With certain currents in the contemporary art world pulling out of the gallery and museum box and into the spaces of everyday life, social relationships have come into focus as the site of many artistic projects. Increasingly, self-organized creative types pick up with simple materials, a group of friends, and an idea to enact change in their various communities by participating in and with them. Between Chicago (Bad at Sports’ hometown) and New York City (my hometown) there are two similar projects – with varying regard to an art world dialog – that center on a waste-not-want-not brand of idealism. Encouraging inventive approaches to everyday repair problems, Community Glue Workshop (Chicago, IL) and Fixers Collective (Brooklyn, NY) have each been building community by tinkering with and fixing things. All kinds of things. I recently had the good fortune of sitting down with Ally Brisbin and Carla Bruni of Community Glue Workshop, and Vincent Lai of Fixers Collective to discuss their respective work.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
Juliana Driever: Can you describe, generally, what you do and how you each got started?
Ally Brisbin: I think it was probably in May or June of 2012, when Carla posted a link to a New York Times article about the repair café movement in the Netherlands on Facebook, wanting to start something similar. I saw it and responded immediately. I own a coffee shop, called Kitchen Sink – which is how I know Carla, she comes into the shop. It seemed like Community Glue Workshop would be a natural thing that we could start, so we began reaching out to folks in our network who could help us. We found a designer, found people who could donate their time and tinkering abilities, made a WordPress site and a Facebook page and launched it within two months. It took off and got a great response right away. We have a crew of about six fixers who have been with us since the beginning. We have been doing one fix per month at my cafe in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. But next month, in April, we’ll be doing our first fix at a new location, StoryStudio Chicago, so we can reach a new audience and hopefully get new faces in the door.
Community Glue Workshop organizers Ally Brisbin (left) and Carla Bruni (right) at a repair clinic on November 18, 2012 at Brisbin’s coffee shop Kitchen Sink.
Vincent Lai: Fixers Collective started in the 2008-09 season when Proteus Gowanus, the gallery in Brooklyn that hosts us, organized its annual thematic exhibition schedule around the idea of “mend.” I started up with Fixers Collective in 2010, after a friend of mine who was interested in fixing umbrella fabric told me about it. I came on board because I wanted to fix. Period. I do it for the sake of being very hand-sy, working with my hands, and to repair things that probably would go in a landfill, or would be shredded. There’s a lot of value that can be re-captured with a little tinkering. I’ve been active with the Facebook page, outreach to the community, we’ve been at the Maker Faire the past few years in New York, and there are a lot of other things that are developing on the horizon, too.
JD: Was Fixers Collective something that came together because of the show at Proteus Gowanus? Or was it something that was starting up already?
VL: During that season, there were workshops, and people would come and sit around and fix things. And actually, part of the exhibit was not only the things they were fixing, but also the tools used. At the end of the night, when you put your things down, a large Plexiglas shield would be placed over the table, so the next day you saw the work in progress.
Carla Bruni: So, it’s like a performance.
VL: Yes, exactly. It’s part performance. So, after the season ended, People still wanted to fix, and we’ve been getting together on a regular basis since then.
JD: So, would you say that you started fixing things from an art context?
VL: Yes, we did start from an art/gallery context, and we would still like to keep the art context as much as possible. I think without it, we would just become just a repair shop. We try to discourage that concept, where people may come in and ask, “Can I just drop this off?” We tell people that they really need to be there to participate in a performance.
CB: We don’t come from a performance perspective – it’s more of an environmental perspective – and the community focus is just as important. Just to do repair is not enough. We do get people like that, but most of the time we get a lot of people coming back to participate again – because we figure things out together. For us, it’s not really an art angle, it’s a community angle. But we are also intuitively aware that to do it just as a straight-on repair shop would not be as rich of an experience.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
JD: What’s a popular fix?
CB: Good Lord, are there a lot of lamps! People bring in three at a time. It’s outrageous.
