A Plant as Familiar: The Use of Plants in Contemporary Art

May 7, 2013 · Print This Article

Guest Post by Faye Kahn¹

Originally Composed 12/2012

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LFT: Carson Fisk-Vittori , Untitled (Gerber) (2011), Little Paper Planes Gallery
RT: Ikebana Arrangement, Yasuhito Sasaki (2010), Ikenobo Society of Floral Art, Kyoto

 

Contemporary society occurs within a system of objects: toasters, cars, latch hooks, extension cords, hair pins, keys, cards, bunk beds, and so on. It is this very system (see also: pile, archive, collection, etc.) that contemporary artists have assimilated & reappropriated as a catalogue of their raw material. In a statement from Cincinnati’s U·turn Art Space’s 2010 “Stuff Art” group show of contemporary assemblage artists, an uncredited author defines the tactic as follows:

 “These artists use spatial relationships and juxtaposition to increase our awareness of the common by approaching a free-for-all of range of materials as freed form …The evolution of these art practices is also in dialogue with “truth to materials” philosophies that began in the International Style of Modernist architecture…”²

Not only through Modernist Architecture but more popularly recognized at the advent of the readymade by Duchamp in 1917 & carrying through such evolutionary checkpoints as Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, Mike Kelly’s stuffed animal agglomerations, the Etsy object sculptures of Brad Troemel, & the composited image collages of dump.fm users. The assemblage artist today is in an active & influential position, albeit one that pushes objects across the gallery floor, cutouts across the photocopier bed, & gifs around the checkerboard transparency field rather than paint across a canvas.

If this is the language in which we are speaking now, a lexicon containing stuffed animals, sign-my-guestbook gifs, Vitamin water, urinals, emoticons, taxidermy, etc. etc. & onward into infinity, it is worth noting the popularity of the term “plant” or “houseplant” & occasionally “office plant” which can be found repeatedly throughout digital & physical gallery dialogue.

The houseplant’s original intention was for the interior decorator, whose profession hinges on the art of arrangement. Houseplants usually function as decoration in the home to soften our transition from nature to domestic space. It freshens the air, appeals to our aesthetic senses, & reminds us of idealized places we aren’t (outside). This relationship to interior decorating is recognized by many plant-wielding artists, including & exemplified by Claire Fontaine in her Interior Design for Bastards show (2009) whose statement immediately admits its awareness of  “[t]he close and ambiguous relationship between art and decoration.”³

In a matryoshka-like way, the art of arrangement is repeated on a smaller scale within the houseplant’s own container, & even institutionalized by the practice in Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. According to the Ikebana International website, “In principle, ikebana aims not at bringing a finite piece of nature into the house, but rather at suggesting the whole of nature, by creating a link between the indoors and the outdoors.”⁴ Assemblage artist Carson Fisk-Vittori discusses her Ikebana-like exploration of this link in a 2011 interview with Claudine Ise of contemporary art blog Bad at Sports:

 “…a soda can thrown in a flower pot is a gesture, because it is intentionally placed whether or not the person was aware of it… It’s really a natural gesture, like eating a cherry and spitting out the core, but in our world we are dealing with these man-made objects that are specially designed and branded. The contrast of man-made object and plant life really shows how far away we are from living with nature. I basically started looking closer at these casual arrangements and creating my own with elements of plants and man-made objects…I view these arrangements as microcosms for our relationship with nature.”⁵

This approach also addresses the current heightened cultural awareness of environmental issues, which has pushed plants into the socio-political spotlight that provides the creative fodder of cultural critics & artists. There is also an undeniable escapist aspect of the houseplant, as it is kept inside as a reminder of the outside, natural world. This adds to the plant’s ability to represent tropical & indigenous cultures that have more intimate relationships with nature.

However prescient these decorative & potentially escapist implications of plants, they cannot completely explain their rise in popularity in contemporary art. Though these qualities may influence the artist’s decisions on a conscious level, the houseplant has taken on more complex implications than a simple symbol of nature. Through its living presence & familiarity, it has transitioned into a subject that can go as far as acting as a stand in for a human being.

The movement of the plant from the exterior natural space to the interior  gallery necessarily devolves the specimen into the tamed version of itself: a house plant. Consequently, this conversion is also the first step in transforming the creature into an entity better capable of relating to humans. Unlike other found props from the system of objects catalogue, a plant is living & needs to be maintained-a quality uniquely expeditious in its importance to living things (in fact the lifespan of the plant determines the duration of visual moments in the work in which it resides). Furthermore, in many cases the plants in use occupy space in an analogous way to how a person would, with similar height & life presence. In an article discussing the sculptural work of Claes Oldenburg, Julian Rose describes the effective use of scale in relation to the minimalist work of Tony Smith:

“The primary objective in scaling the work roughly to the human body was to establish a connection between viewer & object. Objects that are too small or too large…tend to isolate themselves from the observer. A small object is perceived all at once, in a glance; it demands no participation. A similar problem arises with much larger objects, which are unintelligible at a short distance and fully legible only from distances so great that the viewer no longer feels that he or she is sharing space with it. A human-sized sculpture, neither too small nor too large, invites the viewer to move around it, gaining a full understanding through exploration of a shared space.”⁶

Coming upon a plant in a gallery space has a similar effect, if not more pronounced with the added dimension of life. In fact, this dimension & our a priori participatory relationship with plants lessens the problem of the small object Rose describes; we are accustomed to getting close to small plants to take care of them which extends our personal, shared space relationship with them.

Plants serve as a unique stand-in for a person because they have no emotive face. The exploitation of emotion & drama through pop culture, capitalism, & consumer arts has caused passion to become a subject that borders on guaranteed cliché & is territory that must be broached with extreme caution & tact. Plants therefore have a heightened utility to the artist as a subject more ambiguous than a portrait, mannequin, or cartoon character. Domesticated houseplants appear innocent, attractive, & defenseless, making them sympathetic individuals, while not fostering any theatrics or relying on sonic communication as an animal does. As a result of this, installations including plants do not always necessarily feel softened by the presence of plant life but can in fact occasionally alienate the viewer as though she were walking into a room of emotionless people. Still, they are more responsive & decisive than a mineral & their anthropomorphic qualities are obscure enough to free us from any social judgement of character from either subject or object.

This anthropomorphic phenomenon in the fine art world can be exemplified by a blog post found on the Walker Art Center website written by gallery photographer Gene Pittman. In the post, Pittman discusses archival photos from the center pre-1971, a time when plants were commonplace in the museum & gallery setting performing a decorative role:

 “In these images [plants] seem to act as the stand-ins for the patrons, sometimes aloof and in the background or congregating around the radiator as if in discussion. And then there are those that are really into the work, standing in front of a sculpture’s light, their shadows enveloping the work.”⁷

Following the text there is an extensive image collection featuring examples of the gallery patron plant in its natural habitat. Looking at these photos today out of context, one might easily confuse them for photos of a contemporary exhibition incorporating plants in an installation. Compare, for example, the following two images:

 

Untitled archival photo from the Walker Art Center taken by in house photographer Gene Pittman

Untitled archival photo from the Walker Art Center taken by in house photographer Gene Pittman

 

Parrots (installation view), Jacopo Miliani (2008),  Frutta Gallery

Parrots (installation view), Jacopo Miliani (2008), Frutta Gallery

 

The top image, from 1959 at the Walker Art Center & the bottom from Jacopo Miliani’s 2008 installation Parrots at the Frutta gallery in Rome. Both situations involve tall, frond bearing plants observing framed 2D artwork hung on nearby walls with no obvious distinguishing feature illuminating the arranger’s identity as artist, as in Miliani’s installation, or as interior decorator, as in Pittman’s archival photo.

A similar effect is achieved by the Tumblr hosted image collection Mise en Green assembled by Brooklyn based curator, exhibition producer, and writer Arden Sherman (www.miseengreen.com) that intuitively documents the plant’s evolution from decorative gallery constituent to chosen member of the art piece. Amongst archival museum & gallery photos like those described above appear photos from contemporary gallery shows without any obvious distinguishing feature. For example, a long cluster of potted greens from the Dormitorio Publico 2012 show at the Campoli Presti Gallery can be found between archival photos from the Guggenheim & the MoMA in the 1950s. A selection of hanging & floor-dwelling plants in ceramic containers at Paul Wacker’s Wait & Watch a While Go By show at the Alice Gallery in Brussels (also from 2012) is displayed unobtrusively between documentation of the MoMA & Manchester Art Galleries from the 70s & 80s.

Viewing the plant as a human stand in allows us to obtain a more insightful reading of contemporary artworks that utilize them. Wait & Watch a While Go By now appears to reference what the group of hanging & potted plants in the exhibit are doing. The gallery is hung with paintings by Wacker & Maya Hayuk done in an unpretentious graphic style, many of which include images of wild plants & houseplants alike. The resulting situation is one of a kind of plant hangout- a place for them to relax & enjoy each others company with pictures of family members decking the halls.

 

Plants hanging out & looking at a picture of plants at the A.L.I.C.E. gallery.

Plants hanging out & looking at a picture of plants at the A.L.I.C.E. gallery.

Although this anthropomorphization goes largely unrecognized (at least publicly) by the artists that implement it, at the beginning of his 2008 performance piece Este Cuerpo Que Me Ocupa, João Fiadero directly confronts us with an unadorned plant as subject:

“…Fiadero walks into the stage coming from the audience, crosses it, opens a door on the back wall, and brings in a tall plant in a vase. With care, he lays the vase down on the stage floor and returns to his place among the audience. At the center of the stage, the plant executes a beautiful solo with living creature, inert matter, and imperceptible motions.”⁸

In this example, a potted plant takes on the role of the choreographed dancer. The rest of the performance introduces a cast of other domestic objects (mostly furniture) and a few people, but the first physically present subject is a plant. In internal activity it is between a human and a non-living object. It is transitional, a pathway between identification from a person to a thing.

Photo from “Esta Cuerpo Que Me Ocupa” by João Fiadeiro

Photo from “Esta Cuerpo Que Me Ocupa” by João Fiadeiro

Buffalo based artist Ethan Breckenridge places his plant subjects in undersized transparent prisms & cubes that emphasize the plant as a sympathetic creature. In his Too Soon installations in Bolivia (2009) & New York (2010), potted plants are crammed into carpeted cubes. The viewer empathizes with the plants, leaves pressed uncomfortably against the walls of the cube, & we may reflect upon our own domesticated & carpeted glass cubes. Breckinridge more specifically articulates the relationship between human & plant in Plants Have No Backs (2008)- another plant (or two in some iterations) in carpeted windowed structure- but this time furnished with a folding chair. The title & the presence of the chair immediately allow the viewer to compare herself to a plant, in particularly those in front of her, humanoid in height. Without any need to sit down or rest its non-existent back, the chair remains empty. If a person were to sit in the chair, she would be in intimate conversation with the plant. One wall of the box is constructed out of a mirrored surface depicting infinite clones of plants with unoccupied chairs. The plant stands tall & unaffected, neither suffering nor lavishing its solitary existence.

Plants Have No Backs Ethan Breckenridge, 2008

Plants Have No Backs Ethan Breckenridge, 2008

In tandem with the plant in the gallery space, the proliferation of the houseplant in artistic practice continues in the internet medium- work that is without 3D physical manifestation. In particularly in the work of younger artists on social communities like dump.fm & the TightArtistNetGang, found plant imagery is common in the composited moments that function as their incessently morphing artistic economy. The plant’s ubiquity here probably has more to do with the large quantity of plant based gifs & clipart used in early web design (much of contemporary net art aesthetics is based in early web/PC nostalgia) than with an anthropomorphic presence. Because web design began by imitating tactile textures, objects & actions in order to make itself more user friendly, it is for the same aesthetic reasons that appears in interior decoration that it finds its way onto the web as design elements. Furthermore, net art of this kind, which seems to seek to create a surreal version of the physical world, would be incomplete without common objects & textures, making plants an obvious & indispensable tool. Like in physical presence, plants here too remind us of an exotic outside world, or, in the case of a potted plant, the physical world immediately outside of the computer.

A very small clipart plant.

A very small clipart plant.

There are examples of plants in net art at every turn, but 24 year old net artist Douglas Schatz (dump.fm username guccisoflosy), who repeatedly incorporates plant imagery in his work, summarized the trend in posting an animated gif of a potted plant against a grey checkerboard transparency background above the text “Digital Office Plants Are the New Aesthetic.”⁹ 

Screenshot from Schatz’ untitled gif.

Screenshot from Schatz’ untitled gif.

Unfortunately there is not enough room here to document a full up-to-date survey of contemporary artwork utilizing houseplants, but perhaps acknowledging this mania will allow us to look at this work with added dimension & intellect, rather than relegating it to simple appropriation. Surely plants will continue to aesthetically enchant all kinds of humans until further notice. Worldwide ethnic traditions document the symbolic meanings of various species, but the houseplant as readymade has mobilized the plant image into the 21st century. It has matured out of trite decorative & expired folkloric identities into advanced contemporary symbolic territory. Although the houseplant’s current definition is unstable (as anything contemporaneous), its qualities as an emotionally ambiguous living subject that is aesthetically pleasing make it a versatile object that will continue to take on meaning as its use continues.

 

H. FAYE KAHN is a freelance animator in NYC &  a free-format radio DJ at listener-sponsored WFMU in Jersey City, NJ. She resides in Brooklyn, NY & holds a BFA in Film/Animation/Video from Rhode Island School of Design. 

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On Courage

May 7, 2013 · Print This Article

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“Courage is the great enabling virtue that allows one to realize other virtues like love and hope and faith. To have courage is to be willing to look unflinchingly at catastrophic circumstances and muster the will to overcome the fear, never to fully erase and eliminate the fear but overcome the fear, so that fear does not have the last word or so that fear does not push one into conformity, complacency or cowardice. ”- Cornel West

I don’t know how to be courageous. I don’t think that I am now but I know, at least I feel, that I must be in order to make it through this moment. Recent months have seen us, as Americans, wrestling with the baseline hatred and oppression that we had so naively believed we had moved beyond, a desire we know now to be a desperate fantasy. I believe Cornel West to be true when he tells us that courage will lead us to other virtues, other strengths that might enable us to not only make it through our time but to imagine a real alternative, a utopian dream no farther than our beds. What I mean to describe here is not a kind of free imagination but, as Žižek has described, “a matter of the innermost urgency”, an imagined alternative to a situation whose solution is so far outside the coordinates of the possible that one is forced to imagine an alternative space.

Bill T Jones

There is a courage to performance, as there is a courage to poetry and criticism, to those forms whose goals, from the outset, are a freshly imagined future. Not just the courage of those taking to embodied action but a courage to witness those acts. A willingness to be changed by something, to allow oneself to feel what John Martin calls muscular sympathy. A kind of sixth sense that gives the viewer access to the work through the performers body. Not simply the courage of the stage but the courage of the street and bar. The courage to stand beside one another, to allow oneself to feel responsible for each other, for ourselves. Too often the heady dialogues surrounding the production of aesthetic experience call to mind a kind of aimless drifting identity. An abstract subject, tethered to nothing and no one, submerged in the machinic realities of our time but this is not true for all of us. For those of us operating from a place of difference, whose lives are not simply shaped but are out right controlled by social and economic oppression,  there are other ways of being. New ways to gather, to love, to share. New economies. Strategies of resistance. Alternatives simultaneously imagined and enacted between sweaty down beats on crowded dance floors in rooms that are forced to accommodate us as we are.

ParadiseGarage

I wish that I could tell you how to be courageous, that I had some great strategy for us, but I don’t know. All I have is a feeling of urgency, a sensation that drives me towards hope, towards an alternative. I can tell you that the work will be courageous and that with it so will we. I can tell you now that we will be in this together, as a community, as a collective. We who feel strongly, we will be the ones to make a practice of resistance. To turn ourselves towards a tumultuous present of catastrophic circumstances, where revolution and change are palpable events, the tyranny of unaccountable elites runs rampant, and the violence of our city howls just beyond our walls. We will be the ones to turn towards this moment, our moment, to face our oppressors courageously for each other.

“Who will fight the bear? No one? Then the bear has won.”  – Bas Jan Ader

Kevin Kurtz Pierce May 16, 1957 – May 2, 2013

May 7, 2013 · Print This Article

It is my sad duty to report the loss of a wonderful guy who along with his wife the delightful Annie Morse put on New Years Day parties of legend. He was a lovely person and I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing.

Please keep Kevin and his friends and family in your thoughts. If you can please make a donation in his honor to the Resource Center Chicago, 222 East 135th Pl., Chicago, Illinois 60827 (http://www.resourcecenterchicago.org/).

RH

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A pioneer in green architecture and sustainable development, Kevin Kurtz Pierce, 55, of Chicago, IL, passed away May, 2, 2013, following a “lengthy argument,” as he drily referred to it, with glioblastoma multiforme.

For the past 15 years Pierce specialized in sustainable design. Memorable projects include the Chicago Center for Green Technology, the city’s flagship green building and the first U.S. municipal structure to be certified “Platinum” by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Additional award-winning structures include Bethel Center and the Chicago headquarters of Christy Webber Landscapes.

As Sustainability Consultant for The Green Exchange, he helped create the country’s first commercial real estate development to advance green business. He also designed more than 300 affordable, sustainably-designed housing units in Chicago and Northwest Indiana.

His designs won multiple Greenworks Awards from the City of Chicago, a Smart Growth Achievement award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and honors from the American Institute of Architects Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

Quarter century as an architect

He worked for a quarter century as an architect for renowned firms such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), Lohan Associates, Farr Associates and Shaw Environmental.

Since July 2011, he turned his sustainability focus to assume the position of chief operating officer for the Resource Center, a 40-year-old non-profit organization where he had been a volunteer for nearly a decade and had served as board chairman for five years. The Resource Center—through recycling, urban agriculture and additional programs—has promoted sustainability through creative reuse of unseen and neglected resources.
A vigorous advocate for urban agriculture, Kevin served as a steering committee member of the Chicago Food Policy Advisory Council and Advocates for Urban Agriculture, organizations dedicated to using community agriculture and local food systems.
Prior to being COO of the Resource Center, he was the director of Sustainable Design at Shaw Environmental and managing director of Shaw Sustainable Design Solutions.

A modest life in Wicker Park

Pierce resided in Chicago with Annie Morse, officially his wife since July 2012, in a modest brick house in Wicker Park. Their devotion to reuse of found materials, recycling and sustainability were well-known to friends and colleagues.

The highly social couple were familiar faces at art and architecture openings across Chicago, and celebrated the first day of each year by welcoming more than a hundred people at a New Year’s Day open house at their eccentric home, with interior spaces redesigned by Kevin and filled with paintings by contemporary artists, most of whom the couple knew personally.

Despite the couple’s hospitality, few of their houseguests knew of Kevin’s many professional honors. They lived modestly.

The couple were virtually inseparable for a quarter century, signing a contract every five years (since 1989) at commitment ceremonies prior to being legally married.

He wrote a weblog about his illness, titled “There’s a Hole in My Head.”

From Chico to Chicago

Born in Boulder, CO, to Ann Dignan (née Trucksess), Kevin was adopted by James Pierce and grew up in Chico, CA. He received a bachelor’s degree in architecture, graduating cum laude, in 1985 from the University of Oregon. He later attended the Professional Development Program at Harvard Graduate School of Design. He moved to Chicago in 1986.

His professional affiliations included the American Institute of Architects, for which he as an Illinois Board Member; member of American Planning Association, Congress for New Urbanism, Metropolitan Planning Council, Society for College & University Planning, U.S. Green Building Council and National Trust for Historic Preservation. In addition, he was an advisor to the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance.

He is survived by wife Annie Morse of Chicago; mother, Ann T. Pierce, Chico, CA; sisters Alex O’Neill, of Chico, CA, and Darcy Enns, of Durham, CA; brothers Mark Pierce of Chico, CA and Jay Pierce of Seattle, WA; stepsister Lindell, of Sacramento, CA, stepbrother Brent Pierce of Coos Bay, OR; 11 much-loved nieces and nephews Jenny, Meredith, Casey, Jayne, Kellen, Maya, Lexi, Jesse, Kelsey, Maggie, and Sophia. He is preceded in death by James Pierce, his father, and niece Katie Kelley.

A private celebration of his life is being planned later in May. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Resource Center Chicago, 222 East 135th Pl., Chicago, Illinois 60827 (http://www.resourcecenterchicago.org/).

Arrangements by Cremation Society of Illinois, 773-281-5058 or www.cremation-society.com.

What Chicago’s Art Scene Can Learn From Vampire Bats

May 6, 2013 · Print This Article

The art world loves community.  Well, the art world loves the word, “community.”  Or, at least, it might, if we could figure out what the “art world” is, anyway, which is by no means a new problem.  The issues may in fact be quite closely related.  The art world is one of those subcultures that, while in reality a fuzzy-edged cluster of individuals, is easily perceived both by those within and without its borders as being the hard-edged rounded rectangle of an Illuminati card (Liberal, Weird).  “The CIA is going to attempt to control The Art World, and I’m going to put…50 Megabucks on that attack.”  (Which, by the way, actually happened.)

At least, we’d like to think that if the art world were an Illuminati card, it would be Liberal and Weird.  (If you’re not familiar with the game, just translate that as, “We’d like to think the art world is liberal and weird.”)  But that presumes a certain homogeneity that just isn’t there, as in fact did my own presumption that we (me, and you who are reading this) both want the art world to be the same, certain thing.  That is by no means a sure thing.  If for sake of discussion we can continue to refer to the art world as a single entity, then along with “community,” it also praises “diversity.”   That value is tested when one learns that diversity means hanging out with a bunch of people with whom one doesn’t agree, and whom one might not even like.

So what, then, does the concept of community really mean within the context of the art world?  The answers that spring to mind come in the form of analogies:  the art world as ecosystem, the art world as family, the art world as neighborhood.  Any of these metaphors can provide insight into the nature and structure of a subculture, but they can also be misleading, as well as potentially offensive and therefore divisive:  the vulture is an invaluable part of the ecosystems it inhabits, but few would want to be called the vultures of the art world.  (“He only collects work by dead artists.  Also, he’s bald, and when it’s hot out, he shits on his legs.”)

So it’s like Hannibal Lecter says in Silence of the Lambs:  “First principles.  Read Marcus Aurelius:  ‘Of each particular thing ask:  What is it in itself? What is its nature?’ What does he do, this man you seek?”  And as we try to piece together exactly what it is that we do, in this so-called art world of ours, to answer the question, I cringe, expecting any answer I give to be followed by Anthony Hopkins shouting, “No!  That is incidental!”

But nevertheless, the immediate answer, the “He kills women” answer that Lecter would have rejected as superficial, reveals part of the problem.   Mostly I paint, and draw, and I also teach, and write, and sometimes I curate, and perform, and basically do a whole bunch of different stuff.  All of this is part of what it means to be a member of the “Artist” subset of the art world.  There are also critics and curators and collectors and dealers, and while there is a lot of overlap, those who excel in one field tend to be specialists, if only in that the expenditure of time is a zero-sum game.

While each individual participant may bring something else to the equation, our individual efforts add up to a collaborative result, and that conglomerate of artwork and text and ephemera is the collective production of the art world.  And to what end?  I’d like to think, I think we’d all like to think, that our goal is to make the world a better place.  Like the fictional Weyland-Yutani Corporation from Aliens, perhaps our motto is, “Building Better Worlds.”  But isn’t that a bit vague?  After all, isn’t that how everybody, in any field, likes to see what they do?  Doctors save lives , lawyers fight for justice, invading armies are delivering freedom, and timber harvesting companies are creating jobs.  Any human activity can be rationalized in terms of making the world better in one way or another, and that includes a lot of things that are antithetical to the individual ethics to which many artists subscribe.  How can we be sure that we’re really making the world a better place, rather than merely producing luxury commodities ultimately no different from a BMW or a yacht?

One metric, and I’m not saying it’s a perfect one, might be that, rather than ends justifying the means we use to reach them, the means we use to reach our ends might give an indication of the worthiness of those ends.  In short:  If you have to do shitty things to reach your goal, maybe it’s a shitty goal.  Sometime around 1999 or 2000, Google informally adopted the corporate motto or slogan, “Don’t be evil,” and while opinions are varied on how well they are living up to this, the principle is a good enough starting point.  If it has a limitation it’s that “evil” as a word carries connotations of such unmistakable atrocity that it may be hard to see how it applies in morally ambiguous situations:  if we use the word “evil” to refer to something on the level of genocide, its hard to apply the same term to something like failing to credit the inspiration for an artwork.  In its place, we might simply say, “Don’t be a dick,” or in polite company, “Be cool.”

The question of the ethics and etiquette of the art world has been on my mind a lot lately, for a few reasons.  Last August I bought and reviewed “I like your work:  art and etiquette” by Paper Monument; actually my “review” consisted of answering the same questions that they asked of those they interviewed for the book.  More recently, though, I’ve been thinking about the idea of ethics and etiquette in the art world, and about art communities, and ultimately about what we’re all doing and why, because I’ve got some smart, awesome friends who are putting in serious work to make Chicago’s art scene a better place.  Claire Molek, formerly of This Is Not The Studio, is behind those ads you’ve seen on the Brown Line for the “Brave New Art World.”  The BNAW manifesto describes it as “an arts unification movement dedicated to the service of consciousness,” dedicated to the belief that “there is infinite, inherent value in the practice, product and distribution of art as a vehicle for consciousness.” What makes BNAW different is that, unlike a lot of the other (and also very worthwhile) alternative art organizations, it doesn’t seek to colonize an up-and-coming neighborhood with for-now cheap rent and no history of art exhibitions (or collectors).

