Pilgrims at Esopus Creek: Three Seasons of the Shandaken Project
A Conversation with Founding Director Nicholas Weist and 2014 Resident Chloé Rossetti
The centerpiece of my 2014 summer was a free artist residency at The Shandaken Project—three weeks, with three to four other people, on a sprawling property in the Catskill Mountains, ringed by forever-wild forest on all sides, tucked into an armpit of the Esopus Creek. I had arrived with an idea of what I wanted to make in mind, which evolved and exploded as I responded to the house and grounds. Bluntly, I had no idea what a gift this expanse of time in nature, in this particular setting, would be. Nicholas Weist, founder of The Shandaken Project and facilities manager during my stay, had told me that three years later, residents are telling him that they are still working out ideas that formed in that open-air cradle, on trips from the beautiful handmade studios to the house at dusk.
Six months after my stay, and on the eve of Shandaken’s first retrospective show, I am still trying to understand how and why that landscape, and those creative conditions, stirred such a savage creative awakening in me; why, to quote Annie Dillard, a fellow mystic and landscape enumerator and one of my residency reads, “I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
In my desire to understand the cogs behind the curtain, I sat down with Nick to talk through the mechanics of the residency in his own words.
Chloé Rossetti (Rail): Perhaps you could introduce yourself to start.
Nicholas Weist: Well, I’m the founding director of the Shandaken Project, which offers free residencies to cultural producers on a large estate in the Catskill Mountains of New York. There are three artists in residence at a time; typically over the course of a summer we’ll host around 15 people. The project has had three residency seasons, and we’re about to examine the history of the organization, and also produce a history in the present tense, with a retrospective group show opening in the East Village on December 12th.
Rail: This is your brainchild?
Weist: I was the driving force behind the founding of the organization, but many people contributed to its inception, and its initial period of growth.
Rail: I guess the question should have been … everything is born of a desire. So what was the desire and whose desire was it?
Weist: After spending a lot of time working in the nonprofit industry, I identified a constellation of needs felt by my community of cultural producers. First among these for me was a scarcity of organizations that operated with a logic distinct from a corporate logic. When I examined the desires of my political and professional selves, I found that they demanded I search for a new manner in which organizations could be built.
Rail: Is there a model that springs to mind, of something that might be close to what you were aiming for?
Weist: I think some of the organizations that belong to Common Practice, which is a working group for administrators of small nonprofits, approach this idea. One of the hallmarks of what I am interested in is commitment to measured growth.
Rail: Or a suspicion of unfettered growth?
Weist: Exactly, or the administrative clarity that comes from working at a human scale and has to do with responsiveness to an organization’s constituents. One of the imperatives of corporate logic is that there must be a product and the product must be legible. Nonprofits can counter that imperative by producing risky experiments, and really following artists. By virtue of their size, small organizations can afford to be more in a state of response to than a position of leadership for the artists they serve.
Rail: Most corporate structures also want an immediate product, but that’s not your interest. You’re not relying on the residents to produce something to keep you afloat.
Weist: A focus on process is integral to the work that we do. It’s vitally important for the Shandaken Project to prioritize the ephemeral, the interior, and intangible yields. Many people look at process and say, “Nothing’s been done! Even though you made X, Y, and Z, it all got scrapped in the end.” The truth is that all process results in something, but the “something” is often not immediately apparent.
Rail: How do people spend their time? What is the area like?
Weist: We have a 250-acre grounds with one shared house and three studios, each about 200 yards from any other structure. The property itself is on the plateau of a small mountain and is ringed by state forest, so there are no signs of other human habitation visible. The property feels very private, and when the residents reach their studios they feel totally alone in the woods.
Rail: And they’re not interrupted, right?
Weist: We made the decision to not program studio visits, or offer other professional development services for the residents. The opportunities we provide, in addition to time and space during the residencies proper, are to connect with one’s fellow residents and our community at large. We usually have a public program each month where current residents can meet former residents and other peers, and we host informal dinners with invited friends and colleagues throughout the season. We also have programs in the fall and winter in New York City, which is where many of our constituents are based.
