We are fast approaching the longest day of the year. On the other side of the 22nd of this month, the days will again stretch, grow long. As one day expands past the last, our definition for its bounds nevertheless remains the same. There is something about categorical tidiness that seems especially important to the theoretical order of our species. I want to ask, then, what happens when those borders start to bleed into one another? What happens when languages mix up and churn into hybrid concoctions? And what about something as sticky as race or sex — where do we locate identity when bounding frameworks are under duress? Muddled with unknown elements. Under this light, the scaffold of our taxonomies become brittle, even arbitrary, for even the border plotted between species are suspect. In the forthcoming series I will talk to a number of artists about their ways in which they investigate hybrid forms of performance, language, science and art. At the moment the series is on-going, but as a kind of initiation I have asked a friend of mine (and Green Lantern author) Erica Adams to write a series of spells for hybridity. It seemed appropriate to use her words as an introduction to interviews I’ll be posting over the following weeks.
Spell to Swim a Great Distance
In the sign of Pisces, in the month of March, acquire a fish with scales the same color as the hair on your body. Place the fish next to your bed, so you may look at it upon waking, and it may look upon you as you sleep.
For one year, you must care for this fish, and for one year you must not shave or cut any hair upon your body.
Additionally, every night before sleep, you must tell the fish something you have told no living soul. The fish will become greatly sympathetic to you.
After one year, take the fish to the body of water you wish to cross, and let it free.
If the fish swims to the right, you must begin the operation again with another fish. But if it swims to the left, you may get into the water as well, while saying:
My mother’s water brought me to land
Your water brought me to sea
May I be unto you, and you unto me
The fish will swim beside you, and you will see that its scales have turned to hair, and that your hair has turned to scales. And you will move through the sea as a finned creature, until you reach shore.
Spell to Change One’s Face
In the sign of Capricorn, on a Saturday, go to a field where three goats graze: one white, one grey, and one black. Pull from them three hairs and tie these three hairs to three hairs of your own, saying:
When I join one, I become one.
When I join two, I become two.
When I join three, I become as thee.
Bake these hairs into a cake which you divide equally among the goats and yourself. When the goats defecate, collect this in a jug and leave it nine days to dry to powder. Mix this powder with water and apply it your face at sunrise, saying:
When I join one, I become one.
When I join two, I become two.
When I join three, I become as thee.
Do not wash your face or speak to any living person for three days. The mixture will dry on your face, and on the fourth day, you will wake with the face of a goat. This transformation will last for nine days time and cannot be repeated with the same goats.
Spell to Move about in Secrecy
This operation must be performed on a Thursday in spring-time, after fasting for three days. Find the burrow of a snake that has just lain eggs. Take seven of these eggs, and boil them. Remove the shells, so that the insides remain undamaged. Upon each egg write the words:
What was becoming, I will become
So I may move, perceived by none.
Each egg must be inserted whole into the mouth. The following evening you will feel the top of your mouth itching, and there you will find a seam. Pull on the edges of this seam, and your body will split, revealing itself as smooth and pink, with red eyes and no arms or legs.
In this way you will be able to move about undetected for one night’s time. In the morning you will wake, restored to your original form. You must return to the snake’s burrow and leave seven gold pieces to replace the eggs you stole, as the snake will find you and kill you otherwise.
**all drawings were made in response to Erica’s texts by yours truly.
Top ten lists are a staple around this time of year. What they lack in shades of grey they make up for with enthusiasm. I could read them all day. My favorite top tens come from trusted sources, so when I cracked this month’s Artforum I went straight to Devo lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh’s list of his 2011 top ten moments in music. Mothersbaugh avoids listing albums only. On his list, he includes a weird message on an answering machine cassette found in a Palm Springs thrift store as well as a cover band he saw play in a Tijuana restaurant. What really surprised me was his number five: the self-released album Bone Up from the Orlando-based electronic duo Yip-Yip. As Mothersbaugh says, “I’m a million years old, and I’ve heard a lot of music, but I’m always happy to be pleasantly surprised. Yip-Yip did that for me.”
Yip-Yip had already been performing live for a year when I moved to Orlando from my hometown in 2003. In the absence of a local artist-run gallery circuit like Chicago’s, live music filled the city’s niche for experimental culture. Playing in mutant black-and-white costumes behind pyramids of synthesizers, Yip-Yip was the closest thing to contemporary art I laid my eyes on in Orlando. They introduced me to the possibility that experimentation derived from the character of and in constant conversation with a specific place might breed something fantastic.
Yip-Yip, Live in Orlando, September 2011.
As media decentralizes, kingmakers like Artforum are no longer primary fountains of validation. That the magazine’s globalized gaze had turned to a commited local group like Yip-Yip was not what surprised and impressed me about Mothersbaugh’s top ten. Here’s what really knocked my socks off: Yip-Yip are always have been massive Devo fans. In a place like Central Florida, without widespread institutional support for things like experimental music, a pop group like Devo might be the only model to work from. Seeing one of Yip-Yip’s idols list them among his favorite things about music this year renews my faith in the stalwarts of local culture. Like Mothersbaugh, I’m pleasantly surprised.
This week: This week we talk with artist, writer, and WhiteWalls co-founder Buzz Spector!
Buzz Spector is an artist and critical writer whose artwork has been shown in such museums and galleries as the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh, PA. Spector’s work makes frequent use of the book, both as subject and object, and is concerned with relationships between public history, individual memory, and perception. He has issued a number of artists’ books and editions since the mid-1970s, including, most recently, Time Square, a limited edition letterpress book hand altered by the artist and published in 2007 by Pyracantha Press and ABBA at Arizona State University in Tempe. Among his previous publications are Between the Sheets, a limited edition book of images and text published in 2004 by The Ink Shop Printmaking Center in Ithaca, NY, Details: closed to open, an artists’ book of photographic details from images in the Swarthmore College Peace Collection, (List Art Gallery, Swarthmore College, 2001) and Beautiful Scenes: selections from the Cranbrook Archives (Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, MI, 1998).
Spector was a co-founder of WhiteWalls, a magazine of writings by artists, in Chicago in 1978, and served as the publication’s editor until 1987. Since then he has written extensively on topics in contemporary art and culture, and has contributed reviews and essays to a number of publications, including American Craft, Artforum, Art Issues, Art on Paper, Exposure, and New Art Examiner. He is the author of The Book Maker’s Desire, critical essays on topics in contemporary art and artists’ books (Umbrella Editions, 1995), and numerous exhibition catalogue essays, including Conrad Bakker: untitled mail order catalogue (Creative Capital, Inc., 2002) and Dieter Roth (University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1999).
Spector’s most recent recognition is a 2005 New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA Fellowship. In 1991 he was awarded a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship, and in 1982, 1985, and 1991 he received National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship Awards. He is Dean of the College and Graduate School of Art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.
Guest Post by Michael Milano
Among the many forms conceptual art of the 60’s and 70’s took, two major threads can be identified. The first, following Sol Lewitt’s definition of conceptual art in which the “idea becomes the machine that makes the art,”# is characterized by developing a set of rules or instructions that are then slavishly followed in the production of the artwork. The goal of this method of working is to limit or eliminate the subjectivity of the author by dividing the production of a work into two phases: a mental phase, which consists of planning, designing, and constructing a set of rules or system that will produce the work; and a second, manual phase, the physical construction of the art [object], in which the “execution is a perfunctory affair,” and where the “fewer decisions made in the course of completing the work, the better.”# The second major thread of conceptual art follows Joseph Kosuth’s definition that art should question the nature of art. This thread, characterized by its use and reliance on language, accepts the imperative that art ought to interrogate the foundations of its own being.
Karen Reimer’s work has explored both of these threads of conceptual art, albeit through the use of traditional craft methods and materials. In 2008 Reimer exhibited “Endless Set” at Monique Meloche Gallery. Following Lewitt’s definition, it is a highly systematic work that obeys a pre-established set of rules. The work is a set of pillowcases, pieced together from scraps of fabric, with a prime number appliqued onto it. “Each pillowcase is made of the same number of fabric scraps as the prime number decorating it, i.e. prime number 3 is appliqued onto a pillowcase made of 3 scraps of fabric. The white fabric prime number is the same inches high as itself, i.e., prime number 3 is 3 inches high. As the prime numbers get larger than the pillowcases, the excess white fabric is folded back and layered over. As the prime numbers get increasingly larger, there is more and more layering and they more completely obscure the pillowcase made of increasingly smaller scraps.”# The pillowcases retain their conventional dimensions (20 x 32 in.), but as the white appliqued prime number grows in size and increasingly obscures the multi-color fabric fragments, the excess material folded back upon itself gives the works increasing thickness and the appearance of mere stack of white fabric. The work is theoretically open ended, running off to infinity as the prime numbers do. However “Endless Set” will inevitably come to an end at the point in which the fabric scraps that make up the pillowcase support become too many and too small to physically stitch together. “Endless Set” also fruitfully disrupts the goal of working systematically, as defined by Lewitt, which sought to eliminate expressive content and problematize authorship. Rather than eliminating the subject, the author reappears in the form of handicraft, complicating the delineation between mental and manual labor. In “Endless Set” the hand returns devoid of expressionism, and the author returns equipped with an ambivalence about authorship. Because it is important that the work is hand-made, but irrelevant whether the artist’s own hand made the work, Reimer has converted the author from a who to a what: an author is present, but their specific identity is negligible. In this way, Reimer allows conceptual art to be embodied as well as abstract. While the idea is still the engine, it is a hand that is the machine which makes the art.
On the other hand, Reimer’s current show at Monique Meloche Gallery follows Kosuth’s definition. The work again consists of a number of standard size pillow cases hand embroidered/embellished with either text or image. The majority of the works are text based, consisting of quotes from poet Emily Dickinson, scientist Richard Feynman, art historian John Ruskin, and author Mark Twain, among others. A central motif, whether pictorial or textual, is the flower–a quintessential form of domestic embellishment. Some of the of the quoted texts warn against using flowers or flowery language, consistent with early modernism’s negative assessment of ornament. For example, in the embroidered Mark Twain quote, “Don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. An adjective habit, a wordy, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice,” the words flower and flowery are highlighted in red and struck through. It is this floweriness that is at the heart of the work, revealing its logic and its relationship to Kosuth’s definition of conceptual art. Because it is non-utilitarian and decorative, embroidery is inherently flowery; it is a useless, lyrical embellishment upon a utilitarian form. Reimer, however, by her choice of texts creates work that is simultaneously an embellishment (embroidery on cloth, that is not structurally integral), and an interrogation of embellishment (texts that question the function or justification of embellishment itself). Likewise, the treatment of the texts is not overly flowery, and yet their existence on the pillowcases can be described as nothing other than a flowery embellishment. In this context, the few works which actually picture flowers must be understood as tongue-and-cheek gestures, or at least “Sarcastic Flowers” as another pillowcase states.
Reimer’s work would be central to working out what a conceptual craft might mean. In this context, conceptual would merely mean that the idea is the most important aspect of the work; i.e. “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” or that craft, like art, must questions its own grounds for being. And by craft we would not necessarily mean craftsmanship, skill, specialization, or a fetishism of the handmade. We merely mean that labor (both mental and physical) can not be ignored; i.e. that it is integral to the content of the work. This is one of the things that a conceptual craft would have to offer the historical category of conceptual art: labor, whether mental or manual, is not negligible. The pillowcase embroidered with the Ruskin quote states: “I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this; was the maker happy while he was about it?” Conceptual craft, however, would ask: was the maker rigorous and systematic in their making? did the maker interrogate or problematize the methods and materials they are employing? is the maker’s labor part of the content of the work? Reimer’s art answers yes to all these questions. Whether working systematically within a set of rules or using traditional craft techniques to question themselves, the work of Karen Reimer is a conceptual craft.
Karen Reimer’s exhibition at Monique Meloche Gallery is titled The Domestic Partnership of Heaven and Hell and runs from November 19 – December 31, 2011 (however, please note that the gallery is temporarily closed for repairs).
This week, I’ve delved into the Bad at Sports archive and pulled an especially interesting interview with Mark Dion, conducted by Duncan and Brian in June of 2010. Below, excerpts from Mark’s discussion of the joys of being a dilettante:
“I have a lot of interests but I have to keep that somewhat narrow, in a sense. I want to have some degree of expertise. I can’t do everything. I really do feel like it’s my responsible as an artist, that if I’m working around issues of zoology that I have to have a foundation in zoology, and if I’m working in issues of archaeology, I have to know that. So I can’t just jump from one thing to the other in a haphazard way, I do have a responsibility to at least have the core of what that field is. And so it’s difficult. I still am very much a dilettante, not a professional. I’m not an ornithologist or an ichthyologist or a herpetologist or an archaeologist, but I do try to use aspects of their shared methodologies in a way to tease out some of their own prejudices and to look at those fields from a distance. My wife often says, “you’re an archaeologist like Tin Tin is a journalist.”
“Certainly I had to study biology before I started this work in a formal way, but I’ve learned a lot going through these projects and having opportunities such as being artist in residence at the Natural History Museum of London. I do learn a lot by my contexts with these experts. We’re always partnering with other experts in the field, and that’s a big deal, to have someone you can trust who understands the emphasis of your project and can advise you on decisions.
“On one hand, very often I’m working with institutions that are practicing science now, and a lot of the individuals working in them are very tied to the history of that science, and we share an interest in that history and maybe even a passion for the aesthetics of that history. Very often, a lot of [the scientists who work in these institutions], they know by the time they’re 12 or 14 that this is what they want to do. I share that passion and that interest from the early stages, but I still exist as an amateur in a way.
“I could never be a scientist because the rigors of that and the amount of time one has to spend in front of a computer screen or in an office is just overwhelming. I meet people who spend two months in Guyana or wherever doing field work, collecting, and then for the next four years they’re in an office sifting through that material and making sense of it. Taking the road of the artist is the road I’ve chosen…of being a professional dilettante, in a sense. I’d like to rescue that term, “dilettante,” and bring it back…A lot of my work does hearken back to a moment where there’s a collapse of disciplines, to this kind of time where the artist, the scientiest, the poet, the theologian–were the same person.”
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