An Interview with Gretchen Andrew
"My fantasies are not fake, I prefer to think of them as plans"
Portrait of Gretchen Andrew. Courtesy of the artist. / Photo: Nick Berardi.
Gretchen Andrew, born in Los Angeles, California, in 1988, is a Search Engine Artist and self-proclaimed Internet Imperialist. She is known for her playful hacks on major art institutions such as, The Whitney Biennial, Frieze Los Angeles, Artforum and The Turner Prize. Her artistic practice involves actively reprogramming artificial intelligence underlying the global internet. As a result, her mixed media vision boards become top search results online. You can verify this by searching “Best MFA” or “Cover of Artforum”. Gretchen has two upcoming solo shows in Europe, the exhibition Other Forms of Travel will run at Annka Kultys Gallery in London and Trust Boundary at Francisco Carolinum in Linz, Austria.
S.n.: Feel free to have a look at our Artist Spotlight on Gretchen Andrew.
This has been a year of reckoning. In many ways, your work also reckoned with fundamental issues from the art world’s value system to the recent 2020 presidential election. This year you started working with two new galleries, you've had your first museum exhibition at Monterey Museum of Art and shortly after you were asked to do your second at Francisco Carolinum. Further, you were featured in over two dozen press articles, including the front page of CNN on the day of the US presidential election. What made 2020 such a successful year for you?
Gretchen Andrew (GA): As you see in my work, I am not the person to let current conditions dictate my desires and expectations. As I see many people my age whittling down their concept of what is personally, professionally, politically, and artistically possible, I’ve reacted in the opposite way and have made a sort of reclaimed childhood in my materials, my use of the Princess theme for example.
I grew up with just enough feminist awarness to know it was no longer OK to want to be a Disney princess but without vividly imagined alternatives. I don’t know, whatever, I sort of want to be a princess. I want to be surrounded by beautiful things and wear elegant dresses and have a tiger for a best friend. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be taken seriously. I don’t really think of my work in terms of childhood but I do think of it in terms of play, of the sort of very serious play children are capable of.
Gretchen Andrew, Best MFA, 2020. Princess shower curtain and charcoal on canvas – 48 x 36 in. Courtesy the artist and Annka Kultys Gallery.
You have spoken before on this concept of what is “serious” and will even use the hashtag #seriousartist. What do you consider as serious?
GA: I don’t know when serious came to mean buttoned-up and somber. Milan Kundera defines a serious novel as an exploration of human potential. In my work, I show how human desire is more powerful than the things we frequently give into: politics, technology, et cetera. In this way, my work is definitely an exploration of human potential, especially a contemporary one, looking at our assumed relationship to machines, the internet, capitalism, sexism, while literally writing a different future into artificial intelligence.
One of the most interesting notions your practice evokes is the idea of insisting that something is – or can be – true. Insisting that you are going to be on the cover of Artforum leads you to being on the cover of Arforum on the internet which ultimately might lead you to someday being on the cover of Artforum in real life. Do you think there’s a difference between insisting something is real versus it actually being real? And, does it matter?
GA: This is a very important distinction. I do not make fake news. I do not make work that confuses facts. I do not confuse people. When you see my vision boards as the top search results for “Best MFA” you do not actually think that doing acid in a park is an accredited MFA course. Then, when you dive into the website behind the images, it’s totally obvious that I am talking about what I want, not what has historically happened. For instance: “I want to manifest my life experience as the best MFA. I want two years of time spent in work and life to be accredited and seen by the art world as the best MFA I could have received.”
From a natural language processing perspective, we see how desire is easily understood by humans but not by machines. Google does not understand desire. Or truth for that matter. It only processes in terms of 'relevance'.
Gretchen Andrew, Best MFA, 2020. Poke stickers, bubbles, cookbook cutouts and charcoal on canvas – 48 x 36 in. Courtesy the artist and Annka Kultys Gallery.
Would you say then, perhaps, your work is less interested in what is 'real' and more interested in what an individual can desire.
GA: To start, I am a digital monist which is to say that I believe reality is inseparably digital and non-digital, online and ofﬂine, or, in obsolete terms, virtual and real. This is just one example to explore the question of what we consider to be the opposite of real. With art it makes more sense to talk in terms of symbolism, metaphor, and in my case, fantasy, than in terms of real. My fantasies are not fake, I prefer to think of them as plans.
Do you see your personal and professional aspirations as intrinsically entwined?
GA: When I left the tech industry in 2012, one of the glossy reasons I gave was that I wanted a life’s work, not a 'work / life balance'. That romantic notion is still in me. I see my work within systems; technology systems, political systems, art world systems, the capitalist system, systems of meaning – figuring out how to get paid to be myself. I love that as a basic career goal: get rewarded for being you. So it does drive everything. My works are more personal than I let on sometimes, as is the process of claiming power and control for myself. It all mirrors a personal journey I’m on. Less an academic feminist critique than expression of a nascent and raw feminism.
The physical works themselves, what you call 'vision boards', sometimes get overlooked for the digital performances they help to fabricate. Do you ever have to work to remind viewers that what you’re doing also stems from quite a traditional place?
GA: My work comes from a desire for the creation of new forms of which are tied up with the way we work, earn, love and connect with each other today, all of which is unavoidably impacted by technology.
By studying figurative oil painting in a traditional studio environment. I selected the history I ground my work in and have also tried to push net art and digital art to be more connected to art history’s traditions.
I was recently asked if we could consider my work to be something other than art. I love this question because it gets to the truth that I chose to be part of the art world. It makes me think of how, in 100 Artists’ Manifestos, Alex Danchev describes F. T. Marinetti as: “Not a painter but a figure...a self publicist and strategist.” And just as I remake the internet in my image, I am doing so with my art world, the art world is also my medium and the medium is the message. And in the art world system, you need a collectable, unique, but well-branded art object to hold the energy of your practice. This suits me because I like to make physical work and I also like to make money.
Gretchen Andrew, Map of the EU, 2020. Hope stickers, plastic eggs, plastic grapes, and charcoal on canvas – 60 x 60 in. Courtesy the artist and Annka Kultys Gallery.
Your next solo exhibition is aptly titled Other Forms of Travel. Where are you and your practice heading?
GA: Other Forms of Travel presents new vision boards under the search engine manipulation of Best MFA and Map of the EU. Not being able to travel during Covid had me thinking about other forms of travel, mainly art, music, literature, but also the internal travel provoked by meditation and all forms of mind-altering experiences that don’t require you to leave your house. Everything from psychedelics to movies. I love Milan Kundera’s notions of positive escape:
“That life is a trap–well, that we’ve always known. We are born without having to be, locked in a body we never chose, and destined to die. On the other hand, the wideness of the world can provide constant possibility of escape.”
I like the darkly hopeful experience of being inside the trap Kundera described, with all the meaning and love and purpose and joy existing because art allows us, if only temporarily, outside of ourselves. More broadly the works and exhibition are about valuing and validating your own experience, about not looking to a system for validation but instead making that system your tool.
At the same time, I really believe and am attracted to the rigor and form of academic study. I just wholeheartedly reject the notion that there is a path to artistic success that has a $100,000 price tag.
Other Forms of Travel will exhibit in February 2021 at Annka Kultys Gallery in London. What’s it like returning to London and working with Annka Kultys?
GA: OMG, Annka Kultys! I actually made a vision board about the sort of gallerist I didn’t yet entirely believe was possible and then Annka fell out of the sky. I’ve actually never met her in real life, so I’m not entirely sure she is real. I feel very lucky to be represented by her and she really understands my desire to build a team and operate with values not always expressed in the art world.
And London. London is home. It is where the majority of my high-powered girl gang lives. It is where my favorite restaurants are. I lived for five years less than half a mile from Annka Kultys Gallery. Los Angeles has been important to my soul and for many personal and professional reasons I needed to leave London three years ago, but it is not surprising to me that London is where my work is taking off. My desire is there.
Gretchen Andrew, Best MFA, 2020. Iron-on movie scenes, good luck charms, and charcoal on canvas – 48 x 36 in. Courtesy the artist and Annka Kultys Gallery.
Your next search engine project addresses another art world institution: the MFA. In fact, you are addressing what makes the “Best MFA”. Why this?
GA: When I quit my Silicon Valley job eight years ago to 'become an artist', I didn't know anything about art or the art world. My mom knew this and gave me Sarah Thorton’s Seven Days in the Artworld. At first this was my bible. Now it is my script of which institutions to target.
Coming back to London, I wanted to address institutions of arts education because of an experience I had early in my time in London, where I attempted to make friends with some people just off their MA at The Slade. I asked one if she’d help me with an MFA application, to which she responded, I quote: “If this program makes the mistake of accepting you, you should not go, as you will be so in over your head academically that it will further ruin you.”
Woah, right? Like tell me seven years ago that I could not yet draw, as my mentor Billy Childish eventually did and rectified, and I’d be like OK, yeah, I should learn that. But to attack my broader academic ability? I’d graduated with honors from a top liberal arts university. I’d worked at Google for God’s sake. How did this person think I was capable of being in over my head 'intellectually' at an MA/MFA program? What did any of this have to do with art?
I then took part in a group critique where someone responded; “Oh, she didn't go to art school, she’s never read Foucault.” As if Foucault was the only read in art school. It really turned me off of the whole pretentious art thing. I work really hard in my practice to make the work I do accessible without dumbing it down. I trust my audience and I am also owning the responsibility of educating them on my work.
I must note that there was one wonderful artist in this Slade MA group that taught me about pigment transparency and has always been a joy and a support, and Nicholas John Jones now runs a very cool residency in Norway called Praksis.
Gretchen Andrew, Best MFA, 2020. Champagne bubbles, butterflies, unicorn tape, and charcoal on canvas – 48 x 36 in. Courtesy the artist and Annka Kultys Gallery.
Your next exhibition after Other Forms of Travel is called Trust Boundary. Tell us about it.
GA: The Francisco Carolinum in Linz, Austria, will be hosting me from October 12, 2021 - February 13, 2022! It has already been a joy to plan with the director of OOO, Alfred Weidinger (you must follow this man on instagram!). One moment we are having a discussion about the exhibition and next he is literally unearthing some relic in Egypt.
Trust boundary is a term used in computer science and security which describes a boundary where program data or execution changes its level of "trust." The term refers to any distinct boundary within which a system trusts all sub-systems (including data). As such, I am going to be making new vision boards, I'm going to need something like twenty five to fill the rooms, and search engine manipulations that move, push, and challenge political, lexical, technical, and social boundaries. So much of the way I use my own form of natural language processing to manipulate the internet relates to the fluid boundaries between words, to the whole problem of post-structuralism, and I am excited to dive into that. I also like that Trust Boundary can simultaneously be read as an imperative 'Trust (the) boundary'. It also gives me the opportunity to share one of my favorite texts of all time, "Reflections On Trusting Trust" by Ken Thompson.
Visitors to the museum will also be invited to take part in a participatory installation by adhering words and symbols of encouragement, desire and motivation in efforts to transform the gallery’s white walls into a vision board, collectively imagining and celebrating a hoped-for future.
Your practice is all about enacting the life you want. How do you think MFA programs could benefit from this idea?
GA: Maybe I'm projecting, but I’ve always felt that people get MFAs because they are afraid. I didn’t go to art school because they didn’t let me in. But I didn’t reapply because I no longer believe an MFA to be a passport to great art or worldly success. I guess the path is supposedly perceived like this: First, you go to a good art school. Then, you get an MFA. After, you get picked up by the right gallery at your degree show. And finally, you become a famous, financially secure, and critically recognized artist.
Very few can currently delude themselves into believing that the path is a guarantee. But most of us still believe that the path is the best way to validate our attempt, to officially give 'the old college try'. Following the path is a way to remove blame if it doesn't work out. If you do everything you are supposed to do, check all the boxes, follow all the rules and end up without a retrospective at MoMA you can’t be blamed.
Whereas, if you take your own path and you fail, it is your fault. The same applies to how we structure our families, our finance, our health, and our pursuits of happiness. I’ve been wondering how much this fear keeps us in line. By contrast, enacting the life I want, living "as if” I already have an MFA, creates something more individual. And I believe it is the hyperindividual in art that has the ability to explode into the universal.
Gretchen Andrew, Best MFA, 2020. Joker cards, bubble gum, foam quarters, and charcoal on canvas – 48 x 36 in. Courtesy the artist and Annka Kultys Gallery.
If you could create your own MFA program, what would it look like?
GA: I guess the point is that I don’t believe in a prescriptive path that ends in being an artist. Making art is an exploration of the self and anything that forces you into contact with your inner being is well worth your time and money. These, too, are Other Forms of Travel. That being said, I’d love to share the following required reading list of books that most influenced my own work. Some are on art, others on power or tech or methods of discovering yourself:
Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami
Testaments Betrayed, Mila Kundera
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
Walk Through Walls, Marina Abramović (who has been appearing in my vision boards)
The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk
Three Women, Lisa Taddeo
Fair Shot, Chris Hughes
The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Robert J. Gordon
The Dream Machine, M. Mitchell Waldrop
The Power Broker, Robert Caro
The Passage of Power, Robert Caro
The Night of the Gun, David Carr
Face the Music, Paul Standley
Loving What Is, Byron Katie
Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin
Theft By Finding, David Sedaris
Wild Palms, William Faulkner
Farewell Waltz, Milan Kundera
Profit Over People, Noam Chomsky
Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon
OK, I’ll stop there for now.
I guess another way of approaching your work is that it compels us to romanticize our lives in the ways we want.
GA: I think one of the most important things we can do is admit that when life punches us in the face, when we lose someone or our heart gets broken or we don’t get the job we want or we do get the job we want and then we get fired—after things like that, admitting what we want hasn’t actually changed.
I use a lot of romantic symbolism in my work, I think I kept a few wedding decoration companies in business through Covid, because love is deep.
Thanks so much for taking the time, Gretchen, and for sharing your thoughts on your practice, the art world, and reimagining what it means to pursue our dreams. With that in mind, hopefully we'll be able to travel (virtually or otherwise) to see your upcoming exhibitions in Europe. I'm looking forward to everything you're planning for the future.
Portrait of Gretchen Andrew. Courtesy of the artist. / Photo: Nick Berardi.
Interview directed by Colter Ruland
Edited by Julien Delagrange Photographic material by Nick Berardi
Published online on 7/01/2021 by Contemporary Art Issue © 2020