Spencer Young

Free art school


Yes, it is summer. And yes, you look great in your tankini chewing ice cream and leathering your face. I am aware that school is out of session and out of fashion. And I know the institutional dinosaurs in tweed make you sneeze. But school is cool again — or at least it’s not as stale and stubborn as it once was.

I’m referring to experimental art schools, or “artist-initiated schools.” Their history lies in previous alternative art education models like the Bauhaus school or Black Mountain College, which served to explore other, more inventive ways of teaching and creating. Current models are everywhere. Coupled with the reach of today’s technologies they’ve grown into nebulous networks that spread like rhizomes in response to (or refusal of) what’s been called “a crisis in contemporary art education.”

Two recently published books address the height of this concern and the new shifts occurring within art education: Rethinking the Contemporary Art School (Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 234 pages, $25) and Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century) (MIT Press, 268 pages, $30). To get a grasp of how this has affected the Bay Area, I met with independent curator Joseph del Pesco to discuss some of the history and impetuses of these schools locally, including one of his own.

Pointing to Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius as a precursor, and his edict-turned-trope “art cannot be taught,” del Pesco says artist-initiated schools begin with “the idea that artists need an informal education,” which includes “informal spaces” away from art world market pressures and “collectors who cop the studios of the best MFA programs.”

These informal spaces might take shape in a proper building or institution, but they’re also known to saunter in the streets, rub elbows in Chinatown bars, and wander nomadically from site to site. The loose, open structure of these spaces is meant to compliment and encourage the artist as autodidactic, self-orienting, and adaptive. This as opposed to the more conventional learning institutions that structure education through rigid class times, grades, diplomas, and linear teacher-to-student pedagogy.

Regarding local experimental school models, del Pesco cites the Independent School of Art as “the most important example in the Bay Area.” “ISA was run on a barter-based tuition system and you basically got a free education from Jon Rubin [ISA’s initiator], who was teaching at CCA and SFAI at the time.” Although the school only ran for two years (2004–06, at which point Rubin took a teaching position at Carnegie Mellon University), del Pesco emphasizes ISA’s ability to function completely untethered as a nomadic network of artists who successfully organized projects and events. ISA’s endeavors included black market auctions where students made and sold forgeries of famous art works, then used the money to fund more ISA projects.

Del Pesco’s own “experimental school-without-walls,” Pickpocket Almanack, is slightly less ambitious in its approach. Instead, this “school” (del Pesco is highly reluctant to use this term and insists on its metaphorical value to dismiss any anxieties it might harbor) functions more as an “algorithmic calendar.”

“I think some of the most interesting things we have here in the Bay Area are the public programs. The lectures, the panel discussions, the screenings — those are our creative strengths,” del Pesco says. “And part of Pickpocket Almanack — part of its impetus — was to take advantage of that.”

Just as the name implies — “stolen calendar” (the “k” added as a nod to Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack) — Pickpocket Almanack “steals” from the slew of free public programs offered by the Bay Area’s art institutions and organizes the best into individual courses via the prowess of an appointed team of “experts” or faculty. The faculty involved in Pickpocket’s spring 2010 season ran a wide gamut: Claudia Altman-Siegel, owner and director of Altman Siegel Gallery; Jim Fairchild, Modest Mouse guitarist; Amy Franceschini, artist and member of the Futurefarmers collective who organized Playshop, another Bay Area artist-initiated school; Renny Pritikin, curator and codirector during one of the best eras of the now defunct alternative space New Langton Arts; and Jerome Waag, artist and chef involved in the experimental restaurant collaborative OPENrestaraunt.

Partnered with SFMOMA, one might suspect Pickpocket Almanack’s “experimental” claim to be somewhat compromised. Although this relationship might carry with it a few bureaucratic implications, del Pesco assured me that Pickpocket’s faculty isn’t expected to include any of the museum’s events into its courses. If anything the pairing provides a consolation prize for Pickpocket’s participants (“students” is another term del Pesco avoids): an SFMOMA ID card that allows free access to any public program.

“It’s kind of like a gesture that makes the material real in some way,” del Pesco says. Since Pickpocket’s participants sign up through the website and discuss events primarily through e-mail, an initial launch event and final wrap-up meeting have also been incorporated to give some semblance of actual participation. But there’s no set structure. Some faculty have organized events outside of the course calendar, among them Fairchild, who facilitated a conversation with musician John Vanderslice.

While participating, as in any community setting, there’s always a fear of lame ducks. The misanthropic can technically remain anonymous throughout the course. “But there’s some incentive to actually meet each other to make it not a community but a kind of informal network of relationships,” del Pesco says. He likes to think of Pickpocket as “a special encounter with knowledge, where you don’t have the weight of school and education and a degree and grades and all that other shit. It’s self-guided; it’s social; it’s about the relationship between you, the people in the course, and the faculty — the informal production of knowledge and making visible certain events going on in the Bay Area.”

Pickpocket’s next season begins in September. So you have plenty of time to get dumb in the sun. 


