Field Static : A Catalogue Essay

June 6, 2012 · Print This Article

Devin and I curated a show at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport; it opened a week ago and tonight we’re having a mini-symposium called “Location/Location: The Mistranslation of Objects.” It’s an exciting show for us with some great work by Rebecca Mir, Carrie Gundersdorf, Heather Mekkelson, Ellen Rothenberg, Stephen Lapthisophon, Christian Kuras and Bad at Sports’ own Duncan MacKenzie, as well as Mark Booth and Justin Cabrillos. We were trying to curate a show that might explore an object oriented ontology. This exhibit closes on Wednesday, the 13th of June. It is open on Sundays from 1-4 and by appointment.

You have entered the Co-Prosperity Sphere: a large corner-space on a neighborhood block in Bridgeport, five miles from the Loop’s chain shops. The inside of this space feels old. It is massive — 2,500 square feet. A tin ceiling stands fourteen feet above you, not for stylistic preference — though it suits current vintage tastes — but due to an oversight; the previous owner of 40 years did nothing to maintain the building, using it instead as a hoarder’s storeroom. Before his time, when Bridgeport was prosperous and you could see cattle moseying to their death outside of the window, this space was a department store. The owner was the wealthiest man in town, and is said to have had the first car in the neighborhood, driving it across the street to the church on Sundays, throwing pennies out of his windows at children in the street. Since then the space — and the neighborhood — have been through a decline normal to working class neighborhoods in American cities. Hoarders bought the space in the 80s. Ed Marszewski moved in a few years ago and cleaned it up.
The wooden floor of the Co-Prosperity Sphere creaks when you walk on it. Light shines through a host of upper windows, reflecting off the wood like an old gymnasium. The new white walls and spartan emptiness assign the space to contemporary art exhibitions. This particular landscape is comprised of material — pillars, windows, floors, and doorways turn into wood, screws, pipes, bricks, plaster, glass and tin. The composition of this space exists on multiple levels. As concrete, discrete materials they fuse into one structure. More abstractly, these materials exist as indicators of past and present; each object tells a story through its own unique, associative system of influence. Sometimes the story is responsive — the sound of your footsteps or the water that runs through overhead pipes. Other times the story is inaccessible but conjured — the imagined sound of mooing cows or copper pennies against cement, indicating a different American economy. Or, the story is simply material — the unfinished areas of this space, the space beneath the stairs on the far white wall: if you peer around its edge, you can see the building’s insides.

What begins to emerge is an ecology that blurs the lines between life forms and inanimate material bodies. In Field Static we first wanted to create an opportunity in which relations between objects might be highlighted such that the field created via the installation of artwork would accent one’s material engagement. Each object within the Co-Prosperity Sphere would become focal point and periphery alike, suggesting both solitary histories and the peculiar synthesis of matter common to all things. Field Static rejects or, at least, torques art’s historically anthropocentric position — the poem is written by a human, the portrait is painted of a human — in favor of a more egalitarian engagement with objects.
Through this, we don’t mean to treat other species or categories of objects as citizens of another nation. Instead, we are trying to expand an established hierarchy where humans patronize other objects. How might a gallery show include the presence of bubble gum splotches, twigs, fan blades, icebergs — easily marginalized masses — in order to engender new political spheres? We hope to discover new ways of integrating experience and materiality so that less priority is placed on the human’s role amongst objects. This project is far-seeing: sentience in technology, impasses in distinguishing between “non-living” computer viruses and “living” biological viruses, and our current ecological condition all suggest the possibility that, to borrow the theorist Timothy Morton’s word, the mesh (1) we inhabit is much larger and stranger than we may have thought. This mesh is also able to exist, quite comfortably, without us. So how do we look at the relations between objects?
We became interested in curating a show around objects through familiarity with the work of Graham Harman, a philosopher and theorist based in Cairo, Egypt. Harman, along with Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, Levi Bryant, and a few other thinkers, is one of the proponents of object-oriented ontology — a metaphysics that, loosely defined, rejects a human centered worldview in philosophy in favor of something more democratic. Instead of privileging the human subject’s relation to the world, object-oriented ontology hopes to democratize the field of metaphysics though a general inquiry about objects, specifically the ways in which objects interact with each other and the world. Object-oriented ontology is a metaphysics that asks not only how humans engage with the world, but also how forks, bee pollen, James Cameron’s depth diving submarine, and Sancho Panza’s donkey relate to each other and the world. Harman’s work is less about deprivileging the human than opening up the nature of the field — examining the infinitely complex assortment of materials operating within a given frame of reference. As Harman writes, his “point is not that all objects are equally real, but that they are equally objects.”1 In order to think the world, we must think about the world and the many objects that make it up, not only our relation to it. It is exciting and truly weird work.

