In January 2009, Catherine Opie traveled to Washington D.C. where spent three days photographing the inauguration of President Barak Obama. From this came the 100 picture photo series and companion book called both entitled Inauguration. These photos reveal the nation’s excitement surrounding the event. The book itself is lovely, cloth bound, with photo printed boards and debossed title.
Much of the book consists of pictures of the ecstatic Americans who came to the White House to witness the inauguration. Opie captures all kinds of people, from all over the country. The crowds were dense. A Jumbotron conveyed a live feed of the inauguration to the mass of people outside the formal event. Close-up ups of individuals amid the crowd. Some of the most interesting photos, though, were of the people visiting the sights of D.C. There are two photos, one of a middle-aged woman, one of a young woman, both African American. These women are clearly pleased to be at this historic event and mug for the camera, a camera that does not appear to be Opie’s. At first these seems to optimistic photos, after all the women are here to attend the inauguration of the first African American president. Still, both women were posing in front of the National Council of Negro Women, and these photos remind us that in America, some people are still more equal than others.
The first photograph in the book is perhaps my favorite. In what looks like the terminal of Virgin America stands a cardboard cutout of Barak Obama. He’s friendly and welcoming and the Virgin banner emblazoned with the word America hangs behind him. Despite the warm tones of the red carpet, and the smiling face of our soon-to-be president, the picture feels hollow. Our cardboard president in the foreground and rows of empty chairs with people waiting in the background, the photograph conveys not a feeling of pride or optimism, but instead speaks to futility.
With this being election season it is impossible not to draw parallels. I’m not sure what Opie’s intention was with this project. Clearly she couldn’t know what the following four years would bring. But looking at this book now, it’s unreliably depressing. The people in the photographs, so hopeful, were so excited about that watershed moment in American history. Although it was only three years ago, it feels like a lifetime. It’s not that anyone believed Obama was magic, but just for a moment many Americans thought this inauguration signaled a beginning, a new start. A poem by Eileen Myles concludes the book. Myles write, “I’d like to have that day again.” After reading Inauguration, I have to admit I agree.
Inauguration by Catherine Opie
Gregory R. Miller & Co., September 2011
Cloth, 124 pages, $50
Work by Melanie Schiff.
Kavi Gupta Gallery is located at 835 W. Washington Blvd. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Dietrich Wegner.
Carrie Secrist Gallery is located at 835 W. Washington. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Peter Drake.
Linda Warren Gallery is located at 327 N. Aberdeen. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by JJ Miyaoka-Pakola.
Lloyd Dobler Gallery is located at 1545 W. Division Ave. Reception Friday, 6-10pm.
Work by Elizabeth Atterbury.
Document is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. Reception Saturday, 6-8pm.
October 22, 2012 · Print This Article
Being a visual artist today is a vow of poverty. Few go voluntarily into art for financial reasons. And those that just happen to meet with financial success, probably would have done even better on Wall Street. From experience I know that the the vision quest toward understanding conceptual art strips most of their petty materialist needs.
When I was 15 I badgered my father to buy me a Chrysler Conquest if I got straight A’s. (It’s one of my last and most embarrassing secrets.) He wouldn’t have been risking much by agreeing because I was a poor high school student, but balked anyway for fear that I might make a miraculous turn-around. I didn’t, and by the time I did turn it around in college I had moved beyond sports cars and into the monastery of the conceptual art world.
I often repeat a line that I borrowed from a professor: “I don’t need to buy art. I own it when I know it.”
This distinction is problematic for those outside art world, those not privy to nerdy conversations in boozy studio visits. People who hear and read about paintings selling for millions of dollars at auction have a difficult time squaring art’s abstract concepts with its concrete price tags.
My father-in-law is one of those people. He asks me regularly “how is the art business is going.” He means “how much money do I make selling pictures,” but instead of opening my ledger book, I rattle off numbers from the Art Newspaper about weekend sales figures at Christies or Sotheby’s. I throw Damian Hirst and Jeff Koons in front of him like barrels in a street chase.
