Is ArtPrize Over?

(Image: Ran Ortner views Anila Quayyum Agha’s Intersections)

ArtPrize 2020, like so many big events, fell victim to the wave of Covid-19 cancellations. ArtPrize might be known more for big crowds than for art, and gathering crowds in this pandemic is dangerous, so the cancellation wasn’t surprising. The way ArtPrize 2020 was canceled, however, puts at risk the possibility of doing another event in 2021, and might even hasten the end of the organization entirely. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve spent the past eleven years working for ArtPrize, I’ve helped shape it and it has certainly shaped me, so it’s painful to have a front row seat for what might be its undoing. I’m moving on now, but I’ve been writing and editing this blog post throughout the summer in order to communicate where things stand and offer a few final reflections. ArtPrize was a good thing that could have become great, but it would take an awful lot of courage and creativity to rise to the challenge of this moment and grow into an organization ready to take on the decade ahead.

When Covid-19 began shutting down events, schools, offices and pretty much everything else, the ArtPrize staff was at first in a state of shock. Other art institutions in town with budgets much larger than ours began furloughing employees immediately as their ticket sales and facility rental income streams dried up overnight. Compared to them, we felt lucky. Our work could happen remotely quite easily, and since we were planning an event that was still six months away, we felt fortunate to have time to figure things out. We had set aggressive fundraising goals for the year and we were on track to meet them. (A quick aside about fundraising: If you’re under the impression that ArtPrize got all its money from one source, that’s false. We raised several million dollars a year from hundreds of sources: corporations, foundations, individuals, and government grants. Fundraising was tough, but we were good at it.) 

When the shock wore off, we set to work figuring out how ArtPrize could still happen in this new reality, or whether it could happen at all. The board of directors asked us to work on two scenarios that we would present to them in early May. The first scenario (we called it Scenario A) was to do an ArtPrize event in fall 2020 that adapted to social distancing and other health recommendations. Scenario B involved canceling the 2020 event and figuring out how to stretch resources in order to arrive at a fall 2021 ArtPrize. Scenario B was not pretty; it involved temporary furloughs for a portion of the staff, but it would have worked.

Going into the May board meeting, we honestly weren’t sure which of the two scenarios was the best course. We wanted to do a 2020 event of some kind, but safety was hard to gauge and deferring would give us time to rethink some of the fundamental elements of ArtPrize and better adapt to new challenges. After all, art will go on in some way no matter how messy the pandemic gets.The institutions that succeed in supporting artists in new ways will be the ones who are ready to watch where artists go and figure out how to support them even as the landscape shifts.

To our surprise, the board quickly and enthusiastically supported Scenario A, the socially distanced 2020 event. There wasn’t a lot of substantive discussion, and Scenario B didn’t seem to get much consideration at all. Following the board meeting we were ready to present the plan publicly and explain to artists, venues, and the media what a mostly outdoor, socially distanced ArtPrize would look like. But we were told to keep the plans under wraps for the time being. The board wanted us to first share the plan with key sponsors to ensure that they were still onboard. That made sense, so we scheduled those meetings and agreed to follow up with the board in early June.

The early June meeting was different, the mood had become rather grim. Our progress report was positive, however. Scenario A was on track and fundraising was in line with the budget adjustments we’d made to hold a smaller event. There were a few questions, but very little discussion overall. Staff left the call and the board held an executive session. We expected to get the green light within the hour. Instead we waited, and waited, and waited. Eight days later we found out that not only had they decided to cancel the 2020 event, they were also “suspending operations,” which meant putting the entire staff on indefinite furlough. Regarding 2021, the line from the press release written by the board says that they’ll wait to “consider the possibility of future events” at some undisclosed future date.

It’s difficult to know exactly why the tone and the decision of the board flipped so dramatically, or why they declined to discuss our scenario for postponing the 2020 event. I couldn’t help but notice that it coincided with a larger mood shift in the city. The second board meeting was only two days after windows were smashed and police cars were burned in downtown Grand Rapids following demonstrations against police brutality. The chaos downtown was not discussed, but the board members on the Zoom call looked tired and the mood was muted and tense.

During that eight-day period I knew they were considering big questions about the future of the organization. I tried everything I could to politely insert myself into those conversations. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’ve been part of every major change and development within ArtPrize from the beginning. I was part of the team that started ArtPrize in 2009 and I worked my way up to Artistic Director. The role of Executive Director was vacant, which meant that I was acting co-director at the time along with another staff member. I tried so hard to be part of the conversation about how ArtPrize could adapt to the massive challenges facing us, but I was shut out, the decision was made. In a conversation with one board member, after the fact, I asked what conversations had taken place about how to adapt ArtPrize so that it could fulfill its mission in new ways in 2021. His answer absolutely floored me. It floors me still. He said they hadn’t discussed it. They hadn’t discussed it! And now me and the 13 other brilliant people who could have led ArtPrize to meet these new challenges are updating our resumes.

If all it took was for a handful of people to get on a Zoom call and deal a crippling blow to the organization, that probably means that there was a flaw in the leadership structure all along. Past directors really tried, but we were never able to fully transform the quirky art start-up into the broadly supported community organization it needed to be. The board lacked diversity in more ways than one, it never grew to reflect the community that ArtPrize served. I got the sense that the board was not a truly deliberative body. Sure, they voted on things, but for the most part these were not stakeholders in the communities affected by ArtPrize. The people most affected by the decisions about the event in 2020 and 2021 were not being included in the conversations about how the organization could adapt to new challenges. As an example of this disconnect, as soon as the cancellation was announced, community leaders set about planning another fall event called The Bridge, which is happening now. I helped install Tropical Realness, an outdoor installation by Jeffrey Augustine Songco. SiTE LAB is holding a socially distanced event in early October. Doing cultural programming in the fall of 2020 is difficult, but it’s not impossible.

The conversations I was able to have with board members indicated that they were thinking about the future in a very binary way: Either a full, traditional ArtPrize could happen in 2021 or it could not. Of course no one knows yet what large events will look like in the fall of 2021, but that uncertainty is also a form of opportunity. What they should have done instead of suspending operations was declare that an ArtPrize event will definitely happen in 2021, but it will take time, courage, and creativity to figure out what that event will look like in the new world we’re entering. In order to do that, they would need to retain a staff capable of leading boldly into that new reality and finding new and safe ways for art to continue to bring people together.

This vague and inauspicious end to ArtPrize has also given me time to reflect on the last eleven years. Grand Rapids and the world have changed a lot since this all began. It’s possible that ArtPrize was an idea that fit into a certain time, and that time is over. When Trump was elected and Betsy DeVos was appointed education secretary it felt like an existential crisis for the organization. Advisors cut ties, criticisms from artists increased. I reflected at the time (in early 2017) that ArtPrize up to that point had existed entirely within the Obama era, beginning the year of his inauguration in 2009, through to then the most recent event, which took place in the tense weeks preceding the 2016 election. We did two more ArtPrizes, in ‘17 and ‘18, but something was different. The broad populist appeal of ArtPrize felt fragile, the political and cultural fissures of American culture seemed to be growing too deep for our light-hearted, American Idol-style art festival.

Shifting ArtPrize to a biennial schedule and holding Project 1 in 2019 was a response to this cultural shift. We felt the need to stage an exhibition that didn’t just reflect popular sentiment, as ArtPrize does, but one that was about something. ArtPrize is never really about anything in particular, it’s kind of about everything all at once. In contrast, Project 1 was an exhibition that I curated and I gave it the title Crossed Lines, because it was about the visible and invisible lines that make up a city, and how those lines dictate who belongs and who is shut out of spaces that are ostensibly public. These lines are real and they are damaging, we hoped art would help reveal them, and maybe even help people cross them.