Harman’s theories work out in many different directions. One of the most interesting, for our purposes, is the idea that though an object exists as a bundle of relations amongst itself and with other objects, these relations never eliminate the full spectrum of possibility residing within an object. The Co-Prosperity Sphere is a node within Bridgeport, within Chicago, both rife with their own complex network of encounters. You are distinctly aware of these very real relations, and together they build up the space’s identity. At the same time, the Co-Prosperity Sphere could also, possibly, enter into a number of different relations that we might not have any understanding of: it could be used by a sect to summon demons, it could be eaten slowly by Larry Coryell to improve his jazz guitar, it could slowly erode a statue of itself in slate. These are humorous examples, but they reveal how objects can exist more fully outside of whatever relations they may exist in currently — whether they enter into those relations or not. Even if we were able to list every theoretical relation this space could enter into, it would still have other relations beyond our list. The number and variations of its relations is infinite but in every instance, whether micro or macro, the objects within that field can never be reduced to their relations. They are not simply indicators of signification, but exist within a network. Consequently, objects — as metaphysical bundles of all the possibilities of their relations with themselves and other objects — are ultimately withdrawn from each other and themselves. Objects are always at a remove from their relations.

Harman more fully explains this idea through the image of a sleeping zebra in CircusPhilosophicus, a series of alternately humorous and petrifying myths he wrote to explain the basic tenets of his ideas:

For first, [the zebra] rises beyond its own pieces, generated by them but not reducible to them. And second, it is indifferent to the various negotiations into which it might enter with other objects, though some of those might affect it: as when the zebra interacts with grasses for its meals, and predator cats for its doom. While the zebra is cut off from its pieces in the sense of being partly immune to changes among them, it cannot survive their total disappearance. But by contrast, it might survive the disappearance of all its outward relations. And this is what I mean by sleep, if we can imagine a truly deep and dreamless sleep…Sleep should not be compared with death and its genuine destruction of the zebra-entity: sleep entails that the thing still exists, but simply without relation to anything else…Sleep perhaps has a metaphysical function no less than a physical one: as a kind of suspended animation in which entities are withdrawn from the world. And perhaps this happens more than we think.(2)

Like the zebra, the Co-Prosperity Sphere could be ripped in half by a giant and sacrificed to Goran, Lord of the Impetus, or it could play a game of Go with the bar down the street, and yet, through all of these changes, it still exists, partly, as a space for the community to gather in. As Harman writes, objects are “partly immune to changes among [its pieces].”2 Were we to remove all of the space’s outward relations — you, inside the space, reading this book about it, me writing this essay a month prior, thinking about the space, the printer printing these words about the space, the ink coming out of long tubes, the humidity wrinkling the pages, the recycling bin holding the book about the space, the recycler pulping the book — the space might still exist, withdrawn from these outward relations, in something like sleep. While it is impossible to gain access to the withdrawn aspects of an object, it is our belief that the best art, at least, allows us a place to exist in a type of still-sleep with an object. We’ve curated the artists in this show in the belief that their work engages with objects as bundles of relations in the field of the world, and yet, through their work, the artists show these objects as still, withdrawn, sleeping entities.
Still, the artists in Field Static engage the world of objects in different ways. The show should not be seen as as a grouping of artworks that fulfill any one approach to objects. While our curatorial impulse was inspired by Harman’s philosophy, we nevertheless present works that address objects in a variety of ways.
Of course, all exhibits exercise this interest; historically, art is the making and honoring of objects. However, the peculiar and various approaches these artists take to field and object-making seem particularly compelling, especially when their work could be assembled under the umbrella created by the Co-Prosperity Sphere. We are not looking to project human metaphor onto the state of these artworks — although those poetic nuances are probably an inevitable facet of an aesthetic experience — but rather to invite your imagination to consider the sleeping potential of these things in their thingness, their associative and personal autonomy in the world, each with its own discrete and, by now, non-contingent identity. A strangeness emerges — similar to the eyes of a fox, the unripe stem of a green banana, or Achilles’ shield — all familiar and unknown, a potency common to all things that nevertheless remains out of reach.

Rebecca Mir’s work is simple and understated. She often works with paper, small collections of objects, and her own body arranged quietly. This humility in equipment is connected to Mir’s infatuation with punk culture that shifts into an engagement with the landscape. She has also written love letters to the ocean. Perhaps the best way to think about her work is as an amalgamation of bygone Romanticisms — nature, the lover, the explorer, the punk rocker — that add up to rediscover the sincerity currently lacking in all of these labels. For this show, we were most interested in Mir’s engagement with nature. We gave her the storefront windows to fill up and she gave us hanging sheets of paper with flat black prints of icebergs on them. These are the most frightening objects in the world, slowly leading us towards underwater cities. Mir’s prints garble our response; we instead encroach upon the ice.

When we met Ellen Rothenberg to talk about this show, she shared pictures of older pieces she had made and used during performances: clocks on a pair of shoes, or a wooden shovel with words engraved on its mouth. They were tempting to curate into Field Static for their embodiment of an inaccessible past-use, an original context no less significant then their present status as formal, sculptural works.  But then Rothenberg showed us a more recent piece she had exhibited in Berlin. In her installation, Constellations, Rothenberg establishes a literal field via small blue signs printed with arrows and red vintage price tag cards. She assembles these on a wall or in a room; the proportions of the work vary depending on the site. In every version, these small indicators create an enigmatic field or map. The price cards elicit a time when two cents might have been a useful sum — think of those children in dirty boots on Morgan Street. Relative to our current economy, the sums are so small as to be powerless and dismissable. The oblique arrows, meanwhile, propel the eye to wander among these many numerical islands. The precision of placement combined with the interplay of materials and time: the slick, contemporary instructional arrows, against the foxed, nostalgic price tags are fixed to the clean white wall by antique metal clips. A tension emerges flike a magnetic field as the viewer is absorbed in the act of looking.

In Diagram (2010), Christian Kuras and Duncan MacKenzie installed a multi-leveled series of roofless recangular rooms; the entire system looked like a complex model of a building site. Balsa wood rooms connected by ramps on cinder blocks, coffee cans, and side tables. Cords lay around the floor of the installation, a bare flourescent light tube, a lamp, a plant. In one instance an antique sign, “Girls Toilet” was legible. This assemblage conspired to portray some kind of institution — a university or a corporation — the ‘rooms’ clearly exist in a network, even if their function within that network is unclear. In an effort to grasp the purpose of this material system, you might lean in to read the pencil marks, left behind by the artists in the process of making. These do not unlock the piece. It remains at bay, undissmissable because of its sprawl and, even, the care toward detail. In Field Static, Kuras and MacKenzie work with letters, transforming a textual message in a game of anagrams. They began with one phrase originally mailed as an off-the-cuff collage from UK-based Kuras to Chicago-based MacKenzie. MacKenzie and Kuras reorganized the letters of the phrase into stacks, paintings, and phrases that may or may not be legible to the viewer. While connected to their original context, each new combination creates a new meaning contained in the original. The text is distant, distinct, and equitable to its physical counterpart.

Last winter, Mark Booth composed a durational performance at Devening Projects during his solo exhibition God Is Represented By The Sea. For one performance during that exhibition, the improvisational bellows and electronics duet, Coppice (Noé Cuéllar and Joseph Kramer) played music with Booth for roughly four hours. During that time, twelve individuals were asked to read Booth’s score: a stream of ever shifting phrases in a loop. The last word of one phrase became the first word of the following. “God is represented by the sea” became “The Sea is represented by an irregular shape” and so on until we arrived at last to “An owl is represented by God,” at which time the readers would begin again. The words became blocks, algebraic variables that could be swapped in and out of one another. Booth’s piece evokes an intuited, physical structure in language; he seeks to find an equivocation, a way to codify experience through metaphor. Here, he has installed a sound installation with flags entitled: I IMAGINE YOU SLEEPING SIDE BY SIDE AND WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING YOUR SOULS RISE TOGETHER LIKE A FLAG ON A POLE FLUTTERING SOUNDLESSLY IN A WINDLESS WIND AND THE FLAG OF YOUR LOVE IS SHAPED LIKE […]

Objects are often manufactured by human beings; it is sometimes difficult to imagine their autonomy. We know rocks come from mountains and meteors, so they observe an obvious independence from the human sphere. But what about old tires or tennis balls? In what way can those objects boast a non-contingent being when their original purpose is tied to human activities? How can such an object fulfill its potential if its potential is reliant upon human use? Heather Mekkelson articulates one possible answer. Over the past several years, she has made a practice of fabricating distress. Mekkelson begins with new objects — phonebooks, traffic cones, caution tape, fans, or blinds — everyday, banal objects. Through a variety of processes she imposes the visible signs of deterioration and stress on each object and, placed in an exhibit, these objects evoke a traumatic narrative, as ready-mades discovered by accident in the wake of disaster. The distress of the objects suggests their secret lives or past, an encounter made more interesting given that Mekkelson’s objects never endured such trials at all. Their life was spent in her studio. In more recent work, Mekkelson has created a telling-point on the object that allows the viewer to see the artifice of distress. At one critical point of perspective the viewer can see both the artifice of distress and the object’s unadulterated newness — like on a stage set when you see at once the façade of a town and the plywood backing on which the town is painted. That point reveals a moment of interior instability; it is as though the object is telling you it is lying. The object is laughing at you, or winking, confessing its own ruse.

Alhough we first knew Justin Cabrillos as a sound poet, we’ve been lucky to see him as he’s developed into a somatic phenom. We’ve included his video Dance for a Narrow Passageway — a work that shows Cabrillos improvising a dance in a passageway. Before composing the piece, Cabrillos spent time observing movements in passageways, both his own and others: buses, subways, airports, even passageways in dramatic movies. He is embodying the influence that space and non-human bodies have on human choreography. The one rule of the improvisation: move like somebody would move in a passageway. When talking to us about the piece, Cabrillos emphasized his interest in the absence of other objects as he came into movement — the passageway encourages nothing but the supposed emptiness of transition. It also has a history: many bodies, winds, and drips have left their associative trace: that past is something Cabrillos is responding to as well, embodying it. Like a corporeal version of John Cage’s famous anechoic chamber experience — where the composer learned that the world was never truly silent — Cabrillos’ video indicates that one is always connected to other bodies.
Is it possible to imagine the inner life of objects? It seems we are not quite permitted to apprehend the idea. We cannot imagine what such a sleeping interiority would be like, especially when discounting the tools humans dream with — thought and words and pictures. Instead we must describe the possibility of an object’s interior space by activating a sense of its absurdity. In a kind of negative proof on his website, Stephen Lapthisophon shows a looped video of a potato, alone on a shelf. In the background we hear jazz music. Because of an automatic desire to anthropomorphize the potato, we imagine the potato — otherwise absolutely still and solitary in the frame — listening. The scene becomes comical. And yet it describes something about the constant, albeit invisible, movement of a potato: it is constantly deteriorating, or growing, or leaking, or emitting vibrations. Conceiving of its ability to hear and listen is a way to access, through metaphor, the potato’s experience of itself. For Field Static, Lapthisophon shows The Taxonomy of Root Vegetables, a long, crude shelf stacked with many different still growing, still rotting, root vegetables. The piece, to us, builds off Lapthisophon’s humorous depiction of a morose tuber. Instead of an attempt and appraisal of projected experience, Taxonomy suggests unfamiliar, mutating ecologies and locates the fruitlessness of our contrived negotiations as we seek to categorize and map our world.

