Monday, March 31, 2008

Kill the Messenger

This originally began as a post about the San Francisco Art Institute's decision to shut down Adel Abdessemed's exhibition "Don't Trust Me." However, the furor around this exhibition has created a kind of a perfect storm for me, as it touches on almost everything I find abhorrent: inhumane treatment of animals, censorship, knee-jerk alarmist reactions by those who don't appear to know (or don't want to know) anything beyond their own alarmist reaction, threats of violence against human beings, the notion that anyone should be permitted to force their viewpoint on a larger group through intimidation or violence, artistic "critique" of the impoverished, and blind stupidity/groupthink.

I find myself so spun around by this that I have trouble pinning down which of these things is most distressing to me. But perhaps worse is the way in which I found that I was nearly ready to censor myself, and the reasons thereto. I will address those issues in a future post, perhaps tomorrow. But for now, I want to focus on the controversy surrounding Abdessemed.

I want to start off by making it clear that I did not see this exhibition, nor do I know very much about this artist, although I am a little familiar with some of his other work. And although I spent the morning looking for it, I was not able to find a great deal of information directly from him about his intentions for or his process in creating this particular work. I suspect this may be intentional. What I do know is that the exhibit included video footage shot in Mexico of five individual animals being slaughtered, apparently by being hit in the head with a sledgehammer.

Some descriptions of the video called it “surreal” and suggested it left the viewer confused as to what had actually happened. Still others called it “visceral” or “disgusting” or “horrifying.” Clearly, it is, at the very least, profoundly affecting and disturbing.

What is not clear to me is whether the artist physically participated in the killing of the animals or orchestrated it in any way other than operating his video camera.

A press release from the San Francisco Art Institute quotes president Chris Bratton, saying Adbessemed “participated in an already-existing circuit of food production in a rural community in Mexico. The animals were raised for food, purchased, and professionally slaughtered. In fact, what causes the controversy is that Abdessemed, an artist, entered this exchange, filmed it, and exhibited it.”

I am a bit disturbed by not knowing what is meant by "participated in …" or "entered this exchange …" but I take this statement overall to suggest that the killing of these animals in this particular way was going to happen whether there was a video camera present or not. As a horse-lover, I have made it my business to learn a little bit about how the large livestock slaughterhouses work in Mexico, where most of this country’s cast-off equines wind up. Let me tell you, their primary objective is not the humane dispatch of the animal, it is getting as many of them through the kill box and onto the meat floor in as short a period of time as possible. This sometimes involves use (sometimes expert, sometimes not) of a captive bolt, but also sometimes involves use of a large knife to stab the horse multiple times in the back in order to damage the spinal cord enough to render the horse paralyzed. At this point its throat is cut and the animal is hung up by its hind legs to facilitate “bleeding out.” This is not a peaceful death, nor a death free of trauma or pain.

There is video of this process available on the Internet; all one has to do is Google “horse slaughter” and “video”. And yet, there is no mass letter-writing campaign to the SHARK web site to remove its slaughterhouse videos immediately, no movement of radical animal rights activists calling for the vet who filmed the work to be killed to secure “revenge” for the animals. No one is phoning or emailing the slaughter houses threatening to rape the workers’ children or blow up their homes.

Yet this is what occurred when word about Abdessemed’s piece got around. Why? What was the difference in this case that made “kill the messenger”—sometimes literally—an almost universal response, among both “radical animal rights activists” and groups of “deeply offended” soccer moms, most of whom had not seen and were unlikely ever to see the exhibition?

The only difference I can find, given the informaton that I have (aside from art being an easy and frequent target; like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and obscenity, most people can’t define art but believe they know it when they see it)—is that of the context of a clear intent. The slaughter videos on the SHARK (SHow Animals Respect and Kindness) web site have a very clear context, there is no ambiguity in what they hope to achieve by making these videos available. Although the videos are what they are, they are presented in a framework that clearly articulates SHARK’s point of view.

In an art gallery, the viewer is oftentimes invited—or abandonned—to calculate his or her own point of view, without clues as to what the artist “wants” them to think. Adbessemed’s intent for—indeed, even his level of participation in—the “kill” videos remains ambiguous. And as we are often afraid of what lurks in our own heads, human beings are generally not comfortable with ambiguity.

Am I defending the work? I’m not sure. As I said, I didn’t see it before the Art Institute pulled the exhibition, and I don’t have much information to go on that hasn’t already been filtered through multiple layers of hysteria. If Abdessemed orchestrated the killing of these animals in any way differently than the fate they would have met had he not been there, then I definitely have a problem with it. If he was videotaping something that simply was the norm in that community, even as much as I might disapprove of the act itself, there is nothing in videotaping it that I can find to criticise, nor with including it as a piece in an exhibition.

