Medium White Tee: Last day, volunteers, Q+A with Emily Spivack

This Thursday, Feb. 9, noon to 6pm, is the last day to experience the museum’s off-site installation Medium White Tee by Emily Spivack at Ward Centre. The museum is just one of a group of organizations and individuals that banded together to help make the Brooklyn-based artist’s project happen. (Pictured above are, from left to right, Stephanie Hsu, Rus Mehta, Emily Spivack, and Tal Schori.)

The inspiration for Medium White Tee has been well documented in publications such as the New York Times’ T Magazine and the Chicago Tribune. Last summer, Spivack read a New York Times article about President Obama and his then chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s inside joke (and coping mechanism) when dealing with hard decisions—opening a T-shirt shack that sold just one thing: medium white T-shirts. Decision-making woes solved.

Through the wonder of facebook and her personal network, Spivack connected with the museum, which made the project a HoMA off-site installation and funded Spivack’s travel to Honolulu, and people like G70 architect Stephanie Hsu who became Spivack’s right-hand-woman in getting the installation built. Ward Village provided the vacant storefront space in Ward Centre.

The museum first spoke with Spivack in September—and Medium White Tee opened on Jan. 11 with first sister Maya Soetoro-Ng speaking. It all happened at breakneck speed from concept to finish.

And as word got out about the installation, which has been manned by volunteers organized by fellow volunteer Laura Palijanskaite, people from across the country started signing up on

This past Saturday, the pre-fab beach setting was being run by a team of visitors who made volunteering at Medium White Tee part of their Honolulu stay.

Karen Robinson of Detroit had read about Medium White Tee and the project immediately spoke to her. “I was reading my news feed and the article said if you want to volunteer, hit this, so I did. I thought it was so incredible—what an incredible, enriching idea. So my son said, ‘Do it!’ I volunteered for February second, third and fourth and took all the shifts for those days. My son, who is a journalist, had said if I got a shift, ‘We’ll get you there.’ Later that evening, he handed me a ticket and said have a great time Mom. And so I’m here.”

Karen Robinson of Detroit came to Honolulu just to volunteer for 'Medium White Tee' after reading about it online.

Karen Robinson of Detroit came to Honolulu just to volunteer for ‘Medium White Tee’ after reading about it online.

What inspired Robinson to be part of Medium White Tee? “I find Obama so honorable, so decent, so knowledgable. He’s done so much for us in his eight years—all the things that are important to me,” she explained. “I figured this is the least I could do, to be part of a project that honors a president who gave so much. I really wanted to be a part of this.”

When asked how she feels engaged in a tribute to and a dialog about Obama through Medium White Tee, Robinson says, “It’s the people, the volunteers that I’m meeting and listening to their stories. It’s a connection that way. I feel honored to be with people of like mind and their stories are just like my story. The people that are here came here to do this also.”

Robinson, like all of her fellow volunteers on Saturday, is a big art fan. “Both my children are artists. In fact, on one of my days in Honolulu, that’s all I did. I went to the Honolulu Museum of Art, then the Hawai‘i State Art Museum, then ‘Iolani Palace. I really was interested in Hawaiian art.”

Also volunteering on Saturday were Jim and Ruth Geis of Chicago, who signed up after hearing about Medium White Tee while on vacation.

“It sounded like something fun to do,” said Ruth Geis.

“In Chicago, we live in the same neighborhood where Barack Obama’s Chicago home is and he was our state senator and U.S. senator. We used to see him and Michelle occasionally in the grocery store,” added Jim.

“We’re fans,” confirmed Ruth.

Honoring Obama: Medium White Tee volunteers, left to right, Mike Halstead and Lisa Lanham of Indianapolis, Karen Robinson of Detroit, Jim Geis and Ruth Geis of Chicago, and Ellen Webber of Chicago.

Honoring Obama: Medium White Tee volunteers, left to right, Mike Halstead and Lisa Lanham of Indianapolis, Karen Robinson of Detroit, Jim Geis and Ruth Geis of Chicago, and Ellen Webber of Chicago.

Mike Halstead (who happens to be a board member of the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art) and Lisa Lanham of Indianapolis also made volunteering a part of their Hawai‘i vacation. Being from a state that made a 180-degree turn and supported Trump in the last election, does the installation take on even more meaning for them?

