The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.
– Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!
Here are five books I read this month, and pictures of three more. An asterisk means the book (or zine) came out less than 365 days ago. (The green polish is Selena Gomez Nicole by Opi. I don’t own the bottle but I did bonk my thumb running for the #18, and a nice lady at the library let me do a touch-up. The silver is Wet n Wild.)
October 3, 2013 · Print This Article
This summer I visited slow gallerys’ group show, Rehearsal Attire. It was an exhibit about painting and something about what slow’s Director Paul Hopkin said has stuck to my ribs. Hopkin talked about how many Chicago painters created flat canvases, with a picture plane that stands parallel to the viewer, suggesting this predisposition might have something to do with our immediate landscape — the way we live in a flatland, on urban streets crowded with buildings. By comparison Southwestern painters are prone to pictures with expansive skies and topographical landscapes stretching indefinitely out. Hopkin admitted that conversations like that — about horizon lines and abstraction — led Fischer and Hopkin to organize Rehearsal Attire together. In this case, however, landscapes were not expressly present, nor limitless topographies. Rather, Fisher’s abstract paintings hung alongside Meg Duguid, Mindy Rose Schwartz and Charles Fogarty. Duguid disassembled a wall in the gallery and packed it in a suitcase. Fogarty removed a wall from his studio, on which he had painted a gingham cloth and re-situated it inside slow, beside a pile of campaign-like baseball hats that read “LUNCH”. Mindy Rose Schwartz sculpted a figure out of plaster cast with an unprimed, and partially stitched canvas face; in another work a delicate series of hoops reach off the wall at variant angles. Between the hoops’ bounds, flowers and thread weave in abstract, figurative compositions. I was drawn into these works with many questions — questions about limits, deconstruction, assembly and abstraction, questions that brought me to Andreas Fischer’s studio, where we discussed his approach to painting, and how Rehearsal Attire came about.
Caroline Picard: How do you think about horizon lines in paintings? Can you have multiple limits operating at once in the same piece?
Andreas Fischer: Things like horizon lines and spatial boundaries come from conventions embedded in the images I have been using. The starting points for all of my recent work are what I would call conventional everyday image types -the kinds of images that are so present that they often get taken for granted or ignored. At the same time, though, they have a problematic status because they are completely contested territory even though they might look stable.
On one hand I am using various aspects of the conventional states of these images, which are socially determined. On the other hand I am materializing a reaction by trying to reconstruct these images, which I see as an example of how any individual might react. So, yes there are definitely multiple limits and they are directed by moving changing negotiations that I see as a kind of intersection of one idea of what is social and another idea of what is individual. Painting in this sense is a kind of materialization of reception or reaction — action painting in a sense, but not as a statement — maybe more like the way an electronic instrument might monitor a changing environment.
CP: Wait — that’s exciting. How is a painting like an electronic instrument? Is it responding to you or the viewer?
AF: Well, I think of painting as decidedly not static and that is a big reason I am interested in it. I do think that so called fixed images are different from what we more clearly accept to be in motion. Paintings are moving perhaps more slowly and can be understood as attempts to visualize actions in a heightened way. Literally and chemically paint is moving and changing over time from the moment pigment is ground, through the gesture of applying paint, to the drying; shrinking; aging and cracking that paint undergoes over time.
More importantly, though, a painting is an action or gesture that begins to happen under certain circumstances and changes as the context around it changes. Our perceptions and interpretations of paintings change as the changing chemical compounds intersect with worlds that are always trying to figure themselves out. In this sense painting is like an electronic instrument in that it is a kind of sensor and feedback system that outputs interpretable data as the world moves — the meaning of the painting (or its output) changes as the stuff around it changes.
I am interested in the act of painting as a way of thinking, sorting or diagnosing. Both painting and electronic instruments come into being in a sense because of what they need to be able to do with their environments. Electronic instruments are programmed to track, calculate, and relay data based on socially developed criteria or perceived need. Maybe we do a version of this too as individuals and if so I think painting is likely a materialization of this kind of reflection of a larger social environment.
