Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate?

Jeff Goldfarb, editor of The New School for Social Research's online journal  Public Seminar, asked me to do a post on Bob Dylan receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. I could think of better people around The New School to do this, for example, computer whiz/philosopher Michael Quirk or my MA thesis advisor Jim Miller, who was an original contributor to Rolling Stone magazine and the former pop critic for Newsweek. But I did have a meeting get cancelled on Thursday afternoon, so I was able to bat something out. Below is the text of the post with a couple of edits now that the deadline has passed:
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I can’t say that I am a huge Bob Dylan fan. I may have been born just a little too late to have been caught up in the folk craze, though I do remember singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” along with “This Land is Your Land” and “If I Had a Hammer” during chorus in elementary school. I have my share of Dylan, of course, some on vinyl, some on CD, covering all periods from the early “protest” stuff to the mid- and late-1960s electric period and onto more recent back-to-the-roots material with Love and Theft being a particular favorite. (There are also those I should have but don't, like Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks.) I was surprised, though not unpleasantly, to get the news of Robert Allen Zimmerman receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

I personally have been rooting for Thomas Pynchon to get the nod, though somehow I don’t think he would be begrudge The Bard, as he’s often been called, for acing him out. For one thing there’s the fact that Pynchon was friends with Richard Farina who hung with Dylan in the early days, married the sister of his one-time squeeze Joan Baez, and was one of the four figures profiled in David Hajdu's bestseller Positively 4th Street. Gravity’s Rainbow is dedicated to Farina who died in a motorcycle accident in 1966, the same year Dylan survived his. (Read Pynchon's appreciation of Farina here.) For another there is the fact that Pynchon no doubt would acknowledge Dylan's significance, not only to the 1960s counterculture whose failed utopia he has lamented in novels from Gravity's Rainbow on down, but to the world at large.

Dylan legitimized being hip, more so than the Beats who came before him or the Beatles who came after. By the time I entered undergraduate school in the 1970s, English professors talked in terms of Dylan's "poetry" whereas other pop icons had to settle for mere "lyrics." Indeed, Dylan's best songs dig deeply into America's social imaginary (the love) and refashion it for contemporary mass-market consumption on a global scale (the theft).

As with any major prize, there has been no dearth of controversy since the announcement broke. There's the matter of personal taste (again for me Pynchon; for others Phillip Roth, and so on.). But for readers of Public Seminar, more significant conversations are bound up with notions of culture, especially in terms of "Culture" with a capital "C." And the reactions in that regard were immediate, pro and con, typically along the lines of cultural hierarchies that continue to be resilient even in these days of supposed cultural omnivorism.

I'm on the side of the omnivores, understanding culture in the most pluralistic sense. Clifford Geertz once defined culture as "the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves." Bob Dylan is a storyteller par excellence. And that's at the root of literature from the epics of the ancient rhapsodes (from the Greek meaning literally "to sew songs together") to their postmodern inheritor Dimitri Lyacos.

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Update October 17, 2016: Public Seminar did run a piece by Michael Quirk. It's a good one on the the flap over Dylan's Nobel as a form of "category anxiety." There's another one by Zachary Sunderman, also good.

Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 1959-1971, by Jonas Mekas

Back in the day when I was an aspiring young artist, one of my bibles was a well-worn copy (gotten at the late-great independent bookstore Paperbacks Unlimited) of Movie Journal, a collection of columns by filmmaker/impresario Jonas Mekas that had originally appeared in the Village Voice from 1959 to 1971, trumpeting the rise of something called a "new American cinema." The working-class suburb northeast of Detroit where I grew up was hardly a hot bed of avant-garde culture, and Mekas's compendium of rants and raves introduced me to a creative  world I could only imagine via the descriptions he provided. The roll call of names—Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, Barbara Rubin, Carolee Schneeman, and dozens of others—was an elite group of underground luminaries to search out and from which to learn, not an easy task in the days before VCRs and DVDs, much less YouTube and Vimeo. First published in 1972 and long out of print, Movie Journal has now been reissued in a second edition with a forward by director Peter Bogdanovich, an introductory essay by Logos managing editor Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker, and a new afterword by the author.

Mekas, who has taught film classes at The New School, is one of the true seminal figures of modern American cinema. In addition to creating some 75 experimental films over the past six decades, Mekas, along with his brother Adolphas, founded the pioneering magazine Film Culture in 1954. He also co-founded the nonprofit Film-Makers Cooperative distribution service in 1962, and perhaps most significant the Anthology Film Archives in 1970, one of the largest and most important collections of avant-garde film in the world, currently housed at 32 Second Avenue in Manhattan's East Village. He has also written poetry in his native Lithuanian and published several of his personal journals and diaries.

Mekas began writing for the Voice when in November of 1958 he went to the alt-weekly's Associate Editor Jerry Talmer (who also created the OBIE Award) to ask why there wasn't a regular movie column. According to the story Mekas tells in the original introduction to Movie Journal, Talmer said, "Why don't you do one?" And so Mekas handed his first piece in the next day.

Original cover of Movie Journal.
The first entry in the book is from two months later, February 4, 1959, titled "Call for a Derangement of Cinematic Sense." In it, Mekas proposes "breaking away from the conventional, dead, official cinema," and exhorts a new generation of filmmakers to be "completely loose, out of themselves, wildly, anarchically!" From the beginning, Mekas made no bones about his agenda to advocate in the most passionate way possible for the cadre of emerging filmmakers of the time who were upsetting conventions in terms of subject matter, narrative form, and cinematic technique.

He was among the first to champion groundbreaking indie-film director John Cassavettes, as well as the extreme cinema verite of Andy Warhol, whose pathbreaking films, such Eat (1963), Empire (1964), and Taylor Mead's Ass (1965), are said to have been inspired by a 1962 performance of Trio with Strings by composer LaMonte Young, which the legendary pop artist had attended in Mekas's company. One of Warhol's earliest films, the 1963 Sleep, featuring poet John Giorno (the artist's lover at the time) nude and asleep on a couch for five and a half hours, was originally suppposed to be set to music by Young. Mekas presented the film, which he called "monumental," at Gramercy Arts Theater in January 1964, theoretically a fundraising event that attracted all of nine people, two of whom left after the first hour. Mekas wrote about the screening and chided the audience's response to it in his column of January 30, 1964.

In the afterword to the new edition, Mekas congratulates himself, at age 93 and with 50 years of hindsight, on the overall soundness of his critical judgement. And by and large he is right. Time and again the filmmakers he praised have come to be regarded as masters of the cinematic avant-garde, which he termed "poetic" cinema to differentiate it from the conventional Hollywood narrative form. This is not to say that Mekas was unilaterally against traditional film—he writes incisively and admiringly about many of Hollywood's top directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Douglas Sirk, and Vincent Minelli, among others. His beef was more with the studio system that "created an image in the minds of people that cinema is only entertainment and business" (as opposed to art) than those creative spirits who were caught up in its web.

The highly personal, expressive style Mekas brought to his Movie Journal columns is perfectly suited to the poetic form of cinema he set out to champion. In a column from September 19, 1963 titled "The Function of Film Criticism," he notes: "The film critic should not explain what a movie is all about, surely an impossible task; he should help to create the right attitude for looking at movies. That's what my rambling is all about, nothing more." And one might add, nothing less. The directness of Mekas's prose reads as fresh today as when it was first written. It is a marked contrast to Smulewicz-Zucker's introduction to the second edition, which is more academic, assiduously annotated, and seeks to position Mekas in the history of the American avant-garde in the second half of the 20th century. The essay is an important contribution nonetheless that also addresses Mekas's significance as a filmmaker and poet in addition to establishing his critical bona fides. Dive into the main text first, then read Smulewicz-Zucker's introduction for the broader context.

In an entry from September 23, 1965, Mekas offers a one-sentence take down of what in his estimation prominent film critic Pauline Kael lost, as her most famous book title has it, at the movies: "her taste for cinema." Jonas Mekas, on the other hand, found his in the pages of Movie Journal, and he helped countless others, including me, find it as well, lo those many years ago. With this new edition, another generation now has that opportunity.

Below: Jonas Mekas, The Brig, 1963. (Black & white 16mm film, 2:17.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Interview with Sarah Thornton

Two years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing sociologist Sarah Thornton, whose book Seven Days in Art World was named one of the best art books of 2008 by The New York Times. The interview was conducted in November as part of the Detroit Institute of Arts Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art Annual Meeting. The interview covered Thornton's follow-up to Seven Days in the Art World, 33 Artists in Three Acts. I recently came across a video of the interview and share it below for those who weren't able to attend. It was a great experience, and I thank the DIA and especially former Associate Curator of Contemporary Art (now at the Denver Museum) Becky Hart for the opportunity. I also thank Sarah for the opportunity to work with her.

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation

For nearly four decades, the manufacturing centers of the industrialized world have been in decline, their once mighty engines of mass productivity decommissioned and rendered into silent, rusting hulks. Waves of capital and (mostly white) people have streamed out of the central cities, leaving ruined landscapes in their wake. Recently however, the deconstructive narrative of a number of these beleaguered towns seems to have been recuperated, and investment and populace (primarily of the hipster variety) have begun to trickle back in. In their book, The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts Are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation, economist Antoine van Agtmael and journalist Fred Bakker claim that, through advances in technology and communication, once moribund industrial cities like Albany, Akron, and Pittsburgh are being revived and are now poised to enjoy substantial competitive advantage in the international marketplace.

The Smartest Places on Earth chronicles innovation the authors see reigniting the spirit of capitalism in the West as the postindustrial tsunami of creative destruction—the disaggregation of vertically integrated value chains achieved in part through outsourcing to new profit centers in "emerging markets" (a term van Agtmael coined)—appears to be receding. The authors' thesis is a rejoinder to those on both the right and the left, particularly in the current political cycle, who continue to forecast doom and gloom in United States and the Eurozone. Like butterflies emerging from the chrysalis, moribund rust belts are being transformed into what van Agtmael and Bakker term "brain belts."

One of the contributing factors to this revitalization is the new application of so-called "legacy" infrastructure and expertise once deemed outmoded, the ostensible dead weight of which was held to be responsible for the decline of the old industrial centers in the past. In North Carolina, for example, researchers at NC State in Raleigh have gathered the remnants, as it were, of the distressed textile industry to research and develop materials and applications for new types of fabrics and other substances with a wide  range of uses, from apparel to wall and floor coverings to protective membranes and insulators in high-tech devices. Nearby Duke University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill have similarly retooled old manufacturing facilities into scientific research centers so as to attract corporate and governmental investment and incubate new businesses.

Driving innovation in these enterprises are what van Agtmael and Bakker term "brainsharing ecosystems," multidisciplinary networks that bring together educational institutions, business interests, and the government, many times sharing the same facilities. In contrast to the "lonely hero" ethos of the entrepreneurial archetype, an open-source, collaborative spirit underpins brainsharing. To use an old gestalt psychology term, with brainsharing the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, creating solutions whereby smart beats cheap, adding value in ways
that low-cost producers overseas cannot. The State University of New York Polytechnic Institute's NanoTech Complex in Albany brings together academic researchers, State government support, and investment and personnel from major corporations such as IBM to develop semiconductors and other nanotechnology products, along with biotechnology. One advantage of the NanoTech Complex brainsharing model, van Agtmael and Bakker note, is the ability for market competitors to collaborate under the university's umbrella and therefore avoid charges of collusion and price fixing. They may then apply relevant research results to developing their own proprietary products.

Another comparative advantage of former rust-belts-cum-brain-belts is the availability of relatively low-cost real estate in the form of those aforementioned silent, rusting hulks of decommissioned factories, warehouses, and office buildings. Although not mentioned in the book, Wayne State University, in partnership with local industry, private foundations, and government, established the business incubator TechTown in a 1927 Albert Kahn building formerly owned by General Motors that had been abandoned for decades. TechTown now houses some 200 start-ups with a wide range of business interests, including biotech, fashion, and alternative energy. 

As much as one might appreciate the respite from doom and gloom, the book raises important questions that go unspoken, much less answered, among the biggest being the status of those left behind in the deindustrialization of the past half-century, which resulted in the proliferation of rust belts to begin with. In the chapter titled "White Coats and Blue Collars," there is nary a sentence devoted to the current conditions of the working class—the specter haunting brain belts—outside of the need for a phantom cadre of construction workers (never identified by job title) to build the infrastructure needed to support brainsharing ecosystems and a mention of farmer's markets to satisfy the palettes of hipster locavores who sit higher up the food chain. The only mentions of labor in the rest of the book are a couple of  passages that take note of corporate decision-making on locating enterprises in areas based on availability of nonunion workforces.

Another fundamental question is what added-value the brain belt thesis has, practically speaking, beyond getting its authors gigs as guest lecturers and consultants. The Smartest Places on Earth traces its lineage back to French sociologist Alain Touraine, who in the late 1960s developed the concept of postindustrial society, which was later popularized by American sociologist Daniel Bell in his 1974 classic The Coming of Post-Industrial Society. Under that concept, knowledge work replaces the production of goods as the main driver of comparative economic advantage—essentially the core of what constitutes a brain belt's value proposition. More recent in the lineage is Richard Florida's "creative class" concept. Whatever its shortcomings, Florida's research at least tracks the decline of working-class occupations based on empirical data and offers a prognosis, however pessimistic, on their future growth prospects.  (See my review of the revised edition of Florida's creative class bestseller.) By contrast, van Agtmael and Bakker rely primarily on anecdotal evidence from their personal travels.

Also challenging van Agtmael and Bakker's tale of brainy high-tech phoenixes rising from the ashes of somnambulant milltowns (a process they repeatedly refer to in a hokey metaphor as "awakening sleeping beauties") is the fact that a substantial number of the examples they cite both in the narrative and in a table surveying world brain belts never declined into rust belts in the first place and so have no ashes to arise from. These too-numerous exceptions to the rule diffuse the power of the book's overall argument, leaving one to wonder just exactly what the path forward might be. That haziness is exacerbated by the generic set of policy prescriptions—a compendium of "innovation-lit" exhortations—that serves as the book's less-than-compelling conclusion.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Shannon Goff: The Work of Art After the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

In fall 2015, Shannon Goff had a solo exhibition of recent work at Susanne Hilberry Gallery. In November of that year, I wrote an essay about the work for a publication Shannon is putting together. Thought I would publish it here in the meantime, though certainly buy the book when it comes out.

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Shannon Goff, Miles to Empty, 2015, cut cardboard (all photos: PD Rearick; courtesy of the artist).
In what many believe is his most important work, the posthumously published Aesthetic Theory, the Marxist philosopher and critical theorist Theodor W. Adorno takes note of what he terms "Art's double character as both autonomous and fait social [social fact]." Art—that is, human expression worthy of being so designated—is autonomous, Adorno holds, in that it stands apart from the system of means-end rationality characteristic of modernity, especially under capitalism. And yet, he goes on to say in a brain pretzel that is typical of his thought, art is marked by the "sedimentation" of the sociohistorical conditions from which it arises. It is "the melancholy of art," Adorno concludes, to bear witness to truth it is powerless to do anything about. I can't help thinking about Adorno and his dialectical approach to art as I ponder Shannon Goff's recent work.

Dualities permeate Goff's exhibition at Susanne Hilberry Gallery. At the most elemental level is the gallery space itself, which is bisected through the center by a wall creating two separate rooms housing two seemingly different bodies of work. The southern gallery is empty save for a full-size, highly detailed construction of a 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V fabricated entirely out of white cardboard. The northern gallery is filled with three simple unpainted wooden tables upon which are set 19 abstract ceramic sculptures, most of which are glazed in a riot of color.

Shannon Goff, ceramic sculptures at Susanne Hilberry Gallery, installation view.
On the one hand, there is the austere minimalism of the Mark V installation, titled Miles to Empty (all works 2015). On the other is the maximalism of the ceramic tabletop sculptures, each constructed of short clay coils that are bent, twisted, and connected to form various complex accumulations of shape, volume, and space. Where the Mark V articulates the industrial, the ceramic sculptures convey a sense of the organic; taken together they form the two sides of what Adorno understands as the dialectic of Enlightenment, the split between the objective and the subjective that has sent Western civilization down the road to perdition.

In another apparent twist of logic, Adorno asserts that although art is completely embedded within the sociohistorical, the way in which that is disclosed is not so simple (alas, with Adorno nothing ever is) as to be conveyed denotatively, that is, in the form of illustration. Instead, Adorno asserts, the mimetic in art "wants to make facts eloquent by letting them speak for themselves." This is the dialectic of form and content, or as Adorno has it, "semblance" and "expression."

The flimsy cardboard structure of Miles to Empty reflects the ephemeral nature of technology in the creation of value under capitalism. As Marx writes in Volume I of Capital, value creation is connected to the amount of human labor involved in production. What he terms "absolute" surplus value is a result of labor directly applied to the transformation of matter into use. "Relative" surplus value is derived from technological innovation that multiplies labor power exponentially. Craft production is primarily absolute whereas mechanical production (and more importantly, reproduction) is in essence relative.

The moving assembly line pioneered under auto baron, and owner of the Lincoln Motor Company, Henry Ford is a prime example of relative surplus value. The technological innovation of bringing work to the worker via a system of conveyors enabled Ford to increase productivity by a factor of ten. As a result, he could cut car prices in half and at the same time double the wages of his workers, and still become one of the richest men in world history. The unprecedented largesse of the production process bearing his name, Fordism, also laid the foundation for the social and political system that drove mass consumption and the welfare state for most of the twentieth century, allowing, among other things, Detroit workers to enjoy a standard of living that was the envy of the world.

One of those workers was Goff's grandfather, a Sicilian immigrant who in 1979 purchased the Lincoln Continental Mark V upon which Miles to Empty is based as a reward for a lifetime of work under the Fordist regime. Ironically, at the very moment Goff's grandfather was enjoying the fruits of his labor from that regime, it was collapsing, taking the city of Detroit and its residents, down along with it. As Marx further notes with respect to the value of labor, relative surplus value provides only temporary productivity gains until competitors catch up. Capitalism must then revert to absolute surplus value in order to continue the ever-more accumulation of capital. In the 1970s in response to diminishing returns and the pressures of foreign competition, the Detroit auto industry reclaimed absolute surplus value in part by outsourcing production to the lower-cost labor pools of the southern United States and the maquiladoras of Mexico. The bone-white cardboard hulk of Miles to Empty is a manifestation of all that was once solid which has now melted into air with the failure of the Fordist utopia; it is a specter, a ghost of what was, haunting the social imaginary of the erstwhile Motor City.

Miles to Empty, detail.
"Art is the ever broken promise of happiness," Adorno writes. And so it is that the melancholy of the art in Miles to Empty is the "unreal reconciliation" in registering the loss of relative surplus value and the sedimented residue of Goff's own many hours of labor in making, the absolute surplus value inherent in the modeling, cutting, and assembling by hand of the phantom installed in the Susanne Hilberry Gallery. The virtuosity with a knife blade, straight edge, and other modeling implements on display in Miles to Empty is a true tour-de-force, which as Adorno notes is essential to art in its quest, paradoxically of course (this is Adorno after all), to realize the unrealizable.

Treasure Island, ceramic.

Majesty, ceramic.

The notion of tour-de-force connects Goff's ceramic sculptures on view in the other gallery with Miles to Empty. In their prodigious exploration of the other of mechanical reproduction, the dialectical obverse of relative surplus value, the ceramic sculptures are equally virtuosic. Where the Mark V renders the universal stamping process of mechanical reproduction particular, the ceramic sculptures extend their particulars to a universal, in this case a narrative of assembly made palpable by the accretion of elements used in their manufacture. (The dialectic of universal and particular is another key element of Adorno's aesthetic theory.) Each ceramic sculpture conjures up associations in the signifying play between their form and their title, the denotation of the object and connotation of its referent. Treasure Island contains an orange "X" marking the spot on a green ceramic latticework that from a distance resembles a mountainscape, the whole in turn supported by an irregularly cut pedestal that when viewed from above is shaped like an island. Majesty is a web of purple pyramidal structures, which resolve at the top in another mountainscape, in this case "majestic mountains" from "America the Beautiful."

Doyenne, ceramic, installation view.
In the alcove at the back of the gallery connecting the two larger spaces that house Miles to Empty and the tabletop sculptures, is the tour-de-force of the ceramic works, Doyenne. Constructed in situ, the work is an assembly of bone-dry greenware that stands nearly seven-feet tall and three-and-a-half feet in diameter at its base. It is a miracle of production, an assembly of hundreds, maybe thousands, of clay coils, which builds up from the earth—the ground from which the material originally came—to reach toward the heavens, representing four full days of the artist's labor and thus absolute surplus value. How it has stood up to its own weight is a wonder. Given the fragility of the unfired clay, it is fated in the end to be reduced to a broken pile of shards, a potlatch of creative destruction. Originally intended as an homage to Goff's grandfather, over the course of its construction it came to represent the doyenne who for just short of four decades presided over the space, first in Birmingham and later in its present location, that bears her name.

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.


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.