The inaccessibility of individual objects can be compared to the inaccessibility of our environment — as our awareness of very small objects builds up, we bump against the infinite array of inner lives, and the very large mesh that consists of animals, insects, bacteria, rocks, ashes, oxygen. Slowly, we bump up against the sky, the world of planetary bodies: the sun, the planets, the stars, light. Carrie Gundersdorf observes, paints, collages and draws solar phenomenon on two-dimensional picture planes that reference modernist painting. In one collage, Gundersdorf collects a variety of different images of Jupiter. She assembles these images in a grid on one sheet of dark paper. One sees the many sides of Jupiter at once but we are no closer to apprehending this planet. This is not simply the result of scale or medium; Gundersdorf is very literally transcribing astral photographs. And yet Gundersdorf’s work shows how astral photographs are manipulated by space and technology. The picture of Jupiter has traveled through eons of space, been reflected on a variety of mirrors and then digitally enhanced with various colors and contrast in an effort to indicate data. Those manipulated images represent the source material that comprises our collective experience of Outer Space. In this show, we have included Spectral Trails with Absorption Lines, a drawing that depicts the spectrum of light. Here too one is called to consider not only the camera’s apparatus, but also the receptive reed of the body: the stereoscopic vision of two eyes — what is then intuitively and unconsciously synthesized into one cohesive whole. Add to this the limited capacity of our oracular perception: We can only see a very narrow portion of the spectrum. Given our minimal sensitivity to light, how could we possibly see all objects? What objects are we missing?

Hopefully these works, along with this book, will lure you into an experience of Field Static in which you begin to account, through perception, for the discrete fields asserted within discrete works; and then the field described by the works together; and then the field described by the entire show in the context of the space, a space in which we are immersed. It is an uncanny and perhaps anxious position, as we grow ever more aware of the inexhaustible relations between non-human things.

This essay was written by Field Static curators, Caroline Picard & Devin King. To schedule an appointment for viewing, please email caroline@lanternprojects.com

END NOTES:

1. Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
2. Graham Harman. The Quadruple Object (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2011), p. 5
3. Graham Harman. Circus Philisophicus (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2010) p. 72-3
4. Harman writes, objects are “partly immune to changes among [its pieces].” Circus Philisophicus (Washington: Zer0 Books, 2010) p. 72.

A Performance Art Festival Near You: Rapid Pulse International

May 30, 2012 · Print This Article

 

Saiko Kase (photo by artist)

We are just around the corner from a ten day international performance art festival, Rapid Pulse. Over the course of those ten days, 29 national and international artists will present a  variety of works both inside and outside gallery settings. Additionally one can expect panels, discussions and group walks between events. Like much of Chicago’s cultural energy, the festival emerged from a DIY ethos. It’s professional ambition is nevertheless evident  from the wide-spanning range of engagement; the confluence of those two aesthetics promise to create a profound mix of community enthusiasm and high caliber art — my favorite mix. In the following interview, Defibrillator Gallery Director Joseph Ravens talks about how it came together, some of the highlights one might anticipate from the festival and how it engages public space.

FF Granados (Photo by Jesse Birch)

Caroline Picard: So tell me a little bit about how Rapid Pulse came about? It seems like an incredibly ambitious project — ten days worth of performance art, not to mention a number of out-of-town (and international) artists. Was that a network that already existed for you? 

Joseph Ravens: When I first started the gallery, I knew that an international festival was something I wanted to do. When putting together the festival, I fully intended to call upon the personal contacts that I made touring international festivals over the past decade. I made many friends over the years and simply thought I would draw upon those resources. At first, it was going to be very small. But we put out an international call for artists and received about 150 applications and most of them were very strong. So it just grew, unexpectedly. Sometimes I regret it and other times I’m delighted. I’m mostly delighted. I then reached out to Julie Laffin and Steven Bridges to help co-curate. This choice was not only to help make the overwhelming task of sorting through the applications more manageable, but also, to diversify the type of work that we would present. I would never be able to do this without them. I wanted Rapid Pulse to embody my vision, but not necessarily be an extension of my preferred tastes and styles. The fourth curator, Giana Gambino, was also instrumental in the beginning of the festival. She approached me late last year and said that if I wanted to follow through with the festival, she would help me. I’ve leaned on her a lot. We are certainly short on resources but, luckily, ambition is in high supply.

CP: What has it been like communicating with various artists about their upcoming projects? Are there particular events that you’re excited by at the moment?

JR: Managing the data and correspondence has been one of the most difficult tasks confronting me. As you can imagine, performance artists have unique requests. One artist, Brazilian, Cristiane Bouger, wants to smash 300 full bottles of Brazilian beer. I’m still a little stumped about it. In general, though, it has been a pleasure for me to get to know artists whose work I respect and I look forward to meeting them face to face. German artist, Regina Frank, applied and I am so flattered and honored because I am familiar with her work and strong reputation. I’m really excited about Italian/Austrian artist Helmut Heiss’ project. He’s flying a banner behind an airplane as his performance. It says “sharp” by the start time on his night because it’s all arranged with the flight company for a specific place and time. Added as an afterthought, I’m also quite excited by our video series. We received such great submissions and some of the artists we invited to perform live weren’t able to come. So we initiated this series to show their work and works by other artists who we admire. This was also an effort to diversify the regions and styles of performance represented in the festival. It is an interesting thing to correspond with artists about their projects. I have shaped certain ideas about their personalities based purely on email exchanges. I’m really excited to meet the artists and discover how their live personalities correspond or conflict with their digital personas.

 

Julia_Wallace_

Julia Wallace

CP: You mentioned that there were going to be some performances in more traditional gallery settings, but also that some performances would take place on the street, playing with our expectations of the everyday. Can you talk a little bit about some of those? What does it mean to engage a banal and public street that way? Of course it probably depends on the particular performance, but I’m curious about what it means to you, as a director of sorts, in thinking about reserving different “sites.”

JR: Public performance is a particular interest to me as an artist and a curator. Last year Defibrillator curated a series called, Out of Site where we presented 12 unexpected encounters in Wicker Park in association with the local SSA. I’m interested in arresting peoples’ daily lives; giving them pause to reevaluate their surroundings and the boundaries of art. Performance art, especially, can be elitist to a certain degree. Unless you are seeking it out or familiar with the form, you may never encounter this medium. So taking it to the streets is a way to further the reach of this often inaccessible and misunderstood discipline. I actually presented a work in Out of Site for which I ran with a giant fish for two hours around Wicker Park. One viewer posted a ‘missed connection’ in the Reader thanking me for the surprise encounter she experienced when coming out of the Division Blue Line stop. This delighted me. I’m on a mission to broaden the awareness and understanding of performance art among the general public. For Rapid Pulse, several artists are performing in the street. Chicago duo, Industry of the Ordinary, will be branding passers-by with ink stamps. Brazilian artist, Tales Frey will be staging a half hour gender bending wedding kiss. For a project called Apparition, Texas artist, Julia Wallace, will be dressed as the Virgin Mary while breast feeding a baby Jesus. There are several others, including local artists, Lucky Pierre (walking Chicago from south to north) and Lisa Vinebaum who will picket outside local sites in an effort to connect the current crisis in timed labor to the historical struggle for workers’ rights. Designed to be more enticing than confrontational, these works will broaden ideas about what art is and could be.

CP: What has it been like finding places for artists to stay? And do you feel like that reflects something about Chicago in particular? Or performance? That there is a willingness to share a home, in some way….

JR: I love this question. Our original idea was to place artists in hotels but, of course, finances are a problem. People stepped up right away to help out and I’m really proud of them (and Chicago) for this. We’ve scheduled a panel on the “Chicago Aesthetic” within the festival, but one thing that stands out to me in regard to this city is our DIY attitude and our gracious hospitality. By placing artists in peoples’ homes, it embodies these ideas. So where I was at first disappointed at not being able to provide hotel accommodation, I’m now thrilled that the housing now reflects Chicago’s style. We’ve organized two “Directors of Hospitality” to ensure that the guest artists have a pleasant and comfortable stay in Chicago. It’s really important PR, actually. People leave a city and talk about their experiences and I want to make sure that all the artists go away happy and paint a wonderful picture of Chicago to their friends and colleagues around the world. I love Chicago and am proud and happy to share our city. I firmly believe we should have larger visibility on an international scale.

Unlike other mediums where one might send a piece away to be exhibited, performance artists need to be present to show their work. I’ve toured extensively and some of the best experiences I’ve had have been ones where I stayed with local people. It’s a way to get insight into the everyday lives of those in that city. It’s also a great way to make long lasting friends and connections. When organizing Rapid Pulse, I was embracing things that worked when I was in other festivals, and correcting things that didn’t work as well. Many of the opportunities and invitations that I’ve received have been the result of connections I’ve made from prior festivals. I would love for Chicago artists to have more visibility within international platforms. One way to accomplish this is for them to make connections during Rapid Pulse. In addition to home stays, we have planned group meals each day so the local and international artists and volunteers can get to know one another and seeds might be planted for future exchange. We hosted Estonian artists, Non-Grata a couple months ago, and one of our volunteers, Amber Lee, formed a relationship and is now touring with them in Europe. This makes me happy and proud. I hope similar situations arise as a result of Rapid Pulse.

