Flash Points

Pardon this Brief Commercial Interruption: Economies of Scale or Too Big to Fail?

Great Small Works, “The Toy Theater of Terror As Usual, Episode 9: Doom 1996, A photomontage news serial,” created by John Bell, Trudi Cohen, Stephen Kaplin, Jenny Romaine, Mark Sussman, Roberto Rossi. First performed at Performance Space 122, NYC. Photo courtesy of Mark Sussman

In 1934, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis coined the phrase “the curse of bigness” to describe the disastrous effect that concentrated economic power can have on small business, communities, and citizen-led governments. For Brandeis and other Progressive-era crusaders, the “curse’ was monopolies like the New Haven Railroad and robber baron JP Morgan.

Curated by Larissa Harris, The Curse of Bigness at the Queens Museum of Art (May 16 – October 13, 2010) heeds Brandeis’s advice, reflecting the dangers of present-day behemoths. Avoiding didacticism, the show engages with a broad range of DIY strategies, culled from art world insiders like Dennis Oppenheim, to downtown theater mainstays Great Small Works, to West Coast wizards of destruction, Survival Research Labs. Presented here are not aesthetic objects to be contemplated from afar, but rather strategies to determine the scope of what can be accomplished on a human, more sustainable scale.

Damon Rich, “Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center,” installation view at the Queens Museum of Art (May 10 – September 27, 2009). Photo: Damon Rich.

In the search for solutions, disciplinary distinctions are ceded to innovative tactics. Harris’s first exhibition at the Queens Museum, Damon Rich’s Red Lines Housing Crisis Learning Center, crossed the boundaries of architecture, education, and activism to explore the relationship between redlining practices and the recent foreclosure crisis. The project originated at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAV) where Harris served as Associate Director before taking her post at the Queens Museum. Using its position within a research institution to commission projects by artists such as Michael Smith, John Malpede, and Simon Starling, MIT’s CAV encouraged artists to investigate new ways of thinking about how information is introduced to the world.

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The Curse of Bigness channels this drive towards research, interdisciplinarity, and problem-solving. Interspersed throughout the museum, it maintains the feel of multiple discussion platforms, models, or research laboratories rather than a single exhibition. In the can’t-get-enough-of-it video B-U-S-I-N-E-S-S (2010), hip-hop artist Tara De Long translates her rants about conspicuous consumerism, usually made for a club audience, into video, while artist, researcher, teacher and fashion designer J. Morgan Puett channels the look and feel of her agrarian research institute, Mildred’s Lane, into a workshop/archive/installation. Although these projects could not be any more dissimilar in their tone or approach, they share a common urgency—that something is amiss, something must be done about it, it must happen right now, using whatever tools necessary. It is this spirit of bricolage, of using whatever materials at hand to transform or improve a given situation, that unites the exhibition.

J. Morgan Puett, “HumanUfactorY,” 2010. Mixed media. Installation view at the Queens Museum of Art.

Several months ago, I attended the class, Foresight is 2010, taught by FEAST founder Jeff Hnilicka at the storefront project TradeSchool, where we discussed the resurgence of analog technologies and mercantile exchange.  FEAST’s tactic—using community dinners to fund sustainable art projects—draws on barn-raising tradition for grassroots art support that, like InCUBATE’s Sunday Soup in Chicago, have been funding art outside of institutions for years.  Two trend forecasters in attendance one from Nokia and another from an environmental consulting firm—suggested that Hnilicka was spot-on in suggesting that people are beginning to reconsider their relationship to technology. Not that they wish to become neo-Luddites, but rather some artists are using the current economic moment to consider the ever-expanding role of technology and whether it has begun to exceed our own human technology (aka the body). It is these themes that are at the root of Italian theorist Bifo’s writing about the contemporary relationship between work and alienation.

At a 16Beaver event to discuss the publication of Art Work, a newspaper about labor, art and economics, artist Lize Mogel asked participants to create a pie chart mapping their income and another mapping their output. Whether made by an artist, curator, or art educator, each map of output revealed the overwhelming amount of time everyone spent on email. It seems that the urge to be in constant contact, to covet the fastest gadget, to work at any given hour—this is the present day curse.