“Absolutely,” said Lanham, who went door-to-door in Ohio in support of Obama during his 2008 campaign. “It stands in relief.” Joining her and Halstead was Ellen Webber of Chicago, who knows Spivack’s boyfriend, Ian Chillag, co-host of the NPR podcast How to Do Everything. (Six degrees!)

Robinson chuckled when she talked about how people are so conditioned to flip through clothing racks that even when they’re told every shirt in the installation is a medium white T-shirt, they still slide the hangers around the rack. Perhaps looking for a size-large error?

“I tell them it’s just mediums and show them the tag. Maybe they’re nervous or it’s just rote, but they still look at each one, going around the rack,” she said.

Not everyone that visited Medium White Tee loved it. “I explained to one woman that it’s a tribute to President Obama and she said ‘Obama! Obama! I don’t want any…’ and had a mini conniption right there. And then she backed out,” recounted Robinson. “But I’d say 99.9 percent of the people that come in here are celebrating the concept, the idea, his legacy, which is wonderful to be around.”

Stephanie Hsu and Emily Spivack speaking at the Surfjack on Jan. 19.

Stephanie Hsu and Emily Spivack speaking at the Surfjack on Jan. 19.

Q+A with Emily Spivack and Stephanie Hsu
On Jan. 19, Spivack and Hsu gave a talk at the Surfjack Hotel about the creation of Medium White Tee. Here are excerpts from the talk:

Stephanie Hsu: How did the project come together once you came up with the concept? How did creating your T-shirt shack become a reality in Honolulu?

Emily Spivack: I realized I was lacking in my knowledge of what might be possible here. That’s when Stephanie entered the picture, thank goodness, she has been a godsend and this project wouldn’t have happened without her involvement and incredible ideas. She would send me videos of driving down streets in Kaka‘ako, asking what I thought of certain streets and buildings, that’s one of the ways I was getting to learn about Honolulu. Simultaneously I was also having conversations with the Honolulu Museum of Art about what it might be like to do something there or at Spalding House and what a project might look like if it were to happen there. Then I was also having conversations to reach out to Ward Village. And we were working under a time crunch.

The article came out in July, August is when I decided that I was going to move forward with this, but really knowing nothing about how to make it happen besides conceptualizing it and put together a brief. And it took us a few months to actually get space. I think in that process, it was sort of like the options came to us and then as options became potentially available, it also clarified what the project was. So while I knew I wanted to work with the museum—I thought it made a lot of sense to do this in conjunction with the Honolulu Museum of Art. I also knew I really wanted it to be in a space where people could engage with it easily. So when the Ward Village opportunity came up, it actually seemed like a great option to do something that was an off-site installation of the Honolulu Museum of Art, but in a space that was a pure retail space, do something a little bit less expected within a retail context.

Stephanie: That’s what was interesting about all the different places we brainstormed before we landed on Ward—weighing between are people going to think this is just a really weird store if it’s in a retail space, are they going to get that it’s an art exhibit, or are they going to think that it’s some sort of weird hipster store. If it’s on the beach are people going to understand that, and what are the logistics of setting that up, getting a permit? There was even the idea of having it in a van and having a website track where it’s going to be at different locations on different days. What I thought was interesting were figuring out the pros and cons of logistics and understanding it as an art piece. And at first we viewed having it in a retail space as being a challenge but it really ended up being wonderful.

Emily: You walk into the space, and first of all it’s right next to a Bed Bath & Beyond, which is pretty uncanny and a little unusual for an installation. For me it’s an unusual kind of mall—a series of stores. The point of the installation is that it would play with different tropes of retail and it does, but it was selling one thing and one thing only. So you know pretty quickly it’s not your traditional retail store.

Stephanie: Once we secured the spot, Emily has her amazing friends Tal [Schori] and Rus [Mehta] of GRT Architects in Brooklyn designing the space. What were the iterations of that and how did you land at the final design?

