Top 5 Weekend Picks (12/9-12/11)

December 9, 2011 · Print This Article

1. Stalemate at Roxaboxen Exhibitions

Work by Christopher Meerdo.

Roxaboxen Exhibitions, 2130 W. 21st. Reception Sunday, 7-10pm.

2. Decompositions at Happy Collaborationists Exhibition Space

Work by Emily Green.

Happy Collaborationists Exhibition Space, 1254 N Noble. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm.

3. FLAT 11 at Floor Length and Tux

Work by Chuck Jones, Danielle Paz, Frank Pollard, Catie Olson, and EC Brown.

Floor Length and Tux, 2332 W. Augusta #3. Reception Saturday, 7-10pm.

4. Handler at Western Exhibitions

Work by Tyson Reeder, Scott Reeder, Jose Lerma, Greg Klassen, Michelle Grabner, Richard Galling, Peter Barrickman, and Nicholas Frank.

Western Exhibitions, 119 N. Peoria St. Reception Friday (today), 5-8pm.

5. Dark Corner at EC Gallery

Work by Justyna Adamcyzk and Aleksandra Urban.

EC Gallery, 215 N. Aberdeen St. Reception Friday (today), 6-8pm.  




Public Funding for Public Art?

December 8, 2011 · Print This Article

I’m writing this from Washington, DC where I’m taking part in NAMAC’s first Campaign and Policy Institute, a three day think-tank with nonprofits across the Unites States to give us all some pointers on how we talk to our policy-makers. Tomorrow, I’ll be meeting with Senator Kirk and Senator Durbin’s art staff to advocate for more arts funding. I feel kind of like my Dad when he was chosen as one of twenty high school students across the country to go to the White House and shake hands with LBJ. Of course, I was not chosen to do this out of thousands of people and Senator Kirk is no LBJ. And I am less excited about meeting my elected officials after watching them run and hide from Stand Up! Chicago who had also traveled to Washington, DC to meet them this week.

Particularly sobering today, though kind of awesome in his radical bluntness, was Gladstone Payton, the Associate Director of Federal Affairs at Americans for the Arts. Basically he said that we’re in the middle of a “retrenchment,” arts funding levels are going down and there’s really no upswing in sight. The NEA’s budget has gone from around 165 million to 150 million (which was a deal to avoid government shutdown) and there are proposals now to lower it to 135 million. As he puts it, broader consensus has not been formed around arts and social justice organizations. We don’t have our “thought infrastructure” in place to articulate funding for the arts as important because it’s part of our national identity and we continually fall back on the economic driver and revitalization argument. Where is the counter-Richard Florida argument? “Thought infrastructure” sounds kind of terrifying but so does advocating for arts policy in our current governmental climate. Payton told us another story about Senator Tom Coburn, Republican from Oklahoma, who takes every swipe he can at the arts on the Senate floor, yet his daughter is an opera singer and he is a strong supporter of his local arts council and opera company. Some people just believe that the government’s role is not to support the arts and this ideological divide cannot be crossed. Ok, yes, this is kind of depressing. Monumentally depressing when thinking about places like Kansas where Governor Brownback eliminated all of his state’s arts funding this year. Stories like this are multiplying.

So duh, Republicans don’t believe in funding the arts. But some do believe in individual charitable giving, apparently as part of some private sector argument in which arts are supposed to become part of the competitive marketplace. And this is going to be a really unfair comparison, but sites like Kickstarter are also on the individual giving/competition train. And I don’t blame them at all and I participate wholeheartedly. To fund creative projects, who else are we going to turn to for money other than family, friends, and the extended social networks that we are working on building all the time? And what’s more American than good old self-promotion and some healthy competition? That sounds pretty cynical, I’m actually rather painfully earnest. I love love love that tools like Kickstarter exist but doesn’t it also seem like it puts everyone out there on their own individual limb, hoping they made the right pitch to get noticed in all the internet noise?

Which is also why I was charmed when I came across Trust Art‘s “origin story,” as the Statue of Liberty as America’s first piece of public art funded by crowd-sourcing. Trust Art was started by Seth Aylmer and Jose Serrano-Reyes, who choose the projects that become part of the Trust Art network. I met Jose since he’s on staff as a Community Organizer at the Queens Museum of Art, a truly interesting position for a museum that’s interested in public engagement. Trust Art is a responsive model of funding public art in which people on the internet buy shares in public works of art, thereby becoming invested in that project coming to fruition. Their story of the Statue of Liberty, funded partly by dinner parties, small donations solicited by the New York Globe, and motivated citizens, tells the story of how things actually got done, made up of publics with personal stakes rather than monolithic institutions. I was interested in how they thought about the changing landscape of public funding for the arts today, where the majority of non-institutional community-based arts projects are happening via the crowd-sourcing model and where they think all this is going.

First, check out this video that explains a bit more, starring Benjamin Franklin:

How does Trust Art work and how did it get started?

Trust Art is an experimental funding model for socially-engaged and public art.  The model adapts the concept of a publicly-held company to create a community of people actively supporting a public art project over the course of its development. Trust Art issues shares for every dollar or volunteer hour a community member gives towards the development of a project and redeems those shares when the project is completed. Artworks, artifacts and other ephemera from the projects are sold at auction and the proceeds are re-distributed amongst the artists and community members, who are invited to recycle any returns into new projects.

We introduced the model and 10 inaugural projects at the TED Conference in 2009 as an experiment we were intent on learning from.

What are your backgrounds that brought you to initiating this project?

Jose used to work for the New York Fed and has experience in economics and capital markets.  Seth is a philosopher, painter, sculptor, and video maker.   We have been collaborating for 6 years on projects that work at the joints between art and capital.   In a country where half of all public spending goes to military concerns, we have tried to counter the prevailing paradigm and champion funding and support for the arts with the very artwork that we make.  It has been our mission to re-direct capital of all kinds to the arts because we firmly believe in the power of art to transform society for the better.

Can you explain how you think about what seems to be the two different meanings of the word “trust” as the central core to the project?   On the one hand you are actually building a financial structure in the form of a “trust” i.e. mimicking a corporate structure where people take part as shareholders and the beneficiaries of the money are responsible to those investors. On the other hand, “trust” is affective in the sense that you are building a community that feels a stake in these public-oriented projects, where no one person in particular can “own” the work. This seems like a pressing metaphor right now when thinking about movements such as Occupy Wall Street which are so indicative of the fact that people have lost their trust in our government’s ability to have financial institutions be accountable to the regular citizens. 

Yes, we are indeed playing with the different meanings of the word ‘trust’.    Trust.  Equity.  Mutual.  Share.  All beautiful ideas that are present at the foundations of early capitalism, when financial mechanisms were still about getting capital from hand that had it to the hand that needed it.  The use of this word reflects the fact that our work has been less a critique of capitalism than an exploration of what capitalism might look like should it evolve beyond the mentality and propagation of scarcity in which it currently resides.

To us this seems like the perfect time to start re-thinking institutions that are not serving the societal purpose for which they were initially created. In our view, new institutions will only succeed the inevitable trials that they face if they are good at building community. Trust, in the non-financial sense, is a key factor in any community, especially one that is organized around projects involving pooled resources. Luckily public art is a suitable testing ground because it is easier to trust a project which is essentially a gift that beautifies and enlivens your surroundings.

What do you think are the limits of responsive fundraising models like this? For instance, do you think there is any danger in a project being judged on whether or not it serves particular communities well enough or whether it has the right kind of politics? Would a project that has a confrontational element such as Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc not make the cut here? Or would something that is perhaps a more traditional approach to public art such as a mural not have a place here?

We believe in abundance.  That’s the first and most important thing that drives our thinking.  All these kinds of work could live together in our societies, and should.

We really do not want to play the role of the curator, and definitely not the role of a censor, but there are in fact other external factors that do limit and shape the type of artwork that ultimately ends up in public space. There are the obvious issues of construction and permitting which must meet a certain standard, but projects must also be able to successfully fundraise which must mean they have to appeal to a base level of supporters to get off the ground. Confrontation can be a wonderful quality in works of art, but artists working in the public realm will quickly realize that they must face a sea of resistance if confrontation is the only thing they are about.

Obviously, Kickstarter has really changed the way we think about fundraising on the internet. There is now a readily accessible infrastructure where people can fundraise for their work through small amounts of money by their communities. But there are some issues there too. One is that it speaks to the fact that traditional funding models are not responding to people’s needs, i.e. the problem with governmental support for the arts being what it is today. But is it a danger to let those larger institutions off the hook when we individually pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and ask our friends and family members to foot the bill for creative projects? This is a devil’s advocate sort of question, since I don’t think it’s so black and white as that but it does raise some concerns about how we advocate for these kinds of projects at the macro-level. What does an ideal infrastructure to support public art look like to Trust Art? 

Also, do you think there is some tipping point where there will be too many kickstarter campaigns in our lives to feel mutually invested in one particular work? Do you think people will get exhausted by all these solicitations?

If you think about them as ‘solicitations’, yes.  If you think about them as invitations to participate in a creative process, perhaps not.

We think it’s important that we move to reflect the spirit of creative life.  The most sustainable approach for us is bringing supporters closer to their spirit as innately creative beings.  We are also trying to foster a greater community than just the family and friends of the artist because it is the public at large that will be benefitting from the completion of these project.   As tempting as it might be to think of the government as a good solution to funding public art, dealing with that kind of beauracracy can be both draining and constraining.

