Interview with Justin Berry.

Justin Berry is a New York based artist who I first met whilst exhibiting at NEXT Art Fair in May 2009.  As well as being a practising artist, he also runs The Waymaker Gallery , a fictional gallery located in the fictional town of  Yorkton, New Caladon. He is also a master at ordering dim sum.

On December 21st we sat over coffee had a long chat about all things art.  Here is the condensed version….

Justin BerryMalanorian Silk,  Installation View

Isobel Shirley: Firstly I’d like to thank you for getting involved with this project.  When I first started thinking about who I would interview out here in New York, you immediately came to mind.  When we met out in Chicago, we spoke a lot about the idea of artists networks and exchanges between artists, so I knew it was an area that interested you.  Your work you were doing with the Waymaker Gallery also came to mind. I found interesting, the way you approached the relationship between yourself and the artists you were working with, and how you were promoting them within your work.  Perhaps we could start with you explaining a bit about your work with the Waymaker Gallery.

Justin Berry: I think the technical way to describe The Waymaker Gallery is to call it a ‘virtual’ gallery.  I really don’t like that term, I prefer ‘imaginary’ gallery.   That might seem like a mild or inconsequential difference word choice but I think that virtual has certain implications.  I’m interested in the way that imaginary spaces or imagined space interacts with real space, such as when myths or Nationalist narratives influence architecture, and that architecture in turn affects social behavior. When I think of something virtual I think of something that’s not meant to interact with the real world, it is simply meant to recreate it.

I was influenced a lot in graduate school by artists who were doing various kinds of social practice; artists who were engaging with other people to produce their work. The way I experienced this work was through hearing a story, or seeing some kind of documentary photograph and not really trusting its veracity. For instance, I remember speaking to an artist years ago who made false documents of work. When he was applying for various grants and fellowships, he created fictional slides.  He would do things like take a photo of a field with snow in it and, in Photoshop, he’d tint half of it yellow. Of course, it wasn’t real but it functioned in a real way, it influenced people, it made them believe in it and they considered it as an actual artwork. I started thinking about these various practices that have these influences based on not on what they were or what actually happened but on the story that they related.  To be in the presence of Joseph Beuys filling the corner of the room with fat might be a very intense experience, the aroma could be over powering, his majestic spiritual presence could knock you flat.  But at the same time you don’t have any kind of direct engagement with that.  What you are directly engaging with is the narrative of it.

At the same time I was also looking at artists who had these fascinating life stories and I realized I couldn’t compete with them.  I’m an upper-middle class white guy from Texas, people don’t want to hear my story!  The stereotypical narrative that I get attached to is perhaps the one thing that everyone is trying to avoid. So I always though a lot about all these artist narratives… like I was fleeing a war torn country and as I fled I was shot 4 times.  I saved each of those bullets and I made a map of the wound in my body and the scars from the subsequent infections.  I transformed the scars into a territorial map that represents the various genocides caused by the people who killed my family… Well Jesus! That’s Great!  I would love to make work that affecting or interesting, I unfortunately do not have the experience of being shot.

IS: (laughs) No, not quite your life style.

JB: Yeah and I was sort of feeling that if I follow what I was actually meant to be doing… if I were to follow my own genuine narrative through to its logical conclusion… well then I need to be making abstract paintings, of course.

IS: Well of course.

JB: I really had nowhere else to go. But I really didn’t want to do that. And so another facet of the Waymaker emerged out of me wanting to make work that wasn’t bound by the confines of my own story. What would I make if I could make things that weren’t about me. I really thought that when I did the Waymaker Gallery I was giving this opportunity, one to myself, but also to other people,  ‘What would you do if you could do anything? You’re not bound by the restrictions of your own accurate narrative; you’re not bound by physical forces; you’re not bound by history; you’re not bound by time or money; what form should art take?’.

IS: With the Waymaker you’re creating this ‘free space’, of sorts, for people to make work within. With projects I’ve organised I’ve tried to give the artists as much freedom as possible, but I’ve also learned that you do have to give some limitations because otherwise it can all fall apart. It’s really difficult sometimes finding that balance between giving the right amount of freedom and not imposing anything on the artists’ work, whilst also making sure that it fulfils what you need from it. How do you see your role within the Waymaker in relation to the other artists and does that relationship work well for you?

