HOPE GINSBURG
Hope Ginsburg’s ongoing work Sponge takes its title not from the cellulose rectangles found on supermarket shelves but from the marine animal, which, with its porosity, adaptability (its cells can repurpose themselves), and ability to attach itself to a variety of hosts, embodies many of the qualities of her enterprise. Headquartered at Virginia Commonwealth University (where Ginsburg teaches), Sponge knits together aesthetics and pedagogy, taking the form of workshops, classes, performances, and more, on subjects ranging from felt making to oceanographic robotics, and drawing influence from the philosophies of educators such as John Dewey and Paulo Freire. However, in a manner fairly reminiscent of the experiments of the UK’s Artist Placement Group, Ginsburg is ultimately concerned with the possibilities (formal and, indeed sculptural) generated by the seamless integration of practice and context. For example, when she worked at a textile firm that had developed sustainable fabric that could be used as mulch, she made an oversize wooden compost bin wherein worms could be seen busily digesting the product; in a group show at MoMA PS1, the bin functioned as a sculpture, while in the firm’s showroom it was a marketing display.  Now that the context has changed, her work has followed suit.

In recent years, Ginsburg’s Sponge has seemed more like a nautilus’s spiraling shell. In 2008, Solvent Space in Richmond, Virginia, hosted “Meta-Sponge,” whose aim was to give participants the tools to start similar initiatives of their own. In early 2009, at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, Ginsburg hosted “Center Sponge,” a five-day “experience in total immersion,” involving ukulele lessons, field trips to an aquarium and a planetarium, and presentations by a musician (Mirah), a curator (Larissa Harris), and an engineer (David Mindell), among others. To counter the intimate you-had-to-be-there-ness of the project, Ginsburg produced several colorful prints with designer David Reinfurt (of Dexter Sinister), each outlining the various details of the sundry events associated with each presentation of Sponge and emphasizing its collaborative and protean nature.

I first saw the prints in the summer of 2009 at Socrates Sculpture Park, where Ginsburg had set up shop, literally. Titled Makers Market, the weekend-long project involved a presentation of the scrolls and vibrant handmade felt mittens and booties for sale (her position as a merchant was a far cry from her QVC Project, 1996-97, a work that documents her failed attempt to become a host on that cable-shopping network). Ginsburg’s recent exhibition at Cue (curated by Regine Basha) featured a similar installation, and the show activated the rest of the gallery by resurrecting other Sponge presentations from the past five years—a trippy mural of sea sponges from the Solvent Space show, another mural of a design created by participants in “Colablablab” (“an experiment in curricular ecology” in which Ginsburg and her students enrolled in a VCU biology lab and studied together, their experiences complemented by a book produced by the students). Installed on another wall was a felt-and-metal-covered pencil sharpener dedicated to Sol LeWitt, a prominent champion of collaboration. While all of this provided traces of the learning situations that interest Ginsburg, one wishes the show had offered a fuller picture of her larger endeavor.

Although this exhibition was not in itself participatory, Ginsburg has effectively advanced and promoted the potential of collaboration—within and outside the art world.  And yet, she is an artist who remains interested in visual, tactile art objects. One of the most intriguing aspects of her practice is her investigation of the way in which such objects are exchanged and circulated.  In the process, she explores how art might represent something, or a multiplicity of things, within the range of contexts—economic, social, historical—that every entity, whether pencil sharpener, sea sponge, or human being, must necessarily negotiate.