An Interview with Amber Ginsburg
by Sarah K. Benning
Could you describe your practice?
I have a research generated and site generated installation practice that looks at questions of bodies of knowledge, really two bodies of knowledge. One of them is archival knowledge that is stored in traditional forms like libraries and the internet. There is this interesting relationship to that about completeness. I’m interested in the aspiration and failure of the completeness of that archive.
At the same time, I am really interested in the performance of the repertoire, knowledge that is passed down, requires presence, and is enacted and performed through the body and is transmitted generally from person to person. That body of knowledge is often considered relatively unstable, but I think there are many beautiful and long standing human performances that are very stable. I think that’s where I kind of circle around a couple of areas in my work. One of them is objects and how they are used and often food or shelter or survival. And these kinds of networks of knowledge coalesce around these things.
Given the scope of the upcoming Symposium, could you expand on the food aspects of your work?
I didn’t’ realize that food was such an important part of my work probably until the last two or three years. I think part of that is because my background is as a production potter. I kind of came to art-making leaving that behind, if that makes any sense at all. I was going to work in a very new and different way and break that very understandable and known relationship between object, food, and body and I wanted to really kind of move away from that. And I now realize five or ten years later that actually I have been, not so much moving away, but actually cracking that open and looking at it through all of these different kinds of lenses.
And so I engage with food in a number of ways, and one of them is very directly. I collaborate with an artist named Lia Rousset, who’s also a graduate form the School of the Art Institute, and we work together. I work, perhaps, more on the metaphoric end, but she has actually become a full time farmer, grower, and educator and has an art practice within that and separately. I have a full time art-teaching practice with an interest in those subjects. So, our projects very often center around food.
Our most recent project was Cure at 6018 North with Tricia van Eyk. Lia grew roughly 300 bulbs of garlic and Tricia’s space is in transition, so all the walls are busted out and it’s just 18 inch studs, and we wove the space with the garlic. And some really interesting things came out around that. This is this interesting thing between performed knowledge and archival knowledge. Garlic has a long history as a curative very literally, but also the impetus for that exhibition was this little-known necessary performance that garlic needs to hang in a cool, dry place for three weeks for it to be able to store. So we were actually putting on display this very beautiful object, but at the same time showing very literally this functional farming aspect. So it’s these little intimate knowledges of farming that we are interested in bringing to the public. But also at the same time, were learned about the garlic itself. We expected it to be overwhelmingly olfactory, to have just this overwhelming garlic smell. It turns out chefs, when they often press garlic with the side of a knife and crack it open, there are enzymes and proteins in garlic that hold until they collapse and are pushed together and activated, and that’s what releases the smell. There are many little ways in which we are both providing the little bit of expertise we have and also receiving expertise from people when they interact.
Collaboration seems to be a large part of your practice, could you talk a little more about that?
It is [laughs]. I would say there are two levels of collaboration. This is where food sometimes intersects rather interestingly. I collaborate in a very tradition sense with other artists on projects, but I also feel as if I collaborate with certain histories. Those become another character or narrative in the work.
An example of that, Katie Hargrave and I have been working for the last five years on Johnny Appleseed and his history. We collaborate, I would say, on multifaceted lore in American history and we are always interested in bringing a multiprismatic view to something that is either not known at all or something that is almost too well known.
Johnny Appleseed falls into the ‘too well known.’ So, we started our collaboration by doing massive archival research on every reference we could find to Johnny Appleseed. And his image has transformed and been used in really interested political instruments for the apple industry, for prohibition, for entrepreneurialism, for anti-American Indian propaganda—a huge story. We have a kind of memory game that we play to explore that, but we also are interested in embodying the knowledge of his, as we call it, patron saint object: the apple. So Apples are poly-zygotic, which means that, like two people mating and getting an unknown mixture of chromosomes, it’s the same with apples. If you plant an apple seed you basically have no idea what you are getting. In colonial America, where there were very few flavors, apples were mostly tart. They were used for alcohol, not even cyder but hard alcohol called applejack, and most were either inedible or used as a flavor of sour or bitter when they were dried. So, we have been doing lots of experimentation with the full range of flavors within that apple, while simultaneously learning to plant trees, grafting, and we have found a source of the “original” and last Johnny Appleseed tree. We have a project that we hope comes to fruition in about 20 years where we pair a poly-zygotic seed trees with our original Johnny Appleseed trees across the Midwest. So the practice operates on, what I would say, slow and fast, right, two trees is a very slow project that we would like to see unfold in x-number of years. And there are very fast projects where we’ll go into a gallery and host a broad sense of tasting or a game or something about Johnny Appleseed.
This 20-year growing project is really fascinating and I am curious about how time enters into your work. You talk about archiving and history and many of your projects are very methodical, and I am wondering how time influences you as a maker and what affect you hope it to have on the viewer.
Yes, there are so many ways I could answer that question. These issues are larger than food. So, I’ll try to give you a couple of answers that maybe circle around the fact that I don’t really know yet. I think that is a really important question I am working out. So, there was an exhibition up at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition. One of the pieces called Charge had a light box with 500 potatoes lighting up 100 diodes that weakly lit this light box. And then I’m working with another artist, Marissa Lee Benedict, where we ground all those potatoes down in a blender and milked them by hand, squeezing them through cloth to harvest the potato starch, which we are now doing experiments to create a castable bioplastic. That is going to be connecting with another piece called Break, which was breaking hundreds of dishes in a 16mm film. And, what I would say is that piece and that work is operating as a laboratory, it is changing.
I’ve come to use this performative space of the gallery if I can as an auxiliary studio space to address a problem that I call the “Ta-Da Problem of Art.” So, it’s almost a feminist questions. It comes from theories of having a dinner party. You work really hard and someone says to you, ‘Oh this is wonderful, it must have taken you so long,’ and you say, ‘Oh it was nothing.’ And this kind of refuting of the importance of labor I really question. I question that because it’s refuting the underlying knowledge that goes into the processes that make a result. And since I am interested in webs and bodies and structures of knowledge, to not find mechanisms to reveal those, which almost always require time and labor. If you deny those then you are stuck with the “Ta-Da.” You are stuck with the result. I am working to open that dynamic of knowledge systems through very open performances.
But I think these issues are very much related to our food system here in this country.
The “Ta-Da” problem [laughs]. Yes, all we have left is the “Ta-Da” moment. It’s all perfectly wrapped, it’s never seen dirt, it’s never seen nutrients, it’s never seen any of these intimate little moments of knowing when you need to clip a bud or all of those things.
So there’s that sense of time, which I would say is a kind of micro-knowledge scale of time that I am interested in. On a more macro scale, I would say that knowledge is something that we experience in the moment, but it has this really wonderful elastic stretch to the past and, with technology, to the future. Technology can be wildly complicated or extremely rudimentary, like taking the palm of your hand and scruffing the ground to put a seed in. I use that term very loosely. So time, this idea of past, present, future, in terms of knowledge, I am always curious whenever I begin researching or engage in a project, Where is the nexus or nugget, or kind of hidden curiosity around the knowledge of that thing that stretches in both directions? And food, because it’s so elemental and part of our survival, is constantly in such cultural flux—such tremendous dynamic, exhilarating, terrifying—cultural flux. It’s inevitable, I think, not to be curious about this direction of past, and present, and future.
So time is very important in my work. The duration of the present process that is happening, but also the durational history of a specific facet.
More of Ambers work can be seen on her website: http://www.amberginsburg.com/