Using breath from mouth to ear: “I’m going to write something on your back and you have to guess what it is.” Using gesture from finger to back: “I need to know if you feel it too.”
They’re two teenage girls and they’re getting ready for the prom and one is wearing a marching band uniform. We’ll see that uniform again, in another movie, but everything will be different. For now, Jennifer Reeder needs us to feel it too. I had the privilege of working with Reeder for the last two years, while she served as my advisor at UIC. I am the beneficiary of her attention and support, her acerbic and absurd sense of humor, her immense intelligence and her ceaseless fierceness. She insists on vulnerability, even as so many of our interactions are goof sessions.
Her work—primarily in video, primarily for the cinema—is teenage girls, it’s pop noir, it’s language heavy, it’s singing Madonna to an ET figurine, it’s death metal brides in a graveyard on a toy camera, it’s impeccably pencil-rendered vulvae in the halls of a school, it’s electromagnetism of the heart, it’s an all-girl choir singing Judas Priest. It also looks and sounds more and more like the way movies look and sound. It is thankfully and unrepentantly feminist, deeply personal and idiosyncratic. And, luckily for Chicago readers, she’s doing a big hometown show tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the integral and much beloved Conversations at the Edge program.
When I’m doing what I’m so often doing, when I’m doing what I’m doing right now, when I’m trying to convince people of the merits of someone’s work, to convince someone to attend a show, I say that Reeder’s movies feel like movie movies, but better. That even people who don’t like a lot of what they think I like will like her movies. That they’re smart and funny, surprising and deeply feeling, that they’re clever and daring. I heard something recently that felt insightful for a lot of creative practices. A comic said that sketch comedy privileges the joke over the character and will always sell the character out for the joke, whereas most episodic or narrative comedy privileges the character over the joke, such that every joke must feel real or at least, let’s say, diegetic. I was thinking about how this idea could be resonant in a number of forms while rewatching Reeder’s work. Deploying, as she invokes, bathos, she is able to maintain emotional credulity while covering and uncovering new layers of humor, trauma and complexity.
Her work has been screened and exhibited at venues like the Venice and Whitney Biennials, Ann Arbor Film Festival, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, New York Film Festival, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, PS1, Pacific Film Archive, Rotterdam Film Festival, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Vienna Short Film Festival and many, many more. She’s won countless awards, grants and other —including being named one of Chicago’s Top 50 Artists’ Artists by Newcity—while maintaining a vigorous teaching practice as an Associate Professor and the Head of the Art Department at the School of Art and Art History at UIC. She is represented by Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago and distributes her videos through the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, shortfilmagentur, LUX and independently. She earned her MFA from SAIC and her BFA from Ohio State University in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. She is the mother of three boys and lives in Indiana.
As your work has progressed, its resemblance to conventional cinema—to what people think we mean when we say we make movies—has grown. Do artists too often limit their potential for engaging wider audiences by sticking to niche forms and the safe spaces those enable? Has making work that looks right enabled you to sneak in more of your own idiosyncratic ideas and stories? Is convention camouflage?
I set out to make very functional films, but honestly, narratives are very challenging. I compare my process to sewing. If I set out to make a fully functioning pair of pants but cannot get the pockets right, I sew them shut. BOOM, no pockets on these pants. Then I put super striking patches on the knees (or something) and hope that no one notices the pocket situation. Other times, the “experimental” parts of my narratives are much more directed and intentional from the get go. I start out making this move to pocketless pants because, ya know, people expect pockets and it’s more satisfying on my end to do the unexpected. I do appreciate so much, however, that these more conventional narratives I have been making over the past several years have reached a larger audience. I have a solid fan base of film lovers and programmers who fully support and encourage the wonky way I tell a story.
We’ve talked before about multipronged ways of moving culture towards a greater sense of inclusivity and social justice. Shows like Modern Family or Will and Grace—with their mainstreaming of gay culture, or, more precisely, with their insistence that obviously and already mainstream culture includes people who are gay—are important in that they provide hungry brains stories that include a wider variety of represented protagonists. At the same time, there’s a need for more radical cultural shifts, ones that at their cores those shows and the machinations through which they’re made are at odds with. As an educator and cultural producer, how do you balance these concerns? Are there, perhaps, times in our lives when it makes more sense to fight for same-sex marriage and others when it makes sense to dismantle marriage? Do we need more television shows with more people or fewer TVs?
Representation matters! Since the beginning, since White Trash Girl (1995-97), I have made work with some sort of justice component. My protagonists have agency. The enormous popularity of shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent, confirm that general audiences want and need to see themselves and their friends/family reflected back from the small screen. I do not understand what still motivates lots of film and TV makers to actively ignore diversity in terms of casting and storyline.
In a way that is totally unsurprising, I am always drawn to your use of text on screen. A Million Miles Away (2014) makes use of emojis, subtitles that read occasionally as transcriptions of characters thoughts and other times like a rogue radio signal piped in through diving braces on crooked teeth. Tears Cannot Restore Her: Therefore, I Weep (2010)prominently features a classroom sign language interpreter détourning a lecture on electromagnetism into an intimate and crushing tale of love gone awry (or maybe just love gone away). As much as your films are filled with visual nuance and striking characterizations, I often think of your work in writerly terms. What about the screen seems so keen on rendering multiple modes of address?
