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A FEATURE INTERVIEW WITH CLAUDIA SCHMUCKLIMONICA WESTIN
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Uncanny Valley, an ambitious exhibition at the de Young, examines human-machine interface as it shifts from its original meaning within the context of 1970s visions of literal androids into complex networks of algorithms and surveillance. In the words of Claudia Schmuckli, Curator-in-Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the exhibition is meant to reflect us back to ourselves in the form of cryptic “statistical montages.” The show is sweeping both physically and intellectually, taking up emerging visual vocabularies of AI, data-mining, labor, and models of swarm intelligence. Deeply critical and engaged both with technology and the culture around it, Uncanny Valley offers a trenchant perspective on our current human-tech assemblages. I spoke with Schmuckli about the show’s background and inspiration, the changing metaphors for intelligence, and how the terms of the human are being redefined.
Monica Westin: You’ve been living in San Francisco for three years now, and you seem to have been thinking about this show since you arrived.
Claudia Schmuckli: Yes, pretty much! At the time I moved here I was thinking more about how research within the field of artificial intelligence and artificial life might result in developments that we can’t yet imagine. This original line of thinking was very much inspired by the precarious conditions that we are facing environmentally—thinking about climate change and potential survivalist tools, as well as the rather distressing prospect of seeking refuge on other planets. How to confront this future was something that was very much in the forefront of my mind, and I thought there might be solutions within the intersection of artificial life and artificial intelligence, without knowing what they could or should be. That’s where my curiosity was a few years ago, and I started researching artists who were working at that intersection. But then the political reshuffling of the world, with elections increasingly influenced by operative forms of artificial intelligence—or social media, really—made me refocus on AI in its current operative forms rather than its speculative future.
Even before the 2016 presidential elections it was readily apparent that social media played a significant role within the political rearrangement of societies across the globe. I just kept thinking about why it was so effective. That was the jumping-off point for this exhibition: to understand “AI” as we know it now—I use AI with implicit quotation marks because, of course, what we’re talking about primarily are forms of machine learning, which in the public mind have become synonymous with AI. As I was trying to develop programmatic strategies for both institutions, the de Young and the Legion of Honor, that were grounded in each museum’s history and identity and collections and sites, including architecture, this exhibition was a project that was always on the horizon, but I knew it probably wouldn’t happen overnight because it needed research.
MW: It’s tempting to draw a parallel between the curatorial work that most people in San Francisco know you for, which are contemporary art exhibitions that intervene with the permanent collection at the Legion of Honor, and this exhibition as an intervention with San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and tech as you found it. Do you think any of the strategies cross over?
CS: That’s a really great way to think about it. I was very interested in this environment and in a critical unpacking of the cultural and economic conditions that define San Francisco, because it is such a unique and exciting but also highly problematic environment. It’s unlike any other city in the United States at this particular moment. I was, and am, very interested in reflecting on the regional conditions and modalities that define this ecosystem, which is so particular. I did some of that in a very different way with the collection when I curated Specters of Disruption
at the de Young: A collection presentation divided into five chapters that tried to draw out regional symptoms, defining characteristics of this area, in terms of nature, culture, technology, history, and art history. I was working with a historical collection and making it resonate in the present, and trying to unpack some of these questions that I had: “Where did I move to? What is this environment? What informs how it has been shaped and why?”
Uncanny Valley is definitely in line with that investigation...although one could argue that artificial intelligence, and the research and development of it, is certainly not limited to Silicon Valley. But it is still very much grounded in this area, even though we have seen “silicon alleys” springing up in different cities around the United States and around the globe, for example with China taking on an increasingly important role in the development of their own AI systems. But as we think of the future of AI we are still talking to a great extent about both the capital and the creative energy that resides here on the peninsula. So yes, the uncanny valley is also Silicon Valley. The show’s title implies that association without spelling it out.
MW: As someone who works on a large tech campus, I spend a lot of time noticing how the company I work for, Google, designs spaces to make things feel a certain way to its workers. How did you think about architecture, both at the tech campus and in the de Young, literally as well as in terms of tech infrastructure?
CS: Certain aspects of the de Young have an occasional visual blending of indoor and outdoor spaces, something that is very prevalent on tech campuses. Zach Blas’ The Doors
deals with this quite explicitly. There is a culture of integrating an interior garden into the larger structure of a tech campus that is essential, it seems, to an understanding of labor and play, and the conflation thereof—or one might even say the inversion thereof, the positioning of labor as play and play as labor that is very much part of the corporate culture in the tech industry. And this embrace of fake nature—nature that is being incorporated into an architectural structure—prevents you from going out. The attempt to incorporate every necessary aspect of life within a tech company’s architectural space is fundamental to the erosion of the boundary of work and life that I’m interested in. That is very much at play in terms of how AI operates.
Zach’s work very specifically deals with these architectural components as it conflates the glass corridors of Silicon Valley with the Mojave Desert, including fake plants and nootropics in projects that address the indebtedness to 1960s counterculture, along with the reformulation of certain rituals and attitudes—which at the time were all geared towards opening your mind and enhancing your spiritual capacities—in view of basically creating a better and stronger labor force. So that’s why his piece both literally and metaphorically acts as the portal to the Uncanny Valley. This work is also the only one in the gallery where you actually can see an interior garden through glass, so it always had to be adjacent.
Outside there is Pierre Huyghe’s Exomind (Deep Water)
, which is the only sculpture that lives outdoors in the sculpture garden itself (unveiled when the bees have moved in in May). One of the things it offers is a metaphor for the externalization of an idea of intelligence that is not necessarily limited to an understanding of human intelligence. It asks questions about forms of intelligence, how we think about them and how we define them.
It also visualizes very concretely a tendency within the machine-learning world to model algorithms or forms of intelligences on natural processes. In the early 2000s there was a tsunami of natural metaphors for algorithms that were drawn from the animal world and that referenced forms of collective intelligence, and within that, primarily swarm intelligence, whether termites or bees or flocks of birds. It’s come under a bit of ridicule since because it was so predominant, but there are a couple of algorithms like these that have proven to be very useful and applicable. Historically, there has been a tendency in the engineering world to think about and model artificial intelligence on natural forms of intelligence, and Huyghe’s work speaks to that.
Agnieszka Kurant is the other artist who clearly speaks to that, with her termite mounds
. The show also includes her liquid crystal paintings, which operate like heat maps. They take stock of social energy from very particular sources, in this case an algorithm that tracks hashtag activity of different activist movements. The algorithm charts this activity and then translates it into liquid crystal movements that give you a sense of the social energy on the Internet. And then of course her termite mounds offer a nice segue into Simon Denny because it talks about artificial artificial intelligence (AAI) as a form of ghost labor that is hidden within the idea of the automaton—the Mechanical Turk in this case. And of course, the exploitative strategies behind it…
With Simon Denny—because you asked about the architecture of the cage—it’s less about the architecture than the Amazon cage
becoming a container for a sort of contemporary canary in a coal mine. The Thornbill cage becomes an elegy about the environmental costs of the digital economy, which when taken to the extreme, can lead to our demise. Of course, it also talks to the dehumanizing conditions of automated labor which also ties it back to exploitative platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk.
MW: When you were talking about artificial life at the beginning of our conversation, it made me think about the excitement around bioart that had a similar moment. Do you see Uncanny Valley as a historical moment, either in terms of the way that we’re conceptualizing what it is and what it means, or even more literally? If I’m thinking about the uncanny valley in terms of the space between “I know this is a person” and “I know this isn’t”—
CS: Which is the 1970s definition.
MW: Yes, exactly. Is tech going to get good enough, smooth enough, that there isn’t any kind of uncanny valley, real or metaphorical? Is the uncanny valley a historical metaphor?
CS: I’m riffing on it as a historical term while trying to redefine it for the present. I took this phrase as a metaphorical point of departure because it allows for many associations: from the uncanny in the realm of aesthetics and the uncanny valley within technology to the valley as a geographical marker for Silicon Valley and the valley of gradient descent, a common optimizing algorithm. All these references are being meshed up and recombined in many ways in this exhibition. I’ve used it as a tool for thinking about our current reality.
The only work in the show that really addresses and embodies the uncanny valley as we know it from the ’70s, which has dominated the representation of the machine-human relationship in the 20th century, is Stephanie Dinkins’ Bina48
. The argument I’m making here is that AI is redefining the terms with which we relate to machines in general, and also redefining the terms with which we think and imagine this human-machine relationship, which through most of the 20th century has been defined by the concepts of the uncanny and the uncanny valley. If you think about the uncanny valley as we know it historically, it’s about questions of resemblance, both physical and intellectual, and it happens in an experiential realm of looking and confronting a physical object, a humanoid robot or a thinking machine that mimics our intellectual capacities. Whereas I would argue that the contemporary uncanny valley, whose crevices and borders we’re just now exploring and trying to understand, we’re dealing with invisible mechanisms. These digital alter egos, what I call statistical montages that reflect a version of ourselves back to us, and whose exact compositions we cannot fully understand or grasp—
MW: Because it’s all private intellectual property—
CS: Right! To return to your question about this being a historical moment: I would hesitate to call it that because I feel we’re just at the beginning of something that we are only starting to comprehend. This show has no ambition to be definitive in any way, shape, or form. Truly what it wants to do is ask a set of open-ended questions without claiming to have all the answers.
I obviously want to lay bare some of the conditions and mechanisms and more immediate consequences that we can see—that we are capable of at the moment. But fundamentally it’s really a show that asks the philosophical question about what it means to be human in the age of AI: How are the terms of humanism being redefined? Are they actually being redefined? I’m not sure. As this kind of inquiry, it’s not a closed circuit, though it certainly captures a moment in time in which we are starting to think about ourselves in the world in very different ways than we did in the 20th century.
Image 1: Pierre Huyghe, Exomind (Deep water), 2017, Concrete cast with wax hive, bee colony. Courtesy of the artist; Marian Goodman Gallery, New York; Hauser & Wirth, London; Esther Schipper, Berlin; Chantal Crousel, Paris; Taro Nasu, Tokyo; and The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Image 2: Installation view of Zach Blas, "The Doors" in "Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI" at the de Young museum.
Image 3: Installation view of Agnieszka Kurant A.A.I. 2017 in Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI at the de Young museum in SF. Courtesy Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.
Image 4: Still of Stephanie Dinkins, "Conversations with Bina48", 2014-present. Courtesy the artist.
All photography by Gary Sexton and images from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
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DAWOUD BEY: AN AMERICAN PROJECTJODI ROBERTS
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Dawoud Bey’s photography bears a heavy weight. From the start of his career in the 1970s, Bey has used his camera to grapple with arguably the thorniest issues in photography’s history. Focused on race and identity in the United States, his work confronts the dynamics of power at the heart of photographic representation. Bey wrestles with the problem of giving image to the past and its persistent mark on the present, and he shines a light on the role institutions play in codifying faulty historical narratives. Dawoud Bey: An American Project at SFMOMA pays respect to a photographer who is at once a master of his medium, an incisive critic of its limitations, and a powerful advocate for photography as a means of social change.
The exhibition introduces Bey’s major bodies of work and emphasizes his profoundly humanist approach. Rather than unfolding chronologically, the show juxtaposes major series, cutting across time to highlight the continuities within his work as well as the evolution of his thinking. Images from the series "Harlem, U.S.A." (started in 1975), for example, hang in eyeshot of the more recent "Harlem Redux" (2015). Started while Bey was in his early 20s, the former project launched his career. At the time, Harlem was not only the undisputed capital of Black American life but also the artist’s home. Comprised principally of portraits of neighborhood residents, the series marks Bey as an heir to documentary greats like Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava (a major influence). Bey’s intense search for empathetic exchange is manifest in his subjects’ unguarded poses and candid looks into the camera’s lens—early evidence of the artist’s desire to create equity between photographer and subject. The focus on human interconnectedness in "Harlem, U.S.A." renders the conspicuous absence of faces and bodies in "Harlem Redux" disquietingly poignant. Rendered in saturated color, the series pictures Harlem’s physical transformation under the pressures of gentrification. Training his eye on abandoned buildings and new, innocuous commercial architecture, Bey captures a neighborhood gutted of the human vitality and cultural specificity that for more than a century gave Harlem life.
Bey doubled down on reciprocity with his sitters in "Class Pictures" (started in the 1990s), a series of portraits of American teenagers, many of them hailing from minority communities. Shot in rich color and framed with a tight focus on the sitter’s face and torso, the images not only capture a figure’s unique physical traits but also his or her individual style and personality. A short text from each sitter appends his or her portrait. In giving his subjects a literal voice, Bey allows the teenagers to construct their own identity, a rare privilege for a population denied the visibility and autonomy of adulthood. "Class Pictures" hangs in dialogue with other large-scale color portraits. Made with a cumbersome 20 x 24 inch Polaroid, these pictures monumentalize the artist’s friends and young people he met while traveling. Often young people of color, these are not the faces and bodies typically associated with power or celebrated within museum walls.
The collaborative process that animates so much of Bey’s portraiture was in many ways impossible to maintain in the last two series in the exhibition, "Night Coming Tenderly, Black" (2017) and "The Birmingham Project" (2012). Inarguably the stars of the show, both series address major lacunae in the record of American history, imaginatively giving image to that which cannot be seen. "Night Coming Tenderly, Black" addresses the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of passages and safe spots that enabled escaped slaves to travel north to freedom before the Civil War. The Underground Railroad’s exact makeup remains a mystery, as secrecy was vital to its efficacy. Bey’s photographs—monumental prints rendered in strikingly dark shades of grey—provide an affective analogy for the experience of moving along its routes. The series suggests possible structures and landscapes seen by travelers as they moved toward freedom. Searching these dark prints brings to mind the experience of thousands of African Americans who worked to make sense of unfamiliar terrains as they fled.
Substitution, rather than creative re-imagining, is the strategy at play in "The Birmingham Project." The series commemorates the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. The Ku Klux Klan attack killed four young girls and wounded twenty-two others. Bey’s meditation on the bombing pairs a young person, the same age as one of the victims, with a man or woman in his or her 50s, the age the victims would be had they survived. The resulting double portraits remind us of the innocence of the victims, their lost potential and unfulfilled experiences. Here, the presence of two individuals only underscores the absence of the one lost. Bey’s insight is a crucial one, not only for our conception of the bombing, but also our understanding of a world increasingly awash in photographic imagery. Photography’s quick processing time and easy circulation may make possible a fuller, more complex visual representation of American life. In the hands of the right artist it can also redress lapses in our historical memory and crucial gaps in our visual knowledge.
Dawoud Bey: An American Project is organized by Corey Keller of the San Francisco Museum of Art and Elisabeth Sherman of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Image: Dawoud Bey, Three Women at a parade, Harlem, NY, from the series Harlem, U.S.A., 1978; courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery, Stephen Daiter Gallery, and Rena Bransten Gallery.
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SYLVIA FEIN: MATRIX 275 AT BAMPFA GLEN HELFAND
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At the age of 100, Sylvia Fein continues to engage a steady, vibrant—and sometimes literal—dialog with her medium. In her intimate retrospective exhibition of thirty-five works, The Painting Told Me What to Do
(2012) is perhaps the show’s most colorful and emphatic image. Its four vertical forms are flaming and tree-like, growing from the ground with spindly, dark trunks subsumed by pinkish-red strokes. The title suggests an artist in a trance, and a vision that flows and flows.
The works range from 1946 to 2018; all are egg tempera, Fein’s only medium, with which she creates various levels of density, from thin washes to built-up texture. Replete with otherworldly landscapes, most of the paintings are inflected with a surrealist’s edge and some mystical whimsy—comparisons could be drawn to Leonora Carrington’s moody convocations and David Huffman’s abstract outer space-scapes. Fein’s work, however, exudes a quirky wholesomeness. She did her undergrad studies at the University of Wisconsin in the 1940s, putting her amongst a group of artists who were dubbed the “Surrealists of the Midwest.” In 1951 she earned her MFA at UC Berkeley, and she’s lived in Martinez since about that time, the art-world equivalent of being off the grid.
These locations are instructive. Her View of the Valley (1956), depicting a barely developed Martinez, is a pint-size panorama of craggy mounds, green and spiky in the background, ruddy clay-red in the foreground. This landscape is somewhat inhospitable, yet atop stairs cut into the hillside there is a blue-green female figure sitting with a standard poodle. These figures have expressions of contentment, friendly beings surveying a vista dotted with orchards, silos, pavilions, and possibility. Just over fifty years later, Fein’s Martinez, CA (2007), is a murkier vision, with craggy, barren trees punctuating pale grayish-green rolling hills. One of those hills has an eye. What it, and Fein, see in this landscape is not the social observation of over-development, but something barren, a California winter with just a wisp of green. It is a psychological view, the winter of one’s life.
Paintings that feature cat eyes—or a fusion of cat and human eyes, as seen in the 2005 Cat’s Eye—recur, and channel the irresistibility of feline imagery. Two Kitties in the Garden and Kitty in the Garden (both 2005) are adorably weird, with round cat eyes burning out of a densely patterned camouflage that nearly obscures the animal faces. The cuteness of the goggling eyes is balanced by ocular occult overtones. Irises become floating planets in the surrealist dreamscape Musical Sky Eyes (2010), hovering somewhere between the celestial and terrestrial; the elements are suspended in murky green spaces that also evoke a field of seaweed. There are descriptively titled paintings such as Dandelion Eye (2009) and Kite Eye (or Eye Kite) (2006) that suggest the mystical, though the artist has described making these works as a “fun and thrilling experience.”
Fein’s work was reintroduced to the Bay Area with a 2014 survey at Oakland’s Krowswork, an exhibition that included more figurative paintings and an intimate video interview with the artist. The BAM exhibition, while compact, is a welcome centennial birthday celebration for Fein, and a gift to viewers. The appeal of Fein’s work here is her vision and her perseverance. On the wall, they tell us what to do: look, feel, wonder.
Image: Sylvia Fein, Kite Eye (or Eye Kite), 2006. Egg tempera on gesso board. Board: 5 x 7 in. (12.7 x 17.8 cm) Frame: 9 ½ x 11 ½ in. (24.1 x 29.2 cm)
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ESTRIPENTOPOLIS DE DAMIAN ORTEGA
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"El camino hacia arriba y hacia abajo es uno solo y el mismo."
Una mitología de nadie
Las esculturas y objetos de Damián Ortega que se exhiben en la galería Adrian Rosenfeld de San Francisco en colaboración con la galería mexicana Kurimanzutto agrupadas bajo el título Estridentópolis, constituyen un conjunto de interrogantes sobre la materia concreta de lo real: qué y cómo las cosas.
En la sala principal se levantan siete estructuras intrincadas bajo la forma de Tótems zoomórficos que incorporan la efigie o el patrón de algún famoso rascacielos animalizado. Así, la Torre de Control del parque olímpico de Komazawa aparece con cabeza de perro, semblante sacerdotal negro y brazos tensos como la caricaturesca plegaria del férvido Cornholio. Las torres de Bertrand Goldberg en Marina City —Wilco Towers— se elevan con cabeza de cocodrilo y brazos flexionados al cielo, opuestas a curiosas manos liliputienses, en tonos verdes, azules y rojos. El Empire State con la cabecilla inclinada de un burro y las patas plegadas a sus costados, una postura que transmite resignación, en azules, verdes y algún rojo. La figura de un gorila encabeza el cuerpo del célebre Habitat 67 de Moshe Safdie, con una actitud tipo Transformer, la estructura rojinegra está en modo de ataque con los puños doblados. Los departamentos Kanchanjunga de Charles Correa en Bombay, visten a un toro amenazante, calzando sandalias simples como plataforma, con cinta verde pegada sobre su contorno adornando. El edificio Chrysler es intervenido por un rinoceronte desafiante, lleva una cruz azul como parche sobre el ojo y su cuerpo tiene los brazos cruzados. Finalmente, en la cima del edificio Taipei 101, hay una cabeza de tigre anaranjada, y en medio de un rugido feroz se cierra un círculo sobre un pedestal geométrico igual a la base que lo mantiene firme en el suelo.
