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.

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