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Fighting Words: A Public Debate on the Relationship Between Social Practice and Art Institutions

It seems like everywhere you look today, artists are working collaboratively through social and participatory formats, often in public and community settings and well outside the traditional context of the art museum. The desire by artists to directly engage the world, their diversity of approaches, and the collective and collaborative ways their work is made […]

Janaki Ranpura's project for the ongoing exhibit at the Katherine E. Nash Museum, thinking making living, on view through December 13.

Janaki Ranpura’s project at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery for thinking making living, on view through December 13.

It seems like everywhere you look today, artists are working collaboratively through social and participatory formats, often in public and community settings and well outside the traditional context of the art museum. The desire by artists to directly engage the world, their diversity of approaches, and the collective and collaborative ways their work is made has spurred heated debates about the role of art in the world today.   Tangled in histories of activism, community organizing, and avant-garde aspirations to merge art and life, socially-engaged art practices challenge the very institutions that have traditionally educated, presented, and supported contemporary artists, namely the art school and the museum.

“Art Inside Out: Socially Engaged Art and Institutions” will be the focus of conversation between Roger Cummings, Natasha Pestich, Christina Schmid, Colleen Sheehy, and Sarah Schultz, as part of the exhibition, thinking making living, at the Nash Gallery. (Wednesday, December 10 at 6 pm).  Knowing such conversations are happening among friends and peers elsewhere, we invited Portland-based artist Ariana Jacob, to share some of the proceedings from this past summer’s rousing Assembly: A Social Practice Get-together that took place at the Portland Art Museum.

The following debate project was organized for the Assembly by Ariana Jacob, who invited the six members of the debate teams, as well as the gathered audience, to respond to the question: Does social practice belong in art museums?

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This question was chosen not because there is a pressing need to resolve that matter one way or another, but as a prompt that could push to the surface the power dynamics of the overlapping and oppositional interests at play in this still forming field of art practice.

On the team advocating that social practice belongs IN museums: Phaedra Livingstone, professor of Museum Studies at the University of Oregon, Sheetal Prajapati from the Education Department at MoMA, and Harrell Fletcher, Director of the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University – the program that organized the Assembly event. On the team arguing for social practice to resist incorporation and remain OUTside of museums: Amy Harwood, co-founder of the outdoor artist residency Signal Fire, Deborah Fisher, executive director of A Blade of Grass, an organization focused on supporting socially engaged art, and Paul Ramirez Jonas, an artist who has worked within the field of social practice both inside and outside of museums.

The debate teams were invited to set the stage by having each member make a position statement, and the audience was invited to respond to these stances with their own comments and questions. These were followed by a period of dialogue, first between the debate team members and then opening up to a free flow between audience and panelists.

The IN-museum side pointed out that there has been a long history of parallel development towards public engagement practices within museum education departments that naturally correspond with social practice art. They acknowledged that there are real reasons why museums are perceived as elitist spaces but argued that this could be changed faster by artists and museum practitioners working together from inside the institution to make more inclusive institutional practices and to more fully live up to their ideals as a public space and a public good. The INside also pointed out that within the existing art economy museums are more compatible financial backers of social practice art than the existing commercial gallery world, where sale-ability is paramount.

The OUTside brought up strong concerns about the price of compromising the work by fitting it into museum sanctioned forms where it no longer has the wildness that gives it power. They astutely pointed out that museums are physically and financially structured around the collection and display of objects, and that unless that changes, social practice will always be at a disadvantage negotiating for recognition within those institutional structures. They also strategically made a call to refuse working with museums unless museums do more to present this work in the context of art discourse, as opposed to education and outreach, on the grounds that museums have more to gain from social practice work’s ability to generate their own audiences than these artists have to gain from getting access to the preestablished art audiences that come with a museum.

The atmosphere was intentionally rowdy. Time was kept by the electric guitar virtuoso, LKN, who drowned out speakers with screamingly beautiful heavy metal riffs regardless of whether they were well credentialed or unknown. For the first half of the debate people were not allowed to respond directly to each other and instead could only voice their own questions and statements, which accelerated the flow of ideas but heated up the room with frustration. Speakers, both on the stage and on the floor, were rewarded with shots of mezcal for sharing their thoughts. The rules of the debate were changed on the fly midway through to make more time for discussion between the audience and the debaters. For the most part each person was only called upon to speak once, allowing as many different voices to be heard as possible and making sure no-one dominated the floor. By the end, much of the audience had joined the debate, and yet the room was still filled with an urgency to articulate all the perspectives that had not been expressed.  As with a more traditional Oxford-style debates, the audience was asked to vote before and after the discussion to indicate how persuasive each side had been in making their case. While there was a slight movement from OUT towards IN throughout the course of the night, the final vote was a tie – a fitting end to the proceedings, resisting the charged desire to resolve the conflict, and instead re-emphasizing the importance of laying bare the different stakes at work in the field.

What follows are some key excerpts edited down from the live debate[1]:

Introduction by Ariana Jacob:

Think of this debate as a public conversation. Conversation as a form of practice is central to my interests as an artist. To many people, conversation implies an arena that is limited to politeness and agreement, when in fact, conflict is a crucial element of dialogue. Conflict points out what matters to us, where we draw our lines to take a stand. And conflict undeniably has energy. Disagreement illuminates the places where we can potentially think new thoughts. When we notice we are disagreeing with someone it reveals the edges of our own thinking, and even if we are not going to end up agreeing, there is a chance that we can get a different perspective on the echo chamber of our own established lines of reasoning. I wanted to bring a form of conflict into this forum on socially engaged art and see what would come forth from exposing and discussing some of our underlying fault lines. The relationship between socially engaged art and institutions is a complicated one. On the one hand social practice is born out of the impulse to take art out of sanctioned spaces and bring it into everyday life places and interpersonal forms. So it might be a form of backtracking to be finding ourselves back at the threshold of the museum. But on the other hand socially engaged artists have a lot to gain from being taken seriously in the discourse of art and museums have a lot to gain from the way that social practice shifts the relationship with audience towards participation and personal involvement.

The debate starts with the question: Does social practice belong in art museums? But then it moves out from there, as different stakes are brought forward in the conversation.

Opening Statements:

Phaedra Livingstone advocating for social practice to be IN museums:

I am here to assert that the art museum and social practice are perfectly compatible. Your very presence here in this space embodies my first assertion arguing for museums. I’d like to take a poll now. Who here feels that museums are elitist? (Most people raised their hands.) Now, who here feels that museums are a public good? (Again most people raise their hand and one audience member calls out, “they should be.”) Museums are complex institutions with many layers and I think it is fair to answer in the positive to both those questions.

There has long been an over-emphasis on the role of collections in the public understanding of museums. But as visitors, we actually experience the museum through programming, not through collections. We might experience collections in that programming, but it is programming we are experiencing. As we experience it, the art museum is a public space for programming with the goal of serving and developing civil society, and therefore is a prime venue for social practice. If you believe that museums are elitist or exclusive and you, as an artist, wish to change that, then the art museum is precisely where you need to do that work. The alternative is to create a new institution for showcasing art which will likewise face sociopolitical realities that will require management, and hence the dance of principled compromise. As a realist I want to improve the real world rather than invest in an imagined utopia that may actually be worse than what we’ve already got.

Amy Harwood arguing for social practice to stay OUT of museums:

My primary role in the arts community is as a totally devoted audience member. I’m not a committed maker or even a critic, but art is about the only thing these days that brings me back from spending time out in the wild. I have spent the most recent half of my life committed to environmental activism. I am unapologetic about this while maintaining some reservations about the history of my predecessors. One of the many debates in the environmental movement is about the utility of wilderness. As some of you may know this summer is the 50th anniversary of the wilderness act. This remains the strongest piece of legislation ever written in this soon forsaken nation. I recommend that you all read it someday. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of legislation, total poetry. It applies from the core of the earth to the atmosphere, which is so beautiful to think about. As I thought about this question of how socially engaged art interacts with museums and institutions I saw a corollary to wilderness: How do we ensure accessibility without debasement? What is compromised by this strategy? Does the construct of an institution undermine wildness? Ultimately, who is in charge? I think these questions, and questions of whether our institutions are just menageries of the rich and temples to cultural production are absolutely critical as my generation inherits the power of our predecessors. The art world is currently reflecting a community complicit with capitalist empire. I implore all artists who have the courage to be true interveners: to align themselves against that shit wherever it arises. Ultimately I can’t evaluate anything without resorting to my years of love affair with wild places, and just as I question the utility of wilderness areas to stave off the destruction of the natural world through a few hard to reach places, I would question the role of museums to represent the wild and free artistic expression of socially engaged art.

Sheetal Prajapati for IN:

When we think of art, we tend to think of art objects, but this is a mistake. The real art is the experience of making or encountering an object or an idea. When the work is separated from these experiences it is separated from life. These are the ideas from John Dewey’s Art & Experience and these ideas continue to serve as the core tenants of museum education practiced today, as they have been for decades. As I was thinking about the question of this debate, these thoughts from Dewey brought me to question the question itself. I think what we are actually debating is where does socially engaged art belong in art museums? Traditionally art has always belonged in collections and exhibitions, and essentially to curators, who steward, research, collect and display artworks. I want to argue that social practice art belongs in education departments. Museum education departments have been engaging in social practice for decades.  They have historically served as the most democratic and welcoming face of museums. Like artists who are drawn to social practice as their medium, in part because it is more free from the art market and other structural rigidities that exist in the “art world,” so educators have found museums to be the educative spaces that are largely free of the standards and practices of traditional educational institutions. There continues to be a range of valid and serious criticism of museums as elitist or closed spaces for larger publics, but most of the time these conversations ignore or omit the work of education departments. Our work is often invisible and commodified for the sake of funding exhibitions and other curatorial based practices. I would propose that like museum educators, social practice artists are thinking less about status and power, and more about openness, outreach, inclusion, facilitating action, inspiring creativity, and taking part in long term societal practice that develops culturally and socially active citizens.  One might even consider that social practice within the sphere of the art world may actually have been inspired by educative practice, but I suppose that is another debate.

Deborah Fisher for OUT:

I want to cut to the chase and talk about power and resources in a really direct way. How is value accrued around art? How is value accrued around social practice? What drives value in museums? I am an arts organization, and specifically I am A Blade of Grass, which is organized entirely around driving resources to social practice. So these are really, really important questions to me. And while is difficult to be on the side of the debate against museums as an arts organization, I think that museums are organized around objects in a way that is too important to ignore. It is ok for any of us to declare that art is about experience, or art is about creativity, but doing that disavows how museums actually run, and get their money, and become economically sustainable. They run because they work with collectors and their collections. They take care of those objects and everything is organized around those objects. Socially engaged art is interesting, and potentially revolutionary, because it is organized around a different value proposition. We value stuff in this society. Maybe social practice is a way to shift value in society towards relationships, experiences, and the sensation of interdependency. But how will we really be able to do that revolutionary work of valuing those experiences instead of the objects which can be sold so readily? I don’t think that museums are structured to be able to do this new work on an economic level. Theaster Gates does a really good job working around this structural problem: he sells a lot of art objects to fund other work that isn’t object based. But I think when you put these projects back into the museum, since the museum’s value is being driven so much around objects, the work winds up being documentation instead of the art, or the work itself gets distorted.

