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.”
October 13, 2011 · Print This Article
I feel like I’m on a bit of a mission to prove to Bad at Sports readers that not all Detroit artists trespass into abandoned buildings, cultivate urban prairie, or become beekeepers to create work in this city. Admittedly, tactics of urban intervention are a integral aspect of the cultural life of any locality, but in the D, activities based in studio practice can be provocative, and even subversive, without any bulldozing or breaking-and-entering. I was eager to interview Sarah Wagner, a sculptor who recently returned to Detroit by way of the Bay Area and most recently, Chicago, where she was teaching in the fiber department at SAIC. Sarah is admittedly a studio-based practitioner, who crafts intricate environments from the space of the gallery—entire ecosystems for the imaginary, populated by botanical and biological specimens that nearly float away with uncanny ethereality. Her most recent series of Wormwood Cats are a collection of laser-cut wooden skeletons rendered with meticulous anatomical precision, that are overlaid with a fine skin of marigold yellow Chinese silk organza. Wagner’s Cats are icons of human-made disaster—residuum of the atomic meltdown at Chernobyl that left a trail of biological mishap in its wake. The sculptures are not a pessimistic portrayal of the clash between human and environment, but rather, a positive look at the process of renewal, and the ability of some species to thrive amidst catastrophe.
Wagner’s work exists in a delicate balance between real and imaginary, exterior and interior, city and studio. She is able to create alter-universes from the space of the gallery, yet traces of reality inevitably emerge from amidst the illusion. Beginning in the summer of 2010, Wagner and her husband Jon Brumit, who is also an artist and recently appointed Director of Public Engagement at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, started Dflux, a residency program that falls under the framework of Creative Commons. The couple invites artists to engage with the city of Detroit and the immediate Hamtramck Heights/Banglatown neighborhood using the landscape and culture as the basis for a summer-long investigation. The residency operates from the space of their $100 house—a purchase made legendary by 20/20 and other mass media outlets in 2008, which can take partial credit for initiating the (some say speculated) romance between artists in search of low-cost housing and Detroit.
So, yes, this interview begins with a discussion on the housing crisis, arson, and what it means to buy a house for $100. No matter how thick those studio walls are or how many locks separate the inner sanctum from the street, (three at DFlux!), it’s tough not to let a bit of Detroit in. Sarah and I spoke recently over tea in the DFlux kitchen.
SMP: So, we’re in a pretty famous house. Just to get it out of the way: You have to tell the story—what does a $100 house look like?
SW: We bought the house in 2008, December—we were both working down in Miami at Art Basel, and Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope [of Design99] sent us a picture all graphic-designed up: 3323 Lawley, $100. They had walked through the house, and it was structurally sound with the exception of one 2×4 that had been busted when the firemen cut the hole in the roof. Two fires had been set here, probably by the tenants as a way to get out of the mortgage, because we know they were both arson—you can actually tell by the way the fluid hits the ground in a perfect circle, which indicates the use of some type of accelerant. So there were two fires—one in the front bedroom, and one in the living room, so the house was just a mess when we first got it. There was paint coming down from the ceiling, and all these just amazing surfaces. We promptly found out after we closed that I was pregnant, so we had to make sure the lead was out. We probably would have sealed the paint in otherwise to preserve those amazing surfaces. Basically, we demoed the whole thing. There’s a bit of original plaster that’s still there, covered up by drywall but we’ve made a huge changes within the floor plan due to the damage. There was a bunch of water damage—for two years there was a hole in the roof, and the damaged planks had to be removed, but now we have this kitchen counter as a result—the countertop is from the rafters.
SMP: But the media makes buying a house in Detroit seem so appealing!
