I’ve always been fascinated by accidental gardens. Some of the most beautiful gardens in Chicago can be found in the abandoned lots in-between buildings, or in the alleys behind people’s homes and apartments next to the cars and trash cans. In Oak Park, where I live, you can find all sorts of lovely micro-gardens in the strips of dirt between property lines. Sometimes it seems like the best gardens arise in the spaces that people pay the least attention to. Carson Fisk-Vittori‘s use of plants, and particularly her manner of arranging plants and other objects in two and three-dimensional space brings these types of gardens to mind, although nothing about Fisk-Vittori’s approach is accidental. I first encountered Carson’s work at Chicago’s MDW Fair a few months ago – her vacuum-packed plant sculpture was set against a wall with a purple, stipple-paint background at Roots & Culture’s booth. I’ve been curious to learn more about it ever since, and am very grateful to her for taking the time to answer my questions.
Claudine Ise: There seems to be a connection between plant life and movie making in your work. The photograph titled “Movies,” for example, shows a bunch of dandilions wrapped up in newspaper printed with movie ads, including one for The Prince of Persia; the photograph titled Deleted Scenes shows a casual arrangement of rocks (some sort of rock garden?) placed on a white sheet. And in Sunset, 2008, a photographic print of a sunset is sort of stuck casually behind a cactus, like a painted backdrop in a movie, but it’s obviously not an illusion that’s comprehensive enough for anyone to believe. Looking at all of your other images it seems to me like plants function like actors playing roles in a scene. (As in the “advertisements” in your earlier bodies of work). Which is a pretty funny idea, in that in humans, being compared to a plant/vegetable is a way of saying someone is brain dead. Can you talk about the works I mention above a bit – what’s behind your references to film-making or advertising production?
Carson Fisk-Vittori: My photographs are more connected to advertising and mass media than movies specifically. Though I guess movies are often times elaborate commercials anyway. Advertising companies are experts at feeding images and messages straight into our brains. So using that format in my work allows me to incorporate the techniques that may have taken them years to develop to act against or in opposition to our consumer-based economy through the celebration of the everyday.
Some of my work directly references advertising by title: Toothpaste Ad, Venus Ad, and Perfume Ad, all from 2009, and many of the other photographs use techniques such as gradient backdrops, color, and arrangement to reference advertising culture. One of my intentions is for viewers to realize that you can make everything around you look intriguing with the right lighting and composition, and hopefully realizing that you already have everything you need.
An earlier work, Sunset, 2008, evolved from an experiment involving the use of gradient back-drops added to different domestic or ordinary scenes to examine if the technique would make an image more interesting to the eye. By revealing some of the “tricks” that are used in advertising, viewers will begin to question how images are manipulative. Deleted Scenes, 2010 is an image of a found arrangement of rocks by a creek bed that were re-placed onto a paper backdrop in the same found arrangement. The act of removing them from their natural context allows the viewer to examine the natural arrangement more closely. The graphic element of the backdrop removes the natural background element, making the image similar to a diagram, which is easier for us to understand.
CI: Tell me about the shrink-wrapping of plants in some of your recent sculptures and photographs (like the photos I saw at Roots & Culture’s booth at Midway Fair). Shrink-wrapping is a preservative technique, but of course plants need air, sunlight and water to survive, like we do. Do you unwrap the plants after you’ve photographed them? Lamp Design #2 is 3-D sculptural object, correct? It looks like you’ve inserted plastic balls within the fronds of two fern plants, and shrink-wrapped them to create and freeze their forms. How quickly do the plants decay once shrink-wrapped? Is decay part of the piece? (I’ve never seen one of the 3-d pieces in an exhibition, so I don’t know if we are meant to observe the object over a period of time). Tell me how the lamp design part fits in.
CFV: “Lamp Design #2” is a vacuum packed floral arrangement (as opposed to shrink-wrapped). It was part of the installation at Roots & Culture’s booth at MDW, as well as New Capital’s exhibition “Life Style Appropriate.” It is three-dimensional in nature, but exists in the photographic form as well. This piece recalls the floral arrangements I have previously shown which are ephemeral in nature but exist as photographs for the purposes of documentation. My first iteration of a “lamp design”, Lamp Design, 2010 was part of “Casual Object Garden and Other Material Matters,” a collaborative exhibition with Michael Hunter at Roots and Culture in 2010. It consisted of a large light box with a plant resting on top of it. Lamp Design #2, 2011, which you described as two fern plants with plastic balls, also has a light component: the marbleized ball lights up with led lights. Titling them “lamp design” is in one way blurring the boundaries between art and design, and also playing with the idea of producing absurd furniture designs.
My first experimental floral arrangements appeared in the Real Normal Spring Collection (2009), at the now-defunct Scott Projects in Chicago, IL. I installed floral arrangements that were scattered around the space, some of which were very minimal, with crude or simple constructions using basic household supplies and containers in the arrangement. At the time I was becoming interested in Ikebana, the art of Japanese floral arrangement, and wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy on the beauty of all things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. The floral arrangements I create have a life span ranging from days to weeks, and often times change multiple times during an exhibition. I am interested in the gesture that impermanence implies. In the art world objects are generally made to be archival and last forever, however this is a false permanence since everything is evolving from and going towards nothingness. The floral arrangements are a moment in time and an appreciation for the ephemeral and unmonumental.
CI: Works like your installation “Casual Object Garden,” 2010, and photographic images like “And Also More,” “Weekend Shapes” and “New Forest Table” from 2010 lead me to ask if you see a relationship between the making of a pictorial composition and the act of gardening? Both in terms of artistic intent and the impact of chance occurrences on the results?
CFV: I’m interested in playing with casual placement and intended placement. There is something interesting about examining a presentation of objects that have no intended organization. When I was installing Casual Object Garden with Michael Hunter, we would be unconsciously unpacking our work, and later come back to it and find something interesting in the way it was, in a way, automatically arranged. By accepting such cosmic arrangement you are sometimes left with more interesting possibilities than you might find by organizing in the grid-like way that our minds think. I like going back and forth between those two extremes.
CI: I liked the collaborative group show you participated in with Derek Frech, Justin Kemp, Joe Lacina, Joshua Pavlacky, and Daniel Wallace at LVL3, which was titled “A Rod Stewart Little Prince Charles Manson Family” and, like the title of the show, looked like it was produced according to the principles of exquisite corpse. The individual works on view did not have an artist’s name attached to it, rather each appeared to be the product of the entire group. Can you tell me about how that show came about, and how you as individual artists worked together to create the objects in the exhibition – you communicated remotely, right? Via internet, etc.? Was having to communicate in spite of your geographic remoteness from one another part of the idea?
CFV: The show originated from three Philadelphia artists, Derek Frech, Joe Lacina, and Daniel Wallace, at their space Extra Extra. They previously collaborated on a similar exhibition, “Soft Focus,” 2010. The new iteration of the project, “A Rod Stewart Little Richard Prince Charles Manson Family,” 2011, added three additional artists: Massachusetts-based artist Justin Kemp, Philadephia artist Joshua Pavlacky, and myself. No work in the exhibition had a single artist attached to it; rather the entire project was a collaborative endeavor. This in part removed the artists’ ego from the work and allowed for a free flow of ideas.
Communicating remotely between 6 artists in 3 different locations became a large component of the process. To begin, we created Twitter and Tumblr accounts. Our collaborative Twitter was also anonymous, which further enabled a free flow of uncensored ideas. Our Tumblr acted as a work-shopping tool; everyone uploaded mock-ups of ideas that would then be commented on and further discussed in video chat meetings. This collaboration began about six months prior to the exhibition. Once the in-person installation began at the gallery, all of the artists were together in a real space, except for Justin Kemp who was Skyped in daily and acted as a consultant for the duration of the installation. During the installation, materials and objects were arranged and re-arranged until the group made a consensus.
CI: What do plants mean to you? When did you start using them in your own work, and why?
CFV: My work with plants started as a reaction from moving from a rural setting in Austin, TX to the urban midwest city of Chicago six years ago. In the city the wilderness is very contained. Everything is either manicured or intentionally abandoned, to a point where the flowerbeds on Michigan avenue contrast with the abandoned empty lots, and both, in their differences, become these kinds of arrangements. They at once show our love of natural beauty, our need to control it, our ignorance and arrogance. I began to look at it in this way where a soda can thrown in a flower pot is a gesture, because it is intentionally placed whether or not the person was aware of it or not. It’s really a natural gesture, like eating a cherry and spitting out the core, but in our world we are dealing with these man-made objects that are specially designed and branded. The contrast of man-made object and plant life really shows how far away we are from living with nature. I basically started looking closer at these casual arrangements and creating my own with elements of plants and man-made objects. My first gesture was in my backyard, Portal, 2007, which is an image of a mirror leaning against a bush. In the image it looks as if the grass is climbing up the bush in the form of a prism, and almost looks like a digitally constructed image. From there I really started to get interested in exploring my own arrangements of natural and man-made rather than found situations. I view these arrangements as microcosms for our relationship with nature.
CI: What type of houseplants do you have in your own home/apartment? Do you have a garden, and if so, what’s in it?
CI:What you are working on right now?
I’m currently in the midst of a few different projects. I am working with Seattle-based artist Sol Hashemi, on a landscape design proposal, that we hope to begin materializing in the next year or two. Philadelphia artist Derek Frech, and I are collaborating on an installation relating to man-made displays of natural bounty. And the latest iteration of my ongoing collaborative practice with Chicago-based Michael Hunter, NewHands, it is a mainly text based practice.
I will be included in a group exhibition at the Philadelphia ICA this fall entitled “Blowing on a Hairy Shoulder / Grief Hunters,” curated by Israeli artist Doron Rabina, and I will be having my first solo exhibition this August at Important Projects in Oakland, California.