During an emotionally charged conversation in real life, there also exists these multiple layers of iteration. There is what you say out loud, and what you are thinking when you say it and what you have written to someone else prior about what you will say. Then there is how the other person interprets what you have said and speculates about what you might actually mean and how later they retell the conversation without precise accuracy (adding parts or leaving parts out). I fill my films with many layers of translations, as you pointed out, because it’s how I unpack communication and interactions in my real life. Perhaps not everyone does this, but it cannot be just me, right?
Does the film exist on paper before you begin to shoot or do those extra-textual moments come in the editing room?
The extra language (texts, subtitles, etc.) exists in the script from the beginning. Often the actual words change during post as the temperature of a scene changes from script, through production to post.
Another striking component of your films—and one that extends into a gallery practice potentially—is the way that customized objects find their ways onto the screen. Keychains, ringtones, aprons and t-shirts, either purchased or constructed, telegraph something additional about the characters as well as providing another textual mode of address. Sometimes they signify subcultural statuses, sometimes they feel like gifts from someone off-screen and might not even fit right. Can you talk about these choices?
Art direction matters—this includes the props and wardrobe which are specific and intentional. The art direction is another layer of narrative language, a sub-plot even. It operates as bathos does in literature. A stupid image or phrase on a coffee mug visible in an emotionally revealing scene can disrupt the narrative in a charged and challenging way—injecting humor or absurdity or magic even into an otherwise pretty deadpan exchange. This happens in real life also. It is what makes “a serious talk” tolerable. I cannot resist a visual prank.
As your work has shifted to take more of the forms and processes of recognizable conventional productions, you’ve increased the number of people with whom you work. To what degree do you conceive of these productions as collaborations? Is there a way that working with so many more people on set changes how you think of the works? Are there auratic or affective overlaps in the jobs of director, parent and teacher?
I have worked with the same crew (Steven Hudosh, Chris Rejano and Paul Dickinson) over a few films now and the same editor (Mike Olenick) for over 10 years. These films are like relationships. I have to fall in love with the film then eventually break up with it to move onto the next film. It’s an emotional process and I need to surround myself with people I trust and who trust me back. I listen to everyone’s opinion from the script writing stage through post-production and distribution, but ultimately the final decisions are up to me. This could change with a different kind of financing model. There is a kind of collaboration in the scoring (music), because I depend on the composer (Jenne Lennon) to directly translate my notes in terms of how I want to film to sound. I appreciate what trained actors bring to set. I allow the cast to know and play their characters on their own terms, but I do not allow for improvisation. The dialogue is very specific. Don’t mess with my dialogue! Ok, and yes, I am quite parental on set. I am bossy but more mom bossy than boss bossy—lots of hugging and head patting, for real.
What is Tracers Book Club? How do the various spaces Tracers inhabits function together or separately? What can exhibitions do that online fora or real-life discussions cannot? What is lost or gained by making art in a group, orienting more toward making an argument or experience than originating from authorship?
Tracers (www.tracersbookclub, www.feministasfuck.org) is a free form collective dedicated to promoting feminism as a means toward social justice. Over this past year, we have had two gallery exhibitions in addition to many other events like a mini-conference (a day of panel discussions about intersectionality), two iterations of a radical crafting fair called “FEMINIST PARKING LOT,” films screenings, rock concerts, a youth poetry workshop and informal conversations (often around a book or presenter). Each event attracts a different audience. Feminism is personal and so Tracers makes an effort to offer lots of ways to get your dose. As we gain momentum, we are likely to expand the range of events. We are not a one size fits all kind of operation. If we are committed to inclusive, which we are, we must super-size the options. A narrowly actualized social justice mission is not very just in my opinion.
In rewatching your work for this piece, I found so many little moments that felt synecdochic, like they expressed something big about your entire practice in a small way. I know that you aren’t making work simply about your work—the equivalent of an advertisement for an ad firm—but over the course of your career, you seem to be honing in on a series of concerns. One of the most exciting is the continual and ever-changing challenge of communication and connection. In addition to shared concerns and themes, the reuse of props and costumes gives a hazy continuity to your work. Do you think of these works as being fully distinct or part of a much larger project? Are there ideas that you’ll have that you have to abandon because they don’t work within the scope of your current activities? Since we’re dealing with and in the world of narrative cinema, is there a Reeder universe, nestled somewhere near the speculative and psychic universe of John Hughes? Are the unnamed sites for these recent works in one unnamed town?
Ok, so yes, it’s all intentionally connected—stacks upon stacks of parallel universes. I feel as though I am making the same film over and over and over again. This tic is related to my need to provide multiple translations of narrative language within a single scene. I must keep prodding, “did you get that? Here let me put it another way. Ok, now, did you get it that time? Let me try again.” It’s an obsession with being heard and understood. I appreciate that my films are recognizable as mine. My favorite filmmakers are the auteurs. I am at a loss to understand how some filmmakers make entirely distinctive moves from one film to next. Ya know, like Ang Lee made both The Ice Storm and Hulk. No thank you.
