An Aesthetics of Interdependence

by Stephanie Owens, Head of School, School of Arts + Media, Plymouth College of Art, UK

At the time I first saw Caroline Woolard’s work, I was immersed in thinking about empathy. As Director of Cornell Council for the Arts in 2016, I had just spent the last month crossing into the art, biology, materials science, architecture, information science, and psychology departments on campus to involve the community of students and scholars in discussions about the origin of the word and its contemporary meaning. Unknown to me before the discussions, empathy has deep historical connections to reception theories in art and aesthetics. Learning that empathy shares common cultural ancestry with early aesthetics gave me inspiration to use the biennial as a platform to explore how notions of beauty, phenomenology, and vitalism might be experienced in the work of contemporary artists in relation to objects. With its deep, cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary foundation in theories of perception, empathy is a concept that merges the making of art with the experience of it, where its primary effect is embodied, connecting artist and audience through the art as mediating object. Seeing Caroline’s barricade turned into a bed — literally an object of exclusion transformed into an object of support, it seemed to me that aesthetic empathy had been revitalized in a cogent, purposeful way in her work.

Recently out of her undergraduate studies at The Cooper Union in 2013, Caroline created Barricade to Bed, see chapter 4, in the context of the Occupy Wall Street activism and her thinking about economies of solidarity living in NYC. Although I would eventually discover her pedagogical and collaborative practices which questioned the role of the discrete art object in producing $120,000 art degrees, I felt her bed was nonetheless a quiet, insistent proposal that objects can be phenomena of shared experience. Disarmingly simple, her repurposed barrier sculpture inspires immediate associations with Duchamp’s Fountain and other historical ready-mades.

her sculptures, seem conditional in the most positive sense — an instrument for making economic and affinity networks visible

Yet if transforming a urinal to a fountain by flipping it upside down was a disinterested act of authorship without making, Barricade to Bed offers a more radical idea of making as an act of unity and co-creation. With its tool- kit construction plans and material resource list available as part of its display at MoMA, Barricade to Bed is an eloquent act of generosity that suggests how reciprocity between people might take shape amid a world that idealizes autonomy and an ethos of self-reliance. The transparency with which she works transforms our complicity with the violence of discrete, isolated objects of art into a curiosity about how cultural form might be symptomatic of the amalgam of thoughts and lives we share with others. Not unlike ritual objects of social incantation, each of her projects, and particularly her sculptures, seem conditional in the most positive sense — an instrument for making economic and affinity networks visible, and perhaps for making them possible in new ways. Caroline has nearly x-ray vision in perceiving the human and political DNA embedded in objects and the sensitivity to unfold this hidden vernacular into its component parts, like building blocks to reimagine worlds.

Having been struck by this quality of interdependence between artist-object-audience inherent in her proposals, including her socially speculative and pedagogical spaces, I invited Caroline to be an artist-in-residence for Abject/Object Empathies for which a number of artists, including Pepon Osorio, Caroline O’Donnell, Alexandr Mergold, and Teresa Diehl were commissioned to make new work in the context of how feeling becomes form. For her first project with the university, Caroline arrived on campus with a whole system of producing art expressed as Free, Libre, Open Source Systems and Art (F.L.O.S.S.A), a manifesto for making “free art” which she used to guide students through an under- standing of how they might modify her Queer Rocker in order to make a version of it, by adapting it, for themselves. In the end, 11 new Queer Rockers, made unique in their slight difference of shape, color and texture, were exhibited together like products of an assembly line. Paradoxically, the artist’s sharing of the blueprints for her sculpture made the core chair prototype, obviously common to them all when seen in a group, the content of the exhibition rather than the individually modified sculptures. Students embraced this process of making variation as an act of creativity familiar to them in social and platform media and approached Caroline’s sculpture as a meme in shape and origin.

art objects or symbols are not reducible to spaces or contexts of display, but invitations to act and reflect

Part internet of things and part DIY tool-kit, the CNC fabricated Queer Rocker is above all a set of rules to engage others in a conversation about ownership of creative process. The openness with which Woolard embraces the whole ecology of making had a profound impact on the college, triggering equal parts gratitude and hostility. Reactions were strong, particularly to the vulnerability of her art objects to the influence of others when met with the artist’s invitation to change them. Although there is a rich history of temporal and participatory art that also challenges the notion of permanence and what Woolard refers to, she embraces a very contemporary tension between relinquishing and embracing art in object form. This on-demand production of art, within which both artists and art are made, proved to be a provocative proposal for questioning the material interface between ourselves and others.

Well-known for her pedagogical and economic models of solidarity, Caroline is an artist for whom art objects or symbols are not reducible to spaces or contexts of display, but invitations to act and reflect. The success of her creation of objects as spaces of learning and teaching through F.L.O.S.S.A./Queer Rocker led to my expanding her engagement with the biennial, and we discussed ways that she might be able to make an object that facilitated public panels and discussions. Embedded in the Doric corridors of innovation and power at a research university, Caroline turned to the story of Romulus and Remus, and the patriarchal myth of the “founding fathers,” to centralize the presence of the female she-wolf that nurtured them. Reimagining the she-wolf as having equal power in the birth of Rome/civilization, she detourned the symbol of taking (child) into one of giving (mother), and built an interlocking circle of individual animal-like tables as a prowling interface. The ring of tables, perforated with large fist-sized holes in the wood surface that plunge into ceramic breasts filled with water, suggested that the anonymous she-wolf, like the artist who makes objects which empower others, does not act alone but always acts with and for others. Simultaneously an installation and a stage set, Capitoline Wolves is a discursive object that derives its meaning and physicality a priori — from its ability to intentionally shape and encourage a shared imagination.

Although she is often aspirational in writing and speaking about her projects in their relationship to economic and societal models of equity, the aspect of her project that is often overlooked is the way Woolard inscribes this social imagination in the most intimate details of the physical realization of her art objects. Easily unnoticed in the complexity of references in Capitoline Wolves is the small, exquisitely intimate way one corner of each thick wooden table top fits puzzle-like inside a recessed, perfectly-matched notch in the table adjacent to it. Each she-wolf table is designed to both interrupt and receive in relation to the other, binding them together.

Woolard inscribes this social imagination in the most intimate details of the physical realization of her art objects

From the perspective of neuroscience this is the very definition of empathy in object form. If we imagine mirror neurons (the she-wolf tables have a mirrored face) in an individual brain firing when another’s action is experienced as if our own, biologically programming our empathetic understanding, we begin to realize that there are ways of perceiving and knowing that cannot be experienced in isolation. In some real physiological sense, empathy is a structural condition of our interdependence with others which allows us to comprehend and know the world. The Capitoline tables — as she-wolves, as objects, and as sculptures — make sensuous argument for art as a form of social cognition. They offer a new aesthetics of interdependence, where they are wholly knowable as individual objects but more meaningfully experienced as an intertwined group, posse, or circle.

empathy is a structural condition of our interdependence with others

Stephanie Owens is the Head of School at Plymouth College of Art and an independent curator. Owens’s curatorial projects include Technologies of Place, funded by New York Foundation for the Arts, SELF[n]: Art & Distributed Subjectivity, Intimate Cosmologies: The Aesthetics of Scale in an Age of Nanotechnology (Cornell University), and Abject/Object Empathies (Cornell University).