When Creating Space For Others Goes Along Making Your Own Art

Robert Crouch
Artist and Curator Robert Crouch

Fulcrum Arts is an artists-centred organization that focuses on the intersection of art and science, and specifically, it promotes work that is working towards positive social change. It is actually a very old organization, founded in the early 1960s, then becoming a non-profit in 1968, which was for the most parts, a small, volunteer-run organization, in Pasadena. I was brought in to become the Director of Artist Programs, and one of the big projects was our art and science program. Because we are in Pasadena, there is an abundance of science institutions, such as Caltech and NASA, and we found that they are very generous in allowing us to start collaborations, something unique and special in the region. I started in 2013, and took over the organization officially in 2015, working with the board towards these opportunities between the arts and sciences. The name Fulcrum Arts came in 2017, and our new mission has just been approved earlier this year. In 2015, we worked with a Berlin-based curator, Isabel de Sena, and she brought two Russian artists from the Netherlands, Evelina Domnitch and Dmitry Gelfand for a residence at LIGO, a joint lab between Caltech and MIT. That was one of our first opportunity to support an artist to do pure research at a very prestigious (with multiple Nobel prizes) and forward-thinking lab. Another residency was with artist Christopher O’Leary. We sent him, in collaboration with the Carnegie Observatories, to the telescopes in Las Campanas, in Chile, for two weeks, to do research and have dialogues with the machine scientists and the astronomers. Interestingly, it was much easier for us to place an artist in residence, than it usually is for scientists to go down there for research. There was a strong interest to see what would happen when you bring an artist into the research centers.

It takes a village. With Fulcrum, and with my other jobs, curating is really about identifying what the need is. Where is the opportunity, for myself, as an independent curator or with an institution, to provide some kind of meaningful support? And to make something happen, that I feel needs to happen. I was originally trained as an artist, but I found myself drawn to curating. It wasn’t even curating that interested me, it was making things happen that were bigger than an individual studio practice. It’s also about the acknowledgement, that in order for a work of art to exist, and to have some resonance and meaning, it requires a lot of people and work that oftentimes goes uncredited. For me, it is interesting and meaningful to recognize that any project is a community project once it leaves the artist’s studio. My job is to make sure that everybody has what they need to do the best work that they can do, and then, to trust them.

Choreographer Carmen Beuchat and Robert Crouch at her studio, Pucon, Chile
Choreographer Carmen Beuchat and Robert Crouch at her studio, Pucon, Chile

Creating opportunities. When I graduated from CalArts in 1997, me and a couple of friends organized a big show with all of the recent graduates. We rented rooms in a motel in Hollywood, and gave each artist a room to curate projects. It was not necessarily a new idea, and it still happens for a lot of commercial art fairs, but what made our special, is that since we couldn’t afford the whole motel, there were still people staying. They had no idea what was going on. There were these Russian guys in their underwear that kept inviting people into their room to have drinks. They decided it was a really cool hotel. It was pretty funny. Ever since I was studying art, I was involved in curating shows. It was always something that you did. I went to school at the San Francisco Art Institute, and at that time, artists-run spaces were very common. These tiny galleries that were run by artists for just a few years, would pop up all over the city. It was part of the culture of art making. When I moved to LA, in the late 1990s, there was not much of an independent, artist run gallery scene. That was the reason for the motel show, because we didn’t see any opportunities. The way I learned to be an artist, is that you always did this other thing that was part of your practice.

For the longest time I would not put myself in a show that I am organizing, and to me, it seemed kind of tacky. I didn’t want it to be perceived as putting together a show to give myself an opportunity. But now my practice has changed a lot, and it has gone from making objects—I used to identify as a sculptor—to making sound-based work and performance. It is much more focused. Now, co-organizing an event with other artists, is a different kind of exchange. It is like organizing a tour as a performing artist, and inviting other artists to be part of it. It is different from me organizing a show in gallery and putting myself in it.

A lot of my curatorial work is about exploring ideas that I wouldn’t necessarily approach in my artistic practice, but that I find interesting and compelling. This is true of a project I did with taisha paggett. The first time I saw taisha perform, I just had to sit there and watch her. It was a durational piece, at LACE. She is African American, and in the piece, she covered her skin with dark make-up. She was back lit, so when you sat in front of her, she looked like a Kara Walker cut-out, very similar aesthetics. She was sitting on a patch of grass, repeating a set of three movements, over and over again. I think she did it for three or five hours. It was very beautiful, very inquisitive, and kind of nurturing. Watching her silhouette was absolutely mesmerizing, I felt as if I was supposed to be there and watch it. I got to know her, she’s this really beautiful person, and I wanted to offer her another opportunity. We put her in a residency at LACE for a couple of months. She created a teaching curriculum for the residency, because it also became school, WXPT, which continued past the original installation. What she did was so far outside of what I would do, and that is also exactly what drives me to it.

taisha paggett and WXPT perform at the opening for School for the Movement of the Technicolor People at LACE, 2015
taisha paggett and WXPT perform at the opening for School for the Movement of the Technicolor People at LACE, 2015.

The elections in the US. Speaking for myself and some of the people I am close to: we didn’t realize how traumatized we were, until it was officially announced that Biden had won. I had become so numb living in this neo-fascist regime, that I didn’t realize how much it had been hurting and stressing me and my friends out, like the story of putting a frog in a pot of water, and slowly turning up the heat. We didn’t realize how much it had been affecting us emotionally. We knew consciously what was going on, but I think emotionally, in order to get through, you had to turn certain things off. I was with my partner, and we were watching Kamala Harris and Joe Biden make their speeches, and it was moving. It was moving to hear someone speak rationally. Harris is a really fascinating person. I am most interested in what’s going to happen with her. It is going to push through the conversation, especially about race, in much more complex ways. There is going to be some kind of reckoning.

Race. I am from the US, but my mother is Japanese. One of the experiences that I had, as a biracial person, is that you don’t get to decide who you are, it is always the person in front of you who feels entitled to tell, or decide, what you really are. And that’s often in service of some kind of political agenda. So if I am occupying a position of talking about racism, and I am speaking to a white person, so many times the person says: “well, I think of you as white”. As if that somehow was going to undo all the conversation we just had, or defend them, or incriminate me, or something. It keeps happening, not only with white people. When I was younger and I started making art, my mentor was the artist Nayland Blake, he’s still a friend. He’s an artist who passes as white, even though his father is black, and legally, according to the state of New York, he’s black. Much of his work is about that. I was very lucky to have worked with him, and to have a mentor who occupies the same sort of space. He’s also queer. I first saw him give a lecture in 1993, in San Francisco, and I immediately thought that I have to work with him. I studied with him at the San Francisco Art Institute, I worked as his assistant briefly, and a few years later, we collaborated for a show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. I just saw him on the occasion of his big retrospective at the ICA in Los Angeles. I think the conversation about race, specifically bi-racial and multi-racial subjectivities, is going to become much more mainstream after this election.

Big picture or attention to details. If you had asked me a few years ago, how I manage all my projects, it would have been a different answer. But now, I am starting to give things up, or do them very slowly. Fulcrum is my full-time job, it’s where I find I am most able to access resources and make things happen. I have been slowly passing off the work I am doing with Volume, the curatorial project I co-founded in 2007, to the rest of the team. Initially, it was a project that I started with just one person, Ed Patuto, but then decided to bring more people in, for them to use the platform, and realize their ideas. It is one way to keep Volume going, and I am very proud of what they’ve done.

Robert Crouch and Yann Novak perform Spectrum at Monkeytown, Los Angeles 2016
Robert Crouch and Yann Novak perform Spectrum at Monkeytown, Los Angeles 2016.

Pacific Rim. I was able to go to Australia a couple of times last year. Part of it for pleasure, and part of it for business. I played a show in Brisbane, and had a residency in Melbourne. What I found was a very different attitude towards tackling a lot of the same problems that we have in the United States. And I learned a lot from how artists and curators, in that part of the world, are dealing with indigenous and land rights. I am interested in the Pacific Rim as a site to understand our place in the world. California is seen as the Western most tip of the Western tradition, but for me, I look at the Pacific Rim as a way to understand myself. When I was in Japan, my entire community was made of kids like me, with parents from Guam or Thailand, it was really a melting pot, centered around military bases in the Pacific. For best or for worse, that is how I thought of myself and I recognized this to some degree in Australia.

My current art practice. I am supposed to have two albums done, a soundtrack for a video, and then another seven-inch single, and these are all sort of in the process. My partner Yann Novak, and I, just finished a big collaboration. It was a public sound installation in Berkeley, Histories of the Present, that took about a year to do.

Working holidays. Truthfully, I manage to do all my projects because I don’t have much of a social life. I live with my partner who is also an artist, so a lot of the needs for social interaction I have them at home. We also often work together, beside the project in Berkeley, we collaborated on Spectrum, a multi channel audio and video performance work, commissioned for Monkeytown LA, in 2016. We developed it in our live/work studio space, in downtown Los Angeles. For us, it is easy to remain productive, or to keep it simple when we relax. But we are terrible at taking vacation, we tend to bring equipment with us, and turn the hotel room into a studio.

One of my guilty pleasures is Las Vegas. But when we go there, we don’t gamble and we don’t drink. It is really just to observe the spectacle, have some good food, and be in a place where we can’t work. I also know a few people who run the art program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and they are amazing. When we go there now, we have art friends we can speak to.

Robert Crouch and Rebecca Bruno performing in Los Angeles, 2015
Robert Crouch and Rebecca Bruno performing in Los Angeles, 2015.

I cook. There is this website called Just One Cookbook, that is full of Japanese recipes. So we have been digging through that quite a bit. Also, this will sound very basic, but making Teriyaki chicken from scratch, is very different from the crap they serve in most restaurants. I never liked it, I always thought it was kind of basic until I found this website, and I loved the recipe. We also became very good at Okonomiyaki, which is this kind of savoury Japanese pancake that you can serve with anything you want in it. It is a nice metaphor for diversity.

An ideal future invention… part of me thinks that a time machine would be great. I would probably try to jump very far into the future and see what happens. I am just very curious to know what the world is going to be like, in 10,000 years.

An interesting book that impacted me, which I think is now very relevant in America, because of Trump, is a book by China Mieville, called Embassytown. It is a science fiction book about a planet occupied by a particular race of beings, incapable of lying. It is all about language. And so, one of them, after much effort, manages to say something untrue, and it becomes a drug that overtakes the entire planet. It is a very interesting book, and it is beautifully written.

If I wasn’t a curator, I probably would be in food service. When I was younger that is what I did. Going to the arts was a way for me to make a big change and reinvent possibilities. It was a way of removing myself from industries I didn’t trust, with negative consequences on society. I grew up in a military family, and most of my options seemed limited to working for a related industry. The friends working with me in food service decided to go to culinary school. For those like me, who came from a working-class background, that choice seemed very reasonable if you wanted to make a career. For me, after a year of art school, I completely fell in love with it. Looking back, cooking is much more romantic now, chefs became rock stars. It seems like an occupation where a lot of creativity happens. But then, I remember the abuse I was getting from customers, and I think not.

Robert Crouch

Executive and Artistic Director at Fulcrum Arts

Pasadena, US

Biography:

Robert Crouch is an artist and curator whose work encompasses sound, performance, and technology. As an artist, he locates his work with the intersection of post-phenomenological listening practices, conceptual sound art, and contemporary electronic music. At its core, his work can be understood as a conversation between tonality, context, history and subjectivities. His work has been released on Dragon’s Eye Recordings, Line, and Touch, and he has performed nationally and internationally. His sound work is published by Touch Music.
Crouch’s curatorial work focuses on the overlapping disciplines of sound, science, technology, movement, and performance. In 2014 he organized the North American premiere of Sphæræ, a large-scale inflatable performance space and public artwork by Dutch artist Cocky Eek. In 2017 he co-curated Juan Downey: Radiant Nature, a survey of early interactive and performance work of the late Chilean artist as part of the Getty initiative, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. In 2018 he organized Lawrence English: Seirá, a citywide public sound installation that reactivated a network of six decommissioned civil defense sirens across Los Angeles. 
Crouch is the former Associate Director/Curator at LACE, where he curated solo exhibitions with artists Karen Lofgren, Gina Osterloh, Steve Roden, Sean Sullivan, and Margo Victor, and performances with artists including William Basinski, Celer, Lawrence English, Dominick Fernow, and Yann Marussich. He is also the founding partner of VOLUME, a curatorial project that functions as a catalyst for interdisciplinary new media work through exhibitions, performances, events, lectures, and publications, and has worked with a wide range of artists including William Basinski, Nate Boyce, Frank Bretschneider, Richard Chartier, Heather Cassils, Celer, Loren Chasse, William Fowler Collins, Tim Hecker, Isis, France Jobin, Kadet Kuhne, Lucky Dragons, Mamiffer, Carsten Nicolai, Yann Novak, taisha paggett, Steve Roden, Terre Thaemlitz, Julie Tolentino, and Christopher Willits.

Art critic and writer.

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