Moving to a new town is disorienting. The streets do not yet make sense. The grocery store has strange foods. The restaurant chains arrange themselves differently. The art world shifts and morphs, revealing new opportunities, expansive possibilities, and gaps to be filled.
I recently moved from Minneapolis-Saint Paul to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I am adjusting to the differences in climate and landscape. I am discovering the differences in the art scenes between the two cities, reframing my understanding of what the art world is in Chattanooga and its relation to other cities I know. Every city has its advantages – an established collector base, commercial and independent art spaces, funding for the arts and artists, less commuting time, cheaper rent, lower cost of living, nicer weather. No city has everything. The established notions we have about the art world and its centers of power seem unshakeable. New York City exerts a magnetic pull on artists, collectors, arts appreciators, and people looking for the newest trends; Los Angeles has a different yet very present attraction.
Considering the top 125 cities. Photos via Andy Sturdevant.
Artists are more mobile now than ever, moving between cities, traveling to make and show work. The boundaries between cities and regions of the country are fluid. This mobility reveals the privilege of the people who can move within it, and it opens opportunities for reexamining the hierarchies we have created and reinforce. What happens when a small town in Arkansas opens a lavish museum? Do the art fairs in Miami attract artists to live there year round? Is Austin a major contemporary art center because of the other cultural activity that happens there? Will artists seek out Asheville when they no longer remember Black Mountain?
Andy Sturdevant’s interactive performance seminar, U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings, investigates the notion that the art world is static and unchanging and questions what we value in contemporary art and how we prioritize it. Andy visited Chattanooga in January to ask students, artists, and community members to rank the top 125 metropolitan statistical areas into five tiers – Major and Secondary National Contemporary Art Centers, Major and Secondary Regional Art Centers, and Important Local Contemporary Art Centers. The exercise of making these rankings explicit and public revealed much about how we form opinions and how Chattanooga fits into conversations within the regional and national art world.
Andy Sturdevant leading discussion on the qualities of great art cities.
Before cities can be ranked, the conversation begins by establishing the criteria for an attractive contemporary art city. The criteria for the crowd in Chattanooga was similar to other city’s criteria and included: a significant number of artists, art schools, economic opportunities for artists, arts infrastructure, and press coverage of the arts.
Starting in the middle of the list, we worked down, debating which cities fit on each tier. The definitions of what constitutes the tiers developed slowly, as the lower tiers accrued meaning and complexity with each new town. Individual voices prevailed. Participants shared their experiences at Virginia Beach or Eugene, and their recounting of great galleries or vibrant artist run spaces easily swayed the votes.
Working up from the middle, placing the cities became increasingly complex. The looming specter of the top cities by population (New York and Los Angeles) weighed over discussions as the second and third tiers filled with Minneapolis, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore. The debate grew increasingly heated as Detroit and Miami were both placed in the second tier before we ended with LA and New York and the final list. I did not agree with all of the decisions – the heartbreak of democracy. I wanted a deeper discussion of potential top sub tiers (1A, 1B…), but that conversation and others about the relative locations of other cities will continue to happen here. The power of Andy’s performance seminar lies in the conversations it generates, in the room and long after. The iterative nature of the list making keeps the debate alive, allowing differences to develop and for the list to shift over time.
Andy Sturdevant leading U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings
Chattanooga was Andy’s seventh and smallest city to create its own Rankings. As he says, “The discussions of the city’s place in relation to neighboring cities of equivalent size were very interesting, and quite unlike discussions in, say, New York or Chicago. It felt very much like the sorts of casual, bar-based conversations people have about their various towns and scenes outside the large art centers. Which is how the project began in the first place.”
We live in a rapidly changing world. The internet and easy travel have dismantled the hierarchies we thought we knew. We do not expect all flowers to grow in the same soil. We need sun and shade, the right balance of moisture, and careful pruning to cultivate many blossoms. The art world needs and already has that diversity; we must look in and beyond the assumed centers to find it. We should not mistake the most visible or assumed conditions for a thriving contemporary art center for the ideal conditions for every location.
Moving to a new place is not a final judgment about access to and participation in the global art world. The perceptions and assumptions about those places are malleable. U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings has transformed the way I think about the art world, my place within it, my new home, and how mutable that list truly is. We are all agents of transformation, and our towns move up and down the formal and mental lists of contemporary art centers based on our actions, our words, our ability to demonstrate that art and artists thrive in different circumstances and different conditions. Chattanooga’s conversation will continue in bars, at openings, in the streets, as we make the art center we envision, as we prepare the soil, sun, and water we need to thrive.
The highway passes quickly through Summerville, Georgia. The roadsides fill with small houses, businesses, and the ghosts of fastfood architecture. It is easy to miss the turn to Paradise Gardens. The houses that surround Howard Finster’s home, installation, and “life’s work” part suddenly to reveal the expansive sculpture gardens, rambling buildings, and layer cake tower of the World’s Folk Art Church.
Howard Finster, World’s Folk Art Church
It is easy to think we know Howard Finster, “man of visions.” His paintings grace the covers of popalbums. His portraits and hand painted words fit into our perceptions of an outsider artist. He was outside enough to be embraced by the art world and savvy enough to know how to eat up the celebrity that came along with it.
Paradise Gardens is empty, as I arrive. I talk to the attendant about the slowly unfolding and changing history of Paradise Gardens, hear his stories of coming to visit on a school field trip and being told to return to church on Sunday afternoons while peeking through the fences at Finster working. As recommended, I start at the back corner, and, before I get there, my preconceptions of Finster fall away.
Paradise Gardens is a stubborn refusal of the outside world that embraced his artwork and public persona. It resists visual and economic consumption. It arises from an unassuming, largely poor, small Southern town that, at best, tolerated his work during and after his lifetime. The World’s Folk Art Church, the most striking and visually alluring building, has been closed for decades due to structural concerns. The work of other artists and admirers intermixed with Finster’s work blurs lines of authorship and individuality. Paradise Gardens is full of beauty and wonder, but it is also full of Finster’s enormous collections of the “inventions of mankind” that, under different circumstances, would be called hoarding.
Bicycle handlebar grips
Life and death comfortably coexist in Paradise Gardens. The area surrounding Paradise Gardens abounds in life. Workers repair the sewer outside the fence. Neighbors come and go without giving Finster’s Mosaic Garden and paths a second glance. The Casket of the Unknown Body, which used to have a viewing glass so visitors could see the girl’s teeth, the constant reminders of the Christian life after death, and the many memorials to Finster embody and keep death present.
The many collections of bicycle parts, sewing machines, typewriters, Coke bottles, and more hold the lives of the people who made them and the man who placed them. They cast shadows of their original uses as they hang lifeless. The bicycles, televisions, and scraps writhing up out of the weathered, increasingly uniform mass in the center of the garden are transfigured into the Bicycle Tower and reborn into pop careers.
I recently visited an old bakery-turned-warehouse filled with tens of thousands of plates, saucers, coffee cups, teapots, ramekins, the remnants of restaurants closed in the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s. The stacks and stacks of plates filling the warehouse were caked in dirt, filled with rainwater, surrounded by pigeon droppings. They are a treasure trove and a filthy testament to objects. They are the left overs of failed businesses and abandoned identities and the china that holds the memories of a generation of Americans who ate at roadside diners and fraternal order lodges. Like Paradise Gardens, this warehouse full of dishes straddles the line between collecting and hoarding, between objects and memories, between life that ends and death that continues. Life and death are so deeply intertwined they are indistinguishable from one another.
I just moved to a new town, a new climate, a new part of the country that has much to teach me. I cannot help but think of making a new life, of reshaping my inward and outward habits in conjunction with the physical move. Both Paradise Gardens and the warehouse remind me that the life we have is short, that the death that awaits us is not far. More importantly, they help me hold close the fact that life begins again and again, when we move to a new place, when we wake each morning, when death comes to find us. Finster believed in a very specific idea of life after death. Whether or not we ascribe to that belief, Paradise Gardens confronts us with death and the lives that come after. It is well worth the trip.
