Megan Snowe, on taking subtle jabs at social politics through her work's compelling blend of sincerity and humour
October 13, 2016
You were an artist in residency in Finland in 2014? How was that? In your experience, since 'the internet boom', would you say it is easier to get access to art residencies and fellowships or more competitive?
I was actually studying for my MFA in Finland for 2 1/2 years at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts. I did one residency there after graduation, at Kutomo art and performance space in Turku. I also did a residency in Berlin through the Academy. I learned a lot while there. I had never lived in Europe for more than 3 or 4 months at a time, so finding my place in a culture distinctly different from the US took some time. Sometimes I felt I stuck out a bit socially and professionally mostly due to the behavior I was accustomed to in the US. I learned a lot about scale - scale of art making, scale of community, scale of career, scale of conversation - and found a way to value the richness of small scales in those areas. Intimacy can be fertile and nourishing, especially when compared to the larger-than-life expectations I feel dominate many creative communities in the US.
I wasn't actively seeking art residencies pre-internet boom, so it is hard to say much about the differences. The first residencies and grants I received were mostly of my own making versus applying for a specific program with a specific institution. I received a grant to spend time in St. Petersburg, Russia, after I finished my BA. There I volunteered at the Hermitage, created my own work, had an exhibition and participated in an experimental MFA seminar at Smolny College. This was all in 2009. All of these activities were either discovered or organized by myself. In 2011 I was co-organizing a collaborative residency in Helsinki, at HIAP on Suomenlinna Island. At the time I was working as an arts administrator in NYC and was focused a lot on structures, creating structures for others to do work/have conversations/learn within, and incorporating that into my conceptual practice. Since then I have relied most heavily on word of mouth and institution/organization reputation when applying for grants and residencies. I pay attention to where people I admire go for residencies, ask them about their experiences, and apply with zero expectations. Sometimes I get lucky and a match is good. Overall though I try to make the application process productive in some way, treating it as an opportunity to articulate ideas, improve voice, and dream.
Irony plays a big part in your work, why is that? In some of your work it is almost like you are taking the mick out of western contemporary society and its culture. Work like Doom for example, what is the thought/research behind that?
Humor is super important to me. So is sincerity. Often this union results in irony or subtle jabs. At present I feel like I am working on articulating my personal orientation to several issues/questions that I don't fully understand, find troubling and dangerous, yet alluring. Topics like Dooms Day theories, self-help theories and manipulative social strategies necessitate a twist of humor to show that the maker of an artistic engagement with them is approaching them on a human level - not aggrandizing, not belittling - but saying/asking "hey, this is weird and could be toxic, but is somehow true for a group of people. Why is that? Is there any truth in this for me?". I think the humor can reveal a vulnerability too, like, at the end of the Doom video I admit that I feel the feeling of doom and I'm embarrassed about it. I too am caught in the snare sometimes. Humor can contain an admission. Can allow an admission, an acknowledgement of one's own ironic entanglement. Also, in mSNOWE: Brand Launch, I was sincerely trying to improve myself, to create some sort of consistency, to create a package that was still emotionally valid for myself. Not sure how much of that came through in the final product, but there was anyway humor in the sincere struggle with a near-impossible task.
Humor is also so important in my general approach to art making: 1. I only want to make art work if it is a fun challenge (this in no way excludes extremely personal, awkward, critical works), 2. I am fighting my dry inclinations - meaning, I can easily over-think a work before it has even begun. I kill it. Fuck that. Now I am aiming for wet, gooey, moist works. Sticky work. Seep into your pores work. Haunting physical reaction work. I'm not there yet, and though I am pulling away from the academic/analytic I will never lose it. Instead some of my favorite recent works combine the dry and the gooey to make a humorous dissection.
Would you say politics influence your work?
What sort of politics? US political establishment politics? Everything-is-political politics? The politics of being a social being? The later, absolutely. The negotiation, the performance, the strategy, the angling, the agenda, the articulated goals and intentions in how you relate to other lives. Communication, or lack thereof as political. Power, agency, efficiency, optimal expectations, service. All of these things influence what and how I make, write, do. I am a social being, I struggle, I need, I care, I feel apathy, I ignore, I hide, I decide and don’t decide.
I love your piece Brand Launch. In it you use pretty much every medium (from video, to sculpture, to the internet/software) but painting. Is that a conscious choice?