Streets of San Francisco: City talk


On Friday, May 7 at 12 p.m., I stood at the intersection of Van Ness and Market with a pen, notepad, and die in hand. The pen and notepad were used to capture discernable language overheard, while the die served to dictate the initial direction of my walking as well as the decision made at each new intersection. The following is a transcription of one-hour of that journey—eventually the die led me to the ocean—or an attempt to quilt together found language from San Francisco’s streets.

Van Ness: “Bastard! Mother fucking wrinkle-ass… jump on the girl…”
Fell: “…are you serious!?… “ “…I don’t know what happened yesterday…” “…no, the reason it’s an awkward…” 
Franklin: “Oops, sorry.” 
Van Ness: “…not at all, not at all…”
Polk: “… get a phone number from this person…” “…that lady got on my nerves…” “Yeah, yeah, uh-huh, yeah…” “Hello sir, how are you? I’m handing out information; it concerns worker’s rights.” “I just wanna be like…” “…uh-huh…” “Hey, Sweetheart: let’s get breakfast…” “…know what I’m sayin’?”
Turk: “…that’s like all the banks…” “…so anyway, they said all you can do is get me the…”
Larkin: …
Eddy: “…what if when I’m really saying, it, it’s really time…” “…donde estas…” “…really spazzy in the car…” “Mami!” “Huh!? Huh?” “…what you talking about?” “Tattoo with color… in five minutes… we be walking down right now…”
Leavenworth: “I double dip! Take two, two, two, and two…” “Wussup, wussup, yo?” “I didn’t forget about… I forgot…”
O’Farrell: “…and it’s Divisadero… hit Taylor and… “I think she said it… Isadora Duncan…” “From my understanding the Isadora building is… uh…” “And sometimes this one…” “Hey, Eddy…” “Hi, I’m here…”
Taylor:  …that’s not like… give me a hug!… c’mon!…
Eddy: “…lemme talk…” “I’m gonna help you out: get to the point…” “Bitch-ass nigga…” “Make sure I don’t get up—you better knock me out…” “Did you just fall down? Want me to call someone? Want me to call 911?” “…I think that’s a good idea…” “She fell twice…” “Put all three of our names on the guest list…”  “…it’s hopeless…” “…uh, just left…”
Market: “…15 years…” “That’s part of it in, yep…” “…last time, oh yeah…” “Oh my god…” “…then I gotta put the locks in…” “Excuse me,  you know where Macy’s is?” “Uh-huh, back that way and…” “…it’s okay… no, I’m excited!“”…she, she…” “Five o’clock? Alright, bye…” “…but I think it’s all…” “So where we going?” “…so you pay like what?” “…yeah, that’s true…” “…very pragmatic person, and then he got this bad rap…
Kearny: “…but I like it…” “I don’t…”
Geary: “I’m sure she has…”
Market: “…oh, you know, we need a crew here and…” “…my congratulations…”
New Montgomery: “…it’s not me…” “Oh, I know…” “…and she just, oh I don’t know…” “Will that fit in there? Yeah, all right…”
Mission: “…which, I don’t know, maybe people just fuck you know?” “…two a month, two a month…” “so this is where this place is…”
3rd: “…it’s at 3rd and Howard… this is 3rd…” “Goddamned people…” “I appreciate your work, when you gonna…” “…he’s from Utah; he’s Mormon—looks just like a city boy… he’s popular: all the girls want him… hard body; hair all tweaked up… I know! That’s what I’m sayin’…”

Color forms



VISUAL ART It’s not immediately apparent walking around Catharine Clark Gallery’s four white, well-manicured rooms, but the space’s three current shows — by two white men and one Asian woman, from diverse locales — share some attributes. Visually, they go by the name Red No. 40, Yellow No. 6, and Blue No. 2; and conceptually, by the terms artifice and appropriation. Together they make for pleasant artificial coloring and sweetening for the eye and brain. Yet as conscious consumers know, that shit leaves traces of guilt, and worse, carcinogens.

Yes, the metaphor is slight and out of context, but so is the entirety of the work at hand. This is intentional, as both solo exhibits — Charles Gute’s "The Corrections" and John Slepian’s "the phenomenology of painting" — and the walk-in-closet-sized-room containing Stephanie Syjuco’s "Beg/Borrow/Steal" function via recontextualization.

For Slepian, whose exhibit sits at the back of the gallery as well as a semi-hidden curtained room in the front, this involves pulling from the dustbins of modernism to reframe staid paintings as video projections that pop, puff, and pivot. One such piece draws from Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color series and puts those famous static colored squares into action to irritating sounds not unlike those found in Fisher-Price toys. This lazy analogy is actually quite apt since the entirety of "the phenomenology of painting" looks and sounds cheap. The projections, while pretty, look like 20-second looped .mpegs you might expect to find in a Introduction to Flash tutorial. And the sounds, well, the young woman working the gallery’s front desk said they weren’t driving her sane. These qualities are surely intentional, as Slepian used the words "silly" and "playful" more than a few times to describe his work during a walk-through discussion on April 10. But the cool tech component doesn’t wow beyond the room’s exit.

In the adjacent room, despite being tucked awkwardly along the gallery’s hallway, Stephanie Syjuco’s works do work. Presented as an introduction, as opposed to a proper solo exhibition (Catharine Clark Gallery promises that early next year), the small survey "Beg/Borrow/Steal" packs a polemical punch. These pieces use their cheapness — sweatshop-aesthetic woven fabrics, rasterized jpgs, blocked and blobbed-out text and pics — for inventive political provocation.

