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The Art Of Communication: An Interview With A.L. Steiner

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A.L. Steiner is a person who makes you think and, like any artist, her art functions in the same way. She loads her videos and collages and installations with huge subtext and collides imagery to create commentary on the very flawed society that we live in. Her work represents a strong point of view and a definite political stance. It can be intimidating.

You would be surprised to find that Steiner herself is not as intimidating or outwardly serious as you would assume. She lives in a cute, woody home in Highland Park on a plot of land with lots and lots of fruiting trees. She has a quick, dry wit that can be seen as a means for her to soften the heavy topics on her mind–and that her art addresses.

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Steiner has a deep art history but she did not set out to become an artist. “I grew up in Miami, Florida and I was born in 1967: I just made it before the cultural revolution,” she says. “My mother started an art gallery and she was planning to do art fairs locally before she conceived me, which wasn’t planned. When I was born, she decided to go ahead and do it. She raised three girls and she now wanted to embark on a different part of her life: I became her sidekick. That’s where I learned so much about art and artists and she took me traveling a lot with her to museums and to studios.”

“I had a really rich background but I wasn’t an overly artistic kid,” she notes. Steiner dabbled in photography and went on to attend DC’s George Washington University for college. Art still was not directly in the picture, though. “I studied Communications which I very much was interested in, not so much visual arts. I think my access to understanding these forms of communication to which my mother introduced me led to an expanded interest in the larger scope of communication–to a very focused point,  the way in which artists communicate.”

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A brief stint to San Francisco in 1992 was integral to her eventual art practice.My perspective was kind of shattered in a good way. I worked at the HIV/AIDS service organization Whitman-Walker Clinic in DC for several years after graduation, then joined Queer Nation and the Women’s Action Coalition in SF, and eventually the Lesbian Avengers when I moved to New York in 1993. Those groups and the people I met gave me what I consider my master’s education–the ‘equivalent’ to an Master’s degree, one might call it. I learned so many things just by being out in the world and participating in community activism and direct action.”

For years, Steiner worked in different areas of communications, namely as a photo editor in New York City. “I was a magazine editor for eleven years. I worked full-time and then freelanced for about seven years, which eventually taught me a lot more about messaging within mass media and pop culture. I restarted a fine arts practice while doing that full-time, which then took over. What I really wanted wasn’t a career in commercial media: I became really interested in pedagogical practices and communicating a political stance within fine arts. That’s what led me to where I am now.”

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In 2000, Steiner was asked to teach at SVA. This is really when her career switched from working in commercial communication to communicating through art. I started teaching a class called Photography As Art and Commerce because I was in both of those worlds. That’s what now led me to a more intense career in academia. I was a guest speaker at SVA and then I was approached about teaching.”

“It was a long path winding around and through a lot of different forms of communication,” she says with a deep breath.

“I got came to LA most recently in July of 2011. I’m really dedicated to being a New Yorker. The LA move is quite complicated. I was in and out of LA for two years because of a relationship so I started to come here more. Then, I started to teach here: I was offered some work at UCLA teaching a lecture class. I ended up teaching four classes on and off for two years.”

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“I ingratiated myself in the LA community–and a lot of my friends who were here had been in New York or Chicago or San Francisco or other cities. We all moved around a lot. I ended up coming here more and more after I did the show Shared Women at LACE, which corresponded with the opening of WACK!. Essentially, curating that show brought me here.”

Shared Women was curated by Steiner, Eve Fowler, and Emily Roysdon. She and Eve have been friends for quite some time and this friendship helped to draw Steiner westward. “Eve is a person who got me speaking gigs, with whom I did exhibitions and collaborative work. I started to come here more and more. After becoming part of this community, I realized I was suddenly bicoastal–another coming out story! In 2011, colleague Shannon Ebner invited me to teach in USC’s undergraduate photo program and Charlie White invited me to teach in the MFA program.”

Steiner and A.K. Burns began collaborating on Community Action Centertogether around 2007. The video work was eventually filmed around New York state, as well as in Los Angeles. “Those are pretty much the only two locations. That was also a connector between people and thinking in terms of community and working. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we both wanted to work here–especially me because I had been here a lot more. Once we started thinking about what we wanted with Community Action Center, LA  played a part in that. LA Plays Itself was a really big influence on our film. We were interested in Fred Halsted’s work because of William E. Jones’ research and visual works. We watched LA Plays Itself at MoMA because they have a master print, perhaps the only one. Seeing the film, and understanding this topographical, sexualized, eroticized view through the lens of LA was really influential on Community Action Center and what we wanted from it, what we thought it could picture. Could it picture a community? Could it picture a topography? Could it picture a temporality? LA Plays Itself did that.”

Being in Los Angeles now, Steiner hasn’t been able to discern whether or not there has been an influence on her. “It’s hard to really know!” she says laughing. “It’s really interesting for me especially because I grew up in Miami: this is such a similar lifestyle for me that I didn’t want to repeat. Not because I don’t love where I grew up or that the cultural landscapes are similar or even the psychic energy out here. It’s nothing at all like Miami…but driving in your car is. Things being miles away from each other as an every day situation is really similar. I was really resistant and still am a bit resistant to accepting this place as my home.”

“On the other hand, I know it’s influencing my work. I know experiencing an everyday reality that is vastly different from the East coast reality of space, of where I live, of the weather outside, of how I travel around, and how much I see of other people and how many cultural events I attend, which are really important to me. Performance works have always been my preference, in terms of what kind of work I like to see. It was really inspiring for me to be in New York as opposed to DC or Miami, which didn’t have a lot of performing arts that I could afford to see, and the supporting communities. I’m currently thinking more about how I can prioritize my concerns. A lot more of my work that’s been produced out here has been about the environmental systems around me, and my ensuing concerns  That was present in my other works but it;s shifted to somewhat of a priority. I sort of feel like I’m beginning all over again. I think it changed what I want to do…as per usual, I just need to figure out how to do it.”

“I would say I’m easing into LA. I’m still getting used to it.”

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Part of Steiner’s getting used to Los Angeles is figuring out the link between here and NYC. There are great connections which has helped her adjust to the change of environment. “I figured if I wasn’t in New York, I would be here. I’ve always had that in the back of my head. There’s something about the communities that overlap here. The dialogue between New York and LA is pretty fast and open. I definitely find what’s construed as art or the arts community to be a good conduit for dialogue, a really open space, and other times a really closed space because it assumes it’s open. There’s a paradox inherent.”

“Nonetheless, I’ve learned a lot from being in different places and different communities. I’ve been really privileged in that way to garner respect from work that isn’t easy and that isn’t always valued economically or subjectively. I think that I’ve been heard by people and that makes me feel like I am in a place where I can continue working–and I want to be challenged by that. I want to be challenged by the communities themselves. I find it, in those regards, to be a really generative space. There are so many exciting and inspiring things happening here, within institutions and independently. So many great thinkers and do’ers. I’ll always be motivated by learning from people around me.”

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Steiner has a lot planned for the future. She’s currently working with Narcissister on a video project, continuing work on the catalogue for Readykeulous with Nicole Eisenman, just completed the visuals for Chicks On Speed’s 2013 Australian tour, starting to plan a presentation with Zackary Drucker for Brian Getnick’s LA-centric Native Strategies and preparing a solo exhibition in Munich for May.

“Hopefully there is a future for all of us,” she says laughing and tossing her hands up briefly. “There are dire circumstances that many are clearly concerned about, and issues we’re working out and working on  The future, as always, is uncertain. I’m a precarious worker so I don’t always know where I’m going to be. Rachel [Berks]–my partner–is rooting herself here in the way that she’s creating her own space with Otherwild. We are beholden to thinking about where we will be and where we may go together. I just never know, but I’m making the most of it.”

For more on A.L. Steiner, be sure to check out her website. You can also sign a recent petition of hers urging Conde Nast to print their publications on recycled paper here.

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