I am sitting outside on a porch. Although, I know there is much more to come, it already feels like the height of summer – hot, humid, rumbles of distant thunder, tomatoes and cucumbers ready to be harvested. I have a lot to learn about my new home. If I had moved here 250 years ago, it would have taken weeks to hear about the Stamp Act, and it would have been even longer before I learned about the opening of the Uffizi. We are fortunate to live in a time when it is easy to connect with people and activities around the world. We virtually see exhibitions across the country; we draw connections between seemingly isolated acts of police violence; we link weather extremes, changing temperatures, and global water crises into a new epoch; I follow art sales and art fairs in New York and London and Shanghai.
I have been tantalized, enthralled, and engaged by the seemingly endless streams of photos from NADA, Frieze, and other fairs – the paintings that are not paintings, the snack-cum-knapsack, the crowds and crowds rubbing shoulders, drinking, filling the fairs with that mutable substance that enlivens them long after the lights are off and booths packed. We remember the laughter, handshakes, the attempts to meet and be met long after the objects on the walls have transformed into new objects. That conversation about the relevancy of painting will return next year with new paintings; that objet du jour will be replaced with something else of the moment, but the people and the relationships built and maintained are what last, build, and enliven these events. This moving, living, breathing series of moments is not and cannot be transmitted in tweets, favorited photos, or lenghty write-ups. I keep up with the news, but I miss the substance. I see what has happened, but I cannot experience it happening. For all of the speed with which I receive the information, I am not present.
To reconnect with that presence, with the lived experience of making and co-living, I recently went to the Chattanooga Zine Fest. I met vendors and zine makers from across the country. I touched and read the painstakingly written, photographed, photocopied, printed, folded books, pamphlets, zines, and stickers. Each object held a story in its creases and staples, in its hand drawn cover and intimate looks into experiences of depression, motherhood, anarchism, or robots. These connections, conversations, and shared experiences enliven the objects in my hands. They unfold the complexity, longevity, and deeper understanding that I cannot experience online. They magnify those digital experiences, transforming words and images into the artists, gallerists, collectors, reporters, revelers, and visitors I know live behind them.
I am more connected to the global contemporary art world than ever. I have the luxury and privilege to have that multitude of information at my fingertips. I can be in multiple places around the world in seconds, yet I wake up in one bed among the mountains. I live in a world where someone can easily buy a painting for more money than I know how to imagine, yet I see the daily lives of people trying to move from one to the next. I see highlights of art fairs, exhibitions, and performances from across the country, yet I live with creators, makers, and doers who intellectually, creatively, and financially sustain themselves here. Holding those contradictions while moving through, with, and beyond them towards the future that is continually made real by us is the great challenge before us. The mosquitoes are biting, leaving red welts along my mistakenly bare ankles. The condensation from my glass is dripping onto the ground that has been continuously inhabited by humans for 12,000 years. I have a lot to learn about my still new home; I have a lot to learn about this life we all lead.
Old Fashioned Tiffany T
4 dashes bitters
1 splash soda
2 oz Bourbon
1 bar spoonful Goldschläger
1 tsp sugar
1 orange wheel
1 candied cherry
Mad Men is finishing its final season, and I have to say, it’s probably one of the best shows ever made for television – because Mad Men not only understands cultural inscription it embodies the same shit it criticizes. My friends attend Mad Men viewing parties and re-write what it means to drink an Old Fashioned, and once I was told by a girlfriend: you are such a Joan. A compliment that I took to heart. “Wow, thanks” I said, “I could only hope!” later thinking: what did she mean by that – my body? my humor? my nerve? Because I am not a Joan I want to be Joan.
What confuses me about this kind of compliment is its level of mediation, in which the gesture is not really intimate with me at all. Instead it’s about a constructed identity as it circulates, or a myth defined by my friend and mapped onto me. This style of communication works in constant referents and confusing signifiers. The signifier that always “at play” is just so very, light-hearted, because I’ve never seen the Last Days of Disco, and I only know it as a group of words and a remembrance of a movie poster somewhere in my memory, and still a friend of mine keeps saying, “oh God, you NEED to see it, you ARE it,” but I’m completely at a loss.
