A Catalog of Goods

October 3, 2011 · Print This Article

Far from the crowds flocking to the De Kooning retrospective on its top floor, a modest but exciting show on the basement level of the Museum of Modern Art’s education wing charts the evolution of The Whole Earth Catalog. Published in Berkeley in the late 60s and early 70s, its goal was to give a swelling generation of politicized back-to-the-landers and flower children “access to tools,” to show them where to go to buy the things they needed to live a life in sync with the ecology around them. Goods and services weren’t sold through the catalog, although it did list where one might buy them.

In the show, visitors can sit at a big table and browse a few editions of The Whole Earth Catalog cleverly secured to a large, immovable rock that evokes the landscapes of the American West where many of the Catalog‘s users retreated from mainstream society. Flipping through these big, heavy editions feels like a trip to a history museum. On display: arc welders, build-it-yourself domes, dairy goats, and dutch ovens alongside books on un-schooling, the global population explosion, and Buddhist Economics. All of the design and type were set by hand and, in the last edition of the Catalog, its founder Stewart Brand reviews and explains the tools–things like an IBM Selectric typewriter, beeswax adhesives, and daily post-lunch volleyball games–that had a role in shaping the look and process of publishing the catalog.

At the same table, a facsimile of an article from Rolling Stone reports on the Whole Earth Catalog “Demise Party” held at San Francisco’s Exploratorium to mark Brand’s self-appointed end to the publication. After all of its accounts were settled, the Catalog was left with a surplus of $20,000–the same amount as the investment it started out with. At the party, Brand announced that he was giving it all away. The fifteen hundred people in attendance were to collectively decide what to do with the money. Near chaos ensued, with some people taking bills then later giving them back. Some proposed to either burn all the cash or give it to Native Americans. In the wee hours, it was decided that a man who had been there through all the votes and discussions would leave with the cash so that it could be put in a bank and a decision could be made what to do with it later. It never made it to the bank, but he eventually gave it away to “worthy groups.” The Catalog may have provided access to tools, but it didn’t always recommend what to do with them. The tool needed at the “Demise Party,” a way to make decisions with a large group of people, simply didn’t have the time to emerge.

Right now, also in New York, a movement that shares an ethos with The Whole Earth Catalog is gathered in the Financial District and may just have their hands on such a tool. At Occupy Wall Street, no organization provides the services that city governments and non-profits do, people provide for themselves. To say that the square lacks these official organizations does not mean that the mass of people gathered there aren’t organized. In fact, there’s plenty of organization: food donations and dish-outs, a library, a staffed info booth, a mailing address at a nearby UPS Store, legal aid, and a sanitation committee to name a few. By occupying a space for over two weeks and not containing themselves to one afternoon of protest, the protestors have taken for themselves what seems to be in short supply for all of us: time.

from Josh MacPhee of Justseeds Artists' Cooperative

The most striking organizing in the square is the General Assembly. Twice a day, everyone in the square gathers for one large meeting helped along by facilitators. Facilitators are trained in a method of running large meetings in a horizontal, democratic fashion that was used earlier this year during mass protests in Spain. Facilitators rotate between meetings and everyone can become one. A collection of hand gestures allows people to nonverbally communicate a variety of things. These run from the basic agreement, ambivalence, and disagreement to signals like “point of process,” used when someone feels an imminent decision needs further discussion or more information. There are also ways to indicate someone has information relevant to the matter at-hand or that if a specific motion passes, it will cause someone to leave the movement. This last gesture, called a “block,” is treated gravely by all and used only as a last resort. The overall process enables a large group of people to make decisions together in real time. Many excerpts from General Assemblies are on YouTube, you can see the process in action in one of them below. People repeat what each speaker says because megaphones have been banned in the square and repetition is the only way to ensure everybody can hear.

Occupy Wall Street hasn’t been around long enough to reach as many people as The Whole Earth Catalog has, but for anyone who has been able to drop by so far, it provides a compelling glimpse of human-scale democracy. It’s no utopia, but in Liberty Square, tools for getting along with other human beings are both tried out and invented. In this sense, the square echoes one of the most fascinating aspects of the Catalog: its product reviews. Because the publishers hadn’t tried every product the Catalog listed, they solicited reviews from people who had. These reviews patched together a network of expert amateurs in order to figure out what tools work well. They’re by turn informative, funny, poetic, and passionate. The product reviews led Brand to state that Whole Earth was “a catalog of goods that owed nothing to its suppliers and everything to its users.” This isn’t to say the protestors must look to the Catalog as a model, but that we might productively think of the “users” of Occupy Wall Street and the other Occupation movements now building around the US as fellow reviewers. They’re out there creating spaces that inventory peer-reviewed and field-tested social goods that would serve us well and keep us whole in a more just, more democratic society.




iTunes U

September 16, 2011 · Print This Article

If there’s one thing readers of the Bad at Sports blog share, besides a love of art, it’s an affection for podcasts. Duncan assures me that most of our listeners come through iTunes, which isn’t surprising. I probably interact with iTunes everyday, not because I want to, but because it’s ubiquitous. One thing I don’t do much of is spend time at the iTunes store. My podcasts load automatically, I stream my television, and I still purchase music the old fashioned way–on compact disc. Yet recently I’ve found a reason to love iTunes, and that’s iTunes U.

In case you are unfamiliar, iTunes U is just like iTunes but with less Katy Perry. Clicking on the Fine Arts tab will take you to sea of offerings from well-known universities such as Harvard and Yale as well as venerable institutions that we might not immediately consider educational, like MoMA. Before I found Bad at Sports, I listened to a dozen “art” podcasts I had browsed out of iTunes, one of which was simply two stoned guys walking around the Seattle Art Museum talking about the work they saw, but never letting their listeners in on the secret of which piece they were looking at. This kind of monkey-business won’t be found on iTunes U. Their definition of “fine art” is broad, including, of course, visual art, but also media studies, music, theater, and cooking. The variety of format is broad as well. There are regular podcasts like the one you already listen to each week, video lectures, but there are also fully-produced magazine-style shows that look as good as anything you’d see on your local PBS station.

By no means exhaustive, I’ve picked a few highlights that I thought would be of interest. The School of Visual Arts (SVA) has an impressive collection of video lectures about contemporary art and culture. These are organized in the most boring way possible, by department, with the name of the chairperson as your guide. I’m currently watching a symposium called “Where the Truth Lies” that discusses propaganda in documentary film. From The Experience Music Project (EMP) you’ll find 2009’s (and 2010 and 2011) Pop Conference on the theme of Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic. Particularly interesting is the lecture by David Scott, “Gay for Play: The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name Certainly Does Sell Records.” Here an audio only podcast is just fine. Lastly, while I usually try to steer clear of all things Florida, The University of Southern Florida has a great series called Lit2Go, which is fantastic. Really nothing more than a collection of classics read aloud by English professors, Lit2Go is a great time. I just finished re-“reading” Picture of Dorian Gray, a book that bears the distinction of being subject of Bad at Sports’ only book group.

When I was a little girl, my mother told me that in the future anyone could learn anything  she wanted, all we would have to do is turn on the television and our greatest artists and teachers would come right into our living room. Maybe television didn’t quite live up to its promise, but it looks as if the Internet might.




Dear American Folk Art Museum,

August 31, 2011 · Print This Article

The American Folk Art Museum in New York has been in the news a lot lately–and sadly too; it looks like they’re closing. Faced with the pressure of massive debt, the AFM sold its flagship building on West 53rd Street to MOMA and shrank to its smaller, auxiliary 5,000 sq ft location  in Lincoln Square–what they allegedly rent for $1/year. The building on 53rd was built from scratch by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects specifically for the collection and opened in December, 2001. At the time “it was widely hailed as a sign of hope, both for the museum and New York. Here was evidence the city could recover from the terrorist attack of a few months earlier: a shiny bronze structure smack in the heart of Midtown that would be the first major art museum to open in Manhattan since the Whitney Museum in 1966,” (NYT, August 24, 2011). Since then the AFAM seems to be a lightening rod for particularly relevant trouble. “For example, its former chairman, Ralph O. Esmerian, promised to donate his collection of folk art, including a version of Edward Hicks’s ‘Peaceable Kingdom,’ but Mr. Esmerian also put the painting up as collateral against money he owed, and in 2008 it was put up for auction. In July Mr. Esmerian, who is no longer on the board, was sentenced to six years in prison for fraud,” (NYT, August 19, 2011). Perhaps again, as an indicator of our socioeconomic environment, the AFAM was forced to default on its construction loans in 2009. Their projected income from ticket sales and donations alike exceeded the reality of their position. The museum defaulted on its debt and this past May, its board decided to sell the building to its neighboring institution, the MOMA. While the sale got the museum out of its immediate hole, they were unable to raise additional funds for operating costs. Now the question seems to be, how to dissolve the institution? Where will these objects go?

