How can artists extend their practices outside of their studios, contribute to creative economies, and create change in their communities? That’s the central question behind Minneapolis-based artist Sharon Louden’s new book, The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, which features 40 essays on the topic by visual artists including Alec Soth, Edgar Arceneaux, […]
High Value Target (2014) by Matthew Deleget, a contributor to The Artist as Culture Producer. Photo courtesy the artist
How can artists extend their practices outside of their studios, contribute to creative economies, and create change in their communities? That’s the central question behind Minneapolis-based artist Sharon Louden’s new book, The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, which features 40 essays on the topic by visual artists including Alec Soth, Edgar Arceneaux, and Andrea Zittel. In advance of its March 22 Walker launch event—featuring Louden, Hyperallergic editor Hrag Vartanian, artists Tia-Simone Gardner and Graci Horne, and Mn Artists editor-in-chief Susannah Schouweiler—we share the book’s forward.
At the dawn of the High Renaissance, in 1480 to be exact, the wealthiest artist in Florence was Neri di Bicci, who didn’t make his fortune from the altarpieces he’s known for today, but from the sale of small tabernacles containing a “painted plaster sacred image (made with a mold), and in an ‘antique style’ wooden frame.” The second richest artist in town was di Bicci’s student, Andrea di Giusto Manzini. He’s largely unknown today, but during his lifetime Manzini was also a “painter of plaster statues.”1Artists, it appears, have always been creative at finding ways to sustain their creativity, and their artistic, personal, public, and financial lives have always been more complicated than they seem.
Only recently have we begun to talk about the economic and social realities of being an artist, long hidden under the myths of “genius” or “passion” that can marginalize the serious work of making art. Books like this one are helping those artists trying to shake free of the unrealistic fantasy created by a steady stream of inflated stories about the luxury art market and how it caters only to the richest 1%.
Though the new media spotlight on contemporary art has given the field renewed attention and glamor, there’s another type of renaissance taking place in the art world around the evolving relationship of artists to society, and it’s one that’s largely overlooked. This new wave is being led by creative individuals working to revitalize their communities, often redefining their roles, and challenging the boundaries of art today. Artists are our conscience; they are innovators, healers, chance-takers, and activists. Most importantly, they are a microcosm of society.
Artists excel at generating new models, and their resilience and popularity often come because they respond to the idea of culture as a lived, constantly evolving, and malleable thing that springs from the fount of everyday life. If contemporary art, particularly its newer forms—like performance, new media, street art—has blurred the boundaries of work and life, then all the systems that sustain this type of work are slowly catching up. The lives of artists tell us about our society, and how we do (or more shockingly don’t) properly value those who help produce some of the most important aspects of our culture. They are stories we need to hear.
Untitled (2015) by Kat Kiernan, a contributor to The Artist as Culture Producer. Photo courtesy the artist
Some may be apprehensive about the idea of artists as cultural producers, but the evolving nature of artistic practice means we have to adapt our language to reflect a new reality. Artists can’t be beholden to old stereotypes of inspired acts of creation—or even galleries and museums—to determine their path. They work in culture, but they’re also plugged into larger networks of power, finance, identity, and information systems; they create the objects, generate the ideas, and produce the models that allow others to dream, feel, and ponder. Sometimes they reflect our world back at us, and the best of them do it with uncanny precision. Others imagine what we thought impossible and wait while everyone else catches up.
In my dream world, artists would be part of every aspect of our lives. They would help make hospitals more receptive and healing places; they would create street furniture that encourages contemplation and community; and they’d help local governments communicate more effectively with the public. I hope this book will help shatter the old stereotypes of artists as exotic and enigmatic creatures and, in their place, construct a new image using stories of individuals who sustain remarkable artistic lives while nurturing themselves with families, activism, volunteerism, small businesses, hobbies, and politics.
Sharon Louden is one such remarkable individual, who has been a proponent of rethinking artists’ roles in society and responding to their needs. When I first met her, I immediately recognized how much compassion she had for her fellow artists—their lives, work, and even their insecurities—but also how contagious her commitment and optimism can be.
How do we create art that challenges capitalism? How can we find new ways to give comfort to those confronted with violence? How do we shed light on those overlooked by society? Why do we make art in a culture that can be antagonistic towards it? Why even continue? The answer to these questions lies in the work of individuals who imagine the future before us, and we call them artists.
1. Guerzoni, Guido. Apollo & Vulcan: The Art Markets in Italy 1400–1700 (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2011), p. xxiii
“Aesthetic portals” are central to the work of Postcommodity, the indigenous arts collective of Raven Chacon, Crístobal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist—doorways that open between walled national borders, that puncture this moment to reveal our continent’s precolonial history and traditions, that transport viewers into a probable future of environmental destruction, that cleanse visitors in sound, or that connect physical and spiritual planes. […]
Postcommodity: Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist
“Aesthetic portals” are central to the work of Postcommodity, the indigenous arts collective of Raven Chacon, Crístobal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist—doorways that open between walled national borders, that puncture this moment to reveal our continent’s precolonial history and traditions, that transport viewers into a probable future of environmental destruction, that cleanse visitors in sound, or that connect physical and spiritual planes.
In the coming month, the interdisciplinary collective’s “indigenous lens” will be featured in several prestigious exhibitions, including the 2017 Whitney Biennial (opening March 17), documenta 14 (opening in Athens April 8 and in Kassel on June 10), and at Art In General, where their commissioned installation Coyotaje will debut March 24. In preparation for these engagements—as well as their arrival in Minneapolis this weekend—we offer a primer on several Postcommodity works that address the theme of portals.
To meet the artists and pick up a free copy of their just-published essay, “2043: No Es Un Sueño,” commissioned as part of the Walker’s ongoing Artist Op-Eds series, join us Saturday, March 11 at 6 pm for an op-ed launch and artist talk—the first time we’ve activated this long-running series with a live event. (Free pamphlets are available to the first 75 attendees.) The event is presented in collaboration with Minneapolis’s Bockley Gallery, which opens the exhibition Postcommodity on Friday, March 10.
Do You Remember When? (2009/2012)
Installation view, Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, 2009. All photos courtesy the artists, unless otherwise noted
This mixed-media installation creates a passage between worlds. A slab of gallery floor, cut out and placed on a pedestal—“a trophy celebrating Indigenous intervention in opposition to a Western scientific worldview”—leaves a doorway to the exposed earth, and to spiritualities and cultures tied to it, below. Site-specific audio provides a “psychosocial soundtrack”: at Arizona State University in 2009, it included a closed-circuit audio broadcast of a Pee Posh social dance song performed by the collective; at the 18th Biennale of Sydney, it featured “songs and animal calls performed by members of local communities that are part of the aboriginal peoples of Sydney.” In each instance, a microphone was suspended over the square of soil, “positioning viewers as listeners to a feedback loop of Indigenous voices in dialogue with the exposed earth” (as Mark Watson put it in his 2015 Third Text essay, “Centring the Indigenous”). The work, the collective writes, “shifts the sustainability from a focus dominated by Western science to a balanced approach inclusive of Indigenous knowledge systems.”
My Blood Is in the Water (2010)
“The history of art is largely deaf,” Postcommodity’s Kade L. Twist told Bill Kelley, Jr. in a 2015 Afterall interview. “Sound is the glue that holds us together.” In My Blood is in the Water, the sound is both a pulse and a drumbeat, created by blood dripping from the carcass of a mule deer onto an amplified Pueblo drum. Created in commemoration of Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary, the piece served as “an ephemeral time-keeping instrument relaying the history and intonation of this land.”
One of Postcommodity’s most impressive fusions of “traditional” imagery and political message is P’oe iwe naví ûnp’oe dînmuu (My Blood Is in the Water, 2010), commemorating the city of Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary. A buck mule deer’s carcass, hung upside down, donates its dripping blood to create sounds on an amplified drum below, “memorialising the mule deer as a spiritual mediator of the landscape and [paying] tribute to the traditional means by which indigenous people put food on the table” without destroying whole species. The striking image of the deer—simultaneously beautiful and tragic—is intended to turn around “the dominant culture’s process of commoditisation, demand/supply and convenience.”
Promoting a More Just, Verdant and Harmonious Resolution (2011)
Installation view, Contour: 5th Biennial of Moving Image, Mechelen, Belgium
This immersive multi-channel installation greets viewers with pastoral scenery—fields and mountains, pristine waters, a child picking flowers—but such soothing imagery is jarringly (and noisily) ripped away, replaced by visions from an apocalyptic future where pollution and other forms of environmental degradation rule the day. Postcommodity writes:
While engaging the seemingly meditative video installation and walking about the gallery space, audience members will inevitably step on one of eight detonation triggers embedded in the floor, setting off a concussive sonic explosion shaped by a generative physics model of real-world IED explosions—particularly IEDs that utilize found consumer objects and electronics. The audience-triggered explosions are comprised of fragments of sampled music ranging the iconic pop of Burt Bacharach, Beach Boys, and Beatles to the heavy metal of Slayer, Metallica, and Black Sabbath and punk rock of the Ramones, Bad Brains, and Stiff Little Fingers. In all, hundreds of samples are randomly utilized as sonic shrapnel. The result is an exaggerated moment in which audiences are enveloped by the physical properties of an Afghanistan hot spot and simultaneously assaulted by the sonic artifacts of Western colonialism in which members of the audience share the sudden and disorientating experience of having their collective musical memories envelop them and flash before their eyes.
Gallup Motel Butchering (2011)
A tourist hotel in the traditional homelands of the Navajo people becomes the site for an act that, only due to its setting, might seem violent or out of place. Shot from various angles with high-definition cameras, this four-channel video shows in gritty detail a Navajo woman butchering a sheep for a family feast. The woman is a former runner-up in the Miss Navajo pageant, but the year she competed, sheep butchering—a role reserved for women in Navajo culture—wasn’t a requirement. With no prior experience slaughtering sheep, she butchered the animal on camera—awkwardly, and in the awkward setting of the hotel bathroom. The work reveals “how a traditional act of cultural self-determination can appear violent and disorientating within the context of a ‘non-place’ and pose a poetic, metaphorical transgression against the assumptions of the Western imagination.” Like a rip in the space-time continuum, the work illuminates twin realities coexisting in this Gallup, New Mexico motel.
Photo: Sean Deckert, Calnicean Projects
Installed at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, this immersive installation recasts the doorway as a peepshow window. Visitors enter one of eight doors, insert a token in a slot, and get a glimpse of a garden of earthly delights: a lush world of butterflies, plants, and floral scents—rendered surreal by artificial lighting. “Playing on the idea of the peep show and the fetishized female form—which throughout art history and literature has been implicitly and explicitly linked to the garden—Postcommodity comments on fantasy, objectification, and the male gaze,” writes Hyperallergic’s Erin Joyce. “Yet by presenting an actual garden, the piece also speaks to the powerlessness of nature in the face of mankind’s domination and abuses. The incorporation of the ‘pay-to-play’ model, meanwhile, brings in capitalism’s role in the devastation of the natural world, global market systems, land development, and the exploitation of natural resources, all of which suggest Western colonial endeavors in what is thought to be a postcolonial world. Though the piece only requires the viewer to insert her token to participate—a small gesture—it implicates her as she sees her reflection in the garden room’s mirrors.”
People of Good Will(2014–2015)
Heritage Hall, Guelph, Ontario, Canada
“We are very critical of social practice art in general—it’s a colonial model, very paramilitary, to parachute artists into a community for two weeks and then leave the community holding the bag,” Crístobal Martinez told Crystal Migwans last year. But when Postcommodity was asked to be part of a two-year project in Guelph, Ontario, the collective signed on. Reimagining city development through a “ceremonial filter,” the group collaborated with the Guelph Black Heritage Society on the renovation and revitalization of Heritage Hall, a church built in 1880 by fugitive slaves who arrived in Guelph via the Underground Railroad. In addition to contributing funds and manpower to the renovation, Postcommodity helped program events by immigrants and artists of color within the space, and when they left, they left behind capacity-building tactics as well as practical tools, including a PA system for use in future events. The aim, says Martinez: fostering “self-determination in the arts.”
