught me how to do things professionally, and have inspired me to produce a year round program. I told Stephanie how my work at the gallery and specifically the task of writing exhibition essays led to my publishing short weekly art reviews for The San Francisco Bay Guardian, and how, through my curating and criticism, I have for the last three years consistently been engaged in dialogue with other artists about their work.
This, I explained, has been the essence of the practice for me: an intimate working engagement with other people, through conversation, writing, and the collaboration involved in putting on shows. I approach curating as a social practice and a kind of pedagogy. I am interested in the exchange, and the conversation – with the artists and with other people about the work. Of course, I do have my favorites among the shows I have organized, but to say so seemed beside the point. My thoughts and feelings about the exhibitions I organize change throughout the course of their runs and in my subsequent reflections. Sometimes, even before a show, I already know that I don’t like some aspect of it. What is key to me is whether the problems the work addresses are sufficiently interesting and well developed to take seriously at all. My thoughts and feelings about the work must be ambivalent and free to change if I am to going to be able to learn anything in the process. As I understand it, the critical work involved in aesthetic judgment does not amount to affirming or denouncing artwork, but rather in reflecting on one’s responses to it, engaging with others in dialogue about those responses, and in the process both refining one’s taste and transforming one’s relationships. It takes the form not of “I like it” or “I don’t,” but rather “I like this about it” and “I find this troubling,” and “what do you think?”
In this light I told Stephanie that, for Michael’s project, I would likely exhibit the snapshots I had taken through the course of our conversation, along with an essay recounting key points in our exchange. From what I had learned that morning, it seemed perfectly consonant with aspects of her practice to do so. And I felt like it would best reflect what curating has been for me – as a process as much as a product. Stephanie liked the idea and was relieved not to have to do anything more to put together the show. I told her I would likely have to contact her again for titles and other details about her work. And I said I would be glad to let her see what I planned to present before the show opened. Stephanie declined the offer. We said goodbye until the opening. And I took my bicycle out to the freight elevator and back up Third St. to 17th.