Studio Visit with Michael Casselli
by Eve Buttacavoli
In a State of Experimentation
…their facility to construct the metaphor
I had an unhealthy access to gunpowder and explosives, as my grandfather was a gunsmith. So much dangerous stuff to play with and it definitely had a defining role in how I would later think about my work.
I… am interested in… the fleeting, the moment that can’t be repeated, the unexpected encounter–these are the qualities of my work that I have yet to fully examine or fully understand.
With twenty-five-ish years of looking at contemporary art, one can’t help but group the media and metaphors that artists seek to put out there into short-cut categories—there’s the jewel/flower/rotting whatever-covered speaking to the excess and waste of modern life; the appropriated or repurposed image that smirks at art history or authorship; or the giganticized or shrunken thing as reminder of our little place in the universe, just to name a few. Some though, defy such memory trick groupings and float in and out of your head for years refusing to be pinned down. Alan Rath, Haroon Mirza, Janet Cardiff, Douglas Gordon, Christian Marclay, Steven Vitiello, Nick Cave—all sort of video-analog-sound-light-space-time-mechanical-fiber-dance-performance-electronic-sculptors—but all over the place when it comes to what they’re trying to get across. Is it memory, is it physicality, is it “god in the machine.”? Recently, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes them so uncategorizable–and this is the fun part—is their facility to construct the metaphor. These cross-over artists: a punk band member, an electrical engineer, a choreographer, really have a way of working those crisscrossed wires of their brains to produce these hybrids that are some of the most exciting work produced today. Yellow Springs (via a 20-year stint in the New York experimental theater scene) artist Michael Casselli is one of them.
I first met Michael as a resident artist, part of 2009’s Blue Sky Project. He had relocated to Yellow Springs from New York in 2008 to fight the closure of his alma mater, Antioch College, while simultaneously establishing Manic Design Studios, a site of hybrid experimentation and social activism.
Michael was born in Mentor, Ohio and grew up all over the east side of Cleveland. One thing he always remembers as a kid was from 1st grade: he got in trouble for coloring with the side of the crayon instead of the tip, he thought the side worked much better for drawing fish scales but was reprimanded for using an alternative technique. That, plus, as he says “I also had an unhealthy access to gunpowder and explosives, as my grandfather was a gunsmith. So much dangerous stuff to play with definitely had a defining role in how I would later think about my work.”
I met Michael one crisp fall afternoon at Antioch’s Herndon Gallery, where he recently co-curated A Thousand Invisible Threads/Mapping the Rhizome with Jennifer Wenker which featured 8 artists (himself included) from all over the country.
Tell me about your early art training and influences.
My exposure to the art world was accidental and somewhat mysterious—wrapped up in the bad behavior of cutting class to go see things and the group of people I started to hang out with. I was a member of the Youth International Party (Yippies) at my high school, pranking political structures and producing media that attacked the power structures there. The prankster nature of the Yippies started me on my indulgence in political action with a sense of humor. Once I started at Antioch, my worldview and art-making flourished. I was fortunate to have a wildly dynamic group of professors and meet a group of artists that I still work with today. In a state of abject poverty, we took chances and experimented with worlds that seemed endless in possibility. I designed, I performed, I directed, I built and interacted with a vibrant community that allowed me to focus on my production and my craft. Antioch is where I had my eyes opened, my fears realized, and my senses overwhelmed. I designed my own B.S. in Visual Arts and Performance Theory and then went on to earn an MFA in Sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
Tell me about your workspace
I have space in a building on campus at Antioch. This was where I first discovered the space around things. I started as a 2D artist, painting and struggling with the restrictions of a flat planar space. But once I took my work of the wall, my mind exploded. I make my space as flexible as I can to enjoy the emptiness of the center. Activity happens, and sometimes it is as simple as moving a mirror or playing a note, or just looking at the space I do not have because of the objects that take up my vista.
Tell me about your typical art-making day
It depends on the project. Sometimes it is full of experimentation and figuring out the demands of the work, other times I am doing research into the physical properties of the systems I have chosen. My studio practice is all over the board, though less about an investigation of a specific media and more about the recombination of varying forms into a hybrid of those forms. I seldom get full days to be in the studio, the demands of teaching are fairly disruptive to the studio process and I find myself filling in here and there with the occasional break in my professional schedule to fully invest. It is a bit schizophrenic at times, and I tend to come to projects as a full-blown idea, figure out how to realize the idea and then devote my energies to physicalizing the intent. Much of my work brings in technologies and links to the digital world so many hours may be spent in a dark room, mixing sound, charting video for projection and testing the physical space that the work will inhabit.
Tell me about your career goals: what markets are you in; what would you like to grow into?
I have an aversion to thinking of my work in this way. The markets hold no interest to me, I am more inclined to try and produce the work outside of this arena and make work that cannot be possessed/exchanged by the market. I have paid for the production of my work through various methods, some from grants, some from commission and many out of my own pocket. If I had to say what my career goals are I would put it in another frame and say that I am interested in the exchange and the questions that can be raised when participating in a public sphere when people encounter the work and arrive at the place I intended. This is not always definable and often the tangential relationships that occur become the driving force behind my continued participation within this practice.
How do you choose what to make?
Sometimes it comes from words that carry multiple meaning or conjure up multiple scenarios. Other times I am asked to collaborate and develop work with others that may initially spring from an investigation that is not mine but because of the work I am interested in there is a thought that I may bring other conditions and approaches to the idea. I work in many different arenas, installation, performance, media and the digital. The venue can be the web, an abandoned building, a theatrical environment. For each new work, I invest my intention according to the demands of the work and the context in which it is to be experienced. This is really a case of me choosing the work but also the work choosing me.
What are your favorite materials to work with?
I can’t say that I have any specific material that I would consider my “favorite”. My interests have more to do with qualities of material. I have recently been drawn to the notion of the periphery, things that exist at the edge of awareness. This leads me to consider qualities that can play into this. Ephemerality and temporal existence intrigue me so I look for ways in which I can instigate this relationship with the viewer. Video and projection offer up the ability to transpose the moving image to places that are unexpected and fleeting. I also am interested in sound and its placement within the same sort of context–the fleeting, the moment that can’t be repeated, the unexpected encounter–these are the qualities of my work that I have yet to fully examine or fully understand.
Prefer to work with music or in silence?
Music definitely. I have speakers all over the studio, and I can’t imagine working in silence. This changes depending on the type of work I am busy with, obviously you would not have music playing while editing or designing a sound element, but in general, yes music, and yes fairly loud, I like the way it feels against my skin.
If you could only have one piece of art in your life, what would it be?
The Lightning Field by Walter De Maria
Like many artists of our generation, you work in a wide variety of media. Is traditional painting dead?
The declaration of demise with regards to any particular media is short-sighted in my opinion. What is the intention of declaring one or more media to be dead? Has the limit been reached as to how the field can expand and break new ground? Is that important to me? Not so much. I probably sound a bit old fashioned but I attempt to look at work as it comes to me, not considering the place it holds in a historical context. In my experience, I try to think about the language of each potential artwork, examine how well it frames its self and what is contained in the sum of the work. I do think it is important to break down the barriers as they apply to individual concentrations and it is in the combination across disciplines that I see the potential for continued relevance.
What are you working on next?
I am in a state of experimentation with a project that examines my relationship to the act of drawing and the gestures associated with it. I am attempting to expand the awareness of pre-determined line in the landscape and accentuating it through the use of markers that identify this line. I am still figuring out the physical properties of the materials I will use. At this point, it will involve contained flight, fire, and Chinese lanterns. We will see what comes of it.