— Kevin Buist's Blog

Last month I attended the professional preview of documenta 14 in Kassel, Germany. The venerated, uber-important exhibition happens only once every five years in an otherwise unremarkable town. This year the artistic director Adam Szymczyk decided to split the exhibition between Kassel and Athens. There have been a lot of reviews published already, and I agree with the consensus that’s emerging: documenta 14 is not so great. I saw documenta 13, and this year’s installment helped me appreciate just how good that one was. Two reviews I recommend are Ben Davis in artnet who says it’s “a strikingly alienating show,” and Jeni Fulton’s exasperated take in Sleek.

documenta 14 is awkward and frustrating, but as Davis points out, some of that might be intentional. The planning period of the show straddled a pretty difficult period of world history. Szymczyk certainly meant to draw energy from the ongoing financial and political turmoil of the European Union, plopping part of the prestigious German exhibition in bail-out weary Greece. But more recent developments like the surge in ethnic nationalism that propelled Brexit and the election of Donald Trump is mostly unaccounted for, except in a very general sense.

I did see one installation that seemed to reflect the precise sense of confusion, disbelief, and anxiety that defines the current moment. Irena Haiduk presented a series of works collectively titled “SER (Seductive Exacting Realism),” which consisted of a room with a fashion runway, large stone tablets engraved with text, a counter where the artist was selling women’s shoes and dresses under the brand name Yugoexport, performances throughout the city where young women walked in a line wearing those shoes and dresses while balancing books on their heads, and a completely dark room where visitors listen to audio of actors reading a transcript of a conversation between Haiduk and an activist named Srdja Popovic. To buy a pair of shoes, guests were required to disclose their income in order to pay on a sliding price scale, and sign a gilded contract ensuring that the shoes would only be worn while “performing work.” The wall text was opaque and cryptic, a portion declaring, “Here, voices sing the pre-history of the blind, non-aligned, oral corporation: Yugoexport. She is incorporated in the United States, where corporations are people…” It goes on, but it doesn’t get any clearer.

In the darkened room dark room the voices speak about using the tools of branding and fashion in service of overthrowing oppressive governments. They talk about protest as a form of public image-making, a kind of radical PR. All the while, by keeping us in the dark Haiduk prevents us from doing our own branding through social media. Attendants actually yell at you if they see you turn on your phone in the pitch black room. It’s the only artwork in the exhibition that can’t be captured on Instagram (although the whole show is not particularly photogenic). We’re forced to just listen, we’re not allowed to document the experience and convert it into our own self-branding, which seems to be the default activity while viewing exhibitions now. As bold and controlling as Haiduk is of our experience, she’s also remarkably candid about her own failures, and the failure of socially engaged art in general. She acknowledges the way her work can be exploited by some of the same power structures it seeks to undermine. Listening to the voices we realize that she’s at once completely convinced of her methods, and willing to question them to their very core. The work managed to blend a self-righteous, brand-oriented confidence with a sense of introspection and self-critique that I didn’t think was possible.

At one point the voices are talking about successful past cases where the power of marketing was leveraged to foment protests against oppressive regimes, and they make a startling point. I’m paraphrasing here, but one voice says, “What’s worse than the dictatorship? The waiting that comes after. Not knowing what will replace it. Art is a waiting room.”

Art is a waiting room. What Haiduk seems to be aware of–which I think is a massive blindspot in nearly all socially engaged art projects and biennial curator-speak–is just how much art can fail even while it’s ostensibly meeting its own goals. It can play all the right notes, so to speak, and still be nothing more than white noise. Maybe art doesn’t have the revolutionary power we hope it does. Maybe art can’t heal us, and instead it’s just the thing we look at in the waiting room before receiving our diagnosis.

When Donald Trump was elected, in the grief and shock of the following day, I had a thought. It has softened and complicated a bit since then, but I still can’t get it out of my mind completely. I thought, “If we can elect a dictator, it must mean that all American socially engaged and activist art has failed completely. What clearer test could there be?”

The timing of this documenta was very tricky. If Brexit and the election of Donald Trump had happened at the beginning of the five year planning period, rather than at the end, I suspect the exhibition would be quite different. Even when it seems to capture the current anxiety of the political moment, it’s not clear if it’s reacting quickly, or striking a bit of luck. Haiduk’s project was ahead of the curve.

These exhibitions (documenta and other global biennials and triennials) have for decades sought to reflect and process a world in crisis. Globalism, the de-centering of the West, the backlash against colonialism, critiques of neoliberalism, declarations of the imminent demise of late-late-capitalism, and on and on. It’s a little hard to continue taking seriously the Chicken Little curators and theorists when they’ve been warning of an imminent implosion of the world order for decades. After a while this type of dark prognosticating begins to seem like a special curatorial language and little more, like a mating call used exclusively by this rare and sophisticated species. It sounds like a way of signaling the correct mix of positions, paranoias, and utopian visions. The dense and foreboding descriptions of crisis don’t seem to relate much to reality, where quality of life, by many measures, has been on a slow upward climb.

But suddenly things seem different. Undoubtedly this is because of my perspective as an American. As of last November, a path toward fascism by the nation with history’s most powerful military suddenly seems very possible. So perhaps the biennials’ predictions of imminent collapse were not so far off. With this frame of mind, it would seem that documenta 14 is poised to be most relevant and poignant of all the global exhibitions that have shared this gloomy rhetorical strategy. But it’s not. Rather than benefitting from a scenario where its catastrophic language became more relevant while the exhibition was forming, documenta 14’s rhetoric feels like a hollow continuation of performative curator-speak. The recent shift in the potential direction of the world, away from post-war Western unity and toward autocratic dictators ruling by fear and conspiracy, reveals the rigidity of art exhibitions that seek to reflect and process a volatile world. Now that the world really has changed for the worse, the art remains mostly the same. So we wait.

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Dewitt Godfrey

(image: Dewitt Godfrey)

This is a blog post about ArtPrize, money, and politics. In the past I haven’t addressed these things with this level of clarity, but now is not a time for silence. We put out a statement on the ArtPrize blog about recent political developments (read it here), but I thought I’d add more of my personal take below.

I’ve been part of ArtPrize from the very beginning. I remember hearing Rick DeVos give the original pitch to me and a dozen other people who worked for a previous company he’d founded. I was stunned by the elegance and the power of the idea. I knew it would be incredibly hard to pull off, and I wanted to help. I got that opportunity and took it upon myself to ensure that ArtPrize didn’t suck. That’s actually what I told myself in my mind, “Don’t let this suck.” I poured myself into developing and refining the artist-facing portion of the event. I argued passionately with haters in comment threads. I convinced skeptical artists to enter and cautious curators and critics to visit as jurors.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far, but over these eight years I’ve also come to terms with how naive I was at the beginning. It wasn’t my sole responsibility to make sure it didn’t suck, that was ultimately out of my control. The successes and failures of a thing like ArtPrize ride on the efforts of thousands of people, and even then certain elements are left to the whims of chance. ArtPrize has worked, but there’s nothing I control that guarantees that.

Last year, as we were in the hustle of ArtPrize Eight while following the news of a contentious and insane election, I started to sense a deep change in circumstance, like the ground shifting. Eras of American culture can be pretty effectively mapped to presidential administrations, without necessarily claiming a cause and effect relationship. Administrations and our reaction to them have a way of coloring the national mood. When I say “the Reagan years,” that has a cultural meaning as well as a political one. During the event this past fall it occurred to me that the entirety of ArtPrize up to that point had taken place during the Obama years. The meeting I mentioned earlier, when Rick laid out his simple vision for an art event that would take over the city, took place in January 2009, the same month Obama was inaugurated.

As we worked on the event, no one thought “Gee, this will be a perfect for the Obama era!” But looking back now, it’s clear that it reflected the sensibilities of the time. Those years were defined by hope in technology, participation, and democracy that seem a little too innocent now. Social networks! Apps! The “long tail”! TED Talks! With a little gumption and some cool tech, we can change the world! That sheen has been fading for a while now, but the events of the last few months signal an abrupt end to the techie optimism of the Obama era. We thought giving everyone technological “platforms” with which to amplify their voices would lead to a flourishing of expression, art, and entrepreneurship. A lot of that happened, but platforms like Twitter, for example, also emboldened misogynists, white supremacists, and Russian bot armies. Many news websites enabled comments, only to the turn them off years later. The elegance and simplicity of the big ideas that captured our imagination turned out to be more complicated than the original pitch. Things get messy.

ArtPrize has avoided the invasion of hateful trolls that plague platforms like Twitter and Reddit, but our early infatuation with elegance and simplicity has slowly given way to the unglamorous daily tasks of building a sustainable and consistent nonprofit art organization. We began as a wild idea dreamt up by someone with the means and the connections to get it off the ground, but we’ve become a broadly supported institution that gives artists, curators, and educators over $700,000 a year in grants and prizes. Initially, ArtPrize was an experiment in applying free market forces to the task of assembling an exhibition. ArtPrize was founded on the notion that if the carrot on the end of the stick was big enough, everything else would self-organize in an interesting way and figure out how to eat it. When the idea was announced, there were people who were confident that this approach would fail, and it was enormously satisfying to prove them wrong. But skepticism of our laissez faire model did have some merit. It turned out this was a brilliant way to start something, but it was not a great way to run something. As ArtPrize ages, we find ourselves confronted with the same challenges of any organization that supports the arts. How does the work get made? How are people supported? Who’s invited to be part of the audience? How do we keep it fresh? The giant carrot on the stick, as tantalizing as it still is, can only do so much. For everything else, we have to show up and do the work.

Now it’s 2017 and suddenly doing the work involves confronting the question of what ArtPrize will be in a new era. What is a post-Obama ArtPrize? What is ArtPrize in the Trump era, whatever that turns out to be? We’re just starting to figure this out—and honestly—we’re off to a very challenging start. This week Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Trump’s Secretary of Education. Betsy has been a financial supporter of ArtPrize, through her foundation, since her son Rick founded it. She served on the board until recently. I’ve never agreed with the politics of the DeVos family. Since before ArtPrize began I knew that working on Rick’s projects meant finding common goals with people despite disagreeing on a vast array of other issues, and defending this strategy against criticisms leveled by my own “side.” This has not been easy, and I have moments of doubt, but I reject the notion of insisting on perfect ideological alignment before agreeing to work toward a common goal. It’s puritanical, petty, and it breeds tribalism. I deeply disagree with the DeVos’ politics. And I’m deeply committed to what ArtPrize is doing with their help. Is that complicated? You bet it is. Most things are.

I’m not alone. The majority of the ArtPrize staff is with me in navigating a path through their own progressive politics and the perceptions that funding can carry. We’re not alone in the art world, either. The DeVos family funds every major art institution in Grand Rapids, with as much or even far more money than they give us. The tension between conservative money and progressive art organizations isn’t unique to Grand Rapids, either. If you think there isn’t a questionable aspect to the funders of a particular art organization, you probably haven’t looked hard enough.

I’ve become pretty comfortable plotting my way through this, but Betsy’s appointment came as a genuine shock. As late as the GOP convention, Betsy sounded cautious and unconvinced when asked by reporters about Trump, even though her preferred candidates, Rubio and Cruz, were clearly not going to get the nomination. I thought, even if I’ll never agree with Betsy on policy, there’s a much more basic question of integrity at play here. Surely, she could never support a candidate who talks like an aspiring dictator, spurns philanthropy, exhibits no working knowledge of the constitution, and prefers lawsuits and crony capitalism over free markets. Trump, it seems obvious, is not a conservative in any coherent sense of the term. Even though I’ve always disagreed with the DeVos’ social conservatism and free market fundamentalism, I thought I understood it. Now I’m forced to confront the fact that I was wrong. I have no idea what’s happening. I can’t imagine why Betsy would take this job.

Betsy has taken a lot of heat in the confirmation process, and unlike most people spilling ink about her, I’ve actually met her, so I feel the need to make a few things clear. First of all, she is not stupid. She’s an incredibly intelligent and insightful person, even if her confirmation hearing didn’t seem to reflect that. Second, she’s not evil. I believe that she truly wants to improve education outcomes for children, even if I think that her policy proposals will not accomplish that. More importantly, working for an administration that shows the early warning signs of fascism is not a situation that can be redeemed by good intentions.

I can’t justify or defend the actions of the funders of ArtPrize, and I don’t need to, that’s not my job. People can defend their own actions. What I will defend is my choice to work with people, despite difference and disagreement, to support artists and bring contemporary art to hundreds of thousands of people.

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dear reader

In 1941, Argentinian writer Jorge Louis Borges published a short story called The Library of Babel. The piece describes an infinite library full of chambers of uniform bookshelves with books that contain every possible combination of letters, and therefore every possible book. The Library of Babel is a work of literature that predates both the Internet and general purpose computing, yet it provides a potent way of thinking about how artists, poets, gamer designers, and citizens of a digitized world attempt to navigate incomprehensibly vast amounts of data. Faced with an effectively infinite amount of information, the distinction between discovery and creation becomes meaningless, and consciousness itself can be shown to be nothing more than an exceedingly rare—though not impossible—configuration of information.

The Library of Babel is a description of a setting more than a narrative. It describes an infinite fictional universe made up of interconnected hexagonal rooms. Doorways connect these chambers laterally, while ventilation shafts and small spiral staircases connect them vertically. The walls of the rooms contain uniform bookshelves, “each bookshelf holds thirty-two books identical in format; each book contains four hundred ten pages; each page, forty lines; each line, approximately eighty letters.” The inhabitants of the Library, known as Librarians, have deduced several important axioms about the books and the Library itself. The Library contains all possible combinations of letters, along with spaces, periods, and commas. The Library is “complete,” meaning that every possible combination of letters and punctuation appears somewhere in the Library once but is not repeated. The Library therefore contains all books that have been written and all books that could be written. It contains The Complete Works of Shakespeare, it contains a version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare where Romeo’s name is changed to Steve, and it contains The Complete Works of Shakespeare with one spelling error, and on and on. The Library contains the history of your life as well as innumerable false histories of your life. The Library contains this paper. The Library has no discernable organizing structure, however, so the vast majority of text appears to be complete nonsense, a jumble of letters. Many Librarians live their entire lives never finding even a shred of comprehensible text. The discovery of several coherent pages in a single volume is hailed as a monumental historic occasion.

When the Librarians first deduced that the Library contained all books, they were overjoyed. All the answers to all of their questions—the meaning of life, the origin of the Library, a catalogue of catalogues explaining the location of useful books—must all exist somewhere. Their exuberance was quickly replaced by depression when the denizens of the Library realized that while those meaningful and precious books did exist, they had no realistic hope of finding them amid the endless pages of nonsense. Some Librarians committed suicide; others destroyed scores of books in fits of rage.

Borges’ story is about the frustration and terror that comes from having access to boundless information with no way to parse it effectively. Having unorganized  access to everything isn’t helpful when we’re in search of something particular. In fact, everything is the enemy of the particular. The existential dread of The Library of Babel starts to look different, however, when confronted with the power of general purpose computing. Computers are machines that sort, organize, transfer, and store information. Computers can detect and predict meaningful combinations of bits of information. What happens when we have an infinite archive and the ability to search for particular things within it? What happens when we combine chunks of the archive ad infinitum? What happens when bits of the archive can sort and recombine themselves?

Tweets Without Authors

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 1.37.42 PMOne artist who is experimenting with what it means to sift through the scrum of endless information on the Internet is Darius Kazemi. A coder and technologist, Kazemi has created dozens of playful net art projects, many of them bot accounts on Twitter, entities that spit out bits of text generated by code rather than a human author. Inspired by Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing Kazemi realized that philosophers, rather than writing their ideas down, could build things that embody those ideas instead. He began making twitter bots that use code to scrape and recombine text. Metaphor-a-Minute takes words from an online dictionary and assembles them into the grammatical structure of metaphors. Most are difficult to make sense of, “a premonition is a warren: defenseless and tacit,” or “an impression is a mucus: nondomestic, rootlike.” While others seem to stumble on coherence, and maybe even self-reflexivity, “an algorithm is a neurosurgery: geothermal and wide-open.” Metaphor-a-Minute manages to create meaning out of entirely random words by forcing them into a format that prompts us to be generous in our search for coherence. Is an impression a mucus? No, not literally, but as a metaphor, it could work, depending how far we’re willing to go to imagine a connection.

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 1.40.17 PMOne of his most popular bots, Two Headlines, takes two unrelated current headlines from Google News and combines them into one statement while preserving their grammatical structure. Some recent examples: “How Amazon snatched huge customer Motorola away from California Mosques,” “COLUMN: Sign up for Skin Cancer while you can”, “MacBook Pro inmates rappel from jail in escape, two at large.” Similar to Metaphor-a-Minute, the bot sorts random content into a predictable structure: the news headline. It’s also very funny, relying on the humor trope of combining two incongruous yet topical elements.

Moving beyond tweets and into more lengthy territory, Kazemi started #NaNoGenMo, or National Novel Generating Month. It’s a spoof of #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, nanowrimo.org), a social media hashtag and annual campaign to encourage people to try to write a novel throughout the month of November, even if they’re not experienced writers. Kazemi’s take on the project is to challenge other creative technologists to write code during the month of November that generates something that can technically be called a novel, using #NaNoWriMo’s definition of a novel as simply “50,000 words of fiction.” Kazemi set up a page on GitHub, a community website for sharing code, that explains rules stipulating that participants must share both their novel and their source code at the end of the month. “The ‘novel’ is defined however you want,” says Kazemi on the GitHub page, “It could be 50,000 repetitions of the word ‘meow’ (and yes it’s been done!). It could literally grab a random novel from Project Gutenberg. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s 50k+ words.”

For the 2015 edition of #NaNoGenMo, GitHub user adregan created an 800,000 word novel called The Cover of The Sun Also Rises. He took a digital photo the cover of his copy of the Hemingway classic and converted each colored pixel into a verbal description, in order. It reads like this:

Brass. Brass. Brass. Brass. Brass. Brass. Brass. Brass. Brass. Drab. Drab. University of California Gold. Brass. Brass. Dark tan. Dark tan. Dark tan. Brass. Raw umber. Raw umber. Coffee. Dark brown. Olive Drab #7. Seal brown. Olive Drab #7. Olive Drab #7. Bistre. Bistre. Café noir. Raw umber. University of California Gold. Brass. University of California Gold. …

A more readable entry is user kevandotorg’s Around the World in X Wikipedia Articles. The code automatically generates a narrative that follows several characters traveling around the entire globe, starting and ending in London, all the while pointing out interesting historical factoids about each place scraped from geo-located Wikipedia articles. The final novel is 117,303 words long, and the characters visit 1,611 locations. A sample:

I remembered St Agnes Place. Unless I was mistaken, this was a squatted street in Kennington. Passepartout asked me if it was the first to be squatted, but I did not know. We agreed it was social/affordable housing.

“I imagine this is a place for housing.” said Passepartout.

 Near here was the site of Kennington Common. I could see that it was a large area of common land mainly within the London Borough of Lambeth. …

Kazemi’s Twitter bots and the #NaNoGenMo projects share something of the spirit of The Library of Babel, but updated for the internet age. These projects acknowledge that we’re sitting atop a vast mountain of text—much of it incomprehensible, provisional, mundane, unread, and unreadable—that just needs to be mined in interesting ways. If we think of Kazemi and his collaborators as Librarians in the infinite hexagonal chambers, they’ve overcome existential dread not by finding exactly what they’re looking for in the stacks of nonsense, but by inventing machines that selectively extract and recontextualize meaningful bits. What these machines find is not what their creators are looking for in a specific sense, rather they find—or perhaps create—something entirely new out of the archive’s detritus. The advantage of a networked archive, compared to a library, is that a network can be hacked.

