Raphael Rubinstein is a New York-based poet, art critic, and Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art. From 1997 to 2007, he was a senior editor at Art in America, where he continues to be a contributing editor. His most recent book of poetry is A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015).

Heather Bause is a painter, a writer, and a Professor of Design at CUNY in Brooklyn, New York. Bause was raised in Houston, TX, earning a BFA and MFA in Painting from the University of Houston. Her exhibitions include, among others, Hard Tension/ Soft Surface at Projects Gallery, Houston and The Stanford-Binet at Darke Gallery, Houston.

ARTIST WORDS: An Exclusive Interview with Raphael Rubinstein and Heather Bause (December 2016)

Mitchell Center: Why the title The Miraculous?

Heather Bause: The project title is actually The Miraculous: Houston. Raphael will explain in better detail about his book, The Miraculous, but if I am not mistaken, the title was shortened from In Search of the Miraculous, inspired by Bas Jan Ader’s 1975, transatlantic-sailing performance.

Raphael Rubinstein: Yes, the original title came from Bas Jan Ader’s fatal voyage. I suppose that Ader took it from Ouspensky’s eponymous book about the teachings of the Russian spiritualist George Gurdjieff. By the way, I have never read anything by Ouspensky or Gurdjieff.

Mitchell Center: When did the idea of taking the words off the pages and placing them within and about architectural spaces? What was the artistic impetus?

Heather Bause: The idea to take texts from the book originated from the brilliant mind of Peter Amoore, who was a curator at the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop (ESW) in Scotland. Peter worked with Raphael and two U.K. designers to develop 12 posters to be placed around the interior and exterior of the ESW building.

My inspiration for The Miraculous: Houston derived from this initial, smaller-scaled project in Scotland. One of the things I wanted to accomplish with this project, which I felt personally at odds with in the Edinburgh-based installation, was the nature of the venue. As a former painting and drawing instructor at the University of Houston, I always taught the Monday / Wednesday 8am–11am classes. This meant that on average, I had half art majors and half non-art majors in my 20+ student classes. As a painting professor at a university, it is fairly unusual and often challenging to have non-art majors mixed into a painting course with advanced studio art students. This meant that I couldn’t lower the expectations of my advanced students, nor alienate the ones with less technical experience, art historical knowledge or interest in or love of painting.

My experience working with my students — from all areas of the university, in all disciplines and majors — and helping them to find their path and love of painting, their own unique voice as artists — informed my vision of The Miraculous: Houston, which I thought would be a wonderful way to continue that vein of work. With this project, and on such a scale — in a space that is not a traditionally-art-expected-space, but a university, a place of many interests, cultures, colleges, disciplines and majors, with a diverse student, staff and faculty population — it seemed to me that The Miraculous would, in fact, be miraculous, in the end, piquing and inspiring the public’s curiosity about contemporary art.

Mitchell Center: When placing text in public spaces, what are some of the important elements you plan to play with?

Heather Bause: An important element when placing text in public is to pay attention to some of the basic, formal rules of brand and identity. For example, the fifty episodes need to cohesively look as though they belong to the same project, part of the same visual system; this will be achieved through color, font, and other visual cues. Principles used in wayfinding graphics are also of import. Legibility is essential, but equally essential is using color to draw the audience into noticing the poster/text/banner/object so that they may infer that it is something important enough to read (like a road sign—easily visible but not distracting). Scale is another method—some of the texts will be positioned on objects, projected on buildings, text printed or painted on banners and hung from the exteriors of buildings in the form of canvases, signs, posters. Some will be quite large, some will be small, others hidden, as they will be audio-based and activated only by movement.

Mitchell Center: If an exhibition maker thinks of the visitor experience when crafting an exhibition in a controlled environment, how do you go about thinking of the “random person” experience in how they encounter this work?

Heather Bause: From my perspective, in thinking of the “random person” and how they might encounter these texts/works, focusing on the placement of each text/work and its site-specific location is critical. For example, Alison Knowles’ text will appear on the menu in the restaurant at the Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. I believe some element of surprise is helpful in eliciting curiosity and interest around reading the texts themselves. My hope is that happening upon one of these works in a place one would not expect to encounter a micro-narrative about contemporary art will encourage the audience to seek out the entire set of Miraculous episodes.

Mitchell Center: In choosing which acts of art to relate in The Miraculous, were you guided by any particular set of principles?

Raphael Rubinstein: In the beginning it was very intuitive. Certain lives of artists, certain performances could be retold in the voice I wanted to use, others couldn’t. Suppressing the names of the artists was also intuitive. It was all about telling certain kinds of stories, narratives that would (I hoped) resonate for the reader—because they were hard to believe (what sane person would do such a thing!), because they were ingenious, because they were comic. As the book took shape one thing I did consciously pay attention to was finding a balance between the famous and the obscure.

Mitchell Center: What is the role of brevity or the ephemeral in the project?

Raphael Rubinstein: What amazes me is how it is possible to convey the essence of a work of conceptual or performance art in very few words, something that isn’t generally true of painting or sculpture. As for the ephemeral: many of the works I write about were intended to leave no visible trace.