Always Open / Sometimes Staffed
An Interview with Stephanie Kantor — Written by Cortney lane Stell
Can you tell us a little bit about your Black Cube Alumni Project, The Sometimes Pop Up Kiosk?
The Sometimes Pop Up Kiosk is part shop and part ceramic installation located in a free-standing kiosk in the middle of 16th Street Mall. Normally this kiosk would be occupied with food vendors, but we were able to utilize the space between renters thanks to a partnership with Denver Downtown Partnership. Like with my first Black Cube project, Mock Pavilion, I’ve transformed a small, intimate space into an artist driven pop up shop by using wallpaper, tiles, carpet, and ceramic objects. Presenting my work through a retail lens was inspired by Keith Harring’s Pop Shops and Claes Oldenburg’s The Store. The kiosk collapses the distance between tourist driven retail spaces and quality crafted, handmade art objects. The small scale ceramics are presented as accessible souvenirs, similar to what you might find in another shop along the 16th Street Mall- things like shot glasses, ashtrays, mugs, vases, keychains, and snakes. The kiosk is always open for viewing (the open sign is on at all times) but it is only staffed part time, with hours announced over social media. When staffed, the kiosk is meant to critique a typical shopping experience by not carrying normal, standard hours and having inconsistent pricing. For instance, blue and green items are more expensive, the inventory is constantly revolving, and everything is negotiable. Similar to Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa, the kiosk is always open for viewing, standing as a work in itself. I see the kiosk as an oasis of handwork amidst a sea of commercial chains within Denver’s most prominent tourist destination.
How does this project relate to its site, Denver's 16th Street mall?
Some objects for sale, like the collection of snake sculptures, are directly inspired by design elements from the 16th Street Mall. I recently learned that the diamond-shaped design in the granite walkways along 16th street was modeled after the Diamondback Rattlesnake. The mall’s elaborate groundwork was meant to set the tone for the entire space, similar to how a Persian rug changes the feeling of a whole room. To compliment the pre-existing tone of the space, I made several different iterations of snakes for the kiosk - small sculptures, hanging snakes, and 2-D standing snakes.
With the project framed as a retail space, this helps it fit into the culture of the 16th Street Mall; nestled, as it were, into a site focused on commerce and tourism. My work has explored how cultural destinations can be transformed into places of consumption through tourism. This is the first time that I’ve shown work in a charged site like this, and it brings out layers of my work that I’m excited to see. To support oneself as an artist, one has to try and come to terms with the commodification and fetishization of the art object and the subjectivity of pricing work. It has been interesting, as well, to witness people’s perception of the value of handmade work.
You had an improv actor present at the opening reception for The Sometimes Pop Up Kiosk, can you tell us a little bit more about this? What did the improv actor do?
Including an improv actor made the experience more interactive, performative, and served to highlight aspects of artifice and fiction. We wanted to engage the non-art-seeking general public in a more elaborate, embellished way. The kiosk already stands out and doesn’t necessarily fit the typical mold of shops on the 16th Street Mall. This performative element made the experience more playful and inviting to perhaps a more hesitant public. Steve, the improv artist, did an amazing job. I loved how he would explain my work - the inspirations, function, and potential uses of the objects - in an extremely entertaining way. He would also play with the aspects of pricing, raising and lowering prices based on conversations, which highlighted the subjectivity and conflict all artists experience when trying to price work. The night of the opening was also quite cold, so rather than interacting with people through the window as we had planned, everyone ended up packed inside the kiosk. Steve would ‘Vanna White’ and hand sell/advertise the objects to passersby. It was definitely a spectacle.
This project employs a body of new functional ceramics, like cups and plates, and some nonfunctional objects like 2d version of vases or coiled ceramic snakes. Can you explain the importance of displaying both functional and nonfunctional works in the kiosk?
Showing a diverse group of pieces, including both the functional and non-functional items, relates to the wide breadth of forms found in my installations. Ancient and contemporary pots are always at the base of inspiration for my work - through form, surface, and general aura. Many of the pieces I study are historically utilitarian vessels but when reinterpreted, I remove their function - I make the decision for the viewer that they can never be used and are instead objects of pure contemplation. However, with this space being framed as a souvenir shop, I shifted my practice and presentation to include usable things. Objects with a predetermined use are more approachable, understandable, and at times, more desirable (especially from an impulse shopping standpoint). The 2-D pieces came in response to flattening the functional pieces, thus removing their function, and have them be used as props, similar to theatre sets. These relate to a series of older work of mine where I would make paper cut-outs of pots to use as potential 3D ceramic vessels. I am continually interested in the relationship between 2D and 3D pieces, that transformation, and the question of what is potentially lost through the process.
What has been the public response to the kiosk installation?
People have been interested, curious, and confused. One main reason is that people expect food, and when they are confronted with art objects, I think it takes some time to process what exactly they are experiencing. Sitting in the kiosk is similar to being in a fishbowl where people look from a distance but seem tentative about approaching. It’s becoming a bit of a social experiment on social cues and I’ve learned a lot about how people navigate space in general. Over the next month, I am going to try some different presentations to see how I can best engage audiences. I plan to collaborate with the incoming food vendor to serve his Cuban food and coffee using my dishes. One day, I will have a big blowout sale. I also want to find someone who will advertise on 16th street by carrying a large vessel around in a similar fashion to a sign spinner.
What's next for you?
Right now I am working on a new commission for a collector. Also, I will be doing a site specific installation in one of the bedrooms at Castle Marne for Open Doors Denver. This piece will explore a new motif - the Green Man - who is a grotesque figure sprouting vegetation from his ears, mouth, and eyes. This August, I will be working Daisy McGowan in the biannual exhibition, Bright Young Things at GOCA in Colorado Springs.