March 13, 2013 · Print This Article
To be blunt: It’s been quite difficult to write about Rachel Mica Weiss. Her seemingly simple artwork of woven fibers, heavy rocks, and large tapestries of knots deliver moments of considered contemplation. For me, that contemplation reduces my chances of finding something to write about. It’s like taking a really wonderful bubble bath, and then realizing that you’ve just been soaking in all your grimy dirt, so you have to get up and take a shower. With Rachel’s artwork, I enjoy my purposeful visual wandering around the surfaces of her objects and the physical game of hide-and-seek with other viewers around her stationary large sculptures. After an experience with her artwork, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write about it.
Last month, I attended the opening reception of Rachel’s newest work of art at the San Francisco Arts Commission Galleries Window Site – a site-specific sculptural installation titled Engulfing the Elusory. That same night just down the block, Swedish House Mafia was playing a giant electronic dance music concert. As perplexed and hypnotized as I was by the intricacies of Rachel’s artwork, I was happy to be distracted during the opening reception by all the cool raver kids in neon shirts walking around outside. What a coincidence for us, as Rachel was always such a good instigator of a late night living room dance party back in our grad school days. Now that she’s picked up and moved to Brooklyn, it’s so exciting to have her exhibit in San Francisco for a few months.
Jeff: I visited your website, and I noticed that there were already plenty of hyperlinks to different press media in the area. Did you know you were going to get all that press?
Rachel: No, not at all.
J: Would you consider this your first solo show?
R: Yeah, I would, but it takes a really weird format in that it’s a window show. The viewer can’t enter the space or move around the three-dimensional objects.
J: Did Meg [Shiffler, Gallery Director for the SFAC] tell you that there was going to be press?
R: I knew about the San Francisco Chronicle article because Pat Yollin and I did an interview before it was published. But I didn’t know that the show would be mentioned in 7×7 or the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
J: Those are great publications – really popular. Did they interview you, too?
R: Well I think the SFAC press release that went out in mid-December of 2012 got people really excited about it. 7×7’s article mentioned the event as one of five big openings to attend and the Bay Guardian just kind of wrote a review – it was in their ‘Best Picks’ section. They looked a little bit at my website too and wrote about my past work.
J: On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the hardest, how hard or easy is it for you to write about your own work? Because I have to say – writing about your work ain’t easy!
R: Ugh, uhm… Probably right in the middle. It gets easier as pieces get older and I’ve talked about them more, but I had a really hard time writing about this work because I was taking risks I hadn’t taken before and using processes that were new to me. While I have been working with fibers and textiles for a while, this was my first time using industrial nylon net, which I made into rigid panels by coating it in marine-grade epoxy – also new to me. I had to do this in such large quantities that I loaded it out the window of my Bed-Stuy apartment to work in the brownstone’s backyard. I also carted a load to D.C. to work in my father’s garage – you make things work. Since everything was constructed in batches and pieces and had to be shipped, I never saw the installation as a whole until it was finally all together the night before the opening. So it really wasn’t until then that I knew what it really was.
J: Whoa, that’s crazy to think about writing about your own work before it’s actually completed, but I guess artists have to do it all the time. And to make things worse, you’re writing about the work for a press release that is informing the news media, and then they are basically promoting the work that doesn’t exist yet!
R: Yup. But I also think that that’s the way things go at this stage.
J: What do you mean by that? This stage, like, as an emerging artist?
R: Maybe. The SFAC is an organization with a citywide presence and the press takes an interest in the shows it produces. I think that showing at venues like these means that having something published before the project is complete becomes more and more important. I’m not trying to compare myself to someone famous or anything, but take Ann Hamilton for example: she had a huge performance installation at the Armory this fall and banners were made to hang around New York City long before the project went up. I would have to imagine that the details were not all finalized when those banners went to print.
J: Speaking of Ann Hamilton, she’s obviously got to be a huge influence for your work.
