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
Matt Wolf is a non-fiction filmmaker whose work finds inspiration and subject matter in the lives and work of other artists. His debut feature film, Wild Combination, profiled the elusive musician Arthur Russell. Russell’s prolific recordings (mostly unreleased and in continual flux) and performances ranged from minimalist new music to disco to country-tinged power pop in his too short life. Through a variety of recent releases of these lost and found gems over the past half-decade and Wolf’s poignant, sensitive documentary, Russell’s profile has raised.
I absolutely adore Arthur Russell and was ecstatic to see Wolf’s documentary when it made its way around the festival circuit in 2008. Documentaries about artists, to my eye, are rarely successful at generating the heat and intensity of their subjects. Perhaps conventional logic dictates that the documentarian’s duty is to present the material in a straight-forward and information-driven mode. The very impulses toward idiosyncrasy, subjectivity and innovation that drive the work of these artists are often lost in the translation to a different context.
Wolf’s work is vital because of the care he takes to ensure that his formal, conceptual and aesthetic decisions reflect—though subtly—the works and lives of his subjects. The pacing is delicate and deliberate without feeling slow. The shared emphases on biography, work and social context entwine to produce fleeting documents of artists who have passed but whose influence still grows.
I Remember, which was released last year, profiles the artist and poet Joe Brainard. Brainard is best known for his poem cycle of the same name and for his work in collage, painting and assemblage. For the piece, Wolf has constructed his own collage of found footage and archival images of Brainard with a swirling conversation between a recording of Brainard’s own reading of I Remember and the poet Ron Padgett offering a very personal biography of his best friend.
Wild Combination is available on DVD and iTunes. I Remember will screen at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Images Festival soon and can be streamed online or rented through Video Data Bank. Wolf’s latest film, Teenage, premieres this April at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Because it seems a good a place to begin as any, I’m hoping you might tell us a bit about your background—where you grew up and were educated, the types of jobs you’ve held to help you make work and, most important, your evolution as an artist. When did you realize you wanted to make films? Did you begin by being in bands or making paintings or was filmmaking always the goal?
I grew up in San Jose, California. I was a teenage gay activist, and I thought that I’d grow up to work in politics. I was on Good Morning America, lobbying my legislatures and stuff like that, but I also wanted to be an artist. I got obsessed with ‘90s queer independent films and directors like Todd Haynes and Derek Jarman. And then I started discovering video art and experimental films by people like Sadie Benning and Kenneth Anger. I was inspired to become a filmmaker, so I enrolled in film school at NYU.
It didn’t really occur to me how traditional and industry-oriented NYU would be. But I stuck it out, and eventually had the filmmaker Kelly Reichardt as a professor, which was really inspiring. During college, I got involved in the art world. I was writing art reviews for magazines, and most of my friends were visual artists. So when I finished school, I worked in a painter and video artist’s studio. Slowly I got some opportunities to make short documentaries about artists first for the public art organization Creative Time, and later for the New York Times. It was around this time that I started making my first feature Wild Combination.
My first experience with your work was through Wild Combination. Arthur Russell’s music has long meant the world to me and I was excited that someone had chosen to make a film about his life. To me, one of the most effective strategies in the film is your use of time-specific camera and media formats for your “reenactment” shots. Be-walkmaned Arthur on the ferry is shot on VHS tape, while Iowa is captured in luscious super-8. More so than the interviews, these moments tie us to the spaces, places and feelings of those periods. Can you talk a bit about the process of creating those reenactments? Do you, in your own mode of remembering (and as a filmmaker), see your own past in such aestheticized forms?
Making “fake archival footage” is one of my main filmmaking interests. I love working with found footage, but I like creating my own vintage-looking material too. My new film Teenage, which is coming out this Spring is a pretty expansive look at the birth of youth culture. In the film, I’ve made recreations that are shot in the style of period home movies. I shot scenes with vintage 16mm camera bodies and uncoated lenses, used experimental printing techniques to further degrade the footage, and then even organically got dust, scratches, and dirt on the films. Viewers shouldn’t necessarily be able to identify this stuff as original, staged footage. A lot of people will think it is archival.
The first moving images I ever saw of Arthur Russell were these de-saturated, extreme close up shots of him performing cello. They were shot on an old VHS format. I knew that was the material, texture, and feeling I wanted my film Wild Combination to have. I’m always trying to make films that have a cohesive form to them, even if I’m drawing on eclectic material. The recreations I film are a kind of visual glue that tie all the elements together.
Arthur Russell didn’t have immense media exposure from which you could draw footage, but there are numerous tapes of him performing that could be utilized. To what degree was the film shaped around the footage you were able to find? Were there scenes you were unable to include but that demonstrated something about Arthur you wanted to show? Also, I was struck by how many of the credits for this footage belonged to other legendary downtown figures (Phil Niblock, Jean Dupuy). This shouldn’t be too surprising considering where they were shot or his audience, but I’m curious if this lent itself to another kind of collaboration or, at least, an opportunity to reflect on the rhizomatic, entwined structures of artistic community.
There was a tiny amount of documentation of Arthur. If I had been a more experienced filmmaker, I probably would have said there’s not enough archival material to make this film. But that limitation proved to be a really productive challenge for me, and it helped me think more creatively about the filmmaking. It contributes to this sense of mystery about Arthur, the subject who is absent from the film. But really, I’m using every existing filmed recording of Arthur that exists. It was cool going to Phil Niblock’s loft to pick up a VHS tape, and the Kitchen’s archive was very generous in helping me access Jean Dupuy’s wonderful video documentation of Arthur performing “Eli” from the performance event “Soup and Tart.”
Arthur Russell and Joe Brainard share certain similarities. They were both born far from the coasts but found their way to the cities (and New York, in particular) about as quickly as they could. They both operated on the fringes of their particular scenes but were well-loved by their peers and small but devoted audiences. They were both gay and casualties of the AIDS crisis. I’m curious what about these figures (beyond the incredible work they produced) drew you to them.
Lately I’ve been thinking of those two as “gentle gays.” They both had a certain intensity and self-deprecating quality to them, but they also seemed like incredibly sweet people with a sensitive demeanor. I’m really interested in telling the stories and exploring the biographies of artists who died of AIDS. I think a lot about what New York and our world would be like if so many brilliant queer people hadn’t died prematurely. In some senses I imagine myself as a peer to them today.
I’m interested in the artistic inheritances of queer art (in particular from the 1970s to the 1990s) to makers in the present. Because of the tragic ravages of the AIDS crisis, so many of that era’s great makers’ lives ended much too soon. The question is broad and will be necessarily subjective, but I’m hoping you might have some thoughts on these questions of inheritance, lineage and historicization.
This is all stuff I think about a lot. Being queer is an important part of my identity. But often times I don’t really connect to contemporary gay politics. Queer culture from the past is what resonates with me the most. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I know I’m not alone in that feeling.
Regarding these questions of inheritance, there is an incredible book I would recommend: Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind. It’s a memoir about the AIDS crisis and ACT UP movement, and Sarah discusses how AIDS lead to the gentrification of Manhattan. She reflects on gentrification not just as phenomenon in cities, but a phenomenon of consciousness.
I imagine one of the pleasures of making documents/portraits of artists is the chance to interview and work with their peers. Are there artists through whose interviews you’ve felt a particular closeness or whose way of talking about your subject was particularly illuminating? Did the chance to have a relatively narrow topic (one artist) allow for a conversation that touched on other, broader topics (I imagine talking to Philip Glass about Arthur Russell is easier than talking to Philip Glass without a subject at hand)? What sorts of lessons about artistic kinship and community have you learned through these interviews?
I love interviewing people—it’s one of the most stimulating and rewarding aspects of making a documentary. To me a good interview is a two-sided conversation, not just a series of questions. Through my work I’ve met a lot of really interesting artists and thinkers. I believe that any good biography transcends its subjects and is about other cultural histories, or larger ideas. For Wild Combination, the biography was a way for me to also explore the setting of downtown New York in the 1970s and 1980s, the intersections of pop culture and the avant-garde, as well as queer culture and the impact of AIDS.
I Remember is described as “a film about” while Wild Combination is “a portrait of” their subjects. Without dissecting hairs or whatever the phrase is, I’m interested in these small designations. Do you think of these works (and perhaps in contrast to other projects you work on) as being distinct in their processes? Or, perhaps, do you have ways of describing the shift between portrait, document, documentary, essay or non-fiction (or other categories) filmmaking? Are these terms useful in the construction and reception of your work?
