Guest Post by Autumn Hays
Let us start off by acknowledging that there is a distinct difference between Queer and Transgender subjects. It’s important not to lump these two together. Though related and often overlapping, these are not interchangeable terms. Queer being a reclaimed pejorative for gay, and transgender being a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender. (see more.) With that in mind what I would like to look into a reoccurring concern in the discussions that take place around both queer and transgender performance art.
In the last month I have seen multiple panels touching on the subject of new Queer and or Transgender works. There was a definitive connection between all panels: and attempt to shake up current the definitions, and what some define as new codified zones of safety. When I say zones of safety, I am referring a kind of identity politics that sits safely in a form of expression that is confortable enough for new standards of acceptance. Artworks that sit in this comfort zone fail to realize the full potentiality of the subjects and often begging to forum it’s own predictable cliché. The challenging of the formulation of a tamed queerness or transgender performance is an often-highlighted theme appearing in new works. The formulation of a safely circumscribed zone undermines the attempt to reconsider the subject due to an inadequate scope.
Queer and or transgender arts panels often attempt to define the new wave of artists making work in these areas. Today many artists are attempting to define a new direction that departs from the identity work that came out the 80s and 90s. Often these earlier works are ascribed the quality of crying out for recognition. Much of the work being produced today is looking for finer definitions, as opposed to this preliminary awareness.
We could go on to talk about the subject of the word Queer as discussed during the roundtable “New Queer Aesthetics” in late October. Queer New York International Arts Festival (QNYI) had come to Chicago to exhibit a Queer Fest as an extension of the one in New York at Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery . The Chicago show featured artists Suka Off, Bruno Isakovic, Gabreiela Mureb, and Keijaun Thomas. Queer fest distinctly pulls itself away from other Queer festivals which they feel are accepted ideas of the term Queer. As one of the festivals curators, Zvonimir Dobrović, explained, the festival seeks to redefine and challenge preconceived notions of the term Queer. Not all work is made by the LGBT community and instead is defined loosely by a sort of norm-challenging ascetic. After struggling through various definitions, redefinitions, embracing, rejections, fears of washing out the word of meaning completely, and other post-modern linguistic dilemmas an audience member mentions queerness in regards to race, specifically the colored queer. Why is this important? Because the conversations began to progress from the semanticlogical, what is Queer, to what are current Queer issues are concerned about, who are we dealing with the queer female of color in art today.
This November I attended a panel at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Transgender / Arts : A roundtable on the future of transgender cultural production, which included panelists Trish Salah, Jules Rosskam, Julian Carter, David Getsy, and Micha Cárdenas. During the panel many valid points were made about Transgender art. Micha Cárdenas presented important question to the panel, “Where are the trans women of color in art?” Many of the panelist themselves who specialize in Transgender arts could in fact not think of a single artist. The panel began to discus a kind of film festival, performance and art transgender normative narrative. A washed down version, where you began to see something constrained, not quite all the way there. Sitting in a place somewhere in academia where it is comfortable and safe.
How does performance readjust and challenge Queer and Trans identity without losing site of the community in general? There is something that happens to us when we are about to fully realize the other; we find a way to compromise, to only go so far. Many Queer or Trans artist today are attempting to push at the boundaries of a newly accepted normative narrative and point at the things we are forgetting, those who still don’t have a voice. The Art world, the world, is still white male dominated. In a way the lull of sleep we put ourselves in this supposedly post-feminism, post-racism, post- sexism, post-gender issues world that we keep referring to as better than it was before is more dangerous. Because hiding under that comfort is the fact we haven’t changed all that much, we should be forging new grounds and making sure it doesn’t fall asleep.
If I was asked where the new queer or trans aesthetic is headed today, I would say somewhere within the struggle of continuous disturbance, in the understanding that things aren’t there yet and we have to keep shaking it up, shaking ourselves up, so we don’t become our own worse enemies, the perpetuators of a normative Queer of Trans identity. As performance art specifically keeps pushing on with another panel at the Hemispheric Institute for Performing Arts, this week discussing “Race & the Colonial Impulse: Queer Performance Practices”, I look forward t a continued discussion that bridges gaps in the dialogue between racial queer and transgender issues in the arts.
Autumn Hays is an Artist, Curator, Teacher and Writer. She graduated the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA in Performance where she received the John Quincy Adams Fellowship. She received her BA in Visual Arts at UCSD. Hays was the recipient of numerous scholarships, grants and awards including two major Jack Kent Cooke association scholarships.Currently she is assistant curator at Defibrillator and Directing Coordinator of the Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival. www.autumnhays.com
Instigated in conjunction with “The Locational Turn? Reflections from Chicago on documenta in Kassel, Alexandria, Banff and Kabul” panel discussion held November 13 (2013) at the Block Museum on Northwestern University.
by Daniel Tucker
Anyone who tries to generalize about “the art world” owes you an explanation about which world they are describing. While there is undoubtedly overlap between major institutions, mid-sized institutions, high-end commercial galleries, universities, art schools, community colleges, apprenticeships, auctions, internships, craft galleries, non-profit galleries, informal and community-based cultural centers, residency programs, private philanthropists, collectors, public grants, magazines, theoretical journals, blogs, public art commissions, street art, artist collectives and individual artists – they can still seem worlds apart.
One world that can seem worlds apart is that of the Documenta exhibition, founded in 1955 by Arnold Bode, to occur every 5 years and reconnect post-war Germany to the contemporary art conversations and practices developing internationally. Produced by the documenta and Fridericianum Museum Event Company which provide the ongoing organizational infrastructure to keep the project going, the exhibition is largely guided by a curator. This position is akin to “being the mayor of a small city,” according to Michael Rakowitz, a Chicago artist exhibiting in this years show (1). In 2008 the search committee arrived on Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev as the curator, and she began her work on January 1st, 2009 re-inventing what has become over the last 13 incarnations, a crucial node in the intellectual and critical discourse of art around the world – itself producing conversations, catalyzing careers, and generally generating trends that will be talked about in years to come (in Chicago over the last year at the MCA, SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries and U of C’s Logan Center Exhibitions there have already been three exhibits of re-worked pieces shown at documenta13). In the summer for 100 days, from June 9th to September 16th of 2012, over 300 artists, writers, and thinkers participated in documenta13 in Kassel, Germany.
In 2012 a remarkable number of Chicago artists were invited as participants. Theaster Gates (with John Preus and Rebuild Foundation), Claire Pentecost, Michael Rakowitz, and Lori Waxman are all exhibiting works. A number of Chicago-based authors produced texts for the 100 Days 100 Books portion of the programs including Brian Holmes, WJT Mitchell, David Nirenberg and Jane Taylor. To have this many participants from one city would be unusual, but for it to be a city so detached from the commercial facets of art selling (gallerists, collectors, auction houses, etc) and so oriented towards political, community, and socially-engaged art is what makes the decision stand out.
Locally there has been a thriving art community in Chicago that is focused on strong social bonds, engagement with concerns and disciplines that exceed the focus of art, and political and ethical commitments around themes ranging from war and labor to housing and food. This has a long history in the city, dating back to the 1960s in terms of direct lineages with existing practices. It has developed in a particular and regionally-specific way, while art since the 1980s more generally in the United States has experienced a gradual engagement with political and social life. All over the country, but particularly on the coasts, there are art schools and universities initiating “Social Practice” focus areas for students interested in art that deals with social forms as a material in place of traditional art materials and mediums that have come to include clay, video, performance, paint, photography, sculpture, murals, and interactive websites, among many others.
Through my study of Chicago, I have observed that this turn towards “the social” is less of a turn, and more of a ever-present fascination. It has also been observed today, as well as in reflections on history that the work in Chicago has always been more serious than elsewhere. In a dialogue held at the South Side Community Arts Center, respected photographer from the Black Arts Movement Bob Crawford spoke to his experience doing a photo show in New York City, where he observed that “the Chicago photographers’ work was usually more political. And the New York photographers’ work was a little more “art,” narrowly.”(2)
Deeply familiar with the Chicago artists and authors participating in documenta13, I traveled to Kassel last summer to see their work and consider my hometown art scene in relationship to this massive global event. Below are a few scenes from that trip.
Jorg Doerig’s friends and family have joined him to go have his art critiqued. They pack into a small self-contained room, a sleek writers cottage of sorts, where Jorg unpacks his paintings of flowers, and a self portrait, and layes them out on some shelves and leaning against the wall along the floor. It was time for his appointment with the Chicago Tribune art critic and art historian Lori Waxman, who had been taking half-hour appointments with local artists in Kassel three days a week all summer. Over the visit she asks some questions, but mainly gives her attention to interpretation of the art.
“Why Paint?,” she writes in response to Jorg’s work. “For love of certain subjects.” She concludes.
To watch her type (a mirror of her laptop monitor is displayed on a screen facing the artist and a steady-stream of passer-bys) is akin to watching a live poetry reading. Nothing else can compare to the experience of watching someone invest herself in the creative practice of another. While art criticism has become a game so detached from the making and the maker, Waxman reinvests herself in people and their artistic output. And she herself is on display, revealing the writing process, her process.
Most artists Waxman critiques in this project, titled “60 WRD/MIN Art Critic,” have never had their art written about. For the most part she has executed this project in smaller towns throughout the United States with the support of a writers grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation. In these settings, her presence incites tremendous excitement.
She consults an online thesaurus. What is a synonym for “Lovingly”? Jorg stirs, he smiles and looks around at his friends. What a strange experience, to have someone craft language before your eyes about your heartfelt and time-consuming creative activities.
In “What Dust Will Rise?” Michael Rakowitz presents an entire room of enclosed vitrines and display tables immediately conjuring the space of a museum, a special collection or an archive. Upon closer look, you notice handwritten notes in thin black marker ink on the glass panes of the display shelving. Like many artists in this installment of documenta, Rakowitz engages in the legacy of the Nazi presence in Germany and in the present military operations and occupation of Afghanistan. The building in which his installation is presented, the Fridericianum, was a library when it was bombed in 1941 and all but 15% of the books were destroyed. The artist elegantly draws a parallel between that sited history, infusing it in the present, with the interrelated history of Taliban destruction of cultural artifacts in Afghanistan – most notably the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.
Presented on the tables I encounter replicas of books destroyed in that bombing, carved out of stone quarried in Bamiyan by artisans Rakowitz commissioned in Italy. Proceeding through the space, books from other bombings, fires, and cultural assassination appear. Many of the books were original printings with intricate woven and printed cover art, shown here in rich three dimensional carvings of the cover, spine, and worn pages – all beautifully carved with precise details. Other books take the form of an open spread, drawing attention to the content through subtle and surprising connections with the form or the act of destruction that inspired the installation. Others, like the oldest lexicon of classical medieval abbreviations, are just devastating because of what they contain, and what knowledge and culture was lost.
Surprise is the crucial word for this experience. As I proceed from case to case and book to book, I keep thinking that I have comprehended the scope of the artistic gesture. And then the next object or collection startles me. He did what? I think. He really brought some building fragments from dismantled public housing in St. Louis, the Twin Towers, and the Berlin Wall? Yes. Stone carving chisels from Bamiyan made from the remnants of exploded cars and abandoned tanks belonging to the occupying forces? Yes. Surprise after wonderful surprise, the installation unfolds with linkages and nuances that dispel an attempt at easy summary, but provoke curiosity in an unwritten narrative about our ongoing human projects of creation and destruction, war, imperialism, pre-modern and modern.
A highlight of the exhibition, this surprise echoes the best parts of documenta13, an exhibit without an overarching theme – forcing each work to be viewed for what it is.
Entering from the garden into the narrow glass doors on the side of the Ottoneum, I am excited to see the work of Claire Pentecost in such an ideal location. Prominently and symbolically located in the the first theater built in Germany, now serving as the Museum of Natural History, the installation is the entrypoint for an entire building full of works about seeds, science and ecology – one of the most coherent sub-themes within this massive and themeless exhibition.
Pentecost produced this work in residence at The University of Kassel Faculty of Organic Agricultural Science in Witzenhausen and following her participation in a soil workshop at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.
The outcome is a multi-modal installation all centered around a proposed currency called Soil-Erg. She made dozens of drawings with pencil and mud, illustrating a heterogeneous paper money version of Soil-Erg, each depicting a different ecological scene or significant activist and research figures working with food and science. Above the two walls of paper currency, are differently sized medallions of soil. The elaborate tables at the center of the room are piled up with ingots of soil, reminiscent of fantastical gold stashes from Indiana Jones or Fort Knox.
Along the back wall is an intervention into the museum’s collection – a move made by a number of artists who found inspiration in the specificity of the temporary exhibition venues. On the left there is a glass display unit from the collection of the Otteneum that shows slices of soil from different depths of the earths crust. To the right, Pentecost fabricated a similar companion unit that serves as a compost pile that will accumulate over time. The insides are equipped with microphones and through use of a headset you can literally hear the energy, heat and process of the decomposition of organic waste. On one wall of the unit, a hand-written chart depicts the phenomenon of corporate land-grabbing in the global south where North American and European companies are buying up massive farm land and even creating “soil farms” throughout Africa and Latin America.
Pentecost’s participation in documenta13 is itself heterogeneous. She is one of the few exhibiting artists who also made a book for the 100 Books 100 Days project, she gave a number of lectures and workshops, made a video for the website dealing with the importance of seeds to culture, and was an instructor at the summer retreat on the theme of “retreat” at the Banff artists residency in Canada.
The immersive “12 Ballads For Huguenot House” is spearheaded by Theaster Gates along with his design collaborator John Preus, studio manager Theo Boggs, and a rotating cast of staff from his non-profit Rebuild Foundation. Walking into the house, I immediately feel a complex social energy. People buzzing around, up and down the stairs, posting schedules for the day’s activities and consulting with one another about what the morning has in store. The video and audio pieces scattered throughout the 2nd and 3rd floors of the building are still being switched on, and some people just waking from bed. Art tourist’s are poking their heads into the sleeping quarters, asking the people clearly in bed, “do you sleep here”? The Huguenot House is undoubtedly alive with real humans and the art pieces themselves were just a small component of the overall project. It may have one artist’s name attributed to it, but something this alive is the work of many.
Mobilizing people to invest in places and buildings is one of Gates’ strengths. The building at 25 Friedrichsstrasse in Kassel had been empty since World War 2. Under very different historical forces, there are homes in Gates’ neighborhood in Chicago, Grand Crossing, that have also been abandoned for decades (though not quite as long as in Germany). As a crucial facet of his participation in documenta13, a deal was made where a house in Chicago would be purchased and its wooden and metal guts would be converted into objects to repopulate the building in Kassel and at a later date visa versa, forming a kind of architectural material exchange. This insistence that elite cultural institutions should subsidize projects in the places where he lives and works (which has now grown to include a number of Black communities throughout the midwest through the work of Rebuild Foundation) is something Gates unabashedly names in his public presentations.
And in the case of Hugenot House, this subsidy to Chicago cultural possibilities that lie in the future of that local project, have been reciprocated with real life-force being breathed back into the long abandoned building. Throughout documenta, it has been the site of performances, daily yoga classes, community meals and what are said to be the best parties in Kassel every Wednesday night throughout the four months of the exhibition.
Conclusion: The Rematerialization of the Art Object?
As Paul Chan, another participating artist with Chicago ties, commented in a recent interview during documenta, “It is a funny time in art when making something quiet is seen as radical.”(3) The expectation has been implicitly fostered through curation and critical writing that new art needs to be participatory. It is not dissimilar from trends in governance and commerce – participation is the key to the hearts and minds!
