Archive for July, 2011

What Is And What Is To Be

July 31, 2011

            The Spirit Of An Appalachian Region: Contemporary Artists Reflect on Southeast Ohio is currently showing at the OSU Urban Arts Space, Columbus Ohio. Kudos to The Majestic Galleries and especially Ron Luce for having the patience, endurance, and wherewithal to facilitate and execute this vast endeavor. Also to the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau for making the show’s sterling program possible. The show is wonderful, embodying the diversity of approaches found in this rich cultural corner of Ohio. Personal standouts were David Callahan’s Shawnee Morning, Paul Emory’s Your Baby, Gary Pettigrew’s Bye, Bye,Blackburn and Todd Reynolds’s two paintings (Alice In Nowhere Land #1 and These Days). None of these works took an award which indicates the depth and strength of the pieces presented in the show. Shawnee Morning is an incredibly idealized depiction of a currently deteriorating small town. And yet each time I have visited Shawnee, I have seen that same vision from the crumbling vestiges of its glory days. Fascinating and heartfelt. Your Baby, with its three generations under one roof, speaks of the deep, deep familial bonds found in this region, a source of tension as well as pride. Pettigrew’s Bye, Bye, Blackburn is the urban experience of this area in exquisite poetic form. The photo realism, the transition, the past and the breath taking beauty of the color. Perfect. Todd Reynolds’s work is a snapshot of folks today. The show is wonderfully supplemented with historic black and white photos of everyday people by James Karales and Lloyd Moore, thanks to the generosity of the Kennedy Museum of Art’s archives. Reynolds’s portraits in watercolor fit right in alongside these historic notables. The show runs through September 30, 2011.

            Manifest Gallery in Cincinnati Ohio emailed a call for artists on an upcoming show: Part of it reads:

A B S T R K T
An International Exhibit Exploring Works of Abstraction
(Manifest’s Season 8 Opening Exhibit)
There are at least three components to a work of art. Often one of them, Subject, supersedes the others, bordering on distraction and flirtation with nostalgia. Abstraction diminishes or sublimates the role of Subject in such a way as to allow Form a chance to take center stage. In essence, Form becomes the Subject. Ironically, this rebalancing gives way to a clearer, and perhaps more truthful, experience of a work of art as a real thing – something that is itself rather than a reference to some external ‘other.’

            This is probably the best representation of what abstract is in art that I have read anywhere. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) it begs the question of the role or place of the ‘other’ in art. In the Levinas sense (and many more) the Other is the core of ethics, the basis of responsibility. A personal insight is that without an ‘other’, there is no time, no way to date a given work of art that is an abstraction (was it made in the 1930’s, 50’s, 80’s, or just recently?). As much as we would like to believe that time follows some all too real atomic clock somewhere, we date experiences not on the basis of real things but on that of subjects. Freakily enough, this places abstract art in the company of corporations, with their defined immortality (timelessness) and absence of individuality (subjects). Corporate art prefers to be abstract art. Abstraction in art introduces a unique form of ethics, one that may elide distraction and nostalgia but likewise leaves one wondering if that’s all there is and why is it there.  This is a sense not found with Paul Emory’s or Todd Reynolds’s work. One does not tire of the existence of time found in these representations, nor is one lulled into a false sense of ever escaping this time, of being timeless.

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What Do You See?

July 27, 2011

            “Several outcomes seem possible from this swirling situation: a new authoritarianism, a perpetual crisis, or, just possibly, a time in which my claim to the right to look is met by your willingness to be seen. And I reciprocate.” This is the last line of an intense and well researched essay entitled The Right to Look by Nicholas Mirzoeff in the Spring 2011 Critical Inquiry (pg. 496). Impressive, huh?

            Mirzoeff’s essay presupposes some familiarity regarding Visual Culture, the making and power of images, visualization and the sense it permits (or produces). If you “sense” Jacques Ranciere permeating this endeavor, your intuition serves you well. Mirzoeff’s claim to a “right to look” springs from the demand of the police to have a “look see”. Nicholas interpolates this mundane indignity on a grand scale by likening counter insurgency endeavors as consensus controls. True, visual culture or visualization has us believing that counterinsurgency is a worldwide phenomena, unified by the need to make globalism a safe expression of an open market. This making of an image of the white hats never sleeping and always being alert to the “possibility” of terror is reinforced by the everyday theater of commercial air travel.  The real counter insurgency “look see” centers more around drone and satellite surveillance. Mirzoeff links this activity of the consensus with Ranciere’s “move along now, there is nothing to see.” In short, along with the political image making of counter insurgency itself comes the demand that we not look (since that has already been done for us).  Mirzoeff’s interest is more in the micro dimension of this Rancierean interpretation, that of the everyday. As he writes: “The right to look is not about merely seeing. It begins at the personal level with the look into someone else’s eyes to express friendship, solidarity, or love. That look must be mutual, each inventing the other, or it fails. As such, it is unrepresentable. The right to look claims autonomy, not individualism or voyeurism, but the claim to a political subjectivity and collectivity: “the right to look. The invention of the other.”” (pg. 473) “It is the claim to a subjectivity that has the autonomy to arrange the relations of the visible and sayable. The right to look confronts the police who say to us “move on, there is nothing to see here.” Only there is; we know it, and so do they. The opposite of the right to look is not censorship, then, but visuality, that authority to tell us to move on and that exclusive claim to be able to look. Visuality…is in fact an early nineteenth-century term, meaning the visualization of history. This practice must be imaginary, rather than perceptual, because what is being visualized is too substantial for any one person to see and is created from information, images, and ideas.” (pg. 474) In Latour/Weibel’s Making Things Public there is an essay detailing the vast (and continuously growing) “world” of classified information, described as a culture. It not only incorporates military and state activities but also scientific knowledge (nuclear, biological, etc.), mathematics, commercial, etc. Not only is the right to look contentious in the everyday, but also within the consensus itself there is a hierarchy of lookers.

            Two headlines in the past week’s continuing news: “Casino execs’ pay a secret: State regulators devising license applications agreed that salaries of top casino officials won’t be public” and “Mystery prisoner has Utah jail authorities stumped”. The first is self explanatory and was the action of the duly elected representatives of the citizens of Ohio. I guess the citizens chose to abdicate their “right to look”.  The second concerns a man arrested on a misdemeanor charge of being on a municipal parking lot when the police told him to “move along now”. He had been held in jail for over three weeks because he refused to identify himself, and the police were frustrated in their various attempts to determine his identity (the ruse of a free phone call to a relative/acquaintance, fingerprints, etc.). Turns out his name is Phillip T. Beavers from New Mexico and he now faces three misdemeanor charges: interfering with an investigation, failure to provide information to a police officer and the original criminal trespass. The consensus is serious about its right to look!

            The Enlightenment has been linked to various disparate conceptualizations such as Modernism/progress, Imperialism, and Plato’s “The Good”. In a past posting from 2/11/2011 (What, No Politics?) I point out the gap in Ranciere’s thinking when it comes to refusal, such as that of Mr. Beavers. Likewise, incompletion creates an insufferable gap, an intolerable lack (which produces an obsessive response) when Enlightenment based conceptualization concerns itself with what is held back, refused, or not totally revealed (as touched on in a 10/3/10 posting The Conceptual And The Incomplete). Mirzoeff’s final line (as well as the first paragraphs of his essay) has a righteousness about itself, a virtuousness or goodness. One almost wants to jump up and say “Amen!” Yet to do so would be to slip into the Platonic approach of the Enlightenment. It would obfuscate the obvious “right to not be seen” exercised by so many living creatures, humans included. It opens the door to “all things must be seen, nothing is to be withheld, we are all adults here” which the WikiLeaks episode clamored for. This is childish in itself (as noted by so many early posts dealing with our preference for story, lies and fabrication in narrative). Physiologically, the human visual field inherently has a blind spot which, as Mirzoeff also notes, is filled in by imagination, making vision appear to be seamless. So to insist on a “right to look” is also to understand that in looking, one will not see everything that is there; whether because it has been withheld, refused, camouflaged, or is hiding in full and open sight like Whitey Bulger. In this case I think Ranciere is more accurate in locating “a political subjectivity and collectivity” through making seen (making visible) rather than looking. This likewise does not involve any “right” but rather a doing, a making, which looking also is (As expressed in Latour/Weibel’s Making Things Public). It all brings to mind the old philosophy saw of the veteran sailor and the new recruit at sea, perched on deck fulfilling their watch duty assignment. “What do you see?” asked the old salt. “I see nothing” answered the first year sailor. “You see a lot.” replied the old one.

Looking For Joseph Smith

July 19, 2011

            Well, it looks like in a few days the American dollar will be worthless (backed by the full faith and confidence of the United States government). “In God we trust” is all that will be left (but out on the street they want to see that dollar first). Boy, things will be different.

            The US political leadership were agreed on cutting spending, some more than others, in their legislative endeavors to “head off” this “debt crisis”. The hang up seemed to have been taxing the rich. The “representatives” of the American people have taken it upon themselves to interpret their constituents’ political will as being to not raise any taxes. The ostensible reason is that “you don’t raise taxes during a depression,” er, recession. The cynical reason would read more like these representatives are the very ones who would end up paying some of that tax. The self same who would lay off government workers, cut pay and benefits, and end programs while not reducing the size of their own staff, cutting their own pay and benefits, or eliminating any of their own programs.

            Previous blog postings have sited numerous sources for the economic composition of the US electorate, the 20/80 statistics, etc. (20% of the folks own 80% of the wealth, etc.). These are all figures from BEFORE the 21st century depression, er, recession (image is everything in the politics of visualization). The financial well being of the representatives of American democracy is also nothing new. The current and former speaker of the house could both be lifted straight out of some large corporate advertising agency. Like it or not, when given the choice, Americans love mad men.

            That has always puzzled me. Years ago a relative came home from serving in the war and was apathetic to vote (to end the war). Later, stuck in a low paying job with new mouths to feed, the veteran vehemently supported the candidate embracing the solutions favoring the wealthy. Later still, when that family’s life improved through employment in a union job, the political embrace was for those espousing the evils of unions! I meet folks who are hourly workers at Mickey D’s or Wally World and identify themselves as staunch tea baggers. Perhaps it can be attributed to religion and a family tradition of wearing the “Sunday best”; past generations who, though they owned little or next to nothing, always identified politically with the party of wealth as they could appear with them, looking like them, once a week at their religious gatherings. After all, progressive modernism relies on the successive sequence of time, so this bias is quite attractive. Even Marx was intoxicated by this (describing it as intoxicating!).

            More sobering is the essay Theater and Democratic Thought: Arendt to Ranciere by Richard Halpern appearing in the recent Spring Critical Inquiry. Mr. Halpern writes of “the system of charis or “gratitude for a material benefaction.”” within the Greek city state democracy of the 5th through 3rd century BCE. He references Josiah Ober’s book Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People regarding this. “As Josiah Ober notes, “the Athenian public seems to have expected politicians to perform significant liturgies,” and those politicians would in turn draw on the gratitude produced by voluntary and generous public works to reinforce their standing as speakers. Indeed, “the hope for gratitude from the demos and especially from jurors was the motive behind many liturgists’ acts of public generosity to the state, and some of them were not reticent about admitting it”. Conversely, it was perfectly acceptable for politicians to benefit materially from their political activities, since this would supposedly cause them to feel a reciprocal charis toward the people: “The politician who took from the state had conjoined his personal financial interests with the interests of the demos. As the state prospered, so did he. He could therefore be expected to propose legislation that would be of benefit to the state as a whole.”” (Critical Inquiry Vol. 37 No. 3 Pg. 559-560)

        Contemporary with the Athenian democracy were the religious temples. Sacrifices were made there, appealing to the charis of the Olympian immortals for a propitious response. Corporate think’s need for “visionary leadership” has deeper roots than ever imagined!

Not To Be At Home In One’s Home

July 11, 2011

            This past weekend Licking County Arts held its annual members meeting, attended by approximately 20% of the membership. Reflecting on that event produces a depiction of the US; a microcosm as a dynamic of a greater whole. Although named “Licking County Arts” (formerly the Licking County Art Association), it functions primarily and solely from a storefront location well off the main square in downtown Newark (as noted by a member at the meeting). The easiest way to direct a visitor to its location is through reference to the next door, now defunct, century old jail (likewise noted by another member). Though architecturally interesting, this historic poky succumbed to a severe case of mold throughout. It was abandoned (but never torn down) in favor of a new site across town many years prior to the LCA’s relocation. Newark itself is the county seat, with booming court and government related traffic during the days and hours these offices are open.  The town’s population is just under 50,000 with 40% of the residents being non-owner occupants. Recent articles in the local daily paper let slip certain statistics from which these and the following references are taken. The paper itself is not owner operated but owned by an out of state media holding company (the largest in the US). Print sales are shrinking so revenue reliance is primarily on advertising, hence the dearth of statistics and the non-existence of investigative, in-depth reporting. Recent articles have covered the plague of abandoned, foreclosed, boarded up and derelict houses. These accounts are always accompanied by positive projections of a return to the glory days by interviewed city leaders and prominent business figures. They advocate visionary leadership and aggressive advertising/promotion. Currently families qualified as living in poverty by state or federal standards is above 25%, with unemployment around 10%. Other parts of the county have huge tracts of farm land either being developed, or already developed as industrial parks or enterprise zones with warehouses, distribution centers, light manufacturing, etc. (accounting for the heady daily county government business in the downtown). The county seat itself is a formerly heavily industrialized rail center which has few industries left today. County government pretty much drives the downtown economy. Everything written here is not so unusual for the mid west. It can be duplicated throughout this state as well as neighboring ones.

