Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Twenty Something with Something to Say: An Interview with Damaris Drummond

Damaris Drummond is a Brooklyn-based performance artist who creates live and recorded works about the absence, presence and yearning for love with tones of fantasy and mysticism. The following interview was conducted via email. All the images here are screen grabs from the performances posted on her website.

Drew:
You use the pseudonym Damarisland. Is this a way for you to define that space you are in when you are performing and creating art for yourself or do you feel like someone is entering a unique land during your performances?

Damaris:
I was using this as a pseudonym when I first started performing in Denver. I was using the moniker as a way of branding/marketing my work. Now that I have matured a bit I am thinking that I will continue making work using my full name.

I have been sort of trying to phase out of Damarisland this past year; using it as my production house name rather than a title I call myself. Grip yourself for a URL change in the near future to damarisdrummond.com.


Drew:
You grew up in Maine, as your site says "on a steep hill". How did those two elements contribute to your character? Maine, for someone who grew up in the New York area, sounds so remote and isolated. Is that so, and does having that kind of space make one more creative, simply out of need for stimulation? And what about the hill? Is that a teetering influence, like you are never on level ground? I grew up in a hilly town and I always looked at the hills as frozen waves, whose crests I could run up on top of or "surf" down on my bicycle.

Damaris:
Growing up in Maine is all I know. It's hard to have an analytical grasp of one's childhood. In those formative years you can't really step out and imagine things any other way. I suppose it's just like how I grew to be six foot tall in sixth grade. Always towering, I can't ever imagine any other vantage.

Maine is rural. We rode bikes a lot, made forts in the woods and played Swiss-family-Robinson on the rocky shores. I was imagining all the live long day, but I can't tell you that the same thing would be untrue were I to have been raised in Chinatown.

Drew:
I really liked two of your works on your site in particular. One is 16, 17, 18 and the other was the Two Loops and a V. 16, 17, 18 is about writing to an unknown lover. Why is the height of the windows you rewrote your old journal entries on important? Did the height and perhaps fearful feeling of being up on the 30 foot ladder, help you to recall some of those feelings or was it simply to show a distance to that time and how love can be so precarious?

Damaris:
Climbing the 30 foot ladder was an act of contrition. I have always been afraid of heights. I wanted to face that fear. Many times I perform and feel this super-human force seem overtake me. I was not afraid while performing 16, 17, 18. The height of the windows was meant to illustrate in physical space the want of a high school aged girl wanting to fall in love.

Drew:
What I like about Two Loops and a V, in which your knitted clothing unravels and is unravelled and turned into a "cathartic web", is how it relates to the story of Penelope, who delays the suitors competing for her in the absence of Odysseus (who has been gone for twenty years since his departure for the Trojan war). She tricks them by claiming she will choose one of them when she finishes weaving a burial shroud for Laertes, Odysseus' elderly father. During the day she works on the piece, but in the night she unravels it. Was that story on your mind when you did the piece?

Damaris:
It was not. However, I love the correlation you created.

Drew:
A lot of your work focuses on your face and your body...or at least part of your body as in your Legs Project, in which the camera follows your lower half in fish net stockings around. How do the topics of narcissism and exhibitionism influence you? Do you feel like your work is about seducing the viewer...or maybe the broader question is...Do you think art is about seducing the viewer?

Damaris:
I think that there are multiple ways to entice a viewer. When dealing with performance, there is an obvious physical interaction your are eliciting with your audience. The fact that I am a female in my twenties does seem to attach a sexual prowess to some of my works, especially Internet-driven works like 365 Faces. Does this strengthen or weaken the success of my art? If a forty-year old construction worker were to put on fishnet stockings and ride that bike in Legs Project an entirely different meaning would be generated. Maybe I should try that.

Narcissism is something I am fascinated by. In this day and age when everyone can be self-ordained experts on everything, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, everybody's voice/insights can try and shout over the masses. I am just trying to cut out a slice of magic in this stark reality: to create from my experiences and imagination.

Drew:
Keeping on this topic, how do you anticipate your work and your audience to change as you eventually age? What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now...20 years from now?

Damaris:
I've been writing a fair amount of dialogue lately. My latest pieces have taken the form of more theatrical renderings of reality. I would like to continue to play with this format. I used to write plays as a child and am interested in experimenting with that through stage and video. My love and I are also starting a band!

Drew:
You studied in France and Italy. Both of those countries have much more of street performance culture than any place in the United States. Did that presence influence your work or are you more influenced by the performing arts culture in the fine arts, and if so, who has made an impression on you?

Damaris:
I am extremely impressionable. It's fair to say that every cultural experience I have had has informed my work. The traditions and history of Europe never fail to influence me.

Drew:
Thank you for your time.

Damaris:
Thanks for you interest.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Archaeologists Dig Art

by Drew Martin

I have heard people speak passionately about the arts but the former resident archaeologist and social historian of Colonial Williamsburg, Ivor Noël Hume, once wrote about finding the right image to support his unearthed artifacts as a carnal chase..."pursuing the proof with all the intensity of a hunter, the adrenalin flowing until the moment of the kill; then an instant of high elation and it's done."

My first ancestor to arrive in Virginia came from London in 1619 (a couple years before the Pilgrims set foot in Plymouth). He was killed by the natives during the massacre of 1622 (probably for pestering the tribes about their arts). This relative was a Hancock and was on the Berkeley Hundred at the time.

An elderly artist in Connecticut heard a little bit about my ancestry and assumed I descended from the Martin's Hundred. He felt compelled to give me his copy of Hume's book, Martin's Hundred, which is a very detailed description of the archaeological dig, full of interesting notes, such as Hume's preferring to be assisted by the College of William and Mary's football team for moving soil
in the steamy woods of the Virginia summer instead of getting help from his more sensitive and bookish students.

What is quite interesting, is that the colonial American objects, which Hume was finding in the tidewater clay but was having difficulty properly identifying and dating, were depicted in art produced in that period from northern Europe, where the items were created.

Hume explains:

...we have spent long hours trying to find parallels for our artifacts in the genre paintings of Dutch and Flemish artists. From the late sixteenth century until the 1670s, scores of painters fed an art market drawn from farmers and shopkeepers whose taste ran less to great religious and allegorical canvases than to simple tavern scenes-drunks fighting, soldiers playing cards, peasants dancing, and old men making the most of young milkmaids. The drunks have pots in their hands, the soldiers carry weapons, the peasants have laid aside their tools, and the milkmaids have jugs. Thus do we see our artifacts in contemporary settings, playing a part in the life of their time.

The importance of the art extends beyond the simple objects used as illustrative props. Engravings and paintings inform Hume and others about how fences were made, how settlements were planned and, sadly, how and when people were buried. One of the riddles of the Martin's Hundred site was a set of skeletons found with nails laid down their center like buttons. The wood coffins had disintegrated. From European engravings prior to that period, Hume could deduce that the colonists were using gabled coffins, which required nails to be hammered along the central pitch line.

The sources for Hume were eclectic. An engraving, which solved a fence construction problem came from a 1750 copy of The Country Housewife's Family Companion.

Hume reveals some more sources:

For the past thirty years Audrey (his wife) and I have been collecting copies of sixteenth- to nineteenth-century genre art (pictures of paintings clipped from magazines; postcards, slides, sales catalogues) and we have assembled a fairly catholic library of pictures books that run a gamut from European museum catalogues to a pictorial history of ladies' underwear. Thus our approach to most archaeological problems is to turn to the pictures.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Piercing the Veneer of Outside Things

by Drew Martin
I have previously written about John Geiger's The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. It is a book about what people experience when they are alone, with very little environmental stimulation. Sir Ernest Shackleton, the leader of arguably the most wayward expedition ever, summarized his own experience:

"We had pierced the veneer of outside things...we had reached the naked soul of man"

The delusional, psychological behavior of many isolated survivors is explained physiologically in the book:

Under extreme stress and in monotonous environments, the dominant left hemisphere of the brain becomes less dominant, which he (Peter Suedfeld) said reduces "the preponderance of logical, linear, reality-oriented thinking." The right hemisphere, which (to put it simplistically) governs creative, imaginative, not-linear cognition, assumes a greater role than usual.

That stress is said to be produced "when boredom or monotony are combined with a need to maintain a high level of alertness."

I read this book at the same time I was reading another book, much better written and more insightful, about the artist Robert Irwin, who championed the issues of boredom and monotony. The book, (recommended and made available to me by the painter John Coburn) is Lawrence Weschler's Seeing Is Forgetting: The Name of the Thing One Sees, A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin.

On boredom, Irwin remarks:

"Boredom is a very good tool. Because whenever you play creative games, what you normally do is you bring to the situation all your aspirations, all your assumptions, all your ambitions - all your stuff. And then you pile up on your painting, reading into the painting all the things you want it to be. I'm sure it's the same with writing; you load it up with all your illusions about what it is. Boredom's a great way to break that. You do the same thing over and over again, until you're bored stiff with it. Then all your illusions, aspirations, everything just drains off. And now what you see is what you get. Nothing more. A is A and B is B. A is not plus plus plus all these other things. It's just A. And suddenly you've got something showing you all its threadbare reality, its lack of structure, its lack of meaning."