We are in the midst of a warm snap. The snow has receded. The ice has left the lakes and rivers. I dig out the fall clothes I had packed away, reluctant to leave warm hats and scarves at home. I know the cold is waiting just around the corner for me to let down my guard again, but I do not want to miss the brief reprieve. I walk through warm days and nights, trying to understand this seasonal contradiction, as I struggle to hold the contradictions that surround me.
I support and enjoy the art installed in the long waiting room of Union Depot. I often eat lunch there. I linger with people in transition, crosstown bus riders and Amtrak passengers traveling to Chicago, and I am drawn to the gentle, rippling, summery reminder of Jim Campbell’s suspended 8 ½ x 11.
I simultaneously struggle to understand why the largest and most visible artworks are by artists from outside the Twin Cities (Campbell is based in San Francisco) and why artists from outside these communities and the legacies and present realities of injustice in those communities, like Ralph Gilbert from Atlanta, whose six large murals were recently installed, are asked to “reference the railroads’ impact on the Dakota tribes and their land; [and] the importance of railroad jobs for African Americans, especially in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood.”
8 1/2 x 11, Jim Campbell
I want to support the artists and makers whose work fills the overwhelming number of recent and upcoming holiday markets, popup shops, and art fairs. I love and would love to take home their work. I want to support artists trying to make a living and their desire to do so through their artwork, through forging and finding new ways to economically support themselves.
I simultaneously struggle with the fact that economic survival in and economic diversification of the artworld often shore up the neoliberal, capitalist systems that benefit a handful of people and visit violence on the earth and the people outside of that small minority.
Mural, Ralph Gilbert
I am filled with the deep pain, anger, frustration, hopefulness and solidarity of Million March MN and protests around the country over the weekend. I felt power dynamics being exposed when the march stopped traffic and stunned holiday shoppers looked on in disbelief and confusion. I believe the affirmation embodied in those marches that artists, that all people can come together to make change here and in cities across the country.
I simultaneously struggle with the fact that Midway Contemporary Art‘s Monster Drawing Rally fundraiser took place hours after the march. I support Midway, and the Monster Drawing Rally is an inventive, exciting way to bring together artists, collectors, and supporters to raise money. It was difficult, however, to watch hundreds of people pack in to watch artists make drawings and snatch up the drawings before they were hung on the walls. Consumption was conspicuous as people surged through crowds to be the first in line to buy a drawing, to buy drinks, to see and be seen, seemingly unaware of the larger issues and inequities in the world outside the white walls, deaf to the rallying cries still ringing in my ears.
Monster Drawing Rally, via Midway Contemporary Art
I am leaving the Twin Cities soon, moving to warmer, greener climates. I have learned so much from and in this place, but I clearly have a lot more to learn. These paradoxes in the artworld and in the rest of the world happen everywhere. I must remember that I am not alone in trying to understand and make sense of these worlds, that we all must struggle to make meaning of the contradictions that surround us. I am reminded as I enter a new place, a new art community that all of the knowledge and experience I think I have is simply a place from which to start learning and growing.
I can hold complexity and contradiction; I can move with and through and around that uncomfortable unresolvability. I remember that I am privileged in ways I know and in ways I cannot see. I will continue learning. I will continue making. I will continue to use the privilege and access I have to reflect and shine light on the inequalities and injustice around me.
In the popular imagination, bookshops in Notting Hill may be where bumbling Englishmen meet Hollywood filmstars. Last night it was where a bumbling art writer, played by myself, got to meet some of the UK’s most successful bloggers.
The venue was Book and Kitchen, who deserve props for the bohemian setting, mean jazzsoundtrack and fantastic three course meal. Since there’s no such thing as a free meal, we bloggers were encouraged, between mouthfuls, to discuss our medium of choice.
