When Food & Wine Magazine published a recipe for Mole Verde, they included limes and hot sauce in the photo. This turns out to have been a mistake. They issued an apology and reshot the dish without the offending condiments. It might seem like a small quibble, but it’s really not. Food is a big deal and the way it’s made has meaning. Read more: Editor’s Note: Why a Recipe Is More Than a Recipe.
In the 1970’s Steven Pile founded the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain, an organization where members could celebrate their shared failures. The club’s handbook, The Book of Heroic Failures, quickly became a best seller. This success led to Pile’s removal from the club, on account of the fact that he was no longer a failure.
Here’s something delightful. A dancer (TikTok user smacmccreanor) choreographing quick, sporadic dances to mimic those viral videos of hydraulic presses crushing everyday objects.
Here’s an old blog post about an even older coincidence. In the Menai Strait off the coast of Wales there was a shipwreck on December 5, 1664. All the passengers died, except one, Hugh Williams. Many years later in 1785 there was another shipwreck on the strait, also on December 5. In that wreck all lives were lost, except one, another man named Hugh Williams. And finally, on another anniversary–December 5, 1820–there was a third shipwreck in the strait with only one survivor: a third man named Hugh Williams.
The story about the Hugh Williamses (or is it Hughs Williams?) reminded me of a short story I read and loved ages ago. In 2007 there was a cool magazine/website called Meatpaper that featured essays, short stories and poetry that all related to meat in some way. It ceased publication a long time ago, but the website is still there! The story I loved is called Monster Pig by Rob Baedeker. It starts with a clip from a real AP News article, then lists fictional AP News items set at future dates (which are now all in the past).
It’s a new year and it feels like a new world, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’m inhaling the pungent aroma of possibility. I’ve got some new writing on the way that will be featured here, as well as some new maker projects / hardware experiments that I’ll also write about. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, here’s a fresh batch of links.
Here’s a Twitter account that posts animations of the three body problem with random starting conditions. What’s the three body problem? It’s when three objects with mass (like stars, planets, etc) are orbiting each other and flinging each other around with their respective gravitational pulls. When this happens with two bodies, calculating orbital mechanics is pretty easy, but not so with three. According to Wikipedia, “no general closed-form solution exists.” If I’m understanding that correctly it means that positions over time can be worked out mathematically, but they can’t really be predicted. There’s also a really great Chinese sci-fi book called The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. Read it.
There are several systems for indexing the motifs of world folk literature, like Dewey Decimal Systems for folk tale themes. The two primary systems are the Thompson Motif Index and the ATU Tale Type Index, both are fully listed on this website. It’s a really fascinating thing to scroll through, there are thousands and thousands of motifs, each one an odd little story (or bit of a story). The indexes work by establishing a broad theme, then indicating more specific sub-themes. E classified stories about the dead, stories classified E300 to E399 are about a friendly return from the dead, stories classified as E321.2.1 are about dead husbands returning to help their wives knit socks and make quilts. E321.3 stories are about dead husbands returning and asking their wives to make them coffee. Browsing these long lists, it’s tempting to think that every possible story is indexed in there somewhere.
A proposal to use the natural curvature of a crater to make a radio telescope on the far side of the moon. It would be able to pick up frequencies with wavelengths greater than 10 meters (!) which is impossible on Earth, thanks to the ionosphere.
Artist Nina Chanel Abney designed an amazing deck of UNO cards (they’re already sold out). Other products in the Mattel Creations line seem kinda silly. I love Chanel Abney, but UNO is only ok. Now I’m wondering what other contemporary artists could revamp various card and board games.
I get a lot of joy from Upcoming Oreos, a Twitter account that announces fake and absurd new Oreo flavors.
I recently learned about the sad life of serial art vandal Hans-Joachim Bohlmann. He made a habit of standing in front of old master paintings in European museums and splashing them with sulfuric acid. He spent a fair amount of time in prison in Germany, but once he got out he went to Amsterdam and doused Banquet of the Amsterdam Civic Guard in Celebration of the Peace of Münster (1648) by Bartholomeus van der Helst in lighter fluid and set it ablaze. Luckily, it mostly just burned the varnish layer. Take some time zooming in and looking at van der Helst’s masterpiece. What would those guys have thought?
It’s been an unusual year, and this is an unusual version of my annual blog post about the best artworks I saw. Most are not really artworks at all, and I spent some time explaining my thinking around that in Part 1. Here’s Part 2:
A few months ago a friend told me about a Czech computer game where you build endlessly complex factories. I was intrigued, so I downloaded the demo version and got hooked immediately. I’ve put nearly 80 hours into it at this point, and I don’t think I’ll stop any time soon. The premise of the game is that your spaceship crash lands on an alien planet and you need to find raw materials and craft them into tools, logistics systems, and eventually into a spaceship to escape the planet. There are big alien bugs that attack you and your base, so you need to build walls and gun turrets for defense. It’s a little like Starcraft and similar real-time strategy games, except that in Factorio, you (the “Engineer”) are always alone. You can’t train soldiers or work toward a better-equipped army to fight the alien bugs, because you’re on your own. The primary challenge is not combat strategy, it’s automation. How do you gather enormous amounts of resources and automate the production of more tools for more efficient automation?
