Ask artist A.L. Steiner about her work, and you’re likely to leave with more questions than answers.
The USC Roski professor and MFA program director, whose work is currently on view at the Whitney Biennial, speaks about her practice in ever-evolving terms, treating questions inherently posed by her works as unfolding explorations. One definitive morsel she will grant, however, is that her work requires collaboration.
“I don’t work in any other way other than collaboratively,” she said. “Sometimes I’m comfortable, sometimes I’m not with the demands of institutional work and identities attached to those presentations — the hyper-capitalist structures of branding or identity.”
At the Whitney, Steiner stayed true to form. She worked with collaborators — Rita “Bo” Brown, Carla Cloer, Ericka Huggins, Miya Masaoka, Laurie Weeks and others — to explore various notions of sexuality, biography, agency and radicalism through “More Real Than Reality Itself,” a multichannel video installation that features both formal and expressionistic interviews conducted by Steiner with a mix of music, performance and animation. Steiner presented the video in dialogue with “Cost-benefit analysis,” an archival photographic collage.
“I’ve done video and installation work, but this was a fusion in a new way,” Steiner said. “This was more of an attempt to think about the integration and meaning of visual work, still work, living work and motion work. It all transforms itself in ways regarding information and sensibilities.”
An engaged practice
Steiner cited her involvement in various activist groups as an enduring influence. She has participated in Lesbian Avengers and Women’s Action Coalition, and is a member of Chicks on Speed, an arts and music group. Steiner also co-founded Working Artists and the Great Economy, a group that advocates for fair, sustainable pay for artists, and Ridykeulous, a curatorial initiative with artist Nicole Eisenman that explores the permutations of queer and feminist art. Still, she hesitates to call herself an activist-artist.
“That’s an ongoing question,” she said. “I’m definitely engaged and responding to the environments that I’m in, and the sort of blurring of lines between the intention and purpose of a fine arts practice. I’m caught in the midst of that emerging definition.”
Steiner’s position at USC also informs her practice. As the director of one of the nation’s most respected MFA programs, her role “exists in multiplicity” as she simultaneously guides and learns from the MFA candidates’ critiques and discussions. Though she harbors some criticisms of academic institutions, Steiner said the joy of teaching keeps her going.
“I really believe in this program,” Steiner said. “I wouldn’t be able to do it if there wasn’t that amazement, wonder, pleasure and curiosity in the space of academia.”
This summer, Steiner’s students will have an opportunity to see their professor’s work firsthand — as will the whole of Los Angeles.
Steiner is among the 35 artists selected for Made in L.A., the Hammer Museum’s 2014 Biennial. USC Roski Visiting Professor Connie Butler and former USC Roski staffer Michael Ned Holte are co-curating the exhibition. The roster of artists also includes MFA faculty member Tala Madani, Jibade-Khalil Huffman MFA ’13, Emily Mast MFA ’09 and Sara Rara MFA ’11.
Besides her excitement, Steiner did not give much away about the upcoming biennial, saying only that her work is a new installation-based piece that is “TBD.”
Until the exhibition opens on June 25, Angelenos will simply to have to wait to have their questions answered — or not.
Steiner’s work is on view at the Whitney until May 25.
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