Interview with Michael Kaufmann: The Museum of Psychphonics

June 1, 2016 · Print This Article

Photo by Tad Fruits.

Photo by Tad Fruits.

Guest post by Michael Milano.

Located inside the Joyful Noise Record Store in Indianapolis, The Museum of Psychphonics is billed as “the spiritual sibling of the 24-Hour Church of Elvis, the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Marvin Johnson’s Gourd Museum, House on the Rock, and of course the ever persistent siren desert song of The Thing.” Packed into a 10’ x 10’ room, the Museum is a collection of objects, artifacts, histories, and competing narratives, that have emerged from musical, magical, mystical and mundane sources.


Photo by Tad Fruits.

Photo by Tad Fruits.


Michael Milano: Let’s start with a basic description of the Museum of Psychphonics, or even a mission statement. What is the Museum and what is its aim?

Michael Kaufmann: The Museum of Psychphonics hopes to disrupt dominant cultural narratives, not necessarily by replacing them outright, but by problematizing them through the recovery and amplification of the psychphonic activity timeline. The Museum is modeled after a cabinet of wonders, with an emphasis on the intersections of science fiction, race, music and Indianapolis. The Museum has always existed, this is just the first time the objects and stories have been gathered into the same room.

MM: Okay, let’s unpack that a bit. What is the psychphonic activity timeline? Or, for that matter, what are psychphonics?

MK: Psychponics is the glue for the universe. Whether you embrace an origin story of the voice of the Creator speaking the universe into being, and/or the Big Bang exploding and resounding across the expanse of nothing/everything/never, now and always…our existence, our realities, our universe are built from the resounding echo of this ancient and eternal sound. Psych from the Latin psych?, from Ancient Greek ???? ?(psukh?, “soul, breath”) and phonic from from the Greek phon– (alternate form of phono-), from Ancient Greek ???? ?(ph?n?, “sound, voice”). The sound of breath.

MM: So how does the sound of breath disrupt dominant cultural narratives?

MK: It isn’t just the sound of breath, but the fullness of breath, in all of its possibilities and complexities. As a society we have built systems that continue to limit, edit, and narrow our experience by algorithmically feeding back to us that which we feed into this machine of mediated awareness––our subscriptions, our channels, our likes. Many of us thought the new Information Age would be a telescope or microscope, or even a window at best. Instead, this black mirror, as it has been called, is like a funhouse mirror that presents an exaggerated version of self. We come to believe in that version of self. The Museum of Psychphonics offers a kaleidoscope and a kaleidophone of light and sound to expand our definitions and experiences by creating juxtapositions and calling attention to those things that too often only exist at the periphery.

MM: Let’s turn our attention to some of the objects in the Museum’s collection. Can you give us an example of some of the things that we will encounter when we visit the Museum? And perhaps the way that these objects encourage us to have experiences outside of the “black mirror,” the self-referential/self-affirming echo chamber of our algorithmically-mediated online life?

MK: With every new medium (audio recording technologies, photography, film, video, the Internet) we see the emergence of new mythology. It is like a collective unconscious allergy to the dominant narratives. The stories that survive form our histories and, in turn, our shared cultural systems. But there are other stories, and these are critical to capture and tell as well. We sense when they are missing and sometimes we replace them with new myths. Whether they are true or not isn’t important. What is important is that they are purposefully being told or not told. The Museum tells some of these stories through the objects that are charged with meaning because of their past proximity to the subjects of the stories. An ashtray from a Burger King in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Dirt from sacred sites, deemed sacred by different groups and cosmologies. Parliament Funkadelic’s Baby Mothership. The soul of Indianapolis. And now the objects’ proximity to one another attempt to tell new stories, to create new myths.

George Clinton visits Museum of Psychphonics. Photo by Tad Fruits.

George Clinton visits Museum of Psychphonics. Photo by Tad Fruits.

MM: Speaking of myth in relation to objects reminds me of political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In the Human Condition, she says, roughly, that action––doing deeds and telling stories––creates meaning for the human artifice; without being talked about and acted with/in, the world is merely a heap of unrelated things. In other words, it is narrative that makes meaning out of the world of objects.

To my mind, many of the objects in the Museum require a similar reliance on narrative in order to take on a patina of significance, and become relics and artifacts. Is this what you mean by mythology? Or do you mean something more spiritual and/or mystical? Do you believe that the objects are imbued with their own significance, or that they take on significance because of the stories we tell about them?

Are these even the kinds of questions that the Museum is interested in taking up?

MK: That is an excellent question, and perhaps at the heart of the Museum. I don’t think it is an either/or but rather a both/and. Let’s take the sacred dirt for example. Robert Smithson’s Mirror Displacements are a good parallel. I do believe there is a spiritual/mystical component to Smithson’s work by disrupting the “natural” landscape both through his interventions, but also through his physical collection of material from these sites and later placement in the gallery. I don’t see such a divide between conceptual, physical, spiritual, and mystical. These are all different ways of interpreting our humanity within time and space. Our decision to select and place these items within the Museum gives them a heightened energy/significance/meaning. That is the dangerous accountability that comes with curation. Curators are storytellers. Museums are libraries for these stories.

Photo by Tad Fruits.

Photo by Tad Fruits.


MM: Nice. I like the idea that curators are storytellers, and that museums are merely libraries for these stories. I was going to ask why call the collection a museum.

So, how does the Museum fit within a broader context? Geographically, it’s a small room within Joyful Noise, within the Murphy Building, within Fountain Square, within Indianapolis, within Indiana, within the Midwest, etc. How is this an appropriate site for the Museum?
Could you also contextualize it in relation to other alternative museums, cabinets of curiosities, roadside attractions, etc.?

MK: The context is both thematic and strategic. I will discuss these in concentric circles. Joyful Noise Recordings is at the forefront of asking questions about music and materiality. Their limited edition products and digital dissemination understand the paradox of today’s consumer. This longing for instant and universal access in tension with wanting to be part of a community, something smaller, and to be a collector of the unique and handmade is what is defining how we move forward into the future of cultural consumption. And Joyful Noise also celebrates the weird and the wild of music, so, stylistically, they are an extension, or branch, of the larger tree of psychphonically significant cultural movements.

What is strategic about the location is the ability to set up a museum that requires no staffing or board of directors. It is housed behind the counter of their record store, providing convenient staffing for the Museum without extra cost or hassle. The Murphy Building and Fountain Square have served as the city’s ground zero for experimental art and music for over a decade. Therefore, this felt like a natural fit as well.

And to your question about Indianapolis, Indiana. It is no coincidence that this is where the Baby Mothership has landed. Indiana is an approximation of the rest of America, and Indianapolis is the prototypical American city. Now, I don’t mean to say that Indy is not unique or differentiated from other mid-sized cities in the U.S., but if something doesn’t work in Indy, it won’t work anywhere. This city is a laboratory. It is a battleground for ideas. It is truly the crossroads and, from these crossroads, ideas and movements can permeate outwards to the rest of our country.

Now, as far as other museums and attractions are concerned, in our press materials we have called reference to contemporaries such as the Museum of Jurassic Technology, House on the Rock, 24 Hour Church of Elvis, etc. But we are really drawing from a deeper tradition of individuals such as Charles Wilson Peale and P.T. Barnum. Regardless, the common theme is a curatorial philosophy that leans more towards speculation and open-interpretation than overly oppressive taxonomic and didactic assumptions.

Photo by Tad Fruits.

Photo by Tad Fruits.

MM: The Museum has already released a Didactic, designed by the wonderful folks at PRINTtEXT, as well as the Dreamer’s Oracle, produced by Yonder Bound. I know that the Museum only just opened on March 4, 2016, but could you speak to its future? What else is on the horizon?

MK: The Museum is in the on-going curatorial care of artist/archivist Kipp Normand. It will continue to evolve under his direction. We are also in the planning stages of putting on performances and other programming, like any responsible museum should be doing. We have a long-term agreement in place with Joyful Noise, so we will stay put for the next couple years and wait and see what the future will bring.
The Museum of Psychphonics
Joyful Noise Recordings
1043 Virginia Ave, Ste 208, Indianapolis, Indiana 46203

Michael Kaufmann is an artistic manager and cultural entrepreneur, working at the intersection of cultural, economic and community development. He has worked for over a decade as label manager for Asthmatic Kitty Records (Sufjan Stevens, My Brightest Diamond, etc.), and in addition to his current full-time position with the public hospital system in Indianapolis he manages Son Lux, Oliver Blank and Hanna Benn. He is also the founder and curator for Sound Expeditions, a project that is soundtracking the city of Indianapolis.

Michael Milano is an artist and writer, currently based in Indianapolis, IN.

Review: “Mastry” Kerry James Marshall

May 16, 2016 · Print This Article

Guest post by Noah Hanna

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry; the first major museum retrospective of the artist’s work opened on  April 23rd at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Organized collaboratively between the MCA, The Met, and LAMOCA, the exhibition gathered national allure prior to its opening; and it seems only appropriate that B@S join in the discussion.

The MCA website proclaimed Marshall “one of the greatest living artists, and he responded with perspective, telling the Chicago Tribune “I’d take a James Brown introduction, ‘hardest working man in show business.’ ” At 60, Marshall is regularly seen meeting and greeting avid fans at the museum, always with his infectious smile, warm eyes, and kind demeanor. It is easy to admire Kerry James Marshall simply as a person; and then there’s the work he creates.

One could only assume the considerable pressure felt by Marshall upon opening this exhibition. To start, the title, “Mastry” is a formidable expression that no self-respecting artist would dare assign to their own body of work. The concept of the retrospective itself is foggy in contemporary art. The term connotes a fixed span of time with an inevitable conclusion; an indication that the artist whose work is on display has reached his creative climax. Frankly, retrospective usually denotes the work of an artist who is no longer creating. So what does this mean in contemporary art which defines itself by its association with the living? Does this mean that the artist who is given a retrospective within his lifetime is considered finished? Much to the contrary; Kerry James Marshall and Mastry have important work to do.

Kerry James Marshall is a painter, and a figurative painter at that. It feels appropriate that a mode constantly questioned for its validity in the twenty-first century should be the one Marshall employs to push the medium forward. His use of Renaissance and Baroque compositions, scale, and themes are apparent and necessary. Motifs of spirituality, strength, domesticity and the human condition come to serve as the foundation for his work, much as they did for Titian or Carracci.

Kerry James Marshall, Beauty Examined, 1993. Courtesy of Charles and Nancy Adams-Sims. Photo: Matthew Fried, © MCA Chicago.

Kerry James Marshall, Beauty Examined, 1993. Courtesy of Charles and Nancy Adams-Sims. Photo: Matthew Fried, © MCA Chicago.

Since the late 1980s, Marshall has been identified as a painter focused on the representation of people of color; but ample care is given to the history of painting itself. Marshall’s
Beauty Examined (1993) draws close comparison to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) in its depiction of a black woman laid out as an anatomical exhibit. Reference points across her body indicate areas of beauty in the subject; and the words “Beauty is only skin deep” rest in the curvature of her frame.

Though Marshall has a deep admiration for the work of Renaissance masters and his own paintings draw heavily from their conventions, the depiction of the black figure is his passion. In the large-scale School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012), Marshall paints the interior of a beauty salon that can be seen from the outside in a 2003 painting from his studio window, 7 am Sunday Morning (also on display in the exhibition). While the scene is brimming with references to Black Nationalism and power, including posters of Lauryn Hill and Chris Ofili, I found myself most captivated by the skewed and elongated image of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty affixed to the floor. In this imagery, Marshall invokes a 1533 painting entitled The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger. In the classic painting, as two men proudly pose for their portrait, a skull rests below them in the same elongated form, perhaps as a memento mori. As the young ambassadors face the inevitable but obscured prospect of death and decay, the exuberant clientele of the salon face the unspoken expectations of white female beauty that lies just below them; a very young boy cocks his head to observe the face on the floor in the correct perspective.


Kerry James Marshall, School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds. Photo: Sean Pathasema.

Kerry James Marshall, School of Beauty, School of Culture, 2012. Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds provided by Elizabeth (Bibby) Smith, the Collectors Circle for Contemporary Art, Jane Comer, the Sankofa Society, and general acquisition funds. Photo: Sean Pathasema.


Much of Marshall’s work addresses domesticity and celebrates the mundane nature of everyday life. There is a keen awareness that images of black lives simply do not exist in art, and that those of color who do appear within the historical canon are portrayed as servants, concubines, or villains; I am reminded vividly of Manet’s Olympia when I say this. Marshall masterfully captures reality in his paintings; images of gardening and camping are paired with expressions of intimate, unencumbered love. There is a palpable urge to smile when looking upon Marshall’s smitten lovers.

However with reality comes an acute awareness of history. It’s in this dichotomy that Mastry excels above and beyond. There are several cathartic points within this exhibition, images that speak volumes to American history, both past and present. At times I found myself astonished at Marshall’s apparent prophetic imagery. Lost Boys (1993) commemorates two young boys whose childhoods were abruptly cut short. One boy glances at the viewer, a brightly colored pink toy pistol in his hand, referencing a report Marshall had heard of a child killed by police for brandishing the toy.  A frame from Marshall’s ongoing comic series Rythm Mastr sees a black man confronting a television reporter following a shooting. “I saw the whole thing and it wasn’t nothing like they said!” he exclaims. While we see these today as painfully indicative of a recent incident that occurred in Cleveland, and others throughout the country, I find myself forcing to remember that Marshall does not possess the sage wisdom of prescience and that rather he depicts life as it is.


Kerry James Marshall, The Lost Boys, 1993. Collection of Rick Hunting and Jolanda Hunting. Photo: Dominique Provost, © MCA Chicago.

Kerry James Marshall, The Lost Boys, 1993. Collection of Rick Hunting and Jolanda Hunting. Photo: Dominique Provost, © MCA Chicago.


I cannot deny that myself and many of my peers have been blessed with the privilege to be detached bystanders to these realities: holding onto trivial facts concerning isolated incidents of unrest in Los Angeles in the early 1990s; a basic curriculum knowledge of the racial movements of the late 1960s; and a junior high school reading of Christopher Paul Curtis’ 1963 book The Watsons Go to Birmingham. This is why the Kerry James Marshall retrospective matters now and why his works are such an accomplishment. Marshall’s ability to create figures who possess intricate personalities gives them their poignancy, the stoic civil disobedience and ardent steadfastness of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the unrepentant power of Malcolm X, a combination that seems both at odds and as imperative as the two leaders were. The violence of Marshall’s images of Nat Turner and The Stono Rebellion are subtle, and Marshall adamantly makes sure it is not the focus of the work; the figure and its identity are foremost.

Nothing within art exists within a vacuum or free from what has come before it. Even an action in condemnation of the past is a response to it nonetheless. Art is a beautiful and equally bitter amalgamation of human history. Very few artists capture this better than Marshall. We cannot change the art historical canon any more than we can change the past, but we can build on it. Painting an ever more crystalline and inclusive image of our shared history. I can only hope that Kerry James Marshall, the faces he so magnificently paints and the stories he tells, enter into the scope of art history so that they may be looked on in the future with the admiration and eminence that they so rightfully deserve.  

REVIEW: “Chthonic Void” Christine Tarkowski

May 9, 2016 · Print This Article

Photo by the author for Bad at Sports.

Photo by the author for Bad at Sports.


Guest post by Brent Fogt.

Glass geodesic domes play a leading role in Christine Tarkowski’s “Chthonic Void” at Devening Projects. The domes symbolize utopian ideals and their failure to take root. The exhibition, by contrast, is an unqualified success.

The main gallery features four of Tarkowski’s glass sculptures, two of which rest on pedestals in the center of the room. Unlike the monumental scale of some of Tarkowski’s past work, the scale of these sculptures is closer to architectural models. Made of stacked, softball-sized glass domes, the sculptures are covered with shiny black liquid that brings to mind chocolate syrup. The stacks seem simultaneously precarious and grounded, unstable and solid, animated and static.

This tension between movement and stasis is repeated in two enormous paintings that surround the sculptures on opposite walls. Composed of overlapping diagonal stripes that form moiré patterns, these paintings vibrate, ripple and bulge the longer you look at them. When the eyes feel fatigue, rest is available at the edges, where raw canvas is left unpainted.


Photo by the author for Bad at Sports.

On the wall next to the paintings are two small, embossed works on paper. These pieces, which also contain overlapping patterns, create a subtler moiré effect. This quieter approach is an ideal counterpoint to the larger, more intensely hued works on canvas.

Down the hall from the main gallery is a room completely devoted to Tarkowski’s glass works. The space is stunning. Eleven black sculptures, all a combination of glass on glass or glass and steel, lie on all-white pedestals that span the center of the white room, creating vivid contrasts not only between light and dark but also between glossy and matte.

The sculptures resemble unearthed architectural ruins that have been exposed to extreme heat and are melting, dripping and decaying before our eyes. Some of the drips form pools over sunken areas of the geodesic domes. Others are as thin as string or spaghetti and drape themselves over tenuous, broken grids of steel.

“Chthonic,” in fact, means subterranean—in, under, or beneath the earth. In classical mythology, “chthonic” refers to spirits that dwell under the earth. The show title “Chthonic Void” is especially fitting, because Tarkowski’s glass sculptures seem both worldly and otherworldly—both part of, and separate from, the earth itself.

Photo by the author for Bad at Sports.

Photo by the author for Bad at Sports.

Exhibition on view at Dan Devening Projects, 3039 W Carroll Ave.
April 3 –May 14, 2016

Saturdays 12 – 5 pm and by appointment.

Takeover or Hijack: Alberto Aguilar on @artinstitutechi Instagram

March 14, 2016 · Print This Article

guest post by Dan Gunn

Alberto Aguilar announced his Instagram takeover of the @artinstitutechi feed in a bathroom mirror selfie. He positioned the cellphone to obscure his face and captioned the post with the deadpan statement “This is a takeover. I am Alberto Aguilar. This will last one week.” With that single post already several people vowed to unfollow until “the art returned”, while others were convinced that the feed had been “hacked”, while still others lamented that selfies “degraded” the museum.

The Chicago-based artist Aguilar is the Art Institute of Chicago’s 2015-2016 Artist in Residence for Museum Education. He was chosen because education features prominently in his artistic practice through his professorship at Harold Washington College. The residency includes an on-site studio housed embedded in the Ryan Education Center, various opportunities to lecture and conduct public events and the Instagram takeover at hand. From January 11th to the 18th Aguilar regularly posted his activities within the museum and selectively interacted with the Institute’s followers. That his actions could provoke such an extraordinary response, both positive and negative points to the power of social media and the effectiveness of Aguilar’s approach.

This is a takeover. I am Alberto Aguilar. This will last one week.

A photo posted by The Art Institute of Chicago (@artinstitutechi) on

The takeover phenomenon itself comes from a marketing strategy wherein corporate brands partner with “influencers” in order to heighten their credibility and deepen their “brand engagement” with consumers. Influencers are considered influential because they are authentic and credible examples of the brand image to the brand’s target audience. In this case Aguilar is a living example of an artist in a museum that celebrates art. The Art Institute of Chicago, which declined to comment for this article saying instead in an email that they wanted to “keep the focus on Alberto’s practice and his ownership of the creative process on the Instagram project” presumably wanted the artist to perform contemporary art for the audience.

The two previous AIC social media takeovers from LA-based artists Frances Stark and Charles Ray delivered tepid posts. Charles Ray seemed largely disinterested and Frances Stark’s output was subsumed by her already voluminous social media presence. Aguilar approximated a living specimen of an artist inside the hallowed repository of mostly dead-artist’s art, like a genetically engineered T-Rex on view next to Sue at the Field Museum. Why then would people prefer to view the plaster casts when the real thing was available? The takeover and its response charts a competing trio of interests between the venerable museum, an irascible artist and the expectant Instagram audience.

rosiefomalley @artinstitutechi what kind of horseshit

For Aguilar’s part he was given the account for Instagram for a week without restrictions. The canon for Instagram artworks is still being written but his approach was unique in several ways. The most comprehensive work to date is probably by the artist Amalia Ulman who over the course of months believably transformed her feed into a record of her life as a vapid LA impresario. Photos of brunch and breast enlargement scars were all faked for a scripted 175 post drama presented as if it were her real life. The piece called, “Excellences & Perfections” functions as both feminist and social media critique unveiling the double desire to share and to craft one’s image at the same time; a.k.a. to not really share.

Alberto Aguilar instead reinforced the believability of the Instagram image by performing simple actions in the recognizable space of the museum and by responding selectively to the instructions of certain followers. He roamed the galleries opening telephone panels, propping open doors, overturning chairs, placing a half styrofoam cup in front of a Magritte, arranging a floor full of doilies in the room with the paperweights and other forms of aesthetic littering. Aguilar’s approach to objects is inflected by Minimalism, frequently using simple geometries like grids, lines and zig zags that make the actions seem deceptively matter-of-fact more akin to crossing items off a to-do list than making a drawing. This functional relationship between his activity and the resultant situation bolstered the trustworthiness of the feed at the expense of artifice.

I am @albert0aguilar. This is a takeover. I will locate secret doors beneath artworks.

A photo posted by The Art Institute of Chicago (@artinstitutechi) on

I am @albert0aguilar. This is #alexbradleycohen. This is one of my formative works. This photo was taken by @pfagundo.

A photo posted by The Art Institute of Chicago (@artinstitutechi) on

Aguilar describes this approach as “using a regulated form in a very regulated building in order to have a moment of intimacy myself in this space.” Aguilar’s language in the posts also plays to this calculated blankness. “I don’t like being overly poetic. I like when I state facts and those things act as poetry also.”

rs_gould Sweet litter. Good thing you got that MFA

Not that Aguilar’s practice doesn’t also rely on metaphor. In one of the earliest posts he and fellow artist Alex Bradley Cohen held up homemade cardboard signs that read “Trouble Maker” or “Problem Solver” as an introduction to the takeover. Other works refer to issues of accessibility by opening “doors” or creating “bridges” within the museum experience. Here the artist functioned as a surrogate museum goer, a tester of the institution by filling voids, mimicking gallery architecture and associating objects of the present with the past, culture outside the museum with culture inside and personal history with art history.

The inclusion of his personal life was another source of audience annoyance and yet another way Aguilar aimed to disarm them. When Alberto wasn’t in the museum, he was frequently at home.

“People were annoyed about the home photos and would try to tell me what they wanted to see and what they didn’t want to see. So I thought that it would be funny to put a picture of my kids all playing [the board game] Trouble while my wife was sleeping just because I wanted my family to be recorded forever on the Art Institute’s Instagram feed. Because anybody would want to make their presence known! Right? Isn’t that what Instagram is all about? That’s also why I kept saying “This is a takeover”. Someone who was angry called it something else, they said this is a hijack!” So the next post I used that. “This is a hijack.”

The pedestrian nature of Alberto’s life, indeed that of most working artists when viewed up close, was off-putting to people who tuned into the museum’s feed for Culture with a capital “C”. The personal moments presented within his factual, monotone voice were disarming to the point of becoming intimate. The high point of this being a touching snippet of song performed on ukulele by Aguilar’s two kids on the final day. What becomes clear through reading comments is that the dissenters find Aguilar’s lowering of the Art Institute’s high cultural voice disrespectful. But why is this act disrespectful when the institution has invited him to do it?

As I prepare to exit I give you part of a song performed by Madeleine and Paolo.

A video posted by The Art Institute of Chicago (@artinstitutechi) on

andiamojoe @mimi_marg @eggwithoutyolk @artinstitutechi all that wonderful art around should be inspiring to this feed, the content is lackluster and not representative of the great works and artists within one of the greatest art museums in the world… Step it up or face a mass unfollow!

The answer, at least partially, seems to be that the Art Institute was operating outside of its understood brand identity, or were purposefully trying to expand it to encompass more contemporary art. There was a general tone in the comments of dissatisfaction, not with the idea of a takeover per se, but with the particular type of plain dealing, found-object arranging, conceptual social practice that Aguilar uses. The only charge directed at Aguilar as a person was that of self-indulgence. Presumably this was for the posts that actually contained his image, not for posting his artwork because that was at least part of the point.

robby47 Blame Andy Warhol. But compared to this, Warhol looks like freakin Rembrandt.

Aguliar’s “lazy Dadaism” as one follower put it, in turn led to charges of “pretentiousness”, where pretension is understood as thinking oneself important when in fact you aren’t. These commenters saw no value in his use of simple arrangements of recognizable material through easy to replicate gestures. As a counterfactual, it’s hard to imagine any controversy over a representational artist painting museumgoers as they tour the galleries, a kind of museum-cum-landscape.

Other moments pitted the artist’s interests more directly against that of the institution. The museum has always catered to the civic pride of Chicago through various means, including the decoration of the famed entry lions with whichever sports team is prospering at the time. Recently that has been the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. An ill-advised attempt to find common cause with fans in anticipation of a Stanley Cup playoff game resulted in an image of a Medieval knight’s helmet adorned with the Blackhawk’s logo being posted to the account. Considered alone, the Blackhawk’s logo is controversial enough, but to layer onto a stereotype of indigenous peoples an item symbolizing the systematic religious violence of the Crusades defies common sense.

Ellsworth Kelly's Red Yellow Blue White and Black over Charring Cross Bridge, London by Claude Monet. For: @razorbackcarole From: @albert0aguilar

A photo posted by The Art Institute of Chicago (@artinstitutechi) on

Aguilar at this point had been “building bridges” between separate time periods of the museum collection by holding up gift-shop postcard images in front of related artworks. Now he responded by holding up a phone with the Instagram of the knight’s helmet in front of a display of a Native American ceremonial headdress and pressed the send button. The image pits the legacy of American oppression of indigenous peoples through caricature and confiscation of property against the museum’s desire for greater mass media relevance beyond expected elite cultural circles. The reaction from the audience was swift and intense and for the first time Aguilar himself felt conflicted about his usage of the takeover.

“People were confused as to what I was trying to say. I didn’t want to offend Native American people, but that’s what started happening right away. There was this young Native American commenter who took it out of context and didn’t realize it was a takeover. He was angry at the museum for putting up this image and began swearing in his comments. So the museum’s social media manger deleted them which I was told is regular practice whenever people swear in comments. And he would come back and wonder why he was being censored on top of being offended by the image. I went to sleep and had a terrible dream that night. I woke up and decided that I was going to delete the image all together. I just didn’t feel right about it anymore, mainly because I was offending Native Americans but also because I didn’t think that it was fair to the institution that had given me this freedom.”

Aguilar did in fact delete this post, though at the time of publication the original Blackhawk knight’s helmet post still remains.

The ingenuity of this takeover is the way that it placed the artist at the ethical intersection of several public discourses.

Who is the artist responsible to represent? For Aguilar, what began as an attempt to confront an ethnic stereotype instead ended up propagating it. The museum, for it’s part, has the difficult task of picking artists as influencers because of the legacy of avant-gardism still ingrained in contemporary art. They will be critical of their museological handlers, which both present dangers for their brand identity and simultaneously reinforces the credibility and authenticity of the influencer. Meanwhile the audience has to decode the layered experience of these images and deal with their frustrated expectations. Social media seems to give viewers a sense of propriety over the institution that is illusory. What ability does the Instagram public have to shape museum policy or image? Not much. The tradition and cultural prestige of their brand expectations had been substituted with contemporaneity and uncertainty.

“People were telling me what they wanted to see and what they didn’t want to see, they were angry. I said something like “This is a takeover. I will decide what is shown.” Then I said “I will use whatever is around me as a tool. I was referring to the physical objects around me I used as a tool for revealing and concealing but also to the camera which can serve the same function. I’m wasn’t trying to be arrogant, but the truth is that it was a takeover, I did have control but I also personally have control of what I show and don’t show of myself.”

The ironic thing is that the space of institutional (or branded) social media requires an audience, no matter how inflexible. The commenters certainly weren’t worried about the authority or appropriateness of their comments in their ill-conceived defense of the museum. The social media space requires a back and forth in which Aguilar fully engaged. He would take suggestions from the comments about what to do next actually giving the audience some ability to interact with the museum that they love. Instead of getting into a comment tit-for-tat he would perform actions just to show them that he was open to their input. And for all of the dissenters there were also people who appreciated the unique perspective on the museum that Aguilar came to offer. The masterful nature of the takeover was the way that it revealed the contours and fissures of the public’s relationship to 21st century institutions. It showed the historical problems and contemporary possibilities while insistently, even stubbornly, keeping the approach intimate and personal.


Dan Gunn is an artist, writer and educator living and working in Chicago. Dan writes about Chicago art, including a history of alternative and apartment spaces in conjunction with the Hyde Park Art Center’s “Artists Run Chicago” exhibition and the Artist Run Digest published by Threewalls and Green Lantern Press. Dan has written for for Bad at Sports, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Depaul Art Museum, Loyola University Museum of Art, Newcity Magazine, Proximity Magazine and He was a contributor to Fielding Practice podcast, a collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art21.


February 29, 2016 · Print This Article

Right now, poetry is everywhere in the art world. Its resonates locally in murmurs and shouts, ranging from Diana Fridd’s whispered eulogies –for which she mines obituaries for nuggets such as “We Have No Words For This In English”—to Cheryl Pope’s hollering “Just Yell!” Globally, it culminated this winter, with Ugo Rondinone’s summa cum laude tribute to his friend, lover, and mentor, in “I <3 John Giorno” at Palais de Tokyo in Paris.

Caption: Installation shot of “Thanx 4 Nothing” in “I<3 John Giorno!” at Palais de Tokyo, October 2015 Photo by Lise Haller Baggesen.

Caption: Installation shot of “Thanx 4 Nothing” in “I

Caption: Installation shot of “Thanx 4 Nothing” in “I<3 John Giorno!” at Palais de Tokyo, October 2015 Photo by Lise Haller Baggesen.

The show opens with the gratefully nihilist mantra “Thanx 4 Nothing,” a meditation on “letting go” so profound it is like yoga in a bottle –but without the spandex and the body shaming:

may all the suicides be songs of aspiration/thanks that the bad news is always true/may all the chocolate I ever eaten/ come back rushing rushing through your blood stream/and make you feel happy/thanks for allowing me to be a poet/a noble effort, doomed, but the only choice.

The piece builds up like a crescendo until that moment, you fully realise what you have known all along: “Damn! Donna Summer was right! We are all ‘Full of Emptyness.’ Brimming in fact. Overflowing.” So much so, that when you enter the next room your minds eye is already dilated sufficiently to receive the message “I Want To Cum In Your Heart.” Gulp!

Taken as a whole “I <3 John Giorno!” is a sumptous, luscious, and yes, orgiastic, tribute to a life well (albeit sometimes reluctantly) spent, out- but mostly inside the flamboyantly gay New York art scene of the late 20th century. Its monumental scope, archival depth, and intimate tone, gives the viewer a feeling of being a peeking-Tom into art history in the making. But above all, it is a lesson in—if we all knew more about POETRY—what a wonderful world this could be!

Where John Giorno’s poetry mainly flows inward, and takes you on a journey to the bottom of your heart, the borders of your mind, poetry equally willingly travels in the opposite direction—out into the chartered territories where art meets community in a battle to win our hearts and minds—while fixing a neighbourhood, a public school education budget, or a prison reform in the process. These are tricky positions to navigate.

Poetry’s appeal to the art world is easy to spot: it’s fresh, it is angry, it is credible, it is appealing, it is endearing, it is gritty, it is rousing, it is sincere and it is portable and pocketable; all the things “art world art”—with its cluncky logistics, inflated production budgets, and art fair schmucks—is forgetting how to be. The art world’s appeal to to poetry? Not so much. Caution must be advised if you are considering adding a little youth poetry to your art event, lest the effect will be that of a gospel choir at a Madonna concert—the sincerity of their little prayer drowned out by the artist’s blonde ambition.

To avoid such embarresment, I greatly encourage you to visit “Louder Than A Bomb 2016.” This, the Largest Youth Poetry Festival, not in the city, the country, but in the world (and probably the universe), is entering its sweet sixteenth season featuring 120 teams with participation of more than 1200 youth from 60 different zip-codes. Its umbrella organisation YCA (Young Chicago Authors) was recently awarded a McAuthor fellowship in acknowledgement of the leagcy of this program and others like it.

The festival is the brain child of Kevin Coval, who declares: “this is the best theater in Chicago, and I think it’s the best political platform in Chicago.”

Titles of poems such as “Islamophobia,” “How to get into College,”“Crafting Your Gender,” “How to Friend a Suburban Black Girl,” and “The Rage of the American Dream” speak to the breath of topics being not only explored, but deeply felt and internalized, and to the urge to, as one poet put it: “pick up your pen and change society!”

To really drive home the impact of the written word, showmanship, choreograpy and performance is added, hightened by the additional excitement of scores awarded. The public participation is what makes this theatre truly one of the greatest in Chicago; judges are cheerd, boohed or given the unsolicited advise to “Listen To The Poem!” and the atmosphere at times is so rowdy it is hard to remember that “The Point is not the Points, the Point is the Poetry!”

The preliminary bouts are in full swing as I write this, and by the time you read it the scores are in. But fret not: tickets are already on sale for Quarter Finals (Malcolm X College 3/5/16), Semi Finals (Metro Chicago 3/13/2016), Indy Finals (Du Sable Museum 3/17/2016) and Group Finals (The Auditorium Theatre 3/19/2016) via the YCA website.

My favorite so far (and I am biased, yes, but not alone in this opinion) is team REBIRTH’s “If Hogwarts was an HBCU.” Speculating on the all-star faculty of a Historically Black Magic Academy, this fun, timely, and above all, incredibly DOPE piece is infused with such much swag, that before you know it you will want to enroll in the LTAB lifelong learning program. I guarantee you will walk out of the theatre, not believing, but fully knowing, that if we all knew more about psychology, sociology, and (Black) history—but above all, if we all knew more about POETRY—what a wonderful world this would be!

Team REBIRTH warming up. LTAB, Chicago February 2016. Photo by Lise Haller Baggesen

Team REBIRTH warming up. LTAB, Chicago February 2016.
Photo by Lise Haller Baggesen



Lise Haller Baggesen is an artist, writer, and proud poetry-mom, living in Chicago. Her book “Mothernism” was co-published by Poor Farm Press (Milwaukee) and Green Lantern Press (Chicago) in 2014, and her Mothernism show is currently touring the United States. More info on the work and writing by Lise Haller Baggesen can be found here: