Sunday, December 14, 2008

swimming in long island

Currently at PS1 Contemporary Art Center (A Museum of Modern Art Affiliate in Long Island City New York ) one can find Argentine artist Leandro Erlich's "Swimming Pool" (this, after ten years of trying to bring the piece to NY; it was first conceived in Texas in 1999, where Erlich was an art student).  The two-story installation has visitors first come to the pool from above - step ladder at the side, ripples on the surface, haunting figures of others visitors floating (?) below - then, by wooden stairs off to the side, one crosses - clothed and dry - through the pool wall and into the deep.  The illusion for the upstairs crowd is enhanced when downstairs patrons splash their arms about and do the crawl "underwater".

While perhaps "simple" (compared to other concept/content heavy works at PS1 right now), the piece is direct, effective, and playful - and in the chilly New York  (where, unlike sunny Southern California, swimming pools are rare) winter, the sight harkens to a long-lost and much-regretted summer.  Erlich is from a family of architects, and one sees architectural issues of status and living space playing out with lingering emotional splashes (Marco Polo, bee stings, bleachy eyes, adolescent groping).

This being said, the piece is also a disturbing lie: it has a surreal pop ("a swimming pool! here?") at first glance, but so tames the nature of pools that, in the end, I wasn't sure if this lie was or wasn't also part of Erlich's intentions.  What is so off-putting?

First, while the surface of the water is cleverly counterfeited, it remains untraversable.  No shoves, toe dips, lost quarters, or cannon balls will break the water.  The pool is thus reduced to surface - to Looking Glass mirror-ness without a "through" - and hi-jinks, horseplay, trepidation (is it too cold?) and occasional annoyances ("stop splashing!") are liquidated.  Whether you use a ladder or steps to descend slowly into a pool, or take the plunge, whether you try to mitigate the sudden shock of cold or embrace it, a real swimming pool is perhaps the only time that humans feel their body gliding through a plane from one world to another.  But not here.

Once under the waves, a real estival swimmer faces other challenges, other risks: his or her weight, the problem of holding breath, trying to focus or grope about, the chill, the air caught in the puffing shorts... Erlich's simulacrum however  makes swimming unswimming: another walk about the room.  The play of light above and the shimmering ghosts of those looking down remind us of "being below", but no more than pre-made postcards of Paris capture the subtle touch of a lover's hands in the pre-dawn fog while crossing the Pont des Arts.

Which is to say that by these loses, by the deficiencies of Erlich's work, other pools and pooling moments may come (if we seek them) flooding upon us.  These things that this work fails to bring.  Preteen awkwardness while changing at the Y.  Aching fatigue after laps.  Amorous glances in the pool or during showers.  Tarps puled over above-ground pools, caked in rotting leaves and deep green algae.  Childhood peeing.  Vacation packages in cheap hotels, towels lain on lounge-chairs strung with vinyl.  Hot tubs and sexual adventures.  Slips at the edge and stern warnings about running or shoving.  Inflatable splashers.  Slides, boards, lanes, debris catchers.  Swimming holes in old quarries.  The feel of the hot bricks and the beaming sun as you pull yourself out shivering.  One wonders if even such common loci as kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms can hit such a complex nexus of memories and emotions, both of space and status, but also the body -- the fundamental nature of breathing and muscle, the womb, the skin, sex -- of family, of risk, of play and of aging.

Which is to say that I would rather there had been a real pool here, and that someone had pushed me in.

p.s. I expect that much has been written by phenomenologists about the differences between beaches, swimming pools (of which there is an amazing diversity), reflecting pools (both the clean coin-peppered versions seen in our capitals and the algae-incrusted still dark tains found in jungle temples), boating pools, Renaissance and Baroque fountains with tritons rising or sculpted grottos lost in the byways of overgrown parks, gay baths... these and others each draw us, haunt us, scare us by turns, in ways that our language seems hopeless to fully illustrate. 

p.p.s. I wonder sometimes if the iconography of the swimming pool and of the bather in gay-related art, fiction and movies -- David Hockney, "Gods and Monsters", "Milk", "Death in Venice", "Dancer from the Dance", Herbert List, Bruce Weber, porn, and so forth -- doesn't also perform (frequently) a kind of simplification/reduction of the pool as "locus amoenus" ("pleasant, lovely place"), a rhetorical term used to describe the groves and shadowy valleys from which poets speak of nature, love and simple pleasures...  The individuals splashing about in most of these works are rarely screaming tots or sluggish over-tanned and slightly over-weight old lions, but rather stunning youths and young men at the epitome of their classical beauty.  Which is fine as a short-cut for talking about desire, but hopelessly insufficient for plumbing the soul.  "The Swimming Pool Library" is perhaps an exception.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

misty light, hot white, ghost sheen

It's the last Sunday of the Olafur Eliasson (b. 1967) show "Take Your Time" (Aprl 20 - June 30) split between The Museum of Modern Art and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in New York.  The scorching humidity outside barely let up today even when the skies ripped open and deluged the Gay Pride marchers.  The weather inside was just as affecting.

The MOMA show is made up of thirteen large scale and effective pieces, including a wildly swinging fan cum pendulum, kaleidoscope rooms, long corridors in a monofrequency yellow, strobe-caught water drips, and a moss covered wall.  Frequently, Eliasson's tools are utterly simple (small motors that rotate wires, strobes, mirrors), but the effects -- because of the complicated unspeakability of one's associations to light, mood, memory, damp, dark and breeze -- defy simple analysis.  References abound, of course, to a generation of Southern Californian light artists (James Turrell, Robert Irwin); to Larry Bell's boxes; and even, by antithesis, to Judd and Serra (Eliasson's "1 cubic meter of light" - a misty box made of light beams), but the pieces work well without knowing any names.  One finds joy (kids love chasing the swirling fan), mystery, meditation; one feels the weight of light (the yellow corridor reduces and transforms fabrics and skin into variations of tweed and plastic); one lingers and breathes.