Harrell Fletcher for IN:

As an artist who has worked with lots of different institutions – and also outside of them – I came from a time period when there wasn’t a term social practice and there wasn’t a whole lot of understanding for this kind of work either.  So for me it has been really incredible to see the last ten years of development and how much things have changed.  When I see things like at the Hammer, where Allison Agsten is a public engagement curator that is a really interesting to me. I agree that yes, museums are not set up for social practice style work, or performance, or dance, or music, or any other of those kinds of things to take place in them normally, but they are incredible spaces, public spaces.  And it is great to realize that there is this sort of public real estate that for the most part isn’t being activated, it is just housing static objects – which is an important role, but I think it can do other things as well. It is an amazing thing to have institutions welcome in, as the Portland Art Museum has done with Shine A Light for the last five years, another way of using the space, and engaging with the public, making the museum relevant to people who it might not ordinarily be relevant to. My sense is that yes, social practice, however you decide to define it, does have a place in the museum – and it has a place in the grocery store, and in the park and the farmers market, the internet and in publications, and that this is a way of valuing that kind of work, and the more ways that exist the less necessary it is to feel like you have to follow  commercial route, which was what seemed like the only route when I was in graduate school, the only one that professors talked to me about for sure. Now sometimes I work with education departments, sometimes I work with curatorial, and sometimes I work completely outside of the institution. As an artist that is what I want.  I am a strong advocate for inclusion in all areas. Though it is difficult, and I have definitely experienced all sorts of challenges and adversity trying to work with institutions, including this one, but I think it is a worthwhile endeavor and one that will benefit both artists who work in this capacity and the institutions that do a variety of things, including now promoting social practice as well.

Paul Ramirez Jonas for OUT:

I come from a position where I am object maker who partakes of the sins of exhibitions, and I also make some things that now are labelled socially engaged art, so I’ve seen both sides and I am still trying to figure it out, but today I will say that I am vehemently opposed to presenting socially engaged art in art museums, specifically.  I think what I value in socially engaged art is its ability to convene audiences and make publics, it is about public making, as we are now assembled here, not in an exhibition. Each venue has a pre-made public, a ready-made public – in the theater, in the museum, in the movies. But we are in the business of trying to convene a public outside of these already prescribed formats. However museums do want to show socially engaged art – in science museums, in history museums in other museums, non-art museums. We are being asked to be part of a transaction: museums are offering us something and we artists are offering something in return. We are offering engagement, we are offering some ability to convene certain kinds of publics, and museums give us contexts. When I show in an art museum I want the benefit of the art museum, and that benefit is to put me in the context of art history. It is not a gallery, it is a museum, its job is to historicize and put my work in context. But museums of art don’t really know what to do with us. They know what to do with relics, performances, relics of performances, it is always shown in exhibition mode. They are not willing to reinvent the exhibition to accommodate this kind of work so there is no benefit to us if the work has to be violently transformed to fit that mode. When you see an exhibition of Fluxus it is not Fluxus, it is an exhibition of remnants of Fluxus. So what I would ask is, what do we have to gain if they can not put us in the context of art discourse and filter our access to the museum through the education department? For that reason I think we should refuse, until they can figure out how to give us a different mode of presentation that can accommodate this form of art.

Photo courtesy of the author

Photo courtesy of the author

Excerpts from audience statements and the discussion that followed:

Mack McFarland: I’m really curious about the inside argument that museums should deal with social practice is through the education department. I’ve heard many artists and many museums workers describe the education department as the ghetto of the museum, based on budgetary hierarchies between the various departments and the amount of respect that education departments get. And while that evokes the issue of where most revolutions start… none the less, if we aren’t going to put this work into the place of curatorial, where the big dollars are, then I am a little hesitant to give my vote to the IN side.

Sarah Wolf-Newlands: I just want to say that the fight to be more inclusive is going on within the institutions, I’ve seen that at the Walker and I see it here at the Portland Art Museum. I think it happens on a daily basis within museum education departments.

Audience[2]: How Deborah framed the idea that museums are built around objects was really useful. To me this creates an entry point to the whole reason that this matters, because I believe in art that is the experience, is the intersection of power, is the thing happening and not a representation. The danger and the violence that institutionalizing or locating this work in more formal structures is that they insist upon creating representations.

Cameron Cartiere: My question is for Paul: So, if we resist and refuse to work with museums, how can we actually help with the change if we are not in there, in the conversation? While we could, eventually, hopefully, leave it to the museums to figure out, it will happen a hell of a lot faster if we are in there, doing it with them.

Sheetal: I think with every major avant garde and contemporary art movement in history, museums are always last to the party. We are the last ones to figure out how it fits into our collections and into our archives. I know this doesn’t sound fantastic, but I think this is the reality that we live in, which is that that museums are going to figure it out eventually, just like we did for everything else. I refuse to think that because it is ephemeral it can’t be collected. To me that is false, it can be collected: performance art is, video art is, digital art is – we are going to figure it out. This is the nature of the institution. I am not saying it is perfect, but it is inevitable.

Audience:  At what price are we going to figure out how to put all these kinds of art we are talking about tonight in a box?  I think that the real value – especially at this point of time in human history – of social practice art is its ability to interrupt.

Grace Hwang: I think I am in this unique position here, because I did work at the MoMA in the Education Department for about 7 years, and I did, I do, really identify with that work. I really saw the museum as this learning laboratory, a place of freedom outside the classroom.  I felt classrooms were not the places where I wanted to pursue teaching. But I also felt that I had limited agency as a contractual employee of the museum. I had a certain degree of freedom in what I could do, but it was really limiting. So, when I saw an e-flux ad go out for Shine A Light (a night of socially engaged art projects by students from the Portland State University Social Practice MFA program taking place within the Portland Art Museum), I felt both like this is what I already do as a museum educator, but then also like there was a curtain lifting and that maybe on the other side, as an artist, I would have more agency in creating these freeing spaces, which is the path I have now chosen.

Sheetal: I will say this: I am still figuring out how to share power. I work at an institution that holds a lot of power, yes. And my job is to try and figure out how to rework that structure, and find a space where artists are collaborating with us and not doing work in service of us.

Justice: One of the big things that museums do is establish authority and one of the things that social practice does is diffuse authority. So how can you possibly reconcile those two forces?

Tori Abernathy: I guess the issue that arises is to what extent the museum actually is a public place that is available to a lot of people. Like many people have brought up, obviously there are barriers to access that extend far beyond the price of the ticket. The value of the arts, especially the kind that many of us here practice, is its ability to intervene in people’s everyday spaces.

Paul: The museum should be a site of public engagement for artists in the context of art. I can go to the Met and have a martini while listening to a string quartet. The string quartet is engaging in public engagement – but not in the context of art. And we are artists, we do not want to be the string quartet while people drink martinis. We do not want to be part of the education department. We want the museum to show us in the context of art. The museum has to cooperate and do their part of the bargain. Getting in the collection is not so relevant, but the context of the discourse – we want discourse. We actually know how to present art outside of the discourse of art. But the museum only has one thing to offer us: it is that discourse, and if they do not give it to us…then we are out!

Amy: I would say, too, that with social practice art, one of its tenets is unpredictability, and that is something that makes me show up. I actually think that social practice involves some of the worst organizing that I have ever seen — as somebody who is a professional organizer, it is terrifying to see how bad people can be at organizing, because there are training programs and skills available for those things. But I show up anyway, because it is one of the most beautiful expressions of faith in unpredictable behavior. So, what I hear you all saying is: how do we control that in a way that doesn’t limit its wildness? And my point in making this metaphor is, like – no, don’t.  Just don’t control it. That lack of control is the whole point. That’s the thing that is the most exciting and gets people to actually show up.

Harrell: If we are going to function as artists, and the value system is through the art museum, but they only collect something once it is done, or once that artist is dead – it does not help people very much in their career and in their life now, like with paying the rent. We have to find systems in which social practice artists can be supported, so that this work can flourish and develop, which means there have to be these institutional support systems and probably skipping over the commercial realm that is normally the gatekeeper for art work.

Paul: My intention in advocating for refusal is rhetorical, but also more precise: I would hate for social practice work to have to be deformed by adapting itself to museum practices that are not adapting to them. Education departments are willing to adapt themselves, but curatorial departments are not, so the goal shouldn’t be to get into the museum at whatever price.

Audience: The museum has always been a site of historicity. and not necessarily of contemporary practice or art making. I am wondering if the museum could be a site for social practice, but not necessarily for collecting it, at least at this time. I don’t think that that is necessarily problematic. I think about artists like Sol Lewitt, who people often cite as being a grandfather of social practice: what happened with him was that new kinds of space were created so that his work could be properly exhibited. That has happened in so many instances that I am not sure if it is a question of whether this work belongs in art museums, but what role museums can play in raising our art forms to a level of needing to be preserved for future generations.

Deborah: The question becomes: what kinds of institutions can do the work of transforming something so ephemeral? Of extracting the value and sending it to the next place? What helps to really make something like that lastingly valuable?

Patricia Vazquez: A thought I have is about how institutions can become outdated, how they have life-span.  I just wonder at which stage in its life span the museum, as institution, is right now? Museums have been around for thousands of years, and I’m wondering if socially engaged art can change museums from the inside, or whether it is a better match for creating new institutions.

Cris Scorza: I want to bring the conversation back, maybe change the question: how does social practice interact in the art museum? Let’s remove the word “belong,” like someone said earlier. I think, yes, there are so many of us that are risk-takers, and we welcome you in! Yes, we stay behind in the process, but we are trying to catch up as quickly as we can. Yes, Lygia Clark didn’t have an exhibition until 50 years later, but we now want to walk the line together and start collecting this work and presenting it to our audiences. The museum’s resources, this auditorium that we are all sharing, is your auditorium. Our role as museums is civic engagement. These institutions belong to you – you ought to transform them.

Concluding statements:

Megan Grace Harned for OUT:

When we put this work into museums does that power stifle and suffocate it, and remove the obligation for museums to reflect on their role and power in society in terms of social justice?

Audience for IN:

If social practice doesn’t belong in museums, then that is awesome, because that probably means that it really does belong in museums, since that is when the most interesting stuff comes out: when you put something where it doesn’t belong.

Deborah for OUT:

It is really important if the goal of this work is transformation to ensure that we are never complicit in an existing power structure. So, the question is: how do you structure participation in these institutions in a way that is not complicit?

Harrell for IN:

I am just going to cite what we have just experienced here, tonight: Ariana’s social practice project, this debate, has happened within a museum. You guys can decide for yourself whether there was any value to it or not for it to be here.

[1] Thank you to Madelyn Freeman, Stephanie Parrish of the Portland Art Museum, Roya Amirsoleymani of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, and the PSU Social Practice MFA Program for helping make this debate exist.

[2] My apologies to those people whose voices I did not recognize in the recording or whose names I do not know.

Ariana Jacob makes artwork that uses conversation as medium and as a subjective research method. Her work explores experiences of interdependence and disconnection, questions her own idealistic beliefs, and investigates how people make culture and culture makes people.  She received her MFA in Art & Social Practice from Portland State University. Her work has been included in the NW Biennial at the Tacoma Art Museum, Disjecta’s Portland 2012 Biennial, The Open Engagement Conference and the Discourse and Discord Symposium at the Walker Art Center.

Readers, where do you stand? Make your case in the comments.

