Sep. 9, 2011

Andy Vogt

When I was preparing to talk about your piece, I kept being drawn back to an image of “Isla en la Isla [Island within an Island]” (1993) by Gabriel Orozco. It’s unclear if Orozco even made the piece or if he just took the photo, but it’s basically a shot taken from New Jersey where these shards of found wood and debris are leaning against a concrete barricade in shapes that purposely or accidentally mirror the downtown Manhattan skyline in the distance. So, not just a reading of the direct material reference of reclaimed wood but in also tying in ideas of scale, the impermanent, the found, the urban construct, it seemed to speak to me while I was thinking about the ambiguity of images through shapes in your work. It looks completely different depending on where you’re standing, where the light is…

It does. Constructing something in the natural world, or even in the gallery, you have an idea of what it is and then you make it, and then it exists. And then you get to see the light. The piece that I made yesterday is the last transitional element [at the end of the structure] moving the whole piece from two-dimensional into three-dimensional. I haven’t even seen it at this time [morning] because I made it yesterday afternoon. So now I’m realizing how the shadows down there on the lower piece are lining up to complete this triangular shape as it’s projecting below. All of that stuff is really unexpected. Once it gets to be about 5 or 6 o’clock the sun goes behind that building and it lights up the entire lower shelf. And when it’s overcast, you really see all the color in the wood because there are no shadows…

I knew that light would be a part of this piece, but I didn’t know it would be such a big part of this piece. That’s been one of the biggest things for me, the environmental effect on the piece. I had an idea of how I wanted to use the fence practically to manipulate the idea of the fence, from it being a barrier to becoming a window, but then in practice the whole thing has kind of become something else. Which is the best part of any kind of site-specific work; you don’t even know what it is until you make it.

I’m kind of amazed how the shadows reveal the angles of the wood in relation to the sun.

Yeah, and on the functional level—which is huge for me because I’ve never done an outdoor sculpture before—my material is this brittle dry wood, which is structural to a point, but it’s split. I actually had it stock piled and it was ready to go. I didn’t want to have to build structure into the site, something that could hold up against the wind. There wasn’t enough time or money. So, I started with the fence because that existed. I keep using the word to “architecturalize” the fence, even though its already architectural I wanted to extrude something else out of the shape…

…Or an awareness of it. It used to be a barrier and now it’s a part of something. Talk about the material a bit more, in terms of looking at time, I read this thing about how you use a lot of wood from 50-100 years ago. Where do you get it? Is the time inside the material important to you? How are you selective about what you use?

My process is an on-going scavenging process, I actually just scrounge it out of dumpsters after renovations or demolitions. So what that means is that I drive around and when I see a dumpster I look inside it. If I’m lucky the wood is actually on the top layer of what’s in the dumpster. [In the renovation process] they knock the plaster out of the wall, take the wood out, throw it in a dumpster, and then the plaster goes on top of it. Many times when I get into a dumpster, the wood I need is covered in hundreds and hundreds of pounds of plaster. Not to mention junk.

That’s interesting because it’s almost like you’re working in rewind of this very practical ritual—the order of tearing things apart and your order of salvaging is the exact opposite of that.

For about six or seven years I’ve become pretty specific about what I will take and what I won’t, mostly because if things are broken in half or ripped in weird long shards, then they’re harder to deal with. I look for whole pieces of wood, which are never longer than four feet long because they’re made to fit between studs—so they’re 48-inches long if you’re lucky.

I also really look for the colors; I discovered that the sort of natural tonal system of the wood and the coloring of the plaster on one side was a drawing medium that I could use. That’s sort of how I first got involved in using wood, through looking at it as a kind of line weight, in a graphic sense. So I would use it as color-specific, but also as a linear drawing tool. I would organize [the wood] by color, getting the really orange stuff in one pile and the yellow stuff in another, and the white stuff in another. Which was actually tricky because wood has two sides, two colors, two types of grains, so I’m always thinking: “am I saving the dark side or the light side?” There’s an element of not knowing what the material is holding.

