The heavily securitized apartment towers of Interlomas rise out of the northwestern hills of Mexico City, soulless, securitized phalluses that house (protect) the soulless, tacky rich of Mexico. From many of their windows, surely double, even triple strength windows, able to sustain whatever paranoid fantasy their occupants dream, whatever dirty penetrating outside force that haunts their nightmares, that delivers the worrylines they must botox out, you can see the slums of Huixquilucan. I wonder how many tired businessmen look out of their reinforced windows, backs to their boring, soulless interior design, and think of jumping, gently floating down from their towers, navy blue ties flapping gently in the wind, gold rings glinting in the moonlight, falling gently into the cesspool that they must, in some goldplated compartment of their soft minds, know is of their own making. What is the texture of their ambivalence?
I went to MACO last year, but not this year, but I can’t imagine it felt much different. Airy, vague, moneyed, depressing. Material was in a different place this year, and set up differently, in fact in this wild bleeding maze by APRDELESP that made it hard to tell—I mean, not that hard—what wall went with what gallery, where you were in the scheme of things, etc. As in it was kind of disorienting, physically, in a way that felt, sure, ambivalent, but leaning more towards laughing loudly than violence. I think, maybe I hope, that one of the directions one can go, when one finds oneself in this ambivalent intersection I am talking about, where one can slide deeper into one’s soft fleshiness and just laugh real hard. That it’s not a slippery slope so much as many slippery slopes.
I saw Bradford a few weeks later, at a barbecue, actually a barbecue that I had forgotten about, so when we got there we had just been to a barbecue restaurant, this place Porco Rosso which is some kind of decent approximation of Kansas City BBQ, maybe, although I’ve never actually had Kansas City BBQ. Great brisket, unimpressive everything else. Also an unimpressive sense of geographic BBQ specificity, as no Kansas City BBQ would have St Louis ribs on the menu, right? Anyway, Bradford and I were agreeing about how we liked the mazelike, kind of unnerving setup of the fair—it wasn’t airy and vague like MACO or pretty much any other art fair I’ve been to, or that we had been to—I mean, he’s been to a lot more, Bradford has—anyway Material was stuffy and sloppy, you kept on finding yourself in weird places, or a new place to have a mezcal. I kept on not knowing where I was and backtracking, fixating here and there on this or that. Bradford and I also agreed that we were generally unimpressed with the work at the European galleries and the New York galleries had brought, something about the work seemed totally non-self-aware, which became suddenly very ludicrous and pretentious-looking in the particular architecture and the atmosphere it produced. For whatever reason textiles seemed to make the most sense, maybe because of their looming physicality, or maybe just because rugs can get musty: Yann Gerstberger’s rug-like banner/tapestries that nearly obscured the entirety of the Lodos, or Caroline Wells Chandler’s exuberantly perverse woolen vaginas.
Have you read No Future, that book by Lee Edelman? It is a difficult book. Honestly I’m not sure it’s worth reading: it is very spiteful and stuffed with Lacan quotes, so much so that it feels more like a disorganized Lacan primer with angry queer spit on it than a book about anything in particular. The best line in the book is this, and it comes early, in the intro: “Fuck the social order and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and with small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.”
I don’t even have the book anymore; it didn’t make it with me to Mexico. It might be in a box, somewhere, or it might be at the Out of the Closet on Sunset in Echo Park. Maybe somebody bought it or threw it out. I remember distinctly that the line comes in the intro, though, as if the book is planned to accoplish the thing it advocates, to prematurely ejaculate and block any future of a reader, of being read. Like you should just read that line and go, ok.
I can find the line because it’s in Maggie Nelson’s book, The Argonauts. It’s on page 75, which is not the intro. I read The Argonauts on the Amtrak, I think. The whole day was a blur. A man told me everything about his life and I didn’t want to know any of it. I wondered, is this mansplaining? and made point to get that Rebecca Solnit book, Men Explain Things to Me. In that book, Solnit explains to us that the term “mansplaining” was not her invention and that she has been surprised, maybe alarmed, but rarely dismayed, by the proliferation of the word. On the train I wrote a lot about how violent I thought mansplaining is. Now I don’t think it’s violent, and I don’t think what the man on the train was doing was mansplaining, especially because he wasn’t actually explaining anything to me, at least not anything specific, just his life, and anyway, can a man ‘splain to another man? But it was something similar, something close; similarly nonviolent, but similarly close to violence.
He told me that he had been on the Amtrak for four days, beginning in Lancaster, PA—near Philadelphia—and that he was eventually going to Seattle. He had bought the ticket because it was a deal. He has never been to Mexico, but he has been to Venezuela. He winked knowingly as he explained how disorganized, late, but ultimately industrious Venezualans are. He said he lived in Venezuela for two years, but never learned Spanish. He told me he lived in Micronesia, that at least Micronesians were organized, but that there is no water. A plane flies in water once a week. He lives on the big island in Hawaii. He used to drive freight workers around.
I neither asked for, nor invited, any of this information. When I sat down, I was looking at my phone, reading—or at least trying to read—a profile of Vijay Iyer, the pianist and composer. I had gotten to a part that was more interesting than the rest, George Lewis was talking about Iyer as a improviser, and improvising in general. As he began talking, and continued to talk, unbidden, I sent gentle hints that I did not want to talk. I didn’t ask very many questions, except when I outright didn’t believe him—Marshall Islands?—mostly responded with “ok!” or “huh” or maybe “wow.” At each pause, I would look back at my phone, hoping to read more about what George Lewis thinks about improvisers and/or improvising, maybe scroll a little bit for emphasis.
I didn’t want a confrontation. I think the thing that’s unnerving and angering about this kind of speech is that it refuses to acknowledge nuance, especially nuance that emanates from the interlocuting body. There is an unwillingness to see another, to acknowledge their nuance. A blinkered avoidance of shimmers. A hard, mean shell of arrogance.
“These reports—they describe a soft, fleshy world shellacked by a hard, mean shell of arrogance,” writes Jennifer Doyle in her searing essay on the violently ambivalent intersection of shame, homophobia, misogyny, and bureaucracy on college campuses, Campus Sex, Campus Security. The reports in question are those issued by internal and external investigative bodies looking at Title IX or other sexual crimes on campus, reports “haunted” by anxiety, by what Foucault calls, in an earlier citation, “the dark shimmer of sex.” In this particular example, the possibility of consensual sex between men darkly shimmers on the edge of college football culture: “these football coaches, fraternity members, and college presidents…do not know how to narrate the centrality of sexual-coercion-by-men to their formation as men, or what it means to affirm that non-consexual sex forms the bedrock of their masculinity. They do no know how to reconcile their hatred of women with their desire for intimacy with men, and with their certainty that they are not gay.” It is this anxiety that kept the child molester Jerry Sandusky safe on the Penn State campus for twenty years. It is a similar anxiety that drives UC Davis chancellor Katehi to call in the police, a decision the police questioned, because “…there could be a party or something could happen to them”; it is, perhaps, the same anxiety that drives the very way that criminal justice is handled in the United States: in the name of the state, rather in the name of the victim. As an abstraction, as an avoidance of bodies doing things to each other. A hard, mean shell of arrogance around a soft, fleshy world; “an abstracted relationship to the flesh and the world—in which nothing has meaning.” A vanishing of the feeling future.
In the ancient canals in Xochimilco, a World Heritage Site until UNESCO gets tired of all the slums there and dumps it, there should be a species of salamander called the axolotl. The axolotl become adults without going through metamorphosis; as in, they don’t actually become adults, the way most amphibians do. It’s like if a tadpole just continued to be a tadpole, but was able to reproduce, etc. Anyway apparently the axolotl doesn’t go through metamorphosis because it lacks iodine. If you inject the axolotl with iodine, it goes through metamorphosis and becomes an adult. Then, according to legend, it kills itself. The axolotl hates the future. The axolotl is extinct in the wild.