Martín Ramírez (1895–1963) Auburn, California c. 1960–1963 Gouache, crayon, colored pencil, and pencil on lined and pieced paper 17 x 78 in. American Folk Art Museum, New York, promised gift of the family of Dr. Max Dunievitz and the Estate of Martin Ramirez, P1.2008.1

What happens when a museum with such a carefully and specifically curated collection sells/donates its collection? The work itself seems as much defined by its relationship to the institution as the institution is defined by its work. If, for instance, Henry Darger is repositioned within the Brooklyn Art Musuem’s repertoire, and should they exhibit his work in conjunction with contemporary works does that change the way we view Darger? Does he start to emerge from the margins of “Outsider Art” into a space with different categorical potential (and therefore influence)? Obviously and for various reasons, Darger would never (nor should he) hold the status of a Pollack, for instance, but would his position and relation in our history-of-art-timeline change depending on his status within a specific collection? Would the same apply for the quilts in AFAM’s collection–how would these objects be integrated in other exhibits? Were everything to end up in a National History Museum, would we forget to think of these objects as art objects, considering them first and foremost practical artifacts endemic to a new country developing a cultural vocabulary? The historical implications/academic associations created by an institution’s curatorial hand suddenly becomes apparent to me.

As AFAM collected and exhibited this particular body of work it sought to define the significance of its collection, simultaneously reinforcing the significance of its own institutional contribution. Suddenly the work of curators shows its essential contribution to discussions around art. (While an obvious point, well curated experiences are often so seamless, that I take their curatorial authority for granted. I hardly notice it, focusing instead on the narrative it propagates.)

That said, and appealing to the internet ether (sometimes I feel I’m sending messages to outerspace) I don’t want the AFAM to close. Obviously I’m not in a position to fully comprehend the circumstances or needs of this institution as it goes through what must be a devastating time, but here are two postcards to metaspace:

Dear American Folk Art Museum, While we never shared the same state, your presence has helped me develop over the years, pressed me to follow paths of my own work and insight that I might have otherwise diminished and dismissed.  Thank you so much. Yours truly.

&

Dear MOMA,

Please don’t tear down the AFAM building. It would be such a waste! Perhaps instead you could incorporate its structure into your own and bring a new life to the building’s history. We must all protect one another, somehow. Yours truly.





The Artists’ Cookbook

July 22, 2011 · Print This Article

Sometimes a book will sit on the shelf so long that it loses its specificity and becomes merely a faceless one of many. Recently I have been revisiting this group of old friends who are stacked shoulder-to-shoulder on my bookshelves like classmates in some dimly remembered second grade group photo. The Artists’ Cookbook by Madeleine Conway and Nancy Kirk is a 1977 publication by The Museum of Modern Art. This book has lived on my shelf since 1979 or so when my best friend’s mom gave it to me in a purge of superfluous reading material. As an elementary schooler, I had little use for a cookbook, especially of the gift book variety, but since I’ve kept it all these years, it must somehow appeal to me. Perhaps she sensed this. This is also the same women, who, when I was thirteen, offhandedly gave me the complete diaries of Anais Nin. Hmmm.

 

Subtitled “Conversations with Thirty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors,” The Artist’ Cookbook offers a photograph of the artist in the kitchen, a one-page discussion of his or her perspective on food, followed by a series of the artist’s own recipes. I can’t even begin to imagine what the authors said when they pitched this book. Maybe something along the lines of… “We could get Warhol to make soup” (146-148). “Marisol eats only ‘natural’ food” (97-102). “And oh yea, I hear Larry Rivers makes an excellent Bronx Chicken” (126-129). Now I love Willem de Kooning as much as the next person, but do I really want a recipe for his brother Koos’s Seafood Sauce? Maybe not, but somehow reading Robert Indiana’s recipe for Hoosier Borscht makes me feel as if I know something about him that his art doesn’t reveal.