CP: How do you think about the logic of a single composition?
AF: The operating functions for composition and formal relationships for me are negotiation and process. In a sense each work is compositionally and formally its own activity. The kinds of reactions and procedures that an image seems to provoke on a given day especially as these bounce off of different patterns of thought and expectation floating around in the world vary quite a bit. This part of the operation is not a logical progression — it is more preformative, maybe a bit like the way a player responds to the action in many kinds of sports.
CP: But in that case are you playing against yourself? Like a soccer player bouncing a ball against a concrete wall with static, physical and predictable qualities? Or do you feel like the canvas/paint/medium brush are less predictable and somehow capable of responding to you, like — say — another player on the field?
AF: I definitely experience it as the latter. What I was thinking about was the way a body navigates and responds to various barriers and desired outcomes in real time — the spontaneous interaction of it all is so much like the act of painting for me. Maybe the ingredients of painting are not quite like another player, but more like the entire context of the game. So yes, the medium is not predictable for me. If I could control it I wouldn’t paint. Furthermore, I suspect that I am deciding or acting and reacting coextensively with social interactions I have had or might anticipate having in the future. I think this is where the distinction between what is social and what is individual falls apart in an interesting way because each of these determine the other and maybe there is not really even a distinction in the end. Maybe we are really post-individual.
CP: How did your recent show “Rehearsal Attire” come together?
AF: Paul Hopkin and I have been talking about doing something for a while and when we started to think seriously about what a project might look like we started trying think of way to acknowledge conversation as a generative tool. I was making work that was in many was the product of specific conversations I was having with a few people and was very interested in a group show as a way to extend that dialogue. I think Paul had been on that page for a while before we started working on the project.
Much of art history is really the act of watching very particular materialized conversations between a surprisingly small group of people. One could argue that the real content of much art is the function of conversation or relatively intimate social interaction. I wanted to start acknowledging my work as a set of indexes of lines of conversation. I wanted to take that system into a gallery and mix it with a different group of people having different conversations so that one conversational context would bounce off of a few others to see how they would co-mingle and resisted each other. There are so many amazing ways that groups or specific conversations out in the world intersect with other groups. There is something fundamentally fascinating about a semi closed circle bumping into another semi closed circle. That vibration, that negotiation is incredibly exciting to me and has been a huge motivator for my work over the last several years.
CP: How do you see that fitting into the more general dialogue of painting at the moment?
AF: I see a great deal of coolness of one kind or another in painting right now. I might be interacting with that characterization in the sense that, even though I kind of love much of the work I would characterize this way, I am much more interested in a state of being thoroughly tangled in the messiness of thought, struggle, material, and process. I am probably not anything like cool in my interaction with painting. I think I embrace a kind of sloppy affirmational complexity that has more of a diving-into-the-muck quality to it.
CP: How do you think about deconstructing frames? Is that something of interest to you in painting?
AF: I love deconstruction and the expectation that it will yield different layers of meaning. But I don’t think of my work in those terms right now. I think the negotiations that I see the work enacting are more like a struggle to bring things together. There is the familiar idea about early modernism that at a certain point painting became more opaque, more interested in its own materialism as a way of enacting skepticism toward unified illusion and its ability to function as a vehicle for certain idealisms, perhaps dangerously so. This is a way of seeing materially oriented painting as engaged in negation, criticism or the act of taking apart to an extent. Now that the idea of a unified illusionistic painting is historical and the more usual way for painting to function is through assertions of materialism over illusion, I think materially active painting has executed one critical task that maybe does not need to be rehearsed as insistently anymore meaning that materialism is a kind of free floating signifier that can attach itself to a much wider range of potential functions. The range of possibilities for material activity has opened up.
