Guest Post by Hannah Verrill
Tatyana Tenenbaum is an interdisciplinary artist whose work examines sound and movement within a shared perceptual, historical, and dramaturgical framework. Her most recent piece, Private Country, premiered this past October at The Chocolate Factory in New York City after a working process that spanned several years.Â
I met Tatyana back in early 2006 when we were both studying at Oberlin College in Ohio.Â We became fast art friends and began collaborating soon after meeting.Â As I try to make sense of the past, it occurs to me that we connected so immediately because both of us were experiencing a shift in our creative frameworks.Â I had grown up inside of dance and was beginning to reach outside of it to sound, video, and installation.Â Tatyana had grown up inside of music composition and was beginning to explore the body and choreography.Â We met somewhere in the middle and continue still to learn from each otherâ€™s artistic endeavors.Â
In an effort to get inside of Tatyanaâ€™s process of working towards Private Country, while being unable to physically witness it, I staged a kind of experiment that Tatyana graciously pursued with me through written correspondence.Â If the result is messy, with bursts of clarityâ€”so it goes, as with any process.Â Thank you for bearing with us.
Hannahâ€”Tatyana, Iâ€™m asking you to pull up discrete moments, notes, from the making of Private Country.Â These can be messy and detailed as if they were occurring in the present moment.Â Is this even possible?Â Iâ€™m certainly unsure.Â Time does its thing, right?Â Certain moments will come up for air while others are swept out to sea. Â Or this is how I imagine it at least.Â The director Anne Bogart writes that if the theatre were a verb, it would be Â â€˜to rememberâ€™. Iâ€™ll exit here and cue your entrance.Â
Tatyanaâ€”Iâ€™ll begin here:
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Note 1Â
Techno-Minimalism… TuneYards and Gang Gang Dance. Â Moving out of the “new complexity” (or, as my 78-year old composition professor would say, “the new stupidity.”) Moving towards audience immersion, sensory experience, spectacle as visceral sensationâ€”where spectacle departs from tried-and-true conventionâ€”where it began as something primal, something essential to the human experience, ritual as catharsis, religious ritual, art as ritual/ and /or / religion. Â Contemporary pop counter culture as ritual. || None of this writing is suitable for an audience but perhaps I will try to articulate it further. || WHERE FORM MEETS Â – – – } FUNCTION, and this becomes aesthetic. Â Everything dependent. Â Everything related. Â Everything a choice. Â Proliferation of media means theater becomes one-dimensional in the conventional sense. Â Prosceniums are officially flat, not adapted to a world that frequents the 3-D movie theater. Â Antiquated. Â Dull, irrelevant? Â Or just self-conscious in their flatness? Â
Hâ€”If I simplify a working process as having two tracks, the track that is concerned specifically and directly with the project, and the track that filters everything else happening in one’s life and still lends itself to the current work at hand, it seems like this process note would fall into that latter category.Â And itâ€™s a messy situation! But this stuff is so important, right?Â I mean when looking back at how a work was made, or rather, why it was made.
This idea of flatness in theater as an outgrowth of the proliferation of media.Â How does this kind of thinkingâ€”it almost reads as despairâ€”propel you forward in the midst of project that is mining your personal history with musical theater?Â How do you choose to contend with the flatness?Â
Tâ€”The question of flatness in a theater excites me. Â The idea of frontality excites me too. In the canon of musical theater, it’s almost a motif unto itself. I think, consciously and unconsciously I wanted to amplify this motif.Â
For Private Country I chose to seat most of the audience on risers as in a “proscenium front” and a small handful in a single row on the edge of stage left. Â Ezra and I continued this seating line on the upstage left. Â It was as if the audience on that edge was disappearing into the horizon line, until they became the performers. A lot of action happened on the diagonal that joined those two audience lines. Â However, the obvious weight of the frontally oriented audience was of interest to me. Â It was like giving one thing an 80% value and something else a 15% value… 5% went to the mystery. Towards the end, I second-guessed this configurationâ€”for the obvious reason that it would make those viewers on the side become apart of the visual space. Â But removing them somehow made the frontality less powerful. There needed to be something to rub up against.
Hâ€” I know you grew up inside of the musical theater canon, and I often wonder about kids who grow up with a certain knowledge or familiarity with an art form.Â When you approach the form later on, is the desire (or need) for invention within the form always a critical point of interest?Â
Â Tâ€”I want to say that I was always drawn to the absurd. Â I was also some form of outsider. Â I couldn’t even get a role in my town’s community theater production because I was too shy… so I started writing my own musicals, and I found power in that. Â It was the most un-self conscious re-production of convention… to the downbeat. Â I mean, without knowing what I was doing, I was channeling so much history (I had grown up with it). Â So it made it easier, later on, to comment on that canon. Â I had already begun archiving and indexing those conventions as a child. Â It was my way of making sense of that world. Â Part of unearthing that is realizing what that absurdity means to me nowâ€”what it is bumping up against. Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Note 2
Reading The Old WayÂ by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
Â The first mention of art and “artistic genius” [within the society of the Ju/Wasai Bushmen of the Kalahari] was in regards to hunting. Â She feels that the creative energies are played out in this arena, and points out that the first art in caves was to commemorate big hunts. Â She describes, also, the storytelling and oral myth making around hunting. Â When she gives an example of the style of storytelling, it is all in the present tense: “I creep forward, I creep. Â He jumps! Â He is just that far.”
