This week: Brian and Patricia are joined by Tess Thackara in a rollicking conversation with artist Jonn Herschend. They discuss amusement parks, rugby, the art world’s need for humor, THE THING Quarterly, and of course Jonn’s diverse studio practice.
Raised in a midwestern amusement park, Jonn Herschend is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker and experimental publisher preoccupied with how emotional confusion, absurdity and veracity play out in the realm of the everyday. His performances, video work, and installations have included works such as a self portrait as a PowerPoint proposal for an amusement park ride, an infomercial about ambiguity, and a motorized trolley tour of places where personal crisis became public.
His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally including the Stuttgarter Filmwinter Film festival, Germany; Koh-i-noor, Denmark; LKV Gallery, Norway; the Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art; the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley; Southern Exposure and The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. He is the co-founder and co-editor, along with Will Rogan, of the experimental publication THE THING Quarterly, and is a recent recipient of a Danish Arts Council grant for his work as co-curator, along with Heidi Hove, of the Deadpan Exchange international exhibition series, He has been a visiting lecturer at the University of California Berkeley, San Francisco State University, California College of Art and Stanford University.
Two things have been occupying my thoughts over the last couple weeks: the protests that have been happening in Wisconsin in response the end of collective bargaining for unions and Nato Thompson’s interview with the group Working Artists for a Greater Economy (WAGE) article in the most recent Artforum. I’ve been thinking a lot about the stakes of the artists working in solidarity with a larger public engaged in protest and artists working in solidarity with other artists to create a more equitable art-world. These are not mutually exclusive propositions obviously but sometimes it feels like the baby steps that count for change in the art-world are so cut off from the rest of the planet.
WAGE describes themselves as “an activist group of artists, art workers, performers and independent curators fighting to get paid for making the world more interesting.” While I identify with the sentiment that artists and art-workers do indeed make the world more interesting, so do a lot of other people. And that seems to be a particular sticking point at the moment when public sector workers are being asked to give up their rights because apparently no one (private or public sector) should have any kind of safety net in today’s economy. My point is not to come down too hard on WAGE who have done some good things to get artists paid for their work including negotiating a fee for each artist participating in the New Museum’s exhibition “Free” last winter, but something about their position seems overly limited.
The interview states as much:
Nato Thompson: One of the critiques that gets leveled against WAGE is: Why just artists? Why agitate within the arts, which is seen as a largely privileged, predominantly white, middle-class constituency – and for whom discussions about labor are divorced from the conditions of mass disenfranchisement, to say the least?
WAGE: The question was simply, What do we need? We need to paid for our work at institutions. Here’s a single goal, and we will work at that single goal until we get there. If you want to talk about class issues and art, nothing speaks to class disparity more than assuming an artist is privileged enough to afford to not to be paid for their work. We just want to have this realistic, specific focus and we do include independent curators, performers, and writers in our advocacy.
(the full interview is here)
WAGE’s main beef is with nonprofit cultural institutions, who they feel are not adequately implementing sustainable compensation models for working artists who are operating outside of commercial markets. Their inspiration is the Art Workers Coalition, active from 1969 – 1971, which was similarly comprised of artists and art-workers taking aim at the politics underlying the art-world. The AWC splintered rather quickly and spawned many other active groups, but in their limited time they helped inspire the first ever union of museum workers, the Professional and Administrative Staff Association (PASTA) at the Museum of Modern Art. PASTA most recently went on a successful strike in 2000, working to minimize lay-offs during the building’s expansion. I support WAGE’s efforts to support themselves but I’m not fully understanding their end-goals since they are not interested in unionizing and instead see themselves as a consciousness-raising group for a very specific community of art-people who have already been anointed as being worthy of being exhibited in major venues. And while they are a New York specific group and therefore not responsible for proposing a new economic model for the art-world at large, I can’t help but want a more broad-based economic analysis of the cultural workforce and proposals for new models of support that are not about commodifying artistic labor. And to be fair, all of us art-workers are responsible for being part of that process and WAGE is an important step in the right direction. But where else can we look to for inspiration? It seems that even the conventional economic structure that WAGE is advocating for is under duress.
Back to Wisconsin. When unions are under such direct attack, so is (and maybe most relevant to the art-worker) the state university system wherein the precarious artist-professor and artist-grad student are losing their jobs and right to a free education. Again, not a new problem, as evidenced in the large student protests in UC system in California a year ago and the working conditions for most university art instructors in Chicago. But witnessing the spontaneous energy and creativity that has erupted there (Dan S. Wang’s blog has some great coverage), is a welcome rejoinder to the way the art-world views just compensation. Right now there’s a temporary restraining order on the authoring of Governor Scott Walker’s bill and it remains to be seen what will happen with the recall efforts but I’m excited to see the ways in which artists and non-artists are creating expressions of the kind of working world they want to live in.
