British Artist, Marcus Coates published The Trip (Serpentine Gallery, 2011) last year — a book documenting Coates’ project with terminal patients at St John’s Hospice in London. Coates interviewed patients, asking a a single, preliminary question: “What can I do for you?” Embedded in that question is an acknowledgement of mortality. Death is on the horizon and Coates offers to accomplish a task this patient can no longer see too, a task this patient regrets never having done. In particular, the book focuses on Alex H.’s request; H. asks Coates to go to the Amazon on his behalf. The first part of the book is dedicated to the proposal, wherein this request is made. The second half is written like a play, where Coates describes the experience of his travels. In one sense The Trip is a travel book. Coates is articulate about his experience with the Huaorani tribe, relaying answers that H. had prescribed. In another, the project raises questions of identity, location of self and self-lessness. It’s an incredibly altruistic project, and yet of course its couched as an art project, a gesture that seems to muddy the waters a little bit. Then too, if you take this work in the context of Coates’ earlier works, it fits into his ouevre as a public shaman. As a reader, participating in the nuances of this dynamic relationship is interesting, particularly when the presence of the Amazon is mediated entirely through a the guise of a written play. In other words, it’s possible Coates might never have gone to the Amazon at all. (The Trip has also been presented as a 35 mm film).
Coates has interested me for a while now; most of his work operates in a liminal space between somber and slapstick. Often the result is a little suspicious, and maybe even for that suspicion, the more compelling. His tongue-in-cheek approach to shamanic mimicry seems to illustrate the desire to step outside reality, to connect to non-human (and perhaps more primitive) modes of being, while admitting the impossibility of that desire. The fact that shaman classes are offered so casually (I imagine a sign up sheet tacked to the bulletin board of one’s local book store) is just another reflection of cultural desire. ”Coates was inducted into the ancient techniques of shamanism on a weekend course in Notting Hill, London. The workshop trained participants to access a ‘non-ordinary’ psychic dimension with the aid of chanting, ‘ethnic’ drumming and dream-catchers.Coates has explained the process as essentially being a form of imaginative visualization. Historically the shaman would have been employed to solve the daily problems of the community; since these usually involved the finding and killing of animals, shamans were valued for their ability to communicate with other species in the spirit world,” (Jonathan Griffin, Frieze, 2007). Coates has made a series of performances where he claims to communicate with animal spirits in the underworld, and after returning from their realm, delivers messages of truth. Or common sense? It’s hard to say. “I think firstly I should say that I am deeply skeptical myself, particularly about new age culture,” Coates said in an interview with Mark Sheerin. “Usually I kind of expect people to walk out,” he says of his rituals, “and I’m quite open to people calling me a charlatan and laughing. I quite like people not to be so reverential.”
Graham Coulter-Smith described Coates this way in art intelligence:
“In one work Coates buried himself in the earth in a consciously theatrical attempt to get close to the forces of nature. He has jumped into the sea on the English coast and on emerging attempted to adopt the mentality of a seal while being videoed—one must have something to show in a gallery. In the remarkable Journey to the Lower World, 2004, he took on the role of shaman dressed in a deer skin complete with antlers. This was a participatory performance situated in a room in high rise tower block in Liverpool—it was also videoed and so there must have been a camera crew present at the occasion. This performance required considerably performative skills in encountering working class Liverpudlians living in a high rise tower block awaiting eviction. The proposal was that Coates would help the residents come to terms with their problem via a shamanistic communing with animal wisdom. In the performance he give an introduction to his audience of working class men and women and then covered his everyday casual clothing with a deer costume complete with antlers. In so doing he mixed the ordinary with the extraordinary in a manner that does seem well suited to contemporary existence. He then delivered a curious and somewhat absurd performance in which he appeared to take on the spirit of the animal acting in an animal-like manner and making animal-like sounds. All of this was incomprehensible to the audience and the video camera turns on the audience to register their expressions of amusement, surprise and disbelief. Perhaps the most extraordinary/ordinary aspect of the performance is when he descends to the ‘lower world’ via the tower block’s lift (elevator). He returns to give the audience an account of his chthonic experience in normal language telling them what the animal world had conveyed to him about their predicament and hopefully providing them with some therapeutic comfort: the advice was not bad encouraging them to sustain their community in the wake of the eviction.”
