As I stand between a mock campsite and a sail for humans, not boats, I watch a ping-pong ball hop lithely from a miniature tennis court and roll to a stop beneath a geometric wooden structure.
I'm back at Southern Exposure for an update on the non-profit's current show, Working Conditions, where nine local artists are working for two months in a shared, public studio. When I wrote about the show's opening last month, the artists were still settling into the gallery. The room had that just-moved-in feeling of a new apartment -- carefully arranged and zinging with potential. Now, a month later, the studios feel like they belong. And as plans become prototypes, the space has plumped with fresh work.
For a show based around the concept of labor, there's a lot of playfulness here: artists and visitors carve their names into a picnic table, undulate on a waterbed, play Donkey Kong and compete in mini tennis. The environment's lightness -- a hallmark of socializing -- underscores the fact that Working Conditions is, at its core, a social project.
The group of artists in this social space is not random. Each artist was chosen by a different member of the Southern Exposure curatorial committee, who worked to develop a roomful of people who would actively investigate the concept of labor, but work in totally different ways. It's like a tiny, themed grad school program without professors, deadlines or official critiques. In the absence of school's structure, the artists have been sharing informal feedback by reacting to and interacting with the artwork of their studio mates.
Visitors, too, have had the uncommon opportunity to interact with the artists' prototypes, essentially acting as test cases in creative trials. To develop ideas for a Wimbledon-themed animation project, Jennie Ottinger built a small-scale tennis court for visitors to use. When she colored ping-pong balls with highlighter marker to resemble tennis balls, she didn't anticipate the highlighter turning the players' hands green. Ottinger also observed that the tennis court table was too cramped for adult limbs. The next version of the miniature court will be slightly larger, and the tennis balls will be colored with pencil, which doesn't rub off. While these changes would've also been made in a private studio, no one but Ottinger -- and maybe one assistant -- would've experienced green hands or the awkward table sizing.
Trial and error is one of the more conspicuous elements of the creative process rarely on display in a gallery setting. Working Conditions, though, is full of public prototyping. Wafaa Yasin, who's building a sail she'll buckle around her waist in the ocean for a performance investigating borders at sea, discovered the metal fastener she had chosen was too heavy and the sail's fabric was too flimsy. Now, she's building a lighter buckle from wood and crafting a new sail from heavy, recycled sailcloth. Visitors step inside the staging of her performance, viewing her concept drawings, her prototype and the beginnings of her final piece.
Participating artist Nathaniel Parsons explained that although the process is public, the artists have still been able to capture private moments that lead to quiet revelation, since each participant is granted 24-hour access and will sometimes occupy the space alone.
Ethan Worden and Steven Barich, in particular, are working on meditative, inward-facing projects I wouldn't have expected to function as smoothly in a public environment. Worden said he's been challenged to move more quickly back and forth between engaging visitors in his space and focusing on the repetitive but strategic act of gluing small strips of lumber into an asymmetrical structure.
After Worden and Barich (above, with his grid) are periodically pulled away from the details of their meticulous work, they return to performing their processes with renewed perspective from peer feedback and from the simple act of conversing, an experience so different from the state of absorption fostered by their work.
Most shows celebrate the completion of a project, where you're able to connect an artist's intent with their final work. The opening of Working Conditions, of course, marked the beginning of a process, not the end. And throughout the rest of the show's run, you'll witness not a final product but nine simultaneous transformations from concept to creation. Each project here began with a particular conceptual basis, but the connection to these foundations continues to morph in response to the social environment. After all, while our party personas are born of our quieter, more thoughtful moments, they're honed at the party.
Working Conditions runs through Jan. 7, 2012 at Southern Exposure in San Francisco. Catch the final happy hour Jan. 4, 2012, 6-9pm, and attend the closing reception Jan. 6, 2012, 7-9pm. For more information visit soex.org.