Meta-Practice, Values

Only in an obfuscating art world does transparency seem radical

Some generative, collective thoughts for transparency and against competition.

Thinking about all the things that are supposed to go unspoken in the art world, and artists’ self-preservation, and how even a teeny bit of transparency can seem risky or radical in the obfuscating art world. Our battles seem so hard won, why share any insight with others? Exactly because none of this is easy. Info and access are the easy bits, relative to good work, persistence, and longevity.

“Every interaction involves a choice between collaboration and competition, and to what degree. Eventually you have to choose the world you want to live in.”


“So much of the way that the art world is structured favors competition. Grants are competitive. … Artists compete with artists–stealing ideas instead of sharing them, or using copyright laws to guard against thoughtful re-use. Artists compete for shows in a limited number of exhibition spaces instead of finding their own ways to exhibit outside of these competitive venues. Artists conceal opportunities from their friends as a way of getting an edge up on the capital-driven competition. … This is a treadmill made from decomposing shit that is so devoid of nutrients that even its compost won’t allow anything fresh to grow. We need something better to run on. … Working toward a global network where one creates opportunities and, in turn, can respond to limitless opportunities without the pressure to compete, allows for a more generous, diverse and open art practice.”

Marc Fisher (Temporary Services), “Against Competition,” Blunt Art Text #2, April 2006 via Stephanie Syjuco/Free Texts


Mathilde Ter Heijne,  Woman to Go

Mathilde Ter Heijne, Woman to Go

This is an interesting premise for a show: postcard reproductions of early Daguerreotypes of unidentified women, with texts about recognized women, given away for free. Increasing the visibility of women through this act of generosity/ distribution. More info at the artist’s site.

It’s on view at Jack Hanley Gallery in NYC. Nice to see non-commercial projects at a commercial gallery.

Mathilde Ter Heijne: Woman to Go @ Jack Hanley Gallery

Art & Development

The Greatest of All Time

Few things impress me as much as discovering that champions are also genuinely nice people.

In Born to Run, Christopher McDougall wrote about Scott Jurek’s constant encouragement of fellow runners. After setting records at 100-mile ultramarathons, Jurek would plop down in a sleeping bag and cheer on every last runner, sometimes for 12 hours or more. During a 50-mile race in sizzling Mexican canyons, as he pursued the lead runners, Jurek stopped to brief a fellow runner on the trail conditions and aid stations ahead of her. He increased the distance he’d have to reel in his competitors so he could help a friend.

I’ve had the pleasure of learning from one of the nicest and toughest people I know. Bunkerd Faphimi is a muay thai figher and trainer at Fight and Fitness in San Francisco. He has an astounding 350+ fights under his belt. He’s known in Thailand as the People’s Champion, and as soon as you meet him, you’ll know why. He’s incredibly kind, generous, and playful. Have a look at his fight videos. He likes to take a lot of punishment, and yet, he’s often smiling in the ring. Not a showboating smile, but one of enjoyment. Better yet, watch him spar with students. He offers a near-constant onomatopoeic commentary, delighting in an activity in which he’s mostly letting himself get kicked, punched, and put in the clinch. He’s the living antithesis of both the evil Karate Kid Freudian-father archetype sensei, and, with his sheer unpretentiousness and demystified approach to muay thai, of the ‘magical Asian’ Mr. Miyagi. His love of muay thai, and of life, is like exuberance embodied.

I often find myself defending fight sports from people view it as sanctioned brutality. What they don’t understand is that these are highly evolved sports that people spend years of their lives dedicating their lives to. You don’t get to that level without knowing, in your heart of hearts, that this is what you really want, and proving it over and over again. As Chris Cariaso, the other head trainer at Fight and Fitness (and a super nice guy who rescues dogs when he’s not training, teaching, and fighting in the UFC) said, he’s “living the dream.”

This gratitude for life experiences also extends to gratitude to other competitors. Though fighters and promoters hype fights as ways to settle personal beefs, fighters also experience profound gratitude and respect for competitors when the fight is fair, their skills are closely matched, and the fight is so enjoyable that the outcome becomes less significant. When you’ve witnessed your opponent’s skill and heart firsthand—when they’ve gained your respect and you haven’t compromised yourself or your performance in any way—you recognize that there is no shame or sadness in losing to such a worthy competitor.

This is very similar to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow: the activity becomes autotelic, skills are well-suited to the challenges, and participants lose themselves to the activity.

