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Root of an Unfocus: On Cunningham, Cage, and “Common Time”

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 […]

Merce Cunningham in Root of an Unfocus New York City, 1944 Photo: Fred Fleh © Estate of Fred Fleh

Merce Cunningham in Root of an Unfocus, New York City, 1944. Photo: Fred Fleh © Estate of Fred Fleh

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 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.”7 Untitled 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.

Robert Rauschenberg Merce Cunningham and John Cage observing Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, and Steve Paxton in class, Third Avenue studio, New York City, circa 196, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives ©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage observing Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, and Steve Paxton in class, Third Avenue studio, New York City, circa 196, Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Archives ©Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

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

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 for Piano 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 oil, paper, fabric, newsprint, wood, metal, and plastic with mirror and string, on wood 84 ½ x 81 x 30 ½ in. (214.63 x 205 x 77.47 cm) Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, Gift of Jay F. Ecklund, the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation, Agnes Gund, Russell Cowles and Josine Peters, the Hayes Fund of HRK Foundation, Dorothy Lichtenstein, MAHADH Fund of HRK Foundation, Goodale Family Foundation, Marion Stroud Swingle, David Teiger, Kathleen Fluegel, Barbara G. Pine, and the T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011.

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.

Notes

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.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Merce Cunningham quoted in Anna Kisselgoff, “Merce Cunningham: The Maverick of Modern Dance,” New York Times, March 21, 1982.

7 Cunningham and Lesschaeve, The Dancer and the Dance, 81.

8 Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors, 105.

9 Merce Cunningham quoted in David Vaughan, “Changeling,” Dance Capsules, accessed September 13, 2106.

10 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 102.

11 Merce Cunningham, “A Collaborative Process Between Music and Dance,” in Merce Cunningham: Dancing in Space and Time, 139.

12 Branden W. Joseph “Chance, Indeterminacy, Multiplicity,” in The Anarchy of Silence, ed. Julia Robinson (Barcelona: Museu Dart Contemporani de Barcelona, 2009), 228.

13 Yvonne Rainer, “This Is the Story of a Man Who …” in Merce Cunningham, ed. Germano Celant (Milan: Charta, 1999), 120.

14 Anna Kisselgoff, “Merce Cunningham: The Maverick of Modern Dance,” New York Times, March 21, 1982.

15 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.

16 Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (New York: Deckle Edge, 2005), 93–94.

17 Vaughan, Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, 84.

18 John Cage, “45′ for A Speaker,” in John Cage, Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 151.

A Reading List for the New America

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 […]

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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.

Chloë Bass
Artist, writer

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 Agendaavailable 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

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2015) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
A Christmas present from my daughter: I thought I knew a lot of this, but I’m finding it eye-opening on many fronts.

The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth
Eerily prescient to the rise of Trump. I read it when it was released in 2004 and plan to revisit very soon. 

Chris Cloud
Artist; Social Media Specialist, Walker Art Center

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (2o16) by Jeff Chang (Read an excerpt.)

Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America (2016) by Michael Eric Dyson

White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2016) by Carol Anderson

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.”

Kimberly Drew
Founder of Black Contemporary Art, co-founder of Black Futures, Social Media Manager at The Met

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.”

Faye Driscoll
Choreographer; creator of Thank You For Coming: Play (Out There 2017), Thank You For Coming: Attendance (Out There 2016), others

Hope in the Dark Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2016) by Rebecca Solnit

Adrienne Edwards
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

Conflict is Not Abuse:Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair (2016) by Sarah Schulman

Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition (2016) by Yates McKee

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Attempts at an Answer (2010) by Sarah Bakewell

Deep EconomyThe Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (2007) by Bill McKibben

Imagevirus (2010) by Gregg Bordowitz

Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (2013) by David Harvey

Stokely Speaks: from Black Power to Pan-Africanism (2007) by Stokely Charmichael (Kwame Ture)

In Love and Struggle: The Revolutionary Lives of James & Grace Lee Boggs (2016) by Stephen M. Ward

The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (2011) by Grace Lee Boggs

TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism (1991) by Hakim Bey

The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013) by Fred Moten & Stefano Harney

Black Mask & Up Against the Wall Motherfucker: The Incomplete Works of Ron Hahne, Ben Morea, and the Black Mask Group (2011)

Show & Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material (2010), edited by Julie Ault with essays by Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, Sabrina Locks, and Tim Rollins

Gordon Hall
Artist, contributor to the Walker’s Artist Op-Ed series (Read “Reading Things: On Gender, Sculpture, and Relearning How to See”)

Now Is the Time for ‘Nobodies’: Dean Spade on Mutual Aid and Resistance in the Trump Era,” Sarah Lazare, AlterNet, January 9, 2017

White (1997) by Richard Dyer

Sex In Public” by Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, first published in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter, 1998

The Ethics of Care for the Self as a Practice of Freedom” (1984), Michel Foucault interviewed by Raul Fornet-Betancourt, Helmut Becker and Alfredo Gomez-Müller

Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) by José Esteban Muñoz

Notes Towards and Performative Theory of Assembly (2015) by Judith Butler

000.000 Nothing. No Confidence No=Nothing No=0000 (2016), by Sondra Perrywith Lumi Tan, Aria Dean, Manuel Arturo Abreu, Hito Steyerl, Hannah Black, Robert Jones, Jr., and Sable Elyse Smith. This zine was released in conjunction with Sondra Perry, Resident Evil at The Kitchen

Ann Hamilton
Visual artist

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 aheadThese are the books that sustained us after 9/11 and come off the bookshelf again.