That was not a conscious choice. I have never felt a strong need to paint and that specific work was so much about trusting and following through on my own inclinations that I had not allowed myself to pursue in a real way. For example, making music with Aaron Roche, or, really, making music at all. Also, integrating drawing and digital space. Those interests, and other aspects of the material product of the work, were things I had a wish to do, but did not already know how to do. This not-knowing-how has intimidated me from a young age. I have generally learned things very quickly and put high expectations on myself to acquire skills fast; if I couldn’t do or I felt incapable, I would shy away or justify to myself that the skills were not worth my time (and discomfort). I was sick of that MO. Also, examining strategies of “betterment” or “optimization” of my self/brand I found a way to both be critical of those strategies and use them to my own ends - building self trust and feeling able to dive into scary things. Painting was just not an interest that fell into that category.
I feel many artists of your generation and younger don't really paint any longer. I had an interesting conversation with the artist Zadie Xa (you should look her up) recently, and she thinks the high cost of rent forces artists to work from home or cafes, because they can't afford to rent a studio, and therefore you can't really paint. I think I agree with her, but also think that inevitably artists produce what they see, live and experience everyday and technology is so embedded in our lives that nowadays to produce work generated with the use of software is almost a given. What are your thoughts on that?
While I was at the Finnish Academy of Fine Arts some colleagues and I started a regular gathering called Open Critique where one artist would present a work or two and the group would discuss it for as long as needed. It was entirely student led and operated. We made an attempt to make it a horizontal discussion space where we could all practice articulating critique and experiences of peers’ work and receiving this criticism. I realized during a few of these sessions that I did not know how to talk about painting. I had never studied it before and knew very little about the vast and weighty history. I can talk about image though.
I don’t know why fewer people may be coming to painting now (I have not necessarily noticed that since the Painting department at the Academy was one of the largest departments). I agree with both you and Xa to a degree. Practicalities are real. Visual, and more over sensory, realities are real. By real I mean real and valid factors that contribute to what and how artists make work. Practical life circumstances and emotional states are direct contributors to my work. I use emotions as medium. I feel more able to take material and/or conceptual risks when I feel secure/safe.
We inhabit so many different spaces. I’ve become more aware of this simultaneous inhabitation recently and it has changed what I see; not only the technology that I see (and rather don’t see because it is so ubiquitous and taken for granted) but the relations that I see, to people, to environment, to sound. I feel like I’m this multi-dimensional dispersed cloud, a collision of different spaces, and various technologies facilitate my existence. So, in that sense, the use of, for example, digital technologies, is inevitable because of how and what kinds of engagement with reality they facilitate.
You appear in many of your works. Is this perhaps a way to discover and challenge yourself? I am very interested in the way we perceive ourselves in relation to the internet and how our perception might change accordingly to what we want to portray to others. What's your experience?
Putting myself in front of a camera or putting my insecurities at the center of a work is definitely an effort to challenge myself. I can be a very social person, being in the eyes of others is usually not a problem, but facing myself is a scary thing. I’ve also been interested in the process of “self-discovery” and “self-improvement” - the concept that there is a “true you”, or some pure form of who you are, feels false to me. But apparently it is true for a lot of people. I’m trying to do this discovery in a way that is critical of the process itself, or critical of expectations we pile onto ourselves, to live as a pure truth of some kind. We are each an ecosystem of a kind, with shifting and diverse elements.
I have been thinking about presentation a lot recently. As far as the internet is concerned, I use my presence there as a mirror. Ex. I browse my FB profile pics as a way to see myself. They feel nearly physical to me. This browsing is a seeing and in a way an accepting of myself. Also, the browsing is a way of reorienting myself to my various moments of online presentation (specifically of presentation of face). How can I improve and expand upon the image(s) I’ve thus far presented? At the same time I feel a presence that is an expanded physical. I’m not the most present figure online - not the most fishy fish in that sea - but it still is a land I am a citizen of, where I can have a certain sort of control over presentation, over content; where I have certain privileges, certain limitations; where I’m monitored and manipulated.
Do you think your work defines you as a person, meaning do you better understand yourself in the context of your work? Or do you feel your online persona defines what the work look likes?