En cada una de las piezas, el cartón y el papel son tratados como si fueran bloques de piedra con los que se construyen pirámides, ídolos, pagodas, o como la piel misma que recubre el cuerpo interior de todo animal.
En la biblioteca de la galería, que funciona como recepción, también hay varias piezas minúsculas colocadas entre los libros. Representan a los rascacielos totémicos, a juguetes a escala hechos de papel aluminio, con siluetas en miniatura. Además, vemos una camisa, unos guantes, un huipil y unos zapatos de papel con los logos de las grandes cementeras impresos, cuyo marco cuelga sobre las paredes como una variación del mismo tema, repitiendo las marcas sobre un papel arrugado, o las figuras construidas a partir de elementos gráficos de la publicidad, collages con patrones experimentales, esquemas abstractos, módulos cromáticos, papiros entretejidos y hasta juegos con referencias a la obra de Lybov Popova.
La suma de las piezas es una especie de revalorización de los elementos industriales con un nuevo costo en el mercado y una utilidad dentro de un juego de espejos que refleja a distintos protagonistas discursivos. El conjunto alegórico sobrepone —copia y pega— tres caminos semánticos diferentes: la arquitectura de los rascacielos urbanos, la atracción intensa al Tótem animal y la exploración metodológica de materiales como cartón, papel, madera y bolsas de cemento.
Los tótems encarnan la relación sagrada entre una cosa y su grupo, cuya consecuencia fundamental es la prohibición de la ingesta animal, o en el caso de estas construcciones icónicas, el retraso en su demolición dentro de la memoria arquitectónica colectiva.
Freud hablaba de que ciertos grupos asumen un nombre animal, se tatúan, comparten, creen y recrean un origen en común. Estas esculturas erguidas al ser tensadas buscan rascar-el-cielo, entre ejes y verandas cromáticas, como santos de El Greco que se estiran hasta perder su propia forma en el intento de rasgar las nubes. Cada construcción es digna de pertenecer a un culto globalizado y cosmopolita: una marca, una empresa, una iglesia o un partido político. Dominantes y poderosos, los cultos convocan a un lugar en donde acudimos perplejos, sin saber muy bien qué hacer alrededor de estas bestias portentosas.
Pero un Tótem funciona también como una manera de nombrar. Es la revelación de una identidad a través de la naturaleza animal, un modo secreto, o por lo menos no explicito, de decir algo y acumular los deseos que se reúnen para pronunciarlos hasta que también quede prohibido murmurar el nombre que les dio su origen sincopado.
La senda de lo urbano
Aunque en la exposición no hay referencias explicitas al contexto de las estructuras, el trabajo asume el tejido epistemológico citadino como un prisma privilegiado donde se cumple el sentido de los proyectos y las interpretaciones de sus vértices.
Las reconstrucciones de lo ultramoderno mezclan componentes disímbolos donde la cuadratura se entrecruza y se vuelve parte del mosaico que todo lo engulle y urbaniza para ser renovado constantemente. Ciudades como Puebla, Jalapa y el Distrito Federal fueron la escenografía del estridentismo: “el grito de las torres en zancadas de radio” (List Arzubide), “fatigamos los gritos del combate urbano, y hemos puesto vertical el asombro” (Maples Arce) y “florecerán las ciudades nuevas en la ruta oceánica, bajo el pavor de los arcos voltáicos” (Arqueles Vela).
Estridentópolis es una exploración emocional de geografías a veces absurdas y vertiginosas, es la sede de una multitud anidada en la ambigüedad de la utopía colectiva, frecuentemente ubicada en fracasos irrepetibles pero constantes, que han sido la causa de un florecimiento cíclico, de cada nueva perspectiva, de cada nueva vanguardia que regenera otro futuro, hasta entonces impronunciable.
Es la recreación de lo urbano como consecuencia de la armonía de los contrarios, como un pacto entre dos fuerzas opuestas: el pasado y el futuro, lo vivo y lo inerte, la piel y el concreto, lo humano y lo animal que se fusionan de nuevo, y también lo orgánico dentro de lo inorgánico.
Es la modernización urbana como una incursión dentro de un cuerpo diseccionado que se mecaniza y automatiza cada vez más, que es intervenido por dispositivos tecnológicos que a la vez lo expanden y encasillan en las celdas que le corresponden. Es la ciudad como lugar en donde se reúne lo popular y lo refinado, lugar donde se encuentra la masificación de los productos y se cumple el propio cuestionamiento de los procesos de producción masiva.
Deconstrucción crítica para ver lo que no vemos, para mirar de nuevo o revisar el conjunto de prejuicios del sentido común absolutista, ese que llama al pan, ‘pan’ y al vino, ‘vino’. Como si las cosas —entre otras, este lenguaje que transmite ideas cuyo origen se encuentra, supongo, en actividades neurológicas dentro de la oscura interioridad cóncava de mi cabeza— fueran una, simple, unitaria, terminada e inmóvil visión, dogmáticamente establecida como un credo, como las leyes de la física que no existen o el motor eterno al que aludió Aristóteles.
En cada yuxtaposición y en cada palimpsesto se esconde un significado, algún sentido, así como una emoción imaginada y las huellas de una civilización en donde el material dicta cada forma. También existe una fauna de gestos, propios de la mercadotecnia popular y por ello, plenamente capaz de regenerar sus propios mitos, culminando en varias derivas inesperadas, en irradiaciones que iluminan los andamios interiores que nos recubren y descubren.
El cosmos funge como una posible reconfiguración de las cosas y su manipulación para jugar con ellas y así transformar al mundo donde también es posible existir llenos de humor y alegorías. El mismo impulso romántico —la misma magia— surrealista y de vanguardia es el que reacciona ante la industrialización desde sus propios elementos constitutivos para reencantarlos y reacomodarlos en un nuevo orden, en donde queden liberados los sentidos que habían sido atrapados bajo un modo de producción y dominio que envuelve, ahoga y desencanta a las intuiciones sin clemencia.
Estridentópolis abrió el pasado 16 de noviembre y cierra el 25 de enero del año próximo. Es la segunda colaboración entre la galería Kurimanzutto y una galería en la ciudad de San Francisco. La primera con Jessica Silverman (´from here to there´, 2016), y en esta ocasión con Adrian Rosenfeld.
También celebro que el trabajo de artistas mexicanos llegue a la ciudad de San Francisco, una pólis que se juega el alma todos los días en una batalla desigual que expulsa a los artistas, a la cultura y a los trabajadores de sus calles.
La colaboración también es testimonio de la creciente relevancia que tiene México en el mercado y el gusto internacional. La Ciudad de México sigue siendo el DF que continuamente se descubre a distancia, en los trabajos que, entre otros, presenta en esta ocasión Damián Ortega.
Edited by Tatiana Lipkes.
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MAKING THINGS MEMORABLE
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Elisheva Biernoff, At Home
, 2014. Acrylic on plywood, diptych, 3.5 x 3.375 in. each
For the past five years, Elisheva Biernoff has been intensely—painstakingly—focused on the small stuff. Her meticulously painted small-scale works recreate scenes from found photographs, snapshots that were lost or tossed aside by their original owners. Occasionally, a discarded postcard also makes its way into the mix. The precision of Biernoff’s painting is astonishing. Each stroke is laid down so exactly that viewers often need a second take to confirm her images’ status as paintings. Early on, to help with this verification process, magnifying lenses accompanied a few of her miniscule compositions. Even the versos of Biernoff’s works are painted to mimic the photo-lab imprints stamped on the back of her source materials. This degree of attention to detail comes at a price: In the artist’s estimation, each work requires at least three months to finish.
Flaws stemming from the processes of analog photography also make their way into the paintings. Light leaks, exposure errors, incorrect focus, and off-kilter framing, among other technical problems, are faithfully reproduced in acrylic paint. In the process, they are turned into mysterious anomalies that beg the question, “What happened there?” Unraveling the mysteries of a Biernoff painting, however, is more than an issue of visual analysis—it’s also an emotional journey. Exploring one of these entrancing images prompts a meditation on time: on the time required to make it, but also on the moments that have been captured, instances that have slipped into the realm of foggy memory. It’s easy to get lost in a haze of happy nostalgia when considering one of Biernoff’s recent works. They elicit empathy for the regular folks that are pictured. They recall the excitement of developing analog film or getting hand-addressed pictures in the mail. Their physicality evokes a longing for the simple but now-rare pleasure of holding a photograph in one’s hand.
These works trace a rich and diverse lineage. In the 1970s, photorealist painters like Richard Estes and Chuck Close also reproduced photographs with remarkable fidelity, although the magnified scale of their works, and their focus on the peculiarities of lens-aided vision, stand apart from Biernoff’s approach. Her embrace of photographic errors aligns Biernoff with a range of modern and contemporary pioneers, from Man Ray to Zoe Leonard, who similarly exploited the formal possibilities of mistakes. The intimacy of Biernoff’s works, combined with their singularity as paintings, might even conjure comparisons to daguerreotypes, a 19th-century technology that has experienced a revival recently, as contemporary artists have plumbed photography’s earliest history. Among the many artists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries who have played the formal traits of painting and photography off one another, finding fertile ground at their intersection, Biernoff holds her own.
Yet it’s an emotional charge—that sense of longing for people, places, and things missing or far away, of wanting to remember a fleeting moment perfectly—that seems to animate Biernoff most powerfully. In artist statements she describes herself as a storyteller focused on “unlocking individual histories” in images that together create “a brief and subjective history of how we picture the world.” The stories Biernoff tells, even when about ostensibly heroic characters, focus on the most relatable, and poignantly mundane, aspects of those figures’ interior lives.
This guiding impulse has proved productive. After earning her BA at Yale, Biernoff headed west to complete an MFA at San Francisco’s California College of the Arts. She caught the attention of Bay Area critics with a 2010 solo show at Triple Base Gallery, a two-story multimedia installation that in part mimicked common architectural forms in a state of disrepair. Most commentary on the show lingered on the details, such as the handcrafted, uncannily accurate reproductions of fallen leaves, tissues, gum wrappers, and other flotsam that Biernoff had scattered on the floor. Here too, fascination with the work’s trompe l’oeil verisimilitude soon gave way to moving recollections of neglected objects and ill-maintained spaces. On Artforum.com, critic Glen Helfand likened the installation to an “immersive elegy,” a “seductive setting within which to ponder the visual splendor of collapse.” A year later, Biernoff’s contributions to a group exhibition at Eli Ridgway Gallery included an enclosure in which eighty slides of majestic landscapes were projected onto fog from a humidifier. Cogent and legible for only a moment, the experience offered a jolt of excitement at the moment of identification, along with a reminder of how we take such sites for granted, even as we lament their increasingly imperiled state.
Blurring the distinction between emotions stirred by the natural world and those associated with people seems to come instinctively to Biernoff. Her Last Postcard series (2009–2011), completed after intense research, seamlessly blends two competing sensations associated with travel: the awe and curiosity inspired by far-flung sites and the desire to be close to those left behind. Adopting the voice of real-life explorers, Biernoff composes the final handwritten notes sent home before their disappearance or death. The lives of the people Biernoff invokes in the series are at once tragic and inspiring, but it’s the ostensive recipients of the postcards—those left to grieve with only thin paper documentation of the writer’s last days—that are the heart of the matter.
The topics Biernoff tackles in her work are big: global exploration, climactic crises, failures of urban upkeep, the faultiness of memory, the deficiency of reproductive media like photography to capture the richness of our day-to-day. Her strategy for accessing these big ideas is to call attention to that which is usually overlooked and undervalued. In Biernoff’s view, ephemera—discarded pictures and images, detritus strewn in corners, short notes written to friends and family—is what really tells the story of our lives. In focusing on the minute and the humble, Biernoff aligns herself with a dominant ethic of modern and contemporary art since dada. But unlike the many artists before her who found new ways to bring the stuff of the everyday into the space of the gallery, she recreates it with an uncanny degree of care. With a keen eye and ample artistic dexterity, Biernoff has found her own mode for making the mundane memorable.
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INTIMATE DISTANCES/DISTANT INTIMACIES: COLTER JACOBSEN’S “HOUR FAULT”
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Colter Jacobsen, Down time with Act Up, 2019. Graphite on paper, 7 x 8 1/2 in.
The first work that catches my eye at Colter Jacobsen: hour fault
is a small graphite drawing, hung without a frame, depicting an intimate gathering between several closely-huddled men. In this candid moment, I see their hands stray from the cold beers set before them and instead find them around waists and shoulders—intertwined, as though they, together, are one. Below this drawing, Jacobsen hangs the original photograph in verso, revealing both a scrawled inscription that places the gathering as an ACT UP London meeting, and dark smudges that accumulate this historical weight like dust.
As a young queer historian, I immediately think about the young ACT UP activists that took to the streets in the late 1980s, and cannot help but see their fervor echoed in our current political situation. Silence equals death, ACT UP activists would shout and emblazon upon their shirts and signs as they fought for recognition in the eyes of a state that refused to acknowledge the AIDS crisis. Their cry to be heard in defiance of these silences has found recent spiritual successors in direct actions by Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the Climate Strike, and many more—magnified by the machinery of social media, which promises that even the quietest expressions can be amplified to a mass audience.
Colter Jacobsen, Who sat on mountain tops in cars reading books aloud to canyons, 2013. Watercolor on found paper, 11 x 15 in.
But what does it mean that this drawing, titled Down time with Act UP, embodies such silence—rather than combats it? The ephemeral strokes that comprise the drawing appear as though they could fade away and out of our grasp at any moment, saturating this scene of communion with a curious loneliness. Those depicted in the work fail to meet us with their gazes, hushing their already-compromised voices. In the other works in hour fault, Jacobsen opts for a similar sparseness. For his drawings, Jacobsen overlays flimsy, often salvaged paper with light washes and delicate marks that leave much of the substrate in reserve. Other than Down time with Act UP, the subjects that Jacobsen illustrates are largely unidentified and remain unexplained—repeated marks, geometric emblems, photorealistic hands, household items, and scenic vistas, whose significance is known only by few. For his forays into other forms, Jacobsen gathers littered objects, abandoned photographs, and printed fragments, but often leaves these castoffs forlorn and solitary, rather than collage them into chaotic unison.
Colter Jacobsen, memory w/o words (after Dorsky), 2018. Graphite and watercolor on paper, 15 3/4 x 18 ¾ in.
During times of political urgency, our anxious desire for change may internalize such “down time” as a betrayal to “wokeness”—construing these silences as failures which ensure that the marginalized remain marginal. However, Jacobsen seems to find solace in silence, rather than a cold and deathly emptiness. His 2018 drawing memory w/o words (after Dorsky) evokes this sensibility not only in the speechlessness admitted in the title, but in the ovular shapes scattered across the faded, ocean-green backdrop. These flowering clusters seem to recall protozoan organisms, invisible to the naked eye but striving to take recognizable form. Through these inchoate, microscopic beings, Jacobsen holds out the hope that absence is not a mere lack, but something generative—a marvelous space wherein something is born, rather than destroyed. This interpretation of emptiness reflects the Buddhist tenets embedded in postwar Bay Area spiritual life, echoed also in the mandala-like figures that recur throughout the exhibition.
Colter Jacobsen, NOW (I), 2018. Watercolor on paper, 17 3/4 x 14 3/4 in.
“Can I draw the invisible connections between us?” Jacobsen muses in the exhibition statement for hour fault. The ungraspable, he contends, does not preclude intimacy. In bouquet for k (2019), Jacobsen delicately paints a vase filled with flowers set next to a folded envelope. The intended recipient for these gifts is listed only by an initial, as though the name were coded or erased. Although viewers have been left outside this secret exchange, the warmth contained by this dispatch still may to seep through to them. Likewise, in his 2008 To Pass…, Jacobsen uses correction fluid to redact a page from a newspaper, halting these transmissions into sputtered murmurs—and yet, the arbitrary phrases and forsaken images left on the effaced print do not just deteriorate into static. The occasional signal reaches us, almost as if by accident. The lone phrase “There, there” that Jacobsen juxtaposes above a dining table with two empty seats provides a strange comfort, resonating deep within a cavernous loneliness. Through these invisible connections, I am reminded of the so-called progressive American liberal discourse surrounding the proverbial “closet,” which portrays “staying in” as repressive and “coming out” as emancipatory. As a rejoinder to this fetish for disclosure, Jacobsen offers love letters written with invisible ink. Loneliness can be deceiving.
Colter Jacobsen, To Pass...., 2008. Correction fluid on paper, 21 x 23.8 in.
By thwarting our capacity to know and to recognize, Jacobsen opens perception up beyond fixation. In Walking stains, a set of photographs picturing wet imprints made by a vanished body, Jacobsen challenges our mastery as viewers, confronting us with a sitter that has managed to slip away unbeholden. The exhibition in its entirety seems to trade in slipperiness—not only in the watercolor campaigns that flow throughout its works, but also in its very name, “hour fault,” which slides from one meaning to the next through wordplay. These works remind us that complete comprehension will always remain elusive, just as the exhibition title seems to call us out for blame. Jacobsen softens direct gazes into glances, blurring our vision like the fog that slides in from across the Golden Gate Bridge. In this interstitial space, the world becomes sheer potential—a utopia perhaps more radical than “wokeness” could ever imagine.
As I emerge from my vaporous trance and return to my body, I lament that hour fault is but a momentary encounter. But then, I look to the mandala figures—which Jacobsen fashions by rotating the word “now” with the O as its center—and realize that the most beautiful things are never meant to last. Maybe Jacobsen intended for the incredibly narrow two-week window during which the exhibition is on view to impart this valuable lesson. I tiptoe out of the gallery, careful not to break the silence.
Colter Jacobsen, The End (Casper the Friendly Ghost), 2015. Paper collage, 10 x 8 in.
Colter Jacobsen: hour fault was on view from September 3–September 18, 2019 at
Anglim Gilbert Gallery, San Francisco.
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REVIEW: BUREAU OF AESTHETICS AT KADIST
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Judging by what’s installed in Kadist’s street-facing windows, Bureau of Aesthetics
appears at first to be an exhibition about Bay Area community engagement. A monitor loops a video by Sanctuary City Project (organized by San Francisco artists Sergio De La Torre and Chris Treggiari), repeating the phrase “UN / DOCUMENTED / UN / AFRAID” alongside text in the window noting ironically that the current director of ICE comes from an immigrant family fleeing systemic poverty. Other windows display broadsheets and ephemera from two radical Bay Area newspapers, the Slingshot Collective's quarterly Slingshot
and the Coalition on Homelessness’ Street Sheet
. Beginning with these specific responses to social crises in the city of San Francisco, the exhibition opens out into more formal and abstract questions about infrastructure, networks, and visibility within art-world systems.
Inside, Bureau of Aesthetics is largely a show of work by Native Art Department International (NADI), an artist duo comprised of Maria Hupfield and Jason Lujan (the exhibition is co-curated by Kadist and Kadist's current resident, the artist-centered Toronto nonprofit Mercer Union). NADI chose to exhibit work made with regular collaborators, and to bring other collectives into the conversation by inviting them to add zines, artwork, and publications to a temporary library. These texts, which line a bookshelf near the building’s entrance, proffer a range of arguments and aesthetic approaches like a warm and energetic (if somewhat chaotic) chorus. As a result, Bureau of Aesthetics feels like an open-ended, spontaneous, and layered dialogue; and the ways that such configurations might be organized is one of the show’s underlying questions.
Themes of structure, collaborative action, and interpretation weave throughout NADI’s work here. The first piece sets the scene: Double Shift (2018), a two-person sweatshirt from a previous collaboration, forces the performers to coordinate their movements—in other words, to organize—in order to move forward. Other sculptures are specifically about frameworks and underpinnings in a literal sense, like Construction (2019), which nearly fills one gallery with wooden partitions that seem designed to display art but are covered in mylar blankets, those reflective beacons of emergency.
The text-heaviness of the window displays is echoed in the last gallery by videos that question legibility in its most pejorative sense, as a kind of too-easy interpretation that supports reductive thought; this “war against essentialism” has long been part of NADI's explicit mission statement. There Is No Them and Now; Only Is and Is Not is a 2018 video made by NADI and artist Dennis Redmoon Darkeem. It splices together footage of Darkeem performing a traditional ceremonial dance with typewritten text describing his frustrations with white audiences who say he doesn’t look Native American to them. The impossibility of seeing the artist is reflected formally in the cinematography: Darkeem’s movements are filmed in close-up shots, so that the viewer can only see parts of him, never his whole figure at once. The structural positioning of the viewer suggests alternatives to easy consumption and judgment, and the piece offers a disciplined complication to the formats that so often allow a scene like this to be flattened or reduced.
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WWWW, WOODY DE OTHELLOBY MEGAN STEINMAN
Woody de Othello, Cool Installation, 2019. Art Basel Miami Beach.
Woody de Othello (b. 1991 Miami, Florida) works in paint and clay. His large, ceramic sculptures transform the shapes of outmoded technologies like rotary phones, typewriters, and swamp coolers into anthropomorphic “beings” with high-gloss surfaces upon which viewers might reflect their own memories and emotions.
de Othello moved to the Bay Area in 2014 as an MFA student at California College of the Arts. In five short years, he has graduated, joined the roster at Jessica Silverman Gallery, been selected for Yerba Buena Center for the Art’s 2018 Bay Area Now exhibition, and installed three bronze statues in the International Terminal at SFO. His first solo show in New York opened on June 27, 2019, at Karma Gallery, and his first solo museum presentation will be on view November 2019 through April 2020 at the San Jose Museum of Art.
Over the course of a studio visit in Richmond, Frieze’s debut weekend in Los Angeles, and a Google doc, de Othello and Megan Steinman, independent curator and director of The Underground Museum, dug into the dimensions of de Othello's work. Inspired by the W in Woody’s first name, the questions were formed by the classic interrogatory sequence of who, what, why, where, and how.
Megan Steinman: Let’s talk about clay. It’s an incredible material to work with: totally temperamental, and reveals every touch.
Clay is having a resurgence in functional design and sculpture. How did you come to this medium, and what makes you continue with it?
What should we know about clay?
Woody de Othello: Not to come across as cheesy or anything, but clay really speaks to my spirit. I feel like it connects me to my ancestors. In undergrad I took a hand-building elective by chance, and the physical sensations I had when pinching and pressing the clay, observing how my hand immediately affected the material...I remember having this overwhelming feeling that everything I needed to know about my past and future was held in the clay. Since that day I've never looked back. Clay is one of the most important things that drives me forward.
I think that clay is a very trying material, it humbles you, makes you slow down and think. It has its own life force and is very reactionary to the atmosphere—not only environmental factors, but what you bring to it. Sometimes I'm in awe at how revealing it is, how it holds its own energy. At other times it's as if I'm an alchemist, conjuring and manipulating an object from a lump of nothing into something that has a presence.
MS: Your sculptures make me think of the novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (which later became the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classic Stalker). In the novel, extraterrestrials have visited Earth and left behind a toxic wasteland that holds clues to their existence in the form of alien tools and technology, but the beings themselves are long gone. There’s a haunting that surrounds the archeological digs and rogue looting of this site where a crew of inter-planetary travelers made, in essence, a pit-stop. The heart of the novel is about the ephemera of life: the collections of stuff and situations that mark our own time on Earth.
Could we hover in this thinking for a moment? All good science fiction is really about the conditions in which it was created. Likewise, your sculptures and sculpted environments contain found objects, and they function as found objects themselves. From where or when do your objects come? Where is their origin, and where do they belong? I also wonder what your sculptures are meant to tell us about our current time and technology? Archeologically speaking, what can we learn from them?
WdO: I have been attempting to pin down some internal logic to the aspects of the origin, the time referenced, the type of objects that I choose to manipulate, and why, and there are several methodologies and processes that I can point to.
I think about the phenomenology of objects, why we choose the objects that inhabit our most intimate spaces and what happens if these objects begin to take on some of the stresses and psychology of their owners. In this climate, it may be easier to be empathetic towards something inanimate versus another human, I like to think that my works call attention to that.
There's also the logic of labor in the work, thinking about how it feels to be overworked and underpaid, just getting by, month by month, and the amount of debt that forces a lot of us to work to ensure tomorrow. This is something I observed growing up, and am also experiencingnow. The idea of security is dead, all of us are living precariously, and I try to infuse this energy into the objects. Formally, a lot of my work does have this slumpy, sunken, almost bent, tired feeling, this all is about exhaustion. Part of me is hopeful that the objects I create can act as a placeholder for all these negative emotions, so I don't have to live with them in my own life. I'm starting to think of them as a contemporary version of Nkisi dolls, cathartic.
The types of objects I like to reference can be considered obsolete or dead. This how ideas of memento mori manifest. We don't like to be in the past because of what history holds, we're stuck on trying to move forward. I think these objects are a subtle jab, like if you can remember this old landline phone and how it preceded the iPhone, why can't you make a connection with other notions that have happened historically?
I like the tension that ceramics conjures materially, there's always a tension with precious objects that might fall over. I think that makes ceramics very human.
MS: In addition to galleries and museums, you’ve exhibited in apartments, hotel rooms, and San Francisco International Airport. How does each environment affect your objects?
With “where” in mind, let’s also talk about the Bay Area. We always hear about artists and art collectives leaving, it's all true, but there are many who stay. You seem to have created a very supportive network for your practice. Why did you choose the Bay Area, and why do you stay?
If there was something that the city could provide for its artists, what would that be? Where should artists gather for communing, collaborating, commiserating and generally keeping the Bay Area creative together?
WdO: Textures like carpeting, wood flooring, molding, and colored walls add their qualities to the work and give it a different type of spirit—it's context that helps situate the work within a narrative. I do get more excited to show in a unique space like an apartment or a hotel room because it becomes a response and collaboration that way.
In regards to moving to the Bay, CCA was the first pull for me. In undergrad I would go to ceramics conferences, and when I looked at the juried student exhibitions, I was always drawn to the work coming out of CCA. Upon further investigation I was really attracted to how interdisciplinary the department was, it seemed like the ceramics department was pushing the material in ways I wasn't necessarily allowed to in the past. Mixed media and exploration were encouraged.
I stay here for the support and pace of life. Working with Jessica Silverman is a huge reason to stay, and things kind of fell into place. Upon graduating I received a residency at one of CCA's College Avenue galleries and one of my friends asked me to split an old car shop in Richmond[as a studio]. I also have a pretty sweet deal on rent, which really helps. I can really get behind the politics here and the advocacy for mental welfare and self-care, and being able to drive about an hour away to escape the city is pretty perfect. Can't complain the slightest amount.
In terms of something the city can provide, not only for artists but for a lot of people here in the Bay, is cheaper rent. I'm sure that's not possible, but rent can't continue to increase without wages going up as well. That's the scary part about living here, but it's a problem that any city has these days.
The Bay is small enough that whenever you go out you're likely to run into someone you know,which is nice. I'm part of a group of artists into sports, so we meet up to watch a game somewhere. Also you'll run into folks going to shows and supporting local musicians. Like any other city, openings are the primary places where creatives link up.
MS: When you create an object whose use value requires another human to complete its transaction—I’m thinking here of your phones, doors, or the Genie Pot Neti Pot with a genie finger that both selects you for wishes and clears your nose—is there someone you imagine on the other end? Someone you’d like to answer that phone or door? Someone who actually inhabits the rooms and worlds you create?
WdO: I've been thinking about this idea of reflection, both on a metaphorical level and on a very formal level. I've been thinking about the glaze and surfaces as a way to explore this idea of reflection in the works, to literally see yourself in them. I do feel the viewer is necessary to complete the works. I think one of the things that drives me to use these everyday items is for viewers to assess their own relationship to these objects. I've always adored surrealism for this reason, because it challenges the everyday.
The idea behind the a/c unit, space heaters, and fans is really one that ties to this idea of breath, it's just a subtle, indirect way to think about something we probably take for granted. The neti pot was actually the first iteration of this thought process, thinking about my relationship to allergies and taking for granted all the times I'm able to properly breathe through both nostrils.
The phones follow a similar logic. The first iteration entitled I Can See You, But I Don't Hear Youacknowledges that there is a person on the other line. My thought was of a bill collector—at the time I was getting a lot of spam calls about student loan forgiveness and lower rates—but it's still this dialogue with oneself: Do I pick up and confront this, or do I choose to ignore it? The doors pertain to access on a personal level. A lot of sculptures I make that reference entry relate to a lack of access, being closed off, the other isn't too essential but the why one does not have access to it is.
I think it all ties back to this confrontation, this reflection of oneself.
MS: Following is a list of artists who seem to orbit your practice:-
This is not to say that any of the artists on the list is a one-to-one comparison; rather, elements of each of their practices, their own whys and hows, form a mound of clay ready for you to sculpt into your own vision.
Would you agree with this list, and why? Any additions you’d like to make, and why?
If you had a dream three-person group show, who else would be in it, and why?
WdO: Yeah, this is spot on. I would add some painters, like Jacob Lawrence, Robert Colescott,and probably Edward Burra. I think a trait all these artists share is a meditation on the mundane, transforming things that we take for granted, and providing a lens to question, rethink, and reimagine. I'm primarily a fan of Guston and Jacob Lawrence because of their styles, the artist'shand is so prevalent in the work, whenever you encounter their work it's undeniably their work. I remember first encountering a Guston painting and feeling his presence, it was as if he just walked away and was about to come back to the canvas to work some more. I think Robert Gober is very humorous, but in the humor holds a lot of pain and seriousness, it's a delicate balance.
For the three-person show, I'd definitely want to be in one with Lawrence and Guston. They can occupy the wall space, and I can make sculptures in response to the wall works, maybe even create an installation for the works to exist in. I also describe their works as this social realism, I think that's where I situate myself, the zone of being very human, very vulnerable and emotional.
MS: How are you? It’s been some time since we saw each other last, so I’d really love to know!
WdO: I've been excellent. This is probably the most clear-headed and focused I've ever been. It's a really busy but exciting time.
I've also been doing a lot of personal work and growth, too. I've been making space to be heard, to be a bit more vulnerable and emotional which has been significant for me. It's really showing in the new work. This is probably the most excited I've been in the studio, and I'm really looking forward to seeing these new sculptures out in the universe!
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SONG OF THE ANDOUMBOULOU: 273
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THE FIRST IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH CLARE ROJAS IN OVER FIVE YEARSBY RITA GONZALEZ
Rita Gonzalez: At our initial meeting, you mentioned your frustration with art writers, and sometimes curators and art historians, attempting to describe your work in "one neat narrative." Can you talk about the challenges those expectations of your work have presented for you?
Clare Rojas: An interesting observation. When my work reflected the politics of sexism, I was identified as a Latina and a feminist. I am half Peruvian, half Anglo Saxon, and I have been given awards, museum exhibitions, and catalogues for my messages of inequality, grief, sorrow, and loss. This message came from a real place of hurt, a real passion for equality, a real need and urgency to be heard and understood. When I disengaged from that narrative—because I personally questioned why I perceived the world the way I did, and why it felt so oppressive that I couldn't feel valuable or validated seeing the world in any other way—I stepped out of the ring beaten and exhausted. I wanted to see if it was possible to see people and the world in a different way, and still believe in my values and politics.
Interestingly, with the use of abstract narrative, I think I began to be identified (not by me) as not-feminist, not-Latina. My newly developed abstract narrative felt more empowering for me as a woman, as a human, than the political work I was making in the past, in the sense that I was allowing myself to feel and think about a broader range of emotions and ideas. I felt value in honoring all the aspects of my life, not just oppression. However, my work became less supported by museums and institutions. Because my work was now abstract, it was being compared more with the work of white, privileged men, but without any of the benefits. I began to be offered public art projects, because abstract images are not identifiable to one race, or political agenda, they are neutral and serve the public as a whole. In recent reviews of my abstract work, or even in press releases, I have never been compared to a female abstractionist, certainly not a Latina one, just white men from the '60s.
I wanted to see if I could be in control—escaping narrative by diving into abstraction—and abstraction has become its own narrative. I feel the need to create everything all at once: abstracts, landscapes, narratives, figures, writings, songs, and let all those dimensions form a body of work that represents me as a whole. My intention was to try to transcend what I saw as part of the social engineering that limits artists, our culture, and our institutions. The expectation that artists confine themselves to one dimension or function doesn't serve them as multi-dimensional humans, it serves a system. It can be alluring, and maybe beneficial if some boxes can be checked off for a system that defines what you can and cannot be. I guess I am figuring out how to check off boxes that I create, ones that allow me to shift and change as a multi-dimensional human.
Interestingly enough, no matter how abstract my work became, the old narrative stuck for years in writing, reviews, and gallery press releases. For about five years my work had no animals or nature, no metaphors for the objectification of women, sexism, abuse, or grief. My work no longer depicted women battling men, no more naked men, no more humor, there was no more figuration, there was no more mythology, there was no more articulated narrative that explained the imagery in a consumable way. It was purely abstraction, color and form. Yet my abstracts were still described as folk art. Maybe my accumulation of narratives is confusing to others, but it all makes total sense to me.
RG: I am interested in your shift technically, and the different temporality involved in oil painting. How has that time-based shift affected your daily process?
CR: I think in order to discuss the shift technically, I have to discuss my relationship to my studio space.
My practice has always had to adapt according to the space where I work. When I had access to a large studio, I could make work that filled the space. When the space was small, the work became more about intimacy and quietness, akin to listening to someone whisper a secret. There is a more concerted effort to pay attention and be still enough to gather all the details. Either the space owns you, or you own the space. This relationship parallels nature; either you belong to the land, or the land belongs to you.
I always find it interesting how the pieces visually communicate in unexpected ways depending on the space and distance they have from one another. A large, open studio space with light, versus a smaller, darker space (like the closet I worked in during my youth), offers different limitations and determining factors that alter my painting experience. I have the opportunity to work slowly, to leave work alone in the studio, to allow for more processing time. Mediums and materials offer a different set of limitations and determining factors as well. There is instant gratification with gouache and acrylic. Lately in my practice, I associate these mediums with finishing a thought, finishing a sentence without having to edit or be too critical. Water-based mediums allow for as much intensity with details and time as I want. However, more planning is required, as layering water-based materials re-activates the underlayer. With oils, I experience my thoughts differently. They linger longer, as there are different restrictions and freedoms that add to the depth and texture of the pieces. One limitation to oil painting is that I must wait for layers to dry. For me, painting with any medium is like practicing a song. I can sing the same song every day for years and, depending on the day, my voice adapts to express shifting emotions. There is never a repeat experience. Remembering meaning through color, line, and composition is always delicately distinct.
RG: In the press release for your 2018 show at Kavi Gupta Gallery, there's a wonderful passage about the relationship of your visual art to your music. It's about the distillation of stories into serial, essential lines of words and breath. Can you talk about the differences or similarities in writing music versus working on your paintings, drawings, and sculptures?
CR: Initially I approach all of these mediums in the same way—I make sketches and take notes, and then edit, chipping away to reveal the essential nature of the work. There is a similarity to my breathing when I am painting a line and when I am singing the end of a word or phrase. Both taper in breath, with an echoing reverb; there's a release—one into sound, one visually into space.
The process of writing music feels more sculptural to me than making a sculpture. To make my physical sculptures, I have to work with a fabricator, so there is a collaborative element. I sometimes make three-dimensional paintings and then re-translate the three-dimensional works into two-dimensional paintings. In one body of work, I explore what it's like to slightly shift the viewer’s perspective, and alter the perception of an image, flattening it into 2D and then expanding it to 3D again. I love the idea that you can imagine seeing through these pieces, as if into a different realm, by looking through a viewfinder or a hag stone found at the beach. The alignment of my paintings and sculptures into one feels like attempting magic.
Straddling music and painting can be exhausting. To leave music for painting, or vice versa, makes me lovesick for the other. My musical alter ego is Peggy Honeywell. I have been writing songs since 1999, but performing very little the past few years. I consider Peggy Honeywell my long-term conceptual piece. All my songs and scratch recordings will exist when I am long gone, and I like the idea of that existing in the fourth dimension. I believe I will find time again, and my relationship to these practices and mediums will deepen further. Soon there will be another shift in my life. I have been a full-time working mom and wife over the course of my entire career, since I was twenty-five. My daughter is off to college in the fall, and I am sure my relationship with time and space will once again have to adjust.
Rita Gonzalez is Chief Curator at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
With thanks to Anglim Gilbert Gallery.
* * *
ACTUALISING THE FUNDAMENTAL: CATHARTES 19 HELEN MIRRA
This is a statement and set of mores for those of us who reckon with art and want coherence between our concern — regarding climate disruption and the megaflop of plastics–reliance and how we live among other sentient beings whose lives we do not think are less worthy of attention than our own — and how we actually go about things.
We are birds that do not kill.
We accept that we have been variously ignorant,
naïve, and in denial.
We recognize that our individual actions are almost
immeasurably small. But we love the small,
so it makes no sense to dismiss the small.
And we know that small is relative.
We remember that for a very long time artists have made
artworks without relying on burning oil extracted from
the earth. And without much traveling about,
let alone presumptively, rather than specially.
We follow Douglas Huebler’s statement that ‘the world
is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish
to add any more.' How do we follow it? Some of us do make
objects. And we commit to making objects that follow a path
of less harm.
We propose that the appropriate question is not, ‘what do
I/we want to make? What do I/we need for it to happen?'
Instead we ask, ‘what is viable? How can we continue to meet
materials while respecting the whole ecosystem we are a
part of, rather than illusorily ignoring our effects?
We do not aim to ‘do good’; we actively avoid doing bad.
And when we fail, we recommit.
We think it is better to not add to the damage
rather than to apologize for it.
We are materialists, however dematerialised our practices.
We are committed to reality,
however many imaginaries we inhabit.
The world is full of objects, more or less interesting,
and we do not wish to add any more at the expense of
There are some guidelines for actions that obviously
align with this wish. They are mores, not lesses;
while they are limitations, they are not restrictive.
We consider them undemanding.
In fact, we consider them beautiful — a hedonic ethos.
We aim to commit to them in a spirit of friendly
disagreeableness: a friendly disagreeableness
with the general customs and assumptions, within
the mainstream of cultural production, of what
is necessary to make/meet art today.
Physical works are subject to decomposition,
or, if inert, also nonsynthetic*
no acrylic paints
no polyurethane foams, polyester resins, etc
no polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
no vinyl record pressing
no plastic coated photographic paper
No or minimal long-distance oil-dependent
travel — reliance on proxies as needed
No CD manufacturing
No new electronics (incl cameras, computers,
data storage, etc)
Outsourced fabrication is local
and fairly paid
Publications are printed local to distribution
no non-recycled paper, no petroleum inks
no plastic coating on covers
no plastic wrap on books
*with the exception of salvaged materials
New exhibition materials are compostable
no vinyl — e.g., lettering, signage, banners
no new electronics (incl projectors,
computers, data storage, etc)
no non-reusable temporary walls
PACKING, STORAGE, SHIPPING
New packing materials are compostable
no poly sheeting, bubble wrap,
polyethylene, styrofoam, foamcore, etc.
no plastic wraps for crates
Cardboard-surface crates, built for re-use
Anyone non-instrumental is discouraged from
traveling by air in order to be present
Anyone who feels they need to be present
somewhere travels by train if possible,
and if flying, sits in coach, avoids overnight
flights, and avoids connecting flights
Institutions/galleries incentivize not-flying
by offering equivalent cash to artists
in lieu of covering flight & lodging costs
No business or first class flights,
no private planes, no cruise ships
No imported water, far-flung wine, etc
If a meal is offered in the context of
the show, no food is served that comes
from animals that are either kept in
captivity and/or killed for this purpose
No single-use cups, dishes, unless made from
plant material that can be non-industrially
composted, i.e. in garden, unless there is
great confidence that your municipality
successfully can compost the material
All the material Nos are for the purchase of virgin materials from a for-profit business. Yes to non-primary use of these materials, e.g. reuse of exisiting stock, purchasing from salvage/reuse centers, etc.
You are invited to co-sign/half-sign this document. The more signatories the easier it becomes to follow the guidelines and the clearer our collective conscience becomes. It can be signed in perpetuity or for a particular exhibition. (If working with an artist/gallery/institution that has not signed, they can be temporary co-signatories for the specific exhibition in question. To formalise the commitment to lessen our un-helpful effects is helpful in its clarifying explicitness.) To sign, and/or to view an annotated version of this document: click here
* * *
SOME PROSPECTS FOR CONFRONTING WORKPLACE SEXUAL VIOLENCE
BY ZAROUHIE ABDALIAN
In 2017, a widely-publicized open letter
circulated through the art world, and thousands of signatories vowed to stand up to sexist oppression in their midst. But what has changed in the two years since? Sexist oppression in the art world remains pervasive and largely unchecked
; even the few individuals who were reprimanded in the wake of #MeToo are once again allowed into our workplaces
. Yet in the face of repression, the struggle continues to evolve and strengthen. Those who have a stake in resisting misogyny must take stock. Our aim should be to eradicate the conditions that make misogyny possible. This task requires that we apply the lessons of our successes and failures to our ongoing work.
The hashtag #NotSurprised designated the short-lived social media campaign initiated by the above-mentioned letter. Penned by a collective called We Are Not Surprised (WANS), the letter states, “Where we see the abuse of power, we resolve to speak out, to demand that institutions and individuals address our concerns seriously, and to bring these incidents to light regardless of the perpetrator’s gender,” and concludes by asserting, “We are too many, now, to be silenced or ignored.”
Though the hashtag #NotSurprised may come off as dispiriting and defeatist, the letter writers implored the signatories to carry out real action, challenging them to demand the restructuring of regressive institutions. Unfortunately, the letter incorrectly identifies those within art world institutions best positioned to effect the desired change. The writers solicit the participation of administrators and directors on the same footing as interns, students, and workers—ignoring the fundamental class antagonisms among them.
Though people in any position and of any class may be sexually harassed and assaulted, the roots of sexist oppression stem from unequal power relations among social classes. Sexual violence is predominantly an instrument of terror used against workers to safeguard the outsized power of the exploiting class who are relatively few in number. Workers, who comprise the class most equipped to undo this oppression, are many. They include the art installer, gallery guard, custodian, front desk attendant, many (though not all) artists, and others whose livelihoods depend on their selling their labor for a wage. The art world would cease to run without the contribution of these workers’ labor.
People in other positions can of course support the efforts of workers (or at least stay out of the way), but history shows us that any gains in the struggle against sexual oppression and exploitation can only be maintained and broadened by the organized activity of the working class. Any activist initiative that fails a proper class analysis cannot hope to end exploitative systems that thrive on sexual violence or the threat thereof. Thus, though WANS was well-intentioned and, importantly, provided a definition of sexual harassment to art workers in a profession rife with informal work arrangements, WANS and #NotSuprised predictably did little to alter the material bases which give rise to sexist oppression at the level of society.
This summer, workers in South Africa demonstrated the power of worker solidarity as a means of fighting sexist oppression. From June 19 to 27, 290 men and women miners mounted an underground sit-down strike in response to the sexual harassment of a woman worker, and the subsequent protection of her abuser by human resources and the management of the Lanxess chrome mine outside of Rustenburg, South Africa. This strike was led by members of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa
(NUMSA). The workers went to great lengths to prevail in their struggle, even foregoing food and clean water after the bosses cut off electricity and water to the mine. The concessions won by the striking workers included action in relation to the alleged perpetrator, an inquiry into the three managers who had protected him, and an agreement that these investigations would be conducted by a third party. Of the strike, NUMSA spokesperson Phakamile Hlubi stated, “It was a powerful moment in labour history where men and women united and risked their lives to fight against gender-based violence […] They want genuine change and they were willing to risk their lives for it.” The NUMSA strike shows what is possible even under the most harrowing conditions. It shows the importance of organization, solidarity, direct action, and persistence in the face of sexist bosses.
Bay Area art workers can take lessons from the struggles of workers around the world, and organize to win gains. Numerous alliances, coalitions, collectives, and unions offer outlets for organized struggle. Labor unions in particular have the potential to offer protection and build power among their members. Former SFMOMA OPEIU Local 29
shop steward Maggie Haas describes how union membership can affect the reporting of sexism, harassment, and assault, stating that “a union with diverse leadership, with women and nonbinary folks in the leadership group, does create some real ground-level stability for members, just by demanding a contract that removes ‘at-will’ employment from the equation, thereby protecting members from termination without cause.” Further, a union member does not have to bring grievances to management alone: “Someone who is on your side, in terms of your rights as a worker, will know what that process is and be in that process with you.” As Haas is quick to caution, not all members may experience unions in the same way, and many of these disparities have historically occurred along lines of gender and nationality.
Justice can still be elusive for many workers even in unionized or otherwise seemingly progressive workplaces. Human resources departments, managers, and administrators are too often part of larger structures that prevent workers from pursuing justice. Artist and activist Sharmi Basu highlights the function of HR departments, remarking that “Human resources departments are literally, I think, the cops of the workplace. Human resources operate under the guise of helping the worker […] but their purpose is to try to make sure that the company doesn’t get sued. They are protecting the face of the company.”
Workers, unionized or not, must keep in mind that every battle they collectively wage against sexism is part of a class war. The August 7 raids
by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Mississippi demonstrate the lengths to which the capitalist ruling class will go to prosecute this war. In an impressive show of determination, workers at Koch Foods’ chicken processing plant in Morton, Mississippi—a so-called ‘right-to-work’ state— had joined the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union
(UFCW) as a means of fighting the repeated abuses to which they’d been subjected by their bosses. Because of the power organized by the union, these workers won concessions
in their fight for workplace safety and dignity. In 2018, they forced a three-year consent-decree which required Koch Foods to implement specific measures to prevent discrimination and harassment. They also won a nearly $4 million settlement on behalf of Latina workers who experienced sexual harassment. That same year, ICE began planning their raid. Clearly, the August 7 arrest of 680 workers was a state spectacle of white supremacist terror. But it was also an act of union busting, intended to quash workers’ efforts to fight back against sexual assault and harassment.
Though the workplace has historically been the primary site of worker organizing, many art workers and artists do not have regular workplaces, or they work in informal or otherwise precarious arrangements. These conditions pose unique challenges to worker solidarity, but the challenges must be met with unity of purpose. When Womxn* Art Handlers (W*AH) was co-founded in 2018 by Marcela Pardo Ariza and Kat Trataris, they “started with just getting people in the room […] and figuring out where to go from there.” W*AH’s initial “mixers” were created to provide a context for POC, trans, queer, non-binary, and women art handlers to convene and address issues including sexist oppression, pay equity, and access to jobs. These initial gatherings were no small step for a workforce that must go to extra lengths to organize across worksites.
Specifically addressing the issue of sexist oppression, W*AH will participate this fall in a workshop led by artist and “equity, diversity, and inclusion consultant” Beatrice Thomas, hosted by Safer DIY Spaces
and the Lab
. The workshop is a popular approach to educating people both within and outside of institutions and can be a useful first step; however, as Basu, who serves on the board of Safer DIY Spaces, points out, “a lot of workshops are 101 and surface level […] People want the workshop to be the last thing. Or the mediation to be the last thing. Or the company apology to be the last thing […] There has to be something after.” Recognizing that collective action is required, W*AH asserts, “We can’t fix institutions [as individuals], but we can figure out ways and tools for people to put collective pressure [on institutions].”
The prevailing system both within and outside of art institutions is one in which a small group holds power over the many. As long as the exploiting class’ hold on power remains unchallenged, they will remain authorized to wield sexual violence to maintain their rule. Workers, in art or otherwise, must focus on how we can improve the chances of fellow workers—especially those most oppressed—to turn the tide. Internet activism, token firings, and moralistic appeals to people in power (including managers, directors, and politicians) will not fundamentally change the conditions under which we work and live. Instead, workers must build power through organizing ourselves wherever we work, including art spaces, in order to demand the changes we deserve. In this process, we have no time to lose.
Zarouhie Abdalian is an artist based in New Orleans, LA.
* * *
NO PAST IS GONE, SADIE BARNETTE’S NEW EAGLE CREEK SALOONBY PEDRO JIMENEZ
Within the rather spacious hall, there is a diffused luminosity emanating from the corner of the room near the bar, where folks are perched on white-upholstered stools, chatting. The murmur of voices is tangled with the music playing in the background, and there are half-drunk wine bottles and beer cans left on the glittery coated countertop. The space is filled with rays of light bouncing against fuchsia-shaded surfaces, and reflections that mirror the sparkling neon light mounted on the back wall that reads Eagle Creek.
People are immersed in their conversations, their books, or their phones. They are not scrutinizing from a distance the shimmering visual composition built for this installation. Instead, they are reading, asserting political points to their listeners, dating, or asking questions of Sadie Barnette, the artist who created The New Eagle Creek Saloon at The Lab, an experimental art space in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco.
Objects related to the back-story of this installation are scattered ubiquitously: In a niche underneath the bar there are crushed aluminum cans spray-painted pink next to an enameled boom box; Whitney Houston’s Whitney album is displayed alongside family portraits and a motley of hanging plants. Also shown are Polaroids, newspaper clippings, and memorabilia belonging to the artist's father, Rodney Barnette, the original owner of the Eagle Creek Saloon, the first Black-owned gay bar in San Francisco, which operated between 1990 and 1993. Mr. Barnette also founded the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party, and his élan vital is integral to the reimagined sculpted establishment, amidst the matching branded coasters and matchbooks, archival ephemera, and pictures depicting the artist as a child with her family, clad in a series of flamboyant outfits ready to join the Pride Parade on Market Street.
Prior to the Eagle Creek Saloon's founding, Black queer bars did not exist in San Francisco, so the creation of a safe space for communities of color could be seen as an extension of the founder's previous political efforts with the Panthers. The New Eagle Creek Saloon's materialization pulls similar motivational threads against the vast unweaving of the African American community of San Francisco. In 1970, African American residents accounted for 13% of San Francisco's population. In 1990, that number shrank to 11%, and in 2000 to under 8%, while recent estimates have numbers as low as 5%. In the meantime, house prices in the city have skyrocketed and the share of low-income Black households living in poverty rose from 41% in 2000 to 65% in 2015. Just across the Bay Bridge, where the Black Panther Party was founded, African Americans made up nearly half of Oakland during the 1980s and '90s. They are only a quarter of the population today.
Communal experiences are presented in a booklet which contains a précis on "Why Black Owned Made a Difference," and a list of objects for bar fixtures, including: 1 Technic turntable, 1 beer cooler, and 1 back bar with mirrors, as well as a ticket for a Candy J show (aka Sweet “P” Pauline) starting at 9 p.m., November 1, 1991. Pinned underneath the bar’s plastic surface there’s a scanned photograph of Mr. Barnette, sporting an Oakland Raiders’ lid, a team which—not to put too fine a point on it—is likewise leaving the Bay Area. The memory of these moods and moments points towards a deeper yearning. These remembrances record and retain some genius loci, a tribute transmitted through a wondrous atmosphere enveloped by a broader visual theme. This re-collection of objects constitutes an imagined interior of family and social history, placed in the shared exterior of the bar, where the sculptural elements come to life through mnemonic mechanisms that interact within the installation, creating more images in the minds of the current participants. Visitors partake in this dreamworld of collective memory-making by perusing the history behind the conceptual gest they are attending to. A re-vindication of Black culture as a culture of space, and of the cult of space as a celebration. In the words of Cameroonian philosopher Fabien Ebouisse Boulaga: Je dance, donc je vie.
The literalness of the exercise rings true. Liberated space is today's form of people’s resistance, a kind of bodily togetherness absent from the virtual interactions that are dictated by the algorithms of the technological market. Particularly in a city like San Francisco (Berkeley, Santa Cruz, Palo Alto, Portland, and Seattle too), where sit-lie ordinances penalize taking up sidewalks, vacated constructions, or empty lots, criminalizing poverty and those seeking to emancipate urban space through collectives and social activism. The Lab itself is going through an existential ordeal—trying to save its current location from the grip of speculative developers—by buying its own part of the historic red-brick building where it hosts artists and programs.
No past is gone so long as one remembers it, and The New Eagle Creek Saloon is a sanctuary for Black culture, a shrine to its vibrant ethos. Memories surviving ongoing waves of gentrification; quests for a sense of place are explored through a past reinventing itself and continuously coming back. West Coast Culture and the tenacity—all too often concealed—of marginalized movements are in constant flux. There are calls to stay woke and flowing, from churches like Glide, the Coalition on Homelessness, to the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter. A place to arrive and not leave. Indeed, “a friendly place with a funky bass for every race,” as the slogan for the original bar aptly put it.
Space remains today the central political issue for people living in California, and Sadie Barnette’s work is a joyous essay into the possibilities of community making and the conviction that the way to go is to be together.
Dr. Pedro Jimenez is the founder of Archivo 48 and a graduate of Stanford University’s Philosophy department.
“Sadie Barnette: The New Eagle Creek Saloon” travels to ICA Los Angeles on September 29, 2019.
* * *
OLIVIAN CHA REVIEWS THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO
Produced by Plan B Entertainment and distributed by A24, The Last Black Man in San Francisco has received an astonishing amount of press since its debut at Sundance earlier this year. Hailed by critics as a “love letter to San Francisco,” “an indelibly beautiful story of love, family and loss,” and “a tribute to the notion of home that we all carry,” what can be gleaned from the exuberant praise and Hollywood platitudes is that the film is also informed, loosely or otherwise, by San Francisco’s rapid gentrification. However, as others have noted (the filmmakers included), Last Black Man does not take on this complex subject with rigor. The social, political, and economic conditions of the city, both present and historical, are not scrutinized as much as aestheticized, mythologized, and presented through the whimsical filter of a now-familiar variety of independent cinema.
Loosely based on the real-life story of San Francisco native Jimmie Fails, who plays himself as the protagonist, the film follows Jimmie and his best friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) as they endeavor to restore and reclaim Jimmie’s childhood Victorian home in the Fillmore district. Inarguably beautiful, the film is slow-moving—at times, surreal; at other times, banal. Whether skateboarding from Oakland to San Francisco or perpetually waiting for a bus that never arrives, Jimmie and Mont’s experiences are characterized by a kind of peripatetic impermanence. This is further amplified by a narrative that does not follow a linear plotline but unfolds through a series of meandering and melancholic moments. Even after the two have finally found a way to occupy Jimmie’s exquisite old house (thanks to the white residents’ loss of title in a family-inheritance dispute), we are held in a state of simultaneous unease and sedation. These emotional effects are largely achieved through Emile Mosseri’s swelling soundtrack, Adam Newport-Berra’s wistful cinematography, which soaks in the radiant light and texture of the cityscape like a sponge, and Fails’s painfully restrained yet moving performance. In many ways, director Joe Talbot has composed a moving cinematic correlation for the often-dissociative effects of loss and displacement, but against a socially-minded narrative which will not likely inspire viewers to question, nor act on, the graver structural inequalities tied to gentrification’s causes or consequences.
Instead, Talbot’s allegorical style of storytelling gives rise to something meaningful and compelling, employing literary and philosophical frameworks to advance more nuanced representations of Black identity. At its best, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, alongside recent films such as Sorry to Bother You and Get Out, offer cinematic elaborations on ideas of "double consciousness"—what W.E.B. Du Bois described as the alienating experience of seeing oneself through the eyes of another, specifically as a Black man in a white-dominated society. This is illustrated in the eccentric persona of Mont, a soft-spoken poet and artist who works as a fishmonger but spends much of his time writing a play eponymously titled The Last Black Man in San Francisco. In one scene, after observing a particularly belligerent interaction between a local group of men posted outside his grandfather’s Hunter’s Point home where he and Jimmie live, he interrupts their aggressions to deconstruct their posturing as if directing actors on stage. Later, we find him in front of a mirror perfectly emulating the hostile speech and cadence of the group—a character study for his play but also a striking meta-performance of the physical subtleties of code-switching.
This omnipresent clique of stereotypical “gangstas” is Talbot’s interpretation of a Greek Chorus, except rather than narrating the story, they incessantly insult the film’s protagonists and test one another’s masculinity. Halfway through the film, the recurring banter of the group registers almost musically, evoking a similar Greek Chorus found in Spike Lee’s 1989 joint Do the Right Thing, but reads differently against the dreamy, unpopulated Oakland street scene that Talbot confects, a bereft backdrop resembling the set of Waiting for Godot. Jimmie and Mont’s exchanges with the street chorus escalate throughout the film and easily provide its most poignant moments. When the crew member and mutual friend Kofi (Jamal Trulove) is shot, Jimmie confronts the group, blaming them for his death. A brawl seems imminent when Jimmie and Stunna (Jordan Gomes) face off, but after a tense and prolonged silence, Stunna bursts into tears and the two men quietly embrace. Here, Black masculinity manifests in a profound kind of tenderness.
When we discover near the end of the film that Jimmie has fabricated his story’s most affecting claim—that his grandfather single-handedly purchased and rebuilt the Victorian home after the previous Japanese owners were interned during World War II—viewers may feel somehow betrayed, both by their own willingness to believe the somewhat dubious narrative but also because they are robbed of the privilege and right to ownership imbued into Jimmie’s character. In this sense, Jimmie’s myth reveals much about certain liberal-leaning spectators whose own culpability in the conditions of gentrification and urban displacement are momentarily ameliorated in his tragic but feel-good story.
Inextricably bound to suffering and loss, Jimmie’s invention (a product of his struggle with homelessness) prompts the film’s principal maxim, which he pronounces flatly: “People aren’t one thing.” While The Last Black Man in San Francisco does well to underscore multiplicities within Black identity, Jimmie’s statement also resonates because it signals his own transformation within the film. When it becomes clear that Jimmie’s idealized past will never be recovered, we are reminded that notions of self are not bound to fixed origins or absolute histories. Identity is instead a mutable formation, what Stuart Hall once identified as a “production” that is “always in process, and always constituted within, not outside representation.”
Olivian Cha is a curator and critic based in Los Angeles. She holds master’s degrees in library and information science and art history, both from UCLA.
With thanks to A24, Megan Steinman, and The Underground Museum
* * *
A LONG SAD SUMMER: FAREWELL TO LUTZ
BY DENA BEARD
I was closest with Lutz Bacher at a time when grief became the subject and object of her work. We were in the midst of staging a large exhibition when her husband, Don, suddenly died of a heart attack. I came upon her two weeks later sitting inside a kiddie pool in the middle of her living room, troll dolls hanging by their hair overhead, AstroTurf blanketing every surface. She was burrowed down inside an installation created by sorrow, but also animate, jittering between memories of Don and the machinations of the objects that surrounded her. Lutz’ psychic slippage manifested as a kind of cosmology—her fiercely feminist reimagining of the operations of desire and identification had always registered, but in that moment I realized how completely she herself, her body, was exploded and reconstituted by her work.
Lutz was a trickster, she knew how objects entrapped us, and with wicked abandon she revealed to us their knowledge of our intimate desires, our secret pleasures, and mostly, our fundamental unease with the world we made. Old Gap ads, porn, broken mirrors, billboards, jokes: Lutz would find in these alienated and hollowed-out things our lost formlessness. She would surround herself with these abject things, she would instill herself in them, love them, and thereby charge them—and us—with untethered subjectivity. Her practice was perhaps the opposite of narcissism. Like Don, I think Lutz can only be in one place now—scattered about in particulates of light, exploded in an immense constellation of matter, anti-matter; pure form and pure formlessness.
With thanks to Jenny-Gheith Levy