After Open Engagement happened, a few people asked me if I had gone. I hadn’t; I didn’t. I kept on reading write-ups of what happened, some of which were great, but I kept on not caring at all about what was being said, what was being talked about, or what had been done. Finally I texted a friend that maybe Open Engagement serves a branch of social practice or socially-engaged art that I just don’t care about, that I don’t identify with, whose goals are not my goals, and which to me often seems silly, handwringing, and/or naïve.
Writing in Artforum in 2011, curator Chús Martínez described Antonio Vega Macotela’s then-current project Time Divisa as follows dodged the trite naïvete that sullies much participatory/exchange-based/socially-engaged art by occurring through interactions already mediated by “a system that is already governed by mutual instrumentalization: prison.” His current exhibition at Galería Labor, Filipídicas, manages the same dodge, this time by focusing on a different system already governed by mutual instrumentalization: capitalism. Moreover, Vega Macotela’s work describes grinding social inequity without the misguided presumption that art, one of the ultimate luxury commodities, plaything of wealthiest, can do anything about it. This is socially-engaged art without aspiration, without a future—as it should be.
Filipídicas, Vega Macotela’s first solo show at Galería Labor in Mexico City, consists of five Studies of Exhaustion, each derived and produced either in collaboration with exhausted persons or using materials from them or close to them. The pieces themselves describe very different things: the ghastly, trinket-like Number 3, The Flesh, describes the patio process, a particularly lethal historical method of producing silver developed in the then-colonies of New Spain; the sodden, barely-visible sheafs of Number 5, The Invisible Encyclopedia, describe the bleak lives of service workers; while the cascading bulls of Number 4, Speculation, describe the aggressive futility of the financial industry.
None of these pieces offer a solution; they are, as their titles make plain, studies. They are recombinant objects—depersonalized human material mixed with inorganic materials—that describe the impossibility of survival in an ancient recombinant economy. In After the Future, written in the near aftermath of the 2008 recession, Francisco “Bifo” Berardi describes recombination as “the technical form of the labor process in the digital environment,” the transmogrification of the corporeal body to an abstract unit of time, able to be pooled and reproduced as needed, in total disregard of that body’s needs. Berardi describes this process as a contemporary development, something associated with cellphones, online labor, and so on. However, as Vega Macotela’s recent body of work reminds us, this process is not new at all: it goes hand in hand with capitalism, and always has.
The process Study No. 3, The Flesh describes could be argued as one of the starting points for globalized capitalism. In the mid-16th century, silver production increased manifold after the discovery of in Europe, and the implementation of in the colonies of New Spain, the patio process, a process that required both an enormous amount of physical labor and an emormous amount of mercury. Essentially, pulverized silver ore was put in a vat with a bunch of other metals, including mercury, and churned like butter by horses for weeks. After being churned and baked in the sun, the silver would form an amalgam with the mercury and rise out of the muck as a salable, precious metal. In the high steppes of Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico, where the Spanish built the mines, the labor was quickly killing European horses, suited to churning mills unsuited for the climate. The Spanish figured perhaps the indigenous populations were better-suited to the task, but, while they were suited to the climate, the labor killed them. Viewed as subhuman in South America and of the lowest caste in imperial Mexico, this was more of an inconvenience than anything; but when reforms passed in New Spain barring or making more difficult the enslavement of native populations, the Spanish empire had to purchase slaves from Africa, who fared no better than anybody else.
The increased production of silver allowed for the worldwide dispersement of silver goods and currency, throughout Europe, across Asia, and to China. Silver forks, silver knives, silver coins, silver trinkets—the items that separate the luxurious from the upper-class, the upper-class from the middle-class, the middle-class from the lower class. These objects acted, and continue to act, as props for the mise-en-scene of capitalism, the material support of a narrative of constant aspiration, permanent fetishization of that which is just a little nicer. The Flesh, can be wound with a key and played like a music box, the bone horses gliding placidly between huge grinding gears, suspended on their too-thick bronze rods, caged by imperial columns.
Study Number 5, the Invisible Encyclopedia, describes the labor of more contemporary human cogs in the machinations of global capital, skilled workers who provide improvements for the upper classes: a carpenter, a seamstress, a makeup artist. Vega Macotela asked these workers what they anticipated leaving to their families, what images or items sustained them, and so on. The three could not imagine leaving more than their tools for their families. They provided images of previous work, famous actors or actresses, family members. The workers were then asked to donate sweat, which was used by Vega Macotela to print the images on paper. The resulting images, frail and ever-so-faint, barely visible even with Labor’s elaborate UV-lighting, are reminiscent from afar of tears on a handwritten letter, tragic and desolate arrays of needles, nails, hammers, sponges, brushes. If these images are an encyclopedia, the describe and demonstrate the futility of labor, the total pointlessness of working one’s life away, of acquiring “useful” skills, of holding a job. What these workers have earned is not access to the proximate class in the stratum; they have earned only their memories, disappearing as sweat and tears on rumpled pieces of paper.
A few weeks ago, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development published a study of international labor data: average hours worked per year, average wage per year, workplace in/equality, and so on. Workers in Mexico work an average of about 2300 hours per year, more than anywhere else in the world, for a paltry annual wage of about $9800USD. Minimum wage in Mexico is about $3.25USD per day, or about $860USD per year, assuming minimum wage workers in Mexico are working every day of the year, which they most likely are—as maids, as tortilla makers, as teachers, and so on. Capitalism depends on an aspirational narrative to fool workers into destroying their lives for the benefit of capital: the “future” that Berardi hopes we have moved past. Perhaps what the OECD data shows is that it may indeed be possible soon to move past the future, because it is increasingly obvious that hard work and ambition accomplishes nothing at all.
In Studies of Exhaustion: No. 4, Speculation, 3D printed models of the Wall Street bull tumble, hurtle, crush, fall all over each other, varying looks of joy, rage, or pleasure on their faces. Their horns are sometimes longer, their balls are sometimes bigger, but they are always uselessly, forcefully caterwauling towards nowhere in particular. There are several Speculations, and they are all striking, perhaps the most immediately accessible work in the show. Their futility, the way they grapple and tumble with each other, suggesting no other future other than violent death.
The future is the aspirational opiate of all of us, the narrative construct that justifies working impossible hours for little to nothing, that glorifies ambition and hard work. Adopting an oppositional stance to the murderous machinations of global capital, as the worldwide left has been trying to do since at least the 60s and perhaps for hundreds of years, has not and will not work, for it abides by the same belief structure: work hard, make a better future. We exist within a stratified class structure with little to no hope of social mobility, one that closely resembles the class structure in place when the Spanish built the silver mills in New Spain, grinding the local population to a pulp to send shiny trinkets worldwide. Today, hapless workers still die in silver mines in Bolivia; but perhaps a more accurate analogue are the hundreds of thousands dying the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mining for coltan, a metal vital for the production of smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and such devices. There is no reason to believe any amount of opposition, especially that from predominantly upper-middle-class artists in the First World, will change that situation. Utopia is just a dream.
What Bifo proposes instead are “zones of human resistance that act likes zones of therapeutic contagion,” areas wherein dehumanized, pulverized populations might begin the task of reclaiming their time, their bodies, and their sensitivities, beginning with an abandonment of work. If art can serve a role in this, I imagine it would be through actions and objects that speak to giving up, disbelieving, stopping—not to utopia, aspiration, or goodwill. While it would be outrageous to say that Vega Macotela’s current exhibition at Labor is either a zone of resistance or a zone of therapeutic contagion, it is perhaps a step in the right direction.
Work by the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio.
Co-Prosperity Sphere is located at 3219 S. Morgan St. Reception Friday, 6-10pm.
Work by Kristina Paabus.
Fernwey is located at 916 N. Damen Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Johalla Projects and Chicago Loop Alliance present work by Jeffrey Michael Austin, Elizabeth Cronin of Asrai Garden, Heather Gabel, Andrea Jablonski, Johnny Decker Miller, Lauren Payne, Suzy Poling and Charles E. Roberts III.
