27 August 2006

Segue To MakerThinker: Fuck Despair

Sophie Calle's Phone Booth

I listened to an interview with Morris Berman on Media Matters last night, and came to understand why I have been indulging in all this Chicken Littleism, and also came to understand why this attention to Berman and Larsen is an indulgence, and why they are, respectfully, wrong.

And I know that I promise myself never to write about the Park, but I can't get my point across any other way. (I am both rusty and hip-deep in the next show's installation...)

See, if Larsen and Berman were asked to install a sculpture at Socrates, they would probably claim that it is impossible, because they know what it takes to install a sculpture and the conditions are simply insufficient! The grant is not quite enough to actually make a sculpture. The city surrounding the park ensures that your sculpture will get lost in a sea of scale-fuck and look diminutive. The ground is impossible to dig in because it used to be a landfill. There is no real labor to help you, but the park is open all the time, so while you won't get any help digging, you will get plenty of dogs stealing your gloves, babies wandering up to you while you are jackhammering and folks asking questions. The wind comes off the water and will blow your sculpture over in the winter unless you engineer it right. It always seems to rain for many days straight right before an installation deadline. The park doesn't drain at all (as it is full of cement), and so your pants will soak up rainwater for days after the rain stops. The place is impossible.

And yet, if you go to the park anytime this week, you will see evidence of twenty people managing to pull off really cool stuff. These people are not throwing up their hands and calling it impossible! They are working with what is there, making a sculpture with the money allotted or finding more, learning how to use the jackhammer, thinking about the wind, braving the rain. They are also paying their rent this month, eating well enough, holding down jobs, keeping the rest of their opportunities flowin', and managing to have a good time, even though working out there sucks when it's hot, and sucks even more when it's wet. The adverse conditions of the park inform their work, kick their asses, and bring out both the best and the worst in folks, but nobody has ever failed. Nobody has ever not put up a sculpture in twenty years.

In other words, the park may seem impossible, but that sense of impossibility is never the last word. It always evolves into something else.

Berman and Larsen see the world and America's relationship to it as impossible. And they are not wrong because they see something that is untrue. The undergraduate's relationship to study has changed drastically since I graduated ten years ago, and not for the better. The world does look less reality-based every day. We are still cooking the planet. Bush is actually reading The Stranger this summer, and this does not make everyone who read this book in high school go find their copy and pelt him with it.

Berman and Larsen see what we all see. But it is arrogant to assume that failure is inevitable. It's also too easy. And the only purposes this line of thinking can serve are conservative.

Working at the park is the best thing that ever happened to me because it is such a free-for-all. Because it is a space where anything can and does happen. Against all odds. With too little money and too little muscle and too few tools. It is a beautiful place because it shouldn't even be there, and working in it shouldn't work. And yet it does, and the whys and hows of this become more mysterious to me, not less, the longer I work there.

This mystery is deeply, profoundly true. I never understood before I started working in the park that not knowing can be divinely empowering. You never know how things are going to go until you actually put your hands on it and get busy. An idea can fail. But once it starts being actualized--once the idea becomes a series of tasks or negotiations--then true utter failure is impossible because the process itself is so incremental. To fail is to not try.

Okay, okay. But Berman and Larsen are talking about all of society and not about one park or one sculpture. And well, all I can say is that it's easier to decry the dirtiness of the whole city or the whole world than it is to clean one's own house. I was walking regularly in Bed-Stuy last year, and saw the power of the individual in full force. I would walk down a bleak patch, and then one spring day one lady cleaned up her stoop and put some flowers out and a sign that said "No Litter" and started sitting out there. Started saying good afternoon. This simple, individual act transformed the street over the year. The immediate area stopped being such a good place for high-school kids to behave badly. Other folks lingered longer to talk story. What was a bleak, sketchy stretch of my walk started being my favorite part. Lots of hellos. More flowers. More clean stoops. More community.

This woman's simple act was infectious, and there was no external reason for her to have any hope that it would work. And if she was reading Berman or Larsen, she might have turned herself inward and denied her community what she had to offer. The Monastic Option is essentially misanthropic, as is declaring that everyone born after a certain date has less cognitive ability than older folks. It is turning away from a larger society and working in a vaccuum, and the projects that come from that vaccuum are going to be, necessarily, backward-looking and not particularly useful or pertinent to the rest of society.

Listen, I am just as angry with what I see as Berman and Larsen are. But to yield to that despair is indulgent and denies what I know to be true. I can't look at the whole world in terms of turning away from it anymore. I just want to be the woman on the stoop. I just want to face my community with my hands dirty and see what happens next.

25 August 2006

Dropping Knowledge

Gasoline explosions, part of the ground show at the Miramar Air Show in beautiful San Diego...

Still making instead of thinking, and will be back after September 10 with more hot MakerThinker action.

Two Things To Know About:

This Grant is for bloggers as well as other types of art writers, and the deadline is September 18. Here is the kind of arts writing they hope to encourage:

• Writing about art that is rigorous, passionate, eloquent, and precise
• Writing about art in which a keen engagement with the present is infused with an appreciation of the historical
• Writing about art that is neither afraid to take a stand, nor content to deliver authoritative pronouncements, but seeks rather to pose questions and generate new possibilities for thinking, seeing, and making
• Writing about art that is sensitive to both the importance and difficulty of situating aesthetic objects within their broader social and political contexts
• Writing about art that does not dilute or sidestep complex ideas but renders accessible their meaning and value
• Writing about art that challenges creatively the limits of existing conventions, without valorizing novelty as an end in itself

And that list sounds important and strong to me.

And if you're a NurtureArt member, this month's Muse Fuse will be featuring bloggers James Wagner and Barry Hoggard. So I think I'm gonna go.

18 August 2006

Voice Of "The Devil"

I haven't been writing... I've been making stuff and lifting heavy things at the park, which has a great show opening September 10 and is consistently full of heavy equipment right now.

And you know, the farther away from the Larsen conversation I get the more black and white it all seems, and the more grey or fuschia I want it to be. I have to be honest. I tried picking up the latest Morris Berman effort and had to put it down again. I can't handle all this negative capacity. I am too bone-tired at the end of the day to pound nails into coffins.

My neighbor has been watching this blog's discussion of A Nation Gone Blind and the subsequent pop culture v. art posts with interest. She's a little riled. So she wrote this guest post. I think it's a great response to Larsen's picture of the Media Aesthetic, and I think it's a great response to some of the art v. popular culture writing that's been happening on this blog and others lately. Kat is a brilliant thinker, illustrator, graphic designer, artist and comic-book artist... who really should write more but obviously is not looking for a hobby.

Take it away, Kat:

Quote taken from here

"In an odd quirk of fate, the Brillo box design itself had been generated by James Harvey, an artist of the Abstract Expressionist generation moonlighting as a graphic designer."

As Deb knows, since we live next door, I participate in creating pop culture, i try to make art, i make money in marketing and advertising. Currently I am selling plus-sized clothes to plus-sized people. I am like most creatives in the commercial
art world.

Pop culture is exactly that, popular culture. It responds to the populace. It has no other overriding purpose. Despite what folks in the ivory tower believe, including me before i had to get a job, nobody out here as a mind control ray. Nobody out here has a big meta agenda. The captains of big media and advertising are not rubbing their hands and cackling as they dream up the next big way to dumb down America.

If these people had such a great insight into mass control would they foist so many duds onto TV? I'm not talking about this from my personal assessment of the quality of TV shows. I'm talking about how many shows get cancelled before the second season. It costs millions and millions of dollars to develop a show. And networks field many shows each new season. Duds cost them significant money. And yet they have a terrible track record for picking winners.

If they knew what you wanted they would give it to you, because that's how they make money.

They don't know what you want.

This is what they do know:

If you want to reach people who will buy your widget, you have to put your widget in front of either 1. everybody and hope that you reach someone, or 2. in front of a self-selected audience that is already interested, in a general way, in your widget.

If you piss off your target audience they will turn on you. Wardrobe malfunction on MTV = AWESOME. Wardrobe malfunction at SuperBowl halftime = BOYCOTT. The perfect example of this happened in the 80's when someone at Amway started the rumor that Proctor & Gamble was a Satanic organization, and suddenly P&G was being boycotted by fundamentalists. It's a rumor that still dogs the company.

If you want people to remember you, without pissing them off, engage them. If really smart, self-aware debate engages 'em, give them that. If actual investigative reporting is their cup of tea, do that. If a reassuring routine after work is what they are looking for, then make a sit-com. If they're calamatists run some half-assed news show.

Pop culture is made by people who read and write blogs, make art, write novels and read the New Yorker, for people who don't care what art is but they sure know what they like. Most of the creators are smart, philosophical, aware, passionate and
dedicated to their art or craft. The people in the audience aren't stupid. They aren't shallow. They are strenuously anti-intellectual, and they seem to believe that anything that goes beyond general interest is elitist and should be smacked
down in the name of democracy.

America has always had an anti-intellectual strain. Oscar Wilde was concerned about it when he came to the U.S. on tour in the nineteenth century. Alexis de Tocqueville commented on it. That was long before the advent of TV.

But the U.S. also has a long tradition of thinkers and creators who have done amazing things despite our oppressive populist culture, and if you look at pop culture with a keen eye and an open mind you will find the handiwork of some great creative thinkers. Because the best people behind pop culture are the same people behind fine art and literature. They just have a different audience.?

12 August 2006

Complicit My Piehole

I want to respond to Edward Winkleman's question. No, beating them and joining them are not the only two options. There is more to life than media and the popular culture it spawns. There are other questions and persuits. There are also other lenses for looking at and understanding what being alive is all about. Yes, there is real human drama in Brangaelina. But US Weekly, by design, does not give me any tools for probing my consciousness or anyone else's.

Britney Spears is never going to help me understand why I am alive in this perceiving body. Neither is injection molding, thinking of my life as a "lifestyle", or that heinous CAD program all the car manufacturers bought in the 90's that made all the cars look like lozenges.

Johanna Drucker asserts that looking through this gauzy scrim of life made lifestyle is not only not a problem, but that artists can assert some kind of power by rehashing or rearranging all these simplified shapes and shorthands. And this is a silly, silly assertion because it neglects the purpose of popular culture. Popular culture exists because it's not always useful or nice to pick at your existential crisis or the crises of others. Popular culture is like the answer to the question, "How are you?" Popular culture, like everybody else, does not want to know how you are. It is the lingua franca of strangers who want to stay estranged. It is for pleasing everybody on the plane. It is for when you don't want to or should not muck about in the Nietzchean wasteland of why am I here? What is my purpose? Why aren't there any rules?

Popular culture is a set of rules. And like the appropriate answer to the question, "How are you?"

(which, I understand, is "good" or "fine")

it is wafer-thin and often a lie.

I may be hopelessly naive here, but the last I checked, art is not supposed to be polite like this. Last I checked, art is about breaking rules, not complicit participation in one of the most rule-bound cultural outlets going. Last I checked, art was the one place where everybody wanted the long, true answer to the "How are you?" question.

07 August 2006

I'm Not An Idealist

My blogging brothers and sisters have been painting a dismal picture, and I am not prepared to disagree. Ashes is streaming consciousness about stiffening, and this is an appropriate gestalt to put one's finger on. There is a stiffening to art and artists and the whole enterprise--a fear that I can see and feel and smell. And yes, there are reasons for this fear, this stiffening, that are worth picking over I guess.

There is much bizness and much ego and I got mine or, worse--I didn't get mine and want yours... and very little freedom or movement. And all this at a time when art could be much more of a salve or a safe haven.

I'm not an idealist, but I don't have to be. Hasn't anyone else here clung to the side of a mountain (literally or figuratively), scared out of your mind, in pain, confused about what to do next but knowing that the only thing to do is move upward? I mean, down isn't an option, and more lateral movement is just prolonging the inevitable.

03 August 2006

Trial By Fire

It's really, really hot. I've been a little under the gun. Hot and busy is a bad combination.

Got some great advice yesterday. I was told to quit fucking around and really make something about destruction already. I was, in a gentle way, called a pussy. And it's true, it's a slap that opens a door. And I am so hot I am delirious, and so full of ozone that my head is pounding, and I don't know what else to do with this information right now except place it here, so that even if I get busy meeting my pussy obligations of 2006, I have to remember that I told thirty-to-sixty people that 2007 really has to be the year of total sculptural catastrophe.

(and no, I don't know what this means)

01 August 2006

New Orleans Elegy

New Orleans Elegy, 2006, Bronze over steel armature, 3"x38"x30"

New Orleans Elegy is based on a map published by the New York Times that described the extent of flooding after Hurricane Katrina, September 2005. Steel wires were woven into streets that loosely resemble New Orleans. Hot wax was poured over the armature, so that the city became "flooded" with growing stalagmite shapes, and the resulting steel-and-wax sculpture was cast in bronze.

Bronze and steel react to one another, causing galvanic corrosion. Over many years (depending on environmental factors), the steel streets still embedded in this sculpture will corrode away, leaving an empty place where they once were and a permanent bronze record of the water itself.