So you developed this way of selecting because you’re dealing with garbage essentially and organization was the first step to restoring it…

The other part of the process is that most of the pieces still have nails in them…every single piece of this wood I have pulled out of a dumpster, bundled it up, taken it to my studio, then handled it again to take out the nails, sort it by color, wrap it up, store it, take it out, cut it—just the time I’ve spent handling all of the material is kind of a weird.

So you do alter the pieces then through cutting or finishing the edges off? I noticed that some are rather rougher than others, is that by way of selection or have you sawed certain pieces and not others?

I mitered it at the top at 40 degrees. It’s really interesting because a chain link fence is not a 90 degree intersection, it’s at 80 degrees. The ends are as I found them, or some I have broken, and so I mix the two together to allude to the found nature of the material. By leaving the ragged edge it feels more like a relic and not like the material I have processed.

What about the public-making event?

When people came to make the piece, even thought the MCD was hosting it, I had to take a central role. There were a lot of concerns, like no one was able to use power tools or anything. Luckily, a big part of my piece was individually wiring each piece [of wood] to the fence, and there are several hundred pieces here. I pre-cut and pre-drilled the pieces and then people who came to help, in varying degrees of success helped to wire [the wood] to the fence. I gave them some direction…

How many people were here?

About 25 people, it was a six-hour event. I’m going to the Headlands [Center for the Arts] as a resident in September and part of being there is being open to the public, and facilitating an event where the public can come. So this was a huge baptism into that experience. This has been a serious immersion into public relations! [Laughs.]

How much did you keep of what the public made, if you had to quantify it?

I kept a lot—I’d say maybe 15% had to be fixed or changed.

And how much of this final piece was finished in that day?

About 60% of the structure was there, maybe less. At the opening [event] there was about 75% of the final structure.

Not to overly draw analogies between your piece and proxy, but there is a similar thing going on with the shipping containers here—elements from its past life as a transporter are somewhat preserved even if it has been radically transformed into an ice cream shop or whatever. Talk a bit about this specific piece in relation to the material. This very simple position of reflective angles is maximizing visually—there’s uniformity in what was basic scrap wood.

My work is going from a graphic drawing style into a more practical overlay of constraints. So in this case, my own constraint is the wood, which is never longer than four feet. So that’s a limitation because even though I’ve linked them in the past into eight foot sections, the wind at this site is so intense that without building a structural piece to hold the wood up it just wasn’t practical to go beyond four feet sections. That length of wood was overlaid with the constraint of the fence. So using the angles of the chain link and a four foot limitation and the idea that I wanted to create a window from the fence.

So the idea that the angle of the found chain-link fence then physically dictates the larger shape of the piece…

When I originally did my mock-ups of my ideas I wanted the top of the piece to be a horizontal piece that projects off the fence, but because of the wind it just didn’t have a lot of lateral stability.

It’s interesting that these pieces of wood come from this very practical life within the walls of a house, then rescued by you only to return to this world where, “OK, this has to stand up.” It is again expressed through structural limitations and a sense of practicability.

Originally I wanted this window that was about four inches wide, for a very tight view.

So creating a sense of voyeurism?

Yeah, a really heavy-handed direction of the view into a very narrow aperture. Then I realized that because I’m six feet tall it was going to be really high [entry point], and it’s probably better to have it a little wider so more people can look through it. Those were the driving forces on the shape of the piece. I also thought it would be interesting to take this sort of two-dimensional application and gradually make it in a more formalized volume.

It has kind of seismic quality to it. So this beginning part isn’t unfinished? It’s a sort of leading up to the filled out section like blips in the radar.

