Guest post by Jessica Cochran
Since it opened nearly two weeks ago, many of the nation’s foremost critics have weighed in on the successes and failures of Prospect 3: Notes for Now, New Orleans’ third international biennial of contemporary art, curated by Franklin Sirmans. But, as these things go, the jury is always out. Beaten to death in assessments of the most recent “love to hate” Whitney Biennial, were the assertions that the biennial itself is kind of a “tired situation.”[i] As Helen Molesworth pointed out in Artforum, “in today’s hyper-mediated art scene, no one actually expects to be bowled over by anything new.” A successful biennial is something of an oxymoron.
This year’s modest Prospect Biennial slogan, Notes for Now, is meant to imply, as Sirmans told Flash Art this summer, “transition” and “translation,” and “the idea that I was merely taking notes.” And so P3, one of the only stateside international biennials to operate on a citywide scale, diverges curatorially from the more overtly dramatic thematic tendencies in global biennials, which often operate under the banner of slogans like “All the World’s Futures” or “Burning Down the House.” Some projects in this biennial, which was inspired by the meandering existentialist novel The Moviegoer, do feel akin to a sort of information gathering: Sophie T. Lvoff’s color photographs of street corners, cars, doorways and urban flora mine an idiosyncratic visual language native only to New Orleans neighborhoods. Improbable, harmonious color combinations emerge from humdrum corners of this world amplifying something about the sociology and history of these as purposeful spaces put together with love and care.
And perhaps this “modesty” is a first move forward in what will be Prospect’s long evolution from its post-Hurricane Katrina origins. As it approaches its first decade, the biennial has traded the specific urgency of Katrina, as Sirmans suggests, for a broader sense of “celebration” considered in relation to complex themes of geography, cultural diversity, “crime and punishment,” the aftermath of slavery and the “brutal legacy” of the South.[ii] Laced throughout the biennial, projects about the New Orleans experience situate a “flagrantly visible”[iii] city within a global patchwork of ideas, traditions and aesthetics. On view at the UNO St. Claude Gallery, The Propeller Group’s film The Living Need Light and the Dead Need Music connects funeral ceremonies of Saigon and New Orleans, both cities of the Global South, through a visually rich narrative following several ambiguous, charismatic protagonists through markets, swamps, rituals and processions. The film is complemented with body of photographs and drawings of brass band musicians shown alongside costumes, and sculptures (film props) of drums and trombones by Christopher Meyers. The entire project, based on the idea of the “butterfly effect” theory of “non-locality whereby two distinct phenomena affect one another across a vast expanse of space and time,”[iv] is ambitious, memorable and deeply affecting.
Within the biennial’s context of “the global” other works move from the syncretic to the poly-cultural and diasporic in modes that range from wrenching to optimistic: Yun Fei Ji’s meticulous water color scroll paintings at the Contemporary Art Center depict Chinese migration and displacement unfolding horizontally in scenes emerging from drawn folds and valleys; David Zink Yi’s two channel video Horror Vacui documents, through vignettes, his Afro-Cuban band’s rehearsal and ritual engagement. Shot from myriad odd spatial perspectives in Havana, the music is presented as the tangible, historically loaded manifestation of particular human relations in a specific time and place; and, elegantly, at the Newcomb Art Gallery, Monir Farmanfarmanaian’s glass and mirror sculptural mosaics “marry traditional Persian design motifs with elements of Western modernism.”[v]
As I moved through New Orleans on foot, bike, van, and trolley, I observed inimitable Green Bay Packers super-fans infiltrate the city in advance of a Sunday night football game that coincided with the biennial’s opening weekend. As a tourist moving through crowds of green and gold garb (an experience that recalled my own freezing youth as a “cheesehead” growing up in the shadows of Lambeau Field and Vince Lombardi), I couldn’t help but consider how the impact of professional sports in this city’s post-Katrina climb relates to the efforts of the art world.
In an interview, Treme creator David Simon once said simply “New Orleans still makes something. It makes moments.” That this city of Mardis Gras is a generative place, hospitable to sports revelry and the creative chaos of the eponymous Jazz Fest is obvious. One of the biennial’s most essential works addressed the city’s history of festivalism directly. Andrea Fraser’s Not Just a Few of Us, performed in a packed auditorium at the New Orleans Museum of Art, was one-person re-enactment of a “marathon” 1991 New Orleans City Council meeting debating a “proposed ordinance requiring the integration of private clubs and carnival krewes.”[vi] Moving fluidly and subtly across the positions of 19 individuals, Fraser’s incredibly nuanced performance amplified the language of both nuts and bolts policy and familial banter, exposing deeply embedded bias, discomfort and aggression. It was a mesmerizing articulation of economic, social and racial divisions. I loved this as a nod to not only the city but to the biennial itself, which as is been dogged with infighting, politics, and budget woes as recently reported by the Art Newspaper. If in Prospect 1, Paul Chan’s production of Waiting for Godot “could be read at least partially as an allegory for the endless waiting of citizens in the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly neighborhoods for federal government help in the aftermath of Katrina,”[vii] Fraser’s deep dive into history of Mardi Gras in relation to city politics provides a similar opportunity for allegorical reading and, in this case, institutional critique.
With over 50 artists, the biennial stretches out over 15 venues. Although I tried, I did not see everything, unfortunately missing both Terry Adkins’ lauded drum sculptures at Dillard University and Tavares Strachan floating neon sculpture You Belong Here, which was allegedly floating up and down the Mississippi River: it was nowhere in sight when I tried to see it during what I thought was a designated time. Do failed attempts make the biennial experience richer, I wondered existentially as I soaked in the warm pink and brown palette of sunset on the Mississippi. Nope.
