Country, Home by Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell

Added on by Shona Masarin.

Immigration is the lifeblood of this nation. And yet the dominant rhetoric in our culture is that of fear, resentment, distrust, and otherness—otherwise alienation. Despite the multitude of multicultural claims—especially in academia and the liberal arts—multicultural people are still very much the Other. Where the American Dream most frequently falls short is the societal damnation of the outsider. In a country home to and defined by immigrants, how can it be that none of the complexities of such lives are welcomed in the mainstream?

There is a gap in this country. It is the original gap—the source of the wage gap, generational gap, gender gap—it is the representational gap. It is a gap so severe that it creates dichotomies from the onset. There are mainstream exhibitions and Other exhibitions, but never both. The Other is rarely given the decency to be contextualized with her mainstream contemporaries. The gap is so rooted in our expectations that an exhibition eliminating the voice of the mainstream inherently conjures associations of activism and advocacy—and is not simply considered to be completing the story. Culture observes its contents through a singular lens, filtering perceptions and concepts through the normalizing experience, which determines what is good and worthwhile, and what is otherwise foreign and dangerous.1

The dominant mainstream distorts the extent to which art institutions can represent and reflect the diversity of humanity.2 The larger problem begins at the grassroots, community-based, local gallery level. In an early 2015 report, The Art Newspaper affirmed that “Almost one third of solo shows in US museums go to artists represented by five galleries.”3 Even at the unveiling of the new Whitney Museum, with the exhibition “America Is Hard to See,” which promised to present fresh perspectives from the collection, the overwhelming mainstream voice was impossible to miss. The online art newspaper Hyperallergic investigated the so-called diversity of perspectives and the results are that 79.5% of the exhibition is comprised of White/European artists.4

Country, Home makes us face our double standards. The works in this group show individually express the challenges and complexities of immigrant life in America, occupying the space between our lofty multicultural values and our whitewashed reality.

Through their work artists Golnar Adili, Adela Andea, Michael Borek, chukwumaa, Elnaz Javani, Alejandra Regalado, Jerry Truong, and Rodrigo Valenzuela, designate immigrant groups as the center of discussions on art, practice, American values, socio-economics, and class. The lens of the mainstream distorts its subjects to those in the center and those on the fringes—often causing rampant misunderstanding and forced invisibility of the latter. Coming out of the fringes on their own terms, these artists present their voices, experiences, and concerns through differing art forms.

Elnaz Javani (Iranian born), Rodrigo Valenzuela (Chilean born), and Michael Borek (Czech born) consider issues of outsider isolation in varying ways. Javani’s delicate fiber stitching often depicts obscured identities marred by not belonging. Her subjects are either isolated floating figures or concealed individualities suggestive of sequestration. While her materials are trans-national—simple fabrics and sewing thread—her work is distinctive of the isolating component of individuality, suggestive of the immigrant outsider. Conversely, Valenzuela’s photography actively omits the familiar—no figures or trans-national ephemeras occupy the space. These staged scenes are devoid of people and strongly evoke a sense of loss—the viewer can feel the missing presence of the suggested narrator. Valenzuela’s crafted stories conjure reflection on the Latino day-laborer with suggested builder’s tools and materials. A former illegal alien laborer himself, Valenzuela’s work feels equally of the outsider looking out and the insider looking in.

The notion of “out” and “in” is also explored in the photographic works of Borek, though to a vastly different effect. Borek notes that his fascination with urban decay has made him “able to turn the most stunning scenery into drab Eastern Europe.” Where Valenzuela’s concern is specifically with the position of the Other in America, and Javani’s saddened, unidentifiable figures express neither place of origin or emigration, Borek’s scenes vigorously bring the viewer out of America and into his place of communist, often bleak, origin. His series of captured fences and the title “And They Make Good Neighbors” considers boundaries, belonging, relationships in a direct engagement with the tension of looking in and looking out. His tightly cropped frames limit the contextualization of the scene depicted so often that the viewer doesn’t know if they are looking out or looking in. This dizzying perspective complements Javani’s sense of undeclared landscape and Valenzuela’s absent narrator, while bringing a different perspective and laden thought process to the idea of the isolated outsider.

Socio-economic issues are a deep concern within Alejandra Regalado’s (Mexican born) photography series “In Reference To: Mexican Women of the U.S.,” which positions female Mexican immigrants in relation to a significant personal object. The juxtaposition suggests the economic position of the women depicted. While much of the art world’s theoretical concerns lie within the project’s discussion of beauty, the economic element of the stark juxtaposition is a crucial factor. The women are photographed against a white background, like an official identification card, and the objects are photographed against a white background, like that of an archeological find. The distinct depersonalization of the photographic process and product suggests an unfeeling government census, which strongly highlights economic status amongst differing demographics.

Issues of official identity documentation are explored through abstracted, disembodied imagery in Golnar Adili’s (Iranian born) work. She explores personal issues of identity and documentation in photography and hand-drawn markings. She confirms in her artist statement that “as an Iranian growing up in post-1979 Tehran, I have experienced separation, uprooting, and longing in its different manifestations.” Her broken imagery in photo collages suggests an alienated, displaced, and aching personhood. The jagged edges of torn photo paper, uneven layering, and stacking system evoke a sense of building and rebuilding – specifically the building and rebuilding of identity as her images exclusively feature intimate depictions of people and bodies. While an elegant sensuality exudes from her A Thousand Pages of Chest-Curved collage, a resounding sense of identity crisis remains.

Navigation and transformation of identity are further explored by Adela Andea (Romanian born), chukwumaa (Nigerian born), and Jerry Truong (Vietnamese born). Andea’s work with neon light installation seeks transformation, variation, and disregard and reinvention of reality. Her perspective affirms ambiguity, mistranslation, confusion, and discovery. She notes in her artist statement that she believes in the adaptability of people who have lived through multiple transitions. In a similar approach but with a strong social focus, chukwumaa’s sound work brings out the awkwardness of interactions with different people. chukwumaa’s interest in culturally-charged myths and creating surreal, often uncomfortable, environments reveals patterns of navigation within audience and performer. Very differently, but equally personal and affecting, Truong’s photographic series turns to transformation and deception to explore a very personal immigrant journey. The figures in his series force the viewer to question the American Dream, and the role of the self in blended society. The viewer is placated with seemingly ordinary images of unordinary people, only to be dismayed by the underlying cruelty hidden within each scene. These artists demonstrate conflicts of navigating the immigrant experience in America. Collectively they navigate their perspectives as immigrants, as Americans, as both, in varied pathways.

Culture blooms best where the realities of people’s lives meet the discipline of artists’ creativity, and builds a conversation that bridges across nationalities, ethnicities, generations and social standing.5 While identity issues are far too complex to be neatly summarized in art or an essay, these artists provide a vital glimpse into the narrative of the “other”—and specifically the under-recognized perspectives of immigrant and 1st generation Americans. It is important that this narrative exists and that it be widely consumed to begin to undo the staggering injustice of mis- and underrepresentation that is the current norm.  

No one immigrant/foreign-born artist experience is exactly alike, and thus that reality bleeds into visual narrative forms in differing ways. Seemingly unrelated artists and forms can be juxtaposed to reveal narratives of outsider isolation, economic position, identity, and navigation.

In presenting multiple narratives by differing immigrant and first-generation American artists, Country, Home explores not only the particular tensions and challenges of these culturally and socially under-recognized groups but also the ways in which we are accustomed to interacting with presentations of the Other. Void of the voice of the mainstream, these artists finally assert themselves on a platform of their own making. But the rarity of such opportunities equally defines the exhibition as much as their art.

 

1 Doug Borwick, “Considering Whiteness,” Arts Journal Blog, February 20, 2013, <http://www.artsjournal.com/engage/2013/02/considering-whiteness/>.

2 Nina Simone, “On White Privilege and Museums,” Museum2.0, March 6, 2013, <http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2013/03/on-white-privilege-and-museums.html>.

3 Julia Halperin, “Almost one third of solo shows in US museums go to artists represented by five galleries,” The Art Newspaper, April 2, 2015, <http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/17199/>.

4 Hrag Vartanian, “Breaking Down the Demographics of the New Whitney Museum’s Inaugural Exhibition,” Hyperallergic, April 14, 2015, <http://hyperallergic.com/199215/breaking-down-the-demographics-of-the-new-whitney-museums-inaugural-exhibition/>.

5 Ben Davis, “Diversify or Die: Why the Art World Needs to Keep Up With Our Changing Society,” Blouin Art Info, November 16, 2012, <http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/840695/diversify-or-die-why-the-art-world-needs-to-keep-up-with-our#>.

This essay was written in conjunction with Country, Home, on view at CUE September 5-October 10, 2015.

Human Nature by Lilly Lampe

Added on by Shona Masarin.

In Human Nature and Conduct (1922), American philosopher John Dewey writes, “By killing an evil-doer or shutting him up behind stone walls, we are enabled to forget both him and our part in creating him. Society excuses itself by laying the blame on the criminal.”In this statement, Dewey emphasizes society’s tendency to vilify the convict, an act which both absolves others from their role—indirect, institutional, or otherwise—in the creation of criminals, and effectively excludes the criminal from society. 

Today there are over 200,000 people in federal prisons and over one million in state prisons in America.2 There are over 3,000 inmates on death row.3 These numbers represent a growing segment of the population, and the ramifications of this increase cannot be ignored. Yaelle Amir’s exhibition To Shoot a Kite features works that confront the abject state of the incarcerated. 

In prison speak, “to shoot a kite” means to send a message. In this exhibition, the message is not a statement, it is a plea. It asks the viewer to pause for consideration of a growing, disaffected segment of the population. It asks the viewer to listen to the stories of incarceration of the innocent and guilty. And it asks the viewer to have compassion and be open to empathy. The works in To Shoot a Kite—consisting of artworks, community endeavors, and projects that combine the two—invite the viewer to approach the position of the inmate, whether on death row, in solitary, or with freedoms like access to classes, in order to sample the variety of experiences within the prison system. 

None of the works in To Shoot a Kite present explicit images of prison conditions; instead, viewers are called upon to imagine this environment for themselves. Whereas works like Andy Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men (1964), a series of printed mug shots from the New York Police Department, revel in the titillation and possible celebrity of criminality, the pieces in To Shoot a Kite confront the humanism of lesser-known inmates through their own desires, needs, and aspirations. In this way, the exhibition evokes empathy for psychological reasons rather than physical suffering, and rejects a focus on the crimes—whether politically motivated and noble or extraordinarily horrific—in favor of attention to the individual. The viewer is given access to the prisoner’s imaginings of a different space or life and, in understanding the goals of the prisoner, comes to understand the prisoner’s present state.

Two Last Supper-related works in To Shoot a Kite effectively act as bookends for the exhibition. The first, Julie Green’s Last Supper, an ongoing project begun in 1999, presents images of the foodstuffs of last meal requests painted in blue on china plates. In cases where a prisoner refused the last meal, his or her final words are painted instead. These works refer to the memorial aspect of decorative plates and as such highlight these otherwise impersonal selections, which range from birthday cake to fried chicken. The focus on these choices hints at the background and preferences of the inmate. For many, the last meal is the only time their preferences will be heard by their jailors, and this is the final chance to revisit a childhood favorite or, in the case of the birthday cake, try a commonplace food for the first time, as indicated in the text on Green’s plate. These images create an unconventional portrait that describes both personality and condition, with no other physical or factual detail. Compare this to Dread Scott’s Lockdown series (2000-2004), in which the artist interviewed and photographed inmates, either while serving time or after their release, to create a more traditional style of portrait. Scott met with inmates, conveyed to them his opinions against the prison system, photographed them, and then conducted interviews about the subjects’ personal experiences that led to their incarceration. In sharp contrast to mug shots, these gelatin silver portraits show the prisoners in rare moments of relaxation. Scott succeeds in presenting these men as they’d like to be seen, and uses his camera as a tool to reveal an idealized self-image. The final portraits are displayed along with edited selections of audio from the interviews, allowing each subject the agency and platform to share his side of the story.

If Scott’s photographs ask us to see an inmate’s best self, or at the very least identify with a desire to present a best self, Jackie Sumell’s project The House that Herman Built (Herman’s House) shows a different, equally relatable idealization. Herman Wallace spent over forty years in solitary confinement in a six-by-nine-foot cell. Sumell and Wallace began a dialogue in the last decade of Wallace’s life, in which they designed Wallace’s dream house. The desire for a better living situation is universal; however, in Wallace’s case it speaks to deeper desires for freedom. 

Wallace’s conviction was overturned three days before he died, making his story all the more heartrending. Whether the prisoner is innocent or guilty, the conditions of solitary confinement are horrifying, which is why projects like Supermax Subscriptions can be so powerful. This project, organized by Temporary Services, Tamms Year Ten, and Sarah Ross, asked volunteers to donate magazine subscriptions to inmates at Tamms, a supermax prison that closed in 2013, in which every inmate was in permanent solitary confinement. This simple act gave these isolated individuals a tether to the rest of the world; each article and picture evokes a sense of society and illuminates their dreams and imaginings of outside life at a time when their immediate world has shrunk to a small cell.

The power of imaginary space for prisoners is emphasized in works like Jennifer Egan’s novel The Keep. In the novel, an incarcerated protagonist named Ray is woken up by his cellmate, Davis, who is anxious to show him a box of rubbish that he claims is a radio. Ray thinks, “What if it actually does what Davis says? And in that split second I go from pretending straight into believing—it’s like all the pretending made me believe, except that doesn’t make sense, because pretending and believing are opposites. I don’t know what happens. Maybe it’s this place. Maybe if old fruit can be next week’s wine and a toothbrush can slit a throat…maybe a box of hair is a radio. Maybe in here it’s true.4

Egan strips down the condition of inmates, alluding to the resourcefulness that turns toiletry items into weapons and any available foodstuff into hooch, but also to a human need for agency that turns the act of imagining into an effort towards emotional freedom. In this episode, Egan reveals the impact of the introduction of possibility, even an imagined possibility, into a life of confinement. In a firmly limited real space, boundless imaginary space becomes all the more powerful, giving projects like Supermax Subscriptions and Herman’s House great significance.

This impact goes beyond the extremes of solitary confinement. Prison + Neighborhood Arts Project (P+NAP) offers arts and humanities classes to inmates at Statesville Prison, at a time when most state-funded prison education programs and libraries are being defunded. Ashley Hunt’s Corrections documentary provides a foil to P+NAP, as it addresses the increasing privatization of prisons and the results for both inmates and neighboring communities. Hunt’s research reveals that one in four black men is in prison, on parole, or probation, and new prisons are being built in rural communities with the argument that prisons create jobs and will revive depressed towns. This and other information Hunt pulls together shows the growing effects the prison system will have on society and presents the profit-driven motivations behind an increase in jails. In an exhibition that asks viewers to put themselves in the place of the individual inmate, this documentary casts a dark shadow by revealing that there are many for whom an inmate is just a number in a budget sheet, whose loss of freedom means greater profit. 

If that’s a tough idea to swallow, imagine having to eat what you know will be your last meal. The other last supper piece in To Shoot a Kite, Lucky Pierre’s Final Meals (2003), asked volunteers to consume recreations of last meals culled from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s archive. In the resulting videos, these actors serve as avatars for both viewer and inmate, bridging the divide between them. With every bite, the actor must portray a confrontation with the appalling enormity of pending execution, and the viewer must play along in this grisly game. If we pause to allow the emotional impact to sink in, this meal and the circumstances around it become a gruesome ritual. If, as Dewey writes, society punishes criminals in order to alleviate the guilt of having created the circumstances of the criminal, then the Last Supper, solitary confinement, and other inventions of the justice system seem a gross form of torture. To Shoot a Kite asks this question and more, by presenting works that harness the power of imaginary space to convey very real problems. 