Both projects are really portrait films. A portrait isn’t a definitive biography, it’s a selective and artistic treatment of a subject. I didn’t interview everybody that knew Arthur Russell or Joe Brainard—I make focused and somewhat selective choices about how I would present their stories. That’s how I can be specific in my filmmaking rather than general. To me, it’s about making creative non-fiction, rather than straight documentaries.
I Remember was commissioned by Nathan Lee while he was at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies. How did this come about? How does making work as a commission differ from other forms? Did knowing the work would exist in a museum exhibition (I’m assuming) before screening spaces impact the way you made it? Do you consider these works to be collaborations with your subject?
Nathan was really supportive, and gave me free reign to make whatever project I wanted. I had already started the Joe Brainard film, but needed an excuse (and some financial help) to finish it. I was excited about the opportunity to work in a gallery space, and to explore the documentary form in an elliptical, non-linear way. I felt like the structure of Joe’s poem “I Remember” speaks in circles, so it felt right that the film could play that way too. Truth be told, it’s only since screened in festival contexts, so I think it really is perceived more as a self-contained documentary, but I think it works in both contexts.
Your next major project is about teenagers. Can you discuss the project a bit?
Teenage is premiering in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. I worked with the author Jon Savage on the film—it’s inspired by his book of the same name. The film looks at the pre-history of teenagers, and examines youth culture from before WWII. It’s really about the role youth play in shaping the future, and how society oppressed and controlled youth before they were finally recognized as “teenagers.” It’s not a traditional historical film—the entire story is told from the point of view of teenagers. It’s been a major project that I’ve been working on for four years, so I’m excited for it to come out soon.
As the new comics writer for Bad at Sports, I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit debating how to contextualize comics as an art form for the audience of a contemporary arts blog. Writing about comics from an arts perspective is a relatively new development for a medium that has been around since the 1830s. Historically, comics have been meanwhiled into the margins of art and institutional processes of cultural validation. In a not so distant past, it would be unheard of for the managing editor of an arts publication like B@S to devote an entire column to comics criticism (or for the editor herself to be the creator of a superhero comic featuring a lady lead). Comics were certainly not something made in art school or written about in the canons of art history. Declaring to family members that you wanted to tell stories with words and pictures was cause for embarrassment and heartbreak. But things are shifting. When I told my dad in 2009 that I wanted to use my life to make comic books, it was met with a sigh of relief, “Oh good, we thought you were going to be a painter.”
For the purposes of this blog, and as a cartoonist myself, debates about the validity of comics as a medium bore me. This is not to say that as comics become more enveloped in academia or part of the art economy that artists shouldn’t be paying attention. There is a lot of smart and critical media being published that speak to this, such as an essay by cartoonist, Caitlin Cass published last month on Inkt Art. For me, comics were validated as a suitable baseline beat for self-expression the first time I found my dad’s stack of pulp comics in his closet, or the first time I checked out a comic book from the public library, or the first time I created a mini-comic as an art student in 2009. The list continues ad infinitum.
Meanwhile… was originally (and continues to be) an interview series and critical exploration which I began with fellow cartoonist, Krystal DiFronzo. We were tired of comics criticism or attempts at canonization that were not indicative of the dense and diverse artistic communities that we, as creators, are apart of. This column is an extension of that project. Each month I will be highlighting and providing captions to an array of artists and thinkers who take comics and narrative creation as a given for navigating their world(s).
To kick off this series (and to tide readers over until next month) I would like to underscore comics/things available on the web for leisurely perusal. ENJOY!
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 Magazine website. 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
Chicago Artist Resource is teaming up with OtherPeoplesPixels to fund the new Maker Grant, a $3,000 opportunity for Chicago artists who demonstrate a commitment to sustainable artistic practice and career development. The deadline to apply is March 31st.
This grant is open to visual artists who meet the following criteria:
• Artists who can show that they are at a defining moment to achieve growth in their creative and professional careers.
• Artists who demonstrate a strong and active engagement with, and professional commitment to, their artistic practice.
• Artists whose work as cultural makers impacts the development of art and culture in a meaningful way.
Applicants must be:
• A U.S. citizen or legal resident
• A resident of the Chicagoland region
• At least 21 years old
• NOT currently enrolled in a degree-granting program or its equivalent
• NOT an applicant or collaborator on more than one proposed project
Submissions are evaluated by a jury of three professional peers from Chicago’s leading cultural institutions as well as a representative from Chicago Artists Coalition and OtherPeoplePixels.