How the hell did I miss this? From about a month ago: “My Little Pony Corrals Unlikely Fanboys Known as ‘Bronies’” in Wired’s Underwire blog. A must-read that I came across while doing research on an essay I’m writing. I share with Bad at Sports’ readers because I suspect that more than a few of you are Bronies in disguise. Or at least, I hope you are. I have never watched My Little Pony before – I’m more of a Strawberry Shortcake kind of gal (the version before they made her all teensy-weensie and sexed-out) – but make no mistake, this show is getting DVR’d upstairs just as soon as I get off the computer. A brief snippet from the article is below, but go read it in full, and have a happy day.
Each day, out-of-work computer programmer Luke Allen self-medicates by watching animated ponies have magical adventures.
The 32-year-old, who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, loves his daily fix of My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic, and he’s not alone. He’s part of a growing group of “bronies” (“bro ponies”) — men who are fans of a TV show largely intended for a much younger audience.
“First we can’t believe this show is so good, then we can’t believe we’ve become fans for life, then we can’t believe we’re walking down the pink aisle at Toys R Us or asking for the girl’s toy in our Happy Meal,” Allen said in an e-mail to Wired.com. “Then we can’t believe our friends haven’t seen it yet, then we can’t believe they’re becoming bronies too.”
Every nerd has a favorite TV show they watch religiously and know inside and out. But My Little Pony seems like an unlikely object of fanboy love. Since the show debuted last fall on cable channel Hub TV, it’s attracted a growing number of male fanatics. Their love of the show is internet neo-sincerity at its best: In addition to watching the show, these teenage, twenty- and thirtysomething guys are creating pony art, posting fan videos on YouTube and feeding threads on 4chan (and their own chan, Ponychan).
Caroline Picard is a well-known artist, arts administrator, publisher and all-around indie maverick here in Chicago who runs The Green Lantern, a project that encompasses publishing, exhibition projects, and a daily blog. Needless to say, we are very fortunate to have her as one of our regular columnists here at Bad at Sports. When Caroline’s show Happiness Machines opened at Roxaboxen earlier this month (sadly, its run was short and the exhibition closed last weekend), I was personally very excited, because up until now I’ve never had the chance to see any of Caroline’s own work in person. Her core issues of interest — the notion of self, the construction of personal identity, and just what it is we mean when we talk about “happiness”– are subjects that I think about and puzzle over almost every day. I am truly grateful to Caroline for taking part in this extended conversation with me, where we discuss all of the above issues while also taking the opportunity to dish on celebrities…just a teeny bit.
Claudine Ise: Your show at Roxaboxen is titled “Happiness Machines,” which for me signifies any automated something that can deliver quick (and temporary) shots of pleasure on demand. There’s something intrinsically connected to human instinct and biology there too. Philosophically, the happiness machine relates to Robert Nozick’s idea of the pleasure-giving “experience machine” — Nozick’s thought experiment that asked people to consider whether, if given the choice, they would prefer to live in a pleasure-filled virtual reality over real life. The idea of the “happiness machine” has historical resonance too: Herbert Hoover used the phrase in a speech he made to advertising executives: “You have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines that have become the key to economic progress.” His words presaged America’s transition from a needs-based economy to a desire-based one — ironically, as Hoover himself presided during the Great Depression.
Cut to 2010, when Coke puts out a YouTube video that, amazingly, referenced Hoover’s idea with a pretty astounding lack of self-awareness – the video depicted a kind of advertising stunt, the Coca-Cola company put this special “magical” coke machine on a college campus, the coke machine gave students balloons or dozens of cokes to distribute to everyone, or flowers, pizza, submarine sandwiches — all delivered by human hands through the slot– after it received coins for a single coke. When one of the students in the video says something like, “aw I just want to give it [the machine] a hug…Thank you Coke!” – that was pretty chilling. I don’t have anything against Coke as a brand–it was just the perfect smooth execution of an idea by a corporate entity, and how perfectly the students appeared to buy into it – literally speaking and, if what appears on the video is to be believed, emotionally speaking as well–that grossed me out.
And now, you as an artist have created your own brand of energy drink as part of your project “Psycho Dream Factory.” I tasted one from that flowing pile, and was shocked at how delicious it was (I like how the empties were put back into the pile, too, so it’s a pile of plenty and a pile of trash in one). It would have been even better if it were chilled, but – this tasted just like liquid hard candy! When I popped the top this disgusting sweet smell wafted out of the can, like a vapor, but the taste itself was really good. Anyway, tell me about what “Happiness Machines” means to you, how you would define or describe what a “happiness machine” is in 2011, and how it functions in our culture.
