February 19, 2009

Long Live Activist Art!

Holland Cotter, an art critic at The New York Times, recently wrote an article called “The Boom is Over. Long Live Art!” I read the article with interest and several of us on the activist art education listserv exchanged reactions. I felt a little silly coming to Cotter’s defense because he hardly needs my defense and I don’t usually defend the New York Times. Still, I think Cotter is an ally, so here’s what I said:

“I don’t think Holland Cotter was addressing those of us on this list as much as those who never knew or chose to ignore all the other threads in the art world beyond the gallery/star system. While his comments–‘It’s day-job time again in America’ (when has it ever been otherwise for most of us?) and ‘I’m not talking about creating ’60s-style utopias; all those notions are dead and gone and weren’t so great to begin with’ (so general as to be meaningless)–are certainly open to challenge, I was heartened by the breadth of the artists he did name, and the sketch of (not-so-new) approaches that he articulates and appreciates: ‘Why not make studio training an interdisciplinary experiences, crossing over into sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, poetry and theology? Why not build into your graduate program a work-study semester that takes students out of the art world entirely and places them in hospitals, schools and prisons, sometimes in-extremis environments, i.e. real life?’ Why not, indeed? Easier said than done even for those of us in the academy.
He then remarks that ‘Such changes would require new ways of thinking and writing about art….  I’m talking about carving out a place in the larger culture where a condition of abnormality [or resistance, methinks] can be sustained, where imagining the unknown and the unknowable…is the primary enterprise.’
While folks have been doing this for years, it’s good to have Cotter shout it out from the NY art world. I wonder, though, how to sustain these conditions of abnormality and resistance across social divisions, within global capitalism, with justice. Going forward is unknowable, so recentering art to support different people means that we are always experimenting, never getting it quite right. But I think our own work-places can be places of hope and art now; if we have to have ‘day jobs,’ let’s appoint ourselves arts-based workers in those jobs, as many have already done, and infuse the normal with the ‘abnormal.’  Cotter has consistently written about ‘marginalized’ art groups for years: Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre, the various feminist exhibitions, Asian art, and street artists. I don’t know him, but I have appreciated his rather singular voice in the NY Times, probably not an easy thing in his context. Of course we want activist art and its concerns to be front and center, whether in the NY Times or the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Institute for Community Understanding Between Art and The Everyday, Cabinet, n.paradoxa, etc.

And here’s what Richard Kamler of the University of San Francisco said:

I do think Cotter's article was fine, simply dated. Worn down by the
weight of the NY market and not really open to what has been bubbling up
and emerging and transforming culture these past 20 or more years. He
does mention, in passing, work with communities such as prisons,
hospitals, etc where many of us have been working, or worked, 30 years
or so ago. The idea of an engaged art, of community-based art, (social
practice, hate that phrase) is just not something that Cotter, or the NY
market really knows what to do with....I subscribe to Vaclav Havel's model
of "bringing the artist to the model!"
December 7, 2008

The Hole

A couple of friends, Damian Duffy and John Jennings, just published a new book, The Hole. Straight from the website of Front 40 Press: “The Hole: Consumer Culture is a science fiction horror story about the buying and selling of race in America, the simultaneous worship and degradation of African Americans in popular culture, and the bloody terror of boundaries being torn down.” It’s $30.

Cover of The Hole

Cover of The Hole

John and Damian also curated a comix show this fall that runs at Krannert Art Museum in Champaign til the end of 2008:

OUT OF SEQUENCE: Underrepresented Voices in American Comics
Historical Consultation by RC Harvey

By focusing on work by women and minority artists, experimental and small press comic creators, webcomics creators, and the contributions of comic book writers, inkers, colorists, and letterers, Out of Sequence seeks to explore alternate histories of American comics and explicate the limitless possibilities for the medium in the 21st century; from early newspaper comic strips to the internet to virtual narratives in simulated three dimensional space.
The galleries are designed so that you feel like you are walking into a room of giant comics, with grid patterns on the walls and some projections.
February 19, 2008

NYC scenes, 2008

On a brick wall by the New Museum on the Bowery. It says “Bring Me Back,” in case you can’t read it.

The Silence=Death Project was able to display their activist graphics in the window of the (old) New Museum courtesy of curator Bill Olander. Associated with ACT Up, the graphic has appeared on T-shirts, buttons, and in now in this stair hall of the new New Museum since the late eighties.

And then there’s the graphic on the exterior of the New Museum “Hell Yes!” in bright rainbow colors, ala child’s playroom by Ugo Rondinone

February 14, 2008

Martin Puryear at MOMA

In mid-January, we made it to New York City just in time to see the Martin Puryear retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The curators really used the new museum spaces well I thought, with this ladder for Booker T. practically disappearing up into the atrium. Then one could look down on it and other pieces from the sixth floor gallery. The wood, rope, tar, wire mesh, and wool were treated with such respect and allowed to speak what they are made of, in relation to each other, and the surrounding spaces. I loved it.

And if I weren’t so tired I would write something about the two plays we saw too: “The Farnsworth Invention” by Aaron Sorkin, and Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming.” Another evening perhaps.