Fortunately for the weary, time-poor traveler alone, this biennial isn’t as embedded into the neighborhoods as the inaugural version, which was emblematized by Mark Bradford’s monumental ark and Wangechi Mutu’s Miss Sarah’s House installation in the lower 9th ward. It does, however reach from large institutions to small cultural centers, and into public space. As Christine K. Kim asserts in her essay for the catalog, “Instead of two rigid possibilities of, on the one hand, an outsider object’s coming into a mainstream art institution or, on the other, an established artist’s going out into the landscape and creating a site-specific installation, a loosening, obscuring and mixing up of modes, strategies and media is integral to Prospect 3.”[viii] A distinctly less binary, though perhaps not totally hybrid curatorial strategy is felt mobilized in installations such as Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick’s Slavery, The Prison Industrial Complex (c. 1980–2014) at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Mary Ellen Caroll’s, Preparations for Public Utility 2.0 at AIA New Orleans (a long term project poised to bring Internet access to areas of New Orleans neglected by Internet providers) , Kerry James Marshall’s The Manifold Pleasures, and such… window installation of Plexiglas tables and gift boxes, bows and greeting cards at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center, and, finally, Lisa Sigal’s Home Court Crawl which sited poetic text culled from a play by Suzan-Lori Parks onto vacant homes throughout New Orleans.
In a move that puzzled or annoyed some critics, Sirmans integrated into the biennial as touchstones the paintings Under the Pandanus (I Raro te Oviri) by Paul Gauguin and igura feminina e pássaros by Tarsila do Amaral. On view in permanent collection galleries at the New Orleans Museum of Art, they required a bit of a hunt—however the deep consideration of “the Other” from the perspective of the colonizer alongside the colonized provided provocative context and an important empathetic lens. Curatorial strategy, however, seemed to disappear elsewhere. For example, I made the journey (which required an epic walk along Greenwood Cemetery and humble jaunt around the periphery of the New Orleans Country Club with my goddamn suitcase in tow) to the impeccable Longue Vue Gardens expecting to find site-specific works that engaged or disrupted the lush, manicured environs. Instead I found fantastic projects shoved into small, almost makeshift galleries. Jose Antonio Vega Macotela’s Time Divisa, a selection of artworks realized by inmates in exchange for favors seemed over-stuffed into a small space, and Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue video, an exploration of the origin of the world by way of the Smithsonian, screensavers and spoken word, is too curious and wonderful to exist at such a distant margin.
The pulse of feminism reverberated throughout the biennial, which has been praised for its diversity—for example, it features 44 artists of color, out of 58 total. Performative still portraits by Pushpamela N. made visible “oppressive ideals” projected by representations of polytheistic deities, documentary photography and popular culture” exposing the “patriarchal” “colonial gaze.”[ix] At the George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art, Carrie Mae Weems’ video installation, Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 parts (commissioned for the Feminist and… exhibition at the Mattress Factory) featured holographic characters on a period stage performing difference against a hypnotic backdrop of jazz and sound. Moving through references to boxing, activism, the Playboy bunny and the Kennedy assassination, scenes reveal women briefly in ghostlike hologram, yet they emerge as immense, deeply drawn characters. Also memorable was a video at May Gallery & Residency by Tameka Norris. Meka Jean: How She Got Good, a four channel semi-fictional story of the young artist returning home to New Orleans was flanked in another gallery by documentation of the artist’s process of working with the community. The documentation was illuminating but nonessential—and definitely unnecessary if meant as a preemptive defense against an assertion of artistic parachuting, a common critique of biennialism.
Finally, some of the most wonderful works were those that slowed you down, that offered a space to reflect or think about histories in the face of potentials.
Lucia Koch’s installation in the Contemporary Art Center, Mood Disorder, featured gradient color printed on Plexiglas and glass placed in the firsts floor gallery along windows and corners. Zarouhie Abdalian intervened throughout the grounds of the New Orleans Museum of African American History and Culture, replacing fence posts and portions of siding with mirrors. Combined with spoken word sound, a man’s voice reciting language related to labor, emanating from deep within the historic plantation structures, the work felt present and directional, guiding the viewer across the property in a heightened state of awareness. Gary Simmons’ large stage, fabricated out of reclaimed wood and speakers, sits within the stark interior of the Treme Market Branch, a former bank in the early stages of renovation. A platform waiting for its party, the humble work is not wholly inert, but also not as compelling in situ as the fantastic structure in which it sits.
Sirmans wrote in his catalog essay that New Orleans has both a “brutal legacy” and a “glorious and celebratory flip side.” In finding works to embody the politics, history, and aesthetics of this contradiction, he was guided by intuition rather than strict methodology—and this is a curatorial strategy I appreciate as much for its moments of triumph as for its moments of failure. Because to expect perfection from a biennial forecloses its status as a site for experimentation, pedagogy, ferment and progress. Fortunately, most of works in this biennial occupy meaningful territory—getting yourself there is the hard part.
Jessica Cochran is a writer and curator in Chicago.
[ii] Franklin Sirmans, “Somewhere and not Anywhere,” in Prospect 3: Notes for Now, exh. cat. (New York: Delmonico Books, 2014), p. 28.
[iv] Excerpted from the wall text
[v] Elizabeth Sorenson, “Monir Farmanfarmaian,” in Prospect 3: Notes for Now, exh. cat. (New York: Delmonico Books, 2014), p. 72.
[vi] artist statement
[vii] Joshua Dector, “Preamble: a Flood of Questions,” Afterall, no. 22 (Autumn/Winter 2009) p. 34.
[viii] Christine Y. Kim, “Deposing Dualities in Prospect 3,” in Prospect 3: Notes for Now, exh. cat. (New York: Delmonico Books, 2014), p. 158.
[ix] Martabel Wasserman, “Pushpamala N. with Clare Arni, in Prospect 3: Notes for Now, exh. cat. (New York: Delmonico Books, 2014), 120.
Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen Ross
Then, we tried to name our babies
But we forgot all the names that
The names we used to know
We remember bedrooms
And our parent’s bedrooms
And the bedrooms of our friends
This one goes out to the first gay guy to break my heart. (He did warn me!) The bed we shared for a few months in the linoleum floored dorm of the Folk-high-school of Art at the windswept island of Langeland (Danish for Long Island), was nothing more than our two pinewood bedframes that we had shoved together under a makeshift canopy adorned with an antique gilded mirror in the shape of the sun. We painted our heels red, as was the costume of Louis XIV and drank our instant morning chocolate out of a golden tea set that we had set out on the blonde nightstand. Here comes the sun king and his well-heeled, head-over-heels (or need we say headless) apprentice.