The player gradually advances through a technology tree that provides a steady stream of upgrades and improvements. Conveyor belts, automatic part assembly machines, trains, nuclear power, drone-powered logistics networks, and on and on. I’ve enjoyed learning about the game and just nerding out in the online communities that have formed around it on Facebook and Reddit. People swap designs for advanced oil processing facilities with efficient throughput, troubleshoot faulty rail networks, and even share real world photos and videos of Factorio-like automated systems. One common refrain in these groups is “The factory must grow.” No matter how big and how efficient your factory is, it can always be bigger and more efficient. Even though the complexity is so vast, it’s also incremental. Each step along the way is a small, achievable step toward something much larger. It’s been my refuge from the chaos of 2020.
7. The Mandalorian
Everybody watched The Mandalorian, right? Spoilers ahead. I really love this show, I giggle with glee while watching it. Here I want to make two observations, one general and the other specific.
First, I love how it’s so episodic, and at times even low stakes. Yes, of course a series is going to be episodic, it has episodes. The Mandalorian is so refreshing because it shows the micro-dramas of the Star Wars universe that often have nothing to do with the epic, galaxy-altering struggles of Jedis and the Empire and all of that. Those elements are there, of course, but some of my favorite moments of the show are when we only get one, maybe two episodes with a given character or setting, then it moves on. It reminds me of Star Trek TV series. An episode consists of a new planet, a new side character or two, a new problem, and it’s all wrapped up by the end. I love it.
My second observation differs from the first in that it is about the epic, central story arch of Star Wars. In the final episode of the second season, the Mandalorian and his friends, including Boba Fett(!), are about to save Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) from the clutches of evil Moth Gideon. But powerful dark trooper droids are advancing on them and their weapons are powerless to stop them. Then, over the space station’s closed circuit television system they see a mysterious cloaked figure disembark from an X-Wing fighter and begin effortlessly slicing through the dark troopers with a green lightsaber. I knew it was Luke Skywalker the moment the X-Wing flashed by the spaceship’s window. This scene was a giant shot of nostalgic dopamine, it felt like I was physically, mentally, and spiritually transformed into an eight year-old for three whole minutes. But nostalgia is easy and art is hard. There is something about this scene that transcends nostalgia, however, and it has to do with the confluence of the way we (as the audience), and the characters (especially Grogu) witness Luke’s slaughter of the dark troopers. The security camera monitors on which they watch the Jedi’s advance are old cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors, with hazy, analogue horizontal scan lines. CRT monitors are rare these days, replaced by sophisticated LCD screens. I think this choice of prop was very deliberate, Grogu and the others see Luke approaching through the grainy bands of a tube TV, not the warmth of celluloid film nor the crispness of today’s remastered digital streams. Grogu even reaches out his little hand and touches the screen, which was the moment it hit me: I also fell in love with Luke Skywalker through the flickering portal of a tube TV, watching a bootleg copy of Return of the Jedi over and over again.
8. John Conway’s Game of Life
I first heard about the mathematician John Conway in April when he died of COVID-19. In 1970 he came up with a thought experiment / zero-player game called the Game of Life. It’s a simple set of rules that govern what happens to points on a grid over the course of generations, or cycles. It’s so simple, in fact, that I’ll list all the rules here.
Birth Rule: An empty cell with exactly three filled neighbors becomes filled, it’s alive.
Death Rule: A full cell with zero or one full neighbors dies of isolation, while a full cell with four or more full neighbors dies of overcrowding.
Survival Rule: A full cell with two or three full neighbors remains full.
It’s a zero-player game, because once the initial conditions are set, the rules determine what happens next. The cycles can be worked out manually, but it’s also easy to get a computer to do it. This year I spent more time than I’d like to admit on playgameoflife.com, clicking out different starting designs block by block and watching them pulse, move, grow, or disappear.
Some complex starting designs will reduce themselves to nothing in just a few cycles, while some simple arrangements will grow into shimmering mandala-like forms that will go on forever if you let them. In the 50 years since its creation, the Game of Life has given rise to a vibrant subculture of people who are obsessed with discovering new forms, both beautiful and functional. There is an enormous lexicon of known forms, including a “glider” which is a small blob of cells that survives while moving diagonally; and various “spaceships” which are large clusters of cells that hang together while moving. The discovery of designs that can generate, catch, and turn gliders has allowed people to make virtual “circuits” and then use those to design general purpose computers within the game. This means that anything a computer can do could theoretically be accomplished within the Game of Life. The potential complexity is infinite, and it can increase in complexity on its own.
There’s a dark metaphor here, of course. Conway was killed by this horrible virus. What is a virus, really? A self-replicating bit of RNA, a scrap of protein far simpler than multicellular giants like us. And yet, such a simple thing can glide into the world and have very complex ramifications.
This is an odd addition to the list, I’ll admit. I’m not even done reading Moby Dick yet (no spoilers, please). When the shutdown started in the spring I found myself taking a lot more baths. I usually take them at night, I play music quietly, I mix myself a cocktail, and I lay there for a long time.
I’ve enjoyed reading in the bath for a long time, but Moby Dick seems particularly well suited to the ritual. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started the book, but once I was about 70 pages in and Captain Ahab hadn’t yet been introduced, I realized that this book wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry, so neither should I. I’ll finish the book eventually, but that’s not really my goal. I’m trying to focus on relishing the images and language in each meandering chapter. It’s remarkable how certain sections can seem a little bloated and unnecessary and then suddenly turn a corner and offer a piercing observation. I’ve had several moments that were quite literally breathtaking.
Reading Moby Dick in the bath also has a way of tipping me into powerful trips of nostalgia, nostalgia that verges on an out-of-body experience. One time I figured that a dark and stormy was the appropriate maritime cocktail to pair with my tub reading. I don’t recall what part of the book I was on, but I got to thinking about this seafood restaurant in New Orleans called Seaworthy that I’ve visited a few times. They make a cocktail that’s not a dark and stormy, but it involves rum and a half-peel of a lime turned into a cup, filled with booze, set atop the drink and lit on fire. It’s ridiculous, but it’s amazing. I levitated out of the tub, floated a thousand miles away and several years back to re-experience long, hazy New Orleans nights. It was a good journey.
10. Bernie Sanders Rally at Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids on March 8, 2020
The other day on Twitter someone posted an image that looked almost exactly like my photograph above, along with the comment that it was the last time they were in a large crowd of people. I did a double take, at first I thought it was my photo. But no, this person was just standing near me at the rally. I realized that not only had I taken nearly the exact same photo, it was also the last time I stood in a large crowd of people. Within a week Bernie lost the Michigan primary and COVID-19 shutdowns began. The rest is history, as they say.
Art and politics have a complicated relationship. I won’t attempt to fully untangle that here, except to say that a political rally is not an artwork, but art and politics are entwined in ways that make it impossible to engage one without brushing up against the other. The Bernie Sanders rally brushed up against art, quite literally. I spotted an audience member climbing Alexander Calder’s La Grande Vitesse to get a better view. It was a striking reminder about the complicated legacy of Calder Plaza and its place in the history of Grand Rapids and public art more generally. I’ve written about this before in the catalogue essay for Project 1: Crossed Lines, a public art exhibition I curated for ArtPrize. Calder’s La Grande Vitesse is a triumph of 20th century sculpture, but it’s also situated in a plaza that was part of a 1960’s urban renewal push that razed blocks and blocks of what would now be an historic, dense, mixed-use urban neighborhood, if it had survived. The plaza fails as a public gathering space most of the time. To cross it in the summer feels like wandering the Bonneville Salt Flats. Heading across the expanse in the winter feels like battling for survival on an icy tundra. Usually when it succeeds in drawing a crowd it’s filled with tents, bandstands and bleachers, the temporary infrastructure that typically fills parking lots during traveling fairs and carnivals.
Occasionally Calder Plaza works on its own, with very little adornment, and March 8, 2020 was one of those rare moments. What the space, and the sculpture, need is a genuinely big crowd drawn there for one purpose, with their attention focused on one thing. Although Sanders’ odds in the primary at that point were not great, he still had a path to victory. There was a real sense of possibility, but it was mixed with an uneasy foreboding about what lay ahead. There were hand sanitizer dispensers peppered throughout the crowd in a feeble attempt to stop the spread of COVID-19 among the almost entirely unmasked attendees. Having been to other events that draw a progressive Grand Rapids crowd, I also noticed that the attendees were almost entirely white. Not a good sign for someone hoping to win the Michigan Democratic Primary. Despite all that, the moment was still somehow both beautiful and achingly sad. It was our last chance to turn toward a truly different political trajectory, at least for now. It was our last opportunity to stand in a crowd, for the time being. Eventually we’ll gather at the foot of the Calder again.
Every year at this time I write a blog post about the best art I saw throughout the year. This has not been a normal year, so this won’t be a normal list. I used to travel a lot, I’d see exhibitions all over the country and all over the world; New York, Miami, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Venice, Seoul… But this year the virus came and travel stopped. One by one all the big exhibitions and events I would have attended were called off. In 2020 I was slated to travel to Austin for SXSW, New York for the Frieze Art Fair, Burning Man in Nevada, Prospect 5 in New Orleans, Art Basel Miami Beach—I’m sure there would have been more—but they were all cancelled or postponed. ArtPrize was cancelled, too, and I lost my job.
So what about art? Did I see any good art this year? The short answer is… barely. I saw a tiny bit. But the long answer is that I saw and experienced many amazing things this year, even if they might not have been art, per se. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to continue this tradition. I’m a believer that once art begins to teach you how to see, you’ll start to see things you missed before, both within art and without. I’m also a believer that the visual is only a fraction of what really great art does, even “visual art.”
The first international trip I took to see an exhibition was in 2012. I went to Kassel, Germany to see the 13th edition of Documenta, the uber-important contemporary art survey that happens once every five years. I know it sounds cliché, but it changed me. I never looked at art, or anything else, the same way again. That exhibition rewired me in some ways, I’m still processing it. In the main catalogue essay, at the beginning of a 767 page volume that now sits on my lap, the curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev discusses her choice to include the output of biologists, economists, philosophers and anthropologists in the exhibition along with artists. She writes:
What these participants do, and what they ‘exhibit’ in dOCUMENTA (13), may or may not be art. However, their acts, gestures, thoughts, and knowledges produce and are produced by circumstances that are readable by art, aspects that art can cope with and absorb. The boundary between what is art and what is not becomes less important.
So, for 2020 my list of ten best artworks instead becomes a list of objects and experiences that are “readable by art.” I might like it better this way.
I’ve decided to split it into two parts so it’s not too long. Here are the first five, in no particular order.
1. Watching The Host (2006) while flying home from South Korea
I did take one trip in 2020, before the Great Shutdown, to Seoul, South Korea. It was my second trip there and the culmination of a year and a half of planning. For ArtPrize I hosted an event in Seoul called ArtPrize Gangnam Showcase, where five Korean artists were invited to give short presentations about installations they hoped to present at ArtPrize, then I and some other judges picked which one would receive a grant to travel to Grand Rapids and create their project. Obviously, the second part of that did not happen.