Emily: As we’re seeing what options are available, we’re also clarifying and working within limitations and structures—also there’s no budget for this project. I set it up as a nonprofit so I was getting some donations—but pretty few. I knew the building materials had to be inexpensive, I also wanted to use materials that were either sustainable or that could be recycled or that had been used. I didn’t want to buy new things. On the first trip, Steph and Tal and I went to Reuse Hawaii. I’ve been to places like this before that demo buildings and then resell all the materials. Going there gave us a sense of what was possible and within a tight budget. The floor had been bleachers at a school, the pegboard that makes up the walls are from the old Sports Authority. Almost everything in the space has been donated or provided at very low cost. But I think also just in terms of design I wanted to keep to really simple elements that would connote “T-shirt shack” in a way, but also once I saw the possibility of this space there was something about it that felt very much like a theater set or diorama, and I liked that sort of surreal experience, like you’re walking into something that is just sort of like simulacra in a way or a simulation of something that, again, these kinds of tropes—tropes of a retail space and tropes of a beachy environment.

Stephanie: If you’ve been to the space, you know there’s that bay window, and we knew it wasn’t going to be open and manned at all hours of the day so that was also a consideration. We wanted people who walked by when it wasn’t open to be able to experience it as well. That word diorama kept popping up and having it be visible during closed hours and still have a strong present was important.

Emily: And also I really like that there’s just this one circular rack of T-shirts, keeping it very simple. I also knew that it’s run by volunteers, so I was trying to think about something that would be easy to maintain, but was aesthetically pleasing and that worked. And you know, there’s a circle, sort of like an oval office—you can play with those kinds of symbols if you want to go in that direction too, as much as you want to. Go for it.

Stephanie: So we had the idea, we had the space, then it was like—how are we going to get it built? It was the first week of December. I’m an architect here, so I talked to a lot of contractors that I knew, and everybody’s like, you want this done before Christmas? That’s impossible. Everybody’s busy trying to get everything built before the holidays. But then Nan Inc., a local contractor I’m working with on a project at Hawaii Prince Hotel right now, they stepped in, had a crew in there, and basically busted it out in a week, which is amazing. And as Emily said, all the materials all came from Reuse. I found it very ironic that the pegboard came from Sports Authority to Reuse and back to Ward and probably will go back to Reuse.

Stephanie: Were there any other challenges you found along the way?

Emily: Well I’ve never really done anything like this before, so this was a huge learning experience for me. But also what has been incredible about doing this project here is the generosity I’ve seen, from what you’ve done to help make this happen, to Nan donating all of their services to build the space, to HonBlue donating all the printing. The T-shirts were donated, even the trees were lent for the duration of the installation. It’s incredible. I think it’s a testament to Obama and the role that Obama plays here in Hawai‘i, and also the desire to do something around this time.

Stephanie: What’s interesting, too, is something Emily and I have talked about, doing work here in Hawai‘i, I pick up the phone and even if the people don’t know much about the project, they’re willing to help. Hawai‘i is very much this culture of reciprocity, being an island, having an Asian cultural foundation—I think that really showed in this project. I had a contractor that called me and said, ‘You know what, I’ll do this for you but I gotta admit I’m not even a democrat.’ I was shocked. I said, ‘You might be the only contractor in Hawai‘i who is not a democrat.’ But he still did it and he did a great job and he did it with enthusiasm. That was pretty amazing.

Stephanie: The question I always get is are they really only medium shirts? Tell us more about the shirts.

Emily: As the anecdote goes, medium-sized white T-shirts, so that’s what they are. They’re in an edition of a thousand. You can do what you want with them. You don’t need to wear them. They’re editioned works. So it comes with a hang tag, with the edition of the shirt and details of the project and the only printing is on the inside. This is following the system that was set forth. All T-shirts are made it the USA and donated by a great company called Print All Over Me.

Stephanie: Somebody put Emily in touch with Maya Soetoro-Ng, who is Obama’s sister and lives here. Emily told her about the project, Maya said this is awesome, my brother would love this, this is right in line with something he would think is cool and interesting. And so Emily rushed to get the first shirt and tag printed. She wrapped it up and gave it to Maya and Maya gave it to Obama for Christmas. And Rahm Emanuel will have number two.

Emily: And Maya has number three, and maybe I’ll give Joe Biden number four.

Stephanie: And Maya has been an amazing supporter too. She came to the opening.

