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Matt Olson with Alexandra Cunningham Cameron

Alexandra Cunningham Cameron

Installation view: There’s No Separation, Aspen Art Museum, February 6, 2016. A 9-x-14-foot textile piece with an image of the Aspen sky printed on it covers sculptural works by Ryan Gander and a “wearable” is worn by a participant

Matt Olson makes work—and life—that is actively undefinable, malleable, trusting, and open. He is inspired and inspiring. Formerly of the Minneapolis-based design, art, and landscape collective RO/LU, Matt has recently begun the Office of Int.\ Est.\ Ext. (OOIEE), a practice founded with the mission of intensive open collaboration across disciplines. Alexandra Cunningham Cameron spoke with Olson, and tried to get to the bottom of how this works, if you work it.


ALEXANDRA CUNNINGHAM CAMERON (Miami Rail): Matt, I’ve been wanting to speak with you since Patrick Parrish told me that you were initiating a new practice. Aren’t these transitional moments the perfect time to discuss manifestos and practice and politics and everything that’s driving us?

MATT OLSON: It’s funny because I was just talking about you at a studio visit last week. I was mentioning my affinity for saying “I will never be the same” without even a hint of hyperbole. In fact, it could be a good mantra for me. I remembered the Rauschenberg Residency piece I did for the Design Miami/ website, because it was around that time I really started embracing the concept. When I turned it in, you said you got a little teary after reading it, but also said you were pregnant—which I took to mean that you thought maybe it was hormonal—but I decided to trust your reaction anyway.

RAIL: I like to think that hormone surges reveal the feelings and intuitions that we’ve lost touch with as we overdevelop self-awareness. So I always trust the hormones. “I will never be the same” means so much to me. Because we are never the same. From one second to the next. It’s beautiful to recognize, without any irony, those moments that make us realize that we’ve grown. Right?

OLSON: They bring out the best in us! I love the concept of “bringing out the best” in someone. There’s something there that has a great poetic depth to it, but I hadn’t quite noticed it in that phrase before. I love it when that happens . . . when something you think you understand suddenly has a deep end available. And yes! I trust the hormones, too! I try to trust everything. Even the bad. Didn’t the buddha say “enlightenment is when you love even the bad”? It seems like time has a way of sorting things out. Maybe, ultimately, I trust time.

RAIL: Today I came across the New York Times “By the Book” piece with Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. His outlook reminded me of yours. So open. So generous. Within his inspiring list of literary recommendations, he weaves these beautiful little comments about empathy. Years ago, I read an interview with you that made an impression. At some point deep in, the journalist stated, “Matt loves people,” or at least that’s how I remember it.

OLSON: Openness, generosity, humility, love, honesty, empathy, vulnerability . . .
these are the real goals. That’s the real work. I’m not very good at any of it, but just the effort seems to provide some form of contentment. I’ve always tried to develop a habit of paying attention to these things. A daily practice.

And I do love people! There’s a moment in the recent HBO documentary about Susan Sontag where she is saying, deeply—emphatically—how much she loves being alive, with such a serious earnestness and genuine depth. Like it’s the most important thing she’ll ever say. That’s where I try to get. Ultimately, a large part of it is a choice. It’s available.

RAIL: And I love being alive, like Susan. Should we discuss your relationship status? Your recent shift from band member to solo artist? I’m curious to know why you made the change to your new practice, OOIEE?

OLSON: I totally understand the “band”/
“going solo” metaphor, but that’s not what I’m doing at all. I don’t think there’s any such thing as “solo,” either. In my mind, that’s a trick we play on ourselves with the thoughts we’ve learned or have memorized. To me, it seems like the notion of individual authorship comes to life in the realm of either ego or capitalism. In the same way that words are made from other words, I believe we are made of each other. OOIEE is pronounced “we” (and “oui”), as a spiritually lighthearted attempt to point toward this attitude. Creatively, the studio is an extension of what I began with RO/LU, but the possibilities around materials—and thus, approaches—are much expanded because fabrication is open now, and that is super exciting! So, if anything, I’m expanding the amount of people I’m working with, not lessening.

The end of RO/LU was sort of like the experience I have with the work I’ve been involved with, in the deepest sense, it just emerged or unfolded. It was organic and intuitive and only partly a decision. It was time. The whole thing was such a great experience and I am so grateful to have had a journey that allowed me to work with and encounter so many amazing people—from the first hire to the last client and all the people in between—truly, it was great.

RAIL: I’m wondering if this evolution is somehow representative of a larger movement in design practices?

OLSON: It’s probably worth mentioning that I don’t really think of myself as a designer—I don’t mean that in a silly/difficult way, it’s more of a practical thing. I always say I like to work on projects related to contemporary art and design. I want to be involved with work that is smarter than me, bigger than me, and if I use words that create a more fixed sense of identity to attempt to describe what I do, I worry that I’ll get in my own way. I think the stories we tell—both to ourselves and to each other—are very important.

RAIL: Well, disciplines seem dramatically blurred at the moment. Group practices like Assemble, Collective, or Design Displacement Group, which have large and diverse collective structures—artists, engineers, designers, writers—are being idealized for equitable collaboration on mostly self-initiated, clientless experiments.

OLSON: It seems like there’s something in the air, for sure. Like things are opening up. I love that more studios and young people in general are interested in expansiveness and fewer boundaries. I’ve always aspired to what I call an “open practice.” For the last couple of years, I’ve been teaching a class I created called Towards a Cross-Disciplinary and Open Practice at the University of Minnesota in the School of Architecture. It’s been really interesting to encounter a vast system that inherently subscribes to the notion of an actual answer, when that’s really contrary to what my experience has been. The questions I’m interested in don’t really have answers, they open up to spaces that are meant to be lived.

And I’ve pondered the difference between self-initiated projects and client projects a fair amount. I want to resist the temptation to assign a hierarchy. Like, there’s a better or worse to it? I’d rather just see them as different. Ultimately, whether there is a client or not, I believe the work is living a life of its own, becoming and growing into itself as time passes. And the object or project or design collaborates with all of us and builds over and beyond itself, becoming what it wants to become, more than what we want it to be. When working with a client, honesty and courage can be very important as sometimes capitalism has a way of editing situations based on momentary fears about money and expectations.

RAIL: It’s intriguing that your response isn’t about the physical, but about works continuing to participate in the world far beyond the expectations of the maker. From a design perspective, the significance of provenance stories and Proust’s idea of involuntary memory—the understanding that objects carry stories and trigger experiences throughout their existence—is something that has always fascinated me. When you’re making furniture or objects, are you thinking of their lifespan and the intimate roles they will play in people’s lives?

OOIEE, Sitting As Seeing and Being In Two Places at Once, 2016. Aluminum angle iron, glass, and mirrored and color acrylic. Prototypes photographed in the OOIEE studio

OLSON: Absolutely! The least important part of the situation is what I want in the moment. It’s always more interesting to see what happens. And that’s very related to what I understand of Proust’s involuntary memory. And the objects speak to us through other people, as well. I just had a complete revision of the understanding of a piece because of what someone else shared about their experience with it.
And I think that’s why I’m so interested in photography as a part of the exploration. After finding my way through the various stages of ideation, and then there’s a physical object present, the photography is often the first place where I feel like I start to get to know the object in a deeper way and start to see what it is. Exhibitions can be like this, too. When work is installed, it feels like you’re meeting it again for the first time.

RAIL: Do you differentiate between physical versus non-physical creation? Thing-making versus idea-making?

OLSON: For me, over time, there’s really no separation. Projects live both as ideas and as things. You might be able to make distinctions in the moment, but it’s never been very productive for me to do that. I’m interested in the way we think about experiences being either interior and exterior . . . but I think that’s actually an illusion over time, too, as consciousness isn’t something we do, it’s literally what we are. I’m not sure how that happens in a logical or language-based sense structurally, but I’ve definitely lived it. It might be productive to think about a musical performer and a score or an athlete and a play . . . they bring each other to life.
Language is much more involved in the ideation process. Maybe like language as seeing or something. And then presentation as performance. Then making as thinking. Finally, it will become a living space. The work is still going to be mysterious in its essence, but there is a necessity to allow it to live in a way that can feel more tangible to a group. At least for a while, until it’s built. I like the notion of performing a design. Standing in for the living idea and acting it out as a group.

Installation view: There’s No Separation, Aspen Art Museum, February 6, 2016. A 9-x-14-foot textile piece with an image of the Aspen sky printed on it covers sculptural work by Roelof Louw and a “wearable” is worn by a participant

RAIL: Tell me more about the teaching and speaking you’ve been doing. Has this part of your work increased since you established OOIEE?

OLSON: My course at the university is an attempt to share some of the Black Mountain College energy I picked up while doing the Rauschenberg Residency in 2013. I’d always known of it and its legendary history, but knowing that Bob had, in part, set up the residency as an homage to the experience he had there allowed me to understand it differently.

I’ve also been doing more visiting artist/scholar stints lately at schools and that’s been awesome. I never saw it coming as something I’d do and love. I did a workshop and Knoll Public Lecture at Cranbrook as my first OOIEE action, which seemed fitting. I was on a panel at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago last spring, listening to architecture thesis presentations, and that was a super interesting experience. Very difficult in some ways, and yet very productive for me. It’s good to be in situations where I don’t really have a concrete idea about my identity. Where I’m not sure how I’m supposed to be. It all feels very alive.

I also use it as an opportunity to introduce the students to the notion of love in work. That love is the momentary collapse of the edges of self and that when we allow it to become what we are, something wonderful can emerge. It feels like most of the students haven’t been exposed to this at all. To the notion that a way of being is more important than a style of working. I think it’s the Internet that’s helping us along with this new openness. I read an essay recently that was organized around two terms I really like: “slow criticism” and “post-judgment.” I encounter terms like these and they just open a world up. I can usually identify it when it’s about to happen. I can feel it. It happens with many things . . .

nature, music, and so on. I can sense the vastness of something that is pulling me forward into a new place.

RAIL: It makes me happy that you’re spending time working through ideas with students. What you’re saying about Black Mountain, your own process, and the “open practice” class reminds me of what Li Edelkoort is doing at Parsons with her hybrid design program—hoping to break down the walls between disciplines and more honestly and effectively create pathways of exchange for students. Responding to the way people communicate and create in the twenty-first century, rather than prescribing it. Personally, I’m not quite sure why all universities aren’t terrified of becoming irrelevant in the next twenty years. Or perhaps they are?

OLSON: We definitely need to change. But humans sure seem bad at change. We tend to exist in the arc of the addict and only a seismic event seems to collectively wake us up. The academy is probably similar to everything that seems to be dying right now. It has to do with capitalism, ego, and fear, for sure. But to zoom out a bit, I think it’s also in the stories we’ve all told ourselves about our values…it will be very interesting to see how things unfold in the next decades. It seems like we’re definitely moving toward some sort of a standoff between who we actually are and who we collectively pretend we are.

RAIL: You are not pretending. You have a deep awareness of the significance of an openhearted exploration of people and experiences. Your shift to OOIEE feels ethical. Since you are a recognized figure in the art and design world, it’s difficult not to consider your way of working as a value proposition.

OLSON: Even if I was pretending, it would still be happening, I think. Pretending can be good! There’s a quote I like, “the apparent is the bridge to the real.” I attempt to stay fluid in the hopes I won’t suffer from the illusion of an “arrival” that makes me think I have a “right answer,” so I want to be really careful responding here.

There’s a part of my mind—probably ego—that is really attracted to a romanticized view of intellectual certainty, clarity, and rigor. It’s sort of macho and silly. Somewhere, somehow it got written into my mind that that’s what design and architecture and art are supposed to be like. But in my heart, I’m much more interested in not deciding things, staying in the not-knowing. In a messy way—I don’t mean sloppy, more like a messy sky. Uncertainty and the acceptance of constant change as a goal.

RAIL: You’re speaking to a student of French post-structural theory. I can’t help but find the idea of certainty or legitimacy to be deeply troublesome. But preaching and practicing are two very different things. Does OOIEE invite people to reconsider how they are living?

OLSON: If it could have that effect, I’d be really happy about it, but it seems like a stretch. That said, I would personally like to invite all people to reconsider how they are living! [Laughs.] Every single day. There’s a book I’m trying to absorb called You Must Change Your Life by Peter Sloterdijk. It has come to mind a few times during our conversation. It’s about a practice-based life.

And on the subject of French post-structural theory, I’ve read the first few pages of Barthes’ Camera Lucida, but always get so excited about how weird his experience is with the photo of Napoleon’s brother that I can’t go on. I just stop reading. I have a bunch of books like that…The Book of Tea is that way, too. I can’t finish them. I hope I never do. It’s much more exciting this way.

RAIL: You make not separating life and work look really good. Do you think it’s something that’s achievable for everyone?

OLSON: I feel so grateful to live the life I live. I truly can’t believe it sometimes. And as much as I believe the way we perceive our life is a choice, I’m not sure what’s achievable or right for anyone else. I didn’t really choose my life. In the same way that I don’t really choose my thoughts, they just appear. Maybe you can make a choice about how you perceive your life and what you decide to make of your days, but, ultimately, it seems like without something of a surrender or giving in, things are sort of limited. A few heroes—Brian Eno and Ken Kellogg talking about Robert Rauschenberg—have talked about the surfer this way. That the surfer can choose the board, the wetsuit, the beach, and the day, but, ultimately, they have to surrender to the wave to actually surf. I like that.

RAIL: Your open invitation for collaboration might be submission to the wave. Who has responded? Has it already changed the way you’re approached to do work and the diversity of your projects?

OLSON: I feel like everything is totally collaborative at its essence. OOIEE did a project with the Aspen Art Museum recently called There’s No Separation. Nine-by-fourteen-foot textile pieces with a photo of the Aspen sky printed on them were used to cover or merge with works by Ryan Gander, Robert Breer, Diana Thater, and Anna Sew Hoy. A textile was used in a performance by Flora Wiegmann and Anna Sew Hoy and museum visitors were invited to wear the fabric both in and outside the museum. It was an attempt to place something uncertain in between as many things as possible. It wasn’t part of an exhibition, so to speak, it was among or in the midst of an exhibition. It’s crazy when I think of all the different levels that I consider collaborative…the staff at the museum, the artists whose works were involved, the people who participated with the wearables, Print All Over Me, who helped to make the giant textile prints. And those are just the things I know of. What about all the things that went into the work that I didn’t recognize, or that I’ve forgotten? What about all the things that happened to people who left the museum wearing a piece? The book for this exhibition is coming out in June and the image of the Aspen sky that became There’s No Separation will be on the cover, so it will continue to travel and become. And all the projects are like this. When I really think about it, it makes me question the whole concept of attribution.

I’ve almost always signed off e-mails with people I like saying “we should work on something sometime.” I’ve always been more interested in what might happen than what I want to happen.

RAIL: Matt! You’ve woven into this conversation the words and works of so many inspiring people. It’s become a jumping-off point for some profound lines of inquiry. You are the master collaborator.

OLSON: That’s very nice of you to say. It will all just change over time.

Alexandra Cunningham Cameron
is a curator and consultant specializing in twentieth-century and contemporary design. She lives in New York with her boys.