Caroline Picard: I started thinking about it when I watched this amazing four part Adam Curtis documentary called “Century of the Self”. The documentary talks about how our ideas about the psychology and the self are directly tied to the ways that marketing and advertisement has developed over the last century. Curtis makes the case that the two fields have developed along a reciprocal path. The documentary begins with Freud focusing specifically on the relationship Freud had with his nephew, Edward Bernays. Allegedly the “father of public relations” he was the first to use psychological tactics to manipulate large populations of people, almost as a kind of way to save them from themselves. So, for instance, one early example of how that kind of approach would influence advertising: they tied smoking with the suffregette movement, encouraging women to smoke as a way to illustrate their independence (thereby opening up a new body of consumers, who had previously not smoked). Over the course of the documentary, ideas of self and signs of independence, success etc change. So, for example, in the 60s there was a backlash youth group who didn’t want to “sell out” and wouldn’t buy into the lifestyles their parents were supporting. Instead of being afraid of themselves and their inner urges, they were suspicious of the status quo that was (ostensibly) trying to control them. They wanted to be recognized as unique individuals with individual taste; they did not want to conform and many of them resisted taking on traditional jobs that tied to them to specific locations and markets. Marketing had to shift to accommodate them.
Throughout all of this, I kept thinking about how happiness seems like the thing that has been marketed consistently. The American Dream, I guess; it feels like this very American idea to me–in so far as happiness is a thing to be purchased, and that we want happiness specifically: a finite peak of experience that is, I think, different from contentment or satisfaction or, even, joy. I know this is stepping even farther away, but what does it mean that “happiness” as a concept makes such an early and seemingly integral appearance in our national identity? (i.e. the declaration of independence: what does it mean that the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right?) How does it reflect on other cultural expectations? For instance, it’s also interesting to me because, as an idea its secular and a-moral: it is the idea of a feeling, not a behavioral prescription…
So. Yes. I also saw the Happiness Machine coke commercial on youtube and was thinking about how there is a constant desire for gratification. How it is still palpable. If it’s delightful and clever, all the better. Similarly Hoover, as you point out, was celebrating the idea of everyone’s potential happiness. Our cultural mythology is that we live in a place where anyone can be happy, just like anyone can be president. The idea of happiness then, I think, becomes an odd manifestation of power: if everyone has the capacity for happiness then it’s up to each person to manifest that on his or her own. Purchasing goods is a way to exercise some aspect of power and so I feel like it makes sense that they would get conflated. I felt like making an energy drink, as another element in the show, would draw out the idea of happiness and its relationship to consumerism more than the drawings alone. It felt like it also became an interactive feature that would help people engage and play with the materials, while also giving the idea of the show power outside of the immediately physical show: in other words, there’s almost an idea that these objects could circulate outside of the show.
CI: How does the entertainment celebrity function as a “happiness machine”? Can art’s “celebrities” be said to function in a similar way? I’m interested in your thoughts on this because I am not sure that they do, I don’t think that art celebrities affect us on that same emotional level as tv and movie stars do. I am not compelled or interested in the lives of art stars the way I am with celebrities.
CP: I think there is a difference, for sure, though I’m not quite sure how to hash it out, exactly. I mean maybe one example would be somebody like Jeff Koons and Cicciolina; I feel like his porn photo project was a way to think about public and private distinctions and publicity stunts. At the same time, Cicciolina has always seemed like the much more compelling figure in the story–that she was a member of the Italian parliament and a public sex worker. Still, the Koons-irony thing turns into a bummer so fast. Like it’s amazing that the distance between himself as an artist and his art would collapse, so that even his personal life seemed like a project. One that produced a child–.
Still, I guess I’m interested in the way our understanding of celebrity culture reinforces professional expectations in other fields. In the same way that actors are legitimized by appearing in tabloid magazines, so too I think the predominant model for artistic success is one of fame and monetary income. If your paintings translate into economic or cultural capital then the artist is legitimate. His or her practice has been deemed worthy. I understand the practical (and unavoidable) connection between art making and market economy, but I feel like it still provides a very a limited vision of art’s function–because the artistic gesture suddenly has to be commensurate to a market value in order to be meaningful. Is it possible to establish alternate criteria? With alternate methods of sustainability? What would that look like and, of course, why is that important? It reminds me of the recent upheavals in Universities in the UK. Middlesex University, a school with an outstanding international reputation for philosophy closed its philosophy department because it made more money in other, non-humanities departments. This has become a rampant trend (and caused a number of student protests in the UK), even in the United States: the humanities don’t translate directly into financially viable positions, so their seeming public value diminishes. (Martha Nassbaum also wrote a book, Not for Profit, that also talks about why the humanities are important–because they encourage the imagination, and therefore empathy as well as critical thinking, which leads to more actively engaged citizens). I guess I want to argue that we should think through alternative means of legitimizing contemporary practice. Maybe one way to do that is to think about what an object means as an object, not as something that translates into a monetary or marketable equivalent…is this possible to do? I don’t know….
In many ways, I feel like there is a strong, pessimistic undercurrent in the show. I don’t feel like propose any solutions–my favorite artists do that. I like to think it’s because I’m building up towards that direction, but who knows. I think it’s easier to have a sense of how things could shift than it is to imagine what that shift might look like.
