…shame is a tool of oppression…
—Brené Brown, as quoted by C4AA
I love the Center for Artistic Activism’s newsletter on Brené Brown and shame as a poor social justice tool (or, affirming the positive towards social justice).
…shame is a tool of oppression…
—Brené Brown, as quoted by C4AA
I love the Center for Artistic Activism’s newsletter on Brené Brown and shame as a poor social justice tool (or, affirming the positive towards social justice).
Edmund’s speech comes from her perspective as curator and artistic director, facilitating relationships between artists and institutions. She’s particularly pro-artist [which is something you might assume people working in the art world would be, but actually, some are anti-artist, H/T Shannon Stratton].
Edmund’s perspective was especially interesting to me as a social practitioner, in thinking about partnerships with organizations, institutions, and communities, and also as an artist who thinks about my work less in terms of objects to be owned, and more in terms of aesthetic experiences and engagements.
Below are a few highlights.
The quality of invitations to artists and audiences matter.
Artists are not to be treated as vendors. A public is not to be treated as consumers. Do not transact poetics and people, ever.
She said that requiring measurable outcomes facilitates gatekeeping and hinders bridge-building.
When introducing performances, Edmunds feels compelled to tell audiences:
We have a job together, which is to make a memory. We will be the living archive for this artist, in this moment, in this time. We going to become its permanent collection.
I love this idea. She explains:
Art belongs in the world. It is informed by the maker, its place, city, community, culture, conditions—everything through which it is made—but it isn’t owned by the organization that helped facilitate it. Nor, once it is given by the artist, is it exclusively owned by them. It become owned by a public, in the world, in a memory that we made…
Ownership as a fixed idea is transformed into something else. To me, that transformation is a participation in belonging to the work, to the experience of it, to the acknowledgment of its maker, to the cultural assets that stand with it, and also to us, fleeting or long.
…The future completes our work—how it sustains or endures. What is forged in our cultural memory connects us uniquely.
For me, when an artwork exists that way—as a shared memory or an experience ingrained in the body—that’s whats most exciting about working in the realm of aesthetic experiences. That’s why I keep going back to making projects with people, inviting participation, gathering stories, and sharing emotions and experiences.
She also shared this tidbit:
…Art needs to belong in the world because it is how we practice, in the words of Deborah Hay, “the deep ethics of optimism.”
*Since I’m obsessed with optimism I wanted to learn more about what this phrase meant. I found an interview with choreographer Deborah Hay. She said, “A friend of mine who is a poet talks about ‘the deep ethics of optimism.'”
Then I found an interview with writer Zara Houshmand:
Issues of social justice matter to me very much but over time I’ve been more inclined to look inward at deeper sources of change—the mechanisms of empathy, breaking down prejudice, embracing the other, fixing oneself at the root in ways that create a more viable relationship with the rest of the world. In other words, doing the spiritual work to make yourself available for the work of social justice. It goes beyond finding a balance of contemplative and active life, or marshaling limited resources to prevent burn-out. Rather, it’s about what it means to commit to impossible tasks wholeheartedly, the deep ethics of optimism.
This relates to ideas that I keep coming back to, as well as new ideas I am currently discovering:
Socially-engaged artworks and events that reveal relationships and faith in humanity.
Next Saturday: May 25, 2019
Once, during grad school, I installed my art in a corridor, and an artist named Emily Mast visited, saw it, emailed me, and now I’ve been aware of her goings-on for over 10 years. I try to reach out and email artists whose work I like, sometimes they’re responsive, sometimes they’re not, but I try. She’s opened a space in LA and this upcoming workshop sounds amazing.
Mast on Fig is ever so pleased to announce its second “Intimate Experience” by Claire Titleman! Intimate Experiences are performative experiments (concerts, classes, demos, meals, conversations, workshops, readings, meditations, etc.) for 15 people or less that will take place on a weekly basis over the course of this summer.
