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(Crisis of) Democracy in America

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Photos courtesy of InCubate

An Interview with Abigail Satinsky of InCUBATE on Democracy in America: the National Campaign

InCUBATE is a Chicago-based research institute composed of art administrators and artists interested in developing new models for presenting and funding cultural production. They were among the 40 artists and groups invited to participate in the Convergence Center at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City (Sept 21-27, 2008) as part of Creative Time’s year-long programming initiative, Democracy in America: The National Campaign, curated by Nato Thompson.

Sunday Soup started over a year ago as a weekly meal, hosted at InCUBATE’s storefront space. Guest chefs are invited to cook simple soups using local ingredients. At the end of each month, the soup income is given as a grant to support a creative project. Visitors who purchase soup also earn a spot on the grant selection committee. All of the grant proposals are emailed to Sunday Soup patrons and a popular vote determines the grant recipient.

For the Convergence Center installation of Sunday Soup, InCUBATE was joined by artist/organizer Robin Hewlett, as well as Sara Black and John Preus, members of the collective Material Exchange, whose practice re-directs materials from the waste-streams of cultural institutions and puts them back into circulation by altering their practical and conceptual use value. Over the course of three days, the team designed and constructed a café space using cast-off materials found at the Armory and the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, as well as materials scavenged from the streets of New York City. The completed cafe included a cashier counter, food preparation and service counter, dining tables and a small library. For one week, they ran a full-services soup cafe in this space, generating not only revenue for their granting fund, but a myriad of conversations and relationships.

CK: Was the Convergence Center installation the first collaboration between project InCUBATE and Material Exchange?

AS: Our installation at the Convergence Center wasn’t our first collaboration with Material Exchange. At the end of 2007 we invited them to participate in our traveling series of exhibitions called Other Options. This series of exhibitions features artists whose work addresses the current climate of funding and (lack of) new infrastructural support for the arts. For the show, Material Exchange constructed a multi-player pinball machine from salvaged material. As an attempt to recoup the machine’s fabrication expenses, exhibition visitors are invited to play pinball for $1 per game, thus economically activating the sculpture while calling to mind issues of proper compensation for creative labor. The pinball machine was displayed as part of Other Options in Grand Rapids, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and New York City.

CK: At the Convergence Center installation of Sunday Soup, both of your groups collected and produced a functional café, including everything from a cashier counter and dining tables. Before arriving in Manhattan, how were you able to prepare for knowing where and what you would find there as material resources for your installation?

AS: Our café collaboration was such that Material Exchange was mostly responsible for fabricating the physical elements (tables, counters, bookshelves, etc.), while InCUBATE along with the help of our co-organizer Robin Hewlett and various guest chefs was responsible for actually running the café (cooking soup, working the cash register, washing dishes, etc.). Since both InCUBATE and Material Exchange arrived in Manhattan via airplane, we couldn’t bring any building materials with us, therefore everything needed to be salvaged from New York City in the span of only four days. Despite our initial nervousness about the scale of such a task, Jon and Sara weren’t worried at all. Instead they assured us that finding material would be no problem just as long as we knew where and how to look. Since a core value of Material Exchange’s practice is centered upon utilizing the excess of cultural institutions, we acquired most of our stuff from the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts and from an incredible organization called Materials for the Arts (http://www.mfta.org/) in Long Island City – the rest we were able to scrounge from the alleys and streets.

CK: What was the next step in the life-cycle of the cast-off materials used at the Convergence Center?

AS: Some of the tables will be coming back to Chicago, and some of our materials will go to Ben Schaafsma, another InCUBATE member who now lives in New York City, for starting a Sunday Soup there.

CK: How did your experiences at the Convergence Center inform the switch from InCUBATE’s weekly Sunday Soup to a monthly Sunday Brunch?

AS: The change from a weekly Soup to a monthly Brunch had actually been in the works since August, when we asked Jennifer Breckner to help us reconceptualize the meal component of the Sunday Soup program. We held our first wildly successful Sunday Soup Brunch just before heading to New York. We think the actual meal functions much better now that we provide a full brunch meal in addition to the soup, and we’ve transformed it into a more cohesive event where everyone arrives at the same time and eats together. We also have been doing artist presentations as part of Sunday Soup since we started a year ago, but now they are more formalized and we hope create a stronger connection between the money generated from the meal and the artists we fund with that money.

CK: Feedback plays a vital role in your practice—both social and monetary. Monetary because the money raised by selling soup funds InCUBATE’s residency program and social because of the conversations and relationships brought about from artists’ projects and individual conversations.

AS: At InCUBATE there is definitely a lot of overlap between the ways we generate funding and the ways we operate socially. Yet it is important to keep in mind that, on average, the amount of money we give away each month is never more than a few hundred dollars. More important than the actual amount of money being exchanged is the network of information that we are able to foster. The desire to generate and share ‘databases’ of useful information represents a common thread linking together all of the various projects we do here at InCUBATE. With each new resident who comes to work at our space, with each new artist included in Other Options, with each chef who cooks a pot of soup, and with each Sunday Soup-grant application – little by little – we are working to establish a new vocabulary of practical solutions to the everyday problems of cultural production.

CK: How does Sunday Soup differ from other relational food-based projects?

AS: Our project is often compared to other food-based projects; the difference is that we are not trying to be merely convivial, but instead trying to create a working infrastructure. We’ve created a model that is explicitly functional as a way of generating independent funding for cultural producers, and implicitly critical as a way of generating conversation about the availability and distribution of resources within the mainstream arts establishment. Competition for funding both private and public is fierce, and this reality forces artists and organizations to base their programming on available funding streams. In an environment where governmental support for experimental art practice is minimal at best, and private support is dictated by the values and priorities of granting foundations, innovative and potentially controversial work is compromised in order to fit within categories deemed “fundable.” In contrast, Sunday Soup is a model of arts funding that is transparent and participatory. Community participation in the grant funding and selection process is key. The application process is intentionally simple and non-bureaucratic in order to encourage broad participation. This enables InCUBATE to stimulate and support experimental, critical and imaginative practices that may not be eligible for formal funding.

CK: What’s next?

AS: Now that our work in New York is done, we’re excited to have more time to focus on doing things at our space in Chicago. For October, we’re experimenting with having a Chicago resident in addition to our person-in-residence from out of town. Brandon Alvendia (alvendia.net/gallery/8418), a recent graduate of UIC, and Robert Snowden (springbreakpublishing.com), based in New York City, are working on complementary self-publishing projects. And starting in November, the Chicago Underground Library (underground-library.org) will be hosted at InCUBATE along with AREA magazine (www.areachicago.org), which has been operating out of the storefront since last March.

As for exhibitions, our archive is currently on display as part of the Heartland exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands, co-curated by Charles Esche and Stephanie Smith from the Smart Museum. We are also being included in a publication for the upcoming Younger than Jesus exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, as well as participating in “BIN,” an exhibition organized by the SEED collective for the Association of Visual Arts Gallery in Chattanooga, TN (January and February 2009).

This interview was conducted on October 11, 2008. On October 22, Ben Schaafsma was in a car accident in New York City and passed away on October 25. We are completely devastated by this news and our sympathies go out to all his friends, family, and loved ones. As a friend and collaborator, Ben will be missed beyond what words can express. His vision, dedication, intelligence and tireless creativity will remain present in all our lives and continue to drive us forward everyday. We have lost a truly extraordinary person.

For donations, a paypal account has been set up between InCUBATE and G-RAD from Grand Rapids, MI. Go to paypal.com and send your donations to donations@g-rad.org. We are also accepting artwork donations for an online art auction on ebay. Please email michelle.anne.harris@gmail.com for more information.

One Response to (Crisis of) Democracy in America

  1. […] Newsmagazine talks to Abigail Satinsky about her work with InCUBATE in “(Crisis of) Democracy in America.” Tags: grant, incubate, interview, local link, monique meloche, print publication, review, […]

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