One of the possibilities can be a link between opacity and the act or struggle to form an image or to produce rather than take apart. Painting can be expected to create a narrative construction relative to images we know to exist or not. For me the act that is most important is the act of framing in a sense, or getting an image to grow and take shape inside a frame, on a surface, or within a field. In that case when we watch a painting we are watching something grow.
CP: One of the things I often struggle with in abstract painting is how to understand the meaning, or what is at stake in a given work. Taking what you said into account, I wonder if this idea of emergent order (is that an accurate paraphrase for “getting an image to grow and take shape inside a frame”) is at the heart of the matter. Namely, whether or not a painting succeeds and/or fails at that — whether it makes the pursuit of that order interesting, and — if you’ll allow a sentimental tone — heartbreaking (again, because it succeeds, or almost succeeds)?
AF: I totally agree with what you are suggesting at least in terms of how I would like my work to live or die. Heartbreak could very well be a part of it all.
I like that you use the term emergent order as well. I understand that to be a bottom up kind of growth based on a kind of exchange and growth where no one entity is in charge, is designing or directing the process or even knows what is going on, but great innovation or development takes place anyway. I think social interaction that flows beyond individual intent or understanding (or maybe just determines it in the end), but operates none the less is totally fascinating and it might be that many kinds of paintings are symptomatic of this kind of function somehow because they happen through a group of impulses, gestures, thoughts, urges, curiosities that just move around an individual kind of unknowingly. There is an argument about Cezanne, for example that his supposedly individualistic innovations in paint handling are really just marks that anyone could make, which means that Cezanne is not an old fashioned modernist genius, but a kind of repository of commonality and his brilliance is really in his assertion of a shared, common, everyday kind of simple mark that anyone could make.
In the end if all of these interactions somehow reflect something valuable then they work. And as you suggest, maybe if this kind of thing is true then it establishes a different way for painting to function than relying on what we might have called meaning in the past. Maybe it is not really about the question of where or even if it ends up, but a kind of empathetic struggle to move toward something.
In the first of his monthly columns for Dezeen, V&A senior curator Kieran Long argues that today’s obsession with authorship and celebrity “leads to serious imbalances in the way we see design in the world” and calls for an overhaul of the way design is curated in the twenty-first century.
Long, who was an architecture journalist before being appointed to curate design, architecture and digital at the V&A last year, points out that museums like the V&A focus on handmade, one-off objects at the expense of the mass-produced, anonymous objects that predominate in the real world. “The museum is more or less silent on the era of extraordinary Chinese manufacturing we are living through,” he says.
Below he sets out “95 Theses” for contemporary curation, including provocative statements such as “Ugly and sinister objects demand the museum’s attention just as much as beautiful and beneficial ones do” and “Museum curators have as much in common with investigative journalists as they do with university academics”.
Every morning, on the way to my office, I pass a sign that reads: “Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” At the Victoria & Albert Museum, the building is always telling you to do something. The didactic, Victorian and Edwardian decoration asks you to pay attention to nature, to design and manufacture, to the provenance of objects, even where your food comes from. But this particular sign is deeply serious in its upper-case, gilded typeface. It can be seen only by V&A staff, and most often by the people who empty the bins in the service road at the back of the museum.
As a motivational slogan, it’s espresso-strength, but it also betrays an emphasis at the V&A on the handmade, the artisanal and the one-off that design institutions, the media and designers themselves share. An object that an artist’s or craftsperson’s hand has touched has far more chance of making it into the V&A’s collection than something mass-produced or anonymous.
In our China gallery, for very good institutional reasons, there are no contemporary, mass-produced objects. The twenty-first century is represented by artisanal glass and works of conceptual furniture design: the museum is more or less silent on the era of extraordinary Chinese manufacturing we are living through. Dezeen has a similar emphasis: while the site is catholic in its tastes, the anonymous, the mass-produced and the semi-designed are suppressed in favour of the work of a fairly coherent group of designers.
There are all sorts of pretty reasonable explanations for this. The most banal is, of course, that star designers are click bait: celebrity matters, especially in the media. On the other hand, some might argue that designers’ work is simply better than the anonymous manufactured stuff that surrounds us. It’s easier to love the milled aluminium monocoque of Jonathan Ive’s Macbook than the awkward black plastic housing of a traffic light.
The emphasis on the authored leads to serious imbalances in the way we see design in the world. In future months, I will use this column to try to broaden the conversation about what design is, to try to move beyond a myopic interest in what designers and architects do, toward understanding what their work tells us about the world we live in. The others writing here (Sam, Alexandra, Justin and Dan) are all much better at this than me: I’m looking forward to reading their work. read more
October 1, 2013 · Print This Article
The following article about Ana Mendieta has been circulating quite a bit lately, and as such I thought I’d repost it here. Bear in mind, I’ve copied an excerpt beginning a third of the way through the original. The original begins with a long description of her devastating death out of a 34th floor window in Manhattan. As her tragic end seems so often to eclipse her narrative, I was especially excited to read more about her life (which is where this excerpt begins):
by Sean O’Hagan
published on The Observer,
Until recently, the question asked by those feminist protesters might have been amended to “Who is Ana Mendieta?”, so unknown was her art outside the rarefied world of feminist art criticism. But, as the recent big show of her work at the Whitney Museum in New York and theimminent retrospective at the Hayward gallery in London attests, Mendieta is undergoing a reappraisal as a pioneering artist whose work, as the Hayward’s artistic director, Ralph Rugoff, notes “ranged nomadically across practices associated with body art, land art, performance, sculpture, photography and film”.
Cuban-born and American-raised, Mendieta described her work as “earth-body” art. From 1971, when she had her first solo show while an MA student at the University of Iowa, until her death, she created a diverse collection of work that included silhouettes of her body created in mud, earth, rocks, wild flowers and leaves, performance pieces that evoked the folk and occult traditions of her native Cuba as well as her beloved Mexico and subversive self-portraits that played with notions of beauty, belonging and gender. In her performance pieces, where she sometimes used blood “as a very, powerful magical thing”, she evoked the power of female sexuality as well as the horror of male sexual violence. In her photographic self-portraits, she pressed her face against glass to distort her features or pictured herself dripping in blood or disguised as a man with glued-on facial hair.
Mendieta’s art, like her spirit, was fuelled by a restlessness rooted in her exile from Cuba. Friends described her variously as “sparky”, “provocative”, “tempestuous”, “outspoken” and “fiercely ambitious.” After her death, many saw, in her often dark and ritualistic art, a foreshadowing of her fate – she once staged a performance in which visitors came upon her prone under a blood-splattered white sheet. Others claimed her as the freest of female free spirits in a male-dominated art world. The curator and scholar Irit Rogoff, her as “essentialised through an association of wild appetites and with unbounded female sexuality.” It is only now that the power of her art is finally taking precedence over the stereotypes that were thrust upon her and the darkly dramatic manner of her death.
Mendieta was born in November 1948, the second of three children to Ignacio and Raquel Mendieta, a well-off, upper-middle-class couple. Her father, a supporter of Fidel Castro, was made an assistant in the post-revolutionary ministry of state in 1959 but, disillusioned with the anti-Catholicism of the new Cuba, later became involved in organising counter-revolutionary activities. As did his two daughters, Ana and Raquelin, aged 12 and 14. Fearing for their safety, he arranged for their passage to America, in 1961 through Operation Pedro Pan, a scheme organised by a priest in Miami that allowed around 14,000 children to leave the country and enter the US under the guardianship of the Catholic church. “For Ana, it was an adventurous thing,” her sister Raquelin later remembered, “When we arrived in Miami, she kissed the ground.”
Her euphoria was short-lived. After a time in which they were given over to the care of an Iowa reform school, where beatings and confinement were common punishments for the slightest misdemeanour, the sisters were separated and spent several years being shunted from one foster home to another. Ana felt abandoned by her family and isolated from her homeland. She did not see her mother and brother again until 1966, or her father, who was jailed for disloyalty to Castro, until 1979. He died soon after arriving in America.
