Thursday, November 13, 2014

Reimagining Africanity at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum


“Mutu is not usually seen through the lenses of Afrosurrealism and Afrofuturism.”



“There’s room for us all on the spaceship,”* was one of the comments on a panel at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum at Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) on November 1, underscoring its suitability as a follow-up to my interview with Sarah Beck about artists and outer space.

The panel, “Voyaging the Fantastic: Afrosurrealism and Afrofuturism in Wangechi Mutu and Contemporary Black Art,” featured artists based in nearby Chicago: D. Denenge Akpem, Krista Franklin, and Ayanah Moor. Akpem is a self-described “space sculptor” who works in installation as well as interior design, focusing on its facilitation of empowerment; Franklin, a poet, is drawn to collage because it “can displace race;” and Moor, a recent Chicago transplant, uses black hair—which she describes as amazingly transformative—as her “original material” in art. All three artists have worked together before, reinforcing Franklin’s later description of Chicago as a “community of makers.” The windy city is also, I learned, home to many black female astronauts.

Franklin stressed the value in recovering works of “black spacey culture” that preceded the terms, ‘Afrosurrealism’ and ‘Afrofuturism.’ The first such example raised was Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. Moor commended her for “positioning blackness beyond earth.”

Reflecting on the origins of terminology is also informative. Panel moderator, Alexander Weheliye, professor of African American Studies at Northwestern University, recalled that the term ‘Afrofuturism’ emerged on a listserv whose members hailed from inside and outside academia. As a librarian, I was curious to see if this combination is still apparent in their current use. Indeed, the first page of Google results for ‘Afrosurrealism’ links to academic databases, a newspaper article, a film festival website, a blog, Tumblr, and Instagram. For ‘Afrofuturism’? Amazon, a newspaper article, a magazine article, Wikipedia, Tumblr, Facebook, a website showcasing art, and a website highlighting Afrofuturism’s relevance to cultural production beyond visual art. Still, my standby resource for preliminary research, Oxford Reference Online, yields zero results for both terms. Clearly, there is work to be done.

The terms themselves warrant reflection. Franklin cautioned that ‘Afrosurrealism’ and ‘Afrofuturism’ could become like brands and restrict the discussion. And they’re already restrictive. Moor observed that there’s a tendency to use the “same five ways to define some brown person’s work.” Recently, Franklin was on the receiving end of a presumptive and isolating comment that her work was “the Afrofuturist piece” in an exhibition, and Akpem made an artwork during her MFA studies about her mother having breast cancer, which people fixated on as a racialized portrait, rather than a portrait of a woman who happened to be black. Akpem characterized this tendency as surface level treatment and Franklin referred to it as the “pigeon-holing…of black productivity.” Moor said we need to keep expanding the vocabulary beyond terms like ‘identity politics.’ She noted that we should welcome people with different approaches. “This is just one model for this conversation," she stressed. "Other formats are possible.” Franklin encourages constant reimagining, and Akpem recommends “moving out of linear ideas of space and time” because Afrofuturism is “about the here and now” as well as the future. The latter idea might sound nebulous out of context, but not when an earlier comment by Akpem about Mutu’s work is considered: “Take your creation myth and rework it in a future state.” Moor situated her work similarly, noting that Mutu conveys alternate realities and that her work contains a “beautiful fantasy element.”

Weheliye noted that Mutu is not usually seen through the lenses of Afrosurrealism and Afrofuturism. Even so, “she [Mutu] adds complexity to the way that blackness and Africanity have been imagined.” Pointing to this complexity was the frequent identification of polarities in Mutu’s work. Moor identified a sense of ‘womanness’ in figures being submerged or rising up, with striking fluidity. Moor also commented on the pairing of vulnerability and violence, and of construction and deconstruction. Akpem alluded to the push and pull of Mutu’s work by describing it as fetishistic art talismans with a trickster aesthetic. She noted, for example, that Mutu’s figures can be both grotesque and sexy. Franklin likewise described the shape-shifting “formidable creatures” of women hybridized with elements of animals, plants, and machines as both protective and threatening.

After two hours of engaging discussion (I hadn’t even realized the panel had gone half an hour over and that my husband was waiting in the lobby), the audience filtered into the museum’s stellar mixed media exhibition, Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey (Sept. 19-Dec. 7, 2014; organized by Trevor Schoonmaker, Chief Curator and Patsy R. and Raymond D. Nasher Curator of Contemporary Art, Duke University), which is the first US survey of her work. Walking through the show, I was reminded of Franklin’s enthusiasm for Mutu’s work. When encountering work, she said, “I should be like, ‘Oh, sh*#!’”

*D. Denenge Akpem

Image: Pretty Double-Headed; 2010; mixed media, ink, collage, and spray paint on mylar; courtesy of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum

Friday, September 5, 2014

Back to School with Sarah Beck


“There’s a beautiful balance between science and art that’s waiting to be tapped.”

I caught up with Sarah Beck by phone after her return from Montreal as the first artist-in-residence at the International Space University’s Space Studies Program (SSP14), which is in its 27th year.

HS: If I understand correctly, your starting point of the Pioneer Plaque (1972) was the first visual initiative to communicate to aliens. Can you tell me more about it?

SB: Carl Sagan was approached by NASA at the last minute. His wife actually drew it [the design that would become an etching]. It contained a pulsar map, which is like a time capsule; if someone found it, they could tell when it left our solar system. She compressed all body types and ethnicities for the nude figures, and she was heavily criticized because the man was waving and the woman wasn’t.

HS: What was at the heart of the controversy?

SB: He was waving. He was dominant. Also, she was relatively thin. As a pair, they were controversial because they were obviously Caucasian, even though she tried to make the figures cross-racial.

HS: I remember reading that in one of the Voyager missions, images of sex organs and a slightly pregnant woman didn’t make the cut. Do you think we’ve become more or less prudish with the images we’d use to communicate with aliens?

SB: Well, the seventies were pretty swinging! The unfortunate thing is that the Sagans were so obsessed with biology that they overlooked culture. In their defense, with anything that involves tax dollars there’s going to be controversy and it’s going to be seen as ‘space smut.’

HS: What other tactics were used in that time in anticipation of alien contact?

SB: Frank Drake was already sending radio signals into space, then paired up with the Sagans and others to create the ‘Murmurs from Earth’ project. They sent a gold record into space with a uranium spot on it; it’s a way to time stamp because it allows for dating. They wanted to capture sounds of the earth: dolphin sounds, babies crying, even Chuck Berry. There’s a Saturday Night Live skit with aliens asking for more Chuck Berry! They wanted to get people to say hello in every language on the record, so they went to the UN because that seemed the most expedient way. But some countries refused to participate if their enemies participated, or if their favorite songs from home were not included. Some went on to record long-winded speeches, and the whole exercise ended in a bit of a SNAFU. Notably, no ‘Rosetta Stone’ was included, so I suppose there would be no way to decode what was being said in so many languages anyhow. Ultimately this aspect of the recording is definitely a time capsule of earth, and our inability to communicate amongst ourselves...then or now!

The record also makes several cognitive assumptions, first assuming that aliens have ears, and the plaque and operational diagrams assume aliens have eyes. They also assume that if these devices make it through, space aliens even recognize the record as a message and not part of the space probe’s mechanics. Lord knows if I came across the diagram I likely couldn’t operate it myself. Although it has now left our solar system all these years later, the odds of it being intercepted are slim. So it’s more for humans.

HS: What was involved in your re-imagining of the Pioneer Plaque?

SB: The first thing I did was read. Scientists were fascinated to learn that art involves research. 40 years of research seemed manageable to digest at first. I wanted to understand the conversation and identify the key players. During the course of my research, two stories blew my mind: one pointed out that there are two forms of intelligent life on earth—humans and dolphins—yet we have no idea how to communicate with each other. The other story was about two groups of researchers who spent a year devising messages for aliens. When they sent them to each other, one group couldn’t decode the message because they were working with Macs and their counterparts were working with Windows!

The punchline of anything you read is that it’s [alien contact is] not possible. In fact, we may be alone in the universe, which I find as equally terrifying as being one of many intelligent life forms in the universe! Stephen Hawking doesn’t think we should try to contact aliens. He says it’s dangerous. What if alien races are hostile or want our resources? On the other hand, there’s an art critic named Hito Steyerl who says that our messages are already out there, and if aliens are going to get a message, it’s probably going to be one our spam emails about penis enlargements.

HS: Meaning that we need to be more strategic or conscientious about our messages?

SB: Maybe. Carl Sagan pointed out that if aliens are listening to our ‘babble bubble,’ assuming they exist, it’s too late and we might as well be friendly.

I knew I wouldn’t be drawing a new plaque, and wasn’t even sure there was a point to my project. Then I started thinking, what is the ultimate message in a bottle? Space is often compared to the ocean. The odds of a message being scooped out of the vastness of space had me picturing a bottle bobbing along sea waters, waiting for an audience. It’s such an optimistic act to send out a message in a bottle, like a needle in the biggest haystack you can imagine! Using the message in a bottle, the medium itself addresses the hopelessness of interception while it embraces the hopefulness of being found.

I also decided my message needed to be simple, and meant more for my audience on earth. For the alien who intercepts it, the message is ‘you are not alone!’ They may think the object is magic, and in fact, that seems just about right.

As humans, we often ascribe magic to what we do not understand. An important player in the conversation about alien communication is archeology, which is a good way to examine message deconstruction as it’s the only earth-bound example we have to study messages across time. We know that in ancient England, when people found arrowheads, they knew they weren’t from nature, but had no idea what they were. Maybe they were magic? Either way, these early archeologists could tell there was an intervention, and the shape was unlikely to be natural. The rock had evidence of intention. I knew that my message had to include this agency - but that didn’t need to be decoded for the simplicity of the message to be understood.

I was also thinking about math and all of the message composition attempts involving math that I had read about. Ultimately I decided to work with origami because it employs math, intervention, and sculptural poetic aspects. I ended up making origami ships in a bottle. The ship references our history of colonial enterprise, which is the same spirit, for good or bad, that is taking us off the planet and out into space. This aspect of the message is certainly for my fellow humans.

Before folding each ship I marked the small paper with a golden handprint so that if the finder ever unfolded the ship they would be confronted with our hand, the tool used to make the ship. Kind of like the Caves of Lascaux with their hand markings.

I ended up making an edition of 20 and put them into the hands of people who contributed to my thinking around the project, those contributing to space pioneering, and people I know are going into space.

HS: Nice! From the SSP website, I gather that there is an emphasis on team projects. Did you collaborate with professionals and can you describe the process?

SB: The participants don’t sleep. Ever! They spend their first few weeks writing exams. They work morning, noon, and night with boundless energy. I joined them in week 5. I got to do a lot of cool things, like use the Canadarm. I opened the catalogue like it was Christmas and chose the workshops that applied to me most, but I got involved with all of the departments. There are so many aspects to space, it even needs lawyers! And space architects! All these different facets and vantages contributed to my project, but also contributed to my understanding of interdisciplinarity. This is the real deal.

We talk about interdisciplinarity in art, but to see it at work on this scale was really something. People shared their knowledge so freely. When you think about it, each astronaut, cosmonaut, or tyconaut represents an army of people on the ground who made their voyage possible from so many angles. Even the smallest thing needs to be considered, and there is little to no room for ego.

HS: What kind of response did your work get?

SB: A lot of people were like, “OMG! You’re an artist,” which is funny in a room of rocket scientists! Injecting myself into this busy environment was daunting, and as this was a pilot project, we were all figuring it out as we went. People would stop me on their breaks to share their thoughts on the project, or to simply ask questions, but the participants are so busy, so absorbed! Because I had no exams or research keeping me tied up, I had the fortune of interacting with faculty, astronauts, and guests.

I quickly observed that scientists have the same problem as artists; they’re trying to make their discipline more accessible. They need the public to be excited so that funding continues, and future scientists are born! In my work, I’m always trying to expand my audience, and they are too. There’s a beautiful balance between science and art that’s waiting to be tapped. It’s very copascetic. Ultimately, there is a big future for this type of collaboration, and space needs artists to ask the tough questions - space artists need to be born!

Because this was a pilot project, we are already working toward future iterations that further engage participants and the community, maybe even to help them write their own message for aliens.

HS: Speaking of helping other people write messages, on some level, this work makes me think of your Nuit Blanche installation from 2012, Postcards from the End. With disaster tourism, people who aren’t from an area find themselves purposefully in unfamiliar territory, using visual documentation to mark that blending of worlds. Does the work you made at SSP relate to other projects or bodies of work of yours?

SB: While in residence I kept thinking back to the research I was doing for my MFA on Kurt Vonnegut. His brother was a scientist and Cat’s Cradle was written as a warning to scientists. We introduce new technologies like 3-d printed human skin, with no thought of the consequences. I attended a New Technology lecture, and the future seemed so startling, and because I was overwhelmed, I stepped out to the bathroom. I went to wash my hands and the sink wouldn’t work! The future is filled with broken things! It totally reminded me of Cat’s Cradle.

Now I find myself mentally planning an artwork for scientists that is a warning - ‘Just because you can make it doesn’t mean you should.’ In the spirit of Nobel or the Manhattan project. I would also like to write a space opera based on space garbage! Maybe a space artist has been born.

For once [with the origami ships in bottles], I made a project without humour, because there is no irony in space! It was a real change for me because I work with irony and humour a lot. At the SSP14, colonialism was discussed endlessly, and framed only as a positive concept. It was discussed with no derision, no irony. The ‘C word’! Just think! I heard it everywhere as people planned future colonization of Mars, the moon, and beyond. If you think about names like the Voyager, Pioneer, Mariner, Discovery and Endeavor, they’re so optimistic; they sound like colonial ships.

HS: If we look back to the history of exploration, artists’ emphasis was on representing exotic individuals in newly discovered or conquered lands and bringing them back home. The Pioneer Plaque, the Voyager disc images, Murmurs from Earth - they're all interesting because they represent the flipside. You’re right, they really are for the humans and not for the aliens.

SB: Message construction reveals so much about the sender! Like art, it is a mirror back on our society, and likely exposes so much more than we can even imagine.

Message construction is one thing, but at NASA Ames, Berkeley, and many other labs there is serious work being done searching for extraterrestrial communications sent our way. I found myself thinking about these researchers a lot, and wondering how they discuss what they do. It must be tricky going to a party and being asked what you do for a living. The listener probably assumes they are one of those crazy ‘Ancient Alien’ scientists!

HS: I’m curious, were you drawn to this subject matter because it was from the era in which you were born?

SB: A little bit, definitely. But mostly, there’s something about Carl Sagan and the hopefulness and making science accessible that reminds me of art.

HS: Mathematicians designed the Pioneer Plaque, with the rationale that math is the lingua franca, yet the outcome was art. Do you think that art is the common thread among the living?

SB: I know that Linda Sagan was an illustrator as well as a scientist, so art was definitely in the room. But to answer your question, I think the common thread is culture. Culture and smarts are different. We know that monkeys and elephants have made paintings that sold on the market, but would they have made what we think of as paintings without human intervention? Animals use tools. We just learned that bears use tools.

HS: We did?

SB: They use buckets! Otters use rocks! Nature is crazy. Good culture, crappy culture—that’s what makes us different, special. In terms of a lingua franca, it’s impossible to imagine anything outside what we know. We can’t even understanding meaning(s) from the past. We can’t even agree on what good art is or on what masterpieces would be suitable to send into space. To say art is the voice is kind of off. It’s like screaming at the sky. At the end of the day, there’s no Rosetta Stone.

Science is so optimistic that it makes me feel like a cynic. We [artists] are supposed to be the ones who are imaginative. In both fields, there’s a place for both even though artists and scientists can be very solitary. At space school, they’re all actually doing it, with no barriers. It was amazing!

Images courtesy of the artist

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Too Smart for Her Own Good: The Blazing World


“...she would reveal the truth, so people would be forced to admit that female artists are overlooked.”

Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World (2014, Simon & Schuster) is a fitting follow-up to the last book I reviewed, Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol). Like Solanas, the protagonist in The Blazing World, Harriet Burden—who goes by Harry—is a gender-bending provocateur, hell-bent on getting revenge in the New York art world for misattribution of intellectual property but plagued by judgments about her mental state (and, in turn, credibility).

Hustvedt’s novel is a faux-biography, presented as if edited by one I. V. Hess, Professor of Aesthetics, and published on the heels of a posthumous retrospective show of Burden’s art. A work of metafiction, it’s about society’s gullibility and specifically, its inability to see through fiction. It’s convincing as a scholarly biography, between its analysis of the idiosyncrasies of Burden’s journal entries; a postscript commenting on a vital journal of Burden’s that was recovered as the book was about to go to print; and lengthy footnotes revealing the rabbit holes into which academics leap to track obscure leads…so convincing, in fact, that I actually checked the call number to confirm it as a work of literature. Hilariously, Hustvedt writes herself into the text: in a pseudonymously written article outing Burden’s experiment of having three men exhibit her work as their own to expose gender bias, Hustvedt is dismissed as “an obscure novelist and essayist” (p. 255).

After years of being in the shadow of her gallerist husband, the widow Burden convinced Anton Tish (1998), Phineas Q. Eldridge (2002), and Rune (2003) to participate in the ruse, known collectively as Maskings. All three men had enjoyed varying degrees of success in the art world, so their new, fabulous work made discreetly by multi-media artist Burden wouldn’t appear utterly out of the blue. Oddly, their success was her failure was her success. For instance, when one of the artists is fawned over by the press, critics neglect to identify Burden as an influence. She had enough of a reputation as an artist that it is an oversight, but not such an established reputation that it precluded her pursuit of the scam altogether. She could hardly wait for the moment when she would reveal the truth, so people would be forced to admit that female artists are overlooked. Alas, Rune went rogue and refused to take part in the exposé. He noted flippantly in an interview, “We live in a post-feminist age of gender freedom, transsexuality. Who cares which is which? There are lots of women in art now. Where is the battle?” Easier said from his position than Burden’s.

Burden’s welfare suffered substantially as a result of the botched experiment: she lost weight, temporarily lost the new love of her life, and instigated a physical altercation with her nemesis. Her motivation had been multifaceted, making the betrayal that much harder to take: in addition to wanting visibility, she had wanted validation—not just as a visual artist, but arguably as a writer and as a self-made philosopher. Perhaps Hustvedt is conducting an experiment of her own, to gauge the reader’s self-importance: if you recognize an obscure art reference or a historical feminist reference within The Blazing World, how does it make you feel? Knowledgeable? Knowledgeable and therefore superior? Consider two different readings of Burden: her best friend, Rachel, described her as having “an immense appetite for ingesting as much learning as she possibly could” (p. 48), while Eldridge, who was fond of Burden, said of her, “She knew too much, had read too much” (p. 216). Undeniably learned, Burden frequently quoted the greats from history in her journals, requiring the editor to act as an interpreter by way of inserting footnotes. The footnotes, being objective by their very nature, contrast Burden’s impassioned writing.

The highs and lows of Burden’s burdensome experiment unfold through chapters presented as contributions written in memoriam by characters interspersed with journal excerpts. In these seeming primary sources, the characters veer off topic to share loosely related details about their pets or people’s auras, emphasizing their lack of investment in the experiment. Harry’s obsessive nature appears pronounced in comparison, bringing to mind the female-associated term, hysteria. There are some obvious foils, like Rachel, the psychotherapist best friend who identifies Burden’s post-betrayal behavior as irrational; Bruno, Burden’s new male love interest, who is as unmotivated as she is prolific; and even her granddaughter’s friend, who is able to forget a spat the very next day.

It might be argued that Rune gets what was coming to him when he dies during his own performance art. As a result, there are posthumous accounts of his life and legacy and a surge of interest in his practice. Frustratingly, even in death, Rune and Burden compete for attention. On the upside, reading his sister’s account humanizes him and creates empathy, leaving the reader conflicted about whether or not to detest him.

In addition to astutely capturing the complexity of the gender bias in the art world, Hustvedt characterizes it well overall, from graduate students’ overuse of theory to punchy descriptions like critic Clement Greenberg, right-hand man of Jackson Pollock as “a successful dictator” (p. 172). That Hustvedt holds a PhD in English and has lectured on art in university and museum settings comes as no surprise. In the running for the Man Booker Prize, The Blazing World is deserving of a place on every academic and art lover’s bookshelf.

Cover reproduced with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Prettying up Feminism: The Coven at La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse

“…the ironic mimicry of girlhood…”

I stopped by La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse in Montreal on Friday night for the opening of the window installation, Girlhood, curated by Luna e los Santos. On the heels of SlutWalk and its strategy of reclaiming what is deemed negative, it aims to celebrate the state and/or attributes of being young and female in spite of girlhood’s bad rap. Girlhood features the work of 13 artists, more than half of them Montreal-based, from a 14-member feminist collective known as The Coven. A fabric hanging of digital reproductions of members’ work faces the street; a wooden bench is partly covered with repeated white text from Samantha Conlon that says, “I pledge allegiance to girlhood”; and on the windowpane, a variation of the white text proclaims multiple allegiances. The arrangement of images is a nod to the Pinterest generation (which seems appropriate, given that the artists who have provided their ages in their bios are in their early- to mid-twenties).

During the opening, a different selection of images than is shown in the vitrine rotated on a projector inside the exhibition space. As with the fabric hanging and also the press release, no titles were included for individual works even though titles can be found for some of the same images on the collective’s Tumblr site. It’s a shame because titles could have provided an entry point for viewers. Just as titles are not associated with individual works in the fabric hanging, press release or slideshow, artists’ names are disconnected in all three. On the one hand, this curatorial choice captures a communal sensibility and refutes the notion of artistic genius, which has historically been associated with men rather than women. On the other hand, attribution in the visual arts was hard won and since lack of recognition for female artists has been an ongoing challenge, it gave me pause.

There is definitely room for improvement in the presentation of the images in the vitrine. One of the images towards the top contains graphs which cannot be read from the sidewalk, nor can the graphs be deciphered in the corresponding thumbnail on the invitation posted in the lower right-hand corner of the window (which, oddly, is surrounded by what looks like white, soapy strokes). The window frame bisects a number of images, while valuable real estate is taken up by utilitarian pink borders between images. One piece, which says, “Things 2 make me better than u” (reminding me of an elementary school classmate’s brazen t-shirt that said, “Everything boys can do girls can do better”) is fragmented vertically on the fabric hanging and horizontally on the invitation. The punchiness of some images is sacrificed to the structure of the window; for example, part of a sword is covered, making it seem less threatening, and the shock of fuchsia hair on a goth girl is obscured (shown here), preventing the appreciation of its contrast with the blonde hair of the Playboy model on her t-shirt.

The emergence of collectives like the Coven, and other groups I’ve blogged about such as the New York-based tART and the international Ardorous, is exciting. One collaboration in particular stands out as being parallel and that is the Toronto-based GalGalz. The duo of female gallerists writes, “…our Girlie feminism is an imperfect, personal response to our experiences, and it feels powerful to us. By seeking strength and community in girlieness, we feel that we’re reclaiming what’s relentlessly cast as weak, silly, dismissible and frivolous…” (1) Like the Coven, GalGalz employ pink branding. The colour palette and the frills that accompany it are non-threatening, but are they also inadvertently dismissive, like campaigns against breast cancer? They pretty up feminism, but there’s no escaping the fact that the issues tackled by feminism are ugly. To return to the window text about allegiances, the first one says, “I pledge allegiance to sexting”; personally, when I read that, my mind goes to the late Rehtaeh Parsons, and I feel the opposite of celebratory. Additionally, the risk (or thrill) of adopting a girlie aesthetic for feminist purposes is that it’s hard to tell the difference between the ironic mimicry of girlhood and the hearts and smiley faces that adorn the placards held by young women online to denounce feminism. Thus, having a clear agenda is helpful—albeit challenging for artists with different practices coming together. The press release reveals a bit about their agenda, but it is not as developed as the GalGalz’ online statement.

Although the press release states that the artists embrace the frills of girlhood, aside from a silkscreened image of a candy heart, a painting of a jeweled crown, and a photographic image of a My Little Pony toy presumably embedded in icing, the subject matter in the fabric hanging is adult. Images of little girls are not conjured by pins projecting out of underwear to mimic pubic hair; well-endowed female figures dancing in a circle; or female figures with hairy appendages and droopy breasts (the latter by Charlene Bataille, shown here, are particularly strong). Because the focus appears to be on the signifiers of femininity, rather than on what they signify, it’s possible the root causes of gender inequality will be overlooked. For instance, the gender-bending image of the girl wearing a Playboy shirt is both clever and progressive. But the theme of girlhood begs the question of what the ripple effect is of pornographic imagery on girls.

The press release notes that the collective exists for the members to find their voice(s), but these unresolved elements effectively convey the very criticism the Coven has identified as being associated with young girls—specifically, to translate from the French statement, that they aren’t sure of themselves. However, their exhibition record demonstrates momentum and it will be interesting to see what they accomplish as they move through the growing pains.

Girlhood closes August 29th.

Sources:

(1) http://www.galgalz.ca/about/

All photographs taken in situ by Heather Saunders

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Recommended Reading: Valerie Solanas Biography

“Its [the SCUM Manifesto’s] premise was that...women should take over the world.”

Cover reproduced with permission of the City University of New York Feminist Press

Breanne Fahs’ biography of enigmatic, self-described superfeminist, Valerie Solanas (1936-1988) lives up to its gripping preface. The opening paragraph of the book published in April by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York reveals that one interviewee refused to speak about the woman who famously shot Andy Warhol until her death certificate was produced, for fear of retribution from the paranoid schizophrenic. Between reluctant interviewees and a loyal mother who burned Solanas’ archival material when she died, the very existence of Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (And Shot Andy Warhol) is remarkable.

Exhaustively researched, the book is chock full of quotations whose length prevents statements from being taken out of context. Although this risk is always mitigated by conscientious academics, it is also something of a tribute to Solanas, who became incensed whenever she felt her writing had been misrepresented. With extensive research comes detail, but it may not always add to the tale. For instance, it seems superfluous that the couch an arts editor crossed over to in the Factory right before the shooting was in the art deco style. Ditto for Warhol’s wardrobe selection that day, though it is interesting that he was wearing his trademark silver wig when he was taken to hospital. Fahs’ writing style is also descriptive grammatically; a sentence comes to mind that contains seven adjectives in a row (1). It’s fitting, though, because Solanas was such a complex person that one adjective would not suffice to describe her. Plus, it mimics Solanas’ style; for example, Solanas wrote that fatherhood made females “male-dependent, passive, domestic, animalistic, nice, insecure, approval and security seekers, cowardly, humble, ‘respectful’ of authorities and men, closed, not fully responsive, half dead, trivial, dull, conventional, flattened out and thoroughly contemptible” (2).

That Solanas’ shooting of Warhol appears in parentheses in the title underscores the author’s intention to not dwell on this aspect of her life. Indeed, the near-fatal shooting of 1968 appears just before the half-way point in the book. As a result, extensive consideration is given to her contributions—welcome or not—to radical feminism from behind bars and how she fractured NOW (its members couldn’t agree on whether to support her as a mistreated and justifiably angry woman or distance themselves from her violence). There is a sense of restoring dignity to Solanas, indicative in sensitive comments like Fahs qualifying the behavior of an acquaintance of Solanas as deliberately cruel. Additionally, while it would be handy to have a timeline of her extensive criminal record, it would be at the cost of empathy because the facts would be presented apart from the context that helps the reader understand her plight.

For Solanas, writing became an outlet for her contemplation of gender, although ‘contemplation’ seems too gentle a term. She had a complicated life to say the least: she was an apparent child victim of incest betrayed by her father, a twice pregnant teenager, an adult prostitute in seedy settings like the Chelsea Hotel rooftop, and a green card wife. She embodied the ‘whatever’ quality of queerness that Sarah Liss writes about in last month’s issue of FLARE magazine (3), referring to herself as a lesbian, but choosing occasional male partners, at one point for a few years. At times she projected asexuality, but she could also be overtly sexual—for example, in exposing herself. This ambivalence came through in her manifesto for SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men. Its premise was that men were emotionally flawed and overall screw-ups, so they should be exterminated and women should take over the world. Although the scope of the book is within Solanas’ lifetime, the ripple effect is apparent in contemporary society—for example, in Pussy Riot singing, “Kill the Sexist!” and a Carrier of the Cross for the Orthodox church in which they performed a different song retorting, “If they want to live in a world without men, they should move to an island or the Amazon or something” (4).

Because Solanas spent time in mental institutions (more so than in jail), it has been documented that she had a higher than average IQ. Her radical ideas were intertwined with incredible insight. For instance, she predicted such developments as test tube babies and Viagra. She was a master wordsmith and a perfectionist editor. She demanded respect, but was hardly respectful of her colleagues (for example, comparing Simone de Beauvoir’s writing to comic books and calling the works of Ti-Grace Atkinson, her ally when she was incarcerated, “total shit” (5)). In contrast, Solanas considered the SCUM Manifesto to be “history’s greatest bargain” (6). In part, this was in reference to the fact that its initial sale price was $2 for men and $1 for women. French philosopher, Jacques Derrida declared the text ‘necessary’ while Atkinson called it the “most important statement written to date in the English language” (7).

