Monday, March 9, 2015

Alex Landon Richardson at Nipissing University



“…you can have it all with painting.”—Alex Landon Richardson


The newest member of our faculty, Alex Landon Richardson, gave an artist talk on March 6 at Nipissing University.





Image: Juggernaut, 2013, oil and sticker on canvas

The Vancouver-born, Toronto-based artist observed that the art world has become increasingly global. Richardson is a case in point: she holds a BFA from London, Ontario (from the University of Western Ontario, now Western University) and an MFA from London, UK (from Goldsmiths, University of London). And she just returned from a residency in South Africa. Generous with the extent of advice and encouragement she offered to the many students in the crowd, Richardson described the path from undergraduate studies to working as a professional artist as being “gnarly and curvy…very DIY.” For her, the path pointed west (she worked at vineyards across western Canada while painting) and then it pointed back east (where she joined an open studio in Caledon, Ontario).

Visitors’ feedback at the open studio allowed her working process to encompass impromptu collaboration. She recalled, for instance, a visitor sharing a John Updike poem that contextualized the series she was making at the time for her first solo show at The Rivoli in Toronto. The show featured photo-based works such as Beth & Marj and Cadmium Blossoms (2010)*, a portrait of her mother’s friends who were among the first women working in the financial district of Toronto. Here, they are shown relaxing at the cottage. The figures are sketched in paint, revealing the underlying primed wood surface, while the cottage surroundings are rendered in detail and in colour. The right-hand figure’s strapless jumpsuit dates the source image (my mother used to wear strapless jumpsuits and she just turned 70). Through this body of work, she developed an interest in middle class leisure as subject matter.

Eventually, the challenge and security of commissions she gained in the open studio setting lost their sheen and she decided to relocate to Britain for graduate studies. Although she described London as a difficult city to live in, she acknowledged its incredible history and networking potential. Goldsmiths’ regular visiting artists as well as large enrolment and faculty fostered a culture of frequent feedback, but rarely from the same person twice. Thus, there was no risk of altering one’s style to suit an advisor’s tastes. What did affect her style was the city itself. She explained that it no longer made sense to paint with vibrant colour and plasticity as she had in Canada, once she had settled into a city with grit and darkened pub interiors. She became enthralled by the latter for their contrived aesthetic. Thrift store finds were cobbled together into a pastiche that was passed off as if it had accumulated over time. Paintings in pubs struck her as “alive [with] illusion and trickery,” which is curious because as she noted, painting and illusion were comfortable bedfellows for much of art history.

When she began her MFA, “[i]t was not popular to paint at Goldsmiths.” That’s unsurprising, given that the institution is known for alumni like Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, who work in mixed media. People questioned why she didn’t simply make a film or take a photograph of a pub, rather than toiling over a huge canvas of the same subject matter. She commented that photography and film have barriers such as contending with light, but that “you can have it all with painting.” Cognizant that trends like anti-painting can be “fashionable,” “flawed,” and “superficial,” she remained committed to painting. She did, however, take measures for her large painting of a pub to not “feel static” on the wall and to “be aware of its environment;” she coated the floor with beer and put French fries in the room in advance to create a pub-like odour that would have made Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti proud for making art a multisensory experience that could border on irritating. Exasperatingly, in her second year, painting made a comeback and her classmates took up the medium with great fanfare.

Richardson’s work is often compared to that of Peter Doig, which is fitting because he also spent time in the UK and that experience impacted his landscapes of Canada (where he spent much of his youth). A summer visit back home between Richardson’s two years of study caused her to reflect on her Canadian identity, especially in the context of outdoor leisure. Landscape has shifted from something to conquer for survival to something to conquer for fun. She pointed out that it has also become a backdrop to leisure, as if a theatre set. She had long been interested in the Canadian habit of staying at a cottage, but her “whole world changed” when she took a spontaneous floatplane ride above a lake in the Kawarthas. She realized that “the machine you are in mediates your experience.” Upon returning to Goldsmiths, she painted objects like powerboats, chairlifts, and helicopters, all in majestic settings that feel somewhat magical with intense colours and twinkling lights. She identifies a gaze unique to the modern/postmodern/post-post-modern era: “The machine is made to be looked at” and “it’s aware of its being-looked-at-ness.” On the surface of these works, she has affixed decals to assert the “unique identity” of the machines. They double as reminders of the flatness of the canvas, emphasizing the materiality of the work. To return to the concept of the gaze, these decals remind me of accessories like necklaces or headscarves in 19th Century Orientalist images that reinforce the romanticism of the setting and draw attention to the figures’ nudity or partial nudity. She coated the edges of each work with fluorescent paint and tilted them on gallery walls to catch the overhead lighting and appear electronically lit. If there’s an afterlife, Piet Mondrian—who was obsessed with electric lighting and mimicking it with paint—must be smiling in response. As was the audience.

*For image, please click here

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Kawara at the Guggenheim


“...a creature of habit.”

I must admit that I was so excited to see On Kawara – Silence (February 6 – May 3) at the Guggenheim in New York that leading up to visiting, I was singing ‘On Kawara’ in my head to the tune of My Sharona’s chorus.

Curator Jeffrey Weiss has capitalized on Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture for this posthumous retrospective of the Japanese artist’s work. The spiral formation of the rotunda is complementary to his endurance and his tendency towards repetition because the wall space keeps going and going, with minimal interruption.

Kawara is renowned for his ‘date paintings,’ which are officially called Today (1966-2013). Spending that long on a series and attempting to contribute to it every day is phenomenal. Daily, he set out to make a painting (or possibly two) with a solid ground of blue, red, grey, or black. He mixed the acrylic paint by hand and kept swatches, resulting in canvases that are unified but not assembly-line-like. After experimenting with Letraset in earlier work, in Today, he painted the date of the day he made the painting in equally precise white block letters. He used the language of the country from which he was working, and if the country did not use the Western convention for writing dates, he used the universal alternative of Esperanto. The paintings are typically small enough to hold with hands shoulder-width apart, but on days that commanded more attention, like the day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, a bigger painting might have been generated. If he didn’t manage to finish a painting by midnight, he would destroy it, tying him to the trend of dematerialization that Lucy Lippard associated with conceptual art. Whereas artists like John Baldessari relished destruction, cremating paintings and baking the ashes into cookies, Kawara seems to have been more about the act of creation, as noted by Ben Kinmont (1).

The tension between creation and destruction always brings me back to the cubists, and this association is helpful for contextualizing Kawara’s work. Georges Braque introduced stenciled letters and numbers to the paintings and papier collés he and Pablo Picasso made in lockstep, to jolt the viewer. His rationale was that type was flat and couldn’t exist in space in the same way that an object would, so it could help the viewer to parse out the image spatially. With Kawara’s work, there are no objects projecting into illusionistic space; the painting becomes an art-object, modern in its flatness. Picasso and Braque referred to these additions as ‘certainties (2),’ which links nicely to Kawara's work. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we can be almost certain that there will be a tomorrow. Braque, along with Picasso, also elevated the status of newspaper to be an appropriate material for art, which I mention because it was a mainstay for Kawara. Many of his date paintings were stored in, and are displayed at the Guggenheim with, a cardboard box constructed by the artist and often lined with a newspaper clipping from that day. As an information professional, I was pleased as punch to see that he recorded the date and publication on most of the clippings, minimizing the kind of extensive research to track newspaper sources for the likes of photomontage artist, Hannah Höch.

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The first painting from Today, shown above, is sheltered by a vitrine on the main floor. Throughout the rotunda, others from the series are grouped. For example, there is a wall of paintings featuring Sundays. Today inspired other series like I Went (1968-79), a volume of artist books containing maps showing where the artist traveled that day, and I Got Up (1968-79), a series of postcards, which he rubber stamped to announce the time he awoke that day to recipients like Lippard. Inconsistent wake-up times, like 3:59 am and 5:06 pm, suggest that Kawara was not a creature of habit. Paradoxically, the ritual of making this series indicates that he was indeed a creature of habit.

Rather than showcasing his entire output, Silence features selections and integrates series, highlighting the web of connections in his oeuvre and preventing the viewer’s energy from fading. It worked: the only person I saw who wanted to opt out was a cranky toddler. Overall, visitors seemed to pay careful attention and take their time. Surprisingly, for art that might seem impersonal in its objectivity, visitors evidently connected with the work. For example, I overheard a visitor excitedly discovering the language she spoke used in one of his date paintings, and another keeping track of which of her family members’ birthdays she had observed in the series. I found myself most invested in the series, I Am Still Alive in which he sent telegrams starting in 1970, confirming for recipients that he was still alive. I took note of a pen stroke that an anonymous clerk had made under the ‘ill’ of ‘Still,’ compared ‘i am still alive’ to ‘I AM STILL ALIVE,’ and wondered about the emoticon potential of symbols that surrounded this text. The title and concept are heavy with meaning less than a year after the artist’s death and that was something I felt like pushing out of my mind just then, preferring distraction in the details.

Silence emphasizes that our experience of information has changed dramatically. A demonstrative example is one of his clippings from a Today box, which contains an advertisement about fighting polio encouraging readers to “write for our pamphlet.” The cubists used newspapers in cafe scenes as potent political symbols; it’s how people who couldn't afford newspapers could catch up on global events. When Kawara began his date paintings, the print medium continued to be essential and just as relevant politically. Rubén Gallo observes that Kawara’s clippings from Mexico City outlining the deteriorating relations between the government and students leading up to the Tlateloco Massacre on October 2, 1968 were censored from libraries and archives (3), making his inclusions vital sources for historical research in addition to representing the dissemination of information at the time of publication.

I find I am often fighting an uphill battle of convincing students of the merits of research using books, and on the car ride home, I felt I was rewarded for going old school with my background reading about Kawara. I glimpsed the date slip in the back of a catalogue of his work, shown here, and noticed that while my own borrowing via the postal system is traceless (read: silent), at least for now, there is a link to the past. This slip of paper shares the following features with Kawara’s work: dates in various but similar sizes, rubber stamping in a limited number of colours, and more than one language. Modest and outdated, it struck me as the perfect tribute to this enigmatic artist, even better than the selfies gallery visitors tried desperately to take before security guards intervened.

Sources:

(1) Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 26.

(2) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection. Accessed February 17, 2015, at http://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-museum/press-room/exhibitions/2014/cubism-the-leonard-lauder-collection

(3) Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 24.

Images, in order of appearance:

Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 70.

Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 160.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Shelley Niro at OCADU


"We need to remind ourselves of history." ~ Shelley Niro

My wish list for the art section of our library has a new addition: Blue Medium Press is publishing a series of monographs about Canadian artists, because as co-publisher Julian Jason Haladyn explained, "We don't see enough of what they're producing." The first volume, Shelley Niro: Seeing through Memory (2014) by Madeline Lennon, was launched last night at OCAD University, in concert with an artist talk by Niro.

Lennon noted that when she received her PhD in art history in 1980 from the University of Toronto, she had not been exposed to even one female artist in her classes. She acknowledged that times have changed but that the need for further recognition is unabated. (That point was underscored before Lennon was invited up to the front, when Niro was introduced without the usual mention of accolades and when her graduation from OCADU was later misremembered).

Niro began by highlighting the connection between the ongoing disregard for missing and murdered native women and problematic visual culture, such as the book cover of a provocative-looking Pocahontas, which she described as disturbing. In a gently sarcastic tone, she imagined Pocahontas saying to the explorer John Smith, "You're free to help yourself to whatever" (even though she would have been a child when they met and she saved his life). Her snappy use of language translates seamlessly into artwork. Take the film, The Shirt (2003). In it, which she summarizes in text on t-shirts worn by a friend the atrocities committed against the native community, culminating in, "and all's I get is this shirt."

"We need to remind ourselves of history," she said, and be aware of biased versions of history. She cites Queenston Heights, in which native warriors helped defend the Americans in the War of 1812, as an example. In response, at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines in Resting with Warriors (2001)*, she installed sculptures of female warriors outside because she thought, "Where are they [in common accounts]?"

She often blends the personal with the political. The first work she shared, Waitress (1986), for example, is set in a Chinese restaurant in Brantford, where she is based. In this self-portrait, she serves a customer, who looks characteristically uncomfortable upon realizing that she does not speak Chinese and is Mohawk. Brian and Mila Mulroney dance merrily in the background of the painting, surrounded by burning False Faces Masks, with beadwork patterns underfoot. It was made around the time that the Prime Minister met with First Nations leaders and behaved in a dismissive manner.

Some works like Waitress are darkly humorous and others are celebratory. Some are a combination, like the film, Mars Thunderchild Gets a Calling (2005), in which the optimistic and exuberant main character, Mars Thunderbird, speculates, "Maybe there's still racism." Niro shared that humour and celebration are critical strategies for "self-preservation...[otherwise these situations] can hurt you. In my mind, I try to switch it around....once that mind shift happens, it's so much easier for me [to continue working]. When something is so heavy, you can only understand it to a certain degree."

Ease of comprehension is key to her practice; in reference to several works, she emphasized the importance of not needing to translate the work conceptually. Based on the Q& A that followed, the audience clearly connected with her work, demonstrating its universality.

Niro observed, "Without spirit, nothing would be made." Her prolific career is evidence of abundant spirit. Niro has exhibited at the Venice Biennale; her work is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada; she was the first recipient of the Ontario Arts Council's Arts Award; and she holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Western Ontario.

*This image is a woodcut print made from sculptural installation of the same name at Rodman Hall

Monday, December 29, 2014

Paris Letters by Janice MacLeod


“…likely to appeal to fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s EAT PRAY LOVE...

After unwrapping Christmas gifts, I took a rare break from lecture preparations to kick back with one of my presents, Paris Letters (2014, Sourcebooks Inc.) by Janice MacLeod, in which the author gives up a job in Los Angeles as a copywriter to find the meaning of life in Europe during her mid-thirties. When someone who hails from the same rural county as you writes a bestseller, the overwhelming impulse is to want to like the book. At best, I can borrow MacLeod’s wording of “cute, but slow”—which she used to imagine the Parisians’ assessment of her Anglophone self because of the language barrier—as a description of her autobiography.

MacLeod relays the details of her job of writing text for junk mail, presumably so that the onerous task will ultimately stand in contrast to the pleasurable creation of painted letters. The degree of detail draws out this portion, though. This is followed by an entire chapter about the epiphany she has while cleaning her underwear drawer in which she quotes four times the voice in her head that says, “Clean out your underwear drawer.” In the process, she says farewell to the lovers for whom the undergarments were purchased. From there, she moves on to her clothes closet, which keeps her away from the mall, which saves her money and contributes to her ability to skip town. The book picks up when her trip begins, but the time lag persists here and there. For instance, at the end of the book, there is a list of 100 things that she did to save money. As George Carlin said of the Ten Commandments, many could be combined rather than being stretched out into a significant-sounding number, like playing the stock market and, listed separately, taking the advice of rich men at the coffee shop (about how to play the stock market).

MacLeod captures the local colour of Paris, from its delectable macarons to the hair salon in Robespierre’s former bedroom, where she has her bridal hair done. Throughout the book, “see[ing] Paris as a canvas,” she includes illustrated letters, but unfortunately not in colour. In the negative space of a rosebush, or a less visually busy area like a winding sidewalk, she writes about her experiences and the city’s history. The complication is that she appropriated the concept from another artist, Percy Kelly (1918-1993) (1). In a passage where I almost gave up reading Paris Letters altogether, she reveals, “…I sat in a chair with Percy’s book. At moments, I felt Percy whispering to me from the pages” (p. 88). Fortunately she attributes her source, but she seems to have no qualms about using someone else’s concept, which is reminiscent of the lack of conviction in the canvases she makes of crows to sell on Etsy to help fund her trip. It wasn’t until she referred to the Mona Lisa as “my new friend Mona” (p. 79) that I adjusted my expectations. I will concede that she can’t be faulted for lack of passion about being an artist. She makes a New Year’s resolution to become an artist; reads Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (1992, Penguin Group) and introduces Paris Letters with a quotation from it; and announces with clichéd excitement two-thirds of the way through, “It had only occurred to me in that moment that I was indeed an artist. In Paris!” (p. 175).

She is also in love in Paris, with a butcher named Christophe. She describes him as lovely and evidently he is just that: he buys matching robes so they can always feel like they’re on vacation, and when she sulks, he calls her phone and sings Lionel Ritchie’s I Just Called to Say I Love You. Their relationship is certainly sweet, but it feels one-dimensional. Part of it may be that the relationship moves forward easily, aside from no common language and eventual bureaucratic obstacles related to MacLeod’s visa, both of which are humorously described. They declare their love after two weeks and when she's travelling afterwards, he calls several times a day. To use a postal analogy for their relationship, since that seems apropos, Jacques Derrida’s concept of adestination (the “possibility of non-arrival”) (2) is absent. There is a PG-rated sightseeing day in Rome with a man with whom she once flirted, which demonstrates her loyalty to Christophe but also her slight hesitation about settling down. Unsurprisingly, she trades in her take-out boxes for eating on plates with Christophe. She writes, “Everything was perfect.” Melodramatically, she begins the next paragraph with, “Until I changed things.” She then recalls how she updated the apartment flooring after he recommended against it; it causes the couple to walk in silence and then they make up immediately afterwards. It feels like tokenism, to avoid causing irreparable damage to their relationship through disclosure of something more substantial. If there is nothing more substantial, good for them.

Paris Letters is likely to appeal to fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s EAT PRAY LOVE (2006, Viking), as the protagonist gives up the majority of her possessions, lands in Europe with an insatiable appetite, ponders spirituality (though to a lesser degree here), and finds love. This comparison is invited by a photograph of the two authors on MacLeod’s website. Relatedly, fans of Julia Roberts may appreciate her Runaway Bride-like realization that she changed herself to be like her various boyfriends, taking on their hobbies to be relatable and agreeable. Those who dislike the rom-com and chick lit genres may prefer to clean out their underwear drawers instead.

(1) Percy Kelly changed his name to Roberta Kelly in 1985 but eschewed a sex change operation.
(2) Tucker, Thomas D. Derridada: Duchamp As Readymade Deconstruction. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009. Print.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Suzy Lake: Playing with Time at the Art Gallery of Ontario


“…a ‘history of feminism as seen through her [Lake’s] work.’”

On November 21, the Art Gallery of Ontario was the venue for the debut screening of Suzy Lake: Playing with Time by independent filmmaker, Annette Mangaard.

The feature-length documentary opens with Toronto-based artist, Suzy Lake, developing film. In this immediate reference to the theme of time, she shakes a developing tank back and forth, back and forth, highlighting the mundane nature of this particular part of her otherwise captivating practice. It counteracts any presumptions of glamour, as do later scenes like a pigeon crossing Lake’s path while she adjusts a tripod. The arguable irony, of course, is that the act of making the film is glamorous. It’s been a while since I watched films about grande dames like Marina Abramovic or Vanessa Beecroft, but it strikes me that they stand in contrast to Mangaard’s almost four years of coverage of Lake, who comes across as a grounded artist.

Mangaard purposefully avoided pandering to the feminist adage, ‘the personal is political’. The audience does learn that Lake was born and raised in Detroit, where she began making art as a child, and that she relocated to Montreal in 1968 at age 21 with her husband, a draft dodger. She recounts him being asked at the border if he was bringing in a car, a wife, or cattle, which underscored the belief that “a wife was property.” The focus, however, is on Lake the artist. She states that she is more interested in the audience knowing what she is than who she is.

As to what Lake is, gender invariably informs the answer. Her Choreographed Puppet Series, which she began in 1976, communicates the concept of women as property without relying on personal anecdotes: she created a harness with straps that allowed her to be moved like a marionette by friends stationed on the top of a box, resulting in photographs of the jarring movements. Through such performative photographic self-portraits, she subverts the male gaze. Like her contemporary, Mary Beth Edelson, she takes the approach of, “I’m not trying to flirt with you” (Edelson). Lucy Lippard, who defended Lake’s early work when it was seen as radical, observes that Lake made “people see that a body was just a body.” She has continued in this vein, making works like large (read: imposing) portraits showing off her post-menopausal chin hair. “Ageing is just a different beauty,” she says matter-of-factly of the series.

In terms of appreciating the performative nature of her work, it’s terrific to see footage of images unfold rather than just seeing the finished products of still photographs. Personally, I was able to see Extended Breathing in Public Places (2008-2014), in which the artist attempts to stand motionless in loaded settings like the Detroit Institute of Art and the World Trade Centre construction site for an hour-long exposure, as evocative of the early daguerreotype where the sole human activity in focus was at a shoe-shining station, with the rush of modernity reduced to a blur.

Interview clips with Sarah Angelucci, Barbara Astman, Connie Butler, Mary Beth Edelson, Lucy Lippard, Lisa Steele, Françoise Sullivan, Dot Tuer and Martha Wilson are included. Only one man, gallerist Donald Browne, speaks about Lake in the film (and ever so briefly), which has the effect of both celebrating women as authority figures and reinforcing the prominence of female voices in feminist art history. The multiplicity of voices is a strong contribution, but the occasional soundtrack of a voice without confirmation of the speaker’s identity is disorienting; I found myself trying to anticipate who the initial narrator was and once the interviewees had been shown on screen, trying to recall whose voice sounded like a match.

Numerous connections could be drawn between Lake’s work and the works of other feminist artists. Her Transformation (click Next for Gary William Smith) series, begun in 1973, comes to mind for its coincidence with Ana Mendieta’s gender-bending bearded self-portraits. Mangaard narrows in on the complementary practices of Lake and Wilson, adding to the Canadian flavor of the film, since Wilson worked at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design during the period where she and Lake discovered one another’s work through personal recommendations and snail mail. "We're the same person!" Wilson exclaimed in the Q&A that followed, noting that they were born in the same year and they address similar subject matter.

Following the screening, a discussion ensued stemming from Lisa Steele’s question in the film about how far society has come. Wilson commented that she wants to punch someone in the nose when they say we’re in a post-feminist era. Mangaard noted that the film was intended to be a “history of feminism as seen through her [Lake’s] work.” Its archival footage and stories like Jared Sable telling Barbara Astman, “I’m taking on a new gal,” referring to Lake, indicate that we are by no stretch of the imagination in a post-feminist era.

Suzy Lake: Playing with Time is also featured in the AGO retrospective exhibition, Introducing Suzy Lake (November 5, 2014 – March 22, 2015) co-curated by Georgiana Uhlyarik, associate curator of Canadian art and Sophie Hackett, associate curator of photography.

Image, l. to r.: Martha Wilson, Suzy Lake and Annette Mangaard.

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 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