There’s a certain amount of romanticism in the idea of mining your own gold, mused metalsmith Gabriel Craig on his recent adventure through the Black Hills of South Dakota. Romantic, indeed. Compound the gold mining expedition with two soon-to-be newlyweds who have commissioned locally sourced, handcrafted wedding bands, and you have the makings of a Hollywood epic. Before you cast Craig as a roguish Matthew McConaughey, reconfigure his character to resemble more Michael Heizer with a touch of Henry David Thoreau. Beyond their mutual love of Stetsons, (see Craig pictured above on the far left), both Heizer and Craig have expressed their ecological concern through the displacement and destruction of landscape. The mining of precious metals is, in essence, an ecological disaster involving deforestation, mile-long trenches, and terrifying amounts of cyanide. As a jeweler and metalsmith, Craig has sought to bring attention to ethical craft practices, citing that his process begins with the harvesting of materials—the formation of deposits in the earth—long before they are cultivated by the human hand.
At the heart of Craig’s multifaceted practice, which includes metalsmithing, writing, urban farming, and performance, is a desire for transparency. His performative works in particular—the public demonstrations, participatory constructed situations, and documented expeditions—are conceived as a way to unveil narratives of production from material source to mercantile object. Craig is perhaps best known for Pro Bono Jeweler, a craft-performance that brings metalsmithing to the street via mobile jeweler’s bench. In essence, the piece functions as a public forum for dialogue inspired by the visible production and free distribution of metalwork. More recently, Craig has refocused his tactics towards hands-on participation. Raising Awareness brings spectators into the fold by soliciting gallery-goers to experience the process of “raising” a vessel from a flat sheet of metal. Ultimately, both Pro Bono Jeweler and Raising Awareness fulfill one of the crucial tenants of craft: to humanize the production of objects—all objects—whether manufactured or handcrafted. Further, like many of Craig’s projects, these performances tend to unpack propositions rather than polemics. Criticality emerges through opening-up systems, providing a venue for public discourse, and posing the question: how can craft—as a process and product, legacy and ideology—inspire shifts in human behavior that improve the world around us?
I spoke to Gabriel Craig in his new studio and production facility, Smith Shop, based out of Ponyride, a cooperative space for creative entrepreneurship in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.
Sarah Margolis-Pineo: I first encountered your practice in Hand+Made at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2010), an exhibition that featured the work of Theaster Gates, Ann Wilson, and other artists who, likewise, have interwoven craft practice and public performance. I’m curious: as a studio-based crafts person, how did performance began to eke its way into your practice?
Gabriel Craig: My first performance—that I would actually call a performance—was in graduate school, and more than anything, the piece came out of expressing frustration rather than any sort of intentional performative impulse. At the time—as an angsty twenty-three-year-old—I perceived a very insular conversation happening in jewelry. I thought that a way to engage a general audience, or an audience outside of that insular conversation, was to go and make jewelry on the street. I began by performing the Collegiate Jeweler (2007), which ended up turning into the Pro Bono Jeweler (2008, ongoing). During this same time, I was also doing working on a piece where I wrote a series of monologues about being a jeweler and performed them in a theater context, Narcissist: Eight Confessions of an Academic Jeweler (2008). Early in my career, I think I had a lot to say that I felt compelled to share with people in a more direct way than by making objects. For me, performance has always been a way to engage people and directly give them my opinion rather than mediating it through an object. I think that’s the same reason that I started writing, because I had the same burning desire to tell people what I thought.
SMP: Can you speak a bit more to the process by which you went from the impulse of disseminating your frustrations with academia to really crafting a performance?
GC: I was certainly aware of performance practices before then but, after I started doing performance, I started being more conscious of the framework that I fit into and how I wanted to situate my own practice. I always wanted my interactions with the general public to be honest and authentic. It really seemed to me that going out, making jewelry, and sharing that with people was the ultimate goal; essentially, sharing what I do because I love it. The system that I set up—giving away rings as I was making them—emerged from this very altruistic sensibility, but giving away rings really wasn’t the most important part. For me, the most important aspect was interacting with people and having an opportunity to talk to them about using their hands.