Broadly speaking, it’s possible that for Solanas, Warhol represented the gender disparity of the art world. Before she met him, she lamented in the manifesto that men “define Great Art” (8). She saw her shooting of Warhol as a moral act that was about artists’ rights (namely writers’ rights) rather than about feminism, which complicated matters for the radical feminist movement. Specifically, she was upset because she felt Warhol had led her on about producing her play, Up Your Ass, and that he had appropriated her comments for his films—which she had reason to believe, since he welcomed a spontaneous cameo of Solanas in one of his films. Both situations must have felt like a blow since she had believed Warhol to be on her side, to the extent that she considered him to be head of the ‘men’s auxiliary’ of SCUM. Even after the shooting, she maintained contact with him, almost always baiting him. For instance when the original publisher of the manifesto, Olympia Press, went bankrupt and the publishing rights reverted to her, she posted an ad looking for distributors; in it, she wrote, “Andy Warhol, peddle it at all those hot shit parties you go to (9).” The challenge for the reader is that Solanas restated her feelings about Warhol and her contact at Olympia Press ad nauseam and there is a point at which reading her harassing letters and verbal slurs loses appeal. This element notwithstanding, Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (And Shot Andy Warhol) will be equally valuable as beach reading and as a scholarly source.

In a visit to the Andy Warhol Museum a week and a half ago, I was glad to see that this book was sold in the gift shop, since the timeline from his life posted on the gallery walls didn’t delve into Solanas’ motive.

Sources:

(1) p. 47

(2) p. 63

(3) Liss, Sarah. “Love is Love,” FLARE, June 2014: 104-109. Print.

(4) Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Dir. Mike Lerner, Roast Beef Productions Limited, 2014. Film.

(5) p. 307

(6) p. 307

(7) p. 177

(8) p. 63

(9) p. 297

Monday, July 14, 2014

In Defense of Yoko Ono

“…definitely not a SWUG.”

Leaving the North Midway Travel Plaza in Bedford, Pennsylvania on the week-end, I spotted a billboard featuring Yoko Ono, but didn’t get a chance to photograph it. It paired a recent portrait of her with an outdated charge in the form of the question, “Would you take energy advice from the woman who broke up the Beatles?” It was produced by the Big Green Radicals, a watchdog group that critiques the likes of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. According to the BGR website, the campaign (which also includes similar billboards of Robert Redford and Lady Gaga) aims to emphasize the gap between the lifestyles of average Americans and celebrities.

My gut reaction was, “Yeah, probably” in response to the billboard’s question. The reason is that when I think of Ono and environmentalism, what comes to mind is Acorn Piece, a collaboration with John Lennon in 1969 that she repeated solo 40 years later. They planted acorns in easternly and westernly directions to symbolize the union of cultures, and mailed acorns to world leaders, asking them to plant them for world peace. At worst, this gesture would result in the absorption of carbon dioxide through the planting of trees; at best, people would come away inspired. Maybe, just maybe, if we had heeded her advice in Grapefruit (1964) to “Listen to the sound of the earth turning” (1) the earth wouldn’t be in such poor shape.

The billboard is a response to Ono’s anti-fracking efforts with a group she co-founded with her son, Sean Lennon, called Artists Against Fracking. Its placement in Pennsylvania is fitting, given that more natural gas is produced there than any other state on the prime Marcellus Shale stratum. Stephanie Malin interviewed small-scale farmers in Pennsylvania who were in a position to lease land for corporate fracking, and reported that they saw it as a force beyond their control. Additionally, she found that they either felt the environmental concerns were unfounded or that they were balanced by economic benefits. This type of media campaign could play a key role in normalizing fracking for a group that is vulnerable. (2)

Whether or not Ono had a hand in the demise of one of the greatest bands in history is a separate issue from her environmental politics. She is not Pete Seeger, nor is she Midnight Oil. The pairing is simply incongruous. Curiously, the BGR billboard says “broke up the Beatles,” which sounds definitive, yet in Ono’s activist profile on the BGR site (3) it says, “When she’s not helping to break up the Beatles…”. So, which one is it, BGR? If Ono said fracking causes earthquakes in one breath, and helps cause earthquakes in the next, undoubtedly she’d be attacked.

Ono is no stranger to poor reception: for example, in her native Japan, her shows have been advertised using the script reserved for foreign names, while her grasp of English has been mocked in the US, where she is based. (4) The BGR profile of Ono dismisses her experimental music as screeching and as (note the surly quotation marks) ‘performance’. It also describes her as being washed up. It’s unfortunate to see the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the high profile Venice Biennale so grossly misrepresented. On a more superficial note, when Vogue publishes a spread of a woman’s “amazing style history” (5), it means she is definitely not a SWUG.

Fortunately, it would seem that Ono has the last laugh. In attacking Ono with billboards, the Big Green Radicals are actually reinforcing her media savvy. Ono used billboards most famously with John Lennon to protest the Vietnam War, the contemporary version of which is “Imagine there’s no fracking” billboards produced by Artists Against Fracking. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Ono should feel vindicated. Her “brilliant use of mass media” (6) is evident not just in her billboards but in her banners, bags, stickers, postcards, flyers, postcards, and badges, all carrying on the tradition of multiples that emerged with Fluxus and made art more accessible to the 99%.

SOURCES:

(1) Yoko Ono, Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions + Drawings, New York: Simon & Schuster, reprinted 2000, n.p.
(2) Edith Newhall, “A Long and Winding Road.” Art News, 99.9 (2000), 162.
(3) http://www.biggreenradicals.com/activist/yoko-ono/
(4) Jerry Hopkins, Yoko Ono. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986, 191-192 and 251.
(5) http://imaginepeace.com/archives/17833
(6) Stephanie Malin, “There’s no Real Choice but to Sign: Neoliberalization and Normalization of Hydraulic Fracturing on Pennsylvania Farmland.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences (2014): 4:1, 17-27.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Zanele Muholi at Ryerson University

“My beat is about visual politics”—Zanele Muholi

Since graduating from Ryerson University in 2009 with an MFA in Documentary Media, South African artist Zanele Muholi has exhibited in such high profiles venues as dOCUMENTA and the Venice Biennale. During a return visit from Johannesburg for the opening of her show, Faces and Phases (May 1-June 1 and June 18-Aug. 24, University Gallery), she gave an artist talk last night at Ryerson.

When Muholi clarified that she would be giving an artist talk rather than a lecture, she wasn’t kidding. With thank-yous to myriad individuals interspersed between reflective statements about her work at both the beginning and end of the night, a Q & A in the middle, and a seemingly spontaneous demo of website images toward the end, the audience got a sense of her creative process. Evidently, she makes constant, rapid-fire connections between elements in what unfolds as a constellation. Interestingly, although it would appear that she is not a linear thinker (she admitted to never having had things in order as a student either), her black and white portraiture series of black lesbian women is sequential. Consisting of over 240 images taken during the past 8 years, it has far surpassed her original goal of 25. One of these works is a self-portrait, to underscore the fact that she speaks as an insider.

To return to the constellation metaphor, during her animated presentation, I found myself thinking back to an excerpt from a book I skimmed on the road trip to Toronto. In Art History in the Wake of the Global Turn (Clark Institute in the Visual Arts, 2014), the Raqs Media Collective writes, “Detach yourself, momentarily, from the mothership of art history. Step out for a spacewalk” (p. 4). Muholi invites us to take a spacewalk with her extensive intervention in visual culture. Referring to queer people, she observed, “It’s always challenging to have people like us. You go to museums and galleries and ask yourself, ‘Where am I in all this commotion?’” Later she noted, “Maybe there’s an assumption that galleries and museums aren’t for black people.” Thus, she aims to bring about or enhance black queer visibility. It’s a pressing need: a few weeks ago, a show featuring her art in the Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal was shut down because of pressure from Islamic extremists. Consequently, “being here is like winning the Nobel Prize.” She notes that “these [institutional] spaces sidelined us and we decided to become visible.”

She has facilitated this visibility through portraiture. Muholi introduced herself as a proud black lesbian, and she photographs other proud black lesbians in Faces and Phases. She avoids photographing black lesbians under the age of majority or those who haven’t come out. “I don’t want to be responsible for your closet,” she says. She has formed an organization, Inkyaniso, for the subjects—or ‘participants’ as she calls them, acknowledging the collaborative element—to share their stories (see http://inkanyiso.org).

“My beat is about visual politics” she says and considers her work to be more about visual activism than aesthetics, and herself to be a visual activist more so than an artist. Indicative of this stance is her statement that she doesn’t want to die young without rewriting history.

Rather than fall back on jargon like ‘the scopophilic gaze,’ she states that the series forces the audience to ask why they are asked to look at these faces at this point in history. South Africa is at a turning point historically. In 2006, same-sex marriage was legalized, and it is the first (and so far only) African country to make the transition. Muholi has photographed gay weddings, making arrangements like not charging for her services in exchange for being able to use selected images professionally. “It’s part of our history. It’s now,” she says. She has also documented lesbian funerals as a political act to expose queercide. 2012 was a particularly brutal year in this regard, with Amnesty International citing at least seven LGBTI murder victims.

Photographing the participants in Faces and Phases is painful, though it may not be apparent from the confidence the participants project. When an audience member asked about her editing process, she revealed that it usually involves tears and a trans-Atlantic call to her therapist. Still, Muholi says, “I decided I would rather suffer for something I believe in than die in silence.” Her work is rooted in love as much as it is in pain. She says that she doesn’t want to limit the struggle to pain because it can’t be moved forward without love. “When we think about black lesbian histories,” she urges, “let’s think about love.”

Faces and Phases, curated by Dr. Gaëlle Morel, is part of WorldPride 2014. If you’re in Toronto, please join me at the opening of The Sex Offensive: Emancipating Gender tomorrow night at the Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts, which is also part of the festival.

Image: Mpumi Moeti, Kwanele South, Katlehong, Johannesburg, 2012, gelatin silver print. Source: http://www.ryerson.ca/ric/exhibitions/ZaneleMuholi.html. Copyright: Zanele Muholi and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg.