Friday, June 1, 2012

Artist Talk: Symposium of Hospitality


Taking the Smart Museum’s Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art as inspiration, yesterday’s Symposium of Hospitality at the University of Chicago featured an entire day of lectures, discussions, events, and performances of “hospitality.”

Immediately upon our arrival, we were greeted with spoonfuls of slatko, a syrupy, sweet strawberry jam traditionally served in Serbia as an expression of welcome. The brief interaction of sampling the slatko was part of Ana Prvacki’s The Greeting Committee, a piece that immediately introduced symposium participants to the roles of host and guest, greeting and hospitality.

After sampling the slatko and perhaps overstepping our own welcome by gorging ourselves on the breakfast pastries, the day’s program began with a panel on Radical Hospitality.  Hannah Higgins, of University of Illinois Chicago, discussed the role of pasta and Italian food through history and culture, from its depiction as peasant food in Strega Nona, to its association with Bohemian life in early 20th century America. Erika Dudley continued the discussion of food and its varied meanings, speaking about the Dorchester Projects and repurposed abandoned houses becoming pavilions for discussion. The Dorchester Project, which aims to bring creative renewal to a south side neighborhood, serves watermelon, chitlins, and other soul food in a revived space, encouraging conversations “over the food of black people.”[1] This theme of food-propelled dialogue was continued in the next speaker, Amy Mooney’s discussion about Potluck: Chicago, another project designed to bring Chicagoans together over meals. Mooney, too, spoke of shared space, advocating for reciprocity, and the social imagining of the city.

Despite the morning panel’s inspiring and wonderful examples of community and shared eating, the afternoon would remind the audience that it is wrong to assume that hospitality is inherently open and positive. Following Alison Knowles’ debut of Identical Lunch Symphony and lunch from Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen and Eric May’s “E-Dogz” Mobile Culinary Community Center, the afternoon progressed with a panel on “Being Bad.” The panel featured videos by artists Ana Prvacki and Michael Rakowtiz, in addition to remarks by art historian Matthew Jesse Jackson, MCA curator Dieter Roelstraete, and artist Laura Letinsky. In an eloquent, amusing, and haphazard video shot on a handheld camera in Afghanistan, Michael Rakowitz spoke of the inherent antagonisms present in his work, revealing the complications of eating delicious food that is fraught with political turmoil. What followed Rakowitz’s video all became very confusing. Letinsky walked the audience through her compelling photography practice, but hardly referred to the panel’s theme as well as hospitality. Matthew Jesse Jackson cynically suggested that art is futile in the current state of the world (while Letinsky nodded along). Roelstraete, who forewarned the audience of “rambling” before he even began, discussed the political roles of the enemy and the friend, using theorist Carl Schmitt as a point of departure. While each panelist made insightful and interesting remarks, we became increasingly confused about the topic of the panel, exchanging puzzled glances and whispering “what is going on?” to one another. By the end of the panel, we had decided to briefly excuse ourselves from the symposium to hear Hannah Feldman’s talk at the MCA instead.

What the Being Bad panel did embody, was the murkiness of what contemporary art is today. By the Q&A session at the end, I realized that I no longer knew what contemporary art was, and the innumerable contexts and lenses through which it is discussed were too convoluted to discern. Letinsky, too, hinted at this amorphousness, when she commenced her talk with a slide composed entirely of random words used in graduate art critiques earlier that week.

The symposium also made me aware of the latent problems of hospitality. Although the word implies warmth, reception, and neighborliness, the symposium highlighted the issues of class and categorization that are still embedded in hospitality. This problem of exclusivity was especially apparent in the symposium events that were designed to bring people together. During Alison Knowles’ performance, the audience sat in quiet reverence, before quickly tasting single-serving cups of her blended Identical Lunch and moving on to the real meals located outside. There was no sense of conversation or camaraderie. Later in the evening, when we returned to attend the symposium’s conclusion of Soup and Bread, a weekly tradition at Chicago’s Hideout bar, there was similarly little sense of community and togetherness. The gallery directors sat with their peers, the professors with the professors. Being the youngest attendees, no one took initiative to speak with us, and did not offer much warm reception when we tried to insert ourselves into conversations. (We also unsophisticatedly discussed the best way to beckon Dieter Roelstraete over to our table for an embarrassing length of time, but he chose to stand by himself, before eventually joining a table of gallery directors.) While the food was delicious and the event extremely hospitable and enlightening, there still existed a dilemma of restriction and social boundaries.
By the time Soup & Bread had started dwindling down, the courtyard of Logan Center had been overrun by well-dressed undergraduates for UChicago’s annual FOTA launch party. Homemade soup and bread were replaced by arty platters, everyday attire with cocktail dresses, Alison Knowles’ symphony with bright lights and a makeshift runway. Where a figment of hospitality had existed moments earlier, nothing remained but the provisional canopy erected earlier in the day to shield participants from rain.

[1] Erika Dudley. Radical Hospitality, Symposium of Hospitality, University of Chicago, 5 May 2012.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Artist Talk: Elijah Burgher

4/29/12 (for Lane's class)

Art history is important to Elijah Burgher. So are music, myth, and humor. In an artist talk delivered in Kresge earlier this week, Burgher explained how these influences come together to effectuate his intricate colored pencil drawings of young men and occult abstractions.

Near the beginning of his talk, Burgher explained his interest in Renaissance and Baroque illustrations, as well as his interest in early photography—in particular, its engagement with the supernatural.  Although vastly disparate, these art historical influences marry in his drawings to communicate a pursuit of enlightenment. Like early modern illustrations, Burgher executes small-scale, brightly-colored drawings that focus strongly on the details of his subject matter. His goal, similarly, is a type of comprehension—not comprehension of nature or science, but comprehension of desire and spirituality. Describing his engagement with 19th century photography, Burgher specifically cited “guys vomiting ectoplasm.” These photographs, which are obvious to the modern viewer as hoaxes, indicate a period when photography was a tool used to understand mortality, death, and the supernatural. Like the influence of Baroque illustrations, Burgher’s interest in ectoplasm photography underscores his pre-occupation with the pursuit of knowledge, but this time emphasizing an unearthly, spiritual knowledge.

Burgher’s remarks on ectoplasm photography additionally revealed his reliance on humor in his practice. His amusement over the use of cheesecloth in lieu of spiritual energy demonstrated an absurdist influence that marks the point of departure for creating work. (Ghost Vomit, a handle Burgher works behind, is both a reference to ectoplasm and Coil, a musical influence that is discussed later on.) Indeed, much of Burgher’s work finds its genesis in irony and dry humor. His notorious “anal swastika,” which has become a repeated motif and sigil (a symbol used in magic), was a result of doodling superimposed swastikas and observing the ensuing symbol’s resemblance to a puckered asshole. Yet, Burgher’s work moves beyond humor to an obsessive exploration of myth, power, and magic through illustration. Through repeated drawings and scrutiny, the anal swastika mutates from rudimentary doodle to potent occult symbol and sigil.


The queer, occult ritual in Burgher’s work also indicates his engrossment with subculture, a pursuit that is further reinforced by the immense influence of music in his work. Burgher explains that in his early teenage years, he found comfort in listening to Bikini Kill, a pioneering female-fronted punk band that advocated sexual liberation and feminism. As he framed the parameters of his practice, Burgher would draw inspiration from avant-garde group Throbbing Gristle, and more significantly, Coil, an industrial band engaged with magick subculture. What Burgher aspires to, is to create the “visual equivalent of the music.”

Ultimately, Burgher’s work is about intimacy, abjectness, and the social outcast. The use of colored pencil in his works suggests a primitive, childish obsession, and highlights the expressive quality of vibrant colors. The small scale of the drawings further imbues them with an inward, intimate quality that is comparable to viewing personal photographs or pictorial vignettes of a person’s life. To probe into this psycho-territory and internal space, Burgher carefully interacts with the history of art, queer culture, counterculture, and other socially deviant arenas.  What struck me the most about Burgher’s talk, though, was his brief comment that “art might have some sort of magical efficacy.” The volume of Burgher’s impassioned, repetitive work, with its multifaceted influences, indubitably affirms his overarching quest for this efficacy.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Brief Thoughts on Occupy's Citizen Production (for NAR)

My Occupy Wall Street post for NAR, based on my senior thesis.

As numerous journalists have pointed out, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), a movement that continues to morph and unfold today, operates under a brand. This “brand” was created by Adbusters, a Canadian culture jamming publication that purchased the domain name and created the Twitter hashtag #OCCUPYWALLST months in advance of the physical occupation.

Although critics are veracious in aligning the movement’s strategies with social media and corporate advertising, the fundamental objective of marketing—profit—is absent from Occupy. Without a commercial product or service, Occupy’s brand has been able to flourish in a variety of ways. Most notably, it has sanctioned a viral enterprise of citizen production.

At the end of March, I had the opportunity to visit New York and witness the ongoing movement firsthand. The occupation had moved to Union Square the weekend I arrived, a new locale through which a diverse array of people pass, allowing for a wider breadth of passersby than what Zuccotti Park offered. Each day, the square buzzed with liveliness and excitement, unhindered by the perimeter of baton-equipped NYPD officers surrounding the park. Food prepared by former Sheraton chef Eric Smith was served each evening, with the NYC General Assembly scheduled to meet shortly thereafter.

What struck me the most, however, was the myriad ephemera that circulated within and around the park. Tables around the park featured handbills, zines, buttons, and more. The Occupied Wall Street Journal, a citizen-run newspaper that appropriates and reconfigures the financial district’s iconic Wall Street Journal, was also available for people to take. When I asked how Occupy printed such a substantial supply of distributive material, an occupier explained to me that a group called Occupress handled most of the print production. Occupress, which is run by everyday citizens, is only one of a throng of “affinity groups” that have emerged under the Occupy umbrella. Other affinity groups include Occupy Design, Occupy Together, How To Occupy, and many more. Each of these unofficial groups has formed under the helm of citizens and now command crucial space within the movement, operating under separate domain names and hashtags, but ultimately referring back to one another, as well as the overarching Occupy movement. The aesthetic language produced by this exchange is one of community and conversation, as well as instability, for the nature of social media and digital encoding is inherently mutable.

Composite screenshot of the,, and affinity group websites. The text highlighted in purple demonstrates the association between affinity groups

Screenshot of a small section of’s graphics gallery, as of April 21, 2012.

The latitude of Occupy’s spread is well-visualized in the online archive of affinity group Occupy Design ( Its hundreds of graphics, which are continually multiplying and thus regularly altering the contents of each page, reflects the unfeasibility of assigning a single image or aspiration to the movement. The visual capacity of Occupy exists in such a proliferating manner that it is nearly impossible to characterize beyond the shared production of citizenry. It is an aesthetic dialogue that relies on grassroots participation to thrive—and thrive it has.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Rashid Johnson Exhibition Review

Rashid Johnson: Message to Our Folks, currently on view at the MCA Chicago, is Chicago-born, New York-based artist Rashid Johnson’s first major solo exhibition. The title of the exhibition, which references jazz group Art Ensemble Chicago’s 1969 album of the same name, inaugurates two themes that permeate the exhibition: conversation and identity. By establishing the conceit of “our folks,” Johnson raises the question of collective identity and underlines the very notion that a type of shared personhood exists. “Message,” of course, implies communication. The entire exhibition, which surveys the past decade of Johnson’s work, revolves around this discourse of black identity. Through photographs, paintings, sculptures, and video, Johnson explores his own past and position within this framework. Through his own, personal exploration, Johnson’s work more broadly encourages viewer self-reflection and awareness.

The themes of the exhibition are immediately apparent upon entering the exhibition space. On the floor of the first gallery, the wooden planks are branded with black cultural iconography, from the Public Enemy crosshairs to black fraternity emblems and diamonds/bling. Although the symbols refer to cultural entities—from hip-hop to the larger practice of graffiti and mark-making—they inauspiciously recall the historical branding of African slaves. As the viewer moves through the gallery space, they are visually reminded with each step, of the loaded history that Johnson navigates as he progresses with his practice.

In one corner of the first gallery, a video entitled Sweet Sweet Runner plays. In the video, Johnson references Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which portrays a black man on the run from white authorities.[1] In Johnson’s rendition, however, the protagonist simply jogs around Central Park. By running for himself and his fitness, the man in Johnson’s video subverts a stereotype and replaces it with a sense of individual agency that appears again and again throughout the exhibition.
Confronting the viewer most conspicuously in the first gallery is Johnson’s The Promoter, a towering mirror divided into jarring geometric fragments and splashed with melted black wax. The scale of the mirror circumvents viewer avoidance, and in order to proceed onward to the next gallery, museum-goers cannot bypass glancing into the mirror. When they do, it is impossible to synthesize a clear image of themselves; rather, they see their bodies splintered into discontinuous pieces, an overt allusion to fragmentation and the construction of selfhood.

Mirrors continue to make appearances throughout the exhibition. The next gallery features the piece Run, in which the word “RUN” is spraypainted across a mirror. In a video presented on the MCA’s website, Johnson speaks about his interest in a history of black escapism, citing examples of Marcus Garvey, who says “let’s go back to Africa” and Sun Ra who “says let’s go to Saturn.”[2] Run, which itself denotes escape, highlights Johnson’s investment in this practice. Its placement within the gallery further emphasizes Johnson’s position in relation to a canon of black historical figures. When the viewer peers into the mirror, not only is their reflection obscured by RUN, but also by the reflected salon-style display of photographs on the opposing wall. These photographs, which recall James Van Der Zee’s portraits from the Harlem Renaissance, depict various black intellectuals and cultural figures. The photographs come from a body of work entitled The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club, a humorous title that references the Harlem Renaissance ambition to break black stereotypes.[3] Johnson’s beautifully crafted portraits not only point to this rich history, but also instill each individual with a drama that emphasizes their uniqueness and gives them idiosyncratic agency, much like the agency that Johnson grants to the runner in Sweet Sweet Runner from the previous gallery.

The most interesting part of the exhibition, to me, was the evocation of domestic space within the galleries. Most notably, Johnson creates shelves with mirror pieces, black wax, and wood. Johnson explains that he was influenced by conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner’s book Something To Put Something On, wherein the words used for simple objects are questioned; a table is described as “something to put something on.”[4] Armed with this idea, Johnson too began to create "something to put something on." The objects that would occupy the spaces on the shelves came from Johnson’s personal world—the things that were around him in his day-to-day life—from books and records to soap and shea butter. In describing his [influential] upbringing, Johnson reveals that his parents, once daishiki-clad and afro-sporting, suddenly became middle-class soccer moms.[5] This transition away from afrocentrism was apparent to Johnson through the use (and discontinued use) of objects. It is thus evident why Johnson chooses to engage with mundane objects. He examines the way in which objects become embedded with meaning and how they function in one’s life. By placing them strategically on his constructed shelves (which recall altars and ritual), Johnson removes them from a functional context and into one of contemplation and engagement. The undoing of the objects’ use value is further augmented by repetition of the objects. Many shelves are host to multiple copies of one book, stacked in neat columns. By creating such a non-functional, yet undeniably domestic environment, Johnson conceives a space where one does not really know oneself. The viewer must engage, read, cogitate, and ritualize in order to come to terms with the space and his/her position within it. This unhinged sense of belonging is well-visualized in Johnson’s Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos, a sculpture of the Public Enemy crosshairs. The positioning of the sculpture allows viewers to walk entirely around it, so that one does not know which side of the scope he or she is standing on. The entire exhibition is about orienting oneself, or the impossibility of doing so.

Like Wiener, Johnson explores the limitations of language and meaning. For Johnson, however, the words that are questioned center around blackness and identity. Just as Wiener demonstrates the many linguistic ways to define a table, Johnson reveals the multifaceted nature of blackness, and the impracticality of a monolithic definition of black identity. More comprehensively, his pieces, which communicate balance and orientation (shelves, domestic contraptions, furniture, mirrors, floorboards), work together to form a meditative space for viewers to contemplate their own standing, selfhood, and agency.

[1] Didactic wall text
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Outsider Art in Chicago: The Henry Darger Room

Brief NAR post I did in February:

This past weekend marked New York’s 20th Outsider Art Fair, an annual celebration of self-taught artists. While New York is sadly too far to regularly enjoy such events, Chicago has long been home to the United States’ premier nonprofit organization for outsider art. Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art offers a collection of over 1,000 works, as well as a study center. I’m surprised at how little I’ve heard Intuit mentioned at Northwestern [ie. never], but it is one of my favorite destinations in Chicago. Although the center offers various fascinating temporary exhibitions, it is worth a visit for the Henry Darger room alone.

Darger, who has gained notoriety as a 20th century outsider artist, is best known for his epic suite of paintings and collages, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Through hundreds of paintings, Darger tells the intricate story of the Vivian Girls, an army of young girls rebelling against a regime of child slavery in a war-torn world.

The Henry Darger Room at Intuit was created from the contents of Darger’s own living room in Chicago, where he lived until 1973. Chock full of children’s book clippings, cracked cakes of watercolor, and religious paraphernalia, the ashen Darger room brims with the presence of the compulsive creator who once occupied the space. A brief timeline of his life is illustrated outside of the room, and various works and handwritten texts are on display. The lurid beauty of Darger’s paintings has also captivated numerous contemporary creators. References to his work are continually emerging in popular culture, from the female indie-rock trio the Vivian Girls, to the armies of female fighters in the work of contemporary artist Marcel Dzama.
Visit the Henry Darger Room yourself for a firsthand encounter with Darger’s fascinating home and studio, and a brief foray into the artist’s mind. While you’re there, don’t forget to check out the other wonderful exhibitions that Intuit offers (Heaven & Hell is on display from February 10-June 30), and pick up a copy of The Outsider magazine. An experience of Chicago’s art scene is incomplete without a stop (or many!) at this venue.

Cross-Pollinating the Grassroots with Beehive Design Collective

My post about hanging out with Beehive Design Collective back in August.

After three years of being immersed in the privilege and pre-professionalism that is college at Northwestern, I opted for a change. This summer I lived with an anarchist collective in small-town Maine for several weeks. I got the whole package: vegan meals, writing letters to prisoners, showering once a week, and camping in a damp tent amidst clusters of valerian.

This was the Beehive Design Collective’s annual Work Party, a summer event wherein the graphics-making Collective invites the public to camp and work with them for a month. Aside from hanging out with a lovely array of open, friendly, and inspiring people and radicals, I had the opportunity to glimpse, firsthand, the processes involved in executing the Collective’s graphics campaigns.

The Beehive Collective began over a decade ago as a mosaic-making group. The Collective’s emergence alongside the anti-globalization movement of the early 2000s resulted in a shift to posters and drawings, as the Collective searched for a more effective way to fit into the media of the movement. Since then, they have launched several major graphics campaigns, usually centered around anti-capitalist and environmental concerns.

Twice a year, the “Bees” go on tour to publicize their campaigns by delivering presentations around the country. I had the opportunity to witness their presentation on The True Cost of Coal, an intricate collaborative illustration that draws attention to the issue of mountaintop removal mining, a method of coal mining that requires the removal of mountain summits for easier resource extraction. I was also able to discuss other graphics campaigns, notably Free Trade of the Americas, with members of the Collective as well as other volunteers. While the posters show stylistic nuances—a result of the illustrators’ varying artistic modes and drawing techniques—the overall style of the posters is consistent. The viewer is first assaulted with a harsh, sharply contrasted black-and-white thicket of imagery. The confrontational nature of these posters is magnified by the monumental size, as the original illustrations are large enough to span a small room. The size also works to underline the vastness of the issues that the posters deal with, and to unravel the mass of images on each poster requires tremendous attention to detail.

One striking feature of the illustrations is their lack of human representation. The space of each poster is dominated by plant and animal imagery, with each and every detail symbolizing an aspect of the issue that the posters tackle. In order to create such meticulous illustrations, each subject is researched extensively before drawings are conceptualized. To do this, the group spends months traveling and speaking with locals (in the case of the True Cost of Coal, these were communities in Appalachia that are directly affected by mountaintop removal) and others who are involved with the issues at hand, as well as investigating the flora and fauna that are meaningful to the areas of concern. After the research is completed, the group relies on the use of mind maps to encourage a non-linear way of visualizing various features of the illustrations, and a team of illustrators collaborates to draw each element. Months later (sometimes years), a graphics campaign finally arises. The presentations given on the subsequent tours clarify the narratives behind each poster, illuminating the significance of each feature.

Another notable aspect of the Beehive’s posters is the “anti-copyright” label that appears on each print. The anti-copyright promotes free use and dissemination of the collective’s graphics to the masses. In this sense, the graphics operate as educational implements designed to supersede commodity culture and inform without charge. The reproducibility of the work is further highlighted by the achromatic quality of the posters, which follows a tradition of political artwork that abstains from the use of color.

Consistent with the collective’s emphasis on autonomous and communal education, many of the posters and their narratives are available online at the Beehive Collective’s website. Check out their artwork and be on the look out for upcoming tours!

Social Mobility at the Block Museum: Art as Service


Social Mobility: Collaborative Projects with Temporary Services, on exhibition at the Block Museum until August 14th, is an interactive installation of a wide range of works by the Chicago artist group Temporary Services. Temporary Services, originally formed in 1998, is comprised of Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin, and Marc Fischer. The group’s name is indicative of the work they produce, which includes instigating social actions, publishing do-it-yourself manuals, and providing other “services” to the public.

Before entering the main exhibition room, the viewer is greeted with large-scale mosaic banners. Made of plastic shopping bags, the banners transform the bags—symbols of shopping, capitalism,and excess—into a raw material that can be reworked and remade. The slogans on the banners speak to the anti-hierarchical, pro-collaborative, let’s-built-a-better-society-together ideals that Temporary Services advocates, with messages such as “The inexperienced dreamer simply cannot survive alone.”

The exhibition room itself contains several glass cases full of materials that acquaint visitors with the group’s practices. Taken from previous projects and collaborations, the materials include everything from stickers and humorous essays (“Don’t Wait for the Hearse to Take You to Church!”) to vegan recipe booklets and do-it-yourself instruction guides (“Re-Exhibition Strategies”). On another wall is a “Self-Reliance Library,” a shelf of books that includes various educational publications that museum visitors are invited to read. Topics of the publications range from instructional writings on nomadic living and sustainable nesting skills, to books of color photographs of decorated “art trucks” in Japan. Whatever the topic may be, one can expect to come away with a renewed sense of creativity, as well as the idea of rendering the mundane valuable.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the Designated Drivers project, presented as a series of reels mounted onto the wall. On each reel is a laundry line with a flash drive attached to the end. For the project, 20 artists and artist groups from around the world were invited to contribute data onto flash drives. Visitors are encouraged to view the content of the drives (which includes films, interactive websites, essays, music, and more) on the desktop in the exhibition space, or even bring their own drives to download and explore from home. By encouraging visitors to engage with the files directly in the museum, Temporary Services transforms the exhibition space—traditionally a passive viewing area—into a social arena of dialogue and interaction.

The interaction encouraged by the exhibition is well-reflected in the show’s title. “Social mobility” is generally perceived in the upward sense, the ability to ascend the social ladder. But in the context of the Temporary Services exhibition, it becomes instead a reminder that our positions in society are not fixed,that they can be subverted through simple skill-sharing and mutual communication—the reminder of human creativity and potential. Through the exchange of information and creation of dialogue, social hierarchy has the capacity to be overturned. The entire crux of the exhibition is perhaps best summed up by a word that is illustrated in a manual that visitors are invited to take home from the exhibition:share.