In a recent review in the New Yorker of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of local art, “Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond,” Peter Schjeldahl singles out BFAMFAPHD as puncturing the effervescent mood of the exhibition, saying that, “The collective BFAMFAPHD (the initials of academic degrees) spreads a homeopathic wet blanket on the show’s high spirits with statistical documentation of the hard lots of current graduates — the staggering number of artists, debt burdens, iffy prospects. The bonus bummer of a group discussion among veteran local artists, in the show’s catalogue, circles the drain of Topic A in the daily life of art anywhere: real estate.” While I don’t really care too much about the over-celebration of Brooklyn as a creative context, this snarky tidbit has a little bit of truth —- the hard lots of current graduates is indeed a quite epic bummer and not just in the over-capitalized art scenes of New York.
But besides being concerned about the harshing of Schjeldahl’s mellow on the wonders of Bushwick, and I didn’t see the show, the questions around who can afford to be artist in today’s economy and concurrent debt crisis is a central concern to today’s generation of artists. How can we talk about this situation openly, honestly, with some well-deserved finger-pointing around the exploitation of artists by institutional culture and a little self-reflexivity about why artists do indeed deserve to get paid (all artists? for what kinds of services?) and who should pay them?
With the recent efforts by collectives BFAMFAPHD asking “What is a work of art in the age of $120,000 art degrees?”, W.A.G.E. Fee Calculator which aims to set standards for artist compensation based on organizational budgets, and from a slightly different angle Brooklyn Commune, “a report on the state of the performing arts from the perspective of artists” (all New York based) providing perspective with some hard numbers to back it up, it’s an exciting time to think about artist-driven efforts to research and fundamentally change the systemic exploitation of artists.
From the opposite coast, in San Francisco where rapid gentrification is significantly and meteorically changing the culture of the city, there have been a number of other efforts to talk through the working economy for cultural producers and how to stop the prevalent culture of working for free. These include illustrator and designer Jessica Hische’s online diagram Should I Work For Free? (which I came to through Christian Frock’s recent article on KQED, which also talks about these efforts), Helena Keefe’s Standard Deviation, which led to a symposium that I also participated in at UC Berkeley’s Art Research Center and an issue of Art Practical on Valuing Labor in the Arts, as well as The Compensation Foundation, a project much like W.A.G.E., which aims to collect data on whether visual artists are compensated for their work, though not as specifically aimed at particular organizations like the WAGE compensation calculator. Who pays artists is also an online aggregation of anecdotes, which I don’t find particularly useful but perhaps is a good place to share anonymous stories, and then in the recent past, Temporary Services put together the great Art Work, a national conversation about art, labor and economics, which also has its own bibliography.
I should say first that I completely support these efforts and advocate for their proliferation and I work at an organization, Threewalls, which has always had an ethos of paying artists and adheres pretty closely to the WAGE compensation calculator based on our budget size. I believe that non-profits should be fighting tooth and nail to keep artist pay in their budget lines and I am against what seems to be a recent trend by organizations to charge artists for vaguely defined professional development opportunities and networking beyond school. People that can pay, should. But what I’m also excited by is the opportunity to really talk about the “who” in who pays artists. As in, who cares about art? How does this speak to our perceptions of “the market” or “the state” or “the nonprofit sector” and whom do we believe is responsible for our social welfare? and, perhaps most importantly, how do we create a shared ethos rather than a shared professional standard?
