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Art & Life with Karen Atkinson

Today we’d like to introduce you to Karen Atkinson.

Karen, please kick things off for us by telling us about yourself and your journey so far.
I was born in California, and grew up mostly in Southern California, with a short stint in the San Joaquin Valley. I was doing art projects when I was in Junior High but didn’t really know that then. I was making projections of images and sound/text. It took about 10 years for me to put myself through school and then ended up teaching at CalArts in 1988.

I am a hybrid artist who began her career in a semi-traditional way of making work for galleries but also took on temporary public art projects. I have always been concerned with content in the work, and strive to make work that is relevant. Rather than create works that an audience had to live with “forever” as in permanent public art, or more objects in the world to be collected by mostly while men with money that would potentially make more money off my work than I would ever see, I gradually became interested in supporting other artists as an art practice.

I c0-founded an artist-run organization in 1991 called Side Street Projects. So names because we were not really a gallery so much as a project space, and we created a series of support services for artists, as well as a rental space for rehearsals, workshops and training for artists, as well as support for off-site projects, and a full-on woodworking facility for artists’ access. We also founded an educational program for kids ages 5 – 11, but also trained artists in teaching. This program is not integrated into the Pasadena School System as part of their school lessons.

When I gave Side Street Projects over to the next generation, I then started a new artist project called Getting Your Sh*t Together or GYST Ink. Pronounced “gist” or you get the gyst of it, I set out to create support, tools that took advantage of new technologies and services for artists. I developed software in 2000 to help artists manage and keep track of everything in their art careers, no matter whether they took on a traditional gallery based relationship, or were a DIY kind of artist.

I wrote two books, one for artists and the other for teaching professional practices to artists. I have worked with artists worldwide, doing consulting, reviewing artist statements, artists’ cv’s, grants and proposals. I have taught numerous workshops and classes throughout the country. The goal of this endeavor was to help level the playing field between artists who already had access to the “art worlds” or had a trust fund so that all artists who were making kick ass work could see the potential of getting it out into the world.

Because I have had a hard time with others understanding my business as an art practice, another friend of mine, Bernard Brunon and I created a presentation for the Paris Biennial on the history of artist-run businesses as an art practice. We went back 40 years, and also found an organization in Paris that researches the kind of artwork that we both make. There are over 100 artists in the world who use this model as an art practice. I created a TEDx talk in 2010 that articulated these ideas, and have written and spoken about these ideas of a hybrid practice for artists.

The art world(s) are changing so fast, that it is hard to keep up with how things work. Galleries have only been around for about 200 years, but yet they control how much of the art world works. Those galleries are now dying (for many reasons including how they have treated artists), and new models are taking shape, mostly because artists themselves are creating new models of engagement with their audiences. I see my art practice as Making Life Better for Artists.

Can you give our readers some background on your art?
As stated before, I see my artwork and practice to be about making life better for artists. As an artist myself, I know how difficult it is to thrive in our current economy and ideas about artists. While lots of work gets bought and sold, very little of it is seen once it is bought, and not a lot of it is very relevant to the culture. The commodification of artists has changed their work and very few artists can claim they have not changed their work based on future sales of their work. I wanted to see if new models and ideas could be created. I realized that if artists owned the means of their own production, that it would change the way the art worlds worked. I don’t make sellable work, and most of my projects can be seen to have an activist bent. I am always pushing boundaries of what constitutes art.

There are a few projects which will give the reader an idea of what my work is about.

Playing for Time was created in the 90’s, and was a series of 20 parking meters that were wired for sound and put into public places. West Hollywood City Hall, LA Eyeworks in Orange County, Midnight Special Bookstore, Armory Center for the arts, galleries, museums, and public spaces. I commissioned artists and their friends and families to create a text that talked about AIDS as a personal experience. When you fed the meter with a quarter, you got 15 minutes of audio art. There was a sign on the parking meters that told what the project was about and included a phone number for comments. (This was before the internet as we know it).

