Let’s talk about James Turrell. Yeah, its been a while, hasn’t it? He’s still out there, digging away at Roden Crater. Turrell also has a major retrospective up right now at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), and I recently had the opportunity to see that show. It was the first time I’d really gotten to experience Turrell’s work in person, which is (more than with any other artist) the only way to see it. It is really unlike any other art viewing I’ve ever experienced.
James Turrell: A Retrospective, at LACMA, is divided into two parts. Part 1 is a retrospective of projections and hollows, some dating as far back as the 1960s. Afrum (White) from 1966, is a projection of white light into the corner of a room, creating the illusion of a three-dimensional cube suspended in the space of the room. We walked into the mostly dark room and moved around a bit, and yeah, it’s trippy, it looks like it’s 3d. We were about to move on to the next room when the surprisingly helpful and friendly security guard volunteered the optimal way to view the piece. Following his advice, I started over. Closing one eye, he’d told me, helps the illusion (by eliminating binocular vision, you get rid of some of the visual cues that tell you what’s closer and what’s farther away). I also found that removing my eyeglasses reduced the focus enough that things like wall texture disappear, which also helped. The basic principle at work here is that a projected beam of light hitting the corner of a room, at a diagonal, the beam spreads out more and more as it nears the corner, because its farther away. This mirrors the way objects appear smaller as they get farther away, creating the phenomenon we call two-point perspective. The neat thing is that the illusion not only remains, but in fact becomes more and more convincing, as one moves about the room. Slowly, keeping my one uncovered eye trained on the projection, I walked across the room, watching the apparent cube rotate in the darkened room. By the time I reached the wall, looking along its length at the projection, it appeared totally to be a hovering, glowing box, floating off the wall.
The rest of Part 1 continued generally in this vein, early pieces mostly consisting of either this kind of projection, or of backlit cutouts into the walls. Turrell also produced a series of holograms, on display here, and the exhibition might give some hope to those working to preserve SAIC’s holography program. But the real money shot is in Part 2. We actually viewed Part 2 first, having been advised by a friend who’d seen the show that as it got later in the day the lines would get longer. Entering Part 2, we walked past the “Perceptual Cell,” a sort of Bathysphere-like contraption deigned to immerse one viewer at a time in an environment of colored light. Unfortunately, the piece required separate tickets beyond the separate tickets required for the rest of Turrell’s show, and they were both expensive (eighty bucks, I think) and sold out long before we had planned our trip to LA. (Even the remainder of Turrell’s show required separate tickets which had sold out for the day by the time we arrived at 11:45, but we’d bought ours in advance.)
For the rest of us, the heart of Part 2 was a 2011 piece called Purusa. After standing in line in a darkened hallway, shephered by security, we entered a sort of foyer. A long bench ran along one wall, with cubbies beneath for shoe storage. We were asked to take off our shoes and don little white booties while we waited. Opposite the bench was a ziggurat dias of carpeted steps, leading up to an aperture in the far wall, through which we watched the preceding group of viewers experiencing the piece beyond. The light in that space gradually changed, and gave those in it a sort of halo of a second color. I have no idea how this works, but for example when the light in the space was blue, those inside it seemed to have green halos around them. And then it was our turn and we were called into the space.
Purusa consists of a large room with the cross section of a rounded rectangle, so no corners are visible. Opposite the entry door is an open wall, opening into a space with a bare wall a few feet back. The room itself is let by bars of colored LEDs around the door, while the far wall is lit separately. The room is kept fairly dim, the far wall more brightly lit. The result has been described as being that of a physical screen, in the shape of a rounded rectangle, hanging in the space of the room. I could see this, but (perhaps in part as a result of having had it thus described) I saw it less as an object and more as a portal (as it is), but opening not into a shallow face blocked by a wall, but rather opening into a vast, featureless expanse. Okay, frankly, it made me think of the door to a shuttle bay in the Rebel base on Hoth. It had that bright, blank, vast, strangely-colored, polar sort of feel. At least at first.
Spending some time in the space, these physical associations began to diminish. I removed my eyeglasses, mostly to get the frames out of my peripheral vision, and faced a wall so that no other viewers were in my field of vision. And I stared blankly into space, into color, into light. It occurred to me that looking at Turrell’s installation felt a lot like how I look at a Rothko painting. In Washington DC, I think it was the fall of 2005, I went to the National Gallery, and somewhere they had a room full of Rothkos. I was there by myself, no timeline to speak of, and that’s when I figured out how to look at a Rothko. I approach the Rothko from across the room, forming a quick visual impression but not really lingering until I am close enough that the margins of the painting become lost in my peripheral vision. Aah, there it is. Now you can look at it. Not that you can actually see it, not yet, but you can start to look. If you wear corrective lenses you might take them off; petty details like the scumbled paint and the weave of the canvas, which those nose-to-the-surface would-be viewers take to be so important, are in fact entirely incidental. Rothko paints with what, at least to me, looks like a disregard for the paint. He paints like he wishes it was light. And, after a few minutes of staring, that’s what it becomes, that’s what it is. It occurs to you, that you aren’t seeing paint, that you can never see paint, that you can never see anything at all, except light. Photons, particles or waves, hitting you in the retina, through whatever intermediary barriers of nerves, aqueous and vitreous humors, lenses, cornea, and intervening air, but ultimately it’s just light hitting your brain. That’s how you look at a Rothko. It’s drugs, man. It’s drugs.
