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


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’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


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


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.

Lolo the Donkey and the Avant-Garde That Never Was: Part 1

Note: This is part one of a three part series. All three parts were published on Michigan Quarterly Review. Part one, two, three.


Sunset Over the Adriatic

“Anything that’s in the world comes from something else, so everything is culture, or everything is nature, depending on how you wish to define these words.”

            -Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev

At the 1910 edition of the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, a messy, muddled painting of a sunset over the sea was exhibited. Titled Et le soleil s’endormit sur l’Adriatique (Sunset Over the Adriatic) (above), the picture was presented by the artist Joachim-Raphaël Boronali from Genoa, and was said to be a part of the “Excessivist” movement. The Excessivist movement did not exist, and neither did Boronali. Both were the invention of writer and critic Roland Dorgelès. Dorgelès and a few friends attached a paintbrush to the tail of a donkey named Lolo, a mascot and entertainer of sorts kept at a Montmartre bar called Le Lapin Agile.

boronali-lapin-agile-1Lolo the artist donkey is little more than a footnote in the history of Montmartre—filled with pranks, anarchist agitation, and ribald cabarets—and an even smaller blip in the history of the 20th century avant-garde art. The historical moment and various settings of this prank, Le Lapin Agile and the Salon des Indépendants in particular, were among the sites of radical transformation that forever changed the way art was created and viewed. What if Lolo was more than a footnote? What if the painting made by a donkey’s tail had been a turning point that set the trajectory of the entire history of art in the 20th century?

We only have the history we have, but in this series of blog posts I’m going to explore how things could have turned out differently. As is happens, there was a prank that radically altered the course of art history in the 20th century, but it was not Lolo the donkey, it was Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), a urinal turned on its back and signed with the pseudonym “R. Mutt”. A century later, contemporary art is still negotiating the implications of taking Duchamp’s joke seriously.

fountainGiven that the first few decades of the 20th century featured so many radical and inventive experiments questioning the nature of art, it’s worth considering what would have happened if a different joke had been taken seriously. Duchamp’s long shadow was not inevitable. It is only one of many possible historical trajectories whose certainty is an illusion propped up by randomness and social influence. Lolo the Donkey could have provided a framework for the 20th century avant-garde that would have been just as provocative and fruitful as Duchamp’s urinal, focused not on the artist’s ability to declare common objects to be art, but instead on the universality of the creative impulse among all creatures and abolishing the distinction between nature and culture.

Lolo’s World

Before we consider what an alternative avant-garde with a donkey for an idol might look like, we should better understand the context in which this prank was hatched. Jokes, after all, are as good an indication as any of the essence of a particular time and place.

The defeat of Napoleon III and the massacre at the Paris Commune in 1871 created a sense of malaise among the artistic and intellectual population of late 19th century Paris. This environment, particularly in Montmartre, proved fertile ground for experiments in art, theater, and poetry that dramatically reconsidered traditional, academic notions of beauty and artistic merit. In 1882 Jules Lévy began a series of exhibitions known as Arts Incohérents, featuring artwork by non-artists, use of unorthodox materials, and creative practitioners of all sorts operating outside their discipline. A series of dinners called Bon Bock became a platform for a new sense of French identity based on a combination of liberty and humor. This relishing of humor and rule breaking took on the name fumisme (1). Fumisme was a strategy of living, not just a style of humor. It was an approach to life that was politically incorrect, had no social agenda, and was meant to counteract the hypocrisy and pomposity of society.

AllaisThe Hydropathés, a regular meeting of artists and poets at a Montmartre cabaret, offered a democratic forum for art. A key figure in the group was Alphonse Allais, a poet, prankster and embodiment of fumisme who perpetrated a number of jokes that can now be read as precursors to conceptual art, including monochrome paintings and a score for a musical composition that consisted of complete silence. These lighthearted experiments were done in the 1880’s, decades before Kazimir Malevich and John Cage would repeat the gestures with a considerably more serious tone. The Hydropathés group went on to form the Salon des Indépendants, where Lolo would later make his artistic debut.

FreddyLolo belonged to Frédéric Gérard, the kindly and eccentric proprietor of Le Lapin Agile, a Montmartre cabaret frequented by artists and intellectuals. Le Lapin Agile was named Cabaret des Assassins until 1880, when André Gill painted a signboard for the establishment that featured an anthropomorphized rabbit jumping out of a pan while deftly balancing a bottle of wine on his paw. Regular customers then gave the cabaret the name Le Lapin Agile (The Agile Rabbit) as both a reference to the spritely creature, and wordplay on the artist’s name, lapin à Gill (French for “Gill’s rabbit”) (2).

lapin agileThe image was well loved among patrons, who adored it precisely because it was a low image. They liked that it couldn’t work in a formal academic setting. The countercultural attitude fomenting in Montmartre at the time made a point to elevate low culture like the signboard to masterpiece status as a way of registering disdain for the prevailing hierarchies of high culture (2). Gill’s signboard was painted at a time when there was heated debate about whether to give amnesty to the Communards (leftist revolutionaries of the Paris Commune) who had been deported to New Caledonia. There was a popular notion, depicted in contemporary cartoons, of native Caledonian cannibals waiting to eat exiled political prisoners. Depicting the rabbit in a pan, or “a la casserole” (in the pan, in the hot seat), along with a working class hat and a red bandana, was a subtle but pointed critique of the treatment of the Communards. A more overt statement would not have survived government censors. The image is cheery, but hides a threat to the prevailing hierarchy. It could be about revenge; perhaps this menacing little rabbit would cook you if the tables were turned (2).

It’s either a remarkable coincidence, or an example of a consistent brand of critical humor born at this particular cabaret, that Gill’s subversive and anthropomorphized sign hung at the very same spot where Lolo would paint Sunset Over the Adriatic years later. Comparing humans to animals and animals to humans is a fumiste tactic to make the point that no one should take themselves too seriously. SalisOthers used anthropomorphism as an absurdist gesture in Montmartre at the time. An 1882 illustration advertising the famous cabaret Le Chat Noir by proprietor Rodolphe Salis features an anthropomorphized cat and directly references Gill’s signboard in both the pose of the figure and the setting, with the Moulin de la Galette windmill in the upper left (1). Instead of a pan and a bottle of wine, the cat has a camera. There’s a line of anthropomorphized animals lined up in front of him, which includes, perhaps prophetically, a donkey. Le Chat Noir also prefigured the tactic of deliberate deception of the audience. Exaggeration, deception, and outright lies were all in the aesthetic toolbox of the fumistes. The journal produced by Le Chat Noir announced Salis’ death as a practical joke, duping earnest mourners into visiting the cabaret to pay their respects (1).

Tactics that employ playful and ethically questionable deception lay the groundwork for a divided notion of audience that runs from Salis, to Dorgelès and Lolo, to Duchamp, and on through to the present day. When an artwork doubles as a prank, or in-joke, who is the audience, exactly? Often, the audience can be divided into two groups. The first are the ones who are in on the joke, which could be specific to the artwork/prank at hand, or a more general sense of awareness of how notions of authorship and beauty have been upended. The second group is not in on the joke. They’re the earnest viewers looking for traditional notions of hard work and virtuosity they assume are the hallmarks of the true artist. For these traditionalists, an artist’s identity and accomplishments are supposed to form a clear line to the pleasurable experience of the viewer. What happened with Duchamp, and not Lolo or other art-pranks, was that the art world collectively decided to be in on the joke, and take its theoretical implications seriously. As we will see, things did not need to turn out this way, and the history that transpired led to a host of particular developments. This collective acceptance was not necessarily a mistake, but it was far from inevitable.

Meanwhile, the way art was being displayed was undergoing a series of upheavals. Formal academic salons still dominated in late 19th and early 20th centuries as places of commerce, patronage, and criticism. The values of aristocratic and bourgeois society were reflected in the beauty, harmony, and order of academic style paintings. In 1881 the state sanctioned salon was privatized and renamed Societé des Artistes francais. A small circle of artists judged the work, which was seen as the arbiter of French taste. As a reaction to the cloistered approach of the official salon, the Salon des Indépendants, a vehicle of the Societé des Artistes Indépendants, was created in 1884. Based on notions of freedom, independence, and individualism, there were no judges or juried awards, and the exhibition was theoretically open to anyone (3).

It was precisely this openness that Roland Dorgelès and his band of Lapin regulars intended to exploit. If the exhibition was open to anyone, why not a donkey? The prank also served as a pointed critique of Fauvism, which had just risen to prominence. Critic Louis Vauxcelles, upon seeing the Salon d’Automne in 1905, remarked, “Donatello au milieu des fauves!” (Donatello among the wild beasts!), referring to a Renaissance statue displayed among the radical new canvases. MatisseFauvism, as the movement came to be known, featured vibrant color and brushwork so bold it was compared to wild beasts. Matisse, considered the primary Fauvist, defined it as “the courage to return to the purity of means.” The Fauvists got rid of symbolist literary aesthetics, embraced bold color that no longer needed to describe reality, and chose subjects that elevated the chaotic beauty of nature (4).

It’s no accident that Lolo’s Sunset Over the Adriatic was created in the wake of Fauvism. Fauvism, more than any other movement of painting, is anthropomorphic. Artists were moving back toward nature, both in subject and approach. If Fauvism blurs the line between artists and wild beasts, Lolo pushes this idea to its extreme conclusion. Matisse’s talk of courage in finding a “purity of means” doesn’t seem very courageous compared to Dorgelès and Lolo’s gesture. If we want art to reconnect with natural processes, what could be more pure than eliminating the human artist altogether and letting the wild beast create?

Coming up in Part Two, Duchamp’s Game of Chance


1. Cate, Phillip Dennis and Mary Shaw. The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905

2. Weisberg, Gabriel P. Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture

3. Leighton, Patricia. The Liberation of Painting: Modernism and Anarchism in Avant-Guerre Paris

4. Arnason, H. H. and Marla F. Plather. History of Modern Art

Top Ten Exhibitions and Artworks I Saw in 2015

I traveled a fair amount this year, and I saw a lot of art. I thought it would be good to record the things that are still sticking with me. This is far from a definitive “best of ” list of major exhibitions, because even though I saw quite a bit, there is so, so much I missed (maybe I’ll see the new Whitney next year…)

These are listed in the order I saw them.

1.  On Kawara, Silence at Guggenheim Museum

One Million Years

I wrote a blog post about my experience as a volunteer reader for a performance of Kawara’s One Million Years that was part of this exhibition. It was certainly a top art experience of my life, not just the year. The whole show was excellent as well.

2. Tom Sachs: Boombox Retrospective 1999–2015 at The Contemporary Austin

Tom Sachs

This was an exhibition of functional boomboxes and speakers, constructed or heavily modified by Tom Sachs. When I visited there was a DJ set happening. Sachs uses common materials and tools to make obsessive, funny objects. It reminds me of the way my brother and I would modify action figures with saws and hot glue guns when we were kids, but Sachs is on another level. He draws heavily from design and the maker movement, which is surprisingly rare in contemporary sculpture.

3. Hito Steyerl, Factory of the Sun at the German Pavilion in the Venice Biennale

Hito Steyerl

I saw a lot of great work at the Venice Biennale, but this stands out. It’s pretty hard to describe, but I’ll give it a shot. The entire room is covered in a glowing grid that mimics a motion-capture studio. A video is playing about characters in gold lamé suits who are trapped in a video game, and all of their movements are used to generate sunlight. This is blended with an apparently real story of a girl whose Russian family emigrated to Canada, who’s brother makes dancing videos that went viral on YouTube. A sci-fi narrative emerges of a near-future where Deutsche Bank kills protesters with drones, and is working to accelerate the speed of light. Shooting a protester with drone is handled primarily as a PR problem. It’s funny, smart, and deeply weird. While the national pavilions are separate exhibitions from the main show–All The World’s Futures curated by Okwui Enwezor–Steyerl and Enwezor are both considering how capital and forced labor might operate in the 21st century. It’s a bit of an apples to oranges (artist to curator) comparison, but I think Steyerl did a much better job.

4. Mika Rottenberg, NoNoseKnows, at the Venice Biennale

Mika Rottenberg

Although the Steyerl was a standout, there were some wonderful moments in All The World’s Futures. My favorite was another work that used video and humor to explore politics of labor. Mika Rottenberg’s NoNoseKnows was an installation of shelves and tables filled with pearls. In the next room, a video plays that cuts together laborers extracting pearls from clams, while in the room above them a woman in a business suit sniffs bouquets of flowers. Her nose becomes irritated and long, like Pinocchio, and she sneezes out whole plates of food, which stack up around her. Among the pearl hunters in the room below, one young woman cranks a wheel that connects by a long belt to drive a fan that blows the scent and pollen from the flowers into the face of the long-nosed woman. There’s even more to it than that. Again, very weird, laugh out loud funny, but able to get me to consider notions of power, exploitation, and labor far better than the more dour works in the show.

5. Abu Bakarr Mansaray at Venice Biennale

Abu Bakarr Mansaray

(Apologies for the lousy photo) Mansaray is an artist from Sierra Leone who makes insanely detailed, dark, complicated, and sometimes hilarious drawings. There were dozens of them on display, depicting spaceships, weapons, and other war machines spewing scribbled blood. They reminded me of the drawings my brother and I did when we were kids, but taken to an extreme.

6.  International Pop at Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

International Pop

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with this show, but what I saw was a dynamic and funky exploration of how pop art manifested in all corners of the globe. I think it’s traveling, so hopefully I’ll catch it again.

7. Jenny Holzer, For the Garden at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park

Jenny Holzer

Holzer created 13 boulders engraved with passages of poetry for the new Japanese Gardens that opened at Meijer Gardens this year. They’re really hard to photograph, but stumbling upon these enigmatic phrases while wandering the garden is really delightful.

8. Burning Man, Black Rock City, Nevada

Burning Man

I went to Burning Man for the first time this year. There’s a lot more art there than I expected, it’s probably one of the biggest exhibitions of temporary sculpture anywhere. Some of it is wonderful, some not so much. The best artwork of all, however, is the event itself. I wrote a short piece for The Rapidian about how the event reveals a lot about how ideologies create and animate cities.

9. William Pope.L, The Beautiful, Art Basel Miami Public Sector

William Pope.L

Each year as a part of Art Basel Miami Beach, the fair installs a series of artworks in Collins Park, not far from the convention center. The work this year was pretty strong, I especially liked William Pope.L’s performance, The Beautiful. A band of men in Superman costumes with black face paint drag one another on skateboards through the park to a stage. There they sing America the Beautiful in careful harmony, undercut by glaring, dissonant electric guitars. The song repeats a number of times, then reaches a crescendo when the performers toss handfulls of crumpled up fake money, causing some in the crowd to jump to the ground to gather it. The performers walk off one by one, leaving only one singer repeating a line from the second verse, “Confirm thy soul in self-control,” over and over again. I had never really noticed that line before. Standing there, among the blitz of excessive consumption that is Art Basel Miami Beach, in the party-induced cloud of distraction that almost let me forget about things like Donald Trump campaign and the San Bernardino shooting happening in the rest of the county, it occurred to me that “Confirm thy soul in self-control” is about the worst way to describe 21st century America. The gap between what we aspire to be and what we are hit me like a punch in the gut.

10. Artist-Designed Acid Tabs at Rob Tufnell’s Booth at NADA Miami

Rob Tufnell

In addition to Art Basel Miami Beach, there are a number of satellite art fairs that run at the same time, showcasing emerging and alternative galleries and artists. NADA is always one of the best satellite fairs, and this year I was struck by a small booth belonging to a British gallery called Rob Tufnell. It featured a series of small framed works on paper, which on closer inspection I realized were artist-designed acid tabs, including big names like Laura Owens, Liam Gillick, and David Shrigley. Now, I don’t do acid, so I’m not into these some kind of fanboy. I like these so much because they got me thinking about how all art presents itself as offering the possibility of a personal, transformative experience. Art is never just a thing, it’s the effect the thing has on you. Art fairs are weird because pretty much everything you see is intended for another context, but you have to look at it crammed into a booth in an enormous convention center. So many dealers pushing their wares at once can seem crass and exploitative, not unlike a drug pusher promising a great trip.

Review: “They Come to Us Without a Word” Joan Jonas at the United States Pavilion, Venice Biennale

Joan Jonas

Among the dimly lit chambers of the United States Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale, Joan Jonas has placed several glass cases among her installation of videos, props, drawings, and mirrors. The glass cases don’t command much attention at first glance. Their shadowy interiors contain clippings, curios, handwritten notes, masks, and small natural specimens. One case features a cylinder made of an impossibly delicate latticework of white glass, no more than eight inches long, tapered and curved at one end. An adjacent handwritten note explains that the object is a Venus basket, the skeletal remains of a deep-water sponge whose body is a cage-like structure of glass filament. A pair of shrimp occupy each Venus basket in a symbiotic relationship, the note explains, eventually growing too large to escape through the holes in the lattice. They mate, and their tiny babies slip out of the cage, off to find their own mates in their own glass prisons.

Joan Jonas

This is one element of one small part of Jonas’ installation, but it cuts to the core of a theme that weaves through the entire pavilion: the poetic and vexing relationship we have to animals. Videos contain bees, buffalo, dogs, vintage footage of a girl riding a horse through water so deep that the animal seems to be struggling. The walls are lined with quick, expressive drawings in colored ink of birds, bees, and fish. Videos are projected onto screens made of raw wood, set at angles in the center of each room. The videos record children manipulating props, wearing simple costumes, and responding to instructions, often overlapped by still more projected video of animals, wooded landscapes, and other performers. The artist is in the videos, too, drawing, moving, walking, dancing. All the action in the videos lives somewhere between instruction, ritual, and instinct. No one in the videos, perhaps not even Jonas herself, seems to be conscious of exactly what they’re supposed to be doing. Jonas has managed to cultivate a method of making and acting that feels automatic, unmediated, and animal.

A quote from John Berger’s Why Look At Animals? is handwritten on a wall. He suggests that animals were the origin of metaphor. In other words, the first time we were able to conceive of our actions as narratives—with moral, spiritual, and social consequences—was when we learned to imagine animals as ourselves, and ourselves as animals. If this is true, that animals played a crucial role in the development of abstract thought, it presents a bewitching irony: Only by using animals to think outside ourselves were we able to draw a clear distinction between human kind and animal kind. Human exceptionalism is self-declared, after all.

Joan Jonas

Jonas’ installation confronts the murkiness of this human/animal distinction by occupying it. She creates and performs in animal masks, a practice spanning many cultures and millennia. Masks can reveal inner truths while adding external layers. They lend themselves to ritual. In a mask we can imagine acting within another body, another mind, or without what we consider a mind at all. Ritual is action with meaning but without thought. Jonas’ incessant, deliberate actions, layered and intermingled with the ritual and creative output of animals, puts humanity in a humbled position in relation to beasts. Acting, and not just thinking, is a way of knowing, and it may be that animals understand ritual far better than we do.

The national pavilions in the Venice Biennale vary widely in how deliberately they present their nation to an international audience. Some seem like a joint production of the ministries of culture and tourism, proudly touting national character, while others don’t seem to communicate national flavor at all. At first, Jonas’ installation seems to be in the latter camp, chosen because she is an accomplished late-career American artist, not because the work is about American-ness. “They Come to Us Without a Word,” is, however, very much about America. America, from a European point of view, began as an untamed, uncivilized, inhuman place. For the first European settlers perched on the Eastern shore of the continent, peering West into the darkness, America was more than just a stage for future ambitions. It was a place where nature still existed without culture, where new metaphors lay waiting to be acted out.

Reading On Kawara’s One Million Years at the Guggenheim

One Million Years
On Kawara, the conceptual artist whose work marked his own passage through time until his death last summer, has a retrospective on view at the Guggenheim Museum. I’ve always been a big fan of Kawara’s work ever since I encountered his “Today” series of paintings in an art history class in college. The paintings contain only the date on which they were painted in white letters on a solid background. I learned through a post on Hyperallergic that the Guggenheim retrospective would feature the work One Million Years, a piece that consists of binders filled with pages of years. One set includes years stretching one million years in the past, the other counts one million years into the future. When the work is exhibited, the institution is instructed to invite volunteers to read the years aloud in one hour shifts. They were looking for volunteers, and I noticed that one of the days where a reading would happen overlapped with a trip I had planned to New York. I emailed the museum, and first was told that all the slots that day were filled. Later, they told me a spot had opened up, so I took it.

Two days before my reading, I received an email with information and instructions. It included this background about the piece:

With the work One Million Years, Kawara opposes human awareness of the day, which conditions most of his other work, to an almost unimaginable measure of past and future time. One Million Years comprises twenty-four works, each made up of ten binders. Inside each binder are two hundred pages of text, each of which lists five hundred numbers. These numbers are in fact years, one hundred thousand per volume, one million per set. The works are divided into two groups, One Million Years: Past and One Million Years: Future, each respectively subtitled: “For all those who have lived and died” and “For the last one.” The Past works were created in 1970 and 1971, and their lists end with the year prior to which they were assembled; the Future works, produced between 1980 and 1998, begin with the year after they were made.

In 1993, on the occasion of an exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York, Kawara expanded One Million Years to encompass live and recorded readings, which allows the project to be both preserved and perpetuated through public recitation. Since then, the work has been the subject of live readings and recordings around the world. All readings follow the same format: readers appear in pairs, one male (who reads odd-number dates) and one female (who reads the even numbers). Each session begins where the previous one left off. Dates are read from both One Million Years: Past and One Million Years: Future and are always recited in English.

I arrived early and met the museum employee coordinating the readings, and the women who would read with me. I asked the employee if she wouldn’t mind hanging on to my phone during the reading and taking a few photos. She happily obliged, explaining that nearly every reader makes the same request. It’s odd, but before reporting to the museum I had given a lot of thought to the problem of how I would document the experience so I could share images on social media. I certainly would have done it even if I couldn’t get a photo of myself, but having an image of the act felt surprisingly crucial.

One Million Years

We were each given a binder with pages of numbers, a ruler, and a pencil. On the table there were two microphones, two glasses of water, and a small white Braun clock. The rulers and pencils were for keeping our place in the compact blocks of text. We placed the ruler under the line we were reading and crossed off each number as we went. This may seem excessive, but I’m sure we would have lost our place many times without these aides.

When critic Jerry Saltz wrote about participating as a reader when One Million Years was shown at David Zwirner Gallery in 2009, he talked about how an attendant would stop the readers and make them repeat a year if they made a mistake. They did not do this at Guggenheim. We definitely messed up several times and we were never corrected. My reading companion made a string of mistakes about five minutes into the hour. I’m fairly certain I made mistakes as well, but I don’t really remember them. As I developed a rhythm of reading, I began to say numbers aloud without fully listening to myself. Several times I felt I could sense the reverberation of an error having just left my mouth, but I wasn’t sure.

We were reading from One Million Years: Past. Our numbers began around 812,500 BC, and progressed forward in time, which meant the values diminished, to about 811,700 BC. One of the first things I noticed was that the first half of the number, “eight hundred twelve thousand…”, became much harder to say than the second part, “four hundred ninety-one BC,” for example, which changes more frequently. Something about the repetition made it harder to say and comprehend. The consistency required a lot more concentration than reading the revolving numbers of the lower decimal places. The more I heard myself say the words, “eight hundred twelve thousand,” the less sense they made. 812 is three digits, yet to speak it I had to say four words. The order of the numerals 812 represents a clear logical progression through decimal places, largest to smallest: 800,000, 10,000, 2,000. But the words jump all over the place: ones (“eight”), hundreds (“hundred”), tens (“twelve”), thousands (“thousand”). Reading the years forced me to think way more about this than I ever have before, and the more I thought about it, the more arbitrary it seemed.

Today series

Midway through, I recalled the subtitle of the work, which I hadn’t really considered before, “For all those who have lived and died”. Kawara’s work is about measuring time and particularly measuring life within time. His series of telegrams which bear only the message “I AM STILL ALIVE” are a particularly good example of this. The postcards, the date paintings, and other projects are also very much about death. In one obituary of Kawara (which I can’t seem to find now) the writer noted that in dying, Kawara completed the act that all of his work anticipated. The telegrams asserting that the artist is still alive also bear a shadow message, that one day the artist will no longer be alive. This notion of the artist reducing his own existence to the most atomic, essential binary—alive or dead—has always been one of Kawara’s great triumphs. Every artwork, from prehistoric women spitting paint to make hand shadows on cave walls to whatever you just posted to Instagram, all contains the most essential, irreducible message, “I am still alive.” And when you die, what you made will mark that you were once here.

One Million Years: Past is a little different, however. Unlike the telegrams and date paintings, the work is about a span of time, but it doesn’t mark time with its creation. Rather than marking the duration of his own life as he experienced it, Kawara is inviting us to contemplate an vast span of time, one that extends far beyond our lives. One million years in the past is at once a mind-boggling amount of time, but it’s also quite small, considered against the age of the planet and the universe. The Earth has existed for four and a half billion years, meaning that the most recent one million years (of which I read only a small fraction) account for only about 0.02% of all the time the planet has existed. If One Million Years: Past can help us comprehend how small we are in one slice of geologic time, it’s best to think of it as a stopping point on the way to understanding how truly vast time is. In the face of the thirteen billion year history of the universe, one million years starts to seem downright cozy.

As I read the years, I started to think about how each year represented a single trip of the Earth around the sun. In any climate, current or prehistoric, this trip produces a recognizable pattern of seasons. In nomadic and agrarian cultures, the rhythm of the orbit could be sensed, anticipated, and marked. I started to think about how each year contains two sets of people, those who were born and those who died. I thought of the scene in Vertigo where Kim Novak is looking at the rings on a slice of a giant redwood tree and she finds the ring representing the year she was born, then the ring corresponding to the year she died. These two groups of people, the births celebrated and the deaths mourned, are unknowable at a distance of 812,000 years in the past, but the numbers are still finite. I can’t imagine how we could ever calculate the figure, but some finite number of people were born in 812,491 BC, and some finite number of people died in 812,491 BC.


Among the class of births and deaths for each year of the deep past, our ancestors were there, scraping together a living, managing to have children. I started to think about these people, I felt gratitude for their persistence and mourned their loss. Then a thought hit me. They are ancestors, yes, but is “people” even the right term? Homo sapiens, our species of upright ape, emerged in Africa around 200,000 BC. The years I was reading occurred 600,000 years before we, in a genetic sense, even existed. Homo erectus were the ones walking the savanna in 812,000 BC, using tools, lighting fires, and caring for the young and weak. We have stone tools older than one million years, but the earliest cave paintings are only about 40,000 years old. When we consider our global family on the scale of one million years, we’re forced to expand the definition of “us” to include our fragmentary knowledge of beings in the dark recesses of history.

One Million Years binder

Every few lines I would look up at the cute little Braun clock. The time passed steadily. The sun was lowering over Central Park behind our backs and it beamed in through a large, wet window. My neck started to hurt, the small glass of water they gave me was empty. The museum employee approached our table and asked us to circle the last number we read, so the next readers would know where to begin.

One Million Years is distinct from many of Kawara’s other projects in that it’s designed to live on after his death. The date paintings, the telegrams, the postcards all have the built in terminus of the artist’s death. Those projects reached completion with his death in July, 2014. Readings of One Million Years, however, will continue, and we have no way of knowing how far into the future they will reach.

A ‘Plop’ for Diversity in Holland, Michigan

holland sculpture

On Wednesday MLive ran an article announcing that $100,000 has been raised for a permanent sculpture that will be placed along a busy road in Holland, Michigan. The 36 foot tall steel work by Dutch artist Cyril Lixenberg, titled New Dawn Rising is meant to symbolize diversity and unity, and is part of Holland’s “Celebrating Our Diversity” Public Art Project. The article quotes one of the main backers of the project, who says the objective is “to demonstrate our community’s understanding and support for diversity and inclusion.” A noble goal, to be sure, but as both an artwork and a demonstration of understanding, the project falls short.

Diversity is a rather charged subject when I think of Holland. Partly due to recent controversies concerning diversity and inclusion, but also its history. Holland was settled by Dutch immigrants, and their Dutch American ancestors fervently embrace Dutch culture and heritage. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s one of many great American immigrant stories, versions of which have been told time and again from Plymouth Rock to McAllen, Texas.

Full disclosure: I am a West Michigan native descended from Dutch immigrants, with extended family from Holland, Michigan. Tulip Time, the annual spring festival of Dutch Culture, and countless other reminders throughout the year, seem to carry the message of the half-joking line my Dutch grandfather used to say, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much!” It’s certainly possible to celebrate Dutch heritage without undertones of xenophobia, but I’m not convinced that this grand public art gesture pulls it off.

As the MLive article points out, Cyril Lixenberg is a Dutch artist. He makes fine work and has many West Michigan connections, including several pieces in the collection of Grand Valley State University. In one way, the choice of artist makes perfect sense. In another way, it limits the project to a symbolic, half-hearted gesture. In other contexts, the ethnicity of the artist might not matter, but in something called the “Celebrating Our Diversity” Public Art Project, it certainly does. They hope to raise $375,000 for this commission, a very respectable sum. They could have selected an artist from anywhere with any background to create a project celebrating the diversity of Holland, Michigan, and they chose one from… Holland. The selection of a Dutch artist seems to say, “We want to tell a story of diversity in our community, as long as the author of that story is still Dutch.” If they want to celebrate diversity, they should amplify diverse voices, not simply select diversity as a topic.

While I respect Lixenberg’s work (his prints are particularly nice), I just can’t get excited about another giant wavy piece of steel. New Dawn Rising looks like it will be monumental, symbolic, and frankly, boring. It fits nicely into the category of public art so common in the second half of the last century known as “plop art,” giant abstract forms that are plopped into their site with little regard for the architectural, social, or political context of the place. I’m a fan of abstract art, but the problem with abstract public art that’s supposed to convey a particular feel-good message, is that it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. Which is another way of saying it means nothing.

Holland is a place with a strong founding narrative that still reverberates in the city today. It’s an American tale of hardy pioneers seeking opportunity and carving out a home, and that’s wonderful. This story is still happening today, but settlers are not coming from the Netherlands, they’re coming Mexico and Central America. In the 2010 census, over 22% of Holland’s 33,000 people identified as Hispanic or Latino. The influx of new immigrants is an echo of the very same thing that brought Dutch immigrants generations ago.

The entire process of creating public art conveys meaning, not just the finished product. What a work of art says comes not only from its symbolism and representation, but the story of its creation, its materials, and the people making it possible. The process in Holland seems to be one of creating an art object about diversity, when the process itself should be an exploration of diversity. The result of that process would ultimately be more effective. The MLive article states that a diverse committee decided on the proposal, which is understandable. But too often committees selecting art have a way of weeding out risky and compelling proposals, and watering down the spirit of a project to a bland, palpable form. Curation by committee is a close cousin to design by committee.

The story of immigration is central to Holland’s identity. Shouldn’t a public art project celebrating diversity reflect the 21st century chapter of the immigrant story? There are quite enough vague steel sculptures by old white men. Holland can do better.

Review: Salvador Jiménez Flores’ “I Am Not Who You Think I Am”


Last week I wrote a brief, informal post about my first impressions of the Kendall MFA show, which is now on view. The post accurately conveyed my overall feeling after a cursory viewing, but it was hardly a considered review. I’m working to make time to dig into a few of the artists’ installations and write something with more substance. All the MFA grads should be very proud of what they accomplished, and they all produced work that’s worthy of serious consideration, even if the resulting critical positions aren’t always positive.

For his installation “I Am Not Who You Think I Am”, Salvador Jiménez Flores presents a series of fired clay mask self portraits hung in a line along two adjoining walls. There are fifteen masks on the walls, framed by painted strips mimicking Aztec frieze patterns rendered in a clay wash. Beneath each mask is a cursive inscription in clay wash, in Spanish, English, or some combination of the two.  There are also several small shelves topped by vitrines containing other small sculptures. In the center of the floor is a low pedestal with another clay mask, this one facing up amid a plane of clawed and mottled clay. From somewhere above the pedestal there’s a sound element, an echoey male voice on a loop that asks, “Who are you?” “Who am I?” and other simple questions about identity. There’s also a shelf with a vitrine that contains a stack of books, including The Location of Culture by Homi K. Bhabha, The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois, and Mixed Blessings by Lucy Lippard, among others, which seem to crush a clay depiction of the artist’s head.


The masks are the star of the show, and they are masterfully made. They seem to be the result of a casting process which is then altered and distorted by adding facial hair, embedding objects, cutting, other interventions. There’s a wide variety of glazes, paints, and other materials incorporated which give them an incredible range of color and texture, while maintaining an overall cohesion. The installation, the artist statement informs us, reflects Jiménez’s experience of dual identity as a Mexican-born artist in living in the United States. He thinks in two languages and experiences a sense of double consciousness. This is reflected in the masks, which are informed by both Mesoamerican and European traditions. They strike a balance between Aztec masks and Olmec heads on one hand, and European death masks and Classical busts on the other.

The masks are evocative, disturbing, and funny. Jiménez manages to tap into something very comedic by repeating the faces over and over, showing us both the variety of alterations, and the expressions depicted in each. We get the sense that he’s playing many different roles, and this one-man vaudeville show is an awful lot of work.


The works function both as masks–artifices meant to cover over the face–and as casts, a verbatim copy of the features of the face. Engaging the mask/cast duality is a brilliant move. He challenges us to figure out which inanimate depiction is the more truthful representation of the artist. Casts, on the one hand, benefit from a one-to-one transfer of features at scale. Each detail and each proportion transfers with all the rest. But the end result is a little too close to life without actually being alive. It ends up in the limbo of the uncanny, teasing us with the familiar recognition of a human face, only to push us to revulsion when its inanimate nature recalls a corpse. Tapping into the uncanny is a bit creepy, and it’s a big part of what makes the faces so successful.

A mask, on the other hand, seems at first to be the more artificial visage of the two. Constructed to adorn and obscure ones features, we’re in no danger of being tempted to see it as a real face. But in their artificiality, masks can reveal a lot more inner truth than bare flesh (or a direct copy of flesh). Masks reflect the fact that we always assemble and adorn a set of features to show ourselves to the world. Masks remind us that there is no version of ourselves that is not an artifice constructed of multiple parts, both by ourselves and others.

Overall, I think the masks work really well, but not everything in this installation works on so many levels, and even some masks seem to hold the others back. There are several aspects of the installation in which the theme of dual identity is made obvious to the point of being heavy-handed. The first culprit is the sound loop. I found it jarring in a bad way. A digital file is a stark and misplaced material contrast with all the rich clay surfaces and colors, this doesn’t feel like a place for looping digital audio files. And it doesn’t really add anything. The artist statement is well written, and even without that, an observant viewer can pick up that this is an exploration of identity, and that the artist is asking who he is, and by extension, imploring us to ask who we are. It’s all in the work, the question doesn’t need to be said aloud.


Similarly, the stack of books crushing the artist’s head seems a little too direct. It seems to illustrate, in a very obvious way, the anxiety caused by the fact that matters of cultural and racial identity are both personal and theoretical. We’re crushed under the weight of history and theory, literally. The mask with the word “trapped” inscribed beneath it is kind of obvious, the rest get us so much deeper without naming the condition so directly.

These elements are a bit like that moment in a movie when the main character says the title of the movie in a line of dialogue. It’s appropriate, but it also makes us squirm because it’s too obvious. The sudden recognition of this makes us aware of both what’s being communicated and the conscious attempt on the part of the artist to communicate it. In other words, we see not only what he’s doing, we see him trying to do it, and this has a way of undercutting communicative power of the work. In film terms, it breaks the suspension of disbelief. In the experience of exploring a visual art installation, I’m pulled from the depth of reflection into a space where I’m reminded that there is a Message here that I am expected to pick up.


I’m not saying that the work shouldn’t have meaning. What I’m saying is that the meaning needs to be communicated with balance and subtlety. If the work is about questioning identity and feeling trapped by identity, those ideas come across more strongly if they’re baked into the objects in such a way that I arrive at those concepts myself, through my own engagement with the work. The trouble with flat out saying “trapped” and “who are you?” is that it suggests that the artist doesn’t trust the viewer to arrive at these conclusions. The moments where this obviousness is troubling stand out precisely because the majority of the installation does not suffer this problem. By and large, the work contemplates identity, belief, ethnicity, and history with remarkable humor, mystery, and depth. There are only a few moments when it becomes heavy-handed, and these are all the more frustrating because the rest of the work operates so deftly.

Kendall 2014 MFA Thesis Exhibition: First Impressions

I saw the MFA Thesis Exhibition at Kendall yesterday. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time, but it really got me thinking, so I thought I should write down my first impressions. This is not a review. If I have time, I’d like to go back and give the work more time and dig into specifics. There were highlights and lowlights, and these impressions don’t apply to everything I saw.

Overall, I think these MFA grads are trying to make work that does way too much, and they end up getting in the way of themselves. I get the feeling that when these artists are presented with the choice to do either more less, they ALWAYS do more. More colors, more materials, more techniques, more metaphors, more narratives, more characters, more, more, more… The problem with this way of thinking is that these additions quickly succumb to diminishing returns. The work gets so overcrowded with multiple attempts at capital M Meaning that all the elements crowd one another out. I don’t feel I’m being invited to ponder something along with the artist. Instead, it feels like the artist is trying to prove to me they’re capable of working Hard to make something Important that Means Something.

Don’t do that.

Show me what’s unresolved. Show me where your curiosity led you and what you made along the way. Where does it lead that makes you afraid? Then what do you do? What happens when your plan fails? What happens when you cheat at your own game? How little work can you do to achieve the same effect? When you’re working really hard on an object, what are you neglecting? Why?

I think a lot of the work is built on a very traditional notion about what an artist is supposed to be. The artist, this work seems to say, is someone who makes things you cannot make in order to tell you things you do not know.

I want art that makes me curious about the world. Not art that makes me curious about art. I want to be perturbed, delighted, and jolted. I don’t really care about being impressed.

Do less! Focus on smaller things, edited actions, and unknown outcomes. A lot of the work feels like an intense, craft-heavy production of a Big Idea. I get the sense that a concentrated period of thinking precedes the production. An idea is formulated, then objects are made, in that order. I want to see thinking through making. I want to see thinking out loud in materials, not materials coerced into illustrating thoughts.

Note: This isn’t a particularly positive response, I know, but when artwork gets a critical response (positive or negative) that means it’s alive in the world, which is always better than being dead. Also, I should point out that I’m currently a masters student at Kendall, pursuing a MA in Visual and Critical Studies. Here’s a paper I wrote for a class I just completed. So in the spirit of healthy critique, have at it.

Note 2: I intentionally didn’t include photos in this post, because I worried that it would seem like these overall impressions applied mainly to the images I chose to include. When I visited I only photographed the work I liked, which is less guilty of the sins discussed.

First Person History – Social Imaging in the Euromaidan Protests and Beyond

Molotov seflie

With the rapid rise in popularity of image-based social networks such as Instagram, the production and dissemination of political content on social media is becoming an increasingly visual activity. Throughout the Arab Spring and subsequent political upheavals, images captured and shared through cell phones played a key role in the way protest movements conceive of themselves and project that image to the world.

Alongside this phenomenon, social imaging more broadly, including the much-discussed “selfie,” has burgeoned into an enormous new realm of visual culture. People are creating and sharing images of themselves, their experiences, and their friends at a volume that dwarfs what was enabled by previous amateur photography technologies. Social imaging is often an effort to articulate, contemplate, and share the identity of the photographer. This activity takes on new dimensions when the producers of social images are taking part in historic and violent events.

