It is dusk on a relatively mild August evening in the Third Ward, where a graffiti-covered bus has apparently jumped the curb and stopped just short of a light pole in front of Project Row Houses. Passing drivers slow their roll to gawk, and The Ocean of Soul, Texas Southern University’s award-winning marching band, is rocking out on the horizon. I am at the photo shoot for Cargo Space, artist Christopher Sperandio’s latest project — an arts residency on wheels. Sperandio plays dominoes with Project Row Houses founder Rick Lowe while I poke around inside. It smells of glue and sawdust. Later, he explains the ideas behind Cargo Space to me.
What is Cargo Space?
Cargo Space is a project that has consumed my life for more than a year. Every morning, when I open my eyes, my first thought is ‘What do I have to do on the bus today?’ Physically, the project is diesel transit bus that has been remodeled to serve as a mobile living space — an RV, essentially. The dream of Cargo Space, or the idea, is more.
The plan is to use it as a mobile research and exploration vehicle. We will invite artists and thinkers from all over the world to come to Houston. We’ll invite Houston-based artists and thinkers to travel with us elsewhere. It’s a medium for unmediated exchange. In the past, we’ve focused on various communities to make new artworks. The community we’re engaging this time are cultural workers and thinkers. It’s a tool, a mechanism, with many possible uses. What all of those possible uses will be has yet to be determined.
What can Houston artists and audiences gain by engaging with artists and thinkers from elsewhere?
Houston, despite its many great qualities, is physically isolated. There are other modes, other ways of being, other models that Houston artists can utilize. By bringing artists and thinkers in from the outside, we hope to enrich the lives of artists living here. Cargo Space will become a center for the distribution of ideas, mainly to and for artists. How the bus is used, and what it does, will mainly be a function of the interests of those we invite aboard. Its intended use and its ultimate use may differ.
Is it true that Houston suffers from a ‘brain–drain’ in the creative industries? Why do you think that is and what can be done to keep creative people here?
I don’t know the statistics on ‘brain-drain’ but I do know that, for its size, it doesn’t grow nearly as many artists as other major metropolitan areas. There’s only one MFA program in all of Houston. I’d be less concerned with the drain, and more concerned with the flowerpots. We desperately need to create more forums and more diversity in the critical knowledge base here.
[Sandhu’s note: There are at least two MFA programs in Houston — UH’s creative writing MFA and their visual arts MFA. That awareness, much less engagement, between the two is so rare is part of the problem, as I see it.]
When you say ‘more diversity in the critical knowledge base,’ I would place at least half that burden on art audiences — not just artists, curators, gallerists, and art institutions. What is the role of art audiences in demanding these forums and demanding more from local art/ists?
In the absence of a healthy market — not simply local trade, but real, national and international exchange — the audience for art is almost entirely other artists. Go to an opening in Houston and count the number of non-artists in the room. You’d still have one hand remaining to hold your Lone Star. So the folks who should be demanding more of artists, and demanding more of the nearby institutions, are the artists. Here, in this context, we’re all that matters. If the artists would simply twig to that situation, and realize the power they have, things would change for the better, quickly.
I recently attended an art show with my sister — a layperson — and she did not ‘get’ the displayed works at all. ’Is this the first time in history,’ she asked, ‘when you have to read an essay to get anything from a work of art?’
The artworld is a specialist sphere. It has its own history and language. Your sister had the experience of bumping up against that invisible power structure. Of course she has to ‘read an essay.’ I’d be shocked if she could get everything she needs from one essay. In fact, that’s a good idea. I wonder if it could be done. Somebody should write an essay that’s like a passkey to art exhibitions.
The work that I make with my collaborative partner Grennan has a different problem. It’s comprehensible to the groups that we work with, and often larger groups as well. Because we’re successful in doing that, the arts professionals, the ‘secret society,’ if you will, mistrusts it. Popular work carries a lingering (and rightfully so) stigma of fascism. This is a simplification, of course, but that’s the general thematic at play. A fear of the crowd. Of course, the opposite is really the case. There’s an elite structure that would be threatened if more were part of the conversation. It all comes down to education and cultural values.
What is your take on contemporary art? Are concepts and ideas more important than craft and ‘beauty’ (whatever that may mean)?
You simply cannot parse any of this stuff out — beauty, craft, ideas, history. Try making a cake without eggs, or one without baking powder; the result is NOT a cake. All art is conceptual — it’s just that some artworks are resting on concepts so established, so old, that they appear, or would like to appear, to be part of the natural order of the world. In contemporary art, we’re talking hemlines. Things are one way, one season, and another the next. Ideas are just as much subject to fashionability as are formal values. If you don’t like what’s happening, just wait. Things will change.
What do you look for (or find) in ‘successful’ contemporary works?
I hope to find something unexpected. I hope to see things combined in such a way that it would never have even occurred to me to try it. Too many artists worry about what other people will think. I’d rather look at something, even if it’s a failure, that tries. Too much of what I see — everything, nearly everything — sits squarely within the established, normative values, and within an ultimately conservative cultural history. How dull.
Is the ‘art conversation’ necessarily an international conversation, or is it possible for art to exist in a vacuum, conversing only with its immediate environment (temporally as well as geographically)?
There are thousands of conversations going on, and most of them don’t include even a thought of Houston. Other people can live how they want to live, but I want to participate, however modestly in a larger conversation about the nature of art. Others can too, but they have to make the effort.
Why this bus, this mobile art project?
I’ve started looking to my long-standing collaborative practice (Kartoon Kings) with British artist Simon Grennan for solutions to my problems. One of my problems is that I am no longer able to interact with the wider international body of thinkers and makers. It’s a problem of geography and isolation. So that’s one reason: I’m lonely.
Another is that I (we) have never been invited to make one of our collaborative social projects locally. I realized — maybe a little late — that we don’t fit the local artist profile and if I was ever going to make a new piece in Houston, I would have to go back to my roots as an artist in that the work would have to be self-generated. Using a little seed money from a resource at my job, I started this project, and have funded it mostly through my modest research stipend. For at least 15 years, I’ve been looking at approaches to alternative housing — the Quixotic dream of living off the grid. I’ve ‘gone around the houses’ from DIY RVs, to tiny home building, to house boats and back again to RV culture. All of my interests dovetail in this project and are solved by it.
Finally, another good reason is that pure art, pure research is under siege in this country. There is a drive by ‘administrators’ to instrumentalize arts practices: to make art serve some kind of utilitarian function — to press aspects of art making into service, whether in engineering, or what have you, whilst ejecting the free thinking that goes along with art practices. There is a drive to make art practical. I wanted to create a living research space — or at least a space for thinking to occur — free from bastardization. Is this too many reasons? I have more.
What’s Grennan’s role in Cargo Space?
Grennan and I work corporately; always have. We speak with one voice. Flouting traditional notions of audience and authorship are central components of what we do.
So this bus is an intervention to take art from inert, sanitized spaces and out into the world? What do you expect to gain from that?
Intervention was a term used briefly in the 90s to describe certain art practices. I think it’s dodgy. It implicates the artist as a savior. Cargo Space does not have a messianic mission. In terms of gain, I’m building a resource, and I’ll invite others to share in it, and to help to extend it. I’m building it, and then we’ll see how it operates.
What is gained by showing works outside of ‘sanitized’ spaces?
I wouldn’t call the gallery/museum axis sanitized… I make work in places that are interesting to me. We do make works that sit inside institutions, but they always bridge out beyond the institutional walls in some way. The work we make forges direct connections with individuals or groups in a way that the studio artist can’t. One gain is that the museum/gallery space has become increasingly tedious. I’m rarely surprised when I walk into a gallery or one of the museums. The Outside Context is infinitely more varied, textured and appealing, at least to me. There are also class issues at play when one participates in the Luxury Consumer Goods Industry. It comes down to the fact that I do what I’m able and willing to do. I’m the Lloyd Dobler of the art world. I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career.
What will you be doing in this bus? Will there be a studio for out-of-town artists to live and make their work inside it, or will it be for taking local artists on research road trips to prepare for their exhibitions outside of Houston?
The bus is a living space. It has a dining area, kitchenette, sleeping spaces, and a shower. It has wheels, and an engine that’s in great shape. It’s an amazing resource. It’s a mobile base-camp that we can take anywhere that has passable roads. Now that it’s ready to support life, I want to do all sorts of things with it; many of the things we do, the places we go, will be directed by the fellow researchers/explorers whom I invite aboard.
Our maiden voyage will be to Tulsa, Okla. The Hardesty Arts Center in Tulsa is funding a large-scale exhibition of Houston artists. I’ve selected six local artists — Robert Pruitt, Rahul Mitra, Mike Beradino, Seth Mittag, Daniel Anguilu and Natasha Bowdoin — artists with whom I’d like to spend more time and who are making interesting work. We’re going to road-trip back and forth to Oklahoma. We’ll interact with a variety of groups in Tulsa. We’ll make stops along the way to give the odd lecture or screening or performance. And we’ll exhibit work, produce a book, and a short film.
What are the criteria you’ll be using to select artists to participate?
Words like ‘diesel transit bus’ and ‘luxury RV’ imply a certain scale. While comfortable, the interior of Cargo Space is quite intimate. I’m going to pick people with whom I think I’d like to spend more time. Maybe I admire their work, or maybe they have certain interests. This sort of sounds like match.com or JDate.
The ‘how’ is another matter. I’ll probably put out a call for participants at some point, although I really dislike that model. When you invite people to submit, you only get a particular segment of the population — paying money, submitting images or a web site for review, and then hoping against hope is demeaning to all involved. Artists are already demeaned enough in the United States. They shouldn’t have to dance for the chance to participate, or circle opportunities, licking their chops like hungry animals.
So it’s like you are setting the stage and inviting some players for what will turn out to be some kind of improvisational process, which seems very much in keeping with local values. Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t covered?
Our hope for the Cargo Space is that it adds to the cultural diversity of Houston. We hope to find some good ideas as to how this utility vehicle/magic carpet/Batmobile might be used. I suppose we’ll formalize a proposal process at some point, but until then visit thecargospace.com to see how things are going. And if you see us on the street, stop and say ‘hi.’ Depending on what’s going on, we might invite you in for some tea.
A version of this interview appeared in Arts + Culture Texas.