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,”, 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.


Highly recommended: Jeremy Deller’s podcast lecture

I first heard UK public/conceptual artist Jeremy Deller on an interview on NPR. He was discussing It Is What It Is, a project commissioned by the New Museum, in which he set up a tour of a blown-up vehicle from Iraq as a conversation piece around the US. As you can imagine, it’s a project that takes guts, and I was impressed with Deller’s thoughtfulness and integrity. His approach just seemed right — political sentiment balanced with an urge to connect with average citizens and the absence of ideological rhetoric.

His well-known projects also include a re-enactment of a miner strike and the commissioning of an acid-house brass band. I also loved the site-specificity and public nature of the Procession he organized for the recent Manchester International Festival.

In his podcast lecture at the University of Michigan, Deller delivered a chronology of his background and the development of his approach, and an overview of his major projects and inspirations. If you’re interested in his work, and seek context for his idiosyncratic ouvre, I highly recommend it.

Deller is very British — unfailingly polite, serious, a tad self-deprecating, thoroughly appreciative of British folk culture, and concerned with overcoming the UK’s North-South divide. In contrast with the stereotype of English reserve, I’ve found that many Brits can be forthcoming, and Deller talks unapologetically (and also, without the American tendency for dramatized moral indignation) about his focus on working with people, rather than making art. Exhibition-making is merely coincidental to the culture industry that supports his public projects.

This got me thinking about how the work of exceptionally visionary people like Jeremy Deller don’t fit in other modes of production, and somehow, the culture industry (in this case, art institutions and networks) is able to make room for them. I am interested in this expansive, fungible realm of art practice, in which the forms are not conventional (pictures/sculptures/environments), and the sites outside of white cubes/black boxes. Furthermore, Deller didn’t once mention “relational aesthetics” or “Bourriard” in his talk. The work is valid on its own terms. It’s not “Art” as your grandparents understood it, yet the phrase, “art,” is useful for creating an exceptional space for social, experiential, participatory play.

Here are iTunes URLs for Jeremy Deller’s lecture at the University of Michigan:
Audio podcast
Video podcast



In “Manchester United,” Kate Sutton writes up the big-name art events in the Manchester International Festival on Unfortunately it was in Scene and Herd, the mag’s gossip column/photos-of-beautiful-people section.

MIF sounds phenomenal — few cities are brave enough to host a festival of new visual arts and performance commissions of that scale. It’s nice to see coverage of the Marina Abramovich-curated exhibition at the Whitworth and Jeremy Deller’s populist-meets-conceptualist Procession, though Sutton overlooked local and emerging artists, and their varied and experimental MIF initiative, Contemporary Art Manchester.

I could have done without the author’s dishy commentary. She punctuates her reportage with snarky asides, as well as needless and predictable snooty (and classist) jabs at Mancunians at large. The “unity” conjured in the title contrasts sharply with her cynical dismissal of the very publics who host these events–and her as an art-tourist.