Fall 2020 Visiting Artists & Critics Program Features Caroline Woolard
"I believe that artists can make economic justice irresistible. Artists can bring the sensory, and the wisdom that is held in the body, into interdisciplinary projects."
Q: We are so pleased that you are able to join us this fall for our Visiting Artists & Critics Program--virtual series. As an arts educator, what do you hope students will take away from participating in your courses?
A: The most important thing for me is that I work with students to become more aware of what matters to them. I hope to support them to build the confidence and awareness of their agency to make their ideas manifest. From building things to research skills to exploring materials to improving technical acumen, I seek to create a learning environment that supports students in their pursuit of ideas. My Projects, Platforms, and Practices provides a framework to encourage students to think organizationally in order to imagine how our artwork and ideas might circulate in the world, and to take action. This framework is a tool to help students set a strong touchstone that they can rely on throughout their process. My book for arts educators, called Making and Being, which came out in 2019 and is co-authored with my collaborator Susan Jahoda, offers collaborative and contemplative practices and free PDFs online.
The book that just came out of my 2020 Fellowship at Moore College of Art & Design, called Art, Engagement, Economy: the Working Practice of Caroline Woolard, reflects deeply upon my own practice in an attempt to communicate the material conditions of the way I work, alongside imagery of finished projects. I aim to provide information about the specific ways that I move from a big vision of the solidarity arts economy to the everyday practices and structures that are required when working on interdisciplinary projects. I hope students engaged in this work will be able to understand and then debate the skills required to manage, mediate, and make public projects.
Q: Has your artistic elevator speech changed in recent years? (AKA how do you describe your work to people?)
A: My artistic description shifts, but my core driver remains consistent—I believe that artists can make economic justice irresistible. Artists can bring the sensory, and the wisdom that is held in the body, into interdisciplinary projects. For example, I create videos, objects, and events for worker-owned businesses, and for people who are interested in an economy that works for all people rather than just the wealthy.
Another way of saying this is: in making my art, I become an economic critic, a social justice facilitator, a media maker, and sculptor. Since the financial crisis of 2007-8, I have catalyzed barter communities, minted local currencies, founded an arts-policy think tank, and created sculptural interventions in office spaces. It is my aim to inspire artists who wish to create self-organized, collaborative, online platforms alongside sculptural objects and installations.
What is economic justice, and what can artists do? I have skills with graphic design and new media and sculpture, and I can contribute that to existing work for workplace dignity, for example, by bringing these skills to worker cooperatives; to support affordable housing, for example, with community land trusts; or any mutual aid network that needs a way to think about visibility, nuance, and speaking without words, visually.
We all get into this work, I'd say, on some level, because we believe that we should be in control of our labor, that we want to determine when we're clocking in and when we're clocking out. Which, as a caveat, I'd say is true of all people, but it gets to be romanticized and projected as a sense of subjectivity or way of being for artists. In a worker cooperative, every worker has a vote or a say in the decisions that are made. So anyway, let's say the artist gets to claim when they work. And if this is the case, then the artist should imagine that they could pool their resources with other artists in order to determine when they work and also to create a livelihood together.
For example, good friends of mine in New York run a filmmaking collective and cooperative called Meerkat Media. And what it means is that they're able to work together as really great filmmakers, and not have their day job on the one hand, which doesn't respect them, and their artistic career on the other hand, which maybe happens late at night. They get to be together all day producing films for groups that are aligned with their values, and the surplus money they make goes into a collective pool that they can use for their independent projects. And they're able to do things like buy $50,000 cameras together, have a health insurance fund, think about maternity leave, and really be clear with one another about what happens at scale when you work together.
My life’s work is to imagine and enact models of cooperation in the arts by co-creating online platforms, installations, and events that celebrate the collective power that emerges as people work together. Though I am often cited as a socially engaged or conceptual artist, I consider myself to be a cultural producer whose interdisciplinary work facilitates social imagination at the intersection of art, technology, design, and political economy. I make artworks and designed objects as well as contexts for the circulation of these objects. For example, I create printed matter for barter exchanges and also co-create international barter networks. I design speculative she-wolf tables and also convene investment platforms for community land trusts. I create card games for the commons as I also direct a study center for group work. Together, objects and contexts allow for reflection, circulation, and social transformation.
In the past decade, I have created discrete sculptures and videos while also co-creating interdisciplinary art, advocacy, and research projects: (1) OurGoods.org, software that facilitates non-monetary exchanges between artists (2008-2016), (2) TradeSchool.coop, a program for peer learning in thirty cities globally (2009-2019), (3) BFAMFAPhD.com, an advocacy platform for cultural equity (2013-present), (4) the New York City Real Estate Investment Cooperative, to democratically finance affordable space (2015-present), and (5) StudyCollaboration.com, a library of collaborative methods used by artists (2016-present). My multi-year projects establish contexts for emergent objects; this approach has gained notoriety across the fields of art, design, technology, and cultural policy.
