In an art town as small as Boston, worlds often collide. Recently N+T’s own Kate Gilbert sat down with fellow SMFA alum Thomas Stevenson to discuss his latest project, “Living Room”, commissioned by the Lawn on D at Gilbert’s suggestion. The following is an excerpt of the conversation between artist and curator about how “Living Room” came to be, about fear in public spaces, and about learning to be flexible when you come upon big rocks in your tiny sandbox.
Thomas Stevenson, "Living Room" aka Big Bowl of Sunshine, 2015. Earthwork with natural rubber.
KG: I want to welcome you back to Boston. You spent a lot of time here in the late 80’s to the early 2000’s. You completed your MFA at the School of Museum of Fine Arts while simultaneously establishing your career in Brooklyn. So I though it really fitting that bagpipes were playing while you were digging your hole for “Living Room” at the Lawn on D.
TS: That was super funny, right? I felt like, “Wow, hey, we’re in Southie.” I think I even made the joke that we were in a Ben Affleck film and we didn’t know it.
Surreal. Having been in Boston for so long and now very much established in Brooklyn, what was it like coming back? Why did you want to be part of the Lawn on D or to make new work in Boston?
I was asked to send a proposal about what I might do in the space and that was a really nice gift, to be asked what I’d do. That was number one. And then number two I think it was your programming as the curator. You wanted to do something fun that people would interact with, in a place that could have just been a green space.
And I like the idea that the “art” (I’m putting quotes in the air) isn’t in this rarefied art space, a white cube, or whatever you want to call it. It’s very much a public space. It’s a park. It’s a private park, but it’s a private park for the public. And it’s legitimate real art in that public space. So what does that mean? And what does it mean when the art interacts with the public outside of something that’s just a three-dimensional freestanding sculpture independent of the space and it isn’t site-specific.
So when I was thinking about the challenge (positive word, not negative) I thought, “Ok it’s going to be in a public space, it’s going to be in a park. What do people do in a park? What could be fun, whimsical, playful, and comfortable?” I thought about the way parks get used and that’s where my idea came from.
The Lawn on D opening night, May 15, 2015. Photo: Bianca Mauro
I read in another description of your work that you focus on hospitality – was that a journalist’s interpretation or yours? Do you think that describes your work now and how does this project fit into that idea of hospitality?
At one point I think that was the frame I was using. In another interview, I honed it down and I feel more comfortable with this: in my work I try to focus on presence and being present, and what that means. I think about my “Disco Transformer” project that’s an outside traveling sound and light system, or my “Bivouac” project or this “Living Room” aka Big Bowl of Sunshine project at the Lawn on D. These projects are aggregators that cause people to come together and to be present. Now I’m reframing everything as being more about presence than anything else.
Are your projects forcing presence?
Yes and no.
Or are they suggesting that we be present? How does the “Living Room”, for instance, create presence?
The shape of the space is a bowl but it’s a pretty tight bowl. Two people, if they’re across from each other, are going to be really close. The space is going to create intimacy if there are more than one or two people in there because it’s not big nor it is small. It’s bigger than personal size, but it’s hardly big enough to have a large group in it. It’s too small to have many people in there and have them not physically touching each other. So if you have more than three people in there you’re going to be physically touching the person next to you.
And that’s what I focused on in the curatorial statement. “Living Room” forces us to go beyond the social norms of allowing a certain amount of personal space between strangers. So given these norms, how will people know they can get in the work?
Somehow we’ve all been trained, much like putting your hands in the tiger cage, that we’re not allowed touch the art. At one point I decided I don’t necessarily buy into that. Think of the process of what we do as artists while making things. All we’re doing is touching the product, the whole time. Art handlers are touching it and curators are touching in. The only people who aren’t allowed to touch the art are the public. I never understood that. For me, touching things is really important. We have many senses and just using the sense of sight isn’t enough. I think that’s too limiting. I want people to touch the materials.
I understand that if everyone touched a piece of valuable art it’d change the shape and patina. I get it. I think that touch is another one of our senses that’s really important. But I take the opposite approach. I assume I can touch everything until someone tells me otherwise. I hope others will do the same.
Do you think the group attracted to the pit by this bright, bright yellow and the promise of it being soft, is a self-selecting one?
Yes. I found that with my campsite project, people do self-select more than I’d ever guessed. I assume that kids will interact with the space first but that’s my assumption. I don’t really know. I won’t know until the day it opens and we watch what people do because there’s no sign that says “step in there” and there’s no sign that says “don’t step in there”. So who knows? I wish I could be so clairvoyant as to say x, y, and z will happen. I’m really not sure. You and I could be sitting on the sidelines at the opening watching people just look at it.
The only indicator that it’s art will be a little aluminum art label next to it. Do you want people to see “Living Room” as art first? Or to first see it as something to play with first? Do you care?
I don’t see a distinction. It’s art because I’m an artist and I made it. I know that’s kind of a piss poor answer. It’s an art piece for me because I assume it’s going to succeed in my discursive need of the work to create interaction between individuals. If it does that, then it’s a piece of art. If people just look at it, then I’ve probably failed at my job. My job, as I defined it, is to create something that is brightly colored and soft to touch, and hence whimsical, therefore attractive, therefore people will be drawn to it, and therefore people will have an interaction with the art, and by extension with other people. It’s a lot of little steps.
Which is much the same philosophy behind your “Disco Transformer”. That work is bright and there’s sound coming out of it.
And the sound coming out of it is late 70’s, early 80’s disco. The discursive element of Disco Transformer isn’t so obvious but it is supposed to act as an aggregator, bringing people together. The fact that I’m bringing them together to break the law, well, eventually people will get that.
What laws does it break?
If you wanted to be a grumpy police officer you could pick all sorts of things. We’re on the street. We’re blocking traffic.
So it’s not permitted?
No. What? What’s a permit? Again, more rules and laws. Thinking about someone who’s having a big year right now at the Venice Biennale is Joan Jonas. One of my favorite pieces of hers is from the early 70’s where she’s doing a performance in the middle of the street in the Financial District during the middle of a Saturday. There’s no one there. Nobody cares. It’s desolate.
I always go back to that 70’s public performance art things, and that’s the spirit of New York that I want to project. What I’m doing now is not dangerous and is not going to hurt anybody. We have this public space, so let’s do something in the public space, and let’s let it happen as it may.
So is “Living Room” your first work in a quasi-private, permitted space?
Yeah, totally. The only other version that was similar to this was a project I did in grad school where I sodded the entirety of the inside of the Museum School. That was a semi-private space.
And how has the oversight of a curator, and clients who have to approve drawings in advance, changed the process or project at all?
The positive part is it helped me focus on what I wanted to do. Left to my own devices I’ll just kind of tinker forever and then eventually get the work done whenever I feel like it. So the nice thing about working with a curator and a client is that you guys had a hard deadline and there was a curatorial statement to work against and work with.
We started this what, two months ago? I guess in a positive way it went really quickly. It wasn’t a project I had in my head in my head. It was working with you and asking you questions about the space, and who uses the space and what’s the access. Part of the access is people hanging out during the day and then the park is open until 11 at night, which I really liked. Maybe kids will be making out in this pit at night? That would be great.
I want to circle back to 70’s. We’ve been calling the “Living Room” a “mini-earthwork”. Other than the sod project, this direction of working with earth is new direction for you. Are you thinking of 70’s land art as you’re creating this?
Of course! I was lucky enough seven years ago to go and see a lot of the land art out in the American Southwest. I got to travel with students from USC, James Trainer and the artist Andrea Zittel and see a lot of the important land art pieces. We were out seeing “Double Negative” and “Lighting Fields” and trying to break into “City”.
