"The Best Art In The World"
Adam Stennett: Artist Survival Shack
Glenn Horowitz Bookseller in East Hampton, NY.
By Gary Wiseman
On August 1, 2013 hyper-realist painter Adam Stennett embarked on a month-long endurance performance in a 6.5 x 9.5 foot survival shack at an undisclosed location on the east end of Long Island. Following is a two-part interview with Stennett regarding the development and deployment of his Artist Survival Shack. Part 1 was conducted at Stennett’s Brooklyn studio on August 22, 2012. Part two was conducted on July 28, 2013 over the Internet with Stennett on location in the Hamptons and the author in Portland, OR.
Stennett’s performance will culminate in an exhibition featuring the shack itself, related paintings and artifacts. The exhibition opens September 7, 2013 at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller in East Hampton, NY. Glenn Horowitz Bookseller will schedule discreet weekly visits to the Artist Survival Shack during the month of August, 2013. For further information Contact Jess Frost at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller (631) 324-5511.
Part 1: Adam Stennett’s Studio. Brooklyn, N.Y. August 22, 2012.
Adam Stennett: So, this is the Shack. It’s fairly small but it also has everything I need to make work and to live. It is six and a half feet by nine and a half feet which is a bit smaller than the Unabomber’s shack. His shack–Ted Kaczynski’s shack–was ten by twelve. Not a ton bigger than this but a little bit.
Gary Wiseman: Like a prison cell or monk’s quarters.
Stennett: Hopefully more like a monk’s quarters. I mean, I do think about my studio as a cave or something like that. A place that I can hunker down and not be distracted by anything. This will actually be the most public working space that I have worked in. So, people can watch, I mean, part of the piece is the performance aspect but I am also very serious about making work and that will be my main focus.
Wisteman: Are you worried that people will bother you or interrupt your concentration?
Stennett: I don’t think so, I mean, I think I will be able to just ignore–I don’t plan to interact with people a lot.
Wiseman: So people will come and look at you through the door while you work?
Stennett: Yeah, I mean, it’s so small in here that maybe they could step through the door. You know, I’ll probably have a chair here [indicates towards the center of the Shack] and this is my painting wall. This is an 160 watt LED light that that is used for video usually.
Wiseman: It’s color corrected?
Stennett: Yeah. I have different screens. This is 3200 which is what I usually paint with. And, you know, I’ll have different sized panels that I can put on here if I am working on bigger pieces.
Wiseman: When you paint with a certain light do you show it in the gallery with the same light?
Stennett: Not always. Usually when I am painting I will light it much brighter than I would ever show it so I can see all the flaws. So, when I am painting I am probably making everything more perfect than it would ever need to be [for] a gallery setting or a collection. It’s probably not good for the painting to be under that bright of light when it is being shown. Yeah, so, this is where I will paint and this is where I will sleep [indicates a cot at the rear of the Shack]. This is my Zen archery set which I got on ebay of course [removes set from cot and sits down] it is called Kyudo.
Wiseman: Is this for defense?
Stennett: It’s interesting–it’s more spiritual actually. Zen archery is–the way that they do it–they shoot at targets but but the fact that the arrow hits the target in a certain way isn’t what the goal is. The goal is the beauty of pulling the string back and the way that the arrow is released. That’s the whole focus–the movement–and that was really beautiful to me thinking about that and how different that is than the way we normally go about things but also–in a weird way–it’s nice to think about making art in that way too. The process and the way that it’s made–art making as meditation–making these hyperreal paintings and making mark after mark.
Wiseman: You use really small brushes.
Stennett: Yeah, fairly small brushes and every mark is a decision, like every object that is in the Shack is a choice. I looked at hundreds of different things before I chose a certain object. When you are trying to distill things down to the minimum necessary and trying to get rid of what you don’t need, every ounce, every curve of something–those choices become really important. This is my sleeping quarters which is an army cot. This is actually the army cot that I have slept in in my studio for years [lays down on cot]. When I was in between living situations I would sometimes paint all night and then crash on the army cot and it’s perfect for me.
Wiseman: I’m noticing a lot of Zen or Buddhist elements in here. Like the prayer flags.
Stennett: Yeah that is something that I added recently. I was looking at them and I was thinking of Mt. Everest. You see them flying at the peak and there is that expedition quality–but then I also like the Buddhist Zen idea.
This is a parabolic mirror and it focuses the sun’s rays. So, if I set this up with the sun behind it at the right angle it will focus–almost like a magnifying glass but stronger–on this cast iron teapot and it will boil water. In nature you may have to tweak things a little bit to make it work but this is kind of everything you would need to make coffee. This is my pot holder which is an old army shooter’s glove so that the trigger finger is free. You boil the water, put some coffee in here, and filter it into the cup. I’ve tried to set [everything] up so you don’t need to buy anything ever. That’s kind of the idea–zero expenses once you start and everything that I begin the performance–or theoretically, life–with in the Shack never needs anything to keep running.
Wiseman: What’s the initial expense to set everything up?
Stennett: Most of the things I am buying on ebay and usually I will watch ten different variations of something close to what I am looking for and watch the auctions. If it goes beyond–I try not to spend more than ten dollars. Sometimes it goes a little bit more [or] less on any one item. The idea is I wanted to build this thing as inexpensively as possible. Ebay actually became one of my best resources for that because I don’t have to go anywhere or spend money on going to the store, taxis, subway, getting here or there and all that stuff–it just shows up and I can also get very good deals. I am making aesthetic choices on ebay. Ebay is an excellent resource for readymades. So I looked at, you know, fifty vintage cast iron teapots and chose this because of the size, color, how it would react with the sun, you know, how it would heat up, but I was also thinking about how it would look in a painting or a photograph.
Wiseman: You are selecting things for quality and longevity as well.
Stennett: Yes, and a timeless quality–not everything because there is some technology involved–but I want everything to look like there is sort of a pioneer spirit to this whole project too–that it could be something that was used hundreds of years ago.
Wiseman: A combination of old and new. You haven’t mentioned the goggles yet.
Stennett: These are welding goggles. One of the things that you have to be careful of with parabolic mirrors is that it is incredibly bright. The spot of light that it puts on that [the teapot] will burn wood instantly. If you put a stick in front of it it will burst into flames so you have to be incredibly careful storing this or when you are not using it because you don’t want to burn your shack down. You probably want to cover it and you also want to wear these [goggles] when you are making your coffee. They are incredibly dark and they flip up and down so you can actually see before and after. So, it’s important that everything is functional but also aesthetically interesting. So, that’s one system, over here is another thing that I have been building. This is a smaller potato gun that I’ll be using–it’s kind of a security system for the Shack. I have a few different security systems that I have been working on. A lot of the themes of the shack are about what an artist needs to live and make work and how to survive but a big part of being an artist is figuring out financial security to be able to have the time to make the work and a lot of times artists are living in dangerous neighborhoods to have a bigger space and to be able to afford to work less to make more work, that sort of thing. So, a lot of times artists are pioneers in that way also, you know, they have to have their wits about them and face danger. And so, this is a little bit of an absurd weapon but also very functional. It will shoot a potato about 200 yards and I have seen people shoot potatoes through three-quarter inch plywood with one of these so you wouldn’t want to mess with that really. I designed it after the Sten gun which was designed by the British in WWII as a gun that anyone could build out of anything–was basically like a scrap gun–almost like a zip gun. It was quite effective because they taught anyone to build it and it got them through. The sideways handle here is sort of an allusion to the Sten gun.
Wiseman: It’s made out of PVC pipe?
Stennett: Made out of PVC pipe and then painted. This is a BBQ igniter trigger which you use to spark your BBQ and there will be wiring that goes to two screws that are back here and they’ll almost touch in the back. What you do is jam your potato in here and push it down with a stick into the neck here and this chamber [to the rear] is where the explosion happens. You take some hairspray–Aquanet works well–spray it in there and then you screw the cap on the end to seal it up. Then you shoot it.
Wiseman: Do you know if a potato would penetrate a person?
Stennett: I have actually seen video of a person getting shot with a potato gun which isn’t very smart at all–there are some videos online if you want to look around–of some probably not very smart people shooting potato guns and there is one of a guy standing in front of a potato gun getting shot in the chest and he gets hit right here [indicates left side of body] and he has a huge bruise from it and welt and basically falls over in terrific pain. What I have read is that if it hits you in the heart it could collapse your heart. So you wouldn’t want to shoot someone with this unless you really wanted to do them harm.
These actually are disposable cameras that can very easily be turned into a taser that shoots about ten thousand volts. Inside the camera the thing that makes the flash go off charges up and will release a high voltage shock and if you detach that from the flash and attach it to two screws sticking out here you can basically zap someone with that. I mean, it’s another sort of absurd thing but all of these things are things that you can make for next to nothing and that is kind of an overriding theme of the Shack. And these aren’t regulated, the potato guns aren’t regulated.
Wiseman: Are you educating people for the collapse [of society] or are you simulating these kinds of activities?
Stennett: It’s 2012 and we have all of these people who are actually preparing for the end of the world, the apocalypse–whatever you want to call it– right now. I guess I’m not really convinced that that’s going to happen but if something went wrong and you needed to have something like a taser then knowing how to make one out of a disposable camera could come in handy. If weapons were not able to be had and you needed one then you could make a potato gun out of some hairspray and some PVC [laughing]. The idea of the artist making something out of nothing is interesting to me.
Wiseman: It’s a very old idea–goes back to God actually.
Stennett: Yeah, I guess [laughing] I don’t know if I’d go that far, ah, I would say yeah, it’s kind of a metaphor for that.
This is a vintage Japanese wind chime I found on ebay. Part of being in the right headspace to make art is being spiritually solid–kind of a funny element to the Shack–that is an important element of making art–being in the right head because it’s really easy to screw it up if you’re not. So, it will add a spiritual element, hopefully, to some of the work that I make and the choices that I make.
Wiseman: This would be associated with a Zen spirituality.
Stennett: I’ve been writing things down lately and one of the things I keep coming across is this Zen idea. A lot of times when you’re making a show you are working really hard and long hours and it’s easy to get really stressed out and it’s easy to go off the deep end a little bit. It’s important to stay Zen, to remain focused and not get too stressed out and run yourself in circles–to be efficient
Wiseman: I’ve always thought that your practice–when you explained it–seems quite meditative because you do withdraw and go into isolation. I hadn’t considered the psychological consequences.
Stennett: Yeah [nodding and smiling]
Wiseman: Do you spend time decompressing through meditation?
Stennett: I think the process itself is pretty meditative but I do sort of prepare myself in the same way everyday. I eat the same thing every morning. A lot of times I’ll work from like eight o’clock at night to ten or eleven the next day and then I will set my alarm clock for six hours, sleep for six hours and get up. Usually–I don’t start working right away when I wake up–I need an hour or maybe an hour and a half to sort of get in the right head–at first I usually drink a lot of coffee. Sometimes I will go for a bike ride and that actually does wonders for my head personally. It’s hard to do sometimes when you are working on a deadline but I found it really important–but to get into the head where you’re not going to screw things up– that will save you a lot of time in the long run. One of the things that’s important–besides being functional–which is incredibly important because I need to survive–is that everything in here can also be used to make art in some way–as interesting objects. I can photograph [or] I can paint. These are emergency drinking waters from the sixties that were used for bomb shelters. As an object I think they are really beautiful and also sort of sinister. These are some old generic beer cans from the seventies which mimic the same sort of design elements of the water. When you talk about essentials and what we need as humans to survive you don’t need beer but a lot of people like to have it and seem to think that it is kind of a necessity in some ways.
Wiseman: It has been suggested that the reason we became civilized was due to our discovery of beer.
Stennett: That’s interesting. Yeah, the human need to alter your reality or alter your mind–because back years and years and years [ago] it was often related to spiritual endeavors–shamanism and things like that. Man has been fascinated with altering their mind and connection with reality. Some other things I have in here like this, which is an extract that comes from mold on rye seeds which is used to, or was discovered could be made into LSD. So, that is pretty mind altering.
Wiseman: Now it is synthesized, right?
Stennett: It’s actually what it is synthesized from. If you grow mold on rye seeds or rye bread you can make LSD from that. This is an extract, basically, from that mold, which is a bottle I found on ebay which I thought was interesting. Um, and then this is an old ephedrine bottle which is basically speed and has been used for diet pills and things like that. This is actually benzedrine sulfate. These are reproductions that are used for war re enactors and stuff for WWII. These were given to pilots–it is basically speed as well–to give them an advantage. It was performance enhancing supposedly. I don’t think they’re allowed to give pilots these anymore.
Wiseman: Is that what is in there?
Stennett: There is a block of wood in here now. This is an original reproduction of a box from WWII. So, um, yeah, artists trying to enhance their performance may be using some of this. I personally use coffee–and lots of it. I don’t like to make art too tweaked because I find that it is a long process for me and I like to keep a consistent line.
Wiseman: It seems that if you had too much caffeine it might be challenging to do the kind of work you do. If you were trembling, I mean.
Stennett: Yeah, I keep a sort of steady . . . amount. Eat something, drink some coffee eat something, drink some coffee kind of thing.
Wiseman: In our previous interview I was struck by how highly disciplined you are with your work. I have recently been reading a book about Robert Irwin. A lot of the things you talk about reminds me of the things that he would do such as spending days alone in the studio staring at a canvass.
Stennett: The preparation is really important. I mean, this project [The Artist Survival Shack] has been four years in preparation which is weird. Because the way that it’s–I haven’t really pushed it–because, um, I have been working on other stuff in and around it and I felt like it needed to grow organically. But now all of the sudden it feels like it has momentum and maybe that’s because it’s grown into something and kind of has a life of its own.
Wiseman: It seems that a lot of the work you have been doing previously is like a series of preparations leading up to this.
Stennett: I think it actually is very related and it’s funny because it’s kind of a different type of thing for me. Normally I’m known for my video art or my painting. I’ve done a little bit of installation stuff but not a lot. But this actually feels like it is very related to everything I’ve done up to this point. It’s kind of in a way what I’ve been training for and now I’ll get to see if it works.
Wiseman: It’s a compelling synthesis of installation and more traditional art making and performance. It’s bringing a lot of different things together. It’s kind of–I’m thinking a little bit about Paul Thek. He did these performances and made these objects and even did some two dimensional work but it was all interrelated.
Stennett: I’ve always thought it was important–I used to do some writing too and, you know, a good writing professor will tell you to write what you know–and so with my work I always try to bring all of my experiences to the work–try to pull the work out of my life experiences. And so this piece is really a synthesis of what I have learned as an artist making art in a studio and how–moving to New York and trying to survive and trying to beat the system in a way so you can work less and paint more, make art more. New York is a really tough place to survive and so you have to be very disciplined and you have to be very serious about finding ways to need less or to have more time. In a way this is sort of an artist escape pod.
Wiseman: The idea of living off the grid.
Stennett: Off the grid and have no chain around your neck like how am I going to pay studio rent.
Wiseman: You just have to find somewhere to put it.
Stennett: Yeah, exactly.
Wiseman: That is really interesting. There is a trend right now in micro architecture. It seems to me that you have created a situation in which you could live fairly comfortably. You have prepared for many different contingencies.
Stennett: Well, it’s important that it is mobile, you know, that it can be broken down in not that much time and be packed up–theoretically–into a very small package that I can take anywhere and set it up.
Wiseman: Do you think you could break it down into a small enough package to carry on a bike trailer or something like that?
Stennett: That would be awesome! I think . . . maybe. Part of this project eventually will be building the box that this goes in so that it can be broken down into a small box. It is sort of growing. The more I think about it the more I think, oh man, if I am gonna survive for a month or two in this–without any supplies . . .
Wiseman: I thought that people were going to be bringing you water and food.
Stennett: No. Unless I am about to keel over. My plan is to be completely self sufficient. So actually outside [of the Shack] I am going to be growing vegetables with a vertical grow wall that I made out of shoe holders that hang on the back of your door and I have an upside down tomato growing system. I’m starting to grow tomatoes.
Wiseman: Is that something you would prepare in advance? It would take awhile for them to grow.
Stennett: Yeah, for the performance I would have them–in fact I am growing them now sort of a test run to see how much I can produce. The whole idea is to produce as much as possible in the smallest footprint possible–and then I have staples. I have my instant rice and oatmeal and angel hair pasta. Things that are, you know, basically just add boiling water and I’m set. I have ways to boil water. We saw earlier, the parabolic meter, but I also have this solar set up that I’ve designed and put together. This is a marine battery in here [indicating towards a device in the Shack]. It’s a hundred amp hours. This is a very efficient charge controller which controls the energy coming from the solar panel and, basically, charges the battery in an efficient way and this is an inverter so you can use either DC power like you would use in a cigarette lighter or AC. That is a water boiler that truckers use.
Wiseman: So you will be able to charge your laptop?
Stennett: Charge my laptop, boil [water], charge my phone if I need to do that, um, and I can do that either through DC, which is more efficient than AC power that we use in our houses so most things I will try to use DC power because I will be able to use more. It will last longer through the night. This is all built on a little dolly so you can roll it around.
Wiseman: So this is something that you constructed?
Stennett: I constructed this with components. I did a lot of research–it’s actually incredible how simple it is.
Wiseman: So at the bottom there is a battery? Is that the storage unit?
Stennett: Yeah, inside this case–this is like a waterproof case for the battery that you use on like boats and stuff. [Above this] is the charge controller. So the energy that comes from the solar panel which is on the roof but pretty much you can put it anywhere–you want to follow the sun with it. The energy that comes from the solar panel is really strong–so you can blow out a battery. You can really mess up your battery so you need a charge controller.
Wiseman: So it regulates the power?
Stennett: That’s what this does, yes.
Wiseman: It says we are not going to go over 12.65? [peering at a gauge].
Stennett: It’s at 12.65 right now. For your battery to last a long time you don’t ever want that to go under 10. So when you are using your battery power and it gets down to like 10 you probably want to stop using it. If you drain your battery all the way it won’t charge up as much. Battery health is one of the most important things to a [solar] system being efficient so it is important to know what is going on with your battery. And this is a 1500 to 3000 watt converter. With this you can plug in any normal plug. That’s sort of the most technological part of the Shack. I’m really interested in getting things for free energy wise. You do need–if you’re a working artist these days a lot of what you do–even if you’re off the grid theoretically–is with computers, and with cameras, and with electronics, printers–you need to have that option.
Wiseman: What about water?
Stennett: Water is out here [exiting the shack]. So water is probably the most important part of this especially if I am being completely self sufficient. This roof above the greenhouse skeleton has gutters. These will catch any rain water and will funnel water into this 55 gallon drum which will have some chemicals to treat it so that it doesn’t grow algae. I will also have a pump filter–I’ve been researching those a lot actually– there’s one that they use in Africa where they can’t get good water–you can basically pump water straight out of a mud puddle on the street and drink it.
Wiseman: Is it a carbon filter?
Stennett: It’s got carbon filter stuff, it’s this really sort of ugly but beautiful filter, um, it almost looks like a grenade. It’s got this weird ring on the side. I’m gonna get one of those and probably do a little customization to it. That’s the [water] system. This is my shower–hot water heater and shower. This is a black enamel three and a half gallon sprayer unit. You know, you could spray just about anything with that, weed poison, um, whatever. But it’s connected to this gutter cleaner–it’s designed to spray your gutters down, to clean out the gunk in your gutters because it has this curve to it–and then I added this shower head to it and this is an old light stand that I had. So I just combined all of this into a shower. Basically just turn this on and should be able to have a nice shower there.
Wiseman: And how do you heat the water?
Stennett: Well, the black [enamel] should just warm it up in the sun. I may build some sort of reflector box. This [indicating right] is my urinal. This holds 11.5 gallons. So that should hold quite a bit of urine. But, um, urine is actually an incredible commodity. If we harvested urine–you can actually use urine to make gunpowder.
Stennett: Yeah, it has the active ingredients to make gunpowder if you know what you are doing. It’s also an excellent fertilizer if you dilute it. It needs to be diluted three parts water to one part urine. But you can actually fertilize your lawn if you wanted to. You can fertilize vegetables. Urine comes out of the body completely sterile. So I am going to be experimenting with that, using urine as a commodity. I have a second sprayer unit that I am going to use to dilute the urine and spray it. This is my upside down tomato planter.
Wiseman: There is a basil plant on the top.
Stennett: Yep. I’ll probably grow some spinach up here too. This [the Shack] is a cold frame greenhouse and I can grow some things in there. Part of what I have been trying to figure out with this project is how to make this a four season shack so I can grow food year round and I can live in it year round. Um, I may need to add some insulation in the dead of winter so I’ve got some insulation I’m experimenting with. It’s space blanket insulation.
Wiseman: And then you have a worm thing here?
Stennett: Yeah, vermiculture composter and this will be for food waste and human waste. You put the worms in and start at the bottom basically. You start with just one tray. You put your waste in there and then you keep adding trays until it piles up and the worms actually migrate up and what you have at the bottom is great compost. This [points to a bucket] is my toilet for solid waste. I have these bio bags which are made out of corn that will break down completely. You line the bucket with these and go to the bathroom in there and put it in [points to the worm composter] so your bucket stays fairly clean.
Wiseman: So you don’t have to waste water on cleaning it.
Wiseman: So you have estimated the amount of bags you will need to make it through a month?
Stennett: Yeah, I think I will have enough. You could also put some leaves in the bottom or something like that so the bags aren’t a necessity but I thought I would test it out. All of these systems I am going to have to do a little bit of testing with before the final push.
Some other things, this is a Boy Scout hatchet which if you are going to make a campfire or something like that it is good to have. This is an old one. Boy Scouts are notorious for being prepared so I thought that was appropriate. It has a little Boy Scout seal on there. This is for making fires.
Wiseman: It’s flint?
Stennett: It’s got magnesium and you scrape off a little magnesium and you spark it by hitting it.
This is actually an old Swedish army stove. But it will work on paraffin which is basically candle wax sort of. This is kind of a back up system if it is night time or if I am out of juice I can still heat water or cook.
Wiseman: What about protein sources?
Stennett: I am going to be growing pole beans which are good sources of protein.
Wiseman: Green Beans?
Stennett: Yeah. I’m also thinking about growing edamame–which is soy–and will probably bring a bunch of peanut butter with me which they say is good for preppers and survivalists. They say it is the smallest package with the most energy of anything you can take with you. This is another old 1960’s item–survival biscuits.
Wiseman: Are they really in there?
Stennett: Yeah, they’re really in there. I don’t think I am going to open that but I thought that it would be an interesting object for a possible painting. These tins of biscuits were designed to last forever. There are probably lots of weird chemicals in there.
Wiseman: There are a number of things around the space that you use as subjects for painting. Like the poppies.
Stennett: Poppies. These are opium poppies. I’ve used these in my work before. The idea of painkilling and making opium tea, kind of Zenning out. This is a slingshot. If I needed to hunt squirrels or something, which I probably wouldn’t want to do but, um, or to defend the Shack if the authorities at the museum try to kick me out [laughs]. This is my hobo tool. It has everything you would need as a hobo. It separates into a knife and fork and my edible wild plant guide.
Wiseman: As far as painting goes. You were talking earlier about entering into a kind of meta process of actually painting the objects in the Shack. Are you treating the objects you paint in the same way that you are treating the objects you need to survive? What I mean is, you are not introducing objects from outside of what you bring with you as subject matter?
Stennett: I’ll probably–I mean there may be some imagery that doesn’t necessarily relate specifically to the Shack but relates more specifically to the spiritual journey–the overarching themes of what I am exploring–this sort of survival task.
Wiseman: You generally work from photos. Are you going to be bringing photos that you’ve shot previously?
Stennett: Yeah, I will probably be shooting some stuff before I start that I may or may not use in the final work that I make. I mean it will be sort of a process like any other body of work, but I think that building the shack has been a sort of research for the sort of imagery that I wanted to make. A lot of times when I am making still life paintings I will be buying things on ebay that relate to whatever themes I want to explore. It so happens that these themes could be realized in a performance and these objects could be useful in surviving so it becomes multi-layered.
Wiseman: Will you continue to order objects while you are in the performance?
Stennett: I doubt it. I hope to have as little computer interaction–sort of the minimum necessary because that does take a lot of time–and hopefully–if I am in the Shack for a month or two doing a performance–that is not a lot of time to make work.That’s going to be a tight deadline for me to make a body of work. So I’m going to be pretty focused on having things ready to go. So, it is important that I have things somewhat figured out. In a way I hope that the paintings–whatever I make–are in a way documentary pieces of the performance in some ways that represent a performance. Eventually I intend the Shack to be shown as an object. Hopefully with a patina of grime from use. I actually saw Ted Kaczynski’s shack at the museum in Washington DC a couple of years ago and it was interesting that patina of grime, of someone in a space, you know, living and sweating. You know, as an artist you are living and breathing and working in your studio and your studio sort of becomes a part of you and becomes charged with your energy.
Wiseman: I remember the first time I saw photos of Francis Bacon’s studio.
Stennett: That is a great example of a space that has been charged with his energy. But, yeah, I intend this shack to become that–an artifact of the performance.
Wiseman: How long do you envision this project continuing?
Stennett: I think until I get tired of doing it. I think in different locations it could be a very different piece. I would like to get the piece on the roof of PS1 or someplace like that. A kind of urban environment. If I can, you know, install the piece somewhere like, in the East Hamptons somewhere that is a more bucolic setting. If I install it in nature–the wilderness–it would be interesting in a different way. All of this would make different work. All of those would be different in their own way. But I am also very serious about the work being good and if I feel like the work is suffering in some way because I am doing this repetitive performance that has sort of lost what it began as then I think I would stop.
Wiseman: You mentioned Chris Burden as an influence. He has completely abandoned performance work–a long time ago.
Stennett: I can see why–I mean I love Chris Burden’s work–and I love his aesthetic and I love what his work is about. His work now is about similar things as his performance work and I definitely think this work is about similar things I have done in my mouse paintings or still life paintings. I think it actually relates very closely.
Wiseman: I have noticed that artists will often have a central question of inquiry. Sometimes it is not an entirely conscious question. Can you distill yours down?
Stennett: I think I could. To me, I want to know what the viewer’s questions are. Part of what I am doing, hopefully, is making the viewer think about the world in a slightly different way or come to the piece and react to the piece in a way they didn’t expect. I hope to react to the piece in ways that I don’t expect yet too. So I try not to completely define what the piece is about in the beginning because it is sort of a search and it is hopefully more interesting for everyone.
Wiseman: Would you call the things that you make or construct frameworks or architectures for meaning?
Stennett: Hopefully the survival system that I am researching, creating, and making and then doing paintings relating to in different ways is a) functional b) aesthetically interesting and c) metaphors for other things. For it to be effective as an artwork I think it needs to be all of those things. Yeah, so I guess that’s sort of the focus.
Wiseman: How does the Artist’s Survival Shack relate to that question? I know that you said it is an indeterminate structure, but I am wondering if you have any ideas or expectations about how it might illuminate?
Stennett: Well, I think that it addresses basic fears that we have as humans, especially with the economy doing what it has been doing in the recent past and what it continues to do.
Wiseman: Economic collapse?
Stennett: Yeah, fear shapes our lives and our relationship with fear shapes our lives and as an artist trying to survive–for me having the gallery I was working with, you know, it closed. Then looking at your finances and knowing a couple months down the road how things are going to be. That is scary and when you don’t have fear you probably make different decisions. That would affect your art making that would affect jumping with both feet into a project that, you know, might be scarier or would be scarier if you had more uncertainties. So, this piece–in a big way–is about eliminating uncertainties. If you are completely self sufficient and you have everything you need to live survive and make work both physically and spiritually that eliminates a tremendous amount of fear. It really gives you a lot of freedom as an artist to take risks which is one of the most important things in making art–taking risks–I think.
Wiseman: It is a similar strategy of people within capitalist society who attempt to accumulate financial resources in order to feel secure.
Stennett: It is probably weirdly tied to capitalism. I guess I like to think of it as a way to step outside of that but you have to acquire the things in the beginning to set yourself up and that is an investment. The idea, you know, politically, the two parties have different ideas about investing in the future. I guess this piece isn’t necessarily about that but that you make choices with your assets and your talent. Whatever you have you are making decisions on how to use that. And there is an opportunity cost–going back to economics 101 which I tried not to pay too much attention to and wish I did pay more attention to–but, um, you know, every choice you make eliminates another choice. This project is about making as many choices available as possible and as many possibilities as possible with a very minimal footprint.
Wiseman: It seems to be a set of focused, intentional choices that people don’t usually tend to make intentionally. You are acting proactively in your own life or possibilities or future.
Stennett: Well, it’s stepping out of this system into what I think is a beautiful space to live and make work. It’s not really ostentatious. It’s not big. It’s not, you know, these galleries now are twenty thousand square feet. It’s like, what are you going to make to put in there? You know, it’s gotta be BIG. My studio isn’t big enough to make stuff to fill that. The idea of like beating the system as the artist and stepping outside of the system that is saying ‘you have to do this’. No, actually, I don’t have to do that. I don’t have to go into debt. I don’t have to work too much to make my rent, to pay to live in New York to do all of these things and somehow find a way to make an initial investment, to take the time to figure out the system. I can circumvent that. You know, Chris Burden’s projects are often about difficulty or doing something that’s dangerous.
Wiseman: It’s very much about navigating the system as well and penetrating the system. I am thinking of Sampson or Exposing the Foundations of the Museum. In the interview I did with him he talked about how he accomplished that. It was difficult for him to negotiate permission to do that work.
Stennett: As an artist you have to be willing to bang your head against the wall over and over again to some degree to get anywhere. You have to be pretty stubborn and pretty sure of yourself and your ideas that they need to be seen and that you have something important to say in order to do it.
Wiseman: No one is going to make you do it.
Stennett: No one is going to make you do it and no one is going to make sure you are doing it. No one is going to care if they never see it because they’re not going to know. So, in order to stay up all night and paint from eight o’clock at night to ten the next morning and, you know, eat the least expensive food possible and get the head space to do it. You do give up things, you know, I didn’t have health insurance for years which isn’t very smart but that was a risk that I thought was worth taking. I might think differently if I got hit by a bus or something but you do give up certain things to get certain things and part of this project is creating a system where you don’t have to give up things.
Wiseman: Would you go so far as to call it a personal utopia?
Stennett: Well . . . yeah, in a way. I was looking at Walden and things like that. I’m not sure it’s so perfectly related to that but it is–what do you need as an artist to be happy? Spiritually satisfied? To live? I think most of us don’t need as much as we think we need or are chasing things that just keep us running in circles.
Wiseman: It’s not just what you need to live and work as an artist. In my mind, one of the primary functions of art is in illustrating possibilities.
Stennett: Anyone could be quite happy living in this space. I think you would be more attuned to nature. I grew up in the woods so I have a real appreciation for that. I think that’s something that–especially with the Internet and all of that sort of stuff we’re less and less connected to–and the idea of growing food that I’m going to eat is tied to that also. You know, depending on the rain for my water to drink. I mean–it’s amazing how much more aware I’m probably going to be about clouds going by and things like that if I am going through a section of time where it doesn’t rain for awhile and how happy I’m gonna be if it does rain. How I’m gonna hear that sound on the rooftop and how I’ll feel–it’s a very elemental kind of thing. I mean, I can just imagine what that’s gonna feel like or if–it’s really fucking hot in here–you know, maybe it will be. I have a shade cloth to put over for the greenhouse but, you know, I might get out there and it gets really hot and miserable in here and I’m trying to figure out how to tweak things so that I’m not in a sweat box, you know? Or if it’s freezing cold in here. All of those things are possibilities and problems that could arise.
Wiseman: I am going to have to take off soon because I have to catch my flight.
Stennett: That’s very dedicated of you to come on your layover to do this.
Wiseman: No, it’s good. I just have one more question. Going back to fear and survival–and I have wondered this a couple of times in our conversations–many artists resort to academia and teaching in order to survive and continue to do their work. As you have been talking, specifically today, it almost seems like you are taking a pedagogical stance in some way. How would you respond to that? Why have you chosen to avoid academia?
Stennett: It is interesting because my father is a professor or was a professor–he’s retired now–a professor of pharmacy. He is an incredible professor. He won professor of the year for several years and was a real gift to people. I do have a great deal of respect for professors. My professors were great too and I think it is a real gift, a real investment in the future and turning people onto new ideas. I find that really exciting. I guess I try to do that through my work and hopefully that is the way for me to do it. So, i think there are only so many hours in the day and my work is time consuming to make and in order to get into the headspace to make the work it sometimes takes a little bit of time. It’s pretty hard to think about two things at the same time which I think that working artists who are also professors have to do. I think it would be difficult for me to make work that way although I think I would like to be a visiting professor and who knows maybe I would fall in love with it and want to do it all the time. I try to be open to all possibilities.
Wiseman: Well, it seems that we have generated some good information here.
Stennett: Yeah, this has been really fun. Actually you are one of the few people that I have sat down and talked to about the project so far. That always helps sort of solidify the ideas, so thank you.
Wiseman:Of course, I am excited about what you are doing. Thanks for talking to me.
Part 2: On-site at the Artist Survival Shack. The Hamptons, N.Y.
July 28, 2013.
Wiseman: So, How are you feeling since we last spoke?
Stennett: I feel pretty good. A little overwhelmed thinking that this is going to start in just a few days. I have been living and working in the Shack since the 15th [of July] getting set up but I’ve been able to take trips to the store and get supplies if I don’t have something. I haven’t been needing to be completely self sufficient so far. Oh, there is a helicopter going overhead.
Wiseman: I wondered what that sound was. I thought you were in the middle of nowhere.
Stennett: I am in the middle of nowhere but helicopters fly over a lot.
Wiseman: Somehow that seems appropriate. The last time I saw you was about 11 months ago. I was on a layover in NYC and you were kind enough to invite me over to see a new project called the Artist Survival Shack you had been working on for about 3 years. Is that correct?
Stennett: Yeah, I’d been thinking about it for that long. At that point I’d been focusing on it, for about a year and then two years of fairly focused work to get to this point.
Wiseman: When we last spoke it seemed that the material aspects of the work had predominantly been realized. You were beginning to turn your attention towards finding a place to show it and perform with it which is something new for you. This has since happened. You set the Shack up July 11-14, 2013 on the grounds of the Bridgehampton Historical Society in cooperation with artMRKT Hamptons–a 96 hour test run. How did it go?
Stennett: It went well. I think it was good to do. It’s the first time I had it outside. I built it in my studio. It was a good opportunity to get it outside and troubleshoot any major problems or things I didn’t think of and also a good teaser for the performance. The reaction was pretty good. There was a lot of attention, people seemed compelled by the idea.
Wiseman: Where was it situated within artMRKT? Was it in a fairly public location?
Stennett: It was on the grounds of the Bridgehampton Historical Society. There was a kind of white picket fence around the grounds and you went through the entrance on main street–Highway 27–which is where everybody has to drive through to get to the Hamptons is right in front. The Jitney is like a luxury bus that goes from New York City to the Hamptons that a lot of people take. There’s a stop right there so a lot of people were waiting for the bus standing probably about 100 yards away. The Shack was in the middle of a field–more of like a lawn I guess–much more manicured than the location I’m in now. The entrance to the show went under this covered walk way on the other side of the building so most of the installations–there were a couple besides mine–I was off to the side under this beautiful 150 year old tree as far on the outskirts as I could be because I wanted to be a little bit isolated. I didn’t want it to be a circus. It worked out well. People had to kind of know I was there or have heard about it to come search me out I think. The gallery Glenn Horowitz Bookseller–Jess Frost is the director there–she really helped me with a big part of the logistics of all of this. She had a booth in the tent that had a couple of my paintings and a couple of photos and if people were interested she would direct them to come see me outside.
Wiseman: The purpose of all of this is to make paintings?
Stennett: Paintings and other things.
Wiseman: Did you get much work done in the test run?
Stennett: Not a lot. I did work on one painting well during those four days and I did kind of finish that painting–there wasn’t a lot to do on it–but mostly I was talking to people. There was a steady stream of people coming in and I was telling them about the project and the gallery had a press release about the project and the upcoming longer [piece] so I didn’t have to be a complete informational guide. A lot of tweaking with the Shack and making sure that things were working. I actually did learn a lot during those four days that I have used and been valuable in getting set up out here.
I expected that it would be hot as it is a greenhouse but it became pretty quickly apparent that shade would be really important. Luckily I had planned for that by bringing some materials along that I could customize to the Shack. The sides of the Shack that are South facing have this reflective insulation material otherwise it would be pretty much uninhabitable. I’ve also removed some panels and replaced them with screens so I get a nice breeze through.
Wiseman: And the insulation material is space blanket material?
Stennett: Yeah, Like space blanket bubble wrap. You can get it at Home Depot or something. I thought it was aesthetically interesting but also thought well this might be good to have as a material–to use as a material in the Shack because it can be rolled up when you are not using it. This material has become pretty important actually.
Wiseman: I have had a little bit of contact with you via email since you’ve been out there and you said you have had some trouble with ticks?
Stennett: Yeah, I expected that was going to be a problem to be dealt with.
Wiseman: You expected ticks?
Stennett: Lyme disease is really pretty prevalent out here in Eastern Long Island. There is a big deer population out here and being in a field at the edge of the woods is the worst possible tick location because ticks need shade. They can’t be out in the open for very long in the sun so they creep back and forth between the woods and fields. When I toured this location I noticed some deer trails and when I came back to set up the shack there were like deer hoof prints everywhere and deer droppings and immediately I knew that there had to be a lot of deer ticks lurking around and a danger of Lyme disease. I’d done some research and deer ticks don’t like garlic and they also don’t like eucalyptus and lemon eucalyptus so I crushed up a bunch of garlic cloves and lemon eucalyptus oil that I bought on ebay and sprayed around the Shack.
Wiseman: Ticks are like vampires.
Stennett: Yeah they are kind of like vampires. The first day I found a tick on my inner thigh–the thing about Lyme disease is as long as you pull the ticks off in 24-48 hours they don’t transfer the disease. So, it’s really important to check yourself morning and night to make sure. They can be quite small so, yeah. I found that one and took it off and the second day I really started freaking out because I woke up with–not freaking out but became more concerned because I woke up with a tick on the tip of my penis.
Wiseman: Oh god!
Stennett: It took everything to a new level of seriousness. I thought, “Well, now I’ve really got ticks.” [laughs]
Wiseman: Did you do the spraying after that?
Stennett: I did again more thoroughly.
Wiseman: You moved the structure entirely and spayed under it as well?
Stennett: I did. That’s when I moved the structure. I flipped the floor part of it which is four pieces of platform that turn into a crate for all the materials of the Shack and sprayed under them, sealed the joints [with tape] so they couldn’t come up through the floor. After that I have only found one other tick on me which was on my back and I was able to yank off pretty quickly. I’ve seen ticks since then. I’ve also been eating garlic pills which seems to have them at bay and bathing in eucalyptus soap. I think I don’t taste very good right now.
Wiseman: I think if I were you I would want to taste as bad as possible. I didn’t realize that a tick problem was something that you had thought about and prepared for. I was aware that you had prepared innumerable contingency plans and rigorous preparations. Has anything arisen yet that you didn’t expect or prepare for?
Stennett: A few things. The heat. The first week I was here was an insane heat wave so it was like 96, 97, 98 degrees and I was starting to think wow, is this just not going to be possible? Because, I mean, it was over 100 degrees in the Shack and the idea of living in those conditions and making paintings for a month–intensely–sounded kind of overwhelming because it had only been a few days and it’s already more difficult than I thought it would be. But it’s cooled off. I guess it’s good to have the shock in the beginning although it could heat back up like that again and be difficult.
Wiseman: In your proposal you wrote about artists like Chris Burden and wanting the situation to be difficult.
Stennett: Yeah, I definitely intend it to be a serious challenge. Being an artist and moving to New York without knowing anybody, not having enough money, trying to keep making work, and somehow pay your bills–that’s a serious challenge also. For it not to be a goofy project there needs to be a level of seriousness that underlies the whole thing. It’s more than camping in a shack for a month. That’s for sure.
Wiseman: You mentioned that you have seen quite a lot of wildlife–aside from ticks.
Stennett: Yeah, a wild turkey with a nest full of eggs, which was pretty cool to see. About fifty yards from the Shack I was wandering through the field and this giant turkey flew up in front of me. There were about twelve gigantic turkey eggs. I’m looking forward to seeing them hatch. I’ve seen foxes and praying mantis and owls–I’ve heard owls haven’t actually seen owls.
Wiseman: I am going to read something from the proposal you wrote regarding the project. "The project is meant to raise varied themes—ranging from environmentalism, green design, sustainable agriculture, mind-altering substances, visionary states, and utopia, to paranoia, separatism, surveillance, security, economic collapse, and apocalypse—and to hold them all in an uneasy tension." These are themes that have consistently appeared in your work and they all seem to be converging here in a way that they haven’t before. What is becoming apparent to me is this dichotomy–the “uneasy tension” you mention–on one hand there is what appears to be a self aware, tongue-in-cheek critique of paranoia, conspiracy theory, and related behavior and on the other hand you are taking these themes so seriously you have created your own Unabomber shack. Obviously there are meta elements at play but there is something else more serious. It almost seems–and I could be completely wrong here–that there is a sense of shame in it.
Stennett: Yeah, I mean, maybe there is. You know the idea of being an artist and being a successful artist and critically respected and all of that stuff has been something I have wanted to do since I moved to New York. It’s been my focus and there have been times when I have been able to support myself just from my work and making work for a few years at a time. There have also been times where I have had to admit that in a way I was failing and that I was not able to survive off of making my art and that I had too . . .
[Internet connection fails. Switching to cell phone conversation]
Wiseman: That was an unfortunate time to be interrupted. Do you remember what you were saying?
Stennett: Yeah, basically about surviving as an artist and being able to support yourself from your art work at least to a level that you can get by and survive. I think a lot of artists would be thrilled to just be able to do that, to be able to make their work and say what they’ve got to say and you know get by. You know, the Shack is a serious work–there’s some humor involved too. It is about survival and it’s been interesting that while I’ve been here the past 13 days I learned that somebody that I met at an art event probably 10 years ago–we sort of connected briefly and talked about art and she was right out of school but very interested in art and was making this video work that was pretty strong–I just discovered that she died which was . . . sort of a shock. She fell down some stairs and died and I didn’t even know. I mean I feel like I made the decision to become an artist and to move to New York to do that and I’ve made the choices I made in my life because I didn’t really have a choice–which is a little weird sounding–but, you know, I don’t make art because I like to. I feel a hole in me if I don’t make art and in the times when I have had to do other things to get by it’s difficult on a whole different level than, “Oh, I don’t really want to be doing this” you know . . . ah maybe that is sort of romanticizing it but . . .
Wiseman: I understand. It’s painful. It hurts.
Stennett: Yeah, so the Artist’s Survival Shack is sort of life and death in a lot of ways and learning that that person who had a lot to say is now dead while I have been in the Shack and I didn’t even know. It brought that back to me. Yeah, so it’s a serious piece for sure.
Wiseman: I have encountered a couple of people who are pursuing what could be referred to as shamanic traditions–and I hesitate to go here, to this place–but I am reminded of it with your practice–specifically in terms of the Shack–the shamanic character generally lives this life of isolation outside the village and goes places other people don’t want to go and does things other people don’t want to do and brings it back. You know, Plato’s allegory of the cave. I have been struck more and more about the increase in the relationship of art in our society to that previous dynamic that existed–and still exists–in other cultures. Of course not for everyone but for certain people. I have been thinking about this a lot lately and it seems the people who operate in that manner are the ones that I tend to have some resonance with. There is a whole other side of the art world that really has nothing to do with it . . . it’s a market, a business and I used to feel resistance towards that and now I realize that they are two separate things. This idea of transformation, life, creativity isn’t exclusive to art as we understand it and perhaps what I am interested in is the impulse behind what we define as art and that seems to be what you are pursuing and it just happens to manifest in painting or the Shack.
Stennett: Part of this project other than the Shack itself and all of the different things that are in it are part of the planning and research that has gone into it and where that has taken my brain or my mind to–I couldn’t have just said–I want to do paintings about this. It’s kind of an organic process and it’s changed as it’s gone on and now that it’s actually in nature and I’m faced with things that are unexpected and challenges–yesterday a filling fell out of one of my teeth which I’m probably going to have to figure out a way to deal with before the first [of August] which adds a whole other complication. Either that or make it through with a problem tooth which I guess would be possible too. I guess figuring out a challenge and a problem that is going to be compelling and complex enough to feed your work and help you find the path that you are going to walk in your work is a big part of the process for me.
Wiseman: That reminds me of something Luc Tuymans said last year when I interviewed him. I asked him why he chose to keep living in Antwerp and he said he lives in Antwerp because it keeps him sharp. This is someone who makes a painting and sells it for upwards of a million dollars the next day. He said if he lived in a place like New York he would be pampered and it would be too easy, people wouldn’t leave him alone, they would bother him too much, and coddle him.
Stennett: He’s living in the wrong neighborhoods in New York [laughing]. I just drove back to Brooklyn this morning at like 6:30 in the morning to pick up a video camera because I want to document this process over the thirty days and I parked my truck in front of my house in Brooklyn–it had a roof rack on it that I bought on ebay to move all the stuff. The crate for the Shack set on top of it and everything. In the hour and a half that I was inside getting things someone stole my roof rack. Yeah, so it’s like welcome back to Brooklyn. And so I called the cops and they said “We’ll send somebody but it might take a little while.” Of course fifty minutes later they hadn’t shown up and so I called them back and said not to worry about it cause I gotta go. Yeah, there are adequate challenges in certain neighborhoods of New York at least.
Wiseman: Life seems to become more or less challenging depending on how much money you have.
Stennett: That can create its own challenges. But I think it would be welcome in my case because it would give me a lot more freedom to make the work that I am interested in making. I’m hoping with the show–so far it seems to have gathered some critical attention– I’m hoping that by the end of this show I will at least sell enough to keep making work for the next show but we’ll see. That’s the trick.
Wiseman: You’ve alluded to receiving critical attention for the Shack. What does that mean?
Stennett: For me I’ve always kind of thought that whenever I show my work there is an audience–obviously–and viewers but I guess I am making work for . . . I’m thrilled if just a few people see the work and really connect to it on a level different than just everyday walking around sort of connection level. Especially if those people–for lack of a better word–are really well informed and intelligent. So for me critical attention would be someone in that category. You for example–someone who is pretty well informed and thinks about things on fairly complex levels because when I make the work I intend for it to operate at that level if the viewer brings that to the table. You know it’s like building a high performance machine that can do twenty different things but if you don’t have someone who knows how to work the machine or turn on all those functions then it’s sort of pointless.
Wiseman: I think you have exceeded yourself this time in the level of complexity and sophistication you have achieved. I am not just saying that. Considering this project is really shifting what I think is possible in art right now.
Stennett: For me too! Maybe it was because I started thinking about this project during the time when the economy collapsed. The gallery that I had been working with for a long time closed and I went to Art Basel in Miami and had several pieces there and a couple things sold but I really needed to sell more to keep making art and so I had to come up with a different plan. So the beginning stages of this project I was developing while I was working a full time job and trying to figure out how I was going to get back to making art full time. It was real life. The idea of building this escape pod and getting back to what I needed to be doing with my art. The level of complexity is because it was sort of life or death in a weird way–of my art making.
Wiseman: It seems fairly clear. The more time I spend with it [the Shack] the more I am seeing it and watching the layers unfold. I suspect that will happen even more as the project becomes visible which is why we are doing this.
Stennett: The timing is great too. I mean the month of August I will be doing this kind of endurance performance but it is sort of striking me now that if I don’t find ways to have people see this–to document it–then it could just disappear. As it gets closer that feels more real and also more pressing.
Wiseman: Yes. We should talk more about that because this is really important. It needs to be seen and it needs to be visible. Because if it’s not visible–if it’s not online–then it doesn’t exist in our world. What you’re doing is a very ephemeral action. That’s the nature of performance. The positive thing about it is that the most important thing about what you are doing is beyond the performative aspect and beyond what you are doing in the moment. I am going to attempt to address this right now with a question that has been forming in my head. I have begun to suspect that art is no longer a viable site of resistance due to the fact that it essentially–often unintentionally–reifies everything that it seeks to subvert. You however–by essentializing your art practice–have returned to the basic and most subversive element of all art practice which is to simply describe what is possible. By doing so you have slipped in through the back door. For most of your career you have been pursuing formalist goals–you are a hyper realist painter which is not a very trendy thing to be.
Wiseman: And in pursuing those formalist goals–literally doing what you love, what you want to do–you have produced an art that completely sidesteps a traditional formalist agenda. You don’t really care about art for art’s sake or abstraction–things the majority of painting today is concerned with–but you’re not really pursuing activist agendas either nor are you operating in the tradition of the Avant Garde. I don’t really know what you are doing but it is interesting. This has turned more into an observation than a question. Any response?
Stennett: I like what you are saying. A lot of what I am trying to do is cut through the stuff that isn’t really important and the things that I don’t–at least for me, you know, I try to make work that I would be excited to see if I walked into a gallery or walked into a museum or if I just experienced it somewhere else–if I wouldn’t be excited to see it then why am I making it? This project in particular is really true to my heart because it comes from a place of life and death in a way, it sort of cuts through a lot of that other stuff. If I don’t have water I am going to be struggling, if I run out of food I am going to be struggling. I actually weighed myself today because I thought I should probably know where I am starting and I am already ten pounds down from where I started 15 days ago.
Wiseman: Ten pounds?
Stennett: I think it might have something to do with being dehydrated and not really realizing it. Between now and the first I definitely need to eat as much as possible so I am really going to focus on probably not taking my meals at the shack and driving somewhere to do all you can eat sessions because that is actually pretty distressing to me to discover. I was in Mexico a month ago and I got really sick so that may also have something to do with it. I don’t really think that I have weighed myself since I got back from there. I’m pretty skinny to begin with so the idea of being down ten pounds before this thirty days is a bit distressing.
Wiseman: That is a little bit alarming.
Stennett: Yeah. I did get a fire hydrant wrench in case I need to really go on a trek for water and there aren’t any other sources and I also bought a collapsible fishing pole if I can find a body of water–there is one within hiking distance that I think I can probably catch some fish in if worse comes to worse. The bare essentials become paramount as it gets closer and I have ten paintings to finish so there are a few pressures. This actually–I think we have discussed this before–this doesn’t feel foreign to me. It’s a bit more challenging because it’s in a self-built structure that is a little bit more dependent or less protected from the extremes of nature but the first full show I did was actually a similar process. I set aside enough money to survive for a certain amount of time without having to work a job and I disappeared to this cabin in the woods that I was able to live in rent free for a couple months and went to town every two weeks and I painted for 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for three months to make the show. The experience is something that feels familiar. It’s just a more extreme and metaphorical version of it I guess.
Wiseman: You are making the reality of that process visible.
Stennett: It’s that process through a shaman’s lens I guess. [laughs]
Wiseman: So there’s the dichotomy between the self aware critical irony towards these extreme ways of thinking and behaving and the more serious side in which you are actually utilizing some of these same strategies and methodologies in creating the work. I am curious about what appears to be a kind of dialectic at play here. You seem to be taking a middle path. Perhaps this relates to Zen practice? You mentioned that your process has been informed by Zen. I bring this up because in this country we live in a very polarized political climate and I wonder if this project is also a lens through which to examine that as well. There are many dichotomies here and by examining ideas that would usually be immediately rejected by the average person and asking how you might incorporate them into your life in a beneficial way you create a compelling scenario for us.
Stennett: Being able to examine your surroundings and experiences and see them through clear eyes is difficult now with all of the filters that we have. I guess it’s been difficult for a long time. A lot of the research I did early on with this Shack project involved civil defense and Cold War stuff, propaganda, fear, paranoia that the government pushed to feed its military industrial complex and to achieve certain goals that it had, and things like that continue to happen now. The Shack in a way is as much about mental survival as it is about physical survival and being able to detach from that circus of images and news and ideas and things we get caught up in and thinking are important and distilling that down to what really is important and what you need to survive physically and spiritually and to have ideas that are clear and are your own–to create a space for that to happen. So I guess I would say in a way it has a political angle. So much of our lives are controlled by . . . politics and propaganda, fear and paranoia. You know, we are jumping through all of these hoops and running in circles because we think we need to I guess. Meanwhile we’re missing out on a lot of stuff that could be fulfilling. So, the idea that the Shack is 6.5 by 9.5 feet and I focused on making it the smallest possible footprint and still be functional is that idea–thinking differently about what we need and what an artist needs to live and work and how that can be made by thinking outside the box.
Wiseman: I suspect more of us are going to have to think along those lines as time goes on.
Stennett: Yeah, it’s pretty . . . I mean, there have been some challenges but I have to say that in the evenings and in the morning I just sit outside the Shack in this beautiful field and it’s really pretty idyllic and I’m like, why would you need much more than this? I could be pretty happy living and working like this. It’s a bit tighter quarters than I expected once I got all my stuff in here. It’s definitely a little bit like being on a boat but it’s also really beautiful and nice at times beyond the challenges.
Wiseman: I was thinking about you out there and wrote that email that talked about how you were disconnecting yourself from urban human survival systems and positioning yourself in such a way as to be entirely dependent on what we might consider natural systems of survival. Your reply was short but you made allusions to fear and that nature or the natural world cuts through a lot–when we are in the face of it [nature] it essentializes our perceptions.
Stennett: Yeah, big nature tends to put things into perspective pretty quickly. I mean it’s much more powerful than we are in many ways. We like to think that we’re in control but when you get out in it–especially in the way I am in this sort of self made shack–it becomes quickly apparent and it’s a little bit humbling but it’s also thrilling because it feels real which is something we experience less and less these days.
Wiseman: That’s something the art world tries to remind us over and over again.
Stennett: Right, right [laughs] parts of the art world are very real and are very, um . . . are not superficial, are very serious and compelling. I’ve also–since my gallery closed at the end of 2008–sort of held off on finding another gallery for that reason because I want the next gallery that I work with to be that kind of a place that is, that operates on that level–that we can do projects like this together which is not that common.
Wiseman: Yeah, I know, I was just going to ask–do you know of a place like that?
Stennett: [laughs] I have several galleries that I like what they do then it just becomes a matter of growing a relationship with those people and seeing if you are on the same page. But for me I’ve been probably more focused on–well I’ve been completely focused on this project and neglecting thinking about that other thing. I guess if everything works the way it should then this project will attract the right person to work with in the future
Wiseman: One thing at a time.
Stennett: Jess Frost at Glenn Horowitz has been incredible to work with. She worked with Barbara Gladstone and at one point and worked on the production side with Matthew Barney so I am very lucky to be working with her. She is a very intelligent and quick minded person. And Jeremy Sanders at Six Decades Books who used to be the director at Glenn Horowitz actually–the one who introduced me to Jess–was instrumental in the early development of this project. He would come over for coffee and we would talk about the ideas for this project before it even started. He actually helped me formulate the ideas that became the proposal. Those people have been pretty important.
Wiseman: An interesting thing about this project is that it lends itself to repetition and each iteration would be completely unique and produce an entirely new body of work.
Stennett: It is very true that the location really informs the experience and the work itself. I proposed the Shack to many different institutions in the East End because the show was happening in East Hampton. Some of them were museum spaces and in each proposal changed–even what the piece meant changed in terms of its relationship to the landscape. My initial thought when I first started building the piece was to do it in a more urban environment like on the roof of PS1 or something like that where it would almost be like I was squatting on a rooftop in some unused space.
Wiseman: The Shack is in a secret location with historical significance in this performance correct?
Wiseman: OK, alright, you said that you would tell me what it was but I couldn’t put it on record. Will you tell me now and I will erase it from the record? I’m curious. I’ve been meaning to ask you.
Stennett: Yes. It can’t be publicized. At least before the performance is over because it’s on a private piece of land and the owner of the land, who is also a big collector and patron of the arts, has agreed to let us put it here and people who are interested in visiting it will be brought here by appointment by the gallery staff on discreet guided tours–we should put that in the interview somehow.
Wiseman: This has been a really great conversation, thank you.
Stennett: I appreciate it. Once again I have given you a huge task of trying to transcribe a gigantic conversation. I think it will be an important document actually. Very in depth.
Gary Wiseman is a freelance writer.view all articles from this author