Open Engagement 2013 no. 02 : A Utopia of Dispute Might Be Better / Regarding Ethics & Failure

May 18, 2013 · Print This Article


I keep trying to trace emergent themes at Open Engagement. Our organizers have done a good job of marking three umbrella categories, under which each panel, presentation or discussion resides. These headings, Publics, Contexts, and Institutions, feel like hubs through which a larger, interconnected current runs. One conversation bleeds into the next. Institution could be one example of a context, for instance. An institution could also be populated by a  public, but neither “Contexts” nor “Publics” rely exclusively on “Institutions.” The project of this particular conference, one might say, is to investigate the way socially engaged art practice runs through (or negotiates) those headers.

That said, I am hunting around for additional trends, for theoretical concerns that crop up continually in the subtext of various presentations, reflecting perhaps on a collective undertow that Social Practice artists are preoccupied with. There is something problematic about my efforts. It’s an artificial exercise in a way, especially when the subject of presentations — not to mention the styles of address — are so broad. My insights are additionally subjective, stemming from what panels I’ve seen and how the concerns therein stick to my ribs.


Still, I persist. Obviously this is a post that I deliberately published. Obviously I am interested in failing a little bit. I’m emboldened by the fact that failure, as a topic, is one of those recurring themes. Failure and the equally nebulous question about ethics. These subjects bubble to the surface not only in talks themselves, but also in audience questions. For instance, “I feel there is a danger that the projet you described could waste someone’s time. Someone in your intended audience for instance. How can you be sure you’re not doing that? What can you guarantee your public?” It suggests the artist ought to deliver something, and ideally that whatever is delivered is good, or worthy of (in this instance) one’s time. Ethics and failure are linked up with responsibility in this regard — conveying a feeling that something in works of art that rely on audience participation ought to offer or fulfill something.

First let me make a case for the #EthicsTrend. In an account of Friday’s panel, “Sociology (of and) for Socially Engaged Practice, Institute for Art Scene Studies” I was told Pablo Helguera, Barbara Adams, David Peppas, and Adeola Enigbokan staged a kind of reductio proof of what not to do as a social practice artist. I missed it, unfortunately, but heard that someone posed as an artist, presenting a series of ill-advised projects to the panel, pretending to be an artist. (For instance, the acting artist claimed to have done a project where s/he gave up all possessions in order to see what it was like to live under the poverty line.) The panel then critiqued these projects, highlighting what exactly was ill-advised about them. (Using the same example, the panel pointed out that the artist was able at any time to reenter her/his life of material stability). This was relayed to me by a rather horrified member of the audience who, at the end of her account, leaned in conspiratorially and whispered “And it was all a hoax! The ‘artist'” (she used scare quotes) “was making it all up!” seeming at once relieved and frustrated that she had been duped. In a later panel that same day, “What’s the Harm of Community Arts and Social Practice? The Ethics of Engagement and Negative Value,” Marnie Badham, Amy Spiers, Claude Schryer, and Dr. Kathleen Irwin wrestled with questions of how and when artists intrude on a public. In her opening remarks, Badham noted first, “this turn to community is rarely explored critically,” and then asked “is social change always good?” An ethical approach is often taken for granted in socially engaged art. There is an implied use or service tends to go hand in hand with these social experiments. A desire to save the world, or at least some very small piece of it.


Here the idea of failure comes in — because, in a way it is impossible to save the world. However in articulating an attempt, I would argue, the art project sets out to “do” something. As such it becomes easier to measure and assess.  Rakowitz rebuffed this point yesterday when he suggested that art didn’t necessarily have to do anything. But if that’s the case, one’s ability to measure success and failure becomes more difficult. And, perhaps, more interesting. For instance, this morning at “Craft + Social Practice: A Roundtable Conversation” at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, a group of panelists (Gabriel Craig, Ayumi Horie, Stacy Jo Scott, Michael J. Strand, moderated and organized by Sarah Margolis-Pineo) described their relationship to failure. Many suggested that failures provided new opportunities for insight — Gabriel Craig talked about “Slow Gold,” a project based on ethical metal sourcing, where he and four collaborators went to the Black Mountains in South Dakota to find gold for a couples’ wedding bands. (The betrothed couple participated in this project.) They could only find .4 grains. His conclusion, “Mining, no matter what scale it’s on is absolutely catastrophic for the environment.” On that same panel, Stacy Jo Scott of the Craft Mystery Cult confessed, “Occult is always dealing with failure. That’s because we have this desire to speak of ideals, in terms of an ideal poetic space, but also in terms of utopic vision. Knowing the failures of past utopias, but still desiring Utopia. What results is the absurd: optimism in the face of futility.”

Stacy Jo Scott, "Mobile Craft Utopia," 2011, Fufu bowl, indigo-dyed sponge, 500 year old vietnamese pottery, iron oxide rock, mold, Anasazi pottery shard, fragment from Donald Judd's studio wall, chakusa, hand-blown glass, Chartreuse liqueur, wild rabbit fur, iron tumbler, wax drip, earthenware marijuana pipes, iron lingam, Josef Albers color theory cards, book, photo of Shunryu Suzuki, 8"x16"x34"

Stacy Jo Scott, “Mobile Craft Utopia,” 2011, Fufu bowl, indigo-dyed sponge, 500 year old vietnamese pottery, iron oxide rock, mold, Anasazi pottery shard, fragment from Donald Judd’s studio wall, chakusa, hand-blown glass, Chartreuse liqueur, wild rabbit fur, iron tumbler, wax drip, earthenware
marijuana pipes, iron lingam, Josef Albers color theory cards, book, photo of Shunryu Suzuki, 8″x16″x34″

Keep this idea of ethics in one hand. Hold in your other hand the idea of failure. Now imagine yourself in the Shattuck Annex, sitting (like I was) in chair with a small desk attached. It is the sort of desk students often use. The sort of desk I haven’t sat in for years. Keep in mind it is raining outside and the opening bars of Woody Guthries’ “This Land is Your Land” is playing on a loop. People shuffle in slowly. Some are ushered to an overflow room when the room is at capacity. In that room this afternoon, Claire Doherty gave a fantastic keynote, opening with an observation that keynote speakers have the ability to highlight and anchor conversations in a conference. The keynote provides a kind of watering hole – a central point in the middle of the day during which most conference-goers sit in the same room, sharing the same experience, after scattering out again to different panels, rendez-vous, and performances. Doherty hastened to remind everyone about the underbelly of social practice — that many projects, while on the one hand providing photographs of an engaged and happy public digging ditches and/or eating ice cream often come out of duress or protest. These works have the ability to engage a collective, public imagination because they tend to address points of tension. She went on to discuss Nowhere Island, a project by Alex Hartley produced by Situations — the organization Doherty directs. As a travelling landmass, self-designated as a site belonging to no-country, Nowhere Island became another version of Utopia. Pulled by a tug boat through international waters, it visited many ports, acquiring 23,003 citizens over the course of a single year. There is much more to the story, of course, but I like situating this island in this post because the land mass in an of itself is what Doherty might call a “charismatic object,” a physical object both engaging and alluring to a public imagination. This object was capable of, again in Doherty’s words, “Nourishing the capacity for creative illusion, [such that a public was able] to act and think as though things were different.” In and of itself the island is not ethical, but it enables a public to explore their own Utopian expectations thereby exploring the problems that such ideals might subsequently create.


Now, open your hand.



In Tim Etchells words, “A Utopia of dispute might be better:”

Dear Citizens of Nowhereisland

as we stop in the shelter of a doorway in the thunderstorm
S. holds out his hand to check the rain.

The hand. The flatness of it. The open-ness. The question of it. The directness. The simplicity. The pragmatism. The straightforwardness. The sunshine.

And maybe just the repetition of this gesture, which must be as old as the hills, as old as the co-presence of hands and rain. 

(read more of Etchells’ Nowhere Island response)


Open Engagement 2013 no. 01

May 18, 2013 · Print This Article


There is a reason they made a show about this town; it’s so true it’s a cliché : Portland is a kind of paradise. From the Tiki bar at the airport to the food truck shanty town we hit at midnight where twenty-thirty somethings fulfilled all college cuisine fantasies (the center of the parking lot contained a small circus tent where diners could enjoy they paper plated fare), the farm to table restaurants, bookstores, record stores and basement galleries named after after major art institutions, it’s no wonder people live here. What’s amazing is that somehow people who live here manage to get to work at all. And yet, Portland with all it’s West Coast consciousness is a city with abundant social services.

So for all those reason, combined with the blend of experimentalism and casual earnestness, Portland seems like a perfect site for a social practice MFA. Perhaps even more perfect site for a conference about social practice. Which is why I am here. I am covering the 5th annual Open Engagement conference for our very own Bad at Sports.

The first Open Engagement was the result of Jen Delos Reyes‘ thesis project at the University of Regina back in 2007; Reyes wanted to create a “different kind of conference,” one platforming emerging and established artists while providing a site for both “production and reflection.” This is Open Engagement: a conference dedicated to socially engaged art practices. Delos Reyes came to Portland State to co-direct the MFA in Art and Social Practice once she had finished her MFA, and in 2010 Open Engagement came to Portland State. To this day, the conference is the result of collaboration between MFA students, Delos Reyes and OE Co-director, Crystal Baxley. In her opening remarks, Delos Reyes remarked on the sometimes “unkempt” nature of the conference, highlighting that it was focused on an artistic discipline that by its very nature is influx, and sometimes messy. That directive affords a kind of experimental quality which is perhaps missing from what she refered to as a more “rigid professionalism.”


The day went on from there — featuring a fantastic keynote from Michael Rakowitz given to a jam packed room. Rakowitz brought out a “spinning set list,” inviting select members of the audience to come up and spin the wheel and thereby determine which of his art projects he would discuss. Each “spinner” was then awarded a prize, from a small zip lock bag of Iraqi cardamom to a date seed the artist had previously eaten. I then attended a panel about harm and risk in social practice, and later a Portland Art Museum event “Shine Your Light,” complete with (among other things) a reenactment of a lost Grateful Dead concert. I’ll continue to post about things this weekend and am going to conduct a series of interviews while I’m here as well. All of which is to say, STAY TUNED. Follow the conference on twitter via #OE2013





Catholic Craft

May 17, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Robert Burnier


Alicja Kwade
Andere Bedingung (Aggregatzustand 6), 2009
steel, copper, glass, mirror, iron, mop stick, seven parts
Format variable


I once had a penchant for the obsessive, compulsive traditions of certain Dutch painters like Paulus Potter, Adriaen van der Spelt and Jan van Cappelle, so whenever I was in an encyclopedic museum, I would always make my way toward those galleries. Afterward, however, I would go straight to where the modern art was and stand in front of a Cy Twombly or some other such work. In 2002 the Gerhard Richter retrospective, 40 Years of Painting, came to the Art Institute of Chicago. One salient aspect of this was to witness a similar kind of range more or less present in one artist; one who held up Reading, Grey Mirror, and 256 Colors as artistic statements of the same order. I see these memories as analogies for the way I continue to approach works of art, especially – though in a limited sense – when it comes to issues of craft.

Mari Eastman
My Architect, 2011
Prismacolor, oil and glitter on canvas
20 x 16 in.

When I look at art today, I would say my taste still involves a dialectic similar to my earlier favorites. I can appreciate artists like Roxy Paine and Mari Eastman, Nicole Eisenman and Richard Rezac. With Paine, we have someone creating sculptures by a distribution of expertise among multiple minds through the idiosyncratic use of high-tech machines and processes, producing objects of a mysterious and alien ilk. Eastman at once shows her knowledge and understanding of painting while withholding some obvious trappings of virtuosity in favor of revelations of a seemingly more personal sort, which are then often further complicated by some borrowed subject or motif. Eisenman is commingling many ideas of painting together with the understanding of craft necessary to put them in conversation with each other, adapting them to her subjects. Rezac makes highly resolved and technological constructions that are nonetheless very slippery to our perception and suggestive through their careful arrangement. In all cases, the individual hand moves, sometimes at a distance, even if only to turn the knobs so that the machine overruns its target output.

Of course, for many reasons – call it the loss of center [1], bourgeois democratic/market forces, technology, transportation, and communication – our era is splintered artistically. It is apparent in public collections where many eras are present at once, creating a stacking effect of latent visual experience. Our perception of space and time are compressed. It isn’t really possible to point out what to do or not to do because no one person can index all of it. Technology is of little help. It only reminds us of our difficulties even more. But we can reach into this heap of history, as I like to think Robert Smithson might have put it, for resources, touchstones, and questions unanswered. [2] We can look for ways and means that might yield new meanings or recuperate older ones in new ways. Not only does this apply to the mode and medium, but also to the work, effort, or craft involved.

