Editor’s note: Kayla Merriweather, the Colby Museum’s Summer 2021 Black Family Curatorial Intern, interviews artist Adriane Herman, Lunder Institute for American Art Resident Fellow.
- I am interested in the interactive nature of your work, a few examples being your Emotional Value Auctions, temporary tattoos, and Guarded Crossings. Why does your work incorporate the public? How does your audience influence your work?
Thanks for this question and the others, Kayla. I’m interested in artwork that is functional in that it can and hopefully does change viewers/participants through what philosopher and educator John Dewey described as “having an experience,” and/or (but hopefully and) changes me as a maker (or at least a doer) as I watch others interact with, and imbue something back into, it. Marcel Duchamp said the viewer “completed” his work. I actually don’t think of works such as those of mine you mention as ever really being complete, since the potential for someone to be impacted by something and in turn impact someone else as a direct or indirect result remains infinite.
I would describe my audience members more as collaborators or cocreators than viewers, and I would use words such as “extend” or “expand” to describe how others’ interaction acts upon my work. On a literal level, many of my projects simply would not exist or occur without the actions and interactions of others, such as the creation of “to-do” lists that are either actively or passively delivered to me, or the dropping off of an object one feels the need to release while simultaneously experiencing a block around that release.
Even when my audience is essentially observing or receiving work, that action is still contributing to my work by allowing me to see what I’ve done by reflecting it back to me. I spend a lot of time watching people interact with my work, and the myriad photographs of my work frequently include people looking, reading, bending, twisting, pointing, sharing, using, and otherwise interacting. I think/hope my work is a conduit for people to connect—with my work, one another, and themselves, as well as with me, and for me to connect with them and ultimately myself. I surf the surfeit, while in search of communion. My current bio describes me as an “Experience Broker,” but perhaps my next business cards will say “Surfeit Surfer.”
When I last made myself business cards, the job title listed was “Observer/Gatherer.” Another version said “Molehill Mountainizer.” I need my audience to help me understand the big picture or what is right in front of me—i.e., the big-ticket items in life. I used to say I lived my life through my peripheral vision, being a person who tends not only to lose the forest for the trees, but can also forget that trees even exist, and get figuratively caught up in leaves, needles, acorns, etc. This is where other people come in.
You mention three projects that all relate to letting go of things—physical objects, emotional baggage, and items on one’s to-do list, respectively. I have difficulty doing all three, and thus audience members serve as tutors, mentors, example setters, etc. When I see someone else release something, it helps me summon the mettle to do something as challenging. Sometimes people let go of things it hadn’t even occurred to me I was holding. I have captured, often through my camera lens, a contagious energy in gestures of release and have observed that this energy gets transferred when we see another take the plunge. This is the power of witnessing and being witnessed that can be leveraged to facilitate release.
When a group of people gather to read, point at, laugh, or be palpably moved by something, be it a to-do list written by a veteran packing for a tour of military duty— “Pack for Iraq (again)”—or a statement written by someone looking to release the bullet police gave her after her mother used the other bullet in the gun to end her life, seeing them taking in this information and then observing the way they respond gives me some data, and of course moves me monumentally. The Emotional Value Auctions continue to provide the privilege of helping strangers connect and lighten one another’s loads.
The temporary tattoos entitled “Baggage Claim” allow me to give something away, mementos of sorts of an experience I have had with someone either one-on-one or after a lecture to a group, for instance. They are the means by which people can go off and release something of their own. My contact info is on the back if they want to share their experiences, request more for themselves or to give away, and as artworks they always contain or “represent” the potential for enacting the release if they are not actually consumed.
The Guarded Crossings intervention at the Portland Museum of Art created the conditions necessary for peer mentoring outside the ordinary structures whereby trained individuals counsel people who pay them for their services. I’m interested in mutual mentoring and paracapitalist structures that highlight alternative forms of valuation. Sure, we all know it is valuable to receive advice and counsel from people trained in fields socially recognized as imbuing wisdom or specialized knowledge. There is also value in being able to share one’s experience and have that potentially impact someone’s life and thus the lives of others through that interaction reverberating outward. All of these projects are grounded in reciprocity and the power of witnessing to facilitate release.
