Residency 2 Summary

Jer Nelsen
Advisor – Ben Sloat
Mentor – Alec Soth

Residency Summary – June 2015
​As I reflect on this residency, I am both excited and intimidated by the daunting task of diving into my own work and ideas. Over the course of the ten days on-site, I was able to further understand contemporary art theory, get imperative feedback on my work to that point and develop a general sense of direction for the upcoming semester. Critical Theory 2 forced me to look wider and expand my view of what art practice looks like and rethink traditional materials and methodologies of art-making. I received excellent criticism from professors, students and visiting artists that compelled me to confront my work honestly and critically. Upon reflection of the semester, there are several questions that will need to be answered: the most glaring of which is, “Why should I care about the work I am making and why should my viewer care?”
​Critical Theory 2 was much more focused and was heavier on theory than Critical Theory 1. I enjoyed the process of wrestling through the readings and being forced to place myself in the perspective of the various writers of the collected essays within the class’ readings. The readings didn’t spoon-feed the reader, which I found agreeable. I feel that being made to ask questions allowed for deeper learning and a more comprehensive understanding of the underlying ideas. In class, we took the time to physically see work and discuss it on-site. Being able to be on location was a very positive experience. So often the ease of a digital mediation obfuscates the sense of size, scale, presence, etc. of art and seeing the work face-to-face rectifies that difficulty. Crit Theory 2 was focused on the idea of archives and archiving practices in art – in broad sense it was the delineation of ‘an’ archive and the act of archiving, or ‘to’ archive. The most valuable and readily applicable idea was the idea of trace and the realization that humans are perpetually working to quantify everything (that is, to reinterpret and organize information from our archives) in order to create or uncover a sense of place and a sense of purpose. The idea is not big on its own, but has a profound impact when applied to my practice.
​The concept of trace, once considered, is to me one of the most haunting ideas with which I have come into contact. The idea that every transaction and every text is stored, saved, cataloged or archived is an interesting idea in its own right, but the real peril to me lies in the realization that the very same information could be available to a complete stranger in the distant future. At the risk of sounding self-important, I question the possibility they will be able to accurately and truthfully reconstruct my personality and motives through these traces. Will everything they construct about my life be fiction? I wrestled with this thought throughout Crit Theory 2 and began to apply it directly back into the conversations we were having in class. Trace and evidence are complimentary ideas with slightly different implications, but both are perpetual. Inside the idea of trace, I was interested in trace as a mimetic device, as evidence of non-physical phenomena such as thought or idea. If trace is an indexical object, it is susceptible to revision, reinterpretation, and redefinition by others as well as by its originator. The idea of trace as a sort of breadcrumb or scrawled note to an unintended viewer was a fascinating idea to me – the fear of trace gave way to acceptance and led to a desire to use the notion in my own work. I’m even more interested in traces that are designed to explicitly inform that lose their context with the passage of time. As it happened, the images I was using with my maps were denotative, but had connotations as traces of place, population and modification of landscape.
While in Crit Theory, I was also having regular critique of my work from faculty, students and visiting guests and artists. I felt the work I brought into the residency was appropriate – in our first residency, we were encouraged to ‘just try everything’ when it came to our work for the first semester. There weren’t any rules for the semester other than to try every idea that we could. With the help of my mentor, Brian Ulrich, I worked through several ideas and did not especially attach to any of them. At the end of the semester, I attempted a self-assigned project in working with appropriated satellite imagery of locations I had never been and then visiting those locations. The idea touched very lightly on several of the themes I had thought about with Brian: the American road trip, macro-level organization and city planning, modification of landscape, collapse of malls and shopping complexes and the absurd necessity of parking lots. While I valued the formal aspects of the work, there was a limit to its conceptual success. I find formal elements to be the easiest to talk about in my work and often can deceive me as to the success of a piece or body of work. The paradox of dialectical conversations is that conflicting opinions required me to answer to myself. It was clear that my work wasn’t focused enough to give viewers an accurate sense of start or direction in interacting with the work. The feedback over the course of the residency has snapped me back to center, and out of the critical response has come a list of very difficult questions that I need to answer this semester: “Where is my investigation? Where does it happen? What am I searching or researching? Why do I care? Why should a viewer care? What do I want to say or question? How can I make work about what I care about?” The biggest question of all is, “Why should I (as the viewer) care?”
I actually fumed a little bit at the responses I got. I asked myself why someone would feel inclined to care about a giant copper cube or a square canvas painted black? Why do people care about work that is not immediately evident? Why do viewers invest so much to try to understand artwork? While sitting in the artist talks (which were not the highlight of the residency for me), I thought carefully about the feedback I was getting in relation to my questions. I came to realize that answering the “Why should I care?” was not an immediate imperative, but a long-term benefit of pensive consideration and careful curation or organization of my work for the viewer. Every step of my process and presentation should be considered and chosen based on concept. I do not need to slap the viewer in the face with a literal statement à la commercial marketing, but rather, I needed to know what I cared about and let the work stem from there. I was creating work and then trying to drape a loose interpretation over it, which was completely converse to the process of letting my idea lead my process, medium and methods.
I’ve allowed these questions to soak in over the few weeks since residency and after meeting with my mentor for the first time, come to several conclusions. The first is that I work best under structure with room for improvisation. I absolutely need a set of rules to govern my image-making, but I also need to be open to the larger narrative. I think I had gotten this backward with my Aerial/Ground series. I thought that the idea of location forcing me to these places was a concept, but it was just a loose heading by which I was able to connect images. My photographs from the ground did not tie together and did not have any conversation with the aerial photographs. My mentor, Alec Soth, said that the idea was a really interesting one, but that I’m like an archaeologist that finds a bone and stops digging. I will need to dig, dig and dig. Over the next week, I’m going to have an honest discussion with myself about what drives me and what I am drawn to. I’m going to follow that and photograph within personally determined parameters. The second conclusion I have made is that I need to have a lot more discussion about my work and produce in a much higher quantity than last semester. It is a hard position to not be able to be able to talk about your work in depth – my work this residency was so fresh to me that I had not taken an opportunity to sit with it, talk through it and evaluate its interpretations and open ends. This semester, I would like to have an end in mind and pursue it to see where it takes me. I’ve begun to identify themes, motifs, ideas and subject matter that I am drawn to and I plan to use those ideas to continue my research and investigation. I will continue to work with the idea of maps and mapmaking, but expand the definition and pull in as much related material as possible as I explore what maps are, how they function syntactically and as objects and why they are important as it relates to human self-perception.
I value the residencies highly and am excited for the work I will make this semester. I feel that taking the time to think through ideas and pursue their ends will lead me to much more refined conclusions. My ideas may not resolve, but my hope is that they will be more coherent and leave room for me to expand or refine after Residency 3. My belief is that if I am more invested in my work and refine the scope and voice of my work, it will be more evident and allow me to have much more informed discussions as to the, “Why should I care?” question.


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