Back in 2018, when I was still Artistic Director of ArtPrize, we announced that following that year’s event ArtPrize would continue on a biennial schedule. This was to make room for a new format of public art exhibitions that would take place in the intervening years. The first one, held in 2019, was called Project 1: Crossed Lines. ArtPrize was meant to return in 2020, and in 2021 we planned to stage Project 2. Covid-19 had other plans, of course. I’ve written previously about the messy way ArtPrize 2020 was cancelled, but now it’s 2021 and ArtPrize is on the verge of finally coming back.1 I’m no longer involved, so I don’t know much about what they’re planning. I hope it all goes well, but the dream of holding a 2021 event with the pandemic in the rearview mirror unfortunately looks like wishful thinking with cases on the rise. I hope there’s some good outdoor art.
Covid-19 has caused me to think a lot about alternate timelines, different versions of the past, and the forking paths of possible futures. Conduit Studio, who did the identity work for Project 1, designed a logo for Project 2 back in 2019, just in case we needed it. Obviously we never did, but I kept a copy of the file anyway. A few weeks ago I decided to get it printed on a t-shirt so that I could wear it during the timeframe that the exhibition was meant to take place, September and October of 2021. I suppose it’s a way to pay homage to an exhibition that only exists in some alternate timeline where Covid-19 never managed to take hold.
My t-shirt for a non-existent exhibition reminds me of a project the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist put together several years ago called the Agency of Unrealized Projects. It’s an ongoing archive of proposed artworks by various artists that were never produced, but the entries only go up to 2016. I suppose even catalogues of failure fail eventually. The project was ostensibly based on research conducted by HUO and some collaborators, but it probably grew out of the fact that the famous Swiss curator asks every(?) artist he interviews if they have any unrealized projects. I’ve read some of these interviews (there are a lot) and I’ve even heard him conduct interviews with artists on stage at live events where he asked the question. I’m a little ambivalent about HUO, but I’ve always loved that he asks artists about their unfinished projects. I like the idea that artists are never just the sum total of the work they’ve completed, but also the desires they have to make the things they’ll never complete.
When I ran a small art gallery for Calvin University I worked with artist and (then) faculty member Jeremy Chen to hold a weekly collaborative collage night in the basement called Possibility Space. Students, recent alums, and community members were invited to come cut and paste images together which we collected into self-published zines. One time Jeremy brought a book to be cut up for collage material that he bought online by mistake. It was The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects2 by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore. He thought he was buying The Medium is the MESSAGE (with an “e”), but that famous McLuhan quote isn’t actually the title of a book, it’s the title of the first chapter of McLuhan’s book Understanding Media. Anyway, Jeremy had The Medium is the Massage, which is a blend of text and images made with graphic designer Quentin Fiore. It’s a visual exploration of McLuhan’s key concepts, and it’s very cool, I can’t believe we cut it up.3 It contains three successive spreads (below) that combine a famous quote from McLuhan with an uncredited Niki de Saint Phalle installation called She – A Cathedral. The quote is, “Art is anything you can get away with.” This quote is also attributed to Andy Warhol, but I haven’t been able to figure out who said it first. I like to think it was neither of them and that they both stole it from some unknown third party. That would make it better.
I’m not sure if my t-shirt is legal. I think it is. There’s only one, it’s not for sale. It’s an artwork if I say it is, or a parody. Fair use. When I wear it I’m slipping into an alternate present where there is no Covid-19. Maybe something else terrible happened, but maybe the exhibition is still very good. It’s as good as I care to imagine it.
I’m beginning to think that a lot of artwork happens despite arts institutions, not because of them. We need institutions that can support difficult and important work, yes, but those are exceedingly rare. One experience I had over and over working for ArtPrize was to expand my network to include lauded, cutting edge art institutions, only to find out that many of the people working there were petty, toxic, and money-obsessed. I met a lot of amazing artists, curators, critics, and museum directors, but they were very often trying to smuggle good work through dysfunctional systems. Sometimes the best work happens when people in power are looking the other way.
One of the things I’m most proud of in my years with ArtPrize is the Project 1 catalogue. I had to fight to get it made, it lost money, many copies went unsold.4 I would do it again in a heartbeat.
ArtPrize was big and messy, and some of its best qualities flourished despite itself. I loved that about it. I think the key flaw was that we tried to make the phenomenon that happens between artwork and viewer more efficient. The thing is, it’s not an economic exchange, and efficiency has no value when it comes to looking at art. In fact, the encounters we have with art that are inefficient, the ones that get stuck inside us and refuse to resolve neatly, those are the best encounters of all. Perhaps the notion that a visitor could quickly pass judgment on an artwork and then move onto the next was flawed from the start. But flaws can be interesting, as long as you know to look for what leaks through the cracks.
After a few years we knew about this flaw, of course. As Michael Rakowitz said when he visited as a juror in 2015, “The vote is a MacGuffin.” What he meant was the vote itself was meaningless, it was just a plot device to move things along. The vote greased the wheels so that much more interesting and meaningful encounters with art, messy encounters, could happen. It worked in this way, but it also worked against itself. At its best, it was a bait and switch. We had to make a lot of noise about how great and innovative the vote was, when it was usually the least interesting thing going on.
Project 2 was going to be an exhibition about the Grand River, by the way. It would have been good, you would have bought the t-shirt. As it turns out, in my role at Grey Matter Group I’m currently working a video project for another Grand Rapids cultural institution that uses the Grand River as a metaphor and point of departure. I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.
- I’m actually not sure if ArtPrize is still planning to switch up the format every other year, but I doubt it.
- The book was originally meant to be called “The Medium is the Message,” but a typographical error in an early draft resulted in “The Medium is the Massage.” McLuhan liked the wordplay and decided to keep it. [source] Jeremy Chen made a version of the same error 40 years later when he bought the book. I think this means McLuhan was the first person game SEO through intentional typos, long before search engines existed. He was a prophet, after all.
- Hans Ulrich Obrist made a book that’s an homage to The Medium is the Massage in 2015. It was a collaboration with Douglas Coupland and Shumon Basar called The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present.
- You can still buy the Project 1 catalogue here.
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