Meta-Practice, Research

words on social practice and creativity

Christoph Büchel’s Piccadilly Community Centre: an exciting example of social practice.

J.J. Charlesworth’s “Hidden Intentions,” (Art Review, December 2011) introduced me to this brilliant intervention transforming the tony Central London Hauser & Wirth location (formerly a bank) into a working social centre, and not just for in-the-know art students, but for the public—senior citizens, yoga practitioners and so on. Piccadilly Circus is a popular tourist’s nexus like Times Square, where simply winding through crowds, dodging street salesmen, and finding a restroom can be exhausting. So Büchel’s gesture of turning an exclusive, expensive, private space into a rambunctious, free, public one is quite satisfying. I was also intrigued to read that

much was made of whether Büchel’s project was a comment on David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’

I find Büchel’s responsiveness commendable.

On irony, and bridging the divide between art and life

“Hidden Intentions” is not an exhibition review, but a speculative essay. Charlesworth also examines Matthew Darbyshire’s faux loft ads at Herald Street, writing that it

is interesting because, like Büchel’s community centre, it points backwards to interrogate the capacity of the viewer to recognise the gesture as ironic. Because irony always implies a ‘double’ audience—those who accept the gesture at face value and those who realise the gesture is simulated intentionally—it also implies a form of superiority, which is often couched in terms of criticism of another….

This is art that writes itself into the fabric of everyday life with only the fading trace of the artist as proof of its reality as a sort of ironic gesture, and in which the work’s audience is made complicity with the artist’s manipulation of the world of others…. Of course, it still needs the institutional frame of the artworld to allow it to happen, but in doing so, it takes to an extreme the postmedium scope of current artistic possibility, where in the end, the only thing that is distinguishable is the discursive setup of the artworld itself.

Conflict aids creativity?

So argues Jonah Lehrer in “Group Think: The Brainstorming Myth” (The New Yorker, January 20, 2o12). He presents evidence contrary to the widely-accepted prohibition against criticism in brainstorming:

According to [psychology professor Charlan] Nemeth, … “…debate… will always be more productive. True creativity requires some trade-offs.”

To Lehrer and Nemeth, I’d respond with a constructively critical, “Yes, but…”

Positive Sign #1, 2011, glitter and fluorescent pen with holographic foil print on gridded vellum, 8.5 × 11 in / 21.5 × 28 cm

Consider Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s five stages of the creative process: preparation, incubation, insight, evaluation, and elaboration. I would think that debate is productive in some stages (such as evaluation and elaboration) and not others (such as preparation, incubation, and insight).

Perhaps more even-handed: sociologist Brian Uzzi analyzed musicals to find correspondences between social intimacy among creators and box office and critical success.

“The best Broadway teams, by far, were those with a mix of relationships,” Uzzi says. “These teams had some old friends, but they also had newbies. This mixture meant that artists could interact efficiently—they had a familiar structure to fall back on—but they also managed to incorporate some new ideas. They were comfortable, but not too comfortable.”

For artists considering creative and professional collaborators, choose carefully.

Lehrer also makes an exemplar of the MIT “rad lab”—where a disused building became home to divergent departments, creating spillover, and presumably, lending interdisciplinary gusto to the work of Chompsky, Bose, and other paradigm shifters. Lehrer concludes

The lesson of Building 20 is that when the composition is right—enough people with different perspectives running into on another in unpredictable ways—the group dynamic will take care of itself…. The most creative spaces are those which hurl us together.

I cringed when I read that last sentence, after my experiences in open-plan studios in graduate school. Unwanted intrusions can make focusing attention seem like a Herculean task. Being hurled together say, when you’re reading or trying to resolve an artwork, with someone taking a phone call or playing music, is not creative, but torturous. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that humans can adapt to many things, but we never adapt to intermittent noise:

Research shows that people who must adapt to new and chronic sources of noise … never fully adapt, and even studies find some adaptation still find evidence of impairment on cognitive tasks. Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress. It’s worth striving to remove sources of noise in your life.

Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, New York: Basic Books (2006) 92.
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News

Art Practical Issue 40

My review of Under Destruction at the Swiss Institute (NYC) is now online in Art Practical.

Also in the current issue, curator Christian L. Frock summarizes responses to Ai Weiwei’s detainment (including mentions of bilingual Free Ai Weiwei posters and the Love the Future graphic.

Hats off to the Art Practical editorial team, who celebrate the release of their 40th issue today. In two years the publication has grown from a kernel of an idea to a presence in the SF art community, and I am so honored to be part of it.

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Art & Development

points of reference, starting with the rückenfigur

Yesterday with ABC, I re-visited Glenn Ligon: America, the beautiful mid-career survey at the Whitney. It’s a stellar show, and I experienced anew this installation:

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, neon, paint. Source: Whitney.org.

Glenn Ligon, Rückenfigur, 2009, neon, paint. Source: Whitney.org.

The word rückenfigur refers to portraits with figures looking at a landscape with one’s back to the viewer, as in the famous Caspar David Friedrich painting below. Rückenfigur is one of Ligon’s  masterful America neons, and it’s an elegant use of text, in title and in form. Ligon’s neon features individually-reversed letters; the word is clearly “America” at first glance, but it is not backwards, yet individual letters, like the “R” and “C,” clearly are. This causes an experience of uncertainty, of not comprehending what is plain before you, similar to trying to grasp the vast culture of the US.

Additionally, the sign is painted black on the back side; viewers see no soft glow on the wall, just hard linear neon, an effect that is extremely rare among this nearly ubiquitous type of sign. Listen to the audio guide that accompanies this work.

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas. Source: Wikipedia.org.

Caspar David Friedrich, The wanderer above the sea of fog, 1818, oil on canvas. Source: Wikipedia.org.

The rückenfigur also appears in Ligon’s self-portraits, installed as a series of five photographs rendered in screenprint on canvas. Of the five images, four are of the back of the artist’s head.

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, screenprint ink and gesso on canvas. Collection of the artist  ©Glenn Ligon. Source: Whitney.org.

Glenn Ligon, Self-Portrait, 1996, screenprint ink and gesso on canvas. Collection of the artist ©Glenn Ligon. Source: Whitney.org.

ABC—always an inquisitive and passionate interlocutor—and I discussed these images. She guessed that they were gestures of turning towards a landscape of sorts. I surmised that the artist was giving us his back, refusing to be identified, pinned down, or boxed in, or perhaps, embracing or representing the anonymity or blankness of social perceptions. They seemed to be about ambivalence, or making the viewer project his or her own assumptions onto the image to me.

Ligon is an artist of remarkable subtlety; the exhibition tells a compelling story about an artist who expresses pointed political stances through others’ language. The show is gorgeously paced and installed; I even became fond of the Marcel Breuer-designed galleries, to which I was indifferent to (though I’ve always loved the lobby, with its grid of chandeliers with half-silvered bulbs). America continues through June 5 at the Whitney, then travels to LACMA in the fall of 2011 and to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in early 2012. Mark your calendars.

Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century. Source: V&A Museum website.

Claude Glass, Manufactured in England, 18th century. Source: V&A Museum website.

In thinking about the rückenfigur, and the negation of turning one’s back, I recalled the Claude glass, or black mirror, which I’ve blogged about before. The Claude glass is a pocket mirror of black glass that Romantic painters would use to restrict the tonal range of the landscape. To use the mirror, painters would turn their backs to the landscape and reflect the landscape in the glass. They’d paint the reflection, not the actual landscape.

Thanks to Google Images, I came across a series of beautiful photographs of a Claude glass in action by Carter Seddon. The site is under construction, but if these photos are any indication, I’d advise: Get it together; the pictures are good.

 Arcade Fire’s “Black Mirror” single comes to mind. View the arcane and lovely filmic video on YouTube.

Detail, untitled, 2008, site-specific window intervention: window film, gels, acetate

Late one night in 2008, I was installing Activist Imagination at Kearny Street Workshop. One of my projects required tinting a window with black film. After nightfall it was much easier to see my reflection than it was to see what I was doing. The Arcade Fire single came on, and my mood surged; I was overjoyed by the coincidence.

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable).

mirrorsblackportrait, 2011, mirrors, paint, frames, wire, motor, hardware; 112 x 21 x 21 in / 2.8 m x 0.5 x 0.5 m (site variable).

