Since its explosion in the late 1990s, it’s hard to ignore the increasing visibility of craft in contemporary art. In her new anthology Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, Maria Elena Buszerk collects 14 essays and one interview to discuss the role of craft in today’s art world. The book is divided into four sections: Redefining Craft: New Theory; Craft Show: In The Realm of “Fine Art”; Craftivism; and New Functions, New Frontiers. To me the title doesn’t quite describe the contents. I might have subtitled this book something like Contemporary Craft as Fine Art, which is really what each discussion drills down to.
In what is probably my favorite essay, “Rebellious Doilies and Subversive Stitches, Writing a Craftivist History,” Kirsty Robertson talks about the use of craft in contemporary protest, specifically knitting. “Radical knitters and Stitch and Bitchers,” people who have a “sophisticated understanding that the making of any textile is connected to the capitalist system,” are the focus of much of her discussion. In her examples, she cites artists who employ the knitting as both an act of protest and fine art. The cover of Extra/Ordinary shows Pink M.24 by Marianne Jorgensen with the Cast Off Knitters. In this collaborative work, the knitters created a giant tea cozy fit to a tank. The image of the cold, hard, masculine tank of war wrapped in the warm, soft, feminine pink of the cozy is startling and effective.
Extra/Ordinary concludes with an interview of Margaret Wertheim, the founder of the Institute for Figuring, which (among other things) teaches about the intersections of art, science, nature, and craft. You might know her work with her sister Christine from The Crochet the Reef Project. Exhibited at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2007, The Crochet the Reef project asked artists and crafters to demonstrate hyperbolic space through crocheting of sea forms and coral. Before reading this book, I thought of Wertheim only as a scientist. Okay maybe a scientist, who likes to crochet, still I did not have an image of her as an artist or craftsperson. The interview changed my ideas about her work and the relationship between art and science.
Certainly this book will appeal to those who work seriously in craft, and perhaps fiber artists in general as this is the focus of most of the writers. But the surprise in Extra/Ordinary is the stitching together of what had seemed to be disparate ideas: contemporary art, craft, women’s work, capitalism, protest, and gender. Ultimately all of the essays discuss these ideas. I recommend this book. It’s nicely illustrated as well.
Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art
Edited by Maria Elena Bruszek
Duke University Press 2011, 24.95 paperback
Work by Sona Hovhannisyan, Kim Leutwyler, Nick Cuevas, Theodore Darst, Roman Serra, Nick Hochstettler, Lou Regele, Andrew Rigsby, Wang Frank Ye-feng, Chris Collins, Andrew Rosinski, Lydia Brockman, Whitney Fitzpatrick, and Allen Vandever.
R&D Gallery is located at 2000 N. Halsted St. Reception is Saturday from 7-10pm.
Work by Aidan Fitzpatrick and Kasia Houlihan.
Comfort Station is located at 2579 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception is Saturday at 3:30pm.
Work by William Bacarella, Luis Miguel Bendaña, Elana Cooper, Francisco Cordero-Oceguera, Theodore Darst, James Ferguson, Michael Gerrity, Brandon Kosters, Sam Lipp & Chloe Seibert, Riley McBride, Drew Olivo, Yaloo Pop, Greg Reigh, Michael Sajdak, Rob Steinberg, Jenn Swann, Hiba Ali, Karina Fisher, Katie Jo, Youngmee Ruh, and Matt Smith.
The Columbus Auditorium is located at SAIC, 280 S. Columbus Dr. Reception is Friday (tonight) from 5-8pm.
Work by John Henley.
Slow is located at 2153 W. 21st St. Reception is Saturday from 6-9pm.
Environmental Factors includes work by Veronica Bruce & Ceramics: The World’s Most Fascinating Pastime includes work by Xavier Toubes, Patricia Rieger, Oliver Apte, Hannah Manfredi, Sarah Doll, Oliver Henry, Lesley Jackson, and Mirentxu Ganzarain.
Julius Caesar is located at 3114 W. Carroll Ave. Reception is Sunday from 4-7pm.
