Blogs Untitled (Blog)

Bring Your Smartphone: Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s performance/audience/file

“A photograph that one has taken of oneself” is the definition that the Oxford Online Dictionary recently bestowed upon the ubiquitous selfie. Simple enough. But perhaps a bit too simple. On October 26, as part of the Walker’s 9 Artists exhibition, Natascha Sadr Haghighian will go beyond the surface reading of the prolific selfie during […]

Natascha Sadr Haghighian de paso 2011 sound installation, carry-­‐on suitcase, plastic bottle, paper, straw, photograph, text dimensions variable Photo courtesy the artist; Johann König Gallery, Berlin; and Carroll/Fletcher

Natascha Sadr Haghighian, de paso, 2011

“A photograph that one has taken of oneself” is the definition that the Oxford Online Dictionary recently bestowed upon the ubiquitous selfie. Simple enough. But perhaps a bit too simple. On October 26, as part of the Walker’s 9 Artists exhibition, Natascha Sadr Haghighian will go beyond the surface reading of the prolific selfie during her performance performance/audience/file. Diving into the growing reality of the image as a purely digital file and the subsequent dissolution of the object, Haghighian asks, who or what has agency in the cloud?

Haghighian has long been concerned with both self-representation and the agency of the object. She has deliberately suppressed and thwarted readings of her own identity as the center of her work favoring instead the stories of the objects she uses in her installations. In de paso, Haghighian begins with a rolling suitcase and a water bottle, and through these two seemingly banal objects she goes on to convey urbanization and the “growing pains” of progressive modernization. Having traveled internationally, de paso comes to the Walker with an accumulation of regional contexts. Installed in 9 Artists, the work’s newest additions — images of the industrialization of St. Anthony Falls — will appear alongside images of Barcelona, Norway, and England, demonstrating a continuity that is at once overwhelming and aesthetically cohesive. Stemming from these two objects and the places they inhabit, Haghighian follows a story illustrated by “footnotes” found in local archives.

However, performance/audience/file derives from Haghighian’s growing disquiet with agency in the digital universe. It was no longer satisfactory to follow the story and representation of objects; she had to confront the way in which the selfie convolutes the subject/object relationship while also reckoning with the fact that taking a picture with a smartphone has become a serious ritual act in this new age. Capturing a picture at an event has become the motivation for taking part in the event itself.

Haghighian’s performance/audience/file references Dan Graham’s Performer/Audience/Mirror (1975). Graham’s audience sat facing a wall-sized mirror while the artist stood in front of them and delivered an impromptu commentary on his real-time observations, prompting both literal and figurative reflection on the relationship between audience and performer as well as subject and object. Haghighian will explore these issues of sharing and materiality through a multi-step performance involving audience participation, live drawing, and a Cyclone Hoover, which will act as the bridge both from technologies past to present and from artist to audience. Expect to learn something about centrifugal technology, a leftover of the methodology of modernity according to Haghighian.

As an artist who has consciously tried to subvert representations of herself by creating alternative biographies, Haghighian is evidently reticent to participate the normalization of the selfie, but as she said she “can’t run away from this reality.” So, as might be expected, Haghighian encourages audience members to bring their own phones for a selfie with the artist after the performance.

In Sickness and in Art: Obamacare, General Idea, and a Kleenex Box

Access to affordable healthcare is not the most glamorous subject. Unsurprisingly, it has also not proven to be the most fertile ground for artists. With the insurance mandate coming upon us soon, it seems that, regardless of where we stand on the new law, insurance will continue to dictate what we choose to do with […]

General Idea, AIDS Wallpaper (1989), Installation view of This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980’s at the Walker Art Center

General Idea, AIDS Wallpaper (1989), installation view of This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s at the Walker Art Center

Access to affordable healthcare is not the most glamorous subject. Unsurprisingly, it has also not proven to be the most fertile ground for artists. With the insurance mandate coming upon us soon, it seems that, regardless of where we stand on the new law, insurance will continue to dictate what we choose to do with our lives. For me, the topic scarcely leaves my mind. I am on the precipice of turning 26, a graduate student, an intern, and sometimes food service employee. I am both the reason the mandate exists — to get healthy young people to buy insurance — and on somewhat unsure footing financially. In spite of the interminable discussions of the new healthcare law, there seems to have been a failure, among many, to unite around the simple truth that at some point we all get sick. The healthcare mandate pushes this inevitability to the forefront in a way that seems new and provocative. The art world may appear aloof to these everyday struggles with common bureaucracy, monthly budgeting, and automated voice-messaging systems, however, I believe that certain works from the late 1980s and early 90s made in response to the AIDS crisis can serve as a model for how artists and the art world can tackle these very personal, but not very glamorous, issues. Perhaps the result of reflecting on these works done at a time when health was also a passionate political issue — in admittedly a very different way — could be projects that have the potential to speak to a broader audience united around something as simple as the common cold.

To me, this tension between the glamor of art and the common experience of illness seems to manifest through the later projects by the Canadian art collective General Idea. Formed in 1969 in Toronto, General Idea was a collective of three artists, under the pseudonyms AA Bronson, Jorge Zontal, and Felix Partz. Their first 15 years revolved around “Miss General Idea,” a concocted fantasy, both woman and muse. They staged beauty pageants, set up boutiques, and created cocktail lounges, languishing in artifice and deifying glamor. From 1972 to 1984 they theoretically constructed the labyrinthine Miss General Idea 1984 Pavilion, which was then destroyed and carefully excavated and presented through relics and remnants of a mythical disaster. Much of their work was created in editions or multiples to be sold in the various boutiques and lounges accompanying their gallery installations. Within the Walker’s collection, both the Nazi Milk Glass (1980) and The Getting into the Spirits Cocktail Book (1980) are representative of this period. For years they created and constructed, piling layer upon layer cultivating their image, until, as has been noted by others, Miss General Idea and glamor, her faithful companion, were practically members of the group.

    Partial grouping of General Idea’s Editions in the Walker Art Center’s collection

Partial grouping of General Idea’s Editions in the Walker Art Center’s collection

In the 1980’s two of the group’s members, Jorge Zontal and Felix Partz, contracted HIV. Their work took a definite turn and became more overtly political, particularly with the inauguration of the AIDS Project. Through various public commissions, this project, also known as Imagevirus, involved plastering billboards, buses, and subways with a distortion of Robert Indiana’s LOVE design manipulated to read AIDS. Later, in the early 1990s, General Idea began integrating pharmaceutical imagery, in the form of large multi-colored pills in a series of exhibitions titled PLA©EBO and Pharma©opia. In the installation Magi© Bullet (1994) the ceiling in a sparse white gallery was filled with silver Mylar balloons resembling both some sort of sterile fungal infestation and a thick cloud of pills. Although these installations seem to take an unsentimental view at the medical industry and illness itself, they mark an attempt to work through overwhelming personal trauma while maintaining their illusive image. While General Idea raised awareness of the proliferation of AIDS, they also, I think, forced an objective confrontation with the inevitable fact that we all get sick.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Aids, General Idea 1991

Wolfgang Tillmans, Aids, General Idea, 1991

During this later period General Idea continued to create the editions that were sold alongside the installations. They made AIDS Stamps (1988) and AIDS Wallpaper (1989), recently on view at the Walker during This Will Have Been: Art Love and Politics in the 1980s, and small PLA©EBO pins. They also stayed true to their “image”-centered practice; they referenced heroes of the European avant-garde, purportedly in an attempt to gain recognition for European artists in North America, which they saw as lacking. These playful nods can be seen in the edition Infe©ted Rietveld (1994), a reproduction of Gerrit Rietveld’s quintessentially Modern Red/Blue Chair (1918), painted in the colors of the AIDS logo, thus “infected” with the disease. In the Walker’s collection of General Idea’s editions, I was drawn to what appeared to be a simple object with an apparently heady title, Gesundheit: Why not sneeze Lucio Fontana? (1991), partly because it seems a perfect combination of these two impulses I just described, the ethereal presence of the avant-garde and the earthly reality of illness, and also because “Gesundheit” is just an excellent word.

The edition is itself a familiar object to anyone who has spent time in a wintry classroom — a distant memory which gets closer by the day — the constant sound of sniffles, sneezing, and maybe a quiet uncontrollable cough, and the constant movement towards the necessary box of tissues in the back of the class. It is a small box, usefully clear, so you can see the short stack of tissues conveniently pulled through the top, ready to grab at a moment’s notice. This box of tissues, however, is rather different than those to which we have become accustom. Although stamped with corporate label of our regular brand, Kleenex, this box has three slits cut into the top with three tissues tufting through them. These two extra slits reference what are now iconic triumphs of the avant-garde, informally known as Lucio Fontana’s cut pieces. Atop and below the small stack of tissues are two postcards picturing two of Fontana’s green pieces with three gashes from the collection at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne.

General Idea, Gesundheit: Why Not Sneeze Lucio Fontana? (1991). Two found post cards, one cut, Kleenex-brand packaged tissue, in plastic box, 4.3 x 5.9 x .78 inches. Photo: Blackwood Gallery

General Idea, Gesundheit: Why Not Sneeze Lucio Fontana? (1991). Two found post cards, one cut, Kleenex-brand packaged tissue, in plastic box. Photo: Blackwood Gallery

Fontana’s cut pieces are monochromatic paintings with thin gashes cutting through the surface exposing the supporting wall, many such works were exhibited at the Walker’s landmark exhibition in 1966, Fontana’s first solo show in the United States. Dated to 1964-65, the piece Concetta-Spaziale: Attessa or Spatial-Concept: Expectation in the Walker’s collection is a great example. Painted in white, the canvas has just one long cut right down the middle. This piece in particular, with its white surface mimicking the “pure” white standard of the gallery wall, plays with the painting’s relationship to its environmental space. The cut, a seemingly violent act, serves to both distinguish the canvas from the blank white walls while purporting to offer a small view into the institutional supports.

Fontana 1998.113

Lucio Fontana, Concetto Spaziale – Attesa (1964-65)

General Idea’s Kleenex box manipulates the voids created by Fontana’s cuts by filling them with soft white tufts of tissues, certainly more comforting and banal than the dramatic gesture from which they originated. The reproduction of Fontana’s work in the edition is both an homage to his almost industrial creation of the cut pieces and a mocking jab at the high-minded principles with which they are associated. The title seems to ask Fontana to perhaps take a break, perhaps falter, at least stop to sneeze for heaven’s sake. Although the relation to health and illness is subtler than if the box had been covered with word AIDS or red, blue, and green pills, the simplicity of the Kleenex box is possibly the best reminder of the inevitability of illness. We carry them with us even when we don’t need them, and there is nothing worse than being caught without them in a time of nasal need. So, in these discussions of who’s to pay for whose medicine, who should take care of whom, it is important to be open and honest with yourself: someday at some point, you will be sick, it’s why there should always be a box of Kleenexes at the back of the class.

Istanbul Dispatch: Ceren Erdem on the Gezi Uprising and Beyond

We have taken a giant step, and this is only the beginning. It was May 31, 2013, the day before I arrived in Istanbul, when I could finally reach my brother on the phone. It was a brief conversation. “I’m fine,” he said. “This is not the city that you used to know. There is […]

Facade of Atatürk Cultural Center covered by protestors. Photo: Ali Kazma

Facade of Atatürk Cultural Center covered with banners by protestors. Photo: Ali Kazma

We have taken a giant step, and this is only the beginning.

It was May 31, 2013, the day before I arrived in Istanbul, when I could finally reach my brother on the phone. It was a brief conversation. “I’m fine,” he said. “This is not the city that you used to know. There is no need to talk now; you’ll see it.” In an attempt to write about the early summer days in Istanbul, I began to draft this text admitting that I may fail, for I feel the necessity for a new vocabulary to refer to the qualities of the ongoing uprising and resistance of the people of Turkey, and I fear I will be barred with the limits of any language. It is equally hard to make judgments on such a thing as it’s happening. Hence, for the sake of clarity and simplicity, I find it useful to present the causes and a subjective summary of the resistance that stemmed from Gezi Park and spread across Turkey.

Background: Why have the people of Turkey — a favored ally of the US, a growing economic power, and a regional leader-wanna-be — demonstrated civil unrest? Behind all the glory of the international reputation, the governance of PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) has become more oppressive in their third go-round. Faking close friendships with the liberals and empathy with the oppressed were not strategies with longevity. New laws have been implemented that restrict a woman’s ability to choose a Caesarean section (they’re only allowed in cases where they’re necessary to save the life of the mother or child) and that govern when alcohol can be purchased and how it can be advertised. Many journalists, writers, and professors critical of the government have been arrested and silenced. And in Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey, profitable lands have been turned into huge construction sites where international companies, mainly from the Gulf, partnered with local ones that are affiliated with the PM or other ministers. In December 2012, the people of Roboski, a Kurdish village, were bombarded “by mistake,” killing 35. In May 2013, two bombs exploded in a Reyhanli district on Syrian border of Turkey. At least 57 people died. In both cases, no one has been held responsible. Not all, but a few reasons of our “disorder.”

Gravestones in Gezi Park in memory of Medeni Yıldırım, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert, Ethem Sarısülük and police officer Mustafa Sarı. Found image.

Gravestones in Gezi Park in memory of Medeni Yıldırım, Ali İsmail Korkmaz, Mehmet Ayvalıtaş, Abdullah Cömert, Ethem Sarısülük and police officer Mustafa Sarı. Found image.

Facts: For a year and a half, Taksim Platform, a civil initiative comprised of a diverse group of people who live, work, or pass by Istanbul’s Taksim district, gathered to monitor and create awareness about the major urban planning project for Taksim Square. It goes without saying that this ugly, little square is the heart of Istanbul of modern times. The project includes building bulky tunnels on the wide avenues that lead to the square for the sake of directing the vehicle traffic underground and therefore “pedestrianizing” the square. PM Erdoğan also wants to take over the square’s Gezi Park in order to build a giant shopping mall/hotel/residence in the form of a replica of the Artillery Barrack that stood there until 1940. Further, he wants to replace the Ataturk Cultural Center with a new baroque-style opera building.

Taksim has some value as a symbol: Nearly all political demonstrations and marches end up at Taksim Square. It is packed in any given time of the day. The project, as seen on the official animation video prepared by Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, shaves off the pavement for the sake of building these subterranean tunnels, a move that would limit pedestrian traffic to the square and basically butcher the prospect of any demonstrations. More importantly, Gezi Park is the only green area in Istanbul’s center, and it serves as the emergency evacuation zone for a city that has been built on an active fault line. In the light of these facts, Taksim Platform’s major task is to stop the project through legal means and create a platform to ensure that such projects should be planned in conversation with both area residents and urban planners. However, despite a court ruling suspending construction on the tunnels, the PM was determined to realize his dream project. Bulldozers went in to Gezi Park and illegally started uprooting the trees. That’s why people ran to Gezi Park to reclaim the public space, to protect their trees and their right to choose the way they want to live their lives.

Bulldozer taken over by protestors later became one of the symbols of the resistance. Photo: Ceren Erdem

Bulldozer taken over by protestors later became one of the symbols of the resistance. Photo: Ceren Erdem

By the time I arrived in Istanbul and got close to Taksim Square, I knew what my brother’s words on the phone meant. After searching for a way to get there, I first found myself in a hot zone. The police were constantly bombarding demonstrators with tear gas while some protestors were trying to build a high, strong barricade to stop them. Every single piece of material that could be added to the barricade was carried hand-in-hand by a human chain, the same way all the other barricades had been built. People were injured; doctors, like everyone else, were running around to bring medicine, to carry the injured into a mosque that had opened its doors to operate as infirmary. Later, Erdoğan dared to declare that people had disrespectfully walked into that mosque with their shoes on and drank alcohol, demonstrating he couldn’t understand why an imam preferred to help innocent, peaceful people over being loyal to the PM.

