Quarantine Baking and my Master Sourdough Recipe

Near the beginning of coronavirus quarantine, I was invited to write a piece for Rapid Growth about baking bread while stuck at home. The essay includes my master sourdough bread recipe. It was first published on March 31, 2020.

The Coronavirus pandemic is here and suddenly we’re all spending a lot of time at home. I have a suggestion for how you should spend it: it’s time to learn to bake sourdough bread. Sourdough brings to mind bread with a tangy flavor, but I’m using the term here to mean naturally leavened bread, bread made without the addition of commercial yeast. Making bread without store-bought yeast might sound strange, but it’s how we leavened dough for most of human history. All you need to do it yourself is flour, water, and time. 

I started baking sourdough bread about a year and a half ago. I had been making no-knead rustic bread with commercial yeast using thisNew York Times Cooking recipe, and I started to wonder if I could do it with natural yeast instead. Sourdough recipes can be very intimidating. They measure everything in grams instead of cups, and they use bakers’ percentages to keep track of the exact ratio of ingredients. Don’t be turned off by that; there are ways to ease into it. I’ll explain how I got into this hobby, and why it’s the perfect way to slow down and make food that’s cheap and delicious during the Coronavirus quarantine.

All you need to make sourdough bread is flour, water, and salt. That’s it, three ingredients. There are lots of kinds of flour, and bakers get really into figuring out how to get different results from various types. Bread flour is preferred, but all-purpose flour will work just fine if that’s what you have; don’t worry about going to the store for fancy flour. 

Before you can bake your first loaf, you need to make your own sourdough starter, which will take at least a week (hey, you’ve got time). The starter is a culture of various types of yeast and bacteria harvested from the air in your home, the microbes on your skin, and from the flour itself. It sounds a little gross at first, but it’s actually pretty magical. Yeast is already everywhere; a sourdough starter is just a way of capturing it and putting it to work. A quick Google search will yield many online guides to making your own starter. I used this one from The Kitchn. This guide says the starter should be ready to use in five days, but mine took over a week. A lot depends on the flour you’re using (I use half all-purpose and half whole wheat) and environmental factors, especially temperature. 

I won’t give a full step-by-step guide here, but the basic method for making a starter is this: First, mix flour and water together, making sure to use equal parts by weight (this is very important, and it will seem like more flour than water, because flour is less dense). Next, let this batter-like mixture sit in a warm place overnight, covered but not sealed. The following day, get rid of half the mixture (yes, you actually have to throw it away) and replace that half with fresh water and flour, again using equal parts by weight. Store it in a warm place, and keep repeating this daily ritual over and over again. Before long, you’ll start seeing bubbles. It’ll take at least five days of this; I didn’t bake a successful loaf with mine until day 12. 

This is a strange process. Throwing away half of your starter everyday feels kind of wasteful, but it is important. In the early days of developing your starter, discarding half is essential for safety reasons. On a microscopic level there are millions of microbes—yeast, bacteria, and who knows what else—all vying for supremacy in this warm and wet ecosystem. Some potentially harmful bacteria can flare up before eventually losing out to the stable microbiome you want. On day three, mine smelled so much like vomit I almost gave up on it. A week later it had a wonderful soft smell, a little floral with a hint of banana. You can keep the overall amounts of flour and water quite low during this process, so you’re not wasting much. Once the starter is up and running, it can be kept in the refrigerator and fed only when it’s time to bake.

It’s a little hard to know when your starter is ready to use in baking. After each feeding it should gradually produce bubbles and expand in its container over the course of several hours to twice the volume or more. One trick is to drop a spoonful of starter in a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready to use. 

Once you have a viable starter, you can bake some bread. The first recipe I had success with was this one from a blog called An Oregon Cottage. It’s a very straightforward recipe, and it uses cups instead of grams, so if you don’t have a digital kitchen scale, it’s a good place to start. My favorite sourdough blog is The Perfect Loaf. It has lots of great recipes, including guides to making and maintaining a starter, but it’s quite technical in the way it uses grams and baker’s percentages. 

Baking bread in this way is a bit of a hipster obsession, just search #sourdough on Instagram. Coronavirus quarantine has only boosted the popularity of home baking. But as far as fads go, I feel good about leaning into this one. After all, making bread this way is an ancient practice. The tricky technique of harvesting invisible yeast from the air is something that transcends cultures, religions, and millennia. Think of the elements of communion in the Christian tradition. What do wine and bread have in common? That holy, invisible ingredient: yeast.

I think we all feel a little powerless right now. We’re holed up inside, trying to avoid a deadly microbe. Baking bread is a way of reminding ourselves that the world also cares for us. There are good things all around us, even if we can’t see them. Yeast survives and so will we.

My Master Recipe

Every time I make this it changes a little bit, but here’s the basic recipe I use, which I’ve adapted from several sources. This recipe makes two loaves. If you can’t bake them both at the same time, you can bake them one after another. You can also cut the recipe in half and make one loaf.

Equipment list:

  • Dutch oven. Dutch ovens are best for this, but they can be a little pricey. If you don’t have one (or two), the next best thing is a Pyrex covered roasting pan or a stock pot with a lid that can go in the oven on high heat.
  • Basket for proofing. They sell specialized proofing baskets, but you can use a bowl, colander, or just any mid-sized basket along with a tea towel.
  • Digital scale. In order to follow my recipe and the ones on The Perfect Loaf, you’ll need to be able to measure all ingredients by grams. If you don’t have a scale, you can find recipes that use cups.
  • Mixing bowl. A nice big one will do. Avoid metal; use glass or plastic.
  • Razor blade. I use one meant for a box cutter.
  • Two oven mitts. Hot pads can work, but be careful!
  • Plastic wrap.
  • Parchment paper.

Ingredient list:

Flour, 820g – I experiment with different flours blends pretty much every time I make this, but my typical mix is mostly bread flour with a little whole wheat, typically 770g bread flour + 50g whole wheat flour. Using all-purpose flour will also work. 

