Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism by Paul Youngquist

One of my favorite moments of personal cognitive dissonance goes back to my time at Michigan State in the mid-1970s when at brunch at IHOP one Sunday morning I looked over to see John Gilmore, June Tyson, and Marshall Allen seated a couple of tables over from me. They were dressed in what might be termed astronaut duty fatigues as they worked on breakfast. Gilmore was the trio's fashion plate in a skull cap resembling a model of subatomic particles circling the nucleus of his cranium. The night before, this troupe, along with the other members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, paraded around The Stables bar in full intergalactic regalia, transporting the audience into deep space, with Ra himself embracing everybody individually, exhorting them with: "Anyone can give up their life, a bird or tree; give up your death for me." I was an art student then, making paintings that referenced celestial phenomena, a white wannabe Afrofuturist, avant la lettre.

I don't know if he was inspired by a similar experience, but University of Colorado-Boulder English Professor Paul Youngquist has published an excellent critical take on Sun Ra's creation myth and its relation to broader currents of America's postwar social imaginary. Simply put, Sun Ra's nearly eight-decade sojourn on planet Earth was a model of self-determination and emancipation through the sheer transformative power of relentless creativity.

Sun Ra's outlandish public persona and stage performances, and seemingly esoteric output in music, poetry, and film, might suggest the profile of a serious eccentric. Instead, Youngquist shows Ra as a highly focused autodidact from his earliest days in the Deep South to his final years in Philadelphia before having to return to his familial home in Birmingham, Alabama, after suffering from the prolonged complications of a stroke. His lifestyle and his multifaceted art were a deeply considered response to the repressiveness of a segregated America.

The narrative of A Polar Solar World is basically chronological, but it is organized around key concepts that explain the sources of Ra's aesthetic philosophy and demonstrate the range of his influence. Youngquist wisely doesn't try to replay or substantially revise the story told by John F. Szwed in his definitive biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Rather, he leverages those details to serve as the foundation for higher flights of critical analysis and cultural observation. What he does do is expand upon and significantly deepen the basic thesis of Graham Lock's book Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Anthony Braxton. 

Youngquist provides specifics to flesh out Lock's take that Sun Ra represents the opposing pole from Ellington within the dialectic of the Emancipation Narrative in African American cultural history, between separatism on the one hand and assimilationism on the other. The latter, which is the earlier current, dates back to the anti-slavery Abolition movement and takes up the millenarianism of Christianity to claim African Americans' rightful place among God's children. The former charts a path for black liberation that is separate but equal, as it were. Ideologically, it marks the difference between, among others, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Lock, Youngquist understands Ra's interest in Egyptology—a re-visioning of a glorious Nubian past—in separatist's terms, harkening back to a utopian ideal prior to the birth of Christianity, which even in its emancipatory aspect is still the religion of the white Master. (Szwed observes that Ra, born Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount, came to believe in later years that he may have been distantly related to another Poole, first name Elijah, who changed his surname to Muhammad and founded the Nation of Islam.) Youngquist adds to both Lock and Szwed in his discussion of Ra's involvement in the early 1950s with the secret society of black activists on Chicago's South Side named after Thmei, the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice.

In addition to Egyptology, the black intellectuals of Thmei investigated a range of esoterica, from ancient numerology to theosophy to occult religion in search of hidden wisdom that would counter the abject condition of African Americans under the dominance of white society. The members of Thmei Research published broadsides and leaflets to spread their ideas of black self-determination and took their place alongside other black activists in the public square of Washington Park on the South Side in order to foment change, if not materially in the present then at least in mindset for the future. This chapter, as with the rest of the book, draws heavily on the Alton Abraham Collection of Sun Ra now housed in the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago. This vast trove of primary source documents and ephemera once owned by Ra's longtime business partner, who died in 1999, only became available to researchers several years after both Szwed and Lock published their books.

Youngquist, of course, spends considerable time dissecting the music of Sun Ra and its inspiration not only in black separatism but postwar American popular culture more broadly. The 1950s when Ra first began recording with the Intergalactic Arkestra was the time of the Space Race and its vision, on the positive side, of an American manifest destiny of a new cosmic variety. It was the time of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and its suburban expression of cosmopolitanism on Earth termed "exotica," named after the 1957 Martin Denny album of the same title. These passages of the book are not only insightful on Ra's aesthetic but constitute an astute mapping of America's social imaginary during the period.

There is also Ra's influence on several generations of musicians in jazz, obviously, but rock, R&B, hip-hop, and electronica as well. That progeny ranges from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock to the MC5, NRBQ, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and George Clinton to the DJs of Detroit Techno and Chicago House and even to Lady Gaga. Ra was an early adopter of the electric piano, the Moog Synthesizer, and other electronic keyboards. He was also a pioneer of incorporating non-Western musical instruments and compositional forms, particularly of Africa, into American music.

An area where Youngquist makes an important contribution is in bringing Ra's writing, and in particular his poetry, to occupy a more prominent place in his body of work. Published mostly in obscure DIY formats and appearing here and there on record jackets, Ra's writing articulates his beliefs as a conscientious objector to the world as it is and sets out a vision for a world as it might be, freed from exploitation in all its forms. It is the storyline, essentially, for which the music is the soundtrack, brought to life first and foremost in performance. The significance of Ra's poetry was recognized initially by Imamu Amiri Baraka, who published it in important Black Arts Movement anthologies such as Black Umbra (1967-1968), Black Fire (1968), and The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century (1973). A comparative literature scholar, Youngquist is at his best drawing connections between one of his areas of expertise, Romanticism, and close readings of Ra's literary production in order to tease out the aspirational aspects of Ra's Afrofuturism (which he invented in music, at least, decades before Mark Dery coined the term in 1993) and its tropes as the fount of his 60-year output in various media.

The are a couple of misses worth noting. One is more curious than anything else. Youngquist does an excellent job of contemporaneously situating Ra's early forays into outer space music with the spate of science fiction films that began to appear in the postwar era. But, he fails to draw a similar connection with the obvious influence of the sights and sounds of Hollywood epic spectacles set in whole or in part in Egypt, such as The Egyptian (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Cleopatra (1963), whose depictions of Pharaohs also influenced the stage persona of another musician who has acknowledged inspiration in part from Sun Ra, namely, Iggy Pop.

The other is quite surprising in this otherwise exhaustively researched book: jazz musician Ravi Coltrane is Alice Coltrane's son not her grandson. That makes him the son of tenor saxophone colossus John Coltrane, as well, a fact that seems pretty important to get wrong or not think to verify.

Another slightly sour note is struck by Yougquist's reference to Ra as a "confirmed bachelor," an anachronistic euphemism for homosexual, in discussing the hiring of the Arkestra's first female member, vocalist June Tyson, who joined the band in 1968 and performed with the ensemble until her death from cancer in 1992 at age 56. There are a number of writers and musicians who afffirm Ra's apparent gay sexual orientation, even if he wasn't quite "out" about it, as a reason for his diffidence at assigning women permanent spots in the Arkestra's line up over the years. There doesn't seem to be a need to be obscure about it.

Sun Ra left the planet in 1993, but the Arkestra continues to travel the spaceways with nonegenarian Marshall Allen at the helm. With a Pure Solar World, Paul Youngquist provides additional fuel to help boost the spaceship along in its exploration of the sonic cosmos, an all-important mission with America in retrograde under Donald Trump.


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America

The decline of American manufacturing and what to do about it has been a key topic in the current election cycle. The demise of the nation's industrial plant, and its implications for manufacturing cities such as Detroit, Akron, and Pittsburgh, has often been seen as inevitable, a result of blind market forces under globalization. While the broad economic forces at work were and continue to be undeniably daunting, how local municipalities responded to the turbulence was not a foregone conclusion. Wayne State University historian Tracy Neumann tells a more nuanced story about the decisions made by governments, businesses, and communities in Remaking the Rust Belt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America.

Accounts of the postindustrial turn generally start with the late 1960s/early 1970s. (See, for example, The Condition of Postmodernity by David Harvey, A Theory of Capitalist Regulation by Michel Aglietta, and The Long Twentieth Century by Giovanni Arrighi, also Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society.) In the case of Detroit, historian Thomas Sugrue has shown that the process actually began sooner, right after the Second World War with the movement of automobile manufacturing out of the central city into the suburbs, the southern United States, then Mexico, and ultimately overseas. Neumann tells a similar story about Pittsburgh and its core economic driver, the steel industry, whose transformation began in the 1950s and was in a sense a harbinger of postindustrialism for the rest of what came to be known as the Rust Belt. Neumann traces that history back into the 1950s and then surveys the period from the 1970s to 1990s, when the most active and apparent transformations took place. She sets her analysis alongside another case study from north of the border in the Canadian milltown of Hamilton, Ontario.

Both cities had to deal with the rapid decline of their core industries, along with the impact of that decline on the urban environment as a whole, including population loss, a diminishing tax base, and an increasingly frayed social fabric. Decision makers in government and business embraced the vision of a postindustrial economic environment starting as early as the 1950s, decades before the term was popularized by Daniel Bell, and actively sought to move their metropolises to a more service- and consumer-oriented model. The changes they implemented altered the urban landscape physically, economically, socially, and politically.

These changes were facilitated by financial incentives for business development and a focus on corporate command center, culture, and entertainment functions, effectively sidelining the needs of the working class and others in the lower economic strata that had been the cities' historic residents and who had shared in their economic, social, and political benefits, however meagerly for some. The broader trend was to reinforce all aspects of inequality and accelerate the hollowing out of the middle class in the US and Canada. While new job opportunities were created in the rise of the postindustrial economy in Pittsburgh and Hamilton, a great many other workers and local citizens were relegated to navigating on their own the risks of the gig economy and other realities of the life of the precariat.

Although many of the practices and outcomes in Pittsburgh and Hamilton were the same, there were differences. Importantly, city officials in Pittsburgh were much more successful in developing partnerships with corporate leaders to promote urban revitalization than those in Hamilton, where business was more resistant. (In truth, it was the business sector that was actually the more proactive force in Pittsburgh whereas Hamilton's corporate sector relied more on local government to take the lead.) Pittsburgh also enjoyed more financial support from state and federal government than Hamilton received from the Province of Ontario or the national capital in Ottawa.

Both cities had their share of protests over the impending transformation of their localities, primarily from union members and community groups. Those in Pittsburgh were better organized, more effective, and sustained than those in Hamilton. However, neither cohort could stop the remaking of their respective urban landscapes in the end.

Remaking the Rust Belt is assiduously researched, drawing on contemporary newspaper reports, as well as the archives and papers of individuals and organizations in the US and Canada directly involved with setting the agendas and making decisions that led to the transformation of Pittsburgh and Hamilton from centers of industrial production to centers for service and consumer recreation. Neumann originally wanted to be a journalist, and her reporting is a model for what is too often missing these days in the mainstream media. Where Sugrue's 1996 study, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, lays out factors—racial discrimination in jobs and housing, along with capital flight—that hastened the precipitous fall of another Rust Belt icon, Neumann shows how the powers that were back in the day responded to remake two former industrial cities into what we know today.

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There is an excellent interview with Tracy Neumann conducted by the Toynbee Prize Foundation Global History Forum that is worth checking out.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Art of Detroit in the Abstract

Detroit artist Rick Vian was asked to curate a show at Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. Rick asked if I would write something about the show for distribution at the gallery. Below is the essay I wrote for the exhibition whose title is "Detroit Abstraction." The show is on view until December 8.

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Jim Chatelain, And the Cries Behind the Door, 2015. (Oil on canvas. All images courtesy of the artists and Janice Charach Gallery.)
In his 1989 book, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor identifies two legacies that have come down from the Enlightenment: scientific positivism and expressive individualism. The first, Taylor notes, deals with the universal—objectivity, rationality, and what Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” The second deals with the particular—subjectivity, intuition, and generally embedded in a specific time and place.

In Western art, the division can be traced back to the Renaissance, to Leonardo di Vinci on the one hand, who thought of art as a branch of science, and Michelangelo Buonarroti on the other, who thought of art first and foremost as a means of artistic expression. Swiss art historian Heinrich Wolfflin in his 1915 The Principles of Art History traces the fault line in the distinction between linear and painterly, what he terms the “absolute” clarity of pictorial representation in the Renaissance and the “relative” clarity of the Baroque.

Tracing the lineage further in both the representational and abstract in Western art, one can continue to parse out the distinction, between, to name just a few examples, Neoclassicism and Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism, Constructivism and Dada, De Stijl and Surrealism.

Since the days of the Cass Corridor, Detroit art has traditionally been placed on the side of expressive individualism, arguably a response to the failure of the apparatus of mechanical reproduction, and the mass-industrial technocracy that oversaw it, to continue delivering the goods to the city and its residents. (As Taylor notes, the emergence of Romanticism in the mid-eighteenth century, and its championing of expressive individualism, is the obverse dialectic to the positivism of radical Enlightenment and its embodiment in the First Industrial Revolution.) That spirit is certainly there in the work of certain artists of the Cass Corridor generation such as Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs, Bradley Jones, Brenda Goodman, and Nancy Mitchnick. And indeed, the term “urban expressionism” was evoked at the time in the major statement of that period, the Detroit Institute of Art’s 1980 exhibition, “Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977.” But also at work at the same time were artists, such as Georg Ettl, Aris Koutrolis, Shelden Iden, David Barr, and Stanley Dolega, who could just as easily be placed on the other side of the line.

This exhibition of 41 artists demonstrates the diversity of approaches to abstract art in Detroit, from some of the earlier artists of the Cass Corridor generation to several emerging in the present day.
Curtis Rhodes, Copan/Yaddo Eccentric Flint, n.d. (Charcoal, oil bar, watercolor, colored chalk.)
True to form, the painters are generally, in a word, painterly, from Cass Corridor-generation artists Brenda Goodman, Jim Chatelain, and Allie McGhee to inheritors of that tradition, Gilda Snowden, Anita Bates, Curtis Rhodes, Nancy Thayer, et. al.
Lois Teicher, Endless, 2016. (Aluminum.)
The sculptors go against the traditional expressionist grain—Ray Katz, John Piet, Douglas Semivan, and Lois Teicher, for example—embracing the Constructivist impulse, a function of the industrial materials and processes with which they work. (Though the same is not true for Cass Corridor original Robert Sestok, who takes industrial castoffs and fashions them into a range of expressive forms.) However, even in this instance it can be argued that the use of an industrial aesthetic is not to accept its conditions completely, but to subvert them by directing their techniques to non-utilitarian ends.

The sculpture of Todd Erickson, whose bronze castings of bent and twisted tree branches are tours-de-force of foundry art, might seem out of place in this exhibition. Yet they make the point that all art is essentially abstraction, even in its most representational forms, as a signifier of a thing and not the thing itself. (An artwork is, of course, at the same its own reality as a thing in and of itself.)
Todd Erickson, Hold Free River, 2013. (Cast bronze.)
Besides painting and sculpture, “Detroit Abstraction” presents work by artists working in other media, such as ceramics, fiber, and assemblage, further demonstrating the diversity of work being created in the abstract vein in Detroit.

In all, this survey of recent work is evidence that the practice of abstract art in Detroit continues to be alive and well.

The Art of Rick Vian in Retrospect

Detroit artist Rick Vian was invited to mount a retrospective show of his work at Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield. Rick asked if I would write something about the show for distribution at the gallery. Below is the essay I wrote for the exhibition whose title is "Rick Vian: Keeping a Wet Edge." The show is on view until December 8.

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Among the famous quotes of influential artist and teacher Hans Hofmann is: “I bring the landscape home with me.” Nature is the origin of art, Hofmann maintains, as articulated in the connection between the world-as-experienced and its expression in even the most abstract forms of line, shape, and color. The phenomenology of perception—the embodied process of seeing, its translation from retina through the brain to the hand, and from there onto canvas—is the foundation of Rick Vian’s evolution as artist.

Perception, as the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty notes, is an interactive process. As much as the mind is a receptor of visual phenomena, it is at the same time the organizer of it. Through his observations over the four-plus decades of his career as an artist, Vian has discerned patterns—in particular as he notes in his personal statement—of “networks that underlie and organize perception, and are inherent in the structure of the world we perceive.”

Rick Vian, The Vastness, 1977. Oil on canvas (All images courtesy of the artist.)
This is evident from the very beginning in works of the 1970s, such as those of the “Ellipses” and “Grid Projections” series and more obviously in the “Grid Landscapes.” In each case, the grid, rooted as it were in Vian’s observation of the growth and intertwining of tree limbs, provides an underlying structure from which patterns, shapes, and colors emerge, keyed to source inspiration in water, sky, and fauna.

How structures derived from nature find their way into the built environment can be seen in the series of abstract works completed in 1990s, many inspired by Vian’s experience as a commercial painter in industrial facilities. Spectator Sox (1999) uses colors derived from industrial code conventions for signifying things such as danger, safety hazards, and boundary demarcations, conventions that in many cases have been derived from the study of human psychology.

Spectactor Sox, 1999.
Vian has noted that he has embraced abstraction to allow for freedom of expression but that it needs to be grounded in visual reality. As part of maintaining that connection over the past twenty years, Vian has executed a number of highly representational paintings of the natural environs of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. These paintings are highly finished and accomplished works of art in and of themselves that also serve as phenomenological investigations into nature that inform the more abstract works especially of the last decade. (It should also be noted that however “realistic” the representational paintings seem to be, they are in fact constructions with the sky observed on one day often appearing in a painting of a tree observed on another.)
Gigantess, 2004.
In these mature paintings of the 2000s, Vian most fully realizes Hofmann’s aesthetic notion of nature embodied in the artist’s very being. “The Gitche Gumee” series inspired by the sublime force of Lake Superior and landscape-derived paintings such as the magisterial Poplar Trees in Fall (2013) and Sky in the Water II (2015) are tours-de-force of the painter’s art.

Through a lifetime of observation, reflection, and response, Rick Vian has given us new ways of seeing and understanding the world. 

Poplar Trees in Fall, 2013.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Bob Dylan: Nobel Laureate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Update June 9, 2017: Dylan recorded his Nobel Lecture and sent it to the Nobel Foundation, which published it on the internet. In the months since the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature, I have thought a lot about Dylan, listening to the music and watching the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home. Any ambivalence in my original post for Public Seminar has been eliminated. Watch it below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Interview with Sarah Thornton


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

Friday, September 30, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treasure Island, ceramic.

Majesty, ceramic.

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

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Gilbert Silverman: In Memoriam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Carl Toth: Deconstructing Photography



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

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

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

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

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

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

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