Because if we do agree, yes artists should get paid, what then? Who are our choruses directed at? We can change standards in the field (and I mean the field of grassroots to mid-size artist-centric organizations because that’s where I operate from, advocates from the museum world also have to start standing up for this) but how can we create a discourse alongside shifting standards that says why its important to do so. And lets not forget the racial and class dimensions of who gets to be a professional visual artist nowadays. Roberto Ferdman, wrote about BFAMFAPHD recently for The Washington Post blog, “If you’re lucky enough to earn a living from your art, you’re probably white”, that “The thing about racial diversity among working artists in America is that it pretty much doesn’t exist.” Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, in her great piece about the myths and preconceptions of artists as gentrifiers on Createequity, writes much along the same lines, but implicit here is some caution about overly narrowing our definition of who working artists might be,
“When we talk about issues of power, social inequities, or “the politics of belonging and (dis)belonging,” as Roberto Bedoya so eloquently frames, I want us to remember that artists, on average, have low incomes, and that they are not all white. The NEA’s Artists and Arts Workers in the United States (2011) reveals that musicians, dancers and choreographers, photographers, and other entertainers’ median salary is under $28,000. Despite artists’ high levels of educational attainment, the average salary for all artist occupations (including architects) is just over $43,000. Over twenty percent of artists are racial/ethnic minorities. And these statistics are only for people for whom being an artist is their “primary” job.”
What Nicodemus is pointing out is that we can widen our scope of artists included in this conversation, and think in terms of solidarities without losing the primary target of fighting against exploitation. Pointing this out does not water down what these initiatives are doing, its just to ask what it means to make art your job and who wants to do so? Because then we can start talking across a spectrum of geography, scale and intent.
What if art is your job in Kansas City, Detroit, Chicago, and not in New York? Is it possible to value and not overly romanticize a day job that allows you the freedom to have an artist space in your garage, the kind of space that doesn’t have a website, isn’t a white cube, and believes in a kind of diy punk spirit? And which artists should get paid? Deciding on compensation standards, in the model of CARFAC Canadian Artist Representation, founded in 1968, also demands that artists define themselves along professional lines — exhibition records, institutional affiliations, presentations at prestigious venues. What could be some alternative standards of value that could make this process more interesting, more open, more responsive to the needs of all kinds of working artists?
Work by Greg Stimac.
Document is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. Reception tonight, 5-8pm.
Work by Daniel Arnold.
Paris London Hong Kong is located at 845 W. Washington Blvd. Reception tonight, 5-8pm.
Curated by Scott J. Hunter.
Aspect/Ratio os located at 119 N. Peoria St. Reception tonight, 5-8pm.
Photographs of Chicago’s art scene.
Antena is located at 1755 S. Laflin St. Reception tonight, 6-10pm.
Work by Carla Gannis.
Kasia Kay Gallery is located at 215 N. Aberdeen St. Reception tonight, 6-9pm.
Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen Ross
Then, we tried to name our babies
But we forgot all the names that
The names we used to know
We remember bedrooms
And our parent’s bedrooms
And the bedrooms of our friends
This one goes out to the first gay guy to break my heart. (He did warn me!) The bed we shared for a few months in the linoleum floored dorm of the Folk-high-school of Art at the windswept island of Langeland (Danish for Long Island), was nothing more than our two pinewood bedframes that we had shoved together under a makeshift canopy adorned with an antique gilded mirror in the shape of the sun. We painted our heels red, as was the costume of Louis XIV and drank our instant morning chocolate out of a golden tea set that we had set out on the blonde nightstand. Here comes the sun king and his well-heeled, head-over-heels (or need we say headless) apprentice.
One morning as we were studiously pouring over his-and-hers Vogue Italia, he put his head on my shoulder and pointed to a centerfold of a Bengali tiger swimming in the Ganges amidst a field of white lotus flowers with, in the background, a funeral pyre set ablaze by a party of sari clad mourners in orange and magenta. He sighed and said: “Don’t you just wish that you were that tiger?” It was clear from his sighing, that this was another kind of coveting than our morning lecture would usually inspire –that of a glamorous life far away from the countryside of Denmark—but instead aspiring to a higher longing: to know the beauty of the world from the inside out.
Soon after I found myself in India, in a quest for this insider’s knowledge of beauty. By the Ganges I imagined the wild tiger’s roar, but everything else was just so. This was in the days before Facebook hence I had no one to share it with, and had to devour this savage beauty all by myself.
I wrote a letter to my absentminded friend, the poet. He responded that I was a better writer than artist and published my letter in a literary magazine he was editing –together with (on my insistence) a dry needle fantasy of a pair of copulating angels I then considered “my art.” I was furious with him for his honesty, while in retrospect I have to give it to him that he saw my bosoms, but raised me my brains –such gifts are the unexpected oranges that life throws in undeserving young-girls urban turbans.