As a counterpoint to this trend, these four projects start from complex social problems and engaged in the social processes necessary to activate and engage those problems, and then they made art objects and forms. Finding material resolutions to distill the complexity of the world into a form is one of the contributions artists have historically made to the societies in which they live. The work presented at documenta13 by Chicago artists produces a productive challenge for the debates around socially-engaged art practice and its treatment in educational and art presenting institutions. Formalist reactionaries now commonly antagonize participatory art with the same odium as was applied to performance artists in the decades past while Social Practice fundamentalists claim that objects are dead and process is the new vanguard. Perhaps these artists show a third way, a marriage between the qualities artists have long attempted to capture with material forms and the complex social processes necessary to engage the complex social world in a meaningful way.
1) Rakowitz, Michael – Conversation with the author (7/5/12)
2) Crawford, Bob – AREA Chicago (2008), http://areachicago.org/bob-crawford-and-margo-natalie-crawford/
3) Chan, Paul – Bad at Sports (2012), http://badatsports.com/2012/episode-358-paul-chan-with-john-preus/
[Special thanks to Judith Russi Kirshner, Marcia Lausen, Jennifer Reeder, Lisa Yun Lee, Carolina Ariza, Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri, and Scott Berzofsky]
Guest post by Virginia Konchan
Cultural treatments of what Jeffrey Eugenides (qua Austen) termed the “marriage plot” of fiction include post-romantic polemics (Laura Kipnis’ 2004 Against Love), arguments for and against biological and gender essentialism, chick lit and post-feminist writings, and queer and trans literature (as well as post-9/11 and world literatures reframing the metaphor of war as between cultures and races, rather than genders). Keeping pace with the culture industry’s manufacture of fantasy, Hollywood continues to churn out variations on the theme of marriage, whether representative, in the US, of market demand and actual statistics, or not, in reality TV (The Bachelor; Wife Swap) and, in film, such as the 2013 rom-com Austenland, directed by Jerusha Hess (an adaptation of Shannon Hale’s novel, based off Pride and Prejudice, about a British resort recreating the Austen era, to fuel the obsession that every woman’s platonic double—Mr. Darcy, aloof yet smoldering with passion—awaits us just around the corner).
The timelessness of the marriage plot is today played out against the backdrop of radically transitive labor conditions for women, as the bar for accreditation (an industry’s “terminal degree” or minimum standard of experience) are continually raised, in a post-manufacturing, service, and what Sarah Kendizor calls a “post-employment” economy, sealing the neo-pilgrim passage (noir version) from a welfare to a fully corporatized (i.e. neoliberal) state.
Today’s resurgence of Darwinian logic, manifest in neo-Gladiator survivalist narratives such as The Hunger Games, undergirds global capitalism, with the exception of independently-owned businesses or careers (internally funded or reliant on patrons, philanthropy, and trustees). A women who chooses to entreprenurialize (work independently, start a business or brand, freelance) adjusts not only to the rollercoaster cash flow, as Whitney Johnson, who left Merrill Lynch to co-found Rose Park Advisors with Clay Christensen, in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, points out, while the recent global downturn fuels the American DIY rhetoric of entrepreneurial activity, such ‘independence’ isn’t always volitional: layoffs abound, and, despite soft stats of “productivity gains,” job creation does not. “Approximately 43 million people, or roughly 35%-40% of the private workforce in the U.S., are currently doing some type of contingent work; this number is expected to grow to 65-70 million within the decade, well ahead of the 1% rate at which the labor force is growing,” Johnson notes, citing research from MBO Partners’ State of Independence in America report, about “independent” U.S. laborers (an individual working 15+ hours per week whether as a freelancer, contractor, or owner of a micro-business): “Stripping out the c. 25 million people who are working part-time and are potentially under-employed, MBO calculates there are currently about 17 million independents,” a statistic expected to increase to 23 million by 2017, based on a 6.3% per year growth rate, that could easily swell to over 30+ million in the next decade as large and small corporations, as well as the government, continue to employ contingent labor (40% of the workforce is defined currently as contingent labor; that number is expected to rise).
Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett, is Woody Allen’s 44th feature film: his protagonist, Jasmine neé Jeanette, is a divorced socialite whose husband Hal, played by Alec Baldwin, after amassing millions the Bernie Madoff scandal, is caught, jailed, and commits suicide. This female lead differs radically (in her labor situation and social rôle) from the female ingénue of Annie Hall, the irascible Diane Keaton.
Jasmine struggles to accept her functional unemployment (she has virtually no job skills in a market where you can buy goods, but not survive, on credit) after her divorce, arriving on her working-class stepsister, Ginger’s, doorstep in the Mission District of San Francisco with an equipage of Louis Vuitton luggage, perfectly-coiffed hair, and a desire to begin again (but not before polishing off several stiff martinis with Grey Goose). The conversation Jasmine has with Ginger about her prospects, post-Hal are nothing short of comedic: I was always good at design, she muses, and decides to take a day job as an assistant in a dental office to pay for online classes in interior decorating, a revelation of subdued hilarity echoing that of Aunt Bernie in George Saunders’ story “Sea Oak,” who, resurrecting from the dead, answers the call to neoliberal entrepreneurialism by directing male strippers. Her advice, to evolve from sex work to a white collar career: “Go show your cock! [ . . . ] That is the first part of Phase One. After we get the new place, that’s the end of the first part of Phase Two. You’ll still show your cock, but only three days a week. Because you’ll start community college. Pre-law. Pre-law is best. You’ll be a whiz. You ain’t dumb.”
