Mike Hoolboom’s MARK @ The Gene Siskel Film Center

October 22, 2009 · Print This Article

Presented by the Department of Film Video and New Media at SAIC, the Video Data Bank and the Gene Siskel Film Center, as part of their Conversations at the Edge series, Mark is a video portrait of Mark Karbusicky, created after his suicide in 2007.

Director Mike Hoolboom began his opening remarks by stating that there was a time in his life when all the good things happened in a movie theater, until a day in 2007 when he found out that his friend and collaborator of six years Mark had killed himself, which he was told right before a movie began. Yikes.

The film reads less like a documentary and more like a moving collage of stock footage, childhood portraits and relics, as well as interviews with his friends and family. Beginning with his oldest childhood friend, the film traces the life of a man you end up knowing less about in the end than you did to begin with. It is an odd portrait in that it seems to capture more the periphery of his life than actually attempting to memorialize the man himself. Or perhaps documenting the margins of his life, his politics, odd moments in home videos, Hoolboom was attempting to achieve a more genuine view of Mark as a person.

Created mostly of footage taken by his partner (who happens to be transsexual, although this is actually irrelevant), of her own performances and activism, Mark by default seems to be the supporting character in his own life memorium. Mark was clearly a tortured person. Deeply invested in animal rights, queer politics, and helping others with mental illness, a lot of attention was focused on how little he cared about himself and put all others before him. Hoolboom spoke after the screening about how the film was created in the space between the way things were before Mark had died and before things had settled into the way they would be after his death. The rawness of this period is apparent especially in the interviews, which were all done within the year after his death.

The film is edited to create an intense amount of tension. Many pieces of footage are overlapped, the hand-heldness is emphasized in upside down and shaky camera work, and shots seems to be just too short, or just too long or just too out of focus for one to feel comfortable. In an interview with one of Mark’s friend and coworker, the camera is at table height, and the woman is half obscured by a large candle holder. The focus goes in and out as she tells this heartwrenching rendition of their final interaction. After the screening, Hoolboom explains that he wanted to give his interviewees physical space, and referenced this shot in particular to demonstrate how he wanted the candle to mediate the space between her and the camera. Although I acknowledge the  gesture after he spoke about it, during the shot I felt myself wanting to peer around the obstacle and actually see her face. Another shot I thought was more successful was that of Mark’s partner Mihra-Soleil Ross; the camera was focused on the deep red wall of their apartment, you could see a bookcase and a plant, and she walked almost around the frame while she spoke about her recurring dreams during their ten year relationship that he had left her. Her body was just present enough to give you a sense of agency, but the lack of her presence really caused you to focus on her words and storytelling.

I wish the voiceover was left out. Hoolboom in person is charming and eloquent and gesticulates beautifully; on screen his voice seems affected and melodramatic. I think the subtly is lost when documentarians feel the need to describe what has happened instead of letting moods come across through images.

The film was successful in that it felt vast and encompassing, through the use of stock footage that spanned decades, Mark’s own home videos and photos as well as different people speaking about him. It did not feel like the entire momentum of the piece lead up to a dramatic revelation of how he killed himself, which was refreshing. Hoolboom said that his death was not the most important thing that happened in his life, and I think the film reflected this sentiment.

Hot Topic Alert: Art Theory by Artists

October 22, 2009 · Print This Article

There’s a great discussion going on right now at Edward Winkleman’s blog inspired by Winkleman’s post Thinking While Making Things, which was in turn inspired by an interview with Robert Storr conducted by The Art Newspaper, and an article written for Proximity by artist and frequent BaS contributor Mark Staff Brandl titled Artists Write: Thinking While Making Things. The discussion on Winkleman’s blog revolves around the ways that artists can/should/have engage(d) theory in their work and writing, the different forms that “theory” may take when it comes to artistic practice, and further on from there. Go check it out and add your voice to the discussion.

And on a side note, I have a small request of my own for current or former MFA students and/or art history graduate students, along with their professors and teachers:  I’m trying to break down what often seem to be monolithic notions of what “Theory” constitutes nowadays by looking at it from more a text-specific level.  I’m especially interested in what strains of “Theory” are being taught to younger artists who are engaged with / emerging from art programs TODAY (rather than, you know, 20 years ago, which was arguably when deconstructionist/ post-structuralist / psychoanalytic / postmodern / cultural studies-driven,  capital T Theory was in its heyday and held greatest sway). Are there any new Theories out there that I should be aware of (she said, tongue planted firmly in cheek)? What are you proverbial kids reading today? It can’t be the same shit I was reading twenty years ago…can it? Let me know what your profs are assigning or recommending (links to full-on syllabi are welcome!), and which authors and theoretical texts you’re talking about with your friends and colleagues. I want to try and map out, in painfully literal fashion,  just what it is we’re talking about when we talk about Theory.

Thanks. Now, go check out the discussion over at Mr. Winkleman’s house (and please make sure to restrict any comments here to the specific topic I put forth above…I don’t think it’s cool to siphon off discussion from another blogger’s post).

Curate This! Offers Latest Contest Model for Contemporary Art Exhibitions

October 21, 2009 · Print This Article

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Curate This! a city-wide international emerging contemporary art and design exhibition that starts June 24, 2010 in Denver, Colorado, is the latest example of how some regional arts organizations are trying to encourage a greater engagement in contemporary art among the general public by circumventing traditional approaches to group exhibition-making (particularly the top-down selection processes of curators or juries) in favor of a contest model, one which allows for the display of work by a wide field of entrants whose efforts are assessed and judged by the public. Unlike most group contemporary art shows, which tend to be organized around a theme or other connective thread, the contest model offers viewers something altogether different: a winner. A winner that the audience can help choose. A winner who, if the contest has the right backers, can earn big, maybe even big enough to be life-changing, cash prizes.

Unlike Grand Rapids’ recent, quarter of a million dollar ArtPrize, Curate This! offers its single winner a somewhat more modest prize of $10,000. And unlike ArtPrize, which relied entirely on the public to select the winners, Curate This! shoots for a kind of middle ground between juried exhibition and the pure populism of the contest mode. In fact, the title of Curate This! is somewhat misleading, because the public isn’t in any way involved in the curation of the artworks on display. That job is still left to a panel of professional curatorial “advisers” whose identity will remain hidden until the selections have been made. Once that happens, the selected entries will go on view at various Denver-area venues and at that point the public will vote on a winner. (There will also be a Curator’s Choice Award, but as far as I can tell there is no financial prize connected to it).

Unlike the ArtPrize, which for a number of reasons seems like an ineffective and somewhat suspiciously motivated model, I don’t see much that’s problematic in what the city of Denver and the BECA Foundation (the Foundation arm of the New Orleans-based Bridge for Emerging Contemporay Art) are trying to do with Curate This! For one, the $10,000 prize, while still generous and attention-grabbing, isn’t stratospherically out of proportion to what an artist might (once) have received from a regional grants foundation, pre-recession anyway. For another, the prize money comes from The BECA Foundation itself, a nonprofit organization whose goals–to “serve as a bridge by which new ideas and new art + design flow freely between New Orleans and the larger national and international contemporary art + design communities” and to “support innovation, exploration and the advancement of new ideas in contemporary visual art + design” are publicly in line with those of this contest.

Competitions like Curate This! and even ArtPrize suggest that the contest model will be primarily useful as a marketing and public relations tool for cities who wish to engage new audiences in contemporary art along with their region’s other cultural offerings. In the case of Curate This!, that city is Denver, but the exhibition goes beyond regional interests in its inclusion of international entrants, which serves to connect Denver’s art world with its counterpart in other cities and countries. That all makes sense, and for these reasons the organizers behind this particular competition seem to be approaching it in a thoughtful and notably anti-sensationalistic fashion.

Beyond its attractions to a general public, could the contest model offer something valuable to arts professionals, even to (gasp!) curators themselves? It’s hard to say, but what I am certain of is that contests like these pose little threat to the top-dog model that already characterizes the curatorial profession at large. Hans Ulrich Obrist will still be the winner, this year’s #1 guy (in Art Review magazine’s estimation, at least). It’s still too early to tell whether the contemporary art contest is just a passing fad or will ultimately prove popular enough (and a big enough revenue-generator) to be taken up en masse by other organizations and cities. If it does, I’m of the opinion that that wouldn’t be such a terrible thing–as long as we don’t inadvertently convince people that other forms of public financial support are dispensable when there are so many big cash prizes out there for artists to win.

Chicago Humanities Festival Preview

October 21, 2009 · Print This Article

We’re pleased to welcome Chicago artist and writer Damien James as our new guest blogger! Damien will be covering the Chicago Humanities Festival for us, and today brings us a preview of what we can look forward to at this year’s Festival.

The Chicago Humanities Festival has just kick-started it’s 20th anniversary programming with the theme of Laughter. “Not Happiness, mind you,” writes the Festival’s artistic director Lawrence Weschler. “Happiness is smug and bland and self-satisfied. Laughter, on the other hand, runs the gamut: from blithe to bitter, raucous to serious, fond to angry,” and so on.

Spread out in venues across the city, the Chicago Humanities Festival will giddily dance through Laughter in all its permutations with the same expansive worldview and near-reckless abandon it has brought to the table since 1989, when Richard Franke got the bright idea to bring intellectually stimulating, entertaining, and entirely accessible lectures, performances, and all-around amazingness to our Midwestern metropolis.

On hand will be such distinguished guests as Harold Ramis (sharing some of his favorite funny moments in cinema), Matt Groening in conversation with Lynda Barry, Pulitzer Prize-winner Alison Lurie, Pulitzer Prize-coveter John Hodgman, Chris Ware and his beautifully sad art, Bob Sabiston (of Waking Life fame), the Neo Futurists, Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner, the Guerrilla Girls, and 151 other presenters that you’ll probably want to see.

CHF has literally changed peoples lives, my own included, and I’ll be attending from now through mid-November and sharing some of my experiences with you. Maybe this year I’ll explode.

The Festival runs through November 14th. For more info and tickets, visit http://www.chicagohumanities.org/.

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Damien James is a self-taught artist and writer living (barely) and working (constantly) in Chicago. He has contributed to Chicago Reader, New City, Saatchi Gallery Online, Art Voices, and the general goodwill of mankind, among other things. His art has been seen in Chicago’s Around the Coyote Gallery, Brooklyn’s 3rd Ward Gallery with Art House Co-op’s Sketchbook Project, various apartments in Berlin, London, and a tiny village in Romania.

Without the good sense and inspiration of his paramour, Cassandra, he would most likely be a small blot of dirt about to be washed away by an only slightly larger puddle of inky water in some back alley.

Elimination of Park District Arts Program Begs Further Questions

October 20, 2009 · Print This Article

Yesterday I read with great interest Lee Ann Norman’s story on the elimination of the Park Voyagers program on Art Talk Chicago, Chicago Now’s visual arts blog.  Norman reported that the long-running (since 1998) Park Voyagers program–which takes a long-view perspective on youth arts education through its three-year long programs with area museums–will be cut by the end of this year (park programs already underway will be allowed to finish). As far as I know, the program’s elimination has not been publicly announced via press release, nor has it been reported anywhere other than on Art Talk Chicago.

Park Voyagers is a collaboration between the Chicago Park District and Museums In the Park (MIP), a coalition of 10 institutions residing on park district property. The MIP institutions include Adler Planetarium, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago History Museum, DuSable Museum of African American History, The Field Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Museum of Science and Industry, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and the John G. Shedd Aquarium, all of whom fund the program collectively through contributions from their individual budgets.

Art Talk Chicago’s editor and head blogger Kathyrn Born (who is also a frequent contributor to Bad at Sports) raised some interesting questions about the agreement that exists between the Park District and the MIP institutions. In an email to me this morning, Born wondered, “Why is the relationship between the Park District (which represents city government’s support in this case) a handshake deal? Why is there no legal, binding obligation between these entities? They [the MIP coalition] pay $1 a year as rent as a part of their deal with the park district…so why are there no legal safeguards?”

What we do know is that the number of Chicago families who have participated in this unique public arts program was not insubstantial. According to the MIP’s 2008 Annual Report, in the year 2008 the Park Voyagers program served 595 families (1635 individuals total including parents and children), providing them with 15,761 contact hours with Chicago cultural institutions.

Borne notes the difficulty of determining to whom the MIP museums ultimately answer in cases like these: is it the Park District, and if so, which person or office? I myself am curious if the Chicago Park District has an opinion about its loss of the Park Voyagers program, given that, according to Norman’s ATC post, there are currently no plans to replace it.