25 Aug 2016
Ofri Cnaani on museums, femininity and the city
Israel-born, Brooklyn-based artist Ofri Cnaani has been working in Helsinki for the month of August. Together with HIAP’s curators and a changing audience she has organised several art walks around the city, collecting an array of objects. These objects then took on a whole new life through her performance ⌘D (Command + Duplicate) that was organised on the 10th of August at Kiasma as part of the URB 16 festival.
I met Ofri to discuss her particular brand of performance, in which she creates unique copies through the use of a projector and photocopier, using found objects together with small personal articles belonging to her audience.
TA: How would you say your surroundings have influenced your work?
OC: I live in New York, where artists always have many jobs. It is challenging, of course, meaning less time in the studio, but it has its plus sides also. One of my jobs is giving museum tours in various museums. I love it, because it gives me the opportunity to witness how museums have chosen to narrate their collections, and also because I get to interact with the audience. The tours I give are personal and bubbly, and that is how I connect with the audience and guide them into the museum’s collections.
Through my job as a tour guide, I was led into the art walk as a performance. By doing these performative walking events, I get to look at the museum as a medium. Through its collections and archives each museum gets to decide which part of the collection we see, enabling certain conversations and disabling others.
TA: In the past, you have made work concerning gender roles. Do you think society sufficiently values women artists?
OC: The feminine role is the only role I know, so I make work about it. Some of my earlier drawings featured images from the news that were about control and domination, in which I changed the gender roles. I am interested in social power structures and I often twist the gender roles in stories and images to make us reconsider what we know.
My performance piece Frequently Asked focuses around a group of older ladies, who are usually not from an artistic background, yet work in a museum giving tours. This group of ladies are called docents and they perform the most common form of public tours in American museums. This is the group which is met by the museum’s audience. However, they are also looked down upon within the art world, making them feel insecure about their knowledge. These ladies often try to memorise data about the museum’s exhibits, making their tours dry and impersonal. In my performance piece I wanted to ask them ten personal questions about their relationship to the exhibit, questions not based on Wikipedia knowledge. As it turns out, these ladies are hugely invested in the museum, they value it dearly. I am interested in groups that are part of the institutional knowledge but also excluded from it.
I’m currently working, as part of B+ Kollektiv, on a museum piece in Tel Aviv that focuses on women who were educated in the same art school I went to but never completed their final paper. They have been in the ‘all but a dissertation’ limbo for over ten years. Although they became art teachers their salary suffers as they never got their undergrad degree. This new participatory performance will turn the museum space into a ‘help desk’, and will match five women with five academic mentors (all female), in order for them to finish their final paper over the course of the show and become eligible to graduate. This piece is not funded yet but it is a good example of how I think today about gender, museum, education and sisterhood. I do not plan on working with a big group. If ten women end up with a finished degree because of this project, I will take that as a success.
TA: What inspires you?
OC: Problems inspire me. I respond to situations and phenomena. The work is always relational; I go mute when the gallery is empty.
TA: Your collages involve your audience. Do you view the works as collaborations?
OC: I do not. The audience is essential to this piece, it gives the first input and it takes home the output but it isn’t a collaborator. My collage work has two main elements to it: an archaeology of technology, by which I mean that I wish to give old machines new use while using an art and craft aesthetic, and also the audience, which participate in any aspect of this piece and also guarantee it will never ever be the same.
A copy usually has no value in the art world, but the pieces I create during my performances are unique, personalised copies. The audience always love their own pieces, because they are reflections of themselves, in a way. It is almost like fortune telling; an interpretation based on my audience’s feedback.
TA: Drawing, printmaking, video art, performance, audience participatory works, copy art – you seem to have done it all. What is your preferred medium?
OC: My work is very much concept driven, I do not want to be limited by any specific medium.
TA: You seem inspired to work in and from the city. How has the isolated environment of Suomenlinna affected your work?
OC: I live in a big and dense city, but grew up in a small kibbutz where kids always roamed freely. I love the outdoors and since I’m here with my family, we keep taking walks to different parts of the island. In terms of my work, I keep toying with the idea of making a performative work involving tourist groups, with matching raincoats for example. I’m sure it’s done before but these controlled crowds that march around Suomenlinna have been fascinating to me, seeing as opposed to blindness or not seeing, how they choose to see the same things while remaining blind to others.
Read more: http://ofricnaani.com
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