Maybe if I had said to Jack, my non-buddy on the Amtrak, look Jack, I don’t want to talk right now, I was actually really looking forward to 14 hours of solitude, of hanging out with the California seaside and reading, maybe—maybe—writing a little, maybe if I had said that he would have said, “oh, ok,” and stopped talking, or maybe he would have called me ungrateful, or something like that, or maybe he would have strangled me, in the dark, on the first floor of the train, near the empty luggage racks swinging lewdly like sex swings. These all seem probable, unsurprising. Last week a man in Kalamazoo picked up an Über passenger or two in the midst of a murder spree. The proximity that is terrifying is not the temporal one, that at, oh I don’t know, 7pm he shot somebody, 8:30pm he picked somebody up, 9:15pm he shot somebody. The proximity that is terrifying is the short distance between the feeling body—the body that feels empathy, that senses nuance, that knows itself to be soft, fleshy—and the unfeeling body: the hard, mean, shell of arrogance.
When I was in Oakland, I had lunch with Ian. We met at a closed Chinese restaurant, then walked to a closed Vietnamese restaurant. Two doors down was another Vietnamese restaurant, where everybody was laughing loudly, eating noodles. We got sandwiches. They weren’t very good.
As we were walking towards Ian’s studio, he said something about “that kind of grubby feeling you get when you’re sitting at your desk, eating lunch, looking at somebody else’s work online.” Or he said something like that. The word “grubby” stands out, as does the image of eating some shitty lunch at your office desk, scrolling. I was hungover in a floaty, flighty way. I think I said, that’s funny. Ian showed me candles he’s been making, with poems inside, many of them burned or torn in places. One with studs on top. I couldn’t stop thinking about that Miguel Gutierrez piece, one I never saw, but I think Christine did, where he sits down on a candle, ceremonially inviting it into his asshole. It’s an image that has always remained unfinished in my mind: I can see Miguel sitting down on a candle—it’s thick, ivory/yellow, melting—I think actually in my mind it’s lit, which would be terrifying in real life, I’m sure that isn’t what happened—it’s center stage, which it probably wasn’t, foreground, which maybe it was, but again, I kind of doubt that, too. I have no idea what he’s wearing, where he is, or whether there are other dancers on stage. The light is medium. I haven’t seen a piece of Miguel’s in a long time. I remember offering to buy him a drink and him telling me he was, still is I’m sure, sober. I used to be uncomfortable around sober people; that was dumb.
In his studio, we looked at these dioramas of sorts that he had been making, making these weird arrays in generic IKEA storage bins, the sort of thing people use to put old clothes in or to do DIY kitchen worm composting, because of course nothing saves the future faster than plastic bins. Anyway I was hoping he would send me a picture of this one that was super weird, with this dripping, nasty streak of purple paint in it, but he sent me a different one, one where he inserted some dollhouse windows and some dollhouse faux wood flooring in the bin and put a My Book hard drive box in it. The box has some dollhouse windows installed too, through which you can see something. Ian didn’t remember what.
I’m glad he sent me this one, though. Because I think I can use it to describe what I mean about the ambivalent intersection of noncomplimentary forms. Each of these forms, physical or social, carry with them specific, but different utilities and/or social connotations: IKEA storage bins, DIY worm composting, dollhouse building, sculpture, digital storage. And then I guess you can add vitrines, lightboxes, dioramas. Some of them have something to do with each other, physical or methodological similarities, maybe they are surrounded by similar cultures or whatnot, but they, in general, not complementary. Each item has a different trajectory. When you put them together, the result isn’t cumulative, it’s something more mushy, porous, slippery and grey.
There’s a feeling I get sometimes, usually when I’m working on something I either don’t want to be working on or that is stressing me out. It’s a computer thing, usually. When the computer or the internet starts to stutter, I get this feeling. It’s kind of slackness, a dark slackness. It’s like, “oh, maybe now I’ll do something perverted.” That’s usually when I scroll through something—porn maybe. Always scrolling. There’s something anxious to it, but it’s slack, grubby. A dark shimmer? A flab in time.
