Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Simple Past

by Drew Martin

When we speak of a simple past we are referring to life before the world became rushed and complicated. But a simple past can also refer to language. The English language, especially American English usually gets a bad rap because it is too this or that but one thing I love about English as an amateur linguist and native speaker is the abundance of ways to express the past. Many languages only have a simple past or even use present with a temporal adverb, which means saying something such as, Yesterday I see a bird and he smokes a cigarette.

In English, there are two distinct types of past tense. The simple past (preterite) and the present perfect. Each of these may be continuous in the progressive aspect. I can say I was in love as well as I have been in love or Having been in love I... and I had been in love. In many languages you could only say I loved...We can also say something even more complicated such as I have been falling deeper and deeper in love with you since the day we met.

Similarly, we also have more options with English through our definite and indefinite articles; the and a, respectively. Combined with the variations of the past I can say...I loved a woman and I loved the woman who taught me Esperanto. Those little articles make a big difference. Most languages exclude them and simply say, I loved woman...

Do these little details effect how we communicate our ideas? Absolutely. Perhaps a more obvious example, beyond tenses, is to think about how English lacks masculine and feminine identities for nouns (except for boats) and how this influences our brand of feminism and "equal opportunities." Some would say it also robs words of character. The fact that school in many languages is feminine makes it a bit more welcoming. Slavic languages (like many languages) specify every word as masculine, feminine or neuter but some also adjust the past tense of verbs to reflect the gender of the person. Slavic culture has a strong female vibe (in tandem with a pronounced male chauvinism) while America has masculine overtones to almost everything and promotes the Tom-boy culture. It would be impossible to completely understand the dynamics of how a language affects a culture, which in turn changes the language. One thing is for sure, the state of American English fits our pragmatic ways like a glove.

I feel comfortable here discussing language on its own but let us bring it back to there arts. What is to be understood from all of this is that the visual arts are greatly influenced by the language capacity the viewer. I believe people with dissimilar mother tongues see things very differently. This opposes the idea of universal pictorial communication. Let us forget about the viewer for the moment and think about the art. Does photography, for example, have a set language that we alter to be compatible with our language? I think so. Specifically photography is a present tense pointing to the past: two people is 1945. We do not think, two people kissed in 1945 or two people were kissing in 1945. We might comprehend that the picture is old but the immediacy of the image makes us view it in the present.

Most of the visual arts are quite linguistically simple. Some performances may activate future anticipation and a painting such as Pablo Picasso's Guernica may call us back to the past but I think most art is like a kinetic Alexander Calder mobile, which is constantly placing us in the present. When we watch its movement, we do not read it as, that piece would have or could have moved the other way, had the wind blown...we simply note its current position, color and size.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Running the Media

by Drew Martin
In my book review of Haruki Murakami's long distance running memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I extended Murakami's thinking of the relationship of running and writing to discuss running and the arts. This was purely a philosophical approach and I would like to take a moment here to discuss the relationship of running and media, which is what I was thinking about as I ran laps in the darkness and rain this morning on a neighboring town's slick high school track.

Running was a means of communication before humans even walked the Earth. An animal that starts to run is a message to its kind that there is danger. As long as humans have lived in communities, messengers have carried information, either by words retold by the runner or information he carried on paper, or via some other notation system such as the Incan quipus knots carried by that empire's messenger runners, the Chasqui. How can we forget good old Pheidippides?...the Athenian herald, who was sent to Sparta to request help (which was declined) when the Persians landed at Marathon. He ran 150 miles in two days. He then ran the 25 miles from the battlefield near the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians (and died).

Running is an expression of time and is expressed in time. The four minute mile was a bonding of time and action. Running will always signify urgency and even though official messages are not sent by runners any more we still "run for help" as opposed to skip for help or walk backwards for help. Although running is no longer an important means of communication between people it is still an amazing conversation starter between body and mind..."why am I doing this?"..."I could stop right here and lie down."

Like any activity in our world today, running events create a flurry of media. This Sunday, I ran a mud run with a friend/running buddy from high school. The event was announced by and supported with a website: people signed up online by providing personal information and made money transactions for registration. Graphic maps and word directions were printed and read/followed. Phone calls were made and emails exchanged between the 470 participants and to friends, coworkers and relatives. In a couple of days before and after the event thousands of exchanges of information were made.

In an Olympic run or a big marathon, media is all over the event. During our run, there was a moment of media silence: aside from some photos and the ticking of the finish line clock, while the participants dipped into their primal instincts and felt their hearts pound and their legs swing. When everyone went home, more phone calls were made and more emails were exchanged. The event's website posted the results and photos of the event, which all the participants went to see what they had experienced. It is a very interesting combination: facts that detail names, ages, times, rankings and hometowns which each runner statistically reads, along with photos, which show the runners traversing water crossings and running through the woods: colors, shapes and frozen motion. Despite the very different readings of the event, the pictures and rankings can be cross referenced by the runners' numbers.

Although there was no Hollywood ending, the movie industry found its way into the event by a couple guys dressed up as Braveheart who ran the race swinging plastic battle axes and yelping.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Helicoptress: A Traveling Book About Traveling

by Drew Martin

I often tell people about my youthful travels through Europe, North Africa, Asia and up and down the west coast of America, which included a lot of hitchhiking, the kindness (and sometimes meanness) of strangers and an array of odd jobs, such as working in a zoo in northern Bohemia.

The typical response is "You should write a book!" The fact is, I did...almost a decade ago...but not the kind you will find in any book store.

For one thing, there are only two prints and I purposely (recently) destroyed the digital copy and all files associated with it. The book is called Helicoptress and it is a traveling book about traveling: it travels between readers. The "story" begins in my university garden in Santa Barbara and documents my five years abroad before my return to New Jersey. It includes a few drawings I made and photos I took during those years and the books are hand sewn.

One copy has been pulled from circulation and is with an author of a published book, which is also dedicated to a friend we unknowingly shared, who committed suicide. The original idea was to just have the other copy continously passed along but it occasionally returns to me, roughly once a year. It came back into my possession yesterday. Today, I am putting it in the mail to London, for someone who is in the book.

The book has no names of people, places, religions, etc. It is to say that Paris might as well be Paramus, NJ and to also dissociate all the connotations that come with names. That being said, the book's name, Helicoptress, was important for me to establish because I wanted to highlight the goddess-like appearance of a helicopter that air-lifted me out of the frozen Tatry, the mountain range between Slovakia and Poland. The cover design and the size of the book, reference pocket-size first aid/survival guides.

Helicoptress, is meant to be read in one sitting, preferably while waiting out a long delay in an airport, or better...a train station. There are no chapters and the narrative is a simple string of relatively detached observations. This is not fiction or autobiographical fiction and I would not call it a memoir only because it is less about writing to capture my past as it is having lived a certain way that was a kind of writing. By this I mean, I often saw myself as a character in my own life story and the actions I took, would provide the material. It is quite an interesting, and somewhat dangerous way to go through the world. It means, as an example from the book, not sleeping safely in a hotel in Athens but going home with Nigerian orange pickers returning from Spain who I met on the train, knowing that the unknown will be known and part of the life story would be "written" by the next morning.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Humans and Their 8-Track Minds

by Drew Martin

It has been said that ancient orators and scholars had stellar minds, capable of reciting epic poems and religious tomes. A picture has been painted that as civilization progresses with newer and more powerful technologies, our memory skills decrease and we are moving slowly towards a global dementia.

I think it is important to note that the very existence of the multitude of languages and dialects is simply the outcome of the shoddy memory of everyone who walked the Earth before us. As tribes split and went their own ways, so did the accuracy of what they communicated. The word laska , i.e., for Czechs means love , but for their kissing cousins in Poland it means cane ... close enough.

In the March 9 New York Times, there were two fascinating articles about Alzheimer's. One, Infection Defense May Spur Alzheimer's by Gina Kolata (an easy name to remember - PiƱa Colada). Her article reported findings of a protein that piles up into nerve-signal-destroying plaques may be part of the brain's defense mechanisms against invading bacteria.

The other article, and the one most relevant to my string of thoughts, was A Little Black Box to Jog Failing Memory by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee (a name I will never remember). The article was about Sensecam, which is basically a digital camera worn around the neck that automatically takes a lot of pictures in a short period, to assist in recalling the day's events for Alzheimer's patients, when the images are later viewed. The device was developed in Cambridge, England at a research lab for Microsoft (a company known its bad memory). The article also mentions an interest to market the camera to teens for Facebook and other social network sites to further advance self-documentation and voyeurism. Although the Sensecam's pictures need to be downloaded, the idea of a roving personal webcam is not unimaginable and would eliminate the time and effort of selecting and uploading pictures to one's chosen web application, such as Twitter; if such a device would do so without human intervention.

As an aside: it is ironic to note that the feared 1984 Big Brother media control has been drowned in the sea of annoying Little Brother media trying everything possible to grab our attention.

We often discuss the memory capacity of media. No one can deny the amazing advances in the ability to store information and the ease to access it, which is utterly baffling. This is, in fact, the reoccurring theme of media; how the new means outperforms what came before it, whether it is papyrus, paper or a chip. If the clay tablet did not extend and improve upon our own mental ability, we would not have media today, there would be no need for it. We also have given much collective thought to media as memories or, at least, the memories which media jostle, whether it is of an event we experienced but forgot about or what we remember from a moment a media message interrupted our lives. It is not really a question of where you were when JFK was shot so much as where you were when you heard/saw the after-the-fact news (unless, as with any event as tragic as 911, you were actually there and witnessed it, unmediated). The former point, about jostling memories, is probably a good way to explain how the person with dementia interacts with his or her daily pictures from the Sensecam. When we look at old photographs memories are revived. The difference is the amount of time it takes to forget something. What may fade over years to someone with all his or her wits may vanish in seconds for the deteriorating mind.

What interests me even more than discussing media as memory is considering our minds and memory as media. The brain is a medium, which expresses itself with thoughts and triggers communicative gestures throughout the body. The relationship of the brain and its thoughts is similar to that of the Internet (those physical bundles of systems) and the World Wide Web, that swirl information. Perhaps the way to compare our own memory with computer memory is to compare an 8-track cassette with an iPod...our gray-matter storage capacity is simply becoming obsolete. Although one could argue that the parts of our brains that manage information are becoming more advanced.

To make matters worse (or better - depending on how you look at it) our recollection of events is less important than the actual event as recorded by ubiquitous cell phone cameras and other devices. Of course our interpretation of an event is important to how we experience life but it is just as important to realize we really only experience a fragment of every moment and only from one advantage point, which is probably more accurate to call a disadvantage point. There is too much happening at every second to take it all in, which is why the instant replay is such a great tool in sports for deciding the outcome of an event as well as for appreciating an act of skill and athleticism. The instant replay would be ideal for other situations, such as trying to understand how an argument started, but not in a way to prove a point, simply to be able to step back and see what fueled it.

Having such tools available changes how we admit to our own actions. Think about the college student who drinks too much at a party and wakes up god-knows-where in some sorry state. He or she does not even have to bother any more to try to recall the bacchanalian events of the night prior or even call his or her best and more sober friend for a recap: someone certainly captured it all on digital video and most likely posted it before sunrise. The person in question can simply log on to YouTube or worse, depending on how naked he or she was and what he or she did in public. The actual advantage to this is pure accuracy, as opposed to a dodgy recall or trying to rewrite the event, whether it is to cover something or simply to fill in the blanks. It is no longer "Rumor has it..." so much as it is " has it."

In a March 16 Wall Street Journal article Can You Alter Your Memory? writer Shirley Wang makes two references to memory as media (albeit for the sake of a tangible analogy):

Scientists used to believe memories are like snapshots on which the details are fixed once they are recorded. Now, many experts accept the view that memories are stored like individual files on a shelf; each time they are pulled down for viewing, they can be altered before being put back into storage. Altering a memory during the time it is off the shelf can create an updated memory that can be saved in place of the old one, scientists believe.

Wang indirectly references paper (of the printed photograph and of the files) even though most snapshots now are digital and arguably the most altered and edited medium around. Wang states earlier in the article:

The goal of the research isn't to erase memory outright, as depicted in popular movies over the years. That would raise ethical issues and questions of what would happen to associated memories, scientists say. Instead, "reducing or eliminating the fear accompanying the memory...that would be the ideal scenario," says Roger Pitman, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School who has done extensive work in this area.

It is interesting to note the opposite directions the NYT's articles and the WSJ's article take. While the former is about detailing memory, the latter is about smudging it a bit. Certainly one should not be imprisoned by a bad past but the WSJ article is really talking about revisionism and forgetting from our mistakes, which is a quite dangerous path to follow.

To give a simple example of this, I could say that my fear of dogs started when a relative's dog bit me on the face. To go through some kind of treatment to relearn the event or dissociate fear from that moment is a distortion. I think I would be much better off reviewing a home movie of the occasion (if it existed) to see that the dog was in fact quite cute, merely barked at me and only did so after I squeezed its nose. I would probably even find the situation funny. The hard truth and the acceptance of that is what would hopefully lead to a more just society and a greater personal liberation.

Consider the number of continuing feuds that affect generation upon generation and wars upon wars, which are simply about how (differently) two sides remember one event. The exceptions are the ones well documented. The holocaust of WWII is so well recorded that denying it is considered ludicrous. Anyone who contributed to the victimization of the Jews, gypsies, dissidents and others who lost their lives is silenced by the evident horror. It screams "You did this!" and "This happened to me!" without shadowy interpretations.

The WSJ article offers the possible fate of the rape victim, who cannot escape her strong, violent memory, as someone who would benefit from the treatment they discuss. This is such a sensitive situation that I cannot begin to discuss it here. Certainly most victims would not bear to see the act if it were recorded, even if reviewing the scene would be liberating. From this example, it is hard not to also think about the situation where such a horrible act is fabricated and used to falsely against someone, in which documentation is needed to establish the truth.

A fictitious but very poignant example of this is the story of the legal case in To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson, a black southerner, is accused of rape and put on trial while an angry mob threatens him. The case is incited by Mayella Ewell and her father, Bob, both white southerners, who claim Tom raped Mayella. The truth is Mayella propositioned Tom but was caught by her father, and then accused Tom of the crime to cover her shame and guilt. The tragedy is that despite his obvious innocence, Tom is found guilty by the all-white jury. He later tries to escape from prison and is shot to death. It is an extreme example but had the proposition been recorded and reviewed, there would have been no opportunity for the lie to dominate.

A lie of the past is the forced alteration of a memory. It is done consciously but, over time, may even become the actual memory of its abuser. If the recording is the substitute for memory, then maybe the expectation of the recording is the new conscientiousness.

This is an interesting shift, moving from an internal check of what is right and wrong to an external monitoring of what will be judged as legal and illegal, moral and corrupt. In the absence of an all-knowing, all-seeing god, we are recreating this judgmental omnipresence with 24/7 voluntary and involuntary surveillance. Coming out of our pre-electronics cave, the knee-jerk reaction is actually to fear this media presence and to anticipate punishment and restriction but the reality is in fact a kind of enlightenment. Some things that were once secret and in darkness are now accessible, searchable and continuously viewable and their very exposure to "daylight" allows for us to properly view these things from all angles.

What was once at the mercy of how a network or the mainstream film industry regurgitated to the public is now in the hands of the public. For this first time, media can properly express how a minority ethnic group or, i.e., a gay couple live, love and laugh with their own voices.

We think we are quite familiar and advanced with our grasp of media but the truth is we are still fighting the surf to get out into its vastness. Media is limited by us and we have a lot to learn from what it can offer.

If the point of this posting is discuss our memory as media, what can we learn from the existing phenomena of social websites about how our memory functions? For one thing, the idea of remembering someone since the last time you saw him or her, perhaps ten years ago, is quite a strange fix, if he or she is living. The reason for not updating your mental profile of that person is most likely because you have not received any additional it is really because of a lack of information. This is a bit of an absurd way to go through is like reading an encyclopedia from 1945 for information about a European country you plan to visit next year without looking at any other information.

The problem is not that you are just remembering a person at a moment in time but are holding on to that idea of the person, when he or she may be incredibly different, beyond your recognition and appreciation. People change and you cannot hold them to be like what they once were. That being said, if you really got to know a person in an intimate and soulful way in the past and that person has been true to his or her core self, then the effects of time and aging do not matter and ten years apart may only feel like a brief moment. In the world of Facebook the mental profiles are continuously updated because everyone on it is refreshing his or her online profiles. Sometimes I even feel like it is a personal duty to update information...not because I think people actually care so much about me as it is to simply make the information available and possibly freshen up those stale memories.

Perhaps what happened is that writing, photography, film making, etc. came along and after the initial wowed abstraction was hurdled, media seemed to mirror our thinking, seeing and even being. Media became too human and analogous to the point where we are discussing memory and our minds as media. Traditional media was always a recording and meant for later retrieval. Even most forms of media today are about preservation. The way films and music are made is all about capturing a presence (a controlled past for the future) then being able to distribute it and profit from with financial rewards and human acceptance. Most arts and musicians live for the moment but it is also very important for them to be remembered.

Being remembered is a very powerful force. When photographers wanted to photograph the stoic Native Americans, their biggest selling point was that the Natives recognized the power and magic of photography to capture part of them. Even the suicide bombers, in their final hours, get a little media crazed and record their farewells.

An interesting situation is live television and live radio, although these too are typically recorded and made available for podcasts and are archived. While records and movies were recordings by default, live radio is not, yet computers can store every moment. It is important to note that our memory is not documentation and it is not time travel. It is a reading of an impression that was made, which sometimes appears like a flashing neon sign but can also seem like a badly weathered tombstone. If media was established to assist our minds with remembrance, and we have now seen media surpass our wildest dreams, then what would it mean for our minds to imitate new media and computers?

We can certainly shuffle and sort and make relational connections but maybe next time we are in a pointless argument, we really need to go to this instant replay in our minds and view what happened from every angle, objectively. And maybe we need to post our most private thoughts and mental obstacles which inhibit us, knowing that there are others who need this out there as well.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Home Street Home

by Drew Martin

This is a continued conversation with Rebecca Kevill about placing homeless man sculptures in public places. This time I have asked her questions about her own work in England. Please see the previous posting for her questions to me.

I find it remarkable that while we are an ocean and a generation apart we came to the same place with our homeless men sculptures. Do you think it is some kind of cosmic collaboration or is it simply a set of conditions we are both responding to?

I think it could be both. I feel in this day an age with all the money, technology, information and resources our race has there is no excuse for people being without homes and shelter, clean clothes, food and water. But yet there are millions of people without proper living conditions and I find this quite sad. I live in a country that will pay for people’s homes when they do not have jobs, free medical care and other benefits, so I find it hard to believe in a society so rich that people still slip through the net. As a member of society I find it quite hard that the rest of society chooses to ignore this and I do not understand why governments can’t find a solution to this problem. We are members of a social system that isn’t as helpful to the people who need it the most and I believe this has lead us both to respond to this issue. It could be perceived as a cosmic collaboration through coincidence and as you say oceans and generations apart, we still witness the same issues and I’m sure this problem has been embedded in our culture since homes were invented.

How did you personally come to this project?

The project started when I chose to create artwork based on city life. My first idea was concerned with the old buildings in the city centre and the layers and layers of dirt and grime that had built up on them over the years. Studying the rest of the city centre I saw parallels within the darker side of city life, from prostitutes to homelessness, binge drinking, violence, etc. Thinking about homelessness a lot deeper made me realize that these people are “the visible invisible” as we see them but we look straight past because they make us feel uncomfortable. Yet seldom do people think how uncomfortable it would be if roles were reversed. This concept has developed further which has taken me to where I am now creating the loose change prints and arranging interventions.

Do you feel there is anything specific to England in your homeless man or is he a flat-world global citizen?

I believe the only thing that would distinguish him as specific to England are the clothes he wears: scarf, hat, fleece, gloves, pants, as it can be quite cold and I felt the clothing I had chosen was the most realistic compared to what other homeless people wear around the city centre. If I was to put him in a warmer city, it would not work the same as the clothing would be unsuitable. Anybody from any part of the world can become homeless so he could be from any walk of life and could be developed further to represent the different homeless people worldwide. As I was concentrating mainly on Manchester city centre I felt it more important to try and tackle the issue in Manchester rather than taking this global but the project is something that is always expanding so you never know.

Why did you choose the spots you did? In the background there is signage for a food co-op, a pharmacy and a Foot Locker. Are those key?

Yes they are “key” to the idea. The spots where specifically selected. I placed him outside of a Foot Locker on one of the busiest shopping streets in Manchester (Market Street) as I felt this street would gain the most variety of reaction. The vast majority of people who walked past were too concerned with what the latest fashions are and shopping or getting back to work on time and did not notice he was a dummy and ignored him thinking he was a real person begging for money. Here they treated the dummy as they would a real homeless person. The second location was Piccadilly. This is quite a diverse area within Manchester, it is the epicenter of all the different quarters with in the city and it was here I found the most interest. More people noticed the dummy begging and left him some change; some people went to see if he was ok because they believed him to be real. Some altered his sign so he could get more change. The third place was out side of the Halifax bank in a quieter part of the city, as people withdrew their money from the bank they hastily walked by without looking at the dummy in case he was real and wanted some money. I would also like to add that I intentionally did not give the dummy a face; I wanted people to notice this and to think what the significance of this could be. This steamed from the idea “The visible invisible”

Does your homeless man have a name and a story? If not, what would those be?

Yes, Barry is his name. His story is a tale of an existence of non existence in a world where he has nobody and nobody notices him. People do not see him for the man he is, yet they judge him for what he has become. Like so many other people who are homeless he did not have the support system of friends and family when his luck ran out and had nobody to turn to and nowhere to go, which forced him to take refuge on the streets and to start drinking heavily to numb the cold and the misery.

I like the 'Change Please' sign and what you are really saying by that. Is that lost on passersby or do you think some people get it?

I found a wonderful street art image depicting a homeless man with a sign saying “Keep your coins, I want change”. This to me proved to be a profound statement that inspired my sign greatly. I did not want it to be too obvious, but the people who actually looked at the homeless dummy and realized it wasn’t a real man understood the message that this sign was sending. I wanted to ask the public to change their reactions to homelessness and be kinder to them as they need support from people who are better off. The word change means so many different things to me concerning this issue. Social change, which is much needed. People changing their mind and attitudes, change as in money, offering help to change somebody’s life and the change needed to improve a government system that does not seem to help these people much.

What is the range of reactions to and interactions with your man? Do people give him money?

People did give him money. The only location where this happened was in Piccadilly. Here he raised approximately £3.00, which I donated to a homeless man who has been helping me compile visual research for this project. The majority of people walked by and ignored the man. As soon as people see somebody asking for money their instant reaction is to walk past and totally avoid looking so they can divert an uncomfortable situation of acknowledgement. An old lady donated some money as did a middle aged man, both of these people did not look like they had a lot of money which I found very endearing. Some other people donated some coins. Somebody also altered his sign and another man altered his hat to gain more attention to the dummy. Other people approached me directly to ask questions about the project and told me it was a brilliant idea and it offers a wake up call to the vast public.

You told me that a policeman recently asked him if he was OK and you were delighted by this. Is that because he took the bait or because he showed compassion, or both?

I was glad because this showed concern and compassion to the welfare of the dummy who he thought was a real man. It’s nice to know that if it was you living on the streets and looking near to death, that there is at least one person walking past that cares for your welfare rather than trying to avoid direct contact as much as possible. I was also glad as this gave me confirmation of the realism the dummy represented and the impact this would have on the people walking by.

What is the connection between this project and the actual state of homeless people? You are referencing them but they are not actually really part of the project. Have you thought about a project in which the homeless are participating and directly benefiting? Maybe it's setting up an elaborate dining table on the street with a great spread, reserved only for the homeless who are brought to their seats with dignity, while the common citizen is told they are not invited.

That is a really nice idea Drew. It would be brilliant to put into practice. Homeless people are part of the project in a sense that their stories are my research and this pushes my work forward, also within my sketch books and visual research I draw them and take their photos. The real reason I try not to directly use them to participate with in the art work is because a lot of homeless people do not want to be recorded as a lot of them are running away from people and problems and others are simply ashamed and do not want to be published in works, although they are pleased that through art I am trying to change how other people react to them but they don’t feel it necessary to directly get involved.

I have only been in England a few times, and have only spent a total of two weeks in London but the feeling I got when I compare it to what I know from America is that the lower class really feels stuck. In the US , even though the lower class is probably worse off in terms of lifestyle and services, there is also a feeling of hope. It's delusional but at the same time it is uplifting. Can you comment on this and what know of the psychology of the down-trodden?

I know from personal experience of being working class that when you are down on your luck the feeling of entrapment is down spiraling and hard to get away from and often it is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you can’t pay your bills and buy food, etc. We do live in a society where if you are working class you are simply working class. The government in my opinion gives with one hand and then takes it all back with the other. The middle classes thrive and prosper where as the poorer classes struggle more and more with increasing cost’s and bringing home wages that stay at a national minimum. Capitalism operates on a nasty system whereby if you cannot afford to pay a bill, they simply sell the debt on to bailiffs who push the debt up to a ridiculous rate and when you can’t afford to pay the increasing rates they come and seize your belongings and in the worse cases your home. Once you end up in this situation it is easy to feel there is no way out and the government does not seem to be tackling this problem in a fair and reasonable way. The current economic crisis is making matters worse for a lot of poor people whose jobs are no longer secure and the bills and taxes keep amounting up. It is easy to feel like there is no escape as the consequences of these types of situations are devastating to families and individuals and a constant worry to the people facing these problems. On the other hand, I do believe that the majority of British people who have a support system of friends and family find this uplifting, I believe the support and compassion we offer and receive from our loved ones is what keeps us all going. Even if it is only somebody making you a cup of tea and lending an ear to your problems it is instantly reassuring and gives you a ray of light to finding a solution.

Rebecca comes from a print making background. Pictured below is the cyanotype Penny Flute from her The Visible Invisible series. Under that image is a picture of a cardboard homeless sculpture titled Sleeping Rough. This is a work she left out in the elements and visited daily, noting and documenting its demise. I love both of these works. I like how the negative look of the busker is more than just a cool effect as it comments on the fact that he is socially invisible. The cardboard sculpture is especially interesting because of how much it looks like a Pompeii victim and how Rebecca created a piece primarily from cardboard, which is the ubiquitous and essential material for street survival. I had read about this work in emails from Rebecca but did not picture how human it remained, even throughout its disintegration.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Homeless Art: Can You Spare Some Change?

by Drew Martin

I was recently contacted by Rebecca Kevill, a 23 year old student in the UK, studying for her degree in Visual Art at Salford University in Manchester. Her practice is print based but she has expanded into some interesting site specific works to challenge the public’s perception of homelessness. Rebecca recently did an intervention in Manchester city centre, where she created a dummy of a homeless person and left him begging to see how the public reacted. She also made a sculpture of a sleeping man out of cardboard that is currently homeless and returns to him every day to see how the weather and the outdoors has affected him. Rebecca is now creating prints and casts of coins with resin and in place of the Queen's head she inserts a homeless person's face: playing off the phrase "loose change" and all the social meanings of the word "change" which empowers her work.

In this posting the table has been turned. Rebecca asked me ten questions about my own homeless man project, which I have written about before. I like her questions and the responses they created:

Is the sculpture a personal reflection of your own experience from riches to rags?

In a way yes. I grew up in a very comfortable, safe and educated household in suburbia New Jersey. There aren't homeless people in suburbia. There is no place for them. Of course we saw plenty of them in New York City but in my youth I could not recognize those as individual tragedies. They were more like performers in a city with so many prostitutes, drag queens, thugs, etc. Even upon closer inspection, the homeless in New York seemed to be the result of some vice so that the moral barrier between us made us seem immune to such an existence.

Homelessness was not a state I pitied but something I detested because I had a lot of rough encounters with guys on the street in New York, when it was a tougher place. Once I had a knife held to my stomach by a homeless junkie. Another time I was chased a few blocks down the street by a homeless man with an aluminum baseball bat. I shocked most by the homeless men having sex with each other in the Port Authority Bus Terminal men's restrooms, out in the open. I was a young teenager and it was not something I should have seen at that time. So all of my experiences until I was 18 with the homeless were quite negative.

When I went to college in California I met a whole different class of homeless men that I really connected with. They were either leftover free-spirited hippies or absent minded physicists who never married. They were more like prophets or scholars from ancient Greece. They lived a lifestyle I could imagine, especially in California, where you have beautiful weather, beaches and mountains. I remember telling myself that if I ever became homeless in New York, that I would make my way out West.

In college, I started squatting the art studio my school gave me as an honors student. I was caught and kicked out of the space for living. I spent a night on a flat roof at school and then started couch surfing. I moved into a trailer and eventually went to Prague where I lived in a squat for eight months. We burned coal in rooms, gathered water from a leaking pipe in the basement and used hallway toilets in other buildings. It was Bohemian but was really on that edge of not being romantic had we been a little older or less artsy. I had a personal problem with rats. One big one, the size of a cat, jumped on me two nights in a row. That really freaked me out and I quickly moved out, cut my natural dreadlocks and cleaned up my act. Ever since then (that was 1992, when I was still 22) I feared anything close to that lack of civility.

What inspired you to make the sculpture and how has your use of materials impacted the development of the piece?

(Fast forward 17 years later)...I am married with three young children, a lovely wife and a professional job in New York. I am the breadwinner. Our house, car, health insurance and education for our kids are all dependent on the fact that I have a job in a teetering economy. The fall from grace in America is a pretty hard one. The European social net does not apply here so you always have the fear of losing it all, very quickly and not necessarily because you did anything wrong: with gambling, drug addictions or other vices.

I have always made art but in school we were discouraged from the representational and the human form. About two years ago I wanted to make a life-sized sculpture but I am back in suburbia New Jersey and the classic materials of marble and bronze are neither economically or logistically possible and I did not want to get into toxic materials. So I decided to make something with materials I was comfortable with and was easy and inexpensive: chicken wire and fabrics. Using my own clothes moved the project towards a self portrait by default.

Why is the sculpture only a self portrait by default?

I made the general form of the homeless man and dressed it with my simply became a self-portrait because of the personal affects, especially the shoes, which I had walked hundreds of miles in over the years. The suit on him was an old suit I wore every week for a couple years. Another thing about it being a self portrait is that one's most natural sense of proportion and scale is based on your own body. You are the measure. Anyone smaller than you is short, anyone heavier is overweight, etc. You are the norm and your own Vitruvian Man. And so, when I made this homeless man he was simply based on me. I used myself as the model for how he should be on the ground. When you paint or sculpt or make music, you reach a certain point in a project where you say "That's it!". Everything seems right. With a self portrait you get to that point and you are simultaneously feeling like you are having an out of body experience because you recognize yourself, in front of you.

Why do you want the sculpture to “strike a chord” with the viewer?

Making a homeless self portrait was like meeting my greatest fear as a husband and father, head on...but it was also endearing, because I looked after him. If I were an African American making the sculpture, it would have a very different meaning, but I am a 40 year old white male and I am tall, have all my teeth and hair and I am educated. I am in the most advantageous demographic possible and so the work is not a social commentary as much as it as a projection of fear.

Originally I had the homeless man my house; at first in a little front room gallery and then in the hallway so my family had to walk around him. They were the first viewers and found him a bit alarming. I would be at work while my homeless self portrait was on the floor in the house. It was kind of a statement about my needing to go to work, which is often unappreciated by spouses and children.

Then I put him outside, right in front of my house. I live in a fancy town, but on the least attractive street; a busy street heading into the center, where if there were a homeless person, it would be his turf. I had him outside for a couple hours and then I needed to go to the dentist. My wife asked me to take it inside. Just as I did the police arrived and were met by an old lady in a car who had called it in. She pointed at the empty spot, a bit confused, the police looked at her like she was crazy. It was an interesting moment. Did she call the police to help the man or simply get him out of her view? I think the latter. If I were a minute later, I would of had to explain it to the police and I probably would have gotten a ticket for something but I am not sure what: vagrancy? littering?

What are your intentions with this piece?

My intention was to make a sculpture of a homeless version of me, with all of those implications, but also to treat it as a homeless piece of art to comment on art without gallery representation or a permanent place in a museum. That was just as an important discussion for me. I liked how the first impression, that it was a homeless man, brought people up close to it with a series of questions, which lingered even after discovering he might not be real, that he might just be a sculpture. This kind of flips the normal comment from artist, that through art the questions of life are raised or answered. Francis Bacon said the purpose of art was to return one to life more violently. I wanted to make something that made life a bit rawer before it was revealed as art.

Why make the sculpture homeless instead of displaying it in a gallery or museum? What does the act of making this piece homeless add to your work?

I work as a marketing manager right on Houston Street in Manhattan, which means I saddle SoHo and the West Village. There are more galleries than food stores and they all have that ART barrier, which means you should act a certain way and dress a certain way. They are not friendly places or places I feel relaxed in to appreciate art...and so they breed a certain kind of flippant art. I like the pedestrian. I like to appeal to passersby because there is no pretense. Galleries in NY are more concerned about paying rent than connecting with people. Museums are not interested in art unless there is a big name around it, which they can market to draw crowds. Making the homeless man, knowing he would be homeless as art kept me honest, instead of thinking I should have to play a certain game.

How long do you plan on keeping the sculpture homeless for?

That being said...a long-time friend was curating a small group show in a Czech village last summer. The show was called Freak Show and my friend asked me to be in it and bring the homeless man over. I liked the show idea and the small gallery was so off the beaten path that it seemed like a good place for him. I had already thrown out the first homeless man outfit so I boxed up wire frame and another outfit of mine and put him together last August and showed him for a couple months. In the gallery he was originally in the courtyard but was eventually brought into the hallway. This curator suggested the homeless man be dismantled at the end of the show and that he would give the clothing, shoes, blankets etc. to homeless people in Prague. I thought this was a great idea, a nice cycle but he was never shipped up to Prague. I requested he been used locally but to be honest with you I am not sure of what happened to him.

Is the weathering of the piece something you took into account to change the work over a period of time? How has the weather altered the piece already?

The way I made my homeless self portrait was pretty temporary. I think it would disintegrate fairly quickly outside and it would lose its convincing realness. It is an idea/project I would like to explore...making the weathering a key element. Maybe its is about documenting how it just falls apart or maybe the piece is about preserving it. One of the things that got me thinking about homeless sculpture was a trip I took to Japan six or seven years ago. I spent a week in Tokyo, walking around the city about fourteen hours a day and spending only a dollar or two on food. I was amazed by their homeless culture. Most homeless men built little box huts out of pallets, cardboard. They were raised up on milk crates and covered in blue tarps and they built them under elevated highways. Some of them had clothes lines and bicycles parked outside. They had ingenious rolling screen doors and kept their shoes outside.

They really blew me away because in homelessness there is an expression of the society in which they are raised. In Key West, Florida, for example, the homeless, named Conchs, are like a band of shipwrecked sailors. In New York you really feel a sense of neglect and despair in the homeless, like they just could not "make it" in the Big Apple. In Japan they were so self-engineered and so polite that they the general feeling was that they could take care of themselves.

I think I want to explore that side of homeless: the Robinson Crusoe type. I had actually put together a project proposal after I came back from Japan to return to Tokyo with nothing and live off the streets for month and document how the homeless lived and make my own shelter and find my own food. But I cannot do such a project while raising my family. We talk a lot about sustainable buildings now, I wanted to explore sustainable people.

Did you gain different reactions from the different cities you visited with the sculpture?

My homeless man has only been in two places now. In America, I think the old lady calling the police was pretty typical. The Czechs saw it around an art show, but when I was setting him up outside the gallery in a square the people seemed a bit suspicious. I would expect the reations to widely vary and be in line with how each particular culture treats its homeless populations and how its citizens view art. I used to busk around Europe and the reactions were very different depending on the city. I had a fake-snake charming act, which I started after I was mugged in Spain and needed to make money.

In Figueras, the boys were taunting and the girls supportive. In Amsterdam, people saw the act as woven into the fabric of the city, the same way the prostitutes are integrated into their "shop" windows. I had a copy of Homer's The Odyssey on the original homeless man to comment on that cultural difference: the way a poor man may really be a disguised god in Greek thinking. I think one's religion/beliefs would weigh in on this depending if the reaction would be of charity or reform or simply relegating him to a lower caste.

What prompted the initial idea?

In addition, to what I have already discussed as influences for the homeless man sculpture, another thing that prompted this project is something even deeper in American culture. It is a history in which man emerged from the woods and this myth was perpetuated in popular shows such as Little House on the Prairie. I was a boy scout and we were taught real survival skills and spent a lot of time in the woods. There is that survival thinking of many Americans, which is combined with a general suspicion of cities. There is no going back to isolated nature...the survival skills should be geared more towards urban existence. The old clothes on my homeless man were basically trash. The homeless in New York are treated like trash. The homeless sculpture was about personifying trash and making it personal to me.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pier Review

by Drew Martin

I went to the Armory Show on Saturday, March 6th at Pier 92 and 94 in New York. I had never been to a trade show for art before. I am sure most exhibitors shun that term, but it was not very different than trade shows I have been to for other industries...and that was the impression I got there, that art is an industry and its products need to be peddled.

I am not put off by trade shows...I love all the dynamics of the exhibitors and the attendees. I have especially savory memories when I met my wife at the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center a few years ago. I think even the most devoted art lover would not blink before trading in his or her ticket for that exhibition. Though I last wrote about a shared experience and intermingling of art and food, an art exhibition lacks a natural structure of a food exhibit. At a food show you can start off with drinks and appetizers, work you way through a series of courses and then end with an array of desserts. There is no equivalent to this in art; no appetizer art or dessert art. I could fit works into those genres but they simply are not expressed that way. You do not finish off a Turner with a Matisse.

The Armory is more random, like a food fight. It would be difficult to talk about the work because it is not a curated show or a museum collection and you can find art of varying talents and quality. The problem with this warehouse approach for displaying art is that the precision, space and serenity of the museum are lost to small, impermanent booths. Not that art needs to be seen in that environment, but these works wish to be. The crowded venue gives the feeling of being in a market. I thought I would be turned off by the people in the crowds but they were genuinely engaged and interested, even more so than I have seen in museums where you often get the people who think they should be there but do not know why and are uncomfortable: the wayward tourists and the reluctant tag-along boyfriends who decide to use the stroll through, i.e., MoMA for foreplay. Those are the guys who walk around with their hands parked inside the back of their girlfriends' jeans.

The Armory attendees come in all shapes and sizes but they are all there for the art even if it that means something more akin to design in their eyes or as a backdrop for their socializing and personal fashion. I met former NJ Governor Corzine, with whom I spoke for a few minutes. He said he preferred the impressionists but was there with his "significant other" (his words) who liked modern art and was thrilled to be there. In a nutshell, I found much of the artwork interesting, but hard to appreciate in that setting, which is very deceiving because the pieces that stand out in the crowds and are competing with all the other work might be too visually loud and annoying in a more intimate setting, such as one's home. Just as being able to listen to music in a car really changes the kind of music we listen to because of the speed, distractions and competing noises, this kind of trade show approach, actually changes the kind of art one would buy.

What caught my eye most of all were the exhibitors. In a traditional trade show for electronics, pharmaceuticals and the like, the exhibiting team is usually a middle-aged married man and a 20-something, single and fairly new female employee, who is easy on the eyes. The latter is nicknamed the Booth Bunny. The Armory had quite a diverse range of exhibitors, but certainly not in an ethnic way. I took a picture of every exhibitor desk/table set up (and that's a lot). They fell into one of ten categories: the waiting room, the receptionist, the accidental office, the worker bees, the corner people, the airport delay, the talk show, retail, the cafe and the shoe shine. The difference between the accident office and the worker bees is that the former looks like someone and his or her desk was dropped into the exhibition space and that he or she could care less about the show around him or her. The worker bees, on the other hand, are buzzing around selling art and working their spaces.