“You have to understand she came to America with nothing,” says Victoria. “That sense of exile was something she carried with her as well as a fierce independence of spirit. She would talk about it sometimes when she’d had a few drinks. I mean, coming from the heat and fire of Cuba to puritan Iowa would leave its mark on anyone and she had that survivor’s spirit.
“She was driven in everything she did and that made her feisty and combative as well as great and generous company.”
Mendieta began making art at the University of Iowa, where she had a decade-long affair with the artist and academic Hans Breder, perhaps her most important formative influence. It was Breder who drew her attention to the notion of cross-disciplinary practice, citing the likes of Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein and the Viennese actionists as creative touchstones as well as organising visits by contemporary avant garde artists such as Hans Haacke and Vito Acconci. read more
September 30, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Paul King
The most recent time I loaded up the game Dark Souls, my character unsheathed a sword from her back and drew her shield. And then I noticed a message, written maybe two steps away: “Grief.”
The world of Dark Souls is, as the title would suggest, dark. It’s a classic, worn down fantasy world where everything is crumbling. Your character begins in a prison for the lost and undead; your default state is one of decay. Even as you continue to a city meant for gods, all is in dangerous, ruinous disrepair.
And most of the game is spent alone. Save a few neutral, stationary characters, any sort of dialogue is non-existent. Your hero never speaks, only grunts in the heat of battle, and these stationary merchants quickly run out of new phrases, things to sell you, or purposes to exist.
But at a certain point, your character may buy (or steal) a chunk of soapstone from one of these merchants. Once you obtain the soapstone, you may use it to write, coating the floor in incandescent orange scribbles that, upon interaction, reveal their text.
During the course of Dark Souls, no fix for the broken world emerges. At times, other characters hint that the universe has descended into darkness from a former glory, and your lone hero’s quest might be the thing to restore it. But nothing you do on your journey really changes anything; felled enemies reappear upon your death and subsequent rebirth, and also upon the saving of your progress. But while your standard fantasy actions yield no change and are easily erased, the soapstone allows you to impact the game’s world in a singular, everlasting way: through writing.
There’s a multiplayer component of Dark Souls that allows players to enter the world of another. One can invade or be summoned, and these are adversarial or cooperative interactions, respectively. Both are temporary.
Messages penned with the soapstone, on the other hand, are permanent. Quit the game and return days later, they will still be there. And perhaps more importantly, while invasions and summons are constrained to a single instance of the game world—that of the invaded or summoning player—messages, instead, are universal. Write a message on the floor of a chapel within your game, and the same message appears in the same chapel of another person’s game.
And there they sit, for any other player who happens by it. But much like the world of Dark Souls, the system in which messages are created is opaque and difficult.
The soapstone may be used to write a variety of messages, but only from a template. You choose a format—for instance, “Try _____” or “Be wary of ______.” Once you’ve chosen a format, you can then choose from a list of categories to fill that blank. Options here include orientation (“Try left,” “Be wary of right”), objects (“Try sword,” “Be wary of chest”), and attributes (“Try fire”).
Because the messages are selected from a template, speech is limited, and as such, messages become muddied. As with the world, story, and mission of the game, the onus is on the player as a reader to determine the intent of a message. And as with the rest of the game, the system can be frustrating—authorial intent easily becomes unclear, especially in the wake of present danger due to the game’s refusal to be paused. Pick the wrong moment to write a message, or linger too long on selecting the correct Mad-Libbian phrase and it might instead spell death.
And Dark Souls’ closed language system isn’t immune to classic video game juvenility. At a certain point, my character encountered the message “Amazing chest ahead,” but instead of referring to what would make the most sense—a treasure chest—it was instead placed in front of a female character as an unfortunate reference to her anatomy.