CI: I loved the way your plastic-wrapped drawings were packaged and displayed (on hooks and in rows, not unlike a magazine stand or checkout shelf) and “delivered” to the visitors to your show. I loved the feeling of rifling through them all, I loved that there was such a multitude to look at and variety choose from, I loved that perfect balance of repetition and difference so that every one was just a bit unique, or at least gave the appearance of uniqueness to a buyer – you used precisely the same logic as higher-end mass merchandising does, and I suppose as certain types of art production as well. Your show definitely hit my own personal pleasure zones as a “shopper” and yet, the somewhat awkward way that you render these super-familiar celebrity faces, and the spare and barely-there ness of your compositions – the drawings still feel beautiful and unique to me in all those old-fashioned ways of talking about works of art. Here’s my question: why were your drawings so inexpensive ($3 each)? They were so shockingly inexpensive I have to assume there’s a conceptual reason behind it – that in order to deliver that quick shot of pleasure on demand, you had to make your drawings so attainable that virtually anyone could buy one right away without much pain.
CP: Yes. That’s totally true, about the cheapness, I mean…
First though, to talk to the drawings themselves. Underneath all of this, I really really love making work. I really love the process of painting and drawing, and the way it lets me meditate or think through ideas. It’s like drawing gives me another way to digest material–in this case it gave me a chance to take in tabloid covers and then reenact them in some way. There is a way where I can’t get away from that pleasure, as a central tenant to what I do. Over the course of the process, I got to think about the materials I was using–white out, florescent marker, nail polish: all of these very shitty, somewhat toxic and probably imported materials. Participating in subject through medium seemed like another way to communicate some amount of uselessness: like I really don’t know how you’re supposed to get out away from capital or the hierarchical systems it instills. I think I wanted to create that experience in the space itself too–I wanted to encourage people to look through the drawings. That’s one of the most important elements: the way it’s interactive. The way you can take something home at the end of the day, the way everything (the materiality, the quickness of the drawings, the way a number of them have been xeroxed and added to or deteriorated via reproduction): I didn’t want them to feel precious in the end; I wanted them to feel almost like party favors. Of course, they mean more to me than that, and I think they stand up more than that–but I wanted to make them ride that line, and indicating a low-price seemed to be a way to do that.
CI: Your collage drawings make reference to celebrities and the tabloid narratives associated with them, among other things. My favorite was the Angelina turning Shiloh into a boy one because I’m personally fascinated by that narrative. Not so much by the “Angelina pushing Shiloh” angle, but by the idea that Shiloh may in fact be transgendered and how cool is it that her parents are allowing her to be that way, to be who she wants to be, despite their super-high profile life and the gossip pressures associated with that. What interests me most about tabloids actually, is tabloid writing. These are all written narratives, i.e. crafted by someone or a group of someones who are giving it some thought, the “stories” comprised of this weird psychological pastiche of culture, desire, and whatever new photographs are available via the paparazzi. I think I’m most interested in the celebrity narratives that sort of don’t go the way the public might expect or want. So when Jennifer Aniston turns 42 or whatever and still doesn’t have a baby, I’m fascinated because…she really is supposed to have had that baby by now. When Shiloh dresses like a boy, I’m fascinated because…Shiloh is the golden child, she is supposed to represent the blending of two of the world’s most gorgeous people: Brad and Angelina. She’s not supposed to be transgendered (or god, maybe she is – the most perfect, precise blending of those two people!!!) – yet she doesn’t fit that Suri Cruise model of what a perfect princess, cute little girl should look like – Shiloh looks the way many people think a boy “should” look.
So, with my own tabloid weaknesses revealed to all – tell me what kind of tabloid stories you are attracted to? And why do you find them compelling?
CP: My favorites: also “Why Is Angelina Turning Shiloh into a Boy?” and “I Love My New Body”. Those are really my two favorites. I guess I also like the one about the Kardashian daughters (what’s awesome is that I’ve no idea why they are famous or where they came from–they just started appearing in magazines and on bilboards; I assume just because I don’t have a TV, but I feel like Paris Hilton was also very famous all of a sudden for more or less being famous and (this was years ago) being mean. Like she was best friends with LiLo one day and then someone else another day and basically did nothing but play dumb mind/playground games: it’s amazing to me that that is somehow a viable option for fame) where it says “Tormented for their Bodies.”
I like the Angelina one because I’m continually impressed by her ability to stay in the tabloids, consistently for the last five+ years. It’s moments like that where you realize some degree of effort or planning goes into a media spotlight. (Especially, for instance, that the coverage is selective: no one at all talks about their youngest twins)–so there’s a way where her presence is so consistent as to feel strategic. The narratives start to quake a little; they feel constructed. Then too, the “turning into a boy” is so amazing because I feel like it reflects a hyper-conservative perspective about gender and, even, how that manifests/is projected in childhood. I think it’s related to what you’re saying as well–this idea of what we expect their child (or an ideal child) to be, and how we interpret the signs of their comportment.
The “I love my new body” I think is amazing because it was text right next to Britteny Spears and she was wearing a bikini and I think that it points to a really crazy relationship between where we locate the self (or the “I”) and the body. Somehow these two things are extricable: how does that happen? Is that simply because of plastic surgery? (i.e. that it is possible to get a new nose, or new breasts or a chin, or whatever—) But then too, how is it that the implied “I” is constant and unchanging? Where are we locating it if not in the body? And then I guess that idea is also reiterated in the “tormented by their bodies” statement. And what on earth does *that* mean? It’s like they’re weird slaves or something–slaves to a physical embodiment of beauty? I don’t know. I just think it’s amazing stuff to think about, because I guess I see it as a kind of cultural mirror.
CI: Let’s talk about the non-fiction essay you wrote as a coda to your book, Psycho Dream Factory, starting with your observations about celebrity and its dependence upon / propagation of fictions of the Self, or as you put it, “the illusion that something, or someone, can be simplified and projected onto a surface….those are dangerous illusions. They evade any sense of consequence or complexity–elements essential to the human condition.” In contrast to this simplified notion of self-hood, you propose an alternative understanding of the self which you describe as “the additive self”. For those reading this interview who can’t get their hands on your book right away, can you talk a bit about what you mean by the additive self and how it might help us think about identity — as well as notions of success/legitimacy — in new ways?
CP: Maybe it makes more sense to think about the stability of self and self-image. For instance in statements like, “Figure out what makes You Happy,” or “What do you really want”: there is an idea that the self is singular and maybe even intrinsically static. Even in a specific and relatively small time-frame one is presumed to have a singular integrity. You could see this also reflected in the idea of a “soul mate,” where some-one-specific individual supposedly is out there to complete you. That idea in particular is propegated through love songs and pop songs and movies: it’s a very Romantic ideal, I think. What’s interesting, though, is the stability it assumes. Like it assumes an unequivocal certainty: something which I think is, actually, impossible to maintain. At least in my experience, I am a mix of probably countless desires and those are very often in conflict with one another. I think you could point to a similar aspect of self, if you look over a long period of time: there is an idea that one has a unique and unchanging nature. Some idea of an I or a center endures. I want to know, though, where is that located? And even how can it be? Even though I have always more or less experienced myself as a stable constant, I think I’m taking that idea for granted–at the very least because I want to see what other philosophical conclusions an alternative would lead to. What I love about Deren’s description of Voodoo in The Divine Horsemen is that the individual is actually constantly and fundamentally changing as it is inhabited (and thus influenced) by more and more loa (or spirits). Like a ship accumulating barnacles, the individual gathers different ghosts and having gathered those spirits, it cannot go back to what it originally was. I might make a corellary with experience, to suggest that once you’ve experienced trauma or pleasure, you cannot imagine yourself without that experience: it’s a transformative knowledge, like an emulsion. It even changes the way you look back on yourself prior to that experience.
CI: I keep wanting to question or complicate some of the ideas about celebrity put forth in your essay – whether we’re talking about Hollywood or the art world. For myself, I definitely don’t share Adorno’s pessimistic take on popular culture and its effects. I very much believe in a person’s ability to go beyond the face-value of a given cultural narrative and make it into something else, to redirect it in ways that can be authentically empowering. And so I don’t see celebrity or a celebrity persona as monolithic. I see them in terms of stories that we as a culture tell each other, they are written and rewritten, and are also interactive in that the narratives can be read subversively (like the Shiloh/boy stories). I agree, the celebrity persona is compelling in part because its fictions reinforce the idea of the self as a stable signifier — which also makes it into a thing, or as you put it, a commodity, and an unchanging commodity-thing at that (Mandy Moore = All-American Good Girl; Amy Winehouse = Alcoholic Fuckup, Shepard Fairey= Sellout, Damien Hirst = Soulless Art-Commodity Producer, etc.). And yet the celebrity narratives that are often the most fascinating to me are the ones where an established fictional identity implodes – when all-American good girl Britney Spears goes nuts and shaves off her hair and makes monster faces at the paparazzi, or when stars like Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin and/or Charlie Sheen go on violent, abusive, self-destructive benders. I guess what I’m ultimately arguing against is the idea that cultural production and dissemination, even in a product as debased as a tabloid magazine, is inherently one-dimensional. We already have the power to shift the narrative, and I think we employ that power on a regular basis. Maybe that’s what you are getting at too, when you propose at the end of your essay, “Perhaps then the key lies in focusing our attention elsewhere: studying the blurred, interstitiary matter between categorical selves.” Where do you think those interstitiary areas can be found?