Sullivan Center Alleyway is located on Monroe St. between State St. and Wabash Ave. Reception Friday, 5-10pm.
Work by Dan Kestler.
Rational Park is located at 2557 W. North Ave. Reception Friday, 7-11pm.
Work by David Abed.
Galerie Fledermaus is located at 2136 W. North Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Soho is empty of shoppers on a Sunday morning, and as I walk leisurely with Andrew Blackley through the intersection of Prince and Broome Street, we stop in front of the Pleats Please boutique window. Few pedestrians carry either gym clothes or paper coffee cups past us. We appear to be the only window shoppers. The windows contain featured items of the collection: micro-pleated baby blue pants, tops, and tunics as well as a nude backpack. As described, all articles of clothing in the store are pleated. Issey Miyake’s line of clothing never wrinkles, though permanently folded.
Andrew: I love the backpack.
Erin: Is this a bag you have been coveting?
Andrew: It is a new addition to the window. This is a pleated bag, and it has this really fabulous fold in it that reminds me very much of bread-making as well as glass-blowing, but as it also reminds me of larvae, it does not stink of artisanal. I like things made in factories.
Erin: And it’s collapsable.
Andrew: In this window, I was noticing something really interesting, which is: look how these pants are on this hanger.
Erin: They are precariously balanced there.
Andrew: They are perfectly, precariously balanced. To the point – how would you describe this effect?
Erin: It’s affected by tension.
Andrew: I know, but there’s no drawstring. So it’s a perfect amount of elastic against the side of a corner of a hanger.
Erin: It’s very touchy.
Andrew: It makes me nervous in a way that’s really attractive. I was also noticing this line right here. I would say the line is 11 inches down from the waist.
Andrew: Mid-thigh. You wouldn’t say it’s a pocket, would you?
Erin: No, it’s not functional.
Andrew: The pleats hide a lot of things.
Erin: Although they also form a deformation in a person’s body. The cuts of the shirts are unflattering. They give extra armpit or drooped breasts or too-high waists.
Andrew: I am really drawn to this blue color, and I am interested in this porcupine quill design. And I was also noticing these necklaces. I was curious about what was inside of the fabric necklaces, and how far they could stretch.
Erin: I think the necklace has its limits. Do you window shop often?
Andrew: Only at this store, actually. As I walk east on Prince, I have the opportunity to look into the window. The north-facing window is never as satisfying as the west-facing window.
Erin: Do you think you want things more over time, passing the window again and again and again?
Andrew: Yes, but they always change the display at the point I really want something.
Erin: I don’t really desire things window-shopping, looking through windows.
Andrew: Do you desire them when you put them on?
Andrew: Would you wear this dress?
Erin: I’d wear it for a couple of days. It’s a phase dress.
Andrew: What does that mean?
Erin: It means that, much like my outfit right now, I’m obsessed with it short-term. I have a phase with it. Do you have phase items?
Andrew: I try not to. I try to wear the same kind of clothes…
Erin: You’re loyal.
Andrew: Yes. I might have a loyal outlook on life.
Erin: Is that part of your interest in working on or with specific artists? Out of a loyalty to them?
Andrew: That’s an interesting question. I think the answer is “Maybe.” I’m curious to know what I am loyal to.
Erin: For instance, you spend your professional life working in archives. Are you interested most in the artist or most in working in an archive?
Andrew: I’m interested most when the archive represents a fundamental core of the work; when the work continues to exist over time. When something continues over time, it also changes over time. I’m interested in archives that are primed, that are ready to be used.
Erin: Ideas spoken through material.
Andrew: Yes. And I’m most interested when language is involved with art and archival matters.. So loyal…Do you think I’m loyal?
Erin: I think of the art world sometimes as a series of formed alliances and formed aversions. That might be part of the reason people are involved in it.