The 2013-2014 jury will be announced mid-March
• March 31 (midnight): Application due
• April 1-15: Jury Deliberates
• Mid to late April: Announce Finalist/Awardee
more application info can be found here
As always – Good Luck!
I feel an affinity toward the word failure. As a member of Generation X, the words loser and slacker have been historically used as general-purpose descriptive terms to define people of my generation. Of course, this characterization ultimately did not end up being the whole of the story, as is true for every generation before and to follow. But still, the concept of failure is deeply embedded in those born in the shadow of the Baby Boomers. In The Queer Art of Failure Judith Halberstam, who also writes under the name J. Jack 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. Halberstam writes in the introduction entitled “Low Theory” : “From the perspective of feminism, failure has often been a better bet than success. Where feminine success is always measured by male standards, and gender failure often means being relieved of the pressure to measure up to patriarchal ideas, not succeeding at womanhood can offer unexpected pleasures.” Through this feminist lens the book examines contemporary art and pop culture looking for places of resistance within popular texts. “This resistance,” writes Halberstam, “takes the form of investing in counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure and stupidity.” (See the chapter “Dude, Where’s My Phallus” for a discussion of the charmingness of male stupidity.)
Chapter One, “Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation” introduces the idea that childhood itself is a queer state wherein children are “disorderly,” and that if you “believe that children need training, you assume and allow for the fact that they are always already anarchic and rebellious, our of order, and out of time.” It is within this framework that Halberstam undertakes the discussion of contemporary animated children’s films such as Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and Monsters, Inc and positions these films as Marxist texts of revolt. Halbertam credits new methods of animation, CGI in particular, as the catalyst for this form of storytelling. Halberstam calls these films “‘Pixarvolt’ i
n order to link the technology to the thematic focus.” That these tales of insurgency and escape appeal to children is not surprising, but that these same films offer an alternative, queer, utopian vision of the future to adult viewers, is. Just re-watch Chicken Run and re-consider the ending of the films where “the all-female society of chickens allows for unforeseen feminist implications to this utopian fantasy.”
One of the things I like best about Halberstam’s books is that contemporary art is always included in the discussion of more general contemporary culture. In a Queer Time and Place and Female Masculinity are good examples of this. The chapter “The Queer Art of Failure,” includes a discussion of both the process of art-making and the works themselves. Looking at queer culture through the lens of failure was surprisingly revealing. Halberstam says, “[for Quentin] Crisp, as for an artist such as Andy Warhol, failure presents an opportunity rather than a dead end; in true camp fashion, the queer artist works with rather than against failure and inhabits the darkness. Indeed the darkness becomes a crucial part of a queer aesthetic.” Transgressive fiction and art have always appealed to my sensibility. In fact, I divide my life into before High Risk books and after. Undeniably, this genre is dominated by self-defined queers. I have read critiques that dismiss the whole lot of them as bitter and angry. While I agree that this work is often bitter and angry, that does not seem to be the motivating factor for creation of the work. It is Halberstam’s discussion of darkness as a queer place, that led me to better understand work I have already loved for decades, and helped me to see more recent work in a new light.
Included in the text are glossy color plates as well as some black-and-white images peppered throughout. My favorite of the included works are two photographs from the series Fourth, by Tracey Moffatt. Moffatt had been considered for a position as the official photographer for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and though this did not come to pass, it sparked her interested in the way we talk about winning, and the ramifications of fame and celebrity. Her series Fourth, shows athletes as they discover they have come in fourth place at the Olympics. These athletes, whose names we will never remember, came so close to earning a medal, but failed epically. Perhaps even a worse failure than coming in last.
The Queer Art of Failure is a surprisingly fun read, and more than once I laughed out loud, which is a pretty unusual response to a Queer Theory text. It is also one of the most accessible books on Queer Art Theory that I’ve read, if accessibility is one of your criterion. Halberstam is my favorite theorist and excels pulling challenging ideas from the least challenging material. Halbertam is most successful introducing new ideas and applying them to popular culture. Perhaps less successful is Halberstam’s follow-through. But then again, So what?
The Queer Art of Failure, by Judith Halberstam
Duke University Press