Swimming Tiger Lotus Envy

October 22, 2014 · Print This Article

Guest post by Lise Haller Baggesen Ross

Josef Strau's The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

Josef Strau’s
The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

Then, we tried to name our babies

But we forgot all the names that

The names we used to know

But sometimes

We remember bedrooms

And our parent’s bedrooms

And the bedrooms of our friends

–Arcade Fire 

This one goes out to the first gay guy to break my heart. (He did warn me!) The bed we shared for a few months in the linoleum floored dorm of the Folk-high-school of Art at the windswept island of Langeland (Danish for Long Island), was nothing more than our two pinewood bedframes that we had shoved together under a makeshift canopy adorned with an antique gilded mirror in the shape of the sun. We painted our heels red, as was the costume of Louis XIV and drank our instant morning chocolate out of a golden tea set that we had set out on the blonde nightstand. Here comes the sun king and his well-heeled, head-over-heels (or need we say headless) apprentice.

One morning as we were studiously pouring over his-and-hers Vogue Italia, he put his head on my shoulder and pointed to a centerfold of a Bengali tiger swimming in the Ganges amidst a field of white lotus flowers with, in the background, a funeral pyre set ablaze by a party of sari clad mourners in orange and magenta. He sighed and said: “Don’t you just wish that you were that tiger?” It was clear from his sighing, that this was another kind of coveting than our morning lecture would usually inspire –that of a glamorous life far away from the countryside of Denmark—but instead aspiring to a higher longing: to know the beauty of the world from the inside out.

Soon after I found myself in India, in a quest for this insider’s knowledge of beauty. By the Ganges I imagined the wild tiger’s roar, but everything else was just so. This was in the days before Facebook hence I had no one to share it with, and had to devour this savage beauty all by myself.

I wrote a letter to my absentminded friend, the poet. He responded that I was a better writer than artist and published my letter in a literary magazine he was editing –together with (on my insistence) a dry needle fantasy of a pair of copulating angels I then considered “my art.” I was furious with him for his honesty, while in retrospect I have to give it to him that he saw my bosoms, but raised me my brains –such gifts are the unexpected oranges that life throws in undeserving young-girls urban turbans.

On return from my travels to India (which I mostly loathed, if only for the fact that I was constantly being looked at, which tends to obstruct your outlook) I travelled to Rome in search of a beauty closer to home. After that, I moved to Copenhagen to go art school, thinking that was perhaps the place to get to know beauty more intimately.

According to David Hickey, my timing was just right, as we were about to embark on the Nineties, and while I was travelling the world in search of beauty, he was preaching to the reluctant choir assembled in a university auditorium somewhere deep in the heart of darkest America, that “The issue of the nineties will be beauty!”[1]

In the introduction to his essay “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty,” he revisits the event:

“I began updating Pater: ‘Beauty is not a thing,’ I insisted. ‘The Beautiful is a thing. In images, beauty is the agency that causes visual pleasure in the beholder, and, since pleasure is the true occasion for looking at anything, any theory of images that is not grounded in the pleasure of the beholder begs the question of art’s efficiacy and dooms itself to inconsequence!’”[2]

By equating beauty with agency, Hickey animates the world around us, imbuing these images –and by extension “anything” that causes us pleasure from the mere occasion of us looking at it—with an attention seeking willfulness.

The scopophilic pleasure we are granted in return for giving in to the whims of this beautiful world, is by its retinal nature often spiked with envy. An envy of fully possessing this beauty, of internalizing it, of an ever hungry eye that is left wanting more. More images, more wilderness, more beauty. (But also –as we embark on the quest for beauty, our nose in the scent trail still wet from our first whiff of it –with the gratification of knowingly knowing it when we see it.)

Beauty can, in fact, be experienced in the muddied rained out countryside of Northern Europe, just as well as anywhere else. And this particular envy can, in rare cases, be inspired by visiting an art show: Not the usual petty “OMG, I wish that was me showing my work in [insert major art venue],” but the real, un-adulterated swimming-tiger-lotus-envy of “OMG, I wish I had made that!” –of being so unexpectedly enthralled with the surface beauty of a body of work, you wish to intimately and organically know it from the inside out.

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Josef Strau’s The New World Application for Turtle Island (detail) at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

This happened to me, when visiting Josef Strau’s The New World: Application for Turtle Island at the Renaissance Society.

In the gallery, clustered objects are laid out in rectangular grids, some on tabletops and some directly on the floor in little islands, resembling house altars for the worshipping of homely deities. Ceramic conch-shells and brightly colored tiles are the gods’ favorites, it seems. Textile prints with text passages from Buddhist and Native American religious and spiritual practice are laid out by way of both explanation and offering. Behind a low metal fence, a Buddha caressing a cat in his lap with one green hand, sits on a blanket of black polyester lace. One brightly sequined lampshade bears Pocahontas’ portrait and another that of the Holy Mother of Guadalupe, while others again are decorated with images of turtles, exotic parakeets in flight, or cuddly toys.

Josef Strau's The New World Application for Turtle Island (detail) at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

Josef Strau’s
The New World Application for Turtle Island (detail) at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

On the surface, his makeshift tableaux’s work not much different than our own primitive interior decoration back in the day: the beatifically pimped-up lamp-shades do not belie their discount store origins, their inner workings exposed and their cables only half heartedly hidden by shoddy duck tape.

(It’s a Barnum-and-Bailey’s world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believe in me.)

This make believe world is home to the winsome couple Bear and Wolf (I wonder who among the two is the king, and who the jester) and represents the Turtle Island where they roam and reign. Sometimes travelling together down the lazy river on a primitive float, then in chains, but still together. Their togetherness seems prerequisite to their adventure, as if the beauty of the new world they are discovering is not in the eyes of the beholder, but in the eyes of the other. We recognize them from the lampshades, which immediately elevate their status to that of the divine, and their tall tales to mythology. A longing back to some indigenous Eden, in which all of nature sings with symbolic gestures and coded messages, or, as it happens –in the Queen’s English.

Josef Strau's The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

Josef Strau’s
The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

A poster announcing the exhibition with quotes from Pocahontas and Nezahualcoyotl, is also announcing it’s own genesis; after wrestling with finishing the work for the exhibition, the artist breaks away from the “photoshop bureaucrazy” on his computer, to take a stroll in the park:

“… so I took myself and the color striped jacket out of the house and walked down and when I came to the first flowers I already started thinking they talked to me and they said make posters again. simple posters. Of course I argued with them a while, why the simple poster ways would be wrong and maybe not doing enough for the project. […] But the flowers were in a soft way stronger than my arguments. I felt. It was as if they said, don’t think of representations, think of the real things and about the relations to them, keep doing the same things but at the same time not thinking about representations, the representations are evil ways.”[3]

On the verso to this recto, Strau declares: “ I wish I could say that my whole project is dedicated to the Americas, but I for sure don’t know what I’m talking about, so I better not. I wish my whole project could be dedicated to the Holy Mother of Guadalupe. But I might have become too shabby a soul to proclaim my name and my word so very next to her, and as well, in connection to the, at least to me, such unbelievably intense and rich history of the Americas. […] Anyways, the better question to ask myself before going public, is why does it mean so much to me to capture this outside or alien perspective, while at the same time there is nothing I desire more than morphing myself into a true Turtle Island citizen (American of many American nations) myself? Probably it is because I was always a bit of an alien too, wherever I was, wherever I will go, and therefore it would be better that I live there myself.”[4]

Josef Strau's exhibition poster and text for The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.Josef Strau's The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

Josef Strau’s embellished exhibition poster and text for
The New World Application for Turtle Island at The Renaissance Society. Photo: Lise Haller Baggesen Ross.

The first time I visited America I had no ambition to live there myself, but as I flew in over the suburbs of Saint Louis with all its swimming pools glistening in the summer heat, I had to admit that the aerial view had a stunning American Beauty. On my next trip I found myself in the snowy mountainside of Boulder, Colorado, where the wild mountain lions are. A relative of a relative, whose chalet we were dining at, inquired with a smirk what it was “like to live in Amsterdam?” I assured him that not all the good citizens of Amsterdam like to enjoy their soft drugs before lunch and continued: “… just like all Americans don’t have a gun tucked away in their bedside table drawer.” He looked puzzled: “but we do have a gun in our bedside table drawer?” His wife butted in, trying to alleviate the awkward silence: “Yes, but now that we have a baby on board, I gave him gun locks for Valentines Day, so that our little one doesn’t have ‘an accident.’” I assured her that was the most romantic thing I had ever heard, but the conversation had stalled. From both sides we were staring into a cultural divide, the size of an abyss.

Now that I do live here, I frequently feel this chasm opening between me and my friends and family back in Europe who like to generalize along similar lines about what Americans and life in America is “like.” From a European perspective, America is often perceived as a bully: lacking of history, uncultured and crass, while I find myself everyday surrounded by “such unbelievably intense and rich history of the Americas” and such unadulterated American Beauty.

In her ode to America “Oh Beautiful,” Detroit rapper Invincible sings:

Oh Beautiful

With your spacious skies

I want to love you

But you hide behind

A fake disguise

Oh Beautiful 

I dunno. I see where she is coming from, but I suspect that the true American beauty lies in its fake disguise, its artifice. Glitzy Faux-Italianate facades on plywood and cinderblock structures from whose derelict backsides exposed telephone and power cables spill into unsavory alleyways. State-of-the-art plastic surgery boob-and-lip-jobs paid for with the 2nd mortgage or the 7th divorce settlement alimony by has-been Hollywood starlets m/f, now rendered so unrecognizable that a return to the silver screen would more aptly be called a reincarnation, was it not for the fact that the meat on those bones have been all-but-replaced by silicone. Etc. Etc.