So you step inside the Turrell and everything’s weird, you’re thinking about Hoth and looking down at your hands, that weird marbling, dark blood and pale fat showing through the translucent skin, and you’re thinking about drugs, and light, and the color slowly, gradually changes. You suspect gradients, and question relationships. Look behind you, back through the door by which you came. Come on, art school kids, you’ve done this before. You know the light out there was white, or white-ish, a warm white I’d call “Institutional Incandescent.” The whole time you sat out there, it never changed, so you know it isn’t changing now. And you remember simultaneous contrast, the phenomenon by which colors shift towards the complement of adjacent colors, in the same way you have more game if you have an ugly wingman. And you remember your 2D design class, your color theory. The room is blue right now (and now blue was your color) and so of course when you look back, the outside room is going to be orange. But it’s not. It’s green. It’s fucking green. Green is its color.
So Turrell’s inside your fucking head, and he’s got a ballpein hammer and a pair of tin snips, and he’s just sort of banging away and cutting shit, seeing what happens. And you don’t know whether he knows. Is he like some Dr. Mengele, Dr. Moreau, mad scientist type, experimenting on us, blindly? Or is he more like some demonic Clive Barker villain or H.P. Lovecraft bumbling hero, offering to show us heretofore unseen worlds, but perhaps at some terrible cost? Of course not. That’s fucking silly. He’s just an old man, an artist, probably a bit of a hippie, or maybe we’re just stereotyping based on the long, gray beard. Maybe he’s a wizard.
There is, undeniably, something about Turrell’s work that makes you feel like there’s an experiment going on, and you’re not sure if you’re a peer reviewer examining the results, or a subject providing data. In this there’s something a lot like Olafur Eliasson, who in his semi-recent (last few years, look it up) exhibition at the MCA Chicago provided a similar sort of experimental, experiential exhibition. One was a round walled enclosure of changing colored light, which one viewed in a way similar to the way you experience Purusa, albeit on a more modest scale. Another was a corridor filled with amber light, to which ones eyes become so adjusted that, upon leaving, the whole world is bright goddamned violet.
So anyway, Turrell’s got this place, Roden Crater, out near my new digs in Flagstaff, Arizona. And you can’t go there. Neither can I, for that matter. It’s pretty tightly guarded, and while you can find it on a map, generally, the exact location is a pretty closely guarded secret. I saw a lecture the Psychology department at Northern Arizona University (where I now teach) put on about Turrell’s work, and it was such a tease, the presenter sort of apologized for getting us all hard and sending us home with blueballs. So far, the only people who can go out there, unless you “know somebody,” are people who have supported the project through purchases of major works. As for the general public? It’s anyone’s guess. Wikipedia cites an article, from 2007, as saying Turrell intends to open the place for public viewing…in 2007.
Reading a bit of art theory or criticism, it won’t take you long to find an author talking about viewing something through the lens of third-wave feminism or seeing something in a Modernist frame. The lens and the frame are referenced metaphorically so often in today’s writing that their presence is nearly ubiquitous, almost as though a piece of art writing is incomplete without the presence of at least one such optical metaphor.
Certainly, the lens and the frame are useful as metaphors, but as used, they are also quite limited. As an experiment, the next time you see one used, replace “frame” or “lens” with “context,” adjust the necessary conjunctions, and see if any meaning is lost. If in a given piece of writing, “seen through a queer lens” could just as easily be “seen in a queer context,” then the optical device isn’t living up to its potential as metaphor.
The chief ways in which optical metaphors can be improved in our writing are through diversity and specificity. These go hand-in-hand: the more diverse our optical metaphors become, the more specific they are able to be. Lenses, for example, can be convex-convex (the usual “lenticular” shape, which incidentally I suspect of being where lentils got their name, though I’ve done no research on this), but they can also be flat or concave on one or both sides. So, some lenses are plano-convex, others are convex-concave. These lenses behave differently and have different applications, and so could be employed in a diverse range of metaphorical applications.
The difference between a lens of any type and a frame is that we are directly aware of the ways in which lenses alter the image we are seeing. A biconvex lens held at the right distance from the eye will magnify the image. (At this distance, the image is not inverted; held out further, the image inverts, but the reason why is beyond my ability to explain from memory, so go Google a diagram.) This is the classic magnifying glass. Other types of lenses, such as eyeglasses, subtly alter the focal distance of our eyes (or rather, adjust the image to account for a flawed focal distance). Multiple-lens apparatuses like binoculars and microscopes magnify and can be focused. The point is that we are immediately aware of this alteration of the image we are seeing, because it is inherent to the function of the lens-based device.
Not so the frame. The untrained viewer thinks of the fame as a neutral context, setting the image off from its environment, perhaps, but not altering the image itself. Training in design and composition conveys an understanding of concepts like simultaneous contrast, which holds that a black frame can make an image look lighter in the same way that we can appear taller by standing next to a shorter person. Even to a highly-trained viewer, however, the frame, assuming it is a subtle, appropriate frame, becomes invisible, and it exerts its effect on the image outside our conscious awareness.
Metaphorically, then, the frame can serve more as an unconscious bias, changing an image indirectly, by the context of its presence, and without the viewer’s conscious awareness. When you see something in a given frame, that frame alters what you are seeing, but does do without your knowledge or consent. It takes alertness and training to become aware of the influence of the frame, and even with this awareness, its influence may not be negated. To return to the initial example, seeing something in a Modernist frame may mean unconsciously minimizing the political, activist, Conceptual, gendered, or other meanings of a work, and perhaps emphasizing the rapturous and sublime, along with overt formal analysis which is the ostensible goal of this frame. If the intention is to directly change the meaning of the subject, then the frame may be the wrong metaphor; perhaps a lens is intended instead.
