Instigated in conjunction with “The Locational Turn? Reflections from Chicago on documenta in Kassel, Alexandria, Banff and Kabul” panel discussion held November 13 (2013) at the Block Museum on Northwestern University.
by Daniel Tucker
Anyone who tries to generalize about “the art world” owes you an explanation about which world they are describing. While there is undoubtedly overlap between major institutions, mid-sized institutions, high-end commercial galleries, universities, art schools, community colleges, apprenticeships, auctions, internships, craft galleries, non-profit galleries, informal and community-based cultural centers, residency programs, private philanthropists, collectors, public grants, magazines, theoretical journals, blogs, public art commissions, street art, artist collectives and individual artists – they can still seem worlds apart.
One world that can seem worlds apart is that of the Documenta exhibition, founded in 1955 by Arnold Bode, to occur every 5 years and reconnect post-war Germany to the contemporary art conversations and practices developing internationally. Produced by the documenta and Fridericianum Museum Event Company which provide the ongoing organizational infrastructure to keep the project going, the exhibition is largely guided by a curator. This position is akin to “being the mayor of a small city,” according to Michael Rakowitz, a Chicago artist exhibiting in this years show (1). In 2008 the search committee arrived on Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev as the curator, and she began her work on January 1st, 2009 re-inventing what has become over the last 13 incarnations, a crucial node in the intellectual and critical discourse of art around the world – itself producing conversations, catalyzing careers, and generally generating trends that will be talked about in years to come (in Chicago over the last year at the MCA, SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries and U of C’s Logan Center Exhibitions there have already been three exhibits of re-worked pieces shown at documenta13). In the summer for 100 days, from June 9th to September 16th of 2012, over 300 artists, writers, and thinkers participated in documenta13 in Kassel, Germany.
In 2012 a remarkable number of Chicago artists were invited as participants. Theaster Gates (with John Preus and Rebuild Foundation), Claire Pentecost, Michael Rakowitz, and Lori Waxman are all exhibiting works. A number of Chicago-based authors produced texts for the 100 Days 100 Books portion of the programs including Brian Holmes, WJT Mitchell, David Nirenberg and Jane Taylor. To have this many participants from one city would be unusual, but for it to be a city so detached from the commercial facets of art selling (gallerists, collectors, auction houses, etc) and so oriented towards political, community, and socially-engaged art is what makes the decision stand out.
Locally there has been a thriving art community in Chicago that is focused on strong social bonds, engagement with concerns and disciplines that exceed the focus of art, and political and ethical commitments around themes ranging from war and labor to housing and food. This has a long history in the city, dating back to the 1960s in terms of direct lineages with existing practices. It has developed in a particular and regionally-specific way, while art since the 1980s more generally in the United States has experienced a gradual engagement with political and social life. All over the country, but particularly on the coasts, there are art schools and universities initiating “Social Practice” focus areas for students interested in art that deals with social forms as a material in place of traditional art materials and mediums that have come to include clay, video, performance, paint, photography, sculpture, murals, and interactive websites, among many others.
Through my study of Chicago, I have observed that this turn towards “the social” is less of a turn, and more of a ever-present fascination. It has also been observed today, as well as in reflections on history that the work in Chicago has always been more serious than elsewhere. In a dialogue held at the South Side Community Arts Center, respected photographer from the Black Arts Movement Bob Crawford spoke to his experience doing a photo show in New York City, where he observed that “the Chicago photographers’ work was usually more political. And the New York photographers’ work was a little more “art,” narrowly.”(2)
Deeply familiar with the Chicago artists and authors participating in documenta13, I traveled to Kassel last summer to see their work and consider my hometown art scene in relationship to this massive global event. Below are a few scenes from that trip.
Jorg Doerig’s friends and family have joined him to go have his art critiqued. They pack into a small self-contained room, a sleek writers cottage of sorts, where Jorg unpacks his paintings of flowers, and a self portrait, and layes them out on some shelves and leaning against the wall along the floor. It was time for his appointment with the Chicago Tribune art critic and art historian Lori Waxman, who had been taking half-hour appointments with local artists in Kassel three days a week all summer. Over the visit she asks some questions, but mainly gives her attention to interpretation of the art.
“Why Paint?,” she writes in response to Jorg’s work. “For love of certain subjects.” She concludes.
To watch her type (a mirror of her laptop monitor is displayed on a screen facing the artist and a steady-stream of passer-bys) is akin to watching a live poetry reading. Nothing else can compare to the experience of watching someone invest herself in the creative practice of another. While art criticism has become a game so detached from the making and the maker, Waxman reinvests herself in people and their artistic output. And she herself is on display, revealing the writing process, her process.
Most artists Waxman critiques in this project, titled “60 WRD/MIN Art Critic,” have never had their art written about. For the most part she has executed this project in smaller towns throughout the United States with the support of a writers grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation. In these settings, her presence incites tremendous excitement.
She consults an online thesaurus. What is a synonym for “Lovingly”? Jorg stirs, he smiles and looks around at his friends. What a strange experience, to have someone craft language before your eyes about your heartfelt and time-consuming creative activities.
In “What Dust Will Rise?” Michael Rakowitz presents an entire room of enclosed vitrines and display tables immediately conjuring the space of a museum, a special collection or an archive. Upon closer look, you notice handwritten notes in thin black marker ink on the glass panes of the display shelving. Like many artists in this installment of documenta, Rakowitz engages in the legacy of the Nazi presence in Germany and in the present military operations and occupation of Afghanistan. The building in which his installation is presented, the Fridericianum, was a library when it was bombed in 1941 and all but 15% of the books were destroyed. The artist elegantly draws a parallel between that sited history, infusing it in the present, with the interrelated history of Taliban destruction of cultural artifacts in Afghanistan – most notably the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.
Presented on the tables I encounter replicas of books destroyed in that bombing, carved out of stone quarried in Bamiyan by artisans Rakowitz commissioned in Italy. Proceeding through the space, books from other bombings, fires, and cultural assassination appear. Many of the books were original printings with intricate woven and printed cover art, shown here in rich three dimensional carvings of the cover, spine, and worn pages – all beautifully carved with precise details. Other books take the form of an open spread, drawing attention to the content through subtle and surprising connections with the form or the act of destruction that inspired the installation. Others, like the oldest lexicon of classical medieval abbreviations, are just devastating because of what they contain, and what knowledge and culture was lost.
Surprise is the crucial word for this experience. As I proceed from case to case and book to book, I keep thinking that I have comprehended the scope of the artistic gesture. And then the next object or collection startles me. He did what? I think. He really brought some building fragments from dismantled public housing in St. Louis, the Twin Towers, and the Berlin Wall? Yes. Stone carving chisels from Bamiyan made from the remnants of exploded cars and abandoned tanks belonging to the occupying forces? Yes. Surprise after wonderful surprise, the installation unfolds with linkages and nuances that dispel an attempt at easy summary, but provoke curiosity in an unwritten narrative about our ongoing human projects of creation and destruction, war, imperialism, pre-modern and modern.
A highlight of the exhibition, this surprise echoes the best parts of documenta13, an exhibit without an overarching theme – forcing each work to be viewed for what it is.
Entering from the garden into the narrow glass doors on the side of the Ottoneum, I am excited to see the work of Claire Pentecost in such an ideal location. Prominently and symbolically located in the the first theater built in Germany, now serving as the Museum of Natural History, the installation is the entrypoint for an entire building full of works about seeds, science and ecology – one of the most coherent sub-themes within this massive and themeless exhibition.
Pentecost produced this work in residence at The University of Kassel Faculty of Organic Agricultural Science in Witzenhausen and following her participation in a soil workshop at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania.
The outcome is a multi-modal installation all centered around a proposed currency called Soil-Erg. She made dozens of drawings with pencil and mud, illustrating a heterogeneous paper money version of Soil-Erg, each depicting a different ecological scene or significant activist and research figures working with food and science. Above the two walls of paper currency, are differently sized medallions of soil. The elaborate tables at the center of the room are piled up with ingots of soil, reminiscent of fantastical gold stashes from Indiana Jones or Fort Knox.
Along the back wall is an intervention into the museum’s collection – a move made by a number of artists who found inspiration in the specificity of the temporary exhibition venues. On the left there is a glass display unit from the collection of the Otteneum that shows slices of soil from different depths of the earths crust. To the right, Pentecost fabricated a similar companion unit that serves as a compost pile that will accumulate over time. The insides are equipped with microphones and through use of a headset you can literally hear the energy, heat and process of the decomposition of organic waste. On one wall of the unit, a hand-written chart depicts the phenomenon of corporate land-grabbing in the global south where North American and European companies are buying up massive farm land and even creating “soil farms” throughout Africa and Latin America.
Pentecost’s participation in documenta13 is itself heterogeneous. She is one of the few exhibiting artists who also made a book for the 100 Books 100 Days project, she gave a number of lectures and workshops, made a video for the website dealing with the importance of seeds to culture, and was an instructor at the summer retreat on the theme of “retreat” at the Banff artists residency in Canada.
The immersive “12 Ballads For Huguenot House” is spearheaded by Theaster Gates along with his design collaborator John Preus, studio manager Theo Boggs, and a rotating cast of staff from his non-profit Rebuild Foundation. Walking into the house, I immediately feel a complex social energy. People buzzing around, up and down the stairs, posting schedules for the day’s activities and consulting with one another about what the morning has in store. The video and audio pieces scattered throughout the 2nd and 3rd floors of the building are still being switched on, and some people just waking from bed. Art tourist’s are poking their heads into the sleeping quarters, asking the people clearly in bed, “do you sleep here”? The Huguenot House is undoubtedly alive with real humans and the art pieces themselves were just a small component of the overall project. It may have one artist’s name attributed to it, but something this alive is the work of many.
Mobilizing people to invest in places and buildings is one of Gates’ strengths. The building at 25 Friedrichsstrasse in Kassel had been empty since World War 2. Under very different historical forces, there are homes in Gates’ neighborhood in Chicago, Grand Crossing, that have also been abandoned for decades (though not quite as long as in Germany). As a crucial facet of his participation in documenta13, a deal was made where a house in Chicago would be purchased and its wooden and metal guts would be converted into objects to repopulate the building in Kassel and at a later date visa versa, forming a kind of architectural material exchange. This insistence that elite cultural institutions should subsidize projects in the places where he lives and works (which has now grown to include a number of Black communities throughout the midwest through the work of Rebuild Foundation) is something Gates unabashedly names in his public presentations.
And in the case of Hugenot House, this subsidy to Chicago cultural possibilities that lie in the future of that local project, have been reciprocated with real life-force being breathed back into the long abandoned building. Throughout documenta, it has been the site of performances, daily yoga classes, community meals and what are said to be the best parties in Kassel every Wednesday night throughout the four months of the exhibition.
Conclusion: The Rematerialization of the Art Object?
As Paul Chan, another participating artist with Chicago ties, commented in a recent interview during documenta, “It is a funny time in art when making something quiet is seen as radical.”(3) The expectation has been implicitly fostered through curation and critical writing that new art needs to be participatory. It is not dissimilar from trends in governance and commerce – participation is the key to the hearts and minds!
As a counterpoint to this trend, these four projects start from complex social problems and engaged in the social processes necessary to activate and engage those problems, and then they made art objects and forms. Finding material resolutions to distill the complexity of the world into a form is one of the contributions artists have historically made to the societies in which they live. The work presented at documenta13 by Chicago artists produces a productive challenge for the debates around socially-engaged art practice and its treatment in educational and art presenting institutions. Formalist reactionaries now commonly antagonize participatory art with the same odium as was applied to performance artists in the decades past while Social Practice fundamentalists claim that objects are dead and process is the new vanguard. Perhaps these artists show a third way, a marriage between the qualities artists have long attempted to capture with material forms and the complex social processes necessary to engage the complex social world in a meaningful way.
1) Rakowitz, Michael – Conversation with the author (7/5/12)
2) Crawford, Bob – AREA Chicago (2008), http://areachicago.org/bob-crawford-and-margo-natalie-crawford/
3) Chan, Paul – Bad at Sports (2012), http://badatsports.com/2012/episode-358-paul-chan-with-john-preus/
[Special thanks to Judith Russi Kirshner, Marcia Lausen, Jennifer Reeder, Lisa Yun Lee, Carolina Ariza, Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri, and Scott Berzofsky]
It is difficult then to delve into the past and exhume whole passages of injustice, especially when those passages operate inside of a system one believes to be good. In doing so, one must discuss the significance of trauma, peel back old wounds and attempt in some way to make peace. Or perhaps it isn’t about making peace at all. Perhaps it is instead about admitting and honoring discomfort, frustration and unhappiness, for while it is horrific to admit that there are cracks in the systems we employ, it is worse to gloss over or deny them. The Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project (CTJM) addresses these issues directly, engaging a local history of police brutality to create a platform for public monuments and discourse.
Rather than cover up those horrific moments, CTJM seeks to uncover and air out the darker edges of our past and present, pulling them into focus with the help of survivors, artists, activists, community organizers and lawyers. Together, they invited proposals “for speculative ways to memorialize the torture cases,” in an attempt “to honor the individuals, families, and communities affected by torture, as well as address the obstruction of justice that has occurred in the aftermath.” That call was issued in 2011 and asked for anything from “from architecture to haiku, website to mural, community organization to performance, bronze plaque to large-scale memorial.”
“Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture” is features 70 of those proposed monuments at SAIC’s Sullivan Galleries. The exhibit is named after a particular torture device (the “black box”) that was used by Officer John Burge to coerce confessions from 1972-1991. Burge is responsible for as many as 200 incidents of torture, many of which involved electrical charges that shocked prisoners. Although legal routes had granted some success, many of the case advocates (lawyers, victims and activists alike) felt that the law was unable to offer adequate retribution. They turned to art. “Opening the Black Box: The Charge is Torture” is one aspect of that process. It is open until December 21st.
Complementing the theme of that exhibit, the Sullivan Galleries are hosting two additional shows: Laurie Jo Reynold’s Tamms Year Ten Campaign Office,where Reynold’s has effectively installed a working office from which to advocate for the closing of Tamms: a “supermax” prison on the southern tip of Illinois. It opened in 2008, intended as a site for “super shock” treatment that would not extend beyond a year. Now, something like 1/3 of Tamm’s prisoners have been there, non-stop for a decade.”[Inmates] live in long-term isolation—no phone calls, no communal activity, no contact visits. They are fed through a slot in the door. Prisoners at Tamms only leave their cell to shower or exercise which they are allowed to do, depending on their behavioral level, from zero to 7 times per week. Exercise is solitary, in a concrete pen.” Reynolds and her collaborators (including former inmates and inmate family members) also work to connect inmates to the outside world in some way — including, for instance, taking photographs of certain objects at the prisoners’ request. Requests include “the Masonic temple in DC”, “what’s left where the Robert Taylor Homes used to be”, ”a heartsick clown with a feather pen”, “my mom in front of a mansion with money and a Hummer”, “Michelle Obama planting vegetables in White House garden”, “any Muslim Mosque or Moorish Science Temple in Chicago or Mecca or Africa”, and “fallen autumn leaves (which we do not have access to in the “concrete box” which is deemed a yard here)”. During their residency at the Sullivan Galleries, Tamms Year Ten continues their regime of activism while planning additional public programs.
Tirtza Even’s Preview: An Assembly from Natural Life (work-in-progress), which describes itself as “a feature-length documentary produced by SAIC faculty Tirtza Even alongside the legal efforts of the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle. The work challenges the inequities in the juvenile justice system by telling the stories of several individuals sentenced to die in prison since youth. The project’s goal is to depict the experiences of these youths who receive the most severe sentences available for convicted adults—a sentence of ‘natural life’ or life without parole—against the contexts of social bias, neglect, apprehension, and alienation.”
It’s a tremendous line up with much to think about and discover and there are a few additional events on the horizon well worth checking out.
Saturday November 17 Claire Pentecost will facilitate a conversation around Photo Requests from Solitary. Men housed at Tamms supermax prison were able to request a photograph of anything in the world, real or imagined, and members of the public realized the pictures. Men formerly housed in Tamms, the family members of current inmates, and other special guests will be on hand to view the photos and respond to the project.
Thursday November 29 Kevin Coval, Darby Tillis, Achy Obejas, Gary Younge, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Krista Franklin and others present I AM A MEMORY: Chicago Writers Against Torture. This evening of readings and performances is dedicated to the survivors, their families, and their communities who endured unspeakable acts of torture at the hands of the Chicago Police.
Saturday December 15 brings the final program. A Film Festival Against Torture presents a daylong screening of three powerful films about torture, featuring discussions with the filmmakers: Peter Kuttner, Cyndi Moran, and Eric Scholl; Jackie Rivet-River and John Lyons; Ines Somer and Kathy Berger.
April 26, 2010 · Print This Article
I visited Claire Pentecost‘s installation at threewalls over the weekend, and now all I want to do is listen to Johnny Cash. What the hell does one have to do with the other, you ask? In this, the latest example of what I have come to think of as art reviews that are not in any way, shape or form truly art reviews, or acts of criticism, or any other label you might want to put on ‘em, I shall elaborate. On view through May 22nd, Pentecost’s exhibition is titled VictoryLand: you, I shall answer your letter. It revolves, and evolves, around the following question:
What is the best way to remain human? For that matter, is there any virtue or advantage in clinging to an idea of humanity that has not been automated or enhanced by the awesome mechanics of prosperity and progress? In VictoryLand…you, I shall answer your letter it gets harder and harder to tell the difference between the good life and the killing machine.
The exhibition itself was segmented in a manner that seemed to correspond, in my mind anyway, to a split between experiential modes of thinking and analysis vs. feelings and empathy. The geography of the installation at once replicates this divide and implicitly encourages viewers to reconcile the two sides for themselves, because they ultimately offer a false dichotomy. You walk in, and there’s a kind of waiting room setting with two chairs placed on either side of a small wooden table of the sort you might see in a therapist’s waiting room or a lawyer’s office. I think there was a bowl of chocolate candies on it, but my memory’s fuzzy on that part. On the table were several exhibition pamphlets with writings by Pentecost and others. It also contained interweaving narratives (via pages placed out-of-order) that described drone military planes alongside various individuals’ attempts to describe what ‘compassion’ means to them (the latter were all excerpted from material shown in a video in the next room). Next to these was a large notebook containing pages and pages filled with the artist’s research, but someone else was perusing it while I was there and I never got a chance to look through it. In the next room were two flat-screen monitors positioned on opposite walls. Each played a video consisting of a series of interviews with several well-known artists/intellectuals on the subject of (on one monitor) Compassion and (on the other monitor) Awe. I was fascinated by this portion of the exhibition, and watched each video all the way through.
In the middle of the room was a large wooden structure around which were many drawings of unmanned military aircraft used by various nations, each drawing labeled by country of origin on the back of the panel (and visible only through the slats of wooden structure). When you peered into the structure you saw a pile of wood and the reddish-brown, bushy tale of a creature that appeared to be lodged in between the pieces of wood as if it were burrowing into them, or, more likely, was in the process of being crushed by them. Radiating from the tops of the wooden structure toward the outer corners of the room were several lines of bunting with flags consisting of black and white headshots of good-looking–I would even call them glamorous or charismatic–people, each one groomed in a manner suggesting the picture was taken decades ago. Each image was sealed in some kind of yellowish plastic that was often slightly brown at the edges. Some appeared to have been partially burned.
In contrast to these faces, I found myself drawn to the much more ordinary faces of the people on the videos. Here were real, lived-in human (as opposed to televisually charismatic) faces talking about what compassion and awe meant to them. Each person appeared to be answering their interlocutor in as honest and open a manner as they were capable in that moment. I found one aspect of the interviews to be lacking, however. I wanted these people to step away from the more abstract discussion of “compassion” and “awe” with which they seemed fairly comfortable, and instead attempt to relate those words to lived experience. I wanted them to take a stab at answering these questions: “When have you personally witnessed compassion?” “When have you personally felt awe?” I wanted to connect the dots between verbal articulations of what compassion and awe are with how those concepts might be experienced on an everyday level. This seemed especially important given the utter absence of compassion that drone weapons not only signify but enable. Drones give us permission to absent ourselves from our own humanity, to abstract ourselves from what it means to be human. And the drone’s dehumanizing purview, Pentecost’s research make chillingly evident, will only expand in the coming years.
As I was thinking about all this while driving home, I started fiddling with the preset buttons on my car radio in search of something to listen to. One of those oldies/classic rock type stations had just started playing Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, the live version from the album At Folsom, the one Cash recorded at the prison in 1968. Compassion and awe: here I found both, crystallized within a single song. Cash’s music sprung from his compassion for men who had degraded others and had experienced degradation in turn. Cash identified so strongly with those men that he saw himself as one of them. Isn’t that what compassion is? It seems like there should be a better, tougher word for it, somehow. And as for awe: that’s what I imagine the men at Folsom experienced when Cash got up on stage and sung for them. Sung songs about them. In one case, sung a song written by one of them, a man named Glen Shirley.
Yeah yeah yeah, I know that At Folsom is also a construction, and to some degree a self-conscious act of self-mythification on Cash’s part, but — and I know this point is also debatable — I don’t think it negates the fact that Cash’s performance was radically compassionate in nature. What I do wonder about though is what my current fixation on Cash’s Folsom performance means vis-a-vis my visit to Pentecost’s exhibition. Am I trying to avoid my own complicity in my country’s use of robotic military weapons by listening to Johnny Cash instead? Is it a failure on my part as a viewer (or as a citizen) that, instead of delving deeper into Pentecost’s research, I thought through her questions by listening to At Folsom all weekend? Or did the exhibition foster my sense of paralysis in its failure to articulate the radical possibilities of human compassion? Is that why Folsom Prison Blues felt more like an answer to me than a mere chance encounter?
I’m still not sure, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
It’s that time of the week again. I don’t know about you, but the last three weeks I’ve been sweating bullets. Show last weekend, show this weekend, performing at Art Chicago. Jesus, does it never end? But really, for all my bitching, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love Chicago and all its bat-ass crazy art-ness. And now, for my picks for the weekend…
1. Vers10n Festival at Co-Prosperity Sphere (and the surrounding Bridgeport art community)
You can’t not love the Co-Pro Sphere for this shit! Ten years running, and the insanity continues.
Vers10n Festival in located (primary) in Bridgeport at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, The Benton House, Zhou B, and many, many more places. Opening party Friday at Co-Prosperity Sphere, 3219 S. Morgan St. from 8pm-2am.
2. The Black Panthers: Making Sense of History at DuSable Museum of African American History
Get a helping of history during your gallery crawl. Photographs by Stephen Shames.
The DuSable Museum of African American History is located at 740 E. 56th Pl. Show begins April 23rd and ends August 8th.
3. VictoryLand (you, I shall answer your letter) at Threewalls
Chicago bad-ass and revolutionary Claire Pentecost struts her stuff at Threewalls. An event not to be missed.
Threewalls is located at 119 N. Peoria St., #2A. Opening reception Friday at 6pm. Artist talk May 6th at 6pm. Show runs ’till May 22nd.
4. OPENING at The Part Time Gallery
A new space, who knows what you’ll find. Remember, new experiences are good for you!
The Part Time Gallery is located at 5219 N. Clark St. Reception is Saturday from 7-10pm.
5. Transitions and Translations at Concertina Gallery
Theory, anyone? Work by Amanda Brinkman, Maureen A. Burns, Joel Kuennen, Susan Morelock, Jorge Mujica, Benjamin Pearson, and Brian Wallace.
Concertina Gallery – 2351 N. Milwaukee Ave., 2nd fl. Reception is Saturday from 7-10pm.