R: I’m definitely inspired by her ‘antique aesthetic’ and the way she deals with how politically charged textiles are. I was looking at a lot of her work while making the big rope installation, Torqued Ellipse (After Richard Serra), but I’m kind over that whole thing. For the SFAC installation, I really wanted to change things up. The new work was definitely inspired by Katharina Gross’ huge MassMOCA installation from 2010, One Floor Up More Highly. I’d love to work as large as both of them one day.
J: Can you share some ideas that were present from the start of the project and then some that emerged post-press release?
R: I guess this project, like a lot of my work, started with the idea of self-containment. I’m thinking about the ways in which we place limitations on ourselves.
J: You mean like self-control? “I’m only going to have one more cupcake.”
R: Sure. This project in particular kind of took on a more global or geologic perspective. It was definitely informed by human practices around climate change, but in a more general way, it’s talking about our attempts to contain that which doesn’t want to be contained. These crates – or what should I call them – these box forms are trying to hold on to pounds and pounds of salt, but it’s a ridiculous task because it’s pouring out of the net. It’s futile. I guess the other side of the installation deals with the opposite extreme: trying to hold on to something so tight that you lose access to it, like the plastic bladders of water that are wrapped in net, and then wrapped in another layer of net – it’s this precious resource nobody can even get to.
J: Just like the space – no one can get inside.
R: Yeah, I think that’s sort of a cool thing about it.
J: That I can’t go inside?
R: Well, that the installation is all about limitations and barriers with its human-sized net ‘cages’ and that the whole viewing experience makes you very aware of the fact that there is the barrier of the window right in front of you. A lot of my past work dealt with that – restricting viewers from moving around the work and making them very self-aware. So I kind of think it’s cool that the structure of the show does that for me.
J: Once you did get into the space to install the work, what new ideas started to emerge? Like, what were some things that you could have included in the press release if this weird statement-deadline-before-art-is-completed-issue wasn’t an issue?
R: There were a lot of surprises. I had totally misremembered how the ceilings were.
J: Uh oh!
R: Well, you have to be prepared for unknowns, and I was. But, I had to hang each of the elements individually with string, and so the strings became a major part of the piece.
J: Whoa! I thought that was such a signature Rachel Mica Weiss moment – funny how that happens.
R: The shadows also became really interesting. I adjusted the lighting to try to amplify them. Usually I find intense shadows to be kind of gimmicky, but I felt like they really worked in this space because the shadows made it seem like the net was taking over the room and climbing up the walls.
J: So a lot of surprises regarding technical specifications. Were there any surprises regarding concept or theory or philosophy? Did you discover the meaning of life?
R: Well, I think that the addition of the strings added this layer of precariousness to the whole installation, this sense that everything in the room was sort of artificially held in place and could come crashing down at any moment. During the public conversation about the work, someone commented that they were really anxiety-inducing, so I guess I viewed that as a plus. Hurricane Sandy also happened while I was in the process of making everything back in Brooklyn and so that added a new dimension to the concepts around self-entrapment and vulnerability.
J: With a project that big, I gotta ask: did you have any help?
R: Ha, my God, yes. I really have to give a shout out to my fiancé, Taylor, who is a tireless studio companion.
J: That’s so sweet!
R: He actually made half of the black forms. And then when I was in San Francisco installing, Pete Hickok, Josh Band, and Evan Adams – who makes awesome music by the way – all helped out and I couldn’t have done it without them.
J: That was a beautiful Oscar acceptance speech.
J: What was it like to work between New York and San Francisco?
R: It really defined what I made. In the past, I’d been working with really huge, heavy material but I knew I had to fill this 400 sq. ft. space and had to be able to ship the work. I had to think from the beginning about working with something light and airy.
J: Exactly the opposite of a lot of the work I’ve seen you make when you lived in San Francisco.
R: I couldn’t be pushing around shopping carts full of granite rocks. But I still love working with heavy material. Once I landed in San Francisco for my install, I was able to pick up 500 pounds of salt at Costco and fill up the water bladders which I had custom-made in Australia, so I got my heavy fix.
J: How did you get chosen to show at SFAC in the first place?
R: Meg saw this huge rope/cave/sculpture I made for the Murphy and Cadogan Fellowship show in 2011. So when she saw that piece, she thought that something thematically similar would work well in the window site.
J: Oh right, I was not nominated for that fellowship, so thanks for bringing that up.
R: Oh, sorry Jeffrey. People fly you around the country to hear you talk though, so that’s something.
R: This show coincides with the last show in the SFAC’s main gallery space before the Veteran’s Building undergoes a huge renovation. I thought it would be appropriate to keep working with ideas around loss and transition.
J: Because you’re my friend, I know I can say this to you: when I hear about an artist working with “loss, and transition,” I get really sad and I want to know how bad their childhood was.
R: [laughing]. Um, if you want me to say my childhood was bad, I can say that, but it was actually really good, though I did grow up in two homes.
J: Damn it, I thought I knew everything. But really, those are some intense concepts! Do you think your audiences read those broad ideas?
R: I guess I don’t usually talk about my work in such broad brush strokes but the piece does deal with that transition between two states – the gallery is literally divided into two camps – and I think that the black crates, empting their salt onto the floor definitely address loss in a broad way. I guess the work is really about so many intertwined concepts.
J: That’s the curse of media, right? In a way, one wants to be written about, but there’s so little information in text when it’s supplementing a visual work of art.
R: What I strive for is for a piece to have multiple resonances with the audience. Those themes happen to be the general themes that underlie the past three years of my artwork, but a lot of different bodies of work were made during that time period. They all have specific complexities.
J: No pun intended but do you see any specific string that ties everything together?
J: Do you have a signature thing you like to work with?
R: Oh, totally. I’d say that most of my work involves fibers of some kind, or it uses or refers to a textile process.
J: Do you make scarves?
R: Yes, but generally not.
J: Have you heard of Etsy?
R: Yeah, that’s not really my jam. Even though I started getting into textiles through weaving, I’m probably a horrible weaver. My work now just kinda messes with that process – interrupts it somehow.
J: Okay, and the cohesive string in terms of themes. Are restriction and emptiness everywhere in the Rachel Mica Weiss oeuvre?
R: Not necessarily.
Rachel Mica Weiss exhibits her artwork, Engulfing the Elusory, at the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Gallery at 155 Grove Street through April 27, viewable 24/7. You can view her other artworks at www.rachelmicaweiss.com.
I’ve been part of an EU endeavor called City (Re)Searches. It started in Kaunas Lithuania, went on to Cork, and last month was for four days in Belfast; in June it will return to Kaunas and conclude in Rotterdam two years from its start. Yet the initiation of this program was years before in the planning and it will continue, no doubt, in independent and intersecting ways for years to come. This is because City (Re)Searches is an undertaking that, as researchers, we fold into the stream of our already conscious and highly developed practices, and will incorporate into the evolving discourses in which we participate.
Each meeting is framed and informed by being in the place it occurs.
The exchange in Belfast was dedicated to the topic of cultural agency at this time of social and economic change in Ireland (and we can say worldwide) that is also creating new contexts for culture and creativity. As a team of 15—artists, curators, arts administrators, social service organizers—we each come at culture in a different way.
So it was not surprising that co-researcher Ciaran Smyth, whose training is in philosophy, drew from Greg Sholette’s Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (NY: Pluto Press, 2011) in one of the presentations. We, as this author evokes, represent a mixture inside and outside the art world, working in the dark and in the light, each holding varying definitions of art and having aesthetic persuasions that can even be uncomfortable for each other. Still, as a group, we share the sense that culture and creativity have the potential to challenge and influence the outcome of our times—and that’s the beauty of the “curating” job done by organizer Ed Carroll in assembling this working/thinking group.
Sholette’s dark matter, he says, is “the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society,” and “is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture-the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators, and arts administrators.” It “includes makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized practices….” Still it seems to me that this author is defining another, alternative art world. What about the world? What did Bucky tell us? “Start with the universe.” That would be apt beginning for his astrophysical allusion.
In focusing on cultural labor, Sholette pulls in the concept of “the good life.” He offers the example of the Berlin-based art and media collective Kleines Postfordistisches Drama (KPD), who created a fictional “sociological” documentary about creative industry workers just like themselves. Their conclusion: “Based on actual responses, the project reveals Berlin’s creative workers trapped in their own feeble expectations about a “good life.”
But what about the good life? In Belfast we were sharing time with a range of people who trusted us enough to articulate actual responses out loud, telling us and each other what was good and what was not in their life, and speculating on how culture might make it better. No one thought what they had to say would be feeble.
The Belfast conversation was not just about supporting enrichments or extending access to entertainment, though these ways of experiencing culture were there, too: from classes to community care programs to opera to technology. But it was also about imagining a wider narrative that can enable a realization of the part we each play—not divided into dark and light matter—and one where the possibility of everyone’s own agency can come into the foreground. This is maybe not always result in changing the world, but it can lead to life well lived.
Cultural agency is not dependant on artists, though their way of seeing and practicing can offer moments of insight and real vision. One thing we know well in Chicago is that by working in collaboration, participating in making culture, we have agency in the world. This cultural agency is about self and collective determination.
But in Belfast it seemed important to bear in mind that we all have agency when we are conscious of being in the dynamic process that is life. It’s human pursuit we share, not just an art pursuit that artists undertake or invite us to participate in. While artists can make this process their art, this way of being is available to any of us. We all share with artists this way of being, if we care and are invested in the making and living of life. By living what we believe, through our work and life, be it art or something else, we give form to our beliefs and communicate them to others. That’s agency.
The theme of cultural agency for Belfast was proposed by team member Niall Crowley, former chief executive of the Irish Equality Authority because this concept is at the heart of the City (Re)Searches initiative. As the active element of culture, agency focuses “our attention on issues of power and status as well as on issues of practice and action,” noted Crowley. But as researchers, we are not, as Sholette outs it, “cultural producers, as role models for society, [who] join with other social movements to work towards new forms of globalization?” Rather we are listeners with the belief that, by working from a position that everyone has cultural agency, we can change the inequality that exists today in regard to whose cultural agency is exercised and valued.
We are familiar with social art practice’s ability to provoke reconsideration of the way things are and seek change. Ireland has its exemplars, too. We see this spirit, for instance, in the five-year effort of artist Seamus McGuinness who, with psychiatrist Kevin Malone, has worked with 102 families throughout Ireland who have lost family members to suicide. Their “Lived Lives” project was so much about the future that they are continuing this work and in some ways, I am sure, they will do so all their lives.
We see it in the life’s work of Marie Barrett who continually turns the earth that is Donegal. She understands the depth of this place, land and sea. She listens to the citizens who co-inhabit her birthplace and home, and she enables them to share their stories both beautifully and resonantly, to understand and make known what it is be of and in this place now and into the future.
To enact such a short-term, yet alive moment of critical and incisive dimension in Belfast, Jeanne van Heeswijk, artist and team member, proposed an emergency pop-up structure for the public discussions; this structure will follow us around to next sites.
It became the setting for researchers and community participants to engage a debate on who are the cultural agents in our society, what is the purpose of this agency, and what future developments are required for equality in cultural agency.
As the sole researcher from outside the EU, it strikes me that City (Re)Searchers is a rare privilege, all the more remarkable because the outcomes are open-ended and not pre-determined. In projects like this (and there aren’t many), there is a sense of trust on the part of funders and participants that something of value will be learned, even if the lines of process are nearly always blurred and become convoluted, take dead-end tangents. But then this is a path of true discovery.
It is also an act of trust among the researchers. Curiously, this is something we find we have to continually reaffirm to ourselves; even if trust is our oft-recited mantra to the communities we work with in our individual ways. We who are often the organizers of others are finding that we are in need of arriving at a way of working with each other, bringing our strategies together and yet setting them aside, balancing pragmatics and poetics. It’s a matter of trust in the making and in the waiting.
