When Dutch-bred, Chicago-based artist Jeroen Nelemans speaks with others about his work, consonants soften and vowels deepen in his throat. There is a lightness to Nelemans's step, too—it is that of a European living in the United States, who didn't grow up on fast food and a general lack of light in the ocular diet. Nelemans's latest body of work pays homage to the Dutch obsession with light that, coincidentally, he would not have discovered if he weren't on an extended stay on American soil. His solo exhibition, "Returning to the Cave" at The Mission (January 11–February 23, 2013) featured digitally manipulated images inspired by W.J.M. Turner, maps of his hometown of Eindhoven carved into custom-made LED lightboxes, and an understanding of light influenced by Vermeer. In discussing these works with Nelemans, I discovered that if he doesn't continually get his American O1 visa approved, the U.S. government will send him back to Holland—a country he has not lived in for more than a decade—in ten short days. I discussed with Nelemans how international students can obtain an O1 visa, and how his mediated relationship to his Dutch roots informs his art practice.
You have ten days to leave the country. It's a complete mind-fuck.
Chicago Artists Resource: You have an interesting practice that is very much engaged with your Dutch heritage.
Jeroen Nelemans: The work that was up at The Mission relates very much to the Dutch lights. My impression of the Dutch lights, my continued discourse in the Dutch lights, and the imagery is related to the lifespan of an image. In Dutch culture, we have been obsessed with images and image-making since the 17th century. Everything had to become part of an image, especially after the Dutch revolted against the Spanish Inquisition, and the Dutch became Protestant. At that point, there was no longer a relationship with religion. The landscape became the image, and the Dutch person themselves became the main image. In the 17th century, the average household had three, four or five paintings in their living room, and there were so many collectors. Everything was collected and based on imagery. We live in a similar environment nowadays where everything has to be made into an image right away—an experience as an image—which I think is really important. I continue that in my own practice where I am using these existing images and re-appropriating them into a new dialogue.
How did you first come to the States, and how are you able to stay here on a visa?
I came to the U.S. to do photography school in Boston at the New England School of Photography, which was more of a trade school. My visa at the time was a J1 or an M1. I decided that I really enjoyed the art world and, not being a professional photographer, I transferred to Miami and did my BFA at Florida International University, graduating honors with Phi Beta Kappa. I had an F1 Student Visa; I did my MFA in fiber and material studies in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute with the same visa on continual extensions.
Every time you graduate you have optional practical training, which means you can stay another year after graduation in the country to obtain another visa. Most of the people will go for an H-1B visa, a working visa. After doing some research, I found the O1 Visa, which is the "extraordinary visa" and is directly related to artists. My lawyer described it as having two types of O1 visas. You have your O1-A visa, or the "Golden Globe winner," which is “for individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics (not including the arts, motion pictures or television industry).” The other one is an artist O1-B Visa, for “individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television industry.” It requires that the artist prove that they are unique enough to apply for this visa.
What should an international student/artist who is trying to stay here know to obtain the correct visa?
You need shows on the resume. Reviews help a lot, too. Having an interesting practice in general can help as well. Basically you have to show your artist career—whatever proves excellence in your career and you can use on the O1 visa. Once I became more knowledgeable about this O1 visa, it also became easier to promote myself as an artist. The problem with an O1 visa, whether you do it yourself or send it out to an organization to do, is that you never know anything about who will review it. The only thing you do know is that if you do not get it you have ten days to leave the country. It's a complete mind-fuck. It's also important to get a sponsor. That person can be a gallery owner or a curator who is very involved with you or somebody that somehow supports you and is related to the art world. Those people are crucial because you do have to somehow show that you are making money; you are not going to take advantage of the social security and that scenario. If you can somehow show that you show your work, or that sales have been made, those things will help your visa application.
Definitions of Visa Types
- H-1B—Requires an employer-employee relationship with the petitioning U.S. employer. Your job must qualify as a specialty occupation. Your job must be in a specialty occupation related to your field of study. You must be paid at least the actual or prevailing wage for your occupation, whichever is higher. An H-1B visa number must be available at the time of filing the petition, unless the petition is exempt from numerical limits.
- J1—The Exchange Visitor (J) non-immigrant visa category is for individuals approved to participate in work- and study-based exchange visitor programs.
- M1—The M-1 visa is a type of student visa reserved for vocational and technical schools. Their stay may not exceed one year unless they are granted an extension for medical reasons.
- F1—The F1 visa category is reserved for academic students enrolled in colleges, universities, high schools, language training programs, and other academic institutions. The first step for a prospective student is being accepted for enrollment in an established school.
- O1A—For individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics (not including the arts, motion pictures or television industry)
- O1B—For individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television industry.
- O2—For individuals who will accompany an O-1, artist or athlete, to assist in a specific event or performance. For an O-1A, the O-2's assistance must be an 'integral part' of the O-1A's activity. For an O-1B, the O-2's assistance must be 'essential' to the completion of the O-1B's production. The O-2 worker has critical skills and experience with the O-1 that cannot be readily performed by a U.S. worker and which are essential to the successful performance of the O-1.
- O3—For individuals who are the spouse or children of O1s and O2s.
Jeroen Nelemans was born in the Netherlands and currently resides in Chicago. His recent shows include the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, the DelaCruz Collection Contemporary Space in Miami, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, the Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art in Greece and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids. His works have also been screened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami; the Banff Center in Canada; the Werkleitz Centre for Media Art, Halle, Germany; Magmart International VideoArt Festival, Napoli and the Kortfilm festival in Copenhagen. He holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.