It’s a little hard to remember pre-virus 2020 at this point, but it did happen! If you recall, South Korea was having a bit of a moment in early 2020 because Bong Joon-ho’s film Parasite won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in early February. I couldn’t go to Korea without having seen it, so I downloaded it and watched it on the flight over. The country was bursting with Parasite pride, and rightfully so. But the experience that really sticks with me is the movie I watched on the flight home, an earlier Bong Joon-ho masterpiece called The Host. I saw it shortly after it came out over a decade ago, and I remembered it as a very inventive monster movie with a surprisingly tender family drama at its center. That’s all true, but what I had forgotten is that The Host is also a movie about a pandemic, and how the government’s ham-handed attempt to manage the crisis is made worse by American imperialism.
It was a perfectly erie time and place to watch that film. At that point COVID-19 had spilled out of Wuhan and was running rampant all over mainland China. There had been a small number of cases recorded in South Korea, along with a handful in Seattle, Washington. It was apparent, however, than Seoul was far, far more prepared for what lay ahead than we were. All public buildings had guards stationed at the doors with thermal cameras reading the temperatures of all guests. Many people sitting near me on the plane while I watched The Host were wearing masks. That was February 14. Two weeks later, South Korea recorded over 800 cases in a single day, the peak of its first outbreak (a number that pales in comparison to what the US is experiencing now). One month later the ArtPrize office closed for good, my kids’ school went entirely online, and the world changed in ways we’re still trying to comprehend. All in one month.
I heartily recommend you drop what you’re doing and watch Bong Joon-ho’s The Host, but brace yourself.
2. David O’Reilly’s Corona Voicemails
David O’Reilly is an artist, animator and game designer (Mountain, Everything). Shortly after COVID-19 shutdowns began in the spring, he set up a phone number and asked people to call in and leave voicemails about their experiences during the pandemic. The result is three short films that pair audio from anonymous voicemails with pulsing, mandala-like animated visuals. The videos were posted between April 8 and April 20, they are titled STAYING HOME, SUDDEN BLACK HOLE, and QUARANTINE DREAMS.
I am transfixed by these films. They do such an incredible job capturing the unease of the early days of the pandemic. I really think these films will be seen as important historical documents 20, 50, or even 100 years from now.
I’m also amazed that such a tonally perfect series of artworks about a crisis were created during the crisis. That rarely happens, usually such things need to gestate for a few years, artists benefit from hindsight. I’m sure there will be plenty of artworks of all forms in the future that will process what happened this year. For my money David O’Reilly added to the canon of coronavirus artworks in the first month of the crisis. That is remarkable.
This was one of the very few cultural events that I attended this year. SiTE:LAB, the deeply collaborative artist-run nonprofit brought together familiar faces and new voices for a poetry reading / concert / printmaking demonstration / outdoor happening. The event was headlined by poet Kyd Kane with a supporting cast of musicians and DJs. Brewery Vivant hosted and provided a custom beer, “Challenge Privilege.”
I’ve been to many SiTE:LAB events over the years, and this one was similar in some ways but also very, very different. Advanced tickets were required, sold in groups of four that entitled you to a circle in the parking lot to place your lawn chairs away from other guests. We visited the bar then sheepishly pulled up our masks to drink. It was odd, but it worked, it was reassuring to know that gatherings like this could still happen safely.
4. LATTERDAYS by Big Red Machine, performance video
In the weeks leading up to the November election, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and his collaborators at the Eaux Claires Music Festival produced a string of performance videos and events in an effort to raise money and get out the vote in Wisconsin. Perhaps it worked, Biden won Wisconsin by a hair. But that outcome was by no means guaranteed, and the sense of foreboding and dread leading up to the election is something I’ll always remember about 2020 (and 2016 *shudder*).
In this video Justin Vernon performs a song called “Latterdays” on a rooftop in Milwaukee at dusk, which he wrote with Aaron Dessner (The National), and Anaïs Mitchell, working under the name Big Red Machine. The audience, if you can call it that, is just two people politely sitting on chairs. Vernon projects his falsetto through a mask that slowly slips off his nose, while panoramic drone shots show the Milwaukee skyline looking serene and still. The lyrics at first center around preparing for a storm, then allude to vague memories of being young and dealing with use (or overuse) of certain substances.
I’m not normally a big fan of concert films or videos of live performances, and I think the reason is that they usually seem like secondary artifacts. Performance videos with a raucous crowd just remind me that I’m not in the crowd, I’m watching a video instead, there’s a layer of removal. I love live music, I’ve had life-altering experiences standing in a crowd, so I don’t usually care for being reminded of the experience I’m not having. But the “Latterdays” video is different. Live music is one of many casualties of this pandemic, so watching the video of Vernon playing on the roof feels like the primary way to experience this song, not a secondary experience. There is no sense of “you had to be there,” almost no one was there. We are where we need to be, staying home, staying safe, and watching this video on our various personal screens. Everything about it—the music, the lyrics, the cinematography—all seem attuned to that reality.
The lyrics are wonderful, and capture something specific about the fall of 2020, particularly in the midwest. In the weeks leading up to the election the pandemic was surging in Wisconsin, there was a point where the rate of new cases was as bad there as anywhere in the country. Wisconsin, like Michigan, went red in 2016 and it was really unclear whether it would swing back in 2020. The song is not directly about the pandemic or the election, instead it’s about preparing for a storm, which functions as a metaphor for both. One hallmark of this moment is the maddening way in which our fellow Americans refuse to take the pandemic seriously, misplacing blame and condemning us to scores of unnecessary deaths and months upon months of lockdowns. Nothing captures my lament at that foolishness quite like these lines:
You were stocking up before the storm Stacked yourself against the odds Talkin’ back to an act of God
5. Jill Magid’s Tender
I normally follow a rule when I make these annual lists of artworks that the entries can only be things that I saw and experienced myself that year. These posts are never an attempt to list the best artworks of a given year, because I could never see enough to make such a list comprehensive (even when travel was possible), and I don’t want to rely only on documentation of an artwork. I’m making an exception here.
