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.
Fall lingers, with warm days and fiery trees, longer nights and frosty mornings. Daylight has changed, striking us at more oblique angles, lengthening shadows even at noon. I follow my shadow farther and farther from my center, looking back to where I stand, doubling, tripling, multiply exposing and bodily reproducing fall days and perspectives.
The sunny gallery at Highpoint Center for Printmaking is a lovely site for Aaron Spangler’s new exhibition Luddite. The massive woodcuts simultaneously invite viewing their totality from across the room and detailed examination. The broad stroke of the prints overwhelms the walls, forcing out the white space around them. The figurative pieces begin to resolve into senses of shifting meaning; the more abstract prints resist resolution, push against meaning making within their patterns and eye movement across the paper. Upon closer inspection, Spangler’s hand is very present, in the patterned marks of tools, the subtle gradations in pressure applied to the tools, the grain of the wood, the creases and folds in the paper. They are multiples, so clearly prints in their materiality, yet they resist. They are not simply mechanically reproduced objects. They manifest the human, maintain the layers of work, the hours of crafting that went into their making.
Instead of Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction and the digital reproduction that is happening even as you read these words, what happens when a work of art is biologically reproduced? How is our experience altered when we cannot simply consume the work in the gallery or the comfort of our own homes and screens?
I saw Anne Theresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas at the Walker Art Center last week. I have not been able to get it out of my head. The dance is simultaneously deathly serious, paring down movement, facial expression to the barest framework of a dance language we start to recognize. The first section is silent, slow, laconic in comparison to the later three sections. The dancers’ breath and the slap of arms and legs onto the floor resonate within the silence of the theatre. The dancers individually and collectively lay perfectly still to the point that we wonder if they are still connected to the movement. The dancers shift and cascade in patterns of coordinated movement that struggle to coalesce. They seem to unite, but they crumble, decompose, reform, find their footing, and slip amid silence and stillness. This extended, protean formation of language with which the dancers assault their own bodies gathers momentum, collapses, rolls over, accretes into the flurry and avalanche of activity of the later sections of the dance.
Throughout the dance, the dancers verge on the mechanical. At first look, they seem to become machines reproducing everyday movements we know, repeating movements with inhuman regularity in patterns beyond human comprehension, but the dancers each move with their own slightly inflected accents. Each dancer’s movements comprise entire sets of linguistic encyclopedias. Each time we begin to grasp the movement language they dance, it slips between our fingers. We are travelling through a foreign land with shifting dialects and argot. The regularity, the patterning, the building, dismantling, permutational collection of individual movements lures us into believing we can gain an understanding of what is happening, that we can know and predict what comes next. We begin to understand the foreign language, feel like we know the tense, what should be the next subject, object, verb, dangling participle, but we are jarred into awareness by the strange gesture we have never seen, the new part of speech we cannot parse. Beyond simply seeing live bodies before us on the stage, the biological reproduction of and within the dance is constantly foregrounded, never absent from our perception of the dancers.
De Keersmaeker reinforces this biological reproduction in opening the Rosas Danst Rosas choreography to everyone. Whether in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary or in response to the Beyoncification of her work, the choreography is explained in great detail in step by step videos. The reproductions, covers, remakings of this second section of the dance model a new method of dancemaking that draws from the movement vocabulary from which de Keersmaeker crafted yet is clearly distinct, a new direction in movement language. They expand the conversation in dialects across dancers throughout the globe. They arise from the best of digital reproduction to magnify and unite the individuality of dancers, drawing us closer together in the potentials of common understanding while reinforcing the individuality that resists the mechanical, the faults that maintain our humanity.