Good Grief Workshop
Saturday, May 25th 6-8 PM
Mast on Fig
4030 N Figueroa St LA 90065
Limit: 10 people
$10 suggested donation
What would happen if we passed down the legacies of our loved ones — not just to our family but to strangers? Good Grief will be a space for communal grieving, an opportunity to celebrate those who passed with people they never knew. Share something of them, whether it’s concrete or ephemeral, rational or absurd. Play us or teach us a song they loved, read a letter they wrote, do show and tell with an object you inherited, bring in a food they made for you, including its recipe. Mimic their laugh, teach us how to move our hips the way their hips moved when they walked. In this way, instead of creating a legacy that goes in a straight line, we scatter it out into the universe.
The last line is such a beautiful, wonderful gesture. To me this kind of relationship-building, experience-making, trust, and reciprocity are the essence of social practice. If your story can live indelibly in the minds and hearts of nine other people, art objects and documentation are immaterial.
Grief and loss are inevitable in life. And yet death is taboo in our culture, which makes grief feel all the more isolating. You don’t want to “burden” anyone with your sadness. (This is a double-edged sword of positivity.) I love this idea of sharing a joyful memory with strangers you trust because they share grief in common with you.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see this project in person, only online. It’s a beautiful concept that resonates with me regardless. Here’s the premise:
10,632 paintings rejected by the Carnegie International are painted, exhibited and then given away, in alphabetical order
First of all, what an achievement to sum up a large social-practice-and-object project in one simple sentence. Learn more on their project website.
Watch this two-minute video to hear from the artists about their motivations.
For me, the best social practice projects have an elegance, as if the solution to how to develop this project was the most logical solution (yet only the artists would even think to do it). Fruit and Other Things has this sense of elegance, consideration, and completion.
There’s care, craftsmanship, uncovering history, a gesture of acknowledgment and kindness to other artists who faced rejection, generosity, ambitious scale, and distribution (the artworks living in the world). (Not to mention one of my faves, hand-lettering.)
I also like the exhibition design, with the poster board on a pallet (progress towards the 10k posters done made physical), worktables, and the open-top frames on the wall that allow easy change-outs of the artworks. It makes the process of the project self-evident and accessible.
Plus, there’s the democratization of collecting, with the collectors being asked to register on their project website and send in a photo. (This is something I have asked people to do in past projects, with less success. What do audience member-participants owe? To whom do they owe it? What is the nature of the transaction? What does their fulfillment or failure to fulfill their obligation say? What is a reasonable rate of fulfillment: 15% 50%? What do artists receive? How does participants’ completion of the feedback loop support the completion of the project? What do participants receive? How does it enhance their investment in the project or their aesthetic experience of participation?)
Last, I just want to acknowledge how many people are involved in this project. The artists are supported by a large team. All these people ought to be paid for their labor. This type and scale of social practice project requires tons of institutional support. The artists are giving away the artworks for free, and the aesthetic gestures are conceptual and relational, it may be tempting to think that social practice can happen on shoestring budgets. But actually this is a site-specific commission and live performance which also requires ongoing administration. So congrats to the artists but also to the curators and Carnegie International team for this vision and investment.
Through June 16, 2019
This exhibition makes me happy because:
I am so grateful to know artists who are world-makers. They saw that certain spaces, practices, and institutions didn’t exist in the world, and they decided to create those them. It takes blood, sweat, tears, and huge amounts of guts. Emily Mast doesn’t have to host events in her studio open to the public. Cal Cullen didn’t have to create and run Wave Pool as a different model of a gallery. Before social practice became a legitimized field, Jon Rubin and Harrell Fletcher were doing projects in the CCA library that almost seemed like extended practical jokes. Now they’ve gone on to found programs and nurture future generations of social practice artists. Ryan Pierce wanted artists to experience a different relationship to nature and collaboration found in your typical residency, so he co-founded Signal Fire, which is now celebrating its 10-year anniversary.
Keeping a gratitude journal and writing gratitude letters have been shown to elevate mood.*
Even if people know gratitude can boost subjective wellbeing, they can come up with all sorts of reasons not to write gratitude letters, according to “You Should Actually Send That Thank You Note You’ve Been Meaning to Write” by Heather Murphy (NY Times, July 20, 2018).
They are afraid of being judged for spelling or grammar mistakes. The more I learn about belonging and vulnerability, the more damaging judgment seems to our relationships, our actions, and ourselves. Being judged weakens bonds. Gratitude strengthens bonds. If the fear of weakened bonds through being judged inhibits someone from strengthening their bond through expressing gratitude, it’s like different means to the same end: a lost opportunity to foster connectedness.
People can underestimate how meaningful a gratitude letter will be to recipients (i.e., “She’ll probably just throw it away”). Don’t assume inaction won’t be noticed. A longstanding pillar of the arts community recently told me that a student never said thanks for writing a letter of recommendation for them. He’s too nice to take my advice (“Next time, just tell her she’s dead to you”), but we agreed that administrative skills are the most important skills to have. Along the same lines, if you’re asking someone to coffee to “pick their brain,” show your gratitude by being conscientious. As experts in their fields, an hour of their time is worth a lot more than a coffee and a pastry.
Sometimes I feel a little down after finishing a big project. There’s so much work and energy leading up to a project culmination. There’s often an event with a lot of interactions and emotions. Then the high wears off. The days or weeks afterwards can feel sort of empty in comparison. Even if you are lucky enough to receive validation at the event, it can feel fleeting.
In large, participatory projects, I send and receive tons of emails and texts. There are notes of gratitude scattered throughout them. Maybe they gave me a little serotonin hit the day I received them, but I probably soon forgot about them wading through the tide of other messages. I think recovering that feeling of validation, of mattering to someone, is a hunger that social media exploits. But instead of finding it from others through a digital platform, here’s one way to self-organize it in a more lasting, analog medium.
This morning, I combed through my messages and transcribed notes of gratitude by hand into my journal. This reminded me that people want to participate in my project, are happy they did, and are eager to see and share the results. People took the time to tell me how participation and inclusion in a project matters to them. This means a lot to me on a personal level. And it’s helpful for me to understand as an artist in the social realm. (If you shared your gratitude with me, in this project, or at any time, THANK YOU!)
The act of condensing words of gratitude, enthusiasm, validation, and positive emotions into a few pages gave me a huge boost today. And in the future, if I start to question myself or what people think, I can re-read these pages. In moments of anxiety or self-doubt. I’ll have a piggy bank of gratitude to tap into.
* Source: Sonya Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness. A gratitude journal can be as simple as writing down three good things, as described on The Science of Happiness podcast, produced by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
Research notes on small acts of immigrant Chinese people’s history.
Josh MacPhee invited me to develop a poster for his Celebrate People’s History poster series, which “shares the stories of events, groups, and people who have moved forward the collective struggle of humanity to create a more equitable and just world.” He’s printed over 100 different Celebrate People’s History posters over the past 18 years. Learn more at Just Seeds.
Just Seeds is a powerful platform for radical affirmation. I love that they are not at all interested in being reactive. [I still think back to their call for art for their propaganda party in January 2017: “We will be avoiding all art with an explicit focus on Trump and his catchphrases. The more we represent him—no matter in what light—the more we re-inscribe him with power. Instead, focus on graphics that support the social movements that existed before Trump and will be fighting to exist after he is long gone.” Linguist George Lakoff has been saying the same thing: stop parroting Trump, even in outrage, instead ignore, redirect, and reframe the issues.]
In the context of family separations and heightened xenophobia, I wanted to share a profile of Chinese American resistance against exclusion and racism.
I started by researching Angel Island Immigration Station. I visited in 2001, as part of the Chinese Culture Center’s In Search of Roots program, the only program of its kind in the US that helped Chinese Americans research and visit their ancestral villages in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong. The immigration station (which seems like a euphemism for what we might call it today, a “detention center”) detained tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants from 1910-1940, under harsh conditions and for indeterminate periods.
