I’m in the middle of working up a bunch of interviews for the coming weeks! Really exciting stuff, I can’t wait to get it all out in the world. This week I just posted some notes I put together about studio arts PhDs. I’m working on a longer article around and about James Elkins’ book Artists with PhDs: On the new Doctoral Degree in Studio Art, but I wanted to collect my thoughts before diving into his. Anyway, if you all have any ideas of how to further my research on the subject, let me know.
While objecting to the PhD studio art program might be as useless as anti-cell phone sentiments in 2002, I wanted to wave a small flag. Off the bat, PhD studio practices seem to add one more step in what (already) looks a little like a pyramid scheme; art schools feeds themselves: students are initiated into a canon, which they then struggle to be legitimized and supported by for an indefinite amount of time after their matriculation. While on the one hand self-reliant circulatory systems are wondrous, the success of a given artist is not an automatic consequence of a scholastic advance. That’s applicable to any project in the humanities, of course, and I think it’s something that every participant is more or less aware of. College doesn’t guarantee success, but you hope a good education will get you that much closer to its likelihood.
The first thing to do, probably, is ask oneself what that vision of success looks like. It’s very likely different for everyone, though, I bet, with a common base of economic sustainability. Every artist (or really, just anybody) wants to be secure in their lifestyle. Obviously it’s impossible for any institution to promise that. The question of how to support oneself as an artist, while also developing one’s practice does not have an easy solution. It never will. I have heard stories about artists in Manhattan who can only paint one type of painting (and have been for the last 30 years) because those are the paintings that sell and they have car/house/child care payments to make. On another end of the spectrum, there are those who don’t have gallery representation, don’t own anything and work for money as little as possible in order to make more artwork. Those are just two examples in a sea of countless scenarious. Everybody knows it’s hard. That’s not the question. The PhD just promises to ease that difficulty, to make it *feel* a little bit easier, without necessarily helping in the long run. It’s a balm.
MFA programs do the same thing. I should know, I went to one and I also loved it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything—I learned a lot, worked with fantastic professors in addition to meeting a group of peers on whom I still rely. Furthermore the MFA ensured three years to dedicated to my practice. Bought and paid for, I chose to follow an impractical whim and in so doing, by inhabiting the consequence of that absurdity, began to believe more fully (perhaps by necessity) in myself as someone who could make a legitimate cultural contribution. I don’t know that anyone would disagree—art school is great. It’s amazing. You’re suddenly entrenched in a community that takes your efforts very seriously. It’s kind of like having a therapist, except the therapist is an impersonal building filled with passionate people who more or less share your (largely non-commercial) interests. Once you go to school you are immediately immersed in a creative support system.
While the MFA program has become a predominant feature on the artist’s CV, it was an exception for previous generations. Even while more and more people went on to secondary institutions, artists remained very much on the outskirts of that movement. Instead of school, they used cities, underground clubs, music venues and galleries as educational sites and community oases. Their experience was much more affordable; it was also less conventional. Obviously we can’t go back and in looking back we change what was. Nevertheless, I appreciate that our artistic predecessors operated in the margins of a society—working in an easily overlooked wilderness that was impossible to translate at more conventional gatherings—like family reunions, for instance—where one might be asked what one does. Explaining that you make art and work in a dingy dive bar in Alphabet City wouldn’t sell any obvious credibility those conventional others. Telling a relative that you’re in a scholastic program, even if they don’t agree with it, you’re situating yourself within an institution—something larger than the opinion of any one person. Getting degrees is a way to signify public (albeit purchased) support. It eases the loneliness of a marginalized practice/lifestyle.
And what is wrong with that?
Nothing, really. I would probably be one of the first to jump into another 5 years of a studio practice if I could afford it. Further, in joining those programs, I’d be using my purchasing power to ensure their existence—a kind of investment for my own future given that, probably, what one does afterwards is try to teach at one of those schools. The more college/graduate level art courses, the better. And another point: of all the things that people should do more of, goddamn they should learn more! And please, study art! Study the humanities! The more citizens who care about narratives and critical thinking and historical insight and philosophy, the better!
So there’s nothing really to complain about. My objection only stems from the resultant streamlining hegemony and it’s because I have this idea that art is a means for cultural/political/societal resistance. I want it to push again predominant status quos, to question the climate of its times, provoking and undermining the stability and moires it occupies. I worry that the PhD Studio Arts degree perpetuates an already insulated world, one rife with internal hierarchies, that consequently continues to focus on itself, while necessarily needing to inflate the aura of its authority.
