MANUAL HISTORY MACHINES [on] DEVON TSUNO

Talking to Concrete Walls

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Devon Tsuno. Photo Credit: Ace Carretero.

LA-based artist-curator collective Manual History Machines asked fellow artist-curator Devon Tsuno of Concrete Walls Projects a few questions about the mission of CWP and other random queries in the following interview from June of 2014. Manual History Machines is comprised of Daniela Campins, Rema Ghuloum, Tessie Whitmore and Bessie Kunath.

Daniela Campins: What is an exhibition for you?

Devon Tsuno: For me it is an opportunity to bring people together, contribute to the culture of my community and a way to provide resources to artists.  It doesn’t matter where it is–it is about how good the art is, and how well organized and presented it is. I’ve curated exhibitions at established institutions and non-profits in white cubes, but also in boba tea stores. The 1990′s era of MFA superstars and commercial gallery one hit wonders is somewhat over in LA now, so a really healthy “anything goes attitude” has opened up when it comes to the type of venues in which it is professionally acceptable to exhibit.  I’m glad to see spaces like PØST, Weekend, Summercamp’s ProjectProject, Jaus, Elephant, Autonomie, Commonwealth and Council, KChung, and Monte Vista Projects doing so well.  I tend to visit these venues to feel the pulse of LA, and what is on the cusp of art making.

Daniela Campins: Concrete Walls Projects have been presented in both established and non-commercial spaces, as a curator do you put into effect a different approach depending on the exhibition site? To what extent does the type of venue influence the exhibition form, production and curatorial methodology? Are there any compromises on your end?

Devon Tsuno: I always have curatorial ideas, and take the venue into account, but as an artist myself; I think it is important to let the artists dictate the art.  Some artists work well with site-specific goals, but others can be distracted by it.  As much as is possible, I try not to project ideas onto artists, so that they can work through ideas for an exhibition, as they apply their own specific interests.  The art and artists should always supersede the venue or curatorial idea, so I always approach curating more as a means to provide resources for artists.  Creating a mutually beneficial situation for artists and venue is the key to success.  I want artists to have access to resources that will benefit their practice and I want the venue to have access to art that will fulfill their goals and broaden their audience.  Depending on the venue for the artists, curating could include: funding, access to space, the opportunity to collaborate with professionals outside of the art community, or offering a young artist the opportunity to exhibit with peers who are slightly more established.  It is my job to make sure both parties start the project with clear expectations, and conclude the project feeling those goals and more were accomplished. Curating is always a negotiation, but I don’t think of the negotiation as a series of compromises because that word always sucks the positive energy out of anything. I want the artists and the venue to be super stoked about the project, and when everyone is excited, compromises are really just smart organic solutions.

Bessie Kunath: Do you consider yourself a cultural worker? If so, what do you get in return for this work?

Devon Tsuno: I hope when I die people call me that….ha, but I got a long way to go.  I am closing in on the 10-year mark out of graduate school and I feel like I’m just starting to scratch the surface.  There is definitely a learning curve.  Finding ways not to be completely isolated in the studio helps to continue my education beyond academia.  Working within my community, and growing it alongside interesting and talented people is return enough, but I do live here. I was born here, and I’m raising my son here in LA proper, so I want it to be a beautiful, culturally interesting, diverse and a creative place to live.

Bessie Kunath: There seems to be a great deal of chance and shared authorship in Concrete Walls Projects. Do you find that the unpredictable results wielded by the nature working in a collaborative fashion with other individuals, institutions, locations, elements etc. is the crux of your curatorial practice? What does working in “chance” method teach you? Does it always work….even when it doesn’t?

Devon TsunoConcrete Walls Projects has always worked because the artists who contribute to projects co-author what it becomes.  Ranging from white box exhibitions, to outreach projects with middle school students, the goals have always remained the same, but I’ve always been flexible about how to achieve them.  I think creating a solid framework, parameters, and expectations for a project promotes creativity.  This has allowed me to trust the decisions of others and allow a project to grow organically.  Since I know there is a system in place it is rare for an artist to stray from the end goal.  I expect change, so in that way I don’t feel the process with Concrete Walls is a game of chance, but it is the unpredictability that makes it exciting and a good ride for all involved.

Tessie Whitmore: What’s in a name? The name “Concrete Walls” brings to mind the concrete walls of the L.A. river basin. Those walls define the city of L.A. The river being a major source of water in the past was the original source of life for the City of Los Angeles. Is this something you considered when choosing the name for your project?

Devon Tsuno: Wow that sounds romantic and rad….but unfortunately no.  The original Concrete Walls Gallery located on Wilshire Blvd. next to Ace Gallery literally had walls made of concrete. I ran the programing on a shoestring budget and had the mentality: “It is what you make it” and “by any means necessary.” The name stuck and so did the mentality…In year 11 of the Concrete Walls project, resources have come a long way, but after you learn to hang art on concrete walls no venue looks out of the question.

Tessie Whitmore: Concrete Walls Projects being a community curatorial project, I see a majority of focus in your previously curated projects especially in Case Study: Løs Angeles and Case Study LA II, as dialogue about how artists function in L.A., how artists document L.A. and how artists participate in the L.A.community. An excerpt from your mission statement states “SERVING Greater L.A.”. I want to ask you more about the concept of SERVING. Being a proud Angelino yourself, was there a moment in your upbringing or a way you were brought up that reinforced the value of service to your community? How did you come to understand that the idea of building upon your hometown community was something you wanted to pursue?

Devon Tsuno: My parents were very proactive organizers in public education.  When the LAUSD music program was eliminated at my elementary school, they took it upon themselves to form an organization to empower parents to fund raise, purchase instruments, and hire their own music teacher for the school, independently from the district.  My parents could afford private lessons for my brother and I, but they must have believed strongly in equal opportunity and access to the arts. It shows in their actions.  They didn’t talk much about it, I think I learned more from observation–if you wanted to be in the arts, it was obviously in your best interest to contribute to fighting its demise and to work as a community.

Tessie Whitmore: Many of your projects seem very sculptural or multi-dimensional in terms of the depth of ideas and formulation of concepts. Many details are considered: architecture, location, physicality, gesture, bringing together varying aspects of the art community, your teaching life, and the neighborhood community. I feel like this layering of ideas and a focus on diversity are some of the great characteristics of the LA area. The idea of layering is also present in the way you handle your paintings. In both your curatorial Concrete Walls life and in your own art work all things come together in the end as a unified whole, no matter how many separate layers there are . Do you see your curatorial concepts being affected by the way you paint?

Devon Tsuno: Wow thank you, that is really rad you think that!  They do all fit together for me.  I used to struggle with how the two lives, as you described, interacted as one, but in the past few years they have become more intertwined.  I can’t escape the way I tend to think, so curating and painting tend to embrace similar mentalities, but with different concepts and different methodologies for outputting thoughts.

Rema Ghuloum: I can’t help but think of Haruki Murakami’s book “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” when thinking about your approach to your art practice and the way in which you extend yourself outside of the studio and into the LA art community. Murakami says:

{If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as whole.}

You seem to exert yourself to the fullest in your work and your life. I know that you happen to be an avid cyclist ­– an exercise that slows one down enough to be present while still being forced to operate in a social environment. How does cycling inform the subject matter in your own work?  I also can’t help but view cycling as a bridge between being a maker in the studio and working on projects that directly involve a larger community. This may be far reaching, but are there direct correlations between cycling, painting, and Concrete Walls?

Devon Tsuno: To get my mind away from the hours of driving necessary to exist in Los Angeles; I started cycling.  Pedaling circles with other artists, educators and curators, has also become a valuable time to clear our heads and brainstorm, far away from the normal scenery of studios, schools, galleries and museums.  I also use cycling as a means to slow down the pace of my always-active observational habits.  Adventuring by bicycle throughout the LA watershed system, gives me a chance to simultaneously have a hobby and work.  I photograph water and vegetation on the concrete banks of the LA and San Gabriel Rivers during these outings — and I take those photographs and experiences back to the studio with me to make paintings. Partitioning art and daily life is always an uphill battle that I try to avoid.

Bessie Kunath: Who are your favorite artists (famous…not famous…dead….alive)?

Devon Tsuno: That is a long list…Recently I’ve been really interested in American craftsmen who are trying to revive beautiful and functional handmade objects made in the USA.  I’m a big fan of Sacha White, a Portland based bicycle frame builder and also recently took an interest in a small community of craftsmen building wood and canvas canoes at home in their garages.  In LA I’ve always looked up to Habib Kheradyar (HK Zamani), a great artist who also founded one of LA’s oldest and most respected artist-run spaces, PØST (formerly POST).  Habib has done it all including: endurance performance, abstract painting, one-day exhibitions.  He defines multi-tasker, ‘cuz he’s also a great father, while successfully running both commercial, non-commercial and college art gallery programs….all at a super high level.  He is a living bad ass in my opinion.  The under-the radar artist I’m rooting for in LA is Anna Mayer. She has crazy skills, and works with performance, ceramics, painting, photography and sculpture to create beautiful, witty and socially engaging artwork.  Anna is also one half of CamLab; a really rad two person collective.  Look out for her; she is a force that I know will emerge at the top soon.

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Green Ripple. 30 x 23 inches, acrylic and spray paint on paper {2014} Devon Tsuno.

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Flood: LA Drainage Relocation. 9 x 28 inches (200 risograph prints, each 17 x 11). Installed in Wonder Valley, California. {2013} Devon Tsuno.

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Santa Cruz Island Ironwood Reallocation. 5000 risograph prints, wooden crates, 20 Santa Cruz Island ironwood seedlings. Native Plants Project/ Manhattan Beach, California. Theodore Payne Foundation {April 2014} Co-Curated by Kristina Newhouse. Devon Tsuno.

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Case Study Los Angeles II: On the Perimeter (installation view) at Jaus, Los Angeles {2012} Organized by Concrete Walls Project.

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Mass Emergencies. collaborative project between Cypress College, Angels Gate Cultural Center, Concrete Walls Projects and the California State University Long Beach Fine Arts Round Table. Angels Gate Cultural Center, San Pedro, California {2010} Organized by Devon Tsuno.

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Concrete Walls Art Reference Library. Autonomie Projects, Los Angeles.

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Donated Books for Concrete Walls Art Reference Library. Displayed at Autonomie Projects, Los Angeles

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Reception and book drive for the Art & Literacy Project {April 2014} Organized by Devon Tsuno, Autonomie Projects, Los Angeles.

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Art and Literacy Project. two thousand risograph prints. Art Collaboration by Mark Twain Middle School, art director and graphic designer Sam Cho, artist Devon Tsuno and their teacher Jill Usui. Exhibited at Autonomie Projects, Los Angeles.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS

MANUAL HISTORY MACHINES: A collective comprised of Bessie Kunath, Daniela Campins, Rema Ghuloum, and Tessie Whitmore. As artists and friends, they desired to form together to curate projects that could serve as a vehicle for generating dialogues with other artists. All members live and work and make in Los Angeles, CA.

DEVON TSUNO: Since 2003, Devon has worked as the founder/director of Concrete Walls Projects, an artist run curatorial project that focuses on building community by facilitating collaborations, educational projects, and group exhibitions throughout Southern California. He has been an instructor at various Southern California institutions. Tsuno received an MFA from Claremont Graduate University in 2005 and a BFA from California State University, Long Beach in 2002. Tsuno is also the recent recipient of the 2014 California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists.

 

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