If someone slips on a banana peel in a forest and no one sees it, does anyone laugh?
The current exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center walks us dangerously close to the banana peel. We are the sucker about to unwittingly step onto the banana peel, and the audience waits with bated breath for us to make that final descent into unavoidable disaster.
Pratfall Tramps is a sprawling group show, filling the galleries and spilling over into the accompanying Gilda Radner Research & Translation Center. Entering the galleries, the curtain is lifted, setting the stage and revealing the impetus that gathers the seemingly disparate works together.
Jamie Isenstein’s Inside Outside Backstage Vase welcomes visitors to the space. From a distance the vase fills with vibrant, fresh flowers, but something is off. Some of the flowers wilt, revealing the perfect false blossoms and crumbling real flowers. A comically large, teetering stack of pancakes obscures Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s Performance Document: Self Portrait With Pancakes.
Isenstein’s Sand Lamp is funny as theatre of the absurd is funny. The joy and lighthearted moments of our lives, sheathed in the mundane, ready-made lamp shade burst from the sand that seems to entrap us, yet we cannot realize our electric cord still snakes to find sustenance.
Mary Reid Kelley’s Sadie The Saddest Sadist builds from the same tradition. The audio fills the space, looping just often enough to unobtrusively juxtapose its songs, chants, snippets of speech with other works. The mounting layers resist translation, but they create a new way of viewing the works, a shifting, performative veneer over the entire gallery.
As the best comedy does, the works reveal larger issues at work in the world. Greenberger Rafferty’s Testing I (Whisk), Testing II (Baster), Testing III (Spoon), Testing IV (Shotgun Whisk), and Testing V (Scoop) anchor the exhibition, upending the tools of performance and standup comedy. It elevates Martha Rossler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen to the stage, making explicit Rossler’s performativity and revealing a silence doubly loud for the lack of amplification and absent performers.
Tammy Rae Carland’s series of acrylic ladders Pratfall Effect lead nowhere. The glass ceiling is not a fixed height. It is everywhere and nowhere.
If someone slips on a banana peel as daylight savings time begins, how long does it take for them to hit the ground?
Just as the individual works in Pratfall Tramps seem slightly off, the exhibition as a whole does not sit quite right within the gallery. This shifting in the exhibition, however, opens the curtain to an empty stage. We have already stepped on the banana peel, and the embarrassing, laughter-inducing fall is inevitable. We are continually reminded that the exhibition is funny or deals with comedy – the bananas, the artist bios, the accompanying quotes, the title of the show itself.
The curator, Rachel Reese, writes, “Pratfalls—bodily or object-based—are funny because they are a paradox. While suggesting lack of control, there is indeed complete and conscious control at play: in comedy, the performer can rewire failure as success.” Similarly, the quote from David Robbins’s On Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy included on the title wall reads, in part, “Consider the fool. The fool is supposed to fail, that’s part of the fool’s function—his ‘project.’ And because it is to some degree his project, the fool in fact cannot fail.”
These statements foreclose our ability to interpret the work critically. The show prevents viewers from experiencing the humor in the work by insisting it is funny, that it is successful when it appears to fail. Even if we see the artworks or the artists’ “projects” as failing, seemingly out of place, or unsuccessful, we are told that is precisely when they work the best.
The insistence on comedy and the comedic connections underpinning the artists’ work disrupts the exhibition, jars us out of the moments the works immerse us within, lands us on our backs as everyone laughs. We do not need to be reminded how funny it is. The assertions and repetitions undercut the fact that it is a strong show that coheres on its own.
If I tell you someone slips on a banana peel, is it still funny?
Moving to a new town is disorienting. The streets do not yet make sense. The grocery store has strange foods. The restaurant chains arrange themselves differently. The art world shifts and morphs, revealing new opportunities, expansive possibilities, and gaps to be filled.
I recently moved from Minneapolis-Saint Paul to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I am adjusting to the differences in climate and landscape. I am discovering the differences in the art scenes between the two cities, reframing my understanding of what the art world is in Chattanooga and its relation to other cities I know. Every city has its advantages – an established collector base, commercial and independent art spaces, funding for the arts and artists, less commuting time, cheaper rent, lower cost of living, nicer weather. No city has everything. The established notions we have about the art world and its centers of power seem unshakeable. New York City exerts a magnetic pull on artists, collectors, arts appreciators, and people looking for the newest trends; Los Angeles has a different yet very present attraction.