Water, 585g – Any water that’s good for drinking is good for making bread. I use filtered water.

Salt, 21g – Sea salt or kosher salt is best.

Sourdough Starter, 360g – Sourdough starter is a dynamic ingredient. Its properties vary depending on when it was last fed and the temperature at which it was recently stored. The idea is to add the starter to the dough mix when it has “peaked,” which means that it has reached its maximum volume of expansion after a feeding before it collapses back down. 

Method:

One of the most important things to understand is that time and temperature need to be treated like ingredients. 

Step 1. Feed your starter before going to bed. Calculate the feeding so that you’ll have at least 400g of starter. You’ll be using 360g, and you want some left over. Store it at room temperature. It doesn’t need to be too warm, because you’re giving it a long time to grow, but try to store it in a relatively warm place, up high is best, like on top of your refrigerator.

Step 2. The following morning you can mix your dough. Mix the flour and water together by hand in a bowl until all the water is incorporated. The water should be warm when you add it, ideally between 80 and 90 degrees. It should make a shaggy dough that will stick to your hands like crazy. Scrape it off with spatula. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place for at least 30 minutes.

Step 3. Next add the salt and the sourdough starter. This stage involves the most intense hand kneading, and it’s actually pretty fun. It will take about 10 minutes of kneading to get the starter and salt fully incorporated. I like to grab the edge of the dough and fold it over the top, then turn the bowl a bit and repeat. The consistency will gradually change as you do this, it will become more elastic, uniform, and smooth. Cover with plastic wrap again and put the bowl in a warm place.

Step 4. This stage is called bulk ferment, and it takes about four to six hours, maybe more. The time depends on how vigorous your starter is and how warm you can keep the dough. If you’re having trouble finding a warm spot in your kitchen, try putting the bowl in your oven with the oven off but the light on. The light alone will warm the oven to about 80-85 degrees, which is ideal. 

During bulk ferment, you need to do a type of kneading called “stretch and fold” every 30 minutes for the first 2 hours. With the bowl on the counter in front of you, grab the far side of the dough and stretch it up, then fold it over the top. Turn the bowl a quarter turn and do the same thing again, until you’ve gone all the way around and done it four times. That’s one set of stretch and folds. You need to do four sets, with 30 minutes in between each set. 

Step 5. Once the dough has about doubled in size, it’s ready to be divided and shaped. You can tell the dough is ready because it will be jiggly and airy. Before you shape your loaves, you’ll need to prepare two baskets. If you have proofing baskets, use those, otherwise place a tea town in a bowl or colander and liberally flour the towel, using rice flour if you have it. Dump the dough onto a floured counter and divide it in half. Ideally you should use a bench knife for this, but if you don’t have one you’ll have to use a regular knife. 

Shaping loaves is hard, and even though I’ve been at this for a while I don’t think I’m very good at it. It’s a good idea to watch videos of shaping techniques, because the movements are hard to describe with words. The basic idea is that you want to transform the loose pile of dough into a ball with a tight surface. You do this by grabbing bits of the edge and folding them inward onto each other, then flipping it over seam-side down on an unfloured part of the counter and dragging the ball toward you with a cupped hand, which tightens up the surface tension. Once you’re done shaping, place the dough balls in the floured baskets seam-side up.

Step 6. Put the baskets with dough balls into plastic bags, I use leftover plastic shopping bags, and tie them. The idea is to keep them from drying out, but they don’t need to be perfectly sealed. Place the baskets in the refrigerator overnight, this is called the retard. The dough won’t rise in the refrigerator, but it helps develop flavor. 

Step 7. The following morning, it’s time to bake! First, you need to preheat the oven with your Dutch ovens (or other vessels) already inside. Put them on a high rack and preheat the oven to 450 for at least 30 minutes, you want to make sure the Dutch ovens get very hot. Next, take the dough out of the refrigerator and flip it out of its basket onto a sheet of parchment paper. Trim the paper if it’s too big. Carefully use a razor blade to make a quick slash across the top of the dough, about a half inch deep. Using two oven mitts, take the Dutch ovens out of the oven, open them, and carefully place the dough inside. The parchment paper makes this easier, and it’s fine to bake it with the paper underneath the entire time. Cover the Dutch ovens and place them back in the oven for 30 minutes. It’s very important to leave them covered during this period because the dough is releasing steam that gives the bread that wonderful crispy and chewy crust.

Step 8. Once they’ve baked for 30 minutes covered, take the lids off of the Dutch ovens and bake for 15 minutes more uncovered. Make sure they’re nice a deep brown before taking them out, don’t undercook them.

Step 9. The theme of this recipe is patience, and it doesn’t stop here. Let the bread cool on a wire rack for two hours before slicing. If you cut it too soon it will be gummy. During this time, I suggest that you smell the bread, take pictures of it, and listen to the tiny cracking sounds the crust makes while it cools.

Top Ten Exhibitions and Artworks I Saw in 2019

Every year since 2015 I’ve written a round-up of the best exhibitions and artworks I saw that year. It’s a fulfilling exercise, and even though I always underestimate how much time it takes to write, I’ve come to cherish the process of forcing myself to think about what I saw and why it mattered to me. I love art, but I love art in an outward-looking way. I want art to intersect with other ideas and get knocked off balance. I want art that avoids insularity and struggles to stay relevant in a place where its methods and assumptions are not taken for granted. So, is it relevant? The answer is not a given. Plenty of art I see in a year is pleasant and amusing, but this is my chance to make myself decide which art mattered to me and take a shot at explaining why. I’m never entirely successful.

These entries are listed chronologically in the order I saw them, so they’re not ranked. Some of these works are new, some are not, the common thread is that I saw them in 2019.

Julian Rosefeldt, Manifesto, at Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

This multi-channel video installation was produced and first exhibited in 2015. It consists of thirteen 10-minute long videos that play simultaneously in a big dark room, each one featuring Cate Blanchett dressed as different characters reciting historic political and artistic manifestos. On one screen she appears as a disheveled homeless man reciting Guy Debord’s Situationist Manifesto, on another she’s a television news anchor reading Sol LeWitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, and many more. Viewers wander from screen to screen listening to one bit of manifesto after another. Every few minutes all the videos sync together and all thirteen Cate Blanchetts speak in unison, which is incredibly jarring. It’s the kind of installation in which you can spend a long time lingering, and I did. It works on one hand because Blanchett is just so good, it’s like a catalogue of her range as an actor. But it’s also unsettling and feels much more fake than watching her in a typical movie. This is probably because of the disconnect between what she’s saying and what she’s doing is so acute (people don’t usually recite the Dada Manifesto at a funeral, as one scene depicts). 

Nina Katchadourian, On Hold Music Dance Party, Fridman Gallery, New York

This was a performance at Fridman Gallery in New York that happened around the same time as the Armory Show. Katchadourian is one of my favorite artists because of the way she takes mundane everyday things and turns them into something remarkable with what looks like very little effort. Her work is poetic but it’s also very, very funny. One of her better known series of works are photographs of herself wearing a napkins on her head to look like Flemish renaissance portraits. In Fridman Gallery in March there were a series of photographs she had taken of collages made on the tray table in front of her while flying on commercial airlines. On Hold Music Dance Party was exactly what is sounds like. Katchadourian and some collaborators recorded music and automated messages heard while waiting on hold with various corporate callcenters and chopped them up into danceable beats. There was free wine. I didn’t know anyone, but everyone seemed a little nerdy and we all had fun.

But I suppose it’s not enough to say it was a fun dance party. There are plenty of dance parties, and they’re not necessarily art. Reflecting on Katchadourian’s performance now, I’m reminded of something I read recently by the art critic for the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl. Schjeldahl published a devastating piece titled “The Art of Dying,” where he reflects on his terminal lung cancer diagnosis. He takes the opportunity to meander through art, life, love, and facing the inevitable. One of my favorite passages is this (although the whole thing is quotable): “The aesthetic isn’t bounded by art, which merely concentrates it for efficient consumption. If you can’t put a mental frame around, and relish, the accidental aspect of a street or a person, or really of anything, you will respond to art only sluggishly.” He’s talking about looking at art (and life), but this is exactly how Katchadourian makes art. She can put a frame around anything, and she does it with such wit and joy that I can’t help but feel lucky to have encountered it.

Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future, Guggenheim Museum, New York

This was a very popular show, and for good reason. Klint was a Swedish painter who began producing spiritually-infused abstract canvases in 1906, decades before the broadly recognized turn to abstraction led by artists like Kandinsky, Malevich, and Mondrian. Klint felt that the world was not ready for her paintings, and they were rarely exhibited during her lifetime. In fact she stipulated that they not be shown publicly until 20 years after her death, and most of the work wasn’t shown until 1986. The Guggenheim show was the first major solo show of Klint’s work in the United States. Klint’s paintings were heavily influenced by spirituality and the occult. A large series of works in the show are known as The Paintings for the Temple, which she intended to one day install in a spiral temple. The exhibition felt so relevant and urgent, despite showing canvases that are more than a century old. Paintings for the Future was one of those exhibitions that rewrites our understanding of art history by pointing out what was previously overlooked. It also worked so well in the Guggenheim; the paintings made it to their spiral temple after all.

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Walled Unwalled, Venice Biennale

Lawrence Abu Hamdan made news recently as one of the four nominees for the Turner Prize who collectively decided that they should share the award. Hamdan’s video Walled Unwalled was probably a big reason why he was on the Turner Prize shortlist to begin with. The single channel video installation was part of the Venice Biennale main exhibition, May You Live in Interesting Times. The video was shot in a recording studio in Berlin, and features Hamdan’s narration, experimental sounds, and interviews with scientists about the nature of sound. Hamdan observes two recent trends related to walls. The first is that border walls have proliferated around the world in the last two decades. At the same time, scientists worked out a way to use muons, elementary physical particles similar electrons, to penetrate and produce images through what were previously thought to be impenetrable materials, like lead-lined shipping containers and the stone walls of ancient pyramids. The legal implications of this technology are vast, because it essentially renders all walls invisible, meaning that images can be created through the barriers that once separated public and private space. Walls are everywhere, walls are nowhere.

Stan Douglas, Doppelgänger, Venice Biennale

This two channel video installation was presented in a room where viewers could see either side of the screen depending on where they stood. The looping scenes tell the story of a solitary astronaut who is sent to a distant planet through quantum teleportation. The ground crew and the explorer assume something went wrong when the ship unexpectedly returns shortly after the teleportation. But upon closer examination the scientists realize that the astronaut and the ship that returned are an exact mirror image of the ones that left. The text printed on the ship’s control panels is backward, the screw threads go the wrong way, the position of the astronaut’s stomach and liver are swapped within her body. The looping film has no clear beginning and end, and as I watched it for a while it dawned on me that there wasn’t an error, the quantum teleportation worked as planned. But instead of arriving at an uninhabited earth-like planet as intended, the astronaut arrived at a world exactly like her own, but where everything is reversed, even the planet’s orbit around the sun goes the opposite direction. At the same time, the mirror image world sent an astronaut through quantum teleportation to Earth, who confused the scientists by being the exact mirror image of the astronaut they had just sent away.

This is a relatively simple science fiction conceit, but it work so well here. The way the video installation is displayed is crucial. Because you can watch the video screens from either side, one of them appears “normal” and the other appears as a mirror image, with text and everything else reversed. But it’s impossible to determine which video screen is depicting events in the “normal” world and which one is the mirror image, because it depends on your position relative to the screen in the gallery. It’s a simple trick, but its effect was breathtaking. A lot of video art installations would be more pleasant to view in a traditional theater setting, but this one would fall apart. The looping nature of the work and the ability of the viewer to change positions relative to screen are both essential, it would be impossible really see it any other way.