He likes numbers. He likes things more than concepts. Or he thinks he does. Father-in-law regularly sends us parcels filled with fun gizmos we don’t have the space to store: clunky media docks with LCD screens and radios to park and enhance technologies that we don’t use or have the inclination to manage. Sharper image gadgets that deionize the air, and stand-alone self-balancing coat racks that, should we use them, would injure us as we navigate to the bathroom at midnight.
This past week we received a package that contained what looked like an old-fashioned analog telephone but with an adaptor to fit into the speaker jack of a cell-phone. If worthless in its utility, the concept isn’t completely un-funny. After its idea is absorbed though, it is doomed to live life out in purgatory under the bed, not quite thing and not quite pure concept. like art, gifts have an aura that make their physical disposal unpleasant for its custodians.
The logic behind creating this novelty phone isn’t dissimilar from the logic that inspires much of the work in the sculpture studios of any MFA program. The difference is, in the case of the conceptual entrepreneurs behind that phone, they have no way of monetizing their creation other than mass-producing it. So they do, and it’s cheap, and my father-in-law buys it, sends it as a conceptual gesture, and finally I unsuccessfully try to curate it into my tiny apartment museum, wondering year-after-year what to do with it. Like my own personal Walter De Maria “Earth Room”.
My wife and I recently had a baby. This baby lives in our nuclear submarine-shaped apartment. So something had to give, and it has. Our museum of impractical gifts has been forced to deaccess. Ebay, Goodwill , regifting and recycling. Out with a wine rack that “whines” when you take a bottle out of it, out with the mounted fish that sings hillbilly songs, and out with the inexplicably hookless Green Bay Packers helmet-shaped head warmer that needs to be set on a shelf so as not to smash its internal hardware.
I disposed of these gifts last weekend, and as I did, my wife waxed nostalgic about the birthdays and holidays they signified. I told her, in true artistic spirit, she will always HAVE these gifts because she KNOWS them. That it’s the concept not the material that is the real content. If they were useful they wouldn’t be haunting the space under our bed.
She sighed unconvinced and I continued to jettison.
I felt a little less burdened by purposeless clutter afterward. But alas our new family still remains shoehorned into a 400 square foot railroad apartment, and in spite of my vow of poverty and material austerity, I find myself daydreaming of a big house, one with lots of closet space, a dining room not doubling as a baby’s feeding room, and maybe even a back yard with a swingset.
I will never need a McMansion out in a treeless subdivision, for I am an art monk, but does musing about concept make me an apostate? Maybe one day when UPS figures out how to ship rooms from suburban homes, my father-in-law will put one in the mail for us.
This Tuesday, October 23rd, The Green Lantern Press — a slow-media, art press I started in 2005 — has a book release party at the powerHouse Arena in Dumbo, New York. There, Anne Elizabeth Moore will read from the GLP’s latest book, Hip Hop Apsara: Ghosts Past and Present. Hip Hop Apsara is a collection of essays and photos that examine Cambodia’s emerging middle class, with a particular emphasis on ways in which people gather in Phnom Penh’s public space to dance. They dance together in choreographed rows all evening. It would be similar to Tai Chi or Country Western line dancing, except that these dances involve a mash up of traditional Cambodian ballet, called The Apsara, and contemporary Hip Hop. The older folks dance earlier and their moves tend toward the traditional side. As the dusk turns into night, dance moves become ever more contemporary and the old folks—mostly survivors of genocide, mass killings, or poverty-enforced starvation— are replaced by younger generations. Its functions as both excercise and entertainment, and represents a significant turn in Cambodian life. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that people were hungry and had to conserve as much energy as possible. On the 23rd, from 7-9pm Anne will be reading along with a colorful cast of characters including the hatefully talented Mike Taylor, acclaimed novelist and cardigan-curator Elizabeth Crane, ‘funny’ Joe Garden, and internationally renowned cat-spotter Elizabeth White. It’s going to be an exciting night with lush projections of the Cambodian night life, stories about rock, ghosts, and social change. The powerHouse Arena is located at 37 Main Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201.Go here for more info.
And, last but not least, here is the playlist, as promised, and read more about Anne’s book in an essay she posted on Largehearted boy’s website. (what created the original impetus for the mixtape). The audio clip featured at the top of this post was recorded live at Quimby’s, when collaborative duo The Speers played a music set for Moore’s book. Additionally, Moore will be reading at Bluestockings in Manhattan on the 24th of October.
About the Author:
Anne Elizabeth Moore is a Fulbright scholar, a UN Press Fellow, the Truthout columnist behind Ladydrawers: Gender and Comics in the US, and the author of several award-winning books. Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh (Cantankerous Titles, 2011) received a best travel book award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation in 2012. Hey Kidz, Buy This Book (Soft Skull, 2004) made Yes! Magazine‘s list of “Media That Set Us Free,” and Reclaim the Media’s 2004 Media and Democracy Summer Reading List. The first Best American Comics made both Entertainment Weekly‘s “Must List” and Publishers Weekly‘s Bestsellers List. Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (The New Press, 2007) made Reclaim the Media’s 2007 Media and Democracy Summer Reading list and was named a Best Book of the Year by Mother Jones. Moore herself was recently called “one of the sharpest thinkers and cultural critics bouncing around the globe today” by Razorcake.
About the participants:
Joe Garden is a grown-ass 42-year old man incapable of making basic decisions without input from strangers on social networks. In the past, he was features editor at The Onion (where he created the characters Jim Anchower and Jackie Harvey), co-wrote two episodes of the award-winning cartoonWord Girl, co-wrote three novelty books (The New Vampire’s Handbook, The Devious Book For Cats,and The Dangerous Book For Dogs. Great gifts! Check ‘em out!), and appeared in the critically acclaimed film Big Fan. He currently working on a new website for Adult Swim.
Elizabeth White‘s work includes photography, video, installation, and social practices. Her work has recently been exhibited in the Artisterium International Contemporary Art Exhibition in Tbilisi, “No Soul For Sale” at the Tate Modern in London, “A Map is not the Territory” at FiveMyles Gallery in Brooklyn, and “Surveil” at the Center for Endless Progress in Berlin. Her work has also been shown in New York, Dublin, and Leipzig as well as Japan and New Zealand. White was awarded a project grant from CECArtsLink in 2011 and has been honored with an Aaron Siskind Fellowship and the support of the Hattie Strong Foundation. She has been featured on ArtInfo.com and her interview with Dina Kantor was published by The Girl Project. White holds an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and a BA from Vassar College. Based in Brooklyn, she teaches digital art and culture courses at the College of Staten Island (CUNY) and Ramapo College, and has been a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in Vermont.
Elizabeth Crane is the author of three collections of short stories, most recently You Must Be This Happy to Enter. She is a recipient of the Chicago Public Library 21st Centu
Last month, I compiled a collection of interviews with a curatorial projects operating in the city of Chicago. In it, Happy Collaborationists, LVL3, New Capital, slow, Roxaboxen, Plaines Project, and Johalla Projects all answer the same four questions, discussing their respective curatorial agendas. I always love to hear the back room story behind spaces, the way administration and practical impasses influence day to day decisions. I would love to post all of them here, but as it is, I’m only going to wet your whistle on this Internet-machine. After all, the interviews were intended to go together. While the resulting zine, “AD HOC,” was available for free in the Bad at Sports booth of the Chicago EXPO, you can download the entire booklet via the following link: EXPO_Bas_pamphlet_for_web. Below I have included an interview from that collection with co-director Paul Hopkin from slow gallery — a wonderful space that straddles the line between apartment space and storefront gallery. At present, slow is exhibiting Benjamin Bellas, Represent the sound outside these spaces wherein”Benjamin performs herculean tasks and shows what is produced by his efforts.” That exhibit is open to the public until November 10th. For information about what they’re up to, the show they have installed in Clutch Gallery (a portable exhibition site in founder Meg Dugid’s purse). Hopkin’s co-director, Jeffrey Grauel is carrying it around at present, and even brought it to Washington DC for its official opening. Visit their website here and don’t forget, the following interview is just the tip of the ice berg. Each of those seven spaces has a interesting and varied way of thinking about their curatorial work.
Caroline Picard: What kind of exhibitions excite you generally?
Paul Hopkin: I like an exhibition that gets under my skin. Art is best when I am not sure whether I like it or not, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I always try to get artists to present work in ways they would be less likely to without me, or the kind of space I run. That means pairing people who otherwise would not be paired, encouraging a new direction in the work or taking more risks in its presentation. I have been really lucky to have worked with a lot of really fantastic artists, but I have two favorite shows: one was called the low down and featured the work of Jeffrey Grauel, Caroline Allison, and Danica Favorito. Jeffrey covered all the windows with panels of crocheted video tape. It brought a darkness to the space — clearly because it was a sort of blackout curtain, but it also just pushed its presence into the space generating a kind of tension. Well, the fact that you also walked straight into a slowly spinning baseball bat maybe helped that a little too. I also really loved the play between Caroline’s gorgeously printed and beautifully framed photos with Danica’s that were off her junky inkjet she had at home, wrinkled and hung with obvious pieces of masking tape. I think one of Danica’s photos had a coffee stain on it.
The second show was last spring, titled, it ain’t over. Brent Garbowski and Joe Mault collaborated on this work that was not just designed for the space, but for people who come to it, for me. There was a kind of specificity to the work that was truly remarkable. They cut down a power pole and lay it down on the floor so that it cut through the gallery, through the entrance of my apartment and ran alongside my bed. They fabricated a swing arm with the familiar arch of a streetlight, so that the bulb illuminated my bed, complete with the way-too-bright light of an outdoor fixture. They are in the process of installing parts of that pole in another space and it is becoming a wholly different work. I also love that I got Barbara DeGenevieve to make work that was really light-hearted. I was really excited that she, one of my more established artists, was excited to work with Brent and Joe, two boys still in undergrad.
CP: Do you have a particular story about what the back-end of your space is like? Something perhaps indicative of your administrative process?
PH: I would probably not be running a gallery if there were no separation between my private apartment and the storefront gallery. It is funny to me now, but I thought I wanted to keep people in the public space and keep my home out of the mix. A couple of shows into it I just realized it was ridiculous — it was more comfortable to use my home as the space to hang out in. If I haven’t swept the floor in my apartment and there is an opening, I just let it happen anyway. “Y’all come to see the work and enjoy a beverage. Hell, some of you seem comforted that there are little mounds of my dog’s hair everywhere.”
I made a rule — if I find you difficult to work with, it is not worth it to me. I will also not work with you if I don’t trust you to be alone in my home. I do this because I love it, and it is important for me to continue loving it. I have only had a few conflicts, and I hope I have resolved them well. Most of the artists I have worked with have truly been a pleasure. Not that there is never stress; stress is part of getting something worthwhile to happen. But the artists I have worked with have been helpful, resourceful, and interested in having good shows. I have been thrilled to see it work that way. I have had artists who have shown in my space just jump in and help with practical chores even when it is not their show.
I keep a running list of artists that interest me. Some, I check in with from time to time. I throw ideas around, often in casual conversations with friends. Just keep at things until an idea clicks. Then I approach the artists. Sometimes that doesn’t work out and it means I have to start again. Maybe an artist is unavailable, or sometimes just not into the idea. I usually have three or four studio visits with each artist leading up to a show and I always run my show ideas by Jeffrey Grauel, my co-director.
The biggest practical decision I make is to avoid shipping work. I have done it, and it has worked, but I mostly show Chicago folks. I find the practical matters to be a part of the scene, so working within the resources and space I have is a part of the fun. I don’t choose in a terribly practical fashion. I mean I had a power pole hovering over my bed for two months, and I let a performer live in my space drunk for a week.
I write for every show. It brings clarity about the show and why I put the artists together in the first place, and it helps the artists understand it too. When I get it right, the writing also helps generate some interest in the shows. But I try to avoid describing the work. I want to generate experience with the work on its own terms. I have my ideas, but I don’ t ever want to impose them on the work in a way that overshadows the work itself. I don’t have my writing in the space at all during a show. It resides on the internet on purpose.
I don’t understand your question about, “engaging a public audience”— I mean, people come; the events are, in some direct way, public. It is a bit of a mystery to me that I engage a consistent crowd of undergraduate artists, and a consistent crowd of adults who have been out of school for a good long while, whereas I don’t draw a ton of graduate students. It is a little frustrating to me, because critical attention has a way of following the interests of those grad students. But I think the shows at slow are better than that. And not that the projects haven’t received attention, because they have. But sometimes I still feel like slow is a secret. I have had a couple of grad students tell me straight up that it doesn’t seem like a place where they can figure how to get in —and if it doesn’t present them with opportunities then they don’t get invested in the space. The funny thing to me is that it can present them with showing opportunities. And then there’s the flip side of the same question: what good does it do for anyone if the venue will show anything that comes along? Editing, some kind of vision and hierarchy, seem to facilitate better things all the way around. I guess I am still figuring out some things, and those artists are too. But I want to maintain a kind of criticality, a kind of rigor, and I don’t mind that there are interesting artists who remain outside my radar.
CP: Do you think non-traditional sites for exhibition are important?
PH: Important is a funny word. Curators that work in canonized venues rely on the rest of us to decide what is worth thinking about, worth seeing. But what burbles to the top is just that; it is the thing that garnered attention. Local food and local art — you know? A lot of the best stuff will remain unknown to most, and that is why we visit the places that produce locally. It isn’t so much that that venues like mine are important, but we do a kind of work that isn’t done by important venues. Not so long ago Hamza Walker spoke very directly about waiting in the wings until a certain few venues have chosen first to pay attention to an artist, or to a new kind of approach. I think it is common for important critics and curators to wait and see what the lesser of us do. If a non-traditional venue bites on a new hook, and the results are well received, it can move through a system and become important. But I want to work from a messier place that is full of risk and opportunity. I love to play with ideas on their own terms. I love the heady space of “why the hell not” and “it’s about time.” That can happen when there is no bureaucracy. I can risk a big failure because nothing so terrible happens when I do fail. The payoff can be so much more satisfying when it comes from that sort of space. It isn’t all just freedom and light, but it is so much closer to the fantasy of how the art world works. I support what strikes me, what feels ignored or absent from the scene, but nevertheless compelling. I hope to bring a critical eye to my part of the art world in a time where criticality is threatened and disappearing.
The television show The Wire changed how I think about storytelling. You get such a deep version of a really compelling story if you see the entire 5 year arch of the show. Artists usually work more like the storytelling in The Wire than in, say, Gilligan’s Island. But we tend to see work that is from the fresh young thing just out of school. Or the work that has become important in the meantime. We see the same details, the same place in the storyline, repeated over and over. It is set up in this way that we think we are seeing a serial, but we’re really seeing one or two pieces of a story set on constant repeat. But there is so much more happening than either of those snippets. And I get to pay some attention to work in a way that has a different piece of the puzzle precisely because I do not aspire to become important as a venue.
Importance is overrated.
CP: What are some administrative influences and how have they colored your own approach to running a space?
PH: Artists need good opportunities to exhibit. I feel privileged to have such a big part of my own creative process that functions through the work other artists have made. I try to make the work and the show the focus of the experience. As much as I have a point of view in this, I want that to support the artist’s work, and not the other way around. I have worked as an administrator in several other capacities, and what everyone seems to want is freedom to choose things that have an importance, and for the things that aren’t valued by the individual to just disappear, to be done by elves. I work to make everything simple, approachable, and pleasant for the artists. If I can’t be the elf, I let them know. But if I can make something easier, I certainly will. My structure, my approach, is built on the philosophy that this will be what I want it to be, and what the artists want it to be, as much as possible. This is the place where you can ask to do anything, and it is a simple conversation. I am very aware that I am not an institution. I am not aspiring to be a lucrative business. I am opinionated, invested in fearless and sometimes transgressive art, I have a sense of humor, I have a sense of style, I am social and chatty, I enjoy a good beverage with friends, and I am intellectually motivated. I try to structure the shows to take advantage of all those qualities.