Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fish, Creative Time and Place

Fish are not central to social practice art but perhaps they should be because they are the canaries in the mines of water and food. Without fish, we may not have either soon enuf. It seems fish and artists are being de-corporealized into cans and service silos, the better, perhaps, to consume us to the very last bite.

Every year, Creative Time (CT) hosts a conference on social practice in the arts. It is a "place" in art discourse. It is also a bit of a discursive hothouse, this year without any opportunity for formal back & forth between audience & presenters. So at lunch, yesterday, I took a bit of a walk in Washington Square Park and saw some art with a little less baggage.

The air and the music (Debussy) cleared my mind and I walked away humming.

This year, the CT theme was place-making and gentrification. As last year, there were some controversial aspects to the event. One for many, was the shutting down of a talk by Lucy Lippard to hold to time constraints and another, for me- in contrast- was the long rant that was not cut off by Invincible. More controversial, to me, was the relative absence, except for Lippard's talk, of thoughtful address to the anthropocentric paradigms that seemed to be dominating the discourse. What much of the controversy has been about on Facebook, has been whether artists, like fish are being commodified to the brink of survival and to what extent, Creative Time may be complicit in that process. The reason for that suspicion was that the very valorization of large-scale social practice works, such as a recent ambitious event by Suzanne Lacy, can corporatize the art process while making the suffering and struggles of disadvantaged peoples both high art fashion and that marginalizes and excludes more modest practitioners. Ironically, historically, when money rules, there has always been a "high" art that appeals to the prevailing 1%. In this case, the 1% are those who are the best-educated, gentrified art world. Except this time, instead of casting in bronze, we are casting for the poor.

And how does any of this change essential systems that generate poverty? Not so clear. What I am very sure of, is that when we marginalize the environment in order to place humans at the center of the world, all life suffers, including and especially, poor humans. There was a great deal of discussion about displacing the poor for artists and then making room for the 1% but very little, except for Lucy's talk, about displacing the natural world with built human infrastructure. extrapolating from the displacement of nature and Lucy, we are displacing our water and food sources, which is why I always come back to fish. 

There was no opportunity for Q&A in the CT format therefore these questions could not be asked publically. There were various formats for informal gatherings, however, including, after the aftermath, on Facebook.

In response to the shutting down of Lucy Lippard on Martha Schwendener's page and a format without Q&A I wrote:

I was there and just on the point of shutting Lucy down and formatting: I also found it shocking that she was shut down, esp given audience response. What made it even more distasteful was how the last presenter was allowed to ramble on forever in a long rant with a lot of incoherent rage. Nato Thompson had said in the beginning, that he wanted us all to consider framing our listening in terms of intent, content, context, production, distribution, and documentation (which seemed very corporate) but at the end, there was no wrap up except an invite to socialize at Judson. When I went there, the noise, crowd and drinking was too much for me and I went home. Today I'm trying to decide what I think and finding it difficult. It's informative to read the threads from you, Martha Schwendener and Mira Schor who weren't there. The experience of being there, I'm sure was very diff than watching but the lack of opportunity for audience participation, even on the level allowed last year, felt deadening and made it harder to have a clear take away. There were many good moments, inc Joshua Decter (sorry I didn't say something yesterday). The Palestinian question esp seemed very heavy handled to me and ethically questionable at the beginning and the end. It's often hard for me to distinguish between exhaustion & depression (over my impression that plus ca change, plus ca reste la meme) and yesterday I felt both. But when I think about the most moving presentation, Laura Jo & her collaborators, I now question the whole set up, which put the three people of color on display, as they cried and the audience silently witnessed. I noticed that afterwards, they walked thru the lobby and no one approached them nor did they seem to want to be approached. That was of a piece for me with watching an elderly black woman trying to walk home with her groceries before the opening of Suzanne Lacy's piece last week & being turned away by (an also black policeman under orders and clearly upset by having to follow those orders). Last night, I wondered if I should have thanked Tallant, Hourani & Forte at that point but they seemed very self-protective and it felt wrong. My biggest take away was from my conversation with Mierle Mierle Laderman Ukeles to the effect, as I wrote on my own page, that we were watching a gentrification of social practice, in which yes, Suzanne seems to be quite active and about which, as Mierle said, "it's scary." It has apparently become another BIG industry except most artists going into or accessing social practice will not make any more money than all the artists who are not represented by Gagosian Gallery. Another comparison, ironically, is to the very gentrification artists pioneer with real estate, from which neighborhoods are displaced. It's painful to consider the implications of this kind of commodification of ethics and disadvantaged communities at the hands of art entrepreneurs.

On my own page I wrote:
Fascinating day 1 of 2 with old friends & new @ Creative Time today- some terrific work in Zimbabwe & Caracas, Venez. Will post more later. My only caveat so far is that ecological art is still being treated like, at best, the vegetable garnish on social practice art instead of being recognized for its indispensable interdependence. Made notes that will inform my diss and Kitty is pleased I'm home for the night.
The second day of Creative Time had some amazing highlights and some deep lows. Yesterday the most moving presentation was about the courageous defense of Giza Park in Istanbul to "save a couple trees." Today, besides brilliant presentations by Rebecca Solnit and Lucy Lippard, the Annenberg Prize was given to Laurie Jo Reynolds with prison activists Sally Tallant, Khaled Hourani and John Forte, the last three of whom stood silently for many minutes with the audience standing as well, to bear witness to the numbers of years 2 of them and a son had spent in horrendous conditions.

Sally Tallant, Khaled Hourani and John Forte bearing witness to their own pain and loss
before the standing CT audience.

Some lows: conversation with Mierle Ukeles to the effect that social practice is being gentrified; no Q&A except in informal, segregated social venues and some painful conflation of ahistoricity and deskilling at the end. I wrote a much longer comment on my responses on Martha Schwendener's page (which makes me wonder if I should separate my professional & personal pages) but my take away this AM (Sunday) is that the entire experience felt virtually disembodied because except for Mel Chin's brief comments about green making him go red with anger and presentations, like Rick Lowe's on urban farming, there was little mention of ecological issues. I don't recall the term global warming being used even once for example. Lucy's format-truncated talk was the closest we came to an in depth analysis of the relationship between environmental issues and place-art-making. The term biodiversity was mentioned a couple times but fairly abstractly. There was a lot of friendly networking in the lobby but in the end, that seemed a means towards self-promotion rather than the kind of forum for cutting edge ideas I might have hoped for and left me feeling a bit hungry for depth. The food we were served seemed to have the same affliction: elegant without much substance. I don't mean to sound down because there were many wonderful presenters who can be accessed at their site. However, at a time when the earth as we know it is crying for help, what I heard was some tremendously anthropocentric thinking.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Fish Story update

Yesterday, Gene Turner, Jim White and myself assessed what we learned from Fish Story in a "Gulf to Gulf" webcast. I will load that in the next week, along with responses to our questionnaire to our audience.

Meanwhile, I am putting finishing touches on an article about the project. On FB, I wrote:

I took time from my diss revisions to rewrite the conclusion of an article coming out in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences (ESAS) on Fish Story: 

"In conclusion, we observed that the tributaries are indeed a critical part of the Mississippi water basin puzzle but so are people. Trigger points for change in the Mississippi watershed will require not only the sustained efforts of ecological restoration scientists working on the Wolf River but far more extensive plans for public education about and engagement in restoration. That engagement must include the regional participation of young people who will inherit the mistakes of their elders, particularly from the inner city areas of Memphis. Fish Story was a modest initiative towards accomplishing the long term goal of devising strategic responses to environmental damage in the Anthropocene era. This project provided a beginning to effect the 36% greening White calculated might be imminently required of all human kind. Our experience was that art may play a significant role in changing necessary public paradigms for thinking and behavior. It was an incentive for further research and experimentation to build on lessons learned."