The money was then collected and almost $10,000 was raised to support artists with AIDS to complete a last body of work before they died. At that time, the topic was only being discussed in a handful of media, and rarely did the person get to speak about their experiences. This project changed that. The endless cassette tapes were replaced with a new audio version every month. The project opened on Dec 1, World AIDS Day, and was supposed to be up for three months. I stayed up for three years until the meters got tired.

Prisoner of Love was a movie projected on a glow in the dark screen made by the artist which addressed ideas of how racism is handed down through families. Having a great aunt to married a Japanese man when it was still illegal to have a “mixed” marriage, they kept it a secret until the war broke out with Japan. She was interned with his family at Gila River when all people of Japanese ancestry were ordered to evacuate to hastily built barracks in the deserts. This project addressed the acute racism towards my aunt who was Danish in origin.

I never interviewed them directly, but everyone around them, as this project was to reflect on the perceptions of this couple rather than personal experience. It was eyes opening. The glow in the dark screen works in such a way that there is always a trace of the image before that infects the current image, much like history affects how we operate today. When a photograph or image is projected on the screen, it charges the screen, and that image glows, thereby affecting the next image. My work is often about the history of ideas and this format keeps the viewer aware of that process.

I also created a work called Projections: intermission images in which a co-curator and I commissioned a number of other artists to create images on their computers, and then they were made into slides that were projected in between the popcorn and trivia slides in two major commercial theaters, Pasadena AMC with 8 screens, and the new Magic Johnson Theaters with 12 screens. This project projected for two months in each theater. After that experience we being censored by the National Cinema Network, I contacted the local Laemmle theaters and for three years, we projected site-specific and context-specific curated exhibitions in slide form and took over every intermission with an exhibition of artists projects designed specifically for this space.

I create a project for Santa Monica’s Glow Festival that included a 40′ x 8′ glow in the dark screen and invited the viewers to interact with the screen between projected movies with their cell phones. This project ran from dusk to 3 am, and there were still people there who would not leave they were so into it. I have addressed other issues such as the language of discovery and the language of tourism after 500 years still being used today that couches discovery and tourism in terms of a woman’s body, making clear that continuing to use this language that degrades women, just perpetuates this abuse.

All this time, I also saw creating the nonprofit space Side Street Projects as part of my art practice as well as my full-time job of teaching at CalArts. GYST became another artist project that allowed me to concentrate on seeing if I could get other artists into a place where they were creating culture rather than participating in culture, an important part of my practice as an artist. Other projects include turning a gallery into a mock attorneys office to fight for freedom of expression and the reauthorization of the National Endowment for the Arts, creating placemats for local restaurants in Tahoe to highlight contributions from women in the area historically, hung 300 handmade handkerchiefs in a five-story window of a building, projections in storefront windows all over the country in non art sites such as an architects office, furniture store, bookstore etc., curated numerous exhibitions and create projects in many countries.

So clearly feminisms, race, class and other issues are always a part of my work. Being an artist is really hard. Most artists live in the low-income levels, and this should change. By giving tools to artists to make life or careers just a little bit better is a way for me to gather more voices (also the way I curate) to be heard. I feel that artists should never quit but keep speaking in whatever way they deem necessary. If artists’ voices continue to be a part of changing the culture, and I can help those voices be heard, then I have done something work doing as an artist.

The next generation of artists is crucial to our survival as a world, of our cultures, and a way for voices that have been long silenced can be heard. What is more important than hearing a variety of different kinds of ideas from artists and cultural workers. If we can keep artists working longer, then we have made the world a better place to live by allowing artists to create work to mirror our shortcomings.

Artists rarely, if ever pursue art for the money. Nonetheless, we all have bills and responsibilities and many aspiring artists are discouraged from pursuing art due to financial reasons. Any advice or thoughts you’d like to share with prospective artists?
I think this is true for 95% of artists. The 1% in the art world context is the same issue we all have with the 1% in the world at large. Only a few artists ever do well financially, and the collectors make most of the money off of an artists work. There are a few things that can help an artist address these challenges, and this is one of the reasons I continue to run GYST. Knowing how things work is vital. You can’t make changes very well is you don’t know how things work.

