Fruit from a Long Dialogue with Artist Ann Klefstad

— Artists On the Edge —

It wasn’t long after I came to Duluth in 1986 that I discovered how many interesting people have transplanted themselves here from various parts of the country. East Coast connections included a pair of ad agency folk from Greenwich Village, a photographer from New Jersey and myself… and the West Coast connections seemed equally numerous.

Actually, artists and writers have been coming here for decades — including Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, who happened to live here concurrent with the birth of Robert Zimmerman who also grew up to win a Nobel Prize winner for literature. This city stretched along the largest freshwater lake in the world is favored for its clean air, spectacular views and natural beauty. (Though it does test one’s mettle when we get a minus-30 cold snaps.)

One such addition to the community is Ann Klefstad, who was deeply immersed in the L.A. art scene before bringing her sensibilities here to the Midwest. Many of us in the arts noticed her byline in the Duluth News Tribune as she covered the arts for several years, first as a freelance art reviewer and then as the arts and entertainment reporter. It doesn’t take long to realize she is quite articulate as well as a talented artist herself.

Ed Newman: What was your role in creating

Ann Klefstad: Mnartists was an idea that Neal Cuthbert (who was arts program head at McKnight Foundation) and Steve Dietz (who was then curator of net art for the Walker Art Center) came up with. They soon enlisted Robin Dowden, who headed the programmers at the Walker. After the initial website had been set up as a database of Minnesota artists, they realized that they needed more frontpage content to drive traffic to the site.

They hired me to do that. The initial idea was to run some writing, articles on art. I developed it into a regular online journal, eventually with ten articles every week. We hired a couple of other people as well, an admin manager and a community manager, and eventually we did, among other things, What Light, the poetry contest, and a monthly print magazine called 10,000 Arts, in partnership with The Rake magazine.

I should tell you the story of my interview for the job of editor at mnartists. I sat in a meeting room at the Walker with Neal, Steve, and Robin and we talked for an hour. It was really fun. I walked down the hall afterward thinking, I really like these people. And before I got to the door my cell phone rang and they offered me the job. It was a good fit.

I was there from 2001–2007, when I quit to take the job of arts and entertainment reporter at the Duluth News Tribune.

EN: How did you become interested in sculpture and what do you like most about this kind of work you that have been doing for schools and public spaces?

AK: I’ve always done sculpture. My degree is in sculpture, writing, and aesthetics, but my primary practice was sculpture. Everything else took the lead from that. I really like designing and making things, not just ideation. I like the way that materials tell you things.

What I like about making public art, there’s a need. People are coming to you saying, we need a work of art and we need it to embody certain things about us, our site, what we do. And l like designing things that will do that. I’m a communicator and an editor. ­ I enjoy the voices of others, I like finding form for meaning. I welcome the ideas of the people I work with on public art projects. I find that if I really hear them, they almost always make the work better.

EN: You spent a decade or more in the L.A. art scene. How would you compare what is happening in the Twin Ports to what you saw and experienced there?

AK: That was a long time ago now: I was in LA early ’80s to early ’90s. We did see a fair amount of the art scene then and there, but LA was at the time struggling to create a more cohesive scene. During those years, New York was very much the center of things in the US and Berlin and Koln were very hot in Europe. LA still thought of itself as a bit of a backwater, at least in the early part of that decade. The gallery district moved from established galleries on La Brea, to more artist-centered spaces downtown (especially after the Temporary Contemporary, an old bus garage refitted by Frank Gehry, opened), to the gallery district that eventually became a more viable scene in Santa Monica.

There were at least 5 fairly important art grad programs in the area, though, and they (especially Cal Arts) became important in supplying young artists who energized the scene — but they tended to leave for New York or Europe after a few years.

Various things became hot and then evaporated: “bad drawing”, revivals of painting, Baldessari-derived conceptual uses of photography, invocations of pop culture, reversions to classicism . . . almost all, though, were at least somewhat calculated to sell in the quite heated art market of the time, which really snaffled up very young artists. It was a very fashion-driven scene.

There were, like here, a few artists’ collectives, but it was a much more every-man-for-himself scene than here. There was a sense that the stakes were high in terms of individual careers, but low in terms of the broader cultural relevance of artmaking. In other words, artists were making art for arts professionals — gallerists, curators, critics, art departments, other artists. No one else took much notice. Peter Plagens’ art criticism was really the only writing on art in the popular media (like newspaper, magazines, etc), in the very large city of millions of people and likely thousands of artists. There was the sense that if you could catch the right eyes, you could be launched, be a fashionable artist whose works sold for tens or hundreds of thousands, and if you didn’t, you were nothing. It felt kind of desperate and sweaty.