This idea of boredom is a much richer experience than he initially suggests. It is later explained that this absence of something is less about waiting for it to have such an affect as it is about initiating it and surrendering oneself:

He (Irwin) became convinced that if he could give himself over to the canvas, if he devoted the time, that instead of his telling it what was correct, it would tell him. "Renaissance man tells the world what he finds interesting about it and then tries to control it. I took to waiting for the world to tell me so I could respond. Intuition replaced logic. I just attended to the circumstances, and after weeks and weeks of observation, of hairline readjustments, the right solution would presently announce itself."

It is from this perspective that Irwin created works that were not about the intellect but about perception. He replaced the visual with the subliminal. While artists such as Frank Stella made paintings that 'bit' into the surrounding walls, Irwin was making his dissolve.

"I could maximize the energy or the physicality of the situation and minimize the identity or idea or imagery of the situation."

The art-object for Irwin was simply a placeholder that sat in the museum, awaiting the viewer to experience it. Opposing Marshall McLuhan's mantra 'the medium is the message,' Irwin insists that "the art is what has happened to the viewer."

"One of the things about looking at those paintings," he continues, "is that they have no existence beyond your participation. They are not abstractable in that sense...When I look at the world now, my posture is not one of focus but rather of attention..."

Irwin's efforts to be understood were not only with the viewing public but with the institutions of museums as well as with other artists, especially the New York scene that opposed his fetish finishes. I found a nice response to this in the Third Man book:

Openness to experience distinguishes imaginative, independent individuals from unimaginative conformists, and is based on a person's willingness to explore, consider, and tolerate new and familiar experiences, ideas, and feelings. Some contempt for bodily comfort and a need for stimuli derived from exploration are parts of everybody's makeup, but these characteristics are most strongly associated with individuals who rate highly on measures of openness. People with this characteristic typically are full of ideas, quick to understand things, have unconventional values, aesthetic sensitivity, and a need for variety. Openness is seen in the breadth, depth, and permeability of consciousness, and in the recurrent need to enlarge and examine experience.

Finally, Irwin offers:

"All I try to do for people is to reinvoke the sheer wonder that they perceive anything at all!"

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Cause & Effect

by Drew Martin

Yesterday morning I woke up at 3:30 (an hour earlier than usual on weekdays) and did 700 sit ups, then lifted some light weights. At 4:00 a.m. I hit the road running. I had one objective...to run to, and across, the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan from my house 15 miles away. I also wanted to do it at a pace of six minute miles, which is a decent trot for me and which translates as running 10 miles per hour for 90 minutes.

It is hard not to have that length of time on one's mind during this current obsession with the World Cup: every soccer game is at least 90 minutes and many of the players run for a good portion of the game; granted, they also have plenty of time to rest including a half time. So part of yesterday morning's run was simply a test: run as fast as you can for 90 minutes...and forget about a ball, yellow and red cards, stadia of fans and beer advertisements...just run.

Most people would refer to such a dash as merely an athletic exercise but I make no distinction between what I do along the road and what someone else does in a gallery or museum. Because I typically run so early, I especially like how few people are out and what that means for more individual exchanges.

It is interesting how athletes, who are particularly good at their game, are called artists. What is hinted at in such a reference is a craft beyond pure athleticism and sheer skill. The pain and suffering of endurance sports is often central to a performance artist such as Chris Burden with works that included Shoot (1971) where he was shot in the arm and Trans-fixed (1974, right) where he was crucified to the top of a Volkswagen Beetle. Pain and suffering is joined at the hip to tolerance and patience, which we also find in the work of Marina Abramović.

Aside from these more obvious parallels is a deeper conceptual art in which I find my runs and rides more akin to earthworks such as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970), Walter De Maria's Three Cirlces and Two Lines in the Desert (1969) and especially Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Running Fence (1976, below). It is not as simple as saying that I want to consider everything I do as an act of art, but I certainly do try to approach something as elementary as a run with thoughts of the line I am drawing with my movements and what someone is experiencing and thinking when I cross his or her path.

The route I ran yesterday is a familiar bike commuter route to several other men in my community who take up the laboring trek to work of the 50+ round trip miles. One of the riders was tuned in to what I was doing and sent me a link to my route, which is the top, introductory graphic.

What happened yesterday was also pure minimalism: stripping myself of all the equipment and wheels that I relied on for so long. The most profound part is that I was still able to cover the same distance in twice the amount of time as a disciplined pace line of men on racing bicycles.

My commuting by bike was quite an accomplishment: I rode in and out of the city every working day for six months, rain or shine, in 90 degrees weather as well as 17 degrees. When the guys made comments about my performance as a cyclist, I always responded that it was performance art. On a conceptual level it was for me. In six months I covered 6,000 miles, roughly the distance of riding out to California and back. Instead of thinking of the distance I covered, strictly in the seemingly endless loop I was actually doing, I drew it out in my mind and stitched them together as a round trip, transcontinental ride.

I like how walking, running and cycling are abstract and how many related human-performance events take advantage of that. Several years ago, when I was really training, I took first place in a 10K Run for Hunger. Now you can walk, run, ride for Breast Cancer, Multiple Sclerosis and a long list of other causes. I find that link quite encouraging; that humans can take something as simple as walking and use it to raise awareness and money for a good cause.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Leper of Liberty Park: a Non-Book Review

by Drew Martin

The following review is of a book, which has not been written and does not exist in any other form than here in this blurb. It is not meant to be a clever way to propose an idea for a book but, instead, for a potential reader (who would never read the book anyway) to experience this non-book at the same level he or she will might through a book review of a real book (which he or she may also never read):

The Leper of Liberty Park is the latest book by Drew Martin and it takes place in and around Manhattan in the year 3010. The greatest preoccupation in this time is the Mosaic Virus, called MoVi for short.

MoVi is a computer virus, which sounds harmless, but getting it is a slow, lonely death for its victim. Actual physiological diseases have been piling up in humans over the past thousand years but cocktails of medicine, individually catered through on-demand processed food, keep them indefinitely at bay. People live, love and have children with AIDS and other ills saturating their bodies.

The main character, Theo, is a relatively successful family man, with a loving wife, a seven year old daughter and a good job. The story starts with Theo minutes before he gets infected. He picks up MoVi from an adult social networking site he accesses at work. At first Theo's computer screen goes blank and then a total, targeted shutdown quickly dominoes. Almost immediately he is paralyzed to the computer integrated world around him. Not only is he removed from his job two minutes later and left standing on the sun baked street but he is instantly shunned by even his closest friends and family, including his wife, daughter and parents. The computer network system is so complete that after an alert is sent to his wife, which reveals he has been infected, she also receives a list and profiles from a dating service of eligible men who are clean of the virus.

Theo is officially an untouchable. It is not that society has become this heartless, but that MoVi is such a contagious and debilitating computer virus that no one can risk helping him. Unable to stay in Manhattan, Theo paddles across the Hudson River on a large styrofoam crate he finds banging up against a West Side pier. He takes refuge in an old foundation in Liberty Park, New Jersey and hunts Canadian geese, which have grown to the size of emus, and groundhogs, which are now as large as capybaras.

Theo survives the initial blow and is able to sustain himself, but the absence of the pharmaceutical powders, which had colored his food like calculated printer toners, sets off a chain reaction of biological warfare in his body. Soon poor Theo is covered in boils and bloody lesions and dies a painful and pathetic death in a matter of weeks.

The book does not end on such a sad note. Instead, it picks up where we first meet Theo; impeccably clean and professional, sitting pretty in his bright office. The solicitation flashes on his screen. This time he merely shakes his head and gets back to work. It is unclear if either the fall or this altered replay are dreams. What is also uncertain is whether there is a moral message to it. This is never expressed but is left to the reader to interpret; if the story is circumstantial to a lapse in character or simply a cruel world with irreversible circumstances.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ears Dropping

by Drew Martin

I started writing this post on the train yesterday, live from the trenches of experience. I was sitting across from a couple which was way too happy (opiated might be a better term), wearing matching rings, which were very, very shiny. It turns out they just got their wedding bands and had previously eloped. I know this only because the not-so-young couple surprised the mother of the wife over the cell phone, in front of me.

I spend over 500 hours a year on public transportation and have heard it all before from people who take their personal lives public via the cell phone. "We wanted to share it with you first" this couple told the shell-shocked mom. I mentioned they were sitting across from me, but in reality our legs were intertwined, thigh-high, in the crammed seating.

When they finished the call, I simply had to congratulate them to break the awkward moment. I also told them that technically I found out first, before the mom, because of the slight phone delay and the fact that she did not understand them the first time they told her.

The odd thing is, it's mid June and they eloped in March. Additionally, they were fifteen minutes away from the mother's house when they placed the call. I guess this is all part of a technological exhibitionism: confessing private things on national television and making such a call within an earshot of dozens of people. After the couple got off the train, a middle-aged woman hurried over to me and ask for more details (than what she was able to overhear).