SW: What we hear a lot now is: Oh, I hear there are artists buying all the houses and it’s a movement! It’s been really interesting watching the shift of the perception of Detroit in the media because before we even bought the house—the day we closed on it—was the day the $100 house piece aired on 20-20. It’s been a really bizarre and very educational experience… There was this media blitz, [NYTimes, CNN, ABC… It’s endless!], and everyone was contacting us and wanting to talk to us, and it was weird because I was pregnant and I didn’t want anyone to know. All the comments were difficult to take, for example many people said that no one with kids would ever move into this neighborhood… I feel like 20-20 actually did a really good job—I didn’t expect them to spin it in the way that they did because they wanted it to be the “feel good” segment at the end of the program, but they spun it in a more authentic way. They used a quote to describe it that was something along the lines of it being something really good out of something really horrible—this isn’t just, like: Woo hoo! Buy a house for $100! Well, it is, but this is the only way that Jon and I could have bought a house. We have never had enough money to buy a house.
SMP: Is this the housing-crisis iteration of the American Dream?
SW: It is for us, I guess. And this is a city of the American Dream, and this is a city that everybody loves to mythologize. It was once the “most dangerous city in the world”, and now, it’s the “city of artists” in the midst of resurrection. Or something. There’s always some sort of big, big mythology that is really quite simplistic, and that’s the thing about mythology; it misses all the beauty… There’s incredible diversity, amazing neighborhoods with beautiful, well-cared full homes! It’s not that the portrait that’s painted about Detroit wrong, it’s just that it only captures one part of the whole narrative. It’s funny too, because the myth just really isn’t interesting after a while. It’s a great story for a cocktail party: Ha, ha, $100 home, but it gets old. What really is interesting to me is the neighborhood—30% Bangladeshi, 30% Polish, 30% African American and the 10% other, which we fit into, and every single one of these people has a story—a really interesting story, way more interesting than a $100 home. So this was what led us to do DFLUX project, because we felt as though we wanted to provide a platform for people to come in, see, and explore. It was really important that they actually explore and not have their experience scripted ahead of time. We were frustrated with the sound bites—reporters would come in, and they’d claim their interview would be different, but all we ended with was being used for sound bites.
SMP: How did you facilitate going beyond sound bites considering these all-pervasive myths? It seems like chasing various Detroit mythologies would be part of the impetus for artists to be in residence here?
SW: I guess by not giving much information so they had to seek it out on their own. In terms of what we would show artists when they would come here, we’d definitely show them the neighborhood—where to get their beer and all that stuff, and then we’d bring them to visit the field. There’s this field off of Mt. Elliott where they razed a whole neighborhood in order to provide a space for development. But of course, no development came, and it has turned into a wetlands. It’s this really amazing place where there’s all this natural growth, which is really overtaking the grid. The roads are still there and the fire hydrants are still there, but everything else is gone. From botanical standpoint, there is all kinds of diversity. The area was residential, so there are all these cultivated plants popping up along with plants that are perhaps natives, or perhaps invasive, or whatever. And that’s what has absolutely fascinated me is the memory, or trace, of what was there before, and how different traces are reemerging and reclaiming the space overtime. And that was it. That would be it. It became really clear that some of our residents came and wouldn’t leave the house, and that’s just not okay. The experience is not about being at the house, but to be in the neighborhood and city.
SMP: So 2011 was DFLUX’s second summer. How many residents did you take on initially?
SW: DFLUX in 2010 had nine residents, which really pushed the envelope.
SMP: Yikes! That sounds like a camp-out!
SW: It was a camp-out. It was not fancy. We warned people, and out litmus test for selecting people was whether or not we thought they could handle it, which was difficult. We had six people sleeping upstairs, one person downstairs and we had a mother and son sleeping on a porch.
SMP: And how are you taking applicants?
SW: Everyone who we asked in that first round came, which is how we ended up with nine. That was really ambitious, but we thought: we’ll just figure it out. We didn’t have our bathroom ready for three days! That was a bit rough, but it worked. In the future, we’re not really sure. We had one resident this summer, who was fantastic… But it became really clear that we can’t do it with so little space. We’re looking to buy another house right across the street in this auction cycle, and if we buy that one, then we’ll continue, but if we don’t, then I don’t think we’ll be able to… Especially with a toddler.
SMP: It seems as though the engagement with landscape that your residency facilitates is similar to the way that you explore ecological and human-made systems in your own work. How does the shifting biology of this place—epitomized by your field, also inform your studio practice?
SW: It’s something that I’m trying to figure out, and I think it’s a big part of the reason that I’m attracted to the wetlands off Mount Elliot… The piece I’m working on right now is a grouping of five cats. It’s about Chernobyl, and what I’ve been thinking about is that there are all these animals, wild and formerly domestic, in the area of Chernobyl that appear to be doing just fine—completely normal—they’re playing, running, eating, procreating, but they’re completely radioactive. And what I’ve been thinking about is how to represent the invisibility of the radiation. So this is the first one—it has a completely normal skeleton now, but the skeleton will slowly start to overtake the inside of the form.
SMP: In essence, these are ghostly traces of radiated creatures that will change form overtime?
SW: Yes. And they’re dyed with turmeric, because it’s a bad dye—meaning, it doesn’t keep, so it’s light sensitive. The idea is that the turmeric is mimicking the shelf-life of radiation. And so, these creatures are slowly healing, and over time, they’ll be come white again. I don’t know what that time period is, but they start out one color and they end another.
SMP: Interesting. So it’s not so much about deconstruction or decay, but more about purification?
SW: Healing is really important. At the risk of being very California, it’s really important to me. Also, I don’t want to look at the problem, but to the hope. There’s this military term called “positive ocular response,” which means when there are two blown-up tanks with a small space in between, you don’t look at the tanks while trying to drive through, you focus on that space between–and often you make it no matter the odds. I’m trying to present positive ocular response while still being truthful about the situation. Truth is really important to me too, but truth is flexible… I supported myself for ten-years doing construction and fabrication—including museum building fabrication, exhibits for natural history museums and the like. It was really interesting working in these environments because I came to realize how these institutions of science presented an interpretation the truth–not the truth. The idea of exploring what’s true and what’s real, and trying to imagine the process by which truth is created is interesting to me, because it is all a product of imagination in a way.
SMP: I’ve heard the correlation made between Detroit and Chernobyl before. Is that a comparison you’re conscious of making this work?
SW: Detroit is not Chernobyl–it’s vibrant, alive and safe for humans, but I feel like the reason I’m drawn to the idea of Chernobyl is that there’s all this hope–living creatures surviving radiation. But the effects of radiation on the animals is not investigated, and we don’t know what’s going on there, but I really am interested in the idea that this horrible thing can happen and that life continues. It may not be human life, but something is flourishing—all the plants and the species that are coming back, it’s all pretty phenomenal. In that way I feel like there is a link, particularly when thinking about the Mt Elliot wetlands–it’s a place that gives me hope.
SMP: It seems that your practice is for the most part studio and gallery-based. Given your interest in landscape, have you ever done any installations outdoors?
SW: I haven’t really done that. I’ve had ideas for it, but I haven’t been able to manifest them. I love being a studio-based artist, and that’s what makes me different from Jon and Mitch and Gina is that their studio is everything. I love getting lost in that deep space of just being alone, working, and making something. I don’t know if my work will shift that way. But there have been a number of other big life changes—I have this big, sort of, Bangladeshi-style garden that we grew out back– we grew our own food, and doing things like this will surely have some sort of impact . But I don’t know… That’s one of the things about the creative process I guess.
SMP: What is in the works for you?
SW: I’ve got a couple shows… I’ve got a month to finish the cats for a traveling museum show… I’m also part of a “sisters” show this spring at the Ann Arbor Art Center called Inherent State. My sister, Cathy Wagner, is an experimental writer. Right now, she’s putting herself into trances, recording herself speaking in tongues, and developing writing from that. I decided that I need to meditate to try and, you know, be calm, (laughs), regulate my anxiety, and so I’ve been trying to meditate, and when I begin obsessing about things while I meditate, I write these things down on the fridge. As soon as I’m done with the cats, I’m going to begin making all of these things—I’ll make the objects on the list on the fridge and install them in Ann Arbor.
SMP: What kind of objects are we talking about?
SW: [Sarah reads from her list:] Garden; Pollination; Squash; Otto Screaming; Ramadan Plate; Concealed Weapon, carrying, protecting; Otto Baby; 3322… Oh no! It’s illegible, darn… Platonic Solids; Peony; Oxygen Masks; Otto; Cat; Bottles; Window; Cat.
SMP: In a way, you’re in dialogue with your sister’s process but through your own process of making.
SW: Yeah, we’re definitely drawing from the same process. Stream of consciousness to create objects and text. She’s got her craft, and I have mine, so the process will be filtered through our skill set. For the show, we’re teaming up with artist Brooks Harris Stevens and her sister Jen Harris, who is also a writer. Brooks and I have a lot in common both materially and in our personal lives, including having writers for sisters, so we thought this would be fun.
SMP: Do you and Jon ever collaborate in this way? Since Jon’s praxis is more socially-based and your work is certainly all about the introverted studio-time, do you find that this clashing of opposites is productive (and challenging) in the way that working with a writer is?
SW: Jon and I collaborate quite a bit, and we’re looking to collaborate more because he’s been so busy, so it’s a way for us to get to work together. And I really admire his work, and I think he admires mine, but we’re also so different, so it’s really lovely to have that polar-opposite-ness come in… We did a Life Laws project together. We have this series of Life Laws, for example, number one is: Don’t put your bearings in the dirt. Number three is: Don’t cut a hole in the roof of a co-owned car without asking the co-owner’s permission. These are either things that we’ve done, or tales that we’ve collected from friends. This is from a friend, who was actually at Cranbrook: Don’t wear homemade pants that aren’t reinforced in the crotch and sit cross legged in public… We have performed the laws and made romance novels with the titles. Collaboratively? What else… Well, DFLUX which is pretty huge, and then we did a show at Patricia Sweetow, [San Francisco], with Christy Matson as a third collaborator. She makes weavings using a conductive thread, so I made sheep that conducted sound art that Jon created. Oh! and Jon and I did a show in Tennessee in 2003 called Crossover in Chattanooga, TN, which is where we both went to undergrad. That project was really fun: we conducted traffic across this bridge that has a perfect octave. I don’t have a perfect pitch, but it goes [Sarah hums three successive pitches: looooow-hiiiiigh-looooow]. We discovered that if you drove over in 3-mi/hr increments that [the pitch would elevate harmoniously]. Depending on how fast you were going, you could actually make different pitches. So, we tried to conduct traffic across the bridge to create, like, “Row Row Row Your Boat”… It was really bizarre, because you just can’t control how fast the traffic goes. We were able to do it on a synthesizer in the gallery, and we exhibited that along with an installation based on the Tennessee River Valley out of construction materials: tar paper, electrical lines—the current was the river, and then we had shredded paper set up so as the viewer entered the space, they came into a pristine environment mimicking what the Tennessee Valley was before it was settled. The viewer was then forced, essentially, to clearcut it as they walked through these huge piles of shredded paper so their trace was left as they walked. The audience then essentially made the environment, which was the reason I really loved that piece.
SMP: It seems as though many of your collaborations involve willing or unwilling participants. Is this an element of installation-based work as well?
SW: Um, I think it ends up being part of the sculptural experience. I really love the way, for example, Richard Serra sets up his work, where it’s more about the emotion of the encounter. I want to get that kind of affect in my work—I’m really into creating that kind of intense feeling when a viewer walks in. You know how when you walk in and see one of those stacked sculptures and there’s this amazing tension—that’s really what I’m hoping for. I guess it is unwilling in some way, where you’re just subjected to some kind of emotional shift. It does require participation.
SMP: With this new Chernobyl series, do you intend for viewers to get a strong sense of lifespan—though the turmeric, or the shifting patterns of natural systems?
SW: The evolving? I guess so, I hope so. I envision the viewer, the owner of the work really, seeing the work shift over time. The viewer who passes by will miss this–it is too slow of a story arc. I guess that’s what I feel like happens in my whole life! The story arc is a long one with many shifting patterns. In my twenties I approached life as if it was so much more cut-and-dry, like, if you got rejected than that was it—you were black balled. Now I know that rejection is just an opportunity. Now I think: oh, well, they got to look at my work, and you never know what’s going to happen–there is an ebb and flow. I think being willing to submit to things occurring over time has very much about not having scarcity, and not living in that kind of closed mental space. I want my work to exist in the same kind of place—where there is room to be open ended–to not know. Because what do I know?! I don’t know anything, I only know what I’ve experienced. There’s a whole range of things on the horizon of possibility that are so out of the range of what I could even imagine. I would have never guessed I would buy a house in Detroit for $100 and we’d go on 20-20, I’d have to navigate all that mass media, and that we’d have a kid! Go figure! And throughout, still working in the studio.
SMP: What I love about your work is the overall sense of positive uncertainty, which I find very hopeful.
SW: That’s lovely, because I’ve worked towards that. A number of years ago, I decided I wanted to turn conditions around—I wanted to transform from survival into prosperity. And I did that during grad school, and it felt great, so lately I’ve decided to turn worry into wonder… Maybe I’m starting to do that in my art work as well.
SMP: A word I’ve been hearing quite a bit lately is the notion of precariousness, and how contemporary art thrives within uncertainty. Precariousness seems to be an apt term—it’s where your work is, and where Detroit is… It seems to be a lovely synthesis of you and environment.
SW: I think thriving within uncertainty is the only way to go. A precarious position is wonderful in the range of possibility that is there depending on the way one falls. There’s a lot of tension there too and that’s what makes life and art interesting. Our neighborhood is in some ways “precarious” but it’s a space of possibilities. It’s really funny, because I would be terrible in a neighborhood where everybody mowed their lawns precisely—I wouldn’t fit in there, and I couldn’t do what I wanted to! I can do what I want here, nobody’s looking, and our neighbors get excited when we do something. I like the openness. There are so many places where we lived—Cranbrook is one of them, where it’s so beautiful, but it’s so sculpted–finished! There’s something about our neighborhood, and about its openness that I really, really like. What can happen?
Sarah Wagner’s wormwood cats will be featured in Innovators and Legends: Generations in Textiles and Fibers:
Muskegon Museum of Art: December 13, 2012 – March 17, 2013
Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center: May 26 – August 11, 2013
University of Kentucky: September 8 – December 1, 2013
Colorado State University: January 24 – April 11, 2014
All photos courtesy of the Artist, Jon Brumit, Benjamin Maddox, Robert Beamer, and Patricia Sweetow.
Once a long time ago, back when I was a pious art dude scouring the web for feelings/opinions about art in Chicago, I used to relish and hitting refresh on your podcast pages and more recently the “new” blog. The comment sections there were a source of snickering, consternation, approval, dismay and WTFness. It was also a place to *facepalm*. It epitomized for me a simultaneously voyeuristic community that is silently opinionated (the anon’s) while at the same time coming off as grossly redundant by the self-promoting (the signed-in’s). There were also a lot of useful in-between comments that reflected a more intelligent community.
Then, inexplicably, it got phased out. (And by phased out I mean comments went from always there, to being available for a couple of days and then turned “off”, and finally, as of April 14, 2010 – completely gone.)
I miss them horribly. I also have the feeling that I’m not the only one.
I also know why you did it, or at least I have a good idea why. Anybody who was as interested in the comments as I was knows why too. Really, there is no need to rehash those things here except to say that I was often appalled by what I read. At the same time I learned and liked a lot: history, ideas, theory, Richard’s comic book stuff, Amanda’s insanely awesome cackle-laugh. Speaking of history, I hoped Christopher archived those comments. There must be pages and pages of them. Lots of good stuff and horrible stuff, all invaluable. I smell a zine in the making.
Now you guys are the big time – with your own openings, famous artists/dealers/curators/museum directors and blogger friends all over the world. You are still BaS, still awesome and still essential, but you’ve self-censored yourselves. I know it was hard to monitor the bullshit that happened in those comments and you played Switzerland very well most of the time (Duncan got a little testy here and there – but that’s cool). Can’t you find a new unpaid intern to do this for you, the next Meg Onli?
So what happens now? You post this letter (I hope) and then no one can comment on it? Wait, can I say whatever the hell I want right now? AND NO ONE CAN DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT! Anyways, thanks for receiving this letter to the editor, and I hope this rant makes up for all the time I was an anon.
First and foremost, thanks for sending your concern our way. When we removed comments with the new site launch on November 1st, 2009 I had expected we would have received a lot of flack via email. But alas, this is the first to grace our inboxes. Also, I appreciate your understanding of why we turned comments off.
When I first joined BaS back in 2006 there had been talks about what to do about comments that were getting out of hand. Mainly the name-calling and *facepalming* (as you so eloquently put it). I was adamantly against it as were the majority of members. But, over the past 4 years my opinion has changed. When I took over the blog and began “managing” other bloggers (Claudine excluded) I started to see offensive comments in a different light. These were people I worked with being attacked and many people I had asked to participate with us declined and listed the uncouth comments as a reason. I am up for debate but the behavior that was happening was getting out of hand and at times embarrassing. Although there were great things that did happen in the comments section it seems that much of what is missed was the “He said what?” aspect. (I use the male pronoun because they overwhelmingly dominated the space.)
Monitoring comments, although an option is really not something that is feasible for us currently. To set up an adequate moderation of comments would mean either sacrificing some aspect of the project or finding someone that solely wants to focus on that. If someone would like to moderate comments on a daily basis please email us and we would consider it.
With all that being said, Claudine and I have been working to open up the blog. Our series, “Off-Topic” was one small solution to having outside voices on the site. We have also been discussing how we can use the Bad at Sports’ facebook page in a way that will facilitate more conversations. If anyone has any suggestions we would be totally up for hearing them.
I would just rather be known for the place to go to hear/read artists having conversations and not the place to go and see people sling mud at each other.
Thanks for the letter,
Britton, as you well know I have always respected your opinion and your feedback examines the issue in a complete and thorough way, I could not possibly have put is so succinctly.
The reason we, after a vast amount of hand wringing and debate, ended the ability to post comments was due to the increasing amount of time we had to spend dealing with off-blog correspondence from people who were mad as hell that someone said something about them, posted under their name, and/or were afraid to post commentary or contribute feature pieces to the blog as they did not want to endure the at time acrimonious personal attacks. We went so far as to have a meeting to discuss the issue face-to-face and examine it from all sides. Monitoring the messages seemed like a solution, deleting offending posts, but I cannot, and will not act as occasional censor. I find censorship in all its forms be an aberration, I think that it is unfair and totally subjective to pick and choose who says what, I don’t want to be deleting the posts of someone who I think is a jackass. Just because someone in a jackass does not mean they don’t add to the dialog. So we would be posed with defining the rules for deleting posts. We agreed on the big things, direct threats, criminal behavior, libel (which is a stickier wicket), but then you get to more difficult issues of who defines who is a bully, who is a troll, who is a schmuck. We couldn’t do it in a way that would make for articulable rules.
So in the absence of some clear mandate, we were left with two choices, leave things be, and continue to diffuse possible problems (and potential litigation) or we pull the plug and the hell with it, disappointing, but certainly something that would resolve the problem. While a cop-out we all have jobs, partners, obligations, many have kids, there are times where we opt for the path of least resistance. Not ideal, but true.
Meg, now the Editor in Chief of our blog, the person who essentially runs at least half of the BAS empire, started as our intern. She is amazing and has worked harder than anyone during her time at BAS. If I was paid for this, she would have to be paid more than I was as she earned it.
Sadly, finding an intern with the work ethic and vision of Meg is a one in a million and I don’t see us getting someone to pitch in sufficiently to create and police a new comment system.
So, we are left with encouraging listeners/readers to submit letters such as your and phone comments (312-772-2780). I fear you have been more-or-less the lone voice who has given feedback post removal. Under we have a better plan, we need to stick with what we are doing. Send all better plans my way!
As a quick post script all of the comments are still on display with their corresponding posts and we view them as an invaluable part of the Bad at Sports site. In the end the trade was made to get better articles from more people. Remember anyone can pingback any of our articles with their responses on their respective blogs or sites. We never want to limit the volume of talk but had to trim the audible volume of the talk.
Got a response to this post? Let us know! Email your response to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll feature thoughtful responses to issues generated by our posts in our Letters to the Editors Feature.
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]