Saturday, October 19, 2013

I've always let my dreams determine my life

I woke, as from a nightmare. I dreamt I ran into another artist in the supermarket, sobbing because her state had repealed gay marriage. I told her that since Jim White & I had been doing our "Gulf to Gulf" webcasts on global warming, I'd sobbed many times over seeing our projected unpredictable, awful consequences of global warming come true in the world and over the missed moments caused by the interactions of complex agents; that my jaw has dropped and continues to drop over how these independent agents can trigger unpredictable change: how climate change causes migrations, causes the rise of hate groups; how it causes poverty, drought and independent crazies responding to heat and despair who become semi-successful pirates and hackers who ruin other people's lives. And then I woke up, thinking and that's why I'm completing my dissertation on "trigger point theory as aesthetic activism."

Later, I added:

I started intentional dreaming as a very young child, when I had nightmares of pursuit and death. Over several years, I trained myself to dream that I confronted the pursuers and fought back successfully. Eventually, I got to the point where I not only survived but rescued others. Later, in my twenties, when I heard of how the Senoi people used their dreams, I went further, to "bring something back for the tribe." I have made an effort to do that ever since. What I do is slightly diff than intentional dreaming because I allow for the mystical aspect.

Now my task, defined by the University of Plymouth, from whom I would receive my PhD, is to translate and parse a practice based on dreams, crossing each T and dotting each i in terms any academic might clearly understand. They detail that task as follows:

"Central to the success of a practice-informed research are the categories of "reflection" and "contextualization." A rigorous analysis of one's own work is a very demanding endeavor, both personally and from an academic point of view. However, subjectivity (one's own art work) can form an excellent basis for questions that have directly arisen from one's own work processes. It is therefore important to look at one's own artistic process as a type of theoretical research.

"Reflection" as in "looking back" also includes a degree of "post-rationalization that should be explicit in one's writing. It is useful to keep a working diary to record artistic research methods and findings as one progresses with the practical work during the Phd. This record should also include the theoretical readings and influences from other artists in one's field and/or related fields.

"Contextualization" of one's own artistic work into a "school," a "trend," a "movement," is a hard one- it is however, absolutely essential in an academic work of PhD-standard. To achieve contextualization, one must be familiar with one's artistic or design community. What is the historical background to the community? Rigorous research is necessary here. "State of the Art" groundbreaking experiments, borrowed methodologies and aesthetic trends must be written about seriously. The reaction of the audience and the critical reception of ones own and of related works in the field must be formalized."

A little bit of reality leavened dreaming.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Fish and life

Notes on the first page of the Introduction to my dissertation. Notations in black by my second supervisor,  Dr. Jill Scott. My glosses on her notes, in conversation, in red.
I am on the last months of my dissertation writing for my PhD. It has been an intellectual marathon.

I have had two premises in this work. One is that art can see things about restoring fish habitat in the Anthropocene that scientists cannot. And so, it was worth it to put that in words, to provide credible arguments, data and citations because the life of fish is also our lives.

The second premise was that that research process is art in itself, a performance event, an art life exploration that can redefine our perceptions of ourselves.

Both these premises are about redefining what art does and how it might be seen. The seeing is as important as the definition.

My conflict is over whether I made the right decision four years ago, when I began this process. The argument for not doing it at all, is a familiar one: that art should speak for itself, wordlessly. I am ambivalent about that argument. On the one hand, i would like nothing better than to paint wordlessly, to assemble sculptural assemblages, installations, collages; record sound, write stream of consciousness. But I also have this sense of obligation- co-dependence?

People often simply can't "see" what's under their noses because it doesn't fit their preconceptions over what art is, should be, can be .... and so we explain. But isn't that the role of the critic? I am not taking the role of the critic.

I am taking the role of The Thinker.