The degree of facility is linked to the effectiveness of the artistic statement, with the critical caveat that it is for something and not self-reflexive. I often find myself saying to people that craft is only craftiness when facture overtakes ethos. If you paint the sides of a stretched canvas because you want it to look “finished” the painted side remains a superficial garnish; if the painted side reinforces the conceptual aspect of the object, it can serve the work intrinsically. We could get into semantic questions of intent here, but I think if you really know it and mean it, it has a greater chance of seeming to be true, or we have a greater chance of becoming involved in the work on a deeper level. A specific example would be the vast difference between Karthik Pandian’s recently exhibited sculpture at Rhona Hoffman, I Am My Own Wife – a highly polished construction in steel and industrial-grade color – and any number of sculptures that are often sprinkled along Navy Pier or grace the ad pages of a major art magazine, aspiring to a similar finish. Pandian’s work perhaps takes us a distance toward examining issues of gender while the other sculptures too often don’t take us anywhere in particular beyond the awareness of their often massive size and tired formalism. Another successful example would be the work of an artist like Alicja Kwade, whose phenomenological sculptures and installations can cause a shift in our basic understanding of the elements of experience. Works such as Andere Bedingung (Aggregatzustand 6), 2009, toy with assumptions of objecthood in terms of weight, substantiality and permanence. So what I’m saying is that with our incredibly intense media saturation, I turn to usage before material specificity for what I get out of seeing a work of art. I want to try to not judge a book by its cover; to allow the myriad options to play out; to remain variable, accepting and catholic in my assumptions about material and craft. Here I am reclaiming the non-religious sense of having a catholic attitude, which simply means to be open to a wide range of tastes.

Karthik Pandian
I Am My Own Wife, 2013
Stainless steel and plastic vase
81 ¼ x 20 x 20 in.

Alternatively, the work of an artist can be de-skilled either in the sense that he does not concern himself personally with technique or high craft, or he transfers it to an outside technician (or even leaves it to chance). But if this becomes too dominant to the meaning of the work, then the lack of facility or personal involvement may fall into banality. For example, I’ve found it hard to pay attention to very much “glitch” art. This has surprised me somewhat since it seems to go against my own extensive background in computer science. However, much of it seems to stop at the glitch itself, piling one glitch on top of another. Aside from the sense that I think glitch art may be claiming a little too much for itself anyway [3], I just can’t be too impressed by the mere malfunction of a computer, even though I’m fully aware of the potential auratic qualities of such failure. [4] It just stops too soon. That said, I really liked Christopher Meerdo’s recent show at Document. What separates his work is not only a very careful selection of some of the more uncanny images and a spectacular transformation into the medium of print, but also the stress laid on the origin and the process of exhuming source images: discarded vacation photos on found memory cards. Meerdo’s exhibition really reflects on the medium, its relationship to our human lives, and our capacity for recording and forgetting through the usage and leveraging of those very same auratic tendencies of malfunction. I draw a similar conclusion about the difference between some of the stacking and leaning of things we are seeing today [5], and the output of an artist like Felix Gonzales-Torres, some of whose best work relies utterly on stacking and piling for it to function.

So there is a kind of competence I see that has to do with an investigation within an artistic practice and through the artist’s level of experience with it. This most often involves objects and materials, though it could also be bodies and spaces or something else. The artist grows a micro history of production, a personal academy and repertoire. The depth of the work emerges from the depth of the investigation and the shape of the path walked by the artist. She can come to know quite well what she is doing, while avoiding the twin pitfalls of connoisseurship and disinterestedness. This is about studio time. [6] The artist may find it better to reflect on what she did rather than what she thought, or accept what happened over what she intended. This doesn’t involve the rejection of purpose, but the acceptance of things that come into view. For example, looking at R.H. Quaytman’s work for the first time a few years ago, I felt initially that the pieces functioned like works of art as essays in the sense put forward by Art & Language [7]. But even as they projected a kind of ultra-intellectual air they had a resolve and physical quality that drew me in. From subsequent lectures and artist talks, I learned about the experiential origins of much of Quaytman’s work. [8]  A frequent refrain I remember in her talks went something like “… after I did that, of course I thought it worked because…” In the end, the body of work she’s constructing is one of thoughts and contexts, but also of trials, errors and discoveries.

Christopher Meerdo
IMG65, 2013
Archival inkjet print
16 x 22 in.

