Studio Visit: Stacey L. Kirby in Durham

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Stacey L. Kirby in her studio with documentation from "PARTicipate." (Photo: Kellie Bornhoft)
Stacey L. Kirby in her Durham studio with documentation from “PARTicipate.” (Photo: Kellie Bornhoft)

Stacey L. Kirby‘s recent solo exhibition “PARTicipate” at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, was a three-part installation of performative interactions [September 5-October 26, 2014]. The Power of the Ballot, The Declaration Project, and VALIDnation, which are separate projects that gave the public an opportunity to vote in an election, file declarations of what they carry, and document their identity in new terms. In the past eight years, her ongoing projects have archived thousands of participants. Another opportunity to get involved will be at her next installment of The Power of the Ballot at the Nasher Museum of Art from January 24 to April 12, 2015. I sat down with Stacey to have a conversation about the outcome of the performance, her studio practice, and her upcoming show.

Georgia Museum of Art

Kellie Bornhoft: In your show at CAM, I noticed that the Bureau of Personal Belonging environment you created left no detail untended. When I entered the installation, the setup felt so familiar. You had fluorescent lighting, custom-made stamps, wood panel walls, an antique punch clock, cluttered corners of filing cabinets, and dirty carpet. The extensive detail convincingly created a stark and an outdated office from a decade or two ago. Why is the work set in the past?

Stacey L. Kirby: There are definitely a couple reasons for placing my work in the 1950s to the ’70s. I grew up with a mom who was a court reporter and ran her business from our house. Although she had a computer, it was the hand stamps and the typewriter that I would sit at her desk and play with. I have memories of these objects in her office that I would interact with in order to connect with her.

The lack of technology in my own office reflects a period when we as human beings connected more often, face to face. With computers, we definitely have more information coming in, but we feel more disconnected. When a participant hands me their completed Declaration Card or VALIDnation card, there is an exchange of energy between us. I like the period of time before plastics, when heavy materials were prevalent and objects had a weight to them.

KB: The archiving of ballots for The Declaration Project makes me think about data and the vast amounts of information we now store. Who knows where all of my information is and how much of it there is?

Stacey Kirby, The Declarations Project. (Photo: Alex Maness)
Stacey L. Kirby, The Declarations Project. (Photo: Alex Maness)

SLK: It’s true. I have lost so much of my personal archive in this virtual world. In the show, it is the weight of material and the physical connection that really resonate with me.

Georgia Museum of Art

KB: There is a level of ambiguity of an actual place in your installation. Are the specifics left out so that we can focus on the facade of the invented system that we experience?

SLK: It is my office and I am in control, but at the same time it could be anywhere. Most of these objects have come to me as gifts I have created the Bureau of Personal Belonging to be everyone’s environment. This allows people to envision themselves in that space and relate to it. There are still environments that feel like this—for instance, at the DMV—that we all experience and perhaps work in. I want people to feel like they could’ve worked here.

KB: Where does the Bureau of Personal Belonging stand between sincerity and satire?

SLK: It sits right in the middle. I use a little bit of humor and a little bit of seriousness. I work in the Bureau and so do a lot of my collaborators. I am honored when people engage with me and offer deep personal insight for the Declarations Archive. It is a very important exchange. I push the satirical boundaries while still feeling emotionally connected to it.

KB: That is where I think a lot of impact comes through with your work. With satirical work, there has to be some sort of sincerity because you cannot critique something that you have no connection to. Critical work that lacks sincerity can only sustain itself on what it critiques. There has to be vulnerability.

Stacey Kirby, VALIDnation, with collaborator and artist Heather Gordon. (Photo: Alex Maness)
Stacey L. Kirby’s VALIDnation project, with collaborator and artist Heather Gordon. (Photo: Alex Maness)

SLK: I agree. With my work I try to create space for conversation and discussion a space for people to have all types of reactions. It is not about what the answer is or telling people how they should feel, but giving people a space to be heard—whether or not I agree with them. That is why people are protesting in the street. I can’t speak for all of those people, of course, but it is bubbling up to the surface with, “We don’t know what else to do. No one is listening to us.” I might be a little bit of an idealist. But living in North Carolina with such a heavy Republican legislature, my experience is that people’s voices are not heard around here as much as they should be.

KB: Instead of directly speaking to your own political frustrations, you provide a space for the public to experience a hypothetical system. Your PARTicipate show at CAM evolved into a functioning alternative system. There were new ways for the public to identify themselves, a new way to value one’s own property, and the ability to input one’s ideas into the system. Instead of giving your own thoughts to your participants you ask questions. The setup leaves a lot of room for the public to interact and respond. What do you look for from your participants?

SLK: What I love in my projects is the “aha” moment that people have. When they come in they aren’t sure what is going to happen or where the art is. Then, when I approach them with my clipboard, they realize that they are in an alternate reality and I am not actually a government official. Then they can sit down and engage. I don’t support aggressive behavior in my office, but I want honesty. I want to have discussion and have the opportunity to hear views that I haven’t thought of before.

KB: What do you want your participants or hypothetical citizens to walk away with?

SLK: You walk into the installation thinking, “Oh, this is a bureaucratic system. This will be frustrating or confusing.” Sometimes, it will be a little, but if you ride it out to the end then you might walk away feeling that you have been heard. I want them to have the opportunity to share something of themselves and feel like it mattered. Once people feel like they have been heard, walls start to drop and things can shift and change.

Stacey L. Kirby, detail of The Declarations Project.
Stacey L. Kirby, detail of The Declarations Project.
Stacey L. Kirby, detail of VALIDnation cards..
Stacey L. Kirby, detail of VALIDnation cards..

KB: What do you do with the materials, documents, and ballots after your performances?

SLK: I hold these Declaration cards until the next installation, when the participants or others can come visit them again. The documents stay in The Declarations Archive in my studio. I have not read all of them. Most people assume that I do.

I realized that I don’t always want to just hold on to other people’s input. Right now, I am sending all of the VALIDnation cards to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory so he can understand how people are feeling in this state and who they are. I send them on but I don’t know where they go after that.

With the ballots from The Power of the Ballot, I will be sending them to a North Carolina Representative so they can hear how people are experiencing the voting process. I have no idea if these public officials are receiving these cards, but I am supporting the public’s voice by sending these documents.

KB: I can only imagine the officials arriving to their office with thousands of cards waiting for them. Especially considering the craft of the documents. By now they must recognize you as that one artist that repeatedly sends them.

SLK: Yes, supposedly they have to read them. Sending 1,000 cards to one person has to do something.

Kellie Bornhoft is an artist working and living in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Stacey L. Kirby, detail of ballots from The Power of the Ballot.
Stacey L. Kirby, detail of ballots from The Power of the Ballot.