You can see this elatedness exemplified at the end of bloody battles when the fighters, after the last bell, happy and exhausted, embrace. They also often gently touch each other’s heads or draw their foreheads together—I’ve even seen a boxer wipe another’s face. You don’t have to be a social psychologists to recognize these signs of affection and intimacy. Their wide smiles are pictures of gratitude. (Forrest Griffin vs. Stephen Bonnar, TUF1, is a classic example. I’m sure I was not the only fan rooting for both of them by the end.) Sometimes, one fighter will raise the competitor’s hand in the air, not necessarily to signal his own loss, but to acknowledge his opponent’s champion spirit. In a world of machismo, humility shines.

Premise #1: True champions express gratitude, humility, and generosity.

McDougall writes that people are born to run, and that we love running because we love being with other runners. We are part of a human pack when we run together. Though endurance running is often accompanied by pain and exhaustion, many top runners compete with smiles on their faces. The joy of the activity is self-evident; the urge to help others enjoy the activity follows.

Speculations: Art is highly competitive and individual artists often compete against each other for grants, residencies, commissions, exhibition opportunities, and teaching jobs. Who are the top practitioners in the arts who express profound generosity and gratitude?

How do artists—even as competitors—help each other? Share our joy? Express our pack-hood?

When do we help each other find the flow?

Is art practice like endurance running? Can artists find the joy even as we slog it out for miles in the rain alone, as well as when we assemble and compete?

When our skills are evenly matched how do we raise another’s fist in the air, recognizing their spirits?

Is there a lesson for artists to be learned about becoming a contender before becoming a champion?

Read the abstract of a fantastic profile of Bunkerd by Elif Batuman in the New Yorker.

Watch a video interview with Bunkerd on, an excellent resource for all things muay thai by a true practitioner.

[Added October 16, 2011] Read a recent blog post by Jurek on running with others.

Art & Development, Travelogue

Woodstock Byrdcliffe: Get excited and make stuff

View from Mount Guardian, Catskills, NY.

View from Mount Guardian, Catskills, NY.

I’m in the Catskills for a short residency at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild. I’m so honored to be here. The land is beautiful, serene, and full of wildlife. I’m giddy; it’s such a contrast from New York City and yet it so strongly recalls the Sierras in California. The colony was founded by British Industrialists seeking to build a utopian Arts and Crafts creative community. The initial attempt didn’t last long, but the Guild lives on as a series of amazing historic buildings housing 17 residents in visual arts, media arts, creative writing, and music composition.

I’ve been here just about a week, and am pretty much settled in my quaint room and a detached studio with high ceilings and skylights. I’m two-thirds through with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow; I started some new drawings and sculptures, and even dreamed up a staged photograph. The setting is literally invigorating—I’ve run further than I have ever before.

Inspired by a tradition I experienced as an Affiliate Artist at the Headlands Center for the Arts, I initiated a residents’ mutual presentation series. It’s basically a slide slam/listening party/clip screening/reading event, made possible with shared laptops and digital projectors and healthy doses of participation and positive intentions. I enjoyed everyone’s presentations tonight. I suspect my readers would be keen to learn more about Julie Perini’s videos. I also really liked Jane Corrigan’s paintings about sentimental landscape images. My highest hope for the series is that some parallels emerge and enliven our discourse, and it appears that some already have.

The only quandry I have now is that the event is gaining interest and we may need to add another night to accommodate fellow artists on the mountain. Seeing a little initiative returned with such participation is very gratifying.

Residencies are like slices of heaven, so that artists can envision making more of “regular” life more like residencies—to inject the space and time to create, think, breathe, stretch, learn, explore, and exchange into life more often and for longer periods.


Psychology for Profit

Inspiring gratitude to influence (consumer) behavior via “relationship marketing”:

… the idea is that the unexpected nature of the gifts will leave the customer not just pleased but also grateful. Gratitude is a powerful, and potentially quite profitable, emotion to inspire.

–Rob Walker, “Hyatt’s Random Acts of Generosity,” New York Times, June 17, 2009

Of course, the manipulation of generosity can backfire as well:

Perceived unfairness can throw reciprocity instincts into reverse: instead of being disproportionately grateful, you might feel disproportionately spiteful — and take your business, and your loyalty, elsewhere.

I’m all for gratitude, when it makes people happier. In this case, it seems like customers are being subtly manipulated to feel a little more satisfied with their hotel experience, while its investors and evil marketing geniuses might become a lot happier with their bottom lines.

Is a kinder, gentler capitalism better than a cutthroat one? Ideologically, no. Pragmatically, though, empowering workers to reward pleasant customers seems, well, nice. Service sector workers might like having some agency in the workplace.

And what does this tell us about relational aesthetics, which is still somewhat marginalized as a practice (as an emergent field, its validity is often up for debate), when corporations are talking about reciprocity and relationships?