One morning as we were studiously pouring over his-and-hers Vogue Italia, he put his head on my shoulder and pointed to a centerfold of a Bengali tiger swimming in the Ganges amidst a field of white lotus flowers with, in the background, a funeral pyre set ablaze by a party of sari clad mourners in orange and magenta. He sighed and said: “Don’t you just wish that you were that tiger?” It was clear from his sighing, that this was another kind of coveting than our morning lecture would usually inspire –that of a glamorous life far away from the countryside of Denmark—but instead aspiring to a higher longing: to know the beauty of the world from the inside out.
Soon after I found myself in India, in a quest for this insider’s knowledge of beauty. By the Ganges I imagined the wild tiger’s roar, but everything else was just so. This was in the days before Facebook hence I had no one to share it with, and had to devour this savage beauty all by myself.
I wrote a letter to my absentminded friend, the poet. He responded that I was a better writer than artist and published my letter in a literary magazine he was editing –together with (on my insistence) a dry needle fantasy of a pair of copulating angels I then considered “my art.” I was furious with him for his honesty, while in retrospect I have to give it to him that he saw my bosoms, but raised me my brains –such gifts are the unexpected oranges that life throws in undeserving young-girls urban turbans.
On return from my travels to India (which I mostly loathed, if only for the fact that I was constantly being looked at, which tends to obstruct your outlook) I travelled to Rome in search of a beauty closer to home. After that, I moved to Copenhagen to go art school, thinking that was perhaps the place to get to know beauty more intimately.
According to David Hickey, my timing was just right, as we were about to embark on the Nineties, and while I was travelling the world in search of beauty, he was preaching to the reluctant choir assembled in a university auditorium somewhere deep in the heart of darkest America, that “The issue of the nineties will be beauty!”
In the introduction to his essay “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty,” he revisits the event:
“I began updating Pater: ‘Beauty is not a thing,’ I insisted. ‘The Beautiful is a thing. In images, beauty is the agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder, and, since pleasure is the true occasion for looking at anything, any theory of images that is not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder begs the question of art’s efficiacy and dooms itself to inconsequence!’”
By equating beauty with agency, Hickey animates the world around us, imbuing these images –and by extension “anything” that causes us pleasure from the mere occasion of us looking at it—with an attention seeking willfulness.
The scopophilic pleasure we are granted in return for giving in to the whims of this beautiful world, is by its retinal nature often spiked with envy. An envy of fully possessing this beauty, of internalizing it, of an ever hungry eye that is left wanting more. More images, more wilderness, more beauty. (But also –as we embark on the quest for beauty, our nose in the scent trail still wet from our first whiff of it –with the gratification of knowingly knowing it when we see it.)
Beauty can, in fact, be experienced in the muddied rained out countryside of Northern Europe, just as well as anywhere else. And this particular envy can, in rare cases, be inspired by visiting an art show: Not the usual petty “OMG, I wish that was me showing my work in [insert major art venue],” but the real, un-adulterated swimming-tiger-lotus-envy of “OMG, I wish I had made that!” –of being so unexpectedly enthralled with the surface beauty of a body of work, you wish to intimately and organically know it from the inside out.
This happened to me, when visiting Josef Strau’s The New World: Application for Turtle Island at the Renaissance Society.
In the gallery, clustered objects are laid out in rectangular grids, some on tabletops and some directly on the floor in little islands, resembling house altars for the worshipping of homely deities. Ceramic conch-shells and brightly colored tiles are the gods’ favorites, it seems. Textile prints with text passages from Buddhist and Native American religious and spiritual practice are laid out by way of both explanation and offering. Behind a low metal fence, a Buddha caressing a cat in his lap with one green hand, sits on a blanket of black polyester lace. One brightly sequined lampshade bears Pocahontas’ portrait and another that of the Holy Mother of Guadalupe, while others again are decorated with images of turtles, exotic parakeets in flight, or cuddly toys.
On the surface, his makeshift tableaux’s work not much different than our own primitive interior decoration back in the day: the beatifically pimped-up lamp-shades do not belie their discount store origins, their inner workings exposed and their cables only half heartedly hidden by shoddy duck tape.
(It’s a Barnum-and-Bailey’s world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believe in me.)
This make believe world is home to the winsome couple Bear and Wolf (I wonder who among the two is the king, and who the jester) and represents the Turtle Island where they roam and reign. Sometimes travelling together down the lazy river on a primitive float, then in chains, but still together. Their togetherness seems prerequisite to their adventure, as if the beauty of the new world they are discovering is not in the eyes of the beholder, but in the eyes of the other. We recognize them from the lampshades, which immediately elevate their status to that of the divine, and their tall tales to mythology. A longing back to some indigenous Eden, in which all of nature sings with symbolic gestures and coded messages, or, as it happens –in the Queen’s English.
A poster announcing the exhibition with quotes from Pocahontas and Nezahualcoyotl, is also announcing it’s own genesis; after wrestling with finishing the work for the exhibition, the artist breaks away from the “photoshop bureaucrazy” on his computer, to take a stroll in the park:
“… so I took myself and the color striped jacket out of the house and walked down and when I came to the first flowers I already started thinking they talked to me and they said make posters again. simple posters. Of course I argued with them a while, why the simple poster ways would be wrong and maybe not doing enough for the project. […] But the flowers were in a soft way stronger than my arguments. I felt. It was as if they said, don’t think of representations, think of the real things and about the relations to them, keep doing the same things but at the same time not thinking about representations, the representations are evil ways.”
On the verso to this recto, Strau declares: “ I wish I could say that my whole project is dedicated to the Americas, but I for sure don’t know what I’m talking about, so I better not. I wish my whole project could be dedicated to the Holy Mother of Guadalupe. But I might have become too shabby a soul to proclaim my name and my word so very next to her, and as well, in connection to the, at least to me, such unbelievably intense and rich history of the Americas. […] Anyways, the better question to ask myself before going public, is why does it mean so much to me to capture this outside or alien perspective, while at the same time there is nothing I desire more than morphing myself into a true Turtle Island citizen (American of many American nations) myself? Probably it is because I was always a bit of an alien too, wherever I was, wherever I will go, and therefore it would be better that I live there myself.”
The first time I visited America I had no ambition to live there myself, but as I flew in over the suburbs of Saint Louis with all its swimming pools glistening in the summer heat, I had to admit that the aerial view had a stunning American Beauty. On my next trip I found myself in the snowy mountainside of Boulder, Colorado, where the wild mountain lions are. A relative of a relative, whose chalet we were dining at, inquired with a smirk what it was “like to live in Amsterdam?” I assured him that not all the good citizens of Amsterdam like to enjoy their soft drugs before lunch and continued: “… just like all Americans don’t have a gun tucked away in their bedside table drawer.” He looked puzzled: “but we do have a gun in our bedside table drawer?” His wife butted in, trying to alleviate the awkward silence: “Yes, but now that we have a baby on board, I gave him gun locks for Valentines Day, so that our little one doesn’t have ‘an accident.’” I assured her that was the most romantic thing I had ever heard, but the conversation had stalled. From both sides we were staring into a cultural divide, the size of an abyss.
Now that I do live here, I frequently feel this chasm opening between me and my friends and family back in Europe who like to generalize along similar lines about what Americans and life in America is “like.” From a European perspective, America is often perceived as a bully: lacking of history, uncultured and crass, while I find myself everyday surrounded by “such unbelievably intense and rich history of the Americas” and such unadulterated American Beauty.
In her ode to America “Oh Beautiful,” Detroit rapper Invincible sings:
With your spacious skies
I want to love you
But you hide behind
A fake disguise
I dunno. I see where she is coming from, but I suspect that the true American beauty lies in its fake disguise, its artifice. Glitzy Faux-Italianate facades on plywood and cinderblock structures from whose derelict backsides exposed telephone and power cables spill into unsavory alleyways. State-of-the-art plastic surgery boob-and-lip-jobs paid for with the 2nd mortgage or the 7th divorce settlement alimony by has-been Hollywood starlets m/f, now rendered so unrecognizable that a return to the silver screen would more aptly be called a reincarnation, was it not for the fact that the meat on those bones have been all-but-replaced by silicone. Etc. Etc.
Like in the cosmology of Terry Pratchet’s fantasy novel series Disc World — in which the world resides on the shield of a giant turtle, standing on the shield of an even bigger turtle, living on the shield of a more enormous turtle yet, traversing the shield of a gargantuan turtle, etc. etc. –this Turtle Island is “turtles all the way down.”
I’m writing this on Columbus Day: You don’t know what you’ve got till your gone. I forget how American I am (becoming) until I find myself wearing the only red jacket in a black sea of Scandinavian winter wear. In Copenhagen, the only people wearing varsity wear are the pushers. You will find them on Pusher Street. They are trying to look “ghetto,” because we don’t have real ghettos in Copenhagen –or we like to think so. In America you are considered fashion forward for knowing the cardinal rules of color coordination: All black always work we all know. The color-blocked flatness of modernist monochromes we all know. Yet I crave billboards on my shirt palm trees and sunsets landing strips and desert highways disappearing into my solar plexus. The illusion that you can just blend in and be one with the landscape like tromp-l’oeil, like camouflage.
On our way to school this morning, my pearl of a girl suddenly exclaimed:
“Art class has been good to me this year!”
Although absentminded, I asked her to elaborate. She told me about a collaborative class project, in which a scrapped subway car (imagined, I imagine) is thrown into the sea. Nestled on the bottom of the sea, as the corals do their thing and the fish move in, the subway car muses to itself: “I used to live in a city, but now a city lives in me.”
As we all know, you can take a girl out of the countryside, but you can’t take the countryside out of the girl. As those of us who paid attention in art class will know, once beauty has known you from the inside, you will find beauty’s inside, where you least expect it.
Art class has been good to us so far, indeed!
 David Hickey, “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty” in The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009) 1.
 Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, 2
 Josef Strau: The New World: Application for Turtle Island (poster)(Chicago: Te Renaissance Society, 2014)
 Strau: The New World: Application for Turtle Island
Lise Haller Baggesen left her native Denmark in 1992 to study painting in the Netherlands. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family. In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice including curating, writing and immersive multimedia installation work. Her first book “Mothernism” was published by Poor Farm Press and Green Lantern Press in 2014.
September 26, 2014 · Print This Article
Guest post by Meg Santisi
Marc Fischer and Brett Bloom are not going to be at Expo, Chicago’s huge international art fair on Navy Pier. Instead, they’ll be down the street, operating a small publishing house as part of A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Practice, opening Sept 19th at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries. Curated by Mary Jane Jacob, the exhibit traces a history of Chicago’s long engagement with social art practices from the 1800s to today, with a series of newly commissioned works.
Inside the exhibit, Temporary Services have built a fully operational publishing platform, an installation they’ve titled Publishing Clearing House. Evoking banking and financial surpluses as well the DIY spirit of giving stuff away for free, Publishing Clearing House will feature newly minted artists books written by artists, activists, lone archivists, amateur photographers as well as Marc and Brett themselves.
I sat down with Marc and Brett during their install to discuss their involvement with the exhibit, their relationship to social practices and publishing archives, and what the future might have in store for Temporary Services.
Meg Santisi: To start off, who is Temporary Services in their most current formation?
Brett Bloom: I’m Brett Bloom, and this guy sitting right here is Marc Fischer. It’s the two of us currently working as Temporary Services. Although in the past it’s been as many as seven people, and for most of our history Salem Collo-Julin was working with us, right now it’s the two of us. We started here in Chicago since 1998, and have been working together since then.