In September the conceptual artist Jill Magid worked with Creative Time to launch a project called Tender. She altered 120,000 US pennies to contain a tiny etching along their edges that read, “THE BODY WAS ALREADY SO FRAGILE.” The total value of the coins is $1,200, equivalent to one COVID-19 stimulus check in the first round of direct relief. They were wrapped in special coin rolls and distributed to bodegas in all five boroughs of New York City. The length and spread of the project is not determined, the coins will continue to circulate indefinitely. You might end up with one someday.
This project is one of my favorite, even though I haven’t seen any of the pennies, I’m not sure there’s even a way to do that. I suppose you could shop in lots of New York bodegas with cash and hope to get lucky, but realistically you’ll never see one of these pennies. That lack of direct experience actually makes the work stronger. In a press release about the project, Magid says, “Tender pennies enter the local economy quietly, and travel like rumor.” They also travel like a virus. There’s no way to know if you’ll ever see one of these pennies, but you know they’re out there. Tender is about transmission and exchange, the tension between strength and vulnerability in our interconnectedness, both economically and biologically.
John Conway was an English mathematician who died of Covid-19 in April. He was known for inventing Conway’s Game of Life, an early example of cellular automata. The Game of Life is a zero-player game (can such a thing exist?) where a set of rules determine whether filled cells on a grid persist, die, or reproduce each cycle based on their proximity to other filled cells. You can “play” the game only by setting the starting conditions then letting it run, which you can do here.
(Image: Ran Ortner views Anila Quayyum Agha’s Intersections)
ArtPrize 2020, like so many big events, fell victim to the wave of Covid-19 cancellations. ArtPrize might be known more for big crowds than for art, and gathering crowds in this pandemic is dangerous, so the cancellation wasn’t surprising. The way ArtPrize 2020 was canceled, however, puts at risk the possibility of doing another event in 2021, and might even hasten the end of the organization entirely. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve spent the past eleven years working for ArtPrize, I’ve helped shape it and it has certainly shaped me, so it’s painful to have a front row seat for what might be its undoing. I’m moving on now, but I’ve been writing and editing this blog post throughout the summer in order to communicate where things stand and offer a few final reflections. ArtPrize was a good thing that could have become great, but it would take an awful lot of courage and creativity to rise to the challenge of this moment and grow into an organization ready to take on the decade ahead.
When Covid-19 began shutting down events, schools, offices and pretty much everything else, the ArtPrize staff was at first in a state of shock. Other art institutions in town with budgets much larger than ours began furloughing employees immediately as their ticket sales and facility rental income streams dried up overnight. Compared to them, we felt lucky. Our work could happen remotely quite easily, and since we were planning an event that was still six months away, we felt fortunate to have time to figure things out. We had set aggressive fundraising goals for the year and we were on track to meet them. (A quick aside about fundraising: If you’re under the impression that ArtPrize got all its money from one source, that’s false. We raised several million dollars a year from hundreds of sources: corporations, foundations, individuals, and government grants. Fundraising was tough, but we were good at it.)
When the shock wore off, we set to work figuring out how ArtPrize could still happen in this new reality, or whether it could happen at all. The board of directors asked us to work on two scenarios that we would present to them in early May. The first scenario (we called it Scenario A) was to do an ArtPrize event in fall 2020 that adapted to social distancing and other health recommendations. Scenario B involved canceling the 2020 event and figuring out how to stretch resources in order to arrive at a fall 2021 ArtPrize. Scenario B was not pretty; it involved temporary furloughs for a portion of the staff, but it would have worked.
Going into the May board meeting, we honestly weren’t sure which of the two scenarios was the best course. We wanted to do a 2020 event of some kind, but safety was hard to gauge and deferring would give us time to rethink some of the fundamental elements of ArtPrize and better adapt to new challenges. After all, art will go on in some way no matter how messy the pandemic gets.The institutions that succeed in supporting artists in new ways will be the ones who are ready to watch where artists go and figure out how to support them even as the landscape shifts.
To our surprise, the board quickly and enthusiastically supported Scenario A, the socially distanced 2020 event. There wasn’t a lot of substantive discussion, and Scenario B didn’t seem to get much consideration at all. Following the board meeting we were ready to present the plan publicly and explain to artists, venues, and the media what a mostly outdoor, socially distanced ArtPrize would look like. But we were told to keep the plans under wraps for the time being. The board wanted us to first share the plan with key sponsors to ensure that they were still onboard. That made sense, so we scheduled those meetings and agreed to follow up with the board in early June.
The early June meeting was different, the mood had become rather grim. Our progress report was positive, however. Scenario A was on track and fundraising was in line with the budget adjustments we’d made to hold a smaller event. There were a few questions, but very little discussion overall. Staff left the call and the board held an executive session. We expected to get the green light within the hour. Instead we waited, and waited, and waited. Eight days later we found out that not only had they decided to cancel the 2020 event, they were also “suspending operations,” which meant putting the entire staff on indefinite furlough. Regarding 2021, the line from the press release written by the board says that they’ll wait to “consider the possibility of future events” at some undisclosed future date.
