Ed. note: This is the first in a four part series hosted in collaboration with The Ladies Almanack, a feature-length experimental narrative film written & directed by Daviel Shy, based on the novel of the same title by Djuna Barnes. The first post of the series is by Assistant Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at SAIC, Daniel Quiles.
“Sorry about this! I’m always late for everything!”
“No problem! I’m an athlete, remember?”
We were jogging briskly through the dank, cramped tunnels of the Châtelet Metro station. The opening I had thought was at Les Récollets was in fact at Bétonsalon, the gallery space for Université Paris-Diderot, not five minutes but at least a half-hour away. It had been a long postdoc year, bereft of the tranquility I’d anticipated in the picturesque but tense capital. On my first visit to École Normal Supérieure, a reception for the rentrée into the new school year, I mysteriously slipped, ass over teakettle, thudding to the ground before my stunned new colleagues; structural analogue for a season out of water. But that was September and now it was April, the indefatigable Daviel Shy was here, and we were not going to miss our event. That night, we would meet Josefin Granqvist, an enigmatic Swede who joined us for dumplings back in Belleville, hit it off with Daviel, and was ultimately cast as Djuna Barnes. The network had its own life that spring, reaching and sprawling of its own accord.
Throughout Daviel’s visit, I had the distinct impression that her experience of Paris was different from mine. It was as if, from her first steps, she had set out to eviscerate Woody Allen’s appalling Midnight in Paris, all phony wistfulness and postcard vistas, precisely so she could redeem the formula: dive into, and revivify, the capital’s history as a magnet for international culture. And, appropriately enough, feminism was to ground this counter-excavation—not as nostalgic lost bohemia but as functional, pulsating time machine. Daviel was looking for a conduit back and forth between then and now, here and there—a historical record alterable by the present that is nonetheless a model for future collectivity.
While in Paris, I introduced Daviel to a group of artists—not the right word, of course, as many of them adamantly refuse this label—some of whom I had been following for some time. I got a sense of their projects one by one, at the screen’s great remove. Many I had met only a single time, if at all; there instead were posts and comment threads and temporary projects, micro-platforms atop established platforms like Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube—and more recently a home of their own in NewHive (among many others now and yet to come). There has since been a series of categories coined for these projects and identities, few of which are adequate. I prefer the more general “neo-feminism” to the loathsome “Tumblr Girl,” the wordy “Digital Art World’s (Secret) Feminism,” and the pessimistic “Body Anxiety,” title of a recent online exhibition of “artists who examine gendered embodiment, performance and self-representation on the internet” (wordy again, but better). “Neo-feminism” or the more mediacentric “digi-feminism” also seem more efficient than a “Fourth Wave” feminist art, which poses the question of how many “waves” a movement can have before it resembles a movie franchise. What initially caught my attention in this work was a clear resurgence of so-called First Wave feminist art’s emphasis on the female body as an essentialized catalyst for work that could only be authored by women, and with a concomitant engagement and critique of the body’s mediation: in the 1970s, by photography, film, and video, and now, by a panoply of digital media and networked interfaces. Yet neo-feminism might be best described as a non-movement, horizontal and paradoxically organic, given the dependence on the Internet. The shared sensibility is marked by a vexed engagement with pop culture and its industry, (in some cases) dedicated sex-positivity (pre- and post-Miley twerking, for example, in all its glorious complexity) and the creation of superhero-like avatars gone IRL: Labanna Babalon, Fannie Sosa, and Poussy Draama. While there are many, many others I could name, these three happened to be in Paris when Daviel was. They became integrated into a sustained collaboration that resulted not only in progress on The Ladies Almanack but the virally celebrated / infamous Baby! Love Your Body! (lensed by Stephanie Acosta).
This might sound like the diametric opposite of Daviel’s insistently low-fi ethic, years removed from Super 8 cameras, dusty books and vintage costumes. I cannot think of a better testament to Daviel’s relentless intelligence and canny adaptability than the fact that the moment she met Fannie, she began to incorporate her embodied digitality directly into the film, and indeed, to identify and accentuate the analog in what the neo-feminists have been doing. As much as possible, the IRL, person-to-person, and geographically grounded aspects of these practices would be teased out, offline. Conversations, personal relationships, informal exchanges were to be included, rather than left out—personal lives and details normally excluded from the end products of intellectual and creative work would be transposed to the center. Also in attendance was Natacha Stolz, who several years earlier had her own, nightmarish, experience of virality when documentation of a BFA performance was bullied by misogynists on YouTube. Daviel cast Natacha as Colette.
This was all in the near offing. I wouldn’t be part of any of it; no place in the revolution for an antiquated subject-position (at least not yet). No bother—there is always the screen, a circuit through which “vid” jouissance and early cinema alike inevitably pass.
I am sitting outside on a porch. Although, I know there is much more to come, it already feels like the height of summer – hot, humid, rumbles of distant thunder, tomatoes and cucumbers ready to be harvested. I have a lot to learn about my new home. If I had moved here 250 years ago, it would have taken weeks to hear about the Stamp Act, and it would have been even longer before I learned about the opening of the Uffizi. We are fortunate to live in a time when it is easy to connect with people and activities around the world. We virtually see exhibitions across the country; we draw connections between seemingly isolated acts of police violence; we link weather extremes, changing temperatures, and global water crises into a new epoch; I follow art sales and art fairs in New York and London and Shanghai.
I have been tantalized, enthralled, and engaged by the seemingly endless streams of photos from NADA, Frieze, and other fairs – the paintings that are not paintings, the snack-cum-knapsack, the crowds and crowds rubbing shoulders, drinking, filling the fairs with that mutable substance that enlivens them long after the lights are off and booths packed. We remember the laughter, handshakes, the attempts to meet and be met long after the objects on the walls have transformed into new objects. That conversation about the relevancy of painting will return next year with new paintings; that objet du jour will be replaced with something else of the moment, but the people and the relationships built and maintained are what last, build, and enliven these events. This moving, living, breathing series of moments is not and cannot be transmitted in tweets, favorited photos, or lenghty write-ups. I keep up with the news, but I miss the substance. I see what has happened, but I cannot experience it happening. For all of the speed with which I receive the information, I am not present.
To reconnect with that presence, with the lived experience of making and co-living, I recently went to the Chattanooga Zine Fest. I met vendors and zine makers from across the country. I touched and read the painstakingly written, photographed, photocopied, printed, folded books, pamphlets, zines, and stickers. Each object held a story in its creases and staples, in its hand drawn cover and intimate looks into experiences of depression, motherhood, anarchism, or robots. These connections, conversations, and shared experiences enliven the objects in my hands. They unfold the complexity, longevity, and deeper understanding that I cannot experience online. They magnify those digital experiences, transforming words and images into the artists, gallerists, collectors, reporters, revelers, and visitors I know live behind them.
I am more connected to the global contemporary art world than ever. I have the luxury and privilege to have that multitude of information at my fingertips. I can be in multiple places around the world in seconds, yet I wake up in one bed among the mountains. I live in a world where someone can easily buy a painting for more money than I know how to imagine, yet I see the daily lives of people trying to move from one to the next. I see highlights of art fairs, exhibitions, and performances from across the country, yet I live with creators, makers, and doers who intellectually, creatively, and financially sustain themselves here. Holding those contradictions while moving through, with, and beyond them towards the future that is continually made real by us is the great challenge before us. The mosquitoes are biting, leaving red welts along my mistakenly bare ankles. The condensation from my glass is dripping onto the ground that has been continuously inhabited by humans for 12,000 years. I have a lot to learn about my still new home; I have a lot to learn about this life we all lead.
Old Fashioned Tiffany T
4 dashes bitters
1 splash soda
2 oz Bourbon
1 bar spoonful Goldschläger
1 tsp sugar
1 orange wheel
1 candied cherry
Mad Men is finishing its final season, and I have to say, it’s probably one of the best shows ever made for television – because Mad Men not only understands cultural inscription it embodies the same shit it criticizes. My friends attend Mad Men viewing parties and re-write what it means to drink an Old Fashioned, and once I was told by a girlfriend: you are such a Joan. A compliment that I took to heart. “Wow, thanks” I said, “I could only hope!” later thinking: what did she mean by that – my body? my humor? my nerve? Because I am not a Joan I want to be Joan.
What confuses me about this kind of compliment is its level of mediation, in which the gesture is not really intimate with me at all. Instead it’s about a constructed identity as it circulates, or a myth defined by my friend and mapped onto me. This style of communication works in constant referents and confusing signifiers. The signifier that always “at play” is just so very, light-hearted, because I’ve never seen the Last Days of Disco, and I only know it as a group of words and a remembrance of a movie poster somewhere in my memory, and still a friend of mine keeps saying, “oh God, you NEED to see it, you ARE it,” but I’m completely at a loss.
