Interview: Paul Druecke
Paul Druecke is a Milwaukee-based conceptual artist. In 2000, he christened an overlooked urban space in Riverwest as Blue Dress Park. He received a Mary L. Nohl Fellowship for Established Artists in 2010. His work was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Open View: You threw out the first pitch at the Brewers game this past Tuesday. What was that like and how did that become a reality?
Paul Druecke: It was surreal in the best possible ways. The unlikeliness resonates with the project Blue Dress Park (BDP), which is at the heart of me throwing out the first pitch. In 2000 I christened a slab of concrete in Riverwest as Blue Dress Park. I revisited that gesture in 2010 and, in conversation with Sara Daleiden and our first group of board members, started Friends of Blue Dress Park (FoBDP). The Friends provide an institutional structure to think about the legacy of the christening of the park, and the pragmatic and rhetorical impact that it did or did not have. FoBDP is now an operating board that’s been functioning since 2010, and the board members have been evolving over time. I think we’ve had 16 different board members. Sara Daleiden, our first President, stepped off the board in 2013, I stepped off the board in 2015, at this point John Riepenhoff is the only individual who has been involved since the Friends’ inception. The Friends, as a social structure, is set up to direct itself into the future. Essentially the FoBDP, in thinking about my contributions to that project and to the city of Milwaukee in general, and thinking of some way to honor that, came up with this idea to nominate me to throw out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers game. The idea of combining conceptual art and Major League Baseball is, I think, brilliant. And it’s the current configuration of the Friends that came up with that idea. I feel very happy that they involved me in their idea.
OV: So you go out, they announce your name, you throw out the pitch...
PD: It lasts all total maybe 10 minutes. There were 4 people who threw out first pitches (I was the first person to throw out the first pitch!). There’s a pregame ceremony where they’re acknowledging different facets of the larger community. They’re publically presenting a summary of what I’ve devoted my time and energy to the last 20 years. And they’re showing images that I gave them on the Jumbotron. Of course it made sense that the images would showcase BDP. The imprint of [the Park] is very, very slight. It really is about the idea. So to have those images find their way to the Jumbotron with 30,000 people looking on was magical, unbelievable—precisely because of its unlikelihood. My contact that evening was Katina Schaw, and she was very forthright that this was the first time an artist had been recognized. [Artist's note: a recent conversation with Chuck Stebelton brought to light that Woodland Pattern arranged for a visiting poet to throw out the first pitch a couple years back.]
OV: “Play” seems to be a common theme in your practice. What’s so fun about making art?
PD: (Laughs) I appreciate that read. I don’t subscribe to outdated stereotypes of artists, but the process [of making] is a little torturous for me. BDP is a perfect example. I knew that I wanted to do something as early as 1999—and for at least 12 months I agonized over what I would do at this space that I found so intriguing. Intriguing because it lacked any identity -- well that’s not true, it’s very special -- but it has no use, it has no purpose. It exists as potential. I was grappling with what this could be, thinking there’d be a guerilla installation, or there’d be some kind of marking in that space. I was much younger at the time—so was Milwaukee’s conceptual art community. I didn’t know how to import points of reference like Park fiction in Hamburg or the work of Temporary Services in Chicago. It took me 12 months to refine that to the point of deciding I’m just going to name it, invite people there, and not alter it, because what I appreciate about that space is how it is. We have a lot of examples now in the realm of social practice that are the exact opposite, like some art gesture is going to come in and transform and make things better. What I wanted was to offer a perspective onto this piece of ground and the urban landscape. The focus was on that idea and not on beautifying it.
OV: A lot of your work concerns or occupies public space. What questions did you have when you first started making this kind of work, and what questions persists?
PD: When I first started I had some more utopian notions of the role that art might play. What I quickly came to realize was that I also had a lot of ego invested in that process. There can be a lot of conflicts there. I’m sensitive to superficial notions of community and collaboration, if you’re inviting people to participate in a public ceremony, but then ultimately what you’re trying to do is build your career, you’ve got to be forthright with all of those ingredients. Some of the practices that I admire the most have a social agenda to them. I think that can be done really well. I just realized my personal limitations with a utopian model. With something like BDP, as opposed to making something better, I think it makes the city more interesting. I’m also invested in how idiosyncrasy, personality, contributes to this larger collective identity. It’s a messy process. And the urban landscape is such a complex, lovely, frustrating example of that kind of collectivity.
Recently, I’m thinking a lot about what I call common inheritance, which arose from my interest in landmarks and public inscription—the way human presence gets written into the landscape. Historic landmarks are one official example, another instance that I’m increasingly focused on is graffito where people have scrawled their names into wet concrete. In a way it seems like a juvenile gesture, and yet it speaks to something very fundamental about humans wanting to have something about themselves reflected back to them. These inscriptions enter the landscape and generation after generation after generation inherit them, but our cultural priorities shift, demographics shift, the official and unofficial landmarks that we erect now will be read very differently, will have very different constituencies in 10 years, in 20 years, and certainly in 100 years.
OV: How does BDP exist today? How does it manifest itself?
PD: I’m delighted to say BDP exists in the exact same way that it existed in 2000 when I christened it. It is an irregularly-shaped patch of concrete on the southwest corner of Holton and Reservoir. It’s actually part of what I thought was the Holton Street bridge, but Matt Cook, Milwaukee’s Poet Laureate, gave a monologue for an event we did there last year and did some research and found out that it is accurately referred to as the Holton Street Viaduct. That space, which I really encourage everybody to visit, offers an amazing view of Milwaukee, it overlooks the river and Commerce Street. It’s also underwhelming in the most rewarding way. As far as I know, it exists exactly as it did 16 years ago, and I imagine 16 years before that. There is a lot of development going on around Blue Dress Park, I hope the park resists mindless—or capital driven—alteration.
OV: What’s next?
PD: There’s a video series, Monumentis Interruptus, I’m very much at the beginning of this project. It’s reinterpreting subject matter that I’ve been thinking about and working with for close to ten years. I’m translating the aforementioned public inscription using time-based media, which I think is an obvious next step given the content, the relationship to time itself. Shifting to time-based media is opening up a lot of research paths. I’m thinking about landmarks through a theatrical perspective, a history of theatrical entrances and exits. I want to absorb some of that information, and theory, and bring it to onsite shoots that use this notion of arrival and departure to frame what is perennially present in the landscape. I’ve been working on these videos for about a year. I had the opportunity to screen the first iteration at Temporary Resurfacing. We projected Monumentis into the open air. There was no backdrop so there was no image. The video imagery is densely layered along with the soundtrack, so people heard the soundtrack and essentially had to step into the projection in order to see the visual content. To complete the loop for a moment.