Research

Interdependence and politics

Over the past year as I’ve been working on Ways and Means, I’ve been thinking about interdependence, stewardship, and agency. I’ve been mulling how becoming accountable to a shared space and ethos is an intentional act, and how it’s similar to citizenship and being accountable as a political being. On Election Day, an article exploring the relationship between neighborliness and politics seemed especially salient to me, both as an artist and a voter.

Joshua Rothman’s “Enemy Next Door” (New Yorker, November 7, 2016; appears online as “Red Neighbor, Blue Neighbor”) is worth reading in its entirety; here’s what struck me.

Like many, I’ve struggled to stay engaged and optimistic about democracy and fellow citizens’ judgment. Rothman perfectly describes the sense of delimitation I’ve been seeking in response, as well as past feelings about being an activist simultaneously with being an artist.

Politics matters enormously; it’s right to care, to feel alarmed, and to argue. … And yet politics can become a poisonous influence in our lives. … It fills us with unwanted passionate intensity. Perhaps, somewhere in the territory of the self, a border marks the place where our lives as citizens end and our sovereignty as individuals begins.

What qualities contribute to interdependence and collaboration? Acceptance and open-mindedness.

Throughout American history, [author of Good Neighbors Nancy] Rosenblum finds, … good neighbors are “decent folk.” Decency, here, is a circumspect sort of virtue. Being decent doesn’t necessarily mean being good. It means accepting the flaws in others and returning, despite disruptions and disappointments, to the predictable rhythms of reciprocity.

I’m interested in self-initiated acts of agency and mutualism, because the empowerment and optimism that follows are compelling. It feels nice to move forward to an ideal, rather than merely pushing back against an existing system.

When politics turns against us—when we can’t trust Congress, the courts, or the police—we still look to neighborliness as a source of “democratic hope untethered to public political institutions.”

I’d venture that many social practice projects have similar rationales—that an aesthetic interpersonal gesture might temporarily reconfigure social and political relations.

…these moments of neighborly kindness aren’t, strictly speaking, political. In fact, they are anti-political. They come about because neighbors insist on relating to one another as individuals, rather than as members of parties or groups….

If temporarily reconfiguring political relations through a social practice project is anti-political, so be it. But Rosenblum warns against equating neighborliness with citizenship, through theories of holism versus pluralism:

…the implication was that, by tapping into a reservoir of neighborly good will, we might arrest the slide into polarized dysfunction. This is a comforting idea. As individual voters, we can do very little to reform our broken political system, or to change the apocalyptic tenor of today’s political campaigns. But, as neighbors and friends, we can redeem politics through ordinary human decency.

Rosenblum is skeptical of this theory. She describes it as a species of “social and political holism.” Instead, she argues, American life is characterized by “pluralism.” … We are, simultaneously, citizens, workers, neighbors, parents, lovers, [and artists, activists] and souls; in each of these spheres, we observe and uphold different rules and values. … Our values aren’t conveniently unified. They’re discontinuous.

If we can accept this contradictory nature of our selves, it seems, then we can accept our fellow citizens.

…It’s tempting to commit a kind of moral synecdoche—to take a part (e.g., voting for Trump) for a whole (being a bad person). [“The reverse is true, too, of course. Our “good” political beliefs don’t make us good people all the time,” Rothman added in a later passage.] To the extent that we avoid this, it’s by adopting a pluralistic view of the people around us. … In its strongest form, pluralism is a theory of selfhood. American democracy, Rosenblum thinks, is founded on this theory. We have in common the understanding that we contain multitudes. Reconciling ourselves to the contradictions of pluralism is what makes it possible for us to unite as a people.

Finally, the best way to make political change is to make political change.

After the election, the return of neighborliness will be reassuring. It shouldn’t be. The political stream is still tumbling along out there, as turbulent as ever.

 

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Impressions

Points of Reference: Embodied Memory

Recent notes on memory, navigation, and embodiment.

I love thinking about embodied cognition (how our mental life is shaped by the physical roots of experience). Recently, a spate of articles has me thinking about where memory lives in the brain, and how the body moving through space is tied to recollection. It’s interesting to consider what impressions you’re embedding physically or mentally. Maybe you’re an art viewer noticing how your eye “moves” through a picture. Or, you’re an art handler “walking through” an exhibition design in SketchUp. Perhaps, you’re an artist envisioning how people interact with an installation or your participatory artworks. I wonder about the many ways in which aesthetic experience is one of navigation, envisioning, recording, and recall.

 

Through the DOT's Adopt-a-Highway program, artist Katarina Jerinic utilizes a parcel next to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway as land art for site-specific interventions. Katarina Jerinic, PSA for Passers-by #2 (video still), 2014, digital video, 57 seconds. // Source: KatarinaJerinic.com // HT: The Center for Book Arts' Map as Metaphor lecture series.

Through the DOT’s Adopt-a-Highway program, artist Katarina Jerinic utilizes a parcel next to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway as land art for site-specific interventions. Katarina Jerinic, PSA for Passers-by #2 (video still), 2014, digital video, 57 seconds. // Source: KatarinaJerinic.com // HT: The Center for Book Arts’ Map as Metaphor lecture series.

 

Kim Tingley’s “The Secret of the Wave Pilots” (NY Times, March 17, 2016) is a fascinating look at a Marshallese form of seafaring using knowledge of waves only. She writes beautifully about the neurological and social ties between memory and navigation, as well as the fascinating history of the Marshall Islands. I highly recommend the entire article. My favorite passages to think about for art practice follow.

On how we know where we are in space, and how that shapes who we are and our social relationships:

“[Psychologist Edward] Tolman hypothesized that humans have cognitive maps…, and that they are not just spatial but social. ‘Broad cognitive maps,’ he posited, lead to empathy, while narrow ones lead to ‘‘dangerous hates of outsiders,’ ranging from ‘discrimination against minorities to world conflagrations.’ Indeed, anthropologists today, especially those working in the Western Pacific, are increasingly aware of the potential ways in which people’s physical environment — and how they habitually move through it — may shape their social relationships and how those ties may in turn influence their orienteering.”

“…our ability to navigate is inextricably tied not just to our ability to remember the past but also to learning, decision-making, imagining and planning for the future.”

Though journey and destination can be clichéd metaphors (not to mention signposts, road maps, off the beaten track, forge your own path), what Tingley seems to suggest is that these are fundamentally human concepts. It’s part of our evolutionary legacy to think and understand in terms of physical journeys, because we each have this kind of brain in this kind of bipedal body.

On the connections between mapping and memory:

The cognitive map is now understood to have its own physical location, … in the limbic system, an evolutionarily primitive region largely responsible for our emotional lives — specifically, within the hippocampus, an area where memories form. … [neuroscientists] found that our brains overlay our surroundings with a pattern of triangles. Any time we reach an apex of one, a ‘grid cell’ … delineates our position relative to the rest of the matrix… [an] ‘inner GPS’ that constantly and subconsciously computes location….”

“…a new unified theory of the hippocampus [imagines] it not as a repository for disparate memories and directions but as a constructor of scenes that incorporate both. (Try to recall a moment from your past or picture a future one without visualizing yourself in the physical space where that moment happens.)”

I’m always amazed by the peculiar concreteness of dreamed environments: the fully rendered qualities of light, the verisimilitude of prioperception. How awesome that this takes dozens of AI specialists and servers to re-create, and yet our brains achieve this when we’re literally not even thinking about it.

Exploring the world through our bodies is the root of imagination and creativity:

“[Others] hypothesized that our ability to time-travel mentally evolved directly from our ability to travel in the physical world, and that the mental processes that make navigation possible are also the ones that allow us to tell a story. ‘In the same way that an infinite number of paths can connect the origin and endpoint of a journey,’ Edvard Moser and another co-author wrote in a 2013 paper, ‘a recalled story can be told in many ways, connecting the beginning and the end through innumerable variations.’”