Artists are more mobile now than ever, moving between cities, traveling to make and show work. The boundaries between cities and regions of the country are fluid. This mobility reveals the privilege of the people who can move within it, and it opens opportunities for reexamining the hierarchies we have created and reinforce. What happens when a small town in Arkansas opens a lavish museum? Do the art fairs in Miami attract artists to live there year round? Is Austin a major contemporary art center because of the other cultural activity that happens there? Will artists seek out Asheville when they no longer remember Black Mountain?
Andy Sturdevant’s interactive performance seminar, U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings, investigates the notion that the art world is static and unchanging and questions what we value in contemporary art and how we prioritize it. Andy visited Chattanooga in January to ask students, artists, and community members to rank the top 125 metropolitan statistical areas into five tiers – Major and Secondary National Contemporary Art Centers, Major and Secondary Regional Art Centers, and Important Local Contemporary Art Centers. The exercise of making these rankings explicit and public revealed much about how we form opinions and how Chattanooga fits into conversations within the regional and national art world.
Before cities can be ranked, the conversation begins by establishing the criteria for an attractive contemporary art city. The criteria for the crowd in Chattanooga was similar to other city’s criteria and included: a significant number of artists, art schools, economic opportunities for artists, arts infrastructure, and press coverage of the arts.
Starting in the middle of the list, we worked down, debating which cities fit on each tier. The definitions of what constitutes the tiers developed slowly, as the lower tiers accrued meaning and complexity with each new town. Individual voices prevailed. Participants shared their experiences at Virginia Beach or Eugene, and their recounting of great galleries or vibrant artist run spaces easily swayed the votes.
Working up from the middle, placing the cities became increasingly complex. The looming specter of the top cities by population (New York and Los Angeles) weighed over discussions as the second and third tiers filled with Minneapolis, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore. The debate grew increasingly heated as Detroit and Miami were both placed in the second tier before we ended with LA and New York and the final list. I did not agree with all of the decisions – the heartbreak of democracy. I wanted a deeper discussion of potential top sub tiers (1A, 1B…), but that conversation and others about the relative locations of other cities will continue to happen here. The power of Andy’s performance seminar lies in the conversations it generates, in the room and long after. The iterative nature of the list making keeps the debate alive, allowing differences to develop and for the list to shift over time.
Chattanooga was Andy’s seventh and smallest city to create its own Rankings. As he says, “The discussions of the city’s place in relation to neighboring cities of equivalent size were very interesting, and quite unlike discussions in, say, New York or Chicago. It felt very much like the sorts of casual, bar-based conversations people have about their various towns and scenes outside the large art centers. Which is how the project began in the first place.”
We live in a rapidly changing world. The internet and easy travel have dismantled the hierarchies we thought we knew. We do not expect all flowers to grow in the same soil. We need sun and shade, the right balance of moisture, and careful pruning to cultivate many blossoms. The art world needs and already has that diversity; we must look in and beyond the assumed centers to find it. We should not mistake the most visible or assumed conditions for a thriving contemporary art center for the ideal conditions for every location.
Moving to a new place is not a final judgment about access to and participation in the global art world. The perceptions and assumptions about those places are malleable. U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings has transformed the way I think about the art world, my place within it, my new home, and how mutable that list truly is. We are all agents of transformation, and our towns move up and down the formal and mental lists of contemporary art centers based on our actions, our words, our ability to demonstrate that art and artists thrive in different circumstances and different conditions. Chattanooga’s conversation will continue in bars, at openings, in the streets, as we make the art center we envision, as we prepare the soil, sun, and water we need to thrive.
The highway passes quickly through Summerville, Georgia. The roadsides fill with small houses, businesses, and the ghosts of fastfood architecture. It is easy to miss the turn to Paradise Gardens. The houses that surround Howard Finster’s home, installation, and “life’s work” part suddenly to reveal the expansive sculpture gardens, rambling buildings, and layer cake tower of the World’s Folk Art Church.
It is easy to think we know Howard Finster, “man of visions.” His paintings grace the covers of pop albums. His portraits and hand painted words fit into our perceptions of an outsider artist. He was outside enough to be embraced by the art world and savvy enough to know how to eat up the celebrity that came along with it.
Paradise Gardens is empty, as I arrive. I talk to the attendant about the slowly unfolding and changing history of Paradise Gardens, hear his stories of coming to visit on a school field trip and being told to return to church on Sunday afternoons while peeking through the fences at Finster working. As recommended, I start at the back corner, and, before I get there, my preconceptions of Finster fall away.
Paradise Gardens is a stubborn refusal of the outside world that embraced his artwork and public persona. It resists visual and economic consumption. It arises from an unassuming, largely poor, small Southern town that, at best, tolerated his work during and after his lifetime. The World’s Folk Art Church, the most striking and visually alluring building, has been closed for decades due to structural concerns. The work of other artists and admirers intermixed with Finster’s work blurs lines of authorship and individuality. Paradise Gardens is full of beauty and wonder, but it is also full of Finster’s enormous collections of the “inventions of mankind” that, under different circumstances, would be called hoarding.
Life and death comfortably coexist in Paradise Gardens. The area surrounding Paradise Gardens abounds in life. Workers repair the sewer outside the fence. Neighbors come and go without giving Finster’s Mosaic Garden and paths a second glance. The Casket of the Unknown Body, which used to have a viewing glass so visitors could see the girl’s teeth, the constant reminders of the Christian life after death, and the many memorials to Finster embody and keep death present.
The many collections of bicycle parts, sewing machines, typewriters, Coke bottles, and more hold the lives of the people who made them and the man who placed them. They cast shadows of their original uses as they hang lifeless. The bicycles, televisions, and scraps writhing up out of the weathered, increasingly uniform mass in the center of the garden are transfigured into the Bicycle Tower and reborn into pop careers.
I recently visited an old bakery-turned-warehouse filled with tens of thousands of plates, saucers, coffee cups, teapots, ramekins, the remnants of restaurants closed in the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s. The stacks and stacks of plates filling the warehouse were caked in dirt, filled with rainwater, surrounded by pigeon droppings. They are a treasure trove and a filthy testament to objects. They are the left overs of failed businesses and abandoned identities and the china that holds the memories of a generation of Americans who ate at roadside diners and fraternal order lodges. Like Paradise Gardens, this warehouse full of dishes straddles the line between collecting and hoarding, between objects and memories, between life that ends and death that continues. Life and death are so deeply intertwined they are indistinguishable from one another.
I just moved to a new town, a new climate, a new part of the country that has much to teach me. I cannot help but think of making a new life, of reshaping my inward and outward habits in conjunction with the physical move. Both Paradise Gardens and the warehouse remind me that the life we have is short, that the death that awaits us is not far. More importantly, they help me hold close the fact that life begins again and again, when we move to a new place, when we wake each morning, when death comes to find us. Finster believed in a very specific idea of life after death. Whether or not we ascribe to that belief, Paradise Gardens confronts us with death and the lives that come after. It is well worth the trip.
We are in the midst of a warm snap. The snow has receded. The ice has left the lakes and rivers. I dig out the fall clothes I had packed away, reluctant to leave warm hats and scarves at home. I know the cold is waiting just around the corner for me to let down my guard again, but I do not want to miss the brief reprieve. I walk through warm days and nights, trying to understand this seasonal contradiction, as I struggle to hold the contradictions that surround me.
I support and enjoy the art installed in the long waiting room of Union Depot. I often eat lunch there. I linger with people in transition, crosstown bus riders and Amtrak passengers traveling to Chicago, and I am drawn to the gentle, rippling, summery reminder of Jim Campbell’s suspended 8 ½ x 11.
I simultaneously struggle to understand why the largest and most visible artworks are by artists from outside the Twin Cities (Campbell is based in San Francisco) and why artists from outside these communities and the legacies and present realities of injustice in those communities, like Ralph Gilbert from Atlanta, whose six large murals were recently installed, are asked to “reference the railroads’ impact on the Dakota tribes and their land; [and] the importance of railroad jobs for African Americans, especially in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood.”
I want to support the artists and makers whose work fills the overwhelming number of recent and upcoming holiday markets, popup shops, and art fairs. I love and would love to take home their work. I want to support artists trying to make a living and their desire to do so through their artwork, through forging and finding new ways to economically support themselves.
I simultaneously struggle with the fact that economic survival in and economic diversification of the artworld often shore up the neoliberal, capitalist systems that benefit a handful of people and visit violence on the earth and the people outside of that small minority.
I am filled with the deep pain, anger, frustration, hopefulness and solidarity of Million March MN and protests around the country over the weekend. I felt power dynamics being exposed when the march stopped traffic and stunned holiday shoppers looked on in disbelief and confusion. I believe the affirmation embodied in those marches that artists, that all people can come together to make change here and in cities across the country.
I simultaneously struggle with the fact that Midway Contemporary Art‘s Monster Drawing Rally fundraiser took place hours after the march. I support Midway, and the Monster Drawing Rally is an inventive, exciting way to bring together artists, collectors, and supporters to raise money. It was difficult, however, to watch hundreds of people pack in to watch artists make drawings and snatch up the drawings before they were hung on the walls. Consumption was conspicuous as people surged through crowds to be the first in line to buy a drawing, to buy drinks, to see and be seen, seemingly unaware of the larger issues and inequities in the world outside the white walls, deaf to the rallying cries still ringing in my ears.
