This article is part 3 in a series of stand alone kvetching about the state of the artworld. The opinions expressed within are held by a big baby, and not the blogs they are found on. There is no need to read them all, but if your beverage of choice is Haterade, then part 1 can be found here, while part 2 can be found here.
…And if you don’t like Haterade, then this one is totally positive, dude.
G.U.L.F. (Gulf Ultra Luxury Faction) protestors intervention in the Guggenheim, February 22, 2014. With intrepid planning, the coalition drew attention to the Guggenheim’s direct, yet denied involvement to the promotion of debt bondage in the Middle East.
“Art is an antidote to consumerism…. At a fair, art is connected to the weakest part about it… the fact that it has to sell.” — Matthew Collings, during a the Saatchi Gallery Debate: Art Fairs Are About Money Not Art (billed as a partisan debate by one of the biggest money making galleries in the world, whose namesake gained his fortune in advertising, and whose moderator, Simon de Pury, is both chairman and co-founder of the art auction house Phillips de Pury & Company, one of the largest in the world. Just sayin.)
We have become so obsessed with the money revolving around art that it has become a part of contemporary art. Often, when writing about art, we are writing about money. We look at art and we are looking at someone else’s accumulated wealth. Art no longer expresses ideas and possibilities, but also speculations and commodities. We exist in a system that exchanges money for services and goods for money. To say art must be free from the trappings of money says that artists should never get paid for their work. Art and money will always be connected in a capitalist system, and even most artists would not have it any other way.
But what happens when, increasingly, the art work loses its meaning and autonomy and becomes a status symbol for the rich and uber rich? It turns the artist into a stock which can be dumped at any time at the whim of a few collectors. It can draw hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars overnight. Most of the money does not go to the very few artists showing at this capacity, but towards the building of worldwide art institutions and vanity museums, promoting the monumental legacies of a few rich douchebags. The bulk of the cash stays circulating in the hands of the super rich, like a global game of Keep Away, where Big Money always wins. The few artists that can participate in this market become instant celebrities — images of people instead of actual people — their art, no longer truly representing anything other than the continuation of extreme capitalism, becomes the measure to which all other contemporary artists must relate their work to, and the greasy environment where art exists.
We tolerate these excesses and abuses within the art world because we see it to be the defender of the truth — the faith that is art history; a white male dominated Eurocentric history that means nothing at all in the real world. Denying the importance of Germany invading Poland in 1939 would be criminal, as arguing the importance of Jackson Pollock creating Action Painting would be just as ridiculous. That Pollock revolutionized Painting, or that Marcel Duchamp did the same for the object, matters little in understanding the world. What is part of art history is as much anthropological as it is a collection of tastes and values by those with the money and moral authority to maintain such collections, further edited by subsequent generations of taste. Every artwork must position itself somewhere among all other “important” art of all time, even though this is an incomplete picture built on the individual and collective tastes of the past. A past that is far removed from our present. It is beautiful, rich and moving for sure, but is just one purposefully incomplete story, and so is just fiction.
We will not be able to erase Art History, nor would we really want to, as we come to art in seriousness drawn by its history. Gaining the title of artist takes for granted the likelihood of a degree or multiple degrees in the practice, so the academic, by definition, relies on history — separating this is impossible. Instead, what I imply is a freedom to move alongside the history, conventions, dealings, markets, establishments and modes of art. Because if art history, no matter how grand, doesn’t matter, then neither does the rest.
While Social Practice is often some white asshole trying to help minority communities by their assessment of what “these communities” need to relieve their own guilt (liberal imperialism). But there is something within Social Practice that still offers a possibility of a freer art, a freer artist and a more inclusive public. It is within its socialist spirit, within a redefining of ownership, and the fluctuation of time and space. To be clear — there is nothing wrong with objects or images. To describe my love for a perfectly strange object or image as anything less then every neuron firing at once, effectively liquidating my brain, so that the pink goo drips out of my skull, down my spine and into my feet; the tingling sensation of this confused with the pissing and shitting of my art pants, while my eyes bug out and tongue extends to the floor, drooling like a cartoonish wolf over abandoned lambs; time stopping as I am taken out of my mortal body and able to claw at some other realm beyond comprehension just to be thrown back into reality– still does not adequately state my feelings towards the visceral power in the physicality of art. I am fortunate that I am consistently in the presence of great art, from established to emerging artists, who create work in this form. These are visceral responses we have to color, form and composition, becoming even more meaningful in their cultural context. The sprawling utility of much social practice tends to ignore aesthetics or, at the very least, subjugate them to the back burner. (Not that all art need be aesthetic.)
A revolutionary tool of Social Practice has quickly been diffused by the art establishment — that art can exist outside of the constructs of a capitalist white walled art environment — quickly became subjected to the art environment in order to give the work authority. No longer a revolutionary tool, it is instead a case study. Why can’t the next wave of Social Practice address this need for object and image? Completely within its reach, it has not through its determination of institutional critique while trying to court the institution. Socially engaging works with more interesting stand alone artifacts, not documents, may provide this. Keeping to the revolutionary fervor within the core of Social Practice is really what allows for its potential, and that is why, in general I am so frustrated by it. The key to this new art world may lie there: an art world with a stronger relationship between artist and audience, both able to fluctuate to the needs of the work.
Instead of molotov cocktails, what is needed is backroom maneuvering for the proletariat. Like minded collectives with a purpose. Alternative spaces without fixed addresses. Fine art blending with design and craft and consumer objects. Price ranges for the masses, marketing at a small scale. More art shares, art lending libraries. Personal networks that build the backbone of a new art community. Community involvement and investment through education, public programming, parties, entertainment. Invest in audiences if you want them to invest in you. Realize that you are going to be turned into a product against your will in the art world so you should brand yourself instead. Stage your own biennial. Crash fairs. Create new art spaces, like The Suburban was or Good Weather is, both suburban garages which bring great art to the average person. Trunk Shows, internet only galleries existing on facebook, and other ephemeral spaces that question the nature of art space and geographic space in the 21st Century.
If we can even make small advances with the public, we’d gain more viewers and supporters. We would find new markets and create new demand. We would sell more modest priced works more frequently. Instead of the nearly impossible goal of selling in the 5 and 6 digits exclusively, we’d find the more attainable goal of being able to put food on the table and clothes on our backs from the sale of our art, instead of a job we don’t care about. It would offer younger critics and curators to gain recognition for their work. Art would still be a joy, but it would be a joy shared by many instead of the few. Perhaps this art would look vastly different than art today. Perhaps this more democratic art would present new alternatives, new perspectives and new ideas, perhaps its influence could extend into politics and social justice. How much effect can art have in a closed off niche group being bought by the people within power in order to control its ideas and subvert them in to a high end commodity? The spectacle that is swallowing the art world could start to disappear. Money would still be a part of art in this alternate art world, but it would spread out a little more evenly with a lot less glare distracting one from the work. It would actually address some of the real debt that most artists have found themselves in, instead of floating around the Blue Chip Gallery satalite branches showing the same product worldwide. Maybe I’m just dreaming, but it seems to me that it is time to affect real meaning in art.
October 16, 2013 · Print This Article
The Art Market is inflating out of control, making all but the wealthiest few cry foul. Like it or not, this is affecting the way contemporary art is viewed and thought about. Meanwhile, Jeff Koons continues to be the perfect Poster Boy for the inflation, and it just so happens he has work depicting the nothingness inside the bubble. Simultaneously, Banksy goes for a stroll in New York’s neighborhoods proposing a different model. Is this the beginning of the end of the glutonous market? Or is this merely a long beginning?
Donâ€™t make the mistake of trying to analyze the Jeff Koons album cover work for Lady Gaga as if it were art. Think of it instead as a publicity stunt to drum up hype for his upcoming retrospective at the Whitney this summer. On the day the album cover was released, mtv.com ran a story with the headline: â€œLady Gaga is Jeff Koonsâ€™ Biggest Fan…But Who is He?â€ This collage of leftover studio remnants and a Botticelli print gets him access to a generation of people who are not likely looking at a lot of contemporary art, beefing up his celebrity status which he craves, at the same time adding to ticket sales. This, and the animosity from art enthusiasts will help make his retrospective THE BEST EVER!! Just a couple weeks before the Lady Garbage cover, T magazine – the glossy pulp supplement in the NY Times – had a stereotypically vapid conversation with the artist about his recent commission from Dom Perignon to made a limited edition DNA – shaped champagne bottle. Low end and high end commodity containers from olâ€™ Koonie Balloonie. Not too different from anything he has done in the past, but the labeling becomes ever more irksome. Consider his output for the last decade, where most of his work is sold before its finished, and may only show at auction instead of a gallery or museum. Not that this is such a terrible thing. What has basically become a high end boutique practice is frustrating mostly because it is helping fuel the glut of the art market, and then regurgitated into the art world as important to the production and dissemination of art, to negative affect. As long as we wallow in the crystal palaces of Koons, Hirst and Murakami, weâ€™ll think that art is as uninspired as Gormley, Marden and Â Whiteread.
Koons is in this rare position of being accessible to everyone but only collectable to a small handful of the richest in the world. As Carl Swanson recently stated in Vulture: â€œKoons can be the art worldâ€™s great populist artisan, even as he operates as its most exclusive salesman.â€ Â Everything about the work is right there, so thereâ€™s nothing to get. It is perfection and simplicity, the kind of thing that mocks you for looking too hard at it. Since critics are trained to look hard at things, they tend to hate Koons. And its boring to write about art just by describing what it looks like, so people tend to write about his career, his collectors, his record breaking prices at the market, his studio and the process of making his work. This only helps to build a persona around the artist, giving him the superstar flair that these major collectors are after. (And with this weekâ€™s art fair, Londonâ€™s Frieze officially bigger and more bloated than ever, superstars have never been more in vogue.)
Both interesting and frustrating is how Jeff Koonsâ€™ rise to the art commodity machine that he is may have helped shape the way the art market is an increasingly insiders game of fewer and fewer players more knowledgable about trading commodities than how to tell good work from bad. And with the auction prices soaring, the big named galleries just keep getting bigger in a kind of go-for-broke mentality* (not breaking them, just the artists they rep, in less of a financial type of broke and more of an artistic quality and integrity type.)
[*for a throughly depressing take on this, see Jerry Saltzâ€™s article on Vulture this week.]
At the same time all the grumbling about Koons’ latest fart hit the web, Banksy has been doing a residency in NYC, creating work in the city in his typical fashion – covert and unannounced – the opposite of how youâ€™re supposed to make art. While seemingly on the other side of the art world, there are a lot of similarities between the two artists. Maybe Banksy isnâ€™t able to sell his graffiti work for 33 mil, but he is still operating inside the art market, selling regularly and at high prices. Lately, his work is often either garishly covered by a piece of plexiglass bolted to the wall he painted it on or is removed and sold, either way being seenÂ by an enterprising public as separate from graffiti art and rebornÂ as high art/commodity. His work is no stranger toÂ auctions, museum and gallery shows, while being loved by mainstream society. His imagery is understood at first look, you donâ€™t need to read into it, and if you are, then you probably donâ€™t get it. Also like Koons, art critics hate writing about Banksy, saying there isnâ€™t enough to write about, because it is too surface and he isnâ€™t playing the game. But this game is being co opted by the wealthiest of collectors who have realized there is a market that wonâ€™t burst and canâ€™t crash, so theyâ€™ve taken advantage of it. Buying a Koons gets you a ticket into Â a very exclusive club. Buying the Banksy at auction though, means that you probably donâ€™t get it, because his work is to be freely viewed and is mocking the very lopsided system of capitalism that allowed you to buy it at auction in the first place. Getting it, though, is no longer important. Its having it.
As his position in the art world becomes more clear, Banksy’s art frequently criticizes the market, and the latest example of this was a street sale of many of his iconic works on white canvases for $60 on the sidewalks of NYC. The work and the saleÂ later appeared on his website, which is his way of providing provenance. These single color spray painted politically charged images lost all meaning shoved within the borders of these small store bought canvases, sold on the street among vendors hocking watercolors and prints of impressionist styled paintings. Subverted now to talk about the politics of class, taste and accessibility in a market that is more often hurting artists and keeping way too many people out of collecting art. It stifles artistic creativity to the point where every idea is either a recombination of greatest hits by the artist or an experiment to see how much money can prop up a bad idea. Artists start to flounder when they should be thriving. Shows are created for the specific tastes of the market and of a few clientele. Everything becomes dross and it feels like you are wading through a lake of effervescent puke whenever you go to a big exhibition, and anymore, theyâ€™re all big. ‘Cause if not, they may as well not happen at all. More and more, it sucks harder and harder to be a practicing artist in this climate. Unless, of course, youâ€™re Jeff Koons.
Theatrical sets allow for the real world to be transformed into the internal world. Against complete darkness, imagine a stage light illuminating one room within a house. Walls, hallways and exterior walls of the house are constructed out of the absence of light, while the walls of the living room are constructed out of illumination. The darkness hides the coming scenes from view, while the illumination presents furnishings in the current act – a sofa, table and chairs, a domestic preparation. This fabrication of a living room provides a model for the following stagings.
Kontakhof, Pina Bausch, performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2014, photo credit: Oliver Look
“Is there anything deeper than surface?” I wondered, looking at one silken dressed dancer adjusting her dress, facing the audience as if they were her mirror. Having gotten herself together, she approaches with her dance partner, a suited suitor, whose arm she twists. The pair of dancers appear to be a couple, and the actions public humiliations, in as much as one dancer pulls the hair of the other, pokes the partner in the nose, bites the other’s shoulder. In Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof, dancers perform in a stage set as an empty hall with a window and door and row of chairs against three walls and small inset stage along the back wall facing the audience. Theatrically, the set is all that it needs to be, as minimally decorated as to provide a room inside of which action takes place.
On the other hand, it is a grand room.
The twenty-five dancers approach the audience from the back wall of the set, walking forward as a large mass, dressed as if attending a cocktail party. Sometimes a few dancers approach from within the mass – movements are directed towards the audience. And dancers perform acts on and for one another. They converse through tests of body language, as happens when a group of men surround a woman, patting, rubbing and pulling her limbs. As the dancers meet the edge of the stage, they run backward to the set’s furthest wall again, forming a machine in rotation from front to back.
Stop Crying: A Performance, Ida Applebroog, 1981, staple-bound book
Kontakthof‘s starkness invigorated me to look through the illustrated books of Ida Applebroog, printed in the late 70s and early 80s, each book subtitled “A Performance” on the cover.
The performances inside consist of a single set and only rarely a set change, and a script of no more than two lines. The pages of each book are a repeated photograph of a monochromatic drawing of a scene. They have a cartoon look. For example, one print shows a woman sitting contemplatively alone, her shadow cast on the wall behind, the entire scene viewed through a box frame. The first of a three line script reads, “Stop crying.”
Think of this as a theater, a small third floor affair. Operations are run by a single person, gamely but silently playing the parts of the director, lighting technician, actor and set designer.
Envision of the surface of a building. One might have a beige plaster front, another made from sedimentary rock, and a third obscured in a malaise of vines. These surfaces can be monologues as much as a slew of words can be: letters of discontent directed at the art world, for example, filling the lobby walls of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in the Readykulous by Ridykeulous installation called This is What Liberation Feels Like. Both commissioned correspondences and pre-existing letters of outcry from an exclamatory world fill the lobby. Letter writing appears just as what it is and in works of art as trope, both as a promise of a space for correspondence, and as the unfolding of particular resistance to an addressee.
I want a President, Zoe Leonard, 1992, xerox, 14 x 8.5 inches, included in Readykeulous by Ridykeulous exhibition This is What Liberation Feels Like
A facade, like a one-sided conversation, is the staging of interiority. Currently on view in Aliza Nisenbaum’s first solo New York exhibition at White Columns, among portraits of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, there is a painting of a letter, a pile of letters really, a bent paper pile. The writing is not identifiable, but the addresses of the correspondents appear, and drawings within the letters surface. Next to the letters, the flat, bent body parts of the sitters still manage to look solid, weighted. The bent ankles and limbs take the form of bent letters. Subjects look otherwise engaged, detached from being painted, but still. The two women of the painting Stephanie and Christina appear self-contained, as if entering this stage by having emanated from this fabric; henna-covered hands look woven from the thread of the pillows setting the scene.
Tinker Bell, Aliza Nisenbaum, 2014, oil in linen, 20 x 16 inches
Stephanie and Christina, Aliza Nisenbaum, 2014, oil on linen, 51 x 33 inches
October 20, 2013 · Print This Article
The podcast this week features Duncan live from LA! talking with artist Sarah Conaway. Conaway (b. 1972 York, Pennsylvania) makes seemingly straightforward photographs that invite us to think magically, imbuing mundane objects with mystery and potential. Her recent photographsâ€”printed in a range of sizes and primarily in black and white, with an occasional work in vibrant colorâ€”capture a series of actions set up by the artist in her the studio. Beyond the objects or materials that they portray, they express a residue, aura, or presence that we sense but do not necessarily see depicted. All that and more here.
Jesse Malmed kicked off the week in blogland with a mix tape of video clips:
Is this ok? Is this a responsible use of this privilege? How much does Bad at Sports pay its writers? Its readers? Iâ€™m like you, reader. Iâ€™m in the weeds. Iâ€™m in the thick of it. Everyone is paying everyone else too much. Our government runs smoothly but we donâ€™t have any use for it. There are no trains and no one runs for anything, not even office.
Joan of Arc’s Tim Kinsella sat down with me to talk about his participation inEvery house has a door’s latest work, Testimonium. When asked if playing live music in a performance context felt different from playing at a music show, Kinsella replied:
Oh yeah. All the rituals of live music performance are undermined and we love it. The whole catharsis-spectacle is frustrated and maybe weâ€™re grizzled old cynics to find that liberating, but I promise that Testimonium will equally frustrate those expecting a rock show as it will irritate those expecting a performance piece. Weâ€™ve done 5 weeks of Joan of Arc regular rock club shows this fall. I just got home yesterday. And I am aware that I internalize certain shortcuts or tricks to keep count. Muscle memory is subconscious and essential â€” my weight is on my left foot for the 2 and 4 of this song and my hip knocks out on this accent. But the potential promise of a rock show is that everything can blow apart to smithereens at any second. It remains almost constantly on the verge of falling into chaos. Testimonium on the other hand is so controlled. The quiets so drawn out. The blocking so precise. It removes that essential sense of tension and by simply reframing how a band is set up on stage, the entire experience gets broken down to its core components. Itâ€™s thrilling and perverse while also so simple.
I reposted a great interview with Wangechi Mutu, via Mother Jones:
â€œThe power for me is to keep the story of the female in the center, to keep discussing and talking about women as protagonists,â€ Wangechi Mutu said in a video introduction to A Fantastic Journey, her recent exhibition at Duke Universityâ€™s Nasher Museum of Art. For the casual art fancier who happens upon it, as I did this summer, the exhibition was like embedding in Mutuâ€™s mind: Black globes of crumpled plastic hang on strings suspended from the ceiling, a looping video of the artist devouring cake flickers on the floor, and triumphant warrior women occupy magnificent collage landscapes on the walls.
Thinking about the glutinous art market, Thomas Friel reflects on Lady Gaga and Koons:
Koons is in this rare position of being accessible to everyone but only collectable to a small handful of the richest in the world. As Carl Swanson recently stated in Vulture: â€œKoons can be the art worldâ€™s great populist artisan, even as he operates as its most exclusive salesman.â€ Everything about the work is right there, so thereâ€™s nothing to get. It is perfection and simplicity, the kind of thing that mocks you for looking too hard at it. Since critics are trained to look hard at things, they tend to hate Koons. And its boring to write about art just by describing what it looks like, so people tend to write about his career, his collectors, his record breaking prices at the market, his studio and the process of making his work. This only helps to build a persona around the artist, giving him the superstar flair that these major collectors are after. (And with this weekâ€™s art fair, Londonâ€™s Frieze officially bigger and more bloated than ever, superstars have never been more in vogue.)
Sarah Margolis-Pineo posted a conversation with art documentarians, Half Cut Tea:
A recent trip through LA gave me the opportunity to catch up with Matt Glass and Jordan Wayne Long, the two collaborators behind Half Cut Tea, an ongoing documentary video series featuring emerging artists across the US. Now in its second season, Half Cut Tea has traveled from Boston to Los Angeles and many cities in between, featuring soon-to-be-known artists including Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw (New York), Wesley Taylor (Detroit), Beverly Fre$h (Chicago), and Sean Joseph Patrick Carney (Portland). Both Glass and Long have temporarily suspended their individual art making to pursue this collaborative endeavor, which they plan to continue into a third season and beyond. Their motivation is two-fold: firstly, to bring visibility to a generation of younger makers who often are operating outside of traditional art centers; and secondly, to demystify the idea of the professional artist as an unattainable Ã¼ber-genius. Half Cut Tea brings a bit of day-to-day reality to the processes of art making, pursuing artists in their everyday habitats, which, in Glass and Longâ€™s experience, can include calcite mines and jumping out of planes in parachutes. According to Long, the project wonâ€™t end until art making is perceived as an accessible occupation, unencumbered by the exclusivity and mind-numbing static of contemporary art speak.
From the world of performance, Hannah Verrill interviewed Michal Samama. When Verrill asks about the dynamic interplay between audience and peformer, “Would you say that thereâ€™s a kind of feedback loop in place? A set of information that you receive from your audience by way of their presence, in a specific sense, that comes to influence how you are performing?” Samama replies:
Yes, or you could think of it as a dialogue. Itâ€™s about questioning this idea of me as the performer being the authority. Or itâ€™s also about questioning what is your (the audienceâ€™s) role here. I started to think more of this idea of performance as a collective event or social event. This is what is unique for performance. It puts into a laboratory this idea of the social event. I do remember one work from a few years ago when this question came up of if I wanted to take my gaze out into the audience or still be in this internal dance-y gaze, and at that point I chose not to. I was too afraid or I didnâ€™t know what to do with it. But now itâ€™s different, and Iâ€™ve started to make it more and more what I do. Iâ€™m interested in this kind of transformation of images happening during the performance. Part of the transformation of course is the homework that I worked on in the studioâ€”the choreographyâ€”but of course part of it is like what youâ€™re saying, the feedback. So in the end there are many more transformations than what I initially thought of because of the presence of the audience.
Jacob Wick reflects on meaning via Juliana Paciulliâ€˜s recent solo show at Greene Exhibitions, â€œAre you talking to me?â€, Andrew Choateâ€˜s poetry, LA snickers, Ann Hamilton, and Agamben’s interpretation of gesture:
It has been important, certainly since the turn of the 20th century, to ask what things â€“ not just art, everything â€“ mean. What does this abstract painting mean? What does this realist short story mean? What does this rock mean? I learned at the Santa Monica police station, from an incredibly chatty technician who gently rolled my finger on the scanner, that the print on my left index finger is of the sort that less than 1% of people have. I asked, laughing, but not really, I felt pretty serious about it â€“ it was my first thought â€“ â€œwhat does it mean?â€ She said, â€œoh, probably nothing.â€ If I look it up online â€“ I think it was a double loop or a Peacockâ€™s eye or maybe a tented arch, I wish I remembered or wrote it down, but I didnâ€™t â€“ it might mean that Iâ€™m a perfectionist, that Iâ€™m indecisive or diplomatic, that Iâ€™m independent and inflexible, or that I am â€œfiery.â€
Juliana Driver wrote about the Empire Drive-In (which closes tonight btw):
Empire Drive-In is a full-scale, twelve-night, outdoor cinema and social spectacle. Hosted by the New York Hall of Science, and brilliantly programmed and designed by artists Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark, this project is an ambitious statement on upcycling and participatory culture seen through the defunct theater of suburban drive-in entertainment.
On the surface, Empire Drive-In has plenty of nostalgic charm, but it doesnâ€™t take long to see how the project redirects retro sentimentality into much more nuanced conditions of creative re-use. Made entirely from re-animated waste, including cast-off lumber and 60 wrecked cars salvaged from a Brooklyn scrapyard, the projectâ€™s junk aesthetic offers up a critical interrogation of our cultureâ€™s throw-away mentality, and the tremendous value that can be recaptured with artistic reconsideration and a little bit of elbow grease. Chandler and Stark offered their impressions this conceptual overtone:
Never fear, Saturday’s endless opportunities are here.
Sunday closed out with reflections on LA’s comedy scene; Adrienne Harris wrote about two new productions, The Virginia Slims’ Ronnie and Lorraineâ€™s Last Reunion Show IV, and Ithamar Enriquez’s Ithamar has Nothing to Say. Conclusion?
…Iâ€™ve had to accept that L.A. is not just a film town where people like me are churning out gritty independent drug movies and big budget space films, but there are also tons of people making thoughtful committed comedy shows as well. This is probably not a surprise to anyone else, I mean, Andy Dick came out of The Second City Hollywood soâ€¦ But for me, I feel lucky to have found some comedy to balance out the darkness of my Breaking Bad addiction.
Like so many in our worlds, Brett Kashmere’s engagement with art spans making, writing, teaching, curating, editing and organizing. Perhaps more impressively, he’s good at each of these. His subjects often pertain to history, collective identity, sports and the ways they articulate and actualize each other. His essay filmÂ Valery’s AnkleÂ (embedded below) is deft and provocative, mixing personal history, social questions and rib-rattling editing toward a peek beneath the pads into Canadiana. His latest project,Â From Deep, signals a switch to the basketball court and the United States. At the same time, it maintains an interest in fan-culture, hybrid forms and a commitment to rigor without opacity and invention without pretension.
Raised in Canada, Brett has lived in Pittsburgh (while teaching at Oberlin) for the last several years.Â He is known perhaps equally for his own filmmaking as he is for his critical writing, his work editingÂ INCITE Journal of Experimental Media (medium disclosure: I have a piece in the next issue) and his curatorial pursuits. INCITE does an excellent job of publishing works both scholarly and playful (a G-Chat conversation between Jesse McLean and Jacob Ciocci, for instance) without privileging either or presuming one form might have a monopoly on all types of insight.Â
As part of the exhibitionÂ Spectator SportsÂ (opening this Thursday!), Brett will be screening his work and discussing it with Lester Munson at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago onÂ Tuesday, April 23rd.Â Graciously, he never brought up the name of this publication in relation to his own work.Â
Youâ€™ve curated, written about and made films about Canadian identity. I have dual (US and Canadian) citizenship. Half of my family is Canadian and I’ve spent a decent amount of time in Canada and thinking through the issue of Canadian identity. No identity is fixed and national identity can be as useful or as destructive as any other unwieldy, essentializing concept. That said, Iâ€™m hoping you might elaborate a bit on where your thinking is on the issue now and how itâ€™s changed in that last many years of living in the States.
I agree â€“ national identity is an abstract, complex construction, a symbolic category, which serves both good and bad purposes. As someone who works a lot with sports as a subject, itâ€™s disturbing to see how theyâ€™re often used, in ways subtle and overt, to stir up nationalist sentiment and prop up dangerous ideologies. Iâ€™m thinking of that famous quote from Ronald Reagan: â€œSport is the human activity closest to war that isnâ€™t lethal.â€ He meant that as an endorsement. On the other hand, sports provide a common, everyday, shared experience that has deep (often under-acknowledged) reverberations and significance. Iâ€™m most interested in its relationship to place and community, as a kind of folk culture that is potent and tribal, rather than as an instrument of national identity.
I finished Valeryâ€™s Ankle shortly before immigrating to the U.S. in 2006, to upstate New York. At first it didnâ€™t seem that much different than living in Canada, though the Iraq War certainly cast a shadow over everything during that period. It was a dark time. There was a distinct feeling of uneasiness, which I attributed to the political circumstances, and that did seem to dissipate somewhat after Obamaâ€™s election (replaced by a different, more manufactured form of paranoia).
The longer I live in the U.S., the less I feel connected to Canada but the more I come to recognize differences between the two countries. Part of that understanding is intuitively felt, and part of it has to do with core principles and attitudes rather than anything related to day-to-day life. When I think about what it means to be Canadian, I often come back to the question: â€œWhere is here?â€ For Northrop Frye, that was the central question of Canadian identity. Our sense of self is determined by external factors, the things beyond us, which we donâ€™t control. Whereas in America, identity seems determined from within â€“ â€œWho am I?â€ â€“ and rooted in those founding American ideas of personal liberty and freedom.
Iâ€™ve only ever watched Valeryâ€™s Ankle on home screens. In particular, Iâ€™ve enjoyed being able to watch it on my laptop and scan through it, returning to certain parts and skipping over others while thinking about the work and this interview. In this changing media landscape, there are lots of new opportunities for works to be experienced. Typically for works that do not originate with intentions for the small, portable screen, we maintain an understanding that this isnâ€™t how theyâ€™re supposed to be experienced, but this is what we have. UbuWeb recently tweeted â€œUbuWeb is a photograph of a painting.â€ For video works whose form is shifting and fluid (are there people who really think a new export with a different codec is an inauthentic copy?), this is a little more complicated. I have been speaking recently with others who (in this mode of speaking) identify as a fellow makers of â€œdense video work,â€ and are excited by the potential of video for the home, for the computer, because it allows the chance to view and re-view. With works in the essay tradition, this seems to be an even greater boon.
A common response I hear about my work is that itâ€™s dense. I use a lot of text layers and sources, onscreen and through voice-over, and the editing style is usually fast â€“ I like a constant flow of images and ideas. Iâ€™m not interested in making conventional documentaries that you can watch once, process the information, and arrive at a satisfying conclusion. Even though itâ€™s unlikely and probably unreasonable, I embrace the idea of making work that will reward multiple viewings. So in that sense, the home computer, the small portable screen, offers a lot. Iâ€™m glad you find value in returning to certain parts, in shuttling back and forth. I prefer that its reception be productive and relational, not merely consumptive.
Then again, I consider the filmmaking that I do to be part of a cinematic tradition, best suited for the theatrical screening context. The conditions of that experience are still important to me: the large image, the fixed starting and endpoints, the focused attention, the darkened space, the social dimension. But more and more, I find that situation to be limited and unsatisfying, at least for the kind of work that I make. I would like for it to circulate more freely, and across platforms; to be more available to more people than the one-time theatrical screening allows. Iâ€™m not sure that YouTube is the answer, in terms of the mindset thatâ€™s required for viewing a longer essay film or video. But perhaps the work can exist in different forms, as a modular construction, and the platform determines the version of the piece that you see.
In perhaps a similar vein, how does your work in curating and writing impact your filmmaking practice? Does the skillset of the curator align with the culling and positioning of archival materials? Does critical writing engage the same part of your brain as making critically-engaged films?
I tend to think of curating, writing, and filmmaking as distinct and separate parts of my life, linked together by expertise in editing. They definitely impact one another, sometimes consciously and sometimes in coincidental or supplementary ways. My work as a curator and a writer, for instance, has influenced my approach to filmmaking, which Iâ€™d describe as a research-based practice. From Deep, the project that Iâ€™m working on now, about the cultural history of basketball, feels at times like a curated film. It relies on the editing together of hundreds of discrete elements, including movie clips, music videos, TV commercials, video game footage, and so on, which are interwoven with self-shot â€œmoving snapshotsâ€ of the game. I can easily imagine an exhibition on the same topic, or a book. But I donâ€™t think those forms would connect or communicate in the same way, the way I prefer. The moment-to-moment conjunction of image and language, which provides the central tension, the collision and mix of ideas within a set period of time, being able to control the entire experience and where people enter the work, those factors require that it be a film or a video.
In terms of the overlapping skill sets, my working knowledge of film/video production helps when I write about and curate moving image artwork. I understand the technical aspects and logistics of film and digital media, and I know what to pack when Iâ€™m presenting a screening to avoid technical problems and troubleshoot. But crafting narration for a film is quite different than writing a critical essay or a curatorial text. Writing voice-over requires constant revision, to get the timing, sound and flow of the words right and it canâ€™t be too complicated. Itâ€™s one of the final stages, so often the sequence lengths are already set and the text has to fit into predetermined blocks. Itâ€™s about concision â€“ how to say the most with the least. But being able to write critically helps in the pre-production and post-production phases, in the preparation of grant applications and the development of secondary writing about projects.
In Valeryâ€™s Ankle, you declare your interest in asking questions (over providing answers). Have the intervening seven years answered some of these questions? Have you found this interrogative mode of making to be productive or frustrating to audiences?
Posing questions is a useful rhetorical device, a way of opening things up. Iâ€™m interested in the anti-authoritative perspective, in the amateur or fanâ€™s point-of-view, and in Foucaultâ€™s notion of counter-memory. Many of the questions that I ask in Valeryâ€™s Ankle canâ€™t really be answered, and arenâ€™t meant to be. If they provide an opportunity for individual reflection, or if they provoke a discussion, thatâ€™s great, thatâ€™s the ultimate goal. I donâ€™t think the mode is frustrating for audiences. Iâ€™m careful about building in different entry points and levels of engagement. Accessibility is important to me, and so are variety and surprise. I like to frequently shift between a first-person mode of address, the subjective, and a more straightforward presentation of facts and evidence: Here is where Iâ€™m coming from (my frame of reference) â€“ here are some things you may not know about (forgotten or overlooked histories, silences of memory) â€“ hereâ€™s why I think theyâ€™re important (the argument). The viewer can decide for herself whether the argument has merit, whether the connections Iâ€™m making are sound, and whether Iâ€™m to be trusted as a reliable narrator.
The things that I struggle with are: How to synthesize the personal with the formal investigations? What is important as information? What does the viewer need to know in order to follow the work? Where is the point of convergence between local and universal experience? I also work from a basic assumption that every record (every fact) has a b-side. Thereâ€™s the side that is marketed and sold, but the other side is usually more interesting.
For all of its formal inventiveness and engagement with the expressivity and history of non-fiction filmmaking, Valeryâ€™s Ankle is still an immediately watchable film. The questions that it poses are quite literally posed and the gestures you make toward an expanded notion of nonfiction film (perhaps the space between documentary and essay) fit and flow seamlessly. Will you speak a little about questions of legibility and the ways a background in â€œexperimentalâ€ media can impact other types of making? Am I just â€œin too deep[ly]â€ to see that this work is secretly difficult for non-specialized audiences to enjoy?
Having a background and an ongoing interest in experimental film has definitely shaped my approach. I donâ€™t consider the work that I make now to be part of that tradition, even though it circulates in that world. I feel like that background does give me some license, or drive, to mess with the tropes and conventions of documentary. Alternately, the appearance of documentary provides cover for the more formal investigations, the manipulation of the image and so on. Creative nonfiction is probably the most accurate description, but itâ€™s more of a literary term. It hasnâ€™t quite crossed over into film and video, even though a lot of my favorite workâ€“ by practitioners such as Jackie Goss, Harun Farocki, Michael Moore, Chris Marker, Barbara Hammer â€“ fit that categorization. Also, I donâ€™t believe the work is automatically difficult for non-specialized audiences to enjoy. That hasnâ€™t been my experience. It doesnâ€™t give viewers enough credit. The public screenings that Iâ€™ve attended often elicit homogenous, guttural groups reactions to the visceral and/or humorous parts; that kind of bonding amongst strangers can have a powerful effect.
Lately, Iâ€™ve been motivated by a couple of overlapping concepts: Brechtâ€™s notion of a theatre (or a cinema) of pleasure and instruction, and the idea of â€œedu-tainment,â€ which I associate most with the hip hop artist KRS-One. Iâ€™m trying to find ways to bridge accessibility with critical inquiry. I donâ€™t want to make straightforward work about sports â€“ thereâ€™s already a lot of that out there, like ESPNâ€™s 30-for-30 series. I enjoy those films â€“ theyâ€™re well produced and fun to watch, but once theyâ€™re finished I never think about them again. Itâ€™s institutional storytelling. The one exception that comes to mind is Brett Morgenâ€™s documentary about the O.J. Simpson chase, which stands out because of its unusual form: a found-footage compilation that presents the events of one day â€“ June 17, 1994 â€“ with no commentary. Itâ€™s a mesmerizing piece, and a reminder of how much the media landscape has changed since then. The 24-hour news cycle really begins right there, with those long helicopter shots of O.J.â€™s white Ford Bronco navigating the L.A. freeways.
Speaking of specializing audiences, how have hockey fans (in particular Canadian ones with long enough memories) reacted to Valeryâ€™s Ankle?
In many ways, hockey fans have been the best, most accepting audience for Valeryâ€™s Ankle. Part of that is by design. Iâ€™ve presented the video in a lot of places across Canada, in a lot of different contexts â€“ from academic hockey conferences, to big city and small-town film festivals, university classes, art galleries, microcinemas, sports bars. The sports bar is almost an ideal setting for me, because I work with a formal language that most people understand, the language of sports broadcasting. If youâ€™ve ever watched a hockey game in a bar youâ€™ll know that nothing captures mass attention like a hockey fight, even though, nine times out of ten, theyâ€™re the most banal things to watch: a couple of guys clutching one another and spinning in slow circles for two minutes. Valeryâ€™s Ankle pulls you in with the fighting, the spectacle, but then it flips things around. It starts posing questions about our common assumptions of hockey violence. For instance, when, and why, did fighting become an accepted part of the game? What is the deeper meaning behind the trophy for most sportsmanlike behavior in hockey?
The people who are old enough to remember the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series either donâ€™t remember the slash â€“ Bobby Clarkeâ€™s intentional breaking of the Russian star Valery Kharlamovâ€™s ankle â€“ or never knew about it. The visual evidence scarcely exists â€“ it happened quickly, with no camera close ups. The image quality is poor. No one is truly surprised by it, though, as Clarke had a brutal bully reputation, but the general response is one of embarrassment for the sanctioned dirty play, and the fact that the Canadian menâ€™s bodies were so out of control. If thereâ€™s a negative reaction, itâ€™s usually from people who donâ€™t think I go far enough with the critique; that I leave too much out. The violence touches a nerve.
Iâ€™ve received a lot of wonderful notes and messages over the years, saying to the effect that Valeryâ€™s Ankle has changed, or modified, their opinions about hockey and its relationship to their identity. The video has acted as a bridge piece (peace bridge?) between artist friends and their dads, who wouldnâ€™t normally have much tolerance for experimental work. Just yesterday, I received an email, out-of-the blue, from an established Canadian filmmaker, a person Iâ€™ve never met but have great respect for, who wrote: â€œmy 15-year old son and I watched Valery’s Ankle and he thought it was â€˜awesomeâ€™; me too! thanks for providing that perspective with such calm passion, along with the great hockey images.â€ I canâ€™t really ask for anything more than that.
Will you tell our readers a bit about your most recent project and what theyâ€™ll experience at the Museum of Contemporary Photography?
The MoCP will be showing a couple of my pieces as part of their upcoming exhibition, Spectator Sports (April 12â€“July 3, 2013). In addition to the video essay Valeryâ€™s Ankle, there is a newer work titled Anything But Us Is Who We Are, which is comprised of two parts: a burned LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers jersey, framed and mounted on the wall, and a live video game feed of James (in Cavs uniform) holding a basketball at center court in an otherwise empty arena, waiting to be activated, perhaps in a moment of indecision, contemplation, or awaiting orders from the viewer/fan/agent/gamer. The game controller is displayed in such a way that you canâ€™t actually use it.
For me, the piece was a way of exploring and coming to terms with the limitations, but also the agency, of fandom. The bond between fans and players is so tenuous, so illusory, and typically one-sided. In his great book Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season, David Shields writes that â€œFans want to think itâ€™s us against themâ€¦ and that the players on â€˜ourâ€™ team are in cahoots with us, in some difficult-to-define way â€“ difficult to define, since their contempt for us is so manifest.â€ LeBronâ€™s decision to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat in 2010 demonstrates the volatile nature of this relationship. It was such a charged moment, because as fans, we like to believe the players play “for us” and that we’re part of the team, or at least recognized by and important to the team. But this isnâ€™t really the case. They play for themselves and each other, and we invest symbolic meaning in a multimillion-dollar corporate enterprise.