Anton Vidokle, Immortality and Resurrection for All!, The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul, South Korea

Anton Vidokle is a Russian born artist and cofounder of e-flux who has produced a series of video works in recent years about a nearly forgotten early 20th century Russian philosophy called Cosmism. Cosmism was influential in the early days of the Soviet Union, but fell victim to Stalinist repression in the 1930’s. Cosmism sought to meld Western Enlightenment with Eastern philosophy to promote space colonization, immortality by technological means, and the resurrection of dead ancestors. MMCA was showing all three of Vidokle’s video works on Cosmism when I visited in June, but I only had the opportunity to see the most recent one. Immortality and Resurrection for All! shows scenes inside several Moscow museums, overlaid with the narration from a text by Cosmism founder Nikolai Fedorov about the importance of museums as sites of resurrection. A mummy walks the galleries, a dog scampers among the exhibits. Cosmism is weird. But the more I learn about it, it seems like a potentially fruitful way to think about science, spirituality and politics that isn’t beholden to the divisions we tend to place between those domains.

Lee Bul, Gravity Greater than Velocity I, at Leeum Samsung Museum, Seoul, South Korea

This piece is a functioning karaoke booth that can only be used by one person at a time. The booth is soundproof, so people outside the booth can’t hear what song is being performed inside. I went in, closed the padded red door behind me, and belted out Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run for an audience consisting only of myself. I love this piece because it’s interactive and it repurposes common objects and rituals (the karaoke machine looked to be a widely available model), but it’s decidedly not social. Most artworks that incorporate audience participation do so to create a unique temporary social reality, a social sculpture. But Gravity Greater than Velocity I employs common tropes of social sculpture to create an experience for a single participant at a time. You’re alone with your voice.

Anonymous painting of James Earl Jones as Othello, at Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts

This summer I had the chance to visit the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts in Manistee, Michigan, where I received a tour of the historic theater, galleries, and community spaces from the director and a board member. The theater is beautiful and has a rich history. James Earl Jones grew up in a tiny town nearby and acted in his first theater production at the Ramsdell in 1955, playing Othello. In the lobby hangs a painting of Jones (identified as “Todd Jones,” the name he used at the time) dressed for his role as Othello. I asked who painted the picture, but the staff didn’t know. The only clue is a set of initials in the bottom corner, GSKA. The painting is brushy and expressive, but it’s still recognizable as Jones, even though it’s a much younger version of him.

When I first saw the painting I thought it was an interesting curiosity, like the architectural details of the theater or the odd mishmash of props backstage. But the picture stuck with me. Othello is about a Moorish general in Venice, it’s a tragedy about race, jealousy and betrayal. Othello is an outsider. I couldn’t help but think about apt it was for Jones to begin his career playing this character in Manistee County, a place where 95% of the population is white. Painting and theater are both about the fluid relationship between artifice and reality. A painting is only ever pigment on a canvas, but we’re pulled from that material reality into the image it presents. On stage the actors are real people, but they conjure another reality and we get sucked in. The painting of Jones as Othello is so good because it manages to be both a painting of Othello the character and Jones the person, while perfectly employing loose brushwork and a slightly unfinished feel to remind us of the central contradiction of representative painting–between the flatness of the object and the depth of the image it depicts. 

The Edge of Things: Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan

During a brief stop in Lansing I had the chance to see an exhibition at the Broad Museum at Michigan State called The Edge of Things: Dissident Art Under Repressive Regimes. The exhibition surveyed the rise of conceptual art in Latin America and the way that work responded to dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. These artists employed their own bodies, like Elias Adasme photographing himself hanging by the ankles next to a map of Chile. Images and materials of the street were also a recurring theme, a site that serves as space for protest and a reminder of the freedom of movement lost under dictatorships. I was particularly moved by Regina Vater’s Para un tempo guerra (For a Time of War), a mandala-like installation of paving stones and little loaves of bread. The stones are a particular kind used on the streets of Portugal and the old settlements of its former colonial cities in Brazil. The bread loaves are Brazilian-style French rolls, an ubiquitous and inexpensive staple. On the wall was a passage by Peruvian writer Cesar Vallejo in Spanish. The wall label held the English version, which read:

And in this cold hour, when the Earth
Transcends human dust and is so sad,
I would like to touch all the doors.
And plead to I do not know whom, sorry,
And make him pieces of fresh bread
Here, in the oven of my heart…!

The Plot: Miracle and Mirage by Alejandro Celedon, Nicolas Stutzin, Javier Correa, Chicago Architectural Biennial

This year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, titled …and other such stories, focused historic, environmental, and political conditions of cities far more than it focused on the physical form of buildings. Many exhibits presented dense research findings, wall-sized infographics, long videos, reading rooms. Others, like the one by the group Forensic Architecture, seemed to partially collapse under it’s own critical approach, when they concluded that it would be irresponsible to show a video they’d produced which investigated a police shooting in Chicago (the work consisted of wall text and some audio). The piece that really stuck with me was The Plot: Miracle and Mirage by Alejandro Celedon, Nicolas Stutzin and Javier Correa. A video projected onto the floor was surrounded by waist-high wooden walls, the interior of which were covered with a mirrored surface. Looking over the walls and down on the video, it reflected, reversed and repeated infinitely in all directions. The video was about experimental urban development in Santiago, Chile that took place in the 70’s and 80’s, coinciding with that country’s violent far-right dictatorship. This approach to urban planning had a direct link to Chicago, and was implemented by a group of Chilean economists known as the “Chicago Boys” who were educated in neoliberal free market thinking at the University of Chicago. The promise of radically de-regulated urban planning turned out to be a mirage with far-reaching consequences. The video was short and not overly didactic. The connection between Chicago and Santiago began to seem like a sort of ideological colonialism, the North performing thought experiments on the global South, which paid in blood. 

