Rachel Debuque, Cacti Smash, Georgia Museum of Art
Mount Rainier, MD
Conversations taken from an interview on December 19, 2016.
Rachel and I met very briefly a few weeks ago at an event at Open Works in Baltimore, where we had a mutual friend. In our quick conversation we realized that the night before we had both been at the Transformer auction in Washington DC. When I went home that day I looked up her work out of curiosity, and was so excited with what I found. I was also surprised that our paths had never crossed before, as I now know, we have a lot in common. Rachel is an Assistant Professor at George Mason University and has been in the DC area for about two years with her husband and art partner Justin Plakas. Before Maryland they lived in Georgia and New Mexico. Together they are the art/design duo Plakookee and share a studio. Rachel and Justin chatted with me for almost three hours during our visit about family influence, artists that exist between DC and Baltimore, cults, and the nuances of teaching college students. We also managed to discuss the standard ten questions about their studio practices both alone and together.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. It’s in Bucks County and a suburb of Philadelphia. It’s a predominately white, working class area near Bethlehem and Allentown. I grew up living with my grandparents in the woods, which I think has been an important part of my development as an artist. My grandfather is a super eccentric human being and he built his entire house and was always making additions or tearing things down. My grandfather has an amazing quote about his stance on his own creativity when I told him that he was kind of an artist. He said he did some art in 3rd or 4th grade but some kids made fun of me so he stopped doing art but kept beating kids up. They still live in the same house. I’ve watched him tear things down and rebuild them and make a bunch of really strange decisions when it comes to their house.
What is the driving force behind your work?
The ambiguity of objects, the multi-existence of things. The idea that there were grey areas to everything was a revelation to me. I had been taught that things were black and white. Many people seem to latch on to the themes of gender in my work. The performers I use are often reflections of parts of myself and so far they have all been female. Objects are important and design strategies play a role in my work. I think my cultural mash up at home has really applied to my interests as an adult. My dad is Filapino and my mom is Czech but she grew up in Iran. Justin and I realized we are interested in a lot of the same things and working together just started to happen, without us officially deciding. At this time Justin arrived at the studio and joined us for the rest of the interview.
What is your biggest struggle in the studio?
Rachel: I have a real particular unsure spot that I reach with everything I make. I start questioning all the decisions I’m making. I wonder if I am just wasting my time. When Justin and I are working together it’s nice when our insecure moments don’t align, so one person can talk the other off the ledge. I think we both really care about what we are making but we want to leave room to experiment and fail. Justin and I have really different ways of working. I need a dedicated chunk of time where he can work for one or two hours at a time.
Justin: I really had to train myself to do that, that whole process can be exhausting. I think I learned that when I was finishing grad school, I was applying for jobs. I realized if I was doing 15 or 20 minute chunks of concentrated time I was actually making better work. I have really tried to set myself up to be able to work anywhere. Big breakthroughs often happen outside of the studio and then get synthesized later. I feel like thinking about Plakookee as a commercial entity has also helped me deal with work flow. I think of things as action items. So when I sit down on my free time, outside of the administrative tasks, I can really appreciate the time to work.
Rachel: A lot of the things we were taught in school don’t necessarily apply anymore, things are so rapidly changing. Now that we are working together, we really have to figure out the best way to use our time. It’s not easy to collaborate in life and in the studio. We never really planned on this happening. We are trying to tweak how to work best together.
Justin: We are probably better at dividing the workload in the studio than we are at home. Thinking about Plakokee as being more design driven has allowed me to wash away that remainder of my MFA and it’s freeing, I feel like I can make whatever I want outside of the fine art context. Through our collaboration I think we have both abandoned a certain amount of self-censoring. It’s hard to be a professor and not be so self-critical when we are constantly criticizing others as part of our job.
Rachel: There’s such interesting things that happen, he makes decisions that I would never make, which brings us to results we would never come to individually. Sometimes I ask him what he thinks of something and if I don’t get the answer I was looking for, it can really shake me. Justin is very verbal; he tells me everything he’s doing. I have an entire silent inner monologue, and I don’t know what I’ve said to him vs. what I have kept inside.
Put the following terms in order of importance to your studio practice: Form, Concept, Process
Rachel: I think it totally depends on what I’m making. Sometimes I am really engaged in the process and the concept comes later and sometimes I am really interested in the concept. I think this changes constantly for me, they are all in flux in what I am thinking about and what is important. Sometimes if I am too focused on the concept, it stifles me. Justin has called me out on that before, he helps me to enjoy the process of making art because I tend to get into that turmoil spot.
Justin: I don’t always put concept first. It’s taken until now to be honest about that because I think this view can be looked down upon. A certain type of free, instinctual experimentation is always how I get the best results. I just want to see what happens when I make certain decisions. Sometimes that really blows up on me but I feel like it’s how I learn and what drives me to keep making work.
Was there ever a time when you felt like you couldn’t keep making work? If so, what helped you to keep going?
Rachel: There have been times when I have felt blocked. I think artists are prone to depression and sometimes I just wonder what’s the point of all this. But when I feel good and healthy, I realize it’s all I want to do. That became clear after undergraduate school. I moved to Taiwan and I was teaching English. I was making art but I was really limited, I didn’t have a community and didn’t speak the language. My energy was drained and I realized I wanted to teach what I love. It solidified that for me. I came back and I built a mock gallery space in my basement in Pittsburgh and took photos of my work and that’s how I got into graduate school. I was so serious about it; I think being divorced from making work really propelled me forward.
Justin: I go through phases where I feel like I am not very productive but then Rachel reminds me that I am always making things- whether that is with my phone or drawing or whatever. The small things that I keep to myself are just as important as the stuff I show in public. That has helped me feel consistently productive.
Do you have any routines, rituals, or coping mechanisms that you use regularly in your studio practice?
Justin: The main thing I do to keep my creativity going is to allow myself to jump off into different directions. I don’t feel bound to materials, concept, etc. Having an art making tool in my pocket (iPhone) has been a big deal. Another artist said to me once – this art life is a marathon not a sprint. I think about that a lot – it helps me stay grounded.
Rachel: I do Yoga. I watch tv at certain parts in my process. I look forward to some of the mindless work because I have it on in the background. The stupider the better, I can’t actually have on anything engaging because I can’t actually pay attention to it while I am working. Greys Anatomy, Awkward, Teen shows are great for this, Mindy Project, Fresh off the Boat. When, I was working on the show Glisten, http://racheldebuque.com/glisten I watched Transparent and One Mississippi. The shows completely related to the concepts of femininity, sexuality gender fluidity in my work.
Below Rachel’s piece Glisten: Performance and installation at the Cue Art Foundation in NYC. Performance features a muscular, female athlete in an “exercise room,” who is performing a workout regime.
Do you have any hobbies or interest outside of your studio practice that help keep you sane?
Rachel: Yoga, I’m a yoga studio assistant. I run a lot, I like to do races sometimes. Movies, cooking. I feel like it’s all the same though, it’s all a continued part of my practice.
Justin: I watch sports and I read. My practice can be reading a book. If you can’t get shit done in the studio and you are just pushing paint around it doesn’t do any good, so if I am pumped on something, I should just do it to help my overall practice. This year I read a lot of religious books, Scientology, Mormons, Cults. I am interested in how religious movements evolve. I am always looking at Design books too.
If you had to describe your life to someone out of the Arts, how would you do that?
Justin: I feel like artists are always doing that, like with our own families. Some of my family came to an open studio we had last week and I think they were finally able to make sense of what we do. I think one of the most important things to do as an artist is to surround yourself with people who are not artists.
Rachel: yes, and I think gauging the reactions of people who are not artists on your own work is important. To make art just for other artists is boring. I also really pay attention to what children do with my work. If they are engaged, then an adult can engage as well. I tell people I design spaces and make movies. Usually when I say “installation” people ask what that is. I say that It’s like interior design with no rules. My mom came to my graduate school thesis show and she told everyone that I won the thesis show. She thought I was the winner of the show, that it was something you could win. I think people have trouble embracing that they are creative. Christmas time and decorating always makes me think about that, the decisions people make visually are so interesting. It’s this time when creativity is allowed. When I was a kid and my family moved into a new home, no one made any design or decoration decisions and I would go out to yard sales and get decorations. They were what I thought decorations for a house should be. I remember I got this little house with a bunny on it and it said “Beware of Dust Bunnies” and I remember thinking, this is what should go in a home. I nailed it really high up in the kitchen. My mom didn’t care; she was totally open to me decorating our house.
Do you think the internet is helping or hurting us as artists and people?
Justin: I wouldn’t have become and artist without the internet. I grew up in a blue collar family, neither of my parents went to college. I wasn’t connected to this world. Instagram is great but it is already becoming more like other social media. It is weird now when you see the internet manifestation of an event or a group of people gathered and then compare it the version you witnessed in person. There’s a façade of a certain type of social connection happening. I think it’s important to stay critical and consider what you are seeing.
Rachel: Certainly communication and connections are problematic because of the internet. It’s an experiment. We don’t really know what all of this will be like in 20 years.
Is there anything you would like to promote? Upcoming exhibitions, projects, passions?
Both: We are working on a book based on our Community Forklift project http://www.plakookee.com/forklift/ It is sort of a process book. I just got a Mathy junior faculty award (Rachel), it’s a sabbatical to work on a project. With the time during the sabbatical, we are making a short film; we are going to film a part of it in New Mexico. I am envisioning it as a series of environments. We have our idea board, David Lynch said if you have 70 index cards of scenes or ideas you have enough for a film. Justin has been doing a lot of 3D environments, photography and video. This is morphing into a new body of work and might be a part of the New Mexico project.
It’s exciting, we have plans but we are open to other things happening. I think a lot of projects will take use elsewhere, in places we don’t expect. We have been gravitating to things outside of the gallery. I feel like some of my personal work and performances have been more rooted in the traditional gallery route (Rachel) but I think that work that we do individually continues to inform Plakookee.
Interview between Rachel Debeque and Justin Plakas with Amy Boone-McCreesh