It’s difficult to know exactly why the tone and the decision of the board flipped so dramatically, or why they declined to discuss our scenario for postponing the 2020 event. I couldn’t help but notice that it coincided with a larger mood shift in the city. The second board meeting was only two days after windows were smashed and police cars were burned in downtown Grand Rapids following demonstrations against police brutality. The chaos downtown was not discussed, but the board members on the Zoom call looked tired and the mood was muted and tense.
During that eight-day period I knew they were considering big questions about the future of the organization. I tried everything I could to politely insert myself into those conversations. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’ve been part of every major change and development within ArtPrize from the beginning. I was part of the team that started ArtPrize in 2009 and I worked my way up to Artistic Director. The role of Executive Director was vacant, which meant that I was acting co-director at the time along with another staff member. I tried so hard to be part of the conversation about how ArtPrize could adapt to the massive challenges facing us, but I was shut out, the decision was made. In a conversation with one board member, after the fact, I asked what conversations had taken place about how to adapt ArtPrize so that it could fulfill its mission in new ways in 2021. His answer absolutely floored me. It floors me still. He said they hadn’t discussed it. They hadn’t discussed it! And now me and the 13 other brilliant people who could have led ArtPrize to meet these new challenges are updating our resumes.
If all it took was for a handful of people to get on a Zoom call and deal a crippling blow to the organization, that probably means that there was a flaw in the leadership structure all along. Past directors really tried, but we were never able to fully transform the quirky art start-up into the broadly supported community organization it needed to be. The board lacked diversity in more ways than one, it never grew to reflect the community that ArtPrize served. I got the sense that the board was not a truly deliberative body. Sure, they voted on things, but for the most part these were not stakeholders in the communities affected by ArtPrize. The people most affected by the decisions about the event in 2020 and 2021 were not being included in the conversations about how the organization could adapt to new challenges. As an example of this disconnect, as soon as the cancellation was announced, community leaders set about planning another fall event called The Bridge, which is happening now. I helped install Tropical Realness, an outdoor installation by Jeffrey Augustine Songco. SiTE LAB is holding a socially distanced event in early October. Doing cultural programming in the fall of 2020 is difficult, but it’s not impossible.
The conversations I was able to have with board members indicated that they were thinking about the future in a very binary way: Either a full, traditional ArtPrize could happen in 2021 or it could not. Of course no one knows yet what large events will look like in the fall of 2021, but that uncertainty is also a form of opportunity. What they should have done instead of suspending operations was declare that an ArtPrize event will definitely happen in 2021, but it will take time, courage, and creativity to figure out what that event will look like in the new world we’re entering. In order to do that, they would need to retain a staff capable of leading boldly into that new reality and finding new and safe ways for art to continue to bring people together.
This vague and inauspicious end to ArtPrize has also given me time to reflect on the last eleven years. Grand Rapids and the world have changed a lot since this all began. It’s possible that ArtPrize was an idea that fit into a certain time, and that time is over. When Trump was elected and Betsy DeVos was appointed education secretary it felt like an existential crisis for the organization. Advisors cut ties, criticisms from artists increased. I reflected at the time (in early 2017) that ArtPrize up to that point had existed entirely within the Obama era, beginning the year of his inauguration in 2009, through to then the most recent event, which took place in the tense weeks preceding the 2016 election. We did two more ArtPrizes, in ‘17 and ‘18, but something was different. The broad populist appeal of ArtPrize felt fragile, the political and cultural fissures of American culture seemed to be growing too deep for our light-hearted, American Idol-style art festival.
Shifting ArtPrize to a biennial schedule and holding Project 1 in 2019 was a response to this cultural shift. We felt the need to stage an exhibition that didn’t just reflect popular sentiment, as ArtPrize does, but one that was about something. ArtPrize is never really about anything in particular, it’s kind of about everything all at once. In contrast, Project 1 was an exhibition that I curated and I gave it the title Crossed Lines, because it was about the visible and invisible lines that make up a city, and how those lines dictate who belongs and who is shut out of spaces that are ostensibly public. These lines are real and they are damaging, we hoped art would help reveal them, and maybe even help people cross them.
The most pernicious lines are the ones that are mostly invisible but are nevertheless fiercely enforced. The most striking example of the crossing of such a line within Project 1 came when DisArt worked with commissioned artists Paul Amenta and Ted Lott to invite London-based drag troupe Drag Syndrome to perform in a Disability Drag Show event using Amenta and Lott’s Critical Infrastructure as a stage. The installation was built in a partial courtyard at the Tanglefoot Building, and the landlord of the space was supermarket heir and Republican congressional candidate Peter Meijer. When Meijer found out about the scheduled performance he forbade it from occurring on his property, agreeing with far-right campaigners who insisted that the (adult, brilliant, self-directed) artists of Drag Syndrome were not capable of electing to be part of their own performance because of their Down’s syndrome. Meijer didn’t bother to communicate directly with DisArt or Drag Syndrome, he instead sent a condescending and ableist letter to ArtPrize revoking permission to use the venue.
A fiercely homophobic and ableist campaign was mounted against the event, and ArtPrize staff, board, and sponsors were inundated with emails and calls. The speed with which it was picked up by the far-right internet rage machine was terrifying. It was circulating on neo-nazi websites within a day of garnering national attention. It must be said that the ArtPrize board acted admirably throughout this ordeal. They knew about the details of performance before it was announced, and they had no problem with it. When it started taking heat, they stuck by ArtPrize staff and offered valuable counsel. What was hard for me at the time was the fact that we had to bite our tongues and take a somewhat muted public response. Partner programming was being censored! We were outraged! But we didn’t want to further roil jittery sponsors, and we didn’t want to spend all of our communication bandwidth on this issue at the expense of telling the wider story of Project 1, which wouldn’t be fair to the other artists and programming.
