The latest installment of Atlas Place features a conversation with media artist and educator McLean Fahnestock.
McLean Fahnestock is a media artist and explorer whose work reveals discoveries and re-discoveries. She lives and works outside of Nashville, Tennessee. This conversation took place over email between July 2014 and July 2016, and captures an evolution in McLean’s professional status.
All images courtesy of McLean Fahnestock.
Glenn Bach: Let’s talk first about your new position at Austin Peay State University. What will be the scope of your responsibilities?
McLean Fahnestock: I will be the Visiting Assistant Professor of New Media. It is a one-year appointment with the possibility of a tenure-track position opening up. I will be teaching Electronic Imaging, which is their Digital Foundation course, and Video. Because I am a Visiting Professor, I do not need to do the regular committee service that is required of full-time faculty.
Bach: It sounds like a great fit for you; congratulations! I’m sure you’ll be getting a wealth of advice from others on how to best navigate the academic landscape, particularly moving from mostly administrative and managerial positions (correct me if I’m wrong) to full-time teaching, but I want to focus on the physical landscape. Having lived in Long Beach for ten years, several of those in the close-knit community of the MFA program at CSULB [California State University Long Beach], how do see this move to Tennessee? You’ll be joining what appears to be a progressive digital media program in a suburb of a major city (your profile is already posted on the faculty page!), but the cultural divide between the South and the West Coast seems like a significant change in both place and process.
Fahnestock: The academic landscape is certainly one thing. The years following grad school have been spent in administrative jobs within creative environments. Most recently I have been working in admin and adjuncting at CSULB, which has given me a bit of perspective into the workings of academia, but this is going to be an adventure. An immersion.
I am excited about the school. They are very enthusiastic, and have similar interests as I do. It is a smaller department than CSULB, and the shift in not only class size but faculty community is appealing. The fact that they have already put me up on their website is really making me feel welcome and valued.
Leaving Long Beach after so many years is bittersweet. This is the longest I have lived anywhere. Ever. And I have a long list of former addresses: Maryland, Virginia, Florida, New Jersey, Missouri, and Tennessee. Some states more than once. I have contemplated leaving Long Beach many times, but it has never been right, or circumstance stepped in to keep me here. It has certainly shaped my work. I do consider living by the Pacific Ocean a catalyst for my recent projects. I am curious how my practice will shift without that close physical contact. Perhaps it is best that I am distancing from the ocean. It will become an exotic locale. Something that will soften in my memory much like it may have for my grandfather.
The culture shock will, for me and my husband both, not be that much of a shock. More like slipping in to an unheated backyard pool. I went to high school south of Nashville, and, although I took some time and traveled for several years before I was done, I got my BFA from Middle Tennessee State University a bit further south of Nashville still. My parents left the area only about a year ago, trading the cold winters and tornado warnings for the palmetto bugs and hurricane warnings of the Florida Gulf Coast. I made my trip back to visit them every year in January, and watched as Nashville developed from a music town with very conservative views on the visual arts (and life) to a growing city concerned with the arts in many forms and fostering diversity in a slow yet steady way.
It is, however, a very different place than So Cal. The pace is different and the bubble around the academic community is a bit thicker. It will be a very small art world compared to the Art World (with capitals) that we have in Los Angeles. I am considering that a good thing. I have spent a good amount of my time in Los Angeles circling the museums and galleries trying to find the secret entrance. Maybe too much. Maybe it hurt my work. Expending all that energy trying to break in to what I thought was success as an artist. I am looking forward to the change in venue as a chapter marker for my approach to my own practice.
Bach: I understand what you’re saying about the art world, as I have had to come to terms with nurturing an artistic career outside of the commercial mainstream. We’ll explore this further, but, for now, let’s return to your comment about distancing yourself from the Pacific Ocean. Living in Long Beach and working in your studio in Angels Gate Cultural Center in San Pedro, you saw the decade-long transformation of your work take place against the backdrop of this section of Southern California. As your physical connection to this region fades and “softens,” how do you think this distancing will affect how you approach future iterations of Fahnestock Expedition?
Fahnestock: In Los Angeles, I started with my studio at Angels Gate. It was before I was really ready to work on the Fahnestock project. Before it had gelled in my mind. It wasn’t until I moved my studio down to Long Beach that I started on the expedition. Truly though, I think that time soaking in the ocean was priming me for this work.
Over the past two weeks I have been adjusting to my new surroundings. The rental house is in a rural area. Cornfields across the street and a 10-minute drive to the edge of town. It is loud for being so quiet. Bugs chirp all hours of the day and night. Big-wheeled pickups eat up the two-lane road.
It is hard not to be influenced or inspired by a change of venue as dramatic as this, so I have been thinking about this as a port of call. An island. Approaching it as a foreign land, the isle of Sango – the name of the small unincorporated area we have landed in just coincidentally sounds like a Pacific island. I am adding it in to my expedition as a stop. A fantastic nation where I have harbored. This fits in to my wish to rearrange and introduce fiction into the Fahnestock Expedition narrative, and allows me freedom to explore this stop before sailing on.
At 7 PM it is still humid, and enormous bugs are crawling slowly across the porch while some mosquitoes make dinner of my legs. Sounds like the tropics to me!
Bach: I love the island metaphor! It ties in to how place is a process of becoming or adaptation, and I like how you’re weaving this process into the work itself–you’ve established a base camp and now you’re exploring the flora and fauna. I imagine that your field notes will become raw material or even part of the project itself. How is your relationship to the landscape, and the work you make about it, changing as you gain your bearings and establish a more intimate and local relationship with Sango as a place?
Fahnestock: Thanks. It is perhaps a coping mechanism as well. This approach has most certainly helped me to accept this change of venue as a positive for my practice.
What has struck me the most is that this landscape is in a constant state of flux. The reintroduction to the seasons in their full expression has been profound. After honing my awareness of them in Southern California in order to catch the subtle changes and ground myself in the yearly cycle, returning to them is akin to the difference between hearing a symphony through headphones and from orchestra seats at Disney Hall. Everything has changed in the few weeks I have been here, and it will just keep changing. Bugs die. New bugs emerge. The corn fields have turned brown and will be harvested soon.
My work is starting to reflect this more. That capturing place is also capturing time. I have become more aware of duration and the performance of that duration within videos, sound, and sculptural works. I am working on some dances and sculptural components for them. It is now clear that it should be a series that is seasonally arranged as the sounds shift across weeks and months.
Bach: In light of the changing seasons and the anticipation of the harvest, the term college town takes on an entirely different meaning. Do you feel a different kind of connection between your college and the local community than you did in So Cal?
Fahnestock: Ah, yes. Fall brings football and marching bands. It is very different here. Austin Peay is not a big name football school, but you can still buy school hats and shirts at the Walmart, and the stadium is packed on Saturday. Everything for blocks around the University is red and white. The community rallies around the school. Many of them went to APSU, work at APSU, or both. CSULB has spirit and presence in the community, but not like a school in a small town. And it doesn’t have football.
College football is a religion around here. Rivalries divide families. And that is not hyperbole. I heard a story about it today. Two brothers, one an Alabama fan and one an Auburn fan stopped speaking for two years after a close game (neither actually went to college). Although I don’t think anyone is losing siblings over the APSU Governors’ games.
Bach: What about the art scene? Is there a similar connection between APSU and the Nashville galleries and artist groups? I see you posted an article about a recent panel discussion about the Nashville scene…what do you think?
Fahnestock: Do you mean a connection like Long Beach to Los Angeles in terms of art scene? In that respect, yes. Nashville’s art scene has grown a lot since I left – new commercial spaces, maker spaces, and artist-run projects. I am just getting to know what is in Clarksville, but I can say that it is very small. They seem to have a similar relationship, in that if you are in Clarksville, you show and go to shows in Nashville.
The Nashville art scene is limited, however, and the panel discussion touched on a few reasons why. The biggest is the lack of an MFA program. Without the energy, growth, and constant renewal that MFA programs bring to a city, Nashville has had to work hard to attract galleries and artists who want to start their own spaces and bring a critical discourse to the area.
Bach: That’s a stark contrast to So Cal with the dozens of MFA programs, along with GLAMFA and the diverse constellation of galleries and spaces. You mentioned earlier about trying to find the secret entrance into the Art World, and now that you’ve been at APSU a few months now, how do you feel about your relationship to the art world, either all caps or lowercase? Perhaps the secret entrance is really a series of footpaths?
Fahnestock: The secret entrance is still a secret. One that hides in plain sight, perhaps. I am thinking of it now more as a formula. A recipe: network + knowledge + craft + time. I am an impatient person, so that last one is hard for me. Giving myself and my work the time to develop is difficult. Patience has never been among my virtues. This leads me to push hard, but does not necessarily allow me to simmer in the studio, and that is what I am trying to be more aware of.
Being outside of the Art World for a few months now has been both a relief and a source of concern. I am enjoying developing a network here and participating in the monthly festivities that surround the openings and art crawls. That new energy has been invigorating. The concern comes from a fear of being left behind by the rolling stone that is the Los Angeles art scene. I am keeping up on things. Reading blogs and reviews. Showing in Los Angeles this Fall. Planning a trip as I type.
Really, my drive comes from this dream to someday simply be an artist. No day job. Just art. I know that this is a bit of a pipe dream, but I hold on to it. Clutching it. Driving it into my palm with my fingernails. Continuing my connection with Los Angeles and the Art World along with the other art worlds that I may intersect with is something that I see as imperative to my success.
