Guest post by Lise McKean
Voyage à Nantes, until August 31, 2014
Thanks to my husband who’s from the Atlantic coast of France, I’m a regular visitor to Nantes, a city the size of Boston on the estuary of the Loire River. I just got back from there and besides long days and lingering twilight, another good reason to visit in summer is to take in Le Voyage à Nantes. I first saw it last summer, and 2014 is the third edition of this two-month arts festival. Voyage creates visual and conceptual conversations between contemporary works, cultural treasures from local museums, and the sites themselves. Alongside centuries of architectural, urban, and riverine forms, installations resonate with green innovation and spaces–Nantes was Europe’s Green Capital in 2013.
Voyage activates the city’s green identity. A fluorescent green line painted on the pavement leads voyagers to exhibition sites and suggests destinations to everyday flâneurs. The 8-mile line branches into three circuits covering 42 sites in central Nantes. Another route brings visitors further afield by bike, boat, car, or bus to see Estuary, a collection of permanent installations occupying industrial and natural sites near the river between Nantes and downstream at St. Nazaire.
Like any trip, some sights and moments on Voyage appeal more than others. The 2103 and 2014 shows aren’t padded with works so obvious that they’re slam-dunk crowd pleasers. That is, thankfully the organizers don’t mistake facile for accessible–a problem less savvy large-scale public exhibitions pose for art connoisseurs. One year to the next artists and curators create installations that produce different experiences of the same indoor or outdoor spaces.
For example, the works occupying the expansive Place du Bouffay in central Nantes in 2013 and 2014 enliven the space very differently. Follow the Leaders by Isaac Cordal for Voyage 2013 is at once large and small: the installation takes up a lot of the plaza, yet it’s the fit-in-your-hand personages dotting the work’s gravel and rubble that grab the attention of viewers and passersby alike. Cordal’s little, grey-suited, briefcase-carrying men look like they rained down from a Magritte painting.
This year, Vincent Mauger created Résolution des forces en présence for Place du Bouffay. It’s large, spiked, and wooden. It could be described in terms of natural forms: hedgehog, reclining pine tree, spiny sea creature. Medieval weapons enthusiasts might see the piece as the gigantic head for nasty armaments such as the morningstar or holy water sprinkler. Its size and spikes might seem menacing, but the tentative way it rests on only some of its phalanges invites an imaginary journey à la Nantes luminary Jules Verne–might it roll like a log or crawl like a scorpion across the plaza?
Taking the green line to the Temple du Goût brings visitors to a temporary exhibition space that was built in the 1750s as a commercial and residential building on the quay of the Loire and the epitome of the era’s lavish taste. Going from the bright sun into the building’s subdued light and damp interior feels like stepping back in time–or into a dungeon. Last year Cordal’s work filled the Temple’s gallery spaces with Le Nouvel Esclavage (The New Slavery). The title resonates with the site’s history: the port of Nantes was the epicenter of the Atlantic slave trade in France.
With eyes still adjusting to the darkness, visitors pass into the first exhibition. Cordal’s little men aren’t in their outdoor wasteland anymore. And the change isn’t for the better. Here they sit or slump at desks that are lined up inside animal cages that in turn are piled atop and beside each other. It’s like looking through Loop office windows from Chicago’s green line and seeing cubed workers in the ghoulish glow of fluorescent light. The savage eloquence of the installation’s stark materials and repeated forms wrenches the gut. Cordal’s additional Temple installations also explore contemporary anomie, placing the little men and other figurines and objects in different settings, but with less visceral effect.
This year the Temple du Goût offers visitors another sensibility with Curiositas, a subset of Voyage exhibitions that is unified by the interests of curators from the Nantes Musée des Beaux-Arts. A line-up of bird specimens and an Inuit kayak (1836) are near the entrance. Turn the corner and it’s another world: Alighiero e Boetti’s painting Il Progressivo Svanir della Consuetudine (1974) fills a wall with ballpoint blue. Nestled adjacent to it is a small painting by Yves Tanguy (Untitled, 1927), responding to the Boetti with its own swathe of blue.
In the next rooms a sculpture of the python spirit by the Nalu people of Guinea consorts with Personnage avec Yeux Bleus (Personage with Blue Eyes, 1954) by Gaston Chaissac. This Chaissac gem is from the Nantes art museum; one hour away, Les Sables d’Olonne’s magnificent beach is matched by collections of Chaissac and Victor Brauner at its Musée de l’Abbaye Sainte-Croix. Anne and Patrick Poirier’s Phantasma, a site specific work in the Temple whispers archeological spells while sparkling in the dimly lit room. Last last year Cordal held forth here with a fortress of briefcases.
Voyage gives old and new works summer homes to bring them closer to locals and to bring tourists to Nantes. And visual art isn’t the only attraction. Voyage offers a couple months of classical, jazz, folk, and pop music concerts, along with the Electropixel Festival and a rooftop place to watch movies, consciously riffing on old-time American drive-ins. And this being France, art extends to food: visitors eat locally produced food and wine at artist-designed picnic spots and cafés along the green line, and chefs with stars prepare dinner for 200 in a local vineyard.
Voyage also brings Nantes’ best-known sights into its orbit with works commissioned for these spaces. For example, last year Cordal’s little men were bobbing in the moat at the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne. Installations also pop up around the Parc des Chantiers, where the Compagne Machines de l’île builds and operates its grand mechanical creations on the grounds of former shipyards. On this island in the Loire, Royale de Luxe also creates monumental mechanical beings, and brings them to life as street theatre in Nantes and beyond. Just maybe one day Royale de Luxe will make its way across the Atlantic and work its magic on us here in Chicago.
Lise McKean is a social anthropologist and writer based in Chicago.
I cannot read the news at night any more. I lay awake in the fading heat filled with outrage, sadness, my heart breaking with lives destroyed, communities torn apart, people disempowered and displaced. I have been dreaming of death, loved ones suddenly gone as I sit next to their hospital bed, the charred remains of buses and cars. As summer roars into its last gasp, I need relief, escape from heat, humidity, simmering tensions. Instead, I read the news in the morning, a bitter taste lingering, a veil on my daily activities that hazes my coffee, blurs my to do list, turns food into ashes.
I am privileged. I am privileged to be aware of and called to action by the multitude of crises happening in my neighborhood and around the world. I am removed enough and have enough leisure and access to knowledge of events that surround me and that take place across the globe to choose what I consume and how I act. I am privileged to sit and write these words.
Invoking Adorno again, we must ask what is possible in the face of daily crises? What is tenable when confronting the contemporary world? How can we continue to create when the world seems to crumble around us?
There is a reason we need art. We do not need art because it expresses the experiences of people in terrifying situations or because it brings escape or comfort, although we must remember its ability to do so. We need art because we are told there is a solution to the problems we face by people who have power, who want to maintain and restore a sense that they are in control in an increasingly uncertain world, who fear their power crumbling away from them. There is not a simple or easy solution. Real change takes longer than we can conceive and cannot happen within the frameworks that surround us. We need art to help us abandon the idea that there is even a solution to be found. We need art to push boundaries, not by imagining or creating alternatives that reinforce or are co-opted by existing conditions, but by shocking us into new ways of envisioning ourselves and our power in this tragic world, by opening doors to us that we did not realize were closed.
It is not enough to read the news and be outraged, although we must be aware. It is not enough to protest, although we must make our voices heard. It is not enough to sit down to dinner with your neighbor, although we must build meaningful connections between us as individuals before we see connections between us as communities. It is not enough to be radically local, although our work here ripples beyond our sight.
Contemporary art must be that which is inextricable from the hour it was made, the neighborhood where it was conceived, the global panorama from which it arises. With the exponential expansion of information, evidence, visual records, we must be aware of what we make, what we put out into the world, the context it enters. We must pay close attention to who we are, where we come from, the privilege we embody, the impact our actions have, and we must continue to create.
Read the news. Be outraged. Protest. Eat dinner with your neighbor. Be radically local. And continue making work that pushes the boundaries of what we know to be desirable. Art and artists are not a way to fix the broken systems that surround us, but they may be one way to begin a future we cannot foresee.
I am for an art that admits and proudly wears its context. I am for an art that is inextricable from the world which shaped it.
I awake from my dreams. I push aside the veil of of despair and apathy. I rise to meet the challenges of the day. They do not decrease.
In his 2012 essay “Saving Zelda,” Tevis Thompson takes the Legend of Zelda series—of which he is a lifelong fan—to task. “Zelda sucks, and it has sucked for a long time,” he writes, not so much as to incite fan rage, but to lay what we all maybe suspect on the table: “modern Zeldas are broken at their core.”
He’s right, in a sense, and his long missive does a better job of explaining it than I ever could: that it retreads the same territory it’s covered since the halcyon days of the N64. Each new entry has its detractors and defenders, and while the most recent, handheld title into the series attempts to return to its roots (a certain excitement in the idea of unfettered exploration), there’s still something in its heart that fails:
“Modern Zeldas do not offer worlds. They offer elaborate contraptions reskinned with a nature theme, a giant nest of interconnected locks. A lock is not only something opened with a silver key. A grapple point is a lock; a hookshot is the key. A cracked rock wall is a lock; a bomb is the key. That wondrous array of items you collect is little more than a building manager’s jangly keyring.”
The first time I discovered Thompson’s essay I was in the middle of playing Super Metroid, which is a part of one of Nintendo’s other famed franchises. While Thompson castigates Zelda for offering keys in the form of action—for instance, a grappling hook that will let you climb ledges or stick to walls, accessing areas you couldn’t before, in the same way that a key opens a door—Metroid doesn’t even attempt to hide the item/key comparison. In Metroid, weapons are keys: in addition to dispatching specific enemies, each weapon corresponds to a specific color-coded type of door, and you must shoot it until it gives way. The world is locked, and destruction is the only way to open it. The difference, ultimately, appears to be in the spaces in-between, in Metroid’s (literally) alien landscapes, its empty areas, filled with unpredictable landscapes, unpredictable rhythms.
Zelda’s issue, I think, isn’t so much in the keys,—it’s in the rhythm. So much of Zelda relies on a predictable formula—block until an enemy attacks, then counter attack—that even the bosses, great, exciting monoliths they may be, are reduced into a pattern, usually performed three times. Avoid attacks, wait for a weakness to open, and use whatever item/key you received most recently to attack that weakness. It will be covered up again, but it will once again be revealed after a similar pattern (if not the same but faster), usually twice over, or more, if the boss is meant to be more important. If Metroid’s patterns are unpredictable and exciting, an odd song, Zelda has become a top 40 pop-hit, regurgitated over and over, continually sampling itself. Instead of hitting a large boss 3 times on the belly, we’re hitting him on the head (or sometimes, the butt), or vice versa, ad infinitum.
The rhythm is stale. In the past couple of years there’s been a popular trend in which people, usually digital artists, sometimes programmers, create what they call “demakes.” These are often presented as single screenshots, or maybe title screens that depict modern day games as how they might have been had they come out on the consoles of yesteryear—for instance, a first-person shooter might be rendered in the side-scrolling manner of an Super Nintendo game, or so on.
But, overwhelmingly, the idea of the demake is entirely graphical, or technological—what if this game was made within these constraints. Rarely, if ever, does a demake ask: what would this game be like if the interactive system of playing was reduced? In the case of Metroid, you could take out the empty space between each door, reduce the weapons to keys—it could be one long hallway, moving back and forth and unlocking doors in a straightforward progression. Same with Zelda’s exploration—weapons could become keys, large areas could be reduced to whatever specific encounters defined them. Large fields to run across could simply disappear.
Or in the case of Zelda’s fighting—the 3-hit beat—it’d be easiest to reduce it into a genre that is already alive and well: the rhythm game. It’s easiest to define this genre by pointing to its well-known examples, namely games like Guitar Hero (or Rock Band) or even Dance Dance Revolution. These are games that exist as a series of button prompts that demand buttons be pressed in a specific order, with specific timing. But even this is not exactly new, nor are GH and DDR their first demonstrators: I remember spending time in an arcade plugging away at the scripted sequences of a Die Hard video game, where on-screen prompts demanded that I hit jump or directional buttons at the right time, or perish in a spectacularly visual fashion.
But even then, before it: my family owned an old Simon machine, whose four colored buttons would light up and beep in progressively faster and longer sequences, demanding the player to return the order, the rhythm, existing on a plane without screens. It’s this sort of action—and games like Pattycake before it—that ultimately give birth to the idea of the music/rhythm/button-press combo that moves to the forefront of games like Guitar Hero—where it stands as a delightfully singular purpose—or in Zelda, where the rut is evident with each new hero that demands the same exact tactic, but presented in a different visual manner.
I think at their cores, most games may be easily reduced into the rhythm genre. Since games and their enemies are programmed into familiar patterns, it makes sense for the player to learn them as musical phrases, as loops, so that they may easily step into the pattern whenever it’s most comfortable and easy for them. All they need to do is wait for the right moment to step, press a button, or whatever, and they fit into the game world’s rhythm, move on to the next phrase, be it in the form of shooting an enemy while he is reloading, to jumping on a flying turtle when they reach their rhythmic low point, to parrying a predictable sword attack and returning the favor.
I’ve been playing a lot of this game, OlliOlli, which is a skateboarding game, but also—and maybe predominantly—a rhythm game. The most obvious comparison is the Tony Hawk series, but I can’t help but wonder if the comparison is specious and only obvious because of the subject matter: they are both skating games, but are they really siblings as games? While they’re both about skating the perfect line and doing spins and tricks to rack up point combos, OlliOlli often feels like an authentic and realistic demake of Tony Hawk, and I think has a sort of privilege because it came afterwards. As though if a modern Zelda were to predate an original Zelda, the latter might be seen as a demake, removing the superfluous, returning to Thompson’s praisable roots.
OlliOlli is pure skating: where Tony Hawk’s missed tricks and accidents merely pause the action until your character gets back up on his board, they spell the end of a run in OlliOlli; the level resets in total. (In this way, it takes inspiration from auto-running mobile games like Canabalt, Flappy Bird, or Temple Run.) But the resets are so quickly that the game feels fuller, more defined: it is a more distilled skating experience, even though it is limited to a two-dimensional plane, limited solely to skating. It takes Tony Hawk’s punk mentality and refines it with rhythmic stimuli: release the jump button when stairs appear. Hold down when a railing appears. Press the landing button when the ground appears. While Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution use actual buttons scrolling vertically on the screen to make the player act, OlliOlli substitutes physical objects that have a corresponding button to be pressed, with player-affected tweaks within—similar to Guitar Hero’s pointless but fun whammy bar. The action is refined, distilled in the core parts that are so memorable about other skating games. It removes skating around in 3D space to find obstacles, and the extras that sprouted out of that space. It removes the chaff.
Which makes me wonder: when we rail about sequels, either in games or movies or whatever, are we railing against the muddying of pure concepts? Thompson’s annoyance might seem propelled by nostalgia, but it’s not just that these older games came out when we were younger, it’s that they came out against technological limitations that made them simpler. And as games grew, their concepts grew, consoles grew more buttons, and the modern era became defined by a lack of simplicity. Which is why it’s exciting to visit the idea of the conceptual demake, not just for art’s sake, but for gameplay. If we’ve hit a peak technological level—graphics might be as good as they ever need to be—then the only thing left to fine tune isn’t visual crispness, but the snap of gameplay mechanics. If rhythm is the purest form of a video game–and in someways, I think it is: the back and forth of a pong paddle, the block and strike of a sword game, the ebb and flow of Mario and Sonic–a return to that can be seen as the same sort of limitation as writing in a poetic form. If modern Zelda’s problem is a false open world, then maybe game design’s problem is also that idea of unlimited potential that ultimately falls flat.
Just as not every button needs a purpose, not every game design element needs to show up in the same spot. While older games were groundbreaking technologically, they were also purer, more focused, prime examples of what can happen on a limited plane, both design-wise and visually. OlliOlli seems like another entrant into a space that realizes greater graphics bring with them more complicated action, because bigger, more bombastic spaces call for bigger action lest the spaces or worlds feel empty or overdrawn. A player can feel frustrated if they’re limited too harshly by a seemingly-open world, but if the world itself acknowledges those limitations and welcomes them, it shows the player to do the same, and the experience becomes more focused, more pure, more less.
Guest post by Sofia Leiby
In early 2014 Chicago-based painters Sofia Leiby and Josh Dihle had a conversation about painting, about Dihle’s painting in particular, at Adult Contemporary, an artist-run apartment gallery in Logan Square.