On return from my travels to India (which I mostly loathed, if only for the fact that I was constantly being looked at, which tends to obstruct your outlook) I travelled to Rome in search of a beauty closer to home. After that, I moved to Copenhagen to go art school, thinking that was perhaps the place to get to know beauty more intimately.
According to David Hickey, my timing was just right, as we were about to embark on the Nineties, and while I was travelling the world in search of beauty, he was preaching to the reluctant choir assembled in a university auditorium somewhere deep in the heart of darkest America, that “The issue of the nineties will be beauty!”
In the introduction to his essay “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty,” he revisits the event:
“I began updating Pater: ‘Beauty is not a thing,’ I insisted. ‘The Beautiful is a thing. In images, beauty is the agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder, and, since pleasure is the true occasion for looking at anything, any theory of images that is not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder begs the question of art’s efficiacy and dooms itself to inconsequence!’”
By equating beauty with agency, Hickey animates the world around us, imbuing these images –and by extension “anything” that causes us pleasure from the mere occasion of us looking at it—with an attention seeking willfulness.
The scopophilic pleasure we are granted in return for giving in to the whims of this beautiful world, is by its retinal nature often spiked with envy. An envy of fully possessing this beauty, of internalizing it, of an ever hungry eye that is left wanting more. More images, more wilderness, more beauty. (But also –as we embark on the quest for beauty, our nose in the scent trail still wet from our first whiff of it –with the gratification of knowingly knowing it when we see it.)
Beauty can, in fact, be experienced in the muddied rained out countryside of Northern Europe, just as well as anywhere else. And this particular envy can, in rare cases, be inspired by visiting an art show: Not the usual petty “OMG, I wish that was me showing my work in [insert major art venue],” but the real, un-adulterated swimming-tiger-lotus-envy of “OMG, I wish I had made that!” –of being so unexpectedly enthralled with the surface beauty of a body of work, you wish to intimately and organically know it from the inside out.
This happened to me, when visiting Josef Strau’s The New World: Application for Turtle Island at the Renaissance Society.
In the gallery, clustered objects are laid out in rectangular grids, some on tabletops and some directly on the floor in little islands, resembling house altars for the worshipping of homely deities. Ceramic conch-shells and brightly colored tiles are the gods’ favorites, it seems. Textile prints with text passages from Buddhist and Native American religious and spiritual practice are laid out by way of both explanation and offering. Behind a low metal fence, a Buddha caressing a cat in his lap with one green hand, sits on a blanket of black polyester lace. One brightly sequined lampshade bears Pocahontas’ portrait and another that of the Holy Mother of Guadalupe, while others again are decorated with images of turtles, exotic parakeets in flight, or cuddly toys.
On the surface, his makeshift tableaux’s work not much different than our own primitive interior decoration back in the day: the beatifically pimped-up lamp-shades do not belie their discount store origins, their inner workings exposed and their cables only half heartedly hidden by shoddy duck tape.
(It’s a Barnum-and-Bailey’s world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believe in me.)
This make believe world is home to the winsome couple Bear and Wolf (I wonder who among the two is the king, and who the jester) and represents the Turtle Island where they roam and reign. Sometimes travelling together down the lazy river on a primitive float, then in chains, but still together. Their togetherness seems prerequisite to their adventure, as if the beauty of the new world they are discovering is not in the eyes of the beholder, but in the eyes of the other. We recognize them from the lampshades, which immediately elevate their status to that of the divine, and their tall tales to mythology. A longing back to some indigenous Eden, in which all of nature sings with symbolic gestures and coded messages, or, as it happens –in the Queen’s English.
A poster announcing the exhibition with quotes from Pocahontas and Nezahualcoyotl, is also announcing it’s own genesis; after wrestling with finishing the work for the exhibition, the artist breaks away from the “photoshop bureaucrazy” on his computer, to take a stroll in the park:
“… so I took myself and the color striped jacket out of the house and walked down and when I came to the first flowers I already started thinking they talked to me and they said make posters again. simple posters. Of course I argued with them a while, why the simple poster ways would be wrong and maybe not doing enough for the project. […] But the flowers were in a soft way stronger than my arguments. I felt. It was as if they said, don’t think of representations, think of the real things and about the relations to them, keep doing the same things but at the same time not thinking about representations, the representations are evil ways.”
On the verso to this recto, Strau declares: “ I wish I could say that my whole project is dedicated to the Americas, but I for sure don’t know what I’m talking about, so I better not. I wish my whole project could be dedicated to the Holy Mother of Guadalupe. But I might have become too shabby a soul to proclaim my name and my word so very next to her, and as well, in connection to the, at least to me, such unbelievably intense and rich history of the Americas. […] Anyways, the better question to ask myself before going public, is why does it mean so much to me to capture this outside or alien perspective, while at the same time there is nothing I desire more than morphing myself into a true Turtle Island citizen (American of many American nations) myself? Probably it is because I was always a bit of an alien too, wherever I was, wherever I will go, and therefore it would be better that I live there myself.”
The first time I visited America I had no ambition to live there myself, but as I flew in over the suburbs of Saint Louis with all its swimming pools glistening in the summer heat, I had to admit that the aerial view had a stunning American Beauty. On my next trip I found myself in the snowy mountainside of Boulder, Colorado, where the wild mountain lions are. A relative of a relative, whose chalet we were dining at, inquired with a smirk what it was “like to live in Amsterdam?” I assured him that not all the good citizens of Amsterdam like to enjoy their soft drugs before lunch and continued: “… just like all Americans don’t have a gun tucked away in their bedside table drawer.” He looked puzzled: “but we do have a gun in our bedside table drawer?” His wife butted in, trying to alleviate the awkward silence: “Yes, but now that we have a baby on board, I gave him gun locks for Valentines Day, so that our little one doesn’t have ‘an accident.’” I assured her that was the most romantic thing I had ever heard, but the conversation had stalled. From both sides we were staring into a cultural divide, the size of an abyss.
Now that I do live here, I frequently feel this chasm opening between me and my friends and family back in Europe who like to generalize along similar lines about what Americans and life in America is “like.” From a European perspective, America is often perceived as a bully: lacking of history, uncultured and crass, while I find myself everyday surrounded by “such unbelievably intense and rich history of the Americas” and such unadulterated American Beauty.
In her ode to America “Oh Beautiful,” Detroit rapper Invincible sings:
With your spacious skies
I want to love you
But you hide behind
A fake disguise
I dunno. I see where she is coming from, but I suspect that the true American beauty lies in its fake disguise, its artifice. Glitzy Faux-Italianate facades on plywood and cinderblock structures from whose derelict backsides exposed telephone and power cables spill into unsavory alleyways. State-of-the-art plastic surgery boob-and-lip-jobs paid for with the 2nd mortgage or the 7th divorce settlement alimony by has-been Hollywood starlets m/f, now rendered so unrecognizable that a return to the silver screen would more aptly be called a reincarnation, was it not for the fact that the meat on those bones have been all-but-replaced by silicone. Etc. Etc.
Like in the cosmology of Terry Pratchet’s fantasy novel series Disc World — in which the world resides on the shield of a giant turtle, standing on the shield of an even bigger turtle, living on the shield of a more enormous turtle yet, traversing the shield of a gargantuan turtle, etc. etc. –this Turtle Island is “turtles all the way down.”
I’m writing this on Columbus Day: You don’t know what you’ve got till your gone. I forget how American I am (becoming) until I find myself wearing the only red jacket in a black sea of Scandinavian winter wear. In Copenhagen, the only people wearing varsity wear are the pushers. You will find them on Pusher Street. They are trying to look “ghetto,” because we don’t have real ghettos in Copenhagen –or we like to think so. In America you are considered fashion forward for knowing the cardinal rules of color coordination: All black always work we all know. The color-blocked flatness of modernist monochromes we all know. Yet I crave billboards on my shirt palm trees and sunsets landing strips and desert highways disappearing into my solar plexus. The illusion that you can just blend in and be one with the landscape like tromp-l’oeil, like camouflage.
On our way to school this morning, my pearl of a girl suddenly exclaimed:
“Art class has been good to me this year!”
Although absentminded, I asked her to elaborate. She told me about a collaborative class project, in which a scrapped subway car (imagined, I imagine) is thrown into the sea. Nestled on the bottom of the sea, as the corals do their thing and the fish move in, the subway car muses to itself: “I used to live in a city, but now a city lives in me.”
As we all know, you can take a girl out of the countryside, but you can’t take the countryside out of the girl. As those of us who paid attention in art class will know, once beauty has known you from the inside, you will find beauty’s inside, where you least expect it.
Art class has been good to us so far, indeed!
 David Hickey, “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty” in The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009) 1.
 Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, 2
 Josef Strau: The New World: Application for Turtle Island (poster)(Chicago: Te Renaissance Society, 2014)
 Strau: The New World: Application for Turtle Island
Lise Haller Baggesen left her native Denmark in 1992 to study painting in the Netherlands. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family. In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice including curating, writing and immersive multimedia installation work. Her first book “Mothernism” was published by Poor Farm Press and Green Lantern Press in 2014.
Fall lingers, with warm days and fiery trees, longer nights and frosty mornings. Daylight has changed, striking us at more oblique angles, lengthening shadows even at noon. I follow my shadow farther and farther from my center, looking back to where I stand, doubling, tripling, multiply exposing and bodily reproducing fall days and perspectives.
The sunny gallery at Highpoint Center for Printmaking is a lovely site for Aaron Spangler’s new exhibition Luddite. The massive woodcuts simultaneously invite viewing their totality from across the room and detailed examination. The broad stroke of the prints overwhelms the walls, forcing out the white space around them. The figurative pieces begin to resolve into senses of shifting meaning; the more abstract prints resist resolution, push against meaning making within their patterns and eye movement across the paper. Upon closer inspection, Spangler’s hand is very present, in the patterned marks of tools, the subtle gradations in pressure applied to the tools, the grain of the wood, the creases and folds in the paper. They are multiples, so clearly prints in their materiality, yet they resist. They are not simply mechanically reproduced objects. They manifest the human, maintain the layers of work, the hours of crafting that went into their making.
Instead of Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction and the digital reproduction that is happening even as you read these words, what happens when a work of art is biologically reproduced? How is our experience altered when we cannot simply consume the work in the gallery or the comfort of our own homes and screens?
I saw Anne Theresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas at the Walker Art Center last week. I have not been able to get it out of my head. The dance is simultaneously deathly serious, paring down movement, facial expression to the barest framework of a dance language we start to recognize. The first section is silent, slow, laconic in comparison to the later three sections. The dancers’ breath and the slap of arms and legs onto the floor resonate within the silence of the theatre. The dancers individually and collectively lay perfectly still to the point that we wonder if they are still connected to the movement. The dancers shift and cascade in patterns of coordinated movement that struggle to coalesce. They seem to unite, but they crumble, decompose, reform, find their footing, and slip amid silence and stillness. This extended, protean formation of language with which the dancers assault their own bodies gathers momentum, collapses, rolls over, accretes into the flurry and avalanche of activity of the later sections of the dance.
Throughout the dance, the dancers verge on the mechanical. At first look, they seem to become machines reproducing everyday movements we know, repeating movements with inhuman regularity in patterns beyond human comprehension, but the dancers each move with their own slightly inflected accents. Each dancer’s movements comprise entire sets of linguistic encyclopedias. Each time we begin to grasp the movement language they dance, it slips between our fingers. We are travelling through a foreign land with shifting dialects and argot. The regularity, the patterning, the building, dismantling, permutational collection of individual movements lures us into believing we can gain an understanding of what is happening, that we can know and predict what comes next. We begin to understand the foreign language, feel like we know the tense, what should be the next subject, object, verb, dangling participle, but we are jarred into awareness by the strange gesture we have never seen, the new part of speech we cannot parse. Beyond simply seeing live bodies before us on the stage, the biological reproduction of and within the dance is constantly foregrounded, never absent from our perception of the dancers.
De Keersmaeker reinforces this biological reproduction in opening the Rosas Danst Rosas choreography to everyone. Whether in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary or in response to the Beyoncification of her work, the choreography is explained in great detail in step by step videos. The reproductions, covers, remakings of this second section of the dance model a new method of dancemaking that draws from the movement vocabulary from which de Keersmaeker crafted yet is clearly distinct, a new direction in movement language. They expand the conversation in dialects across dancers throughout the globe. They arise from the best of digital reproduction to magnify and unite the individuality of dancers, drawing us closer together in the potentials of common understanding while reinforcing the individuality that resists the mechanical, the faults that maintain our humanity.
We’re thrilled to report that former Bad at Sports’ blog editor Claudine Isé has been appointed executive director of Chicago’s nonprofit feminist contemporary art space Woman Made Gallery. In addition to having been a real force at Bad at Sports, where she (with Meg Onli) not only got this blog up and running but also garnered it international readership, Claudine has nearly 20 years of experience in the field of contemporary art. She has worked as a curator, writer and editor for some really top-notch places, most notably Wexner Center for the Arts, the UCLA Hammer Museum, and ART21. She has also written extensively about contemporary art and artists for numerous publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, Chicago Reader, Artforum.com, Art Papers, and the ART21 Blog. She is currently a Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she teaches in the Museum and Exhibition Studies Program in the School of Art and Art History. And, it’s important for us (especially for me, the now editor of this blog) to note how profoundly influential Claudine has been in her short time in Chicago to students and young curators, writers and arts professionals. Our own Richard Holland had this to say about Claudine, and Duncan MacKenzie and I enthusiastically second this statement:
“Claudine’s talent, scholarship, patience and kindness are to be admired. Mother Theresa looks like the devil’s cabana boy next to her.”
In the press release put out by Woman Made, Claudine, with the gracefulness she is known for, said this about her new gig:
“I’m thrilled to be joining Woman Made Gallery as its new Executive Director,” Isé said. “Under Beate’s governance, WMG has established itself as one of only a handful of nonprofit contemporary art spaces in the U.S. dedicated to the work of women artists. I am deeply inspired by the Gallery’s unwavering commitment to the social and cultural ideals espoused by feminism, LGBTQ activism, and social justice movements. Woman Made Gallery is a vital resource for contemporary artists of all genders, and I am looking forward to working with its exceptional staff, board and funders to further the Gallery’s mission.”
We caught up with the new executive director to ask a few nosey questions about what her new role means for her work as a curator and critic, and for Woman Made, for which Claudine will be the only the second-ever executive director after Beate Minkovski, a co-founder who leaves the post after 22 years of leadership.
No. Working as the executive director of a nonprofit feminist contemporary art space and attempting to write criticism would present way too many potential conflicts of interest. Even if it didn’t—there is so much good work to pursue at Woman Made, I certainly wouldn’t have the time!
Yes I will, but I’ll also be actively seeking out fresh voices to bring to the gallery in guest curator capacities. We have a tiny staff at WMG and we can’t do it all — and anyway, it’s more fun to collaborate with other people! For myself, it’s a bit too early to say for certain what I will or can do exhibition-wise, but there are two ideas I’m already turning over in my head: I want to look at the work of women coders, who often find themselves to be the lone female on a software team, and the communities that women coders are building together around their shared experiences in what’s still typically thought of as a guy’s field. I’m mulling over how to make that type of work “visible” in an art gallery context. I also want to look at people’s relationship to clothing—and here I do mean “people”: women, men, and folks who gender identify in multiple and varied ways. Have you read the book “Women in Clothes”? A friend recommended it to me and it’s fascinating. I’d like to organize something big and ambitious that looks at a wide variety of people and their relationship to the clothes they wear. It’s the kind of thing where the more closely you look, the more strange our relationship to clothing becomes.