Alberto Aguilar, Entre (Between),2018 Sign paint on vinyl banner. Installation from Living Architecture at 6018North. Image credit: Jesse Meredith

Editors’ Note: As part of the process of changing hands, we have had to ask ourselves a lot of questions on the fundamental role of Chicago Artist Writers. Topics ranged from the maintenance of editing, acknowledging a responsibility to and for emerging artists-as-writers, the role of the archive for alternative art spaces, and delicate balance of experimental writing. We are not the first to ask these questions; any growing platform has had to do the same at some point. But, in the spirit of transparency, our aim is to shed light on the process as editors and cultural laborers.

While CAW’s mission remains to highlight the work of artist-run spaces in Chicago, our conversation proved that art, artists, and writers are always in flux and reimagining our needs, purposes, and desires. Nothing is static, and self-reflection is how CAW can serve artists and writers in Chicago successfully. We present this conversation between Brit Barton, Ben Fuqua, Dan Gunn, and Marlo Koch.

Past and Future:

Do you view CAW as a building archive, and what does that mean as we continue to run it?  

What’s CAW’s role in the ecosystem? How do we support the artists and spaces we care about?

What do you see as a possible future form of art writing? 

What or where is the responsibility and process, now, as a collective of editors of ‘picking and choosing’ (i.e. what is our/your version of behind the scenes or editor-ethos) 

Dan: We are an archive among several. An example: early on I tried to do a research project for the Artists Run Chicago show in 2009 at the Hyde Park Art Center. One of my sole resources for accounts of Chicago art activity between 1985 and 2005 were the reviews of the Chicago Reader. I found a few principals from the scene then who would talk to me, but the criticism from then helped me get a feeling of the activity at the time it was happening and not colored by hindsight.

CAW’s role in the ecosystem is very complicated. Mmm… not complicated, but ambiguous. It’s a bit of a spanner between things like DIY practices, artists marketing themselves, art market thirst for promotional materials, and actual criticism. I wish I could locate it more succinctly than that actually. But it’s ambiguity could be an asset.

One thing that has happened that I’ll mention here, is that occasionally writers are afraid to write negative reviews of shows because they rely on other parts of our ecosystem for opportunities to work or show and they are afraid to burn bridges that they will need in the future. A kind of go-along-to-get-along mentality where all of the shit-talking happens in private. I think this is another reason why our place in the ecosystem as a publication is ambiguous.

Brit: It is just as critical to hear from new voices as well as ‘veteran’ voices within Chicago, it’s just a shame it doesn’t seem to happen in equal measure. I mean, Alex Chitty treatise on Gaylen Gerber at the Arts Club has been a big highlight to witness. The fact that we have a space to run that without question or deadline is an absolute for me.

Marlo: It’s certainly more difficult to have a truly critical stance, both socially and in the writing process. I wonder about building an archive because CAW does not function the way reviews in newspapers used to be a make or break moment for exhibitions at large institutions or established galleries. The opinions and viewpoints of our artist writers serve to, what you said, mark a moment in time in small Chicago art. But I hope we also help to make better writers and artists through honest, critical reviews that are not hinged on fear of burning the wrong bridges.

Dan: I think part of the issue is that the financial weakness of the art criticism publishing apparatus has made it more beholden to advertising dollars from the places they cover. In addition to the writer’s hesitancy, there can also be an institutional hesitancy to be honest. As a consequence, the coverage turns toward explication or ancillary marketing.

Marlo: I feel a responsibility to provide coverage of a wide variety of spaces for CAW, and personally put myself in a position of being always eager to learn about new spaces. Being open to ideas and artists that are totally outside my experience is an important piece of editing and curating for CAW.

Ben: The nature of artist-run spaces, which are often run by one or two volunteers on microbudgets can mean that their work is often short-lived and under-seen. That makes it all the more important to have an archive of what happens there since these spaces are the ones offering alternatives to institutional models of art. As Dan pointed out, tracking down writing on Chicago’s artist-run galleries can be sparse, so any opportunity to bring more attention to them is welcome.

Alex Chitty, Modified exhibition catalog, 2018.

Thoughts on or behind the process:

What happens when artists stretch to become writers? 

What is interesting writing in art?

What models might exist in other genres of writing or criticism that could be repurposed for the visual arts?

What is experimental art writing? How does someone edit that? 

Brit: I have so many conflicting thoughts on experimental writing, whatever that means. I always think of how critical it was for Eva Hesse or Lee Lozano to write about their own process, in their own voice, and really make their own record of references and processes. When it comes to someone else writing an experimental text on someone else’s practice though, and me inevitably editing it, I feel like I become a tornado of hypocrisy and status quo. It really sucks to sort of push conventional grammar or something like it onto a writer who in turn sees their thoughts as an extension of their own practice. How can we as editors create a somewhat equal balance of clarity and experimentation? It is by far one of my biggest struggles.

Dan: I get that it can feel stifling to push for clarity or grammar. Writers sometimes adopt an art reviewer style that, in my view, is more destructive to legibility or frankly interest than grammar issues. The editor is the reader’s advocate and thinks about their potential experience with the text. If grammar or aping a conventional tone are detracting from the writer’s potential impact then it’s important to try and intercede on the reader’s behalf. Written clarity doesn’t eliminate the possibility of complexity nor does ‘experimental’ criticism equal a grammatical trainwreck. 

Brit: “An editor is an advocate for the reader” is a great way to put it. 

Marlo: Interesting writing in art, to me, is writing that interrogates works to serve other purposes. Eileen Myles’ The Importance of Being Iceland, Maggie Nelson’s The Art of Cruelty, and Heidi Julavits’ 2017 essay “The Art at the End of the World” come to mind. Art cannot exist in a vacuum and writers of poetry, fiction, criticism and everything else remove it from an insular self. CAW serves the purpose of finding the molecular in order to understand the whole. 

Experimental art writing leaves room for questioning and meandering. I think of Emma Dwyer’s review of kg’s exhibition Some Kind of Duty. Those moments in reviews when Dwyer writes “I think this show is about gender, but also about bodies” make me happy to be an artist. Admitting uncertainty and unfamiliarity is what I appreciate about non-conventional art writing. Editing experimental writing is no different from other forms of cross-genre text; all writing requires clarity, structure, tight grammar, and consistent voice. I do wish more art writing was “allowed” to be as playful as experimental texts are.

Brit: Oh, I loved Emma Dwyer’s piece on kg’s show. I don’t recall editing it a ton, as a lot of it was Dwyer’s perspective which was incredibly useful as a tool for people in the future who inevitably will never see that iteration of the exhibit. 

But the thing about that piece is that we knew the artist, which felt in some ways for me, as the editor, an extra emphasis to get it right. That is always our aim but it’s impossible to not be a little biased. I think being upfront with your writer there is critical. Which goes back to the audience question—the writer can write about many artists in their writer-lifetime, but how many reviews will an artist or DIY gallery receive? It was my intention to make sure we can help everyone as much as possible in the ecology. Even if it’s a bad review, it still means someone is paying attention. 

Marlo: Maybe it’s a product of teaching but I feel responsible to make better writers with my editing. We’re working with less established writers and artists; all press is good press when one is starting out and it behooves any artist to get honest feedback.

Dan: Maybe I shouldn’t ask, but what do you mean by better? 

Marlo: Better is definitely a lazy word. With CAW, I hope to encourage honesty, and courage to write the review that needs to be written. I want writers to learn from the line-by-line editing process so they can be self-editors too. 

Ben: That balance of clarity and experimentation gets so much more tricky when it comes to art criticism because I feel like there’s a need for the experimentation to serve an argument, rather than writing that can be experimental for its own sake. If the experiment isn’t bringing something new out of the artwork it’s talking about, then it’s tougher to justify. 

When I think about experimental criticism that sticks with me, it’s usually long-form, and it’s usually by poets. While neither of these are straight-ahead “art criticism,” Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen are both strong examples of bringing new perspectives to someone else’s work while creating something that’s a poetic work in its own right. Like Marlo said, experimentation doesn’t mean sacrificing clarity. That’s probably why poets are such good critics—they think as deeply about their own language as they do about the work they’re responding to.