What kinds of experts do these artists become? All of them possess expertise in the statements they want to make in relation to their own concerns and toward the historical context. But in the same way that de-skilling was a term borrowed from economics, I want to say that these works have been “right-sized” in their respective areas of making. Pretty close to the mark from my perspective is a relatively recent piece by Claire Bishop where she says, “Some will say that skills no longer matter, that the artist today should be fully ‘spectralized,’ because the truly emancipatory position is to erase the line between professional and amateur. […] That said, the best forms of de-skilling evoke in the viewer something of this spectralization: Such works generate in us not a disdainful ‘I could do that’ but the generative energy of ‘I want to do that!’” [9] If I ever get that kind of energy from viewers of my work, then I have probably done my job.




[1] I saw this phrase in Christine Mehring, Jeanne Anne Nugent, Jon L. Seydl, Gerhard Richter: Early Work, 1951-1972. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010.
[3] What I mean here is that glitch is a breakdown, a misuse or a chance process. Not a new idea, though consistent with a medium specific conversation, the fact that it is a computer malfunction makes it a contemporary concern. It’s a concern that is, of course, worth examining, but the question is how to approach it.
[4] See, for example, Martin Dixon, The Horror of Disconnection: The Auratic in Technological Malfunction, Transformations Journal,
[5] Robin Dluzen,
[6] For a fascinating read on contemporary issues regarding studio time and its effect on the production of art, try Dieter Roelstraete, The Business: On The Unbearable Lightness of Art,
[7] Such as in Charles Harrison, Conceptual Art and Painting: Further Essays on Art & Language, MIT Press, 2003.
[8] Society for Contemporary Art lecture, The Art Institute of Chicago, March 15, 2012 and The Opening Reception Artist talk at The Renaissance Society, January 6, 2013.



ROBERT BURNIER is an artist and writer who lives and works in Chicago. He is an MFA candidate in Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania. Recent exhibitions include The Horseless Carriage at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, Salon Zurcher at Galerie Zurcher, New York, the Evanston and Vicinity Biennial, curated by Shannon Stratton, and Some Dialogue, curated by Sarah Krepp and Doug Stapleton, at the Illinois State Museum, Chicago.

JODIE MACK presents…

May 16, 2013 · Print This Article

Indefatigable– it’s the only word I can think of that in some small way describes Jodie Mack. You can see it in the sheer volume of her accomplishments, including the number of films she’s created, the places they’ve screened, the teaching positions she’s held (and holds!), and the film festivals, exhibitions and performances she’s organized, participated in or contributed to. You can also see it in the work itself– its speed, its persistance, its resolve. It is both self-aware and self-abnegatting; her films traffic in the tropes and technical achievements of the history of moving image work while simultaneously canabalizing themselves in the process of their creation (magazines are cut up, posters are shredded, envelopes are torn, etc., etc.). Mack enlivens the tension between competing generations of technologies, modes of representation and -ism’s of art. This adds a worldly complexity to her also entertaining, and often charming work. Her latest film, “Dusty Stacks of Mom: the Poster Project,” is screening now, and she was kind enough to discuss this and several of her other works below.


Jodie Mack inside her exhibition “No Kill Shelter,” at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts, 2013.


TLN: It’s hard to imagine a film more ambitious than your previous gem “Yardwork is hardwork”, but it seems like your latest, “Dusty Stacks of Mom,” is equally as epic! Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to tell this story? (I know your previous piece “Lily” was also autobiographical in a sense, but that type of documentary story telling isn’t your main way of working, right?) And while we’re at it, I might as well ask about the depiction of representational imagery versus abstraction in this new film. Is it a focus of the piece or more a by-product of some of the processes you use to animate things? (I’m not even sure you’d agree these two approaches are as oppositional as I’m making them out to be; do you feel they have more in common than I’m giving them credit for?)


Still from Jodie Mack’s “Yard Work is Hard Work” (28m, 16mm, color, sound, 2008).

JM: Yes, YWiHW was an obscenely large project that kind of knocked me over like a tidal wave, but I decided it was time for another long work. (I actually started shooting for DSoM only a year after releasing YWiHW but then stopped for a few years and made over a dozen shorts before coming back to it.) As an animator and a collagist, I am always looking for discarded materials to use – things I can find in bulk. I had a lingering interest in printed waste from YWiHW, and my mother’s poster business was steadily declining. When it became clear that she would move out of her space and liquidate the poster inventory, it seemed logical that I should try to animate some of her stock while I could. So, ultimately, what fueled the start of this project was the unlimited access I had to a huge warehouse of printed material. (I mean, I went through a lot of posters during shooting, but I didn’t even make a dent in her gigantic collection.)

On a fundamental level, I’m interested in the tension between form and meaning. Each one of my films studies some sort of tangible object or set of objects: colored plastic (A Joy), photo-negatives (Lilly), magazines (Yard Work is hard Work) junk mail (Unsubscribe 1-4), fabric (Harlequin, Rad Plaid, Posthaste Perennial Pattern, Point de Gaze, Persian Pickles, Blanket Statement), posters (Dusty Stacks of Mom), etc. The materials guide the messages; the results take on different forms, some looking more like pre-established genres than others. The role of abstract animation in cinema – its sensational and narrative possibilities – surfaces often in my films no matter the material I’m exploring. DSoM chews through the posters and digests them through a number of animation techniques; certain scenes emphasize representational aspects of the posters while others abstract the material. So, I’d say the depiction of representational imagery vs. abstraction in this film is both a focus of the piece and a by-product of the material at hand in this case.

TLN: So I have to confess– I’m actually not that familiar with the original Dark Side of the Moon recording, but I know you reworked the lyrics to every song off that album and scored your recent film with them. Is this because Pink Floyd was one of the posters your mom sold, or is there some other connection? Seems like that record has a funny filmic pedigree because of the whole “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack syncing urban myth. In general, I feel Iike most of your films reflect a keen sensitivity to song and soundtrack (as well as diegetic and non-diegetic sound), which often act as an extension of the filmic narrative in an operatic or musical theater kind of way. Can you talk about your relationship to these genres and if they are in fact sources of inspiration? Also, can you talk a little bit more about using your voice as instrumentation in the soundtrack to some works (“Unsubscribe #4: The Saddest Song in the World”), or performing live choral soundtracks to other works (“The Future is Bright”)?


Still from Jodie Mack’s “Dusty Stacks of Mom: the Poster Project”(42:00, 16mm->HD, color, sound with live singing, 2013).

JM: Yes, great question. DSoM re-makes Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, featuring instrumentation by a different person/group on each track and alternate lyrics as voice over narration. Adopting this structure was a huge breakthrough moment because, as I mentioned, I tabled this piece for a number of years because I didn’t know what it was or how to make it. What would I say? How would I say it? How much? How little?  Words were the issue. I didn’t want to use interviews, voice over, or intertitles. I loved the idea of making a musical documentary in theory but didn’t want to write the music myself because it felt too personal, raw, and uncomfortable. So, deciding to use the album as a structure re-invigorated the project and ultimately expanded its scale and context.

I chose this album in particular for a number of reasons. Certainly, Pink Floyd posters were great sellers in my mom’s business. My parents, who ran a printing business when I was a child in England, also printed some of the PF merchandise for European tours when I was young.  Stom Thorgerson’s simple and bold prism album cover of DSoM, to me, represents the trippy-stigma struggle of abstract art in a post-psychedelic climate. I am interested in how abstract animation permeates everyday life, so you’ll often hear me talking about firework displays, screensavers, or laser light shows (often at planetariums and often to Dark Side of the Moon). I think the album really nails the division (or lack of) between abstraction in fine art and psychedelic kitsch. I also appreciate the album’s cult cinematic association and how it relates to synchresis and the history of what’s often called “visual music” in the experimental animation community. The idea of synchresis (that viewers connect sounds and images onscreen) kind of nullifies what seems to be the purpose of visual music: to carefully construct a complex relationship between sound and image – through experiments in unison and counterpoint (once by hand, now often by machine). It feels like, well, if a machine can do this fairly easily and we associate sound and image as having a relationship anyway, then where’s the magic? Even though this problem makes me a little sad, I capitalized upon it to make this movie because I was able to force or siphon my images and words through a structuring principle that was also related to my content to begin with. One of the things that interests me about lots of animation and experimental film more generally is that what constitutes a diegetic sound remains questionable because the images are not representational.  What does a triangle vortex sound like? What do specs of dust whizzing by at 24fps sound like? You can take more liberties in abstract film than in representational narratives. But, again, because of the synchresis problem, “visual music” further complicates the notion of what’s diegetic/non diegetic because the sound’s “source” does not appear onscreen but the images move in synch. Tricky!

