Guest Post By Jamie Kazay

July 30, 2013 · Print This Article

Barbie and La Nouvelle Vague (part 3)

I’m on the porch rifling through Barbie posters and notes on what she would prefer when running away to a deserted island. I know Barbie would want to be with Ken. The way “Marianne,” played by Anna Karina in “Pierrot le fou” (“Pete the madman”), ran away with “Ferdinand,” played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, to live in the French Riviera. The couple ran away for two different reasons, and their fears kept them together. At the end of the film, I like to reinvent different outcomes. Perhaps they should have stayed in town.

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Photo from kistenet.com

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Photo from kistenet.com

Pierrot le Fou

Photo from kistenet.com

This argument applies to play with Barbie as well. I take her outside of the box, adjust her arms and legs, and am free to imagine Barbie in a variety of ways. She is Ken’s girlfriend getting ready for date night when I put black high heels on her. She is Midge’s friend getting ready for brunch when I put strappy sandals on her. She is Skipper’s sister getting ready for a yogurt run when I put sparkly flats on her. I assign Barbie various identities, and each time the fictional truths may be compared to real-world cultural representations.

My adjustments to Barbie’s identity are necessary. For many she seems such a frivolous thing. Questions about her importance reinforce the idea that Barbie encourages the creative interpretation of identity. I cannot escape her. I have spent so much time alone with her. Some have not understood, but many have been supportive—my man included. (I say “man” because after a certain age “boyfriend” just doesn’t seem to be able to sustain the weight of an adult relationship.) Things changed along the way. I changed when I got close to the essence of Barbie. I got close to myself. I learned to trust myself. I learned about the superficial sting.

I also know that Barbie is “plastic” and “anatomically incorrect”—like some “real” women that I know. But, she’s gotten a “bad rap.” I know that I “just can’t change” the opinion of some. That sometimes it just “is what it is.” That Barbie is made for “art’s sake” and that some “art” is inspired by Barbie. That Barbie “inspired” the long list of female characters of La Nouvelle Vague. Consider Artist Nickolay Lamm’s “comparison of bodies.” Lamm suggests that the “average” woman’s body is “no match.” In fact, Lamm found “unrealistic measurements of 36-18-33, compared to the typical 19-year old girl’s 32-31-33” (Revealed: What Barbie would look like as a Real Woman). This explains why Barbie can’t stand-up on her own.

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I’ll admit, I “agree.” She sends the “wrong message” to “impressionable” girls. Barbie is not for the “weak.” I learned this my “first year” in Chicago. We went to some “pop-up” art gallery on a Friday night and there was Barbie—“decapitated,” lying in the “middle” of the room, on the “floor.” I asked the artist “why” he’d done this. He calmly, “sipped” red wine out of a mason jar, said “I used to do this to my older sister’s Barbie when I was a kid.” He then joked about Barbie’s “power” to revert him to “childhood.” This has always stayed with me. Barbie brings out the angry adolescent in every adult.

Who is not disappointed, enchanted, or tempted by Barbie? Most days, in the world of Barbie, the view from the porch provides a narrow balconyscape which hosts the angular silhouettes of red-tipped bricks. Sometimes we have company and they join us on the porch. In these moments the table is cluttered with wine glasses, water crackers, cheese platters, Barbie, Midge, and Skipper. On an eventful evening, Barbie is a kaleidoscope twirling from hand to hand. Soon we are scampering. There aren’t enough hours. There is never enough time, just the way time ran out for “Ferdinand.”

Soon, I feel the twin twinkle of goodbye kisses. It’s just me at the door. At the heart of La Nouvelle Vague is a breathless, powerful glance because it is difficult to turn away from the beautiful tragedy. It is difficult to answer and dispute the fullness that Barbie deserves. I only rarely come close to completing the lanky jigsaw puzzle. I cannot really see the end. The journey is mine, this Barbie pink path that leads to the unknown, the pink purgatory.

 

Jamie Kazay teaches in the English Department at Columbia College. A California native, she holds a BA in English from California State University, Northridge and an MFA in Creative Writing, Poetry from Columbia College. She co-curates the Revolving Door Reading Series and is currently reading of a lot of Camus, Derrida, and Dorothy Allison. Her collection, Small Hollering, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2011.

Art Theory Confessional

July 12, 2013 · Print This Article

 

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Guest Post by Faye Kahn

Every Sternberg/Semiotext(e)/Verso volume with Yale Design School layout is an impenetrable brick of ostensible magic that’s going to save the human race. I really think this for a range of 10 minutes to 10 years per book. Yet even though I have been reading October every day for three years on every NYC Transit route there was only one time I was ever confronted about it & the guy was laughing!  Still, the mystery of the text is irresistible, though after chatting with other arts writers, there seems to be a concern about the future of art criticism; that it’s not as integral a part of the structure & motivational force of the art world as it used to be, & furthermore, there is confusion in identifying an audience. The source of this anxiety is varied & not everyone subscribes to it. Still, through my personal experience with theory I can understand why a frustration exists, both for authors & audience.

Slowness

It’s difficult to read art theory & criticism. It’s impossible for me to know how other people interpret text, but as an a person of average intelligence I can describe a sensation of mental aimlessness & meandering when trying to parse an uphill paragraph. Putting on blinders & focusing intently on the words the I gradually collect rewarding instances of realization & perspective. This is enough of a carrot to keep me reading. Still, the going is slow. Theory is slow, the contemporary is fast: it’s entirely possible that this is the final conclusion. Like most professional fields, the barrier of slowness is a mental hazing method but the rewards here don’t seem to pay off enough for large-scale generation-defying fraternities. However, if it’s true that it’s losing connection or usefulness to its own field, the effort can start to seem myopic.

Barnett Newman famously said that “aesthetics is to the artist as ornithology is to the birds.” Birds are not only not interested in ornithology but they are incapable of being interested in it. Such a terse reading of that quote might be a little unforgiving, but it’s interesting to revisit this notion from late-Modernist times today in regards to the perceived identity crisis of art writing. All artists are certainly not unaware of it, but it is easier today to be an artist without a knowledge or involvement in traditional art theoretical discourse. Faster modes of communication than text (images) are more conducive to conversation today.  The image response, as the most expedient & accurate modes of communicating quickly, is a much more handy tool. ASCII, Unicode, & Emoji: day to day communication is condensed (& the phrase “hard to follow” now refers to twitter), alienating the dry over-enunciated walls of text that make up theoretical contributions.

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As Hal Foster points out, during ArtForum’s heyday in the 60s & 70s,”late-modernist criticism made fine distinctions on which the fate of art was thought to depend—the difference, say, between a ‘deductive structure’ by Frank Stella and a “specific object” by Donald Judd—and often it presented these differences as absolute.”[1] This necessity for theoretical discussion is not totally absent today- but art dependent on by critical analysis has become a genre of sorts. Boris Groys says that

“A work of art is traditionally understood as something that wholly embodies art[…]When we go to an art exhibition we generally assume that whatever is there on display–paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, videos, readymades, or installations, must be art. The individual artworks can of course in one way or another make reference to things that they are not, maybe to real-world objects or to certain political issues, but they are not thought to refer to art itself, because they themselves are art. However, this traditional assumption has proven to be increasingly misleading. Besides finding works of art, present-day art spaces also confront us with the documentation of art.” [2]

Although Groys is referring to the position of the artwork in the exhibition space as the documentation of the art itself, the statement is haunted by the situation of an exhibition space with placeholder artworks that function solely as referents to outside documentation & unstable explanations to be determined by later analysis. Movement away from aesthetic to conceptual merit is now common practice, though certainly more in some cases than others. Aesthetic attractiveness is more often seen now as a measure or capability of capitalist valuation of the object rather than an agent for a deeper social commentary or revolution. Thus, birds interested in ornithology & birds uninterested.

***

Lately I have found art theory exhaustingly cynical. I suppose the word “criticism” has a lot to do with this, however much of it seems to only a self-serving end. Often as a reader I approach the text with wonder & leave it feeling like a fluorescent light has been turned on to reveal all pleasant things have poisonous blemishes. A person can only take so much of this before becoming fed up or hopeless or annoyed that something prescient about how to live life is being ignored because the art community is busy circle-jerking to their exclusive & privileged (negative) perspectives on the world. That said, art theory ensconces beautiful ideas within its heavy labyrinthine walls of referential grandiloquent & excessively punctuated & footnoted jargon (“International Art English”?), & somehow this keeps me (us?) going. However, more & more, it has been exceedingly reassuring to go to the exhibition & realize that art has been growing & still grows around you when you & intellectuals aren’t looking.

 

H. FAYE KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC &  a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design. 

 

1.  Foster, Hal. “Critical Condition,” Artforum International, Sep2012, Vol. 51 Issue 1, p147-148

2. Groys, Boris. e-flux, December 2009, Issue 11, p1-11

Salon Talk: A Conversation With Michael Ned Holte

July 9, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Young Joon Kwak
Hello from Los Angeles!  I’ll be posting a monthly series of conversations with art folks in Los Angeles for the next couple of months.  These conversations take place at my current studio/beauty salon, aka Mutant Salon.  The salon atmosphere is particularly conducive to dishing real talk and shooting the shit, which is why I thought it’d be the ideal setting for these in-depth conversations to take place.  The first person I talked with was man-about-town and big sweetie Michael Ned Holte.  Happy reading!
A drawing of Michael Ned Holte by Jake Jones (drawn in class).

A drawing of Michael Ned Holte by Jake Jones (drawn in class).

Michael Ned Holte is a writer, curator, and professor of contemporary art history at CalArts; along with Connie Butler, he is the co-curator of the upcoming LA biennial Made in LA, which will take place at the Hammer Museum in 2014.  In 2012, He curated the exhibition Temporary Landmarks and Moving Situations, which was featured at Expo Chicago art fair at Navy Pier.  Originally from southwest Wisconsin, Michael Ned Holte moved to LA in 1995.  He got an MA in Art Theory and Criticism from Art Center in 2004, at the same time artists like Stephen G. Rhodes and Sterling Ruby were in grad school.  When I first met him for a studio visit last fall, I had recently moved from Chicago to LA for grad school, and he made me feel welcome to the city by assuring me that there were great local communities of weirdo/artist/musician/mutants to get to know and become part of.  I invited him back to Mutant Salon for this interview in June, where we discussed teaching, studio visits, writing, the next Made in LA exhibition and catalogue, his book Proper Names (from Golden Spike Press), and how ultimately he hopes to help artists articulate what they do.

Young Joon Kwak: How would you describe what you do to someone who’s unfamiliar with your practice?

Michael Ned Holte:  What I do now is primarily teaching, writing, and making exhibitions, probably in that order.  There’s a quote from Lucy Lippard in her preface to the reprint of her book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, where she talks about being a critic, and starting to make exhibitions when it was unusual for a critic to curate exhibitions, and she would do projects with artists that seemed sometimes to be breaking boundaries of what it meant to be a critic, but she held to this idea that a critic should be allowed to have an expansive project the way that an artist can have an expansive project.  So as a teacher, writer, and curator, I can think of those as being a very fluid and expansive project.

YJK:  It seems like writing is central to all of these activities.

MNH:  Yes, text is primary to everything I do.  There’s a discursive element to everything I do, and with studio visits, I try to help artists articulate what their project is.  And that’s true of me as a critic—writing essays and reviews, and me making an exhibition as well.  In putting together an exhibition I’m always thinking about the text that accompanies it.

YJK:  Like the catalogue or the press release for an exhibition?

MNH:  Yes, both.  I did a show at Wallspace in 2007 called Laying Bricks, and for the press release I made a multiple-choice, true-false exam.  There was also a publication for that show that was printed on newsprint, and I had each of the four artists do a poster for the publication.  None of them knew each other at the time, and they all did something different without knowing what the others would be doing.  And then I wrote a text for it called “Frequently Asked Questions,” and I used that format of a frequently asked question, so it was almost a self-interview, and at some point, the kind of cool neutrality of that format gives way to this kind of schizophrenic tussle with myself.  In part, it was a rejection of wanting to write an essay to explain my show and how it worked, and trying to find other ways of talking about it or talking around it.

YJK:  Do you have plans to similarly explore the relationship between the Made in LA exhibition and the publications for it?  What does the catalogue bring to one’s experience of the exhibition, or is it a site unto itself?

MNH: I think you just said it.  We are thinking about the catalogue as a site in and of itself.  It’s the thing that lives on in perpetuity.  Only so many people will see the show in the three months that it’s up, and the catalogue is the thing that sticks around. The catalogue is a different structure with a different temporality to it, and it runs parallel to the exhibition, and I’m interested in how these things work together and separately.  I can’t talk too much about the publication for Made in LA because we’re still working on it, but I will say that Connie Butler (co-curator) and I will each write our own essays, along with some additional writers, which is already different from the format of the last Made in LA catalogue, where all five curators wrote a single five-part essay.  But the conversation of the publication has been happening from the outset, in tandem with the exhibition.  In some ways, the conversation of the publication is leading the conversation about the show.

YJK: What’s a bad studio visit like for you?

MNH:  Umm, I’ve had them, but maybe you should ask the artists who’ve had bad studio visits with me.  I don’t know; they’re all different.  Artists are like snowflakes, and studio visits are like snowflakes, haha.  I’m not a super judgmental person, and perhaps that makes me somewhat less effective as a critic, but I’m always curious how artists think about what they do.  I think the worst studio visits for me are the ones where the artists are really fixed on what they’re doing and aren’t interested in entertaining a conversation about change.  I might define a bad studio visit as one that I may forget a day later.  Most of the time, I take part of it with me, which is why I can usually do no more than two a day in the world.  The best studio visits are often my second or third or fourth visit with somebody. I met with somebody last weekend, and it was the third time I’ve done a visit with him. It’s probably been about four years since I’d last had a visit with him, and I’ve been kind of tracking this person for a long time, so we can kind of dive in to a conversation at this point.  The first time you meet with somebody, it’s like two dogs sniffing each other’s butts, and that’s inevitable.

YJK:  What are some trends or common things you’ve seen in recent studio visits?

MNH:  I’m intensely resistant to trends.  I have to say, going into the process of organizing Made in LA, one of the words I kept on coming back to was “heterogeneity.”  I’m really interested in difference.  I’m really excited about difference, and it’s the thing I’m looking for I think the most.  Which is kind of the opposite in some ways—thinking about an artist who is making work in a way that’s completely different from the way any other artist I can think of, to the degree that’s possible.  I mean, I’ll see things that my students will do that are possibly trends or familiar solutions to recurring problems and I’ll see an MFA student do something I saw an MFA do three years earlier, because it’s a common solution to a certain problem, and artists are always a product of their time.  Me too. We can’t escape the context of living and working in 2013 in LA or wherever, and most of us are involved in a community or communities of artists, and we know what our friends are doing.  If we were all doing things that were completely different, there would be no basis for conversation.  So, I’m also interested in proximity of things too, or maybe the way two artists will arrive at something from completely different places. I’m asking myself a lot of questions about those very things right now.  But I’m hesitant to identify any trends.

YJK:  When was the last instance that a studio visit with an artist has shaped how you think about or talk about art?

MNH: It happens all the time, really. Yesterday I had a studio visit with Jennifer Moon, and she’s an artist I’ve known about from afar, but had never met before.  She did a show at Young Chung’s space Commonwealth & Council, and most recently at Transmission Gallery in Glasgow.  I had such an exciting conversation with her about the boundaries of what she’s doing as an art practice…. I should also say I’ve been trying to reframe the word “practice” as “project” lately, and thinking about the difference between those things.  How I’ve defined it to my students is:  Practice is the way you do what you do to pay your bills, or what you do to imagine how you pay your bills, and a project is the thing that gets you up in the morning.  Anyway, Jennifer and I got into a conversation about where the boundaries of her project lie—in terms of revolution and making art, and there are objects that can be displayed in a gallery context, like photographs and books and artifacts and relics, like a lot of performance projects too, where the audience wonders—what is this thing?  Is that the residue of the thing, or is it a byproduct or the product? Is this where the art resides, or does the art lie somewhere else in the performance, in a live context for example.  I said to her, maybe the better question is—when are you not making art?  And then we both kind of looked at each other like…?  It’s true for me too—when am I not working?  I’m working on an essay while I’m driving or making dinner.

image from Jennifer Moon's show "Phoenix Rising, Part 1: This is Where I Learned Of Love" at Commonwealth & Council

image from Jennifer Moon’s show “Phoenix Rising, Part 1: This is Where I Learned Of Love” at Commonwealth & Council, LA.

YJK:  Yeah, I’ve been thinking about how certain routine patterns of procrastination in the studio are essential parts of my project.

MNH:  In the fall, I taught a class called Routine Pleasures, which is named after the Jean-Pierre Gorin film, and this is where the idea of the project bubbled to the surface.  At some point, in the process of planning one of my lectures for the class, I came to the realization that my project or at least the thing that I think I do really well, is procrastination.  So for most of my life, extending back to my teenage years, I’ve thought of myself as a really terrible procrastinator.  And then, last fall, I said, what if I’m really a terrific procrastinator?  What if that’s the thing I do really well?

YJK: A radical procrastinator?

MNH:  Haha, maybe.  Or just a really good one, and that realization transformed things for me.  Anyway, in this meeting with Jennifer Moon yesterday, just asking her this basic question really opened up something for both of us.  I think that’s fair to say.  And when one’s doing a lot of studio visits, it’s inevitable that questions that get raised in one that will carry on to the next, and there’s a kind of viral quality to the discourse that happens.

YJK: Who were some writers or other people that were influential when you were first starting out?

MNH:   I’ve often referred to Bruce Hainley as my guardian angel.  I think Bruce is the person that helped me most get on my path, and remained a mentor out of school.  He was a really great guide, and then at some point I decided I needed to leave him alone and make my own decisions.  There are also people like Lucy Lippard, who’s been an important model for me—in terms of thinking about what I do and how these compartments overlap or intermingle. But I’ve never met her.

YJK: What’s your approach to teaching art history at CalArts?

MNH: I’ve learned to teach art history while teaching art history.  There is no art history department at CalArts.  Within another higher education institution where there is a degree being offered in an art history department, part of what one’s doing when one’s teaching art history is perpetuating that field.  I don’t feel like I have that same pressure because my students are artists.  Some of them might become art historians, and I alert them to that possibility.  I also tell them that I’m not trained as an art historian.  But I want art history to be useful and relevant and alive to them, and also something that they can engage with critically, and the thing I leave them with is that they have a lot of control over shaping art history, because art history is continually being revised and reshaped.

YJK:  With art history as a field, there’s always a delay in the legitimization of projects that are more experimental or make use of unconventional materials, which makes it  difficult for some artists to find role models within art historical discourse. How do you feel artists, and especially students should negotiate with art history, when it is essentially on them to be brave in breaking certain conventions of that field?

MNH:  Well, that’s what artists get to do.  Artists get to remake history by virtue of what histories they decide to channel and acknowledge and smash together at some point.  It’s important to be brave.  I try to encourage my students to be brave and occasionally irresponsible.  Because they’re not art historians, they’re artists.  But I also love the idea that some of my BFA students could go on to be art historians after going through a BFA studio program at CalArts—I mean, what a great thing for art historians to have knowledge and experience of having a studio practice.

YJK:  As much as I am interested myself in the blurring of disciplinary boundaries, some of these boundaries provide context for measuring the successes and failures of the work one does in these fields.  I just wonder, what are some of the criteria by which someone like you or other critic/writer/historian/curators judge the successes and failures of the work they do?  How is the work being checked?

MNH:  I don’t know if there is a system of checks and balances in the art world that we work in.  There’s such an overwhelming shadow of the market right now.  In some ways it’s like the movie Independence Day or something, where a giant spaceship shows up and the shadow covers NYC, or DC, or Los Angeles.  In some ways, I feel like the market has that omnipresent shadowing effect, and it’s a little grotesque, and teaching at CalArts helps me feel at least 34 miles away from that shadow some days, though not everyday.  If that’s true that the market is the only metric of the art world, I feel like it’s only a reflection of our larger society.

YJK: So do you feel like the market is our only metric right now?

MNH: Well, I think it’s a very temporary metric.  I think history actually revises things so we eventually realize the importance of certain people, like Lee Lozano, who is one of my favorite artists ever.  Lozano wrote herself out of the art world, but has now been reclaimed by it, and is now represented by Hauser & Wirth, which is an extraordinary turn of events that I’m sure would shock her.  But, history has written her back in, and that’s not just a product of the market.  I think time will tell if what any of us does is important historically. I do think of how my writing as a critic could shape how historians write about certain artists or write about my peers, twenty or 30 or 40 years from now.  I’ve often thought about that, in part because I’ve spent so much time looking at art magazines from 30 or 40 years ago, and I am acutely aware how important it is that those critics wrote about those artists at that time.  But information travels differently now.  There was no Internet then, of course. The other thing I should mention is that when I organize an exhibition, there’s usually criticism written about it, so organizing an exhibition can be an interesting way of inciting a dialogue. Moreso than when I write criticism.  And when I have professional peers commenting on something I’ve done in another context, I’m always excited to read those reviews.

YJK:  Do artists who you’ve written about not so favorably ever hold grudges?

MNH:  I don’t know.  The only case I can think of came after I’d written one of those little 200 word Critics’ Picks on Artforum.com.  I didn’t know the artist at that time, and have gotten to know her better since, but it was about two or three years after the review when I got a card in the mail—to thank me for the review, and also to correct some statement I’d made in the review.  That moment revealed to me that the artists I’m writing about tend to be the most important audience for what I’m writing.  And that was really important for me.  It led to a studio visit, or several. And that’s why I go back to what I was saying about the one thing I do in all of my various guises is to help artists articulate what it is they’re doing…even if they don’t always agree with what I’m saying.

Michael Ned Holte's Proper Names

Michael Ned Holte’s Proper Names

YJK: I’m very interested in your book Proper Names, because it seems very much to me like an artist’s book.  How would you describe this project?

MNH:  When I give that book to people, and people seem puzzled by it, I say it’s a book of a list of names, and that’s what it is.  Some people have read it as an artist’s book or an artistic project, and I can understand why, because it certainly has some characteristics of such a thing.

YJK:  What your book does for me, and one of the reasons it seems like an artist’s book is that through the format of a list, you dissolve the signifying power of singular names/signifieds, by which you propose an open and continuously changing meaning by each name’s relationship to the collective.

MNH: That’s a nice way of putting it.  It’s a collection of 1000 readymades. I wanted it to be a big enough list that one couldn’t guess how many names there would be, but also a number that someone could realistically sit down and read from beginning to end.  I was interested in how much significance we attach to a name, and what happens when you put two things next to each other.  This is an old trick of collage from Dada or the Kuleshov Effect from filmmaking—if you put any two pieces of film next to each other, it produces meaning—and you can do this with names too.  Listed names appear all over the place, in an ad for a group show in Artforum, or a list of names on a donor plaque, or a list of names on my class roster.  But they are usually gathered in a way that we can identify a kind of coherence, and in that coherence there is also usually some connotation of value, whether the list is democratic or elitist. The way one encounters those names in my book is not unlike how one would encounter names in the world, because there are students of mine intermingled with celebrities, intermingled with theorists, artists…

YJK:  Yeah, I love that names of subjective significance are included, and names that you have claimed or reclaimed, like your mother’s, with her maiden name.

MNH: But my mother with her maiden name is also the name of an artist in San Francisco, which I think is really funny.  I saw her name on a list for a show in Artforum.  I love the idea that my mom is secretly an artist, and has kept that from me, even as I was writing for Artforum.

YJK:  And they’re not all people you can get behind, some are contentious with each other.

MNH: There are some truly terrible people on that list.  It’s not necessarily people I like, or even necessarily names that I like. They’re names that went through my head and stuck.  I wanted it to not be systematic.  I don’t want there to be some kind of legible system, and there’s not.  Maggie Nelson, who’s a writer I respect enormously, asked me if it was done with free association, and I responded by saying I don’t know if there is such a thing as free association after Google.  The way we encounter information, and the way it can lead us into different information is something that I’m really interested in.  I think a lot of people who see the book will look up a lot of those names as they’re going through it.  And I like that somebody would read that book while working Google on their phone.

YJK:  My boyfriend loves it and thinks it’s hilarious.

MNH:  Yeah, I’m just happy to get it out into the world.  It got read on kchung on Reading Radio, and they fucked up almost every name, which I think is kind of perfect.  One of my favorite things about the book is how much it destabilizes hierarchies in terms of the values we place on specific names, collectively and individually, and their reading of the book further destabilizes hierarchies by fucking up so many of the names in the book, including the author’s own name.  I couldn’t have done that, but they nailed it.

Young Joon Kwak is resident Queen at Mutant Salon and performer in the band Xina Xurner.  Hailing from Chicago, she currently lives in Los Angeles while pursuing her MFA at USC.

Open Season: A Reflection on Open Engagement

July 6, 2013 · Print This Article

by Jen Delos Reyes

OE BaS Reflection

Photo by John Muse

Two countries. Five conferences. Seven years. 14 partnerships. Over 700 presenters. Over 1600 attendees. Since the first Open Engagement conference in 2007 this event has become a key meeting point for people interested in socially engaged art. Open Engagement: Art After Aesthetic Distance began as a hybrid project that used a conference on socially engaged art practices as its foundation and incorporated elements including workshops, exhibitions, residencies, pedagogy, curatorial practice and collaboration. I wanted to foster a different kind of conference—one that worked in the way I wanted to see it work: with a sense of togetherness, putting emerging and established voices side by side, highlighting different ways of knowing and learning, and serving as a site of production, as well as reflection. I wanted to contribute to the discourse on socially engaged art in a meaningful way. When Open Engagement began it was a student project. I was a graduate student. The conversations that I wanted to engage in were not happening at my school in Saskatchewan, so I decided to create the situation that would allow for me to have these discussions with people doing similar work. Open Engagement was the basis of my education, and now is a major foundation of my work as an educator.

This year as in most years my experience of Open Engagement happens mostly in the lead up—in conversations with students to determine the themes of exploration for the year, in the selection of keynote presenters, in the scheduling, planning, writing, partnerships, and all things organizing. In the day to day of the event itself I get to attend very few sessions, usually only the opening and closing sessions, keynote events, and a hand full of other projects and for a limited amount of time. My time during Open Engagement is mostly spent assisting and making sure things are running smoothly. But in that way of moving through the conference I intersect with people all throughout the day that I ask what they have attended, and what their thoughts are on the experience at the conference so far. This idea of needing to talk to others to fully experience the conference is intentional. Because of the parallel programming no one person can take in all of the projects and sessions that form the event on their own. We need to work together, and see from multiple perspectives to get a full sense of the field.

In 2010 at Open Engagement Pablo Helguera said that he had always heard that a conference is meaningful in as much as it generated new questions to follow up. If you didn’t find new questions then maybe it was not successful. I had a similar feeling about conferences, and it had been one of the ways I was measuring outcomes. The conference begins with a series of calls and questions, and throughout the course of the event and the conversations there are undoubtedly more that are generated. At OE 2013 we were making a concerted effort to capture that questioning throughout the weekend, and on Sunday before Tom Finkelpearl’s keynote talk were reminded by Michelle Swineheart of one of Sister Corita’s “quantity assignments” of generating 100 questions when embarking on intensive work and research. With this in mind, as well as earlier feedback from the day at a session between the Creative Time summit and OE where I heard from many participants that they wanted to work together to generate something during the conference and that in general there was a desire for sessions that allowed for formats other than being talked at, I decided that the final event would be an opportunity for just that.

For the closing event of Open Engagement 2013 instead of having a panel discussion between only keynotes and curatorial representatives we instead set out to collect 100 questions generated by the group assembled to further get a sense of what is emerging, what people are thinking, and where this conversation is going. The Sister Corita assignment felt fitting for a group of presumably invested individuals, who wish to continue to be involved in research and practice, to take this on together. It was a hope that as we would move out into the world after the conference that we could then reflect on this list of the questions we are currently asking ourselves about socially engaged art. The format was that each of our six panelists joined one of six seated groups that each had about 40 chairs (based on past years we were planning for between 200-300 people at the final panel), and we then had about 35 minutes to work together and for each group to write 17 questions and then we reconvened and the panelists shared the group work. After the instructions were given, at least 20% of the assembled group left instead of joining the break out groups. As I stood at the front of the room watching people choose to stream out, I wondered if I had made a mistake. The people that remained formed groups and were led in discussions to generate questions. There was one group in particular that voiced resentment, yet not enough resentment for them to have just left. This all came out in sharing of the questions at the end of the session. After many weeks I heard from someone who was part of that dissenting group how difficult it was to contribute questions, to have a discussion, and to feel like they could share. Days after the conference I heard some thoughts from Michael Rakowitz (who was the person facilitating that group) on the conference and the final event in general and he said, “You created a space for people to get upset, and that opens up possibilities for things that haven’t been done yet.” While I had no doubt that we had created a place for people to get upset I wondered what else the space was a possibility for. I thought of other conferences and their goals, Suzanne Lacy’s City Sites: Artists and Urban Strategies (1989), and Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (1991), the Creative Time summits that began in 2009, and the more recent Homework conferences organized by Broken City Lab. Lacey was trying to create a space to develop language for socially engaged art that went beyond the limitations of forms like performance and conceptual art, and with the latter intended that the activities of Mapping the Terrain would come together as a publication. The most simple way to describe the Creative Time efforts is an attempt to become the TED talks for socially engaged contemporary art. The latest incarnation of the Homework conference takes a similar approach to Mapping the Terrain with a end goal of a collectively generated publication, and a similar format to Open Engagement with three keynote presenters and framing devices.