I believe a healthy society needs people working on its boundaries. I believe that such a course isn’t easy, but the world needs outsiders, mismatched and perhaps bedraggled or confused, those individuals are inadvertently called to question the structure of the culture they inhabit, precisely because it does not fit into it. By pursuing such lines of questioning, it becomes easier to recognize other taken-for-granted and, often, detrimental notions, which then create new turns of cultural development. Maybe the PhD art programs could have auxillary, shadow departments dedicated to investigating the authority of the institution in which it lives.
Yesterday I came across this interview about Ai Weiwei. The interview takes place between Spiegel International and Roger Buergel, a curator who first invited Ai Weiwei to Documenta in 2007. Buergel is certainly quotable, and the thrust of his sentiment is that Western artists are not as bent out of shape about Ai Weiwei’s absence as we ought to be; he suggests an unconscious but palpable jealousness as the cause of our apathy. “Young Western artists are producing works that amount to nothing more than footnotes in art history, and then this Chinese artist appears who takes a totally different approach and makes 98 percent of the art world look very, very old.” It definitely shocked me into paying attention—what is perhaps the larger point of such statements. It is not about what is being said, but what might be done.
Ai Weiwei has been missing for 38 days, since the Police refused to let him board a plan to Hong Kong. His latest disappearance was not his first run-in with Chinese government authority. According to an earlier article in The Washington Post, ”In 2009, in the western city of Chengdu, Ai was beaten so badly that he required surgery to have blood drained from his brain. Late last year, he was stopped at Beijing’s airport from flying to South Korea because authorities feared he might go to Oslo to attend the Nobel ceremony for Liu [2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner].” He was also prevented from having an exhibition in Beijing.
At the same time, I’m not sure what Buergel wants from us. What exactly is his call to action? It seems to me that twitter, facebook and a plethora of media outlets have been regularly fore fronting their concern for Ai Weiwei’s whereabouts. Petitions have been circulating for months now and artists have been making work in tribute. “Anish Kapoor has dedicated his largest ever artwork – a truly enormous cathedral-like space made from inflated PVC – to the missing Chinese artist Ai Weiwei” (Guardian); Kapoor’s installation opens today, May 11th, and will be open to the public until June 23rd at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is called Leviathan, after Hobbes’ instrumental work about social-political structures. Kapoor suggest all the galleries and museums in the world close down for a day, in honor of this missing colleague.
What an amazing thought.
It’s horrifying—the idea of someone getting swept up into absence. Of course it’s unacceptable that anyone would have to undergo such an ordeal. Yet there seems to be a message in Ai Weiwei’s particular missing-ness, because he boasted such an international profile. ”‘If they are willing to go this far with someone like him, then all bets are off,’ said Joshua Rosenzweig, who heads the Hong Kong office of the Dui Hua Foundation, a human-rights organization” (Wall Street Journal).
It is important to counter a sense of powerlessness. I certainly have no idea what someone could do to impact this situation, perhaps in part because there is nothing to see. The action—whatever it is—takes place out of public view, in impossible-to-reach cloisters. Only the absconding was visible. We have no direct access to the artist, only public-go-betweens. Governments are big and it feels difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how to influence such powers. Nevertheless, Kapoor takes a positive step towards a solution, outlining a possible path in order to participate in an action that is poetic, peaceable and demonstrative of a trans-national solidarity.
**all photos by Edward Crouse
Until recently, my recollection of the Haymarket Riot is as follows:
Me, age 15 in the high school library looking over microfiche and taking notes on note cards as had been suggested by our US History teacher. As prickly as he was hilarious, he had a ruler he thwatted against the table and black board for emphasis. He made Republican jokes and I was very proud of the notes I took in his class. I used a variety of colors, more for aesthetic presence than any sort of code. He said once the only reason he became a teacher was because he always liked his teachers and wanted to be similarly liked. He said once he’d started teaching he realized it was only the good students that liked you and there weren’t very many of them. I wanted to be a good student. Actually, I was passable.
To be fair, I only chose to write about the Haymarket Riot because “riot” was in the topic title. And, actually, I do not remember much about my research. I remember being interested in how people managed to organize under such exhausted, alienating conditions. I remember being surprised at the conditions under which they worked; for instance, that previous to the riot people worked more than 8hrs a day on the regular. But aside from that I only recall my preoccupation with not plagiarizing and using a variety of pens to make my note cards handsome. The rest of that paper is a blur.
The older I get the more I discover blind spots like these—details that slipped past the guards of my younger memory.
Today, May 4th 2011, marks the proper 125th anniversary of the Haymarket Riot. On Saturday, April 30th Paul Durica’s well-loved A Pocket Guide To Hell partnered with the Illinois Labor History Society, Version 11: Community, the Haymarket Pub & Brewery, Drinking & Writing Theater, and the Fulton District Association to stage a reenactment of those 1886 events. There were two groups. One, the one I was a part of, met at the Haymarket Brewery to get dressed up participate as police. The other, the anarchists and attendees, gathered at Randolph and Desplaines where a history was read and performed from a predetermined script. I can’t speak for what happened in the square before our arrival, so I’ll just give you a play-by-play of my experience.