Memory and time…. Earlier today, I participated in the artist’s talk for The Black Portrait at Rush Arts Gallery in NYC. It’s an exhibition to which I contributed mirrorsblackportrait, a kinetic sculpture of two mirrors, one painted black on top, one painted black on bottom. During the talk, I mentioned the Claude glass, and the idea that suppressing perceptions might have the paradoxical effect of opening up a space for viewer’s experiences. Then, I had the good fortune of receiving kind and thoughtful feedback from other artists in the show. KO told me that as the sculpture turned, his mind stitched the memory of the lower reflection with the memory of the upper reflection. SS added that in revisiting a memory, it becomes strengthened. In this sense the work is also about time and recognition.

KO also mentioned a fascinating project of his involving flea markets, and how the lives of objects often outlast the lives of their owners. This reminded my of my favorite Daniel Spöerri quote, which is just as fresh and relevant to my practice now, as it was when I first read it five years ago:

We are all fetishists snared by the object…. The object is the vehicle of the affections… until they reach the flea markets of the world, where these objects continually pile up stripped of their magic and cut off from the memory of their history… All that remains of these preserves is the container the artists made for the time, the “can” the preserves came in…. The container will never interest me as much as the contained, but where would I pour my wine without a glass?—and it is in between these two poles of the inseparability of the two that my anxiety of finding a definite solution will oscillate, which could be interpreted positively as the desire for instability and change.

—Daniel Spoerri, The Mythological Travels, 1970.

To this, SS added her memories of going to the racetrack as a child. She recalls it as a site populated by outsiders, rife with belief in luck, superstitions and talismans. The idea of imbuing an object with magic or meaning carries over in to so much of what artists aspire to do.

Another attempt to refine a sensibility: CV recently pointed out that my work is not about optimism and pessimism per se, but that it’s about the moment of discovery. I think she meant that my work offers experiences that elicit responses, which highlight optimistic or pessimistic tendencies.

As my work has shifted towards happiness and sentiment, I’ve encountered skepticism—disbelief of my earnestness. And as a viewer, I am not always sympathetic to earnest works of art. Social practice gardening, for example, can seem a bit cutesy, and not very thought-provoking to me. So how could I expect or encourage viewers to take my earnestness at face value, and to not assume that sincerity is antipathetic towards criticality?

I recently posed two questions, and received two very good responses from friends. As I interpret it, AV answered in terms of what an artist or his/her work of art should exhibit to a viewer.

What makes earnestness beget curiosity and kindness?
AV: Genuine commitment.

What makes earnestness beget cynicism and ridicule?
AV: Naive idealism.

AR answered with what a viewer should bring to the work of art.

What makes earnestness beget curiosity and kindness?
AR: Courage.

What makes earnestness beget cynicism and ridicule?
AR: Fear.

Demonstrating genuine commitment in my inquiry seems like a more tangible goal than cultivating courage in viewers.

Whimsy, earnestness, sentiment and insignificance… On a somewhat related note, I recently came across Charlotte Taylor’s 2005 article in Frieze about whimsy. The article counterposes The Believer‘s intellectual whimsy against n+1. In the process, Taylor identified these observations:

…whimsy triumphs when the import of the apparently insignificant and the relevance of the random are discovered.

Like camp, intellectual whimsy is not best understood as ironic: it places a premium on unabashed sincerity while at the same time treading a fine line of self-parody. It often signals this self-parody by appropriating typographical and design conventions from the past… The provocative or unexpected becomes the precious….

For the editors of n+1 whimsy signals a dismaying lack of conviction and encourages the conspicuous squandering of energy on trivialities rather than issues of substance….

Wes Anderson’s films are whimsical because their unexpected juxtapositions are imbued with sentimental significance.

…whimsy values the ability to appreciate the aesthetic harmony possible among myriad incongruent objects. It draws attention to the act of perception and the sensibility of the perceiver. This is why intellectual whimsy can readily become grating—it invites you to be pleased by the innovations of another person’s taste.

Ironically, the style of these Points of Reference posts is to draw connections between seemingly incongruous ideas. Though I’m still sorting them out, I believe these points relate and that finding their similarities can be a productive exercise to advance my studio practice. I’ll leave you with a paraphrased quote, from today’s NYT video of friends pitching in to save one Alabama man’s house from flooding. As they built levees against a rising river, a friend expressed, without contradiction, his simultaneous feelings of futility and determination:

It may seem like a wasted effort. But it would not be for lack of effort.

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Research

Surprises at the MoMA

I visited the MoMA yesterday, on the last day of The Original Copy: The Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today. Working with studio-based compositions of sculptures and sculptural arrangements, Brancusi’s suite of beautiful b/w photos featured glints of light, while Jan de Cock [see his innovative website]‘s Studio Repromotion series were unaffected, curious color 4x6s. Cyprien Gaillard‘s Analogous Geographies (a series of groups of sixteen random Polaroids, all shot at 45 degree angles, and arranged to create composite landscapes) had a neat presentation (the photos were lain on a concave matboard-like surface in deep frames set at a low angle). Robin Rhode‘s Stone Flags (in which the illusion of flag-waving is carried out in a kind of live-action stop-motion hybrid, using real stones and a real figure) captured the heavy burden of statehood on personal identity. I was also happy to be introduced to Brassaï‘s Involuntary Sculptures, large b/w macro shots of materials like balls of dust or smeared toothpaste. The questioning of the nature of sculpture, and the embrace of chance, seems very contemporary. The cherry on the cake, though, was one of Duchamp’s valises of miniatures of his sculptures and paintings.

Still, while I toured other shows around the museum, I was most affected and impressed by three videos. This is a rarity for me. I haven’t got anything against video, it’s just that I don’t often have the patience it takes to watch enough videos to see the great ones. In this case, all three were very powerful, shared some similarities, yet are completely different.

Glenn Ligon‘s The Death of Tom (2008) is elegiac. It’s impressive because it seems to convey no content, yet ample clues point the observant viewer towards a very specific historical and cultural moment. [It’s so good I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll add a SPOILER ALERT here. Skip to the next graph if you don’t want to know.] The short film consists of unintelligible streaks of white light; a hazy, nebulous, shifting blur creates sort of a monochromatic, animated Rothko. It’s unclear what you’re looking at, and when, if ever, the video will start. Yet a beautifully-recorded piano accompanies the light; its riffs and rhythms allude to vaudevillian tunes. The composition is nostalgic and playful and yet, interpretive, heavy, burdened and woeful. Being familiar with Ligon’s work, and his interest in race and the representation of Black Americans, I surmised a connection to blackface and the co-mingled feelings of liberation and weight. It’s a very powerful piece that connects strongly to Ligon’s paintings about illegibility and misreadings. Jason Moran, the pianist and composer, provides clues, context and grace in equal measure. It’s on view through May 9, 2011.

In a prime example of the multi-polarity of artists of color and ways of working, unflinching Vietnamese documentarian Dinh Q. Lê and his collaborators present a completely different video that concerns racial and national politics as well. Their giant, three-channel video is at times emotionally heart-wrenching, bombastic, borderline propagandistic, and completely unnerving. The Farmers and The Helicopters (2006) features interviews with a handful of survivors of the Vietnam War and their experiences with helicopters: elderly ladies who were terrorized as children, a militia man who fired on them, and a perplexing, passionate, self-taught mechanic, who, enthralled with helicopters and their utilitarian and humanitarian potentials, built a helicopter from scrap metals with a farmer. Le Van Danh’s and Tran Quoc Hai’s handiwork is on view in the gallery adjacent to the video. It’s massive, white like an angel, and mind-blowing. The Farmers and The Helicopters is on view through January 24, 2011.

The third video I liked was features only color fields, similar to Ligon’s black-and-white-blur, yet is aggressively gripping like Lê’s. Paul Sharit‘s Ray Gun Virus (1966) is a film consisting of rapidly interspersed fields of color, accompanied by a loud, brain-invading mechanical drone. Finding the screening room empty, I proceeded to break all normal viewing protocol: standing in the projection throw, observing the awesome retinal after-images (or colors) that occurred, and generally zoning out. I thought about looking straight into the projection when more visitors came in, and I resumed my normative viewing role. A structuralist filmmaker, Ray Gun Virus was Sharit’s first “flicker” films which aimed to alter consciousness. He succeeded. See a visitor-created YouTube video. Also on view through May 9, 2011.

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Community, Research

Sign/Design

DON’T MISS:

Museo-rama: Joint Member Day, SF, CA

Tomorrow, Saturday, March 20 is Joint Member Day. If you’re a member the Asian Art Museum, Cartoon Art Museum, Contemporary Jewish Musuem, Museum of the African Diaspora, Museum of Craft and Folk Art, SF Camerawork, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, or Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, you and a friend can visit participating museums for FREE admission, special events and exclusive discounts.

I’m curious about Dispatches from the Archives and The View From Here photography exhibition at SFMOMA. I’m all for exhibitions that help Americans understand China’s pluralism, and the Shanghai exhibition at the Asian Art Museum introduces the cosmopolitan city through its Western-influenced hybridized modern art and design (with a few pieces of contemporary art). Still, I thought the didactic texts shied from the mention of colonialism; this westernization seems possible because cities were forced open to British trade by the Treaty of Nanking after China lost the First Opium War. Also, pop culture afficionados: don’t expect to see lots of vintage-kitsch Shanghai lady adverts; those make up only a small fraction of the exhibition.

It’s A Sign: New Bohemia Signs at Adobe Books’ Backroom Gallery, SF, CA

Design nerds ho! The immaculate hand-painted stylizations of New Bohemia Signs, San Francisco’s own anachronistic, fedora-donning, sign painting shop, are on view at Adobe Books’ Backroom Gallery through April 3. It’s like Steven Heller’s New Vintage Type came to life in shiny, seductive enamel paint. You can purchase individual functional signs for your indie mart or design tchotchke shelves, or larger aggregations for the aesthetics, and to make an undeniable statement about your good taste.

The signs are really cute. They are examples of great graphic design, but ultimately, just signs. I had hoped to make some smart-sounding statement about semiotics or wayfinding (especially in relation to “The Secret Language of Signs,” Slate’s recent series on signs), but really, style and legibility seem to be the main point of the work. If there is something more interesting to tease out, it’s probably in regards to context: A shop selling books (so antiquated!) exhibiting hand-painted signs produced by another independently-owned, brick-and-mortar small business, and the printed/painted letters they love.

Rockin’ Paper, Swingin’ Scissors at Rowan Morrison Gallery, Oakland, CA

Sort of in the same vein of totally adorable/collectible is Ryohei Tanaka’s show of papercuts at Rowan Morrison Gallery through April 3. Ryohei’s based in Tokyo now; I went to CCA with him in the late 1990s. Back then, he was a total drawing maniac, whose work was characterized by density and a cuteness that was simultaneously attractive and appalling. Now, his explosive prolificness has resulted in figures, monsters and robots in cheery colors and a traditional Asian folk art/paper craft. Small cuts start under $100; if that sinks your battleship you can walk away, as I did, with a navy screenprint of assorted figures on a white cotton rectangle (I think it’s a Japanese work scarf or tea towel) for $8.

WINSOME:

The website for Scott Oliver’s Lake Merritt project is up!

COMING SOON, to New York:

Gormley fatigue.

FASCINATING:

“Everybody Have Fun,” Elizabeth Kolbert’s round-up of recent books on the problematic intersection of happiness research and policy in the current New Yorker Magazine (March 22, 2010).

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Art & Development

Eliasson on spectatorship and perceptual experiences in galleries

One of the predominant tropes of the artists in Il Tempo del Postino is their assertion of the socialising and empowering agency of art, which has long been an aim of theatre of the left, from Brecht to Invisible Theatre, developed by Augusto Boal in the 1970s, when social-issue plays were staged in public places, such as shopping centres, often drawing nonperformers, or ‘spect-actors’, into the debate….

The efforts of a number of these artists to orchestrate socialising contexts have been criticised in recent years for being patronising or for actually stultifying exchange.

[Stultifying? See Ranciere.]

A distinguishing factor of Eliasson’s work, though, is that he doesn’t consider language the primary socialising agent. His installations and events operate on the audience’s sensory perception, prompting not a conversational exchange but a subjective psychophysical experience. Although, as Eliasson points out, there is no unmediated neutral state of perception in a gallery, as by definition any aesthetic proposition demands sensory manipulation, he tends to expand effect beyond optical or linguistic cognition. Utopian claims for art creating solidarity through authentic communal discourse become redundant when the subjectivity of perception becomes the means as well as the subject of an artwork. Collectivity, suggests Eliasson, is more about the production of difference, and yet there remains a misperception that representation in the form of language creates a productive space, when in fact it simply describes a space that remains uninhabited. As it was for eighteenth-century romantic ironists, such as August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, for Eliasson it is the employment of the gap between representation and the actual world, between the sun and the evocation of a sun or an audience and their reconstruction, that generates poetic effect.

Sally O’Reilly, “Olafur Eliasson: Time is on his side,” Art Review, September 14, 2007

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