Jesse Sugarmann’s “We Build Excitement” Commemorates the Rise and Fall of the American Auto Industry

Jesse Sugarmann, Production still, "We Build Excitement (Pontiac, MI)," digital video, 2013

Jesse Sugarmann, Production still, “We Build Excitement (Pontiac, MI),” digital video, 2013

Jesse Sugarmann (2012 Film/Video) premieres his Creative Capital-supported project, We Build Excitement, with a solo exhibition at Southern Exposure, opening April 4, 2014. The exhibition presents a series of performances and videos examining the evolution of the American auto industry as a parallel to shifting American identity.
Two years ago, Sugarmann began opening unsanctioned Pontiac dealerships in decommissioned car dealership locations across the U.S. He activates these shuttered businesses as sites of celebration, honoring both the American auto-worker and our fraught, intimate relationships to cars themselves. Assembling temporary modernist monuments with Pontiac cars, Sugarmann gives form to the precarious nature of the auto industry. In video works, he documents laid-off assembly line workers and car accident victims recreating the movements of their former jobs and crashes, respectively. Their deadpan choreography forms a moving homage to the mundane and the traumatic moments in both the birth and death of the automobile.
I connected with Jesse to learn more about this ongoing body of work.
Jenny Gill: Talk to me about Pontiac. When did you start making work about the auto industry, and what is it about Pontiac specifically that you’re interested in?
Jesse Sugarmann: Cars have been of primary interest to me for as long as I can remember. I grew up in rural Connecticut, far away from pretty much everything. I felt really isolated there, almost trapped. So, as a kid, distance was always this enemy, something between me and what I wanted to get to. And cars, to me, were this obvious antidote to distance. I became fascinated with cars from an early age. And it stuck with me, this idea of cars as freeing objects, purveyors of mobility and autonomy.
In my recent work, I’ve begun to address the car directly as material, considering the car accident as a set of spatial problems and sculptural possibilities. I’m attracted to the way car accidents function as temporary monuments to traumas. That is, I think that we look at car accidents, when we pass them on the highway, with a lot of the same energy and expectation with which we look at a monument. The car accident, considered as a sculptural form, is a monument forged instantly by a sudden trauma.
We Build Excitement is an amplification of this open understanding of monument, a collection of individual acts of sculpture and dance in celebration of the discontinued Pontiac Motor Division. Pontiac was such a cool, strange and daring car company; I was terribly sad to see it go when it closed in 2010. Automotive design and fabrication is a process of building objects that echo and preempt popular notions of social standing and self-image. And Pontiac’s approach to this process was always so perfectly off; they seemed, for decades, to be grappling with expressions of male adolescence. Pontiac’s designs were bluntly masculine, childishly fantastic and sexy in a David Lee Roth sort of way. They felt so dated, nostalgic, and modern at the same time. And I think that we lost something when we lost Pontiac, something innocent and goofy and uniquely America. So this project, We Build Excitement, is meant to serve as a monument to Pontiac, a remembrance and a celebration of its weird energy.

VIDEO: Excerpts from We Build Excitement, 2013
Jenny: How has this project evolved since you got the Creative Capital award in 2012?
Jesse: The project has changed considerably. When I pitched it to Creative Capital back in 2012, I was really interested in making a documentary. I mean, it was going to be non-linear and multi-channel and generally difficult to consume as a traditional documentary. But the core directives of the project were true to documentary form: observe, research and report.
With the flexibility of Creative Capital’s support, We Build Excitement transformed from an encapsulated documentary project into an ongoing system of research. It’s become a set of strategies for going into a city and isolating the automotive and labor histories of that population. The art project has elaborated into a franchise of itself, a process that I can bring to a location to capture content that is graphically consistent yet contextually specific.
These transitions have opened up a larger set of possibilities for me. I initially thought of labor histories as a peripheral element of this project. And these histories have really taken control, with the visual content of labor reenactment outweighing the visual impact of the car accidents I’ve been building. This change surprised me…and opened up a new trajectory of ideas and processes for pursuit.
Jenny: In addition to the video installation at Southern Exposure, you’re doing an off-site event at a location in Fremont, CA. What do you have planned for that?
Jesse: I’ll be installing a monument in Fremont at a location adjacent to the old NUMMI plant (which was once the GM Fremont Assembly plant and is now the new Tesla plant). NUMMI, which stood for New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., was a joint project between GM and Toyota in which the Toyota production and management systems were taught to the GM workforce. The narrative of NUMMI, of how it simultaneously resolved and amplified GM’s production problems, is a compelling history of American labor. And it’s gone now…actually, it is one more thing that we lost with Pontiac; NUMMI’s final production platform was the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe. My plan it to create a temporary monument at NUMMI that echoes the labor history of the location.

VIDEO: Jesse Sugarmann presents We Build Excitement at the 2013 Creative Capital Artist Retreat
Jenny: You gave a fantastic presentation last summer at the Creative Capital Artist Retreat. Did that open any doors for you?
Jesse: Oh, yes, it led to so many opportunities. It’s been amazing. These Retreat presentations are a wild thing to participate in—so exciting and fascinating and brutal. It’s like a bachelor auction for your art practice. As developmental tools, they’re tremendously effective; every engagement in which We Build Excitement will be presented, from its opening at Southern Exposure to follow-up dates around the U.S., is a direct result of that 5 minute talk. And I mean direct, truly; each invitation I’ve received has opened with “I saw the video of your presentation…”
Jenny: After the SoEx show, what’s next for you and We Build Excitement?
Jesse: Installations of We Build Excitement will be taking up most of my time for the next year. The project will be presented at several locations around the country…I’m still confirming dates and venues, so I can’t blurt things out just yet.  For my own practice, I will be going back into the studio, spending some time working with objects and more traditional processes. My practice is cyclical…I engage in large scale performance projects, get wiped out, and return to the studio to do more object-based work. The objects I make lead to ideas for large scale performative works. I get excited, do large-scale performance projects, get wiped out, and then retreat to the studio. It goes on and on. So, after all of these We Build Excitement presentations, I think I’ll be ready for a good dose of studio time.
Jesse Sugarmann’s “We Build Excitement” is on view at Southern Exposure in San Francisco, April 4 – May 3, 2014.

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