Alina and Jeff Bliumis, Cultural Tips For New Americans, Cover & #1, 2009
foam, acrylic and ink, 18 x 10 x 2 inches
Interview with Alina and Jeff Bliumis about “Casual Conversations: Let’s Drink. Let’s Talk. Free,” at the Black and White Project Space
483 Driggs Avenue
Brooklyn, NY, 11211
March 7 through June 14, 2009
Alina and Jeff Bliumis recently launched a sparse but growing installation at the Black and White Project Space located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Their current exhibition, “Cultural Conversations,” highlights the complexities that emerge from cultural misunderstandings. As Russian immigrants who are now American citizens, Alina and Jeff Bliumis use America as a primary context since it symbolizes unity, yet generates stark division.
Jill Conner: What was your motivation behind the installation at Black and White Project Space? It's not just a static installation but one that grows over time and involves the community, right?
Alina and Jeff Bliumis: “Casual Conversations in Brooklyn” began in 2007 as both an investigative and anthropological-based look at the “New Americans”: people who have recently immigrated to this country. Initially we conducted a number of public interactions that looked into today’s shifting notions of the “American Dream,” focusing on the place and importance of cultural identity in our community.
We wanted to ask in which way those symbols of American society are still relevant today and how they have changed over time. The residents who live within the Russian-Jewish neighborhood, located around Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, have served as our primary subject due to the fact that we had an advantage speaking Russian and, therefore, gaining some degree of access into this community.
We started by going to public spaces, asking strangers questions and photo documenting their answers. In a Russian language bookstore, for example, we asked strangers to write out his/her own “American Dream” onto a large voice bubble, typically seen in cartoons. At another location we asked residents to choose and hold a sign that reflected their own choice of self-identity. With the support from the Six Points Fellowship, we concentrated on those kinds of interactions over the last 2 years.
When Black and White Project Space chose us as finalists for its inaugural exhibition, we wanted to stay true to the spirit of “Casual Conversations,” and not treat this space as a commercial gallery but, rather, concentrate on the process of social interaction. We have approached the space as a new apartment, in a new country that felt unfamiliar. For the opening we brought in only bare necessities: “Dream-Be Happy,” an outdoor site-specific installation made of green astroturf that is based on a girl we met at the bookstore in Brighton Beach; “Memory,” a rack of postcards that reflects our own photo documentation made from previous public interactions over the last two years; and “Knowledge,” a collection of suitcases and stacks of books and dictionaries. However all of the books were cast in foam and carry such titles as “Non-Sense,” “Blah-Blah-Blah,” and “Oops,” along with dictionaries and manuals that have been used to suggest either cultural translations or misinterpretations. We also added “Mood,” a sound installation located within the gallery’s bathroom and plays a recording of different people singing.
Our goal over these 3 months is planning to make this space our own, by filling it with a collection of objects, sounds and video that speak to our collaborative aesthetic. Each month we also host a gathering of invited and uninvited guests for “Let’s Talk. Lets Drink. Free,” to investigate the significance of social interaction, suggesting that it may not be a purely plastic performance.
Alina and Jeff Bliumis, Site-Specific Installation, 2009, Black and White Project Space, NY, Astroturf, 280 x 230 x 280 inches
JC: Is this the first time you have embarked on such a project?
A&JB: In term of the subject matter, this project is right in line with our previous work that explores cultural misunderstandings, social communication gaps and the effects of human migration. From 2004 to 2005, we created the “Geometric Geography”-series, followed by the “Moscow Diary” of 2007, based on Walter Benjamin’s book of the same name, and finally the public art project “Language Barrier” that appeared in New York during 2008.
We always have been interested in public art and site-specific projects like those previously mentioned. But in terms of “public interactions” this is our first project. Even so, any type of public art involves public interactions in someway. However it is different this time, because we started with a conversation and then moved to create new art works based on those interactions.
JC: When did you both move to America? It seems like you have hit the ground running ever since arriving.
AB: I arrived in 1994, and Jeff came as a teenager in 1974. We both were very young, and probably at that age would “hit the ground running” wherever you placed us.
JC: Why make interactive sculptures and installations rather than paintings that hang on a wall?
A&JB: To tell you the truth, the idea that multi-media is so relevant and important today makes it an adequate medium for this project concept. If one day, we feel that painting would become a better fit within our concept better, we would choose to work with that material.
JC: Do you see your art as distinct from social science, like anthropology?
A&JB: Contemporary art is very multidisciplinary. For this project we had to do a little anthropological research, but we did it using artistic means and later combined it with other artistic practices.
JC: When did you begin working together?
A&JB: In 1999, we started with a documentary series titled, “Videolog,” and have been collaborating on all projects since then.
JC: Since a lot of your work is based upon migration and the transition between cultural boundaries, it seems like America has become your muse. Could you elaborate on that?
A&JB: That is true for sure. Having grown up in the socialist reality of the former Soviet Union, during Cold War, and then later living for a long period of time in the United States, both of us experienced what it was like to be ”the other” from both sides of the spectrum. Since we are now American citizens, we consider ourselves American artists. Yet because of our background, we are constantly comparing social, political and cultural nuances as well as the similarities and differences. These consistent comparisons forced us to pay attention to the “too obvious for many - therefore invisible” factor of misinterpretation, social gaps and cultural stereotypes that existed in our surroundings. Sometimes these insights would be realized in a project such as “Language Barrier” (2008) in New York. In that piece, we blocked the thoroughfare of different streets and with stacks of various language-to-language dictionaries. For example, today Jeff and I discussed the fact that the “New Americans” – the immigrants - are the poorest class of the US population, but in today’s Russia, the “New Russians” define the top bracket of new business class. I think something so simple can tell a lot about both countries.
Alina and Jeff Bliumis, Traveling Library Series, 2009, installation view foam, acrylic and ink, dimensions variable
JC: For so long, contemporary art has been connected to conspicuous consumption. How does your work respond to this?
A&JB: I don’t think we have intentionally commented on conspicuous consumption in any way through our work, but it is interesting to see how its relevance is juxtaposed to the “American Dream”. Yes, most “New Americans,” are coming to America to achieve better quality of life with hard work, no matter which continent they are from. The notion of the “American Dream” has changed many times during the past century, from "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to “a house, a car, and a 1.5 child,” and then to the irrelevance that most people exhibit today.
If this concept is alive today, in some way it is seen more clearly among the “New Americans”, and, when seen in contrast to our work, it is less about the consumption of goods and more about surviving, having a job, finding a safe environment for their children, being happy and realizing themselves. All of these answers are dreams that are not specifically American.
JC: Now that the art market has slowed, will contemporary art become more community-based?
A&JB: We think that it will be much harder for artists to survive and make a living. Government support in art is minimal: the few grants and fellowships that exist can support only a few projects. Although a few non-profits such as the Black and White Project Space have recently opened, more might soon close. But all of these difficulties probably will not effect artistic quality. On the contrary, maybe the situation will insert a filter into the art word.
Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.
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