Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Beginnings and Endings: Thank you for reading + Clash of '85

Dear Prairie Artsters readers,

It's taken me a while to figure out what to do with this site. I thought about carrying it forward to where ever I land, but there is something inherently specific to both the place and time that goes beyond a title change. At one point I had seriously thought about handing this off to someone, anyone, who would take this on, but alas, none of them have followed through. And in the end, Prairie Artsters was a personal project, and it will end as a personal project.

The past five years has been an experiment and a ritual to my practice of writing. I began Prairie Artsters in 2007 as a response to being repeatedly denied a local platform for the type of arts dialogue I wanted to read and write, namely, reviews and critical perspectives on contemporary art. PA subsequently leapfrogged over the local platform into a national and international dialogue, and I was eventually offered a biweekly column in Vue Weekly which I held for three and a half years. The scope of PA expanded beyond Edmonton almost within its first year and the content also expanded from reviews into observations, studio visits, and audio recordings. My approach to writing would change over this period from art reviews, a style that began from my socio-historical readings of literature and film studies into a style more adaptive for magazines and art world art speak while trying to remain thoughtful and engaging. By 2011, four years after I began PA and nine years since I first started professionally publishing, I was growing weary of keeping pace with the same routine, the same hustle, of seeing the same type of work and writing the same kind of words. I left around this time last year for a six month stint in the UK where I learned to write again by having to reposition the value of writing. I have since relocated to Vancouver where I have started a new platform, Post Pacific Post, which I would hardly call an arts writing blog, though many of the posts are art-related. Prairie Artsters will remain an archive of a certain type of writing about a certain period in time, and I thank you to all who have supported this project.

In no particular order, I want to thank all the contributors who have written for Prairie Artsters over the years, the websites and webmasters who found the page interesting enough to link from all corners of the world, the jury members who supported PA's growth and existence through The Edmonton Arts Council and The Alberta Foundation of the Arts, David Berry who invited me back to write for Vue Weekly, every reader and subscriber who found the time to say or write a message telling me they had engaged, and to my closest collaborators who fueled everything.

This last post has also been prompted by reading "Clash of '85," Lucy R. Lippard's last column for Village Voice. While I only match half her number of years as an an arts writer at this point and was never fired, many of her sentiments resonate. In trying to find an online version of the article, I found none, so here reprinted with no permission is the full text, originally from Village Voice, June 11, 1985, and reprinted in The Pink Glass Swan, The New Press, New York, 1995.

- af

Clash of '85
Lucy R. Lippard

Pass or fail? Honors or ignominy? This month I'm giving a couple of college commencement addresses, and I'm graduating at the same time. I've been fired by the Village Voice for "bad writing . . . narrow subject matter . . . fuzzy politics . . . lack of aesthetic judgement and princple . . . boring content . . predictability" (direct quotes from my dispatcher [Kit Rachlis] who is not a Murdoch henchman).

I was constantly assured, however, that my politics was not the problem, or rather that the problem lay with the form rather than the content of my politics. After thirteen books and a few hundred articles, I don't worry a whole lot about my writing ability. I believed the political line because during the four and a half years at the Voice in which my failings escaped the editor, no one ever interfered with what I wanted to say or how I wanted to say it. But my friends tell me I'm not suspicious enough. Being fired is, after all, interference on a pretty grand scale. And it's not, alas, as though the woods were full of people writing regularly on the social and political art being made outside (and sometimes, inside) the institutional art contexts.

I want to spend this last column not complaining (though I do hope it's clear I'm mad as hell) but examining what I've been trying to do since January 1981. I was hired with the understanding that I would not be a general art reviewer but would cover feminist, activist, and community arts. I've liked having a monthly networking vehicle in which to criticize, analyze, and catalyze a developing national movement of Left culture. Introducing a great variety of models for social art practice is part of a collage strategy that includes political organizing with four different cultural groups, freelance curating, and writing in books, art magazines, and catalogs; and coediting three small periodicals.

This communal base has nourished me personally and stimulated and informed my writing, which owes a great deal to collaboration, discussion, and dispute with my fellow cultural workers. I started writing "journalism" in Seven Days in 1976 and it has helped punch holes in my art-centered specialization as I try to be accessible to a much larger audience. I like the monthly column format because I don't have to start from scratch explaining where I stand with each article; it gives me a place to develop a sort of trialogue between writer, artist, and people working progressively in all fields -- who may or may not realize how important culture could be to their own effects.

When I graduated from college in 1958, then-senator John F. Kennedy was the speaker. He said politics wasn't a dirty word, and it was too important to leave to politicians. (After the Bay of Pigs, one had to agree with him.) The same might be said of art. It's recently occurred to me -- long after it occurred to plenty of other people -- that after all these years of trying to make (some would say force) connections between visual art and daily life, I was missing the link of culture itself -- the ground in which both art and politics must grow. Culture in the full sense, not just the other arts, but the whole fabric, including how we eat and dress and work and make love as well as make art -- a general culture in which we are all collaborators, which does not exclude so much as embrace the so-called avant-garde along with many other manifestations.

This view of culture, which has actually been expanding over the past six years or so, and has even had ramifications within the art "scene" itself, takes risks with the notion of artistic purity guarded by the academies. Artists are learning not only from other disciplines, but from the needs and experiences of their audiences. And subject matters. Maybe I'm jaded after twenty years of writing about art, but increasingly I need to know what the work I see is about, or what the artist thinks s/he is making art about. This doesn't disallow abstraction or any other generic art form except that which refuses to acknowledge its role as communicating on any level.

Of course nothing's settled and we're still looking for a patch of relatively steady ground on which to build a form and language as brilliantly unbalanced as our times. Progressive art will go on dancing on the edge between action and reaction, opposition and affirmation; it will move out, then withdraw for reflection; it will mediate with aesthetic integrity between the old imposed criteria and new assumptions about what constitutes "quality." It has to be visible in the face of whiteout and co-optation and subtly subversive at the same time. As we reevaluate the relationship between the concerned and talented individual and the broader viewer of culture, we've got to learn to write about it differently, to embody the critical function of art itself, which is what I'm trying to do.

I'd be the first to concede that I haven't been a proper art critic for some time now. I've never liked the antagonistic implications of the title anyway. A painter friend asked me recently if the role art plays as an agent of consciousness and change is more important to me than the other roles it plays, and I had to answer yes. I respect those "other roles" but I have become less interested in writing about the object or exhibition per se and more interested in the contradictory, mysterious ways in which artists and objects or actions enter society, in what images mean and do to people, and how contact or lack of contact with people in turn affects what artists do. So when I write about a single artist, I try to weave her or his work into the general cultural/political fabric in order to avoid further isolation. For similar reasons, I mix up high, low, and popular cultures; and when I put together a show or a series of articles, I try to incorporate as a matter of course a diversity of race, gender, age, and geography as well as style and form.

The recent history of Third World and indigenous cultures, especially in Central and Latin America, became important to me at a point when it seemed that European/North American vanguard art had come up against a wall that "postmodernism" has failed to crack. I've learned a lot from the concept of cultural democracy, in which the clamor of multicultural voices is not drowned out by a homogenized art-market version of Radio Martí. And I have been extraordinarily moved and shaken by the book I, Rigoberta Menchú, the story of a Guatemalan Indian woman who gained the strength to rise from the most abject poverty and powerlessness and become a political leader because of the richness and power of her thousand-year-old Mayan culture (This book is edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray and distributed by Schocken.)

It seems crucial to open the windows of our own insulated and arrogant culture to these very different voices. And if the Voice is still a radical paper, isn't it the place where such viewers should be heard? (Or is it falling into the pattern set by The Nation, where the cultural section is far more conservative than the political coverage?) The fact that I have a political position should not be a disadvantage, although it is certainly not a prerequisite to being an art critic these days. Of all the epithets tossed at me, "predictable" is the most thought-provoking. Does it mean consistent? While I've always emphasized the role of change in my work, I hope I've also let you know what to expect -- where I stand, and what I fall for. If it's "predictable" to cover art by East Village cartoonists, Australian aboriginals, feminist pornographers, Russian émigrés, rural graffitists, postmodernist photographers, needleworkers, Canadian propaganda analysts, demonstration artists, Nicaraguan and Irish muralists, photojournalists and SoHo abstractionists; if it's "predictable" to discuss art in regard to genocide, sexism, ethnocentrism, and imperialism . . . then damn right I'm predictable. Would I be less so if I astounded you monthly with one entertaining fragment of art after another, ignoring the connections to anything but other fragments of art, bestowing on lucky artists my good housebroken seal of approval?

But predictable could mean "too consistent" or it could mean "too clear." Its use in this context suggests the liberal assumption that significant questions and analyses can only be made from a so-called "neutral" and "objective" middle ground, that anything to the left of that particular position is unsophisticated (read uneducated, with class implications) or "rhetorical" (read a little too clear, and potentially dangerous). If that's the case, should I get paranoid and see my dismissal as a form of censorship of the cultural movement with which I'm happily identified?

It's not so bad getting all fired up. Unlike many in the class of '85, I have somewhere to go. I'll be writing monthly for In These Times, the socialist weekly published in Chicago, where I will predictably keep on doing more or less what I did here. Graduation, after all, is a hopeful occasion, a beginning rather than an end. Maybe that's why I can't think of a way to end this piece. I'll give the last word to Eduardo Galeano, an often-exiled Uruguayan writer who can blame some of his own troubles on the fact that he knows that culture includes "all the collective symbols of identity and memory: the testimonies of what we are, the prophesies of the imagination, the denunciation of what prevents us from being . . . Culture is communication, or it is nothing. In order for it not be mute, a new culture has to begin by not being deaf."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Distance Between You and Me, Vancouver Art Gallery*

Image credit: Gonzalo Lebrija The Distance Between You and Me 18, 2008
Lambda print 42.2 x 52.0 cm Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Laurent Godin, Paris

The Distance Between You and Me as a series, a show, and as a  syntactical arrangement conjures up the phantom of sentiments seen and  felt, as if I have already read and heard this line over and over again  in a poem or song whose origins I cannot locate. This sense of  dislocation runs throughout the exhibition: manifesting on the physical,  mental, and metaphysical levels.

As a series by Guadalajara-based Gonzalo Lebrija, this sentiment is expressed as moving across a string of vast  landscapes. Lebrija runs from behind the positioned and stationary  camera, away from the lens, away from his perceived viewer, but he is  also clearly running towards something off in the horizon (if not  towards the glory of the horizon itself). The intonated separation of  space between “you” and “me” is open for interpretation, but I prefer to  see the separation as existing between the landscape and me, a  human-scale proximity that I would have never measured where it not for  the presence of the artist, gently reminding us that perceptions of  location are dependent on our bodies in existence.

As the first show I am writing about for this new platform, the context is not lost that these artists were chosen for their tenuous relationship to geography as part of VAG’s Next: A Series of Artist Projects From the Pacific Rim. Brightly so, the exhibition exacerbates this tenuity, especially by opening the space up with Vancouver-based Isabelle Pauwel’s new acid-drip narrations of her family’s colonial history in the area now known as The Democratic Republic of the Congo. W.E.S.T.E.R.N. (2010) and June 30 (2009) clip along in a shattered rhythm of home movies made by Pauwel’s  grandfather intersecting with present-day absurdist contemplation of  objects in her family home. The video works leave little room to breath  through its fragmentations, and I believe that is the point. Here,  location as a narrative agent disintegrates into shards of places,  loosely re-assembled into a reconciling creature that speaks to the  impossibility of ever moving entirely beyond a temporal or geographic  point once it has been traversed.

The philosophical debate of time and space goes on through Here & Elsewhere (2002), an absorbing two-channel/one-screen video by Los Angeles-based Kerry Tribe.  Played out as a conversation between what can only be presumed as an  off-screen father (figure) and his 10 year old daughter in their L.A.  homestead, the man’s voice is distinctly English, authoritative, and  inquisitive to the existential health of the young girl, who answers  with an obedience that only reinforces the work’s fictive construction.

Presented on one screen with two projections side by side, often with  cross panning shots that are synchronized in motion but not in time by a  3 second delay, the resulting effect opens up gaps in time and space,  as if existence of both rests on a linear line that could be folded and  unfolded at any interval. The work as a whole is engrossing, especially  with its cinematic installation that is suggestive of immersion, but I  am unconvinced as to the use of a young girl as the primary visual  focus, as it is reminiscent of using the sympathetic choice a la casting decisions for The Exorcist.  The question of playing or being an identity is thrown at the young  girl who often does both, whether she is caught looking poised on the  edge of the sink and reading, playing with her toothbrush as if it was a  pencil or cigarette in contrast to those moments she is simply brushing  her teeth in routine. Both are constructed realities that are no more  real than each other, yet Tribe does not actively question or challenge  the concept of location so much as our formation of being within the  most ordinary of spaces. Being here or being there, the girl shifts  across the seat and across onto the other screen, a marked difference in  space and time, and this active gesture by Tribe is the ripple of our  own perceptions of being, of finding existence within a place and time,  and of existing as is.

The Distance Between You and Me is curated by Bruce Grenville and runs until January, 22, 2012.

*First posted on Post Pacific Post

Friday, November 11, 2011

Objects In Mirror May Be Better Than They Appear*

I went to live and work in Scotland (a nation and not a country) for six months this past year on an arts writing and curating fellowship. The food was bad, the people solid, and the best art show I saw was German. The overall experience of being on a writing/curating fellowship sounds better than it actually was; and while I do not regret my time spent in the land of lochs and moors, I would have done somethings quite differently if I could do it all again.

Looking backwards and from across the pond, the bright shining light of Framework stands out as a beacon. Devised by Glasgow-based independent curator Kirsteen Macdonald the first five Framework events came as a response to the perceived lack of international resources and networks for Scotland-based curators. While both independent and emerging curators were encouraged to apply, the majority of participants consisted primarily of emerging curators who were looking more for a sounding board to vent their frustrations. I can only hypothesize that the more established curators refused to apply or excused themselves as too busy to participate, but as a platform for networking with international guests within the scope of your national peers, I walked away with a sense that those curators in more stable positions needed to feel they were not on the same level as everyone else, or that they were also not interested in engaging with these guests out of some sort of inferiority complex.

On the other hand, an easy critique can and should be made at the definition of "international" only demarcating UK and Berlin-based writers and curators like Jan Verwoert and Maria Fusco. But let's go back to the beginning of this text where I am giving a first impression of Scotland and consequently Scotland's art scene.

Coming from Canada, I was and remain blown away by the sheer scale difference of Scotland's wee geography. With only a 45 minute train journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and only a three hour train between the central belt and the North East town where I was based, geography does not play a convincing factor in the vastly different attitudes and the general lack of internal dialogue. The town of Huntly where I was working and living could have stood as a microcosm of Scotland as a whole: a wee picturesque place, embedded with traditions and class structures, tolerating and attempting to build a lively and surprising contemporary art scene – producing works that rarely anyone local actually pays attention to unless a ceilidh is on the bill. The common practice is to look south and out for success and inspiration, often bringing people in for their ideas -- but at the end of my six months, I do wonder if the people of Huntly, and by extension the people of Scotland, actually care that an ongoing privileging of foreign value perspectives and systems is being placed onto their sovereignty-seeking selves?

With a population of 5 million, there are actually four sizable art schools in Scotland, and a significant proportion of alumni from The Gordon Schools in Huntly go on to attend these national art schools. I attended (in some variation) all the graduate or undergraduate exhibitions for Glasgow School of Art, Edinburgh College of Art, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, and Gray's School of Art. Mentorship on the production side is visible and lineage is respected, but of the four schools, only one showed any depth in the relatively new field of curatorial studies and arts writing. This is a problem, especially if the solution has been importing in thought rather than focusing on the local production of critical thinking. This may be a watershed moment as now under Creative Scotland's new "talent" pool, artists of all disciplines will be geared to how they fare for international consumption. Like its fine drams and rich shortbreads, goods that few born and bred Scots actually show much interest in, Scottish artists may soon be on the same ship out.

This is not a problem unique to Scotland, but Framework has magnified a contentious issue that it believes (self-consciously so) to be its own. It's true that the void of support and understanding about curatorial work is staggering, especially by its practitioners. Most curators in the field either grab onto the title or are bestowed with it, but few actually fit the definition with confidence. During Framework's finale, in lamenting on her disparate curatorial roles for an upcoming exhibition in London, a curator was asked point-blank: "What do you think a curator actually does?" and her response was only a pause and a stutter.

For the record: curating as a practice for all extensive purposes of this text translates as researching, producing, and presenting a unified and ideally critical/social/philosophical context for a single work or group of works that questions or addresses a facet of history for present-day musing. Under this definition, most curatorial work today is in fact a straight forward commissioning gig, or fund-driven project management, which has confused the role of the curator as someone with power. Most emerging curators who attended Framework were not really curators, but hustlers trying to get ahead in this profession. This assumed curatorial power is directly associated with funds rather than knowledge or ability. This is when curators simply become "gate-keepers", but note even how one-sided this argument stands. The desire to get beyond the guarded threshold takes on celestial proportions of seeking permission and desiring acceptance, which unfortunately, reveals just how elusive and unrealistic the standards of success sit in this cultural profession that is skewered by an inflated art market and where the Hirsts and Obrists make up all of 1% of the art world.

Curators have always been specialists of specific strands of knowledge, but now, according to British Art Show curators Tom Morton and Lisa le Feuvre (who were also guest facilitators for Framework), everyone can be a specialist of the everyday! The sentiment is idealistic and so it is admirable, but the execution requires some logic and an infinite breadth of knowledge that reflects the multifaceted experience of our everyday. The historical definition of a curator has progressed, and rightly so, but the integrity of curating has yet to catch up. I am not arguing for a return or even a favouring of traditions, but I do strongly question the use of this language if the meaning has so drastically shifted. In Fusco's words, we should take the time and energy to "re-caress the art object" -- be it through words or actions.

Based on final presentations given by Framework participants, it became frighteningly clear the presupposed value of calling yourself a curator has been accumulating steadily for the last three decades, but in an economic reality, the precarious state of the curator is doubly duped as the false assumption of power is a reflection of needing to have an expanded practice: that one also needs to organize, administrate, market, and fundraise independent projects in order to be a legitimate arts professional. The hyphenated artist/curator/designer/administrator works in an "expanded practice," a term Macdonald came up with that nobody seemed to question. Working in an expanded practice also became the subject matter for the workshop by Ellen Blumenstein, which was rescheduled due to exhaustion and so became the finale of this first set of Framework events. The end revealed the beginning as an expanded practice revealed itself in an unfolding of collective illness and exhaustion. Soldiering on in a burnt out state of being appeared to be the bane and survival tactic of maintaining an independent practice, and it was a glimpse of a grim future I did not want for myself.

This shroud of taking on curatorial power in an art world where the market value holds all the cards could be seen as a positive turn towards creative and intellectual value. However, like the smoke and mirrors of an absorbing and twisting Nabokov narrative we may not realize we have been spun a yarn of self-convinced fables of social grandeur that in the light of day comes off as a perverse and slightly sad fantasy. There are independent curators like Macdonald and Blumenstein who are doing good work and who are also trying to lay the foundation that they themselves need to stand on, but the more weight you put onto these foundations the faster the whole lot sinks. As a series, Framework quenched the void by facilitating intimate and thought-provoking discussions with a mixture of established practitioners, but the main critique here is that a dialogue must go two ways. I question the small group of curatorial professionals who did not bother applying, and the peers and participants who never spoke -- two seemingly different groups who in their own ways still chose to stay isolated without realizing that this dialogue exists in flux, and in their control to change.

Mix in exhaustion due to perpetual precarity, survival by hyphenation, the rise of internship exploitation, and assuming power where ever and when ever one can get it, the conclusion I come to is that being an independent curator is a fantasy profession both sought after and grossly misunderstood, and that maybe just sounds better than it will ever be. Life goes on, and so must the work, and it is only my hope that round two of Framework this winter will continue this conversation. 

*First appeared on