My ‘Project 2’ T-Shirt: Swag for a Non-Existent Exhibition

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.


  1. I’m actually not sure if ArtPrize is still planning to switch up the format every other year, but I doubt it.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. You can still buy the Project 1 catalogue here.

Subscribe to my newsletter.

Links! August 11, 2021

Hello and welcome to another link dump. Yes I’m still here, yes I’m still writing sometimes. There are a lot of weird and wonderful things in this world if we’re patient enough to see them. Such as…

Cornell University Library’s digital collection of punk fliers. More than 2,000 scans of messy, raw, Xeroxed graphic design. A delight.

When Prince changed his name to a custom symbol in 1993, he distributed floppy disks that journalists could use to load the symbol onto their computers in the form of a single character font.

Reading the (possibly apocryphal) story of the execution of the inventor of Ancient Roman flexible glass led me to a Wikipedia list article (I love list articles!) of Lost Inventions. It includes classics like Greek Fire and Tesla’s Death Ray, but don’t miss the beguiling mystery of the Sloot Digital Coding System.

A Dungeons & Dragons game that ended when all the player characters died in the first minute. The DM made no obvious mistakes, it just happened that way by dumb luck. What an incredible game.

The best sculpture I’ve seen in a while, an intricate model ship made by a detainee at Guantanamo Bay.

I have a newsletter. Click here to subscribe.

Links! April 15, 2021

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).

One more, but it’s rich. The entirety of Paolo Solari’s Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. You can even download the illustrations!

I have a newsletter. Click here to sign up.

Links! January 22, 2021

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?

I have a newsletter. Click here to sign up.

The Best Art I Saw in 2020 (sort of), part 2

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:

6. Factorio

My base in Factorio

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

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. 

  1. Birth Rule: An empty cell with exactly three filled neighbors becomes filled, it’s alive.
  2. 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.
  3. 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, 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. 

(While I was working on this post, The New York Times published a really nice piece about Game of Life.)

9. Reading Moby Dick in the Bath

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

Bernie Sanders speaking at Calder Plaza 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.

Also! I’m starting a newsletter. Click here to sign up.

The Best Art I Saw in 2020 (sort of), part 1

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

The Host (2006)

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.

3. SiTE:LAB – CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE | Kyd Kane poetry presents: Challenge Privilege w/ Liquid Courage

Kyd Kane performs on Paul Amenta and Ted Lott’s Critical Infrastructure

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.

The Best Art I Saw in 2020 (sort of), part 2

Also! I’m starting a newsletter. Click here to sign up.

Links! December 18, 2020

A website that drops you in a random Google Street View location. Go get lost.

An archive of public sculpture in Grand Rapids, MI.

Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell made complex tetrahedral kites? These are the most striking photographs I’ve seen in a long time.

More great images from The Public Domain Review, photographs of models of the Moon’s surface from 1874.

The first Spinosaurus skeleton ever discovered was destroyed in World War II during the Allied bombing of Munich.

Wikipedia has an excellent list of fictional penguins.

Links! November 27, 2020

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.

A short film by Alan Zucconi where he manages to use Conway’s Game of Life to build a functioning computer within the game.

Conceptual artist Jill Magid presents a project called Tender, where 120,000 pennies are released into circulation with a short poem etched on their edges, “THE BODY WAS ALREADY SO FRAGILE.”

Unboxing a crate of fruit that was lost in the mail for 648 days.

Orbis et Globus, a spherical sculpture at the northern tip of the Icelandic island of Grímsey, which is moved each year to track the oscillations of the Arctic Circle.

When not adjusting the orb, Grímsey’s residents spend the dark winter days cultivating their 1,000 year obsession with chess.

Is ArtPrize Over?

(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.

Links! August 20, 2020

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.”