What can the admittedly porous worlds of experimental and independent cinema learn from each other?
The experimentals should be less afraid of being liked/popular and the indies should be less afraid of taking some artful risks in terms of the form. It’s like the jocks versus the nerds. The jocks should get weirder and the nerds should get tipsy and make some prank phone calls.
What is your process for working with actors? Is there a sense that an actor is being instrumentalized—walk over here when the camera gets here, say these words in this order, wear this shirt and face this way—or is there a consideration of and conversation around the more mystical way that a person can embody another person? What has directing taught you about performing? How has your approach to directing actors changed from your White Trash Girl days to now?
The performers in WTG were all amateurs (including myself). No one could act, which is why all the “dialogue” is in the form of a voice over. Plus all the physical action is hyperbole—it’s like a live action comic book. Overdoing it was the only way to do it. My direction to the performers in WTG was like, “haul ass and then pretend to vomit.” In the past several years, I have worked primarily with trained professional actors, which is lovely. These are people who know how to transform themselves into another person—it’s a magic trick really. I am in awe when it works.
I am particular about my dialogue, as I mentioned, so I am known to ask for many takes of a scene (or even a specific line) until I hear it the way I want to hear it. I actually think that I hold my breath during some on-camera exchanges. I get very anxious behind the monitor but I have gotten much better at bringing performances out of the actors. They need to know who I think the character is and why I think they are doing what they are doing (after all I wrote it, I should know). Its all about defining the motivation and clearly communicating the emotional temp of a scene. So for instance in the film I just shot (Blood Below the Skin, currently in postproduction), a young woman has the lines, “you want a best friend? I can get you a best friend. I can get you a best friend forever, but you have to be ok with the pain and the blood.” She was not saying it right and so I eventually told her to say the lines as though she was talking about a dead body…..”you want to hide a dead body? I can help you hide a dead body….” It worked. Gone are the days of simply yelling, “haul ass,” but I don’t miss those days.
If my math is right, White Trash Girl is nineteen years old—right on the precipice of leaving its teenage years. When was the last time you revisited the character and that work? How do you think of her relating to your current work?
I still screen WTG occasionally. I have not made a WTG tape since 1997 but I am still very much making films about unruly women and the midwest. The trajectory from WTG to the current work is very clear and direct for me. It’s the same film over and over again, just now with better acting, better equipment and better fonts.
I’m hoping you’ll say more about why so much of your work centers around teenage girls? Are they both the subject and audience for the work?
In my opinion, no other group of humans is more misrepresented in cinema (in all of media really) than the teenage girl. We are a culture obsessed with female youth and we get it wrong every time. I am just trying to set the record straight or at the very least offer up an alternative—a disruption. I write scripts from observation and my own experiences. There is a kind of art therapy component to my filmmaking process—a lullaby that the adult me hands back in time to the teen me. It’s a retroactive survival strategy. Indeed my primary audience is the teen girl but these recent films seem to appeal to a much wider audience which is a surprise and fantastic. My dream is to pitch an idea to Nick at Nite for an edgy, racy (complicated) teen girl TV show (both for and about). Or better yet, a series of David Lynch-esque after school specials—weird but accurate and entirely in celebration of the teenage girl.
This will happen.
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How Did You Sleep?, performance by James T. green and C’ne Rohlsen for By the Horns. Photo by Meredith Weber.
As a part of EXPO Chicago’s opening night event, Vernissage, Ordinary Projects presented a selection of performative works entitled By the Horns. Ordinary Projects is a new initiative from Industry of the Ordinary [Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson], led by Program Director Meredith Weber. Sid Branca had an opportunity to chat with Meredith about the importance of performance art in a fair context, her involvement with Industry of the Ordinary and the development of Ordinary Projects.
Meredith Weber: Ordinary Projects is an initiative that’s based upon on the success of the platform project Industry of the Ordinary started within their 2012 exhibition at the Cultural Center, a large mid-career survey called Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. In addition to showing their entire body of work, they also created a platform where other artists were invited to show. At the time I was working on a curatorial project called Happy Collaborationists, which was an apartment gallery in Noble Square focused on performance, installation, and new media. I did that for four years with a collaborator [Anna Trier], and they invited us to show on the platform.
We curated a performance art series on the platform, and the artists got to use all sorts of spaces, which was part of this amazing opportunity that Industry of the Ordinary was given, and offered to other artists in turn. I think a lot of people don’t know about the generosity of their practice. They may seem unapproachable, but this generosity of their practice is why I’ve been involved with them, and why I continue to stay involved. Basically all of the money that was invested in their show by the city was doled back out to other artists.
Sid Branca:So how did Ordinary Projects begin?
MW:When Mana [Contemporary] opened, Matt and Adam were like ‘ok, here’s this really amazing opportunity to have access to a studio, but we don’t really use a studio,’ because they meet here [the Skylark in Pilsen]. They were like, ‘this is a community that we want to be a part of, but why would we invest in a space like that to store things?’ So they decided to do the Platform project in their studio.