My first tweet @10:59 AM: 125th anniversary of Haymarket Riot leads to Haymarket Reenactment 2day! 2pm at Randolph and Halsted. #pocketguidetohell
We had a Green Lantern squad. A merry band of buddies met me at the bar where we were given black coats, hats, and asked if we’d prefer to be wounded or have cap guns. I chose to be wounded and a small gold sticker was put on my shoulder. I was given a captain’s hat, as someone who had organized other volunteers. I admired a woman’s moustache, went to the bathroom and had second thoughts about whether or not I’d rather shoot a cap gun. Maybe I didn’t want to get wounded after all. I hadn’t pretended to do anything (publicly) in so long, the adolescent part of my brain bit my adult lip with consternation.
I decided to stay the course.
I decided I’d enact a stomach wound. I practiced, quietly, grasping my abdomen, imagining how I would fall down.
I very much liked my captain’s hat.
Second Tweet @2:22: Can finally call myself Captain Picard#haymarketreenactment
Coming back to the main room I couldn’t recognize my party because everyone wore the same black coats. The room was filling up rapidly. A waiter came around with a tray full of very small beers. I had one and found my people. Environmental Encroachment started to play by the door—a punk marching band cut from the same cloth as Mucca Pazza. Hearing them made me happy because EE had played in the first Green Lantern about five years ago during some crazy circus house-cat performance (don’t ask).
While I’ve never been one to fully embrace the mystical significance of synchronicity, I have always taken some comfort in our ability to return to themes.
Similarly, I started thinking about that first paper I wrote. I started thinking about how much my understanding of historical sequence has improved. I did not have enough context when I wrote that paper as Sophomore year. Of course, you have to start somewhere but as a 15 year-old the 1700s seemed as far away as the 1800s. It was like I experienced a temporal parallax from my 1996 co-ordinate. I had no means with which to conceptually measure those temporal distances. Now, 15 years later, I have a deeper sense of consequence and a better understanding of how one thing leads to another. 20 years is a literal distance that I’ve already traveled. Or, for another example, I understand how modernism lead to post-modernism. Nevertheless, the understanding of my 30 old-self is still based on an intellectual apprehension. History is still not present to me. Even thinking through all of the recent revolutions and protests, from Cairo to Madison: there is a way where people are active in the present for deep ideals which may be incongruous with the hierarchical structures in which they are embedded. I’m thinking also of England, where students have been protesting almost constantly about the need for free education. By participating in this reenactment on Randolph and Desplains, I had an opportunity to internalize my own history so that my understanding wasn’t simply intellectual, but became a muscle memory.
Someone stood up on a stool and gave us instructions. We were to march in a group around the block to a parking lot across the bridge.
Third Tweet @2:47: Those who are wounded fall and hurt. You know who you are.” #haymarketreenactment
In the parking lot more attempts were made to organize the police. We were instructed to form lines, 24 across and 8 deep. We were at least 2 more sets of 8 going back. And it was a great crowd. One of the things I love about Chicago is the way a multifarious group of people working under the larger umbrella of cultural action (here I’d include DIY movie theaters, artspaces, publications, activist groups) can come together to participate in another group action. Certainly we’ve been seeing a lot of that lately, for instance with the MDWY Fair. The Haymarket Reenactment was no exception. Organizations like Quimby’s, The Dil Pickle Club, The Nightingale, Columbia College, featherproof, Quickies, Dance Dance Dance Party, Stop Smiling, MAKE Magazine and others all had their own squad of 6+ people. Further, within the confines that Durica prescribed people were also able to enjoy themselves. There was a built-in chaos or disorder that had been accounted for. It was most apparent in the parking lot where we waited. The lines deteriorated slightly. It was hot. People made jokes about the sun finally coming out at last after so much winter.
Fourth Tweet @ 2:56: People have started speaking old timey #haymarketreenactment
When at last, we began to walk down the street we started to march. It was an unplanned development but we stomped our feet in unison while simultanesouly thwacking our costume-issued gray, styrofoam pool-noodle clubs. I suspect a similar movement took hold of the original police; approaching a large mass of people will always be intimidating and if you’re assuming any kind of authority you need all the help you can get. Sharing a drum beat from your feet works pretty well. We could see a massive group of people standing in the middle of Des Plaines. There was a road block. Proper police stopped traffic to let us pass and someone opened the street barrier so that we, as a group (still in lines somehow), could walk into the middle of the throng. An anarchist in a vest spoke to us through the microphone by the Haymarket cart.
What was said/The Transcript no. 1:
The POLICE march up Desplaines to the Wagon, forcing spectators and workers north. WILLIAM WARD approaches FIELDEN.
WARD: I command you, in the name of the State of Illinois, to immediately and peaceably disperse.
FIELDEN: We are peaceable.
WARD: I command you and you to assist.
EdMar made his way to the front, and waved his gloved hand in a queen’s wave. Someone threw a dusty cloth up in to the air. It was white and it burst into a small smoke. There was the sound of a bomb. This was our signal. I began my death scene. A number of cap guns went off. Photographs scrambled to take pictures. I heard others groaning.
What was said/The Transcript no. 2:
THE HISTORIAN: No more than 5 minutes elapsed between the explosion and the last gunshot. No one knows who threw the bomb. No one knows how many workers and spectators who wounded or killed. The wounded along with the wounded police, 60 or so in number, were taken back to the Desplaines Station. One officer, Mathias Degan, died instantly from his injuries; seven others died later.
Fifth Tweet @3:34: Definitely died. Feel great. Still have to pee. #haymarketreenactment
The reenactment continued in a kind of fast forward over subsequent events. Most of the police who were wounded were wounded by friendly fire. Police started to sit up or stand up in order to listen and watch the performance. A mock execution was held. We listened to their last words.
What was said/The Transcript no. 3:
The actor who plays WILLIAM WARD is now SHERRIFF MATSON. He approaches the remaining 4 men who now stand with hands clasped behind their backs. After each speaks, he puts a hood over their heads. Parsons is cut-off mid-sentence. MATSON makes a gesture with his hand and the 4 drop their heads.
SPIES: The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.
ENGEL: (in German) Hurray for anarchy. Hurray for anarchy.
FISCHER: Hurray for anarchy. This is the happiest moment of my life.
PARSONS: Will I be allowed to speak, oh men of America? Let me speak, Sheriff Matson. Let the Voice
of the People be heard! O—
MATSON and the 4 men receded into the crowd. The WORKERS hold up a sign reading June 25, 1893.
This is the way we fast forwarded through time: by signs held up with dates on them. In this way, a narrative was enacted, such that the consequences of the riot were brought to their conclusion.
What was said/The Transcript no. 4:
LUCY PARSONS (Alma Washington): My children and I were not allowed to see Albert the morning he was murdered. We were arrested outside the jailhouse. Thousands lined the streets as the bodies of the 5 men made the journey to Waldheim Cemetery. On June 25, 1893 a memorial was dedicated to them. The next day Gov. Altgeld pardoned Schwab, Fielden, and Neebe. The fight for the 8 hr. day continued. The fight for a just and better world continues.
I was not there with my husband in his final hours. I was later told that on the eve of his execution, around midnight, alone in his cell, he sang his favorite song, our favorite song, “Anna Laurie.”
Finally I got up from my death pose. We were all lead in song after that; we sang “Les Marseillaise.”
Paul Durica started making his own speech, stating in particular what became my sixth tweet.
Sixth Tweet @3:42: Paul Durica: “History is a public space. It belongs to all of us.” #haymarketreenactment
It might seem tiresome, in some way, to include those transcripts. I did so, however, to help frame the whole experience. To show how much thought and effort went into the architecture of the event. It had been in the works since November and a ton of people participated to make it happen. To me the experience created a different rubric for education. By participating in a reenactment like this, one is directly implicated in the action of history. Furthermore, at least for me, I felt pretty carefree throughout all of it. I don’t think I was taking it seriously, exactly, swept up as I was in the energy of a group. Yet suddenly, I found myself hearing the script, hearing that only one policeman died on the scene. Realizing that I probably would not have been that policeman (despite my dramatic pose). I bumped into historical accuracy in such a way that, I expect, I will always remember those dead and wounded. Furthermore, when I climbed back up from my pose on the street, I heard four speeches as bags were placed on four people’s heads. It was suddenly somber. The subsequent speakers had an earnestness about them which I’m not sure I would have appreciated had I not been so cavalier before—because suddenly everything felt real and I was overwhelmed with a tactile experience of how our lives today have been so directly impacted by this short historical blip.