The Sorry Story of @horse_ebooks

Kazemi is a well-known Twitter bot creator, but the most famous Twitter bot in the short history of the form was not his creation. @horse_ebooks began in 2009 as spam bot created by a Russian entrepreneur named Alexei Kouznetsov. The account, along with dozens of similar topic-specific spam-bots, was meant to drive traffic to an affiliate marketing website that sell ebooks. In order to avoid Twitter’s automated detection of spam-bots, the account tweeted links to the ebooks site only occasionally, and never interacted with other users. The majority of its tweets were poor algorithmic attempts to sounds like a human Twitter user, by clumsily scraping text from a cache of cheap ebooks and other sources around the web. The tweets were often sentence fragments, or were completely nonsensical, such as:

“Unfortunately, as you probably already know, people”

“TO CREATE THE SQUARE SHAPE Build the structure. Shape your watermelon. Shape the young watermelon.”

“SHORT OF BREATH? BREATH? BREATH? BREATH? BREATH? BREATH? COUGH COUGH COUGH COUGH COUGH COUGH TOO MUCH? SHORT OF BREATH? BREATH? BREATH?”

“As you might know, I am a full time Internet”

helicoptersThe account amassed legions of fans, eventually gaining over 200,000 followers. People obsessed over its enigmatic tweets. Fans created web comics, jewelry, and t-shirts that sold so well they couldn’t be kept in stock. Several reporters wrote lengthy reports about their efforts to track down the bot’s owner. Then on September 24, 2013, Susan Orlean wrote a short post on The New Yorker’s website announcing that @horse_ebooks was not a bot after all. She explained that the account was owned by Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender. The two friends also owned another mysterious source of internet content, the YouTube channel “Pronunciation Book,” which made hundreds of short videos showing the text of commonly mispronounced words along with audio of the correct pronunciation. Both projects culminated with a live performance in an art gallery that coincided with the launch of a third art project, an interactive video work called “Bear Stearns Bravo,” about the 2008 financial crisis. In the performance, Bakkila and Bender (along with Susan Orlean, oddly enough) sat in a gallery with three telephones, answering calls that came in to a number tweeted by @horse_ebooks that morning. They read a @horse_ebooks tweet to the caller, then hung up. The line received thousands of calls during the daylong performance, after which @horse_ebooks never tweeted again.

Orlean, writing an in-depth article about the project and its origins the following year, explained that @horse_ebooks had, in fact, started as a Russian spam-bot designed to sell low quality ebooks. Inspired by artists who used short bursts of text, such as Christopher Wool and Jenny Holzer, Jacob Bakkila wanted to perform as a spam-bot. “He wanted to attempt an identity inversion,” as Orlean describes it, “he would be a human trying to impersonate a machine that was trying to impersonate a human.” Rather than create a fake bot from scratch, he decided it would work best to take over an existing bot. He managed to track down Kouznetsov, @horse_ebooks’s creator, and agreed to buy $250 worth of ebooks in exchange for ownership of the account. Once he had the login, Bakkila updated @horse_ebooks manually, even at odd times, deciding to never automate its output. He kept tweeting links to the ebook sales site, which saw an increase in sales due to the bot’s growing popularity. Although he posted tweets manually, he never wrote a single one, they were all sampled from various places around the web. “There are so many weird, unindexed sites out there,” Bakkila told Orlean, “When you go down the rabbit hole of spam, it’s an infinity of infinity.” The profundity and humor of the tweets is often due to the fragmentary nature of copying and pasting bits of text, which is an effect Bakkila sought to preserve from @horse_ebooks’ spam-bot origins. He told Orlean, “I was trying to wrest wisdom from these wisdomless piles of information.”

Screen Shot 2016-11-27 at 3.30.18 PMEven very abstract @horse_ebooks tweets often have searchable sources. One tweet reads, “ORONGLY DGAGREE DISAGREE NO G G NO G G G G G G NO G G NEIEHER AGREE NOR DGAGREE O O O no O O no O O no O O no neither neither neither”. If you do a Google search of this exact text you get a Google Books result which is a fragment of a table showing a FedEx employee satisfaction survey, from a book called Make Their Day!: Employee Recognition that Works by Cindy Ventrice, published in 2003. The table is turned on its side, causing the optical character recognition of the scan to capture an odd series of characters and partial words. How Bakkila came across this slice of text is anyone’s guess.

Reactions to the revelation that @horse_ebooks’ tweets were part of an art project and not the accidental poetry of a machine were mixed. Writing in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer called it “the most successful piece of cyber-fiction of all time.” Dan Sinker had a different take. Sinker is a writer and open internet advocate who anonymously ran the Twitter account @MayorEmanuel, a profanity-laden parody poking fun at Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Upon learning of Bakkila’s revelation, Sinker penned a blog post titled “Eulogy for a Horse,” where he lamented the loss of magic felt when this internet gem was revealed to be a long con. Sinker references the infinite monkey theorem, the idea that if a million monkeys were allowed to randomly bang on typewriters for infinity, they would eventually type the works of Shakespeare. The notion that an infinite, random recombination of letters will eventually produce texts that don’t seem random at all—that are in fact wise and poetic, even without an author—is at the heart of Borges’ The Library of Babel. @horse_ebooks was popular because it was funny and unpredictable, but it was magical because it appeared to be a real infinite monkey on a typewriter, arriving at beauty without intent.

The fact that @horse_ebooks had the identity of a beloved animal was part of what made it work, we sensed that it was an alien intelligence, foreign to us, but still wise and somehow empathetic. @horse_ebooks made people happy. Mourning its loss, Sinker writes:

I want to believe that beauty can be assembled from the randomness of life all around us.

I want to believe that a million monkeys can make something amazing.

God.

I really, really do want to believe.

But I don’t think I do.

And that feels even worse.

In Susan Orlean’s telling of what Jacob Bakkila was trying to do, we have to acknowledge that @horse_ebooks was an accomplishment of endurance and appropriation. But a well-executed net art project simply cannot compete with the original promise @horse_ebooks claimed: that the network had learned to write poetry about itself.

Uncreative Writing

There are many Librarians searching for a soul lurking in the archive. One prominent sifter of extant texts is the poet Kenneth Goldsmith. Goldsmith teaches a class called “Uncreative Writing” at the University of Pennsylvania where students are penalized for showing any kind of creativity. Instead, they are told to plagiarize, repurpose papers, steal identities, sample, plunder, and appropriate. He has found that the students are very good at this, they arrive as experts. For the final paper, they’re instructed to purchase a pre-written term paper, normally a violation of academic codes of conduct, and present it as their own. Rather than merely turning it in, students are required to give a talk on the paper to the class, adopting its arguments as their own, and defending it against critique from other students. The secret to the success of the class, according to Goldsmith, is that suppressing creativity is impossible. While undertaking seemingly mundane tasks such as copying pre-written text into their own documents, the students make creative choices about exactly what they select and why. The choice of what existing material to clone and what to ignore is very consequential, but it’s a creative act that’s often ignored. Goldsmith is placing his students in the same position as the Librarians in Borges’ story. Everything you could ever hope to read has already been written, the problem becomes how you go about finding it.

Goldsmith’s thinking is a response to the proliferation of the written word in the age of the Internet. The number of words we’re exposed to each day has exploded. Words are no longer confined to pages, they are plastic and fluid, they can be sorted, sifted, and poured into any container. Language even lies beneath the rich media that we think exists beyond text. Images, audio, and video are in reality just massive packages of code, a textual language that’s illegible and invisible to most of us, but is still loaded with syntax and meaning. “Writers,” according to Goldsmith, “are potentially poised to assume the tasks once thought to belong only to programmers, database minders, and librarians, thus blurring the distinction between archivists, writers, producers, and consumers.” Wandering the web is a very new experience in the scope of history, both aimless and purposeful. At one time, narrative held the promise that we’d be delivered through our reading to some satisfactory conclusion. But as we wander texts now, we’re caught in a blizzard of language that confuses, obfuscates, and overwhelms. In a short essay at the end of his book, Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith sounds like one of Borges’ despondent Librarians, declaring:

Narrative reflexes that have enabled us from the beginning of time to connect dots, fill in blanks, are now turning against us. We cannot stop noticing: no sequence too absurd, trivial, meaningless, insulting, we helplessly register, provide sense, squeeze meaning, and read intention out of the utterly senseless. The only legitimate discourse is loss; we used to renew what was depleted, now we try to resurrect what is gone. 

Digitizing the Infinite Archive

Borges’ story, in retrospect, looks like a thesis on the sampling, scraping, and “uncreative” writing practices of Kazemi, Bakkila, and Goldsmith, penned decades ahead of its time. Creation and discovery begin to blur. Literature, prophecy, and nonsense are all somewhere in the infinite archive, and finally the internet lets us invent tools with which to mine, process, and recombine the endless bits. Jonathan Basile, a PhD student in comparative literature, crossed the currents of contemporary e-literature and Borges when he created libraryofbabel.info, a digital version of the universe described in The Library of Babel. Basile devised a way to recreate a searchable, stable, algorithmically generated version of the infinite library. Users can open texts at random, select a particular book and page, or search for exact passages of text. Basile’s version contains 104,677 books, but it manages this without regenerating random books each time they’re accessed and without storing them all, which would be impossible. The website uses a pseudo-random number generator to power an algorithm that writes the text. In order to make the books searchable, Basile used an algorithm that’s invertable, meaning that it can both generate 104,677 unique books and find the exact location of any piece of particular text within those books, ensuring that the location of any particular bit of text will be the same every time.

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 6.44.31 PM

Searching for text on libraryofbabel.info can feel a little anti-climactic. No matter what you enter, a page is returned with the exact text swimming somewhere among a sea of nonsense characters. The search results page also shows the searched text on an otherwise blank page and in the middle of a page containing only real, albeit random, English words. These additional scenarios are exceedingly rare—you’ll never find a mostly blank page or a page full of readable English words when pulling up random pages—but they are no more rare than the page with the searched text in the middle of random letters, and they’re no more rare than any particular page of what appears to be complete nonsense. After all, a single page is but one out of 293,200 pages. In the “Theory” section of the website, Basile points out that one can only find text that has already been written. The tantalizing thing about the infinite library is the knowledge that amazing things that haven’t yet been written, or that have been written and are now lost, are in there somewhere. But there is effectively no way to find anything unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. “The most important experience the library can offer us,” says Basile, “is that of being overwhelmed by irrationality.”

Basile’s reading of The Library of Babel is that it’s a story about the erasure of the distinction between creation and discovery. Known books and unknown books that are comprehensible are in the Library, but jumbles of letters could hold significance that we don’t understand. Perhaps “yxve,chstqwggo ktqg,.xviw efpb.fa.” is not nonsense, but a potent message shrouded by a code, and the cypher for that code is found somewhere else in the Library. Language doesn’t lose meaning, instead it gains an infinite signifiability.

Since unwritten books are in the Library somewhere, did the Library “write” them? To this question, Basile writes,

I would emphatically distinguish libraryofbabel.info from any artificial intelligence, which is capable of recreating language in a context similar to its rational use. Babel is all expression in its most irrational, decontextualized form; I prefer to think of it as artificial unintelligence.

What’re Those Dwarves Up To?

Basile’s digital Library of Babel is an “artificial unintelligence” because it is static. It contains everything, but all its parts are locked into a rigid, nonsensical order. When near infinite archives can slice and recombine themselves, as computing allows, something resembling intelligence cannot only be found but can emerge. Since 2002, two brothers, Zach and Tarn Adams have been continually developing a very bizarre and complex computer game called Dwarf Fortress. The game is a little like Sim City and Warcraft real time strategy games, in that the player must design and manage a colony of dwarves in a procedurally generated environment. Rather than give the individual dwarves commands, the player queues tasks to be completed, and the dwarves eventually execute them, as long as they have sufficient food, alcohol, motivation, and materials. Players are responsible for setting up incredibly complicated webs of interdependence between the colony and the surrounding environment. To make gameplay even more challenging, Dwarf Fortress does not depict its world using graphics the way most modern computer games do. Instead, everything is rendered using colored ASCII characters on a black background. It looks like a DOS screen after a critical error, or like the streaming, seemingly nonsensical green characters on computer terminals in The Matrix films. Successful management of an unwieldy dwarf colony is ultimately impossible. Seasoned players accept that their fortresses will eventually succumb to starvation, goblin invasion, volcanic eruption, or any number of unforeseen disasters; and find that chronicling the travails of a doomed colony is one of the most rewarding aspects of the game.

800px-Sitefinder

Writing in Electronic Mediations: Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era, Patrick LeMieux and Stephanie Boluk discuss both the game’s approach to generative historical narratives as well as the fan culture that has developed around chronicling and sharing the tales of dwarf colonies. They call these narratives Dwarven Epitaphs. “Dwarven Epitaphs,” according to LeMieux and Boluk, “are monuments of human play and a powerful form of comparative textual media produced amid a computational wilderness.” The wilderness from which these narratives are drawn is the dense and unpredictable logic of events that unfold in the game. Zach and Tarn Adams have encoded every element of Dwarf Fortress—the dwarves, the animals, the weather, the history of the world—with complex narrative tropes and layers of logical causality. When all these semi-autonomous elements combine, they create a world that overflows with an epic, emergent narrative in which the player is invited to to play only a small role before being crushed by forces beyond her control.

When a player starts a new game in Dwarf Fortress, its algorithms generate an entirely new world from scratch. The player waits several minutes while eons of geologic and historic events are procedurally generated. LeMieux and Boluk note,

In one game set across a thousand-year time scale, Dwarf Fortress’s world generation will typically produce about fifty thousand noteworthy characters participating in over half a million events in thousands of locations. When confronted with these sprawling catalogs, stylistically reminiscent of only the barest of narrative forms—the calendar, the chronology, and the chronicle—the player is left to wonder how, for example, does a gathering cold front in the early autumn of the year 128 impact her activities over a thousand years later?

To account for these histories, each unique to a single save game file, would be impossible. The archives of these dwarven histories exist, but they’re incomprehensibly vast, leaving human players to marvel at each world’s complexity, serendipity, and blips of apparently emergent intelligence that bubble up.

On December 6, 2008, a user named Goldsie made a post on the official Dwarf Fortress community forums about the creation of a curious artifact in her game. She explained that a dwarf became “possessed” and began picking up huge amounts of stone and other materials scattered around the map. Thinking it was a bug, she ignored the erratic behavior, until after a year of in-game time had passed when a notification popped up that the dwarf had crafted an object of stunning complexity. “He turned thirty pages of stone, ores, shells and bars into one super statue,” wrote Goldsie, “when it was created the game froze for like 10 seconds just to spit out the history.” The dwarf named the object “Planepacked.” It was a dwarf-sized statue, made primarily of limestone but including dozens of other materials and featuring ornate carvings depicting most of the history of its procedurally generated world. The statue even contained 73 images of itself, meaning that its detail regressed into infinite fractals. When a dwarf crafts any type of object, the game produces a written description rather than an image—usually a concise way to describe a thing otherwise represented graphically only by a single ASCII character. The description of Planepacked, however, is 8,716 words long, or fourteen pages of single-spaced type. Here’s a sample from midway through the description:

On the item is an image of toads in Magnetite. On the item is an image of dwarves in Magnetite. The dwarves are laboring. The artwork relates to the foundation of Ravenlabors by The Sabres of Authoring of The Arrow of Tournaments in the early spring of 202. On the item is an image of Mafol Handletone the dwarf in Magnetite.

The question raised by Planepacked—this surreal and epic digital artwork—is simply this: Who made it? Zach and Tarn Adams created Dwarf Fortress, and in this sense they are deific clockmakers, winding up the world’s gears and stepping away. Goldsie discovered Planepacked, but she certainly didn’t create it. Planepacked could be considered a bug, which it technically was, as a more recent patch to the code prevents such creations from occurring again. On the other hand, the artifact is an example of exactly what Dwarf Fortress is designed to do: mash together so much complexity that something autonomous, unpredictable, and beautiful emerges.

As strange as it seems, it’s worth nothing that all 8,716 words of the description of Planepacked exist, in order, within Jonathan Basile’s libraryofbabel.info. In theory, the exact description is in Borges’ version, too. What was different about Planepacked in Goldsie’s Dwarf Fortress game is that it wasn’t sought out, it emerged. In a sense, Planepacked made itself, and then made itself known. Like a monkey on a typewriter completing his billionth page on his millionth year, something incredible coalesced from the swirling morass.

From Entropy to Consciousness

The infinite archive of The Library of Babel, along with experiments that blend randomness with endless archives of information—like those by Kazemi, Bakkila, Goldsmith, Basile, and the Adams brothers—all play with the concept of entropy. Entropy, a term borrowed from the second law of thermodynamics, is understood in information theory as the amount of disorder in a system. The entropy of a given message is equal to the average amount of information it contains. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy can only increase, meaning that order gradually turns to chaos as natural forces seek equilibrium by achieving maximal disorder. The Library of Babel, as experienced by its forlorn inhabitants, is a stand-in for a complete entropic state. The information—the matter—of this universe is maximally disorganized, spread with perfect equilibrium across the infinite hexagonal chambers. And yet, there are the Librarians, agents who can read, collect, remember, and reorganize the tomes as they try to wrest order from the chaos. If the Library is the Internet, the artists, poets, literary theorists, and game designers we’ve looked at here are the Librarians, building tools, games, and robots to sort and reorder the Library’s depths. Unlike the Library, real information systems are not in a state of perfect entropic equilibrium, instead they’re chaotically recombining and realigning their parts at speeds we can hardly comprehend. The monkey on the typewriter is typing very, very fast. So it’s worth asking, when we glimpse things like Planepacked, whether something intelligent, or even conscious, could emerge from this swirl of connections.

monkeys-typingThe answer, according to a recent neurobiological study, is maybe. In a paper titled Statistical mechanics of consciousness: Maximization of information content of network is associated with conscious awareness, the authors describe a clinical study in which they observed the amount of entropy in among the neurons of patients who are in comas, sleeping, closing their eyes, and actively looking at things. They found that the highest state of consciousness, when subjects look at something to create a mental model of their environment, is associated with the highest level of entropy in the state of their neural network. It seems that a high level of chaos is needed for consciousness to function.

They go on to suggest that the emergence of consciousness itself may have a relatively simple physical explanation: our minds are the locations where matter has temporarily sorted itself into a sufficiently complex state on its way to maximally disorganized equilibrium. “The emergent features of cognitive phenomena that can be termed ‘conscious,’” say the study’s authors, “arise once an efficient web of connections endowed with certain complexity appears.” The key is not purely a maximum number of connections, resulting in everything connected equally to everything else, because that would be a static state, not unlike Borges’ Library. Consciousness might arise when the largest amount of possible connections are achieved within a given set of restraints. In the harsh language of thermodynamics, “consciousness (like biochemistry) may represent thus an optimal channel for accessing sources of (free) energy.”

As the Internet becomes something approaching an infinitely interconnected library, there may come a time when the bits align themselves in such a way that they emerge as something we recognize as truth, beauty, and being.

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I think it’s safe to say that 2016 was a year of loss and death. The news of Carrie Fischer’s passing really drove the point home for me. When I heard the news, I thought back to April, when Prince died. To be honest I’ve never been a very big fan of Prince. I learned about that news of his death in an airport during a layover on my way to Coachella. I suspected that a lot of the performers I was about to see would modify theirs sets to pay homage to Prince and cover his songs. That turned out to be true, but the most profound tribute I saw was a simple video. Between sets, on the enormous screens on either side of the stage, they played the video of Prince covering “Creep” by Radiohead during Coachella 2008.

Looking back on it now, this was the most remarkable thing I saw at the festival, even better than the live acts, as strange as that sounds. I think this performance is one of the best cover songs ever recorded. When I watch the video now on YouTube, it occurs to me that it’s a fundamentally different experience than seeing it on the huge screen. In April, standing in the dessert, being hit by a wall of sound and purple light, we were in the very spot where the performance happened 8 years before. It felt like holy ground.

You could argue that it would have been better to be there in 2008, to have seen the real thing. But there was something about the absence conveyed by the video that I’ll never forget. Projected video, and cinema in general, always acts like a bridge between our world and the world of dreams, spirits, and the afterlife. People are turned into light. Prince was not there, and it was sinking in that he would never be there again. Between the two obscenely large screens sat an empty stage.

I think it also matters that Creep was not his song. I know Prince wrote some great songs, but a cover song is the perfect way to get past the distraction of originality. His way of performing the song was not about making something, it was about displaying a way of being. He was showing how he could read and repeat back something we all knew, and do it in a way that revealed things we’d never heard before.

Right now 2016 feels like a year where we lost a lot ways of being. A lot of possibilities died.

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It’s time again for my annual roundup of the best art I saw this year. Or put another way, here are a bunch of things I should have already written about, but I’m making myself do it now. These are listed in the order in which I saw them.

1. Carlos Bunga, Theaster Gates, and The Black Monks of Mississippi, “Under The Skin” at Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago

Under The Skin

Theaster Gates opened the The Stony Island Arts Bank in the fall of 2015, it’s an art gallery, community center, and mind-bogglingly beautiful library. He invited Carlos Bunga to create a temporary cardboard installation in the vaulted lobby of the space. Bunga erected pillars of cardboard and painted sections with washy white paint. In January of 2016, for the close of the exhibition, Bunga, Gates, and The Black Monks of Mississippi performed an improvisational ballad/funeral march/ritual of creative destruction to uninstall the piece. The musicians walked among the crowd as they sang, and Bunga eventually cut and tore down his installation in a moving crescendo. Hard to describe, but I’ll never forget it.

2. The Propeller Group, “The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music” at The Speed Museum, Louisville

Propeller Group

I actually saw this video twice this year, first at the re-opening of the Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, and later at MCA Chicago. The Propeller Group created this 21 minute film for Prospect 3 in New Orleans in 2014. It’s a music video style blending of scenes of performers, brass bands, and funeral processions from both New Orleans and Vietnam. The spiritual, ritualistic, and environmental elements of these two places blur in to one manic, hallucinogenic experience. It’s wild.

3. Agnes Martin Retrospective at LACMA, Los Angeles

Agnes Martin

Writing about Agnes Martin is almost as almost as hard trying to get a good photo of an Agnes Martin painting. In April I went to Los Angeles for one day and I happened to catch this show on its first day, as well as the very last day of Random International’s “The Rain Room.” At some point in the future I’d like to write about how these two artists took the idea of the grid so far in opposite directions that they end up meeting again in some other dimension. But I’m still mulling that over.

4. “Non-Fiction” curated by Noah Davis at The Underground Museum, Los Angeles

non fiction

Noah Davis was a promising young artist who died of a rare form of cancer last year at the age of 32. Before his untimely passing, he established The Underground Museum in Arlington Heights, a working class neighborhood of Los Angeles. Despite his death, the museum continues through the support of his family, friends, and LA MOCA. Davis conceived of many exhibitions on paper, imagining provocative combinations of work, and these records are being used to continue his vision. In the photo above, Wife of a Lynch Victim, 1949, by Marion Palfi hangs atop a wallpaper by Robert Gober titled Hanging Man/Sleeping Man, 1989. In this simple layering, he combines two decades-old works by white artists to communicate a sense of terror and anxiety that perfectly sums up the year 2016–a year Noah Davis did not live to see. Months later, I am still absolutely floored by this show.

5. Andy Warhol, “Silver Clouds” at The Dennos Museum Center, Traverse City, Michigan

Silver Clouds

The Dennos Museum is a fine place to see art in Traverse City. If you’re up that way, you should go see their mind-bending collection of Inuit art. For their silver anniversary, they decided to install Warhol’s famous early example of interactive installation art, Silver Clouds from 1966. Several pillow-shaped mylar bags of helium slowly float around the room, nudged by the wind of a reticulating fan. Visitors can use a foam wand to bat them about as well. I saw a toddler run in there and go buck wild. It’s such a simple and beautiful idea, and one that spawned so much of the interactive and experiential artwork we see today. Dennos wasn’t really on my map before this, but they pulled off this installation flawlessly. I’ll be back.

6. Kerry James Marshall, “Mastry” at MCA Chicago

KJM

This retrospective of Marshall’s work is at the Met Breuer in New York now, but I caught the very end of its run at MCA Chicago. I always liked his work, but this show blew me away. Marshall reclaims and reanimates all the power of figurative historical painting, while critiquing painting’s exclusion and subversion of black bodies. It’s at once an adoring love letter and a blistering take-down of the history of Western painting. It’s stunning. The show also includes his legendary, tiny self portrait, Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self, 1980, which is up there with Barnett Newman’s Onement 1, 1948 in the category of best mustard seed painting, a small picture that represents a turning point of epochal change.

7. Marylin Minter, “Pretty Dirty” at The Brooklyn Museum

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Minter’s work falls into the OMG-I-can’t-believe-that’s-a-PAINTING school of painting, which normally I’m not very excited about. But Minter’s exhibition of skill is in full service to the lush, overwhelming power of these images.

8. Zoe Leonard, “I want a president” at The High Line, New York City

Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard wrote this manifesto during the presidential election of 1992 (click here for a more readable version). It was circulated in various zines at the time. The High Line installed this large print version in October, on the occasion of the 2016 presidential election. It was installed when many people, myself and polling aggregators included, figured we were on the verge of electing our first female president. I saw the work in November, about a week after that historic milestone failed to happen. The curators couldn’t have known for sure the kind of blistering, antagonistic punch the work would acquire on November 8. We need these words now more than ever: “I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that the president is always a clown, always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker, always a liar, always a thief and never caught.”

9. Mark Rothko, “Dark Palette” at Pace Gallery, New York City

Rothko

This is another exhibition I saw on the trip I took to New York right after the election. And like Zoe Leonard, this show seemed to gain strange power in the wake of November 8. Rothko’s blocks of color manage to shimmer and vibrate and roil against each other, even as they approach black. It’s hard to describe the despair and rage that these pictures embodied for me in the wake of the election. Jerry Saltz posted something on Facebook, not related to this Rothko show, that nevertheless seemed to sum up the way these paintings felt in that moment. It’s a quote for D.H. Lawrence:

Doom! Doom! Doom! Something seems to whisper it in the very dark trees of America. Doom!
Doom of what?
Doom of our white day. We are doomed doomed doomed. And the doom is in America. The doom of our white day.

10. Julio Le Parc, “Form into Action” at the Perez Art Museum, Miami

Rothko

I’ll end on a high note. I was delighted to experience the gleeful and frenetic experimentation in this survey of Le Parc, an artist I did not know previously. His career began in somewhat familiar territory of minimalism, op-art, and light and space, then evolved into a kaleidoscope of swirling funhouse mirrors, blinding light installations, and manic challenges to the viewer’s perception and sanity. A wild career that was somehow excluded from the art historical narrative I was taught.

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Note: This is part one of a three part series. All three parts were published on Michigan Quarterly Review. Part one, two, three.

 

Sunset Over the Adriatic

“Anything that’s in the world comes from something else, so everything is culture, or everything is nature, depending on how you wish to define these words.”

            -Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

At the 1910 edition of the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, a messy, muddled painting of a sunset over the sea was exhibited. Titled Et le soleil s’endormit sur l’Adriatique (Sunset Over the Adriatic) (above), the picture was presented by the artist Joachim-Raphaël Boronali from Genoa, and was said to be a part of the “Excessivist” movement. The Excessivist movement did not exist, and neither did Boronali. Both were the invention of writer and critic Roland Dorgelès. Dorgelès and a few friends attached a paintbrush to the tail of a donkey named Lolo, a mascot and entertainer of sorts kept at a Montmartre bar called Le Lapin Agile.

boronali-lapin-agile-1Lolo the artist donkey is little more than a footnote in the history of Montmartre—filled with pranks, anarchist agitation, and ribald cabarets—and an even smaller blip in the history of the 20th century avant-garde art. The historical moment and various settings of this prank, Le Lapin Agile and the Salon des Indépendants in particular, were among the sites of radical transformation that forever changed the way art was created and viewed. What if Lolo was more than a footnote? What if the painting made by a donkey’s tail had been a turning point that set the trajectory of the entire history of art in the 20th century?

