Guest post by Teresa Albor
Jeremy Deller said last month that art is useless.Â He said this in front of an audience of artists and no one batted an eyelash, no one objected, no one was offended.Â The event was an all day/all night performance piece, involving dozens of artists led by Bob and Roberta Smith, who gathered at the rundown seaside resort of Scarborough on the east coast of England. Â â€œThe Art Partyâ€ brought a spot of bright colour to the grey landscape, and approached the serious issue of cuts to government spending on the arts in a way only artists would: by breaking rules, being witty and irreverent. Perhaps, because it wasnâ€™t seeking to be â€œusefulâ€ the event was thought-provoking sans the righteousness of more serious affairs.
Having spent October in the village of Toffia working on a piece called â€œEverything simple is false,â€Â Bob and Roberta Smithâ€™s project resonated. Â My month in Italy occurred at the end of three years in Chicago and before a move back to London.Â Although the village became home and the Association that sponsored me an instant community, I was very much an outsider, embedded for all too short a time to make a piece of art for/with an essentially captive audience. Arriving in Toffia was surprisingly reminiscent of my arrival to do development work as a US Peace Corps Volunteer on a tiny Philippine island thirty years ago. One big difference: This time there was no intention of â€œdoing goodâ€.Â This time I was not concerned with the â€œusefulnessâ€ of my work.
When working in a process-based way, the intention can be to confer agency to people, but if this doesnâ€™t happen itâ€™s no big deal.Â And without going down the rabbit hole of trying to ascertain the criteria by which one critiques a relational project (if this is what this type of work might be called), my experience, at the very least, reinforced the importance of avoiding the pitfalls of trying to â€œdo good â€ and its close corollary, to â€œbe useful.â€
It also served to shed more light on other aspects/limitations of this way of working: that all relational work is political because it involves people; the tensions between maintaining the integrity of a piece when provocation ensues; the fact that you leave and others stay behind; and feeling as if you are inflicting your work on an audience that hasnâ€™t asked for it.
What happened was expected and unexpected at the same time.
The title of the piece is a reference to â€œBoniniâ€™s paradoxâ€: when complex systems are simplified so we can understand them, they become less true.Â A completely accurate map, for example, would need to be 1:1 to capture the detail of the territory it is meant to represent, but would be completely impractical.Â So we simplify it, modify it to suit our needs, until it becomes false, but perhaps, useful.Â (The London Tube Map is a good example.) This project was about discovering the complexity of a seemingly idyllic hill top village outside of Rome, to understand the â€œmore trueâ€ version vs. an outsiderâ€™s perception of its picture postcard perfectness. The idea was to listen to the people who lived there and reflect back to them what they were saying about themselves. Beyond that, the strategy was left to evolve based on living and working in the community.
This was not intended as a piece of political art.Â But in this case, as the village was in the process of selecting candidates for next yearâ€™s mayoral elections, everything that impacted the daily lives of the village was perceived as political.Â And as the artist Tanya Bruguera has said, art is not political art, unless it has consequences.Â Using the low-tech bulletin board system of the village, flyers with quotes gathered though interviews with several villagers were posted.Â The first called for affinity despite the perfections and imperfections of the village. A local SMS number was displayed along with the phrase: â€œWhat do you think?â€ Forms were also distributed after cultural events and we used the Associationsâ€™ Facebook page to solicit content, which, interestingly, generated the most direct comments. The second flyer said: â€œToffia is divided. Toffia is united.Â What do you think?â€Â By now the posters were the talk of the town, some were torn down, and it was rumored the mayorâ€™s office didnâ€™t want any more posters to go up.
One woman said: â€œYouâ€™ve put your finger in a wound.â€ She was, as were most people, quietly supportive. The consensus seemed to be that this â€œoutsiderâ€ was saying what no one else would say, that only an â€˜outsiderâ€™ would say.Â In fact, all of the words, phrases, quotes came from people living in the village. Clearly, the work was going to be provocative, but what was unexpected was how easy it would be to provoke.Â Meanwhile, the Association was being put under pressure.Â It has taken years of hard work for the group to set up and operate a cultural programme on a tiny budget.Â To their credit they engaged in nuanced discussions about how to proceedâ€”essentially encouraging and supporting the project.Â It was left to me to decide how far to push, knowing that if I pushed too hard, I could damage the very organization sponsoring me.
My methodology afforded me an observerâ€™s vantage point. At least six international artists a year stay in this village, and many of us do relational pieces.Â Wanting to avoid directly approaching too many of the residents here was, in part, to avoid what a fellow artist described as treating the audience like a â€œvending machineâ€ for â€œresponses to art projectsâ€.Â Locating so much experimentation in such a small place has its limitations.
In the end, responsesâ€”including those that were flattering as well as those that were provocativeâ€”were collated into a book with black and white line drawing illustrations of the village, alluding to oneâ€™s ability to layer their own perceptions over a neutral reality.Â One hundred copies were given away for free on market day.Â The following day, an event/open studio was held and the Association led discussions of the work.Â To my surprise, the aspect of the poster campaign that was considered political was the phrase: â€œWhat do you think?â€ and several people at the event proposed continuing with more editions of a free periodical called: â€œWhat do you think?â€Â Whether this initiative takes off or not, at least the possibility of taking action, always there, sometimes acted upon, was considered.
As an artist assessing my own work, the strength of this project was the attempt to engage vs. entertain an audience and an openness to many different outcomes.Â It would not have been possible to achieve this if the work had as its intention an overt usefulness.Â And whilst flawed, and imperfect, too short, too simplistic, this project is certainly one that was worth doing and from which more, and better projects will emerge.
In a critical Robinsonian sense of utility or usefulness â€“ that utility is a circular concept in that an entityâ€™s utility is what makes it desirable, whilst the fact that individuals desire something shows that it has utilityâ€”art could be considered both useless and useful, in a world where we accept that art provides a deeper quality of life, even strongly desire art to be part of our lives.Â However, as artists, by accepting that what we make or do does not necessarily align itself with conventional definitions of usefulness we are enabled to move even further away from the trap of â€œproductionâ€ within a capitalist social economy.Â This represents real freedom (and a good starting point for another essay).
Teresa Albor is a multidisciplinary artist currently based in London and interested in site specific projects and working with/within communities. Current investigations revolve around what art is, who it is for, how and where it is made, and where it is shown. A Midwesterner, with an MFA from the University of Arts London and an undergraduateÂ degree from the University of Wisconsin, she recently spent three years in Chicago.Â
 Joan Robinson, 1962. Economic Philosophy. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books Ltd.Â “Utility is the quality in commodities that makes individuals want to buy them, and the fact that individuals want to buy commodities shows that they have utility”.Â I like the fact that Amartya Sen described her as “totally brilliant but vigorously intolerant” and another of her students, Joseph Stiglitz, described his relationship with her as “tumultuous”.
Three days ago–on January 24th, 2014–Vine turned a year old. Itâ€™s not really momentous, except it was made out to be by your standard content-spammy blogs, posting year and monthly compilations in response. You wonâ€™t believe this Vine compilationâ€”check out the best Vines of Septemberâ€”etc etc. I found myself in a late night internet spiral, absorbed by the continual sluice of 7-second slices of so many jokes, snippets, lives.
I bring up Vine because, even though it took a while to take hold, once it did, it was followed by the usual pop articles about how it brought the power of video to the people. A summarized talking point: while YouTube democratized video distribution, Vine democratized video creation, with its ubiquity only limited to the ubiquity of compatible smartphones.
I think that point about democratization is an interesting one, and I think itâ€™s an interesting issue to solve with regards to video games, since they exist already in a realm that requires technological knowledge as a barrier to entry. Itâ€™s harder to make games than it is to make film/poems/art, at least before getting into discussions about quality. (Obviously a child with a smartphone wonâ€™t instantly make Citizen Kane, nor will a child with paints and a canvas instantly make Woman III.)
Tools do exist. Iâ€™ve been playing around with GameMaker: Studio, the latest iteration of software thatâ€™s been kicking around since 1999. Another is RPG Maker, which dates back even farther to 1988. Both of these are intensely powerful tools, and while the latter is designed to create a very specific type of gameâ€”your classic Final Fantasy, for instanceâ€”both have been expanded and broken, used to create widely popular indie titles such as Gunpoint and Spelunky (in the case of GameMaker) and To the Moon (RPG Maker).
But problematically, both of these programs feature that same barrier to entry, which is the learning and use of a digital software, and the languages or methods contained within. While this knowledge may be akin to technical proficiency as a painter, writer, filmmaker, or musician, these other arts feature basic tools that can be picked up and used easily, albeit in a rudimentary fashion. There is, essentially, no good equivalency in these programs in the same way there is of strumming a guitar, or snapping a quick video; no scrabbling words on paper or washing a quick color across the surface of a canvas. Before experimentation, it feels, there must be mastery, even if it is a small amount to produce small things.
Which is why, in the past year, Iâ€™ve been particularly excited to experiment with a new program: Twine. Boasted as an â€œopen-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories,â€ Twine doesnâ€™t create â€œgamesâ€ in the classic sense: there will be no Marios, no Street Fighters. Twine instead is a tool for the propagation of interactive fiction, which is often compared to â€œChoose Your Own Adventureâ€ books.
The comparison isn’t exactly apt, but it is a useful one, especially because those books are a pretty interesting use of their medium. But while those books might present several paths of a somewhat linear storyâ€”there may be branches, but they usually either end in death or a â€œgoodâ€ endingâ€”Twine is somewhat more concerned with the exploration of text and image through clickable links, and not so much concerned with a strict narrative, but something that is both read by and invites the reader to interact. A paragraph could have choice nouns as links, ready to click for explanation. This could then lead to others, and so on, creating a looping, branching, recursive textual landscape.
But perhaps whatâ€™s most exciting is all of the things people are doing with Twine. The Hairpin recently published an interview with one of my favorite authors, who hosts a wealth of games over on her personal site, with titles such as CRY$TAL WARRIOR KE$HA. And in the title image of this post (from High End Customizable Sauna Experience), the player chooses what kind of futuristic creature they are, what color their eyes are, how they break into a cupcake factory, and eventually, the details of their sauna. Over in a different area of the web, Travis Megill used the program to create an incredibly touching, heartbreaking Memorial for his brother, something much more serious and personal–but in the context of Twine, obviously meant to be shared.
And in July of last year, Cara Ellison published a letter from Dan Waber, a poet, on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Dan had decided that Twine would be the perfect place to create a sprawling, novel-length, poetic vision. The result was a kiss, which spans a staggering 1,001 pages, and in the letter, Dan talks the differences between readers who approached it as poetry vs. a game, and how far they got into the monumentally intimidating work.
Itâ€™s an intersection that Iâ€™ve been interested in for quite some time now: that of literature and video games. I feel as though each year, the industry and creators get closer and closer to realizing that marriage, and tools like Twineâ€”or Inform, another IF creatorâ€”help it along the way. Itâ€™s these tools that kind of shrug aside at arguments for or against video games as art, and keep enabling creators to experiment, expand, and produce.
Because sometimes I canâ€™t help but stay awake at night, nearly unconscious and absorbing Vines. Theyâ€™re so short, so easy, and they show off the vast creativity of a vaster expanse of people, of culture. While Twine might not be the key to getting the masses to create the next Tomb Raider or GTA–and I’m not sure any of us want that– theyâ€™re a step towards pushing the line on gaming as a whole, through the wild world of Â interactive fiction. It’s an exciting tool, and an exciting genre, and as something that can appeal to both gamers, readers, and writers alike, it makes the future all the more an exciting place.
This week: From OxBow, Duncan, along with with Abigail Satinsky and Elizabeth Chodos, sit down for a chat with Hesse McGraw.
Hesse is a curator and writer and is Vice President for Exhibitions and Public Programs at the San Francisco Art Institute. At SFAI he directs the Walter and McBean Galleries, and oversees SFAIâ€™s public programs, visiting artists series and public education programs for youths and adults. From 2008 to 2013 he served as chief curator at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska, where he developed anÂ exhibition program focused on site-specific, immersive, cross-disciplinary, and socially engaged projects. At the Bemis Center he produced two-dozen exhibitions, includingÂ major public projects with artists Theaster Gates and Michael Jones McKean.
McGraw was formerly associate director of Max Protetch gallery in New York, and was the founding director and curator of Paragraph, which operates under the non-profit Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, Missouri. He lectures widely and his writing has recently been published inÂ Afterall,Â Art Papers,Â OutpostÂ and in diverse exhibition catalogues.Â Recent awards and grants include an Andy Warhol Foundation Curatorial Research Fellowship, an ArtPlace America grant, a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Artistic Innovation and Collaboration Grant, an NEA Our Town grant, and a Harpo Foundation grant.
Work by Tom Burtonwood and Holly Holmes
Firecat Projects is located at 2124 N. Damen Ave. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.
Work by Angela Ellsworth
Julius Caesar is located at 3311 W. Carroll Ave. Reception Sunday, 2-5pm.
Work by Philip von Zweck
The Storefront is located at 2606 N. California. Reception Friday 5-9pm.
Work by Craig Yu
devening projects + editions is located at 3039 W. Carroll St. Reception Sunday 4-7pm.
Work by Matt Mancini, Mike Rubin, and Dom Smith
Roots and Culture is located at 1034 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Just over 6 months ago, after 8 years of being a practicing contemporary artist, I graduated with my MFA. Though I knew my post graduation time would be full of unexpected ups and downs, and the struggle would be trying, I still had little idea of what it be like. Here I am with my degree, job hunting, making work and participating in the arts community like I knew I would, but there were a lot of things I was unprepared for. One of those things is just how shocking, depressing, uplifting, relieving, trying, exciting, lost, hopeful, and full of opportunity it would all feel. I know Iâ€™m doing well and trying as hard as I can, but itâ€™s still hard to keep afloat.
So I think what Iâ€™m writing about is something that is not openly talked about. How when grad school is over, even though you get a lot out of the experience, somehow you’re also hitting the reset button and starting the climb all over gain. Itâ€™s a love/hate experience. I was even hesitant to write about it because maybe if I admitted it hasnâ€™t been that great it will reflect poorly on me. But I was also lucky to have mentors to talk to who know there are many like me, struggling to get by in a depressed economy where the rules just arenâ€™t the same as they used to be. It seems like every job is something I am not experience enough for, or too experienced for, Its like being stuck on a bridge in a traffic jam. Iâ€™m going to a place I canâ€™t get to, leaving a place I canâ€™t go back to and the bridge is packed with cars all going the same way.
Many in our modern era look at the pursuitÂ of art practices as selfish, and worthless endeavors. If you went through college as an art major, youâ€™ve already had to face it over and over. The same friends and family that encouraged you to be creative, expressive and a follower of the obscure thing called â€œyour dreams,â€ then cringe when you tell them you are an art major. You are told that you better make a back up plan, and youâ€™ll never make a living as an artist. Yet I canâ€™t help but wonder, perhaps if we felt more supportive of the arts there would be more support there. The student studying to be an entrepreneur is often told what a brave contributor they are while the artist students are often told what a mistake they are making. To get through it, no matter who you are, you had to face discouragement from friends, family, teachers, councilors, bosses, the government, and in general the world is just not invested in you. Yet despite continuous discouragement for this hugely impactful and important cultural force we call art, you became an artist.
Part of the reason this post-school transition becomes such a struggle is the ever-present stigma of a successful artist. What exactly is the benchmark for being successful as an artist? Others often remind me that the probability of becoming a famous artist is very low. I respond by saying I never want to be a famous artist; I want to be renowned in the art world for what I do in a way where my practice is accepted but not famous. On some level my disinterest in fame has to do with a paradox that affects an artists once they rise to a certain level of fame.
Once in my undergrad while taking an honors art class with Haim Steinbach we were critiquing work and he said we needed to keep experimenting and not get stuck in one way of making. He explained that we were lucky, because he was now what he called a â€œdead artistâ€ and we were not. As he was aÂ famous and active artist, at first this first seemed like an impossible thing to say. He explained that once your artwork is found, the public/art market begins to push you towards remaking that one piece you became famous for. That even when you want to explore different avenues, itâ€™s very difficult as a famous artist to get shows, funding or acceptance if you arenâ€™t in some way reproducing the work you have become known for. And this is the moment, he explained, when you become a â€œdead artistâ€. By achieving the fame his work became constrained to itâ€™s own commodification, killing his practice and in turn his art.
So what do we do when trying to forge our own way and build our careers after school? There are answers out there if you keep talking about it, and I am thankful for those out there who will discuss this openly. Understanding it takes time. You really are beginning again, but know that you are better off than where you began before. Plant seeds everywhere. You never know what is going to sprout and where it will lead. Say yes to everything you can, as you never know where it will go. Keep yourself humble, youâ€™re not too good for any job. Keep yourself proud, no job you take is a shame to have as long as you are keeping your practice up. Keep moving forward every day. Make plans, improvements and goals. Know you are not alone and you are doing the right thing. And how do you measure your success? Iâ€™ve got to say when I take everything into account, knowing of course that success is a very personal reflection, I do think there is a clear way to know if you are a successful artist. That after all the pressure, aversions, and struggles you still keep making art. No matter how your practice changes, or where you are, or what job you have, or how stable you are financially, or wherever your life may lead: being a successful artist has nothing to do with that, but rather with you staying an artist. The continuation andÂ advancement of your artwork and practice itself is the mark of a truly successful artist.
Special thanks for thier support and inspriation: Charles Rice, Mark Jeffery, Bradley Litwin and HaimÂ Steinbach