VL: I know that we can count on having at least one lamp for each session, unless it’s specifically geared to something else. Other things we get on a regular basis are small kitchen appliances. We do see toasters, blenders, food processors, coffee grinders and a lot of issues with motors or switches.
AB: We get clothes a lot, too. We have a little rotating stable of seamstresses, so we always have one sewing machine. One time I had the shirt I was wearing repaired, my friend had the skirt she was wearing repaired, all during the the event …So you just go and hide in the bathroom while they’re stitching up the holes, and then throw it back on. We get a lot of broken ceramics, too. I think because our name is Community Glue…
CB: Right, because some people think the fixes would be limited to that. At least one fix every workshop requires gluing things, and it’s usually me who ends up gluing things back together. Oh, and bikes, too. We have a guy who comes in and repairs bikes, and more so when the weather gets warmer. It’s huge because it’s so expensive.
VL: We don’t get a lot of bike repairs because there’s an organization in NYC that has done a lot with reuse and repair called Recycle-A-Bicycle. They do a lot of community outreach, so we may see a bike repair once a quarter.
Community Glue Workshop fixer Paul Bassett (left) helps Jorge Sanchez get a floor lamp back into working order at a repair clinic.
JD: There is an aspect of folk pedagogy in what you each do – where learning is happening in more social, participatory and informal ways. I think of a gathering like quilting circles, where community knowledge was passed down through talking and interacting and the simple fact of being there and being hands-on. Have you observed this? What are the effects of this more personal exchange of knowledge?
CB: I think it’s been a really important part of what we’re doing. One thing that’s especially great is when kids come in and they’re blown away when they understand that you can “look under the hood,” so-to-speak, and actually see how things connect. I used to do this when I was a kid, but you don’t really see that anymore. In general, the issue of why we don’t use our hands is a big part of why, philosophically, this project is so interesting to us.
VL: I find myself using the phrase, “Project-Based Learning Initiative” partly because I heard that phrase used by Nolan Bushnell, who founded Atari. I was attending the Games for Change conference, and he made a wonderful case for project-based learning for an educational model in schools. He listed a bunch of roles that teachers play right now – being an entertainer, a clerk, a disciplinarian. But, you can remove all of those roles if you’re engaged in a project-based learning model. So, I think it’s important to have people come over and hang around and idle. The more people around you, the more valuable the experience. Of particular interest are the slice-of-life observations that are made when all sorts of people come in with their stories. We’ll hear stories about manual fixes and what people would call “ghetto fixes,” and I think so much of this wouldn’t be possible if you were just doing it by yourself in your garage.
CB: You do get to hear a lot about the things other people are working on. There was a guy at the last workshop who works with a group that takes stuff out of alleys and makes franken-machines. It’s a bit different from our mission, but it’s obviously related, and we get to know a lot of people like that who are super handy and help out.
JD: Do you also think about how your work might take on outcomes that are less practical, perhaps in the way it might address larger social issues? What are the large-scale implications in working toward these smaller-scale “fixes?”
AB: For me, it’s to draw attention to the fact that our culture is so obsessed with the disposable. We’re so far removed from nature and even from trades. Everybody’s job is digital – and it’s not real, it’s not tangible – so even objects become these things that you can just delete. But, you can’t really. It goes somewhere. Someone made it, and probably in a sweatshop. So, I think about how we need to stop feeding the beast, and reduce what we’re using.
CB: I come from a historic preservation background, where we re-use entire buildings. In terms of green building rating systems, you’re rewarded for replacing everything, not for keeping things and repairing them. Even in system that was designed to make us more environmentally friendly, it’s a totally throw-away culture, it’s all about consumption still…which is of course why were in this problem in the first place. I was feeling frustrated by this for years, so that’s a large part of the thrust for me. But, it also it makes me sad that kids, and people in general, don’t know how to fix anything anymore. We’re losing a lot of our ability to solve problems creatively. Plus, it’s fun! People don’t come here to be on an assembly line, they come for the challenge of problem solving.
VL: What I think about the most is computer electronic recycling. I was a first-hand witness to all of the stuff that got turned in for recycling – or the phrase that I would rather use: “wrapping and shredding.” People mistake certain recycling for reuse, and they think that when they turn it in for recycling, it’s going to get reused. However, a lot of what gets turned in gets wrapped up, and sent to a shredder and chopped up for scrap metal. I’ve seen MacBooks that didn’t need to go to recycling, they just needed to a $20 replacement chip. So, in this town, the throw-away culture is strongly evident with computers and electronics, and the people who recycle it don’t reuse enough. Recycling is a first line of defense instead of last resort. So, that’s where I want the fixers to intercede, to bring one more line of defense before the recyclable shredding happens. Also, there’s another term that iFixit is throwing around: “product as appliance.” It explains the idea that when something is broken, we can just get a new one. Apple will treat a broken iPad or iPhone in the same way another company will approach a broken blender or toaster: by throwing it away and replacing it. So, that’s what we try to fight, too.
CB: Even when something is being recycled as we are told it is going to be, is very energy intensive. Additionally, with downcycling, it’s really grating to me when someone wants to take an item – say a really nice guitar – that is a bit warped and make it into a flowerpot. Anything can be a flowerpot! You’re taking a $500 guitar that needs a little TLC and a small part and downcylcing it. That drives me nuts — taking these really complex appliances that can last so much longer and essentially turning them into a concrete bowl. Give it another life! Instead of just downcycling everything that way, get as much as you can out of objects that are superior products or built for certain functions, that took a lot of energy to create. It’s hard to describe our mission to people because they think we’re tying to repurpose things since that’s what’s so hip now. I do that stuff too, but I’m also very mindful of that fact that this whole piece is missing: don’t repair things as they were. I think there needs to be that faction, too.
It was a full house at Kitchen Sink, host to Community Glue Workshop repair clinic, on November 18, 2012.
JD: When as a culture, we’re so taken with the disposable and the new, I’d imagine that you might have bumped up against the perception that your projects hold a kind of old-school, greatest generation mentality. Do you see the idea of re-use strike a chord again in recent years, during our economic downturn?
AB: I hope so, and it might be that I’m surrounded by more progressive folks, but I’m praying for a return to our roots. I like what’s happening with the recent return to community gardening projects, and how people want to produce their own food with a real interest and concern over where it comes from. It’s becoming hip to shun processed, terrible, chemical-laden food, and I think it goes hand-in-hand, with the idea that increasingly people want to get into their possessions and know how they work. I think that an interest in food can turn into a privileged passion, but the repair movement is certainly not a privileged endeavor. It’s extremely accessible and it makes sense for those who can’t afford to buy organic, or shop at Whole Foods. But, I think we’ve got a ways to go before we affect Middle America.
CB: I think people also miss working on things. Someone will pay a silly amount of money to go to a workshop, and put a couple of screws in a couple pieces of wood to make a bench, just because they want so badly to know they made a bench. So, they’ll pay $50 for someone to hand them a piece of wood and give them permission to make something. It’s great that this is happening, but I feel like it’s a sign of how removed people are from real things and how desperate we are to feel like we can make something again and be involved with our environment.
VL: The Mend exhibit, and in turn Fixers Collective, happened in part because of the financial collapse, so I would speculate that a lot of people came in on the defensive to just say, “Oh my God, I need this thing fixed.” So, then we just guided their hands through the process as they fixed it up. But, I’m hoping that these same people would come back later and want to sit down and fix things and be with others. We see that greatest generation mentality come in, and we have a fun time putting that up against a MacBook or an iPod that need fixing.
Fixers Collective at Proteus Gowanus, 2013. Photo by: Vincent Lai
JD: How have you observed gender roles coming into play in these gatherings? Are the women doing sewing, and the men doing electrical work?
CB: It does kind of break out that way.
AB: We mostly have men as volunteers, the only women who volunteer are doing sewing, and it just so happens that the men do everything else.