Nelson thinks of Edelman because she has recently birthed a child, because she is queer and is reconciling the act of having a child with her queerness, worrying that because she is married and has two children she is somehow not queer enough, worrying at how at how that word, queer, that identify or that movement, has calcified into a simple set of attributes: not child-bearing, not married, not having-a-mug-with-a-picture-of-your-family-on-it. And I mean, she’s right, obviously, if being queer is something claimable, a position from which you can bully others about how they’re not doing it right, etc, well, that fucking sucks. What about those of us who identify as queer because we identify with nuance, with shimmers dark and light? And anyway, what hates the future more than neoliberalism? The erosion of public services and public education, the driving of a wedge between the rich and poor, the erosion of the rule of law by blaming everything on the “government,” the consequent camouflaging of the government and its actions that results from a government blaming everything on the government, not on itself but on its phantom other…it’s like what Edelman describes in his book is not some kind of radical punk queerness but the day to day reality of the world as it exists under neoliberalism.
I had the good fortune of seeing Juliana Paciulli’s show, Uh-huh, at Greene Exhibitions in Los Angeles. She gave me a pin; it says “uh-huh.” I wear it on my jacket now in the hope that it will prevent things from getting too serious. The show was undeniably funny, in this kind of disconcerting, flippant, eyeroll, uh-huh kind of way. The staged photographs were all against the same off-white background, set far enough forward in the frame that perspective skews and lends an uncanny depth to each image, a depth that disappears online, that can only be felt in person. The show’s lone sculpture was a shattered coffee table with an iPad playing a slideshow of vaguely revolutionary aphorisms in decidedly Pinterest fonts, the iPad’s awkward white charging cord snaking down one of its legs. Keep calm and keep drinking Sprite. Let’s make a subculture of sub-par excellence and totally commit to it! The effect of the show as a whole is consistent with Juliana’s past work, this kind of pre-linguistic deep body discomfort that unnerves attempts to draw conclusions, put forth narratives, and so on. This narrative discomfort is actually articulated very well by Jonathan Griffin’s humorless and patronizing review of the show, in which he can’t figure out who the protagonist is or what she wants, or if an archetype is at work, and if so which one and in what way. He can’t figure out “where Paciulli is trying to lead her viewers.” In the final sentence—”Such, perhaps, is the indecision of youth.”—you can almost see his patronizing smile, what Rebecca Solnit describes as “that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy horizon of his own authority.” A hard, mean shell of narrative. An inability to feel nuance, to find the wonder in feeling kind of weird, indecisive, grubby, too close to too many things. A soft, fleshy, silly body.
February 24, 2016 · Print This Article
By Kevin Blake
Tom Torluemke is an enigmatic figure in the Chicago art community. By enigmatic, I do not mean difficult to understand. Or outsider. I mean individual. I mean, unmistakably himself. His work has incredible range–physically as well as conceptually. He chases ideas. He works in symbols. In metaphor. His work is powered by his investigations into himself, and that journey, is clearly part of the narrative he delivers. He reminds me of a fisherman. A patient one. One that understands that its called fishing and not catching for a reason. Here, we have a chat that attempts to unravel his process through a discussion about his latest contribution “American Eye Pull-Up Bar” at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.
Kevin Blake: When we talked about your installation, “American Eye Pull-Up Bar,” it was glaringly apparent that you had thoroughly vetted this idea in all its possible manifestations. You had considered every angle–you had seen this piece as the artist and as an audience member. I was frantically trying to catch up with each idea as you plowed through a mountain of symbology, metaphor, and purpose. Luckily, I recorded the conversation. As you were talking, I wrote down two statements that I think are critical to understanding how you process your experience of the world. This is what I wrote: “Nothing makes sense, and everything means everything.” To me, this is a profound synthesis of experience(not just your’s) and your installation is a perfect messenger for this sentiment. Can you elaborate on how you make visual language “work” for you while maintaining enough ambiguity to allow for infinite interpretations?
