“Courage is the great enabling virtue that allows one to realize other virtues like love and hope and faith. To have courage is to be willing to look unflinchingly at catastrophic circumstances and muster the will to overcome the fear, never to fully erase and eliminate the fear but overcome the fear, so that fear does not have the last word or so that fear does not push one into conformity, complacency or cowardice. ”- Cornel West
I don’t know how to be courageous. I don’t think that I am now but I know, at least I feel, that I must be in order to make it through this moment. Recent months have seen us, as Americans, wrestling with the baseline hatred and oppression that we had so naively believed we had moved beyond, a desire we know now to be a desperate fantasy. I believe Cornel West to be true when he tells us that courage will lead us to other virtues, other strengths that might enable us to not only make it through our time but to imagine a real alternative, a utopian dream no farther than our beds. What I mean to describe here is not a kind of free imagination but, as Žižek has described, “a matter of the innermost urgency”, an imagined alternative to a situation whose solution is so far outside the coordinates of the possible that one is forced to imagine an alternative space.
There is a courage to performance, as there is a courage to poetry and criticism, to those forms whose goals, from the outset, are a freshly imagined future. Not just the courage of those taking to embodied action but a courage to witness those acts. A willingness to be changed by something, to allow oneself to feel what John Martin calls muscular sympathy. A kind of sixth sense that gives the viewer access to the work through the performers body. Not simply the courage of the stage but the courage of the street and bar. The courage to stand beside one another, to allow oneself to feel responsible for each other, for ourselves. Too often the heady dialogues surrounding the production of aesthetic experience call to mind a kind of aimless drifting identity. An abstract subject, tethered to nothing and no one, submerged in the machinic realities of our time but this is not true for all of us. For those of us operating from a place of difference, whose lives are not simply shaped but are out right controlled by social and economic oppression, there are other ways of being. New ways to gather, to love, to share. New economies. Strategies of resistance. Alternatives simultaneously imagined and enacted between sweaty down beats on crowded dance floors in rooms that are forced to accommodate us as we are.
I wish that I could tell you how to be courageous, that I had some great strategy for us, but I don’t know. All I have is a feeling of urgency, a sensation that drives me towards hope, towards an alternative. I can tell you that the work will be courageous and that with it so will we. I can tell you now that we will be in this together, as a community, as a collective. We who feel strongly, we will be the ones to make a practice of resistance. To turn ourselves towards a tumultuous present of catastrophic circumstances, where revolution and change are palpable events, the tyranny of unaccountable elites runs rampant, and the violence of our city howls just beyond our walls. We will be the ones to turn towards this moment, our moment, to face our oppressors courageously for each other.
“Who will fight the bear? No one? Then the bear has won.” - Bas Jan Ader
The second edition of “Fielding Practice,” a podcast produced for our Art21 column Centerfield: Art in the Middle with Bad at Sports, just posted today. On this episode, Duncan MacKenzie, Dan Gunn, and I are joined by art critic, blogger, and ArtSlant’s Chicago editor Abraham Ritchie to talk about the rise of CSAs (Community Supported Art), which are art subscription programs that foster new collectors while supporting local artists; we dish about the art writers “strike” at the Huffington Post and we review Mindy Rose Schwartz’s solo exhibition at ThreeWalls, which recently closed. Plus: previews of the most anticipated Chicago exhibitions and events happening over the next few weeks. Click here for the podcast and related links, and thanks for listening!
Kate has done her 30 days, she has her $10,000 and I am sure a stack of non-disclosure agreements signed. The experiment is over and so begins the postmortem. The irony is it is almost pointless doing a review of the job that Kate McGroarty did over the last 30 days (much to her joy I am sure) since she did an affable job at saying nothing. That’s the place to start with this review for me, in that regardless if the Directors of the Museum of Science and Industry didn’t allow her to be open, she wisely decided there was little to be gained from being objective and human or worse there is really nothing to be said about the Museum that isn’t sterile and devoid of saccharin but regardless there was little said and even less done over 30 days.
How do you measure success in a project like this?
Is it success in the social media arena? If so it was an abject failure since the twitter feed had at most 1,800 followers (less then 300 more then @badatsports and no one works that as a full time job) & 4,126 fans on Facebook (which is pumped by the fact that they initially linked the like button on the site and not the actual Facebook page) but if I was the Director I wouldn’t measure it by social media since that is only a single and rather small apple in the larger marketing & PR bushel.
