House Shows in Olympia

Almost one year ago I was in the living-room of an apartment in Berlin, talking to Johanna Gilje, one of my temporary flatmates. In that flat, every day at 8.17 pm, from two speakers fixed in the walls you can hear one minute recorded from the previous day, a project called Minute/Year by two artists Kovacs and O’Doherty, which lasted for the whole year 2017. After I told her about my research, I found out that there’s a very strong punk culture in Olympia, capital of Washington state where local bands play in basements of the houses. Because there were only few art galleries in the city, she thought of coupling the concerts with performance-art events and installations. So she became a sort of a curator, although she said she wouldn’t call herself that, as most of the Homemade Culture initiators that I met. A more appropriate word would be “mediator”, because they connect the art scene with the audience and they bring them in the same time and space. Later on, Johanna became a guest in HomeFest, my home festival from Bucharest. After some time she replied to my questions regarding her homemade culture activity in Olympia.

Jean-Lorin Sterian: During what period of time did you organize homemade culture events in Olympia?

Johanna Gilje: I organized art shows in Olympia, Washington, between August 2014 and April 2016. Each show was possible with a group effort and support from many people, in particular collaborations with Ginsy Stone, Eli West and Nate Kirkwood.

J-LS: How many events did you manage?

JG: Four.

J-LS: What did they have in common? What was the title that you used for them?

JG: The titles where, in chronological order: »Project Dissonance« (August 2014), »Fuck your Love« (February 2015, organized along with Eli West), »Psychic Space« (September 2015), and »As If / It Were« (April 2016). Each show was organized with around 15 to 20 artists from a broad range of artistic backgrounds around a central call/theme. For example, »Project Dissonance« used the following questions as a prompt: What is cognition? What is dissonance? and How can dissonance be generative? The call went out two or three months before each show, giving the artists time to develop their work in relation to the prompt and with one another. As a facilitator I hosted several opportunities for feedback sessions and exchanges between the artists. It was important to me that the people I invited to be part of the show came from different artistic backgrounds and that people would work together who didn’t all know each other well beforehand.

J-LS: Can you describe one of the places where it happened?

JG: The locations where we made shows were the ABC House, Alamingo House, Olympia Press Building and Obsidian Bar – all in Olympia, Washington. Each location is very different, having a particular history and relation to the town. Each location also came with its own logistical challenges, which we tried to work within the shows’ spatial and temporal organization. For example, the ABC House has been a well-known location for punk shows in Olympia for many decades. At the time, I was living in the house and so was able to have full access to the space to plan the event and prepare site-specific work with artists. This show spanned roughly five hours, including primarily performance, video, and installation art.

J-LS: Can you describe one of the events like a story?

JG: Project Dissonance: We started in the backyard where there was an aerial show (suspended acrobatics from a large old tree), as well as several dance performances before moving to the indoor space for works including a lecture, a musical composition, comic drawings, documentary video work, sculpture, performance installation, and stand-up comedy. Artworks existed in the stairwell, basement, closet, and bathroom. During the show a group called »YDHWM (Your Daily Hour With Me«) walked around with a video camera catching bits of the performance and interviewing audience members. When all the other shows were finished, YDHWM projected fragments of the show onto a screen made out of a sheet, while audience members commented on the experience they had just had in the art show. This video was broadcast through a local television station, TCTV. YDHWM was present and performed the same action at all four art shows, which are still available online.

J-LS: What was the local art scene’s context? What kind of art was exhibited in the main venues/galleries? What about the underground music scene? Do music and art go hand in hand?

JG: I experienced the formal local art scene in Olympia (established galleries and performance spaces downtown, often supported with money from the city and state), to be quite traditional. This means most of the galleries hosted artists that made classical representational paintings of landscapes etc., and/or crafts that reflected folk culture in the Northwest U.S. Theaters showed mainly traditional plays and there was no real venue for contemporary dance. Perhaps the most radical venues were theaters (The Olympia Film Society in particular), where you could go to see experimental films and where there was an annual porn festival. From my perspective, however, the most active and contemporary art scene took place in people’s personal dwellings. Many houses across Olympia have been deemed »punk houses« and given names known only by word of mouth. These houses regularly host (mostly punk) music in basements and living rooms. Sometimes these shows are organized into festivals, advertised mostly through posters, fliers, and word of mouth. Sometimes people also organize other types of public art events in their spaces such as poetry readings and theater plays. I was a part of something called the House Theater (founded by Ben Michaelis and Juli Kimbrell) for a while, in which a group of us wrote our own scripts and performed in the living room of the Grant Street House on Olympia’s west side. This culture of gathering in domestic spaces I think was (and hopefully still is) not limited to »art« as an exclusive genre, but also includes things like study groups, lectures, group therapies, activist meetings, anti-racism trainings, potlucks, skill shares, etc. This community trait I think is a part of what made the art shows that I was involved in organizing possible and also extra exciting. In Olympia and in the nUorthwest in general, the history of music shows in houses is very linked to a history of activism. One of the major strengths of both music and activist movements in this area has been the ability to activate and energize people without external financial or infrastructural support, often in private spaces. Gathering people together in homes is a centerpiece of DIY culture: the ability to do what you can with what you have, with the people around you.

J-LS: What kind of art did you present/gather/curate in your events? How did you choose this work?

JG: I didn’t look for artworks. I looked for and kept my eye out for people with interesting ideas, who were doing interesting things and having interesting conversations. By interesting, I don’t mean just what I found personally intriguing on a thematic level, but rather ideas that were provoking discussion and that were outwardly engaged. I often asked people to show work who did not think of themselves as »artists,« but who were working on an a thought project or wanted to try an experiment with a group of people. I like the friction of taking something that doesn’t profess itself as art and putting it in an art context to see how it is read. Likewise, I like taking art that thinks of itself as »art« and putting it in a strange situation like a stairwell, which affects the reading of the piece. The idea I guess is to treat the work not like distinct objects or experiences that are authored by certain people, but rather as situations and provocations which make something happen when they come in contact with a space and an audience. Often my choice to invite someone came from a curiosity about the way they thought and perhaps also a curiosity about how their way of thinking could enter into dialogue with another person’s way of thinking. Sometimes the voices were in tension with one another, but together said something new. Quite pragmatically, I also invited people who were recommended to me by people I trusted and continued to invite people with whom I had a good working relationship. This gave a sense of continuity and cohesion to the shows.

J-LS: Can you describe some of the projects?

JG: One of my favorite projects was a time based installation by China Star (Song for a Melting Ice Cap), which was made out of ice and drum heads. The ice melted over the course of many hours, and landed on different sized drum heads inside of the space. The space was a massive concrete cavern, so you could hear the different tones echoing through the whole exhibition. In the end of the cavern was another long durational electronic sound piece (three hours long) by Mickey Mouth, which progressed very slowly over time. I love how these pieces used the space and interacted both sensorially and conceptually with the other pieces. Some of the work was super ironic and campy, some was very personal, some was very academic. It was important for me to have a mix.

J-LS: Did you also present your work?

JG: I did show my own work in two of the shows, but hesitantly. In both cases my ideas came out of conversations with other artists about the theme and about their ideas. I find it extremely difficult to do a good job organizing something like this while also developing artistic work alongside it. One could see the organization itself as an artistic work and I do feel connected to it in that way, but when an organizer uses the works of others to create their own work, problems arise around curation and authorship. This is a dilemma I think about a lot, but haven’t yet personally resolved.

J-LS: How would you call your role/status in the events?

JG: I would call myself an organizer or facilitator. In some ways, I would also call myself a »curator« but I feel that term carries a lot of weight which has different meanings in different contexts and therefore requires careful qualification. I like the idea that a curator would be a caregiver of people and of artworks, and I have tried to do that in organizing these shows. A curator in my view, however should never be an author or an authority of the artists or their art. To be a good curator, I think, one needs to have the same skills required of any social organizer. For me the most important qualities are the ability to listen well to multiple voices and to see relationships between parts.

J-LS: How did you advertise the events?

JG: I created Facebook events for each show and also made flyers and programs, which were distributed around Olympia. There were programs available at each show that people could take home if they wanted to and also served as a record of the event. There was also a blog posted for the first three shows with links to the artists’ websites, images from the show, and a curatorial statement that served to link artists together. The TV show Your Daily Hour with Me also interviewed me and some participants to promote the event on their broadcast and also broadcast the event on the day of each show.

J-LS: How many people did you usually have in the audience?

JG: One of the things I was most excited by was amount of energy given by the audiences. It was common in Olympia to have music shows in the basements of houses that would draw crowds but they would often feel to me like they were the same cliques attending the same shows, and there wasn’t very much overlap between people with different music preferences, or even communities of friends within Olympia. These art shows were packed, with more than 100 people at each, which was quite a lot for a house venue, even a big house. People would come and go over the course of the (often five hour-long) shows to support not only their own friends, but also inevitably see others’ artwork, which they wouldn’t normally encounter.

J-LS: Was there was an entrance fee? Did any artworks sell?

JG: There was no entry fee in the private spaces (the ABC House and the Alamingo House). In the Olympia Press building there was an unmonitored donations jar at the entrance, which went to cover our event insurance. At Obsidian, a bar and venue downtown, we had an unmonitored jar suggesting a five-dollar donation. In both cases our complete overhead was covered by donations, and of course what follows is no one (apart from the insurance and the venue) got paid. None of the work was for sale. The only exception I can think of is a piece in which two artists who used to be a romantic couple sold souvenirs of their relationship in a kind of gift shop at the show. In this case the choice to sell artwork was conceptual.

J-LS: What was the follow-up to the events?

JG: The follow-up was basic and minimal: collecting and passing around photographs and thank you emails to participants. The longer-term effects were that many of the artists stayed in touch and continued to develop work together. Many came back for the next shows (in addition to new artists), but the artistic works and relationships between artists also continued on their own.

J-LS: How important is socializing at your meetings? Is art a pretext for socializing?

JG: I considered each show to be part of a social experiment or social project. Not just because of bringing together different types of artists and audiences to do something, but also because I thought of the artworks as a kind of social inquiry into the topics proposed. It was particularly interesting to me to see how people used their very broad range of artistic strategies and mediums to address tricky questions, and to hear how audiences responded to their provocations. I did also feel, perhaps a bit too hopefully, that in some way we together were building an infrastructure for ourselves outside of established arts institutions. Our infrastructures were modeled off the values of people who contributed. This could also be considered a social goal. So the socializing was intentional, but was designed not just for the audience but for the artists, around particular topics and questions which hopefully perpetuated dialogue beyond the moment of the show.

J-LS: What was the context in your life when you did this?

JG: I was just finishing up my college education, and thinking a lot about the next stages of my life. I was at a point in which I was tired of my own artistic work and wanted to find a way to help give space to other voices. I put a lot of pressure on myself and I think I had something to prove, both to myself and others

J-LS: What was the main drive to organize it?

JG: I was going through a lot of struggles in my own artistic practice about what it means to take up space. I had gone through a very intense year-long course that discussed art and identity politics around race, identity, and class. I was exhausted by thinking about myself and my subjective experience and wanted to try to point the lens outward. I saw a need for the organization of different types of art events in Olympia and a need to bring different groups of people together. I also was in great need of something in my life that gave me a sense of purpose, that made me connect with ideas outside of my own.

J-LS: What was the best and the unexpected outcome of it?

JG: I hoped that the shows would bring people together, facilitate conversation, and bring a sense of fulfillment to myself and others. I was surprised when all of these things happened, more profoundly than I had imagined. That feeling kept me going and returns to me still.

J-LS: Would you do this again?

JG: Yes I would. But it’s important for me that I see a need for it in my community. I did host a similar show in Berlin, in my apartment, and it was equally gratifying, but I feel Berlin is so full of experimental art projects and opportunities for artists that it somehow feels less important to do here, at least in this way. Also, this is banal, but it would be difficult for me to make time to do such a thing in my current life situation without funding.

J-LS: Do you know about some similar initiatives?

JG: Yes. The house theater I mentioned that I was a part of in Olympia is inspired by a long tradition of house theaters. My friends got the idea from a school called »The School for Designing Society« in the midwest. I have been to several house shows with contemporary dancers in Bellingham, Washington, and in Seattle, as well as durational performance art festivals which are often site-specific and often take place in »non-art« spaces. You and Me, is a project facilitated by Tara Rynders, which creates an evening-long show of one-on-one performances in private houses. I know, of course, Homefest and of the lorgean theatre. There is a project in Berlin called the Sonntag series organized by April Gertler in which artists present their artwork in a private apartment each Sunday and the curator makes his or her favorite cake and serves coffee and tea. This is just to name a few.

J-LS: What is home to you?

JG: Oh boy. The place I grew up had very little distinction between public and private space. The house I lived in was not rented or owned by my family as it was property of the community I lived in, an old mining town bought by the Lutheran church. We ate meals and went to worship together in a shared space with 200-300 people. After I left that home I lived in many other people’s houses as a guest or as a renter, including communal or »punk« houses such as the ABC House or the Alamingo but, like many people I know, often didn’t have a sense that the space was my own. Living in Berlin for the last four years has also been, as anyone who lives in Berlin knows, precarious. Therefore my sense of home has mostly not been attached to the house or apartment I live in, but rather the natural landscape, the culture, and the people that I have close relationships with. The idea of ownership, in fact seems less and less related to my idea of “home”. However, it’s also maybe interesting to consider that the house I was born in and lived in until I was six years old was built by my father, and was always under construction. Also the house that my parents live in now (which I have lived in for brief spells) is also constantly under construction as they perform an extended remodel. So the feeling of home has also often been a feeling of being under construction. Maybe my sense of »home« comes from building something, perhaps not just literally, but also a feeling of building a community together with other people. I believe this is a necessary way to deal with the notion of »home« amidst a largely shared sense of precariousness.

Olympia Art Show Participants:
Alexandria Vickery, Alexis Howell, Alice Wynne, Andrea Goodman, Ariel Birks, Arrington de Dionyso, Asheem Rai, Bayeshan Cooper, Ben Haddox, Ben Kapp, Ben Michaelis, Chask’e Lindgren, China Star, Clel Howard, David Scherer Water, David Weinburg, Duncan Marsh, Eli West, Erica Leshon, Freddy Dobler, Ginsy Stone, Grace Ellis, Hannah Crawford, Hannah Swanson, Jane Rogers, Jean Nagai, Jeff Emtman, Johanna Gilje, Juli Kimbrell, Kaia Gilje, Kanako Pooknyw, Kenny Ward, Kyle Rollins, Kym Walden, LUX, Laura Robison, Liam Halvorson, Lilah Rose, Lindsey Hamilton, Luc DeSio, Maddox Pratt, Marianne Copene, Mary Kallem, Max Oca, Mickey Mouth, Myrtice Dobler, Nate Kirkwood, Nik Nerburn, Pual Krogh, Reid Urban, Rosemary Nichelini,Sean Canning, Taylor Dow, Vanessa LaValle, Willy Smart

Photo Credits:
Jeff Emtman, Ginsy Stone, Pual Krogh, Matthew Ray and Luke Scott Turner

Johanna Gilje engages with research as performance and performance as research, crafting both practical and theoretical approaches to the body as a site of social inquiry. With a background in dance, she makes work surrounding themes of body, process and archive in performance, most recently centered around questions of dialogue and the mapping of conversations. Since fall 2016 she pursues a degree at the MA Raumstrategien at the Kunsthochschule Weißensee, and contributes as a member of the board for the Association for Performance Art in Berlin. The first edition of her book of mapped interviews, the desire to contain and the inevitability of rupture, was handmade in 2014 and published in March 2016 by the Evergreen State College Press.