June 29, 2015

2015: Patrick Bobilin on Leaving Chicago

Paul Germanos: Hold old are you? Where are you from? When did you come here? Is Chicago one of many stops on your journey?

Patrick Bobilin: I’ve decided that I’m too old to be in Chicago.

I didn’t begin with any sort of map, unlike many of the people who I’ve encountered in Chicago and abroad. Lots of people in the arts start off with some kind of drive, or some kind of medium that grounds them. Some people start off with a family member, or a loved one, or a teacher who inspires them. Others--most people living in the world--see art as a permanent hobby; even now, the term “hobby” runs a sad chill down my spine and across my hardened heart.

I grew up in New York, lived both in the city and in the country, and was on a path which led towards a respectable, but unremarkable, adulthood--till a meeting with Peter Edwards (now a friend for life) who took my interest in music and added the twist of instrument/guitar pedal/circuit building. I started then to understand that I could take whatever means were at hand and use them to express whatever I was feeling, and do so with an exactitude which I couldn’t when I felt limited by access, education and money. It’s always been about money and perhaps it always will be.

At this point, Chicago has become just one of many stops, because I’ve tapped into a way to earn a little bit of money, given my patience for learning and writing [computer programming] code. Now, New York is accessible. However, my interest in becoming part of the art elite has since waned: I went into great debt for three separate degrees in the arts, guided by the idea that the field was a meritocracy; at this point I’m both sad and confused that either: (a) many people still believe it is, or (b) it’s some sort of open secret that each art person is left to individually discover, to their own disappointment. Chicago will never be anything but a stop on anyone’s journey because we’re not all moving targets. Publications like e-flux seem to celebrate this. Good for them; sad for everyone else not in on the joke.

Above: Patrick Bobilin; black and white (halftone) filter applied; resized for publication.
PG: For what did you hope when you came to Chicago? A degree? A job? What did you think that you'd find here? What was your first impression of the city?

PB: I came to Chicago after living in Berlin. I was failing at making it as an artist: competing for grants I had no hope of getting. And so I decided to get BETTER at art (lol) and applied for a few Masters programs. I got into everything I applied for except the one I really wanted: the Masters of Science in Visual Arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I kind of just wanted to throw it in the face of the kids I don’t plan on having when they questioned my authority: “HOW DARE YOU?! DON’T YOU KNOW I’M A MASTER OF SCIENCES?!”

There’s this vague suggestion in art school--which no one seemed to really pull apart--that if you didn’t become a famous gallery artist, you could always teach. And that seemed like the only possible and meaningful job after a graduate degree. The problem, to me, was always the attitude: artists COULD teach if they got in a jam, or needed the extra money, or had an in to help scratch their rent together. Chicago is full of people who are working as teachers as a result of their failure to achieve art stardom.

I love teaching. I’m happy for the opportunities I had, first as a teaching assistant and later as an instructor, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and also with the non-profit CAPE. I know that I have limits when it comes to dealing with under-served youth, people who are always "Going Through Some Shit," but I made long-term connections with some of my students, and I’m grateful for that. However, I know they’re not long for Chicago. They’ll be leaving for better jobs, or at least better opportunities, like most everyone does. The boat isn’t that big. And with SAIC constantly expanding and widening its specialties and types of degrees, it has become the destroyer. One of many, but a destroyer nonetheless. Like nature, economies and creative ecosystems are about balance.

Chicago is a wonderful training ground for creatives. And now that I’m more involved in the comedy world, I can knowledgeably use that as an example: Half of all the people who've been on SNL have come through Chicago; and anyone who’s stayed in Chicago isn’t doing comedy anymore. The coasts vacuum out Chicago's talent; and it’s certainly not by the hand of god. New York and Los Angeles do the weeding. Chicago itself doesn’t seem to do any vetting; it’s a blessing and it's a curse. Chicago’s a city full of hard-working people who are sharpening their teeth and/or burning out. And it's better to leave while you still have the energy to do good work.

PG: Did you attend a school here? Which school did you attend? How long were you in school here? Did you receive a degree here? When did you receive your degree?

PB: I went to SAIC for two years, while running a gallery [Noble & Superior Projects] which I would call successful by attendance and notoriety alone. I got my MFA in film/video because it’s really fucking easy (no one fails) and then immediately went to Bard for an MA in Curatorial Studies. I was done with all of it by New Years Day 2012. Hard to believe it was only three and a half years; but that’s the story. Had some shitty jobs before and after; but they all run together. Paying to work for SAIC (via student loans aka financial aid aka is this the best you can do, America?) was the second best job I’ve ever had. Hampshire College was more fun, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

Above: Noble & Superior Projects logo.
PG: How long were you in practice here? Did you enjoy success on your own terms? Can you recall some peak experience? If you felt frustrated, what frustrated you? Poor sales? Lack of publicity? High rent? Crime? Inefficient transportation? Public apathy? Bad weather? What was the total amount of time that you spent as a resident?

PB: I was in practice here from the moment I landed in 2009. I had no money, and so I subsisted on the goodwill (read: wine and snacks) of the many galleries in this city. A quick Google search led me to Stephanie Burke’s gallery listings, and I fell in love with the Chicago art world.

I had moved from Berlin where I was introduced to the idea of the apartment gallery (after only experiencing one other such thing: Gallery TK, in Northampton, Massachusetts--shout out to Lauren van Haaften-Schick) and I knew I had to have one.

I had things that I loved, and I hoped that I could put them together to deal with the things that I hated. The problem I saw was that all the apartment gallerists, and the artists in these apartment galleries, tried to maintain the posture of the "Real Galleries" that I had been to, and worked for. They tried to play farm team feeding into the "Real Galleries," with price sheets that said “NFS” or “Prices on request” because they were deluded enough to think that there was someone amongst their ranks who, beneath their ironic tattoos and cut off jean shorts, had enough money to support them. They were low-key capitalists, slumming it for as long as they had to, but ready to join the ranks of those shilling art to rich people for as much cash as they could get.

So the aim of my gallery--Noble & Superior Projects--was to take some of those lessons I learned from a decade working retail (e.g., greeting people, offering incentives, making everyone feel welcome) and put them into action in the gallery context. We didn’t sell anything and we didn’t want to. Every artist had to offer some kind of free and unlimited edition to guests. We had good beer and snacks. We said "Hi," to everyone who walked through the door--especially if we didn’t recognize them. We had some really giving interns, like Elliot Reed, who I still count as amongst one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. We also put a lot of work into branding and promotion. We had lots of people who weren't "Art World Insiders" coming to a private place because we tried to make it as public as possible.

I never felt part of a clique, as a kid or as an adult, and I don’t think that most people do. I never had money; but I loved art. I needed N&SP to be for those people. The takeaways were important: if not for the artists or the art people, they were everything to me. I still have all the leftovers. They’re like the family jewels. And we paid for everything out of pocket sure, but who cares. I was on food stamps, much like the homie Corinna Kirsch, and I usually spent it all on shit for the openings. I wanted people to feel welcome, and good food breaks all barriers. We’re not saints, and you should expect to pay for things out of pocket. Otherwise, take some fucking business classes. Most art people have no idea how economics work, and how most businesses work in a deficit for years, yet they want all the benefits.

The list of things that could have frustrated me have to do with public infrastructure. And if there’s one thing I learned about artists and, worse, freelance curators, it's that they don’t vote. They don’t typically pay attention to who their alderman is, what kinds of businesses pop-up in their neighborhoods, or who really lives in their neighborhood, because it’s hard. And sometimes it means that they (the gallerists/artists/curators) probably shouldn’t be there unless they dive into their communities head-first. The idea that “crime” could be a reason for leaving Chicago is absurd if you look at the people who populate Chicago’s contemporary art world. They typically open up shop as gentrifiers; and so if they’re the victims of any crime, they may well deserve it: flaunting their privilege even when they think it doesn’t exist. After 6 years in a great little mixed-income, mixed-ethnicity pocket of the city, I’m leaving because I don’t want to gentrify another neighborhood in an effort of “Creating A Community,” and I don’t want to work in service of the ruling classes via curating. I don’t plan on doing that anywhere else; but at least in NY and LA, the lines are clear. There are fewer snakes in the grass.