We only have the history we have, but in this series of blog posts I’m going to explore how things could have turned out differently. As is happens, there was a prank that radically altered the course of art history in the 20th century, but it was not Lolo the donkey, it was Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a urinal turned on its back and signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt”. A century later, contemporary art is still negotiating the implications of taking Duchamp’s joke seriously.

fountainGiven that the first few decades of the 20th century featured so many radical and inventive experiments questioning the nature of art, it’s worth considering what would have happened if a different joke had been taken seriously. Duchamp’s long shadow was not inevitable. It is only one of many possible historical trajectories whose certainty is an illusion propped up by randomness and social influence. Lolo the Donkey could have provided a framework for the 20th century avant-garde that would have been just as provocative and fruitful as Duchamp’s urinal, focused not on the artist’s ability to declare common objects to be art, but instead on the universality of the creative impulse among all creatures and abolishing the distinction between nature and culture.

Lolo’s World

Before we consider what an alternative avant-garde with a donkey for an idol might look like, we should better understand the context in which this prank was hatched. Jokes, after all, are as good an indication as any of the essence of a particular time and place.

The defeat of Napoleon III and the massacre at the Paris Commune in 1871 created a sense of malaise among the artistic and intellectual population of late 19th century Paris. This environment, particularly in Montmartre, proved fertile ground for experiments in art, theater, and poetry that dramatically reconsidered traditional, academic notions of beauty and artistic merit. In 1882 Jules Lévy began a series of exhibitions known as Arts Incohérents, featuring artwork by non-artists, use of unorthodox materials, and creative practitioners of all sorts operating outside their discipline. A series of dinners called Bon Bock became a platform for a new sense of French identity based on a combination of liberty and humor. This relishing of humor and rule breaking took on the name fumisme (1). Fumisme was a strategy of living, not just a style of humor. It was an approach to life that was politically incorrect, had no social agenda, and was meant to counteract the hypocrisy and pomposity of society.

AllaisThe Hydropathés, a regular meeting of artists and poets at a Montmartre cabaret, offered a democratic forum for art. A key figure in the group was Alphonse Allais, a poet, prankster and embodiment of fumisme who perpetrated a number of jokes that can now be read as precursors to conceptual art, including monochrome paintings and a score for a musical composition that consisted of complete silence. These lighthearted experiments were done in the 1880’s, decades before Kazimir Malevich and John Cage would repeat the gestures with a considerably more serious tone. The Hydropathés group went on to form the Salon des Indépendants, where Lolo would later make his artistic debut.

FreddyLolo belonged to Frédéric Gérard, the kindly and eccentric proprietor of Le Lapin Agile, a Montmartre cabaret frequented by artists and intellectuals. Le Lapin Agile was named Cabaret des Assassins until 1880, when André Gill painted a signboard for the establishment that featured an anthropomorphized rabbit jumping out of a pan while deftly balancing a bottle of wine on his paw. Regular customers then gave the cabaret the name Le Lapin Agile (The Agile Rabbit) as both a reference to the spritely creature, and wordplay on the artist’s name, lapin à Gill (French for “Gill’s rabbit”) (2).

lapin agileThe image was well loved among patrons, who adored it precisely because it was a low image. They liked that it couldn’t work in a formal academic setting. The countercultural attitude fomenting in Montmartre at the time made a point to elevate low culture like the signboard to masterpiece status as a way of registering disdain for the prevailing hierarchies of high culture (2). Gill’s signboard was painted at a time when there was heated debate about whether to give amnesty to the Communards (leftist revolutionaries of the Paris Commune) who had been deported to New Caledonia. There was a popular notion, depicted in contemporary cartoons, of native Caledonian cannibals waiting to eat exiled political prisoners. Depicting the rabbit in a pan, or “a la casserole” (in the pan, in the hot seat), along with a working class hat and a red bandana, was a subtle but pointed critique of the treatment of the Communards. A more overt statement would not have survived government censors. The image is cheery, but hides a threat to the prevailing hierarchy. It could be about revenge; perhaps this menacing little rabbit would cook you if the tables were turned (2).

It’s either a remarkable coincidence, or an example of a consistent brand of critical humor born at this particular cabaret, that Gill’s subversive and anthropomorphized sign hung at the very same spot where Lolo would paint Sunset Over the Adriatic years later. Comparing humans to animals and animals to humans is a fumiste tactic to make the point that no one should take themselves too seriously. SalisOthers used anthropomorphism as an absurdist gesture in Montmartre at the time. An 1882 illustration advertising the famous cabaret Le Chat Noir by proprietor Rodolphe Salis features an anthropomorphized cat and directly references Gill’s signboard in both the pose of the figure and the setting, with the Moulin de la Galette windmill in the upper left (1). Instead of a pan and a bottle of wine, the cat has a camera. There’s a line of anthropomorphized animals lined up in front of him, which includes, perhaps prophetically, a donkey. Le Chat Noir also prefigured the tactic of deliberate deception of the audience. Exaggeration, deception, and outright lies were all in the aesthetic toolbox of the fumistes. The journal produced by Le Chat Noir announced Salis’ death as a practical joke, duping earnest mourners into visiting the cabaret to pay their respects (1).

Tactics that employ playful and ethically questionable deception lay the groundwork for a divided notion of audience that runs from Salis, to Dorgelès and Lolo, to Duchamp, and on through to the present day. When an artwork doubles as a prank, or in-joke, who is the audience, exactly? Often, the audience can be divided into two groups. The first are the ones who are in on the joke, which could be specific to the artwork/prank at hand, or a more general sense of awareness of how notions of authorship and beauty have been upended. The second group is not in on the joke. They’re the earnest viewers looking for traditional notions of hard work and virtuosity they assume are the hallmarks of the true artist. For these traditionalists, an artist’s identity and accomplishments are supposed to form a clear line to the pleasurable experience of the viewer. What happened with Duchamp, and not Lolo or other art-pranks, was that the art world collectively decided to be in on the joke, and take its theoretical implications seriously. As we will see, things did not need to turn out this way, and the history that transpired led to a host of particular developments. This collective acceptance was not necessarily a mistake, but it was far from inevitable.

Meanwhile, the way art was being displayed was undergoing a series of upheavals. Formal academic salons still dominated in late 19th and early 20th centuries as places of commerce, patronage, and criticism. The values of aristocratic and bourgeois society were reflected in the beauty, harmony, and order of academic style paintings. In 1881 the state sanctioned salon was privatized and renamed Societé des Artistes francais. A small circle of artists judged the work, which was seen as the arbiter of French taste. As a reaction to the cloistered approach of the official salon, the Salon des Indépendants, a vehicle of the Societé des Artistes Indépendants, was created in 1884. Based on notions of freedom, independence, and individualism, there were no judges or juried awards, and the exhibition was theoretically open to anyone (3).

It was precisely this openness that Roland Dorgelès and his band of Lapin regulars intended to exploit. If the exhibition was open to anyone, why not a donkey? The prank also served as a pointed critique of Fauvism, which had just risen to prominence. Critic Louis Vauxcelles, upon seeing the Salon d’Automne in 1905, remarked, “Donatello au milieu des fauves!” (Donatello among the wild beasts!), referring to a Renaissance statue displayed among the radical new canvases. MatisseFauvism, as the movement came to be known, featured vibrant color and brushwork so bold it was compared to wild beasts. Matisse, considered the primary Fauvist, defined it as “the courage to return to the purity of means.” The Fauvists got rid of symbolist literary aesthetics, embraced bold color that no longer needed to describe reality, and chose subjects that elevated the chaotic beauty of nature (4).

It’s no accident that Lolo’s Sunset Over the Adriatic was created in the wake of Fauvism. Fauvism, more than any other movement of painting, is anthropomorphic. Artists were moving back toward nature, both in subject and approach. If Fauvism blurs the line between artists and wild beasts, Lolo pushes this idea to its extreme conclusion. Matisse’s talk of courage in finding a “purity of means” doesn’t seem very courageous compared to Dorgelès and Lolo’s gesture. If we want art to reconnect with natural processes, what could be more pure than eliminating the human artist altogether and letting the wild beast create?

Coming up in Part Two, Duchamp’s Game of Chance

Sources:

1. Cate, Phillip Dennis and Mary Shaw. The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905

2. Weisberg, Gabriel P. Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture

3. Leighton, Patricia. The Liberation of Painting: Modernism and Anarchism in Avant-Guerre Paris

4. Arnason, H. H. and Marla F. Plather. History of Modern Art

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I traveled a fair amount this year, and I saw a lot of art. I thought it would be good to record the things that are still sticking with me. This is far from a definitive “best of ” list of major exhibitions, because even though I saw quite a bit, there is so, so much I missed (maybe I’ll see the new Whitney next year…)

These are listed in the order I saw them.

1.  On Kawara, Silence at Guggenheim Museum

One Million Years

I wrote a blog post about my experience as a volunteer reader for a performance of Kawara’s One Million Years that was part of this exhibition. It was certainly a top art experience of my life, not just the year. The whole show was excellent as well.

2. Tom Sachs: Boombox Retrospective 1999–2015 at The Contemporary Austin

Tom Sachs

This was an exhibition of functional boomboxes and speakers, constructed or heavily modified by Tom Sachs. When I visited there was a DJ set happening. Sachs uses common materials and tools to make obsessive, funny objects. It reminds me of the way my brother and I would modify action figures with saws and hot glue guns when we were kids, but Sachs is on another level. He draws heavily from design and the maker movement, which is surprisingly rare in contemporary sculpture.

3. Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun at the German Pavilion in the Venice Biennale

Hito Steyerl

I saw a lot of great work at the Venice Biennale, but this stands out. It’s pretty hard to describe, but I’ll give it a shot. The entire room is covered in a glowing grid that mimics a motion-capture studio. A video is playing about characters in gold lamé suits who are trapped in a video game, and all of their movements are used to generate sunlight. This is blended with an apparently real story of a girl whose Russian family emigrated to Canada, who’s brother makes dancing videos that went viral on YouTube. A sci-fi narrative emerges of a near-future where Deutsche Bank kills protesters with drones, and is working to accelerate the speed of light. Shooting a protester with drone is handled primarily as a PR problem. It’s funny, smart, and deeply weird. While the national pavilions are separate exhibitions from the main show–All The World’s Futures curated by Okwui Enwezor–Steyerl and Enwezor are both considering how capital and forced labor might operate in the 21st century. It’s a bit of an apples to oranges (artist to curator) comparison, but I think Steyerl did a much better job.