Hâ€”How did these ideas “play out” in the arena of Private Country?Â Why do you feel that the sport of hunting sparked artistic expression?Â And what about the present tense, why make note of that? What feels important about an expression of the past happening as if it is in the present?
Â Tâ€” I think I was drawn to these old ethnographies (I also read John McPhee’s “Coming Into the Country,” a collection of contemporary ethnographies of Americans living back-to-the-land style in rural Alaska) because I was trying to understand where this compulsion to depict ourselves came from. Â
Â “I creep forward, I creep.”
When I am temporally engaged in an art practice, I feel it in the present tense. Â But when I analyze it, contextualize it, or write about it, I do so by separating it from my daily life practice. Â There is an “otherness” that develops; this classic division between art and life. Â So maybe I was searching for the root of that otherness. Â
The hunting bitâ€”it surprised me. Â And then, it made sense. Â The oldest stories are hero myths. Â And these stories exist without a written language. Â I find it interesting now because I have been engaged in this memorization practice within my own work. Â Even though I take notes on my texts as they develop, I never treat the written word as having authority over the lived moment. Â I re-write the material over and over again in rehearsal, changing things as I forget or alter subconsciously. Â I’ve always been drawn to memorization. Â I used to listen to stories on audiocassette and memorize them. Â I had this one children’s series called “The Great Composers.” Â I used to listen to itÂ over and over again. Â It became, in effect, a completely oral tradition, a series of hero myths, westernized, classicized, internalized, plagiarized,and canonized…
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Note 3
Hâ€”When and how does the impulse to archive arise for you? Is it in the very instant?Â In which case I imagine you living a kind of double life; being while simultaneously acting like archeologist.Â Asking yourself which moments need to be recorded, preserved.Â Or is it an afterthought?
Tâ€” I think archiving is a constant. Â Some of the text I used in Private Country was originally sourced in 2005 from an interview with an archeologist. Â I first set that as a vocal composition in 2006… later I started experimenting with recitation of the memorized composition in a very resonant space, which is where I was first able to hear my own pitch fluctuation in my speaking voice… I developed a practice around that recitation and that began to open up the process I used with my ensemble to create these spoken-sung passages for Private Country. Â So I was still using part of the original text 8 years after I first acquired it. Â Now that I’ve let go of that text, I’m still using the musical phrasing that I found with it to structure new ideas…thatâ€™s an example of how archiving or my relationship to my archive is happening constantly inside of my process.Â
Â Â Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Note 4
Hâ€”Working with your brother, archiving moments in your relationshipâ€”do you work with that as raw or already composed material, or both?Â
Tâ€”So, Ezra and I really played out our relationship on and off stage. Â It started with our original conversations… I asked him to help me as “dramaturge”, because I thought he was in a unique situation to act as one. Â We fought, we played, we analyzed. Â No matter what, we couldn’t escape our Brother/Sister roles within the piece. Â And as far as I was concerned, we didn’t have to. Â Because we basically made the duet and then worked on it for a year and a halfâ€”the progress was internal. Â We built up a mythology within what we were doing. Â It was supposed to be spare, raw, but also dense with history and context.Â
Note 5 (revised sibling dialogue)
On that note, we find an ending.
Hannah Verrill is an artist living and making work in Chicago, Illinois.
December 4, 2013 · Print This Article
GUEST POST BY AUGUST EVANS
“Cinema is a wonderful way of expressing dreams.”Â Â Â Â Â Â -Phillipe Soupault, founding surrealist
Here in Bloomington, IN, the December midnight screening series at the renowned IU Cinema, “More Human than Human,” is poised to screen David Lynchâ€™s prequel (and conclusion) to the cult television series,Â Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Photo Courtesy: lynchnet.com
The IU Cinema describes Lynch’s 1992 film as “part neo-noir, part family melodrama, part surreal horror movie.” The descriptor “surreal” comes up more often than not in describing most any Lynch project–from an early film likeÂ Eraserhead,Â to a later work likeÂ Blue Velvet,Â or in any general summary ofÂ Twin Peaks–to a more recent foray into the song and accompanying film, “Crazy Clown Time.”
As much as the term “surreal” is used to describe the Lynchian universe, I wonder how such constant use might be making “surreal” into a Lynch-like genre, as equally identifiable as noir:
Photo courtesy: Noir Film Festival Dubrovnik
But in the way that we identify the above as a decidedly noir photo still, what qualities make a film “surreal,” other than there being something bizarre, non-linear, oddly juxtaposed about it?
LynchÂ has come to be known for his “surrealistÂ films”. His Wikipedia page claims he’s developed his own unique cinematic style, dubbed â€˜Lynchianâ€™, characterized by dream imagery and meticulous sound design. The surreal, and in many cases, violent, elements contained within his films have been known to “disturb, offend or mystify” audiences.”
But even though Lynch’s films are unmistakably surreal, are they surrealist?
Surrealist cinema, with origins in Surrealism, a movement that coincided with the birth of motion pictures, whose originators grew up alongside the first films, defines itself as being unable to be defined by style or form, ever-shifting and incongruous.
Only three films were actually ever designated â€œexclusively surrealist productions,â€ created in the throes of the movement and in keeping with its tenets: Germaine Dulacâ€™s La coquille et le clergyman (original scenario by Antonin Artaud), Luis BuÃ±uelâ€™s Lâ€™Ã¢ge dâ€™or, and what might be deemed the quintessential surrealist film, BuÃ±uel and Salvador DalÃ¬â€™s Un chien andalou.
Though not necessarily â€œbetterâ€ than any blatantly produced generic film, Un Chien AndalouÂ is undoubtedly â€œdifferentâ€ than such films created under the commercial conditions and restraints of Hollywood. There is no doubt that the film was self-consciously produced, and subsequently consumed, against the mainstream generic model. Film theorist Steve Neale suggests Un chien andalou â€œflaunted the genre system predominant in Europe at the time it was madeâ€¦the genre â€˜narrative feature filmâ€™, and the genres of the contemporary European art filmâ€¦BuÃ±uel, claimed it was not even an instance of avant-garde filmmaking, but rather â€˜a desperate appeal to murder.â€
Surrealism strikes me as an ideology akin to an artistsâ€™ movement, rather than a publically discussable genre. As Luis BuÃ±uel wrote, the group sought â€œto explode the social order, to transform life itself,â€ an aim far more expansive than a simple generic label.
Any attempt to place the weight of genre upon an artistsâ€™ movement like Surrealism presents problems, considering the aims of the first (and possibly only) surrealists were to explode the bourgeois order. Indeed, these initial surrealist films achieved something very unique, specific, and particular to the artistsâ€™ movement out of which they emerged. Toby Sussman deems these early films â€œthe pinnacle of the Surrealist filmsâ€¦the representation of the total passion of a human event pushed beyond previously known limitsâ€¦resulting in a beautiful new world of images existing somewhere between the amorphous intractability of dreams and the cold acceptance of everyday consciousness”:
Contemporary Czechoslovakian filmmaker, Jan Å vankmajer, has called himself a â€œmilitant surrealist.â€And yet, in his 2007 essay about the filmmaker, Jan Uhde calls him â€œone of the most significant living directors of non-mainstream and experimental film animation,â€ and cites Surrealism only as â€œa major influenceâ€ on Å vankmajerâ€™s film style. The first surrealists were nothing if not a collective, making Å vankmajerâ€™s participation in an actual group a notable link.
The experimental films of Maya Deren could certainly fit into this category as well. Deren combined her interests in dance, voodoo and subjective psychology in a series of perceptual, black and white short films. As an independent distributor, Deren exhibited and presented lectures on her films across the United States, Cuba and Canada. In 1946 she booked the Villageâ€™s Provincetown Playhouse for a public exhibition. Deren titled the exhibition: â€˜Three Abandoned Films â€“ a showing ofÂ Meshes of the Afternoon,Â At LandÂ &Â A Study in Choreography for the Cameraâ€™. Deren took the word â€˜abandonedâ€™ to refer to Guillaume Apollinaireâ€™s observation that a work of art is never completed, just abandoned. Whilst the title was ironic, the exhibition was successful.
Yet Deren actively rejected categorization as a surrealist, refused the definition of her films as formalist or structuralist. To label her films as surrealist brings up the same situation of Lynchâ€™s distancing himself from the term in interviews, and summons the origins of the artistsâ€™ movement, people who based a huge amount of their identities on their active alignment with an ideology via Bretonâ€™s definitive manifestoes. Indeed, Derenâ€™s request that her films shall not be called surrealist clashes logically with the crucial foundations of the artistsâ€™ movement, especially in considering how actively its practitioners self-identified as surrealist.
It seems to me that surrealism exists as a state of mind rather than a genre-form. Both dada and surrealism have been defined by their adherents as attitudes of thought as opposed to formalist or strictly cohesive artistic styles, and the artists were therefore committed to obtaining new effects by experimentation, recording accidental events resulting from improvisation.
Photo courtesy: lynchnet.com
Michael Richardson writes, “the surrealist necessity is to make Marx’s demand for the ‘transformation of the world’ and Rimbaud’s demand to ‘change life as one and the same thing.” The Surrealists’ belief that “poetry should be made by all not one” required broader societal change and helps explain the movement’s close identification with various shades of left-wing thought. The publication of numerous, often difficult, sometimes perplexing, manifestoes should be understood within the context of the turbulent politics of the interwar years.