When we get right down to it, however, it is not the artist nor the work that upsets me. It’s not that the Art Institute caved in the face of what it called “credible threats of violence” (although we all know that some circles might read that as “credible threats of negative publicity among potential donors.”).

Instead, there are two things: one is the fact that some people believe they have the right to impose their will on others through intimidation and threats of violence. I find this idea completely appalling, whether we are talking about a 6th grade schoolyard bully or a religion or a government. I also think it particularly offensive that groups that insist humans have no dominion over animals can so easily make the leap to taking on for themselves dominion over other people who hold opinions (or in this case, are assumed to hold opinions, or are even related to the expression of assumed opinions) that differ from their own. This is supposed to be America-Land-of-the-Sort-Of-Free, not a fascist state. And the last time I read through some of the message boards on the "kill video" issue, the comments there certainly did not support any notion that the posters were somehow operating from a position of superior intellect, insight, or moral character.

The second thing: if this video footage is, as the President of the Art Institute has suggested, a representation of the way things are in “a rural community in Mexico,” is this not just again another instance of a resident of a priviledged nation (Abdessemed is Algerian-born, but lives and works in the U.S.) pointing up a fictive “otherness” among those who ultimately are not less human but instead merely less priviledged? Perhaps again we meet with ambiguity for a reason, perversely unsettling, but unsettling with a purpose that we ourselves must determine from within.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Spring, Sprang, Sprung ...


I'm glad that spring is officially here. However, my Vernal Equinox did not go as I had planned. I envisioned getting my web site completed, doing a brief blessing ceremony for it within the context of a more formal Equinox ritual, launching it with the pride of a gardener planting the first seeds of the season (notice appropriate metaphor), and going to bed happy and fulfilled and getting a good night's sleep. Instead, I was extremely tired when I got home, I dramatically underestimated the amount of work that remained to be done on the site, I goofed around watching TV and playing with cats, and then I decided to be a good wife and make dinner for myself and hubby instead of resorting to frozen pizza. Which, of course, took significantly longer than the insanely optimistic 30 minutes quoted by the recipe. Which I knew, having made this dish before, but of course which I just ignored because ... well, why? I can't really say why. That's just the way the evening played out.

In the end, I started working on the final "details" of the site around 11 pm with not the hint or shred of any kind of ritual blessing in sight, and managed to load it at around 2 am. And it's still not done. Someone looking at it who didn't have any idea of how much work I actually put into it would think "gee, there's sure a lot of stuff that's not done here." Gah.

So you might think my Spring Equinox was a disaster. But I would argue with you that's not the case at all.

It didn't fit my plan. But it fit my life. I didn't plant any little vegetable seeds, like I had thought of. But I planted all kinds of other seeds;really everything I did last night was a tiny blessed seed.

I did a lot of work on the site, and incomplete or not, I got it up. There are still plenty of bugs: occasionally someone else's video shows up in my installation viewer, for example, and there is a lot of writing to get done. But it's up. A LOT has been done. And it's so much more than I had before, and it has a LOT of my work on it. With this web site, I'm really putting myself out there. Maybe I'm sliding in a little sideways, but I'm getting there. It's a little seed of my professional artist life.

Making dinner was actually a seed as well. There is something really affirming about cooking, about chopping fresh ingredients and sorting out seasoning. It's both literal nourishment and figurative nourishment. It's feeding my body, feeding my soul, and feeding my relationship with my husband. Making dinner from scratch means there's extra care going in there. It's a little seed of my personal life.

And everything I did last night, even watching TV and playing with cats, I did in a spirit of gratitude. I enjoyed myself. And I tried not to stress. And I understood I was getting in my own way of my "plans," but I also understood that they were just "plans" ... and plans change.

All in all, it was a very nice vernal equinox. And now it's the first day of Spring, and I'm ready to nurture those seeds and make sure good things happen.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Time for a Do Over!

I found out recently that a collaborative project I'm part of didn't land the show slot we'd applied for with a local gallery. I have to admit that I wasn't all that disappointed; although the space was nice, it wasn't exactly a locale known for hosting cutting-edge work. And the more I've been thinking about my part of the project, the more interested I've become in taking everything to the next level. So this alleged "setback" really comes as more of an opportunity I'm ready to take.

Basically, it's a big old "do over!" That seems to be the theme of my life at the moment, to the point where it's almost an art project itself and I'm wondering if some grantmaking agency would give me money just to live through it.

A few of the things I'm doing over:

1. My late mother's co-op, so it can become someone else's co-op. Actually, a very talented stager friend of mine is doing it over. But it's going to look great and be very appealing to Baby Boom buyers who want a reasonably-priced little retreat in a gated "55-and-over" community just up the hill from said community's golf course. (Said community also has three pools, two clubhouses, tennis courts, bocci ball and lawn bowling, fully-equipped fitness facilities, cafes, its own bus line, and a farmer's market every weekend. And that's in addition to the 200+ social clubs for everything from line dancing to travel abroad.)