GC: There are a whole set of issues that surround handwork including supply chain, manufacturing, consumption, etc. Depending on the individual participant and where they’re at—the context of place—there a whole number of directions that the conversation could go. So many of the conversations I’ve had are about seeing something being made and, all of a sudden, having a window into where things come from. In a way, I’m demystifying manufacturing, but also, I think that showing someone even just one thing being made is an opportunity to start that conversation about how all things are made and get at that disconnect between production and consumption. It was from these genuine, meaningful interactions with people that the performance really developed.
When I was still in school, I got a lot of criticism for not using the traditional performance art language—my performances are essentially demonstrations—but that misses the point. Craft performance is different than art performance. Yes, my performances have the language of a demonstration, but my performances never sell anything. My goal is to share craft with people, and performing craft has different standards than performance art, but that’s my own opinion.
SMP: I find it interesting that you entered into a field that, because of the individuality of the Studio Craft movement, is not viewed as the most social of art forms. I’m thinking of the idea of the monastic craftsperson throwing a pot in a barn or crafting metal broach. Yet, out of this tradition, you were able to develop a social practice…
GC: Really?! Historically, I think of craft as having a really social bent to it in a vernacular sense. You’re thinking of making as in objects that are made in a very monastic way; however, the objects themselves are made to enter into a cultural vernacular of social use. If a potter makes a jug, the making process might be solitary, but the using process is always about some sort of social interaction or utilitarian function. I think that there is that dichotomy in craft—this balance of opposites—which I really enjoy.
SMP: Your work seems indicative of this shift in the field of contemporary craft from the production of products to the processes of making. What’s your relationship to handmade objects versus the practices of handmaking?
GC: I find tremendous enjoyment in using handmade objects, but I find very little engaging intellectual value in them; meaning, the objects themselves don’t have the cultural relevance that the making can have in terms of what the process can mean and cause people to think about.
SMP: Continuing this thread, can you tell me a bit about your most recent project, Raising Awareness (2012, ongoing)?
GC: Raising Awareness takes the process of “raising,” which is taking a flat sheet of metal and forming it into a vessel shape by hammering it with repeated blows over a forming stake. This is a really meditative, highly skilled activity, but it is a process that is really simple when you think about it. All you’re doing is using a lever and fulcrum, essentially, to change the shape of a sheet of metal. It’s really basic—anyone can do it—but not a lot of people are good at it. Also, it’s a really traditional way to make metal objects and most people are totally unaware of this process.
GC: I had always wanted to do a project that was a little more hands-on than the Pro Bono Jeweler. The Pro Bono Jeweler was about showing, and I think there’s an opportunity to make a deeper, more intimate connection than through just conversation. The Pro Bono Jeweler started to get problematic because, often, I was having conversations about making things with an informed, museum-going audience and it stopped being a rich conversation. With Raising Awareness, even if you are already oriented to craft or to metalsmithing, the opportunity to pick something up and start making something—for it to be participatory—means this project facilitates a different level of interaction.
I’m doing a marathon Raising Awareness performance with another metalsmith, David Huang, at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids in September. We’re going to be raising every day for two plus weeks with metalsmith volunteers from around the country for a crowd of 200,000 people over the course of two-and-a-half weeks. That’s going to be something that’s really about sharing widely, and we’ll see how many people we can actually get to do some hands-on work. To contrast that project, I have a show next year at the National Ornamental Metals Museum in Memphis where the project is to work with the public to replicate an object—an accessioned historic metal vessel—that once replicated, will be accessioned by the museum. The idea of recreating a historic masterpiece gives the general public a window into a collection that they couldn’t get any other way. I think that that makes the museum environment such a rich place to execute this project. The intent of both iterations—Art Prize and the Ornamental Metals Museum—is to give the public a stake in making something in an active way and empower them to use their hands.
SMP: Having read a bit of your writing, I gather you’re insanely knowledgeable about the history of craft practice and I feel as though you imbue quite a bit of your work with an early-twentieth century Arts and Crafts mentality that brings together concepts relating to mastery, skill, education, preservation, etc. I’m wondering if you consider yourself within a certain legacy and do you consider that legacy when conceiving, particularly, of these participatory projects?
GC: I’m glad that you picked up on that because the utopian aspect of craft is something I really geek-out on! I’m shamelessly romantic about it. I wish that craft was this model of production that could be perfect and anyone could make a living from it, but in reality, it’s so deeply flawed. I’m really interested in the Arts and Crafts Movement and the idea that turn of the twentieth century crafters were looking back romantically to the Medieval era and what it was to be a maker during that period. It’s funny because life was horrible for Medieval crafters—they were serfs!—yet the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was completely trying to emulate that lifestyle. I think there’s a certain optimism in the idea of making things and deriving enjoyment from it, but simultaneously, grounding these practices in a social context; meaning, really being aware of where things come from, questioning the status quo and labor practices, and having a respect for the environment. If you go back and you read some of the Arts and Crafts practitioners, they were writing about factories polluting the rivers and destroying the land of the English countryside. All of this is still completely applicable now. Right now, I’m finishing this biography of C.R. Ashbee by Alan Crawford, and Crawford is meticulous—the detail to which he writes about the workmen in theses handcraft studios! Anyway, he describes how Ashbee pulled kids off the streets in the East End of London at the end of the nineteenth century, which at the time was really impoverished, and gives them jobs as jewelers: training them, employing them, watching them grow, and really creating an entire lifestyle and an intentional community. Thinking about that and looking at what I’m doing here, I can’t help but project a parallel pursuit. Even if it’s not exactly the same, there’s a certain amount of intentional social engagement that now exists here—out of necessity! The East End of London was a really tough place and Detroit is a really tough place too. But the idea of recruiting on the streets of Corktown is problematic—imperialism and colonialism weren’t a problem for Ashbee. Here you need to meet people on their own terms; but regardless, craft does have something to offer.
SMP: I’m interested in the notion of an “ethical jeweler.” Can you elaborate on the ethical considerations within your practice?
GC: I have a real penchant towards talking about material sourcing, and it’s a conversation that I feel often falls on deaf ears. The issue first came to my attention through Ethical Metalsmiths, which is a nonprofit organization that advocates for mining reform and ethical material sourcing for jewelry. Metal mining is such an environmentally devastating industry. If you’re mining metal now, the practice is “open pit mining.” The basic premise of open pit mining is to find a gold rich area, locate a vein, and then dig an enormous hole in the ground, which can be miles wide and miles deep in some cases. Then, you take all the ore that contains the gold, crush it, put it on a huge tarp, and spray it with cyanide, (it’s the cyanide that leaches the gold out of the rock matrix). The gold and cyanide runs off, and the compounds are separated, using electrolytic deposition, and what you’re left with is waste cyanide and all this crushed rock. All the chemicals that are naturally occurring in rock ore – like sulfides and phosphides – begin to leech out through their exposure to air and rain. Even if this is done in a really responsible fashion, there’s no way to avoid destroying a significant portion of landscape in addition to all the other contamination concerns. Containing cyanide and these chemicals in sludge ponds is hugely imperative because even just a small spill can poison a watershed. The regulation of this in the US and Canada is fairly good, but in other parts of the world—countries that aren’t able to enforce mining laws—there’s real potential for disaster there.
SMP: And what was it that led you on your gold mining expedition?
GC: The idea was to create a narrative piece that illustrated the difficulty of extracting gold and demonstrated what it actually takes to extract a ubiquitous metal from the earth. I had written a more technical/academic article in 2008, “Seeing Green,” for Metalsmithing Magazine about sustainable jewelry making as it existed at that time, but writing facts and figures on paper is wholly different from constructing a narrative that readers can really relate to. There’s a certain amount of romanticism in the idea of mining your own gold. I thought that putting a personal face on the process would be an interesting approach to advocate for better practices. So, I connected with another jeweler and a couple who wanted to have wedding rings made, and the idea was to go and obtain the gold to create the wedding rings in South Dakota. We prospected on a week-long expedition, and in the end, we didn’t find nearly enough gold for the rings to be made. We did manage to document the pursuit of gold—what we were all experiencing—throughout the process. (View videos of the expedition on Vimeo.) The prospecting took place in the middle of this pristine wilderness in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is such beautiful country, and what did we do? We dug a ten-foot hole in the ground to try to find gold and, in the process, we ruined the landscape—basically trying to avoid knocking over trees and displacing the order of things. Even on the very small scale which we were doing this, we were still really conscious of the fact that we were spoiling the landscape.
GC: I think it’s important to tell stories about material sourcing. We need to expose the narratives of where things come from, not starting from when it arrives as raw material for a craftsperson to use, but starting where the material itself is sourced—things start before a maker even touches them. Even if a maker’s studio is really environmentally conscious and there’s the imperative to make by hand versus through industrial means, if the materials are obtained in a really irresponsible way, I think that taint isn’t erased by making by hand. And so often, that is the case! I had a conversation in Washington, D.C. last week with Daniel Michalik, who is a furniture maker. Almost all of his furniture incorporates cork and he did this wonderful project for Core77 where he went to Portugal and documented the cork harvest. He had hundreds of photos documenting his total immersion in the cork industry from tree to factory. I think that that’s the sort of education that needs to be available for all craft products especially if we’re going to talk about craft as having an ethical imperative. I don’t understand how it’s not a completely holistic conversation!
SMP: How has your practice changed since your first exposure to ethical sourcing?
GC: The first time I saw an Ethical Metalsmiths presentation at a conference I was shocked. My first thought was: What do I do now? Do I quit? I think it’s that tension between something that you’re in love with but at the same time is horrible. How do you resolve or else deal with that tension? I don’t think the world will be a better place if I quit making jewelry, but maybe if I work from within the existing system, there’s the potential that I can do my small part to change it. Craft being a force for good is essential to my worldview and how I approach my practice. I think I’m just compelled to do positive things.
Gabriel Craig is a Detroit-based metalsmith, writer and craft activist. His studio and workshop – Smith Shop – is currently being launched from Ponyride, a cooperative space for art, craft, design and education, in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Craig’s work is included in 40 under 40: Craft Futures, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum until February 2013. Craig will be speaking at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s symposium, “Nation Building: Craft and Contemporary American Culture,” Nov 8-9, 2012. Craig will perform Raising Awareness daily with David Huang, September 19 through October 7 at the B.O.B. in Grand Rapids, Michigan as part of ArtPrize 2012. For more visit: www.gabrielcraigmetalsmith.com
This week Lars von Trier put out a call for submissions to be part of his new user-generated project, Gesamt. Honestly this project sounds pretty weirdo (and is in some way probably slightly sexist and anti-semitic) but, as it is emphasized: “Technical skills are not the biggest priority — originality and enthusiasm are much more important.”
The main point is to respond—in some sense via video—to six major works of art that von Trier picked. Though all artist he is asking to respond to are dudes, the press release notes several times that, if chosen, you will be working with a young female director.
Deadline is September 6th. Gesamt will premiere 12th of October 2012 in Kunsthal Charlottenborg.
and, the NYT announcement
In the fall of 1985, when I read that Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield was going to sign autographs at a Long Island Hilton, I decided I would execute the most exactingly perfect Ticonderoga No 2-on-paper portrait of him that had ever been produced. I had the paper and the pencils, but was forced to buy packs of baseball cards to find an image of him. I went through a month’s-worth of allowance before I finally found the card in a Topps wax pack. Over the next four nights I completed what I still consider my masterpiece. And if you doubt its quality, I’ll have you know Mr. Winfield himself told me it was “astounding” when he signed it on a Saturday morning in November 1985. That cultural treasure has hung in my father’s office for more than 20 years.
Last Tuesday, I was wondering what a mature Bot Fly looked like. I Googled it, and in 15 seconds I knew. And what blood fluke, hook worms and intestinal amoebas looked like. All collateral infections from my search, these organisms now freeload in my visual memory like actual parasites might in my gut.
Twenty-seven years ago I couldn’t locate a picture of a celebrity for the better part of a week and today I can pull up twenty thousand of an obscure protozoan or a flesh eating fly in a few seconds.