Nobutaka Aozaki, From Here to There, 2012–ongoing, questions, various pens and paper, 10' x 3' 2" / dimensions variable. // Source: NobutakaAozaki.com

A series of hand-drawn maps made by strangers upon request of the artist, who posed as a tourist and refused directions via app. The installation approximates a map of Manhattan. Nobutaka Aozaki, From Here to There (image as of June 15, 2012), 2012–ongoing, questions, various pens and paper, 10′ x 3′ 2″ / dimensions variable. // Source: NobutakaAozaki.com // HT: Nobu is a fellow Center for Book Arts 2016 resident

“…people who use GPS, when given a pen and paper, draw less-precise maps of the areas they travel through and remember fewer details about the landmarks they pass; paradoxically, this seems to be because they make fewer mistakes getting to where they’re going. Being lost … has one obvious benefit: the chance to learn about the wider world and reframe your perspective.”

That’s a good reminder: Be where you are. Don’t worry about the fastest route. Learn about your environment and build up your mental map.

The same can be said about the creative process. I need reminders to stop over-valuing productivity, and to experiment in the studio. This is partly my nature, and partly not—as Barnaby Drabble points out, “the increasing application of time and resource management methods to our personal lives”* is symptomatic of larger forces like neoliberalism, and the conditions of immaterial labor, etc.

Furthering the connection between exploring space and imagination:

“All maps are but representations of reality: They render the physical world in symbols and highlight important relationships … that are invisible to the naked eye. If storytelling, the way we structure and make meaning from the events of our lives, arose from navigating, so, too, is the practice of navigation inherently bound up with storytelling, in all its subjectivity.”**

Maps are subjective, and could be more transparently so.

“Many of our [mapping studios] students began the semester enamored with the sublime, totalizing visions afforded by exhaustive data-sets and sleek visualizations. Yet by the end, nearly everyone’s mission and values shifted – from a pursuit of ‘accuracy’ and ‘exhaustiveness,’ to an interest in the personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative. They sought to find ways to express ambiguity, to insert cartographic ‘buts,’ ‘ifs,’ ‘howevers,’ and other qualifying statements to convey the ‘interpretative nature of the mapping process.'”

—from Shannon Mattern’s excellent slide lecture at Maps as Metaphor at the Center for Book Arts. It’s posted online on her equally excellent blog, Words in Space.

 

These subjectivities can work for us. Memory palaces, for example, exploit the connection between memory and environments. It’s a memorization technique of:

“associating the ideas or objects to be memorized with memorable scenes imagined to be at well-known locations (‘loci’), like one’s house (‘palace’)”

Austin Frakt’s “An Ancient and Proven Way to Improve Memorization; Go Ahead and Try it,” (NY Times, March 24, 2016).

I’m most fascinated by how the physical and conceptual interact and influence each other. How we walk the earth shapes our cognitive metaphors, and they imbue the memories that inform our identities. At the same time, we use mental powers to traverse real and imagined spaces, even constructing new spaces to expand our abilities. These interactions blur the boundaries of what is permanent and real:

“[Es Devlin, set designer,] is an architect of temporary space, making images that can survive only in the minds of the people who see her shows. ‘I do all this work and nothing physical remains,’ she told me. ‘So what I’m really designing are mental structures, as opposed to physical ones. Memories are solid, and that’s what I’m trying to build.’”

Andrew O’Hagan, “Imaginary Spaces: Es Devlin and the psychology of the stage,”New Yorker Magazine, March 28, 2016

This resonants with the core of why I’m an artist. I make objects and exhibit them for a few weeks at a time. While a small portion exists in people’s homes, most are squirreled away or no longer exist. I continue to make objects because I believe that  art experiences “live” on as viewers’ memories of firsthand, physical experiences (and secondhand, virtual images on the Web). This speaks to my immense faith in the power of aesthetic experience—a process of viewing, thinking, and feeling—to enrich human experience.

