“Let’s break loose”

“Can generosity itself be a reciprocal practice?” Chicago based curator Mary Jane Jacob asks in her contribution to What We Want Is Free: Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art (2005). To ask this question means that the equation of generosity with reciprocity is not that self-evident. It is a question. What is actually the relation between generosity and reciprocity? How can they go together?

Since two decades through collaborative, participatory art projects situations have been created in which both artists and audiences give and receive. Time and again these situations produce a strange incongruity. Through these practices artists strive for generosity, for giving, for art-as-offering. They do this by inviting the audience to participate. Because of this invitation reciprocity is stimulated, the urge to make a return is enforced. Consequently the offer is no longer unconditionally generous, it asks for a response, expectations come up, the gift gets compromised. This strange, paradoxical effect is in fact the underlying issue that Mary Jane Jacob addresses with her question mentioned above: “Can generosity itself be a reciprocal practice?”
When she formulated this question, in 2005, a long-term project just had come to an end, titled Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness, which Jacob co-organized with Jacqueline Baas. In this project artists, curators, critics, and philosophers explored a framework of thinking and practice in which the question “Can generosity itself be a reciprocal practice?” would evaporate. A like-minded, recent project is the 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit, co-initiated by artist Kamin Lertchaiprasert, of which a laboratory is running these months at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In these projects interconnectedness is explored, a key Buddhist concept, which according to Jacob “provides space for situations that are not “either/or; it permits coexistence” (Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, p. 168). Simultaneous, even conflicting or contradictory states are embraced instead of opposed, she explains. In this framework of thinking reciprocity as the urge to return a gift, back-and-forth between people, is cast off as it were as an illusion. The same happens with the idea of opposition between generosity and reciprocity. Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija: “Not having expectations, not wanting to predetermine, trying to be blank. You can receive more if you are empty” (ibid., p. 173).

Jacob, Tiravanija, and Lertchaiprasert form part of a wider tendency in art theory and philosophy to try to go beyond oppositional, either/or, dualistic thinking. Dutch philosopher Ilse Bulhof told me in an interview I had with her about art-to-encounter: “Let’s break loose from all those interpretations and judgments. A decreation, run-down, to become empty and open”.
This requires a radical shift of mind for some. For others it is already in line with their current practice. Whether you’re Buddhist or not, these thoughts indeed stimulate to think in a different way about the question if generosity itself can be a reciprocal practice. Maybe indeed the answer lies in trying to step out of the framework of thinking that makes us ask the question.

Mary Jane Jacob, Reciprocal Generosity, p. 3-10 in: Ted Purves (ed.), What We Want is Free : Generosity and Exchange in Recent Art. (State University of New York Press, Albany, 2005).

Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004) gives an impression of the Awake project (Awake: Art, Buddhism, and the Dimensions of Consciousness, 2000-2004).

Follow the activities of the 31st Century Museum of Contemporary Spirit at: 31century.org/in-chicago-eng

http://31century.org/in-chicago-eng

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Identity Exchange

We had our symposium yesterday and there is much to say about it. Let it suffice, for the moment anyway, to say it was great and excellent and I, at least, really enjoyed everything people discussed and presented. Before writing more about it, I wanted to connect a piece I wrote for BadatSports about the American Folk Art Museum. It seems like it might have some bearing here, on this site, because I try to talk about what it means for an institution to have a collection–how the collection and the institution mutually define one another with, say, a reciprocal exchange of identity. You can check it out by going here.

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When Teenagers Had Hyphens (1955)

The first teenagers emerged in the 1950s when mothers gave their offspring pocket money. In an audio article I listened to this weekend, it was parents reacting to the stiff regime of their war-torn youth which led them to encourage their own children to enjoy themselves, to express themselves. According to this documentary, it was those same children who supported and thereby facilitated rock and roll and the market for 45″ records. Back then, the documentary says, teen-agers had hyphens.

What is interesting to think about is the reciprocal relationship between market economies and teenage-hood. The categories become self-referential, as kids start buying their own clothes, choosing their own haircuts, style becomes emblematic of cultural positioning. The rebel defines himself by purchasable signs that enable a distinction between the self and the rest of a conservative world. This isn’t new of course–it’s all part of what followed punk rock conversations in the 80s: when Converse got bought out by Nike or when the GAP made Kerouac their poster child for khaki pants.

