#40: Interview with Byproduct’s Sean Starowitz

DopeKC sat down with Sean Starowitz, who started the Byproduct programs at Walnut Place Laundromat. Byproduct Banner

What was Byproduct?

Byproduct was an open call for something that I was thinking about for awhile. Programming in public spaces has always been an interest in my work and there was an opportunity that the Rocket Grants put forth on challenging audience’s venues. At the time I was doing the project called the Speak Easy which was an illegal restaurant and bar in an exhibition space. I was also thinking about innovation and the arts. Because art never really belongs in a museum…that’s a 20th century idea. Art has existed in the streets, and among the people.

So to combat that, I was thinking about doing cultural programming based on the wash and dry cycles at the Laundromat. Later, I went for the grant and got it targeting the old Laundromat that I used to go to called the Walnut Place Laundromat. Walle [the owner] was always this inviting, wonderful host, so he just seemed like the perfect fit.

We started small and did basic things off of the wash and dry cycles. And a bunch of stuff unfolded from there; literally.  Christian Frock from Oakland came and did a project with Jose Faus called Token Conversations. Where in exchange for being part of the conversation, they actually paid for your laundry. From there it accumulated into a series of discussions over a three day period.

I then invited Eric Fleischauer from Chicago, a curator, editor, and video artist. I had this idea of someone curating the TV, this mundane object and programming that’s a usual part of laundromats, DMVs and other waiting areas. Eric picked a lot of video work from all over the US, and for an evening we turned it into an impromptu cinema house.

In addition, we had the Local Pig do a butchering demo, there were soap workshops, music performances and it sorta became another music venue which was interesting..The acoustics were great and the space was really dynamic in the sense that you had a 270 degree view as a performer and as an audience member.

In the end we had 20 events and around 1,300 people came. However, a percentage of that actually did their laundry and other people were just there.

That was the cool part because it was in such an unconventional spot, it sort of takes you by surprise when you see things going on with washing machines.

Yeah, I think for me art is a way to truly democratize us. I think that art doesn’t necessarily belong in “art spaces” but rather belongs with the people. It was more of interest to see what could be done and what could happen with basically ‘shoving’ culture down people’s throats.

Did you initially plan on just having the videos on the TV? 

No, the loose programming was projects based on how long it took you to do your laundry, roughly two hours. That was the constraint. Everything came from there. We would host a variety of symposiums and discussions with people from the UMKC Urban Planning department and an individual from City Hall. And we did one with the Johnson County Library and John Helling on experimental programing. John’s doing wonders at the library and programming and getting people to crack open a book.

It just kind of stemmed with ‘Oh we can do this. Or we could do this.”

It also became this pseudo African project with Walle and his family being from Nigeria, which ended up being a big inspiration for me. With the idea of music, culture, and liveliness.  His family invited me to his birthday party and presented me with a full dashiki outfit; custom made and hand dyed.

That relationship has been really profound and impactful. I learned a lot from Walle… about patience and engagement and….love. Love for things, culture, and ideas. I mean the guy’s such an open book.

Did you just approach him one day and said you wanted to do this project?

Yeah, I was working on the grant for a while and I briefly mentioned it to him and he was like “I love that.”

“It’s a two way street” is what he always said. There were certain things that happened and we had our hiccups. But at the same time he really understood that his venue is another public space and he really embraces and cherishes that. Which was really remarkable to see with a business owner. The business side of the project as far as making a profit was never a thing that was discussed. American is so roped into the cash based economy but we forget that the real economy is the non cash economy. And I think Walle totally understands that.

Is there other spaces that you’re looking at for doing public art?

Well kind of, I’m also working on a project called Lots of Love which is transforming abandoned lots into public spaces. I’m working with the Ivanhoe neighborhood on two lots. One’s a playground lot and the other one’s a meet and greet lot.

Is there a certain statement you’re trying to make or mostly keeping it open for interpretation?

In regards to the Laundromat?

In general, with any public art project. 

Well… in one sense art is a tool in which to get to life. Life is so much more important than art.

For me art opens up the possibilities and suddenly where people don’t have ‘credentials’, they now have credentials. The basic idea is possibilities and ultimately equality and the arts essentially does that. That’s what’s really powerful. It’s that space where if you approach something as an entrepreneur or business, people will automatically put up a guard but if you come as an artist, people want to be involved. They’re more willing to participate. And that’s where the arts lie; it opens up the space for possibility.

A lot of the projects I have done came from the viewpoint of ‘If I was anything BUT an artist.’ With the Fresh Bread stand, if I wasn’t an artist, the city wouldn’t have been so welcoming and willing to work with me. Councilwoman Circo’s office was super helpful in that whole process.

It seems Kansas City is going through a mini renaissance with the arts, how has it changed from before?

Yeah, I’ve been here six years and there’s been a lot of changes in that time frame. The Charlotte Street Foundation, is an amazing and supportive organization and they’ve done wonders here. There’s a potential here and that’s what’s really nice about Kansas City.

The major hubs like LA, Chicago, have become so expensive and inaccessible that the Post Industrial cities are going to bounce back. Buffalo, Cleveland, Louisville, here, and St. Louis to name some. Essentially, where it’s affordable to live and affordability allows for creativity.

