Ravi Agarwal, Ecological Manifesto series, 2015. Photo courtesy of artist.
In 1887, The Illinois General Assembly reversed the Chicago River, bringing water from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi instead of the other way around. Completed in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, the process ensured that the city of Chicago could reliably access clean water, despite the immense amount of industrial activity that relied upon and the waterway for production and trade. In 1999, the same lock system that made that reversal possible was acclaimed as the “Civil Engineering Monument of the Millennium” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Both the award and the accomplishment are surreal, like something out of a China Miéville novel, perhaps especially because of the notorious pollution the same river, and it surrounding neighborhoods suffers. This industrialized approach to natural resources is not unique. It is in effect around the world, with different countries reflecting different stages and impacts of a philosophical approach in which the environment is recognized as an instrument for human affairs. Based out of New Delhi, artist, curator, writer and activist, Ravi Agarwal works to unearth the complexity of humanity’s ecological and economic imagination, drawing connections between Europe and India, while comparing the implementation and impact of industrial methods.
Caroline Picard: How do you shift between your work as an artist, curator, writer, and environmental activist? Do you find that you’ve developed a rhythm between those different modes?
Ravi Agarwal: It is exciting and challenging at the same time. It is important for me to engage politically and socially, but then there are so many modes of expressing what I think and feel. Each form needs specific outputs, requiring a different materiality that cannot be compromised of its own quality or intensity. In some ways this has become a way of my being, and I cannot seem to do without any of them. I am not aware what is being left out or undermined by working in multiple modalities at once.
CP:In 2011, you and Till Krause with Nina Kalenbach, curated the Yamuna-Elbeproject, an Indo-German exhibition that took place on two rivers, the Yamuna and the Elbe. How did that project develop?
RA: It was challenge to try and link two such different landscapes not only in geographical terms, but also culturally, socially, and historically. We tried to think of common points between the two sites, but also the differences. The history of urban rivers and ecologies is coincident with histories of nation building, power, and control over rivers and suppressions of both people and other species. That same history simultaneously includes fighting diseases like cholera and malaria, through the draining of marshes, and articulates what human’s fear—nature as “disorder” or as wild. According to that vision, nature has been tamed. This was true in Europe from the 18th century when marshes were drained, forests decimated, and rivers channelized. Each of those instances was viewed as a sign of progress and its (undeliverable?) promise of utopia.
On the other hand, in countries like India where urbanization is taking place in 30 years compared to 300 years in Europe, the same assumptions and techniques to control of nature are being followed—via engineering and technology. All other embedded cultural positions which speak of co-existing with nature are slowly being forgotten in the framework of a global capitalism and smart cities. However, the situation is so different here—there is a different demand for natural resources, as well as intense populations and high levels of inequity. Once again the promise of progress is espoused as thing to believe in. There is a widespread belief that one day we will clean our rivers in India and restore them just like Europe did. But that notion is a flawed; European rivers can only be re-naturalized to a certain extent, since so much is already gone and cannot be re generated. Also in India the river is no longer public space, or treated like a commons.
We realized that not only has progress not dealt with ecological questions but also it has not questioned the fundamental location of man with power over nature. Today we know nature strikes back, such as in climate change.
CP:Do you feel like the idea of translation between sites/languages/geographies/contexts of the Yamuna-Elbe Project, was something you all were interested in?
RA: We defined three curatorial questions which were common in Germany (Europe) and India: Does progress address the question of ecology? 2) How will the land look from the river 3) Is the river public space, is it free?
Besides these unifying questions, we tried to locate the two projects in the specific discourse of public art and ecology as they exited in Hamburg and in Delhi—which were different. In Hamburg people are used to public art, as it has been there for a long time. Also the discourse on the Elbe relates to a political debate about whether or not to make the river deeper so that bigger ships could come into its river port, in order to compete with ports like Rotterdam, as well as the extent to which the Elbe can be re-natured. In Delhi the debate is different. For the Yamuna, the question is how to clean the river? How to prevent people from turning their backs on it when it is so smelly and dirty? And foster the idea of the river as an ecological landscape not only a water channel.
Also there is hardly any experience which people have with contemporary public art. So while the overall questions were common, the form of the art, the idea of publics was different. These differences changed the form of the project in the two spaces so as to lodge it in specific contexts.
It was an attempt to see a global moment in ecology and its contestations with “progress,” while locating that moment in a locally specific trajectory of art and ecology.
CP:What did the final exhibitions or events look like?
RA: In Hamburg we parked a barge at Hafen City, the high end site for the new gentrified Hamburg riverfront, where artists were invited to install works. Besides, it hosted talks and workshops from several people from different disciplinary backgrounds. This was on for over a month. In Delhi, the site in Delhi in the riverfront became a site for art installations, performances, talks and music concerts, walks etc., for two weeks. The riverfront—which was typically avoided by people—became a place to see, visit, and discover.
Ravi Agarwal, Sangam Engine series, 2015. Photo courtesy of artist.
CP: In your recent exhibition, Else, all will be still,you included a series of Sangam Engine photographs—images that framed individual, corroded pieces from motorboat engines that look as though they no longer work. I feel you focus on those objects to highlight the engineered materials used to fish, as well as their obsolescence, the traces of the sea’s encounter with those objects, and the choice fishermen often make to pay extra money for motorboats in order to pull a larger catch. There is something very linguistic about the images, as though each object could almost be a poem in and of itself, with a grammatical machinery; that sense was reiterated when I read about the connection you were making between the engine parts and the Sangam poetry tradition. I wanted to see if you might talk a bit about how you connect our relationship to the environment with language, and where you see the parallels and refractions between Sangam Engines and Sangam poetry?