For this project we are collaborating with a ton of other people outside of our group, which is a common thing. Individuals, groups, activist organizations, exhibition spaces – a variety of different things.
Marc Fischer: One of the earliest ways we’ve worked is to create a kind of creative structure that contains the work of other people, so this project is very much in keeping with past projects where we, in this case literally, create something like a house or a hut from which about 15 new publications will be created and then move out beyond the exhibit. One of the intense limitations of a space like this is that it’s so unknown to so many people in the city. So a big challenge for us was to figure out how to do something that was social beyond the pre-existing or current audience of the gallery and that would have a life beyond the three-month duration of the exhibit. The creative distribution of work by ourselves and others that we feel deserves an expanded audience is something we’ve always been obsessed with and publications are a particularly cheap and effective way of making many, many copies of things, at least a few hundred copies of each publication, in some cases 1,000 is more typical for us, so it can go other places, in Europe in libraries, like Harold Washington Library down the street. So we are always thinking of what exhibits can do beyond their short term.
BB: Yeah, it’s to create surpluses out of the situation we are given – an archive of material surpluses – as well as social and political surpluses. In this case we have 15 publications and roughly 1,000 copies of each. We have published over 102 publications under our own imprint, Half Letter Press, which started in 2008 for publishing offset 4-color publications, sometimes our own, sometimes those of other people. So, yeah, as Marc was saying, it’s important for us to take an opportunity like this in a show that will have a nice amount of visibility and that’s well resourced, to share it with these large communities we are a part of, and that intersect with a variety of concerns that we have. We wrote recently that publications are this sort of social, spatial, and political currency, and we really use them in this way, to activate a bunch of different subject matters and audiences.
MS: And so what kind of topics are being addressed in the publications coming out of Publishing Clearing House?
MF: Well there’s one publication by a group who, because of the sensitivity of the materials they are working with, don’t want to be named. But the other authors one of them is Sarah Ross, but there are multiple others, consisting of both artists and teachers, as well as people in prison who are doing these writings about time and what different types of time structures exist for in prison. So there’s writing and also a creation of timelines talking about the movement of time. Melinda Fries who formerly did the artists web project called AUSGANG (ausgang.com) for many years, is doing a booklet which is also kind of a map and walking tour about a riot, a racially motivated riot, that took place in 1919 in the Back of the Yards area. So there’s some fairly far distant Chicago history.
MS: Not dissimilar to Paul Durica’s audio tour for the exhibit, which is also a nod to far-reaching Chicago history as well as the present moment.
MF: Yeah his work also taps into those more obscure local histories.
BB: There’s another publication by Tracy Drake and Sharon Irish about a cartoonist for the Chicago Defender in the 1930s and 40s named Jay Jackson who was depicting the really violent racial segregation that existed in this city – I mean it still exists in this city – and these cartoons make it so explicitly absurd. They are pretty powerful cartoons. Tracy is an historian and Sharon is an art historian and they collaborated on this publication together. I think there will be a lot of unearthing, or reflecting on, or pulling into the present, some of these deep histories of the city, and how it influences the various ways in which people work that are included in this exhibition.
MF: There are also some people we’ve invited that are based in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Indiana so the Midwestern region. Stephen Perkins is writing a ten-year history of a space that his family started in their spare bathroom, called WC Gallery, to deal with just the complete lack of space for experimental, or political, or just weird art culture in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He administered the space for a long time and he goes over each exhibit and the issues they brought up.
MS: So did you keep the publications decidedly local to the Midwest?
BB: I mean so many people have a connection to this city, they work in the city or continue to work in the city, and they sort of socially engage with it in some capacity. So the stuff we chose didn’t necessarily have to deal with that, but it was important that we had some connection to the Midwest or to the region. There’s a lot of amazing stuff being made here, and we tapped into that. The audience for this will be quite a large international audience, so we [want to] push some of this art further into the world.
MS: And so Brett, you are based out Copenhagen. How often do you get to work in Chicago?
BB: At least once a year. I’ve been here a lot for this [the Proximity of Consciousness exhibit] maybe five or six times? Many trips for this project in particular.
MF: Which is an unusual luxury for us, and for our way of working.
MS: So you guys are you usually collaborating over the internet?
MF: Well, we come in for the installation, sometimes one of us sometimes both of us, and you know the return visits for site research. Mary Jane Jacob and all have been great –
BB: They’ve really taken great care of us.
MF: They value a slower process. I mean there’s been other projects where we were invited just two or three months in advance and we were expected to produce, well, a miracle (laughs) with not nearly as much time or money.
MS: And it seems like Mary Jane has done something really smart, which is to realize that for all the exhibitors involved there are differing relationships between created objects and the social aspects of their work. The challenge seems to be how to best represent a socially engaged practice inside of a contained space, and what objects best represent those practices.
MF: Yeah and that’s something we struggled with for a long time. It’s a hard situation. I mean I think we felt that if we tried to do everything outside the exhibit, then people who wandered into the gallery, where there was nothing to look at, would get frustrated. Or if the thing terminates within the exhibit, then [we] would get frustrated that maybe we didn’t reach as many people as we possibly could have, or that we made it too much for a school’s audience or something. I think there are many people who teach here that use this as a teaching opportunity for their students, which is exciting of course, but Chicago is a really diverse place. I mean I teach too, and my students six blocks down the street don’t know that this place exists. So that’s a concern, you know.
MS: And that touches on something I love about you guys. For me personally I’m really interested in examining gentrification, especially the ways in which artists gets lumped into a narrative about gentrification. And your practice, in my opinion, has always sought to counteract artist-led gentrification by assimilating or quietly inserting yourself within each neighborhood you’ve worked from. For example, I’ve heard that one of the reasons you chose the name Temporary Services was to blend with your neighboring storefronts on Milwaukee Ave. Same with Mess Hall in Rogers Park.