And, in the same article (aptly called “Simulacral Shamanism” by ) Coulter-Smith puts Coates in the context of late capitalism:
“But set against romanticist inclinations is the inexorable mercenary pragmatism, the superficiality and homogeneity of late capitalism. It is impossible for contemporary artists to escape their cultural context and this is the case for Coates who freely admits he is not sure whether his artistic practice is spiritually significant or merely playacting.” (read the whole article by going here.)
I have been interested in a similar “Hipster Shamanism” idea for a long time now. It’s a phrase that came to mind four or five years ago for me when I’d walk around town and see all these 20-something kids wearing dream catcher t-shirts and moccasins. There were echoes in the deer heads at art fairs and hipster galleries, and a kind of feral youth aura emanating out of popular comic books. While it connecting that chain of icons to Native American spiritualist tropes would do for its own essay, let me just say here that Coates taps into that same zeitgeist, claiming to have access to an alternate reality while nevertheless admitting an uncertain ability to do so. It’s not quite ironic (he offers fair advice to those about to be evicted from their housing complex, for instance) and yet it’s is not quite serious either. It has a disquieting effect. While the hipster-moccasin trend has become less pronounced since, I believe there is still something to it. And somehow I think it’s tied to a sense that nature no longer exists because a) America is a domesticated suburb and b) separating humankind from “nature” is impossible. Without nature, though, there is no “elsewhere” to turn to. The network of global capital is impossible to step outside of — even if one dislikes its values and consequence. Under this light it’s as if Coates just embodies a fantasy to escape, but let’s go back to The Trip again: something real is at stake, just as some exchange is being made. Regardless of the framework that caused such an occasion, it’s a project that dives into the most basic maelstrom of humanity.
I have many favorite stories — some of which were never written down, but for instance, end up being repeated by close friends to other close friends, as though in repeating and remembering those stories we become closer for our shared history. One of those stories, which happens to have been printed, is Homer’s old epic poem, The Odyssey. That book centers on Odysseus; his adventures are vibrant and colorful and occupy the most prominent space of the book. Over the years I have grown more intrigued by Penelope’s position and life — that segment that remains on the periphery. What we know is that she stayed at home, her house grew full of suitors who waited for her to give up on her husband’s return. We can suspect they ate and drank and reveled the hours away. We know she led them on while always keeping them at bay, unrequited but ever hopeful. She Penelope promised to choose one of them whenever she finished her tapestry. And, of course, we also know she wove and unwove the same piece of fabric for many years. When first told the story it seemed like she did this to protect herself, to assuage their pressures. Now think she made that game for herself. Because she was undecided, unwilling to either rebuke or encourage the men in home. We might imagine that she kept these suitors to flirt with and cajole and take comfort in. But never to commit to. The act of weaving is connected to time (think of the weaving fates, for instance) and Penelope kept herself in suspension. Undecided, fickle, old and young at once. When I saw Judith Brotman’s show at The Bike Room, time felt similarly suspended. These works seemed caught between mid-breath, a moment brought into focus with stitches and cracked plaster putty, as bones and limbs and celluloid surfaces.
Caroline Picard: I feel like there is a real engagement with the physical body, in your work. How has your sense of the body changed over time, as a system to engage via sculpture?
Judith Brotman: A few years back, I made a number of deliberate attempts to try to eliminate or minimize references to the body in my work, thinking it would prove to be an interesting experiment. The most interesting result was that my efforts proved to be futile. In fact, the harder I tried to remove these bodily references, the more they seemed to appear. In a way, this has been liberating, as it suggests that I have the freedom/luxury to “look away,” and manifestations of the body will still be present; they seem to be key/core concerns of mine. Working with the body as a referent has indeed involved shifts/changes over time. The older I get, the greater my awareness of the body’s fragility. Paradoxically, it’s also the case that the body is absurdly resilient and bounces back repeatedly from all manner of things…until it doesn’t. I find it really interesting that the fragility & the resilience are both true, and that there is such a delicate balance. There are all kinds of things we can do and choices we can make to try to tip the balance in favor of strength and longevity, but there are other factors, including luck and random events, that impact what happens. My sculpture pieces and their precarious-but-still-standing aesthetic tend to reflect and respond to this paradox. I don’t, by the way, recommend leaving everything in life to chance & luck. Actually, quite the opposite.
