Alumni Spotlight- Angela Washko

Alumni Spotlight- Angela Washko

Angela Washko, Tyler School of Art, BFA, Class of '09

Interview by Eileen Owens, CLA, English, Class of '10

You're back on campus this fall for an artist/maker residency. What will your upcoming library program entail?

The first part of the program will be a public lecture in which I will discuss my body of work – including performances, digital interventions and videos with a focus on projects that address some strategic tactical media based work responsive to today’s increasingly polarized media spheres online. The second part of the program will be a performance called Tightrope Routines based on my experience as a feminist artist mistaken for a journalist deciding to interview a pick-up artist who has been dubbed the “internet’s most infamous misogynist.”

How does it feel to be back on campus not as a student, but as an educator?

Well I’m not sure, because this hasn’t happened yet…but I love working at Carnegie Mellon University as an Assistant Professor in the School of Art there. It’s really nice to be working with these really ambitious, thoughtful and conscientious students and I feel like I’m learning so much from their experiences and perspectives…especially around emerging technologies and their integration into everyday life. I am not really inclined to think about my current relationship to my undergraduate institution as a shift in title or rank, but instead I think about Philadelphia and Tyler (in Elkins Park) and Temple as the place where I finally found a sense of inclusion (in terms of a challenging artistic and intellectual community) and diversity – which was sorely lacking in my hometown. I look forward to learning from the students at Temple and Tyler about how the institution that I was a part of has grown and changed.

Your recent work explores how women are viewed in what's typically thought of as the male-dominated world of gaming. How do games like World of Warcraft reflect our larger cultural issues? And why choose gaming to explore these problems?

I chose to work inside of World of Warcraft because for 9 years I played World of Warcraft and I intimately knew the social culture of the space very well as I’d been participating in it for so long. In terms of how the social space in WoW reflects our larger cultural issues – I think this speaks to a misunderstanding of games in general. A lot of people who don’t play these games look at the fantasy landscapes of WoW and wonder – “How could there possibly be conversations about race, gender, economics, politics and sexuality in a mountainous landscape full of cow-people, trolls, goblins, orcs and elves!?”  But really World of Warcraft has a rich social culture which is supported by the chat design of the game itself and informal organizing within its large communities. I ended up talking with players about these issues in the game because I’d been asked to get back in the kitchen and make players sandwiches so many times that it seemed to make sense being an artist to start investigating how this phenomenon had emerged when the politics outside of the screen didn’t manifest in the game’s design. So I started to facilitate conversations in major gathering areas (cities) in the game space as a way to try to both understand the formation of a language of exclusivity in the otherwise accessible space and also to bring greater visibility and safety through solidarity to players who also felt marginalized by the communal languages that had formed throughout servers in World of Warcraft. I chose gaming to explore these problems because I was/am a gamer and I was witnessing these issues as they emerged. When I started my projects inside games (around 2010), there was very little public media discussion about issues within “gaming culture” so it felt as though it was an unexplored territory. It was really exciting to work in there and even when people were frustrated that we were talking about feminism, they were still largely excited to have a validating platform (my “research project”) to express their feelings about these issues inside of a space they cared a great deal about (WoW).

Do you feel you have a responsibility as a contemporary artist to explore these issues?

I think artistic practice can be so much more diverse and interesting than the public or mainstream media will often allow it to be. I don’t think any artist has a responsibility to work within the social realm or to be “politically engaged.”  For me as an artist, my interests in research around digital ethnographies and social movements has led me toward a practice that intersects much more with emerging technologies and resulting social/behavioral shifts – but I don’t think any artist (including myself) should feel pressure to work in the social. I think I have more of a responsibility to do my homework with regards to research and accountability, making sure that when I engage other people in my work that I do so ethically and transparently. I have more of a responsibility to the participants in my work than I do to some idea of what a contemporary artist should be.

You're a visual artist, but you're also an educator, writer, and facilitator. What, for you, connects these roles? Or do you even see them as separate entities?

I don’t really consider them to be separate entities anymore. I curate exhibitions, screenings and performance events as well. I think my practice is really embedded in facilitating open discussion across communities and bringing visibility to issues that effect women’s experiences and I look to do that in whatever format makes sense for those issues. Sometimes this manifests as writing for mainstream media sources…sometimes this manifests as curating an exhibition…sometimes this manifests as making a video using and responding to existing cultural footage…sometimes it means playing World of Warcraft and talking to players J.

Is there anything from your experience in Honors or Tyler that unexpectedly influences your practice today?

Faculty at Tyler School of Art instilled in me a sense of the importance for an artist to have a disciplined practice. Even though my work is a lot less material oriented than it was when I was in school, I still go to my studio nearly every day and draw as a part of working out my projects (it is very infrequent that any of these drawings end up being a final product).  I feel very fortunate to be an artist and an educator because I get to do what I love and care about every day and I get to work with other students who have similar aspirations – so I can say, “Hey it’s tough, but it can be done! Don’t give up!” Tyler taught me that pursuing a career in art is competitive and difficult but worth it if you can figure out a way to make it happen.

In the Honors program – the Intellectual Heritage courses and a course called American Ethnography were really influential to me. Exposure to a wide variety of experiences, perspectives and world views really changed my experience of the world and introduced an intuitive way of operating with empathy and recognizing subjectivity in my work and my life.

You were the first artist to sell a Vine video as a work of art. How does that feel?

To be honest, it really reminds me how arbitrary the art market feels. To be known for selling 6 seconds of video- especially when most of your video work averages on an hour (usually an hour that requires quite a bit of context/explanation of research)…it was quite an odd experience.  I felt very lucky that someone wanted to buy it at an art fair…and then very quickly I was shocked by how many press outlets used it as clickbait fodder and I started to get hate emails along the lines of “HOW DARE YOU SELL SOMETHING LIKE A VINE THAT ANYBODY CAN MAKE? HOW FULL OF YOUR SELF ARE YOU REALLY? HOW DARE YOU TAKE SOMETHING FOR THE MASSES AND CAPITALIZE ON IT?” The amount that it sold for was also really quite low for an edition of video (especially a 1/1 edition). It reminded me how little most of the public understands how diverse art worlds can be because of how easily what you do can be reduced to however the media frames your work. I think the piece made me even more aware of the dividing of audiences for artwork and how many publics find art to be exclusively an elitist enterprise. Since that time, I started to think about ways to make my work happen in conversation with communities that I participate in that are not a part of “the art world” rather than about those communities…if that makes sense!

And, finally, which Temple food trucks got you through all-nighters in your studio?

Well I lived around the Tyler Elkins Park campus for all of my semesters but one…and so my Temple food truck experience was quite limited. My last semester I moved close to Temple’s campus and I really liked the crepe truck which popped up outside of the new Tyler building once it was completed.