Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Conversation About Artprize

After my post on the subjectof neurAtypical artists last week, I intended to talk next about how we can use literary interpretation to reach out to Spectrum types and to help them learn about NT social norms and ways of thinking. I'm still going to make that post, but while I was looking for my “way in” to start writing, I took a trip up to Grand Rapids to experience this year's Artprize, and that experience begs to be addressed.

Let me start off by saying that I was in love with the Artprize during its first two years. I discovered what was going on when I went north to visit my parents and saw the Nessie sculpture in the Grand River during the first Artprize. I made the time to go check it out, slogging through a rainy, cold October weekend in order to treasure-hunt for innovative, whimsical, and surprising installations. I was not disappointed. The sculptures on the blue bridge, the installations and tent aroundthe BOB—it stuck with me. To Elizabeth, my partner and a painter/photographer, it was a dream come true to find such a rich, diverse festival so close to our home in Kalamazoo.

The city had set out to have a conversation about art, and it seemed to be having that conversation. Work statements shed light on some of the more esoteric pieces, and even if some of them were a tad pretentious and self-absorbed, they revealed real passion.

The next year was even better, but we flew too close to the sun. Elizabeth was determined to see as many entries as possible, but with only one day in Grand Rapids, we couldn't see everything.  She was insistent about trying our best to cover as much as we could, but after about four hours on her feet, she had her first Grand Mal seizure in several years. We lost half of the day in the emergency room, and when she was discharged they had pumped her so full of drugs that she could not remember half of the exhibits that we saw.

We relived that Artprize together,with me standing in to describe as many pieces as possible to her. We went over the press materials, followed artists on the internet, and tried to piece together as much of the experience as we could.

The second Artprize turned into ourconversation about art. Much of it, I will admit, revolved around the Steampig.

So this year we made the effort to come back. Elizabeth was especially excited. She felt that her Artprize experience was stolen from her last year and that this was our chance to make up for it. We planned to bring along my Grandmother, we packed extra medication, and we headed downtown.

Very soon after our arrival, we were given the impression that this year's conversation about art would be more like polite small talk. Don't get me wrong—there were somevery striking pieces. I'm especially happy that I took the time to experience a Haitian wood carving that was in a boutique window and the Tree Fish near the library.

It was just... anemic. For every piece that really stood out with its combined invention, craft, and philosophical insight (such as the sliding puzzle near the BOB), there were a dozen derivative lumps that unsettled me. It seemed like a sharp divide was created, with people re-creating baby paintings from the front of greeting cards on one side and stale conceptual questions that were lifted wholesale from more successful artists on the other.

The cognitive dissonance that this experience engendered was never greater than when I was at the “What Problem?” exhibit. Purporting to take on race, the interactive installation featured two cafe seating areas, one labeled “For White Audiences” and the other “For Black Audiences”. It was well-intentioned enough in its goal, but I couldn't help but feel like there was a profound point missed by the artists as I stood there with my Native American domestic partner and watched the interracial gay couple debate its merits while some Hispanic children puzzled over which seats they were supposed to take.

The dysphoria elevated when I looked around and saw the living statues that were part of the approved exhibits going through their slow, ponderous, but well-rehearsed crowd participation routine while another living statue, a panhandler dancing to hip-hop, begged just outside the gates. The panhandler stole the show—and I didn't dislike the other group, the official group—but the panhandler was working to actively draw in a crowd, and he was communicative. He responded to tips, hand gestures, applause, etc. with unique routines, and incorporated truly difficult balancing manouvers into his dance. I have a picture to the right here.

Standing there, contemplating the broad range of human experience not engaged by the race installation I was at and watching a bunch of copper statues enjoy institutional privelege while a silver man danced for his dinner not twenty yards from them... well, let's say I could definitely see the conversation that was happening here. There was acertain self-indulgence involved in this Artprize that I just had not noticed before, a sense that the conversation that was happening was happening in an echo chamber where the self-examination provoked by the art didn't really have to lead to any discomfort.  When the reality of the artists' lack of vision was so readily visible in the actual environment of the city, I began to wonder if perhaps the entire show had not been co-opted by a group of Duchamp devotees.

The conceptual exercises in many of the less politically obvious pieces were a bit of a rehearsal of outdated and ill-executed ideas as well. I'm thinking now of “Tigerness”, the giant-sized reproduction of a He-Man toy that was supposed to make us think about the progression from toy to monument. The only problem was that it wasn't the size of a monument—it was the size of a ridiculous playground installation, like one of the Grimace figures at a McDonald's Play Place, so it provoked the thought in me of the transformation from one kind of toy into another, cheaper kind.

I'll grant that crafting a monument-sized version of Adam of Eternia's pet might have been too material- and space-intensive, but the piece could have shown some stylization and embellishment in order to achieve the sense of ornamental grandeur seen in monuments. Instead,it was a rote reproduction that really could not reach much more impressive heights of reverence than that enjoyed by a mid-sized high school's mascot.

Next to it, there was a natural materials sculpture whose name escapes me because it was simply that forgettable. It was one of those pieces that was intended to “evolve over the exhibition”. Before you get the impression that I am anti-conceptual art, I want to say that these time-dependent installations always attract my attention.  I am fascinated by time, entropy, and decay, and I quite look forward to engaging with a sense of the temporary.  For this project, I didn't really see how it was going to evolve, and that evolution is integral to the entire exercise. If the artist does not connect the present experience of the audience to a past and future state of the exhibition, then the sense of impermanence that lies at the heart of time-dependent sculpture is simply lost.

Last year, a similar piece was made up of sculptures finely crafted in birdseed-and-honey so that the audience could witness the degradation of the sculptures over the two weeks that birds fed on them.  One could infer their past and future states from their present state, and contemplate the nature of change, of erosion, and of the cycle of life. This year, the piece that was supposed to engender a similar meditation was a log on a trailer, covered with a tarp. One can not miss that the level of investment on thepart of the artist was substantially greater for one of these installations than for the other.

Those weren't theonly pieces that made me think that Artprize had lost its way. The giant beanbag by the BOB didn't help. I was enjoying it as a communal project until I noticed the “BY ORDER OF LAW” statement on the installation description which commanded that the sign not be moved.  I noticed that no other installation seemed to need a sign that had that kind of language, and it forced me to wonder if the Artprize coordinators understood the systemic relationship between urban youth and authority that they were helping to perpetuate by assuming that theone piece built by youth needed stern warnings about disrespecting the art all over it.

Perhaps that was the point, though. Perhaps that was the commentary, and it was a brilliant move by the group that created it if that was the main idea.. I must say “Bravo” to the artists—you certainly left me with the impression that a celebration designed to unite a community could very quickly devolve into a fascist nightmare that would go unquestioned and uncommented upon by the vast majority of the people who witnessed it.

On the way out of the downtown area, I ran across one last installation that caught my eye. When we were walking past the art museum, Elizabeth and I happened across a bench with ornate copper wire dragons laid out in front of it. Dense, fast, aggressive hip hop poured around and through the dragons from some unseen source, and a man sat next to them with a pile of wire, stripping the insulation from it.  Elizabeth got curious and opened up a conversation with the man.

I'm glad she did.  It's not in me to approach strangers, generally.  She has to be my icebreaker.

As it turned out, he was happy to talk us through his process of crafting dragons. It had taken him the last year to finish the three we saw. He talked about being a veteran and about leaving a comfortable life in California to come back to Michigan and take care of his family. Unfortunately, he didn't have the success finding work here that he had back in California, so the dragons were the resul tof “about 8 hours a day” of stripping, coiling, wrapping, pinching, and melting copper.  I was moved by the sheer amount of industrial labor and tool use that he had had to devote to a project that was born of his frustration at not finding a way to employ those skills for money.

He was not an exhibition, although he hoped to be next year. Instead, he was just there to see if anyone would bring him new copper donations—all of his work is done with donated scrap.  The music had been pouring out of an iPod in his pocket that he brought along to help him focus on his work when he was in public, and he didn't care whether or not people paid attention to him--he was just there to do his art, just in case someone saw him and had some copper for him.  After all, they wouldn't be able to bring him wires if he was hidden away somewhere.

Elizabeth was angry at her experience with Artprize this year. She felt like her Artprize experience was stolen from her last year and the disappointement this year made it seem as if that happy almost-memory was forever unreachable to her.  At first, I was angry too. I had set out to have a conversation about art, and instead, I felt as if I was insulted, assaulted, made fun of, and condescended to. The only times that I thought that I was truly engaging with another human being's expressive, personal creative work were when I was engaged with outsider art that was part of an illegal occupation of the contest area.

Then I thought about it for a day and  let my head cool.  It wasn't until I sat down to pen this that it occurred to me just why I needed to embrace this year's Artprize.

If I'm trying totalk about neurAtypical expression with my own work, then there's going to be a lot of misunderstanding. A lot of people who think they're helping are going to have a lot to say about the subject that pisses me off because they can't experience it firsthand, but they are going to try to engage with it in order to understand. I might even find myself on the outside, a living statue desperately hoping to engage just enough likeminded outsiders to be able to get the scraps I need to keep creating. I don't know yet what will happen to me—I won't know until my ideas have more room to breathe, until I start to hear from other people who are creating work that engages with autistic, schizophrenic, and epileptic worldviews and sensory experiences.

I set out on Monday to have a conversation about art. It was stupid of me to think that it would be an easy conversation. It was shortsighted of me to assume that the conversation would only have value if I was not confronted, or if it also had some entertainment value. Most importantly, though, it was downright idiotic of me to ever expect that some central authority that controlled every aspect of the event could possibly create an environment where artists could express useful and fully realized emotions. The conversation was always going to be about the art that takes shape in spite of our attempts to make it socially acceptable and accessible, not the art that takes shape because of our attempts to make it socially acceptable and accessible.

All I can say now is that I hope there will be many, many more men and women like the panhandling statue and the copper dragon man. I hope that they will fill the streets—performers, painters, and sculptors a like, along with pyrographers, welders, industrial designers, and VFX filmmakers. I hope they will overrun the Artprize and force their creativity upon the passive suburbanites I saw yawning their way through the uninspired exhibits.  I hope they will block the institutional signage and work statements of the establishment-approved artists with their bodies, confronting Artprize with the work it did not find during the official submission process.

#OccupyArtprize,my friends. #OccupyArtprize, and show it its own reflection.