The Top Ten Exhibitions and Artworks I Saw in 2018

It’s become my own little tradition to round up my favorite exhibitions and artworks of the year. I know, I know… listicles. But the format is convenient, and it’s a way for me to reflect on what I saw and what stuck with me. This list is not meant to summarize the best exhibitions of the year overall, because I didn’t see nearly enough to pretend to make a definitive list. This list is personal, it’s the best of what I saw. It’s also not ranked, they’re listed in the order I saw them through the year.

1.Harald Szeemann: Museum of Obsessions at The Getty Research Institute and Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us (1974) at Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

Harald Szeemann was a Swiss curator who lived from 1933 to 2005. His method of exhibition-making, particularly in the 1970s, became incredibly influential. What we know now as conceptual, global, curator-driven exhibitions would not have been possible without his pioneering work, particularly in shows like Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form (1969) and documenta 5 (1972). When I was in LA in February I had the chance to see two concurrent exhibitions about Szeemann, both organized by The Getty Research Institute, which houses Szeemann’s archives. Museum of Obsessions at The Getty Center was survey of objects, texts and artifacts relating to the breadth of Szeemann’s career, including a christmas-tree-like hanging sculpture assembled from hundreds of luggage tags from his extensive travels. Across town, at ICA LA, was Grandfather: A Pioneer Like Us, a full-scale replica of the interior space of Szeemann’s apartment in which he curated a dense exhibition of artifacts and photographs to tell the story of his late grandfather, Etienne Szeemann, a famous hairdresser.

It was a remarkable pair of exhibitions. One presented a survey of Szeemann’s influence and impact, showing that he was the originator of the auteur-curator archetype, and an artist in his own right. The recreated apartment show about his grandfather, on the other hand, was an example of how he could apply his particular craft to something incredibly personal.

2. Stories of Almost Everyone at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Stories of Almost Everyone was a group exhibition about the way objects and the stories we tell about them interact. Nearly every work appeared to be mundane, found, or otherwise unassuming. It was an odd collection of objects, each with its own story. A large wall held a recessed vitrine, behind its glass a diamond ring sat under crisp light. The ring was Jill Magid’s The Proposal (2016), where the artist retrieved the ashes of famed Mexican architect Luis Barragán and had them made into a 2.02 carat diamond and set into a ring. The ring was then offered to the current owner of Barragán’s archives, who is based in Switzerland, so that in exchange for the ring the archives could be repatriated to Mexico. The offer of exchange has not been accepted.

Nearby a large, cold war era globe glows from within. The label explains that the globe belonged to Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968 and architect of the Vietnam War. It was purchased and repurposed as a readymade artwork by the artist Danh Vo, whose family fled Vietnam for Denmark during the war.

While I was perusing one gallery I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a security guard was beginning to dance. I thought it was odd, but figured he was just moving a bit out of boredom. It quickly became clear it was something more. His moves were intense and skilled, and he began taking his clothes off. A small, stunned crowd gathered. He gyrated and stripped all the way down to a very small speedo then loudly declared, “Untitled, Tino Segal!” before collecting his uniform from the floor and exiting the gallery.

3. Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire at the Met, New York

The Course of Empire is a series of five paintings by Thomas Cole made between 1833 and 1836. Each canvas shows the same fictional river valley at different points in time. The scene is at first almost entirely wild and untamed, with a few primitive inhabitants. By the third picture a glorious city is celebrating with a triumphant parade among towering marble colonnades. Then destruction and war, followed by desolation and natural forces reclaiming the valley. There’s so much to love about these paintings. First of all, they’re essentially a comic strip, even though they were painted decades before anyone thought of making comic strips. These paintings are epic and allegorical. They’re about both the past and the future at once, they describe a cyclical reality at the core of all civilizations. We look to history–and its accounts of culture, politics, and religion–to tell us how empires run their course. But Cole seems to suggest we should learn from biology, meteorology, and geology as well. Course of Empire shows that we’re not above the cycles of nature, in fact we’re a part of them and entirely at their whim.

4. Danh Vo – Take My Breath Away at the Guggenheim, New York

As mentioned above in the entry about Stories of Almost Everyone, Danh Vo is Danish Vietnamese artist whose family fled the Vietnam War. Vo collects objects and artifacts that relate to particular slices of religious and national identity. The Guggenheim show presented a lot of readymades, non-art objects represented as artworks, but he used this approach in a way that was personal, urgent, and finely calibrated. In his hands the readymade gesture felt nothing like a conceptual stunt. He presented the chandeliers that once hung in the ballroom of the Hotel Majestic in Paris, under which the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending American involvement in Vietnam. Several large copper sculptures, supported by wooden armatures, were 1:1 scale replicas of fragments of the Statue of Liberty. There were broken pieces of ancient statuary, the Unabomber’s typewriter, and an ongoing series where the artist’s father repeatedly copies the text of a letter from a French missionary to Vietnam, written shortly before he was martyred. I love the Guggenheim because it has a way of slowly building the case for an exhibition by presenting the works in an unbroken line. Vo plays a lot with repetition, so gestures that seem mildly interesting at first compound their conceptual and emotion pressure as you descend the spiral of the gallery.

5. Dear Listener: Works by Nicholas Galanin at the Heard Museum, Phoenix

This was my first visit to the Heard Museum, whose mission it is to advance American Indian art. They have a remarkable collection, including an informative (and devastating) exhibition about the history of Indian boarding schools. They also show contemporary work, like this solo show by Nicholas Galanin. Galanin is an artist unbound by medium. He effortlessly floats from sculpture, to performance, to fashion design, to video, to textile. At one moment, Galanin dryly riffs on the role of contemporary indigenous identity in American culture, the next moment he’s deadly serious, reflecting on generations of genocide and displacement. This show dealt with incredibly heavy subjects, ghosts of history that continue to haunt us because dominant American culture still refuses to acknowledge the legacy of these traumas. Galanin works with this material in a way that avoids being austere or gloomy. I would almost call it playful, but that seems far too flippant. There was something punk about it. The anger was real, but so was the spirit of creativity and improvisation.