Some of the makeshift barricades. Photo: Ceren Erdem

Some of the makeshift barricades. Photo: Ceren Erdem

The same night, a smart group of people managed to operate a bulldozer and chased the police with it for some time. It was a heroic moment for all of us. Walking to Gezi Park, I came across the self-made barricades surrounding the area. Inside its borders was an autonomous zone. Feeling like I was moving within a movie studio, I tried to perceive every detail I saw and adapt to this new reality.

When I reached the park I thought, and I still do, it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. At a time when you had been feeling most hopeless about your country, this awakening was shocking and thrilling, to say the least.

View from Gezi Park. Photo: Onur Engin

View from Gezi Park. Photo: Onur Engin

Having suffered from military coups and oppressive regimes, our parents raised us to be as apolitical as possible. I am sorry — no, actually, pleased — to say that it didn’t work. However, people are politicized in a new way now, beyond the mainstream definitions of left, right, religion, etc. Based on demands for freedom and human rights, the uprisings managed to bring many diverse groups together in the park, groups that might otherwise feel uncomfortable standing side by side. Women have always been in the forefront. Many LGBTQ people were not there only for the resistance, but also to face their prejudices 1. Anti-capitalist Muslims revealed the difference between being religious and utilizing religion for political ends, while environmentalists brought in their knowledge and injected their awareness. Nationalist Turkish groups could not stand but set up their tents close to Kurdish groups. Football ultras2 brought in their endurance and joy, and the hacker group Redhack (@TheRedHack) has built up the virtual castle of the resistance. Everyone but everyone brought in endless love.

A restauran's daily menu: 1. Advanced Democracy, 2. Pepper Spray, 3. Agent Orange. Alternative Menu: More Freedom. Found image.

A restauran’s daily menu: 1. Advanced Democracy, 2. Pepper Spray, 3. Agent Orange. Alternative Menu: More Freedom. Found image.

We shared our food, built up our library, and seeded our new garden. We slept, cooked, and cleaned together. We were tear-gassed together. Local media, with only a few exceptions, either avoided the protest or preferred to show it as a menace to society. However, while Erdoğan turned the police into his own army, their disproportionate violence was met with disproportionate intelligence. Resistance took different forms, from reading books to the police to playing guitar in front of water cannons. Stencils and spraypainted texts of humorous political satire filled the walls. As people insisted on being peaceful and unarmed, facing with this unknown format of protests, the police, acting on Erdoğan’s behalf, got more violent. The stronger they attacked, the stronger our connections became.

Yet, in the end, we are all flesh and bone. While nearly 7,500 people have been hospitalized due to plastic bullets, pressurized water, tear gas, and aimed tear gas canisters, five protestors lost their lives.3 The policeman who killed Ethem Sarisülük with a bullet in his head was released with claims of self-defense. The final attack to the park on June 15 ferociously evacuated everyone, including children and the elderly. Immediately after that, public assemblies started to gather every night in parks across Istanbul and in other cities. Until July 7, Gezi Park was closed to the public but occupied by the police. Meanwhile, a court released its final decision on the Gezi park project — in favor of stopping it. Finally, when the mayor decided to open the public park to public, it only lasted for a few hours and resulted with 37 protestors being taken in police custody, including the members of Taksim Solidarity4. Was this a trap? We don’t know. Since May 27, approximately 4,000 people have been taken into custody (official numbers by human rights organizations and the Ministry of Internal Affairs vary from 3,366 to 4,900), some randomly on the streets, some from their homes. Seventy-eight have been arrested. Gezi Park is open to public use, for now, and public assemblies continue with hot discussions on democracy, new strategies, tolerance, and coexistence.

Standing Man. Photo: Burak Su

Standing Man. Photo: Burak Su

Where does art stand in this picture?

To my mind, there is no need to attain a special role or expect one from the art community in the matter of emergencies. Artists, curators, writers, and overall producers of the contemporary art scene have been actively involved in the process from the very beginning. We have taken the advantage of one our strengths and our international networks, to spread our voice around the world. We have also observed that we are surrounded with highly creative people. In the most depressing moments, a massive collection of humor was produced. They gave us moments of laughter. When the police took over the park in mid-June, we all learned to simply stand up against injustice from The Standing Man (duran adam), Erdem Gunduz, a performance artist who stood still on sealed-off Taksim Square for hours and initiated a new form of passive resistance. Yet, I believe it is extremely hard for any art project to beat the “earth fast-breaking” organized by anti-capitalist Muslims on the pedestrianized Istiklal Avenue leading to Taksim Square, where people of Gezi Park, regardless of their beliefs, set up a 700-meter-long communal dinner to celebrate the first meal of Ramadan.

Ads on billboards replaced by some creative people.

Ads on billboards replaced by some creative people.

On the other hand, the Istanbul Biennial will take place around the corner beginning September 14. Fulya Erdemci, the curator of the coming up edition, had announced her focus will be the notion of public space as a political forum. Who would have guessed that Turkey would witness the biggest civil uprising in its history, and public space would extensively be politically engaged in an unprecedented way? If art is to trigger questions, feelings, or social change, Gezi Park has certainly achieved it all and challenged our past and future experiences.

We are thinking anew. And it is only the beginning, our struggle continues.

Two views of the "earth fast-breaking" meal. Photos: Found image (left); Camila Rocha (right)

Two views of the “earth fast-breaking” meal. Photos: Found image (left); Camila Rocha (right)

Ceren Erdem is a curator and writer based in New York and Istanbul. Born in Gaziantep, Turkey, she has lived in New York since 2010. For more images from Gezi Park, visit #occupygezi


1 Gay Pride Istanbul has been taking place each year since 2003 on the last week of June. As a part of the resistance, this year’s march was supported largely by Gezi protestors and attended by around 100,000 people.

2 The fans of three major football teams of Istanbul, Besitas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, have united under the name “Istanbul United.” Istanbul United, the movie, is seeking donations for its completion.

3 Medeni Yıldırım (18), Ali İsmail Korkmaz (19), Mehmet Ayvalıtaş (20), Abdullah Cömert (22),  Ethem Sarısülük (26) lost their lives during the protests.

4 Taksim Solidarity is comprised of 124 NGOs, chambers, and other civil initiatives.

A Table of Curious Elements: Jay Heikes on Filthy Minds

In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. Here Minneapolis-based artist Jay Heikes discusses his contribution to the show with co-curator Bartholomew Ryan. As he’s traveled from studio to studio, Minneapolis-based artist Jay Heikes has carried a wall of […]

Jay Heikes, We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013), installed in Painter Painter. Photo: Gene Pittman

Jay Heikes, We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013), installed in Painter Painter. Photo: Gene Pittman

va_2012_painterpainter_bug_alpha[1]In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. Here Minneapolis-based artist Jay Heikes discusses his contribution to the show with co-curator Bartholomew Ryan.

As he’s traveled from studio to studio, Minneapolis-based artist Jay Heikes has carried a wall of tools composed of electric drills, hammers, and saws that he uses in making his work. Always interested in transformation, he began to think about how the tools we use determine the things we make, or more abstractly tie us into certain ways of thinking. Asking himself whether changing the tools could also change the work, Heikes began to invent new implements constructed out of the detritus of the studio: found materials with peculiar provenance, pigments, dyes, fabrics, or negative throwaway forms from previous works. In making We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013), his work in Painter Painter, he was inspired by the history of the avant-garde, and specifically the manifesto as a mode of address, and looked to groups such as the Suprematists, Futurists, or even the Shakers, who used new language to create new realities.

As Heikes assembled his constructed “tools” on a studio wall, he began to think of them as a form of painting. While painters–including Gerhard Richter and Jack Whitten — have long created tools as a means to bypass previous ways of working and arrive at a different kind of mark-making or application, here Heikes’ instruments themselves become the marks — they delineate the paintings’ borders and are the motifs of composition. A number of elements seem poised to be used in some elaborate way, evolving in more recent works toward a greater level of formal abstraction. As the project develops, the usefulness of a tool is situated in its openness to possibility within painting, in its ability to be free of bounded real-world utility. Ultimately, it seems as if Heikes may be shaping a proposition about abstraction as something necessary, to be used and valued as much as anything else.

Jay Heikes with The "ear" in Jay Heikes' We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013). Photo: Gene Pittman

Jay Heikes with the “sea ball” in We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013). Photo: Gene Pittman

Bartholomew Ryan: Almost everything in We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds seems to involve ready-made materials that you have cut, grafted, painted, dyed, and generally manipulated into something that seems simple and somehow inevitable: Like, “Of course that thing should exist (even though it hasn’t heretofore).” One exception is the little furry ball that hangs near the top right. You called it a sea ball, but what is it? Where did you get it?  Did you do anything to it? Is it still alive?

Jay Heikes: I’m not sure what it is exactly. I found it by the sea in the coastal village of Acciaroli in the south of Italy. The beach was littered with them, and they were just so perfect in their natural state. I had been thinking for a long time of something that is non-narrative and decided that nature is the one thing that doesn’t tell a story, that we put a narrative on to it by living within it. But then I realized how off that conclusion was, because it was casting itself in fossils and petrified wood and sculpting things like “sea balls.” At times, it feels like a clown nose or a mole, which satisfies my desire for the work to be both creepy and beautiful, although within the larger composition I think it becomes another tool wrapped up in the romantic fate of the readymade. It was there in front of me and made me jealous, in using the tides of the Mediterranean to make a sculpture of dead and dried plant matter.

Ryan: Let’s move from the clown nose to the wax ear in the exhibition. Ears, of course, are about listening. Are you interested in listening? In a certain kind of receptivity?

Heikes: The “basics” are something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I get sucked into these structuralist texts from the 1960s with titles like Alchemy: Ancient and Modern or Asbestos: The Silk of the Mineral Kingdom and find myself understanding the cosmos in a much more personal way. When a text tells me that gold is related to perfection and leads to sin, I immediately get seduced by the passing on of elemental investigations from the old world and try to understand if we are still engaged in the same kind of listening or associative behavior. Are we listening to the materials? At times, I don’t think we are. There’s a hopeless divorce from the knowledge of where things actually come from, how they are mined and then presented to us as objects or products.

I’m getting away from the question, though. Am I interested in listening? I would say that I want to absorb, which includes listening. As for a receptivity, I look to a time when the limits of knowledge were more naive and up for grabs. When mystical thought and the charlatan were still very persuasive. We live in a time when Science is winning, but people have historically done unexpected things against better judgment. It was not that long ago when people were playing with a handful of mercury like it was a curious toy. You could say that through these mistakes we’ve built a better, safer world, and I would agree, but my fear is that when the earth has had enough of our tinkering we will be left in a state of complete elemental amnesia. Maybe amnesia is the wrong word because the knowledge was never there in the first place. Maybe this is all ether hiding a “back to the basics” objective on my part, but what I’m realizing is that I don’t know what the basics are myself, so I’m trying to create a set of tools that will in turn find their own undecided function.

To be more direct about the object itself, the “ear” is made from those little Laughing Cow cheeses, which are covered in a combination of paraffin and micro-crystalline wax. The dirt and shavings pressed into the wax are from my studio floor, and I inserted these map tack heads to look like a trail of piercings running up the side of the ear. It made me think of the severed ear of Vincent van Gogh and the gesture of being out of bounds or doing something crazy — the moment when you cross a line and physically enter the realm of hallucination. A hallucination that, with van Gogh, could have easily been brought on by the paints he was using, so again an elemental cloud is present.

The "ear" in Jay Heikes' We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013). Photo: Gene Pittman

The “ear” in Jay Heikes’ We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013). Photo: Gene Pittman

Ryan: The painter going crazy in his elemental cloud. When I visited your studio recently, you were breaking out in hives, and we suspected it was a reaction to one of the many odd materials you were using or perhaps mold from a work that was caught in a gallery basement during Hurricane Sandy. In a short text I recently wrote on your work, I considered the alchemical nature of your practice, this kind of magical thinking that allows you to play with all kinds of elements and formulas, to arrive at specialized materials that you use in many of your works. Let’s talk about the piece you call the wand, at the top left of the composition: a wooden rounded pole with a strand of copper wire at one end. I do like to think of you with a wand, although the notion is faintly embarrassing, because magic is not exactly associated with rigorously critical thinking in contemporary art. But I think one of the things I’ve always liked about your work is that it is prepared to lay itself bare in some way, to take the plunge into the possibility of a simplistic and reductive read from a public, while also entering terrain that feels very fertile. This is something that attracts me to a lot of artists working today. A re-embrace of the unknown, which some could say is a retrograde step in that it privileges the metaphysical over the material nature of existence, allows for a kind of mythologization of art. I think there is something quite authentically engaged within the way you work, like a sense that you really are searching for possibilities. Another way to look at the tools is to see them as iconographic for different possibilities, from science to magic, from the domestic to the industrial, from the deeply subjective to the objective. This might account for the way in which many people who are engaged in language, writers and poets, etc., seem to really be affected by this piece, or fascinated by it; because they see it as constructing a language or a system of thought. Do you see the wand as an indicator of one in a range of possible approaches to something? Or are you really dedicated to magic?

Heikes: I can only dream of the day when my work gives people hives. That would be true magic. Like figuring out how to trigger a build-up of histamines without a transfer of fluids or allergens, just a painting or sculpture that creates hives. For a moment, I thought about filling a gallery space with the sulphurlike scent that’s added to natural gas known as tert-Butylthiol to simulate a gas leak. There’s nothing like the instant thought of possibly exploding to put everyone on edge. In the end, I decided against it. It’s silly to talk about some of these ideas, but it gets to the heart of what I think about in the studio and with the wand specifically. I started making work in a performative way about 10 years ago, using existential theater and the work of Jean-Paul Sartre as inspiration for the compulsion that art has in its desire to reject stasis. Sartre talked about spilled treacle, an uncrystalized syrup made during the refining of sugar, as a metaphor for life and the viscosity of all things. It’s a substance that is both liquid and solid and denies our basic understandings of material properties. When I’m in that breakthrough moment making something, I think about treacle and try to let the materials be magical to see if an essence reveals itself, even though a lot of my work could melt away in a rainstorm.

The "wand" in Jay Heikes'

The “wand” in Jay Heikes’ We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013)

But magic is ultimately funny and I approach it with suspicion, just as any religion or belief system makes me question the presence of invisibility. So with the wand, I’m playing with the irony of using copper in a wand that is not connected to anything so it wouldn’t conduct electricity. But I’m not concerned with it conducting electricity per se, just that there is a leap from what could physically conduct. As if a magician was holding the thing that could actually move energy without knowing it. It’s a recurring problem for me in addressing things as varied as cosmological background radiation to reincarnation. Do I always have to search for unexplored possibilities or can I just present a kind of deadpan futility that acts as satire? Maybe I’m just an existentialist in denial.

Ryan: Let’s talk about the snaking form to the top right of the work. I bring it up because I know you began designing these tools with use as an actual possibility, and this is one of the few that was used in the construction of another work. It was used in one of your paintings from last year that was constructed through layering paper and dried ink, creating an almost stonelike surface, which you then monoprinted with the texture of animal hides. In the painting Filthy Minds (2012), there are these hatchings that go up the side that come from using the snake to apply the print. So you have these virtually primitivist paintings that are also composed through these new, distinctly handmade tools. You gave an earlier group of that series titles from various caves around the world, such as Ear of Dionysus (2011), which came into the Walker’s collection last year. The titles conjure some faintly ridiculous, near pompous classical sensibility, but the works aren’t totally ironic. Are these tools meant for use in terms of an applied nature? Or have they become useful for the way in which they help as formal motifs that contribute to the composition of the work on the wall through how they are arranged?

Detail of We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013)

The “snaking” in Jay Heikes’ We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds (2013)

Heikes: I used the snaking on a painting at a moment when I thought I was moving toward using the tools in a performative Gerhard Richter kind of way. In this case, I used it as a stamp, inking it and then applying pressure to the face of a painting that I quickly titled Filthy Minds, which differed from all of the paintings that I had titled after existing caves up to that point. It was an important precursor to what became We lead healthy lives to keep filthy minds, which is included in Painter Painter, and became the symbol of what I didn’t want the tools to become. There was a feeling that they shouldn’t play a bit part, that they should be the focus, so by making the painting I realized I had used them in a way that I had hoped to resist. Afterwards, I concluded that the stamp was the content instead of the mark it had made because my focus from the beginning was how to challenge the structure of language at its most primitive starting point. When I was making the tools, I thought about cave people sitting around sculpting because it was the only available language. I guess grunting and gesturing too, but in the end I saw the painting as a mistake that helped me get to the wall of tools. As for the formal aspects of the snaking, I saw it as a form that could anchor the composition. So yes, the tool had become a motif and held within in it a kind of crooked beauty, but it also reminded me of a jester’s leggings, which is maybe an aside from years of thinking about the role of the artist.

Jay Heikes, _Filthy Minds_, 20XX. Photo: Jason Wyche

Jay Heikes, Filthy Minds (2012). Photo: Jason Wyche

I guess it’s funny now that I’m making less interesting tools that are leading to more interesting drawings, so the thing I had resisted and the process that the painting hinted at has reversed itself completely. The new drawings feel like musical scores for minor planets, renegotiating how sheet music could look for something so abstract, that of a lifeless floating rock full of possibilities. They’re spacey and psychedelic and owe a lot to David Reed, John Cage, and the Japanese avant-garde of the 1960s. But I haven’t abandoned the tools completely, they’re just becoming less tool-like and more autonomous as wall sculptures that seem more direct and symbolic, like a dirty palette instead of a table of curious elements.

Joseph Montgomery: Modeling Abstraction in 3D

In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. Here New York–based artist Joseph Montgomery discusses how 3D modeling — both actual and virtual — influences his thinking on exhibition making. My day jobs during and after graduate school were always […]

Joseph Montgomery's work as installed in Painter Painter

Joseph Montgomery’s work installed in Painter Painter

va_2012_painterpainter_bug_alpha[1]In Studio Sessions, our ongoing web series, the 15 artists in the Walker-organized exhibition Painter Painter respond to an open-ended query about their practices. Here New York–based artist Joseph Montgomery discusses how 3D modeling — both actual and virtual — influences his thinking on exhibition making.

My day jobs during and after graduate school were always in the art handling, exhibition design, and fabrication fields. I had the opportunity to work for an array of employers in the art world, both commercial and nonprofit, laying out and installing exhibitions. This taught me about the exhibition process and timeline for artwork after it leaves the artist’s studio.

One specific lesson from these jobs was that digital visualizations of gallery spaces could increase communication by better engaging the artists, curators, art-handlers, and fabricators throughout the installation.

It is common practice for institutions to create visual prototypes or surrogates of both space and art. Museums often use foamcore models – as the Walker, SFMOMA and the Getty do – although some create more permanent models (the Menil Collection in Houston, for instance, created models complete with periscopes to view the miniature galleries at eye level). The process of laying out the shows, moving artwork from wall to wall, is deeply satisfying.

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Scale model of The Menil Collection galleries in the exhibitions department

To further explore the potential iterations of an exhibition’s design, I began using Google’s 3D rendering software, SketchUp, on a repeated basis. Such digital layouts of a space can be both helpful and absurd.

One of the reasons I make paintings the way I do is to render a representation of abstraction. This reasoning extends to the titling of the finished painting: “Image” + a number indicating its place in the progress of the studio project.

Interestingly, the painting is least like itself when it is photographed: dimensions are flattened, textures are approximated as pixels. These transformations complete the image but question the veracity of the representation.
The photographic image creates expectations or assumptions about the object. 3D rendering plays with both functions; a flat image stuck on a 3D rendering of a box poorly describes a physical interaction with the work, but it is also useful. It is sufficient with nearly the least amount of information, and that economy is satisfying to me and amusing, much as the layering and materials of a physical collage are disguised and poorly rendered by a photographic image and yet the flat photographic image is assumed to be the pinnacle of description.

Here are two different images of one of my paintings:

1

Image One Hundred Eighty, 2007-13

2

Image One Hundred Eighty, 2007-13

And here it is in the SketchUp world:

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Image One Hundred Eighty, 2007-13, rendered in SketchUp

I have used SketchUp earnestly to expand some of the ideas in my work, particularly the shims. It is useful for imagining scale shifts and the extension of lines:

sketch2

sketch3

Before using this free software on my own projects, I discovered it while working on exhibitions for other artists. For example, here is my rendering of a Dan Flavin installation:

sketch4

sketch5

And here’s the layout for Christian Marclay’s first New York showing of The Clock:

sketch6

My absolute favorite person to work with, Sherrie Levine, used SketchUp to help visualize her recent show at the Whitney. We had fun with the layout and made an animation from the perspective of someone walking through the third floor of the museum:

WhitneySketchupAnimation from Joseph Montgomery on Vimeo.

As my exhibition opportunities have grown and I no longer work for anyone but myself, I have begun using SketchUp as personal layout tool.

For my recently opened exhibition Five Sets Five Reps at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, I have measured and built the digital version of the Brown Gallery, which is in the northeast section of the museum campus.

Here are three animations, the most recent layout being the last animation.

MASS MoCA Sketchup Version 1 from Joseph Montgomery on Vimeo.

MASS MoCA Sketchup Version 2 from Joseph Montgomery on Vimeo.

MASS MoCA Sketchup Version 3 from Joseph Montgomery on Vimeo.

As you can see from these layouts, I like to mix the types of work together. While we could have laid out the show categorically (shims, collages, canvases, cardboards) and segregate the galleries by type, we instead decided to communicate the fact that each genre’s process, forms, and materials overlap. The differences in the genres exist because there are myriad ways of constructing an image that represents abstraction. I use the processes that both originally excite me and precipitate from progress in the studio. We intend Five Sets Five Reps to provide not a timeline but the paintings in context with each other as fluid catalysts.

The three pieces at the Walker are a miniature version of this kind of installation: three different iterations of the wedge, the shim, play roles in the assembly of three different abstract images.

When I make a 3D version of one of my pieces, I usually just make a rectangular box of the same dimensions and depth and stick the flat image on top of the box.

Here’s a grid view of all the potential work for the MASS MoCA show grouped by type of work (shim, collage, canvas, cardboard):

Unknown

And here’s how the three pieces in Painter Painter at the Walker would look in SketchUp:

sketch8

In the end, the physical movement of the work throughout the gallery space of MASS MoCA trumped any sort of digital planning. You can see in the installation shots below that not much of the digital starting point remained.
Here are a two install shots.  For the rest you will have to see the show yourself or just imagine it.  I number the galleries beginning with the blue wall as 1, 2, 3, 4, as you walk walk into the space:

Gallery 1

Gallery 1, Five Sets Five Reps, MASS MoCA

Gallery 2

Gallery 2, Five Sets Five Reps, MASS MoCA

The long views from gallery to gallery, the color of the floors, the change in lighting from the windowed room to the halogen bulb–lit rooms all modified what paintings functioned adjacent to each other and what paintings did not belong in the show at all.

While somewhat quixotic, the SketchUp model still has longevity for my studio practice. I look at it occasionally not as folly but as an interactive relic of decision making. It is very much like collage; the parts are moveable.

If any reader would care to, here are the files that would allow you to install your own version of my show at MASS MoCA: paintinggrid.skp, sketchupmassmoca.skp.

On Nonparticipation: Fatos Ustek, Rachel Anderson, Jeanne Dorado

In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited a range of voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s […]

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In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited a range of voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into literal acts of definition. Following up reflections by Chris Conry, Nabil Ahmed, Keli Garrett, Larne Abse Gogarty, Olga Gonzalez, and Rahila Gupta, we conclude this week by hearing from Fatos Ustek, Rachel Anderson, and Jeanne Dorado. These responses are part of an in-gallery guide created for the exhibition, available in its entirety as a downloadable pdf.

(Non) / 0
By Fatos Ustek
All prefixes are derivational and they provide lexical meaning. The prefix “non” is twofold, standing both for absence and negation. It suffices to show that what has been is no longer there or is not as it used to be. It might indicate a loss, a condition of without and/or amplify the states of lacking. Zero is both a number and the numerical digit used to represent that number in numerals. It has a function in the numeric system and fulfills a central role in mathematics as the additive identity of integers, real numbers, and many other algebraic structures. Zero is also a conceptual image sharing the qualities of “non,” furthering the concept of nothingness. Zero negates and “non” is the counter-positive of something in existence.

The arithmetic operations of addition, subtraction, and multiplication are processes that change an existing value by the force of another number. In applied mathematics, when zero is added to or subtracted from another number, it does not cause a change in the numeric value of that number. But when that number is placed in a multiplication relationship with zero, it loses its numeric value. Division is a function that seeks to break up an entity through a denominator. A complication arises in the process of division when the dividend is zero. The result is no longer definable as it attains multiple values simultaneously, hence is assigned NaN (not a number). Both multiplication and division are processes that can activate a major differentiation in value. As with relationships at large, in mathematics a singular value is always the result of multiple couplings and can be derived by multiple means. That is, the outcome of the two values—introduced to one another at a specific gravity-entropy constellation—might be reached by other relations under variant circumstances. A basic example: 60 is an outcome of 2 and 30, also an outcome of 2 and 120, 5 and 12, and so on. Hence the specificity of the mathematical operation is of great significance, especially when complicated formations and values are at hand (i.e., museum and non, museum and participation, non and participation, and so on).

Fatos Ustek is an independent curator and art critic based in London. She is a member of ICI and AICA TR, the editor of Unexpected Encounters Situations of Contemporary Art and Architecture since 2000, author of Book of Confusions (2012), and founding editor of Nowiswere Contemporary Art Magazine (2008–2012).

When This Thread Snaps
By Rachel Anderson
The revolution won’t be led by red flags and the sound of “Bella Ciao”; it won’t be written about by approved academics whose careers we’ve followed and trusted; it won’t elevate the voices of those we long to hear more of, who affirm us and raise our spirits; it won’t fill our airwaves or our ears with solidarity and the justice for which we stand. It won’t happen between respectable hours and in designated areas, and it won’t have an allocated tea station, information board, or “quiet zone.” There will be no training and organized occupations, no sign-up speaking platforms, no “burn out” support group, no PA system fueled by pedal power, no press photos, no high-visibility vests, no polite unauthoratitive signage.

It will come like a flood in the night, with boundless power and uncatchable form, with inconsistence and unpredictability; it will speak with an invisible voice in a language we won’t understand because we never listened before. It will not see us, and it won’t obey our rational demands or follow the path we prepared for it. It will swell and burst. It will be appalling, misplaced, and reckless. It will prioritize the wrong values, it will dance to the wrong songs and laugh in the wrong places; it will be unreasonable, it will be angry, it will be untamable; it won’t understand that we are the good ones who devoted our lives to this time. We will be left with no choice but to join our old enemies in order to put an end to all this, because we have real work to do and a revolution to prepare for.

Note: Last year I went to a socialist film festival to see a documentary about the 2011 London riots called Wonderland: My Child the Rioter, which presented interviews with young people who were involved in these riots and their parents. There was a panel discussion afterward with a working-class family from the north of England who appeared in the film. The young boy was politicized, angry, and radical; he was a very compelling speaker. I think he was studying politics. The first in his family to go to university, he positioned himself as somewhere between anti-capitalist and Marxist. A woman sitting behind me made a comment during the Q&A that went something like this: “You’re a really bright, articulate young man and I want to congratulate you, but most of those who joined the riots last year weren’t being political.”

The riots took place in August 2011 across London and other cities in the UK. They began after the police shot and killed 29-year-old Mark Dugan in North London. Hundreds of thousands of young people took to the streets and thousands were arrested and given severe prison sentences; five people died. Because of the extensive looting that took place during the riots, the mainstream voice of the media and public undermines these actions as not being “political.”

Rachel Anderson is a creative producer based in London. She is responsible for Artangel, London‘s Interaction program.

What Would Socrates Say?
By Jeanne Dorado
What do I have in common with Jesus, Rosa Parks, George Washington, Fidel Castro, and a Quaker? Mavericks or misfits, we offer our communities alternative paths to follow and infinite ideas to be considered outside of perceived respective norms. While we look like anyone else within our species, the whole is greater than the sum of our parts. We live nonparticipation fiercely, demonstrating leadership and perseverance while going against the grain. We ask tough questions, rock boats, and challenge paradigms collectively.

You want in? Here’s how:
1. By Discussing World History: Beauty, like history, lies in the eye of the beholder. Globalization has ensured that it’s now easier than ever to discover alternative mainstreams, occurrences, and perspectives. Experience is like a prism with many angles from which comes color and light. The shade of the Mankato Massacre of 1862 moved Minnesota forward as an immigrant state, while simultaneously moving us backwards in morality. The experience of bullying started long before the Internet. So how do we define progress? Can progress be Cuba’s coastal conservation or is progress developing resort Rivieras?

2. By Asking More Questions: Born in the 1980s, I was raised to think I was unique and irreplaceable. While I appreciate the sentiment, if I’m not a retail sales goal, I’m a credit goal, or it’s networking, advertising, unique visits. Return on investment. You’re quantifiable in the eyes of a ledger. Numbers are like origami—you can shape a statistic into almost any form and it will skew up (or down) into a life of its own. Origami is two-dimensional, like the sheet of paper you hold now—turning you into the passive subject being dazzled and deceived into responding to a prescribed need for planned obsolescence and mind-numbing consumption. Carry on. Corporatocracy has all the answers. But what is the meaning behind this, and at what and whose cost?

3. By Being Paranoid: Don’t look now, but someone is out to get you. There’s no composite facial sketch, but by taking an observant look to count the logos, brands, and hype you confront daily, you should start to get the right idea.

4. By Living the Difference: Don’t let habit get the best of you. Innovate and evolve, human! The legend of Jesus is that of ultimate nonparticipation. He said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor … and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) The one thing that I’m lacking is no things at all? A profound shift, indeed. Prescribed common sense dictates otherwise, but it is possible to survive without 4G or NYSE—much of the world does this every day.

Why bother?

I’d like to secure a healthy blue dot for the exquisite children that shimmer among us, that they might be assured a life-sustaining planet, shaved ice, and the iridescence of soap bubbles. What could possibly be more important?

Sincerely, nonparticipation is necessary to save ourselves from ourselves. I’m leading the parade and fucking for peace.* Now who’s with me?

* By consent and signed waiver only.

Jeanne Dorado is an advertising professional based in Minneapolis. Obsessions: great advertising, cause marketing, qualitative research, ethnography, travel, Julian Jaynes, total market campaigns.

Influences and Hallucidations: Going Behind Andy Messerschmidt’s Art

Shortly after he completed Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy (2012)–the mixed-media installation just inside the Walker’s Hennepin Avenue entrance–we asked Ely, Minn.–based artist Andy Messerschmidt to share some of the visual and conceptual influences behind his work. He responded with a series of images–from a French visionary environment cobbled together by a French postman to a […]

 Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy (2012)

Andy Messerschmidt, Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy, 2012

Shortly after he completed Friend Me/Follow Me: Graze Anatomy (2012)–the mixed-media installation just inside the Walker’s Hennepin Avenue entrance–we asked Ely, Minn.–based artist Andy Messerschmidt to share some of the visual and conceptual influences behind his work. He responded with a series of images–from a French visionary environment cobbled together by a French postman to a Hindu pilgrimage–plus a few “lines for elucidation/’hallucidation’”: (more…)

On Nonparticipation: Larne Abse Gogarty, Olga Gonzalez, Rahila Gupta

In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into […]

blog_intro_header_02

In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into literal acts of definition. Following up last week’s reflections by Chris Conry, Nabil Ahmed, and Keli Garrett, we hear this week from Larne Abse Gogarty, Olga Gonzalez, and Rahila Gupta. These responses are part of an in-gallery guide created for the exhibition, available in its entirety as a downloadable pdf.

The New New Deal in Art and Politics
By Larne Abse Gogarty
Private and public galleries and institutions are often opposed within contemporary art criticism and discourse with public equated with good, ethical practice, and private equated with corporate baddies. This is problematic insofar as very few, if any, “public” institutions are entirely one or the other. Instead, due to declining public funds for the arts, most work on a mixed income of private and public money. However, in relation to the question of the New Deal and nonparticipation, I want to suggest that this dichotomy also fails to think critically about the relationship between art and the state.

In 1940, the Walker Art Center reopened as part of the Work Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Art Project within their Community Art Centers division. Along with hosting special exhibitions and the private collection of T. B. Walker, it began to run art classes and mount ventures relating to the local community. The WPA Federal Art Project was a huge relief program for unemployed artists and ran alongside others within “Federal One” such as the Federal Theatre, Music, and Writers Projects.

These WPA programs positioned cultural workers as useful members of society, not romantics locked away in garrets. Art, theater, literature, and music sponsored by the New Deal therefore had to straddle the divide between being “socially useful” and aesthetically interesting; quantifiers that were arbitrated by the New Deal administration as well as art critics, institutions, and audiences. Artists engaged in participatory, politicized, and social practice today are often said to face similar challenges in having to face up to “ethical” as well aesthetic criteria.

Many of the cultural workers employed by the WPA had leftist sympathies, particularly those employed by the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Famously, director Hallie Flanagan was asked to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938 and defend the “communistic” tendencies within the plays supported by the FTP. It closed shortly after, largely due to these accusations.

However, those who created works with “communistic” sympathies felt they were indeed being “socially useful”—and that in order to be at all aesthetically interesting, the arts needed to engender forms of resistance to capitalism. This raises the question: socially useful and aesthetically interesting for whom? And how?

When contemporary art discourse derides social practice as instrumentalized, this is because artists are assumed to be doing the job of the state that contributes funding to their creation. What is missing from this debate is a discussion of politics, and intention on behalf of the artist(s). In placing The Museum of Non Participation in conversation with the idea of the New Deal, we get an image of a political order that creates a terrain for conflict, renewal, and a questioning of the relations between state and citizen within the arts. It raises the possibility of the social within artworks as something to be politicized quite explicitly, in a mode that is not didactic but instead capable of prompting a dialectical process for the viewer. All good art is involved with the social. What needs to be asked is what is the “good” in this equation—and thus, where do your politics lie?

Larne Abse Gogarty is a writer and researcher currently doing doctoral research on community art and collective practice in the United States in the History of Art Department at University College, London.

(Non) Participation
By Olga Gonzalez
There is an apparent absence of presence that suggests indifference or maybe worse, collusion and complicity. In Peru, (non) participation in the form of ignorance and prejudice has contributed to a “culture of impunity” despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) recommendations toward the pursuit of justice. In 2003 when Salomón Lerner, the chairman of the TRC, handed in the final report to President Alejandro Toledo, he said it “contains a double outrage: that of massive murder, disappearance and torture; and that of indolence, incompetence and indifference of those who could have stopped this humanitarian catastrophe but didn’t.”

In the aftermath of violence, “I didn’t know” emerged as a common phrase, particularly among upper- and middle-class citizens in Lima. It seems ludicrous to think that the estimated 70,000 victims during the 20-year-long internal armed conflict would have come as a shocking surprise to Peruvian society. The truth is that everybody knew but not everybody cared about the fate of indigenous Andean people who had become main targets in the war. With their identities conveniently conflated with terrorism, indigenous people were perceived as the enemy. Framed as such, they became what Judith Butler calls “ungrievable lives.” This is the inconvenient truth that everybody knows but pretends not to know. Silence and denial then. Denial and silence today. The absence of justice, always. And we all know it!

In “post-conflict” Peru, symbolic reparations in the form of public apologies, memorials, and museums create the illusion of a nation coming to terms, as does the paradigmatic “Never Again.” To remember is not for all. In Peru, differences between political and ethnic factions are pushed to clear delineation. For economic and political elites who justify the military violence as unfortunate but necessary “excesses of war,” to forget is the only path to reconciliation. For the Quechua-speaking peasants, to erase the traces of any sympathy they could have had with the Shining Path guerrillas, particularly at the beginning of the war, is the only path to become “the innocent victim” entitled to adequate economic reparation. These tensions with memory are reflected in the country’s “sites of memory.” The critical visitor to these places might notice the silences, so tangible in their own invisibility, and attempt to denounce and create the missing stories. In other cases, the visitor’s absence condemns the site to oblivion, making (non) participation a powerful means to question a memorial or museum’s failure to challenge the status quo. We forget that to build does not always mean to construct!

Olga Gonzalez is assistant professor of anthropology at Macalester College. Her research examines the relationships between the politics of memory/secrecy, visuality/representation, truth/reconciliation, and violence/subjectivity in Latin America.

The Journey
By Rahila Gupta
Perhaps nonparticipation should not be written off.

When it is unconscious, it is not worth remarking upon because we do not even know what it is in which we have not participated.

Postmodernism presents nonparticipation as an acceptable, alternate reality and deems the political impulse to change it invalid because that would reintroduce the binary idea of right and wrong.

Nonparticipation, however, might be an act of resistance.

If it is actively chosen because the activity that seeks your participation needs to be critiqued, then nonparticipation or noncooperation becomes a critique (compare with the teachings of Gandhi).

But to make the resistance visible and concrete, steps will have to be taken, and in that process nonparticipation will mutate into something other, its alter ego.

It has been my life’s work as a writer and activist, using every political and artistic strategy, to shift resistance and noncommitment from inaction to action.

Whether it is working with women escaping violence, fighting for the right of disabled children to be embraced by the mainstream, standing up against racism or religious fundamentalism, or treading a careful line between the competing claims of race, gender, and class.

So that it becomes an addiction.

So that it becomes as inevitable as drawing breath.

So that you feel the vibrating energy of a group of people embarking on a joint project.

My artistic endeavor is about setting up a honey trap, snagging your emotions, drawing you in, inviting identification, empathy, analysis—all this embedding a call to action.

But to be true to itself, the artistic impulse cannot live in black and white. It must heighten color, muddy the waters; it must tear at the soul with an irreconcilable sense of contradiction; it must take you to the edge of the cliff. You must experience the breathlessness of falling before it draws you back and allows you the sensation of relief.

You walk unsuspecting into the easy rhythm of a ballad, the embrace of a soap opera, the snare of a thriller.

That part of the journey must not be difficult.

I surrender experiment with form, language, and genre.

It is when you have been lured in that the difficult questions will be posed. It is then that I stand to lose my newly won audience. Will you stick with me through the rest of the journey? Will you heed the call to action? Will you resist this relationship that appears to be based on a denial of agency? Or will the attempt to live up to its standards serve the artistic impulse but strangle the political will?

And when all of that has been bridged and you, as one in a hundred, have made the leap of faith, you must face the imperatives of the political—the contradictions between the quest for numbers and the quality of the participation, the insistence on the right political analysis and the right language.

We argue about language because it embeds attitudes, and yet when language changes to signify a break with the past, the landscape of prejudice often doesn’t change but rather ambushes new words with old ideas.

You walk into this purer-than-pure ideological space of the museum, newly enthused by your brush with art, and feel confused.

The activist needs to understand your journey and needs to learn to embrace you.

Rahila Gupta is a writer and activist. Her recent e.book, The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong, a verse novella, is a love story between a mother and her disabled son.

On Nonparticipation: Chris Conry, Nabil Ahmed, Keli Garrett

In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into […]

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In conjunction with Karen Mirza and Brad Butler‘s exhibition The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into literal acts of definition. This week we hear from organizer Chris Conry, artist/writer Nabil Ahmed, and playwright Keli Garrett. These responses are part of an in-gallery guide created for the exhibition, available in its entirety as a downloadable pdf.

What Does It Mean to Not Participate?
By Chris Conry
Let’s start with what “nonparticipation” is not. It is not apathy, protest, or renunciation. Nonparticipation works something like the quantum mechanical concept of the observer effect: to observe a particle is to change it. Nonparticipation is an unstable state that requires consciousness to be observed, but is instantly transformed by that same observation. It starts with pain. Once aware of our nonparticipation, we tell ourselves stories: “I never wanted to be part of that crew.” “The two-party system is inherently flawed.” “I’m the black sheep of this family.” You know there is a thing and you know you ain’t part of it.

Nonparticipation, in another way, is akin to the concept of quantum superposition: a particle exists simultaneously in multiple physical states until it’s observed and gets measured as ice, water, or steam. Nonparticipation is not-yet-participating. During the pain, we have a choice. What is the meaning of our not being an active part of something? Who are we, if we’re not that?

The craft of politics is the self-serving story. I can tell you what it means that the unemployment rate is up, the Dow Jones is down, or the election is too close to call. I can tell you a story to help you be part of (or not part of) some particular set of facts. Nonparticipation, then, is the space where we get to engineer a new story that tangles with, co-opts, or succumbs to the thing we are already re/joining anyhow.

So, if there is a choice to be made, how do we make it?

Once-trusted givers of order are increasingly viewed as unresponsive and self-serving. The US Congress, the church, and the financial system are experiencing crises of legitimacy. People view them as impenetrable or foreign, with power based in history, but ill-suited to our present needs. In response, people are innovating with political forms that are decentralized and democratic: online networks, occupations, and lending circles that are open-ended, personalized, and temporary. These two entities—established institutions and self-organizing people—pose competing claims for legitimacy: one based in authority, the other in authenticity.

So here we are in a museum—excuse me, an art center—that is temporarily hosting a “museum” that is itself not a building, but a multilayered project, including a play by Bertolt Brecht and a reflection on the New Deal. Step outside. In Minnesota we are, in fact, renegotiating the New Deal. Can we afford Medicare? Should we cut Social Security? Should we expand Medicaid? Can we save the New Deal? Do we need a new New Deal? Who’s party to that deal? Should we include immigrants? Should corporations pay? Is working hard and playing by the rules going to get you ahead?

Visiting The Museum of Non Participation, I am reminded that with the pain of alienation, there is freedom. I’m a voter. I’m Lutheran. I have a mortgage. I’m simultaneously a participant and critic of our institutional authorities. As the exceptions to their rule grow more numerous, I have a choice: to plunder what’s left before it is gone or to repurpose and reauthorize what remains.

Chris Conry is an organizer currently working at TakeAction Minnesota, where he leads Organizing a New Economy, a program focused on improving state and federal tax and economic policy.

Notes on Nonparticipation and an Entangled Earth
By Nabil Ahmed
In 1990, the first assessment report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that large-scale global migration due to climate change is the“greatest single impact” on world security. The climate is increasingly acting as a trigger to future conflicts around not only resources but also over migration at an unprecedented scale. A new contested term has entered the political imaginary through an environmental sensibility: climate refugees. The people of the mega deltas and the Island States in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, or in the Caribbean—Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, Vanuatu, Maldives, or the Bahamas—face a radical future with the rising oceans and the loss of their state.

Statelessness is in itself not a new concept. Historically, however, it is embedded in either multistate systems or it forms part of a complex national identity, geopolitically present through separatist movements that result in actions ranging from negotiating representation to guerrilla wars. Climate change will produce a completely new definition of stateless population where geographic territory submerges, redefining the very terms of politics that shake the foundations of a political philosophy understood by Carl Schmitt as an epic battle between the land and the sea. Can a state still exist without territory under international law? And what will be the rights of the people? The global north wants to protect a pristine nature that no longer exists, but at the same time use national immigration laws designed as deterrents and as instruments of antagonism, animosity, and violence on the human body.

Nonparticipation might be one way to understand this disparity between the global north and the global south. The first is responsible for the majority of the world’s carbon emissions and extractivist fetishism, while the second pays the price through their historical nonparticipation in the global economy and epistemologies of the north. But I argue it is precisely in their nonparticipation that space for politics in the global south has opened up. The people of the global south share nonparticipation with nature after centuries of domination. In politics after nature in the Anthropocene—the geological epoch coproduced by humans that resonates the deep time of the planet—the global south and nature come to the table for a proposed contract between Earth and its inhabitants, poised between a gesture and a protocol.

Nabil Ahmed is an artist and writer who lives and works in London. He is currently undertaking doctoral research at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths, London, where he also teaches. His practice and current research interest is in nonhuman political agency and the making of contemporary ecological interventions in the Bengal Delta.

12.18
(Untitled)
By Keli Garrett

While I wrote this I kept thinking, I guess it is okay that every day approximately thirty-three people die from gun violence. That our violence is quotidian, expected, anticipated, and therefore our sacrament. That when seven women and twenty-six seven-year-olds are shot up, missing limbs and chins and fingers, life will go on here as usual. The NRA guys will get together and buy T-shirts with guns on them, renew their memberships, and assemble to heckle the grieving parents and families of the victims. Surely, I thought, the rest of us shouldn’t be condemned to sharing the same sky with such people. Really? I thought. Yes, really, was the answer.

THE NEW DEAL

I

At any point
when
the violence
has been
too hard
to bear

I’ve checked out
And

checked in
to video
moving picture,
word streams
of aimless,
narcissistic rambling
and have opted in
to commune
with the solipsistic
who center
themselves because
really, what else is there to see?

Potholes and fractures
don’t exist
except in
the movies played by
James Cagney and Matt Damon,
and, really, what else is there? besides those
or the two by two
copy cats
that follow the
same smack
injected into the arms of
nameless cats
Black,
who having no recourse but to play

the words as they are written

happily ingest the poison,
the stuff of which
their dreams will be made,
not of Kubla Kahn
but of
never.

II
In a matter of moments

We were galvanized.

Some ranted
Some ran

We drank instead and
Closed our thoughts
No more dark things

We instead
Dared dream

Nightmares can be forgotten

Deluded
We are what we think

Thanked our lucky stars

On est a l’abri nulle part

That we live in a place
Where one can
Shop all day and night

And that food is copious and plentiful

Plenty

We decided instead
To eat too much

Living the Dream

Devouring our distresses

Anything not to peer into oneself
An abyss without and within

Our holes are vast though,
And nothing will fill them

Keli Garrett is a playwright and performer. She is a 2011 recipient of a McKnight Advancement Grant from the Playwrights’ Center, where she is also a Core Member Playwright.

Non Participation: Acts of Definition and Redefinition

What does it mean to name and define not only a body of work, but a political or philosophical position, an artistic practice, or relationship to a wider social context? These are questions propelling The Museum of Non Participation, a long-running project and Walker exhibition by artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. Through the very […]

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What does it mean to name and define not only a body of work, but a political or philosophical position, an artistic practice, or relationship to a wider social context? These are questions propelling The Museum of Non Participation, a long-running project and Walker exhibition by artists Karen Mirza and Brad Butler. Through the very act of naming and identifying their project under the concept of “nonparticipation,” the artists activate a collective process of inquiry around this inherently malleable and expansive term.

For Mirza and Butler, “nonparticipation” speaks to urgent social conditions and pervasive everyday realities. As they describe it, “one aspect of nonparticipation is to acknowledge that it is a life condition, both consciously and unconsciously exercised in each of our lives. Internationally it exists in the excess of one’s own society, which is often gained at the expense of another’s nameless plight elsewhere. Locally it is recognizable when, for example, people encounter an issue that they believe is valid or necessary—say, homelessness, the right to protest, the Iraq War, but in that simultaneous moment they ignore it or reject it.”

As nonparticipation surfaces in our daily lives, Mirza and Butler assert that rather than being a position of negation or denial, it is a position from which to speak.

In conjunction with The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal, we’ve invited multiple voices to address “non participation”—within the context of personal and professional lives or thinking on the convergences of art and political praxis—with the aim of bringing the expansive spirit of Mirza and Butler’s practice into literal acts of definition. In coming weeks, we’ll publish texts written by these international and local collaborators: Nabil Ahmed, Rachel Anderson, Chris Conry, Jeanne Dorado, Keli Garrett, Larne Abse Gogarty, Olga Gonzalez, Rahila Gupta, and Fatos Ustek. These responses are part of an in-gallery guide created for the exhibition, available in its entirety as a downloadable pdf.

For them, nonparticipation is understood variously in relationship to large-scale global migration and climate change, post-conflict situations, endemics of violence, daily habits, agency and identification as a citizen, social welfare, and resistance and revolution.

We extend an invitation to you to take on nonparticipation in your own terms.

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