Machine Labor Intensive with Kaitlyn Jo Smith + Genevieve Goffman
Written by Tyler Glenn
Kaitlyn Jo Smith is an interdisciplinary artist focused on the present and future trajectories of America’s working class. Raised by skilled laborers in rural Ohio, Smith was thirteen when the housing market crashed and nearly every adult she knew was suddenly out of work. Her artworks render visible the intangible realities of unemployment by utilizing automation, machine learning, and 3D scanning and printing. These technologies are directly linked to the loss of over 4 million US manufacturing jobs since 2000. Her work has been featured in PDNedu and Don’t Smile Magazine and has shown at the Tucson Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art in Tucson, Arizona, Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio, Flower City Arts Center in Rochester, New York, Harry Wood Gallery in Tempe, Arizona and CO-OPt Gallery in Lubbock, Texas. You could find more of her work on her Website and Instagram.
Genevieve Goffman (b. 1991, Washington, D.C.) based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work focuses on utopic thinking, the memories and potential futures of communism, the intersection of technology, class, and luxury, and the history of nuclear science and radiation. Goffman earned her MFA in sculpture from Yale in 2020. Recent solo exhibitions include Redwall, But For Your Dead Pets Only, Catbox Contemporary, Queens, NY, 2019; Hotel Heaven, Lubov, New York, NY, 2019; she has also shown work with Gallery 102 in Berlin, EXILE in Vienna, Austria, and Workroom. Daipyat in Voronezh, Russia. An upcoming 2020 solo show at Money Gallery in Saint Petersburg, Russia is anticipated. You could find more of her work through her Website and Instagram.
Tyler Nicole Glenn (they/them) is a visual artist and writer based in Tampa, Florida. They are a recent graduate of the School of Visual Arts, where they received their BFA in Fine Arts with Honors. They've invited Kaitlyn Jo Smith and Genevieve Goffman to conduct an interview-style “studio visit” to introduce them as recently graduated artists working beyond the expectations of their respective mediums. Their goals are to expand the notion of what is classified as “art” and connect other people to like-minded creators. You can find them online through their Instagram or their website.
Tyler Nicole Glenn: How would you describe your practice?
Kaitlyn Jo Smith: My work deals primarily with 3D printing, AI, computer learning, video, and photo.
Genevieve Goffman: My work starts in the digital space. 3-D printing is the second step. It's about creating things that are intangible and making them tangible through newer printing technologies. 3-D printing is one I lean on a lot, as well as printing on acrylic, different fabrics, plexi, and stuff like that. It's about bringing the virtual and memory into an object you can see in real space.
KJS: I'm using 3-D printing in the exact opposite way. I'm physically out in the world collecting objects and broken relics of what I deem to be the height of the American Dream. 3-D printing is a way to make these broken objects precious. If you make enough copies of anything, the original becomes a hyper-precious object. 3-D printing has turned into an assembly line where broken objects mean nothing unless you're making them mean something.
GG: When I started making work, I kept thinking about the idea of there being so much stuff; so much history, so many objects, so many sculptures. A joke that no one thinks is funny; whenever (my friends) invite me to a gallery in New York I go, “oh there are too many art galleries here! There are so many of them!” That's how I feel about everything.
It's interesting to give someone a (printed) object when the only thing they know about 3-D printing is it can be reproduced into a replica. How people react to that is very bizarre. For some people it’s intriguing and for other people it's incredibly upsetting. It's like they haven't gotten over the Industrial Revolution. The idea of reproducibility is something they haven't moved past. I think it's a very effective tool to use in art because it does have this effect on people. I think everyone has this fear that we're slowly being encroached on by the amount of stuff that there is- data on the internet or actual physical objects.
KJS: Everything has (already) been photographed at this point, so I started veering into a more sculptural realm. Reproducibility is interesting. From a photo perspective, it’s never really an issue because a photograph is something that you reproduce. It's not a one-off, like a sculpture or a painting.
It made sense to me because my work deals with factory work being harder and harder to come by because of machines. The core of why I love 3-D printing is that I can recreate what a factory is. Some people are like “This isn't art. It feels gimmicky. You can just click and it goes.” For me, that's what I love (about it). I am talking about the assembly line.
GG: People see it as this cheap reproducible thing lacking in labor, when in fact it is a representation of a very specific kind of labor that has made up a lot of modernity; machine labor. Some artists will dismiss it as somehow being the absence of material, because they see plastic. I don't work much with PLA anymore, but I do have a fondness for it. One of my one of my favorite pieces in the show I just had is PLA. They saw it as devoid of meaning because it isn’t one of the art materials that has specific, structured meaning behind it. Material that represents mass production, isn't that the most potent thing you could think of?
KJS: I had the same pushback as you. How do you talk about factory work in a way that isn't dealing with the multiples? One of the first studio visits I had, I remember a professor being like, “I've never seen this (material) not look cheap and not look like a toy and not look like something from Comic-Con.” I don't think he was necessarily saying “don't do it.” I love that challenge about it. Working with a newer medium that hasn't really broken into the fine art world, it's very exciting to be on the forefront of that. What better way to talk about consumerism and capitalism than with cheap material; taking something that feels cheap and embracing its cheapness.
GG: The charm of 3-D printing is that it's flawed. If you do everything exactly right, you can just press a button and hit go. For me, 75% of the time, it totally fucks up. The technology has been around for a long time, but because it's so weird to work with it stays novel. The people who use it are gamers, both video game designers and tabletop gamers. Because I use fantasy in my work, those are also the kind of people who like my work. Our (work) should be referencing these hyper-contemporary things, or it should be referencing tabletop gaming, or it should be referencing the death of the factory. I'm curious, could you give some examples of the broken objects from factories you talked about?,
KJS: My dad worked at a toilet factory my whole life. I was 13 when the housing bubble crashed. When that happened, any sort of factory dealing with home goods or remodeling went under. I grew up in a town of 800 people. When that factory (closed down), everyone in my family lost their jobs. I was young enough to not know what was going on but old enough to feel the effects.
My first Thanksgiving in grad school, I went home and really wanted to photograph the factory. It's an interesting place. There's one building still standing, one half-demolished building, and the rest is totally flattened. This is when I was transitioning from photos into something more sculptural. While I was taking pictures, My dad was picking up shards of broken toilets. They didn't clear any merchandise when they totaled the building, so there were hunks of broken porcelain that meant absolutely nothing, but that everyone in my family had, at some point, touched. That factory had been there since the 1800s. We gathered all of (the broken porcelain shards), shipped them out to Arizona, and sat and looked at them.
I was editing through the pictures, and they're good photographs, but it didn't make sense to not have the materiality. I started by 3-D scanning all of (the broken porcelain shards) and learned to print them. Suddenly, these broken objects that meant so much to me but meant nothing to anyone else, now had value.
How can we talk about the value of a community and of a space through broken toilet parts? What I ended up using for my thesis was one specific handle; the only one of the broken porcelain that looks like it is something. I reproduced it 300 times and turned it into a sculpture that's lit from within. When the lights are on, you can see the infrastructure of all the handles. The original handle is standing on a podium above it. To me, it’s about how manual labor is the way people provide for their families, especially in rural Middle America, compared to the hundreds of replicas that are machine made. These objects tell the story of this group of people who are oftentimes overlooked in art. I'm interested in bringing the working class into the gallery space. The push and pull between rural and urban is interesting to me too, because (most) galleries exist in an urban setting.
GG: Wealth, of course, is always going to determine what is bought and sold in a place like New York. At the same time, where does culture come from? Culture is appropriated from below and then conditioned through wealth.
A lot of the subjects I deal with are not normal pop culture, but pop culture that's on the fringe. Anime, but also bringing online culture into a contemporary art space. It's hard to see that happen without that thing becoming a fetishization of those cultures. Giving a window to someone else to observe is something you have to live with if you're doing this process of translation, communication, and representation. It's interesting to step back and watch it happen. When you talk to people about this stuff, they are very ready to have these conversations and be present with it. I feel lucky to have met a lot of curators who are legitimately interested in my bizarre internet and fantasy obsessions. It's about finding those people who are willing to actually be like, “I like your work for what it is, not necessarily what it represents, but I'm willing to sit down and talk to you about the story behind it.”
KJS: Those are the conversations that need to happen! This happens all the time, people will drive through a dilapidated rural town, take a couple pictures, then post them on the wall and sell them for a bunch of money. That drives me nuts! Whatever you make art about, if you are making something from a place of understanding and because you care about it, then those conversations can happen. That's an important place to be creating from. It's time for internet art to be in the forefront in a gallery space! It's time for the rural voice to exist in there! If this year has taught us anything, it's that we have to view the gallery space differently. People can't go see things anymore. You have to be open to different kinds of art; not necessarily the huge painting or sculpture that sits in the middle, looks really nice in the window, and brings people in from off the street.
TNG: Who are some of your influences?
GG: I pull from fantasy novels, anime, and angry teen girls on the internet. In terms of artists I admire, I always say Kanye West. He is probably one of the greatest musicians living and I like that it ruffles feathers. My friend Emma Pryde makes really beautiful art also. One of the things I liked about going to grad school was that my peer group happened to be 10 other very strong artists. When I'm not drawing from this more Internet, fantasy realm, I'm looking at historical documentation and at artists that have worked in data collection and research based practices.
KJS: The things that have inspired me the most over the past year would be two books. Andrew Yang's book, which I cannot recommend enough, The War on Normal People. Then, this book by Nancy Eisenberg called White Trash. Two of my favorite artists of all time are Christian Boltanski and Odette England. Those are two artists that I am always coming back to.
TNG: How did you feel about your MFA program in general?
GG: At Yale, I think it depends on which of the schools you go to. It's split, and there is not a lot of actual overlap in the core classes. They had completely different social and educational cultures. There was also intense emphasis on classical sculpting techniques. I had a really hard time there. I will say that we had amazing visiting artists that would come in routinely, like Kevin Beasley, Ajay Curien,and Leslie Dick. They are amazing people and it was worth it to meet people like that.
I don't get along with most people, but I loved everyone in my program. They were all incredibly talented. If I were a curator, I would be really excited to work with any one of these people because they would turn out something incredibly unique.
Another thing about Yale is you have the best young art historians in the country. You have amazing access to intellectuals and additional support in a way you wouldn't necessarily have at a different university.
I think when everyone first got there we had this kind of imposter syndrome. I didn't go to art school in undergrad, so I felt like I faked my way in and was pretending to be an artist. You have to stop thinking that way. I do think (Yale) offers this level of legitimacy to other people but also to yourself.
KJS: I could not say enough wonderful things about the school that I ended up going to. It is incredibly interdisciplinary. You can work with any of the faculty that you want. Tucson is not a huge city by any means, but it's this amazing photo hub. If you're going to study photography, being in the desert is the perfect place to do so because the light is always perfect. We have access to the Center for Creative Photography founded by Ansel Adams. They are always bringing in great scholars.
I applied to all of the top schools that weren't in New York City. I grew up in a town of 800 people. I do love living in a city but I couldn’t do (New York). U of A was perfect. It’s in this really nice spot- only a seven hour drive to LA, so a lot of artists that can't afford to be based in LA live in Arizona.
The imposter syndrome thing is real. When I got here I was like, “this is a giant mistake.” I originally wanted to take four or five years in-between undergrad and grad school, but all my professors told me “you should start applying now. You probably won't get in, but at least people can look at your portfolio.” After one year of being out of school I applied to my top schools and got a call a month later that (U of A) wanted me. I was not prepared to move my entire life across the country at all but I was like, “okay this is what we're doing.”
(A three year grad program) was really nice because you have the entire first year to play and experiment. The photo program is intense, but having that extra first year was amazing because they truly just want you to dabble in other mediums, meet other people, play, fail, and figure that out. By the time thesis year came around, I knew what I was doing.
TNG: Would you recommend that young artists go straight into an MFA or wait a bit?
KJS: It totally depends. I knew I wanted to go to grad school when I was an undergrad. I'd asked all my professors, and 50% of them said, “you have to wait, you have no life experience,” and then the other 50% of them said “if you know you want to do it, just do it.” I thought I wouldn't get into grad school and got in. I don't think there's any right or wrong way to do it.
GG: I live in New York. There are hundreds of artists here who were those kids who were good at drawing, then went to Cooper Union, then went to Yale MFA, and now they're painters. They took route, but I don't think that is where all of the best artists come from.
I am of the belief that people probably shouldn't be going to grad school until they're at least over 27. The fact that there are people who are going to grad school so young is creating a weird thing in our country where you have to go to grad school to be successful in certain fields. Grad school traditionally was for people who specifically wanted to teach in a certain medium or study something in a very specific way. Now it's becoming this second step that everyone wants to do. People just want to get it out of the way. I hate that for education and I hate that for art.
I was in grad school with people who had just finished Yale or Harvard and they felt pressure to immediately get their PhD in art history.
People don't know exactly what they want to do when they're 22, or the best ways to do it. Go do something fun and then go to grad school. Have a job that sucks and go get drunk every night. It personally makes me a little upset when I see people who are very young going into their second degree. It kind of shapes your life in a way, and it also sets a precedent that people should be trying to do that. I know a lot of successful artists who have never been to grad school.
Honestly, if you want to teach then you should go to grad school, and you should try to do it sooner rather than later. The reason I went is because I was isolated from the art world. I knew that I wanted to participate in it and I knew I wanted to start showing in New York. It took me a long time to figure out that's what I wanted.
TNG: How was your experience doing residencies?
KJS: It's been so long since that's even been on the radar just because of the way the world is. Anderson Ranch was the last thing that I did. Anytime I've done a residency, I've always really enjoyed it. I've never done any for more than a couple of weeks.
I haven't really been applying because a lot of residences aren't happening and so many galleries are just online exhibitions. Everything is just so weird right now, it feels like a whole ‘nother lifetime when I would go to residences and do those things.
Hands down, I think you should do (a residency) if you have the means. If you're in between jobs, do teaching gigs or shows. It’s a great opportunity. You meet and learn from so many wonderful people you would never have otherwise, and most of those places offer scholarships.
GG: I've only ever done one full residency and it was in Berlin. It was great for me because my work looks at points of political upheaval. I’m especially interested in the Cold War and the tension between socialism, communism, fascism and capitalism.
You do meet amazing people. I met my boyfriend while I was there and being there is what made me decide to go to grad school. The conversations I had with the academics were the most interesting conversations that I had ever had. The reason I decided to go to grad school in the first place was so I could keep having conversations like that.
Residencies take a lot of energy to apply to. It's an incredibly grueling process. It feels hard to make oneself go through that right now, given how uncertain things are.
KJS: So much of art is applying, getting nothing till you get one thing and it's exciting. Under normal circumstances, I have the ability to take rejection like nobody's business. Normally it's fine but right now I don't think I'm in a place where I can handle being turned down.
I feel like this is a bad time to have emerged into the professional world. I've been in school for so long at this point that I'm like, is this what leaving grad school is like for everyone? Or is this just because of the time in history when I left?
GG: I do think there is something very fucked up about leaving grad school, especially for artists. For a lot of people it's leaving the studio. That can be hard for people who depend on having one. You're also leaving this community of people who aren't going to tell you to shut the fuck up if you try to talk about the things you care about. A lot of times, it involves moving away. That was hard for me; suddenly being somewhere my closest friends weren't.
Getting work is much harder now. Teaching opportunities are weirder. For the first time in a very long time, there are less women employed than there are men in the United States. Take from that way you will, I’m not making a value judgment on this. One of the reasons is because a lot of women have quit their jobs to go home to take care of kids who are now not in school because of COVID. We are living in really fucking weird times.