We are hoping our auction in the Spring of 2012 will be a chance to engage a larger portion of the artworld in the funding of public artwork.

And astutely, you point out that crowd-sourcing, gift economies, and community-based fundraising were evident in our most famous public work of art, The Statue of Liberty. So is all this talk about new models really just a collective amnesia about how things actually get done?

The urge for people to rally together to create works greater and more enduring than their transient selves is an ancient one. The story of the Statue of Liberty is especially inspiring because it is a people-powered work of art that dollar for dollar is one of the greatest economic engines of all time.   Imagine the spiritual and economic wealth that can be traced back to this work of art as it greeted and inspired the tens of millions of new New Yorkers that came to this city to looking for a new sense of what is possible.




ACRE! ACRE! ACRE!

December 8, 2011 · Print This Article

Humans. Our friends at ACRE lent us a radio station so we could play “Pirates” in Miami. It only seems right that we thank them by reminding you that their funding auction is happening this Friday night at Heaven Gallery! Let get out there and show them the love.

More INFO

Auction CATALOG

Full IMAGE SET on Flickr

To that end I have pulled a sort of random set of images from their auction catalog and reposted their text below.

Howdy Cowboys & Cowgirls!

ACRE invites you to join us for an escape to the Country on December 9th at Heaven Gallery! Shine up your spurs, polish your boots and pick out your best plaid for a night of art, music and dancing! The night will feature a silent and live auction hosted by Brandon Alvendia and Lil’ Elote. Get into the country-spirit and whet your whistle at theopen bar stocked with a selection of Lagunitas beers, wine and hard cider and compete for a special prize in the edible cornucopia eating contest. Swing your pardner along to the sounds of The Golden Horse Ranch Band, warm-up to the sweet murder ballads of Eileen, and cut a rug when Chances Dances break out their country dance tunes. Be sure to dress in your country finest and get your one-of-a-kind live portrait by an ACRE resident. ACRE is raising funds for it’s Exhibitions program and 2012 Residency Program. ACRE is dedicated to providing support to emerging artists and fostering an ever expanding community of cultural producers.

LIVE MUSIC
The Golden Horse Ranch Band
Eileen
Chance Dances goes Country

ART AUCTION
Bid on new art works by Chicago artists and ACRE alumni in both a silent and live auction! Featuring work by Adam Grossi, Alex Chitty, Alyse Ronayne, Aron Gent, Ben Driggs, Brandon Anschultz, Bryan Lear, Caitlin Arnold, Caroline Picard, Chris Meerdo, Dan Bradica, Daniel Shea, Jacob Chris Hammes, Jan Tichy, Jennifer Ray, Jeremy Bolen, Jessica Taylor Caponigro, Julia Klein, Kelly Kaczynski, Kristina Paabus, Laurie Palmer, Leo Kaplan, Matt Austin, Michelle Grabner, Olivia Valentine, Steve Reinke, Tara Hilss, Thad Kellstadt, Todd Diederich, Young Joon Kwak, Zak Arctander, and more! The silent auction will end and live auction will begin at 9:30. Cash, check and most major credit cards are accepted. Art work will be available to be taken home that night.

LIVE PORTRAIT DRAWING
Get a unique portrait solo or with a friend by a talented emerging artist. Participating artists include Betsy Odom, Caroline Carlsmith, Carson Fisk-Vittori, Chiara Keeling-Gonzalez, Lauren Beck, Leo Kaplan, Liz McCarthy, Michael Hunter, Michael Kloss, Nick Wylie, Ron Ewert, and Virginia Aberle.

CORNUCOPIA EATING CONTEST
Contestants compete in teams of two to gobble the most produce, chocolate and other goodies spilling out of five large cornucopias. The cornucopias are fair game too- they’re made of bread! Prizes will be awarded for total amount of food eaten, and crowd pleasing-est groups.

ACRE (Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions) is a volunteer-run non-profit based in Chicago devoted to employing various systems of support for emerging artists and to creating a regenerating community of cultural producers. ACRE investigates and institutes models designed to help artists develop, present, and discuss their practices by providing forums for idea exchange, interdisciplinary collaboration, and experimental projects. Each year,ACRE conducts a summer residency program in rural Steuben, Wisconsin, bringing together over 100 artists, musicians, and thinkers to make and discuss their work. Back in Chicago,ACRE provides opportunities for all of its residents to exhibit at either ACREProjects, a storefront gallery in Pilsen, or one of over 10 partner spaces.

More information about ACRE can be found at acreresidency.org.

Heaven Gallery is a non-profit gallery and multi-disciplinary arts space in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood that encourages, mentors, and presents new and emerging artists, musicians, and filmmakers to audiences throughout Chicagoland and beyond. In order to encourage submissions from the widest diversity of artists, regardless of their financial situation, Heaven Gallery widely promotes our open proposal process, and does not charge submission or exhibition fees. All of our programs are open to the public.

More information about Heaven can be found at heavengallery.com.




Crooked Timber

December 7, 2011 · Print This Article

“How do norms move on cat’s paws, silent and unthought?” Ken Corbett

I’ve been trying to articulate what I want from aesthetic experiences; usually I don’t think about it, I only know I like them and seek them out, but the thought came to a head after seeing Drive. It’s gorgeous. The colors are lush, the music hypnotic; electro-pop voices coo about “Real Human Heroes.” The movie hit each of one of my hot spots. It was totally seductive and for the most part I was absorbed in this post-modern dérive of LA Contemporary Cowyboy-Yakuza. But. Here is the thing: There is no transformation — even further, there is no possibility of transformation in Nicholas Winding Refn’s cinematic frame. At the end of the movie you’re just as stuck as you were in the beginning, you just happened to go for a scenic drive.

While not often achieved, I want to find myself at a different spot at the end of an aesthetic experience. I want to see my house and life differently. I want a moment when my expectations were not fulfilled because they were destroyed and in being destroyed are surmounted by a new recognition — you see, here it is — the moment of transformation. Where old expectations are confounded and unforeseen consequences ensue, consequences that challenge prior convictions. Such paradigmatic shifts have happened before — consider the Copernican Revolution, or the discovery of a non-Euclidean geometry, wherein the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line (suggesting that space is not flat but fundamentally curved). Obviously that’s a lot to ask of a single work of art, but it’s also worth reaching towards as an artistic agenda and, to my mind, the best work does so.

 

When I interviewed Irina Botea for Art21, we spent a long time talking about reenactment and what it was for, why it was important: reenactment is a construct, but it presents an original point of view. That contemporary-present-view layers on top of our learned perspective of historical events. By reenacting a history, we embody the past, and enable new possibilities latent in historical events. Recognizing those new possibilities highlights other new possibilities in everyday life. I don’t think a civil war reenactment is anything necessarily different from genre writing. Within genre certain expectations must be fulfilled. Drive is a genre film and like many films meets the expectations determined by its genre. But it does not expand beyond those expectations. If anything it reinforces them. It is still just a Yakuza movie and, look, I love Yakuza movies, but I tend to give the old ones (c. 1960) certain leeway because of their age: they’re grandfathers and great great grandfathers, and whether or not nostalgia is dangerous in its capitulation, I forgive its offense. I cannot do the same for contemporary work, at the very least because it falls short of its highest potential: to transform the genre it inhabits.

In Drive the gender roles remain fixed — the mother figure (Carey Mulligan) is helpless, virtuous and needs protection against the dangerous world around her. Hero, Ryan Gosling — her only salvation — is trapped in the obligations of his auto mechanic/moonlight-race-car-driver life. He is a loyal man of few words. He wants to protect the innocence of the virtuous mother’s son (like his alter ego or anima). Protecting them (the idea of a nuclear family which he might then endear himself into) he appears justified in doing great violence. Aside from a flock of bare breasted strippers who lase about in a mirror-addled waiting room, the only other woman in the film (Christina Hendricks from Mad Men incidentally) serves as a bad girl-foil; there is a perhaps-too-pleasurable sequence where Gosling, with the gloves on, beats her in a hotel room. She dies shortly thereafter.

The most interesting moment in the film occurs when Gosling’s profile fades into the figure of a stripper. In the ensuing scene he forces a mobster bad guy to eat the bullet said mobster gave to the movie’s son (of the virtuous mother). The whole scene marks a defining point in the Gosling’s character, because he has determined to take matters into his own hands. Its preceding fade, where Gosling and stripper blend into one another, is the sole challenge of normative gender throughout the film, and even while it’s fleeting, it suggests Gosling’s character is not so much a self-directed hero, but a cog in a performative machine. Suddenly there is a visual parallel between the “Driver’s” hero complex and a service industry job. While the moment was too brief to bear the weight of the film’s purpose, it underlines an otherwise scarce possibility for transformative thought.

The careful cinematic style of Drive reminded me of Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Here too, we see the study of an inherited, male paradigm that remains in tact and Romantic at the end of the film, despite its intended study of that paradigm’s imperfection. Brad Pitt stands at the helm : a 1950s patriarch with a beautiful wife. He calls her naive often enough to make the audience uncomfortable; similarly his reactive sons highlight the limited harshness of Pitt’s aggressive upper lip to remind anyone in the audience that he is an anti-hero. (What is likely enhanced by the overall nostalgic decadence of the work as seen through a boy’s eyes). The critique however falls short of catastrophe. Nothing actually falls apart. The characters continue, and continue to suffer. The mother never finds her voice and in ever instance wherein one of the family members tries to speak out against Pitt, we see him overcome (and forcefully suppress) their efforts.Pitt’s flaws become a testament to his humanity. He is forgiven despite himself (thus echoing larger Christian themes in the film). Beyond that, from the glimpse of Pitt’s grown son (Sean Penn), the paradigm has only continued. Penn is a chip off the old block — a professionally successful man with a beautiful wife whom he seems alienated by/from.

Both films are unusual Hollywood blockbusters (Malick takes this insane  side tour visual montage wherein he tries to explain the meaning of life, beginning with the an astral-vaginal slit that leads to the big bang, that focuses on lava explosions, into amoebic life forms, into secreting canals of live-giving fluid and seems to peak (after ages) with the grace of a benevolent dinosaur (wherein, I think? we are supposed to intuit the grace of God). That part is amazing: I mean, what?!). Both films are crafted with such deliberate love for the medium of film. They are incredibly seductive. The music, in both cases, is mesmerizing. The performance of its cast is also spot on. The shots themselves are almost so saturated as to feel drowsy and heavy with color. They are totally luxurious films, Romantic and romanc-ing. Nevertheless the allure of craft and aesthetic pleasure only reinforces predominant and historical archetypes of male machismo.

But of course all of this raises the question: is there a need to rethink masculine archetypes? Certainly paying audiences seem to applaud our familiar white middle aged patriarchs. Alec Baldwin has made a career out of cameo appearances where he knowingly espouses power — he’s  30 Rock’s favorite CEO. Don Draper and Tony Soprano are also beloved portraits of masculinity; we enjoy the spectacle of their self-interested and often misogynist behavior, either pitying the women who put up with them or applauding the strength of their female counterparts for surviving a constant barrage of infidelity and sorrow. Indeed we may even critique these leading ladies for the shallow pleasure they take in material compensation. Both Carmelo and Betty enjoy the status of a husband’s material success. Perhaps one might suggest (with fair reason, given the proliferate examples of cowboy heroes) these binaries are Natural. The Oedipus Complex has been repeated again and again, an intrinsic propaganda, in an attempt to derive access to some universal meaning, i.e. all men are essentially driven (unequivocally) by x. Unfortunately, women tend to suffer from this paradigm. But what is to be done, if in fact, it is the natural and inherent consequence of humanity? The tragic flaw of our species, if not Nature In General. (We can at least wait for the end of days when, like Malick’s cast, we’ll frolic on the beach of redemption).

As one who assumes a great length of time between now and the end of the world, I am unwilling wait for a seaside picnic. Ken Corbett’s book, Boyhoods: Rethinking Masculinities, writes at the length about how the common expectations of men and male psychology exclude and limit not just women but men as well. Differences in male psychology are glossed over in contemporary society. “Culturally ordered masculine ideals corral the emotional landscape called masculinity. The fantastic underbelly of masculinity is pinched and policed. The complexity of masculinity goes largely unrecorded; the variety that makes for complexity is only recorded as pathology” (p.9). Corbett examines the foundation of this “corral” before going through a series of case studies — from his own psychoanalytic practice — that defy traditional stereotypes (and in their defiance create friction with their affiliated family units). In the first chapter he examines the source of the Oedipus Complex, “Little Hans,” pointing out Freud’s subjective conclusions that are, themselves, based on a fantasy of masculinity.

“…the failure to include consideration of the intimate family surround is to leave Hans an oddly romanticized boy, one who is untroubled by the intrapsychic vagaries of relations, other than those that occur in his pursuit of phallic sexualized relations. The flavor of this romance seeps into Freud’s proud description of Han’s ‘energetic masculinity with traits of polygamy,’ a boundless heterosexual desire that Hans ‘knew how to vary…with his varying feminine objects — audaciously aggressive in one case, languishing and bashful in another.’ Hans pinned as a cad. This problematic romance results in Freud’s underilluminated general theory of masculinity: men and boys are cast as desiring, but the relational yearning that shapes their desires goes unexplored,” (42).

Corbett goes on to pose new interpretations of the very dream (belonging to Hans) that established the Oedipal complex in the first place. The implications of such a discovery are huge, in so far as they would tip a number of foregone conclusions, conclusions deep at work in popular culture and family mythology. (One of the threads in Tree of Life, for instance, depicts the oldest son wrestling with the desire for his mother and his recoiling efforts to undermine his father). “Hans is the Ur-boy, and through his construction and acts of consciousness the psychoanalytic construct of masculinity is endowed with meaning” (p.19). With new evidence having come to light ( Letters and interviews from Freud’s case files were only recently made public), speculation about the mother who, “Freud [did] not position as a speaking subject,” (p.35) and the dynamic life of their family, Corbett suggests that then is that Hans is responding primarily to an unpleasant and unstable home life — something specific to his family structure, not necessarily intrinsic to his sex.

What happens, then, if we reexamine these archetypes? What happens to the stories we tell ourselves? Tree of Life is an homage to an American masculine identity. Brad Pitt is the hard-edged father, with a nearly silent but supposedly naive wife and three sons. The sons are competitive with one another for their father’s affection, just as they are competitive with him for their mother’s primary attention. The moment of Pitt’s paternal failure is also fleeting: He admits to his son that he has nothing, that all his life he focused on the wrong things (wealth, not family). But his offspring seems to have learned nothing from this admission. Gosling’s character admits, in some way, that he isn’t a hero: he has to put on a mask stolen from a Hollywood make up both in order to shoot up all the bad guys, but he doesn’t seem to accomplished anything between sacrifice. If anything, Gosling seems even more hemmed in at the end. Both Tree of Life and Drive seduce the viewer into an empathic relationship with the film’s subjects without providing any transformation in contemporary views of gender and heroism. Of course, that’s not an easy task. It’s probably the hardest thing in the world to rethink archetypes, but that’s also what good art does. It makes the impossible seem easy.  And, I’ll be honest, I want to see new heroes, new paradigms, new shifts — there is a popular push for this reexamination in the air. Occupy movements are pressing against the organization of wealth and rogue  millionaires are storming congress asking for higher taxes (can you imagine?). We all know there will be no social security in our futures. We know that student debts are too high. It seems fair to assume that addressing these concerns properly requires we also reexamine the underlying social expectations that engendered our present system, open them up and give them new light. Why wait for a glory bream redemption if we can build its foundation now?


 




INTERVIEW WITH CLAIRE L. EVANS

December 6, 2011 · Print This Article

This interview is about and with Claire L. Evans, the Los Angeles-based artist and writer. Claire is, of course, engaged in a number of fields. Her most famous work is in the highly stylized and conceptualized “band, belief system and business” YACHT (which she leads with Jona Bechtolt), who happen to be playing at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall tonight. And while the timing of this feature is not accidental, this is only one facet of her creative and intellectual work, and the one to which the interview pays the least attention.

Her writing investigates, expresses and advances the intersects of art and science. Universe, a blog that has settled down with the ScienceBlogs network, is interested in the margins of science and in igniting imaginative inquiry into science-driven/drawn culture; Space Cannon is well summarized as a “project in science fiction self-education,” it’s personal, immersive and reveals a deep love the subject matter; finally, there is the ambitious New Art/Science Affinities, a project co-written (in a week!) by Andrea Grover, Régine Debatty and Pablo Garcia and designed by Luke Bulman and Jessica Young of Thumb as part of a weeklong book sprint instigated by Carnegie Mellon’s Miller Gallery and STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. The work is available as a free pdf at the Miller Gallery’s website.

Claire’s work is brainy and breezy, unafraid of personal asides and excited to revel in the beauty and insanity of a sometimes awkwardly-hewn natural, digital and cultural world. The works are concept-driven and reveal an interest in science both as subject and mode of aesthetic inquiry.

Modern Warfare is a single take/life inside of the video game of the same name in which the first person shooter systematically destroys every screen in his/her/its path. It’s a great video and one in a growing series of pieces in which cultural workers engage a video game space for “shooting.” I had fun imagining the video game character with full agency, existing in this world, thinking about how many screens there are, being driven by his/her/its iPhone, aching for the smell of a real book, for the sound of a needle on vinyl and whatever other real world, sensorial pleasures screens seem to have snatched from us, only to remember by the end that his/her/its whole existence is predicated on screens. This is one of many instances in your work in which y/our complicated relationship with technology is laid bare, or, rather, heightened for metaphoric, aesthetic and comedic effect.

To be honest, I have a knee-jerk reaction to the rhetoric of analog nostalgia. I hate it when people say that they just miss the smell of books. I find it so reductive. I love “real” books (funny that we even need to qualify the word) and prefer to read on paper for both practical and sentimental reasons, but the point is that the smell of books hasn’t gone anywhere–nor has the warmth of the vinyl record, or the charming crackle of the cassette tape. None of the analog pleasures have stopped existing, and no one is being forced into a life of slavery to the screen. Complaining of missing real-world experiences is so defeatist; people who feel reality is being snatched away from them are precisely the people those who don’t grasp onto what makes them happy, even in a world whose tools have outpaced them. Modern Warfare is about the absurdity of fighting the climate of technology that envelops us, or of looking down on the soporific nature of violent video games. It’s an impossible object, kind of an ouroboros: the gamer, the “guy,” who is both the player and a puppet controlled by the player, attempts to annihilate the dead mirrors all around him, but he can’t escape the medium, only discover its boundaries, which define what he is.

I’m fascinated by the open-ended nature of the contemporary game environment, how much it allows you to dérive…

I have a friend who is a dedicated gamer, and I often explore with him. We look for the edges of the maps, the places where obstacles and “masking systems” (industry term) politely turn you away from a real glimpse at the yawning digital void beyond the grid of the game’s world. Once, while playing Grand Theft Auto, we managed to make our character swim in the ocean, away from the game, for half an hour of repetitive grey water before he died. I like calmly driving through the cityscapes of racing games, adhering to traffic laws. I’ve been playing L.A. Noire recently, which is a monumental digital landscape saturated in hyperreal historical details. From what I understand, it’s a perfectly authentic built world, consistent in its physics, constructed from the ground up. There is so much freedom! I don’t see a huge leap from this to Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. The difference is hardware, and the amount of sensory realism. We just need to swim a little longer through the vectors of the uncanny sea.

Let’s talk about your interest in science fiction. It seems that the elemental difference between sci-fi and other types of fiction–which is to assume that all fiction is, by its very nature, speculative–is the era it’s set in and the degree to which new technologies, knowledges, etc. play a role in this diegetic reality. Can you talk a bit about how your (creative) work relates to this–or another–notion of science fiction?

I could–and perhaps someday will–write unreadable academic theses on the subject of science fiction. You’ve gone straight to the issue by pointing out that all fiction is speculative. The difference between science fiction and fiction, unghettoized, is something kind of undefinable in its critical stance. Perhaps that it feels implicitly comfortable dealing with a broader here and now. It’s unafraid of overburdening itself with too wide a scope: the entire universe is its playing ground. It regularly and cannily addresses issues of real importance to our world: the nature of reality, of identity and personhood, of the ramifications of our actions on the larger holistic systems of which we are a part. It also has an anarchist streak and a fascination with the abject that I really relate to. It’s difficult to tell what effect my love of science fiction has on my work, save to say it’s the intellectual “school” of my approach, and that I ultimately strive to make something that might make a person feel the way I felt when David Bowman gazes into the black obelisk in 2001: A Space Odyssey and proclaims, “The thing’s hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God—it’s full of stars!”

You made a series of a videos a few years ago dealing with digital decay. You recently re-visited the theme, this time further literalizing the drony/meditative aspects of the earlier work through the use of the ubiquitous “spinning beach ball” as a third eye.

This is striking because, assuming I’m not reading into this too deeply, it connects the temporary technological paralysis the beach ball signifies with the state of emptiness and at-one-ness meditation promises/provides. Will you indulge us with an idea of what artificial (intelligence’s) enlightenment would look/feel like? Is the essentializing/concentrating of digital compression helpful in conceiving of human spirituality, of our own essences?

God, what a huge question. I made those Digital Decay videos during my first art residency, at the Espy Foundation, in coastal Washington. They were a reaction to the Douglas Davis essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction,” which argues that unlike analog signals, which are like waves crashing on a beach and losing clarity with every ebb of the tide, digital bits “can be endlessly reproduced, without degradation, always the same, always perfect.”

I was interested in replicating analog visual qualities by purely digital processes, in this case, saving files in progressively lower-quality formats over hundreds of times, then animating the result.

Later I began thinking about technology differently: not as something to be molded, but something which molds the user. The Internet actually makes our brains work differently; I wonder what the spirituality of the future will look like. I’m not talking about the Singularity–I just feel that as the digital plasma encroaches the edges of our skull, meditation will become a tool for survival.

Throughout your work, you engage with splintered digital/physical realities in a way that is both poignant and humorous. In the end, it seems you’ve struck some level of a comfortable balance. YACHT has a strong internet presence while insisting on creating well-designed and striking physical objects; YACHT tours constantly and onstage fuses technology with old-fashioned, costumed human physical performance; the new book is free online as a pdf but also exists as a tangible, thoughtfully produced (and printed on-demand) object. Is there a point at which we stop marveling at technology’s encroachment into the “real world” or will we constantly be impressed, enamored and terrified of/by new technologies? Has maintaining an artistic and performance practice that keeps you in the world, interacting with humans on both a human and grand scale helped to normalize what might become an otaku/cyborg life?

Interacting with humans isn’t something that keeps me in the world–it’s the essence of what I do. YACHT manifests itself in a lot of ways, print, design, recording, text, but it’s at its most pure in the moment of touch, in the performance. YACHT is an experiment in contact, in which we use every tool at our disposal to viscerally communicate. Technology is a way to extend our reach as much as manufacturing physical objects. Having the feedback mechanism of the band-fan relationship is a tactile way to keep us honest and motivated. It’s a little less clear with my other practice(s), of course. Blogging is basically howling into the void, but the echoes still cycle back and hit me once in a while.

Do you believe that art can be transcendent? Humor? Science?

Of course. I firmly believe that art and science come from the exact same position of initial, preternatural awe at the universe. When a force hits, you either move with it, absorbing its energy, or you push back. Art and science are just different approaches to the force of mystery: artists question and experiment, while scientists aspire to parse and decode. They’re both transcendent because they both begin with inherently spiritual questions about the nature of existence.

I think we’re the same age. I visited L.A. a number of times as a kid to visit my cousins and always had a great time, because I love my cousins and was excited to be doing anything, whenever. Then I endured years of anti-L.A. vitriol on the east coast and in San Francisco. When I finally had the chance to experience the city as a grown up, I fell very much in love. You (guys) just recently moved (back) to L.A. and, around the same time, made (at least) two works relating to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under the Bridge. This made instant sense for me, as I’m moved to sing the song as soon as I smell smog. Perhaps you can fill in the spaces of why this song fits a certain age’s concept of L.A. so well. Or, if you’d prefer, perhaps you can talk about these two pieces, whether you envision them as part of a larger body of work or working in congress.

L.A. Painting, in particular, is a striking piece that seems more to echo negative aspects of L.A. life–the smog, the car culture, the trash–but transposes them in a transcendent, transfixing, and straight-up trancy mode.

“Under the Bridge” is the “Hotel California” of our generation. It speaks to something about L.A. that most people find disdainful, but the love letter to Los Angeles, the combination of profound regret and sincere gratefulness for the city…it kills me. California represents something hugely important in American consciousness; I often say that if there were a recessionary war, I’d fight and die in the trenches for the state of California. I guess I feel compelled to make work about L.A. because it’s informed my sensibility of beauty. Everything beautiful in L.A. is fucked up somehow, sunsets marred by telephone poles, the constant trailing presence of what I call “L.A. Garbage” (Del Taco cups, escort ads, shreds of plastic, dead plants, cigarette butts, piñata chunks, balls of aluminum foil), Halloween decorations strung up on palm trees. That’s what L.A. Painting is about: the raw materials of the city displayed within the ultimate frame of Angeleno perception, the windshield. The idea was to let L.A. paint itself.

I like how, in Los Angeles, there’s no sense of “outside” or “inside,” how you rarely ever have to adapt to the ecosystems of the space around you–you just ramble on. It feels always-already fictional, like it’s just “location,” and it feels science fictional, somehow, too; downtown is like a cyberpunk Bablylon, and the massive infrastructural monoliths of the city’s failed urban plans are like “Big Dumb Objects” in void space. I’m certainly not the first person to feel something powerful about this city, to find transcendence in the amplitude of its shittiness. “Under the Bridge” seems to get at the root all of this.

This new publication, New Art/Science Affinities, is a wonderful achievement. In addition to being well written and designed, with lots of fascinating information, it took a pretty fascinating road to development. It was written in a “book sprint,” a concept indebted to FLOSS Manuals and the participants in Collaborative Futures at the last two transmediales, but also to the idea of code sprinting in which, basically, a group of people sit down together and collaboratively write a book in a short amount of time.

Beyond how exciting it is for ten people to make a book in a week, I’m interested in you discussing the process, what it meant for the content, why it might be useful for works that are meant as surveys of a field, how it might operate for more purely aesthetic ventures, or ventures with a more distinct “personality,” how it compares to being in a band and the significance of drawing from coders to make a book about (relatively) contemporary art-science intersects.

Thank you. As a writer, it’s difficult to sever the ego enough to actually revoke singular control over a text. But for this project, which was an attempt to document an emergent form of art practice in a micro-encyclopedic tome, the collective energy of a group was necessary. It really is about energy. It’s extraordinarily exciting to see text appear in a networked document, seemingly from nowhere. We had moments of kinetic, feverish work that were ecstatic, and that pushed us through the difficult parts of the week. Booksprints fill the gap between the traditional authorial model of previous century and the self-navigating push-button collectivism of what the teenagers are building in front of us. It’s controlled crowdsourcing, curatorial anonymity–an alternative process suited not only for a new generation of readers, but for the documentation of rapidly changing media, movements, and places in time. The experience is modern, a little uncanny, but it still offers the satisfaction of having created something of substance, a real object, in the end.

I’d like to see the booksprinting model applied to other texts; my group is (hopefully) reconvening next year to make a field guide for electronic arts, but I can see it functioning in a purely aesthetic sense, as well, as long as the participants resonate with one another. It seems endlessly adaptable, as it’s basically “jamming” for writers.