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.
I’m lucky enough to be auditing a puppetry and performance course taught by the brilliant Ithai Benjamin, a major perk of my post-graduate residency at ITP. One of the biggest draws of the class is getting to meet the brilliant Lou Nasti, whose mechanical displays and animated objects have captured the imagination of millions worldwide.
It was a week after Hurricane Sandy devastated New York’s public transport infrastructure. By that point trains had gotten so unreliable and taxis so rare due to the gas shortage that I got used to bicycling everywhere, including to Lou Nasti’s studio in the middle of nowhere in Flatbush, Brooklyn. One of the staff greeted me as soon as I rode into the gated lot. They had installed sensors that triggered a loud bell–the type that would ring at old high schools and firehouses–any time someone entered. I imagine that Lou himself devised this, and that it rings every morning before 5 am, when Lou gets to work.
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.
About halfway through my freshman year of college, I abandoned plans to major in English, choosing instead to pursue my newly discovered passion for art history. I have never been able to fully explain the cause of that abrupt decision, or at least not until a few weeks ago, when I read an essay by the British author Zadie Smith. The essay is called “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov,” and in it, Smith recalls her experience studying literature at university. She (fondly) remembers professors who encouraged “wild analogy” and “aggressive reading against the grain and across codes and discourses.” The essay revolves around a comparison of this kind of analysis, favored by Roland Barthes, with the kind favored by Vladimir Nabokov, which is almost diametrically opposed to it. As it turns out, I stopped studying English because I identify more with a stodgy Russian novelist than with a progressive French theorist.
Here is the gist of the comparison: Nabokov believed in the importance of studying style and structure, and the indelible link between the author and his writing; Barthes (who was 15 years younger, but still very much a contemporary) championed the “death of the author,” maintaining that the author’s biography and intention should have no influence on the reader’s interpretation of his writing.
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.
My residency at NYU ITP started like a hurricane, quickly sucking dry all my time and energy. But I can’t complain. I practically get an extra year of art school, except this time I get paid. Although I have had to put my own performance schedule on hold to make sure I have time to assist students, I feel I’m performing now more than ever. After all, the main difference in being a student and being a teacher, as Kate Hartman pointed out several interviews ago, is what role to play.
Also, I’m lucky enough to audit two amazing performance-based courses with three great artists. Puppetry with the incomparable Ithai Benjamin, and a Performance Studies / ITP course with co-teachers Nancy Hechinger and Anna Deavere Smith.
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.
The temperature in Chicago was cool for a mid-August day when I drove back into the city on I-90 last week, eagerly anticipating my first glimpse of the unmistakable skyline. My internship at the National Gallery of Art complete, my goodbyes to D.C. and its residents delivered, I was ready to celebrate my return with some lazy afternoons on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Of course, lounging lakeside is less fun with the task of finding a “real job” hanging over one’s head. But before I fully resign myself to trolling career sites for postings and creating endless variations on my resume, I want to talk about my summer.
Some of the most unexpected pleasures of my internship were the twice-weekly morning seminars, in which we (fifteen or so recent grads and current grad students) met with an employee in each of the Gallery’s major departments. In addition to giving us the chance to hear from museum professionals about their career paths and learn about everything from lighting to horticulture to object conservation, these talks allowed us to glimpse the connections between departments and to understand where and how internal collaboration occurs.
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.
Had you walked by the Sony Plaza in midtown New York City this past Friday, you might have seen me through the second floor glass walls trying frantically to fix a wired-up laptop sleeve with a pair of rusty pliers. I was invited, along with four other ITP students, to present our projects at Sony Wonder Technology Lab (SWTL), a museum that displays creative applications of new technologies to young explorers. It was my first exhibit after graduate school and I was presenting my Gamelan Sampul, a laptop sleeve that also acts as a musical instrument. But right before the event, it stopped working.
I was really crunched for time and sweating bullets, but minutes before the exhibit opened I figured out what was wrong — a single loose connection. I was very lucky, but of course our fortunes reversed; My fellow exhibitors’ projects stopped working and I was surrounded by throngs of six to twelve year olds playing with my project like it was a whack-a-mole machine (ironically, there was indeed one of those machines upstairs from me).
But in the end, I was really thrilled. Not only did my laptop sleeve survive the beating, it also brought to fruition some of the most unbridled responses I have ever seen. There was no holding back for these young critics. They either loved it or they walked away. There was not a care for my artist’s statement and no one was impressed by the circuitry–this is the smartphone generation after all. A touch-sensitive laptop sleeve that makes gong noises only comes naturally. Why I made it was just as important to them as how I made it. And I loved every minute of it.