A lens serves more as a conscious agenda. The function of lenses and lens-based devices tends to be to magnify, to enhance, or to focus a blurry image. Alteration of our perception of the original is the intention of the device. When used as a metaphor, then, the lens is a much more aggressive, but also honest, recontextualization. The effect is more direct, less subtle, more provocative, less manipulative. When we view something through the lens of third-wave feminism, we aren’t subtly altering that thing by its context. Instead, we are asserting, perhaps radically, that the original was either too small or too distant to be perceived accurately, or else that it was out of focus: essentially, that our subject was fucked up, and that third-wave feminism provides the necessary means to fix it.
These differences between the simple lens and the frame are only the beginning of the linguistic possibilities of the optical metaphor. Someone better versed that I in the effects of different types of lenses could apply those effects metaphorically. Devices composed of multiple lenses, such as telescopes, microscopes, binoculars, spotting scopes, and riflescopes each have their own potential applications. Viewing the work of an international artist through the telescope of globalization may bring their work closer, make it more accessible, but at the cost of a reduced field of vision, that is, the obfuscation of the cultural context in which the work was created—not to mention that as a monocular device, the telescope eliminates the viewer’s depth perception, so that while it appears to bring the subject closer, it makes it impossible to tell exactly how far away that subject is.
These classic, purely optical devices aren’t the only possibility for optics-based metaphors. For example, consider the fact that a viewer’s experience of relational art may be clouded by their participation in it, yielding a subjective response that is no less valuable, but is uniquely personal, because of their involvement. We might say that a viewer-participant sees relational aesthetics “through the glare of the fingerprint-streaked touch screen of their participation.”
In reading art theory and criticism, and even more so in writing our own, let’s consider the diversity of optical devices and viewing contexts that exist in the world, and the specific meanings that can be conveyed by this diversity. Consider critiquing works of art through the pinhole camera of Minimalism, distorted by the funhouse mirror of racism, or fractured by the prism of semiotics. What could these mean? I don’t purport to have the answers, but by way of example, I once compared a thematic group exhibition to the compound eye of an insect, producing an image of its subject by combining a large number of images produced by slightly different points of view (the artists in the exhibition). I’d like to see more, and hopefully better, metaphors like this, in which writers consider all manner of viewing devices as potential linguistic devices, rather than immediately, lazily defaulting to the lens or the frame, out of habit rather than specificity.
The challenges of earning a living as a working artist are well-known, and artists find various ways to support themselves. Some work in entirely unrelated fields, or in peripherally related fields, photographing weddings or painting faux finishes on wealthy homes. Others try seeking employment at a museum or gallery. Paid curatorial or critical positions are difficult to come by, and artists seeking these positions find themselves competing against dedicated curators and writers. To find a stable, financially-sustainable career, in a field related to our training in art, many artists therefore turn to teaching.
Teaching isn’t right for everyone, as many recent MFA graduates in need of employment quickly learn. For some, teaching itself simply isn’t a good fit. For many more, however, the discouragement originates outside the classroom. Entry-level teaching positions typically involve a combination of part time positions including non-academic teaching at community art centers such as LillStreet, Hyde Park, Highland Park, and Evanston Art Centers, and adjunct teaching at a variety of colleges and universities.
Adjuncts have been performing more and more of the college-level teaching in recent years, and while this does mean there are a lot of opportunities for part-time teaching for recent MFA graduates, it also means that more and more instructors find themselves commuting from one institution to another, trying to piece together a living like a hippie kid sewing a pair of patchwork pants. For some, the challenges of adjunct teaching are too much to bear, and sometimes even those with a real inclination towards teaching find themselves seeking other employment. For others, though, adjunct teaching is simply a first step towards a full-time teaching position.
Every search committee has something it’s looking for. The secret to getting hired is to be that. The problem is that, probably due to the rigidly formal process that searches have become, search committees rarely publish or advertise these desires. They list required qualifications and desirable qualifications, but will only rarely state a preference in terms of, for example, whether a painting candidate should work abstractly or figuratively, even when this is in fact the primary criterion on which they will select candidates for the first round of interviews. Looking at the work of my various friends and colleagues who have full-time teaching positions, it is clear that each institution, conducting each search, has looked for something different, and that no one style or technique or type of subject matter is a guarantee of employment. The best you can do, if you want to get hired, is to be really, really good at whatever it is that you do.
Of course, even that isn’t a guarantee; some institutions prioritize teaching experience, an exhibition record, or other criteria, more than an aesthetic evaluation of the candidate’s work. In general, it has seemed to me that community colleges tend to look primarily at a candidate’s teaching experience first and foremost, almost to the exclusion of other criteria. By contrast, art schools such as SAIC tend to hire their full-time faculty almost exclusively on the basis of their exhibition records and other professional accomplishments, with the presumption apparently being that students at an art school will benefit the most from working with a successful artist, rather than an experienced teacher, and it seems that this success is more important than the particulars of an artist’s methods. Four-year colleges and universities seem to take a more balanced approach, taking both teaching experience and exhibition history into consideration, but more than other institutions tend to look at the applicant’s own studio work as a criterion for selection. I’m sure there are a plethora of exceptions to this, but this is the general impression I have gotten from my observations of searches and their conclusions.
One could draw a variety of conclusions from these observations: “Don’t bother applying at an art school if you haven’t had a museum show,” for example, or “Rack up a few years as an adjunct before applying at a community college.” The exceptions to my general observations are numerous enough, however, that this approach could cause one to miss an opportunity to apply for a position for which one might be hired. It could also cause one to neglect an important aspect of one’s own development. After submitting numerous applications for full-time teaching positions while in the second year of my MFA, and receiving nothing for it but a quiver full of rejection letters, I moved to Chicago, and worked for a year in a hardware store while pursuing both local and national teaching positions. By fall of 2008 I had secured part-time teaching positions at two community art centers, as well as an adjunct position at Wilbur Wright Community College, where I taught for the next five years. In September 2010 I also began teaching at Malcolm X Community College.
After I began teaching as an adjunct, I stopped applying for full-time teaching positions, focusing instead on other aspects of my professional development. I worked on developing and improving my syllabi and assignments, seeing what worked and what didn’t work in the classroom. I also stayed active in the studio, completing paintings and pursuing exhibition opportunities, as well as writing, curating exhibitions, and viewing as many exhibitions as I possibly could. All of these activities were of course ends unto themselves, but also served to add to my resume with the goal of resuming my full-time job search after I had gained some adjunct experience. After a date had been set for my exhibition Living Dead Girls at Linda Warren Projects, I decided that it was time to resume my job search.
Beginning in 2011, I began applying for every position for which I was even nominally qualified, including both positions that did not appear particularly desirable to me (but which I was willing to accept if that’s where I was wanted), as well as positions which appeared either improbably desirable or clearly beyond my experience level (director of MFA programs and similar advanced positions). The positions for which I was applying were located not just in the Chicago area but all across the country and in some cases internationally. I was willing to relocate anywhere, and accept any position, in order to secure a full-time teaching job.
Over the past three years, I have applied for 122 positions: I keep a list. I would search the listings on the College Art Association, Higher Ed Jobs, and the Chronicle of Higher Education websites, as well as Academic Keys and Chicago Artist’s Resource. This works out to just under one job application per week. It was a serious time commitment, quite stressful…and also depressing.
I keep a binder full of rejection letters (120 rejection letters from teaching jobs, 66 of them emails, dating back to 2007). I keep mine in a three-ring binder in page protectors, in chronological order, a habit I started when I first applied to graduate school in 2002. I kept all of my MFA program rejection letters, and there were quite a few; it took me three years to get in, and in the second of those years I applied to 19 programs. A lot of my friends and peers thought this cataloging was obsessive, even pathological, but I found it perversely helpful. If nothing else, it was proof that I was trying. A fellow job searcher I met at CAA this past year in New York had an alternative solution; she gave her rejection letters to her pet parrot, who enjoys tearing them into confetti.
Not every position sent me a rejection letter: 13 positions starting in Fall 2012, for example, never got back to me, leaving me to infer my rejection from their silence. A few of these 122 positions, however, did select me for an interview: 5 positions, to be precise, or 4% of those positions for which I applied. The first was Central Illinois College, in Peoria, IL. We did a telephone interview in summer of 2011, which apparently didn’t go very well, as there was no follow up. The next institution to contact me was in Fall 2012, when Windward Community College (in Hawaii) contacted me for a position starting in Spring 2013. This search was conducted entirely by telephone. The initial interview included a teaching demonstration, which I performed over the phone, using PDFs I had emailed as visual aids. This went well, and a follow-up telephone interview was scheduled, which I also felt went well. It must have been down to me and one or two other candidates, but ultimately, I was not selected for this position either. The University of Washington in Bothell expressed interest in my application and asked for a few follow-up documents, but this didn’t lead to an interview.
Then, this past spring (2013), two more institutions contacted me for phone interviews. The first was Suffolk County Community College, in Riverhead (Long Island), New York. We did a phone interview, which went well enough that I was invited to fly out to Riverhead for an on-campus interview and teaching demonstration. I felt this went exceptionally well; however, and somewhat unusually, there was to be a third round of interviews, again by telephone, to select a final candidate. I was not one of those chosen for this final round of phone interviews.
Lastly, I was contacted by Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff AZ. I was initially offered a telephone interview, which I felt went very well. The department chair then emailed me to schedule a telephone conversation in which he informed me that I had been chosen for an on-campus interview. I was flown out, given a tour of the campus, and gave a PowerPoint presentation on how I would teach a drawing class. The overall feeling was very positive, and as anyone who follows me on Facebook knows, I was offered the job, which I accepted. My contract begins August 19th. I will be returning to Chicago regularly, particularly because my wife, Stephanie Burke, will be remaining here in her position at Harold Washington College, but also for events such as Expo Chicago in September 2013, and the College Art Association conference in February 2014. I intend to maintain my connections with the Chicago art scene including exhibitions, writing, and curating. It won’t be easy, but as an integral part of moving my career forward, it is a challenge I am eager to face.
For those of my friends and readers who are going through this job search process themselves, I hope that my experiences can be of some help. I recommend my approach of applying for every position for which one is even nominally qualified, even though it may seem like a waste of time: every time you apply for a position is an opportunity to revamp your CV, rewrite your artist’s statement and teaching philosophy, etc. In between applications, stay active in your studio, keep working as an adjunct, and pursue exhibition opportunities as well as other professional experience: while any one position may value on of these categories over the others, the next position may be the opposite, so they’re all valuable. Share job opportunities with your friends, even if they’re positions you’re also applying for: the search is looking for something, and your friend may be it, even if you’re not, but there are enough people out there looking for jobs, you’re not going to get one just because your friends didn’t apply.
Speaking of numbers, a few of my rejection letters have given the actual number of applicants, which average around 190 applicants per position. From these applicant pools, the campus selects a number of finalists, usually around 10 to 15, for initial interviews, either by phone or at CAA. Based on these interviews the institution chooses between 2 to 5 finalists for on-campus interviews, which often involve a teaching demonstration. The exact procedures vary, but in general, you might derive from this that institutions conduct initial interviews, whether by phone or at CAA, with about 1 in 20 applicants. Conversely you might expect to do one phone interview per 20 applications submitted, and it might be that you will do four to six phone interviews before becoming a finalist with an on-campus interview.
If you are offered a phone interview, you will want to plan in advance your answers to some commonly asked questions. Ask your friends who have interviewed what questions they were asked, and anticipate your answers to the same. During or immediately after each phone interview, write down the questions you were asked, so you can rehearse your answers for future interviews. Here are some questions I have been asked in phone interviews:
Why do you want to teach at (this type of institution)?
Why do you want to teach at (this specific institution)?
What interests you about this department/college/school?
What can you contribute to this program?
What’s the hardest thing about teaching?
What is your biggest fault?
How do you address techniques versus ideas?
What creates a positive learning environment?
How do you assess the success or failure of your learning outcomes?
Is art objective, subjective, or both? How would you explain this to a student?
Where do you see this department going?
How could you expand this department, improving it to increase enrollment?
How would you deal with a student who wants to pursue art outside of school?
How do you deal with meeting the differing needs of students?
What do you do at each different level (beginning, intermediate, advanced)?
What are different techniques you can use?
What special topics could you address?
Do you discuss your own artwork with students? When, how, and why?
Discuss your art practice.
How do you keep your art practice fresh?
What are you going to do if your tenure duties interrupt your studio practice?
Are there any questions you were expecting, that we didn’t ask?
Do you have any questions for us?
Occasionally, something strange happens at the end of a phone interview. During one phone interview I did, the school’s telephone system had a very poor connection, and we kept getting cut off. It was of course frustrating, but I kept my cool and stayed friendly. At the end of the call, we said our thanks and goodbyes, and I waited for them to hang up (not wanting to hang up first, in case there was an “Oh, and one last thing…” But they didn’t hang up. They started talking about me.
I didn’t listen long, because I didn’t want to be discovered and have it reflect poorly on me, but of course I was tempted. The one thing I heard before hanging up was that they liked how, when the phones cut out, I stayed positive, “unlike the last guy.” So apparently the poor phone connections were a recurring problem, and while unintentional, served as a de facto part of the “test.” Remember, a big factor in the interview process is the committee asking themselves, “Do we want to work with this person?” I recently spoke with a friend who also had the experience of a phone interview committee not knowing he was still on the line when they started discussing him; he listened through their entire discussion. The insights gained from this fly-on-the-wall opportunity might be invaluable, but I will leave it to my readers’ discretion to decide whether it is ethical and worth the risk.
A safer way to get some feedback on your interview skills and application materials is to take advantage of the mock interviews and portfolio reviews at the College Art Association Conference. The next one is in Chicago, February 12-15, 2014, at the Hilton Chicago (a change from 2010, when it was held at the Hyatt Regency). To access mentoring and mock interview services at the CAA Conference, a current CAA membership is required, but conference registration is not. So, make sure your CAA membership is up-to-date, and bring your membership card, but you don’t need to register for the conference itself to use these services (or the candidate center and interview hall). The feedback they provide is a big help in the job search process. Good luck.
Last month at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicagoans had a chance to see all five films of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. Cremaster has a role in the art world similar to that of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction: everybody knows about it, art students reference it in papers, and relatively few (of my classmates back when I was in school) actually bothered to read it. Cremaster, like Art In The Age…, is taken as a given. We all know some basic facts: Matthew Barney used to play football, he’s married to Bjork, he thinks of himself as a sculptor, and he made these movies which are basically all about his nads. Having seen a few artifacts in a group show at a contemporary art museum, and maybe having watched The Order on DVD, most of my artist friends feel like they’ve got a pretty good grasp on what Barney and Cremaster (the artist being basically synonymous with this one project) are all about. Few have watched any of the actual films, at least not all the way through, and far, far fewer, after having watched one, have felt compelled to watch the other four.
Well, my wife Stephanie Burke and I decided to join those narrow ranks, and last month we watched all five Cremaster films. Fortunately, the Siskel has a bar. From the sound of pop tops and rolling bottles, most of the audience had elected to bring their own booze, but Steph and I are patrons of the arts, and supported the Siskel by buying literally all the Guinness they had. This helped to wash down the films, and is a recommended procedure for anyone viewing them in the future. Frankly, arthouse cinemas are a poor choice for showing these films, with the expectation of propriety and somber contemplation. There are some scenes in these films that are awkwardly comical, and a setting that encourages laughter would really make the viewing experience a lot more pleasant. There is, of course, no admonition against laughing at the Siskel, but when you’re surrounded by a bunch of serious-looking people watching the film like they’re listening to their grandfather’s eulogy, laughing, even when something is really funny, starts to feel like you’re farting in church.
The Cremaster films aren’t the kind of linear narratives that rely, like an M. Night Shyamalan picture, on unexpected twists and turns to sustain the viewer’s interest, so I’ll eschew the usual “spoiler alert” you’d expect from a movie review. (As I write these words, everyone’s bitching about people revealing what happened on last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, which I haven’t seen yet either, but I’m inclined to say “Fuck ‘em if they haven’t read the books.” It’s a nice day for a…Red Wedding.)