Tom Torluemke: Thanks for having me, and paying such close attention. The idea has to make me either want to laugh or cry. I think that deep down it’s the intention or motivation that starts a piece of artwork out on the right course, also a large category of guidelines help; for example, Mirth, Delight, Awe, Originality, Imagination and Mystery. The above would be a strong foundation–give the artwork a better chance of working, communicating, evoking or eliciting a memorable and moving experience. Synthesizing those ideas or categories into one’s work while avoiding contrivance or losing spontaneity and urgency, is a whole different world of struggles (piles of failures).
So if my intentions are worthy, working with the formal art making process; you know, shapes, colors, forms and whatever technique best suits the idea–I generally draw around a theme; let’s say betrayal or maybe embarrassment. A couple of days, possibly a week or two usually leads to writing ideas down that have spawned off of the drawings. I do this so I don’t forget all the thinking that took place while I was drawing. Because drawing for me, is slower than jotting down ideas.
Once I have many drawings, I start to convert them into bold, broad, communicative color and design ideas, you know, this color speaks louder than that color. That shape is more mysterious than that shape. In order for the whole damn thing to work, I have to be really jazzed up in the theme, the world I’ve chosen. That’s where the idea of originality comes in.
That word for me is the nucleus of the formal creation. Each piece starts it’s own world. The first thought, mark, movement starts it, the origin. You have to be submersed, consumed by it, that’s how it may have a chance at survival.
As for ambiguity, I pick the surprises, forms that come from the grey, dark, uncertain areas of one’s mind. If I’ve known about it or I’ve seen it before, I’ve probably come to terms with it, or resolved it already. I don’t need to show that. So if it’s foreign, unusual or uncomfortable it will most likely be ambiguous and filled with unknown potential (symbolic energy).
KB: If I understand you correctly, you begin with an idea and those ideas are in a constant state of metamorphosis until you deem a piece of art finished. So, as you seek the surprise in the visual manifestation of an idea, or as you gravitate toward the unknown potential that you identify as symbolic energy, how do your ideas adapt to the object in the process of making?
TT: Through trial and error, many attempts, many mistakes. Coercing the images, shapes and colors in a work of art to potentially mean multiple things, requires a lot of attempts. Sometimes I’ll keep trying with one set or group of related design ideas. Other times, I’ll make something completely new or different, but it will still be related in theme. So let’s say the theme is violence, I may try many different designs with a gun over and over searching for something new with that theme. Then for whatever reason, I’ll do a drawing of two youths shooting each other on a street, behind them is a car and it “triggers” a memory from my teenage years when an old “beater” car of mine dropped it’s muffler. I had to “tie it up” with a “hanger”. While I was doing this, the hanger sprung loose and poked me deeply right in the eyeball. I almost lost my sight. This was one of the many moments of discovery for the American Eye Pull-Up Bar.
During the making, everything has to be very fluid. It all has to spill out during the drawing, painting, carving, arranging. That’s what brings forth the hidden, mysterious special images. So it was necessary for me to make that contrived, melodramatic drawing of the youths shooting at each other, to spark the broader, fuller idea.
KB:I am drawn to your work specifically for your unflinching loyalty to your intuition–to your past and the value of memory. Your impulses are always present in your work regardless of medium, but in such a large politicized installation such as American Eye Pull-Up Bar, this notion of intuition leads one away from the idea of the singular artist making work by himself and for himself, into more of a response from a witness of political and social injustice. Because installation is a medium by which the viewer becomes physically immersed, your project implicates the onlooker as part of the problem and potential solution to whatever it is we conger in contemplation of this piece. Can you talk about the roll of installation as a medium for dialogue? Does it “work” better than a painting?
TT: Silent communication from the piece of art to the viewer, and then back and forth continued dialogue between the viewer and the piece happens with each medium or format. However the cause and effect can be quite different. An installation is usually seen once or twice, if you’re not a well-known artist, after the show, it’s packed up and stored away. Even a museum rarely dedicates space for a permanent installation. So if I’m going to create an installation, it has to be a bit like modern advertising, strong, provocative with subliminal content that seeps into the audience’s mind and soul. I pretend it just has once chance! Once the viewer has left the building, you want them to be haunted forever.