Marlo: I agree, long-form criticism usually works best when it’s experimental; at some point the work needs to speak for itself and there’s only so far straight criticism can go. Poets are great at being sparse yet exacting. Anne Carson comes to mind, specifically her poem named for a painting, Seated Figure With Red Angle (1988) by Betty Goodwin. But what is the difference between experimental art criticism and writing that uses an artwork as a reference/inspiration/muse? 

Dan: I don’t want to play the Luddite here, but I didn’t really learn a whole lot about Betty Goodwin’s art practice from Anne Carson’s poem. I mean, it’s a beautiful piece and mimics the drawing’s (painting’s?) fluttering conditional state by adopting the repeating “if” motif. The poem contains a lot about Figure’s implications, associations, and meaning, but there is also a journalistic function of art criticism that is important too and separate from the poetic function.

Marlo: Sure, Anne Carson’s poem isn’t exactly criticism but it is an example of a poet engaging a piece of artwork. I find looking at cross-contamination like this helpful when thinking about CAW’s mission to engage artists in the writing process. That poem is almost an example of what we don’t make a point to publish on CAW, at least as it stands now. I keep coming back to this point – experimental criticism can sometimes mean lack of opinion for the sake of preserving a poetic tone. Back to process, the editor also has a job to make a piece serve the publication in a productive way. In our manifesto we say, “questions need to be asked and answered.” 

Detail of kg, RALLY! In The London Fog installation view at DePaul Art Museum, 2019. Photo courtesy of DePaul Art Museum.

General Criticality: 

Why is it necessary to nestle coverage of large institutions and small artist-run spaces next to each other? 

**What’s CAW’s role in the ecosystem? How do we support the artists and spaces we care about?

What is the art writer’s responsibility to the artists about whom they write?

What’s your least favorite type of art journalism to read?

Dan: CAW was initially designed to highlight artist-run activity. So it had a critical agenda to make those sites more discursive and serious by covering them. But being a location solely of criticism of DIY projects limits the readership that can be exposed to the writing. Do you already know about that show in a garage? Then you might be closer to people who will write about it on CAW. Otherwise, you have to stumble on it while looking for something else. CAW could be an artist-centric site about the whole city’s art production. Also going back to that original agenda, putting the garage show and the Graham Foundation in proximity brings out contrasts that make both spaces and programs more understandable. The Graham Foundation is an apartment gallery in a nicer home with better fundraising, and the garage show is challenged by the excellence of Graham’s programming. 

Brit: There was a lot of discussion around opening up the mission to include commercial and institutional spaces. Ultimately, I think it was the best call. At the heart of it, it is exactly what you said, elevating all spaces together in a place where it is difficult to get critical writing in general. We still try to mitigate more texts on DIY and alternative/artist-run-spaces, but we are now accepting submissions on commercial/institutional spaces, especially where Chicago-based artists are doing something. Did we receive some flack for it? Maybe a little, but I think it was a welcomed change. We gotta grow. 

Marlo: Is there enough coverage of, say, a show at the MCA out there already? Sure. Are we going to publish a less experienced writer and a more experimental piece about the MCA show? Yes. There is value in covering commercial and institutional spaces outside of conventional publications. Seeing alternative spaces next to commercial ones removes us from either side of the bubble. 

Ben: Regarding the ecosystem idea, neither the DIY spaces nor the institutional ones exist in a vacuum; they’re both aware of each other to various extents. And Chicago artists aren’t just going around to apartment galleries. Their work is informed by a much larger network of art spaces, so it makes sense to have them write about more than just artist-run spaces.

Nelly Agassi, “Elsa,” 2019. Wool, cotton, and rayon. Dimensions variable. Produced in collaboration with The Weaving Mill, Chicago. View of “Nelly Agassi: Spirit of the Waves,” Graham Foundation, Chicago, 2019. Photo: Nathan Keay