Having some context about what’s going on can help; if you’ve got the big picture, you can focus on the details and nuance, sort of like reading Infinite Jest for the second time. (More on David Foster Wallace later.) I won’t bother writing up a detailed synopsis, as that work has already been done, so if you’re like a summary, along with a lot of interesting background information and context, check it out: http://www.cremasterfanatic.com/Synopsis.html
One well-known fact about the Cremaster films is that, like Star Wars, their sequential numbering does not reflect the order in which they were shot. They were shot in the following sequence: Cremaster 4 (1994), Cremaster 1 (1995), Cremaster 5 (1997), Cremaster 2 (1999), Cremaster 3 (2002). This creates an interesting effect in which the quality of the visual effects, which were undergoing something of a digital revolution in the late 1990s, is fairly dated in the first film, improves a little by the second, peaks in the third, and then drops off drastically in the fourth, before picking up a tad at the end. The films aren’t by any stretch effects-heavy blockbusters, but Cremaster 4 in particular shows its age in terms of the film quality, whereas Cremaster 3, the last to be filmed, is fairly polished.
Of course, unlike the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s something of a chore to sit down and watch all 398 minutes (over six and one-half hours) of the Cremaster films. (A LoTR marathon, on the other hand, especially in a theater with a good bar, and decent meal breaks between films, is an absolutely transcendent experience.) At the Siskel, at least (not sure if this is how it’s always done), they played 1 and 2 as a double feature, the longer part 3 by itself, and then parts 4 and 5 as a double feature. Part 3 conveniently includes an intermission, great for a much-needed potty break and Guinness refill. There were a couple of showtime options, and due to our schedules, we watched the films neither in numerical sequence nor in the order in which they were filmed, but rather arbitrarily: first we watched Cremaster 4 and 5, then took a day off, then watched Cremaster 3, and the next day finished off with 1 and 2.
Just as nobody can remember that Star Trek 4 is called The Voyage Home (and consequently everyone calls it “The One With The Whales”), the weird sequencing and semi-narrative structure of the Cremaster films makes it hard to remember which one was which. The above-linked synopses will give you a long-form breakdown of what’s in each film, but if you’ve seen them and are having a hard time remembering which was which, here’s a quick guide in the form of suggested subtitles:
Cremaster 4: “Bukkake Goat Motorcycle Race.”
Cremaster 5: “Meat Mangina Mermaid Opera.”
Cremaster 3: “Masonic Punk Bands Dental Demolition Derby”
Cremaster 1: “Grape-Eating Football Blimp Chorus Girls”
Cremaster 2: “Gas Station Murder Beehive Sex Rodeo”
These give a sense of the semiotic smorgasbord Barney uses in his films, which is basically what Moe on The Simpsons was referring to in explaining postmodernism to Homer: “You know, weird for the sake of being weird.” This isn’t to say that the imagery is arbitrary, rather, it is carefully considered and thematically consistent, if frequently unexpected. Rather than engage in a tiresome deconstruction of this content, I’ll combine an inventory of its themes with a helpful aid for a more enjoyable viewing experience. May I present to you…
The Cremaster Cycle Drinking Game! Abnormal Prosthetic Genetalia? Drink! Multiple Young Women In Identical, Revealing Costumes Performing Synchonized Movements? Drink! Bizarre Footwear? Drink! Crawling Through A Confined Space? Drink! “That looks like semen.” Drink! The Presentation of Ritual Regalia? Drink? Ominous, Mysterious Agents of Power? Drink! Human-Animal Hybrid? Drink! Group of fawning, adoring women? Drink! Overt reminder of Barney’s athletic background? Drink!
The general unavailability of Barney’s films for home viewing (outside of The Order), and the general discouragement towards playing drinking games in arthouse cinemas, make this game more theoretical than practical. You could play it at home with a DVD of The Order, lurk on eBay for a bootleg, or bring enough friends to the theater that that’d have a hard time kicking all of you out. Or just play it quietly on your own.
If films are placed on a continuum, from “movies” to “art,” Matthew Barney’s work stands just on the “art” side of the imaginary dividing line, buttressed on the “movie” side by David Lynch. They both elicit the same “Well, that was fucking weird” response from the general public, and both attract a certain fan base of intellectuals with a taste for the bizarre. David Foster Wallace once wrote an article on David Lynch’s films in which he discusses the way they straddle this line; it’s a great article and a good point, but ultimately Lynch’s films are still what Wallace calls “Entertainments,” that is, you can sit down and watch them and it’s fun. They’re smarter than most, granted, but they still function that way.
Not so with Barney’s Cremaster Cycle. Although they lack Lynch’s ironic juxtaposition of the macabre and the mundane (Wallace’s description), something about the Cremaster films nevertheless makes me think of David Lynch, and specifically of Wallace’s essay on Lost Highway. Lynch and Wallace seem to buttress the fine divide between cinema and art film like a pair of bookends holding up a single sheet of paper. Compare Barney to other artist-filmmakers, such as Nathalie Djurberg (I had to Google “ass-licking claymation tiger” to remind myself of her name) or Shirin Neshat. Cremaster is undeniably more like a movie than are those artists’ films, and not just because it’s longer (compare with Warhol’s Sleep or Empire). It may be something to do with context; I’ve seen Neshat and Djurberg’s films in galleries, while Barney’s films I have seen only in theaters (the galleries show ephemera, sketches, and sculptures). The combination of duration, context, and the nature of the films themselves puts them on the cinematic edge of art film, but they ultimately rest on this side of that fence. Cremaster leans up against that divide, shaped by it like a mold full of Vaseline, ultimately conforming to Wallace’s definition of art film, which he uses to explain how Lynch’s films are neither art nor commercial, but something else.
