This is a conversation held January 24, 2018, between ISCP Ground Floor alumnus Cheon pyo Lee and ISCP Executive Director Susan Hapgood at El Museo de Los Sures about Lee’s Offsite Project Alibi of Autonomy.
Susan Hapgood (SH): Cheon, hi. You have been here in residence at El Museo de Los Sures for how long?
Cheon pyo Lee (CPL): I was in residence for roughly 4 months, from October 12, 2017, to January 24, 2018.
SH: Could talk a little bit about what you did and how you connected to the neighborhood?
CPL: When I first moved in, my plan was to host as many public events as possible on a small scale. I noticed that the space and location are good, but not enough events are happening. So, since the shutter is often down, people don’t know what the space is about although there is a big sign but it’s sometimes closed. I hosted and publicized a few events throughout the residency, but a lot of times, whenever I was in the studio working I would have the shutter up and the doors open. I also listed my studio hours in the project press release so people could just drop in and talk to me. The interesting part is that previous neighbors would just come in wanting to meet the new neighbor. So, they would talk a lot about the changes that happened in Williamsburg. And I used to have my studio in the early 2000s where the early developments are now.
SH: Where is that?
CPL: Just by the Williamsburg Bridge. There used to be a squat in the basement. There were about 50 artists living there, and many of them still live in the area now. They came in here and talked to me about the changes in the neighborhood. I would invite them back to the space when I had events, and I took their contact information to make sure they knew about them.
SH: Were there many people who live in the different housing facilities of Los Sures that dropped by to see what was happening, too?
SH: Do you speak Spanish?
CPL: I do speak Spanish. That probably helped.
SH: I’m curious how often you were speaking Spanish and how often were you speaking English?
CPL: I spoke Spanish whenever I got comfortable, really. I don’t want to assume that anyone speaks Spanish because a lot of younger generations –
SH: Are bilingual.
CPL: Yes, and they prefer English. But speaking Spanish definitely helps. It’s easy to connect that way.
SH: So you were here, the days were like Tuesday to…?
CPL: Tuesdays to Thursdays, from 11am to 7pm.
SH: That is an amazing amount of time.
CPL: I wanted to take advantage of the space. I was actually here more often than that to be honest.
CPL: Yes. But those were the public hours that I had because sometimes I would be recording a video shoot and then I would close the door, obviously. But I felt that was a big part of the agreement that I had with ISCP when you invited me to do this, to be open and involve the people around here.
SH: Well it is a big part. I mean one of the reasons ISCP is working with El Museo de Los Sures is to activate the community with contemporary art. Thank you very much for taking that so seriously. It’s a big responsibility.
CPL: I do care. I live in Brooklyn and I do think it’s important that artists are more approachable. Surprisingly the neighborhood residents show a lot of interest. And they give you feedback which is very interesting, especially with my work, which is political and has a lot to do with geography. It was really useful to receive that feedback; the more formal comments I receive from other artists is very different.
SH: Yeah, sure. And understanding what a non-art person sees is a really valuable thing, people who don’t necessarily know about the history of art and what’s happening in contemporary practice.
CPL: Yeah, it made me rethink how I present my work and it was very humbling.
SH: Interesting. Would you say that some of the people that stopped by went away with a very different, broadened understanding of what contemporary art could be, or what it could do?
CPL: Definitely. Also, since my work is very collaborative, I think it was refreshing for them to ask: “your name is on the door but why do you have so many other artists working with you?”
SH: Because artists are supposed to be individual hero geniuses, right?
CPL: Yes, because that is the myth created.
SH: Agreed. So, how many public events did you organize during your time here?
CPL: I hosted four events. The very first one was about development–it wasn’t very complicated aesthetically. The theme was centered around upbringing and the American education system, with all male participating artists. This led to conversations about masculinity in today’s society and how fragile that is, really. Lately there is a lot of talk about feminism, which, I think, goes in part with the dialogue about masculinity. A lot of misogynists are fragile beings, mentally. I also hosted a video screening in second languages, which included performance videos and choreography. That was fun. I also curated a group show about landscape, and organized a book release. That was the last event. Some of the writers read passages and explained their project, and there was also a performance.
SH: Did you get good attendance?
CPL: Yes! Surprisingly so.
SH: Did you get a mix of art people and neighborhood residents?
CPL: Definitely many non-art attendees in the last event, probably because I had time to advertise that there would be an event happening in the area. Many neighbors came. I think the neighbors were still trying to figure out what was going in during the first couple of months of the residency.
SH: It takes time. I think that the duration of your project has everything to do with it, too. One final question: I find very interesting the way you are so loose and open about what your practice is as an artist. All of the projects you’ve done during this residency–do you consider them to be a part of your practice as an artist? And if so, how do you capture that? It’s an impossible question but I’m still asking!
CPL: As a young artist, I am still trying figure out my own language. Lately though, I do feel a sense of responsibility because of how much support I am receiving for my practice, both monetary support and the physical space that ISCP offered me here at El Museo de Los Sures.
I think a lot of artists are becoming part administrator, part teacher and still fulfilling the romantic artist role. The combination of these three roles creates important artwork. This assimilation of positions was a process through which I started understanding how to care about fellow artists, as well as realize what more there is to learn. I ran the space so it was easier for me to explain the project to a more general audience, but since I am not a trained curator or teacher, doing so was humbling. And then again, there were times when I needed to be alone to develop my projects. All these elements definitely informed my practice.
SH: So, would you say that what you just described captures the title of your residency Alibi of Autonomy?
CPL: As a contemporary artist, my understanding of art is not just formal. This entire project was a way for me to understand the context and situation in which I work, to in turn better myself.