From Site to Vision

Not too long ago the women who have been working long and hard on a history of the Los Angeles Woman’s Building put it on the Web. What a gift to all of us to have this e-book! Lucy Lippard wrote the Foreward, Terry Wolverton, one of the editors, wrote the Introduction. Then there are essays by Sondra Hale, the other editor, Laura Meyer, Betty Ann Brown, Michelle Moravec, Jennie Klein, Sheila de Bretteville and Bia Lowe, and on and on. Cecilia Dougherty wrote a useful piece on early video art, and Terry Wolverton edited an interview with Arlene Raven, who succumbed to cancer in August of 2006. The essay by Michelle Moravec and Sondra Hale begins to explore the efforts to involve women of color in the Woman’s Building. This book is also a resource for the images that they’ve imported from the digital image archive at Otis Art Institute. This is linked from the Woman’s Building site. There’s a lot of interest now from us aging feminists in telling many of these stories and this is one important collection.
Of course, on the other coast, there is Rutger’s Women Artists Archive National Directory (WAAND), which is busily documenting U.S. archival collections of primary source materials by and about women visual artists active in the U.S. since 1945. There is also a show opening at the Bronx Museum of the Arts next month, “Making It Together: Women’s Collaborative Art and Community.”
What a year 2007-08 has been for women in the arts, with WACK! on the west coast and “Global Feminisms” on the East Coast. I shouldn’t leave out “Claiming Space: Some American Feminist Organizers” that Mary Garrard and Norma Broude curated. I didn’t get to see it, though.

November 25, 2007

The Inspired Disturbance of All Status Quos

One issue that came up several times during the Political Equator 2 tour was the tiresome question, “Why is this art?” I think Roberta Smith nailed a definition of art in her November 16, 2007, review of Lawrence Weiner ‘s show at the Whitney (“The Well-Shaped Phrase as Art,” New York Times , p. B33):

“Mr. Weiner’s ebullient work…reminds us that while art and money may have been inextricably entwined throughout most of history, art’s real value is not measured in strings of zeros, high-priced materials or bravura skill, but in communication, experience, economy of means (the true beauty) and, yes, the inspired disturbance of all status quos.
It also affirms that art ultimately triggers some kind of transcendence that can only be completed by the viewer.”

September 20, 2007

Chicago. Fig.

Chicago. Fig. These are titles of two books by the photographic team of Adam Bloomberg and Oliver Chanarin. “Chicago” is the name of a cardboard and junk city in the Negev used to train Israeli and US soldiers in milieus that simulate Gaza or a refugee camp. “Fig” includes images of pine forests that have been planted across Israel in previously occupied territory. These are painful, contested stories, with flashes of heat from all sides.

It leads me to wonder about the best way to discuss these hotly-debated, deeply-felt issues. If not at a university, then where? Where might respectful exchanges of opinions best unfold, even if the only common ground is that a setting for exchange is important? I think every institution is political, in the sense that power relationships are unequal within them and people’s priorities are skewed by those power relationships. I am worried about the continued (and increasing?) polarization of the university, where “toxic” becomes not just descriptive of the physical environment but of the intellectual one as well. Most recently, the establishment of an endowment fund at the University of Illinois, the Academy on Capitalism and Limited Government Fund, and its close connection to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), has sparked debate locally, with all sides jockeying for positions for and against, but the opportunities for teaching each other about the real difficulties of living together on the planet seem to be completely forgotten. People rightly are concerned about “mission creep”–another term reminiscent of toxic dispersal–but is it possible to debate the mission(s) before jumping on board or not? My initial reaction to ACTA is that they say their mission is “academic reform,” but that that is a smokescreen for a completely different mission, which is the imposition of their ideology. NOT, repeat NOT, that this is only a strategy of the right, but given the dominance of the right, it seems hollow to claim their beleaguered stance. And, the website of their ally, the National Association of Scholars, is really ugly to boot.

September 15, 2007

Laurie Long

I just heard that Laurie Long died quite suddenly of heart failure, during treatment for lung cancer, on Thursday, September 13. Laurie is in black in the photo with (L to R) M. Simon Levin, Piotr Adamczyk, and Kevin Hamilton. I remember when Laurie came to my cabin during one of her trips to Champaign-Urbana from Vancouver, and the stories she told of animals and growing up, as we walked along the levee and through the woods. She was very excited to see cardinals.
She and Simon did so many interesting things, both here and in Australia, in Canada, and California. I am thinking of the film loop from their work in the Australian salt flats…what an eerie, gorgeous, damaged landscape seen from the air. It was mesmerizing.
What a loss.

September 14, 2007


Ryan Griffis recently sent around a link to an article on ctheory. Browsing the links there, I came across this 2005 interview with Christina McPhee. I like her use of “slipstreaming.”

Christina McPhee: Thinking about the poetics implied by “between your body and ‘the machine'”: — one wonders if ‘machines’ could be imagined as distributive trace presences within a psychic architecture, even a voice-space, built from a breath inside the screen. Let’s visualize a model of this breathing architecture; how can we imagine it as neither machine body nor human body, or maybe both, so that the space is as much a transitive verb as a nameable location. Here’s where the visualization of ‘slipstream’ becomes especially useful: apart from programming slang, the word also has an older meaning in aerodynamics. Slipstream denotes the area of negative pressure or suction that follows a very fast moving object, like an airplane propeller. Or, when you’re in a small sports car on the freeway, you can ‘slipstream’ behind a large truck, which allows your small vehicle to be sucked into the slipstream of the larger vehicle — at risk to your life. “Slipstream” can be a metonym, standing in for a complex set of associations, including machine repair, hallucination ( as in, a ‘fix’ ), sublimation of identity (forward suction into something ahead of you), minimal resistance, and air, wind or breath (intake, inhalation, suction).