About the Artist
I am Courtney McClellan, a writer and artist from Greensboro, N.C. I often use sculpture and performance, but sometimes this reaches to photography, and video. As an artist, I feel like a committed generalist, a devoted amateur. I love interviewing people and I see this as an important part of my art practice. Although I am a bit of an introvert, talking to people is fundamental to what I do.
with Joe Brommel, May 2019
What draws you to institutional critique, particularly of the court system, in your work?
Well, I think like a lot of artists I make work about the things I least understand and the things that puzzle me the most. Oftentimes I work best from a place of admiration and antagonism, so when I feel both I know I'm onto something interesting.
Particularly with the court system, my father is a criminal defense attorney, so I grew up knowing lots of lawyers. Most of my life is comprised of artists and teachers and lawyers — which is an interesting combination, but it's offered me some interesting perspective on how those things might actually relate. For instance, for me, being an artist is a civic action, and being a teacher is an artistic gesture too. And, in fact, most people I know who do one of those three jobs do two of those three jobs, so how they all relate becomes important to how I think about the world.
The critique part, of course, is talking to friends and family of mine who are lawyers about how the system isn't working, about what it means to be an agent of an institution, and about how strange that is. Because you have some autonomy, and yet at the same time you’re the representative of a larger body. I even think about that for myself working in university systems.
I almost think that if I wasn't making institutional critique I couldn't help but making some kind of critique. There are lots of ways to critique, and there's a way to be critical and generous at the same time. Or maybe criticality is an act of generosity?
I think so, because it keeps the object of critique honest.
I studied journalism as well as studio art as an undergraduate, too. I knew I wasn't a journalist very quickly, but an interest in truth still exists in my work. And, for me, the way I can get at the most truth is by being an artist. I think that artists are great at comparing seemingly unrelated things and making a case for them in a way that you couldn’t if you were a more traditional researcher.
You frame a lot of your critique in terms of performance, too, which is interesting in the context of what you just said about being an agent within a given system. Can you talk more about that specific aspect of critique?
Performance, for me, encompasses a lot of things. It can include theatricality, and it inherently implies all these questions about looking. Exaggeration, too — I think of myself as a pretty introverted person, but art and teaching are places where I'm a bigger version of myself.
I've really been thinking a lot about this quote from Yvonne Rainer that says that maybe theater is just two groups of people looking at each other. Which has led me to think about: what if it's not even people? Maybe theater is just two groups of objects looking at each other.
Sure. The language of viewership is so much about when we look at objects, but I've started to think a lot about when objects look back at us, and what they see. And about when we're really in dialogue with an object and communing with an object, either by making it or by looking at it — for me, those two actions aren’t very different: making and looking.
Yeah, giving very purposeful attention lends an object — and the process of viewership itself — a different character.
In fact, the works that are right behind you all have an aperture. So they all have some quality of being able to look back at you.
Can you say more about those works?
Broadly, I often have two veins of my art practice going at the same time. Something research-based that involves other people, like the court-related work I've been doing, and then some work that I can do in my house by myself — using simple materials and remaining agile as a maker.
So the more immediate thing I've been working on here is a series of teleprompters in different formats. The teleprompters all have reflective surfaces, text that's mirrored, and an aperture. I’m thinking about when objects tell you what to do, and particularly how they suggest and imply feeling. Teleprompters became interesting to me because they’re something used by newscasters and politicians. (They were actually something that originated in the movie industry, which folds into this question of performance again. The first one was made by Fox.) They’re further interesting to me because they're an object that implies earnestness in some way — they’re a way to feign attention, to make someone who's sitting on their couch at home feel like they're the only person in the room.
I've been using very familiar, common materials: domestic objects and things we buy at Office Depot. When analog materials tell us what to do and feel, there’s this narrative about contemporary political life, and older models and systems re-occurring again or revealing selves that have existed all along. A lot of these [teleprompters] involve picture frames in particular. The critic Ben Davis writes about family pictures being the primary art most people have in their homes, so I’m using this space that’s normally covered in a very personal picture and trading it out for screen-based space: another space where we project who we are and develop our understanding of the world.
With that in mind, can elaborate on that comment you made earlier about how you view being an artist as a civic action?
I think making art is for the most part inherently good. It's a way to help understand the world, and can help us realize the artfulness of gestures we’re already performing.
I heard the philosopher Bruno Latour speak to a group of scientists and artists once, and he said art can help us make us more sensitive, can help us reattune our bodies to space. In particular, he was talking about how to deal with a big problem like climate change. His argument was that art can help us understand deep time — that our minds are really incapable of imagining past a couple of generations out, but maybe art can help us embody some deeper understanding of time.
So teaching and making are ways for me to help to think and sensitize myself, and hopefully pass on some ideals to other people about observation, about looking at the world more closely.
Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby