Kristy Edmunds, an artist and curator, is executive and artistic director of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA and was visiting artist at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in 2014–15.
Writing from a U.S. perspective, I thought I should start with a few lateral references for the word studio. There is the commercial appropriation used in real estate: the studio apartment or loft studio, alluringly described to attract creative types who will pay handsomely for the amenity of less. The creative industries also incorporate the term, i.e., motion picture studios, fashion studios, and brand/design studios, which reference a corporate or business-based location where their products are made, shareholder and client meetings are held, and their workforce is aggregated. For the purposes here, I will focus on the term studio as it came into common use during the early 1800s: “the working place of an artist.”
The studio is where artists seek out and endeavor to refine a form that will eventually house the expressive requirements of their ideas. It is where material is mulled, explored, and conquered. While studio features across all art disciplines—visual, performance, media, literature—not every artist has nor requires one in order to make art (see below: post-studio). For those who do, their studios are typically proportionate to their economic means and geographic location.
Studio comes from the Latin word studium, to study, which I find useful because it imbues the term with a relevant nuance of meaning that remains applicable. The artist’s studio is not only a physical place to make works of art (Fr. atelier: workshop), it is also where artists engage in “study” through the practice and process of “making.” Some artists actively teach in their studios or take in apprentices/interns, and one cannot help but notice that it is regarded as a place of refuge where studious attention is paid to the breadth of their aesthetics.
In my experience every studio is as unique as its occupant. They can be ingenious constructs in their own right, are rich in personality, and fascinating in that they reveal the essential characteristics involved in the processes that inform the artist’s creative output.
There is a covered parking lot near my office that is repurposed into a studio by hip-hop artists each night after the cars have gone. I once visited a 4’ x 8’ x 8’ gardener’s shed outside a tenement housing complex where an artist carved miniature sculptures. I have been in brownstones and mid-century modern houses where immense canvases are affixed between complex ladder systems and positioned to catch the natural light pouring in across vaulted ceilings. I have been in any number of converted warehouses—those where the artist may climb the iron ladder of the fire escape for access (squatting), while others hold a lease and parcel out areas with plywood walls for their peers to sub-lease. There are mixed-use developments where studio spaces cohabit above the retail shops in urban renewal districts, and others where the aromas of fish and roasting duck comingled with lacquer, sawdust, and metal shavings in the tilted rooms above the bustling marketplace of Chinatown. I have had tea with a graphic novelist who built his studio in the sweltering rafters of a neighbor’s barn, and once, when meeting an artist at her studio, I found myself standing in a room of abandoned office cubicles where her amassed drawings were pinned throughout. Some artists can make a studio out of wherever they are in a given moment—I know a composer who can write music while sitting at his kitchen table in the midst of a lively pancake breakfast with children jostling for syrup.
Studios can be large or small, well lit or dark, chaotic or knolled, long lived in or transitory, and every variation therein. Typically, there are amenities that aid in supporting irregular hours (coffeepots, chocolate, alarm clocks, a cot, space heaters, etc.). Some have an abundance of equipment, tools, raw material, and the collected detritus used in service to whatever the artist’s primary medium or mode of conceptual experimentation is. There are “things” for useful distraction that have intentional placement: scraps and fragments of images, postcards, pop-culture kitsch, or album covers, books, CDs, talismans, figurines, random toys; an old shirt, an empty wine bottle; sticky notes, maps, newspaper clippings, and, importantly, the art of other artists.
A visual artist or artisan’s studio reveals the stages of progression (and rejection) of ideas, techniques, and form. This is equally so with composers and writers. Though the scale of the space and the stuff in the space are different, the encounter is the same: evidence of process, personal affect, and work in developmental stages abounds. The visual art studio and the composer-writer’s studio are places of long-term creative study and, as such, act as “accumulated portraits” of the makers who inhabit them.
With performing artists—those working in dance, theater, or music—the studio is a rather different encounter. These artists are more nomadic and occupy multiple studio spaces on a short-term basis in locations that are frequently shared by many. Typically these studios are precisely scheduled by the hour, day, weeks, or months and are generally empty until the performers occupy them. While an established choreographer may have a dedicated studio, they too will offer their space for others to use and as such it is kept free of accumulated effects in order to offer neutrality. Light, good air quality, ample volume, and anything but concrete floors are typical for dance; darker spaces with a few chairs and miscellaneous props are common for theater. With music ensembles, the studio can range from a garage to a spacious living room or an isolated warehouse (particularly when amplification is required). Performance studios are where the artists rehearse their work over a creative development process, before transferring it to another venue—be it a theater, club, or concert hall—to tackle the finishing phase where the production elements are incorporated and refined before a public premiere.
This is an emerging term that seeks to encompass the contemporary practices of artists who use the street itself as a site for both making and public display. Graffiti and stencil artists, parkour altruists, creative protest and socially engaged practitioners, and artists who activate community-based collaborations are all possible examples.
I cannot help but ponder the term in relation to the proliferation of social media platforms, Internet sites, open source software, apps, and collaborative online systems. With mobile computing technologies offering exponential change in how we make and connect, the computer and its digital cousins offer a mobile studio in virtually every artistic realm.
David Lang (the composer who can compose at the kitchen table)
Suzanne Bocanegra (visual artist, who shares the studio with David and is his partner)
Robert Wilson, The Watermill Center
Laurie Anderson, studio on Canal Street