Nonetheless, when a cherished star leaves town, it’s hard for those fans not to feel betrayed. Complicating this is the fact that nearly all of the NBA’s owners, team executives, and paying customers are white, while nearly all of the players are black. The struggle to possess and control the subjects of our sporting affection is such a potent metaphor. In many ways, sports have been at the vanguard of social change in America. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s a coincidence that the racial integration of baseball in 1946, followed by NBAâ€™s integration in 1950, preceded the racial integration of schools in 1954. Athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos did a great deal to bring awareness to racial inequality, and helped to erode the structures of racism that were inherent at the time. When Obama was campaigning for president in 2008, he deliberately played up his interest in basketball, to make himself more relatable (the professor could hoop, too).
In addition to the exhibition, Iâ€™m doing a public event on April 23rd at the museum. Iâ€™ll be screening excerpts from my in-progress feature documentary From Deep, and discussing the culture of basketball with Lester Munson, a writer and legal analyst for ESPN, who also teaches journalism at Northwestern.
I was a tremendous basketball fan at one point. I have dozens of books and VHS tapes on the subject and still find myself accidentally stuck in the mental morass of John Starksâ€™ number of Dikembe Mutomboâ€™s full name on occasion. Will you talk a bit about the personal shift you made from being a hockey kid to a basketball one and about the larger societal shifts in fandom? Why make a film about basketball instead of baseball (our supposed national sport) or football (our apparent cinematic/televisual national sport)?
That transition, from hockey to basketball, occurred during my teenage years. Typical of Canadian boys during that time, I started played competitive minor hockey at age 5. After ten years of full-time play and grueling travel, I realized hockey wasnâ€™t the sport for me anymore. Part of it was the danger, the fear of serious injury, since I was the smallest kid on the team. But a larger part of it was an evolving sensibility â€“ I just wasnâ€™t into the small-town, country-and-western, hockey-obsessed prairie culture. By then I was listening to rap, fascinated by graffiti, urban style and expression, and following the NBA. This was a golden age for basketball: Jordan was just reaching his prime, Magic and Bird were still in the league (this also around the time that Magic revealed he had HIV); the video game NBA Jam was a huge success. Then there were the 1992 Olympics and the Dream Team, which took basketball to an even bigger stage internationally. I was also really into Skybox basketball cards, which had those amazing computer-generated abstract backgrounds, and also the Arsenio Hall show, which often had rappers and basketball players as guests. Michiganâ€™s Fab Five were bringing hip hop fashion and swagger to college ball. It was all cool, and fun and exciting. Basketball hoops were suddenly popping up on driveways everywhere. A tremendous shift was occurring. The world got much larger, seemingly overnight.
Although, unlike baseball or football, basketball is less rooted in American myth, it is, in my opinion, the 21st century American sport. It is certainly more global and easier to play: You donâ€™t need a lot of equipment or a lot of space, it can be played outdoors or indoors (all weather), by yourself or in almost any sized group. Itâ€™s democratic. Everyone does everything on the court â€“ there arenâ€™t highly specialized roles, as with baseball or football. I like those sports and enjoy watching them but I never really played them growing up. So basketball was the natural next step for me, as a subject to explore. Iâ€™ve been thinking that my next project might be about football, though. With all of the recent studies that have come out about head injuries in football and the long-term effects of repeated concussions, it seems to be facing a major crossroads. The game, and the NFL, will have to adapt to this new science or it will become obsolete. Itâ€™s an interesting parallel to where the U.S. is at in right now in its history, as an international power trying to maintain its primary place in a changing global landscape. The idea of the masculine warrior athlete, and of sports as a gendered institution, a â€œschool for masculinity,â€ is no longer contemporary, or relevant. Itâ€™s time to evolve.
Switching gears to some of your other endeavours, is there a specific niche youâ€™re hoping forÂ InciteÂ to fill? How are you approaching print/web publishing decisions? What are some historical forebears whose output has influenced the project?
As an undergraduate film student, I loved flipping through back issues ofÂ Film CultureÂ andÂ Millennium Film JournalÂ and smaller, more idiosyncratic hand-bound journals likeÂ Spiral. Those publications had a big impact on me, as did Jonas Mekasâ€™ â€œMovie Journalâ€ columns. The way he mixed criticism, advocacy, community building, and poetic language into his writing was inspiring. I knew from that point forward that I wanted to start a journal. My favorite types of writing have always been artist statements, manifestos, personal essays, letters and filmmaker responses to their colleaguesâ€™ work.
INCITEÂ was founded in 2008 with the goal of reinvigorating the culture, community, and discourse of experimental film, video art, and new media. P. Adams Sitney made a comment around that time, in an interview with Scott MacDonald, decrying the lack of new writing about experimental film and video, at a time when it was going through a huge creative resurgence. That was a major catalyst.
From the beginning,Â INCITEÂ has embraced a plurality of forms and approaches, combining the spirit, eclecticism, and individuality of zines and artist books with the review process and editorial methods of academic publishing. In addition to scholarly articles,Â INCITEÂ regularly prints manifestos, aesthetic statements, artist projects and drawings, archival documents, â€œG-chats,â€ diagrams, collage-essays, and so on.
Through the integration of print and online platforms, we attempt to distribute our publishing activities as widely as possible while also providing a material trace, a tangible legacy. Itâ€™s important to me that we publish an annual printed issue. But those take so much time to produce, and are dependent on volunteer time. The current issue that weâ€™re working on right now,Â Exhibition Guide, has over 50 contributors. We decided a few years ago to create an online interview series (â€œBack and Forthâ€), which would allow us to have an active publishing presence between issues. We have a couple of other web initiatives planned, including a reprint series of important texts that are difficult to find or no longer available, with new contextualizing information; and a â€œwork benchâ€ series, which will feature annotated documentation of artistsâ€™ studios and editing spaces. And weâ€™re close to finishing our first artist monograph, on the work of the pioneering Canadian media artist David Rimmer. It was edited by Mike Hoolboom, and will be available as an e-book on our website as well as in a print-on-demand edition.