“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” —Guy Debord (1931-1994)
In the spring of 2011, the UK-based interventionist art duo known as Benrik launched Situationist, an iPhone app influenced by the mid-century avant-garde movement of the same name. Designed to “make your everyday life more thrilling and unpredictable,” the app used geolocation technology to alert members to each other’s proximity and encourage them to interact in random situations. Curiosity got the best of me; I could not help but pull out my phone and investigate this orchestration of spontaneity. For better or worse, Situationist had already come and gone. It turns out that Apple banned the app due to unauthorized use of its location services. According to the app’s creators, this action was a “capitalist suppression of a post-Marxist subversive use of their fetishistic technology.” Even so, the buzz generated by the software remains, as demonstrated by its inclusion in MoMA’s recent exhibition Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects.
I am thus left to my own devices when interacting with strangers. Happily. Truth be told, life is unpredictable enough these days as it is. Yet the novelty of the app inspired more serious inquiry into the historical aims of the Situationist International movement and how those ideas might be increasingly relevant in the context of modern day society and contemporary art practice. The ideal of constructing situations and creating experimental encounters is especially relevant to current art trends. While site-specific practice staked its claim as a serious player in the art world decades ago, there is an interesting shift with the proliferation of biennials happening around the globe and an increased sense of displacement for artists. Emphasis on experience as a state of flux is on the forefront for many negotiating the cultural realities of late capitalism. Considering the search for meaningful engagement in a society that feels increasingly fragmented, certain aspects of Situationist theory are more topical than ever.
Looking at the horizon, an apparent line is the natural authority we rely upon to separate earth and sky. It is deceiving in its precision, often transcendent in its effect. Recently, I made a trip to the Harwood Museum in Taos, New Mexico to visit the Agnes Martin Gallery. The calm authority of the space conjured up similar feelings, as I studied a series of Martin’s paintings and discovered expanding qualities in defiance of their spare forms.
“We live a transcendental life all the time, all day long.” —Agnes Martin
Sitting on a small bench in the center of the octagonal space, I was reminded of a visit to the Rothko Chapel in Houston a number of years ago. Both places invoke feelings of reverence, perhaps eclipsed here by a surprising sense of lightness. Designed according to the artist’s wishes, the gallery features a series of seven paintings completed in the early 1990s when Martin returned to live in Taos. An oculus installed overhead and four Donald Judd benches placed beneath guide viewers in an experience best described by Martin’s own phrasing: “trembling and sensitive images are as though brought before our eyes even as we look.”
While the artist’s clarity of vision emphasized a non-objective approach, I could not help but relate these paintings back to the surrounding environment. A series of repeating horizon lines emerged; undoubtedly, inspired by the daily views I’ve experienced since arriving in Santa Fe. The surrounding mountains and ridges create a series of long, undulating lines, rising and falling like illegible script. This aspect is one of my favorite things about this landscape, contributing to its unique sense of place.
Since visiting the Harwood, I’ve been thinking about Agnes Martin’s hermetic working methods and the dynamics of relationship between artist and place. For her, the solitude found in this landscape was vital to the pursuit of a vacant mind and emotion in the abstract. Martin aimed to detach from the world and its ideas in order to realize her artistic vision and embody her unique worldview. One might argue that she was in but not of this place, though she is now highly revered as part of its history. Others could say that in the creation of her paintings, she sought to provide us with a sense of freedom from complications of the involved life. This trajectory raises interesting questions about the notion of authority in relation to artistic practice, both in terms of how we define our aesthetic vision and the agency we have (or seek) in relation to the respective communities we work in.
In the desert, time takes on a different dimension. Standing in its quiet expanse, time can slow until it virtually stands still. The open and meditative qualities of this landscape lure many in search of clarity and rejuvenation. It can provide a new framework to step into, featuring less of the static and perhaps a bit more of the rogue. But it is also a ritual-laden landscape, populated by stories of great sacrifice and journeys of long duration. Many religious traditions hold their own stories of prophets and sages who would “go into the desert” for substantial periods of time, charged with their spiritual work.
As I settle in to working in Santa Fe through the spring, I feel the effects of physical elevation in the high desert coupled with a heightened interest in ideas of ritual and duration as they relate to artistic practice. Being an artist affords a lifestyle that is liberating in its flexibility; the need for self-imposed structure can also be overwhelming. In examining the recent work of artists exploring these themes as a central tenet of their work, I am also investigating how related ideas might be applied behind-the-scenes in support of our own working methods.
It takes a special kind of woman to perch atop a scissor lift and sing Linda Ronstadt songs through a bullhorn for seven hours straight. Attending a recent opening at SITE Santa Fe, I happened upon the final hour of Linda Mary Montano‘s performance in one of the interior gallery spaces. For this event, titled Singing My Heart Out, viewers could watch and sing along with the artist as she ascended seven levels on a lift raised incrementally by the hour. Sitting beside her, a man in dark shades and a straw cowboy hat focused his attention on knitting, creating a long cord which extended to the ground in the beginnings of a coil–providing a physical document of the passing hours.
Montano’s work constitutes one of three interrelated exhibitions currently on view at SITE, all inspired by artistic production on the West Coast. The largest of these, State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970, is a group survey exploring the emergence of Conceptual Art as it developed in California in the 1970s. While impressive, I gravitated towards two solo exhibitions complimenting the survey–a retrospective of work by Montano, and new work by Los Angeles–based artist Mungo Thomson, lauded as a “representative of the next generation of West Coast Conceptualism.”
Packed into a small gallery in Brooklyn, sound-amplified water drips beside me from an ice block suspended above a pair of stainless steel mixing bowls. I am waiting for the start of Aki Sasamoto’s performance at Soloway Gallery, wondering where she’ll find the space to maneuver in this sea of bodies and hanging sculptures. Suddenly, quietly, the artist appears behind me in a rolling chair.
After a few moments of rocking back and forth, Sasamoto ignites the space. Setting a netted ice block in motion along the gallery wall, she uses its wide swinging arc to illustrate the beginning of a quasi-scientific discussion. Amid her reflections on centrifugal force and the physics of motion, she delves into anecdotes about her personal life and past relationships.
Centrifugal force comes from the Latin words centrum, meaning “center,” and fugere, meaning “to flee.” Considering my own trajectory of movement over these past months, I recognize my own existence as a rotating body sent on a series of swinging arcs. In reaching outward to embrace opportunities for creating and exhibiting work, the resulting schedule has felt mad at times. But it has also been an invaluable period of exploration, of movement, of connecting with artists and learning the nuances of place. These months spent traveling have offered a glimpse into the sensation of weightlessness in space.
But the realities of such earthly motion dictate that as far out as we go, we will not fall off the map. At the core of this movement, there is a center that we move from and a force that will pull us back around. Whether our practice is mobile or rooted in one place, this action reveals an important aspect of our development as emerging artists–finding and refining this center of rotation, the places that we come to rely on and move from in both geographic and conceptual terms.
This week I found myself sitting in the cab of an old Chevy pickup truck, gathering an odd assortment of objects: yellow BB pellets, cheese danish wrappers, rachet straps, empty bottles. Taking my non-precious cargo to the studio, I carefully photographed and cataloged each object. Creating this archive in consideration of a future project, I aimed to dissect the circumstances related to this particular intersection of items gathered, lost and found.
The action was inspired by a recent series of strange and unexpected events. During a trip back to Chicago to deinstall my last show, the work was placed in a truck that was subsequently stolen that same evening. Miraculously, the truck was recovered days later with minimal damage and most of its contents intact. The glaring exception was my work, which disappeared without a trace. In exchange, the thieves left behind a puzzling collection of their own residual effects.
All of this happened in the midst of a collaborative project in Detroit, where I’d been working with artist Nate Tonning on a series of videos for an upcoming installation. Visiting a local bazaar days before, I’d been drawn to a quarter-fueled grab tank offering up a sea of prize-filled plastic globes. I was hooked by the design of the simple phrase prominently displayed on the glass: Game Not Over Until You Win. In light of the events that would unfold days later, this mantra would become increasingly comedic in its irony.
Coincidentally, I was bound for Chicago the day after celebrating the results of our presidential election. Charged with the energy of President Obama’s acceptance speech on Tuesday evening, I came to the city to prepare for an upcoming show and have continued to mull over his words. With a slight shift in context, I realize that the language of art and the language of politics are not so far from each other.
“I have always believed that hope is the stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reading, keep working, to keep fighting.” –President Barack Obama
Last month in New York, Creative Time held their fourth annual summit on the current state of artistic activism. I’d heard rumblings about the summit, but little more. It was during a recent William Powhida lecture that the topic resurfaced and I began to investigate the concept of activism in this realm and learn how it could also inform my practice.
In his talk, Powhida referenced a letter from Stephen Duncombe and Steve Lambert, co-directors of the Center for Artistic Activism. After participating in the 2012 Creative Time Summit, Duncombe and Lambert published an Open Letter to Critics Writing About Political Art. They released the letter in an effort to address the lack of vocabulary and meaningful critique in this area, a gap illuminated during this year’s summit. What I found most interesting was the investigation and dissection of its very definition, clarifying that “art about politics is not necessarily political art.” Its primary function, rather, is to challenge and change the world. Beyond using social injustice and political struggle as mere subject matter, political art moves beyond representation of the world to act within it.
I’m in New York, and am surprised to discover a quiet stairwell as one of my favorite sites at MoMA PS1. Tucked away in the museum’s northwest corner, the stairwell houses Vertical Painting, a permanent installation featuring the work of three artists: William Kentridge, Cecily Brown and Alexis Rockman. Ascending multiple flights of stairs, the installation climbs walls that accompany the viewer, their closeness defying a sense of order. In part because of this, they convey a unique sense of intimacy and accessibility.
Tracing and retracing these steps, I am reminded of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges. In The Library of Babel, Borges conceives of a universe in the form of a vast library with an indefinite number of interlocking hexagonal galleries. Within its endless network of rooms sprawling both above and below, each gallery reveals walls dominated by rows upon rows of bookshelves. Though the order and content of the books in the library is random and its code defies interpretation, the inhabitants persist in exploring its staircases and corridors in search of meaning.
“If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder – which, repeated, becomes order: the Order.” –Jorge Luis Borges
In considering both the physical qualities of this unique space at PS1 and Borges’ universe of books, I recognize interesting parallels to recent movement and developments in my own practice. Since leaving LA in August to embark upon a three-month circuit of residencies, travels and preparation for upcoming shows, any sense of normalcy or routine has largely gone out the window. Frankly, it’s been that way since leaving graduate school over a year ago. Yet, such disorder has been trumped by the rewards of embracing the intensity and intimacy of this phase. At least for now, this is the new Order.
There are always forces at odds in this world of dualities, often beautifully illustrated by actions occurring in nature. Order is challenged by chaos, movement disrupts balance, struggle defies rest. Perhaps I consider these forces more in recent days with the shifting seasons. More likely, I consider them in relation to the remarkable spectrum of artists and practices I have encountered during the last month. They, too, exist as powerful forces of nature.
A few weeks ago, I participated in a discussion group led by visiting art critic and theorist Lane Relyea. The discussion, focused around his article entitled From Institutional Critique to the Myth of Spontaneous Socializing, explored ideas around recent shifts to a “more communication-based idea of radical transparency” and the embrace of everyday practice in the art world. In contrast to the static identities of many institutions, artists now openly embrace a wide range of roles and tasks as part of their art practice. The distinctions between work, life and socializing with other artists in “the everyday” are indistinguishable.
Relyea argues that these dissolving separations have reconciled realist pragmatism and utopian idealism, thus “illuminating a new age of innocence” for contemporary artists. While we had also discussed some of these ideas in graduate school, it now resonates more deeply as I have shifted from the theoretical to the practical. It’s one thing to be debating these ideas from the comfortable seats of a lecture hall; it’s quite another to be considering them as they pertain to an active career.
There’s no place like home. The old adage rings true, but its simplicity is deceiving. Each of us has a complex and storied relationship with our place(s) of origin; for me, it is those places that quietly call me out while also calling me back time and again. Beyond the formative years of my youth, this extends to those places I’ve chosen to call home since. During a recent trip back to the Pacific Northwest, I experienced these notions at work on both levels. In an insightful essay exploring the very idea of home, the art critic John Berger described its historical roots as the place from which the world could be founded. It was, as he said, “at the heart of the real.” Considering this idea in relation to my own mobility and the ambulatory pursuits of many artists engaged in contemporary practice, I return to the evolving idea of home and the role it now plays in our lives.
Earlier this month, I returned to my hometown of Yakima – an agriculturally-minded town on the east side of the Cascade Mountains boasting apples, hops and fine wine. Fondly mocked for introducing itself as The Palm Springs of Washington by way of highway billboard, Yakima is only two hours from Seattle. Yet, it is also a world away. Time slows, and the summer twilight hours suspend in its hot, dry air. Pretension falls away and priorities shift, if just for enough time to breathe and remember that of which we came, spending precious time with family. Berger describes the axis of home as the place where the vertical line of a path leading upwards to the sky and downwards to the underworld intersects with a horizontal line representing the traffic of the world, including all possible roads leading to other places. This axis is a starting point as well as our point of reference, often underestimated but vital amidst many such roads.
During these dog days of summer, it’s hard to imagine that the invention of sunglasses did not derive from a desire to shield eyes from the sun. Instead, the smokey quartz lenses introduced in the 12th century were intended for court figures in China. The lenses served as a mask, allowing judges to hide their facial expressions and any signs of judgment during testimonies. Many centuries later, early movie stars in Hollywood would begin to embrace the dark glasses as their own means of protection from the bright lights and the fanfare.
Now an essential part of the fair weather vernacular, sunglasses have been adopted by the masses as an indispensable source of both protection and individual style. Walking down Sunset Boulevard recently, I could not help but smile when I passed a man wearing not one, but two pairs of shades: one on his face, and the second dangling fashionably from the collar of his shirt. Oh sir, how bright your future must be.
I find myself returning to the literal and metaphorical framework of these objects as a way of synthesizing my recent experiences in Los Angeles, the undulating art scene, and our roles as both observer and participant. Viewing. Filtering. Absorbing.