Q: What do you hope is a primary concept/thought that individuals will have in exploring your artwork? What is it that they potentially learned or felt?
A: Lately, the work I’ve been making contemplates how to become present with yourself in a group. I've been working with an object to become present with an object in a group. Creating work that offers opportunities to be more self-aware and spaces of reflection. I hope a person exploring my work thinks about how we as an individual, they show-up in a group. The sensations that they would feel more alive in their sensations, the tactility—the touch, smell, the now of the moment in the installation. Also, I like making things that seem like they came from a dream that evoke a sense of awe, imagination, and give access to making something impossible possible. You can see that work here: https://miriamgallery.com/exhibition/a-stone-holds-water
Q: Your website, carolinewoolard.com, is filled with an amazing volume of guidance, tools, and resources. What inspired creating such a content rich site?
A: When I was 23, working a night shift from 10pm–6am as a studio monitor at Cooper Union, from which I had just graduated, I found a website from a group called The Community Economies Collective. The knowledge and connections I found there changed my life. I read everything on the website, and contacted the info@ email address. They put me in touch with people living and working for the community economy, or solidarity economy, in my neighborhood. Eventually, I was welcomed into a community of visual artists, as an artist myself, and into the solidarity economy movement, as an activist. I found “home” with people making conceptual art and with people organizing for economic justice, and for the solidarity economy, in New York City. Ever since then, I have made sure that I put as much information online as I can, to support other people who cannot access things in person during the day in New York City.
Q: In reading your past interviews and exploring your Projects, Platforms, and Practices framework, I'm wondering about your sense of practicality. Breaking art process down to the practicality of "doing" and "doing together." Do you think your personal sense of practicality influences your work? Or am I totally off the mark?
A: Yes, you are right on the mark. I studied graphic design and sculpture because I realized that everything I make will come back to me at some point. Being together in an event, cooking, making a space beautiful, these overlap between design, art, and craft. There's humility in making a piece that will likely come back for your own home, community members space, or friends’ home. As I made something, I think: Can it fit in my home or my friend's or neighbor's house? If a sculpture doubles as a chair or table, then it's an entry point - it's a form of inclusion. I like the challenge of ergonomics, making that work in sculpture.
Many artists have a sense that art and life should be fused. We know that art does not belong exclusively in galleries, museums, or in institutional spaces, as creativity is everywhere and cannot be contained or made scarce. Even if we show our work in galleries and museums, we know that the majority of things we make will come back home to live with us. Every art object and action cannot be collected, or sold; creativity is abundant, overflowing, daily.
And so, for most of us, the question arises: How can I fuse art and life?
Should my art live in the streets, to support political protest?
Should my art live in a garden, to support regenerative life?
Should my art live in a home, to support maintenance and social reproduction
Should my art live in a learning space, to support skill sharing and growth?
In 2013, I decided: my art should live in meetings, to support discussion and debate about the solidarity economy. The solidarity economy means economic justice, an economy that works for all people, not just a few. This began a long exploration of ways to fuse my love of group processes with my love of object-making.
In 2018, I realized that I had spent over a decade in meetings, and that meetings could be sites for more beauty, joy, and reflection. My new work takes “the meeting” itself—the gathering of people for a formal purpose—as a site for artistic and social intervention. I began to learn facilitation practices from the DePaul Labor Education Center, Ombuds, and the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (USFWC), the national grassroots membership organization for worker-owned businesses. In cooperatives, workers share profits and participate in oversight, and often in the management of the enterprise, using democratic practices. Facilitation—the skillful guiding of the meeting process—is a key part of running a cooperative or self-organized group, because people in horizontal groups such as a cooperative share power and must attend meetings in order to make decisions together.
I am devoted to meetings where everyone attends voluntarily, where people are not obligated by a boss to be present. I spend the majority of my time in meetings with two to twenty people that take place in community groups, cooperatives, artist-run spaces, and collectives; I prefer these spaces to meetings that happen in workplaces where workers do not get to weigh in on the conditions that they work within. In the best moments, in voluntary meetings, there is a sense among participants that the process is spontaneous, collaborative, and transformative.
Q: When you make art, do you listen to music or podcasts? If so, what's on your playlist?
A: When I’m doing hand-building with clay, which has been happening lately, I listen to Zoom discussions online or artist’s lectures like Stephanie Syjuco’s or Catalina Ouyang’s talks or videos from Art21. I listen to podcasts while walking, like Seeing White and NPR's CodeSwitch or Artists in Presidents https://artistsinpresidents.com/.