JB:  When I work with people I try and give them as much leeway as possible but there’s also a little bit of a challenge in that. Because the whole project exists in a virtual space that most people aren’t trained to work in, I end up doing the lion’s share of the labor- even though the conceptual side is evenly shared.  When you do that it’s a little lopsided. If somebody changes their mind, yes you want to accommodate that, but part of collaboration is compromising to each other’s decisions. There’s a certain point when you agree to something and you have to stick with it to a certain extent.

On the other hand, for the Jackson Pollock show, Saving Sisyphus, we were talking about the way that his paintings had been created to resist being understood as an image.  How they’ve been so successful that they’ve defeated their own achievement.  They no longer can perform their function.   They have become images that represent “Pollock”.  Part of putting them on the floor was trying to restore this ‘objectness’ or material property to them and I thought if we document it with photographs it would just not make sense, it’s just doing the same thing.  So we agreed, and I proceeded to create these animations of figures walking through the space, and it took a long time!  Then, after that, we realized that one of the paintings was oddly cropped.  In the end, resolving that problem became a major part of the show. The press release acknowledges that the piece is not accurate, that it’s a photograph of the painting that has been printed onto canvas and added to the show.  This also made it possible to have an image for the show, since we could photograph that particular piece without breaking the conceptual confines of the show.  I thought, ‘that’s great, that’s what this whole space is about’. It’s about being able to make these judgments and tell these stories, to use the press release the same way you might use color in a painting.

This worked out really well but there was more than a little friction along way for that particular piece.  I think as artists we’re trained very early on to believe that we deserve everything we want and that our will as artists, as creative geniuses must be done. The world must, if it wishes to be enlightened, just bow to our greatness and do what we say and accept it as the will of genius.   As though curators are there to just arrange things nicely.  I have been on both sides, having run gallery spaces and being an artist…

IS: …It changes your perception

JB: Yeah and it is not that simple. I have a lot of respect for really good curators doing their job.

IS: Going back to your role as curator, but also as a collaborative force. I noticed that while you were studying you had a program curating curators. How did that come about?

JB: The space was called Alogon and it was in Chicago.  Really it was an apartment gallery, but we decided early on to create some guidelines for how we were going to do the shows.  The idea was to curate curators.  There were a couple reasons for that.  Some of it was artistic, we wanted to create this experiment, and some of it was very practical. We wanted to be able to show artists in ways that we would not have thought of ourselves.   I know this sounds kind of silly but we didn’t want to run a gallery that was ‘a bunch of dudes doing what dudes do, showing work by dudes that are friends with dudes, just doing what dudes do.’ I think that’s valid thing to do–but there’s enough of that already.   We wanted to find a way that we could put on shows more relevant than our own limited position, which is just like I was saying earlier.  We’re four straight white guys running a gallery. Our perspective was fairly limited. So it was building diversity into the program.  By giving very different perspectives a space to exist where they could be seen side by side it became possible to discuss them using a shared language.  It ended up being pretty successful. We had shows with really amazing international artists from all over the world.  We had started by asking our classmates to put together shows and by the end we had professors asking us if they could curate projects. We even hosted the thesis show for one of the departments at school.

I felt it was only through this process, and the spirit of collaboration that the gallery was fundamentally grounded in, that we were able to achieve so much.  I think that part of me wanted to re-experience something like that, to reengage with that level of activity. The Waymaker Gallery definitely emerged from that. I couldn’t re-create Alogon in New York, even real estate wise, and I didn’t have the same support group. In Chicago the real estate was more affordable and there was this embedded system. I was in school, I had classmates and I had professors.  When I first got here, even though I knew some people, my first year was just like being adrift in a sea. I was nobody; I couldn’t talk to anybody or engage anyone on any level. You had to deal with these really complex networks of permissions.  You had to be included in something to be included in something to be included in something and I just didn’t have any sense what those networks were.

IS: Yeah I guess networking is a bit like flirting.