Rail: Who creates the public programs that happen on the grounds?
Weist: I organize them, usually in collaboration with the artists involved. Sometimes I will commission a program, but it’s more likely that a given project is the result of an artist identifying a desire, and my offering a space for it, with accompanying production, logistical, and financial support.
Rail: It’s interesting to think about the relationship each of those projects has with the grounds. I’m thinking about the project that I did, and the videos I made while I was in residence. Being able to show them at the site where they were actually made was really important to me.
Weist: One of the keystones of the program is that it is a retreat-style residency. We offer the chance to decontextualize oneself as a tool to promote creative freedom. Another important thing I should mention, connected to the idea of privacy that we talked about earlier, is that, unlike other residencies, the Shandaken Project encourages a communal space for its residents. There are residencies where your meals can be delivered to your door so you can literally meet no one while you’re there, if you so choose. This is a powerful way to focus on one’s work and one’s self. What we offer is the chance to meet and grow close to one’s peers. With that in mind, I try to make sure that in each specific grouping of residents, no two people are doing similar work, hoping that conversations between residents will have a productive friction.
Rail: That’s interesting. Are there any other organizing principles you use when you put the residents together?
Weist: I look for signs that specific residents’ thinking could coalesce around certain themes, issues, or ideas. For instance what does someone who focuses on dance have to say to someone who makes paintings about the body?
Rail: I was grouped with a painter who was a real studio rat, and I’m not at all. But that was actually really interesting and enjoyable for me.
Tell me about a day at Shandaken: what happens?
Weist: Usually in the mornings the artists will disperse to focus on their own work. Occasionally residents will join me in cultivating our community garden. Or we might go on an exploratory trip to see what we encounter in the Catskill region, which is a rich and fascinating area. One of the really unique elements of the program is that there is no electricity in the studios, so there’s a naturally-enforced end to the workday when the sun goes down. Of course it’s possible to bring tools to extend the available light, but most choose not to. Often the entire household will return at a similar time, which gives the residents the opportunity to work together to prepare an evening meal. That’s a really important time in the arc of the day, because it offers the chance for residents to build a foundation amongst themselves.
Rail: They engage in a common labor together. And since the nearest grocery store is a car trip away, there’s some coordination that has to happen to feed each other, which is interesting to me.
Weist: The residency grounds are within striking distance of most amenities, but they are at somewhat of a remove. So the household does have to work together to meet some of its daily needs. Because the organization is intentionally small-scale, coming to the residency is not a luxury experience.
Rail: Do you ever find that somebody thinks that it will be?
Weist: No one has arrived with grossly outsized expectations for the experience we provide. I do a fair amount of expectation-guiding in the lead-up to the season to orient residents and ensure they understand that they’re not passing through a well-endowed program with deluxe facilities and a hospitality staff. One shouldn’t expect a continental breakfast prepared for one in the morning—rather, we craft a caring, thoughtful, and responsive environment with unencumbered spaces to accomplish serious work.
Rail: Do a lot of people apply?
Weist: The last time I did the numbers, we were more competitive than Harvard! [Laughs.]
Rail: That’s amazing. It feels so good. [Laughs.]
Weist: It’s very gratifying, although I would love to be able to offer more opportunities to more people. Although our applications numbers have grown significantly, the number of residencies we offer has not kept pace.
Rail: Intentionally, right?
Weist: Yes. I do feel that the upward trend in the application numbers indicates that what we offer is really needed—even increasingly so. I believe that more and more artists are becoming dissatisfied with their context. I think that our community of cultural producers in 2014, in New York City especially, is feeling very alienated by the art industry, and has felt the weight of how what they produce, and the manner in which they produce it, is reinforcing that system.
Rail: “Cultural producers” is a phrase I use a lot, and that I like a lot, because it doesn’t imply any one type of cultural production, but broad strokes. Are we talking visual artists? Are we talking people in the art world?