RA: I am very interested in the different trajectories which were possible over time, and where for one reason or another we, as human societies, took certain paths over others. Sangam poetry is pre-modern, said to be written between 300 BC and 200 AD, in Tamil language from South India. A significant part of it deals with landscapes and internal ideas of the self. For example the sea is not the “sea,” but denotes internal sentiments like “pining,” and “waiting.” There is a dissolution of the didactic subject–object relationship, which is a far cry from how we know nature now—as an object to be conquered and codified, rather than an unknown entity which can only be partly known and experienced, depending on what questions one asks about it. I believe that we can only know nature in terms that we pre-define—that is in an epistemological system of our own making. We produce “nature” in a Foucauldian way to gain power over it, but on the other hand as a cosmic entity, nature is elusive and confusing.
The Sangam engine works arise from these thought processes. Does Nature have to be inscribed in the history of technology and capital or can it also be projected in the lost history of early landscape poetry? The two linguistic systems lead us to very different trajectories of human “progress,” and also to very different desires of human beings which are reflected in them. What are we as a species? The first or the latter? And what can we be? In this question also lies a future of sustainability I think.
CP:In a conversation at the Venice Biennial, “Disappearance As Work In Progress- Approaches To Ecological Romanticism,” you said “Somehow there has been legitimization of anything that is institutional. If something is legitimate it becomes institutional. So we have the U.N. body, the corporate bodies, and these are legitimate states. But what do they hold, and what value do they hold, what are their imaginations, we do not enquire about that and when you try and battle them and you try and reform them, they are not often aware of what you are trying to deal with.” I’m really interested in this idea of institutional imagination, perhaps especially with respect to the subject/object division. How are hierarchical patterns—or binaries of thought—re-inscribed by institutional habit? What might alternative institutions look like?
RA: Institutions are placeholders for values and imaginations, providing society a sense of continuity. They are repositories of culture and techniques of our times, and help shape our present and the future. In many ways they are capable of holding time which is ecological or long. As humans we live for a few decades only and our cause and effect desires only relate to short periods, while ecological impacts can take centuries to manifest. Since historically, nature has been considered a “free gift,” our institutions are very human centric, and do not hold the required values to cope with the current ecological crisis, for example. Hence in an era of climate change we are struggling with embedded values in financial, political, and scientific institutions. Because the crisis is ecological, which has been the unrepresented or underrepresented reality, our institutions need to reinvent themselves very drastically to cope with it. Amitabh Ghosh, the well known author, in his recent writings on climate change, reflects why literature has been unable to speak of such “unlikely” events. It seems we cannot deal with natural calamity which is so basic that it rocks the very basis of our epistemological constructs of society. It’s like an Alien landing on Earth.
If we recognize that nature is not only a resource, but a complex idea, where we are both subject and object at the same time, we will have to reinvent the idea of “progress” itself, and rethink realities which are equally immanent—like fragility, mortality, ephemerality, un-knowability. All these are against the idea of certainty, permanence, control, greed, fixed identities, which have become the hallmark of our existence today. Imagine a society which holds such values, and the institutions which hold it. Poetry will become the language and the poet the chronicler. I do not want to romanticize this, but only to suggest that another set of values which are not “power” based, will lead to another society and another set of institutions which hold them.
CP:During a seminar discussion about Governance in the Anthropocene at the HKW last April (2016), the group discussed modes of protest, asking how we might answer the ecological and social devastation tied to corporate and industrial extraction through civil disobedience. If I remember correctly, you pointed out that the nature of what we are facing is quite different from any power structure faced in the 60s, and as such requires a different strategy for resistance. Taking to the streets, so to speak, would not have the same effectiveness it once did. I wondered if you might say more about that—why wouldn’t the traditional protest model work and what might alternative modes of resistance be?
RA: Like women were (are?), nature has been an outsider. Both are categories produced to be ‘operated’ upon, in a schema of power. In that sense, I feel, both are generated through a ‘male’ or patriarchal gaze. Feminism taught us that we needed a new gender sensitive politics, a new terminology and a new reading of what was considered history. Before, even our most radical politics did not recognize its inherent and deep biases of gender. Upturning power structures needs a epistemological overhaul. Similarly challenging the idea of ‘nature’ as the category it has come to represent, needs a new way of thinking of the planet, of other conditions which are non-human which impact our lives and our futures. The history of the world can be re-written (is being re-written in parts in fact) as a history of nature and resource-use. Only now, we are at a point of a crisis, which needs urgent attention.
In many senses we have failed in parts to bring the equity and fairness we sought through our past revolutions. There is now an easy coincidence of democracy and capital, where a very few people control the world’s wealth and we have not been able to keep large corporations in check. Democracy has also provided a safety valve to counter the idea of revolution itself, and while electoral representational politics promises equity, it has also become more and more corporatized, funded by capital with private interests. I think we are coming to realize that there can be no fair human society without the long discarded and discredited term “ethics.”
However introducing ethics is not only about human societies, it has to be about the idea of the non-human as well. “Human interest” has to include the “non-human” not only for human futures, but as an idea of equity itself. We need to make “nature” political, but not only in the way it has been so far, i.e. as a politics of resource use, but in a new way—as a politics of a planetary futures.
How do we hear the voices of the under-represented and the oppressed? Are we capable of hearing the voice of something that speaks a different language? Can we hear the voice of the non-human? We are far away from that still; it will mean re-inserting a lost relationship of co-existence or co-imagination of nature—more akin to what is reflected in Sangam poetry—and a new respect for what ultimately we cannot and should not really control.
This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.
Using breath from mouth to ear: “I’m going to write something on your back and you have to guess what it is.” Using gesture from finger to back: “I need to know if you feel it too.”
They’re two teenage girls and they’re getting ready for the prom and one is wearing a marching band uniform. We’ll see that uniform again, in another movie, but everything will be different. For now, Jennifer Reeder needs us to feel it too. I had the privilege of working with Reeder for the last two years, while she served as my advisor at UIC. I am the beneficiary of her attention and support, her acerbic and absurd sense of humor, her immense intelligence and her ceaseless fierceness. She insists on vulnerability, even as so many of our interactions are goof sessions.
Her work—primarily in video, primarily for the cinema—is teenage girls, it’s pop noir, it’s language heavy, it’s singing Madonna to an ET figurine, it’s death metal brides in a graveyard on a toy camera, it’s impeccably pencil-rendered vulvae in the halls of a school, it’s electromagnetism of the heart, it’s an all-girl choir singing Judas Priest. It also looks and sounds more and more like the way movies look and sound. It is thankfully and unrepentantly feminist, deeply personal and idiosyncratic. And, luckily for Chicago readers, she’s doing a big hometown show tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the integral and much beloved Conversations at the Edge program.
When I’m doing what I’m so often doing, when I’m doing what I’m doing right now, when I’m trying to convince people of the merits of someone’s work, to convince someone to attend a show, I say that Reeder’s movies feel like movie movies, but better. That even people who don’t like a lot of what they think I like will like her movies. That they’re smart and funny, surprising and deeply feeling, that they’re clever and daring. I heard something recently that felt insightful for a lot of creative practices. A comic said that sketch comedy privileges the joke over the character and will always sell the character out for the joke, whereas most episodic or narrative comedy privileges the character over the joke, such that every joke must feel real or at least, let’s say, diegetic. I was thinking about how this idea could be resonant in a number of forms while rewatching Reeder’s work. Deploying, as she invokes, bathos, she is able to maintain emotional credulity while covering and uncovering new layers of humor, trauma and complexity.
Her work has been screened and exhibited at venues like the Venice and Whitney Biennials, Ann Arbor Film Festival, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, New York Film Festival, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, PS1, Pacific Film Archive, Rotterdam Film Festival, Chicago Underground Film Festival, Vienna Short Film Festival and many, many more. She’s won countless awards, grants and other —including being named one of Chicago’s Top 50 Artists’ Artists by Newcity—while maintaining a vigorous teaching practice as an Associate Professor and the Head of the Art Department at the School of Art and Art History at UIC. She is represented by Andrew Rafacz Gallery in Chicago and distributes her videos through the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, shortfilmagentur, LUX and independently. She earned her MFA from SAIC and her BFA from Ohio State University in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. She is the mother of three boys and lives in Indiana.
As your work has progressed, its resemblance to conventional cinema—to what people think we mean when we say we make movies—has grown. Do artists too often limit their potential for engaging wider audiences by sticking to niche forms and the safe spaces those enable? Has making work that looks right enabled you to sneak in more of your own idiosyncratic ideas and stories? Is convention camouflage?
I set out to make very functional films, but honestly, narratives are very challenging. I compare my process to sewing. If I set out to make a fully functioning pair of pants but cannot get the pockets right, I sew them shut. BOOM, no pockets on these pants. Then I put super striking patches on the knees (or something) and hope that no one notices the pocket situation. Other times, the “experimental” parts of my narratives are much more directed and intentional from the get go. I start out making this move to pocketless pants because, ya know, people expect pockets and it’s more satisfying on my end to do the unexpected. I do appreciate so much, however, that these more conventional narratives I have been making over the past several years have reached a larger audience. I have a solid fan base of film lovers and programmers who fully support and encourage the wonky way I tell a story.
We’ve talked before about multipronged ways of moving culture towards a greater sense of inclusivity and social justice. Shows like Modern Family or Will and Grace—with their mainstreaming of gay culture, or, more precisely, with their insistence that obviously and already mainstream culture includes people who are gay—are important in that they provide hungry brains stories that include a wider variety of represented protagonists. At the same time, there’s a need for more radical cultural shifts, ones that at their cores those shows and the machinations through which they’re made are at odds with. As an educator and cultural producer, how do you balance these concerns? Are there, perhaps, times in our lives when it makes more sense to fight for same-sex marriage and others when it makes sense to dismantle marriage? Do we need more television shows with more people or fewer TVs?
Representation matters! Since the beginning, since White Trash Girl (1995-97), I have made work with some sort of justice component. My protagonists have agency. The enormous popularity of shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent, confirm that general audiences want and need to see themselves and their friends/family reflected back from the small screen. I do not understand what still motivates lots of film and TV makers to actively ignore diversity in terms of casting and storyline.
In a way that is totally unsurprising, I am always drawn to your use of text on screen. A Million Miles Away (2014) makes use of emojis, subtitles that read occasionally as transcriptions of characters thoughts and other times like a rogue radio signal piped in through diving braces on crooked teeth. Tears Cannot Restore Her: Therefore, I Weep (2010)prominently features a classroom sign language interpreter détourning a lecture on electromagnetism into an intimate and crushing tale of love gone awry (or maybe just love gone away). As much as your films are filled with visual nuance and striking characterizations, I often think of your work in writerly terms. What about the screen seems so keen on rendering multiple modes of address?