Nevertheless, I started thinking about how the age of the teenager seems perpetually pushed back. Teenagers get older and older, as more and more young adults resist or put off conventional responsibilities–mortgages and children for instance. The artist seems right in the eye of this storm: while traditionally poor, we still exercise an expendable income, save up money for periods of leisure (the artist-residency, for instance) which while integral to the production of creative work nevertheless defies conventional uses of time. As individuals so often peripheral to real economic power, it is curious to recognize how we might inadvertently continue to support they very systems of capital that subjugate us.

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Artists in the Forest of Arden

“Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love. / And thou, thrice crowned Queen of Night, survey / With thy chaste eye, from thy pale sphere above, / Thy huntress’ name that my full life doth sway. / O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books / And in their barks my thought I’ll character, / That every eye in which this forest looks / Shall see thy virtue witness’d everywhere. / Run, run, Orlando! Carve on every tree / The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she” (As You Like It, Act III, scene ii, l. 1-10).

I visited ACRE–a cooperative artists’ residency in Wisconsin–last weekend. We stayed three days and two nights; on the second night I played a show with my band, Lady Rollins. While I want to write more about the residency experience at some point, I was immediately drawn to reflect on the relationship between the woods and the city–particularly how that relationship is embodied by the artist. While much of ACRE held an aura of 60s-like idealism, I found its inception intrinsically connected to the city, particularly (though not necessarily) Chicago.

As is the case with many of Shakespeare’s plays, the setting of action in As You Like It takes place in the forest of Arden. While characters within the forest are still subject to the laws and politics of their court, (for instance, Rosalind has fled for political reasons), the forest enables a kind of metaphorical experience. Rosalind transforms herself into a man creating an overarching and poetic tension  around gender relations. In similar ways hierarchical power is unsettled, as are the characters’ relationship to their environment. The context of the forest highlights a separate kind of truth, one which is then, eventually, brought back into the city, to re-inform its civilization.

I want to suggest that ACRE boasts a similar potential: as an off-site summer space where artists are reduced from the particulars of their (generally) urban environments. Practically they have fewer clothes to choose from, their meals take place at the same time, they eat the same foods in the same place. A level of day-to-day distraction is impeded. There is no cell phone reception and in order to access the internet one must sit in the main lodge; the front porch offers the strongest band width. Otherwise one creates work, attending what group activities might be available from lectures, artist talks, to dance parties, screenings and music performances. Here too the culture is economically reduced from outside influence; what cultural experience is available comes from members of the community. One might ask: why not live this way forever? There is something ideal about this paired-down, cooperative existence. I overheard more than a few conversations that addressed that same notion, acknowledging the “reintegration period”–a somewhat painful prospect of re-entering the city with it’s more conventional/regulated daily rhythms.

Nevertheless, ACRE is not a utopia exactly, because it is contingent on the very system it sets itself apart from. During the year it hosts weekly exhibits in the city, showing the work made in the woods over the summer. Even beyond this, though, it is essentially connected to the city because it is seasonal, impermenant and cyclical. The significance of the experience stems from an interruption of the cement-laid streets we are so easily accustomed. As the characters in Shakespeare must always return to the courts, so too we must always return to the city, acknowledging in some way the essential failure to ever fully escape systems of capital. Rather than balk against that failure, trying to evade it, the application of forest sentiments softens the stark vertical lines of buildings–some respite at the very least, and maybe fuel for a later, bigger rebellion.

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Nosing Towards Aesthetic Equality

In Christoph Menke’s essay Aesthetics of Equality (Hatje Cantze, 2011), he quotes Renée Descartes,

“Good sense is of all things in the world the most equally distributed, for everybody thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that even those most difficult to please in all other matters do not commonly desire more of it than they already possess. It is unlikely that this is an error on their part; it seems rather to be evidence in support of the view that the capacity of forming a good judgement and of distinguishing the true from the false, which is properly speaking what is called Good Sense or Reason, is by nature equal in all men. Hence too it will show that the diversity of our opinions does not proceed from some men being more rational than others, but solely from the fact that our thoughts pass through diverse channels and the same objects are not considered by all. For to be possessed of good mental capacities is not sufficient; the principle matter is to apply them well.”