What we’ve been doing for Ordinary Projects is alternating between their work and the work of other artists that are emerging, and I’m managing those exhibitions. Right now it’s a pretty large project, and they consider all of it to be a social sculpture. It’s three prongs: the exhibitions; the student summer school; and then what we’re calling community projects, which we haven’t launched yet.
SB:And how did By the Horns come to be?
MW: The past two years at EXPO, Industry of the Ordinary has performed at Vernissage. This year we all thought this is a great opportunity to show Ordinary Projects. We’re only performing on the opening night but what I’m really hoping is to prove something, to prove that this should be an ingrained part of the exhibition. When you go to other fairs, performance art is there. I really want performance to become an integral part of EXPO.
Everything I’ve ever done in Chicago has been based upon trust. All the relationships I’ve built, all the opportunities I’ve gotten have been based upon that. And Tony [Karman] trusts Matt and Adam to present something, and they, in turn, trust me to present something.
SB: So would you say a commitment to endowing emerging artists with that kind of trust is an important part of how you work?
MW: I’m still operating very much the same way that I did when I was running an apartment gallery. I’m not operating on a budget. So my commerce is my relationships. What I tell artists when I work with them is ‘this is what I can offer you, and what will this mean for your career?’ Because what I’m really hoping is that any opportunity that I give to someone is a launching pad for the next opportunity. You can’t ignore the fact that this is not only an opportunity to exhibit your work to the public, this is an opportunity to exhibit your work to all of the exhibitors.
Years ago as Happy Collaborationists we did a performance series at Midway Fair. The first year we did a booth, and the second year we said ‘no way, we can’t do that again.’ So we curated out of the bathroom, and the idea was that every three hours the work in the bathroom changed, because every three hours somebody was going to need use the bathroom that was working. And so it wasn’t really about showing the work to the people that were at the fair for one day, it was about reaching people that were there all weekend. How do we get those people to talk about what’s happening? It was a really, really fun project.
So that was something I was thinking about as fair as EXPO was concerned. I have a history as an athlete, and so when I think about art I kind of think about sports. I talk about strategy quite a bit. So thinking of the room— there used to be this play in high school that we would run that was called the gauntlet, where you would set someone up for the three-point shot. And I was thinking, how do we get people to run through the room so that everyone is supporting each other?
Certainly there are sometimes pieces that stick out to me that I really want to work with, but I select the artist, versus the artwork. And then I like to build with that person how they see the work fitting, and how I can support the work so that it’s realized to its fullest capabilities.
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Some artists are bad at sports, some artists are good sports. Feminists are artists. Some mothers are feminists, some artists are feminists and mothers. As mammals, we’re all born from mothers. Mothers and mothering make the world go round and keep the wheels of life spinning. And life is messy—it’s full of bodies that ooze and wheeze, splatter and spurt. Solid, liquid, and gaseous, bodily matter creates a viscous sphere of reality for mothers and motherers from pregnancy and childbirth through infancy, childhood, and on to the grave.
Cameron Harvey, Triptych (2014), left; Outward Round (2014) Photos by Lise McKean unless otherwise credited.
Curiosity about properties and behaviors of matter and the manipulation of it, whether playful or null-hypothesized, are hallmarks of artistic and scientific creativity. How about cutting it in half, smashing it, or welding it together, turning it upside down, making it bigger or smaller, louder or quieter, hotter or colder, lighter or darker? The decision-making rolls on from one work to the next.
Of course artists don’t have to be mothers to be interested in exploring embodiment and connections to others. The impetus can come from loving a partner or a pet, teaching yoga, being ill or caring for someone who is. That is to say, any artist can make the decision to foreground the exploration of bodies and connections between them. Large cadres in the realms of institutional art—museums, art schools, commercial galleries—evince a phobia about these interests. An artist coming out as a mother or motherer makes some folks positively squeamish. Especially those who perpetuate machismo conventions that transmute art work into commodities.
Surface and Beyond (2014), installation shot. Photo by Claire Ashley.
Like any other strong lineup of shows, this lineup features work variously engaged with abstraction and figuration, forms and materials, scale and dimensionality. The works in these shows embody their makers’ irrepressible determination to create art that enlivens the space it inhabits. In this regard, the recent installation of Judy Ledgerwood at the Graham Foundation, Indira Johnson’s mushrooming Buddha heads, and Sabina Ott’s current exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center also come to mind.
Cameron Harvey, Body Electric (2014)
Let’s start with Claire Ashley and Cameron Harvey’s show, The Surface and Below, curated by artist and mother-to-be Angela Bryant. The works in the gallery’s almost demure manorial space twist and shout with blazing color and pneumatic girth. Harvey affixes spray foam, string, and spandex onto her painted canvases. These materials are more than another form of mark making. They transform the canvas into a sculptural object. Sometimes the foam takes leave of the motherboard altogether and takes on a life of its own. With or without a canvas, the works at once suggest gestural abstraction and forms as familiar as a vacuum cleaner hose, sea slug, entrails, or excrement. With her distinctive melding of ideas and materials, Harvey’s debate with figuration and abstraction becomes altogether visceral.