During an emotionally charged conversation in real life, there also exists these multiple layers of iteration. There is what you say out loud, and what you are thinking when you say it and what you have written to someone else prior about what you will say. Then there is how the other person interprets what you have said and speculates about what you might actually mean and how later they retell the conversation without precise accuracy (adding parts or leaving parts out). I fill my films with many layers of translations, as you pointed out, because it’s how I unpack communication and interactions in my real life. Perhaps not everyone does this, but it cannot be just me, right?
Does the film exist on paper before you begin to shoot or do those extra-textual moments come in the editing room?
The extra language (texts, subtitles, etc.) exists in the script from the beginning. Often the actual words change during post as the temperature of a scene changes from script, through production to post.
Another striking component of your films—and one that extends into a gallery practice potentially—is the way that customized objects find their ways onto the screen. Keychains, ringtones, aprons and t-shirts, either purchased or constructed, telegraph something additional about the characters as well as providing another textual mode of address. Sometimes they signify subcultural statuses, sometimes they feel like gifts from someone off-screen and might not even fit right. Can you talk about these choices?
Art direction matters—this includes the props and wardrobe which are specific and intentional. The art direction is another layer of narrative language, a sub-plot even. It operates as bathos does in literature. A stupid image or phrase on a coffee mug visible in an emotionally revealing scene can disrupt the narrative in a charged and challenging way—injecting humor or absurdity or magic even into an otherwise pretty deadpan exchange. This happens in real life also. It is what makes “a serious talk” tolerable. I cannot resist a visual prank.
As your work has shifted to take more of the forms and processes of recognizable conventional productions, you’ve increased the number of people with whom you work. To what degree do you conceive of these productions as collaborations? Is there a way that working with so many more people on set changes how you think of the works? Are there auratic or affective overlaps in the jobs of director, parent and teacher?
I have worked with the same crew (Steven Hudosh, Chris Rejano and Paul Dickinson) over a few films now and the same editor (Mike Olenick) for over 10 years. These films are like relationships. I have to fall in love with the film then eventually break up with it to move onto the next film. It’s an emotional process and I need to surround myself with people I trust and who trust me back. I listen to everyone’s opinion from the script writing stage through post-production and distribution, but ultimately the final decisions are up to me. This could change with a different kind of financing model. There is a kind of collaboration in the scoring (music), because I depend on the composer (Jenne Lennon) to directly translate my notes in terms of how I want to film to sound. I appreciate what trained actors bring to set. I allow the cast to know and play their characters on their own terms, but I do not allow for improvisation. The dialogue is very specific. Don’t mess with my dialogue! Ok, and yes, I am quite parental on set. I am bossy but more mom bossy than boss bossy—lots of hugging and head patting, for real.
What is Tracers Book Club? How do the various spaces Tracers inhabits function together or separately? What can exhibitions do that online fora or real-life discussions cannot? What is lost or gained by making art in a group, orienting more toward making an argument or experience than originating from authorship?
Tracers (www.tracersbookclub, www.feministasfuck.org) is a free form collective dedicated to promoting feminism as a means toward social justice. Over this past year, we have had two gallery exhibitions in addition to many other events like a mini-conference (a day of panel discussions about intersectionality), two iterations of a radical crafting fair called “FEMINIST PARKING LOT,” films screenings, rock concerts, a youth poetry workshop and informal conversations (often around a book or presenter). Each event attracts a different audience. Feminism is personal and so Tracers makes an effort to offer lots of ways to get your dose. As we gain momentum, we are likely to expand the range of events. We are not a one size fits all kind of operation. If we are committed to inclusive, which we are, we must super-size the options. A narrowly actualized social justice mission is not very just in my opinion.
In rewatching your work for this piece, I found so many little moments that felt synecdochic, like they expressed something big about your entire practice in a small way. I know that you aren’t making work simply about your work—the equivalent of an advertisement for an ad firm—but over the course of your career, you seem to be honing in on a series of concerns. One of the most exciting is the continual and ever-changing challenge of communication and connection. In addition to shared concerns and themes, the reuse of props and costumes gives a hazy continuity to your work. Do you think of these works as being fully distinct or part of a much larger project? Are there ideas that you’ll have that you have to abandon because they don’t work within the scope of your current activities? Since we’re dealing with and in the world of narrative cinema, is there a Reeder universe, nestled somewhere near the speculative and psychic universe of John Hughes? Are the unnamed sites for these recent works in one unnamed town?
Ok, so yes, it’s all intentionally connected—stacks upon stacks of parallel universes. I feel as though I am making the same film over and over and over again. This tic is related to my need to provide multiple translations of narrative language within a single scene. I must keep prodding, “did you get that? Here let me put it another way. Ok, now, did you get it that time? Let me try again.” It’s an obsession with being heard and understood. I appreciate that my films are recognizable as mine. My favorite filmmakers are the auteurs. I am at a loss to understand how some filmmakers make entirely distinctive moves from one film to next. Ya know, like Ang Lee made both The Ice Storm and Hulk. No thank you.
What can the admittedly porous worlds of experimental and independent cinema learn from each other?
The experimentals should be less afraid of being liked/popular and the indies should be less afraid of taking some artful risks in terms of the form. It’s like the jocks versus the nerds. The jocks should get weirder and the nerds should get tipsy and make some prank phone calls.
What is your process for working with actors? Is there a sense that an actor is being instrumentalized—walk over here when the camera gets here, say these words in this order, wear this shirt and face this way—or is there a consideration of and conversation around the more mystical way that a person can embody another person? What has directing taught you about performing? How has your approach to directing actors changed from your White Trash Girl days to now?
The performers in WTG were all amateurs (including myself). No one could act, which is why all the “dialogue” is in the form of a voice over. Plus all the physical action is hyperbole—it’s like a live action comic book. Overdoing it was the only way to do it. My direction to the performers in WTG was like, “haul ass and then pretend to vomit.” In the past several years, I have worked primarily with trained professional actors, which is lovely. These are people who know how to transform themselves into another person—it’s a magic trick really. I am in awe when it works.
I am particular about my dialogue, as I mentioned, so I am known to ask for many takes of a scene (or even a specific line) until I hear it the way I want to hear it. I actually think that I hold my breath during some on-camera exchanges. I get very anxious behind the monitor but I have gotten much better at bringing performances out of the actors. They need to know who I think the character is and why I think they are doing what they are doing (after all I wrote it, I should know). Its all about defining the motivation and clearly communicating the emotional temp of a scene. So for instance in the film I just shot (Blood Below the Skin, currently in postproduction), a young woman has the lines, “you want a best friend? I can get you a best friend. I can get you a best friend forever, but you have to be ok with the pain and the blood.” She was not saying it right and so I eventually told her to say the lines as though she was talking about a dead body…..”you want to hide a dead body? I can help you hide a dead body….” It worked. Gone are the days of simply yelling, “haul ass,” but I don’t miss those days.
If my math is right, White Trash Girl is nineteen years old—right on the precipice of leaving its teenage years. When was the last time you revisited the character and that work? How do you think of her relating to your current work?
I still screen WTG occasionally. I have not made a WTG tape since 1997 but I am still very much making films about unruly women and the midwest. The trajectory from WTG to the current work is very clear and direct for me. It’s the same film over and over again, just now with better acting, better equipment and better fonts.
I’m hoping you’ll say more about why so much of your work centers around teenage girls? Are they both the subject and audience for the work?
In my opinion, no other group of humans is more misrepresented in cinema (in all of media really) than the teenage girl. We are a culture obsessed with female youth and we get it wrong every time. I am just trying to set the record straight or at the very least offer up an alternative—a disruption. I write scripts from observation and my own experiences. There is a kind of art therapy component to my filmmaking process—a lullaby that the adult me hands back in time to the teen me. It’s a retroactive survival strategy. Indeed my primary audience is the teen girl but these recent films seem to appeal to a much wider audience which is a surprise and fantastic. My dream is to pitch an idea to Nick at Nite for an edgy, racy (complicated) teen girl TV show (both for and about). Or better yet, a series of David Lynch-esque after school specials—weird but accurate and entirely in celebration of the teenage girl.
I’m only posting the press release because they say it better than I ever could. If I wasn’t going to be out of town my choice would definitely be the Rooting Symposium Trio Dinner Party on Sunday, October 13th featuring chefs Eric May and Mike Bancroft, Artist Edra Soto (what’s the difference between chef and artist anymore?!).
Rooting: Regional Networks, Global Concerns highlights food through emerging programs and projects by artists, cultural workers, radical chefs, rural and urban farmers, and small businesses. The program spotlights creative responses to the extreme environmental, social and economic changes facing local and global communities with a focus on the Chicago region and New Delhi, India. The event pulls together local, regional, and international presenters to share projects and best practices addressing soil health, water conservation, advocacy, food production and distribution, and building sustainable communities. Organized by the Rhizome Alliance.
Events will take place October 5th through October 13th and include the Rooting Exhibition closing reception, a film screening, bus and walking tours to local farms and art centers, a foraging workshop, dinners with Chicago area chefs and artists, and a symposium with keynote addresses, panel discussions, and a farmerâ€™s market. Tickets and information available at rootingchicago.org.
Finally! A painting show to be super excited about! Jonas Wood’s exhibition at Shane Campbell Gallery opens October 12th from 6-8pm. 673 North Milwaukee Avenue.
Gotta get to the Renaissance Society for the conversation between new Executive Director and Chief Curator Solveig Ã˜vstebÃ¸ and Associate Curator and Director of Education Hamza Walker. This talk is going to be like that movie Waking Life but without the rotoscoping and more interesting.
Saturday, October 26, at 3 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.
And Ã˜vstebÃ¸ is cuter than Miley.
Last but certainly not least, Osvaldo Rombergâ€™s Translocations: Mies and Melnikov at the Farnsworth House in Plano Illinois will close on October 18th. This exhibition involves three things I love: a road trip out to Plano, a gorgeous house museum in the fall and, of course, a model of Melnikovâ€™s eccentric home in Moscow. But really, the project is great, the weather is perfect and I know youâ€™re looking for an excuse to get out of the city. Bonus points: The catalogue for the exhibition features writing by everyoneâ€™s favorite long-lost Chicago critic and educator with a specialization in Argentinean artists, Dan Quiles.
Battle of the Sexes Edition: Artist Jennifer Chan VS. Alan and Michael Fleming.
“Station to Station promised great artists and great art — a train tricked out with video screens dashing across the country — and instead we got some third rate Burning Man rip-off abbreviated rock show with smoke and mirrors, no art, no train, and everything but our DNA stripped at the door.”
Better luck next time, Levis? What do you, dear reader, think of this obvious ploy for marketing material. LMK!
Feminism in the Age of Digital Art, or something.
Just some light reading to distract you from the shutdown and Miley Cyrus.
Not sure how this fowards the womens agenda. Still from Sybil Prentice’s Website Nightcoregirl.net, via AFC.
Speaking of weird dude energy, peep this Artlurker post. Rob Goyanes details the fascinating life and art art of Michael Scott Addis. His step-brother is Mickey Rourke and that’s not even the craziest part.
Header image is a detail of work by mAtT Nichols in one of his current exhibitions, Confident Anticipation + at The Franklin in Garfield Park.
The Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, located surprisingly in a nondescript complex of galleries and antique shops in Buckhead, a north-side neighborhood of Atlanta, curated a show focusing on feminism, performativity, and photography. The works in the show by the artists Jill Frank, MÃ³nika SzilÃ¡di, and duo Double Zero (Hannah Ireland and Annie Vought) examine how to make a photograph of someone, a person, a woman (perhaps) and what that means.Â One of the organizing principles of the show – performativity, a buzz word indeed especially since the 1990s with Judith Butler’s work on gender – finds itself in relation to photographs that draw attention to the process of their making. Alongside considerations of gender and femininity as performative gestures, the works in the show investigate the apparatus of photography and imagistic representation itself – Jill Frank’s work in particular.Â Adding to this work by Frank is theÂ Untitled (Projection)Â series by Steffani Jemison presented in her solo exhibition, When I Turn My Head,Â in the upstairs gallery at Hagedorn.
The works inÂ Ready for My Close-Up evoke other images of women from history: paintings, film stills. These other images, not necessarily direct references, exist in an assemblage of representation with Frank’s, SzilÃ¡diâ€™s, and Double Zero’s. When seen in conjunction withÂ When I Turn My Head, the sphere of the imagistic medium, photography, opens itself to critical examination and self-reflection. Ready for My Close-UpÂ seems to ask whether the question of female or feminine representation is the question of representation itself.
Jill Frank. Romance / Vertigo. 2013. Chromogenic Print. Courtesy of the artist.
A woman lays across a kneeling manâ€™s knee with her head invisible to the viewer – it hangs down, exposing her throat where his his hand rests. Her knee hosts a series of bandages, the slingback of her shoe has slipped from her heel.
Two men stand at the edge of a dock. Wearing matching colored shorts, one holds the other from behind, grasping at his neck and chest. The man standing in front reaches over his head to hold onto the man behind him. The man in front looks up obliquely with an indistinguishable gaze.
These two photographs: Romance / Vertigo (2013) and Romance / Un Homme et un Femme (2013) exemplify the complications Frank creates for our traditional senses of Hollywood romance. Frankâ€™s statement for the show describes her process and intentions behind the series:
â€œThe photographs in this exhibition portray couples re-performing poses inspired by popular media images that were formative in constructing their own understanding of romantic interaction and presentation. The photographed performances challenge the authority and familiarity of the collective visual archive of American romance in order to engender a critical conversation about the influence of dominant representations.â€ 
The showâ€™s title Ready for My Close-Up directly references the last lines aging Hollywood actress Norma Desmond speaks in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. The film, a story of a silent film actress gone mad yearning to occupy the space of the Hollywood picture again, ends with her face approaching the camera until it disintegrates into a haze of grey. Her closeness to the camera quite literally destroys her, but it was the years of distance which contributed to her delusions.  Hagedornâ€™s exhibition statement describes the cultural reference to the film in relation to the photographic works shown in Ready for My Close-Up:
â€œIn the last half century, feminism and performativity have influenced contemporary photography more than any other cultural markers. The exhibition title is taken from the exit line of Sunset Boulevard, a film which questions female identity issues, the rehearsal of the self, the gaze of the viewer, and the use of the theatrical to command attention, all influenced by culture and all features of this group exhibition.â€ 
The works in the group show can all serve as critical responses to the film, whether the work is explicitly influenced by the film or not; they exist together in the sphere of representation’s history. Frankâ€™s photographs play out the deranged romantic entanglement of the filmâ€™s Desmond and Joe Gillis. MÃ³nika SzilÃ¡diâ€™s photographs present the viewer with a crowded and disorienting perspective of cultures and practices of representation. Double Zeroâ€™s photographs and video portray a feminine masquerade pushed to hyperbolic extremes.
MÃ³nika SzilÃ¡di. Untitled (Ladies). 2012. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.
SzilÃ¡di, The Montage-Paparazzi
SzilÃ¡diâ€™s photograph Untitled (Ladies) (2012) sticks a fuzzy and blurred face into the foreground of the image. The close-up shot has gotten too close like Norma Desmondâ€™s final close-up in Sunset Boulevard. The six photographs shown at Hagedorn are from her series Wide Receivers, possibly a play on the position in American football, the players that are able to receive passes from the quarterback and are often celebrated for those glorious catches. Her statement describes her interests in the â€œsocial sphere and its attendant behaviorsâ€ and her â€œaim to collapse the space between the physical and the virtual.â€  The images, a flattening of perspectival depth, contain images of imaging or representational processes and those who are allowed representation. There is a sense that when one figure stands in front of another, there is no space between their bodies; one actually cuts through the other’s body.
Untitled (Blonde) (2011) can be read as representing representation itself. Through SzilÃ¡diâ€™s inclusion of images of handheld cameras, subjects posing for snapshots, a woman putting on make-up reflected in a mirror, and a perhaps drag queen taking up the center space of the photograph, after whom the photograph is titled, the photograph seems to become a commentary on the practice of photography itself. Next to the blonde, a man was caught with his eyes closed. To the left of him, a manâ€™s eye peers directly out of the frame towards the subject looking at the photograph. Michel Foucault states that the 17th century painting Las Meninas (1656) by Diego VelÃ¡squez
â€œpresents us with the entire cycle of representation: the gaze, the palette and brush, the canvas innocent of signs (these are the material tools of representation), the paintings, the reflections, the real man (the completed representation, but as it were freed from its illusory or truthful contents, which are juxtaposed to it); then the representationÂ dissolves again: we can see only the frames, and the light that is flooding the pictures from outside, but that they, in return, must reconstitute in their own kind, as though it were coming from elsewhere, passing through their dark wooden frames.â€ 
SzilÃ¡diâ€™s digital composites of images taken at â€œpublic relations and networking events as well as trade shows and meet-ups of social segments that have connected online to interact offlineâ€  comment on the constructed nature of the way we present ourselves in public and the ways in which we image those constructions. Like Velasquezâ€™s painting, the apparatus of representation shows itself explicitly, drawing our attention to our own practices of presentation and public performance.
MÃ³nika SzilÃ¡di. Untitled (Blonde).Â 2011. Archival inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist.
Double Zero’s Revealing Masks
Double Zeroâ€™s photographs and video push these meticulous constructions of public appearance to the extreme. In their video Cha cha cha changes (2013),Hannah Ireland and Annie Vought dress each other up with unconventional objects or conventional objects in unconventional ways. Over the course of the videoâ€™s almost 23 minutes, the two women take on absurd costuming and masking. With materials that are used for make-up application and other cosmetic tools, their faces become covered in lipstick and face paint, their heads bound in bubblewrap and what appears to be foil that could be used to dye hair. Flower stems are stuck into the fabrics wrapping their heads, blooms sticking out from their faces.
Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). each other + self-portrait #3 “My left arm and your right arm together”. 2013 C-print. Courtesy of the artists.
The two take turns transforming each otherâ€™s appearance. In what appears to be a reference to Matthew Barneyâ€™s Cremaster Cycle, particularly Cremaster 3, they go through processes of bodily manipulation and adornment.  If Barneyâ€™s Cremaster Cycle is about the development of the male testes, what can be said about Double Zeroâ€™s feminine transformations? Their statement reads: â€œWe have united to use our 20 year friendship as the basis for investigating the ways we affect one another, the boundaries between us, and different modes of taking up space in the world. With the complexities of friendship and the trust weâ€™ve built over time, we pursue these themes directly in the actions and objects we make together.â€  Their photographs and video show a relational transformation. They affect one another whether they choose it or not. The silliness of the objects and the resulting ornate masks when coupled with their facial expressions in the video, the phenomenon of feminine friendship grows into a complex situation of acceptance and denial.
Double Zero (Hannah Ireland & Annie Vought). Cha cha cha changes. 2013. Video.
Norma Desmond, after she convinces herself that her script for her film about Salome, the ancient femme fatale, will be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, she starts a rigorous beauty routine. She claims that she needs to make herself ready to be in the pictures again and a sequence shows her being massaged, prodded, wrapped, lotioned. At one point, while wearing products on her face and with her hair wrapped, she enters Joeâ€™s room, but tells him not to look back at her; when she is made-up in this way instead of the proper way, he is not to gaze upon her. Desmondâ€™s excessively vain self-consciousness, is a private practice made public. At another moment in the film, after gazing at herself in the mirror, eyes wide with frenzy, she rips off the cosmetic strips on her face before walking into Joeâ€™s room to discover he is leaving her. She chases him as he exits the house. To get his attention, she shoots him. She shoots him again. This is the moment of her breakdown. After this moment, all she can do is sit in front of the mirror and prep for the camera.
Desmond lives in a world of cameras and characters. To her, cinema ended when dialogue began. She says to Joe â€œWe didnâ€™t need dialogue, we had faces.â€ She then steps into the light of the film projector in her home movie theater that is showing one of the movies she had starred in. The woman actress need only have a face; she didnâ€™t need a voice – this is the kind of cinema that Desmond supports. The voice destroys the perfect face; the face of 1932 Marlene Dietrichâ€™s Shanghai Lily that Laura Mulvey gazes upon in her essay â€œVisual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.â€  As Joe Gillis voice-over narrates, Norma is a â€œcelluloid self.â€  Is the celluloid flat? Does it have any depth? Is her self only surface, the merging of the surface with the underlying anatomy, her body? Or, is her self a thin veneer covering the surface of the filmic foundation?
The upstairs gallery of Hagedorn hosts Steffani Jemisonâ€™s show When I Turn My Head which â€œconsiders issues that arise when conceptual practices are inflected by black history and vernacular cultureâ€ and also â€œaddresses the form and materiality of a photograph through the fugitivity of the image.â€ Works from her series Untitled (Projections), photographs printed on acetate, explore the ways in which an image may separate from its support. The ink does not sink into the acetate; it rests on the surface, creating a depth of materiality.  Mary Ann Doane writes in her seminal essay “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator” that “The masquerade, in flaunting femininity, holds it at a distance. Womanliness is a mask which can be worn or removed. The masquerade’s resistance to patriarchal positioning would therefore lie in its denial of the production of femininity as closeness, as presence-to-itself, as precisely, imagistic.”  Taken together with the works in the show on the ground level, what do we discover about photography as a tool and method for thinking through and creating structures of representation? How much does the image adhere to what it represents and the foundation which holds that very representation itself?
Steffani Jemison. Untitled (Projection). 2012. Inkjet print on acetate, gesso, hardware on panel. Image retrieve on Jemison’s website at: http://www.steffanijemison.com/index.php?/untitled-projections/
SzilÃ¡di, the figure of montage-paparazzi, makes apparent the apparatus of representation while Frankâ€™s photographs create scenes in which non-extraordinary people inhabit the characters of Hollywood in order to experience true romance. What Frank shows us, though, is that these typical narratives are not without their dangers. Norma murders the man she has come to love. Whether or not that love is true is a question we could ask. In consideringÂ Ready for My Close-Up, must this love be artificial? Double Zeroâ€™s work seen as a sort of parody of making-up for the camera, expresses the artificial nature of feminine identity construction. However, within the framework of feminine friendship, we can’t too quickly dismiss these gestures of dressing one another. The collage nature of SzilÃ¡di’sÂ digital images is seamless. Before knowing that they were constructed, I stood in front of the photographs pondering what parties they came from: where do these people gather? Are they all in costume together, playing into some collective fantasy?
Jill Frank. Romance / Un homme et un Femme. 2013. Chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist.
Frankâ€™s series grew from an iconic image, at least in todayâ€™s age of Hollywood: the image of Baby / Jennifer Grey crawling towards Johnny / Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing. A recognizable image. What sets Frankâ€™s later photographs apart is their subjectsâ€™ poses are initially unrecognizable. In some way, their illegibility may gesture towards an infiltration of our cultural imaginary that we now fail to recognize. The everyday performances of relationships and romance congeal in Frankâ€™s photographs.Â Â Ready for My Close-Up, a show curated around the issue of feminism and performativity, finds its complexity in Frankâ€™s strangely unsettling images of menacing romance,Â SzilÃ¡di’s disorienting flatness, and Double Zero’s interplay of masking and revealing.
Desmond, an embodied image of the female hysteric, is deluded. Her wide eyes stare out at the film spectator. As the character Salome, a woman who has been historically represented as a seductress, she approaches the camera, staring directly out at us, outside the frame of the film. In this moment, is she re-living/playing her past traumas? Traumas that may have led to this moment? In the film’s final moments, when Desmond declares that she is ready for her close-up, what can we say is exterior? What is interior? Â Who is she? And, gazing at her, making eye contact, who are we?
 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”Â Screen, vol. 16, no. 3 (1975): 6-18.
Â Sunset Boulevard.
 Hagedorn Foundation Gallery, Press Release for Steffani Jemisonâ€™s When I Turn My Head.
 During the panel discussion featuring Steffani Jemison, when I asked Jemison if she could describe the title choice and process of making these images, she replied that she was examining the make-up of a photograph: its support and its image. Panel discussion with Steffani Jemison, Rizvana Bradley (Assistant Professor of Womenâ€™s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Emory University), and Rujeko Hockley (Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art at the Brooklyn Museum) on 9.21.2013 at Hagedorn Foundation Gallery.
 Mary Ann Doane, “Film and the Masquerade: Theorizing the Female Spectator” in Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 25. Reprint of the essay’s 1982 publication inÂ Screen:Â Screen, vol. 23, no. 3-4 (1982): 74-88.
The utter absence of Romanian feminism in the Academy as well as in everyday life has been one of the most surprising takeaways from living in Bucharest for the past year as a Fulbrighter. It seems Patriarchy has won the day through deployment of pressures both brutally institutional and unwaveringly individual. On the street Romanian women associate being called a â€œFeministâ€ with admitting weakness and the need for help. With the immovable metaphysical authority of the Orthodox Church backing it, Romanian Patriarchy quietly and efficiently continues its careful management of acceptable language.
Whatâ€™s the problem? The problem is one of language. The phrase â€œTrauma Studiesâ€ has surreptitiously replaced the word â€œFeminismâ€ in the Romanian Academy. Gained in this exchange is a vague feeling of victimhood with a need for unending and rigorous archival work, memory studies, and polite acceptance of the cultural conditions at hand. Lostâ€”with the loss of the word â€œFeminismâ€â€”are the activist heritages and more importantly the performative capacities of the word to project group unity in the face of individual oppression. Women and men togetherâ€”and apartâ€”must learn to negotiate the complexities of how identity thinking and action both erases the individual and is made necessary by historical social injustice.
American Feminism demands that society treat women as the equals of men under the law. The difficulty with positing such a legalistic position remains that law bleeds in and out of other parts of the social architecture.Â The best trick Patriarchy ever pulled off was to make women believe they are equal to men since this makes women into gender-bound objects through the performative power of the word â€œequalâ€. To categorize women and men according to gender erases the individuality of both equally. Despite the paradox of losing oneâ€™s individuality to group identity in order to become freer, the social justice need for the work done by identity politics remains.
European Feminism demands that women look beyond gender expectations to become more themselves, more individual, and less beholden to the male gaze. Mina Loyâ€™s â€œFeminist Manifestoâ€ articulates this point bombastically enough: â€œLeave off looking to men to find out what you are notâ€”seek within yourselves to find out what you are.â€ But of course any such interiority (whether at the end of a penis or vagina or anything in between) pulses stuck in the traffic jam between individual and society. These construction sites of gender make our society function â€¦ but at what cost and who pays for it? Can an individual take her own freedom or must a group give her that freedom?
The following call for papers nicely summarizes my experience in the Romanian capital:
â€œOver the last couple of years, new forces have gathered
to undermine women’s and feminist organizing in Europe
and Eurasia. The Orthodox Church has launched an
“anti-gender” campaign in Russia and Ukraine–with similar
campaigns in Serbia and by the Roman Catholic Church in
Croatia and Poland–misunderstanding gender and linking
feminism to anti-natalist and anti-nationalist projects.
Repression and violence, such as the harsh sentences for
Pussy Riot and violence at Gay Pride events, raise the
stakes. Implicit in austerity policies–cutting services that
more often help women while keeping low the taxes that
men predominantly pay–is a neomasculinism that once
again pushes gender equality off to until “later.”â€