My last memory of Open Engagement took place at Boxxes, the club that hosted the wrap party for the conference. I showed up after a late dinner and took a seat behind the DJ booth where Paul Ramirez Jonas was virtually spinning tunes for the party. I was approached by a woman I met earlier in the day who is a funder at an arts organization dedicated to supporting socially engaged art. I found myself captive behind the DJ booth during a moment of celebration hearing out her frustrations with the conference. The parts of her dialogue that rang out the loudest in my mind were, “I am not here to learn with you, I am not here to generate your content.” I nodded throughout, and thanked her for so openly sharing her criticisms. I meant it. I still do.

This encounter made me think of who was present Open Engagement, and what they expected, and how at least for this person how much of a radical departure it was from what I thought people were there for. I revisited some writing from 2007 that I had done after the conference:

What does it mean to be open? What does it mean to be engaged? What if one were to be both open and engaged simultaneously? Openness is honesty, generosity, a sense of possibility, freedom, free of boundaries and restrictions. To be engaged is a promise. It is a commitment, an obligation. It is also a sense of involvement and participation. To have an “open engagement” implies a commitment that is potentially limited or short lived. But what if the two terms once united could keep their respective definitions making openly engaged a term that would embody an obligation to honesty, sharing and possibility? 

It happened, we did create a place of possibility, a place for honesty and sharing, one where many boundaries and expectations were crossed and left behind. What should Open Engagement be? Who should it be for? How can we adequately capture what is generated? Over the last few days I have been thinking about the possibility of an online community archive for Open Engagement that would be a collective effort that would be open for all to share their documentation, writing, thinking, and stories related to the conference.

I had always seen Open Engagement as a site of learning. In an online video conference with Ren Morrison from the Atlantic Center for the Arts weeks following the conference he off handedly referred to Open Engagement as being his “education”. The conference has for the past four years been a site of convening for many of the MFA programs with a focus on publicly/socially engaged art. The fact that this conference is so embedded in the structure of an MFA program makes the very nature of it educational, as well as the fact that even the very beginning was in an educational framework. In my mind we were all working together, learning together, and teaching one another. How we organize this conference collaboratively echoes the spirit of our program and our approach to learning. An education in our program is emergent, unorthodox, and at times unruly. This translates into Open Engagement feeling slightly unkempt, and in flux. And while this might be a point of criticism for some, I would not trade this instability for rigid professionalism or a set structure. It is important that we remain open to this conference and this conversation shifting and developing in unexpected ways. It is also important that we remain open to the realization that this may no longer be a site that is necessary, or that it might need to take a completely new form and possibly a new grounding. I hope that whatever becomes of it, that Open Engagement can be a site to work together, learn together and see what we are contributing to the field of socially engaged art from multiple perspectives. I am open to whatever comes next.

Jen Delos Reyes- Assistant Professor, MFA Art and Social Practice Program Chair

Jen Delos Reyes is an artist originally from Winnipeg, MB, Canada. Her research interests include the history of socially engaged art, group work, band dynamics, folk music, and artists’ social roles. She has exhibited works across North America and Europe, and has contributed writing to various catalogues and institutional publications. She has received numerous grants and awards including a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grant. Jen is the founder and director of Open Engagement, a conference on socially engaged art practice and herself speaks widely on Art and Social Practice at conferences and institutions around the world. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Portland State University where she teaches in the Art and Social Practice MFA program.

Middle of the Map Fest: Cultural Fodder from America’s City of Fountains

July 4, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Carolyn Okomo

Middle of the Map Fest (Video)

Though Kansas City’s Middle of the Map Fest ended this past May, the curators of the month-long salute to Midwest’s arts scene are getting ready to make preparations for next year’s activities. The festival, which just concluded its third year, is not-so-slowly but surely becoming an important cultural staple in the Kansas City-metropolitan area, the Midwestern United States, and arguably the nation. Its fusion of music, film and technology dialogs could make it Kansas City’s answer to the SXSW Interactive Festival, though Nathan Reusch — one of the festival’s founders — is caution in drawing too direct a comparison to the Austin event.