Weist: I use the phrase “cultural producers” because although I do not make art objects and have never written a song or poetry, I am a cultural producer. I contribute to the cultural life of my community and the world at large. I use aesthetics as a critical framework to dismantle the everyday. Many people work in this manner—making culture without necessarily making objects—and I endeavor to support those practices.
Rail: So you have curators come, you have writers come—
Weist: Yes. In the understanding of the organization, a cultural producer can describe anyone from a visual artist to a musician, scholar, curator, or administrator. I hope that there’s an element of radicality in the kind of administrative work that I do. I think deeply and critically before maneuvering the organization, much in the way a scholar or artist would reflect on her next move on a text or a painting. We’ve not yet received an application from another radicalized administrator, but if we got one I’d be very excited! [Laughter.]
Rail: Put the word out! I ought to object somehow to your self-assessment because being at Shandaken, you feel like you’re in a place that an artist made. I guess the way I define “artist-made” is when I feel an all-over, and very hand-wrought, attention to detail. Like everything’s been touched, everything’s been considered holistically.
Weist: I think to some extent categories can be useful, and I am definitely not in the artist category. Artists make use of specific affective toolkits, like metaphor for instance, or mystery. Administrators’ specific purview might be something like “hard truths.” But you’re absolutely right that the human hand can make powerful gestures. It’s tied to remaining small-scale—both are strategies by which one can resist the neoliberal impulse. Neoliberal forces are rarely interested in things made by hand because there’s usually not enough of the thing to go around. A thing must exist in quantity so once its ingested by the superstructure, it can be offered back.
Rail: But stripped of its original meaning or context.
Rail: It’s funny, because up at Shandaken I felt that I was deeply contextualized, and yet you spoke about decontextualization. While I was there, I felt that I was uncovering who I really am, stripped of the structural layer of labor: who I am when I’m not a “worker” who works for a company to pay rent and afford everything else. Shandaken was deeply supportive, and encouraging, of this uncovering. So certain elements of my usual context were out of sight, but Shandaken, and we’ve really touched on this, is also still a very specific context itself. It influences the self and the work that is uncovered there.
Weist: I see what you’re saying.
Rail: It’s not a blank canvas. It’s not there in a vacuum. There is something that preexists, and there is also something that grows and is built upon.
Weist: Maybe it’s hubristic to suggest that I do not offer some kind of context. [Laughs.]
Rail: I’m interested to identify what that is. So much of the Shandaken “context,” for me, has to do with the land and interacting with the land.
Weist: I’m interested to provide the tools to manifest a self-directed self. So you’re right, there is absolutely a context. But the things that are lacking are exactly as you described: showing up to work on time; answering to a supervisor; being on a subway, forced to interact with other humans in proximity to your body.
Rail: But it’s funny because labor is not decreased, necessarily—the residents still have to get groceries, they still have to clean the house. The residents are housemates, after all. You can think about certain other residencies in relation to a patriarchy—someone takes care of your cooking and cleaning, all you have to do is think and make. You don’t even have to socialize if you don’t want to, and you definitely don’t have to share any kind of labor, skilled or unskilled, with anybody. For me, then, Shandaken felt like a feminist or queer space because we actually performed a lot of labor, but it wasn’t separate from our creative conditions. And we did it in concert with one another.
Weist: I think you make an important distinction. The labor is in the service of one’s self, not in the service of an Other’s goals.
Rail: In the context of a family that might get complicated. If you go to Shandaken as a mother or father it’s probably pretty nice to not have to be around your crying kid for three weeks. But then there’s another “crying kid,” which is capitalism. None of us want to take care of capitalism.
Weist: But it’s suckling at all of our teats. [Laughs.]
Rail: Yeah! And telling us who we are and what to do. But Shandaken isn’t servicing the capitalist baby, and you’re wrong about the labor being exclusively in the service of one’s self. Shandaken was its own kind of family, for me. I loved caring for the people who were there with me. I felt like I was spoiled rotten by my co-residents, and you, and I wanted to spoil you all as well.
Weist: I’ve found that people really seize opportunities to care for other people there. Kindness and thoughtfulness are a part of that space.
Rail: A part of the whole Shandaken experience is about being immersed in nature too. I found that people’s biorhythms slow down a few hours after they arrived on the property. It was fascinating to receive visitors for an event who were fresh from the city, talking a mile a minute, telling you “I did this and did this and did that.” That speed was so out of place for the residents.
Weist: There’s very limited connectivity on our grounds, which I think also encourages the “slowing down” you’re speaking about.
Rail: What do you mean by that?
Weist: Well, the best internet we have available in the house is dialup. Cell phones usually don’t work there, so people have to rely on the landline that we provide, which means only one person can be on the phone at a time.
Rail: There’s definitely a retrograde vibe going on up there. That shag carpet! I felt like I was going back in time. When you’re kicking around that house with dialup internet and corded phones and shag pile carpet and you don’t have a job and you do what you want, when you want, until dinnertime, everything feels like it did when you were a child. It was a total joy to recuperate so many childhood memories—so much of childhood—when I was there. In day-to-day life in capitalistic New York City, you don’t get time to either imagine the future or get nostalgic about the past. There’s no time for that.
Weist: I feel very nostalgic for the past in New York City, but maybe because I have such a long and deep history here. I can remember a time when cultural life was very different than it is now.
Rail: So you grew up in New York?
Weist: I came of age as a cultural producer in this city, yes. The hallmarks I remember best were that quality of life was shoddy for everyone but worse for the poor, and it wasn’t very safe for anyone but it was worst for the poor, and the State made violent war on minorities in more overt ways than it does today—so I’m loath to romanticize this period. But one could make things happen then with very few resources, which has become increasingly difficult as time marches onward.
Rail: Right, and there’s an equivalence of safety with control. This city has become safer because of increasingly militarized police control, made possible by an accretion of racist and classist laws. It’s important to remind ourselves that there can be other kinds of safety. For example, on the Shandaken residency grounds there are literally bears and coyotes, and if no one drives then no one has food, and your cell phone doesn’t work so if the landline goes out you’re stranded. It’s 20 minutes to the next town by car. That sounds less safe, but a lack of “control” actually creates an environment that’s more safe. People really touch each other and know what’s going on with each other. Like what “neighborhood watch” might have meant before the police state.
Weist: I would like to point out that the Shandaken Project does have systems in place to protect residents and guests from catastrophes like the ones you describe. [Laughs.]
Rail: But you at least create the illusion of an unmediated environment.
Weist: A raw, unmediated as you put it, landscape is much more immediate than an urban context. If you take a walk in the city, you might not see any other people—but if you take a walk in the forest on our grounds, you are alone.
Rail: I actually got lost on the first day. I never told you that.
Weist: You told me later.
Rail: It feels like everything at Shandaken is within arm’s reach—except for the things that are not, and those things are deeply not. You can know what’s going on around the grounds, and in the heads of the people around you, but a lot beyond that is just totally off the map. Do you ever crave connectivity? Or distraction? Or knowledge?
Weist: Knowledge isn’t unavailable, there’s just a very different well of knowledge in that space. I am inspired by a lineage of thinkers who tell us that “we must cultivate our garden,” as Voltaire succinctly put it. In many respects I agree with the American Transcendental philosophers of the 19th century, who preferred deep knowledge of a particular place to shallow knowledge of many places. This is all to say that you’re right: in a rural context, access to wide swaths of knowledge is limited. But it’s also easier there than it is in an urban context to have intimate connections with one’s self, or deeply experience one’s environment.
Rail: While in residence, I started making lists of things that I wanted to accomplish while I was there—I would write every night before going to bed—and at one point I just made a list of things you can do with your hands. It read something like: you can cook, you can garden, you can mend things. I think a lot about how after you look at one painting for a long, long time, and think you’ve seen all there is to see about it—then it starts to open up and speak to you. I felt that way about the landscape as well. It started to speak to me. I started to memorize all the hills and valleys there, and what was going on in the garden. I watched the garden growing, and learned how far away things were, and how long walks took in relationship to my body, and learned to guess the temperature of the lake from the temperature of my body, all of these things. The grounds became an infinite wellspring for me. Maybe that’s why you wanted me to read Annie Dillard’s book in the Shandaken Project library, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. That’s all she does, is look and postulate! [Laughs.]
Weist: Maybe so. [Laughs.]
Rail: There is also something very feminist or queer about knowing the land in certain ways. There are histories of women farmers who knew the secrets of the land, and when big, commercial, male farmers came in, they couldn’t reap as much as their female antecedents. Their yields were smaller. All of history is, in a sense, contained within the land, so when you contemplate, or commune, with the land, I think it helps you to understand that our canonized idea of history is very constructed and very limited. When something is “uncanonizable,” like landscape, it encourages ephemeral histories.
Weist: That’s a major goal, to escape the minimizing power of history. A story, and especially a canonical story, necessarily contains only shades of importance or original value.
Rail: It’s very emaciating.
Weist: Yes. I’ve always encouraged lived experience of the project, and tried to limit the ways in which one can experience it vicariously. In fact, one of the first big questions we faced organizationally was what to do about press? We had a number of opportunities early on for higher visibility, that we declined. I felt that the project needed to be for the people who built it and for whom it was built, before it was for the audiences of major publications. And secondly, its narrative had yet to be written. Foreknowledge is reinforcing: I didn’t want to anticipate a particular experience and then produce that experience because it had been anticipated. The story of the place needed to develop organically. The idea of a present-focus is something that is really important for queer theory, as you identified. Queer temporality—focus on the present instead of the future—is actually a pretty radical and anti-capitalist idea. It also connects to smallness: not being interested in growth, or futurity. Over the past four years I feel I’ve come to a place of understanding about what the story of the organization is, and what it provides for people. Now I feel empowered to speak about it. But one of the goals for the group show I’m organizing is to deemphasize my presence in the history. I have invited the artists to select their own works, and have encouraged them to select work that was not made at the residency, so that the show becomes a glimpse of the present rather than a canonizing force to entomb the past.
Rail: Let’s talk more about the show.
Weist: There will be about 65 artists participating, including most of our alumni, artists from whom we have commissioned public programs, and also many artists who have provided critical feedback or guidance in the organization’s lifespan. It will be held in a residential space that’s owned by Creative Time, which is generously donating the space, from December 12th through January 15th. The venue has been largely untouched since the mid-20th century, and original details, like flaking plaster walls and grotty hardwood floors, will be left as they are. Many of the works will have a degree of site-specificity.
Rail: You’re not gallerizing it. You’re not whitewashing the walls.
Weist: It’s certainly not a neutral context. The walls are painted wacky colors and the bizarre architectural interventions made by the previous tenant will remain. There won’t be an effort to spruce up the place beyond a routine cleaning. I think there’s something a residential space suggests for artwork that feels more vital than a white-box space. The myth of the white box is that it is a neutral space, but of course it carries a heavy, heavy burden of context. A residential space suggests great possibilities for objects because it doesn’t try to obfuscate the reality that objects exist in the world. In our venue, years of information are inscribed in the walls: it has a literal patina of context. And of course the East Village generally is very connected to the history of alternative movements, alternative organizations, and radical interventions by artists. I’m excited to see how all of this will affect the artwork.
Rail: I feel like that has a rapport with Shandaken too. You’re definitely not entering a neutral space when you arrive at the old house on the residency grounds, and the studios were definitely put to use by other cultural producers before you got there.
Weist: One of the interesting things that happened this year, which made me feel more comfortable actually sharing the story of the place, is that former residents were abroad in the world sharing their own stories. We found that in this past season, which was our third, people came knowing some of the secrets already—having been told by former residents, or having visited once or twice for public events. The organization has a culture now, which is being transmitted through channels that I do not open or propagate. This one excepted.
Shandaken Project Retrospective Exhibition, celebrating three years of residencies, runs through January 15, 2015 at 59 East 4th Street, 7th floor, buzzer 14.