We talked with Eric Petitti about his upcoming show and his process. Even though he comes from Boston, his work is imbued with a lot of Old Town/Chinatown history. We hope to see you on First Thursday!
Duplex: Tell us about your background.
Eric Petitti: I was born and raised in the Boston area. The arts weren’t something my family thought much about. As a kid the two things I like to do the most were drawing and asking lots of questions. They encouraged the drawing because the ceaseless questions, my parents said, drove them crazy. Guided by an amazing high school art teacher, I opted to pursue the arts as a career. At the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I studied interdisciplinary practices and earned my BFA. Eight years later I pursued my MFA in Painting and Drawing at the San Francisco Art Institute, graduating in 2010. I returned to Boston in 2011 where I currently teach as Adjunct Faculty at Bunker Hill Community College and Emmanuel College. My studio is located in Field’s Corner of Dorchester, MA.
D: Describe your studio space. How often do you work there?
EP: My studio space is located in Howard Arts Project workspace, which is located in Dorchester, MA. The space contains about 14 private studio space, 1 shared workspace and 1 art gallery and a performance space. I rent part of the shared space with 2 other artists who work surprisingly well together. Currently, my space is in a state of functional chaos. Over the winter I plan to reorganize my space so it doesn’t break down into a mess when I’m involved with a big project. On a normal schedule I spend anywhere between 12 to 20 hours a week in the studio.
D: Where do you draw inspiration for you work?
EP: I’m an opportunist, I can draw inspiration from anywhere; history books, conversations with friends, the radio, commercials and etcetera.
D: Tell us how the concept of this show progressed.
EP: Current events serve as a massive influence on my future histories. I’m currently (finally) transitioning away from Golden Pear chapter into two new ones: The Destruction of the Platinum Pineapple and the Violent Violet Affair. The No Place People show set up the Platinum Pineapple story line, which involves the revaluing of “Junks” from a dangerous social pestilence to a valuable labour-force. The current debates centered on immigration reform and the controversy over the Washington Redskins mascot fed my ideas and helped set the tenor for the discourse.
The notion of Shanghaiing, which I learned about from my research into the Shanghai Tunnels, figured largely into this exhibit. Shanghaiing is the practice of kidnapping people to serve as sailors by coercive techniques such as trickery, intimidation, or violence. I view the “Wooden Bill”, introduced in “Reappraising Junks”, as a politically savvy version Shanghaiing.
In the Dreadnaught Saga, the “Junks” are descendants of the climate refugees that were left behind. These people were not of value to the powers controlling the move to safer lands. These people should not have survived this environment. They stewed alone in the toxic environments for a couple of centuries, which led to mutations. Junk is a derogatory term for these nomadic people. The Junks began to arrive in Southern Ocean in the early 24th century sailing in vessels that looked like piles of ‘junk’; hence the moniker. When they arrived they were a people without a place in the civilizations of the Southern Ocean; the No Place People.
D: What struck you about the history of the Shanghai Tunnels?
EP: When I began researching the Shanghai Tunnels, a history I knew little about, I was immediately struck by with not only the concept of Shanghaiing, but the word itself. I know the act of acquiring sailors as Pressing. Shanghaiing is a term that is imbued with othering.
Although the Tunnels had commercial uses, the history of the Shanghai Tunnels being used for Shanghaiing is fiercely contested amongst historians. There is a lack of evidence either for or against the claim. Those whom dispute the practice of Shanghaiing in Portland have been accused of revising the undesirable histories of Portland to make a more pleasant tourist spot. I’m not sure what the accepted history is, but this form of revisionism fascinates me!
D: Do you usually incorporate local history and lore into a show?
EP: This is the first time I’ve actually attempted it. It fit in so well with ideas I was already working with it didn’t affect my existing process. Although I did not directly use the folklore this exhibit was absolutely inspired by the concept of Shanghaiing and its disputed connection with Portland.
D: How much of the show is created and how much is borrowed?
EP: A majority of the show is created but if you look closely you will find what was borrowed hidden in plain sight. Scanning QR tags in the works with your phones gives you access new content that adds new dimensions to reading of these commemorations. If you don’t have a device that can scan a QR tag and connect you with the internet you are denied access to this content…othering.
D: Do you think about history vs. fiction and the intersections between when creating your narrative?
EP: I do all the time even when I’m not developing narratives! In a sense histories are biased fictions based on records and facts. I heard the term “Historical Truth” on NPR not too long ago and it really resonated with me. Historical truth is is a complex intersection of truths, bias and hopes, which doesn’t sound too truthful to me! I review all histories with a healthy skepticism aimed at locating the meta-dialogues.
The Loss of Golden Pear is based on the explosion of the USS Maine in 1898. Forensic evidence recently solved the mystery of the Maine’s fate determining that it was an ammo bay explosion sunk it. With a failed investigation, strife with Spain over Cuba, Media Sensationalizing the situation and President McKinley’s imperialistic aspirations the US blamed Spain for the act. This event led directly Spanish-American War.
Look no further than the unfortunate situation in Ferguson, MO for a contemporary demonstration of the malleability of history.
All images courtesy of the artist.