Jay Wolke: Is this whole thing your studio?
Philip Matesic: This is my studio. This semester I’ve converted it into a cafe for four hours a day, serving art students coffee and hopefully engaging them in this social exchange with me or with other coffee drinkers.
JW: Well, do you have anything like milk or creamer? As long as you’re in the business, I might as well really push you. Oh, the real thing! This is great, thank you.
PM: No problem.
JW: I guess I’m here to give you the once over, beat you around the mid-section a little bit. So what’s with this café? Are you going to become a restaurateur? I guess I’ll start with a silly question, why a café?
PM: I have started these projects within other communities since I’ve been in grad school. I did this project last semester with a street vender in Pilsen, where I had sewn this winter shelter for him. He sells tamales on 18th street, so I improvised this shelter for him as he waited for people to come by. For my second project, I placed electric outlet covers I made over free outlets in the city that I would find. I would go around testing random outlets around the city and leave these covers for people to find.
JW: So, you would tag these outlets with your outlet cozies.
PM: Exactly. People would think that they were CTA things until they got closer and they saw this comic like lightning bolts on the red covers.
JW: I was going to say, it looks a little like batman or a marvel comic kind of thing.
PM: So, I found a courtyard on Roosevelt and State Street right by the red line, and there were six working outlets and I was wondering what I would do. Then, I saw some people walking through and I asked them what they would want in the station, provided they could use the outlets. Over the next two weekends I asked everyone who walked through the courtyard and tallied the responses up. Then, for an afternoon I set up a cell phone charging station, the internet, music and food. I was taking this free electricity from the city and giving it to the people that lived there.
JW: It’s interesting how you describe it as free electricity. Which actually brings up an interesting question, because it in fact brings up this idea about the grid and its alternative uses. So how do you feel that your work brings up utility? What does that mean to you? Are you just this cultural squatter no matter where you are; is there a kind of unbounded nomadic utility in your work?
PM: I think that’s a really good read on the work, because a big component to all the work is mobility and being nomadic. I think that squatting is a good term because squatting is a short-term, ephemeral action, and my projects are very much like that. It’s all about me in these different locations I find myself, deploying something to engage people in conversation or to utilize some language or resource.
JW: So then have you ever stuck yourself as an open user into a system when it was a closed? Has that ever happened to you?
PM: It hasn’t happened to me yet. I feel that I’m trying to take these open systems and make them more open. I’m not this artist who says, I want to have a giant inflatable stage in this courtyard and play my kazoo as a performance for the public to watch. I feel that would be a breach for security and to the people who use the courtyard. I felt that my project had to be more democratic.
JW: So then what is your definition of transgression and how does it play into your work? And why is it so important to be transgressive as an artist?
PM: I’ve thought a lot about that during the trajectory in making these urban interventions. One of my first projects I made were tents that fit under these modernist sculptures that would blend in with the pieces. I would find a piece I liked, take its measurements, build the piece in studio and then set it up under these sculptures. For a few hours, as people would walk by, they would not even notice the tents. I feel that my work is slowly transitioning away from being transgressive and moving more towards opening a dialogue between people.
JW: So then what exactly do you want your viewer to experience? It’s one thing to express a personal need as an artist to truly create something but it’s another thing to create something that has an impact on a community or a viewer. Transgression, in a way, is designed to provoke and in a particular way to shock and take risks and it places unexpected artifacts into conventional environments. So ultimately moving away from transgression, what are you trying to communicate with all this communication?
PM: My work still has an element of transgression, it’s just not as aggressive as some artists currently making work. I’m trying to make projects in a nicer way to hopefully engage the viewer and allow them to feel comfortable while interacting with the piece. This can operate in two ways, first there needs to be an element to provoke curiosity that hopefully allows a person to come up to me during a performance and engage in some form of a social exchange. Or it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable in which they walk away, not thinking too much of the work.
JW: So anyway you look at it, it’s a provocation and in that sense your work is as much about creating a social exchange as it is about creating a particular artifact.
PM: Sure, that’s largely a part of the projects. As I make them I look forward to that social exchange, from its idea to its design, to the deployment, and the potential that the social exchange that could happen. Then, finally how to bring it back to an art audience, because I feel a lot of the social exchanges that occur are really magical moments that happen with the people I am working within the different communities. This is a way of translating a project so that it can have the same effect on a person in a gallery environment.
JW: So this suggests the idea of how things and places are more a catalyst for other things and less of an end in and of itself. So I see all of these maps in your studio and looking at these abstractions somehow lend themselves to the meaning of these places. It reminds me of the term, “psychogeography” and how you are emotionally moving about these places.
PM: I do have these emotional connections to the locations where I do my performances. I bought this t-shirt a while ago that said Lake Zurich (Illinois) and my girlfriend is from Zurich, Switzerland. I ended up wearing it for a few weeks and people kept asking me if that’s where I went to school . I then realized it was only 45 minutes north of Chicago. So then I started doing research and found out that this utopian thinker named Seth Paine founded Lake Zurich in 1836. Upon visiting the town, it turned out to be this rich suburb with BMW’s and huge Mc-mansions. I tried to think how the town was still connected to this utopian thinker. I later found out that the grade school was called the Seth Paine Elementary. I thought that it was very radical that they kept the name of the utopian founder. So I ended up doing this utopian workshop in one of the classes where I dressed up as Seth Paine, told the kids about his life story and had each kid draw their own utopia and explain the pictures. During the entire workshop, I was dressed as Seth Paine. In doing that project I was trying to bring the community closer to its location through teaching and enacting a part of their radical history.
JW: Your work has this wonderful stream of idealism running through it. You advocate a kind of utopian thinking on the part of everyone you engage with, from plugging into public utility outlets; the idea that we should all benefit from the fortunes around us. How is all that idealism working out for you? Do you have faith in your work to change the world or is it a comment on the lack of communication or the loss of idealism in the world?
PM: I think that art is a radical gesture, but small. I became interested in art because I like how certain projects can have an impact on myself and change me perspective for a moment time and maybe have an impact on a few other people. I’m not trying to be overly critical about things, but have an optimism about these alternate types of thinking.
JW: So now were do you go from here after graduate school? I’m sure Chicago played a certain roll in your life, but where do you go from here?
PM: My girlfriend lives I Zurich, Switzerland and I really don’t know if I’m going to stay in Chicago and keep working within this art community or move and continue my nomadic art practice in Europe. Did you know what you were going to do after grad school?
JW: No, I still don’t know what I’m going to do! When you leave school you lose that safety net, you may have to shout louder when you get out. Your work deals very much with risk and as your life becomes more risky, it will be interesting to see if you’re willing to incorporate as much risk in your art as in your life. I hope you will.