6. Cagnacci: Painting Beauty and Death at the Cincinnati Art Museum

I stumbled upon this small special exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum and it really knocked me back. Set in a dark gallery with sharp spots on the works, the show only featured four Italian Baroque paintings, three by Guido Cagnacci and one by Bernardo Strozzi. Two of the paintings depicted the death of Cleopatra, the other two showed David posing with the head of Goliath. I was completely unfamiliar with both Cagnacci and Strozzi, and apparently I never knew (or had forgotten) how Cleopatra died. Cleopatra committed suicide by allowing an asp (an Egyptian viper) to bite her in the breast, rather than be paraded through Rome as a prisoner of Octavian. Of course I would like to know more about Baroque painting and ancient Roman and Egyptian history, but the fact that I don’t know much about either made this small exhibition so much more surprising. It felt like stumbling into Cleopatra’s chamber and discovering her there, limp and oddly peaceful, with the asp slithering away from her breast.

7. A Color Removed by Michael Rakowitz at Front International Triennial, Cleveland

This year I visited the inaugural editions of two contemporary art triennials in the midwest, Front International in Cleveland, and Opens Spaces in Kansas City. It’s exciting to see new, serious citywide exhibitions popping up. The first of the two was Front, which opened in July. Front was curated by Michelle Grabner, and while there were hiccups here and there, overall it was very good. The exhibition was spread out, occupying multiple neighborhoods in Cleveland, along with components in Akron and Oberlin. Because of that, the best parts of the exhibition felt discreet, and not necessarily like part of a larger whole, which wasn’t necessarily bad.

The standout work for me was Michael Rakowitz’s A Color Removed. This is a work that had been a proposal for a number of years, and it was finally realized at Front. The work consisted of donation boxes placed around Cleveland where people were asked to donate orange objects, in hopes of removing the color orange from the city of Cleveland. An installation of donated orange objects in a gallery served as a meeting place for community programming around safety and violence. The Sisyphean task of attempting to remove all orange objects from Cleveland was a response to the police killing of Tamir Rice, a 14 year old boy who was murdered in Cleveland in 2014 while playing with a toy gun that lacked an orange safety tip. I attended the opening reception, which felt very much like a wake. Rakowitz served Tamir’s favorite foods, community members and Tamir’s mother were in attendance. The goal of A Color Removed felt both urgent and impossible, inspiring and devastating, not unlike the fight for gun control, the fight for black lives, and the fight for more sensible policing.

8. Hy-Dyve by Nick Cave at Open Spaces, Kansas City

Another new citywide exhibition I visited this year was Open Spaces in Kansas City, curated by Dan Cameron. Like Front, Open Spaces was pretty spread out, and a few works rose above the rest. The first that really stood out was Nick Cave’s video installation Hy-Dyve. Sited in an empty chapel, kaleidoscopic videos were mapped to the interior walls and ceiling, while images of rushing water flowed over the floor. It was rhythmic, pulsing, and a little overwhelming, like seeing one of Cave’s sound suit dances through a prism and from the inside.

9. …called up by Ebony G. Patterson at Open Spaces, Kansas City

Another stand-out piece at Open Spaces was Ebony G. Patterson’s “…called up.” A portion of Open Spaces was sited in Swope Park, a huge park south of downtown Kansas City that includes steep hills covered in dense forest. Patterson’s installation was on top of a wooded hill, and it required a long trip from a confused Uber driver to access. Patterson and curator Dan Cameron found a long-abandoned swimming pool that was once used for therapy and recreation for children with disabilities. Patterson installed a false bottom in the pool and covered it with silk flowers and candles. It was a remarkably beautiful burst of color embedded in the ground, like a giant memorial to distant memories of play, compassion, and pain.

10. A Logo for America by Alfredo Jaar at Faena Festival, Miami Beach

A Logo for America is a 42-second video loop originally commissioned for Times Square by the Public Art Fund in 1987. Programmed for what now look like ancient LED jumbotrons, the animation cycles through images of the American flag, a map of North and South America, and the text “THIS IS NOT AMERICA.” In its original incarnation, it played on the Times Square screens between ads for unsuspecting tourists and shoppers. When I saw it this year it was playing on a small barge slowing tacking back and forth along Miami Beach in front of the Faena Hotel. I’d seen the boat a few years ago, trawling back and forth in front of South Beach playing ads for nightclubs and nail salons. Faena Festival, organized by the hotel, coincided with Art Basel Miami Beach and featured several public art commissions on the beach, film screenings, talks, and other events. I was skeptical about Faena Festival, thinking it might be a fluff project. It turned out to be the highlight of my trip to Miami this year. A Logo for America worked particularly well just off the coast of Miami, broasting its message back to South Florida, that weird, hyperactive nexus of North America, the Caribbean, and the world.

Procedurally-Generated Adventurers

My favorite pen and paper roleplaying game is Dungeon Crawl Classics. It’s similar to Dungeons & Dragons, but combines the mechanics and ease of play of recent versions of D&D with the artwork style, reliance on random tables, and story flavor of old school D&D from the 70’s. Compared to contemporary vanilla D&D, it’s funnier, more brutal, and unpredictable in the best way. It’s everything I love about D&D, but better. It even uses weirder dice.

One of my favorite things about Dungeon Crawl Classics is how they recommend you begin an adventure campaign. Each player is instructed to create four zero-level characters that have no heroic classes. No sneaky rogues, no valiant warriors, no arcane spellcasters, at least not yet. Zero-level characters instead have simple medieval professions like blacksmith, cobbler, and indentured servant, and the professions determine their meager starting possessions. Players cannot choose professions, instead they have to roll d100 on a table to randomly come up with them. Character stats–in this case Strength, Agility, Stamina, Intelligence, Personality, and Luck—are similarly rolled in an unforgiving way. Players roll 3d6 for each, in order, and they’re not allowed to shift their good rolls into the most crucial stats.

The result is an adventure with a huge mob of player characters, many of who have terrible stats and are doomed perish in gory and hilarious ways. The idea is that each player will likely have only one character survive the first adventure, and that character then gets to level up as an adventuring class. If more than one of their zero-levels survives, the player can choose which one to keep. These zero-level adventures are called either funnels or meat grinders, with good reason.

I love rolling zero-level characters. The professions are funny, and characters with horrible stats are oddly endearing, and lucky rolls result in characters I can’t wait to play. There’s something about rolling a bunch of these characters and imagining their fates that’s endlessly entertaining to me.

A while back I wrote something about procedurally generated writing and Twitter bots, which led me to discover a website by George Buckenham called Cheap Bots Done Quick. It uses a simple programming language called Tracery to let users make automated Twitter accounts that recombine text from lists. I made a few bots that randomly recombined bits of my own writing into abstract quasi-poetry. It occurred to me that I could use Cheap Bots Done Quick to make a bot that automatically generated zero-level characters according to DCC rules.

It didn’t take long before I had a bot that selected professions and possessions from the DCC table and paired those with randomly generated stats that mimicked 3d6 rolls. It looked like this:

That was fun, but I wanted to know more about these poor souls. I started to experiment with adding a sentence that explained some of the motivation of each character. Why were they leaving the workaday world to try their hand at being an adventurer? After the stats, I added a sentence that told what they hoped to do to a particular type or monster, and what particular type of treasure they hoped to gain. It looked like this:

This helped, but it got repetitive pretty quickly. I then figured out a way to randomize a whole list of archetypal character motivation stories, each with numerous variable elements. At that point I was able to build multiple lists of variable elements (monsters, treasure, places, family members, etc) and combine them in different ways in different archetypes. I’m really delighted by the results. They’re intriguing, harrowing, funny, and occasionally nonsensical. Here are some examples:

At this point I think the bot is done, but it will probably never be fully done. Over the last few days I keep returning to the code and adding more narratives, and more words to the various lists. The more options I can feed into it, the more unique results it can spit out.

You can follow the bot here. Let me know if you think of any more variables I can add! And if you actually play one of these characters, let me know how they faired in the meat grinder.

The Top Ten Exhibitions and Artworks I Saw in 2017

Each year I do a list post about the best art I saw over the past twelve months. I don’t claim that these are the best exhibitions of 2017, because I don’t see nearly enough to make that claim. But I still think it’s worth keeping a log of the exhibitions and artworks that moved me this year. These are listed in the order in which I saw them. Most are newly created, but some are… definitely not. I always see good work at ArtPrize, but I never include it on these lists because that would seem a little too insular.

1. Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo, Border Cantos: Sight & Sound Explorations from the Mexican-American Border, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

I visited Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas for the first time this year. When I was there they had a temporary exhibition called Border Cantos. It was a collaboration between photographer Richard Misrach and sculptor/sound artist Guillermo Galindo. Misrach provided stunning large-scale photos of the US-Mexico border, while Galindo exhibited sculptures that doubled as musical instruments made from detritus collected from the borderlands. The images and objects were creative, playful, sorrowful, and devastating all at once, over and over again (it was a big show). The curation and didactics were also wonderful. Here in this deep red state was a show that unapologetically humanized the experience of the people who cross this border for a chance at a better life. It’s a landscape packed with stories of struggle for freedom and opportunity. What could be more American than that?

2. Irena Haiduk’s SER (Seductive Exacting Realism), Documenta 14, Kassel, Germany

I visited Documenta for the second time this year. Documenta is the massively influential exhibition that takes place in Kassel, Germany once every five years. Except this year it was split between Kassel and Athens (I didn’t see the Athens part). Overall the Kassel portion was a little underwhelming, but there were some really powerful moments. One of my favorite works was a multifaceted project by Irena Haiduk called SER (Seductive Exacting Realism). It consisted of installation, performance, crayon rubbing, sitting in a dark room listening to recorded voices, and a merchandise line of shoes and dresses. I wrote about it on my blog earlier this year, in a post called Art is a Waiting Room. The piece seemed to sum up a certain uneasiness in a way very few artworks do at the moment.

3. Lorenza Böttner, various works, Documenta 14, Kassel, Germany

Another part of Documenta 14 that really stuck with me was an installation of photographs, paintings, drawings, and artifacts from Lorenza Böttner. Böttner was a local trans and disabled artist who was active in the 80’s and 90’s until eventually losing her life to AIDS in 1994. It was a smart choice to include a dense collection of images and text–only a small portion of which is shown above–as it gave viewers the chance to grasp Böttner’s important biography. She was born male, lost both her arms in an electrocution accident as a child, then went on to forge a career as an artist and a woman who challenged one convention after another. The work was funny and harrowing and felt way ahead of its time.

4. Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler’s Flora, Swiss Pavilion, Venice Biennale

After Documenta I went on to the Venice Biennale. The main show was alright, but nothing stood out as a real show-stopper. There were some wonderful national pavilions, however, which are organized independently of the main show. My favorite was the Swiss Pavilion, which had sculptures by Carol Bove and a two-channel video installation by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler titled Flora. Two videos were projected on the opposite sides of a single screen, which shared one audio track. One video takes the form of a documentary, the other is a reenactment. Together they tell the story of Flora Mayo, and relatively unknown American artist who studied in Paris in the 1920’s, when she was briefly Alberto Giacometti’s lover. The piece takes what was an art historical bit part and reveals a complex and tragic story of a remarkable woman. There’s an interview with Flora’s son, who is still alive, that brought me to tears. It occurred to me that art history must be riddled with other “Floras,” mostly under-appreciated and forgotten women, erased from the dominant narratives of the male artist geniuses.