Background Color : An Interview with Matthew Goulish

April 25, 2012 · Print This Article

Photo by Lin Hixson

Over the last several months, I have been working with Matthew Goulish as an editor and publisher of his forthcoming collection of essays, The Brightest Thing in the World: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure. Over the course of that process, questions began to emerge from the periphery of the text as I continued to read and re-read the manuscript. These questions did not arrive at first glance for me, but rather coalesced with my sense for Goulish’s craft. The Brightest Thing in the World is a collection of essays that touch on seating strategies, Dick Cheney, cuckoo clocks, the Fibonacci series, butterflies and old friends. It covers tremendous ground for being only 70 pages; the experience of those pages feels most like an afternoon I spent once, a few years ago, when a very dear friend whom I hadn’t seen for years had a six-hour lay over in Chicago. We spent about three of those hours walking around Wicker Park and after the 20 minutes of  personal-life catch up, regularly found ourselves in a conversant territory that was at times abstract, reflective, sanguine, funny and joyous. Only in retrospect did I consider how our physical derive coincided with the discussion we’d had, or how — perhaps — we had, in an intuitive and accidental way, managed to negotiate the past and the present at once. Goulish similarly weaves multiple threads together like a tapestry and by their accumulated resonance creates an impression of loss and longing. As in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, the reader passes through an associative experience and the colors of each facet are bright and vivid — perhaps like the leaves in fall on a misty morning. These are the essays of a poet; like the performance of words, each verb is as active as a muscle. The Brightest Thing in the World: Three Essays from the Institute of Failure will be released at Defribillator Gallery on Monday, May7th from 7-9pm. 

Caroline Picard: At the end of the book, there is a small but striking note about the deteriorating relationship between humankind and animals. Something came into focus when I read that note —I suddenly realized how present other life forms were in the book, from the pets abandoned in Katrina, to monarch butterflies, to ctenephore (what in some ways feels to me like an A-list star of the book, though I suppose there are many stars). Can you talk a little bit about the presence of animals in The Brightest Thing in the World?

Matthew Goulish: When I go to the movies, I always sit through the credits until the very end. Sometimes a dedication appears and pauses on the screen before the fade out. I appreciate that the very last words one sees have a special place, and a particular role to play, as the threshold leading out of the work and back to the world – like an usher opening the door of the theater. Beyond that gesture, I find the last moment a charged one in the way it can, with a very small comment, re-inflect everything that has come before, as if to offer a revelation from the vantage of the retrospective view, and to invite a second reading with that end grace note in mind. The passage on the possibility of animals going away forever comes from Howard Norman, whose writing has been a longtime inspiration for me. Throughout his work, starting with his earliest translations of the Swampy Cree in Manitoba, one finds this attitude of respect for animals who “are people like us” although they have a skepticism of humanity. I remembered the quote as I was working on the Barbellion essay.  I wanted to introduce that kind of thinking into the essay, as it seemed to make explicit the implicit reverence with which Barbellion observed nature. I did not know what to do with it until I had the thought to drop it in at the end like that. Then when I selected these three essays to constitute this book, the quote guided my thinking in the way it might amplify that thread through all three of the essays, and do so after the fact if it appeared at the end of the book. I had in the back of my mind, for example, in the middle essay, that between the death of the monarch butterflies in Mexico in 2002 and the race riots of Tulsa in 1921, an equation exists that has to do with uncountable loss, and the ancient belief of the butterfly as psychopomp, the carrier of the human soul between lives. This was how I formulated my response to W. G. Sebald – as if to compress and Americanize his obsessive hysteria, his monologues that seem to be running to try to keep pace with accelerating disaster. But through the three essays this thread appears in a backgrounded way, the way animals might make their appearances in human life, anyway my life, rushed and crowded in an urban setting. As the bus approaches the bus stop, I see a Sandhill Crane flying over Division Street, possibly headed for the Humboldt Park lagoon. Or I’m leaving a friend’s house at the end of the night and I surprise a raccoon at the back porch. If I let it, that encounter, however fleeting, resets my thoughts about my behavior, my values, or anyway my day. I wanted to use the book’s last moment to draw attention to that unobtrusive thread – call it ecology.

CP:  What does it mean to fail? And is this inherently tied to mortality? Can failure be a quest?

MG: My father is a retired engineer. Growing up with him I learned about failure analysis as a way to understand a complex system. It is not difficult to see the philosophy in that, when the system concerns thought. My jacket catches on the arm of the chair as I try to stand up, and the comedy of my life commences. Failure is certainly inherently tied to the mortality of my intentions. Attention to failure can constitute a quest to understand the broader spectrum in which any action actually operates. In the last essay, I do not mean to suggest human mortality as a form of failure. The operative failure is in my ability to write about death, maybe because death, when it is actual and not imaginary or virtual, eludes writing, or maybe just because writing about it eludes me. I can only write in proximity of it. I mean to say that to succeed, in any traditional sense, would mean to ignore events that insist themselves into one’s thinking, but to ignore them would be the death of the writing. One must fail and include them.

CP: What happens to the text when it is printed and read? How does this differ from its passage as a delivered lecture?

MG: I am happiest when I write as if there is no difference.

CP: I also love the presence of diplomatic relations — the way these come up, with the presence of Orsen Welles in the first lecture, and then a second reiteration of WWII through Barbellion’s position in history. There is another instance with Dick Cheney’s duck hunt. I can’t quite put my finger on it, or necessarily understand why I’m asking this, but I want to ask you about freedom, the freedom of an individual acting within his or her time. How do we negotiate our context? What is the point of that negotiation?