[The gradual increase in volume] was something I had thought of making early—connecting the two [sections] with these isolated pieces of three-dimensional structure. It is done now because it has a transition and it begins with the most minimal building block that I can leave freestanding. I would’ve liked to have it just be one line that comes over, but it’s like a helix; three interlocking helix-shaped, triangular sort of spirals that are all interlaced. One piece leads to another, which is offset by another, and another…

Structurally, it’s a surprisingly strong piece even though it’s made with all these almost splinters of wood…

Almost like popsicle sticks.

Do you want to talk for a minute about the idea of material reuse in your work? I tend to shy away from focusing on “the reuse thing” because the idea can be sort of politicized but I’m interested in it through an aesthetic lens…

That’s actually where I am too. I hate the throwaway material aspect of our contemporary social situation here. It’s part of my personal axe to grind with modern society, but the thing that drew me the wood was that it was available, very beautiful, and varied. In kind of a tangential way you do get to talk or think about the fact that this is a technique that was very artisan, skilled technique of building walls and trawling plaster, and making curves out of straight lines. There’s a lot of pride in that whole process of this wood. And that it was harvested from old-growth Douglas Fir because the straight grain of the wood was important for making a flat wall. In the northwest there was so much Douglas Fir that these gigantic, 100-year old trees were essentially turned into toothpicks. Those are important in the sort of subconscious legacy of the wood. It’s not something I’m trying to scream out in my work.

Right, it’s not comment on that cycle but it originates in the idea that we already have great building materials in the dumpster. Architecture seems to bump up against those issues from the beginning of any project.

Architecture is like a crystal, it’s a form that grows over time and is a rigid structure with a life span; it’s crystallized. A wall is an assembly of things that are crystals too; plaster in this matrix of wood. So originally I was thinking, “wow this is like magnetically reorienting all these particles.” Taking all these pieces that were very rigidly aligned inside a wall and putting them through this kind of chaotic process, almost like a geological change. Now they’re cooling and re-crystallizing in this way. It was an inspirational way to think about the material. This piece feels like it’s not fully formed or it’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s got a very crisp starting point or focus.

The wood is very splintery, and the splinters hurt a lot within a few minutes because Douglas Fir has some kind of resin that is toxic to your body or your blood stream. I started thinking about how the wood, which has been processed and gone through this whole man-made, systematic building process, and then the housing boom, then renovations, and then into this totally unwanted thing. And it’s got these kind of metal splinters or nails stuck in it and I like to think about pulling them out and releasing it from the first step in that process.

The paradox of an un-housed population with too many houses seems like a spoke in that process. There must be something freeing as an artist also to make something knowingly impermanent. Cutting to the chase of what we know will happen to all of our stuff anyway. Proxy is very practically inspired by the recession, the idea that these lots were originally going to be affordable housing units and now it’s become a temporary placeholder for those plans. It’s also just how we are beginning to think about building, the urban landscape, and time.

And that gets to the idea of installation work in general; it is this ephemeral thing. As a sculptor it’s been really liberating to work that way. In the last year or so my work has been moving into that territory, and not focusing on object making that’s “for sale.” Just focusing on the creative process of making the piece and being in the space and not really knowing what it’s going to be until it’s done.

The piece is the process.

Definitely. A lot of this wood came from a show that I had at Southern Exposure a year and a half ago—a similarly large-scale wood piece. It will be interesting to see what happens to this wood now because it will have been in the sun for a month.

I want to make sure we cover a couple more things like the installation day and the interaction with the public, and then the city as context for the piece. We’ve talked about weather elements like wind, but how does this fit in the center of the city, or the city as gallery.

I keep thinking about the site in terms of the freeway that used to be here, and the unstoppable tide of traffic that is coming in this direction [from Market Street towards the corner of Hayes and Octavia from Market Street]. It affected the way that this piece pointed toward this corner as the kind of terminus of the whole artery of traffic. It feels like this is the direction of the entire site.

