Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Caroline Mak: Take Two

This month on Art Works we're catching up with some artists and arts organizations that we've previously been featured on the blog and in other NEA publications to ask, "What are you up to now?" Brooklyn-based visual artist---and Brooklyn Soda Works co-founder---Caroline Mak graciously agreed to lead off the series. The British-born, Hong Kong-raised multimedia artist has exhibited work in solo and group shows at venues including the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, the Hong Kong Art Fair, and the Brooklyn Arts Council. She has held residencies at Elsewhere Collaborative and Gallery Aferro, and is also the recipient of the Emerging Artist Fellowship from Socrates Sculpture Park. We spoke with Mak about how her residencies continue to resonate in her work, the connections between food and art, and what she's learned from working with found and discarded objects.

NEA: We interviewed you for Art Works in September 2010 when you had just finished your residency at Elsewhere Collaborative? What's your artist's life like these days?

CAROLINE MAK: It's still hectic, mainly because I also started a food business in 2010 and, like always, it's hard to find the perfect balance. Luckily, I've used the opportunity of working in both food and art to try to work out if---and how---I can integrate the two practices, and what connections there are between the processes of making art and making food. Specifically I've become increasingly interested in understanding the futility involved in spending hours working on a time intensive installation, and the futility that comes with working in a kitchen for hours to create an edible product that is consumed within seconds.

I suppose I'm trying to understand if my work with food in the kitchen, and my work in my art studio can ever relate---without having to think of myself as a 'food artist'.

NEA: How has the residency continued to influence or shape your art practice?

MAK: Looking back at it now, I can say that there is value in being given the chance to work in a challenging environment---the living and working conditions at Elsewhere Collaborative were quite hard, both physically and mentally, and the building was over 90 degrees for a portion of the month I was there---and to figure out how one can try to separate out their live space from their work space. That residency was the first time that there was no boundary between my work and domestic spheres.

NEA: Shortly after the Elsewhere Collaborative residency, you received a BRIC Media Fellowship. What kinds of projects did you work on? And how has that residency impacted your current work?

MAK: The BRIC Media Fellowship really provided me with the means and the impetus to create my first video piece, which I eventually exhibited at my solo exhibition at Gallery Aferro in Newark, New Jersey. With resources from the BRIC Fellowship, I documented a two-day-long performative piece called Dispense/Re-spool, which was an investigation into the absurdity of trying to reverse an action. I painstakingly unspooled a reel of regular Scotch tape, ripping off one-inch lengths and creating a tower of tape squares. Then, on the second day, I carefully unpeeled the tape and attempted to put it back into a spool.

NEA: What would you say are the significant milestones in your artistic work that have happened since we last spoke?

MAK: I had a one-person show at Gallery Aferro (which was one of residencies I did in 2010), which really forced me to think about how I should exhibit a cohesive body of work in a large space. Rather than create a site-specific installation (which is how I usually work), I wanted to exhibit a number of sculptures that I had been working on for the past year or so. I took my interest in futile repair (something I had started thinking about at Elsewhere Collaborative) and expanded it to include work on other discarded and found objects---enacting out failed mimicry of an actual biological process. For the exhibition, I created a series of objects that had been pointlessly repaired. The sculptural objects originated from found and discarded materials in my everyday life, as well as from the vast resources of eBay where barely functioning goods could still have a second life. The objects I gravitated to ranged from broken ladders and chairs to punctured inner tubes, and included an absurd collection of reconstructed detritus from my daily life in the studio---tangerine peels, pencil shavings, and used paper towels.

Then in fall 2011, I created a new installation for Brooklyn Arts Council in their gallery called Chain Reaction, which was a twenty-five-foot-long installation that spanned the length of their long corridor-like gallery. In conjunction with the show I had the opportunity to work in a couple of public programming events. I used one of them to put together an evening called "Art/is/an/eating," showcasing the food of artists who also work in the food world---either as food artists in their own right or as chefs/food artisans by day and artists by night. My question was, "What is it about these two disciplines and materials that draw and attract so many of the same people?" I had honey from Peter Nadin's farm (he's an example of someone who clearly loves his farm, has a deep physical connection to the edible items he creates, and has transferred that visceral connection to his art work) and gorgeous tile-like cookies from Sugarbuilt and mini-zines made by Eat Art NYC that mapped connections between two works of art and two dishes.

NEA: Since we first interviewed you, we've started asking our contributors their thoughts on  the role of the artist in the community, and the responsibility of the community to the artist.

MAK: That's a tough one, especially when asked during an economic downturn period where we've seen funding to a variety of disciplines cut. I do believe that artists do need to be considered part of the community, whether it's in a more tangible sense such as sharing ideas or engaging with the community on projects, or even by working in isolation, because even by working in isolation the artist is contributing some type of cultural capital to the community and diversifying the society.

As for the responsibility of the community to the artist, that is perhaps an even harder question. The answer ranges so much depending on what country, system, or society you ask. Do we provide space/education/funds/ time/ recognition to the artist? Do we only provide these things if the artist is providing a type of tangible product or labor for the community? If things like education and health care are having their funding reduced, how do you continue to be responsible for artists?

NEA: If we were to get in touch with you in another 18 months, what projects would you hope to be working on?

MAK: I am genuinely hoping to make larger steps in trying to understand the intersection between the the process of art production and food production---not to just expand on the concept of "food art," which has become an increasingly popular form of art, but to address why there is so much cross pollination. A friend (who I have also collaborated with in the past) has been throwing around the idea of putting together a panel for SXSW (South by Southwest) next year on the intersections between our interest in food, art, and technology. So hopefully in 18 months I'll be able to tell you how that went!

NEA: One of the things we've started looking at in the last year is innovation. What's your definition of innovation? And who are some artists---in visual arts or other disciplines---who you think are doing innovative work and why?

MAK: Innovation in the past couple of years has meant increasing the types of ways, and avenues, that you can use to get a project off the ground. This has meant looking beyond the traditional ways of exhibiting art or applying for grants and funds. Platforms like Kickstarter or other crowd-sourced sites, while they have their limitations, have illustrated how traditional methods of fundraising may no longer be the best or quickest route, and it's fascinating to see how this has helped along innovative ideas---ideas that may not have received the attention they deserved without this new type of more open forum.

Rather than pin pointing out specific artists who I think are innovative, I've come to greatly appreciate innovative and creative ways for showcasing and curating art, whether it's in adventurous and innovative settings or in non-traditional cross disciplinary forms. A couple of particularly interesting places that I believe showcase innovative artists or programming that have become my 'go-to' places for seeing/ hearing new things in new york are: Triple Canopy, the online magazine and platform that collaborates with writers, artists, designers and researchers, and Brooklyn based Issue Project Room, which presents several dozen new artists from a variety of disciplines in the visual and performing arts, with a focus on music and sound art.

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