The show went on. Drag Syndrome performed two sold-out shows at Wealthy Theater and the most exuberant fans were the other Project 1 artists who were in town for the opening. I still feel conflicted about how we handled all that. We arrived at multiple junctures where there simply were not any good choices, and we had to act fast. We had to work out which path was least damaging overall, then grit our teeth and take it. It’s a gut-wrenching feeling, and if you’ve never been in that position, lucky you. Reflecting back on it, it’s clear that the whole ordeal was a more robust articulation of the themes of the exhibition than anything I programmed directly. There are lines that divide space and dictate who does and does not belong. Some of these lines are invisible and can only be seen when they’re crossed and the swift hand of enforcement suddenly appears. The lines drawn by ableism, homophobia and transphobia became suddenly visible in that moment, and I’ll never unsee them again.
So what does Project 1 have to do with the current situation that ArtPrize finds itself in? I don’t think the connection is direct, but I do think the Drag Syndrome affair contributed to the fatigue and risk-aversion that I sense from the board. To operate a relevant public art institution now means running headlong into those sticky situations, not shying away from them. There is no longer any way to do a non-political, “fun” art show that draws tourist dollars and makes a run at establishing Grand Rapids as a culturally relevant place. Project 1 was about confronting the demons that linger behind Midwestern nice—segregation, red-lining, managerial racism—and it was only the beginning of what an ArtPrize organization with a curatorial voice could accomplish. If Grand Rapids is going to be a “cool city” known for the arts, that means we need to fearlessly engage with art’s capacity to reveal things about ourselves, our institutions and our city. Sometimes art shows us things about ourselves that we don’t like, and a city staking its reputation on art needs to be ready to wrestle with that.
Regarding the possibility of future ArtPrize events, it was clear that the board was worried about raising money with the prospect of future event cancellations and postponements. In a way this kind of thing always comes down to money, but it’s not that simple. When it comes to fundraising for nonprofits, money is closely linked to courage. If we raised money for a 2021 event and the situation with the pandemic (or other factors) evolved in such a way that we weren’t able to deliver on those sponsor commitments—but we’d already spent money on payroll and rent—then what? That’s a tough spot, for sure, but the question of whether the board is willing to risk ending up in that situation comes down to courage and creativity. If we can’t do exactly what we hope in 2021, do we have the courage and creativity to find ways to fulfill both sponsor commitments and our mission in a way that’s safe, effective and relevant? If the world turns upside down, do we have the guts to go back to sponsors and tell them how cool it is that we get to play on the ceiling? The staff of ArtPrize absolutely had the necessary courage and creativity to meet those challenges. I have a lot of appreciation and respect for the board and all they’ve done for ArtPrize over the years, but in this case I think caution led them to make the wrong call.
Is ArtPrize over? I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure about other staffers, but I’m not waiting around to find out, I’m moving on. Maybe the board will give it another try in the future, but unfortunately they’ve jettisoned a lot of institutional knowledge. ArtPrize has always been nimble and mutable in ways that other arts orgs can’t be, which is why it’s so hard to watch it freeze in the face of a new challenge. I’ve always thought of ArtPrize as a perennially unfinished project. The ArtPrize in my mind was always a higher ideal than the real thing, I saw it as the next version of what it could become. ArtPrize was designed to be responsive and adaptable, and it always had something new in the world to respond to. It was scrappy, energetic and relentless, which is what I loved about it, and why it was so painful to be shut out of the conversation about how it could rise to meet the present moment. Making relevant public-facing art has never been more challenging, and it’s never been more important.
I try to remind myself that the institution is never the thing. It’s a container for the thing and we shouldn’t be too precious about it. Containers wear out, we can invent new ones. Art will go on, people and institutions and energy will always find ways to follow and support what artists do. The institutions that survive will be the ones that have the creativity to adapt to a changing world and the courage to see what art shows us.
Ambient cinema. Instructions for how to make a “Very Slow Movie Player” using an e-ink display, a Raspberry Pi computer and a picture frame. I really want to do this.
There’s a new version of Microsoft Flight Simulator that uses a combination of Open Street Map data and AI to make a somewhat realistic rendering of the entire world. But there are a bunch of strange and funny errors. It turned Buckingham Palace into a bland office park. The Washington Monument is a skinny glass skyscraper in the middle of a field. A user error in the Open Street Map data caused there to be a 212 story skyscraper in middle of a Melbourne suburb.
My favorite Twitter bot is Every Census Tract, which is working its way through tweeting satellite images of every census tract in the US. It recently started doing Michigan alphabetically by county. One odd thing I’ve noticed is that any census tract with the number 9900 is just the water off the coast of nearby inhabited land. Not sure sure why. The water tracts have lovely shapes, however.
And finally, this 2015 sculpture by Trevor Paglen called Trinity Cube. It’s made out of irradiated glass from the Fukushima Exclusion Zone and Trinitite, the mineral created on July 16, 1945 when the United States exploded the world’s first atomic bomb. Paglen’s website explains, “Trinity Cube was created by melting these two forms of glass together into a cube, then installing the cube back into the Fukushima Exclusion Zone as part of the Don’t Follow the Wind project. The artwork will be viewable by the public when the Exclusion Zone opens again, anytime between 3 and 30,000 years from the present.”
