Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Gilbert Silverman: In Memoriam

Ed Fella, Cover for the Detroit Focus Gallery exhibition catalog "Gil Silverman Selects," 1983. (Collection Vince Carducci.)
Long-time art patron and collector Gilbert Silverman died June 13 at age 91. The only obituary I saw was in Crain's Detroit Business. (Surprised but then again not that the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press didn't cover it.) It focused primarily on Gil's identity as a real estate developer, mentioning only briefly his arts advocacy in the form of board memberships at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook Academy of Art and Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Those in the Detroit artworld who knew Gil, as well as those who only knew of him, knew he was much more than that. He was one of the major figures in Detroit's cultural history, dominating the last quarter of the twentieth century in the same way Detroit blue-blood W. Hawkins Ferry dominated the period after the Second World War and into the 1970s.

For a number of years in the 2000s, Gil and his life partner, the ever-graceful Lila who survives him, were represented on the ARTnews list of the world's top 200 collectors, primarily for their holdings in Fluxus and Conceptual art, although they collected widely in other areas as well. (I am particularly fond of the "Instruction Drawings," a collection of some 800 working drawings, installation instructions, musical scores, fabrication notes, and other items by the likes of Yoko Ono, Sol Lewitt, Dennis Oppenheim, John Cage, Andy Goldsworthy, and other Pop, Op, Conceptual, and Earth Art creators.) The Silverman Fluxus holdings, generally considered the largest and most important trove of its kind in the world, is surveyed in the catalogue raisonne Fluxus Codex, edited by Jon Hendricks (Abrams, 1988). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2008, along with an archive of thousands of support items, including artists' correspondence and journals and related books and catalogues. Duplicates from the collection are also held by the Detroit Institute of Arts.

In addition to the depth of the Silverman collection was its adventurousness. For years, there were only two collectors in the United States who owned the work of controversial avant-garde muckracker Hans Haacke, and the Silvermans were one of them. Haacke's work in the Silverman collection, the 1981 Der Pralinenmeister, a deconstruction of the machinations of German chocolate mogul Peter Ludwig, who leveraged corporate welfare and a low-wage pool of immigrant labor to expand his business empire and his art collection, was a highlight of the otherwise predictable, if bankable assemblage of trophy pieces in the 1981 DIA exhibition "Contemporary Art in Detroit Collections," which I reviewed for Detroit Focus Quarterly (Vol. 1, No. 2). (Der Pralinenmeister is still on view in the Silverman home in Bloomfield Hills.)

Like many people, I have my Gil Silverman stories, a couple of which I'd like to share in his memory.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I whiled away my day-job downtime by creating and sending out mail art and other ephemera. Some of it was documentation of the conceptual performance piece Getting Over at the Office (1987-2000), which I have written about. There was also a series of limited-edition postcards playing with language. ("Primitivism" in 20th-Century Linguistics,1985, for example, simply contained the words "No am Chomsky" typed in IBM Selectric sans serif font in the center.) Another series consisted of fake auction announcements appropriating the branding and graphic standards of Christie's auction house. Later editions in the series were branded "Chrispie's" with the heads of Snap, Crackle, and Pop in place of the portrait of founder James Christie that used to be above the name before the logo's modernization.

For a while I sold extra copies of these pieces at commodity prices—$18.95, $24.95, etc. Then one day I was in Susanne Hilberry Gallery (back when it was on the lower level of the 555 Building in downtown Birmingham) and I chanced upon a modest-sized Lucas Samaras pastel with a mid-five-figure price tag on it. I vowed to put an art-commodity price tag on the next work I submitted for exhibition. The opportunity came in 1992 as part of the Detroit Artists Market "Text and Image" show. I submitted a 1989 Christie's announcement titled American Art Since Elvis, a send up of Neoexpressionism, intending to put a $25,000 price tag on it. Before I handed it in my wife Sue suggested I reduce the price to $1500, commenting that anyone who knew me would know the joke but that at the same time someone might actually buy it.

Not long after the opening, I was having dinner with sculptor Gary Kulak and the "marvelous" art maven Mary Denison. Mary told me that she had talked to Gil Silverman who had seen my piece at the Artists Market. She said that he had really liked it but thought it was kind of expensive. I said to Mary (this is before the bottom dropped out of the art market in the mid-1990s): "You'd better tell Gil he should buy it now before the price goes up!" A few days later I got a call from Gerry Craig, who was DAM's director at the time, informing me that Gil had bought the piece and, as Michael Hall quipped when he heard about the transaction, that he had "paid retail."

When word got around about the sale, I was criticized by people who thought I had taken advantage of Gil and in so doing put the local art market at risk. But a couple of years later, he came up to me after a James Rosenquist lecture and introduced himself.

"You're Vince Carducci, aren't you," he said. "I'm Gil Silverman and I own some of your work."

"I know who you are," I said. "And I know you own my work."

He said with a laugh, "I must be the only asshole in Detroit who would pay what I did for that piece."

I said, "I don't know, I thought it was pretty astute."

He said, "Tell me the truth. You never expected to sell that piece at that price. Be honest. That money was like a gift from heaven."

I said, "Well, to tell you the truth, I did go out a buy a stereo with the money. But you'll be happy to know that there is a card on top of it that reads 'Gift of Lila and Gilbert Silverman.'"

He chuckled at that and we talked a little bit about the role of art collecting as a vent in the system of capital accumulation, a kind of potlatch of luxurious waste that establishes the sovereignty of the consumer. (I had been reading George Bataille's Accursed Share at that moment.)

Just then Lila walked up and asked what we were doing. Gil introduced me and told Lila that he had purchased one of my works and had it at the office, neglecting to ever tell her about it. It occurred to me that Gil indeed was sovereign, as Bataille had theorized, able to spend $1500 on impulse without checking with his spouse in the same way one of us might pick up a magazine or a cup of coffee on our way home. All those people who had criticized me really didn't understand who was in control. (To be sure, in 1983 the graphic designer Ed Fella did a catalog of an exhibition of artists selected by Gil, the cover of which was a photograph of them all caught in midair. Of that image, Ed said, "The collector says 'Jump!' and the artists say 'How high'?")

When I told the story of American Art Since Elvis to Paul Kotula, who at the time was managing Revolution Gallery in Ferndale, he thought that I should write up the narrative, mount it on the wall next to the stereo system, add a zero on the end of the price tag, and invite Gil in to see if he would buy it. We thought you could repeat that process with ever more extravagant purchases and keep adding zeros to see who blinked first—$1500, $15,000, $150,000, 1,500,000, 15,000,000, and so on. (Years later when studying with Jay Bernstein at The New School I read Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: "The absolute artwork converges with the absolute commodity" [p. 39]. That is, an artwork, as an autonomous object, is absolute exchange value without an iota of use value; therefore, no rational price can be assigned to it, as the contemporary art market so clearly demonstrates.) We never did do it, but I do have the satisfaction of knowing that my piece went to MoMA as part of the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives (File # VII.A.133).

The second, much-shorter story took place a few years later. I was still in my corporate-suit iteration, working as a marketing exec for a local financial institution that is now part of Bank of America.The company had recently been acquired in a cash buyout (not by BoA but by another organization based in Amsterdam) and a new CEO was in place. The company was getting an award from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority for its affordable housing efforts, and attending the awards dinner was one of the CEO's first public appearances. As an honoree, he was seated on dais next to Gil, who was then president of MSHDA. I was seated at a table off to the side with other representatives of the company.

As the story was later told to me, before things got started, Gil apparently turned to my CEO and said, "I'm Gil Silverman, president of MSHDA." My CEO said to Gil, "I'm Scott Heitmann, I'm the new CEO of Standard Federal." To which Gil said, "Standard Federal. You must work with Vince Carducci. He's the best artist in Detroit." I took it with a grain of salt, of course, thinking that Gil was being sociable and at the same time perhaps doling out a bit of puffery to bolster the value of his investment. (At a Friends of Modern Art panel discussion Gil once said that he never bought art as an investment, obviously so in my case, but that he did like to watch the auction returns to see the prices of the artists he owned go up. The Silverman Fluxus Collection and all of its archives were 100 percent donated to MoMA.)

Gil Silverman was quite a guy. He will be missed.

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Update: This post originally identified the Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition of contemporary art in Detroit-area collections as "Detroit Collects." It also reported the exhibition as having taken place in 1982. This information has been corrected to identify the exhibition as "Contemporary Art in Detroit Collections" and the date as 1981.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities

According to the 2014 United Nations World Urbanization Prospects report, some two-thirds of the world's population is expected to reside in cities by 2050, more than double the percentage of urban dwellers that existed across the globe in 1950. To manage this growth, policymakers have embraced the notion that cities need to become 'smart', using information and communications technology to effectively administer municipal services and physical infrastructure and provide access to quality-of-life amenities for a broad range of constituents. The same technologies that enable urban smartness have also given rise to a host of expanded exchange networks, from peer-to-peer file sharing among individuals to larger-scale 'disruptive' enterprises of the so-called sharing economy, such as Airbnb and Uber. How smartness and sharing might best be brought to bear in the urban context is the subject of Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities by environmentalist Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyerman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University.

Citing social science research, the authors assert that sharing is endemic to human culture and indeed a major contributing factor to the species' evolution. They further argue that cities are quintessentially sharing structures, spaces for leveraging physical resources, social connections, and cultural interactions. What smartness brings to the equation is a new 'mediated' sharing, the ability to access much broader networks of exchange made possible through the various forms of information and communication technologies that have emerged in the last two-and-a-half decades. While mediated sharing potentially broadens opportunities for exchange, its commercialization under the sharing economy threatens to diminish it. McLaren and Agyerman argue for a new 'sharing paradigm', which focuses more on solidarity, collaboration, and trust than on monetized transaction.

As the Harvard Business Review notes, the 'sharing economy' isn't really about sharing in the conventional sense but more about using other people's stuff without being obliged to reciprocate. It's essentially governed by the alienating effects of monetary exchange, as noted more than a century ago by social philosopher Georg Simmel in his 1900 classic, The Philosophy of Money. HBR uses the term 'access economy' to denote exchange transactions in which people rent goods and services rather than buy them outright. McLaren and Agyerman want to turn the conversation back to sharing in its traditional form by focusing on examples that embrace its more communal aspects, organizing their narrative around general themes, each of which is prefaced by a case-study city that encapsulates the concept that follows.

The first is collaborative consumption, exemplified by San Francisco. A key trend they identify is 'disownership', the rising popularity of sharing, renting, or borrowing things that have traditionally been individually owned, exchanges that have been greatly facilitated by the internet. Among the items to disown according to The People's Guide to Disownerhip are cars, vacation properties, wedding attire, and luxury wear and other goods. Some of this trend is driven by sheer economics: for younger consumers carrying onerous student debt loads and residing in areas with high living costs, owning a car or house simply doesn't square with the monthly budget. But older, more affluent consumers are also drawn to it in an effort to reduce the hassle of routine maintenance over time and, more altruistically, maximize use value from an environmental standpoint. For cities, collaborative consumption can increase the efficiency of infrastructure and services. But as the authors note, 'sharing' on this level can overlook preexisting inequalities: you can't rent out 'spare' rooms on Airbnb if you have no room to spare, you can't offer rides through Uber or Lyft if you don't have a vehicle, and you can't even get a gig in the wretched gig economy without a way to get online.

Another is co-production, using Seoul as the case study. As it pertains to public service, co-production theoretically entails collaboration on equal footing between government officials and local citizens in developing policies and delivering solutions that suit a particular community's needs. According to the authors, co-production has the potential to reduce inequality in the conventional economy by engaging constituents in the decision-making process from the beginning. (The common catch phrase calls 'this working with the community as opposed to for it'.) Co-production underlies open-source practices, from developing computer software and industrial products to confronting large-scale problems of global ecology. Peer-to-peer micro-lending and crowdfunding are examples of co-production in the financial sector. In urban environments, co-production takes form in community gardens, time banks, maker spaces, and other cooperative enterprises. While co-production can promote social solidarity, a downside, as McLaren and Agyerman note, is the susceptibility to exploitation on the part of participants at the lower end of the access economy value chain. (See, for example, Tiziana Terranova's critique of the sources of economic value in the digital economy. The working conditions of Uber drivers is another often-cited case.)

In the remainder of the book, McLaren and Agyerman expand the analysis from economistic considerations to engage broader issues of political, cultural, and social equity. The case-study cities are Copenhagen, Medillin, and Amsterdam. In these chapters, the authors raise issues of the public domain and what French social philosopher Henri Lefebvre terms 'the right to the city', the authority of local residents to determine who and what the spaces in which they live and circulate are for. In the political sphere, McLaren and Agyerman take note of the central role urban spaces have historically played in fostering political movements and change. Political movements have increasingly come to rely on the networked public sphere of cyberspace even as the physical environment has become more and more privatized and subject to restrictions on physical access (a trend momentarily challenged by the various iterations of the Occupy movement). On a more general social level, they investigate the city as a collective commons, an ideal space for a true 'sharing paradigm' to be enacted. A good part of this section is devoted to responding to conventional objections against the value of sharing in the 'real world'.

Sharing Cities appears to be geared toward policymakers, researchers, and other wonkish types. It surveys a broad swath, across many disciplines, of the literature on sharing, copiously annotated. As a result, it can be difficult to trace how some of the narrative contributes to the overall argument, outside of demonstrating that the authors have done their homework.

A thread that runs throughout the book relates to what McLaren and Agyerman term the 'cultural hegemony of consumerism', an impediment to realizing a true sharing paradigm and a quandary that extends to so-called ethical consumption, as well. Taking a cue from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the authors point to the cultural construction of consumerism as a form of domination based on the distinguishing characteristics of taste, which have a class bias, and an individual's ability to buy. And however well-intentioned, ethical consumption, which tends to operate on the model of first-world consumption of third-world production, can actually perpetuate inequality rather than ameliorate it.

The concept of consumerism often seems to stand in for capitalism itself. (Indeed, the entry for 'Capitalism' in the index directs readers to 'Consumerism' in addition to 'Neoliberalism'.) It is only toward the end of the book that the logic of capital is directly addressed as the true barrier to sharing and sustainability, based as it is on the ever-increasing accumulation of profit to hell with all and everyone else. That demurral makes Sharing Cities seem less urgent and hence less compelling than it otherwise could have been.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Carl Toth: Deconstructing Photography



In the summer of 2015, I wrote an essay for a catalog on the work of former Cranbrook Academy of Art photographer-in-residence Carl Toth. The exhibition was titled "Carl Toth: Pioneering Artist, Photographer, and Educator." It ran in fall 2015 at the Walter J. Mannin Center for the Arts at Endicott College in Massachussetts. The show was organized by Carl's student Mark Towner, now a Dean at Endicott, and curated by Oakland University's Andrea Eis, another Toth Student. The exhibition has traveled to Wake Forest University where it will be on view in the Hanes Art Gallery until March 27, 2016. 

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Carl Toth, Untitled, 1978, chromogenic print (All images: courtesy of Endicott College).
In her essay "Photography's Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View," Rosalind Krauss states that "photography is an imprint or transfer off the real," fixing, as it were, the photographic image to its referent. (Susan Sontag makes a similar observation in her essay "The Image-World" when she writes that a photograph is "a trace, something stenciled directly off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.") The presumed nature of photography as an indexical sign, that is, as a physical trace of the object to which it refers, underpins prevailing thought about the medium and of what visual culture theorist Tom Gunning terms its "truth claim." For more than four decades, Carl Toth has endeavored to question that claim in an oeuvre that has progressively deconstructed photography's conventions.

Trained in English literature as well as photography, Toth has always understood photography to be, like language, first and foremost a sign system. His early work challenged then-accepted photographic aesthetics regarding subject matter, framing, and technique. Specifically, Toth took up the vernacular practice of the snapshot as inspiration right at the moment when photography's status as a fine art medium was being hotly debated. In a series of untitled works from the early to mid 1970s, Toth presented ensembles of gelatin-silver prints of family members and pets, shot in various locations, which were hand colored to highlight their constructed nature. Some of these works consist of grainy and blurred image sequences that are slight variations on one another, subverting the notion of photography as a device for capturing the "the perfect moment." Other works interrupt or extend the negative's conventional quadrilateral frame, piecing together images to reveal the space that might otherwise have been cut away at the edges and questioning the frame's interior truth claim to be, as Krauss would have it, "an example of nature-as-representation, nature-as-sign."

Carl Toth, Untitled, 1971-1974?, hand-colored gelatin silver print.
The later 1970s brought another body of work that further investigated photography's apparatus of mediation. Central to photography's truth claim is its presumed condition of immediacy, that is, of the medium itself as essentially transparent, characterized by the quality of looking through the image-signifier to the signified content, which is its presumed reality based in nature. This connection to the real is further grounded upon what Gunning terms "iconicity," that is, a visual resemblance to what is being represented. In a series of type C color prints, Toth rephotographed Polaroid SX 70 photographs that in turn re-presented other elements within the composition to create a moebius strip of remediation, drawing attention to the artifice within the frame. In one untitled work, a Polaroid print of a miniature ladder and stair laying side by side on a plywood sheet is shown standing upright on a plywood sheet with the stairway and ladder balancing on top of it; in another, two Polaroids of what appear to be plastic toy parts, one green and one blue, set on table tops are set upon a table top. The frames of these works and others in the series are square, refusing the conventional photographic aspect ratios of horizontal (landscape) and vertical (portrait), the traditional orientations of nature-based observation and its representation in Western visual art.

The terms index and icon so often used in discussing photography are taken from the semiotics of nineteeth-century American Pragmatist polymath Charles Sanders Peirce, who brought the term semiotics into modern usage. In the Peircian system of semiotics (not to be confused with Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's semiology, which influenced another well-known commentator on photography, Roland Barthes), the index is, as has been noted, the trace made by the physical object, such as the impression a car tire leaves in the mud, the relationship of the sign to its referent being one of empirical fact. The icon is a sign whose relationship to the referent is based on semblance; simply put, it looks like what it is supposed to represent: an illuminated figure in traffic signal communicating that it is now safe to walk. There is a third semiotic category of signs delineated by Peirce that does not find its way into the discussion as much, namely, the symbol. The relation of a symbol to its referent is abstract; it is a matter of habit or convention. Photography's symbolic status is based in large part on its truth claim as a transparent medium par excellence and thus a preferred representational conveyor of objective reality. The contingency of photography-as-symbol is a central aspect of what Toth's work ultimately reveals.

Carl Toth, Double/Vision, 1991, xerographic collage.
The heightened awareness of photography's mediating condition finds its definitive expression in Toth's late work, which abandons the camera entirely and instead employs xerographic collage as it primary technique. In these complex works, bits and pieces of recycled images are juxtaposed with a range of textural effects and formed into compositions that do not easily "add up" either as a coherent narrative or a coherent space, creating a situation in which looking-through is exchanged for one of looking-at, a state that can be termed hypermediation. This is especially true of larger-scale works that occupy an entire wall, which as Donald Kuspit notes have very few signs of nature in them outside of the wood-grain pattern elements of some compositions that in their obviously having been subject to manufacturing processes announce their artifice and hence distance from the natural.

Instead of transparently re-presenting the field of vision, Carl Toth's photographic practice has self-consciously evolved to create it in virtual form. And that is his signal achievement.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Megan Heeres: The Artist as Invasive Species

In the summer of 2015, I wrote an essay for the catalog published by Simone DeSousa Gallery to document the solo exhibition "The More We Get Together" by Megan Heeres. I had long wanted to write something about Meg and was happy to finally have an opportunity to do so. Below is the text of the essay, which also corrects a misprint (my error not theirs) contained in the original. Copies of the catalog, which also includes a lot of good images and an essay by the redoubtable Sarah Rose Sharp, are available at the gallery or they can be ordered from the gallery's online store.

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Megan Heeres's "Invasive Paper Project" is a milestone in the artist's evolution. Begun in 2014, the "Invasive Paper Project," as its title conveys, uses fibers processed from invasive plants to create handmade paper products. From a more global perspective, it engages what French psychotherapist and philosopher Felix Guattari terms the three ecologies: mental, social, and environmental.

The "Invasive Paper Project" primarily uses three forms of so-called invasive plants commonly found in Detroit: phragmites, also known as the common reed, honeysuckle, an ornamental plant originating from Asia, and garlic mustard, an herb used in Europe for cooking and medicinal purposes. The plants have been harvested from various places around the city-parks, abandoned lots, and other green spaces of the once industrial colossus of Detroit now literally gone to seed. Each species requires different methods of processing to convert the raw fibers to pulp suitable for papermaking. Heeres has worked with several community organizations to harvest the plants and then used the materials to present papermaking demonstrations and workshops in her own facility, Threadbare Studios in Southwest Detroit, and at other locations around the city. In spring 2015, elements of the project were presented at Re:View (now Simone DeSousa) Gallery in the exhibition "The More We Get Together."

The "Invasive Paper Project" is a logical progression of Heeres's oeuvre out of the privileged sphere of the atelier and into the world. Heeres's earlier work, begun as a graduate student at Cranbrook Academy of Art, involved working with materials, processes, and time in order to explore situations of accretion (building up) and entropy (breaking down).

Megan Heeres, Home. HomGrown, 2012, installation view (source: Vimeo from Megan Heeres).

This is especially evident in the series "Material Mappings," which sets up situations for various materials to do what they will in response to time, gravity, and other environmental factors out of the artist's control. Home. HomeGrown, 2012, for example, filters various viscosities and colors of ink pumped up a tube and dripped through paper filters, which accumulate onto panels set on the floor, resulting in a series of aleatoric compositions created during the period of its installation.

More recently, Heeres's work has embraced an interactive aspect. This tends to take the form of installations either in the gallery or in public spaces in which the presence of the audience is registered in the work through changes in color, sound, and movement. Spaces of Sound (Thank You Mr. Cage), 2013, was installed in a stairway of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids. Consisting of linked Slinky toys and LEDs encased in paper tubes and suspended from the ceiling, the work used electronic sensors to change patterns of color in response to the movement of passersby up and down the stairs. Similarly, Beacon, 2014, installed in the bell tower of the First Congregational Church of Detroit during the Dlectricity festival, used electronically activated light and sound to reflect the ebb and flow of audience members. The installation added a site-specific narrative element in recognition of the historic role of the church as a terminus of the Underground Railroad.

Megan Heeres, Spaces of Sound (Thank You, Mr. Cage), 2013 (source: Vimeo from Megan Heeres).

The engagement with community that the interactive works investigate finds its fullest expression in Heeres's practice in the "Invasive Paper Project." Using a cybernetic metaphor, the project can be understood as a node for the convergence of various social networks in Detroit and potentially beyond. There are the community organizations with which Heeres interacts in bringing the project to inner-city neighborhoods where contemporary art often fears to tread. There are the environmental groups, such as the Student Conservation Association and the Detroit Picnic Club, that have helped guide Heeres in sustainable practices of harvesting invasive species. Then there is this thing called the artworld and its current preoccupation with art as a form of social practice. (With respect to that latter notion, it must be acknowledged that all art is social practice, but that is a topic for another time.)

The "Invasive Paper Projects" navigates the city's environment and social circles to open up contexts for interaction that ultimately may change the way we perceive our relationship with the world and with one another. It is thus an expression of what Guattari terms "ecosophy," a way of thinking and experiencing that holistically combines mental, social, and environmental awareness in order to acknowledge all that we share while at the same time accepting our differences.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Margo Jefferson's Coming of Age in Negroland

One of my fondest memories from the New School for Social Research Liberal Studies MA program comes from a course titled "Representations of Race and Gender in American Culture." It was the day, about halfway through the semester, when co-teachers Elizabeth Kendall (author of feminist studies of early modern dance and 1930s screwball comedies, among other books) and Pulitzer-prize winning critic Margo Jefferson demonstrated the cakewalk, a dance developed in the 19th century by southern slaves and later picked up at the turn of the 20th by white people who without realizing it were in fact imitating black parodies of their tight-assed selves. Conundrums of race and gender identity in modern America are similarly at the core of Jefferson's memoir, Negroland.

"Negroland" is Jefferson's name for that small, privileged segment of black American society alternately known as the "colored aristocracy," "the black bourgeoisie," and "Our Kind of People." Like her University of Chicago Laboratory Schoolmate the late Paul Butterfield, Jefferson was born in Chicago. She grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s attending private schools, socializing with her peers at Jack and Jill club functions, traveling to Interlochen summer arts camp in northern Michigan, and spending leisure time on the family yacht. While enjoying a comfortable upbringing, Jefferson was always on guard to contain herself, knowing full well that "Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive."

Indeed, in her youth, Jefferson was constantly reminded of the imperative to know her place, of the strictures of what she terms the "fortress" of segregation. She listened with chagrin as her mother recounted an incident of the family's white laundryman snubbing her in a chance encounter at Sears; another time her father, a respected doctor and head of pediatrics at what was America's oldest black hospital, Provident, was rousted by the cops in his own neighborhood on the way home from the office and accused of carrying illegal drugs in his medical bag. Jefferson herself was often teased by white playmates as a child, subjected to the blithe disregard of teachers who taught literature and songs tainted with racist sentiment, however oblique, and inundated with representations of dominant, which is to say white, culture in everyday encounters with the so-called mainstream print and broadcast media. At the same time, Jefferson's privileged status required maintaining psychological and physical distance from blacks of lower socioeconomic status, whose failures the more elite segment, including her own parents, denigrated as "[making] it hard for the rest of us."

Jefferson terms being caught in the fault line between the social imaginaries of white and black in American society as the condition of "the third race." As she writes:
We cared for our people—we loved our people but we refused to be held back by the lower element. We did not love white people, we did not care for them, but we envied them and sometimes we feared and hated them.
And yet there was also the realization that much of Jefferson's social cues, in terms of lifestyle and expectations, came from white upper-middle-class society. At one point she observes feeling that she had more in common with white peers at her exclusive private school than the far less-advantaged majority of blacks with whom she rarely if ever interacted. She notes thinking at one point that Paul Butterfield, with his immersion in South Side Chicago blues, was more closely in touch with what from a mainstream perspective was considered "authentic" black culture than she was. Jefferson doesn't comment on it, but that appropriation of blackness is yet another white construction as an iteration of the Noble Savage in Western culture. It can be seen during the period of Jefferson's childhood, for example, in Jack Kerouac's description in On the Road of the Denver nightclub hot jazz combo in which "the big Negro bullneck drummer" attacks his kit with a primordial "Boom, kick, . . . kicking his drums down the cellar and rolling the beat upstairs with his murderous sticks, rattlety-boom!" And then there is the more "superficial" hipster adoption of it in Norman Mailer's notorious 1957 Dissent magazine essay, "The White Negro."

The word "Negro," capitalized, is consciously and rigorously used by Jefferson throughout most of the book, abandoned only in the final sections, when moving from the years of her upbringing to the beginning of her professional life in the 1970s as a reporter for Newsweek, where she replaces it with "black." (She uses "African American" only once as a self-identifying term in recounting an episode from the 1990s of buying hair care products in the West Village.) "'Negro,'" she writes, is "a word of wonders, glorious and terrible." Its various connotations, which have shifted over time and depending upon context, have informed her understanding of race and its construction, politically, socially, culturally, and, of course, personally.

From this semiotic ground zero, Jefferson launches her chronicle of Negroland. The book is subtitled "A Memoir," though in truth it's really more what social researchers term an autoethnography (a less marketable term to be sure), which describes a form of self-reflective writing that places an individual's experience within a wider cultural, political, and social context. With her many years as an astute cultural critic, Jefferson cannot help but take a broader view of her life within the larger narrative of American social history. The first few sections of the book trace the emergence of the black elite back to its origins in the antebellum plantation slave system, through the 19th-century stirrings and spread of the abolitionist movement, and on into modern civil rights and black pride. The capsule profiles of important figures in that story, some well known and others less so, constitute a useful survey of social history in and of themselves.

Woven throughout the book are also meditations at the intersections of race and class and especially gender. Trenchant in this latter regard are the taxonomies of skin color, grades of hair, and the shapes and sizes of noses and derrieres as markers of female beauty. (Baby definitely don't got back in 1950s Negroland.) Also noteworthy is the suspicion with which many black women in the 1970s and '80s viewed Second Wave feminism as a middle-class white woman's thing. In response to that notion, Jefferson quotes Florynce Kennedy:
When black women tell me feminism is a white woman's thing, I tell them: you've spent all these years, all these centuries, imitating every bad idea white women came up with—about their hair, their makeup, their clothes, their duties to their men. And now, they finally come up with a good idea—feminism—and you decide you don't want anything to do with it! (Italics original)
Another resonant section pertains to relations and other acquaintances who crossed the color line and became estranged from family and friends, sometimes for a lifetime. One is a relative identified only by his initials J. E., presumably to protect his legacy for two ostensibly white sons who have never been told of their racial heritage. Another is a cousin, Lillian, who lived her life as a fair-skinned Negro and passed for convenience when patronizing white-only shops and restaurants. She also served as a go-between for passers and non-passers on the Jefferson side of the family. An interesting case is Jefferson's great-uncle Lucius who after decades of passing for white as a traveling salesman "resumed his life as a Negro" upon retirement. In reading this section I was reminded of two books Kendall and Jefferson assigned our New School class: James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, originally published anonymously in 1912, and Nella Larsen's Passing from 1929, both of which explore the treacherous terrain at the borders of race. Where those writers present fictional accounts, Jefferson reports on facts. I was also reminded of the times that I, a person of Mediterranean descent, have been taken for black, one of them at a party by an Africana Studies professor who kept insisting I was passing.

Like Jefferson's previous book, the 2006 On Michael Jackson, Negroland is filled with incisive commentary and unexpected observations, all of it delivered with a sly wit and in crystalline prose.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art

In 2012, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC presented the exhibition "The Art of Video Games," now on view at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee until September 13 as part of a ten-city tour. The exhibition is billed as one of the first to survey the evolution of video games as an artistic medium over the past four decades, although video games have certainly been featured here and there in art exhibitions previously. John Sharp's book Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art doesn't argue whether games are art or not, but instead looks at the intersection where games and art meet.

One of the book's key concepts comes from James J. Gibson, a psychologist known for his work, along with his wife Eleanor, on visual perception. Gibson coined the term "affordance" to describe the relationship between things and environments and organisms. Affordances, in turn, are embedded within communities of practice, or what Gibson termed a "psychological ecology," a perceptual environment of understanding rooted in place and time.

Industrial designers use the phrase "product semantics" to similarly identify the way in which objects are designed so that their meaning or use is encoded in their physical form. For example, the product semantics of a hammer, in terms of its shape and materials, tell you which end is for holding and which end is for pounding. So a hammer has affordances with the nail and the wood into which it is pounded, as well as the human hand by which it is held and used. It is situated within a community of practice, i.e., a psychological ecology, that includes a particular method for constructing shelter, which contrasts, for example, with non-Western practices such as the Turkic yurt, Native American teepee, and African grass hut.

When it comes to games, according to Sharp, the affordances change depending upon the community of practice. The example he gives is chess, which has a range of communities of practice, from amateurs to Grand Masters. Each of these accepts certain aspects of the game: the movement of the different pieces, the rules of play, the offensive and defensive strategies, and the ultimate objective, which is to best one's opponent by capturing the king. Artists, on the other hand and most famously Marcel Duchamp, also see the game as a trope, which can signify struggles of various kinds̬—ideological, sexual, aesthetic, and more.

Sharp constructs his discussion of the intersection of games and art using three categories: game art, artgames (rendered as one word), and artists' games. Each has its own affordances situated within their communities of practice, though the distinctions can sometimes be subtle to the point of being somewhat opaque.

Game art appropriates game industry tools and bends them toward artistic purposes. The resulting works comment both on game culture and the art world. Julian Oliver uses a well-known bug in Quake 3 to create abstract images that subvert the 3D verisimilitude of the game space and thus its field of battle. More interestingly, Cory Arcangel hacks Super Mario Brothers 3 to create room-size art installations that completely remove any narrative from the image. Both contest conventional art world notions of originality and preciousness.

Artgames, on the other hand, adopt game conventions and refract them through traditional aesthetics to create forms of self-expression. Like the auteur theory in film, the notion of the artgame sees the developer as a kind of artist, using game mechanics to meditate on a variety of issues. The most obvious is the game as autobiography. Jason Rohrer designs game narratives drawn from his personal life for others to use as part of their own self-reflection. The 2007 game Passage deals with the untimely death of a family friend. Another, Gravitation from 2008, is about Rohrer's need to balance family obligations against his need for creative fulfillment. Brenda Romero's games are about more social issues drawn from historical tragedies, such as the English invasion of Ireland and the Holocaust. Jonathan Blow's games are downright epistemological, about the way in which iterative processes factor into knowledge acquisition. (Repeated play, of course, is at the source of game mastery; Blow makes it the subject of the game rather than its presumptive precondition.)

Finally,  artists' games are more sophisticated than either game art or artgames. Where game art experiments primarily with form and artgames with content, artists' games synthesize both form and content to construct new interactive situations. While meant to be the capstone of Sharp's argument, the category is a bit fuzzy. Sharp himself seems unclear when in the final chapter he asks: "Is there a different sort of aesthetics at play in artists' game that combines the values of both the art and game communities than that found in a more traditional approach to games or art?" Indeed, in trying to write his way through the concept of the artists' game, Sharp makes reference to contemporary art theories of relationalism, collaboration, and participation loosely gathered under the rubric "social practice." He touches on the role of play in making the connection between art and games, not only in the sense of play as recreation but in the sense of play as a space that allows movement. The examples he gives could just as easily fit into a study of contemporary performance and installation art as one on games.

Works of Game is an effort at constructing a framework for understanding how games and art interact. It accepts the rules of contemporary art as its field of play. As such, there isn't much consideration of games as a social and cultural phenomenon, which for me would have been a more interesting subject. For an astute analysis of that, see McKenzie Wark's Gamer Theory, a book that is a bit dated perhaps but well worth checking out nonetheless.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Minding the Gap of "The Great Divide"

In the wake of Occupy Wall Street and the anti-austerity protests in Spain, Greece, and elsewhere around the world, economic inequality has emerged as one of the more hotly debated issues in the public sphere. One of the more prominent voices in the discussion is economist Joseph Stiglitz, whose May 2011 Vanity Fair article "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" provided the rallying cry of what became a global social movement. That essay and others that have appeared in Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and other publications over the last few years are collected in Stiglitz's latest contribution to the debate, The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them. The book follows up on his previous bestseller The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future in which Stiglitz examines the forces, market and political, that have contributed to America becoming the most unequal of the world's advanced countries.

Like that earlier book, The Great Divide argues that inequality is not the natural result of market efficiency but instead is due to "rent seeking" on the part of economic elites who have gained control of income-producing resources that have enabled them to become richer and richerer not by creating any new wealth but by greatly increasing their share of the wealth that already exists. An example Stiglitz cites several times in the book is Big Pharma, which makes minor adjustments in prescription drug formulas in order to keep them from becoming generic, thereby keeping prices high. Another example are the entertainment industry conglomerates, which for the most part have succeeded in extending copyright monopolies far beyond a work's original creation in order to reap economic rewards without  contributing much new to the marketplace of cultural production. At the same time, marginal tax rates on top incomes have dramatically decreased, from 50 percent in 1980 to 39.6 percent today with rates on capital gains and dividends, the sources where the wealthy derive most of their income, slashed even further to 15 percent. This has allowed the top 1 percent of earners to rake in some 95 percent of the nation's pretax income growth since the Great Recession of 2008 whereas the incomes of the vast majority of Americans have barely budged. This not only stifles growth and opportunity for the broad swath of people and by extension society overall, but has serious political implications for the democratic system as well, especially evident in the wake of the US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.

A 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, Stiglitz is recognized for his contributions to what is known as information economics, in particular the idea that markets are as a rule inefficient—contrary to the claims of neoclassicists—based on unequal access to information between buyer and seller. (The circulation of "lemons" in the used-car market is a prime example of "information asymmetry" whereby the seller knows more about the commodity being sold than the buyer and therefore has a comparative advantage in negotiating the price.) He is also a recipient of the John Bates Clark medal, which some consider more prestigious than the Nobel. He is a former Chief Economist of the World Bank and ex-Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisors. Current Chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System Janet Yellen is one of his doctoral students. Hardly a rogue economist, he is also a staunch critic of free-market fundamentalism (the notion that any interference with market processes diminishes their effectiveness), especially as it pertains to policies of neoliberalism, both domestic and international.

Stiglitz at Forum Invest FINANCE 2009 (CC-BY-AA 3.0)
As a compendium of articles written over a period of several years, there is a lot of repetition in the individual entries, oftentimes down to the same phrases. That is a bit distracting but it doesn't necessarily diminsh from the larger point being made. And to be sure, it cannot be repeated enough that our current travails are due to the malfeasance of certain vested interests (read: the uber-rich and their lackeys) who have handsomely rewarded themselves at the expense of everyone else and have for the most part escaped bearing any responsibility for what they have wrought. As the aforementioned Vanity Fair essay maintains, the 1 percent have rigged the system for their own benefit and to hell with the rest of us, in no small measure by buying up whatever political influence they have needed along the way. The examples include bailing out the money-center banks and their CEOs who engaged in predatory lending while allowing their unsuspecting borrowers to flounder in underwater mortgages and lose their homes to foreclosure, and making whole hedge fund investors—who given their supposed financial acumen and sophisticated economic forecasting tools surely knew the risks they were taking—while allowing pensioners to lose their life savings in imploding 401k valuations.

Stiglitz is essentially a Keynesian, and as such, sees a role for public-sector intervention into the economy during times of weak demand, such as the one many persuasively argue we are currently in. Stiglitz does not call for the end of capitalism as we know it, as Naomi Klein pretty much does in This Changes Everything. Rather, he calls for a mixture wonkish tweaks—increased taxes on corporations and the wealthy, tighter regulation of financial services, greater public investment in infrastructure, education, and technology, plus campaign finance reform—to mediate the deleterious effects of what he terms "ersatz capitalism" (which is a funny concept in that elsewhere in the book Stiglitz claims that there are no inherent laws of capitalism, so then how does one decide what constitutes the "inauthentic" kind?).

(Photo: Vince Carducci)
The more radical of Stiglitz's progeny within the 99 percent are not likely to be optimistic about the effects of these prescriptions, seeing them at best as whistling past the graveyard. And I must confess to being among the discontented. Although I concede that Stiglitz's remedies have a better chance than Thomas Piketty's call for a global wealth tax, if only because enacting something within the confines of a nation-state seems perhaps more feasible, if extremely unlikely given the current political environment, than transcending international borders into the realm where capital rules unrestrained.