Hope in the Dark Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2016) by Rebecca Solnit

Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (2008) by Jonathan Lear
Lear considers the fate of the Crow Nation and what it means when everything the Crow Nation lived for and believed in has vanished.

Thomas Hirschhorn
Artist, creator of The Gramsci Monument (2013), Cavemanman (2002), Abstract Resistance (2006), others

The Terror of Evidence by Marcus Steinweg
Steinweg’s capacity to implicate the other is beautiful, bright, precise, and logical, grounded in everyday questions, which to him are always big questions.

Cynthia Hopkins
Composer, writer, musical performance artist; creator of This Clement World (2013), Accidental Nostalgia (2005), others

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.”

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.

I Want a President: Transcripts of a Rally by Zoe Leonard, et al. (Art Resources Transfer)
Documentation of a November 6, 2016 rally/reading inspired by Zoe Leonard’s 1992 text on the High Line in New York.

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

Scenes of Subjection (1997) by Saidiya Hartman

In the Break (2003) by Fred Moten

Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” (1987) by Hortense Spillers, in Diacritics, Vol. 17, No. 2

Lucy Lippard
Writer, critic, activist, curator; author of The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (1998), others

Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture (2011) by Gregory Sholette

Strike Art: Contemporary Art and the Post-Occupy Condition (2016) by Yates McKee

Kalup Linzy
Video and performance artist

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

Nisa Mackie
Director and Curator of Education and Public Programs, Walker Art Center

The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (2012) by Jon Ronson

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.”

The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) by Margaret Atwood

A Theory of Nonviolent Action: How Civil Resistance Works (2015) by Stellan Vinthagen

Okwui Okpokwasili
Artist; she performs her Walker-commissioned work Poor People’s TV Room January 19–21 as part of Out There 2017

Delicious Foods (2016) by James Hannaham
Filled with humor and pathos, this picaresque novel is a sly wake-up call for those of us who think slavery is a relic of the distant past. 

Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Artist, writer, creator of How to Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette), others

won’t you celebrate with me” (1991) by Lucille Clifton

Microwave Popcorn” (2015) by Harmony Holiday

Parable of Sower (1993) by Octavia Butler

Space Traders” (1992) by Derrick Bell

The Sellout (2016) by Paul Beatty

Winter in America” (1974) by Gil Scott Heron

Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2003) by Robin D.G. Kelley

What Exceeds the Hold?: An Interview with Christina Sharpe” by Selamawit Terrefe

Conscripts of Modernity (2004) by David S. Scott

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. 

Dread Scott
Artist; creator of A Man Was Lynched By Police Yesterday (2016), What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? (1988), others

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.  

The New Communism (2016) by Bob Avakian

Witt Siasoco
Artist; Studio and Community Arts Associate, Minneapolis Institute of Art

March Trilogy (2013, 2015, 2016) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

Who We Be: The Colorization of America (2014) by Jeff Chang (Read an excerpt.)

The Sellout (2016) by Paul Beatty

Good Time for the Truth (2016), edited by Sun Yung Shin

A Choice of Weapons (1966) by Gordon Parks

The Power Broker (1975) by Robert A. Caro

Victoria Sung
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.

Hank Willis Thomas

Artist; co-founder, For Freedoms, an artist-run super-PAC

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

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell

JoAnn Verburg
Photographer; creator of Julia Breaking Through (1983), Terrorized (2006), others

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (2009) by Tamim Ansary

The Fire Next Time (1963) by James Baldwin

Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine

Leaves of Grass (1855) by Walt Whitman

The Gorgeous Nothings (2013), facsimile reproductions of Emily Dickinson’s 52 extant writings on envelopes (from the Amherst College Library)

Underground: New and Selected Poems (2013) by Jim Moore

Haiku: This Other World (1998) by Richard Wright

The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990), translated by Jane Hershfield and Mariko Aratani

Fire on the Mountain (1977) by Anita Desai

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) by Gertrude Stein 

LaRose (2016) by Louise Erdrich 

The Leopard (1958) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa 

A Thing Among Things: The Art of Jasper Johns (2006) by John Yau

Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing that One Sees (1982) by Lawrence Weschler

Interiors and Identity: Fionn Meade on Question the Wall Itself

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

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.

Notes

  1. Marcel Broodthaers, “Notes on the Subject,” trans. Jill Ramsey, in Marcel Broodthaers: Collected Writings, ed. Gloria Moure (Barcelona: Polígrafa, 2012), 489.
  2. 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.
  3. Alejandro Cesarco, quoted in announcement for exhibition at Artpace San Antonio, 2010.
  4. Nina Beier, in “Nina Beier, Cash for Gold, at Kunstverein Hamburg, July 11, 2015” (interview with Chris Fitzpatrick conducted on June 1–2, 2005), Mousse.
  5. Nick Mauss, “Quivers in Time and Place,” in Florine Stettheimer, ed. Matthias Mühling, Karin Althaus, and Susanne Böller (Munich: Lenbachhaus and Hirmer, 2014).

