Artist Emily Lee doesn’t see art institutions as monolithic, static organizations. Instead, Lee suggests that they are “composed of active parts that are malleable and co-constitutively made by whoever runs [them].”
It’s a sunny mid-morning, and Lee joins me on Zoom from her backyard, which is also home to All the Sudden, a multifunctional project space that she collaboratively runs with her partner, Thom Waddill, and roommate, Anthony Laurence.
Lee tells me that her recent explorations in ceramics led her to think about how softness often underlies rigidity. Clay, though sturdy once fired, begins as an extremely porous and impressionable material. By seeing arts institutions as similarly mutable, Lee can be more optimistic about facilitating constructive changes in the industry.
“Thinking about an institution as a malleable thing means that we, as artists, could not only mold our own institutions and call them legitimate, but also mold pre-existing institutions to us.”
Creating opportunities for the making, exhibition, and pleasurable discussion of art lies at the core of Lee’s brainchild, All the Sudden. The space is a 1000-square-foot warehouse set in a sprawling backyard adjacent to a rental house in East Austin. Lee describes the warehouse as “one of those spaces that just could never be clean, so it doesn’t really lend itself to becoming a gallery, which I like.”
Much like a laboratory, All the Sudden is designed experimentation and the pursuit of half-formed hypotheses. The site transforms according to the intentions and ideas proposed by its participants, at times molding into an exhibition space, a music venue, a host of book clubs and workshops, a meeting place for mutual aid organizing, or some lively combination of the above.
But despite its transient nature as a creative hub, All the Sudden is ultimately and most consistently a residence on a quiet cul-de-sac. Lee is especially sensitive to this fact, affirming that “the space itself is not art.” She makes clear that All the Sudden “has real social consequences” and stresses that above all, “it is someone’s neighbor, it lives in a neighborhood.”
Potentially contributing to gentrification in East Austin was a pressing concern for Lee and her collaborators as they were conceiving of All the Sudden.
“A lot of us have spent time in school studying, talking about, hearing about, and seeing how the effect of artists on residents who’ve lived in a neighborhood for a long time can be really damaging,” she explains. “The stakes were really concrete and really high, and that was terrifying.”
The existing social realities that All the Sudden inherits remain a prominent presence on the property. “We find a lot of remnants from the people who used to live here,” Lee says. “And we are lucky to have really, really excellent sweet neighbors. One is an artist named Art who is next door. He is a sculptor. And on the other side, they’re a multigenerational family who’s lived in the neighborhood forever and are just really welcoming, even though they don’t have to be.”
All the Sudden reciprocates the generosity extended to them by sharing that same spirit with Austin’s artists. When conceptualizing the format of the space and its programs, Lee said she was thinking a lot about economic sufficiency between people who share a small, tight-knit arts community. “I was trying to exploit the fact that, in our weird bubble of the art world, we could literally just make up our own opportunities for our peers.” She sees this work as not only enriching Austin’s cultural ecosystem, but also as a way to tangibly invest in the careers of local creative people.
Most recently, All the Sudden created one such opportunity, a two-day event and exhibition hosted in partnership with Partial Shade, a site-responsive curatorial collaborative managed by artists Rachael Starbuck, Michael Muelhaupt, and Jesse Cline.
Devoid of the hushed-voice pleasantries exchanged at most exhibition openings, “All the Sudden: A Pit Fire with Partial Shade” was filled with genuine discovery and homespun, hands-in-the-dirt kind of fun. The two night events centered around a pit fire filled with ceramic works. Twelve artists — Zoe Berg, Trey Burns, Tamara Johnson, Kerry Maguire, Katy McCarthy, Michael Muelhaupt, Maura Murnane, Jay Roff-Garcia, Henry Smith, Rachael Starbuck, Ariel Wood and Lee herself — buried bisque-fired clay works and organic colorants in the 8-foot-wide hole in the ground, which was then lit on fire, facilitating an atmospheric process that activated the ceramics’ chemical coatings. On the following day, the artworks were excavated and put on display.
When I arrived on the second night of the event, it was still light out, and the pit had nearly cooled off. There was a table full of snacks, brimming with homemade baked goods and open bags of tortilla chips. On a blue tarp lay bits of ceramics found in the pit: pieces of hard clay tiles, chain links, some loose fragments wrapped in wire mesh, vessels, a bottle with a twisted neck, drain covers, a black-ashed vase with wings. I can’t say anything looked terribly finished or “good,” but I don’t think that was the point.
Perhaps because the art was being made as the opening occurred, the exhibition welcomed discussions of chance, destruction, and uncertainty. Dogs pawed throughout the property, sniffing at the artworks. People shared baked potatoes roasted in tin foil and wandered about, some flipping through the riso-printed publication Henry Smith made for the event. Others chatted and sipped homemade beer.
Long after dark, the last of the vessels —which were baking in a smaller fire contained by a large oil drum — were retrieved from the dirt. Everyone held up their phone flashlights while two of the artists used gloved hands to dig around the base of the drum, cautious not to add too much oxygen to the fire so it didn’t go up in flames. With the cover safely removed, they then prodded at the hot coals, actually in a quite similar way to how the dogs were inspecting and digging in the pit throughout the night. When a new artwork was unearthed, people oohed. Someone would say excitedly, “Oh, is that yours?” “Is that so-and-so’s?”
“A Pit Fire” created an unusual situation in which the artists and viewers became acquainted with the artwork at the same time. Some artists did not initially recognize their own creation, their ceramics changed by char and smoke. Some were pleased by the results, others wished for a different transformation.
Later, in their newsletter, All the Sudden organizers reflected, “Work was lost in the ash; many pieces broke and were arranged on a blue tarp by the pit as a sort of alternative exhibition. In the pit, fragments, even entire pieces, were still in the ground. I thought of the archeological practice where discovered ruins are only partially dug out, the rest saved for future archeologists with better technology.”
Their commentary emphasizes an ethos of process-over-product, of welcoming artistic explorations regardless of outcome. And this perspective applies to All the Sudden as a physical space as well.
“The expectation that [All the Sudden] won’t last forever gives us permission to make decisions on the fly and work with a super small team of people who don’t know what they’re doing yet,” says Lee. “It is the place that we learn through rather than the repository for all the knowledge that we already have.”
All the Sudden, for events and information see allthesudden.com