Jasmine’s painful labor skills assessment doesn’t stop her from catching the eye of a new money tycoon with coastal property. She meets her second alluring husband prospect, played by Peter Sarsgaard, at a party—impressed by her Chanel digs, he asks her out, and she proceeds to play the part of a successful businesswoman to a hilt, offering to design his new home. The following scene has them antiquing together, before looking at engagement rings. The prize, if we follow the moral logic of Blue Jasmine (the rhetoric of American democracy) goes not necessarily to the hardest worker (Calvinism), smartest entrepreneur (meritocracy) or most monied sophisticate (philistine aristocracy), but the best con-man—or woman—the artful, or artless, swindler with a heart of gold.
Jasmine’s life, seen within Western cinematic (independent and mainstream) representations of women from David Lynch’s doppelgangers, to besties escaping, by driving their car off a cliff, abusive spouses——Thelma and Louise—or for Madame Bovary, what Jonathan Franzen calls “married person’s (i.e. false) consciousness,” reflects the fact that in today’s contemporary novel, cinema, and pop culture, our “heroines” have more choices, but they are still often scripted, between the dangerous fiction of a woman that has, or does, it all (cinematized in 2011 feature film I Don’t Know How She Does It, starring Sarah Jessica Parker), and the neo-confessional celebrity spectacle of a woman such as Gaga, who bares her struggles publically, usually receiving social grace upon delivering the now-ubiquitous message that celebrities (and royals) are people too.
Whether broadcasting happy-go-lucky debauchery (Chelsea Handler), sexscapades (Paris Hilton), gold-digging (Anna Nicole Simpson), infidelity (Elizabeth Hurley, Sandra Bullock), domestic violence (Rhianna, Halle Berry), addiction (Lindsay Lohan), or the everyday travails common to all women (childbearing, weight gain, marriage, divorce, and illness), in the public eye: the more seemingly human the portrayal (Kate Middleton taking her time—two weeks—as reported in the media, to return to a size O, post-George), the more love from the public, despite the most basic incongruity of all: celebrities and royals, unlike the average consumer of their self-representations, aren’t forced to work a 9-5 job, or any job, beyond performing, to survive.
Never has the anti-logic of the privatization movement been more relevant as an extended metaphor, to domestic security—not for our homeland, but for women. The rule of the market (liberating free or private enterprise from any bonds imposed by the government—the state—no matter how much social damage this causes), and, internationally, NAFTA, has resulted in widespread wage reduction, de-unionization, the elimination of workers’ rights, no price controls, slashed public expenditure for social services: deregulation, in short, of all protections (environmental, commercial, financial) allowing citizens a basic standard of protection beyond the right to file a lawsuit (after one’s non-codified, and thus nonexistent, rights have been violated). This state of non-rule leaves subjects or those without job skills vulnerable to market vicissitudes (governmental rule by the nation’s media conglomerates—i.e., the 1%) backed, as we know, by International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank.
Today, women receiving federal aid for supporting a child are cut off if living with or married to a man in the States, penalizing a working class woman’s desire to raise a child with the child’s father or other male figure, and making a two-family income, albeit with one income from Uncle Sam, an impossibility, and raising the question of how far we’ve come, as a gender, from being literal chattel or objects of tokenistic exchange (decried by Engels in his 1884 The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State) and today, when the insecurity of all formerly stable institutions, including marriage and the family, underscores the fact that the market is the new head of state for Western women, just as the husband continues to be in many Islamic cultures, usurping law (husbands are allowed to beat their wives and children as long as they don’t leave any physical marks, an Islamic court in the United Arab Emirates ruled in 2010), to say nothing of ongoing cultural epidemics of sexual violence, domestic abuse, public stonings, factory labor, sex trafficking, and labor exploitation, keeping women, worldwide, in a dangerous existential (i.e. labor) situation.
In short, the stress of financial survival, in neoliberal America, trumps life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for men as well as women (the latter camp still on the outskirts of legal personhood, the Equal Rights Amendment not having yet passed). The inequity of our child care and maternity leave policies are the source of international shame, women aren’t being hired for executive positions, with obvious exceptions (New Zealand, Grenada, Barbados, and Andorra all have or have had female heads of state), and despite puncture holes in “the new glass ceiling” (the illusion that we occupy a DIY, may the best man win, meritocracy, innocent of structural inequities, as evidenced in Huff-Po writer Jeannette Cajide’s endorsement of her boss Mark’s neoliberal quip: “If you want to overcome sexism and racism, be the best!”) continues. The Count by VIDA, documentaries such as Miss Representation, and other reports on the dearth of authorial and executive parity between men and women in the U.S. workplace underscore the facts: but while the “new glass ceiling” for women may indeed be prevailing, media-driven misogyny, and a restructuring of service economy jobs, even in senior positions, or internalized and externalized locked doors to design, IT, and engineering fields, the fact remains that, as Gail Becker said in the Huffington Post, “firsts” set a precedent that can then be modeled for other women, as relationship and cultural standards (equality and freedom from abuse, violence, and intimidation), codified laws, and hiring authorities. “Frankly, I look forward to the end of that necessary prepositional clause — a time when we don’t need to define someone by the barrier they broke. But until that day, my commas are standing by, ready to remember those who helped tear away barriers for me.” As a New Yorker cartoon character put it to her husband: “I prefer the illusion of safety to the appearance of privacy”: reality, however painful, lying in wait beyond the illusory binary, for women, of marriage-cum-financial survival and self-fulfillment through career (Harlequin romance plots aside).
