Odd Jobs

Odd Jobs: Neha Choksi

Welcome back to Odd Jobs, an exploration of artists’ varied and untraditional career arcs. For this edition, I spoke with Neha Choksi in the Otis College of Art and Design cafeteria. Choksi was born in 1973 in Belleville, New Jersey, raised in Bombay, and currently lives and works in Los Angeles and Bombay. She employs sculpture, video, photography, sound, painting, and performance in her work, which was recently exhibited at Hayward Gallery Project Space in London. Her work has also been shown at the Office of Contemporary Art Norway, the Spencer Museum, Whitechapel Gallery, and the Shanghai Biennale. She is on the editorial board of X-TRA, a quarterly art journal. This coming year she will serve as the Regional Representative for the Annual CAA Conference Committee. Her work is represented by Project 88.

Neha Choksi. The Sun’s Rehearsal, 2016; performance still and installation view (2016) at Carriageworks for the 20th Biennale of Sydney. Courtesy of the artist and Project 88, Mumbai. Photo: Neha Choksi.

Neha Choksi. The Sun’s Rehearsal, 2016; performance still and installation view at Carriageworks for the 20th Biennale of Sydney, 2016. Courtesy of the Artist and Project 88, Mumbai. Photo: Neha Choksi.

Neha Choksi: I guess this is an odd job right now: Otis [Otis College of Art and Design]. I’m an adjunct.

Calder Yates: What do you teach here?

NC: I teach video and I do senior studios. So, odd jobs. After I graduated from undergrad, I had a job at an accounting firm, filing and answering the phones. But I didn’t last very long. I left to go to India for a year. I was wandering with mendicant nuns and staying with my parents.

CY: Mendicant nuns?

NH: People who beg for their food. Within my family’s religion, which is Jainism, mendicant nuns are an order of female ascetics. Also I was DJing and hanging out with a lot of music people.

Neha Choksi. Dust to Mountain, 2016; HD video still, 2 min 50 sec loop. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth & Council.

Neha Choksi. Dust to Mountain, 2016; HD video still, 2 min 50 sec loop. Courtesy of the Artist and Commonwealth & Council.

CY: Where was this?

NC: Bombay. That was for one year. And then I came back to New York to go to grad school. I studied art as an undergrad, and I studied Classics as a graduate student [at Columbia University]. It was funded, so I never went into debt. I quit the program because I was making art at the same time and it was schizophrenic. So I quit the doctoral program to go to India to work with an architect. He’s an old friend of mine. So I’m like, “I’m quitting to school, and I can come back and work with you. Is that cool?” So I did that and I built a few things with him.

CY: How long were you in India, collaborating with the architect?

NC: A year and a half. And then I moved back to New York City for two more years, partly for personal reasons, partly because I just wanted to be back. I obviously had to make a living, so I found a job teaching Latin at an elementary school in the Village.

CY: How’d you like it?

NC: I loved it. They were sixth graders, so sweet. I had taken education-related classes and taught at Columbia as a teaching assistant, so I was already invested in teaching. At the Lab School, I taught second and third graders.

Then I came to LA and I got a full-time job at New Roads High School in Santa Monica, teaching English, history, and art. A wide range. And then at some point I taught at Cal State LA [California State University, Los Angeles] as an adjunct. I was invited back during that summer, but I went to India to collaborate with my friend who was doing India’s first entry to the Venice Architectural Biennale. I stayed in India until I came back here [Los Angeles] to teach at Cal Arts.

Right now is probably the most tenuous moment of my life. I’m adjunct, and I have a lot of projects, and they’re bigger projects because I’m farther along in my career. And I don’t have the resources to make them happen.

Neha Choksi. Liberty Matter, 2017; installation view. Courtesy the artist and Commonwealth and Council. Photo: Ruben Diaz.

Neha Choksi. Liberty Matter, 2017; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Commonwealth and Council. Photo: Ruben Diaz.

CY: So you’re just applying to grants all over the place?

NC: I’m not, yet. I probably will. I don’t know how to do all that. In India, while I lived there, I had decent sales so I was able to live. But the cost of living there is considerably different. I’m battling that, figuring out how to avoid getting into debt. Credit-card bills unpaid is one thing, which is the first time in my life I’ve experienced that. But I really don’t want to go down that road. So I guess it’s a reverse trajectory in terms of my being the least equipped to deal with the world, but further along in my career.

CY: Unless you’re making things that the art market is just eating up, it seems like that precariousness is constant.

NC: And even when you’re commissioned… I mean, I did something for the Hayward, I’m doing a commission for the Sydney Biennale, and I’m doing a commission right now for the Manchester Art Gallery. Ultimately you end up putting in more than what the budget allows, because you’re just putting your heart and soul into the work.

I love teaching, but, you know, I wish adjuncting paid properly. Apparently, as a friend told me, you need to leave LA—or be willing to leave LA—to teach elsewhere to get the experience to then come back to LA, and then they [colleges and universities] will hire you. I just can’t do that. I’m not going to do that. I already have two homes, I don’t want to add a third.

CY: Your friend’s suggestion was to teach at a small school in the middle of nowhere?

NC: It could be a big school. Just not here. Somewhere else. And I’m seeing that pattern when I’m looking at people’s CVs. A lot of people have taught elsewhere before they got a full-time, tenure-track job here.

Neha Choksi. Liberty Matter, 2017; installation view. Courtesy the artist and Commonwealth and Council. Photo: Ruben Diaz.

Neha Choksi. Liberty Matter, 2017; installation view. Courtesy of the Artist and Commonwealth and Council. Photo: Ruben Diaz.

CY: Is your family involved in the arts?

NC: I’m the only artist. People have danced professionally in my family. One [cousin] is a doctor who is also a theater person and a musician. A friend is a doctor as well as a classical pianist. I got a grant to work with an astrophysicist in India, and he was hugely involved in Bengali Theater. They all have dual careers. I think it’s pretty common. It’s what Wallace Stephens and T.S. Elliot and Carl Sandburg have done. Tons of people have done that. You just gotta have the heart for it.

CY: Are you so in the thick of it right now that you’re not looking five, ten years down the road? Or do you see an arc to your career and the odd jobs you’ve taken?

NC: I am in the thick of it. It’s hard to predict. I keep going back and forth between here and India. But I want be here [in Los Angeles]. I’m trying to figure out a long-term plan. But I don’t have one. Teaching is the only thing I really know how to do. I haven’t done anything else.

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