Repellent Fence, 2015
Postcommodity’s most ambitious project, Repellent Fence (2015), was also the genesis of the collective’s formation. It began in 2007 with a simple premise: intervening, somehow, on the US/Mexico border. The initial idea was to “create a monument of futility that mocks the concept of borders, particularly, their fortification, militarization and marginalization of peoples and cultures within the contested space of their geographic location.” They continue, “Our hope was to facilitate public dialogue that specifically addressed the human and cultural violence instigated and perpetuated by borders as geopolitical implements that uproot cultures from their traditional homelands, and divide indigenous peoples and communities from each other.”
In the ensuing eight years, the group embarked on a project to work with community members in the border cities of Agua Prieta, Mexico and Douglas, Arizona, as well as with the US Border Patrol and the Mexican government, in creating a land art work that refused to touch the ground: Repellent Fence‘s visible manifestation was comprised of 26 giant “scare-eye” balloons that for four days formed a two-mile line bisecting the US/Mexico border. The balloons’ “open-eye” motif—an indigenous symbol appropriated and printed on commercial bird deterrents used by gardeners and farmers—seemed to echo the border’s constant state of ominous surveillance, but the ten-foot orbs ended up reinforcing a different message. Members of the two communities—who began programming events, including a binational art walk, around the project—came to see Repellent Fence as a tool for healing, as a “suture, reconnecting two bodies of land that had been divided… a monument to inter-connectedness,” Twist says.
The Ears Between Worlds are Always Speaking(2017)
Product shots of the LRAD 500X, a long-range acoustic device advertised as offering “unparalleled long-range communication and scalable non-lethal, non-kinetic Escalation of Force.”
Just announced, Postcommodity’s contribution to documenta 14 in Athens will consist of a “long-form, two-channel hyper-directional opera projected upon the ancient ruins of Aristotle’s Lyceum.” The work’s physical manifestation will be limited to two LRADs—commercially available long-range acoustic devices, or “sound cannons,” typically used in military or law-enforcement contexts, including against water protectors at Standing Rock—mounted on rooftops around the edge of the site. Visitors navigating ruins of the school where Aristotle gave his major lectures will experience a hyper-directional sonic call-and-response. The artists explain:
The Lyceum, situated between the Athens War Museum, Hellenic Armed Forces Officer’s Club, and Athens Conservatory of music, offers a rich environment for engaging oral tradition [and] contemporary and ancient history, as well as a sense of embodied learning. Each day, the installation will perform multiple movements of music spanning the hours in which the Lyceum is open to the public, continuing as a cycle throughout the duration of the exhibition.
By activating a contemporary variant of Aristotle’s peripatetic learning on the ancient site, Postcommodity will focus its shared indigenous lens to dialogue with Aristotle, as well as implicate audiences as part of an international dialogue on global market systems in relationship to walking and movement upon lands.
In the exhibition’s Kassel manifestation, Postcommodity will create a related work, Blind/Curtain, at the entrance of the Neue Galerie, as the collective’s “indigenous gift and blessing to the visitors of documenta 14.” This sonic curtain, the trio writes, will “act as a threshold for audiences to cleanse themselves of the outside world, and prepare their hearts, minds and spirits for engaging the transformative experience of documenta 14.” A doorway itself, they note that Blind/Curtain will be “a physical and conceptual threshold for demarcating outside and inside, and acknowledging and reifying the spaces and artworks of documenta 14, as well as the spaces and contexts between.
Simultaneously, Blind/Curtain is aware of itself as a node of power—it is a determiner of space—a border. It is a membrane constructed of pink noise and submerged poems. Blind/Curtain is a human dilemma that contains secrets, provides access, creates the illusion of privacy (prevents access), provokes surveillance, and embodies love.”
As an institution dedicated to the free expression of artists, the Walker commissions a multiplicity of makers across disciplines—including Ron Athey, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Gary Simmons, and Ana Tijoux—to respond to the headlines through its ongoing Artist Op-Eds series. In the series’ eleventh commission, the indigenous art collective Postcommodity (Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist) melds poetry and prose […]
Postcommodity, Repellent Fence, 2015. Photo: Michael Lundgren, courtesy Bockley Gallery
As an institution dedicated to the free expression of artists, the Walker commissions a multiplicity of makers across disciplines—including Ron Athey, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Gary Simmons, and Ana Tijoux—to respond to the headlines through its ongoing Artist Op-Eds series. In the series’ eleventh commission, the indigenous art collective Postcommodity (Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist) melds poetry and prose in a powerful reflection on native self-determination, ethnic and national identity, and the year 2043—when whites are expected to become a minority in the United States. To launch the print edition of this text, the artists participated in an artists’ talk at the Walker on Saturday, March 11, 2017.
It seems that here, seventeen years into the 21st century, we have more people than ever before envisioning themselves in places they never thought they might be. They can be at Standing Rock, protecting water via six degrees of “status shares.” Through a sepia filter on a camera app aimed at a panoramic desert, they can walk a northbound mile in someone else’s burning shoes. One can even triangulate their preferred newsfeed to one pinpoint, not geographically speaking but rather to objectively arrive at a comfortable destination of information that agrees with them. Of course, one may not physically be at these sites of conflict. Or maybe they are. When one can so easily define and understand the world for themselves, what can be done to rebreak it?2(more…)
At a time in our country when the values of a creative and inclusive society are being decidedly challenged, it is evermore important for arts organizations to affirm their values and promises to the communities they serve. As director of the Walker Art Center and on Arts Advocacy Day, this annual day of individual and collective action […]
At a time in our country when the values of a creative and inclusive society are being decidedly challenged, it is evermore important for arts organizations to affirm their values and promises to the communities they serve. As director of the Walker Art Center and on Arts Advocacy Day, this annual day of individual and collective action for the arts, I assert the Walker’s mission to be a catalytic and forward-thinking organization devoted to artists and audiences, and to supporting an open and inclusive culture grounded in the principles of free expression and concern for the common good, which are the foundations of our democracy.
As I boarded the bus this morning to join Minnesota Citizens for the Arts and nearly 1,000 arts and culture workers at the Minnesota State Capitol on Arts Advocacy Day, I felt pride in knowing that both the Walker and the National Endowment for the Arts, established in 1940 and 1965 respectively, were founded through federal support and action. Their creation was underpinned by a belief that national investment in the arts is essential and that it vitally matters.
Arts Advocacy Day. Photo via Minnesota Citizens for the Arts
Although I am deeply heartened by this history, I am struck by how the purpose of Arts Advocacy Day has never seemed more urgent and necessary, as threats to the existence of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) continue to mount and the values of openness and inclusivity are daily challenged. A society is only as free as its artists, and when individual freedoms around speech, travel, and funding are restricted, new more insidious forms of censorship and intolerance are bound to ensue.
Established by Congress in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the NEA is the largest funder and champion of the arts across 50 states. Its mission is based on an abiding conviction that the arts play an integral role in our national life and public discourse. The NEA’s founding legislation attests to the belief of its legislative authors that the arts actively contribute to citizenry, to forging mutual understanding among people, and to improving livability in diverse communities across the country. I’m a member of the National Council on the Arts, a Senate-confirmed advisory body of nearly 20 artists and arts professionals who advise the NEA, and as a first generation Cuban American whose parents were Cuban exiles in the 1960s, I am proud to serve with an incredibly diverse panel of individuals who together represent the future demographic composition of our country and who all staunchly believe that the arts and the freedoms of artists in our society are integral to our democracy.
The mission of the Walker, which was founded as a public art center in 1940, was born of the same national conviction that art matters in society. Established under the auspices of the Federal Art Project and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Walker was conceived as a “meeting place for all the arts” in which the public could “meet the artist on common ground”—a place of gathering for citizens to find inspiration, connection, and community at a time of war and global conflict. We are thus a product of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal–era policies that sought to put Americans, including its artists, back to work following the Great Depression. As one of more than 70 community art centers established across the country by the WPA, the Walker was also envisioned as a vital space in which democracy and civil society could be enacted.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Arts and Humanities endowment act 1965. Photo: neh.org
As an exemplar of this mission, one of the Walker’s earliest exhibitions showcased the work of the German painter Franz Marc, whose iconic painting Die grossen blauen Pferde (The Large Blue Horses) (1911) represented a work and painting style vehemently decried by the Third Reich as “degenerate art.” This painting, acquired by the Walker in 1942, became the cornerstone of the Walker’s collection of new art and enabled its director to host a broad public discussion about governmental censorship of the arts and the dangers of limits on individual freedoms. Its presentation and acquisition were foundational to crystalizing our active mission to “examine the questions that shape and inspire us individuals, cultures and communities” in an ever-changing world.
Since then, the Walker has been a curious and questioning institution that has sought to challenge the status quo in all forms of thinking and making. We take inspiration from the artists we present and seek to extend to our audiences the same freedoms that we offer artists. We have consistently championed the role of the art and artists in society and actively defended free speech and artistic freedom in the US and abroad. In the early 1990s, the Walker’s trustees and director testified before Congress during the Culture Wars. In the 2011, the Walker protested the Chinese government’s detention of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. A year later, we added our voice, along with hundreds of cultural organizations across the state, in opposing a constitutional amendment that, if successful, would have banned same-sex marriage (it failed). The following year, such unions were made legal.
We have also consistently sought to be a “safe place for unsafe ideas,” one where artists and audiences feel supported to ask provocative questions, gain insights about other cultures and alternative ways of thinking, and explore spaces of difference and intersection, as well as find unity and social cohesion, especially at times of great social division and political unrest. In a radio program in 1940, the Walker’s first director Daniel Defenbacher gave a telling and inspiring response to the question of why the arts matter on the eve of the United States entering World War II. He proclaimed: “Because our cultural defense is as important as our geographic defense.”
Olga Viso with a “Vote No” sign on Hennepin Avenue, 2012
Now more than 75 years later, our challenges are different as the Walker’s ability to enact its inclusive values and global mission are challenged by new restrictions on our borders and limits to individual freedoms. Yet we remain emboldened to affirm our pursuits with even greater resolve and conviction. We vow to:
Actively support artists and amplify their voices, no matter where they come from,
Champion the role of the arts and artists in society and the rights to free expression,
Bring artists and audiences together,
Host risk and experimentation,
Be a generative place for new thinking, and
Embrace the world around us through relevant programming, publishing, and events.
And we do so through the programs we offer and the artists we present:
A new website, launching in May, with new functionalities that foster cross-pollination of viewpoints,
An expansion of the Artist Op-Eds series, a digital platform that for nearly three years has commissioned artists to respond to events in the news.
Programming that’s relevant to both our times and the communities we serve, from the native film series INDIgenesisthis March, which will include a showcase of indigenous perspectives on Standing Rock, to the exhibitionAdíos Utopia: Dreams and Deceptions in Cuban Art Since 1950, which looks at artistic expression during Cuba’s revolutionary epoch, when many artists were censored by the government.
Due to a dynamic response, the Cinema of Urgency film series—usually programmed only on election years—will continue next fall with a focus on films that pose critical questions about today’s most pressing social, political, environmental, and economic issues. Each screening will include discussions with filmmakers, local community leaders, and other guest speakers.
Major survey exhibitions of and new commissions with artists of color from the US and around the world.
A commitment to showcasing the works of artists from countries of origin impacted by the current administration’s travel ban.
