Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Rescuing" the Detroit Institute of Arts (with a commentary by Michael Hall)

The Detroit Institute of Arts (Photo: Andrew Jameson, Creative Commons Attribution-Share  Alike 3.0)
The latest maneuver in the ongoing City of Detroit bankruptcy is the plan put forth by Court-appointed mediator Judge Gerald Rosen under which donors would put up $500 million to "rescue" the Detroit Institute of Arts, whose encyclopedic collection has been threatened by liquidation to satisfy creditors in what is the largest municipal Chapter 9 proceeding in US history. Under the plan, major foundations with a vested interest in culture and the city of Detroit, such as the Ford, Kresge, and John S. and James L. Knight Foundations, would pool funds to essentially ransom the museum from the mandate of Emergency Manager Kevin Orr to monetize the collection by any means necessary, including auctioning off masterworks by Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Picasso, and Van Gogh. The plan also calls for the DIA, currently a department of the City of Detroit government, to be "spun off" and reorganized as an independent nonprofit institution.

The plan is said to satisfy the quandary of "art vs. pensions," which has pitted local patrons of culture against current and future municipal retirees while conveniently leaving the interests of Wall Street investment bankers off the table. It also resolves a governance issue I identified some 20 years ago in a New Art Examiner article titled "DIA in Decline" (Feb./Mar. 1992:29-31), written at the time of another fiscal crisis for the museum when state funding was drastically cut after the election of ultra-conservative Republican John Engler as governor of Michigan. In the article, I charted two trajectories for the evolution of the museum's structure, regionalization or privatization. The former would have established regional taxation and oversight, recognizing the museum's place in the public culture of Southeast Michigan and beyond. The latter was said to facilitate, among other things, private fundraising efforts among the patron class who were and are based primarily in the affluent suburbs. I opined that regionalization was the more democratic option but thought that privatization would be the more likely outcome. Should the current plan succeed, the DIA will in effect enjoy the best of both worlds, a regional funding base for operations from the tax revenues of a recently adopted millage while securing control of the museum away from the municipal bureaucracy to which wealthy trustees had ceded jurisdiction after the First World War.

In response to the news of the plan initially floated by Judge Rosen, noted artist, critic, and curator Michael Hall, a longtime Detroit-area resident, issued the following statement:

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Michael Hall (Photo: courtesy of the artist)
In a nifty move right out of the Reagan Revolution playbook, the governor of Michigan and his hand picked bankruptcy fixer finally revealed their plan for monetizing the art collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  The plan is brilliant in its simplicity and in its political nuance.

After months of hinting that the art in the museum was “on the table” for a liquidation that would generate cash to offset Detroit’s many debt obligations, the lords of the bankruptcy relented and “saved” the museum.  Their idea basically runs like this:  Art is worth money (they got an appraisal to prove it).  People who like art have money.  Thus, why not present the museum with a bill that would equate to the appraised value of its precious art and let the museum tap its rich friends across America for contributions that would pay the tab and keep the paintings on the Institute’s walls. 

How perfect!  How painless!  How noble! This is the ideal “public/private partnership” we are always hearing about!  In short, since elites like art and since the common working folk of the city are seeing their pensions cut, why not let the elites pony up for the city and the State in the interest of the “good of the many.”  State to the museum:  “You ‘Culture Vultures’ go have a bake sale - or whatever you need to do - and bring us back the ransom payment as specified.  Thank you.”

The Snyder/Orr plan is the perfect product of the anti-culture, anti-education, anti-intellectual tone of contemporary American political discourse. As an artist and an educator, I recognize (and fear) the messaging in the “museum rescue” scheme that has been put forward in Michigan.  My view of the plan contends that it is totally predicated on the belief that the public has no stake whatsoever in the art at the museum - or in the museum, itself, as a “public institution.”  This seems curious in light of the fact that the three counties surrounding the museum recently voted in favor of voluntarily taxing themselves to provide substantial, ongoing financial support for the Institute – support that had been systematically withdrawn by several decades of art-hostile governors and legislatures in the state capital.

The political embrace of the arts that fired the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts in the early 1960s, has dramatically eroded and is presently at a new low. Reagan era antagonism toward public education and the arts now has a permanent face in our contemporary political conversation. “Culture” and the humanities have become the targets of a class envy that has been skillfully manipulated to fuel the anger component of the new American populism.  A business driven consumer culture does not need art and there is a concerted effort afoot to rile up Detroit’s public against it.  The drumbeat has been incessant: “Art or pensions – but you can’t have both!” 

So the idea of “spinning off” the museum to a rich elite that can pamper itself with luxuries and baubles in gold frames is a perfect fix for the Motor City.  Curiously, I don’t remember anybody suggesting that because Jay Leno is rich and likes cars, that he (instead of the government) should have bailed out G.M.  Oh, yes, I forgot, that was about “jobs.”

The question, “who needs Picasso?” remains unanswered in the newly revealed Detroit bankruptcy plan.  But one thing is sure, the governor and his team of practical problem solvers have sent a message that translates directly into: “Let them eat Dancing With The Stars!”

Michael D. Hall
Hamtramck, MI
Dec. 5, 2013

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Extricating the museum from the scorched-earth politics of the municipal bankruptcy proceeding is an incontrovertible benefit for the region and beyond, preserving an irreplaceable piece of cultural patrimony that has been more than 125 years in the making. What's lamentable, though, is how the city's commonwealth -- of which the museum is one component and public pensions are another, along with Belle Isle, public transit, the Water and Sewerage Department, etc. -- is being put on the table in service to the economic order David Harvey terms "accumulation by dispossession." This process has been ongoing in Detroit for years -- the tens of thousands of single-family houses that have been abandoned in the city since the 1970s with the homeowners losing whatever equity they had being one of the most visible indicators. The progressive rolling back of governmental support for the museum, also starting in the '70s and continuing up to the passing of the tricounty millage, is additionally symptomatic. Using the language of venture capitalists, where operating units are "spun off" and fixed assets "monetized" in search of revenue generation, reveals the mindset at work. If the rescue plan succeeds and the museum can be saved, things will have worked out. Others at risk may not be so fortunate.

UPDATE -- DECEMBER 18, 2013: The last paragraph of this blog post, originally published on December 8, 2013, and republished on The Huffington Post, has been revised for clarity.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Visual Art of John Cage at CCS Center Galleries

John Cage. New River Watercolor, Series 1, #3, 1988. Watercolor on paper. (All images courtesy of the John Cage Trust at Bard College.)
Most people know John Cage (1912-1992), of course, as one of the twentieth century's most important and original avant-garde composers and thinkers. Fewer know that he was also a visual artist, having regularly made works on paper, plexiglass, and other materials starting in the late 1960s and until his death just three weeks shy of his 80th birthday. "Nonethingtoseeness: The Visual Art of John Cage" at CCS Center Galleries presents examples of his visual art for the first time in Detroit.

Like his musical compositions, Cage's visual art typically employs aleatory techniques as part of the creative process. The series "Changes & Disappearances" (1979-1981), for example, uses the Chinese I Ching (also known as The Book of Changes) to determine the placement of small printing plates on paper whose impressions were arranged and rearranged in layers in an additive process. The individual pieces evolved over time without preconceptions as to the final images.

The series "Strings 1-62" (1979) takes its cue from Marcel Duchamp's 3 stoppages ├ętalon (3 Standard Stoppages) (1913-1914). Again the I Ching provided direction for dropping paint-soaked strings from a ladder onto watercolor paper to create a sequence of monotypes bearing the traces of free fall.

The trace is also central to a series of works done in the mid-1980s in which Cage used fire and smoke to register an image either directly onto the paper or indirectly off the plate. This seemingly simple (even simplistic) device results in veils of tone backgrounds reminiscent of post-painterly abstractionists such as Helen Frankenthaler and to a lesser extent Morris Louis. Later works in which hand-drawn images are overlaid on smoked paper, as in 9 Stones 2 (1989) and River Rocks and Smoke 4/13/90 (#4) (1990), are especially evocative in that regard.

Perhaps the masterworks in Cage's visual oeuvre are the many pieces he executed inspired by the famous Zen rock garden of the Ryoan-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. Beginning in 1983 and continuing on up to his death, Cage made hundreds of works, both unique and in multiple edition, based on the motif. In addition to the I Ching, Cage employed mathematical formulae (specifically powers of 15, the number of stones in the Royan-ji garden) to dictate the placement and quantity of images comprising individual works.

My favorite pieces are those done for the "New River Watercolor" series of the late 1980s. This series of some 50 works was begun as part of a painting workshop at Mountain Lake in Virginia. Cage gathered stones from the New River that courses through Appalachia and used them along with chance operations dictating the type of paper, colors, tools, and techniques to make watercolors, some of them quite large, of minimalist beauty. The knockout is New River Watercolor Series II, #2 (1988), a six-foot expanse of white paper simply punctuated by a broad swash of black at the top that extends to the right edge with the outline of two stones, one done in red, the other in green, suspended below.
John Cage. 9 Stones 2, 1989. Color spitbite and sugar lift aquatints on smoked paper.
In addition to the works intended to be purely visual, the show also includes a couple of pieces that doubly function as musical scores. Score Without Parts (40 Drawings by Thoreau): Twelve Haiku (1978) is based on fragments from Henry David Thoreau's Journal. The piece has 23 elements to be assembled by the conductor. It has been performed by the New York Philharmonic and other orchestras. Fontana Mix (1981) is constructed of silkscreen on paper and plastic; it uses curved lines and random dots on transparent sheets to be superimposed on a grid and thereby indicate differences in tone, duration, and volume of sound. (The 1974-1975 composition Etudes Australes also uses the technique, based on star maps of the Australian sky, and is available on a four-disc CD issued last year by Nonesuch.)

Tying all of Cage's life work together, including the visual, is the Zen principle of non-attachment (Nekkhamma). Chance operations offered a path of "right intention" for Cage to relinquish control over his compositions, releasing their expressive possibilities into the universe and away from the narrow proprietary authority embedded in Western notions of the Artist handed down from Romanticism (and not coincidentally capitalism as well). Non-attachment underlies Cage's embrace of silence, the opening up of individual being to the common experience of environmental ambience, a way to get the ego quite literally out of the way. As Cage (decades before August Rush) once said: "Music is all around us; if only we had ears."

"Nothingtoseeness" has a very personal significance for CCS Center Galleries director Michelle Perron, who is celebrating her 15th anniversary at the venue's helm. Cage once spent the night in her childhood bedroom while she was away at college. (Her mother, the noted art patron Anne Spivak, hosted many visiting artists through the years; she also had the distinction of being the first chair of what is now the DIA Friends of Modern and Contemporary Art after the death of its founder and longtime previous head, W. Hawkins Ferry. Cage was in town for one of his many visits to speak and perform at the DIA.) Perron later worked for Cage's partner, the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, and was at the Cunningham Dance Foundation office the day Cage died.

For this exhibition, Perron took a page from Cage's playbook and used chance operations, in her case the rolling of dice, to select and install the work. Chance operations will be used to reinstall the show on a weekly basis, the traces of which -- nail holes, wall-mounted checklist numbers, etc. -- over time will become a score of sorts for mapping the visual equivalence to silence, the "nothingtoseeness" of works no longer there. One thing that shouldn't be left to chance, however, is seeing this show, preferably more than once.

"Nothingtoseeness: The Visual Art of John Cage" is on view until October 19, at CCS Center Galleries on the Walter and Josephine Ford Campus, College for Creative Studies, Detroit. A free catalog is available. Free admission. Call 313 644 7800 for information. Also visit Artsy for current information.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Creating Detroit

Architect and radio host Damian Farrell (right) and me in the studio of WLBY 1290 AM in Ann Arbor for the taping of a segment of the Lucy Ann Lance Show on design in Detroit.
Last week I was in Ann Arbor to tape a segment of the Lucy Ann Lance Show called "Damian on Design," which runs on WLBY 1290 AM radio in Ann Arbor. It features architect Damian Farrell and looks at the ways the aesthetics and function of design impact the way we live. I was speaking mainly about College for Creative Studies and its role in the revitalization of Detroit. We got into other subjects as well. You can watch a video podcast of the radio segment below:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Remembering My Woodward Dream Cruise

Culture Industries Inc (Vince Carducci, creative director). 1998. Seditious Soundbite (Version P/A). Installation view (photo: John Carlson; digital image: Vanessa Miller).
In the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to do one of the Woodward Avenue artist's billboards, which at the time were commissioned by Revolution, a gallery project. I was still in my suit-guy iteration as director of marketing and corporate communications for what was Standard Federal Bank (now part of Bank of America). The phrase, "The solution is to become part of the problem," is a detournement of the 1960s admonition that if you're not part of the solution then you must be part of the problem. Twenty-plus years of working in the corporate world taught me that in fact there isn't really a lot of upside to being part of the solution. If your boss gives you a really crappy job to do and you do it, your reward is typically to get an even crappier job to do the next time. Indeed, a recent survey suggests you may actually have more job satisfaction the more of a slacker you are.

The billboard has always been one of my favorite projects, and I used to regale myself with it as I sat pushing paper at my desk, entertaining visions of worker bees on their way into their offices in the morning being inspired to embrace a minimum-performance ethos. (Alas, if only I could have followed my own advice on that. Truth be told, I still haven't learned.) The layout and typographical treatment were done by CCS alum Bill Seidenstecker, who was an art director at BBDO Detroit where I was his major client. (As the Jenny Holzer truism has it, "Abuse of power comes as no surprise.") The actual painting was done by a sign guy from Hazel Park. I'm sorry to say that I don't remember his name and I can't seem to locate the invoice I paid, though my recollection is that the hit was $500 for time and materials. (Also in the abuse of power department are the fact that the original photo was shot by the husband of one of my staff members at the Bank and the subsequent digital image was created by the digital imaging specialist at CCS.)

The billboard was featured in the revised edition of Art in Detroit Public Places by Dennis Alan Nawrocki and David Clements published in 1999. (However, it doesn't appear in the third edition that came out in 2008.) It's also reprinted in the catalog for the MassMOCA show "Billboard: Art on the Road: A Retrospective of Artist's Billboards over the Last 30 Years."

Friday, July 12, 2013

Waking Life: Jonathan Crary's 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

"Life is short. Stay awake for it." -- Caribou Coffee advertising slogan

When I was a kid in the 1960s one of the big questions I remember being tossed about was what to do with all of the free time that modern society would afford us. That there would be a virtually unlimited horizon of material abundance and thus leisure, and how best to use it, was a topic of talk in the media and at dinner. Year after year, union contracts (back when there were such things) negotiated increasingly generous benefits, including substantial time off from work. John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1958 classic The Affluent Society set the terms of the conversation early on by challenging Americans to muster the country’s broadly experienced largesse, made possible by the productive capacity of modern mass manufacturing, to serve the larger social good. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was subsequently founded on the notion that widespread wealth, and along with it leisure, were faits accompli.

The decades since have provided the answer to what we would do with all of our spare time, though it’s not the one most people expected. We have dealt with the problem of leisure by getting rid of it. Instead, we now work nonstop. Digital technology and the communications network it supports allow us to be on the job morning, noon, and night, wherever we may be. In his important new book, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, visual culture theorist Jonathan Crary tells us that rather than herald a new age of freedom and self-determination, the new media technologies have ensnared us in a stickier web of control. This condition is characterized by the obligation to always be "on," the better to surrender ourselves to the continual means of our own mutual self-surveillance and hence domination in the form of Tweets, Facebook and Tumblr updates, texts, emails, blog posts, multi-tasking regimens, and the like.

Jonathan Crary
Crary, who is Meyer Shapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory at Columbia University, is the author of two other significant books. The first, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, published in 1990, looks at the origins of modern visual culture in the first half of the 1800s, in particular the ways in which then emerging physiological science reduced human perception to a function of biological impulses, replacing the spiritual definition of self (i.e., the soul) with a more mechanistic one grounded in pure motor response and base instinct. The second, the award-winning Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, was published a decade later and looked at the crucial period between 1880 and 1905 when vision was redirected toward solving the problem of attention (actually the lack of it), called upon to focus on specific phenomena as a way to combat the sensory overload of newly industrializing society. Both books essentially argue that these changes came about in the service of capitalism -- a cadre of isolated self-interested individuals was created who could function as perfect cogs in the machine constructed by the modern division of labor.

Though brief (a mere 133 pages) and lightly annotated, 24/7 is the capstone of Crary’s archeology of the spectacle and arguably the most significant of the lot. It’s informed by the erudition of one of the most thorough and original researchers at work today. The vast bodies of knowledge Crary seamlessly weaves together in 24/7 is reminiscent of the work of Michel Foucault, but without the gnarly, headache-inducing sentence structure. It’s marked by a moral passion that fuels Crary’s polemic and underscores what’s at stake, specifically the future of the human being in both the physical and emotional sense. Plus, it’s eminently readable, eschewing the critical theory gobbledygook of the tribe of radical art historians he’s most closely associated with, the so-called October group that includes Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster, and Benjamin H.D. Buchloh. (Those folks have done and continue to do important work in their fields, but the need for cultural critique these days is simply too dire to be locked away in the ivory tower.)

In the round-the-clock world of twenty-first century global capitalism, our only relief is sleep, and as Crary notes, even that is coming under attack. 24/7 starts with a report on research being undertaken by the US military to extend the amount of time combat soldiers and other personnel can go without sleep, seeking to extend it from days to weeks. Given that military innovations usually make their way into broader aspects of everyday life -- air travel, the Internet, GPS, over-the-counter medications, all manner of consumer electronics, recreational assault weapons -- there is every reason to believe, as Crary asserts, that the sleepless soldier is the prototype of the sleepless worker/consumer. “Sleep is an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time from us by capitalism,” Crary writes. The endless here and now of 24/7 proposes to harvest surplus value not from only our bodies but from our psyches, rendering us little more than real-life Matrix pod-humans.

Crary doesn’t discuss it in 24/7, but an early iteration of this process can be discerned in the first part of the twentieth century when the techniques of mass manufacturing greatly reduced the amount of time needed to produce goods and services. In Time and Money: The Making of Consumer Culture, historian Gary Cross details the conscious policies adopted by the government and industry in the 1920s and 1930s to encourage material consumption, and along with it increased profit, instead of allowing spiritual respite. The commodity fetish, to use an old-fashioned term, became the mechanism by which capitalism increasingly inserted itself into everyday life, replacing personal relationships and local cultural practices with cold market logic mediated by consumer goods, proffering more stuff in lieu of more time.

A watershed moment Crary does address is the introduction of broadcast television after the Second World War. Following Raymond Williams's 1974 study Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Crary recognizes the way in which TV was inserted into everyday life as a soft mode of social control. Through what Williams terms its "planned flow," television organized the daily routine from morning commuting information and weather reports to midday newsbreak to evening entertainment, culminating in nightly sign off, all the while promoting the ostensible benefits of a mass industrial consumer utopia. In the 1950s and 1960s, television was a relatively stable system, drawing an increasingly suburban and decentralized population into a homogenized national imaginary. The advent of cable TV and programmable VCRs in the 1970s offered the opportunity for time shifting and what McKenzie Wark in his new book terms the "disintegrating spectacle," the way in which control has become atomized and diffused yet more difficult to circumvent. This is represented today by such technologies as social media, wireless communications, and the Internet.

Against the relentless tide of 24/7 production and consumption, Crary proposes that we reclaim sleep as a site of unregulated desire, a mode of resistance to the rational calculation of the market, a state in which we might imagine "a world without billionaires, which has a future other than barbarism or the post-human, and in which history can take on other forms than reified nightmares of catastrophe." Going to sleep presupposes that one will arise anew the next day, refreshed and with the hope of new possibilities. As the web of 24/7 gets harder and harder to escape, sleep becomes as good a place as any to kickstart the opposition. So, workers of the world -- go to bed!

Update: December 2, 2013: The Verso Blog wrote a post on the version of my review of 24/7 that appeared on the New School for Social Research e-zine Public Seminar. Click here to read it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Challenges and Opportunities of Art Coverage in the Age of Media Convergence

Midtown Detroit Inc. put up a podcast of the panel discussion I moderated at Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) as part of Art X Detroit 2013 last month. Thanks to Annmarie Borucki of Midtown Detroit who took care of the production details. Also the panelists who participated and all who came by to check it out.
This panel included Amanda Browder, from Bad At Sports; Travis Wright of WDET-FM; Michael H. Hodges of the Detroit News; and Jennifer Conlin of CriticCar Detroit.
Here's the panel description:
The new media environment is dramatically changing the way the arts get covered. Media industry consolidation is putting pressure on traditional news outlets to develop alternate business models and modes of delivery, often resulting in staff cuts in order to compete. Digital technology merges text, sound, and image into a single dynamic experience that can be accessed from a variety of devices. At the same time, interactive communications and social media have blurred the lines between producers and consumers of arts coverage. Arts journalists and critics are being forced to adopt new ways of working and to even question their relevance. This panel brings together arts journalists and critics from across the spectrum to examine the current media ecosystem and the market demands behind the shift from traditional arts coverage to blogging, aggregated news, and other models. Ultimately, the issues to be decided are why arts coverage matters and how to make local arts coverage more sustainable.
Below is the Sound Cloud podcast:

Also some photos from the event taken by Artserve Michigan's Communications Specialist Sarah Nesbitt.
The panel from left to right: Vince Carducci, Michael Hodges, Travis Wright, Amanda Browder, and Jennifer Conlin
Michael Hodges (center) gave a passionate defense of dead-tree media.
Travis Wright signifies for the arts.
Amanda Browder is bad at sports but good at investigating cool art.
Jennifer Conlin and CriticCar Detroit gives voice to the audience of cultural events.