A former resident of Fort Thunder and member of the Forcefield collective, artist Jim Drain is part of Providence legend. Straight out of the West Side setting that produced names like Lightning Bolt, his work was included in the 2006 Wunderground exhibition, the RISD Museum's retrospective of Providence's lively late 90s art scene. Since graduating from the RISD Sculpture department in 1998, Drain has shown internationally and at spaces including the MCA Chicago, The Pompidou Center Paris, PS:1 New York, the Whitney Biennial and Art Basel in Switzerland. He now resides in Miami.
Tell me about the time right after you graduated from RISD.
I was working in the Metcalf store and then I decided it would be a good idea to go to grad school, so I moved out to California. To Los Angeles with no pretext at all. And after being there for a year working my butt off--I had a bunch of different jobs--I figured that all the work that I was making in my one room apartment was about my friends in Providence. So I decided to move back. And then I was in Providence for another five or six years.
Had you lived at Fort Thunder before, or did you move there when you returned?
After living in Homer [a RISD dorm] my freshman year I lived on Waterman Street. And then I met a few people who had moved into this warehouse. There were still uncharted territories in Providence where you could just find a really large space. The summer after my sophomore year I moved into Fort Thunder.
Did Providence and its history influence your artwork?
Providence was totally inspiring--you're living in the ruins of a dead industry. There were a bunch of yarn mills that were just totally empty. So you're living in Armageddon really--and everyone around you too. This one time I saw a pack of dogs and at the head of the pack there was a coyote. It was crazy! I really felt like I was on a frontier or something, living in this almost futuristic place. There was garbage everywhere. It became part of our ethic to just use what was available. There is so much available in Providence from yarn mills that had closed--fabric and buttons. The feeling was that the world had made everything that it needs and there was no need for any more manufacturing.
The scene surrounding Fort Thunder is often referred to as a paradigmatic time in Providence. How did things dissolve?
It was torn down; we didn't want to leave. There was a developer that wanted to buy up 12 acres of property and he was just going to level all of it eventually--tear down a lot of these brick buildings that were pristine and beautiful and part of Providence's history. We had invested so much in the space. So none of us really wanted to leave. We were just evicted. When we were living there, there was some man who just came up the fire escape--if you wanted to break into Fort Thunder you could. He was there to take out the flooring. It felt like it was being torn down as we were living there.
Do you think the West Side has changed since that time?
It had changed during the time I lived there. [The end of Fort Thunder] was such a let down. Like being lost in the ocean, you're not sure where to go or who you are. And in some ways Providence has changed for the better. Like the Dirt Palace--it's a thriving space and has done a lot for Providence. It's hard to compare.
Is Providence marked by nostalgia for it?
I'm nostalgic for the time I lived there. It's the place where I grew up, and that's true for a lot of people. It was a community center. It wasn't mine or anyone's. So it's natural for there to be nostalgia. And it created an ethic that a lot of people ascribe to now--to use what's available, to be resourceful and use what you have.
Do you feel like this DIY attitude has been adopted by mainstream culture and commodified in the past few years?
If it's been a brand it's already dead. It's like going to church--it isn't about the building that the church is in. Don't fetishize the space! This is something that you can do in Columbus, Ohio or Omaha, Nebraska. It isn't really about copying something--it's something that anyone can do and it's really about the energy and people coming together. Fort Thunder is only one of many possibilities.
The New York Times called the RISD Museum's Wunderground show a "you-had-to-be-there experience." Looking back on it do you see it as the closing of an era?
Judith [Tannenbaum, Wunderground curator] was amazing. When doing a show at a museum you don't want to write your own tombstone. But it allowed us to really reflect on something and move beyond it too. It was amazing that she provided the space for us--not just physically. As far as being a 'should have been there' moment, it's a hard thing. Maybe the work didn't really translate for people. If you're coming from New York or anywhere outside of Providence I think it would have been hard to read no matter what. It could have been a generational thing too. We didn't set out to do Fort Thunder, or to be in Providence, or to do a museum show. It's hard to do a show about a certain time because it will always be about being there.
Forcefield performed at the Whitney Biennial in 2002. What did it feel like to move out of the obscurity of Providence into such a major arena?
The Biennial always professes to be the showcase of new American art. And [Rinder] asked, has any curator ever driven across the United States and gone to all these different places? He took it upon himself to rent a car and go across the country. It's true, he really did kind of go to the darkest recesses. When he showed up we didn't want him to have a tourist's view of Fort Thunder, so we put him on a bike that Peter [Fuller] had made and we biked around town and he actually crawled through all these tunnels we had made. Like, 'if you really want to see it, you have to see it in a particular sort of way.'
I guess you could say Matt [Brinkman] and Ara [Peterson] didn't start [Forcefield] to be in an art show. It was really a way to make music and draw together. When I came along it was about hanging out with really exciting people who I was totally inspired by. The installation was totally fun, but it wasn't our initial objective as a collective to get there.
Did the institutional setting change the dynamic for your work?
Matt and Ara were working on Lord of the Rings Modulator, a record we put out, and that was their priority over the Whitney. I was biting my nails--it was December and they were working on this record while I was thinking, 'Jesus, do they know how important this fucking show is?' They were not the people who would really care about or be affected by being the show, they had other priorities at the time. I don't feel like we changed ourselves to adjust to the show--it was kind of the opposite. Forcefield really had this passive aggressive stance and that was really important to us.
You mention a difference of priorities between members. Do you think your own eagerness to enter into a larger art-institutional arena was among those?
I think that's the nature of a collaborative. And people who work in a collaborative and have the same priorities are not going to get very far. I think we got as far as we did because each person had an idea of what it should be that was counter to, or went against other people's ideas. And it really expanded what we could do. If everyone agreed, it would have been really boring. You grow as a group and combine brains into one--there's never going to be a time when people don't disagree. So yeah, my priorities were different from a lot of people, but it also provided an opportunity for something that other members may not have even imagined doing.
And you guys dissolved as a collective shortly after. Was it related to that show?
It was a strange time. And here I was five years out of school--to be in the Whitney was really crazy for me because it never seemed possible in the first place. But the whole reason I was in the show was because of Larry coming to our space. Having your house torn down, but with a memorial immediately after. I can't think of any worse drama! I guess I can, but it was a difficult time. There were a lot of factors in not staying together. There were times previous to that where we had taken broken up and taken some hiatus time, but this has been a long hiatus.
Has your art making changed since you've left Providence? You know, gotten assistants and moved into wider visibility?
Even when I was in the Whitney, I had interns. I put an ad in the RISD newspaper saying "you could work on something for the Whitney Biennial!" And people were interested and they did help out. Having people in the studio makes me really work harder because things move really fast--it makes me hustle to keep up with them. It helps me to take a step back and think about things. Otherwise I would have to make calls to the gallery or whatever. If you take part of that away it gives you more space to reflect and work with your ideas. It's been really beneficial to me.
Jim Drain will present a lecture on his artwork Tuesday, October 28 at 6:30pm in the RISD Auditorium
EVE ESSEX RISD '09 is a sculptor, in theory.