Martha Rosler and Michael Arcega
in Conversation at the ISCP
Martha Rosler seeks to understand the strange customs of the suburban middle class. Michael Arcega wants to expand consumer awareness by selling fake souvenirs. The two artists met this week for an intimate conversation at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn — the second in a new series that pairs an established local artist with an ISCP artist in residence.
Rosler's Garage Sale debuted in 1973 at the University of California and it has since been shown everywhere from Rotterdam to London. Although Rosler noted that the idea "didn't garner much love back then," it is currently being reprised from November 17-30 at New York's Museum of Modern Art. This notable exhibition was contrasted with ISCP resident Michael Arcega's most recent project, Montalvo Historical Fabrication & Souvenirs, which was created in collaboration with Stephanie Syjuco. The painstakingly detailed installation overtook the entire gallery space at Villa Montalvo, turning it into a souvenir shop which Arcega referred to as a "front." In addition to being a contemplation on consumerism, the space was also a statement about history and racism, especially in small towns.
Rosler, who was born in Brooklyn, first created Garage Sale because she didn't understand why people would want to sell their things instead of giving them away. She admits that she felt disconnected from suburban America. "In Brooklyn, they just put their things out on the curb for the less fortunate," she recalled. "So the question became: Am I stupid or are you stupid?" The show, she says, is technically classified as a performance. Cliched collectables are priced by the artist based on their perceived value as well as how long she'd like them to stay in the show. As visitors walk through the gallery space, Rosler's voice emanates from a television, repeating the phrase: "Why don't you just give it away?"
I asked her if performing these sales over the past 19 years has helped her to better understand why a typical suburban family might choose to sell items from their garage. She replied that, although the process has helped her to understand why people come and shop there, she still feels the same about the people who have them. "To the general public, this is a celebration of their culture," Rosler said of her exhibit. "And the community refuses to acknowledge that there could be any irony or critique in it. "As such, it seems that Garage Sale is actually about — not for — those who participate in the garage sale. At its heart, it is a not-so-subtle condemnation of suburbia and their perceived "otherness." "I'm trying to sell you — my neighbors — all the things that I don't want anymore," she says, explaining her perception of why a middle class family would have a garage sale.
Still, Rosler does find actual enjoyment in a visitor finding the perfect tchotchke. "I just love looking at pictures of people with the things they've bought," she says with a big smile on her face. "And I really mean that, without irony!"
Arcega, on the other hand, was more optimistic about his customers. By offering a bit of knowledge or history on packaged "artifacts" such as the Erasicm eraser, he hoped that the viewer will take home something to think about in addition to their souvenir.
The two artists found more common ground when discussing how the public was sometimes fooled a bit too well by their mercantile parody. Rosler told the story of a woman who once spent 45-minutes at her exhibit in a museum, only to leave saying, "I heard there was an art exhibit here, I'll have to come back later and find it."
Arcega — who chose to let patrons shop for a bit before "spilling the beans" about the art — recalled that Montalvo Souvenirs sometimes served only as a rest stop where thirsty tourists would buy water and then quickly leave. He wasn't sure how to classify their experience. "Yes, they are thirsty and they needed water," he said. "But there is still a sort of lament in knowing it's going to that place. All I can hope for is how it will be interpreted in the future."
Although they may have had differing motivations, both artists chose the formal setting of a gallery to recreate the ubiquitous American experience of shopping. As such, each installation blurs the line between art and acquisition. The gallery itself becomes a "transactional space" in which money is changing hands in plain sight. The exhibitions may also serve to expose how easily even the most proper among us can be sidetracked by our innate need to hoard shiny objects. "One of the main issues in an art gallery is value," said Rosler. "The price tags are not visible and yet you know they are there." Arcega pointed out that the items bought at these exhibits now have two values. "There is a price of what the object itself is worth, and then there is a new price because it is art."
Meanwhile, if you are planning to attend Garage Sale at MoMA this November, Rosler has some insider information for you. "There is always a dead tree among the items," she said. "So look for the dead tree."