Amber Ginsburg works frequently with clay but her work responds to histories, locations and narratives in a way that is not bound by specific materials or methods of expression. She often works collaboratively and engages audiences in a participatory manner, creating dynamic site specific installations. Amber generously shared her time to answer a few questions I had about her work and process.
When were you first introduced to ceramics?
I was first introduced to ceramics at Santa Cruz High School in the 80s. Looking back it was a rare and remarkable experience. We were well trained and once we knew what we were doing, Mark Levy, the instructor, let us have free reign of the studio. A group of us fired the down draft kiln for the studio and we mixed our own glazes. There was a strong studio ethic and a close-knit group of us worked late into the night, mostly throwing. The ceramics studio became a second home where we shared food on the plates and bowls we made.
Have you always had an interest in history? How did this interest develop?
I am primarily interested in using history to draw out a narrative. In High School I leaned towards literature and science, which where taught as tools to look at how we live. History was, unfortunately, presented a series of names and dates. Ironically, it was through fiction that I began to love history. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker were just a few of my invitations into history. Literature takes a history and brings the reader to that time and place through the telling of the story. Literature also has the benefit of not striving to fix a truth, but rather to get at an idea through imagination.
It wasn’t until I attended the University of California at Santa Cruz in the mid 80’s that history itself became a relevant and important material. History was not something that happened a long time ago, but something that was happening right this second. My first woman’s history course taught me history is the way we live life.
When did you realize you wanted to work collaboratively with other artists, history and objects?
Working with history and objects are more obvious extensions of my interests than collaboration. I did not set out to work collaboratively. Instead, it developed by accident. After living in Japan and Holland for three years, my family and I settled in Urbana, Illinois where my husband Tom began teaching at the University and our three daughters were all in school (I had decided not to homeschool anymore). I found I had the time to follow through on a commitment I made to myself in Japan, not be a hobbyist, as so many talented and accomplished women I met there called themselves. I found studio and gallery space at Boneyard Pottery, run by Michael Schwegmann, who turned out to be a generous teacher by sheer example of skill and began working with clay as a defined career.
After a few years as a production potter, I found my hands making bowls while my mind imagined large and complex projects. I decided to stop thinking and start doing. I went back to school to work on large-scale installations. An unexpected outcome was that I began working collaboratively.
To cast 3000 pounds of plaster into bricks as part of my first solo show, I rented studio space at Opensource Art, a not for profit collective art space in downtown Champaign. It did not take long before I was an active member in the democratic structure of the organization and began helping to curate and host exhibitions, lectures and contemporary art events of all stripes. Between the necessity for debate and the remarkable things accomplished by a small group of us at Opensource, I began to find collaboration a more challenging and dynamic way to work. My first collaborator on a site specific and historically driven project was a fellow Opensoure member, Katie Hargrave. We have been collaborating since, for almost ten years.
Do you have specific ceramic influences?
While I get art crushes easily and love many people’s work, my real influences have always been my mentors/teachers. My first teacher, Mark Levy in High School, trusted us and made hard work part of the joy of the process. I have had the pleasure of working with Ron Kovach at the University of Illinois, Paul Sacaridiz and Tyler Lotz at the Illinois State, and Kitty Ross, Javier Toubes and Anders Ruwald at the School of the Art Institute, to name a few.
I am particularly indebted to Paul Sacardiz who, rather than try to curb my various interests, encouraged me to chuck them all together and trusted I would learn to edit, and Kitty Ross, who through her own remarkable practice introduced me to long term research into specific and beautifully esoteric histories.
Do you always wait for something to spark an idea or do you sometimes search and seek out ideas for a project?
When I started doing research-based and site-specific installation, reading and asking questions about a site would spark my ideas. I would bump up against a little known history, or else ask what had happened below where I was standing. The materials used to investigate these questions would emerge from the narrative. For example, when Katie Hargrave and I started working together almost ten years ago, we researched the site of the Illinois State University gallery and art department. We discovered layers of history: a trolley line had passed through the site; it had also been a football field, an archery course and a tennis court, to name a few. As part of a three room exhibition and walking that included actors from various historic moments leading tours with 3-D viewmasters of past activities on current sites, we created a moist clay floor, as an extension of an idea of a clay tennis court.
Now that my practice has progressed, I find that projects breed projects. The research and the collaborations don’t end at the exhibition. Rather exhibitions are pause points in ongoing material, social and historical research. Exhibitions raise new questions, which in turn lead to new explorations and works. For the past three years, I have been working on a solo body of work entitled Past Present Perfect. Imagining a future in which we have forgotten how to interact with dishware, I take on the role as an anthropologist investigating this past. This premise lead to a series of works where I created artifacts that explore dishware. From two pieces in the series, Break and Edge, a new collaboration has begun. Taking the shards, residue from a 16mm film where 2 columns of plates are broken and harvesting the potato starch from 500 potatoes used to light 100 diodes, I am currently working on a large scale work with Marrisa Lee Benedict that uses bio-plastic made from potato starch. I am beginning to think of my projects in term of traces and leftovers, where one project offers a material or idea that becomes ingredients in the next one.
How do you know when you have found the appropriate way to express, investigate or explore a specific narrative?
When the content within a narrative becomes the material expression of the story.
Is it important to you that something is left behind from a project? Some kind of evidence or history?
This is a complex question. We are at time when more people will see the work of an exhibition on a computer screen in the comfort of their own home than in a gallery. So yes, I think there is always something left behind, as I consider an image a form of evidence.
More directly, for those who experience the work in person, every choice, materially, conceptually and spatially are constructed to involve the audience directly into the work. This involvement allows the performance of a history or material to become intimate through interaction. To give an example, I was invited to work in the Museum of Surgical Science by Rebecca Keller. I had been noting instances, particularly in gas station bathroom, when people refused to touch a doorknob. Some people used the underside of their shirt, an out turned pocket, a paper towel, really anything to avoid touching the doorknob.
I began to see the doorknob as a transitional object, one about, in the next 20-year or so, to become an object for a museum. Our physical expression of germ theory has become a fear of public toilet doorknobs,. In the Museum of Surgical Science, I choose to work in the bathroom.
I collected words related to the history of contagion and wrote them in porcelain on the bathroom walls, vapors, miasma, germs, humors, spirits, etc. Additionally, from a variety of doorknobs I had been collecting, I made worry stones, small impressions of doorknob casts. These were offered to the audience, in the bathroom, if they chose to take one.
In this exhibition, everyone was free to take an object, but each exhibition is different. What remains the same, is that I work to involve the audience in the narrative; in this case, questioning their comfort taking an object others might have touched in a public bathroom.
8. Your projects often involve people working together and the viewer becoming an active participant. Do you hope for a specific experience for people?
While my collaborators and I strive to create a environment for interaction, we leave the space of interpreting open to the audience. This is where my love of fiction comes in. While Joe Madrigal and I created a replica WWI Mark V Dummy Test Bomb factory where the audience could take a shift and make bombs with us, how they interpreted this activity and how they passed this story along is entirely up to them. The bones of the story were in the factory, the passing of that story along lies in the agency of the teller. I am most interested in keeping the story going but not invested in controlling it.
9. What has surprised you most about people’s responses to a collective experience?
I find audiences to be remarkably generous. People offer their stories, expertise and willingness to play/try/learn much more often than not. It is said that most people look at a work of art for only a few seconds. That is not my experience.
10. What do you have upcoming? Where can your work be seen?
Material and Investigation: 2013 NCECA Emerging Artists talk with Linda Swanson and Josh Green.
Friday, February 14, 5:30-7:00
Concurrent program (free) at CAA at the Hilton Chicago, 720 South Michigan, Erie Room, 8th floor.
Sustainable Table, Jewish Museum, curated by Anna Metcalfe, Milwaukee
A collaborative work in bio-plastic with Marissa Lee Benedict
February 20th – March 31st.
NCECA reception on Thursday, March 20 from 7-9pm
1360 N. Prospect Ave. Milwaukee
How to Unmake an American Quilt, Roman Susan Gallery
A collaborative work with Katie Hargrave
1224 West Loyola Avenue
Inside Out, Rutherfurd Hall
A collaborative work with Joe Madrigal
Opening July 4th, exhibition dates TBD
Rutherfurd Hall, 1686 Route 517, Allamuchy, New Jersey
The Tea Project, Lawrence Art Center
A collaborative work with Aaron Hughes: An installation and performances with 776 porcelain cups, one for each Guantanamo Bay detainee
October 1- 31, 2014
940 New Hampshire St, Lawrence, Kansas
I hope you enjoyed this discussion with Amber Ginsburg and a look into her process of collaboration. You can learn more about Amber at: http://amberginsburg.com.
You can learn more about me and my work at: www.kalika.ca