Like in the cosmology of Terry Pratchet’s fantasy novel series Disc World — in which the world resides on the shield of a giant turtle, standing on the shield of an even bigger turtle, living on the shield of a more enormous turtle yet, traversing the shield of a gargantuan turtle, etc. etc. –this Turtle Island is “turtles all the way down.”

I’m writing this on Columbus Day: You don’t know what you’ve got till your gone. I forget how American I am (becoming) until I find myself wearing the only red jacket in a black sea of Scandinavian winter wear. In Copenhagen, the only people wearing varsity wear are the pushers. You will find them on Pusher Street. They are trying to look “ghetto,” because we don’t have real ghettos in Copenhagen –or we like to think so. In America you are considered fashion forward for knowing the cardinal rules of color coordination: All black always work we all know. The color-blocked flatness of modernist monochromes we all know. Yet I crave billboards on my shirt palm trees and sunsets landing strips and desert highways disappearing into my solar plexus. The illusion that you can just blend in and be one with the landscape like tromp-l’oeil, like camouflage.

On our way to school this morning, my pearl of a girl suddenly exclaimed:

“Art class has been good to me this year!”

Although absentminded, I asked her to elaborate. She told me about a collaborative class project, in which a scrapped subway car (imagined, I imagine) is thrown into the sea. Nestled on the bottom of the sea, as the corals do their thing and the fish move in, the subway car muses to itself: “I used to live in a city, but now a city lives in me.”

As we all know, you can take a girl out of the countryside, but you can’t take the countryside out of the girl. As those of us who paid attention in art class will know, once beauty has known you from the inside, you will find beauty’s inside, where you least expect it.

Art class has been good to us so far, indeed!

Footnotes:

[1] David Hickey, “Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty” in The Invisible Dragon: Essays on Beauty (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009) 1.

[2] Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, 2

[3] Josef Strau: The New World: Application for Turtle Island (poster)(Chicago: Te Renaissance Society, 2014)

[4] Strau: The New World: Application for Turtle Island

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.

Reproductions: One View of Twin Cities

October 21, 2014 · Print This Article

Fall lingers, with warm days and fiery trees, longer nights and frosty mornings. Daylight has changed, striking us at more oblique angles, lengthening shadows even at noon. I follow my shadow farther and farther from my center, looking back to where I stand, doubling, tripling, multiply exposing and bodily reproducing fall days and perspectives.

The sunny gallery at Highpoint Center for Printmaking is a lovely site for Aaron Spangler’s new exhibition Luddite. The massive woodcuts simultaneously invite viewing their totality from across the room and detailed examination. The broad stroke of the prints overwhelms the walls, forcing out the white space around them. The figurative pieces begin to resolve into senses of shifting meaning; the more abstract prints resist resolution, push against meaning making within their patterns and eye movement across the paper. Upon closer inspection, Spangler’s hand is very present, in the patterned marks of tools, the subtle gradations in pressure applied to the tools, the grain of the wood, the creases and folds in the paper. They are multiples, so clearly prints in their materiality, yet they resist. They are not simply mechanically reproduced objects. They manifest the human, maintain the layers of work, the hours of crafting that went into their making.

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Aaron Spangler, Constellation

Instead of Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction and the digital reproduction that is happening even as you read these words, what happens when a work of art is biologically reproduced? How is our experience altered when we cannot simply consume the work in the gallery or the comfort of our own homes and screens?

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Aaron Spangler, Bananas

I saw Anne Theresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas Danst Rosas at the Walker Art Center last week. I have not been able to get it out of my head. The dance is simultaneously deathly serious, paring down movement, facial expression to the barest framework of a dance language we start to recognize. The first section is silent, slow, laconic in comparison to the later three sections. The dancers’ breath and the slap of arms and legs onto the floor resonate within the silence of the theatre. The dancers individually and collectively lay perfectly still to the point that we wonder if they are still connected to the movement. The dancers shift and cascade in patterns of coordinated movement that struggle to coalesce. They seem to unite, but they crumble, decompose, reform, find their footing, and slip amid silence and stillness. This extended, protean formation of language with which the dancers assault their own bodies gathers momentum, collapses, rolls over, accretes into the flurry and avalanche of activity of the later sections of the dance.

