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Wall Mark-Up

Ellen Gallagher, Host, 1996
Ellen Gallagher, Host, 1996

While, as I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve found it nearly impossible for the past several weeks to make myself sit down and think and write (thanks to some big challenges in my non-professional life), I have found art to be a very welcome diversion. I’ve seen a good bit of it recently, too — last week in London, and this week back home in New York. And, coincidentally, much of the art that I’ve chosen to see has made reference to mark-up or inscription. So that’s my loose theme for this quick run-down of the shows I’ve enjoyed in recent weeks (apologies if it doesn’t “hang together” conceptually; I seem to be having a hard time making anything hang together these days).

I had just a short stay-over in London, and I crammed in a lot of art. I started off at the annual Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, then made my way to the Tate Modern, where I caught the wonderful Ellen Gallagher show. I had an interesting experience at the Tate: photographs were permitted in most galleries throughout the museum, and I, in my perpetual fog, apparently missed the “no photography” sign upon entering the Gallagher galleries. I stood back to snap a shot of one of Gallagher’s lovely works on lined paper (√† la Agnes Martin, whom I honor in my Twitter avatar!), when I heard, “Put the camera down!!” booming from across the room. I imagine this is how cops talk to people in hold-ups. Everyone turned and looked. I, too, turned around and saw a guard shuffling toward me, and I said, “Oh, I’m sorry; I must’ve missed the ‘no photography’ sign!” I slipped my iPhone into my bag. “Turn it off!” He yells at me, in a way that I imagine one might say “Put the gun down!” I reply, “Sir, I already put the phone away. I’m very sorry I missed the sign.” He says, “No, turn it off. Turn it off!” Still, everyone’s staring. So I warily reach into my bag, “power-down” my phone, and hope I’ve satisfied him. “Is that good?” I ask. “No, turn the bag around. Turn it around! I don’t want you reaching in there,” he again booms. My bag was hanging at the front of my body, where, apparently, I could easily reach into it, retrieve the phone, and surreptitiously snap a photo if the guard wasn’t looking. As if I’d have the balls to do such a thing after he’d made such a ridiculous scene. So I swing my bag around to the back, say “Ok?”, then start inching away from him, backward. Over the next 20 minutes or so, as I made my way through the gallery’s several rooms, he looped past me a few times — probably to make sure I wasn’t stuffing paintings or installations into my 16 x 10″ sailor-stripe bag.

I have to admit, he kind of ruined it for me. I recall tremendously enjoying Gallagher’s work, but seeing it only through the blur of tear-filled eyes. Like I said, I’m a little fragile these days.

For you, only you: Sonia Boyce from David Bickerstaff on Vimeo.

The next day I visited Rivington Place, where I was challenged by Sonia Boyce, Mikhail Karikis & Alamire’s For You, Only You; wandered around Shoreditch; saw the fabulous John Soane Museum; then caught Bill Viola’s fantastic “Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures” at Blain | Southern, which resides in a rather lovely building on Hanover Square.

Bill Viola, via Blain | Southern
Bill Viola, via Blain | Southern

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The next day, before heading to the airport in the afternoon, I saw the excellent (if all-over-the-place) Paper show at the Saatchi Gallery, then enjoyed Julie Mehretu, Lucas Blalock, Matthew Booth, and Erin Shirreff at White Cube.

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Paper @ Saatchi Gallery
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Steven Lowery
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Marcelo J√°come
Han Feng
Han Feng
Ann Toebbe
Ann Toebbe
Alejandro Guijarro
Alejandro Guijarro
White Cube
White Cube
Julie Mehretu @ White Cube
Julie Mehretu @ White Cube

Then, back in New York this past weekend, we saw a lot: Laurel Nakadate‘s eerily lit photos at Leslie Tonkonow (on the way in, we happened upon Hito Steyerl’s intriguing In Free Fall video in a “satellite” Kreps gallery), Christian Holdstad’s super weird¬†Book of Hours at Kreps, Paolo Ventura’s lovely little “The Infinite City” at Hasted Kraeutler, and Tim Hawkinson‘s slightly underwhelming show at Pace (I know an artist is bound to evolve — but I miss all his fanciful room-scaled machines).

Christian Holstad @ Kreps
Christian Holstad @ Kreps
Paolo Ventura @ Hasted
Paolo Ventura @ Hasted

We also saw Maintenance Required, the Whitney ISP Curatorial Program’s show at The Kitchen. It was conceptually dense, but I found it very satisfying — in large part because I’m fascinated by the ideas of error, failure, breakage, fixing, maintenance, etc. Some of the individual works in the show — like Pilvi Takala’s The Trainee¬†and Sam Lewitt’s Test Subject A2 Fine¬†— were captivating. I also appreciated catching a glimpse of the Salvage Art Institute’s work, which I read about in Jeffrey Weiss’s¬†wonderful “Things Not Necessarily Meant to be Viewed as Art” article in¬†Artforum back in March.

Salvage Art Institute
Salvage Art Institute

As if that wasn’t enough, we also caught the Claes Oldenburg and Le Corbusier shows at MoMA (the latter was curated by one of my dissertation advisors). Then we stopped at Southfirst in Williamsburg to see a lovely little show about poetry: “Language Objects: Letters in Space” featured the “sculptural” literary work of Robert Grenier. I love this stuff.

Robert Grenier's wall of poetic building blocks
Robert Grenier’s wall of poetic building blocks
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So William Carlos Williams!

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I’ll probably be seeing a lot more art on my own (or in different company) from now on, so I was tremendously grateful to have my trusty sidekick with me, on such a beautiful weekend, to take advantage of one of New York’s greatest gifts: its wealth of art, representing the best artists from around the world, and (nearly) all freely accessible. When you see something intriguing or exciting, it’s so nice to be standing beside someone of like mind — someone to whom you can lean in close and say, “Did you see that?!” Doesn’t that remind you of…?” Oh, how I’ll miss that.

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The Fog

via  Book Use, Book Theory
via Book Use, Book Theory 

This sure has been a humdinger of a spring for me — and, unfortunately, I anticipate being rather distracted through the summer. So there might not be much activity around here for a bit — perhaps the occasional exhibition review (since seeing art does provide a welcome diversion), but probably nothing much of substance. I hope to get back on track by the fall. Until then, happy summer, everyone.

I’m not usually such a bummer.

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Revisiting the Helsinki MediaCity Conference

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending and delivering one of the keynotes at the Spectacular / Ordinary / Contested Media City Conference in Helsinki. While there were three productive and inspiring days of presentations, a few talks stood out for me — either because they intersected with my own interests, or because they introduced me to new interests and new people whose work I’m now eager to follow.

Boys and Girls Library, Riverdale Branch, about 1928; via  Toronto Public Library
Boys and Girls Library, Riverdale Branch, about 1928; via Toronto Public Library 

First, Paulina Mickiewicz, who’s finishing up a dissertation at McGill on the Grande Biblioth√®que du Qu√©bec in Montreal — and whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting on a few occasions both online and in-person — gave a lovely presentation on the social roles played by branch libraries in Canada (although her argument applies to branches in the U.S. and elsewhere, too). She argued that these spaces represent a shift in the library’s mission from instruction to empowerment, from “custodialism to interfacing,” and toward the promotion of citizens engaged in “indefinite learning” (i.e., life-long, self-directed learning). These neighborhood libraries also find themselves filling in the gaps in-between other cultural and educational institutions. Of course we could say that branches have always served these roles — but perhaps, as urban library systems continually have to justify themselves in order to secure necessary funding, they need to make clear the specific roles played by the various nodes within the library network, including the central library and the branches. We could say that our branches are particularly well equipped to serve the particular needs of their particular communities. And Paulina illuminated those needs through a few case studies.

I was very happy to meet Rebecca Ross, who’s doing some fabulous work on graphic design, urban space, and spatial data at Central Saint Martins in London. She presented her research on UK postal codes as both a precise spatial marker and a more qualitative expression of “placeness.” In their hybrid legibility, whereby they make themselves readable by both humans and machines, the codes mix “technical robustness” and “cultural resonance” — and, at the same time, render interactions between infrastructure and culture transparent.

Ross recounted the fascinating history of the codes’ evolution. My notes on the deep history are somewhat sketchy, but I do recall that in the 1850s and 60s — when there were 62 George streets in London — the post office attempted to rationalize addresses by giving streets unique names, and assigning to houses unique ordered numbers. These changes were met with resistance, particularly by the wealthy, who wanted to maintain the prestige that came with particular addresses. The city was then divided up into zones based on the postal workers’ delivery routes, and Royal Mail added metadata to addresses, thus transforming these spatial descriptors into a “direct interface” to an “increasingly systematized and mechanized” mail delivery infrastructure. The coding system became more precise, postal customers had to become more disciplined in addressing their letters, and new mail sorting techniques were developed. (In relaying this history, Ross also noted the Royal Mail’s great filmmaking tradition.)

Today, the postal code prefixes “brand” London neighborhoods, and businesses in desirable areas of the city proudly display their codes on their business signs. Parents often jockey to position themselves in good postal zones in order to have access to good schools. This is just one example, Ross says, of how postcodes are not merely descriptive; they actually play an active role in shaping the urban environment. Perhaps it’s already apparent, but I should note that Ross’s presentation — and getting to know her afterward — were among the highlights of the conference for me.

Via New to London
Via New to London 

Monica Degen, from Brunel University in the UK, later spoke about the work she’s doing with Gillian Rose and Clare Melhuish on the use of computer-generated imagery in urban development projects. She argued that within the “experience economy” architecture is increasingly called upon to create “experiences,” cultivate “atmospheres,” and deliver sense(s) of place — ideally, places that are “beyond history.” CGI is one means of creating and marketing those atmospheres to various publics.

Degen showing markup in the revision of a CGI rendering of a Doha development project.
Degen showing markup in the revision of a CGI rendering of a Doha development project.

Degen and her colleagues investigated a development project based in Doha, Qatar, but overseen by a UK-based firm. Local backers insisted that “we don’t want to be the new Dubai; we want our own Qatari identity” (In my 2008 Public Culture article on Qatari nation-branding-through-typography, I found a similar desire to set oneself apart from other emirate brands — particularly Dubai’s Vegas-esque identity). In order to craft that identity, the UK firm appointed an “architectural language advisor,” who served as an “orchestrator of place-making” — and CGI was one element of that orchestration. The project imagery took shape through a succession of stages: modeling, terrain compositing, scene compositing, materials and textures, lighting, the “raw render,” then the final image. Through this series of revisions, the designers and artists were particularly concerned with “getting the light and weather right”; early versions of the Doha renderings didn’t seem to capture the appropriate illumination, so artists used “Spanish light” to engender the “right” atmosphere. In order to convey a sense of public life, Degen said, the design team also inserted CGI-ed people on bikes, even though it’s “too hot to be outside” in Doha.

Through this evolutionary process, “[e]very image refers to another image… that comes before it and that is itself transformed, yet again, by another inscription down the road thus forming long cascades of successive traces,” wrote Bruno Latour in “The More Manipulations, the Better.” Those successive traces amount to a significant material accumulation, as is evidenced by the piles of printouts in the designers’ offices, and their proliferating versions of the same digital files. Again, Latour: “everything that before had melted into air has become fully incarnated.

Hic sunt dracones! Here be dragons, in the uncharted territories!
Hic sunt dracones! Here be dragons, in the uncharted territories!

Clancy Wilmott, a PhD student from Manchester, offered a beautiful presentation on “hauntings” (particularly of the postcolonial kind) in digital maps. Wilmott, who is part of a major UK-based cartography research project, began by noting that when we categorize maps, we tend to group them by historical period, in the same way that we compartmentalize art history, rather than by looking at how a single place’s cartographic representation evolves through time. This recognition has inspired her own investigation of Australian cartography, and the absences, silences, and (following Avery Gordon)¬†hauntings that appear, or don’t appear, in colonial and postcolonial maps (and even in the landscape that preceded cartographic representations). Wilmott noted particular features of Australia’s physical landscape — vertical rocks, for instance — that confounded its settlers; these aspects of the “deviant landscape” were marked as “outliers” and thus excluded from their maps. Conversely, contemporary residents might note dissonances between their embodied experiences of the landscape, and representations of that landscape on their mobile phones; in particular, they might encounter in the physical terrain various traces of colonialism that are excluded from official maps. I wonder if, rather than trying to integrate those “ghosts” into the map, we should conserve the unheimlich nature of the digital map — maintain the disjuncture between the map and the territory — so as to highlight those scars and hauntings.

Hong Kong rooftops, via Urbanphoto
Hong Kong rooftops, via Urbanphoto

Extending the haunting, Esther Lorenz from UVA addressed spatial representations of jianghu — which has been described variously as having something to do with anxiety, bewilderment, or the “other than home” — in Hong Kong cinema. The tavern, she said, commonly serves in these films as a connector between home and spaces of jianghu. Meanwhile, rooftops and infrastructural spaces (e.g., bridges, walkways), which we might typically regard as unheimlich “non-places,” function instead in Hong Kong cinema as spaces of freedom, offering alternatives to the regulatory spaces of the city. There’s also a very practical reason why these particular spaces are common shooting locations: few permits are required to shoot here. Nevertheless, these “other spaces” allow us to reclaim the uncanny, the non-place, as a space of possibility and hope.

Treme props crew, via Visit W3Schools! " target="_blank">Times Picayune

Treme props crew, via Times Picayune

Finally, Helen Morgan Parmett offered a remarkable presentation on the politics of on-location shooting for HBO’s Treme. Because I’ve already spent way too long on this post — and because I took an awful lot of notes on Helen’s talk, far too many for me to try to distill into coherent paragraphs — I’ll simply post my unedited notes below:

  • post-Katrina New Orleans has turned to film and TV production for urban renewal
  • 2030 master plan includes creative industries – Hollywood South – plan focused on neighborhoods most affected by hurricane, those most demonized in the past
  • Treme was key organization space for free blacks
  • Show focuses on struggles of cultural practitioners to rebuild; struggles over right to the city, right to return
  • Interested in production of Treme – the show moves into the places it represents – “Treme as spatial practice”
  • Treme production, through on-location production and hiring of local actors, contributes to the creation of a “media neighborhood
  • Interested in how production fits into neighborhood practice
  • Wants to think of Treme not as a dominating cultural industry, but as an everyday intervention into practices of space, intervention into everyday habitus ‚Äď wants to consider how production works to direct, govern everyday relations in space; how it contributes to practices of “becoming neighborly”
  • It takes a lot of free labor to create creative city — DeCerteau’s spatial practices not so liberating
  • Living in N.O. gives crews insight into NO, but the crew, by living in NO, also shapes the city
  • Treme helps the new Film NO get up to speed
  • Crews are trying to harness culture already in neighborhoods, rather than imposing from above
    • Presence of film crew in a neighborhood informs neighborhood habitus – media production becomes “normal,” not disruptive of everyday life
  • Local hiring – “specialty casting” – supposed to guarantee that people from NO feel connected to the show – producing “authenticity,” try to get “the real thing”
    • People who stand on a corner, and are then hired by the show to stand on a corner, are “happy to be a part of it”
    • Works biopolitically to extract value from labor
  • Connects vernacular practices to Hollywood tradition – ¬†technology for networking entrepreneurial practices – neighborhood as economic place for potential value

Notes from Q&A:

  • see Paul Chan’s Waiting for Godot
  • HBO “re-ruins” some neighborhoods so they look authentic on the show – fraught enterprise
  • Some people skeptical of production in city because it’s so disruptive – HBO has tried to respond to criticism by inviting people onto the set
  • Authenticity as a rhetorical site of struggle
  • Parmett aims to balance academics’ tendency to critique “authenticity” w/ recognition of radical and benevolent attempts of production crew to be locally responsive