2016: The Year According to Kameelah Janan Rasheed

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 […]

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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 of 2016: The Year According to                               , she shares her most notable events, ideas, and happenings of the past twelve months.

1.

A New Museum

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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.

2.

Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter

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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 Roomreached 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).

3.

Arthur Jafa at Gavin Brown Enterprises

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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.

4.

Sondra Perry

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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.

5.

Notes from Octavia

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Photo courtesy of the The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Octavia E. Butler papers

During my first year of college, I met Octavia Butler! Currently, the Octavia E. Butler Papers are housed at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. This year as part of “Radio Imagination,” a yearlong celebration organized by Clockshop, journalist Lynell George shared fragments of Octavia Butler’s Huntington Library Archive on Instagram. My favorite piece of ephemera is a 1988 handwritten note on inside cover of one of commonplace books that describes Butler’s affirmation and goals: “My books will be read by millions of people! So be it! See to it!” I read this note every morning.

6.

Pharoah Sanders

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Throughout the year, I revisited Pharoah Sanders’s The Creator Has a Master Plan as a hopeful reminder and morning ritual.

7.

Simone Biles

Aug 23, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Simone Biles competes on the floor exercise portion at the 2014 P&G Championships at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Simone Biles. Photo: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

4’9″ Simone Biles became the world’s best gymnast!

8.

The Limitations of White Feminism

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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.

9.

Readings on Blackness

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This year, I read many great pieces about blackness, the body, technologies of survival, and legibility such as Aria Dean’s, Poor Meme Rich Meme and Harmony Holiday’s Reparations begin in the body: A look at why the first and most crucial poetic gesture for a Black poet in the West is a knowledge and mastery of her body. I am looking forward to reading Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake as well as revisiting Fred Moten’s Fugitivity is immanent to the thing but is manifest transversally.

10.

Black Books

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Photo: Emma Bracy, Fusion

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.

2016: The Year According to Decolonize This Place

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 […]

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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+.

 

1.

Indigenous Resurgence: Mni Wiconi, Water is Life

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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.

 

2.

The Black Puerto Rican Flag

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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.

 

3.

Free Palestine Action Against Artis

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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.”

 

4.

De-Gentrification Struggles, Coast-to-Coast

image3The 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.”

 

5.

Insurgent Poets Society and El Salon Potluck

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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.

6.

United Melanin Society

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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.

 

7.

Ravana on the Guggenheim

image11-1In 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.

 

8.

Solidarity Dinner for Akai Gurley

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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.

 

9.

Mahina Movement

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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.

 

10.

1000 Spaces Bloom in 2017

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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.

 

2016: The Year According to Noah Fischer

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 […]

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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.

 

1.

Taking on Museums and Winning

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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.

2.

Denormalizing NYC Streets

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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.”

Some of my favorite actions from this year was Uniska’s minimalist disruption of an Apple store using a piece of bubble wrap, and Sherrard’s Beat Up Trump slugfest.

3.

Undeniable Accelerationism: 9th Berlin Biennale

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 Wants and 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.

4.

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.

5.

RIP Juan Gabriel: Muse of the Border

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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.

6.

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.

7.

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.

8.

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.

9.

RIP Arnold Mesches

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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.

10.

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.”

2016: The Year According to William E. Jones

2016 was a big year for William E. Jones: the Ohio-born, Los Angeles–based artist, filmmaker, and writer published a new book, True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell, appeared in the Walker-organized exhibition Ordinary Pictures, and began a new film, based on his visits to the ruins of the home of Greek art collector Alexander Iolas.  […]

William E. Jones

2016 was a big year for William E. Jones: the Ohio-born, Los Angeles–based artist, filmmaker, and writer published a new book, True Homosexual Experiences: Boyd McDonald and Straight to Hell, appeared in the Walker-organized exhibition Ordinary Pictures, and began a new film, based on his visits to the ruins of the home of Greek art collector Alexander Iolas. 

A prolific artist, he has made two feature-length experimental films, Massillon (1991) and Finished (1997), the documentary Is It Really So Strange? (2004), videos including The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998), and many installations. His work has been the subject of retrospectives at Tate Modern (2005), Anthology Film Archives (2010), Austrian Film Museum, and Oberhausen Short Film Festival (both 2011). His group exhibitions include the 1993 and 2008 Whitney Biennials, the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009), and Untitled (Death by Gun) at the 12th Istanbul Biennial (2011). His books include Is It Really So Strange? (2006), Tearoom (2008),“Killed”: Rejected Images of the Farm Security Administration (2010), Halsted Plays Himself (2011), Imitation of Christ (2013), and Between Artists: Thom Andersen and William E. Jones (2013).

Here, as part of 2016: The Year According to                             , Jones shares his top cultural encounters of the year, in alphabetical order.

1.

Roberto Arlt, The Seven Madmen

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Written in Argentina on the brink of economic depression and military dictatorship, The Seven Madmen reads like an attempt to rewrite a book by Dostoevsky as a pulp novel, which is indeed what it might have been. Roberto Arlt (1900–1942), an autodidact raised by immigrants in the slums of Buenos Aires, anticipated Theater of the Absurd in his dialogue and David Lynch’s Eraserhead in his mise-en-scène. His characters, like a hefty chunk of the American electorate, are propelled by acute class resentments and a haywire libidinal energy. Arlt supported himself mainly as a journalist and wrote volumes of essays called aguafuertes (etchings) about political and cultural life in South America and the Spanish Republic. Arlt (unlike Jorge Luis Borges, the Anglophile) knew no English, and has received little attention outside of Argentina. As for the English-speaking world, the only literary equivalent to Arlt I can imagine would be the bastard spawn of Jim Thompson and George Orwell. Two of Arlt’s novels, all of his plays, the majority of his short stories, and virtually all of the aguafuertes have yet to be translated into English. In response to this lack, Arlt himself would probably have said, “Get to work, you bums!”