I was also a bit of a latecomer to making art, having originally planned (approximately since birth) to be a doctor. My father was a doctor, and this was back in the day when patients would actually call our house for appointments and graphically describe all their ailments, seemingly undeterred by the fact that the person answering the phone was 10 years old. I worked in my father’s office for years. Sometimes patients left his office, claiming to already feel much better, which implied that there was something in addition to medicine/treatment that impacted perceptions of wellbeing. An awareness of illness, health, & the body are part of my earliest memories. I was actually a pre-med student for 2 years before realizing that I had virtually no interest in becoming a doctor and left school for a time. An improbable series of events happily led me to the School of the Art Institute where I enrolled in Anne Wilson’s Intro Weaving class; it was life changing. I spent much of my undergrad years working in the Fiber Department — I had an interest in work that was process-oriented and in ritual garments and textiles. I also spent years, going to the Field Museum and making drawings of tools and objects that were useful/useable and relate to a lived life/the body. Those drawings seem quite related to the work in my current Bike Room show, although the function of my objects is never clear.
I now look back & refer to my first few years of art making as the honeymoon years, although I wasn’t necessarily calling it that back then. Keeping in mind that I had never so much as held a pencil, everything was brand new and filled with unlimited potential. Perhaps it still is, but as the years pass, this seems increasingly difficult to remember/know/see. It almost takes a bit of work to hold this thought, although, I confess that I still retain an unabashed pleasure in studio time. The paradox here is that although I’m long past the honeymoon years, I do have more clarity about what I care about in my work. And there also comes a point in working with a material when you begin to know what it does/what it does not do. There’s a big pay off after the extended getting-to-know-you process especially in conjunction with years of thinking about the same/similar forms. The work starts to feel more fluid/less forced. I’m less concerned about the work resembling anything in particular. Sadly this magic moment is almost certain to be fleeting!
CP: On the heels of that question, I want to ask about the ethereal quality of your work: it’s whiteness — almost as though (aside from the sewing wire interventions) it has been blanched — it’s fragility, it’s almost precarious balance; much of the work looks like it might fall apart given a strong enough breeze. Somehow you’ve managed to conjure corporality and dreamlike-ness at once. Is your work defiant, somehow? Suspended? Magic? Do you think about the body and the non-body at once?
JB: Not only does my work look like a strong breeze might blow it away, but it is often the case that I will leave the studio & return the next day, and everything has collapsed! The work tends to look best right on the edge of “anything could happen when you turn your back.” When I set up work in a show, I have to force myself NOT to over-stabilize the work &/or pin it in too many places. I am, on the one hand, wanting the work to stay hung throughout the duration of an exhibition, but also keep it on the edge of toppling over.
CP: How do you think about sculpture — a field that historically gives humans a chance to leave large iron footprints in a landscape —
JB: My very short answer to your question is: I am far more inspired by the work of Eva Hesse then by the work of Richard Serra.
And then there’s my longer answer. I think it’s a fairly common human response to want to leave a footprint…art or otherwise. We’re only around for a comparatively short time, and we never really know how our own story will end. We also want to be remembered. I do think that contributes the desire to leave something that will outlast us. That is a very reductive & simplistic view, and I do not think it’s the sole reason artists want to make work. Neither do I think it’s the sole reason people have children. But I do think it can contribute to the desire for either or both. I’m a bit pragmatic about this: I’m not going to live forever and there’s no way around that. I don’t have children & my work is very impermanent. (Please note: 1) I make vast distinctions between artists and parents. 2) I frequently admire the contributions/dedication of both.)
I’m visiting New York City now & have spent a disproportional amount of time at The Met, looking at Greek & Roman sculpture: figurative, monumental, stunning. Personally, I’m glad they didn’t fabricate those works out of paper or something fragile, or I wouldn’t be seeing them now. But despite the fact that they have endured for centuries quite a few are pretty messed up in a variety of ways. Many of them are broken and held together with steel rods & other modern day fabrications. Some of the heads & other body parts are missing. We no longer know who many/most of these people are — let alone the identity of the artists who made these pieces. They haven’t completely succeeded in eternal life. Furthermore, most of these sculptures were stolen from their countries of origin. But they are gorgeous. I could stay in those galleries for days.
Immediately before working with paper, I fabricated my sculpture pieces out of industrial felt — not marble or steel, but stronger (& itchier) than my current work. The work was fairly dark in both tone (referenced armor, bondage toys, prosthetics, and animal traps) and color. I switched to mainly white paper after that (I was already integrating touches of it in my industrial felt pieces) for several reasons. For one, the tone of my work usually is somewhere on a continuum of dark/quirky/curious and I was interested in using an opposite kind of material, primarily to focus on the details. Everything resides in the details: the crumple, the sheen, the decorative flourishes, the distress, the bit of map information (I use atlas pages in some of the work). This is something of the reward or payoff you get from careful looking. I am aware that my work can be taken in at a glance — a lot of white, a lot of paper, some odd/eccentric stitches. I like that there is extra visual information available if you stop to look. I suppose there is a defiance about that, particularly as people typically spend about 11 seconds (on a good day) looking at art work. And I suppose there is a defiance — quiet defiance? — in making such ephemeral work. I recently threw out a huge installation of paper pieces. I had shown it once as entire immersive environment and selected a few individual pieces to exhibit a few other times. I started re-hanging the pieces in my studio this summer, and they looked like hell. They had lost their “body” through the hanging/re-hanging/packing process; they were limp in an uninteresting way. I would leave the studio and hope I was mistaken, willing them to look better the next day. But, of course, they never did. When I finally threw the whole collection out, it felt really good & very right. Somehow the new work began to come with greater ease. The bottom line for me in terms of materials I’m currently using: white paper, wire, thread, modeling compound, packing tape — is that they seem to be the right choices for the implications and contradictions of my current work.
CP: Could you talk about your interest in alchemy and how that has influenced your practice? Does the quest for gold somehow translate into a quest for aesthetic fulfillment?
JB: An extremely brief intro to alchemy for anyone who doesn’t know the history: The alchemists were the precursors to our modern day chemists. Their intention was to transform ordinary metals — through a series of processes like heating, cooling, and distilling — into gold. Needless to say, they were unsuccessful. They did, instead, frequently start fires, cause explosions, and some of them lost their lives. I would argue they were as interested in their on-going experimentation as in actually realizing their goal. Theirs was a lifelong pursuit and like all lifetime pursuits, the actual achievement of the goal can be overrated, or at least, anticlimactic. There are a number of things I really respond to about the alchemists. First and foremost is the concept of transformation which was central to their experiments and to my work. Material transformations have been a part of my work since my weaving days. And a central theme of my work is the pivotal moment when something could, but might not, happen.
I do also really love alchemical images; they are strange and wonderful. They include a weird symbolic language in which the union of opposites (in the form of sex between “the king and queen”) results in the desired transformation. Everything is somewhat cryptic and coded; theirs was a secret language, philosophy, and society. I am intrigued and a bit inspired by their love and devotion to process. And although they didn’t ever create gold, or anything close modern day science owes them a debt of gratitude. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good finished product! I’m not sure I could be as committed to my art practice if each and every thing I made was exactly the same failure as the last time. But I love the fact that I’m never done or finished…that each body of work unfolds one to the next. I’m also rather grateful that my art practice is a way of learning and understanding the world around me. It’s a kind of “onion skin” of delving deeper that fascinates me about the alchemists and my own art practice. I would say the “quest” — for me — is for successive bodies of work to dig a bit further into core concerns. And to not (literally) blow anything/anybody up in the process.
CP: Can inanimate objects possess drama? Is that something you are interested in? How does it manifest?
JB: I do believe inanimate objects can suggest a kind of drama — sometimes more literally and other times a bit more metaphorically. Long before I started working with paper, I would give my students an assignment in which they take a huge stack of copy paper, an especially innocuous material, and separately transform each and every sheet. Drawing on the paper is not allowed. The paper can be ripped, torn, cut, or shaped, and only the use of scotch tape, white out or white thread is permitted. This assignment, which I call “The Something From Nothing Project,” is not necessarily my most popular one. But there are always a few students who clearly respond to it and find it expands their notions of making art. Many students lose patience/interest before they even get started — what is there to do with a sheet of crappy paper? But the ones who persist and are curious find that a fold or a cut can convey meaning or that a heavily twisted sheet of paper can carry the “memory” of the hands that created the impression on the paper — I find this a kind of embedded action or subtle drama.