In class we tell the lives of theorists and books, and at the bar we talk about movies and television shows and sports, and it’s all fun but usually my favorite moments are when most of that is turned off and we aren’t speaking through objects, and some newer narrative just emerges – but maybe that emergence is a re-run that feels like it’s only just airing.
Mad Men would never have worked as a film, because Mad Men gets that it’s a story about the stories that happen between other stories. Advertisements are always sandwiched between the main event, and these lives move in and out of our own, like Don’s ex-wife, lover, mother, all in a mind-numbing channel surf or TV marathon, and the only thing that seems stable is the desire to be someone else, or, a desire to be desirable and to desire. This is what makes Don a model hero for a Prosumer society. Don knows realized that his own identity is a commodity. He manufactured a self, fetishized his own myth, consumed his own sales pitch, and now at the end of things he’s ended up in that floating surplus, a bargain-bin Walter-Mitty-gray-flannel in a huge mega-corporation, dreaming about distance as he looks out a boardroom window.
I was walking with my boyfriend the other day and I noticed a restaurant I liked had closed down. It was a lovable, junky place with ok food, and I’ve always admired its intricate wooden door. I saw that the brown-black varnish that once covered the entryway now had little patches of stripped wood. I concluded, “the new owners must be trying to see what it looks like underneath all that brown paint” and then while we continued walking I thought: I just wrote a narrative for a door.
Try having a conversation with someone without a cultural reference of any kind – it’s hard to do. This includes idioms. In American English our desire for writing narrative rests deep inside the idiom. Mad Men gets this. Its idioms are taglines. The show gets the American obsession with writing the self. The show reads like a bi-coastal myth of mid-century America – an America that is always moving toward California while remembering Plymouth Rock.
“You like the beginning of things” Dr. Faye, the analyst, said to Don in that one episode.
This is why I predict Don will end up (living or dying, or symbolically dying) in California – the newest, now waterless America. I imagine Don drunk-stumbling into the end of The Awakening. He’ll smoke-up deep underneath the water, and blow smoke bubbles up toward the surface. Then he’ll look into the camera and mouth four crisp and refreshing bubbles: “CO” “CA” “CO” “LA”
Dave Hickey loves a good dialectic, and I just began his new book. Hickey begins by defining popular taste against popular desire, but from what I’ve read so far, he avoids the temporality of this bifurcation. For me, contemporary taste defines the new in reference to the past, while desire mythologizes the past in order to seek newness. Taste and Desire then require different depths of engagement with history, and to cultural inscription.
“All humans have a death-drive” Dr. Faye said. “but we can’t sell that.” Psychoanalysis made a built environment out of the human psyche, Freud’s topography is still with us in language and in imagination. The body as architecture is so alluring because it makes us determinate, and even when I write the words taste and desire I feel taste in my mouth and desire in my belly – my neurons are little architects. The word we feel the most is shame. Where do you feel shame, because this is the area where Don makes profit.
Coca-Cola is the realest thing. To describe taste, Hickey invokes Andy Warhol’s Marilyns. The Marilyns transpose color and flavor – red and green are cherry and lime and orange appeals to both taste and vision. A narrative: the baby rattles for milk and grows up to eat taffy at a pool’s snack shack, grows up to watch porn stars with bubble-gum-girly lips wearing pajamas to work and everybody is hooking up. That’s the Ohio I knew and maybe all of what gets called “middlebrow” America. These are the “realest” lives, squished through a wormhole into parody, and out the other end is normcore (normcore is, after all, a taste for populist taste.)
There is a current print advertisement for Tiffany & Co. featuring a smiling young woman, of course beautiful, and a little girl, also beautiful. The girl is up on the woman’s shoulders. The woman’s blouse is unbuttoned at the collar, effortlessly revealing her collection of tiered diamond necklaces. Her smile dimples around adolescent teeth. “Introducing the Tiffany T Smile” the ad reads, referencing her necklaces. Each necklace is the same shape as the woman’s smile, complete with dimples and diamonds for teeth. The model mom and daughter have the same kind of far-away look –
In Chicago, the man behind the counter at Harlan J. Berk, a dealer of antiquities and rare coins, will, as long as he can keep an eye on you, let you hold a genuine gold bar. “They are terribly nice at Tiffany’s!” I held one yesterday, and I couldn’t get over how this material, if you were to pound it as flat as it could possibly stretch, could cover X number of tennis courts, or decorate a ridiculously expensive cake. Around the corner is Phillip Johnson’s U.S. Bank building. Its lobby is full of gold leaf, like a Reagan-era Ancient Rome built for the tastes of 1987, where this gold now seems so excess, so tasteless, like when you eat gold leaf and realize it has no flavor, it’s a flat cola, and it’s only a chalky, terrible texture on the tongue.
Mad Men appears on AMC Sundays at 10/9c
Watch the Final Episode this Sunday (tomorrow!).
After Open Engagement happened, a few people asked me if I had gone. I hadn’t; I didn’t. I kept on reading write-ups of what happened, some of which were great, but I kept on not caring at all about what was being said, what was being talked about, or what had been done. Finally I texted a friend that maybe Open Engagement serves a branch of social practice or socially-engaged art that I just don’t care about, that I don’t identify with, whose goals are not my goals, and which to me often seems silly, handwringing, and/or naïve.
Writing in Artforum in 2011, curator Chús Martínez described Antonio Vega Macotela’s then-current project Time Divisa as follows dodged the trite naïvete that sullies much participatory/exchange-based/socially-engaged art by occurring through interactions already mediated by “a system that is already governed by mutual instrumentalization: prison.” His current exhibition at Galería Labor, Filipídicas, manages the same dodge, this time by focusing on a different system already governed by mutual instrumentalization: capitalism. Moreover, Vega Macotela’s work describes grinding social inequity without the misguided presumption that art, one of the ultimate luxury commodities, plaything of wealthiest, can do anything about it. This is socially-engaged art without aspiration, without a future—as it should be.
Filipídicas, Vega Macotela’s first solo show at Galería Labor in Mexico City, consists of five Studies of Exhaustion, each derived and produced either in collaboration with exhausted persons or using materials from them or close to them. The pieces themselves describe very different things: the ghastly, trinket-like Number 3, The Flesh, describes the patio process, a particularly lethal historical method of producing silver developed in the then-colonies of New Spain; the sodden, barely-visible sheafs of Number 5, The Invisible Encyclopedia, describe the bleak lives of service workers; while the cascading bulls of Number 4, Speculation, describe the aggressive futility of the financial industry.
None of these pieces offer a solution; they are, as their titles make plain, studies. They are recombinant objects—depersonalized human material mixed with inorganic materials—that describe the impossibility of survival in an ancient recombinant economy. In After the Future, written in the near aftermath of the 2008 recession, Francisco “Bifo” Berardi describes recombination as “the technical form of the labor process in the digital environment,” the transmogrification of the corporeal body to an abstract unit of time, able to be pooled and reproduced as needed, in total disregard of that body’s needs. Berardi describes this process as a contemporary development, something associated with cellphones, online labor, and so on. However, as Vega Macotela’s recent body of work reminds us, this process is not new at all: it goes hand in hand with capitalism, and always has.
The process Study No. 3, The Flesh describes could be argued as one of the starting points for globalized capitalism. In the mid-16th century, silver production increased manifold after the discovery of in Europe, and the implementation of in the colonies of New Spain, the patio process, a process that required both an enormous amount of physical labor and an emormous amount of mercury. Essentially, pulverized silver ore was put in a vat with a bunch of other metals, including mercury, and churned like butter by horses for weeks. After being churned and baked in the sun, the silver would form an amalgam with the mercury and rise out of the muck as a salable, precious metal. In the high steppes of Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico, where the Spanish built the mines, the labor was quickly killing European horses, suited to churning mills unsuited for the climate. The Spanish figured perhaps the indigenous populations were better-suited to the task, but, while they were suited to the climate, the labor killed them. Viewed as subhuman in South America and of the lowest caste in imperial Mexico, this was more of an inconvenience than anything; but when reforms passed in New Spain barring or making more difficult the enslavement of native populations, the Spanish empire had to purchase slaves from Africa, who fared no better than anybody else.
The increased production of silver allowed for the worldwide dispersement of silver goods and currency, throughout Europe, across Asia, and to China. Silver forks, silver knives, silver coins, silver trinkets—the items that separate the luxurious from the upper-class, the upper-class from the middle-class, the middle-class from the lower class. These objects acted, and continue to act, as props for the mise-en-scene of capitalism, the material support of a narrative of constant aspiration, permanent fetishization of that which is just a little nicer. The Flesh, can be wound with a key and played like a music box, the bone horses gliding placidly between huge grinding gears, suspended on their too-thick bronze rods, caged by imperial columns.
Study Number 5, the Invisible Encyclopedia, describes the labor of more contemporary human cogs in the machinations of global capital, skilled workers who provide improvements for the upper classes: a carpenter, a seamstress, a makeup artist. Vega Macotela asked these workers what they anticipated leaving to their families, what images or items sustained them, and so on. The three could not imagine leaving more than their tools for their families. They provided images of previous work, famous actors or actresses, family members. The workers were then asked to donate sweat, which was used by Vega Macotela to print the images on paper. The resulting images, frail and ever-so-faint, barely visible even with Labor’s elaborate UV-lighting, are reminiscent from afar of tears on a handwritten letter, tragic and desolate arrays of needles, nails, hammers, sponges, brushes. If these images are an encyclopedia, the describe and demonstrate the futility of labor, the total pointlessness of working one’s life away, of acquiring “useful” skills, of holding a job. What these workers have earned is not access to the proximate class in the stratum; they have earned only their memories, disappearing as sweat and tears on rumpled pieces of paper.
A few weeks ago, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development published a study of international labor data: average hours worked per year, average wage per year, workplace in/equality, and so on. Workers in Mexico work an average of about 2300 hours per year, more than anywhere else in the world, for a paltry annual wage of about $9800USD. Minimum wage in Mexico is about $3.25USD per day, or about $860USD per year, assuming minimum wage workers in Mexico are working every day of the year, which they most likely are—as maids, as tortilla makers, as teachers, and so on. Capitalism depends on an aspirational narrative to fool workers into destroying their lives for the benefit of capital: the “future” that Berardi hopes we have moved past. Perhaps what the OECD data shows is that it may indeed be possible soon to move past the future, because it is increasingly obvious that hard work and ambition accomplishes nothing at all.
In Studies of Exhaustion: No. 4, Speculation, 3D printed models of the Wall Street bull tumble, hurtle, crush, fall all over each other, varying looks of joy, rage, or pleasure on their faces. Their horns are sometimes longer, their balls are sometimes bigger, but they are always uselessly, forcefully caterwauling towards nowhere in particular. There are several Speculations, and they are all striking, perhaps the most immediately accessible work in the show. Their futility, the way they grapple and tumble with each other, suggesting no other future other than violent death.
The future is the aspirational opiate of all of us, the narrative construct that justifies working impossible hours for little to nothing, that glorifies ambition and hard work. Adopting an oppositional stance to the murderous machinations of global capital, as the worldwide left has been trying to do since at least the 60s and perhaps for hundreds of years, has not and will not work, for it abides by the same belief structure: work hard, make a better future. We exist within a stratified class structure with little to no hope of social mobility, one that closely resembles the class structure in place when the Spanish built the silver mills in New Spain, grinding the local population to a pulp to send shiny trinkets worldwide. Today, hapless workers still die in silver mines in Bolivia; but perhaps a more accurate analogue are the hundreds of thousands dying the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mining for coltan, a metal vital for the production of smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and such devices. There is no reason to believe any amount of opposition, especially that from predominantly upper-middle-class artists in the First World, will change that situation. Utopia is just a dream.
What Bifo proposes instead are “zones of human resistance that act likes zones of therapeutic contagion,” areas wherein dehumanized, pulverized populations might begin the task of reclaiming their time, their bodies, and their sensitivities, beginning with an abandonment of work. If art can serve a role in this, I imagine it would be through actions and objects that speak to giving up, disbelieving, stopping—not to utopia, aspiration, or goodwill. While it would be outrageous to say that Vega Macotela’s current exhibition at Labor is either a zone of resistance or a zone of therapeutic contagion, it is perhaps a step in the right direction.
Work by the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio.
Co-Prosperity Sphere is located at 3219 S. Morgan St. Reception Friday, 6-10pm.
Work by Kristina Paabus.
Fernwey is located at 916 N. Damen Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Johalla Projects and Chicago Loop Alliance present work by Jeffrey Michael Austin, Elizabeth Cronin of Asrai Garden, Heather Gabel, Andrea Jablonski, Johnny Decker Miller, Lauren Payne, Suzy Poling and Charles E. Roberts III.
Sullivan Center Alleyway is located on Monroe St. between State St. and Wabash Ave. Reception Friday, 5-10pm.
Work by Dan Kestler.
Rational Park is located at 2557 W. North Ave. Reception Friday, 7-11pm.
Work by David Abed.
Galerie Fledermaus is located at 2136 W. North Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.