Friday, December 31, 2010

John Sauve's interview with me on his show Art & Design

I know I haven't posted anything in a while (plan on fixing that this weekend). Blame it on end-of-term wackiness and then the holidays. But at the beginning of December I did have a chance to sit down with sculptor and arts advocate John Sauve, who runs this interesting show on public access TV and also the Internet called Art & Design. (Click here to watch past episodes if you haven't ever seen it.) It was a lot of fun and I thank John for being a good interviewer. Happy New Year, BTW.

Vince Carducci from johnwsauve on Vimeo.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Art of Dead Labor

Dylan A.T. Miner, Damos Gracias (Wal-Muerto), 2007, relief print on recycled grocery bag. (Image courtesy of the artist.)
Capital is dead labour that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.
-- Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Vol I, Chap X, Sec 1
Although the exhibition of work in the CCS Alumni and Faculty Hall by artist/activist Dylan Miner (which ran concurrently with the Center Galleries show of Todd Erickson and Faina Lerman I previously reviewed) closed a couple of weeks ago, I still wanted to write about it. Miner went to CCS in the mid-1990s but got his BA at Western Michigan University and then an MA and a PhD at University of New Mexico. He now teaches in the Residential College at Michigan State and is also a member of the Justseeds Artists' Cooperative, a group of 26 artists working in the US, Canada, and Mexico who use the printmaking medium as a form of social, environmental, and political activism.

Set between the Center Galleries main exhibition space and the CCS Library, the Alumni and Faculty Hall might seem like a less-than-auspicious venue, but artists who have shown there have generally used its bad lighting and odd dimensions as the jumping-off point for creating some pretty engaging environments to showcase their work. (Check out, for example, the current installation, Transition by Annica Cuppetelli, which uses hanging layers of white mesh scrim and translucent blue theater lighting gels to completely transform an otherwise bland institutional corridor into a promenade of ethereal beauty.) Miner's project was no exception.

The show's title "Big Enough to Win, Big Enough to Lose" took its cue from legendary UAW leader Walter Reuther's famous quote on the character of risk in the face of adversity: "If you are not big enough to lose, you are not big enough to win." It also evoked analytical Marxist economist John E. Roehmer's treatise Free to Lose: An Introduction to Marxist Economic Philosophy, which challenges the conventional Marxist theory of exploitation grounded in the labor theory of value and replaces it with one based on a version of neoclassical rational choice theory.

Installed on the walls were a variety of printed matter related to Miner's practice as an artist/activist. Among the materials on one side were mass-produced posters for an immigrant rights campaign featuring an illustration of an indigenous tattooed face filling up the left side of the frame out of whose mouth flows the phrases "We are workers. We are humans. We have rights" in several languages to cover the globe. Another commemorated the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 that led to the consolidation of the UAW,  a watershed in the American labor movement.

On the other wall was a collection of relief prints, mostly in black and red, on recycled grocery bags. Several featured imagery based on the Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) during which people remember family and friends who have passed on, a reference perhaps to the union movement in its moribund state but also Marx's idea of capital as dead labor, the remains of surplus value appropriated by the bosses during the working day. Others commemorated significant figures in leftist thought, such as Emma Goldman and Mikhail Bakunin, and one series riffed on the folk songs of labor organizer and troubadour Joe Hill. Traversing the entire space from front to back and tying the two elements together was a series of hand-printed and -sewn pennants bearing the slogans "Labor," "Resist," "In the Shell of the Old," and "Remembering to Resist."

An absorbing piece was the wall-mounted cardboard construction Wobbly Radio, inside of which was a recording of the artist reading archival transcripts of 1930s broadcasts originating from the Industrial Workers of World (IWW) Detroit chapter. The IWW, of course, is also known as the Wobblies. Joe Hill was a Wobbly as was Eugene V. Debs. The Wobblies also figure prominently in Thomas Pynchon's sprawling, anarchic opus Against the Day. Detroit has an interesting chapter in Wobbly history, in the early twentieth-century controversy over indirect political action vs. direct militancy against management, the so-called "yellow" vs. "red" factions. By 1925, the yellow Wobblies, based in Detroit initially under the leadership of Daniel De Leon, dissolved, leaving the Chicago-based organization in command. Hence the broadcasts date from the later period when Michigan-based Wobblies more or less freelanced confrontations with management, including taking part in the Flint Sit-Down Strike and other automotive union organizing. A Detroit Wobbly branch still exists. (Click here for the Wobbly Kitchen Detroit Facebook page.)

Delivered via a set of headphones hooked up to an "i(ww)Pod," the readings of Wobbly Radio detailed union programs for food relief, announcements for social gatherings, and other solidarity activities. They hearkened back to the days gone by of robust union communications initiatives, when labor had a strong voice in the broadcast landscape through ownership of the means of media production. WDET-FM, for example, started out in 1948 as the radio station of the United Auto Workers union, which sold it for $1 to Wayne State University in 1952. (See Elizabeth Fones-Wolf's 2006 study Waves of Opposition: Labor and the Struggle for Democratic Radio for a good history of the golden age of union broadcasting that lasted from the 1930s to the 1950s.)

The work of Miner's that best summed up his project for me, however, was the relief print Damos Gracias (Wal-Muerto) (above). Printed on a recycled grocery bag, the image's central skeletal figure is wearing a store clerk's smock with an "un-smiley" face pin above the employee (oh, I'm sorry, I meant associate) nametag. She stands before a big-box store facade bearing the slogan "Siempre Pobre" (Always Poor), a reference to Walmart's advertising tagline "Always Low Prices" and its direct connection to the immiseration of workers both within and outside of the company in the global economic race to the bottom driven by the enormous retailer's ruthless cost-cutting business model. The neoliberal ideology of so-called free markets (which in fact are rigged to give advantage to the haves and even more to the have-mores) is represented in a prayer at the bottom left that translates to the effect of "Let us give thanks to the Virgin of Capitalism for delivering us from poverty," a statement of false consciousness that the dead laborer reveals, along with the shopping cart she pushes representing commodity consumption as the reproduction of the inequality low wages initiate.

According to his artist's statement, Miner's use of humble handcrafted and recycled materials and indigenous-based imagery are an act of resistance to the alienation at the core of the modern capitalist system (that our relations with one another are estranged, mediated by the cash nexus). Together, form and content constitute a material-semiotic relation, a meme (the basic unit of communication similar to the gene in biology) that can be replicated and transmitted, released into the cultural idea pool so that it might have a chance of changing our way of thinking. I, for one, hope it goes viral.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Not DIY, but DIO

Community orchard in Detroit (Photo by aur2899, downloaded from Flickr, Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial-sharealike 2.0 license)

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran an article by food editor Christine Muhlke about urban farming that included coverage of what's happening these days in the D, AKA the town formerly known as the Motor City. The article dealt primarily with the idea of food communities of which Detroit was cited as the premier example. In fact, the article was illustrated with a photo of a vegetable garden being tended in an inner-city Detroit neighborhood with the requisite vista of ruin porn in the background.

Food communities rely on reciprocal, and in many respects mutually obligated, relationships among producers, distributors, consumers, and everyone else associated with bringing nature's bounty to the table. It's the opposite of the system of alienated transactions that occurs under commodity capitalism where exchange is anonymous, self-interested, and contingent. English historian E.P. Thompson terms this other way of circulating goods and services "the moral economy," which actually was what prevailed in the premodern era. And as Muhlke notes, it's not about the individual  but the group -- Do It Ourselves rather than Do It Yourself. (You don't really do anything yourself; we're all embedded in this thing called society for better or worse.)

It's also important to recognize that the urban agriculture movement isn't a utopian escape into the past. Rather it's more properly related to the alternatives that have arisen in response to modernity as it's currently unfolding under the global regime of neoliberalism, or what Tony Negri and Michael Hardt in their book Commonwealth term "altermodernity." Altermodernity seeks to reclaim the commons, that space that is neither public nor private but collectively shared, something I've noted as a significant factor in recent Detroit art. (I won't rehearse those ideas again in this post but click here, here, and here if you're interested in more on the topic.)

To this idea of food community, I'd like to add a similar notion, namely, aesthetic community. It's an idea put forth by French philosopher Jacques Ranciere, for one. As he notes in a 2006 lecture, the aesthetic community isn't a community of aesthetes but a community of sense, that is, a network of relationships of people and things that anticipates new forms of socialization, of being-together, in this case where there isn't a separation between something called art and something called life, a vision of the possibilities of existence after the fall of the Fordist system of mass manufacturing and commodity consumption.

Aesthetic community is something my second-year seminar students in the CCS MFA program are mapping out in the research they're conducting this term at The Russell Industrial Center. As they negotiate the cavernous 2.2 million square foot facility surveying the various artists, designers, crafts persons, artisans, and other cultural producers at work there, the term they encounter time again and again is "community." A woodworker offers framing solutions for the seemingly odd installation needs of a graphic artist down the hall, an illustrator hooks up a fashion designer with a photographer on another floor, a documentary filmmaker provides performance space for an otherwise homeless underground theater group, the whole motley crew gets together to put on a public showcase whatever wackiness they're up to, and so on. One informant terms it "functional anarchy," and it's an apt description of the way things work in art and culture in Detroit.

*  *  *

Click here to view a video posted this summer on The Guardian's website on urban agriculture in Detroit. Also, below is a 2008 interview with Jeanette Pierce of Inside Detroit that really stresses the community aspect of urban farming:

Here is a clip of Nicolas Bourriand, curator of 2009 Triennial at the Tate Gallery in London and also the guy who gave us the concept of relational aesthetics, talking about altermodernity in art.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Detroit Art, Time & Space @ the DIA

Tonight I've curated a group a readings to follow the Detroit Institute of Arts Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art meeting. The event starts a 7 pm and is free. (Click here for information and here for a reservation ticket.) It kicks off the FMCA's year of programing based on the theme "Making Space: Imagining Architecture, Art and Intimacy."

We take "making space" in two senses, the processes of creating space, objective and subjective, and the location, i.e., the studio, the museum, the writer's desk, in which those processes take place. I will talk about that a little bit plus introduce the other speakers. Each writer will then speak from a location in the modern and contemporary galleries that provides a context for their presentation. People will move from speaker to speaker to take it all in, a kind of intellectual moving feast. There will be two groups, each presenting their work again to allow everyone to cycle through. I think it's going to be a great event. Here's the line up and what they will be doing. In parentheses is the artist whose work each reader will be giving their presentations by.

Group A:
  • Louis Aguilar is an award-winning journalist and nonfiction writer. His writing gigs include the Washington Post and Denver Post, and since 2004, he has helped to report the epic nature of his native city for The Detroit News. While in Washington, D.C., he ran a Latino film festival and consulted to the Smithsonian Institution on Latino programming. His 2009 book Long Live the Dead: The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato, is about a Mexican city’s complex relationship with 112 of its mummified citizens. Tonight he’s going to talk about his complex feeling for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. (Diego Rivera)  
  • Lynn Crawford is an art critic and a fiction writer. She is also a founding board member of the Museum of Contemporary Detroit. Besides her art criticism, which has been published internationally, Crawford is the author of two novels, Blow and Simply Separate People as well as a collection of sestinas inspired by art titled Fortification Resort. Her newest novel, Simply Separate People, Two, comes out this fall from Black Square Editions—Brooklyn Rail. She reads tonight from a passage of Shankus, a novel in progress, inspired by Dashell Hammett. (Giorgio De Chirico)
  • Chris Tysh is a poet and playwright who teaches creative writing and women’s studies at Wayne State University. She is the author of several collections of poems and plays. Her latest publication is the play Night Scales: A Fable for Klara K due out later this month from United Artists. It was also performed at the Hilberry Theater under the director of Aky Kadogo. Tonight she will from Molly, the Flip Side, a “transcreation” of Samuel Beckett’s novel, translating it from French to English and also from prose to poetry. (Alberto Giacometti)
  • Matthew Olzmann is poet who has worked as a writer-in-residence at the InsideOut Literary Project since 2002. He also teaches composition at Oakland Community College and is the poetry editor of the online journal, The Collagist. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous publications, including American Poetry Journal, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Salt Hill, Atlanta Review, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of many awards and fellowships, including the Oboh Prize from Boxcar Poetry Review. Tonight he will read a selection of poems organized around a fictional museum. (Willem De Kooning)

Group B:
  • Craig Wilkins is an award-winning architect, urbanist, educator, and author, and director of the Detroit Community Design Center at the University of Michigan. He is the author of the 2007 book The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music, which won the 2008 Montaigne Medal for Best New Writing and the 2009 National Indie Excellence Award in the Social Change category. He is also co-editor of Activist Architecture: A Field Guide to Community-Based Practice to be published next year by Princeton Architectural Press. His design and narrative work mines the nexus between identity, the city, and the spoken, and he will read from that work tonight. (Hughie Lee Smith)
  • Rachel Harkai writes poetry and essays about memory, survival, collapse, and sometimes about the post-urban landscapes of Detroit. Her work also often deals with other art forms, including visual art, which became an inspiration after she began making regular weekend visits to the Detroit Institute of Art as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. After graduation in 2007, she was writer-in-residence with Hub City Writers Project of Spartanburg, South Carolina, before relocating to Detroit in 2008. She has written poems about a number of pieces in the DIA's collection, a few of which she will share tonight, along with thoughts on the inspiration and process behind their creation. (Donald Sultan)
  • Steve Hughes is a beer drinker with a eager ear for listening. He collects stories from people he meets at local bars. He writes them then publishes them in the format of a small magazine titled Stupor. Hughes has collaborated on the layout and design with many of Detroit's artists. The art for his newest issue titled "A Hole for Brains and Candy," was accomplished by Faina Lerman. An event celebrating the release of this issue will occur at Hamtramck's Public Pool art space on Devil's Night. Tonight Hughes will be reading stories from past, current and future issues of Stupor. (Mike Kelly)
  • Vievee Francis is the author of two poetry collections, the 2006 Blue-Tail Fly and Dark, which is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Best American Poetry 2010, and Angles of Ascent: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry. In 2009-2010, she poet-in-residence for the Alice Lloyd Hall Scholar’s Program at University of Michigan and in 2009 received the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award. She is a Callaloo and Cave Canem Fellow and currently visiting artist/scholar at College for Creative Studies. She will read several selections from her impressive body of work tonight. (Kehinde Wiley)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Todd Erickson & Faina Lerman @ CCS

Todd Erickson, Manistee River, 2010, bronze. (Photo: courtesy of CCS Center Galleries.)
Faina Lerman, Seeping In, Seeping Out: The Bubble's Inner Circle, 2010, gouache, mixed media on paper. (Photo: courtesy of CCS Center Galleries.)
A few weeks ago as part of discussing a video by Kristin Gallerneaux on Scott Hocking, I went off on this thing about a research method known as actor network theory (ANT). And although I knew it was more than a bit nerdy, it seemed appropos of Gallerneaux's tracking of Hocking so I went with it. In looking at the show currently up at CCS Center Galleries of new work by Todd Erickson and Faina Lerman, I found myself coming back to that concept. In particular, the ANT practice of tracing the connections between things and ideas, expressed as the "material-semiotic" relation, which offers a way into the work of both Erickson and Lerman, albeit from different directions.

Erickson's new work, all created in 2010, consists entirely of bronze castings of branches and twigs, twisted and bent and intertwined so as to stand up on their own, limning positive and negative sculptural space in the process. Named after rivers in Michigan, these sculptures are among the best Erickson has ever done. First of all is the sheer technical aspect of their construction: each element is flawlessly cast with incredible detail and the sculptures are seamlessly put together. But more than that, the work dispenses with the back-to-nature narrative of his earlier diorama-type stuff and simply goes back to the thing itself.

In his artist's statement, Erickson talks about memories of outdoor trips around Michigan -- canoeing, camping, hiking, and such -- that the sculptures are meant to evoke. But rather than simply collecting bits of environmental souvenirs and presenting them as mementos, Erickson takes an intermediate step, casting the material, which in the process obliterates it, leaving but a trace of the fleeting world, and his perception of it, timelessly embodied in metalwork. This turns his production from scavenging into art, fusing the thing with a concept, creating a material-semiotic relation without any expressive overload getting in the way.

Where Erickson's work seeks to arrest contingency, Lerman releases it. Her mixed-medium paintings and constructions present form and content only to subvert it, foregrounding the dependence of meaning on its material apparatus of conveyance (i.e., the medium, which as it turns out is and isn't the message). A perfect example of this is the aptly titled Seeping In, Seeping Out: The Bubble's Inner Circle (2010).  Little striped blobs scattered around the composition could be insects or just a step-and-repeat pattern of surface ornamentation. Slaps and dashes of color could be floral tendrils or simply loose gestures. The entire painting could be read as a still life or perhaps just the push-pull of painterly abstraction. The aspect ratio of the work is square, denying the ability to read it as definitively horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait).

In several smaller works, Lerman mixes in kitschy craft materials and found objects in another kind of subversion. Taken out of context, these bits of the broken world lose their original meaning while also short-circuiting conventional artworld systems of signification. With deliriously wacky titles like Mouse Herd (2009) and Cloud Storm Invaders (2010), they evoke a parallel universe where they somehow might make sense, a place where the connection between the thing and the idea, the material-semiotic relation, can be clarified once and for all, while at the same time proclaiming, "Yeah, good luck with that!"

As a yin and yang of aesthetic sensibilities, of ways in which to connect form and content, and thereby establish the material-semiotic relation, this show makes for some pretty satisfying viewing.

"Todd Erickson and Faina Lerman: New Work" runs until October 23 at CCS Center Galleries, located in the Manoogian Visual Resources Center, College for Creative Studies Ford Campus in Detroit (behind the Detroit Institute of Arts). Call 313 664 7800 for information.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Matthew Barney's Heart of Darkness

Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler; KHU, October 2nd, 2010; performance still (Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York)

Back when I was a suit guy I was the client of a local ad agency that toward the end of our relationship sold out to Omnicom, the global holding company that is parent to BBDO, DDB Needham, and a host of other Madison Avenue powerhouses. As typically happens with a change in control, the new management brought in its own team, in this case from Chicago, to manage the creative department. We were given the requisite dog-and-pony show to demonstrate the new regime's creative chops. The two-man team had worked on a number of big brands, including Budweiser, Pepsi, and GE. As I watched a set of spots shilling beer, shot in Jamaica and featuring a bevy of bikini-clad women getting soaked in a waterfall, I remember thinking that what made it big-time advertising wasn't the creative direction so much as the size of the production budget. I couldn't help thinking about that as I watched Matthew Barney's all-day endurance test, "Khu," act two of his work in progress Ancient Evenings, based on Norman Mailer's 1983 novel of the same title.

Of course, it feels premature to be called upon to render an opinion on a work that isn't finished. What's more, what we witnessed this past Saturday was only a small aspect of the piece, three segments of what will become a feature-length film in a larger series of productions. As opposed to conventional commercial filmmaking, the Barney performance, created in collaboration with composer Jonathan Bepler, was high risk: there was no opportunity for retakes no matter what disaster might befall it on location. But even in its admittedly fragmented state, "Khu" was a testament in some measure to the aesthetic power of money and along with it celebrity.

It's been rumored that the budget for "Khu" was $5 million, raised from private sources, and certainly a good portion of it was on display last Saturday. Dozens of people came from across the country and from Europe, though the majority were denizens of the New York artworld. The day started at 11 am with brunch for 200 in the DIA Great Hall after a bit of schmoozing in the Rivera Court. We then moved on to the Auditorium where we saw a rough cut of the first part of the film, which deals with the passage, taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, of the deceased into the underworld as part of the journey over to the afterlife. It also riffs on two of Barney's thematic characters, artist James Lee Byars who was born in Detroit and Harry Houdini who died here. The film features some breathtaking images of postindustrial Motown in winter. And I found myself thinking of Scott Hocking's photographs of the same subject and wondering what wonders he could perform if blessed with a Barney-type budget. (What he does with stuff he finds just lying around is amazing enough.)

We were herded into charter buses to make our own journey to the Western Lands, if in much-less jazzier digs than the classic gold 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am Barney had driven off the Belle Isle Bridge in the film in homage to one of Houdini's most famous escape tricks, to arrive at an abandoned factory downriver. We took a serpentine route to get there, winding around the central business district and then on through Southwest Detroit. I sat next to Whitney Museum curator Chrissie Iles and was able to give her a bit of history of the city and its place in the rise and fall of the Fordist capitalist system. A Brit, she took pause at the idea that a culture could and did consider a major metropolis, and all its inhabitants and infrastructure, a disposable commodity. (Wasn't it the Motor City that came up with the idea of planned obsolescence?) We also touched on what I've been calling the art of the commons, the work being done these days by Detroit artists who are appropriating the city's abandoned space and materials and refashioning them into the constructs of an aesthetic community based on the pure will to art and a lot of sweat equity.

Belitta Woods in KHU by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, October 2nd, 2010; performance still (Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York)
The factory was the site of a performance that heralded good things to come. As we walked in, a group of workers were stationed at a bench constructing stringed instruments out of sheet metal, which were handed over to musicians as they were finished. A soloist became part of a duet, then a trio, then a quartet, quintet, and so on up to a chamber orchestra of 15, all the time droning over an arythmic background of percussion emanating from the hammering of the assembly of more instruments. I thought of my FKF (fellow Kresge Fellow) Frank Pahl, whose compositions use similar bootstrapping techniques. (Part of the local musical contingent Barney and Bepler contracted with to help with the project, Pahl at least got a check out of it.) The factory itself was spectacular: moldering gray brick and steel girders, sooty cracked windows covered with years of grime, a boiler in the back corner oozing who knows what toxic effluent, and a large pulley suspended above us with its metal hook dangling down from the two-story high ceiling like the Sword of Damocles. With the wind and rain that were starting to well up, the chilly atmosphere was the perfect foil for a soulful aria performed by P-Funk vocalist Belita Woods that lit up the room.

The next leg required us to cross a muddy brownfield and go down a riverbank to board a concrete barge for what turned out to be a kind of Conradesque journey into hell. The weather reports predicting clearing skies later in the day were wrong, and there's nothing like sitting on a makeshift wet steel-girder bleacher for a few hours while slowly coursing down a river in the bone-chilling rain. The real-life boat workers piloting us along must have thought we were nuts, especially when the barge made its stop in the middle of the channel near the Ford Rouge complex for the second performance segment where we were surrounded by water rescue craft commandeered from Homeland Security upon which stood sections of sax players honking away while a large crane pulled the wreckage of a 1967 Chrysler Imperial out of the water and placed it on deck to be pulled apart by a keening female chorus dressed as FBI agents, one of whom straddled the engine block with her trousers down after having inserted snakes into the cylinder holes and rubbed slimy water on her inner thighs. (And we wonder why the average person balks at public financing for the arts.)

Seriously though, this is where the narrative action actually began to unfold, with the Chrysler representing Osiris, God of the Afterlife, who is also associated with the cycles of nature, especially the annual flooding of the Nile, the lifeblood of ancient Egyptian civilization. The FBI agent, played by Aimee Mullins, represented Isis, who according to later mythology retrieved Osiris's dead body from the Nile, revived it, fitted it out with a magic phallus, and conceived Horus, a deity with many associations in the Egyptian pantheon. Certainly one might interpret this segment as referring to the creative process, where the shamanistic figure known as an "Artist" conjures dead matter and transforms it into sometimes baffling sacred objects (Barney's primary among them) to be worshiped by the adepts of modern secular-humanist society. The music in this segment evoked none other than legendary Detroit jazz saxophonist Faruq Z. Bey, who was listed in the credits for "Khu" as simply "himself" (and who if there's any justice in this world will be among the 2012 Kresge Fellows for the performing arts).

Eugene Perry and Herbert Perry as Set in KHU by Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler, October 2nd, 2010; performance still (Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York)
The final segment took the longest to get to both in terms of travel time and the wait once we arrived on site, a decommissioned steel mill on the river in Trenton across from Grosse Ile. By then the temperature had dropped and the wind coming off the water had picked up as had the rain. We left the Chrysler in a heap on the landing behind us when we debarked. A group of workers set to cutting it up with blowtorches as we followed a 2001 Crown Victoria up a graded-earth incline to a viewing area. We had been issued disposable ponchos as part of our tour bags, as the invitation email said "in case of light rain." Basically oversized Baggies, they weren't much help out on the Detroit River or standing atop the platforms that overlooked the scene of musicians, singers, foundry workers, and various extras inhabiting a postindustrial inferno that might be described as a mashup of Heronymus Bosch, Cecil B. De Mille, and Sun Ra.

Before us stood a large pit that had been fashioned into an open-air mold for a bas-relief sculpture. Trenches led from the mold up a hill to connect with five furnaces, spewing fire and sending glowing embers into the air, being stoked top and bottom by attendants either clad in silver suits or more conventional foundry wear. The intention obviously appeared to be to feed the Chrysler bit by bit into the furnaces and recycle its material for use in creating a new sculpture, another instance of creative transmutation, turning base metal into artistic gold. Somewhere down there was another FKF and my colleague at College for Creative Studies, the sculptor Chido Johnson, though I couldn't pick him out among those scurrying about. Towering behind and above it all were five 10-story steel silos on top of which stood individual figures dressed in gold lame', another reference to Byars who used gold leaf in his installation and performance work. Stationary sentinels over the scene, how they survived up there, I don't know.

Attached to each silo was a cable that ran down to 55-gallon-drum anchors at the foot of the hill. The entire apparatus was wired for sound into a kind of enormous Aeolian harp. It emitted a vibrating drone, augmented by performers who bowed and plucked the cables or battered the drums into a relentless demonic cacophony. FKF Joel Peterson was listed in the credits but again couldn't be picked out among players.

After what seemed an eternity, though I'm told it was about an hour and 15 minutes or so, the furnaces reached a temperature that allowed the pieces of cut-up Chrysler that had been fed into them to finally melt and the molten metal to be released in a flash of smoke and fire into the trenches, sending yellow hot streams down toward the mold. As the molten metal flowed into the mold, the guy next to me remarked, "That sculpture is going to pay for this whole day." The rush of heat from below was a blessed relief against the elements but the rain meeting hot metal caused flare ups that were considered dangerous, and so we were quickly escorted away back down the slippery slope, in total darkness now, to wait for the buses that would take us to the gigantic factory shed that loomed in the background where tables had been set up and dinner and drinks were being served.

Another CCS colleague who was present, Michael Stone Richards, recently formed a critical theory study group at the school whose first order of business has been to discuss Herbert Marcuse's last book The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. I felt the imperative to get this blog entry out (sorry for the delay, BTW!) so I missed this week's meeting. But it seems to me that Marcuse's ideas have some relevance in thinking about Barney and the performance.

For Marcuse, art is authentic and revolutionary not based on its content, as early orthodox Marxists like Georg Lukacs believed, or "pure" form, as later formalists like Clement Greenberg held. Instead it is tied to the way content is given form through what Marcuse terms "the redeeming character of catharsis." Art is radical where it transcends social determination and frees itself from established reality, where it then can be recognized as embodying truth that has otherwise been suppressed. An example he uses midway through the book is the soup can of Andy Warhol (who strikes me as more and more important with every passing day).

Warhol's soup can, especially in its serial iteration, announces art as the commodity it has always been in modern Western culture. But more than that it reveals the heart of a reality deracinated by capitalist relations at every level, from the most prosaic practices of everyday life such as family food preparation to the most rarified experiences of high culture like individual aesthetic contemplation. It also supplants the "natural genius" at the center of Romantic ideology and replaces it with the artist as a kind of commodity-sign, an effect of a productive semiotic system, the "artworld" as longtime Warhol interpreter Arthur Danto would have it. ("Andy Warhol" is a registered trademark, USPTO Reg. No. 3707078.)

Similarly, Barney's work, arguably more than that of any other, reveals contemporary art as the potlatch of what Leslie Sklair of the London School of Economics calls "the transnational capitalist class." And like the often ruinous ritual gift-giving among tribal chieftains of the Pacific Northwest, Barney's art grows in stature the more conspicuous its waste. It challenges all comers to a epic game of liar's poker with ever-increasing stakes. (It's no accident that many of today's biggest art collectors are hedge fund managers and other financial speculators.) The guiding light to understanding this is apostate surrealist, armchair ethnographer, and philosophical pornographer Georges Bataille. In the introduction to volume I of The Accursed Share he writes:
The living organism...ordinarily receives more energy than necessary for maintaining life; the excess energy (wealth) can be used for the growth of a system (e.g., an organism); if the system can no longer grow, or if the excess cannot be completely absorbed in its growth, must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.
The international regime of neoliberal economics, politics, and culture has driven more and more concentrations of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, the excess accumulations of which Barney's art then gives vent. It's an amazing spectacle all in all, and whether it's glorious or catastrophic depends on your point of view. In any event, "Khu" has come and gone and the big chiefs have folded up their tents and moved on to the next festival. It'll be interesting to see what ritual of expenditure Barney can come up with to top this one.


Two other takes on the event are worth checking out: Mark Stryker of The Detroit Free Press was first out the gate, publishing his piece on Monday, October 4. New York-based writer Linda Yablonsky posted her story on Thursday, October 7, on Artforum's website. A bunch of people kvetched about Stryker's piece as it circulated around Facebook at the beginning of the week. Quite frankly, I thought a lot of that criticism was misguided. Given the deadline and word count he was given, he gave a pretty accurate reading of the experience and folks are tripping if they think we're ever going to get "big think" criticism published in either of the Detroit dailies. Stryker is certainly capable, but the editors just don't think that the average reader is interested, and looking at it from their perspective I can kind of see their point (which doesn't make it any less loathsome). It was on the front page for chrissakes, so get over it. On the other hand, folks seemed more forgiving of Yablonsky and I thought her piece was a classic example of the we-don't-get-out-much-west-of-the-Hudson-River myopia which characterizes that most provincial of people, your average Manhattanite. One of the more amusing things she said was to identify the small cadre of Detroiters on the scene as being present to provide "local color" for the visiting cosmopolitans. What's especially funny about that is that all three of the people mentioned in that very sentence, Michelle Perron, John Corbin, and Rick Rogers, had been Manhattanites at different points in their lives before settling down in the D. (And you can count me in that bunch, too, for that matter, though a couple of my years were spent in God's country AKA Brooklyn.)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

David Byrne Does Detroit

David Byrne at the Future of Music Conference in 2006. (Photo: Fred von Lohman, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)
Former Talking Heads frontman (and current Cindy Sherman boyfriend) David Byrne was in Detroit last week working on a film being directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Byrne's blog entry describing his experiences in the D "Don't Forget the Motor City" is well worth checking out. In contrast to some of the recent reporting on the city's arts scene, Byrne really did his homework. He gives some excellent history, makes some pretty astute comments on contemporary politics and culture, and posts some really nice pictures, many of which he took. My favorite shot is the one of pheasants grazing on an empty lot near downtown. Another striking image is a Google Maps download showing a piece of the city grid with the infrastructure pretty much intact but with the cleared sites where buildings once stood mostly reverted to open field.

One thing that helps give Byrne's post the detail that others have lacked is something anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls "thick description," a field research technique that stresses not only observable activity but context as well. Byrne was here for the better part of a week and spent a good bit of time tooling around the city using what's become a major mode of transportation here, a bike. (An avid cycling advocate, Byrne's recent book Bicycle Diaries is just out in paperback.) He took in the city in slo-mo working from a street-level view. He was one of some 3200 people who took part in Tour De Troit last Saturday.

One of Byrne's projects for Sorrentino's film was an installation of his piece Playing the Building, which in this case used the old Michigan Theater to capture atmospheric and architectural vibrations and convert them into ambient music by hooking up sound feeds from various parts of the structure into a keyboard apparatus. While it bears obvious reference to the work of avant-garde composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage as channeled through Brian Eno, Playing the Building has a site-specific aspect and musical genealogy that is strictly Byrne. Click here to download a free podcast from iTunes of Byrne's TED Talk on the influence of architecture on music.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Detroit Art Continues to Fascinate Folks East of the Hudson River

Tyree Guyton is one of the artists getting mondo play from New York journalists "touching base" in the D. Above: "Dotty Wotty" house in Detroit MI. Part of the Heidelberg Project. (Photo credit: Paul Hitz, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5.)
It seems The New York Times can't get enough these days of Detroit's make-lemonade-out-of-lemons art community and its DIY lifestyle. Linda Yablonsky's "Remix" column in the Sept. 26 Times Style Magazine Fall 2010 Travel issue profiles several artists and venues around the town-soon-to-be-formerly-known-as-the-Motor-City. It doesn't offer much that's different from the Aug. 3 post to the paper's Art & Design blog by Melena Ryzik or the Jul. 9 Sunday Magazine "Consumed" column by Rob Walker. The only new information consists of taking note of projects currently underway by Mike Kelly and Matthew Barney, artists for whom the city is a blank canvas upon which to inscribe their signatures. (Which doesn't necessarily mean that what they're up to isn't interesting.) A cynic might suspect the culmination of a well-orchestrated PR campaign, though one might just as easily recognize journalistic laziness at work. It's great to see deserving talent from the D getting recognized, however. So we shouldn't kvetch so much as hope that as time moves on, others will get to play, too.

Monday, September 20, 2010

10 Years of Contemporary Art @ OUAG

"Ten Years of Contemporary Art" at Oakland University Art Gallery, installation view, featuring work by from left to right: Harmut Austen, Sharon Que, Dennis Michael Jones, Peter Williams, Eric Mesko, and Kristin Beaver. (All photos courtesy OUAG.)
Ten Years of Contemporary Art," installation view, featuring from left to right, work by Denise Whitebread Fanning, Hasan Elahi, Michael E. Smith (floor), and Ed Fraga.
"Ten Years of Contemporary Art" participants, from left to right: Robert Schefman, Rob Kangas, Harmut Austen, Dennis Michael Jones, Senghor Reid, OUAG Director Dick Goody, Renata Palubinskas, Kristin Beaver, Ed Fraga, Chido Johnson, and Sharon Que. (Not all participants in attendance.) Background painting: Renata Palubinskas.

For a full decade, artist/curator Dick Goody has maintained one of Detroit's most significant venues for contemporary art, all the more remarkable for its location well off the beaten path in the wilds of North Oakland County. In relative isolation (its nearest neighbor Paint Creek Center for the Arts is four-and-a-half miles to the east) and with scant resources, Goody has carried on a dialog with contemporary art that is truly singular, even when compared to institutions in the tricounty area with far greater means at their disposal. In recognition of this achievement, Oakland University Art Gallery has mounted a celebratory exhibition "Ten Years of Contemporary Art," which runs until October 17.

Besides the consistent high quality of the work he has shown, one of the things that makes Goody's approach noteworthy is the documentation he has provided for most if not all of the exhibitions. In a series of typically handsome catalogs, he has not only helped viewers, both casual and the more informed, gain entry into the work of each artist but created an archive that extends the conversation in space and time. (Catalogs can travel where an exhibition many times can't and they continue to exist long after the work has been taken down and the gallery walls spackled and painted over.) What's more, rather than be satisfied with simply illustrating the art photographically as so many catalogs do, the ones Goody has produced have taken the time to get inside the work as well as inside the mind of its creator, providing an extended critical essay he has either written or commissioned in the first case and an interview with the artist in the second.

This documentation isn't valuable just as an educational and a research tool (though it certainly is that); it's important for the artists involved from a career perspective. For most of them, an OUAG show and its accompanying catalog has constituted a kind of "summing up" of their development to that point. It's been a moment to reflect on one's practice and more importantly consider the next move. Indeed, many of the artists in the current show have gone on to significant recognition since showing at OUAG. These include taking part in a Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial (Peter Williams), the Venice Biennale (Hasan Elahi), and several Kresge Artists Fellowships (seven are represented in this show alone: Harmut Austen, Kristin Beaver, Susan Goethel Campbell, Ed Fraga, Chido Johnson, Senghor Reid, and Michael E. Smith).

The final thing worth mentioning is the nature of Goody's eye. The gamut of contemporary art practice, from traditional painting to mixed-media installation to digital imaging, has been surveyed over the years, a testament not only to the catholic quality of Goody's taste but his ability to separate his curatorial discrimination from his own artistic aesthetic. To be sure, not a single artist in this show does work that looks like Goody's ironic postmodern text-image mashup paintings.

As for the show itself, its conceit is to juxtapose an older work with a newer one by each artist. For the most part, the artists have extended their earlier concerns, in the case of painters like Peter Williams, Ed Fraga, Kristin Beaver, and James Stephens, for example, taking their painterly chops to new heights of accomplishment. Artists working with technology have similarly increased command of their tools, notably Rob Kangas's 2009 photomontage incorporating color-intensified digital imagery and high-tech substrate, and Chido Johnson, taking a cue from Christian Marclay, turning his sculpture Push Stick (2010) into a record of its performative use, mounting on its tip a CD with a video file burned into it. 

A radical exception to this tendency is Susan Campbell's new video documenting her project Weather2250, surveying Detroit's atmospheric conditions from a webcam mounted atop the Fisher Building, that although continuing her environmental investigations adopts the latest information technology instead of the traditional drawing and printmaking mediums for which she is so justifiably well regarded. Less obvious perhaps is Robert Schefman who in his newer painting directs his trompe l'oeil hand to more seemingly prosaic allegory.

Everything in this show is worth the trek out to Rochester to see and the installation showcases it all to great effect. Another Goody convention that works well here is the solicitation of artist's statements, in this case posted along with the work and providing useful information on the artists, especially those I haven't discussed. And in the same way that the Goody treatment often provides a summation and as such a platform for the artists being shown to move on to bigger and better things, "Ten Years of Contemporary Art" is an opportunity to take stock of the curator himself. My take on it is definitely thumbs up.  It'll be interesting to see where he goes from here.

"Ten Years of Contemporary Art" continues at Oakland University Art Gallery, on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, until October 17. Call 248 370 3005 for information.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

In the footsteps of Scott Hocking

Get In My Car & Drive: Nowhere in Detroit (Episode 1) from Kristen Gallerneaux on Vimeo.

In response to my most recent post, which included a link to the video about Detroit released last week by Palladium Boots, I received a message from Kristen Gallerneaux, a folklorist/artist currently living in Oregon. She included a link to a video she shot last spring titled Get in My Car and Drive: Nowhere in Detroit (Episode 1) embedded above, featuring artist Scott Hocking. The 15-minute video opens with a brief segment of drive-by cityscape and then cuts to Hocking in his studio talking about the influences on his work. But most of the piece consists of following Hocking into and around the Packard Motor Car Plant to see his monumental installation, Garden of the Gods, 2009-10.

According to her email, Gallerneaux's procedure was to allow the artist to take her on a "field trip" to a significant place that informs the work. She isn't so much trying to convey a particular point of view about her subject as to simply track him and thereby understand something about him. This process and the effect of it in the video reminded me of French anthropologist Bruno Latour's actor network theory, a research technique that seeks to map out relations that are both material and semiotic, that is, bound up at once in things as well as concepts. One of Latour's more controversial claims is the agency (the term social scientists use for the capacity to act) he gives to nonhumans, including inanimate objects. The word Latour has coined for this is "actant," the node in any network of relations that exerts force on another part of the mesh. Thus a ringing cellphone is as much an actant in my network of communications as my desire to place a call to my mother.

In this sense, Hocking is an actant in Gallerneaux's ethnographic network in the same way that the Packard ruin is an actant in Hocking's aesthetic one. There's more to it, of course. One needs to factor in the various apparatuses of technology, from the car and the road, and all of their accompanying networks, that took Gallerneaux and Hocking to the site, to the digital camera and its networks of production and distribution that enabled the scenes to be recorded, to the networks of communications and their various actants that enabled me to post and comment on the resulting digital file and for you to view it. There are also the social networks within which the material actants circulate and upon which they exert their own force.

When I mentioned this to Gallerneaux in an email, she responded that in fact at the time she began filming Hocking she had just finished reading Latour's essay, "On Technical Mediation," which was her introduction to the author's work. So Latour and Hocking are both actants in the network connecting Gallerneux and me. Their status in this relationship is both material and semiotic, in the case of Latour through written words and the ideas they convey and in the case of Hocking through his physical person as well the art he makes and responses they provoke.

While actor network theory (typically abbreviated ANT) is relatively new, the idea behind it isn't. In his Aesthetic Theory, Theodor W. Adorno writes about the dual nature of artworks, that they are combinations of physical matter and animate spirit, material things that embody expressive concepts. The two aspects are dialectically connected as ANT recognizes is similarly true in the larger horizon of our experience.

Gallerneaux, who received an MFA from Wayne State before moving to Oregon to study folklore a couple of years back, also has footage of Stephen Schudlich and Alana Bartol she's currently editing. What's more, she is scheduled to shoot Kristin Beaver this spring. Some may remember Gallerneaux's exceptional MFA exhibition at the WSU Community Arts Building Gallery in which she presented a project called "Revenant Archive," an installation using research she conducted on the visual culture of the paranormal and its history. That work has been ongoing and a website is under development to document it. In the meantime, check out Scott Hocking, ANT style.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The window of opportunity in Detroit

Scott Hocking, Garden of the Gods, West, Winter, 2009. (Photograph by Scott Hocking, courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery.)
I recently finished Jonathan Lethem's 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude. (I try to read at least one work of fiction while on summer vacation each year and have a gnawing feeling that if I regularly read more of it I would be that much wiser.) The first half of the story is about the author's Brooklyn neighborhood, Boerum Hill, in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the second half follows the main character twenty years later. The earlier part is set in the context of the neighborhood's impending gentrification, in the twilight moment after the collapse of New York City's municipal budget (a watershed in the legitimation crisis of welfare capitalism that helped usher in neoliberalism) and the subsequent rise of the yuppified Big Apple of the Reagan Era and after. One of the book's main themes is the pursuit of a "middle space," that condition of being in between, the free zone created by the vacuum left in the wake of the demise of one regime of order and before the onset of another. That notion strikes me as an appropriate description of the current cultural moment in Detroit.

In the past few months, there has been a good deal of publicity about Detroit as a kind of DIY utopia, using the city's cultural producers of various stripes as cases in point. (See, for example, articles here, here, here, and here. And from a little while longer back, here.) All of them share an impression of Detroit as a place where civil society has essentially broken down and into the breach of which intrepid self-reliant individuals have stepped. Thus the creators of Soup, a monthly fundraising dinner program, offer mini-grants to support creative projects in lieu of dysfunctional municipal arts councils, the urban agriculture movement reclaims abandoned property and provides sustenance for people in locations where major grocery-store chains fear to tread, and artists, going on the third generation now, repurpose castoff artifacts and environments from all precincts of the city for use in a plethora of creative projects, retrieving the refuse of life for renewed existence in the refuge of art. (Among the most consistently stunning of the last category are Scott Hocking's monumental vision quests, such as Garden of the Gods, 2009-10, shown above, which posit the artist as a Sisyphean laborer of the noble-existentialist type, working in desolate sites for weeks and even months to erect installations created with the full knowledge that they will likely be destroyed either by humans or nature starting almost immediately upon completion.)

The most recent iteration of Detroit as the new frontier is the documentary hosted by Johnny Knoxville (of Jackass fame), Palladium Boots Exploration #7: Detroit Lives. (I've posted a link rather than embedding the video because it doesn't seem to have a "play" button written into the code and it starts up automatically, and I'm not sufficiently geek enough to figure out to prevent that from happening.) The video portends to offer a more well-balanced view of the city than has been portrayed in the conventional post-apocalyptic nightmares of much of the mainstream media. It does an OK job of it, looking at some of the younger cultural producers working in the cheap studio space the city currently offers. But there's still a lot of the typical spelunking through the postindustrial ruins in romantic wonder of it all, mainly as a way to showcase the sturdy yet fashionable Baggy Canvas boot ($70) Knoxville wears throughout, the featured footwear style provided by Palladium Boots, sponsor of this and other "explorations."

One of the things noted in the documentary, and something I've heard especially from younger artists around town, is the desire to moderate the bottom-up growth that seems to be happening in order to "keep it real," that is, prevent the corporate shills from taking over and thereby spoiling all the fun. People who study gentrification may find that sentiment, however admirable and heartfelt, somewhat naive. The main interviewee in the Palladium piece, Toby Barlow, is the co-president and chief creative director of the Detroit office of one of the world's largest advertising agencies, a high capitalist enterprise even if it does allow its employees to wear hip streetwear to the office. The Palladium piece itself is viral marketing, using product placement and brand sponsorship to hawk "authentic" urban fashion.

But I don't want to be too much of a buzzkill. So I say, let's enjoy this middle space while we can. I'm sure Jonathan Lethem takes advantage of all the swank dining options, cool boutiques, and other action on Smith Street, which have replaced the abandoned storefronts and trash of the Brooklyn neighborhood whose lost time his fiction eulogizes.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Decoding Detroit

Tyree Guyton, Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment, 1986. (Photo credit: Hanneorla, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license:  CC by-SA-3.0)
A sociological journal I subscribe to, Contexts, ran a brief article on Rosa Parks in its Winter 2010 issue. The story was illustrated by a photo downloaded from Flickr that identified Tyree Guyton's Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment, (1986, image above) simply as a piece of "found art." I sent a letter to the editor correcting the identification and offering a bit of explication on the work and its significance. The journal published my letter in the Summer 2010 issue. As it is only available to subscribers, I'm reproducing the letter below. This is the text is the original letter, which the journal edited slightly for length.
On p. 10 of the Winter 2010 issue of Contexts, a photo credit is given to "j/k_lolz" for the image of a street sign bearing the name of Rosa Parks. That photographer may have indeed captured the image reproduced, but the object depicted is actually a work of art in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The piece in question is Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment by Tyree Guyton (1986).
It isn't simply "found art" as the Flickr photographer noted but an object manipulated by the artist to make a point. The central artifact, a street sign, has been painted with an additional image, a bus that refers, of course, to Parks's role in the legendary Montgomery Bus Boycott. But it has another layer of meaning for anyone familiar with Guyton's work and with Detroit history. "Rosa Parks Boulevard" (the sign's original site) is the name currently given to the former 12th Street, where the infamous July 1967 Detroit civil disturbances began. It was an attempt by municipal officials to make amends by rebranding the neighborhood, as if a simple name change could correct the years of police abuse and other deprivations that led to the conflagration. The city of Detroit is even more devastated now than it was then, so the battered sign serves as a grim reminder of promises unfulfilled. Indeed, Guyton's larger enterprise, the Heidelberg Project, an urban street installation of abandoned houses painted with bright colors and festooned with a panoply of castoffs, continues to draw attention to the virtual annihilation of the once vibrant Motor City brought on by disinvestment, racism, and other social calamities. (Go to
I'm reminded of Walter Benjamin's observation at the end of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." In reference to Fascism he writes: "Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order." The social effects of that destruction and its implications for the rest of America with the decline of the working class--epitomized above all by the unionized auto workers who gave Detroit one of the highest standards of living in the nation for blue-collar families--serve as the backdrop for the film Gran Torino, also featured in the same issue of Contexts and erroneously reported as being set in a Detroit suburb when it takes place primarily in the city itself.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Good vibes for the D from Vice

The Beehive Project collaborative art installation in progress @ Movement 2010. Photo courtesy of Vanessa Miller.

Vice Magazine has an August blog entry, titled "Uneven Terrain: Long Live Detroit," that follows up on their article last of September calling the mainstream media to task for its indulgence in the ruin porn photojournalist genre for which the Motor City serves as America's top model. The current piece, which is mostly a photo essay and still in a lot of respects misses the boat, at least get the DIY aspect of cultural and other forms of production in Detroit right. As they say, things are happening in the city these days because there’s usually no one around to stop anyone with an idea from gettin’ ‘er done, especially with a little help from their friends. A ViceTV documentary video is scheduled to come out in the near future, which one hopes will open up the lens a bit more and capture more of what’s truly going on.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Portraits of global labor

Jane Duggan, Blacksmiths, Northern Pakistan, 1993.
Frank Hammer, Metal Worker, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2006.
I often feel a twinge of ambivalence when looking at so-called political art in a gallery or museum setting. Perhaps it's a hangover from my formalist studio training as an undergrad (my main influence as a painter in the mid-1970s was James Adley, a student of Clyfford Styll's and now at 80 still a committed flat-surface absolutist), but I also like to think that it has as much if not more to do with a healthy skepticism toward the privilege too many artists of that stripe seem to enjoy in criticizing the contradictions of one social world from the safety of another, arguably no-less-conflicted one called the artworld. Work that investigates identity representation and construction drawn from those in the margins would appear to be on firmer footing, but then there's the whole question of whether one really needs to, as George Clinton says, "dance in my feet" before being able to "walk a mile in my shoes."

The show up at Swords Into Plowshares Peace Gallery doesn't really resolve that question, but it does provide an opportunity to see images of global workers taken by two people who have danced in those feet all of their lives. And although they're billed in gallery handouts and press materials as "artists," a more appropriate term for them might be "cultural producers," agents who in this case use the visual medium not as a form of commodity exchange but as engaged communication.

The exhibition "Portraits of Global Labor" features the work of two longtime labor activists, Jane Duggan, secretary-treasurer of the Detroit chapter of the American Postal Workers Union, and Frank Hammer, retired president of UAW Local 909 in Warren, Mich. The images contained in the exhibition are drawn from their travels around the world. They were sometimes made in an official capacity, sometimes surreptitiously, and sometimes simply out of personal interest.

Most of Duggan's images of Asian workers come from the period when she was living abroad -- years before Eat, Pray, Love -- due to visa restrictions imposed on her then husband, a Pakistani. One set of photos, depicting batik workers in a seaside shanty in Malaysia, documents age-old techniques of craft production before the rise of rationalized factory work in the export processing zones of globalization. Another series documents graduates of a training development class Duggan ran at the Detroit post office to help foster upward mobility. Some of the graduates have since died and the pictures Duggan took are the only visual representations of them in their working life.

Many of Hammer's photos were taken to document trips to several South American countries over the past decade as part of union programs to witness and express solidarity with international labor organizing efforts. Images from Cuba and El Salvador capture workers striving to emerge from under the shadow of American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. Photos from Porto Alegre, Brazil, document work and life in the year of the re-election of Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, himself a metal worker and unionist, as president. They should have special resonance for viewers here as Porto Alegre is where the first World Social Forum was held in 2001, the second US national iteration of which met this past June in the D. Photos shot in the US were taken literally from the front lines as Hammer participated in the labor actions they depict.

In her statement, Duggan writes: "Workers of all countries unite...and be seen." And to be sure, this is where these images have force.

In distinguishing between old and new social movements (for example, labor and civil rights vs. green and LGBT), social theorists and researchers, such as Alain Touraine and Alberto Melucci, typically draw the line between mobilizing for economic well-being and political franchise on the one hand and less materialistic objectives such as acceptance of lifestyle and culture on the other. But, as Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, in their book Civil Society and Political Theory, note, ultimately to effect change requires some level of resource mobilization and in the end material reconstruction of social and political reality. (Their most compelling quote in this regard: "Laws are frozen politics," and certainly the whole issue of gay marriage as it's currently playing out is a case in point.)

What identity politics, especially as it exists in the rarified atmosphere of the artworld, and new social movement theory see as a goal, Cohen and Arato recognize as part of a longer process. First is indeed the recognition of identity, bringing heretofore under-acknowledged publics into view. Second is inclusion, building a sense of solidarity among those who once felt isolated from one another (what second-wave feminists called "consciousness-raising"). But third is influence, a critical mass that demands attention be paid. And finally is enacting reform, which in modern democratic societies is made concrete through legislation, government regulation, and case law.

In bringing the workers of the world back into view, Duggan and Hammer make the case that so-called old social movements still have relevance (and in this age of globalization and in the wake of the recent economic meltdown perhaps now more than ever). Don't go to this show expecting to see perfectly cut mats, archival printing, and museum-quality framing. This isn't the savvy production of artworld posers; it's the real deal, pure and simple.

The exhibition "Portraits of Global Labor," featuring photographs by Jane Duggan and Frank Hammer, is on view until Oct. 9 at Swords Into Plowshares Peace Gallery, 33 East Adams, in Grand Circus Park near downtown Detroit. An evening of readings by workers is scheduled for Sept. 18, from 7 - 9 pm. Call 313 963 7575 for information.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

DAM Box Show 2 final curtain call this Friday

Above: Video by Gary Schwarz

Final bidding on the auctioning of artist's boxes at the Detrtoit Artists Market closes Friday, Aug. 20

This year's show consists of old movie film storage boxes donated by the Wayne State library and there are some pretty nice ones to be had, as usual. This year's group contains nearly 200 entries, and it's quite amazing how people take up the competitive gauntlet and oftentimes push themselves into new areas.

The DAM Box Show, and its predecessors the original box shows at the Willis Gallery, the various Detroit Focus iterations, and even DAM in previous incarnations, have always been as much about the creative community supporting one another (in other words, taking part in the art of the commons) as anything else. And in that regard they've always made a lot more sense to me than the many calls artists get to support any number of other causes with their work. Noble as they may be, in the latter case, so often well-heeled collectors who could pay more get to walk off with bargains and the self-satisfaction of their "enlightened" philanthropy, and that just irritates me and a lot of other artists I know.

Anyway, enough with the kvetching. Check out DMA and put down a few bids.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Grace Lee Boggs & Immanuel Wallerstein @ USSF

in conversation with Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein from Mark Dworkin on Vimeo.

I've posted this elsewhere, but given the comments on the "Soup" post below, I thought it would be helpful to have it here. One of the the highlights of the 2010 US Social Forum held in Detroit this past June was a conversation between Grace Lee Boggs and Immanuel Wallerstein. For those of you who don't know (and shame on you if you don't), Grace is a longtime Detroit activist and philosopher. She's a leader in the urban farming movement, local self-reliance, and postindustrial utopian vision. Wallerstein is a sociologist who originated something called world-system theory, which studies the development of capitalism from its origins in early European colonialism into the present.

World-system theory has been extended backward in time to look at all forms of world-systems, including Ancient Mesopotamia and China. One of its present-day concerns is the question of whether capitalism as we know it and ecological sustainability are ultimately compatible. (Verdict so far: They aren't.) This bears on our conversation about art in Detroit because it helps explain how we got here and what options we might have for moving forward. My whole idea of the art of the commons is in part premised on my understanding of world-system theory and the place of Detroit in that story.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Post-Apocalyptic Utopian Future is Already Here

THE ECO-COMMUNE from Richard Hardy on Vimeo.

The online journal Artkrush has an article in its current issue that really cracks me up. It concerns a short video by a recent graduate of the Bartlett School of Architecture in England, Richard Hardy. The video imagines what London would be like after an apocalyptic catastrophe as nature begins to reclaim the devastated precincts of civilization and humans slowly reemerge to pick up the pieces. Here in what Harper's terms the "arcadia" that is postindustrial Detroit, we don't have to imagine what it will be like. It's here right now. Note to Richard Hardy: As the late-great interplanetary explorer Sun Ra proclaimed, "It's after the end of the world. Don't you know that yet?"