Lately I’ve been nostalgic for an older, slower, more curious version of the internet. Social media can really be an anxiety-inducing hell-scape. Then I thought, hey, those old forms online sharing and discourse never went away, even if they went out of style. I can make my little corner of the web however I want. Be the internet you wish to see in the world, or something.
So, here’s the first of what I hope will be many similar blog posts: links! Just stuff I found that I think you should see. Simple as that.
Here’s a very long and well-researched article about the Business Simulations division of Maxis Games in the 1990’s. Maxis made Sim City and other Sim games, and the Business Simulations division was set up to make custom software for corporations and foundations. Their most famous (or notorious) project was a game called Sim Refinery that let you run an oil refinery. It was commissioned by Chevron and there are no surviving copies.
An Etsy listing for a post-apocalyptic version of the LEGO City Street Creator Series Downtown Diner.
A good Twitter thread by Venkatesh Rao about how the future of Anglo (US/UK) culture is Neo-Victorian. Really helped me consider the ways we confuse freedom with performances of things that we think signify freedom. Not every culture works that way.
The Wikipedia page for hole is surprisingly interesting (not the band, the thing). It goes from talking about The Beatles’ song Day in the Life to this: “Holes have also been described as ‘ontologically parasitic’ because they can only exist as aspects of another object. The psychological concept of a hole as a physical object is taken to its logical extreme in the fictional concept of a portable hole, exemplified in role-playing games and characterized as a ‘hole’ that a person can carry with them, keep things in, and enter themselves as needed.” I love it when a D&D reference comes out of nowhere. Also, what other things are ontologically parasitic?
GPT-3 is the latest iteration of an artificial intelligence that collects an enormous corpus of online writing and finds patterns in order to answer questions and complete texts. It’s like autocomplete but it can write an entire essay, maybe more. It’s smart in ways that are kinda creepy. Here’s a good Twitter thread about it by Simon DeDeo.
Here’s an article about GPT-3 on The Verge which better explains what it is, how it works, and what lots of people are saying about it. “The dataset GPT-3 was trained on is … mammoth. It’s hard to estimate the total size, but we know that the entirety of the English Wikipedia, spanning some 6 million articles, makes up only 0.6 percent of its training data.” So it knows a little something about portable holes.
One last Twitter thread, this one by Keith Ammann, explaining how the D&D spell “Command” works differently depending on which language the players are using (not the fantasy characters, the actual people playing the game). The spell lets you command a subject with a single verb, but verbs can carry different implications depending on language.
I recently got a book called Do: Wild Baking by Tom Herbert. It has lots of ideas and recipes for cooking outside in rustic conditions. One of the things he recommends is heating a flat stone on the coals of a campfire and cooking food directly on it. I decided to give it a try.
I was spending some time in Frankfort, Michigan, and I went to a rocky Lake Michigan beach the day after a thunderstorm. The waves were churning up all sorts of things, and I found a few promising rocks. Later at home I built a fire in my backyard pit and cooked some pita bread to go with white chicken chili, which I also cooked over the fire. Here’s how I did it, and what I learned along the way.
The process of making the dough began the night before. I took my sourdough starter out of the fridge and fed it, leaving it to rise at room temperature overnight.
The next morning I mixed the dough using the following ingredients:
White flour – 300g Water – 210g Salt – 6g Starter – 60g Olive Oil – 1 1/2 tsp
I mixed the flour and water first and let it hydrate for half an hour. Then I mixed the other ingredients and kneaded them together well for about ten minutes by hand. I covered the dough and left it in a warm place for several hours to bulk ferment. 30 minutes and then 60 minutes into the bulk ferment I gently stretch and fold the dough.
Just before starting the fire, I put the dough on a well floured surface and divided it into seven small balls. (I was going for eight, but ended up with seven in order to keep them the same size.) I put the balls on a pan, covered it with plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge.
Next I washed the stone really well with soap and water. After drying it I put a little olive oil on the cooking side, but this seemed to soak into the stone, so I’m not sure if it did anything.
I built my fire with rather small pieces of wood and fed it frequently. This is so the logs could break down into coals more quickly. I let it burn for maybe an hour. I left the stone in the fire pit next to the fire at this point so it could start to warm up.
I took the dough balls out of the fridge and rolled them into flat rounds with a rolling pin about 1/4 inch thick. I placed them on a well floured cutting board.
Back at the fire, I spread the hot coals evenly and placed the rock in the center. The remaining logs were pushed to the sides surrounding the rock. It was clear that the rock was taking a while to heat up and that the fire was dying too quickly, so I placed more logs around the stone so they could burn.
Cooking the flatbreads took longer than I thought, maybe 5 to 10 minutes each. Getting the dough on the stone was tricky. I used a spatula, but the dough needed a lot of flour so it didn’t stick to the spatula. Some folded and looked bad. I flipped and repositioned them with long tongs, usually wearing fire-proof gloves. The center of the stone was cooler than the edges, so the challenge was getting the middle of the dough cooked before burning the edges.
I found it helpful to fan the coals in between each bread in order to bring the temperature up. By the last few, the stone was finally hot enough to make the pitas puff up with a big bubble in the center.
We ate the pitas with white chicken chili cooked over the same fire in my cast iron Dutch oven. It was not a quick way to cook dinner, but it was delicious. The breads need to be eaten pretty much right away, they don’t keep very well, they get tough.
Next time I try it I might build the fire right on top of the stone so it has plenty of time to get really hot, particularly on top. Then when I’m ready to cook I’ll brush the logs and coals off of the stone. The stone cracked a bit as it cooled, so I might need to find another rock before trying again. Back to the beach…