VL: If you look at recent Facebook pictures of our one of our patching sessions, you’ll see one of our Master Fixers, Tony, working the sewing machine to seam back up his jeans. Some of us make a really active effort to jump and cross those gender role gaps. It’s there, but we do also see instances where you would expect it, but then expectations are thwarted. There was a news article that surfaced recently about a bridge in Brooklyn that is going to be reconstructed, and the Department of Transportation is actively seeking women to work on the reconstruction. The organization working on this project is called Nontraditional Employment for Women, and we had one of their members to come in and fix our power saw. It’s there, we’re aware of it, and because we’re aware of it we make an effort to go outside of those expectations.
AB: What are we going to call a guy who brings in his sewing machine one day? A “seamster?” A tailor? I tried to call them “sew-ers” one time in a Facebook update, and someone wrote in, “Hey, it looks like you wrote ‘sewers.’”
Hackney in East London is an area which could easily be compared to Brooklyn: it is also London’s poorest borough and has become a breeding nest for artist.
I get off the bus and the wind almost knocks me off my feet. Sophie Adams, an artist whom I’d pitched tonight’s event is following. The streets are silent; everyone is wrapped in heavy winter jackets since a five day blizzard has been sweeping away any hope of summer.
Our destination is an old Inn I thought closed for a long time. The Islam green paint is peeling off and scaffoldings are plugged onto the pub’s façade like a fixation ring on a triple fracture. Through the window, there are no more chairs, no tables, the juke box is burst open; panels have been ripped off the wall and the paper is shredded; what was once a warm public house has been lynched and hurled in a corner left in shock. As the door opens Sophie hides behind me.
We are here for Black Metal Chicken an event organised by the band Corporate Psychosis, an apocalyptic noise band funded by Henrik Heinonen with Oscar Gaynor and Matthew Peers. At first it looks like the building is being squatted and these events are not common in London. Since squatting was made a criminal offence in the wake of the 2012 Olympics as part of a right-wing “clean-up”, it is tough: facing a maximum imprisonment of 6 months and a hefty £5.000 ($7600) fine, most places would avoid promoting their cultural stand unless acting for the community. But this is not a squat, it’s a rented space that will be knocked down in a month and turned into flats.
It is colder inside than outside but at least we’re off the freezing wind; booze will be de riguer. Two sofas, a large wooden table and a huge brown chrysalid mounted on the wheeling stem of an office chair are what makes the furniture. An empty television with a mannequin’s face in it is lit by red spotlights; wrapped in the leg of a woman’s tight, little hooks are stringed to tiny engines pulling on the fabric; the face swells. It’s repelling, edgy and bleak.
“Mutation and identity is what’s center to my work, it is noisey, a kind of kitsch overload,” tells me Victor Ivanov a tall and broad bleached blond man. “What’s the plan tonight? What are we meant to see?” I bluff. “We don’t know…yet,” he answers secretly. “We have been asked to be here but we don’t know what we are meant to do. Although we have ideas but we are just waiting for them to be called into action.”
For the next 20 minutes I will be talking with Ivanov and Andie Macario – another of the artist who wears a luxurious violet wig she combs with her fingers. We discuss London and how much we all struggle to afford a living. Sophie comes back from the corner shop with a bottle of vodka and a mango juice carton.
People slowly arrive and I can tell looking at their faces that I am the only one who knows what is going to happen: risky masochistic performance, violent creative clashes mocking humanity, Noise – but in what order?… The lights are dimmed and candles are lit up. There is no music but the constant hubbub of people conversation as the place is filling up.
It’s nine pm and it seems that nothing is in the way to start. Artists have mixed with the crowd, and they don’t know what is meant to happen. They seem to be waiting for the curator, Heinonen running around hectically, like a Gerbil in a small cage. In fact it’s all in the role play he’ll later tell me. “Are you the ceremony master?” I ask him. “I got Ivanov and Macario to be present here tonight because I trust what they do and I like the way they work, they are very serious.”
“Tonight there is a collection of people who are concerned about what is happening to us. But I wouldn’t call myself a curator. I hate the word curator; my work is more like “organising exhibition”. It starts with a space, place, site and it always has some particularly meaning, narrative, its history and also ideological connotations that comes with the space, which you have to take into account. I don’t work in a studio, I am not into this tradition of gallery space and so on. I think we have to figure out something else, something different from art with a big “A”.”
Suddenly, we’re told it’s time to eat and that “black food” will be served. On the table are smoking breaded lamb hearts, fried calves liver, haggis, roasted aubergine and black bread, all free of charge. It feels like a feast of vanity. “Why Black Metal Chicken?” I ask Ivanov. “Because we wanted to stuff speakers into that cooked chicken and play Black Metal through it.”
Then there’s a move. As about fifteen of us are sat around the table, the Benny Hill tune is hurled out of the speakers from the back of the pub and I see Ivanov wrapping his hands around Macario’s neck, strangling her. Macario’s face has turned a reddish mauve; she coughs, a touch of white foam forming at the corner of her mouth, gasping for air like a fish out of water. It doesn’t feel real but I can tell by the sombre air behind Ivanov’s mask that he is choking her. Everyone has left the table, and stand around the performing couple. Should it be stopped?
“Why are we watching that? Are you all right?” erupts Sophie. Macario is about to pass out.
And release. The music stops and a long silence floats thick in the air. It was somewhere sexy but very grotesque and we watched. Till the end. He could have left her dead. We wouldn’t have moved…
But it was meant to be a performance; something shocking that was played to aggress. Adrenaline had kicked in and it was hard to go back to the food. We wanted more. Suddenly, the whole place roared with discussions.I hear that it was the first time they’d performed in front of other people. Ivanov is shaking, speaks very fast and occasionally stutters. “It was a good feeling but there were dangers. It was good because nobody knew what was going to happen, then this girl asks “are all right darling?” It was quite something.”
He seems hard for him to stay focus. Sophie appears on my back: “I thought the timing was good,” she says. “Just as the audience were eating, helping themselves to food. If I didn’t know it was a performance, I would have been concerned, it relied heavily on our knowledge and trust that this was a performance. I think, they were trying to communicate the uncanny, notions of sadism, the erotic. Perhaps, too, how vulnerable we are to another person’s decision to harm us?”
“It was nerve racking,” says Macario very slowly. “I didn’t know when it was coming. We decided not have control when it was actually done so the curator put on the Benny Hill theme tune and we got cued in.” The anticipation as well was quite…But I have quite a high tolerance. I am in the fetish theme and I have this character that has a name, she is a performer and she likes to be looked at…it’s kind of pieced to my art practice; it is a separate theme but I like to do things in public. Throughout my whole life I have been fed this idea that women are baby making machines and need to serve their man; I like to play with the idea of over-performing feminine identity through the use of drag and creating various characters for myself.”
“Is it artistic?” I ask.
“I am an artist first and it is part of the world of the artist to perform a character as well; or a caricature from themselves. Because that’s only the way you are able to be free and to be truly yourself. Because it’s okay for an artist to be crazy; it’s acceptable.”
“You are quite limited, you have quite a lot of boundaries as a person. When you’re an artist, or a performer it gives you this elevated freedom that perhaps you wouldn’t have normally.”
The second act starts. Heinonen puts on his baby mask and follows destructive sound performance with made up guitar, keg drumming and screams and shouts.
At that point I just wandered where I’d walked into. I was baffled and very much wandering whether this had any aesthetic sense or any meaning really. It felt as if we’d come to a point of transition, that moment when genre mutates and it’s dirty and we put everything together and, chew, eat and digest; aesthetic was being stretched beyond rupture point to find its limits and ours. Theory and beauty mixed with the bloody guts of feminism, artifice and hyperreality. I saw rituals, erotico-porno art; hazy narratives and no reliable truths.
However, I felt the whole a bit too clumsy. As if playing too much with the shock factor in a way that “this shouldn’t be shown, so here it comes.” I saw their approach as a sort of unfocused radiating violence; they don’t speak; they shout. They don’t cuddle; they choke. They recycle the streets, they “attack” morals, social behavior and contracts, all at once and from every direction. A bit like a campaign without program.
Heinonen would later tell me that it started as a joke during a video show of Raymond Petitbon until it evolved into Black Metal Chicken.
The group believes that we are all “un-dead corpses” or “human being without a subject” since we live in a world preconditioned for social performance. Comparing liberal democracy to a totalitarian regime like Soviet Communism, Fascism or National Socialism, they engage the crowd to discuss and react within their own socio-political “trauma” in order to redefine themselves.
In a very Adorno-istic way, the group concentrates on cultural criticism and it’s modernity: machine, violence, hyper reality and Post modernism exclusion: we have wandered too far out of the cave and lost our sense of humanity and the best way to re-identify as human beings is to test our morals; our emotions; our senses and nerves, all of what makes us humans.
“I am little bit more optimistic,” Heinonen cuts. “This is what I try to express, I don’t know if I succeed but our identity, ourselves is passed on to us by our parents and family and our identity is a form of power, limitation and control. Out of this we have to go “too far” if we are seriously gonna have some form understanding of ourselves. Seeing shocking images on the internet, where people are almost abusing themselves, as hard as I can, I try to see humanity in there. I try to see something beautiful or touching, or something that tells about this person, what is inside him or her. See, I take Harmony Korine (Gummo, Spring Breakers) work very seriously, I think he manages to do something good out of this crazy jumble of stories, It’s grotesque but it’s beautiful.
In my previous post, I have presented a series of scenes which highlight the enmeshment of humans and nonhumans both on theatrical stages and in the world at large. I have also suggested that such interconnectedness calls into question the pursuit of autonomy and emancipation as it was set up by discourses on modernity and modernism. Today, I will start to expand on that topic by trying to show, in a very concise way, how the modern pursuit of autonomy and emancipation from “Nature” ended up surrounding humans with mirror-images of themselves, eventually making narcissism a condition for modernity.
According to Kant, the Age of Enlightenment was the moment in history when humankind realised that autonomy from nature and free use of reason were its ultimate destiny. However, because thought had limits, Enlightenment was not only a programme aimed at the progressive liberation of reason but also, because of that, a project of critique, of recognising the barriers which thought mustn’t cross if it is to produce valid knowledge. As a result, Kant eventually claimed that, because things in themselves are outside the mind and are only able to be judged once they have been converted into thoughts, thought is only ever able to think thought and never the things outside thought to which thought itself refers.
Following that, it is possible to identify the formation of a double separation of humans from “Nature” in Kant’s project for Enlightenment: not only are humans separated from “Nature” once through the development of their exclusive mental faculties, but those mental faculties themselves, due to the conditions that must be in place for their correct operability, end up producing a second separation, this time a separation of through from world in itself.
It is this twice-enforced divide between human and world that can still be seen today as the epistemological paradigm grounding a great amount of work falling under the academic banner of ‘critical thought’ in the Arts and Humanities, a dominant methodology of scholarly work perhaps better represented by Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge. However, a crucial difference separates Kant from Foucault: whereas the former wanted to map the absolute limits of thought, the latter aimed to demonstrate how knowledge is always indissociable from power in order to then consider the possibility of future epistemological transgressions.
From Feminism to Queer Theory, from Deconstruction to Postcolonial Theory, the critical ethos of the Humanities, much indebted to Foucault’s work, has taken as its job to reflect upon the limits of human knowledge in order to understand how what is taken for granted is in fact produced at the level of discourse through complex articulations of power and knowledge. By focusing on the performative nature of knowledge—how knowledge does rather than is—the critical project seeks to separate the arbitrary from the necessary in order to reveal how realities previously assumed to be universal are instead historically contingent. However, by falling victim to an uncontrollable suspicion of knowledge, contemporary critique ends up betraying itself as the only certainty it allows, the only truth claim it leaves unturned, is the one upon which critique itself depends for its own survival, i.e. the one that posits the historical contingency and performative nature of all knowledge.
