Off-Topic invites artists, curators, writers, and cultural workers to discuss a subject not directly related to the practice of making art. We would like to welcome Elijah Burgher as our latest guest. Earlier this week Elijah participated in the magic-themed Cabinet of Curiosities at the MCA, hosted by Bad at Sports’ Duncan MacKenzie. His Off-Topic post takes the form of a narrated YouTube tour of his favorite group Coil.
COIL ARE MY FAVORITE
On November 13, 2004, Jhonn Balance died after falling from a second floor landing in his home. His death effectively ended the mighty Coil, which he had founded in 1982 with Peter “Sleazy” Chistopherson. Along with Psychic TV and Chris & Cosey, Coil rose from the ashes of Throbbing Gristle—Sleazy is a member of TG, who recently resurrected—and, with Current 93, Nurse with Wound,
Death in June, plotted a new course for the various strains of experimental music that issued from the first wave of industrial music in the mid-to-late 70s. For more information about the band’s history and recordings, look at the Threshold House site, Brainwashed’s Coil page, or the brief entry on them on the Disinformation site.
Coil are also my favorite. I love a lot of things, and have named possibly hundreds of artists, bands, filmmakers, books, etc. as my “favorite” at one time or another. When Claudine asked me to write an Off-Topic post for the BaS blog, I knew I wanted to write about something that I loved, and considered Swans’ Children of God, Dennis Cooper’s George Myles cycle, and Pasolini’s Salo, the latter of which I’ve seen too many times to justifiably claim anything resembling mental health. But Coil really are my favorite. They are what I listen to when I work in my studio. And I have a Coil t-shirt that I consider a good luck talisman and wear when I feel particularly stressed out or sad. They inspire exactly this type of ecstatic, pathologically intense fandom in their followers. For this blog post, I’ll be leading you through some of my favorite songs by the band.
Balance had long suffered from alcoholism and drug abuse, which contributed to his untimely death. Since we started with news of his death, here is “Heartworms,” where he reflects self-deprecatingly on his addictions, intoning “there’s too much blood in my alcohol.” (Also I stole the name of my drawing blog from a lyric in this song: “Ghosts vomit over me.”) An enterprising YouTuber has added a super 8 short by Derek Jarman for visuals:
I first heard Coil when I was a teenager and a big fan of industrial music. I loved Ministry, Revolting Cocks, Pigface, and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult. Originally, I had picked up their cd, Love’s Secret Domain, because I’d buy anything Wax Trax put out. It came out in 1991, so I must have been 13 or 14 since I didn’t buy it too long after it had been released. That record soundtracked much of my high school years, from toothy teenage blowjobs to acid comedowns watching the dancing patterns of my bedsheets, and numerous late night sessions hunkered over my journal writing bad poems and drawing cute boys. I remember playing their track “The Snow” on repeat. It is now a veritable classic of early 90s house music, albeit still somewhat anomalous for the genre. Here is the “Answers Come in Dreams II” remix from “The Snow Ep”: [Read more]
Guest post by Virginia Konchan
Photography must annihilate itself as medium to be no longer a sign, but the thing itself.
Ben Gest’s photorealist photography, comprised of stark, neo-classical tableaux, depicts alienated subjects engaged in workaday and domestic tasks, and carries a full fetishistic load in an image saturated culture—that of the evacuated figure, from painting, as well as the signature of the “author,” as declared dead by structuralist critics. The “surface reading” strategies of Sharon Marcus’ and Stephen Best, Francois Dosse’s call for the “descriptive turn,” and Bruno Latour and Erving Goffman practice of “flat” reading based on actor-network theory (the game model of human interaction) connect to the “flat” or two-dimensional evacuation of depth fields, suggesting that as the text is now being “read” like a screen (the orthographic significance of the word alienated from semantic, affective, and cognitive percepts), so too are the visual images (in figurative art, the appearance of the other), we consume.