The Brave New Art World kicked off this past Thursday in River North, a neighborhood with a long history of art exhibitions, high rents, and a reputation (deserved or not) for conservatism and an aging base of collectors and patrons.  It’s the neighborhood the cool kids love to hate, characterizing it as a bastion of old money and boring art.  By launching in this context, BNAW eschews the romantic appeal of the anti-establishment revolutionary ideology, and seeks instead to work within existing structures to renew and reform, rather than to destroy and replace.  It’s a smart move for everybody involved, if this mutualism proves sustainable, because it brings a new generation of innovative and experimental artists into contact with long-established galleries and collectors.  The galleries need new artists to remain relevant in an evolving art market, collectors (we’d hope) are eager to see things they haven’t seen before, and artists benefit by showing their work in established spaces where people actually buy art.  Some River North galleries have a strong history of showing emerging artists, and several have dedicated space or programming to this end:  David Weinberg has dedicated a portion of his space to The Coat Check, Catherine Edelman has a long history of supporting emerging photographers through The Chicago Project, and Jennifer Norback recently added The Project Room to her gallery.  The Brave New Art World has the potential to build upon and expand these programs and others like them, to breath new life into this long-established gallery district.

The launch of a new endeavor raises again the question of ethics and ideology, of what means shall be used to achieve these ends.  Another of my smart and awesome friends, Jake Myers, recently wrote a sort of opinion piece (published on the Brave New Art World site) on some of the dirty aspects of the art world, and opportunities to better, from an ethical perspective.  Some of what he wrote is prone to misinterpretation, and one passage in particular bears closer examination:

Instead of backstabbing, manipulating or using people for short-term gain, some people like to maintain healthy, friendly, long-term working relationships. Reward people who support you and bring other thoughtful, like-minded people into your cohesive crew. This is how communities and art movements begin.

Preceded by the heading “Friends who curate friends, “ and followed by a reference to a certain collaborative team, it would be easy to read this paragraph as a guilty plea to a charge of cliquish nepotism, but I read it differently.

We once bought a pair of feeder mice for our beloved ball python, Snake, but she was about to shed so she wouldn’t eat.  We kept the mice for a couple days in a small cage, fed them granola and made sure they had water, so they would be comfortable while they awaited their fate.  One morning I awoke to find that one of the mice had killed the other and eaten its face (here we are back to Hannibal Lecter again).  Apparently, I’ve since learned, mice kept in too close proximity will suffer stress, which can result in them killing each other and eating each other’s faces.  If you compare the number of graduates from art schools and MFA programs (to say nothing of the self-taught), and compare that to the number of available galleries, collectors, teaching positions, and other opportunities, we shouldn’t be so surprised to see an unfortunate number of young and not-so-young, struggling and not-so-struggling artists kill each other and eat one another’s faces, metaphorically speaking.

What I think Jake, and Claire, and a lot of other smart, awesome people, many of whom I am privileged to call friends, are saying right now, although maybe not in these terms, is that we need to stop being a bunch of mice, which are bitchy, murderous, face-eating piss and shit factories.  (I know, I know, they’re cute.  But they’re also really gross, and eat each other’s faces.)  Instead, we need to be more like vampire bats.  Now, if you’re familiar with Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and with the discussion of biological altruism, you may have an idea of where I’m going with this, and may in fact already be mouthing the words to you rebuttal.  But bear with me.  Dawkins gave a good summary of the Vampire Bat model of Reciprocal Altruism on a radio interview with Tom Morton:

Well, vampire bats have a kind of blood donor scheme; vampire bats, as you know, eat blood, and it happens to be a case of reciprocal altruism that’s been well worked out. These bats roost by day and then at night they go out and look for an animal to suck blood from, and then they come back and roost for the next day. Well if a bat is lucky, and manages to find an animal to suck blood from, it usually engorges itself and becomes very, very full, has much more blood than it actually needs. But that is quite a lot of luck that goes into that, and there are other nights when a bat will come home hungry, having not found any blood. And that can be fatal. These little animals need constant topping up in order not to die. So the situation is tailor-made for reciprocal altruism. When these bats come back into their cave after their night’s work, so to speak, some of them will be almost overflowing with blood, and others will be near death from starvation, and so there’s a lot to be gained from the ones who’ve got a lot of blood giving some to the ones who haven’t got much, and they do it by regurgitating it, by sicking it up, and the others eat it. And they can expect to get paid back by those very same individuals on another night, when the luck has been reversed. And that actually happens, that’s been demonstrated and it’s a very good example of reciprocal altruism in nature.

