Tomatoes Nudge in the Backyard, 2018, digital print. Courtesy Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles.

Interview with Family Day Artist Olga Koumoundouros

Olga Koumoundouros will be one of six artists leading a workshop at the Hammer’s Family Day on September 8, 2018. Her art explores methods of cultivating bridges between social, cultural, natural, and geographic environments. For Family Day, Koumoundouros will foster bridges between people by inviting families to create prints that celebrate their community and exchange prints with others.

Tell me about your personal background and how it shapes your practice.

I grew up in a working class family in Yonkers, New York, and was raised by my grandparents who were immigrants from Greece. I moved to Vermont to get a degree in environmental studies, then got an MFA from CalArts here in Southern California. I think this combination of urban and rural contexts and educational programs in my youth inform how I came to see the intersections between social, cultural, natural, and geographic environments. This is a part of my artwork, which contemplates the connections between exchanges of energy from our collective labors, biochemical reactions in material processes, and efforts of self nurturance. I am thinking about how all of these come together in different configurations to impact all lives. All these methodologies of exchange can connect across difference—they can be  discernible bridges of a variety of sorts, through different kinds of choices, actions and intentions. This framework has a social and ecological lens at its heart.

I am interested in cultivating these bridges. An example is a scene in a recent video where I construct a continuity between watering my tomato plants in my backyard and going to the self-serve car wash across the street. Both actions require labors with my own body to maintain my household. The water spray even has a similar feel in both actions. They take place only feet apart in the same neighborhood, and yet the vantage point to view the action is different, as is the economics of each in relationship to the earth’s ecology. The word “economics” breaks down etymologically into a root of stewardship or management of the home, and “ecology” into the behavior and inter-relationships formed in our place of dwelling. I love how both words use interchangeable ideas of the home and earth, and toggle between concepts concerning the utilization of materials to maximize function, and the action of all its components woven together to sustain us. I wonder how ecologically driven social decisions got to be seen as economically unviable at this point in American culture, when care for the earth and home can be considered good economics at its core?

Tomatoes Nudge in the Backyard, 2018, digital print. Courtesy Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles.
This is one of my most recent works. Tomatoes Nudge in the Backyard, 2018, digital print. Courtesy Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles.

You work with a lot of different mediums. How do you decide on a medium for each work?

My most recent artworks ask how humans can live in a material and energetic relationship with their immediate environment. I try to ground all these ecological and biological relationships in my location and my microeconomy as a single mother. I have a foundry in my backyard. I make food from my garden. My kid skateboards—he’s building a halfpipe out of wood salvaged from deconstructed art projects that I and other artists created, and I’m building a shade structure for my clay work out of the same lumber remnants. We problem solve to thrive and create.

Utilizing the language of a specific ecological system in its local context is important to me. I ask, what is the economics of this immediate walkable section of a neighborhood? Of my backyard? Of this museum? Of this vacation hot spot? Of this school? I seek to grow or devolve the elements of the system, such as water, air, earth, fire, labor of people, labor of animals, and plants, to form a non-linear flow chart of natural resources with potential energies. I use my background in environmental studies with neo/post-humanist ideals, economic theory, and feminism, to explore the economics and ecology of site. I make visible these bridges as we collectively strive for sustenance for ourselves and those living their lives around us in the midst of feeling anxiety in the days of the Anthropocene, the period of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth.

I believe there is intellectual merit in things that provide joy and pleasure to the public. I don’t think that things that harken to nature are simplistic; they plant our feet on the ground and truly consider what is in our immediate vicinity. I think we’ve spent a lot of our time on linear, logical thinking, focused on future outcomes and measuring success by profit margins. I think art is everywhere and that there are ways to revisit ideas of creating so that we cultivate earth-based and life-centered practices in our daily and art-making lives.

How does your work engage with ideas of connecting material, art, and people together?

I made installations and big structural sculptures in the past that eventually got sold, put in storage, or thrown out. Artists work this way, because installation is spatial. It is more work and expense to store for reuse all the materials that span so much space in large architectural venues. I liked the challenge as an artist to engage the body of the viewer, and I would chose materials that would best serve the ideas and content of the art, so I varied my material choices accordingly. My art was mostly interested in ideas about the American Dream or economic distribution of wealth, so I justified this one-time use for the viewers because I believed that the discussion it facilitated was most important. I dismissed the life and value of the materials; how the works themselves are comprised of materials from the earth, which have been changed with energy, altering them in fantastic ways with different processes. I also didn’t account for the efforts I pushed from my body, and I dismissed those efforts of other people’s bodies that I hired to labor in service of art production. I forgot that these were all sources of energy.

So I believe we are at a crisis point. We no longer have vast amounts of accessible affordable space in our communities. And our landfills are full. If plastic production isn’t curbed, plastic pollution in the oceans will outweigh fish pound-for-pound by 2050, according to The Washington Post and the Earth Day Network. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, forcing instability on many people around us. And China has stricter policies about accepting solid waste imported from American recyclable materials. This means a significant amount of waste that we try to recycle is ending up in the dump anyway (see “Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not.” The New York Times, 5/29/18). We are confronted with our lack of accountability for what we consume, and the space needed for what we produce has become even more valuable. In response, I am doing what I can to downsize my practice and reconsider how I make things. I want my works to have value embedded in them, and to have meaning to me, in spite of whether they are exhibited. These works are not in service of information for others alone, or cultural capital, or conversation; they have intrinsic value that allows me to face them, and to keep them in my own limited space if they don’t get placed somewhere else.

It was from this place that I instigated a collaborative project titled "We; tbd" at the volunteer-run space in downtown L.A. called Human Resources. The project began with a structure made from rented scaffolding and wood, which reorganizes and reshapes the internal space of Human Resources. In the course of reshaping this space, which involved creating a hole in the wall to allow two different methods of going upstairs, we held an exhibition that modeled dynamic notions of connection, difference, and community, and which reflected its conscious self-creation through a group process. It was inspired by notions of empathy and understanding between our different identities that we saw in the Netflix original series (now cancelled) Sense8, and was created by artists John Booortle, von curtis, Alexander Kroll, Francesca Lalanne, Kristy Lovich, Ofelia Marquez, and Jennifer Moon. As part of this material and psychic experiment, we used a diverse set of strategies to understand people, to build and express empathy for each other, and to investigate how we as artists can better care for ourselves within the context of the many power inequities of our shared society.

Potluck meal organized by artist collaborator Kristy Lovich. Conversation about restorative justice led by artist Christy Roberts Berkowitz as part of programming for the exhibition I initiated in February 2018  titled “We,tbd” held at Human Resources in Los Angeles.
Potluck meal organized by artist collaborator Kristy Lovich. Conversation about restorative justice led by artist Christy Roberts Berkowitz as part of programming for the exhibition I initiated in February 2018 titled “We,tbd” held at Human Resources in Los Angeles.

I want it to seem like the work is alive and possesses joy. I want it to be something I can keep looking at and love for a long time. Its materiality matters from its very inception, not because it spoke a word in a way that I understand but because its very existence mattered before it could even speak.

This is another example of one of my recent works titled “Still Life with Tickler”, 2018  in exhibition titled Demolition WoManhood at Skibum MacArthur Gallery, courtesy Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles.
This is another example of one of my recent works titled “Still Life with Tickler”, 2018 in exhibition titled Demolition WoManhood at Skibum MacArthur Gallery, courtesy Commonwealth & Council, Los Angeles.

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Tags: programs, artists