The most pernicious lines are the ones that are mostly invisible but are nevertheless fiercely enforced. The most striking example of the crossing of such a line within Project 1 came when DisArt worked with commissioned artists Paul Amenta and Ted Lott to invite London-based drag troupe Drag Syndrome to perform in a Disability Drag Show event using Amenta and Lott’s Critical Infrastructure as a stage. The installation was built in a partial courtyard at the Tanglefoot Building, and the landlord of the space was supermarket heir and Republican congressional candidate Peter Meijer. When Meijer found out about the scheduled performance he forbade it from occurring on his property, agreeing with far-right campaigners who insisted that the (adult, brilliant, self-directed) artists of Drag Syndrome were not capable of electing to be part of their own performance because of their Down’s syndrome. Meijer didn’t bother to communicate directly with DisArt or Drag Syndrome, he instead sent a condescending and ableist letter to ArtPrize revoking permission to use the venue.

A fiercely homophobic and ableist campaign was mounted against the event, and ArtPrize staff, board, and sponsors were inundated with emails and calls. The speed with which it was picked up by the far-right internet rage machine was terrifying. It was circulating on neo-nazi websites within a day of garnering national attention. It must be said that the ArtPrize board acted admirably throughout this ordeal. They knew about the details of performance before it was announced, and they had no problem with it. When it started taking heat, they stuck by ArtPrize staff and offered valuable counsel. What was hard for me at the time was the fact that we had to bite our tongues and take a somewhat muted public response. Partner programming was being censored! We were outraged! But we didn’t want to further roil jittery sponsors, and we didn’t want to spend all of our communication bandwidth on this issue at the expense of telling the wider story of Project 1, which wouldn’t be fair to the other artists and programming.

The show went on. Drag Syndrome performed two sold-out shows at Wealthy Theater and the most exuberant fans were the other Project 1 artists who were in town for the opening. I still feel conflicted about how we handled all that. We arrived at multiple junctures where there simply were not any good choices, and we had to act fast. We had to work out which path was least damaging overall, then grit our teeth and take it. It’s a gut-wrenching feeling, and if you’ve never been in that position, lucky you. Reflecting back on it, it’s clear that the whole ordeal was a more robust articulation of the themes of the exhibition than anything I programmed directly. There are lines that divide space and dictate who does and does not belong. Some of these lines are invisible and can only be seen when they’re crossed and the swift hand of enforcement suddenly appears. The lines drawn by ableism, homophobia and transphobia became suddenly visible in that moment, and I’ll never unsee them again.

So what does Project 1 have to do with the current situation that ArtPrize finds itself in? I don’t think the connection is direct, but I do think the Drag Syndrome affair contributed to the fatigue and risk-aversion that I sense from the board. To operate a relevant public art institution now means running headlong into those sticky situations, not shying away from them. There is no longer any way to do a non-political, “fun” art show that draws tourist dollars and makes a run at establishing Grand Rapids as a culturally relevant place. Project 1 was about confronting the demons that linger behind Midwestern nice—segregation, red-lining, managerial racism—and it was only the beginning of what an ArtPrize organization with a curatorial voice could accomplish. If Grand Rapids is going to be a “cool city” known for the arts, that means we need to fearlessly engage with art’s capacity to reveal things about ourselves, our institutions and our city. Sometimes art shows us things about ourselves that we don’t like, and a city staking its reputation on art needs to be ready to wrestle with that.

Regarding the possibility of future ArtPrize events, it was clear that the board was worried about raising money with the prospect of future event cancellations and postponements. In a way this kind of thing always comes down to money, but it’s not that simple. When it comes to fundraising for nonprofits, money is closely linked to courage. If we raised money for a 2021 event and the situation with the pandemic (or other factors) evolved in such a way that we weren’t able to deliver on those sponsor commitments—but we’d already spent money on payroll and rent—then what? That’s a tough spot, for sure, but the question of whether the board is willing to risk ending up in that situation comes down to courage and creativity. If we can’t do exactly what we hope in 2021, do we have the courage and creativity to find ways to fulfill both sponsor commitments and our mission in a way that’s safe, effective and relevant? If the world turns upside down, do we have the guts to go back to sponsors and tell them how cool it is that we get to play on the ceiling? The staff of ArtPrize absolutely had the necessary courage and creativity to meet those challenges. I have a lot of appreciation and respect for the board and all they’ve done for ArtPrize over the years, but in this case I think caution led them to make the wrong call.

Is ArtPrize over? I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure about other staffers, but I’m not waiting around to find out, I’m moving on. Maybe the board will give it another try in the future, but unfortunately they’ve jettisoned a lot of institutional knowledge. ArtPrize has always been nimble and mutable in ways that other arts orgs can’t be, which is why it’s so hard to watch it freeze in the face of a new challenge. I’ve always thought of ArtPrize as a perennially unfinished project. The ArtPrize in my mind was always a higher ideal than the real thing, I saw it as the next version of what it could become. ArtPrize was designed to be responsive and adaptable, and it always had something new in the world to respond to. It was scrappy, energetic and relentless, which is what I loved about it, and why it was so painful to be shut out of the conversation about how it could rise to meet the present moment. Making relevant public-facing art has never been more challenging, and it’s never been more important.

I try to remind myself that the institution is never the thing. It’s a container for the thing and we shouldn’t be too precious about it. Containers wear out, we can invent new ones. Art will go on, people and institutions and energy will always find ways to follow and support what artists do. The institutions that survive will be the ones that have the creativity to adapt to a changing world and the courage to see what art shows us.

Links! August 20, 2020

Ambient cinema. Instructions for how to make a “Very Slow Movie Player” using an e-ink display, a Raspberry Pi computer and a picture frame. I really want to do this.

There’s a new version of Microsoft Flight Simulator that uses a combination of Open Street Map data and AI to make a somewhat realistic rendering of the entire world. But there are a bunch of strange and funny errors. It turned Buckingham Palace into a bland office park. The Washington Monument is a skinny glass skyscraper in the middle of a field. A user error in the Open Street Map data caused there to be a 212 story skyscraper in middle of a Melbourne suburb.

My favorite Twitter bot is Every Census Tract, which is working its way through tweeting satellite images of every census tract in the US. It recently started doing Michigan alphabetically by county. One odd thing I’ve noticed is that any census tract with the number 9900 is just the water off the coast of nearby inhabited land. Not sure sure why. The water tracts have lovely shapes, however.

And finally, this 2015 sculpture by Trevor Paglen called Trinity Cube. It’s made out of irradiated glass from the Fukushima Exclusion Zone and Trinitite, the mineral created on July 16, 1945 when the United States exploded the world’s first atomic bomb. Paglen’s website explains, “Trinity Cube was created by melting these two forms of glass together into a cube, then installing the cube back into the Fukushima Exclusion Zone as part of the Don’t Follow the Wind project. The artwork will be viewable by the public when the Exclusion Zone opens again, anytime between 3 and 30,000 years from the present.”

Links! August 5, 2020

Lately I’ve been nostalgic for an older, slower, more curious version of the internet. Social media can really be an anxiety-inducing hell-scape. Then I thought, hey, those old forms online sharing and discourse never went away, even if they went out of style. I can make my little corner of the web however I want. Be the internet you wish to see in the world, or something.

So, here’s the first of what I hope will be many similar blog posts: links! Just stuff I found that I think you should see. Simple as that.

Here’s a very long and well-researched article about the Business Simulations division of Maxis Games in the 1990’s. Maxis made Sim City and other Sim games, and the Business Simulations division was set up to make custom software for corporations and foundations. Their most famous (or notorious) project was a game called Sim Refinery that let you run an oil refinery. It was commissioned by Chevron and there are no surviving copies.

An Etsy listing for a post-apocalyptic version of the LEGO City Street Creator Series Downtown Diner.

A good Twitter thread by Venkatesh Rao about how the future of Anglo (US/UK) culture is Neo-Victorian. Really helped me consider the ways we confuse freedom with performances of things that we think signify freedom. Not every culture works that way.

The Wikipedia page for hole is surprisingly interesting (not the band, the thing). It goes from talking about The Beatles’ song Day in the Life to this: “Holes have also been described as ‘ontologically parasitic’ because they can only exist as aspects of another object. The psychological concept of a hole as a physical object is taken to its logical extreme in the fictional concept of a portable hole, exemplified in role-playing games and characterized as a ‘hole’ that a person can carry with them, keep things in, and enter themselves as needed.” I love it when a D&D reference comes out of nowhere. Also, what other things are ontologically parasitic?

GPT-3 is the latest iteration of an artificial intelligence that collects an enormous corpus of online writing and finds patterns in order to answer questions and complete texts. It’s like autocomplete but it can write an entire essay, maybe more. It’s smart in ways that are kinda creepy. Here’s a good Twitter thread about it by Simon DeDeo.

Here’s an article about GPT-3 on The Verge which better explains what it is, how it works, and what lots of people are saying about it. “The dataset GPT-3 was trained on is … mammoth. It’s hard to estimate the total size, but we know that the entirety of the English Wikipedia, spanning some 6 million articles, makes up only 0.6 percent of its training data.” So it knows a little something about portable holes.

One last Twitter thread, this one by Keith Ammann, explaining how the D&D spell “Command” works differently depending on which language the players are using (not the fantasy characters, the actual people playing the game). The spell lets you command a subject with a single verb, but verbs can carry different implications depending on language.

Stone-Baked Sourdough Pita Bread

I recently got a book called Do: Wild Baking by Tom Herbert. It has lots of ideas and recipes for cooking outside in rustic conditions. One of the things he recommends is heating a flat stone on the coals of a campfire and cooking food directly on it. I decided to give it a try.

I was spending some time in Frankfort, Michigan, and I went to a rocky Lake Michigan beach the day after a thunderstorm. The waves were churning up all sorts of things, and I found a few promising rocks. Later at home I built a fire in my backyard pit and cooked some pita bread to go with white chicken chili, which I also cooked over the fire. Here’s how I did it, and what I learned along the way.

Lake Michigan near Frankfort, Michigan.

The process of making the dough began the night before. I took my sourdough starter out of the fridge and fed it, leaving it to rise at room temperature overnight.

The next morning I mixed the dough using the following ingredients:

White flour – 300g
Water – 210g
Salt – 6g
Starter – 60g
Olive Oil – 1 1/2 tsp

I mixed the flour and water first and let it hydrate for half an hour. Then I mixed the other ingredients and kneaded them together well for about ten minutes by hand. I covered the dough and left it in a warm place for several hours to bulk ferment. 30 minutes and then 60 minutes into the bulk ferment I gently stretch and fold the dough.

Just before starting the fire, I put the dough on a well floured surface and divided it into seven small balls. (I was going for eight, but ended up with seven in order to keep them the same size.) I put the balls on a pan, covered it with plastic wrap, and put it in the fridge.

Next I washed the stone really well with soap and water. After drying it I put a little olive oil on the cooking side, but this seemed to soak into the stone, so I’m not sure if it did anything.

I built my fire with rather small pieces of wood and fed it frequently. This is so the logs could break down into coals more quickly. I let it burn for maybe an hour. I left the stone in the fire pit next to the fire at this point so it could start to warm up.

I took the dough balls out of the fridge and rolled them into flat rounds with a rolling pin about 1/4 inch thick. I placed them on a well floured cutting board.

Back at the fire, I spread the hot coals evenly and placed the rock in the center. The remaining logs were pushed to the sides surrounding the rock. It was clear that the rock was taking a while to heat up and that the fire was dying too quickly, so I placed more logs around the stone so they could burn.

Cooking the flatbreads took longer than I thought, maybe 5 to 10 minutes each. Getting the dough on the stone was tricky. I used a spatula, but the dough needed a lot of flour so it didn’t stick to the spatula. Some folded and looked bad. I flipped and repositioned them with long tongs, usually wearing fire-proof gloves. The center of the stone was cooler than the edges, so the challenge was getting the middle of the dough cooked before burning the edges.

I found it helpful to fan the coals in between each bread in order to bring the temperature up. By the last few, the stone was finally hot enough to make the pitas puff up with a big bubble in the center.

We ate the pitas with white chicken chili cooked over the same fire in my cast iron Dutch oven. It was not a quick way to cook dinner, but it was delicious. The breads need to be eaten pretty much right away, they don’t keep very well, they get tough.

Next time I try it I might build the fire right on top of the stone so it has plenty of time to get really hot, particularly on top. Then when I’m ready to cook I’ll brush the logs and coals off of the stone. The stone cracked a bit as it cooled, so I might need to find another rock before trying again. Back to the beach…

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. 


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.