- You have created many list-based works. Why are you interested in lists? What have you learned from collecting them?
Grocery and other to-do lists are fascinating and revealing compendia of how we spend our most precious resources: time, energy, and attention. Lists operate at a level of specificity from which one can interpolate or deduce (or at least speculate) aspects about the people who write them. At once intimate and anonymous when decontextualized, lists (especially the increasingly endangered handwritten kind) offer windows into lives, reflecting people’s intentions, accomplishments, procrastinations, and priorities—including the degree to which someone is brand loyal, does or does not buy in bulk, eats real or fake meat, and other aspects of one’s diet or personal politics— as well as provide clues about one’s work life and leisure activities. Other information that can be divined, or guessed at, includes socioeconomic status as well as the moment in time in which the list was written.
There is also the fact that I can’t live all the lives. I can’t be an artist without children and a person with one, two, or three children at the same time. By witnessing and absorbing, ruminating on and reflecting back the details of the lives manifest in my archive of over a thousand found, gifted, and bartered for grocery and other to-do lists, there is an aspect of “having it all,” at least vicariously. One of my favorite lists is that of someone I imagine to be female identified packing for a trip. Does she include maps because she is old-school or does this list long predate my receipt of it as a gift? Or perhaps she was a smartphone resister or simply saved money by being a flip-phone holdout. I imagine her impending trip was to Maine, since she included “blueberry box” on the list.
Clearly this list writer was generous and thoughtful, given the inclusion of “gifts.” She anticipated reading on the beach, which I get from “hat” and “sunscreen.” Taking a “pack and play” could have afforded her the time to read or chat with friends. Finally, “camera” indicated there would be moments worth capturing and remembering.
As someone who for years rarely took a trip not occasioned by an art exhibition or visiting artist lecture, who does not have children (or my own blueberry box), this list represents the woman I want to be, my parallel universe. Perusing this list, or huffing it, if you will, conjures a whiff of this life, as a movie or real estate open house can also offer, but on a more granular level that feels (and is) less staged or less performed since these notes are written for an audience of one(self).
I think I began collecting lists to figure out how to get things done, and ended up finding mentorship about what is worth doing from lists such as the one I made an inlaid burnishing clay panel to commemorate, which begins “living w/in means” and includes such other notable line items as: “build smaller, buy smaller, “earn the resources to finish house & pay off debt,” and even “create community.” That last one gets me every time. What if we put on our daily to-do lists the items on our bucket lists or enumerated our overarching priorities as that list’s writer did?
When I was carving the text line “& pay off debt,” I felt a light bulb go off over my head, realizing I had never set that as an intention, let alone written it on my to-do list, and thus would likely never pay it off. Credit cards are structured so that if you keep making the minimum payment while simultaneously accumulating new charges, you pay interest in virtual perpetuity. My collection of lists, the artworks that I made from them, and the people who both contributed lists and spent time poring over them were re-presented using a variety of printmaking and other media, highlighting the significance of the alleged minutiae we tend to every day in the face of big questions such as when will we die, what will happen afterward, and how much we should share, and show similarity with the lists of others. My list-based projects, like my current series of monotypes entitled Wreckage Salad, which depict the woodpile at my local transfer station, offered glimpses of the extraordinary mined by sifting through the ordinary.
The last body of list-related work I undertook focused on the marks we make when crossing things off our lists. I began this as a means of communing with the energy inherent in completion and quickly realized that certain things need to be crossed off our lists even when they remain undone. This may be the ultimate form of letting go— acknowledging what we intended to do but will never get to, or what is no longer necessary, possible, or relevant, etc. Where Marie Kondo suggests getting rid of all those books you bought but never read because you missed the moment in which you were supposed to read them, I think my most recent work reflects the struggle to let go of our ideas about ourselves and what we thought at one point we were supposed to do or even be. The lists project oscillated or oscillates (depending on what day you ask me whether I’m done with this project) between what an individual list reflects about the cultural overall and the data to be gleaned about an individual.