If design is about solving problems, then perhaps art may be about creating them. Embracing Thanatos as much as Eros, the works in The Curse of Bigness do not propose simple solutions or easy outcomes. Just as Art21 Season One artist Andrea Zittel has espoused a motto of “liberation through limitation,” the artists here seem to suggest that smaller or fewer really ain’t so bad.


  1. Ross Selavy says:

    When did the message trump the medium? When did aesthetics become irrelevant? (“Presented here are not aesthetic objects to be contemplated from afar, but rather strategies to determine the scope of what can be accomplished on a human, more sustainable scale.”) When did political &/or social &/or (fill in your cause here) commentary become the sine qua non of art?

    “THE CURSE OF BIGNESS channels this drive towards research, interdisciplinarity, and problem-solving. Interspersed throughout the museum, it maintains the feel of multiple discussion platforms, models, or research laboratories rather than a single exhibition.” To paraphrase the Gospel according to St. Tina, “What’s art got to do, got to do with it?”

    Yes, the history of art of includes myriad examples of works that convey political or social messages. Picasso’s GUERNICA. Gericault’s THE RAFT OF THE “MEDUSA”. However, these are works that, even without the back-story, are moving. (Indeed, how many people now know the social politics behind Gericault’s RAFT? Still, it’s a jaw-dropping painting.) On the other hand, and without pointing a finger at THE CURSE OF BIGNESS, a good deal of contemporary art is ideologically puerile, aesthetically bereft, executionally inept, and boring.

    I admit here to a strong personal antipathy to art that lectures. I consider it a failure if a work of art depends upon a viewer’s reading of the words it contains or a title, caption, label, artist’s statement, project description, etc. (At the very least, such art is exclusionary with respect to viewers who don’t speak the language.) Art should be universal. A work of art, all by itself, should communicate. One doesn’t need to understand Spanish or French or to read a wall label to be moved by GUERNICA or THE RAFT OF “THE MEDUSA”. If I want to read, I’ll read something in a place designed for reading, say, a library. I expect a different experience in a gallery or museum from anyone who calls him/herself an artist rather than a propagandist.

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  2. Erin Sickler says:

    I don’t think that anyone is disparaging aesthetics here. In fact, it would be very difficult to classify much of the work in The Curse of Bigness as didactic or anti-aesthetic. J. Morgan Puett’s installation is beautiful (her residency/research institute Mildred’s Lane is one giant aesthetic experiment) and Guy Ben-Ner’s video “Wild Boy,” is filled with arresting visual puns. It is more that these artists do not privilege the dichotomy of message versus medium but rather develop singular aesthetics that also serve as tools for investigation. Certainly, the Curse of Bigness could have a little more visual cohesiveness, but at least it avoids engaging in platitudes about form or ornament, which are so common in the world of art speak. See the show if you can. Despite your objections to my post, you might like it.

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  3. Ross Selavy says:

    Dear Ms. Sickler,

    My apologies if my post came across as a rant. I was not objecting to your post nor trying to point out any aesthetic delinquencies in THE CURSE OF BIGNESS. I (obviously) overreacted to your language about “discussion platforms, models, or research laboratories” and “aesthetic objects” vs. “strategies.” I was (clearly ineptly) criticizing a trend in contemporary art that venerates message and denigrates aesthetics.

    It seems to me that, if the message is the sine qua non, then the work of art becomes irrelevant. Back to the future with Conceptualism!

    The problem is, Conceptualism resulted in dubious works of art and lousy exhibitions. “Few honest visitors would deny the tedium, or the inappropriateness, of viewing on the walls of modern galleries material that could better be seen, as the artists often admitted, in catalogs and books.” -William C. Seitz, ART IN THE AGE OF AQUARIUS

    My quarrel is with contemporary art in which the political, social, environmental, etc., message is paramount, and concern for the aesthetics, or even the ability of the artwork alone to convey that message, is secondary at best. In my experience, such works rarely communicate effectively, and captions, labels, artist’s statements, project descriptions, etc., are often used to compensate for the work’s deficiencies. To me, that’s not art. It’s pamphleteering in a gallery.

    R.S.

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