When I was a kid, I thought the term eavesdropping was actually called ears-dropping. The former suggests a slightly devious act and an invasion of privacy, but conversations such as the one I was exposed to are simply in-your-face and unavoidable. I think my version, ears-dropping, might be more appropriate of a term now, as in...They were ears-dropping the whole train ride.

I had not given much thought to eloping before. I only know of one distant and older relative who did it. I did not know people eloped anymore. It is actually quite a romantic idea: just being so in love that you want to share that special moment alone with your partner (as opposed to with a train full of strangers). It is also quite refreshing in an age of bridezillas and weddings that cost as much as a house that one can actually stop the wedding machine. I think eloping should be considered by politicians and other influential people. Leaders of conflicting nations could run off secretly together and sign a peace treaty without all the fanfare.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Flying University

by Drew Martin

When I finished my masters in Media Studies from the New School in New York in 2004, I knew I was stepping back out into a cold void of common thought. The last class I took was one devoted to the thesis peer review. Once a week, I met with a dozen other candidates and a supervisor and we critically discussed the progress of each other's work. At times it got quite intense. Once I finished my thesis, I felt I was alone again in the world, surrounded by people discussing little league soccer and kitchen renovations. My only chance of intellectual survival was to do what Madame Curie (Maria Sklodowska) did and "enroll" in the Flying University.

This University, also known as the Floating University, was a virtual school developed in Poland in the 1880s in order for students to study what they wanted despite the impositions of the Russian occupation. It was especially attractive to women, who would not have been permitted to pursue higher education. The system was quite simple: everything was done "underground". The students read on their own and met with a "professor". The system was revived in Poland during communism in order to maintain an intellectual class, which was being killed off by the Communist P
arty, and to prepare for a time of liberated education. Curie is a shining example of the unofficial program: she is the only person to receive Nobel Prizes in two different fields (Physics and Chemistry).

In the spirit of the Flying University I began my own course of study over five years ago to continue my own education unaffiliated with any particular institution; with the hopes of one day translating it into a Ph.D. Though the previous instances of the Flying University were secret affairs in opposition to state dictated and propaganda flavored curricula, my own motivation was born from complacency.

The goal of this study for me is to own a subject. I added to the concept that the "degree" is something like a pilot license, which must be maintained through experience and should be revoked if abused. I occasionally meet with certain minds to guide me along, but most of my work has been self guided and my readings are accompanied by copious notes. This blog is, in fact, part of the note process. These entries are ideas I will hopefully revisit later and expand upon.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

ILL Literacy

by Drew Martin

Illiteracy, the inability to read and write, should not be a problem of the 21st century and yet over 25% of the world's adult population is currently non-literate. That's about one billion people. Two-thirds of this figure are women. More than half of non-literates live in India and China. More than 40% of Africans cannot read or write.

In 1960, Fidel Castro was determined to make Cuba the first country in the Americas to be completely literate. He motivated a few hundred thousand volunteer teachers (some were students only ten years old) to travel across the country to teach the poor to read and write Spanish. The volunteers wore uniforms, not unlike a scout outfit, and even gave free eye exams and glasses in addition to providing learning materials.

A year later, Cuba was entirely literate. The teachers returned triumphantly to Havana and marched with large pencils and declared their victory over the odds as well as opposition: several of the young volunteers were murdered by counter-revolutionaries.

Cuba's National Literacy Museum archives more than 700,000 colorful letters from the people who completed the course, many of them old farmers, most of them thanking Castro. The letter itself was the "final exam" of the new pupil.

The term media literacy suggests that while we may be amused and distracted by media, we have no idea how to read media and don't understand how media functions. Media Literacy is also a subject taught to students in order for them to interpret media and to look beyond the entertainment value. It focuses on journalism, the business of media, representations of various groups, advertising, political campaigns, violence and sexuality. The subject is not widely taught in the United States but it has been part of the elementary education in Australia, Canada, England and Holland.

Illiteracy is a condescending term and it is quite a biased one with a tone of western superiority. While the Aztecs and other natives had a pictographic written form of their language, most natives in the part of North America, which is now the United States and Canada, were by all means non-literate despite having rich and complex languages as well as an established oral tradition. It was recorded, however, that the natives of the United States were amazed by the written language they encountered with the English adventurers.

Let us not forget, however, that the ancestors of our own western culture were suspicious of the invention of writing and the habit of reading. Socrates and Plato discuss this very problem in the Phaedrus. We associate illiteracy with ignorance but the early philosophers and orators were incredibly intelligent and had extensive memories.

Despite this romanticism of the early Greek life, none of us would want to lose our ability to read and write, even if it would mean better memory. Although most people would scoff at the idea they are media illiterate, they also would not want to give up the insight they acquired in the subject. It is the difference of being able to discuss a film or a book in depth, as opposed to simply chiming in on whether you liked it or not or simply adhering to the plot. It is about really understanding art, literature, cinema, television, radio, computers and the Internet.

None of us, myself included, use the Internet to its fullest capacity. We are still too easily distracted by its immediacy and hyperlinking. We do not apply the same amount of academic rigor to it as we would if we were learning a language and we do not study from it the same way we would a Ph.D. program. We will either all spiral into a mess of attention deficit disorder dunces laughing at silly YouTube loops or we will grow to respect what the Internet can offer us academically and intellectually.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Intercom

by Drew Martin

I spent a lot of summer time as a kid in tidewater Virginia. My relatives had little weekend homes along the Diascund Creek. My grandparents' place was a short, swampy walk away from the next house. In the absence of telephones, contacting each other was by means of a hardwired intercom.

Inter-communication was initiated by someone holding down his or her speak-button, which juiced the system. Then the "caller" would yell "Yabba Dabba Do!" This was quite funny because the Flintstones' Brooklyn accent was replaced by sing-songy elderly southern voices. The inquisitive response usually culminated in a game of Nickel-Knock or going fishing out on the dock.

I have always been interested in what communications look like when you stand back from the situation. I remember seeing a homeless man in Berkeley, California communicating with his mothership up in the sky via an amputated phone receiver before there was such a thing as a cell phone. It looked insane but I remember thinking that there will be a time when we would see people talking alone and will simply assume they are in communications with a real person via a wireless device. I flip it now: I take the cell phone out of the picture and watch and listen to people and see how crazy they act.

I have been helping a neighbor train for the NYC Marathon. We run together for an hour and a half every Sunday morning, starting at 6:30. Once he invited another runner along and for the first five to ten minutes they refused to run. Instead, they stood motionless, in the middle of the road, with one arm raised in the air waiting for their Garmin GPS watches to pick up a signal. It was absurd. Even knowing what they were doing did not make them look less silly.

A third of the way through the run, we sent the guest runner back a shorter route as he was dragging. Using his Garmin, he got completely lost on his straightforward return. My neighbor was a hot mess when he ended: more concerned about his average speed than his form. I used to time myself when I ran. I was in communications with that great abstraction of time but it was a bad relationship and so I dropped the stopwatch and listened to my breathing and my heart beat and I measured distance by how my legs felt.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

An Out of City Experince

by Drew Martin

Most of the conscious hours of my day are in New York City but my family life is in New Jersey. When I wake up, I exercise, which includes running for a half hour or more. My favorite run is to go up into the hills of a neighboring town. The town I live in is appropriately called Ridgewood because there is a ridge in the woods: an overlook that pops above the tree line. It is not nearly as high up as the summit of that course I take but it has a breathtaking panoramic view of New Jersey and New York. It's a beautiful thing to behold at any time of day, in any weather.

New Jersey has a bad reputation, but from up on the ridge in the morning with a fresh, cool breeze, you understand why it is called the Garden State: all you see is dense vegetation, all the way to the Hudson River, about ten miles away. The peculiar part of the vista is New York City. From that elevated vantage point and at that distance, the Big Apple is quite puny. It is refreshing to step back and hold it in your hand.

I just finished reading John Geiger's The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible (Weinstein Books, New York, 2009). My mother gave it to me as a present because she thought I could relate to it with my own experience of being stranded, then airlifted from a mountaintop overseas (a long story, a long time ago). The theme of the book is that in extreme circumstances humans perceive the presence of another being, a kind of guardian angel. This being is typically supportive and helps the individual through dire circumstances.

Though this was not my case on the mountaintop, it is quite normal to feel that someone is running next to me on an exerted run. Sometimes it's a person, sometimes it's a large, fast animal like a wolf. It's not a hallucination: I do not believe it's there but there is a presence. I often even feel that I am next to myself.

Geiger explains that the out-of-body experiences... "are related to a failure in the ability of the brain to successfully integrate sensory information, including a person's location in space, sense of touch, and visual inputs."

The feeling is similar when I see New York City off in the distance like a sparkling gem. Sometimes I am mentally "there" during the drifting thoughts of my run so seeing it "out there" is like seeing the Earth rise.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Art That Does Weddings and Bar Mitzvahs

by Drew Martin

Many years ago, I was in a fairly decent fine art museum in the South with some acquaintances. As we approached a large, open area, one of them ran ahead into the space, spun around and excitedly yelled to me "Wouldn't this be a great place for a Super Bowl party!?!" Needless to say I winced. I may have even gasped.

I love art most when it is contemplative. Multi-purposing a museum with raucous, unrelated events seems like an invasion of the barbarians. This is not about whether a museum is elitist or tries to relate to the common citizen, it's about not selling out. There are many kinds of museums: some are pristine white boxes, while others are interactive and playful exhibits in industrial spaces. Whatever the flavor, the mission and vision of a place should not be lost to a quick-buck venture. This is not untrue of galleries, even though they are money driven. Ironically, they mimic the aura of a museum because that is part of what they are selling: a museum quality status.

Renzo Piano is one of the most important living architects and one of the best museum designers. I had the privilege of seeing his new wing at the Art Institute of Chicago under construction and was amazed by the consideration to details of perfection and the execution of the flawless design. I recently listened to him talk (online) about museums, and I embraced his thoughts. He speaks of the museum as a place where you "mentally take your shoes off" and enter a new dimension: of silence. He mentions how important it is to protect this "silent dialogue" in order for us to understand why a museum is a museum.

A great example of an art space that is true to itself and maintains critically acclaimed shows (without all the fanfare of over-marketed big-name artists) is The Drawing Center in lower Manhattan. I encountered quite a different kind of space the other day in SoHo. I walked over to a cafe on Sullivan Street to take a look at some paintings being displayed by an artist I know. On the way there, I passed by the semi-subterranean SoHo Gallery for Digital Art (SGDA). It looked intriguing, so I stopped by on my way back and spent about a half an hour in the space.

SGDA is actually less about digital art and more about being a digital gallery, although, everything shown there is digitized. The Gallery has many things going for it. It's an interesting idea: a space with sixteen large LCD screens cycling various images, thus maximizing the display capacity of the one-room gallery and it has the ability to change the show quickly from the central computer that runs them. It would be an ideal venue for a photography group show.

The screens can be rotated to cater to landscape or portrait formatting. One drawback is that the artwork shown in the screens has to fit into the set dimensions, which would be overwhelming for miniatures and limiting for oversized works. Unfortunately, the neatly framed, white-boxed screens have to compete with columns, radiators, covered windows and other structural, architectural and mechanical elements in the low-ceiling space...but perhaps I am simply too influenced by my current reading of Robert Irwin and his fetish finishes, which apparently the New York gallerists gawked at in his time.

The screens were not changing in synchronization when I was there but I assume that is intentionally done, since they are centrally controlled. Perhaps it would be overwhelming if they did so. While the advancement of the images is not something the viewer can manipulate, nor should he or she be able to, the effect is disorienting in a very good way. I quickly found that the best manner to view such an exhibit is to not stand before each display and watch it go through its loop, but to revolve around the gallery. What happens when you do this is that you do not fixate on the flipping images but the room becomes a continuum: you keep moving around it and each time you see a very different display.

What surprised me most about the peripheral distractions I mentioned above, was the amount of chairs stacked around the room as well as tables and podiums. It turns out that the SGDA is really a multi-screened event space for "you name it" parties and occasions including birthdays, bar/bat mitzvahs, sweet sixteens, graduation, engagements, bridal showers, weddings and wedding receptions, baby showers and anniversaries. There are even packages for these occasions including: Penthouse In Paris, The Little Chapel, Exploring the Moon, The Seven Hills of Rome Heart of Japan, and Jerusalem: The Holy City.

This is a disappointing discovery after reading their ambitious mission statement on their press release that the SGDA has been established "to revitalize and revolutionize the art world" and that it has "set its sights on restoring SoHo to its former place as a hub of artistic creativity."

The show I saw at the SGDA was OTHERWORLD, featuring science fiction illustrators. While most of the work is what you would expect: overdrawn details of buxom cyber chicks, space stations and exotic planetary terrains, two artists in particular: the more painterly John Harris and stunningly architectural Stephan Martiniere were a breath of fresh air with their atmospheric sensibilities. Though, overall, I do love how honestly and intensely absorbed the fantasy illustrators are in their own magical worlds.

The SGDA has only been plugged in since November. I look forward to seeing how they grow as a center for art and I am curious to see how future exhibits take advantage of the unique gallery space.