No, I don’t think my work defines who I am. I think my work can clarify and criticize who I feel I am or how I am. I am particularly interested in how I relate to myself (as an other and as a person I am) and to others. Art works are typically a result of a confusion about the above or about how I relate to a certain issue.
I’ve been trying to create work that is increasingly revealing and vulnerable. Sincerity is important right now. Sincerity, but not sap. Again, humor is a key element of sincerity for me. So, in that sense, I’ve been doing deeper reveals and discoveries; bit by bit getting gooier and juicier. Setting this as a goal has either been a result of or an influence on personal shifts in self confidence, desires and social presence, but I’m not certain which direction the influence is predominantly flowing.
I wouldn’t say that my online persona is so strongly defined as to define how a work looks like.
I like TODAY a lot. To me it seems the project puts lots of emphasis on the power of collaboration, to learn from others and experiment together, how was your experience with the project? Has your work benefited from it?
TODAY was an amazing project. Maarit Mustonen and I were lucky enough to organize this as part of an already powerful coming together of talented people for Antagon Biennial. Our task was to facilitate projects about the now in that community at that (or whatever) (cultural) moment in Turku, FI. We were experimenting with tapping into the collective present and it was powerful for sure. The sense of togetherness was strong. It was a risk also, because much of the programming was dependent on people, well, coming and participating. Sometimes they didn’t. However, the spirit of the project, and, it seemed, Antagon in general, was quality over quantity and the vibrancy of even two or three people coming together with focused energy was nourishing. Everyone felt open and generous; the experiences we had would reverberate beyond that present that we were focusing in on. I know this sounds a bit new age or something, but it was a week of love and remembering the coming together still makes my heart ache.
I know that we tried to cram a lot into the TODAY program, and many of the elements were disparate, not clearly connected, but all came out of present needs and interests as well as an exploration of ways to experience, with heightened awareness, the present together. A concern with and validation of the present together was at the center.
I have benefited from this work immensely. It has given me hope and an appreciation of productive intimacy.
I haven’t done many socially engaged projects since then (one was recently THE END in Peekskill, New York) because of how problematic they can be and how flat or dry they can be. TODAY was exceptional in its richness. I believe deeply in the importance of collaboration; I am in love with making structures for conversations and transformative experiences; I hope to encourage agency and togetherness; I think all of these things came together in this project in a small way. And that is a lot. It has also been a reminder of the fact that powerful experiences can happen on a very small scale and that is okay. Also, that small scale actions/initiatives can be ambitious, can inspire ambition. I want to do more of that some day - either in the form of art works or if/when I focus more on education or organizing programs.
Last question, we spoke a lot about the use of text in your work - why are you so fascinated by it? And how do you make that three dimensional?
I’m not exactly sure what brought me closer to text recently. I think it will take some time working with text before I can answer this first question. I decided to write a play last year. Or, rather, decided to propose to write a play. I have yet to write it, but the past series of text-based projects have been part of an effort to develop a voice and writing practice in preparation for the play. I think I’ve been interested in language for a long time. A few elements of past exhibitions in the last couple of years have involved artistically written texts (ex. the one-pager for mSNOWE: Brand Launch, view here: http://msnowe.me/info), but I didn’t fully acknowledge them as individual works.
I am curious about the space that a text creates - the visual and imaginary triggers it sets off in a reader/viewer’s mind’s eye - and what it can be as a sensual material. Recently a friend described a written work of mine as “soft core raunch” which I like very much as a new genre. I have been able to play with tensions of desire, vulnerability, insecurity and overconfidence in a complex way with text that I had aimed for with image, but I don’t think was as subtle and haunting. I’m also curious about the ways I can fictionalize elements of myself, bringing them to a slightly increased extreme.
Text in space is also an interest, as we’ve discussed. How can this medium, typically displayed on one or more two dimensional surfaces, function, as a material activating a space without compromising content? How can it communicate something of this content, or the content’s intention, in the way that the text is oriented in the space? I'm going to keep working with these questions in coming projects this year. I'll have a better answer for you later on, I imagine.
Images courtesy of the artist.
Megan is part of , Rose, the inaugural exhibition for Upfor's digital exhibition platform. The show features Morehshin Allahyari, Leah Beeferman, Kate Durbin, Faith Holland, & Brenna Murphy with commentary by Kimmo Modig and curated by Valentina Fois.