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Rosas Danst Rosas, Photo by Herman Sorgeloos

Throughout the dance, the dancers verge on the mechanical. At first look, they seem to become machines reproducing everyday movements we know, repeating movements with inhuman regularity in patterns beyond human comprehension, but the dancers each move with their own slightly inflected accents. Each dancer’s movements comprise entire sets of linguistic encyclopedias. Each time we begin to grasp the movement language they dance, it slips between our fingers. We are travelling through a foreign land with shifting dialects and argot. The regularity, the patterning, the building, dismantling, permutational collection of individual movements lures us into believing we can gain an understanding of what is happening, that we can know and predict what comes next. We begin to understand the foreign language, feel like we know the tense, what should be the next subject, object, verb, dangling participle, but we are jarred into awareness by the strange gesture we have never seen, the new part of speech we cannot parse. Beyond simply seeing live bodies before us on the stage, the biological reproduction of and within the dance is constantly foregrounded, never absent from our perception of the dancers.

De Keersmaeker reinforces this biological reproduction in opening the Rosas Danst Rosas choreography to everyone. Whether in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary or in response to the Beyoncification of her work, the choreography is explained in great detail in step by step videos. The reproductions, covers, remakings of this second section of the dance model a new method of dancemaking that draws from the movement vocabulary from which de Keersmaeker crafted yet is clearly distinct, a new direction in movement language. They expand the conversation in dialects across dancers throughout the globe. They arise from the best of digital reproduction to magnify and unite the individuality of dancers, drawing us closer together in the potentials of common understanding while reinforcing the individuality that resists the mechanical, the faults that maintain our humanity.

Entrance Exam: Claudine Isé Appointed Executive Director at Woman Made Gallery

October 20, 2014 · Print This Article

Claudine Isé, Newly Appointed Executive Director of Woman Made Gallery in Chicago

Claudine Isé, Newly Appointed Executive Director of Woman Made Gallery in Chicago

 

We’re thrilled to report that former Bad at Sports’ blog editor Claudine Isé has been appointed executive director of Chicago’s nonprofit feminist contemporary art space Woman Made Gallery. In addition to having been a real force at Bad at Sports, where she (with Meg Onli) not only got this blog up and running but also garnered it international readership, Claudine has nearly 20 years of experience in the field of contemporary art. She has worked as a curator, writer and editor for some really top-notch places, most notably Wexner Center for the Arts, the UCLA Hammer Museum, and ART21. She has also written extensively about contemporary art and artists for numerous publications, including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, Chicago Reader, Artforum.com, Art Papers, and the ART21 Blog. She is currently a Visiting Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she teaches in the Museum and Exhibition Studies Program in the School of Art and Art History. And, it’s important for us (especially for me, the now editor of this blog) to note how profoundly influential Claudine has been in her short time in Chicago to students and young curators, writers and arts professionals. Our own Richard Holland had this to say about Claudine, and Duncan MacKenzie and I enthusiastically second this statement:

“Claudine’s talent, scholarship, patience and kindness are to be admired. Mother Theresa looks like the devil’s cabana boy next to her.”

In the press release put out by Woman Made, Claudine, with the gracefulness she is known for, said this about her new gig:

“I’m thrilled to be joining Woman Made Gallery as its new Executive Director,” Isé said. “Under Beate’s governance, WMG has established itself as one of only a handful of nonprofit contemporary art spaces in the U.S. dedicated to the work of women artists. I am deeply inspired by the Gallery’s unwavering commitment to the social and cultural ideals espoused by feminism, LGBTQ activism, and social justice movements. Woman Made Gallery is a vital resource for contemporary artists of all genders, and I am looking forward to working with its exceptional staff, board and funders to further the Gallery’s mission.”

We caught up with the new executive director to ask a few nosey questions about what her new role means for her work as a curator and critic, and for Woman Made, for which Claudine will be the only the second-ever executive director after Beate Minkovski, a co-founder who leaves the post after 22 years of leadership.

In Woman Made’s two-decades history, which past shows or projects do you think meet the test of time?
Which past shows do I think meet the test of time? For me, it’s those that have situated female experience within larger social, political, historical and global contexts, like the group shows WMG has done around diasporic themes (“Women of the African Diaspora” [2005], “Cultural Memory: Transdiasporic Art Practices” [2009]). I think more and more, we’re questioning just what “woman” means in social, cultural, psychological and material/body senses, so I also think shows that looked at gender as a fluid rather than binary concept, like “Girl, Please!” from 2010, will continue to resonate for years to come. Shoshana Weinberger’s solo show “Potbelly pin-ups” took place just this past year, so I guess I can’t claim that it’s stood the test of time—but nonetheless, I love the way Weinberger combines humor, discomfort, and a certain kind of luscious grotesquerie to explore popular culture conceptions of “female” and “beauty.”
Over the years Woman Made has exhibited an incredible number of works by women (and men, too!). I’m looking forward to drilling down into the ideas underlying feminism a bit more, presenting shows that take a more sustained look at a particular phenomenon or issue and allow us to ask complex questions about it—and receive complicated answers in return.
Will you continue to write art criticism for local and national outlets? 

No. Working as the executive director of a nonprofit feminist contemporary art space and attempting to write criticism would present way too many potential conflicts of interest. Even if it didn’t—there is so much good work to pursue at Woman Made, I certainly wouldn’t have the time!

As executive director, will you curate exhibitions? If so, any specific themes you’re looking forward to researching/exploring.

Yes I will, but I’ll also be actively seeking out fresh voices to bring to the gallery in guest curator capacities. We have a tiny staff at WMG and we can’t do it all — and anyway, it’s more fun to collaborate with other people! For myself, it’s a bit too early to say for certain what I will or can do exhibition-wise, but there are two ideas I’m already turning over in my head: I want to look at the work of women coders, who often find themselves to be the lone female on a software team, and the communities that women coders are building together around their shared experiences in what’s still typically thought of as a guy’s field. I’m mulling over how to make that type of work “visible” in an art gallery context.  I also want to look at people’s relationship to clothing—and here I do mean “people”: women, men, and folks who gender identify in multiple and varied ways. Have you read the book “Women in Clothes”? A friend recommended it to me and it’s fascinating. I’d like to organize something big and ambitious that looks at a wide variety of people and their relationship to the clothes they wear. It’s the kind of thing where the more closely you look, the more strange our relationship to clothing becomes.

Skeletendo: Spooky Art Games for October

October 20, 2014 · Print This Article

Happy (mid) October! Even though I’ve never been a huge fan of Halloween (my childhood costumes rotated between lawyer, businessman, and French businessman, all of which were just me wearing a suit that was too big plus or minus my mom’s beret) I’m a sucker for a good chill, either in the form of a terrible/great horror movie or spooky game. I have a hard time hacking the super-scary-atmospheric stuff though—whenever I get too freaked out in a movie I can kind of stare into a corner and watch via peripheral vision but if I do that in a game I end up getting mauled by a zombie and then I just have to start over. In any case, I come bearing gifts of free indie horror delights and then some.

magskel

Magenta Skeleton isn’t so much horror as it is ambient exploration (which I might be a huge fan of), but it is at times both beautiful and unsettling. The way in which you (a magenta skeleton) appear on a shore facing another (magenta skeleton) holding a torch; the small boat in the background, a dismantled bridge of some sort. It heftily implies some sort of two-skeleton invasion, but in practice it’s about exploring a texture, as lo-fi rain falls down the slopes of a mountainous island and your electric-purple skele-legs carry you into the neon future. There’s no violence or real interaction, just this weird flash-fiction/prose-poem of an environment, and you are on it. (I recommend climbing up the hilly area to the left of the bridge.)

Michael Lutz recently released a new game made with Twine called the uncle who works for Nintendo, which is campfire-story-good. It’s based off that sort of childhood legend or falsehood: the friend who claims to have a family member who works in a high-powered job at a cool company. In elementary school, I knew a kid who reached compulsive liar status by claiming he was constantly winning Nintendo-based sweepstakes, and that he was soon to receive unlimited N64 controllers, in any color that he wanted, for the rest of his life.

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In any case, you’re sleeping over at a friend’s house for the night. His uncle works at Nintendo, maybe. As you make your way through the night, a fantastic use of sound and warped memory narrative create a really unsettling space that still kind of freaks me out, but not in a chainsaw murderer way, more like a clown standing in the middle of an intersection at night but really far away kind of way. The danger isn’t imminent, but it’s still pretty weird. This isn’t to make light, however: there are some trigger warnings attached. Lutz prefaces it as “a horror framework to think about misogyny and emotional abuse and manipulation” especially w/r/t children, so be warned.

This led me to discovering an older game of Lutz’s: my father’s long, long legs. While Nintendo was branching and filled with a certain modern terror, Legs is a pretty straight-forward narrative that relies on some really lovely scripting later on the story to give the player a sort of flashlight that they must use to discover text. Again, this one’s unsettling without the jumps, a kind of slow burn that I just can’t resist. I hope you’ll find it to be similarly attractive, but if not, maybe we can freak each other out later by saying some weird stuff into a mirror in the dark.

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Lastly, a sort of bonus. Emily Carroll is an artist who has for a long time been making some of my favorite comics. The reason I bring her up is that Lutz cites her as an inspiration (particularly the work she did on The Yahwg, a game which bears her beautiful art) and the atmospheres created by Lutz and Carroll are very much siblings. My favorite work of Carroll’s is definitely His Face all Red, but you can’t go wrong with Out of Skin or Margot’s Room. They’re all very carefully constructed and formatted for maximum dread, and the latter relies on a prefacing poem to guide the reader to click on specific parts of what appears to be a gruesome scene, not unlike a point and click game.

In any case, I hope you enjoy. I’m really pumped to see more and more of these sorts of experiments that toy with both structure and texture, as well as the idea of “play.” In some cases, I’m not sure play is even the right verb anymore, but for now, it’s as close as it feels like we can get as we talk about “games.” This isn’t to say they’re not games. I just think they might transcend the label, and that’s a really awesome feeling. In any case, grab some cider, turn off the lights, put on some headphones, and get spooked.

No more visionary art

October 17, 2014 · Print This Article

Over the last eight or ten months, I have been taking advantage of the opportunity this space provides by interviewing people whose work I admire or whose organizations I am curious about. I have not had an explicit plan or frame for these interviews: for their structure, for the people I talked to, etc. I have been interviewing people who I like, people whose work I like, people who work for organizations I am interested in—often all three at once. Nonetheless, we often ended up talking about the same things: art’s supportive position in a brutally dehumanizing financial system, and the arbitrary nature of validating art as art.

It should not be surprising that art occupies a supportive position in today’s neoliberal market—art, particularly “fine” art, has always been made for or by those in power. The art market is sustained by financiers, venture capitalists, CEOs, etc. Art is either produced directly for this market or produced in some imagined resistance to it. Those who produce art or who engage in local or global art worlds are, by and large—including myself—born into some kind of wealth and afforded some kind of privilege. As Renzo Martens put it in my conversation with him, “half of the world’s population that never has a fucking cappuccino while thinking about one’s own ideas because they’re just working in mines and cleaning bedrooms and god knows what.” To be an artist or even an art enthusiast, you must be able to afford to work unpaid jobs, buy cappuccinos, and so on. This has always been true. Bach wrote for the Austrian royal court, Koons makes sculpture for the ultra-rich. The difference is negligible. When I talked to Keith J Varadi about my nagging suspicion that punk simply serves as the appropriate entropy for sustaining late capitalism, he mentioned awareness of one’s own position in the world as a key part of what, for him, defines punk. When you buy a used car and convert it to bio-diesel, he mentioned, you are still participating in the larger, exploitative economy: either mass deforestation due to the planting of GMO biodiesel corn or the international industrial-scale production and distribution of vegetable oil. When  you become a freegan, you are still taking and using things that were likely made in horrific labor environments (most things are) or that were distributed along an international freight network, which itself is outrageously polluting and violent. Whether or not you pay for your shrimp is arbitrary: it has already been farmed in Laos or Thailand using slave labor and shipped in an airplane halfway across the world.

We make art, we think about art, we recognize the existence of art because we are rich, because we can afford to be interested in something, because we are not so exhausted from working in a mine or cleaning shit and vomit in a hotel or zigzagging across four part-time jobs that all we can do is pass out. Again, this has always been true. It is not interesting. What might actually be interesting is the validation of art: what makes art art. I have asked almost everyone I’ve interviewed what makes art art, and have received a surprisingly similar array of answers.  When I interviewed Adam Overton in Januray, he recalled a quote by Allan Kaprow: “what if I were to think art was just paying attention?” Overton replaced think with believe: “what if I were to believe art was just paying attention?” It reminded me of a feeling I have regarding Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art,” namely that there appears to be no reason why the Van Gogh he is looking at gets to be art and not the hat or the rifle. Although Heidegger spends the whole essay explaining why the Van Gogh is art and the hat/rifle are not, the explanation does not actually have to do with qualities inherent to the work of art; rather, the idea is that what art does that other things do not do—the artness of art—is make the viewer aware of her own consciousness. For Heidegger, the shoes of the peasant girl in the Van Gogh (was it it even a Van Gogh? my books are in limbo, I have nothing to reference), caused him to realize that his opinion of peasantry, which he had never considered, was man-made, and that it existed in contradistinction to some kind of deeper truth about peasantry or humanity, that, further, truths in general exist in relation to some kind of deeper Truth, and that this Truth is neither moral nor singular—it is not explicit—but operates in a relation to other truths the way umami operates in relation to other tastes. In any case, there is no reason why the hat or the rifle couldn’t also be art, had Heidegger had a different sort of day or lived in a different sort of era. There is no reason why anything is or is not art, except for what we believe and how that thing—or experience, aural space, whatever—operates in relation to what we believe.

Similarly, when I sat down with Aandrea Stang, formerly of the MOCA, where she coordinated, among other things, a massive re-happening of much of Alan Kaprow’s work and Engagement Party, a four-year series of socially- or otherwise publicly-engaged work. She now runs OxyArts, an arts programming initiative at Occidental College, also in LA. I talked to her shorty after We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust, conceived by Finishing School with Nadia Afghani and Matt Fisher, had been installed in front of the school’s auditorium. WWSYFHD is a full-scale mockup of a Predator drone, covered in adobe in a simultaneously familial and antagonistic gesture over the course of three days by the artists and a smattering of the general public—the artists’ friends, some students, some people who happened to be there. I was curious a number of things: about the horizontal organizing structure of Engagement Party, which I knew nothing about and which seemed—and still seems—to be to be as exciting an artwork as any that happened as part of the series; about the drone; about what the hell OxyArts was supposed to be. Mostly I was curious about what drew Aandrea to this kind of work. “I like experiences that force one to consider the aesthetics of one’s situation,” she said. “Donald Judds could be Donald Judds, but in a different set of circumstances they could be ductwork.” Again, the aesthetics of one’s situation, as she succinctly put it, have to do not with inherent qualities but with validating systems, and encountering the former often includes recognizing the latter. A Donald Judd is a Donald Judd because it is a Donald Judd, and for no other reason. If it were not a Donald Judd it would be ductwork, or a box.

This is not a judgment. When I interviewed Conrad Freiburg—artist, musician, carpenter, man of the hour—he brought up the saying “art is as serious as your life.” Is your life serious right now? Will it be serious in five minutes, when you go to the vending machine? One’s life becomes serious because one decides to get serious or because something happens that one recognizes that something is serious. Seriousness is performed; so is art. We wondered—I still wonder, actually, and probably Conrad does, too, although we haven’t talked since he went to Ohio and I went to Mexico—if practicing not giving a fuck would be a way to catch oneself getting serious and have a chance to decide whether things were actually serious or not.

Maybe what is exciting or useful about art, if there is anything exciting or useful about art at all, is its ability to give a chance to decide if things are actually serious or not. Maybe looking at a Donald Judd makes us wonder why this piece of ductwork is art while that piece of ductwork is not, and maybe in our wondering we will wonder who or what decides that art is art and what their motivations might be. In March, after failing or forgetting to interview somebody in February, I met Renzo Martens at a cafe. I think Renzo thought I wanted to talk about Enjoy Poverty, because everybody does, but I actually wanted to talk to him about the Institute for Human Activities, a venture that rides some kind of line between being incredibly straightforward and incredibly surreal. The previous summer had seen the first summer of the IHA, an arts residency and “gentrification program” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had ended in the surprisingly violent suppression and removal of the Institute by a Canadian palm oil interest. Thinking of Adam, maybe, and myself, certainly, I asked Renzo if he considered the Institute art, and whether it mattered if the Institute was art or not. He answered, emphatically, yes, that it mattered that it was art because he likes art, because art is the rare form of expression that shows—or can show—its “suspending apparatus,” as Martens put it, that this dome above your head that you know is not a dome is not magic, but trompe l’oeil, a technique that is known and can be used, a machine for making a flat ceiling a dome or a wall an apple tree. For Martens, the Institute is an opportunity to be the machine, so to speak:

I told you the problem if I’m a critical artist and I do it from my studio in Brooklyn, for example, so if I don’t take into account the bigger economic structures, my work is just going to be a little thing in a machine, and it won’t reflect the machine itself, other than symbolically, and even that symbolic reflection will function in that machine, right? What I need to do is own the machine. That’s the level of abstraction we need to work on in order to generate knowledge about art and the machine. That’s why we can’t be an artist, we can’t be a curator, we have to be an institution, but even more than that, we need to be the economic forces that are derived from that institution.

That is to say, Martens is hoping that, by sincerely an unabashedly using the language and mechanisms of the larger economic system—in this case, the kind of art NGO that has been popping up all of the world in the last five or ten years—he can gain access to and leverage within that system and redirect some of the money that usually just circles around the system towards, for instance, paying exploited Congolese palm oil workers to do something besides work in a fucked up palm oil plantation. This is surely what the Canadian firm that pushed the IHA out of its original position was literally in arms over.

Lane Relyea has written extensively about artists becoming institutions and the economic forces derived from these institutions. The everyday, hailed as a sort of quotidian utopia by art discourse for the past century, is not so everyday at all. The everyday is structured, often dictated, by abstract forms of control: from implicit understandings and unspoken agreements of how to act in a given space to a labor system that reduces human life to automated workforce management. In Your Everyday Art World, Relyea picks apart institutions, artists, and artists who have become institutions to highlight the webs of finance and control that support them and point out that, regardless of whether or not an artist or institution or artist-institution hails itself as resistant or revolutionary, the artist/institution/artist-institution still operates in full support of and fully supported by the market it rails against. In our interview, I tried very hard to get Relyea to make a judgment about this. Is it bad that art is naive? Yes, Lane said, it is. But it is more than judging this or that painting or this or that social practice intervention, Relyea, pointed out, it is that

the artworld imaginary right now sees artists making work not in society but in things that are more local and performative, more temporally local as well as spatially local—cliques, friends, hangouts—in the zone of everyday life, which relieves people of having to think of high and low, or about privilege and elitism. Which, in parallel, feeds the romanticizing that happens in social practice with the déclassé, with these pockets of dispossession that artists will come in and somehow alleviate or enlighten.

Naive “radical” art blocks our ability to see the very things it is supposedly railing against. This is why it sells so well, why it is so well-supported by the global art world. This is, as Relyea put it, “an impoverishment,” a diminishing of the potential of art. If art has the potential to allow us a chance to recognize our options, as I would like to believe, then the legions of naive revolutionaries flying across the globe to make it to the next Creative Time Summit are drastically, violently reducing that potential. This is not to say that these people are bad people or that they are intentionally making bad art, although there are certainly assholes and bad art everywhere, but rather that the artworld imaginary is just that—imaginary—and should be recognized as such.

My last two interviews, conducted after I arrived in Mexico City, have elaborated on that point. As both Carla Herrera-Prats and Arturo Ortiz Struck pointed out, very nearly every single Mexican president—and most of the people that form the government of Mexico—come from wealthy families and have received graduate degrees from Ivy League schools in the US. These presidents, and their governments, apply the economic wet dreams of the neoliberal free market to an actual country—Mexico—with disastrous results. This is not necessarily because they are bad people, although some of them certainly are; it is because they are living in a reality that is abstracted from actual life in Mexico. For Herrera-Prats, this highlights that education is currency, that proof that one has attended a recognized institution increases one’s market value, and that, as such, the American Graduate Degree is one of the United States’s most powerful economic and ideological exports. For Ortiz Struck, the implementation of an economic strategy in Mexico that has very little to do with actual life in Mexico has resulted in a series of very real, very terrible structures being built for people who don’t exist, structures that ignore or obstruct human life.

In general, it is clear in Mexico that human life is not in the interest of the market, the government, or the narcotics cartels that the government colludes with. It is clear that recent reforms and public works are ploys to encourage further foreign investment which will likely never be enforced or built; it is clear that the government is ineffective and unaware—Ortiz Struck described the men and women of the government as not necessarily bad or evil people, just people who had no idea what was going on; it is clear that the police are corrupt, violent, and dangerous; it is clear that those born into poverty here will very lead lives of crushing that they will never be able to escape from. The clarity is refreshing. In the United States, as in Mexico, the government is ineffectual, the police are violent, and those born into poverty will never be able to escape poverty. The United States just has a better story, a better imaginary, a dream.

If you read about social practice or read about Silicon Valley, if you read the news or watch television, you will hear quite a bit about how you are part of some story: maybe your story, maybe the story. You will also hear about a game that you might be in, a game that is changing, because of this or that artist or because of this or that app. When you pick up your next bottle of Coca-Cola, your name or your friend’s name will be on the side of the bottle; when you request your next Über, you’ll be “evolving the way the world moves.” Indeed, Über’s corporate language is enlightening:

Uber is evolving the way the world moves. By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 200 cities today, Uber’s rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.

The language of Über, and increasingly the language of corporate marketing worldwide, matches the language of the contemporary artist statement. This is the language of meta-narratives, stories that have already begun sometime close to now and proceed into an ill-defined or permanently deferred future. By buying a Coca-Cola or buying the work of Theaster Gates, you are participating, changing, progressing, innovating, remembering, making, thinking, transgressing, transforming, evolving, -ing, -ing, -ing. You are a visionary, Coca-Cola is a visionary, you are a visionary for choosing to be part of the community of visionary persons who drink Coca-Cola. What such visionary projects do is enforce the idea that this or that imaginary is truethat it operates absolutely and without relation to any internal or external circumstances. In so doing, they impoverish or obstruct our ability to see, to recognize ourselves as participating in this or that system, that or the other imaginary.

These interviews have clarified something for me: I am against visionary art. What I like about art, what makes art worthwhile for me, is the opportunity it can afford to see myself, to hear myself, to catch myself or others. Visionary art makes it difficult to see, to hear, to catch myself or others; it sucks me into a story that I may not be able to get myself out of, a story that operates in total indifference to me, my particularity, what I think or believe or feel. As I’ve mentioned several times before, what struck me most about reading through the materials that eventually made it into the second edition of What We Want is Free was that, while almost all of the projects included had artist statements—meta-narratives—very few had descriptions of what actually happened: who came, what their names were, how they felt, what they wanted, how their face creased when they smiled or frowned. They operate and validate themselves using the same mechanism that Über or Cisco Systems uses to operate and validate themselves. Art must cease using this mechanism. Art is art because it says it is, and it must stop saying that it is visionary. If art is to be useful, if it is to have any effect on the calamitous state of the world, if it is to alter, in a real way, a city or a moment, it must stop being visionary. No more visionary art.