When I sketched Dave Winfield at my family’s kitchen table two-and-a-half decades ago, the tide of cultural criticism about the information age had already crested: Jean Baudrillard’s “Hyper-Realism of Simulation,” Hal Foster’s “Subversive Signs” and “Learning from Las Vegas,” were all in the ether. And the work of the artists of the “Pictures Generation”—Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, Richard Prince, et al.—were all established and hanging in Eugene and Barbara Schwartz’s living room.
After reading about worms that would enjoy living in my digestive tract, I revisited a little of Fredric Jameson’s “Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”. It was the bit about Van Gogh’s peasant boots versus Warhol’s diamond dust shoes. It’s amazing how prescient he and the others were about imagery, media and accelerated culture. It seems as if they felt the Internet waiting to split civilization at the seams. But, in much the same way the overdetermined, everything-will-be-made-of-aluminum pulp science fiction of the 1950’s, the look-and-feel of those “Pictures” artists, and the accompanying media theories, expired before the more substantial part of the message was absorbed.
Now, as hyper-reality prevails in earnest, and all the futuristic amenities predicted in the Jetsons, save for household robots, arrive, we seem to have normalized and adapted to the vertigo of image overload.
Finding an photo of Dave Winfield was half the battle for an artist in 1985. Now the finding is meaningless and the editing is primary. Some consider this condition visual emancipation, but in time most will see it as visual paralysis, a massive amoebic whole leaching the power of helpless individual pictures.
Without trying I can name artists who make images whose content is sourced from diseased organs to supernovae to shopping carts to movie star pets to NASCAR crashes. I saw a collage recently that featured images of emus, James Taylor, Hubble telescopes, Sesame Street characters and gyrating porn stars, and still it hit me softer than the shimmering highlights on the evening gown of one of Sargent’s ladies. I can yawn in front a Ryan Trecartin…which proves his point and his value as a cultural commentator. The frisson once evoked by the uncanny juxtapositions enacted by Kurt Schwitters or James Rosenquist have been neutralized by the white noise tidal wave of the internet and the spigot that is the search engine.
This condition makes Richard Prince’s cowboys and Sherrie Levine’s Edward Westons look extra profound to me in 2012, and forces me to consider if society is capable of putting good commentary to use, or if even at its best, well-aimed cultural criticism will be processed as good taste. It also makes me look at my Dave Winfield and wonder if my children will ever know what it’s like to thumb through a pack of baseball cards one by one, reading each image, recording every graphic detail with butterflies in their stomach. My guess is that the orgiastic charge that coursed through me when his card appeared in that pack had something to do with the mystery of limitation and the magic of scarcity.
Someone once said with knowledge goes magic, and with magic goes knowledge. I think I know a place where where that scarcity and limits still exist. To be continued…
Work by Caroline Carlsmith, Alex Chitty, New Hands (Carson Fisk-Vittori & Michael Hunter), and Kristina Paabus.
Alderman Exhibitions is located at 1338 W. Randolph St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Cameron Gibson, Eduardo Fernández, Marine de Contes, Julian Dalrymple, Meghan Johnson, Nathan Meltz, Miguel Guzman, Jennifer Baker, and Rob Frye.
The Milk Factory is located at 907 N. Winchester Ave., Rear Apt. Reception Saturday, 7-11pm.
Work by Tony Fitzpatrick, Duncan Robert Anderson, Daniel Bruttig and Chris Hefner.
LivingRoom is located at 1530 W Superior St. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.
Work by Alberto Aguilar and Jorge Lucero.
Beverly Arts Center is located at 2407 W. 111th St. Reception Saturday, 7-9pm.
Work by Mark Adkins, Alberto Aguilar, Jane Fulton Alt, Marissa Benedict, Daniel Bruttig, Robert Burnier, Tom Burtonwood, Scott Carter, Stephen Cartwright, Andrew Copper Smith, Margaret Crowley, Matt Davis, Michael Dinges, Diana Gabriel, David Giordano, Emily Hermant, Alexander Herzog, Matt Irie, Elk Grove Village; Barbara Jeanne Jenkins, Evanston; Stacee Kalmanovsky, Buffalo Grove; Julia Klein, Barbara Koenen, Morgan Krehbiel, Katie Loomis, Ivan Lozano, Jorge Lucero, Bobbi Meier, Jackie Melissas, Holly Murkerson, Julie Oh, Joel Parsons, Karen Perl, Cole Pierce, Melissa Ann Pinney, Wolfie Rawk, Todd Reed, Patricia Rieger, Nicole Seisler, Lindsay Sherman, Soo Shin, Geoffry Smalley, Alex Tam, Xavier Toubes, Rafael E. Vera, Sarah Williams, Robin Woodsome, and Kaylee Wyant.
Evanston Art Center is located at 2603 Sheridan Rd., Evanston. Reception Sunday, 1-4pm.
I recently heard about, ordered, and read I Like Your Work: Art And Etiquette. (Edited by Paper Monument, Brooklyn NY. 2009.) The book consists of a series of questions and the answers to them given by a number of art world personalities, mainly but not entirely New York based. (Chicago artist, critic, and curator Michelle Grabner is among the contributors.) After finishing it, I thought about what I would have said, had I been posed the same questions. My answers follow.
What are the rules of etiquette for the art world?
I’d like to think it’s “Don’t be a dick.” In practice, some people get away with being dicks because they have enough power, influence, money, attractiveness, or other exchange commodities that they can essentially buy the freedom to be dicks. They get away with it insofar as people tolerate their behavior in exchange for access to these exchange commodities, but their reputations as dicks still circulate. It has been my experience that only a small minority (between 1-10%) of people in the art world are dicks.
Was etiquette foregrounded in any memorable situation?
A while ago, my wife Stephanie Burke and I noticed that at every gallery opening we went to, people were drinking wine out of disposable plastic cups and then throwing them away. Few if any showed any means of recycling. It occurred to us that those Lexan backpacking wine glasses they sell at REI, where the stem unscrews and stores in the bowl, would be a fun way to bring our own glass and save on waste. So we bought a pair and started bringing ‘em with us to the galleries. Most gallerists and their staff responded somewhere between “Oh, how cool! Where did you get those?” and “Huh, that’s weird, but okay.” But we did have a problem at one gallery. The bartender actually thought they were totally awesome, and confided that she’d been bothered by the fact that they didn’t recycle either. We checked out the show and enjoyed our wine, and then went to leave. The gallery owner stopped us at the door, saying “You can’t take those outside,” indicating our empty wine glasses. “Oh, these are ours,” I said, unscrewing the stem and locking it inside the bowl to demonstrate the principle, and how these were clearly not the disposable plastic cups the gallery used. “You brought your own glass? Actually…THAT’S ILLEGAL.” I think it was just a case of misunderstood intent; here we were trying to do our part to cut back on waste and save the planet all all that shit, because at heart we’re just a couple of nature-loving hippies from California, and this gallery owner probably thought we were up to no good, trying to get larger portions of wine or something. It was an awkward interaction but I’ve tried not to hold a grudge (see below re: “Tit For Two Tats”).
What customs or mannerisms are particular to the art world?
There are a lot of specifics, like what to do during a studio visit, or how to approach a gallery, or how to deal with collectors, but the one thing I’ve noticed is the role of niceness and/or sincerity. On one level there’s this veneer of civility where everybody acts nice towards everybody else because you never know when you’ll need them professionally, even if there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes shit talking. But on another level, there’s a hierarchy. It seems sometimes as though everybody loves a collector, likes a writer, and tolerates an artist. If you’re an artist, a gallerist or dealer is as good as a collector, as is an institutional curator, because they can get you in the show. I’ve worn all these hats in one capacity or another, and it’s really interesting how people have acted differently towards me in subtle ways. I should add here that almost everyone has been very civil, polite, and friendly towards me no matter what. Also, I’m sure I act a little differently around people with different roles in the art world, but I do make an effort to be friendly and respectful to everyone, whether or not they’re in a position to advance my career.
When does breach of etiquette play a role in embarrassing or awkward encounters?
There’s the above example about the wine glasses, of course; here’s another one: A well-known artist whose work I really like, but had never met, made some very caustic remarks about my wife and I, calling us “idiotic hipsters who eat their way through the openings and don’t know anything about painting.” This was in response to The Snack Report, a weekly column I authored for several years in which I went to every art opening I could but wrote criticism only of the refreshments. Following the principle of “tit for two tats,” that is, forgiving anyone their first breach of conduct (again, see below), I engaged in a very civil dialog with this artist, and despite the rude phrasing, actually did become convinced that the joke had gotten old and the Snack Report had become more of a chore than a joy for me, and stopped doing it. The artist and I became friends, I did a studio visit, and we’ve had some other professional engagements together. It would have been easy for me to take offense at the initial remarks but by turning the other cheek I’ve allowed us to have some very positive interactions.
How should people behave? What would be a maxim for conduct?
“Don’t be a dick.” Really, that should cover it, and any more specific rules merely serve to clarify this one overlying principle. For example:
- An artist’s opening is not the time for a critique.
- An opening is not a good time to talk to the gallerist about showing your work there. The gallerist is busy talking to collectors, trying to generate sales. Or at least they should be. This is also true of art fairs.
- If your friends are writers, they are under no obligation to write about your show. If your friends are curators, they have no obligation to include your work in an exhibition. As a curator and writer, I have certainly written about and curated my friends’ work, but never felt obligated to do so. If I curate a friend’s work into an exhibition, it is because their work fits the theme well; if I write about a friend’s show, it is because I have something to say about their work. Or, in either case, because it’s a paid gig.
- Show up when you say you’re going to. If you arrange to do a studio visit, for example, and then don’t show up, or cancel at the last minute, you’re saying “My time is more important than yours.” This is related to a power dynamic. We live in a world where artists court gallerists, not the other way around. A gallerist can cancel or reschedule a studio visit without any real consequences on his or her career, whereas an artist who cancels or asks to reschedule might very well find themselves quickly forgotten. But it’s a dick move either way.
- Conversely, respect other people’s time. Nobody owes you anything. People are busy. Pushing yourself on a gallerist to do a studio visit with you is making a big demand on their time. Act accordingly.
This raises, of course, the question of what to do when someone else violates the basic principle of “don’t be a dick.” I advocate a position I learned about while reading about memetics. Basically these researchers were running a computer simulation of game theory, in which computer programs were written to play a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which they could choose to either cooperate or betray one another. You can read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine to get the whole story in context, but the short version is, the first time they ran the game the winning program was “Tit For Tat,” which would cooperate until betrayed, but would retaliate if betrayed (that is, would not cooperate again with a player who betrayed it). So, the conclusion seemed to be that it’s best to be nice to others until they fuck you over, at which point you never trust that person again.
But, they ran a later version of the game, in which a new program was introduced, and proved even more successful than “Tit For Tat.” The new program was called “Tit For Two Tats,” and operated on this principle: It would forgive a single instance of betrayal, but not a second one. This was superior to Tit For Tat because it avoided getting into cycles of mutual betrayal with programs which were programmed to betray randomly, or merely occasionally. This seemed to map perfectly to social behavior in the art world: If someone says something rude to me, criticizes me publicly, or whatever, I’ll extend the olive branch, let ‘em know we’re still cool, and try to be their friend. In the few instances this has come up, it’s proven effective. It’s hard to punch someone who’s hugging you. (Although it occurred to me recently that it’s actually only a -4 penalty to attack while grappled.)
Has their been a shift in etiquette as the financial climate has changed?
To be honest, if it has, I haven’t noticed.
What constitutes bad manners?
The same stuff that constitutes bad manners in any context: Making people wait for you. Interrupting someone who’s in the middle of a conversation. Tying up the shitter for half a goddamned hour because you’re in there doing coke with your friends. (Everybody knows, sweetheart, you’re not fooling anyone!) Taking a couple of beers for the road out of the tub and sticking ‘em in your pockets. But…uh, nobody’s perfect.