This has been my biggest asset to getting things done. Don’t worry about what everyone else thinks. Find your tribe or your audience. So many people will tell you what to do and what to make to “get ahead” but remember that these suggestions are a way of participating in culture (what is already known) rather than create or change the culture. Have a plan. Write down your goals, They will always change and shift, but you need to know what road you are embarking upon in order to survive on that road and have control over your own art practice.

Making money is a necessity, but how you make it can affect your artwork. I truly believe that if artists stick to what is important to them, rather than following the status quo then their own uniqueness will come forth. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard an artist get instructions on how to “make it” that was such bad advice it made me cringe. So much of that advice is to conform to what is working now. But it will never make you stand out with a difference, which is what makes our world thrive. Sometimes a day job is important because you are not tempted to make work that is sellable or recognizable or branded in such a way that you become stagnant. What does an art career look like for a serious artist? What do you want your own artwork to do? It can sit in in storage or it can be active.

Have a staff meeting with yourself every Monday morning and run your project like a business or at least in a professional way. Follow up on what you say you are going to do. Look for opportunities and get rejected constantly. Even if you get rejected, a whole panel of people have seen your work, so think of rejection as marketing or getting the word out. Read and stay smart. Keep up with current things that are important. Don’t work in a vacuum. Come up with 50 ways to raise funds without writing grants. Learn how to ask for support. Or come up with endeavors which support your art practice without sacrificing your standards of what an art practice looks like to you.

And speak out. Be brave. Be tenacious. Get cracking. Don’t quit. And above all, thrive.

What’s the best way for someone to check out your work and provide support?
I have multiple website and social media projects that support his work. First, there is the GYST site, Getting Your Sh*t Together (we call it getting, since the world in changing so fast that we can never fully GET our shit together), at which included software of the same name to help artists thrive, as well as over 400 pages of vital and important information for artists (the book is on my website for free…. bad marketing strategy, good activist strategy).

We also provide lots of services and support to artists. We also have GYST Radio which included over 200 podcasts for artists on DIY strategies, and just started a new Podcast Series called How the Art World Works, in which we are interviewing a wide range of artists and other cultural workers on how it works or not, for them. We also are active on Social Media such as Instagram where out book has a life and travels to various areas of the world, or comments on artists. We are also on Facebook, Linked In, and many other sites where we share resources and ideas and answer a multitude of questions.

My personal website is at where you can see a range of visual projects since the early 80’s.

I also created another business to support artists called Digital Mud Works, where I have created over 1000 digital files of extruder dies that artists can download and print on a 3D printer, or order them pre-printed and sent to them in any color that won’t be lost in the clay slurry. This is an ongoing project I created for clay artists where I saw a need and created an outlet. I have lots of ideas of tools for artists in a wide variety and form, and again, I wanted to create something to share.

The best way to support my work at this point in my career is to support GYST in some way. I am looking for a business partner and programmer who can help me put the GYST software on a cloud-based platform, so that all artists, curators, collectors, nonprofits and galleries cab all talk to each other, and manage careers that support artists of all kinds. We have a fiscal sponsor and can receive tax-deductible donations through Fractured Atlas. The other way is to get crackin’ as an artist and make sh*t work. There is no reason that artists should not know more than their dealer, curator, etc. and encourage the best behavior in all artistic partnerships.

I also created a new ceramics department at CalArts six years ago. I was a ceramics sculpture in the 70’s but no one would show the work since it was made with clay. That has clearly changed in the art world. So now, I sell ceramics in order to help support my art practice both around and through a store on Etsy called Twiggs and Whatever.

Please check out the GYST website and join us all in leveling the playing field for artists and making life better for all of us, not just artists.

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