Seth Orion Schwaiger is an Austin-based artist and agent of several overlapping systems of art infrastructure as an instructor, arts writer, and independent curator. He received his BFA from the University of Wyoming in 2008 and his MFA from the Glasgow School of Art in 2013 with auxiliary studies in Italy through the University of Georgia and in India through the Vijnana Kalavedi Centre in Kerala.
In the past two years Schwaiger has contributed nearly 100 published works articulating the regional art scene through catalogs, exhibition texts, and articles in art ltd., Arts + Culture Texas, The Austin Chronicle, Glasstire, New American Painting, and Sculpture Magazine. During that time Schwaiger curated Sehnsucht as part of Glasgow International 2014 at The Chalet, Art Alliance Austin’s Artbash co-curated with Andrea Hyland, and Tiger Strikes Asteroid’s Room 217 co-curated with Rebecca Marino as part of Artist-Run Satellite, Miami. His own artwork has been exhibited and collected internationally through shows in Austin, Berlin, Chicago, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, New York, and Zurich and includes public sculpture at the University of Wyoming in Laramie; The Margot Perot Building in Dallas, The Broomhill National Sculpture Park in Devon, UK; and Ozu Cultural Centre in Monteleone, Italy. He currently holds a studio at pump project and teaches art theory and criticism at The University of Texas at Austin.
Schwaiger answered questions via email about his exhibition, COMPLEX 1.
Thao Votang: I loved your treatment of pump project’s main gallery space. Six columns of drywall are evenly spaced in the room and rise up—just below the big fan. The drywall that makes Upward Momentum is untreated, the surfaces are already marked by people leaning against them and smudging them in every way possible. A person standing next to them is diminished. When I look up, I can’t see anything but the ceiling and fan. The gallery space is transformed into a sterile room that keeps groups from forming and creates discomfort.
They become ancient through these ways. Visitors know they are new, but they are also unfinished like old architecture where the paint has degraded and disappeared. They are monumental. Why did you decide to disrupt a former gathering place in this way?
Seth Orion Schwaiger: To make new gathering places.
Like so much of the show, the columns break up patterns and expectations. There’s a moment of hesitation or surprise for viewers who’ve been through the gallery space for previous shows—they can’t quite figure out what to do with themselves at first and in that moment they begin really exploring, if a bit awkwardly. They see pump [project] a little differently. They look up. In even that ever so slightly different physical position of looking upward the internal emotional and intellectual acoustics of the viewer shift. Conversations become different than they would with a more open, less eye raising space. The conversations are more intimate, in smaller groups, sometimes even hushed, and then, the individuals in those conversations move past the main gallery into unknown territory. The imposition of the columns pushes the viewer into the rest of the complex where they find new social clusters to take part in. The main gallery, in this way, acts as the heart of the exhibition, initiating a circulation of viewers and thought throughout the six exhibition spaces and the paths that connect them.
In that space, larger themes are hinted at that ripple throughout the exhibition. You fleshed out the contradiction of entropy and development well in your description, and that is certainly ever present at the freight ware-house cum studio/gallery that is pump project. The show is also a very personal one for me, and I can say that the feeling of things falling apart, failure really, while simultaneously evolving to increased complexity, success, and hope, is perhaps the shortest and clearest description I could use for my own state of affairs and recent history. There’s a certain vulnerability that I feel with this show, but it’s a vulnerability that feels right—something that I can trust the community with, and apparently all of your readers as well.
TV: We’ll touch on that again but let’s continue through the exhibition. Around the corner, you’ve installed work in an empty studio space and opened your own studio. The unused studio—Studio 124, has these great Polaroids. Older work of yours, from 2013. The atmosphere you capture make them seem even older. You, I assume it is you, appear in one of them and covered objects (wrapped sculptures?) are in the rest. A ceramic work holds the walls on either side of the wall of photos. I’ve seen these works before, in your studio or home, but still can’t really figure them out. The photos seem soft and haunting, the ceramic pieces bold and hard. Can you tell me more about both?
SOS: The Macintosh Building in Glasgow is a gorgeous if peculiar structure designed and built specifically to be an art school. Its dark wood paneled hallways are lined with plaster models of classical sculpture. Winged Victory, for example, occupies the main gallery of the space, exhibitions often grappling with its immovable presence. For those who work in the building the sculptures at some point no longer captivate; they become just another decorative element in a building full of decorative elements. But at a certain point every year, the entire building is generously given over to the senior class at the Glasgow School of Art. They wrap the sculptures in bubble wrap and high visibility tape, and suddenly they become relevant as contemporary objects, a type of unintentional, but powerful installation. In the mornings the light comes through the southern windows and makes that material glow, just as it does to the unflattering degraded plastic ceilings over several of the studios at pump, including Studio 124.
