Remembering Chris Smit

Chis Smit was a scholar and disability rights activist. He co-founded DisArt, a production company that cultivates disability culture. Chris passed away on January 4, 2023. The following text was written for “Letters to Chris” on the DisArt website.

Chris Smit was someone who changed how I saw the world multiple times, as a professor, a collaborator, and a friend. I have two stories to add to the chorus of praises about Chris and what he meant to us all. I know writing these stories is probably more about allowing myself the opportunity to think through them and reflect, but hopefully they resonate with others as well.

When I first met Chris he was my professor at Calvin. I was an art major and film studies minor, this was 20 years ago. Chris taught a class called Media and the Public (I think). We talked critically about all sorts of mass media, we read Marshall McLuhan, it was great. We had to write a paper where we offered a critical analysis of some media artifact, it could be a TV show, a movie, music, a play, anything. I was writing about lots of movies and contemporary art in my other classes, so I decided to write about music. I wanted a challenge, so I picked an album that I loved but didn’t understand, one that freaked me out a little: White Light White Heat by The Velvet Underground. 

In order for this story to make sense I have to briefly explain something about Calvin College at that time (this may still be true, I’m not sure). In the Communications department there was a trend where professors and students would extend a redemptive, Reformed Christian reading onto secular media that didn’t come from that intellectual or spiritual tradition at all. The thinking was that God’s grace was evident everywhere, if only you looked for it, so of course redemption would shine through in secular stories, not just in explicitly Christian ones. An example, from one of Chris’s colleagues at the time, was a reading of Pulp Fiction as a tale of Christian redemption by focusing on Jules’ (Samuel L. Jackson) monologue in the diner, where he talks about finding meaning in the Bible verse he quotes before killing people, and says, “I’m trying real hard to be a shepherd!” Depending on your background, this may seem odd. But for many Calvin students at that time who grew up in strict households being warned to avoid the evils of secular media, the idea that you could find good things in Pulp Fiction was incredibly liberating. They say the F word in that movie!

So, I went into my critical analysis of White Light White Heat with this framework in mind. I thought it was what scholars operating with a Reformed Christian perspective did, and that’s what I was there to learn, and I was ready to dive in. I set out to find the redemptive diamond in the rough of a wild and frankly violent record. But I could not find a diamond! I could not find a hidden redemptive arc. I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about how Chris lectured in the class. While the trend to retrofit redemption was pretty pervasive at Calvin, Chris always approached art with a combination of honesty and courage that refused to take refuge in easy, formulaic readings. Writing for Chris, I knew I had to be honest. I did my best to articulate why White Light White Heat was an incredible album, even though I could not find a nice redemptive pearl. The album is a gorgeous mess of distortion, drugs, and murder. Chris gave me an A. I don’t recall exactly what he told me afterward, but he let me know how much he appreciated that I didn’t resort to easy answers about difficult art. I felt like he helped me break a spell, to see art for what it really is, even when it’s terrifying and thrilling. 

My second story about Chris is more recent. I was part of ArtPrize since its beginning, and by the tenth event in 2018 I was Artistic Director. After a decade of annual art competitions the format was getting a little stale, despite many amazing collaborations where Chris and DisArt made amazing things with Paul Amenta and the SiTE:LAB crew. For 2019 we decided to take a break from the competition format and instead commission a handful of international artists to create temporary projects around a theme. I curated the exhibition, titled Project 1: Crossed Lines, and invited artists to respond to the idea of the invisible lines that divide the city (implied borders, political fault lines, accessibility, discriminatory housing practices, etc.) 

We commissioned Paul Amenta and Ted Lott to do a project, and they produced Critical Infrastructure, a site-specific architectural pavilion focused on accessibility and featuring programming collaborations with DisArt, SiTE:LAB, Kyd Kane, The Grand Rapids Ballet, and many others. Other Project 1 installations featured special events, but we decided that Critical Infrastructure should hold an event on the opening night. Paul and Ted invited Chris and DisArt to collaborate on the programming and DisArt invited Drag Syndrome to perform. Drag Syndrome is an internationally acclaimed drag troupe from London composed of adults with Down’s Syndrome. As the performance date approached, the event started to draw criticism. In the time since 2019, drag shows have become even more of a culture war flashpoint, but at that point we were still taken a little off guard. All of the homophobic and transphobic vitriol that normally accompanies opposition to drag shows was combined with a wilful misunderstanding of who Drag Syndrome was, the agency (and brilliance) of the performers, and a sickening condescension toward them masquerading as concern. The opposition gained national media attention, there were email and phone call campaigns, it was picked up by far-right news sources including neo-nazi web forums. The owner of the property where Critical Infrastructure was built (a certain former congressman and heir to a local supermarket fortune) decided to revoke permission for the event. Drag Syndrome still performed that night, but not on the stage/catwalk/pavilion/sculpture that Paul Amenta and Ted Lott had built for them. 

It’s tempting to think of the Drag Syndrome fiasco as a failure, but I’ve come to think about it as the most successful element of the whole exhibition. Chris and DisArt managed to rise to the challenge of Project 1 with far more courage and clarity than I ever could. I set out to curate an exhibition about the invisible lines that divide communities and keep us from achieving equity. What Chris taught me was that it’s not enough to make art about those divisions, you have to make art that smashes right through them. Only then do the invisible lines become visible, and only then do we stand a chance of getting through to the other side and building something new together. 

Rest in power, Chris. I’ve learned from your courage, but I could never hope to match it. 

The Best Art I Saw in 2022

For years I always wrote a post in late December about the best art I had seen that year. When I worked for ArtPrize I got to travel to art fairs, biennials, and various cities where I visited museums and galleries. When Covid hit in 2020 ArtPrize was canceled and I left that job. I still wrote a Best Art of 2020 post, but it was an odd one, reflecting the strangeness of pandemic lockdown, and stretching the definition of art to include video games I was playing and books I was reading. In 2021 I did travel and see some art, but I didn’t write a year-end round-up. The following is my attempt to restart the habit. 

Whenever I do this there’s a danger that I’m going to accidentally write ten whole essays that will be way too long. So this year I’m trying a new format where I list what the artwork was and why I thought it was great, in an attempt to get to the point. These artworks are listed in the order that I saw them, they’re not ranked. Also, this is not a “best exhibitions of 2022” type list, because I didn’t see nearly enough to write anything definitive. 

  1. Ben Grosser, Order of Magnitude (2019), SXSW in Austin, TX


The SXSW festival in Austin, Texas has an art program where they commission projects from various artists doing cool/critical things with technology. They sprinkle these projects around in small conference rooms in the various hotels and the convention center. Ben Grosser’s Order of Magnitude is a video supercut of Mark Zuckerburg at public speaking events saying an endless string of superlatives about growth and large numbers. You can’t follow what he’s talking about, the cuts are too quick, it’s just “more,” “growth,” and big numbers over and over again. 


In the context of SXSW, a bastion of tech boosterism, this video makes plain how absurd the ethos of constant growth truly is. Also, 2022 was a year that Facebook lost users and advertisers, its stock value peaked in 2021, and the pivot to the name “Meta” has been widely mocked (including by me). I was mesmerized by Grosser’s video of Zuckerburg, his lilting enthusiastic voice hypnotizing me into the bizarre conditions of late-stage social media. These huge platforms have lost their luster, they’re promising more, more, more while they hollow out from within. Here’s the full video.

  1. Antoine-Jean Gros, Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa (1804), Louvre, Paris


This is an enormous propaganda painting commissioned by Napoleon to make him look good and counter reports of atrocities committed during his campaign in Egypt. It shows Napoleon visiting French soldiers who are sick with the plague, sheltering at a monastery in Egypt. 


This painting is in a gallery at the Louvre with some truly legendary 19th century French paintings, including Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (one of my favorite paintings of all time). But Bonaparte Visiting the Plague Victims of Jaffa stuck with me since my visit in April because my wife and I were visiting France at a time when a number of Covid restrictions were still in place. By that time I already had Covid twice in 2022 (January and March), and we still needed to provide proof of a negative test in order to return to the US. The Louvre was packed and stifling as usual, and we endured hours of shuffling through hot, crowded galleries while wearing masks. The image of Napoleon touching plague victims during an earlier plague struck a chord, the power of touch in the age of social distancing. The painting is also ridiculous and insane. Napoleon looks suspiciously Christ-like in a museum with some of the best artistic depictions of Christ. The propaganda of Napoleon as compassionate savior is absurd, but it’s also perfect. It’s a microcosm of the whole Louvre, a projection of national identity that papers over centuries of colonial theft and terror, that somehow manages to still be so, so beautiful. 

  1. Girolamo Della Robbia, Sketched funerary effigy of Catherine de Medici (1565), Louvre, Paris


This is a marble “sketch” (not the final product) of a design for the top of the tomb of Catherine de Medici, Queen of France from 1547 to 1559 and wife of King Henry II. It depicts the queen’s gaunt, naked dead body.


The Louvre has loads of marble sculptures and it’s easy to wander through them in a daze and not really notice any one in particular. This one stopped me in my tracks. There are plenty of nudes, of course, but they tend to be very idealized bodies. This sculpture, however, shows the bony, desiccated body of a dead old woman. It’s shocking on its own, but what’s even more shocking is that it’s a depiction of the Queen(!) and she commissioned it before she died! This sketch was rejected by Catherine (I think it’s clear why) and she chose another artist for the commission instead. I can hardly imagine the courage (or foolishness) of Della Robbia, who presented the queen with a life-sized carving of her dead and naked, looking like a piece of beef jerky. This sculpture stuck out to me when I saw it in April, and I found myself thinking about it again when Queen Elizabeth II died in September, when we were suddenly inundated with contemporary examples of how we commemorate the death of a monarch.

  1.  Réseaux-Mondes, Pompidou, Paris
Simon Denny


Reseaux-Mondes was a group exhibition at the Centre Pompidou about art, the internet, and the idea of networks more broadly. The title translates roughly to “Networked Worlds.”


This was a really dense and well-researched show about art and technology. There was a wall with an timeline of the intersection between art and networks which listed milestones from the 12th century (the first appearance of the French word for network) all the way through the NFT bull market of 2021. The show included some artists I’m familiar with whose work I really like, such as Simon Denny (pictured above) and Addie Wagenknecht. My only criticism is that the catalog was not available in English. 

  1.  Gudskul, Gudspace and Gudkitchen, Documenta 15, Kassel, Germany


Documenta is a massive exhibition that takes place in Kassel, Germany once every five years. Each iteration is curated by a different artistic director. This time the show was organized by ruangrupa, an Indonesian art collective, the first time it was curated by a group. It was unusual and pushed a lot of boundaries, even for an exhibition known for pushing boundaries. The curators selected many other artist collectives, mostly from the global south. The result was a messy, organic, communal exhibition that felt like a permanent work in progress. There were almost no well-known art stars. Gudspace and Gudkitchen were installations/active environments organized by Gudskul in and around the Fridericianum, the main museum venue of Documenta. 


Gudspace was a sprawling mess of found objects, materials, furniture, interactive activities, video screens, wall drawings, sticky notes, artist-made board games, printed memes, and hand-drawn org charts. This gaggle of material documented the chaotic process of planning this unusual exhibition during the pandemic, with all the humor and frustration that came along with it. I thought about listing the whole of Documenta 15 on this list, but I decided instead to call out this installation because it seemed to capture the spirit of the whole affair (also because some other sections garnered controversy which I don’t have time to unpack here). I’m also including Gudkitchen, which felt like an extension of Gudspace located behind the museum building. It was a communal outdoor kitchen and event space where on the opening weekend I enjoyed a free (and very spicy) Indonesian meal, followed by impromptu karaoke with the lyrics projected on the back of the museum. When the free beer ran out, artists and critics scrambled to the nearest liquor store to resupply the party. We screamed along to classics by Beyonce and Britney Spears until the wee hours of the morning. It was a great example of the kind of opening where the art and the party blur together, becoming one beautiful thing. For those of you familiar with art in Grand Rapids, this might remind you of the local collective SiTE:LAB. The whole vibe of Documenta 15 was very much like SiTE:LAB, in fact I think they should have been included. 