We still have no real idea what the narwhal horn is for. Of course it isn’t really a horn, either. It’s a tooth or a tusk like that of a walrus or elephant. It grows up and out in a spiral. At first they supposed it might be use to break holes in the ice, or spar with other whales. Because female narwhals don’t often have these protruding teeth (though some do, and some rarer males have two), they are believed to be “secondary sexual characteristics” used to woo and impress prospective mates. That said, in 2005 scientists discovered narwhal tusks are opposite to our own: whereas our teeth have a hard protective enamel that covers the softer, nerve-ridden pulp, narwhal tusks are hard on the inside with 10,000 nerves worth of sensitive soft stuff exposed to atmosphere. This, combined with the acknowledgement that no one had ever seen such behavior, discouraged the tusk-as-rapier idea. It was thus concluded that the sometime 10-foot tooth might serve as a thermometer/barometer/measurer-of-salt. It’s possible this tusk is used to communicate, bringing to mind an antenna. Nevertheless it’s speculative. We still can’t say why this whale, as opposed to others, would have such a specific tool. In Mark Booth’s exhibition, God is Represented by the Sea, a wall drawing tastes the tusk, as though to unlock its mystery that way. Three of the four walls are covered in a narrative that includes, “I attempted to trace one furrow from the horn’s root to its tip with my tongue. During this process of investigation my taste buds became inflamed and swollen, calling to mind an undulating colony of sea anemones.”
ADDS DONNA is a long, narrow gallery with high ceilings. At first glance, Booth uses the space economically. There is nothing on the floor. Rather, smaller paper works hang near and above the door; like Hair Isthmus (above), these drawings are spattered, star-like reliefs of text—written in the same font as the text that lines the walls. On the wall, gray-blue vinyl letters describe the narwhal tusk, the way the narrator accessed it through “a purveyor of experience” and the narwhal’s curious smile. At first I didn’t see the inconsistencies in the font, assuming it, like most institutional lettering, was created by a computer. But slowly, as I stood letting my eyes wander over the letters, I couldn’t place the font. The O’s were curious, octagonal blocks and, like the A’s, B’s & D’s, did not have central holes. I then noticed that the octagon’s corners were not all at the same angle. It dawned on me then that every letter had been cut by hand.
Accompanying this work is an overhead audio recording of substitution, “Shimmering stars are represented by a milk-filled breast……A milk filled breast is represented by a river through a country in darkness……A river through a country in darkness is represented by sirens keening across a city……Sirens keening across a city are represented by women, men and children……Women, men and children are represented by argon gas……Argon gas is represented by a petrified tree……A petrified tree is represented by a physical gesture…” It is Booth’s voice, leading us through a curiously poetic equation, one that wanders to through dreamy conclusions, convincing for the gentle tone of Booths’ voice—easily presumed to be the same first-person in the text. Through that tonal repetition, bouncing as it does against the letters on the wall, the room starts to fill with an intuitive architecture. One in which the sea, with its sea urchins and narwhals and overhanging navigational stars is both central and ineffable.
The final piece in the last corner features more text, with curious shapes patterned beneath it in a cluster. The narwhal story ends under this last wall drawing. This time the text is a little darker and reflective; thinking through the sea urchin and sailors lost at sea, it conjures the mythic properties of their absence and the way we feed upon it. These anecdotes create an experience of wonder, a fetishitic curiosity. Perhaps because we live in a landlocked city, they are almost erotic.
It used to be that people hunted narwhal tusks for Kings and Queens, as evidence that unicorns existed. It was so much more plausible to imagine a horse with a horn than a whale, the idea of unicorns persisted. Can you imagine? Someone says to Another, “Unicorns don’t exist.” The Other, “Where do those horns come from?” The First, “Whales.” The Second, “Shut the fuck up.” But this is the way of the sea as it always has been. A dark, intemperate body, full of mystery: a field that woos the Romantic.
Perhaps it is true, the only way to comprehend it—even slightly—is to ingest some part of it.
Text has authority. The codified system of communicative terms is an institution; it parses our experience, mapping a common ground that necessarily diminishes the importance of what cannot be conveyed in order to protect its own cohesion. An inherited legacy, like any other culture, cheese, bread, alcohol, yogurt : these things propagate meaning by facilitating relationships and values. They are nutritious, while themselves evidence of sophistication and art. Perhaps we could add to these, myth and ritual, as we focus on the way in which these artifacts of tradition are nevertheless dynamic and alive. They are not static as institutionalized text-on-a-wall might have you think. The hand-cut quality of each letter reminds us that this is a story; it could be a dream or it could be autobiographical, historical or fictitious. It could be a long lie. The potency of this category lies in its reproduction. The bacteria of a particular cheese is given as a gift in order to be reproduced in some other country. At a party none of us are invited to, someone retells Booth’s story, as though it was a personal experience. These tales can be repeated and through repetition they can change. The elemental letters that comprise their content are themselves dynamic and unstable. God is Represented by the Sea investigates text as it undermines the authority of language, where ideas hang like balloons to be consumed, sometimes on paper , sometimes on the wall and sometimes in the air.
First the guess artist told a story about a man-faced fish that lived in a green pond on a large estate during the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon’s army happened to pass through that part of the world and he used briefly that estate as a command post before one or another of the famous battles in which he refused to take anyone’s advice and went his own implacable way.
