The term “emulsion to emulsion” has somehow stuck in my head from my undergraduate days, taking courses in photography. It is the phrase meant to remind you of the placement needed in order to expose a negative correctly: place the side that received the light down against the top face of the paper, also the light sensitive side. This is one of those phrases that may stick around – for the sake of scanning images, let’s say – but it will no longer bare any logical relationship to the original technical process, like using the “CC” field of an email, or hitting “shift” on a computer keyboard.
I started thinking about this because I have been working for the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles to archive and organize her past projects. Mierle Ukeles has been an artist since the sixties, becoming well-known with her performances involving the city of New York City’s sanitation workers. She participated in the recent exhibition WACK! and has been canonized as a feminist artist of a certain generation. As I scan the only slides of these performances and other ephemeral works long-gone, I say to myself, “emulsion to emulsion.” This not only reminds me to place the piece of film the correct way in the scanner, but it also orients the slide in the same way it was held in the camera while capturing these past moments.
The slides I’m scanning for Mierle Ukeles are older than I am. There is an implied history in this process, but clearly “photography” is changing. I see more than a simple quantitative shift in our experience of photographic images. It is not just that there are more images and that they are easier to produce, but that images exist with the status of some vestigial agnomen, photography in name only, which relies on the premise that “photography” once existed.
Image reproduction on the Internet has become a runaway phenomenon. It is widely understood as the largest threat to copyright law, but it sounds hyperbolic to say that the Internet alone has changed photography. (For the record, most reproductions on the Internet are protected by Fair Use precedents thanks to 2 Live Crew.) In the case of documented performance and ephemera, the concern about the sanctity of images is very real, but it is complicated by the very impulse that photography can also aim to dismantle the art object.
By now I’ve come to accept that the art of something sometimes lies beyond the thing itself. I’ve found this in my experience documenting and archiving for other artists as well as in my recent role as an intern for the e-flux video rental on Essex Street in the Lower East Side. Working with the extensive and growing catalog of videos, I have been responsible for insuring the continued life of the material, in all different formats, for the sake of this organic archive and exhibition. This has amounted so far to little more than copying “disk images” – another linguistic vestige derived from the “image” – onto a hard drive. This little image of a disk essentially emulates the commands of the DVD as well as the information stored on it. The immaterial image here has come to represent a set of functions to be carried out.
Much like that other use of the latin-derived “flux,” the projects at e-flux utilize the potential for enactment, the change possible through many iterations of representation. Both in their journal—which opts for a print-on-demand model—and in the e-flux video rental, the definitive physical form is not so much rejected as it is perpetually deferred. Through many reproductions one actually ensures the life of what is essentially there, which we know is not what is really there so much as it is the functions to be carried out. I’m reminded here, and with archiving generally, that truly the best way to ensure something carries on into the future is not to worry about protecting it, but rather to let it live, to copy it, reproduce, ensure its procreation. In the end, that sounds pretty human.
In a recent unit with an introductory Studio Art class, my students created paintings that redefined power visually in a variety of ways. After looking at the work of Season 3 artists Ida Applebroog, Laylah Ali and Cai Guo-Qiang, students created sketches that literally and symbolically represented power from unique perspectives.
By viewing different segments grouped by a single theme, students had the opportunity to experience how three very different artists worked with the theme of power and depicted it in ways that included:
- the power of one person over another
- how groups of people wield power
- the power of nature
- the power of “doing nothing” and being an “innocent” bystander
As we moved through the unit it became clear that students were not just working with a theme, but working through the theme and discovering how they themselves saw power from different perspectives. The expectation that they would explore various approaches to redefining power visually set up a period prior to working on the finished paintings where they had to dig deeper and move beyond stereotypes and knee-jerk reactions. This produced beautiful and surprising results.
In a reflective class discussion after the paintings were complete , we talked about what made this unit different. More than one student remarked that seeing the videos and creating a variety of proposals for the paintings made them think about the theme over time, instead of coming up with final ideas quickly. Other students reflected on the fact that the paintings took shape through the sketching prior to the final piece.
Have you used Art:21 to get students to think about a particular theme in ways that produced surprising results?
Just last month I made the move that many young artists make. I left Chicago for New York City in what must seem like horribly bad timing given the many warnings from friends being laid off and rents still reflecting the inflated real estate market. I’ve heard more than one story of labor going unpaid simply because businesses that normally profit from the production, installation, or discourse of art don’t have the cash flow they once did. This, to get on the high horse momentarily, is an injustice that occurs simply because it is allowed. In short, freelance labor has no weight to throw around, unlike many of the other overhead costs in the arts. In addition, as one fellow freelancer put it, we are the fat that gets trimmed.
With this in mind, I made the move to New York knowing that I might get a little leaner. My one advantage has been my status as an MFA student at Bard College during the summer, which comes with a supportive community that has afforded me opportunities in freelance art handling, artist assisting and the like. These specific experiences will serve as source material for my writing to come, but hopefully not for ringing endorsements or rigorous critiques. Over the next two weeks, I will speak from where I stand.
Just a couple weeks ago I stood here, in front of Walead Beshty’s photographs at Wallspace in Chelsea. Offered a day of work to help install, I gladly moved towering photographic abstractions from one wall to the other as the artist and gallery directors worked out the systematic hanging of the show. This system, as it turned out, was absurdly over-determined — which I gather was the point — evidenced by the strange hanging of one work off the edge of the wall.
Production and process is grounded not only by the abstractions — photograms to be accurate — but also by the portraits of people, places, and machines involved in Beshty’s artistic output. Production is mimicked as both subject and object, while the photograph hovers between that which is and that which represents. As we paused during the installation process, Walead took a photo of me holding a rolled-up print.
Alienated by this labor as well as the photographic process, I worked the rest of the week for the Armory Show, which stormed through the city with little collateral damage. My feelings have always been that this art fair gets the attention it deserves, but it’s worth a mention for its ability to spark conversation about the state of the art world and the economy around it. This year it was the query: Is the economic bust “good for art” (whatever that means)?
Although in no need of attention, I found more at stake across town at the otherworldly Gagosian. This uptown affair might have gone under my radar had I not been hooked-up with a couple of days assisting the artist, Richard Phillips. At the time, his upcoming show at the most coveted gallery in New York was still hanging in his Chelsea studio, and that is where I first came to know his images.
Culled from sources of power and desire, his paintings might be easily dismissed as fashionably misogynist, if not for their sex appeal then for their welcoming at Gagosian uptown. A smiling nude woman bends over and poses in front of a backdrop that advertises The Kitchen; a portrait of two Bowery bums titled “New Musem” delivers quite simply a history of the art world’s tie to real estate and class divides; A marine looks straight out of the image with the Northern European landscape behind him, but in another image Castro is drawn on the stomach of a model who holds a cigar to his drawn lips. These combinations are in themselves contradictory, complicated, and therefore a risk, but it is not just in the images that Phillips plays his hand. Phillips appears not to shy away from his own complicity in the power of the culture industry. Few young artists have yet to accept that role when they blindly scramble for any gallery that will have them.
Balancing between cynicism and deference towards the powers that be, I’ll conclude with a conversation from Bettina Funcke’s catalog essay for Richard Phillips’s show titled “New Museum” (written upside-down):
“I like his work.”
“It’s weird, his painting.”
“It’s mysterious. I don’t understand it, and that’s why I like it… and I can see why people put all kinds of theory on it.”
“Do you think he needs to be a good painter to paint these images, I mean, in the sense of craft? It takes a long time, he says.”
“It’s all about if he achieves something…”
“Do you think he’s good?”
“As a painter, I think he’s better than Jeff Koons. Not as an artist… But if you only compare Koons’ paintings and his, he’s better.”
“He’s very good.”
“He’s so weird. I like him.”
“There is no soft there… I mean, in the work.”
“But he’s soft as a person, especially for a successful man.”
“But probably not with everybody…”
“The titles are important.”
“He’s pretty reliant on the word.”
“He’s really into power.”
“He often shows images of subjugation. Or these other images of power, from the other direction.”
“These are the questions.”
What’s happening now:
- The Sound of Silence, an exhibition of works by Alfredo Jaar (Season 4), is on view at Galerie Lelong in New York through May 2. Visitors are invited to enter an enclosed aluminum structure that presents an 8-minute silent film. Read more about the exhibition here.
- Read Quinn Latimer’s interview with Season 3 artist Ellen Gallagher for Modern Painters. Gallagher’s first exhibition in London is on view at South London Gallery through May 2.
- Her Memory, an exhibition of recent works by Season 2 artist Kiki Smith, is on view at the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona through May 24.
- Roni Horn’s first major museum show in the U.K. is on view at Tate Modern through May 25. Watch a webcast of the Season 3 artist in conversation with curator James Lingwood; art historian Briony Fer; and Tate Curator Mark Godfrey here.
- Through June 1, two new videos by Allora & Calzadilla (Season 4) are on view at the Museum Haus Esters Krefeld in Germany.