September 29, 2011 · Print This Article
authors note: As I’m sitting down to write this a little over a week before my deadline for B@S, I’m sitting across from a younger student in a library amidst the Art and Art History Stacks. She is visibly frustrated at her reading, fidgeting often and being easily distracted by her frequently vibrating iPhone. Amidst deep sighs, eye rolls, and aggravated throat clearings, she lifts her book off the table just enough for me to read the spine: Postmodernism for Beginners. Perhaps all to obvious, I feel her pain.
Even though I’ve spoken, written, and thought about humor often in my own visual work, it is a research topic for me that I’ve felt particularly compelled to reconsider lately. This desire to continue to explore, or else rehash, previous considerations on this topic of critical inquiry have been spurred by a couple of recent inspirations and events that I hope will act as benchmarks for what will inevitably and unfortunately be too short of an essay (I’m writing in the future tense here, so you’ll have to bear with me). These events are as follows: a serious reading of an essay by Brad Troemel entitled Why No Serious? A Case for Idealism in and Era of Constant Irony, rewatching Sshtoorrty by Michael Snow while in the midst of reading Hegel, and recently finding things – in a very general sense – to not be very funny.
I’ll start with the last order of business. “Funny” is an illusive and nefarious trait of things. Saying that I’ve been struggling to find the funny in things – objects, scenarios, events, exchanges – is not to say that I haven’t been laughing. This might strike most as an emotional paradox, but I’ve unquestionably been given to guffaw and genuinely LOL on many a recent occasion. Lately, however, I have noticed that this laughter is not coming from a place of celebration, or from enjoyment of humor, but instead is driven by a recognition of the desperate state of authentic communication. In my mind, laughter, as a communicative gesture, has little to do with something being funny but more to do with a person’s display of empathy. A case study for this could be found in the comedic oeuvre of Louie CK. A recent episode (Eddie – season 2 , episode 9) of his FX show is almost a perfect example of this point in that although there are scenes throughout the show of more “typical funny” moments, the entire episode is dedicated to (SPOILER) an old friend taking Louie on a binger in order to tell him at the end of the evening that he is going to commit suicide. Louie, to his credit, attempts to convince his friend not to go through with his plans, but ultimately the episode ends with a knowledge that he was unsuccessful. Although I understand the potentially severe dark humor that Louie CK might be playing with at these margins, I’m fairly certain that the lack of funniness in this episode still invites laughter due to a shared desperation between this scenario – which I suspect to be a reenactment or semi-diaristic event – and the personal experience of the audience.
However, I wouldn’t classify the show as being tritely bittersweet, but instead would say that the humor of the show is attempting to move through or beyond the funny, and into an emotional territory rarely explored in traditional comedy: authentic empathy. Troemel’s essay attempts to address the lack of empathic exchanges through grounding the current sustained onslaught of irony through a critical lens of cultural history. His description of early Parisian Surrealist performances provide a backdrop for the contemporary mainstream joke paradigm and situates MTV – via Mark C. Miller and Robert McChensey – as the catalyst for the emptying out of irony as a critical device for Gen X’ers and the current Millennial generation. His argument that the commercial manipulation of youngsters perpetrated by MTV resulted in a development of radically harmful porous identities amongst those that proverbially “took the bait.” Even though I think there is an underlying subtextual irony presented by Troemel in writing such a treatise due to the frequent (and arguably unjust) allegation of trolling the netart community, his attempt to critically engage ironic tendencies within those that work in creative online environments does bear noteworthy merit:
Used as a coping mechanism for the anxiety caused by rapid cultural turn over, constant irony is the reclamation of hopelessness or lack of idealistic creativity spoken through the voice of detached coolness. Being constantly ironic is an effective deflection of one’s own porosity because it provides the illusion you were too cunning to have ever wanted anything more solidified.
It is precisely this hopeless and detached deflection that has contributed so much to the now dominant standard of humorless funny. As a result of constantly having to reconfigure ones own identity in relation to new standards and status-quo’s that necessitate a pastiche of subversion, artists and cultural workers of my generation suffer from a lack of self-criticality that is required to create an empathic response. Certainly this is partially due to the speed in which artists working online are expected to produce content, and that the minimal layover time between conception of an idea, its production, and eventual distribution, leave little opportunity for the emerging artists to devote to critical self-reflexivity.