You can check out the results on @blog10, an enterprising venture by a PR agency called Marmalade. There was a lot of talent and success in the room: from a book blogger who’s landed a UK and US publishing deal (Ann Morgan) to a young vlogger who has the brands queueing up to feature on her profit-making lifestyle blog (Abisole Amole).
Thankfully, eclectic London blogger Katie Antoniou had plenty to say, recalling the time when blogs first emerged as the honest antidote to “bullshit” editorial. (Integrity, it seems, is still a blogger’s best friend, even in the current climate of bribery and gifting.) “I don’t have the ego for journalism,” she explained, which seemed to resonate around the table.
Rona Wheeldon has a niche even more obscure than contemporary art. She is a flower blogger, who waxed lyrical about the potential for filming posts and hosting a YouTube channel. “Vlogs can show emotion!” she insisted, even though last time I checked, the written word can sometimes do the same.
Things turned comic when book bloggers Morgan and Kim Forrester revealed statistical spikes from wayward web users who stumble upon their sites in search of resources forsex tourism. We laughed about it, but it was a reminder that despite its academic origins, the web is still not the best place for serious discussions. Nevertheless, with their literate audiences, both bloggers have built readership and communities within their crowded field.
Indeed it was widely reported that finding an audience and a network of peers could still be the number one reason for starting a blog. Even if in recent years comments are very hard to come by (“Who’s got time to comment?” we asked). Time is an increasing issue, as one faces the introduction of a two speed internet where large web corporations choke smaller players. Morgan raised fears of losing the level playing field bloggers now enjoy.
Several of us bemoaned the encroachment of social media ads and promoted posts. The latest platform to introduce ads appears to be Instagram. Starbucks and UK supermarket Waitrose had reached out to a couple of the photobloggers among us. Although to be fair, their presence wasn’t totally unwelcome. Amole revealed a thriving existence of the coffee giants’ #redcups hashtag. She is relaxed about it.
As the meal drew to a close we took questions about blogging from twitter. One eager user requested three tips from each of us in turn. Find a niche. Use social media. Build a brand. The wisdom was flowing by this point. But perhaps interiors blogger Kate Baxter had the last word. Don’t get into blogging to get free stuff or money. It probably won’t happen. You may however one day be invited to a West London blogging salon. Things could be worse.
Yesterday afternoon we took a trip to the new Black Cinema House space on 72nd and Kimbark to see the 1969 film, Putney Swope. The screening featured an introduction by comedian, Wyatt Cenac, who was wearing a knit sweater like you wouldn’t believe. Cenac’s choice for the screening felt uncanny in the gorgeous new home of the Johnson Publishing House archives, including a very 1970’s light up table from their offices.
BCH Program Manager, Penny Duff, introduces the film with Wyatt Cenac.
After the film was over a robust discussion started on the reception of the film when it was originally released, Robert Downey’s dubbing of Arnold Johnson’s voice, blacksploitation films, hip hop history, education and possible proscriptions for current day cultural production.
Cenac was an excellent moderator, letting others direct the conversation. Amongst other insightful contributions, Pemon Rami, Chicago’s first black casting director and the current Director of Educational & Public Programming at the DuSable Museum, discussed his impressions of the film having seen it in ’69 and again Sunday at the Black Cinema House (he mentioned he was fazed by the “buffoonery” on his recent viewing).
Black Cinema House is hosting more great programming at their beautiful brand spanking new space throughout the rest of the year, including hosting experimental filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu on November 14th. Check out their calendar of events here.
Reading is Fundamental
Both On-line and IRL Reads for your Educational Delight.
Chloé Griffin presents Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller. Tomorrow night get yourself to Quimby’s to see and hear one of our favorite local writers, Britt Julious discussing the life and legacy of actress, Cookie Mueller, with author Chloé Griffin. Tuesday, 7PM at Quimby’s. Free, our favorite flavor.