  1. Dorothea Tanning, Tableau Vivant (1954), Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh


This is a painting of Dorothea Tanning’s Lhasa Apso, named Katchina, embracing a nude figure. Either the dog is very large or the person (Tanning herself?) is very small. 


Tanning is one of those surrealists that must have been skipped over during my art history education. Probably because she’s a woman, maybe also because she was considered to be in the shadow of her husband Max Ernst. In any case, I was glad to see this picture so prominently displayed at the Scottish National Gallery. It’s one of the weirdest paintings I’ve ever seen, and I won’t soon forget it. Dali could never. 

  1. Douglas Gordon, List of Names (Random) (after 1990), Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh


This is a huge list of names in columns on the wall of a staircase. The wall is four stories high and it must contain thousands of names. They’re the names of everyone the artist ever met up to the point when the work was produced.


At first this piece seemed like a bit of a one-liner. I was visiting the museum with an art historian friend of mine and we quickly began recognizing names of other artists, curators, and various art world people. Without trying, we slipped into a competitive game of associations. Whose names did we recognize? More importantly, which ones had we met? I suddenly wanted a higher score. The art world is very much about who you know, with credibility traveling (or stopping) based on loose social ties. List of Names is not only about this phenomenon, it actually instigates the who-do-you-know game when you look at it. A weird and wonderful experience. 

  1. “KILROY WAS HERE” on the WWII Monument, Washington DC


In a mostly hidden nook in the WWII Monument on the National Mall there’s an etching of the famous “KILROY WAS HERE” graffiti, including the drawing of a little bald guy peeking over an edge of some kind. This was a popular meme during the war which came to indicate that American soldiers had been in an area. Its origins are debated.


I don’t like the WWII Monument. It’s garish and neo-classical in all the wrong ways. The insistence on giving a call-out to each state feels unnecessary and cluttered. There are many better monuments, including Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial nearby. But finding the “KILROY WAS HERE” graffiti was a genuine surprise, and it completely upended my perception of the monument. The main structure is so ordered and grandiose, but the graffiti is a tiny reminder that the war was made up of normal people with humor, inside jokes, and memes that don’t really mean anything beyond their use as a shared reference. 

  1. Wayne Adams, The Body of Christ (2022), The Center Art Gallery at Calvin University, Grand Rapids, Michigan


This solo show at Calvin’s gallery featured several abstract paintings and a massive installation where Adams covered an entire wall with crumpled aluminum foil. 


The foil wall was seriously impressive. A simple idea taken to a ridiculous extreme. It bent the room, it had a presence that’s difficult to describe. I do not know why it was called The Body of Christ. 

  1. Peer to Peer, Buffalo AKG and Feral File, online exhibition


Buffalo AKG (formerly the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York) organized an online exhibition of digital art hosted by Feral File. The works were sold as NFTs to support the museum (and the artists, of course). The exhibition was curated by Tina Rivers Ryan, one of the most knowledgeable curators of digital art working today, particularly at a legacy institution.


NFTs have been on a wild ride for the past two years. At the beginning of 2022 the market for digital art and collectibles was still flying high, but through the spring and summer crypto lost a lot of value and sales of NFTs slowed significantly. Maybe that’s a good thing, because most of the NFT market was junk art, gimmicks, or outright scams. In the midst of all that, there has always been a core group of artists who have been using the NFT contract format to make and sell really strong, compelling, and even historically significant art. As a critic, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of trying to find these diamonds in the rough and write about them. The roster of artists that Tina assembled for Peer to Peer is a solid who’s who of NFT artists who have been making great work all along, and are still making great work, market be damned. My favorite is probably Rhea Myers’ Titled (Information as Property as Art) [Ethereum Null Address] and I also love Mitchell F. Chan’s Winslow Homer’s Croquet Challenge (pictured above), which is a playable video game based on a Winslow Homer painting in the Buffalo AKG collection. The exhibition represents a step forward for institutional acceptance of NFTs, and thank God it involves these artists and not an ugly ape drawing.

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.

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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.

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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

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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.