Claire Ashley, Game of Cat and Mouse (2014)
The work of either Harvey or Ashley would more than suffice for a solo exhibition. Yet seeing them together adds the context of contrast, and creates a dialogue between the two bodies of work. Ashley’s air-filled creations are made of ripstop nylon and PVC (polyvinyl chloride)-coated canvas tarpaulin. She spray paints them in funfair colors. What’s more, some are attached to a wearable backpack that holds the air supply. This means they can be literally embodied.
Cameron Harvey, Bound #3 (2014)
Whatever way they’re deployed, Ashley’s works play nicely with Harvey’s spray foam and summertime palette. Harvey’s string-wrapped foam forms and Ashley’s inflated ones—along with her small soft creaturely figures crammed through holes in plywood—all proclaim a showdown between exuberance and constraint.
Claire Ashley, Big Whoop (2014)
Ashley’s bloated forms are way larger than life and billow like the canvas of a pirate ship at full sail. Two of them bulge out of their alcoves. The larger one is an assemblage that resembles a pillow with armrests known to New Englanders as a husband. Ashley’s digital prints hang nearby with festive blurs of color. They’re the result of another approach to scale and space: she makes tiny objects out of colored clay, photographs them, and blows up the photos. Their flatness punctuates the puffiness of the objects that engorge the gallery.
Edra Soto, Say Everything (2014)
Moving from the leafy enclave of River Forest to the urban streetscape of Division and Milwaukee brings us to Edra Soto’s show, Say Everything. Walking into her installation on a miserable cold night felt like coming to a tropical beach at sunset. Spotlighted in a room purring with coral-pink light, greenish silkscreen banners hang from the ceiling. Geometric motifs from the flags of the US, Puerto Rico, and Chicago repeat themselves across the fabric, at once rhythmic and heraldic. With fans positioned around the room, the banners undulate creating the sense of rustling palms and rolling waves.
Edra Soto, Say Everything (2014)
Soto extends her beach references by taking PVC stalwarts—molded plastic chairs—and covering them with jungleprint towel-tapestries that are sold further west on Division. Yet Soto’s work isn’t for just for lotus-eaters. Her rays of tape on the windows draw attention to them and the world beyond the gallery.
Queen Bee: C.M Burroughs reading; Krista Franklin, Beez in the Trap (2014), hanging sculpture.
Next on the lineup is Queen Bee at Terrain. Curator Allison Glenn brings together work by visual, literary, and performance artists. Her essay sets out ideas coursing through the show—identity formation, rhizomatic forms of interconnection, and non-hierarchical collectivity. In relating these ideas to feminism, she takes pointers from Nikki Minaj’s 2012 single, “Beez in the Trap,” and artists associated with the Feminist Art Program at California College for the Arts during the 1970s.
Lise Haller Baggesen, reading; Victoria Martinez, Bandera M (2014), hanging in front of porch.
The visual art engages with Queen Bee’s formal and conceptual concerns: Victoria Martinez’s found objects transformed into flags; Krista Franklin’s wearable sculptures of handmade paper, gold leaf, synthetic hair and acrylic fingernails; and Erin Minckley Chlaghmo’s elaborations of organic forms into kinetic patterns. On September 14, the art works doubled as sets for Terrain’s front porch stage that featured compelling, i.e., kickass performances by C.M Burroughs, Lise Haller Baggesen, Reshayla Marie Brown, and Krista Franklin. The day’s closing performance, a reading by Baggesen from her recent book, Mothernism, left listeners with no doubts about the glass ceiling and other things broken by Margaret Thatcher and her cronies. And if you missed these performers, take heart. They’re Chicago artists with more shows to come.
Whether it’s called mothernism, tidal wave feminism, or any other name, the need for it is born again with each generation. When contending with motherfuckers, sibyls of corporate success say lean in. These Chicago artists take a different stand: they use mother wit to make art and space for it—and then invite us in to play.
The Surface and Below: Claire Ashley and Cameron Harvey at O’Connor Art Gallery, Dominican University, until October 31, 2014
Say Everything: Edra Soto at Lloyd Dobbler Gallery, until September 30
Queen Bee: Lise Haller Baggesen, Rayshayla Marie Brown, C.M. Burroughs, Erin Minckley Chlaghmo, Krista Franklin, Victoria Martinez at Terrain and Terrain South, until September 30
Lise McKean is an anthropologist and writer based in Chicago.
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And half the fun. EXPO coverage with a beyond Sunday shelf-life.
The L@@K We’re mostly here for the outfits anyway right!? Loved Isa Giallorenzo’s take on outfits and art in her Chicago Looks for NewCity post from EXPO Chicago.
Palpitating on ArtFCity Robin Dluzen’s worthwhile rundown on what’s selling and what’s not (sorry Picasso!) in her review of EXPO for AFC. Dluzen’s day job gives her great insider perspective that made her review feel like the most specific and accurate we read during the fair. She’s also a great press lunch date ;).
Gracious Goodbye In his final dispatch from EXPO, Matt Morris takes a decidedly sappier tone, thanking the arts community for the true Dialogue he engaged in at the fair and it’s subsidiary events. We love Morris’ stamina, wanting “talk just a little bit more” before the end of the weekend. In fact, we loved all of NewCity’s dispatches, definitely worth checking out Morris on EDITION and Erin Toale on “sticking to the perimeter.”
Ms Chicago Looks looking fabulous as always at the Vernissage for EXPO Chicago.
A Collection of Collectors If you’re not tired of hearing Duncan’s voices after this Saturday’s Dialogues than you should definitely peep the extended on-air version of his Collectors Interview transcribed and published in the Pier Review.
“Did someone say Pier Review?” You asked for it and we hosted it! Here are all four editions of the Pier Review available for download in easy to read PDF’s. If you would still like to nab a physical copy of this gorgeous and stimulating edition designed by Clay Hickson with Tan & Loose Press drop us an email (link’s in the footer).
T around Town
September to Remember in Chicago
The end of summer means the beginning of art exhibitions in Chicago. With the Equinox this Tuesday, summer is officially coming to a close and the Chicago community is returning to the city to roost (or at least those of us who haven’t left permanently after last winter). Like most September’s in the city, this one has been packed with openings and performances to inaugurate the fall season.
Openings across the city (as well as in Oak & Rogers Park’s) now share the month with EXPO Chicago. With it’s inaugural shine transforming into a timeworn tradition, thousands made the arduous trek across Navy Pier (in gorgeous weather no less) to take it all in. WTT? has been hard at work on the Pier Review, an in-the-flesh newspaper for fairgoers enjoyment in partnership with EXPO, ArtSlant and the home-team, Bad at Sports. This week we’re throwing up some highlights from the past month as well as a few fair favorites. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s gonna be a great season Chicago, we can feel it!
If you missed Danny Giles’ performance at Roots & Culture on September 12th we’re sorry, but you can still see go/figure, featuring work by Daniel Giles & Eliza Myrie and a fantastic essay by Meg Onli.
Eliza Myrie’s graphite diamond in go/figure. Based on her research on the Lesotho Brown Diamond and the woman who discovered it, Ernestine Ramoboa, Myrie used this block of graphite to create the drawings in the instillation, leaving a “diamond” of her own.
R&C’s Eric May with Michael Rakowitz at the opening for go/figure.
Edra Soto surrounded by friends and admirers at the opening for Say Everything at Lloyd Dobler in Wicker Park.
Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle and Rebecca Beachy inside of Say Everything at Lloyd Dobler on September 12th.
Was it this photograph entitled Mom & Dad (2014) by Leonard Suryajaya in the SAIC Expo booth curated by José Lerma or Leo Kaplan of The Hills Esthetic Center in this Instagram photo by Thorne Brandt? And what do those things do to your face anyway?
The Weatherman Report
The view from the Mystic Blue on the opening night of EXPO Chicago.
T of the Town Continued…
It wouldn’t be fall without a little bit of LUST, which is just what Ashley Scott brought to the exuberant performance and trunk show for her newest collection, “Drapes of Lust” at MANE Salon on the 12th. Here Scott poses with one of her models, Sarah Weis (left).
Derek Bagley with his partner, Hayley Barber, taking in the aftermath of the LUST performance at MANE Salon.
We were pleased to see Katie Hargrave, Nick Lally and Daniel Luedtke at their thoughtful exhibition, EDIT ROAD MOVIE, a musing on the classic tropes of road trips based the artists’ explorations of intentional communities on the road to the ACRE Residency in 2013.
Custom car visor by Katie Hargrave. EDIT ROAD MOVIE is on view until September 29th at ACRE Projects in Pilsen.
Well deserved NewCity Top 50 artist, Brandon Alvendia with Angel Essig at the Vernissage last Thursday night.
Drew Ziegler and Ryan Sullivan pulling off a little “fashion imitating art” at the Vernissage.
Dance party on the Mystic Blue docked at Navy Pier on Thursday night. Shout out to Vincent’s elbows!!
We enjoyed chatting and sharing a (clandestine) beer with Ludwig Kittinger of the Vienna collective dienstag abend at their booth sponsored by ArtReview.
EVEN MORE T around Town!
Great paintings, clever booth. Possibly our favorite showing of the entire weekend, Morgan Manduley’s flower shoppe at Yautupec Gallery in EDITION at the CAC was on point. All of the floral arrangements are painted canvas.
Brett Schultz of Yautupec and Manduley wrapping up one of the painted flowers at their booth.
Another highlight of the weekend was slipping into the Hancock building to see RETREAT, organized by Theaster Gates in collaboration with his Black Artist Retreat (BAR). The show was really beautiful (especially the first room outside of Valerie Carberry’s main space). The work above is an artifact of a performance by Wilmer Wilson IV from 2012.
Crumbled artifacts abound at RETREAT. A detail of Tony Lewis’ Untitled (Hancock via Orchard via Oak Park via Bindery via Autumn Space), (2012-present) pairs nicely with the Wilson work.
Things we can’t get over: 1. Work by Alejandro Figueredo Diaz-Perera and Cara Megan Lewis in their exhibition A Home Coming which opened last Friday night and is on view at Antena until October 11th by appointment. Above is a sculpture/ video work by Lewis.
A beautifully installed and enticingly seedy piece by Alejandro Figueredo Diaz-Perera in A Home Coming that you will just have to see for yourself.
Header image features a detail of Ishtar Gate by Michael Rakowitz on view in the IN/SITU program at EXPO Chicago this past weekend. Rakowitz’s gates were fittingly (?) installed at the entrance to the VIP section of the art fair. The entire series is really amazing, read about it on Michael’s website.
I met Arturo Ortiz Struck at his studio in Polanco, around the corner from the Libyan Embassy. I was surprised—I don’t know why, it’s been more than two years since the Arab Spring bled out into autocracy, terror, and disarray, metastasizing into brutal land grabs and ISIS/ISIL—to see that the Embassy uses the current colors of the Libyan flag: black, red, and green. I wondered what happens in the embassy of a failed state and asked the guard what street I was on. Thankfully, I was close to Arturo’s studio. Arturo Ortiz Struck is an artist, architect, urbanist, and theorist, who I encountered at a screening of a Jan-Peter Hammer film at Labor a few weeks previously. When I arrived, there were books on design all over his desk. I asked him about the history of design in Mexico.
AOS: It’s a strange history. We used to have very powerful policies that were oriented to create not just furniture and industrial design, but also a graphic identity for Mexico. I really love this book. It’s about the Olympics in Mexico in 1968. This was state-funded design. There wasn’t any kind of market. When the state invested in design, we had incredible design; when they stopped investing, we stopped having design.
JW: Why was the state investing in design? Only for the Olympics?
AOS: Yes, only for the Olympics. There was funding in the 70s to design the postal service as well. In the 80s, we didn’t have anything. This table and these chairs are from the 40s. They are really beautiful. After the 40s and 50s, we had the Olympics, with this strong national investment in design; after that there was a desert. It’s interesting. But let’s talk about architecture.
JW: My interest in this is in the power of architecture, or the ambient environment in general, to affect the way that people act, the way that they behave.
AOS: From my point of view, there are a lot of processes in which you can create an identity with particular issues that will legitimate some actions. Most of the time, there is propaganda, in the long sense of the term: how can I make that group of people think as I want them to think? This propaganda no longer issues from the state. Who is exercising this power? I always think of Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs is this really cool guy, who is completely apolitical—he doesn’t appear to have any political agency. He is the model of the entrepreneur everybody wants to be: the entrepreneur who is really cool and easygoing, who used to be a kind of hacker working in a garage, who reshaped the idea of computers, and so on. He will not talk about politics or the economy or anything, but he does talk about “thinking different,” through an advertisement. Think different, count on yourself. This is the idea of Milton Friedman, the idea of bringing people to believe that they are able to be individuals and as such are able to live without any kind of society. In a way it’s this kind of Nietszchean figure who exists completely outside of his subjectivity. This guy is a cool guy, completely apolitical, who doesn’t care about any problem that is not his problem. It’s a solipsist kind of behavior in which you are inside yourself, inside yourself, inside yourself, and the way you have to relate with others is completely determined by some ideological rules, some fantasies. So: you should be cool. In those terms, the new apparatus of control is not Steve Jobs. Instead, it’s the idea of being Steve Jobs. It’s much more diffused. That’s what is controlling space and controlling behavior today.
JW: It’s internal rather than external.
AOS: It works. The people behave. In that sense, I think about Foucault. Everything is really controlled in a kind-of-mysterious way, but it’s not so mysterious. These power systems are operating through the things you buy, the ways you represent yourself, the behaviors that are accepted as cool or rejected as not cool. The body is the object of all of these systems. It’s not difficult to understand and it’s not difficult to see. I work with that. I want to show it.
JW: Lyotard talks about the difference between legitimating via a narrative, which has an arc—a beginning and an end, which may not be definite—but it’s a story, it’s like “I was born poor and I will die rich, and I’m going to evaluate every situation I encounter based on this narrative that I have”—or on the other hand there’s a legitimation via paralogy, wherein you evaluate your situation based on how available all the options in a given situation are. So a narrativist, if such a thing were to exist, would encounter a roadblock in a very different way than a paralogist. The narrativist would go over the bump, you know, always onward or whatever, and the paralogist would look around. It feels like that’s what you’re doing in your work—that you’re trying to make visible all the available options, without necessarily presenting a better way.
AOS: I started to study housing, many years ago, these new kinds of housing projects from the state, I don’t know if you’ve seen them…
JW: I have, yeah, I went out to Nicolas Romero a couple of weeks ago and saw them. They’re ridiculous…
AOS: What I was thinking about these projects is that what they are producing is credits. For the financial system and the state to survive, there needs to be a stable economy. In order for the economy to remain stable, there needs to be a lot of people with debts and credits, and they have to pay their credit, or not. There just needs to be a huge amount of people who are going to circulate capital. They need to want to buy things they can’t afford so that there can be more credit and more debt. It is by this logic that housing is produced. Housing is produced from the need to continue the financial system. It is an abstraction. When I started to talk about this, it was 2005. Everybody told me I was completely crazy and that I didn’t understand anything about urbanism or the new middle class. I decided to create a test model. What is happening and how can we look at it?
[Arturo walks to his computer and begins to play a video.]
AOS: That’s what we are doing. We are doing great at this abstraction. I don’t care if they’re sustainable or whatever, it’s exactly the same. The abstraction becomes really aggressive and really violent to societies that are unable to see what is happening to them. It’s like the movie Modern Times, when Charlie Chaplin is winding the clock: everyday life is people winding the system. They think it’s because they are going to own a house or a car or a lifestyle, but at the end of the day what the system is selling is money, and people cannot see that. It is an abstract commodity. So we start to see a lot of things about fetishism and lifestyles and how other things start to work around it. And this is really violent.
JW: Is there something that you would consider non-violent architecture?
AOS: I don’t know. For ten years I worked as an architect in the far east of Mexico City, in Chimalhuacan and Chicolopan. I have been developing different housing projects there, doing different workshops. Where I am in terms of urbanism is completely linked to everything else. What I am saying is that informal settlements are much less of a problem than we used to think. They are a problem, of course, because of issues of power and the production of poverty; but it is sometimes better to do business for yourself, away from the financial system. In any case, it is almost impossible to change these conditions. Sixty percent of urban grown in Mexico City is informal growth —it’s huge! You cannot wave your hands and change it. Instead, we’ve been developing workshops with people in Chimalhuacan, Chicolopan, Texcoco, for the last three years.
JW: You worked with the people that already live there?
AOS: No, we worked with new settlers. We went with them, we asked them what they wanted, and they told us what they wanted, in a very strange way…
JW: What did they want?
AOS: We made a kind of study. Instead of telling them how their houses should be, we told them, look, you should look at the sun. You should look at the sun and the air. You should understand how the sun moves so you can have better lighting; you should study the air so you can have natural ventilation. That was the first workshop. We found that all these people already know a lot of things about the sun, the wind, everything. They aren’t able to link this knowledge with construction, but they have it. They know it really well. They learn it from the basic curriculum in Mexico. Everybody learns it. All the books in Mexico for basic education are the same for everybody. The government publishes them. They teach about the sun and the air, but they do not teach the link between these things and construction. Our current project, which we are submitting to the Ministry of Education, is to add some diagrams to these chapters about how to link this knowledge with construction, with the setup of your classroom or your house. We have not been very successful.
JW: That’s great, to insert this kind of radical architecture into basic education…
AOS: It’s not radical architecture! It’s about making the house you want to make, but keeping in mind where the sun is. That is not radical. If you go to Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, you will see that most of the terrain is completely built over. There are no trees. The houses are really obscured and without good ventilation, so they are always going to feel bad. How can you feel better? We have this house that costs $30,000MXN and can be built in one month. It became very popular in architecture circles. We built one at the United Nations in New York, we took one to the Venice Architecture Biennale, and it was part of an exhibition at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St Louis, MO. I will show it to you. In a way, we are trying to understand architecture that can be created without the financial system.
[We walk back to Arturo’s computer to watch the video.]
AOS: This piece translates from a very practical kind of thing to a much more symbolic thing.
JW: Something that’s actually practical seems suddenly so unreal.
AOS: With the natural disasters last year in Mexico, because of the rains in Guerrero, I sent this model to the guy in charge of the disaster relief, because it’s really fast, it’s really easy, and it’s an external foundation system so it’s hard to wash away. It’s simple physics. We’ve just brought this technology from the river to the house. It’s amazing.
JW: Do you think this kind of architecture will have a positive effect on the way people act inside of it?
AOS: I don’t know. It’s up to the people living in it to act. It’s up to people living in architecture to reshape it. It’s an issue of control and propaganda. When you walk into these incredibly cool places, with Barcelona chairs and Tom Dixon lamps and whatever, everything starts to become a kind of set. When I walk into Crate & Barrel, I feel the set. They are telling me, you should live like this. This is the lifestyle you deserve. If you have that furniture you probably have this kind of computer, you probably have these kinds of clothes, you probably have these kinds of behaviors. It is a little bit like the Truman Show. Everything’s set—you don’t have to think beyond just being in the set. It is completely impossible that this set aids your subjective growth in any way. All of this has to do with the body, with limiting or obscuring what you can do with your body. In a way, I agree with Lyotard, when he writes in the Postmodern Condition that we are losing against the system. And that was in 1979! That’s why I love working with the idea of the body. It’s through your body that you can be out of the set. It’s not so radical: we are losing against the system and the only way to have political agency is through your body.
Arturo Ortiz Struck is head of the architectonic and urban research workshop Taller Territorial de México and a member of the National System for Art Creators, FONCA.
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