For the longest time I thought John Cage was an asshole. The first thing I knew about Cage was his infamous composition 4’33”—four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. To my young mind, this seemed ridiculous, a joke, a lark, or worse, a way to make fun of the listener. But I was a lazy music student, and never bothered to interrogate the assumption I’d formed at my local community college’s summer music camp. 4’33” continued as my sole association with Cage until I became interested in Abstract Expressionism and later Minimalism. Even then, I simply placed this work within that mid-century framework. It seemed to me like in the 50s if you were an artist, writer, or composer, and of course, male, there was nothing forbidden. I chalked this work up to nothing more than Cage seizing male privilege.
When I read an ad for Kyle Gann’s No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”, I immediately ordered it up. Part of Yale University Press’s excellent Icons of America series, No Such Thing as Silence undertakes a lovingly enthusiastic investigation into Cage’s signature work. This is not serious music history, nor serious art history for that matter. What No Such Thing as Silence does is take an accessible look at a not-so-accessible composition. Gann places 4’33” into the larger art world discourse of the time, while also exploring the work through the lens of Cage’s Buddhist beliefs.
It’s still easy for me to view 4’33” as prickish, or more generously, arrogant. At least now I can appreciate the composition and its place not just within music history, but also within the history of Minimalism. Despite the highbrow subject matter, No Such Thing as Silence is a fun and illuminating read.
Work by Conrad Freiburg.
Hyde Park Art Center is located at 5020 S. Cornell Ave. Reception is Sunday from 3-5pm.
Work by Jason Smith, Caroline Carlsmith and Leo Kaplan.
Pentagon Gallery is located at 2655 W. Homer St. Reception Friday from 7-11pm.
Work by Isabelle Gougenheim, Emily Irvine, and Emilie Crewe.
Noble & Superior Projects is located at 1418 W. Superior St. Reception Friday from 6-10pm.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago Spring BFA Show.
Reception Sullivan Galleries is located at 33 S. State St., 7th Fl. Friday from 7-9pm.
Exhibition to benefit JDRF juvenile diabetes. $1 at the door.
Gallery Provocateur is located at 2125 N. Rockwell St. Reception Saturday from 8pm-midnight.
Tonight marks the opening of jstchillin‘s final act, READ/WRITE, an exhibition staged at 319 Scholes in Brooklyn. Over the past year an a half founders Caitlin Denny and Parker Ito presented works by thirty-five international artists into an ongoing online exhibition. Many within internet based art communities have repeatedly pointed to the jstchillin’s efforts and projects as some of the most enlightened and exciting contemporary work made online. Through videos, interactive works, installations, essays, and various fabricated ephemera, the site generated a sense of community that other more sterile institutions could only hope for. The playful sincerity of Denny and Ito’s enthusiasm for the projects presented on their site make jstchillin stand out as an easily approachable and incredibly rich resource. Their deliberate sense of curation of the site also seperates it’s from the typical blog fair of “things people like” which in turn creates a more telling and also more faithful testament to art online.
Projects on jstchillin had various motivations and inceptions; some were made in response to each other, others to prompt outside engagement, but most can be observed as detailed attempts at gaining a more fulfilling understanding of net-material. Undoubtably jstchillin built off the surf-club mentality of projects like nasty nets and spirit surfers, but the format of their month long presentations created a more honed perspective of working being made in response to screen cultures. The inherent social infrastructure of the web was something that Denny and Ito both acknowledge as playing a large part in the initiation of their project. In some ways they wanted to translate, and perhaps elevate, the activities they were already doing online, into an artistic act that others could share and revel in together.
In the above video the three of us get a chance to talk about the origins of the project and how it has changed throughout it’s duration. We discuss some of the difficulties of translating work offline into physical space and how to address the growing gallery attention that work like this is gaining in traditional art markets. Denny suggests that a direct lifting of the personal computer screen into gallery projection of mounted faltscreens is not the ultimate answer. Both Denny and Ito charged artists with the challenge of translating the mood of their work into an object or installation scenario to avoid the underselling of the content that often happens when work from the web migrates to the gallery. This tactic is addressed through various different methods within the show, including live performance (Ida Lehtonen performance starts at 9pm), painting, appropriated snuggies, interference-running computers, documentation of off-site installations, and telepresence kiosks.
With most of the artists present during the evening, the space will be packed with new and exciting projects that artists have made in order to continue the discussion that Denny, Ito and myself address in our conversation. Undoubtably READ/WRITE will not only help facilitate moving the sentiment of screen-based work into a more fruitful discourse with other mediums, but it will also be an excellent and apropos send off for jstchillin.