Weekly update 2 — interview with Manya Scheps

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Also at the Weekly, my q&a with Manya Scheps, editor of the new art criticism quarterly, New Asshole. For reasons of space the Weekly piece is short. Here’s the whole interview I did with Manya via email.

Can you give me a little biography of yourself. Did you come from a family that liked art and encouraged you?
I was born and grew up in San Diego.  I spent most of the year growing up in a house in a canyon, and then part of the year living in a really haunted old house in the Catskills.  I’m currently 22 and a half years old.  I come from a large family of lawyers (also a scientist thrown in for good measure).  I don’t think anyone in my family has pursued art, although my grandmother did take some painting classes when she was 60 or so.  Also we do make a turducken at Thanksgiving that is more involved than any sculpture I have ever done.  Overall though, I would say that my involvement in art is uncharted territory for my family.

Manya Scheps, holding up a book she made for her senior thesis show. New Asshole is the same size.
Manya Scheps, holding up a book she made for her senior thesis show. New Asshole is the same size.

How did you wind up in Philadelphia?
I came to Philadelphia for Penn [University of Pennsylvania], and honestly I have no idea why.  I had heard good things about Philadelphia and I visited the campus in the fall and I just felt that it was totally the right place for me.  I came in as a Philosophy, Politics and Economics major and I wanted to be an advocate for African immigrants in France.  I was really excited to start a bilingual law office.  I knooooow, right?  I wish I had an explanation for what happened that first year at Penn when I decided that spending 8 hours a day pulling ink through a screen in a basement was a far better use of my time than studying international law to help the politically disadvantaged.  I wasn’t drugged.  I don’t know what it was.  I got really excited about other things going on.

How did you hook up with Pifas and when did that happen?
I came to PIFAS a year and a half ago or so.  I wanted to start a publishing house that focused on writing concerned with art history and contemporary underground art production.  I wanted to make essay anthologies and books on tape, and I talked to Brandon about it and coincidentally enough (or maybe unsurprisingly) there was space available so I hopped on board.

How did you get the idea for New Asshole?
This past winter, I was in a particularly salty mood about art in this city.  Damon Sfetsios, John Heron, Sharif Abdulmalik and I formed a little bummer circle in which we would go to openings, act disdainful, and host a pity party for everything and everyone.  We all felt that the galleries and artists were broken records and we had seen it all before.  I proposed we start a blog and call people out on their tacit loyalty to the status quo of crappy screenprinted birds.  Then my printmaker gear kicked in and I wanted to make something tangible that was as much an art object as it was a critique of all art objects.  I printed the first edition of the first issue in April 2009.  The magazine is quarterly (hopefully)–one at the end of every season.  Copies of the first issue are at AHN|VHS. The second issue…we’ll see where the physical copies wind up.  I have high hopes for the future in terms of distribution.

You are serious about creating dialog about quality of art produced here.
Yes, I’m dangerously serious.  As much as I feel a lack of criticism and theory happening within the DIY art sphere, I also feel that there is a lack of discourse about DIY art within a broader academic sphere or within the Art World.  This makes sense, of course.  I can’t really imagine too many professors or curators waxing eloquently about the latest series of wheatpastes on Washington Ave.  But there’s no reason not to.  Not that I think there’s anything artistically profound in those wheatpastes (no offense, y’all), but there is something anthropologically interesting there.  They are, despite their antagonistic apperance, connected to the trajectory of art history.  Not peripherally, not as a bastard subsidiary, but as a very real and tangible piece of a movement.  DIY isn’t a revolution, it isn’t anything particularly momentous, but is engaging in a conversation with history and with the Art World.  Look at X Initiative–artists and curators in Chelsea are looking at places at FLUXSpace and Vox Populi, and the artists at both of those spaces are subscribing to Artforum.  There is a dialogue among the makers and producers of art, but the academics and the critics have been keeping quiet.  So New Asshole is trying to spark some conversation, or to present the possibility for that conversation, because I don’t even know if people realize it’s lacking.  I’m trying to get every university library in the country to subscribe and stock it.

New Asshole cover, second issue.
New Asshole cover, second issue.

The publication is so big — it’s like a tabloid newspaper. I love the size.
Thanks!  When I published the Poached Pack book, Tender Little Tulips, I printed it on tabloid size paper.  I really just loved how awkward and aggressive that size is.  When I went to print New Asshole 1.1, I was still kind of dewey-eyed about that paper size.  There’s a lot of room to play around with text and pictures–an article can feel like a lecture to an empty auditorium (or a filled one, whatever).  I was very concerned about making people actually read the articles.  It would be a lot easier and cheaper to make a xeroxed little zine on regular printer paper, but I’m not sure if that’s very conducive to hunkering down and reading.  I didn’t want to make something that could be easily discarded or stuffed on top of a bookshelf.  I may have gone a little overboard with incorporating protective measures into the size and format.

Your essay on the Obama wave in the first issue criticizes the piece as a one-liner joke and you go on to say “But jokes aren’t funny anymore.”  Can you elaborate?
Oh man, that article has ruffled some feathers (which was the intention).  I was using Philip Adams’s piece at Tiger Strikes Asteroid as a springboard for something I was getting antsy about.  I felt like too often artists were (and are) defaulting to jokes to cover as symbols for everything else.  In old paintings, things like dead birds and pomegranates and gestures and architecture are all representative as signifiers.  They are touchstones for a certain cultural canon which fills in the relationship between the viewer and the painting.  The subject’s dress is, taken two-dimensionally (i.e. as paint on canvas), a swatch of the larger aesthetic experience–the painting as a whole.  What it creates, however–what it tells the viewer about the story of the painting, and the feeling that it evokes in the onlooker–is the entire aesthetic experience.  A joke in a painting creates the same effect in terms of informing the relationship between viewer and object.  What I took issue with in terms of Philip Adams’s installation, and many other pieces that I have seen flanking the walls at various galleries, was that the relationship stops at the joke.  Once we get it, the piece is over.  The joke counts, surely, but the jokes’ not enough.  And really I just didn’t think it was very funny.

What are the best and worst things you’ve seen in one of the DIY spaces since you’ve been here?
That is so hard!  The best thing I’ve seen is a fight outside Vox Populi once.  Also Jon Olivieri’s show of his paintings at the furniture store bahdeebahdu.  I have a review of it in this upcoming issue of New Asshole, so perhaps I shouldn’t spill the beans on how good the paintings were.  Think 18th century violin virtuosos.  As a side-note, I also feel like some of the greatest art that I’ve seen in Philadelphia has been the public personas adopted by people.  Party Steve is an admirable performance artist, whether he intends it or not.  The coordination of his outfits and routine is process-oriented and ephemeral at the same time.  The fact that he does it every single day–wow.  He’s really good.  The worst…this is not a cop-out (okay maybe it is), but I can’t think of anything that has struck me as being artistically worthless.  Nothing has deeply offended my aesthetic or moral sensibilities.  Most everything is mediocre and unmemorable.  Perhaps that’s even more of an indictment of Philadelphia art than anything else, that nothing is actually noticably bad, it’s mostly just unceremoniously sucky.  I will say though that I really didn’t like the Victory for Tyler sculpture show at Icebox.  I feel like if I see another piece about connecting the artist with their family I am going to break some bones.

Is there hope?
With New Asshole comes hope.  Just kidding.  I know this has been said before, but I think that until the DIY spaces and artists in this city see serious funding and recognition, we’re in a rut.  There are only so many things you can do with limited resources and a recycled audience.  There are only so many events people can organize like the South Philly Biennial or PIFAS Place which celebrate the same principle–here we are, young and eager, letting our hearts sparkle like our spandex.  There’s nothing wrong with the insularity of Philadelphia–it breeds friendliness and amicability among different factions of artists.  But within that close-knit social sphere there needs to be discussion and doubt.  We are asking questions, but they’re along the line of ‘Is this fun?’  We should probably start thinking more ‘Is this conceptually legitimate?  Do I hate this?’

What’s coming up in the next issue?  Can you give us a peek inside?
Issue 1.2 has a lot of abstract theoretical articles about the state of the underground art and music scene.  There’s a lot of introspection.  There’s an article by a grad student at the University of Chicago Divinity School on aesthetics and irony, a history of a West Philly warehouse, an interview with Katie Miller about PIFAS Place and, of course, an article on youthful collectivity by my favorite Artblog CEOs…

When will it come out and how can we get one?
It’s coming out next week.  Due to some financial difficulties–I mean, in an effort to embrace the subject matter–publication is wholeheartedly DIY.  Or PIY–print it yourself.  The PDF will be available on the website, newasshole.com, for free or donation.  There will also be ‘semi-physical’ copies–the PDF on a CD inside a cover.  Those are available for purchase, and the full distribution list is on the website. The subscribers will get actual physical copies of the full issue in print.  By Issue 1.3, there should hopefully be enough money to print it on a large scale, in addition to having the PDF available online. [Also, there will be a small run of copies available at AHN/VHS].

Are you self-producing with your own money or do you have funds from somewhere helping you out?
Unfortunately neither of those are really the case…I don’t have any of my own money or any funders.  Up till now, most of New Asshole’s bank account has been generated through subscriptions.  There are now tiered subscriptions available for purchase on the website.  Additionally, issue 1.2 features the first bit of advertising–totally tasetful, of course.  I was thinking about incorporating and going public (you know, to embrace the collective ideology) but that might take a few more issues.

How do you get your writers for the magazine?
Bribery and drugs.  Lots of begging and pleading with friends.  Sending cold emails.

Finally, I heard that Pifas will be changing and that the founders, Brandon Joyce and Rich Davis are leaving.  What will you do?  And what do you think of that?
Yes, it’s true.  There are ample bad dirty jokes to be made about how everyone’s pulling out of PIFAS.  So I guess it’s not a total loss.  Someone else is going to take over the lease and, consequently, the creative direction for the warehouse space.  I’m glad that the space isn’t going to go under and that there will be a new incarnation.  A lot of Philadelphia collectives and organizations that have had long careers, like Vox and Space1026, have gone through many different phases and leaders and locations.  PIFAS is just going through one of these guard changes.  It will be a radically different institute, but ultimately it’s a big warehouse with a gallery space and basements for music shows and lots of artists working in close quarters with each other–events will happen, creative sparks will fly, and the New York Times will discover it again in a few years.

I spoke with Brandon and he told me “Many of the members of Pifas are entering a mysterious Phase 2,” meaning himself and Rich. But, he said, “Pifas will persist.”  Are you entering this mysterious Phase 2 also?
Yes, I’m on board.   I think PIFAS 2.0 is, as Brandon says, going to embrace PIFAS’s founding mission to create a space for intellectual exchange.  I think this space might not have a concrete geographic location and cater to individuals who don’t need studio space.  The nice thing about Philadelphia is it actually kind of encourages transience.  Rent is so low, it’s easy to find an unsuspecting grad student subletter and take off for a few months at a time.  I know Brandon is trying to be transient right now, and I’m taking a sabbatical, and other people are in transition as well.  The notion for this new organization is (per my understanding) something that allows for that sort of jetsetting lifestyle.

Do you have plans for your collective Poached Pack this fall?  They curated a show in Philadelphia that traveled to York College of PA.  What’s up next for them?
After the show in York, the next stop is clearly New York.  I wish.  I will continue to work on the Poached Pack.  What I did during my senior year at Penn is a good start, and I’d like to try to keep it going for as long as I possibly can.  At the very least, the Poached Pack is the best thing my resume has ever seen (being in a panel discussion at the Whitney, being written about by Jeffrey Dietch and Irving Sandler, etc).  As was hinted at this past spring, I think the collective is moving towards something much more serious and Art World-approved.  Maybe they’ll become a graphic design collective.  I should start hustling for clients.

Are you still working at Philagrafika?  And what do you see as the job market in Philadelphia for new graduates with BFA’s?
I am putting my internship at Philagrafika on pause for a second while I spend some time in Georgia.  But I’ll definitely be back in Philadelphia in time for Philagrafika 2010: The Graphic Unconscious.  The job market in Philadelphia for new BFA’s is really lucrative–I hear Marathon Grill is hiring (and the Penn Shuttle people).   This might get me some nasty looks on Septa, but I feel like its common knowledge that a BFA isn’t the obvious path towards financial success.  Food stamps, yes.  A knowledge of design helps, but if you’re a painter (a good one, at least), you intrinsically know guiding graphic design principles like balance and color choices and compositional organization.  You might not know about some of the finer points of InDesign, but you can probably sneak your way into a job with a salary.  That said, if you don’t want to make art for a corporation to support your making art independently–if you want to only ever paint on canvas–then you have to be a really good hustler or a really good busboy.  The same goes for someone who only wants to be a printmaker or a sculptor or whatever.

You’re going off to Georgia now for 3 months.
Yes!  I am taking a sabbatical from PIFAS (or whatever the next version of it is) and Philadelphia for three months.  I was thinking about New Asshole New Augusta (which is where I’ll be), though I might just publish remotely.  Issue 3 will definitely happen though, don’t worry my loyal subscribers.  I think if I take a short break from this city, I can come back really jazzed about everything and everyone.  After a few months of living in a small city known for its pictaresque military base (home of the Signal Corps), I think I’ll be desperate for the sweet smell of PBR and flannel again.  I graduated, I am jobless, and I spent most of the summer indoors working on issue 2 so I have a terrible tan.  The south is the only heavenly option.

>>Issue 1.2 of New Asshole is available via subscription at the publication’s website or at AHN/VHS.

Tags

art criticism, manya scheps, new asshole

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