A couple days ago, while sitting with the illustrious Duncan Mackenzie, Richard Holland, and Claudine Ise, recording some musings on Chicago art at a bar in the middle of the afternoon, we started to talk about the tradition of socially engaged art in Chicago. I talk about this a lot, especially trying to figure out how to explain it to my students at University of Illinois at Chicago, where I co-teach a class introducing the subject with my colleague Faheem Majeed. I’ve been thinking lately about how to distinguish, at least for myself personally, what I think is good or bad or boring or exciting or challenging socially engaged art, a very murky field. When judging that kind of work, as I’ve talked about previously on this blog, what interests me is that socially engaged art struggles to address the world outside the world of art. And with that comes a struggle for the artist to engage not only in what kind of artist they want to be in the world, but also what kind of person they want to be. Thus presents a complicated dilemma, because oftentimes it feels like to judge this kind of work also always includes a judgment on how ethical we perceive the artist as a person to be. And so trying to avoid the trap of deciding who I think is the best person or the most righteous (because really, socially engaged art should have the license to upend our perceptions and not always make the world a better place), I’ve been leaning towards the idea of compasses as a way of getting me somewhere out of the quagmire. I mean compass as a sort of aspirational mechanism, wherein a constellation of people, projects, and places provide for me a navigational tool for a world off in the distance that I want to get to. Like for instance, Laurie Jo Reynolds is a compass, because she along with tons of other people spent years trying to close Tamms Supermax prison, and they did it and that is completely amazing. And the beautiful process by which that came to be drew on a set of aesthetic strategies that made it art, not only because it was creative activism, but because it also created a space for speculation, for not-knowing, for metaphor and poetry. Tamms Year Ten is a readily available example because of all that was accomplished, but there are a host of others operating at different scales, both historically and today. And other folks, who shall remain nameless, are just not creating a world I want to be part of because they don’t think about the aesthetic experience or they have lazy politics or the artist thinks its about the social world, but by that they just mean the art world, because its all they really think about. I’m working on articulating this, but it’s a start.
And when I start thinking about compasses, I believe I’m also speaking of narrative. The process by which we encounter the world as it is and speak of how to transform it is a space of art, but capturing that process is a difficult thing. It cannot often be brought to life after the fact without a good story attached.
This last Monday, Julie Ault came to speak at SAIC, mostly about a creative archiving practice that spans the last 32 years. In 2010, her edited version of Group Material’s seventeen year history (of which she was a founding member) came out in the form of Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material. In the text, she’s found a way to create a compelling portrait of a long and complex collaborative process, rather than a theorized history, zoomed out from above. Documentation of their projects is interwoven with minutes of meetings, polemics, ranting about collaboration, internal disagreements; all of this to assert the primacy of their voices and a ground level vantage point, situating readers in the time of the projects. A micro-culture gets revealed and what we theorize with a backward view to context and circumstance gets complicated by interjections and digressions that resist a single vantage point. The story is the complexity of collaboration, the struggle with institutional legitimation and the exploration of artistic forms, most notably in their practice of exhibition-making as a kind of artwork.
The multiple viewpoints, the many different takes on a situation, the resistance to one kind of narration, is the struggle to how to understand participatory, socially engaged work. What this brings to mind, in this riff on orientation and documentation and archiving, is the fact that Mess Hall will close on March 31 after a ten year run. Mess Hall formed in 2003 when a landlord in Chicago was prompted to supply a storefront in the Rogers Park neighborhood free of charge after reading an article in the New York Times mentioning Chicago-based Temporary Services. Thus began a space for “visual art, radical politics, creative urban planning, and applied ecological design” in which no money was allowed to change hands. Its many keyholders have hosted a local and international socially engaged creative community as well as potlucks, free stores and seminars on participatory budgeting with the district’s Alderman. It was a welcoming-and-kooky-and-homey-and-sometimes-dogmatic-but-mostly-not-and really-just-all-over-the-place space. I remember in 2008, when this amazing weekend symposium happened called “What we know of our past, what we demand of our future,” organized by Brett Bloom and Bonnie Fortune, where a group I am involved with, InCUBATE, was invited to stage our project Sunday Soup, which involved selling soup for money that would go towards a creative project grant. But since the rules of no money changing hands was so strict, we had to sell our soup out on the sidewalk and it was January so, obviously, absolutely freezing to be out there. I also met Nato Thompson that weekend, which led to me working for a summer at Creative Time, and we ended up hosting Sunday Soup at the exhibition Democracy in America with Robin Hewlett and Material Exchange and meeting tons of people which in many ways spurred the Sunday Soup network on its way.
Last Saturday I went to one of their closing events, The Material Production of Cultural Spaces, which featured speakers on “exploring practical models for building counter-institutions that are non-commercial, consensual and community driven. Guest speakers will offer concise presentations on the labor, tactics, skills and monetary investments required to forge/forage alternative cultural spaces in Chicago.” One of those speakers was Sara Black, narrating the experience of the now defunct Backstory Café and Social Center in Hyde Park. And she spoke of Backstory much in the same way as these projects I’ve mentioned: complicated, messy, beautiful collaborations, speculative at the same time as concerned with real world applications. (Robin Hewlett speaks of this as well in her essay “Small Business as an Artistic Medium.”)I went there frequently, I was close with the organizers, and hearing something that you’ve lived through (even vicariously) spoken of through a narrative creates a jarring nostalgia and I’m sure brings up complicated memories for all that were involved. But the only way to really hear and feel and understand what was important about that place is through listening to its story, because you cannot have the affective experience of standing in that place, with those people, at that time. I often feel this sort of inside/outside dilemma of narration and storytelling when explaining some of my own experiences like closing the InCUBATE storefront in 2010. The more I tell that story, the more it is told using the same words and the same pictures, which feels a little sad but I know I’m lucky that people actually care about it too. Ault talked about this as well, that for a long time she and Doug Ashford (another founding member) thought that the best way to keep Group Material’s voice present was to narrate the experience in person rather than through a set text. I imagine that archiving one’s own experience is overwhelming, grappling with a long, formative, contentious group history that doesn’t want to go silently into the archive.
I really am going to miss Mess Hall. I say that with unabashed sentimentality. It will remain a compass for me because of its messiness, its utopian promise, its desire to be so wholly other than the typical art institution and outside the market, and because its sweet belief that social and economic justice could exist coterminously with a desire to be an ethical, socially-engaged culture-maker. Go see them before they close, the final party is on Friday, March 29. As they say: Join us for our final gathering in the space. We will say our farewells with a parade, a key-tossing ceremony and a night-long party. The current key-holders do not wish to leave the space alone. We will leave it as we found it: together.
PS: Never the Same is doing a free seminar this summer on archiving Chicago’s politically and socially engaged history, their call for participation is here!
I received my second speeding ticket in six months last week in Wisconsin. He got me on a long, well traveled straight away and pulled me over right in front of the school where I teach. Several of my students gave me thumbs up as they walked by.
“Do you know how fast you were going, sir?”
“Probably about thirty-five.”
“Thirty-six. Do you know what the speed limit on National Avenue is?”
“Based on your head being in my window, I’m guessing less than that.”
I honestly assumed it was 35. Anywhere but Wisconsin it would be 45.
With a look of righteous contempt that should be reserved only for scumbags trafficking teenagers inside elephant tusks, he said, “Twen-tee Five.”
He left my window abruptly and came back 20 minutes later with a ticket and a sanctimonious lecture about traffic safety.
Indignant, I told him he was being petty and probably confusing a professional obligation with something more elevated. I asked if he was clocking on National Ave. because of a particular hazard or simply because people were flouting the rules. If no one was getting hurt, I told him, it might be speed limit issue rather than a public safety issue.
None of this pleased him very much, and he threatened to give me a ticket for not getting a Wisconsin license within four months of moving to the state. I barely wiggled out of it by convincing him that I maintained two legal residences.
Once again, the letter of the law prevailed over the spirit.
As you could glean from passages in my last 20-some posts, I’ve identified a certain abiding love of order, routine and uniformity in my Wisconsin community. Rules and laws such as speed limits often turn from tools to achieve positive ends into ends themselves. And the love of order and uniformity makes it hard to identify different cultural tribes as one can might in New York. Any Cedarburgian, from the pastor to the sculptor sports something like Kohls issue business casual, making it difficult to tell who’s who. Walk down Orchard Street in New York on a Saturday and easily separate the artists from NYU students, from bankers, from urchins, from tourists. Heck, separate the painters from the sculptors from the performers.
This is an overstatement for the sake of argument, of course, but to the degree that it sticks, the Balkanized culture is almost too diffuse to support an avant-garde in the truest sense of the term – the Avant in NYC can’t identify the derriere to push off. As a result, there are a thousand separate avant-gardes, each busy fighting private revolutions.
In Wisconsin it seems there’s still a normative culture for vanguard to push against: i.e. cops straight from central casting preaching about public safety. Armies of people hitting the town on Friday night for hot wings and pizza because Indian food is too strange. Many, many painters of elk.
With this in mind, I felt sort of Bohemian when I first landed in Cedarburg. I felt like Picasso working in my own private La Bateau-Lavoir in the backyard, the adjacent Lutheran church my Sacre Coeur. So it was surprising to me when my attempts to engage the local art scene in Milwaukee proved so difficult. After setting up my studio, I sent out a few casual emails to some curators and artists suggesting studio visit swaps, meetings for coffee, or whatever. All real casual. All stuff I do routinely in New York. People solicit me. I solicit others. Everyone solicits everyone, and it the end we drink lots of coffee and beer and share art and ideas about art.
I recently reread an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel from last year, called “Making a Scene: Milwaukee’s Avant-Garde.” It describes a vibrant and energetic community where:
“Cheerfully unorganized, maverick artists found inspiration and an audience first in each other. A playful amateurism prevailed, as artists embraced their obscurity, understanding both the freedoms and limitations that are part of being set apart from the larger art world.”
That was the scene I sought when I sent out those casual emails. Thinking about the futility made me recall a moment years ago as a gallery director when I threw away a submission of images from Coral Gables, Florida. The gallery owner told me to pitch it, and it made me feel a little shallow and sad. We might have taken a look it was from Brooklyn, but the truth was, we rarely received good unsolicited packets, and never from Gables Florida. Our time was limited; we were just playing the numbers.
So now I’m Coral Gables. I’m a painter with a studio in Cedarburg, Wisconsin, home to caramel apple shops, hair salons, and people who crinkle their noses at falafel, far removed from that community of maverick artists who forged their own private avant-garde in Milwaukee. An avant-garde, which, like all avant-gardes, needs a milieu and a derriere to shove off. And it sucks to be the rear end, even if it’s only part-time.
Sometimes it makes me just want to hop into my car and drive 100 miles-an-hour all the way to back to Brooklyn…but I can’t now, because if I get three more points on my license they’ll take it away…and then I’d be forced to stay in New York for good.
It’s been a busy week on the blog and I continue to be surprised and giddy about B@S’ content. Somehow this little blog manages to traverse fields from Chicago stomping grounds, to Kansas City, Royal Oak Michigan, to the nuance of kitsch, job fairs, the debut of a comics column (you know, instead of the Sunday funnies). What could be better indeed?
OK — Maybe a desert island with dolphins, or more simply an hour of sleep but I always believe you got to work with what you have, and Chicago, baby, you got a whole lot of talent and whole lot of heart.
This week Jereiah Hildwine gave us a couple insider tips about CAA, including “…the dirty little secret most people don’t know about the CAA conference before their first time attending: You don’t need to register for the conference to attend the professional development stuff or go into the Interview Hall.” In addition to hearing about performing maleness, street styles outside of SAIC’s BFA show, and John Neff’s artist talk at the Ren, I also learned about a tumbler for all thinks pink and clever; all courtesy of Edition #4 of Dana Bassett’s T.
Anthony Romero and Johannes Göransson have continued to discuss kitsch, the foreigner and whether or not it applies to ASCO — a 70s/80s Chicano performance group. The discussion is something I’ve been especially appreciative of, given that each author makes good points, articulating their disagreements while struggling with the nuance of language. Can “kitsch” — a category of cultural production so quickly dismissed by the mainstream — enjoy supreme freedom because of its marginalization? How do we discuss and examine the foreigner? Is the foreigner a semantic category that defines a state of “otherness?” Or is it about one person immigrating elsewhere? Perhaps the latter can’t shed the former (can it?) without overriding a history of oppression (is that the danger?). Then the question is who is a foreigner to whom in the case of the Chicano and the American? Shouldn’t the American be the foreigner? As a population that arrived her from elsewhere? Romero responds to Göransson’s first B@S post here. Göransson replies to Romero here. I enjoyed the flow of discourse, benefitting tremendously from the difficulties these authors articulate.
I should add, as a somewhat personal aside, that such moments exemplify, for me, the best aspects of community. Community is accidental and easy when everyone gets along and agrees. It can start to feel oppressive, if room isn’t made for disagreement. The alternative is much harder, more interesting, and dynamic: to be part of a group that allows for differences of opinion, a group that is nevertheless invested in discussing those differences. What a feat! Especially if courtesy remains throughout. For me, courtesy signifies the desire for a productive discussion — which is its necessary own challenge. We aren’t going to like everything that everyone else does, if for no other reason than because we are a large, confounding group with nebulous parts. (I’m not just talking about B@S either, I mean more generally — Chicago’s art world, the larger more general art world, the larger more general world). I’m probably making too much of this, but I was so psyched to see a discourse emerge between posts, especially one with such high stakes. Such instances make me braver in my own voice, just as they make me more likely to trust this idea of “community” that we all love to fall back on.
Jamilee Polson Lacy posted about Kansas City, and went on the record to say “Kansas City, in my opinion, is a sentimental place.” Lacy goes on to say, “the arts scene in KC has seen lately a confluence of presentations demonstrating artists’ longing for many pasts, presents and futures.” She contextualizes this longing with ”KC-based fiction writer Annie Fischer’s 2012 essay, ‘Wish You Were Here,’ which somehow, amazingly, sums up all of these wild ideas.” So. Check it out.
Mystery blogger, Thomas Friel, appears on the scene! That is to say, I’ve never met Friel and have yet to communicate with him (Friel, if you’re reading this! Consider it a message in a bottle and email me! I love your posts!) — : this week Friel sort of accidentally rescued Friday. You know, I try and set something up to post every day, and a couple things fell through so I figured Friday would get a pass, but no! Lo! When I visited the blog on Saturday morning, I came to find Friel’s essay about Butter Projects’ Valentine’s show in Royal Oak, MI. “Already, this is a better take on the Valentine themed art exhibit. Curated by Alison Wong, “I Like You and I Together,” on view until March 16, allows our experience with love to be the biggest thing in the room, in the air around us instead of plastered on the walls.”
Stephanie Burke’s Top 5, (need I say more?)
Saturday opened up with a great book review by Terri Griffith on Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. In Griffith’s words, ”Halberstam (see Gaga Feminism), introduces us to alternative ways of viewing failure, as perhaps an expression of rebellion or as means to resist mainstream America’s pressure to conform.” What if, by rejecting the society’s endowment of legitimacy, one can achieve a new sense of freedom (and perhaps shift societal paradigms and hierarchies). It’s maybe not so different from the Timothy Leary Tune in Drop out, though I suppose we are wiser and smarter now?
Brit Barton posted some ENDLESS OPPORTUNITIES (though, #alas, in case any of you were holding your breath, there weren’t any listing for free beachfront condos).
Last but certainly not least: that new take on Sunday Funnies by Sara Drake. Drake introduces her series and gives a top 3 list of her own:
1. Aidan Koch’s gorgeous book,The Blonde Woman, was created with assistance from a Xeric Grant and was originally released online via The Study Group Magazinewebsite. I recommend reading it all in one sitting if possible.
2. The New York Times recently published a mini-comic by C.F. called Face It.
3. Cartoonist, Brian Chippendale made an animated music video out of flip-books he drew as a kid. There’s a dragon and eyeball bombs in it – need I say more?Black Pus – 1000 Years
Matt Wolf is a non-fiction filmmaker whose work finds inspiration and subject matter in the lives and work of other artists. His debut feature film, Wild Combination, profiled the elusive musician Arthur Russell. Russell’s prolific recordings (mostly unreleased and in continual flux) and performances ranged from minimalist new music to disco to country-tinged power pop in his too short life. Through a variety of recent releases of these lost and found gems over the past half-decade and Wolf’s poignant, sensitive documentary, Russell’s profile has raised.
I absolutely adore Arthur Russell and was ecstatic to see Wolf’s documentary when it made its way around the festival circuit in 2008. Documentaries about artists, to my eye, are rarely successful at generating the heat and intensity of their subjects. Perhaps conventional logic dictates that the documentarian’s duty is to present the material in a straight-forward and information-driven mode. The very impulses toward idiosyncrasy, subjectivity and innovation that drive the work of these artists are often lost in the translation to a different context.
Wolf’s work is vital because of the care he takes to ensure that his formal, conceptual and aesthetic decisions reflect—though subtly—the works and lives of his subjects. The pacing is delicate and deliberate without feeling slow. The shared emphases on biography, work and social context entwine to produce fleeting documents of artists who have passed but whose influence still grows.
I Remember, which was released last year, profiles the artist and poet Joe Brainard. Brainard is best known for his poem cycle of the same name and for his work in collage, painting and assemblage. For the piece, Wolf has constructed his own collage of found footage and archival images of Brainard with a swirling conversation between a recording of Brainard’s own reading of I Remember and the poet Ron Padgett offering a very personal biography of his best friend.
Wild Combination is available on DVD and iTunes. I Remember will screen at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and Images Festival soon and can be streamed online or rented through Video Data Bank. Wolf’s latest film, Teenage, premieres this April at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Because it seems a good a place to begin as any, I’m hoping you might tell us a bit about your background—where you grew up and were educated, the types of jobs you’ve held to help you make work and, most important, your evolution as an artist. When did you realize you wanted to make films? Did you begin by being in bands or making paintings or was filmmaking always the goal?
I grew up in San Jose, California. I was a teenage gay activist, and I thought that I’d grow up to work in politics. I was on Good Morning America, lobbying my legislatures and stuff like that, but I also wanted to be an artist. I got obsessed with ‘90s queer independent films and directors like Todd Haynes and Derek Jarman. And then I started discovering video art and experimental films by people like Sadie Benning and Kenneth Anger. I was inspired to become a filmmaker, so I enrolled in film school at NYU.
It didn’t really occur to me how traditional and industry-oriented NYU would be. But I stuck it out, and eventually had the filmmaker Kelly Reichardt as a professor, which was really inspiring. During college, I got involved in the art world. I was writing art reviews for magazines, and most of my friends were visual artists. So when I finished school, I worked in a painter and video artist’s studio. Slowly I got some opportunities to make short documentaries about artists first for the public art organization Creative Time, and later for the New York Times. It was around this time that I started making my first feature Wild Combination.
My first experience with your work was through Wild Combination. Arthur Russell’s music has long meant the world to me and I was excited that someone had chosen to make a film about his life. To me, one of the most effective strategies in the film is your use of time-specific camera and media formats for your “reenactment” shots. Be-walkmaned Arthur on the ferry is shot on VHS tape, while Iowa is captured in luscious super-8. More so than the interviews, these moments tie us to the spaces, places and feelings of those periods. Can you talk a bit about the process of creating those reenactments? Do you, in your own mode of remembering (and as a filmmaker), see your own past in such aestheticized forms?
Making “fake archival footage” is one of my main filmmaking interests. I love working with found footage, but I like creating my own vintage-looking material too. My new film Teenage, which is coming out this Spring is a pretty expansive look at the birth of youth culture. In the film, I’ve made recreations that are shot in the style of period home movies. I shot scenes with vintage 16mm camera bodies and uncoated lenses, used experimental printing techniques to further degrade the footage, and then even organically got dust, scratches, and dirt on the films. Viewers shouldn’t necessarily be able to identify this stuff as original, staged footage. A lot of people will think it is archival.
The first moving images I ever saw of Arthur Russell were these de-saturated, extreme close up shots of him performing cello. They were shot on an old VHS format. I knew that was the material, texture, and feeling I wanted my film Wild Combination to have. I’m always trying to make films that have a cohesive form to them, even if I’m drawing on eclectic material. The recreations I film are a kind of visual glue that tie all the elements together.
Arthur Russell didn’t have immense media exposure from which you could draw footage, but there are numerous tapes of him performing that could be utilized. To what degree was the film shaped around the footage you were able to find? Were there scenes you were unable to include but that demonstrated something about Arthur you wanted to show? Also, I was struck by how many of the credits for this footage belonged to other legendary downtown figures (Phil Niblock, Jean Dupuy). This shouldn’t be too surprising considering where they were shot or his audience, but I’m curious if this lent itself to another kind of collaboration or, at least, an opportunity to reflect on the rhizomatic, entwined structures of artistic community.
There was a tiny amount of documentation of Arthur. If I had been a more experienced filmmaker, I probably would have said there’s not enough archival material to make this film. But that limitation proved to be a really productive challenge for me, and it helped me think more creatively about the filmmaking. It contributes to this sense of mystery about Arthur, the subject who is absent from the film. But really, I’m using every existing filmed recording of Arthur that exists. It was cool going to Phil Niblock’s loft to pick up a VHS tape, and the Kitchen’s archive was very generous in helping me access Jean Dupuy’s wonderful video documentation of Arthur performing “Eli” from the performance event “Soup and Tart.”
Arthur Russell and Joe Brainard share certain similarities. They were both born far from the coasts but found their way to the cities (and New York, in particular) about as quickly as they could. They both operated on the fringes of their particular scenes but were well-loved by their peers and small but devoted audiences. They were both gay and casualties of the AIDS crisis. I’m curious what about these figures (beyond the incredible work they produced) drew you to them.
Lately I’ve been thinking of those two as “gentle gays.” They both had a certain intensity and self-deprecating quality to them, but they also seemed like incredibly sweet people with a sensitive demeanor. I’m really interested in telling the stories and exploring the biographies of artists who died of AIDS. I think a lot about what New York and our world would be like if so many brilliant queer people hadn’t died prematurely. In some senses I imagine myself as a peer to them today.
I’m interested in the artistic inheritances of queer art (in particular from the 1970s to the 1990s) to makers in the present. Because of the tragic ravages of the AIDS crisis, so many of that era’s great makers’ lives ended much too soon. The question is broad and will be necessarily subjective, but I’m hoping you might have some thoughts on these questions of inheritance, lineage and historicization.
This is all stuff I think about a lot. Being queer is an important part of my identity. But often times I don’t really connect to contemporary gay politics. Queer culture from the past is what resonates with me the most. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but I know I’m not alone in that feeling.
Regarding these questions of inheritance, there is an incredible book I would recommend: Sarah Schulman’s Gentrification of the Mind. It’s a memoir about the AIDS crisis and ACT UP movement, and Sarah discusses how AIDS lead to the gentrification of Manhattan. She reflects on gentrification not just as phenomenon in cities, but a phenomenon of consciousness.
I imagine one of the pleasures of making documents/portraits of artists is the chance to interview and work with their peers. Are there artists through whose interviews you’ve felt a particular closeness or whose way of talking about your subject was particularly illuminating? Did the chance to have a relatively narrow topic (one artist) allow for a conversation that touched on other, broader topics (I imagine talking to Philip Glass about Arthur Russell is easier than talking to Philip Glass without a subject at hand)? What sorts of lessons about artistic kinship and community have you learned through these interviews?
I love interviewing people—it’s one of the most stimulating and rewarding aspects of making a documentary. To me a good interview is a two-sided conversation, not just a series of questions. Through my work I’ve met a lot of really interesting artists and thinkers. I believe that any good biography transcends its subjects and is about other cultural histories, or larger ideas. For Wild Combination, the biography was a way for me to also explore the setting of downtown New York in the 1970s and 1980s, the intersections of pop culture and the avant-garde, as well as queer culture and the impact of AIDS.
I Remember is described as “a film about” while Wild Combination is “a portrait of” their subjects. Without dissecting hairs or whatever the phrase is, I’m interested in these small designations. Do you think of these works (and perhaps in contrast to other projects you work on) as being distinct in their processes? Or, perhaps, do you have ways of describing the shift between portrait, document, documentary, essay or non-fiction (or other categories) filmmaking? Are these terms useful in the construction and reception of your work?
Both projects are really portrait films. A portrait isn’t a definitive biography, it’s a selective and artistic treatment of a subject. I didn’t interview everybody that knew Arthur Russell or Joe Brainard—I make focused and somewhat selective choices about how I would present their stories. That’s how I can be specific in my filmmaking rather than general. To me, it’s about making creative non-fiction, rather than straight documentaries.
I Remember was commissioned by Nathan Lee while he was at Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies. How did this come about? How does making work as a commission differ from other forms? Did knowing the work would exist in a museum exhibition (I’m assuming) before screening spaces impact the way you made it? Do you consider these works to be collaborations with your subject?
Nathan was really supportive, and gave me free reign to make whatever project I wanted. I had already started the Joe Brainard film, but needed an excuse (and some financial help) to finish it. I was excited about the opportunity to work in a gallery space, and to explore the documentary form in an elliptical, non-linear way. I felt like the structure of Joe’s poem “I Remember” speaks in circles, so it felt right that the film could play that way too. Truth be told, it’s only since screened in festival contexts, so I think it really is perceived more as a self-contained documentary, but I think it works in both contexts.
Your next major project is about teenagers. Can you discuss the project a bit?
Teenage is premiering in April at the Tribeca Film Festival. I worked with the author Jon Savage on the film—it’s inspired by his book of the same name. The film looks at the pre-history of teenagers, and examines youth culture from before WWII. It’s really about the role youth play in shaping the future, and how society oppressed and controlled youth before they were finally recognized as “teenagers.” It’s not a traditional historical film—the entire story is told from the point of view of teenagers. It’s been a major project that I’ve been working on for four years, so I’m excited for it to come out soon.
As the new comics writer for Bad at Sports, I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit debating how to contextualize comics as an art form for the audience of a contemporary arts blog. Writing about comics from an arts perspective is a relatively new development for a medium that has been around since the 1830s. Historically, comics have been meanwhiled into the margins of art and institutional processes of cultural validation. In a not so distant past, it would be unheard of for the managing editor of an arts publication like B@S to devote an entire column to comics criticism (or for the editor herself to be the creator of a superhero comic featuring a lady lead). Comics were certainly not something made in art school or written about in the canons of art history. Declaring to family members that you wanted to tell stories with words and pictures was cause for embarrassment and heartbreak. But things are shifting. When I told my dad in 2009 that I wanted to use my life to make comic books, it was met with a sigh of relief, “Oh good, we thought you were going to be a painter.”
For the purposes of this blog, and as a cartoonist myself, debates about the validity of comics as a medium bore me. This is not to say that as comics become more enveloped in academia or part of the art economy that artists shouldn’t be paying attention. There is a lot of smart and critical media being published that speak to this, such as an essay by cartoonist, Caitlin Cass published last month on Inkt Art. For me, comics were validated as a suitable baseline beat for self-expression the first time I found my dad’s stack of pulp comics in his closet, or the first time I checked out a comic book from the public library, or the first time I created a mini-comic as an art student in 2009. The list continues ad infinitum.
Meanwhile… was originally (and continues to be) an interview series and critical exploration which I began with fellow cartoonist, Krystal DiFronzo. We were tired of comics criticism or attempts at canonization that were not indicative of the dense and diverse artistic communities that we, as creators, are apart of. This column is an extension of that project. Each month I will be highlighting and providing captions to an array of artists and thinkers who take comics and narrative creation as a given for navigating their world(s).
To kick off this series (and to tide readers over until next month) I would like to underscore comics/things available on the web for leisurely perusal. ENJOY!
1. Aidan Koch’s gorgeous book, The Blonde Woman, was created with assistance from a Xeric Grant and was originally released online via The Study Group Magazine website. I recommend reading it all in one sitting if possible.
2. The New York Times recently published a mini-comic by C.F. called Face It.
3. Cartoonist, Brian Chippendale made an animated music video out of flip-books he drew as a kid. There’s a dragon and eyeball bombs in it – need I say more? Black Pus – 1000 Years