NOTES:
1  John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct: An Introduction to Social Psychology. Project Gutenberg EBook #41386, Nov. 17 2012 <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41386/41386-h/41386-h.htm> Accessed 01 April, 2014, 18.

2  Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie,” Prison Policy Initiative, 12 March 2014 <http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie.html> (see page 12).

3  “Death Penalty: Death Row Population Size and Characteristics,” Death Penalty Focus, <http://www.deathpenalty.org/article.php?id=86> Accessed 01 April, 2014

4  Jennifer Egan, The Keep (New York: Anchor Books, 2006), 106.

This essay was written as part of the Young Art Critics Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season. For additional arts-related writing, please visit on-verge.org.

 

Anywhere and Everywhere, Translating Captivity by Ashley Hunt

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay has been adapted from a version first published in the exhibition catalogue for Crime and Punishment at Kunsthalle Tallinn, Estonia, 2007 (curated by Anders Härm).
 

translation.

I am trying to be mindful in writing this, myself in one place, and you, the reader, in another. You might suggest that this is always the task of writing, speaking from one place to another, across some distance. But this essay began from a more precise desire, a desire to address translation—not only the translation of language, but the translation of life: its forms, practices, restrictions and freedoms. 

For some time I have been thinking about the idea of “jurisdiction,” or how the authority of a state power is meant to end at its borders. I have been thinking about how this notion might limit our understanding of power, how it spreads and takes shape, and the relationships it forms between what appear to be discrete places. For example, from the U.S., to Estonia, to Norway, to South Africa—while each has its own jurisdictions and histories, what is shared across them? 

language.

In terms of language, the translation of an idea is never an open window, as if an idea could pass untouched from one side to the other, unscathed as it leaves one house of sound and gesture to the next. Such passage always alters its content, refracting it; gathering it from the fabric of one set of histories, stories, patterns and habits and releasing it into another. The conditions for speech and for listening touch the translator and translated alike; they leave a stain upon the object that we had expected to pass unblemished. As an idea in the world aligns itself to a sound or an image, we see pollutants of life—locality, subjectivity and memory—attaching and smuggling themselves into each and every utterance. 

Despite this, something of the original still translates—something that, regardless of the borders between, communicates through the noise. One thinker referred to “translatability,” saying that, “If the kinship of languages is to be demonstrated it means (…) that a specific significance inherent in the original manifest itself in its translatability.”1

Rather than consider that significance as a mysterious power that, alone, refuses to dilute in its translation, we might ask if this is not a significance to, to the space in which that translation is received; where between the two objects there is a resonance, in the way that vibrations resonate sympathetically between objects and instruments sensitive to the same frequencies of sound. A resonance that has as much to do with a receptivity in the place of its arrival as it does with the force of the original.

place.

“Place,” too, is like a language. As a sense of place spreads, as it extends out through space, it lends a character to the things that fall within its sphere, offering feelings of location and identity, connections shared with people, things and histories, and a common sense of how things work—knowhow, itineraries and secrets that structure the topography of place, the freedoms it will honor and the bondages it will coerce.

Such aspects of place are like words—they extend legibility to things. Like words, place offers shared meanings to things, translating private resonances from me to you so that we can share an understanding that bears local residues, developing relationships-in-common where we might decide how we feel about it, how we will live with it, and how we might differ in relationship to it. Moving with an aesthetic pulse of presence and absence, visible and invisible, voice and voiceless, place spreads like a language across a space, generating a field of commonality among those who weave through it, who come into dialogue, into agreement, into competition, and into relations of power. 

At the edges of place, a border is formed—a location where, also like language, the legibilities lent by one place stop, giving way to another field of meanings. From one side of that border and back, an architecture of differences is accrued—differences concocted, marked and projected from each side onto its other so as to confirm the value of their respective sides. No matter how continuous and fluid things may remain from one side of that border to the other, place carries the illusionary power to erase their similarity, and the border becomes real, invested with violence. And just as this violence interrupts the flows of life at the border, the presumption of difference where continuity may in fact exist also allows things to pass unnoticed, where “kinships” of translatable things may be found to help us to better know our world and the powers that act in our name.

this place.

I am writing from the place where I live, Los Angeles. I live in a country that is obsessed with its borders, such that our airwaves dance with hallucinations of what does and does not cross them day and night. Rather than asking what conditions of translatability connect the sides of the border, what kinships in the language of place, necessity, family, land and history evoke passage across it, or what forms of receptivity we possess to encourage the border’s transgression—politicians and private contractors make a healthy living constructing fences, giving speeches, building weapons, elaborating protocols for deadly force and the capture of people, as people become contraband. 

This contributes to one of the fastest growing components of the prison and jail system that makes the U.S. the most prolific jailer in modern history. Within its jurisdiction, the U.S. possesses a rich economy in bodies, an economy of people moved in and out of their places, stripped of the rights that make them legible as human beings and political subjects; an economy that underlies the larger strata of wealth that structure the country’s social body.

Outside its jurisdiction, the U.S. busies itself with expanding beyond its own borders. As one of the nations that aspires not only to be a nation, but an empire, it works to extend its influence over matters in every corner of the globe, including places where it was never invited nor announced. The scale and power of force that the U.S. commands offer many ways around international law and the objections of others—whether through secrecy, statecraft, the violence of “intervention,” the nuance of financial leverage, or the exporting of things that carry influence. Regardless of whether the U.S. has any official presence in a given place, it is busy exporting—just as it exports products for markets, it exports models of governance and political rule, attempting to migrate its practices and techniques of power to other places. One does not have to profit in an obvious way; to exercise control and to influence is to shape the geo-political future; a philosophy of translation in which force can compel receptivity where there may otherwise be none.

and everywhere.

Bumper stickers, essays, books and posters like to quote Martin Luther King Jr., including the letter he wrote to segregationist clergy members during one of his moments in jail: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” the letter reads, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”2 Beyond responding to these clergy members’ accusation of King and others as “outsiders coming in,” King’s statement offers a different philosophy of translation, one that traces the effects of things: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” understanding quite well the futures to which we all are tied.

I do not hear in King’s argument that we should merely concern ourselves with matters that we are not connected to. Instead, I hear that we are already connected, our destinies entwined, where matters of injustice pay no mind to jurisdiction, nation, place nor border, but grow and spread, translating themselves into the logic of one culture after another, becoming normalized, becoming someone’s “option” in solving some problem, becoming unjust. 

I hear in his argument that there is no difference between standing to protect someone else from the abuse of authority, and you protecting yourself—in both cases you are fighting the abuse of authority, and the abuse of authority must always be fought.

authority’s secrets.

Although they emerged around the same time in history, modern imprisonment was not born to facilitate the justice of equality sought by many in modern forms of democracy. Rather, in the language and values of the time, modern prisons were a translation of earlier, more overtly brutal forms of social control into new values of governance. While we are taught that imprisonment follows logically from the civil, legal practices of a democratic society (as a measured punishment, effective deterrent, or rational enforcement of law), those of us whose lives and communities are organized by prison practices are taught very differently by those practices, their institutions, their managers, and their effects on our lives, as they condition an acceptance of exclusion from democracy’s promises.

While historians tell us that the modern prison drew its techniques from monastic principles of isolation—the reflection and time believed necessary for spiritual growth—Michel Foucault qualifies this for us, saying that the result was never an end to the physical violence that had become, by his account, increasingly incompatible with modern discourses on human and civil rights. Instead, it was a movement of that violence out of sight, hidden behind prison walls. While on the level of appearances, it was an advancement toward a civilized, human dignity, as is claimed for prisons to this day, the penitentiary allowed the state to maintain the same violence and achieve the same resulting social control. Indeed, the prison today continues to spark less public outcry, less objection and revolt than would the enactment of state violence in public; for behind its walls remain secrets, stowed away from public knowledge.

growth.

The prison cell as an architecture had already existed—in relatively small jails, dungeons, and other structures for holding people captive; and the modern penitentiary was born by multiplying them from tens and twenties to hundreds and thousands, forming small cities that required the planning, infrastructure, and the inventive institutional design that modern architecture was making possible elsewhere in hospitals, factories, schools, and armies. As these “social scales” of the industrial revolution touched all such institutions, the number of prisoners to come would be unprecedented. Comparable numbers of the captive and caged had existed only in mass encampments of captured soldiers during war, of refugees following mass expulsions, or in the captive spatializations of slave societies. Since this time, the penitentiary model has only continued to grow and become more normalized, more relied upon as a technology of unequal democracies, as a default solution to poverty, joblessness, and deprivations of education, enfranchisement, medical care and freedom; to the point where, today, the world prison population is a record 10.1 million, with the U.S. setting historical records in both total number and percentage of prisoners per its inhabitants—its prison system has grown 820% since 1970, from 280,000 prisoners to close to 2.3 million.3

crisis.

In an interview about this growth with historian, educator and activist, Ruth Wilson Gilmore in 2000, she said:

Whenever there has been prison expansion in Western Society, it’s come after a major crisis, where a lot of people have been pushed out of old relations of domination and subordination.4

Gilmore gives the example of the British enclosure movements, where the liberation of people from Feudal bondage coincided with modernizing property law, simultaneously pushing them out of their historical lands and into swelling cities, leaving them to find new social relations and economies within which to make a life. Gilmore also offers the example of the emancipation of enslaved populations in the U.S. following its civil war, where similarly, alongside a liberation came a displacement—millions of people having to find new places and ways to live. In both of these instances, peoples whose place in society had been controlled in one way were released from its legal and formal structures, while just as much as they were liberated, they faced the crisis of opportunity for what would come next.

In both cases, the larger societies themselves faced a crisis. The hierarchical orders they had  been based upon were now destabilized, as each was stripped of the practices that had kept its most disempowered and subordinated people “in their place” within that order and its economy. As the old practices were translated into new, what followed this larger societal crisis was the birth of both countries’ first mass prison populations—a key institution in allowing their social order and their evolving productive forces to be maintained. In post-Magna Carta civil society, this meant the articulation of new legal codes: Victorian and Elizabethan “Poor Laws” in Britain, and “Black Codes” and “Jim Crow Laws” in the U.S.

Gilmore concludes with a third crisis, which in the U.S. begins after World War II and comes to a head in the 1950s and 60s, when communities organized themselves to end Black Codes, Jim Crow, and other forces of segregation and disenfranchisement. As this contributed to a similar crisis in the social order, overt apartheid laws were replaced by criminal codes that appeared emptied of their racial contents. 

Rooted in the rhetoric of crime instead of race, this language would soon be accompanied by words of “war” as well: the “War on Drugs,” which accounts for nearly half of today’s radical prison growth, alongside the more general “war on crime”; the “War on Poverty” that had turned into a “war on the poor”; the “war on the border” that brought these forces to the border itself; the “war on gangs,” which accompanies the gentrification movements that have inverted the flows of “white flight” and capital flight; and the “War on Terror,” which has made racial profiling even easier, and has revealed the numerous links between domestic law enforcement, military, and “intelligence” capacities abroad. Today, we see these same racial hierarchies, cultural and religious prejudices mirrored in the prison: half the population is African American, with Black men imprisoned at almost seven times that of White men; Latino men are jailed at almost three times; and American Indian people are among the most highly imprisoned groups in North America. All of this is echoed in an increased use of imprisonment in the spaces of U.S. wars—Iraq, Afghanistan, and particularly Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

this is a crime.

Accordingly, in relation to what we call “crime,” Gilmore’s three examples show how generally, the abstract concepts of law are directed selectively in their application, permitting attacks and controls on specific communities of people without having to appear so on their surface. Just like the prison wall conceals state violence, so can the naming of crime conceal the politics of a law and its prosecution.

In an interview conducted with Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie in 2005, he answered the following when asked, “What is crime?”:

It is so important to understand it is not a clear entity. It is a result of a lot of interaction, a lot of talks, a lot of perceptions, before you come to the conclusion that this was a crime. You can use simple experience from daily life: when your family members should do something you dislike, your kids take some money—most kids do that now and then — from the parents’ pockets. You could think, well, this was not a right thing. Maybe she needs more pocket money, you could say that this was a protest action; that she wants attention. Or (…) if you came from the outside and it wasn’t your child...you could think, “This was a theft.” 

What was the meaning of that particular act? That varies immensely. And this is from the small things to the large things. We know of course that killing, that might be seen as murder, it might be seen as patriotic acts. (…) And it’s so important to keep that sort of freedom in the picture, because then you can understand that you can meet these acts in other ways than the standardized ways of punish and imprisonment.5

By the end of his response, Christie complicates our notion of crime, pointing out the relative degrees of familiarity or estrangement that tend to move someone from "misbehaving” (like a child, neighbor or friend) to “criminal” (the stranger, the Other, the dangerous). Moreover, Christie is also critiquing the conditioned presumption that prison is the logical and only response to the acts we do not like.

Consider that the majority of acts that receive prison as their punishment are committed not out of choice but a lack of choice, a lack of reasonable opportunities for survival that lead to chronic desperation, pain, disorientation and resentment; conditions concentrated in communities that have been systematically undermined for decades and centuries. 

Today, our social systems are so broken and undermined—alienating in their massive scales, unloving and unproductive in their disciplinary responses—that by the time most reprehensible acts have been committed, we have no idea what layers of missed opportunities might have changed the course that led to them, let alone read into them the histories of injustice at play. 

Instead, the rhetoric of crime buries such complex chains of cause and effect deep within the abstract figure of the criminal, suturing, as racism does, the ugliness of an act to the mythical “nature” of a person or group. And as racial, economic, ethnic, or immigrant-based prejudices are given their discursive expression in law, they are given spatial expression in the prison.

good will.

It is not the job of bureaucrats to grapple with the contradictions of history, the biases of economic structure or the antagonisms of social inequality. While the state claims to make the administration of justice objective, it can just as easily appropriate what would otherwise be theorized and developed throughout houses and streets with a more intimate accountability, and with a stake in the health of its outcomes. Taking the theorization of justice out of the hands of local community members stultifies our ability to respond to difficult situations and contradictions, leaving us instead with oversimplified narratives that play toward vengeance and vilification, feeding our prejudices and our investments in the inequalities that enrich us. 

While one can comprehend possible “just” uses and outcomes of imprisonment, where a jail cell lets a drunk sober up or a violent rage to cool off, or where one bent more generally on destruction in life can transform that life into a citizenship more compatible with those of their neighbors, locating such cases without more far reaching and broad, devastating consequences is difficult. Each would be easier to find in television shows and the general myths of the criminal justice system than in actual practice, for beyond their objective capacity for mass containment, they hold within them the internment, disappearance, and captivity for which they were invented.

Ultimately, the question becomes less about good or bad intentions in a jail’s administration, and more about the capacities that we are building. Once you have the capacity for large-scale domination—be it an army, a police force or a prison—it doesn’t take someone interested in domination to put it to that use. More common will be the well-intentioned, or merely competent administrators, who only have to do their job to realize the capacities already built implicitly into its form. 

free markets.

One of the ways that older hierarchies remap themselves onto today’s larger world is in the uneven relationships between wealthier and poorer nations, where crises old and new are aggravated and enflamed. As the more powerful nations compete for influence beyond their bordersfor access to raw materials, markets for export, for cheap labor, airspace and geographywe see lending schemes, trade agreements and the threat of force coercing the restructuring of the local economies and social and governance policies of others. Throughout the so-called developing world, we see the same dismantling of social programs, education and welfare-state institutions that have accompanied the prison boom in the U.S., while nations drop their environmental regulations, labor laws, trade barriers and other protections for local people, land and sovereignty.