JB: You want to at least be able to dangle the possibility, right?  So I wanted to create a way to make things happen where I didn’t have to go to someone else and ask for permission.  As an artist we have all this creative freedom and power but we’re also incredibly limited because we can’t do anything on our own.  We’re just waiting for someone to give us a site. It’s mind numbing when you don’t have a network for getting that stuff out there. There’s a certain kind of practice that is needy by its nature, it’s dependent on these other structures. I think that it’s a real challenge trying to define yourself as an artist.  If you don’t have a ground or context against which to be seen then you’re invisible.

IS: Like you were saying before, when you’re studying you have all these people around you, you have a language between you, it’s all just so much easier. If you want to put on a show or have an audience, it’s there it’s immediate. When you’ve got that readymade structure it’s very easy to stay there. But it’s important to be able to exist outside of that. Otherwise it’s just like you said, ‘dudes doing what dudes do… making work for dudes’.

I’ve been really interested in this idea of creating networks outside of what is immediately available to you, which is what got me started with this project. There have also been a lot of ideas about dialogues and blogging going around that seem to be pushing this notion of building up a language for artists’ practices to exist within.  And you’re right there does just seem to be a lot of work about how to cope with making work.  Or work about how you deal with curating and being an artist. Perhaps it’s just because we’re both still fairly early career artists that this work stands out to us?

JB: Well to be honest I think it’s a little bit of both, I think that it’s funny because at the height of contemporary cultural achievement, we are essentially tribal in nature. There are these camps or schools of though, movements. But really if you have two critics, three curators, five artists and a collector to support it all, you have an art movement, it doesn’t matter what form it takes.   Part of the struggle that comes with being part of emerging practices is that it can be difficult to create those sorts of networks when the product is so ephemeral.   Even when the art piece is the network itself it can be hard to see because you are so immersed in it.

IS:   I want to go back and talk about where we first met, when we were both exhibiting at NEXT Art Fair in Chicago last May. Going out there with TheBunkerGallery, we were very naïve. We thought, we’ll just go and do all these special events and projects and it’ll be fine. We were completely out of our depth but some how managed to have all these people get involved and it all just came together. I know I have quite a rose tinted view of the whole experience, because we had a great time. But having said that, there was a real energy there and a lot of experimenting within the format of the fair. People were interested in what each other were doing and in the exchange of ideas and contacts. Since then, artists we met at NEXT have actually come to London and done residencies with us.  We’ve kept up that network that we built there, and that’s been really great.  I think that’s something that a lot of emerging art fairs could learn from. When you have all those artists and gallerists together in one space it’s the perfect time for these exchanges of ideas. What was your take on the whole experience?

JB: I’m at the point in my career / naivety where I’m in the same boat. What I appreciated about NEXT was its permeability and openness and people doing fun creative stuff.  I think that it’s easy when we see that potential, we enjoy it and we take advantage of it. But it really is there to make money and I think that it can be a strange way to experience it. Both of us were doing these non-profitable (I won’t say non-profit) ventures there, and being fine with it.  I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact you’re kind really hijacking the event.  You’re using its infrastructure for a purpose it was not designed to accomplish. Because of that, sometimes really interesting and amazing things happen and sometimes it can be really tedious and annoying. A lot of these systems like the art fair, they’re not about introducing young artists, really they’re about selling the work of new artists. They’re not about nurturing them and they’re not about contextualizing them in interesting ways.

I felt like the piece that I did was a little bit self-critical. I wanted to use the art fair as a context in and of itself so it was site specific in that sense. It was a work about art fairs so it made sense to be there and I was taking advantage of the context.  I curated this (and again I hate the term) ‘virtual’ art show/art gallery / art booth.  At the actual NEXT fair I didn’t have anything, just a green screen and a few books.   People chose which piece they wanted to be looking at from a catalogue and then I photographed them against the green screen and composited them into the gallery space, looking at the work of their choice.  This was supposed to be easy! And of course it was incredibly time consuming.  I had a great experience but it was a very different experience than if you go with a group of people like you did.

I think it’s really tough, on one level you’re hacking or navigating these structures in ways you’re not meant to, and you can reap these big benefits.  But there’s also a sense of duplicity there and it’s a complex engagement. You’re hacking it and taking advantage of it, yet at the same time you’re totally complicit and in a weird way you’re supporting something that you might be critical of.  I think that’s a fine line to walk.

IS: That’s very true. I guess it’s like any kind of institutional critique, it’s now so recognized by the institution that it’s become part of it and can no longer really exist. And you’re right, it’s a very fine line to walk.

There’s one final thing I wanted to ask you a bit about. We spoke the other day about how it can be problematic when you’re running spaces and also have your own practice. What keeps coming up is the notion of balance and building these frameworks or limitations. Is that something you find important to build within your practice? So that you can have definitions between these different areas that you’ve got going on? How do you manage that?

JB: I think it’s a really serious challenge. I think it’s impossible not to struggle with it. The more successful you are the more challenging it becomes.  When I was running Alogon I felt like I was starting to get a reputation in Chicago, but not as an artist, as a curator/ runner of spaces.  Anytime you attach gallery to something the implication is that your immediate goal is to move into commercial galleries, you want to start selling work and representing artists. I never had that as an ambition. I had to constantly reiterate to people, no, I’m an artist and this is a creative project, even if it’s not an art piece. I didn’t think of Alogon as an art piece.

IS: But it’s part of your practice in general.

JB: Yes, part of being a creative person is doing interesting things.  As an artist particularly I identify as a conceptual artist.  I think that whenever you identify yourself as a conceptual artist and you’re talking about your work on those terms you run into this notion of rigor. How rigorous you are in your conceptual thing. Maybe back in the day that notion of rigor was quite clear-cut, that you wanted this sort of non-formal aspect. It was about the idea; complete reduction was evidence of rigor.  Now those lines are not so clear.  We have these notions of rigor but they’re very difficult to describe and they’re arguable and fluid.  I don’t know if this sounds really asinine, but I’m almost against rigor.  I’m almost against doing something so literally and specifically that it becomes limited to this one potential read.  When an artwork becomes purely verbal it is dead.  I believe in making work that creates a sight of possibility and the viewer is somehow empowered or engaged.

IS: I think if the work answers every question that it asks, then there’s no point in it existing.

JB: You don’t want to make work that lacks morality in a sense that you don’t want to make work that can be hijacked to supplement someone else ideology, but you don’t want to be meaningless either. I can think of work by David Lieske, that does that. He makes these formal conceptual projects but they’re actively meaningless. They’re all related to these narratives that are these conceptual dead ends.  So the work seems full of meaning, it has the appearance of meaning while in fact being vacuous. It gives you this glimmer of concept or intent but then it completely leads you nowhere.  It is the negative dialectic run amok in a really distressing way.  I’m deeply conflicted about that.  I think that you want to provide people freedom to perceive or engage with the work as they chose to.  But at the same time you don’t want to provide something so open ended that they could go anywhere with it.

IS: I guess again it’s the balance of how much structure to have whilst still leaving enough room for it to be interesting and engaging.

JB:  A practice doesn’t always have to be about one thing or be definable in a sentence.  For instance, in terms of theory, I actually read a lot of game design theory.  I’m really interested in this notion of meaningful play.  Creating a conceptual structure in which the viewer has room to make decisions.  You want the person to have freedom but not total freedom and a large part of it is coming up with some kind of constraint within which meaning can be found but that isn’t total freedom.  It’s not about this total freedom; it’s about structured freedom.

IS: Freedom within your chosen contained subject or framework.

JB: I think that’s the only kind of freedom that can exist anyways. There’s no total freedom.  There are constraints that we view everything within.

IS: Well, yes, everything has a context.

JB: Exactly so rather than deny those restraints, I think it’s valid to say, ‘lets embrace the necessity of constraints and learn how to use them’.  In the same way that you hack the art fair. If this exists and it’s real, what can I do with it in a way that furthers what I see as being meaningful action or meaningful content?  But again it’s a fine line and I think that the process or figuring that out is the process of making art.  And if it’s figured out then…

IS: Stop?

JB: Yeah it’s time to stop.   At that point you may as well be producing nik naks.