Emily: I loved the idea of a white T-shirt being a blank slate and an opportunity for a respite from decision making. When I first heard this anecdote about Obama, I couldn’t even begin to fathom what it’s like to be the president of the United States and to have to make decisions that carry that weight. But I think we all are just confronted with decisions and decision-making fatigue and the idea of going into a place that only has one thing…and that anecdote wasn’t like, ‘I want to sell all bespoke suits’ or something. It was the most classic, relatable, accessible garment.

Stephanie: Also when Emily reached out to me the election hadn’t happened yet, and I think when the election did happen, it had a whole new meaning. Did it change your perspective on the project?

Emily: It definitely did. I think for a minute it seemed like everything stopped. And then I was like, no no, I’m going to keep doing this and the reason I’m going to do it is because, first, it still is a tribute and thank you to President Obama. It’s an acknowledgment of the decisions that he made and the significance he placed on decision making while he was in office. And it made me realize that any president needs to put that kind of weight on the decisions that they’re making and should want some kind of reprieve afterward, some kind of rest. So it became even more important, the contrast between what we’re seeing now and the kind of weight that Obama placed on the decisions that he made. And the other way it changed, in terms of the story in my head, I sort of had this idea that this would be the place where he would come and retire to and ride off into the sunset. But instead I was like, oh no, he’s not done, this is going to be a month-long break and then he’s going to get back to work.

Stephanie: Medium White Tee is registered as a nonprofit, and proceeds from the shirts are being donated to two nonprofits. Tell us about that.

Emily: I was interested in figuring out a national and a local nonprofit that would benefit from the sale of the T-shirts. And I wanted to do something that felt relevant to a cause that Obama would champion and that felt relevant to the project. And also having started a nonprofit in the past, I felt like I didn’t want to give money to a huge organization, but a smaller organization where we would have an impact. The Bus Federation is a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote organization.

Stephanie: For the local nonprovite, we landed with MA‘O, which runs a whole foods sustainability education scholarship program, they have CSA boxes, education through food sustainability. And Michelle Obama when she was out here for APEC, visited the farm. That’s why we decided to give back to them.

Emily: I wasn’t interested in just opening this thing then going back to New York. I wanted to build something then have an opportunity to see what it was like for people to engage with the space. And it’s been fantastic. Even while it was being installed, watching kids in the window looking in. There’s sand, trees, it feels a little off kilter in there on purpose, that’s something people are intrigued by. It’s so much fun to be in there. People have heard about it and come in. There was a military family that came in. They didn’t now anything about it and they asked questions, they picked up a T-shirt. A lot of kids have come in, tourists from LA, the East Coast, and there are people who walk in knowing exactly what it is, people who have no idea, and there are people who just walk by and I hear one person explaining to another person what it is. For me this space functions in so many different ways. You don’t need to buy a shirt to engage with it, you don’t need to even walk in, it is ideally designed as a space for a reprieve or moment of contemplation, but you can walk in and just have that conversation about this anecdote that President Obama had, the decisions that we all make, what the white T-shirt can symbolize.

People are signing up for shifts from New Jersey, Detroit, Chicago, London. People are flying in to do this because there’s a sense partially of helplessness, partially wanting to pay tribute to this person who they got to know over the years and means a lot to many people, and to say thank you as well. I wanted this to be something where other people can engage and use it.

Stephanie: This isn’t your first conceptual project. Tell us about Sentimental Value.

Emily: The reason I decided to make Medium White Tee, it wasn’t just like, oh I want to make a T-shirt shack for Obama. I think it makes sense in the context of the rest of my work. A lot of my work has connections to clothing in one way or another, connections to objects, recontextualizing everyday things. Providing people with a way to refocus on something they might ordinarily take for granted. And also it’s a lot of making collections and archives. Medium White Tee ties back to an earlier project that is clothing related. I was obsessed with eBay and in 2007 I started this project where I was collecting stories I was finding on eBay when people were selling clothes, and they would talk about what they did while they were wearing the clothes and why they were getting rid of them, like I’m joining a nudist colony and getting rid of all my clothes, or I was once levitated in this dress. I collected this archive of like 600 of them and started bidding on the objects and I showed the objects and the stories in gallery settings.

Feb. 6, 2017