Historian Him Mark Lai, who co-led the Roots program, described the immigration station as a “major facility of the bureaucratic apparatus established to administer the Chinese exclusion laws.” While European immigrants were detained for an average of one to two days, Chinese immigrants were detained for an average of 16 days, with over 200 Chinese immigrants detained for over a year. Chinese detainees were subjected to unreasonably detailed interrogations. They were subjected to hours of questioning about things like, “How many windows were in your house? Which way did the door face? How many people lived in the house two houses to the East?” Answering incorrectly could result in being sent back to China. Husbands and wives were separated and barred from communicating. Despair led some detainees to suicide.
In my research, I learned about a mutual aid society run by male Chinese detainees. The group was named 自治會 (“self-governing association”), which was anglicized to “Angel Island Liberty Association.” They were active from 1922 to about 1952. Their activities varied, from advocating for better food (a major complaint that led to riots) and basic necessities (such as access to toilet paper and soap, which had been automatically granted to detainees of other races), to pooling resources for books or records and organizing diversions. Alleviating detainee’s boredom and despair is important to the wellbeing, and I don’t want to discount it. But I became enchanted by the Association’s covert activities.
The Association colluded with Chinese American kitchen staff to smuggle coaching notes from detainees’ family or supporters in Chinatown to detainees. The kitchen staff would wrap the notes in waxed paper and tape it to the bottom of plates, which they served to Association leaders. Sometimes code phrases indicated the presence of notes, such as “extra serving” or “the chicken is especially good today.” Association leaders would find and hide the notes to distribute later to intended recipients. Coaching notes were a way to survive and resist a system designed to exclude based on racism and xenophobia.
I love this story—its ingeniousness, the solidarity shown by fellow immigrants, and the centrality of sharing food. The way I was raised (by Chinese parents who may not have always enjoyed food security in their own childhoods), eating is the sun around which everything else revolves—the day, family, life, even death (with Ching Ming). I know food is central to pretty much all cultures, but there’s something about Chinese voracity and emotional connection. (If you call someone, instead of asking, “How are you?” you ask, “Have you eaten yet?”)
This story also ties in to my interests in social practice, and how much social practice is related to food and/or radical hospitality. You could say that many social practices of sharing food are about passing messages of cooperation, mutuality, and dreams of freedom.
Though the Angel Island immigration station may now be a relic, immigration policies based on fear-mongering, xenophobia, and racism are not. When the system is unjust—teargassing children, rejecting asylum seekers—you can see how othering is about dehumanization.
I knew I wanted to depict this moment of solidarity and collusion, of the sharing of sustenance and information as keys to freedom. I also knew to show the giver and receiver both using two hands to handle the plate. This symbolizes respect in Chinese custom.
Once I identified the subject and the media, the rest was relatively straightforward. For the benefit of friends interested in drawing, I’ll de-mystify my process.
I use a lot of drawing aids. Fitting two people and the bottom of a plate in a portrait format requires foreshortening, which complicates any figure drawing. So I shot a few photos using myself as a model and composited them together (which was actually pretty funny).
From there, I printed the composite, sketched on a light box, inked my sketch, scanned, cleaned up digitally, printed, layered the print on colored paper to make the paper cut using an Xacto knife, scanned again, digitally colored, wrote the blurb, and added the text.
I thought about Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style, and using a typeface contemporaneous with the content. I searched for 1920s and 1930s typefaces. Many were the same I’d seen in letterpress printing, like Kabel. I like Kabel. It’s is a little too quirky for many contemporary contexts, so I was happy to use it here. I wasn’t able to apply Bringhurst’s principles to the Chinese text, choosing visual consistency with Kabel instead. [I’ve been typesetting Chinese texts or other projects and jobs, and this web designer’s research and findings have been a helpful resource.]
If you’re interested in learning more about the Chinese American experience on Angel Island, or about the Angel Island Liberty Association, I recommend the following:
Here’s the text of the poster:
The Angel Island Liberty Association (or “Self-governing Association”) was a mutual aid society run by Chinese detainees at the Angel Island Immigration Station from 1922 to about 1952. With the help of Chinese American kitchen staff, the Association smuggled letters to help detainees pass detailed immigration interrogations. Letters were folded inside wax paper and taped to the bottom of dishes.