5. Jacobo Tintoretto’s portrait of Doge Marino Faliero, Doge’s Palace, Venice

In Venice I visited the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge’s Palace, a massive 14th century gothic complex in central Venice. For centuries it served at the residence of the Doge, the ruler of the Republic of Venice, before being turned into a museum in 1923. The tour is very long, passing through many intricately ornamented chambers, medieval armories, and dungeons. Eventually I reached the Chamber of the Great Council, an enormous room containing what they claim is the world’s largest painting on canvas, Tintoretto’s Il Paradiso. Every other surface is covered by paintings as well, including a row of 76 portraits near the ceiling depicting each Doge in the order of their rule, along with a scroll saying what they accomplished. Near one corner a portrait is missing, and in it’s place is a painting of a black cloth with the latin inscription, “Hic est locus Marini Faletro decapitati pro criminibus,” or, “This is the space reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes.” Faliero was the Doge for only a few months from 1354-55, when he attempted a coup d’etat. The coup failed and he was beheaded. A label on the wall below explains that Faliero was considered a traitor to the Republic, and was condemned not only to death but also “damnatio memoriae, the total eradication of his memory and name.” There’s a certain irony to this, of course, because I only learned his name by seeing his lack of a portrait, which contains an inscription that includes his name. I won’t go too far into it here in this list post, but being in Europe in the midst of the slow-motion train wreck of the Trump administration afforded me a welcome dose of historic and geographic perspective. Sometimes great societies have terrible leaders. Empires survive, but the stains linger. How will we remember the things we want so badly to forget?

6. Philip Guston and the Poets, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

Another show I saw in Venice that was not part of the Biennale was this stunning Guston show that traced his relationship with the work of five poets: D. H. Lawrence, W. B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Eugenio Montale and T. S. Eliot. I already liked Guston, but this show revealed remarkable things about the work I hadn’t seen before. The wall text, which included plenty of poetry, was the best I’ve seen.

7. Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, New York

A few weeks ago I went to New York for a screening of the ArtPrize documentary, More Art Upstairs. I figured out that my hotel was a few blocks from De Maria’s New York Earth Room, which I’d never seen before. The work is relatively large apartment on the second floor of a building in SoHo that’s filled with about two feet of dirt. It’s maintained and staffed by the Dia Art Foundation, and they keep regular open hours. You have to buzz in to an inconspicuous doorway, then follow signs leading up a narrow flight of stairs. The apartment contains a small lobby with the attendant’s desk, and the rest is filled with dirt. You can’t walk on the dirt, and you’re not even supposed to photograph it. The same dirt has been sitting there since 1977. There’s something very comforting about know that that mass will always just sit there, impenetrable, oblivious to everything around it. My favorite feature is that the dirt extends into another room. You can see some of the room through an open doorway, but most of the dirt in there will never be visible to anyone. It just exists.

8. Pedro Lasch’s Reflections on Time, Prospect.4, New Orleans

In November I went to New Orleans for the opening of the Prospect.4 triennial. The entire show was excellent, and a lot of the best people I know in the art world were there. I’m highlighting two works on this list that really stood out. The first is Reflections on Time by Pedro Lasch. Prospect.4 is staged in venues across the city, including museums and less traditional spaces. This project was installed in an antique shop in the French Quarter, and Lasch took that opportunity to collaborate with the shop and integrate their collection into the work. A small gallery is lined with black mirrors, dark reflective rectangles of glass, each with a faint image printed on them. In front of each glass is a pedestal containing an ornate antique clock, the faces of which can best be seen as a reflection in reverse. The images printed in the mirrors are also borrowed, from art history and popular culture, each one relating to the theme of time in a different way. The gallery containing the installation was at the very back of the store, so that in order to see it I had to wander through a labyrinth of ornate artifacts. Once I finally made it to the artwork, I was ready to think about time.

9. Naama Tsabar’s Composition, Prospect.4, New Orleans

For Prospect.4, Tsabar staged a performance in her ongoing Composition series. About twenty local musicians, all women, stood atop amps or small platforms in a triangular arrangement in a city park. A drone began emanating from the amps, as the crowd moved around the stoic musicians, they began playing songs commissioned by Tsabar. There were three groups and three songs. They went one at a time around the circle, then they all played all three songs at once, layering and looping the sounds together. Each audience member heard their own audio mix depending on where they stood. At first, the crowd only moved around the periphery, positioning itself in front of whichever musicians were playing. But shortly after they all started playing at once, a group of five or six junior-high aged girls walked right into the array of amps and platforms. It was like membrane suddenly ruptured, and the whole crowd suddenly flooded in. The emotional resonance of certain keys of music is something I don’t fully understand, but there was some magical version of it happening there. I cried.

10. The Music Box Village, New Orleans

The artist party for Prospect.4 was held at an incredible venue that doubles as an artwork. The Music Box Village is a collection of bespoke buildings, forts, gazebos and other structures that are all functional musical instruments. It’s a fusion of sculpture, architecture, and endlessly creative musical instrument design. The installation is build by a local nonprofit called New Orleans Airlift, and was not a part of Prospect.4 (except as an event venue). Toward the end of the party the building/instruments filled with performers and a raucous, site-specific concert commenced. Like Tsabar’s Composition, the sound depended on where you were. It was like the party was happening inside the musical instrument.

Art is a Waiting Room – thoughts on documenta 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Thoughts on ArtPrize in a New Political Reality

Dewitt Godfrey

(image: Dewitt Godfrey)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consciousness Emerges from the Archive: Dwarves, Twitter Bots, and an Infinite Library

dear reader

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

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

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

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

Tweets Without Authors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sorry Story of @horse_ebooks

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

“Unfortunately, as you probably already know, people”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God.

I really, really do want to believe.

But I don’t think I do.

And that feels even worse.

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

Uncreative Writing

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

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

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

Digitizing the Infinite Archive

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

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 6.44.31 PM

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

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

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

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

What’re Those Dwarves Up To?

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

800px-Sitefinder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Entropy to Consciousness

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts on death, loss, and 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Exhibitions and Artworks I Saw in 2016

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

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

Under The Skin

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

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

Propeller Group

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

3. Agnes Martin Retrospective at LACMA, Los Angeles

Agnes Martin

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

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

non fiction

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

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

Silver Clouds

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

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

KJM

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

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

minter

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

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

Zoe Leonard

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

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

Rothko

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

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

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

Rothko

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