In class we tell the lives of theorists and books, and at the bar we talk about movies and television shows and sports, and it’s all fun but usually my favorite moments are when most of that is turned off and we aren’t speaking through objects, and some newer narrative just emerges – but maybe that emergence is a re-run that feels like it’s only just airing.
Mad Men would never have worked as a film, because Mad Men gets that it’s a story about the stories that happen between other stories. Advertisements are always sandwiched between the main event, and these lives move in and out of our own, like Don’s ex-wife, lover, mother, all in a mind-numbing channel surf or TV marathon, and the only thing that seems stable is the desire to be someone else, or, a desire to be desirable and to desire. This is what makes Don a model hero for a Prosumer society. Don knows realized that his own identity is a commodity. He manufactured a self, fetishized his own myth, consumed his own sales pitch, and now at the end of things he’s ended up in that floating surplus, a bargain-bin Walter-Mitty-gray-flannel in a huge mega-corporation, dreaming about distance as he looks out a boardroom window.
I was walking with my boyfriend the other day and I noticed a restaurant I liked had closed down. It was a lovable, junky place with ok food, and I’ve always admired its intricate wooden door. I saw that the brown-black varnish that once covered the entryway now had little patches of stripped wood. I concluded, “the new owners must be trying to see what it looks like underneath all that brown paint” and then while we continued walking I thought: I just wrote a narrative for a door.
Try having a conversation with someone without a cultural reference of any kind – it’s hard to do. This includes idioms. In American English our desire for writing narrative rests deep inside the idiom. Mad Men gets this. Its idioms are taglines. The show gets the American obsession with writing the self. The show reads like a bi-coastal myth of mid-century America – an America that is always moving toward California while remembering Plymouth Rock.
“You like the beginning of things” Dr. Faye, the analyst, said to Don in that one episode.
This is why I predict Don will end up (living or dying, or symbolically dying) in California – the newest, now waterless America. I imagine Don drunk-stumbling into the end of The Awakening. He’ll smoke-up deep underneath the water, and blow smoke bubbles up toward the surface. Then he’ll look into the camera and mouth four crisp and refreshing bubbles: “CO” “CA” “CO” “LA”
Dave Hickey loves a good dialectic, and I just began his new book. Hickey begins by defining popular taste against popular desire, but from what I’ve read so far, he avoids the temporality of this bifurcation. For me, contemporary taste defines the new in reference to the past, while desire mythologizes the past in order to seek newness. Taste and Desire then require different depths of engagement with history, and to cultural inscription.
“All humans have a death-drive” Dr. Faye said. “but we can’t sell that.” Psychoanalysis made a built environment out of the human psyche, Freud’s topography is still with us in language and in imagination. The body as architecture is so alluring because it makes us determinate, and even when I write the words taste and desire I feel taste in my mouth and desire in my belly – my neurons are little architects. The word we feel the most is shame. Where do you feel shame, because this is the area where Don makes profit.
Coca-Cola is the realest thing. To describe taste, Hickey invokes Andy Warhol’s Marilyns. The Marilyns transpose color and flavor – red and green are cherry and lime and orange appeals to both taste and vision. A narrative: the baby rattles for milk and grows up to eat taffy at a pool’s snack shack, grows up to watch porn stars with bubble-gum-girly lips wearing pajamas to work and everybody is hooking up. That’s the Ohio I knew and maybe all of what gets called “middlebrow” America. These are the “realest” lives, squished through a wormhole into parody, and out the other end is normcore (normcore is, after all, a taste for populist taste.)
There is a current print advertisement for Tiffany & Co. featuring a smiling young woman, of course beautiful, and a little girl, also beautiful. The girl is up on the woman’s shoulders. The woman’s blouse is unbuttoned at the collar, effortlessly revealing her collection of tiered diamond necklaces. Her smile dimples around adolescent teeth. “Introducing the Tiffany T Smile” the ad reads, referencing her necklaces. Each necklace is the same shape as the woman’s smile, complete with dimples and diamonds for teeth. The model mom and daughter have the same kind of far-away look –
In Chicago, the man behind the counter at Harlan J. Berk, a dealer of antiquities and rare coins, will, as long as he can keep an eye on you, let you hold a genuine gold bar. “They are terribly nice at Tiffany’s!” I held one yesterday, and I couldn’t get over how this material, if you were to pound it as flat as it could possibly stretch, could cover X number of tennis courts, or decorate a ridiculously expensive cake. Around the corner is Phillip Johnson’s U.S. Bank building. Its lobby is full of gold leaf, like a Reagan-era Ancient Rome built for the tastes of 1987, where this gold now seems so excess, so tasteless, like when you eat gold leaf and realize it has no flavor, it’s a flat cola, and it’s only a chalky, terrible texture on the tongue.