Inside Views: Micro Publishing at Spudnik Press. Featuring artists Charlie Megna, Veronica Siehl and April Sheridan and the The Perch, this Wednesday evening event is a no-brainer for lovers of community based art making and publications (like ourselves). We’d be loathe not to mention the world premiere of the short animations of Fred Sasaki’s & Fred Sasaki’s Four Pager Guide to: How to Fix You!. The Sasaki guides are already killer, and the film promises to knock you off your socks (and to fix you, of course!). Don’t forget to RSVP!
Fred Sasaki’s “Table of Value” prep for Wednesday. Stolen from the writer’s instagram account.
We’re pretty sure you know what Mexico-based artist Andrew Birk is talking about in his comment above. But if not, here are the pieces on Grabner and Prince. Talk amongst yourselves.
A Poet on Drake’s Poetics. So you know it must be true. Read Dorothea Lasky’s ode to Drake, where she sings the praises of his direct address on the occasion of the Canadian actor turned something like a rapper’s birthday. We feel you, Dorothea. But if you’re looking for some “real” poetry, check out her killer new book of poems, ROME.
The Weatherman Report
Sunday Thoughts by Clay Hickson from the artist’s tumblr.
Happy Dog Resurrects for Film Release
Video Diary Releases Kangaroo Premiere
Talk about a #tbt. When was the last time you visited Happy Dog? The former SAIC party rocking spot is way cleaner than you remember and the bathrooms have upgraded from their former horror-movie quality. Oh, and they hosted last Saturday night’s extravaganza for the DVD & VHS release of Lindsay Denniberg’s Video Diary of a Lost Girl.
Monica Panzarino’s video installation featuring Erica Gressman. Photo by Mikey McParlane.
The evening started with performances by Denniberg and self-surgery maven Erica Gressman aka Boogita. The space was scattered with video installations by Monica Panzarino on stacks of TV screens throughout. Happy Dog’s head dog, William Amaya Torres, had gigantic inverse prints of what appeared to be sketchbook pages installed throughout the house. We hadn’t seen work from Amaya Torres since our days at SAIC together. His prints were bold and appealing, they also had the benefit of darkening the space for the screening.
Alongside VDoaLG in the program was first year UIC MFA, Jimmy Schaus, with a 16 minute short titled Kangaroo. Schaus is the protagonist in the surreal dream scape of a film, which vacillates between the main character’s boring everyday life and the business casual demons who haunt him. Kangaroo impressively manages to riff on VHS effects and color distortion without being cheesy. We hope to see more from this budding filmmaker in the near future.
The world premiere of Kangaroo by James Schaus.
Video Diary of a Lost Girl looked better than ever Denniberg’s handmade VHS packages. We highly recommend getting your hands one of these beauts, even if, like us, you don’t have a VHS player. Yes, they are that cute. We’re not really sure where they’re available aside from in-person, but the filmmaker’s website is probably a good start.
T around Town
Here’s lookin’ at you, Chicago!
We loved this exhibition by Daniel Arnold in Paris London Hong Kong, that’s the Billy Goat Tavern in the photo!
The current crop of Art Admin MAs at SAIC hosted mural making an other arts & crafts at the Logan Square Comfort Station just outside of the penultimate neighborhood farmer’s market.
Greg Stimac and his coy grin at his Document opening on Friday night. We’re so in to those we’re gun sculptures that look kind of like legs!
Sense of déjà vu overwhelming at photo exhibition.
Artist align under themselves for Germanos exhibition.
We’re not really sure how, but Paul Germanos (the man with the camera and the motorcycle) somehow managed to assemble an impressive array of artists and makers for his exhibition at Antena Gallery in Pilsen last Friday night. Artist sat casually under photos of themselves, and as participators ourselves WTT? couldn’t help by snap a few re-takes.
Marissa Lee Benedict and David Rueter pose in front of themselves at Antena.
Daviel Shy and Hope Esser creatively interpret their photo on the wall. Cute!
Erik Wenzel does the Wenzel in front of his small likeness in the corner.
Header features an image from Paul Germanos’ opening at Antena Gallery last Saturday night.