Citizenship, Community, Research

Things are grim, but I can’t stop thinking about happiness.

Where my mind’s been at:

Positive psychology — a relatively new field of evidence-based self-help for being happier. Think of it like the shift in medicine from treating illness to increasing wellness. As Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, writes in Happier, pretty much everything we want in life ultimately leads back to happiness.

The idea is to increase happiness in daily life, rather than dealing with unhappiness only during moments of crisis.

[See also Dr. Martin Seligman, Prof. Philip Zimbardo and Dr. Walter Mischel (whose research was the subject of a great article by Jonah Lehrer recently in the New Yorker Magazine).]

Practicing gratitude is one of the oft-cited methods of increasing happiness.

I’m tremendously grateful for friends helping friends. I know, I know, everyone’s hurting now financially. But a lot of artists are freelancers, and while freelancing is typically like riding a roller coaster, it seems like a lot of my peers are feeling lost in a free fall. These are bright, hardworking people doing everything from graphic design, to interactive art direction, to preparator/installation to cooking.

The financial safety nets are being strained, but it seems like social bonds are staying strong… Artists helping artists. Freelancers helping freelancers. I’m so grateful to be in an art community, in which, even in lean times, can exhibit generosity instead of competition.

If you can support the arts in these times, for goodness’ sake, here’s how (and where and when!):

travis meinholf art
Formerly San Francisco-based, now Berlin-based artist Travis Meinolf is in the unenviable position of raising funds for a matching grant (good luck!) for his kind of hilarious but also strangely innovative practice of action-weaving. Like his healthy ‘stache, Travis’ participatory weaving seems impossibly sincere (his last project resulted in 12 volunteer-made blankets being donated to a women’s shelter). He’s a good guy and a hard worker and I wish him the best of luck in sowing his weaving projects ’round the world… Contact Jennifer McCabe, director of the Museum of Craft and Folk Art at to make a contribution towards Meinolf’s exhibition. (Image source:

(In case you missed it, I mentioned Scott Oliver’s totally fund-able project about my beloved Lake Merritt in a previous post.)

This Saturday night is Pop Noir, an auction to benefit Southern Exposure, an alternative art space that’s consistently invested in local artists, community engagement, and excellence in contemporary art. This female-led organization has always pushed the envelope, and I’m very proud to donate a pair of text-based drawings to support their work. Over a hundred and fifty other local artists have donated work too. Countless volunteers are contributing time. But it’s all for naught without buyers. So come on down—with auction prices starting at a fraction of the retail price, the price is right. Look for some really nice pieces by Weston Teruya, The Thing Quarterly by Allora and Callzadia, Michael Hall, Laurie Reid, Jeff Canham, Jamie Vasta, Edgar Arcenaux, Dustin Fosnot, and yours truly (pictured as follows).
weston teruya artThe Thing Quarterlymichael hall artlaurie reid artjeff canham artjamie vasta artedgar arcenaux artdustin fosnot artchristine wong yap art
(Image sources: Southern Exposure’s Pop Noir Auction Artists

Pop Noir will be held at the gorgeous galleries at Electric Works at 8th and Mission Streets in San Francisco. Tix, more info, pics of the auction lots, and absentee bidding details here. Hope to see you there.

Stephani Martinez, Daily Cakes - Extra Fancy, 2009, Variable, Doilies, Plaster, Gold Leaf
(Image: Stephani Martinez, Daily Cakes – Extra Fancy, 2009, Variable, Doilies, Plaster, Gold Leaf. Image source: Intersection for the Arts’ 2009 Benefit Art Auction.)
Of course the other amazing alternative art space in San Francisco is Intersection for the Arts, who is well-respected for the rigor of their programming, and renown for making miracles on a shoestring. Like many non-profits, the downturn is hitting their typically lean infrastructure hard. Intersection’s auction comes up next weekend, on the following Saturday, June 13.

Daniel Tierny, Double Jump, 2009, Tape on lambda print, 23 x 33 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco.
(Image: Daniel Tierny, Double Jump, 2009, Tape on lambda print, 23 x 33 in., Courtesy of the Artist and Steven Wolf Fine Arts, San Francisco. Image source: Headlands 2009 Benefit Auction, Artists, Daniel Tierney.)
Wednesday, June 10, the Headlands Center for the Arts holds their auction at the Herbst International Exhibition Hall in the Presidio. I’ve been an Affiliate Artist at the Headlands for a year and a half. The Headlands is an amazing locus for an international and local art community. When I think about relocating, few places compare with the quality of the Bay Area arts scene, partly because of the Headlands’ role in drawing international artists in residence to the area.

So there you go. Support an artist directly, or support the organizations who support the artists. And take home some artwork!