Paul Shortt Interviews the DC-based Collaborative Team

Justin Plakas and Rachel Debuque are artist and designers who combine a mix of traditional photography and sculpture with performance and new media work. Their work often incorporates synthetic and man made materials in bold colors and patterns that push the boundaries of color, space and form with a digital approach. They relocated to DC after numerous residences around the country at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and Elsewhere.

Rachel teaches at George Mason University and Justin teaches at the Corcoran School of Art and Design at The George Washington University.

1test test_1Images from PLAKOOKEE’s Community Forklift Residency

Paul Shortt: You talked in our studio visit a few months back about looking to expand beyond gallery exhibitions. What brought about this change in direction?

PLAKOOKEE: We both started to feel unfulfilled by the experience doing projects in the same old white walled gallery spaces. It just doesn’t seem to make sense to push ourselves (and our students) to create new experiences and then place our work in similar gallery spaces over and over again.We are more interested in moving beyond those old ideas about where art lives and engaging projects, people and spaces that place us as artists in the world and not just artists in the art world.

cosmic8PLAKOOKEE: Cosmic Modules at Hemphill

Are the two projects you have recently completed, Hemphill and Community Forklift part of this new direction?

Absolutely. With COSMIC MODULES we were making work for a space that was surrounded by glass – floor to ceiling windows. A large dark space that could be viewed only from the street. It was a challenge and with a very small budget it was an interesting problem to solve. The thing we loved about it was that people walking down the street everyday and night were passing by and watching us work, taking photos and interacting. People were / are essentially stopping in the middle of their day to look at art. People were coming up to the window and knocking and saying ‘what is this?’.

With the Community Forklift residency – we set up a studio in the back of an architectural salvage warehouse. People were coming in to buy toilets, doors, etc and we were right there with them make photos and small sculptures with those same materials! Community Forklift is a really great non-profit that is really concerned about issues of reuse and the community. We contacted them about how we were using their materials to make work and showed them some of the images we have made and we pitched working in their space. They were into it.

We are working with them to create a limited edition set of prints that will be for sale and will benefit some of their community outreach programs that help people in the community make repairs to their homes. We are not necessarily what you would call “social practice” artists but we like keeping our practice social and meeting new people through our work. Working in these different spaces has allowed us to do more of this. We like finding ways to bring what we do out of the studio and into the world.

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With the Hemphill show you’ve created an installation that is meant to ideally be viewed at night. Can you talk a bit about how this work came about?

When we began speaking with Hemphill about working in the L street space we started thinking about how it would be fun to design something that borrowed from the language of B movies specifically Sci-Fi films. Something that felt like a set or props from a weird little film. We want our work to be fun and colorful and while the space can be viewed all day long it really comes into it’s own at night. The light and the color jumps out into the street and mixes with everything else happening in that part of town.

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Do you feel there is a difference in working in vacant retail space and showing within a traditional gallery context?

Yeah, totally. The vacant retail spaces present a whole new set of problems to solve and in some ways can take the work places you weren’t expecting. Weird lighting and electrical situations, architectural roadblocks, strange neighbors, etc. You can get all types of things coming at you when you get out of a traditional gallery situation. It’s not for everyone or every type of show or installation but it can be a lot of fun.

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In both your solo and collaborative works there is a shared narrative of bold graphics, design and pattern. In your installation at Hemphill it seems that 2D and 3D forms are pushed to their breaking points, literally taking over the space while only being viewed flatly. How does working in this way fit within the narrative of your solo work?

We both have a pretty varied studio practice. Right now we both are working on projects, together and separately, that are 2D and 3D / digital and analogue. We are interested in jumping between these different worlds and languages. For the Cosmic Modules show – that started as a series of pencil sketches and then scanned and streamlined in illustrator, photoshop and sketchup.

Those digital designs were then made as physical sculptures. Between the two of us we make use of everything we utilize in our own individual studio practices but often the outcome is something totally different than what we make alone. The great thing is that we are constantly synthesizing things – either through our own practice or collaborative work.cosmic_2

How do you two balance your own individual art practices with PLAKOOKEE?

For the most part it’s all pretty organic. Even when we have individual projects we end up helping each other in most cases. We work really well together but we have very different ways of working in the studio. Rachel needs larger chunks of time to get her ideas out and likes to process things through making in the studio. Justin tends to be more of a constant experimenter and can work in quick bursts.

We aren’t always working on ‘PLAKOOKEE’ projects but we also don’t spend much time compartmentalizing these things or drawing lines. In most cases we have personal and collaborative stuff going at the same time and think of it all as one fluid thing.

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What other projects to either of you have both collaboratively or individually?

We have a bunch of stuff going on – which is exciting. We are collaborating with some other artists on some group shows this Spring in Washington, D.C.

We are in pre-production on a movie project. We got on this kick about werewolves based on this weird story from Rachel’s childhood and this crappy 80’s TV show she would watch with her grandpa. We started researching folklore across the world; origins, histories, etc. It’s super fascinating. Cultures all over the world have these similar legends about werewolf like creatures.

The script that we are finishing is a mix of horror, sci-fi with some pop fantasy thrown in. The look and the feel of the film will involve a lot of what we already do – big vivid colors and pattern. We lived in New Mexico before we came back to the east coast and we are going to head back sometime in the next year to start shooting in the Southwest and then finish in Los Angeles.

We are also still working on the images we shot at Community Forklift and those limited edition prints will be available for the outreach fundraiser this summer.

Rachel is getting ready for a performance and installation that she is doing at the CUE Foundation this summer in NYC. The show is called Radical Plastic and it’s curated by Rachel Reese.

3 Image from Justin Plakas series ‘Waiting Room’ at the Bemis Center in Omaha, Nebraska (2014)6Install shot from Rachel Debuque ‘ Chirpy Fur’ at Redux – Charleston, SC (2015)

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Images from Justin Plakas series ‘Waiting Room’ at the Bemis Center in Omaha, Nebraska (2014)
Author Paul Shortt is a visual artist, writer and arts administrator. He received his MFA in New Media Art from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his BFA in Painting from the Kansas City Art Institute. He was formerly the Registry Coordinator and Program Assistant at Maryland Art Place. He is currently the New Media Curator for Arlington Cultural Affairs in Arlington County, VA and lives in Washington, DC.