CP: I think it’s funny, actually: I was thinking the other day how funny it is that in my own life I feel very empowered. Or at least, I feel like when I run up against shitty stereotypes in conversation or something like that, I often enjoy the ensuing conversations–I guess because I feel like there is a lot to learn always, and I think reasoned disagreement can lead to valuable insight. At the same time I think I am easily overwhelmed by my experience of popular culture. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 90s with a pervasive myth–it came from everywhere, schools, parents, other kids–that culturally we had progressed beyond racism, sexism or homophobia; then too there is this American Dream floating around that you can be anything you want, that a class system doesn’t really exist–but I think the class system does exist. I think prejudices and stereotypes are still very much in play. I feel like now there’s a sense that we’ve progressed beyond prejudice so it’s OK to make bad jokes, because everyone knows no one means it, but it totally bums me out. I don’t mean to dismiss the progress that has been made, but it’s weird to turn on the television and see an off-hand gay joke just like it’s weird to hear about how fuckable Sara Palin is. At that point, when it’s coming from a television or a radio, I don’t feel like I have anything to push against directly. It’s like your not supposed to be critical of culture because it’s trashy junk food like popcorn and everyone knows it. It still there though, all over the place.
CI: I’m also interested in the potential of the first person point of view as a rhetorical tactic. In all of your cultural writing, I think you have employed the first person POV in such a lovely and effective way – it’s why I have always been drawn to the way that you write. Writing an essay in the first person might on the one hand appear to reinforce all those myths of the “stable I” – but in fact, I find that using the “I” actually allows us to talk about culture in non-monolithic, non-authoritative ways that make absolute sense right now. Rather than emphasizing the writer’s authority over a subject, writing from the first person point of view seems to embrace a vulnerable and even overtly fallible position from the get-go: the form accurately reflects the contingencies of the subject matter. So – when you’re writing about culture, how important is it for you to write from the first person? For example, do you think you could have written the Coda to your book using the traditional third-person perspective and felt satisfied with the results?
CP: Yes! The first person! I never know what to do with it. I used to really, deeply fight against it. I used to feel like writing in the first person was self-indulgent. BUT! The thing is, I don’t know a better way to go about it. What I like about writing in the first person, is that I think you can create am empathetic body for the reader; so, when I describe a show by describing some of the physical attributes/impressions, I can bring a reader into a subjective experience. The flow gets more poetic, I think. It admits a subjective narrative–what art very often engages. But yes, in my essays I am always aware of my own vulnerability, or limits. I often feel like I have a limited understanding of my interests. Like, I am interested in social philosophies but I’m also alway going to feel like an amateur relative to those specialists who spend their lives studying one slice of that pie. By writing, I want to engage all sides; to be reflective and learning…I don’t think I could have written the Coda in an exclusive third person, for one thing because I don’t think Doug Aitken or Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is unequivocally bad. I actually enjoyed both bodies of work–they made me think about what was at stake and what made me suspicious–also they are so seductive and lush! Similarly, I don’t think Alys or Rohmer are unequivocally good–by talking about them in the first person, I feel like I have a better chance to open up a conversation. Still, I wish there were more pop songs in the third person, or pop songs without people. Or like, of there was an Entertainment Tonight show that was dedicated to the natural red carpet occurrences and talked about how sexy different hurricanes or cloud formations were.
Happiness Machines was on view at Roxaboxen Exhibitions, 2130 W. 21 St., Pilsen, Chicago, IL from June 10-24th.
Our latest Centerfield column is up on Art:21 blog. This week, Nicholas O’Brien takes a look at Gallery 400′s current exhibition, File Type, which looks at how “formats… represent ways that artwork in digital or Internet media create particular standards of representation.” Nicholas also talks to the show’s curators, Lorelei Stewart and Chaz Evans, about their ideas behind the show. A brief excerpt below; click on over to Art:21 to read the full post!
When I initially saw the promotional poster for File Type, currently on view at University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400, I was immediately intrigued by the curatorial premise posed by curators Chaz Evans and Lorelei Stewart regarding how “formats… represent ways that artwork in digital or Internet media create particular standards of representation” (quoted from the curatorial statement). The variety of artists selected for the exhibition — a combination of local, national, and international makers – would have given me enough reason by itself for me to attend the opening. As I entered the space and browsed the works on display, I felt my curiosity continue in ways that I had not expected when initially considering the above statement by Evans and Stewart. Even after I left the show, questions kept reappearing and presenting themselves to me with intense frequency. Initially, I couldn’t help but question why some works were displayed on flat panel monitors as opposed to computer screens and as I continued to peruse the show, I wondered how the mounting of a physical show reflecting on the effects of network technology on artistic inquiry inevitably varies from a digital exhibition of identical material (something that perhaps I have had more comfort in discussing as of late). Can an exhibition highlight recursive dialogues between the language of the screen and the language of the gallery? Is there a sense of irony in the idea of a file type, since a great majority of the works deal with the translation and fluidity between codecs and mediums, as opposed to the static state of objects that galleries and museums tend to support and reenforce? Without outright calling File Type a “media art show,” how does this show effect the reception of the work, or even more importantly effect my (and the viewer’s) understanding of “media art?”
As these questions bubbled around in my brain, I decided take the initiative and voice these queries to the curators themselves. (Read more).
Today seems like an appropriately rainy day to discuss Pae White’s Restless Rainbow (2011) at The Art Institute of Chicago, which I saw and photographed about a month ago, on a day when it was pouring rain. I’ve been mulling over the piece ever since. Restless Rainbow is a site specific installation created for the Art Institute’s Bluhm Family Sculpture Terrace, a public space which features stunning views of Chicago’s Millennium Park (visitors do not have to pay admission to access the Terrace). Unlike previous pieces exhibited here, such as Roger Hiorns’ Untitled (Alliance), 2010–a pair of Boeing surveillance plane engines into which the artist claimed to have inserted drugs, or the vertical abstract forms of Rebecca Warren’s small group of bronze sculptures–White’s piece does not directly engage the Terrace’s famed skyline views. Or rather, it engages the skyline by blocking a large portion of it out, save for a small porthole window cut into the center of one of its facades.
The same week that White’s installation was unveiled, the Chicago Tribune ran a story–I think it would fall under the ‘human interest’ category–about some early reaction to the artwork with the headline “Art disrupts wedding plans at Chicago’s Art Institute.” The sub-heading explained, “A new installation will block views from the outdoor terrace, upsetting couples.” Not surprisingly, the article came to be known as the “Bridezilla story” among some of us who read it and had a laugh over it. There’s no doubt the story has colored the subsequent reception of White’s piece, and has probably made a lot of people view the piece more favorably than they might have otherwise. After all, who wants to take a Bridezilla’s side in this kind of debate? And yet, to be fair, the brides-to-be quoted in the article seemed well aware of the risks they were taking when they contracted the Terrace for their wedding, and seemed to relish the notion that the works of art installed there would provide them with–irony of ironies–readymade centerpieces. They just weren’t expecting the “clown’s nightmare”–the quoted bride-to-be’s description, not mine–within which their dream-day setting was ultimately stuck.
But let’s bracket off the wedding issue for a moment to look at how White’s Restless Rainbow functions as a site specific art installation. The AIC’s online exhibition description notes that White’s impetus for the project stems from her own musings about the open-air setting: “What would happen if a rainbow became disorganized—would it fall from the sky? What if a rainbow misbehaved, causing its color spectrum to take on new order? Would it include black, as rainbows in comic books often do?” Indeed, White’s palette of eye-popping yellows, oranges and black evokes vintage Batman comics, (pre-Dark Knight), although White’s inclusion of bright pink bands within this comic-style rainbow works to fuck that recognizable color scheme up in a way that I quite liked.
Still, the installation as a whole doesn’t work for me — something about it feels off. The parts don’t add up to any kind of satisfying whole, I definitely don’t get “disorganized rainbow” from the way White’s paintings occupy the space, and I am slowly coming around to the conclusion that that may not have been the point. In person, White’s installation feels very much like a three-walled stage set slapped up on the balcony walls as opposed to an immersive environment. It doesn’t enhance your experience of this public space (which is all about picturing Chicago) — it looks and feels like what it is: a temporary facade constructed from two mural-scaled vinyl wall paintings and a floor painting installed in the out-of-doors.
White wanted to bring out the unique spatial dynamics of the Bluhm Family Terrace, dynamics which are typically ignored in favor of the impressive views the Terrace offers. As it turns out, however, the spatial dynamic of what is essentially a large, rectangular, concrete balcony is not all that interesting in and of itself. Indeed the Terrace’s whole reason for being is to function as a frame for Millennium Park, a frame which simultaneously acts as a mirror that reflects one of the most prized aspects of Chicago’s cityscape — its famous skyline — back to museum-goers, who can be wowed by it, take photos of themselves leaping in front of it, and, if they’re locals, take pride in it and by extension in themselves. By blocking off a huge portion of that view, White–like one of those rubbery-faced DC villains who wreak havoc on Batman’s Metropolis–has effectively destroyed this neatly self-reflexive dynamic. The terrace’s vertical bars only emphasize the sense that we are looking out at the city from within some kind of cartoon prison — its vastness diminishing before our very eyes within an hysterical, spinning vortex of eeeeviiiiilll.
It’s not like Pae White stole the skyline from Chicago, of course, but I do think those who criticize the Art Institute’s decision to exhibit this piece during the summer months have a point. In Southern California, where White grew up, summer is…well, okay, it’s not exactly endless, but it does last a looooong time. They have summer to spare there. That is not true in Chicago. Summer means something very different here — it’s more valuable, for one thing, because there’s less of it to enjoy. As a result I don’t think it’s possible to experience White’s Rainbow as something other than a revocation of vista because vista is precisely what that Terrace is all about. White’s Restless Rainbow transforms the Terrace’s famous view into a reverse-spectacle of pleasure denied, a perversely controlled “point of view” dictated not by the wandering eye, or even architect Renzo Piano’s knowing framework, but by the artist’s own willful design. Does this make White’s Restless Rainbow into something that’s ultimately really brave and smart and even kind of brilliant in an evil mastermind kind of way (as in, “I’m going to take away the view that the people think they own, in order to make them see that they never really owned it”), or is it merely an example of artistic hubris (as in, “My painting will be more interesting to look at than the great Chicago skyline!”). I still can’t decide, but I’m pretty sure I can hear the Joker laughing right now.