EN: Were you doing public art in L.A.?

AK: I didn’t do art publicly in LA. I did ink paintings on paper of plants in my backyard. They seemed massively irrelevant to what was going on in the local artworld. A friend of mine was the curator of contemporary art at LA County Museum, and he kindly looked at this pile of ink drawings and said — I can’t remember, exactly, but I think it had to do with establishing a critical context for the work and finding some way of presenting them other than a roll of paper.

What is happening here — some similarities with that era in LA in that the former critical contexts that people sort of half-know are not really relevant to what is being made, and there don’t seem to be discussions that establish some critical footing for work other than individually. So there is no sort of stylistic discourse, work doesn’t talk to other work, which creates a kind of amateur’s paradise in which every man or woman can be his own Dali or Pollack or Salle or Schnabel or Basquiat.

Ever since about 1980, it seems, concurrent with the rise of the internet, art history went from being a sort of arrow shot into the future, unraveling a series of styles inhabited in turn by artists who talked to each other, to being a market-driven free-for-all in which artists’ works are conceived as individual hopeful gestures, walled away from discourse with the culture and with each other. This could be seen in LA then, and in Duluth now.

EN: You were an early part of an arts community called Fluxus, taken from a Latin word that means “to flow”… What was Fluxus all about and how did it influence you?

AK: I definitely was not an “early part” of the arts community called Fluxus, though I am a part of a group of followers of the movement that lives on the web with occasional forays into what is often called “the real world.” There is a fair amount of debate over what this group of artists should be called: Fluxus? PostFluxus? Young Fluxus? Some original members of the group think that no one should be allowed to use the name except members of the original group.

Fluxus was an international art movement started by George Maciunas in the ’60s, which incorporated music (John Cage, Henry Flynt, many others), performance art (lots of people including Dick Higgins, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono, Ken Friedman), visual art (Robert Rauschenberg, Ben Vautier, George Brecht), mail art (Ray Johnson, Robert Filliou, many others) and other stuff, including word experiments etc., that were picked up by groups like the OuLiPo and Harry Mathews and more.

It was a period of incredible ferment in the 60s and 70s, largely below the radar of the semi-official arts community that was pushing big museum-bound abstract painting and sculpture, secretly promoted by (of all people) the CIA to establish the cultural (and financial) dynamism of the free American art world. What people think of as “radical” about the ’60s art world (abstraction, minimalism, gigantism) was actually far more conservative than Fluxus and other movements and groupings that were trying to establish a place for art in everyday life, rather than in investment-bound galleries and corporately supported museums.

In any case, two original Fluxus members, Dick Higgins and Ken Friedman, were intrigued in the early ’90s with the potential of the web to foster groupings and art play like Fluxus. So they started what at the time was called a “mailing list”: just an email list of people to whom all postings to the list would be sent by email. Very simple and primitive, in keeping with everyone’s very slow dialup connections. There was no web site or anything like that — this is when “web sites” were sparse, and the hip thing in websites was the Jodi collective, who did goofy visual things with ASCI code.

So early on, when this mailing list had only a few members, Gunnar Swanson, a professor of graphic design at UMD, recommended I join it, so I did, as I knew about Fluxus from back in the 70s, when I followed it through the magazine Art International (US art mags didn’t cover it much). Years before, in the early 80s when I lived in San Francisco, working in a bakery nights and wandering around during the day, I had started to do various Fluxus-inspired kinds of street art — walking backwards all one afternoon through Nob Hill streets; on my way home from a bakery shift at 5 am, carefully placing eggs under the windshield wipers of cars on my street like parking tickets; the next week doing the same thing with oranges. Just things that would crack the façade of the day, let in a little surprise, pleasant uncertainty.

I also started to do drawings again then, too. Fluxus was never “against” things like painting, not being very religious about style or manner. I lived up the hill from Chinatown and so the materials available to me were Chinese. I bought them and used them to make ink paintings on sheets of Chinese thin laid paper. The street stuff just kept the spirit alive — you know, kept me off the treadmill. It reinstated the hope for everyday miracles that creativity depends on.

And Fluxus is still an important influence for me. A few years back (2003, I think) the Tweed brought to Duluth a retrospective of Dick Higgins’ work curated by his daughter Hannah Higgins after his death. I curated a show of new Fluxus event score works to run with it called “The Secret Life of Fluxus” — because there are many artists all over the world, connected by the Fluxlist (which still exists), who still practice Fluxus modes such as the event score: this is just a set of instructions, which, if you follow them, will produce the work. We produced a couple of these works for the show — two of Dick’s (a performance work and a choral-music take on one of his text works composed by Justin Rubin) and a performance work written by a Duluth artist — I can’t remember who just now! But it did involve a BB gun, a sheet of tin, saltine crackers, and whistling.

EN: Why are the arts an important part of any community?

AK: “The arts” — it would be good if they were not so compartmentalized, and I think that may finally come about over the years.

Obviously, people in any community tend to get stuck, treadmilled, in ruts, trapped — by fears mostly, by habits ingrained because they reduce the fears, by not seeing wonders, in fact by not seeing anything that isn’t familiar, and fearing strangeness if, by chance, they should happen to get a glimpse of it.

This is where prejudice arises, where hate grows. Because people are afraid — of economic disaster, of being unwanted, of boredom, of discovering they are not who they think they are, of being asked to love something they can’t love, of a million things. And they hate being afraid. So they find people or things to blame for their fears. And they then can never get rid of their fears, because the false blame, the hostility, prevents them from understanding the actual source of their fears, so they could work their way out of them.

And that stuck state makes people unable to create or think anything new, unable to believe in any change. A community becomes brackish, a backwater, without the stream of new life flowing through it.

That’s what art should be, that stream. In big cities where a lot of artists congregate, people become more used to novelty, better able to innovate, more tolerant of complexity — these are good things for the culture in general, for being human in general.

But each community needs to generate its own stream. The stream needs to originate nearby, to flow through the stagnation, to wash away some of the fear and hate. The stream is composed of people who aren’t afraid to be laughed at, who aren’t afraid to be stigmatized as weird, who can see people other than them as still human, human in new or unknown ways, who can take in otherness and make newness of it. These people, ideally, can make communications –which is what artworks are, whether they are visual or verbal or performances or music — that carry that emotional and intellectual openness into their communities, that can be –ideally — assimilated by their fellow citizens because, though new, they come from a familiar place.

That’s why I think every community needs art. Though I suppose a case can be made that it’s an economic driver in a tourist economy.

EN: The visual arts world is fairly fragmented right now (and maybe has always been) so that it has no real center. What are the pros and cons of this contemporary situation?

AK: There have certainly been times when the visual arts world in the West has had a strong center — in fact, during most of Western history it has. The various art worlds in other parts of the world have also had their centers — usually, the capital of whatever place. In T’ang China, it was Xian, in 18th-19th-century Japan, it was Edo. In the European Renaissance it was urban Italy. In the nineteenth century in Euro-American culture, it was Paris. After WWII it was New York. The tendency, as a matter of fact, for the various art worlds is for artists to travel to whatever is the art capital at the time, to access the intense discussion and interest and availability of materials and infrastructure (and money and patrons) that such centralized communities produce.

The contemporary situation is fragmented for various reasons. One, the visual arts world is no longer in the cultural forefront, as it truly was for centuries in a number of cultures. So the economic force has shifted to other forms of creativity — digital, filmic — which tend to rely on the same kind of complex infrastructure and funding that an entity like Raphael’s studio had need of. Those worlds are somewhat centralized: Seattle and Silicon Valley are certainly creative centers in much the same way Rome or Paris were in their days. Los Angeles or Mumbai are creative centers in that way too.

Second, when what you are making can be made by you, a lone individual, in a room somewhere, and sent to wherever you need it seen by means of the web; when galleries are seen online far more often, by far more people, than they are seen in person, the need for physical centers changes.

Also, the rise of replicable imagery over the past 200 years, culminating in the wide availability of the entire art history of the world in studios from Latvia to subSaharan Africa to Beijing to Fargo to New York, and the availability of blogs and forums to discuss all this, means that the Cedar Bar is everywhere, and there is no dominant style. All bets are off; critical mass is irrelevant; and transient memes are as relevant as signature styles.

Benefits are obvious: communities can have artists in residence that are as formidable, as talented, as committed, as artists in the capital used to be. If they’re lucky in the artists who live there. If they can support them.

Drawbacks are perhaps less obvious. The Cedar Bar, and studio visits back and forth, supported a mode of artmaking in which people couldn’t do such a part-time, back-burnered practice as is often now done. In those days, you were on. You had to produce, or people wouldn’t take you seriously. Now you can be far more surreptitious about your art life. I think that may mean that people sort of hobbyize it. That’s fine, but not if you want your work to make a difference in the world. I’m guilty of this myself.

EN: You made reference to the manner in which Duluth really has something to offer as a cultural model to emulate, chiefly due to the manner in which it has both a rural and urban sensibility. Can you elaborate on this a little bit.

AK: Duluth’s oddly rural components are good for artists, as people have a habit and a value of made things, of making things. They are not only consumers.

Duluth also has, considering its size, a surprisingly urban sensibility. It’s an old-fashioned, not much sprawled or malled, city. A fair number of its people look for cultural experiences that are challenging and skilled.

It also has such intensity in its setting and weather that people are sensually more alive than in some places, I think. This is good for artists too.

EN: You recently referred to the artists of the world as “border scouts”… What did you mean by this term?

AK: The artists of the world have always been border scouts! That is, most people do not have the luxury or the desire to roam the edges of their psyches, or the borders of what’s possible. But the collective human enterprise needs to have news of those edges, those borders, for a number of reasons: new discoveries; keeping a culture from being overwhelmed by lies; and allowing individuals access to collective truths.

New discoveries come from the borders of the psyche, the edges of experience, new knowledges of what makes us human. Someone needs to bring news of the realms that tie us to the nonhuman world, those conduits to our animal natures, or our soul-natures, or our object natures, that we don’t consciously focus on but that do form huge and necessary parts of our psyches. But that exploration has risks. Not everyone wants to run the risks, or thinks that it’s worth it to do so.

Artists are often those who invite those risks, both psychic and physical, who are willing to patrol those borders, and bring back the news to the rest of their people. Nowadays, in the post-shamanic era let’s call it, that isn’t how the artist’s role is often described, but it is a very old role, probably the oldest role of the artist, and one that is still current, I believe. In the modern era people as different as Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol (who were fans of each other) have performed this role. When Beuys spoke of his life as “posthumous” what he meant was, he had resolved to leave his old life of reasonable expectations and self-centered accumulation and enter instead a life of exploration, in which he gave himself to whatever he might find. Warhol was not so different, although the wilderness he explored was the urban and social one of New York.

To my mind, artists do three basic things. One is to patrol the borders; the other (and this is just as important in its way) is to decorate — that is, to find the forms and colors that symbolize, or iconize, meanings that people share — doesn’t have to be the whole community who shares them. Maybe just a maker and the person whose face she is decorating; or a group of friends who all love to drum and sing together. Art doesn’t need to change things to be utterly authentic and necessary. It just has to embody something that is authentic and necessary to its maker and to some form of audience. And sometimes it’s just done for fun — and that’s also so necessary! Open-ended play — that kind of exploration is another role of the artist, maybe the one that creates the artist, who can then create art.

EN: It seems you have thought about these issues for a long time. Who have been the primary sources of the ideas that form the foundations of your thinking?

AK: I studied aesthetics (not in the sense of “making things look nice” but as a branch of philosophy) in college, working with Fred Stoutland at St. Olaf’s Paracollege, who kindly agreed to a series of tutorials even though he was primarily a philosopher of language, influenced by Wittgenstein. So that grounded my thinking in many ways. The ways in which things mean, and what those ways imply for the forms that things take. I eventually wrote a paper on metaphor as a sort of master trope that can be found in mimetic visual arts as well as in language.

Arthur Danto’s ideas on what makes art art were influential. And I found Panofsky’s film writings interesting — film being a medium that incorporates visual signification, story, temporality, all that.

But I was always more invested in making art than in doing philosophy, and so I looked mostly among sculptors for good thinking about art. Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, and very much Robert Smithson were important for me. Fluxus artists like Dick Higgins, Yoko Ono, and Ken Friedman. Though arts critics like Rosalind Krauss were also important. In later years, Dave Hickey’s writings about art in the context of daily life as well as the artworld have been important — and they’re a gas to read.

And you’re right — this has been a continuous study for nearly 40 years. I’ve fallen away from art-magazine reading in part because they seem repetitious at this point — the issues they address have gone round and round in the culture . . . It’s like watching the dryer at the laundromat. There’s that shirt again! (For people who aren’t so damn old, it’s likely fine. They’ve maybe never seen the shirt before . . . ) What I’ve been reading now is online stuff like “Dazed Digital”, the online instantiation of “Dazed and Confused,” a London arts-and-culture magazine that covers everything from ad culture to poppy music to weird music to photography and sculpture and design and shoes, all in the same context. And not as a shoppers’ guide, really — they write about things as actions and not as objects. That seems fresh.

EN: Thank you, Ann, for enriching us this week.

My interview with Ann Klefstad in one of 20 that I’d prepared for a book with the working title Artists on the Edge. Over the past ten years I’ve interviewed 150–200 artists for the Reader Weekly in Duluth or on my Ennyman’s Territory blog. My aim in sharing was to build a greater appreciation for the local arts scene here in the Northland.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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