Guest Post by Jessica Cochran
This year’s Whitney Biennial curators Michelle Grabner, Anthony Elms and Stuart Comer cast the net so far beyond Chelsea that New York Magazine’s Jerry Saltz lamented “curators are so determined to stay pure, to avoid acknowledging the machinations of commerce, that the show is completely disconnected from the entire world.” Elsewhere, however, in the pages of the more academically inclined Artforum, Emily Apter took the biennial’s discursive turn away from New York centric art objects as an opportunity to consider the “liminal space” of a museum biennial “replete with printed matter, writing, texts of all sorts—in short, with words.” “The textual object,” she writes, “demands to be seen as a live, or “living,” work, an interface of bio and res.”
Its true, the archival impulse is what set the tone and struck a chord this year, particularly in the work of Chicago-based Joseph Grigely and Public Collectors (founded in 2007 by Marc Fischer), both curated into the biennial by Anthony Elms. Each taking as their subjects the lives of a deceased creative individual and his personal belongings, their projects build meaningfully on the Whitney Biennial’s recent history of both deceased artists and artist-curated “sub exhibitions,” notably from the 2012 edition the inclusion of George Kuchar (died, 2011); Robert Gober’s presentation of work by Forrest Bess; Nick Mauss’ curation of queer-oriented work culled from the museum collection; and also discursive contributions, such as Andrea Fraser’s essay No Place Like Home.
Joseph Grigely’s project The Gregory Battcock Archive, 2009-2014 is a mini exhibition of ephemera culled from the archives Gregory Battcock that Grigely recovered himself in the storage area of an artist studio building. Battcock was an intrepid New York critic (something of a reformed artist) who was mysteriously murdered in Puerto Rico in 1980 and known for his writing on minimalism and other emerging genres of conceptual art. The Whitney display, with postcards, photographs, manuscripts and scribbled notes organized into vitrines, is an extension of Grigely’s own text driven practice, specifically the project Conversations with the Hearing. For the art workers among us, this glimpse into the world of a dynamic talent and fastidious thinker gives pause for reflection: how will my activities live on after I am gone, and who is going to care?
In scholarship on artist’s books, much has been written about the concept of paratext as it impacts a book’s concept and meaning. An artist’s reflexive manipulation of the book’s gutters, typography, headers and index, for example, impact the text’s meaning as it is delivered to the reader. So too in Grigely’s presentation of the Battcock images and texts in the real dimensional space of the gallery, a different kind of paratext becomes important: the vitrines as support structures and the aesthetic arrangement of the material. The vitrines, “each made of a different hard wood, a different shape and height” and “composed as an irregular modular sculpture,” inform the way we maneuver through and consume the text. Because, as Grigely told me, “no archive is disinterested” and in an extension of Joseph Albers’ articulations of color theory, “you can’t put one document beside another without changing both.”
Public Collector’s biennial contribution was dedicated to a different kind of archive—the recordings, ephemera and images of Malachi Ritscher, who, Fischer wrote in a publication for the project, was a “Chicago-based documentarian, activist, artist, musician, photographer, hot pepper sauce maker, and supporter of experimental and improvised music.” Deeply respected and liked throughout the Chicago music community, Ritscher spent years independently recording thousands of live free jazz, experimental and underground improvised live shows at venues throughout Chicago, in addition to his day job as a union engineer and anti-war activist. On November 3, 2006, he self immolated in front of the Flame of the Millennium sculpture by Leonardo Nierman in full view of the Kennedy Expressway just north of Chicago’s busy loop interchange. As he wrote in texts found posthumously and displayed on a poster in the exhibition, “If I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world.”
Unlike Grigely, for Public Collectors, “directing attention to and caring for the creative work of under-recognized people like Ritscher” is at the core of each project they mount. Amidst the presentation of recordings and ephemera, a recorder and a small paper sign, which Ritscher used to record and temper dialogue around him in the clubs, hangs above a series of brown suitcases: “Your cooperation (i.e. restraint) is appreciated.” This statement drips with melancholy. Because while his protest suicide was carefully recorded and it was his hope that it would circulate widely, the video of his death was entirely suppressed; and the reporting of his death, much less any discourse generated, was subdued and grass roots, covered minimally by local and national papers.
“In this space of affection, navigate the inappropriately cared for and the tossed aside particulars.”[i] In his catalog essay, Elms argues for Deleuze and Guattari’s “close vision”—or a notion of curator as custodian of a culture that is micro, idiosyncratic, ineffable, and eminently forgettable. Though a growing trend in curatorial practice, this decidedly counters the “bigger is better” ethos of the contemporary biennial as a perfectly and purposefully in-graspable thing. It also departs from the biennial’s value system as rooted in the empire building world’s fairs of the 19th and 20th centuries—many call London’s Great Exhibition of 1951 held in a dramatic crystal palace the “first” biennial—designed to give viewers a deeply overwhelming “great mass and jumble of things” (commodities, mostly) as “a challenge to make sense of … unimaginable diversity; to find or invert a “perspective” on the whole so that objects could be made to “stay and lie orderly.”[ii] Anything but orderly and still, Grigely and Public Collectors’ presentations animate the individual, allowing visitors to, in Grigely’s words, “draw and draw out”[iii] the subject because, as Elms points out in his essay, “hearing is not the same as listening.”
Most biennials are to some extent about nation building and nation branding—Prospect in New Orleans as a response to Hurricane Katrina is an American example—and in doing so the confrontation or processing of deeply entrenched national trauma. In the Whitney Biennial, however, the work of Grigely and Public Collectors amplifies a particularly American trauma of the self actualized yet alienated creative individual who is ultimately alone, forgotten, desperate or dislocated. Instead of healers, however, we might call them thieves. In his essay “The Curious Case of Biennial Art” Jan Verwoert asserts that one paradigmatic biennial artist is a “thief” who (as opposed to the fairly straightforward “jokers” and “scouts”) uses their understanding of the economy of desire to deal in the secrets of a mirage of cultural identity centered around an undecipherable trauma that glints like a ruby in the dust when one tentatively points a spotlight in its direction.”[iv] Battcock and Ritscher may be dead and gone, but their ideas are alive thanks to the illuminating work of Joseph Grigely and Public Collectors. And as the art world grows ever bigger in size and speed, one can only hope that the Whitney Biennial continues to make room for the discursive, textual and “tossed aside particulars.”
Jessica Cochran is a curator living and working in Chicago
[i] Anthony Elms, “Sentences sometimes are impediments,” in The Whitney Biennial 2014 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014), 155
[ii] Donald Preziozi, “The Crystalline Veil and the Phallomorphic Imaginary,” in The Biennial Reader, ed. Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, Solveig Ovstebo (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2010), 45
[iii] Joseph Grigely, “The Gregory Battcock Archive 2009-2014,” in The Whitney Biennial 2014 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2014), 185.
[iv] Jan Van Verwoert, “The Curious Case of Biennial Art,” in The Biennial Reader, ed. Elena Filipovic, Marieke Van Hal, Solveig Ovstebo (Bergen: Bergen Kunsthall, 2010), 190