BB: Yeah and you know you train as an artist and you immediately have a kind of access and class status, but you also have a certain kind of poverty. Especially if you work with explicitly non-commercial or anti-commercial work. So at that beginning point we were in this very precarious place, I mean federal funding for experimental exhibition spaces, which had been nationwide – that collapsed right when we came out. We wanted to do experimental work, so we were in this very precarious place where there was no infrastructure. So it kind of made sense to see ourselves, as we still do, in relationship to people who were struggling to survive in some capacity. It made for a really ambiguous relationship as to what the hell was going on in our space. Mess Hall maybe did this way better in terms of pulling all kinds of different groups of people [together]. Like radically different groups of people would show up depending on what was being presented at that space. We didn’t learn how to do that until much later, but it was definitely an idea at the beginning, to have conversations with people that will give you unfiltered feedback. People wouldn’t necessarily see what you were doing as art and they would tell you pretty quickly. And you learn an immense amount about what you are up to, how people see it, whether it’s relevant, or whether it’s a throw-away. It was good training for us.
MS: Do you work from a specific space now?
MF: The basement of my house. (laughs)
BB: We only had a shared workspace for a few months really. At Northwestern, a dedicated studio, but we work mostly on-site and that is our shared workspace.
MS: Your work has a lot to do with the formation of archives and the voices they do or do not include. Often you work features narratives that are left out or ignored by more institutionalized archives. I’m thinking of some of projects like The Library Project, Prisoners’ Inventions, or more recently Marc’s work on Public Collectors. I’m wondering if you can speak to how the archives become activated in your work, or how archives can become living exhibits.
MF: Well it certainly helps if there are people who maintain archives that feel some kind of connection with that archive, and to the materials they are saving. They activate that stuff by knowing enough and being able to guide someone to it. We’ve benefitted enormously from Doro Boehme at the Joan Flasch Artist Book’s Collection, because we’ve known her throughout the entire time we’ve been a group. I mean we could give them everything but if they never bring those publications out or show them to students when classes visit, then how much does that help? But almost every time I go in to drop off stuff to her [Doro], I see something of ours sitting on a table waiting to be looked at by a visiting student or group. So we’ve benefitted enormously from people who advocate for our work. Also our materials are included in Harold Washington Library, if anyone wants to look at our stuff. At Harold Washington the value is more that they are willing to care for and preserve these things, rather than actually direct people to them.
Then there are those people’s practices that we really admire, but maybe they are not the best at putting themselves forward, and we are going to bug them until they make something. One of the people we invited for this is Oscar Arriola (https://www.flickr.com/photos/fotoflow/) who has been an incredible fixture of documenting a million things around the city. He’s in some publications but not a lot. He has a very active flickr account and we wanted to see him leave more of a paper trail.
MS: Have you ever come across anyone who has not wanted to be archived or published about?
MF: For the most part people want to have a printed thing made. There are people who, for whatever reason, haven’t had much printed, like the group Lucky Pierre (http://www.luckypierre.org/) doesn’t have a ton of publications, and when we invited them they were great. We knocked it out in three weeks, and it was exciting to them, and it was exciting to us to be able to distribute. But you know, on their own, they’d probably find something more pressing to do.
BB: It’s a way to have your work circulate in all these different ways and at different volumes. We often give stacks of our publications over to curators or museums and that can have a tremendous impact, to just give somebody ten years worth of publications. It opens things up in a way. It’s a way to get our ideas out there.
MF: It’s really rare to get the kinds of invitations where someone has developed an exceptionally creative strategy for disseminating someone else’s work. Because usually it will just be in a space, it will be up for a month, we ship them our stuff, they ship it back to us. Pretty much always when someone is starting a new and more interesting kind of library we’ll send them things if they ask. There’s a project in New York, Petrella’s Imports, where they are using an old fashioned newsstand to sell artist books, just like any other kind of periodical. So someone’s going to put themselves out in public and have those awkward conversations all day long, like, ‘Don’t you have ESPN magazine? What is this artist shit?’ Or similarly there was a project in Chicago called SOUND CANOPY. The artist M.W. Burns working with Experimental Sound Studio, [played] people’s sound art through speakers under a scaffold. The results were really mixed, and it was hard to deal with the level of noise in the Loop, so during the day it would be hard to hear, and at night it would be really loud, but the opportunity to think about a sound piece for anyone was exciting. When we organized [the Library Project] you know, adding books by artists to the Harold Washington Library collection without permission, there were a couple of people who just didn’t respond, but I don’t think there was anyone who actively said no. Everybody said yes, and gave us multiple copies of their books, and they were really generous about it, because who wouldn’t want to extend the reach of their work? Even if we couldn’t guarantee that the books would stay there.
MS: How well do you know the other exhibitors in the A Proximity of Consciousness exhibit? Have you discovered or known about the connections between all of your work?
BB: Almost all the people we know quite well.
MF: It’s also really fantastic that everything is a new project. I mean, it’s all commissioned, which is extremely uncommon.
BB: Some of these people we know quite well from the Chicago community and others have intersected with it. Yeah and most of the people we have worked with multiple times or have had years of conversations with.
MF: Or been in exhibits with. We’ve had many exhibits now with [Michael] Rakowitz.
BB: Or Pablo [Helguera] helped bring us to MoMA to talk. We remember doing actions out on the street in the 90s with Laurie Jo, so there are some nice histories in this place. Dan Peterman is a mentor of mine.
MS: So it’s great that this exhibit is not just about everyone as individuals but you all as a community as well.
MF: In Chicago, people are so accessible. That’s the nature of this city.
BB: Also this work has had a tremendous impact, but the literature that has been written around socially engaged practices has really focused on other narratives, and other places, but Chicago has had tremendous impact. Because it is far from the markets, [so] people just kind of do things. I think we come out of that culture of just doing things. The stuff shows up in New York or London in different ways. It’s way more of a spectacle because it has to compete in a different kind of a way. It’s really nice that all this care and attention has been given to this work, and this city that really deserves a lot more credit. These conversations and this way of working have been developing on top of things happening in the 1960s, the 1930s, even the 1800s, proving there’s a continuity that’s being drawn out here. It’s not just some easy to market thing. Some people have turned it into that, taking the social aspects and making them into spectacles, and making a lot of money. But this work didn’t start from that place, it didn’t start so that people could make, like, Social Practices MA’s, all those kinds of things. It started out of really basic needs, out of making an experimental culture in a tough place and a tough economy.
