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Today we’re talking with Jesse Sugarmann about the way car consumerism, and the aesthetic choices behind it, has been a part of your life and your families.

Learn more about Jesse's work: http://www.jessesugarmann.com/

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Sarah: We are in Bakersfield, California to meet up with the artist Jesse Sugarmann. Jesse uses a wide variety of media to consider the ways the automotive industry shapes the way we live and the way we construct our identities. He creates what he calls automotive performances, including his 2013 work, "We Build Excitement," where he has assembled sculptures out of Pontiac cars as a monument to the discontinued division of GM.

Another automotive performance was a celebration of Lee Iacocca, the former head of Chrysler corporation. For this, he positioned three Chrysler minivans on top of 42 air beds, setting into motion a kind of slow motion car wreck. His most recent work, "The Peoples 500," is an art project in Indianapolis, inviting 100 members of the community to each drive two laps around the Speedway. These drivers take turns to complete a single running of the Indianapolis 500, allowing members of the audience the chance to become part of the spectacle.

Many of us spend a ton of time in cars. And today, we're meeting up with Jesse to think about the way that car consumerism and the aesthetic choices behind it has been a part of your life and your family's.

Jesse: Hi. I'm Jesse Sugarmann. And this is your "Art Assignment." The first car I ever owned was a Plymouth Horizon TC3, which is the sport model of the Plymouth Horizon, which is actually not terribly sporty.

I have always supported myself by buying and fixing cars. So I'll go on the newspaper or now Craigslist and find a car with a fairly redeemable mechanical problem. And I'll buy it, and fix it, and resell it. And that's just kind of how I supported myself. And so I was very accustomed to just slipping away from whatever I was doing and start shopping for cars.

And when I was in graduate school, this became a problem. I would be sitting there trying to work on art. Like graduate school art, you know? Thoughtful art. And without really controlling the moment, sort of slip away and start shopping for cars. And I spent probably more time shopping for cars than I did working on art. And so at some point, I realized, hey. Maybe I need to marry these two things so I can actually make shopping for cars part of my art practice.

I was always very interested in automobiles as an index of like human desire, you know? Like cars represent human form. They have faces. They have rear ends. They look sort of like us. And if you go back and look at cars of the last 40 years and the way that design shifts and the way that the aesthetics of them alter, it's sort of this index of like what the best idea at the time was. Or, like, what the most desirable set of self-imagery enforcing physical components were.

I was thinking about cars during the collapse of the auto industry. You know, so 2008, 2009, when everything was falling apart. And working very closely with the idea of the car accident, and expanding the idea of the car accident. So thinking of the car accident as anything that destroyed a car, right? And so this destruction of the auto industry or this failure of the auto industry was kind of like the world's biggest car accident. And I was interested in unpacking it in that way. You know, pursuing that as an idea through it.

Your assignment is to create a visual representation of your family's vehicular genealogy. The first step in this process is to talk to your family. Find out what cars everyone owned and when they owned them and make a list. The second step is to choose the scope of your data. So I choose my own driving lifespan from 1990 to 2016.

You pick what time frameworks best for your data. Third, choose what visual element of the car you're going to focus on. And I say visual, but it can be anything, right? You can-- I chose colors. You can pick door handles, headlights, any small part. The way radio knobs work, what the name of the car is, anything. The fourth step is to take these car parts and assemble them in some meaningful way using a data visualization system of your choice. And the last step is to share it with us.

I have taken my family's vehicular genealogy and built it into a tartan. Into a plaid in which every car owned is a stripe within the fabric.

And using Photoshop, I built a weave pattern, a warp and weft that interlock. Just by doing a very simple binary, you know? It's basically a checkerboard. And you make each stripe a checkerboard. And then you just flip one 90 degrees and the two will mesh and form a plaid.

Sarah: So John, this assignment is kind of quintessentially American. And I feel a little bad about that. But, like, the car is so at the core of the American experience.

John: Yeah. I think partly because it's a large geographical country, we tend to spend a lot of time in our cars. And that's been going on for generations now. And when I think about my parents and their childhood, I do think a lot about the cars that I was in as a kid. And then the cars that they were in as a kid. And how that shaped our experiences.

Sarah: So if you and your family don't drive cars, and good for you. I think there are other ways to approach this assignment. You could think about the colors of your front doors or another thing that seems to be indicative of what's happening in your life and your family's.

John: But I think it's really interesting that Jesse is focusing on making a tartan out of the colors of the cars. That's not the only way you can approach it, though.

Sarah: Of course there are many different things. Like when I think about the first car I drove, I really liked it. It had these little flip up lights. So I think I would maybe focus on the shape of the light.

John: Yeah. And I am obsessed with the names of cars. Especially people tend to name their first cars. And I think the way they name them says a lot about both the people and the car.

Sarah: Once you pick that aspect that you're going to focus on in your family's vehicular history, I think then it's really important to spend a lot of time thinking about how you want to visualize it. I mean Jesse is making a tartan. And that's super cool. But there's many different ways to do it. And today for our art historical precedence, I'm actually going to go back and talk about the history of tartans.

One of the simplest weaving patterns, tartan cloth has stripes of different colors that vary in breadth. The arrangement is the same in the warp and weft, so that when woven, the pattern appears as squares often intersected by stripes. The pattern is called a set. And the possibilities for variation are endless.

While strongly associated with the Scottish Highlands, tartan has been traced as far back as the Iron Age in what's now Denmark. The earliest example found in Scotland dates to the 3rd century AD, and is a simple two colored tartan made from undyed brown and white wool from native Soay sheep. Highlanders later used lichen, leaves, berries, and bark to dye the wool various colors.

Each community had a weaver who would make fabric for everyone in the area. And eventually a set became associated with that region. Often misunderstood as a way for clans to differentiate from their neighbors, tartan originated as a product of practicality. A system of data visualization for a particular place, its flora and fauna, and a representation of a community through the natural materials they have at hand.

Jesse: So my plaid has like a time signature. So every four rows of pixels is a year. And then my family members are sequenced.

And it really allows you to isolate your aesthetic choices in comparison to your family. So like I have gotten a different car pretty much every year, you know? I'm not like buying a new car. I mean I've gotten a different desperate car every year, pretty much. And so like my area in the plaid is like very, very quick color cuts, you know?

Whereas my brother who's older than me has owned four cars in his life. And his section is much more-- and mine are very colorful. He's been like black, gray, gray, gray, you know? So it really gives you an opportunity to isolate the aesthetic interests that you have and compare them to the aesthetic interests that your family members have.

The act of having to talk to your family members and ask them like, tell me every car you've ever owned? Like start with the first one and go forward. Automatically becomes a narrative process. And stories of how cars were found, stories of how cars were lost, and specific memories of experiences and cars.

It's an interesting thing to see how one of the things and you're always trying to puzzle out as a person is, what were my parents like before me, you know? Because that's kind of always a mystery. And you see these pictures of your parents and they're young. And maybe they're like smoking or something, right? And it makes no sense to you. Because you know these people and know that they're very reserved in ways. And so if you track this history and look specifically at what cars they were owning before you were born, it's very revealing of the types of people they were.

My ultimate plan with the tartan is to have it printed onto a Jacquard woven blanket. So places like Walgreens and Walmart offers-- they offer these photo blankets, which are like a digital Jacquard loom. And I'm just going to have this family vehicular genealogy pattern print onto a blanket. And then I have a new child on the way. And it'll be his or her kid blanket.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Yeah. I mean I had to come to terms many years ago that I make work about cars. And people who are interested in cars probably aren't going to be interested in my work.