On the Record: Art Professor Speaks on Personal Work Outside Oberlin

Georgia Horn, Arts Editor

Over the 2012 Winter Term, Oberlin’s Assistant Professor of Integrated Media Julia Christensen’s group show, It’s the Political Economy, Stupid, opened at the Austrian Cultural Forum. Her work has been shown at the Yale University Architecture Galleries,the Walker Art Center and Lincoln Center, among others.

Can you tell me a little bit about the work in this show, the background of the project, how long you’ve been working on it, etc.?

The work that is showing here was made several years ago. It is from the Big Box Reuse project, which is about how communities are reusing abandoned Walmart and Kmart stores for civic purposes. The photos in the show are of churches, schools, hospitals and more, all in abandoned Walmart and Kmart stores. The photos were taken between 2002–2007. This project became my first book, Big Box Reuse [MIT Press, 2008], and has shown in numerous venues, including the Walker Art Center and the Carnegie Museum of Fine Arts. I had my first touring solo show of this work, Your Town Inc.: Julia Christensen, which premiered at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University in 2008.

Where is your work currently being exhibited?

Currently I am in the exhibition It’s the Political Economy, Stupid, curated by Greg Sholette and Oliver Ressler at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Manhattan. That show will be moving to the Centre for Contemporary Art in Thessaloniki in the summertime, and I’ll be going to Greece to give a talk at the opening.

Is this the first time you’ve had a show in New York? If not, where else have you shown?

Hmm, New York specifically — I have shown at the Lincoln Center in New York and at the Dumbo Art Center in Brooklyn. I also lived upstate in the Hudson Valley for about 10 years and have shown in numerous places just outside of the city. I’ve presented the work several times in NYC (National Arts Club, NYU, book launches at various bookstores, etc.).

So, what’s been your favorite part of the project? Your favorite place?

Each site I’ve visited gives unique insight into the town, how towns are changing and what the future of our civic structure looks like. A major challenge is to keep design decisions in the control of municipalities more than in the hands of global corporations, who are responsible for the big box development we know all too well.

What is the future of the project?

This project sort of lives a life of its own at this point. In my own practice, this project reached its culmination around 2009, and lots of projects have happened since then. It is great that Big Box Reuse is still relevant though, especially in light of the current economic crisis. I look forward to the experience of having the work show in Greece and giving a talk about it at the Centre for Contemporary Art — seeing what the response looks like. I was invited to present about Big Box Reuse at an art college in India last year, the Srishi School of Art, Design and Technology, and it was interesting to see the reactions to such a U.S. phenomenon (i.e., “the abandoned big box building”) on another side of the world.

I know you were in India over break; can you tell me a little bit about what you were doing there?

I have visited India for two years now working on a series of projects about how trash flows around the world. I was initially there to work on my project Surplus Rising, about where factory machines go when factories close in Ohio (often to new factories in India and China). This project became a touring exhibition that showed at Ohio State University and then in Cleveland; BOMB magazine did an interview about this project. I went to India last year to try to track down machines that had once operated in Ohio. This sent me on a wild goose chase which led me into the underbelly of the international trash trade, and I am developing a new project around that. This project [tentatively titled Planning Obsolescence] is what led me back for the trip in January 2012. Also while there, I had a residency at the Tasara Centre for Creative Weaving in Kerala, where I did some traditional textile work. I also participated in the India Art Fair in New Delhi.

That sounds pretty fascinating! What else are you working on at the moment, what does your future look like in terms of shows and ongoing projects?

This summer I am in a show called Beyond the Parking Lot at Artisphere in Arlington, VA. For this show, I am making a new series of photos and drawings of the little plants that grow in cracks in abandoned parking lots. I also have a commission from the city of Arlington to make art that will be placed on the sides of buses in the spot where advertisements usually go, as a part of a public initiative there called Art on the Bus. Additionally, I am giving a talk this summer at the University of Cyprus at the International Society for the Study of European Ideas conference, which is addressing the theme of The Ethical Challenge of Multidisciplinarity: Reconciling ‘The Three Narratives’—Art, Science, and Philosophy, on a panel that is being organized by my colleague in Environmental Studies, Janet Fiskio. Magically, this date is just days after my talk in Greece. So looks like a DC-area/Mediterranean summer is on the horizon, chock full of abandoned parking lots and economic crises.