Elevation drawing of a Tred Company rambler houseMy studio residency at Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts is coming to an end, and it culminates in a two-person exhibition with the other artist-in-residence,Kit Leffler Reaching backward, reaching forward: Tracing Histories will run January 7 through February 4, 2017 at the art center (6666 East River Road, Fridley, MN 55432). If you are in the Twin Cities, there will be an opening reception on Sunday January 8 from 1-4pm and an artists’ talk on Sunday January 22 at 2pm.

I’ll be showing an installation developed from the interviews I conducted with Fridley residents. Fridley is fairly emblematic of US suburbs in general – it was founded during the post-WWII boom and now has an aging population and increasing racial and ethnic diversity. As the recent US election shows, the fear, racism and xenophobia I heard in conversations are also typical, though that’s not all there was. I’m still working on the installation, so I’m not sure exactly how these aspects will be reflected in it, but the culture of fear and restorative nostalgia I encountered feel like themes that will continue to be relevant for some time.

Other things I’ve been up to since my last post:

At the moment, it’s hard not to feel like planning for art is more inconsequential than normal, but I’m still hoping to work in my studio more next year, reflecting on some of these participative processes in which I’ve been involved. Fingers crossed that there’s still some meaning in that.

Spring 2016 News

1000 Little Things at Winona State UniversityI can’t believe it’s been 6 months since the exhibition of 1000 Little Things in Winona, but it has. In fall, I said that I’d post photos from the show, and you can find them here as well as a video highlighting the audio archive here. Eventually the work will be documented on this site as well.

Come see where I (sometimes) work!
If you are in the Twin Cities, you can see elements from 1000 Little Things and other work during Art-a-Whirl, May 20 through 22. My studiomate Jane Powers and I will have our space open for Northeast Minneapolis’ yearly studio tour on Friday from 5-10pm, Saturday from 12-8pm and Sunday from 12-5pm. She and I will be taking turns (wo)manning the space, so send me a message if you want to be sure to meet. We’re located in the Casket Arts Building at 681 17th Ave NE, Minneapolis in studio #4 on the Lower Level (fancy name for basement).

Research continues with my residency at Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts in Fridley. I’ve interviewed a number of long-term and newer residents about their relationship to the city. Their experiences, while certainly individual, echo national trends about feelings of increased isolation and insularity in suburban living and a desire for more urban amenities. Right now I am connecting with groups in Fridley whose stories may not be as well represented to see how we can bring those stories to the public — BLCA just installed a programmable digital sign by its East River Road entrance, so that offers some intriguing possibilities.

The Free Speech Machine was also busy early this year. Audio from multiple events in January and February is up on the blog and we got a small mention in an article about Ready Go, a service that helps connect non-profits and other groups to artist-designed communication tools.

At the end of February this year, I attended a lettering workshop in Mazeppa, Minnesota with famed signpainter Mike Meyers. I’ve always been a sucker for good signs, but now my obsession has reached a whole new level – especially aided by the convenience of a cellphone camera. So I’ll leave you with a few recently spotted gems.

Morgan Camera Shop in LA
Beauty Shop sign in Baltimore
National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Baltimore
National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, Baltimore
LA fabric district
LA fabric district
Shopping Center in LA

Fall 2015 News

I’ve been meaning to send an update on what I’ve been doing since returning to the US. After taking some time to get settled, most of 2015 has been occupied with preparing for an exhibition that will finally be opening next month.

Post-WWII globe with Leipzig marked by a pinThe show, titled Das Fundbuero – 1000 Little Things, opens Wednesday, November 18th in the Paul Watkins Gallery on the campus of Winona State University in Winona, Minn. The opening begins with a public lecture from 4-5pm followed by a reception in the gallery.

I have really enjoyed developing the installation, as it’s given me the opportunity to process the experiences and information I collected in Weimar and Leipzig during six years of projects dealing with East German history. Watkins Hall is a mid-sixties modernist building with a terrazzo floor and glass doors that makes a great space for the installation, which combines objects and interviews collected while working on Das Fundbuero with contemporary objects from the US and newly built sculptural components.

I have been thinking a lot about the role of nostalgia and the desire for a simple historical narrative, as well as questions about documentation and presentation of participatory artwork after the fact. The installation lets me work with these ideas more directly than was possible sometimes in the participatory projects in Leipzig. I’m looking forward to seeing the complete installation, since my studio is only big enough to work on segments of it at a time. Even better, as I continue to work, I continue to have more ideas for how to interpret and present Das Fundbuero  – who knew making objects would continue to be part of my artistic process.

Minnesota Legacy Amendment Logo Minnesota State Arts Board LogoThe show is supported in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, or to make it all legal:  Monica Sheets is a fiscal year 2015 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.
Thank you Minnesota taxpayers!

In September, I began an 18-month residency with Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts in Fridley, Minn. The arts center is about 6 miles from my apartment in Minneapolis, but it’s location in Manomin Park at the confluence of Rice Creek and the Mississippi River makes it feel much farther away. One of my goals during the residency is to adapt and expand the sort of participative work I was doing in Germany. I am particularly interested in how Fridley lacks a clear civic “center”, though there are lots of beautiful parks and shopping centers with idiosyncratic tenants like an honorary Romanian Consulate and a great Bosnian supermarket. I am interested in how this de-centeredness affects people’s sense of community and identification with the city. The residency culminates in an exhibition at the arts center in early 2017.

I’ll be posting images of 1000 Little Things on facebook and my website after the opening. If you’re in the area, I hope you can visit the exhibition in Winona or come see me at Banfill-Locke.

5th Anniversary of my MFA

In acknowledgement of the fifth anniversary of receiving my MFA, I’ve decided to post my thesis – typos and all.
While some of my feelings have changed since I wrote it, mostly I find that am still coming up against the same questions in my work as I did then. I am not sure if this points to a lack of progress or that I have stumbled onto some central theme for my work.

In the end, the project that was the basis for my thesis was quite pivotal for how Das Fundbuero developed in Leipzig. That, along with the distance in time from the whole master’s experience lets me view the work somewhat more objectively and reevaluate its relative success and failures. I feel much better about this project than I did in 2009, and I’ve realized that “building community” in the traditional sense – a certain harmony between project participants – is not one of my goals; I am more interested in how we deal with those people whom we do not like or do not agree with – how do we continue to work productively in spite of such conflict? As usual, I don’t have a clear or concise answer for this yet, but I’m working at it from a few angles and hope to address it in written form sometimes soon.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the thesis.


Between Exit and Action

Just before leaving Germany in December, I visited the exhibition “Zwischen Aussteig und Aktion” (Between Exit and Action) in the Kunsthalle Erfurt, and I was struck again by this sense of familiarity that I often feel when it comes to the late GDR.

The show is an encyclopedic look at the underground art scene in Erfurt. There was work from the 60s and 70s, but much of it focused on the mid to late 1980s. I’ve seen some of this work before, but never so much in one place. The artworks were also accompanied by private photos and ephemera (posters, flyers, etc.), giving a fuller picture of activities at the time.

Looking at all of these things, I was struck by a sense of identification – this is work that I could have been making, events that my friends could have been organizing, practically at the very same time. I am, though, probably about 5-10 years younger than most of the artists in the Erfurt exhibition, so it may be better to say that these were things that I knew were happening in Toledo, of which I was on the fringes.

From approximately 1987-1991, I was part of the punk scene, which overlapped with a scene associated with the Collingwood Arts Center, a low-cost work/live space for artists. When a writer from the GDR talks about how he and his friends wore Italian army uniforms as a provocation against the militarized society of the GDR, I think of my friends wearing West and East German army coats and combat boots as a provocation of their own. When I see a short, quasi mystical video of women on a rooftop in Erfurt, I think about dressing in a bird mask and running through the snow in Forest Cemetery for my friend Bev’s film. But it’s not only the style of the people or the style of the work that resonates with me, it is also this sense of isolation – only half knowing what is going on beyond your region (GDR artists were likely much better informed than we were) – and the sense of knowing you were, in a way, stuck there: you had to do something where you were because there was no getting out.

This sense of identification breaks down, though, when confronted with the third floor of the exhibition, where a large installation by Gabi Stötzer looks at the surveillance and documentation of the Erfurt scene by the internal security forces of the GDR. No one ever paid that much attention to the goings-on of the underground scene in Toledo. Sure, an all-ages show might be busted occasionally for violating a city code, and an individual might be arrested for underage drinking or drug possession, but the content of what we were doing was never scrutinized, never truly deemed threatening. When my best friend and I danced and pantomimed sex on top of a Betsy Ross American flag while our friends’ band played a song about war for oil, no one was taking photographs that would go into a file. In fact, as far as I know, there was no one taking photographs at all.

It’s hard not to romanticize the danger that artists in the GDR lived under. I want to think that art can be dangerous to the status quo, that it can change the world. But it’s also hard to imagine what form of artistic production couldn’t be quickly assimilated and neutralized by the society in which I live. And I think that even if we couldn’t articulate it at the time, my friends and I felt this already in the 80s in Toledo. It added to our nihilism; just one more thing we did that didn’t really matter.

I was discussing this exhibition and my thoughts about it with a friend, and he brought up the relationship between activism and repression. His example was that queer activists don’t march in Berlin anymore, they go to Budapest. And one can argue that they are more needed in Budapest, but are they not needed in Berlin as well? In places that view themselves as “open societies”, we claim to value and respect diversity and difference, but this often seems to be expressed more through the acknowledgement created by niche-marketing than real political agency.

In the US we don’t have the benefit of regime change to create “critical distance” for examining past governmental policies. If systematic sexual and physical abuse of kids in juvenile detention in the 70s and 80s is revealed, it is explained as isolated cases, or as not knowing better at the time, and not seen as an inevitable outcome of our justice system. If we believe that our system is just, then these kids were there for just reasons, and we somehow see them as less victimized than the teenagers in a GDR Jugendhof. To do otherwise would implicate ourselves, would ask for some sort of action on our part, and what we should or could do about it isn’t very clear.

So perhaps what drives the activists to Budapest and the romanticization of artists in repressive societies is related: what we perceive as the relative clarity of the situation. The “enemy” is clearly defined, and we can say definitively that it is not us. With this comes a clear audience to whom your actions can be addressed – you know who is watching in both the positive and negative sense.

But a closer look, as always, complicates the situation: members of the Erfurt art underground could be both artist and informant, part of the opposition and part of the collaboration. We tend to look at those who collaborated as craven individuals and those who refused to collaborate as heroic, but how can we really understand what forced that decision? It is, perhaps, a disservice to assume that the choice was so clear, a half nostalgic, half self-righteous form of patronization from our privileged perspective.

I try to turn that perspective on myself now, to bring some sort of clarity to a world that seems to swim with nuance. Is there a clear moral choice that I am failing to make? So far there has been nothing to force my decision, and this situation seems unlikely to change. Revelations of NSA spying notwithstanding, I still feel as if no one is watching. If I continue to live as I have, I must also live with the realization that there will likely be no decisive moment, and that I will never have to be either a hero or a villain. I will always be both collaborator and dissident.