Sofia Leiby: So, how did you come to paint plants?
Josh Dihle: The plants are the things I do while I’m making the painting. They are the scenery, what populate the space. So whether I’m making a bunch of paper mâché groceries (as with Roger’s Grocery in 2011), or I’m painting little ferns, it’s about the act, the irrational act, that propels the image which makes the painting. And there’s a labor component, not as a display of labor, but labor towards a density.
SL: What sort of density?
JD: A density like the framing of the painting that points to itself, as in Dark Moss. It’s about the creation of a black hole for attention… Not attention in the theatrical sense, but a kind of focus. That one hung in my bedroom across from my bed for a while.
SL: What’s your painting timeline? When do you work?
JD: I just left one job [at an art gallery] because I wanted more time in the studio, so I have four days a week to myself. Among other things, I had done Miami Basel [art fair in Miami Beach] and talked to people about paintings in a kind of sales-y atmosphere.
SL: “Sales-y,” that’s a really cute way to talk about Art Basel. I worked there in 2012. I thought I’d go and think “Oh my god, this isn’t the world I want to be in.” But that wasn’t my reaction. It was more like, “Wow! Look at this Chris Wool from 2013!”
JD: There’s a lot of good stuff to see. The best times for the fairs are when no one has arrived or everyone has left. I was there for eight days and my show was going to open the next week, so I made this painting while I was there. I’d go back to my Air BnB studio apartment and work on this painting at night, and I called it How to Get Fancy with the King because I was thinking about the power relationships at play between buyers, sellers, makers, and viewers.
SL: You’re the king?
JD: The king is the power holder. For me, this is a silly and obnoxious painting, as I was thinking about the airs one puts on for the ones in power. The plants are too big, they are falling over and they’re all pointy and kind of unpleasant, the colors are a little nauseating: I saw myself as the court fool who is having to wear a lot of bells and silly things in order to get into the fancy place, wherever that might be.
SL: That’s funny. You’re going back to your hotel and painting. It’s like the opposite of what an artist normally does during Art Basel.
JD: I know.
SL: With a lot of this melding of art and life and having to have a career, these things get really muddy. It’s two kinds of productivity. The productivity of making, versus the painting, versus networking around the painting. There’s this thing about artists working for galleries, is it problematic, does it help, is it good for making connections… You’re purposefully putting up a wall, saying, “I don’t want to engage my job at the gallery in that way.”
It’s curious to me, and really admirable. It’s almost like you were a musician working in a chemistry lab. Like you have nothing to gain from your profession but you do at the same time.
JD: It’s not that I don’t want to network; I’m just not interested in it. I have to think about the fact that making the paintings is something of personal necessity. But I actually am paying close attention to what is happening out there. These paintings attest to that attentiveness, but they are still of a personal nature and are reflective of my own tendencies and peculiarities. Not that they are all so unique. I don’t even think the whole originality thing is part of the rubric for me.
It’s funny, in one of the first episodes of [art podcast] Bad at Sports, Michelle Grabner, talking about young artists, says she wouldn’t put her approach [as a curator, writer, artist and educator] up as an exemplary model for everyone, advising that some people should just make their art. I’m somebody who has curated, and I do write, it just doesn’t go out the door… I’d love to be the polymath that she is. But she said to just make the work. I thought that was pretty great advice.
SL: What about the black painting [Dead Elephant]?
JD: Oddly, How to Get in Fancy with the King has the most going on in it and it was by far the quickest painting in the show. Everything else was months of work. In Dead Elephant, you can see all the background stuff, the scoring into it. I continued to winnow everything down and glaze in and add these folds on top of it until the last visible part was the elephant’s head. The elephant is the closest I’ve come to the figure in a while. It represents the eternal innocent to me. It can be the stand-in for a relationship, or something you don’t want to lose steam around. It also carries a lot of cultural references.
SL: The elephant seems to be in contrast, then, to the plants, which are something to do whilst you paint. It seems more symbolic. Do you think about it differently?
JD: I started thinking about the elephant when I got out of a long relationship, and needed something more concrete to hang this weight on.
SL: Right. And the heaviest thing you can think of? A dead elephant!
JD: Right. So without having the seismic-level shifts [like a breakup] going on, I deal with the day-to-day freneticism that I feel in my life in the studio. The plants or obsessively worked abstract paintings become became the alternative mode to something like the elephant. But it’s not like I’m trying to make that one plant stand directly for every human woe.
When I first painted the elephant, it was part of a more complex, lush jungle. It didn’t assume that singular spotlight role until later. It was a decision making that happened more additively.
SL: I like that your decision making, adding to the painting and darkening the stage, so to speak, by adding the foliage around the elephant, is part of the life or narrative of the painting. It contains both process and symbolism.
JD: Yes, exactly. I love that you’re saying stage. I think it was [Philip] Guston who said his paintings are like a stage after all the actors walk off. I have been thinking about these paintings as depopulated. They’re nothing but the scenery; in this case, it’s the scenery around an elephant, but the viewer provides the figure. You yourself are there.
SL: This is a bit of a deviation, but I’ve been thinking about this idea of “virtual space.” Looking at this painting by a friend of mine the other day, I was trying to describe the space between these two layers. There’s this thing, and there’s this thing behind it. Can I measure the distance [between those two]? I thought about it as analogous to when I’m holding my phone. This distance between the screen and my face, I don’t know how to measure it because my head is there and the screen fills my space. And the same thing with a laptop, where does your body start interacting with a device and where does it stop? Are you interacting here, or here [at different proximities between body and machine]?
JD: Painting is a thing of the mind. That’s the saying. So that type of space contributes to the nebulous, ambiguous bodily relationship to a painting that proves that you don’t need to be completely inside of it to experience it.
SL: Although, these may be too flat for me to enter. The space is so tight that I’m not really there, but I do experience a tilting forward wherever the horizon line is, that it’s falling onto me.
JD: As far as my formal space in these works, it’s not like the curve of space in a Lucian Freud painting, like when his model is spilling down off the couch in front of you and gravity is sucking her down. These paintings are more about a space where there’s only one part of the horizon that recedes, and you understand everything else to be flat. But from top to bottom there is no scale shift. I have a big one in the studio that’s five and half feet tall and it’s painted very much in this way. The shadows, the way the light sits, this plant is casting a shadow straight down, but this plant here, the shadow is going straight back from it. So there’s that Cubist goofiness and then it’s also like wallpaper, without a plot. If there were deep space, there would be more of a plot to it. It’s more about the performance of the painting.
SL: Formally, I also just love those aloe plants. Plants do that sometimes, grow one long arm and somehow, it’s so disgusting. Or sometimes the sun is over there and it points toward it. You’re like, you’re not supposed to do that! You forget that plants are not decoration but are living things.
JD: Plants do not have their own sentience, but they are heliotropic, they grow toward light. It’s like a formal consciousness. Maybe this is how my consciousness resides in the paintings. The thing to remember about these plants is that I’m making them all up.
SL: So you don’t draw them from life. You don’t have plants in your studio?
JD: I have a plant in my studio; it’s rapidly dying. But no, in this case, no. There is no real plant like that. And if you look at them, they all have the same form, they all have this star with an elaboration coming out of this central point.
SL: They disappear into that little hole. It’s disturbing. Because you [wonder] where is the part where it descends into the ground. And it’s not even a whole, it’s a point; it’s empty in the middle. It’s almost like it came together underneath and then sprouted, breaking through the plane.
JD: Yes, so it’s the outgrowth of an isolated studio behavior, not the outgrowth of a rational, observed reality. That’s the distinction. So, no, these plants are not conscious in the way that you or I am conscious but they are heliotropic…there is an awareness, there is some kind of responsiveness in their being.
SL: Right. They are reaching toward each other but just missing. I like the cherry-blossom colors of this one [Meridian, 2013].
JD: They used to be dark trees, but I painted everything out and repositioned them, so there are ghost trees underneath. It disrupts the presumed sequence of the narrative. You assume that this painting was a linear march toward its completion, but it was a total Clyfford Still abstraction for a long time.
SL: It’s like if you took a Clyfford Still and put seeds all over it and then waited for two months. You left it in an abandoned lot.
JD: He would have hated that, too.
SL: I really like the thought of this being an abstract painting that weeds just started growing on, like it was outside for too long.
JD: It’s fair to say that if I happen to switch into the gear where I get really obsessive and repetitive, then there’s a very good chance that it will become a representational painting with the plant form in it. It’s bearing down. I’m a fucking worrier and I’m obsessive. That’s my nature and I’m finding it to be irrepressible in my studio.
SL: “Obsessive” is such a subjective formal qualifier though. We’re talking about a fairly airy painting for example.
JD: The decision-making is what’s obsessive for me. But the actual look of the thing can be pretty open. It’s not obsessive like a [Michelle] Grabner.
SL: People deal with obsession in different ways. You obsess over decisions; she obsesses over forms.
It must have been some late summer day, when there was finally enough to eat and most of the larger predators were sleeping in the shade still digesting lunch, that some enterprising neanderthal looking for a new hovel chanced upon something exciting and new, yet strangely familiar, the whole of which stopped him cold. It was this image, stained on a cave wall and linked to his life and the place, in his position in the neanderthal community and relation to larger game that held him captive. It was not the realism, as at this time realism was a bit too frightening. Instead it was the sensitivity, the unconscious awareness that touched his soul made him even consider such a thing as soul, Not just any painting, but the best painting ever to grace a cave wall, better than the Lascaux ones 100 times over. Stuck with such beauty from human hands, an instinct for ownership kicked in. Surely he could convince the artist to move to a smaller cave in the ever increasing slums of the neanderthal community, perhaps something in its commercial farming district? Filled with views of majestic mastodons being felled by hunters, or images of open fields, which will surely inspire generations of painters, from madness of Van Gogh to the rigidity of Grant Wood. A few days after the Studio was born, so was the Art Collector. (Although, at this time, they were referred to as Art Gatherers.)
In the Middle Ages, an abundance of artists meant specialization had to happen. Credibility already became more important than style, and as Lane Relyea said in regards to artists of the 21st century, the studio “gives the artist a mailing address and a doorstep”1, enabling apprentices to find him as “master” and patrons to buy the work by the stacks. His vision of art could proliferate and survive and later mutate, thanks to the studio. During the Renaissance these spaces became an integral part in the life and production of art and artists. Before the ateliers were replaced by the academy, EVERYTHING was linked to the place of creation.
Despite what any “studiobased” program may claim, the academy and the studio have always been at odds. Strict adherence within the art world to keeping the academy intact is important for the survival of so many within it. The academy takes the studio’s place for learning in order to continue some pedagogy and profit from an unending and ever increasing line of hopefuls. These schools usually advertise the amenities of space and equipment at hand for the learning artist. But the student is always aware that upon graduating, that studio will no longer be available to him or her. Artists working in their studios are romanticized, and the elusive space becomes mythologized.
To create work inside the institution walls provides the kind of affirmation most artists struggle for, so to work on projects as the venue and funding becomes available as opposed to paying monthly rent hoping for an exhibition solves a lot of problems. Post Studio approaches also allow the artist a certain nomadic ability, able to shed the baggage of their own halfwrought and failed art cluttering their studio. Able to constantly see with fresh eyes, artists working in this way can potentially advance their own work further than if they were tethered to one location, surrounded by the last works they made. The post studio is also at home in the digital age, where physical space seems to shrink while at the same time we experience an expanding of virtual space. In the real world, this virtual space can take place as flexible real estate: a space that is available not as a permanent residence but as a temporary space. One that is not specialized but an open floor plan to accommodate many uses. Pop up, mobile, nomadic, freelancer, etc., all seem to correlate to this approach, yet within a post studio practice one is quite likely to have a permanent studio of some sort, and the idea of working within the public or real world as opposed to the isolation and comfort of a fabricated world is what often separates the two. They are not at odds as much as they seems as they still hinge upon 1) having or taking the time to think about art’s creation, and 2) the execution of an artwork(s) for display and/or sale.
In 1971, Daniel Buren wrote “The Function of the Studio” a polemical essay which not only defined his practice since, but has influenced many artists to move away from the traditional studio. Perhaps its worth the read, but contains holes. If, as Buren seems to say, that the work of art loses “its ‘truth’, its relationship to its creator and place of creation”2 when it leaves the studio, than photography would be nothing but lies unless the photograph was always and only shown where it was taken; film would be nothing but a series of lies, reinforcing each shot as a deeper falsification, and that the art collector merely enables the artist to justify stripping their work of any truth or “essence”.
Also in the essay, he asserts that the studio, mimicking the shape, lighting and proportions of the gallery and museum, attempts to ready or position the art to be produced for this framework. As the neutralized space of the institution is completely sterile, the work that is produced with it in mind is reduced to the same banality and sterility. The artist is forced to go to this generic space in their mind while creating the work to allow it to occupy just about any space. A residency is one example of a studio that challenges his assertions. It is a transient space for the artist, aligned with the workings of a post studio approach, but often incorporates the artist’s modes of production through a proposal to attend. It is by nature also linked to the incubation network of the academy, often connected to the art world through curatorial scouts or exhibition opportunities. Artwork made at a residency may stay at the space through lack of resources to move it or as a site specific piece to mark one’s time in the place. The work may return with the artist, or it may have been produced for an exhibition already in the works. Depending on the residency, the studios an artist may encounter may be the sterile imitations of the exhibition spaces Buren derides. They can easily be more adhoc spaces with as much charm as function. They may be the woods, the desert, the ocean, etc., so that while Buren could be right that the work takes its form from the spaces in which it is made, these spaces need not be sterile or banal at all. Everything is STILL connected to its place of creation, but we understand that place is experiential and movable.
Studios are a place for quiet contemplation, where artists can escape the pressures of everyday life to create and dream, become or forge something new; a bourgeois space for leisure time. Historically, we find master artists working with many assistants, apprentices and journeymen in order to meet the demand of their collectors and patrons. Buren states that the studio is a place for the production of art as a commodity, as a “convenience to the organizer”3 and a “boutique where we find readytowear art.”4 These functions are both linked to functioning within, or aspiring to the middle class. Ben Davis clarifies class distinctions quite brilliantly in “9.5 Theses on Art and Class”: “class position relates not to how much one happens to be paid but to the kind of labor [sic] one does and how this labor relates to the economy”5. The Middle Class would then include people whose labor gives them authority over others and themselves. It is the desire of the Middle class to “maintain [sic] their autonomy”6. This desire is not linked to monetary gain but to a set of ideals within the execution and formation of their labor. It is by creating or developing a certain product or output that is unique that this autonomy can be best sustained, allowing one to be the sole keeper of his or her commodifiable talent. The artist is part of the middle class by creating work that is to have a life outside of their studio in a collection or exhibition that affirms their uniqueness and position as well as (hopefully) feeding them. When their leisure time (perhaps as members of the working class as an employee of someone else) is manifests itself in consumable works, they enter the middle class. The studio then could be an entryway into the middle class.
A studio and formal education are similar, in that they confer authority on those who have them. As artists we use each for our desire to be taken seriously, just as we hope they will help us make the work we want to make. We take on the studio in transient forms from the start of our education, because it doesn’t matter as much to where we are, but that we are. Responding to a set of circumstances or constructed parameters like rules in a game, we negotiate our lives with our art, looking for ease of movement between the concerns of our stomachs and the desires of our spirit. No surprise, then, that we will move between classes multiple times. We’ll get kicked out of studios just as we got booted from that cave 40,000 years ago, but we can also build again.
If some dank cave dimly lit by a fire served as the first studio, future studios may be strictly digital, the art illuminated by LED pixels created not in a “space” at all but between two or more computers communicating together. A world will be reflected, and in the flickering of the light, the incompleteness of awareness, mixed with the details of contemplation and discovery, the reflected world will be totally new, yet familiar. The objects of that world will work together to create a language around everything vital to it, what is known and what is not. In the reflection we find ourselves, and in the transmutation of matter, or light, whatever, we discover more about ourselves and existence as reality. Regardless of form, the studio is an opportunity we allow ourselves to reflect on an ever present, fluid, wholly immersed, infinite reality transcending time, matter and consciousness.
1 Lane Relyea, “Studio Unbound” in The Studio Reader: On the space of Artists ed. Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner, (University of Chicago Press, 2010) 349
2 Daniel Buren, “The Function of a Studio”, first published in October (Fall 1979), 57
3 Ibid, 52
4 Ibid, 52
5 Ben Davis, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, (Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2013), 13
6 Ibid, 14