While this example is depressing, it’s fortunately rare. It also serves to underscore what is an even more important facet of the closed language: context. Not only may players choose what combinations of message to write, they may also choose where to place it within the world—for it to be a static element in the world of others. The same message becomes manifold depending on its placement.
A canned, writable phrase in the game is “Praise the Sun!” This is one of the only phrases that does not contain a mutable component (alongside “Good Job!” and “I did it!”). Its placement is intended in relation to one of the game’s religions—meant to be written in a peaceful, brightly lit area upon which the sun shines. A prayer.
I found it once at the bottom of a sewer. Surrounded by the carcasses of massive, dead rats—think The Princess Bride—here it was: “Praise the Sun!” In this context it served as an entirely different message, rife with a sense of irony not possible if placed in a different area. Though the text said differently, the message was obviously one of despair.
Just before an encounter with a massive, angry beast, somebody had written “try jumping.” And after dying to the creature several times—an event that happens with most encounters of the difficult game—the message clicked. And indeed, it was jumping from a ledge and plunging a sword into the monster’s waiting back that proved to be the best strategy.
Elsewhere, I found the same message written on a set of uneven stone stairs, a crumbling railing beside it. “Try jumping.” I angled my view downward, past the railing, and saw only an endless descent, one that would surely kill me.
It did. After I learned a lesson about trust, I discovered another message, not far away: “Beware liar.”
And what begins to emerge from identical phrases is a changing language, one dependent entirely on a static world. While some messages are incredibly straightforward (my favorite is “Illusory wall ahead”), others are incredibly vague.
One of the more interesting categories to choose a “blank” from is “Concepts.” The category sits at the bottom of the list, beneath “Characters,” “Objects,” and more, almost as if it were an afterthought. It is from this list some nameless stranger chose to pen “grief.”
What strikes me especially about the use of “grief” is that it is wholly unnecessary—the entire world embodies “grief.” Though “happiness” is present on the list of concepts, the use of the word makes little to no sense in the context of Dark Souls—there is, ultimately, nothing happy within the game.
But within the constraints of the language system, these awkward, single words can be used in new ways that don’t necessarily pertain to the game. Before a particularly trying monster, instead of writing “Try lightning”—the monster’s supposed weakness—one could instead place “Try hope,” stepping outside of intended use.
What’s interesting about these concepts is that they were placed in an otherwise interesting and well-thought out system; one that plays to the same difficulties and themes of the game. It is only when we as players make a conscious decision to write a specific message does the system break down, distancing itself from in-game tips and evolving into something poetic. When the system breaks, it allows players to leave an effective mark on not only their game world, but the game worlds of others.
Because while all messages might be eternal, the ones that conform to a useful fantasy system—tips, locations, or secrets—ultimately interact with the world by blending into it, not changing it. The jumping tip about the monster led me to a strategic shortcut, while the deceitful note on the staircase created a new, interactive game experience. Those that reference nothing in the world but language concepts create new experiences entirely outside of the game.
Much of Dark Souls deals with the idea of immortality. Your character, like most video game characters, is seemingly tireless. Die, and be brought back again, and again, unceasingly until the game is done. The environments and enemies around you never change, and the latter is in seemingly endless supply. Even when your quest is over, the only option is to start over, either as a new character or the same one, this time in a harder difficulty.
Though the entirety of the game is caught up in this idea of perpetual fantasy, it promotes an unchanging stasis rather than an everlasting immortality. The player created messages—which ultimately exist outside of developer boundary or intent—are the only things that truly seem to point towards immortality. While standard, intentional messages quickly blend into the context of the game’s world; those that break the mold escape the world and its shortfall. When a message references nothing external in the static game world—through the intentional or unintentional garbling of the closed system—it turns into a testament of itself. As a result, it transforms the writer from a player, into an author, leaving an indelible mark.
Paul King is a poet, writer, and video game enthusiast currently living in Chicago, IL. He grew up in Austin, TX and graduated from Bard College with a BA in Liberal and Written Arts.