Monthly Archives: May 2019


Interview with Nicky Ni
By Daniel Salamanca

LITHIUM is a Chicago-based gallery in favor of thought-provoking audiovisual art that includes duration as a dimension and unfolds over time.

1932 S Halsted, Suite 200 Chicago, IL 60608 | 773-998-1712
Gallery Hours:Saturday 1-6 p.m., and by appointment

1. Can you tell me a little bit about the founders and team behind the space? Has it changed or evolved? And also, what’s the story behind the beautiful name that you chose? 

In October 2017, three alumni and one graduate student from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) formed an anonymous collective that started a gallery space called LITHIUM. Located in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, LITHIUM is dedicated to providing a gallery setting for time-based art. The mission is to promote thought-provoking audiovisual art that includes duration as a dimension and unfolds over time.

The managerial team has changed and evolved over time: a few left and we’ve welcomed a new temporary member as well. The anonymity has dissolved a little bit though we never really officially announce who’s behind LITHIUM.

The name “LITHIUM” is more than an appropriation of Nirvana’s song of the same title – which apparently all co-founders enjoy immensely – and has several symbolic meanings. One interpretation of the name is that it comes from the “lithium batteries,” which power the electronic devices we use. The other refers to a type of psychiatric medication that includes lithium salts as an ingredient. Lithium salts is frequently used as a stabilizer for emotional instability and bipolar disorder; we intend the projects of LITHIUM to be a “stabilizer” for unstable media such as time-based art.

2. Why do you think that a time-based art gallery was necessary in Chicago art scene, back in October 2017 and today?  

Historically, the term “time-based art” was coined by British artist David Hall in the late 1960s, amidst an international artistic landscape where video was beginning to be widely applied in artmaking. In the decades that followed, time-based art usually described any technology-based art ranging from expanded cinema, videos, to kinetic installations that involve light and sound. The emergence of the Internet coupled with the postmodern environment in the early 1990s displayed an interdisciplinary tendency in the art world, and medium-specificity was no longer an issue for contemporary artists. However, though the cross-disciplinary approach to art-making is certainly exciting, it does create an unbalanced situation for exhibiting certain contemporary art. Artworks that are deemed too difficult technically to show can easily be curtailed due to lack of equipment support; ephemeral art such as multi-media installations and live performances also encounter great obstacles finding a dedicated collectorship and patronage.

Though Chicago has a prominent scene of underground cinemas and independent theaters, there is a lack of space in the entire city that explores the possibilities between the black-box cinema and the white-cube gallery. What the city needs is a grey space that welcomes artists of various time-based practices to experiment and to present their work in unconventional ways. Therefore, while acknowledging and encouraging interdisciplinarity, LITHIUM sees itself becoming a dedicated platform that attempts to breaks this “black-and-white” dichotomy. Additionally, we intentionally define time-based art more openly, which yields beyond technology-based art and can refer to video, film, computer simulation, reading events and live performances, with a solid commitment to support art forms that share an intangible, unstable, or ephemeral nature.

3. What where your motivations and expectations back then and now? And what have been the people, artists and scene responses? How the space has changed during this period of time?

I don’t think our motivations have changed. It has been pretty clear since the very beginning and it is to support time-based arts. I think people’s positive responses to the gallery has something to do with this fact that we’ve been very upfront about what we do and what we support. However, we do always adjust our expectations of every show as part of the curatorial decisions: what’s possible and what’s beyond our reach. What we can provide in terms of financial compensation and equipment have been quite limited due to our very small budget, so the main aspect that we can focus on and be creative about is installation. The space remains more or less the same given that we can’t build and rebuild drywalls for every show; however, we can be creative about the placement of the work and how we program each exhibition or exhibitions series. It is actually more exciting when you have quite a set of parameters that you have to work against.

4. Can you describe the programming, in terms of planning, scheduling, choosing projects and artists to be exhibited? Both from a practical point of view but also conceptually?

We strive to either bring older work that has never been exhibited in Chicago to the city or premiere new work by Chicago-based artists. Either way, it is to showcase new perspectives and to not repeat what has been done already. Back then when we had a bigger team, choosing artists was a team decision, meaning that every artist we choose has to be approved by each member on the team. Gradually as the team becomes smaller and as we get more and more proposals—from both artists and curators from the SAIC community, how we plan for future projects grows to be more organic, meaning by recommendations from people around us.