I experienced a piece years ago, in the mid eighties by Jannis Kounellis, where a line of gas jets were sticking out of a long wall, and the jets may have been about six or seven feet apart. I still think about it. It doesn’t mean you have to hit someone over the head with it, subtle or sublime works. After life is a must.
As for a painting, it also has to grab you and leave you with an image burned into your mind. However with some luck you may sell the painting, it’s hung in someone’s home and stays there for 40 or 50 years. It has to be the gift that keeps giving, a slow reveal, profound mystery, magnetism you can’t put into words. Every time the owner gazes upon it the sensation should be a bit different; ageless and mysterious like the Mona Lisa’s smile, Pope Innocent’s expression, Goya’s giant, Bocklin’s Isle of the Dead, Van Gogh’s bedroom, Winslow Homer’s Surf, Hopper’s town, DeKooning’s figures, Lucian Freud’s flesh.
For both painting and installation, I try to be influenced by the outside world and drag something up from inside myself like a memory, happening, feeling or emotion; unite the two, outside and inside. That’s where the magic is.
Painting may be more difficult because it has the potential to be forever seen. That’s a long time to entertain; everyone gets tired of talking eventually. It just sits there like a Buddha. I suppose if installations had that visibility it would be held to the same standards and they would be equal.
KB: In an exhibition that showcases the work of several artists whose work is brimming with visual information, your installation appears as the most minimal of the lot. Can you talk about how the “less is more” approach to this installation maintains your multi-layered conceptual bent that is so typical of all your work?
TT: I was striving for a simple, iconic,logo-like design composed of a several common elements. The eyes, the blood, the stairs and the bar plus the not so common, bomb, land mine, football or whatever you call it in the foreground. The elements were arranged in such a way as to create a visual puzzle with few enough pieces to be memorized–stuck in the viewer’s mind and figured out later if necessary. At base level, to get stuck with an object in the eyes until they start bleeding is not good! And if you connect to the red, white and blue, that may be all you need to know. Of course, there’s much more but that’s a start. After listening to the viewer’s interpretations, each different but excellent, (here are a couple examples; Viewer 1: “I think the pull up bar represents Americans trying to pull themselves up out of the mess we’re in.” Viewer 2: “I think the eye represents us, the public, watching the media broadcasting evil to build up fear.”) I don’t think I need to explain everything through words to the viewer because it limits their search, the viewers really do get right at the heart of the matter, even better than I could explain.
KB: So, how do you see this work in relation to the rest of the artists in this exhibition?
TT: I’m very proud to be showing with such strong artists, we lift each other up. It’s what we all should be doing; expect the best from each other (humankind). It was cool that there were totally unplanned similarities and likenesses throughout. The short stairs or riser to an altar or area of ritual in mine, Stacia’s and Marcos’. Kathy Weaver used long cones as knee spikes and I used long cones as blood tipped weapons. We each depicted blood as though we learned from the same how-to book.
In content, Marcos and I are often very close, we tell socio-political, sexual narratives from our podium. His piece with Mary & Child in front of the mushroom cloud is in my opinion the strongest in the show, so relevant now with the rise of evangelical religion in the US as well as the most recent end of the disarmament movement, because of the proposed one trillion dollar nuclear modernization budget.
Kathy Weaver also inspires me, tackling the so frightening blend of technology, electronics and biology. Robots and nature, burned and sewn paper, what’s not to like?
Stacia, what playful seriousness. It made me smile, but also a bit afraid. It’s the growing organism of color and happiness taking over. Formally, Stacia’s piece and mine are very related; they each spilled onto the floor.
David Criner’s was like the Matisse of the bunch, like an early spring morning, formal evocation of space and light. It’s as if you put Rothko, Diebenkorn and Bonington in a blender and out poured David.
KB: What is on the horizon for you? Where can we see some more Tom Torluemke?
TT: I have a hard-hitting political show coming to Firecat Projects in August just before election time, along with a book release of satirical comics and political writings.
February 23, 2016 · Print This Article
Holy smokes. Before bed we managed to get this little tidbit (but we were *forced* to keep it quite until now)…
Our very own PATRICIA MALONEY is now the EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of SOUTHERN EXPOSURE!
Sad news for our friends at Art Practical but she is stuck with us (and they are in great hands.) So there.
Here is the press release which is slightly more dignified then our irrepressible enthusiasm.
Amy Elkins’s exhibition Black is the Day, Black is the Night, at the Cress Gallery at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga, explores her relationship with five men who have spent decades in maximum security prisons, much of that time in solitary confinement. Through photography, video, sound, and objects, Elkins creates a world of the imprisoned men with whom she corresponds. Their words, drawings, and letters are surrounded by portraits of the men and recreations of their visual and aural memories that obscure and layer their experiences. The works unpack memory, the multiplicity of its roots and permutations as its holders are forcibly removed from those places, people, times, through enforced solitude.
In the large piece, Parting Words, she re-anchors that created world within the world outside of prison. The 531 portraits of the prisoners executed in Texas since 1976 are created with their last recorded words. As those words slowly breathe into life the obscured photographs, they push us back into the world outside of the imagined worlds of memory. The words are communications to those who remain in prison and those of us outside. They are an explicit grounding in the consequences of the prison system in the lives of those people within it and their family, friends, and loved ones, the deadly toll it extracts from our communities.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander writes, “‘We can have no significant understanding of any culture unless we also know the silences that were institutionally created and guaranteed along with it.’ Nowhere is that observation more relevant in American society today than in an analysis of the culture of mass incarceration” (quoting Gerald Sider). Alexander is writing of the silence of individual prisoners while in prison, the ways they are kept outside of economic, housing, political, and social opportunities after their release, and of the silent systems of legislation, policing, prosecution, and imprisonment that uphold and enforce the criminal justice system.
Elkins’s exhibition attempts to break the first silence, re-centering five mens’ voices and words, using their experience to develop the works through which she manifests the changes she observes in the men as they spend years in solitary confinement. The repetition of final words recreates hundreds of faces, magnifying a moment into lifetime. In the middle of the exhibition, Elkins has recreated a full-size solitary confinement cell. It is only revealed in the context of the larger constellation of works, not as origin or culmination. By rooting it within the context of the surrounding work, she prioritizes her correspondents’ experiences, memories, poems, and drawings. For the viewer, their complex, human lives are primary over their status as prisoners.
I do not believe Elkins must be an activist to work with prisoners or the prison-industrial complex. She frames the exhibition as the aesthetic expression of personal relationships she has developed with five prisoners, and it is successful as such. As an aesthetic experience, Elkins has created a compelling exploration of what it means for us to live with the effects of and tacitly support the carceral state.
She also “hopes that these projects brings some light to topics and issues about capital punishment and juvenile incarceration, the inequity that bears upon their application from state to state, and the legal and social debate about race and economic level that surrounds this discussion today.” It certainly sheds light on those topics, but it does not push the viewer to action as other prison- and prisoner-related work by artists (Tamms Year Ten, Prisoners’ Inventions) or work towards other criminal justice reform and prison abolition efforts happening around the country and the world.
There is great need for awareness of the ravages of the criminal justice system on individuals and poor, non-white communities, of the abuse of solitary confinement, of the enormous profits being made at the expense of these communities and the theft of their lives. It is vital that a wider public sees and understands the impacts of the prison system. There must be action beyond that awareness, however. We must recognize the role we have played in the creation and maintenance of those systems and work to change or abandon them. There is a role for art and artists at every point along that journey.
On Sunday February 7, 2016, the date that will now forever be known as the day a politically aware and majestic Beyoncé won the Super Bowl, an article written by Daniel Grant ran in the Education/Life section of the New York Times titled “For These Pieces Hold the Paint: Social Practice Degrees Take Art to a Communal Level.” The Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University (PSU), where from 2008-2014 I taught and was for the majority of my time there the Co-director and Chair, was heavily featured in the article. Before joining the faculty at PSU, I also founded the largest annual international conference on socially engaged art, Open Engagement. My background as the director of this conference, my intimate knowledge of the program at PSU, and my position in the world as a woman of color led me to read the article (one of the first circulating these ideas to a broad and mainstream readership) and wonder who gets to speak for socially engaged art? Whose voices are privileged? And what types of projects get circulated?Social practice feels as though it could hold the potential to change the world. As Harrell Fletcher stated in the article, many artists working in this way could be described as politically progressive, some “fairly extreme in their anticapitalism.” I would say that much of the ethos behind this way of working as an artist is about re-evaluating and challenging systems of power. It is about the value of art in daily life and the belief that art is for everyone, not just the elite. Its commercial value can be slim as much of the time this kind of work might not look like art at all. This work promotes agency in artists, it is made alongside and with it’s intended audience and necessitates being in the context of the world.
Because social practice can be so seemingly outside of what we have traditionally framed as art it often has a problem with tone and form. Artists wishing to tackle the most pressing and serious issues of our time sometimes land on a dinner party, or a walk as a way of addressing these problems. While I believe that real change can emerge from seemingly small gestures, it is undeniable that there are clear tropes that have emerged in socially engaged art. One of the most troubling things for me in the New York Times piece was that while Grant talked about social practice’s historic connections to figures like community organizer and agitator Saul Alinsky—whose work was able to help lend power to the voices of so many who have been disenfranchised, that one of the main projects of graduates of the PSU MFA program that was featured was “Grocery Stories”, a project installed at a locally owned Portland boutique chain grocery store, giving voice to artisanal cheese makers. I know from first hand experience that the PSU MFA program has produced projects and artists that deal with immigrant rights, housing justice, shifting institutional power, LGBTQIA communities, and media access. As I read I wondered where was the radical work? Why were only white students highlighted? In addition to this omission of these student projects, there was a lack of diversity in the interviewed leaders in the field ranging from program directors, to chief curators—many of these voices representing the usual suspects for social practice.
Grant’s article ends with a sentence that is undoubtedly supposed to elicit a response and understanding in the reader about the new level of awareness that the students and artists working in this way have achieved, “They shuffle, reach, grasp the air, and ultimately open their eyes.” If this is a practice that is truly woke I would hope that it would not continue to perpetuate the models of the dominant art world that continue to exclude women and people of color. In 2013 The National Museum of Women in the Arts estimated that 5% of artwork currently on display in the United States was made by women, and the famous Guerrilla Girls poster outlining the breakdown of artists in the 1991, 1993, and 1995 Whitney Biennials show that the numbers of women of color included in the art world are significantly less. Jillian Steinhauer’s article for Hyperallergic titled, “The Depressing Stats of the 2014 Whitney Biennial” shows that sadly little has changed in almost two decades.
In April the 8th Open Engagement will feature Keynote speakers Angela Davis and Suzanne Lacy. This edition of the conference is the first in a trilogy that will explore the themes of POWER, JUSTICE, and SUSTAINABILITY, 2016 in Oakland at Oakland Museum of California, 2017 at University of Illinois at Chicago, and in 2018 back at the Queens Museum in NY. Open Engagement has worked alongside practitioners and institutions to make sure that the conference symbolically and literally is as capacious as the art by spanning geography, recognizing spaces both inside and outside the academy, and embracing all people who are engaged in transforming the world through creativity and radical imagination. These struggles are continual and each year we acknowledge that this work is never done—that is the nature of social change. As the Associate Director of the UIC School of Art & Art History currently developing socially engaged curriculum at a large public urban research university, I hope that within this freshly institutionalized area of art making that has its roots in activism, social justice, and community organizing, the promise and values that I see in social practice will hold space in the art world for all of us. Before my own time at Portland State University ended I was told by an older white male tenured colleague that I had, “become too visible, and was taking too much credit for the work I was doing.” If we can’t shift these paradigms of oppression and fight these inequities within our own field, what hope do we fare when we take on the world?