Susan Smith — Dialogue: The Necessity of Agency

Susan Smith, #safetywork, site-specific installation and performances, University of Maine 2017-18, photo credit: James Winters

The bed was a vintage wrought iron frame. The trailer was for sale on Craigslist. Hundreds of second-hand shoes. These have become the materials of my art practice. In an age where people more and more talk past one another, living in the echo chamber of their own views, staring into the mirror of their phone’s screen, I have tried to foster socially engaged dialogue in my work. A bed where women created a quilt out of their experiences with sexual violence. A museum where the attendees brought the exhibits and could exchange theirs for those someone previously left. Dragging a net of shoes to the state capitol building.

Susan Smith, #safetywork (detail), site-specific installation, University of Maine 2017-18, photo credit: James Winters

My work depends not simply on the dialogue viewers might be engaged in with a piece. The pieces themselves emerge from the conversation I have with people before starting the work. Actually, the work begins with dialogue. For the bed project, I collected the statements of a hundred women survivors of gender-based abuse and screenprinted them on textiles, and then gathered with a group of women who also experienced these issues, and created a quilt. The quilt was then just one of the exhibits in which female-identifying artists created pieces that fell under the title #safetywork, a term coined from those activities females engage in everyday to navigate safely in the world. The bed with its quilt sat outside at the University of Maine throughout the winter, and I and student volunteers shoveled the snow from it after each storm. Although there were actual objects of art that were exhibited, what was important was the dialogue that was created throughout the process of the installation. Performances were held at the site of the bed, area advocacy organizations collaborated with artists, and eighty middle school girls created a wall piece for the exhibit.This exchange of information, the gatherings of women and their shared experiences and support, like the exchange of stories, was vital to the piece’s actualization.

Susan Smith, The Museum of What’s Left, mobile interactive museum multiple locations, spring 2015-winter 2016

In The Museum of What’s Left, a mobile museum created in a refurbished 1985 camper, the local community was asked to submit and curate the collection, bringing things “left behind.” There could be no actual art work without the direct participation of myriad individuals. Participants left their objects, but also told the story of how those pieces came to to be left behind: one was an unopened final letter from a former lover, another a pin for thirty-five years of service given to someone who had her position eliminated and was now unemployed. They then could exchange their left-behind burden for something someone else had left. In this way, the museum was constantly “in the make,” a continual process where the engagement was not solely with the objects, but directly with the lives of other people, creating a museum of open dialogue. The space became a place of shared narratives, people stopping by to check “what was new”, read and record stories, and share in real time. The museum became a meeting place.

Susan Smith, #nothere:no place to land, socially engaged performance, documentary film, Augusta Maine Statehouse, 2016
Susan Smith, #nothere:no place to land,
socially engaged performance,
documentary film, Augusta Maine
Statehouse, 2016

A young refugee boy had drowned on a beach. The shoes—hundreds of them—were donated by Lamey Wellehan. A Turkish colleague and filmmaker suggested we do a collaboration on the crisis that haunted the news, and a group of artists created #nothere: no place to land, where the public participated in dragging a fishing net of 500 pairs of shoes to the Maine State House. These shoes were then part of a multimedia exhibit, including voice recordings of refugees traveling across Europe, in their original languages, hoping to extend the dialogue about the crisis as far as possible. Social media was an integral tool in this, as it is in all of these projects, as well as a letter campaign where participants at the exhibitions created letters that were sent to our collaborating refugee camps in Europe.

The ideas come out of dialogue with others, the process itself is socially engaged, and the final exhibit is a documentation of the event, not only so that viewers can see what was accomplished, but also to offer the opportunity for them to see art as a mode of dialogue in which they can participate.

Susan Smith, #nothere: no place to land: Echoes, 360 video installation, 2017

The sharing of meaning can be as simple as taking some sourdough starter and creating a hundred little containers to disseminate, knowing that those starters can then be shared and spread in a dialogue without words. A dialogue can be beyond our own times, or with the land itself: I created a series of vestiges, prints taken directly from the fallow fields of an abandoned Maine farm and a series of paintings, after following immigrant farm laborers through the blueberry barrens. In another venue, the mobile unit traveled to Black Mountain College, transformed into a mobile print lab, where the participants produced plates for printing with a DIY hack on a printing press, a water-filled lawn roller. The plates were reprinted later in the studio and became a book for the museum in Asheville. Many times my work as an artist, or an educator is not as the central figure, but as just one of the many people who are bringing the art into the light. Dialogue is that act of bringing to light shared meanings.

Susan Smith, Vestige, Eco-print on handmade paper, silk, wool, Site-specific installation and exhibition with Maine Farmland Trust, 2017

Art, for me, needs to be something beyond a piece that hangs in a gallery or museum and which people move past so the next person can have a glimpse. In a world such as ours, that often seems on the brink of not being a world at all, more is needed, and it has brought a sense of urgency to the way I work. Art needs to be removed from its climate-controlled case and handed around. It needs to be something that is carried amidst the people who make and who need the art. It needs to be a dialogue where the piece itself is only as good as the community it creates, not the community that has access to it.

Susan Smith, #uprooted:Black Mountain, Mobile printmaking lab, Black Mountain College