2.

Cleveland Museum of Art

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The Cleveland Museum of Art undertook a large-scale renovation in time for its centennial this year. The vast, airy atrium by Rafael Viñoly, linking the original 1916 Beaux Arts–style building to the 1971 Marcel Breuer addition, is a complete success—an inviting, climate-controlled space for people to gather and relax at any time of year. The great permanent collection galleries lie beyond the atrium, up the escalators. There is no overcrowding, no hard sell, no condescension, and best of all, no admission fee to this museum that remains truly devoted to art and welcoming to the public.

3.

Countertenors at the Los Angeles Opera

G. Thomas Allen, John Holiday, and Darryl Taylor in Dido and Aeneas. Photo: LA Opera

G. Thomas Allen, John Holiday, and Darryl Taylor in Dido and Aeneas. Photo: LA Opera

This year’s triumphant Akhnaten by Philip Glass starred countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the title role, completely nude, covered in brocades, as a deity, and finally, as a museum exhibit. This production proved that Los Angeles Opera can make a serious commitment to modern music. Akhnaten reached a visual and musical climax with the hymn that ends the second act, sounding to me like a vaguely Baroque version of the song “Dirt” by Iggy Pop and the Stooges.

Another wonderful clash of the Baroque and modern came in 2014’s production of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, paired with Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and given a minimalist staging by Barrie Kosky. I fantasize that John Holiday, my favorite countertenor, will return to Los Angeles to perform in another opera some day soon. He combined menace and sex appeal as the Sorceress who sings the haunting aria “Wayward Sisters” then throws a boot into the orchestra pit in a fit of pique. Dido and Aeneas’s witches made history that evening: three African American countertenors had never shared an opera stage before.

4.

Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, Into the Inferno

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I confess to having been a Werner Herzog skeptic for decades; I never cared much for his fiction films. He has become a great documentary filmmaker in his old age. (Perhaps if Mick Jagger had made a brilliant success of Fitzcarraldo, things would have turned out differently, but I for one am glad they did not.) Made in collaboration with Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, Into the Inferno is filled with sublime and bizarre moments. In historical footage, French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft seem to walk right into streams of molten lava. Later, we see the pyroclastic flow that killed them instantly. Scenes in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea do not come across as piteous or comedic, as they often do in the western media. Herzog shoots students singing patriotic songs at the rim of the dormant volcano Mount Paektu (claimed by the DPRK as the birthplace of Kim Il-sung) and says that such behavior would be unimaginable on a California university campus. All active volcanoes are connected to some kind of worship, he asserts, because it is profoundly humbling to realize that the ground beneath our feet is not solid but constantly shifting. For humans living near volcanoes, this knowledge is unavoidable. The film also contains valuable advice: never turn your back on an active volcano; if lava is ejected into the air, keep your eye on its trajectory and calmly step out of the way.

5.

Katya

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Bryan McCook, aka Katya Zamolodchikova, has been my favorite queen of all from RuPaul’s Drag Race. An alumna of Massachusetts College of Art, she’s smart—speaking fluent Russian, a language she learned just for fun—but without so much as a whiff of art school attitude. She is forthcoming about her past as a full-time drug addict and part-time prostitute, and this vulnerability made her an overwhelming audience favorite. With characteristic frankness, Katya also describes many of her reality television colleagues as sociopaths. By her own admission, she was “like a bag of nerves and sadness” on RPDR. This phrase comes from a crucial Katya ur-text, her Hey Qween! interview, by far the longest one that Jonny McGovern, the host of this YouTube program, has ever done. It is a remarkable stream of non sequiturs, prompting co-host Lady Red Couture to ask repeatedly, “What is going on?” During the interview (which took place in April), Katya announced to the audible disgust of those in the studio, “If I was the First Lady, if I was Melania Trump… my platform would be to reverse the War on Drugs… Legalize them already. All of them. Portugal did it, and they’re doing fine.” She summed up her position with the most sensible comment of the evening, “Drug abuse is a public health issue, not a law enforcement issue.” I’m now convinced that the “dirtbag with a tumbleweed on his head,” as she called the future president, married the wrong Slavic supermodel—Katya Zamolodchikova for First Lady.

6.

Jarett Kobek, I Hate the Internet

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How can I not love the first self-published book reviewed by the New York Times? Jarett Kobek is a polemicist of fearsome power because he knows the tech beast from within, and let’s face it, almost every human who is “online” has come to hate this fetid swamp, this echo chamber, this destroyer of privacy and self-esteem called the Internet. In a recent issue of The Spectator, a plagiarist of Jonathan Lethem’s cover blurb asked if the author of I Hate the Internet is the “Houellebecq of San Francisco,” not acknowledging that Kobek, who is the son of a Turkish immigrant, lives in Los Angeles and writes books that have little in common with Michel Houellebecq’s fatuously pornographic descriptions of la France profonde ineffectually fighting off the Islamic hordes. Now in its third printing with a cover ready for the shelves of Hot Topic, I Hate the Internet offers us a whole heap of bad writing attacking the rich and powerful of the “knowledge economy,” a deviously Orwellian term for the latest capitalist scams. This is literature an American can be proud of, especially if Kobek winds up on the next president’s list of bad guys by virtue of his dad’s religion.

7.

Mark Mothersbaugh

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Henry Shadduck, Jocko Homo Heavenbound, 1924

Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, local boy made good, had a giant retrospective shared by two Ohio museums this year. Akron Art Museum exhibited Mothersbaugh’s visual art, while MOCA Cleveland exhibited music-related material, including rarities from the archive such as the long out-of-print little red book, My Struggle (1978), a rambling text accompanied by tabloid-derived collages, and the original East German-manufactured mask that inspired the character of Booji Boy, whose blonde and orange plastic features bear a resemblance to the American president-elect of 2016. According to the True Devo Bio by Gerald Casale (coauthor of the Devo gesamtkunstwerk), “The band developed from a long line of brain-eating apes, some of which settled in northeastern Ohio around Akron, where [Devo] eventually appeared.” The doctrine of de-evolution seems as relevant now as it was when the band invented it—or appropriated it from Bertram Henry Shadduck’s 1924 tract, Jocko Homo Heavenbound, which they found in a thrift store as undergraduates at Kent State University during the early 1970s. This astonishing relic was also on display in Myopia.

8.

Zanele Muholi, Personae

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Having missed Zanele Muholi’s prize-winning US debut at the Carnegie International in 2013, I caught up with this exhibition at National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which combined two bodies of work: Somnyama Ngonyama, Muholi’s staged self-portraits, and Faces and Phases, her portraits of South African lesbians. The women in the latter photographs face constant danger in a country where there is no law specifically proscribing hate crimes, and where so-called “corrective rapes” occur, often converting women to HIV-positive status but never converting them to heterosexuality. Muholi’s lush black-and-white prints emphasize the defiance and sartorial flair of the portrait subjects. Muholi herself has some of the same attitude, as she tries out costumes, headdresses, and even a Louis XIV fright wig in hotel rooms where she stays while traveling the world for her exhibitions. An activist as well as an artist, Muholi has been attacked by politicians as “immoral,” robbed, and harassed at home while achieving art stardom abroad.

9.

Deborah Stratman, The Illinois Parables

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“Parable” suggests a biblical story, an interesting word to apply to the state of Governor Blagojevich and Speaker of the House Hastert, as well as murderers John Wayne Gacy and Richard Speck. Deborah Stratman takes up other, less lurid subjects in her film The Illinois Parables: the power of the ancient Cahokia Mounds, the mass deportation of Native Americans along the Trail of Tears, the persecution of Mormons forced to flee to Utah, the establishment of a utopian socialist community by the Icarians, and, within living memory, the murder by law enforcement officers of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton. Stratman directed, shot, and edited The Illinois Parables, but it is her sound design that contributes to the film’s most powerful moment, a long shot of Gorham and Crossville from the air after these towns were devastated by a 1925 storm, accompanied by the song “Sweet Hour of Prayer” by the Lunenberg Travelers mixed with radio warnings of an immanent tornado.

10.

Villa Iolas in ruins

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In 1982, I visited legendary art dealer and collector Alexander Iolas (1907–1987) at his home in Greece. In May of this year, I returned to the suburbs of Athens to find the place where Iolas had lived and to see what was left behind after art thieves and vandals invaded the house in the wake of Iolas’s death. I was overwhelmed and became physically ill at the first sight of what had once been a showplace of art. I returned a second time during my trip and photographed this modern ruin. These images, along with many others, form the basis of a new film, Fall into Ruin, forthcoming in 2017.

2016: The Year According to De Nichols

In 2014, De Andrea Nichols was part of the team that created Mirror Casket, an artwork that was ceremonially carried from the site of Michael Brown’s killing to the Ferguson police department, its mirrors challenging those who saw it “to look within and see their reflections as both whole and shattered, as both solution and problem, as both victim and […]

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De Nichols. Photo: Lindy Drew

In 2014, De Andrea Nichols was part of the team that created Mirror Casket, an artwork that was ceremonially carried from the site of Michael Brown’s killing to the Ferguson police department, its mirrors challenging those who saw it “to look within and see their reflections as both whole and shattered, as both solution and problem, as both victim and aggressor.” This year—as the Mirror Casket was brought into the collection of the Smithsonian’s new museum of African American culture—Nichols again was involved in mirroring. As she outlines below, she and two other black staffers wrote a letter, speaking back to management at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis about a controversial exhibition by Kelley Walker that many in St. Louis believed caused pain in the African American community. Among the show’s works were photos of black women smeared with toothpaste and images from the Civil Rights movement silkscreened using chocolate. Given St. Louis’s role as a “central location for the contemporary civil rights movement in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson,” the trio wrote to their bosses, “the work triggers a retraumatization of racial and regional pain.”

A multidisciplinary designer and civic leader, Nichols is a cofounder and director of Civic Creatives, a social design organization that curates interactive experiences that help community members and civic organizations connect and resolve critical social challenges. Here, we welcome her reflections on a pivotal year, for her and the world, as part of series 2016: The Year According to                              .