What I get from Killoran’s conceptually-oriented practice.
I keep thinking about Patrick Killoran’s intriguing artist’s talk yesterday, delivered at the beautiful Central Branch of the Queens Library in Jamaica. It was part of Opening Day of the library installations in the Queens Museum’s Queens International.
Killoran’s projects are often conceptual and phenomenological. His projects offer aesthetic situations in unorthodox media and environments. His practice relates to other practices at the merging of art and life. He spoke about how dependence on the white cube to frame something as art is almost a political liability of exceptionalism.
Killoran is interested in making art as simply and elegantly as possible, trimming away anything that’s unnecessary. He doesn’t locate ‘the work’ in the objects he makes solely—he locates it in viewers’ interactions with each other as mediated by the object, with their bodies in the space.
There’s a lot of wonderful openness in Passage, from seeing other people look through the box, to when patrons re-shelve books in the space, to seeing other patrons observe still other patrons interacting. I think this is an incredibly successful project. I think it achieves what Killoran’s after, with a maximal implications using minimal means.
This type of work may appear very simple. The solution is so ingenious as to seem inevitable. But making this type of art is intellectually laborious, time-consuming, and rigorous. I really respect this practice, and am grateful for the chance to hear it explained thoughtfully.
Visit PatrickKilloran.com to learn more about his work. (It’s a nicely organized, selective site with just enough text to describe each project.) I think his overarching practice is about interrogating public life: the unspoken rules, behaviors, and manifestations of courtesy, kindness, greed, compliance and non-compliance. He is interested in social relations in a neutral way. His works are experiments that say more about us than about him.
The artist’s talk reminded me of when I was making elemental, conceptual, phenomenological installations. I remember struggling to convey the nature of my interests in single images. Two-dimensional images just don’t capture experiential phenomena. I remember wondering how many people viewed my slides and didn’t “get” my practice. Sometimes your art is best shared as stories, jokes, surprises, or upendings of expectations, and the artist’s talk is a better form than slides.
In preparation for this project, Killoran held many conversations with library staff members. It made me want to have more space for conversations in my own research. Conversations can evolve and be more natural and spontaneous than writing. I’ll need to get out of my shell more.
A new reference re-affirms a past project.
In 2015, I created Ways and Means. The public was invited to interact with activity kits housed in custom printed and sewn tool aprons.
I was trying to convey feelings of autonomy (deciding for yourself) and agency (being able to do things) by emphasizing mobility (being able to move freely).
Essentially, I wanted the tool kits to remind participants of the intangible tools they already carry—such as help they’ve already received, or their commitment to their own values—that allow them to express themselves fully, do things, and go places.
So when I listened to “Pockets: Articles of Interest #3”, an episode in a six-part series in 99% Invisible’s podcast, I was fascinated to hear this:
Avery Trufelman (producer):
Man’s great evolutionary advantage is the creation of tools. The problem is, we’re not marsupials, we need to carry them somehow. And this idea of who has access to the tools they need, who can walk through the world comfortably and securely; THIS is what we are talking about when we talk about pockets.
Hannah Carlson (lecturer at RISD):
Pockets speak to this question of preparedness, and your ability to move in public and to be confident. It’s really difficult to get around if you don’t have what you need, and it’s about, I think it’s about mobility and movement in public.
Trufelman and Carlson continue, and touch on the psychological security of ownership when your tools are closer to your body:
HC: If the formal question for me is, “What difference does it make?” “What’s the difference between a pocket and a bag?” And I think the key difference is that the pocket is internal. And it’s secret.
AT: A bag can be stolen. A bag can be lost. And then, that’s it. You don’t have your things anymore.
HC: With a pocket inside, you don’t have to think about it. You forget about it, but you still have stuff in there. It is seen as this territory of your own. That connects you to the objects you carry, in a way. Those objects become part of you.
They also dive into gender and the disparity of pocket size. Many woman will relate to the dislike of the ridiculousness of tiny pockets as an extension of patriarchy. It’s a great listen for general listeners and designers alike. Recommended!