Natasha Wheat's Engaging Resistance

Natasha Wheat (MFA 2011) won't let you appreciate her work sitting down. The audience is always required to engage socially in order to fully appreciate it. Wheat's installations and performances are constructed environments that examine the power dynamics inherent in modern society.

You may know Wheat from her contributions to CCA's 2010 Bean-In, an all-day event that involved free bean-based meals, lectures, and conversations centered on the idea of agriculture-as-resistance. She's one of the featured artists in the CCA Wattis Institute's fall show When Attitudes Became Form Become Attitudes, open now through December 1.

In 2011 she participated in a performance event titled Corrected Slogans at Kadist Art Foundation in San Francisco. Her contribution took the form of a collaboration with her longtime boyfriend Jim Fairchild and the acclaimed conceptual art duo Claire Fontaine. Fairchild is an accomplished rock musician who has performed with Grandaddy and Modest Mouse; he is also a solo recording artist under the name All Smiles.

So, Natasha, what are you working on right now?

I am producing work for a show that Lee Plested is curating in Vancouver this coming April. This work incorporates wall paint that I am collecting from janitorial closets that was originally intended for cleanup or cover-up.

I am also finishing a series called Erasing the Music, which involves me removing the music from vinyl LP records with a sandblaster in front of thick panes of glass. The panes are what is shown, with the ghost image from this erasure. The LPs belonged to my mother before she went to live in a locked sanitarium and had to leave her things behind.

There is a parallel between the rearranging of a social structure to allow for a new possibility, and the loss of context for a physical object in order to exhibit its other potentials. I think of both of these works as undoing hierarchies and repositioning things in order to produce an emancipatory aesthetic.

What is the work you're showing at the CCA Wattis Institute right now?

It’s a construction that the Kadist Art Foundation's 101 Collection recently acquired. It was also shown in the 2011 CCA MFA Show. It is titled Be Oblivion, In Disconnect, and it's a 15-foot-long, warm-white neon text that reads "BE OBLIVION." The words have been disassembled into letters and placed into two plain white cardboard boxes on pedestals. The pedestals are piles of wooden pallets painted with numerous coats of white wall paint. The neon is lit in the boxes. The person who acquires the work must decide whether to undo my intervention and to show it as a readable text work, or leave it as is.

These works require some backstory in order for the viewer to appreciate their meaning. How do you communicate this story so that people will know, for instance, where the janitorial paint came from, or what the neon letters originally said?

I don't care for wall texts. Leaving space for the audience is vital in these works. During my MCA Chicago show Self Contained, a young boy came in and ate the orange ice cream that we were serving out of a Paletas cart. He turned to his mother and screamed "MOM! This is art. It's the ice cream, it's the flavors, it can be anything." He just "got it."

Felix Gonzalez-Torres's works always allow for a galaxy of interpretation, but they come out of a specific political and personal situation. You can just like candy, posters, or beaded curtains and have a legitimate, moving experience with those works.

Or you can have been devastated by the AIDS crisis, or be an art historian, and feel the same work as something altogether different. There are certain experiences that come out of knowing the backstory to a work and those that come out of being fresh. They all have value.

The MFA program at CCA is deliberately not medium-specific, but did you have a particular area of focus?

Sculpture is essentially an object-based practice. I think of my constructions as emerging from sculpture, even if they are not always materially based. I am interested in the undoing of form as a means of emancipation, for instance intervening in the structure of institutions, or reordering the purpose of a physical space (even if only temporarily), or the mark left by an object that has lost its context or ceased to exist.

Were there any particular professors or peers at CCA who were especially influential?

Doug Hall was a visiting artist during the time I was there, and he was wonderful. He played the role of JFK in the 1976 Ant Farm / T. R. Uthco assassination video The Eternal Frame. I had been really influenced by some of the Ant Farm performances, and through knowing Doug I realized that much of what I had seen were actually T. R. Uthco videos. (T. R. Uthco was a video collective that Doug and his wife Diane Hall were part of in the 1970s. )

Doug introduced me to Chip Lord, one of the three Ant Farm members, who became one of my graduate advisers. Curtis Shrier, the other living Ant Farm member, wound up being my studio mate the year after school.

The late Steven Leiber was incredible. We worked together for my final two semesters. His collection -- to which he gave an artwork-like title Steven Leiber's Basement -- focused on material objects that came from ephemeral works. He oversaw the General Idea estate, had tons of Joseph Beuys multiples, Arte Povera works, and Daniel Spoerri food multiples, like a jar of beans from the 1960s.

He had flyers, napkins, and posters from Happenings and performances, all carefully catalogued. He was also an encyclopedia of things that had happened or been made, and truly understood "things." He was a young artist's dream to know.

Is there a consistent conceptual basis for your creative partnerships with Jim Fairchild?

Rock and roll is freeing when it works. Jim plays guitar and I sing, and we both write the music. Jim is much more pop and folk. He is earnest and honest in his music and attractions. My aesthetic is more hard and severe. I like bands that respond to things outside of themselves, and I want to be just a little scared of a frontman. So, Jim's more Neil Young and I'm more Ian Curtis. We both like aggression in general, so we can agree on Nirvana and the Misfits.

Do you two have any day-to-day routines while collaborating?

Our studios are next to each other with a door separating them. We both like to work totally alone. We have lunch together and dinner together, and we bring our Shiba Inu puppy Hilda to the studio. This is ideal because there's no draw to leave the studio, and no one to want you home. Jim assists me with some of the physical aspects of making works and installing shows. I often give him suggestions when he is composing or recording. There's a lot of knocking on each other's door throughout the day.

What projects are you working on together right now?

We've just formed a band called World War Two. The songs are about 30 seconds to a minute long, and are artist texts turned into songs. I see it as letting the text escape. There is intentionally no recording and no object, so the works are only ever seen live.