1.

Mirror Casket 

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The Smithsonian opened the National Museum of African American History & Culture this year. As the nineteenth Smithsonian Institution and the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture, NMAAHC is one of the most dynamic cultural entities that came into existence this year. My team and I were honored to have work, the Mirror Casket, added to its collection this year. Read Smithsonian Magazine’s feature on this and other featured works.

 

2.

Impact Through Art

2016 St. Louis Visionary Awards ceremony and reception presented by The Arts and Education Council at The Sun Theater in St. Louis, Missouri on April 25, 2016.

A significant moment in my personal life includes earning the St. Louis Visionary Award for community impact through art. The Visionaries is an unique component of St. Louis culture as it is dedicated to celebrating the contributions of women who help shape culture.

 

3.

Creative Power and Policy

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2016 was flooded with new and bold manifestations of artists leveraging creative power to influence policy. This has ranged from the creation of the For Freedoms artist-run super PAC to a rise in artists securing political office, and even an expansion of the US Department of Art and Culture (USDAC) with the launch of Culture/Shift and the “Standing for Cultural Democracy: The USDAC’s Policy and Action Platform.”

 

4.

Call for Change

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The controversy surrounding the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and its Direct Drive exhibition by Kelley Walker marks one of the hardest, yet awakening moments in my life and for the contemporary art world this year. During this time, I served as the Museum’s community engagement manager as well as a leader within the activist, racial justice, and artist communities. Two days prior to the exhibition’s opening, I was appointed to the board of directors of Forward through Ferguson—the racial equity organization that emerged from the Ferguson Commission following the 2014 social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. Such conflict led me (and fellow black administrative staff) to write an open letter to museum directors and act in solidarity with community outcry and calls for accountability and change. The racial tensions and insensitivities have since catalyzed CAM and other art institutions nationwide to confront internal choices, curatorial and programmatic decisions, and structural dynamics that yield implicit racial bias and harm upon communities of color and other historically marginalized groups. In 2017, I expect to see and contribute to sustained, deepened, and increased engagement with museums regarding these critical issues.

 

5.

Artists Respond to Trump

Though many of us share Yoko Ono’s sentiments about Donald Trump, artists have continued to rise up in counteraction to the divisiveness of the presidential election. The post-election development of efforts like the #ArtActionCall series and index will serve as resources to help artists align their creative works and efforts nationally.  

6.

Black Arts Renaissance

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2016 has been a year overwhelmed with “Black Girl Magic,” and a black arts renaissance came alive across visual arts, film, television, music, and digital media. My top highlights include:

a. Art: Mark Bradford is announced as the representative for the United States at the Venice Biennale’s 57th International Art Exhibition.

b. Film & Documentary: Whose Streets?, 13th, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story  

c. TV: Insecure, Queen Sugar, Atlanta, Underground, Luke Cage, The Get Down

d. Literature: Citizen (though published in 2014)

e. Music: Chance the Rapper and Donald Glover proved that there is place in hip hop for “black boy joy,” while the groundbreaking returns of Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest, and Solange enlightened the masses to untapped possibilities and perceptions of our spaces in society.

f. Digital Media: Black creators master the viral nature of digital media platforms like Youtube, Instagram, and Snapchat.

 

6.

Women ruled Summer Olympics 

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For the first time in history we witnessed women conquer the Olympic games in Rio. Of the 121 medals won by the US, women earned 61 (and 27 of the 46 gold medals). From The Final Five US women’s gymnastics team to Ibtihaj Muhammad as the first US athlete to compete in her hijab, women of the Olympics gave Americans a spark of hope, resolve, unity, and fire in the midst of a year of great political frustration and division.

 

7.

#NoDAPL

Photo: Indigenous Rising Media

A significant movement that arose this year has been the on-going fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline led by Native Americans in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Since April, this effort has aligned and united cultural activists, climate advocates, and tribes nationwide to uphold the protection of water, land, and religious/spiritual sites sacred to indigenous people of the US. With the December 4 presidential announcement to reroute Dakota Access pipelines away from native land, significant progress has been made as activists have endured state-sanctioned violence and intimidation throughout #NoDAPL efforts. However, 2017 threatens to have these successes be short-lived once the new presidential administration takes office. This is an intersectional justice battle that is sure to grow in coming months.

 

8.

2016 killed everything that was great, even the word, “great.”

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Nearly weekly, timelines and newsfeeds were filled with lamentations like “not another one,” as we witness increased mass shootings, police brutality, and hate crimes. In addition, we lost a massive amount of beloved celebrities and public figures, including: Muhammad Ali, Prince, Vanity, David Bowie, Maurice White, Phife Dawg, Ron Glass, Florence Henderson, Gwen Ifill, Tommy Strong, Arnold Palmer, Chyna, Jose Fernandez, Gene Wilder, Elie Wiesel, Pat Summitt, Bernie Worrell, Christina Grimmie, and Billy Paul.

 

10.

Beyoncé

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Time’s Beat Is Relentless: Brent Burket on Chris Larson: Land Speed Record

In advance of the January 8, 2017 closing of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record, we invited Brooklyn-based culture writer Brent Burket to share his reflection on the exhibition. Central to the multimedia installation is a video Larson created, accompanied by newly recorded audio of the drum track from Hüsker Dü’s 1981 album Land Speed Record, that slowly […]

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Chris Larson, still from Land Speed Record, 2016

In advance of the January 8, 2017 closing of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record, we invited Brooklyn-based culture writer Brent Burket to share his reflection on the exhibition. Central to the multimedia installation is a video Larson created, accompanied by newly recorded audio of the drum track from Hüsker Dü’s 1981 album Land Speed Record, that slowly pans over objects retrieved from a fire at the home of Grant Hart, the band’s drummer. Here, Burket focuses on one detail from the video: a section of Hart’s belongings that includes a crumpled American flag, boxes of master tapes, and a copy of the show’s titular album.

“It’s heartbreaking, the things we forget.”  —Jonathan Carroll

I wasn’t there in the beginning. I won’t be there in the end.

I started with Hüsker Dü’s fourth album, Flip Your Wig, and rode the wave forward. Yeah, I reached back occasionally, raiding friends’ record collections. But I never owned anything before Flip Your Wig, and until recently I had never made it all the way back to their first LP, Land Speed Record.

That’s OK, though. It hadn’t moved; it was waiting for me. Somebody had bought it awhile ago, probably a second or third pressing. Then, maybe they finally traded it in at a used record store after not having played it for a few years. Maybe they were low on cash and really wanted that new laser-etched Jack White 7″ that was only available on Record Store Day. Maybe. I don’t know. All I know is it’s here with me now, pummeling the inside of my skull like an unforgiving massage, somehow comforting me during these strange and strangely familiar times. It wouldn’t be the first time the band had done that.

89cf00c39a8f716b6572d4970ce31eb5The word “mesmeric” often comes up when people discuss Hüsker Dü, and they would get no disagreement from me. But with the later material—the work I knew best—that mesmeric quality came about through the overwhelming sum of the band’s parts (the playing, the composition, the melodies) rather than the more traditional path of repetition and rhythm. I quite happily was not ready for the nearly hardcore onslaught that is Land Speed Record. But you know what Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead said: “A flute will get you there, but a drum will get you there faster.” Land Speed Record spins rhythmically, madly from start to finish. It’s like a prayer wheel, but one that’s being hurled at your head. You either duck or you catch it and let its velocity carry you forward. If I had heard Land Speed Record in 1982 when it came out, I imagine I’d be whizzing by myself right now into the future, still hanging on for dear life. How Grant Hart, planted firmly and wildly in the middle of that velocity, pulled off his parts is a mystery and a miracle.  

“So, we want to say that we welcome you and we also welcome your grief and your anger. We don’t want only your cheerful part or your nice part. Behind grief and anger, inside grief and anger there are many marvelous golden eggs.”  —Robert Bly

Remember the story about the poor sod who takes up employment with the devil to tend to the cauldrons of the underworld for a year with the promise of a grand payoff at the end? When his time is up, the devil pays him with a sack of straw. Straw! WTF, Beelzebub? Dismayed—but without much bargaining power—the worker ascends back up to terra firma. Fuming and tired by the time he reaches the surface, he looks for a spot to rest for the night. As he’s setting up camp he realizes that at least he has that straw for starting a nice fire. When he puts his hands in the bag to pull out the straw he realizes there’s been a change. The straw has turned into gold.

I think of Hüsker Dü in 1981, keeping those fires burning for Old Scratch on the scorched earth tour they dubbed The Children’s Crusade just before returning to Minneapolis to record the Land Speed Record LP for 300 bucks at the 7th Street Entry. All that energy accumulated and slammed its way to the surface that night, all the while squeezing its way onto four tracks of tape. This is how nuclear power works, but without the half-life problem. Trust me. I’m listening to a bootleg from The Children’s Crusade tour as I write this, and the table has been shaking since I pressed play. No half-life. The music from this period blows up on demand. Capturing the energy at the Entry was capturing the moment when our booted-by-Belial cauldron tender realized that his old master had kept his word. Here was the gold.

So, what happens when the objects responsible for such velocity, so many feelings, so much racket, sit still for a long time? What happens when the house they’re in burns down? What happens when they get moved to a friendly artist’s studio, smelling of smoke and history? What happens to them is us. Well, first it was artist Chris Larson who had the good sense to listen to their history, to follow their seemingly dormant velocity. “Seemingly” being the key word there. It’s like the straw in our fairy tale. It’s just straw until it’s given some new air to breathe, that new air being the artist’s attention, and now ours.

Hüsker Dü was different. They were a cathartic listen like no other. Although they weren’t the most overtly political band, there was an anger that filled the grooves of their records. It helped, in the time of Death Star Ronald Reagan, to know that somebody out there was feeling something, anything. But it was more than just the anger embedded in their music. It was the grief. It bled out of their lives and into the music whether they meant it to or not.

America is bad at grief. As a country, we never grieved the Vietnam War. Bad things happen when you don’t go through grief, when you try to go around it or outrun it. I saw Robert Bly speak not long after the Gulf War started and he mentioned that the government had already made the decision to keep images of the coffins returning from Iraq from being seen by the public. They were denying a nation it’s grief. I was thinking about this when I started to listen to Land Speed Record. And then I looked at the album’s front cover. Most of its real estate is taken up by an image of the coffins coming home from the Vietnam War. When Grant Hart designed that cover, he was paying attention to where we were in 1982 and where we were going.

Hate Beast drumer Yousif Del Valle plays the drum track for Hüsker Dü's debut album in the galleries of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record.

Hate Beast drumer Yousif Del Valle plays the drum track for Hüsker Dü’s debut album in the galleries of Chris Larson: Land Speed Record.

And now we’re here, focused on these objects and images from the past, replete with everything from nostalgia to the constant threat of their ability to wreak more havoc. Are the lessons they might bear the same as before or have they shifted with the time between their last moment of usefulness and now? It’s probably less didactic than that. As the camera pans slowly across the floor of the artist’s studio, people are going to pick up what falls to them. Is it that cover of Sweet Potato with William S. Burroughs? Is it the broken promise of the auto parts? Is it the instruments? The tools? The Buzzcocks video? Everything is a doorway now.

The doorknob I keep turning opens to the section with the crumpled and filthy American flag sitting atop an overturned couch. Next to that I see the Land Speed Record cover sitting beside piles and boxes of unleashed BASF master tapes. I see in this little corner all the lessons we never seem to learn and the grief we keep sending out to the shed. But I also see the work that was done in difficult times, the work that always needs to be done, the work we need to do right now. A fist, it does form.

Chris Larson put death metal drummer Yousif Del Valle behind a kit to recreate, record, and re-exorcise the rhythm devils of Land Speed Record, beat-for-beat. Death metal is notoriously demanding to play, the drummer’s stool is a hazardous work site all to itself, but the 26 minutes and 36 seconds of Land Speed Record stretched Del Valle’s abilities to the max. During the exhibition’s opening-day talkDel Valle said that “learning it was a little painful for me.” Hart asked him, “Physically?” One beat, and then sounding as if he was reliving the exhaustion the young drummer replied, “Yeah.”

Time, man. Its beat is relentless. Doesn’t matter if it’s D-beat or blast beat; time won’t let up and it’ll hold you close. And it always takes you back into the pit. Time is punk as fuck.

Artist Op-Eds Counterpoint: A Response to “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign”

As a forum for spirited discourse, the Walker Art Center’s Artist Op-Eds series addresses current, and at times contentious, issues through the voices of today’s artists. To facilitate conversation, we welcome responses from parties involved with these issues. Here, Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, responds to Naeem Mohaiemen’s December 7, 2016 opinion […]

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As a forum for spirited discourse, the Walker Art Center’s Artist Op-Eds series addresses current, and at times contentious, issues through the voices of today’s artists. To facilitate conversation, we welcome responses from parties involved with these issues. Here, Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, responds to Naeem Mohaiemen’s December 7, 2016 opinion piece, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign,” which addresses, in part, plans for the Guggenheim’s museum in Abu Dhabi. 

“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Campaign” misrepresents the Guggenheim Foundation’s engagement on the issue of workers’ welfare related to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and is an exercise in self-congratulation and manufactured history.

Since we began the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project in 2007 safeguarding the welfare of the workers who will build the future museum has been a top priority and a focus of considerable engagement with our partners in the UAE—most specifically the Tourism Development & Investment Company. During that time, TDIC has advanced measurable progress on a number of fronts, including the development of its Employment Practices Policy (EPP), which outlines workers’ welfare requirements on its projects, including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, for which construction is not yet underway. The EPP, which was endorsed by the Guggenheim and to which we contributed recommendations for its most recent revision in 2015, has been noted by Human Rights Watch as providing “more labor protections than anywhere else in the Gulf.” Annual independent monitoring reports by PricewaterhouseCoopers continue to show improvements among those who are working under the EPP on current TDIC projects on Saadiyat Island, including workers’ accommodations, passport retention, and access to medical insurance. At the same time, the government of Abu Dhabi has taken additional measures to strengthen protections for workers at the national level, including decrees enacted earlier this year that standardize contract terms and increase flexibility for workers to move between employers.

Despite this progress, the Gulf Labor Coalition (GLC) has pursued a campaign of direct action against the Guggenheim since 2010 in the media and in our museums in New York and Venice. For six years Guggenheim senior leadership engaged in good faith with GLC to seek common ground on an issue of shared importance. During the course of that engagement GLC repeatedly shifted its demands on the Guggenheim beyond those within the direct influence of a single arts institution and which require involvement at the highest levels of government—namely the issues of recruitment fees, living wage, and the right to organize—while capitalizing on our name and spreading mistruths about the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi project. Earlier this year, we reached the conclusion that these direct discussions were no longer productive and decided to end them.

Contrary to the authors’ claims, GLC did not introduce the Guggenheim to the topic of workers’ welfare or to the International Labor Organization, one of a number of labor-related groups with which we have engaged over nine years. Neither did media coverage of GLC’s direct actions against the museum yield reforms to the EPP or the appointment of an independent monitor, both of which were the result of commitment and effort on the part of TDIC and its leadership.

Perhaps the most revealing statement by the authors is the assertion that “we have every advantage over the museum.” When your approach is opportunistic rationalization of your own behavior and your cause one of self-righteousness, that well may be the case. In the meantime, the Guggenheim remains committed to workers’ welfare on the future museum and to the principles that have guided us since our founding—the value of an international worldview, a commitment to the art and artists of our time, and an abiding faith in the transformative power of art.

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