Mad Men appears on AMC Sundays at 10/9c
Watch the Final Episode this Sunday (tomorrow!).
After Open Engagement happened, a few people asked me if I had gone. I hadn’t; I didn’t. I kept on reading write-ups of what happened, some of which were great, but I kept on not caring at all about what was being said, what was being talked about, or what had been done. Finally I texted a friend that maybe Open Engagement serves a branch of social practice or socially-engaged art that I just don’t care about, that I don’t identify with, whose goals are not my goals, and which to me often seems silly, handwringing, and/or naïve.
Writing in Artforum in 2011, curator Chús Martínez described Antonio Vega Macotela’s then-current project Time Divisa as follows dodged the trite naïvete that sullies much participatory/exchange-based/socially-engaged art by occurring through interactions already mediated by “a system that is already governed by mutual instrumentalization: prison.” His current exhibition at Galería Labor, Filipídicas, manages the same dodge, this time by focusing on a different system already governed by mutual instrumentalization: capitalism. Moreover, Vega Macotela’s work describes grinding social inequity without the misguided presumption that art, one of the ultimate luxury commodities, plaything of wealthiest, can do anything about it. This is socially-engaged art without aspiration, without a future—as it should be.
Filipídicas, Vega Macotela’s first solo show at Galería Labor in Mexico City, consists of five Studies of Exhaustion, each derived and produced either in collaboration with exhausted persons or using materials from them or close to them. The pieces themselves describe very different things: the ghastly, trinket-like Number 3, The Flesh, describes the patio process, a particularly lethal historical method of producing silver developed in the then-colonies of New Spain; the sodden, barely-visible sheafs of Number 5, The Invisible Encyclopedia, describe the bleak lives of service workers; while the cascading bulls of Number 4, Speculation, describe the aggressive futility of the financial industry.
None of these pieces offer a solution; they are, as their titles make plain, studies. They are recombinant objects—depersonalized human material mixed with inorganic materials—that describe the impossibility of survival in an ancient recombinant economy. In After the Future, written in the near aftermath of the 2008 recession, Francisco “Bifo” Berardi describes recombination as “the technical form of the labor process in the digital environment,” the transmogrification of the corporeal body to an abstract unit of time, able to be pooled and reproduced as needed, in total disregard of that body’s needs. Berardi describes this process as a contemporary development, something associated with cellphones, online labor, and so on. However, as Vega Macotela’s recent body of work reminds us, this process is not new at all: it goes hand in hand with capitalism, and always has.
The process Study No. 3, The Flesh describes could be argued as one of the starting points for globalized capitalism. In the mid-16th century, silver production increased manifold after the discovery of in Europe, and the implementation of in the colonies of New Spain, the patio process, a process that required both an enormous amount of physical labor and an emormous amount of mercury. Essentially, pulverized silver ore was put in a vat with a bunch of other metals, including mercury, and churned like butter by horses for weeks. After being churned and baked in the sun, the silver would form an amalgam with the mercury and rise out of the muck as a salable, precious metal. In the high steppes of Bolivia, Peru, and Mexico, where the Spanish built the mines, the labor was quickly killing European horses, suited to churning mills unsuited for the climate. The Spanish figured perhaps the indigenous populations were better-suited to the task, but, while they were suited to the climate, the labor killed them. Viewed as subhuman in South America and of the lowest caste in imperial Mexico, this was more of an inconvenience than anything; but when reforms passed in New Spain barring or making more difficult the enslavement of native populations, the Spanish empire had to purchase slaves from Africa, who fared no better than anybody else.
The increased production of silver allowed for the worldwide dispersement of silver goods and currency, throughout Europe, across Asia, and to China. Silver forks, silver knives, silver coins, silver trinkets—the items that separate the luxurious from the upper-class, the upper-class from the middle-class, the middle-class from the lower class. These objects acted, and continue to act, as props for the mise-en-scene of capitalism, the material support of a narrative of constant aspiration, permanent fetishization of that which is just a little nicer. The Flesh, can be wound with a key and played like a music box, the bone horses gliding placidly between huge grinding gears, suspended on their too-thick bronze rods, caged by imperial columns.
Study Number 5, the Invisible Encyclopedia, describes the labor of more contemporary human cogs in the machinations of global capital, skilled workers who provide improvements for the upper classes: a carpenter, a seamstress, a makeup artist. Vega Macotela asked these workers what they anticipated leaving to their families, what images or items sustained them, and so on. The three could not imagine leaving more than their tools for their families. They provided images of previous work, famous actors or actresses, family members. The workers were then asked to donate sweat, which was used by Vega Macotela to print the images on paper. The resulting images, frail and ever-so-faint, barely visible even with Labor’s elaborate UV-lighting, are reminiscent from afar of tears on a handwritten letter, tragic and desolate arrays of needles, nails, hammers, sponges, brushes. If these images are an encyclopedia, the describe and demonstrate the futility of labor, the total pointlessness of working one’s life away, of acquiring “useful” skills, of holding a job. What these workers have earned is not access to the proximate class in the stratum; they have earned only their memories, disappearing as sweat and tears on rumpled pieces of paper.
A few weeks ago, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development published a study of international labor data: average hours worked per year, average wage per year, workplace in/equality, and so on. Workers in Mexico work an average of about 2300 hours per year, more than anywhere else in the world, for a paltry annual wage of about $9800USD. Minimum wage in Mexico is about $3.25USD per day, or about $860USD per year, assuming minimum wage workers in Mexico are working every day of the year, which they most likely are—as maids, as tortilla makers, as teachers, and so on. Capitalism depends on an aspirational narrative to fool workers into destroying their lives for the benefit of capital: the “future” that Berardi hopes we have moved past. Perhaps what the OECD data shows is that it may indeed be possible soon to move past the future, because it is increasingly obvious that hard work and ambition accomplishes nothing at all.
In Studies of Exhaustion: No. 4, Speculation, 3D printed models of the Wall Street bull tumble, hurtle, crush, fall all over each other, varying looks of joy, rage, or pleasure on their faces. Their horns are sometimes longer, their balls are sometimes bigger, but they are always uselessly, forcefully caterwauling towards nowhere in particular. There are several Speculations, and they are all striking, perhaps the most immediately accessible work in the show. Their futility, the way they grapple and tumble with each other, suggesting no other future other than violent death.
The future is the aspirational opiate of all of us, the narrative construct that justifies working impossible hours for little to nothing, that glorifies ambition and hard work. Adopting an oppositional stance to the murderous machinations of global capital, as the worldwide left has been trying to do since at least the 60s and perhaps for hundreds of years, has not and will not work, for it abides by the same belief structure: work hard, make a better future. We exist within a stratified class structure with little to no hope of social mobility, one that closely resembles the class structure in place when the Spanish built the silver mills in New Spain, grinding the local population to a pulp to send shiny trinkets worldwide. Today, hapless workers still die in silver mines in Bolivia; but perhaps a more accurate analogue are the hundreds of thousands dying the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mining for coltan, a metal vital for the production of smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and such devices. There is no reason to believe any amount of opposition, especially that from predominantly upper-middle-class artists in the First World, will change that situation. Utopia is just a dream.
What Bifo proposes instead are “zones of human resistance that act likes zones of therapeutic contagion,” areas wherein dehumanized, pulverized populations might begin the task of reclaiming their time, their bodies, and their sensitivities, beginning with an abandonment of work. If art can serve a role in this, I imagine it would be through actions and objects that speak to giving up, disbelieving, stopping—not to utopia, aspiration, or goodwill. While it would be outrageous to say that Vega Macotela’s current exhibition at Labor is either a zone of resistance or a zone of therapeutic contagion, it is perhaps a step in the right direction.
Work by the Optics Division of the Metabolic Studio.
Co-Prosperity Sphere is located at 3219 S. Morgan St. Reception Friday, 6-10pm.
Work by Kristina Paabus.
Fernwey is located at 916 N. Damen Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Johalla Projects and Chicago Loop Alliance present work by Jeffrey Michael Austin, Elizabeth Cronin of Asrai Garden, Heather Gabel, Andrea Jablonski, Johnny Decker Miller, Lauren Payne, Suzy Poling and Charles E. Roberts III.
Sullivan Center Alleyway is located on Monroe St. between State St. and Wabash Ave. Reception Friday, 5-10pm.
Work by Dan Kestler.
Rational Park is located at 2557 W. North Ave. Reception Friday, 7-11pm.
Work by David Abed.
Galerie Fledermaus is located at 2136 W. North Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Soho is empty of shoppers on a Sunday morning, and as I walk leisurely with Andrew Blackley through the intersection of Prince and Broome Street, we stop in front of the Pleats Please boutique window. Few pedestrians carry either gym clothes or paper coffee cups past us. We appear to be the only window shoppers. The windows contain featured items of the collection: micro-pleated baby blue pants, tops, and tunics as well as a nude backpack. As described, all articles of clothing in the store are pleated. Issey Miyake’s line of clothing never wrinkles, though permanently folded.
Andrew: I love the backpack.
Erin: Is this a bag you have been coveting?
Andrew: It is a new addition to the window. This is a pleated bag, and it has this really fabulous fold in it that reminds me very much of bread-making as well as glass-blowing, but as it also reminds me of larvae, it does not stink of artisanal. I like things made in factories.
Erin: And it’s collapsable.
Andrew: In this window, I was noticing something really interesting, which is: look how these pants are on this hanger.
Erin: They are precariously balanced there.
Andrew: They are perfectly, precariously balanced. To the point – how would you describe this effect?
Erin: It’s affected by tension.
Andrew: I know, but there’s no drawstring. So it’s a perfect amount of elastic against the side of a corner of a hanger.
Erin: It’s very touchy.
Andrew: It makes me nervous in a way that’s really attractive. I was also noticing this line right here. I would say the line is 11 inches down from the waist.
Andrew: Mid-thigh. You wouldn’t say it’s a pocket, would you?
Erin: No, it’s not functional.
Andrew: The pleats hide a lot of things.
Erin: Although they also form a deformation in a person’s body. The cuts of the shirts are unflattering. They give extra armpit or drooped breasts or too-high waists.
Andrew: I am really drawn to this blue color, and I am interested in this porcupine quill design. And I was also noticing these necklaces. I was curious about what was inside of the fabric necklaces, and how far they could stretch.
Erin: I think the necklace has its limits. Do you window shop often?
Andrew: Only at this store, actually. As I walk east on Prince, I have the opportunity to look into the window. The north-facing window is never as satisfying as the west-facing window.
Erin: Do you think you want things more over time, passing the window again and again and again?
Andrew: Yes, but they always change the display at the point I really want something.
Erin: I don’t really desire things window-shopping, looking through windows.
Andrew: Do you desire them when you put them on?
Andrew: Would you wear this dress?
Erin: I’d wear it for a couple of days. It’s a phase dress.
Andrew: What does that mean?
Erin: It means that, much like my outfit right now, I’m obsessed with it short-term. I have a phase with it. Do you have phase items?
Andrew: I try not to. I try to wear the same kind of clothes…
Erin: You’re loyal.
Andrew: Yes. I might have a loyal outlook on life.
Erin: Is that part of your interest in working on or with specific artists? Out of a loyalty to them?
Andrew: That’s an interesting question. I think the answer is “Maybe.” I’m curious to know what I am loyal to.
Erin: For instance, you spend your professional life working in archives. Are you interested most in the artist or most in working in an archive?
Andrew: I’m interested most when the archive represents a fundamental core of the work; when the work continues to exist over time. When something continues over time, it also changes over time. I’m interested in archives that are primed, that are ready to be used.
Erin: Ideas spoken through material.
Andrew: Yes. And I’m most interested when language is involved with art and archival matters.. So loyal…Do you think I’m loyal?
Erin: I think of the art world sometimes as a series of formed alliances and formed aversions. That might be part of the reason people are involved in it.
Andrew: Although I don’t remember who said it, or in what context, I read that the art world is the only sector in which you only seek recognition from the people that you already recognize. And I think that’s what you are saying? I think it can be clan-based. Like “these are my people” and we all share similar ideas, but I think the hierarchies of that are always changing.
Erin: New people are introduced, or other people are shifted.
Andrew: Are you loyal?
Erin: I have passing loyalties. Speaking of loyalty, are you susceptible more to trend that comes through fashion or trend that comes through art?
Andrew: I don’t think that I apply fashion trends to myself. With art though, I’m mostly interested in art of a generation prior to mine. And so I do have this luxury of being slightly removed from the immediacy of the contemporary art of my peers. Can you help me with a trend in contemporary art? What is one?
Erin: There’s always this trend of adolescence I think. Adolescent painting, making things like a child.
Andrew: I think there’s this trend of bad painting, but it’s so practiced, so capable. None of it is actually even bad. It’s skilled and therefore it means nothing. It never has and never will until it’s actually going to be bad. That would be a trend that I could live with.
Erin: Wallpaper has also been a trend.
Andrew: I went to see the Bob Gober show, and I think the wallpaper is phenomenal and important.
Erin: Beautiful. However, that came before this trend of wallpapers.
Andrew: Do people just want to be Bob Gober? I can understand why one would.
Erin: People are showing recognition of Gober.
Andrew: Diedrich Diederichsen wrote – I don’t know the intricacies of the essay at this point this morning, so don’t quote me – of a profound narcissism in today’s artists. It’s not even able to be Oedipal. It’s a significant block of self-involvement that actually prevents them from accessing the Oedipal. If someone was making wallpaper, and they wanted to capture or thread Bob Gober, they’re too wrapped up into themselves to acknowledge that he made it and what that may have meant.
Erin: Perhaps there is a surge of self-confidence, or over-confident making, similar to listening to over-confident rap. Everyone listens to rap because it’s a power anthem.
Andrew: I listen mostly to Prince, and also Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson, and Prince has a supreme and magnificent confidence that is real.
Erin: That is god-like.
Andrew: He makes the game. He is the context. He is the figure and the ground of his confidence. No other person exists. There is only Prince.
Erin: I am a sponge in a lot of ways. I am a sponge person. When it comes to music, I take on the tastes of other people.
Andrew: That’s what Pleats Please is all about.
Erin: A sponge?
Andrew: A little bit. It’s spongy, it’s active, it’s not active. Can you be loyal and have phases? Another recent phase is fabrication. What are your thoughts on that?
Erin: Do you mean making a fake version of something that looks real? Like a Robert Gober leg?
Andrew: Or making something with a high level of finish. Shiny new things from a fabricator. I went to David Zwirner yesterday and saw the Kusama show. The paintings are phenomenal. There were also these sculptures of gourds and pumpkins made of chrome. I prefer the paintings.
Erin: Because they are hand-touched?
Andrew: I like people making their own things. Or if things are fabricated, I’m interested in why and how they are fabricated. Why do artists make fabricated objects instead of making factories? Of course, we are all our own fabricators, even if we are painting and drawing on a piece of paper.
Erin: Fabrication suggests that multiple people could have made the fabricated object. Ultimately, an artist is distinguished by the viewer’s ability to recognize that a particular artist made the work versus another artist having made it. Are you interested in an artist who has a through-line of thought running through all of their work?
Andrew: I think yes, but that need not be uniform. I think it’s really interesting when something made today and something made ten years ago at first appear antithetical. I really believe in contradiction actually. And change. I also believe in lies. And experiments. I think those are really important things. Many people in the world are unwilling to be contradictory.
Erin: This is slightly backtracking to speaking about archives again, but – I’m thinking of your conference, exhibition, and writing around Keith Haring, your work at the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, and the exhibition “Not only this, ‘but new language beckons us’” that you curated from and alongside archival material from the Fales’ downtown collection at NYU – do you equate preservation with curating?
Andrew: I don’t really know if I’ve curated an exhibition. How would one know? I know I’ve organized things. What do you mean by preservation?
Erin: You are bringing archival materials to the surface.
Andrew: I think that there is a really important position to be taken that is not exactly preservation, or conservation, but about providing a context or an environment for certain histories or concepts. In short, I’m providing context for myself insofar as I’m a person in the world working with things that I’m invested in. It’s not about facilitation or organization. Maybe it is more about maintenance.