—–

*Barnaby Drabble, “On De-Organisation” in Self-Organized, edited by Stine Hebert & Ann Szefer Karlsen, London: Open Editions / Bergen: Hordaland Art Centre, 2013

**Digression: Here’s an example of how much place and memory are tied. Brandon Brown’s “Limited Access: Art and Gentrification in the Mission” (Art in America, March 30, 2015) mentions Artist’s Television Access and The Lab, two venerable alternative art organizations a few blocks apart in San Francisco. Reading his descriptions of places—even on a small screen, in a noisy gym—flooded me with memories: my first visit to ATA, as a high school student at a Sick ‘n Twisted shorts fest; trading sketchbooks with Erik Drooker at Muddy Waters, where he drew speech bubbles making fun of my slang; as a young art student, viewing Barry McGee’s mural in the labor building; the time I was on a panel with Boots Riley at ATA (and I think Chicken John?) that got hijacked; the doc on Humboldt County tree-sitters; the palpable discomfort of a friend from out-of-town when we met him at 16th and Mission to eat at Taqueria Cancún; Intersection, and how often I’d run into Kevin Chen right in front of the building, day or night, wearing yellow glasses and having a smoke… What makes a space a place are the meanings assigned to it. Personal experiences—pleasant or not, juvenile or formative—are part of what makes San Francisco’s transformation potent.

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Sights

get excited: cool things everywhere

Being an artist involves so many activities, I’ve fallen behind on seeing art. But there’s lots out there to be excited about!

 Amanda Curreri, Under the Socialist Sun with Interference, Monoprint with screenprint, 15 x 11 inches, 2013; Llewelynn Fletcher, Standing Sound Costume: Lion, 2010, basswood, mahogany, low frequency sound, bass-shaker speakers, 3.5'W X 3.5'L X 7'H. // Source: c3initiative.org.

Amanda Curreri, Under the Socialist Sun with Interference, Monoprint with screenprint, 15 x 11 inches, 2013; Llewelynn Fletcher, Standing Sound Costume: Lion, 2010, basswood, mahogany, low frequency sound, bass-shaker speakers, 3.5’W X 3.5’L X 7’H. // Source: c3initiative.org.

Cool artists getting a cool residency in Portland, OR

ERNEST Introductions (Amanda Curreri & Llewellyn Fletcher)
c3 initiative, Portland, OR
Dec 7, 2013 – Feb 15, 2014
Opening: Sat, Dec 7, 6-9pm
Launching ERNEST’s collaborative two-year public project and partnership with Portland’s c3 initiative.

Installation view of The Shadows Took Shape. // Source: StudioMuseum.org // Photo: Adam Reich

Installation view of The Shadows Took Shape. // Source: StudioMuseum.org // Photo: Adam Reich

Afrofuturist aesthetics @ the Studio Museum
Including a collaborative project by Nyeema Morgan
Plus a great portrait of the artists in the New Yorker Magazine

The Shadows Took Shape
November 14–March 9, 2014
Studio Museum
NYC

Artists of The Shadows Took Shape in the New Yorker Magazine. Photograph by Christaan Felber.

Artists of The Shadows Took Shape in the New Yorker Magazine. Photograph by Christaan Felber.

I don’t think female artists of color have enough visibility; this is a lovely move in a good direction.

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon. // Source: ArtsCatalyst.org.

Leonid Tishkov, Private Moon. // Source: ArtsCatalyst.org.

A wonderfully speculative, lunar-themed exhibition in London

The preview images look so cool.

January 10-February 2, 2014
The Art Catalyst’s Republic of the Moon
Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank, London

Vacuum/plenum (the Cotard delusion, invisibility, and other gravities), 2009, mirror, two-way plexiglass mirror, aluminum, steel, casters, Dimensions variable, mirrored box is 4x4x7 ft. // Source: SeldonYuan.com

Vacuum/plenum (the Cotard delusion, invisibility, and other gravities), 2009, mirror, two-way plexiglass mirror, aluminum, steel, casters, Dimensions variable, mirrored box is 4x4x7 ft. // Source: SeldonYuan.com

Vacuum/plenum (the Cotard delusion, invisibility, and other gravities), by Seldon Yuan

I came across this NYC artist when I received a rejection letter and he was listed as one of the winners. But when I viewed his site, and this project in particular, the selection committee’s wisdom became apparent to me. The sting of rejection is a mitigated by intrigue of this work. I wish this project was my own. It’s brilliant.

Personal Goal Setting Advice for Artists

Love this Personal Goal Setting advice from  Creative Capital’s Internet for Artists Handbook. I came across this a while ago but keep recommending it to folks. Really useful!

(I just noticed it’s written by Blithe Riley, an artist involved in interesting, radical visual art programming at Interference Archive in Gowanus in Brooklyn. Coming up this week: neat programming around Asian American struggle.)

Your turn: These Calls for Entry

Signal Fire’s spring exhibition in the New Mexico wilderness
Spring applications due December 31

Interface Gallery’s call for participatory projects
Oakland, CA
Stipends available. Applications due January 1, 2014.

 

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Meta-Practice

notes on meta-practice from Bryan Cranston

Actor Bryan Cranston, who worked for years doing guest appearances and commercials, felt “stuck in junior varsity,” but persisted in his self-promotion efforts nonetheless:

The whole idea is to put yourself in a position to be recognized for your work so opportunities increase. False humility or even laziness could prevent that.

(Tad Friend, “The One Who Knocks,” New Yorker, September 16, 2013)

Author Tad Friend ascribes that even

…luck is the residue of design and devotion.

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Research, Sights

On the Fungibility of Language: Forensic Linguistics, plus Performance Art

As an artist who works with text, I’m always fascinated with the fungibility of language.

Jack Hitt parses the gap between spoken word and constructed meaning in his article about forensic linguistics (“Words on Trial,” New Yorker Magazine, July 23, 2012):

Most people assume that meaning is embedded in the words they speak. But, according to forensic linguists, meaning is far more vaporous, teased into existence through vocalized puffs of air, hand gestures, body tilts, dancing eyebrows, and nuanced nostril flares. The transmission of meaning still involves primate mechanics worked out during the Pliocene era. And context is crucial; when we try to record a conversation, we are capturing only part of the gestalt of that moment….

According to (retired F.B.I. forensic linguist James) Leonard, words serve as catalysts, setting off sparks of potential meaning that the listener organizes into more specific meaning by observing facial expressions, body language, and other redundant cues. We then employ another powerful tool: prior experience and the storehouse of narratives that each of us carries—what linguists call “schema.” To every exchange we bring unconscious scripts; as any given sentence unspools, we readjust the schema to make better sense of what we are hearing….

Meaning, Leonard noted, is constantly bend by expectation, and can be grossly distorted.


Likewise, I was excited to hear about this performance along the same theme…

August 9, 10 & 11 @ 8:30 pm.
Emily Mast: B!RDBRA!N
REDCAT, Los Angeles

Originally conceived of for Pacific Standard Time, B!RDBRA!N is a series of vignettes that form a live collage based on the juxtaposition of an accumulation of highly stylized details that all relate to channels of communication in which language is problematic, challenging and/or inappropriate. I have been working with a stuntman, a stutterer, a sign-language interpreter, an actor, an auctioneer, a comedian and a child to investigate and interrogate language as a prop onto which we project meaning, language that hides or deflects meaning and all-out rebellion against words.

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Research

Frippery

Who knows, we may look back on [Wes] Anderson’s works as we do on the boxes of Joseph Cornell—formal troves of frippery, studded with nostalgic private jokes, that lodge inexplicably in the heart.

Anthony Lane, “Stormy Weather,” New Yorker, June 4 & 11, 2012

Considering objects and how they accrue significance, I’ve put these thoughts together:

 

Christine Wong Yap, Place Space Thing Object, 2011. Meaning is comprise of purpose or sentiment. Space plus meaning equals Place. Object plus meaning equals Thing.

Christine Wong Yap, Place Space Thing Object, 2011.

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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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