A couple days ago, while sitting with the illustrious Duncan Mackenzie, Richard Holland, and Claudine Ise, recording some musings on Chicago art at a bar in the middle of the afternoon, we started to talk about the tradition of socially engaged art in Chicago. I talk about this a lot, especially trying to figure out how to explain it to my students at University of Illinois at Chicago, where I co-teach a class introducing the subject with my colleague Faheem Majeed. I’ve been thinking lately about how to distinguish, at least for myself personally, what I think is good or bad or boring or exciting or challenging socially engaged art, a very murky field. When judging that kind of work, as I’ve talked about previously on this blog, what interests me is that socially engaged art struggles to address the world outside the world of art. And with that comes a struggle for the artist to engage not only in what kind of artist they want to be in the world, but also what kind of person they want to be. Thus presents a complicated dilemma, because oftentimes it feels like to judge this kind of work also always includes a judgment on how ethical we perceive the artist as a person to be. And so trying to avoid the trap of deciding who I think is the best person or the most righteous (because really, socially engaged art should have the license to upend our perceptions and not always make the world a better place), I’ve been leaning towards the idea of compasses as a way of getting me somewhere out of the quagmire. I mean compass as a sort of aspirational mechanism, wherein a constellation of people, projects, and places provide for me a navigational tool for a world off in the distance that I want to get to. Like for instance, Laurie Jo Reynolds is a compass, because she along with tons of other people spent years trying to close Tamms Supermax prison, and they did it and that is completely amazing. And the beautiful process by which that came to be drew on a set of aesthetic strategies that made it art, not only because it was creative activism, but because it also created a space for speculation, for not-knowing, for metaphor and poetry. Tamms Year Ten is a readily available example because of all that was accomplished, but there are a host of others operating at different scales, both historically and today. And other folks, who shall remain nameless, are just not creating a world I want to be part of because they don’t think about the aesthetic experience or they have lazy politics or the artist thinks its about the social world, but by that they just mean the art world, because its all they really think about. I’m working on articulating this, but it’s a start.
And when I start thinking about compasses, I believe I’m also speaking of narrative. The process by which we encounter the world as it is and speak of how to transform it is a space of art, but capturing that process is a difficult thing. It cannot often be brought to life after the fact without a good story attached.
This last Monday, Julie Ault came to speak at SAIC, mostly about a creative archiving practice that spans the last 32 years. In 2010, her edited version of Group Material’s seventeen year history (of which she was a founding member) came out in the form of Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material. In the text, she’s found a way to create a compelling portrait of a long and complex collaborative process, rather than a theorized history, zoomed out from above. Documentation of their projects is interwoven with minutes of meetings, polemics, ranting about collaboration, internal disagreements; all of this to assert the primacy of their voices and a ground level vantage point, situating readers in the time of the projects. A micro-culture gets revealed and what we theorize with a backward view to context and circumstance gets complicated by interjections and digressions that resist a single vantage point. The story is the complexity of collaboration, the struggle with institutional legitimation and the exploration of artistic forms, most notably in their practice of exhibition-making as a kind of artwork.
The multiple viewpoints, the many different takes on a situation, the resistance to one kind of narration, is the struggle to how to understand participatory, socially engaged work. What this brings to mind, in this riff on orientation and documentation and archiving, is the fact that Mess Hall will close on March 31 after a ten year run. Mess Hall formed in 2003 when a landlord in Chicago was prompted to supply a storefront in the Rogers Park neighborhood free of charge after reading an article in the New York Times mentioning Chicago-based Temporary Services. Thus began a space for “visual art, radical politics, creative urban planning, and applied ecological design” in which no money was allowed to change hands. Its many keyholders have hosted a local and international socially engaged creative community as well as potlucks, free stores and seminars on participatory budgeting with the district’s Alderman. It was a welcoming-and-kooky-and-homey-and-sometimes-dogmatic-but-mostly-not-and really-just-all-over-the-place space. I remember in 2008, when this amazing weekend symposium happened called “What we know of our past, what we demand of our future,” organized by Brett Bloom and Bonnie Fortune, where a group I am involved with, InCUBATE, was invited to stage our project Sunday Soup, which involved selling soup for money that would go towards a creative project grant. But since the rules of no money changing hands was so strict, we had to sell our soup out on the sidewalk and it was January so, obviously, absolutely freezing to be out there. I also met Nato Thompson that weekend, which led to me working for a summer at Creative Time, and we ended up hosting Sunday Soup at the exhibition Democracy in America with Robin Hewlett and Material Exchange and meeting tons of people which in many ways spurred the Sunday Soup network on its way.
Last Saturday I went to one of their closing events, The Material Production of Cultural Spaces, which featured speakers on “exploring practical models for building counter-institutions that are non-commercial, consensual and community driven. Guest speakers will offer concise presentations on the labor, tactics, skills and monetary investments required to forge/forage alternative cultural spaces in Chicago.” One of those speakers was Sara Black, narrating the experience of the now defunct Backstory Café and Social Center in Hyde Park. And she spoke of Backstory much in the same way as these projects I’ve mentioned: complicated, messy, beautiful collaborations, speculative at the same time as concerned with real world applications. (Robin Hewlett speaks of this as well in her essay “Small Business as an Artistic Medium.”)I went there frequently, I was close with the organizers, and hearing something that you’ve lived through (even vicariously) spoken of through a narrative creates a jarring nostalgia and I’m sure brings up complicated memories for all that were involved. But the only way to really hear and feel and understand what was important about that place is through listening to its story, because you cannot have the affective experience of standing in that place, with those people, at that time. I often feel this sort of inside/outside dilemma of narration and storytelling when explaining some of my own experiences like closing the InCUBATE storefront in 2010. The more I tell that story, the more it is told using the same words and the same pictures, which feels a little sad but I know I’m lucky that people actually care about it too. Ault talked about this as well, that for a long time she and Doug Ashford (another founding member) thought that the best way to keep Group Material’s voice present was to narrate the experience in person rather than through a set text. I imagine that archiving one’s own experience is overwhelming, grappling with a long, formative, contentious group history that doesn’t want to go silently into the archive.
I really am going to miss Mess Hall. I say that with unabashed sentimentality. It will remain a compass for me because of its messiness, its utopian promise, its desire to be so wholly other than the typical art institution and outside the market, and because its sweet belief that social and economic justice could exist coterminously with a desire to be an ethical, socially-engaged culture-maker. Go see them before they close, the final party is on Friday, March 29. As they say: Join us for our final gathering in the space. We will say our farewells with a parade, a key-tossing ceremony and a night-long party. The current key-holders do not wish to leave the space alone. We will leave it as we found it: together.
PS: Never the Same is doing a free seminar this summer on archiving Chicago’s politically and socially engaged history, their call for participation is here!
I received my second speeding ticket in six months last week in Wisconsin. He got me on a long, well traveled straight away and pulled me over right in front of the school where I teach. Several of my students gave me thumbs up as they walked by.
“Do you know how fast you were going, sir?”
“Probably about thirty-five.”
“Thirty-six. Do you know what the speed limit on National Avenue is?”
“Based on your head being in my window, I’m guessing less than that.”
I honestly assumed it was 35. Anywhere but Wisconsin it would be 45.
With a look of righteous contempt that should be reserved only for scumbags trafficking teenagers inside elephant tusks, he said, “Twen-tee Five.”
He left my window abruptly and came back 20 minutes later with a ticket and a sanctimonious lecture about traffic safety.
Indignant, I told him he was being petty and probably confusing a professional obligation with something more elevated. I asked if he was clocking on National Ave. because of a particular hazard or simply because people were flouting the rules. If no one was getting hurt, I told him, it might be speed limit issue rather than a public safety issue.
None of this pleased him very much, and he threatened to give me a ticket for not getting a Wisconsin license within four months of moving to the state. I barely wiggled out of it by convincing him that I maintained two legal residences.
Once again, the letter of the law prevailed over the spirit.
As you could glean from passages in my last 20-some posts, I’ve identified a certain abiding love of order, routine and uniformity in my Wisconsin community. Rules and laws such as speed limits often turn from tools to achieve positive ends into ends themselves. And the love of order and uniformity makes it hard to identify different cultural tribes as one can might in New York. Any Cedarburgian, from the pastor to the sculptor sports something like Kohls issue business casual, making it difficult to tell who’s who. Walk down Orchard Street in New York on a Saturday and easily separate the artists from NYU students, from bankers, from urchins, from tourists. Heck, separate the painters from the sculptors from the performers.
This is an overstatement for the sake of argument, of course, but to the degree that it sticks, the Balkanized culture is almost too diffuse to support an avant-garde in the truest sense of the term – the Avant in NYC can’t identify the derriere to push off. As a result, there are a thousand separate avant-gardes, each busy fighting private revolutions.
In Wisconsin it seems there’s still a normative culture for vanguard to push against: i.e. cops straight from central casting preaching about public safety. Armies of people hitting the town on Friday night for hot wings and pizza because Indian food is too strange. Many, many painters of elk.
With this in mind, I felt sort of Bohemian when I first landed in Cedarburg. I felt like Picasso working in my own private La Bateau-Lavoir in the backyard, the adjacent Lutheran church my Sacre Coeur. So it was surprising to me when my attempts to engage the local art scene in Milwaukee proved so difficult. After setting up my studio, I sent out a few casual emails to some curators and artists suggesting studio visit swaps, meetings for coffee, or whatever. All real casual. All stuff I do routinely in New York. People solicit me. I solicit others. Everyone solicits everyone, and it the end we drink lots of coffee and beer and share art and ideas about art.
I recently reread an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from last year, called “Making a Scene: Milwaukee’s Avant-Garde.” It describes a vibrant and energetic community where:
“Cheerfully unorganized, maverick artists found inspiration and an audience first in each other. A playful amateurism prevailed, as artists embraced their obscurity, understanding both the freedoms and limitations that are part of being set apart from the larger art world.”
That was the scene I sought when I sent out those casual emails. Thinking about the futility made me recall a moment years ago as a gallery director when I threw away a submission of images from Coral Gables, Florida. The gallery owner told me to pitch it, and it made me feel a little shallow and sad. We might have taken a look it was from Brooklyn, but the truth was, we rarely received good unsolicited packets, and never from Gables Florida. Our time was limited; we were just playing the numbers.
So now I’m Coral Gables. I’m a painter with a studio in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, home to caramel apple shops, hair salons, and people who crinkle their noses at falafel, far removed from that community of maverick artists who forged their own private avant-garde in Milwaukee. An avant-garde, which, like all avant-gardes, needs a milieu and a derriere to shove off. And it sucks to be the rear end, even if it’s only part-time.
Sometimes it makes me just want to hop into my car and drive 100 miles-an-hour all the way to back to Brooklyn…but I can’t now, because if I get three more points on my license they’ll take it away…and then I’d be forced to stay in New York for good.
It’s been a busy week on the blog and I continue to be surprised and giddy about B@S’ content. Somehow this little blog manages to traverse fields from Chicago stomping grounds, to Kansas City, Royal Oak Michigan, to the nuance of kitsch, job fairs, the debut of a comics column (you know, instead of the Sunday funnies). What could be better indeed?
OK — Maybe a desert island with dolphins, or more simply an hour of sleep but I always believe you got to work with what you have, and Chicago, baby, you got a whole lot of talent and whole lot of heart.
This week Jereiah Hildwine gave us a couple insider tips about CAA, including “…the dirty little secret most people don’t know about the CAA conference before their first time attending: You don’t need to register for the conference to attend the professional development stuff or go into the Interview Hall.” In addition to hearing about performing maleness, street styles outside of SAIC’s BFA show, and John Neff’s artist talk at the Ren, I also learned about a tumbler for all thinks pink and clever; all courtesy of Edition #4 of Dana Bassett’s T.
Anthony Romero and Johannes Göransson have continued to discuss kitsch, the foreigner and whether or not it applies to ASCO — a 70s/80s Chicano performance group. The discussion is something I’ve been especially appreciative of, given that each author makes good points, articulating their disagreements while struggling with the nuance of language. Can “kitsch” — a category of cultural production so quickly dismissed by the mainstream — enjoy supreme freedom because of its marginalization? How do we discuss and examine the foreigner? Is the foreigner a semantic category that defines a state of “otherness?” Or is it about one person immigrating elsewhere? Perhaps the latter can’t shed the former (can it?) without overriding a history of oppression (is that the danger?). Then the question is who is a foreigner to whom in the case of the Chicano and the American? Shouldn’t the American be the foreigner? As a population that arrived her from elsewhere? Romero responds to Göransson’s first B@S post here. Göransson replies to Romero here. I enjoyed the flow of discourse, benefitting tremendously from the difficulties these authors articulate.
I should add, as a somewhat personal aside, that such moments exemplify, for me, the best aspects of community. Community is accidental and easy when everyone gets along and agrees. It can start to feel oppressive, if room isn’t made for disagreement. The alternative is much harder, more interesting, and dynamic: to be part of a group that allows for differences of opinion, a group that is nevertheless invested in discussing those differences. What a feat! Especially if courtesy remains throughout. For me, courtesy signifies the desire for a productive discussion — which is its necessary own challenge. We aren’t going to like everything that everyone else does, if for no other reason than because we are a large, confounding group with nebulous parts. (I’m not just talking about B@S either, I mean more generally — Chicago’s art world, the larger more general art world, the larger more general world). I’m probably making too much of this, but I was so psyched to see a discourse emerge between posts, especially one with such high stakes. Such instances make me braver in my own voice, just as they make me more likely to trust this idea of “community” that we all love to fall back on.
Jamilee Polson Lacy posted about Kansas City, and went on the record to say “Kansas City, in my opinion, is a sentimental place.” Lacy goes on to say, “the arts scene in KC has seen lately a confluence of presentations demonstrating artists’ longing for many pasts, presents and futures.” She contextualizes this longing with ”KC-based fiction writer Annie Fischer’s 2012 essay, ‘Wish You Were Here,’ which somehow, amazingly, sums up all of these wild ideas.” So. Check it out.
Mystery blogger, Thomas Friel, appears on the scene! That is to say, I’ve never met Friel and have yet to communicate with him (Friel, if you’re reading this! Consider it a message in a bottle and email me! I love your posts!) — : this week Friel sort of accidentally rescued Friday. You know, I try and set something up to post every day, and a couple things fell through so I figured Friday would get a pass, but no! Lo! When I visited the blog on Saturday morning, I came to find Friel’s essay about Butter Projects’ Valentine’s show in Royal Oak, MI. “Already, this is a better take on the Valentine themed art exhibit. Curated by Alison Wong, “I Like You and I Together,” on view until March 16, allows our experience with love to be the biggest thing in the room, in the air around us instead of plastered on the walls.”
Stephanie Burke’s Top 5, (need I say more?)
Saturday opened up with a great book review by Terri Griffith on Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. In Griffith’s words, ”Halberstam (see Gaga Feminism), introduces us to alternative ways of viewing failure, as perhaps an expression of rebellion or as means to resist mainstream America’s pressure to conform.” What if, by rejecting the society’s endowment of legitimacy, one can achieve a new sense of freedom (and perhaps shift societal paradigms and hierarchies). It’s maybe not so different from the Timothy Leary Tune in Drop out, though I suppose we are wiser and smarter now?
Brit Barton posted some ENDLESS OPPORTUNITIES (though, #alas, in case any of you were holding your breath, there weren’t any listing for free beachfront condos).
Last but certainly not least: that new take on Sunday Funnies by Sara Drake. Drake introduces her series and gives a top 3 list of her own:
1. Aidan Koch’s gorgeous book,The Blonde Woman, was created with assistance from a Xeric Grant and was originally released online via The Study Group Magazinewebsite. I recommend reading it all in one sitting if possible.
2. The New York Times recently published a mini-comic by C.F. called Face It.
3. Cartoonist, Brian Chippendale made an animated music video out of flip-books he drew as a kid. There’s a dragon and eyeball bombs in it – need I say more?Black Pus – 1000 Years