“I would say that we take plenty of notes from SXSW but I think we have tried to make it our own” says Reusch. “Things like spreading across multiple weekends have given each event a chance to have their own identity where SXSW has so much going on all at once.”

record_machine_image

Reusch, along with Mike Russo and Richard Robinett, run The Record Machine — a Kansas City-based independent music label that’s been releasing music for local and national acts since 2003. Since then they’ve assembled a heartily diverse ensemble of artists. At the heart of The Record Machine’s mission is a desire to “make an organic community of artists and help connect them with listeners” according to the the label’s website. The rapid growth of the Map Fest — co-curated along with local lifestyle and entertainment weekly Ink Magazine — certainly serves as a testament to the label’s successes in realizing this objective. This year’s three-day music fest was headlined by Brooklyn-based outfit Grizzly Bear and featured 140 local, regional and national bands; its first year just 50 bands were showcased, according to Reusch. In 2012 the Map Fest also added a 50-speaker Forum component to provide a platform for local creatives, entrepreneurs and community leaders to discuss topics like social connectivity, curating responsibility and sustainable wellness.

For the first time since premiering in 2011, the Map Fest incorporated a five-day film event that featured over 25 films.  The event kicked off on May 1 in Kansas City’s Alamo Drafthouse with a screening of 1986 cult fantasy film Labyrinth (and opened with a David Bowie set by local band Soft Reeds). The film fest’s curator, Kansas City-bread filmmaker Mark Harrison, says he began the process of identifying films for the event at the beginning of the year after being commissioned by The Record Machine to help out. The process included building a dream list of films the planners hoped to screen during the festival then individually pitching either the filmmakers and movie distribution companies.

“At the end of the day, I wanted to bring to films to Kansas City that I thought I could stand behind, that I personally wouldn’t  think twice about paying $25 to go see, and that I felt offered unique voices to the festival that could be discussed by any and all who attended” says Harrison.

Harrison’s own whimsically shot, self-described “factumentary”, Vanuary, chronicled the month-long adventure of its star, Dave Drusky, as he completed challenges whilst living in a 1982 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia camper van during the month of January. Both Harrison and Druksy fielded questions about their experimental film post-screening to get a sense of whether it could work as a feature length film and were met with positive responses from the crowd.

vanuary 1

Vanuary (2012)

“This was the first time people were watching it that didn’t know me or didn’t know Mark” says Drusky.  And, it’s one thing to say ‘hey, friends and family, sit down and watch this hour and a half movie of me and Mark just having fun and doing  all these activities in the van. But to have people not connected to us watch it and saying ‘we want more’ was kind of an inspirational moment.”

The film’s curatorial slant was unmistakably musical, Harrison admits (his band, Capybara, is a featured act on The Record Machine’s label). Andrew Bird: Fever Year (2011, directed by Xan Aranda) — a film about about Chicago-based singer/songwriter Andrew Bird’s return home after a year-long tour — was just one of the films showcased. Another music-doc featured was The Frames: In Deep Shade (2013, Conner Masterson), which chronicles the Irish band, The Frames, and their 20 year musical relationship;  A Band Called Death (2012, Mark Christopher Covino & Jeff Howlett) shed an incredibly gripping light into the lives of the newly-discovered first all-black punk rock band out of Detroit.

A Band Called Death

A Band Called Death (2012)

Other documentaries that screened included Eating Alabama (2012, Andrew Grace), which recounts young couple’s attempt to eat only locally-grown food;  Mincraft: Story of Mojang (2012, Paul Owens) looks into the company behind the hugely popular virtual game. We Are Superman (2012, Kevin Bryce), expounded on the struggles of a group of Kansas City residents working feverishly to revitalize several blocks of a long-ignored urban neighborhood.

We Are Superman (2012)

We Are Superman (2012)

The film festival’s roster also included a number of independent feature films. Campy martial arts-infused action Miami Connection (Y.M Kim, Woo-Sang Park, 1987) provided comedic nostalgia for fans of over-the-top 1980s action films. War Witch, a film that took its director Kim Nguyen a decade to complete, depicts the tragic pains faced regularly by African child soldiers through the story of 12 year-old Komona, played by a non-professional actress Rachel Mwanza and filmed over the course of a decade. Romantic drama Save the Date (2012, Michael Mohan) — a film loosely-based on the comics of graphic novelist  and co-writer Jeffrey Brown (read interview)– also screened.

save the date

Reusch says he, Robinett and Russo are slowly easing into the planning process for next year, which patrons of the festival should undoubtedly appreciate given its steady successes throughout the years.

“We have always tried to keep evolving the event organically and not trying to push things out that don’t seem to work” says Reusch. “We are still taking a little bit of a break and clear our heads start planning for next year.”

The Map Fest was a much-appreciated introduction to region’s cultural landscape for this author (an admitted newbie to the area). For years, The Record Machine and others (Golden Sound Records, the Kansas City Film Fest and the Midwest Music Foundation, to name some) have buttressed Kansas City’s profile as a cultural hub amongst larger metropolitan regions like Chicago, Austin, and the obvious New York and Los Angeles. While one may not typically think to stay (or move ) to a place like Kansas City to make it big, the Map Fest could very well a spring board for many successful careers as it continues to expand and evolve in years to come.