Compared to Slepian’s position of playfulness, Syjuco’s work is disturbingly heavy, physically and conceptually. One of the room’s safety hazards — the other being the "black market goods" buried in black rock and lined precariously along a shelf — is a thick stack of newspapers titled Towards a New Theory of Color Reading (El Dia, Houston, Forward Times, Manila Headline). It illustrates its point through nonillustration: blocking out and color-coding all the content in Houston’s local ethnic newspapers, Syjuco cogently politicizes ad, editorial, and pictorial space via swaths of gaudy red, yellow, and blue.

Charles Gute’s "The Corrections" resides near the gallery’s entrance, and somewhere between Slepian and Syjuco on the heavy-to-playful scale. An art publication proofreader by day and artist by night, Gute wondered what would happen if he were to blur these two roles. The result: copyediting marks derived from, but in lieu of, an original art text context. In other words, circles and squiggles as art in and of themselves.

On paper, Gute’s pieces look swell. The cute and clean abstract shapes might make little to no sense, but they at least appear perceptive. In concept, they balloon — questions surface regarding what is and isn’t art, especially when extracted from within an art industry context, as alienated labor is made visible much to the embarrassment of the original authorial content. The proofs, like those blocks found on Syjuco’s newspapers, politicize the source material, making those sweet, colored marks difficult to ignore. *




Through May 15, free

Catharine Clark Gallery

150 Minna, SF

(415) 399-1439


Japanese avant-garde, Tropicalismo, and North Korean ideology — onscreen at SxSW


Just as Downtown 81 is worth watching for its live DNA footage, the Japanese avant-garde music documentary We don’t care about music anyway… is worth a look for the five minutes of two-piece noise rock band Umi No Yeah!. The boy/girl duo jams on a trash-filled beach in Tokyo- — he bent over an old Casio and drum machine and her flailing in a silver body suit while thrashing on a blown-out guitar. The song begins in a swell of noise and ends with an intoxicating dance groove and the girl shed to a polka-dot bikini bottom. The rest of Cédric Dupire’s and Gaspard Kuentz’s documentary intersperses the John Cage-like practice of various male musicians with Koyaanisqatsi-like clips of Tokyo’s industrialized megapolis. Interesting reinterpretations of instruments are revealed — a human heart gets used as a signal and the cello is reclaimed from the bourgeois — but it’s the bikini that distorts the dryness usually associated with avant-garde music.

Beyond Impanema will be fun for anyone who’s still naive to Tropicalia music. Guto Barra’s film has a rich blend of live footage and interviews with the originators from the late-1960’s movement, but for those already convinced and obsessed, it provides little more than a Wikipedia-type history gloss with cool YouTube-like clips. Your enjoyment depends on how difficult it is to find those clips — the ones of Carmen Miranda and Os Mutantes being some of the best — and how much you’re interested in hearing about the import of Tropicalia to America via David Byrne and Arto Lindsay. I could have done with a little more rigor and a little less CSS, Bonde Do Role, and MIA, but because of the great Tom Zé interview three-quarters through, I can’t complain.

North Korea is disturbing. Everyone from CNN to Vice Magazine has revealed this fact with video coverage from inside the Hermit Kingdom. In Red Chapel, Danish journalist and film director Mads Brüger takes this realization a step further by exposing the ideological insides through comedy. Accompanied by two Danish-Koreans — one disabled, the other sumo-wrestler fat — Brüger convinces the DPRK to not only let them into their country but also welcome and embrace them with an open, breast-filled hug that only a desperate, lonely mother could provide. The result is both terrifying and beautiful: blinding naïveté and endearing sincerity get exposed via irony and socio-political concern. Red Chapel goes beyond the pointed-finger approach of “OMG, look at those N. Korean crazies and their anti-US terrorist campaign” and into a genuine, individualized concern that offers a priveleged glimpse into the contradictions of both Cold War-retained communism and post-modern democratic capitalism.

SXSW: See me! Hear me!


The days tend to blur here at SXSW. The festival’s sponsors and participants are pouring information and alcohol in you everywhere you go. You forget that you are an autonomous being, not just a receptacle for emails and fliers and Sobe in small plastic cups and little goo bars that taste like chocolate stuck in carpet that are thrown — literally thrown — at you on every street corner.

Yesterday (Wed/17), however, was met with a distinct shift: awkward blue jeans and collared short sleeves were exchanged for tight black jeans and tattoo sleeves. Yes, music has come to town, which sends home the silicon boys (and a few girls), and officially ends the “interactive” portion of the festival. Austin’s Convention Center is no longer busy with necks stretched over tech, but with eyes scanning fashion and badges in order to discern the music artists from the look-a-likes. No longer am I getting stares for having an outdated laptop; rather, quick judgement looks assessing my dress and doppelgänger effect.

But this all comes with the territory of a major tech/film/music festival; everyone is trying to be seen and heard. Some more than others.


This kiss’ progress



MUSIC Tino Sehgal doesn’t like objects. But it’s not just the thing-ness of things he shuns; it’s also the traces of things. In addition to refusing any recordings of his work, Tino (his last name is too “thingy” even for me) also refuses to deal with artist statements or written contracts, or anything, really, that might leave a material residue. (Digital photos? Sorry, they can be disseminated and printed.)

Tino is formally trained in dance and economics (not visual art). One starts to wonder if he doesn’t share the same eccentric anxieties and crackpot economic theories Ezra Pound did about usury. Pound loathed interest precisely because it left a trace; it created a thing (money) out of a non-thing (borrowed time) and refused to disappear. And this usurpation competed with the clean, rigid images and lines of Pound’s Vorticist vision and poetics of precision.

Despite Pound’s and Tino’s shared aversion for extraneous excess, there is one fundamental difference: if the Vorticist and Imagist movements attempted to “capture movement in an image,” then Tino’s work is attempting to release movement beyond the image — and into the realm of lived experience. But before I delve into the ontology of materialism, let me walk you through his current show at the Guggenheim Museum. (Those who plan to see the work in person should stop reading now.)

With a steady flow of people ahead and behind, you pass through the revolving doors at the Guggenheim’s entrance and are spit into the atrium of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda — a naturally bright, open chamber that resembles an indoor shopping mall with circulating escalators, or the inside of an enormous Energy Dome (that Devo hat) flipped upside down and bleached white. Either way, when you look up, you feel vertigo. When you look back down, you see Tino’s first piece, Kiss (2004), and you start to feel dizzy again, but erotically so.

Kiss is two young things caught in a slow, exaggerated embrace of seamless looped sequences blending makeouts and dry humps all at about the speed of 2 frames per second. The couple is entirely absorbed into each other as they transition from standing to lying down and back again. And you become entirely absorbed in their absorption. It’s like watching a soft-core in slo-mo. You start to get aroused, but then a grandmother chides her grandson in that grating “New Yawk” accent, and your gaze breaks. You roll your head slowly, exhaling, then head for the ramp nearby.

After the first bend an elated, eager child steps in front of you and offers his hand. “Hi. This is a piece by Tino Sehgal, would you like to follow me?” “Sure,” you say. Then the precocious or extremely caffeinated kid asks you what your understanding of “progress” is, and you respond a bit sarcastically, “It’s a word.” But the kid doesn’t give a shit what you think or say; he’s just cataloging your responses in order to hand them off to the next interlocutor — a teenager with an opinion.

“You think “progress” is a word?” asks the confident teen, who anticipates your answer with a reply before you’re able to split your lips. You argue back and forth about the merits and semiotics of progress, and whether or not it’s even a real thing. The philosophical banter is fun for a moment but then you realize the jerk is basically repeating everything you say but with a contradictory spin. So you quicken your pace and by the next bend in the road the succeeding generation’s representative inserts an anecdotal non sequitur in stride.

“So the other day I lied about something really petty … You ever do that? Lie about stupid things?” Or “After I graduated law school, I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer and am now doing voluntary work….” Or some other minor/major consciousness shift where one becomes concerned and aware of one’s life and its recursive trajectory. This is where the conversations actually start to “progress” and you find yourself engaging with a stranger who otherwise feels like an old friend — albeit a needy, unstable one.

At this point there are maybe two revolutions left in the rotunda. Your adult friend gets siphoned off somewhere into the building’s innards, and a weathered, smiling face greets you in relief. The two of you walk slowly as the senior agent massages a memory and focuses on the importance of restoring phenomenology. Your attention oscillates between boredom and intrigue as you offer “ums” and “uh-huhs” and the occasional “wow, really?” Then you reach the end, and Wisdom vanishes.

You start to wonder about the disingenuous aspects of Tino’s pieces — how some of the conversations felt artificial and scripted, not genuine and spontaneous — and if the experience was real. Like really real. As real as the people or walls you bumped into along the way, and as real as the vertigo-induced anxiety now screaming through your body as you look over the hip-high ledge and down the spiraling corridor at Kiss below. Kiss is now in its dry-humping stage and looks 100 percent flat, like a 2-D painting — a painting depicting a deformed centaur’s suicide: three legs, two heads, and one arm sprawled in an outline. But then it moves. Slightly.

“When you look at a painting,” Tino tells me in an interview back on ground level, “you know that you might like it or you might not like it, but you don’t have a similarity to it. With my work, the medium of the work is the same as you. And as a visitor, one has all the resources there as well.”

The interactions, Tino assures me, “are not scripted. They might repeat something sometimes, but that’s not what they’re supposed to do. They get information about you, and then they react to you. It’s a loose structure.” The only restrictions the conversationalists have: “They can’t talk about art, and they can’t talk about the piece itself.”

It’s this last part, the refusing to talk about itself — refusing, for instance, to call itself “This Is Progress” — that makes Tino’s work surpass a role as just the latest “Death of Art” incarnation in the Fountain and Brillo Box evolutionary chain. And because Sehgal’s work desperately needs you — an audience member, a participant — to exist, a sustainable and open relationship develops and lasts even after the museum’s doors close.

CCA Wattis Institute is currently hosting Tino’s first U.S. solo exhibition, a constantly evolving work incorporating pause, through April 24. It’s on a much smaller scale than the Guggenheim’s Sehgal show, but well worth the visit.


Through March 10

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

1071 Fifth Ave., N.Y.

(213) 423-3500



Through April 24

CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

1111 Eight St., SF

(415) 551-9210


Dolce utopia



VISUAL ART Amid day-to-day art world caprice, an event titled "Dynamic Adaptability: A Conference on New Thinking and New Strategies for the Arts" took place Jan. 28 at Herbst Theater. Rather than vie for stability, the organizers envisioned the gathering as an opportunity "to explore our changing environment and offer fresh ways of thinking about the future" of Bay Area arts. "This is a time," they asserted, "of tremendous potential for new ideas to take root."

Surprisingly, the speaker who best formulated this alternative model — this strategy of adaptive dynamism — was an outsider, and the youngest person at Herbst Theater that day. But 22-year-old neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer would argue this makes perfect, logical sense. Author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages, $24), Lehrer claims remote perspectives and practices offer unforeseeable insights. He argues that keen novelists like Proust can lead us to new understandings of the brain and society at large that neuroscientists (and other professionals) might otherwise overlook. The same goes for innovative artists; great art provokes new questions, which in turn abets new thinking.

The reason, Lehrer argues, is reason. Linear projections fashioned by rationality allow cognition only so many avenues. According to Lehrer, "emotions" — those messy feelings that propel many artists — "underlie cognition differently. And like morality and aesthetics, they have inexplicable qualities." Essentially, the more variegated and multidisciplinary the approach, the better the chance of screwing in that light bulb. The battlefield of "truth," it turns out, isn’t won solely by techies in labs, but also by writers and artists in studios.

Yet what if artists today can’t afford studios? Lehrer convincingly makes a case for dynamism, the importance of arts and humanities disciplines joining hands with sciences and other fields. But with arts budgets always the first to go in a paraplegic, sloughing economy, how are artists to survive, let alone produce? Better yet, how are they to adapt?

Artist-provocateur Philip Huang provided the conference’s other answer. Adorned in a cape, glitter vest, and Snoopy t-shirt, Huang greeted the audience by yelling, "Hey, motherfuckers!" Then he did it again, and again, until the shock wore off, at which point he was able to convince the crowd to taunt back, effectively turning the theater into an absurd acoustic swirl of contrived and zealous "Motherfucker!" chants.

Huang espoused an artistic model borrowed from TV and radio journalist Robert Krulwich, a strategy of "throwing yourself." It’s a prostitution tactic of pitching and hustling, but without the grip of the pimp or institution. And it works. In 10 short minutes, he convinced a dumbfounded-turned-elated crowd to fund his "24-hour Witness Fitness Performance," a straight-from-the-ass proposal to do a performance circuit on sidewalks that face treadmill runners as they vacuously stare into urban inanity. Hoang raised nearly $300 of wadded-up bills, all thrown at him like roses at a princess, despite his goading, "Fork it over, motherfuckers!"

Huang clearly doesn’t give a shit about the economy; he’s the type of artist who, despite uncertainties, will always find a way to produce via hustling. His "studio" is a case in point: the bedroom doubles as a "queer performance space" where he screens work and disseminates it through a YouTube channel (spider75berkely). But it’s his street performances that are most interesting. An artist’s work is likely to suffer if entirely withdrawn from the world (Proust’s last writings, where he ensconced himself in a cork-lined bedroom for three years, attest to this).

The mutability of an "in-between" or "third way" of making art was proposed by speakers at the "What is the Good of Work?" seminars organized by the Goethe-Institut in New York. Aimed at "think(ing) of unemployment as an artistic and philosophical category" given the amount of unemployed artists, the seminar "takes its starting point in the claim that today the artist — defined by creativity, unconventionality, and flexibility — might be seen as a role model for contemporary workers."

Liam Gillick, who spoke at the most recent seminar Jan. 30, believes today’s artist has an opportunity to "to reflect on permanent leisure." "The good artist is always productive and works all the time," he says. This "work" isn’t necessarily work or leisure in the traditional sense, but work characterized by "flexible knowledge-workers exercising self-organization and self-determination where the studio functions as a laboratory." Gillick views entropy as art’s current model: resistance and production via indeterminacy and flux.

In a similar spirit, albeit unwittingly, this article was written in several spaces (Herbst Theater; BART; seat 14B on a Boeing 757; Everyman Espresso and Fresh Salt Bar in NYC; a friend’s Brooklyn bedroom that isn’t really a bedroom but a living room with a partition; and all the criss-crossing streets in between), in several formats (notebook; laptop; cell phone; napkin; and folds in my brain). There were distractions — turbulence announcements; actors rehearsing scripts of banal, big city dating-related dialogue while jogging in place; a man’s heinous, relentless laughter that sounded exactly like a 1980 VW Rabbit desperately trying to turn over in the dead of winter; and near the rampant heat of a misused radiator. This may account for its moments of disjunction, but its words are imbued with many shifts in space and time, so that ideally they reflect more than a static mirror might.

Metacognition, or "thinking about thinking," as Lehrer explains it, is crucial to problem-solving and development. As is distance and movement. This is why Lehrer suggests doing work when traveling, walking — even daydreaming. Distancing oneself from an immediate obstacle allows for relaxation, which allows alpha waves to generate, which leads to moments of insight and epiphany.

"We shouldn’t be complaining about uncertainty or the prospect of no future," Gillick claims. Nor should we follow the opposite instinct of scrambling for "transparent utopias." Those, he warns, are never "transparent but actually opaque and dangerous."

I believe art critic Nicolas Bourriaud proffered the best way out of the current impasse faced by artists in a time of economic struggle and failure: "I am not persuaded that we should respond to this sort of ‘all or nothing’ by another globalizing system," he says. "I’m under the impression that we are approaching an era of ‘dolce utopia,’ to quote Maurizio Cattelan. It’s the idea of constructing temporal spaces which permit for a while experimentation."

Art, work, and artwork


VISUAL ART The global financial crisis continues to impoverish and displace those within reach of its residual tremors. Yet in the art realm, there have been signs of hope. Recent fairs — Frieze Art Fair in October and Art Basel Miami Beach earlier this month — brought reports of strong sales and optimism within the distressed economy. So why are artists everywhere worried about their futures, and more critically, panicking about their present tenses? The squeeze has to do with the work in artwork. More often than not, artists aren’t getting paid for their work.

The general prosperity of the current art market does not reflect the financial success of most artists — it just means that artworks are selling, and many of those works are by artists who are already established or dead. The other artists, the worried ones, the ones scraping by on paint chips and uncreative, menial part-time jobs and unpaid internship after unpaid internship, are starting to organize. And talk. Worried as well, I recently attended two events, one in New York and the other in Oakland, that call for a shift of terrain in art/work.

The New York event, titled, “What Is the Good of Work?” — the second in a four-part series organized by Goethe-Institut New York — was more abstract in its approach, seeking to redefine work through film and literature. For instance, when British novelist Tom McCarthy roused Herman Melville’s character Bartleby in order to express the potentials of “recess” in a “recession” and promote a politics of pause as escapist rather than reactionary, an audience member inquired: “But how can this be implemented in real life?” Here, McCarthy went quiet. The rest of the panel, too, including the nihilist philosopher Simon Critchley, only seemed capable of speculating on a new function of work, as opposed to how this new work would, well, work.

Comparatively, the Oakland event was more concerned with brass tacks. Organized by Sight School, an artist-run storefront newly opened in November, its aim “to create dialogue around new modes of living and being in the world in order to reveal connections between art and life” was actually visualized.

The evening began with local artists and writers reading primarily from a newspaper compiled by the Chicago-based collective Temporary Services. In it, more than 40 artists and writers pinpoint problematic issues and propose a way out. The front page introduction succinctly outlines its motivations:

We can see how the collapse of the economy is affecting everyone. Something must be done. Let’s talk. No, it can’t wait. Things are bad. We have to work things out. We can only do it together. What do we know? What have others tried? What is possible? How do we talk about it? What are the wildest possibilities? What are the pragmatic steps? What can you do? What can we do?



The urgency of this situation was emphasized most strongly by Julian Myers, an assistant professor of curatorial practice at California College of the Arts. He fervently read the group Research and Destroy’s “Communiqué from an Absent Future: On the Terminus of Student Life,” which was drafted in response to the current University of California crises. Myers conveyed the text’s uncomfortably accurate detail of a bankrupt future not just for students, but anyone not already financially secure. The text incensed everyone in the room, as they realized the gravity of student debts and of academia as a new factory — a neverending rabbit hole of false security.

The last reader, Natasha Wheat, decided not to read at all; rather, she turned to the audience and asked, “What does a just art economy looks like?” Immediately, people chimed in. The space turned into a sauna of conjectures, arguments, personal anecdotes, and pleas. A variety of ideas and subjects — everything from emphasizing the importance of guilds and collectives to providing braces for children — were bandied about. These rants often lacked direction. Many were fueled by emotion and gave way to incomprehensible babble about new economies without realizing the previous paths paved by Marx, Adam Smith, and Keynes. But the passion, heretofore dormant, was inspiring.

Interestingly, the only thing missing from all the cries of desperation was a focus on artwork itself. In this small storefront room, everyone — artists, writers, curators, historians, and spectators — was hyper-aware about the lack of funding. But ironically, art had gone missing as well. Not many will disagree with the assertion that workers deserve payment for their labor, but what if their work blows? If I actively paint a canvas for eight hours a day, and no one finds it of value, why should I get paid? If money were a given, we’d all be doodling for dollars.

Zachary Royer Scholz, one of the readers and most intelligent contributors to the discussions, ended the event with a similar concern. He shifted the blame away from the economy and back toward the art. “Canada has strong government and institutional funding for its artists, but look at its art … it sucks!” Just then, a man on the opposite side of the room descended on Scholz, barking in protest. His ass-length dreads swung in tandem with his raised fists. It looked like a fight might break out, but the affront turned out to be performative — the room was filled with artists, after all.

I don’t find it coincidental that Dave Hickey’s The Invisible Dragon: Essays On Beauty (University of Chicago Press, 152 pages, $22) stirred from its coma this year. Its polemics could not be revived at a better time. First released in 1993, the book has been out of print for several years. Hickey originally pulled the plug because the “intensity and icy aggression” of The Invisible Dragon’s provocation was too great. In other words, people were pissed because Hickey insisted on the importance of art’s beauty.

In the collection’s first essay, “Enter The Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty,” Hickey argues that beauty has been replaced by meaning, and laments the art market baton swap from art dealers to institutions. “The institution’s curators hold a public trust,” Hickey writes. “They must look attentively and genuinely care about what artists mean, and what this meaning means in a public context — and, therefore, almost of necessity, they must distrust appearances.”

The problem, according to Hickey, parallels the one in Michel Foucault’s 1975’s Discipline and Punish, wherein punishment shifts from the external, via physical torture as public spectacle, to the internal — torture of the soul and mind via incarceration and criminal psychiatry. In effect, it’s a shift of gaze and surveillance: we now internalize this gaze and monitor ourselves.

But what does this have to do with art? Art limited to meaning loses its subversive potential; it gets too worried and existential. By contrast, allowing art to express itself through appearances also allows it to find new folds within an otherwise predetermined economy of signs — an economy controlled exclusively by arts institutions.

I imagine if Hickey had been in that room that evening, he would have stood up early on to demand that everyone stop acting like economists: You’re artists, dammit. You’re not here to fix the economy, you’re here to create things. Now go out and make shit — but for Christ’s sake, make it beautiful. *

www.sightschool.wordpress.com; www.temporaryservices.org

Attention cultural mutants



“Jacob Ciocci is,” as Wikipedia attests, “an American [Pittsburgh] visual artist, performance artist and musician … he is one of the three remaining founding members of Paper Rad, an artist collective … He also performs and tours regularly … in the band ‘Extreme Animals’…” Ciocci’s work, especially with his recent video collection release, 2 Blessed 2B Stressed (Audio Dregs), is almost entirely not his own. His videos recycle pop cultural detritus as fast and furiously as his band freaks beats. I spoke with Jacob in person, via e-mail, and through Transcendental Meditation to collage the meaning, authenticity, and artifice of collage.

SFBG What questions are you most frequently asked?
JACOB CIOCCI Questions about appropriation, sampling.

SFBG These are obviously huge aspects of your work. What’s your relationship with these forms?
JC Whenever I have used or “sampled” something from some cultural source I really feel like there is always an equal amount of change or recontextualization happening. I strive for a 50/50 yin-yang balance between me/the world, or culture’s voice/my voice. Of course I recognize this is sort of absurd, since you can never separate yourself from the yin-yang wheel — you can never fully know when you are being “you” and when you are being a puppet for culture.

SFBG Any questions you’re sick of hearing?
JC I guess the questions that bug me the most imply that all I do is regurgitate culture from the ’80s. My interests really are much wider than just approaching 8-bit video games like Mario Brothers or sampling cartoons from the ’80s. My art, has always been interested in a much more ambiguous and wider set of concerns. It’s not about any specific period of pop culture and cannot be reduced to any kind of term like “appropriation.”

SFBG It could be argued that ’80s culture is also the one you grew up with and thus are most familiar with.
JC I think that when I was doing work that was referencing certain time periods, it was more an investigation of how certain technologies or cultural tropes affected my consciousness. I was using my current consciousness, or my subconsciousness as a way to talk about the shaping of my brain — but not ’80s culture, all culture: the vacuum of past, present, and future. It’s not interesting if it just regurgitates the past. It’s best if the work deals with the past via your perspective in the present.

SFBG So rather than simply reviving and representing these old cultural tropes, you try to give them new meaning by reflecting on them via a cultural mirror — albeit a fractured, holographic one of your own design? Does this transcendence then create a new aesthetic?
JC I think that if you hold up a mirror to society in the right way — if you have constructed the mirror good enough (and the definition of what works as a good mirror is constantly changing based on context), then it does take the viewer and society as a whole to a new place, and thus probably will create some sort of “new aesthetic” or cultural direction. When you interpret the past (even the past meaning one minute ago on YouTube) with clarity in the present, you create the future. This seems to be a neverending cycle. Some would say that through technology it is happening at a faster and faster rate. But I really can’t say because time seems so relative.

SFBG Speaking of technology, your work is explicitly couched in the crude pixel aesthetics of outmoded technologies, like Geocities and Angelfire Web sites. Why is that?
JC When I started working with computer technology in college with some other friends, we realized computers were becoming too advanced. It was impossible to learn every new tool and actually understand not only it’s technological but cultural implications — to master it.
The model instead was to just focus on something a bit older, that had a fixed architecture, so that even if it’s outdated, if you just stuck with it and really investigated that interface, then you would be able to get something interesting and “contemporary” out of that tool. Otherwise you just end up being a superficial user of every piece of software that comes out.
But I think the big light bulb that went off when I started to work with Paper Rad was that there is something just as interesting happening when you are a superficial user of technology. A recreational Geocities user isn’t interesting because he or she is a hardcore DIY “master HTML programmer” computer hacker wizard, but because of what he or she exposes about the Internet. I like the cultural mutant model: Geocities users were mutants who unconsciously stumbled on an interesting representation of how the Internet was affecting culture.

SFBG What is it that usually catches your eye culturally?
JC The relationship between ideas of authenticity and artifice. The version of celebrity that Paramore [a contemporary pop punk band] or Miley Cyrus represent is really interesting because it’s wrapped up in a kind of conservatism, but it’s also about being young and rebellious.

SFBG And you’re attempting to exfoliate that gap between authenticity and artifice?
JC I’m interested in the possibly pointless task of trying to separate artifice from authenticity. I feel that a lot of times what I try to do is to help people who are cynical be a little more open-minded about what’s happening around them culturally, so that they can possibly see that other people are struggling as much as they are to define themselves within this very limiting cultural soup. Or that these ideas of politics and constructions that we have in our head about who we are and what our beliefs are, are really, really rigid, and then by reevaluating culture that we deem as foreign or outside that we can rethink ourselves. I’m not trying to say that “we can all get along and we can all be friends.” But there’s something to that process of expanding your mind that is important.
This can be really hard to make work about because it can seem disrespectful sometimes. People, including myself, make art using images of people they have never met, and that becomes highly questionable — which in my opinion is a good thing. I think that questionable aspect of art can be productive if handled correctly.

www.audiodregs.com; www.jacobciocci.org; www.paperrad.org

Encapsuutf8g pulses


I happened upon the opening of "Our Best Machines are Made of Sunshine," a sound installation by Jacqueline Gordon at Queen’s Nails Projects that has inspired noisy throngs both inside and outside the gallery’s small walls. The work relays miked sound from the sidewalk and street outside QNP, ricocheting it through the gallery’s innards via four white constructions of paneled vinyl and protruding, point-less (but sharp with meaning) pyramids. The result is a lot of fun; outsiders can create sound from outside the gallery’s walls, while those inside are subject to an echo of cacophony. Inspired by anechoic chambers, John Cage, Brutalist architecture, the limitations of technology, utopia and dystopia, and, of course, sunshine, "Our Best Machines" is simultaneously intimidating and intimate, especially when visited alone. I recently sat down with QNP director Julio Cesar Morales and Gordon on the gallery’s comfy floor cushions to get a sense of why this is, and what’s so special about sunshine.

SFBG How did you arrive at the gap and tension between nature and machines?

Jacqueline Gordon I’m interested in the history of technology and how we create — or not necessarily how we create, but why we create — and the kind of tools that we create for ourselves. In particular, the tools and the ideas and machines created in pursuit of utopia, and how that approach can actually be a confining thing. So it’s that push-pull between the search for an escape and then the confinement of that search. To me, this search is a universally human, psychological phenomenon.

SFBG Why or how does this search become confining?

JG It could become limiting because maybe you’re only focused on one thing, and you kind of get stuck.

I started knitting when I was really depressed, which I think a lot of people do (laughs). And I was noticing that I couldn’t not knit for eight hours a day. I got really into it. But then I started noticing that I wasn’t progressing; I was just continuing on and I wasn’t necessarily improving on certain aspects of my life. Instead, I was just totally obsessed with knitting.

SFBG It just became really repetitive.

JG Yeah, it was really soothing and comforting, but just total escape.

SFBG Would you say that "Our Best Machines are Made of Sunshine" is an attempt to elucidate or expose the push of technology and its tools toward a utopia, or an attempt to break out and disrupt that occurrence?

JG I’m investigating that occurrence by asking "What is that?" or "Why do we do these things, and how do we see them related to our lives?"

SFBG I’ve noticed that some of your earlier work, such as "Black Matters," takes its design direction from the natural world. And the title for this work obviously privileges sunshine (the natural) over the man-made (machine). How does this inform its form?

JG All the designs came from the natural environment. These patterns [the cone or stud-looking shapes that house the speakers] came from a building on the corner of Market and 11th streets. The vinyl pieces come from log cabin quilting patterns. It’s very simple. All of it is from the world. I like to think of it as actually coming from reality.

SFBG So, architecturally speaking, you’re interested in being "site-specific." What else?

JG In terms of architecture, in terms of inspiration, I was looking at a lot of Brutalist architecture.

SFBG How come?

JG I think that in a way it demonstrates a striving for progression. Brutalist architecture was a kind of symbol for, or the epitome of, progress. Yet the buildings are so derelict; they’re not good to live in. But they are these emblems of power and structure — they symbolize utopia.

SFBG Why did you choose to house the speakers in the Brutalist forms as opposed to the quilted patterns? Could it have been the other way around?

JG I wanted the sound to come out of something hard. I also wanted it to be a little, I don’t know if "scary" is the word, but a little intimidating.

When I first started working with sound I got the idea that I wanted to make an anechoic chamber. I had read about John Cage’s theory of the anechoic chamber and I eventually got to experience an installation of one in New Jersey. The walls’ insides were patterned, and wedges come out in different directions.

SFBG Aside from the obvious "white cube" connection, why else did you choose white?

JG I’m interested in the manipulation of the senses and perception. I wanted to do something that was all white, but it’s also a way of creating sensory deprivation. (Spencer Young)


Through Nov. 20,

(music performance with Wobbly, Nate Boyce and Greg Zifcak, Thurs/12, 8 p.m.)

Queen’s Nails Project

3191 Mission, SF

(415) 314-6785