While aspects of the P.S.1 show on the other side of the river seemed more like marginalia (and here I am thinking of Eliasson's numerous musings on geodesic domes, kaleidoscopes and filtered glass in the side galleries), the curators' use of the old public school building was brilliant: on the top floor (in the stifling heat) were placed Eliasson's luminescent pieces; on the basement floor (in the cool musty half-light) the water works.  Spending time alternating from top to bottom was akin to spending time in the Russian baths: heating, exhaustion, relaxation, healing.

The P.S.1 crowd favorite was likely the gigantic foil mirror suspended and rotating above the reclining visitors, but for me  the most hard hitting of the entire two-site show were (upstairs) the "Neutral Light Set-up" (a room bathed in ever changing hues of off-white light) and (downstairs) "Beauty" (a billowy iridescent curtain of mist in a dark vault).

Despite the heat, I found myself camped on the floor of the neutral light room (see video) in utter amazement of the ephemeral, the powerful emotional connotations (cloud sky sheen) of the hues and they way they painted the walls.  All of a sudden, some five minutes into my meditation, perhaps under the bright white, all the floaters in the back of my eyes came into view and lingered.

If a person could marry a piece of art, I would propose to Eliasson's Beauty.  The mist falls not as streams or a flattened sheet, but in a undulating pillowy-ness that catches the light on one side and shimmers in rainbow threads, while from the back the white glow lights it like a waterfall seen from cave mouth.  People irresistibly need to touch the spray, some blow on it, some walk through it (from the back, the effect is highly cinematic), and from the right spot one knows what it means to love with a fire light heart.

(NB: while MOMA has a camera (no flash) ok policy, P.S.1, strangely, has a no-camera rule.  Get it together guys!) 

Friday, June 27, 2008


Olafur Eliasson's four "Waterfalls" in New York's East River (from the Manhattan Bridge to Governor's Island) started cascading yesterday and will continue till October 13.

Roberta Smith, in the New York Times, waxed all Whitmanian over them in her review ( and perhaps there's no reason not to. 

I have liked Eliasson's previous large-scale meditations on weather and light, the meteorological and the artificial, and his use of water in all its states; and the mechanical and ephemeral Waterfalls are a perfect confounding of all of those preoccupations.  My only disappointment is in finding them positioned so far away from the public that their force, roar and spray are intuited rather than experienced.  (People are encouraged to take boat rides to see them from the river; the idea being that their power will echo through the rocking hull... More than a passing ferry?  Doubtful.) And in a humid New York summer, I'd be willing to abandon a degree of safety to have recycled river water douse my clothes.

Having people focus on the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn (straddling the Naval Yards, Downtown and the Lower East Side) is also to remember the historic heart of the shipping, unloading, merchandising,transporting city... a city and a riverfront that are disappearing before our eyes.  The Domino Sugar plant is closed and preservationists are fighting to save its sign.  The Fulton Fish Market is closed and being converted to swanky lofts.  Red Hook is undergoing a loft and Ikea boom.  When the water is turned off, what will be left?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

sachs craft

Tom Sachs' show of recent work (May 8 - June 21) at Sperone Westwater ( in the meatpacking district of Manhattan reveals the 41 year old New Yorker DIY re-appropriator with still a lot to say.  Sachs is probably best known for his (infamous) concentration camp fabricated from a Prada hatbox, his candy jar of 9-mm bullets (which led to his [then] gallery owner Mary Boone being arrested for a night), and his various misuses of Hello Kitty.  And while shock value still has its place in his work today, the strongest pieces go way beyond catty conversations among culturati in martini bars.

The best pieces in the show are "handmade" (more on this in a second) constructions -- boxes, cabinets, odd lamps, Duchampian ready-made-aided works -- which show both an eye to artisanal detail (like inset slots and toggles for keys and hooks) and awkward do-it-yourself bricolage (e.g. hand-burnt letters, exposed wiring).

Particularly stunning is Sachs' "Negro Music": a ghetto blaster and tons of tapes (and a bottle of Jack) safely locked away in a laboratory glove box (through rubber gloves you can switch tapes, hit play, rewind... the Jack Daniels however remains unassailable).  The strange protection offered is of course an illusion, for the sound comes through... as too the disturbing image of white culture testing, genetically modifying, appropriating and taming black cultural production.

The political reappears in other whimsical ways.  Sachs' "Waffle Bike" -- a tricked out bike (riffing off Puerto Rican bikes in New York) with attached refrigerator, waffle maker, a cage for chickens, a flag pole (Norway) and loud speakers (broadcasting Arabic) proclaims a untenable melding of northern European cuisine and Southern itinerant street sellers.  The only thing lacking is seeing it in action.  And syrup.  

In the same way, the kooky "LaGuardia", a observation tower for cats (built on several levels with stairs: liter box, goldfish pond, observation deck...) is both whimsical and disturbingly prison like (what are these cats surveilling?!).

I loved the mandela meets Renaissance dueling cabinet gun chest "Hardcore" in which handmade guns and the tools that were used to make them (pliers, hammers, etc.) -- all lovingly inscribed or etched with punk band names and the track listings from their albums -- are elegantly ensconced and sealed in a beautiful mirrored plywood case.  Once again, a "dangerous" cultural production (hardcore punk, a Brechtian hammer) has been aestheticized and sealed off, but the keys are close to hand and the case can travel.  (I would gladly have opened up the case and started to play... but the gallery do-not-touch-ethos is hard to fight).

I am not enraptured by everything that Sachs puts out.  His foamcore whales, Hello Kittys, pyrographic reproductions of animal fable engravings (do grandparents still give wood burning kits to their grand kids? do you remember the smell of the wood burning under the smoldering stylus?) leave me cold.  

Even more so, I do not know what to make of artistic productions that involve -- Renaissance atelier style -- the mobilization of a crew of (14) assistants (like Peter Halley, Jeff Koons, Sol Lewitt...).  It seems to me that "DIY" has a hard time surviving a capitalist production method no matter how artisan-based its ethics.  It would be more honest if each and every one of the assistants added their name to the masthead... but that dilemma is also a part of Sachs' attack.

[addendum 6/27:  Sachs "handmade" boxes have  brought me back (by antithesis) to thinking about Toland Grinnell (a Brooklyner, born in 1969) whose work has prominently featured creepy sets of elaborate and luxurious traveling cases and collapsable furniture in Vuitton-style precision.  The design-centered detail of Grinnell's work has always been a stumbling block for me. 
(Here's an interesting interview with Grinnell from 2003:
Grinnell's "Pied-à-Terre" was on longterm display at the Brooklyn Museum through last May: )]

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

touching me touching you

Everyone remembers the great joy (although maybe it's more a boy thing?) of going to a science museum (or even better: more recent museological funrides like the Exploratorium in San Francisco) and being able to hit buttons, making sparks fly, setting whirring planetary models into motion, proving... oh but what were those presentations demonstrating in fact?

Carl André's invitation to walk on his floor pieces of aluminum or wood squares notwithstanding (ha, a pun! - and sadly, the last time I was in MOMA, they seemed to be discouraging touching or walking on the André piece), contemporary art remains generally disdainful of the public's touch.

Not so, two gallery shows currently on view in New York.

* Yoko Ono at Galerie LeLong (  Love her, hate her, it doesn't matter.  The LeLong show (April 18 - May 31) invites the public to "Touch Me" via molded soft rubber parts of the artist's body (lips, knees, breasts, belly, feet).  The effect is a little creepy: I could swear that someone had got her nipples wet, and her foot was already missing a toe (the panel next to the feet referenced the loss as typical of the violence that a woman's body is always subject to).

Touching Yoko's knee.

I am a little confused about the work's ideology, however, for Ono asks the public to cut themselves up and objectify their own bodies by shoving their limbs or faces out through holes cut in a large canvas and having the gallery assistant take Polaroids which are then pinned to a wall (with the pictured people's comments written on them).  I wish this part of the show had more force, but everyone seemed so excited about having their stocking-covered leg or well-posed hand mounted on the wall, that it was just goofy.

(I think this was why I so loved Kate Gilmore's video piece Star Bight, Star Might (2007) from the 2007 Arsenal Show - pushing her head through that plywood is a painful and laborious act.  Splinters and scratches remain on her face when she finally manages to break through.)

Kate Gilmore, Star Bright, Star Might

I guess Yoko could have forced her public to endure something more humiliating or honest than Polaroids.  Although I saw a couple of nipples on the wall, I didn't see much that dared.  How 'bout us being forced to endure groping and touching?  Would the public oblige?  Would the public touch?  (Even sex clubs keep the lights down in their back rooms).

(Ancillary thought: Michel Leiris talks a lot about the essential element of the kind of art he is engaged in (confessional, intimate) being "risk", exposure to the horns of the minotaur... It's a good mantra.)

* Upstairs at Tanya Bonakdar (, and in concert with a major show of his works at MOMA and PS1, there is a nice participatory sound piece by Olafur Eliasson called Spatial Vibration: String-Based Instrument, Study II (see  Using something resembling (tonically) a traditional asian instrument attached to a turntable-like drawing machine, the public can create a large round paper image of the vibrations they play.  SPROINGGGG!  CHHHHRRRRING!

Eliasson's Spatial Vibration (the assistant is changing the ink pen)

Groovier still, you can take the huge round sheet of paper home, Felix Gonzales-Torres like.  Stamped with the artist and the piece's name no less.  It's got noise.  It's got free.  It's got participatory.  It's got take-home.  What more could you want?  From a gallery, at least.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

strike the tall grass

I am obsessed with people tangled in and lost among trees, bamboo and tall grass.  

So, when I saw pictures of Fang-Yi Sheu clinging to and tangled upside-down in a field of plastic blue reeds  -- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon style -- in TimeOutNY (go to these sites for pix; dance theaters are very strict with trying to take pictures during a show), I knew I had to see the Ballet Tech / ManDanceProject ( performance of Eliot Feld's works at the Joyce Theater (

Along with the reed sequence mentioned above (an Isis story with a curious set of stations (of which the reeds were one): part descent into the Labyrinth, part exercise machines in a gym from Space-1999), several other images throughout the evening were stunning:

* the condensation of breath and body heat on the inside of a clinging transparent plastic sheet womb wrapped around a body struggling to push through.

* a long roll (50+ feet by 6 feet) of butcher-colored paper/plastic, crumpled and spilling forth, enveloping and obliterating the contours of a body-become-shambling heap.

* the glinting strobe effect of light bouncing off a large (5' diameter?) shallow silvery bowl and onto Fang-Yi's body as she tipped and rocked the bowl while dancing in it.

In the seat in front of me during the show, a person I took later to be the choreographer himself (? - people congratulated him afterwards) chatted up his guest during the show and, once, let out a obscenely loud "damn it! that's their cue to get off the stage!".  Harrumph.

One more thing: the set change from the first to the second piece was done with the curtain up.  The purposeful and disciplined striking of a set is a mesmerizing bit of choreography.  I would love to make a piece consisting only of sets, flats, curious arbitrary ramps and objects being placed, raised and struck again and again, silently.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

air bear

I love Joshua Allen Harris' New York subway grate ephemeral inflatable bear, although it looks a lot more like a dog to me (thanks to YouTube's Rocketboom for featuring the piece in their broadcast today).  It makes me so freaking happy to see that apparent trash slowly rise up and take form as the subway air comes rushing from the grate, and then wag, shake its head (the mouth half-open in anticipation), shiver with excitement...

... then sink down to the grate -- commuters on their way -- and disappear once again as a heap of discarded plastic on the city street.

(New York's fifth season, as everyone knows, is when the plastic bags bud in all the trees, thrust there by winter/spring winds rushing through the steel and glass canyons... Ian Frazier has a nice piece about his own personal obsessive attempt to tackle the problem one tree at a time -- (see : "Bag snagging was our exercise, our companionship, our hobby, our impromptu community action program")

Harris' second inflatable piece is more kooky, a kind of alien sideshow assemblage of critters waving arms, but it reminds me a bit of those inflatables outside of car dealerships and it doesn't have the fragile -- and ultimately lonely -- impact of the lost dog... er, bear.

You can find out a little more on Harris' work at the Wooster Collective ("dedicated to showcasing and celebrating ephemeral art placed on streets in cities around the world"):

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

biennial 2008

Complaining about the Whitney Biennial ( is as New York as griping about how your neighborhood isn't what is used to be or about the proliferation of Duane Reade's, Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks on every block.  

Angry Dog Barking at Whitney-Goers 
(dog, electrical van, plastic cones, 3 hours - unplanned site-specific installation)

And true to form, while I haven't caught the Park Avenue Armory section (a new feature) of this year's show yet , I did find the work at the Whitney to be lackluster overall.  There are a lot of large pieces this year, but the number of artists represented is significantly smaller than in previous years (from over 100 in 2006 down to 81)and there is also almost no painting.

My ideal biennial is a rousing, overflowing, reckless affair, with art spilling out every old which way (like Chris Johanson's wooden streetscapes in the stairwells in 2002), including sound art and internet art, defying easy summaries of the state of contemporary art in America and surprising me at every step.  For this reason, 2002 was a great biennial (, and I still have in my mind Roxy Paine's aluminum tree, Trenton Doyle Hancock's wall-size graphite tree, Karin Campbell's open/closed eyes, Stephen Dean's Holi festival video, Vija Celmins' spiderweb, Chris Ware's comic art, Robert Lazzarini's warped payphone, and Tim Hawkinson's self-portraits, to name a few.  

This being said, I find my memory of any specific biennial becomes rather blurry over time, and in my head they all meld into some kind of super-mega biennial composite of all the biennials I have seen, 2002's works placed beside Yayoi Kusama's firefly room and Eve Sussman's live action recreation of Velasquez's "Las Meninas" from 2004 and Paul Chan's haunting shadow show of floating bodies from 2006 (I could add dozens of other artists/works to this list).

Among the works that did work for me this year:  

* Lisa Sigal's strange little room "The Day Before Yesterday and the Day After Tomorrow" ( ) with its decaying wallpaper, peeling paint, cracked lathe and plaster, and slits in the back wall through which one can glimpse tiny alcoves.  There is a nostalgic feeling of an abandoned apartment (shades of Christian Boltanski) and of discovering lost secrets, and it reminds me of my time in a crumbling squat when we painted on the walls and were kept up at night by the scurrying of the mice.

(Like the Sigal piece, space/place and architecture seem to be preoccupations this year: William Cordova recreates the police informant floor plan of the Chicago house of two Black Panthers, infamously burned by the cops in the 1969; Adam Putnam creates an optical illusion of hallways and doors in a dark room; Mika Rottenberg constructs a goat cheese shanty tended by long-haired maids; Charles Long works through/with found items and shapes (bird droppings) from the L.A. river...)

* Jedediah Caesar's resin works ( ).  The  large block in the middle of the show has a beautiful drippiness with stalagmite-esque hollows and crevasses, while his wall-mounted polished resin squares show off cross-cut detritus and urban junk like millennia-old fossils.

*Ry Rocklen's box-springs spangled with carpenter nails (a bedtime version of Eva Hesse's Ascension).

* My friend L. loved Julia Meltzer and David Thorne's video "Still from not a matter of if but when: brief records of a time when expectations were repeatedly raised and lowered and people grew exhausted from never knowing if the moment was at hand or was still to come" (which is, you have to admit, a great title), a (on first blush) straightforward arab-language video-blog narration (with subtitles) of tragedy, frustration and life quandaries that engages you with its sense of seriousness, but remains utterly inscrutable, it being impossible to fully comprehend what the heck he's going on about.  Which, I guess, says (among other things) a hell of a lot about US-Arab relations today.

addendum - I think that Holland Cotter's review of the show in the NY Times ( ) captures the mood pretty well -- "uncharismatic surfaces, complicated backstories", "low-key", "questioning", collaborative -- and is correct about the prevalence of narrative (especially via film/video).  I also appreciated the observation that this biennial (unlike 2002, for example) is not a repeat of works from the year's galleries, but instead a place for newly commissioned works (although, is this entirely a good thing?).  I would hesitate however to extrapolate from this show to a description of contemporary art as "lowered expectations" or "recession-bound": just chalk it up to the biennial being a highly-selective idiosyncratic curatorial snapshot.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

collective play

Following upon the massive YouTube success of a video from their February 2007 (uploaded in January 2008 - over 6 million views!) "Frozen Grand Central" mission (which spawned similar scenes of people frozen in motion in London and elsewhere), Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere, was on the Today show last week while a small group of IE "agents" replicated their waxworks play on the ropeline outside.   A few days earlier, the group was also featured on ABC's Nightline.

Originally founded in August 2001 in New York City (preceding the flash mob phenomenon of summer 2003, although they really started  hitting their stride in 2003), Improv Everywhere is a loose creative collective which "causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places".  ( ). 

There are things I absolutely love about certain IE missions (and for full disclosure: I have participated in several, including "Even Better than the Real Thing" (May 2005 - a fake roof concert by U2 : you can see me bouncing around yelling "Bono Bono" in the background).  Among my favorites:
  • The Moebius - March 2003 (a series of unrelated events repeat themselves again and again in the Astor Place Starbucks)
  • Look Up More - March 2005 (the windows of Union Square South become the site of a dance-fest)
  • Cell Phone Symphony - February 2006 (the bag-check of the Strand becomes the site of a cacophonous symphony of ringtones)

Occasionally their missions have an almost intimate feel (like Romantic Comedy Cab (July 2005: can a friendly cab driver make the connection between the stories told by two of his riders and bring the couple back together?)), while others take on corporate culture (No Shirts (October 2007: Abercrombie & Fitch), Redheads (July 2007: Wendy's), Slo-Mo Home Depot (August 2006), Best Buy (April 2006)).  Some, like Frozen Grand Central, are a massive splash of verve (as too the various MP3 experiments and No-Pants subway rides).

I realize that my own zen "poethics" privilege certain smaller IE missions over others and that what interests me most is precisely a glint of magical awe in the midst of the mundane city, while my punk-anarchist heart is also attracted to the anti-corporate gesture.  Nevertheless, something about the sheer size of some of the recent missions, or the overly-scripted nature of some (the MP3 Experiment 2.0 (October 2005) made me feel like a passive cog following the silly commands of the disembodied voice in the sky) has left me cold.

An anecdote: I came back to New York after a summer abroad and in my first day wandering around outside my East Village apartment, I noticed what I took to be a radical change in fashion from the last time I had been in the city: all the boys were dressed in spangles, feathers and wigs as if Madison avenue had decreed the transgendered look as this year's style.  It was only later that I realized that Wigstock (the outdoor drag festival, ) was taking place in Tompkin's Square that day; fashions returned to their norms the following morning.

What I love about my mistake was the lingering incertitude I was in, and my attempt to understand the irregular within a rational schema.  (addendum: check out the "what's the benefit" observer in IE's Mobile Desktop mission from this month: "(That's) the strangest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. Have you seen that in another Starbucks? Is it like a new trend or what? What’s the benefit? Do you know what the benefit is?")  This method was also the hallmark of the first two Improv Everywhere No-Pants missions in which there were only a handful of participants riding the January subway in their boxers.  The latest No-Pants missions, however, are so massive that the non-participant's wonder is crushed by the collective and the missions have effectively become pants-less subway parties (similar to the NYC "One Night of Fire" performance party).  The charming Warp Zone mission (April 2002) put a number of random agents in a store humming, then singing, the theme to Cheers, as if by infectious exuberance; the employees were, on the whole, taken in by the scam.  If 300 agents started to sing, the slight-of-hand would be revealed. 

I realize that my criticisms may seem to imply a infatuation with the elite, marginal and secret, but I remain thoroughly enthusiastic about a (largely youth) culture that still enjoys collective play and provocation, and that hasn't been reduced to passively consuming what big-media has prepared for them.

As my case makes apparent, one's reactions to public collaborative works such as those of Improv Everywhere are highly subjective (for whom are the works intended? for the participants? for the viewing public? for the creator? for the YouTube spectator? can a work succeed for one of these, but fail for the others?) and participants may be drawn to these acts by a host of conflicting desires, including:
  • the desire to participate in a marginal enterprise or secret group
  • the pleasure of collusion with an inside-joke or scam
  • the desire to throw a spanner in the works of big-box retailers
  • the desire to "épater les bourgeois" or shock out-of-towners
  • the desire to create magic or mystery in the modern city
  • the hope of meeting artsy new people
  • a sense of humor or mercurial exhibitionism
The reactions of non-participant participants - the hapless employees and bystanders that confront the act - are carefully catalogued in the IE's agent reports.  Officious security guards and angry managers seem to justify, to a large degree, all the chaos they are forced to confront with their humorless drudgery.  The litany of friendly "that was so strange/cool" comments, and, in certain missions, the questions about whether the chaos is random or a prank are charming reactions.  As pranks though, some of the missions are not without their darker side, especially when the victims are a well-meaning bunch of Joes; these dynamics have been wonderfully explored in a 2005 episode ("Mind Games") by the radio show This American Life which did a study of the "Best Gig Ever" mission in which IE agents made out that they were hardcore fans of the unknown band Ghosts of Pasha playing their first tour. (  )  The story was also reused in episode one season one of the T.A.L. television show ("Reality Check" )

These ambivalent reactions are all in the nature of "play" itself which can be both a form of socializing and exclusion, both useful and purposeless, both fun and dangerous, as nicely described in a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine called "Taking Play Seriously" by Robin Marantz Henig ( ) 

(NB: I would have liked to see a broader discussion of play as it appears in the social theory of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, for whom human action can be interpreted largely from the perspective of strategic action and game play, including one's participation in fields of cultural production (the arts, academia, politics, literature) in which implicit and explicit rules of action define our gestures and give us meaning.  For example: the non-participant in the "game" of abstract art decries the canvas as worthless; the MFA, whose education has been centered on believing the game worth playing and the results of great import, grogs the De Kooning.)

Improv Everywhere has been going through a massive expansion lately, their "No Pants 2008" mission was replicated in numerous cities around the world, and there is now an IE Facebook group (group id=5021079203) and a global social network ( ).  It is hard to know whether success will spoil the fun.  The 2003 flash mobs of New York were victims both of their own success and of our contemporary auto-documenting obsessions: the number of participants increased exponentially (what else was there to do that summer?), one out of two with cell-phones or video cameras filming the action, and somehow the quirky magical "in-the-moment" event became highly scripted self-aware pageants.  Will Improv Everywhere avoid a similar fate?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

saving stuff

I keep too much stuff.  Compulsively.  Not to the degree of the Collyer brothers (cf the wikipedia), thank god.  But still, the apartment is packed.

The grandfather of my French ex used to pick up rubber bands and pieces of string from the ground and put them in his pockets.  He called them "des çapeut", as in "ça peut servir (un jour)" ("it might be useful (some day)").  That was the anecdote the family told at least; it vaguely reminds me of some character from a Vonnegut, Barth or Perec novel I can't remember.  I should look that up.  The book is here somewhere.

Last summer, my friend J. and I participated in a installation/performative art piece by artist Megan Metcalf ( called "Portraits".  I had seen her post on the NY Nonsense listserv, sent it to J. and she convinced me to join her:

* Do you like to file? I know, it's a weird question. But if you do, I

need your help between 22 June and 8 July. My new installation

Portraits investigates the relationship of work to art in a gallery

space uptown. I'll make a portrait of you based on a filing system you

set up! Potential participants should have 2-3 free hours and love to

file and organize things - drop me an email if this is you. Of course

I'll bring beer and music! Contact Megan.

The work involved asking the 13 participants to file a heap of miscellaneous receipts, letters, scraps, images, articles and effluvia (including a crushed soda can & a magnetic picture frame).  Each participant had an equivalent stack to organize.  Files cabinets, pendaflex, manila folders, label makers: all was provided.  Participants were not given any other directions as, say, for whom the filing system was intended (for her? for us?), why these materials had been chosen, or how they might eventually be used.  At the end of the process, Megan created wall charts graphically showing each individuals filing system.

The process was actually fun.  Sprawled out on the floor, I took each object, analyzed it, put it in a stack as a preliminary step, went to the next object, eventually returned to the stack to see if my overarching principles made sense.  Some objects proved recalcitrant; the idea of having a file for one wayward object disturbed me.  In the end, I tried to organize my objects into a practical system for an artist; I discarded almost nothing.

My friend J., on the other hand, put nine tenths of the materials in the discard bin; on each item to be thrown away, she wrote her justifications.  J. is a believer in leaving the past behind.  I admire her for that, even if it scares me. (addendum: this being said, while "leaving the past behind" may be a zen gesture, it may also be as neurotically/psychologically ambivalent as "keeping everything"; how does one know if their "freedom from having" proceeds from existential or zen principles?) 

Going through the other participants' files after I had finished was hilarious.  Some people's systems were (to me) utterly arbitrary (shades of Borges' Chinese Encyclopedia's division of animals), overly alphabetical (where do you file a soda can?), excessively anal (one system assigned numbers to each object and then used a cross-referenced computer database to keep track of the material properties), but all seemed to reveal deep psychological truth about the individual in question.

Despite my pack-rat-ness, there has always been something seductive about a Sartrian refusal to let "having" (possessing, owning, buying...) stand in for "being" and "doing".  For years, Sartre chose to live in hotels, to possess nothing, to constantly slough off any sort of accumulation.  His writings: once he was done with a project, he moved on.  His manuscripts?  Tossed aside; given away.

My professor G. used to tell of gay US army men working at the Pentagon reading porn novels in the 50s: once the book was read, one threw it out (into the Potomac?).  The novel was just a trick.

Today's online culture seems to facilitate obsessive collecting.  Even Social Networking seems predicated on the list (friends, favorite films, favorite musical artists; curiously not: favorite visual artist, plant or food, but there will probably come facebook apps for that some day soon), and while an online list isn't the same as shelves and shelves of books, cds and vinyl, or megabytes of downloaded images, it still seems to participate strangely in a time-consuming loss-less cataloguing and accumulation of names without the grace and joy of an ephemeral but meaningful contact.

What good is our accumulated history if it doesn't lead to a more satisfying existence or if it straightjackets our soul?  Friedrich Nietzsche's "Second Untimely Meditation: On the Use and Abuse of History for Life" (available online at ) can still cut me to the quick like I was 18 again, running on the beach at midnight, repeating to myself  Yeats' "I would be - for no knowledge is worth a straw - / ignorant and wanton as the dawn." 

How hard though, the zen affirmation, if loss terrifies you.


addendum: My friend A. is on a "buying nothing all year" new year's resolution in an effort to focus on essentials in her life.  No durable goods are permitted, only experiential and ephemeral things like meals and movies (books from the public library).  Strange coincidence: I went online this afternoon and discovered that Megan Metcalf did a similar project in 2007: . 

It's not exactly freeing yourself from history, but it is start on freeing yourself from "having".

Friday, February 22, 2008

model living

Went by Postmasters Gallery last week ( ) -- one of Chelsea's best for video/new media/conceptual work -- to see Guy Ben-Ner's fun 18 minute video "Stealing Beauty" (the show closed on the 16th).  In the video, which is shot guerilla-style in IKEA model rooms around the world without IKEA permission (you've got to love his chutzpah), the Israeli-born Ben-Ner presents a family sitcom (himself, two kids and wife) with domestic troubles and commodity angst.  IKEA shoppers occasionally wander in or gaze on the action, scenes shift between the different IKEA shoots (they get kicked out repeatedly), and all those Ivar bookcases and Svalka glasses have their price-tags on (I was reminded of the virtual price-tagging of the model apartment in the movie Fight Club).  When I got home, I noticed that the art critic Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine (my neighbor passes me all sorts of magazines when he's done with them) gave the show a great write-up (, and his comments on the video's queer clash with sleek and clean Euro environments/families and on the issues of displacement/exile seem right on.

IKEA is, of course, an easy target on both economic (a massive, global, large box retailer of cheaply produced furniture), aesthetic (the clean anonymity of IKEA interiors) and related ideological grounds, although in the hierarchy of evil operators in the home decoration/lifestyle commodity-as-happiness industry that runs the gamut from ABC's Disney-fication of domestic space and penchant for uplifting narratives (Extreme Makeover - Home Edition) to Martha Stewart's unrealizable goal of perfect comfort and spiritual satisfaction, to the gazillion hours of home/food/dress programming currently on cable television, IKEA actually seems to be one of the least evil, if only for the fact that their sleek model home iconography doesn't seem to actively promote (1) elitism, (2) myths of nostalgia (unlike, say, the "mission style" stores Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware) or (3) a traditional vision of "family" (I can no longer watch Lidia Bastianich's cooking show without feeling attacked by the word "familia" at every fork-full of pasta).  While the mega-companies are the most egregious purveyors of life/style-as-commodity, I am personally just as suspicious of small-town furniture dealers, with their exaggerated claims of authenticity for rustic/country nostalgia and their hocking of quant but pointless bric-a-brac.  Would Ben-Ner's family drama become "natural" in some other retailer?, say a (imaginary) Baghdad Sears?  Why should it?

I admit, when I watch YouTube vlogs (or look at online porn), I often become absorbed by people's surroundings.  In the current state of the online world (dominated, of course, by relatively affluent western (particularly caucasian) youth who can afford video cameras and who have hours of free time to watch and produce videos), the most frequent loci of media production are (1) the student dorm room and (2) the comfortable suburban house.  Is there any place more alike than a student dorm: messy beds, IKEA style (here, modular and cheap has won the battle) laminated particle-board desks, movie and music posters... ?  (It is to hope that the ultimate self-expression and creativity that the internet is supposed to one day produce can surmount the ultimate degree of uniformity that our society has imposed upon its youth.)  

On the other hand, I am strangely affected by the off-putting or disconnected interiors that one sometimes glimpses behind everyday non-metropolitan people under 35: grandmotherly doilies or lace curtains, flowery and yellowed wallpaper, spindly wooden chairs with tie-on seat-cushions, and (my favorite) the wood-paneled carpeted basement media/computer room with beat-up couch and harsh lighting.  In their lack of homogeneous stylization, their accumulation of objects from various generations and places, their dust, angst, occasional squalor and furtive eroticism, these places conjure up remarkable complexities of being where issues of self and history and ideology are yet to be worked out in a clean and neat IKEA/Disney/Crate&Barrel way.  It would be interesting to see Ben-Ner invade these homes, and take on those (far more complicated) dynamics.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

cogs in the dance

Is there anything cooler than the impromptu dance sequence in Jean-Luc Godard's 1964 Bande à part (Band of Outsiders)?  Sami Frey, in his lean suit, finger snaps and shuffles like the king of hipness and Anna Karina has this seductive goofy naivete about her.

In today's culture, it seems like synchronized dance steps occur as periodic fads (e.g. the macarena, the hustle, Gap ads with hep-cats swing dancing, Michael Jackson's zombie dance from Thriller), appropriate for large group ritualization (frat parties, prison, aircraft carriers, weddings), but the great age of "knowing the dance" appears to be gone.

NYCTV (broadcast channel 25 in the New York City area run by the city) used to have a show called "City Classics" featuring old documentaries and news reports from the municipal archives.  Among the treasures, my favorite was Portable Ladders (1957, produced by WNYC), a comprehensive and exacting lesson for firefighters (wearing spats, I might add) of how to raise three different sizes of portable ladders (left foot on the first rung, hands moving up in standard alternating fashion, the "butt man" pivots as the men on the runners move up the ladder hand over hand...). The script of this educational film is amazingly explicit: no detail is spared, even when the procedure remains unchanged from ladder to ladder. What is more: there is no latitude for individual variation (lives depend on the firefighter performing these gestures mathematically); the writers have thought about the best way that this is to be done and the student must learn this method (one thinks of the mechanized gestures of gun loaders on WWII battleships). There is also this Boy Scout-esque ethic of preparedness that seems to permeate pre-sixties culture (one of NYCTV's other treasures is a Civil Defense post-nuclear attack how-to triage video): one must train and practice these gestures everyday to serve the greater community in a possible time of crisis.

Both ethics -- exacting education of "correct" technique and constant preparedness for catastrophe -- have disappeared for the most part. People dance, cook, play guitar, write their letters, polish their shoes and shave (generally) without referencing detailed (left hand, right hand, small loop, two teaspoons) instructions that have been presented as the objectively "best" way to accomplish these tasks. It's all latitude, self-expression,DIY, fuck the rules...

A couple of years ago I saw two films that prominently feature late nineteenth-century ballroom dance sequences (particularly the Mazurka): the 1963 film by Luchino Visconti The Leopard (based on Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's novel Il Gattopardo) and Alexander Sokurov's 2002 one-continuous-shot Russian Ark. Despite my DIY-punk heart, I actually found these massive group dances to be mesmerizing, and one of the reasons for this was the notion that this dancing public was not passively watching a spectacle produced for them, but participating and creating the spectacle themselves. Furthermore, unlike the waltz, tango or twist, the Muzurka sequences in these films go beyond the couple dance, and become massive groups working together in precision. This cog-ness of the individual should normally disturb me: a culture in which both man's work environment -- think of Charlie Chaplin tightening cogs at the factory in Modern Times (1936), the soulless insurance office in Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960), or Björk working the metal press in Dancer in the Dark (2000) -- and pleasures are formalized and mechanical can, I imagine, be a culture easily coerced into boot-step marching and huge Nuremberg rallies... but one has the impression that, for the individuals in these group dances, any "aporia" of the modern that one might feel is mitigated by one's sense of collective participation. They seem to be having a great time.

Which makes the dance sequence in Bande à part so perfect (for me). The small group of three avoids the pitfalls of the soulless mega-group, and given that these outsiders are cutting a rug in the middle of a cafe - their communal and participatory becomes rebelliously fun.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

the ashman purrs

My friend A.'s Little Cat died today.  In brick tenement New York, sick and aging cats die in February: some curl up on their perches over rattling steam pipes and, like pre-war impresarios on the Black Sea, slowly dry up; others make valiant efforts to drink, eat and catbox, but finally their legs give out and they twitch with belabored breath in your arms until the end.  I've seen it happen again and again.

This city is a crappy place to have a pet die.  Most people I know are poor, car-less, and a million miles away from the backyard of anyone who could be induced into letting you bury your pet there.  The classic city options are the following:
  • city disposal (i.e. the trash)
  • veterinary disposal - the vet disposes of the body with a cremation service
  • low-cost cremation - a cremation service gives you back a representative sample of ashes from a group cremation
  • high-cost cremation - a cremation service gives you back the ashes of your actual pet
  • high-end pet funeral
  • illegal rogue burial in the city
I was coming home the other night and snapped this pic of a package on top of a trash can:

I love the little message (poor Dina!), but am disturbed by the strange contradictions that the message implies... Lovingly wrapped and tagged, Dina nevertheless awaits the cold hands of the ashman.  Will he utter a final prayer?  Will Dina's box glide smoothly past the crushing maw of the trash truck and work its way unharmed to the top of the heap (on a bed of dried flowers and New Yorkers)?  I rather imagine that Vinny the trash guy - who's probably seen worse on his Chinatown runs - will toss Dina in without a thought (union and sanitation department rules be damned... it's cold out, it's February) to be crushed with illegally-trashed florescent tubes, cabbage leaves and all the rest of our detritus.

Little Cat, thankfully, was buried this afternoon in Jonathan's backyard in Fort Lee, a brambly affair frequented by raccoons and other critters.

When my own Moxie died in February 2005, I was in no rush to make funerary plans.  There is something horrifying when the specialists come and pack away death in a bag (pet or loved-one), leaving you, half an hour later, sitting on your couch with no visible sign that things are different.  I personally need time to live with death, to ponder it in its implacable reality so that it doesn't seem simply like a fever dream.

At the time, I imagined me and my (then) roommate buying a shovel at the local hardware store and taking Moxie upstate on the bus.  We are such fish-out-of-water types when it comes to the NY hinterland that I saw us as a Beckettian Didi and Gogo couple tramping through the woods with our cat-filled cooler and shovel, trying not to look suspicious.  The laughs ensue.  This didn't happen, of course.  Life got strangely busy, and then he moved out to live with his girlfriend.

So what happened to your cat?  Indeed....

Thursday, February 14, 2008


I am generally a fan of obsessive process-intense one-person art that involves lots of repetitive gluing, scratching, stringing or sanding. I like the point in the process - a week or a month in - when your own doubts begin to surface (am I really going to keep this up?) and when your stalwart friends and family toss up their hands and give in to your kookiness.

Thread is an excellent medium for the o.p.o.p. artist. In Chelsea today, I saw a few intertwined thread works by Chiharu Shiota ("Waiting" at Goff + Rosenthal 537b W. 23rd Feb 1 - Mar 10) including an in-site installation and a number of smaller pieces, of which this was the most stunning (once again, pix taken on the run):

I like the fact that there are two light bulbs, with their creepy silhouette of a darkened heart (it's valentine's day) tangled in connective tissue, but the tangle also conjures up (for me) neural networks populated by Baudelairien spiders, all spleen and melancholy.

In today's design economy, a young hotshot would probably find a way to turn those bulbs on and sell it at Moss.

More works by Chiharu Shiota, including some stunning images of the artist's larger installations (some of which are strongly reminiscent of Louise Bourgeois's spidery cages), can be found at

Thursday, February 7, 2008

deep wear

Went to the Chelsea galleries briefly tonight; became completely entranced by these rubber-encased lightbox mounted shirts and blouses by Jil Weinstock at Charles Cowles (Feb 7-Mar 8 I snapped these pix on the run). I've seen lots of resin-encased objects, but I didn't know that rubber could have such depth and warmth. Jil W. talks about its closeness to "flesh"; I wish I could have touched them to feel that soft give; I wish that my skin was as luminous.

This picture is actually 90 degrees off, but I preferred to keep it off-kilter. The sepia and the bubbles in the rubber make me think of Civil War photographs, and my friend A. who was with me, said it reminded her of her grandmother's christening dress, boxed and yellowed. Childhood in amber. Why does this color spark nostalgic loss?

Up close, the runs of rubber and the queer sheen of the above shirt made me think of pond scum, of flitting bugs on the surface.

Frilly blouse: this one looks a bit like microscopic images of bacteria or x-rays of internal organs of a jellyfish. I usually think of a shirt as pure surface; this one, however, has murky depth. He sunk beneath his shirt?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

ovastrophe prep

During the winter break, I filled 124 eggshells for this year's eggshell smash-up "Ovastrophe" (snow permitting).  The principles are easy: all materials must be natural (spices and flowers); when the snow hits NY, I grab my friends and invite them to crush and throw.  The shells disappear in the white, the smells and colors remain.  One girl last year: "I think it's pretty."  The guy next to her: "It ruins the snow."  Pure process, no thinking.
This year's materials list (so far):
  • cinnamon
  • mustard powder
  • allspice powder
  • ground cloves
  • dark cocoa
  • coriander powder
  • nigella sativa seeds
  • psyllium seeds
  • mustard seeds (black and yellow)
  • poppy seeds
  • turmeric
  • paprika
  • spirulina (blue-green algae)
  • hibiscus powder
  • spearmint
  • lavender
  • red peppercorns
  • cardamon pods
  • statice calyxes
  • lemongrass
  • crushed eggshells
  • catnip
Filling the eggs is always slow going and the apartment usually smells of curry for days.  Not finding any powdered hibiscus this year, I ground my own; the kitchen was covered in pink.

There are few blues in nature: bought two bunches of statice and stripped them down to single calyxes.  It takes a while (you have to let them dry out), but the result is magical:

Now we just need a good snow storm.

Monday, February 4, 2008

joyous situation

In his brief portrait of the unknown and utterly forgotten gay African-American photographer Alvin Baltrop (published in the February 2008 issue of Art Forum ) -- whose black and white pictures of the now-lost west-side piers of lower Manhattan (dilapidated, graffiti-covered, rotting structures which served as sexual forest and playground for gay men in the 1970s and 1980s) are haunting -- Douglas Crimp (Prof. of Art History, Univ. of Rochester) mentions Gordon Matta-Clark's intentions behind an "indoor park" conversion of Pier 52 in 1975: M-C said he wished to achieve a "joyous situation".

The expression struck me as a philosophical incantation, similar to Neitzsche's "gay science" or a John Cagian zen affirmation. Perhaps it's the word "situation" which gives it this effect, and here I am thinking of Sartre's concept of "situation" (language, environment, personal history) through and against which the individual lives his freedom. The "situation" is rarely a source of affirmation, and in one's darker moments it seems to become an overwhelming force for predestination along the descending slope. How then to turn it joyous?

The rotting piers, homeless gay youth, furtive trysts, nude sunbathing a breath away from traffic, married gay men shuffling along under the beams, rats, rusty nails, and the clapping of Whitman's waves indifferent to our longings and desires. Achieving a joyous situation seems a mantra worth repeating.

Alvin Baltrop's photos can be seen at