When I describe my efforts discussing art work, I expect a shared reasoning style–a style based on experience both contemporary and canonical. Nevertheless, the more I go on within a contemporary art world, the more specialized my experience becomes. The network of informing associations grows ever more complex, complicit with and substantiated by established routes of judgement and critique. Standing in stark contrast to Descartes, Menke quotes Artistole’s claims that some of humanity is naturally slave-like while another group possesses inborn and independent leadership ability–in Aristotle’s version those who are enslaved do not possess reason. “For he is by nature a slave who is capable of belonging to another (and that is why he does so belong), and who participates in reason so far as to apprehend it but not to possess it” (Aristotle, Politics). Menke draws the conversation farther along, suggesting the sense of inequality stems from variant educations. According to Arendt, we aren’t naturally imbued with slavery or leadership; rather those traits are contingent on a civilization–relative to a common, self-organized structure. “Equality existed only within this specifically political realm, where men met one another as citizens and not as private persons…Neither equality nor freedom was understood as a quality inherent in nature.” We might therefore arrive at a new, political equality through an education of aesthetics, but that equality will always be contingent on the circumstances of its sociopolitical (and economic) context.

I love this idea, but wonder after the iconoclasts–the bastions of community who reject conventional ideas about what is good and what is bad. There is something significant in the sign of their gesture–a punk rock rebellion poised to force consensus to question itself. Even the artist residencies in the woods–communities pitched in the middle of the nothing; they go there to create new bodies of work outside the usual confines of everyday life. While their interruption is transitory–an impermanent rebellion–it is still a kind of rejection, perhaps an attempt to shed the education of urban civilization (what is so often the site for contemporary art practice). Such a gesture seems important as a challenge of power; I can’t help think it most successful when it is informed (not only brutish), and reflective (not only impulsive), and open (not simply intimidated). This even seems to be Menke’s point, “In aesthetically transgressing our social experience we experience that we are equal. Political equality is an aesthetic effect. We make ourselves aesthetically equal; aesthetically, we make ourselves equal.” Still, the resulting hypothesis is so interesting to me! Somehow through a shared education and rebuke of hierarchy embedded within that education, we can experience equality.

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Face-to-face or shoulder-to-shoulder

On a fine, windy Summer day in 2008 Swedish artist Tobias Karlsson invited me to sit with him in one of the three cubicles, mentioned “Untitled”, which he presented as part of his graduation show at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Karlsson had emptied a huge classroom at the top floor of the academy building. The cubicles were placed just in front of the windows, and they were made of white-washed wood. Each cubicle was so close to the window, one had to squeeze oneself between the wooden panel and the window frame in order to gain access. Each cubicle was empty, except for two chairs placed next to each other, facing the window.

Untitled, Tobias Karlsson, 2008, at Gerrit Rietveld Academy

Karlsson sat down on one of the chairs and asked me to sit on the chair next to him. In the small space the chairs were so close that we were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. We were cut off from the graduation buzz. There was a self-evident intimacy, which had an inviting impact, either to talk, or to be silent and just watch the sky above Amsterdam. We did talk a lot. About his work, about my work, about his life and plans, and about mine. Our positions and roles were different, remained different: he a graduating student, I an external examinator. Yet, then and there, we were on the same level, physically attached, shoulder-to-shoulder. What we were there for, the graduation, didn’t matter anymore.                                                                                                                                             Once in a while we did look at each other. Our eyes did meet, but they didn’t have to meet. Most of the time we both looked towards the windows, watching the passing clouds against the blue sky. On exchanging our thoughts, we gazed outside too. Not for a moment I had the feeling to ‘participate’ in an art work, rather the opposite. Far behind was the world of art, to which we literally had turned our backs. It was the outside world, which was present in our gaze. As if to remind us not to close ourselves off, not to put down the shutters.        After having stepped out of the cubicle, I noticed I had to make an effort to step back into the world of the art academy, to adjust to my role of external examinator again, this person presumed to focus on the art works, judging them as proofs of the artists’ competencies. This world full of expectations and judgements suddenly seemed superfluous.

My encounter with Tobias Karlsson popped back into my mind when I recently came across an article by art philosopher Arthur Danto in the Opinionator of the New York Times, titled “Sitting with Marina”. Danto describes his experience of a performance piece by artist Marina Abramović, which formed part of her retrospective “The Artist is Present” from March through May 2010 in the MoMa in New York. This piece was enacted daily by the artist herself and visitors of the museum.                                                                                 As Danto describes, the work consisted of Abramović seated in a chair placed on the floor of the museum’s atrium, across from an empty chair, in which anyone could sit for any length of time. Each day Abramović took her place just before the museum would open, and she would only leave well after the museum closing time. During the day hundreds of people lined up to sit across from Abramović.                                                                           Some visitors chose to sit across from Marina for hours, others chose to return to sit multiple times. Visitors sat for an average of 20 minutes. Each sitting visitor was portrayed by a photographer. People who sat long enough, approximately 10 minutes or more, were interviewed after their session by a film crew. The work proved to be “a succès fou”, as Danto states. “The possibility of sitting with Marina ignited in the public imagination the idea that one can do more than passively experience works of art, that one can be part of a work of art for as long as one is willing or able”.                                                                       Danto himself also took the opportunity and sat across from the artist for some ten minutes. Poetically he describes his experience of “becoming part of a work of art”. Abramović kept silent. It was “a dialogue de sourds – a dialogue of the deaf”. Danto writes how she had gone into her “performance mode”, entering “another state”, “a shamanic trance”, which he values as one of her gifts as a performer. Acknowledging the fact that each visitor who “sat with Marina” must have a had a unique experience, different from the experiences of all the other visitors, Danto concludes that in the end for all it was magic, that Abramović and MoMA “have brought back into art”.

Comparing both pieces, Abramović’s and Karlsson’s, the participation of both the visitor and the artist is required. The piece can’t be ‘present’ without these two persons. Both pieces also are reciprocally structured. Both create an intimacy between visitor and artist. And in both cases this is happening within an art institution. There are also  differences, which spring into the eye. The intimacy between Abramović and her sitting visitor is being watched by hundreds of people, the intimacy between Karlsson and his visitors is closed off from sight. And, indeed, big is the difference between sitting across from the other one, or sitting shoulder-to-shouder!

Most striking is the fundamental difference between the two pieces which can’t be made visible, but can be deducted from their ‘appearance’.                                                          Abramović took on her ‘performance mode’. “Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain”, Arthur Danto writes. She, the artist, is the one who plays her shamanic role, who raises expectations of magic, in which the visitor, sitting across from her, might partake. “Sitting with Marina” testifies of the urge of Danto and so many visitors of the MoMa to become part of art, to experience something ‘magical’, whatever that may be.                                                                                                                                                Karlsson’s piece also testifies of a longing, but of a different orientation. Karlsson’s “Untitled” testifies of a longing for less magic, for a casting off of roles, for an intimacy which is there already but covered under the dust of expectations. This intimacy is not the outcome of an effort to become part of art. Karlsson created a niche within the art institution, an inside balcony, from which to orientate towards the world outside together.

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/sitting-with-marina/ 
http://tobiaskarlsson-art.blogspot.com/
http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/marinaabramovic/index.html

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The Position of Criticality

Predictions: The Pair of Swords is for the self image in the Fine Arts. Even-though criticality and self-reflective strength is useful tools in the arts it might even cause some trouble when you over-smart yourself. The balance is divided so to speak as its confronts with the danger of lack of feeling and sterile life. The Three of Cups is for the Contemporary Art-Composers dilemma and prognosis. The area have great flexibility to move wherever is like to be, increase of a general youthful movement, increase of joy, companionship, good combination, emotional strength might serve as splendid starting points to the interchange with other domains. (see website for more)

I continue to think about AS220, specifically about what it means to create and support work in a defiantly non-critical environment. AS220 is, of course, not the only space that fosters, first and for most, the creative impulse but it’s the closest experience I’ve had with such a place. As I might have mentioned, anyone can exhibit in its gallery–you need only sign up. It’s a fiercely democratic position, one touted with great pride. In a conversation with Founding Director (and artist) Umberto Crenca, he said “We don’t decide who’s talented and who isn’t. We create the opportunity for talent to exhibit itself.”

Immersed in this environment, I was surprised to find myself both elated by the vision and connected to the very criticality such a vision eschews. I am interested in curatorial visions, and perhaps especially as an artist rely on outside validation/reproach. What happens when you take that authority away? It’s an interesting experiment and, based on the dirth of energy around AS220, it works. (How much its success has to do with its specific socio-geographical context within Providence is also worth considering). So what is it about critical dialogues that I am so married to? Why does it have such a significant (and yes, reciprocal) relationship to art?

I always consider the relationship between what one makes and what was made before. No doubt this stems from a difficulty relating an aesthetic experience (i.e. the experience one has beholding/apprehending a work of art) to others. In trying to relate such an experience, I look for shared footholds which can be discussed–tangible, objective land lines by which a shared appreciation of meaning and consensus can be achieved. It is a pleasurable discourse for me, one inextricably bound to my more abstract appreciation of art. While I don’t think anyone would begrudge me that enjoyment, it often leads to judgement, whereupon it is decided that this is good vs. that which is bad–a kind of map making which would discount certain efforts while celebrating others. A preferential hierarchy emerges from such a discussion. The value of one project is ensured as another is devalued–as though the work of cultural capital were a zero sum game. These preferences influence others to follow suite or rebel against the expectations therein defined; both actions reinforce the stability of our aforementioned hierarchy. Defining preferences this way seems ultimately complicit with and nourishing to an economic market, because the work preferred can be assigned a value in league with its status as an ideal object. From here, the value is further supported as the object is institutionalized into the canon of museums. Suddenly, thinking of critical dialogue in this way, it seems to produce an exponentially convinced scaffold of aesthetic lineage.

Perhaps a non-critical openness is the most unconventional, iconoclastic position. Perhaps it provides an interesting upturning of what has so far been taken for granted. I’m only not sure of this: then what?  And it is really possible to let criticality go? How do we create a common ground (a shared mythology) without it?

 

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Bling Bling

This is another fiction-piece and I thought to include it here because of the dynamic of texting (which I think can sometimes feel like a ping-pong match) and a fantasy I’d always had that Michael Jackson and Orlan were friends. They also feel like parallel mirrors, somehow, embodying cultural pressure as part of their work. In both instances, the body is a site of manipulation and transformation, tied directly to economy and persona. 

BLING BLING

Michael had a plastic chin and new skin. Born with nothing, he made 750 million dollars in his life. He went 500 million dollars bankrupt thereafter. He said in the press release after his death:

“It was so cool look look look look look it was so cool the kids danced so chill they had an alter in the street like look like it one girl so cute so fantsy one girl pulled her car up the day I died she pulled her car up to the side of the road in the city she pulled up and she got out and she wore a white mini skirt and white high heel shoes and a side ponytail and a sparkle head band and sparkle jelly shoes and bangles that caught the street light it was night she left her car on and she pulled the candle out of her car the votive candles and a photo she tore out a magazine a glossy magazine with its corners furled from the grease of her hand she had painted sparkle nails and pink eyes and brown brown brown brown eye brows she left the car running she had pink tights and doily ankles she had converse and dirty socks she had ripped jeans on she played my music over and over thriller and over Billy Jean and over look it was so looklooklooklooklook all the kids came out and the kids came out to dance in the street and drunk people who passed by they danced also and some of the hobos danced also (toothless) and everyone dancedancedanced they flung their arms they waved they danced like zombies for me look at me look what I did when I died lookit.”

Michael did not die on June 25th. It was only pretend. A publicity stunt to get away from creditors, to get away from his old life, to flee the clutches of his doctor, to go to his niece’s debutant ball, To Make Even More Money Later: Artist Formerly Known As MJ. Vanquishes Death.

—·—·—·—

Along with describing the scene at the Holmby Hills mansion where Jackson was stricken, the document lists prescription drugs found in the home (some were prescribed in Jackson’s name as well as an alias used by the singer).

The document also provides the detailed results of the performer’s autopsy—which included analysis of Jackson’s corpse and his various organs—from the size of his liver to the “unremarkable” nature of his testes and scrotum. The “immediate cause” of Jackson’s death was listed by the medical examiner as “Acute propofol intoxication.”

—·—·—·—

The last time he slept without mittens he had a dream he was in Iraq embedded with troops and he was afraid of the men but then he was afraid of a missile because a missile was coming and the men said the missile was after him so he ran away from the missile he ran very fast when he woke up he’d crashed through a hotel window he woke up running on a grassy knoll in front of his hotel room, blood running down his arms, he realized the missile was only a dream but they took him to the hospital and the doctor said you could have died and Michael said I sleep walk I can’t help it, looking at magazines of himself. The doctor said, Sleep in a sleeping bag with mittens on and you’ll be fine. (1)

And after his death, sat up late nights, texting in bed with Orlan, giggling like a girl, whispering to himself sometimes so the body guards wouldn’t come say, Turn off the light and get some sleep. Aside from employees on salary, Orlan was the only one who knew MJ was still alive.

Orlan is an artist born in France on May 30th 1947 her life is a secret, real name unknown. A spy in her own life. She had plastic surgery to look like Botticelli’s Venus. She had plastic surgery to look like the Madonna. She had plastic surgery to look like Mrs. Frankenstein. She wept when MJ died. And giggled when he called to say it was only a joke.

Michael texted her in bed, “The paint they used in my skins supposed to make me look healthy but they used lythol red. Fugitive paint it fades after a few years. ACH.”

She texted, Terrible!, and then, I may get plastic surgery on my pussy. He said, OMG, and tittered, sitting under the tent of his sheets, torso hemmed with the zipped up sleep sack. The phone a flashlight, clasped in both hands, waiting waiting waiting for her answer. Finally his phone buzzed, he read it. “I want it to have the same typography as the hills of Kilimanjaro,” she says, “and then I want to put clay inside and then I want to give birth to the cast of my cunt.”

HAWHAWHAW, he texted back. “The color of my skin is fading,” he writes letter by letter. “Doctor says to stay out of sun.”

And she again, Is that why you wear a mask in all those pictures? Michael smiled in the dark, his face blue from the light of the phone.

—·—·—·—

The decedent’s home is a two-story mansion located in Bel-Air on a quiet residential street. The home is clean and well groomed. I observed the bedroom on the second floor of the home, to the right of the staircase. Reportedly, this is the bedroom where the decedent had been resting and entered cardiac arrest. His usual bedroom was down the hall.

The bedroom to the right of the staircase contained a queen size bed and nu- merous tables and chairs. The bedding was disheveled and appeared as though someone had been lying on the left side of the bed. There was a blue plastic pad lined with cotton on the left side of the fitted sheet near the center of the bed. Near the left foot of the bed, there was a string of wooden beads and a tube of toothpaste. Also near the foot of the bed, there was a closed bottle of urine atop a chair.

Next to the left side of the bed, there were two tables and a tan colored sofa chair. Reportedly, the decedent’s doctor sat here. A green oxygen tank was also on this side of the bed. The decedent’s prescription medication bottles were seen on the tables with various medical supplies including a box of catheters, disposable needles and alcohol pads. Several empty orange juice bottles, a telephone and lamp were on the tables as well. An ambubag and latex gloves lay on the floor next to the bed. (2)

—·—·—·—

“I read my autopsy report,” Michael texted. “I didn’t like it. It made me sound sad.” Orlan did not reply and Michael listened to the whoosh of the air conditioner. He wondered if it was daytime where she was.

It made me sad! he texted again.

He thought about tomorrow’s talk show, his first public appearance. He won- dered if Leno would punch him again. Last time Michael talked to Leno, Leno punched him on the arm. Someone told him later it had been a “chummy” gesture. Michael rubbed his shoulder. He bruised easily.

Michael imagined the bright lights of the stage like surgery lights, he thought.

“When I think about me and read about me I sound sad to me,” he texted quickly.

“But darling, you are,” Orlan answered at last. “We all are.”

“When I come back, I want to be happy.”

________________

(1) This sleep walking story is taken directly from Mike Birbiglia

(2) Excepted directly from MJs autopsy report.

This story was first published in Artifice Magazine.

 

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If I Take Care of You Others Will Take Care of Me

Street view of AS220s 115 Empire St. location in Providence, RI

For the month of July, I was an artist-in-residence at AS220, a non-profit art space located in the heart of downtown Providence, RI. The space is remarkable for numerous reasons: it began illegally almost 25 years ago, when some artists began squatting in a building downtown. Now, the project employs approximately 40 people, owning three buildings within a three block radius, integrating a performance space, two art galleries, a restaurant, a bar, a print shop (with offset, lithography, letterpress, etching and other printing technologies), a photo lab, an electronic lab (where one might build a robot, for instance) a youth program (where highschool kids take classes to learn photography, video design, recording technology, painting and creative writing) and artist live/work studios. People who live in the live/work studios pay less of a monthly rent in exchange for a certain number of weekly volunteer hours. They work the door during performances, clean windows and floors in addition to other types of assistance. The result of this infrastructure is that the defining bounds between what is commercial and what is not are porous. Furthermore each employee of the AS220 payroll receives the same salary, from the Founding Director, to Building Management to Assistant Directors, Grant Writers and Program Directors. One of the gems of this organization is its Youth Program located on the second floor of Empire Street. There, high school students come to develop portfolios. Under the guidance of teachers hired by AS220, these students learn to create their own video games, record their own music, take and develop photographs etc–developing a viable skill set while also learning in an environment of positive support. Because the mission of the organization is to create a platform for creative expression, it fiercely denounces its claim to curate and measure the work of its constituents. It is uncensored and unjuried. Anyone can have a show, you just have to sign up and (at the moment) signing up means waiting for four years.

Mural located behind AS220s 115 Empire Street location by Shepard Fairey

While I have only scratched the surface of this place–I think it’s interesting to think about in response to “If I take care of you others will take care of me // If I take less others have more.” The organization seems based around the first principle: if we build a community in which people are cared for, they will in turn take care of others (with the implication that the “I” benefits from the happiness of others–because there is something held in common by all: i.e. we all live in Providence, how do we make it a more pleasant place to inhabit).  Which, in this instance, goes against the second hypothesis, “If I take less other have more.” In this instance, building culture is not a zero-sum game. Instead by investing in this community, by accepting (for instance) grants and soliciting private investment, there is a gain that exceeds the sum of its parts. Downtown Providence, an allegedly seedy dive of a post-industrial town has improved drastically in the last ten years. AS220 provides a cultural center. Or, in another instance: their print shop is membership-run. Members pay dues to use the equipment. Like tenants, they also volunteer their time to monitor the space and get discounts on any classes they take. (Each of these labs also provides a variety of classes). The print shop works because of the many people involved: more members creates more resources that then benefit the whole.

I’m reminded of an anecdote someone told me once about Canada. (I always try to look this up, to see if it’s true, but my research has remained fruitless, though I love the story.) An old friend told me that in the early days of Canada’s western-immigration history, they had the barest infrastructure. It was basic and it might work in the long run, except they didn’t have enough people to ensure it’s ongoing stability. They needed more people to move there. The Canadian government printed pamphlets depicting the Okanogan in the summer time: beautiful rolling hills, ripe fruit trees, smiling apple pickers. They sent those flyers to London, where people embedded in a static class system might see them. Tempted by the fantasy of another future, Londoners abandoned their lives in the UK and ran into the arms of new promise. They arrived in Canada just before winter. They had nothing. The civilization they met was also under-built and there was little to spare these newcomers. Without resources or know-how, many of them dug holes in the ground to wait out winter. When they emerged, (this moment always astonishes my imagination: the dirt-ridden face emerging from the ground, born again and looking like a zombie in the first light of spring) they started building proper homes. While they must have suffered terribly for their ignorance, they managed to survive and contribute in such a way as to help others survive.

AS220 Print Shop, Mercantile Building, Providence RI

When I first got to Providence, they had a Print Shop Ice Cream Social–what apparently takes place on a monthly basis. There, I was given the opportunity to take the letter-press for a spin. The poster I printed (it was already set up and I’m not sure who designed it) read, “When given a chance humans will always build houses next to one another.” Which, I gather, is another way to think about what is gained from a group and how it relates to the currency of a single gesture–particularly when that gesture is made in some kind of infrastructural vacuum.

If you happen to be in Providence on Saturday, August 13th 2011 you should try checking out AS220s annual street festival, Foo Fest

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When Performance is a Mirror


 

Dear Yoko,

Mothers don’t always ask to be Mothers and dogs scratch any old door to escape dogcatchers or their idea of dogcatchers—but here we are now; we’ve found ourselves Here.

My mother has died and I need a new one.

Yrs truly.

P.S. At the age of 18, before I knew you, before I knew the war, before I knew knew knew, I saw your Cut Piece.

You were in London, sitting on a stage. There was a queue outside the door, all the way down the street, all the famous people brought their own shears in order to snip snip your clothes away, to take your dress home as a souvenir, to remember you by. The flashing lights went off pow pow pow like lightening, like strokes from a belt, contracting and dilating pupils with a fleeting and unconscious violence as the line passed quickly, the fever of possession grew, and all the pretty people with their perfect shears, ravenous, they snip snip snipped you all away.

This 18-year-old girl threw up in the alley behind the Tate Museum.

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