Recap: Lane Relyea on DIY Culture, Alternate Art Spaces and Making Objects into Subjects

The crowd that squeezed into Midway on November 12 to hear Lane Relyea’s talk, “Subjects of the Institution of Art,” could easily have filled the auditorium at the Walker, but Relyea’s message would have felt dulled had it been ensconced in such an “institution.”  Midway’s library was a particularly apt setting for Relyea’s thought-provoking discussion. […]

Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center

Photo courtesy of Walker Art Center

The crowd that squeezed into Midway on November 12 to hear Lane Relyea’s talk, “Subjects of the Institution of Art,” could easily have filled the auditorium at the Walker, but Relyea’s message would have felt dulled had it been ensconced in such an “institution.”  Midway’s library was a particularly apt setting for Relyea’s thought-provoking discussion. This gallery library is an exemplary iteration of the “your” in Relyea’s recent book Your Everyday Art World, in which he explores the burgeoning trend for art spaces at every level to multiply platforms for interaction and greater opportunity for feedback loops with their visitors. It’s worth noting that this alternative art space, once housed in St. Paul’s Midway area, actually reduced the square footage for its gallery to accommodate its library’s expansion, literally opening up more of its dedicated physical space to written intellectual discourse around visual art in an effort to foster more back-and forth conversation between viewer, artist and art object.

But Lane Relyea’s presence in the library was symbolic and powerful for other reasons, too. See, Relyea was here, in Minneapolis, at a particularly fertile time in our cities’ creative history — the late ’80s and early ’90s.  I was here, too, caught in the fringes of the era’s creative skirts as a punked-out teenager, one of many who were filing into neighborhood basements, garages, and various and sundry other alternative spaces made available to us. And Relyea was at the center of that scene, writing and editing Artpaper, a local publication which put a serious critical cast on the DIY activity sprouting around him.

relyea-everydayartworld Lane_Relyea_large

He has since stayed true to these roots, noting over the years the perverse ways in which neo-liberal capitalist mechanisms have corporatized this earlier era’s DIY fervor into the ideal “prosumer” — today’s in-flux, self-reliant, hyper-flexible ideal worker. These mythical free agents work for themselves outside of the establishment, contracting and piece-mealing their many gigs and professional roles together in an unstable mix of a, wait… This sounds an awful lot like what every artist has to do today to develop and maintain their artistic persona. Relyea’s recent work ingeniously shows how the current conception of the ideal worker resembles an artist, now more than ever before. He even notes Daniel Fisk’s argument that the MFA is the new MBA, articulated in the book Free Agent Nation, as creativity and entrepreneurship more closely align.

At first, it might seem that Relyea is just another critical voice upset at how a fractured economic landscape has left so many of us to despair of doing better, interminably in desperate straits.  But he brings to that discussion a welcome nuance, thoughtful insights into how one might navigate the many layered strata of the art world. He’s less interested in assigning blame for a failing system than he is in illuminating the ways all its various cogs and wheels function simultaneously.  But make no mistake: this is no Seven Days in the Art World. Your Everyday Art World looks far outside what Relyea would call the Fordist model (i.e. the system by which artwork passes through various hands – dealers, collectors, museum curators and collections – to be packaged as an elite, luxury good). It has traditionally been the gatekeepers — critics and dealers — who seize upon the work of emerging artists (almost exclusively functioning in the NY/LA axis)  and usher them into success.  But we now operate in a post-Fordist society, one dominated by large horizontal networks — meaning this current market system can easily be superseded and chart already how it is becoming less dominant.

This is where small, radiant beams of light fall through the cracks in the art system, especially in “far-flung sites of production” like the Twin Cities.  This new, decentralized system, Relyea argues, has the potential to overtake the outmoded critic/dealer model through a convergence of several key developments — one of which is the increasing importance of networks that help art move beyond objectification to prioritize fostering connections between artists, audiences and discourses.  In the end, he says, art subjects emerge out of such interactions, and these art subjects also feed back into the work itself. Thus the art, as object, cannot be isolated, aloof or proscribed from those interactions. Despite the imperative for these burgeoning art networks to be rooted in a scene of artists and interested parties coalescing together, geography hardly matters. The site of such interactions can be set in any remote locale and still be relevant to the larger cultural conversations.

You simply can’t discount the rising tide of people, the sheer number of artists rolling out of the 270 MFA programs in the US, he says. (Fun fact: he tested the audience, challenging us to guess which state has no MFA program; I thought Alaska, but it is, in fact, Wyoming). This new wave of highly educated, creative workers cannot be absorbed by the elite, dealer/critic paradigm. Rather, they appear to be rejuvenating the DIY spirit of their underground forbearers, producing art subjects (and objects) worthy of note and also well outside the usual coastal axis of cultural influence.

The net effect of this activity, Relyea says, is the creation of a “federation of systems” — far-flung, geographically remote scenes that do not fit into the usual gallery complex, in places like Kansas City, San Francisco, Minneapolis, New Orleans or, his example, the art space, Elsewhere, in Greensboro, N.C.  This loose coalition of artists and independent spaces has many drivers — it is a highly inclusive system where creative value is invested in links, connections and interfaces. It’s no accident that this is the same terminology used in new media networks: this is the system of the future. And our local art scene, here in the Twin Cities, is poised to be a major player within it.  Indeed, the increased decentralization of these new cultural systems favor the literal center, the American Midwest, as notions of value shift further from discreet art objects given attention by high-end art magazines which, until now, haven’t much bothered with work made in “flyover” country.

Relyea highlighted a particular federation, Common Field, a newly formed umbrella by which disparate art spaces, organizations, and free agents (Relyea included) work in concert and mutually support each other.  Notably, this network also includes the Soap Factory, the largest contemporary art exhibition space in the US (which, incidentally, finally got the nod from New York for their insanely popular and populist Haunted Basement) and Works Progress, a progressive creative placemaking organization without a brick-and-mortar anchor — both of which will host the next Hand in Glove conference in Minneapolis, September 17–20, 2015.

Sure, there is a utopian feel to all this, but Relyea seems to be making the case that artists are hardy, robust activators with everything they need to make stuff happen — with or without funding, 501(c)(3) status or not. For Relyea, no cash sales are needed, because it is people, art subjects and artists, who replenish the scene. This more generous, people-focused conception of artistic worth eradicates the necessity for product differentiation, opening the possibility for a greater equality in market value, too.  By this measure, all work is valuable in so far as it endeavors to support the whole.  We especially need to remember this utopian ideal, he’s saying, in our overstretched, workaday artistic lives, where making time to create discrete objects feels less meaningful than setting aside space to create connections between art subjects.

I know, I’m barely skimming the surface of what Relyea’s premise means to Minnesota artists.  In keeping with the aim of producing and integrating art subjects, I welcome your feedback, response and further dialogue to my recap of Relyea’s recent talk. I’m especially curious to hear from you who also went to the lecture at Midway. What’s your take on these issues raised in Relyea’s visit? And did you know: this website, Mn Artists, was originally developed to fill in the gap Artpaper left when it folded? (For more on that history, see Neal Cuthbert’s interview for the Walker from a couple of years ago.)

Related links and event information:

Another lecture in this vein is coming soon: David Joselit, author of After Art, will discuss “Heritage and Debt” and further consider how contemporary art functions within globalized networks. Joselit will speak in the Walker Cinema, December 3 at 7 p.m. The event is free  and open to the public.

Sheila Dickinson is a St. Paul native and wrote her first art review of a Shane Cullen exhibition at the Orchard Gallery in Derry, Northern Ireland, a key DIY artspace in another remote art location that Relyea highlights in his book Your Everyday Art World. She wrote her dissertation on contemporary Irish art at University College, Dublin.

Exchange: HIJACK and BodyCartography on Collaboration, Choice and Chance

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about the interpersonal dance of choreography by collaboration, the “awkward clothes” of beginning new works, and bringing chance and choice into the practiced moments of performance. BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad spoke with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen […]

HIJACK's Kristin Van Loon, Arwen Wilder Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center

HIJACK’s Kristin Van Loon, Arwen Wilder
Photo: Gene Pittman for Walker Art Center

BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad speak with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder about the interpersonal dance of choreography by collaboration, the “awkward clothes” of beginning new works, and bringing chance and choice into the practiced moments of performance. BodyCartography co-directors Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad spoke with HIJACK collaborators Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder in November 2013 about the premiere of HIJACK’s redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye last year at the Walker Art Center.

Otto Ramstad (BodyCartography Project)

At HIJACK, do you direct your performers? If you do, how? And, if you don’t, what else do you do that might be analogous to directing? Or, maybe you don’t consider that – directing – at all?

Kristin Van Loon (HIJACK)

There are times when we deliberately do not direct and, actually, very specifically don’t even look at people as they’re working. And that’s a specific choice, to have everybody in the room working at the same time, including us, rather than standing apart as directors, separate and looking on.

Olive Bieringa (BodyCartography Project)

Do you do that a lot, and rely on it as a strategy?

Kristin

I like that privacy. We’ve worked with big groups: including ourselves, there are nine in this piece and there were twelve in the work last the winter. So often, we’ve done work with just the two of us in the room, and much of that time nobody is watching. We were really interested in expanding that experience of working to include larger groups of dancers.

Arwen Wilder (HIJACK)

How is it, if you do work where you show somebody some moves, there’s a clear right and wrong, a quality of assessment enters the work – the sense that there’s a very specific shape you’re supposed to do. One of the things we have to try to communicate to our dancers is how to approach the instructions that they’re being given. We know how much they’re inclined to be rigorous and to frantically stick to the rules. But we want to hold on to a sense of humor about the process. It’s impossible to let go of the direction once given. As long as the approach we’re after is clear to our dancers, it’s our job to keep the directions, to keep the rules about what they’re doing, such that they don’t need continuous direction from us. We want them to have the space to solve problems and figure out how to be, how to do things in the moment within the scores that we’ve given them.

Otto 

What’s your motivation for working this way? Is it about sharing the way that you approach a dance?  Is it about instilling a desire for dancers to have to find the way in for themselves? Or, is it about letting the work be about something more, or other, than what you’d get with explicit instructions?

Kristin

It’s just about finding the right people. It’s funny: you have to have inquisitive people for this approach to work. And, boy, have we hit the jackpot! We didn’t pick people with similar backgrounds to ours, or even to each other, but they’ve all been amazing. This way of working takes a sense of humor too. For us, the question of direction has come up pretty late in the process: like, “oops we’ve said almost nothing to them about what to do.” And actually, often we just don’t interfere because we love what they’re doing already. Sometimes keeping our mouths shut is the best direction we can give, because even telling them what we like can ruin it.

Olive

What percentage of your aesthetic, if you had to come up with a percentage, would you say is based on failure, in relationship to choreographing for other people?

Arwen 

That’s such a good question! Failure!

Olive 

I’m sorry, I’m just dying to ask.

Kristin 

We’re really into being non-sequential and bouncing back and forth to various things. We’re really into corrections, lately, so it helps to have…

Olive 

To make it more difficult?

Arwen

It helps to have something be wrong, so that it can be corrected. We like to have both the wrong thing and the right thing present. For example: take a page with some of the writing crossed out. You can still read the words behind the crossed-out parts — you can see both the finished text and what has been done wrong. Both are still worth reading. There’s something valuable in simply seeing that it’s wrong, being able to read through the scribble.

I can’t give a percentage, because it goes around and around for me, in terms of what actually constitutes failure. I mean, what if the work ends up failing in the right way? Is that still failure? I don’t know. I love the way a mistake turns into success; it feels like a necessary duality behind what’s improvised and what’s set. I don’t even know where to define the two edges.

Kristin 

I actually don’t think failure is a part of our aesthetic. We could just as easily answer Otto’s question by saying 0% of our aesthetic derives from that.  I think it’s clear for us and everyone who dances that the goal is perfection, always. That’s actually very important. Holding on to a sense of humor about failing is not the same as saying, “It doesn’t really matter if my arm is here or there.” That’s never a dancer’s feeling while executing a move.

Otto 

Never mark it.

Kristin 

Never mark it.

Otto

Do you think about dramaturgy? Is it important to your work, or not? Does it even come up?

Kristin 

I need a definition, and then you might have an answer right away.

Otto

That’s part of my question though. What does “dramaturgy” mean to you?

Arwen 

I mean, I hear the word dramaturge a lot. I know choreographers, in Minneapolis and elsewhere, are hiring people to do that with them or for them… I think of it as having someone who’s specifically paying attention to the way that the images and the arc of the piece are personally and culturally relevant.

 I don’t feel the need to hire someone on the outside. That is probably because there’s two of us at the helm already, so we’re often doing the work of a dramaturge for each other. Besides, we make a point of showing work as we’re making it, especially using protocols where we glean a lot of description from audiences about what people are seeing and what it’s making them think of. We’re getting that information as we’re making the work. I think making sure there’s someone paying attention to the communication of narrative and imagery, whether it’s the choreographer or someone else, is really important. Otherwise, it’s easy to get myopic, to get swept away by the sensation of movement. We’ve definitely experienced that in group work over the years – times where we got lost in the beauty of the work of the group so that we lost track of the other stuff a dramaturge could see and hold on to.

Production photo of Super Nature by BodyCartography Project. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center.

Production photo of Super Nature by BodyCartography Project. Photo: Gene Pittman for the Walker Art Center.

Otto 

We’d not really worked with any dramaturgical support until recently, with Super Nature.

Kristin

Who’d you work with?

Olive 

A woman from Germany: Stefanie Hahnzog.

Otto 

Yes, and she’s trained as a theater dramaturge.

Kristin 

And did she come to Minneapolis while you were making the work?

Olive

No, we were in Germany. She came to Hamburg and dramaturged while we were in process and then we did a little exchange after.

Otto 

She watched videos [of our rehearsals], and then we talked together on Skype.

Olive 

Beyond that, Otto and I just did our own problem-solving.

Otto 

Right. We thought: We don’t need to hire outside for a dramaturge because we talk about it already. The two of us talk about the piece all the time, so why do we need anyone else? But at the same time, having the advantage of more people there with us, talking about it, was itself very interesting.

Olive 

I’ve noticed that you just call yourselves HIJACK. Other than that, do you call yourselves “choreographers” or “dance artists”? How do you refer to what you do?

Kristin 

We call ourselves a “choreographic collaboration.”

Olive 

Your avoidance of labeling seems interesting, maybe important.

Kristin 

What do you call yourselves?

Otto 

Choreographers.

Olive

We do a lot of directing…

Kristin

What does “doing a lot of directing” look or sound like for you?

Otto 

I don’t know, Kristin; you’re in, like, three of our pieces. What do you think it sounds like?

Kristin

The thing is, I don’t think of myself as feeling highly directed by you two.

Otto

Think about that duo you did with Karen [Sherman] on the table…

Kristin 

Do you mean then that, when you work, it’s tightly scored?

Otto 

We would watch what you guys were doing, and then we would give you feedback. Something like, “Make sure you change the rhythm of the way you’re doing this, because if you don’t, I have a hard time seeing what’s happening,” for instance.

Kristin 

Yeah, and then I ignored you. (Laughter) I just don’t remember a sense of being closely directed.

Otto 

That’s good, because you, as a dancer, have to be in it. I mean, the piece still has a score, and I did give you feedback. We said things like, “Don’t do this as much, do that more.” We’d let you know where we saw particularly vibrant moments; or something like, “This thing you just did really distracted me from what I want to see right now.” But at the same time, we know: you have to perform it. You have to survive that situation without the work being set. So, I can understand why that would be a broader experience of direction than the idea of us just giving you some little tips along the way.

Kristin 

This is common way of directing for us, too, I think. It’s actually a lot like what we do in our Contact Improv class every week: we just take turns watching. In a sense, someone else does your score. Then, sometimes, five of us might be doing a movement, including Arwen and I, and we’re really trying to get a very unified attack, a coherent energy and shape in our movement. One of my favorite ways to accomplish that is to have one person sit out and watch, each one of us in turn, while the others repeat the movement. That gives everybody power; and, sometimes, the act of watching is, itself, enlightening.

Olive

Let’s talk a little bit about the seeds of new projects. Where do you begin?

Kristin 

I usually travel with a list of every piece we’ve ever done.

Arwen 

Usually, the way we start a piece is by trying to do the opposite of the thing we’ve just completed.

Kristin 

The MANCC Residency was a kind of seed time for new work: we articulated our interests and each of us had three hours a day to direct independently.

Olive 

And you never talked in the evenings about what you were going to do, you just kind of did it on your own, in the moment?

Kristin 

The planning, directing, leading in the rehearsal was independent…

Olive 

What about a vision for the whole, big picture? How did that fit in the process?

Kristin 

That’s how we were designing the whole commission project, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye.

Olive 

Was that the first time that you had done work that way?

Arwen

Well, it was the first time that we were thinking of making a single piece together. I mean, we’ve made pieces for each other when one of us was directing and choreographing and the other one was dancing.

Kristin 

We did that, for years, before we made something for ourselves jointly.

Arwen 

We’ve had rehearsals where we specifically take turns for set amounts of time. But to go for multiple weeks with, you know, the morning is mine and the afternoon is hers – making things independently in the knowledge that the culmination of the work was ultimately going to be one piece – that was new for us. It presented a large problem upon leaving the residency, actually: we ended up with two completely separate pieces. And we came back and we performed a couple of cabaret evenings performing the work in progress: Friday night we did Kristin’s piece, and Saturday night we did mine. We were really stumped for a long time about what to do with the material that came from that process, because these separate pieces we created had been developed more fully than usual, on their own, without being connected.

Olive

So, what did you do next to bring them together?

Arwen 

We made something completely different from them. Little by little, we have put some of that independently created stuff back in. But it was a huge quandary for a while, how to create one, united work from that material.

Olive 

When you’re choosing a title, or figuring out the starting point for the next piece – does it always feel like putting on awkward clothing? I mean, do you need the new work to begin in a place of discomfort? I mention it because, earlier, you brought up the word “comfort”? Is that unease the starting point?

Arwen 

No, not always. I can think of specific examples where we’ve actually started with an idea to create more comfort and more ease – maybe in the dance-making itself, or in our collaboration, in our conversation.

Kristin

There is some movement, some stretches of dancing, where A and B are next to each other and are very uncomfortable in sequence. It’s very inconvenient to have your body in once place and then need to lurch into the next. And if it does get convenient, then we change the score. Or, some movements are selected specifically because we love them, they’re favorites. We’re interested in watching what happens to something over time, especially what happens when we put those very inconvenient moves next to each other. And if you do the movements, even inconvenient ones, the same way for months, everything smooths out, regardless, with practice. If you perform the movements with the same music playing, even if you think you’re ignoring the music, you’re not. You’re starting to dance to the music.

"smithsoniansmith (as is)" at Bedlam Theatre Photo: Bill Starr, courtesy of the artists

smithsoniansmith (as is) at Bedlam Theatre. Photo: Bill Starr, courtesy of the artists

Otto 

When you go about making an evening-length piece, does that change the way you’re making the work? I ask, because when I watched smithsoniansmith — and I only saw it at Bedlam, I didn’t see it at the official opening – my feeling was, this is not evening-length.

Kristin 

You wanted more…

Otto

No. No, it’s just that what I saw were smaller pieces put together. It just didn’t seem like something conceived as a single, evening-length work.  And I‘m curious if the process of making that work, because it was just the two of you and Scott Heron, someone you hadn’t worked with on other pieces, affected the outcome. But it sounds like that “commissioning a piece” sort of feeling was a force in the room for the whole three years of development of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye.

Arwen

I felt the same way about smithsoniansmith. Our thinking about “novel” movement and slow development in this latest project — things coming back around, unraveling — absolutely came from a reaction to that “commissioning a piece” feeling. A lot of the other longer pieces we’ve made were like a bunch of little pieces strung together; we believed that those individual pieces informed each other, but there was less of a sense that we needed to work toward a single, evening-length sort of feeling in the work.

We did make a number of small pieces, short pieces, as we were making this, but the way that these new pieces come together and overlap – the way the individual elements kaleidoscope and splinter off each other, how some of the same vocabulary is used in different pieces – allows each section to have a very different character, but when you put them all together, it feels less a string of pearls and more of a whole.

Kristin 

From the very beginning of our work on redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, we were intentional about seeking out pleasing examples of wholeness — things that were almost a little too big, or too complex, to keep that  sense of whole alive and perceptible. For example, I started making an effort to read, and stick with longer books, novels. I tend to prefer shorter things; I love short fiction. So, I wanted to deliberately find sustained activities, routines and cycles that pushed toward longer durations of time and that require an expanded attention span.

I mean, you can make something that’s 60 minutes long, but still just episodic – just episodic — and maybe that’s what smithsoniansmith is. That said, the two of us like dense things. But we’re also anti-filler; we have a strong aversion to wasting anyone’s time. So, from the beginning of making this larger work, we struggled with: How can we tolerate asking an audience to look at one thing that lasts so long and still have it feel rich and specific the whole time? How do we do that both compositionally and as dancers, performing in the moment?

Arwen 

Trying to figure out, compositionally, how the sound was going to work was a big part of figuring out that sense of the whole. It presented a challenge, because we like to work with found sound and often with pop sounds and those all have complete arcs of their own…

Olive 

And those songs are usually three minutes long.

Arwen

Right! So, what do you do with all those distinct beginnings, middles, and ends? How do you move away from an episodic feeling to something more unified? That was a big puzzle.

Olive 

So the music for redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye is also found sound?

Arwen 

It is.

Olive 

And you guys have mixed it up and played with those sounds? And you’re the mix master, the cutter, Kristin?

Kristin

There’s a huge question in that, about whether a pop song from the radio counts as found sound, whether or not we should ever manipulate or edit anything so “found.” Where’s the thread in those smaller parts, the “whole”? We wondered: Can we find any sound sources that we like that are already 60 minutes long?

Arwen 

We both listened to a lot of movie scores – looking for a “whole” sound with a significant duration.

Kristin

The problem is that’s someone else’s story.

Arwen 

Yeah.

Otto 

Changing the subject: Are you going to tour the piece?

Arwen 

We’re not opposed to touring the whole thing, but right now…

Otto 

(Singing) — it’s a Walker show

Arwen 

Yes, and we’ve been trying to figure out: What does that mean?

Olive 

Yeah, we’ve taken our shows all over, but there’s just no space that’s like the McGuire Theater. The luxury and the height of its space, what the lighting designer (Heidi Eckwall) was able to do in the Walker – it’s really hard to replicate in other spaces.

Kristin 

We’re getting ruined by the Walker. (Laughter)

Olive

It’s gorgeous! But you get so in love with the beauty of the space and with being able to use the proportionality it offers, that the timing of everything gets shifted. Every time you remount the work after it’s been produced for the McGuire Theater, stuff that was maybe happening in the back corner of that expansive space, you just can’t see in less well-appointed venues.

Kristin 

I’m laughing, because everything that Arwen said before about abundance and fullness — big space, big time, big cast — is very true; we both say it a lot, and we mean it. But at the same time, especially at the very beginning, we thought and talked a lot about avoiding that “doing the big show at the Walker” thing. We want to, somehow, stay outside of that; otherwise, we’d be making something that wasn’t really of us. So we thought a lot about the everyday reality of our dance lives, and said, “We’ve been teaching Contact Improv Wednesday morning, every Wednesday morning, for 12 years. It must be important to us.” So, we decided, that experience needed to be a building block of the new commission. And that wasn’t only about including Contact Improvisation, but making sure to put what we do at the center. We very deliberately sampled from movement that happened in that class in our rehearsals for the new work — specifically, every week. The cast of redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye was influenced by people who were dedicated to that class. We wanted the work to be about “practice” and “class-ness,” in general.