From my own stand point, I’d love to spend more time on curation and researching new artists outside of the SAIC community (but off the record, that’s just something that you could achieve only when it is a full-time job, not when it is a project that runs parallel to your graduate studies J). With that said, I would always have studio visits or conversations with interested artists/curators before deciding whether to offer the space to them or not. Conceptually, I prefer projects that are malleable, ones that are like water and can fit into different containers. The infrastructure of LITHIUM is by no means ideal so I especially appreciate artists who would be willing to work around what the space can offer.

5. Does the space partnership with other institutions in the city, in the neighborhood (Pilsen)? How is that relationship? And also, if you had to name spaces that share similar visions and interests as Lithium, what would those be?

Very recently I was talking with directors from other artist-run spaces around Pilsen, such as Baby Blue, ACRE Projects, Ground Level Platform, Annas, and Prairie, and we were thinking about forming an unofficial “East Pilsen” art coalition. This May we did social-media cross-promotions and in the future, we will try to coordinate with our openings as well. The exhibition that you were part of was one of our collaboration with SAIC. There have also been projects (such as solo by Adela Goldbard) that was partially sponsored by SAIC grants.

I don’t think Chicago has a space that shares the mission of LITHIUM. Slightly similar ones are the VGA Gallery, D.A.D.S (aka Digital Art Demo Space), and what Aspect Ratio used to be some years ago. The Microscope Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn is a good model but they have very different aesthetics.

6. How does the team balance the time between the School and the space?

Good question! It has been very difficult mainly for me because the rest of the original team have graduated already by the time we started the gallery. For me, I just use LITHIUM as my arts admin’s class project. For example, there’s this Management Studio III class where you should build your own exhibition/project, write a proposal and realize it. And I just used that to further develop LITHIUM (for which I wrote a business plan that project the fiscal year 18-19).

7. Who is in charge of the graphic design?

If you have to know, it’s all by Yan Zhou unless otherwise specified. He received his MFA in Visual Communication from SAIC in 2015 and has been working as a professional graphic designer and new media artist. Having him on the team also means that we are a very design-driven and design sensitive organization. Since last year, we try to also create more time-based publicity materials for our FB and Instagram accounts.

8. What is the best way to describe Lithium now and in the future, in terms of economic model? Can you give us some insights (challenges, lessons and discoveries) of this endeavor?

The lease for the space will expire by the end of June and the future of LITHIUM is still pending. I personally will continue to do it, also graduating at the moment, I probably will migrate it to an online platform or make it a nomadic project. The financial model for LITHIUM as how it is now is not sustainable at all (the entire budget comes from the co-founders’ pockets and some programming budgets come from school-wise grants) and we haven’t been doing any fundraising events due to not having a 501c3 status. I’m hoping to potentially get a fiscal sponsor in the future since I won’t be able to get any more school-wise grants. Maintaining a financially sustainable model is huge for any arts institutions and it’s much easier said than done.

9. To finish, and going back to the team and founders, does the project collide with each individual interests and plans? Or on the contrary does it blends harmonically?

It started off as a perfect team with each of the member having their particular interest and specialty that they can bring to the team. We have two dual MAs, one from Writing, one from FVNMA, and one from VisCom, so, we did have very diverse point of views. However, after the first year of operation, life changes and people find full-time jobs, and the team has dissolved a little bit due to that aspect.


ASMA is an artist duo composed by Hanya Beliá (México City) and Matias Armendaris (Ecuador). Although they are not based in Chicago anymore, they started there project here in the city in the past spring (2018) and keep coming back and forth between different places in Latin America (México City, Sao Paulo, Bogotá, Lima, Santiago) and Chicago. I was interested in interviewing them because of that nomadic experience that includes Chicago as a satellite but not necessarily as their main hub.

1. Can you tell me when does ASMA begun and why did you choose that name?

ASMA was officially born a year and four months ago, but before that we were collaborating informally for about two years. We both suffer from asthma and it was one of the first things we talked about when we met, it became one of our first things in common. Investigating the word “asma” we found that one of the first readings of “asthma” was a kind of paranormal event where the patient received a divine visit. This aligned with our interest in generating value from those first approaches to knowledge that come from individual experience and that are not governed by reason or logic necessarily.

2. You describe your practice as an active collaboration and also like the overlapping part of a Venn diagram? Can you talk about the challenges of combining two individual practices and how that mutates into a third being, a third space?

It is a hard thing to collaborate. A lot of the times in collaborations people hold onto their own individuality and it becomes a clear assignation of roles. We have made our core focus to explore how collaboration is a tool to play, expand beyond your individual limitations and lose control. To be able to generate this third space, something new between the two, we believe that it is necessary that all our efforts are 50% and 50% in what we do. A lot of it is material experiments, we like that a lot and it makes everything easier in some way because it acquires a certain autonomy, in the end it is something that we would never have thought of doing in our individual practices. Within this active collaboration we have payed attention at the interrelations of everything and how things change each other; in this way through our work we enact this same interrelation, within the works, materials, ourselves, feelings, ideas, spaces, and people.

3. You use to define your collective work with one word: Love. Can you expand that idea? And maybe articulate on how love might change, evolve, disappear, grow, expand, explode and so on.

As we are romantic partners, when we started ASMA our process was very raw. We did a lot of exploration and play and it was mainly a search without much clarity, and what drove that search was our love. Things haven’t changed much but our language around our interest have. In a very simplified form, love is a cohabitation of difference; in some way, it works much like the Venn diagram, the third space, the space in-between is a togetherness. We can explore this within and between us but through materials we push this understanding of interrelations, cohabitation, difference and hybridity.

4. One of the most beautiful things about your work is that the essence relies on very small gestures and almost invisible details that are related to the origin of the materials you use, or part of the process of making. Can you make a list, like a long label or an informative poem, so that the reader understands what I’m talking about?

We have played a lot with material specificity. We made some pieces where we moistened the raw clay with eye drops, we used gray hairs to make a brush, dried Jamaica flowers like gravel for a cement sculpture, and many other materials. Perhaps the best example of this is a piece of poetic composition that we made in Sao Paulo where basically the label is a classic sonnet that we wrote:

Mano grabada en placa de metal,
bolsa de té rellena de cristales,
dos esferas de barros tropicales,
tetera de cobre, flor oriental.
Trenza tejida con hilo dental,
placa de dientes postizos frontales,
semilla con dos colmillos iguales,
dibujo en azul de eclipse total;
frasquito de Givenchy con mercurio,
esmeralda con orilla pintada…
un sobre de sal para el buen augurio,
dije atado a una cadena dorada,
corazón de lámina de telurio,
vela de color rosa perfumada.

Hand engraved on metal plate,
tea bag filled with crystals,
two tropical clay spheres,
copper teapot, oriental flower.
Braid weaved with dental floss,
front false teeth plate,
seed with two equal fangs,
drawing in blue of a total eclipse;
Givenchy flask with mercury,
emerald with painted edge…
a sachet of salt for good omen,
locket tied to a golden chain,
tellurium plate heart,
scented pink candle.

5. What are the responses of the audience to those little secrets, or ghosts, embedded in the work?

Sometimes these little gestures can create a certain personal recognition in people where it can trigger individual narratives for different viewers. Some of these gestures are hidden and play more with the way in which it might or might not change the essence of the thing. Sometimes it can generate more interest or strangeness and sometimes it may confuse people, because these details spread the “meaning” of the work, people do not like that there is not such obvious clarity, but it allows for multiple interpretations.

6. Is ASMA a nomadic project? Can you tell us about the travels you have made and how they have influenced your practice?

Since the birth of ASMA we have been able to travel a lot, especially last year. This has definitely marked our practice and changed it because each place has offered us different experiences and materials. We have taken much advantage of our shared experience in each trip to incorporate it into our process. The central imaginary of ASMA is influenced by these multiple contexts and interrelations.

8. What is the future of ASMA? Where do you want to travel, what pieces you want to make, what kind of career you expect for the collective?

After traveling last year, we have spent a few months in Mexico and have taken the opportunity to reconnect with the city and produce a body of work as a result from that; related to the historic center and the lake that lays underneath. We are interested in generating more immersive spaces in the future. We are looking into some residences in Europe. This year we plan to be in Bogotá and Miami for art fairs and we are currently preparing two shows, one of them in Chicago at New Works in November.

9. To finish, if you had to choose a tarot card for ASMA which one would be and why? 

The mad man, the magician and the emperatriz if they all had a child.