As I walk through exhibitions, I find myself staring around the works on display, straining to see how paintings are hung from the walls, how sculptures rise from the floor. I look for projectors and speakers. I stare at the benches and chairs, the corners of walls, electrical outlets and lights. I am not avoiding the artwork. I am searching for the whole picture, yearning for everything the works contain. I want the story of the work, a record of its history, not simply the final object.
I was absorbed by Mitchell Syrop’s steel wall pieces in Hidden at Midway Contemporary Art, intrigued by their static flow, the impermanence of their solidity. As others visitors were absorbed in reading the text of his massive, nine panel Hidden, I stared at the nails holding up Family of Secrets, wondering about the hands and machines that had pulled them from the earth, shaped, packaged, shipped, sold, and hammered them. What narrative unites these steel objects on and in the wall? What happens to the nails when Family of Secrets is removed? Will they be united again?
I visited the Katherine E. Nash Gallery at the University of Minnesota, and I fell in love with the artworks installed in a particular corner. I marveled at their seamless pairing with an incredible, ambient sound piece, until I remembered that the sound comes from the heating and cooling system. I could see the works without the rasping rumble from the depths of the building. Of course, the context of any artwork influences our experience of it. The temperature of the room affects the book we read. The argument we hear in the alley outside affects our experience in the gallery. The lighting, hardware, and soundscape of artworks shape our viewing. I am looking for those other aspects of the objects because I want to know the narrative held within them, the time they embody even if we do not know how to see it.
I was thrilled to see a Roman Opalka ‘detail’ in the Walker Art Center’s Art Expanded, 1958-1978. The rows and rows of numbers embody time, daily practice, a life of dedication, but that time is lost among the other “expanded” practices. I strained to read the numbers, searching for the hours of its creation, wanting to hear Opalka’s recordings and see his self portraits to begin to fill out the narrative of this singular painting.
I have been visiting artists’ studios and installing work, slowly seeing objects unfold and absorb layers of meaning. I have seen ideas and conversations transform through unknowing, testing, exploration into artworks that hold each incarnation, each thought within them. I have watched white walls fill with works that travelled across the country, bringing with them the time and miles they travelled, their stamps and handlers, the nails and screws upon which they balance.
When I see artworks in galleries and museums, I know I am witnessing only one small portion of their narrative, and I want more. I search for the out of sight parts of these artworks to begin to enrich their stories, to attempt to understand their lived experience as changing, mutable objects who contain our time with them as they move into their future.
There is a chill in the night air. Fall is here, carrying the weight of the year behind it, breathing changes into the trees and gardens that begin to show the passage of time, the slow revolution of the seasons. I return to Opalka. He writes, “Time as we live it and as we create it embodies our progressive disappearance.” Let us look to the objects we create to see our progressive disappearance. They reveal the briefest moments of that disappearance when we see them displayed, but they will hold the passage and passing of our lives long after we have disappeared.
I cannot read the news at night any more. I lay awake in the fading heat filled with outrage, sadness, my heart breaking with lives destroyed, communities torn apart, people disempowered and displaced. I have been dreaming of death, loved ones suddenly gone as I sit next to their hospital bed, the charred remains of buses and cars. As summer roars into its last gasp, I need relief, escape from heat, humidity, simmering tensions. Instead, I read the news in the morning, a bitter taste lingering, a veil on my daily activities that hazes my coffee, blurs my to do list, turns food into ashes.
I am privileged. I am privileged to be aware of and called to action by the multitude of crises happening in my neighborhood and around the world. I am removed enough and have enough leisure and access to knowledge of events that surround me and that take place across the globe to choose what I consume and how I act. I am privileged to sit and write these words.
Invoking Adorno again, we must ask what is possible in the face of daily crises? What is tenable when confronting the contemporary world? How can we continue to create when the world seems to crumble around us?
There is a reason we need art. We do not need art because it expresses the experiences of people in terrifying situations or because it brings escape or comfort, although we must remember its ability to do so. We need art because we are told there is a solution to the problems we face by people who have power, who want to maintain and restore a sense that they are in control in an increasingly uncertain world, who fear their power crumbling away from them. There is not a simple or easy solution. Real change takes longer than we can conceive and cannot happen within the frameworks that surround us. We need art to help us abandon the idea that there is even a solution to be found. We need art to push boundaries, not by imagining or creating alternatives that reinforce or are co-opted by existing conditions, but by shocking us into new ways of envisioning ourselves and our power in this tragic world, by opening doors to us that we did not realize were closed.
It is not enough to read the news and be outraged, although we must be aware. It is not enough to protest, although we must make our voices heard. It is not enough to sit down to dinner with your neighbor, although we must build meaningful connections between us as individuals before we see connections between us as communities. It is not enough to be radically local, although our work here ripples beyond our sight.
Contemporary art must be that which is inextricable from the hour it was made, the neighborhood where it was conceived, the global panorama from which it arises. With the exponential expansion of information, evidence, visual records, we must be aware of what we make, what we put out into the world, the context it enters. We must pay close attention to who we are, where we come from, the privilege we embody, the impact our actions have, and we must continue to create.
Read the news. Be outraged. Protest. Eat dinner with your neighbor. Be radically local. And continue making work that pushes the boundaries of what we know to be desirable. Art and artists are not a way to fix the broken systems that surround us, but they may be one way to begin a future we cannot foresee.
I am for an art that admits and proudly wears its context. I am for an art that is inextricable from the world which shaped it.
I awake from my dreams. I push aside the veil of of despair and apathy. I rise to meet the challenges of the day. They do not decrease.
Christian Marclay’s The Clock debuted in London nearly four years ago. I voraciously read about the monumental work at the time, marveling at the dedication needed to edit together the thousands of clips of clocks and watches, and I longed to see it for its overwhelming and endless minutiae. It is everything I could want in a film, impossibly long, impossibly conceptual. At long last, it is at the Walker Art Center, and, having watched it at different times of the day and night (although never 24 hours straight), I find it difficult to discuss The Clock without resorting to hyperbole. It is bigger and longer than I know how to handle comfortably. It resists us as humans, existing on its own schedule, inside its own logic that does not need us. It is simultaneously truly watchable, enjoyable, entertaining. Marclay knows why we watch movies, and he masterfully blends that suspense, humor, boredom, drama, anxiety.
The Clock is, of course, a movie about time, but the more time I spend with it, the more I know it as a movie about the present, a monument to the ever-passing present that eludes our fingers the very moment we think we can grasp it. As viewers, we recognize that time is passing, that minutes are added to the clock one by one. We are, however, constantly aware that we are within that passing moment, that we are in an endless succession of moments.
It is, of course, also about death. Death looms large in the film, appearing directly and indirectly throughout the day. Death also whispers by with each instance of a clock, each glance at a watch, each emphasis on the now.
The Clock promises uncompromising fidelity, an endless repetition of its day, every day, for all time. Inspector Clouseau will struggle to synchronize his watch every evening; the Titanic will sink every night, and Cher will make Nicolas Cage a steak every afternoon. The abstract idea of time that exists in each of its thousands of clips is actualized in its synchronization. They are ripped from filmic time into the time we know and cannot escape. The synchronized time of The Clock, of our watches and cellphones, may be a human construct, but time passes inexorably.
The Clock tantalizes us with the illusion that time can be ours, that time will stand still, can be revisited day after day. That cyclical time breaks the “harsh” reality of The Clock and of time itself. As I sit in the dark, experiencing time pass with everyone in the gallery, I am comforted by the slow realization unfolding minute by minute that time does not wait for us; it existed before us and will continue without us in endless loops. The pressure we feel from time is the weight of our fear of death, but time is weightless.
Marclay has gifted us with an artwork that fully embraces and exists within time. He invites us to live with our deaths, the temporality of our dusty bones as we pass through every minute of his day, and, thankfully, he reassures us that time will not notice when we have fallen behind.
Over the coming months, the Bad at Sports blog is featuring quick glimpses of the art world as it exists in smaller cities across the country and around the world. Each glimpse is byway of some of the said city’s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. In this Atlanta Day, Part 2 article, Bad at Sports correspondent Meredith Kooi has invited curator, performer, and arts administrator Priscilla Smith to examine some features of the city of Atlanta and its arts community: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Since I moved to Atlanta (this is Meredith talking) to start my PhD, I’ve been trying to make sense of this city. Usually, I use the space of my monthly writing for Bad at Sports as an opportunity to think with and through the art, performance, etc. that I witness and participate in here. Being from Chicago, ATL was foreign to me; I didn’t understand the ways in which it worked and all the complexities that determine it as the city it is. In this post, following Part I which examined “institutional legacy and memory,” Priscilla Smith takes on some of what might have lead Atlanta to where it is now and offers a few projects that maybe it, and we, should look to as examples of ways to keep working. Smith, a native to ATL, offers her perspective on this place, what it has to offer, and, maybe, what we could do without.
Now, Priscilla Smith:
Context: I got invited to give Bad at Sports my take on “the scene” in Atlanta. “What a Great Opportunity,” I thought. “It will be a Great Chance for Me to Reflect,” I thought. 1,000 words? No problem.
50% too long and six days after my self-imposed deadline, it’s still incomplete but I have to stop somewhere. Distilling my current experience as an art maker, producer, and participant in a city where I’ve spent my whole life is a bigger job than I’d imagined.
It’s only in the past three or four years that an Atlanta art patron has had to make a deliberate choice from a substantial selection of openings, lectures, plays, dance, music, immersive performance art (all of some respectable level of quality, ingenuity, or both) on a Thursday. It used to be that there would be a couple of visual art events a month, the Nutcracker, the Symphony, and two or three theaters with subscription seasons of “regional premieres.”
It had been a truism that, in order for an Atlanta artist or performer to “make it,” she’d have to leave Atlanta to fatten her resume, then come back to be be-laurel-ed: the Returning Art Hero. Nowadays, an artist can keep quite busy right here.
Not that all this activity is yielding a livable wage for artists. A recent and credible article pointed out that Atlanta has the greatest discrepancy between Haves and Have Nots in the country. I suspect that the money had by the Haves is being spent elsewhere. Our lovely High Museum, with its permanent collection, gallery of African Art, current visiting exhibitions, etc., could fit into Chicago’s Art Institute more than three times. Chicagoans spend money at home.
Instead, Atlantans spend money here on dining – fine, medium, and coarse. We spend money at our biggest-ass malls — where the truest cross-section of our populace can be found. These places are huge, busy, and had very low vacancy rates during the worst of the current recession.
In contrast, many private gallerists — largely a passionate, admirable group — allow that for days on end the only person walking through the door is working for FedEx. It isn’t the “death of the gallery” Jerry Saltz so eloquently eulogized, though. He visits 30 a week. We might have 30 altogether.
Non-profits like WonderRoot, with the mission of “Uniting Artists and Communities to Inspire Positive Social Change,” connect patrons and artists. WonderRoot established Atlanta’s first c.s.a. (consumer supported art) project, a rare example of successfully implementing another community’s good idea (see Fear of Originality below).
The scene in Atlanta is a fluctuating series of artwalks and public art extravaganzas, explosions of creativity and bitter disappointments.
Pretty much like anywhere else.
And, like anywhere else, people have opinions. Here are some of mine about our “cultural assets.”
1. Atlanta is a hilly town in a deep forest. We don’t have to make anything to live in a place of extraordinary gorgeousness.
2. Approaching Downtown on the abominable and divisive divided highways (Interstates were deliberately placed so as to perpetuate racial segregation), the traveler has the feeling of approaching a “real city” where buildings scrape the sky in a great variety of configurations from Beaux-Artes marble and a Neo-Classical gold dome to Phillip Johnson’s Po-Mo IBM erection.
3. We’ve got a city center with a street scene with actual people in it. After years of ghost-townishness, there’s hope.
4. Exuberance – 1,000+ showed up at the grand opening of the city’s newest municipal gallery-cum-water-bill-payment-office.
6. Access – Artists of all forms can get their work before an audience; for example, a few significant spaces:
a. Whitespace – Generous genius Susan Bridges’ restored-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life Victorian mansion in the haute ‘hood Inman Park is a beacon for the stable-turned-ideal-gallery in the backyard showing an impressive variety of art and artists. Mind-bending performances often grace the patio and lawns and the low-ceilinged cellar, dubbed “Whitespec.”
b. Skwhirlhaus – Another act of generosity, the not-as-grand-but-equally-moving backyard venue founded by Maryn Whitmore “dedicated to providing a place where artists can challenge themselves artistically while striving to create an original, complete work.”
c. Art on the Atlanta BeltLine – “The largest temporary public art exhibition in the South” commissions work for the “largest urban redevelopment” project in the U.S. of A.
7. Growth – More galleries, more public art, more theaters, more artists, more dance, more environmental performances, more clubs, more original music, more, more, more
The Ugly/Noise at Eyedrum :
“Musicians” come from all over the world in search of a P.A., a Facebook post, and a dozen pairs of ears upon which to try their experiments and discoveries, from cranium-splitting amplification of metal-on-metal banging like Christian noise artist Scotty Irving (Clang Quartet) to the a-rhythmic acoustic plunkings of a guitar with each string tuned to G. Ugly like a Baroque pearl and twice as valuable.
The Truly Ugly/(Some) Public Art:
1. The “official” Olympic Torch sculpture–psuedo de-constructivist cheap-ass agglomeration of steel trusses and pre-fab stairs (it’s an embarrassment).
2. The un-“official” Olympic Torch (provenance indeterminate; lots of people mistake it for the real thing) – a 3-story bird cage with a turd on top.
3. Atlanta’s own Triumphal “Millenium Gate,” just like the arch in Paris, only it’s made of fake stucco and was erected as a vanity project (wait, I guess Napoleon wasn’t exactly humble) to adorn a private town built on the sludge of a defunct steel mill within the city limits.
So Ugly It’s Depressing:
1. Fear of Originality – The Chamber of Commerce, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, City Hall itself — all of these powerful entities look to what’s going on elsewhere and try to imitate others’ successful cultural forays without engaging the substantial resources of our own city. We pay consultants real money to tell us how better to run culture when spending money commissioning work here would go miles further.
2. Segregation – Aside from “the most segregated hour of the week” (church), the cultural life of Atlanta still struggles. However — While we’ve yet to develop audiences/patron groups that represent the full demographic profile of our cities or counties, things are changing. Every day. And addressing integration is a big reason why some of us stick around.
Older Non-Monumental Architecture. Atlanta has historically and hysterically torn down anything it felt like in order to put up something new, even if the old thing was pretty and the new thing ugly. I remember as a young adolescent becoming aware of cool old buildings and spotting one out of the corner of my eye as we drove by. Three days later it was gone, making way for a pretty bland federal courthouse. The building I glimpsed was only about 50 years old, but it had towers.
The good part is that someone pulled the string hanging above our heads, the light bulb lit up, and we’re tearing down less. Lo and behold, there’s an undiscovered cache of cool storefronts hiding under plastic signs and marquees in the underpopulated southern quarter of our re-bustling Downtown. Ebb and flow, pendulum swings . . .
Atlanta is a lot more like L.A. than New York. “Atlanta” often refers to a 13-county spread that can take four hours to traverse (or more) when traffic is bad–which is more and more of the time. As a result, there’s more interesting work being made and shown than anybody realizes. Just as the Major League Baseball team is headed to the suburbs, the ballet, the opera, theater companies, galleries, artists, and clubs speckle the map.
Salve for the Pain:
The city proper “Inside the Perimeter” (or ITP in local shorthand) has a growing population after horrible years of exurban migration.
And to end, the Noteworthy (An Idiosyncratic listing):
1. Dance: It’s everywhere – In the forests, on trucks, in (defunct) factories, crosswalks, and it’s challenging, authentic, conceptually dense, and breathtaking (Beacon Dance, Dance Truck, Glo ATL, Lucky Penny, Blake Beckham, Helen Hale, Dance Chance, Meredith Kooi).
2. Living Walls The City Speaks urban conference and mural-a-thon — now an annual event; some excellent and some awful big outdoor wall paintings done by artists from all over the globe, gallery shows of their work, a real change in public and institutional perceptions.
3. Beep Beep Gallery Owners’ success lead them to open a hugely popular bar “Mother.”
4. SUMPTUARY – A month-long series of installations and performances where refreshment sales generated income for presenting artists. It was Where It’s At when it was on.
7. Film Love
8. Poem 88
11. Doog Gallery
13. Radio 1690
Priscilla Smith became the executive director of Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery as a volunteer in 2009, and in November 2013, became Eyedrum’s first paid employee when she started drawing a salary. She has created and presented performance art works, solo and in collaboration, in the streets and galleries of Atlanta since the early 1980s. Her first public art intervention took place in 1986 when she performed “I’m Sorry,” in which she fabricated a deconstructed hoop skirt and apologized to passersby during the Atlanta “Tight Squeeze Festival.” Most recently she distributed envelopes of money to passersby in the guise of “Lovey Joy” for her ongoing project “What I Did With The Money” as a commission for Flux Projects. In 2013 she played Clara 2 in Oh! Fearsome Head!, part III at The Big Haus. Other recent appearances include her original work “87 Gestures” for Dance Chance Atlanta and as a curtain-raiser for Oh! Fearsome! Head!, part II. She was a founding company member of ACME Theater that from 1980 to 1990 presented original performance works ranging from improvisational contemporary opera to full-length original dramas. She created a closing performance event for the centennial symposium in observance of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, has collaborated with Beacon Dance and John Q, and directed and produced over 35 evenings of student-created dramatic works at Horizons School and The Atlanta School in 21 years as an educator. She has served as performance coordinator for Art on the Atlanta BeltLine and was co-producer and co-founder of the 2010 Living Walls Conference. She holds a B.A. in speech and drama from Trinity University.
My wife and sometime collaborator Stephanie Burke and I recently completed a 140-mile walk as a perforance piece called “Walking to Mordor.” The walk was based on an Easter egg introduced in Google Maps three years ago: if you asked it for walking directions from “The Shire” to “Mordor,” instead of the usual “Walking directions are in beta” warning, a pop up announced, “Caution: One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor.” The line is Boromir’s, from The Fellowship of the Ring. Ignoring his naysaying, the two hobbits Sam and Frodo proceed to do exactly that.
The line, as spoken in the 2001 film, spawned an Internet meme which consisted of a still image of Boromir, hand in mid gesture, coupled with a line of text reading, “One does not simply…” followed by whatever the author wished to decry. Instances date back to at least 2004. In 2011, Google Maps joined the party by adding the Easter egg to their walking directions. Along with the warning, however, Google actually did provide a map and directions, from a restaurant called “The Shire,” in Chehalis, Washington, to a tattoo shop called “Mordor Tattoo,” in Arlington, Washington, 138 miles away.
When I showed Stephanie the joke, she mentioned that, coincidentally, she has family in Chehalis, and had spent some time there growing up. It didn’t take long for us to decide that it would be fun, and funny, to take Google Maps’ directions at face value, and walk the route. Almost immediately thereafter we realized we had to commemorate the journey by getting tattoos at Mordor, and that the tattoos should be of the map of the route. We documented the project with a series of photographs called “Instagram vs. Holga.” Stephanie, a trained photographer, shot on the cult classic crappy medium format film camera, while I, with no more than a couple of undergraduate photography classes under my belt, used my phone’s camera and the everyman’s favorite app.
As has happened with more than one previous project, we didn’t set out to make art. Our process is more often that we have an idea for something we’d like to do, and then, almost against our wills, we realize that it is starting to look quite a bit like art. Or at least like things that other people call art. And certainly, going for a long walk has quite a history as a form of performance art. It has spawned books, blogs, and even a society. Well-known examples include Francis Alÿs,Regina José Galindo, Simon Faithfull.
The history of walking as a form of performance art can never be severed from its history as a form of protest. Galindo’s 2003 walk from the Congress of Guatemala to the National Palace, her feet dipped in blood to leave red footprints, was intended as a protest against Guatemala’s former dictator, José Efraín Ríos Montt. Montt had formerly led a military regime known for widespread human rights abuses, and at the time of Galindo’s performance was running for President in a democratic election.
Not all of those who have walked in protest have identified as artists. Perhaps the most famous example, internationally, is Ghandi’s Salt March or Salt Satyagraha. By directly and pointedly disobeying a British law against domestic salt production in India (forcing Indians to buy imported British salt), the march essentially started what became the international Civil Disobedience Movement.
Inspired by Ghandi, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march itself covered barely more than a mile, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, though the 250,000 participants (60,000 of them white) had traveled from much farther away by bus, rail, and plane. Some spent 20 or more hours on buses traveling as far as 750 miles. Two years later, voting rights activists marched 54 miles, from Selma, Alabama to the state capitol in Montgomery. The Selma to Mongomery marches are commemorated by a National Historic Trail.
America’s racial history (obviously still in the making) continues to inspire performance artists. In 2009 I reviewed Meg Onli’s Underground Railroad project for Art Talk Chicago. (Five years later, her work holds up better than my early efforts at writing.) Presented as part of Twelve Galleries Project and curated by Jamilee Polson (who is also this blog’s managing editor), Onli’s project consisted of her retracing, on foot, the route of the Underground Railroad: a 440-mile journey, in Meg’s words, “in search of blackness.”
Exploring another form of blackness entirely, Chicago-based curator Amelia Ishmael co-edits Helvete, a journal of Black Metal theory, in the first issue of which was published David Prescott-Steed’s “Frostbite On My Feet: Representations of Walking In Black Metal Visual Culture.” (If you’d like to read the article for yourself, the entire journal is presented for free, as a downloadable PDF, at the above link. A print edition, also available, is well worth the price.) “Frostbite” tracks a few reference points linking walking with Black Metal culture. Principally, it finds the common ground between a grueling trek into the Norwegian tundra, led by Gaahl (former Gorgoroth frontman), and the author’s own experience walking the mundane streets of an Australian metropolis while listening to Burzum:
In this case, “blackened walking” is seen to be less about the activity of walking itself and more about the circumstances under which one can move through space—walking not just for the sake of exercise, pleasure, or getting to the shops on time. With the modern world (invested in trains, planes, and automobiles), the slow, simplicity of a walk (Walking? How pedestrian!) seems to have lost some of its value. However, walking is capable of bringing one’s focus back to a fundamental question of what a body physically needs to do in order to transition through, and therefore go on, in the world. Perhaps mourning the forgetting of the existential significance of walking, “blackened walking” pays respects to walking as the chance to explore self-determination and a readiness for the unknown.
We hadn’t conceived of the “Walking To Mordor” project initially in terms of its connection to Black Metal, but as we walked, Prescott-Steed’s phrase “blackened walking” echoed in my mind. The connection, however ephemeral, clarified itself in my mind as I looked over Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth, and researched his languages. Two of the bands mentioned in “Frostbite” take their names from Tolkien’s writing. Gorgoroth is an arid plateau in the northwest corner of Mordor, surrounding Mount Doom; the name comes from Sindarin (the Gray Elven tongue) and means “dreadful horror.” The name of another band, Burzum, means “darkness” in the Black Speech of Mordor.
Far from the tradition of protest marches, whether as performance art or otherwise, “Walking To Mordor” was in some was a playful exploration of what happens when a joke is taken 138 miles too far. A linguist became an author. His book became a movie. The movie spawned a joke. The joke became a meme. The meme became an Easter Egg embedded in the principal means by which Americans today naviage their world. With every breath spitting in the face of Alfred Korzybski, originator of the phrase, “the map is not the territory,” most of us today confuse a glance at Google Maps, followed by a drive in the car, with exploration. We think of distances first in minutes of driving, or hours of flight. The landmarks we note are gas stations and Starbucks locations. Google Maps has become the average person’s understanding of the world. Moreover, our culture is becoming one of remakes and mashups. References have taken the place of wit: “that’s clever” has been replaced with “I have heard that before.” Tolkien has been reduced, in the public imagination, to the origin of nerd-chic Internet memes, and we have tried in our way to be true to his work by dragging a piece of derivative humor, kicking and screaming, into meatspace.