Collective action with other arts organizations to preserve our federal agencies and challenge policies that negatively impact the advancement of culture.
We believe that the Walker and the expanded Minneapolis Sculpture Garden offer a welcoming civic space for the public to not only be introduced to and be inspired by art we present but to bring a multiplicity of perspectives into respectful consideration and focus. This is what the Walker does best, and has always done as a curious, questioning, catalytic organization founded on the principles of our democracy—principles that today more than ever call us to question everything.
This essay is excerpted from “Root of an Unfocus,” published in the exhibition catalogue for the Walker-organized landmark exhibition, Merce Cunningham: Common Time, on view February 8–July 30, 2017. With characteristic intention and clarity, Merce Cunningham dated his first mature piece of choreography to Root of an Unfocus (1944), the centerpiece of a series of six dances […]
With characteristic intention and clarity, Merce Cunningham dated his first mature piece of choreography to Root of an Unfocus (1944), the centerpiece of a series of six dances that made up his first solo concert. The performance took place in New York City in 1944, five years after he moved there from Seattle to dance in the Martha Graham Company and two years into his partnership with composer John Cage. All six dances were prepared in collaboration with musical compositions by Cage, who also presented additional works of his own that April evening. For this do-it-yourself affair, Cunningham made his own costumes, Cage designed the program flyers, and both footed the bill to rent out the theater. More importantly, however, this self-acknowledged debut registers on a level beyond being brash and self-starting: it demonstrates just how early the duo’s radical approach to collaboration gained momentum. Unencumbered by expectations of accompaniment, their alliance was driven rather by a principle of simultaneity and independence for dance and music within a shared register. For Cunningham, this moment was the beginning of a career that operated out of a “root of an unfocus” that was based in collaborative work and would stretch over six decades of restive creation.
Cunningham later told an interviewer that Root of an Unfocus was made “when I was still concerned with expression. It was about fear.”1 Even so, the dance marked a crucial moment of development for both Cunningham and Cage, as it pivoted around the notion that time, rather than melody or narrative motif, should constitute the underlying relationship between dance and music. Having agreed on a durational structure where sound and movement would align only at the transitions between the dance’s three sections, Cunningham and Cage were free to create independently of one another, with their shared aesthetic only fully revealed in the performance itself. The radically deconstructed space and time that began with this work was subsequently inscribed as existing in between dance and music.
As Cunningham told it to author Calvin Tomkins as early as 1962, the ripple effect implicit in this first work’s title quickly became concentric and widening:
The main thing about it—and the thing everybody missed—was that its structure was based on time, in the same sense that a radio show is. It was divided into time units, and the dance and music would come together at the beginning and the end of each unit, but in between they would be independent of each other. This was the beginning of the idea that music and dance could be dissociated, and from this point on the dissociation in our work just got wider and wider.2
This dissociative experiment would be developed into a praxis that would not only endure but also thrive over nearly six decades of shared work and hundreds of collaborations across disciplines. The “root of an un-” swiftly became a network, circulating what Cunningham would later describe as “a shared history that reflects to me a change or enlargement of the underlying principle that music and dance could be separate entities independent and interdependent, sharing a common time.”3
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company (MCDC), founded in 1953 at Black Mountain College, was the catalytic engine, an unparalleled and unique nexus of collaborative practice oscillating within the frame of choreography that continues to reverberate today. By dismantling hierarchies and conventional boundaries, Cunningham and Cage’s “common time” made possible an expanded field of dance, music, moving image, and visual art based in their own brand of recombinatory aesthetics. Their concept can almost be seen as a how-to guide for creating vital new forms that are rooted in the enduring scenic space of a new common time.
With common time as the core ethos of their work, Cunningham and Cage overturned a succession of conventions during their first decade together, in the process opening up the fertile and nervy ground from which MCDC emerged. With a propulsive imperative that demanded what Cunningham called “a continuing flexibility in the relation of the arts,” their collaboration shape-shifted the landscape of modern art as no other had ever done, creating a nearly cellular approach to recombinant composition methods.4 It was understood from the outset that MCDC could expand but also contract, serving as an inter- platform and fluctuating organism for unprecedented levels of interdisciplinary experimentation. Through its many iterations, the company and its network of collaborators maintained an attitude of openness to change (and changes). Exits and entrances abound. Working within and through common time demands acceleration, deeply focused technique, and a highly adaptive use of version and variation that Cunningham described as ongoing: “We are involved in a process of work and activity, not in a series of finished objects.”5
Cunningham’s own retrospective assessment of Root of an Unfocus, which he acknowledged “still worked with expressive behavior,” benefits from a comparison with two solos created ten years later that taken together show the expanding nature of common time over these pivotal early years of collaboration.6 The differences between them reveals the crucial role “chance operations” (Cage and Cunningham shared the use of this term) played at this time in expanding and focusing the evolution of Cunningham’s movement vocabulary. In Untitled Solo (1953), Cunningham first used the ritual of the coin toss to determine, through chance, the outline for a sequence of isolated movements that could be combined with unexpected, fresh results. “[Using chance means] I also began to see that there were all kinds of things that we thought we couldn’t do, and it was obviously not true.… If you try it, a lot of the time you can do it, and even if you can’t, it shows you something you didn’t know before.”7Untitled Solo follows Cage’s first use of chance in composing Sixteen Dances (1950–1951), the sound accompaniment for Cunningham’s Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three, a breakthrough that Cage saw as moving him outside of inclination, or predetermined creation. As he put it, “I reached the conclusion I could compose according to moves on these charts instead of according to my own taste.”8 By applying chance operations to the core of their respective compositional practices, Cage and Cunningham moved beyond taste and toward unexpected amplitude, folding time in on itself in the process. For Cage, this move was directly related to his increased use of electronics and the micro-exploration of sound within their collaborations during the 1950s. For his part, Cunningham experimented first on himself, and then on the body of a company. The space between nerve and expanded gesture opened up.
In Changeling (1957), the embodied motif of chance concatenation moving against memory and familiarity is taken even further than in Untitled Solo. Ten minutes in length, Cunningham’s performance expresses the dynamic of a “changeling,” a being masquerading as human but with otherworldly presence. The incredibly difficult choreography, in which possible movements for head, torso, arms, and legs were determined separately, exemplifies his striking ability as a performer. Disassembled into isolated phrases only to be recombined via a series of coin tosses, the movements contort in a push-and-pull tension when fit together.
Changeling is one of Cunningham’s most enigmatic early solo dances. Capturing an essential dissolution at the heart of acutely observed gesture, it was concerned with what Cunningham called “the possibility of containment and explosion being instantaneous.”9 In just a single sequence, Changeling encapsulated the unique compression central to the elaboration of his choreography as a recombinatory aesthetic. (Indeed, Cunningham would often share with friends that he was convinced he himself was a changeling.)10 Recently discovered film footage of the dance, shot during a 1958 European tour by the company, displays Cunningham’s virtuosic technical skill and daring decentralization of the body, a mix that would characterize his style as a solo performer and choreographer from then on. Now free to combine ordinary movement drawn from everyday observation and social behavior with modern and classical dance technique, Cunningham’s choreography embraced a new hybridity and acceleration through a field of wide-ranging quotation fueled by chance operations.
As the technique and rigor of Cunningham’s choreography intensified, so did the level of his experimentation. His training in ballet and modern dance mixed with his direct experience of a grab bag of American vernacular dance forms from vaudeville, dance hall, soft-shoe, solo dances from the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples, and beyond. Just as he disrupted hierarchies among dance styles early on, his company further jettisoned conventional understandings of décor and the musical score as backdrop and accompaniment. Stage space was decentered in favor of a simultaneity that maintains music, dance, and décor in a precarious proximity that nevertheless refuses to ever integrate. Each discipline operates uneasily beside the other.
During three formative summers at Black Mountain College in 1948, 1952, and 1953, Cage and Cunningham were exposed to an impressive array of artists, composers, designers, architects, and writers, and experienced a flurry of approaches to radical pedagogy. Embracing an evolving praxis, Cunningham himself began to offer regular classes in dance technique in New York in 1951, while Cage taught musical composition at the New School of Research for four years beginning in 1956. Playing an increasingly pivotal role in the burgeoning downtown New York art scene, Cage and Cunningham directly influenced the most risk-taking and influential art movements of the era in no small part through their own distinctive “how to” experimental pedagogies, from Fluxus and the Judson Dance Theater to Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T) and a remarkable group of the next generation of innovators, including George Brecht, Trisha Brown, Douglas Dunn, Deborah Hay, Takehisa Kosugi, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer. But nowhere was this ever-widening influence more profound than within the company itself.
The Merce Cunningham Dance Company was formed by Cunningham after an exhilarating summer at Black Mountain College in 1953. He had brought to that session a group of young dancers who had been studying with him off and on in New York; among them was Carolyn Brown, who would be his principal dancer for more than fifteen years. The founding of the company happened a year on from the previous summer session at Black Mountain, during which Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1, or “Theater Event #1,” as Cunningham referred to it, had taken place. Cunningham described this now infamous and influential piece rather nonchalantly: “The audience was seated in the middle unable to see everything that was happening. There was a dog that chased me around the arena. Nothing was intended to be other than it was, a complexity of events the spectator could deal with as each chose.”11 Reflecting as it does an increasingly important expectation of the spectator to “unfocus” their attention to the work and learn to follow simultaneity itself, the pedagogical stakes were heightened, plentiful, and in motion at the time the company was formed.
Indeed, many of Cage’s students at the New School later noted that they received and rejected his teaching in equal measure, which was exactly the responsive quality that he looked to instill and expose thorough his teaching. Cage’s radical acceptance of incident and duration, along with a complex, multilayered use of chance, cultivated what he described as “response ability” in the active listener.12 To cultivate response ability is not to court followers to a method but to spur new levels of acceptance and residual impact, something that both Cage and Cunningham lived by in their pedagogical approaches. Cunningham’s students and company dancers alike worked through and off of the demanding focus of his approach. As Yvonne Rainer wrote in a third-person passage recounting her experience working and studying with Cunningham, this was both exhilarating and something to contend with or possibly counter. “ ‘You must love the daily work,’ he would say. She loved him for saying that, for that was one prospect that thrilled her about dancing—the daily involvement that filled up the body and the mind with an exhaustion and completion that left little room for anything else. Beside that exhaustion, opinion paled. And beside that sense of completion, ambition had to be especially tenacious. But while absorbing the spirit of his genius she fought its letter.”13
This tension between Cunningham, the demands of his technique, and the rigorous level of challenge that members of his company regularly remark upon is no doubt part of what led so many dancers who were talented choreographers in their own right to work with MCDC over the years. The list includes Rainer but also Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton, key participants along with Robert Rauschenberg in the Judson Dance Theater (1962–1964), which brought its own radical questioning to the legacy of Western dance.
Even as any historic consideration of the use of everyday observed gesture or task-based movement (as Judson collaborators would describe it) has to begin with Merce Cunningham’s experiments, it was clear to Cunningham himself that the terrain of common time within choreographic inquiry required discipline and training with inter- forms that was demanding and expansive. As he reflected on the period, Cunningham contrasted his own trajectory with that of the Judson Dance Theater: “It all struck me as very limited. The instant they attempted something outside that, it didn’t work because they didn’t have the training. I was always interested in all kinds of movement. They said no to this and no to that, and my idea was to say yes—not to be fixed but to be flexible and open.”14 His own trajectory, by contrast, had been a polymorphous and constantly shifting path of acceleration and increased amplitude.
Merce Cunningham, Jo Anne Melsher, Marianne Preger-Simon, Anita Dencks, Carolyn Brown, Remy Charlip, and Viola Farber in Minutiae, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, December 8, 1954 Photo: John G. Ross
Cunningham’s permissive yet rigorous style was not lost on the younger collaborators who joined MCDC, including the company’s first art director, Robert Rauschenberg. Minutiae (1954), Rauschenberg’s first collaboration with Cunningham, initiated a fertile decade of work together that would continue through MCDC’s 1964 world tour. Rauschenberg’s décor for Minutiae, which is considered his first Combine, premiered in the dance weeks ahead of his exhibition at the Charles Egan Gallery in New York, a solo show that featured a group of so-called Red Paintings and important early Combines such as Charlene (1954). In his invitation to Rauschenberg to participate in the company by making something for the “dance area” of what was then an unfinished piece of choreography, Cunningham gave the younger painter scant direction, noting only that it might be something with passages, and that perhaps “we could move through it, around it, and with it if he liked.”15 Years later, when further describing the highly independent collaborative work of Minutiae to Calvin Tomkins, Cunningham remembered the collaboration with charming matter-of-factness:
Bob had made a very beautiful object that hung from the ceiling, with ribbons trailing from it. I knew right away it wouldn’t do because it couldn’t be installed in the sorts of places we performed in then—college auditoriums where there were no flies to hang anything from. Bob understood at once. He’s always been completely practical in his work with us. He said he’d do something else, and what he did the second time was really wonderful. It was a freestanding construction in two sections, so the dancers could go in between them, and there was a lot of collage. I loved it because you couldn’t say just what it was. One critic, after the first performance of the piece, complained for this reason. She said she didn’t know whether it was supposed to be a bathhouse at the beach or a fortune-teller’s booth, or what. That was just what I liked about it.16
The décor was small and mobile enough that it could be deconstructed and carried with the company in John Cage’s Volkswagen bus, the chief method of transportation for the young company at the time. Minutiae’s choreography, meanwhile, was made of complex and detailed chance-derived sequencing, inspired by the small, short, abrupt movements Cunningham observed in people walking the streets of New York, while the accompanying music was an existing work by Cage, Music forPiano 1–20 (1952/1953). Pleased with the collaboration, Cage and Cunningham invited Rauschenberg to join the company as its first art director, expanding the common time of the company to a triangulated form that would continue from then on. Cunningham recounted this turning point succinctly: “So there were now three elements, the movement, the sound, and a visual action.”17
Robert Rauschenberg, Décor for Minutiae, 1954/1976. Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection
The full network was now up and running, neatly captured in a Cage aphorism that could read as a motto for the company: “Time … is what we and sounds happen in. Whether early or late: in it. It is not a question of counting.”18 At the onset of the 1960s, MCDC found an increasingly global reach as it performed in a variety of international settings and incorporated a wider range of collaborators and dancers within the core of the company. With an ever-refined mobility and provisional acuity in regard to flexible set, costume, and sound design, the company continued to push the boundaries of stage space.
1 Merce Cunningham and Jacqueline Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance (New York: M. Boyars, 1985), 79.
2 Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde: Duchamp, Tinguely, Cage, Rauschenberg, Cunningham (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 245.
3 Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance,” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1992), 139.
Our country and world are clearly in the midst of seismic changes—politically, environmentally, socially, economically. How do we prepare for the uncertain future we’re facing? In the days leading up to Friday’s presidential inauguration, we posed this question to an array of artists, writers, curators, and Walker staff members. Inspired by reading lists from the #CharlestonSyllabus to […]
Our country and world are clearly in the midst of seismic changes—politically, environmentally, socially, economically. How do we prepare for the uncertain future we’re facing?
In the days leading up to Friday’s presidential inauguration, we posed this question to an array of artists, writers, curators, and Walker staff members. Inspired by reading lists from the #CharlestonSyllabus to Public Books’Trump Syllabus 2.0, we asked them to share recommendations for articles and books, poems and novels that could prove instructive in the coming years. Their suggestions range from the tactical to the poetic, the historic to the ultra-contemporary, optimistic to brace-for-the-worst realism.
We’ll be updating this list as more responses come in. Want to help us expand it further? Please leave your own recommendations in comments.
The Wall Street Journal’s “Red Feed Blue Feed“
While we may not have access to people with political opinions far outside of our own, or, more likely, may not want to spend time embroiled in emotionally exhausting discussions, it’s still important to know what people are seeing—and sharing—via social media. These forms of sharing still constitute a lot of what we think we know. As the graphic shows, and will continue to show, the contrast is stark.
“a range of reflections on resilience,” by Adrienne Maree Brown, November 9, 2016
I think learning from personal language and reactions is important. Adrienne Maree Brown does a wonderful job of articulating her feelings and responses just after Election Day 2016, and many of these feelings may correspond to things we’re still feeling. Let’s admit to those things and put language to them so that we can then put them aside and keep moving, resiliently. As Brown states: “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. we must hold each other tight & continue to pull back the veil.”
Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda, available in English/en Español (2016)
We need to learn how to operate towards progress, for sure, but worst-case scenario, at least we can jam signals, put up consistent opposition, and resist moving backwards any further that we already have. The Tea Party, a minority government group, successfully jammed government signals for years. Let’s learn from these tactics and use them for better outcomes. Also: forgive me if this is over-stepping, but I want to question the title, “Reading List for the New America.” I think calling it “the New America” misses some major aspects of what’s going on—and has been going on for awhile: that this really is an America that has continued to exist since the nation’s founding. Is there a group that could meet to talk about the title choice? Maybe it’s too late for that, but I want to remain kind of clear on my own stance that what we need to do is prepare ourselves for ongoing revolution in a way that resists even the paradigms of “old” and “new” and accepts that our nation contains contradictions at all levels.
Philip Bither McGuire Senior Curator of Performing Arts, Walker Art Center
“Why Rural America Voted for Trump,” Robert Leonard, New York Times, January 5, 2017
Key passage: “While many blame poor decisions by Mrs. Clinton for her loss, in an environment like this, the Democratic candidate probably didn’t matter. And the Democratic Party may not for generations to come. The Republican brand is strong in rural America — perhaps even strong enough to withstand a disastrous Trump presidency.”
The Green Book (1936–1967) by Victor H. Green and George I. Smith
This series of guidebooks was created to “give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”
Choreographer; creator of Thank You For Coming: Play (Out There 2017), Thank You For Coming: Attendance (Out There 2016), others
Curator at Large, Walker Art Center; Curator, Performa
Zora Neale Hurston, “Crazy for This Democracy” (1945) in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…(1979), edited by Alice Walker
A poignant reflection on the malicious role of racism in American society, of which Jim Crow was merely the latest manifestation at the time of its writing, and that is as strikingly relevant today: “Why this sentimental over-simplification… I have been made to believe in this democracy thing, and I am all for tasting this democracy out. The flavor must be good. If the Occident is so intent in keeping the taste out of darker mouths that it spends all those billions and expends all those millions of lives… to keep it among themselves, then it must be something good. I crave to sample this gorgeous thing.”
American Civilization (1950–1953) by C.L.R James
An unfinished manuscript written by the Trinidadian Marxist writer and theorist while he was living in the United States. He was deported in 1953, never finishing the text, which was edited and published posthumously in 1993 by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart, whose introduction explain, “Its central theme was the struggle of ordinary people for freedom and happiness, a struggle which he found to be most advanced in America. At the same time James recognized that the forces mobilized to repress these popular energies had never been so developed, or so brazenly employed, as in the twentieth century.” To this one might add, until now.
The Angela Y. Davis Reader(1998), edited by Joy James
A must-read for change agents and radical intellectuals, which gathers in one tome Davis’s essays on prison reform, anti-racism, feminism, aesthetics and culture, and coalition building with particularly astute readings of these necessities in the American context.
“The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism” (1981), in Sister Outsider (1984), by Audre Lorde
Lorde considers anger as insight and therefore a path to collective understanding and action among women: “Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation… The angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying.”
Toward a Political Philosophy of Race (2009) by Falguni A. Sheth
A fierce analysis of how race is produced and reified in liberal societies in order to preserve state power and its institutions. Perhaps most important is the multiplicity of race upon which Sheth insists by considering the particularities of Arabs, Asians, and other people of color in the persistence of race as a tool of political power.
Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex(2011) by Judith Butler
Butler doing what she does best: reworking the body, revealing the ways it resists in order to illumine how it performs in the context of forces that seek to delimit it through race, gender, and sexuality.
Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and Race (2015) by Emily S. Lee
Lee’s poignant philosophical intervention addresses the ways in which race is experienced by a range of people, including Latinas, Jews, black Americans, and Asian Americans in the context of banal, everyday settings in which life shaping incidents occur and thereby are made scenes where individuals come to know themselves.
Sam Gould Cofounder and editor of Red76; creator of Beyond Repair, a community print-shop/art project in Minneapolis’s Midtown Global Market
Both of my picks have “hope” in the title—and have moved and motivated me deeply. They’ve filled me with the hope and resilience that motivate us to keep working, the hope that shows us where we have been, the hope that sets in motion a clear and long-term vision for the cloudy path that is ahead. These are the books that sustained us after 9/11 and come off the bookshelf again.
Blessed Unrest (2007) by Paul Hawken This book gave me hope when I was learning about the climate crisis. It proposes that human civilization is part of a biosphere that, like any organism, has an immune system compelled to spring into action when the health of that organism is threatened. The environmental movement springing into action in defense against threats to the health of the biosphere is compared a human body’s immune system springing into action in defense against disease. In much the same way, social justice movements have the power to rise up and defend the health of this nation, and the noble principles upon which it was founded (such as basic human rights), against threats posed by President Trump.
Selection from Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Address (1861) This brief quote from Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address seems appropriate to consider at this time of intense division between wildly opposed points of view within a single electorate. One could argue that the last time this country was so fractured, it was on the brink of a civil war. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
Brittany Cooper, “The Racial Politics of Time,” TED Talk, October 2016 Dr. Cooper gave this TED Talk before Trump Time was upon us, but it fully captures the reality of how this new political era continues to steal time—literal, metaphoric, psychic—from Black and Brown people and communities. I ask myself, how can we take back our time and power to narrate our world?
Misa Jeffereis Visual Arts Curatorial Assistant, Walker Art Center
“The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, June 2014 Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of a racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (2016) by Kristin Dombek “They’re among us, but they are not like us. They manipulate, lie, and cheat. They may be irresistibly charming and accomplished. But narcissists are empty… Or maybe they’re too full of themselves; experts disagree. But one thing is for sure: They don’t have empathy. And we do.” Empathy may be our strongest weapon moving forward.
Thomas Lax Associate Curator, Department of Media and Performance Art, The Museum of Modern Art
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose(2005) by Eckhart Tolle “In his insightful look into humanity’s ego-based thinking, Eckhart Tolle provides practical teachings for waking up to a new, enlightened mind-set. If you’re seeking a more loving self and a more loving planet, A New Earth has the tools to begin your transformation.” —Oprah.com
Director and Curator of Education and Public Programs, Walker Art Center
The End of Progress (2016) by Amy Allen
A gutsy book doing the politically important work of attempting to bridge seemingly polar schools of critical theory.
What Is a People? (2016)
A provocative collection of essays by Alain Badiou, Pierre Bordieu, Judith Butler, Georges Didi-Huberman, Sadri Khiari, and Jacques that problematizes concepts of emancipation, populism, exclusion—and the ambiguous notion of “the people.”
Paul Schmelzer Writer; Managing Editor, walkerart.org
A People’s Art History of the United States (2015) by Nicolas Lampert
Lampert chronicles the pivotal role the arts have played in social change, from the graphic agitation in the abolitionist and anti-war movements to the activism of ACT UP, Gran Fury, and the Yes Men. A look back in order to move forward.