The sculptures in the Mac can in those few days be seen again. They become alive, so much so that if one were to take a grainy Polaroid in that morning light, a clever art critic might even mistake one or two of them for a performer. The work is about value among other things, and how something as poorly regarded as plastic wrap can add value to something with as much gravitas as Winged Victory.
The two ceramic works you mentioned are related—both actually being made of vacuformed plastic. Here, the problems of baroque display that were historically conquered by neoclassical sensibilities are let loose making Decadence a more undulating frame than the image it frames, and Protrusion (which does admittedly contain some legitimate ceramic), an object that goes even further, a nonrepresentational form that mimics the indulgence of that which frames it. I was once a classicist snob when it came to materials—and part of me still hates all this chemically rendered stuff we surround ourself with—but another part, a stronger part finds something intriguing, even luxurious about our manufactured material reality. Yay plastic.
TV: You’ve invited people into your own studio. The show list is almost an Easter-egg-hunt. Here we are skipping time with you in your private space. Seeing you through the years and witnessing an inclusion in your solo show of work by Elizabeth McDonald, your fiancé. Her work is on the verge of being pierced by one of yours. The obvious hint is taken. But you’ve broken a rule by inviting people into your working space during the exhibition. So I know we’re taking a turn into something else.
Thinking about the main gallery space, I like to imagine that space as silent, sacred. However, there is music playing throughout pump project and that can be heard throughout the exhibition. I’ll let the sound in now in these studio rooms, though it has been playing the entire time. The sound of cicadas are recognizable, the rest of the track is not. Distorted sound that layers on a necessary element to the journey you have created.
I turned this down this hallway first, but I could have gone to the other side of the exhibition. I assume it doesn’t make a difference. But once in your studio space, this is a turning point. You’ve primed the viewer by mixing private and public spaces, by revealing where the works were created. Did you know you were going to open up your studio when you first conceived of the idea of this show?
SOS: It’s fitting for you to bring up conception while we cover the work in my own personal studio. That space is open to the public, and one of the spaces that add to my sense of vulnerability, but that’s a product of trying to censor myself less and let it all hang out, so to speak. I can’t say if it was in the original plans, but I can say that from the beginning I knew I wanted to create a system of environments and push myself to my own limits connecting them in order to conjure a specific cocktail of emotions: curiosity, reverence, surprise or discovery, humor, fear, euphoria, confusion, epiphany. At one point I was telling myself that this was my last chance, I was going to put all the energy I could into this show and if it didn’t work out (whatever that means), then fuck art, and all the flawed systems of arts infrastructure I had committed myself to. I was done. With that attitude, with pushing all your chips to the middle of the table, how could I not open my studio? Here is my inner self, the last embers of my ego, crush me if you dare.
TV: OMFG. I’m pretty sure that’s what a lot of people’s reactions were when they walked into the old Juke’s, the auto repair shop that used to be housed in this space. I feel like this is the apex of the exhibition. It falls in the middle of everything else—there’s no other way to see it. Here six large charcoal drawings are suspended in space from wire. Some of the drawings are composite and echo elements throughout the exhibition. The circles echo circles you’ve cut through the wall to another studio space you’ve overtaken. There’s a circle cut into the exterior wall that allows viewers to look outside. That may have already been there. There is a repetition between what is created and what exists that resonates throughout the exhibition.
From left to right, there is an image of a cicada, a composite image of an architectural space with a wrapped up unicorn from Paul Qui’s new restaurant in Miami (did that open while you were there for the fair?), and one of Elizabeth’s sculptures. There’s a still life, a drawing of one of your works on display, a mock up you had to do for the exhibition, and an image of a future exhibition you’ll have at the Guggenheim Bilbao. Narratives are weaved between these works, the other works in the gallery, the production of the exhibition, and the soundtrack.
Again, there is this ancient, sacred feeling created by the way you display the work. The darkness encourages quiet and reverence. The presentations of these drawings make me think they inspired the exhibition, but they couldn’t have since some of them are based on other parts of the exhibition. When did you decide how these drawings would be displayed? I have to note that you’re not afraid to draw and draw precisely.
