Creatives, Unite!

This story by Holland Carter about collaborative art appeared in the New York 5555cottslide Times a year ago.  As a writer who never really got over being born too late to be a part of Black Mountain College, I keep returning to this story.  Although the 9/11 framework of the story may date it a little, I remain interested in the idea that creativity can be the glue of community, and art can be its signifier.

Doing Their Own Thing, Making Art Together

By HOLLAND COTTER

Cloudcity184 To many Americans, the world feels more threatened and threatening today than at any time since the 1960’s. Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the prospect of war on Iraq and ever tightening security measures at home have sent a hum of tension through daily life.

In the 1960’s, comparable tension, excruciatingly amplified, produced a big response: the spread of a counterculture, one that began with political protest movements and became an alternative way of life. Among other things, it delivered a sustained, collective "no" to certain values (imperialism, moralism, technological destruction), and a collective "yes" to others: peace, liberation, a return-to-childhood innocence.

The collective itself, as a social unit, was an important element in the 60’s utopian equation. Whatever form the concept took–the commune, the band, the cult–its implications of shared resources, dynamic interchange and egos put on hold made it a model for change.

Even the art world, built on a foundation of hierarchies and exclusions, produced its own versions. Activist groups like the Artworkers Coalition and the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition made concerted attempts to pry open institutional doors and let in a multicultural world. Simultaneously, nonmilitant movements like the Dada-inspired Fluxus produced an ephemeral, give-away, anyone-can-do-it art that amounted to a kind of passive resistance to the existing market economy. Both approaches, one forceful, one gentle, changed the way art was thought about, and the way it looked.

The collective impulse has never died out in American art; and now it is surfacing again, for the most part outside New York. In cities like Milwaukee, Providence, R. I., St. Louis and Philadelphia, as well as several in Canada, an old countercultural model, often much changed, is being revived, in some cases by artists barely out of their teens.

Many of the new art collectives are virtual: they reside on the Internet, that intrinsically collective medium. They are fluid in size, and members may not even know the identity of other members. The kinds of art they produce vary widely, but when it is political it tends to be actively so. To much of the art world, these collectives barely exist. Their work is difficult to market; it’s available to everyone free; traditional criteria of judgment, the kind that make critics so comfortable with, say, painting, don’t apply.

Other, even newer collectives, while computer-savvy, are studio-based and are starting to gain attention. They are housed in apartments, storefronts, art schools and minivans. Their members, who often support themselves with day jobs as designers, programmers, teachers or temps, are identified by a group name, like rock bands. And their art is often a multitasking mix of painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, digital art, video, zine production and musical performances.

In general, the collaborative arrangements are superrelaxed. A few groups, like Temporary Services in Chicago, have a Fluxus-like conceptual agenda: an aesthetic of sharing sites, ideas and objects with outsiders that extends the collaboration beyond the group itself. Others, like Slanguage in Los Angeles, have established self-sustaining, artist-run workshops and exhibition spaces. Still other groups are formed, at least initially, as more or less closed social circles of friends getting together with friends and brothers and sisters, to make art, a description that fits, for example, the Royal Art Lodge from Winnipeg, Manitoba, whose work is on view at the Drawing Center in SoHo.

Most of these young artists (many in their 20’s) would probably not identify themselves as political, never mind use the word counterculture, with its uncool, mind-settish, even institutional ring. They just do what they do. But what they do, or rather the way they do it, outside the centralized, market-determining power structures of the mainstream art world, could turn out to have political consequences for the way art develops.

Forcefield, a collective founded in 1997 in Providence, where it is part of the art-school and music scene, has already made a splash in New York with a fantastic appearance in last year’s Whitney Biennial. For the occasion, the group assembled dozens of Op Art-patterned knit costumes –form-fitting, face-concealing, topped by bright vinyl wigs–of the kind they wear in their maniacally edited films, which are like tribal rites crossed with fashion shows. They supplemented the installation with a deafening noise-band soundtrack and a pulsating abstract video piece, both of which they produced.

The results, hilarious and slightly scary, brought all kinds of associations to mind: Rudi Gernreich, Sesame Street, Jack Smith, cheesy sci-fi, 60’s psychedelia and church rummage sales. This was a zany art made out of seriously worked things and materials, as became evident when a selection of Forcefield material was exhibited at Daniel Reich, a gallery that operates out of a Chelsea studio apartment and has been instrumental in introducing collectives to New York.

Forcefield’s vividly low-tech approach to art-making has inspired other, newer East Coast collectives. The members of one, called Paper Rad, individually make photocopied cartoon zines, combining a grade-school doodle style with wise-cracking New Age quest narratives. They also combine their styles in animated Web-based Gumby music videos that are like tripped-out children’s television.

Another group, Dearraindrop, has four artists, the youngest of whom is 18. Erudite about history, they acknowledge the influence of past collectives like Chicago’s Hairy Who from the 1960’s and Destroy All Monsters from the 1970’s. At the same time, they prefer a casual just-friends designation for themselves. Their collaborations–which include exquisite collages of cartoons, product labels and texts–are often executed long distance: one member is in high school in Virginia; others live in Providence. Their group name is as recycled as their materials. Two of the artists discovered it written on a scrap of paper as they were foraging through neighborhood trash while on LSD.

Dearraindrop’s idiot-savant-type aesthetic becomes even more complex in the work of Milhaus, a Milwaukee collective that claims the modernist Bauhaus merging of function and art as one of its ideals. The group is largely the creation of Scott and Tyson Reeder, painters, designers and brothers who, like the artist Jim Drain of Forcefield, also have solo careers. Both brothers lived for a while in Los Angeles, but found the formalized, competitive atmosphere of the art scene dispiriting and returned to Milwaukee.

There, with a filmmaker, they produced a smart, slacker Web television show and turned their attention in nondigital directions. For a show in Chicago, they built bunk beds and lived in the gallery, turning it into a video theater one night, a dance club the next. For the opening, they held an all-night drawing party and invited gallerygoers. For the closing, they turned the bunk beds into a raft and floated down the Chicago River, like Generation-whatever Huck Finns.

The self-scheduled workshop, as raucous as a band rehearsal or as sedate as a quilting bee, is the basic form of several collectives. The members of the Royal Art Lodge meet in weekly, collaborative drawing sessions. Slanguage, begun last summer by Mario Ybarra Jr. and Juan Capistran, M.F.A. graduates from the University of California at Irvine, uses half of its space in Wilmington, a working-class city near Los Angeles, for experimenting with media and ideas, the other half for public performances and exhibitions, which may also be works in progress.

Such exhibition spaces, which have neither academic nor commercial support, are becoming ever more important. Not only do they offer places for types of work uncongenial to an increasingly conservative art establishment; they also provide a forum for the work of students being churned out of art schools every year in numbers the commercial gallery system cannot begin to absorb.

Slanguage is by no means alone in its thinking. In Philadelphia, an older, larger and by now semiprofessionalized collective called Space 1026 has renovated an old downtown jewelry store to include not only studios, a computer lab and a skate ramp, but also a street-level gallery and an artist-run shop. Similarly, a Manhattan group called Alife runs a store at 178 Ludlow Street, on the Lower East Side, to promote and sell work by young artists, using a corporate paradigm of exchange and distribution. (An installation of Alife products is on view at Deitch Projects in SoHo through Feb. 15.)

Some collectives blend art and lifestyle in more personal ways. The 13 members of Flux Factory, which recently showed at the Queens Museum, live together in a loft in Long Island City, in Queens. The members of Instant Coffee in Toronto use much of their collective energy to organize large-scale artistic and social events that bring artists, writers and musicians together in combinations rarely encountered elsewhere.

Instant Coffee functions on a principle of service-work–generosity as an art medium–an ethic that is also an aesthetic. So, in a more focused way, does Temporary Services. Members of both groups collaborate with other artists, organize projects that insert ephemeral work into public spaces or bring otherwise invisible art into public view.

For one project, Temporary Services helped pl
ace artists’ books surreptitiously in public library collections. For another, they used existing curbside newspaper vending machines to distribute art objects. As part of a group show this spring at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, Mass., they will present drawings by a federal prisoner named Angelo of ingenious mechanical devices created by his fellow inmates.

The group’s play with conventional ideas of aesthetic value is shared, to some degree, by Beige, a young collective that takes obsolete computer technology as its medium. It is probably best known for its hacked versions of dumpster-salvaged Nintendo games, which they broke open and manipulated to create new images. As Beige Records, they have released a 12-inch vinyl disk of sound samples of video games from the 1980’s.

In its geek-positive way, the Beige artists deliver subversive messages. They undercut the notion of technological progress and demonstrate ways in which popular forms and aesthetics can be taken out of the control of the corporate game industry. And they hint at the power inherent even in cheap technology and low-level expertise, which are by now ubiquitous and are sufficient to infiltrate a database or make a bomb.

As if to confirm a crypto-activist agenda, Beige recently collaborated on a DVD with the Radical Software Group, an Internet-based collective that is stretching the definitions of art, politics and collectivity itself. Consisting of an ever-changing group of international programmers and artists, the group claims that its main goal is not to make art but to provide software for artists. But one of their programs, titled Carnivore, which turns individual computers into F.B.I-style data surveillance tools, is conceptually sharp, visually compelling and completely attuned to the political moment.
As innovative as it is, Radical Software Group belongs to a whole alternative universe of activist artists’ collectives that exists partly or entirely in the public realm called cyberspace. Other groups include RTMark, Critical Art Ensemble, Ultra-Red, Reclaim the Streets, Electronic Disturbance Theater (also called Electronic Civil Disobedience), Institute for Applied Autonomy and the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The list is long and varied and will surely continue grow in direct proportion to increased government monitoring of the Internet.

Such Net-centric collectives are electronic descendants of earlier American groups that cohered and dissolved from the 1960’s through the 1990’s: PAD/D (Political Art Documentation and Distribution), Colab, Group Material, Guerrilla Girls, REPOhistory, Act Up and General Idea, which originated in Canada, to name but a few. The full history of this phenomenon has yet to be written, though a few art historians–Alan Moore, Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson–have books in the works.

And what about American art now? It exists in a world where much indeed has changed, not just since Sept. 11, 2001, but since the end of the cold war. It is a dangerous place, in need of radical change. Not that a return to the 60’s is the answer. Forget retro. Yes, it’s reassuring and it sells, but contemporary culture–including a lot of New York art at the moment–is about what’s reassuring and what sells, and it feels parochial, small, out of touch.

Thus a counterculture. I have no idea what it will, or does, or should look like. An eye-popping hacktivist Web site that carries transformative information across the globe? A collective of young artists having fun making books that only they and their friends will see? Or something totally other. But if contemporary art, marginal and minute as its influence is, doesn’t get it together to offer new models for a future some of us still hope to have, chances are at this point nobody will, and that’s more than a shame. 

Sleepless Nights

Indyweek_durham I wrote a poem called that years ago.  The subtitle (I rarely use those) is "Reading Nijinski’s Diaries."  I first read them when I was at Iowa.  It’s been many years since I’ve revisited them though.

Tonight I couldn’t sleep and the baby is only responsible for the first hour.  The rest, I must take ownership for them myself.  Apparently I left the cat outside overnight, which I never ever do.  She’s fifteen and diabetic.  Maybe I was hearing her cry too.

Is there a connection between poetry and insomnia?  Who writes the poetry of insomnia?  Is there a kind of creativity that is only possible at 4 a.m.?

Palace_at_4am

I like to think about the sculpture by Alberto Giacometti called "The Palace at 4 a.m."  I read about it years before I actually saw it, and when I saw it finally it was so much smaller than I had imagined.  It makes me wonder, where’s the pterodactyl when I look out my window?

Eyes of Laura

165_i_aerialview_tn_mo Like a detective, Laura watches as she works at the Vancouver Art Museum.  Here’s a description of her project from rhizome.org:

NET ART NEWS February 11, 2005 — The conceit is half Blair Witch Project, half Paul Auster; ‘Laura,’ an artist working as guard at the Vancouver Art Gallery, makes art out of allowing visitors to her website to take charge of the museum’s cameras and see what she sees. ‘Sometimes I wonder whether more happens because I’m watching or whether events line themselves up for my benefit or something,’ she reflects in her first diary entry on the site, dated September 1, 2004. Every few days, something new is posted, including video clips from the day’s observations. These have slowly coalesced into a mystery of sorts, as the narrator obsesses over the interactions of the milieu’s recurring characters–a detective, a skateboarder, an odd woman. True to that initial entry’s promise, as you watch the narrator piece together the clues, you can never be sure whether something is ‘really’ going on, or whether it’s in her head. Nevertheless, all the references to Blow-up, The Conversation and other fictions in which the observer becomes the observed make one guess that Laura’s job is about to become even more interesting. . . . – Ben Davis

Art Shanties on Ice

mike hoyt iceThe “Art Shanty Project” is a collection of ice houses created with art in mind.  My friend Meredith sent me this story from Minnesota Public Radio.

Jonas Lindberg’s ice shack has a white roof, pale blue transparent plastic walls, and simple wooden benches. The frozen lake serves as the floor – he’s swept it clean so that you can peer down through the black ice several feet, watching cracks zigzag downward into darkness. He’s got a hole drilled for fishing, and he plans to send a camera down with some light to shoot an underwater video.

Lindberg was one of several artists who responded to a call by the Soap Factory gallery in Minneapolis to come up with their own unique designs for ice houses.

A few yards away, Mike Hoyt is creating an ice painting. He paints figures onto sheets of translucent plastic, secures them in a box frame and covers them in lake water until they’ve frozen into large ice panels. Then he stands them up and the sunlight plays with the colors.

“Mostly I’ve been working with just a series of people that have caught fish. Sort of like trophy fish, but removing the image of the fish and adding something else, another found object or image,” says Hoyt. “I’m sort of playing with the idea of the magic and mystery of what you might pull out of the lake.”

Photographer Xavier Tavera explores negative space with his sculptural interpretation of an ice shack. Rather than a house with walls, he has erected a number of ladders indicating where walls might have been.  Visitors to the Art Shanty Project feel compelled to climb the ladders embedded in ice and check out the view.

Peopleonladders_small

I’m not sure what was so compelling about this story to me.  Maybe the possiblity of art happening anywhere?  To read the full story by Marianne Combs, click here.

Škart, Art Meets the Everyday

11805skartauthorphoto_new

Škart’s project Sadness took the form of a weekly book of poems created for the residents of Belgrade during the war-torn early ’90s. The books were designed to mimic the look of lost-and-found tags, and Škart distributed them in various public places like railway stations and food markets as small healing gestures in a devastated and ravaged country. Poems were mailed to various Belgrade residents, distributed on the streets, and read by Škart on the radio.

Started in the 1990s by two architects/graphic designers, Dragan Protic and Djordje Balmazovic, Škart has done creative projects that confront serious issues in the Balkans. These event take place out in the world, rather than in the confines of museums or galleries or books. I like the way they integrate art into the everyday. 

The Blur of Days

Tanguy Another cloudy, blurry day, cold by Houston standards.  To post this painting by Tanguy is a bald-faced attempt to romanticize the weather.  But then what is weather for, if not for that?

Enjoyed chatting with poet-friend Lauren over lunch.  She talked a lot about couplets, a form that she’s never used in a poem, but has many ideas about, nevertheless.  She loaned me her copy of NEST by Mei-Mei B.  Now I’m preparing for a writing workshop in which we will read, among other things, Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg. 

WITSLink

Wits_writer_studentAs I’ve mentioned before, I work for Writers in the Schools (WITS).  In addition to the obvious mission of teaching writing to kids in schools, we also provide outreach to similar programs across the country.  Tomorrow we begin our 4th conclave in Houston for the leaders of seven different creative writing programs that work primarily with children.  Here are the groups participating:

California Poets in the Schools

InsideOut, Detroit

Literary Arts, Inc., Portland, OR

Log Cabin Literary Center, Boise

Seattle Arts & Lectures

Teachers & Writers Collaborative, NYC

Wick Poetry Center, Ohio

Writers in the Schools, Houston

Most of our programs are one-of-a-kind in our respective geographical regions.  Because none of us are competing against one another, the WITSLink group has provided a perfect eureka community in which everyone shares freely and fully with one another.  This unofficial loose-knit group has been instrumental to the success of most of us involved. 

For anyone who is interested in learning more, the WITSLink conversation will continue at the AWP Conference in Vancouver later this spring. 

Born

Ferris_plock_bornHave you checked out the cool new art & poetry collaborative projects at born magazine yet?  Their winter issue is on their web site now.  The poets featured include Michele Glazer and Bob Hicok.

The Question: Inspiration

Is there a visual artist whose work inspires you?Rauschenberguntitle52

I think that for me the love of art and literature are very much intertwined.  Which is not to say that I write directly about paintings or sculptures–I don’t usually do that–but I am transported by art just as I am by poetry. 

I tend to move through phases (some might say obsessions) with different artists.  There was Paul Klee, Louise Nevelson, Stuart Davis, and Richard Diebenkorn.  Their work still moves me, but I move on.  I like to read their letters and diaries if they’re published.  Sometimes I even prefer an artist’s take on the creative process to a fellow writer’s. 

The featured artRrglaciallithographist for this post on this blog hoy dia is Robert Rauschenberg.  His work really does inspire me.  I like the visibility of his process in the final product.  I like the combination of language and symbol, collage and painting.  I like the way his work changes across the years as he moves through time.  Living in his native Texas, I’ve gotten many great chances to see his work, even though it is probably better known and appreciated elsewhere. 

Sans Soleil

Sans Soleil
Image via Wikipedia

Question: What film seems most like a poem to you?

My answer to this question is Sans Soleil by Chris Marker.  This 1982 film is categorized as a documentary, but it’s not really typical of the form.  The female narrator refers constantly to the letters and diary of a man who traveled all over the world.  The footage transports us to the places he visited–Tokyo, Iceland, and the San Francisco Bay area.  We hear his thoughts and questions and observations in her voice, so there’s a constant tug between he said and she said:

“He said, ‘The more you watch Japanese TV, the more you realize it watches you.'”

Marker’s juxtaposition of scene and image is jarring and beautiful.  The travelogue structure allows for a wide range of reflection, from the popularity of arcade games to the Hitchcock film Vertigo to a line in a poem by T.S. Eliot.  We visit a temple dedicated to lost cats.  Say a prayer and perhaps your kitten will come home.  We visit a family bending in the wind in a meadow.  We see dogs running on the beach, barking at the surf.  We are asked to analyze our world in this imagery.  Sans Soleil is a  film for thinking and in thinking, getting lost in thought.

In a Dark Time

J0289240Disappointed about the election results this week and still feeling it.  Here’s "In a Dark Time" by Roethke:

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood–
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks–is it a cave,
Or a winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is–
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore Roethke