“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” (1991) by Wendell Berry
“As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. “
The Twilight of American Culture (2000) by Morris Berman Written pre-9/11 and updated in 2006, the book begins by describing the ways in which symptoms of the fall of Rome—massive wealth inequality, an evaporating social safety net, rampant anti-intellectualism, etc.—are actually mainstream cultural values in America today. “Internal barbarisms,” Berman calls them. He then makes a case for the “new monastic individual.” These new monks, or “native expatriates,” he writes, “could provide a kind of record of authentic ways of living that could be preserved a kind of record of authentic ways of living that could be preserved and handed down, to resurface later on, during healthier times.” He likens it to the characters in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 who, faced with brigades of book-burners, memorize the entirety of great works of literature to save them and pass them on orally.
“Call to Action” (2016) by refuseFascism.org This call—”No! In the name of humanity. We refuse to accept a fascist America”—has been signed by Cornel West, Alice Walker, Rosie O’Donnell, John Landis, Chuck D, Marc Lamont Hill, Pastor Gregg L. Greer, Carl Dix, Robin D.G. Kelley, as well as many artists, and sharply calls out the Trump/Pence regime as fascist and calls on people to stop them before they can consolidate power.
Visual Arts Curatorial Assistant, Walker Art Center
In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti: Double Lives, Troubled Times, and the Massachusetts Murder Case That Shook the World (2012) by Susan Tejada President Obama reminded us in his farewell address last week that “the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles.” This world is played out in Tejada’s study of Boston in the 1920s and the trial of two Italian-American radicals convicted of robbery and murder. (I should add that Siah Armajani recommended this book to me while we were in his studio talking about his work Sacco and Vanzetti Reading Room, of which he made four in the late 1980s.) Despite mounting evidence that the two men were not at the scene of the crime, the prosecution exploited the jury’s prejudices and made the case about Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s radical beliefs, underlining their status as immigrants and outsiders. Sacco and Vanzetti represented the Other in an era long past, but the dangers posed by prejudice and irrational fear feel as relevant as ever.
The End of Protest (2016) by Micah White “In The End Of Protest Micah White heralds the future of activism and declares the end of protest as you know it. Drawing on his unique experience as the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, a contagious protest that spread to eighty-two countries, White clearly articulates a unified theory of revolution and the principles of tactical innovation that are destined to catalyze the next generation of social movements.”—endofprotest.com
Question the Wall Itself—on view November 20, 2016 through May 21, 2017—examines the ways that interior spaces and décor can be fundamental to the understanding of cultural identity. Here, in an excerpt from his essay in the catalogue (available Spring 2017), Fionn Meade, who curated the exhibition with Jordan Carter, discusses the show’s central concepts. […]
Installation view of Nina Beier’s China in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman
Question the Wall Itself—on view November 20, 2016 through May 21, 2017—examines the ways that interior spaces and décor can be fundamental to the understanding of cultural identity. Here, in an excerpt from his essay in the catalogue (available Spring 2017), Fionn Meade, who curated the exhibition with Jordan Carter, discusses the show’s central concepts.
Recasting our conception of interior architecture and décor, Question the Wall Itself explores artistic practices and artworks that inhabit and articulate the spaces between artwork, prop, and set or stage. From the evocation of an anteroom or entryway to such unlikely interiors as a prison cell or commode, to a library, a showroom, and even a winter garden, the exhibition hosts a series of psychologically charged, politically animated, and gendered interiors hailing from a truly international array of cultural contexts, including the Middle East, South America, Europe, the United States, and beyond. Exploring how we trace, embellish, and disentangle social conventions, habits, and cultural codes, the exhibition reveals a public and critical dimension of artists’ engagement with interiors since the 1970s. Serving as a platform for what can at first glance appear to be intimate, hermetic, and even personal modes and moods of artistic address, décor reveals itself to be a resilient and persuasive minor key for artistic criticality and questioning the contemporary.
Suggesting a new hybridity that emerges from contemporary rather than modernist aesthetics, social and historical commentary is embedded within presentations that recall the performative staging of a film set or a showroom, with styles borrowed from house and history museum displays and even social clubs. Through artistic procedures of defamiliarization, fragmentary contextualization, and the use of provisional personae and storyboard-like plot development, the viewer passes through a series of interiors in which the active construction of identity holds uneasy sway over the place of exhibition making itself, with the viewer implicated in an unfolding drama, whether as protagonist or mere passerby. This staging is cinematic but not cinema, house museum but not museum.
Installation view of Marcel Broodthaers’s Dites partout que je l’ai dit (Say Everywhere I Said So) (1974) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman
One of the exhibition’s guides and tutelary spirits is the Belgian artist and poet Marcel Broodthaers, who turned the phrase esprit “décor” in reference to his late series of mostly room-scale interior artworks known as the Décors. In 1975 he explained, “I have attempted to articulate differently the objects and paintings realized at various times between 1964 and this year, in order to form the rooms in a ‘décor’ spirit. That is to say reinstating to the object or painting with its real use. Décor not being an end in itself.”1 Beginning in earnest in the early 1970s, Broodthaers deployed décor as critical stagecraft and an approach to mise-en-scène, creating a series of highly designed and convention-altering spaces that prompted questions, among them: Am I looking at art, product, or an image-language mix from an advertorial or political campaign? What is this mix of nationalistic emblems, comic props, and poetry? Why does this feel globalized and nostalgic at the same time? Broodthaers offered up a mixed-up sociopolitical space and framework in between private and public, commercial and intimate, outward facing and by invitation, status revealing and eccentric, a more resilient border space, an interior within critique. The format of the interior that emerges here is a space of choice and decision making, a space of the artist-curator but also of the display of taste, a portrait of sensibility and identity constructed.
Installation view of Walid Raad’s Letters to the Reader (2014) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman
With Walid Raad’s Letters to the Reader (2014), the feel of nonintegration and epochal slippage extends to the future of Arab art as his speculative museum fiction unfolds in a sequence of eleven partitioned or excerpted wall fragments purportedly taken from displays at new museums of modern Arab art around the world. Raad’s speculative panels, painted in varying colors and tones, each contain a different laser-cut shadow-like form embedded in the center, accented by a different style of applied marquetry along the base, suggesting parquet floor patterns sampled from different museums. Letters to the Reader is itself part of an ongoing larger project, Scratching on things I could disavow, begun by Raad in 2007, that inquires into and critically engages the emergence of new platforms for framing and valuing modern and contemporary Arab art. By addressing and questioning an accelerated present in which some of the largest and most expensive new contemporary art museums are being built in the Arab world, Raad’s museum fiction cuts into the walls themselves of the speculative museum futures for modern and contemporary art.
Installation view of Jonathas de Andrade’s Nostalgia, sentimento de classe (Nostalgia, a class sentiment) (2012) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman
In Jonathas de Andrade’s Nostalgia, sentimento de classe (Nostalgia, a class sentiment) (2012), an uncooperative design traces onto the wall itself the second thoughts and provocative manifesto-like stances of two radical architectural thinkers active in Brazil in the mid-twentieth century. Taking as his point of departure a photograph of the entryway of an exemplary modernist two-family house built in the 1960s in his home city of Recife, de Andrade mimics the geometric pattern of the tiled entryway connecting the two dwellings and linking them to the street. The ideological aspirations of this private and public modernist foyer become touchstones for de Andrade’s room-scale installation in which the patterns formed by 340 red, yellow, blue, and black fiberglass tiles both reveal and obscure vinyl wall text with quotations from the artist and architect Flávio de Carvalho and the architect Marcos Vasconcellos. Creating an antistyle that combines competing designs, the artist lays bare the cultural aspirations and social fissures that continue to ripple through Brazilian city life, captured in a passageway.
Installation view of Lucy McKenzie’s Loos House (2013) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman
Lucy McKenzie’s Loos House (2013), modeled on the dimensions of the salon or living room of the architect Adolf Loos’s 1930 Villa Müller in Prague, is a makeshift, scaled-down version of Loos’s original footprint. McKenzie’s trompe l’oeil rendering mimes Loos’s signature use of green Cipollino marble within the villa’s living room to outline and frame the primary social space in one of his signature buildings. But here the approximation is unfaithful and knowingly awkward. Rather than homage, Loos House is an uneasy quotation of Loos’s concept of Raumplan, or spatial plan, wherein interiors look down, up, and askance into the next room and there are constant shifts in volume and level as you cross over a given threshold in the interconnected complex of rooms.2 McKenzie appears to approach architecture, and here a pinnacle of interior architecture, with exactly the confidence of occupying a caesura in that her work posits and frames the empty volume of the Loos House Raumplan as yet open to questioning and repurposing. The use of décor as decoy reveals McKenzie’s interest in the unfaithful copy as a form of critique, and questions the reverence within the reference, framing an uneasy time and place, with family dysfunction and sexual subcurrents suddenly visible and readily traced.
Installation view of Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s Here and There (1978/2016) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman
For Marc Camille Chaimowicz’s installation Here and There (1978/2016), an anteroom was pitted against its counterpart, the neutral gallery space, disrupting viewers’ expectations as they turned the corner in what was sequenced as a domestic entryway. A series of overlapping panels leaned against the gallery walls, each picturing a provisional character captured in different domestic scenes and poses. A back is turned, hands reach for a teacup, a shadow is elongated by the setting sun coming in through a window: the effect is like that of a storyboard held in reserve and only partially revealed. Making a distinctive style of the chaptered sequencing familiar from showrooms, Chaimowicz offers us a showroom of the uncanny in his décor, the familiar yet “violated, modified” returns continually and is done with incredible élan. Playing off the familiar consumerist behavior of flipping through a magazine for the bits and pieces you might fancy or passing quickly from one display to another that catches the eye, Chaimowicz is a master of inverting consumerist taste. He achieves a disorienting feeling of recall yet dislocation.
Installation view of Alejandro Cesarco’s Index (With Feeling) (2015) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman
Existing as the index for an unrealized novel titled Crocodile Tears, Alejandro Cesarco’s Index (With Feeling) (2015) weaves a complex network of associations and seductive pairings simply through the proximity and promiscuity of the index. The absence of the body, in this case the novel itself, is substituted for by an index of artistic, literary, and theoretical references that speak symptomatically and playfully to one another, detailing aspirations, influences, fears, and even pretensions while inviting readers to imagine their way through the architecture of the unwritten yet mapped-out labyrinth. For his most in-depth index to date, Cesarco has made a sequence of indexes to imaginary books dating back more than fifteen years, tracing a form of self-portrait and, more to the point, a compressed interior portrait of artistic sensibility. As he has described it, the column-like infrastructure of the index allows for a “text that is a half-way biographical and half-way theory text; it is extremely personal, at times even hermetic, yet full of clichés.”3 Cesarco’s Index traces and makes present the objective construction of sensibility, laying out an interior architecture within the subjective.
Installation view of Tom Burr’s Wall (1995) in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman
Tom Burr’s Wall (1995) gives spectral presence and overlapping temporality to the disappearance of the sex industry from Manhattan’s Times Square neighborhood at the time. As part of a gentrification campaign engineered by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the peep shows, sex clubs, and gay theaters that populated Midtown were shuttered in an effort to make Times Square a homogenized tourist destination. A corner of the gallery demarcated by gray paint and a string of blue lights that conjure the abrupt turn of an entryway into a sex shop, Wall marks the outline of a threshold to a sexual interior, a boundary to the illicit. The installation at the Walker is accompanied by a nonarchival sequence of Polaroids taken by Burr in preparation for this exhibition as bare décor. Shown more than twenty years after they were taken, the photographs serve as a faded, quivering index and archive of an economy and subculture cleansed from the center of Manhattan.
Installation view of Tom Burr’s Zog (a series of setbacks) (2016) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman
Wall is paired here with a newly commissioned sculpture, Zog (a series of setbacks) (2016), which finds Burr responding to and echoing the zigzag design of the architect Philip Johnson’s IDS Center building in downtown Minneapolis. The signature element of the building is what Johnson called the “zog,” a distinctive step-back design that effectively creates a series of corner offices, and thereby spaces of power and validation, on several floors of the skyscraper. Transposing the overlapping sequence into a large-scale sculpture in which photographic images are embedded in the “interior,” Burr surfaces the contradictory nature of the unfolding stack, or zog. By repeating the previously singular gesture of the zog and populating it with an eros-laden yet interrupted sequence of images, Burr ruptures the idealized space of power.
Installation view of Paul Sietsema’s Empire (2002) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman
Paul Sietsema’s film installation Empire (2002) pivots on the questioning of representation and value as it presents a layered depiction of the interior of the modernist art critic Clement Greenberg’s Manhattan living room. Having created a model of the critic’s space as it was shot and glamorized in the pages of Vogue in 1964, Empire quickly begins to layer in on itself, demonstrating a formal principle of comparison and contrast that inducing a tension between incident and acutely planful correlation that is characteristic of much of his work.
Prior to the reveal of Greenberg’s art-filled living room, Empire holes its way through a space reminiscent of the grotto-like cavities and interiors within the architect and artist Frederick Kiesler’s Endless House (1947–1960). Sietsema intercuts and layers spiraling shots that pass through perforated cave-like passages of a kindred model constructed by the artist to echo what appears as a primal and impossible interior. Providing episodic counterpoint are two further model interiors, also constructed by Sietsema: the interior of Greenberg’s Manhattan living room, based on the magazine spread, and a rendering of the ultimate period room, the Salon de la Princesse in the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. The latter is an eighteenth-century Rococo oval salon that is pristinely preserved, with gilded carvings and embedded mirror panels, within the now state-owned complex that also houses part of France’s national archives. While the former represents a zenith of a particular moment in American abstract painting asserting its vanguard status—including the implicit economics and power dynamics of the era’s signature art critic trumpeting his impressive private collection of representative works from the moment—the latter salon stands in for the unchanged, unaltered, historicizing period room emblematic of an aesthetic era synonymous with national style. The meticulous comparative nature of Empire approaches an ethnographic aesthetic in Sietsema’s film as epochal time becomes prismatic.
Installation view of Nina Beier’s China in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman
In her ongoing body of work China, Nina Beier pairs hand-painted porcelain vases with hand-painted porcelain dogs ordered from separate custom companies in Italy but chosen to be roughly the same size. Beier cuts jagged holes into each, creating a highly artificial effect that mimics “a form of logic from cartoons, where there is no difference between the abilities of dogs and vases,” as the artist has described the purebred face-off. Cultivated style and pedigree variation are brought into comic adjacency and punched through with a cartoon-like immediacy. The aesthetic of ornamentation achieves a new pop criticality as the hole punched into the dog reveals it to be an empty decorative surface, while the vase loses its function as a vessel and flattens into nothing more than pattern. As Beier has stated, “Both of them disclose their empty inner anatomy and somehow meet, in between image and object.”4
Installation view of Nick Mauss’s F.S. Interval II (2014) in Question the Wall Itself. Photo: Gene Pittman
Temporal distancing meets formal device in the mirror panel paintings of Nick Mauss, whose deportations and refractions of viewing were initially conceived as framing devices for a mini-exhibition organized by the artist within a retrospective otherwise devoted to the American painter, poet, and stage designer Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944). Embedded within the 2014 exhibition at the Lenbachhaus in Munich, Mauss became surrogate and positioned his paintings as “intervals” alongside a selection of archival material devoted to Stettheimer’s poetry. Opening up the room to reflection and projection by a viewer, Mauss’s mirror paintings elaborated a consistent motif within Stettheimer’s paintings, that of still-life compositions of flowers. Mauss elaborates on Stettheimer’s idiosyncratic view of still-life paintings becoming like portraits of people in one’s life just as people take up floral attributes, whether individuals, lovers, groups of friends, or professional associates. The resulting composition, F.S. Interval II (2014), is a multipanel door-scale mirror painting reminiscent of the folds in a dressing room mirror. Allowing for a multiperspective reflection of the viewing body, it is both refracted homage to Stettheimer and an extension of the exhibition space. The painting depicts bodies and abstract marks but also the spectator’s reflection in a prismatic embrace, an effect that the artist has described as “a chamber full of disconnected individuals and affects still somehow being together.”5
Installation view of Shahryar Nashat’s Present Sore (2016) and Chômage Technique (2016) in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman
Regularly hemming a performing body into an interior, Shahryar Nashat’s moving image works fragment the body into an at times claustrophobic frame, revealing context and task only through a repetitive emphasis on highly choreographed micro-gestures and heightened Foley sound. Nashat’s survey of a highly functioning yet partial body prompts a new awareness of a common experience, the newly prosthetic digital augmentation of contemporary life, in the installation Present Sore (2016). As the view of Present Sore moves incrementally upward, a detail image of Paul Thek’s sculpture Hippopotamus (1965), from the Technological Reliquaries series, interrupts. Seemingly throbbing behind Plexiglas, the body is put twice at remove—walled off and fragmentary—yet maintaining the wounded technology of its time, the violent trace. The screen multiplies and divides as the emphasis and focus on heel, wrist, knee, hip, neck, or shoulder—places where movement is most implicit in classical figurative sculpture—become newly cosmetic, motorized, and wounded, and thereby a composite body emerges, one fit for a high-definition time.
The pedestal or base that would hold such an exemplary figure in classical or figurative sculpture—think the erotic writhing and athletic twists and turns of Rodin—is retired by Nashat in favor of a digital composite of the virtual body. Giving the support structure of the plinth a newly decorative role as bystander to the augmented screen representation, he refers to the pedestals as having been laid off until further notice, titling his work Chômage Technique (2016), which indicates a workforce now redundant. With a playful correspondence made between pedestal and foot, the support structures that keep things upright, Nashat leans his pedestals into a nearly supine position, in which they become the figurative work rather than the armature. The masquerade is heightened via faux-marble finishes and bright coloration as Nashat’s benches and columns dress up, playing the parts of voyeur and passerby.
Installation view of Danh Vo’s all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble (2009-) in Question the Wall Itself at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Photo: Gene Pittman
Danh Vo’s all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble (2009–) parcels out the ultimate resting place and décor, the grave. A black marble tombstone is placed in the gallery (according to the artist’s instructions) and adorned and incised with gold lettering bearing the phrase “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” the chosen epitaph of the English Romantic poet John Keats. Promised in the exhibition narrative and deed (and thereby within Question the Wall Itself) to serve as the gravestone for the artist’s father, Phung Vo, on his death, all your deeds will be transferred to Copenhagen at that time but remain in the Walker’s permanent collection until then. At the close of the exhibition, all your deeds shall in water be writ, but this in marble will be transferred to the upper garden of the Walker’s campus within a copse of trees, waiting in the hold, in reserve, for its ultimate transfer to Copenhagen, while inside the museum the empty vitrine is its dialogue partner, content at present to question the wall itself.
Marcel Broodthaers, “Notes on the Subject,” trans. Jill Ramsey, in Marcel Broodthaers: Collected Writings, ed. Gloria Moure (Barcelona: Polígrafa, 2012), 489.
The theatrical impulse within Loos’s Raumplan can be investigated as one in which the interior is a space of persuasion and orchestrated seduction: “The very notion of shifting floor levels finds some Viennese precedent in theatrical scenography, of the nineteenth century but also the twentieth.” Joseph Masheck, Adolf Loos: The Art of Architecture (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 142. Indeed, Frederick Kiesler’s Raumbuhne, or “spatial stage,” was contemporaneous with Loos’s Rufer House and has connections to Arnold Schoenberg’s investigation of spatial music.
As 2015 wound down Kameelah Janan Rasheed found herself the subject of headlines: heading to Turkey for the holiday, she was questioned by customs agents at the Newark airport, then allowed to board her flight—only to later be removed from the Lufthansa plane by an FBI agent and questioned. She was accused of having a one-way […]
As 2015 wound down Kameelah Janan Rasheed found herself the subject of headlines: heading to Turkey for the holiday, she was questioned by customs agents at the Newark airport, then allowed to board her flight—only to later be removed from the Lufthansa plane by an FBI agent and questioned. She was accused of having a one-way ticket and of planning to travel to Syria (neither accusation was true). And customs officials asked her, “Why are you flying? Where are you going in Istanbul? How can you afford to go on holiday? How much was the ticket price?” The only passenger—of 200 aboard the plane—to be removed, she attributes the action to her religion: “I was the only visibly Muslim person.” A week later, candidate Donald Trump (now president-elect) called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
We’ve invited Rasheed—an artist, writer, and educator—to share her perspective on the year since. It was a year in which her text-based installations were featured in shows from Four Freedoms at Jack Shainman Gallery to Working Forces at the Soap Factory; she began a Smack Mellon residency; wrote for The Guardian; and continued her work as a high school social studies curriculum developer. Here, as part of2016: The Year According to , she shares her most notable events, ideas, and happenings of the past twelve months.
A New Museum
Without a doubt, the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture was an exciting moment in 2016 for the making, preservation, and dissemination of a wider spectrum of black histories. Worth also exploring are Mabel O. Wilson’s new book Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture as well as her older text, Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums.
Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter
Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum. Photo: Madeleine Hunt Ehrlich, Hyperallergic
On September 1, I had the privilege of collaborating with many other Black women artists at New Museum for Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter at the New Museum, a response to the continued inhumane institutionalized violence against Black lives. It was a public event that included a series of workshops, performances, digital works, participatory exchanges, displays, and printed matter. In early July, Simone Leigh—the then artist-in-residence at the New Museum who mounted the beautiful show, The Waiting Room—reached out to Black women artists to build an action in response to the routinized violence against Black lives. Weeks later, what was born was Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matters, a collective of artists who gathered for one day for both joyous outburst and mourning. For updates and information on BWA for BLM, please follow the group on Twitter (#BWAforBLM) and Instagram (@BWAforBLM).
Arthur Jafa at Gavin Brown Enterprises
Arthur Jafa’s rigorous attention to detail has sustained an enduring body of work that experiments with form and articulates the full complexity of Black lives. In November, Gavin Brown Enterprises debuted his large single-channel video installation, Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death. This seven minute, thirty second video installation carefully sequences found footage that shifts between expressions of Black joy, outbursts of ecstasy, and brutalization of Black bodies. The video installation encourages repeated viewings to unpack the intricate layering of images and sound. It will be on view until January 27, 2017.
Photo: Jason Mandella, The Kitchen
I’ve followed Sondra Perry’s work for over a year because of her astute analysis of blackness, technology, and constructions of historical narratives. I was excited that her work would find its home at The Kitchen this season. For her solo show, Resident Evil, the New Jersey-born artist debuted a series of video installations that explore computer and videogame software as a lens for understanding the experiences of Black people in America. Resident Evil explores police brutality with attention not only to the moments of Black death, but how these deaths and responses to these killings are narrated.
Notes from Octavia
Photo courtesy of the The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Octavia E. Butler papers
There were countless think pieces after the traumatizing election of Donald Trump. However, none of these pieces channeled my anxieties, frustrations, and hopes better than LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant’s “An Open Letter To White Liberal Feminists,” which continues the conversation about the limitations of white feminism and the need to consider the fear amongst Black people before Trump. She writes:
I am disappointed that it has taken you this long to actually get what black women—and namely black feminists and womanists—have been trying to help you see and feel for a very long time. […] I am delighted that you have received the potential awakening of a lifetime, and that now you might actually get what so many of us have been describing all along. Welcome to that deep perpetual angst. Embrace it, and allow it to motivate you to a deeper form of action.
As a kid, I spent much of my time in the publishing center where I wrote and illustrated over a dozen books before I finished second grade. When I wasn’t at the publishing center, I was in the public library or organizing my home library according to my own Dewey Decimal System. As such, it is no surprise that I am excited by two literary projects founded by Black women based in Brooklyn. The Free Black Women’s Library, founded in 2015 by Olaronke Akinmowo, is a radical mobile library and interactive biblio installation that features a collection of 450 books written by Black women. At the pop-ups throughout Brooklyn, visitors can read books authored by Black women, donate/trade books authored by Black women, and engage in rich conversations with other visitors about narratives that are not traditionally centered in the western literary canon. Another project is the Well-Read Black Girl. Founded in 2015 by Glory Edim to celebrate and promote the phenomenal Black women on our bookshelves, Well-Read Black Girl hosts public readings as well as monthly, Brooklyn-based book clubs.
For three months in the fall of 2016, the Decolonize This Place residency at Artists Space functioned as a headquarters and meeting place for artists and organizers from across New York City, each of whom were tied to decolonial struggles at national and global scales. As part of the series 2016: The Year According to […]
For three months in the fall of 2016, the Decolonize This Place residency at Artists Space functioned as a headquarters and meeting place for artists and organizers from across New York City, each of whom were tied to decolonial struggles at national and global scales. As part of the series 2016: The Year According to , the residency’s artist-oranizers share this look at the countless actions and groups that were woven into the project, creating a dynamic aesthetic and political environment whose signature characteristic was a decentering of whiteness and an abundant production of movement art moving back and forth between the street and the space and back again. The process was faciliated by a core group called MTL+.
Indigenous Resurgence: Mni Wiconi, Water is Life
The Standing Rock rebellion against the Dakota Access Pipeline builds on centuries of resistance, and has bravely endured in the face of state terror against the encampment. The Water Protectors have made it clear that any political action must begin by acknowledging that we stand on occupied indigenous territory, and that decolonization must be our ultimate horizon. Teach-ins, rallies, benefit concerts, and delegations to North Dakota proliferated in New York, which also witnessed an action entitled Decolonize This Museum. Inspired by a 2015 “counter-tour” led by Black Lives Matter activists of the racist premises of the American Museum of Natural History (including the statue of Teddy Roosevelt flanked by a black man and a Native American out front), a coalition of groups led by NYC Stands With Standing Rock and Decolonize This Place descended onto the museum with a crowd of three hundred on Columbus Day, issuing three demands: remove the Roosevelt statue, scrap the racist curatorial frame of the “ethnographic halls,” and follow other US cities in abolishing Columbus Day and renaming it “Indigenous People’s Day.” To prefigure the removal of the statue, activist draped it in a funerary shroud. Negotiations with the museum are ongoing as this goes to press.
The Black Puerto Rican Flag
Over the summer, decolonial activists in Puerto Rico devised a new symbol of resistance to PROMESA, the draconian fiscal control board imposed on the debt-bonded island: they translated the Puerto Rican flag into a stark black and white design, first enacting it on the iconic landmark “Door of San Juan” in the island’s capital city. The blackening of the Puerto Rican flag was a sign of both mourning and for the increasingly stark antagonism between the people and the colonial powers of the US. But it was also an echo of the same procedure used by black and Latin(x) activists in the United States relative relative to the US flag. The revised flag has in turn been taken up by PR activists in the US such as Comite Boricua en La Diaspora, with the insignia now appearing in demonstrations in the form of stickers, buttons, banners—and a mural in Spanish Harlem that mirrors the one in San Juan.
Free Palestine Action Against Artis
Artis is a contemporary arts organization based in New York that organizes delegations of high-profile artists, critics, and curators to visit the contemporary art scene in Israel. Wary of being targeted by the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement that has been gaining traction across the world, Artis is careful not to receive any money directly from the Israeli government—but it nonetheless works in tandem with the Brand Israel campaign. The bluff was finally called on Artis this November by the Direct Action Front for Palestine (DAFP) and Decolonize This Place, which earlier in the year had been involved in an action at the Brooklyn Museum targeting the use of high-profile art photographers to aestheticize the occupied landscape in This Place, as well as the use of the activist art show Agitprop! to provide cover for the institution’s intimate connection to the forces of gentrification. DAFP members hand-delivered a letter to the director of Artis inviting them to formally endorse BDS, since, after all, they eschew government funding anyway. After a predictable silence on the part of the organization, DAFP brought 200 activists from various decolonial movements to the organization’s doorstep. Masked in kuffiyas, marching in formation, and equipped with a high-power nocturnal projector, they amplified a demand that will surely grow in 2017: “Artis: Stop Whitewashing the Occupation,” supplementing it with the reminder that “BDS is the Floor Not the Ceiling.” This comes on the heels of the historic endorsement of BDS this year by the Movement for Black Lives, leaving little moral space for the US art world to stay silent about its complicity. As the Peace Poets put it as they lead the crowd in song during Artis march: “Art Is the beauty of Creation/If You With It Then End the Occupation.”
De-Gentrification Struggles, Coast-to-Coast
The Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights, Los Angeles came into the national spotlight this year when community activists began to show open and organized hostility to the influx of white art galleries into the area. Such “Trojan Horse” businesses are typically the avant-garde of gentrification, driving up rents, colonizing the local cultural milieu, and paving the way for ultra-luxury developers. Meanwhile, in New York City, orchestrated campaigns were also launched to to counteract what artist Shellyne Rodriguez of Take Back the Bronx calls the use of art as a “weapon of mass displacement,” exemplified by the collaboration of rapper Swizz Beatz with private equity mogul Keith Rubinstein to re-brand the South Bronx as a cultural hub with art parties, studio space, and media attention. The Chinatown Art Brigade has also highlighted the relationship of the art economy (such as the 100+ galleries that have arrived in Chinatown over the past few years) to broader patterns of predatory real estate market, racialized displacement and the undemocratic nature of rezoning processes in NYC. Energized by these and other groups around the city like Queens Not For Sale and Mi Casa No Es Su Casa in Bushwick (known for their illuminated neighborhood signage reading “gentrification is the new colonialism” and “decolonize the hood”), a new formation called NYC Not For Sale was launched along with a visionary “People’s Housing Plan” and an “Artists Declaration to De-Gentrify.”
Insurgent Poets Society and El Salon Potluck
Launched by artist Jive Poetic, this roving network of writers, performers, and spoken word artists creates spaces that are at once social,political, and aesthetic. Insurgents Poet’s Society (IPS) exists to build and maintain diverse poetic platforms that neither alienates nor excludes people of color. The programs and actions that the group facilitates are intended to infiltrate and disrupt artistic segregation that has been standardized by the literary and performance worlds. In their words, “We do not wish to have our voices fill racial quotas or alleviate white guilt; because of this, we resist and reject false gestures of inclusion that reduce our voices to seasonal ornaments that are only displayed during specific heritage month celebrations. Our work is to position marginalized and oppressed voices as tools to engage culturally, emotionally, socially, and politically. We write and perform acts of resistance while collecting and redistributing resources for survival.” El Salon shares the mandate of IPS to create spaces that decenter whiteness in the field of cultural production, and enable the flourishing and sharing of radical voices of color. El Salon also involves a crucial ingredient in the building of community: making and enjoying food together as new people step up to present their work.
United Melanin Society
Based in Buffalo but sustaining long-term ties to NYC, this POC-led art collective first staged their Exit Strategy performance party at the autonomous Dreamland Space this November as a response to the political crisis of the Trump victory—though members of the collective would be quick to point out that the state of emergency that has shocked so many liberal white folks in the arts and otherwise was already regular state of affairs for black and brown people. A second iteration of the project was made in New York with the title Bodies of Light encompassing a multivocal assemblage of poetry, song, MCing, and dance, accompanied by a beautiful series of photographic portraits of dozens of artists of color in the orbit of the collective by Rhys Hall and Paris Henderson. The phrase “bodies of light” evokes the medium of photography, as well as the aura surrounding each individual that becomes visible under conditions of psilocybin-induced hallucination or a mystical trance. In this groups’ work, the darkness of melanin glows bright, burning through the color-blindness of the white cube.
Ravana on the Guggenheim
In late April—just prior to the one-year anniversary of the historic May Day occupation of the museum—the iconic facade of the Guggenheim was once again illuminated by GULF, the direct action wing of the Gulf Labor campaign that for the past seven years been pressuring the institution to redress the abhorrent working and housing conditions of the thousands of debt-bonded South Asian migrant laborers who toil on the construction sites of Saadiyat (“happiness”) Island. Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong had recently announced it would no longer negotiate with Gulf Labor, and for the first time, GULF now moved to target the board of trustees, signaled by an animated graphic wherein a smiling Armstrong multiplies into a many-headed creature reminiscent of the Hindu demon-god Ravana featuring each of the trustees (including board president William Mack, whose own home on Park Avenue was also given the Illuminator treatment). Since breaking off talks, the Guggenheim has shamelessly plowed ahead with the project, ignoring the work of a coalition of global labor experts who have positively assessed the demands of Gulf Labor, as well as adjusting to the threat of reputational damage in the art world—a sobering lesson about the limits of single-issue rights-based campaigns in the artworld and otherwise.
Solidarity Dinner for Akai Gurley
On November 20, 2014, 28-year-old black man Akai Gurley was shot by NYPD officer Peter Liang in the stairway of his NYCHA building in East New York. Earlier this year, Liang was charged with “negligent homicide” and sentenced to 800 hours of community service—a stark reminder that even when prosecuted, police are basically above the law and can take black lives with impunity. Since Gurley’s death, his family members have joined with the families of other victims of NYPD murder in recent years, like Kimani Gray, Shantal Davis, Nicholas Heyward Jr, and Michael Ferguson, to form a network of mutual support and advocacy. On the two-year anniversary of the killing, the families gathered for a potluck dinner and testimonial, mixing a sense of convivial festivity with the militancy and mourning that has fueled black liberation movements since the times of slavery.
Movements need to move—that is, they must grow in response to a changing strategic landscape, but they must also touch and animate our minds, bodies, and emotions. Song is essential to this process, and Mahina Movement, headed up by Lorena Ambrosio, Moana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu, and Gabstar Cal, brought their sweet sounds to actions in New York City and beyond throughout 2016. Intermingling their Latina and South Pacific heritages as well as an abiding connection to Palestine, Mahina incorporates ritual, poetry, and gestural movement into their music. The group maps out a soundscape of decolonial solidarity that spans the globe and reaches back into the deep time of indigenous resistance and women’s warriorhood. As the dark times of the past 500 years become even darker with the coming of Trump, Mahina’s sounds of love and rage will be an essential resource of spiritual and bodily survival, recalling Audre Lorde’s maxim that “art is not a luxury.” An album of songs for Palestine will be released early in the New Year.
1000 Spaces Bloom in 2017
Having demonstrated how to begin the process of decentring whiteness, rearranging power, and repurposing the infrastructure of an art institution, Decolonize This Place set a model that other institutions felt compelled to emulate with the coming of the Trump regime. This quickly gave rise to a Decolonize This Place network with hubs in all five boroughs, rechanneling art world resources into a commons-based solidarity economy and led at a local level by artists and organizers from the neighborhood. Collective care, communal, self-defense, and land-liberation at every level was the priority of the network. The people were becoming ungovernable.
Working at the crossroads between economic and social inequity and art practice and its institutions, Noah Fischer‘s sculpture, drawing, performance, writing, and organizing practice fluctuate between object making and direct action. The initiating member of Occupy Museums and a member of GULF/Gulf Labor, he is a regular theatrical collaborator with Berlin-based andcompany&Co. Fischer’s collaborative work has been seen both […]
Working at the crossroads between economic and social inequity and art practice and its institutions, Noah Fischer‘s sculpture, drawing, performance, writing, and organizing practice fluctuate between object making and direct action. The initiating member of Occupy Museums and a member of GULF/Gulf Labor, he is a regular theatrical collaborator with Berlin-based andcompany&Co. Fischer’s collaborative work has been seen both with and without invitation at MoMA, Guggenheim, Brooklyn Museum, ZKM, and Venice, Athens, and Berlin biennales, among other venues. Here, he looks at the year’s top moments of art and activism as part of our annual series,2016: The Year According to .
2016 you seemed like such a round and balanced number. Why did you take off the gloves, put on iron knuckles, and continually punch us in the gut and face? You ran us over with trucks by the seashore, machine gunned us as we danced, burned us inside of Ghosts Ships, drowned us in crowded boats as we were fleeing your wars. Your courts and hedge funds extracted massive national debts from the poorest of us (Puerto Rico, Argentina, Greece, etc.) and then gave us a little tantalizing glimpse into where this loot goes: your Panama Papers of post-national 1% wealth accumulation, your nationless nation.
2016, something essential seemed to change: your fearful shadow grew into angry bigoted nationalist movements from England to Poland to India as if we were back in the black-and-white photographs of the early 20th century. And finally it happened here: you gave the keys to the largest economic and military powerhouse in the world to a white nationalist billionaire mega-liar and his team of propagandists.
2016, we did not wait around for your benevolent turn. People resisted, organized, marched, convened, rode on spirit horses. We mourned, wrote, created, sang. So, 2016, this is not the most positive report, but I won’t turn away from the ugliness that you showed us, 2016, because the lotus grows out of the mud.
Taking on Museums and Winning
Saying NO to injustice is an affirmation of what we care deeply about, and it’s a YES to our own responsibility in stepping up protecting it–the vigilance that democracy requires of us. This understanding of NO is why if you care about the arts, pushing back on art museums that trample on worker and environmental rights is vital. In 2016 we saw a couple of key wins in this department: The year began with David Koch kicked off the board of the American Museum of Natural History by Natural History Museum’s powerful campaign to organize scientists. Then, after six years of action and organizing, London’s Liberate Tate forced British Petroleum to take its (relatively small amount) of funding out of the Tate’s coffers and to remove its climate change–normalizing logos off the walls. That was in March. Then, near the end of the year after a long campaign by Checkpoint Helsinki, Perpetuum Mobile, and other activists, the Guggenheim Helsinki was voted down by the city council–banned from its McMuseum expansion on taxpayers’ euros. Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong lamented that Helsinki wouldn’t receive the “Bilbao Effect,” but in 2016 workers in Guggenheim Bilbao went on strike and were summarily fired to be replaced by a corporation called “Manpower Group.” You won’t see activist groups mentioned in the linked articles as an effort for the philanthropic elites to save face, but their efforts is where this positive change from the status quo.
Denormalizing NYC Streets
Kalan Sherrard, Beat Up Trump, Photo: Walter Wlodarczyk
In 2016 we were glued to the OLED screens even as we walked down the street and through traffic. One problem (besides running into people and things) is that content in this space is programmed, and post-election we can finally see the dangers of our algorithmic bubbles. That is why a hardcore pair of anarchist NYC street performers Uniska Wahala Kano and Kalan Sherrard are doing essential work. These performances in subways, streets, while being arrested, which also extend to unlikable Facebook posts, are a self-sabotaging challenge to maintain the state of poetically breaking through the violence-masking reasonableness of our times and connect to the electric charge of the NYC streets. “LIKE TODay the best DAYYYY OF MYYY LIFE OR WHAT>?!?!??!?! I FINALLY FOUND A HOME AND IM GONNNNNA STICK TOOO IT!!” They invoke the spirit of conflict which is at the heart of democracy. As Saul Alinsky said, “If you were going to express democracy in a musical score, your major theme would be the harmony of dissonance. All change means movement, movement means friction, and friction means heat. You’ll find consensus only in a totalitarian state, Communist or fascist.”
You’ve got to respect an art institution that can make strong statements in this day and age. This is hard to do in the US where philanthropic funding dictates a closer relationship to markets, and large-scale exhibitions therefore usually resemble art fairs. But its happened at recent editions of the Berlin Biennale: the 2011 chaotically politicized edition (with Occupy Museums as participant) that people still have a hard time processing, and this year, The Present in Drag, the 2016 Biennial curated by cyber-fashion magazine crew DIS, which did something few exhibitions of its kind do: conjure a specific cultural aesthetic. In this case: Accelerationism. My feeling was that most of the artists were as much Kool-Aid drinkers as critics of the slick internet utopianism on display. However the cumulative effect was impressive. Work like Simon Denny’s blockchain currency booths installed at the liberal European School of Management (former GDR Staatsratsgebäude building), Cécile B. Evans cyber evangelist video What the Heart Wantsand DIS’s fashion store created the sense of a clear mirror held to our media-tech-fashion-self obsessed world—a perfect echo of the Snapchat unreality that my freshman art students live inside of.
Decolonize this Place + Holding Space
What began as a Palestinian-solidarity direct action against This Place at the Brooklyn Museum ended in the one of the most robust political organizing platforms that the art world has seen. My GULF comrades Amin Husain, Nitasha Dhillon, Yates McKee, and Andrew Ross of MTL collective have developed an uncompromising critique of colonial and racist threads woven into the artwork and art institutions from the Columbus’s “founding of America” to the present moment. By tying the art world from institutions to works on the wall into the normalization process of Palestinian occupation, gentrification, and police violence they challenged a sacred cow at the center of the present definition of contemporary art, proposing to Strike Art and highlighting direct action organizing as a vital art form. Organize they did. For three months, a downtown Manhattan space became a POC-centered revolutionary space where collective actions were hatched, innumerable discussions from Standing Rock to post Trump organizing took place, and a community formed.
RIP Juan Gabriel: Muse of the Border
As if to underline the fact that a more innocent and musical time has passed and silent winter is upon us, many of our most beloved musical artists left us this year–those whose voices to us are equal to friends, family or lovers. Prince and Bowie and Sharon Jones (who brought so much magic to the Prospect Park Bandshell in Brooklyn) are gone. But one musician who is talked about less around here but looms just as large is the Mexican singer Juan Gabriel. To those from the US/Mexican border (like my partner), Juan Gabriel, who is from the now drug-gang overrun border city of Ciudad de Juarez, is a god. The king of sass and Mexican soul and romance, he was a free person among a macho culture who, when asked directly about his sexuality, laughed and questioned why he was so interested. Then he gave a simple answer: “They say that what you can see you don’t ask, son.” To understand the power of his performance, watch this video.
Spirit Horses Push Back Police Line!
It was months into the Dakota Access Pipeline protest movement but weeks before police would unleash biting dogs on protesters bringing the movement mainstream coverage. A video came across my feed of Lakota riding “spirit horses” around in circles, whooping menacingly and driving back a police line. It was a fierce protest, a display of physical power and tradition, but I think most of the power was in the ritual of being such a free and energetic force in relation to the immobile line of cops representing the government and oil and gas companies and banks that financed them. Rituals are important. In Berlin every May Day, protesters hit the streets, throw rocks, and drive the cops back in a display of potential revolution, but in the US the philosophy of those that are sanctioned by the state to kill is never show weakness. The Spirit Horse dance revealed the cowardice hiding behind power, and so it’s no surprise that the government eventually backed down as the movement was able to sustain itself into the cold season.
Agitprop!—From Curating to Organizing
It was brave of the curators in the Sackler Center of the Brooklyn Museum to relinquish so much control in curating an exhibition about activist art. They set up a temporally unfolding concept in three “waves” letting each group of political artists pick the successive one. What they got in the end was something more than the representation of activism. An organizing process was sparked to life when the museum hosted a Developer Summit a month before Agitprop! was set to open: a particularly poor choice as the museum sits in the middle of one of New York’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and tries to cater to the community.
To make a long story short, artists in the show ended up working together with community groups at the core of the displacement struggle such as Movement to Protect the People (MTOPP) and Brooklyn Anti-Gentrification Network (BAN) to reorient the exhibition toward the most blatant reality around it by organizing a People’s Monument to Displacement and an explicitly anti-displacement summit at the museum. It’s to the museum’s credit that they followed through with this process; let’s hope they never again open their doors to the power brokers of gentrification.
Report from a Art Nazi Bunker
All through 2016 Americans were shocked about Trump, but around the world people are aware that Fascist seeds can insert themselves into democracies and quickly fester. The Poles know this well, and the contemporary museum (MWW) in Wroclaw is constructed around the need to remain vigilant—a fact it cannot forget being housed in an indestructible sea of concrete, a World War II Nazi bunker! The museum has focused on telling the story of Communist-era conceptual art, and the in-house sociologist (Bartek Lis) hosts progressive conversations on topics like queer identity and “White Power and Black Memory”—topics at the edges of what is possible to openly discuss in Polish society….or perhaps possible a few months ago. Now that Poland has taken a decisive turn toward the right with its Law and Justice Party foreshadowing Brexit and Trump, progressive museums are under threat, a fact which was clear to a group of us, including Maureen Connor and Artur Zmijewski, while conducting a deep-tissue institutional project that consisted of interviewing the entire staff about their work in relation to the political changes. During the project the progressive director of the museum, Dorota Monkiewicz, was removed from her position, and we now hear that Polish curators are being fired for too much Jewish content. Good things like art bring with them the necessity to remain vigilant because history repeats itself.
RIP Arnold Mesches
A very special artist passed this year. Arnold Mesches came from a time, way back in the day, when “artists took it for granted that their medium was a form of public address and a vessel for public passions.” He worked in Hollywood before being blacklisted under McCarthyism and continued to create illustrations for leftist political journals while being (admittedly in a way that now seems so low tech it’s almost sweet) tracked by the FBI and informed on by friends and lovers while always painting. Later, Mesches made a body of paintings using his 800-page FBI file as subject matter, after he finally got hold of them through Freedom of Information Act. I was lucky to see this work in one of his last shows in Brooklyn, and to meet him at about age 91. He immediately sat me down and photographed me and my partner (and everyone else he met) for his next series of paintings. “The nerve-racking truth, Mesches seems to be saying, is that we are in a bad way and things are bound to get worse,” Robert Storr wrote ten years ago. “He is able to say it in the grinning irony of an old man who has come to terms with the knowledge that no matter what comes next for the rest of us his own fate is soon to be sealed.” Mesches was wise: he spoke through his art all his long life and died the day before Trump was elected.
Total Displacement Vision (with art at the center)
About 85 percent of conversations I had in New York this year (actually, everywhere I went) consisted of shell-shocked litanies about the class warfare unfolding in broad daylight. 2016 was the year that gentrification cranked up to such raging speeds that if you lived in a major US city, it was the landscape: the closing of family-owned stores and opening of well-leveraged ones and upscale ones on street level; the well-heeled investment groups from Connecticut or anywhere in the world touring neighborhoods deep in Brooklyn to scope out bundled portfolio opportunities; the daily looks in the faces of communities of color being invaded platoon by platoon; the luxury towers and cranes soaring up in the sky letting you know who owns the city; and, looking in the mirror, one’s own complicated place in it. Even before the Soho Effect and the Creative Class Effect, artists had a recognized role as “pioneers,” priming lower-income communities for mass eviction. In 2016 we saw people rising up. Betty Yu and the Chinatown Art Brigade organized tenants against eviction. The Latino community of Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights targeted galleries with names like MARS (Museum as Retail Space), refusing to give them a pass—as in this video, which may be hard for some who are conflict-averse to watch: this is what it looks like when tensions that exist all the time are expressed and disempowered voices speak—“No-one is an innocent actor in the fine art of gentrification.”