It actually made so much sense, it’s so intuitive for it to point this way that I hadn’t thought of the piece being shaped any other way. There’s a horizon in it. But the scale of the fence itself has an interesting motivation—it’s essentially the height at which most people decide that it wouldn’t be worth it to climb. But it’s the same motivation with the height of these buildings, what is the height at which we can maximize people living on one lot, balanced with regulation, and the money to pay for it. It’s interesting that such tangible considerations shape our relationship to scale, or the horizon of the city.

And it continues that way on the outside of the fence, because I wanted to forced the tension into the corner by reversing the pattern on inside, but not on the outside. So it’s weird, it’s not symmetrical. But the city as gallery, there is so much movement through here.

So you’ve worked out at the Headlands [Center for the Arts] right?

At the Headlands, it’s peaceful and nothing is really moving in any particular direction. It’s been interesting thing to see all of people viewing the piece just by walking past it.

The unintentional viewer…

The unintentional viewer, but also the shape is what it is because of the constraints of the materials and the fence. It also has the rough illusion to retail and some kind of public, or human-sized architecture. People immediately assume it’s going to be a restaurant or a coffee shop or the Biergarten, because it’s a standing height shelf and rough a roof-sized height.

So it’s working with preconceptions of scale.

Yeah, the assumption is that this is a business…

That’s interesting on a couple points because it exposes how scale forms in the mind of the public—retail and business—but also that you were able to tap into the rhythm of constant construction that will encase proxy.

And that any new project that’s kind of “artsy” or “weird” is a coffee shop. That’s another kind of zeitgeist—that of course it would be coffee or a bar.

Did the scale of your installation and its subsequent interaction with the public occur to you before you built this piece? Did that surprise you that it would be assumed to be a retail component on site?

It was a surprise. I knew that I would be building something that would relate to people, that would be the scale of a person and their view, but when I decided to make [the chain link “window”] wider, the unintended effect was that it came to look like a counter surface. Which is cool on one hand because it’s very familiar…

Like how people see faces in inanimate objects.

People ask, “What’s going in here?” and then I tell them, “a sculpture.” And then say, “What is it going to look like?” [Laughs.] I really like that question. They look really confused so I tell them that this is a temporary space for the Museum of Craft and Design and this is a public arts piece. And then they’re actually interested and they come in a look at the store. It’s a unique way of interacting with the creative process of making the sculpture and how the public takes it in.

There is the practical reason of why you had to build “inside” of proxy, but talk about why most of what is going on is happening within the fence, when most people who will see this will view it from the outside—or maybe that’s arguable.

It is true, you can’t build out onto the sidewalk in any significant way, so the sculpture had to be on the inside, just functionally. But I started thinking about this institution, just thinking about craft and design as a gallery experience, and I was hoping people would look through this “window” and see what’s going on with the volume on the inside and then come inside.

It’s pretty successful in creating a feeling of voyeurism from both sides.

The site is pretty generic; it’s a huge fence on a parking lot, with stripes still on the ground for parking spots. I felt that if I made a freestanding piece, it would be really easy to stand on the outside and look at it and never come in to the site. You get used to being on the other side of the fence. But by obscuring the view, I wanted to neutralize the fence, making the barrier become a window. In the context of all the visual noise of all the overlapping [wood] systems, the relative calm of the chain-link in between becomes this sort of non-fence.

The fence is necessary but it’s an ugly thing. That you’ve made the fence the least noticeable part yet the entire physical framework of the piece is a nice inversion. I also think the wood is really the perfect material because although there are subtleties in the variations of grains, there is also a standardization, which relieves the overwhelming urban center of the site. All you have to do to get noticed on this corner is tone it down—look at that lime green Victorian!

Whenever I take pictures of the piece, coming from the gallery perspective, I want to delete everything in the background, but it’s there and it’s the site. So that’s been another interesting part of this is the documentation—it’s like half of the piece really.

And you come from photography originally? Have you done sculpture outside of wood?

It’s mostly been plywood or redwood.

Did you start doing that in San Francisco?

Yeah, I went to school for time-based video works at Carnegie Mellon. Now that I’ve been doing more site-specific installations, I’ve realized that the time-based nature of sculpture when it’s not in a gallery under lighting, has this story to tell over the course of a day. So I started doing this time-lapsed documentation of the piece.

We have a time-lapsed camera and are trying to get another one set up on top of one of these big apartment buildings. It’ll be fun to see that sort of hyper-process on video. Let’s get into the idea of the processing of these materials a bit more—I was thinking about the reuse of the container, and started to see commonality in the idea of materials being processed. The container is at first processed by an architect through design, then it’s processed by a journey to this site, and finally it’s processed by a new context. And you’ve process the wood in the same way, it ultimately becomes its new form once it arrives on-site. So the idea of how important site is in the processing of materials…

Re-contextualizing it?

Right. Once it gets in the place, it’s finally arrived at its new life.

That’s definitely true. It’s almost like the concept of a ready-made sculpture, once you claim it as this thing and then it actually is that new thing. One other thing about the time-lapse photography I’ve done on this piece, you can really see how actually flexible this fence is. Even though there’s rigidity in my work, there’s nothing really preventing the fence from bowing and so the piece vibrates and moves in this unexpected way. It’s more of a membrane than a plane.  Another element that goes along with the perceptive view of your casual gaze walking down the street, the fence follows the [line of] sight along Octavia, but the Hayes side actually goes down hill. So I loosened all the fence fitting and leveled all the structural pipes so that’s why [the wood] goes from level to projecting above the fence.

Would you have made something at this scale if it had been out in the Marin Headlands, for instance? You’ve talked about the scale of a person, but what about the scale of the city?

I would definitely like to do something this size at another location. My piece at Southern Exposure was working with scale, making people look up and then connect with the architecture of the room, working with the sunlight through a window in a structural way. Those things are in this piece too. One of the things about this site is that people are out on sidewalk and looking at it right up against it usually.

Whereas the gallery has this very defined perimeter, everyone will sort of stop at the same line or distance of a piece, and then the standard height of a room, triangulates a really standardization in perspective. But here people are leaning against it, or viewing it at the angle as defined by a city corner. How does this piece fit into the larger body of your work?

The context of the sculpture is the major new thing for me. It’s kind of perfectly timed for my work, using site constraints has become a really central part of my installation work. Reusing materials from previous shows in new pieces has become something that I definitely want to do with every piece I make from now on. But also, looking at these constraints, the process is so important to the work.

How did the opening event feel? What did you feel was most different between an opening event experience and the public installation?

The opening was funny because the bar for the alcohol was about 8”x8”. It really took up a lot space, and there was a mountain of glasses.

Did people leave their drinks on the “counter?”

[Laughs.] I was expecting something like that! I’ve actually be expecting someone to come in with their coffee and their laptop and set it down on and have it all just fall apart!

I hope that’s on the time-lapse video.

It was weird to pack a bunch of people in there, I kind of wish we could’ve had the opening on the sidewalk, but we couldn’t do that obviously. Like any art opening, it was hard to see the work. So the “making” event was more rewarding.

Did you keep the public-making component in mind when you visualized this process?

Not really. It was sort of secondary. It didn’t seem like a real deal-breaker with the MCD, I think they just wanted to allow the public a way to interact with the artist and see a piece being made, in a way that’s more than just answering questions, like showing them how things are made. The cool thing about this project is that experience will happen to all the other artists and they’ll have a chance to be interactive and have great conversations with people, or try to get them to look at your piece in a different way, or deal with snide remarks…Somebody as they walked by said, “hey when’s your chicken coop going to be finished?” [Laughs.] And they didn’t stop to talk about it…Like, oh! You got me! You can’t help but be in a dialog with the community when you do something like this.

Even down to our plumbers, they’re like, “can you get a docent around here?”

Interview by envelope a+d and originally appeared in the zine ON SITE IN THE CITY.