OK, so that felt a little bit like a pitch; it was, what can I say? But if you're interested, have a look. This is the place in its lovely, prettily-staged condition.

2. My web site. This is big for me, I've put a lot of time into it and I hope it will pay off. It involves all kinds of techie improvements—image galleries and dedicated video viewers and an eventual file uploader and all sorts of stuff. I'm setting Thursday, March 20 as the official "go-live" date, and I hope you'll visit and let me know what you think. (Yes, that's the first full day of Spring. I did that on purpose.)

3. My artistic repetoire. I'm thinking more and more about ', what it is and what it means ... I'm thinking about how to integrate that "other world" with everything I work on, and how to use it to its highest potential.

4. My toolset. Good god, people are actually looking at my videos on YouTube. Why? And one of them seems to be going viral, a little bit ... goodness. I only put them up there as an adjunct to my web site. I never imagined anybody would be interested. (Although now I'm a little bit worried that it's going a little bit viral because people are making fun of it ...)

5. My optimism. I've feel sort of under a cloud for awhile now. Things are starting to feel better; I'm pretty sure that bit of light over there is the sun rather than an oncoming tractor-trailer rig aiming right for me.

6. My finances. Once my mom's place sells, things will improve dramatically.

7. My commitment to art. But hey, you've been reading about that (if you're one of the 2.3 regular readers of this blog) for the last week or so anyway.

What do YOU want to "do over"? Hm, that sounds like an art project ... !

PS: Happy St. Patrick's Day. But don't kiss me, I'm SCOTTISH!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

pulling it all together

I seem to be highly motivated these days, and since coming back from the College Art Association conference I have been immersed in a flurry of art- and art academia-oriented activities. I'm beginning a couple of new projects and reinvigorating an existing one. I'm redeveloping my web site (and seeing as this is what I currently do all day for money, it's extremely challenging to make myself continue to do it once my work day has ended). I'm writing a paper proposal for the 2009 CAA conference, and sending out my work to a whole new series of publications and juried exhibitions. I'm reviewing art teaching opportunities on a weekly basis—and trying hard not to get completely freaked out by how little they pay. But I even have plans set in motion that would enable me to live on an art academic's salary without working a second job or freelancing, and am even ready to work both my full-time job and add a couple of part time teaching jobs on top of it if those plans don't pan out.

I am, in short, determined to reclaim art—not just in my life, but as my life.

What set all this off?

Well, I could be romantic and say I was inspired by Yoko Ono. And really, I was inspired by her, she's incredible, but I think that answer would give her too much credit and myself too little.

I once told a favorite professor that he reminded me of who I really am. I don't think he understood what I meant by it, as the comment seemed to make him nervous (but then everything I said to that particular professor seemed to make him nervous, I couldn't wish him a good evening without getting the "deer-in-the-headlights" face). Anyway, my point is that the CAA conference has had the same effect. Just having four days of basically thinking, talking and hearing about nothing but art reminded me who I really am. I'm an artist. And an academic. And an intellectual. All these things come to me as naturally as breathing. But it's easy to lose them in the shuffle of doing what one has to do to survive.

I'll let you know when the new web site is ready, and I hope all 2.3 of the regular readers of this blog sign up for at least one of my new projects!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Everything Old is New (Genres) Again ...

Ask five people about "New Genres," and you'll get ... five different blank stares.

Oh. Wait.

OK, now ask five artists about "new genres," and there's no telling what you'll get. If you ask Google, you'll get 6.6 million responses, one of which is a "working paper" by a researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and one of which is a very fine 13-year-old book about public art by Suzanne Lacy. But nowadays (and from a perspective perhaps different than that of the National Bureau of Economic Research), "new genres" seems to be used to mean "conceptual" or "many-media" or "interactive public art" or "Photoshop, Flash, Lightroom and Dreamweaver" or, sadly, "this is what we call all the stuff that's not painting and sculpture."

The San Francisco Art Institute has an entire New Genres Department, yet manages on their web site to be vague about what genres it thinks might actually be new. One eventually gets the impression that it's all about hybridity, mulitple modes of expression, and conceptual ideas ... although SFAI has a nice shiny new Center for Interdisciplinary Study that is supposed to be all about that (to which, SFAI's web site notes, the New Genres Department "contributes and builds bridges". Hmm.)

UCLA, in grappling for its definition of New Genres, mentions installation, video, film, audio, performance, digital, hybrid and emerging art forms, and suggests "New Genres is a practice which begins with ideas and then move to the appropriate form or media for that particular idea, sometimes inventing entirely new sites of cultural production, new methodologies, technologies, or genres in the process."

So "New Genres" is starting with an idea and picking the most appropriate mode of expression for that idea ... er, silly me, I thought that was the basis of almost all Contemporary Art and postmodern expression. But I see too that New Genres might also be defined as anything containing something new, although that idea is qualified by the expression "sometimes," and so means you could be looking at New Genre work and not actually see anything new, and in fact, you might actually be looking at a new genre that is not itself New Genres, but could be contained within New Genres! Hey!

Sure, that makes sense ... NOT.

All this comes up because I've been perusing job postings, and several of them want someone to teach "New Genres." They are very emphatic about this fact, they are "especially" interested in having someone teach "New Genres." And while I have an idea what I mean when I use the term, I have no idea what they might mean by it, and these job postings frequently offer no further clues. This comes most likely not from ignorance or an interest in being difficult, but instead from the very well-known tendency of academic institutions (especially large ones, like the one that currently employs me) to talk to themselves in their own secret code, and to expect everyone around them to understand.

I wouldn't mind this so much, but in an academic job search, every little advantage is crucial. Not being able to pin down quite what they want makes it very difficult to craft one's cover letter to show off one's most relevant skills, if you see what I mean. In addition, although I possess the insane bravado necessary to feel certain I can teach "it" no matter what "it" is, my enthusiasm definitely wanes somewhat if we are talking about teaching college sophomores "Photoshop 1" or "Web Design Basics", as opposed to, say, teaching college sophomores "Introduction to Net.Art" or "Artist as Activist" or "Exploring Site-Specific Installation."

New Genres as an art term was coined quite some time ago; I've even seen it used in reference to late 16th and early 17th century Italian painting. I think it's safe to say that every genre was a "New Genre" at one time or another, and the category is not fixed but fluid. A number of "genres" that I first encountered massed under a "New Genres" heading have grown and expanded and are now their own genres, but may often still be found categorized as "New Genres" (video and public art come to mind). And the next "New Genres" remain hidden, lurking just below the horizon of public consciousness, waiting to be identified, to further conflict and confuse us all.

Monday, March 03, 2008

What the Hell is New Media Now?

I just got back from the College Art Association Conference in Dallas, as I think you may have figured out if you're one of the 2.3 actual readers of this blog, and I spent a lot of time there attending sessions on New Media. This is in part because I am a member of the New Media Caucus, and also because I have it in my head that I am keenly interested in New Media. But in truth there was another more nefarious reason lurking in the background, driving my participation. Namely ...

... I was hoping to figure out what New Media actually is. Er, or are. Whatever.

I recall a time when "New Media" generally seemed to mean video, which has not exactly been "new" since about 1967. Then for awhile it seemed to include anything that was a hybrid of other forms; that definition seems to have been co-opted for now by "New Genres." For another little while, it seemed it was anything having to do with site-specific or time-based art ... which nowadays seems to mostly be called "site-specific" or "time-based," or which sometimes gets called "New Genres" too. Duh.

Wikipedia helpfully defines New Media Art as "an art genre that encompasses artworks created with new media technologies, including computer graphics, computer animation, the Internet, interactive technologies, robotics, and biotechnologies." Which sounds solid, but then unfortunately it continues, "The term differentiates itself by its resulting cultural objects, which can be seen in opposition to those deriving from old media arts (i.e. traditional painting, sculpture, etc.) This concern with medium is a key feature of much contemporary art and indeed many art schools now offer a major in "New Genres" or "New Media." New Media concerns are often derived from the telecommunications, mass media and digital modes of delivery the artworks involve, with practices ranging from conceptual to virtual art, performance to installation."

So is the label "New Media" entirely dependent upon the framework of the delivery of the artwork? May it or may it not include media that are not at all "new"? And does "New Media" really produce "cultural objects that are in opposition to those deriving from painting, sculpture, etc."?

In my own way of thinking, all artwork is in some way deriving from that which has gone before. Joseph Beuys labeled his community artwork "social sculpture," and early computer graphics work got called "digital painting." The concerns are still very similar in terms of whether or not a piece "works", the aesthetic concerns are also there. In Dallas, I heard alarms being sounded about archive-ability and stable documentation of New Media art, and speculation about where New Media art lands us on the trajectory.

While I was busy trying to pin down "New Media," the super-wonderful people at expanded their definition of it. For their 2009 call for proposals, they note: "Rhizome has expanded our scope, formerly focused strictly on Internet-based art to encompass the broad range of practices that fall under new media art. This includes projects that creatively engage new and networked technologies to works that reflect on the impact of these tools and media in a variety of forms. With this expanded format, commissioned works can take the final form of online works, performance, video, installation or sound art. Projects can be made for the context of the gallery, the public, the web or networked devices."

Well alrighty then. If even is having to shift around to get it right, I think it's safe to say "New Media" is nothing if not a moving target. Which it should be; it wouldn't be very new if it didn't change now and again, would it?

Next post, maybe I'll take on "New Genres."