notes on things: from The Intelligence of Things, Parsons 2013 MFA curatorial statement

For a growing number of contemporary artists and thinkers, the ontology of objects has prompted new investigations and modes of making. Perhaps in reaction to the dominance of screens and images in our daily life, artistic practice has embraced the object-as-thing: estranged, powerful and physical…. …objects become ciphers for memory, desire and fantasy. Far from simple gestures, thethings in these works articulate their place as icons and bodily analogs, and as protagonists in interiors, architectural spaces and the scope of history.

The exhibition privileges the role of the displayed objects over any overarching curatorial concept. As a title The Intelligence of Things both emphasizes this approach and illuminates these artworks’ powerful effect and affect. That is to say that following Kant’s purposeful purposelessness, these artworks upend our notions of a thing’s effect or intent, and each one has a particular character, demeanor, and accent—whether fierce or foppish. …The exhibition and the works therein, rather, critically explore how things and human subjects together produce meaning in the world.

(Source: Art & Education)


Points of Reference: Choice Cuts, Wintry Mix

Cary Liebowitz, Art Forum Berlin, booth installation // Alexander Grey Associates,

Cary Liebowitz, Art Forum Berlin, booth installation // Alexander Grey Associates,


Some words and meanings of import to me this week:

I love it when an exhibition looks pitch-perfect. It brings me great satisfaction as a preparator to execute a changeover with immaculate results. Galleries have an unspoken ambition to sustain a highly artificial state of perfection; it works best when you feel that no other visitors have been there, with their grubby hands or floor-scuffing feet. Coming from this mindset, I was startled by this:

great art, though, is rarely perfect.

(The fragment has lodged itself in my brain, orphaned from its source. I think it’s from the New Yorker, but having been out of town for much of the past four months, I’m working my way haphazardly through the backstock, and finding the source seems an impossible task.)

I’ve been mulling this over—what allows art to be imperfect, what things/activities ought to result in perfection (crafts? services?), and why I’d forgotten that art has this privilege of imperfection (perhaps seeing too much art in sales-oriented commercial spaces, internalizing the feeling that art should look expensive)?

I stumbled onto the website of Trapped in Suburbia, a fun design firm in the Netherlands, that had an exhibition about happiness.

You’d think that an exhibition about happiness would capture my attention. But their motto, pulled from a Chinese proverb (go figure) was what ultimately spoke to me:

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.

Fine, it’s an aphorism, and thus designed to impart wisdom with concision and rhythm that makes it seem profound. (For similar reasons, I find writing tweets unsatisfying.) It works for me in the context of a recent discussion I had about whether the relationship between what artists make and what artists make happen are equal or not. I think what artists make happen gains meaning through the shared experiences that artists make happen. The aphorism sort of mirrors what I mean to explain about the creative and aesthetic process: ideas without manifestation are intangible or intransient; objects can hold those ideas but remain inert without active attention; but by producing spaces/situations, possibilities and engagement, the ideas and objects take root in people’s minds and lives and experiences and memories. They live on in a larger way than personal experiences with objects.

From 2003 to 2011, Haim Steinbach led a seminar at the University of California San Diego called The Object Lesson. He instructed his students to chose an object—any object—and bring it to class every week. Over the course of the semester, they would consider these objects from every possible vantage point….

For ten weeks, three hours a week, they looked at the same fifteen objects. Again and again and again….

…students took turns responding to things they desired and despised on the table. Steinbach pressed them week after week: Is it a real object? An ideal object? A love object? A conceptual object? An object of desire? An actual object? A virtual object? An art object? While discussing the aggression of a piece of wood or the phallic quality of vampire teeth, students came to see how much the analysis hinged on their own projections and desires.

The Artist’s Institute, a Hunter College project, recently selected the work of Haim Steinbach for consideration. In doing so, they published a PDF with the above text and organized a show-and-tell. I love Steinbach’s class exercise, and am inspired to try it with like-minded artist-friends. I know what I would bring: a printed celebration ribbon from a party store.

This dovetails nicely with the proverb above—the meanings of objects take root in us when our own “projections and desires” fit with them. It’s like what differentiates a space from a place—the personal meanings that accrue (Yi-Fu Tuan).

Very short, very sweet stories and pics on imbuing objects with meanings/personal experiences. Reader’s photos of souvenirs at “What I Brought Home,” (NYT).

I’ve been trying to convey the complexity of happiness. Here is Zadie Smith distinguishing between joy and pleasure (thanks JKW):

Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily.

Zadie Smith, “Joy,” New York Review of Books, January 10, 2013


Art & Development

Labor and Time

As posited by Art Monthly (#356: May 2012):

In a western world dominated by immaterial labour, and where scientists and philosophers have thrown into doubt our understanding of physical objects, how have artists – from John McCracken and John Hilliard to Wood & Harrison and Andrew Dodds – questioned and defended the nature of things?

‘Sculpture, of all the arts, must surely be responsible for mapping the various journeys of thinghood. “What is a Thing?” – the question Heidegger asked in the 1920s – turns out to be a question that we have to keep asking.’

As I help M prepare his exhibition, the challenges of working with materials become instantiated everyday. In contrast to clicking “undo” and swiping screens, sourcing, handling, manipulating and displaying materials—not to mention lending them the illusion of perfection and timelessness so often desired of art objects—is complicated, expensive, and risky. Entropy constantly threatens. Nothing gets done without physical energy and attention; things take time and skill. Labor has become, as Art Monthly put it, immaterial—and I wonder how this shifts how art objects are perceived and understood. So many of my recent art viewing experiences have conjured thoughts about production values, for better or worse. The drawback, for me, is over-emphasizing how something is made over what it accomplishes in content or concept. For those who are disconnected from materials and labor, perhaps the work triggers thoughts unencumbered by human and environmental costs, at best looking with “deadpan” eyes (as Rosalind Krass described of Minimalism) at form and form alone, and at worst, with the Like/Dislike, Instagram-worthy consumer browsing. In that mindset, to register visually, to click and upload, is the power to put a thing in a shopping cart, pay for it, bring it home, and store it in a vast garage, all in one instant.


Everyday objects: Vessels for sentiments and memories

Prized possessions: What do they mean to their owners? How do they accomplish this? Where does our subjectivity end, and the thing’s objecthood begin?

I’ve been interested in this since starting graduate school, when I tried to change my practice from making art that represented an idea, to making art that embodied it. This quote from a Fluxus artist sums up the paradox beautifully.

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?

—Daniel Spoerri, The Mythological Travels, 1970.

I’ve been interested in how possessions act as vessels, and it keeps coming up in different ways. In Irrational Exuberance (Asst. Colors), discount store goods triggered questions of value and taste. In reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow and Creativity, I zeroed in on the psychological benefits of a symbolic ecology of the home for Positive Signs drawings.

This idea seems to be coming up more frequently from outside sources as well. Perhaps I’m noticing it more, or possibly a zeitgeist is coalescing…. Here are my notes from the field:

The Floating Lab Collective: Re-Museum
March 20 – April 27, 2012
5×5 public art installations, various sites in Washington DC

The Re-Museum … mirror[s] the process of collecting, displaying, attributing value to, and commodifying art objects by the institution.

Recognizing that souvenirs play a familiar role in the reinforcement of national ideologies, beliefs and rituals, The Re-Museum is selecting an array of souvenirs drawn from and representing issues and aesthetics embedded in our local communities. Through a variety of workshops and conversations created in partnership with local community centers we will select significant objects, sites, narratives and images from various DC communities to be housed in the Re-Museum.

The Re-Museum wil be making weekly stops at locations ranging from the Corcoran Museum to outdoor parking lots in Colombia Heights and Recreation Centers in Deanwood.

(Via Coro/Raquel de Anda)

A life full of things – of personal relationships with the inanimate – only seems possible through the mediation of art, and so I prefer theidea of things, rather than the thing itself.

Isla Leaver-Yap, curator*

(*Yap clan in contemporary art!)

It Chooses You, Miranda July

It Chooses You 
Miranda July 
McSweeney’s, 2011

July interviewed subjects who were selling possessions in the Pennysaver in LA. She asks them to talk about their items, and notes how they decorate their houses. The characters tend to be rather marginalized, so the stories are imbued with pathos.

Read excerpts on

Listen to Miranda July and actors read excerpts on WNYC’s Selected Shorts. Recommended. The idea of July’s work strikes me as self-consciously quirky, uncomfortably over-sharing, twee indie like Michael Cera, but when I actually give it a chance, it is always sincere and affecting. This reading is quite long, but very moving towards the end.

Animism: exhibition and conference
16 March–6 May 2012
Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin

In the habituated scheme of modernity, objects are conceived as the passive stuff on which human action leaves its imprint or trace. Whenever this passive/active nexus between objects and subject, humans and the non-human is disturbed or even reversed—as in the coming-to-life of seemingly dead matter, or the becoming autonomous of inert things—we inevitably step into the territory of animism: that non-modern worldview that conceives of things as animated and possessing agency. Is it possible to de-colonize the imaginary manifest in the modern conception of the animist “other”, by bringing into view the practices that both make and transgress the distinctions and boundaries in question?

(Via e-flux)

Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett

Vibrant Matter
Jane Bennett
Duke University Press, 2010

Lecture: Powers of the Hoard: Artistry and Agency in a World of Vibrant Matter

How do objects sometimes act as vibrant things, with an effectivity of their own, a degree of independence from the words, images, and feelings they provoke in humans? Political theorist Jane Bennett delivers the inaugural lecture as the Vera List Center for Art and Politics embarks on a two-year exploration of the material world. In the face of virtual realities, social media and disembodied existences, the center will focus on the material conditions of our lives and examine “thingness,” the nature of matter.

Renowned for her work on nature and ethics, Bennett investigates the power of things, which sometimes manifests as the strange allure that even useless, ugly, or meaningless items can have for us. Her latest book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Duke, 2010) asks how our political world would approach public problems were we to seriously consider not just our human experience of things, but the capacity of things themselves. How is it that things can elide their status as possessions, tools, or aesthetic objects to manifest traces of independence and vitality? Following the tangled threads linking vibrant materialities, human selves, and the agentic assemblages they form, Bennett examines what hoarders – people preternaturally attuned to things – might have to teach us about the workings of agency, causality, and artistry in a world overflowing with stuff.

Finally, a call for prized possessions for exhibition:

Fawn's collection of fawns. Source: Greene County Art Council.

Fawn's collection of fawns. Source: Greene County Art Council.

The People’s Collection
Greene County
Arts Council, Masters on Main Street project
in collaboration with  Occupy with Art
Friday, April 13 – May 31, 2012

Wall Street to Main Street is pleased to announce an open call to all residents of Catskill and the Hudson Valley to share things you love in your home with your community in a beautiful common space. We ask that you bring one object that has inspired you and gives meaning to your life to be shown with your neighbor’s loved-things in a surprise exhibition located on Main Street.

Not to mention The People’s Biennial, curated by Jenns Hoffman and Harrell Fletcher.

Also, did you know that there are institutions named “The People’s Gallery” in San Francisco, California as well as Riverside, California;  Derry, North Ireland; Cork, Ireland; and Cheshire, UK. It was also the name of a 19th-century African American photographer’s studio in St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as the name of this year’s civic exhibition in Austin, Texas.