I am leaving the Twin Cities soon, moving to warmer, greener climates. I have learned so much from and in this place, but I clearly have a lot more to learn. These paradoxes in the artworld and in the rest of the world happen everywhere. I must remember that I am not alone in trying to understand and make sense of these worlds, that we all must struggle to make meaning of the contradictions that surround us. I am reminded as I enter a new place, a new art community that all of the knowledge and experience I think I have is simply a place from which to start learning and growing.
I can hold complexity and contradiction; I can move with and through and around that uncomfortable unresolvability. I remember that I am privileged in ways I know and in ways I cannot see. I will continue learning. I will continue making. I will continue to use the privilege and access I have to reflect and shine light on the inequalities and injustice around me.
The world grows colder. Nature slows, becomes static. The river connecting these cities ices over slowly, silently at night. Tires spin, stuck in ice ruts that will last until spring. Fewer bicyclists and pedestrians navigate the narrowing streets and sidewalks. We prepare to stay inside through longer nights, as the early arriving winter rudely awakens us from lingering fall. That stasis, that need to stay inside belies our need to connect, to draw close, especially in times of stress, in times of outside forces beating down our door, trying to force their way in. We need to be physically together to remember that beneath these layers are beating hearts and warm breaths.
Ryoji Ikeda’s superposition at the Walker Art Center united more than 20 projections and monitors, two live performers, multi-lingual Morse code, live video feeds, microfiche, a healthy dose of randomness. It confronts the body and mind, pushing them to the limits of comprehensibility. The audience was given earplugs to ease the high decibel audio, but the sound waves, the movement of air through the space physicalized every peak and valley of staccato clicks, blips, quantum particulates. My knowledge of quantum physics and mathematics is barely enough to bring the video and audio into focus. Scientific ideas bubble to the surface just enough to reveal there is something larger beneath the surface, but the technical mastery and deep knowledge embodied in the performance reinforce the barriers between audience members, reminding us that we are a part of systems whose logic is beyond what we think we know of Newton.
The performers, Stephane Garin and Amélie Grould truly bring forward the human nature, the warmth amidst the cold numbers and distant scientific concepts. They transform this digital symphony that exists in the rarified air of Ikeda’s ongoing scientific and mathematical investigations (including his current CERN residency), mathematics at scales that are impossible to witness and challenging to conceive, and dangerous sonic levels into a moving, human, even more visceral experience. As they key in Morse code, the competing, layering sound waves and words they spell are displayed behind them. The speed with which they relay their messages feels monumental to our distance from Morse code as a means of communication. Their use of a binary language lays bare the many layers of digital mediation, the code and signal behind the projections, the digital reproduction of sound. We see the text and sound waves they create on the massive screen behind them, but we also see their hands move; we see them strike tuning forks together, we see them make quiet decisions among their microfiche and steel balls.
Their presence in front of us, their bodies moving through the space on stage, creating the sounds that we feel in our chests and throats activate those parts of our brain that correspond to our hands, our fingers, our performative bodies. We feel ourselves on stage, mirroring their action, feeling their sensations as we negotiate our way through the sonic and visual density of superposition.
The phenomenon of our brain firing neurons in the parts of our brain that perform action when we see that action being performed is often invoked in the realm of sports spectatorship or action movies. We mentally and physically feel as if we are part of the game, as if we punched through a wall. superposition invoked those same feelings for me. It overwhelmed me physically and mentally, pulling me into its auditory and visual textures while activating idle parts of my brain. Seeing Dawn of Midi recently invoked those same feelings. Watching the repetitive, sound-bending striking, hammering, and twisting of their instruments, I felt the energy build, crest, relax, expand as if I was onstage, as if I muted the piano strings, I hunched over the bass, I held the drumsticks. Walking home through the snow, the music did not leave my mind, the instruments did not leave my hands.
As I navigate frozen landscapes, I contemplate the winter ahead. I consider not just my fragile human body but the end of the human species manifest in these extreme weather swings, the knowledge that this cold too is a sign of our own undoing that cannot be undone. Despair, stasis, and winter blues are eased by knowing I am not alone. I connect with others, physically and remotely present, and I remember that I can still make changes. I can still strive for a better world by refusing to be alone, by refusing to isolate myself against the overwhelming challenges we can only confront together.