As new markets form across these borders, facilitating the movement of goods, services and discourses, hierarchies of mobility and free movement flourish. Corporate and non-governmental entities migrate throughout the globalized world in ways that vast majorities of people, including their unions and social organizations, are unable. As a result, we see the same crises and social instability that Gilmore warns about, as people are pushed out of their social relations and old ways of life, remaining stuck without the safety nets that might otherwise have caught them. 

This creates perfect conditions of translatability—receptivity for the logics of mass imprisonment, where the agents of prison growth look for expanding markets, peddling criminalization and incarceration as cutting edge methods to deal with mounting instability. This has only been exacerbated since the early 2000s, as the “War on Terror” has offered an additional set of political language and legal techniques to crack down on ethnic, religious and economic minorities. Thus, the export of the “crime control,” “moral outrage,” and “anti-terror” movements pays big money for lectures by former police chiefs, military, and public officials who help to translate their terms to local conditions, as well as to private consulting firms, to corporations that seek new markets for their weapons, border technologies and high security building materials, and to those cycling military technologies into carceral industries and the leasing of security personnel. 

anywhere everywhere.

Since the end of the Cold War, the massive prison growth of the U.S. has been followed most closely by that of Eastern Europe. Russia has the closest incarceration rate to that of the U.S., followed by the Baltic States and South Africa, each of which are in the midst of decades-long crises in their historical social order. Across their differences of border and place, as well as any location that a reader of this text sits, can be found these continuities—uninterrupted practices and capacities for social control that link jurisdictions and lineages of domination. And for those interested in research, they can easily be traced according to the lobbyists, consultants, contractors, and “development” loans that travel there and circulate through their capitals. 

In the same interview with Nils Christie, he concluded:

And you can ask, yeah, what’s wrong? That is the question of our values. Do we accept that our society represents us with that large amount of prisoners? We could in theory say there were many nice ideals included in the fascist and Nazi and state socialist ideas, but I would of course, first and foremost, evaluate those systems by their prison populations: the concentration camps, the gulags. And it is a tendency to talk so much about the horror of the gulags that we forget to look at our own systems—what are we creating now with this enormous increase in prison population in many countries. Is it acceptable then, if you like our economic-political system, can it still be acceptable that you still have a cost of incarceration like this? This is the other side of the coin…6

from here to the reader.

From my place of writing to your place of reading: our differences may be ones of geography and location, nation and state, the scale and density of our neighborhoods, city or countryside, and the sameness or diversity of the cultures that fills them; there may be differences of resources and capital, language, the cosmic forces we believe organize our world, and the different proximities to war that we possess, just as we each hold different histories that have arrived us here.

During research for a recent project in Turkey, it was suggested I look into the growing numbers of women entering Turkey’s prison system. This, it was explained to me, was the result of gender politics and Islam, women fighting back against what has been characterized in Western media as “honor killings”—a religious difference posed a fundamental distinction from how women now constitute one of the fastest growing prison populations in the U.S. But after initial research, interviews with women and advocates, and conversations with a group of women in a local prison, it became clear that the common denominator in many of these cases was not religion. It appeared instead to be exactly what drove many women into prison in the U.S.—defending themselves against violence from spouses and family members in the context of poverty.

Across our differences of place, beneath the distinctions that—like language—each place colors its circumstances, there is our common relationship to what happens to us—our “single garment of destiny” is woven by real, material connections that the play of differences and the limits of jurisdiction always seem to erase.

If we consider the rise in imprisonment practices throughout the world not as many individual fires, but as one great fire that branches out, stoking global conditions of crisis, networks of captivity that facilitate the subordination required for the progress of global capitalism, then what politics of translation begin to become possible? What politics of translation become necessary? 

 

NOTES: 

Walter Benjamin, “Task of the Translator,” in: Illuminations, Trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968).

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” <http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html> Accessed 14 May 2014.

Roy Walmsley, “World Prison Population List: 10th edition,” International Centre for Prison Studies, University of Essex, October 2013 <http://www.prisonstudies.org/sites/prisonstudies.org/files/resources/downloads/wppl_10.pdf>.

See Corrections, a feature documentary produced by Ashley Hunt, 2001.

5  See A World Map: In which We See…, a mapping and video project by Ashley Hunt (www.aworldmap.com). Also read any of the many important works by Nils Christie, including Crime Control as Industry (London and New York: Routledge, 1993) and A Suitable Amount of Crime (London and New York: Routledge, 2004).

Ibid.

 

Bibliography
Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. London: Penguin Books, 1963. 

Christie, Nils. Crime Control as Industry. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. 

Christie, Nils. A Suitable Amount of Crime. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete?. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Davis, Angela Y. Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Second Vintage Books Edition, 1995.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. London: University of California Press, 2007.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

To Shoot a Kite: Yaelle Amir

Added on by Shona Masarin.

Regardless of what fear mongers within the penal system and the media maintain publicly, our prison population increased from roughly 350,000 to 2.4 million in the past 25 years not because of heightened crime rates, but due to policy changes.11 In fact, 92% of all federal prisoners are in for nonviolent crimes, as are 48% of all state prisoners.12 What to make of this data? To understand what caused this significant jump we have to look back to several events in recent history, namely the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan declared the War on Drugs. This policy inflated the budgets of federal law enforcement agencies tenfold.13 The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act law introduced mandatory minimum sentences (5 to 10 years) for the distribution of cocaine, with a crucial 100-to-1 distinction between crack cocaine that was linked to use by African Americans, and powder cocaine that was associated with whites.14 This distinction led to what Michelle Alexander has termed in her seminal book by the same name “The New Jim Crow” era, where black men were disproportionately prosecuted for drug offenses due to the elevated mandatory sentence for crack, thus creating a new racial caste system.15 One in 12 working-aged Black men and one in 36 working-aged Hispanic men are in prison, while white men of the same age represent a mere fraction at one in 87.16 This is a staggering statistic. An individual facing sentencing in the U.S. for a minor drug offense is likely to serve a longer prison sentence than a convicted murderer will in other countries.17 This law was exacerbated by Bill Clinton’s 1994 federal “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law, which mandated life sentences in some cases for third-time offenders. In total, over 31 million people have been arrested since the War on Drugs campaign was initiated.18

In addition to the War on Drugs, two more reasons are worth mentioning to account for the increase in incarcerated individuals. First, the last two decades have revealed a strong inclination to detain both documented and undocumented immigrants who constitute more than half of all federal prosecutions.19 Laws put into place by the government (the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996) have mandated the detention of immigrants regardless of whether they were deemed not dangerous or a flight risk, resulting in a 500% increase of detainees.20 Second, the rise of the prison industrial complex—a term that describes the conflation of business and government interests—partially accounts for the motivations behind keeping sentencing rates high and alternative solutions out of the system. A financial interest begins to inform the setting and operations of privatized prisons, which in turn incentivizes the stakeholders to keep the extreme policies in place. In this era, therefore, prisons equal money.21

Today prisons are mostly located in economically depressed rural areas, where the incarcerated are hidden out of sight, and thus, out of the minds of the broad public. Once they are released from prison, they are faced with a new set of challenges where their lives are still very much informed by their recent experiences: they are marked as ‘criminals’ and can seldom shake the ‘prison label’ that is attached to them from the moment they enter the criminal justice system, whether ultimately sentenced or not.22 Once branded a felon, individuals are often faced with hiring discrimination, and many are also disqualified from receiving federal welfare benefits, including food stamps, public housing, and healthcare. It is thus no surprise that recidivism rates are high, with those labeled felons finding themselves back in the prison system.23

The excessive television coverage of the War on Drugs typically took its cues from the Reagan administration’s race-driven ideology that positioned crack cocaine as an epidemic sweeping through neighborhoods across the U.S., even though the drug’s pervasiveness has been documented as becoming established mostly after the launch of the administration’s campaign. The Black community’s recourse to cocaine in crack form therefore positioned them as the top offenders in this “war,” where they were (and are) often associated with criminal activity.24 Another campaign of stigmatization would ensure common usage of the term “illegal” in the media when referring to immigrants. “Illegal” is perceived as a racially coded and dehumanizing label that reduces the individual to a single negative abstraction. Motivated by political strategy, the word has been used to denote difference and criminalize non-citizens.25

What is, therefore, our primary source material for conjuring an image of the “criminal”? For many it is likely television, films, and other elements of pop culture that prioritize tropes to anchor storylines at the cost of factual context. They are dominant platforms of communication that categorically flatten situations, overlook details and disregard the systemic conditions that are at the core of their narratives. As a result, they perpetuate common racial biases and position the criminal—usually Black or Latino—as the “Other,” who should be prosecuted and locked away regardless of circumstance.

This brief overview of the American detention system over the past few decades leads us to the works included in the exhibition To Shoot A Kite. In prison-speak, a ‘kite’ represents notes or letters and ‘to shoot a kite’ means to send a message.26 The projects included in this show, and further detailed throughout this catalogue, represent the work of a select group of artists who have set out to relay the severe conditions of prisoners and expose this broken system. In so doing, they are reframing the narrative surrounding the incarcerated—providing a platform for public expression and advocating for change both from within and outside the prison system. Each project takes on a different form—from documentation and data visualization to offering services and advocacy. They provide a link between the incarcerated and the outside world, portraying their conditions, and personalizing the abundant yet anonymous data about the prison system.

This exhibition by no means represents an exhaustive account of the incredible work being done by creative individuals on behalf of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated (see the Resources section for more). As our society’s official priorities continue to shift away from delivering social services, motivated individuals take up the task of filling the needs of underserved and overlooked communities. These projects (detailed in the Artists section) serve as a mere sample of thousands of projects by artists and activists who have dedicated their work to raising awareness, and bringing about reform where political leadership has either failed to address the problem or been complicit in its very formation.27

Ashley Hunt’s Corrections Documentary Project is a comprehensive body of work about the prison industrial complex, primarily examining the politics and economics of the massive increase of the U.S. prisoner population since the 1970s. The project is  comprised of nine videos and two maps that reveal the manner in which this system helps structure and preserve the racial and economic hierarchies of today's society. In 2008, a group of collaborators—Temporary Services, Tamms Year Ten and Sarah Ross—sent letters to every prisoner in the now-shuttered Illinois Tamms Supermax Prison, inviting them to partake in Supermax Subscriptions—a program that exchanges frequent flier miles with magazine subscriptions for prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. In offering this service, the project exposed the inhumanity of maximum-security facilities, and enabled individuals to infiltrate these secluded confines to make a meaningful contribution to the lives of those often forgotten inside. In the ongoing series The Last Supper, Julie Green paints last-meal requests on secondhand ceramic plates, telling the stories of death row inmates through food. This ritual serves a humanizing representation—a kind of memorial—where their final choice is permanently recorded. Lockdown is a project that presents a fragment of the population of 2.4 million people locked away in U.S. prisons. The eleven photo portraits and interview excerpts were recorded during one-hour visits Dread Scott made to a prison and at a meeting with youth who had been through the system. The project depicts a group that is acutely aware of how they got to the position they are in, as well as of the politics driving the criminal justice system. The Prison and Neighborhood Arts Project (P+NAP) connects teaching artists and scholars with incarcerated men through semester-long humanities classes, workshops and guest lectures at Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security state facility in Greater Chicago. Collaboration is at the core of the program, where free and incarcerated artists work together to critically communicate to a broad public the issues of imprisonment, isolation, and social segregation. Members of the collaborative Lucky Pierre began the ongoing video project Final Meals in 2003 based on the now-defunct last meals archive on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's website. In the project, they prepare each requested meal and film a volunteer sitting with it for 25 minutes. By setting up this intimate configuration where a free person is faced with the final request of an individual whose death was sanctioned by the state, Lucky Pierre creates a living monument to the deceased. In 2002, Jackie Sumell sent Herman Wallace, a man in long-term solitary confinement, a letter asking: "What kind of a house does a man who has lived in a 6 ft. x 9 ft. cell for over 30 years dream of?" This sparked a correspondence between the two through which Wallace describes in detail what his future home might include. This communication evolved into a strong friendship that served as the heart of Sumell’s campaign to not only build Wallace’s dream home, but also fight for his ultimate release from prison.

These projects and numerous others—whether working directly with the incarcerated community or making a gesture in their name—embody the strength in creative communication and advocacy on behalf of those who have been marked by governing entities as worthy of less than the rest of us. Imagine if the U.S. were to change its policies on its prosecution of drug offenders, resolving to send defendants to rehabilitation programs rather than prisons? Or if instead of increasing funding to law enforcement agencies, resources would be diverted to drug treatment and anti-drug education? Further yet, what if state-funded education programs returned to prisons to provide inmates with training that could better position them to find a job upon their release? And once they are finally freed—already struggling with the psychological effects of the isolating conditions they have endured—why not help them reintegrate into society, rather than systematically keep them excluded? Could we bring our society to the position where when the formerly incarcerated step outside the prison gates, there is acceptance that their debt to us has been fully paid? In many communities around the country, a significant shift in public opinion must occur so that the dehumanization of the incarcerated can end. And while there are numerous solutions that may alleviate the situation, it is important to remember that the justice system in the U.S. is decidedly broken. Thus only a truly radical break in our society can likely bring an end to mass incarceration in America.

To Shoot A Kite does not provide any answers to the complex system laid out in this essay, but rather raises many questions. With creative means, these artists communicate to us the conditions of incarcerated individuals, so that we can see the true nature of the cruel and unjust penal system buried in our midst. It is our time to speak up for an end to the discrimination of a large part of our populace, so that everyone has a fighting chance at the opportunities that have long been championed by our society. After everything we have heard and all that we have seen, how can we look away?

NOTES: 
Jackie Sumell, The House that Herman Built <http://hermanshouse.org/media> Accessed 17 April 2014.
2 "Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration.” <http://www.sesamestreet.org/parents/topicsandactivities/toolkits/incarceration> Accessed 16 April 2014.
3 The Pew Charitable Trusts, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility (Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010), 4. This statistic also reveals a long-term effect, as “A child’s prospect for upward economic mobility is negatively affected by the incarceration of a parent,” Pew, 5.
4 Peter Wagner and Leah Sakala, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie,” Prison Policy Initiative, 12 March 2014 <http://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie.html>.
5 Roy Walmsley, “World Prison Population List: 9th Edition,” International Centre for Prison Studies, University of Essex, May 2011 <http://www.idcr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/WPPL-9-22.pdf>.
6 Charlie Savage, “Sentences of 8 Are Commuted in Crack Cases,” New York Times, 19 December 2013: A1.
7 Cindy Chang, “Louisiana is the world’s prison capital,” The Times-Picayune, 13 May 2012 <http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2012/05/louisiana_is_the_worlds_prison.html>.
8 Savage, A1.
9 Jake Pearson, “In NYC, Each Inmate Costs Almost As Much As An Ivy League Tuition,” The Huffington Post, September 30, 2013 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/30/nyc-inmate-cost-ivyleague_n_4015836.html>.
10 John Tierney, “For Lesser Crimes, Rethinking Life Behind Bars,” New York Times, 12 December 2012: A1.
11 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: The New Press, 2012), 93.
12 Maia Szalavitz, “Viewpoint: What’s Missing from Sesame Street’s Parents in Prison Toolkit,” TIME Magazine, 13 June 2013 <http://healthland.time.com/2013/06/13/viewpoint-whats-missing-from-sesame-streetsparents-in-prison-toolkit>.
13 Alexander, 49.
14 Under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, this disparity was reduced from a 100:1 to 18:1 weight ratio and eliminated the five-year mandatory minimum sentence for simple possession of crack cocaine.
15 “Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates on a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group largely defined by race.” Alexander, 13.
16 Pew, 4. In some major cities in the U.S., as many as 80% of African American men have criminal records. Alexander, 7.
17 Alexander, 89. In a significant step towards correcting this policy, Attorney General Eric Holder directed prosecutors in August 2013 to cease listing quantities in minor drug offenses so as to avoid meeting the strict mandatory minimum laws. Savage, A1.
18 Alexander, 60.
19 Doris Meissner, Donald M. Kerwin, Muzaffar Chishti, and Claire Bergeron, Immigration Enforcement in the United States: The Rise of a Formidable Machinery (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2013), 7.
20 Meissner, 11.
21 This aspect of the penal system is examined at length in Ashley Hunt’s essay in this catalogue.
22 Alexander, 94.
23 The most recent data by the Bureau of Justice Statistics was released in 2007 <http://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=17>.
24 For more on the media’s role in shaping the War on Drugs, see Jimmie L. Reeves and Richard Campbell, Cracked Coverage: Television News, the Anti-Cocaine, and the Reagan Legacy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994). Michelle Alexander writes about a 1995 survey in which people were asked to describe a drug user – 95% pictured a Black user: Alexander, 106. Further, Ashley Hunt has stated: “if a public is already predisposed to see black people as criminal, they are not going to be shocked when seeing them treated like criminals.” Natascha Sadr Haghighian and Ashley Hunt, “Representations of the Erased,” in exh. cat., No Matter How Bright the Light, the Crossing Occurs at Night, ed. Sladja Blazan and Anselm Franke (Berlin: Köln König, 2006), 8-9.
25 Read more about the “Drop the I-Word” campaign at http://colorlines.com/droptheiword
26 A Prisoner’s Dictionary <http://aren.org/prison/documents/dictionary/words.htm> Accessed 29 March 2014. I first learned of this term via the project Thousand Kites by the Kentucky-based collective Appalshop that produces performance, web, video and radio shows on the topic of the U.S. prison system: http://thousandkites.org.
27 See “Resources” section for a short list of additional services and organizations.

Free Radio by Dr. Jim Grubbs

Added on by Shona Masarin.

INTRODUCTION

They are all around us.  Electromagnetic waves careening from all directions.  Don’t be alarmed.  These cosmic vibrations are the very essence of all known elements.  Each object in our universe, from individual atomic particles to the largest objects in space, emits unique wave patterns.  When we learned to harness these electromagnetic properties in the nineteenth century, we began on a course of creating what we call “radio.” 

In this natural state, radio is free—free to travel wherever it wants—free to act as a carrier of information—any information—without bias and without restriction.  Radio knows no geographical or political boundaries.  Radio knows no single language.  Radio knows no economic status.  Radio knows only the universal and cosmic truth of its natural existence.  While radio weakens in strength as it traverses the cosmos, it never completely goes away.  In theory, every radio transmission from the beginning of time is still out there—somewhere—just waiting to be intercepted.

There is no natural cost for riding these waves.  And even a concentrated effort to stop them is fraught with difficulty.  Radio wants to be free.  One might think of this as a corollary to Stewart Brand’s (1987) (best known as editor of the Whole Earth Catalog) notion of Information Wants to Be Free.  Radio is, at its most basic level, a carrier of information.

From the earliest transmissions, we as a society have searched for ways to utilize this carrier of information to meet the needs of our communities large and small.  Radio has evolved into a real-time source of information, education, and entertainment.  While the powerhouse stations of the big city serve entire regions, it’s only natural that the content they broadcast must appeal to a large and diverse audience.  It’s the small town stations, the “mom and pop” operations, that continue to deliver news of small communities and provide the sort of entertainment most beloved by those communities.  With the demise of many small town newspapers, more than ever, small market radio is an important community resource.  The best among these stations continue to fulfill the destiny of Free Radio on a very local basis (Grubbs, 1998).  

This essay focuses on the ways in which radio brings the very fabric of small town and rural life into our homes, cars, and indeed, anywhere we travel.  It is, in many ways, the antithesis of “mass media.”  We begin by looking at some early broadcasts, consider recent threats to the existence of this important resource, and examine how some small stations have met that threat and continue to thrive.  Finally, we’ll offer some insights into what the future holds.

In short, this essay embraces the notion of “free radio” as a powerful mode of communication. By necessity, this is a warp-speed overview of a vast topic, so we’ve provided a list of sources at the end that you may consult to learn more.  See especially Sterling and Kittross (2001).

 

THE BROADCASTER IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD

The earliest radio broadcasts intended for the community were accomplished not by commercial interests but by hobbyist or “amateur radio” enthusiasts.  The earliest transmissions (circa 1900) were primarily related to maritime interests and were intended for point-to-point communication—not broadcasting (DeSoto, 1936).  In 1909 when the first radio clubs were formed, radio frequency energy was generated by allowing a spark to jump across a wide gap—a system suitable only for Morse coded messages.  The frequencies used at the time were in the range of today’s commercial AM broadcast band and below (300-6000 meters). In the United States, the Navy was charged with policing the air waves since they were the primary user of the technology.  Voice broadcasts came later.

It was not uncommon in the years prior to 1922 for a neighborhood “ham radio” operator to construct a transmitter and antenna system at his or her home.  While some were content to communicate one-on-one (or “point-to-point”) with other experimenters, some saw the opportunity to use this evolving technology to transmit general public information and entertainment.  Many a son, daughter, or spouse made their radio debuts demonstrating their musical talents or oratorical skills in a home rigged studio connected to an unlicensed and unregulated transmitter system. 

A number of pre-1920 publications offered diagrams and descriptions of radio devices that could be assembled by the hobbyist, as well as news from their readers about their “homebrew” operations.  It is through these publications and news stories of the day that we have an insight into the role of amateur or hobbyist broadcasters during this early period of radio.

While the Navy tried to maintain control of the radio spectrum at the turn of the century, they were ineffective with the general public (Marvin, 1988).  The onset of World War I shut down all such operations but they came back in force even stronger after the war (Lewis, 1991).  In January of 1922, hobbyists were restricted by law to only point-to-point communication.  “Broadcasting” now required a special license.  The Radio Act of 1912 and later the Radio Act of 1927 served to codify the “rules of the road” for all wireless communication in the United States.  The Department of Commerce and Labor was given the authority to fine those that operated outside of its strict code of rules.

As early as 1909, hobbyist Charles Herrold began broadcasts.  As 1913 arrived, his broadcasts were on a regular but limited schedule of both music and voice performance.  His station was later licensed in 1916 as 6XF and he was also authorized for mobile transmissions as 6XE.  Wartime restrictions shut down all amateur stations in 1917, but he resumed operations again in 1919.

In 1919, Hugo Gernsback, a prolific publisher and champion of radio, included information about a test transmission featuring live opera.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t include the name of the opera house or the broadcaster. 

An article in the November 1920 edition of Radio News titled “The Radio Preacher “ (and a similar story titled “A Real ‘Sky’ Pilot” printed in the February 1921 issue of The American Missionary) chronicles Charles A. Stanley’s amateur station, 9BW in Kansas, which featured Sunday night sermons by “the original radio preacher” Dr. Clayton B. Wells.

Also in 1920, The New York Times carried a story titled “PHONOGRAPH’S  MUSIC  HEARD  ON  RADIOPHONES:  400  Listen  to  Selections  Transmitted  by  Local  Inventor.”   The article explains that Frank Conrad took his phonograph over to his wireless transmitter and played a selection of phonograph discs.  Over time, the Saturday evening broadcast established an audience of 400 listeners, though we don’t know how the paper arrived at that figure.

Noted radio historian Donna Halper (2001) tells the story of 19 year old Eunice Randall Thompson, broadcasting over station 1XE at Tufts College beginning in 1919.  Eunice may have been the first woman to be both an announcer and an engineer.  She is remembered for many things, including reading radio children’s bed-time stories. 

These are just a few examples of early broadcasts preserved for history by the popular radio magazines of the day.  It was such a popular hobby that during the early days of radio there were at least 50 radio-related publications on the newsstand.

 

FAST FORWARD IN TIME

Commercial Interests Dominate 

The next chapter of radio history began in earnest in the 1920s as commercial interests sought licenses for the specific purpose of capitalizing on the public’s fascination and dedication to radio broadcasts.  It was not unusual, for example, for a furniture store to construct its own radio station.  Why?  To encourage the purchase of radio receivers.  Major corporations like Sears saw the value in owning their own station—WLS—World’s Largest Store.  Nashville based WSM—whose slogan was We Shield Millions—was the radio voice of The National Life and Accident Insurance Company.  Even the unions saw the value in a powerful radio voice.  WCFL—The Voice of Labor—owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor went on the air in July 1926 and retained its ownership until it was sold in 1978. 

Depressed Economy—Thriving Radio Audience

Next came the depression; ironically, economic hardship created an environment rich in possibilities for radio entertainment.  Radio was “free”—at least once you purchased the receiving set and installed it.  While World War II would place some severe restrictions on radio broadcasting, stations adapted and became the primary source for “instant” news with radio linking reporters around the globe.  The same technologies allowed for stations to be effectively networked such that popular shows originating around the country could be heard across the entire nation.  Radio shows were so popular that theaters would pause their feature films during the most popular radio shows and pipe in the radio channel to the delight of the movie going public.  The picture show resumed after the radio show concluded.

 

Radio with Moving Pictures

New technology to rival radio—in the form of television—was technically viable prior to World War II, but until the war ended, all manufacturing resources were devoted to the war effort.  Once television became available, radio, especially local radio, began a period of economic decline.  Why just listen when you could listen and watch!  Some declared radio “dead.”  Not only radio suffered—so did movie theaters.  

Rock and Roll to the Rescue/FM Underground/Talk Radio

What “saved” radio was rock and roll! (Douglas, 1999.)  Throughout the 1950s, financially strapped station owners found that teenagers were gaining more and more spending power.  They were also underserved as an audience.  Rock and roll brought in listeners by the thousands with advertisement dollars to match.  The trend continued well into the 1960s and even early 1970s, but the attraction of AM Top 40 stations waned.  A new force was developing in the form of FM stations that played a greater variety of music.  Some of them were considered to be underground stations; they not only presented alternative music but also espoused a counter-cultural message throughout their broadcasts.  Of course they did this while quite willingly accepting traditional advertising.  This time, it was a matter of FM with its superior sound quality and greater entertainment choices “killing” AM.  But the AM dial was not about to become silent.  Enter “talk radio.”  While less than ideal for music, AM technology suits the human voice well and the talk radio format blossomed.

Each of these eras of broadcasting is worthy of its own expanded treatment.  Please refer to the suggested readings at the end of this essay or browse the exhibit library for additional resources.

Meanwhile Back in the Small Towns 

During this entire period, much of the original amateur/hobbyist spirit of highly localized community broadcasting continued quietly to develop.  Many stations offered live music programs each day, often featuring a revered local pianist or organist.  Listeners learned who had died and who had been born, who got married in the community and other social news.  The “swap shop” became a favorite feature.  Agricultural reports, hymn time, recipe shows, and a variety of other local fare dominated the schedule.  Local Girl and Boy Scout troops and 4H members visited the studios and broadcast their hellos to family and friends.  The whole sound generally wasn’t very polished but it was the familiar voice and ethos of the rural communities being served.  A combination of the depression and World War II did restrict the number of start-up small community operations during the period, but by 1950, the situation changed drastically.

Even though television threatened to steal the radio audience, it would take some time before there was a critical mass of sets in the hands of viewers.  Additionally, television stations were almost always associated with big cities, and their signals were, as often as not, either undetectable or extremely marginal in rural communities, especially in the Midwestern and Western states.  Radio was still the key to local information.

Rural community radio continued to thrive well into the 1970s.  An economic downturn and the increasing cost of doing business challenged small town broadcasters. 

 

THE THREAT

By the 1970s there was a large and powerful movement against the restrictive rules that governed the use and content of radio (Hillyard & Keith, 2005). This dissatisfaction eventually led to the deregulation of the medium during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  Much of the call for deregulation came from large corporations with radio interests who were looking for ways to expand but were stymied by ownership rules.  Deregulation changed how radio stations operated. For example, stations were no longer required to dedicate a certain percentage of their airtime to public affairs or non-entertainment programming. No longer were stations charged with ascertaining community needs within their broadcast territory, and the requirement for detailed program logs was eliminated. Additionally, the licensing process was made significantly easier, and caps on ownership were raised. 

On August 4, 1987, Congress voted to abolish the Fairness Doctrine entirely—no longer requiring stations to provide “equal time” for opposing views. In March of 1992, the station ownership caps were again raised. Congress proposed the complete elimination of ownership caps, and a significant relaxation of the cross-ownership rules that were then in place. Just a few years before the turn of the century, the Telecommunications Act of 1997 virtually eliminated any ownership caps that remained, and subsequently opened the floodgates for mass ownership of stations, with some companies owning hundreds or even a thousand or more stations. 

The result of deregulation led to a more sinister effect than just large corporations buying up smaller operations.  Prior to the onset of deregulation (e.g. Bates & Chambers, 1999; Chambers, 2001; Dawkins & Scott, 2003; Drushel, 1998), many rural communities enjoyed the presence of one or more locally owned and operated radio stations.  The acquisition of rural stations for the purpose of repositioning them in larger markets began as soon as the FCC started to deregulate the market in 1981 (Bates & Chambers, 1999).  Further deregulation, including the Telecommunications Act of 1997, has contributed to the phenomenon. 

Specifically, the technique allowed access to larger markets, even though there were no available frequencies.  For example, stations in the following markets were purchased for the purpose of serving the Springfield, Illinois metropolitan area [population 111,454 in 2000]: Hillsboro [population 4,349 in 2000], Lincoln [population 15,369 in 2000], Jacksonville [population 18,940 in 2000], Taylorville [population 11,427 in 2000], and Virden [population 3,488 in 2000].  The result was the loss of a local voice for listeners in the affected markets.  In most cases, local studios were abandoned, transmitting facilities were relocated as close to the true intended market as possible, and the “new” station was marketed primarily as a service to the new, larger community.  Overnight, smaller communities lost their local outlook.  The new corporate owners cared little about serving their city of license.  Rather, they concentrated on the audiences available to them in the nearby larger cities.  (Grubbs, 2008.) 

Broadcasting and Cable Magazine noted that in 1996, the top 25 station groups controlled just 7.3 percent of all stations.  A mere four years later after the most recent rewrite of the Telecommunications Act stripped most caps on ownership, the top 25 groups controlled 23.4 percent (2,471 of 10,549) of all stations and 57 percent of all revenue, with a single entity, Clear Channel, accounting for 20 percent of that revenue and more than 1,000 stations (“Clearly,”  2000, p. 50).  

The justification?  Corporate America claimed they were “saving” small town radio—with some studies showing that more than half of the commercial radio stations—many in smaller markets—lost money in 1990.  Consolidation allowed for economies of scale.  The fixed costs could be spread among groups of stations.

The damage done during this period of consolidation is still felt very strongly today.  But over time, big corporations learned that even with the efficiencies they offered, they could not realize a profit in some operations.  There was also a significant backlash as more and more stations were effectively “stolen” from their original communities.   This created an opportunity for local interests to reclaim community stations by re-purchasing them.  Creative engineering solutions and interpretations of Federal Communication Commission rules and regulations were also being applied to assist potential small market broadcasters and return ownership to local citizens.

 

SUCCESSFUL SMALL TOWN RADIO TODAY

Rising above the casualties of deregulation are a smaller but well-fortified group of stations that have found a way to survive.  One small station owner says:  “Small-market radio will survive only if it serves its listeners and its advertisers. It doesn’t mean being a jukebox—it means reading the news, the obituaries, doing the swap shops, the ball games, sponsoring the fish fries.  You have to love radio to stay in it. There’s not a lot of money in it, even for ownership. You have to love it and the community.” (Randy Miller, Personal Communication.) 

We often associate small town radio with country and gospel music, agricultural reports, and local news of a type that harkens back to the weekly newspapers of the nineteenth century that distributed the news of local births, deaths, marriages—an electronic form of town gossip rather than world caliber news coverage or the latest musical phenomena.   But they provide far more.  The best of the surviving small town radio stations offer us true community based programming—not just another iteration of big corporation radio.  The political buzzword for this type of programming is broadcast localism.  The FCC itself notes that radio stations “are licensed to local communities, and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has long required broadcasters to serve the needs and interests of the communities to which they are licensed.  Congress has also required that the FCC assign broadcast stations to communities around the country to assure widespread service, and the Commission has given priority to affording local service as part of this requirement.  Broadcast ‘localism’ encompasses these requirements.”  (FCC, n.d., para 1)

 

THE KEY TO SUCCESSFUL SMALL TOWN RADIO

A study conducted from May 2006 through June 2007 (Grubbs, 2008) examined successful small town radio stations and identified some common elements of small town radio survivors:

    

     1) In order to maintain a high level of local commitment, on-site involvement of

         ownership is critical. 

 

     2) Station involvement in community activities is paramount.  Staff from the     

         most successful stations are out in their communities every day.  They don’t

         just participate in events planned by others; they provide leadership by    

         creating community activities themselves.  They are at the very fabric of     

         their respective communities.

 

     3) Longevity is a key element.  Successful small town stations have a rich

         history in their communities.  The “youngest” have been around for 15

         years or more, while others proudly claim a 60 year or longer history of

         serving their communities.

 

     4) The “bread and butter” for many small stations is local sports in the form

         of high school games, often supplemented by coverage of professional

         teams of local interest.  It’s not just coverage of some local school sports

         that appears to make the difference.  Rather, it’s a commitment to covering

         as many games as possible right down to Little League in some cases.

      

     5) At least in agriculturally rich areas such as the Midwest, agri-business

         news remains an important force.

 

     6) Successful stations make extraordinary efforts to hire extraordinary people

         that are a good fit with the local community.  And they find a way to keep

         them motivated and loyal to the station.  Modest incentives have been used

         to retain quality staff.

 

     7) From a technical standpoint, engineering and legal advice can literally

         “save” a small market station.  In short, the same techniques that benefit

         the big corporate owners when they seek ways to increase their presence

         in larger markets can be used by community broadcasters to their own

         advantage.

 

COMMUNITY RADIO

Another form of empowering radio comes in the form of the non-commercial “community station.”  Generally licensed in the non-profit portion of the FM spectrum (88.1 to 91.9 MHz) these stations are often modestly powered and staffed entirely or mostly by community volunteers.  Those wishing to learn more might examine the history of KDNA/KDHX in St. Louis, WEFT in Champaign Illinois, or WFHR in Bloomington, Indiana (e.g. Engleman, 1996; McCourt, 1999). 

 

MODERN DAY AMATEUR RADIO ENTHUSIASTS

While regulation in the early twentieth century effectively ended community broadcasts by hobbyists, their interest and dedication has never gone away.  These are the people who have pioneered many of the radio technologies we take for granted today.  They helped establish FM as a viable form of communication; they created mobile phone connections that were the forerunner to today’s cell phones; they have contributed to satellite communication technology through a series of privately built and financed satellites (Davidoff, 1998).  One set of experiments helped to define the protocol used for our GPS systems.  And amateur enthusiasts created a wireless computer communication protocol long before most of us had any notion of a “wireless computer network.”

  

GAZE INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL

Radio is now a “legacy” technology.  It’s been around for about 125 years.  And while analog technology is giving way to digital means of transmission, there is no sign that radio as we know it is going away anytime soon.  So what does the future hold for “free radio?”

In our lifetime, we will likely see the cessation of virtually all traditional analog radio, such as our current AM and FM bands.  Just as the United States has committed to an entirely digital approach to broadcast television, the mandate to do the same for over the air radio is already in the works, but it’s a complicated issue—so was the change from analog to digital television. 

When we think about the future of free radio, it’s important that we split the discussion into two distinct areas.  Recall that radio waves are simply the carrier (or medium) that provide the means of transmitting information.  Technologies will come and go; the technical nature of the carrier will shape the content—perhaps allowing higher resolution, multiple dimensions, and incorporation of other senses.  An ideal carrier or medium would introduce no bias of its own—it would be completely transparent to the message—the ideas—ride along the carrier it provides.  The message—the content—is anything we as humankind can imagine. 

We continue to develop carriers that lend themselves to truly mass availability.  But we still live in much smaller communities with an innate desire and need for localized information.  Our challenge will be to create convenient and effective ways to continue to make that local information available.  The connectedness of our world brings us the best art and entertainment available.  We can travel, virtually, to the finest music halls, the best cinemas, the most interesting galleries, and the most vibrant street fairs.  But for most of us, there is still something very unique and very desirable about making our own art and sharing that with our neighbors.  Listening live and in person to musicians you know is a different experience than hearing the same or similar music from a distant source.  Learning about “free radio” at the gallery is a different experience than reading about it online.

 The future of “free radio” will be defined by people like you.  You’ve started your journey by engaging in the Free Radio project. Our hope is that you use your experiences throughout your life to empower your own vision using the freedom and power of “free radio.”

 

 REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

 

Bates, B., & Chambers, T. (1999). The Economic Basis for Radio Deregulation.             

          Journal of Media Economics, 12(1), 19-34.

 

Brand, S. (1987).  The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT.  New York:

            Viking.

 

Carron, P. (1986).  Morse Code:  The Essential Language.  Newington,

            Connecticut:  American Radio Relay League.

 

Chambers, T.  (2001). Losing Owners:  Deregulation and Small Radio Markets.

            Journal of Radio Studies, 8(2), 292-315.

 

Clearly, it’s Clear Channel. (2000, September 18). Broadcasting & Cable, p. 50.

 

Davidoff, M.  (1998). The Radio Amateur’s Satellite Handbook. Newington,

            Connecticut:  American Radio Relay League.

 

Dawkins, W. & M. Scott. (2003, May).  Battle for the Airwaves!.  Black Enterprise

            33, no. 10: p. 64-71.

 

DeSoto, C. (1936).  200 Meters and Down, the Story of Amateur Radio.

            Newington Connecticut:  The American Radio Relay League.

 

Douglas, S. (1995).  Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass

            Media.  New York:  Times Books.

 

Douglas, S.  (1999).  Listening In.   New York:  Times Books.

 

Drushel, B. (1998). The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Radio Market

            Structure. Journal of Media Economics, 11(3), 3-20.

 

Engleman, R.  (1996).  Public Radio and Television in America:  A Political

            History.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.

 

Federal Communications Commission. (n.d.).  FCC consumer facts: Broadcast

            and localism.  Retrieved December 30, 2011 from http://www.fcc.gov/

            localism/Localism Fact Sheet.pdf.

 

Grubbs, J. (2004).  Women Broadcasters of World War II.  Journal of Radio

            Studies, Volume: 11, Pages: 40-54.

 

Grubbs, J. (2008).  Indentifying Factors for Success in Rural Community Radio.

            Washington, DC:  National Association of Broadcasters.

 

 

 

Halper, D. and Fishman, D. (2001).  Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in

             American Broadcasting.  Armonk, NY:  M.E. Sharpe.

 

Hillyard, R. & Keith, M. (2005).  The Quieted Voice:  The Rise and Demise of

             Localism in American Radio.  Carbondale:  Southern Illinois Press.

 

Lewis, T.  (1991).   Empire of the Air. New York:  HarperCollins.

 

Marvin, C. (1988).  When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric

             Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century.  New York:  Oxford

             University Press.

 

McCourt, T. (1999).  Conflicting Communication Interests in America:  The Case

             of National Public Radio.  Westport Connecticut:  Praeger.

 

Sterling, C. and  Kittross, J.  (2001).  Stay Tuned: A History of American

             Broadcasting, Third Edition. Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum

             Associates.

Decorative Contemporary by Emily Warner

Added on by Shona Masarin.

Pattern and Decoration has been called the last modernist movement and the first postmodern, a final hurrah in the chapters of avant-garde rebellion and a new front in the pluralist free-for-all of the 1970s. Certainly the movement was multiple, divergent, even contradictory in its manifestations: under its umbrella it gathered abstraction, figurative flourishes, gridded designs, riotous arabesques. Anything and everything outside the borders of the austere status quo—outside of that formal and expansive “Athene” that Clement Greenberg sought in his vision of high modernism: it’s not folk art, he famously asserted, not mass production, but “Athene whom we want: formal culture with its infinity of aspects, its luxuriance, its large comprehension.”[1]

The Athena quote appears as one of many collaged together in Joyce Kozloff and Valerie Jaudon’s 1978 “Art Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture,” a manifesto-like essay for feminist art and its craft-based movements.[2] The essay’s contention, that the biases of gender and race deeply inflect the dominant narratives written about culture, is well captured in Greenberg’s vision of Athena. For it is this Athena, understood in her various guises—Eurocentric culture, high art, the negative purity of abstraction—that so much of Pattern and Decoration has aimed at undoing. What might the marginal and the decorative, P&D asks, the frippery sheared from Athena’s edges, offer by way of alternative? How might the surfeit of extras repeatedly refused by fine art capture a richer and more varied meaning—both in P&D’s initial instances, and today, in present practice?

Since the 70s, of course, Athena’s hegemony has been repeatedly contested. This has made P&D’s own grumble with modernist orthodoxy somewhat more elusive. If Pattern and Decoration was a breath of fresh air in the stale space of an over-serious art world, as its early supporters maintained, what do we make of it today, when color, freshness, and insouciant critique are the norm? Some have deemed P&D an essential break—a decisively important “first”—in the opening of the floodgates.[3] I am more interested here, however, in the particular strategies that P&D employed in its assault. What of its various manners and impulses—the proliferating scrawl of the decorative, the tacky glee of visual excess, the psychological or political freight vested in materials? Where, on the contemporary scene, do such concerns with interface and surface, with the thingness of objects and the heightened spaces between them, crop up in newly generative ways? In dwelling on a few of P&D’s salient impulses, and noting their permutations in present practice, I offer neither a full summary of the movement, nor a cast of contemporary heirs. (Indeed, the artists and works discussed vary greatly in style and ideological commitment.) Rather, I hope to elucidate a few specific themes that informed P&D, and that continue, with or without the specter of Athena as counter weight, to be fruitful modes of artistic investigation.

 

Proliferation
More than the grid per se, it is proliferation, the sprawling continuation of motif, that underlies the P&D decorative. Equally apparent in the tightly patterned knots of Valerie Jaudon’s canvases and the messier, looping strokes of Robert Zakanitch’s paintings, such spreading motifs take over surfaces and objects with a cheerful disregard for variations in medium or function. In Kim MacConnel’s fabric works, like the 1978 Red Corner, strokes of paint wiggle themselves across underlying patterns, so that a blue flower print is limned with gestural curlicues and the outlines of jaunty, cartoonish peonies.

In the wallpapers of contemporary artist Virgil Marti, patterned images extend their reach across entire room interiors. As in Cynthia Carlson’s rooms of the 1980s, patterning erupts everywhere: on the walls, along decorative objects, on hung pictures. In Marti’s VIP Room (2010), a slowly turning disco ball sends a pale, light-refracted wobble across the patterned silver wallpaper, while at night blacklights illuminate a neon-colored landscape lurking in the paper’s printed fluorescent ink.

This propensity for multiplication—for a spreading-beyond-the-borders—goes a long way to distinguishing the decorative from its more staid and serious counterparts in abstraction. Artist Polly Apfelbaum’s floor pieces, flat fabric swatches clustering in corners or spilling out from wall bases, speak to the same kind of proliferating drive, overtaking even the floor we walk on.

 

Excess
Proliferation shades easily into abundance and profusion: the decorative likes to revel in its gaudiness, its over-the-top-ness. If Apfelbaum’s floor pieces hint at such a direction, her more recent monoprints, neon flowers and dots closely printed on giant sheets of paper, celebrate it. You can lose yourself in the deeply saturated colors of her monochrome flowers, each perfect and pokey as a Volkswagen decal. The excessiveness has both a high and low register: the impressions cut deeply, seductively, into the weave of the handmade paper, even as they evoke the tacky sheen of vinyl shower curtains.

Excess is something the original P&D artists excelled at. Miriam Schapiro’s mixed-media works, with their dazzling pile-up of endless flower motifs, cubes, and fabric shreds, stun the eye in their profusion of detail. Robert Zakanitch’s large paintings, like his famous wall-size Bungalow Suite series (1990-94), envelop the viewer in feet upon feet of swooping paint strokes.

Contemporary artist Catherine Lan’s mixed-media canvases, trussed up in fuzz and puckered silk, put a subtly unnerving spin on the tacky glee of Zakanitch and Apfelbaum. The glut of textural materials in her works (lace, fabric, glitter, spray paint) suggests layers of female masquerade and fantasy. Art historian Norma Broude, in an essay on Pattern and Decoration, deemed the decorative “abstraction’s ‘other,’” and there is something convincing about this when looking at Lan’s works: the patterns are formally beautiful, but constituted from such pop debris as twinkling rhinestones and pasted fur balls.[4] Everything that abstraction might aim for, but in a lovingly vulgar vocabulary.

 

Interface
Brimmed in faux fur and felt, Lan’s canvases can feel like living personas. P&D teems with such quasi-animate entities. In Cynthia Carlson’s 1975 Triple Buldges, bulbs of canvas, hardened into place with coats of paint, suggest rows of peering eyeballs. A Jane Kaufman work from 1984, 4-Panel Screen, stands six and a half feet tall, its black, feather-coated panels intimating the curved back of a giant insect. Like the hanging fabrics of other P&D artists, Kaufman’s standing screen acts as a marker between spaces: with its slight concave bulge, it almost seems to breathe, separating outside from inside, surface from interior.

This play between thing and interface, between sculpted object and an object that sculpts its environment, continues in a variety of contemporary works that sit, like Carlson’s Buldges, somewhere between painting and sculpture. The shaped canvases and constructions of such artists as Jim Lee, Ian Pedigo, and Justin Adian burble personality traits (feisty, loveable, uncanny, weird), at the same time they tinker with the space around them: misshapen ovals with crackled surfaces suggest mirrors or voids, leaning stretcher bars and puffed-up limbs carve frames and portals against the gallery wall.       

This interest in the mediating potential of objects informs many of P&D’s “usable” and architectural works. The wearable fabrics of Robert Kushner’s Chador series, or the edible clothing from his 1972 performances, impart new skins to their wearers, or, when hung on the wall, hint at the enlivening power of costume. Donna Dennis’s mini hotel fronts and subway entrances from the 1970s engage similar themes of threshold and façade. Perkily arranged (in some 1970s exhibitions with fake palm trees), the shacks and house fronts offer shallow porches and entrances that lead to nowhere.

 

Material
Perhaps the most characteristic impulse of Pattern and Decoration is its attitude toward material. Robert Zakanitch, for one, rooted his decorative practice in childhood memories of material ornamentation, noting, “In my grandparents’ house, ornamentation was everywhere. They had embroidered tablecloths and armrests. They used stencils to paint flower patterns on their walls…[they] decorated everything.”[5] In addition to being liberal, even decadent, in the diversity of its materials, P&D was deeply invested in their metaphorical layers, in the cultural and political nuances that specific media might encode. Miriam Shapiro’s quilts and pasted fabrics originated as an attempt to incorporate the anonymous craftwork of women, to recover and engage with a female history of  “sewing, piecing, hooking, cutting, appliquéing, cooking, and the like.”[6]

Like Schapiro, contemporary artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins utilizes materials with distinct evocations of the domestic. Her constructions, with clay figures on faded sofas, or plaster-caked rocking horses, focus less on the repetitive gestures of traditional “women’s work” than on the detritus of home- and art-making. The assemblage Convivium, from 2008, covers a table with a network of papier-mache tubes, sprouting like growths from the table edges and offering small platforms for bumpy clay vessels. In his Plate Convergence projects, contemporary artist Theaster Gates uses ceramic plate ware as material conveyors for Black and Japanese cultural traditions. Making and using the vessels, in dinner gatherings and performances, becomes a way not only to recover lost handiwork and ritual but to craft eclectic contemporary mixtures. In both Hutchins and Gates, material intersects potently with the relational, with the ephemeral webs of eating, gathering, crafting, history-telling. Material as metaphor—with its textural grain and its infinite capacity for difference—is one of P&D’s most potent legacies.

In many ways, the most significant lessons of P&D involve strategies for making things messy—for roughing up the edges and troubling neat distinctions. This is done, then as now, through recourse to the particular: to the bumpiness of layered media, to materials with their own histories, to things rather than ideas. Those distinctions that P&D trained its sites at and sought to bring down—distinctions between serious and unserious, pure and kitschy, patriarchal and marginal—have proved far more infinite than the dualisms of modernism ever suggested. Today’s artists work within and across the variegated interstices of race, gender, sexuality, painterliness and mass culture, local and global, the many shades between synthesis, celebration, and critique.

P&D’s real contribution lies not in the conceptual messages derived from it, but in the specific ways it gave material form to such concepts. I have attempted to outline a few of these above. Proliferation, excess, interface, and the metaphorical weight of material continue to be viable modes today, beyond the modernist horizon. The decorative was, and is, a way not to replace one canon with another, but to insist on the multiplicity and divergence of contemporary experience. It is a way of uncovering Athena in the details, of declaring that luxuriance and large comprehension (along with narrowness, ignorance, glee, anger, memory, et al) dwell not in the universal but in the personal and the particular. &nbsp;

__________

Emily Warner is a writer living in Philadelphia, PA. She was a participant of CUE and AICA’s Young Art Critic Mentoring Program, for which she wrote on the 2009 exhibition Clark V. Fox. Her work has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Artcritical.com, NYFA Current, and Proximity Magazine, and she writes regularly on New York and Philadelphia exhibitions. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in art history.

 

 

[1]Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” [1939] reprinted in Pollock and After: The Critical Debate, ed. Francis Frascina (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 21-34; 32 n5.

[2]Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff, “Art Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture,” Heresies 1:4 (Winter 1977-8), 38-42. Reprinted in Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, ed., Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings (Berkeley: University of California, 1996), 154-64.

[3] Artist Robert Zakanitch, for example, has noted, “without P&D, there would be no postmodern.” Quoted in Anne Swartz, “Pattern and Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art” in Swarz, ed., Pattern and Decoration: An Ideal Vision in American Art, 1975-1985, 12-42 (Yonkers, NY: Hudson River Museum, 2007), 23.

Somewhat more measuredly, Holland Cotter noted P&D’s importance in “bring[ing] down the great Western Minimalist wall for a while and bring[ing] the rest of the world in. Let the art historical record show, in the postmovement future, the continuing debt we owe it for that.” See Holland Cotter, “Scaling a Minimalist Wall with Bright, Shiny Colors,” New York Times (January 15, 2008), E1.

[4] See Norma Broude, “The Pattern and Decoration Movement” in The Power of Feminist Art: The American Movement of the 1970s, History and Impact, ed. Broude and Mary D. Garrard, 208-225 (New York: Abrams, 1996), 208.

[5] Robert Zakanitch in interview with Charles Sabba. Quoted in Arthur C. Danto, “Pattern and Decoration as a Late Modernist Movement,” in Swarz, ed., Ideal Vision, op. cit., 7-11; 8.

[6] Melissa Meyer and Miriam Schapiro, “Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled—FEMMAGE,” Heresies 1:4 (Winter 1977-8), 66-9. Reprinted in Stelz and Stiles, op. cit., 151-4.

Painting/Writing/History by Martha Schwendener

Added on by Shona Masarin.

Painting’s recent adversaries are well known. First came photography. “You know exactly what I think of photography,” Marcel Duchamp wrote to Alfred Stieglitz. “I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.”1 But Duchamp’s readymades were an equally potent threat, as well as the idea that a certain narrative of painting couldn’t be sustained. Ad Reinhardt declared his black canvases “the last paintings which anyone can make.” Robert Ryman’s white paintings posed a similar impasse.

Attempts to revive painting in the 1970s were framed as pathological: “hysterical”; “a tantrum, shrieking and sputtering that the end of painting has not come.”2 The return of figurative painting seemed positively dangerous, highlighting the “intricate connection between aesthetic mastery and authoritarian domination.”3 By the millennium, it wasn’t just painting that was suspect, but all mediums. Pluralism had disallowed the primacy of any one medium, but now it was declared that, “we inhabit a post-medium condition.”4

Painting never died, of course. In the 1970s, however, innovations were coming from different sources. “It’s very strange that the history of painting could be thought to end just as women were beginning to make their contributions,” one artist commented, while another added that, “‘white’ people … to whom art had belonged got to end the narrative before anyone else could get their foot in the door.”5

Unless, of course, it wasn’t so much an argument about painting as an argument over how to write about painting: A crisis presenting itself in the form of a discourse, which later bloomed into a full blown “crisis in criticism.”6 Or, perhaps following Roland Barthes’ edict, readers were displacing writers and critics were displacing painters. It’s also been suggested that this argument was happening primarily in New York; Europe had lived through this cataclysm in the 60s.7

The American argument for the death of painting grew out of the formalism of Clement Greenberg, but the argument put forward by his heirs was against Greenberg’s “positivist” art criticism. Theory, the one-word figurehead for a cluster of ideas largely imported from Europe, was adopted by younger critics. (Although, as more than one writer has pointed out, by the time “theory” reached American shores, a wildly heterogeneous range of thinkers were fused under a single heading.) Within this framework, photography and film were privileged; sculpture was seen as ranging into an “expanded field; ” painting wasn’t granted the same passport. And yet, a teleological criticism persisted which relied on models of technological progress, so that painting was posed as “regressive and humanist,” instead of critical postmodernism.8

But if painting was used as a pawn in the writing wars, it could also be used for dividing history. Abstract painting was the emblem of modernism. Reinhardt’s “last paintings” were built on a linear conception of history, but postmodern theories were bent on breaking historicism. Saying that the end had come meant giving in “to a historicist conception of history as both linear and total (i.e., one cannot paint after Duchamp, Rodchenko, Mondrian; their work has rendered paintings unnecessary).”9 But did historicism die with modernism? Is it true, as Barthes claimed that, “To be modern is to know that which is not possible any more”? Or was modernism simply a Western and Eurocentric notion? 10

At the present moment, historical categories themselves are under siege; time itself is under construction. What is the present moment? Are we living in the “altermodern”11  or should we acknowledge the coexistence of distinct senses of time occurring in different fields and regions that might be grouped under the rubric “contemporaneity?”12

Painting’s ontology has changed, too. In 1890 Maurice Denis stated, “It is well to remember that a picture – before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote – is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.” The 60s and 70s exploded painting’s “natural limits”: the dimensions of the canvas, the oppositions between abstraction and representation (signaled most famously, perhaps, by Philip Guston).

It has been suggested that painting’s virtue might be its “impurity,” its ease at absorbing multiple belief systems, technologies, and other mediums and forms: performance, architecture, film, photography, dance, sculpture, and installation. Mechanical reproduction, which was initially seen to hark the demise of painting has served instead as a “vampire’s kiss” that made painting “immortal.”13 (It also drove the development of abstraction.) Painting might be seen as responding to a certain group of ideas that were called “painting” and now are something else.

And yet, two problems remain, inherited from the 70s and 80s: One, that painting was absorbed into museums, since alternative spaces were the homes for radical art forms; and two, that painting remains an art-market staple.

In the early 80s, it was suggested that painting was the perfect camouflage for critical thinking, a “subversive method” that would allow one “to place critical aesthetic activity at the center of the marketplace, where it can cause the most trouble.”14 This position was critiqued more than it was supported. And attempts to suggest that recent painting has escaped the “reification trap” by inventing forms and structures similar to digital networks, that “suture spectators to extra-perceptual social networks rather than merely situating them in a phenomenological relationship of individual perception”15 seem equally problematic - particularly since the “social network” described is still a gallery located within the art market system.

More important, what does it mean when the primary indicator of a work’s value is its ability to challenge or outwit institutions and market structures – when the conditions surrounding the work are often more sophisticated than the work itself? In the early 80s, concern over art’s rise in marketability produced this kind of pessimism and concern: “If the workings of the art marketplace demonstrate anything at all, it is its capacity to assimilate, absorb, neutralize and commodify virtually any practice at all.”16 Now these ideas have ossified into a nihilist orthodoxy where “the ultimate master of détournement turns out to be capitalism itself, which can appropriate and reprogram anything to serve its own ends.”17

We could follow the claim of Hegelian exhaustion in which painting – and art itself – has collapsed into a form of philosophy, or succumbed to market irrelevance. Recent writers have suggested that Hegel did not predict an end to art, however, but rather an end to “the dream of its purity” and autonomy.18 Even political theorists who offer sobering analyses of globalization and the post-Cold War geopolitical landscape do not foreclose on art’s ability to give us the conceptual means to invent other possibilities, making what had once seemed utterly impossibly “entirely realistic.”19

A more radical question than immanent foreclosure might be to challenge the assumption at the center of much neo-Marxist-informed postmodern criticism: Does capitalism really invade all areas of consciousness? Or is it, at this point, an inherently conservative claim that the only possibility for art to remain relevant is to resist commodification? Painters like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, who straddled political and economic systems by moving from East to West Germany, have shown how painting might be a viable way to critique the primacy of any one system – and how painting could be a fluid agent, moving between systems. (And, in Richter’s case, by applying a diversified and self-effacing approach to painting itself, that painting can simultaneously coexist alongside juggernaut technologies like photography – and thrive, and offer its own self-critique.)20

Similarly, one might ask, is critical practice the only option for art, or just an extension of modernism’s demand for self-reflexive objects? Rather than adhering to old versions of artistic critique – say, nineteenth-century denunciation of bourgeois morality or, later, resisting reification – some have suggested that art could work to reformulate issues of liberation and authenticity,21 or that the prefix “post-”, which has been appended to practically every term in art’s sphere, be extended to criticism itself, so that we might enter a “post-critique” era of art.22

Painting allows for a complex, material reworking and rethinking of these issues. Even the most basic, traditional rendition, the “plane surface covered with colors,” allows us to reorient ourselves in time and space, to rethink our relation to representation – and, in a culture dominated by flat screens, our cognitive, perceptual, and even neurological relation to the “plane surface.” Painting remains “impure;” it resists, as Reinhardt demonstrated, truly accurate reproduction. It can be photographed, but unlike photography or film in the digital era, its materiality is substantially altered in the course of reproduction. In a decentralized, virtually-described world, it has physical components: a location, a body. It can exploit Duchamp’s detested “retinal” effects. But “retinal” itself has a new topology, thanks to neuroscience.

For those still clinging to criticality, painting might serve as a particular seat of resistance. Because, in a world defined by movement and speed – fast hard drives, global migrations - slowing down might be the most radical act of all. Painting offers the opportunity for prolonged looking23 and the recuperation of pleasure; the destabilizing jouissance or bliss that got virtually stripped away as Barthes’ writing made its way into the Anglo world.

The critical gesture might be to resist the “negative theology” outlining what’s permissible in painting and what’s not.24 To treat criticism itself as a sort of informe. To register eruptions, from modernism to “bad painting” to Henry Darger and “Thrift Store Paintings.” In this contested historical age, to let painting be an act of sustained and engaged viewing, and to let it occupy as many fields as possible.

The artists in “That is Then. This is Now” have explored painting both in an expanded field and extended time frame. Cynthia Carlson has worked in painting, installation, and the public art realm. Donna Dennis might just as easily be described as a sculptor who explores architecture – although she is represented here as a painter. Martha Diamond similarly looks to architecture, but represents it in two dimensions. Lois Lane has continued the conversation started by gestural abstractionists in the midcentury – but also made black paintings that challenge the notion that Reinhardt’s black canvases were the “last paintings” anyone could make. Similarly, Hermoine Ford comes out of the midcentury New York School tradition, extending its span into the 21st-century.

In the 1980s, Mike Glier confronted the idea that painting was the domain of the heroic male-artist-subject with his series of drawings and paintings titled “White Male Power”; more recently, he has made landscapes that collapse representation and figuration and are painted on aluminum. While Kim MacConnel was aligned with the 70s Pattern and Decoration movement, he has gone back to the early 20th-century to pit Picasso and Matisse against each other in colorful, abstract works that conflate their disparate approaches. David Deutsch has mined photography for his imagery, but through the filter of surveillance photography, which offers a particular set of concerns, from the perceptual to the political.

And finally, Thomas Lawson, who penned one of the most pertinent American defenses of painting in the 1980s, “Last Exit: Painting.” In that 1981 essay he wrote, "Radical artists now are faced with a choice—despair, or the last exit: painting."25 Publishing the essay in a distinctly anti-painting climate was one act of defense. Not only did Lawson put painting “at the center” where it could cause “the most trouble,” but he included himself and his own, conceptually informed paintings, in the roster of artists waging that defense. It is only proper then, that he should be included in this exhibition and this conversation, in which painting, writing, and history converge.

            

NOTES:

1.     Quoted in Crimp, Douglas. “The End of Painting.” October 16. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1981. 75.

2.     Crimp, 82.

3.     Buchloh, Benjamin H.D. “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting.” October 16. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1981. 46 .

4.     Krauss, Rosalind. A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999. 32.

5.     David Reed quoted in “The Mourning After – Panel Discussion.” Artforum, March 2003; Monique Prieto quoted in “Thick and Thin – Painters and curators discuss the state of painting in the last two decades,” Artforum, April 2003.

6.     Miles, Christopher. “The Death of Painting and The Writing of Painting's Post-Crisis, Post-Critique Future.” Art Lies. Summer 2005.

7.     See Jean Clay’s essay “La peinture est finie” in 1967 and Isabelle Graw and Yve-Alain Bois quoted in “The Mourning After.”

8.     Siegel, Katy. High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting, 1967-1975. Edited by Katy Siegel. New York: Independent Curators International, 2006. 86-87.

9.     Bois, Yve-Alain. Painting as Model. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990. 241.

10.  Negri, Antonio. “Contemporaneity between Modernity and Postmodernity.” In Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity. 24.

11.  Bourriaud, Nicolas, Ed. Altermodern : Tate Triennial. London: Tate Publications/New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2009.

12.  Smith, Terry. Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity. xv. Also see October 130. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.

13.  Reed, “The Mourning After.”

14.  Lawson, Thomas. “Last Exit: Painting.” Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Edited by Brian Wallis. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. 163-64. (Originally published in Artforum, October 1981.)

15.  Joselit, David. “Painting Beside Itself.” October 130, Fall 2009. 132.

16.  Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. “Photography After Art Photography.” Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984. 81.

17.  Krauss, 33.

18.  Rancière, Jacques. The Future of the Image. London; New York: Verso, 2007. 89.

19.  Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio. Artforum. October 2009, 178.

20.  Gaiger, Jason. “Post-conceptual painting: Gerhard Richter’s extended leave taking.” Themes in Contemporary Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

21.  Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve. The New Spirit of Capitalism. London; New York: Verso, 2005, 469.

22.  Miles, “The Death of Painting and The Writing of Painting's Post-Crisis, Post-Critique Future.”

23. Lane Relyea quoted in “Thick and Thin,” Artforum, April 2003.

24. Terry Winters, Ibid.

25. Lawson, 164.

The Not-so-Seventies Show by Peter Plagens

Added on by Shona Masarin.

The 1970s are edging in on being forty years old. In a living, breathing human being, that’s middle age, and in contemporary art, where the parent-to-progeny time span is about five years, that’s a couple of handfuls of generations. (If you’re talking Artforum covers, six months is closer to the mark.) But “the Seventies” sometimes seem as flat and distant as the Dust Bowl. Maybe they appear in retrospect that way to me because I spent them in Los Angeles, supporting my own painting teaching art to the hordes of once and future flower children who passed through a giant state university in a distant, ennui-laden suburb of Los Angeles that was, by political miracle or curse (your choice), actually within that city’s limits. The days were hot, the air opaque, the landscape banal, the market down, the galleries on the hip side of the Hollywood Hills dwindling, and a sense of the moment already being a footnote filled the lulling atmosphere. “The Sixties”—as manifested in the work of the light & space artists, the Hollywood pop guys, and the “fetish finish” obsessives (all those categories overlapped)—felt closer, more urgent. Even the New York 1960s (Warhol, Lichtenstein, et al.) appeared to most of us as sharp-focus foreground. Our own time lay in the background, fuzzed out by the smog of cultural epilogue.

There are, of course, other ways of looking at that benighted decade. As the art critic Doug Harvey writes:     

In the early 1970s, many artists became fed up with the overblown critical rhetoric surrounding post-painterly abstraction, a term coined by über-critic Clement Greenberg (as the title of a show at LACMA) for that work encompassing such non-Pop post–abstract expressionist painting styles as minimalism and Color Field. As the psychological, spiritual, figurative and narrative content was systematically removed from visual art during this period, the arguments in its defense became increasingly grandiloquent and elitist, and it was that, along with the cramped possibilities and ungenerous aesthetics of minimalist abstraction, that begat a reactionary torrent of works wallowing in sensuality, complexity, inclusiveness and humor.

[“Pattern & Decoration, Pattern & Decoration, Pattern &                Decoration,” LA Weekly, September 18, 2003]

Or, the same sentiment in the looking-back gush of a press release: “Art in the seventies was distinguished by its pluralism.  The 1960’s “isms” seemed played out; pop art, minimalism and conceptualism were established; media based work began to command art world attention only toward the end of the decade; and new painting, commonly labeled neo-expressionism, emerged only in the next decade. The situation was open.  Anything seemed possible.”

In the autumn of my years, I can see that both the antiheroic and heroic views of the Seventies have considerable truth to them. With Minimalism having passed into recent history as, in the words of the late John Coplans, “the last of the court styles” (i.e., any decent artist had to contend with it—accept it, reject it, but contend nevertheless) and photorealism, the avant-garde had finally been academicized. (A date?—how about the opening of a new campus of the formerly training-ground-for-Disney-animators and now academy-for-rebels, Cal Arts in 1970.) There wasn’t much of what the great dealer Irving Blum likes to call “a sense of urgency.” T’was the original “big chill”—stay cool, do what you want, lots of exhibiting artists teaching in art departments and art schools all over the place, pick up that MFA, detritus and theorizing about detritus make almost automatically decent shows, score a teaching job yourself, and maybe get lucky enough to grab one of those National Endowment for the Arts fellowships—government money directly to the artist, no strings!

Women artists were getting—on account of their own militancy and not some sudden male largesse—a better shot, but minority artists were still relatively scare enough to give us white guys a creepy, subaudible feeling of being over-privileged. That in itself—spattered, long-haired makers of non-Rockwell/Remington sorts of art that still drew laughs and/or scorn in polite society feeling like they might be having it a little too easy—showed how far we had come since Jack Pollock pee’d in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace (or, for that matter, since Andy Warhol’s soup-can paintings went on view at the Ferus Gallery in 1962 and the gallery across the street putting a pyramid of actuals in its front window with a sign saying, “Get the real thing for 29 cents!”).

In a strange sort of way, the exclamation point put on the prolongated “death” of Abstract Expressionism by the suicide in 1970 of Mark Rothko also took some of the steam out of the momentum of Pop Art. As much as it was a reinsertion and militant celebration of “low” popular culture within the precincts of “high” art, Pop was also a refutation of the tortured, histrionic loner-genius of Abstract Expressionism, emotionally flailing away in his cold-water loft, expelling his existential soul onto the canvas in the most heated, physically direct way possible—“action painting.” Pop was passive-aggressively cool, deadpan, and dismissive of the idea that artists had to, as the psychologists say, “act out” in order to make art. On the West Coast, the quasi-Pop painter Billy Al Bengston had said that the time had come for artists in southern California to—if memory serves—wash their hands, put on clean trousers, throw off that San Francisco sensibility (i.e., the Abstract Expressionist heritage of Rothko and Clyfford Still, who’d taught briefly at what’s now the San Francisco Art Institute), and be professionals. By the time the Seventies rolled around, artists exchanging psychodrama for, to use the current academic buzzword, their “practice,” was no longer news. To oversimplify the situation, the most salient characteristic of the art world in the Seventies was that there was no longer much of anything to react against. Artists may have been, as Harvey says, “fed up,” but they weren’t stylistically or critically oppressed. So they didn’t so much push back as spread out.

How did they spreadeth? Let us count [some of] the ways: In 1971, Chris Burden had himself shot in the upper arm by a .22 caliber rifle, and Robert Smithson created Spiral Jetty; in 1972, James Turrell started work on his Roden Crater project in Arizona and  Michael Heizer did the same with his giant City earthwork in Nevada; in 1973, Dorothea Rockburne installed Drawing Which Makes Itself in the Bykert Gallery, and Al Ruppersberg delivered a lecture on Houdini while escaping from a straight jacket;  in 1974, the art group Ant Farm installed Cadillac Ranch by the side of a highway outside of Amarillo, Texas, and Joseph Beuys performed I Like America and America Likes Me;  and in 1975, Carolee Schneeman withdrew from her body, through her vagina, a scroll, and Howard Fried filmed himself taking a golf lesson in The Burghers of Fort Worth.

Meanwhile, chatter about “the death of painting”—which was presumed during the 1970s to have either dead-ended itself in great gray gridded abstractions, retrenched itself in achingly elaborate trompe-l’oeil (whose mosaic-like paint application was critically repackaged as computer-like “information”), or simply expanded into a branch of sculpture—reached a fever pitch...or, since hardly anything was fevered in the Seventies, a pitch, period.

The Seventies were, in short, a deceptively tough time to be an artist, especially an artist committed to the studio, to an unironic (which does not mean dour or dogmatic) approach to modernism, and to a certain human scale modesty, or at least an avoidance of too much hubris. And to maintain being an artist—let alone a serious artist—in the multiple art-world lifetimes that have passed before our eyes since the 1970s. The last thirty-five years or so have offered artists innumerable temptations to “tech it up,” to expand exponentially the physical product, to answer, in effect, the siren song of being glamorously and (inevitably) superficially “21st century.” And the carrot of temptation has carried with it a market corollary of the stick; as a painter-friend of mine in Los Angeles presciently said to me a long time ago, “It’s easier for a dealer to find new artists for old clients, than new clients for old artists.”

Although their work has, as it naturally would, changed since the mid-1970s, none of the nine artists in this exhibition—Cynthia Carlson, Donna Dennis, David Deutsch, Martha Diamond, Hermine Ford, Mike Glier, Lois Lane, Thomas Lawson, Kim McConnell—has succumbed to the skew of temptation or the distortion of the stick. And although the work of none of these artists is what anybody would call arcane, a thread of, if not art-for-art’s-sake, at least art for the artists’ sake runs through this show. The spirit of all this is, not surprisingly, beautifully articulated by one of them, the painter Thomas Lawson. In a lecture that was published in 2006,* Lawson said (and I’ve taken the liberty of condensing part of it to what’s really pertinent here):

I found that what I wanted to look at was actually this painting of Picasso (Green Still Life). And the surrealist rooms, which are now expanded and dominating because in all those years since 1975 art has very clearly taken the side of Duchamp and I found that I was really sick of that... 

So I was looking at painting as a strategy and I thought of each painting as analogous to a very fast song by the Ramones, something like that, a very simple idea that could be executed very quickly with minimum fuss, minimum of tools, just done you know essentially in half an afternoon or something....

 More recently I’ve moved back into the studio and begun to think of the work, not exactly a private enterprise, but an enterprise that has to do with thinking consistently through a set of problems and ideas without so much concern for public....

 ...the significance of having a studio or not having a studio. To me it’s absolutely crucial, I don’t actually any longer understand how you work without one.

 If you understand the shift in empathy from Picasso to Duchamp and back again, and read “studio” as a state of mind rather than just a physical place, Lawson’s plainspoken ode to a kind of responsible, non-self-indulgent, interiority is clear. And that, to me, is the real subject of That Was Then, This Is Now.

 

*“GI Symposium: Painting as a New Medium,”ART&RESEARCH: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, Volume 1. No. 1. Winter 2006/07

________________________________

Peter Plagens is a painter who's shown with the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City since 1974 and was also the staff art critic for Newsweek (1989-2003), where he is Contributing Editor. He has received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Arts Journalism Program. Plagens is the author of two books of art criticism-Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945-70 (University of California Press, 2000) and Moonlight Blues: An Artist's Art Criticism (UMI Research Press, 1986)-as well as a novel, Time for Robo (Black Heron Press, 1999). He lives in New York City with his wife, the painter Laurie Fendrich.

The Refrigerator by Chris Sharp

Added on by Shona Masarin.

The book you are holding in your hands contains a series of images that contain other images. Arrayed across the surface of a refrigerator, these images are at once strange, improbable and familiar. They feature patterns, dancers, potted plants, minimalist-looking objects, the cropped belly of a giraffe, film stills, a bicycle, etc. Associated as such, I am inclined to wonder why they are together, just what are they trying to tell me? But the harder I look at them, the more I realize that something is not quite right with the picture of which they form a part, and I am not quite sure where to begin with them. Do I begin with the content of the images themselves? The fact that they are on a refrigerator? Or how they are arranged? Interestingly, no single point of entry seems more important than another other, or, to put it in another way, each point of entry seems to aggressively claim equal significance. Pulled in three different directions at once, the images seem to disappear, oddly enough, into images, which never fully disappear.  

Let us begin with the way they are presented on the refrigerator. They seem to be arranged like so many notes, as if someone were inserting these images—either developed like photos, printed up from the net, or cut out of a variety of sources like the newspaper—into their domestic space in order to temporarily live with them. Maybe test them out. Alternatively, they seem like they could be the kind of images found tacked up on the walls of an artist’s studio, like so many ideas, sources of inspiration, and adumbrations, ontologically very much of the order of the sketch. In other words, they possess a casual, offhand quality. And yet on closer inspection, the arrangement of the images is not so casual. This lack of casualness is most conspicuously betrayed by the fact that the images sometimes bridge the gap between the doors of the freezer and the refrigerator, and thus prevent the two separate compartments of the refrigerator from being individually opened. Temporarily sutured as such, the refrigerator becomes less a domestic object, than a kind of dispositif, a distinctly aestheticized and aesthetic space that comes with a specific set of aesthetic conventions. Or maybe not so much conventions as aesthetic precedents that eventually become conventions (something which alludes to a truth potentially buried at the heart of these images: the apparent impossibility of the casual image), such as the billboard. And yet, a site of apparent chance and random accumulation, the billboard has already been processed into a convention, governed by easily identifiable rules, i.e., chance, randomness, and possible, as opposed to premeditated, association. What makes these conventions all the more salient as such is the sense that this refrigerator surface could also be a webpage, a blog, or a magazine spread availing itself of the billboard convention. Curiously, the moment one recognizes this, the images all but leave the home, forfeiting their situated physicality (in the kitchen) and evanesce into the ether of the web, totally flattening out. 

But what of the content of the images themselves? Largely of the order of the detail, the images, which tend to share a kind of vintage-style aesthetic, are pretty obscure. In one I see a professorial type with glasses possibly from the 50s while in another, which seems to be much older, I see a figure holding a cobblestone apparently pulled loose from a cobblestone street (a nod, presumably to May 68: Sous les pavés, la plage), his faced cropped out, with his body flanked by the legs and patent leather shoes of a nearby figure. Otherwise the images seem to be composed of patterns, details of strange, unidentifiable objects and cultural artifacts, the odd plant. Images, such as a potted plant and another of what seems to be tile pattern, repeat (indeed in one image the refrigerator seems to contain all the images dispersed throughout all the others, as if it were quite literally ‘a heap of images’—an image which, more aggressively than any other, flattens the vertical space of the refrigerator into a horizontal space seen as if from directly above). If I am familiar with the work of galería perdida, I will recognize details from certain pieces and motifs that reappear throughout their practice (the marimba they built for the exhibition that will accompany this show; a symmetrical fragment of wooden floor from another; the plastic woven craft-like designs that are known to feature in numerous of their pieces, etc), but if I don’t know their work, the content of these images will remain fundamentally obscure and anonymous to me. 

However, something tells me that galería perdida wants it this way, deliberately courts the evocative anonymity of the fragment, of the detail, as if that were somehow the potential destiny of all culture and cultural artifact, a destiny that was both immediate and distant, and which, perhaps most importantly, paralleled the life of every object and image. Was somehow intrinsic to it, hidden within plain sight within it—an exoticism that was at once both hypothetical and utterly real. But that is only one half of a paradox contained in on the surface of this refrigerator, the other half of which was already sketched out: the impossibility of the casual image. While anonymity would seem to preclude the possibility of deliberateness, of specific content and meaning and thus guarantee casualness, these images and their inherently exotic appeal, seem to think otherwise. Fragmented, anonymous, exotic, inscrutable, reminiscent of sketches and adumbrations, and finally, totally protean, nothing, they seem to tell us, could be more finished, wholly and completely definite. 

Chris Sharp is a writer and independent curator currently based in Mexico City, where he co-directs the project space Lulu with the artist Martin Soto Climent.

 

Tyree Guyton: Faces of God on Fire by Jenenne Whitfield

Added on by Shona Masarin.

“God is a consuming fire. The City of Detroit is on Fire!! It’s been burning since 1967. Could it be that the city of Detroit is burning the old to make room for the new? Since these acts require a perpetrator could it be that the man is on fire?” 

 

Tyree Guyton looks through a lens that few others experience. His views often challenge the norm and causes us to think—deeply. “People don’t think for themselves anymore.”

Guyton has a style all his own, a style that often distresses the norm, causes us to stop, take notice and ponder.  Guyton claims to have a love affair with his work. The relationship he builds with his canvas becomes his voice and his spirit. He searches way beyond what he sees on the surface to engage his third eye—the eye of understanding. He searches for life, energy, magic and from that Guyton says,
“I extract the beauty.” Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder and Guyton admits that everyone does not like his style or methods, but neither does he expect them to. “I don’t want everyone to like what I do. I’d rather make you think and challenge what we call normal. When I look at the world we live in, I ask myself, is this normal?” The face of God is our own face and there is a fire burning in us, through animation and it’s hot! We are all on fire, first a flicker, then a flame and then a flicker until our light goes out. There are all kinds of faces in the arsenal of God.”

What kind of beauty does Guyton see that escapes they eye of the typical viewer? As we take a glimpse into Guyton’s world, perhaps we can begin to imagine beyond what we see on the surface and experience something new.

Guyton juxtaposes that which is twisted, torn, rusted and weathered with colors, lines and imagination to fill an otherwise negative and seemingly unattractive space. The outcomes are large sophisticated, caricature images. Whatever or whoever they are, there is no mistaking the contagious energy that moves with deliberate intention to fill his canvas—in this case discarded automobile hoods. Guyton takes the forgotten fragments of a once thriving city, the Motor City, to reflect back to the viewer what’s been left behind. Life on the streets of Detroit where Guyton grew up is not a pretty site to most but for Guyton he says it all depends on how we see. “Our perception is just that, how we choose to see. I think the old is making room for the new. We grow up in a world that teaches us what to think or believe and we miss the magic, but I see beauty in the faces of God on fire."

Salvaged from the rubble, Guyton gives each canvas a chance at new life and they make a wildly heroic presentation. As you study his faces, for example, they appear to be ailing, in distress or lacking in some way and yet they are all smiling a big, wide-toothed grin. It’s the inner man that I seek to capture. If you remove the veil of the flesh, you will see that the man/woman is always smiling, perhaps suggesting that they know something that the rest of us don’t. 

The question Guyton asks is, “what is art today in the 21st century?” “I listen to my art, it guides me and tells me what to do. It’s a courageous thing to listen to that voice within and not second guess it. You lose conscious control and the art becomes your teacher.”

Stepping away from the traditional canvas, Guyton is internationally recognized for his large scale work in Detroit known as the Heidelberg Project (heidelberg.org). Founded in 1986 and located on in the heart of an East-Side Detroit community, this two city block art installation is fashioned with various discards and found objects collected mostly by Guyton from the streets of Detroit. It includes several structures (some inhabited and some vacant), vacant lots and also incorporates the street, trees, and sidewalks. Most everything contained within the two-block radius has become is an integral component of the art installation. Guyton says his work is a medicine, not only for community residents, but also for the many visitors it attracts. Guyton’s provocative work has become a platform for discussion in an otherwise desecrated area of Detroit where most would dare to travel were it not to witness this much talked about art environment. Critics, art enthusiasts, collectors, artists and most importantly, everyday folks come from near and far to study and give voice to Guyton’s work. Because of the variety of people it attracts and the people who reside in the area, the result is authentic community engagement.

The effect of the [Heidelberg] site on new visitors is fascinating to behold.
As a frequent escort to the Project for scholars visiting my University,
I often observe looks of wonderment if not outright disorientation on the faces of my guests. For a complete understanding of the effect of the site on visitors, it is essential to have this appreciation of the complex and dynamic nature of a visit to the site as it relates directly to the dialogic nature of the experience and is at the heart of Guyton’s efforts to engage the community. It is challenging to articulate the various ways in which the public interacts with the Heidelberg Project. Who would have imagined that in all of the seemingly random and chaotic work on Heidelberg Street, Tyree Guyton was actually building a space for all of us.
1

This engagement on multiple levels is the driving force behind Guyton’s question: What is Art Today in the 21st Century. The question he asks appears to be more subjective, as if to suggest that it is not the objects that are relevant but rather the message behind the objects. Since many of the works featured in this exhibition have also lined the streets of Heidelberg in Detroit, I asked Guyton if the context of his work changes once housed in a traditional museum or gallery setting. Guyton replied, “A true artist makes it happen anywhere he goes because it is the work that instigates the conversations. There is a fire burning in the man and in me and I want to talk about it.”


Jenenne Whitfield is the Executive Director of the Heidelberg Project.

 

Katie Cercone: Curator's Essay

Added on by Shona Masarin.

 Is hip hop the castle or the rainbow?     - Darlene Vinicky[i]     

Goddess Clap Back: Hip Hop Feminism in Art is a group exhibition highlighting Hip Hop Feminism as an emerging motif of contemporary artists working with performance, photography, video, collage, sculpture and sound. 

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Carmen's Parking Lot by Harrell Fletcher

Added on by Shona Masarin.

A year or so ago I was having a conversation with Carmen about various project ideas. One of the ideas was to take an existing parking lot, or maybe a brand new parking lot, and put “handicapped parking” symbols in all but three or four of the spaces. I love the idea of frustrated motorists driving around in vain searching for a parking space, and that being part of Carmen's project which seen as a whole is equal parts sculptural, painting, performative and social commentary all in one. I hope there is a public art commission out there that will be willing to actually produce the piece, though even just as a conceptual idea its pretty good.

When Carmen first moved to Portland and was figuring out his way around town he kept bumping into low hanging tree limbs and other obstacles. I would often see him with a new scrape on his face or a black eye. His friend Jason gave him a digital camera so that he could document the obstacles. The pictures he took, when you knew the context they had been created in, were sad and funny at the same time.

Carmen said that in Vancouver there were more sound oriented walk signals at intersections than there were in Portland. Apparently, there is controversy in the “disabled community” about the value of sound oriented walk signals, though I could never understand exactly what the argument against them was, and Carmen seemed at a loss to be able to fully articulate it. Anyway, he had an idea which was for a day to set up along his daily walk route people at each intersection that didn’t already have a sound signal so that when the walk sign went on they would simulate the sound of a sound signal. He would then use the new temporary system to walk around safely for a day. I thought that was an extremely humorous idea, but I don’t think he has yet realized the project.

When Carmen joined the Art and Social Practice MFA that I direct at Portland State University as a student we had to adjust a few of our activities for him, which is something that we do for every student one way or another. We had previously been playing basketball as a group one day a week and realized that probably wouldn't work for Carmen so we tried a yoga class, but of course if you can't see the yoga instructor and don't already know the poses you can't really participate. Even though that is really very obvious somehow we didn't think about it in advance and Carmen just went along with the plan even though I think he was dubious from the start. I ended up trying to manually help him move into the various positions myself which was not really successful, but temporarily created an odd partner yoga moment. We then tried blindfolded soccer with the group to see how that worked, but we mostly stood around laughing while we waited for the ball to somehow roll to us. In the end to engage in some sort of physical activity we borrowed a tandem bike and another student, Adam, rode with Carmen which was apparently a positive experience for both of them. The whole situation was very instructive for me in learning about the ways that visual biases are so systemically built into so many parts of society.

Another aspect of the MFA program that was adjusted because of Carmen's involvement was the use of the term "visual." I had no problem with the idea of accepting a non-sighted student into the program, but in many ways had no idea how that would function given the emphasis that traditional MFA programs place on visual art. Even though our program is not traditional and I liked to think of it as very inclusive it turned out that there were still remnants of the dominant art culture strewn throughout class titles like "Teaching Visual Culture" our pedagogy class, and within expectations like the practice of having students present power point presentations about the development of their work at the end of each term. Carmen found interesting work arounds to all of the issues we presented him with, which is something he has gotten good at in general having to live in a visually dominated world. 

I went through my own set of obstacles when I first arrived at the university and was faced with a systemic "studio" bias. Since the work that I did myself and wanted to teach was not studio based it was awkward being represented as part of the very orthodox "studio art" understanding of what art should be. Eventually, I was able to change the office title of what had been referred to as the general undergrad studio program to "art practice" and to create two tracks in the MFA one for studio practice and the other for social practice which felt more comfortable and reflective of what was going on in a more expansive view of the larger set of possibilities in the art world. There was still a tendency in the department and the public in general to think of everything as visual art. I tried repeatedly to point out that there was already a long history of non-visual audio based art etc, but the visual bias is hard to correct. Carmen has now graduated and we are still working to remove or at least expand on all of the visual biases built into the program.

Though there are various amazing elements within Carmen's work, one aspect is the way that simply inserting his difference into systems of institutions and society an awareness is created that highlights dominant structures and discriminations. It is all the better in Carmen's case that because of the nature of his personal attitude and his practice he is able to facilitate that necessary societal irritation in ways that are participatory, engaging, poignant, and often times hilarious as well.


Harrell Fletcher received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and his MFA from California College of the Arts. He has produced a variety of socially engaged collaborative and interdisciplinary projects since the early 1990s. His work has been shown at SF MoMA, the de Young Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Wattis Institute, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, The Drawing Center, Socrates Sculpture Park, The Sculpture Center, Smackmellon in NYC, The Royal College of Art in London, among others, and was included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. In 2002 Fletcher started Learning To Love You More, a participatory website with Miranda July. A book version of LTLYM was published in 2007 by Prestel. Fletcher is the 2005 recipient of the Alpert Award in Visual Arts. He is an Associate Professor, Founder and Director of the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon.

Blind Orientations: Walking, Stumbling and Turning towards New Points of View by Amanda Cachia

Added on by Shona Masarin.
It took me years to learn how to close my eyes, but I started to benefit from the practice once I realized that there was so much more to devote attention to than what is visual. 1
My body is the fabric into which all objects are woven, and it is, at least in relation to the perceived world, the general instrument of my ‘comprehension.’ 2

Carmen Papalia is interested in new orientations or encounters towards objects and space through the obstruction of vision. By creating enforced situations where his participants are blinded as they engage with objects and spaces, they will acquire new or alternative perceptions within this unfamiliar orientation towards the world. In his attempt to provide new directions towards objects and spaces, the artist is showing the participants—and us, as observers—what new possibilities may exist within new orientations towards matter. More specifically, what are the implications for the body’s new perceptive relationship with matter when they are blinded, and how and what knowledge is acquired by what we cannot see? Merleau-Ponty suggests that the body is “no longer merely an object in the world,” rather “it is our point of view in the world.”3 I aim to think about how these ‘points of view’ or new orientations can provide political objecthood towards and for the figure of the blind subject. Can the blind subject acquire agency within a phenomenological reading of Papalia’s practice? If walking, stumbling and turning and consequently encountering objects and spaces are based on blind orientation, is there empowerment to be had by such movement to the new points of view?

I examine several forms of testimony and anecdotes of experiences engaging with the work of Papalia, ranging from the written responses by students and faculty and statements from the artist himself as a theoretical methodology that gives shape and form to this essay. These sensorial perceptions of walking, stumbling and turning in moments where vision is removed, either forcibly or acquired over time (ie. gradual vision loss experienced by Papalia) are what substantiates the new points of view. ‘View’ in this sense, is a view where vision is only one player on a much larger field of other equally important players, and that is exactly my intention on this ‘play’ of words. ‘View’ can encapsulate many other sensorial experiences, ranging from tactility and deep pressure, kinesthetic, vestibular and vision, but the ‘view’ may also encompass multiple modalities in which the senses receive information, ranging from pain, smell, the temperature, taste and more. Points of ‘view’ then are enhanced, emboldened and emblazoned by ‘views’ that challenge not only the ontological, biological and physiological ‘sense’ of vision, but also rather, on the flip side, give the reader ‘access’ to ‘views’ that are not easily attainable. Further, S. Kay Toombs says that “Points in space do not represent merely objective positions but rather they mark the varying range of my aims and gestures.”4 The ‘points’ of view in the title of this essay then can also be considered from this perspective, where the aims and gestures enacted in space also give us an entirely new orientation, reading and rendering of the senses, vision and otherwise. The phenomenology of lived experience, then, is important because the body itself becomes a sign of political discourse – the body has political objecthood that has power to demonstrate certain truisms about the world in which we live, or at least, to destabilize what we may have previously thought as universally true for a range of human subjects.

What follows is a detailed description of the walks that Papalia gave at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. I had invited Papalia to lead several walks as part of a round-table conversation that I initiated and hosted at CCA entitled What Can a Body Do? Investigating Disability in Contemporary Art in February, 2012.5 Papalia led three walks from 2-5pm, and in that time, approximately 60 people from the college participated, ranging from students to faculty members. The walk was included in the syllabus for an Embodiment class being co-taught by Julian Carter, Hilary Bryan and Aiden Gleisburg, and they asked the students to submit a response to their experiences during the walk. This is an outline of several of the anonymous student responses that sheds light on their multi-modal experiences:

Putting our hand on each other’s shoulders and shouting whenever there was something up ahead helped me to feel secure but also more connected with myself. Having all these thoughts run through my mind like ‘Where am I?’ or ‘Will I fall?’ makes me realize how much of my body relies on sight. After the tour I wanted to keep exercising these sorts of things to become more aware of myself, my body and my embodied ‘soul.’

I found my senses becoming more aware. For example, I heard a car passing very near me, but also, I felt it as my clothes moved according to the car’s speed passing by. It is something I would not be able to feel normally… it was a mind opening experience about the potential of my senses.

The person I entrusted [in front of me] had a fuzzy coat and heeled boots that clapped along loudly as we walked. I closed my eyes and the world went away…I stumbled along, stepping on my partner’s shoes, trying to listen to the directions and trying not to open my eyes in panic. This feeling subsided and I felt my need to see lessen, and my need to hear and feel grow. 

I really enjoyed being conscious about the different colors that my eyelids filtered in. The sun and the trees made a beautiful dance of shadows and colors. I felt two splashes of something on my left arm. My eyes opened for less than a second and I thought I had seen a bird poop but I wasn’t sure, but I knew that in any case I would have to wait till the end of the walk so I spent the rest of the time wondering if I had my whole arm covered in poop or if I even had poop on my arm or if it was part of my imagination.

The most notable experience I felt while participating in the walk was the difficulty of physically moving while being sandwiched between forty or
so bodies and having to rely on the movements of these people in order to move myself.

These comments reveal that for most of the students, the walk was about experiences of acquiring new points of ‘view’: what the bird poop feels like on my arm (and not knowing for certain if it is poop or not) , which in turn demonstrates how that individual relies on the so-called ‘truth’ of her vision to solidify that it is in fact bird poop. The experience is also about space, or being confined by other bodies, or how clothing feels and sounds through the fuzzy coat and heeled boots. In this context, interest in the other senses can become more urgent. The imagination is also sparked. The students were able to grasp new ways of orienting themselves in a familiar environment that became dynamically unfamiliar through the walk. This moment of disorientation and reorientation continues to be emphasized in Papalia’s first major solo exhibition at the CUE Art Foundation in New York, where thinking, interacting with and destabilizing access is par for the course. 

In conclusion, Toombs argues that the lived body provides important insights into the “disruption of space and time that are an integral element of physical disability…a phenomenological account of bodily disorder discloses the emotional dimension of physical dysfunction.”6 She places emphasis and preference for her body as she lives it in the world which “represents my particular point of view on the world,” rather than thinking about her body “as an object among other objects of the world.”7 She further distinguishes that through this particular type of account or recording, the lived body is not objective, as though it is being looked at from the outside by others, but rather the body is experienced through a more interior or internalized view, and it is the “vehicle for seeing” in the more expansive sense (like my play on the word ‘view’).8 She says that the body is the center of orientation, and thus it should be here, rather than there. It is the body in which we locate and engage with the world, and Papalia’s work solidifies this and brings participants back to this realization again and again. He reminds us of the interstices, porousness, sensuousness, and the fabric of our bodies, the ability of the flesh to give and receive, to mark inside and outside.

Amanda Cachia is an independent curator from Sydney, Australia and is currently completing her PhD in Art History, Theory & Criticism at the University of California, San Diego. Her dissertation will focus on the intersection of disability and contemporary art.