Excluding Å vankmajer, few filmmakers take such rare and raw revolutionary risks today. The essence of surrealism, refusing to be hereÂ but alwaysÂ elsewhere, makes me wonder whether a film like Lynch’s Twin Peaks:Â Fire Walk with MeÂ should be included among those forerunners. Though the film teems with dreamlike, non-linear imagery, it contains its share of gratuitous nudity and standard plot turns. To align with the originary notion of surreal, the film should explode the social order, force the viewer somewhere new and perplexing. WhetherÂ Fire Walk with MeÂ explodes any staid order,Â I have yet to know. What I do know is there is something very different about it, which may be enough to count as surreal.
August Evans has written in Mexico, Sweden, and Aix-en-Provence, France, where she taught English before returning to the U.S. to complete her Masters of Humanities degree at the University of Chicago. She has taught college English and Humanities in Chicago, and studied fiction writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her fiction and book reviews may be found inÂ HTMLGiant, Melusine,Â andÂ Monkeybicycle.
Guest post by A.Martinez
I was introduced to the work of Sara Drake at my first Brain Frame event, March 2012. Brain Frame is an event series that invites comic artists to explore the performative side of their work. That night, Saraâ€™s shadow puppet performance â€œThe Romance of the Tiger Ladyâ€Â Â truly blew me away. I try to avoid using the word ‘magic’ to describe work, but the kind of child-like captivation I felt in response to this piece was both unexpected and incredibly moving.
Bad At Sports last spoke to Sara just before her two-month teaching venture in Cambodia. It was this trip that inspired â€œThe Romance of the Tiger Ladyâ€, and it was also this trip that inspired her (most impressive) self-taught movement towards shadow puppetry. You can find Saraâ€™s work online at http://saradrake.info/;Â Â she is also the Â comics writer for Bad At Sports.
A.Martinez:Â How did you get from making comics into performing shadow puppetry?
Sara Drake:Â Estrangement. I had just returned to the US from Cambodia where I had been teaching comics, and every way I knew how to articulate myself became erroneous. I needed to communicate in a mode which wouldnâ€™t come off as abrasive or didactic within an insular arts community in Chicago. I wasnâ€™t ready to process my experiences abroad with other people yet. It takes me a long time to process anything, including my new found political awareness.
Shadow puppets signaled tedious, meditative sessions alone in the dark and allowed me to find a voice I was aware of in the back of my mind but wasnâ€™t sure how to wield. Â So much of my creative life is prefaced with writing and asserting justification for making things. When Iâ€™m speaking in shadows, I am literally fumbling around in the dark trying to find bits and pieces to a story.
Martinez:Â So to begin talking about your piece, The Romance of the Tiger Lady, I want to start with your trip to Cambodia to teach comics to a group of young women. When were you there and for how long?
Drake:Â I was there for two months in 2011 through an initiative called Independent Youth Driven Media Production in Cambodia. My former teacher, Anne Elizabeth Moore, was looking for creative responses to issues relevant to young women in Phnom Penh. I applied with a gendered comics and self-publishing workshop.
Martinez:Â How did living in a completely different country teaching comics influence your work?
Drake:Â I was there for such a short time! I wouldnâ€™t exactly consider two months â€œlivingâ€ in a foreign country. It did completely shift my life. As for my work I attribute it most to an entangling and dispossession of my morality, which Iâ€™m only just beginning to explore through comics.
I am definitely an advocate for travel if you have the means or opportunity to do so, but hesitant to encourage others to pursue a project like mine. There are unique risks and potentially hidden power structures at play. To walk into a community as an outsider with limited understanding could be devastating, despite how well-intentioned an artist may be.
Martinez:Â Did you watch much shadow puppetry there?
Drake:Â Only as a tourist. Not as someone who has the ability to talk about the medium affluently or with respect to a long, and important cultural tradition.
Martinez:Â Of all the comics you read while you were over there, what made you decide to choose this story to work with?
Drake:Â Thatâ€™s the thing. I did not speak or was literate in Khmer. I had to find comics in the market places and through word of mouth, typically through western expats. Cambodia is still rebuilding from and coming to terms with decades of illegal American bombing, the Khmer Rouge regime, civil war, and persistent corruption. Comics, like all artistic production during the regime, were completely wiped out. The Romance of The Tiger Lady, by Im Sokha, is a horror comics from the 1980s about a were-tiger lady who falls smitten for a hunter. Aside from it being a good story, it was one of the comics that was well liked and looked at often among the women that came to my workshops.
Martinez:Â So, you made a decision to make this into a shadow puppet performance, and then how did you begin this process?
Drake:Â I spend a lot of time writing and collecting fragments of ideas until I internalize and visualize moods and feelings. Then I have to somehow translate them into puppets. I am still a bit mystified as to how that happens.
Martinez:Â The piece is 17 minutes long. About how long did it take you to just cut out all the scenes?
Drake:Â For Tiger Lady, I wasnâ€™t just cutting out the puppets, I was also teaching myself how to make shadow puppets. The show took about three months to physically cut out. A clumsy, one foot after the other sort of business.
Martinez:Â Did you work mostly by yourself?
Drake:Â Yes and no! When Iâ€™m starting to work on a show there is a germination period of a few months, where Iâ€™m working solo on scripting out the story and making all the puppets. Then I get together with a group of puppeteers and a musician to figure out the rest.
Martinez:Â How did you decide to use an overhead projector for your performances?
Drake:Â They are the staple, it seems, for shadow puppet shows. The puppet community in Chicago is incredibly supportive. Julia Miller of Manual Cinema, another shadow puppet group, gave me a lot of pointers in the beginning. Knowing about their work was an invaluable resource in the beginning and their work is mind-blowingly gorgeous.
Martinez:Â Comics are usually a very solitary act, so was it difficult for you to switch to an art that is so collaborative both in its making and its viewing?
Drake:Â I see this logic posed often to cartoonists and frankly, itâ€™s missing the point. Comics are solitary as a process sure! but similar to other art forms, communities have formed up around and about it all over the place. It would seem odd to ask a writer this question. Chicago is not as lonely as my cartoon predecessors would have most believe, yet certainly alienating at times. It bores me when artists use this paradigm as an excuse.
But to answer your question, there was never a time when I havenâ€™t been collaborating. Maybe the result isnâ€™t always a visual one or one whose end goal is something tangibly producible. Â For me, cultural production necessitates community involvement and being exposed to as many voices and encouraging access to as many voices as possible.
Martinez:Â When did PUPhouse form?
Drake:Â During the production of Saltwater Weather. Early on I realized that the project was going to be ambitiously technical and require a deeper commitment from the artists who stepped up to be puppeteers. Each of us had been collaborating in some form or another outside of shadow puppets. The range of mediums each of us is coming from is pretty protean: textiles, animation, comics, music, filmmaking, theater. PUPhouse, or giving our time together a name, became a way to reinforce what we were building together.
Martinez:Â Do you like working with a crew Â of people like that?
Drake:Â As with any group of humans, you can expect drama. I wouldnâ€™t have it any other way.
I mean, I couldnâ€™t have it any other way.
Martinez:Â What’s the strangest or coolest thing that’s happened to you while working together?
Drake:Â Being around other artists is strange and cool in general.
One of the perks of being in an experimental puppet company, is that no matter what event or show you are at, if itâ€™s going badly or is boring, I always have seven weirdos who I adore to hang out with on the sidelines. Eternal friendship lifestyle.
Martinez:Â How often do you meet and rehearse for shows?
Drake:Â When a show is in the works once a week. Sometimes two, three times a week.
It takes longer time than one would think to show someone how to move a small piece of paper from point a to b. . .
Martinez:Â What is the most difficult thing for you about shadow puppetry?
The physical and emotional labor that goes into it. Shadow puppetry may look effortless from the front but there is a flurry of movement, sweat, and awkward body positions happening backstage. It takes an exceptional group of people to be able to maintain strong friendships after tense long hours of being told their fingers need to act more like animals.
Sometimes puppets catch on fire . . . which, is definitely difficult.
Martinez:Â What are you currently working on?
Drake:Â Iâ€™m taking a break from puppets for a moment to make a new comic – but I donâ€™t want to share all my magic tricks just yet. On top of that, Iâ€™m heading out of Chicago for a bit to do an artist residency in Colombia.
Martinez:Â It seems like you like to travel to new places. Do you work while youâ€™re traveling? Or mostly just collect ideas?
Drake:Â I have a long-term, co-dependent relationship with wanderlust. I intentionally do not go to any place wanting to make work about it. Iâ€™ve found that traveling with a purpose in mind, mediates my experiences. It is however, important that all of the materials I work with are portable. This does two things. I like culture that is definitely small – thatâ€™s human sized and encourages people to relate to it. And of course, itâ€™s practical!
Martinez:Â Do you keep/have a collection?
Drake:Â Iâ€™m always leaving places. I do not like/enjoy owning things, maybe thatâ€™s why I work in ephemera and experiences. Although, I am a compulsive autobiographer. I keep a dated record of every book, movie, and art show Iâ€™ve ever read or seen since I was a teenager. I keep meticulous word lists of all sorts of things: new compound words I create, overheard conversations, turns of phrases that sound off, mood words, fragments.
Martinez:Â What is the most distracting thing for you while youâ€™re working?
Drake:Â Exhaustion. Or not feeling lucid and the feedback loop frustration that comes with that.
Martinez:Â Whatâ€™s the biggest revelation youâ€™ve had about the way you work?
Drake:Â The puppeteers always note that I exclaim â€œdo you hate it?â€ when I show new work or scenes to them. I have a parasite known to many as self-depreciation.
Martinez:Â Is there a certain time of day that you feel especially inspired to work, or when ideas come to you?
Drake:Â I do most of my writing and scripting when I am on my bike. Most days this tends to be the only alone time I have. And of course, shadows are more dramatic after dark. . .
Martinez:Â Does your cat hang out with you while you work?
Drake:Â Of course! We have a symbiotic working relationship. I cannot stress enough, how crucial a creative life in the company of other animals is to a human psyche.
Martinez:Â Is there a piece of advice, art related or not that you think of often?
Drake:Â When I was small, my dad always used to say, â€œWhat makes a good animal, a good animal?â€
This was meant to be soothing after some brutal animal world fact on television, a pet death, watching viruses destroy human cells on bring your daughter to work day, etc. It meant, what ensures that animal survives? Is being brutal or dark, something that a human animal might consider bad, a part of what defines that animal? Â â€œWhat makes a good human, good at being human?â€ This is how I move around in the world ad. infinitum.
All photos courtesy of Gillian Fry and Sara Drake.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.
December 3, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Britton Bertran
The art economy in Chicago â€“ specific to the visual art market â€“ is busted.Â It doesnâ€™t work and hasnâ€™t worked for a long time.Â Yes, this a provincial observation as we are in a global society, but ask any commercial gallery owner in Chicago thatâ€™s not one of the Mighty 5, and theyâ€™ll tell you the same. Â Yes, more and more people who arenâ€™t in Chicago are paying attention to us as a viable location.Â Chicago is a place that has artists who make (and made) great work and some non-Chicagoans are even buying art from here (good luck in Miami yâ€™all!).Â But when it comes to a localized presence, we are somewhere near the bottom of the attention totem pole.Â Where would you place visual art on the Chicago matrix of culture that includes Theater, Music, Dance, and yes, Food?
There are several ingredients that make up this pie: artists (check-plus), galleries (check), arts administrators (check), art critics (check-minus) and collectors (check-minus-minus).Â One could also add art schools, art jobs and art conversation to this pie.Â As well, we have venues in which to look at art which is obviously important for this mixture: fancy/academic/contemporary museums, commercial galleries with varying levels of artist representation, medium-sized and smaller not-for-profits, artist-run apartments/storefronts/garages, city-sanctioned public spaces and galleries AND, lest we forget, our computers. Â These are all parts of this economy and much of its success is reliant on the flow if information that reaches non-art world people and what happens when those people react to what they see.Â The trouble is that most of those non-artworlders are either taking what they see for granted. Â In general, they are not really looking, seeing or reacting.
Chicago has a landscape and art is very much in it. Â So whatâ€™s missing? Â Why is it broke and how can we fix it?
Money helps. Â Money helps a lot. Â Yes, I know itâ€™s gauche to talk about especially in the realm of aesthetics, but the majority of artworlders here are sadly not flush for reasons beyond their control. Â And yes, I also realize that many artists choose to ignore the money part of their equation as it interferes with the thinking about their work and its discourse.Â But it still needs to be discussed as itâ€™s a part of the system we live within.
I place much of the blame of a lot of the troubles the Chicago art world has on the lack of collectors. Â There are collectors in Chicago – both with a little c and a big C â€“ but there are just not enough.Â Iâ€™m going to ignore the Collector portion of this equation and focus on the Lilâ€™ câ€™s, with the knowledge that one often becomes the other due to the pure pleasure they receive from the act itself.
Who are they? Where are they? Why wonâ€™t they come out and play? I know theyâ€™re here: they sit on non-profit auxiliary Boards, they go to First Friday, they eat out three nights a week, they buy condos in the West Loop, they have scooters as alternative transportation devices, they bring their visiting parents to the Art Institute and they could probably tell you at least ten contemporary artists they’ve heard of.
Since they are here, we have solved part of the problem and this is important because the Lilâ€™ câ€™s need to be localized in order for this to work. Â Next is the hard part: they need to understand that collecting art is a good thing, itâ€™s healthy, itâ€™s fun and itâ€™s really addictive. Â They need to understand that they donâ€™t need to spend a lot of money. Â They would be helping out this economy from a small business point of view, for both artists and gallerists. Â They could say, â€œHey Iâ€™m young, why donâ€™t I collect some emerging artists that are the same age as me and we could grow together!â€ Or they could say, â€œHey, if a New York Giants linebacker collects art, why shouldnâ€™t I?â€ Or â€œI heard that Leo DiCaprio was lurking in the corner of the some art auction last week?â€ Â This is a thing that people do!Â This is something that you, oâ€™ Lilâ€™ c, would be great at!
Sadly, the majority of the Lilâ€™ câ€™s also need to be told what to buy, at least in the beginning. Â As such, they need the lecture about aesthetics vs. investments, to buy with your eyes and not your ears, that itâ€™s more than filling in the space over your couch in that new condo and, if they so desire, art collecting brings with it a whole new set of social structures that can be horrifyingly awesome. Â An additional secret: Lilâ€™ câ€™s donâ€™t need Leo money to buy art they just need to be educated.
Is there anyone out there thatâ€™s taking up this challenge and whisper in the ears of these Lilâ€™ câ€™s? Â There are, but there arenâ€™t enough and there arenâ€™t enough that are doing it right. Â Two examples that are doing it right: The Chicago Artist Coalition and Threewalls.Â The CACâ€™s tagline is â€œBuilding a Creative Marketplaceâ€. Â Theyâ€™ve re-booted the organization in the last couple of years and are making real strides to make connections between artists and collectors. Â Threewalls has their CSA Initiative (Community Supported Art) that makes a kind of implied statement on the relationship between non-profit-ness, artists, art-making and the joy of owning artwork.Â These are also sustainable examples. Â One-off events (aka Art Fairs) may provide convenience and atmosphere but do little for long term development of collecting as a functionary system beyond good and services.Â Relationships need to be built which is also part of the fun.
Beyond the money â€“ there is relevance. Â These are two concepts inextricably associated with each other.Â In the context of Chicago, with its persistent inferiority complex, relevance especially applies in ways that will always be in flux.Â Some choose to ignore it, others choose to whole-heartedly embrace it and there are others whose mission in life is to better it.
There used to be individuals who developed a way of thinking and talking about art in Chicago that directly translated into success for a number of artists, both critically and monetarily.Â Two that come to mind are Don Baum (circa Monster Roster in the late 1960â€™s) and Judith Russi Kirshner (circa Chicago-neo-conceptualism of the late 1980â€™s). Â The artists that they worked with are well represented in our local art institutions as well as the collections of many Collectors. Â This is artwork that was disseminated in a way that clever, deft and meaningful within Chicago and then beyond.
This is still happening today in a way that could amount to something bigger.Â The current Whitney Biennial may provide a stopgap for this situation with near 1/5th of its artists currently working in Chicago, or at least with very close ties.Â Hopefully, the deserved exposure for those lucky artists will translate into more than a sentence or two in a reputable purveyor of art criticism.Â There is also a handful of local curators ensconced at our museums who do their part by creating scholarly looks at the recent art history of Chicago artists as well as develop vehicles for showcasing some of our emerging and mid-career artists.Â But is this enough?Â When the #WhiBi is over, how many of those artists will have some sort of local gallery representation?Â How many times will we see the same Tony Tasset/Robert Smithson photo at the MCA?
A surefire way of gaining some sort of relevance in the art world used to be simply having someone write about your work.Â In Chicago this used to be a little harder than other cities, but it was still there.Â I used to think that a certain level of professional art criticality and good old fashion art journalism was a part of this puzzle, and I still think it is, but when it comes to creating a sense of relevance â€“ itâ€™s a downward spiral. Â This is something I have no idea how to fix.Â The state of journalism (online or offline or whatever) is a sad state at this point because there simply isnâ€™t enough of it happening on a higher level.Â At the same time, if someone where to start consistently writing about Art in Chicago in a serious and engaging way, who would be there to read it? Â Is there anybody reading this that isnâ€™t already in some way trying to make a living within the local art scene, or at least attempting to become more relevant in some meaningful way?Â Writing about art, critically or journalistically, needs an infusion that is less about navel gazing and more about starting a conversation that is extroverted.
Thankfully, there arenâ€™t anymore â€œChicago schoolsâ€.Â Or at least no one (thatâ€™s not a gallery developing a marketing ploy) has decided to wrangle our artists into any sort of synthesized concrete definition in order to look at them easier.Â And, if someone where to, what would it look like?Â Would it be too transparent an attempt at selling? Â Or does that simply not matter anymore?Â Being an artist in Chicago might just have to be enough, but it canâ€™t be because there is too much at stake.Â I donâ€™t think there is room for another Don Baum in Chicago, but there is room to recognize that there are more questions than answers in this essay.
Bio: Britton Bertran ran 40000 from 2005 to 2008. He currently is an Instructor at SAIC in the Arts Administration and Policy department and the Educational Programs Manager at Urban Gateways. An occasional guest-curator, he has organized exhibitions for the Hyde Park Art Center, the Loyola Museum of Art and several galleries. You can find him trying to be less cranky about the art world on twitter @br_tton.Â Stay tuned for another guest post about looking forward to 2014 (and maybe a top 10 list of sorts too.)
December 2, 2013 · Print This Article
I should say now that I have never been to Samarkand (in present-day Uzbekistan), and that my views of it have been shaped almost entirely by its mythical role in Clive Barker’s novel Galilee. A quick bit of slacker research, though, reveals the essential nature of that city to match Barker’s description pretty well. Situated on the Silk Road, Samarkand was a city of wonders, the ultimate crossroads, a center of commerce as well as of art and culture. People came from thousands of miles to experience the wonders of the city itself, but more so, to meet and trade with one another.
It sounds like the perfect sales pitch for globalization. What city wouldn’t want to model itself after old Samarkand? Open to all, a place where one can find anything, from anywhere, yet possessing its own unique character, its glories and wonders its own, Samarkand strikes in our imagination the perfect cross between melting pot and salad bowl.
Did Samarkand itself ever live up to this ideal? This is probably unknowable. The tendency to romanticize history is undeniable, and certainly our own cosmopolitan cities fall short of this utopia. Diversity is assimilated into a global monoculture which is then exported, and we end up feeding our client states the predigested remains of their own children. (Metaphorically speaking. For now.)
This cynical, CrimeThink version is also incomplete, of course. I’ve eaten Chinese food in Berlin and Ethiopian food in Baltimore. The first time I had a Big Mac was in Tokyo. I haven’t researched Taco Bell penetration in Mexico, because I’m afraid of what I’ll find, but I do remember walking past a bar in San Miguel de Allende and hearing a pretty badass cover of a Metallica song, the lyrics sung in Spanish. (I don’t remember what song but this was 1996, so most of the shitty ones hadn’t been released yet.). It is impossible not to think of William Gibson in these moments, and it has a surreal magic about it.
On the other hand, there is perhaps a danger in the ubiquity of the other. Is it a disincentive to travel, when so much of our destination has been brought to us on a plate? Does, in fact, this single-serving multiculturalism blend the rest of the world into the homogenously labeled “World Music” aisle of an obsolescent record store? (And reflect, if one goes into a music store in Beijing, does American pop go in the “World Music” aisle? Most likely not, and the reason is the problem. We have exoticized the others, even to themselves.)
Why travel, then, if anyone, anywhere, can buy a didgeridoo, a foo lion, and a Panang curry? “To see the place itself!” some argue, or “To meet the people!” And this is good, so long as it is remembered. So have fun in Miami, but remember, it’s just another art fair, unless you see the Everglades while you’re there.
Art fairs are a sort of microcosm of the Samarkand ideal in its imperfect manifestation, actually. I’ve written about them before as have many others, but never before in the shadow of the tents of the bazaars of Samarkand. Imagine! An art fair that stirred the senses with the sights and sounds and smells of the exotic! What Tony Fitzpatrick described in his play, of the grand market in Istanbul, a thousand guys chasing him down, shouting, “Pashminas!” And one guy shouting, “Tube socks!”
But we don’t get that, at least not at any art fair I’ve been to. (And to be fair, I need to make it to some international ones.) So far, what I’ve seen at American art fairs is pretty much the same roster of blue chip galleries selling to blue chip collectors, damn the locals, who cower in the shadows of the big boys. Exceptions, sure. I’ve seen great, unexpected work at art fairs. And some Chicago dealers have sold to out of town collectors at Art Chicago and at Expo. Local collectors do buy work (I have been on both ends of this transaction as an artist and as a small-time collector), but far too many of them are like the tourists visiting a Moroccan antiquities dealer I saw on Anthony Bourdain recently. “We call them penguins,” he said, waddling comically. “Their hands can’t reach their pockets.”
Homogeneity is the death of art. If a piece is expected, it’s pointless. Someone, I can’t now recall who, said, “If two artists are doing the same thing, one of them is unnecessary.” There is something to this. The old world of the Twentieth Century, the “Age of -isms,” decade-long proclamations of new world orders, each to be replaced by the next like the procession of coups in a string of Third World dictatorships, really ended with Pop Art. By the 1990s, Art History textbooks pointed to the future with a vague reference to pluralism and a prayer that wherever we were headed, Kenny Scharf wasn’t the one leading the way.
Pluralism, though, can become a homogeneity all its own. The art world embraces diversity not like Tamerlane (once the ruler of Samarkand) but like the Borg. “Your biological and technological uniqueness will be added to our own.” Less the great bazaar, and more a strip mall that had both a Taco Bell and a Panda Express. It is an arms race in which we each struggle to strip mine our culture and experience faster than our competition, and we find that global monoculture is a cloud with a lining not of silver but of Strontium 90.
So everybody knows the the fight is fixed, but what are you going too do about it? Revolution loses its luster once you’ve seen the sweatshops where they make the Guy Fawkes masks. And the obvious counterpoint to globalization, regionalism, has its own obvious failings. Living here in Flagstaff, Arizona, I see proof enough of that every day. Native crafts, particularly jewelry and ceramics, are strong here, but will always have to sit at the kids table of “fine craft,” that is when they aren’t called “outsider art.” Among the non-Natives, imitations of these styles run strong (as, it must be said, do very good and original creations in these traditional craft media). Photography? Sure, as long as it’s of a mountain. And God help you if you can’t sell a painting of a raven in this town.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hairy Who, the Monster Roster, and the Chicago Imagists. Chicago, I know, is sick to some extent of their legacy, if only because they dominated the local scene so heavily for so long. But these three related movements did something unique in their time, diverging both from the Modernist, Greenbergian Ab Ex that was the status quo at the beginning, as well as from the slick, clean Pop Art going on in New York. Chicago had, for a time, its own thing, as rare and exotic as a screeching monkey, an ivory carving, or a previously unheard of spice. This kind of regional movement with the teeth to hold its own on the global stage could emerge again, anywhere, in any city, any town, and if it did, might provide the kind of true diversity that could make possible a Silk Road of the art world, a bazaar of the unexpected, a new Samarkand.