Art film is essentially teleological; it tries in various ways to “wake the audience up” or render us more “conscious.” (This kind of agenda can easily degenerate into pretentiousness and self-righteousness and condescending horsetwaddle, but the agenda itself is large-hearted and fine.) Commercial film doesn’t seem like it cares much about the audience’s instruction or enlightenment. Commercial film’s goal is to “entertain,” which usually means enabling various fantasies that allow the moviegoer to pretend he’s somebody else and that life is somehow bigger and more coherent and more compelling and attractive and in general just way more entertaining than a moviegoer’s life really is. You could say that a commercial movie doesn’t try to wake people up but rather to make their sleep so comfortable and their dreams so pleasant that they will fork over money to experience it-the fantasy-for-money transaction is a commercial movie’s basic point. An art film’s point is usually more intellectual or aesthetic, and you usually have to do some interpretative work to get it, so that when you pay to see an art film you’re actually paying to work (whereas the only work you have to do w/r/t most commercial film is whatever work you did to afford the price of the ticket).
“Paying to work” sounds like a harsh indictment of the experience of viewing a film, but in regard to Cremaster, it’s accurate. The hope is that this work proves rewarding for the viewer, and with the help of a few trips to the bar, it’s not too painful.
The art world loves community. Well, the art world loves the word, “community.” Or, at least, it might, if we could figure out what the “art world” is, anyway, which is by no means a new problem. The issues may in fact be quite closely related. The art world is one of those subcultures that, while in reality a fuzzy-edged cluster of individuals, is easily perceived both by those within and without its borders as being the hard-edged rounded rectangle of an Illuminati card (Liberal, Weird). “The CIA is going to attempt to control The Art World, and I’m going to put…50 Megabucks on that attack.” (Which, by the way, actually happened.)
At least, we’d like to think that if the art world were an Illuminati card, it would be Liberal and Weird. (If you’re not familiar with the game, just translate that as, “We’d like to think the art world is liberal and weird.”) But that presumes a certain homogeneity that just isn’t there, as in fact did my own presumption that we (me, and you who are reading this) both want the art world to be the same, certain thing. That is by no means a sure thing. If for sake of discussion we can continue to refer to the art world as a single entity, then along with “community,” it also praises “diversity.” That value is tested when one learns that diversity means hanging out with a bunch of people with whom one doesn’t agree, and whom one might not even like.
So what, then, does the concept of community really mean within the context of the art world? The answers that spring to mind come in the form of analogies: the art world as ecosystem, the art world as family, the art world as neighborhood. Any of these metaphors can provide insight into the nature and structure of a subculture, but they can also be misleading, as well as potentially offensive and therefore divisive: the vulture is an invaluable part of the ecosystems it inhabits, but few would want to be called the vultures of the art world. (“He only collects work by dead artists. Also, he’s bald, and when it’s hot out, he shits on his legs.”)
So it’s like Hannibal Lecter says in Silence of the Lambs: “First principles. Read Marcus Aurelius: ‘Of each particular thing ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature?’ What does he do, this man you seek?” And as we try to piece together exactly what it is that we do, in this so-called art world of ours, to answer the question, I cringe, expecting any answer I give to be followed by Anthony Hopkins shouting, “No! That is incidental!”
But nevertheless, the immediate answer, the “He kills women” answer that Lecter would have rejected as superficial, reveals part of the problem. Mostly I paint, and draw, and I also teach, and write, and sometimes I curate, and perform, and basically do a whole bunch of different stuff. All of this is part of what it means to be a member of the “Artist” subset of the art world. There are also critics and curators and collectors and dealers, and while there is a lot of overlap, those who excel in one field tend to be specialists, if only in that the expenditure of time is a zero-sum game.
While each individual participant may bring something else to the equation, our individual efforts add up to a collaborative result, and that conglomerate of artwork and text and ephemera is the collective production of the art world. And to what end? I’d like to think, I think we’d all like to think, that our goal is to make the world a better place. Like the fictional Weyland-Yutani Corporation from Aliens, perhaps our motto is, “Building Better Worlds.” But isn’t that a bit vague? After all, isn’t that how everybody, in any field, likes to see what they do? Doctors save lives , lawyers fight for justice, invading armies are delivering freedom, and timber harvesting companies are creating jobs. Any human activity can be rationalized in terms of making the world better in one way or another, and that includes a lot of things that are antithetical to the individual ethics to which many artists subscribe. How can we be sure that we’re really making the world a better place, rather than merely producing luxury commodities ultimately no different from a BMW or a yacht?
One metric, and I’m not saying it’s a perfect one, might be that, rather than ends justifying the means we use to reach them, the means we use to reach our ends might give an indication of the worthiness of those ends. In short: If you have to do shitty things to reach your goal, maybe it’s a shitty goal. Sometime around 1999 or 2000, Google informally adopted the corporate motto or slogan, “Don’t be evil,” and while opinions are varied on how well they are living up to this, the principle is a good enough starting point. If it has a limitation it’s that “evil” as a word carries connotations of such unmistakable atrocity that it may be hard to see how it applies in morally ambiguous situations: if we use the word “evil” to refer to something on the level of genocide, its hard to apply the same term to something like failing to credit the inspiration for an artwork. In its place, we might simply say, “Don’t be a dick,” or in polite company, “Be cool.”
The question of the ethics and etiquette of the art world has been on my mind a lot lately, for a few reasons. Last August I bought and reviewed “I like your work: art and etiquette” by Paper Monument; actually my “review” consisted of answering the same questions that they asked of those they interviewed for the book. More recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the idea of ethics and etiquette in the art world, and about art communities, and ultimately about what we’re all doing and why, because I’ve got some smart, awesome friends who are putting in serious work to make Chicago’s art scene a better place. Claire Molek, formerly of This Is Not The Studio, is behind those ads you’ve seen on the Brown Line for the “Brave New Art World.” The BNAW manifesto describes it as “an arts unification movement dedicated to the service of consciousness,” dedicated to the belief that “there is infinite, inherent value in the practice, product and distribution of art as a vehicle for consciousness.” What makes BNAW different is that, unlike a lot of the other (and also very worthwhile) alternative art organizations, it doesn’t seek to colonize an up-and-coming neighborhood with for-now cheap rent and no history of art exhibitions (or collectors).