Andrew: Although I don’t remember who said it, or in what context, I read that the art world is the only sector in which you only seek recognition from the people that you already recognize. And I think that’s what you are saying? I think it can be clan-based. Like “these are my people” and we all share similar ideas, but I think the hierarchies of that are always changing.
Erin: New people are introduced, or other people are shifted.
Andrew: Are you loyal?
Erin: I have passing loyalties. Speaking of loyalty, are you susceptible more to trend that comes through fashion or trend that comes through art?
Andrew: I don’t think that I apply fashion trends to myself. With art though, I’m mostly interested in art of a generation prior to mine. And so I do have this luxury of being slightly removed from the immediacy of the contemporary art of my peers. Can you help me with a trend in contemporary art? What is one?
Erin: There’s always this trend of adolescence I think. Adolescent painting, making things like a child.
Andrew: I think there’s this trend of bad painting, but it’s so practiced, so capable. None of it is actually even bad. It’s skilled and therefore it means nothing. It never has and never will until it’s actually going to be bad. That would be a trend that I could live with.
Erin: Wallpaper has also been a trend.
Andrew: I went to see the Bob Gober show, and I think the wallpaper is phenomenal and important.
Erin: Beautiful. However, that came before this trend of wallpapers.
Andrew: Do people just want to be Bob Gober? I can understand why one would.
Erin: People are showing recognition of Gober.
Andrew: Diedrich Diederichsen wrote – I don’t know the intricacies of the essay at this point this morning, so don’t quote me – of a profound narcissism in today’s artists. It’s not even able to be Oedipal. It’s a significant block of self-involvement that actually prevents them from accessing the Oedipal. If someone was making wallpaper, and they wanted to capture or thread Bob Gober, they’re too wrapped up into themselves to acknowledge that he made it and what that may have meant.
Erin: Perhaps there is a surge of self-confidence, or over-confident making, similar to listening to over-confident rap. Everyone listens to rap because it’s a power anthem.
Andrew: I listen mostly to Prince, and also Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, and Prince has a supreme and magnificent confidence that is real.
Erin: That is god-like.
Andrew: He makes the game. He is the context. He is the figure and the ground of his confidence. No other person exists. There is only Prince.
Erin: I am a sponge in a lot of ways. I am a sponge person. When it comes to music, I take on the tastes of other people.
Andrew: That’s what Pleats Please is all about.
Erin: A sponge?
Andrew: A little bit. It’s spongy, it’s active, it’s not active. Can you be loyal and have phases? Another recent phase is fabrication. What are your thoughts on that?
Erin: Do you mean making a fake version of something that looks real? Like a Robert Gober leg?
Andrew: Or making something with a high level of finish. Shiny new things from a fabricator. I went to David Zwirner yesterday and saw the Kusama show. The paintings are phenomenal. There were also these sculptures of gourds and pumpkins made of chrome. I prefer the paintings.
Erin: Because they are hand-touched?
Andrew: I like people making their own things. Or if things are fabricated, I’m interested in why and how they are fabricated. Why do artists make fabricated objects instead of making factories? Of course, we are all our own fabricators, even if we are painting and drawing on a piece of paper.
Erin: Fabrication suggests that multiple people could have made the fabricated object. Ultimately, an artist is distinguished by the viewer’s ability to recognize that a particular artist made the work versus another artist having made it. Are you interested in an artist who has a through-line of thought running through all of their work?
Andrew: I think yes, but that need not be uniform. I think it’s really interesting when something made today and something made ten years ago at first appear antithetical. I really believe in contradiction actually. And change. I also believe in lies. And experiments. I think those are really important things. Many people in the world are unwilling to be contradictory.
Erin: This is slightly backtracking to speaking about archives again, but – I’m thinking of your conference, exhibition, and writing around Keith Haring, your work at the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, and the exhibition “Not only this, ‘but new language beckons us’” that you curated from and alongside archival material from the Fales’ downtown collection at NYU – do you equate preservation with curating?
Andrew: I don’t really know if I’ve curated an exhibition. How would one know? I know I’ve organized things. What do you mean by preservation?
Erin: You are bringing archival materials to the surface.
Andrew: I think that there is a really important position to be taken that is not exactly preservation, or conservation, but about providing a context or an environment for certain histories or concepts. In short, I’m providing context for myself insofar as I’m a person in the world working with things that I’m invested in. It’s not about facilitation or organization. Maybe it is more about maintenance.
Since 2009, The Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee has sponsored a year-long Artist-in-Residence program. The selected artist sets up their studio in a glass-walled room on the ground floor of the luxury hotel, and guests are encouraged to observe and engage with the artist as they work. The 2014-2015 Pfister Artist-in-Residence was Niki Johnson, a multi-media sculptor and curator. The body of work Johnson developed during the residency was largely one of ceramic and mixed-media sculpture inspired by a selection of fairy tales. These drew from both from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, focusing on Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, The Princess and the Pea, Rapunzel, and Thumbelina.
The studio space, in addition to functioning as both an artist’s studio and a fishbowl for observers, also serves as a small gallery space, displaying finished works alongside those in-process. A series of images, black and white illustrations framed in gold, showed designs for six sculptural tubs created in response to each of the fairy tales. Two of the tubs, Tether (inspired by Snow White) and Lather (Cinderella), were present in the studio during my visit. Each Artist-in-Residence at The Pfister leaves an artwork behind as a contribution to The Pfister’s permanent collection, and Tether was Johnson’s legacy piece. It is a small tub—about the size that would accommodate a young child being read fairy tales— hand-pressed in terra cotta clay. The outside is a vivid red with gold patterning, and lined in places with cracks of gold reminiscent of kintsugi, the Japanese practice of fixing broken pottery with metallic lacquer. The interior is lined with feathers, fur, and snakeskin. The various colors, textures, and patterns evoke a certain sumptuous that feels appropriate for a luxury hotel.
Also on display were Nest Egg, a series of altered commemorative plates making extensive use of gold leaf to create the silhouettes of birds in various natural settings, and Drop/Let, an arrangement of porcelain balloons painted in pink, white, and gold, created for the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s The Pink Balloon Project. Somewhat of an outlier is the piece Laid Bare, a found late-19th-century chaise lounge elaborately reupholstered with expired French condoms.
Johnson’s body of work, however, was not exactly what brought me to Milwaukee from Chicago for a weekend this spring. In lieu of a standard wine-and-cheese reception or exhibition, Johnson chose instead to close out her residency with a day-long symposium. (There is somewhat of a precedent for putting a twist on the closing reception; fiber artist Timothy Westbrook turned his Pfister reception into a runway fashion show in 2013.) The event was called MarKEt/FORWARD and designed as the first act of MarKEt, a new non-profit she is developing with Kayle Karbowski. MarKEt (a blend of the Milwaukee abbreviation MKE and the art market) is described in its mission statement as follows:
“MarKEt is a Milwaukee based non-profit that fosters growth in the Milwaukee art scene by establishing a platform for new opportunities, education and professional development for the self-made artist. Sparked by the Midwestern DIY ethic, MarKEt aims to connect Milwaukee’s institutional, entrepreneurial, and financial communities, by working with established non-profits and commercial entities to create grassroots alliances.”
This text is largely aspirational, as MarKEt has only just come into existence, but having spoken with Niki Johnson I find it unsurprising that she wants to take on this kind of community organizing. One gets the impression that there is a parallel universe in which she is some kind of guru: a motivational speaker, a cult leader, a brilliant military captain. She speaks articulately, giving thorough, thought-out answers to spontaneous questions as if she had some vast internal text she could draw on at any moment. “I’m not trying to run this town,” she said at one point. She was smiling, but her voice was serious.
After arriving in Milwaukee the night before the symposium, I spoke with both Johnson and fellow arts writers in town for the event (James Pepper Kelly for ArtSlant and Kate Sierzputowski for Newcity). The conversation was lively, but by the end of the night I was very still very unsure what to expect; there was a lot of enthusiasm, but not a lot of specificity. Unfortunately as the symposium itself got underway, I found myself underwhelmed. Overall I was far more interested in Johnson’s artworks and personal conversation than in the content of the symposium. I found myself wondering, fairly ungenerously, how someone who makes such compelling objects and speaks so charismatically could create an event I found mostly tedious.
Over the course of the day, however, I kept reaching the same realization: I was somewhat disinterested because this event was not for me, which is not necessarily a negative. As a glance at the event’s graphic design or the Power Point styles of its presenters could tell you, this symposium was not slick, and its contents not especially groundbreaking, but it was serving its intended audience. It’s right there in the mission statement: MarKEt is for the Milwaukee-based, self-made artist. As someone with a couple of art degrees and a life entirely lived in the orbit of the three largest American cities, this symposium was not designed with me in mind. And that’s fine: perhaps too much of the art world is designed for someone (well, a man) coming to it with that perspective.
“Grant Writing Unmasked” with Melissa Dorn Richards, the first presentation after introductory remarks, was particularly unexciting to me, not because what she was saying was off the mark, but because it all seemed so obvious. Talking points included many basics: look at where a granting organization gets their funding and what projects they have funded previously; have someone else look at your application; imagine being on the other side of the table. But when I looked around the room, I saw an audience of people listening carefully and diligently taking notes. It was heartening. I’d been under the misapprehension that most people were in the same boat as me: I know what I need to do to apply for a grant, because resources about that information are all around me, but I’m disorganized, or lazy, or afraid of failure. But here is an artistic community that seems really eager for this kind of information, especially when it comes to Wisconsin-based resources like the Funding Information Center at Marquette University.
The presentation highlight for me was “Manufacturing Creativity” with Reginald Baylor, a Milwaukee-based artist working in a variety of media, and the 2009-2010 Pfister Artist-in-Residence. He spoke about how he turns to the music industry, the tech industry, and the sports industry, rather than the traditional fine art market, for inspiration in doing business. The art world, he asserted, should take a lesson from hip-hop; we can be more like Russell Simmons. “Suburban homes,” Baylor told us, are “the best museums,” urging us to acknowledge that there is a larger art market than that of exclusive galleries and collectors. He is interested in 200,000 buyers of his work, not 5—“I don’t think I love my work enough if I only want five people to have it.” In service to this kind of accessibility, Baylor sells his work out of his open studio, seeking to create an experience for his audience that is inviting rather than intimidating, more garage sale than gallery auction. His talk was an enjoyable reminder that there are infinite options when it comes to structuring the business of being an artist, and that it’s wise to assess those choices in light of your audience and goals, rather than pursuing one standard prescribed model of artistic “success.”
Overall, while MarKEt may not be as compelling to a Wisconsin outsider as Johnson’s personal artistic practice, it seems to have the potential to be a valuable addition to the Milwaukee art scene. Smaller American cities are often undersold, with the talented and ambitious encouraged to emigrate to the nearest hub and join the fierce competition for big city resources if they wish to succeed. But Milwaukee is, of course, not merely a satellite of Chicago (which is itself often [mis-]represented as dwelling under the shadows of New York and Los Angeles), but its own site of cultural production, with its own aesthetics and values. If the receptive audience of MarKEt is any indication, the Milwaukee art community is one hungry for passionate, locally-focused organization.
Work by Lorelei Stewart and featuring artists Marianne Fairbanks, Fultonia, 96 Acres, Jason Lazarus, Cauleen Smith, Jan Tichy, and Amanda Williams.
Gallery 400 is located at 400 S. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Maddie Reyna.
Roman Susan is located at 1224 W. Loyola Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Kelly Kaczynski.
PeregrineProgram is located at 3311 W. Carroll Ave. Reception Sunday, 1-4pm.
Work by Marissa Lee Benedict and Phil Peters.
Heaven Gallery is located at 1550 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 7-11pm.
Work by Noelle Garcia.
Ordinary Projects is located at 2233 S. Throop St. 5th Fl. Reception Saturday, 6-9pm.