“Your Art Sucks” spelled out in reclaimed red, white and blue star-spangled neon letters beams as far as it can beyond 78th Street Studios’ parking lot.
Dana Depew’s installation, perched atop the art complex’s entrance, is the welcome mat for the Collective Arts Network (CAN) Triennial — a localized addition to the regional FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.
Soon after the piece titled, “Words of Encouragement (Making Myself Great Again)” went up just before the Fourth of July, opinions started flying on social media until the entire arts community was in a city-wide debate on taste, intent, ego and inclusion.
Of course, there’s the explanation that the statement is something Depew’s ex-girlfriend once shouted at him as she stormed out. Still, in a city that can notoriously make everything difficult for everyone, during a moment when the international arts community is watching and participating, people were confused and upset. Or excited and encouraging.
Depew agreed to a Q&A with CoolCleveland, careful to avoid revealing too much, but open to discussions on how maybe the general content we’re so collectively upset about doesn’t even matter; it’s our behavior that’s the point.
CoolCleveland: How does it feel that this piece is getting so much attention?
Depew: It feels good. With this piece, it’s actually a body of work I’ve been doing for like the past 10 or 15 years — just placing signage or messages in different venues, utilizing different color schemes. How one message can differ dependent upon where it’s placed; how different people can take that message differently. I’m attracted to that, so obviously this was an opportunity I had to work on this ongoing series. The object itself — the sign — potentially might not be the actual piece of art. Potentially, the dialogue itself is what the concept is. This is kind of a very fluid and ongoing work of art. There’s other components to it.
CoolCleveland: As I was watching this conversation unfold, I saw that it essentially became a discussion about ego (as artists) and inclusion in Cleveland, so I think that’s a really important conversation for us to have as an arts community. Did you anticipate that?
Depew: Again, I don’t really want to indulge too much in it because this is somewhat fluid. There are other components that will be bread crumbs — there will be other influencers, objects with this concept that will link together Rooms to Let and the CAN Triennial. This piece or this object is one part of it. There is a direct correlation with the administration now, and how people feel so adamant, and how there is a dissent between two parties right now. The art scene and where this was placed was a perfect backdrop to try to use this as somewhat of a learning mechanism as to why people feel so strong — why do three little small words like that hurt people so bad or have such polar negative or positive views? You can translate that to where we’re at right now with the administration — how strongly people feel back and forth. People jump on social media, and the social media component is very important. There’s, you know, the potential that — a message was fabricated, was tailor-made, and it was designed and packaged for people to digest, and it influenced their opinions and decisions. That’s very scary to me. There’s obviously allegations that the current administration — our voting was swayed because of social media, so I’m very interested in that. That’s very Orwellian to me. Those are things in Animal Farm and 1984 that were discussed as to how a message is packaged, so as it could be digested and believed, and using words and being very vague and trying to get a message out and causing a lot of confusion and commotion where there’s this infighting. I see this translates not just to art, but I think this is a human behavior thing. With the onset of social media, I think that is a vehicle that is helping do this. I provided a statement, and I’m adhering to that right now, but I’m very interested in how people think and why. Why do those three words bother people? Is it a self-reflection? With art, people are always doubting themselves. You know, people are very critical about themselves and what other people think, especially in art, so when someone says those three words to you — people get upset. It’s very charged. I also see people doubting me and my ego, and calling me a narcissist and things. That’s human behavior. That’s how people react. They deflect. They try to react in a way that’s hurtful to the person who’s providing the message. I’m just the messenger here.
CoolCleveland: How much of this is a commentary on how artists feel and what would naturally happen when confronted with this statement, and how much of it is a commentary on the region and the way the arts economy is functioning, and the way people feel about being a part of that?
Depew: Yes, and that’s all things with CAC (Cuyahoga Arts & Culture) and CPAC (Community Partnership for Arts and Culture), and artists not getting into art exhibitions, and how they don’t feel included — and a lot of it is introspective. As artists, we’re always searching for something, and we really want some positive reinforcement. When somebody says that to you or, in general, anything that’s hurtful, you tend to take it real personally. I think, obviously, with Cleveland in the spotlight and the art scene right now, I felt that this was a great opportunity to create objects or a concept and develop something that was fluid. This is more or less a commentary, not as artists, this is something a lot deeper — something I wanted to tap into. This is creating a whole huge commentary. I’m curious as to why the placement of those three words in that location, or in that color scheme, or at a certain time; why does that change or why is that different — or why if someone sees something right off the bat, but then they read the statement, why is that then OK? I’m curious about all those types of things, and that’s presentation. That’s how you package something, and we’re witnessing that at a lot of different levels in the world now. We’re being presented information, and if it’s packaged in a palatable way that’s digestible — I’m very interested in that. Controlling people’s opinions, potentially — I’m very interested in all of that.
CoolCleveland: What do you think about any implications that because of what we’re witnessing with our administration, and in the world, that art should be uplifting and shouldn’t make anyone feel anything negative?
Depew: No. I totally disagree with that. My work is directly affected by my surroundings and my environment. This isn’t a little basket-full-of-puppies world that we live in right now, so my art that I produce, personally, is not going to reflect that. I do little quilt paintings and things, but I do those when I’m at a more calm sense of state. I’m not just gonna create distraction artwork to distract me from what’s real and what’s really happening. I personally don’t think that’s authentic or that’s what’s really true to myself.
CoolCleveland: In an era of public figures apologizing after they’ve done something, but they’ve still done the thing — there are layers here, and you had to have known there is a good old-fashioned punk rock “FU” in there. Do you think we’ve lost our nerve to have that irreverent attitude?
Depew: Yeah. I think so. People are really sensitive nowadays. But if you could create something that creates a dialogue after it’s gone, I think that’s successful.
CoolCleveland: Instead of people walking away feeling like, they’re just putting me down and I should give up, maybe the message here is to look at why …
Depew: Yes. And it is. It’s like, why did those words bother me so much? It’s not a matter of retaliating against the message or the messenger. Maybe introspectively look into and peel away some layers, and understand. I was a young artist full of piss and vinegar, and when someone said something bad about my work, I was like, why the fuck don’t they like it? It bothered me. But I feel like I matured and came to almost a sense of enlightenment with myself and my work, and I’m comfortable with what I’ve accomplished and the things I’ve done. There’s always this search, and you question yourself, but I’m starting to get to the point — I don’t know if I’m just getting older or what — that I’m OK with that. Criticism doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m not just gonna let people, you know, say all these things or question my ego, or whatever, because of a piece that I did, or a component to a larger project. I’m more interested in: why does that really incite people so much? And there is a direct correlation to the times that we’re living in. This is not something that is just compartmentalized to art. This is a social thing as to how people react, and with the social media component, where people can jump on a computer and spill their two cents immediately. People are entitled to that. You’re entitled to your opinion, whether it’s right or wrong. That’s what’s so great about this country. Or was. Who knows.
Look for more of Dana’s work at Rooms to Let: CLE Fri 7/27 & Sat 7/28 in Slavic Village.