It’s true; I have a background in musical theatre (something more common in experimental filmmakers than one might think, I’ve found). Even though that background seems more and more distant each day, these musical and performative impulses exist in my personality/everyday life and therefore in many of my films as well. Additionally, I appreciate opera/musical theatre as a narrative form that incorporates spectacle. I’m interested in abstraction’s role within narrative as well as in life. Time-travel, hallucinations, dream sequences: these are places which incorporate abstract imagery within traditional cinematic syntax (cin-tax?). And musicals, especially movie musicals, set aside the space of the number to allow the film to go places the narrative wouldn’t allow – dreamy places, surreal places, choreographic places (e.g. Maria spinning from the sewing shop to the dance in West Side Story or the famous rippling fabric dance scene in Singin’ in the Rain). But, anyway, back to performing and singing. Again, I use what’s around and who will work for free, usually myself. At a certain point, I started taking little tours and singing with the films live because it seemed to facilitate a reason for people to come to the show and sit around and share an experience with me in a room instead of on their computer. I’m also singing DSoM live when I can and screening it with a few new shorts that work together to simulate the sequence of a rock concert (two opening acts, headliner, encore.)  I’m isolated by my own demanding studio habits, so performing creates a space for human interaction – the kind of interaction or human labor that DSoM mourns the loss of in many ways…

TLN: Pattern, collage and a sort of indexical accumulation of objects and imagery occur again and again in your films, but often times they act as the vehicle for a work’s larger narrative. Can you talk a little bit about recent work like “Point de Gaze” that seem to take that aesthetic as the subject of the film itself, in an almost structuralist way? What prompted this shift? Was it the use of material, such as Belgian lace, instead of other more ephemeral or craft items? In a way, I’m wondering if you feel like earlier pieces like “Unsubscribe #1: Special Offer Inside” were precursors to that approach?

JM: Sure. I see PdG fitting in with a number of other films I’ve made since 2010. I feel like it definitely belongs in the same family as the Unsubscribe films and other fabric films I’ve made recently. These films study domestic and recycled materials in stroboscopic anti-sequence to illuminate the elements shared between fine-art abstraction and mass-produced graphic design.  The films extend the temporal concerns of structural film while calling for a critical formalism. They question the role of the decorative and conceptualize abstraction by meditating upon objects of cultural significance (or insignificance), revealing the beauty and kinetic energy of the wasted, the overlooked, the everyday product of yesterday’s work. They attempt to bring texture and domestic signification to a cinematic practice often rooted in sterile minimalism. For a while, I explained myself by saying I wanted to be the Eva Hesse of structural film – not sure how much sense that makes nowadays, but that’s how I felt at one point. I see these shorter pieces working together in the same way as paintings in a gallery show or songs on an album. But, you’re right to notice something different about PdG – it’s the first fabri-flicker film I made with textiles I didn’t own. I borrowed them from a costume shop. So, the film features a largely varied set of materials made by both humans and machines, almost predicting the ideas that emerge in DSoM about labor and technology (similar themes will also emerge in an upcoming film). I don’t see myself shifting as much as I see myself building, expanding my toolkit, and (now with DSoM) culminating – knocking it all down to rebuild again with the leftover rubble from the latest tidal wave.


Interview conducted via email May 2013.

The Ineffable Homestead

May 15, 2013 · Print This Article

Walking up to the clapboard rancher surrounded by a sod lawn in front of a brick building whose facing side was painted a sky blue, an uneasy feeling of displacement crept up my spine. On one side was downtown Detroit, the other was suburbia. Except it was some sort of self conscious version of suburbia, reminiscent of the prosaic childhood setting so many of us are familiar with, but with an almost mythic nature as a newly fetishized art object. Originally “launched” in 2010 as an intricately choreographed performative sculpture, Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead finally opened to the public on May 11, 2013 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit as a permanent fixture on the adjacent lot. As a recreation of the late artist’s childhood home in suburban Westland, MI, the resulting structure is fairly straightforward. As an art work, it is extremely complex, a nearly uncatagorizable masterpiece, wholly embracing major themes of his life’s work while barreling into new territory altogether in the most ambitious project of his far too short career. Mobile Homestead asserts itself as both public and private sculpture, focusing on community involvement and outreach, yet retaining a strong sense of privacy and secrecy inherent in homes by the elaborate basement labyrinth which will be kept off limits to the general public.


