May 13, 2013
Back in December, I went to New York to visit my friend Beatriz da Costa. Walking from the Metropolitan Museum back downtown to my guest digs one evening, I passed this store window with its enormous, multi-monitor video display showing the waves breaking, live, on Huntington Beach, just a few miles south of where I live in the greater Los Angeles basin. It was that cool, enchanted December of New York, with Christmas lights netted over bushes and twining along the bare branches of every second tree. In drizzle and sparkle, a much-needed change from the unseasonable balminess of southern Calfornia. So it was odd to come suddenly upon what I had flown three thousand miles to leave behind, a through-the-looking-glass moment. But of course it made sense that our dreams should be reciprocal, I drawn to the magic city of the east even as its inhabitants longed for my mundane Pacific shore.
Comments (0) | Tags: California, media, video, writing
April 22, 2013
A while back, after updating Skype, I discovered that I would now be greeted each time I logged in with the following extremely annoying message: “Your contacts have not been very active recently.” My initial reaction—possibly the same as yours—was: so what? It took a few seconds before I became annoyed by the fact that this piece of software thinks I need this bit of information. The implication is that the inactivity of my contacts is a problem. But what is the problem, exactly? Does Skype think I am incapable of keeping track of my Skype contacts on my own? That I am a lonely shut-in who needs a nudge to reach out to other people? That I have lame friends?
And what am I supposed to do with this information? Bug people I know to spend more time online? Spend more time online myself? Well, perhaps that is the general idea, since the second part of the message suggests updating my Skye status or connecting to Facebook. Fine, I understand that Skype wants me to spend more time using their software. But I don’t want to be prodded about it every time I log in. All they’ve done with this message is ensure that I will think dark thoughts about their software and their software engineers every time I use Skype. As aversion conditioning, an undoubted success. As social media, an epic fail.
Comments (0) | Tags: social media, software, technology
April 2, 2013
It’s been over a year since I last posted on this blog, and some of you have been kind enough to ask where the hell have I been? I took what started out as a short break while I was immersed in my Galileo in America project. That stretched out to a year once I started working on a book. It’s been a process of deep immersion, and the book is not finished, but I do occasionally think about something else. Sometimes for a few days at a time, even. So I’m going to return to posting the occasional piece here, though probably not with any regularity for awhile.
December 27, 2011
As I wrote about a week ago, I’m in the midst of working on a new performance project, Galileo in America. We’re now at what may be the most awkward stage of all, long past the early, exciting phase of throwing ideas around to see what bounces highest, and not yet at the last, scary phase where it’s all about the tasks that must be completed in order to have a show at all. This is the shop floor phase, when ideas begin to take physical form and in the process reveal every possible bug, error, mismeasurement, flaw, wrong assumption, poor judgment, and half-baked aesthetic. You spend a lot of time repeating variations of “Yeah, ok, so that won’t work either. What about…”
Right now I’m working on the scheme for our projection scrims. In order to play with various possible combinations, I built a 1:40 scale model of the Experimental Media Performance Lab (xMPL), where our performances will take place. Calling it a scale model makes it sound a good deal classier than it really is, evoking as it does miniature-gauge train sets and model car kits. My scale model is built from gatorboard (left over from another project), heavy wire (rusted from sitting around my studio so long), thin wood dowels (formerly skewers), paper, and tape.
These days, this kind of modeling is typically done on the computer in a CAD program. I decided not to take that route, and not just because CAD isn’t one of my areas of expertise. I wanted that immediate, physical, visceral sense of objects in space, a sense that is most directly conveyed by, well, actual objects. The crudity of my toy theater was deliberate also, a way to not get too hung up on possible solutions too early in the process. I find that this is a trap always waiting for me—maybe other artists are luckier in this regard—the temptation to start polishing up a preliminary idea before it’s ready. The lure of the finished. Computer programs are particularly deadly for me in this regard, since algorithmically generated objects turn out so neat and precise. They have a perfection that entices you to accept them even if they are in fact the wrong perfection.
So here I am surrounded by scraps of paper of all different sizes that I believe will lead me somewhere useful. The next step will be to replace the scraps of paper with fabric and look at the effects of actual light projected in various ways. What I really need is a 1:40 scale miniature data projector, but I’m guessing that doesn’t exist. Yet.
| Tags: art, Galileo in America, performance, scale model, tools
December 22, 2011
Most years I make either a solstice or a new year’s card to celebrate the return of the light– I really hate the short days of winter. This year’s card came about at the very tail end of a work session in my studio. I had been documenting some of my older work with the help of my assistant, using a classic studio setup with multiple light sources carefully placed to ensure that the work would be evenly lighted. Frankly, it’s a pretty tedious process.
Once we were done, as an antidote, I decided to play around for a bit with highly uneven lighting. I grabbed a small flower arrangement I had left over from a dinner party and we began to experiment with various forms of pinpoint and single-source lighting. Eventually we settled on a method of using my assistant’s LED-based miniature flashlight to ‘paint’ light into a fairly long time-lapse photograph. As a bonus, the process left light trails all through the image. (The moving hand, however, disappeared entirely.) The images for this year’s card are cropped from three different stages of our experiments, creating a visual reminder that art always begins with play— even if it ends with the grunt work of documentation).
As always, you are welcome to download this image and use it yourself as a card or small print. As a card, it’s designed to be a three-fold piece, with the righthand end folded back first and the lefthand end folded second. To make this work, the white border has to be trimmed all the way off the two ends— I took a quick snap with my cellphone to show the idea (though it doesn’t do the colors justice). The image is sized so that it can be printed on standard 8.5×11-inch paper; it works best on heavy matte stock with matte-black inks.
The 72-dpi version shown above is only 49 kb; the linked pdfs below are quite a lot larger. I’m including the 2-up version because it is the least wasteful of paper.
Large version (single image, 1.5 mb)
Large version, 2-up (2.7 mb)
And just in case you have a bad case of winter nostalgia, here is the link to last year’s card.
| Tags: artist's studio, experimentation, light, solstice
December 19, 2011
I’ve just launched a fund-raising campaing on IndieGoGo for my upcoming performance project in February-March. Check it out and contribute if you feel so moved. I’ll be blogging the process a bit as we go along, since the kind of high-tech, experimental work I make is not exactly the result of a cookie-cutter mode of artmaking.
There’s also a project website with a bit more information, and you can even buy tickets online— the performances are going to be in UC Irvine’s brand-new black-box performance space. But right now, we could really use help with our fund-raising so that when rehearsals begin in mid-January we aren’t still chewing our nails to the quick.
New art for the new year— because I’m just not buying that the world is going to end in 2012.
| Tags: 2012, Brecht, Galileo, HUAC, performance
October 26, 2011
I recently stumbled on the website of Bo Press Miniature Books, which is difficult to describe without resorting to very bad puns having to do with size. (It’s not just a small press, it’s a miniature press! You get the idea.) Bo Press specializes in both miniature books—those under 3 inches tall—and the even tinier microminiature or ‘dollhouse’ books, which top out at 1 inch tall.
Bo Press’s books are handmade, inkjet printed and imaginatively bound—the commedia dell’arte book shown here, for example, has covers modeled on the structure of the traditional theatrical flat used for scenery. (It’s also reminiscent of the backside of a painting since both are made using canvas stretched over wood.)
Miniature books are often dismissed as trifles for collectors, and I don’t have much of a taste for them myself, usually finding them overelaborate and twee. While Bo Press does have its share of decorative whimsy, I found the books appealing for the sheer eccentricity of their subject matter. There are books on flea circuses, hieroglyphs, water, flying carpets, and lost cities. There is a book about the physical structure of the book, and another of headdress designs inspired by naturalist Ernst Haeckel’s landmark book “Art Forms of Nature.” There are books on laboratory specimens, perpetual motion, and pi.
For those interested in charting the universe, there are books of maps: over here, Minard’s famous map of Napoleon’s retreat; over there, the Bellman’s rather understated map from “The Hunting of the Snark.” And there are miniature astronomical instruments as well: orreries and tellurions and pocket globes, many in glass cases. These were my favorite items, since I have an abiding fascination with orreries and astrolabes.
Bo Press is the creation of Pat Sweet, a former theatrical costumer turned publisher (as well as, by her own description, “printer, illustrator, writer, editor, proofreader, copy editor, designer, binder, art director, shipping clerk, head of marketing, and janitor”). The press is based in Riverside, but its products are for sale through the website. Including—if you can’t make up your mind between Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and a book of ‘extinction masks’—blank books.
Comments (3) | Tags: Bo Press, miniature books, small press
October 6, 2011
Steve Jobs died yesterday. Many people owe him a lot, but I probably owe him more than most. I belong to the transitional generation that didn’t grow up with desktop computers; my first experience with computers came just out of college, with a large typesetting system (I wrote a bit about it here). This kind of system was based around a mainframe computer with a bunch of satellite terminals where the writers input their copy and the editors messed it about and the typesetters formatted it and sent it to be output on a special kind of photographic paper stock. No one but elite technicians ever got to meddle with the ‘master’ computer itself, and the terminals where people like me worked were referred to variously as ‘dumb’ or ‘slave’ terminals, a nice example of the way jargons embed the world view of their creators.
In other words, this system was merely the latest in a long line of calculating and computing machines that had been designed primarily from what one might call the wizard’s viewpoint. By this I mean any system that is intended to remain opaque to—and therefore inaccessible to—all but a small cadre of super-skilled workers. The underlying mindset is one that values knowledge as a form of power and thus hoards rather than shares it to the extent possible. This attitude extends far beyond the technological fields—it was as characteristic of the medieval Catholic church’s efforts to block the literacy of the populace as it was of the medieval guilds’ corralling of trade skills such as metalworking or dyemaking.
As long as there are human beings of differing interests and abilities and the will to use that difference to hold power, the knowledge gap will never entirely disappear. It merely moves around within the culture, and with it the wizards who feel themselves called to maintain and even widen it. One could argue, for example, that one of its prime locales for the last decade as been in the arena of investment banking, where all those collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps were so clearly devised in large part to shut out most of the world from an understanding of what was really going on, and thus from any power to intervene. And Apple itself is by no means entirely free of this tendency, as its many outside software developers will be the first to tell you. But my perspective is that of the person who, right up to the advent of the personal computer, had been imagined (if thought of at all) as the operator of a dumb terminal. As long as I could do what the wizards imagined I would want to do at that dumb terminal, why would I want anything else? And how could I even imagine that anything else?
The earliest PCs pointed the way towards a new form of mass literacy, programming, which had been a sanctuary of computer wizards up to that point. What Steve Jobs did with Apple was to go the next step and focus all design efforts around making the personal computer (and its later offspring like tablets and cellphones) easily usable by people with a very wide range of skills, needs, and wants—including nonprogrammers. There remain arguments about whether Apple went too far in dumbing down the computer in a different way from its mainframe predecessors, in the years before it added UNIX-style command-line access to the system; and about whether the concomitant rise of ‘creativity’ software has actually tended to limit creativity by too narrowly focusing what most people are able to do with their PCs. But you only have to look around at the range of innovative and powerful work that’s being produced in part through computers—from music to interactive installations, from social media to game hacks—to see the enormity of the difference that the Apple approach has made.
Or to think about it another way: imagine that we were still in a phase where the only people who could create interesting work with computers were skilled programmers (or those with the money to hire programmers). Immediately, perhaps 90% of what has been produced in the last two decades simply vanishes into thin air. Including much of my own work. I’m not a natural programmer—though I’ve had to become a programmer along the way—and my acquaintance with mainframes and then early PCs was anything but inspiring. It wasn’t until a friend showed me a Macintosh SE running MacPaint that I saw the possibilities for my own work. I had been looking for a medium without realizing that what I actually needed was the right tool.
I’ve ended up becoming one of those people who works with different kinds of computers as needed, whether running UNIX or LINUX or OSX or even plain old unglamorous Windows (I’m writing this on a dual-boot Mac/Windows machine). But it’s also true that with my first computer, I became one of those diehard Apple loyalists with “I won’t give up my Mac until you pry it from my cold dead fingers” tattoo’d on my heart. I stayed with Macs when people laughed at me for buying one, I stayed when I had to take out a loan just to afford one, I even stayed when Apple’s market share fell below 5% and I was all but certain the company was going to go out of business within a year. I stayed for the simplest reason of all: Apple’s computers suited me. An artist reaches for her favorite paintbrush because it’s the one that gets her fastest into the flow, the place where you’re struggling towards the idea and not against the tool. For some of us, it’s the same with our computers.
So thank you, Steve Jobs. And thank you, anti-wizards everywhere: you know who you are.
| Tags: Apple, computers, programming, Steve Jobs, tools, wizards
September 18, 2011
A mandala… of sorts.
| Tags: art, diagrams, virtual performance
September 9, 2011
Like nearly every American alive at the time, I remember vividly the moment I first heard about the attacks of 9/11 2001. It’s in no way a remarkable story, but I feel a compulsion nonetheless to bear witness to a day that, if it did not ‘change everything’ (as is too often said), did at least significantly alter the course of U.S. and world history.
It was breakfast time on a slow morning in California—I wasn’t due to teach that day, and my husband had left a short time before for his own teaching job. He called me from the car to say that he had heard on the radio that something very bad was going down in New York, some kind of an attack. I must have turned on the tv around 7:15 local time because the South Tower was already down and the Pentagon crash was being reported, and I was shortly to watch the North Tower collapse on live video. I essentially remained glued to the tv for the next three days (my classes were cancelled that week).
I had just moved to the west coast from New York two years earlier and still thought of myself as a transplanted New Yorker, so part of my horror was personal—did I know anyone in the towers or the planes? (I still have on my computer a copy of this survivor list, a relic of those early hours of uncertainty.) The rest was that naked shock which cannot quite be recovered now that we have been growing used to these images for ten years. Those first video clips of the planes flying into the towers—replayed over and over again—the tiny heads and waving arms at the windows, the sudden collapse of first one tower and then the other—for that one day only it had the rawness of pure nightmare.
The particular form of the catastrophe had an extra resonance for me as someone with aerophobia. All my life I have been plagued by dreams of planes crashing, planes burning, planes falling out of the sky. They are always big planes, and sometimes I am on them, and sometimes I am trying to get out from underneath. Once, in my early twenties, I was in an intercity bus that crashed at high speed, rolled over on the median and burst into flames. In the strange, slowed-down time of such events, I thought: I’m going to die now—and the main reason I thought this was that it was all going down almost exactly like some of my dreams. (By great good fortune, I suffered only minor injuries, but so potent was the experience that I still think of the years since that day as my second life.) Watching those planes fly into the World Trade Center in 2001 was also like watching one of my nightmares come true—only this time I wasn’t in it.
Something that looked like normal life resumed after awhile, but it didn’t take long before I was finding it hard to endure the revengeful, violent, jingoistic language that was springing up in the media and on the street as information solidified about Al Qaeda’s role in the attacks. It worried me that we might be about to be derailed as a nation by a kind of mob psychosis fueled by the relief of hatred. So in late September 2001, on impulse, I sat down and created the poster shown here. I won’t pretend it’s any more (or less) than a propaganda piece, but in its small way it was sadly prescient. Our justice has found Osama bin Laden and many of his operatives, but the cost has been high. As I read about the many 9/11 memorials and recall that day’s 3000 dead, I find myself thinking about those other dead: the tens of thousands of casualties—most of them civilian—from the two wars that stemmed directly from the events of 9/11. When justice comes at such a high price, can we still call it that?
For a free copy of this poster, download the file here (zipped JPEG, 750kb).
Comments (1) | Tags: 9/11, WTC
September 5, 2011
Over on the blog Bioephemera, I came across the elegant sumi-e style paintings of neurons by University of Pennsylvania doctoral student Greg Dunn. Since my first passion in art, as a child, was for the Japanese and Chinese scroll paintings in the Boston Museum of Fine Art, I was instantly taken with Dunn’s application of this minimalist technique to a subject ordinarily accessible only through micro-photography. While the best such photographs are themselves works of art, Dunn’s pieces bring to bear the different affordances of painting: color and texture, selective filtering of subject matter, traces of the hand as well as the eye.
Dunn sells high-quality digital prints of his work through his website, and he also takes commissions for original paintings and scrolls.
The major cultural value of scientific imaging may lie in the technical reliability of the image, and certainly the canonical story of its development as a field with reference to such key figures as Andreas Vesalius, Maria Sibylla Merian, and Étienne-Jules Marey is one of increasing accuracy. More interesting to me is the ongoing problem of how we learn to ‘see’ both through and with scientific images. That is, how what we see and know affects the kinds of images we make and, conversely, how the kinds of images we make affect what we can see and know.§
For instance, I’m struck by how Dunn’s paintings home in on the branching structure of neurons, the axons and dendrites that create forms reminiscent of tree roots. Trees are prominent in art, and they are familiar in another sense through the frequency with which they are used as a metaphor—genealogical trees, the ‘tree of life’. It is easy to feel we understand what we are seeing when we look at dendritic representations of the brain’s micro-structure. There is also the fact that one of the classic techniques for making the dendritic structure of neurons visible, known as Golgi’s method, stains the cells dark brown or black through impregnation with chemicals that precipitate as silver chromate. Dunn has, in effect, found a painterly analog of Golgi’s method in the black ink of sumi-e.
But it happens that I’ve been reading a good deal about neurochemistry lately, and there’s a whole other set of images and analogies at work there—for what happens ‘in the gap’ between neurons where neurotransmitting chemicals do their work. These tend to evoke images of riverbanks and ferries (docking, shuttling), of action and exchange, of a kind of chemical commerce at the molecular level. Where the tree imagery evokes stability, the synaptic imagery evokes fluidity. Neither kind of image is wrong—for one thing, the synaptic diagrams represent a different level of detail, a close-up of hot spots in the dendritic system—but neither offers a complete picture by itself. I find myself wondering: what are the images of the brain we have yet to ‘see’, the metaphors we have yet to invoke that will change our understanding once more?
§ A terrific article on this subject is Simon Schaffer’s “On Astronomical Drawing”, in Picturing Science Producing Art, edited by Caroline A. Jones and Peter Gallison. Also recommended on a related subject: Errol Morris’s new book Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), most of which appeared in an earlier form online through his “Opinionator” column at the New York Times.
| Tags: art, neuroscience, painting, scientific imaging, sumi-e
August 31, 2011
Not long ago I was rummaging through some albums in search of a photograph that I didn’t, in the end, find. Instead I came across this shot of my younger self balancing a peacock feather on her nose. I’ve never been much for documenting my own life, and most of the old photos I have of myself don’t interest me very much. I’m not sure why, since I have the requisite amount of ego to sustain the psychic brutalities of an artist’s life. Partly it’s that I’m not very photogenic, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that I don’t feel much nostalgia for the past, or at least those aspects of it that turn up in photographs.
But I was immediately captivated by this one image. It struck me as an almost perfect visual metaphor for the life of the artist, at least as I’ve known it. Could there be anything more overtly pointless than attempting to balance a peacock feather on your nose? It’s not all that hard—although harder than it looks—but that’s beside the point. Art is never ultimately about the triviality or spectacularity of the skill involved; the means are only whatever is necessary to get to the desired end.
The real question is: why do it in the first place? Peacock feathers are ornamental, elegant, symbols of grace and refined design—hard to reconcile with the goof in the picture. I certainly spent my time as a child playing with peacock feathers in predictable ways—swanning around with a nodding headdress, or pinning them on to some old blue muslin curtains with excellent ruffles that had devolved into my princess gowns.
So I find in this photo a sea change: a moment when, confronted with something familiar, the door of possibility opens wider. Not all that wide, perhaps—most children like to balance things on their noses—but wide enough. Because, like surrealism’s famous chance encounter between an umbrella, a sewing machine, and an ironing board, the juxtaposition of peacock feathers and balancing acts is sure to lead somewhere interesting, sooner or later.
And at the same time, although there is earnestness and intention and commitment to the effort—there is also, unmistakably, a clown.
Absurdity begins at home.
| Tags: art, childhood, Lautréamont, metamorphosis, origins, peacock feathers, portraits, surrealism
August 26, 2011
The Institute of Cultural Inquiry—of which I am a longtime Associate—has put up a page of photographs taken ‘in the field’, most in the course of researching their many projects and a few just by the way. Some are captioned, some aren’t, but they do provide a kind of snapshot of the ICI’s persistent interests: trauma, memorials, shrines, and cults; journeying, witnessing, and mapping; obsolete media and personal interventions. A route winding through Berlin, Amsterdam, South Carolina, Buttenhausen, London, New York, Chimayo, Memphis, Sri Lanka, Los Angeles, often halting and doubling back on itself before forking off again. (Many of the projects named on the “Terra Incognita” page are written about in more depth elsewhere on the ICI’s main website.)
(And here I must digress long enough to mention that the ICI’s annual garage sale and fundraiser is tomorrow, Saturday August 27th, 9 am–2 pm, at their headquarters at 1512 S. Robertson, Los Angeles. Stop by if you’re in the area: there’s always something unusual on offer at these events. And if you want to visit the ICI itself and find out more about its projects, a good day to come by will be Saturday, Sept. 10th, 4–6 pm, for the launch of the ICI’s latest publication project.)
Since this page includes an image of one of the “Limited Artistic Licenses” I made some years ago, I thought I’d write a little bit about them here. The term ‘artistic license’ generally signifies that one is allowed to do anything, that ordinary constraints (ethical, aesthetic) need not apply. However, the canonical story of western art suggests that each generation took this license cautiously, extending its field of operations only incrementally for the most part. At least until Duchamp changed the game almost overnight by adding—or to be more accurate, trying to add—the entire spectrum of what had been understood as ‘not art’ to the license.
When I made the first of my “Limited Artistic Licenses” in 1990, however, I was thinking about how a small set of restrictions were still in effect on artists’ practice, even post-Duchamp. The biggest area of restriction is forgeries and fakes, about which I’ve written a good deal (see, for example, this article). To this day, something tagged as a forgery cannot be admitted into the canon of western art. Duchamp’s Fountain, ok; anything by Elmyr de Hory, not. It was to pry open this closed door that I founded my Museum of Forgery, which sponsored the “Limited Artistic Licenses” project.
The second area of restriction is what might loosely be called ‘non-signature’ work. That is, once an artist has become well known for a certain kind of work, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to gain recognition (and markets) for work done in other styles and media. Technically, the artist can still do the work, but the psychological barrier to doing so can be formidable. It is for this reason that the “Limited Artistic License” is actually a license not to do certain kinds of work. If you read the fine print, it says:
This certifies that [name of artist] has executed the artwork shown at left and is therefore EXEMPT from ever having to do anything of the kind again, so long as this LAL shall remain in effect.
Yes, I made the license revokable so that the artist truly would have the freedom to do or not do as she chose—and also because it seemed so entirely contrary to the nature of official documents of all kinds to have an erasable signature:
Upon receipt of this LAL, bearer must make some kind of REMOVABLE mark in the space above. This LAL will then take effect and remain in effect SO LONG AS the mark is not removed. Thus, bearer may revoke and renew this LAL at will.
I’ve always been fascinated by the symbolic arcana of official documents—the numerological codes and blurry stamps, the colored inks and wavy cancellations, the circles and triangles and dadaist jumble of fonts. I designed my license in this spirit of maximal iconography, and I modeled it especially on the fishing licenses that I’ve been collecting for most of my adult life. Hence the otherwise opaque allowance: “Valid in ocean waters and for taking frogs.” (But then, what license doesn’t contain at least one wholly opaque instruction?)
The title “Limited Artistic License” was intended to be contrary to fact, since the entire license was an essentially contrary undertaking. In the years since I made the first—and only—handful of these, the title has become factual in the sense that this is now a de facto limited edition. I imagine the ancient computer file (in what obsolete piece of software?) exists on my backup drives somewhere, but I have no intention of digging it out and trying to restore it to usability in order to make any more of these.
And I will just add this: like any really proper official document, it includes at least two secret ‘internal’ codes parsable only by the bureaucrats in charge of issuing the license. That would be me and N. Fisher. Good luck with your decryption efforts.
Chief Operations Officer, LAL Division, Museum of Forgery
August 20, 2011
Natural Baroque (clouds), 2011
24 x 24″ open-edition digital print on archival paper, signed and numbered by the artist: $875
48 x 48″ open-edition digital print on archival paper, signed and numbered by the artist: $3,500
As I patched the bits of sky together, it became more and more baroque and less and less natural—hence the title. And I deliberately made the final piece without a single correct orientation—the clouds don’t necessarily follow the lines of flow you’d expect from their relationship to the treeline horizon—and that horizon runs quite artificially around all four sides, providing multiple reference points for any part of the skyscape.
Natural Baroque (clouds) was not intended to be perfectly seamless, and it’s not—there are many passages where it’s unclear whether a painterly mark or a rough transition is a holdover from the original photograph or an artefact of montaging. Rather than providing an intensified version of what I think of as the ‘sunset effect’, the piece ends up in that uncanny valley between photography and painting where so much of my two-dimensional work exists (for example, the Ghost Galleries and Noxiterra pieces).
It took a lot of meditative hours in Photoshop to make the final collage, with its fragments from over two dozen source images. It’s a very large image; the scale is hard to convey here on the web, but you might get a sense of the whole if you look for the airplane in the first detail shot. It’s for this reason that I’m not offering small prints of this piece; anything less than 24 x 24 inches doesn’t do the piece justice.
| Tags: clouds, landscape art, montage, skyscape
August 16, 2011
When I was growing up, my mother would often read poetry to us at dinner. Among the favorites we’d demand over and over were Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” (“When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor…”) and Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” (“The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day…”), which to this day represents just about the high point of my interest in baseball. In the realm of nonsense verse, Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” led the pack.
At that time, like many children, I had a decided preference for highly ornamented and detailed drawings, along the lines of Arthur Rackham‘s illustrations for The Wind in the Willows or Howard Pyle’s plates for The Wonder Clock. So although I loved Lear’s poem, I was indifferent to the drawings that accompanied it. (Later, in other contexts, I developed a taste for pared-down drawing and an appreciation of the skill required to do more with less.) So I hadn’t thought about Lear’s little pen sketches for years when I stumbled across a series of paintings he created early in his career, when he was working as a scientific illustrator. The macaw at right is just one of a series of parrots Lear depicted in watercolor for the 1832 volume Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae. He started on this series when he was just 18, and they earned him a solid reputation as one of the best natural history painters of his era—he was compared favorably to Audubon. I believe the comparison is a just one, but you can make the call yourself since both the parrot paintings and another series he did of birds and mammals from Lord Stanley’s menagerie are on the web.
I hadn’t known anything about this aspect of Lear’s life, and it would never have occurred to me, studying his familiar line drawings, that he might have gone in for this kind of work. If you stumbled across the two images shown here, without any identifying information, your first thought would not be, “Oh these must be by the same artist.” How is it that something like half of Lear’s artistic oeuvre has remained all but invisible to the general public? Certainly the fact that Lear’s poetry became popular with a mass audience helped to ensure that his name would remain associated with pussycats rather than parrots, quirky drawings rather than precision watercolors. But the fact that it is an either/or question points to a larger issue: the way that the “signature style” meme came to dominate both the commercial and reputational art markets in the 20th century. Artists became increasingly identified with one style, and anything else they did came to be viewed as preparatory (early work), ancillary (side projects), or degraded (late work)—all shorthand for ‘unimportant’. It’s also because scientific illustration has never had a very high profile in the realm of high art, whether because it’s downgraded as a kind of craft skill (along with other forms of illustration), or because it’s seen as a subsidiary form (dependent on another field for its very existence), or because its representational literalism is anathema to most of the major strains of modernism.
I prefer to see them as two aspects of the same thing: each a form of inquiry, each a form of knowledge production. Both are Lear, and I’m only sorry I’ve been viewing him with half an eye, so to speak, for so long.
| Tags: art, Edward Lear, illustration, natural history
August 11, 2011
I recently came across a stash of photos I took awhile back when I was in Baltimore working on a new performance piece at the Baltimore Theatre Project. Through the BTP, we were able to stay at the Inn at Government House, a restored 19th century mansion that bills itself as the “Official Guesthouse of the City of Baltimore.” (It’s also open to the public; the guestrooms are actually in an annex and a good deal less posh than the main house, though also decorated with an assortment of period bric-a-brac.)
As a working artist sweating out long hours on a complex project with a crazy small budget, it was distinctly odd to have the run of a mansion in my free time. But it was also a lot of fun, like hanging out in a museum after hours.
Finished in 1889, the Inn is an archive of the high design of its period, especially in the woodworking and wallpaper departments. The wallpaper runs to the most elaborate Art Nouveau styles, a thorough-going testimonial to horror vacui. But this same feature also made it unusually comprehensive of symbolic motifs: in just the few images shown here, there are forms that resemble pomegranates, poppies, acanthus leaves, peaches, lilies, ferns, roses, lotuses, gentians, and seed heads. I was especially taken by a border of peacocks, with its elaborate golden ferns and blue lilies. What is it about peacocks that made them one of the key symbolic motifs of the late 19th century—think of Whistler’s Peackock Room for the Leyland house, for instance (now in the Freer Gallery in Washington). Some gut-grabbing compound of the vanity of life, beauty of nature, orientalism, and decayed Christianity?
In one of the sitting rooms, I came across a set of mullioned windows through which the light came green and gold, filtered by the trees outside—you can see them in the top photo on this page. I was struck by the way the old, wavy-textured glass abstracted the trees so that the effect was no longer one of looking through a window at nature but something much closer to stained glass. The light and color seemed to be in and of the glass itself. So when I got back home, I cropped and composited a couple of my photos of these windows to create the diptych shown here. It’s proportioned to serve as that most contemporary form of wallpaper, the desktop picture or screenpaper. Feel free to grab a screen cap, or download a 1024 x 768 version here (234 kb).
| Tags: Art Nouveau, design, performance, Playing the Rapture, stained glass
August 8, 2011
Earlier this month, I wrote a post about the “Chain Letter” show at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, which I criticized on a number of grounds related to the exploitation of artists. The gallery has just circulated an email with links to reviews of the show, and my anti-puff-piece was naturally not included in the list. So I thought I’d follow up with a review of the reviews, since I still think the larger subject is important.
None of the reviews I read had much to say about the art beyond the obvious—there was work in many styles and most media, especially 3D assemblages, and a good deal of it used found materials. It was almost as though the writers felt that the “pseudo-democratic” structure of the show constrained them from passing judgment on the quality of the work. The aggregate effect of the reviews is of politeness trumping honesty; there is just no visible enthusiasm for the work in the show as art.
Several writers took the position that the show was a success as a community event: artists hanging out together on installation day, helping each other place their work, partying at the opening. For one writer, Carol Cheh, “this huge instant community of artists was probably the closest I’ve come to experiencing some kind of utopia.” Really? Elsewhere in her piece there is an image of “a gallery literally bulging with art, kind of like the fat, overstuffed man in the Monty Python sketch who eats one last ‘wafer-thin mint’ and ends up exploding.” Christopher Knight in the L.A. Times online edition called the show a “Brobdingnagian found-object assemblage scavenged from endless Internet highways.” On the Huffington Post, Lisa Adams wrote: “What impacted me most was the amount of time, energy and/or money the vast majority of artists put into the pieces they submitted. I interpreted this to indicate that many artists saw Chain Letter as perhaps the one opportunity to have their work seen in an ‘A’ list gallery by someone of substance, meaning someone in the art world who has the power to do something about their work. It made me sad.” Utopia, anyone?
Cheh also remarks that that if every artist had said ‘yes’ to their invitation, “the power of that would be infinite, world-changing.” This is hyperbole pure and simple, and wishful thinking as well. And in any case, where would all that art have gone? Cheh herself notes that Shoshana Wayne stopped accepting artworks by the end of installation day, capping the show at around 1600 pieces. In other words, the gallery didn’t even live up to the contract implicit in its initial invitation. (I imagine those artists turned away might have a legal case, but that’s not my bailiwick.) Although I think the show was ridiculous from the get-go, I also think the gallery should not have capped entries; rather, it should have kept going until the last artist in line was signed in and the last piece of art wedged in with the others. Something aesthetically interesting might actually have happened at that point. Stopping short betrayed the initial idea, that extreme premise that captivated all those artists, and it allowed the gallery to preserve, barely, the illusion that this entire event had anything at all to do with seeing art.
It’s not as if the math was hard to do or the end hard to foresee, once you started the logorithmic scale-up of invitations from 1 to 10 to 100 and so on. An artist I know ran the calculations out and determined that (barring duplications, of which there were in fact a lot) 11 billion people would have been invited by day 11, in a world with a population of 7 billion. In what possible way is the world changed by inviting potentially everyone on the planet to think of themselves as an artist admired by some other artist so that they can cram their artwork into a small set of warehouse spaces in southern California? As a visible manifestation of the ‘six degrees of separation’ principle, fine. As a moment of involuntary Dada, excellent. As anything else, a monumental waste of time.
It is noteworthy that the participants themselves started referring to the event as “Artmaggedon”—inspired no doubt by the almost simultaneous naming of the 405 freeway closure as “Carmaggedon,” a similarly hyperbolic title for a near-nonevent. Certainly a tongue-in-cheek name, but one that points nonetheless to the underlying idea of catastrophe. Indeed, the reviews of this show take the tone and structure of a favorite American storyline: the goodwill and optimism of plucky individuals in the face of disaster (“a we’re-all-in-this-together spirit“). In this case, however, they can’t admit the disaster so they focus on the good parts: hanging out and helping one another; what another writer termed “friendly chaos.” (Worker solidarity: nonunion labor at the factory.) But did anyone really doubt that artists have tons of mutual respect and a sense of being bound together as underdogs in a culture that largely despises them?
Another tack taken by reviewers—and carefully promoted by the gallery’s initial positioning of the show—is that “Chain Letter” is somehow a shining testimony to the power and promise of social media. In one sense it is, in that it’s become enormously easier to generate mass events, whether flash mobs or political campaigns or 1600-person shows, or the corresponding traffic jam outside Bergamot Station over which several of the show’s reviewers dwell. SigAlert equals success because, yes, bigger is always better. And with the rise of social media it’s become easier to capture the creative energy of other people to fuel one’s own career—a process that’s been going on since the earliest days of the web and that has become glamorized as crowd-sourcing. As one web commentator noted: “Here, at Bergamot Station, in the summer of 2011, we all became one big installation piece by Harvey and Cummings.” (Don’t just follow the money: follow the power.) As I see it, almost the only people who stand to gain anything more from this show than some ‘hanging out with friendly strangers’ time are its curators—or ‘instigators’, as they prefer to be called—whose names are all over the reviews and who will undoubtedly harvest enough street cred from this event that they can undertake their next SigAlert-generating spectacle.
Meanwhile, participants have been reminded that if they don’t pick up their pieces by 2 pm on the day they’ve been assigned, their work will be “discarded.” No exceptions! And don’t let the door slam you in the ass on the way out.
Comments (6) | Tags: art, exhibitions, Santa Monica, Shoshana Wayne, social media
August 6, 2011
This blog is now a year old. When I started it last summer, I wasn’t sure I’d make it this far. But now that I have, I intend to keep going.
Early on, I wrote a post in which I offered a ‘word cloud’ generated from a bunch of old texts, with the idea of giving a visual impression of my general interests. The unstated implication was that it might also give an idea of what territory the blog could be expected to explore. That first word cloud (shown below right) led off with ‘performance’ and roamed around through technology, role play, media, forgery, identity, narrative and a bunch of other subjects that were related, at least in my own mind.
I wrote then that I planned to generate a new word cloud after the blog had been up for a year, so I offer it here (above left), as promised. Like the first one, it was created by uploading a slew of texts—in this case, blog texts—to wordle.net, which presumably runs some kind of frequency alogorithm in order to generate the resulting image.
The differences are pretty obvious: much more of an emphasis on the working life of an artist (materials, book, camera, design, show…) and much less on performance and the net ( impersonation, improvisation, avatars, online…). I’m a little surprised that the word ‘technology’ has disappeared from the cloud, since I think I’ve talked about the technologies of art in quite a lot of my posts. Perhaps I’ve been focusing more on the specifics of technologies and less on technology as a general subject.
And I’m certain this word cloud reflects the blog’s general tendencies better than a snapshot of the most-used tags (below left). Useful though tags are, they are highly subject to my whims and assumptions. When I remember to use them at all (!), I tend to focus on two things: (1) terms that I think visitors might search for if they were trying to find ‘that post on X’, and (2) terms that might usefully help with Google page rankings. The operate phrase there is “I think” since I could easily be wrong on both counts.
The most puzzling aspect of the new cloud, of course, is the keyword ‘one’, crowned as pre-eminent by wordle’s algorithm. One what? Have I been using the third-person singular neutral pronoun more than I thought? Starting too many sentences off with “One day…”? (One sits scratching one’s head and wondering if one day it will all become clear.)
What I like most about the new cloud is this: that the three most prominent words, taken as a phrase (and overlooking the small matter of punctuation), amount to a concise statement of the blog’s central subject and reason for existing: one artist’s work. I’ll take that as a good sign for the second year.
August 2, 2011
I made the book that bears this title in an attempt to cope with the extreme disparity between works of interest by Salvador Dali and the sheer size of his oeuvre, which must run into the hundreds of thousands of pieces, if one counts all the print runs (even excluding fakes). I paid a good deal of attention to his work when I was learning to paint, and even then I found it exhausting to contemplate the muchness of it. Partly this is due to the way he packs enough into any single painting to sustain another painter through half a dozen works—compare him in this respect with his master Yves Tanguy, for instance.
This piece started out as a mass-produced coffee table book of the kind people pick up on remainder tables for Christmas presents. I chose it because it wasn’t too large to imagine reinventing, it was hardback (for sturdiness), and it was in German, which meant that I wouldn’t be distracted by the text. Through overpainting, overprinting, collage, and other alterations, I reconfigured most of the images.
The process was largely automatic in direct homage to Surrealism, and I carried it out over a period of months, something like a painter’s daybook. If in the end the book shows less of Dali, it is perhaps not actually less Daliesque, given that a good deal was added for all that was taken away. (The idea that there might be a “reasonable size” to any artist’s oeuvre was a ludicrous idea on its face, but like many such ideas it provided the starting point for a certain kind of play.) I see the whole as a silent manifesto for appropriation, and the individual pages as a kind of involuntary collaboration, neither wholly Dali’s nor wholly mine. For this reason I consider the book a Museum of Forgery project (a few more images can be found here on the museum’s website).
When the book was finished, I had bookbinder Zahre Partovi (whom I’ve mentioned in another post) rebind it in black cloth and stamp the title on the cover in silver ink, from a relief plate that I photo-etched.
The book has been included in several shows but I haven’t been able to bear to part with it. So far.
| Tags: Museum of Forgery, Salvador Dali
July 26, 2011
Like many artists, I’m enamored of sample books and stock sheets and other small things ordered by color—everything from yarn samples to paint swatches to thread displays. Quite awhile back I made this small piece, entitled Assorted Samples, as I was contemplating what a ‘sample sheet’ might look like for an artist as opposed to, say, a carpet manufacturer. The sample sheets included here are actually outtakes from various projects—unfinished, repurposed, or recycled—and so they function more as miniature showcases of the vanished than as true samples, which point always to future possibilities.
This piece was created during a period when I experimented extensively with making envelopes, folders, boxes, and other containers for unique works. The holder for Assorted Samples was made out of the simplest of materials: an ordinary manila file folder, some black construction paper for reinforcement, a brass roundead paper fastener, gray thread, and glue. The only tools required were a pencil, a matte knife, a straightedge, and a standard paper punch.
I made a number of tests as I worked out the the proportions, depth, and carrying capacity of the folder, as well as such details as the length and edge treatment of the front flap. The black pentagonal shape serves both as a structural element, reinforcing the clasp hole, and as a visual cue. After it was put together, I stenciled the title on the cover in pencil.
I thought I’d share the design here since it was so straightforward to make and the basic pattern can be adapted to a number of different materials, sizes, and proportions. There’s certainly a version that could be made using tabs and slots instead of glue, and one that dispenses with the punched holes in favor of some other clasp system. And… and… over to you.
Feel free to screen-grab the version at left, or download a larger version here (72 dpi, 28 kb zipped).
| Tags: art, design, DIY, miniatures
July 24, 2011
Earlier this summer I received an email from a friend inviting me to take part in an exhibition entitled “Chain Letter” curated by Christian Cummings & Doug Harvey at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica. The invitation read in part:
“Chain Letter” is a group show wherein 10 artists have been invited to participate. Those 10 then invite 10 artists whom they admire. Those 10 invite 10 more and so on. This cycle continues for 30 days.
The result is an exponentially massive, artist-curated group show based entirely on admiration.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve been invited to take part in such ‘artist invites artist’ shows, but in most cases the invite chain has been only one or two links long. So the first thing that struck me about this show was those works “exponentially massive.” No kidding: I invite 10 people, they each invite 10 more (making 111 so far), they invite 10 more (1,111), and so on for 30 days. Multiplied by all the other people doing the same thing along other branches of the tree. Even accounting for duplicate invitations and decisions not to participate on the part of many invitees, it still seemed to me unlikely that the artworks so solicited would be likely to fit in anything much less than an airplane hangar.
Another thing that struck me about the invitation was the degree to which responsibility—by which I mean labor and costs—was shifted from the gallery to the artist. Other rules for the show included the following:
- Artists are entirely responsible for installing their own work.
- Artists must bring their work to the show in a single 8-hour installation window.
- Artists must pick up their own work at the end of the show, and they risk having it “recycled, traded or discarded” if they miss the specific pickup window.
- Artists must not email the curators or venue with questions.
Ok, so I’m all for a DIY approach in many instances, and I’ve certainly taken part in shows and events where a good deal of the organization, installation, and so on fell on the artists. Even down to painting the venue—every artist I know has been there, done that. And it can be exceedingly worthwhile to work with a gallery or other venue this way. But here’s an instance where all the labor and expense is being thrown on the artists—truck rental costs, shipping costs, insurance, moving time, installation and deinstallation, not to mention the cost of making the work in the first place—and for what? The chance to place one’s work in a mass exhibition where it can get lost among perhaps a few thousand other works? Where’s the upside here?
At first I thought I wouldn’t take part, but I passed on the invite to a bunch of people I admire anyway (more than the 10 specified—I figured there was no point being restrained if the numbers were going to become astronomical anyhow). Ultimately I decided to make an infographic piece expressing my reservations about these kinds of chain-invite shows, as a kind of public service. It’s styled after scam-watch websites like this one and this other one. I’ve emailed it to all the artists I invited, as well as the person who initially invited me, with a note that they are welcome to further distribute it in any way. I printed it out poster size for the show itself, and I reproduce the web version here at left. Since the text is very small at blog jpeg size, I’ve created a separate post with the main text of the piece. But here is an excerpt:
Artists are often not aware until too late that the total number of artists who can be “accepted” into a single show through this kind of chain email tree can easily reach the thousands in a short time. This logarithmic escalation effect is similar to that seen in other pyramidal set-ups, such as Ponzi schemes.
What this means is that even artists who manage to claim space for their own work during the installation window are likely to find themselves in an extremely crowded, “salon-style” show with little prospect that their work will stand out from the crowd of other objects. Artworks that are fragile, small, require sound isolation, or have other special requirements will especially suffer. Furthermore, since art critics tend to look askance on mass exhibitions, the desired reputational benefit will probably not materialize.
I went up to the gallery yesterday as instructed during the installation window—my piece is mainly circulating virtually, but I wanted to see if the show was going to be the kind of zoo I figured it for. My initial plan was to arrive early, but because of a morning meeting I ended up arriving around 2 pm. At that point the parking lot at Bergamot Station, where Shoshana Wayne Gallery is located, was filled to capacity and the line of people waiting to check in with the gallery staff was 150 long, by my count. The word was that there had been an even bigger mob in the morning. I was really curious now and joined the line. It took a little under an hour to reach the check-in desk, at which point I was given artist number 1,227 and directed to a space in the F1 section of Bergamot Station.
When I got there, I found the room was already filled almost literally to overflowing with artworks large and small (mostly small). Works were packed so closely together that there was no longer any access to the pieces in the corners, and the open floor space was shrinking steadily. Artists of all ages and many styles milled about cheerfully, wedging their works into the small patches of remaining space.
The general arrangement had gone far beyond salon style; the effect was something between an attic, a junkshop, and a dump. It felt like a place where art came to die. It was one of the saddest art environments I’ve ever been in; it hardly seemed possible that art could be made to seem less valued or more abject without actually taking it out and throwing it in the trash. And even that might read as a clean gesture; to create an inadvertent art slag heap within the confines of the gallery system just struck me as a travesty and an insult.
And I’m still wondering what the point of this show could have been. If it was to give less known artists a viewing within the name-gallery system, it wasn’t well thought out since not only is it hard to ‘see’ individual works in the chaos of these rooms but everything looks debased. If it’s to gain some revenue through sales, it might work—I’m guessing there might be some ‘friends of the artists’ type sales to be made here. That probably counts as a win for the gallery, but whether it counts as a success for the artist may depend on whether they tally all their costs. If it’s to gain some rep for the gallery and/or Bergamot Station as a publicly minded entity, it might just work. If it’s to create an event that the curators can maybe pitch as relational art, or a slow flash mob, or a power shift from gallery to artist—well, whichever way you slice it, the reality on the ground doesn’t add up. If it’s to hold the summer’s most well-attended art party, I’m guessing it may be a success—if even a fraction of the thousands of artists come with their friends to the opening tonight, it’ll be quite a blast. Ultimately it seems likely that the main thing most artists will get out of this event is a line item on their art resume.
And that’s just wrong.
Edit, 7-27-11: It occurred to me that this might work more interestingly as a flea market, perhaps within an existing venue. Bring on the broad demographics, the open haggling, the spirit of ‘what can I do with that?’ that goes along with a flea market.
Comments (7) | Tags: art, Chain Letter, exhibitions, markets, Shoshana Wayne
July 23, 2011
Chain Email Exhibition Invitations
06-09-2011. The IC3 continues to receive reports of emails being sent out with the intent of selecting artists for an exhibition from a chain email ‘tree’ organized by the artists themselves. These schemes use legitimate-sounding gallery names to lure artists into participating in mass exhibitions. The initial round of emails (usually a dozen or so) tell their recipients that they are invited to participate in an exhibition under the following typical “protocols”:
- They must forward the invitation to another dozen or so artists “whom they admire”.
- They are responsible for all the work of transportation, installation, and deinstallation of their work, and they must cover any related costs (insurance, shipping, etc.)
In return, artists are offered the prospect of exhibiting in a curated show in a named gallery, with the always desirable potential of selling their work. For some artists, there is also the reputational benefit of having their name linked with better-known artists who may be drawn into the show through the pyramid effect of the chain email tree.
Although some of these chain email shows are well-intentioned, many are poorly thought out and/or raise expectations they cannot satisfy. Artists are often not aware until too late that the total number of artists who can be “accepted” into a single show through this kind of chain email tree can easily reach the thousands in a short time. This logarithmic escalation effect is similar to that seen in other pyramidal set-ups, such as Ponzi schemes.
What this means is that even artists who manage to claim space for their own work during the installation window are likely to find themselves in an extremely crowded, “salon-style” show with little prospect that their work will stand out from the crowd of other objects. Artworks that are fragile, small, require sound isolation, or have other special requirements will especially suffer. Furthermore, since art critics tend to look askance on mass exhibitions, the desired reputational benefit will probably not materialize.
In addition to the protocols mentioned above, here are some further red flags that may help you avoid these kinds of shows:
- If the curators tell you not to contact them with questions before the show opens, or if they are simply unresponsive to queries despite having given out contact information.
- If installation for the show is organized on a “first come, first serve” basis.
- If it is stated that work not picked up during the deinstallation window will be destroyed, traded, recycled, or sold by the gallery.
- If you do not recognize the name of the person inviting you to join such a show.
- If there is a fee for entry (usually payable after the artist accepts the invitation).
If you have been a victim of any kind of cyber crime, you can report it to the IC3 at www.IC3.gov. The IC3 complaint database links complaints for potential referral to law enforcement for case consideration. Complaint information is also used to identify emerging trends and patterns to alert the public to new criminal schemes.
| Tags: art, chain mail, design, satire, scam
July 16, 2011
I’ve recently been rephotographing some of my older work, especially pieces that were made abroad or during times of transition when I didn’t have time (or couldn’t be bothered) to do proper documentation. This book was among the first to get reshot, partly because it remains among my favorite projects from the 1990s. I started it in 1993, while I was living in Germany and finished it in New York a couple of years later. I made it as I was experimenting with early desktop publishing software and a black-and-white laser printer, but its creation also involved a good many of the hand construction techniques typical of a traditional artist’s book. It is, as the historians say, ‘of its time’.
The Photographer’s Handbook 1 consists of alternating pages of tipped-in images on heavy paper stock and vellum pages with text printed in a handwriting font. The book is designed such that when a vellum page is open to the right, it displays the caption for the image on the left, and when it is turned to the left, it displays the caption for the image on the right. (Whichever caption is inactive is still visible on the other side of the translucent vellum page but turned backwards and positioned on top of its corresponding image to make it even less noticeable.)
The book has 8 pages of images and 5 pages of captions, and it was bound for me in black cloth with silver detailing by the wonderful bookbinder and Rumi translator Zahra Partovi. Its construction happened in a slightly back-to-front manner. I first printed all the vellum text pages and then cut them to the size of the final untrimmed book, along with the blank pages of heavy stock. Zahre bound all the pages and trimmed them to make the semi-finished book, after which I glued in the images individually.
The image plates in The Photographer’s Handbook 1 began life as photographs in old German lifestyle magazines (ca. 1960) that I picked up in a flea market. In each image, I isolated one or more details that were otherwise buried—an informal approach to the punctum, perhaps—and overprinted the rest of the image with one of the default ‘fill’ patterns found in early DTP programs. Lattices, bricks, moirés, and the like, these patterns are all but unusable for most purposes—like faux wood-grain paneling or polka-dotted textiles, they overwhelm everything around them. I was attracted to them for that very reason, and also because they provided a quality of semi-transparency that was otherwise difficult to achieve at that point because of technological issues (principally banding and smearing of ink). I ran a lot of different paper stocks through my laser printer in that period, and the thin, coated magazine stock of these images took laser ink better than most.
The text is a series of aphorisms modeled on the quasi-mathematical advice that fills photographers’ handbooks and which I have never found all that useful—it always turns out that there is some kind of unbridgeable gap between what the manuals say and what conditions in the fields actually are. So I decided to offer an entirely different approach to photographic instruction, with such mantras as:
The importance of any object enlarges in proportion to the remoteness of the eye.
The distance from any plane to any point not on the plane is equal to the distance between your thumb and forefinger.
Parallel lines disparage each other.
The font used in the book is named Forger and it’s one I designed using my own handwriting as the starting point. Typefaces in general retain a lot of vestigial traits that arose with the technologies of handwriting and inscription (e.g. serifs), and I wanted to elaborate on this skeuomorphic tradition by rendering my analog handwriting into the mathematical vectors of a digital font. It was also a way of critiquing the artificial division between the hand-made and the computer-made. Creating the Type 1 PostScript font of Forger took several hundred hours of intensive drawing and tweaking, many times what it would have taken to write out the words on the pages ‘by hand’. I produced Forger using the program Fontographer, which I still think is one of the best-designed programs I’ve ever used. (By ‘best designed’ I mean mainly that it had all essential functions, no bloat, and an easy-to-use interface.)
The Photographer’s Handbook 1 has a twin, The Photographer’s Handbook 2, with the same form and text but a different set of images on the tipped-in plates. I don’t want to part with either one, but I did want to share at least one of them here.
| Tags: design, font, Fontographer, Germany, photography, software
July 14, 2011
Every field has its secret lore retailed in the form of unverifiable stories. A generation or so ago, any budding artist sooner or later heard the rumors about Famous Male Artist X peeing on his canvases or using semen as a paint binder (the proteins that make it get sticky as it dries serve the same purpose as the egg in classical egg tempera technique). These acts represent such a perfect constellation of the bravado, machismo, provocation, and mythologizing required by the American art world that it’s likely many ambitious male artists would make such claims even if they weren’t true. Equally, given the average human being’s fascination with his or her own body and the experimental tendencies of artists, it’s obvious that many male artists must have actually made such experiments over the centuries.
I’ve always been annoyed by these stories—my base reaction amounts to ‘and your point is…?’—in part because I reject the underlying assumption that I would necessarily be shocked and/or titillated, or that such activities qua experiments are really anything much out of the way for artists. But there’s more to it than that. If, as Lewis Hyde argues, artists are “dirt workers” for their cultures, serving to make visible the abject and reframe the vile, then by all means let us work with semen and menstrual blood and elephant dung and bathe our Christs in piss. But this process of reculturation can only take place in the light—as part of the common coin of our larger discussion about what is valuable and what is not and under what circumstances each may be transformed into the other. By contrast, whispered stories of pissed and cum-stained paintings serve a culturally conservative function, reinforcing dirt as dirt (not to be spoken of in public) and the male artist as a privileged being who can inflict his filth on other, lesser mortals. It is this aspect of things that has always gotten under the skin of my inner feminist.
So I’ve been reflecting on how the use of ejaculate has been shifting in the years since bolder artists began to address such taboo discharges openly in their work, starting perhaps with the blood-centered work of some key feminist artists in the 1960s and ’70s (shout-out here to Ana Mendieta, Judy Chicago, Carolee Schneeman, Karen Finley). Here is a sample of writings from the last decade on this subject:
[Artist Dash] Snow has been working with his own ejaculate a lot lately; his contribution to the Saatchi show was a piece called Fuck the Police, which featured sprays of his sperm on a collagelike installation of tabloid cutouts. [source]
When I am at his studio, [Dan] Colen shows me one of his first art projects in high school: a series of magazine pictures of hip-hop stars on which he ejaculated. [source]
The British Jordan McKenzie, 40, involves [sic] in epic auto-sexual orgies for creating a new exhibition, which is the result of his masturbating and ejaculating over the canvas. [source]
Essentially the models are asked [by artist Emery] to ejaculate on the canvas. [source]
And the winner of the Monty Python Every Sperm Is Sacred Trophy for unintentially comic writing is:
When he’s not plating shit in gold, splattering his semen on canvas or just carousing around, art-world bad boy Terence Koh likes to read French poetry. [source]
My evidence is too limited to call a trend, but I think it is at least suggestive that there are now numerous (and easy to find) instances of youngish male artists openly discussing this practice. It seems clear from the context of the articles that this is still a deliberately mythologizing ploy—that is, even as the practice has moved out of the realm of secret lore, it hasn’t necessarily entered the realm of dirt work. For the most part, it remains a simple and unsubtle stand-in for the social potency of having a penis. And the hacks and flacks who write about it like to have it both ways, playing up the shock-and-titillation factor (“he paints using his semen!”) while chiding their readership for being shocked and titillated (“both [groups] are rather outraged with these masterworks”).
I certainly don’t want to stop anyone from jizzing all over their work—it sounds like fun—or from experimenting with the chemical and mechanical properties of semen. I’ve used menstrual blood and spit myself for various artistic purposes. Just, can we please stop pretending it’s a big deal in and of itself?