Art

Interview with Chicago Artist Bailey Romaine in Berlin

By Vanessa Gravenor

Bailey Romaine is a sculptor who has been based in Chicago for the last years. She completed her BFA at SAIC and her MFA at UIC in 2016. On September 15th, Bailey Romaine will take part in Fieldwork’s exhibition More Strange Than True at Pulaski Park, which was curated in part by Ionit Behar. She recently completed a residency at the Institute for Alles Möglich in Berlin for the month of June where we met to talk about her work’s responses to the built environment.

Courtesy of the artist

Courtesy of the artist

In your praxis, if we can use this terminology “praxis” without evoking some type of old academy, you seem to evoke the performativity of objects and the deconstruction of place. You recently did a residency in Berlin at the Institute für alles möglich. How did moving and being transplanted into a different place reorder your praxis that seems very hinged upon place?

There was a simultaneous re-invigoration and unmooring that happened during my residency in Berlin. I’d been living and working almost exclusively in Chicago for the past nine years so it was really exciting to be in a new place for the sole purpose of making work there. Praxis is a great word, I think, because it implies a hybridized doing. So often artists default to the word practice which has this double meaning of working towards something that is currently unachievable. My work, or praxis, is very much an investigation of place — place as a reference or referent but also the actual place of the work, of me making or doing it. Neither of these notions of place are stable, though; place is not stable nor is dwelling in it. Being in Berlin brought this to the forefront of my praxis, both because I was myself unmoored and because of the history of instability which is inscribed on the surface of this city.

I like this idea of the performativity of architecture, and likewise deconstructing it. In Kafka’s “The Trial,” in German Die Process, K. encounters the cathedral that is full of negative hierarchical space, large expanses that creates certain phenomena within K.’s nomadic body. Inevitably this becomes very political. One could relate this to borders, border crisis in the EU for instance. The mythic wall that Trump wants to build that will divide America. Yet, as Ranciere reminds us to partition also means to share (partager). How do you see your work in this political, more ontological scheme?

The notion of borders or boundaries is one I think about a lot, particularly in reference to naming. Benjamin wrote about human language as operating under a system of naming. Our words are in constant orbit around things, attempting to set boundaries, establish perimeters. Barbara Johnson wrote about this further, that the very act of naming acknowledges its own failure and the inherent separateness or unnameability of things. My sculptures materialize a provisionality that exists somewhere between the named and the unnameable. Perhaps then, the sculptures themselves become borders, but borders that are porous and ever-shifting. The space that a border or a wall occupies is a gap, a space that is neither here nor there, the no-man’s-land of Berlin’s own wall. For me — and maybe this is what Ranciere was getting at as well — is the ambiguity of that space and having to grapple with it is incredibly fertile. It’s a space that forces us to confront difference while also, hopefully, making space for something new, something trans-border.

I was recently on a retreat in the Mazury area in eastern Poland. During this collective retreat, we were reading Karen Barrad’s text on new materialism in which she starts:

Language has been granted too much power. The linguistic turn, the semiotic turn, the interpretive turn, the cultural turn: it seems that at every turn lately every “thing” — even materiality — is turned into a matter of language or some other form of cultural representation.” Karen Barrad Posthumanist Performativity

Somehow, this discussion of materiality, the atoms at play within all things, reminded me of your work that focuses on materiality of cultural representation. Does your work have any relationship to new materialism or the so-called ontological turn?

I’ve been quite interested in new materialism but also pretty bothered by it in ways I couldn’t quite articulate. There’s an essay by Andrew Cole, called On the Call of Things, that presents one of the best criticism of new materialism or speculative realism that I’ve seen. In it he says that “you cannot write your way any closer to the object.” I don’t completely agree with that but it does bring the conversation back around to the importance of acknowledging difference. For me, thinking about the relationship between language and matter is productive because it traffics in a specificity that only gets us closer to what we cannot know. So while you might not be able to write yourself closer to the object, perhaps a new object can emerge from the trying. For me, language does have an immense power and part of that power is that it drives me deeper and deeper into the gaps where words can’t quite reach; this is the space where I make sculptures.

Process photo, courtesy of the artist

Process photo, courtesy of the artist

My experiences living in Chicago is that the art scene is very much object oriented. For instance, even Theaster Gates’ social practice always gets pinned down to an object in the end. I remember walking through Kavi Gupta, in their storage room in 2012, and seeing his objects in Chicago. On one hand, I found them extremely poetic relics of his work, on the other hand, I wanted to problematize their beauty in a way, for they seemed to contain some aura I wanted to mechanically deconstruct. How do you see yourself as an artist working primarily within objects? Do you think Chicago has had an influence on your practice? 

Chicago and Chicago artists have of course had a big impact on me as an artist — I’ve done all my schooling there and been lucky enough to work with and learn from some incredible people. That being said, maybe it’s because I’m lacking an outside perspective, but I don’t know if that’s driven me to be more of an object maker than I would have been in another city. I’m a maker: I think through working with my hands. I think Chicago is a very haptic city though; it’s so materially rich and engaging with that is really key to my practice.

Making sculptures or object based works does present an ethical dilemma that I’m constantly butting up against, precisely for the reasons you bring up; It’s easy for sculptures to become heavily commodified relics of a practice and that is something I decidedly don’t want. But, at the same time, what’s more social than sharing space with a thing that challenges and questions how we occupy space? I think, for me, it comes down to really trying to foster a material awareness. My sculptures are made out of scraps, construction grade, reclaimed materials. It’s important to me that those materials have a certain precocity, that they aren’t fixed.

I’m curious about your process and how you began delving into Berlin as a city. I attended the conference for the Berlin Biennale where the curators, DIS, talked about paradessence, this advertising term I think they partly made up. It was about the shine of the city, how it leads itself to be a tourist hub, but also the undercurrents of history. It seems odd coming upon this city in 2016, when it is almost in the state of transition, a hyperbolic emotional space. 

This is the second summer I’ve spent in Berlin — the first was over a decade ago when I was only 16. That summer had a big impact on me as a teenager coming from a very suburban, historically flat part of America. Coming back to Berlin as an adult after living for years in Chicago, my perspective has of course changed, and the city has changed but the whole world has changed too I think. I mean, when I was in Berlin in 2005 cell phones were hardly a thing and I don’t think I even touched a computer for that whole summer. I think now people are really pushing that into overdrive, smashing this really recent history of Berlin against really over saturated internet culture and at least for me the results are not positive. I think it’s pretty dark actually.

The first few days I was here, my partner and I just went on these really long walks around the city. I spend a lot of time looking at construction sites and the provisional structures that are built there; I think you can learn a lot about a place, about it’s past and what kind of future is being hoped for. So we were following this path of construction sites and realized that we were actually just following the path of where the wall used to stand. There’s this great essay by Lisa Robertson where she talks about how scaffolding materializes the desires of architecture. What was most strange for me was following this trail of recovery that’s still very much in the present, but simultaneously there are these parts of the city that were pretty much instantly memorialized and became tourist meccas. Maybe architecture desires to recover itself and people desire to recover something from architecture, something that’s consumable. It’s a tension that I feel in Chicago too but space itself has such a charged history in Berlin so it seems very present there.

Courtesy of the artist

Courtesy of the artist

You are participating in Ionit Behar’s exhibition in Chicago: can you talk about what you will do there?

Sure! I’m working on a collaboration with my friend and fellow Chicago artist Aaron Walker. We both just finished our MFAs at the University of Illinois at Chicago and had done some work together there but Ionit really initiated our collaboration for this show. It was really nice actually: she contacted us and was like, you two — make something together!

I can’t say too much at the moment about what Aaron and I are doing since it’s still in the works but the show is at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse in Chicago and is being co-curated by Ionit and Fieldwork, which is a Chicago based cooperative of artists, architects, and urban planners. This project in particular is taking up the Chicago Park system as a site of inquiry and investigation. Aaron and I were just in Prague a few weeks ago, so we had this cool experience of sitting in a park there and brainstorming for this project about parks in Chicago. We’ve been talking a lot about inscriptions on buildings and how they’re used to establish a sense of history or to establish a projected or hoped for future; while they seem like really set things — literally set in stone — maybe they’re more provisional than we think. Like I said, it’s still in the works so I don’t want to say too much but for anyone in Chicago, it opens September 17 – come check it out!

Vanessa Gravenor is an artist and critic living in Berlin. She is a DAAD student scholar for the 2015/16 year. She has previously lived in Chicago where she worked on projects at Gallery400 and Three Walls. She completed her BA at Washington University in St. Louis (2014) and is a candidate for a Diplom at the Universität der Künste, Berlin (2019). 

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