Troemel’s concern with irony superseding idealism is stressed near the end of the essay when he claims that this porous process “does not [just] conceal idealism, but is a reactionary response to the compounding belief that political change of any kind is unfeasible.” Even though I agree that the political left is in serious danger of the hand-in-hand apathy that comes with the current status of irony, I would argue that the underlying problem with contemporary manifestations of irony is that its overuse has resulted in a lack public discourse concerning the formulating of new modes to convey sincerity and authenticity.
One domain that has offered a tremendous amount of personal reflexive space for myself has been a rekindled attraction to experimental/avant-garde cinema (I must give proper credit here to Phil Solomon for my re-found appreciation for cinema). While thoughts of humor had been milling around in my head for several weeks, I had the timely fortune of having a second viewing of renowned artists/filmmaker Michael Snow’s Sshtoorrty. This approximately 30 minute examination of a three minuet staged scene cut in half and superimposed on itself reveals hidden temporal and spatial considerations of an otherwise cliched melodramatic Farsi mise-en-scène. The repetition of the scene forces audiences to closely examine color, shape, composition, and movement that normally remains obfuscated through a seamless professionalism, or else completely removed from the conversation of traditional narrative cinema. What at first seems completely ironic and ill-purposed develops into a complex musing of form and cinematic space. Over time, the absurdity of this surfaced staging made to emulate authentic drama becomes apparent and a humor emerges precisely due to a kind of transparent reflexivity between Snow and his medium – a self-awareness that translates into an audiences ability to empathize and laugh.
Coincidentally, while in the midst of rediscovering gems of humor found within various formal and conceptual gestures in experimental cinema, I was also reading Hegel for the first time (this juxtaposition should be read as a kind of joke, i.e., “So, Michael Snow and Hegel walk into a bar…”). During my reading of Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, I couldn’t help underline passages in Chapter 5 that directly discuss the ironic and sincere properties of art’s relationships to the history and development of Modern Philosophy:
… negativity which displays itself as irony is, then, on the one hand the futility of all this matter of fact… on the other hand, the reverse may happen, and the I may also find itself unsatisfied in its enjoyment of itself… so as in consequence to feel a craving for the solid and substantial, for determinate and essential interests. Out of this there arises misfortune and antinomy, in that subject desires to penetrate into truth… but yet is unable to abandon its isolation and retirement into itself, and to strip itself free of this unsatisfied abstract inwardness (of mind).
In this way, Hegel provides some philosophical context to both what Troemel is criticizing while also showing that aesthetics and the artists should – in one way or another – be involved in an outward reflexivity that Snow is approaching in Sshtoorrty. That is, if the artists or cultural producer limits themselves to ironic tendencies, then s/he will inevitably limit themselves to a aesthetic discourse and experience. They will develop a propriety for an “antinomian” funny; one that is inherently in contradiction, incapable of mixing in with greater society/culture, always at odds, and unable to function in an empathic humorous way.
In a sense, humor must rely on the utmost pursuit of an honest communication. Certainly we can apply the old comedy adage of humor needing space to be able to “tell it like it is,” but this cliché – which now is mired in its own irony – won’t suffice. Hegel himself equates the “eternal lamentations over the lack of profound feeling, artistic insight, and genius” as a result of the proliferation of a “half grotesque and half characterless” ironic “insincerity.” The grossness of those that operate solely in self-interest engender a cultural state which “affords no pleasure,” and as a result marginalize attempts at sincere communication. One could easily trace the rampant fear/paranoia that is generated by mass telecommunication to the prolonged repulsion of sincerity in online formats. A potential downfall of drawing this comparison, however, is that alternatives to the standard impersonal/ironic behavior might become less visible to those seeking profound exchanges.
In this way, I offer an alternative way in which humor can occupy a public dialog of communal reflexivity, criticality, and empathy: Wit. As one of my more favorite subtopics within the strata of humor, wit, as a communicative gesture, requires – if not outright demands – an attention to comic subtlety. Wit, in its most profound execution, requires two fundamental properties: timing (which is all but lost in this article), and an acute awareness of context – especially the context of self with others. A deep understanding of social-self, and a willingness to strip ones self of social convention, allows for wit to become a critical tool for creating conceptually and emotionally charged humor. For wit operates not just as an observation of a scenario, but as an act of interruption. This witty interjection is not meant directly to undermine the subject material of any specific conversation, but instead made to enhance an exchange by grounding it in an attentive reclamation of subjective experience into more “solid and substantive” realms of shared empathy.
To do this effectively, and for full humorous effect, one must conceive of any and all social scenarios to be a potential moment for communal self-reflection. In this way, wit requires a devotion to the moment; an immersion in a discourse like none other, a commitment where an individual willing to powerfully invoke wit must “strip [themselves] free of unsatisfied abstract self-inwardness.” A result of this phenomenological embodiment of the moment, one can use wit as a tool against the demanding pace of online activity and situate themselves in a position of critical presentness. This ability to take ownership of the moment can simultaneously be used as a weapon against fighting ironic tendencies due to a new-found self-agency and self-awareness. The mitigation that wit provides against the pulverizing pace of the internet’s demanding creative production cycle not only allows for more temporal space for reflection, but also generates a public voice that stimulates reactive (read engaged but not reactionary) public discourse.
Even though I’m finding a lack of funny things – a problem, as I said, that motivated me to critically revisit humor – I want to emphasize that I’m not observing a climate of overwhelming heartlessness amongst my peers. The amount of empathy that is generated amongst the community that I find particular affinity towards – a vibrant pool of artists, activists, writers, and curators – is most likely the most visible aspect of the variable social networking channels available to these individuals today. However, I’d argue that the empathy and shared communal reflection that occurs within comment threads and group chats, needs to be more tangibly translated into the visual and conceptual work generated by this community. These efforts will hopefully bridge the gradual shrinking gap that still separates those working under the netart classification and the rest of the contemporary art world.
For three successive nights starting Friday, September 30, the experimental architecture and design studio Minimaforms will install Memory Cloud: Detroit in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The interactive piece (a “transient light environment,” in the words of its creators) will consist simply of manufactured fog and words written with light. Those words, which will be projected onto the rolling fog as it fills the nighttime sky, will be yours, if there’s anything in particular you’ve been meaning to say to Detroit.
This isn’t the first Memory Cloud. Minimaforms (which consists of brothers Theodore and Stephen Spyropoulos) originally installed the piece in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2008. Participants contributed text messages about whatever they liked, then watched as those messages were projected onto the fog, growing, shimmering, multiplying, and passing over their heads before finally disappearing. There were more than 1,500 messages submitted over three nights. Together, they formed a dreamy, evanescent pastiche of loves notes, cultural references, confessions, inside jokes, questions, pick-up lines, philosophical musings, calls to political action, reactions to participating in the piece, and much else. All of the messages from the three nights are archived here. They make for fascinating (and sometimes hilarious) reading. Some of my favorites include:
this makes me feel sexy
the future is here
Please will someone give me a job?!
do I dare disturb the universe?
I lost my knickers
Wigs are fun! you should try one
I iz in ur smoke makin ur arts
The Detroit version of Memory Cloud, while formally similar to the London performance, will have a tighter focus. In the weeks leading up to it, Detroiters were invited to submit “memories, stories, and personal aspirations for the city of Detroit” in 150 characters or less via the website Voice of Detroit. You’ll still be able to submit text messages at the event, but the content is likewise intended to be Detroit-centric, forming an “evolving diary,” a multifaceted exploration of a city created out of hundreds of subjective impressions.
Minimaforms creates temporary environments that are rooted in participation, communication, urbanism, and contemporary technology. With Memory Cloud, they give elegant, transient physical form to the digital spaces we’ve already become so used to inhabiting this century, spaces made from endless streams of others’ thoughts. But by giving us an event, an opportunity to physically exist in such a space together, they simultaneously reaffirm our ancient connections to place, and to one another.
The brothers were kind enough to answer a few questions over email about their work and Memory Cloud: Detroit. Because their practice tests the limits of what architecture and design can be, I thought I’d start with the basics:
Matthew Piper: What is architecture? What is design?
Minimaforms: We do not separate or find productive definitions that privilege the differences or limits of what art, architecture, or design is. Our approach is very much based on creative forms of enquiry that engage the problem or brief at hand. Our pursuits are not driven from a stylistic or technique based approach but on a sensibility and a desire to explore communication through enabling participatory and collective means.
MP: What draws you to the concept of the “minimal?” How does your work embody it?
M: “Minima” came from a conception of space and time that was being discussed in the sciences of complexity. It takes the position that all matter is in a constant state of change and that form appears as a moment of stability. This moment of perceived stability is our constructed relationship with the world that engages us as observers and participants. Our name Minimaforms came from this thinking.
MP: I’m curious to know if you created together as kids. If you did, what did you make?
M: We have since our early childhood been curious in exploring our surroundings. It was not until we moved together to London in 2002 that same early curiosity could be channeled in a form of serious play. Steve went to study at Central St. Martins and I took a teaching position at the AA School of Architecture while working for design offices like Zaha Hadid Architects. During this period we began to explore and experiment with new processes and forms of interaction that challenged the fixed and finite. We were both searching for opportunities to explore work that went beyond conventions of traditional architecture and design. Stephen, training as an artist and interaction designer, and myself as an architect, found this through a conception of space as an environment. Minimaforms was formed in this period and has continued to be our experiment.
MP: In “Twenty-Five Sentences on Minimaforms,” David Greene writes that the most important desire of Minimaforms is “the desire to re-inhabit the city.” [Note to readers: that document is really worth a look.] Do you agree? Can you address that aspect of your work in more detail? It struck me because it’s also such an important desire for so many Detroiters right now. While, of course, our city has never been uninhabited, it has in recent decades been famously less inhabited, and (less famously) inhabited in ways that reinforce social divisions and inequality. We’re currently seeking new ways to inhabit it together. Did this feature of life in contemporary Detroit influence your decision to install Memory Cloud here?
M: It is an important feature of our work and the interest arises through the desire to explore new forms of communication and interaction. The urban environment of a city plays host and witness to this evolving human engagement. We see design as assisting and challenging the inert built environment, enabling new relationships that give over the city to the people. It seems in contemporary times people’s engagement with the city has become pre-conditioned or limited; it is important for us to find means in which we can explore space as public and shared.
The city is very much a creative and life-like partner in our everyday, and we explore ways to intervene and make this evident through our work. Memory Cloud is a direct form of this inquiry through the expressed thoughts and emotions of people. Cities are environments and they are shaped and evolve through their inhabitants. Detroit, like many cities, is in a process of reinventing itself and through this engaged moment of transformation, allowing itself to creatively come to terms with its immediate present and potential future.
With respect to our involvement with Detroit, we felt that we could offer a framework or platform through Memory Cloud for the voice of the people to hold a conversation with the city itself. We have had many offers to perform Memory Cloud since we performed it in Trafalgar Square in 2008; we had resisted until now. We believe that Memory Cloud: Detroit can make a difference, giving people in the city an instrument to communicate with the city itself.
MP: You’ve mentioned that Trafalgar Square was an ideal space for the first incarnation of Memory Cloud because it’s so public, used so often for collective action and expression. Since it’ll be presented here in a somewhat more traditional art context, Memory Cloud: Detroit will have something of a different aura (though it’ll still be visible to unsuspecting passersby). Can you talk about that difference? How has the project evolved since 2008?
M: Within the context of London, Trafalgar Square offered an interesting opportunity for us as its history has been of one of public expression through either protest or celebration, as you mention. Memory Cloud directly sets out to challenge what a context could mean, which in many ways brings up issues of permanence and, we would say, experience. The work we develop is constructed as an instrument. Context and content are elements that are formed through the intervention: the act is a product of
interaction and participation. In themselves, the Memory Cloud works could be understood as context-less, but they are conceived as prototypes that are open systems with the capacity to become context-specific.
In our Detroit version, the project will share the medium of smoke signals and light projection, as in the Trafalgar Square performance, though the emphasis will be on giving the people of Detroit an opportunity to engage in a dialogue about the city as part of a collective act. We will animate DIA’s Woodward Entrance with stories collected from the public. Each individual expression will be part of a continuous story about the city, a narrative written by participants over the duration of the project, transforming the steps of the DIA into a dynamic space for communication. Audience members will also be able to contribute messages via text-message during the performance each night. These collected text messages will be added to the Voice of Detroit archive, becoming part of an evolving diary and a voice that will speak of Detroit’s past, Detroit’s present and Detroit’s future.
MP: When I first started researching Memory Cloud, I was tantalized by the Telegraph‘s description of it as “potentially the most dramatic — and also most obscene — art events ever to be held in London.” I then read that text messages were, in fact, screened for content before they were displayed. I admit to being a little disappointed; there’s something dangerous and exciting about the idea of unfiltered, anonymous, real-time expression. I assume you’ll also screen messages in Detroit. Was this a difficult decision to make? What concerns guided it?
M: Every context or institution has its own rules and regulations. In London, as you mentioned, we were asked to develop a tool that would allow the city to screen the messages, as the city had concerns that ranged from inciting riots to religious intolerance. From an artistic perspective we made this affordance as a precautionary measure that allowed for the project to be performed.
The project itself brought to the forefront the complexities of this kind of event. The installation itself was only the third public art project to use the space of the Square, the first a piece by Krzysztof Wodiczko’s, which was a projection performed in 1985. It was critical for us to find a way to work with the city and realize a project that reinstated a public forum in the heart of the city through an artistic framework without compromising its integrity. Though we developed this tool, few messages were deemed unacceptable by the City of London for their content. Most of the messages that were removed were attempts from brands to use the piece to promote their commercial interests. It surprised the city officials that most of the sentiment was novel and respectful. In Detroit, the piece will be governed by the rules of the context we are operating in. As artists we are constructing a platform and we do not edit or create the content. This is very much a context specific intervention in all aspects.
MP: If the text messages sent and displayed comprise a conversation, it’ll be a sort of one-sided conversation (or rather, many one-sided conversations). This reminds me of World Question Center, a 1968 James Lee Byars TV piece that was recently on view at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In it, Byars places phone calls to dozens of thinkers and invites each to ask a single question that has special significance for his or her particular field of inquiry. There are never answers, only questions.
David Greene writes that Minimaforms has a “desire to be useful in the world” — what, to you, is the utility of facilitating a public conversation that is, on its face, incomplete?
M: The James Lee Byars project you mention is a very interesting example, and we would say that we share a strong interest in the conceptual and cybernetic works of that period. Byars’s telephone call is similar to our online site that collects the stories as part of the one sided conversation that you mention. Though the conversational aspects of the project are not formed from this collection. The project has as much to do with the content of the messages as it has to do with the environmental aspects that operate
within the structuring of the piece. In 1946, Lucio Fontana famously declared in The White Manifesto that “we need a change in essence and in form. We need to go beyond painting, sculpture, poetry and music. We need a greater art in harmony with the requirements of the new spirit.” He offered his vision of this new spirit through what he saw as “the construction of voluminous forms changing through a plastic, mobile substance. Arranged in space they act in synchronic form, they complete dynamic
images.” Messages communicated through Memory Cloud are continually reformed as the space of projection is grafted onto atmospheres of shape-shifting volumes of fog. The environmental variables continually reshape the projected messages through the dynamic writing and erasing of messages. This constructed atmosphere allows the text to transform in scales and incarnations along the driftscape of projected light. Accelerating air flow increases rates of dissipation further by transforming the volume
and density of the space of projection. The observers’ spatial perception continually pursues dynamic stability through forms of legibility in motion perception.
One of the important things for us is to find ways to enable people to participate. The move towards making things more shared and collective also encourages people to really engage with things. That level of engagement is very important to us. One of the key features of this kind of work is that people who are participating see their contribution to the project. The project takes on the identity of the viewer, it becomes an extension and instrument.
Participants become performers.
Minimaforms is based in New York and London. Their work can currently be seen as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects.” Memory Cloud: Detroit will take place at 8:00 pm at the Detroit Institute of Arts on Friday, 9/30, Saturday, 10/1, and Sunday, 10/2.
September 28, 2011 · Print This Article
Hand in Glove is for anyone and everyone who engages artist-run culture to talk about its past, its current manifestations, and its potential futures. It’s a four day event of national scope that will address the state of self-organized, noncommercial and artist-run spaces, publications, residencies, and a variety of other projects happening at the grass-roots level. Conversations will range from sustainability to funding to unconventional organizing models, as well as the kind of creative administrative strategies people are using to stay open.
Image: Renny Pritikin, published in Proximity Magazine‘s July 2009 issue.