There’s something really nice about people here, that as an artist you have to have a day job. In result, that widens the audience factor. Because that’s the one thing that I fear about the arts scene is that it’s the same people. The same people going to the same shows and it’s just the same social circle. But here, there’s really no art market so you have to have that day job. And that expands the art audience. I mean artists are such selfish people, they can’t help but talk about their work on their job… right?

But that is the real work that we do, that’s what we’re passionate about.

Also the myth of grad school has degraded in a sense, especially in my class. Here though, you can be 22 and run a gallery space.

Do you think that these public art spaces might eventually take away the significance of institutions?   

No, I think institutions will always be there. It’s important to have a symbiotic relationship between institutions and the alternative arts scenes. You need both. The most important thing of any ecosystem is biodiversity. You need the high end institutions, like the Nerman, Kemper, and the Nelson but you also need the subterranean galleries, Plug Projects, and all those other spaces to create a healthy ecosystem.

You need support, money, time, and space. And we have a lot of that. The money factor is getting a little easier but I think there’s a lot of transitioning between what crowdsourcing has done for the arts and what patronage and philanthropy is in the 21st century. That’s something that hasn’t really been explored yet.

 So besides patronage/allegiance, what other questions are you trying to explore?

Well, the socioeconomic and racial divide in this city is pretty hardcore. I’m from the South and this is the most racially segregated city I’ve ever lived in. And I grew up in Kentucky.

So that’s a major issue; talking about space, the city, urban planning and civic idea of arts is really important to me. Also the role that arts play in the civic life is key and I’m excited to see the city starting to understand that. We just need to keep pushing boundaries and pushing the limits.

It’s irrelevant to ask the question ‘Why is that art?’ It’s more important to ask ‘Why is it relevant?’ ‘ What are the moral/ethic reasons behind it?” Asking that instead of saying straightaway: ‘Oh, my five year old could do that.’

It’s constant problem seeking, not solving. Because we’re not going to always solve them but maybe we can start to have that conversation at least. And maybe have a direct action that affects this.

Also [want to address] the diversity of the arts scene. A lot of women don’t have art shows and that’s a problem. I think women, people of ethnically diverse backgrounds are horribly misrepresented here.  But that’s why I’m here too because there’s work to be done and that’s exciting.

Was there a certain partner that you’ve work with or group?

I’m constantly seeking out collaborations and don’t really do anything alone. So I’m always interested in seeing where connections can be made and relationships can be built. That rather than ‘I did this…I’m so awesome.’

Is there a certain art space that has inspired you?

The H&R Bloch space has brought in some amazing world by renowned artists and it’s kind of tucked away at 43rd and Main. And I think Plug Projects has done a really wonderful job in the few years, plus 1522 [St Louis]. The Dolphin recently switched hands so it’d be interesting to see what happens there. And there’s just a lot of little art galleries and front space that’s doing really amazing stuff.

 What’s the most challenging thing in doing all this?

It’s exhausting.

Financially it doesn’t pay off well but that’s not the reason why I do it.

I don’t get to go home and see my family as much as I should but that’s all part of being in your 20s.

Really, the challenging thing is that there’s never enough time to do all the things that you want to get done. But also always keeping your ear to the ground and challenging yourself to really learn.

Keep risk taking, keeping that moment, being in that place of uncertainty, and being uncomfortable. Because if you’re in that place a lot; you’re actually growing.

So I embrace challenge but also the idea of failure. With projects like Byproduct, that project failed on a lot of levels but it also succeeded on a whole other set that you couldn’t think or possibly plan for.

That’s the beauty of socially engaged art. You can make as many assumptions as you want, but when it comes to audience engagement, there’s no rules. It’s just history and things that you have to explore.

Okay, LAST question: As you’re becoming more and more involved in projects and they’re rippling out to get bigger and bigger, how do you juggle the things that you do yourself and what you have others do? How are you building a team?

Yeah, I always work with a team of people. In a sense of in one’s practice, it’s just that one person or is it a group of people, but for me it’s always been a group of people. And that’s why I do what I do.

I relate to theater a lot because it’s a giant collaboration. We need artists, set designers, light directors, all that stuff. So I kind of embody that on the arts side of things.

It’s about having a team and people that want to do that work. You elevate them to that position and you trust them and then you have a beautiful relationship working on something greater than yourself. Then it becomes more dynamic, more interesting, and hopefully a more time worthy project.

That instead of the one person saying ‘I did this.’

That’s one of the things that kind of flabbergasted me. That myth of the artist being the sole creator of something? There’s no way Michelangelo did the Pieta, along with other works in the same year. It’s physically impossible to carve that much marble in one year. So he had an army of interns. I don’t understand why we have this myth that the artist has to do everything.

Yeah, I see musicians and they collaborate so much. You don’t see that with the arts so much for some reason.             

That’s the beauty of music. And what separates some bands from others, are the ones that have been playing together for a really long time. They understand each other and really have a relationship, not just a working relationship. That’s what important in the arts community; building the relationships that last a lifetime. And many lifetimes over.

Interview by Roam Oliver on 12/28/13

To explore an archived collection of the Byproduct programs, visit the Rocket Grant site here.

And don’t forget to drop by Sean’s site to see other projects in and outside KC.



One thought on “#40: Interview with Byproduct’s Sean Starowitz

  1. Pingback: The Self-Fulfillment of Socially Engaged Art - Buzzweep

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