A Closer Look at Art’s Peripheries

After years of working within the institutional art world, Paul Schmelzer and Nicole J. Caruth noticed that there were insufficient venues to discuss non-mainstream ideas about artistic practice. They received an Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant in 2019 to start a new digital publication called The Ostracon, which they have created as a place to discuss issues ranging from food justice, to discourses in public health, and to indigenous rituals and activism. The name of the website was inspired by the shards of broken pottery that ancient Greeks used as votes to ostracize certain members from their communities—their website, too, would highlight issues, ideas, and figures that have been “ostracized” from the mainstream art world.

A feature by Caruth examines the critical role Black documentary filmmakers and photographers—among them George Stoney and LaToya Ruby Frazier—have played in efforts to humanize Black maternal and infant mortality statistics. In another, Schmelzer explores the social and environmental justice issues foundational to the rebuilding of Gandhi Mahal, the Bangladeshi restaurant in Minneapolis’s Third Precinct that burned to the ground days after the city’s police brutally murdered George Floyd.

Shiv Kotecha, Manager of Grants and Services at The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant (a program administered by Creative Capital), spoke to Schmelzer about The Ostracon and the work it is doing to reframe how we think about art’s engagement with civic structures.

Shiv Kotecha—Where did the idea of The Ostracon come from? 

Paul Schmelzer—We’ve had so many discussions about what The Ostracon means to us. It’s a compelling but complicated idea. Both Nicole and I have experience in institutional contemporary art, which is great, but, for me personally, there are limitations to the framing that institutional contemporary art puts on creativity as well as artmaking practices. As we aim to think about interdisciplinary art, and about art that fits a newly-expanding definition, there is a lot of room to look outside of the center of contemporary art to see what other ideas can inform creative culture today. For me, that’s what The Ostracon is about: a venue to discuss, and to turn our attention to, ideas and individuals independent of, but quite possibly instructive for, contemporary art.

One idea Nicole and I talked about is dispelling the idea of the “hero-industrial complex.” So, much of what we’re interested in is looking not at individual artists but at the people who inspire and inform them or the folks who don’t necessarily get acknowledged for thinking that can (or, if it’s not, should) inform artmaking today.

Shiv—Do you look to any models within or outside contemporary art to frame your research? 

Paul—There’s not a model out there that we’ve looked to. Before we launched the site, we created a survey so that our potential readers could share their ideas on who we might talk to and what issues we might address, so that was one way of attempting to connect outside ourselves. Beyond that, we’ve both mentioned the public radio show On Being as informative for what we’re doing: host Krista Tippett starts out each discussion by asking the simple question about a guest’s spiritual background, and from this uniform question, some fascinating and unexpected conversations can happen. We hope that’s the case with The Ostracon.

The ideas I would like to pursue would be like to talk to the scientists that inspired the artist to make their work. I think the hero-industrial complex idea gives praise to the artist who makes the work but not to the resources, wisdom, and knowledge they’re tapping into.

One of the challenges we’ve faced is understanding how Art (with a capital A) even fits into the discussions that we are interested in having on The Ostracon. Some pieces have more directly addressed art, but others aren’t so clearly tied to art. I wrote a piece about Ruhel Islam, the owner of Gandhi Mahal restaurant here in Minneapolis, for example. After his restaurant burned down during the uprising following the murder of George Floyd by police, his daughter Hafsa overheard him on the phone saying, “Let my building burn, we need justice.” There’s not really an art angle to that story, except that it’s about culture, food, and a very creative man’s multidisciplinary quest for a stronger, more just community.

Shiv—Can you say more about what it means to look outside the art world? Who are the subjects of your research?

Paul—I worked at the Walker Art Center for 18 years up until August 2020, so that experience helped me realize that The Ostracon is an opportunity to look outside of institutions. To not even engage the questions of institutional critique that are legible right now, and to learn to communicate about and speak with communities that are larger than that of the “art world.” The Ostracon works without the assumption that institutional contemporary art is where the most important conversations are at. We don’t want to center art makers in this. The ideas I would like to pursue would be like to talk to the scientists that inspired the artist to make their work. I think the hero-industrial complex idea gives praise to the artist who makes the work but not to the resources, wisdom, and knowledge they’re tapping into.

Our subjects so far have run the gamut, from Leah Penniman, the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black, to documentary filmmaker George Stoney to John Camp, the head of excavations at the Athens Agora (who spoke about ostracism, politics, and the etymology of the name “ostracon”).

Shiv—What are some of the topics and people at bay right now, for the future of the blog?

Paul—I just finished a piece on the power of naming, based on an interview I did with Jeffery Darensbourg, a writer and member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation, whose activism of late has involved reviving the use of the name Bulbancha, Choctaw for “land of many tongues,” for what is now called New Orleans. For me this syncs with a lot of things: my love of the writing of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a bryologist who writes eloquently about naming from the perspectives of both Indigenous spirituality and western science; the reverting of a lake here in Minneapolis, long named after a pro-slavery South Carolina politician, to its Dakota name, Bde Mka Ska; and related activism around sports team mascot names, holidays like Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and the current monuments discussion. I’m also fascinated by Jack Zipes, a folklore scholar who in retirement has been republishing anti-fascist children’s books from the ’20s and ’30s, which seems like a timely topic given recent events here in the US.

Shiv—How has the Arts Writers Grant affected your work?

Paul—We don’t have to think about analytics or constructing stories in hopes they go viral, and we’re so grateful to the Arts Writers Grant for this. Instead we can think about ideas based on their intrinsic value and on what we hope will be their impact on the world. It’s been nice to have room to pay close attention to our development as writers and to explore what we care about as beings.

 Read more about The Ostracon on their website. Read about Arts Writers on their website.

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