MS: So what kind of services are next for Temporary Services? Any continuations of Publishing Clearing House work after this exhibit closes?
MF: We definitely [have extended] our capabilities as far publishing. There was enough of a budget to buy a Risograph printer so we’ll probably be starting a new chapter in our publishing. We also keep adding to this library of flat packable furniture that can be used to make other spaces. There’s a book fair coming up in Berlin, there’s an exhibit in Kansas City that we’ll probably be taking part in November. It’s like the second things are done we always find multiple homes for the work.
Temporary Services is included in Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action from September 20 – December 20, 2014 at Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State St., 7th Floor. The exhibition also includes projects by Jim Duignan, Paul Durica, Pablo Helguera, J. Morgan Puett, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, Dan Peterman, Michael Rakowitz, Laurie Jo Reynolds, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Publications by Oscar Arriola, Cultural ReProducers, Tracy Drake & Sharon Irish, Melinda Fries, Wes Janz, Kaitlin Kostus, Nicolas Lampert, Dylan Miner, Stephen Perkins, Prison Neighborhood Art Project, Project NIA, Anthony Rayson / South Chicago ABC Zine Distro, Dan S. Wang and George Wietor / Issue Press.
Meg Santisi is a Chicago-based writer and artist. See more of her work at www.megsantisi.com.
Guest post by Sid Branca
As a part of EXPO Chicago’s opening night event, Vernissage, Ordinary Projects presented a selection of performative works entitled By the Horns. Ordinary Projects is a new initiative from Industry of the Ordinary [Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson], led by Program Director Meredith Weber. Sid Branca had an opportunity to chat with Meredith about the importance of performance art in a fair context, her involvement with Industry of the Ordinary and the development of Ordinary Projects.
Meredith Weber: Ordinary Projects is an initiative that’s based upon on the success of the platform project Industry of the Ordinary started within their 2012 exhibition at the Cultural Center, a large mid-career survey called Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. In addition to showing their entire body of work, they also created a platform where other artists were invited to show. At the time I was working on a curatorial project called Happy Collaborationists, which was an apartment gallery in Noble Square focused on performance, installation, and new media. I did that for four years with a collaborator [Anna Trier], and they invited us to show on the platform.
We curated a performance art series on the platform, and the artists got to use all sorts of spaces, which was part of this amazing opportunity that Industry of the Ordinary was given, and offered to other artists in turn. I think a lot of people don’t know about the generosity of their practice. They may seem unapproachable, but this generosity of their practice is why I’ve been involved with them, and why I continue to stay involved. Basically all of the money that was invested in their show by the city was doled back out to other artists.
Sid Branca: So how did Ordinary Projects begin?
MW: When Mana [Contemporary] opened, Matt and Adam were like ‘ok, here’s this really amazing opportunity to have access to a studio, but we don’t really use a studio,’ because they meet here [the Skylark in Pilsen]. They were like, ‘this is a community that we want to be a part of, but why would we invest in a space like that to store things?’ So they decided to do the Platform project in their studio.
What we’ve been doing for Ordinary Projects is alternating between their work and the work of other artists that are emerging, and I’m managing those exhibitions. Right now it’s a pretty large project, and they consider all of it to be a social sculpture. It’s three prongs: the exhibitions; the student summer school; and then what we’re calling community projects, which we haven’t launched yet.
SB: And how did By the Horns come to be?
MW: The past two years at EXPO, Industry of the Ordinary has performed at Vernissage. This year we all thought this is a great opportunity to show Ordinary Projects. We’re only performing on the opening night but what I’m really hoping is to prove something, to prove that this should be an ingrained part of the exhibition. When you go to other fairs, performance art is there. I really want performance to become an integral part of EXPO.
Everything I’ve ever done in Chicago has been based upon trust. All the relationships I’ve built, all the opportunities I’ve gotten have been based upon that. And Tony [Karman] trusts Matt and Adam to present something, and they, in turn, trust me to present something.
SB: So would you say a commitment to endowing emerging artists with that kind of trust is an important part of how you work?
MW: I’m still operating very much the same way that I did when I was running an apartment gallery. I’m not operating on a budget. So my commerce is my relationships. What I tell artists when I work with them is ‘this is what I can offer you, and what will this mean for your career?’ Because what I’m really hoping is that any opportunity that I give to someone is a launching pad for the next opportunity. You can’t ignore the fact that this is not only an opportunity to exhibit your work to the public, this is an opportunity to exhibit your work to all of the exhibitors.
Years ago as Happy Collaborationists we did a performance series at Midway Fair. The first year we did a booth, and the second year we said ‘no way, we can’t do that again.’ So we curated out of the bathroom, and the idea was that every three hours the work in the bathroom changed, because every three hours somebody was going to need use the bathroom that was working. And so it wasn’t really about showing the work to the people that were at the fair for one day, it was about reaching people that were there all weekend. How do we get those people to talk about what’s happening? It was a really, really fun project.
So that was something I was thinking about as fair as EXPO was concerned. I have a history as an athlete, and so when I think about art I kind of think about sports. I talk about strategy quite a bit. So thinking of the room— there used to be this play in high school that we would run that was called the gauntlet, where you would set someone up for the three-point shot. And I was thinking, how do we get people to run through the room so that everyone is supporting each other?
Certainly there are sometimes pieces that stick out to me that I really want to work with, but I select the artist, versus the artwork. And then I like to build with that person how they see the work fitting, and how I can support the work so that it’s realized to its fullest capabilities.
Some artists are bad at sports, some artists are good sports. Feminists are artists. Some mothers are feminists, some artists are feminists and mothers. As mammals, we’re all born from mothers. Mothers and mothering make the world go round and keep the wheels of life spinning. And life is messy—it’s full of bodies that ooze and wheeze, splatter and spurt. Solid, liquid, and gaseous, bodily matter creates a viscous sphere of reality for mothers and motherers from pregnancy and childbirth through infancy, childhood, and on to the grave.
Curiosity about properties and behaviors of matter and the manipulation of it, whether playful or null-hypothesized, are hallmarks of artistic and scientific creativity. How about cutting it in half, smashing it, or welding it together, turning it upside down, making it bigger or smaller, louder or quieter, hotter or colder, lighter or darker? The decision-making rolls on from one work to the next.
Of course artists don’t have to be mothers to be interested in exploring embodiment and connections to others. The impetus can come from loving a partner or a pet, teaching yoga, being ill or caring for someone who is. That is to say, any artist can make the decision to foreground the exploration of bodies and connections between them. Large cadres in the realms of institutional art—museums, art schools, commercial galleries—evince a phobia about these interests. An artist coming out as a mother or motherer makes some folks positively squeamish. Especially those who perpetuate machismo conventions that transmute art work into commodities.
Like any other strong lineup of shows, this lineup features work variously engaged with abstraction and figuration, forms and materials, scale and dimensionality. The works in these shows embody their makers’ irrepressible determination to create art that enlivens the space it inhabits. In this regard, the recent installation of Judy Ledgerwood at the Graham Foundation, Indira Johnson’s mushrooming Buddha heads, and Sabina Ott’s current exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center also come to mind.
Let’s start with Claire Ashley and Cameron Harvey’s show, The Surface and Below, curated by artist and mother-to-be Angela Bryant. The works in the gallery’s almost demure manorial space twist and shout with blazing color and pneumatic girth. Harvey affixes spray foam, string, and spandex onto her painted canvases. These materials are more than another form of mark making. They transform the canvas into a sculptural object. Sometimes the foam takes leave of the motherboard altogether and takes on a life of its own. With or without a canvas, the works at once suggest gestural abstraction and forms as familiar as a vacuum cleaner hose, sea slug, entrails, or excrement. With her distinctive melding of ideas and materials, Harvey’s debate with figuration and abstraction becomes altogether visceral.
The work of either Harvey or Ashley would more than suffice for a solo exhibition. Yet seeing them together adds the context of contrast, and creates a dialogue between the two bodies of work. Ashley’s air-filled creations are made of ripstop nylon and PVC (polyvinyl chloride)-coated canvas tarpaulin. She spray paints them in funfair colors. What’s more, some are attached to a wearable backpack that holds the air supply. This means they can be literally embodied.
Whatever way they’re deployed, Ashley’s works play nicely with Harvey’s spray foam and summertime palette. Harvey’s string-wrapped foam forms and Ashley’s inflated ones—along with her small soft creaturely figures crammed through holes in plywood—all proclaim a showdown between exuberance and constraint.
Ashley’s bloated forms are way larger than life and billow like the canvas of a pirate ship at full sail. Two of them bulge out of their alcoves. The larger one is an assemblage that resembles a pillow with armrests known to New Englanders as a husband. Ashley’s digital prints hang nearby with festive blurs of color. They’re the result of another approach to scale and space: she makes tiny objects out of colored clay, photographs them, and blows up the photos. Their flatness punctuates the puffiness of the objects that engorge the gallery.
Moving from the leafy enclave of River Forest to the urban streetscape of Division and Milwaukee brings us to Edra Soto’s show, Say Everything. Walking into her installation on a miserable cold night felt like coming to a tropical beach at sunset. Spotlighted in a room purring with coral-pink light, greenish silkscreen banners hang from the ceiling. Geometric motifs from the flags of the US, Puerto Rico, and Chicago repeat themselves across the fabric, at once rhythmic and heraldic. With fans positioned around the room, the banners undulate creating the sense of rustling palms and rolling waves.
Soto extends her beach references by taking PVC stalwarts—molded plastic chairs—and covering them with jungleprint towel-tapestries that are sold further west on Division. Yet Soto’s work isn’t for just for lotus-eaters. Her rays of tape on the windows draw attention to them and the world beyond the gallery.
Next on the lineup is Queen Bee at Terrain. Curator Allison Glenn brings together work by visual, literary, and performance artists. Her essay sets out ideas coursing through the show—identity formation, rhizomatic forms of interconnection, and non-hierarchical collectivity. In relating these ideas to feminism, she takes pointers from Nikki Minaj’s 2012 single, “Beez in the Trap,” and artists associated with the Feminist Art Program at California College for the Arts during the 1970s.
The visual art engages with Queen Bee’s formal and conceptual concerns: Victoria Martinez’s found objects transformed into flags; Krista Franklin’s wearable sculptures of handmade paper, gold leaf, synthetic hair and acrylic fingernails; and Erin Minckley Chlaghmo’s elaborations of organic forms into kinetic patterns. On September 14, the art works doubled as sets for Terrain’s front porch stage that featured compelling, i.e., kickass performances by C.M Burroughs, Lise Haller Baggesen, Reshayla Marie Brown, and Krista Franklin. The day’s closing performance, a reading by Baggesen from her recent book, Mothernism, left listeners with no doubts about the glass ceiling and other things broken by Margaret Thatcher and her cronies. And if you missed these performers, take heart. They’re Chicago artists with more shows to come.
Whether it’s called mothernism, tidal wave feminism, or any other name, the need for it is born again with each generation. When contending with motherfuckers, sibyls of corporate success say lean in. These Chicago artists take a different stand: they use mother wit to make art and space for it—and then invite us in to play.
The Surface and Below: Claire Ashley and Cameron Harvey at O’Connor Art Gallery, Dominican University, until October 31, 2014
Say Everything: Edra Soto at Lloyd Dobbler Gallery, until September 30
Queen Bee: Lise Haller Baggesen, Rayshayla Marie Brown, C.M. Burroughs, Erin Minckley Chlaghmo, Krista Franklin, Victoria Martinez at Terrain and Terrain South, until September 30
Lise McKean is an anthropologist and writer based in Chicago.