Crossing Over / Changing Places (A Conversation)

Recently Jane M Farmer, curator and project director, and Helen Frederick, Artistic Director of Pyramid Atlantic, described their experiences in the act of collaboration.

Tell us first about the title, Crossing Over / Changing Places

Farmer: Crossing Over / Changing Places came from an image I had of a dance where the role of creator was passing back and forth between the printmaster and artist or between the artists themselves to explore artwork which is completely different and innovative. A related theme is that all of the four printshops represented are non-profits and receive state and federal funding which supports the work of under-represented artists. Their art represents personal statements about being a member of a racial, ethnic or gender minority in America and in this context, the viewer is invited to “cross over” to their point of view of America. Those were the levels to which the international collaboration was added when the exhibition of the artists’ work was sent on the European tour.

Tell us more about the printshops involved in the exhibition. Is there a particular spirit to these printshops?

Farmer: These printshops are coming together in a spirit of democracy. If they were shops set up to strictly make money then they wouldn’t be taking the time to work with each other. I visualize a planned consortium of the four printshops called the Crossing Over Consortium which will grow and act as an umbrella or clearinghouse for future international exchanges. As I travel and come across new techniques and ideas I can decide on the spot which printshop would be most appropriate for that particular style. On another level, think of four printshops at once asking for one grant. This is a great idea for tight money times. The grantors are getting maximum exposure for their support.

Is there a benefit to sending artists to introduce the exhibition at different sites?

Farmer: Yes, indeed. Artists can oversee the installation and write a condition report, which saves money for the government in the end by using an artist instead of an overworked embassy staff person. These artists are incredible ambassadors. They normally do a panel, a walking tour, go to the opening, and generate much more interest in the show than if you just send a box over there with pictures in it that the embassy staff displays. Keep in mind that for many of the countries in Eastern Europe, they have not seen American art since the beginning of the Cold War. So sending the artists is important for the interaction and interest that is generated. You get twice the as much exposure and value out of it if you send a person who can interpret the art and explain the techniques, and interact with the people.

How did the American and European artists compare?

Frederick: In the former Eastern-bloc countries, the artists receive rigorous and classical training, which is wonderful in its own right but which is “vertically-channeled,” meaning that if you are a trained painter, you remain a painter, if you are a sculptor, you are a sculptor forever. They are not used to training across disciplines, media, or subject areas as much as American artists. Through this exhibition, we are inviting these artists to cross over to an interdisciplinary approach to creating art.

Farmer: I went around to the Soros Contemporary Arts Centers and asked them to locate artists for the workshops. I put in a special request that not just printmakers or graphics artists participate but other artists too. This was initially a difficult task because SCCA directors were only sending the graphic artists. When the SCCA directors from the various countries came to Pyramid Atlantic and saw the interactive collaboration that was occurring, they were more interested and understood what we were initiating.

: On the other hand, the more classically-trained Eastern European artists have much to share with the American artist as well. Some of the artists use very innovative techniques as well. For instance, Jan Cicera, an artist from Prague, uses a laser in his artwork, which is completely new to our printshops. He will be an artist-in-residence this summer at Pyramid Atlantic

We in the exchange field often talk about a “multiplier-effect” in exchange. In other words, an exchange is an ongoing, constantly evolving process which generates contact and interest well beyond the initial exchange. Did that happen in this case?

Farmer: Yes. As a result of the people I met during the introduction of the exhibition overseas, I initiated an exchange program to bring the artists here. The original intent was for every city the exhibit visited to send a resident artist to one of the American printshops featured in the show. In the end, because of lack of funding we had to cut down the exchange to one artist per country. Jan Cicera from the Czech Republic will be hosted by Pyramid Atlantic; Igor Boudnikov, a Bulgarian artist will be at The Print Club in Philadelphia; Zora Stancic from Ljubljana, Slovenia, will be at the Rutgers Center For Innovative Printmaking and Jagoda Kaloper will be hosted by The Lower East Side Printshop in Manhattan. We are planning on sponsoring more artists in the future.

Frederick: Jane and I have begun contacting cultural attaches from the visiting artists’ embassies to participate in meetings with the incoming artists. Many of these attaches are working artists themselves. We are inviting them to participate on panel discussions and join in with other embassies in the art openings.

What is Crossing Over / Changing Places contribution to mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries?

Farmer: Having visited these countries, I’ll never listen to the news quite the same way. Many people who gain exposure to Americans, whether artists or not, have an entirely different impression of the United States after these exchange encounters. It’s not just MTV and American television that comprise American culture.

Frederick: Also, the idea when you take materials to another culture—it has a profound effect on people. When I visited Prague, I left behind materials I used which absolutely overwhelmed the recipients because they are so often are unable to train with each other using new techniques. In my particular case, the exchange between the American ambassador in Prague and the Czech cultural minister brought a new relationship for them because each had to “bone up” about the exhibition in order to engage each other in conversation. And these art exhibitions have their long-term effect. In his speech, the Minister of Culture referred to another United States sponsored art opening in 1968.

Farmer: By the time the exhibit is over, it will have been to 20 countries. Out of the four-year tour, each of the Mid-Atlantic shops will likely have a permanent relationship with two or three places where artists from these shops had visited and formed relationships with artists there.