While out for a walk on the estate, considering the best way to array his troops along the lines of battle, Napoleon passed by the pond in which the man-faced fish lived. Being a man who was fond of green ponds and private moments before battle, Napoleon lingered by the pond and stared down into its depths. The man-faced fish saw him and swam up to the surface.
— Good day, said the man-faced fish.
— Bonsoir, said Napoleon.
— Below, said the man-faced fish, it is neither day nor night.
The Way Through Doors, Jesse Ball
The quoted passage above is told from within a labyrinth underground. The characters are about to take a rest for the night. The literal labyrinth they are in mirrors the narrative labyrinth Ball leads us through. The Way Through Doors world is not stable, but constantly shifts as in a dream.
Booth’s world is similarly shifting. As the cadence of his voice bears us along illogical conclusions, the path is nevertheless pleasing and so you drift along, without necessarily having to take responsibility for the consequence of your passage. But of course this show is also about Art. The tasting of the narwhal tusk takes place in a Zoological Museum. It is about the authority of spaces and texts and contexts. It is about our relationship to history, evoking, perhaps, the delight gleaned as we eat the myths of our predecessors, draining their nourishment in order to fuel our own expressive desires. The sequence of cannibalisms, so far taken for granted, as to remain dreamlike, impalpable, labarynthian.
The name “narwhal” comes from the Norse word “Nar” which means corpse. Literally translated they would be “Corpse Whales.” Contemporary peoples have looked back on this, supposing the whale’s propensity to float, unmoving, on the ocean’s surface for endless hours as well as their discolored, spattered skin inspired the name. It is likely that, when found in the middle of nowhere on a flat, frigid ocean, days away from land and wind, these creatures astonished mariners as monstrous ghosts, gripping their hearts with uneasiness. However, on closer inspection instead of finding horror they found the narwhal’s habitual smile. “Even in death, this enigmatic smile reflects the narwhal’s reception of continual, unexpected pleasures,” (Booth).
The final piece in the last corner:
It is commonly known that when the sea urchin resembles the texture and flavor of a drowned sailor leading the superstitious belief that the sea urchin is the repository for the souls of mariners reaped by the sea.
— God is Represented by the Sea, Mark Booth
Bas Jan Ader disappeared in the sea while searching for The Miraculous.
Perhaps in this dream, you are eating Bas Jan Ader.
I first met Rebecca on Milwaukee Ave. I think we were at a gallery opening. I had been talking to a friend about The North Georgia Gazette, an Arctic newspaper originally published in 1821; I wanted to reprint it somehow. At the time the project was a pipe dream and when my friend saw Rebecca, she ushered her over and said, “You should talk to Rebecca. She’s all about Arctic exploration.” At the time, I think I stuttered through the introduction. Like many encounters, the virtue of our handshake was not in what was said but a recognition of friendliness. Since then I’ve followed Rebecca’s work pretty closely. We put the Gazette together and even travelled to Philly at one point to put up an art show. We share a number of interests in book making and comics; her work has inspired my own in different ways. I’ve always appreciated its tactile honesty. There is something defiant about the unslick-ness of her tone, the efficiency of her energy. If she wants to illustrate a relationship with the ocean, she literally draws with it, or swims in it, or writes it a letter. She makes illustrated chapbooks connecting geographical exploration with a romantic biography. Or, upon recognizing weakness creates a ritual of exercise-as-performance. In everything there is a direct connection between the gut of her impulse and the resulting aesthetic experience. The distilled object–a photograph, a sculpture or video–is the result. Given her interest in exploration, it makes sense she would approach her practice so efficiently–it is as though she must employ economy in order to anticipate unknown distances ahead, in order to conserve energy and resources. Each piece is evidence of a new discovery within an interior landscape–a place that could be a country or a poem.
Caroline Picard: What does it mean to explore something? What is your relationship to the iceberg?
Rebecca Mir: When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time scrambling over seaweed covered rocks and investigating tide pools by the beach, or building fairy houses in the roots of spruce trees on Monhegan Island. I channel some of that excitement when I’m walking through a new place, or building something in my studio. Exploration is partly about the physical space of exploring, and then it’s all the pieces of the story surrounding the exploration. Some of my projects rely more heavily on the actual journey, to the water, or mountain, or the preparations for this journey. Getting directions from a deck of tarot cards for instance. Or the journey takes place entirely on paper. In a comic about exploring the sea floor and bumping into perished explorers.
Icebergs are explorers too. They break off of a glacier and set out a trip through the ocean. Sometimes they stop in shallow water and become an island. They are beautiful, but sometimes dangerous, to us. I am attracted to cold places and large bodies of water. It’s only fitting really that I think icebergs are sexy and fun to draw.
CP: How do you relate to the mediums you employ? How do you chose, for instance, whether something is made out of paper, or bound in a book, or constructed with plywood?
RM: When I first decided to be an artist, (somewhere around fourteen?) I was very old fashioned. I wanted to carve women in stone. I think this might be directly related to watching a film on Camille Claudel. I had a very romantic sense of the artist studio. Romantic and dramatic and devastating. I quickly gave up on figure drawing and sculpture for less figurative sculpture projects in fiber and ceramics. But I’ve returned to working with the figure and stone. I started drawing again, about five years ago, with comics. And I’ve been working with rocks again, in sculptures and drawings. It’s sort of tying up the loose ends of my roots. Choosing materials is sometimes a game. Figuring out how to build/draw/capture this idea with what is directly around me. Similar to the fairy house building in the woods. And sometimes this is just where it starts, and then I realize that I have to go seek the right paper, or wood, or rock. Or that I need to go make a photograph. Or find a video camera.
Plywood is great for making rigid things like ice floes and mountains. Paper is great for making water. I like the way crinkled paper makes me think of water stopped in motion; the light hits the crinkles in a similar way to it reflecting on the wavy surface of water. Paper is also great for writing on. When I want to tell a more linear story, I always go back to pen on paper. I turn them into books when there seems to be a group of stories, or a longer one. Books are easier travel companions. I can send them easily in the mail. They take up less space, but require more time.
CP: Do you feel your work is contingent on others? I suppose I am thinking of the photograph you took, where you are swimming in the ocean in the winter. It looks like you are utterly alone, but of course the photograph was taken by someone. I ask because I feel like there is an idea about exploration that it demands a kind of alone-ness—i.e. you are going into unknown territories without being positive that you can return—yet in the action of performing that exploration, or making an art object, or taking a photograph, it seems to me there is an implied ‘you’ or witness…?
RM: Explorations aren’t always alone. Often there are expedition teams. People who help you get to the cave entrance, or carry supplies up the mountain.
I have always been interested in solo adventures. I’ve read a lot of books of solo sailing trips around the world, solo flights etc. I am always curious about some of the worst moments. They seem small on the page, and in the past, but I’m sure they were huge in the moment.
My particular brand of exploration is about being alone. The photograph that you mention, was taken during a walk that I took with my sister, mother and aunt in Maine. We passed a rocky point with a stone church, that I’ve driven by a thousand times. It’s a popular spot to get married. There was a small rocky beach nearby, that I’d never been on before. We walked down and I decided to get in the water. I passed the camera to my sister with some instructions. I was most definitely alone in the water. But I was there to be with the water. So I was alone with the water. And now I’m sharing a racy photograph with you.
CP: All this talk of exploration and solo journeys, and of course, the devastating romanticism of the artist–are you into Bas Jan Ader at all? What do you think of his final boat trip, In Search of the Miraculous?
RM: Yes, totally have a soft spot for Bas Jan Ader. A friend told me to look at his work when I was an undergrad. There weren’t as many books in print of his work then, but I found a description of his boat trip and thought it was the coolest and most poetically self destructive art project I’d ever heard of. Still, I didn’t really think about the size of his boat much til last year. It was only 12 or 13 feet long. That is like paddling a canoe across the Atlantic. I just finished reading Susan Casey’s book about rogue waves (100+ foot waves, more common than you think…..and an awesome read), so I’d prefer a much bigger boat if I sail across the Atlantic.
I also really like his piece I’m too sad to tell you.
CP: What about Buffy? She seems like another hero in your work. I was thinking of the project you did where you did pilates while watching all the episodes. How did you come up with that as a project? How do you feel (if you do) like she fits into your artistic mythology?
RM: Yes Buffy is a hero. Super strong girl kicking lots of supernatural ass with total lesbo best friend – what is not to love? During the last episode of the show, Willow (Buffy’s best friend, conveniently a witch) casts a spell that gives all the potential slayers the super strength that Buffy has. And then they head into battle. There are lots of portals in the Buffyverse (as it’s sometimes refered to). So I started thinking about the TV as a portal to the Buffyverse. And if I had a ritual to do while watching the show on TV, then I might be able to access it/enter the portal via this repetition. So I had a pilates routine that I would every day in front of an episode of Buffy. The fight scenes were usually at the end of each episode, so I would also fight along with my punching bag at the end. For five months I had slayer training with Buffy every day, in my apartment/the Buffyverse. At the end I was indeed stronger. I also immediately noticed that my dreams were less insanely violent. And I stopped getting a cold every other week. The spell/ritual worked.
CP: How would you characterize your relationship to Chicago?
RM: Well, if the ocean is my lover, then Chicago is a great housemate. We get along really well.
I really like the city, and the people here. I’ve been here for almost ten years though, and I still get homesick for a rocky coast. But I realized a while back that if I left town every couple of months, and visited the ocean at least twice a year, that I could really be happy living in the Midwest.
CP: What is the handmade book for?
RM: Handmade books are friends. If you take care of them, and they stick with you and make you feel better.
CP: Will you talk a bit about the project/video where you walked around the lake with a homemade telephone?
RM: I have this thing for long distances. I think about them often.
In part because a lot of good friends live far away. And I had been in a series of relationships with people who lived elsewhere. (The romantic relationships didn’t survive the distance.)
I wanted to put a ridiculous amount of effort into talking to someone. I wanted to physically cover a fraction of the distance that we frequently communicate across. A tin can telephone seemed to be the right tool for this exercise. I needed a length that was both daunting (for this specific task) and nearly insignificant these days. I picked a mile. And began making the phone.
My friend Dan lives near the beach in Indiana, and I always remembered from visits that the beach was rather empty in the off season. The beach didn’t curve too much either, so it seemed like it would be ideal for unwinding a mile long tin can telephone. I drove out to Miller Beach with two friends, two video cameras, and some audio recording equipment. Andrea, Aay and I set everything up right in front of the path from Dan’s house. Andrea stayed with the two cameras at the starting point. Aay and I began walking away from her, and each other, unwinding the telephone as we walked.
The goal was to have a conversation with a mile of beach in between us. And if it worked, record it. It was a lovely walk for a while. A warm and windy and sunny April day. And then there were lots and lots of knots and tangles in the string. At first just a few. And then I got stuck and I couldn’t go any further. Apparently Aay had lots of knots in the beginning but then it was smooth unraveling. So Aay and I never got to talk on the tin can telephone. Which was okay. I was mostly interested in the experiment, and the walk. And the videos of Aay and I walking away from the camera (there were two cameras, one on Aay and one on me) and disappearing into the distance captured these sort of quiet adventurers off seeking a conversation.
CP: Another thing I notice is how you characterize dynamic and personal relationships with traditionally inanimate things (like books, for instance, or Chicago, or the Ocean)–I’m particularly struck by how that characterizations relates to your description of the failed conversation with Aay–the contraption of the phone seems as alive and integral as Aay, or Dan, or the beach. In other words, you seem to describe a deep feeling connection to your environment and the things that occupy that environment. I’m curious about what role you see your work playing in that equation?
I absolutely have a deep connection to environments. Partly because when I was growing up in Maine, the ocean was such a calming force for me. Environments have a strong effects on their inhabitants. And we effect our environments. (This is where I tell you that global warming is real. And I admit that I am a nerd.) I meant it before when I said icebergs are sexy. A lot of my work is about romantic relationships with the environment. The romantic sense of adventure and conquest, and also heartache (a.k.a. natural disasters, glaciers melting)
One of my ongoing projects is about my long distance relationship with the ocean (which is why I was in the ocean by myself for that photo, I was visiting her). I joked once in a love letter (sent by bottle via the Mississippi river) that if I waited long enough in the Midwest the ocean would make it to me. Seriously, global warming is real.
CP: Rubaccaquon! I can’t believe I forgot to ask about that–I just thought about it, because it also, as a project, seems to relate to the personal dynamism I mentioned before–in so far as you are defining a personal country, right? And then also how that reflect on the power and idea of naming something. Could you talk a little bit about that?
RM: I have a lot of nicknames. Rubaccaquon is one. (I believe Aay Preston-Myint is responsible) I started using it as a website name, an alter ego/placeholder name, since I had been toying with the idea of changing my last name. And when I decided to swap Grady for Mir, I started to think that maybe Rubaccaquon was really a place after all. I was thinking a little bit about Yvette Poorter’s backyard Canadian soil residency project. If she could bring Canada with her to the Netherlands, then I could certainly date the ocean and have my own country. So Rubaccaquon became a nation/notion.
Discovering things and places is fun. Naming them helps with the storytelling that comes after the discovery.
CP: What have you been working on lately?
RM: I’ve been thinking a lot about space recently. Thinking and reading and doodling about space. Both outer space and the space in my apartment. I am making some directional and time devices/sculptures out of wood, metal, paper and stones. I’ve also been looking at a lot of Victorian acrostic jewelry. I want my next love letter to the ocean to be in stones. A large scale series of stones set in sand instead of gold.
I’m making a mountain range for my apartment, out of plywood. And I’ve been making a lot of books. Some have been edits of things I’ve worked on in the past. I have an unpublished comic kicking around, that I’m finally going to print. And I made a new zine called SHE IS RESTLESS for the Chicago Zine Fest last month.
See more of Rebecca’s work by going here.