Image by PD Rearick, which can also be found on page 277 of this month's Art Forum. (Used with permission)

Mike Kelley and Emily Gustafson during the Mobile Homestead launch in Detroit, MI, Sep. 25, 2010. Image by PD Rearick. (Used with permission)

A small lending library greets visitors open entering the house, while in the room to the right an electric organ is tucked by the doorway leading to two back rooms furnished as offices of sorts, with donated or second hand furniture. This office vernacular continues through the back hallway and restroom, with overhead lighting and white walls, gray linoleum floor that denies the sense of warmth typically associated with a home. Having looped around to the back left of the house, the last two rooms before the garage contain the most engaging participatory elements of the house thus far. On wall pegs were thrift store items that could be “purchased” by creating money from materials provided on a nearby table. Visitors can determine the perceived value of the item of their choice, which were mostly fake food items, knick knacks and toys: objects of little use, or like the invented monetary system, items of play. While both a welcoming and generous proposal for a new economic system of exchange, it underlined an important critical perspective of the art. We are pretending that art can make an impact on a community that has little need in or interest of art. Kelley’s mistrust of public art is manifested in a contradictory work that both invites and refuses, both provides a platform for social empowerment and an expectation of failure. By paying for a sequined Mexican Wrestlers mask with hand drawn currency I am not helping anyone but myself, for something I don’t need at all or that will serve me any purpose except momentary enjoyment. Carrying it around the rest of the night, I felt stupid and a bit guilty, that I had taken advantage of the generosity of an invented system that could have bettered someone else instead. With the gift is the debt, and Kelley has specifically talked about this with works like More Love Hours Than Can Ever Be Repaid (1987):



“ ‘…we can make an art object that can’t be commodified.’ What’s that? That’s a gift. If I give you this art-thing, it’s going to escape the evils of capitalism. Well, of course that’s ridiculous, because if you give this thing to junior he owes you something. It might not be money, but he owes you something. The most terrible thing is that he doesn’t know what he owes you because there’s no price on the thing. Basically, gift giving is like indentured slavery or something. There’s no price, so you don’t know how much you owe.” – Mike Kelley in conversation with John Miller in 1991

Experiencing this sense of debt, an acknowledgement of worth arises. Art must have some worth in one’s day to day life, but to come at it through debt is to force its sense of worth on the indebted. Yet in the bowels of the house is a very private and crucial element of the art work that is off limits to the general public, harkening all the way back to the Tree of Knowledge in the Book of Genesis. The desire to enter the basement becomes even more significant. To be invited into an elite group that has access to the more private or sacred space of the artist. A twisted mentality develops of feeling slighted by the benefactor, that class or some social identifier has determined one’s limit in the consumption of the work. This sinister turn of emotional understanding complicates one’s position towards Homestead as a public artwork, while invoking the gothic nature found throughout Kelley’s art. The unattainable labyrinth basement sets the house as a sort of prison in which the inmate was just informed of his captivity after a lifetime of believing they were free. How would the programming develop, would it actually create community impact, would it fail, and quickly? What types of programming would be offered and when? From this comes the question, for whom? Would the programing be for me, or someone else? How am I included or excluded?


Public art and social practice typically engages a community by attempting to fill a need which is usually seen from someone outside of that community. They rarely give the community the chance to discuss if these actions of altruism are actually beneficial to them or not. In essence, the underprivileged remain unrepresented, denied agency to speak while seen without agency to overcome their perceived situation. Slyly cynical as a suburban home entering the city of Detroit as a reversal of White Flight, Mobile Homestead can potentially become a carefully disguised form of oppression like many other public art and social practice works. As Kelly has stated in his essay accompanying Mobile Homestead for the 2012 Whitney Biennial, “…public art is always doomed to failure because of its basic passive / aggressive nature. Public art is a pleasure that is forced upon a public that, in most cases, finds no pleasure in it.”


Throughout the house and walls of MoCAD on opening night everyone wondered how the programming would unfold, and thus what would the fate of Mobile Homestead be. Without the guidance of the artist, it is up to the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts and MoCAD to do the best in executing the artist’s wishes. Thus Mobile Homestead is not at an end point but just a new phase of its ongoing development. As MoCAD is encouraging public suggestion and development of supported programming in the house, it seems then that even though Kelley believed that it wouldn’t work, he may have wished for it to, that Homestead was an honest attempt at public art performed in “bad faith,” as the artist put it. It will continue an unwieldy yet potentially revealing choreography as one of the best artworks of its time, a harsh critique of power, public art and social engagement that challenges its audience to prove it wrong by embracing it as a tool for community enhancement while remaining an autonomous work of art.


More information on Mobile Homestead, including visitor hours and programming can be found on MoCAD’s website: