Friday, June 12, 2009

The librarian will see you now

"One of them pointed to my white coat and asked, 'Are you a doctor?' 'No,' I laughed. 'I’m a librarian'."

Yesterday, my sister and I had plans to go to the MoMA after her flight arrived from Canada. We agreed to meet by the information stand in Grand Central Station. During the hour that I waited, I overheard the staff person skillfully handle the flurry of questions from tourists. He never wavered for a second, making me more than a little envious of his reference skills. The questions were all directional except for one: “Can you make an announcement over the loudspeaker to help this young girl who has been separated from her mother?” About a minute after the mother was paged, she rushed over. I realized that she couldn’t see her daughter because of the curved shape of the information stand, so I shouted, “She’s over there” and pointed. If she registered what I said, it was unconscious: the biological imperative had taken hold and it was as if nothing existed but parent and child.

Here’s a more lighthearted story about trying to be helpful. Last week on the bus, two students from Boston and Philadelphia asked me how they could get from the bus station to the train station in White Plains. Having just left the library, I was still in reference mode so I escorted them there, showed them where to board their train, and advised them to purchase tickets from the machine to save money. One of them pointed to my white coat and asked, “Are you a doctor?” “No,” I laughed. “I’m a librarian.”

The question made me wonder, are there any commonalities between medical professionals and information professionals aside from coincidental wardrobe choices? My answer is based on fantasy and reality, as I’ve watched quite a bit of Grey’s Anatomy. (Seriously? Yes. The television show went a long way towards helping me process a rare medical emergency experienced by a loved one, whose real-life doctors have inspired me with their brilliance, patience and support).

Much like librarians, medical professionals conduct public service and want to educate and empower the people with whom they interact. The stakes are high for them: they do everything in their power to improve the health of their patients, knowing that not all of them will survive or improve, which in the grand scheme of things is more important than feeling comfortable with federated searching of databases.

I used to see reference instruction as an all-or-nothing scenario, in which I felt defeated if I didn't help the student depart with the optimal skill set. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking that I should approach reference service more like a doctor—I should strive for the best but take satisfaction in progress of any sort. Trying this on for size would entail taking the oath ‘first, do no harm.’ That seems like a sound priority. When users enter the library, it is very important for them to feel welcome and to know that they can ask for help. In our library, help comes in many forms: in-person reference at a desk or by appointment with a subject specialist, chat reference, email reference, and my favourite—roving reference.

As I arrived on campus this morning, I was thinking that maybe it’s less important that the user remember the details of a reference encounter than it is for them to leave feeling supported (much like the woman in the train station who likely absorbed my efforts to help but couldn’t identify me in a lineup if she tried). I stopped into Starbucks on my way to the library and was greeted by a summer student. “You helped me on my first day,” he said. I remembered, but I hadn’t expected him to remember. I could barely contain my smile. What a great way to start a Friday…

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New York's murals

"...the memories of mural production are equally important to preserve [as the murals themselves], based on the authors’ riveting stories."

I knew Bluestockings was my kind of place when I walked into the volunteer-run radical bookstore in Manhattan's lower east side last night and (a) heard Disintegration by The Cure and (b) saw a child’s t-shirt for sale that featured a pair of eyeglasses and the words ‘future librarian’ next to the classic ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ t-shirt.

Muralists Janet Braun-Reinitz and Jane Weissman were there to discuss their book, On The Wall: Four Decades of Community Murals in New York City (University Press of Mississippi, 2009) with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! I ordered the book for our library, so I was excited to have this opportunity, and to have a seat since it was standing-room-only, or perching-room-only to be exact.

Although the mural movement began in Chicago, Janet and Jane stressed the importance of New York for the decades-old art form. For one thing, the first mural slated for preservation through the Rescue Public Murals program is Eva Crockcroft’s Homage to Seurat: La Grande Jatte (1986) in Harlem (later this summer, it will be coated in primer and painted on top with the same colour palette). New York also hosted the first conference about murals in 1976, and one of its attendees was even in the audience at Bluestockings.

In writing the book over the past six years, the authors were determined to honour the murals themselves and beyond that, to capture the memories of murals that have already been irreparably damaged or bulldozed. It seems that the memories of mural production are equally important to preserve, based on the authors’ riveting stories. Two that spring to mind are Jane describing Bronx spray artist Lady Pink helping in the rain to seal a mural coordinated by the authors long after she had completed her own portion, and Janet recounting the risks and rewards of commemorating a murdered Pensacola abortion doctor and escort in a mural (a poignant story in light of the recent murder of Wichita’s Dr. George Tillman).

Jane points out that mural artists tend to be as much activists as they are artists, which the latter example demonstrates. It strikes me that muralists’ activism is enhanced by the performative and participatory (read: public) elements of mural production. Murals are borne out of communities, which is why Janet says “the real fun begins” once the murals are constructed in front of members of the community, eliciting feedback that often shapes the final product. This is where murals interest me as an art librarian: they exemplify a vague but oft-discussed concept, that of visual literacy. Everything from historical figures to symbols (down to colour choices) must be carefully selected with the visual vocabulary of the community in mind. For example, if Seurat’s pointillist style were unfamiliar to the general public, its appropriation in Crockcroft’s mural would be pointless…no pun intended.

Entering the Delancey subway station after the discussion, I looked at the wall mosaics inside with fresh eyes. As two-dimensional public art that is intended to be permanent, it must have an equally interesting story behind it as the ones told by Jane and Janet about New York’s murals.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

She's got the look (of a butterfly?)

"Funny, I haven’t seen any half-woman-half-butterflies flitting around mid-town Manhattan..."

A gift bag from Bella Pilar caught my eye in the Papyrus paper shop the other day. Against a painted landscape, it featured an attractive woman wearing an evening gown made entirely of blue butterfly wings that sparkled. Because I use the cocoon/chrysalis in my art to allude to the stages of female socialization, I felt vindicated by my choice of symbol. However, the ecofeminist in me was annoyed to see women and nature associated once again.

Wasn’t it just last week that the Metro North train was plastered with posters for She’s Got the Look featuring women made to look like butterflies? Their evening gowns are colour-coordinated with gigantic wings attached to their bodies, making me yearn for the pre-Photoshop era. Funny, I haven’t seen any half-woman-half-butterflies flitting around mid-town Manhattan, where She’s Got the Look, the model competition for women over the age of 35, is set. I must not be looking hard enough for all those pretties undergoing Kafkaesque transfiguration. As much as I appreciate the celebration of beauty in women over 35, I won’t be watching the first episode when it airs Thursday night. I think the 'show me sexy' challenge (their wording; not mine) would be make me exasperated.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Catcalls and commoditization

Even in the context of a gallery, the idea of a man paying a woman for services in bed disturbs me...

As I was walking briskly along Park Avenue towards Grand Central Station last night, a man sitting on a set of stairs called out to me. It wasn’t so much his initial comment that was infuriating (“Shake it when you walk, sexy bitch”). What made my blood boil was his triumphant-sounding “That a girl!” that followed a few seconds later. His implication that I altered my walk to please him and perform for him not only cast me as being complicit, but it defined our exchange incorrectly as mutual flirtation rather than harassment. Also, by calling me ‘girl’ and by using an expression of encouragement typically reserved for children, he went from sounding crass to perverted. If I needed justification for combining lingerie and girls’ baby clothing in my artwork, all I would need to do is remind myself of catcalls like this.

Once I boarded my train, I tried to keep my mind off the incident by reading an exhibition brochure. Earlier in the day, I had taken a docent-led tour of The Generational: Younger than Jesus, which closes in a week at the New Museum. Curated by Lauren Cornell, Massimiliano Gioni, and Laura Hoptman, it showcases the works of 50 artists born in 1976 or later. That would make them 33 years old at most, which is the age that Jesus is believed to have been crucified. Since I was born in 1976 (and I have the button from the gift shop to prove it), I was keen to see the first museum exhibition dedicated to my generation. I was planning to write about the exhibition in general, but because of my current mindset, I’m going to focus instead on two works by male artists from China about the consumption of females.

Chu Yun’s contribution to the exhibition is an installation of a woman sleeping under white bedding on top of a museum-like white pedestal. A rotation of women between the ages of 18 and 40 have taken on shifts during the gallery’s hours of operation for ten dollars an hour. They were found by posting an ad on Craig’s List, which serves as a reminder that the transaction for virtually anything can be negotiated online these days, even a woman’s virginity. As Katy Hall points out in a review in The Columbia Journalist (‘Sleeping Beauties in the New Museum’, May 4, 2009), there are art historical precedents for using sleep as performance, such as Andy Warhol filming his lover sleep; Yoko Ono and John Lennon holding Bed-Ins; and the Guggenheim inviting visitors to sleep overnight in The Revolving Hotel Room. What sets Chu Yun’s work apart, in my opinion, is that money is exchanging hands. Even in the context of a gallery, the idea of a man paying a woman for services in bed disturbs me, especially because I noticed a difference in my reaction to the piece when I looked at the sleeper up close compared to when I looked from afar at two burly men leaning over top with a security guard lurking nearby. However, what interests me more is that Chu Yun acts as both artist and patron—the art cannot exist without the participants whom Chu Yun is paying. Also, the fact that there is a rotation of women, rather than just one woman, suggests an eerie interchangeability of identity, which segues to the next work I want to describe.

Liu Chuang likewise acts as an artist/patron hybrid when putting female identity on display in Buying Everything on You. He visited three cities in China and convinced one woman in each to sell literally everything she had on her for five hundred dollars. Along with photo identification, the women sold everything down to toiletries and undergarments. Because of our culture’s fixation on privacy, I couldn’t help but wonder if the women were informed about the artist’s intention to exhibit their belongings. If the display were consensual, it would encourage a different interpretation of the piece entirely. Although the belongings, which are carefully arranged on white plinths, can be seen as merely objects used to construct an identity rather than the identity itself, I can’t avoid seeing the clothing as stand-ins for the body. Each woman gets her own plinth, which keeps the identities intact, but the fact that the same price was apparently offered to each of the women suggests interchangeability: no woman’s possessions are worth more than the others’, just as no woman’s slumber is worth more than the others’ in Chu Yun’s work.

Art is a relatively safe haven for talking about female identity and the consumption of the female body, compared to ‘real life’ where identities are stolen outright and bodies consumed in various ways against will. This is not to say that the boundaries between this safe haven and the real world don’t blur in art: take Yoko Ono, for instance. Her film Rape, made in collaboration with John Lennon, involved a cameraman following a woman from a London cemetery and into her apartment until she essentially broke down in despair. In this case, the subject’s sister was complicit, by providing a key to the apartment in advance, while the subject, Eva Majlata, was the unwitting performer. When I saw it in last year’s Street Art Street Life: From the 1950s to Now at the Bronx Museumwhere it was jarringly displayed on four separate monitors, each showing a different point in the filmmy reaction was disbelief that a woman could put another woman in this situation. Looking back now however, I must concede that Yoko Ono has made herself (comparably?) vulnerable in the distant and recent past with Cut Piece. In this performance, audience members were invited to cut off portions of her clothing until she was left virtually naked on stage. Such breadth definitely substantiates her receipt of a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale yesterday.

The younger-than-Jesus generation produces interesting work indeed, but let’s not forgot about the lifetime achievements that span more than 33 years.