In conflict photography there was once a clear division between subject, photographer and viewer. Now, all three roles blend into one. A single actor in a revolutionary event will act as photographer, subject, and primary viewer of an image. The audience for these images consists of a network of others wearing the same three hats. When the main function of social images is the formation and communication of individual identity, how does this function change when these images double as historical documents? How is history written differently when it’s done instantly and self-reflexively, by the same people driving the historical events?

Taking a selfie during a revolution is not just a way of showing the world what’s happening, it’s a way of creating an image used to contemplate that reality for oneself, which is then shared and archived, allowing that contemplation to continue through socially and through memory.

protester seflie


On November 21, 2013, protesters took to streets in Kiev, Ukraine, angry that president Viktor Yanukovych abruptly decided against signing an Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement with the European Union. The move would have signaled continued Westernization for the former Soviet Bloc state. Instead, Yanukovych opted to strengthen ties to the East, with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The protesters, upset by a stagnant economy and widespread corruption, called for the resignation of Yanukovych.

The protests grew substantially on November 30 as a response to police violence. Protesters and police each claimed areas of Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), the main square of Kiev. The occasionally violent battles continued through the bitterly cold winter. In late February, violence escalated in the Square, Yanukovych and many of his supporters in parliament fled, allowing for opposition politicians to pass a series of reforms, effectively ending the standoff.

The protest came to be known as Euromaidan, a named coined on Twitter, which combines Euro- (for Europe) with Maidan (for the square). As with other recent protest movements, participants used social media to document and organize actions.

Around the time the Euromaiden protests were nearing their conclusion, I was experimenting with a web service called, and acronym for If This Then That. It allows users to create “recipes” that allow different web services to interact with each other. A trigger in one service causes an action in another. It’s often used to create automatic back-ups, or small efficiency improvements. I noticed that the Instagram trigger allowed you to collect photos based on the location where the photo was taken. This allows you to essentially follow a location on Instagram, rather than a person. You select a location on a map, and anytime someone takes an Instagram photo there, it triggers the IFTTT recipe. I made a recipe to collect all the Instagram photos taken in Independence Square in Kiev and save them to a Google spreadsheet.


Over the last several days of the protests, I collected thousands of images. In general the images fall into three categories. First, amateur photojournalism, photos that exist primarily to document the scene. These include photos of burning barricades, first aid efforts, damage to buildings, makeshift memorials for the dead, etc. The second type is propaganda. These images are often not photographs, but are drawings or other graphics supporting the cause of the protestors. These are captured because they were uploaded from Independence Square, so they bear the GPS signature. The final type of images are the ones of primary interest to me, social images. I define social images as images that communicate the user’s identity, narrative, and style. These images include selfies, self-portraits taken at an arms length, but they also include portraits of friends, visual narrative, and other explorations of aesthetic identity. An important function of social images is their ability to help the photographer contemplate, archive, and re-contemplate themselves and their surroundings. This function is always present, but it becomes even more crucial when the circumstances surrounding the image become historic, violent, or otherwise hard to come to terms with.

Euromaidan seflie

The Selfie

To better understand social images, lets take a closer look at the ultimate social image, the selfie. In an essay titled, “Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie” art critic Jerry Saltz defines and unpacks the form:

A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we’re doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching. Selfies have changed aspects of social interaction, body language, self-awareness, privacy, and humor, altering temporality, irony, and public behavior. It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history.

Saltz points out that while selfies are casual, they are not accidental. Each image must be reviewed before it’s uploaded. This moment between capturing and sharing allows for “control as well as the presence of performing, self-criticality, and irony.” Selfies typically contain a knowing glance, a look of simulated eye contact with the viewer. Saltz compares this to “methexis” in ancient Greek theater, when the performer addressed the audience directly.

Some of the most noteworthy selfies are taken in unusual or inappropriate circumstances. Selfies taken at funerals by teens are common enough to warrant a blog, Funeral Selfies, that does nothing but track the questionable images. Many other examples of selfies in inappropriate situations exist, including touring a gas chamber at Auschwitz, in front of a car crash, and with someone about to jump off a bridge visible over the subject/photographer’s shoulder.

Funeral seflie

The most famous, or infamous, funeral selfie has never been seen. We only have third party documentation of the moment it was taken. President Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt took a group selfie at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Saltz imagines the thoughts going through the heads of these world leaders as they snap this cheery and surreal photo. “It is totally incomprehensible, even to us, to be us … being here.”

These three world leaders, like the protesters in Independence Square, are writing both a personal and an historical narrative at once. In the moment, however, the weight of history only casts an uncanny shadow on the more immediate act of creating the image as a way of contemplating oneself in unbelievable circumstances.

I interviewed Alicia Eler, Selfie Columnist for Hyperallergic since June 2013. I asked her what she thought of my idea that selfies in war zones are first a tool of self-contemplation, and second a communication with the wider world. She said,

Selfies are recognizable as selfies, and those who take them in the middle of conflict zones do so as networked postcards. They at once appear as memories, documentary, and a quick hello, as if to say: ‘I was here. This is me.’ There’s a great selfie from the latest round of protests in Istanbul–protestors are thrown into the back of a van, and together they take a selfie that was instantly associated with Ellen’s academy awards corporate selfie because of the angle, the number of people in the photo, and the timing of both selfies. In this way, no matter where the selfie is taken–in the back of a protest van, at the academy awards, on a vacation, in a bathroom–it is more likely to be considered in relation to the composition of other selfies. And then the protest is against the selfie itself rather than what it captures.

If a selfie automatically situates itself in the wider context of other selfies, it’s worth expanding how this idea relates to social images more generally. Where else do social imaging and violent conflict intersect, and what can they tell us about the nature of each?

Rabih Mroué’s Pixelated Revolution

“The Syrian protestors are recording their own death.”

So begins a lecture/performance presented by Lebanese artist and actor Rabih Mroué presented in 2011 and 2012. Near the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Mroué found several clips on YouTube of protestors accidentally filming their own deaths. This was at a moment when the uprising in Syria was still viewed as the latest in a series of revolutions known as the Arab Spring. The violence captured in these videos was the very beginning of a long a brutal civil war that still rages today.

Rabih Mroué

The videos were taken because there was a sense that the crimes of the regime needed to be recorded, with the hope that president Bashar al-Assad would be held accountable. In one video, the cameraman stands on a balcony, franticly panning around in search of a soldier who is firing on nearby protesters. The video find the shooter, they share eye contact for a moment, then the image jerks wildly with a loud bang. Mroué calls the found videos “double shootings.”

One of the videos showcased and discussed by Mroué can be see here (warning, it is disturbing).

In the lecture, Mroué compares the aesthetic of double shooting videos to Dogme 95. Dogme 95 was an independent film movement that was active in Denmark in the mid 90’s. Filmmakers adhered to a strict set of guidelines, using very small budgets. Filmmakers eschewed special effects and other production techniques in favor of grit and veracity. The exchange of filming tactics among Syrian protesters operates as a parallel manifesto. In an interview, Mroué says,

[Dogme 95] stipulates that you should not record violent scenes, or weapons, because they don’t want to fake these things. So it’s not necessary to use them. For the Syrians, they add to this dictate insofar as the violent scenes being recorded are actually for real and the stipulation is also correct – do not record violence – insofar as the weapon could kill them and the scene of killing is thereafter real. There is no attempt to fake death here – it is all too real.

The Democratic Promise of Social Media

A persistent myth surrounding social media and political conflict since the beginning of the Arab Spring, or before, is that these technologies will have a democratizing effect. Once the world sees the actions of dictators through the eyes of the oppressed, the thinking goes, international condemnation and response will be swift and effective. This has not turned out to be true.

Social media is a propaganda tool that’s free for anyone to use. There’s no better reminder of this than the official Instagram account of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Widely considered to be a war criminal, Assad’s Instagram feed features political rallies, smiling diplomatic meetings in a lavish palace, and plenty of precious photos of the first lady performing humanitarian aid. Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Greenhouse considers the ethics of this banal and horrifying stream of images. She asks, “What does a social-media company do when a user known to be attacking civilians is blasting out feel-good content?” To find out, she asked Instagram. They refused to comment on specific users, but still managed to give a response with maddeningly circular logic. In general, Instagram will ban users who upload violent or hateful content. The determination is based largely on context, and “context” is limited to the content uploaded to the site. So as long as Assad’s Instagram feed presents the appearance of a benevolent and just leader—in other words, portrays effective propaganda—Instagram is just fine with it.

Social media as a democratizing force is also undercut by the way content can travel freely, even when it’s divorced from ideology. In the Washington Post, Neil Ketchley observes that revolutionaries share tactics through social media regardless of ideology. Recent Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Egypt have studied tactics of the Ukrainian protesters, despite the fact that their political affiliations couldn’t be more different. The Euromaidan protesters were fighting for increased Westernization and closer ties to Europe, while the Muslim Brotherhood is fighting for a return to power for Islamist leaders deposed by a more secular military. Ketchley quotes an anonymous Muslim Brotherhood protester, emphasis mine:

The Ukrainians know how to make big molotovs, so we watch how they use them and in which situations so that we can better defend ourselves against the police. We don’t care about the situation in Ukraine; we only hear a little about it on the news. But they know how to use molotovs to hold their square against the police.

Another revelatory example of social media use in war is the way the Israeli Defense Forces have recently used a number of platforms, including Instagram. A November 2012 assault on Gaza was documented in real time on multiple social media platforms. Updates came at each stage of the assault, announcing the killing of key enemy combatants, statistics on rocket strikes, and warnings to Palestinian civilians to avoid Hamas operatives for their own safety.

Huw Lemmey takes a critical look at IDF’s social media strategy, particularly Instagram, in his essay “Devastation in Meatspace.” This propaganda, like older examples, synthesizes a community that excludes others while protecting you, the intended viewer. Lemmey says the IDF employs a “visual regime based around firmly entrenched, conservative branding techniques.” Instagram has the dual effect of putting the war on a “consumer scale,” as well as positioning the conflict in a visual relationship with wars of the past through Instagram retro filters. The images don’t appear as raw digital evidence of the now. They are not the type of images that impress upon us the duty of deciding the moral culpability of those depicted. That work has already been done. The retro feel places the images safely in the historic narrative of the nation of Israel, alongside wars whose moral questions have already been settled. Lemmey characterizes the aesthetic of these images this way, “These are the photos you would take if you served in the IDF. We are just like you, and these military decisions are the ones you would take, if you were in our situation.”

IDF soldier on Instagram

Another tactic deployed by the IDF on Instagram is posting photos taken by individual soldiers going about their daily lives. They look sexy, fun, and hip. They suggest to the viewer, we can hang out, we can be friends, even if we don’t know each other, we should. The personal and political completely collapse into one. We’re no longer able to distinguish our feelings about what these soldiers are doing on a moral and geopolitical scale with who we think they are, and how fun it might be to hand out with them. Images of Palestinians, meanwhile, get further from us, less relatable, more other .

The Third Meaning

What distinguishes the IDF’s Instagram feed from my collection of all the Instagram photos taken in Independence Square during the final days of Euromaidan is the intentionality with which the images are created and shared. IDF’s Instagram is clearly propaganda. Some of the photos from Euromaidan are as well, but with others it’s hard to know. Who took these photos? Were they uploaded right away, or later? Who was the intended audience? If they conform to our idea of the recent narrative of Ukraine, who ensures that they tell the correct story, the photographer or the viewer?

Collecting and decontextualizing images in this way has a strange dual effect. On one hand, the conflict becomes very real, close, and almost personal. The rage and fear of the protesters becomes as genuine and immediate as everything else I see on Instragram, like my friends’ lunches and trips to the beach. On the other hand, this conflict is very far away and foreign. The images often seem raw and unfiltered, but also somehow conspicuously planned. They carry extra, incidental meanings. While employing smartphones to instantly capture, contemplate and share images of themselves in unbelievable circumstances, these photographers embed layers in these images beyond their intent and comprehension.

In Image Music Text, Roland Barthes identifies three ways images communicate meaning. The first is informational, the objects and people depicted. The second is symbolic. This is what the informational elements communicate through a shared understanding of the meaning of commonly interpreted signs. The third meaning is the obtuse meaning. This is similar to the symbolic meaning, but is open, incomplete, or perhaps broken. There is a sign, but we cannot give the signified a name. We can’t even be sure that it’s intentional. It’s the aspects of an image that point to meanings beyond language. Barthes talks about it this way,

The third meaning also seems to me greater than the pure, upright, secant, legal perpendicular of the narrative, it seems to open the field of meaning totally, that is infinitely. I even accept for the obtuse meaning the word’s pejorative connotation: the obtuse meaning appears to extend outside culture, knowledge, information; analytically, it has something derisory about it: opening out into the infinity of language…

Social Images from violent conflicts are most revealing in the aspects that are beyond their intended meaning. As they blend self-referential and documentary purposes, they gain an obtuse meaning that escapes the intention of the maker. This is because the intended audience of the images is the photographer herself and her social network, not history. They gain the third meaning when they become documents of greater historical and political significance. Signifiers that once pointed to some shared meaning are severed, giving the images an aura that comes from dislocation.