Otto 

Let’s talk about the brass tacks of collaboration. Both HIJACK and BodyCartography Project have been in two-person collaborative teams that have worked together for 15 years or more.

Kristin

Okay: Sex or no sex? Which is the better model? (Laughter)

Otto 

Well, if you have sex — if you’re hetero – then you just end up making more kids. So, stop doing it after you got one.

Arwen 

We’re very civilized. We keep sex and procreation separate.

Olive 

And that’s a wrap. Awesome! Thank you!

Arwen 

Yeah, thank you!

__________________________________________________________________________

HIJACK is the Minneapolis-based choreographic collaboration of Kristin Van Loon & Arwen Wilder. Specializing in the inappropriate since 1993, they insert dance where it is least expected. HIJACK is best known for “short-shorts”: pop song-length miniatures designed to deliver a sharp shock and collaborations with po-mo hero Scott Heron. The duo has taught and performed in New York (at DTW, PS122, HERE ArtCenter, Catch Series/Movement Research Festival, Chocolate Factory, La Mama, Dixon Place), Japan, Russia, Ottawa, Chicago, Colorado, New Orleans, Seattle, San Francisco, Fuse Box Festival, and Bates Dance Festival. Commissions include DTW/Tere O’Connor’s “Nothing Festival”, James Sewell Ballet, U of MN, Bedlam Theatre. HIJACK has taught a Wednesday morning Contact Improvisation class at Zenon Dance School continuously for 14 years. Van Loon & Wilder are currently at work re-imagining their Walker Art Center-commissioned nonet, redundant, ready, reading, radish, Red Eye, into a trio for small and/or awkward spaces.

As co-directors of the BodyCartography Project, Olive Bieringa (NZ) and Otto Ramstad (USA) investigate empathy and the physicality of space in urban, domestic, wild and social landscapes through dance, performance, video, installation work and movement education. Our works range from intimate solos for the street or stage, to large site based community dance works , short experimental films in the wilderness, to complex works for the stage. We have created numerous performance works, short films and installations across the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Europe, Russia and South America and were recently named Dance Company of the Year by the Twin Cities City Pages. Recent works include Super Nature, with composer Zeena Parkins, commissioned by the Walker Art Center, Performance Space 122 and PADL West. Symptom, with Minnesota twins Emmett and Otto Ramstad and Mammal, a commission for the Lyon Opera Ballet. Our triology Holiday House (2005-2007) was commissioned in part by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and was the winner of two Minnesota Sage Awards. Our site spectacle Lagoon was the winner of the Perlorous Trust Creativity Award at the New Zealand Fringe Festival in 2003. We are featured artists in the first book about site dance in the USA published by University of Florida Press entitled Site Dance, the Lure of Alternative Spaces.

Note: A version of this interview was originally published on Critical Correspondence and that conversation is reproduced here with permission. The original transcript has been edited for clarity as published here by mnartists.org. Read a related exchange between these artists, on “How to Move Bodies in Space” here.

The Columnest: The Footlocker

Every fall my mother used to open up the footlocker and unfold our warmer clothes, faintly smelling of mothballs. Flip-flops disappeared for the year—we’d probably worn them through in the long summer, anyway—and out came garments we hardly remembered: toggled winter coats, corduroy pants with their funny swish, long-sleeved shirts in mysterious late-70s patterns. We […]

Every fall my mother used to open up the footlocker and unfold our warmer clothes, faintly smelling of mothballs. Flip-flops disappeared for the year—we’d probably worn them through in the long summer, anyway—and out came garments we hardly remembered: toggled winter coats, corduroy pants with their funny swish, long-sleeved shirts in mysterious late-70s patterns. We hadn’t picked out these things. We had acquired them at garage sales or in boxes of hand-me-downs, but that didn’t make us like them any less. Annually, these clothes had the strange appeal of seeming to belong to other children, of promising to make us other children when we put them on.

When my mother quit doing this, I don’t remember. I suppose we grew up and our now-bulkier winter things could be better stored in big Tupperwares under our beds. And then, there was the fact that we lived in Florida—north Florida, where there is a seasonal change known to residents as “winter,” but Florida nevertheless. In fact, looking back, I can hardly understand what it was all about, the footlocker, the mothballs. As a college student in Florida, I knew I had gloves, but I had no idea where they were. My warmest winter garment in regular use was an unlined leather jacket.

Aunt Amy Lee Harris. Photo courtesy of the author.

Aunt Amy Lee Harris. Photo courtesy of the author.

Maybe the winter clothes were a holdover from my mother’s own childhood. She grew up in Florida too, but somehow I imagine the world was a little colder then. My grandmother (another Floridian) routinely wore wool scarves and lined skirt suits. And I have a turn-of-the-century photograph of some mysterious old Aunt Amy standing in a full-length, long-sleeved wool dress, digging the point of her umbrella into the parched grass of central Florida. She looks unhappy, but not quite melting in her heavy clothes. Yes, the Little Ice Age, that must be it. Ended in about 1985, right?

Or, perhaps the winter clothes had to do with our annual trip to North Carolina: one week in the mountains every October. The first year we went, I was four-and-a-half, and it was the farthest north I’d ever been. We stayed that year in a house belonging to a minister friend of my grandmother’s, or to a minister friend of her minister—at any rate, it was a preacher’s house, a big house, a big old box of a house set in a sloping yard full of fallen leaves. About the actual inside of the house I remember very little, but I remember its basement. A basement! This was practically unheard of in Florida. And this basement had little windows high in the walls—too high for us to see out of, but a little swing hung from the basement rafters, and at the top of its arc my brother and I could see the brown leaves that lay bedded in all around the house.

A swing in the basement of a preacher’s house? What kind of gothic horror had we stumbled into? Surely I remember it wrong. That may be: I’ve never asked anyone in my family about this memory of mine. I like it too much; even if it’s wrong, I’m keeping it.

That is how childhood memories work, isn’t it? No one is ever quite sure about them. “I remember it this way—which is funny, because it couldn’t have been.” Or, as my father says in preface, when he’s uncertain whether he’s retelling his memory or someone else’s or a memory reconstructed from a photograph: “This may be an implanted memory.” For all their central vividness—of first-felt emotion, of self-making—childhood memories can be strangely fuzzy around the edges.

I recall a few I eventually had to reject as impossible. One involved my grandmother telling how my father (aged two or three) tumbled off the top of a two-story building and cracked his head open. In another, a pet crayfish marvelously revived—not only after death, but after I had chucked its body into the trash. A closer acquaintance with the consistency of the universe obliged me to give them both up: cracked heads stay cracked, dead crawdads stay dead. And the giving up, after some initial puzzlement, was easy: one must have been a misunderstanding, the other a dream confused with life.

I would be a different person if I had kept those memories; I gave up them up to become myself.

The author in the fall of 1982.

The author in the fall of 1982.

The footlocker held more than our warm clothes; in lower layers, it preserved cast-offs of my mother’s, things she was done wearing. Did she save them for me? I did eventually take a pintucked smock, red with white cuffs and collar and a pattern of tiny moons and suns. But the fringed suede miniskirt and vest set—I never even tried it on, and I don’t know why. My mother quit mentioning it was there. Her wedding dress, too—I used to see that every so often, lying folded under the floating shelf in the footlocker, off-white, empire-waist, with daisy chain embroidery. She didn’t bring it up when I came to be married, and neither did I.

Sometimes it seems that this whole set of memories—the footlocker, the strangers’ clothes (because my mother’s old clothes, too, described a stranger, someone I would never know), the house in Dillard with the basement swing—belongs to someone else. It’s tinged with the sunset orange of the seventies, a decade I don’t remember, though it made me. When I look this way, I become historical to myself, as curious as that photo of Aunt Amy. What is she thinking, how old is she? What does she already know? What has she given up to get here?

Lightsey Darst is a writer, critic, and teacher based in Durham, NC. 

Bookish: War Letters

I’ve been struggling with this column on the literature of war for well over a month. How can I do these books, and this huge subject, justice? Yet my mind keeps returning to the idea; I find myself compulsively reading on the topic. So, I’m forging ahead, adequate to the task or not, because such […]

War reporter Martha Gellhorn and husband Ernest Hemingway with General Yu in Hanmou, Chungking, China, 1941.

War reporter Martha Gellhorn and husband Ernest Hemingway with General Yu in Hanmou, Chungking, China, 1941.

I’ve been struggling with this column on the literature of war for well over a month. How can I do these books, and this huge subject, justice? Yet my mind keeps returning to the idea; I find myself compulsively reading on the topic. So, I’m forging ahead, adequate to the task or not, because such books have never been timelier or more important.

In recent months we’ve seen (or, depending on your point of view, not seen enough of) the horrors involving Israel and Gaza. The total death toll since the beginning of the Iraq war has now topped 500,000 by most estimates. We’ve just engaged in a new conflict in the Middle East, this time to combat ISIS. These days, war is a constant for the United States and in many other countries throughout the world. I’m not aiming at an overtly political piece here; this isn’t an op-ed column as such. But the substance of my reading life in the last 12 to 18 months is inextricably linked to these ongoing conflicts. I find my thoughts on the books and on war as a state of being are likewise connected.

Of course, war is nothing new — it’s long been a staple of both literature and human interaction. Has anything else, excepting possibly love, inspired and ignited so much art in any genre? In the world of fiction, particularly, war has been the crux of so many well-regarded and much read works over the past decade or so. Quite possibly the most popular war novel ever is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It is a book I love and one, I would argue, that contains the finest first two pages in contemporary American literature. In fact, the Vietnam War spawned a huge amount of both reportage and fiction from the late 1960s and continuing up to the present. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn was just published in 2011 but, by all accounts, was three decades in the making. Going further back, we have All Quiet on the Western Front and most of T.E. Lawrence’s writings. Hemingway, Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Dalton Trumbo — all of them wrote well on the topic. Tug the thread and the literary tradition goes all the way back to Homer, Virgil. Start a list and the subject’s so vast, you’re bound to leave important something out.

I’ll keep my own tally to war novels I’ve read in just the last few years: works by Nathan Englander and Dave Eggers; David James Duncan and Daniel Alarcon. Matthew Eck’s The Farther Shore is a short, sharp and dismal novel, and not enough readers know about it. Boubacar Boris Diop has written, poignantly, about the atrocities in Rwanda. T. Geronimo Johnson’s Hold It Until It Hurts centers not on conflict itself, but on the aftermath of war. The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, is set in Kandahar and notably narrated by a woman. Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days is likewise told from the point of view of a mother whose son was involved in the Osama Bin Laden raid. Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio is about a Canadian soldier deployed in Afghanistan whose life unravels in many ways. Ben Fountain’s and Kevin Powers’ books, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Yellow Birds respectively, both won critical acclaim. (Powers himself is an Iraq War veteran.)

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All of this goes to show there is no shortage of new writing about war — about its camaraderie and implicit dangers, its sadness and far-reaching arm. Another thing plainly evident in this list: nearly all of these books about war are written by men. Which makes sense, to a certain degree, considering the fact that, while the consequent effects of wartime are certainly shared across population categories, women’s direct participation in military conflict is still relatively new.

Given the predominance of men’s voices here, I’m somewhat surprised when I look at my favorite nonfiction books regarding war, to realize that two of the three on my list were written by women, and written long ago. I am an unabashed fan of the NYRB Classics series. The imprint covers so much ground, and has saved so very many fine books from obscurity, that I probably could read from its list alone and be content. This series is rich in good writers who I’d have otherwise missed. Take Vasily Grossman: He has several books included in the catalog, but his most impressive work is Life And Fate. This book about World War II weighs in at 871 pages and ends in 1960. One of the first embedded journalists, Grossman traveled with the Red Army for a long time, and his wartime account was deemed so dangerous by the Soviet government that, not only was the book banned, the typewriter it was written on was confiscated. It’s a great read: if my house were on fire, I would run back in to save this book.

The next nonfiction book on my shortlist is The Face of War, a collection of war reporting written and compiled by Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn wrote about the Spanish Civil War in 1937, as well as the wars in Latin/South/Central America in the 1980s. Born in 1908, she was married to Hemingway for about five years and considered herself a resolutely anti-war writer. She covered various conflicts in Java and Vietnam, Finland and El Salvador, but more than that, she captured the lives of people who were left to occupy the ravaged margins of those wars.

Finally, I’d call your attention to Ruth Gruber’s writing. She was born in 1911 and served as a foreign correspondent, primarily in the role of photographer, for the New York Herald Tribune for more than thirty years. She is best known for her portrayal of the horrors of Jewish life during the second World War. I was so struck by her images and text, I sent a note of appreciation to Gruber about six months ago, mailed to her Upper West Side, New York City address. Her agent responded and said that, due to her age (103), she no longer corresponds directly with readers. Still, he added, she was pleased I had enjoyed her work. Look her up – Gruber’s is a legacy of wartime reporting worth remembering.

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

A Sublime Feeling In My GUT: Eric William Carroll’s Theory of Everything

“You must cast off these absurd confusions and rebuild your conception of reality before the Geocubic concepts will get past the automatic rejection that occurs as your mind filters information against criterion of consistency intended to protect you from confusions but resulting in locking you into misconceptions.” – from Geocubic Theory, by Tom Gilmore (1988) […]

Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302 (NASA)

Butterfly Emerges from Stellar Demise in Planetary Nebula NGC 6302 (NASA)

“You must cast off these absurd confusions and rebuild your conception of reality before the Geocubic concepts will get past the automatic rejection that occurs as your mind filters information against criterion of consistency intended to protect you from confusions but resulting in locking you into misconceptions.” – from Geocubic Theory, by Tom Gilmore (1988) as excerpted by Eric William Carroll in Figure 2.2 The Span of Time

I’m entranced by the images from the Hubble Space Telescope. When I first encountered the photographs several years ago, I didn’t know all that much about how they were made or even exactly what I was looking at – they showed something far away and much bigger than I could really conceive. I’ve read descriptions of the space gases and nebulas captured in the images, but I don’t really understand the science in a meaningful way.

Yet, I haven’t been able to stop looking at these photographs.

My appreciation of the images is visceral, aesthetic. Elizabeth Kessler calls it the “astronomical sublime;” she connects it to ideas of the American West depicted in photographs and paintings from the nineteenth-century by people like Albert Beirstadt, William Henry Jackson, Thomas Moran, and Timothy O’Sullivan. This framework, this art-historical vocabulary, is the one I can use to process my experience of the Hubble’s photos.

Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16)- Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region (NASA)

Gas Pillars in the Eagle Nebula (M16)- Pillars of Creation in a Star-Forming Region (NASA). The stair stepping in this image is a product of its assembly from multiple sensors and views.

The sublime involves a sensation of wonder and awe so great it couples itself with fear and trembling. The nuances of this sensation have been worked out in many ways by many people, but most useful here is the explanation put forth by Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the sublime involves not only a coupling of awe and terror but also of reason – that is, the sublime resides not in the object itself but in the mind’s apprehension of it. He writes:

Thus the broad ocean agitated by storms cannot be called sublime. Its aspect is horrible, and one must have stored one’s mind in advance with a rich stock of ideas, if such an intuition is to raise it to the pitch of a feeling in which is itself sublime – sublime because the mind has been incited to abandon sensibility, and employ itself upon ideas involving higher finality.

In the end, he argues, it is reason that allows one to cope with this overwhelming experience of the boundlessness of existence. But I fear I am too much a product of the 20th century to plumb the profundity that is necessary to experience the Romantic Sublime firsthand. Luckily, there is another route to navigate my fascination with the Pillars of Creation and the Butterfly Nebula. Classic texts on the sublime often depict humanity in the face of such wonder in heroic fashion – say, Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1817). I, for one, will gladly take NASA’s Flyaround of the Hubble Space Telescope (1997) as our contemporary perceiver of the sublime .

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1817

The Hubble images live in that liminal space between art and science, sensation and reason. Astronomers use various scanner arrays and sensors to assemble their research in ways that might be understood with the eyes. Hard scientific data is coded to color schemes and rendered accessible to sensory experience. We can use this crutch, this visualization of concrete data, to traverse the transcendent and grapple with complex concepts and abstractions that would feel insurmountable on their own.

Flyaround of the Hubble Space Telescope after deployment on this second servicing mission (HST SM-02). Note the telescope's open aperture door, (1997) (NASA)

Flyaround of the Hubble Space Telescope after deployment on this second servicing mission (HST SM-02). Note the telescope’s open aperture door, (1997) (NASA)

Grand Unified Theory (GUT) represents modern physics’ aspiration toward a model in which the fundamental forces of the universe might be merged into a single system of understanding. Such would be a big step in the direction of a Theory of Everything (TOE) which could explain, well…everything, or at least all the physical aspects of the universe. If looking at images of the cosmos invokes an aesthetic experience of the sublime, think of GUT and the subsequent TOE as its mental counterpart – a conceptual sublime.

It is into this space that artist Eric William Carroll sets off with his exhibition, G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2, at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Carroll uses the duality of scientific data and the way it is represented visually as his tools for tinkering with science’s attempts to address the sublime and answer the big questions – of being and the universe. In so doing, he is equally interested in moments when research is on the cutting edge of discovery, when it has been mistaken, and when it has turned out not to even really be science at all. Carroll’s installation pulls data universally, often from unexpected sources, in order to stretch both our understanding and experience of the world.

Carroll is primarily working with photographs, those he made as well as images appropriated from various archives and scientific publications.  In both kinds of pictures, Carroll reminds us, regardless of the scale of the scientific inquiries involved (e.g. whether they’re macro investigations out into the cosmos or micro investigations into subatomic particles), the work of research is done with the aid of some sort of visual apparatus. In this way, at least, photography — reliant as it is upon lenses and other technical devices — is a kindred endeavor, a fitting approach by which to undertake a close reading of scientific ideas.

Carroll’s installation presents us with a number of images and objects, nearly all denoted as “Figure” followed by a number – named as if images collected in the few color pages at the center of some academic tome, referenced elsewhere in the surrounding blocks of text in chapters before and after. But in Carroll’s work, the images stand alone; there is no larger text to inform and contextualize them. We have captions for them in the Figures themselves and wall texts throughout the gallery. But there is no grand expounding of themes for reference beyond the physical world from which the images come and the cultural language we already possess.

Eric William Carroll, G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2, 2014

Eric William Carroll, G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2, 2014

The center of the room is filled by two tables topped with charts of space and time – ostensibly two sides of the same coin. Figure 2.1 The Span of Space charts space from the size of the universe, 1025 meters, to the size of an electron, 10-20 meters. Objects made by Carroll or on loan from individuals and institutions anchor notable increments on the chart. The expanse of the universe is marked by a dangling model of the Hubble Space Telescope on loan from Lucas Lesser, whose paper and plastic model of the telescope earned second place at the St. John the Baptist Catholic School Science Fair. The Span of Space’s fraternal twin, Figure 2.2 The Span of Time, charts time from 1020 seconds, the age of the universe, to 10-25 seconds, the “lifetime of unstable particles.” At briefest end of this chart, Carroll’s set a toilet paper tube and tinker toy constructions of particle collisions within the Hadron Collider. These simple means of representation rest near to other, more complicated and precise instruments, such as an astrolabe and a dark matter detector.

Lucas Lesser, Hubble Telescope Model, 2014

Lucas Lesser, Hubble Telescope Model, 2014

Instead of framing these scales of time and space from the poles of their reach, Carroll centers both space and time with us – humanity. To that end, he represents the space of the human body with Otto Schmitt’s Electrolytic Phantom Torso (1951-55), on loan from the Bakken Museum. The center of the Span of Time is a single second, the “reaction time of humans;” it’s marked by a physical artifact, Kodak #2-A Folding Brownie, a gold-painted camera. He’s rendered a sense of space and time that extends infinitely from Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” as triggered by an electrified body. While Copernicus may have helped us shake free of the conception of the earth as the center of the universe, Carroll, in placing us at the center of his space/time tables, underscores that humanity is the unavoidable observer of all of these things. After all, why else would the acronyms of GUT and TOE be so corporeal?

Otto Schmitt’s, Electrolytic Phantom Torso (1951-55)

Otto Schmitt’s, Electrolytic Phantom Torso (1951-55)

Eric William Carroll, Kodak #2-A Folding Brownie, 2013.

Eric William Carroll, Kodak #2-A Folding Brownie, 2013.

Surrounding these tables are a number of individual pieces and works in clusters on the wall, each with its own unique configuration of space and time. In the large Figure 26, a sunset or sunrise sits in the center of a star field; as Carroll says in the wall text, “that single moment is multiplied countless times as potentially millions of sunrises and sunsets occur throughout the universe at any given time.” The image of the Subaru Deep Field is actually a pasted-together composite of laser prints, reminiscent of the way the Hubble image would have originally been assembled from multiple views to complete a picture of the whole grouping of stars.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 26, 2014.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 26, 2014. This work calls to mind Carroll’s previous work, Atari Sunset (2007), also dealing with the ubiquity of sunset images, where he assembled photos of sunsets and landscapes together to create one large sunset, covered with a silkscreened checkerboard to give the sensation of pixelization.

The sunset image in Carroll’s Figure 26 comes from the Farm Security Administration archives. It’s worth noting, FSA images also often evoke the westward push during the Depression, toward what was perceived as a frontier of hope during a hopeless time. While that migration, in actuality, panned out for very few, the optimism long associated with the West has much in common with that sense of anticipation and curiosity which spurs deep looking into the frontier of the spacescape – the same aesthetic similarity that Kessler finds between Hubble and Timothy O’Sullivan .

Carroll’s use of such visual resemblances endows his work with an underlying fractal resonance relating the chaos and chance of the everyday physical world to the analytic, controlled environment of experiment. The images included in Figure 69, for example, share morphological and chromatic similarities that allow one to move from a “hoodie found in Golden Gate Park” to a “yawning cat” around to a “toroidal vortex in smoke” and then to “dust found on studio floor.” Carroll’s groupings aren’t hunting for patterns where none exist, but are rather like equations for connecting disparate phenomenological experiences. In order to see just how inclusive these perceptions can be, one needs look no further than the 20 images assembled in Figure 29. The list of identifiers for each of the component images ranges from Voyager’s “Golden Record” to a pluot; also included are an embryonic stem cell, the Calabi Yau Manifold, a doorknob, and Neil Peart’s drum set. The subject of his images is just as likely to have come from the breakfast table as from the far reaches of the universe. But regardless of their provenance, Carroll brings the images together in a way that makes poetic, if not scientific, sense.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 69, 2014

Eric William Carroll, Figure 69, 2014

Eric William Carroll, Figure 29, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 29, 2013

In Figure 28, a photograph of a hammer is delicately balanced from a board using a rope and a ruler. Adjacent, but slightly higher, so that the boards depicted in both images align, is an upside-down version of the same photograph — an improbable sort of hardware butterfly that  uses the photograph to destabilize physics.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 28, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 28, 2013

Carroll uses sometimes crude means to illustrate elegant scientific conceptions. The slinky of Figure 31 stands in for the Ricci curvature tensor, a geometric model related to the curvature of space-time. The tinker toys and toilet paper rolls of Figure 20 represent particle collisions within the Hadron Collider.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 31, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 31, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 20, 2013

Eric William Carroll, Figure 20, 2013

Carroll’s way of thinking in this exhibition is infectious. See his juxtapositions and your mind begins flipping through its own catalog of like and unlike images, building other idiosyncratically significant relationships, extending his model. As I look at Figure 38 — a vellum print of an electron spiraling in a bubble chamber floating on top of the spiral of an Icelandic low pressure system — I am reminded of both my own crude grade school science experiment sending particles through a small cloud chamber and Hubble’s refined image of the Whirlpool Galaxy.

Eric William Carroll, Figure 38, 2014

Eric William Carroll, Figure 38, 2014

The Whirlpool Galaxy (NASA)

The Whirlpool Galaxy (NASA)

Albert Einstein famously said “God does not play dice with the universe.” And so, Carroll has made a portrait of Einstein comprised of black dice with white dots, increasing or decreasing the density of visible white to generate value in the portrait by rotating each die to the proper number of pips. It is a remarkable likeness for such a restrictive medium. The deviation within the portrait is in the eyes, where the pips are red, making the normally affable looking Einstein appear quite livid, as if he’s shooting lasers from his eyes. Maybe the acceptance of quantum physics has finally gotten to him.

Eric William Carroll, Einstein (dice), 2014

Eric William Carroll, Einstein (dice), 2014

Carroll’s latest Grand Unified Theory is impelled by the same search for meaning, wonder, and cosmic structure that fuels counterpart investigations by scientists. But rather than taking data from such inquiries and assembling them into tidy formulae, Carroll collects the materials of those scientific findings and their visual corollaries from everyday life, and he strings them all together into a wholly new and eloquent interpretation of that experiential data.

It seems appropriate that a 21st-century experience of the sublime might encompass both lofty and intimate scales of experience, linking the wonder of vastly distant star systems with small pleasure of fondly remembered childhood toys; the proximity of feeling connecting the near incomprehensible  complexity of quantum physics with the sense of defeat you feel when your popsicle splatters on the ground is similarly satisfying. There is an overwhelming and terrifying magnitude to these grand scientific ideas and, likewise, some comfort to be had in finding a way of understanding a semblance, if not the whole, of their meaning. Even if science cannot yet pin the idea down into an equation, maybe Carroll can help it along the way, supplying a visual understanding of cosmic design before the math gets worked out.

Related exhibition information:

Eric William Carroll’s G.U.T. Feeling, Vol. 2 is on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program (MAEP) galleries from July 18 to September 28, 2014.

Lex Thompson‘s photographic work focuses on manifestations of hope and failure in the American landscape.  With a BA in history from New College of Florida, an MA in Religion and the Visual Arts from Yale University, he continued his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he received a Masters of Fine Arts in Photography.  He is Professor of Art (Photography) at Bethel University in St. Paul, MN.  He is recipient of a 2010 McKnight Artist Fellowship for Photographers, a 2008 & 2011 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant. His artwork is included in collections at the Getty Research Institute, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Stanford University, University of California Los Angeles, and Yale University, among others.

2013-14 McKnight Photography Fellows: Photobook Now Available

The McKnight Artist Fellowships have marked career milestones and supported major projects for many Minnesota artists. Established in 1981, the foundation’s fellowship program is one of the oldest and largest in the country, providing artists with unrestricted funds to study, reflect, experiment, and explore – an increasingly rare and valuable offering in today’s arts landscape. […]

The McKnight Artist Fellowships have marked career milestones and supported major projects for many Minnesota artists. Established in 1981, the foundation’s fellowship program is one of the oldest and largest in the country, providing artists with unrestricted funds to study, reflect, experiment, and explore – an increasingly rare and valuable offering in today’s arts landscape. mnartists.org has overseen six rounds of the McKnight Artist Fellowship for Photographers, supporting mid-career artists residing in Minnesota who use photography as a primary means of personal, creative expression. Annually, four photo fellows are selected, each of whom receives a $25,000 award and opportunities to connect with national critics and curators, and to produce an artist book for publication. This year marks the last fellowship cycle of photography as a stand-alone discipline: beginning in 2014, the McKnight Artist Fellowship for Visual Artists was restructured to include photography among other visual arts media and, going forward, eight Visual Arts fellowships will be administered annually by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

The four McKnight Photography fellows for 2013-2014 were selected from among 108 applicants: Anthony Marchetti, Paula McCartney, Mohamud Mumin, and Alec Soth. The three arts professionals who served as jurors for this last round were Anne Havinga, Estrellita and Yousef Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Sarah Meister, Curator, Department of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, NY; and Hank Willis Thomas, Photographer. The fellows worked with Scott Nedrelow of Location Books to produce an ebook containing work from their recent projects and essays by Lesley Ann Martin, Executive Editor at the Aperture Foundation.

The 2013-14 McKnight Artist Fellowships for Photographers ebook is now available for iOS (download it here) and as a PDF. A preview of the photos and essays included is offered below.

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Anthony Marchetti, 2014

Anthony Marchetti

Anthony Marchetti is a Minneapolis-based photographer who focuses on the relationship between humans and the built environment. He is the recipient of two Minnesota State Arts Board grants and a two-time Bush Artist Fellowship finalist. This is his second McKnight Fellowship. His new project explores his maternal grandmother’s flight from Hungary near the end of World War II.

Lesley A. Martin assesses Marchetti’s recent project:

During the past few years, the photographer has retraced the possible route taken by his Grandmother through former Mitteleuropa, assembling a series of tantalizing details of place, the lush textures of real life absent the bracing presence of fact… These scenes, while wholly “real” as seen by the camera, become richly fictive in Marchetti’s cinematic reconstruction of his grandmother’s story. He is careful not to peer too balefully at what must have been to his grandmother, a tale best forgotten, allowing for an approach that is both indirect and obsessively concrete. Most critically, it is an approach that never gets locked into the traditional documentary stalemate, but rather leaves the past open for continual reassessment.

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Paula McCartney, cover and detail from Book of Trees, 2014

Paula McCartney

Paula McCartney makes photographs and artists’ books that explore the idea of constructed landscapes. McCartney earned an M.F.A. in Photography from the San Francisco Art Institute and has previously received grants from the Aaron Siskind Foundation, the McKnight Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board. Her first monograph, Bird Watching, was published by Princeton Architectural Press.

Martin creates a chronological taxonomy of McCartney’s production of photobooks:

What follows is a record of McCartney’s production of books over more than a decade. A close read of this output, volume by volume, offers insight into faber librum photographicus’s use of the book form as a means of encountering a print; of installing a body of work; of creating a vehicle for both personal and public consideration of images; and of the cross-fertilization of book and photograph fully-realized. What is also notable as a constant over the course of McCartney’s output is an interest in the dialogue between natural and artificial worlds and the creation of a personal, symbolic vocabulary that is able to bridge the two and that continues to be enlarged upon with each new volume.

Mohamud Mumin, Badra Ali, 2014

Mohamud Mumin

Mohamud Mumin holds a bachelor of science degree in Chemistry from the University of Minnesota. A self-taught photographer, Mumin harnesses photography’s capacity to facilitate dialogue across barriers and cultures. In his most recent body of work he centers on the Somali community in Minnesota, as they negotiate and redefine their essence and boundaries of their identity. Mumin’s recent work, The Youth/Dhallinyarada will be on view at the Frederick R. Weisman art museum through January 2015.

From Lesley Ann Martin’s essay on Mumin’s body of work:

The strongest of photographic projects are driven not just from a set of community obligations. They come from a highly personal set of questions that the artist feels can best be responded to and explored via the visual image, the collection and assessment of data visual and otherwise. In his newest series, published as Xusuus Sahmis/Scouting Memory and created as part of a recent McKnight Fellowship, Mumin expands his project to focus on portraits of women in the Minnesotan-Somali community. To date, he has photographed six young women in the same manner as the men depicted in The Youth/Dhallinyarada.

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Alec Soth, 2014

Alec Soth

Alec Soth’s photographs have been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including the 2004 Whitney and São Paulo Biennials. Survey exhibitions of his work have been exhibited by Jeu de Paume in Paris (2008), Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland (2008) and the Walker Art Center (2010). In 2008, Soth started his own publishing company, Little Brown Mushroom. Soth is represented by Sean Kelly in New York, Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, and is a member of Magnum Photos.

In lieu of an essay, Martin and Soth opted to publish an interview, the full text of which will appear in The PhotoBook Review in November 2014. An excerpt of the portion that appears in the ebook:

LAM: Via books from established publishers, posts on your own blog, Instagram, publishing yourself and others via the Little Brown Mushroom imprint, or most recently, workshops about storytelling for the non-storytelling pre-disposed, you have continued to push beyond prior applauded forms and to accept new challenges. How do you choose the form for a particular body of work, and when do you know it’s time to move on?

AS: It really depends on the projects. I do a lot of smallish-side projects: zines, online slideshows, that sort of things. This sort of activity is analogous to a band playing in the garage. It is meant to be quick, dirty and a bit out of control. These should be ended fairly abruptly to avoid from scrubbing away their essential spirit. My larger projects are more like studio albums. These projects take years. Generally I work on them until I’m sick of them, and then work some more.

Road Songs: Paris

The light danced on the floor of the cathedral, on peoples’ upturned faces, blouses, and sneakers. Visitors held placards diagramming the space with written text; these were stiff, a bit like the planks the monks used in Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975). Up, up, up, passersby strained their necks to read the pictorial […]

Paris_saintechappelle_900

The light danced on the floor of the cathedral, on peoples’ upturned faces, blouses, and sneakers. Visitors held placards diagramming the space with written text; these were stiff, a bit like the planks the monks used in Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975). Up, up, up, passersby strained their necks to read the pictorial depictions of the bible in stained glass above us. Once upon a time, when the French public was mostly illiterate, these Sainte-Chapelle images were both awe-inspiring and didactic. Now they contain iconography of a lost time, the uppermost panels obscured from easy view by their heavenly height.

We had to be proper tourists for at least one day while visiting Paris, and so we hit the medieval Sainte-Chapelle the same day as the Louvre. The Louvre, as a magnificent former palace, is the ultimate Parisian selfie destination. We saw two girls holding what I like to call “the selfie-assister.” It looked like a long metal pole with a camera attached, to both decrease the arm strain of holding a phone in one’s own hand and to make the resulting photograph look like it was taken by someone else. The New York Times recently discussed these increasingly self-involved picture takers and the strain of unyielding crowds in the old world museums of Europe. The changing landscape of tourism in Paris (among other spots) now requires the casual museum-goer to be a bit more relentless, to become an elbows-out kind of crowd navigator.

Paris_musique_900

Down the street from the iconic Moulin Rouge, the theater Les Trois Baudets modestly hides behind summer scaffolding, no windmills in sight. Les Trois Baudets, “The Three Donkeys” in English, hosts a variety of musical and theatrical events these days. Founded by music executive Jacques Canetti in the 1940s, Les Trois Baudets introduced Paris to a fair share of young singer-songwriters in its heyday; the site transformed into an erotic shop and theater for several decades in the late 20th century, and then reemerged in 2009 as a music venue for new acts once more.

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Throughout the month of July, the venue was taken over by Les Garçons, a group of three French singers who reinterpret mid-century pop hits made famous by many of the men who, years prior, graced the stage of Les Trois Baudets. Zaza Fournier, Cléa Vincent, and Luciole are the names of these three young ladies, all French pop chanteuses in their own right.

We attended the trio’s closing evening on a whim, and the evening unfolded into a charming rediscovery and reexamination of a masculine culture I never knew. The equivalent in America might be a reinterpretation of Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Nat King Cole; that said, the French post-war songbook is altogether foreign to someone raised in an Anglophone country. The audience hummed and sang along to several ditties.

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Dressed in well-fit masculine suit jackets and tomboy garb, hair down, never attempting the full-on drag act, Les Garçons engaged with, poked fun at, and reappropriated the alpha-male French singer: icons from the golden era of passionate and cheeky singer-songwriters who simplify the female body parts into soft, fruitlike objects, telling their friends of their bravado, lamenting the one that got away.

The one man on stage was a multi-instrumentalist, sporting flashy white Repetto dancing shoes à la Serge Gainsbourg. The repertoire of the evening included the brooding Gainsbourg, passionate and melancholy Charles Aznavour and Belgian legend Jacques Brel. The one song I recognized was a reinterpretation of “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” which I (like most Americans) associate with the effervescent Doris Day. En français, the title is “Qui sait, qui sait, qui sait,” closer to the Spanish original (“Quizás, quizás, quizás”). Les Garçons’ version was modeled after Henri Salvador’s bouncy samba.

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To finish our stay, we were drawn to Buttes Chaumont, where we recorded a song I wrote about Voltaire and his lover, mathematician Madame du Châtelet. The 19th arrondissement is the home of Belleville and the rolling hills of this romantic manmade park. When we heard that Belleville was also Edith Piaf’s birthplace, it seemed only fitting. The ghosts of Paris are omnipresent, haunting the parks, the museums, and the minds of many young Parisians eager to reinterpret the magic of previous eras and loves never known, but just the same, lost.

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California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author and Caroline Fau.

An Art Historian Asks: Why Do I Like the Internet Cat Video Festival So Much?

Why do I like the Internet Cat Video Festival so much?  More to the point, why does it bother me that I like it so much? The truth is, I was taken with the idea of the festival before I ever attended.  I’m an art historian – I’m in the business of taking art seriously […]

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Why do I like the Internet Cat Video Festival so much?  More to the point, why does it bother me that I like it so much? The truth is, I was taken with the idea of the festival before I ever attended.  I’m an art historian – I’m in the business of taking art seriously – but I don’t find a festival of cat videos too lowbrow for the Walker.

Why not?

It occurs to me that the internet is like a living organism — one that has drastically changed the way most people socially interact.  With all the talk in my field about art of social practice, Open Field seems to me a perfect way of making concrete the concepts under discussion. And the Walker’s internet cat video festival is a particularly successful case in point, bringing that practice into the real world.

Domestic spaces are filled with screens. Cat videos combine small, cuddly pets, digital cameras and isolated humans. Fans and makers of the form may connect virtually, but we usually watch in isolation. While many of us might enjoy the same cat videos, there’s no lasting, in-person connection. I think the festival’s wild popularity stems from its upending of that dynamic, from the quirky connections between people forged through simple physical proximity.  The  unlikely combination of internet + cats + festival is the key source of #Catvidfest’s artfulness.  Music fans expect to convene outside for Rock the Garden – hearing live music in the park is a relatively routine activity of summer. But cats and homemade YouTube videos both tend to be silly, and admitting to loving them is a little socially awkward. And those are the very elements that make the act of coming together to watch them in public at an art museum intriguing.

I went to latest iteration of the festival, back again this year on the Walker’s big green space. And I had a blast.  It was like liberating a guilty pleasure, a mass confession of sheer delight in watching banal, mostly poorly-made amateur cat videos. And just think of all the places Walker’s #Catvidfest has now toured! It’s a borderless pleasure, globally shared.  And that’s what really struck me, sitting on the Walker’s grassy knoll with thousands of strangers last week – laughing harder than I think I’ve laughed in long time. Mine was part of a collective enjoyment, and that happiness was a palpable thing, centered on flickering images on a screen of something small, fluffy and breathing.

And you know what? It was just what I needed.

I’ve been such a news junkie lately, following feeds and news stories in the hopes that, maybe, just one of the world’s current border/religious/political/racial conflicts might have found resolve since I last checked in. But no. In fact, just today, as I write this, we learned a journalist was beheaded.  As the Washington Post commented recently, the Internet Cat Video Festival  – the experience of collectively watching cats be ridiculous – provides an antidote, a shared reprieve from the dire news of the day. And the effects of that are good for all of us.

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For some, there’s surely still a nagging snootiness, the lingering question: “But is this art?” I’d point them to the work of Will Braden, hired by the Walker to curate this year’s reel of cat videos. He cleverly spliced one amusing feline feat into another in ways that got everyone howling; he added in unexpected things, like vintage cat video footage; the Minneapolis firehouse cat was a total gem.

Want to know something funny? I watch absolutely no cat videos on the internet. (I do other stupid things to waste my time online.) So, I’m not really qualified to judge the festival in terms of cat video quality.  What I can speak to are the relational aesthetics  of the event – in plain English, how well this festival fosters new relations among viewers with each other and with the contemporary, social and media world around them.

Dr. Sheila Dickinson writes about contemporary art and was Secretary of the Irish section of the International Association of Art Critics.

Bookish: On Men, Women and Searching for Common Ground

The popularity of any single book is a mystery to almost everyone in the book industry – from writer to agent to editor to publisher sales representatives to booksellers to customers. Who knows what makes us love what we love?  When something hits, everyone asks, “What went right?” But you can’t reliably game the odds […]

Katharina Fritsch, Herz mit Zähnen (Teeth Heart).

Katharina Fritsch, Herz mit Zähnen (Teeth Heart)polyester, paint, 1998-2004.

The popularity of any single book is a mystery to almost everyone in the book industry – from writer to agent to editor to publisher sales representatives to booksellers to customers. Who knows what makes us love what we love?  When something hits, everyone asks, “What went right?” But you can’t reliably game the odds on what’s going to resonate with readers. There are so many wrong turns a book can take – even supposed sure-things. Mostly, when something strikes it big, we are left shaking our heads in wonder. Likewise, an author’s lack of success often has little to do with the relative quality of the writing. The truth is, there are so many good books that never see commercial success.

Recently, I have had the good fortune to read two great collections of essays back to back. Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me. And based on the glowing reviews and, in the case of Jamison’s new book, a spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list upon its debut, I’m not alone: readers in large numbers have already found their way to these titles.

Good books are inevitably compared to what’s come before – it’s an easy shorthand approach to putting new writing in context. A lot of very positive reviews of Jamison’s book have likened her to Joan Didion and Susan Sontag. On their face, such descriptions are complimentary and all to the good. Yet, I keep thinking to myself that Solnit, rather than Jamison, would be the better exemplar of that type. Like Didion and Sontag, Solnit is omnivorous in her interests, responsible for a wide-ranging assortment of nonfiction books with nothing in common but the acuity of the mind behind them. Then again, why must one great female essayist be compared to another at all? These new books by Solnit and Jamison have nothing to do with each other.

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Actually, on second thought, that isn’t exactly true.

The Empathy Exams deliver on the promise of the title. Jamison’s pieces center on the question: How do we view others’ pain and empathize, or not, with it? Within that sphere of inquiry, though, her essays cover a lot of ground. One of my favorites involves an ultra-marathon, called the Barclay, in which the point of the race is that very few of its uber-fit contestants actually finish. I also love her essay about the so-called West Memphis 3 (WM3). In the wake of their convictions for killing several young boys, the three young men of the WM3 became a cause celebre: Movies were made; Eddie Vedder and other high-profile celebrities got involved in advocacy for their release. Jamison tells the story without leaning one way or the other as she recounts the details of the case. Her account is moving and full of sadness for everyone involved. She’s adept at telling us a story about a story without telling us what to believe. Other pieces in her collection are much more personal in content and tone: her recollections of being robbed and having her nose broken; essays about time spent living in a foreign country, and about her work as a medical actor, and how those scripted personalities invaded her own life and mind.

The Solnit book, Men Explain Things to Me, is harder to categorize neatly. The first and title essay is both hilarious and maddening in its brutally accurate rendering of how some men treat women. The rest of the essays are in some way about violence — most often, violence done at the hands of men. As a man, her book is hard to read, because the facts are hard to argue. Yet I could feel my resistance as I read: No, that is not me. These aren’t men I know. But again and again and again it is. Or, at least, the sort of man Solnit offers up for view is part of us. The truth is inescapable: Men commit acts of violence against women, children and one another. It’s men’s aggression that forces women to walk strategically to and from their cars at night.

Solnit comes armed with a slew of statistics. She also tells stories of things that have happened to her or her friends. And yet, she is not interested in making monsters of men. Rather, she uses these bare facts as a lens for the rest of us to see what we’d rather not face, to sketch out a philosophy about cultures of violence among men that’s rooted in lived experiences.

I walked away from Solnit’s book with one question, in particular, rattling around in my head. In an essay on violence against women on college and university campuses, she asks (and I paraphrase): “Why do we have seminars warning women and scaring women and educating women? Why do we tell them not to be alone or not to leave their drinks alone on a table? Why do we tell them to lock themselves in? Why aren’t there more seminars with men, saying, ‘Don’t do this. It isn’t okay.’”

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After these essay collections, in an attempt to balance the scales of my reading, I turned to some fiction.  While doing time in the fifth layer of hell – a very long line at Minneapolis’ Lake Street post office – I was delighted to dip into the wicked and funny prose of Muriel Spark. Her portrayal of women in the 1940s in England reads as honest and real. Her novella, The Girls of Slender Means, is set during the war; as you make your way through the story, you bear witness to something awful that happens to characters you’ve come to love.  That got me thinking about storytelling, and what separates the very real from make-believe. What is harder to digest: that which we know to be true or a story we have been told?

From Spark, I moved on to Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, a novel first published in 1932 about poor sharecroppers trying to make their way in hard times. Page by page, I found myself thinking of James Agee and Walker Evans’ 1941 classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Just last year a new book was published, written by those same men. Cotton Tenants: Three Families (Melville House) essentially serves as an addendum to the original text, but an important one, for the unflinching view on poverty and on the lingering harm such want inflicts on all involved.

So – fairly dark. All of it, real life and fiction, both.

But that’s not all I’ve been reading. I’ve been making my way through an old biography of the Negro league legend, Josh Gibson. In memory of the great Peter Matthiessen, I also began his most recent, and last, novel, In Paradise. There’s another I’d recommend to you, but it’s only available in Canada. For months, I have been wondering why Keith Hollihan’s wonderful novel, Flagged Victor, has not been published in the United States. Silly American publishers: stop being silly. Publish this book here and now.

I have also been listening to some old music from the band, Okkervil River. They take their name from a story by Tatyana Tolstaya, and because of my love for the one (the band), I have been led to the other. That is how it sometimes goes. Okkervil River has this one song that I could listen to on a loop: it weaves together the Beach Boys tune, “Sloop John B,” with the story of John Berryman and his death. There are some great Minneapolis references in the song, too. I admit, that last is an odd segue, but one that somehow works in the context of all these stories.

Finally, I am crashing through Rafael de Grenade’s Stilwater (Milkweed Editions), in which Arizona-born de Grenade takes off for the wilds of Australia to work on a remote cattle station. Her tale is so readable and the landscape so other (to me), that I want to do nothing but immerse myself in it. I have to force myself to slow down, to give myself space to allow myself the pleasure of her world seeping into my own — if only in my mind.

Hans Weyandt has worked at four independent bookstores In St. Paul/Minneapolis over the past 15 years. He is the former co-owner of Micawber’s Books and the editor of Read This! published by Coffee House Press. He currently works at Sea Salt Eatery, Moon Palace Books and Big Bell Ice Cream. 

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