Thursday, June 16, 2011

image and rhetoric

After an unplanned absence from this blog, I feel compelled to write a new entry this morning, in view of the eminent Anthony Weiner resignation scheduled to take place today (scandal as media event, or media as scandal event?).

Consider the two images below (thanks to TMZ):

My question to you is the following: who would you rather sleep with?

If sleeping with men is not your cup of tea, who would you rather see shirtless?

If that question still does not apply to your reality, which person looks healthier?

The search for Weiner's picture (via the autofill my Mac computer comes up with) spelled out "Anthony Weiner Lewd Photo." The term lewd is defined, at the, as "a. Preoccupied with sex and sexual desire; lustful" and "b. Obscene; indecent." It is precisely this term's second definition, and the politics backing this definition, that have probably pushed Weiner over the resignation edge. Because as the legality of images with contentious nature in the US goes, obscenity is illegal, even though pornography is not. What deems something obscene in contingent upon its socio-cultural context (meaning a local court), and apparently in Washington D.C. (sans court), sending a picture of oneself over the Internet in various states of undress to willing receptors is at least unbecoming of a Congressman, if not lewd and/or obscene. 

It is ironic that the same people (ideology-wise) that are so ready to point the finger at Weiner have also historically pushed for the censoring of art via public funding cuts. These folks seem to be experts in the history of images (and in a round about way they are, because they do paint a pretty grim picture whenever it is applicable to their politics), because they feel it is totally okay to disregard entire historical and scholarly accounts on the importance and place of images, of many kinds - pleasant or not - in the journey of humanity, if that suits their needs. Here I am obviously talking about the NEA cuts in the past and the Wojnarowicz removal more recently. Of course these folks, the deciders,  also know how to censor other types of images - that of images of war for example, which never seem to surface into the public sphere in the US.

As a parenthesis to this topic, I have never understood why the sexuality of politicians has so many negative connotations. In a country that is so eager to go to war, sexual prowess should be seen as a positive thing. But with sex comes shame (no pun intended), while with war pride arises (ditto). But I digress. 

Interestingly enough, the manner in which works of art are made have also come under the magnifying glass of litigation recently. In a surprising turn of events, Richard Prince and his gallery (the Gagosian, who recently launched a very cool iPhone/iPad app) lost their case on the grounds of unoriginality (because appropriation was not seen as enough in most case, an entire suite of works was deemed a breach of copyright). I imagine an eminent appeal is in the works. A similar but less recent lawsuit case on image appropriation, the Obama "Hope" poster by Shepard Fairey, was settled out of court. Again, experts's opinion are disregarded by the law's interpretation, and in this process attempted to tarnish by proxi the image of the Commander in Chief. These legal (re)readings (re)define future decisions and policies, therefore embedding self-censoring in art practices and one's being.

Ironically (sadly so), this rhetoric of morality, of condemnation of anything visual and at times sexual out of the ordinary (for in the US the nude can only be understood as sexual, just as much as art can only be beautiful and original - read with appropriate tone) appears to be  appropriated by every generation of politicians, as if we are still in the midst of the mid 20th century. In times when redefinitions of marriage and gender/sexual politics also stand in a pivotal place, will we go back to the politics and morality of sixty years past? 

That is a picture I find hard to look at.


PS: there are a few entries that have been in the works for over a year that I hope to upload later  this Summer. thanks for being patient.

Friday, February 18, 2011

update #357

Hi everyone,

just wanted to share with you that I am now writing a bi-weekly column at the Oakland Press newspaper. those articles will go alongside the ones in this blog, but have a more local flavor.

hope to see you either here or there!



Friday, January 28, 2011

out of sight, out of mind...

Sometimes I think that teaching is much like therapy, at least the kind of therapy I've been in. The mindless and aimless stream of consciousness at times leads one to the heart of the matter. In the classroom I aim to create an environment where, sitting together and facing one another, we all talk out our impressions on art works we see in class. Many of the works I show in class are deceptively simple but in fact quite complicated, thus requiring a working through in order to understand it, or at least arrive a some commonality (though in my classes the goal is never to make someone "like" something, but to get some sort of meaning from it, from anything actually). In this process I believe I learn as much as my students do, which makes teaching a wonderful experience.

I've also noticed that, for this blog, immediacy is the best strategy. There are about 3 or 4 entries I have begun writing and never finished. I spent so much time researching and fact checking that, by the time the entries took some shape, my excitement lost its momentum. So I've also learned that the best way to get something into art-sight is to get it out of my mind as quickly as possible. This entry is based on a classroom exchange and a conversation with a friend from this past week.

In my video art class we have moved to the second project, which deals with appropriation (vis a vis television). That course combines a set of working skills with historical screenings and related readings. These activities usually relate to the conceptual concerns of the project at hand. For appropriation I screen some of the works of Dara Birnbaum and Ant Farm. The latter consists of a collective that combined performance/public intervention with guerilla tactics in their practice. They were mostly active in the in the late 60s through the late 70s, though some of their works have re-emerged lately in contemporary exhibitions that examine the use of video and related (mass) media in art.

We watched in class three video works by Ant Farm: Cadillac Ranch, Media Burn, and Eternal Frame. They are not easily available online for one to watch, but there is some writing available, easily found via a Google search (while you are at it, look up Birnbaum as well, an incredible artist, which will remain greatly unmentioned here). Eternal Frame (1975) centers on the images of the assassination of JFK, its title an insightful pun on the eternal flame on display at his monument at the Arlington Cemetery. This is what Gregory Ulmer might call a "puncept." The video below, Media Burn, contains footage of the "artist-president," some of which were re-used (appropriating themselves) for Eternal Frame.

At its core, Eternal Frame merges historical footage with a public performance/reenactment taking place at the sight of the original event; footage of the impromptu audience, and their reaction, are also included. The effect is simultaneously bizarre, tasteless, funny, and touching. Ant Farm member Doug Hall plays JFK (in more than one art piece, I might add here). While done many years after the actual assassination, and many decades before now, the currency of this work attests to the fact that great art persists through time, though here such fact has a very sad note. The first media president of the US was both born and killed via television, bringing forth the immediacy of that medium. To paraphrase Ant Farm, his televised bodily death gave birth to his eternal life as myth and image, and that, to some extent, we all killed Kennedy.

The parallels to our times are uncanny: the powers of monopoly, militarism, and mass media (pointed out as the large contributors to the decline of American culture by the group) have only increased as time goes by. Seeing president Obama on a talk show, or photographed in a bathing suit on a tabloid cover, makes me think that we might have completely tipped the scale to one scary side -  president as celebrity, presidency as PR campaign or media event.

In our class discussion the notion of a pivotal image that marked one's generation came up, for neither one of us were born before 1963, and therefore can only relate to that event as history. My parents, who lived in Brazil then, in many ways recall the moment as somewhat marking in their lives (they still remember where they were). I brought up that for my generation the media image of tragedy that has persisted was the almost missed explosion of the space shuttle Challenger (1986), which strangely enough was also historical footage to my students. Their marking moment was the Twin Tower terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, those images being their eternal frames of their reference, continuously repeated and displayed for a very long period of time. Sadly enough, that terrible event ended a period of American life (at least to me), and began another one, which we still find ourselves in. That image, more so than anything that might ever be re-built on its site, might become the biggest marker for a generation. And perhaps the end of all public displays of tragedy.

Going back to the JFK assassination, I brought up a similar (though with a somewhat happier outcome) current event, the Tucson shootings of early 2011. In it a US senator was shot and gravely wounded, though fortunately the assassination attempt failed (though other bystanders were killed, and many wounded, most notably a young girl who was born on September 11, 2001, a twisted and ironic turn of fate). The major difference between these two events, and a true show of how much times have changed, is the fact that there are no images of the actual shooting in the public sphere. Isn't it interesting that, in 2011, in a supermarket with surveillance equipment, with a considerable number of citizens with camera-enabled mobile phones, no images have come forth? Of course the tastelessness of it (I do not wish to see such footage, believe me) has to play some role in it. But we also need to think of the fact that in this technological world we live in, the images we see and do not see have an important role to play. Very little footage of the current wars we are in come into the public sphere, which differs greatly from 1975 (think of all the audio media being made public with Watergate, for example). Even images from 2006, of Saddam Hussein being hung/executed, surfaced immediately, those images illegally obtained and uploaded via mobile technology in a "backwards" country. Why is that? Who decided that? Did we all kill Hussein too?

As the Patriot Act comes to its expiration date (will it be extended?), and the NEA once again faces budget cuts at best or total annihilation (let's hope not), we must keep thinking, and talking about, the way images become symbols, and what the lack of images in our culture truly represent.

Just like therapy, the talking out of things, and in my case this morning, the writing of my thoughts, brings forth some enlightenment. I had mentioned that the Challenger explosion was the media image that marked my generation. But now I take this back, and in its stead will replace it with another powerful image. In 1989, a few days before my 16th birthday, images of people climbing over the Berlin Wall, destroying and celebrating its fall, were all over the news, around the world. I choose to think of that image as one that truly marked my life through media, the in-sight (in mind) of my generation. We all can use it, and, like Ant Farm, re-purpose it, as our symbol, renewed, that will help us all climb over the walls that currently surround us all.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Socialist Art - part 2

This much-waited entry is a continuation of the previous one with similar title. These locations were visited in different days, and the order below does not follow the chronological visits, though the last one presented here is where my visit ended. If interested in more specific information, such as the names of artists and curators, please Google the name of the institutions and/or exhibition.

Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (a bank)
Located in the heart of the old downtown São Paulo (centro antigo), in a completely restored 1901 building, CCBB maintains an ambitious roster of exhibitions and related programming that is open and free for all. While similar institutions might dumb it down for the masses (as many do with populists and/or easy to digest art), CCBB unapologetically showed the works for Laurie Anderson in I in U/Eu em Tu across its five stories. Works displayed in its many mezzanines were photographable, while works in the closed galleries (most notably in the old vault in the basement, as well as the side galleries above) did not allow for such. As much as possible I gathered illegal content, which I here share with you (do not tell anyone, it is all for the goodness of human-kind). But some of the best works, such as the performative and kinetic sculptures, will have to remain in the imaginarium.

Centro Cultural FIESP
I was not allowed to photograph here, but they had this incredible exhibition, titled A Construção de Brasilia, on the architecture and construction of Brasilia through the eyes of photographers. At this location the annual FILE (Festival Internacional da Linguagem Eletronica) takes place. 

Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo
The Pinacoteca is housed in one of my favorite old buildings in town; besides its deconstructed façade, its surrounding neighborhood contains a train station (which also houses the Museu da Lingua Portuguesa), a park (where you can see rubber trees and middle aged prostitutes, as well as turtles and at times sloths, amidst public sculptures), and almost everything in between, all with a lovely patina of decay (decadence avec elegance). 

As luck would have it, most of the galleries were closed. And photography was only allowed in the main area of the installation Teoria (Theory) by Ignasi Aballi, pictured below. Graciela Iturbide was featured in an encyclopedic manner, with all her greatest hits featured (the prints are more impressive than their publication, i was glad to have that reaffirmed). One of my favorite thematic exhibitions during my visit was  Desenhar no Espaço: Artistas Abstratos da Venezuela e Brasil (To Draw in Space: Abstract Artists of Venezuela and Brazil). Some of the usual suspects, such as Lygia Clark and Helio Oiticica were featured there; but new names were added to my list of favorites, such as Mira Schendel and Gego. My biggest regret was not getting the catalogue, and I hope someone who reads this and lives in São Paulo remember that my birthday is coming up (it is always coming up, November is around the corner).

Also not pictured here is the Estação Pinacoteca, an offshoot of this institution, located at Estação Julio Prestes from walking distance. Again photography was not allowed, and half of the galleries were under construction/remodeling. Their top floor, however, featured an impressive Georg Baselitz, where he repainted some works from previous decades. The scale of the room and the works allowed for an almost meditative contemplation of his works that literally aim to flip your vision upside down.

Museu de Art de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand (MASP)
While certainly the architecture of this museum (a hanging modernist glass structure that seems to float amidst the city chaos) is always the main attraction, followed by a vigorous restaurant and bookstore in its lower levels, what the museum normally presents (a mix of collection and rotating exhibitions) makes the visit worth. This time around they presented Deuses e Madonas: A Arte do Sagrado (Gods and Madonnas: The Art of the Sacred), and Lugares, Estranhos e Quietos  (Places, Strange and Quiet), containing photographs by Wim Wenders.

While I was not allowed to photograph most exhibitions, below are some guerilla-style images I made of the Se Não Nesse Tempo (if not in this time) of contemporary German painting, as well as the work presented on the façade of the building, by Regina Silveira titled Tramazul (I added an external video for this piece at the end of the post).

Itaú Centro Cultural (a bank)
I have always had found memories of this place, because it was here that I once fell in love with interactive new media art, at the early part of this century (before I had a crush). I actually walked to Itaú with my sister immediately after our MASP adventure, which proved to be much longer than I remember (next time will take the metro, even if it is only one stop). By the time we got there we were pretty tired, so we briefly looked at the Egyptian exhibition on display there, which was somewhat encyclopedial (does this work exist?), but filled with digital displays where one could flip pages and zoom into details. 

The exhibition Histórias de Mapas, Piratas e Tesouros (Histories/Stories of Maps, Pirates, and Treasures) took place on the two lower levels and on the second floor. While the notion of mapping has been overplayed for some time now, the 22 artists selected, from six   South American countries, managed to provide a fresh perspective onto it, combining manipulation of space, manipulation of represented space, and performance, and the many different intersections these trajectories brought forth. while the space is not necessarily huge, it packed quite a lot of work within its walls, making the experience somewhat exhausting. 

The first lower level housed photography, video and some installation art, while the second lower level had mostly video works. The second floor (which is actually the Brazilian first floor, the first floor there is the ground floor -terreo) contained the most interesting works in my opinion, and coincidentally was the only level I photographed, because I did not think photography was allowed anywhere. It was there that the exploration of mapping and media, as well as mapping as a deconstruction of experiences came to the fore (one of my favorites was the breaking down of cooked portions of fried rice from different restaurants in Caracas).

Galeria Luciana Brito
While this gallery is for profit, their programming, which includes lectures and discussions in addition to artist talks and opening receptions, is often partially funded with governmental grants. The exhibition I visited, Back to Simplicity by Marina Abramovic, was accompanied by a bilingual catalogue with the same title, which the artist signed and handed for free at the opening reception (that edition print ran out by the time I visited the show, see gallery video below).

It was great seeing in person and with the 4th dimension many seminal works by this artist I had only previously encountered as still images and/or poor quality web-video. Even better was to fall in love with new works.

This gallery, although difficult to find (one must drive over there), has become a favorite of mine). This exhibition was my last art sighting in São Paulo this season, and a great way to end this blog entry that started with a wonderful solo artist and ended with another.