            The LCA, though it used to be an association (of artists and art lovers), is a not for profit run by a board of directors (trustees?). Though members may have lobbied (and I underline “lobbied”) for various specific courses of action, these member contributions were graciously received as “good ideas” that the board would deign to consider. In short, it is a parliamentary form of governance, not unlike our own local and national one, though not representational save for the voting by the governing board which “represents” the best interests of the LCA (previously the “association” making up the artists and lovers of art, though it no longer appears in the name of the organization as such). The organization’s concrete presence in town functions as a store/gallery/multi-purpose room. Akin to the ingredients listed on a food label, the first is what predominates. Like its home city/county described above (and our own federal gov’t.), revenues for the LCA don’t match (even close) expenditures. And like the debate in Washington (occurring as I write) suggestions to raise membership dues, entry fees, etc. (revenue enhancements) were immediately met by counter proposals of ways to cut these fees to participants and make them pay less (with intentions of creating more membership and greater involvement). The treasurer’s report shows membership dues actually collected have been decreasing overall the last couple of years, along with sales and show entry fees. The invisible elephant in the room, whose presence was felt but not seen throughout the meeting, was the storefront’s landlord to whom the organization is indebted through a long term lease agreement at twice the market rate (as pointed out by yet another member). As on the mega scale (national/international), this is non-negotiable, a contract between corporate entities, a sacred trust whose violation would involve legal remedy. Ultimately the small gathering sang in chorus (as per Robert Morris’s insights on contemporary art making, see 12/3/09 posting Making The Signifier), emphasizing the need to mobilize visionary leadership, and urging each member to advertise/promote people to come downtown and shop at the LCA store.

            Past postings of this blog have reiterated the increasing “corporate think” within American culture and its growing (pre)dominance; “corporate think” in the manner of prioritizing, establishing identities, ways of doing and being, etc. The LCA is celebrating 50 years of existence and has dropped the conceptualization of “association” (of art related individuals) entirely within its name. This places it within the context and definition of corporation under the 1819 Dartmouth vs. Woodward Supreme Court ruling regarding corporations in terms of immortality and individuals (see posting Existing Only In Contemplation Of The Law 6/28/11). It was a bit disheartening to witness such a response to matters of concern (in the Latour/Weibel sense covered in recent postings) by a group of gifted creatives. But then again, as a microcosm of the dynamics of our culture as a greater whole, it was a more than true to life representation.

Talking GM Beans With An Amish Man

July 10, 2011

            I knew I knew nothing about him. OK, Ok, I knew he wasn’t a devotee of Islam, that Sundays were a nyet, and photos were frowned upon. Actually I probably thought I knew more than I would allow myself to believe I did. I felt all that was useless information considering the matter at hand was what brought us together. What brought us together were the bees, his bees at that. Well, at least what he believed to be his bees considering he had paid for them and they were now on his property, meant to fulfill his expectations. I guess we all fall prey to that, believing that the bees actually “belong” to someone, forgetting that they are of no good or benefit unless they can go freely and be unrestrained. It’s the restrictions that ultimately add up to the bees leaving, and the beekeeper wondering what happened to the property he thought he owned and his invested intentions. But I digress.

            It was within the context of the condition of his hives, the unusual year, the lateness of the season, and what should be blooming, isn’t blooming and is blooming that the conversation drifted to legumes- the staple, middle American nectar source. It should have been plentiful considering the site but the yellow sweet clover has come on very late this year, if at all, and what little white is out there, was also behind by a month and seems to have just started. It was not enough to compensate for the many weeks of near daily rain. His bees were starving. His farm adjoined fields of intensively farmed beans and corn. Corn is a grass but the beans are legumes. Long ago in another time and space, before GM and the Internet, the extension service promoted bees for soybean farmers to enhance their yield. The flowering legumes provided an extra kick of nectar at the end of the season. But GM beans are self pollinating along with being pest resistant. What is GM?

            I thought I knew about GM, at least enough to communicate the rudiments. I mean, it is a corporate mandate of 21st century, Twitter, Facebook and Internet reality to at least be conversant of the operational fundamentals of technology in order to survive its eye blinking changes. Confident of my abilities to live along with the other progressive denizens of my 21st century culture, I proceeded to try to explain Genetically Modified biology to my fellow beekeeper. He, of course, understood the working practicalities of Mendel’s experiments with legumes and the everyday exigencies of selective breeding. I could see from his nodding and “Is that so’s?” that he was being polite when I spoke of DNA and molecular composition (rather than letting his eyes glaze over). Finally, I tried to explain through the use of the often employed, corporate model of the frost proof strawberry, solely possible thanks to the integration of fish DNA. I found myself at a loss to bridge this theory of engineering with the practical reality of thousands of plants produced to stock the grocery stores of major cities, and able to satisfy the demands of discriminating consumers at just the peak of perfection. We looked at each other for a while; he- positive but not supportive, me- wondering where I was.

            “Oh, you mean like Round Up Ready?” he contributed.

            Yeah, the Zizekian short circuit which makes for the politics of political economy and the ability of people who actually know less than they believe they do to bridge their differences and thrive in a technologically expanding world.

Tell Me How You Fill Your Cart

July 10, 2011

            “Tell me how you fill your cart, and I’ll tell you who you are.” The grocery cart as election booth, making political choices through the check out line; so elaborate Franck Cochoy and Catherine Grandclement-Chaffy in Publicizing Goldilocks’ Choice at the Supermarket: The Political Work of Shopping Packs, Carts and Talk. The essay appears in the What’s Political in Political Economy? section of Making Things Public (Latour/Weibel). OK, so “what we eat is what we imagine” is not new (you are what you imagine may be). We’ve all realized long ago that when we purchase food it is usually image that is presented and sells. Generic corn flakes appear when all the branding imagery and fluff is removed from the box. And still we don’t get to see the actual product, let alone smell or taste a sample. Take my word for it. No, better yet, take the box’s word for it. And yet we do choose, at least on the basis of imagined consistency between what is represented by the packaging and what is inside, or so Cochoy and Grandclement-Chaffy argue. And our choice is made- where else? -but in the shopping cart. Unlike the myth of individualism perpetuated by the discrete and “secret” polling place ballot booth, our political choice in the grocery store is out there for all to see, and likewise for all to influence (partner, spouse, children and parents). The conversations that accompany this choosing, whether in situ or over the phone, are likewise out there for all to listen in on and witness. In these matters, like the myth of individualism, the myth of “choice” is perpetuated by the political economy (why it’s political, I guess). Cochoy and Grandclement-Chaffy point out how much or little choice is made, from the size and shape of the grocery cart, shelf space and product placement to the design and decoration of the packaging.

            On July 8, 2011 the Retail section of MSNBC Business News ran an article in which Anika Anand reported that “One of the nation’s major grocery store chains is eliminating self-checkout lanes in an effort to encourage more human contact with its customers.” Albertson’s was quitting automated self-check out lanes. ““We just want the opportunity to talk to customers more,” Albertsons spokeswoman Christine Wilcox said. “That’s the driving motivation.”” Impressive, huh? Goldilocks’ Choice at the Supermarket comes crashing back like the growley old bears when one gets to the end of the article and reads:

“What Do You Think Of Self-Checkout Lanes? discuss this story

You

_ I love them- no human interaction required.

_ I hate them- I feel like I’m doing all the work.

_ I use them when I have to.”

            Of course the elementary question/response of “do you use them?” is totally elided. It is assumed that you do; that you have NO choice. The choice lies entirely with “how you feel”- love, hate or lemming compliance. Notice the slippage of “how you feel” into media-speak’s “What do you think…” Love, hate and lemming compliance have now become thinking processes (without any branded packaging to contain them!).

            Me? I refuse to use the things since with their installation, clerks disappeared. I’ll wait in line. Yesterday, while scanning the revelations of my personal being arranged haphazardly on the endless conveyor belt, the clerk mentioned she was leaving the next day to go on vacation to the coast. There’s something reassuring in knowing that what receives the money on the other end of a purchase exchange also goes on vacation.