My favorite were the airport delay exhibitors, who looked like they missed their planes and had to wait eight hours. They were all on their phones or computers and looked a bit bedraggled. I also thought the corner people were interesting...stuffed as tightly into the corners of their booths as possible. Perhaps they thought they would be less obvious but they just looked odd and a little neglected or worse, abused. I had hoped to see someone playing off his or her presence but nobody was having fun with the possibilities of the set up, strictly business as usual. I have included some visuals to help explain the categories:

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Feast Your Eyes on This!

by Drew Martin

Food has been an essential ingredient in art as long as humans have been creatively expressing themselves. The prehistoric cave paintings were the first shopping lists and menus. Those "game" plans were the conceptual leap needed to set up our minds for greater abstractions to follow. The manual skills of cooking and meal preparation and the aesthetics of food presentation certainly influenced the mixing of pigment and the aesthetics of art in the same way that tanning hides established methods for stretching canvases.

Everything from grapes to dead fowl have been the subject of innocent still lifes just as food has also been material for some of the most erotic and controversial works. Karen Finley had her 1990 National Endowment of the Arts grant vetoed for "obscenity" because of the performance We Keep Our Victims Ready in which she applied chocolate icing to her naked body (to symbolize the feces-covered rape victim Tawana Brawley). In other performances she coated herself with honey and her own breast milk. The very focus (maybe obsession is a better word) on breasts for millennia in art is certainly telling that the human race has never visually weened itself from our very first source of sustenance.

While food symbolizes a cornucopian good life, it is also used for cannibalistic effigies of bodies cast in chocolate and other edibles. The acts of eating and defecating are used by many performance artists in their work (Finley included) and the art world often borrows analogies of consumption, digestion and excretion.

What I think we have not seriously considered is that the way we instinctively react to art is not a far cry to how we react to food. An installation which makes this very clear for me is The Banquet by Panova*. The work consists of an exquisitely set Victorian-style dining table, elegant tableware and an abundance of mouth-watering dishes. When I first passed by the window where The Banquet was recently shown, I mistook its location as a trendy new catering company moving into the former office of Think Tank 3 on the NW corner of Hudson and Morton in NYC. The spread is, however, an assortment of fusion dishes, which combine food with stuff: everyday consumer objects, clothing, body hair and shards of glass. From afar the instinct is to dig in but at close range the reaction is to keep a safe distance: Everything has been transformed by Panova's artistic Midas touch.

The Banquet, inspired by Vladimir Sorokin's novel, Pir, was quite a revelation for me because I could not tell if my repulsion was from the adulterated food or the teasing art: That ambivalence made me realize the close connection between the two. When people turn away from art they dislike, someone more sympathetic might say they do not "understand" it but I think the general response has nothing to do with that kind of cerebral comprehension. I believe it is literally a "gut" reaction and is entirely similar to the kind of reaction one has to tainted or spoiled food, due to either a bad experience or perhaps instinctive visual cues that the food has gone bad, such as mold or maggots.

One of the treats of this project, which makes it even more scrumptious, and further blurs the lines of food and art, is that all of the art/meals were prepared from recipes, which were tacked up on a nearby wall.

Here is one example followed by its presentation, and other dishes with their ingredients:

Deep Fried Lingerie Fritters
2- lace bras, size 32A
2- lace panties, size small/medium
2 – Cups Butter Milk
6 – Egg Yolks
2 – Cups All Purpose Flour
1/2 – plain bread crumbs
2 – Tablespoons of Seasoning salt
1 – Tablespoon Cayenne Pepper
Cooking Oil for Deep Fryer

Pour buttermilk into a large bowl. Place lingerie into bowl and soak in your refrigerator for about 4 hours. Combine breadcrumbs, flour, seasoning salt, garlic, onion powder, cayenne pepper and poultry seasoning in large bowl. After about 4 hours remove lingerie from the refrigerator. Place egg yolks into a small bowl and beat until smooth. Dip a single piece of lingerie into the egg yolks and then coat it thoroughly in the mixture. Allow your lingerie to sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes before frying. Follow the instructions on your deep fryer for preparing and heating your oil. When the oil is ready place lingerie into fryer and cook until done. The lingerie should be golden brown…using tongs turn each piece of lingerie if necessary. Don't overcrowd the fryer. Garnish with a slice of pineapple and parsley.

I love how this work and its process are fun and playful and yet the presentation is quite formal and the reaction is something quite serious (when you are not laughing out loud). I raise my glass for their historic toast to Meret Oppenheim's Fur Tea Cup and Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. The Banquet is fresh and feels contemporary without having to claim that territory.

What I have neglected to explain is that this piece was part of a larger group show, Romance, which has already come and gone (February 23rd-28th). A work from it that I also liked, in a squeamish way, was
David Bodhi Boylan's Bedbugs + Pubic Lice mattress, which stood upside down at the other side of the temporary gallery. Noticing it after the the details of the table only compounded the feeling that something was not right.

Romance was curated by Sasha Panyuta, who also had paintings in the show. The press release for the show explains:

Fifteen artists were asked to create work as responses to experiences with romantic relationships. Through a variety of media, each work conveys a personal relationship to the fractured, yet still omnipresent concept of love and the erotic in contemporary society. Ranging from fantastic to literal, sensual to abstract, ironic to ardent, Romance takes a kaleidoscopic look at today’s romantic and sexual relationships.

More on the show and the artists can be found at >>>

*Panova is a multimedia art collective based in New York City. Focusing mainly on installation and performance, Panova uses a combination of organic materials, consumer objects, and the human body to explore alternate modes of experience and expression. Panova plays with the absurd, always looking for uniqueness in the transitory. Their projects, magical hybrids of both grotesque and comic weight, satirize the human condition and the nature of contemporary art.

photos by alina smirnova