PG: How does Chicago know you? Does Chicago know you? Have you been misunderstood?

PB: Chicago knows me as either the benevolent dictator of Noble & Superior Projects (2009-2011) or as an art world terrorist via social media and my web series "What Am I Looking At?" with Ali Clayton. When I talk to the people who are soon to become the architects, because they have the will for power and patience for the work, my ideas are laughed off as barely legitimate. But I steal all of my ideas from economic theory and urban planning. So it might just be that these guys are too deep in the mire to realize where they’re headed. As neighborhood after neighborhood becomes gentrified, how many artists have to leave or move to the suburbs before they realize that their model of seeking cheaper rents and creating the same kinds of projects/institutions is a well-trained arm of the neoliberal free market? Lots of ugly buzzwords, sure, but shit is real out here: real people’s rents can go up because you want to take out a loan or borrow money from your parents to start a gallery whose only--failed--aim is to sell more paintings, "Because It’s Important."

PG: Was there an event which precipitated your departure? For which other city did you leave? What was waiting for you in that other city?

PB: There were lots of things that made me want to leave: other people leaving, seeing the same people over and over, seeing new people repeat the same awkward stand-offish attitude in new spaces, etc.; but most of all, it’s the disappearance of the apartment galleries: half of them disappeared, and the other half tried to "Become Legitimate," which meant getting grants, selling art, opening storefronts and just being another art gallery that’ll never be as important as anything in Chelsea. There was a shot and they/we missed it. We could have been something else.

So, now I’m going to New York for comedy and film-making, because art must be for the wealthy, and I don’t trust those people. And I see no evidence to convince me otherwise.

PG: Does Chicago look different to you since your arrival to it and/or departure from it? Do you have advice for someone about to begin what you've finished?

PB: I really believed in social practice when I arrived in Chicago. Wholeheartedly. Passionately. Deeply. But after becoming more politically involved, as I was when I was younger, I started going to protests. It really crested for me after the Eric Garner verdict came out: I was sitting at my desk absolutely fucking devastated. I couldn’t focus. I left work early and spent an hour on Facebook and Twitter looking for protests. I called my art friends and they all had excuses. I had shit to do too; but my stomach was in knots. I went and there were a couple of thousand kids and older people. I saw no artists there. I marched for three hours, my faith in humanity restored. They had a second protest a couple of days later. I went to that too. I had signs and took photos and got pushed around by cops. I ran my voice hoarse. And I saw no one from the Chicago art world, and I fucking remember people. Shame on you, them, us. We have failed. If our purpose is to make a vacuum to make vacuous art in, then we’ve succeeded. It's something Adrian Piper said, about how implicit politics serve the neoliberal agenda. My head hasn’t been the same. The art world taught me to soften my voice. But, why? because I might scare away the money? There are real people suffering, and there are artists who have a voice and they’re afraid to speak up. It’s too much for me. There’s nothing here to lose and that’s what’s beautiful about it: Chicago is the place to try to be and do everything and fail and still be able to survive and yet it feels stuck in the past at moments like this.

PG: Do you expect to maintain a connection to Chicago and its art world? What's your incentive to stay connected? Have you left friends or family here?

PB: As my teeth have gotten sharper, my art world allies have dwindled. I know that I have that ability to polarize a room for or against me, to make quiet and polite people unrecognizable to themselves. That’s my blessing and my curse. And it’s okay. I wish I was more likable but I also need to sleep without the guilt that comes with setting your past on fire with your ethics as kindling. Once a month I make something, say something or do something that results in an email from an acquaintance or colleague. It usually reads something like: “Hey, I think that thing you did/video you made/thing you said made a lot of sense to me, and I’m glad other people think that and have the courage to say that.” I take that to heart, and it gives me a little bit of gas to get to the next thing. But it’s also sad how many people stay quiet for the sake of losing friends or opportunities. But, guess what, your real friends won’t turn their back when they disagree with you, and you don’t want to be working for someone who thinks your ideas are shitty. Happiness is honesty. Even when it’s really hard.

PG: By what means do you stay abreast of developments in the arts in Chicago? Print? Social media? Visits?

PB: I keep up with what’s going on through Facebook and Twitter, and, when I can handle it, the "deleuze-bot" (shout out to Corinna again) art writing in Newcity and places like that. But Jason Lazarus recently had that photo of “All the artists in Chicago,” or whatever, and I didn’t hear about that; so at this point I might be out of the loop. And goddamn there were a lot of white people there; am I right? What bothers me is that that’s what Chicago looks like to a lot of people. This city is 33% black and 20% Latino.[1] You wouldn’t know it from a stroll through these openings though, would you? I’d come back, but I’d only take recommendations from Stephanie Burke.

PG: In the end, is place important? Is physical location a matter of consequence in 2015?

PB: Physical location is sadly important still. People tend to stay in their circle. Artists don’t look to the suburbs, to people not affiliated with whatever institution they’re affiliated with. There’s a chasm between SAIC and Columbia College Chicago, not to mention the University of Illinois at Chicago. And some ill shit goes on there. And the University of Chicago might as well be on another planet. Circles get too comfortable, and then they become claustrophobic; and that might be what causes some of the flight.

There’s nothing to do in Chicago but take risks. Meanwhile, all I see, read and hear, are low-rent versions of what’s going on in NY and LA. The art world is becoming collapsed. A friend who I met here left doing some really weird shit. He sent me photos of his new shit and it’s "So Fucking LA." It’s of a scene; not of him. People need to take some risks. Go to a comedy show, or better yet, an open mic. Watch people fall on their faces while drunks yell horrible shit at them--especially the women. And watch them bounce back. It’s so much more hostile than the art world. It’s much closer to reality. Which is why rich people love the art world and love being around artists struggling: for that taste of reality. It’s restorative. But in comedy, when one is having to defend not necessarily their work or their ideas but their very reason for existence in that moment of heckling, you realize how futile it is to have an authentic moment in a freshly painted white cube. You can’t predict audiences; and you can’t curate sincerity. It happens: and it’s ugly and it’s amazing.

PG: Was some important subject omitted from this query? Please introduce any additional material which you believe to be relevant.

PB: Ask me about my failures, not about how I choose to represent my successes. I end up coming off very Kanye-ish otherwise.

And I think you should be asking how academics frame the art world; plenty of fields function swimmingly outside of an academic context. This gets taken for granted in Chicago. No one, ultimately, cares about where you went to school--not if you’re doing good shit.

And ask about curating too, because this thing has become an out of control monster: with curator’s names coming before the list of artists. Do you see the producer’s name before Beyonce’s name? not in a million years.

But after two hours passed while writing this on my flight to London, I just noticed that my brow has been furrowed the whole time. Use Google to search for "Candy Lawrence," and watch everything that comes up. Search for "Ali Clayton" too. All is full of love, or some shit. I’m gonna listen to D’angelo and try to sleep for a few hours.


- June 28, 2015 (C) Patrick Bobilin

Learn more about Patrick Bobilin's professional work (with Valentina Vella) at his site: http://gradientgrid.com/

Read Jeriah Hildwine's October 3, 2011 interview with Patrick Bobilin: http://chicagoartmagazine.com/2011/10/an-introduction-to-curating-a-conversation-with-patrick-bobilin/

Find the archives for Noble & Superior Projects: http://nobleandsuperior.blogspot.com/

Additional archives for Noble & Superior Projects: https://noblesuperior.wordpress.com/

See twenty "What Am I Looking At?" a/k/a WAILA videos, dated February 1, 2013 - March 6, 2015, in the following YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7TzOBRvOf5xYvFK2YQPADpQrfm2p6UBE

Portrait above provided by Patrick Bobilin; black and white (halftone) filter applied; resized for publication.

Edited by Paul Germanos. Apologies for errors and omissions. Contact using the information at right.

[1] The United States Census for the year 2000 suggests that Chicago is nearer to 32% Black and 29% Hispanic/Latino, with 32% of its population identifying as White and 5% as Asian. See table in "Households" section at the following link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Chicago

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