For Roland Barthes, this surface quality was a limitation of medium (the photograph is undialectical, as a denatured theater where death cannot be contemplated, reflected and interiorized: the foreclosure of the Tragic excluding catharsis), yet this slickness of surface is also a function of the occluded depth of capitalist subjects, wherein intimacy, futurity, and affect, because unable to be represented (priced, and sold), ceases to exist first as a cultural value, then, as a cultural experience (temporally, of duration rather than instantaneity). A privatized market first commodifies then distributes the sensible (Marx’s dream of the ’liberation of the senses’ of unalienated individuals in unalienated communities) fueling desiring-machines to demand, yet never receive, aporias of meaning: presence, aura, soul. [i]
The digital reproduction of the photograph and the text share an analogous relationship, foremost in hierarchies between the word (letter, or sign) and image (symbol, or referent). Today’s medium specificity (Clement Greenberg’s belief that “the unique and proper area of competence” for an art form corresponds with the ability of an artist to manipulate those features specific to a medium) is now metaphorized in the relationship between a reader and a text, or a viewer and an artwork, not as an encounter or relationship, but an interfacing, between user and electronic text, or screen (N. Katherine Hayles’s media specific analysis in “Print is Flat, Code is Deep”). Barthes’ descriptions of photography as “messages without a code” describes the limitation of the medium, for the photograph, yet this obviation of meaning has become an conscious aesthetic in post-structuralism, evacuated of content and intention. For Hegel, “art” was only art in subordination to meaning: modern art, in a post-Reformation world, for Hegel, wasn’t therefore “art,” but rather abstracted potential. [ii] The desire to decode photography’s “message without a code” may be what constitutes the dream of absolute (not reified) presence (Barthes’ Winter Garden Photograph): the “the text of pleasure” or sublime (dynamic or technological, wherein perceptual synthesis temporary collapses in experiencing the material force of a supersensible idea, whether of beauty or horror).
Affect theory provides a rational-empirical account of what we know intuitively: the sublime has a life of its own. The jarring quality of paintings such as Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” Francis Bacon’s apocalyptic friezes, and Frieda Kahlo’s self-portraits, fix such images forever in our collective imagination, for giving form to a mediated, yet still felt, aspect of human experience. Just as Cézanne sought to capture the “apple-ness of apples,” and Russian formalist Victor Shklovsky the “stony-ness of stone,” any discussion of the sublime returns us to logos (language’s ability to embody, and evoke, objects).
(Francis Bacon, “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,” 1953)
The absence of meaning in photography is its power, conveying its “message” through semiotic rather than semantic means. In writing, an absence of meaning can take, according to Derrida, three forms: mathematical meaning; agrammaticality (“abracadabra”); and the social contexture of meaning (preestablished symbolic and linguistic codes), implying that the limitations for what one can “say” are scripted, in photography, by medium, and in the text, by culture as well as genre: the associative logic of poetry requiring a different reading strategy than that of linear prose.
Modernist paintings, like Egyptian hieroglyphs or the intricate symbology found in the Lascaux caves, complicate the boundary between image and text (Cy Twombly’s abstract expressionist paintings were inspired by texts from Stéphane Mallarmé to Alexander Pope, incorporating baroque themes and titles, such as Apollo and the Artist and traces, or erased marks of textual inscription). Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte, of course, creating the watershed moment in art history when the act of visual representation was, in his 1928 “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” rendered counterfactual (ironic) through the insertion of text.
Flatness is not always the image’s refusal to yield meaning: it can be its apotheosis. As Aloïs Riegl says: “Bas-relief brings about the most rigid link between the eye and the hand because its element is the flat surface, which allows the eye to function like the sense of touch; furthermore, it confers, and indeed imposes, upon the eye a tactile or rather haptic, function . . . ensur[ing], in the Egyptian ‘will to art,’ the joining together of the two senses of touch and sight, like the soil and the horizon.” [iii]
During the 1920s, Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov explored the technical potential of montage, developments new media theorist Lev Manovich claims to underlie the aesthetics of contemporary video. Eisenstein believed montage could create ideas or have an impact beyond the individual images (two or more images edited together create a “tertium quid” or third thing making the whole greater than the sum of its individual parts). How is this “tertium quid” experienced in a photograph, or, for that matter, a text? Gests’ figures are “all end” (terminal subjects, trapped in contingency) and flat to the point of disappearing from the surface of the plane. To say, however, that flat images are a “realist” or photorealist art, or that visual art depends upon language to enter signification has troubling implications, refusing to consider the bounds of perspective (from the artist, the medium, and the spectator). Yet, in exploring photography’s medium (indexical and reproducible), we can begin to understand how the assignation of “post-photography” relates to that of “post-literacy.”
Even Dickinson understood depth perception (phenomenologically, and politically, in the granting of subjecthood, rather than treating the other as an object or manipulable industrial machine – vending, milking – in the service economy) to be predicated upon metaphoric hierarchy: “ . . . We can find no scar,/ But internal difference,/ Where the Meanings, are–”). The rise of the image and subsequent degradation of language to emoticons is a function of technocapitalism, advertising and marketing blitzes, and bipartisan racketeering, whereby independent thought is crushed by neo-fascist fears of the unknown (the wizards behind the screen?)
Rather than aspiring to the denotative powers of text (a Gordian knot, interpretatively), highly stylized photography (Gest, Thomas Struth, David LaChapelle) suggests a desire for the image to become purely connotative, appropriating the iconicity of the mirror (the only purely indexical object). Struth: “Photographs that impress me have no personal signature,” and yet this depersonalized aesthetic doesn’t impede the sheer pathos of his museum photographs, juxtaposing spectators at the Louvre with, for example, the shipwrecked figures in Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa. Struth’s museum-goers observe rather than participate in history (religious and mythological narratives), formalizing Western Art’s debt to Christian symbolism, but not attempting to subvert or parody this tradition.
(Thomas Struth, Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg, 2005)
Reading demands, as Guy DeBord says, making judgments at every line; how does this description of literacy accord with an accurate perception of the imago, as a two-dimensional object? [iv] Modernists’ dream to find forms of representation adequate to experience of phenomenal “reality,” once declared a failure, in morphing from the rejection of authority, the subject, and meaning, to a worship of the object, now worship the frame (material context) itself. For visual art the context of the image is doubled: the literal frame, as well as the cultural space in which the work is displayed, distinguishing it as an objet d’art, worthy of consecration in a public space.The shifts, in constructivist and futurist movements, between art’s use-value (e.g. painter Alex Rodchenko’s poster art, furniture, wallpaper and fabric), to l’art pour l’art, had aesthetic and economic implications (the feared aestheticization of politics and politicization of aesthetics): today, conceptual art trumpets its value-lessness as a form of waste aesthetics: resistance to cooptation by the market, and utilitarian ideals.
Following suit, Gest’s figures, while ranging in age, largely white and middle class, are pictured in nuclear family couplings, or alone, tending to tasks in well-appointed homes and state-of-the-art kitchens, en route to work, or at the workplace itself.
(Gest, “Joe Finishing Lunch” 2005)
In Gest’s work, these quotidian scenes (shaving, shelving books at a library), are a form of anti-epic: representing the habitus of daily living. In “Ben and Dawn” (below), the couple is preparing dinner: Dawn manifesting the vacuity of non-presence, and Ben, absorption in his task (forming meat patties). How to read these allegories in which narrative is supplanted by the gaze (either off-center or vacant)? Gest heightens the post-Enlightenment collapse of progress narratives and a unified self by refusing the viewer a vanishing point or horizon line: his subjects’ expressions are frozen in shock or ennui. The unmitigated solitude of many of Gest’s subjects also suggests the impossibility of self-knowledge or consciousness, particularly of class. Mired in transitional situations, and rarely facing the camera directly, these subjects, as they water the lawn, or pause before exiting a brand-new SUV, manifest an innocence of themselves as complicit agents in or victims of commodity culture—or, as posed subjects. Sentience is indeed on display in Gest’s portraits, but this sentience is often in the service of material entrapments rather than the subject’s experience, shown benumbed in these portraits of status quo maintenance without the promise of deliverance (through class ascension, religion or theater). As Baudrillard says, we live in a “jungle of fetish-objects”: in order for an art object to free itself from fetishization it must first emerge as a “newly victorious fetish,” then work to destroy itself as a familiar object by becoming monstrously unfamiliar. “This foreignness is not the strangeness of the alienated or repressed object,” he adds. “It excels through a veritable seduction that comes from somewhere else . . . by exceeding its own form as a pure object, a pure event.” [v]
The fantasy of art qua object is a desire for it to eventually become, in a Zarathustrian sense, event: Brechtian theater, Jerzy Grotowski’s “theatre laboratory” (Teatr Laboratorium), the Opernhaus Wuppertal of Pina Bauch. Michael Fried opposed art and objecthood in his 1967 essay relating objecthood to theatricality, wherein the reader or viewer is necessary to bring the interpretive act to completion: in other art forms, however, the line is easily blurred. A wholly intentioned work of art, or Frankensteinian, bioengineered production of human life (dramatized in movies such as Synechoche, New York, The Truman Show, and the Tom McCarthy novel Remainder) enact the fantasy of a subject with the power to micromanage contingency (i.e. weather), creating others as a pure extension of the author-producer’s will (the sinister sine qua non of formalist aesthetics)? From Remainder: “Opening my fridge’s door, lighting a cigarette, even lifting a carrot to my mouth: these gestures had been seamless, perfect. I’d merged with them, run through them, and let them run through me until there’d been no space between us. They’d been real; I’d been real without first understanding how to try to be: cut out the detour.” McCarthy contemporizes the Wagnerian dream of the “total” work of art, by attempting to solve for indeterminancy in plot, language, nature: the post-industrial spectacle of by which citizen-consumers, are already, albeit unconsciously, enthralled.
Fried turned to photography with the 2008 publication of Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, exploring works by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Jeff Wall, and Andreas Gursky, asserting that the poles of anti-theatricality and absorption are central to the turn by recent photographers towards large-scale works “for the wall.” The tableaux vivant of these photographers, and the work of Gest in particular, attenuates the politics of spectatorship by rendering the viewer complicit in the subject’s performance not of self-consciousness, but the lack thereof. In Gest, we observe, voyeuristically, subjects in media res, or engaged in repetitious labor (domestic and corporate): these scenes may be “for the wall” but their very nature is theatrical (constructed), forecasting the transition from art as object, to event.
(Gest, Kate Fixing her Earring, 2005)
Narratives of subject formation (or, in painting, a reconstitution of the figure, whether rendered as grotesque by Dana Schultz, or pornographized, in Egon Schiele), continue to be elided by the neoliberal death of extra-aesthetic context, heralded by Francis Fukuyama as the end of history (therefore allegory, Manichean and otherwise, and narrative): the fracas of the negative sublime (eco-catastrophes, Warhol-inspired readymades, appropriated and digitally reproducible art).
Art-as-event (the “revised sublime”) has the potential to loosen the hypnotizing inertia of the image, encouraging passive spectatorship, and the dangers of pure formalism (the reduction of art to ornament, or frame, and language to citational and ironic metacommentary, ceasing to exist in or interpolate with the world) allowing space for critical reflection, eroticism, and presence-as-grace.
Whether all art is reification, as Hannah Arendt said, or whether the war is still being waged between aesthetic reification and the counter-concept of aesthetic use value (both prey to commodity fetishism, whether by cognitariat aesthetes and/or the market), the final criteria for artistic “value” or proof of art’s autonomy may not be decreed by the moral majority (popular or critical opinion) or its price tag (floating or fixed), but its participation in a sacrificial economy, for the purposes of extirpation: to reject the bankrupt calculus of credit economies and fiat aesthetics to risk annihilation, so as to rise from the death of ontological and literal debt (posthumously, for Van Gogh) into the shock of signification (G.H. Hardy’s aesthetic criterion marrying unexpectedness to inevitability): the real.
[i] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), p. 90.
[ii] Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978) p. 45.
[iii] Qtd. in Gilles Deleuze’s Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).
[iv] Guy DeBord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso Press, Brookyn, 1998), p. 29.
[v] Jean Baudrillard,“Simulation and Transaesthetics: Towards the Vanishing Point of Art” (International Journal of Baudrillard Studies), web, Vol. 5, No. 2: July, 2008.
Virginia Konchan’s poems have appeared in Best New Poets, The Believer, The New Yorker, and The New Republic, her criticism in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, Quarterly Conversation, New Madrid, and Boston Review, and her fiction in StoryQuarterly and Joyland, among other places. The recipient of grants and fellowships to Scuola Internazionale di Grafica, Ox-Bow, and Vermont Studio Center, Virginia is co-founder of Matter, a journal of poetry and political commentary. She lives in Chicago.
Is this ok? Is this a responsible use of this privilege? How much does Bad at Sports pay its writers? Its readers? I’m like you, reader. I’m in the weeds. I’m in the thick of it. Everyone is paying everyone else too much. Our government runs smoothly but we don’t have any use for it. There are no trains and no one runs for anything, not even office.
This is a record of this moment but also a place to put open tabs. We should all share all the open tabs. The radio today told me social media was 2000 years old because we used to tell each other things too. I turned off the radio and listened to myself singing and chopping.
- Jim Davis (Princeton [but for this work: Chicago] filmmaker)
- Jim Davis (Muncie visual artist, writer) (also excellent to see a sentence where both “artists” and “entertainment” are in quotation marks)
- Jim Davis (“Dallas” actor)
Also, this band, The Fugue, that I saw at Bard in 2002 or 3 (first year of college). They were friends of a friend and they played a good show. Then, this year, I found this funny clip on youtube (though my interest in television courtroom interruptions).
This led me to re-visit this.
(which is really part of that this)
The re-release of Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini (which learned about from Bad at Sportsers PvZ and RH).
idyrself by Krystal South.
Editions and Additions by Jacob Edmund
(Draft for) Infinite Black Flag
This other medium inane idea I just made up.
A gif for every one of 1001 Nights.
A list of the dumbest lists on BuzzFeed.
Under 1 who is under 1 (part of a profile on an athlete/artist who is 8 months old).
Sibling Cinema (thanks to the Frameworks list-serv for responding so well to my query) :
- George and Mike Kuchar,
- Jonas and Adolfas Mekas,
- James and John Whitney,
- Mark and John Jr. and Michael Whitney,
- Paul and Greg Sharits,
- Peter and Kathy Rose,
- The Lumière Brothers,
- Jane and Louise Wilson,
- The Brothers Quay,
- Jem Cohen and Adam Grossman,
- Dziga Vertov and Boris and Mikahil Kaufman,
- Tom and Ed Bowes,
- TwinArt Sisters,
- Bruce and Norman Yonemoto,
- Reggie and Warrington Hudlin,
- The McDonagh Sisters,
- Nadjoua and Linda Bansil,
- The Cifuentes Sisters,
- Albert and David Maysles,
These three, posted elsewhere, but that do something together:
Guy Sherwin — Man with Mirror (1976/2011)
Peter Campus — Three Transitions (1973)
The Marx Brothers — Duck Soup (1933, excerpt)
Chicago Artist Writers hosted a workshop with Lori Waxman at Gallery 400 on March 14, 2013. The following is an attempt to collect some of the many illuminating moments of her two-hour lecture and Q&A session.
“Today I’m going to talk about a lot of forms of art criticism that don’t actually exist — yet.”
Lori Waxman has her feet in two critical worlds. As a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, she takes on the role of a traditional art critic: she has a large audience, keeps her distance from the artist and organizers of the exhibitions she covers, and maintains an objective viewpoint. In contrast, her personal project 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic takes a more experimental approach. The public is invited to come with their work for a review written by Lori live, in person, with a secondary monitor displaying her writing process as it evolves. The project has been featured numerous times domestically and most recently at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany.
Lori posited that criticism has largely not changed much since its first appearance with Diderot’s reviews of the Paris Salon of 1765, and the writing that we see in major outlets like the Tribune or Artforum holds the same basic values of that style to this day. This default approach to art criticism doesn’t reflect the drastic changes in art and technology’s influence on the contemporary conversation as much as it could.
She used Documenta as a case in point–-it embodied a sprawling, time-intensive experience for the viewer, and the critical responses to it suffered as their structuring was inadequate to cover the exhibition’s curatorial conceits. Critics who were only able to visit 3-5 days and print 1000 words were ill equipped to critique the event in its totality. “Who goes to NYC for a weekend, and tries to see everything, and if they can’t, it’s New York’s fault?” Lori asked. She used Dieter Roelstraete’s review of the Documenta in Artforum as one example; one of his main critiques was that it had too much going on. Similarly, Roberta Smith’s review in the New York Times was schizophrenic, unable to deal with the scope of the massive three-month undertaking. Lori suggested that despite the stubborn precedent of “objective distance” in traditional criticism, she herself might be the best critic of Documenta, having spent her entire summer there.
Platforms for alternatives to the traditional model exist in small handfuls but some are promising. Lori noted that online versions of specialty magazines like Artforum fail to leverage the malleability of the web and stick to the values and format of their print counterparts. Websites like hyperallergic, the former artnet.com, and temporaryartreview.com (which covers cities off the major art map) may increase turnaround time and coverage of lesser-known projects, but again resist transforming the dynamic of the critical approach itself. Triple Canopy is a capable platform, for not only its scholarship but, in the case of David’s Levine’s take on the dissolution of the Rothko estate, its willingness to embrace an insider’s view at the sacrifice of traditional objectivity. Art Fag City features critical writing but is bolstered most importantly by the active comments sections as a new center of gravity in critical writing. This very blog (the Bad at Sports blog) also embraces the more diaristic, personality-driven, multi-tangential style of critical reflection over objectively toned assessment. In the early 2000s, Lori contributed to Fucking Good Art, a feverishly produced zine spearheaded by Pedro Velez and Michael Bulka. Critics would go out to openings, type up reviews as soon as they were sober (or not), and photocopy and distribute the zine for free the next day. The reviews, sometimes nasty and anonymous, were the main way apartment spaces were getting critical feedback.
Lori wondered if models like Facebook and Twitter could be used seriously as venues for criticism instead of flippantly; these platforms have a multi-directionality that could support a more nimble and relevant conversation to artwork being produced. In addition, their immediacy has the potential to be paradigm shifting–what happens if something is written in front of/within the work? “Gonzo” reviews — long form, unedited stream of consciousness reviews — also have yet to be fully realized in art criticism.
Perhaps criticism that leans towards more relational and embodied writing is called for by today’s art practices. Lori suggested “embedded criticism” – a term borrowed from journalism, in which journalists are “embedded” with soldiers – as a term for art writing that celebrates, rather than discourages, the subjective experience in order to strike a critical observation. In her piece Practicing Trio A in the Spring 2012 issue of October, Julia Brian Wilson spoke about taking a class with Yvonne Rainer in which she learned how to perform Rainer’s seminal The Mind Is a Muscle, Part I (Trio A) from 1973, and how this direct involvement in the piece changed her mind about it. Hannah Higgins is well known as a scholar and writer about Fluxus in part because of her upbringing in a canonical Fluxus household; her embeddedness creates a unique opportunity for scholarship and complexity. Later, during the Q&A, an audience member suggested Kathy Acker as an additional example of someone who writes about artwork while having a close relationship to it.
Art writing authored from a fictional perspective or persona is another area ripe for exploration. Lynn Tillman has written fiction at the artist’s request (perhaps skewing its definition as “criticism,” but an example of a new form of art writing nonetheless). Her short story “Madame Realism Lies Here” from 2002 is composed from the perspective of a woman who dreams she has turned into a Jeff Koons sculpture, experiencing life in a weird and grotesque way that mimics Koons’ work. Tillman’s series TV Tales about Barbara Kruger from 1976 also is another example. As well, we can look to novelists: Gertrude Stein wrote in a “cubist” style, coming out of a deep experience with cubist painting. This kind of art writing acts as an analog to the work itself. Stein’s unique, unexpected way of using language sidesteps “International Art English” altogether: it doesn’t even require a dictionary. One can hold up a piece of hers in front of a painting and see how they work together. The Family Fang, a novel by Kevin Wilson, consists of a fictional narrative about a family of performance artists. Philadelphia artist Jayson Musson’s satirical comedy as Hennessy Youngman occasionally offers thoughtful and to the point responses to art, although Lori noted that Youngman can be surprisingly conservative – here she reminded us that a new form doesn’t necessarily mean a radical idea, as form and content are extricable. But an outside-the-art-world persona like Musson’s can make it easier to call the emperor naked. Another example brought up by the audience was artist Sean Joseph Patrick Carney, who produced a collection of erotic fiction about James Franco.
Lori stressed that to write about museums and commercial galleries is to write about art that has already been filtered and processed, versus writing about experimental spaces showing lesser-known artists who have yet to be critically acknowledged. When writing about the latter spaces, one should remember that criticism of ephemeral or emerging practices may be the only record that exists, and so one must be intentional as his or her writing will eventually become historical fact. “Some dogged art historian in 20 years will rely on these reviews, and they will quote [them]; and if you got it wrong and weird, they’re going to think that’s what happened.” For this reason, she also suggested inventing a way to respond to a work instead of writing something explicitly negative.
Television shows such as Work of Art and School of Saatchi, whether we like them or not, are emergent examples of new forms of art criticism. While only persisting for four episodes, BBC’s School of Saatchi featured six artists, asked them to make interesting commissions, and gave them a decent amount of time and money to do so. The show rendered the actual process of making contemporary art transparent, “and was surprisingly accessible and intelligent.” After the work is completed, a good fifteen minutes of each hour-long show is devoted to serious discussion of the artwork that is then communicated to the artists. The judges’ remarks are often off the cuff and funny, speaking with authority but sometimes contradicting one another. Their multiple voices created a critical environment similar to a class critique. Bravo’s Work of Art, in contrast, equated art with other subjects like cooking or getting married. Artists were given $100 and 24 hours to make a series of asinine projects. Notable, however, was the involvement of Jerry Saltz, the most recognizable critic in the U.S. Most of the criticism on the show was demeaning, puerile, dumb and one-liner; criticism was consistently of the lowest-common-denominator variety. Yet, Lori said, Work of Art nevertheless represents one of the ways that art is being thought about today by the general public—and perhaps even some parts of the art world; this show is part of the public’s access to the art world, and it is sadly misrepresentative.
Some of Lori’s more experimental ideas—stolen, she willingly admitted, from her students at SAIC—included gif criticism (what can a gif do that words can’t?) or criticism using image combinations (like on tumblr). During the Q&A, the audience pitched in: we suggested hyperlink criticism – a review composed entirely of links, in line with the ways we read, think and click; another participant proposed a review composed over Skype, where one person views the exhibition at home, one in the museum, highlighting the differences; or a (live/recorded) performance positioned as a review. Does criticism need to be site specific to the work – like the precedent of dances that directly respond to artwork?
If criticism can be art and vice versa, how can one be sure these forms don’t stray too close to art and too far from criticism? Where is that line placed and is it important? Lori pointed out that studio experience might be valuable for a critic, “and who thinks criticism is so objective anyway?” 60 Wrd/Min Art Critic attempts to take some of the agency that the art critic normally assumes away, and to see what happens when it’s given to the artist him or herself. The agency Lori gives up is the ability to choose who and what she writes about. But if this critical agency we assume is important is taken away from the critic, can something of substance still materialize? What happens if criticism is available for the asking? Is it still interesting, critical?
Another participant asked Lori about What Happened to Art Criticism, the 2003 panel discussion and book in which Jim Elkins and others complained that the majority of art criticism being written today is “descriptive.” Lori responded that she believes there’s no such thing as a truly factual description” of something. She pointed out that one can’t recreate a painting backwards from a description, no matter how detailed or “straightforward” it is. A good piece of description, she noted, can do “almost anything.” One can’t have criticism without description; and in shorter lengths, these combinations can be powerful — look at the New Yorker’s 100 word reviews of exhibitions in the Goings On section.
An audience member asked if art history helps or hurts art criticism. “If you love October, you should stay in art history and not try to be an art critic,” Lori responded. Most critics come from art, not art history, and there’s “plenty to make of that, in terms of experience and commitment.” She relayed the under-discussed fact that most of the notable art critics working today do not have art history degrees. Peter Schjeldahl started out as a poet; Saltz was a painter and truck driver; Robert Storr and Matthew Collings trained as painters.
How about artists criticizing their own artwork as an interesting new form of art criticism? Lori responded with an anecdote from her husband, the artist Michael Rakowitz, who had recently been part of a discussion in which the moderator complained afterward that the panel’s artists hadn’t talked more about their work’s problems. Her husband countered that he didn’t know of a professional artist who would do that, that it’s not their job: let the critics take issue, and the artists deal with the problems in their own way. One takeaway for us is that the space for self-criticism in between the artist statement and the art review is ripe for experimentation.
We left thinking about the burgeoning potency of crowd-sourced criticism. Mimicking the current form of value-production bolstered by the Internet, where value is dispersed into tallies, “aggregate,” rhizomatic or crowd-sourced criticism may be starting to replace the good old New York Times review. One audience member wondered if all types of feedback to an artwork could be located in a single place, including documentation, short and long reviews, responses on Twitter, Facebook, etc.? Although Google might seem good for this on its own, it isn’t organized: someone should take advantage of this opportunity for a new start-up.
We found this sentiment the driving force of Lori’s presentation–an implicit and collective call to action:
“Technology has changed and art has changed, and that should be radically impacting the kind of art criticism that we write, how it gets published, how it gets received and who we write it for, and how it gets commented on.”
Chicago Artist Writers is a platform that asks young studio artists and art workers to write traditional and experimental criticism that serves under-represented arts programming in Chicago. CAW was founded by Jason Lazarus and Sofia Leiby in 2012. This is our first guest post on Bad at Sports. www.chicagoartistwriters.com
Click here to download an mp3 of Lori’s lecture.
I spent last Saturday providing unwanted color commentary to my wife as she shopped for gifts at the Renegade Craft Fair in Brooklyn. For those who don’t know, the RCF is a craft-based flea market, whose proprietors and patrons share an affinity for tights-as-pants, non-menacing tattoos and, of course, crafted nostalgia. It was started in Chicago in 2003 and has since cropped up in other bourgy hotspots like Austin and San Francisco.
I might have indulgently added a paragraph here with some of my more searing moments in the booth—those comments that forced my wife to jab me in the ribs with her elbow—but taking shots at the embroidered-owl-tea-towel set just doesn’t have the impact it did before Portlandia. So thanks Fred and Carrie for stealing my thunder. You do it so well.
Because my wife wasn’t having my shtick, I wandered off through the city of tents and made like a social anthropologist for a few hours, in the process devising a crude hierarchy of crafter quality, based on degrees of transformation.
Creative Level 1 (Sedimentary): Any combination of two or more conventional images or objects that transform neither the components nor the final product. This includes eco-tote bags screenprinted with hedgehogs or bumble bees, onesies screenprinted with frogs, letterpress greeting cards and posters spelling out B-R-O-O-K-L-Y-N over a graphic of the street grid.
Creative Level 2 (Igneous): A recognizable object or image transformed into a new, distinct object or image, often characterized by the simplicity of the final form. This includes Nancy Drew books turned into memo pads, old records heat-formed into bowls and vintage beer bottles cut to become tumblers.
Creative Level 3 (Metamorphic): Material or objects transformed into another object or system of objects where the transformation is either: 1.) motivated by the material (in the Robert Morris sense) 2.) poetic/metaphorical (such as, Interventionist board games, where the rules and terms have been manipulated to better match the game’s theme…like, drawing the wrong card in the game of Life might lead to an actual cold sore) 3.) figuratively and literally transformed into a unique product (like, a telescope made out of Can’t Buy Me Love Beta Cassettes.)
Looking at all the plants potted in split Wiffle Ball bats and homemade lemonade soap and dishes formed from old Dr. Seuss books made me realize how structurally similar the craft world is to the art world. Sure, the posturing is different, but they share a creative foundation.
Jasper Johns famously said of art making, “Take an object. Do something to it and then do something else to it.”
Art, like renegade crafts, like rocks, and like enlightenment itself, is about transformation.
But a transformation to what?
Among some fish pillows made from old flannel shirts, I had a vision back to the rural, homespun version of the Renegade Craft Fair: Maxwell Street Days in Wisconsin. Also taking its origins in Chicago, from the original Maxwell Street, Days is more a flea market than a craft fair, more raw material than refined product. The last time I attended, I discovered a terrific steel drafting table in a booth run by mustachioed dude named Mike and his bang-ed wife, who, despite having a similar haircut, wouldn’t have known Zoe Deschanel from the current Under Secretary of the Interior. After chatting with Mike about hardwood and milling for twenty minutes I made him an offer on the desk and expressed my reservations about transporting the piece to the car. Mike gave me a good deal and then a hand carrying the piece out to the street, a cigarette in his mouth and a bottle of beer in his back pocket the whole time—he stuck it there when he realized he needed both hands to carry the desk. The beer sloshed around as he shuffled. I remember staring at the muskellunge on his ratty tank top to avoid awkward prolonged eye contact. It occurred to me, standing on the Brooklyn waterfront last Saturday that from a crude description of this couple, one might envision them as the types who play kickball in McCarren Park on Sundays, when in fact they’d sooner be getting their sun on a pontoon boat on Lake Geneva.
The old hubcaps, worm-eaten barnwood planks and antique washboards spawned from Midwestern garages, symbolize a past that my generation considers to be more redeeming than the one we’ve inherited. The symbolic power of vintage miscellanea to artists and craftsmen is that it evokes a nostalgia and wholesomeness of the past..of our youth. But maybe more importantly of youth in general and of innocence unspoiled by self-awareness.
If Maxwell Street is the metaphorical ore for the more refined products of the Renegade Craft Fair, that guy, Mike, in his artlessness is the ore for the artists of the urban set, whose transformative Odysseys are mostly additive, while their destinations – purity, authenticity and cultural virginity – are decidedly reductive.
Indeed: take something, do something to it, then do something else. Do yoga, read Proust, paint pictures, but also: somehow find naked, raw, aching originality at the same time. That second part is more difficult for the cultivated soul.
It makes me think of Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
“The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”
Creative Level 4 (Precious Stones): Marked by an individual transformed from sophistication back into a pre-Creative Level 1 state of virtue (we might call it “Earth”), who has started making art from scratch, again. This includes: magical contradictions of all sorts, yet to be determined.
So, a transformation into what? It’s like that Potter Stewart quote about porn, “I’ll know it when I see it.”