A World of Pain

July 15, 2015 · Print This Article

Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen.

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Leenaars.

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Leenaars.

The Doris Salcedo show, recently on view at the MCA, was a hard one to watch. Not because it was a bad show; numerous reviews pointed out it is an extremely well curated, beautifully executed, and timely show of the monumental oeuvre of a major Latin American artist.

Major female Latin American artist.

The latter only added to the shows importance, in case you were wondering. But none of all this is what made the show hard to watch. Salcedo’s visual language is worldly, and spoken by an international elite of sculptors such as Rachel Whiteread, Jannis Kounellis, Boltanski, Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys; a universally understood shorthand, whereby dark wood furniture and cast concrete reads like a history of human suffering. That language we speak, and read, and understand, as an important part of the so-called “post-colonial” discourse. (So called, because who are we kidding?)

What made Salcedo’s show so confronting was the silence in between. A silence that is uncomfortable, not as in awkward, not at all, but as in loaded. Like sitting next to your child’s sick bed, or worse yet, waiting for a child that does not return home; you understand that this is not about you, there is nothing you can do, and you would rather be anywhere else than right here, right now –yet right here is the only place to be, the only place you can be, right now. It is torturous.

Salcedo is no stranger to the idea of torture –her diligently researched body of work deals largely with its after effects—but neither are we: The principle of torture is inflicting pain, while willfully withholding relief. The deaths of innocent, unarmed men, at the hand of armed police officers, is pain inflicted not only on the victims and their families, on society as a whole. The refusal of relief, in the form of justice, as administered by a supreme court who refuses to indict the responsible parties, is torture.

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Leenaars.

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Leenaars.

Into this torturous silence, Kirsten Leenaars inserted three performances, each of an hour’s duration. Clad in a uniform black, her motley crew of mourners, performed the ceremonial task of animating the negative spaces in and between Salcedo’s work by supporting, comforting, hugging, healing, touching each other –and their audience by extension—while breaking the silence with chants and short monologues. The whole exhibition space carried the sound of what by association would be a funeral drum, was it not that Dan Bitney’s synchopated beat was teeming with life. In the invitation to the third performance, Leenaars explained:

“The idea of the witness is explored in relationship to recent events in America – the death of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. The performance questions specifically, what does it mean to be a witness today? And how do you realize that you are not the origin of your own empathy but it is the other who triggers you to imagine yourself in the place of the other. And how can this be a position of hope?”

I will spare you Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others,” and her insistence that we derive an almost pornographic pleasure from bearing witness, from a safe distance, to other people’s suffering. Although she (obviously) has a point, her thesis begins and ends with the premise that we are capable of empathetically feeling other people’s pain, but does not attempt to illuminate the origin of this capacity.

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Leenaars.

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Leenaars.

In a recent issue of New Scientist, however, Barbara Finlay offers some insight into the evolutionary mechanics of pain. In her article “The Unique Pain of Being Human,” she argues that since certain types of pain, such as labor pain, seem to be a specifically human trait, some biological and sociological benefits must be derived from it:

“The basic function in pain is the same for all vertebrates: it alerts an animal to potential damage and reduces activity after trauma. It is often argued that pain must be different in humans because of our ability to anticipate it or imagine its effect on us. But independent of whether cognition and culture can modify pain, I am suggesting a more basic difference in humans compared with animals: that some varieties, such as labor pain, appear only in humans, and others such as post-trauma pain are magnified.

These forms of pain appear in tandem with the ability to recruit help, to elicit an altruistic response in others.”

So pain is social glue. In this double bind we not only the cause of each other’s pain (literally) but also its remedy. Hell is the other, but so is help.

By mourning our dead together, by protesting the injustice suffered, and by ending the silence laid upon us, we not only overcome, we become. Human. Social beings.

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Leenaars.

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Leenaars.

Social beings remember each other, even when separated –for a time, or forever. Part of the performers’ script consists of testimonies to the memories the victims. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray. Not only their names: what they looked like, what they wore, or how they walked, talked, moved in this world.

Performance art will not bring them back (and neither will sculpture) nor is it a match to the police state –but art can be a powerful reminder that powers operate within our society, other than the powers that be. It can be a wake-up-call to walk away, from oppression and silencing, if not from pain. But first we need to stand up and feel again.

With their closing lines, Kirsten Leenaars performers command us to do just that:

“Stand up. If you’ve ever known love: stand up! Stand up, if you want to love again. Stand up for lives and loves lost.”


Photo courtesy of Kirsten Leenaars.

Photo courtesy of Kirsten Leenaars.

Disclaimer: Those of you who know me well, knows that I know Kirsten Leenaars very well, and that I am writing this review, not from the objective position of an art critic, but from that of a very subjective friend.


Ed. note: 

Leenaars will present an iteration of “Notes on Empty Chairs” at Gallery 400 on Tuesday, July 21 at 6:00pm–

The Imaginary Center of Perception
A collaborative performance by Kirsten Leenaars

Albeit highly mediated in TV and the Internet, artist Kirsten Leenaars responds to the witnessing of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, to name a few. Leenaars’ performance responds to the anger, the pain, the injustice, a flawed system and the senseless loss of lives.

Performers: Marvin Tate, Matthew Robinson, Regin Iglora, Kim Chayeb, Monica Brown, Wa Chontong, Toni Zhao, Opel Smittinet, Valentina Vella, Alison Auwerda, Udita Upadhyaya, Kekeli Kodzo Sumah. Drummer: Dan Bitney.

Lise Haller Baggesen left her native Denmark in 1992 to study painting in the Netherlands. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family. In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice including curating, writing and immersive multimedia installation work. Her first book “Mothernism” was published by Poor Farm Press and Green Lantern Press in 2014.

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (7/10-7/12)

July 9, 2015 · Print This Article

1. Three the Hard Way at Logan Center for the Arts

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 9.10.39 AM

Work by Ayana Contreras, James T. Green and David Leggett.

Logan Center for the Arts is located at 915 E. 60th St. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.

2. ANX/XV at Roots and Culture

ANX logo

Work by Joshua Johnson, Adrienne Miller, Allen Moore, Stuart Snoddy and Marcy Thomas.

Roots and Culture is located at 1034 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.

3. Wherever at LVL3


Work by Yuna Baek, Adi Goodrich, James T Green, Emily Haasch, Andy Hall, Clay Hickson, Cody Hudson, Ania Jaworska, Quinn Keaveney, Chad Kouri, Jason Pickleman, John Pobojewski, Alexa Viscius and Bryce Wilner.

LVL3 is located at 1542 N. Milwaukee Ave. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm.

4. The Chicago Project VI at Catherine Edelman Gallery


Work by Garrett Baumer, Katarzyna Derda, Dan Herman, Elaine Suzanne Miller, Kevin Shick, Jason Vaughn, Lauren Wilkins and Everett C. Williams.

Catherine Edelman Gallery is located at 300 W. Superior St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.

5. Wilderness and Household at THE MISSION


Work by Michael Hall and Yhelena Hall.

THE MISSION is located at 1431 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-8pm.

And no, for those of you that are curious, the Top 5 is not a bi-weekly column, it is weekly with minor exceptions. Thank you for reading the Top 5 and Bad at Sports.

Artist Residencies: Are They Worth It? (Part 1 of 2)

July 7, 2015 · Print This Article

I’m sitting in my studio at the Vermont Studio Center, an artist residency program located in Johnson, Vermont. I’m at a desk strewn with small lengths of hardwood flooring, which I’m using as panels for a series of paintings I’m working on while I’m here (through the end of July). To my right is a window looking out onto a grass lawn and a bed of tiger lilies. The sun is shining but it’s not too hot; fluffy white clouds peek up from behind the forest of maple trees on the hill. A robin occasionally lands on the railing of the balcony outside the window, keeping me company. It is undeniably idyllic.

To get here, I drove pretty much the entire breadth of the country. Starting in Flagstaff, Arizona, I first drove out to California, camping with my family in Yosemite National Park, watching my sister graduate from her graduate program in psychology in San Francisco, visiting old friends in Humboldt County, and finally attending the opening reception of my friend James Angello‘s MFA thesis exhibition at UC Davis. James and I were both scheduled to attend the Vermont Studio Center residency starting July 5th, an unplanned coincidence although it did help me to confirm my decision to attend.

I’ve previously attended VSC, in August of 2007, just after completing my graduate work at MICA. I reapplied two years ago with the intention of attending this time last year, but other opportunities came up and VSC was kind enough to allow me to defer my residency until now. Even so, and even after putting down a deposit, I wasn’t sure I was going to attend again. Unless one gets a full fellowship (I didn’t, James did), it’s not an inexpensive program, upwards of $2,000 for a four-week residency, even with the partial fellowships and work study assistance they award. In 2007, MICA was willing to cover the remaining portion of the cost for their graduating MFAs, so it was free for me then. This year it’s out of pocket, to say nothing of travel expenses.

Those who know me know that I will deliberate to the point of agonizing over even trivial decisions, so for me, the question of whether to spend three grand or more on a cross-country trip to an artist residency was obviously the subject of some rumination. Ultimately, of course, I decided to attend (I am here), but I had some good arguments with myself over the decision. It’s the kind of decision about which you can hardly ask anyone else for advice: their answer will be more a reflection of their own ideals than their perception of your situation, and also, as with any sort of travel, of course your friends will say “You should go!” But they won’t help you pay off your credit card after you get back.

In this two-part article, I’m going to share some observations on artist residencies, to help you decide if the benefits outweigh the costs, for you. Spoiler alert, I’m going to conclude by saying that it’s a personal decision that only you can make for yourself. And of course you already know that I have, three times now, decided that it was right for me, in my circumstance, at that time. But good advice isn’t a matter of telling a person what conclusion to reach; rather it is a matter of sharing information and perspective to allow them to reach their own conclusion. I hope to do just that.

Artist residencies have an odd place in the landscape of contemporary artmaking practices. In some ways they echo, and continue, the strategies and problems of graduate programs. Their selective admission practices make them a coveted piece of resume fodder, while their price tag can make them a luxury of the privileged. Of course, not all residencies are expensive: some (and some of the most desirable) are subsidized, some even including room, board, and a stipend. And not all are competitive, although most at least present the appearance of being so. The same is true, incidentally, of graduate programs: some are fully funded for anyone accepted, and others are fairly easy to get into. Unfortunately for those interested, there isn’t much if any overlap between the easy-to-get-in programs and the fully funded ones. Full funding draws an extensive pool of applicants, which creates competition. Nor is an expensive program a guarantee of easy admission: even costly programs, if prestigious, can be highly competitive.

So what’s the fuss? What is it that these residencies offer that justifies their cost and the trouble of applying? Couldn’t one just take the same amount of time away from one’s other responsibilities, stay home, and make art? In theory, of course, one could. And this is what the most productive artists do, day in and day out. But in practice, it’s hard to say no to obligations, to a spouse, kids, an employer, and to well-meaning friends who want to go to a movie, the beach, to get a drink. One of the advantages of a residency seems to be its very inconvenience: traveling far from home, you’re literally unable to do anything if your son gets sick or an emergency comes up at work. In effect, the principal advantage of an artist residency is that it short-circuits our sense of priority. By deciding in advance to make ourselves unavailable for a length of time, we make an irrevocable decision to prioritize art above all else for a certain length of time.

And there is, of course, the resume padding. It’s all too easy to dismiss this. Ambition has a dirty connotation, although, as Commodus reminded us (in Gladiator), it can be a virtue when it drives us to excel. Even if we’re doing fine in terms of productivity, making work in our studios, there’s a sort of arms race of resume lines. We think that the more we do, professionally, the better we are. This can lead to a peacock’s tail sort of phenomenon, where we’re so busy being busy, filling out that resume, adding lines, and making sure to post all about it on Facebook so everybody knows how successful we are, that we barely have time to make the work. When teaching opportunities, galleries, etc., form an expectation of an impressive resume, the artist who stays in the studio may be passed over in favor of the one who attends the residency. This, at least, is the perception. It’s probably true to some extent with regard to teaching jobs, and certainly is a factor in promotion and tenure once hired. With regard to galleries it’s probably an exaggerated perception, and it’s ultimately the work that counts. But in the mind of a struggling artist, someone who has been productive and believes in his or her work (at least in between the inevitible bouts of crippling doubt), it can become a powerful fear.

And then there’s networking. Who knows when and where you’ll meet the person who introduces you to the curator who gets you the show you’ve been dreaming of? A residency seems the optimal place to make this sort of connection, and in reviewing their advertisements they often push the sense of community and the lasting connections this can create. The reality of this community, and the duration of these connections, probably varies from program to program.

Residencies offer a variety of “added value” amenities as well. Skowhegan, for example, has a fresco painting workshop. Most have some sort of visiting artist program, figure models, and educational or recreational opportunities outside of the studio time which, in theory, forms the bread and butter of the program. Some provide housing and meals, others are a work space only.

Those are some of the reasons to attend.  In Part 2, I’ll talk about some questions you should ask yourself before deciding whether a residency is right for you.  I’m going to go paint now.


Safe House Co: the store that is anything but

July 3, 2015 · Print This Article

safe house

Perhaps the future of UK art looks like this: budget music videos, cutting edge t-shirt labels, and an online platform that fosters discovery of said product as the country’s most creative young people endeavour to make their voices heard and to make ends meet.

Safe House Co is the work of twenty somethings Jack Bartrop and Joe Bidmead. It’s a shop window for a network of friends and associates. And in a marketplace flooded with creative talent, it’s an opportunity seized, rather than given for free.

Bartrop agreed to an interview over coffee in a new cafe. “What you’re studying isn’t necessarily what you end up doing,” he says. Like most who study the arts, the film-graduate has to work two jobs: one to pay the bills and one to sustain his passion.

“A lot of our friends were doing creative things,” says Bartrop. “Then we just thought filming what they’re doing would be a nice way to keep ourselves going, and to keep ourselves occupied with film”.

The result can be seen at safe-house.co, a professional-looking site with a select mix of fashion and music brands. Bartrop rejects the term ‘online magazine’, but one suspects he’d be even less happy with the word ‘brochure’. Perhaps he’s discovered the future of journalism, as well as art.

“This is the thing: it is an experiment to a certain extent as everyone involved is doing something creative and also pushing products. They have to sustain their interests in that, and I think it’s not necessarily a bad thing to have tangible products,” says the 25-year old anti-preneur.

But he doesn’t expect to make a living from the site at any time soon. “That’s the dream,” he says, “But that isn’t our priority in any way.” He tells me they sell branded t-shirts, but defends this with the information that all money goes into staging Safe House Co events.

Given that Safe House Co is largely virtual, Bartrop is committed to “tangible things like events where people interact with each other”. And he paints a picture of grassroots activity, where his creative peers are hustling to get by.

“Everyone has to sustain themselves, to get a lift to a gig by selling a T-shirt or a CD that they’ve made,” he says. But you can’t help feel that this generation deserves better than the austere realities which characterise Britain in 2015.

What might yet pique your interest in Safe House Co is a mission statement which quotes Pierre Bourdieu and Michel de Certeau. Critical thinkers aren’t usually your go-to guys for skateboard laces, one of the more niche product lines on Bartrop and Bidmead’s site.

“We don’t want to pigeon hole [the site] in any way and find a demographic from day one,” he says, despite the sophisticated design and language around the project. “We’re not trying to market anything. The whole purpose of it is for people to come to the website and discover something new through it.”

Bartrop doesn’t need to be told that attention is the commodity of the age: “If someone does well through Safe House and people recognise them as a Safe House contributor, then to a certain extent everyone else involved will benefit.” That’s the theory, at least, but it’s a positive one.

Top 5 Weekend Picks! (7/3-7/5)

July 2, 2015 · Print This Article

So, uh, it’s the weekend of Fourth of July. Which means there aren’t even five shows. So here, this is the one thing you should go to, if you’re not to busy getting trashed and shooting roman candles and bottle rockets at eachother:

Complementary Width at The Franklin

Work by Anna Kunz, Luis Romero, Mika Horibuchi, Thaddeus Kellstadt, Josue Pellot, Jose Lerma, Michelle Anne Harris and Summer Air.

The Franklin is located at 3522 W. Franklin Blvd. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm.