Meta-Practice, Research

Cultivating inefficiencies

As S. Barich pointed out to me, Jerry Saltz recently wrote:

“Like most people in the art world, I’m basically making this up as I go. The art world is about trying to invent new definitions of skill.” (Jerry Saltz, “Work of Art Season Premiere: Judge Jerry Saltz Recaps,” NYMag.com, June 10, 2010)

One of my skills, if I could call it that, is procurement. Even after all these years, I’m surprised at how much time and energy I spend sourcing materials.

Since I respond to the materials that I work with, I often can’t start a project until I have them in hand. Yet identifying and getting the right materials can take weeks. Beyond brushes, paint, paper, frames and the usual, Dick Blick and Aaron Bros aren’t much help. Besides, I’m too self-conscious a consumer; I know their target audiences are Sunday painters and scrapbook keepers. One must get creative.

As an artist, I’m constantly negotiating how to materialize my ideas. The frustrating thing is reaching limits persistently and pervasively — a recipe for pessimism, according to Martin E. P. Seligman in Learned Optimism.

For example, recently I envisioned producing a multiple: a circular, printed on newsprint in full color, of about 100 copies, at the size of a standard advertising insert, roughly 11×12 inches folded or 22×12 flat. This, it turns out, is not feasible. I’ve become a customer service nightmare, making ridiculous requests.

Digital printers don’t want to run newsprint (which is lightweight, only 16-18#s) in their machines; the lowest weight they’ll accept for double-sided full color jobs is 60-70#. Further, they’ll resist anything but standard sizes: 11×17, 13×19, 12.25×18.25. These sizes are efficiencies that work across multiple industries — paper mills, presses, reprographics — but not me, not now. What I need to use, like what I need to produce, are inefficiencies in the system.

Circulars are typically printed on offset web presses, the massive kind that fill warehouses. These presses take too long to set up to produce my piddly quantity. I could do it if I had to make like 5,000 copies, or had about $5k to spend.

Newspaper Club in the UK produces bespoke short-run newspapers. Too bad they don’t ship internationally. An article on Time reveals that Newspaper Club prints on large newspapers’ presses during their inactive times. I contacted some small, local papers to see if they’d bang out an odd job for me, and they courteously but firmly denied my request.

When I produced Sorted, a gilt badge, I contacted many vendors, who would only take on jobs with minimums of 200-250 pcs, way out of my budget. I finally found a vendor that specializes in badges for schools (such as “hall monitor”) that would make smaller quantities of custom badges at reasonable prices. So I took the same tack and looked up school newspaper printers. (I remember buying indie newspapers at Epicenter about home schooling; which couldn’t have had a large circulation.) But times sure have changed. It turns out the young whippersnappers today produce online school newspapers. Of course!

So maybe I have to do this myself. I could make a relief, intaglio or screen print. But that would mean four color separations and a week to produce the edition. The result would be Fine Art. Bummer. I’m just not interested in making a crispy-clean print to mat and frame for this project. I want to make a circular — a big, glossy, tacky, cheap, off-gassing circular. Viewers would handle it with bare hands. Gasp!

Now I’m thinking about freedom and familiarity, and how once again, even the most mundane materials are irrevocably tied with a feeling of constriction. That what I can imagine must be shoved through the machinations of capitalism and global manufacture, and it risks being extruded in unrecognizable form.

To make objects is to direct form-making. I don’t think twice about 8.5×11 inch Letter-sized sheets most days, but today, it seems oppressively inescapable.

The process of de-materialization is ongoing. I’m thinking more about making less. Returning to examples like Chu Yun and Jeremy Deller.

To be optimistic is to take a selective perspective. I’m refusing to let these vendors’ limitations become my own. This project will materialize with the right materials, or not at all. Time to get creative.

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Art & Development, Research

Camp

Just re-read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp'” (1964), which you can find here. Though the essay is showing its 40+ year wrinkles, if you can look past some of the anthropological blanket statements, it’s a great read.

I especially enjoyed:

Making connections with Paul Martin’s Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure (Harper Collins, 2007).

Sontag considered Camp to be “modern-day dandyism,” and described how dandies were driven by a fear of boredom. Martin examines this fear at great lengths, citing the reckless hedonism of Nero and Lord Rochester. Interestingly, Martin points out that boredom often reveals more about the bored person than it does about the world around him or her.

Further, Sontag sees Camp as a means of accessing pleasure. She seems to align with Martin’s thoughts on the importance of modest pleasures in daily life.

Sontag:

The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy. … Here Camp taste supervenes upon good taste as a daring and witty hedonism. It makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated.

Martin advocates becoming a “wily hedonist,” who pursues “more of the Modest Pleasures of everyday life that many of us tend to take for granted. … They should also be cheap or free; pleasure should not be the preserve of the wealthy.”

Q. Why is it that old things look so cool?

A. Sontag:

This is why so many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé. It’s not a love of the old as such. It’s simply that the process of aging or deterioration provides the necessary detachment—or arouses a necessary sympathy.

Sympathy!?

[Camp and the attraction of everyday materials]

Just last week, I noted in a previous post that British sculptor Eric Bainbridge appreciates cheap materials because they “elicit a kind of sympathy, an identification with the viewer that this is what we are.”

Sontag:

Another effect: time contracts the sphere of banality. (Banality is, strictly speaking, always a category of the contemporary.) What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic. …

Sontag’s talking about Campy aged materials; Bainbridge is concerned with cheap readily-available consumer-grade items. I think they’re one and the same now, because of levels of mass production. Bainbridge’s fake fur is immediately obsolete, destined for the landfill even before it reaches the retailer. To give you another example, cheap toothbrushes packaged for an Arabic-reading market and sold in a discount shop in post-industrial northern England are simultaneously new and old.

Sontag:

Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.

Christine Wong Yap, Pounds of Happiness (installation), 2009, mixed media, pound shop items, 8 x 8 x 5 feet / 2.4 x 2.4 x 1.5 m. Produced in the Breathe Residency at Chinese Arts Centre.

Christine Wong Yap, Pounds of Happiness (installation), 2009, mixed media, pound shop items, 8 x 8 x 5 feet / 2.4 x 2.4 x 1.5 m. Produced in the Breathe Residency at Chinese Arts Centre.

This hyper-compression of time seems to allow objects to be ultra-mundane in ways that are variously witty, arrogant, simultaneously dull as a doorknob and smart as a whip. I’m thinking about Pounds of Happiness, and also of Chu Yun’s Constellation. I really like Constellation because it’s so matter-of-fact: it consists of a dark room loaded with electronic appliances, so you see a field of standby lights. Interestingly, NG, whose tastes in art usually diverge from my own, liked the work as well. She imagines it to be quite spooky and poetic. I appreciate the nerve of calling incessantly humming electronic detritus art.

Chu Yun, Constellation No.1, Installation, 2006. Source: Vitamin Creative Space web site.

Chu Yun, Constellation No.1, Installation, 2006. Source: Vitamin Creative Space web site.

Failure.
For the past few years I’ve been obsessed with failure in art. I wondered, How can art convey the ineffable, yet still have to be materialized (and thereby be subjected to the constraints of semiotic systems, formal considerations, material limitations, etc.)? It seemed art was doomed to fail, or would be vaguely metaphoric and inadequate at best. I responded by embracing failure in projects like Soft Sculpture for Brougham Hall—a constantly-deflating inflatable sculpture.

Sontag describes Camp as an unintended avenue through which failure is viable, and even pleasurable:

When the theme is important, and contemporary, the failure of a work of art may make us indignant. Time can change that. Time liberates the work of art from moral relevance, delivering it over to the Camp sensibility….

Thus, things are campy … when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt.

Currently, I’m following up the Cheap and Cheerful and Pounds of Happiness series with further investigations of modest ambitions, lightly-recombined cheap objects, and the decorative impulse. Here’s a sneak peek of a recent project:

Christine Wong Yap, detail, not yet titled, 2009, hankerchief, placemat, thread, 18 x 18 x 2 inches.

Christine Wong Yap, detail, not yet titled, 2009, hankerchief, placemat, thread, 18 x 18 x 2 inches.

I’m working, for the first time in a long time, very visually and reflexively. But I suspect that my conceptual inclinations are still at work. Perhaps, by way of embracing modest pleasures, I’m embracing exuberance, a step towards the extravagance of Camp:

Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.

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Art & Development, Values

Points of Reference

eclipse installation by Pavel Buchler
Pavel Büchler’ Eclipse at Max Wigram Gallery (London)
I love this simple but thoughtful installation.

Maureen Dowd recently remarked in the New York Times that Barack Obama’s election somehow signified that Americans are post-race. What a tremendously privileged point-of-view to take. Artist Kerry James Marshall doesn’t think we’re post-race, and neither do I. Cheers to SFMOMA for commissioning Marshall, and the two for pulling no punches.

I really appreciated Philip Tinari’s “OPENINGS: CHU YUN” in this month’s Artforum as well. It takes a lot of confidence — more than I’m naturally disposed of — to make works that are authentically minimal at the risk of seeming slight. As Tinari puts it, there’s

something subversive… about making works that were barely works.

Visit Chu Yun’s website. I really love the Constellation installation.

Paul Morrison’s exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery is pretty good. I enjoyed the giant 75′ wide b/w hard-edged mural, which combines source images from 19th-century-style engraving and 20th-century cartoons (I think I saw some Smurfs’ flowers?). I don’t think the shifts in scale is as dark or menacing as the curatorial statement suggests, however. And while I appreciate the white-on-white high-relief picture of dandelions, which is reminiscent of Van Gogh’s sunflowers, I also found the white-gold-and-black-acrylic-on-canvas paintings to slip too easily into collectible luxury items. As I learn more about gold and how, like diamonds, its mining and refinement is inseparable from issues of colonialism, inequality and environmentalism, I can’t see how Morrison justifies his use of gold leaf. Terry Gross’ interview with Brook Larmer on “The Real Price of Gold” is elucidating (Fresh Air, January 8, 2009).

Tomorrow, there’ll be a march on Washington against the use of coal. Writing from Manchester — a city spawned by the Industrial Revolution, whose skies were literally blackened by coal smoke, but has since embraced everything green — coal seems like such a 19th-century phenomenon, and it’s hard to imagine that it’s still a necessity today. Stranger still is how the myth of “clean coal” can persist in America today, despite a relatively educated populous.

Podcast of Joseph Kosuth’s Meet the Artist lecture at the Hirshhorn Museum. I’ve found this podcast series extremely inconsistent, with some poor audio quality of in-gallery recordings. But Kosuth excells in providing a smart, well-prepared lecture about his work and Conceptual Art. Cheers for artists talking with precision about art!

The work of two Mancunian conceptually-oriented object-makers:
Nick Crowe
Ian Rawlinson
and their work as a collaborative team

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