The game theorists point out that because these bats know they’re going to see each other again, it’s not true altruism, but rather an investment in a community.  This may be an argument for the evolution of true altruism, but it’s an argument for, rather than against, its use as a model for behavior within a community.  Be cool to your friends, because they might be cool to you in the future.  Don’t try go game it, to only hook up your friends whom you expect to be able to do you a favor in the future.  Just do everything you can, to help anybody you can, because in the long term, it is in your self-interest to do so, as long as we’re all doing it.  So, let’s all help each other out, whenever and however we can, and everybody profits.

In other words, you barf blood into my mouth, and I’ll barf blood into yours.  That’s community.

Week in Review : Road Trips, Dinner Parties and Other Exit Strategies

May 5, 2013 · Print This Article

It’s a busy time of year and a busy week on top of it. MFA and BFA events left and right, writing and grading papers, final presentations, vacation plans, residency plans, devised escape attempts, and closing remarks. That’s right folks, summer is almost upon us. #huzza But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. This week in review —

RoadTrip

Episode 400 y’all! Duncan and Richard published their road trip. What is estimated to be a five hour drive between St. Louis and Chicago was boiled down into a healthy 45-minute reduction of audio sauce. Get your fill of those fellas here.

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“Peep this outtake from Kris Harzinski & Will Haughery’s May 26th exhibition at ACRE.” (WTT) 

Otherwise, some Monday T from our favorite gossip columnist, Dana Bassatt. Bassatt asks after G.R. N’Namdi Gallery’s vacated storefront, offers insider reportage about her Dinner Party field trip, and offers a great eye-spy on an easily overlooked building in all its freaky grandeur (shout out to Kokorokoko â€” this building seems right up your alley, perhaps?). All that and more here.

Colleen Asper, Bathroom Mirror with Rectangle, 2012.

Colleen Asper, Bathroom Mirror with Rectangle, 2012.

I reposted a link to The Highlights: an online arts journal who’s latest issue presents blog works/art/articles that touch on labor, Marx, and biographical statements while presenting images of honey glazed turkey, black rectangles and to do lists.

Matts Leiderstam, “Once Seen (The Moving Panorama),” 2013

Matts Leiderstam, “Once Seen (The Moving Panorama),” 2013

One more reason for a road trip courtesy of Kelly Shindler who published a great list of things to look out for art-wise in STLA:

“It’s the first of May, which means that it’s May Day, International Worker’s Day, and you may as well watch the Bee Gees perform this. It also means that lots of art spaces and museums are getting ready to open their first round of summer shows. In solidarity, I present to you my (rather long) shortlist of what’s on in St. Louis in the coming weeks…”

Work by Jenny Kendler at The Sub-Mission, 1431 W. Chicago Ave

Work by Jenny Kendler at The Sub-Mission, 1431 W. Chicago Ave

Stephanie Burke posts the TOP 10 shows-to-see (obviously everyone has been hard at work all winter, and the fruits of labor are now, this very moment, EXPLODING). Which is to say, all good things are upon us. HERE

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, MAINTAIN YOUR DESTINY (1974)

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, MAINTAIN YOUR DESTINY (1974)

Another new columnist arrives at the scene, adding one more reason to open that bottle of champagne. Yes, that’s right, Mairead Case published the first post in an on-going series, MAINTENANCE. In her words:

I want this column to be about maintenance, because endings get so much press right now—education is increasingly privatized and teachers are undervalued, slow media is undervalued, pedagogy and art practice and criticism are going weirdo Cerebrus on us—and instead of getting ever-crabbier or just throwing in the towel, I want to talk about how we’re living. How we’re taking care, how we’re keeping the wheels turning. How we’re supporting ourselves long-haul. (Why books? I spend most of my time in libraries and classrooms, and reading, so books seem like a good place to start.)

MAINTENANCE will focus on reviewing new publications, but there’ll always be older ones in the mix. Again, if there’s something you’d like me to cover, please be in touch: mairead dot case at gmail.com. Hi!

So — with that, hope you had a good weekend, and let’s plan a day of hooky. Meet me at the beach, noon on Wednesday. Call it a National Day of Wellness and Leisure. Wear your best suits. I’ll bring the cold cuts if you bring the beach ball. Maybe we can look as dapper as the old timers downstairs. See you soon.