4. Mika Rottenberg, NoNoseKnows, at the Venice Biennale

Mika Rottenberg

Although the Steyerl was a standout, there were some wonderful moments in All The World’s Futures. My favorite was another work that used video and humor to explore politics of labor. Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows was an installation of shelves and tables filled with pearls. In the next room, a video plays that cuts together laborers extracting pearls from clams, while in the room above them a woman in a business suit sniffs bouquets of flowers. Her nose becomes irritated and long, like Pinocchio, and she sneezes out whole plates of food, which stack up around her. Among the pearl hunters in the room below, one young woman cranks a wheel that connects by a long belt to drive a fan that blows the scent and pollen from the flowers into the face of the long-nosed woman. There’s even more to it than that. Again, very weird, laugh out loud funny, but able to get me to consider notions of power, exploitation, and labor far better than the more dour works in the show.

5. Abu Bakarr Mansaray at Venice Biennale

Abu Bakarr Mansaray

(Apologies for the lousy photo) Mansaray is an artist from Sierra Leone who makes insanely detailed, dark, complicated, and sometimes hilarious drawings. There were dozens of them on display, depicting spaceships, weapons, and other war machines spewing scribbled blood. They reminded me of the drawings my brother and I did when we were kids, but taken to an extreme.

6.  International Pop at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

International Pop

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with this show, but what I saw was a dynamic and funky exploration of how pop art manifested in all corners of the globe. I think it’s traveling, so hopefully I’ll catch it again.

7. Jenny Holzer, For the Garden at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park

Jenny Holzer

Holzer created 13 boulders engraved with passages of poetry for the new Japanese Gardens that opened at Meijer Gardens this year. They’re really hard to photograph, but stumbling upon these enigmatic phrases while wandering the garden is really delightful.

8. Burning Man, Black Rock City, Nevada

Burning Man

I went to Burning Man for the first time this year. There’s a lot more art there than I expected, it’s probably one of the biggest exhibitions of temporary sculpture anywhere. Some of it is wonderful, some not so much. The best artwork of all, however, is the event itself. I wrote a short piece for The Rapidian about how the event reveals a lot about how ideologies create and animate cities.

9. William Pope.L, The Beautiful, Art Basel Miami Public Sector

William Pope.L

Each year as a part of Art Basel Miami Beach, the fair installs a series of artworks in Collins Park, not far from the convention center. The work this year was pretty strong, I especially liked William Pope.L’s performance, The Beautiful. A band of men in Superman costumes with black face paint drag one another on skateboards through the park to a stage. There they sing America the Beautiful in careful harmony, undercut by glaring, dissonant electric guitars. The song repeats a number of times, then reaches a crescendo when the performers toss handfulls of crumpled up fake money, causing some in the crowd to jump to the ground to gather it. The performers walk off one by one, leaving only one singer repeating a line from the second verse, “Confirm thy soul in self-control,” over and over again. I had never really noticed that line before. Standing there, among the blitz of excessive consumption that is Art Basel Miami Beach, in the party-induced cloud of distraction that almost let me forget about things like Donald Trump campaign and the San Bernardino shooting happening in the rest of the county, it occurred to me that “Confirm thy soul in self-control” is about the worst way to describe 21st century America. The gap between what we aspire to be and what we are hit me like a punch in the gut.

10. Artist-Designed Acid Tabs at Rob Tufnell’s Booth at NADA Miami

Rob Tufnell

In addition to Art Basel Miami Beach, there are a number of satellite art fairs that run at the same time, showcasing emerging and alternative galleries and artists. NADA is always one of the best satellite fairs, and this year I was struck by a small booth belonging to a British gallery called Rob Tufnell. It featured a series of small framed works on paper, which on closer inspection I realized were artist-designed acid tabs, including big names like Laura Owens, Liam Gillick, and David Shrigley. Now, I don’t do acid, so I’m not into these some kind of fanboy. I like these so much because they got me thinking about how all art presents itself as offering the possibility of a personal, transformative experience. Art is never just a thing, it’s the effect the thing has on you. Art fairs are weird because pretty much everything you see is intended for another context, but you have to look at it crammed into a booth in an enormous convention center. So many dealers pushing their wares at once can seem crass and exploitative, not unlike a drug pusher promising a great trip.

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Joan Jonas

Among the dimly lit chambers of the United States Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Joan Jonas has placed several glass cases among her installation of videos, props, drawings, and mirrors. The glass cases don’t command much attention at first glance. Their shadowy interiors contain clippings, curios, handwritten notes, masks, and small natural specimens. One case features a cylinder made of an impossibly delicate latticework of white glass, no more than eight inches long, tapered and curved at one end. An adjacent handwritten note explains that the object is a Venus basket, the skeletal remains of a deep-water sponge whose body is a cage-like structure of glass filament. A pair of shrimp occupy each Venus basket in a symbiotic relationship, the note explains, eventually growing too large to escape through the holes in the lattice. They mate, and their tiny babies slip out of the cage, off to find their own mates in their own glass prisons.

Joan Jonas

This is one element of one small part of Jonas’ installation, but it cuts to the core of a theme that weaves through the entire pavilion: the poetic and vexing relationship we have to animals. Videos contain bees, buffalo, dogs, vintage footage of a girl riding a horse through water so deep that the animal seems to be struggling. The walls are lined with quick, expressive drawings in colored ink of birds, bees, and fish. Videos are projected onto screens made of raw wood, set at angles in the center of each room. The videos record children manipulating props, wearing simple costumes, and responding to instructions, often overlapped by still more projected video of animals, wooded landscapes, and other performers. The artist is in the videos, too, drawing, moving, walking, dancing. All the action in the videos lives somewhere between instruction, ritual, and instinct. No one in the videos, perhaps not even Jonas herself, seems to be conscious of exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. Jonas has managed to cultivate a method of making and acting that feels automatic, unmediated, and animal.

A quote from John Berger’s Why Look At Animals? is handwritten on a wall. He suggests that animals were the origin of metaphor. In other words, the first time we were able to conceive of our actions as narratives—with moral, spiritual, and social consequences—was when we learned to imagine animals as ourselves, and ourselves as animals. If this is true, that animals played a crucial role in the development of abstract thought, it presents a bewitching irony: Only by using animals to think outside ourselves were we able to draw a clear distinction between human kind and animal kind. Human exceptionalism is self-declared, after all.

Joan Jonas

Jonas’ installation confronts the murkiness of this human/animal distinction by occupying it. She creates and performs in animal masks, a practice spanning many cultures and millennia. Masks can reveal inner truths while adding external layers. They lend themselves to ritual. In a mask we can imagine acting within another body, another mind, or without what we consider a mind at all. Ritual is action with meaning but without thought. Jonas’ incessant, deliberate actions, layered and intermingled with the ritual and creative output of animals, puts humanity in a humbled position in relation to beasts. Acting, and not just thinking, is a way of knowing, and it may be that animals understand ritual far better than we do.

The national pavilions in the Venice Biennale vary widely in how deliberately they present their nation to an international audience. Some seem like a joint production of the ministries of culture and tourism, proudly touting national character, while others don’t seem to communicate national flavor at all. At first, Jonas’ installation seems to be in the latter camp, chosen because she is an accomplished late-career American artist, not because the work is about American-ness. “They Come to Us Without a Word,” is, however, very much about America. America, from a European point of view, began as an untamed, uncivilized, inhuman place. For the first European settlers perched on the Eastern shore of the continent, peering West into the darkness, America was more than just a stage for future ambitions. It was a place where nature still existed without culture, where new metaphors lay waiting to be acted out.

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One Million Years
On Kawara, the conceptual artist whose work marked his own passage through time until his death last summer, has a retrospective on view at the Guggenheim Museum. I’ve always been a big fan of Kawara’s work ever since I encountered his “Today” series of paintings in an art history class in college. The paintings contain only the date on which they were painted in white letters on a solid background. I learned through a post on Hyperallergic that the Guggenheim retrospective would feature the work One Million Years, a piece that consists of binders filled with pages of years. One set includes years stretching one million years in the past, the other counts one million years into the future. When the work is exhibited, the institution is instructed to invite volunteers to read the years aloud in one hour shifts. They were looking for volunteers, and I noticed that one of the days where a reading would happen overlapped with a trip I had planned to New York. I emailed the museum, and first was told that all the slots that day were filled. Later, they told me a spot had opened up, so I took it.

Two days before my reading, I received an email with information and instructions. It included this background about the piece:

With the work One Million Years, Kawara opposes human awareness of the day, which conditions most of his other work, to an almost unimaginable measure of past and future time. One Million Years comprises twenty-four works, each made up of ten binders. Inside each binder are two hundred pages of text, each of which lists five hundred numbers. These numbers are in fact years, one hundred thousand per volume, one million per set. The works are divided into two groups, One Million Years: Past and One Million Years: Future, each respectively subtitled: “For all those who have lived and died” and “For the last one.” The Past works were created in 1970 and 1971, and their lists end with the year prior to which they were assembled; the Future works, produced between 1980 and 1998, begin with the year after they were made.

In 1993, on the occasion of an exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, Kawara expanded One Million Years to encompass live and recorded readings, which allows the project to be both preserved and perpetuated through public recitation. Since then, the work has been the subject of live readings and recordings around the world. All readings follow the same format: readers appear in pairs, one male (who reads odd-number dates) and one female (who reads the even numbers). Each session begins where the previous one left off. Dates are read from both One Million Years: Past and One Million Years: Future and are always recited in English.

I arrived early and met the museum employee coordinating the readings, and the women who would read with me. I asked the employee if she wouldn’t mind hanging on to my phone during the reading and taking a few photos. She happily obliged, explaining that nearly every reader makes the same request. It’s odd, but before reporting to the museum I had given a lot of thought to the problem of how I would document the experience so I could share images on social media. I certainly would have done it even if I couldn’t get a photo of myself, but having an image of the act felt surprisingly crucial.

One Million Years

We were each given a binder with pages of numbers, a ruler, and a pencil. On the table there were two microphones, two glasses of water, and a small white Braun clock. The rulers and pencils were for keeping our place in the compact blocks of text. We placed the ruler under the line we were reading and crossed off each number as we went. This may seem excessive, but I’m sure we would have lost our place many times without these aides.

When critic Jerry Saltz wrote about participating as a reader when One Million Years was shown at David Zwirner Gallery in 2009, he talked about how an attendant would stop the readers and make them repeat a year if they made a mistake. They did not do this at Guggenheim. We definitely messed up several times and we were never corrected. My reading companion made a string of mistakes about five minutes into the hour. I’m fairly certain I made mistakes as well, but I don’t really remember them. As I developed a rhythm of reading, I began to say numbers aloud without fully listening to myself. Several times I felt I could sense the reverberation of an error having just left my mouth, but I wasn’t sure.

We were reading from One Million Years: Past. Our numbers began around 812,500 BC, and progressed forward in time, which meant the values diminished, to about 811,700 BC. One of the first things I noticed was that the first half of the number, “eight hundred twelve thousand…”, became much harder to say than the second part, “four hundred ninety-one BC,” for example, which changes more frequently. Something about the repetition made it harder to say and comprehend. The consistency required a lot more concentration than reading the revolving numbers of the lower decimal places. The more I heard myself say the words, “eight hundred twelve thousand,” the less sense they made. 812 is three digits, yet to speak it I had to say four words. The order of the numerals 812 represents a clear logical progression through decimal places, largest to smallest: 800,000, 10,000, 2,000. But the words jump all over the place: ones (“eight”), hundreds (“hundred”), tens (“twelve”), thousands (“thousand”). Reading the years forced me to think way more about this than I ever have before, and the more I thought about it, the more arbitrary it seemed.

Today series

Midway through, I recalled the subtitle of the work, which I hadn’t really considered before, “For all those who have lived and died”. Kawara’s work is about measuring time and particularly measuring life within time. His series of telegrams which bear only the message “I AM STILL ALIVE” are a particularly good example of this. The postcards, the date paintings, and other projects are also very much about death. In one obituary of Kawara (which I can’t seem to find now) the writer noted that in dying, Kawara completed the act that all of his work anticipated. The telegrams asserting that the artist is still alive also bear a shadow message, that one day the artist will no longer be alive. This notion of the artist reducing his own existence to the most atomic, essential binary—alive or dead—has always been one of Kawara’s great triumphs. Every artwork, from prehistoric women spitting paint to make hand shadows on cave walls to whatever you just posted to Instagram, all contains the most essential, irreducible message, “I am still alive.” And when you die, what you made will mark that you were once here.

One Million Years: Past is a little different, however. Unlike the telegrams and date paintings, the work is about a span of time, but it doesn’t mark time with its creation. Rather than marking the duration of his own life as he experienced it, Kawara is inviting us to contemplate an vast span of time, one that extends far beyond our lives. One million years in the past is at once a mind-boggling amount of time, but it’s also quite small, considered against the age of the planet and the universe. The Earth has existed for four and a half billion years, meaning that the most recent one million years (of which I read only a small fraction) account for only about 0.02% of all the time the planet has existed. If One Million Years: Past can help us comprehend how small we are in one slice of geologic time, it’s best to think of it as a stopping point on the way to understanding how truly vast time is. In the face of the thirteen billion year history of the universe, one million years starts to seem downright cozy.

As I read the years, I started to think about how each year represented a single trip of the Earth around the sun. In any climate, current or prehistoric, this trip produces a recognizable pattern of seasons. In nomadic and agrarian cultures, the rhythm of the orbit could be sensed, anticipated, and marked. I started to think about how each year contains two sets of people, those who were born and those who died. I thought of the scene in Vertigo where Kim Novak is looking at the rings on a slice of a giant redwood tree and she finds the ring representing the year she was born, then the ring corresponding to the year she died. These two groups of people, the births celebrated and the deaths mourned, are unknowable at a distance of 812,000 years in the past, but the numbers are still finite. I can’t imagine how we could ever calculate the figure, but some finite number of people were born in 812,491 BC, and some finite number of people died in 812,491 BC.

Vertigo

Among the class of births and deaths for each year of the deep past, our ancestors were there, scraping together a living, managing to have children. I started to think about these people, I felt gratitude for their persistence and mourned their loss. Then a thought hit me. They are ancestors, yes, but is “people” even the right term? Homo sapiens, our species of upright ape, emerged in Africa around 200,000 BC. The years I was reading occurred 600,000 years before we, in a genetic sense, even existed. Homo erectus were the ones walking the savanna in 812,000 BC, using tools, lighting fires, and caring for the young and weak. We have stone tools older than one million years, but the earliest cave paintings are only about 40,000 years old. When we consider our global family on the scale of one million years, we’re forced to expand the definition of “us” to include our fragmentary knowledge of beings in the dark recesses of history.

One Million Years binder

Every few lines I would look up at the cute little Braun clock. The time passed steadily. The sun was lowering over Central Park behind our backs and it beamed in through a large, wet window. My neck started to hurt, the small glass of water they gave me was empty. The museum employee approached our table and asked us to circle the last number we read, so the next readers would know where to begin.

One Million Years is distinct from many of Kawara’s other projects in that it’s designed to live on after his death. The date paintings, the telegrams, the postcards all have the built in terminus of the artist’s death. Those projects reached completion with his death in July, 2014. Readings of One Million Years, however, will continue, and we have no way of knowing how far into the future they will reach.

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holland sculpture

On Wednesday MLive ran an article announcing that $100,000 has been raised for a permanent sculpture that will be placed along a busy road in Holland, Michigan. The 36 foot tall steel work by Dutch artist Cyril Lixenberg, titled New Dawn Rising is meant to symbolize diversity and unity, and is part of Holland’s “Celebrating Our Diversity” Public Art Project. The article quotes one of the main backers of the project, who says the objective is “to demonstrate our community’s understanding and support for diversity and inclusion.” A noble goal, to be sure, but as both an artwork and a demonstration of understanding, the project falls short.

Diversity is a rather charged subject when I think of Holland. Partly due to recent controversies concerning diversity and inclusion, but also its history. Holland was settled by Dutch immigrants, and their Dutch American ancestors fervently embrace Dutch culture and heritage. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s one of many great American immigrant stories, versions of which have been told time and again from Plymouth Rock to McAllen, Texas.

Full disclosure: I am a West Michigan native descended from Dutch immigrants, with extended family from Holland, Michigan. Tulip Time, the annual spring festival of Dutch Culture, and countless other reminders throughout the year, seem to carry the message of the half-joking line my Dutch grandfather used to say, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much!” It’s certainly possible to celebrate Dutch heritage without undertones of xenophobia, but I’m not convinced that this grand public art gesture pulls it off.

As the MLive article points out, Cyril Lixenberg is a Dutch artist. He makes fine work and has many West Michigan connections, including several pieces in the collection of Grand Valley State University. In one way, the choice of artist makes perfect sense. In another way, it limits the project to a symbolic, half-hearted gesture. In other contexts, the ethnicity of the artist might not matter, but in something called the “Celebrating Our Diversity” Public Art Project, it certainly does. They hope to raise $375,000 for this commission, a very respectable sum. They could have selected an artist from anywhere with any background to create a project celebrating the diversity of Holland, Michigan, and they chose one from… Holland. The selection of a Dutch artist seems to say, “We want to tell a story of diversity in our community, as long as the author of that story is still Dutch.” If they want to celebrate diversity, they should amplify diverse voices, not simply select diversity as a topic.

While I respect Lixenberg’s work (his prints are particularly nice), I just can’t get excited about another giant wavy piece of steel. New Dawn Rising looks like it will be monumental, symbolic, and frankly, boring. It fits nicely into the category of public art so common in the second half of the last century known as “plop art,” giant abstract forms that are plopped into their site with little regard for the architectural, social, or political context of the place. I’m a fan of abstract art, but the problem with abstract public art that’s supposed to convey a particular feel-good message, is that it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. Which is another way of saying it means nothing.

Holland is a place with a strong founding narrative that still reverberates in the city today. It’s an American tale of hardy pioneers seeking opportunity and carving out a home, and that’s wonderful. This story is still happening today, but settlers are not coming from the Netherlands, they’re coming Mexico and Central America. In the 2010 census, over 22% of Holland’s 33,000 people identified as Hispanic or Latino. The influx of new immigrants is an echo of the very same thing that brought Dutch immigrants generations ago.

The entire process of creating public art conveys meaning, not just the finished product. What a work of art says comes not only from its symbolism and representation, but the story of its creation, its materials, and the people making it possible. The process in Holland seems to be one of creating an art object about diversity, when the process itself should be an exploration of diversity. The result of that process would ultimately be more effective. The MLive article states that a diverse committee decided on the proposal, which is understandable. But too often committees selecting art have a way of weeding out risky and compelling proposals, and watering down the spirit of a project to a bland, palpable form. Curation by committee is a close cousin to design by committee.

The story of immigration is central to Holland’s identity. Shouldn’t a public art project celebrating diversity reflect the 21st century chapter of the immigrant story? There are quite enough vague steel sculptures by old white men. Holland can do better.

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