Bach: We’ll get back to day job in a bit. When I was in Milwaukee, I experienced a similar struggle between enchantment with my new environment and a deep loss of connection to Southern California, which I reconciled by opening up my ensemble to allow for a networked collaboration among geographically dispersed participants. It kept me going, and proved immensely fruitful in my development as an artist. Have you considered a collaboration with partners in Southern California as a way to be simultaneously active in both places? Is there an aspect of your current work that could allow for this?
Fahnestock: So far, I have not entered in to any collaborations in Los Angeles, but I have been doing some exhibitions. It is something to consider. I am actually doing the opposite. I have entered into a collaboration here, and joined up with an artist collective. Building new connections here that may lead to opportunities to do exchanges with collectives in Los Angeles.
A few weeks ago I flew back for a quick visit. 3 days. Install, a closing reception, and opening reception. It was nice to be back, if just for a minute, and it made me feel like I am still a part of the conversation.
Social media and the interconnectedness that we now have has made it a bit easier to be in all places at once. But it is a hologram. Just a shiny shell that looks like me and presents information again and again to those who happen to be listening. A weak replacement, but one that can be utilized smartly as long as it is treated as the tool that it is. Hammers make lousy screwdrivers.
Bach: I agree with you about social media. While it’s made it easier to publicize and distribute work, the feedback mechanism leaves a lot to be desired. As far as the day job, do you have any examples of artists you respect who have built a sustainable practice?
Fahnestock: A sustainable practice…. there are a few who I look up to as examples. I meet more artists all the time who are carving their own way and making it work, even if for a short time. Kiel Johnson and Sandow Birk were two of the first artists I met who were making things work and talking about how they were doing it. Through grants, residencies, the odd gig, and cheap rent, they built their practices. Alexis Gregg and Tanner Coleman were working on site specific public works and that sustained them for several years. Alexis now has a teaching job too. Recently I met a few artists, Jonathan Brilliant and Laura Splan for example, who put together income from lectures, exhibitions, honorariums, and visiting artist gigs at universities to sustain their artistic practice.
I am trying an all-out frontal assault at this point. Teaching a summer arts academy, socking away money from an artist-in-residence gig I have this semester, applying for fellowships, university artist-in-residence programs, whatever I can find. Because of the Tennessee state initiative to provide two free years of community college that begins in the Fall, the state universities are in a bit of a panic. They are not going to offer contracts to adjuncts or Visiting Professors like me until August.
So, while the benefit of a lower cost of living is still a huge one, the job certainty around here is pretty low. Tennessee is the pilot for a program such as this…one that the President has taken on as something that should be implemented countrywide. I think it is amazing for students. Something that we should most certainly invest in. It will mean at least 2 years of shifting around for adjuncts, and hopefully will lead to more and more steady contracts and funding for faculty wages.
All the more reason to try striking out now!
Bach: So, Tennessee has taken on some additional layers in the seven or eight months since you relocated. In addition to discovering new places and reclaiming familiar territory, you’re forging new paths in the context of a broader national conversation about the sustainability of art as a career. Outside of the art world ‘centers,’ do you think your practice has grown more complex as a result? Has your understanding of your work deepened?
Fahnestock: It has been a while since this question was posed. In the elapsed time, we have decided to settle here. I went through a year of adjuncting at 4 schools around town (APSU, Watkins, TSU, and Vanderbilt), caught an illusive tenure-track position which I start in a month, and spent a month in Australia as an artist-in-residence.
The short answers are yes and yes. And I think that it is all balled up together now.
Part of it is being away from my artist cohort and curators who have visited with me and watched my work develop. Nearly every studio visit I have had in the past year was a first visit. Imagine that no one knows your artwork or practice. There is no picking up with Volume 2. I am making new work and moving forward along my trajectory, and also having to converse about my past quite often. Lectures, studio visits, and academic interviews have punctuated my year. It stirs up the silt and brings an awareness of my own work and process that only comes to me when I have speak it out loud.
This will change. As I become more established in the South, I will have less frequent first conversations. I will keep growing my network, though. And being outside has truly allowed me to reap the benefits of an open network. My art work travels more. I travel more. It is out of necessity in many ways. There are only so many opportunities locally. Nashville has made me reach farther outside of not just geography but my own notions of audience and where my work might fit in this new landscape. This is where complexity comes in.
Complexity is a side-effect of the expanded understanding of my own artistic practice and the role that geography plays in its expression.
As we’ve talked about before, white cubes are fewer and farther between here. Alternative spaces and artist-run galleries have become more vital in the art world generally, but even more so where museums and commercial spaces do not reside. I have begun to consider my audience and my venue in a new way. I am making media work that is meant for a single person to experience at a time. Conversely, I have projected onto a cornfield. Instead of putting on my blinders, putting my head down, and plowing forward in the studio as I was prone to do in Los Angeles, I am more likely to stop and look up. To look behind me. To look at those who are looking at art around me. This then gets woven into the practice. The work grows layers that it would not have before.
Not that it is all pastoral and genteel. Juleps on the front porch. Kudzu grows over everything that does not move here. That also goes for artists.
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