The second body of inlaid burnishing clay lists I created, entitled Finish Lines, excerpted or “filleted” lists created on sticky notes by a friend and former student and studio assistant over the course of his first year of graduate school. These lists manifest not only significant artistic creation and professional development but also personal transformation by someone transitioning from female to male and both literally and figuratively refinishing himself to align the way he appears on the outside with how he feels on the inside, all the while keeping up with the kitty litter, recycling, and filing taxes. The systematic nature of those lists inspired me and reveal a heroic effort at self-improvement through goals achieved through workouts, better hydration, meditation, and allowing oneself to panic for ten minutes a day to stave off the anxiety caused by fear of having a panic attack (according to a book the sticky notes’ writer read that year). This level of intentionality and structured days simultaneously inspires and daunts me, but either way I found it worthy of faithful reproduction through an array of unique works and multiples.
- Throughout your career, you’ve had experience as both an artist and a curator. How has your studio practice informed your curating and vice versa?
Like the projects mentioned above, my curatorial activities are grounded in reciprocity. Gathering together things other people made to deliver them to an audience has at times allowed me to contextualize my own work with that of others, something that helps me understand what I am doing as well as develop connections with people who are exploring similar ideas and modes of making. This kind of network building is essential and rewarding. Bringing work you feel is worthy of attention to viewers (who are frequently artists when the curator is also an artist) is intensely satisfying.
Curating has offered me views inside other people’s practices, intellectual calisthenics, meaningful opportunities to get to know people better or in the first place, the opportunity to write about others’ work, and the chance to get a little too familiar with the vicissitudes of receiving and unpacking artwork from artists and packing it back up to ship either to exhibition spaces or back to exhibiting artists. All these opportunities were afforded me by my work with Slop Art, an early curatorial adventure undertaken before the advent of means of distribution for artists such as Etsy, Artfare, individual artist or gallery websites, or even the presence of visible price lists in galleries. Slop aimed to help people consume art, i.e., buy it, live with it, and support living artists.
Slop Art was a curatorial collaborative that began as an exhibition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with fellow graduate students Anna Richey, Scott Speh, and Colin Strohm, initiated by and tended by Brian Reeves, with whom I continued it for several years after the others’ involvement ended. We curated exhibitions that involved over a hundred artists each, creating mass-produced “Slop’s Supermarket” catalogs designed to look like discount flyers, which featured images of each artwork (along with prices ending in “.99”) and entertaining promotional copy studded with art historical references in service of “rehoming” the art. These catalogs were distributed inside the galleries where our “franchises” traveled and were tucked inside newspapers delivered to homes in cities in which universities or art centers hosted the exhibitions. They were fairly well camouflaged, and thus many likely ended up in the trash. We did hope they would at least land in recycling bins; some folks later reported the catalogs had languished there until it was discovered that they were actually art.
Projects undertaken collaboratively under the “brand” of Slop Art involved a tremendous focus on the tools of promotion and dissemination with the goal of delivering art to broad audiences, including habitual art viewers as well as those not socialized to view and collect art. If something submitted by an artist was a multiple, we displayed the entire edition in the exhibition, or as many as the artist would spare for our installation. We hoped this would encourage interested viewers to consummate the deal since having multiple impressions meant no one had their gratification delayed, as a sale would not leave a void on the wall.
By contrast, my independent curatorial projects tend to capitalize on already extant structures and audiences that have gathered for other purposes, meaning I don’t have to work hard to drum up “business” (i.e., viewings and experience of the work; selling has rarely if ever been the primary motivator for me, though I have facilitated some deals for artists to consummate sales, which is always gratifying, and, of course, necessary for artists to have sustainable practices). I curated an exhibition at Ox-Bow, a summer school and artists’ residency on a lake in Michigan run by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Learning about the tiny private cabin I would stay in when invited to lecture there gave me the idea to curate an exhibition I could carry in my suitcase called Cabin Fever, for which I made posters I printed ahead of time and hung on the doors to the bathrooms. The turnout was huge, at least in terms of percentage of program participants, given the small scale of the community, the relative lack of competing events, and the fact that this all happened pre–cell phone.
This kind of guerrilla or micro curating is fun and satisfying, and the opportunity to use a platform or resource I am provided to in turn promote other artists is rewarding personally and sometimes yields professional reciprocity. Artists are incredibly generous. Katherine Bradford obliged me by loaning a tiny painting, as did Michelle Grabner, which amazingly she told me to just keep afterward. I could not make holes in the walls, so I had to use supports already in place such as coat hooks or dresser and desk drawers. I taped a Scott Teplin painting to the ceiling, awaiting notice by observant viewers who might think to look at what one might see above if lying on the cabin’s twin bed.
Something my making and curatorial practices share is an emphasis on arranging. Curation is largely about juxtaposition and contextualization. Similarly, I’m currently working on a series of so far unadhered collages, as well as some adhered collages or printed works I call “arrangements.” That word describes much, if not all, of what I do. The installations of lists I made, using the original documents, the wallpaper pattern I collaborated with Brian Reeves to design, and the two patterns created on my own, are essentially arrangements of lists comprising repeatable modules.
My practice has informed my curating in that a lot of my projects have incorporated the work of other artists. I’ve already addressed the notion of crowdsourcing in my work, such as collecting other people’s lists or gathering items to release from others. Other projects I’ve done that involve collecting people’s collections or curating examples of others’ work include Bag Age, an installation I was able to do thanks to a colleague at MECA, Ling-Wen Tsai, on a site in Taiwan she called Chosen Barren Land. I issued a call on social media for photographs of plastic bags stuck in trees or otherwise festooning/marring the landscape. I got quite a few really interesting photographs from people, most of whom I knew but some of whom I didn’t. These kinds of projects lead to new connections with people, which is really exciting for me. I printed the images out and then laminated them and sent them with zip ties to be hung in trees on this patch of barren land. Today I would hesitate before consuming all that plastic, but my awareness and concern has grown over time.
Another project that utilized a call for participation and effectively a means of collecting combined with curating was Plunder the Influence. I got the idea after visiting the home studio of Stanley Lewis, my college painting instructor. He pulled out books and showed them to me just as he had in the college art library. I had a hankering to see other artists’ bookshelves in action and an idea to make bookshelves that could theoretically house the unruly stacks, piles, and avalanches of books as people actually use them.
I asked people to photograph their bookshelves without gussying them up or making them more presentable, meaning if there were books piled up sideways or cascading, etc., viewers would see that. I then made mouse pads from those images, which were accompanied by mugs imprinted with the person’s written statement about the bookshelf, perhaps highlighting a particular book visible in the photo and/or one that had gotten away. Inside the mug were pencils containing the URL of a website that contained over a hundred names that linked to the photos with the written statements and some installation shots. This project is not so far off from the way the Emotional Value Auction is installed, in that there is an object accompanied by a written statement and that the totality of the exhibition would not have existed without the generous and thoughtful participation of, and writing by, quite a few people.
I have curated some more conventional exhibitions in dedicated art spaces, such as one called Mind-Bending with the Mundane, which included work by Alix Lambert, Miller + Shellabarger, Andrew Raftery, and Allison Smith. This exhibition occurred after Maine achieved marriage equality thanks to the legislature, then lost it through public referendum. (A subsequent referendum in turn reversed the reversal.)
The opportunity to bring an artist’s work to a new audience or a new experience like that to an artist is incredibly satisfying. Curating is advocacy—for artists, for human expression itself, for ideas and the maintenance rather than loss of crucial histories, some of which have never been told. Curation champions ideas one can benefit from being exposed to. I see art as a kind of Rube Goldbergian experience except that there is no prefabricated setup as you see in the 1987 Rube Goldbergian video entitled The Way Things Go by Peter Fischli and David Weiss; you cannot anticipate the impact that setting something loose in the world in a new context might have.
I have to credit my collaborative work with Slop Art—which at times involved exhibitions with up to 134 artists, all of whom were represented in a exhibition catalog, a subset of which traveled with the bricks-and-mortar exhibition—with my ease and comfort undertaking large-scale exhibitions and other collaborations involving so many people. A few years after the last Slop Art “Supermarket,” the largest one to date, I undertook an altered-book project with students at Maine College of Art that included over 180 artists, some of whom made more than one piece. I collaborated with Michael Whittaker, then the director of the Reiche Branch of the Portland Public Library, a former punk-rock promoter with no library science degree. He had a radical idea about giving artists the chance to “grab” an unlimited number of books being deaccessioned by the library that might otherwise go to the landfill, in service of making artist books that were then donated back to the library, yielding a lending library of artworks people could live with temporarily and then return to the library.
This created an exciting framework for a course I taught called “Alternative Delivery Systems.” It was featured in the New York Times Arts and Leisure section and inspired libraries across the country, and some abroad, to borrow selections from the collections through interlibrary loans in order to have exhibits in their own libraries. Others used the project’s template to create their own lending collections, or groupings of works, which were auctioned off to support the libraries. One memorable aspect of curating an exhibition with over 180 artists is that even if the only people who come to your opening are the artists in the show, you have an amazing turnout.
A lot of the things I learned undertaking projects through Slop Art as well as the altered-book project (which was entitled Long Overdue: Book Renewal) have facilitated collaborations involving and connecting many people like the Emotional Value Auction. The latest iteration just took place at the Colby College Museum of Art, throughout which Lunder Institute intern Yan Xuan has been an extraordinary help organizing the data, scanning bid forms, and creating spreadsheets that replaced the archaic organizational system I have developed for past iterations. One aspect of Slop Art that has come back to roost is the way promotional items, such as the mass-produced catalog and the uniforms we wore (including fast food–style embroidered shirts, aprons, pricing guns, and change belts), became blurred with the art.
To generate photographs to promote the Emotional Value Auction, I borrowed a yellow sandwich-board sign with removable letters from the Yarmouth History Center, the site of the first auction (the staff there used that sign to promote the event, much to my surprise and delight). I used a photograph of that sign to promote subsequent auctions, but decided I should create a fresh image, occasioning a spin through Hannaford in South Portland with the sign perched ostentatiously in my cart advertising the Emotional Value Auction to be held at Colby College on Community Day. This spectacle yielded a meaningful conversation about the auction with an enthusiastic community member who inquired about the contents of the sign and followed up with an email asking about offering something for the auction.
In that instance the sign acted simultaneously as promotion of the project as well as the execution of at least part of the actual project itself, since I consider my conversation with the woman at the store’s endcap, which featured a Pride Month Rainbow Wine display, as much a part of the auction as the bidding that occurs the day it is held or the delivery of the items afterward. Administrative work, such as creating the bid forms or filing the bids, as well as delivering the items, all becomes part of the work. The various items people contribute to the auction do in fact compose a kind of exhibition that is not so much curated as occasioned or administered by me, given that people are invited to release whatever they want within reason, accompanied by written statements about their items. This display is a kind of exhibition, but for me the participation by readers who take the time to absorb the offerings laid out is the real work or, dare I say, art. Those who witness are indeed creating what is the most important component, and those who sit—often for long periods of time to contemplatively write out bids to complete strangers—meet the generosity of the releasers and in many cases surpass it. Watching people experience this work is informative to me, inspiring, and sustains me by providing the impetus to keep doing this work, which so often feels primarily like moving stuff around in an infinite loop, which I suppose it is.
- What have you found to be the biggest challenge of being an artist?
Likely my greatest challenge is trying to convey what I am doing clearly and perhaps most of all concisely, whether the context is written or verbal description, or especially the process of selecting and narrowing down images for reproduction or lectures. I appreciate opportunities to talk about my work to people who are curious and engaged, some of whom will stay in touch and even participate in projects in the future. Storytelling is a big part of what I do, as is surfing synchronicity and happenstance and it can be difficult if not agonizing to try to share significant stories quickly as well as encapsulate nonlinear chains of reaction, i.e., the seemingly crucial connecting projects, with an audience when I have the precious chance to give a talk about my work either in front of it in a gallery or via images during a lecture.
I want to show and describe what I have done as well as how audiences have responded to and extended the work. My tendency is to overexplain and want to give detailed information about many projects and the relationships and flow between them. This is obviously a problem given that time is not elastic, and the capacity of audience members to absorb information is finite and their attention may be split, particularly when the talk is virtual.
Like those simultaneously rewarding and challenging talks about my work, undertaking or enacting certain projects often requires a lot of verbiage. At the Emotional Value Auction just held at the Colby College Museum of Art, I got a better handle on how to—at least somewhat concisely—convey that project verbally to help visitors receive what was on offer, which in many ways looks like a semiorganized yard sale. I stationed myself at what seemed like the more active entrance and got a rhythm down welcoming people into the space and working to ensure they understood the concept. I realized there was a benefit in repeating a few key points to people even if they articulated that, yes, they grasped what was happening.
After an initial disarming “Welcome to the Emotional Value Auction,” four or five sentences felt necessary to convey that the auction is “nonmonetized,” given the strong financial associations the word “auction” evokes and the unspoken and generally accurate assumption that nothing is truly free in contemporary American culture. I reinforced this concept with the phrase “No money changes hands,” articulating that the “bids” take the form of written statements of interest, which I then forward to owners so they can choose someone on whom to bestow their objects, based solely on the reasons the bidders say they want them.
Upon hearing this last part and often finally absorbing the fact that their money really was no good here, I often saw a shift in visitors’ eyes and demeanor, a warming and receptivity. Often people would then tell me how much they appreciated the concept with, in some cases, a hand pressed to their heart
Anecdotes are at the heart of my practice and some people don’t have the interest or stamina to stick around to hear them. But if they do, they might hear about the woman who drove thirty kilometers down the western coast of Nova Scotia to press into my hand two heart-shaped sticky notes, one reading “memory loss” at the top, and the other “menopause,” each followed with a list of foods that are thought to be potentially helpful for people experiencing each. While showing images of the wallpaper pattern I created utilizing one of these, I sometimes remember to include an image of this woman and these sticky notes while describing her placing them in my palm and curling my fingers around them with a tear in her eye.
Inefficiency expert, Adriane Herman orchestrates witnessed releases–like her non-monetized “Emotional Value Auction”–to harness the power of witnessing to facilitate letting go; highlight the generosity inherent in receiving; and occasion meaningful connections between strangers through publicly shared vulnerability. She received ecomaine’s 2018 eco-Excellence award for a series of installations entitled “Out of Sorts,” pressing pause on the recycling process and inviting contemplation of the impact of consumption and our cultural commitment to convenience and disposability. Thirteen consecutive Sunday mornings spent attending Evangelical services in suburban Kansas evolved into a collaboration called “The Freeing Throwers,” yielding print and GPS-triggered audio works on Kansas City municipal buses.
Herman has had solo exhibitions at Adam Baumgold Gallery (NY); Western Exhibitions (Chicago); Kansas City Jewish Museum of Contemporary Art; Center for Maine Contemporary Art; Kiosk Gallery (Kansas City); and Rose Contemporary and SPEEDWELL Projects in Portland. Group exhibition sites include The Dalarnas Museum (Sweden); Portland Museum of Art; The Brooklyn Museum; Chapel Street Gallery at Yale University; Chosen Barren Land, Taiwan; and International Print Center New York. Herman’s work is held by collections including The Whitney Museum of American Art; The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art; The Progressive Corporation; The Walker Art Center; The Ulrich Museum; and the Bates College Museum of Art.
She has lectured at over 50 institutions and explores content in context with students as Professor and Chair of Printmaking at Maine College of Art. Her work is included in: Printmaking at the Edge; A Survey of Contemporary Printmaking; and Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall. Herman holds a B.A. from Smith College, an M.F.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Level III certificate in the Wilton Method of Cake Decorating.