MG: This question relates to the first one for me. The comment, made in passing, toward the end of the analysis of the Dick Cheney hunting accident, that animals feels insulted if they are hunted incompetently, also derives from Howard Norman. I think that the appearance of animals in the book, that I mentioned above, brings with it two modes of discourse; one, that we can talk about animals as a veiled way of talking about the human (the ctenophore as a life); and two, that we can read in attitudes toward animals a measure of human ethics. The Cheney passage operates in this second mode, as relevant in relation to the care for the apprehension of the other as separate from, and not in service of, oneself. I am partial to the way that ethic asserts itself in stories of diplomacy, in which individuals represent nations perhaps, as in Graham Greene’s tale of Harry Lime, an American war profiteer who realizes the fantasy of witnessing his own funeral on his way to becoming the perfect, invisible gentleman criminal. During the Bush-Cheney years, there was a great deal of talk in philosophical circles about a resurgence of Hobbesian brutality, in service to the sovereign and in irreconcilable conflict with other nations, seen as fundamentally alien. I felt I needed to address that at the time, and my own role as an ambassador to Switzerland, where that lecture was delivered. By address it, I don’t mean examine it in any way other than the hall of mirrors approach of parading case studies and letting them bounce off one another. That is to say, when I talk about Harry Lime, I mean Dick Cheney, and when I talk about animals, I mean to offer an escape hatch from the prison of the individual as representative of a nation-state, that is to say, the fixed identity, and therefore the grandiose self. How we behave now, or anyway what we are attentive to, in response to the social interactions that the moment offers us, is determined by how we consider our own identities. Are they fixed, or always in motion? How do I attend to another person’s intention invading my own? How does the pursuit of dignity differ from the pursuit of happiness? How do I think of the margin my life occupies in relation to the historical moment as a kind of center?

CP: I think this interview would be remiss if I were to skip over the idea of love. It comes across in Dan Beachy-Quick’s reflection on your book, where he says “I want to say the failure of the bud results in the blossom — such ruptures lovingly unfold as failure’s larger gifts” but is also evident throughout the body of text: the care of your description and interest. The time you spend with Barbellion, or the effort of Kust’s grave site. Can you talk a little bit about care in the face of failure?

MG: Is it possible to feel love without an object for that love? Without a person, or creature, place, or recipient of any kind? Can writing serve as a form of training for such objectless love? For aligning the powers of thought with the powers of feeling, as an exercise, that brings one into a relation with oneself, or constantly adjusts one’s being in the world? Those are questions for which I do not have an answer, but questions that I want to stay close to, or keep near at hand, in any act of writing.

 

On the other hand, it has been said that we are here simply to find the things we love, and to find the appropriate way to praise them. Then to risk making of our lives a public song of praise. I mean that writing offers us a chance to find what we love, and to pay attention.

Matthew Goulish co-founded Goat Island in 1987, and Every house has a door in 2008. His 39 Microlectures – in proximity of performance was published by Routledge in 2000, and Small Acts of Repair – Performance, Ecology, and Goat Island, which he co- edited with Stephen Bottoms, in 2007. He was awarded a Lannan Foundation Writers Residency in 2004, and in 2007 he received an honorary Ph.D. from Dartington College of Arts, University of Plymouth. He teaches in the MFA and BFA Writing Programs of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

 

 


Visual Molasses

April 18, 2012 · Print This Article

A quick note — more of an observation, really, or a re-directing of attention, but I was looking at my blog reader today and found a wonderful thematic coincidence on the Art Asia Pacific blog and Granta. Today, Art Asia Pacific reflected on Global Art Forum 6, remarking in particular:

There’s something about the immediacy and urgency of writing against the present that can be panic-inducing; paralyzing even. 

It feels as if we should be quicker than we are.  We should be able to respond more efficiently.  It should be easier by now.  Our brain’s functionality should be in sync with the latest social media apps on our Blackberrys, tablets and Mac books—so that we can not only multitask, “double-screen” and consume information (both virtual and real) at the rate of several giga-Hertz per second—but also analyze it, digest it and produce a meaningful reaction to it immediately.  Except that’s not exactly how our cerebral cortex works; there is a lot more complexity involved—and maybe there is a saving grace in that somewhere. 

The pressure to keep up with, and contextualize the arts within, the most up-to-date socio-political happenings was cited and critiqued at the recent discussion series, Global Art Forum_6. Part of the titan that has become Art Dubai and its collateral programming, this year’s forum was titled “The Medium of Media,” and for this second installment writers Rayya Badran, Rijin Sahakian, Shahira Issa and myself were invited as “forum fellows” to reflect on issues in the fair. Art critic and forum fellows mentor Kaelen Wilson-Goldie talked about an almost expected reflex to situate art within contemporary politics (or politics within contemporary art), with particular reference to Lebanon and Syria. Such a reflex has been intensified by two things in recent times: the conflicts and uprisings of the Arab Spring, and the penetrating and shifting role of instant online media in news reportage.

The post goes on to question the capacity of art to respond, quickly and critically on its own contemporary times, particularly when our times are mediated at such a rapid pace. Author Jyoti Dhar suggests that perhaps art’s function is to slow us down, to demand a pause.

Seemingly to that point, Granta posted an article by Mishka Henner about the censorship of google earth — particularly in regards to the Dutch government:

When Google introduced its free satellite imagery service to the world in 2005, views of our planet previously accessible only to astronauts and professional surveyors were suddenly available to anyone with an internet connection. Yet the vistas revealed by this technology were not universally embraced.

Governments concerned about the sudden visibility of political, economic and military locations exerted considerable influence on suppliers of this imagery to censor sites deemed vital to national security. This form of censorship continues today, and techniques vary from country to country with preferred methods generally including use of digital cloning, blurring, pixelization and whitening out sites of interest.

Surprisingly, one of the most vociferous of all governments to enforce this form of censorship were the Dutch, hiding hundreds of significant sites including royal palaces, fuel depots and army barracks throughout their relatively small country. The Dutch method of censorship is notable for its stylistic inventiveness compared to other countries: imposing bold, multi-coloured polygons over sites rather than the subtler and more standard techniques employed elsewhere. The result is a landscape occasionally punctuated by sharp aesthetic contrasts between secret sites and the rural and urban environments surrounding them.

Staphorst Ammunition Depot.

There is something so stunning about these images (there are more on Granta’s site) — seemingly crude and colorful, as in a decorative obliteration: A kind of purposeful withholding. But it creates a pause, demanding time from the viewer as it presents something unexpected. It looks like a painting in gouache!

Fox in the Hen House

April 11, 2012 · Print This Article

There is a fox in the museum. It is the only thing that moves in the whole space: is this why the fox’s presence is so striking? Because it alone is unpredictable within the camera frame? Because it might do something to the paintings? No one else is present. Nighttime is inferred. The title of this work The Nightwatch suggests some kind of threat. Perhaps we are witnessing footage from an apocalypse. More likely, the museum is just closed. The stillness of the room adds to the potency of our fox. It passes like a shadow through the National Portait Gallery — the only representative of flesh and blood. It doesn’t notice the fine work hung on its bounding walls. And why should it? It has no relation to these figures, or at least it didn’t before it entered the museum. It stops and pokes its head through what might be a fireplace. Looking for a way outside? When one discovers a mouse in a high rise apartment, one imagines an unknown, or secret, exit. One, perhaps, not built to the human scale. In the case of our fox, the artist is the entrance and the exit. This is the fox of Francis Alÿs — the man who ties magnets to his feet and walks around Mexico City collecting metal. He has similarly pushed a giant block of ice around until it melted to a nub the size of a stone. There must have been a crook in his back by then. He also chases tornadoes and has lead a flock of sheep around a city square like a Pied Piper. The Nightwatch  was one of seven works commissioned by London-based Artangel, wherein Alÿs was asked to make work in response to the city. I saw a striking video at PS1 last summer that was part of this same series, in which Alÿs videoed the English guard marching, at first alone, though the deserted city, and then slowly finding one another, growing every more comfortable as their number grew. The sound of their feet grew louder and louder, echoing through the empty corridors. Yet, I am most interested in his fox at the moment.

The fox articulates a non-human space within the cultural architecture of humanity. It is not simply that the museum was built by human enterprise, but that it functions as a temple of sorts, a house for historical works. The museum is a proper place, full of oil paintings and serious faces, poised with solemn and practiced grace. These works have survived the test of time. In that respect their presence is partly due to chance, for it is likely some have travelled great distances, across the sea for instance, barring wreckage, flooding, fires and sunlight. They hang now, like static vampires in gold frames, very much preserved. They are representatives of posterity: examples one might find inspiration in. The fox disrupts their solemnity, destabilizing whatever authority they might possess. The animal is so dynamic by comparison, trotting around with speed and self-possession. What is that statistic? In a matter of weeks the jungle would encroach upon New York City if human kind were not present to fend it off. It would take so little time to be gobbled up by trash, vines and rats — and then the larger beasts would come to sniff through our bodegas.

Joseph Beuys brought a coyote into a gallery in 1974. The interaction between Beuys and the coyote became a work of art, the performance of a developing relationship. It illustrated the process of equilibreum as it was discovered between a four-legged beast and a human being. Between two cultures, one wild, the other civilized. The coyote, of course, is endemic to American mythology — a trickster, a mirror, a scavenger. Alÿs’ fox, on the other hand, is closer to English lore. There are any number of pubs named after it. For Sunday sport, English gentry used to set out on horseback to hunt it. But foxes are also tricksters, though these (apparently) can sometimes climb trees. In Nightwatch, the artist is absent. Instead the fox interacts with the object of art-space; that physical space becomes a conduit for history, not, as in the case with Beuys, the artist and his props.

Alÿs began his project with the idea of using CCTV footage from surveillance cameras all over London. While it is legal for any member of the public to watch the footage, it is illegal to use it for some other purpose. Alÿs adjusted his plan and focused instead on the National Portrait Gallery as a site. They have state of the art surveillance cameras. To test this, to engage our interest in the strangeness of animals, he set a fox called Bandit loose in the museum at night. What is it that we are looking for when we watch this fox? Go here to watch an excerpt from this piece.