In my past installations, (not so much in my current exhibition at the Bike Room), sculpture pieces were interconnected and/or set up in conversation with each other; often they faced off in dramatic or tense moments. I am particularly inspired by love stories ranging from Othello to the soap opera, All My Children. (the latter is now cancelled, & this has nearly broken my heart) I am really interested in short stories as a genre as they tend to hinge on a climatic ending. I considered the sculpture forms in my immersive environments to be characters in somewhat theatrical situations — sneaking up upon, ignoring or confronting each other. Delineations between inside and outside were fluid, and the viewer, too, could unexpectedly become part of the drama.
In the past few years, the drama of each installation does not reside solely within any given object or even in the relationship between objects. It is additionally a function of how the objects respond to the architecture of the space. The activation of the sculpture pieces — the tone of the exhibition — is increasingly determined by the space. The Bike Room has been a particular pleasure to respond to — the space is quirky and raw and has a variety of nooks and crannies. There are a couple of hidden sculpture pieces that you might or might not notice; how they were hidden was totally a function of the oddness of the space.
CP: What is your experience of distance (metaphorical or narrative or geographical) and time?
JB: The passage of time, the distance between moments and/or decades, is more relevant to my work than actual geographical distance. On Kawara is a huge inspiration to me although there is seemingly no connection between his work and mine — certainly not a visual one. I am incredibly moved by his date paintings and the dedication of counting all the days of his life. I am also awed by the objectivity of his documentation, as I possess little to none of this quality. The counting of days, the passage of time, how the past typically informs the present except when it doesn’t — these are of great interest to me. I’ve talked about my interest in pivotal moments and potential moments of transformation, but I’m intrigued by the fact that we don’t necessarily recognize them at the moment we experience them. There are certain marker events in our lives — the days we look toward as the big moments: graduation or wedding or major exhibition, just to name just a few. But it’s likely that we don’t recognize the most critical moments of our lives when we first stumble upon them; they’re often quiet and not announced with bells and whistles. The work in my current show is more of a reflection or response to the ordinary extraordinary. The title of the exhibition, “I Dozed, I Napped, I Writhed, I Dreamed,” is excerpted from a longer prose piece I wrote, a rumination on what happens during a typical (or at least MY typical) day or week, and so on. The works in the show are stitched drawings (some on mylar, others on packing tape) and mixed media constructions (paper, thread, wire, modeling compound). Most of the objects do not look new and many look as if they have just been casually hung in the space, without too much thought. Things look a bit haphazard at first—two drawings, one object, etc., but if you spend a bit of time, hopefully you see that there’s an echo from one object to the next. Most of us have the notion that we keep changing throughout our lives; hopefully that’s true. But it’s a bit like reading your old diary or looking at your old art work. In some respect, you might feel like you no longer know the person you once were. On the other hand, there are these eye-opening moments where you realize that what you were thinking about years and years ago seems identical to what you were thinking about just yesterday. I find these moments quite stunning, and in a way, oddly comforting, too.
Neil Brideau: I think over the past few generations comics have really come into their own. They’re being accepted more by the larger cultural world, and I think that helps cartoonists break out of their shells a little bit. Most of CAKE’s exhibitors are in their late twenties and early thirties, and I feel like this generation is a lot more social than their immediate predecessors. There’s this stereotype of the alternative comics artist toiling away in their studio not getting any financial or critical compensation for what they love, and feeling sorry for themselves. But I see our peers really celebrating their creative process and the creative process of others. Not that there aren’t a lot of nights spent alone in a room inking pages of comics very few people will read. I think Chicago too, in general is really welcoming of DIY and small-run creativity. Whether it’s the Night Market, or the CIMM Fest, or the Chicago Zine Fest, or Printers Ball, or house shows that DIYCHI is putting together, Chicago seems to be an incubator for lo-fi production and celebration of that production. I think cartoonists in Chicago react to that energy, and are more social and community-oriented animals.
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 email@example.com
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.
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.
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.
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.