You know, I’m from the East Coast. As I look out my studio here and talk to you, every piece of land here is used. There is nothing that is open space, except for rooftops. But you go out to the Southwest even today or up north to Montana and the Dakotas, and there’s a lot of open space. You start to understand once you get out of the East Coast cities, that it’s a different relationship. That sounds really pandemic but it’s a different relationship to the land.
And then you go to the 70’s and you think about making “Spiral Getty” and when a time there were fewer rules and people just kind of did things. Think about Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels”, they’re fucking incredible! Could someone do that today? Or would the world be like, “Whoa, someone could get hurt.” Or “Hey, that’s really big what if someone climbs on it?” Or, “What if it rolls?”
All legitimate fears, sure, but I try to give people more credit that that. This project that you and I worked on, if we went eight feet down would be people be like, “Whoa, too dangerous”? I don’t know what the reaction would be, what permissions we’d need or what the fears would be.
Whether it’s Nancy Holt or Joan Jonas, people taking risks, I think it’s amazing and monumental and huge and macho – whether it’s made by a man or woman, it’s still macho – it’s hubris in scale and size. My question is could these things be made today?
Hopefully! I do give the Lawn on D (MCCA, HR&A, etc.) credit for taking risks with a giant swing set and a pit in the ground. Boston as a whole though could do more to commission larger, process-driven works, more interactive pieces, and do so in all of our communities.
You know as I was watched you dig, looking at your body in relationship to your small hole, I couldn’t help but make the connection to a child in a sandbox. I thought about the artists and cultural foot soldiers today and how our box keeps getting smaller and smaller.
It does, unless you’re a super big brand. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of fear. Some of it’s warranted. How do you find the balance between freedom and security? Between art production and people’s desire to feel safe and secure?
Speaking of challenges, I have to ask you that one question…your biggest challenge during this project?
The fun part about my practice is I have an idea but when I get to a location, on a rooftop for the “Bivouac” project, on the street for the “Disco Transformer”, or the Lawn on D for this “Living Room/Big Bowl of Sunshine”, I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I have an idea but then I get out the pickax and shovel and I find, well, you saw some of those rocks; they were the size of your head! You kind of don’t know. You have an idea and then the world as it is kind of guides you where you’re going to go.
This isn’t like a monocular “I’ve got a fucking vision, it’s going to be exactly this way”. No, there are things that are going to push you off course and you better be flexible.
So my last question: you’ve put people together in tents on rooftops, you’ve nestled us together in a pit, what’s the next place you want to bring us together?
I’ve had this idea for a few years. Summers in Boston are brutally hot. Summers in New York are also brutally hot. New York is surrounded by water. Boston has a ton of water between the Charles River and Boston Harbor. I find it to be incredibly frustrating being in both of these cities with all this water and I’m always sweating and hot as hell. I always want to build public dunking pools in the summer time, like an over glorified bird bath. It would be very public so you’re going to bathe yourself quickly, kind of soak yourself in a tank. But it’s in public so it’ll be a challenge while also offering you relief. It’s going to be a push and pull between your emotional comfort and your physical comfort.
“Living Room” aka Big Bowl of Sunshine is one of six anchor artworks at the D Street ArtLAB at the Lawn at D curated by Now and There’s Kate Gilbert. The Lawn is open 7 days a week (times vary) through October 12. See their website for more information and special events.
When he’s not digging in the dirt or struggling to stay cool in a major metropolis, conceptual artist Thomas Stevenson can be found in his Brooklyn studio creating sculpture, video, performance and installations. Thomas’ primary focus sits within the critique of power structures and the individuals who unwittingly acquiesce to them.
His projects have been deployed in urban streets and rooftops, in the Mojave desert, and at the New Museum’s Ideas City Festival and Art Basel Miami. His projects have been written about in the New York Times, the Village Voice, USA Today, and the New York Observer. Follow Thomas at @thomasjs on all social media platforms invented and yet-to-be.