The problem is that whereas the critical enterprise had, following the dawn of Modernity, been rightly concerned with calling into question beliefs such as those advanced by various religious doctrines and replacing them with scientifically validated facts, at the start of the 21st century and there being no beliefs left to disprove, criticality has now started targeting objective facts themselves, often by negating their existence or by turning them into a mere product of their dialectical counterpart, the observing human subject and its usage of language. Today, after the so-called ‘objective reality’ was found to always be the result of power-knowledge formations, human discourse has become the true cause of the world itself.
The unfortunate outcome of that phenomenon is clear: while scholars spend their time trying to expose the true conditions of (human) knowledge, the arbitrary nature of everything we know, very real phenomena are having rather real consequences: global warming is happening, the Arctic ice cap is melting, natural resources are diminishing, sea levels are rising, and old and new pandemics are still killing millions (unless you can pay to survive). In short, widespread critique has contributed for society’s inability to act upon issues as pressing as persisting social inequalities or climate change. Furthermore, whereas, in Foucault’s case, for instance, it was a tool of progressive left wing politics, today it has been taken up by right wing conservatives who use it to deny the reality of ongoing ecological disaster and even by fascists like those who insist Auschwitz never happened. In the 21st century, the only thing humanity seems to be able to do is to argue while hoping that one day the cows will eventually come home by themselves.
What we have ended up with is a species obsessed with itself, unable to grasp anything other than its own reality. In good ‘ol Kantian fashion, thought is the only certainty; everything outside of it is just a muddy grey area. And so we are left able to look at nothing other than ourselves: our qualities, our capacities, our politics, our beauty (this latter, I hope to develop in my next post). Like Narcissus stuck by the lake or—better—like Narcissus drown in the lake, drown in itself breathing the water of his own reflection (happily ever after), we keep going until the day comes when, to misquote British poet Peter Reading, after heat waves and after heats deaths we reach absolute zero.
March 25, 2013 · Print This Article
Culture’s a funny thing; so many of us accept it as a ubiquitous and powerful force, yet we tend to undervalue the level to which it influences our choices. Cognitive dissonance of the highest magnitude.
I’ve seen this in high-relief over the last 18 months, commuting between Wisconsin and Brooklyn. From television to cuisine to high-art, culture seems bent on sanding us down even as we strut about thinking of ourselves as unique splinters in the side of society. And me too, flying back-and-forth, literally feeling above the fray in mind and distance. But with my family settled safely in Wisconsin, all that commuting ends soon. At which point I’ll be back on the ground, in the fray, trying to protect my nose and exposed fingers from the ever-normalizing orbital sander of prevailing culture.
April 8 will by my last Thoughts from the Cultural Divide from the trenches.
Speaking of rugged individuals and sandpaper, today I showed my class the famous photo of ‘The Irascibles’ along with segments of Hans Namuth’s videos of Jackson Pollock in East Hampton. The imagery seemed especially dated this time around. So musty and conservative. I had to work harder than usual to remind myself that the New York School once represented a viable avant-garde. One woman. All white and self-satisfied. All in suits and clean-shaven, though Theodoros Stamos has a mustache in the photograph that would humble the most pretentious Brooklyn bartender.
As mothballed as the New York School seemed this morning, the contemporary alternative as described in Randy Kennedy’s New York Times article about contemporary social practice didn’t seem any more promising when I read it tonight.
The piece, “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture” describes a movement of art centered on affecting social change rather than making objects for the marketplace. All fine; fighting for a good cause is hardly something to root against. But the quick rise of this approach to art feels somewhat overt to me. My suspicion is that social practices, like much art throughout history will end up sacrificing content on the altar of self-conscious form. Form that will become apparent only after the initial seduction of the movement has evaporated. Or to paraphrase Roland Barthes from Mythologies, “a little formalism turns one away from History, but a lot of it brings one back to it.”
Even more to the point, and to my skepticism, Michael Kimmelman from a piece called “DIY Culture”, in the New York Times a few years back:
“The myth of an avant-garde serves the same market forces avant-gardism pretends to overthrow. Art may challenge authority; and popular culture (this includes clownish demagogues like Glen Beck) sometimes makes trouble for those in charge, the way Thomas Nast’s cartoons did for Boss Tweed in Tammany Hall. But art doesn’t actually overthrow anything except itself, and never has, not in 19th-century France or 20th-century Russia or 21st-century China or Iran. Even when it manages to tilt popular thinking, it still ends up within the bounds of existing authority, and there has never been a true “outside” that really stayed outside: public consumption, by definition, adapts to the change, co-opts and normalizes all culture.”
The pop analogy I often use to explain this phenomenon is the life cycle of a fashionable name. Take, “Jennifer” over the last 50 years. Not biblical and of obscure origin, the name just kind of tipped over into the popular consciousness in the 20th century. It went from the 20th most popular name in 1965, to 10th in 1966. It was the single most popular baby name from 1970 through 1984, but by 2000 it had fallen out of the 25, usurped by all the Abigails, Brianas and Madisons. While one can’t determine which mothers were channeling popular consciousness and which were drawing from their own independent creative sources, the numbers suggest most are a case of the former.
Like Jennifers, art come in waves that build, crest and crash. This might all sound a bit cynical, but it shouldn’t. It’s not the name “Jennifer,” nor that my neighbor here has a Green Bay Packers flag mounted to his house, nor making art as social practice that pricks me, it’s that the numbers, the movements and the waves all suggest that culture is shaping us while we think we are in control. That we picked ‘Jennifer’, and the handlebar mustache, and the social practice, and the DIY collective gallery space in Ridgewood, when in fact, they probably picked us. And, who knows, maybe you were inspired, but we should have some humility because the numbers show that you and I aren’t as fiercely independent as we might think.
I’ve also gleaned via crude armchair sociology over the past year-and-a-half that, yes, it’s probably true that Brooklyn gets bartenders with handlebar mustaches a year or two earlier than Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, but being the first to start a wave of pretentious affection is a dubious distinction, and simply more proof of cultural homogenization, not individuality. And we should make doubly sure that our art doesn’t follow the same trend psychology that our facial hair does.
So I suggest we leave the handlebar mustaches to Theodoros Stamos and try to avoid being battered and worn down by the relentless waves of culture.
This week: Amanda and Richard talk to Loren Munk about his career, his paintings and his secret life as James Kalm of the Kalm Report.
The artist Loren Munk (born 1951) is a maker of contemporary paintings. He is known among New York artists primarily for his cubistic paintings of urban imagery. Munk also has received accolades for his drawings and mosaics. He differs from traditional mosaic artists by the manner
Munk’s work debuted in SoHo in 1981 with a double show at J. Fields Gallery and Gabrielle Bryers. Since then, he has overseen a truly international career. In addition to exhibiting in Brazil, France, Germany and the United States, Munk has received national and overseas, public and private commissions. He is well represented in important collections throughout Europe, South and North America and the Middle East.
Most recently, Munk has been producing a series of paintings which tackle the subject of art itself through a historical and diagrammatic lens. Also, he has expanded upon his role in the artistic community, publishing numerous reviews and essays, curating and promoting several shows, and offering his acknowledged expertise on the Williamsburg arts scene.
Munk documents the New York art world in YouTube videos, using the name James Kalm. The Kalm Report is shot from a first person perspective using a hand held camera. Kalm arrives at an art show by bike—he calls himself “the guy on the bike”—and then walks through the show while providing commentary.