A neoliberal economy puts all subjects, particularly those whose commodity has historically been domestic labor or the sale of their flesh, in a precarious position, forced to choose between wage labor, sex labor, an unsalaried, uncontracted job in a helping profession, or, if lucky (possessing liquid capital or loan accreditation), entrepreneurial activity. As Jasmine discovered before it was too late, women not independently wealthy must labor to survive, like men, either in a career or in a form of domestic or sexual service, to a husband, family or both.
What’s needed now are not just rooms, but salaries of our own, in careers that don’t bottom out upon our advancement, and domestic partnerships that don’t bottom out when the human commodity (the wife) reaches her shelf life in consumer capitalism (i.e. mature age). “Should Sancho Panza, Oroonoko, Moll Flanders, Frankenstein’s monster, Queenqueg, Tom, Lily Bart, Josef K.., Lolita, and Om, in A Fine Balance, really have no say in their own fates?” asks Jane Smiley in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, broadening the live question, apropos to the health care crisis in America, of whether being able to cultivate the means to acquire needs, to echo Marx, let alone pursue one’s teleological ends without bearing the stamp of manufacture from a husband, or suffering, in silence, an exploitative labor situation, is a privilege, or a right.
Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, her criticism in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, Barzakh Magazine, and Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, among other places. The recipient of grants and fellowships to Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, Ox-Bow, and Vermont Studio Center, Virginia is co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary. Currently, she is pursuing her PhD in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS
Dark comic of yore, Bobcat Goldthwait came to Bloomington, Indiana, last week, to do stand-up at the Comedy Attic, plus lectures around screenings of two recently directed films—the blistering cultural satire God Bless America, and Willow Creek, a Bigfoot found footage horror flick. About God Bless America, Goldthwait said to a small Halloween evening crowd at the Indiana University Cinema: “I wanted to indict rather than parody.
In God Bless America, a society teetering on the edge of cultural decay is declared in faux-reality series like Dumb Nutz, and a mock-up of American Idol called American Superstars, where the grotesque imagery of “reality” bombards sensitive, exasperated main character Frank’s tiny living room. Frank—played by Joel Murray—is a character, Goldthwait admitted, “most of my friends say is me.” Frank’s world is a right-wing mash-up of “9-11-2001 – Never Forget” license plates, American flags, radio heads screaming in military troupes’ defense, Obama in a Nazi uniform, and, most importantly for Goldthwait’s agenda, Sound Bites: meaningless perpetrators of a shallow society, where “No one talks about the personal or important,” but only about what was on TV the night before, regurgitating. Such is the timbre of Frank’s non-specific office drone environment, where he is assaulted with water cooler chat so disgorged he at last declares: “A shocking comment has more wit than the truth,” before unfolding his stapler, aiming it like a gun at his docile co-workers, and asking, “Why have a civilization anymore if we’re no longer interested in being civilized?”
Frank’s day only gets worse. Corporate higher-ups, citing a “No Tolerance” policy, after eleven years of employ, fire him for sending flowers to the receptionist. His next visit is to the doctor who, while informing Frank he has an inoperable brain tumor, takes a cell phone call, unleashing a painfully privileged litany, something about a newly souped-up car. Frank proceeds home. Against the endless wails of an infant next door, he sits couch-ridden, sipping beer, sobbing, yet again before the enormous boob tube, where teenage “reality goddess” Chloe rails at her father for buying her the “wrong” brand-new car, dropping the gem of a line, “You’re not listening to me. You’re talking to the cameras!” At this moment, Frank’s own phone rings, his estranged eight-year-old mirroring Chloe in her lament of the horror of her own mom having bought her a Blackberry instead of an iPhone. Frank hangs up, retrieves a pistol from a shoe box, steals his sobbing baby-wielding neighbors’ yellow Mustang, and drives to “reality goddess” Chloe’s high school. Unabashedly, in broad daylight, he shoots her.
Witness to the killing is sixteen-year-old Roxy, disgusted schoolmate of Chloe, played by Tara Lynne Barr, who couldn’t be happier with Frank’s murderous deed. The misanthropes team up, donning throwback garb à la Bonnie and Clyde, embarking on a nationwide killing spree aimed at obliterating the thoughtless and digitally absorbed—from people who take up two parking spaces, to boobs who take calls in the movie theater, Frank and Roxy unabashedly eliminate the American unkind.
The barefaced fact of Frank, a middle-aged man, running around the country alongside sexy, sixteen-year-old Roxy comes to the fore as the duo shops for bandit garb in a thrift store. “Frank,” asks Roxy, “Do you think I’m pretty?”
Frank’s response: “I refuse to objectify a child. Fuck R. Kelly! Fuck Vladimir Nabokov! Fuck Woody Allen! No one cares if they hurt other people.” Roxy’s response is deflated, sulking, as she attests to the absurdity of the duo carrying on as “platonic spree killers.”
I was reminded of this particular exchange during the Q&A session following the film, when Goldthwait, in response to a question as to his rationale behind casting Barr as Roxy, said, “When she came in to read, she didn’t play it too vampy. Other actresses were sexy, coquettish, doing the Lolita thing. Tara was wearing overalls.”
This all made me think of a discussion in a class I’m in, where we read “researched” fiction and poetry. Recently we discussed Nabokov’s Lolita as a historical work. Nabokov, in his essay, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” attests the novel’s inspiration as a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes who, “after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.”
This statement, coupled with the book’s stunning linguistic mastery, has always made me see Lolita as being about far more than pedophilia—far too complicated to be reduced to a dangerous text condoning child rape, or in some cryptic manner portraying Humbert Humbert as enviable. My sense has always been that Lolita, in pointing so blatantly and grotesquely to pedophilia, deflates its taboo. I have also secretly believed Nabokov’s choice to set the novel in America as a bit of a nod to the States’ sexual repression. He knew American readers (and publishers) would sexualize Lolita, characterize her, to quote Goldthwait, as “vampy,” in control of her own pre-adolescent, seductive powers, a self-aware temptress in her own right:
My class’s discussion digressed: a fellow student called Lolita “the “rape-iest” book he’d ever read, likely responsible for subsequent generations of rape culture. Questions swarmed: what should the academy include in its required reading lists? Should a progressive, Queer revaluation of texts chuck away Lolita for good?
I am fascinated with the conflicting views America projects upon “Lolita”—vampy actresses too young and seductive for their own good, adolescent temptresses in need of righting by an ethically firm, middle-aged Frank. Despite this brand of righteousness, sexual tension percolates every hotel room of God Bless America, Frank stubbornly refusing to share a bed, Roxy urging him on (as in Lolita, Frank and Roxy roam amongst cheap motels of the Eastern U.S.). An uncomfortably paternalistic extended scene features Frank teaching Roxy to shoot teddy-bear laden trees, prepping for banditry:
This is not to discount that God Bless America, assaulting and unforgettable in its depiction of a screen-sutured society obsessed with reality TV (scathing, not quite like anything I’ve seen before), renders Frank and Roxy’s joke that they’ll “move to France and start a goat farm,” wildly appealing. Goldthwait’s wit is wise, his declarations pristine, his intent earnest. And there’s nothing more cringingly American than Frank’s final words to Roxy, before detonating her, himself, and the entire studio audience and performers of competitive singing show, American Superstars: “I do think you’re pretty.”
August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found in HTMLGiant, Melusine, and Monkeybicycle.
By Kevin Blake
Josh Reames makes smart paintings. Whether he is deliberately utilizing painting tropes, such as the dripping brushstroke, or deploying obvious geometric abstraction, Reames’ work acknowledges his awareness of the painting vocabulary while creating his own grammar from canvas to canvas. Reames aligns his understanding of painterly tradition with his interpretation of contemporary experience that speaks directly to the viewer through text, emoji, palm trees, and anything that seems fitting in the moment of creation. As Reames carves out his own space in the painting world, he wittingly nods his head to a history he knows well.
Kevin Blake: You have an interest in the escapist ideal, and while those ideals are more overtly addressed in your multimedia constructions, I think your paintings, at times, depart from those ideas and allow for a more eclectic read. Can you talk about your modes of production and how those different methodologies have different relationships to your conceptual framework?
Josh Reames: Sure, I think the paintings lend themselves to an eclectic read, but only as a group. I try to keep individual paintings focused on specific ideas. I think all of the work addresses escapism, just in varied ways. The tropical imagery and psychedelic drug references are just as involved with escapism as the act of painting is. The eclectic read is a product of my scattered focus, which is probably a product of internet culture. My conceptual framework is pretty broad; if I had to describe my intentions with painting it would be to use painting as some sort of filtration device for cultural bi-product. I mean, I’m super into the idea of relativity (cultural, moral, etc.), and painting has this ability to literally flatten images and references into a rectangle. By pushing images together and composing them into a painting, you can flatten the references and remove the hierarchy of importance. So Abstraction, palm trees, emoji, drippy brushstrokes, dollar signs, cigarettes, and the Sphinx can all be flattened to the same level – composition. Either nothing is really dumb anymore, or all of it is, it’s getting hard to tell.
KB: You make pictures that perpetuate your grasp of the canon of abstract painting, and I wonder if there is any escape from those parameters. When you are making paintings, how do you filter your knowledge of abstraction (historical and contemporary) to maintain something that is your own? Can artists escape the initiated forms they supersede? Can painting ever escape from itself?
JR: Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like the need for iconoclasm is outdated. I think the idea of superseding or escaping abstraction comes from some need for a linear narrative of “this became that, then that became something else” which I think has been a legit way of understanding a progression of artists, at least for the past few hundred years. But now I think it’s a little different; sampling, re-sampling, homage, and straight plagiarism are all viable forms of historical awareness in art. The drippy brushstroke has historically been an abstract tool, meant to express the presence of the artist – a remnant of the physical self. But over time, that becomes a trope, a symbol separated from it’s original context. I think this is liberating in a way. It’s sort of like Tarantino using the tropes of old kung-fu films like Zatoichi and Lady Snowblood; he takes an outdated thing and makes it fresh. In that sense, Robert Motherwell or Franz Kline didn’t have the internet, so I have a fresh set of tools to play with.
KB: Is sampling, re-sampling, homage, and straight plagiarism unavoidable at this point?
JR: I mean, all the best artists have stolen, it’s just easier now. When you are completely inundated with images on a daily basis there becomes this subliminal pool of imagery and information that seeps into the studio. I don’t think it’s completely unavoidable, but if you are like most artists with access to the internet, it is pretty difficult to avoid. That being said, I don’t think there is anything wrong with it.
KB: Your paintings reference artists like Charline Von Heyl and Christopher Wool among others and I am curious as to how you think you arrived at those influences? What I am trying to understand from your perspective, is how you feel about so many artists drawing from the same well. The internet provides an infinite range of source material, yet the pool of imagery that seeps into your studio, seems to be oozing into everyone else’s simultaneously. Fortunately, you are distilling it all in an interesting way. It is a pattern in art history for contemporary artists to be in dialogue with one another. How do you negotiate those terms and demands?
JR: I love Wool and Von Heyl, I think they are some of the most important living painters. I relate to how Wool handles abstraction, especially with the screen prints, in an almost hands-off kind of way. He takes abstraction, historically an emotionally charged way of painting, and filters it through a Warhol-ian process that removes the hand. I think there is a lot of humor there, super dry though. So good! There are only so many ways to make paintings; different combinations of styles, tropes, paint handling, tools, etc. Eventually it’s not difficult to take a step back and see artists doing similar things. I’m not sure it matters though, as long as the thing being made is interesting and has some connection to the artist. After that it’s all personal taste.
KB:Shifting gears a bit, I was hoping to talk to you about text in your paintings. Often times, text is integrated into the image and sometimes the text appears to be squeezed out of the tube on top of an abstract composition–your paintings “YYY” and “Land Grab” come to mind. How does text operate for you in your paintings?
JR:Text is a way to guide the viewer, to give some sort of context to an otherwise abstract painting. I always integrate the text so that the letters or symbols double as marks, either sprayed or squeezed in the same way any other mark would be made on the canvas.
KB:I’m interested in your word choices and how, if at all, you see them as a personification of yourself. Or are the words derived from language you see fitting into your escapist trajectory?
JR:I keep a running list of text ideas in my sketchbook and on my iPhone. The word combinations that get used are usually really open ended, allowing for specific/individualized reads, but also have a specific connection to me. Sometimes it fits the escapist trajectory, but others will be references to books I’m reading or words that I came across that stuck with me.
KB: Can you talk about how the array of non-traditional painting materials have made their way into your painting practice? Spray paint, airbrush, and fluorescents, to name a few, seem to be the rage. Are these materials and/or high key palettes coincidence or do you think they reflect something more concrete?
JR:In a broad sense I think non-traditional painting materials, usually applied to abstraction, are a way to make abstraction relatable. Matias Cuevas’ poured paintings on carpet, or Andrew Greene’s glass abstractions are good examples; they bridge the gap between a messy abstraction which really just exists as a historical trope, and everyday materials, which pulls the trope into something new. I don’t think my work really fits in this category, I think using airbrush and fluorescents aren’t that uncommon; I started using the airbrush because I have no patience with paintbrushes. I’m a pretty shitty painter if you put a brush in my hand, I can never make it do what I want it to do! The airbrush is different, it’s way more versatile, and quick. As far as the high-key color palette’s go, I’m sure there’s some coincidence there, maybe trends – personally I just like shiny things…
KB:I think you are right, these techniques are becoming more and more common in contemporary painting practices. Maybe it relates to a culture of instant gratification, immediacy, and even escapism. Does the pace of everyday life influence your material applications and the speed at which you make your work?
JR:I agree, I think people (artists included) generally have a short attention span and as a result, a lot of impatience. I know I do. I am always able to look at a painting that took months to complete and think “wow, that took a lot of time”. But I don’t think the amount of time something takes makes it any better than if it was quick. Again, my use of the airbrush is entirely about speed and impatience. I want the paintings to look meticulous, with slick surfaces and plenty of precision – but I want to make a lot of paintings, so speed is key! The pace of everyday life probably has an indirect influence on that.
KB:Speaking of the pace of everyday life, how do things look in your studio right now as you prepare for your solo exhibition at Luis De Jesus in Los Angeles this January? What do you plan to show?
JR:It’s crazy in here, I just got back from an 11 day trip to NYC where I saw some pretty rad shows (Josh Smith, John McCracken, Joshua Abelow, etc.). It’s great to be back in the studio working on some new paintings. I think I’m going to make a handful of emoji paintings and text paintings with text-message shorthand. The working title is THE INTERNETS. Time is such a luxury though, I’ve been considering hiring a studio assistant so I don’t have deal with those pesky tasks like stretching and priming canvases… we’ll see!
Kevin Blake is an artist and writer working in Chicago.