Is it press coverage? Well that was stilted in the bigining with the media’s interest in the human story of 1 person trapped in a
mine museum which quickly dried up and the press didn’t know how to grab onto the story by and large. Kate was a mascot, she put a ribbon on everything that didn’t have one and cut the ones that did, cheered for the home team and had a free smile for anyone that wanted one. She was in essence the Ronald McDonald clown in a orange countdown shirt and she did it well from day 1 to 30. The problem is from a press angle there is no story to tell.
Success can be measured by ticket sales? That may be true and as I am sure I will never know the performance of foot traffic over the course of that month in comparison to the previous 30 days or same time last year but if that is so then she was part human oddity exhibit/part greeter.
I can go on but this turned out better then I expected since I was afraid if they didn’t get the perfect marketing spokesperson and that live mic was handed to them you would have a mixture of silence from editorial indecision and exasperation as the thirty days came to a close. Not constantly but eventually it would slip out. They avoided that by getting the perfect person for the role, someone who was willing to take what they gave her, put a fun spin on it and make two posts and four tweets a day about it (300 in total but many are replies to others). Also I don’t know what the travel and official work schedule was like for Kate but the volume of posting, tweeting and documentation seemed a bit (honestly considerably) low for someone locked in a building 24×7. The average blogger does 2-3x as much if its a full time gig and many even more then that.
I am not a negative person and more so hate reviews or critics that tear down and don’t build or at least offer constructive direction and honest review. If you live in Chicago you want the Art Institute, Museum of Science and Industry, Museum of Contemporary Art, Field Museum & others to grow, flourish and succeed. At its core this is a good idea, at its core this is what social media was built for and at its core this is why social media will fail. Since the 1980′s (and even before but it really came to it’s own then in my view) there has been a top to bottom clamp on message and public image. Gone are the days where Grocery stores would have homegrown competitions and promotions on the store level, gone are the local town commercials where a franchise owner would speak directly for his/her business or brand. They were all removed so that you could control the message nationwide and eliminate potentially expensive missteps. Social media though flourishes on the human voice, insight, personalization, inclusivity and minutia; the very things that contemporary marketing fears most and actively looks to either eliminate or synthesize artificially in a controlled manner (think bad viral ads or national campaigns exactly the same just customized by local age, race, sex, sports affiliation or celebrity).
In order to succeed you need to make social media a part of your PR team (key point to remember, PR is not marketing and never the twain shall meet) have someone daily write, photograph and honestly talk about all the great aspects, locations & touchstones of your group in such a way that you don’t visit the museum to learn about them but to finally see them in person. People don’t visit the Louvre in droves to see this “Mona Lisa” for the first time but to write the final chapter that image has had in their life by seeing it for themselves, outside of books & film.
The web, where pages are free to publish is the prefect place to build a trap for the human imagination so it can roll around joyfully in subject mater of individual pertinent interest like a pig in mud and learn, celebrate and know as much about your product as possible. Its not a billboard, its a quilt as I presume Kate McGroarty’s wise mother knows all too well. Woven with history, personality, flaws & perfection. Thats how social media works and without it that is how it fails.
Social Media I said in May of this year quietly to whoever would listen was dead, by that I meant its growth had hit a plateau and it had come to the crossroads in its life as so many good ideas have. Those ideas and the people that advocated them always knew what the right path was, without exception they knew it. But they never took it. You know WHY? Because it was TOO damn hard (thank you Bo Goldman). Social Media is a dual edged sword that no one wants to swing no mater how sharp it can cut to the truth since no one has faith in the knight swinging it to not cut themselves or the royal family. Until that paranoia or risk calculus changes as a whole you will get performances like the Month at the Museum, all pomp and no circumstance.
Nothing really said or done, nothing to get excited about and worse yet nothing shared about a beautiful gem locked away that only few get to see and one got to live but can never truly tell about without breaking a presumed confidentiality agreement.
In short, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I’m off this week on vacay to sunny Sarasota, Fl., hometown of the Ringling circus and Pee-Wee Herman, too. Someday, there will be a museum dedicated to Pee Wee, and its curators will write sober wall text on the semiotics of the Big Shoe Dance and the erotics of chairy. But not today. Today, I bring you this video, which hopefully will not feel too much like a homework assignment. I personally was psyched to find it, anyway. Over the weekend, that ol’ leftie-pinko group the Platypus Affiliated Society sponsored an all-day conference called What Is Critique? Two School of the Art Institute critical-types, James Elkins and Chris Cutrone, were on panels, and though the ensuing discussions were predictably jargon-ridden, they were also pretty meaty. How do I know this? The organizers were nice enough to put the second of the panels on U-Stream, which I’ve embedded for your link-free viewing pleasure directly below. Enjoy. A brief description of the event follows.
What is Critique? is an all day symposium that consists of panel discussions with artists, critics, teachers, and students city-wide that investigates the role that art critiques and criticism play in art production. The first half of the day will focus on the nature and function of art critiques as a form criticism and pedagogy. The latter part of the day will be a panel discussion addressing the relationship between critical theory, art production and art reception.
I’m always really pleased but also sort of baffled, too, when an artist invites me over for a studio visit. Once, when I had an institutional career, it was pretty obvious why an artist would want me in his or her studio, and what the stakes were: at minimum, the promise to ‘keep them in mind’ for some vague something in the future, and the best outcome, definitive inclusion in an upcoming exhibition I was planning. Now, not so much. I don’t have anything to offer an artist other than my words, so I’m all the more touched when they make the effort to invite me over.
This morning I was musing about the different forms of engagement that a studio visit versus an art review or some other type of written assessment represent. For me, not for the artist. I can’t speak for the artist. Which is why I think that studio visits are such charged experiences for me. I have to warm up for them – not by reading up on the artist’s work or anything (although I guess that would be nice, huh?)—but by getting into a certain kind of flexible brain state of mind. I have to start stripping away at some self-protecting and thus extremely comfy walls around myself, and that takes work.
Studio visits require me to be even more open and in-the-moment and attuned to the kinds of all-body awareness that every instance of looking at art requires, but since I’m also being watched by someone else and engaging in a conversation with them, I need to be equally open to the experience of radical vulnerability. When I write, I’m alone, and I can compose and then revise my opinions until I think they’re ready, or ready enough, for public viewing. When I’m in the studio, face to face with an artist, I don’t have the luxury of crafting my words. Since I almost always have no idea what I’m going to see when I get there, a studio visit means I’m going to have to think on my feet. But since I don’t really believe that an artwork has an essential “meaning”, only meanings (and, old-fashioned though it now may be, I retain much suspicion about the whole authorial intent thing too), I also have to be willing to say lots of things that, were I writing about this work instead of talking about it, I would have eventually come to erase or re-word or recalibrate.
The most intimidating thing about studio visits for me is that sometimes, the artist seems to be expecting me to respond to something on the spot. It takes me days to write an art review, days of slapping little black symbols onto white space (because that’s how most of us write now—I don’t inscribe my thoughts with pens and paper, it feels more like conjuring: I think, my brain makes my fingers jiggle and jerk, tiny words appear on the big, blindingly white screen before me, I look at those words and sit back and try to figure out if they work. If they do the work they are supposed to do. And if one or more of those words doesn’t, if it’s being stubborn or recalcitrant, I need to sit back somehow and figure out why not, why isn’t that word saying what it’s supposed to, god dammit, is it because it’s really supposed to be this, not that, or maybe it’s more like that, not this?
From that place, for me, meaning arrives. If I’m lucky. Sometimes, pretty rarely now but still sometimes, I am not so lucky, and everything falls apart.
Things are always falling apart in the studio, though, and that’s what I find so exciting and energizing about engaging with artists and their work in that space. Conversations can flow between the artist and myself as if we were old friends, even though we’re not; they can also be halting or spurting or circuitous and even more meaningful because of that. Sometimes there’s that panicky feeling you get when it sounds like you’re engaging in a conversation, one where we think that we understand what the other person is saying, and vice-versa, but then you start to realize that perhaps this is not at all what is happening, that you’re actually speaking two different languages that sound alike but are, in fact, nothing alike.
In the artist’s studio, I have to be willing to grope for words and say the wrong thing and/or be misinterpreted and just generally come off as totally stupid – and hey, let’s face it, not just to look stupid, but to actually reveal myself as the stupid human being that I am. This is easy to do but hard to accept. I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that I have managed to be stupid successfully, over and over, actually pretty much every time I have visited an artist’s studio. I think that’s something. Maybe it’s everything. Right?