 

The most charming artists in the book are Christo and Jeanne-Claude—listed only as Christo, of course, since it was 1977. Still, within the text they are treated equally as artists. But only one of them cooks, and that is Jeanne-Claude, and that is if you consider opening a can “cooking.” Their little introductory bio is both delightful and bullshitty. The photo, though, is what makes their story. In it, Jeanne-Claude and Christo are younger than I have ever seen them. Christo looks on as Jeanne-Claude giddily peers into a box of cookies. It was only when I was writing this that I realized that I have the same cookie tin. Though you can’t tell from the photo, the sides of the box are inscribed with marital advice. For example, Be to her virtues very kind. Be to her faults a little blind. As well as, And oft I have hear defended, Little said is soonest mended. This advice is well employed in our house. Judging by what by all accounts was a successful love affair, it seems that the advice worked as well for Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

 The Artists’ Cookbook has been out of print pretty much since the moment it was published. Unlike other out-of-print art books, this one is still affordable, maybe because it does not fall tidily into any particular category. The interwebs show it starting at $25. Collecting vintage cookbooks right now is HOT HOT HOT, and this book would make a nice gift for someone who likes art and cooking, but not, perhaps, for someone who just loves to cook. These recipes are a little hit-or-miss.

 

The Artists’ Cookbook: Conversations with Thirsty Contemporary Painters and Sculptors

Madeleine Conway and Nancy Kirk

The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1977

 




From Illuminated Manuscripts to the iPad

April 29, 2011 · Print This Article

I love art books. My bookshelves bow with them and they offer thoroughgoing diversion when I can’t sleep. Monographs work best for this. I prefer thick paper, with big images that fill the whole page. Although I always read the introduction and biographical essays that start these sorts of books, I prefer the artwork to stand alone on the page. Maybe a date, but that’s it. These books offer what all books offer, the ability to experience what I haven’t experienced in real life, or to re-experience what I have. I’ve never been to the Tate or Van Gogh Museum, or even the Frick. But that’s the beauty of books, right?

Still, this same warm fuzzy argument doesn’t extend to all mediums, at least not for everyone. There was recently a spirited Facebook debate between some friends of mine about Art Project by Google. The pro Art Project folks said that for the first time in history some of the world’s best art was available directly to our homes, that with our personal computers we could access images of great (and maybe not so great) art. Because the images are high-resolution, we can zoom in close, see the paint, the hairs left by the brushes, the hand of the artist, all at a quality even more detailed than an actual book, even more detailed than standing in front of the original painting. And what about the detractors? They argued that when we log into Art Project we are not looking at art, we instead are looking at digitized reproductions. Even reproductions in books are still ultimately objects. These same folks also argue that we are on a slippery slope, where a virtual experience becomes a replacement for the experience itself.

Recently museums have started making apps for smartphones and tablets. Personally, I have apps for The Louvre, Hermitage, The Art Institute of Chicago Impressionist collection, and the MoMA Ab Ex Exhibition. Some of these apps are better than others. For example MoMA’s excellent Ab Ex app takes you through a tour of their recently closed Abstract Expressionist exhibition. You click on an image to make it larger and to access information about the artwork. But along with the images we also get a video of Ann Temkin discussing why she mounted the show and how she selected the works that would be included. She discusses the history of the Abstract Expressionists and why we should care about them today. Arguably, if I had seen this show at MoMA, I wouldn’t know any of these things. Perhaps what is lost by not seeing the works in person is made up for by added information and contextualization.

David Lynch said, “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.” I do see Lynch’s point, a smartphone or even an awesome tablet doesn’t equal a real-life experience with a work of art. But my question for Lynch is, does he extend this to all non-theatrical viewing? I mean before we watched movies on our phones we watched them on DVD, and before that video, and before that broadcast television if we were lucky enough that the one of three stations would re-run a movie we might consider “art.” Where exactly is he drawing the line in the technological sand? What technology is an acceptable mediator for art? The harsh tokes are that once your art is in the world, you don’t control it anymore no matter how hard you try (I’m talking to you, Anish Kapoor).

Over the years we have grown comfortable with new technologies. By now, no one is threatened by a book. When records were introduced people argued that this reproduction was not the same as a live performance. Then CDs were not as “alive” as the sensuous analog sound of vinyl. MP3s not as “lush” as compact discs. Without exception this is all true. What is also true is that we now listen to music all day instead of just on special occasions. So perhaps we trade quality for quantity, but we also gain access to music we could never hear live and we can also control when we listen to it.

All through college “The Birth of Venus” hung over my bed. Never once did I confuse this poster with the real thing. The original hangs in Florence at The Uffizi Gallery. I’ve never been to that museum and sadly enough, I probably won’t ever. Mechanical reproduction and digital technology has acted as a mediator between viewer and artwork for centuries. How is an exhibition app any different than a catalogue? Even with all its bells and whistles an iPad is still on the same trajectory as moveable type. After all those years of looking each morning at Venus, I never saw her so clearly as I did when I saw her on Art Project.