The Brave New Art World kicked off this past Thursday in River North, a neighborhood with a long history of art exhibitions, high rents, and a reputation (deserved or not) for conservatism and an aging base of collectors and patrons. It’s the neighborhood the cool kids love to hate, characterizing it as a bastion of old money and boring art. By launching in this context, BNAW eschews the romantic appeal of the anti-establishment revolutionary ideology, and seeks instead to work within existing structures to renew and reform, rather than to destroy and replace. It’s a smart move for everybody involved, if this mutualism proves sustainable, because it brings a new generation of innovative and experimental artists into contact with long-established galleries and collectors. The galleries need new artists to remain relevant in an evolving art market, collectors (we’d hope) are eager to see things they haven’t seen before, and artists benefit by showing their work in established spaces where people actually buy art. Some River North galleries have a strong history of showing emerging artists, and several have dedicated space or programming to this end: David Weinberg has dedicated a portion of his space to The Coat Check, Catherine Edelman has a long history of supporting emerging photographers through The Chicago Project, and Jennifer Norback recently added The Project Room to her gallery. The Brave New Art World has the potential to build upon and expand these programs and others like them, to breath new life into this long-established gallery district.
The launch of a new endeavor raises again the question of ethics and ideology, of what means shall be used to achieve these ends. Another of my smart and awesome friends, Jake Myers, recently wrote a sort of opinion piece (published on the Brave New Art World site) on some of the dirty aspects of the art world, and opportunities to better, from an ethical perspective. Some of what he wrote is prone to misinterpretation, and one passage in particular bears closer examination:
Instead of backstabbing, manipulating or using people for short-term gain, some people like to maintain healthy, friendly, long-term working relationships. Reward people who support you and bring other thoughtful, like-minded people into your cohesive crew. This is how communities and art movements begin.
Preceded by the heading “Friends who curate friends, “ and followed by a reference to a certain collaborative team, it would be easy to read this paragraph as a guilty plea to a charge of cliquish nepotism, but I read it differently.
We once bought a pair of feeder mice for our beloved ball python, Snake, but she was about to shed so she wouldn’t eat. We kept the mice for a couple days in a small cage, fed them granola and made sure they had water, so they would be comfortable while they awaited their fate. One morning I awoke to find that one of the mice had killed the other and eaten its face (here we are back to Hannibal Lecter again). Apparently, I’ve since learned, mice kept in too close proximity will suffer stress, which can result in them killing each other and eating each other’s faces. If you compare the number of graduates from art schools and MFA programs (to say nothing of the self-taught), and compare that to the number of available galleries, collectors, teaching positions, and other opportunities, we shouldn’t be so surprised to see an unfortunate number of young and not-so-young, struggling and not-so-struggling artists kill each other and eat one another’s faces, metaphorically speaking.
What I think Jake, and Claire, and a lot of other smart, awesome people, many of whom I am privileged to call friends, are saying right now, although maybe not in these terms, is that we need to stop being a bunch of mice, which are bitchy, murderous, face-eating piss and shit factories. (I know, I know, they’re cute. But they’re also really gross, and eat each other’s faces.) Instead, we need to be more like vampire bats. Now, if you’re familiar with Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and with the discussion of biological altruism, you may have an idea of where I’m going with this, and may in fact already be mouthing the words to you rebuttal. But bear with me. Dawkins gave a good summary of the Vampire Bat model of Reciprocal Altruism on a radio interview with Tom Morton:
Well, vampire bats have a kind of blood donor scheme; vampire bats, as you know, eat blood, and it happens to be a case of reciprocal altruism that’s been well worked out. These bats roost by day and then at night they go out and look for an animal to suck blood from, and then they come back and roost for the next day. Well if a bat is lucky, and manages to find an animal to suck blood from, it usually engorges itself and becomes very, very full, has much more blood than it actually needs. But that is quite a lot of luck that goes into that, and there are other nights when a bat will come home hungry, having not found any blood. And that can be fatal. These little animals need constant topping up in order not to die. So the situation is tailor-made for reciprocal altruism. When these bats come back into their cave after their night’s work, so to speak, some of them will be almost overflowing with blood, and others will be near death from starvation, and so there’s a lot to be gained from the ones who’ve got a lot of blood giving some to the ones who haven’t got much, and they do it by regurgitating it, by sicking it up, and the others eat it. And they can expect to get paid back by those very same individuals on another night, when the luck has been reversed. And that actually happens, that’s been demonstrated and it’s a very good example of reciprocal altruism in nature.
The game theorists point out that because these bats know they’re going to see each other again, it’s not true altruism, but rather an investment in a community. This may be an argument for the evolution of true altruism, but it’s an argument for, rather than against, its use as a model for behavior within a community. Be cool to your friends, because they might be cool to you in the future. Don’t try go game it, to only hook up your friends whom you expect to be able to do you a favor in the future. Just do everything you can, to help anybody you can, because in the long term, it is in your self-interest to do so, as long as we’re all doing it. So, let’s all help each other out, whenever and however we can, and everybody profits.
In other words, you barf blood into my mouth, and I’ll barf blood into yours. That’s community.