SOS: Charcoal! John Nicol, an artist that I deeply respect, was drawing in his studio one evening and told me that the act of drawing was itself luxurious, indulgent. I thought it was a nice thought, but until I started producing the drawings for this exhibition I didn’t really understand what he meant. After working with non-traditional materials for some time, as John often did, it finally made sense. Charcoal just does what you tell it to, you know? There isn’t the same sort of puzzling out with these more traditional materials—you just tell them to do something and they do it.
The display is important, and helps to make these works something we can view without all the baggage the comes with viewing a piece of work in a stale rectangular frame on a wall. Instead they are floating circles suspended in darkness, portals instead of windows, no corners to get trapped in, and less of a sense of staccato—these aren’t only individual works punctuated by margins of dark space, they are together, with the darkness around them, one complete installation. They represent the cloudy, nebulous, non-linear thinking that I value most in artistic practice, and so the idea that they seem both like plans and after-the-fact reflections seems fitting.
TV: Continuing through COMPLEX 1, there’s a sac-like sculpture hanging beneath the staircase. The remnants from the frames that you use to make Spire, right? And as I move the through the space, the sound makes me look up. The ceiling of the space is beautiful.
SOS: It is, isn’t it? I really want people to pay attention to pump project, both the old bizarre bolted together timbers that hold the complex up, as well as more recent developments like the staircase and second floor. The sac-sculpture is called Risky Business and I enjoy the form because it looks like both the captured immobilized victim of a spider as well as an egg sack, or cocoon. Depending on the viewer’s perspective it can take on wildly different stages in the life cycle. I like to think of plastic as the life-stuff of objects, analogous to blood or the humors for living things. Objects, and not just manufactured objects, are born to us in plastic packaging, and when they die we wrap them in plastic again as they’re thrown away. Ashes to ashes.
TV: Was it intentional that you would be using Elizabeth’s old studio space in this exhibition? You left the room as it was—with her paint still marking the walls. It continues the layers of time throughout the show, but I was curious if you had wanted to incorporate her studio when you conceived of the exhibition?
SOS: This was intentional. At some point it became clear that the exhibition had to be personal, even autobiographical if it was going to be genuine and have the nothing-held-back feel to it. Elizabeth’s old studio had been part of the mix for some time, and it felt right to leave these grungy marks of conception on the wall, a sort of homage to Elizabeth’s missing presence at Pump. For those viewers who are familiar with her practice, this inclusion became an important nod towards Elizabeth’s own creative force, and another acknowledgment to her practice’s effect on mine.
TV: I really enjoyed that her paint and marks were still in the room. And I feel like this is something people leave off most of the time—the huge impact our partners have on our work.
This room includes small white sculptures of painted wood and prints. Two busts sit at one end turned slightly toward each other. The prints, Frame of reference, are the “completions” of the large circular drawings (or the other way around). Then the wall sculptures they are called Offcast, we aren’t told what they are from though. Are the titles of the busts, Francis and Jacob, biblical references or something else? How do the busts ‘complete’ other works in the exhibition?
SOS: The busts represent the synthesis of disparate, incompatible material within the individual. They also demonstrate the relationship between body position and emotion. Jacob was named after its model, a good friend from Wyoming, and Francis was in fact named after St. Francis of Assisi. Jacob looks down, in somber contemplation, eyes open. Francis looks upward and displays a sort of ecstatic surrender. Both are made of cast iron and wood stitched together in a way that is hard to understand. It looks as though the iron is poured directly into the wood, which is a bit of a riddle for those familiar with casting metal, but more importantly an apt analogy for the composition of personality and belief.
The prints and wall sculptures are hung at varying heights throughout the room and so if you were to watch a viewer navigate the space, you might see them alternate between the two poses demonstrated by Jacob and Francis. Adding to that mix is the three holes that pierce the wall into the back gallery where Juke’s used to be. These exaggerate the necessary body positions of the viewer—they may have to crouch to look through one, or strain their neck upward for another. I even saw someone being lifted up by her partner to get to the highest hole which is for almost all viewers simply out of reach. These holes help to create a layering of memory where the same gallery is seen several times from different angles and points in time. For me, every time I look through the holes I can imagine myself the last time I walked through the observed space, I feel like I’m in two places at once—the experience becomes more top down, or third person, and I’m caught empathizing with a phantom self.
TV: Upstairs, Self Portrait, plays a projection of what looks like water falling backwards on a piece of glass. The projector is inside the mouth of a figurative sculpture. Continuing along the balcony, I see that there are bones on the tops of the columns of the first room and at the end of the balcony there is one of two frame sculptures. With Self Portrait and the revealed tops of Upward Momentum, I see a line between conception, birth, time, life, and death that connects all the different works in the gallery. The text you included with the exhibition encompasses much and encourages an evaluation and re-evaluation.
There are also two frames you’ve intervened with—creating these diamond forms (Yonic 1 and 2). One near Self Portrait, and one on the other side, encouraging visitors to also walk up the stairs on the other side of the gallery space. What is it that you enjoy about working with these frames and using an object that customarily holds art to make it?
SOS: I’m interested in the way that framing influences the viewer’s understanding of a work, or more broadly, I’m interested in the way that framing (either physical or cognitive) effects our view of reality. This interview acts as a sort of cognitive frame for the show, viewers who have read it will likely see the show differently. The exhibition text is a different sort of frame. A lot of what I do in life comes down to cognitive reframing—as a critic, a curator, an instructor, and an artist.
In Yonic 1 and Yonic 2 this is conveyed in simple terms by altering a classic frame into a stand alone sculpture. The manipulation inherent in all frames is revealed and the form becomes a bodily thing, a seductive thing, pulling you in. Perhaps that’s a bit explicit, but that’s the point. I think there is a link between design elements implemented in framing and architectural design that tap into sexual desire and attraction.
Self Portrait presents a different type of reframing by reorienting the projected image. Most don’t even recognize the inverted cascade as water, seeing instead the sky, a jet stream, smoke, or even neptune or some other rolling sphere, connections you wouldn’t necessarily make if presented with the whole picture. Here is another suspended circle and against the far wall is it’s absence framed in blue light, just like the relation of the hanging drawings in Juke’s to the Frames of Reference in Elizabeth’s old studio.
As the viewer spends time with the projection, eventually the source comes into question, the viewer steps past the plane of the projected image to find the sculpted human form in the dark. The sound that’s been permeating the exhibition is louder and lower here, at times even shaking the floor. That figure is in a contorted protective pose. Part of that pose is impotent and demasculated, despite a strange raw power of production, creation, and reframing being made clear from the image cast forth from the figure’s mouth. The frustrating contradiction of power and weakness is found throughout the show in different forms, but the works on the second floor make that most explicit.
Finally, the bones atop the pillar/columns bring a sense of completion to the journey through the space. While there are many choices along the way for the viewer, the beginning and the end are usually the same. Here again I attempt to invoke an experiential doubling, the primary memory is re-rendered through the new information presented in a secondary vantage point. No longer are the columns just columns, they are the supports for sky burials, the main gallery revealing itself as charnal grounds.
TV: I saw the exhibition a couple of times as of this writing. Once at night and then again in the day. It’s really different between the two. Viewing the show at different times adds to the layers. How much did you think about that while you were planning?
SOS: It was as much dumb luck as anything else, but it’s so fitting. Sometimes pump project just looks like a dilapidated building ready to give up the ghost at any moment, but at other moments, specific times of day and night, the building becomes temple like, the sun raking through the high windows and illuminating the plastic covered studios, or the strange points of light that trace through the larger gallery spaces from the various piercings and vents in the walls and ceilings.
Early in the morning an entire 3,000 square foot space will be lit red from a one square foot window, and at dusk the absurd industrial timbers take on a weighty presence. That’s demonstrated in one of the large charcoal circles in Juke’s that depict some of the staging of the show, but it can be felt throughout the exhibition. Different times of day highlight different gallery spaces, and that feels right with the connection to life cycles and time that the rest of the works point to.
TV: This is your first exhibition in Austin. You went all out—taking on an amount of risk that is extremely hard for artists to do. You’ve been more active as an art critic and this is your first show to a ‘new’ audience. What is it like to juggle the hats you wear (critic, curator, artist)? With this exhibition, should we expect a shift in the hat you wear the most day-to-day?
SOS: In an ideal world I’d spend 70% of my time in the studio, and split the rest between curating and writing. I’m hoping, somehow, magically, by giving this show everything I’ve got, my world will become a little more ideal. I’ve got some things cooking for COMPLEX 2, and hopefully this show will have built up enough inertia and change in reputation that the support will be there for future exhibitions of this scale, scope, and complexity. Yes, expect a shift.
Thao Votang is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. Votang is the Director of Communications at the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin, which houses the Visual Arts Center, and co-founder of Tiny Park. She drinks with Schwaiger often and used to argue with him frequently about human space travel (invasion). They’ve called a truce, mostly for the benefit of their partners and friends.