I’ve recently been introduced to the term prairie madness. It’s fictional—not founded in medicine—but it captured my imagination all the same. Artist Josh Short laughed as he explained it to me: The gist is that one can be driven to psychosis by the far-flung expansiveness of the Midwest. Characters in novels have been driven to tears by the isolation, the seemingly never-ending wind, and their homesickness for the coasts. Currently the Artist in Residence at the Salina Art Center in Salina, Kansas—one in a long string of residencies—Short has adopted the phrase as a new favorite joke, but in reality Salina has been a welcome oasis for discovering next steps in his practice. On April 16, 2014, we talked it over in his studio.
Ashley Stull: What’s the impulse to continuously be in residency?
Josh Short: I decided to do the residencies because I felt my production was getting stale. I needed to reclaim what my work was supposed to be about. I was having a lot of shows, which was cool, until I started only making work for shows. I was relying a lot on things that were familiar, and after a while I started to feel disconnected. I was working a lot with the Cardboard Institute, a collective started by Scott Falkowski and I. But it got to a place where we were getting super-specific requests about what to make, and I started to feel like I needed to put up some boundaries there. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t sure the work was still good.
AS: You felt like you were running a factory?
JS: Exactly. I wasn’t prepared to make it a business in that way. The residencies have definitely been a vehicle for reconnecting with the things I like to make, and it’s been fruitful. There’s no pressure, no anxiety.
AS: How many residencies do you think you’ve done in the past year?
JS: Six; I’ve been to Kansas, Vermont, Virginia, Italy, Joshua Tree, and Ojai, and every one of them was such a different experience. It’s impacted me in cool ways. I never know what’s going to come out of it, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the results.
AS: Have any of the places you’ve been living changed your work, or opened your eyes to processes you’ve neglected?
JS: I’ve always loved making my work situational. When I was in grad school [at UC Davis], the things I made were super reactionary. I was making work about my neighborhood and the social dynamics in the Mission district. But when I think about that work now, my whole world seemed to be a radius of three or four blocks—and that’s a pretty small world. I really felt after a while that I needed to change that, to liberate myself.
AS: So let’s talk about the work you’re making here in Salina. I’m pretty eager to hear about Going to Church.
JS: [Laughing] I have a feeling I’m going to get a response to that title. It’s mildly controversial. The work is based heavily on sound this time. I’ve been trying to connect it to the broader framework of “American mythology” that I’ve always worked around. I keep going back to the sounds that permeate our surroundings that we barely notice. We’re inundated with sounds of industry, the mechanical sounds of production, automobiles on highways; wheels turning and motors humming are all hugely inspiring. I think about the rise and fall of a place like Detroit, which has become this “Great American Ruin.” I’ve also been thinking a lot about church sounds, which resonate as another part of American mythology—especially here. My grandmother used to have a Wurlitzer [electric piano] when I was a kid. I played with it all the time. Now I go to thrift stores here in Kansas and I can find them for $50. Again, it’s this dying sentiment. We’ve traded in our Wurlitzers for MP3 players, and that just makes those sounds even more special.
AS: I’m also hearing elements of the work influenced by classical music and heavy metal. What are your hopes for the way those will be in conversation? How do they relate to the grander ethos of the mythology we’re discussing?
JS: That’s hard to explain in a comprehensive way. I have a love of vibrational forces, and the great thing about metal is that it really embraces that. There’s escapism involved in listening to metal for me—and American culture is big on escapism. It’s big on fantasy. The church and those rituals accomplish that for some people. Metal has been my personal way of making sense of some of that. I’m not into “hair metal” or “speed metal,” but sludge metal and drone metal are really cool, bodily experiences. It’s so nuanced that I think it makes for good art conversation. And if you listen, it actually has a lot in common with classical music when you get down to composition. There are melodies and arcs that are going somewhere. I went to a Sunn O))) show and it was the loudest thing I’d ever heard. It didn’t hurt your ears because it was a very low sound—you just bathed in this vibrational field the sound was producing. The sound goes through you and it’s a pretty spiritual experience. You feel it. I want to make people feel something in relation to the sounds I use in the show. I want them not to have a word for it.
AS: Do you worry about the way that allusions to “church” will be received in a conservative context?
JS: Nah, people will take from it what they will. The Salina Art Center wants to push what Salina can be, which is rad. They support the arts in a big way, even when it comes to artists like me who are different or a little bit charged. I do hope that people will have an assortment of responses. I want them to make their own narratives. I want there to be some subtle things in there that you aren’t intellectualizing in the moment. I want your subconscious to handle it, and I want it to stick with you in a different way. That’s part of my love of ephemera and making environments.
AS: I also notice you’re starting to do a lot more drawing. Is that something that came out of your time in Virginia?
JS: Yeah! I was just working with things I found there. They had this junky closet where people would just leave stuff they didn’t want to take. I found all this charcoal. It’s been a fun challenge for me. How can I use what’s available? It’s had a big impact on the way I work. String and paper and old stereo equipment are all things you can find anywhere, or that you can get for free or cheap. They’re disposable, which for my process is cool. It helps me think outside the materiality of the thing.
Josh Short’s work will be on view at the Salina Art Center in June 2014.