- Andrea Zittel and Shahzia Sikander (both Season 1) are included in Fashioning Felt at Cooper-Hewitt, a survey of more than 70 contemporary objects made of the material. The exhibition is on view through September 7.
- Ann Hamilton (Season 1) has collaborated with the Los Angeles-based workshop Gemini G.E.L. to produced new works, including three 3-dimensional objects and twenty-five prints. A reception with artist and a book signing will be held on March 19 from 6 to 8pm.
It’s easy for contemporary art cynics to criticize the Bushesque debasement of language that goes on every day in the art world. I’ve actually started to take to the byzantine charms of the polysyllabic press release; there’s something endearing about the wild tilting at the semantic windmill that goes on, something loveble about its trumped-up claims to elucidate the work at hand. (Here’s a fun game: read out a press release to a friend and get them to draw what they think the art described looks like). What is starting to grate is the blanket use of the term practice to describe what an artist does. It’s fascinating to trace the mutation of the word from output to work to its current incarnation, which is more redolent of the work of town planners, or pharmaceutical companies, or small-town doctors, than it is of visual artists. Certainly the linguistic evolution (I use the term advisedly) is a testament to actual changes in the way artists work (and yes, many artists are sort of like town planners these days). The problem comes up when artists whose work sits outside of this rather narrow definition of the daily grind have to be discussed. You might call what Fred Wilson does his practice, but how about Peter Doig? Barbara Kruger, yes, but Richard Serra? And how about Martin Puryear?
I think that the distinction that I’m trying to examine is the age-old one between the maker and the thinker (and, perhaps, to explore the dangers of thinking of them as mutually exclusive). During the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci made a point of distinguishing between the painter and the sculptor in his Treatise on Painting from the late 15th century. In what was almost certainly a dig at his younger rival (and quite successful sculptor) Michelangelo, da Vinci described sculpture as a “wholly mechanical exercise.” Marcel Duchamp’s final nail in the coffin nearly a century ago made discussions of technique redundant (so we’re told). However, the “mechanical exercises” linger on while the words used to describe them now seem archaic and a bit fussy. It’s certainly the case that the art world’s lexicon of adjectives is an exclusive one that presupposes a certain jumping-through of hoops. Puryear is a good example of an artist for whom the standard contemporary art vocabulary isn’t nearly elastic enough. So how to discuss his work?
Looking at Puryear, I was reminded of certain passages in the writings of the late Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi. There’s no biographical or even national commonalities between the two, and I’ve no idea whether or not Puryear is familiar with Levi’s books, but there are a couple of quotes which could perhaps illuminate the historical strangeness of Puryear’s purview—and the need for a better vocabulary to address what he does. This first from Levi’s 1987 book The Wrench (published in the US as The Monkey Wrench). The book’s protagonist, Faussone, is a rigger who tells various anecdotes about his working life over the course of the book. Faussone’s attitude to his work elucidates the value of “the touch” in a way that sheds light on Puryear’s work:
I tell you, doing things you can touch with your hands has an advantage: you can make comparisons and understand how much you’re worth.
Another example of this unexpected parallel is Levi’s essay “A Bottle of Sunshine” from his 1985 collection of essays, Other People’s Trades. In this essay, Levi examines human beings’ peculiar ability to create receptacles designed with an eye to “foresee the behaviour of matter”:
…man is a builder of receptacles; a species that does not build any is not human by definition. In short, it seems to me that to fabricate a receptacle is…exquisitely human.
Up next is Tim Ridlen, an artist and writer who has recently relocated to New York City from Chicago. Tim holds a BFA in Studio Art and a BA in Visual and Critical Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently pursuing his MFA at the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, Bard College (expected 2010). At the same time, he is the Senior Editor of Boot Print, a publication out of St. Louis, MO, a New York City correspondent for Bad at Sports, and has recently written reviews for New City in Chicago.
(continued from Part 1…)
My students and I had knocked on the door of the Éloignement office of the Préfecture in Nantes. The woman who answered asked us what we wanted and why we were there. My students said, “We came to learn about the Préfecture and to ask you what éloignement means.” After we established the understanding that it was indeed a strange situation for us to be asking her this question, she remarked that it was ironic that of all the offices in the Préfecture, we would be knocking on hers. She explained to us that she oversaw the deportation of migrants sans-papiers (undocumented immigrants). She was apprehensive when she opened the door because the people who come to her office are in the situation of imminent deportation or they are activists who come to protest on the immigrants’ behalf. She said that as a victim of aggression, she found her job sometimes stressful. However, she had worked in the same office for fifteen years and would stay on.
After leaving, the students and I talked about the exchange that took place. What was necessary for the conversation to have even happened was the establishment of rapport or mutual trust. However, one student noted that she didn’t feel comfortable identifying herself as an artist when talking with the woman. As artists are often associated with liberal political views, the woman might have questioned our motives for talking with her and been less forthcoming about what is admittedly a sensitive subject in France. However, this raised an ethical dilemma. Did it count as lying or withholding the truth for us not to tell her that we were artists? But we were not there to judge or condemn her. We arrived at her door due to our curiosity, and she had respected it by speaking with us.
The next week, we considered the question of documentation. Specifically, how does the presence of a camera affect an exchange between individuals? These days, people are often nervous in the presence of a camcorder because they are afraid of appearing on YouTube. Perhaps some exchanges can only take place off camera. In an earlier conversation, we had talked about the use of video by activists during protests to document instances of police brutality. One student expressed doubt about this kind of “speaking truth to power.” She explained that she had participated in a protest in which she and others were standing with linked arms with scarves tied under their eyes to hide their identities. In response, policemen pulled their scarves down and took photographs of each of their faces. Given the ubiquity of surveillance cameras mounted in public spaces, it is in some ways surprising that people are more nervous about cameras wielded by other ordinary citizens.
Documentation can take a number of forms, including photography, video, writing, and oral histories (recorded or told in passing conversations). We talked about what is gained and lost by allowing an experience to maintain its own integrity or by committing it to documentation. In both cases, the live moment of interaction can never be replaced (this can also be said of performance) but it is in the retelling or mediation of an experience that makes it possible to share it with others, and hopefully generate dialogue and other meanings.
We decided to test out these ideas by returning to the nearby university campus, this time with a video camcorder in hand. At the campus entrance gate, we saw a poster announcing an open debate between faculty and students regarding the government’s proposed reforms to higher education policy (which includes eliminating a financial program) and the decision of the majority of students and faculty to go on strike. Some of the students shot video footage and did some informal interviews with students and professors. Another student had a long conversation with a lab technician about his job and the relationship between art and science.
We were interested in pursuing the question of this relationship further. Last week, a friend of one of the students, who is currently studying physics at the university, gave us an introductory lesson on Einstein’s theory of relativity. We spoke about the relationship between conceptual art and physics in terms of using abstract models to represent invisible forces. And how perhaps Marcel Duchamp is the art historical equivalent of Albert Einstein.
In the workshop, we often start with identifying our common questions and concerns (artistic and social), and looking for ways to address them outside of the classroom, often with other people. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time, and at other times, it’s a matter of responding spontaneously to the circumstances at hand. Now we’re trying to figure out together how to translate these experiences and observations into the gallery to share with an audience. We already know something will be lost in the white cube, but hopefully something will be gained as well.
To continue from my first post, at Artistic Noise, we teach a curriculum that focuses on issues relevant to the lives of incarcerated and system-involved youth and uses art to encourage them to develop his or her voice. For every topic we explore, we study the work of contemporary artists who are creating work related to the one at hand. Our use of contemporary art can be as in-depth as creating an artwork inspired by an original piece or as simple as a daily check-in question. We have the luxury of ninety-minute classes to explore a different idea about contemporary artwork in almost every session.
Violence is something that affects so many of these teens. On a recent field trip to MoMA, we looked at, and took back with us, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Death by Gun). Our students used his poster-sized artwork to create books with their own views on gun violence. We have also explored Walid Ra’ad‘s work, Oh, God, He Said Talking to a Tree, while discussing the issue of violence. Through these in-depth discussions, the students explore why contemporary artists, such as Gonzalez-Torres and Ra’ad, choose the materials and imagery they do to convey their idea, meaning, or message.
In our art and entrepreneurship studio, we have an entire wall of examples of contemporary artwork. Our programs are based on the Restorative Justice philosophy, in which we begin and end every group in a circle with a check-in question and a check-out question. Quite often, our check-in question will relate to the contemporary art wall. Recently, we asked students to choose a piece and say one word that they felt described it. One of the boys chose a photo of a woman wearing a shirt with the Jenny Holzer truism stating ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE. The discussion about the artwork was lively, excited, and involved. Not knowing that this piece was part of a series entitled Truisms, the young man described the work as “the truth.”
Paddy Johnson interviewed Jenny Holzer for New York Press about her new show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City (it opened yesterday, March 12).
Titled PROTECT PROTECT, the exhibition is packed into one floor of the Upper East Side museum and shows a selection of Holzer’s work from the last two decades.
Following is a short excerpt from an information-packed interview that covers the technical execution of Holzer’s works, her thoughts about the curation of text and the role of intuition in her art:
Paddy Johnson: You’ve talked about how you like your work to be socially useful. In your opinion, what are the more useful capacities art can serve today?
Jenny Holzer: A translation is that I want to be useful somehow to justify my existence. I don’t think that art has to be useful, at least not in any straightforward way. I don’t want art in service. But good art can be responsive, alive to and so truthful about what’s around, and that’s potentially helpful. Being awestruck, dumbstruck and transfixed by art can be dandy. And being aroused, stunned, terrified, lulled, intrigued, confounded, freed, schooled and euphoric is a lot, and art can do that and more.
PJ: Indexable text on the Internet has created both the desire and need for textual curation. Has this influenced your practice in any way?
JH: Since I stopped writing, I’m always pulling text off the web and trying to put it in order so that I can give collections to people.The Redaction, Hand and Map paintings at the Whitney are a result of this activity. I searched for declassified and other sensitive material on the war in Iraq and the treatment of detainees in hopes of understanding more about what happened, then I silk-screened the pages that seemed most representative and telling. Often I chose first-person accounts because the “I” stays alive and helps me understand and reply to the history. And to my surprise, I’ve been picking images sometimes rather than text, so that the stories can be glimpsed rather than read. I’m working on the installation of these paintings for the Whitney and am finding that the hanging can reflect the original searches at times and that’s interesting.
Read the whole interview here.
noun – a loud, surprising, irritating, or unwanted sound
In 2001, I was approached by Fran Sherman of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project to help develop an arts curriculum for a group of incarcerated girls. I never thought that eight years later I would be so heavily involved in this work. Fran and I began working on a mixed media visual autobiography project with a small group of girls in a Boston detention center. From the very beginning, the power artmaking had in such an institutional setting was obvious. Creativity and the freedom of expression involved in art is a sharp contrast from the daily life of a young person confined in a correctional facility. Through structured arts and entrepreneurship programming, the youth we work with feel safe expressing their experiences, ideas, and opinions. They feel empowered once they realize their perspective is valuable, important, and can reach a broader public.
It was through creating this original curriculum that Hear Us Make Artistic Noise (H.U.M.A.N.) in Boston and Artistic Noise in NY were formed. Both are small non-profit organizations that combine arts and entrepreneurship to build teens’ strengths, improve their ties to the community, and empower them within the juvenile justice system to advocate for themselves. As a small grassroots organization, we are able to stay in close contact with the youth we work with for many years. We focus on the transitional time from incarceration through the return home and to community. It is only through this continued support that we can really begin to impact the lives of young people involved in the justice system.
One of our original members who began working with us while incarcerated in Boston at the age of 18 is now the Assistant Director of H.U.M.A.N. The impact an arts program can have on a young person is best said in her own words:
Sitting on the inside, behind bars, made me feel like a criminal, but I knew I wasn’t. I was broken down and emotionally hurt from things that had happened and things that were to come. My time inside was like a vacation from my negative experiences. When I aged, out I was on my own and had to make the right decisions, but it’s hard to go straight after you have already taken the wrong road. The streets are like a drug—they’re addictive—and keep calling you and calling you. But my art teacher asked me if I wanted to take my art further. I told her yeah. Now look at me—I named H.U.M.A.N.—I’m a founding member, I’m selling my work, I never go broke, and I’m staying off the streets. But it’s hard for me to come up after all the things I’ve seen and had happen to me. I like doing art because it relaxes me, and all my hate is on paper, not in me.
Many of the young people we work with do not necessarily consider themselves artists at first. In fact, many of our most involved members began the program saying they couldn’t draw. Our philosophy is rooted deeply in contemporary art and does not initially focus on technique but on ideas. Art provides a visual language that can be powerful and direct. It offers a venue where youth can cope with and communicate their life experiences—even when challenging and difficult—and assert their voice positively.
Like many contemporary artists and activists, we focus on both the individual process and the ability of collaboration to initiate dialogue about social and political issues. In so many circumstances, society fails our young people. Laws are created that greatly affect their lives but rarely reflect their voice. Allowing youth to develop their individual and collaborative voice encourages students to experience a sense of personal accomplishment, develop new relationships, and become part of a community. Artistic Noise takes this process one step further by providing these youth a platform to articulate their ideas, concerns, and experiences to other people.