Your Application Is Beautiful: Part II

Last month we posted the first half of an interview with artist Juan Obando.  We talked with him about his project Your Application Is Beautiful which was created as part of the artist “lock down” cum group exhibition, Paper Planes, at the Center for Visual Arts in Greensboro, NC.

Image from Paper Planes at the Center for Visual Arts in Greensboro, NC. Courtesy of YES Weekly.

The Recollective: With email, the recording of a conversation is the actual conversation.  Do you have any thoughts on what that means in terms of the expression of ideas, meanings and fulfillment of this relationship?

Juan: Well, that’s what Google tried to do with “Google Wave” almost two years ago, to have this real-time conversation-based email system. With Wave, you could “replay” a whole conversation you had with someone by email, in this very analog-looking way.  It had “play,” “stop,” and “forward buttons,” and all. But people didn’t embrace it much and they called it off.

In terms of art, mail has always been very interesting as subject and medium. I remember friends in Mexico telling me how upset people were when the first Warhol exhibition went to Mexico City  (In the late ‘90s!) and a big chunk of the show was some of the “Warhol Letters” (a series of correspondences the artist held with the likes of Mick Jagger, MOMA, and even the Campbell Soup Company).  Most people didn’t see those as “art” or relevant at all.  I think they are great. They expose the real social work (and skills) of the artist. No matter what medium you choose to create your body of work, you always use correspondence to deal with collectors, curators, and program directors. Sometimes the writing process takes over the actual “artwork,” and, in some cases, that is more interesting to me.  Robert Smithson letters, for example. They are amazing. I couldn’t care less about his work, but those letters are beautiful. There’s one in particular where he rejects the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies invitation to take part in the US section of the São Paulo Bienale, saying: “To celebrate the power of technology through art strikes me as a sad parody of NASA. I do not share the confidence of the astronauts.” That was great.

In my case, and if I knew how things were going to end up, there would have been way better ways to document my attempts to communicate with Lee Walton. For example, he’s a very active Facebook poster. So there would be times that I would be on Gmail, writing an email to him asking about the status of my residency project and then, almost at the same time,  Facebook will pop up with posts by him asking people to apply to the Super G residency.  I think a video screen capture of those moments would have been perfect for this piece.

Juan Obando

The Recollective: To what degree does documentary work in any form influence or inspire your work?

Juan: Quite a bit, I’d say, especially mockumentaries. I think any “non-artistic” format can be interesting, once it is re-interpreted or re-contextualized. Newscasting, for example. What Stephen Colbert does: to take the aesthetic of news/propaganda and turn it up a couple of notches to expose the ridiculousness of hyped-up media discourse, and make people laugh. In that same vain, I like to use academic formats and aesthetics outside academia: publications, catalogs, podcasts, and such. The overly serious look and feel of these forms is ideal for channeling and disseminating questions and images under the disguise of “knowledge.”

The Recollective: Would you say that, aside from use of documentary as an attempt at an authentic telling of a story, that there is an aesthetic to documentary work regardless of medium?

Juan: I think so. I think that is what mockumentary is all about. Using the aesthetic of documentary work to validate fiction. It lowers costs of production and by so, it brings the story closer to the viewer, in this lo-fi way that even relates to the general public own means of production. I wonder how Spinal Tap would have worked if it hadn’t been shot and presented in that style. Or Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast, that supposedly caused mass panic at the time because of its presentation as a real news bulletin.

The Recollective: How would you say that your previous work utilizes or comments on documentary or documentation?

Juan: Mostly by mocking it, or using it to mock other things. Documentation is the holy grail of contemporary art and somehow you can’t get away without using it. So you might as well make it work in your favor or embrace it as your art form. I’ve used video podcasting as a stage for public performance, “industry-standard” printed publications to validate things that outside that format would only be seen as incoherent ramblings, and video collage made of  found material to accentuate and exaggerate certain social gestures.

The Recollective: Does a project like YAB, which appears to be a straight forward document of emails, in fact pose questions about the validity or meaning of such documents?

Juan: I wonder. I guess no one will ever know if I constructed those conversations or photoshopped the screenshots. Only Google knows.

Image from the aborted Colombia Caliente installation.

The Recollective: You’ve invited people who experience YAB online or in the gallery setting to contribute to it via responses to the re-posted exchanges between you and Walton.  Do you feel that in some way re-defines the document of the exchange?

Juan: Not for me. Since I’ve been manipulating these documents for so long and since I’ve been so closely involved, I’ll always have my version of the events. Also, as expected in an all-smiles conflict-avoiding small context, peoples response has been extremely silent. So far, response has been limited to an anonymous commenter that claims to know me and says I’m an “aggressive,” “bad,” “mean-spirited” person. This is where we are at right now.

The Recollective: Does that process of re-definition and participation serve as a proxy or model for the dialogue that you might have hoped had been inspired by the realization of Colombia Caliente?

Juan: Sure. Still, I think Colombia Caliente would have been a more dynamic and engaging platform for that process. Managing a booth for international matchmaking and having people record video profiles for potential romantic adventures overseas sounds way more exciting than a guy blogging about his experience with an art residency in Greensboro, NC.

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