The comments by Piano were from Great Museums - Riches, Rivals, and Radicals: 100 Years of Museums in America.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

S.O.S. · · · — — — · · · Save Our Stuff

by Drew Martin

The BP Gulf oil leak is such a sad and distressing environmental disaster, which seems to have no end in sight. Perhaps if the general rules of ship salvagers were applied here, we would see much more ingenuity and a lot more hustling. In the salvaging world, up to 50% of the value of a ship's cargo is awarded to whomever can save it from sinking. A fascinating article about this culture is Wired magazine's High Tech Cowboys of the Deep Seas: The Race to Save the Cougar Ace.

In an oil leak situation, the compensation could relate to the potential loss and the averted damage. BP is looking at losses of tens of billions of dollars and the toll on the environment is irreversible...certainly whatever the rewarded amount totaled, would be enough of an incentive to fix the problem for entrepreneurs and other companies if the altruistic 'saving the planet' is not enough of a reason. If this sounds like it is just adding to corporate greed, think of it in terms of the timeliness of sending an important package...you go to FedEx, not the USPS. Neither BP nor the government responded in a timely or appropriate fashion.

Presidential charges have amassed more than just the best minds for urgent demands. Franklin D. Roosevelt's green light for the atomic bomb gathered over 130,000 people for the Manhattan Project. At its peak, the Apollo mission employed 400,000 people after John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon. This current situation deserves as much, if not more attention than building an all-destructive bomb or poking an American flag in the moon, especially because this won't be the last of such catastrophes.

Once talk about using a nuclear bomb blast to seal the ocean floor was put on the table, any other idea, no matter how absurd, seemed worth considering. So, I thought of a few companies sitting on ingenious designs that could be applied here.

1. Prophylactics are arguably one of the most influential modern designs/inventions: curbing population explosions and helping prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Everything about the anatomy of this situation makes a prophylactic solution a perfect fit. Trojan could make enormous condoms to fit over the leaking pipe. When the condoms fill up they would be tied off and floated to the surface and then tugged to land for refining.

2. Motorboat engines are quite a remarkable invention. Typically you would want to keep water away from an engine, but the motor boat engine uses water to cool itself. That being said, the engines have a very bad PR image because they are noisy, dangerous and polluting. The idea of burning off hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil to clean up the mess seems like such a waste and just as environmentally devastating as the leak itself. I would propose to Johnson Outdoors, Inc. to create a motor that could separate the oil from water and then burn off the oil but instead of powering a propeller to pull around recreational water skiers, the engines would work as generators, turning the oil into electricity, which could be relayed back to shore via cables or battery boats.

3. The third idea is to use an ancient and deadly element in the high seas: rice. Rice was once known as the most dangerous cargo to transport in wooden ships. Gold, for example, is heavy but nothing happens to it if it gets wet. Rice, however, is very expansive. When water leaked into the hull of a ship and soaked bags of rice, the grain swelled with such a force that it would rip the ship apart. Uncle Ben's Boil-in-Bag technology could be revamped here as Kevlar/sushi roll rice plugs. The dry rice packages would be stuffed into the riser pipe, opened enough to saturate with water and then the rice would expand and cut off the leak.

4. Of course BP will need a mascot to make a media spin on the situation...perhaps my Subby the Submarine can come to their rescue.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Always Thinking: An Interview with Bill Wheelock

Bill Wheelock is a Los Angeles based artist whose work I could only describe as conceptual-spatial as he is simultaneously and equally sensitive to the ideas behind his projects and how they relate to the space around them as well as the space they occupy. He received his MA in Theory and Criticism from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA after a BFA in Sculpture from the Rhode Island School Of Design in Providence, RI. The extent of his involvement in the arts, including his publications, collectors and exhibitions are too numerous to recount here. Bill and his wife Anne Hars are the founders and stewards of The Thinkery.

Drew:
I finally looked at your website today and was really impressed by all of your work. I caught glimpses of it at your place on my last trip to Los Angeles, but it was nice to see it all together on your site. I do not play up the term 'peripheral' but there is something in it that I associate with you. Perhaps it's that I have indirectly known of you for so many years and I have sat in spaces that you have painted and influenced. The first place was our mutual friends' house in New York City. You and Anne painted the walls there. Those subtle but bold designs, The Thinkery mural and I would say all of your other work show a real mastery in spatial relationships. Can you talk about having that kind of way of thinking of things? It's different than being simply a visual thinker and very different than a literary mind, though you are very visual and a good writer as well.

Bill:
Thanks for the compliment! I have to defer a little credit though, the painting in New York was all Anne and the painter Leeza Dorian; and, the mural at the Thinkery was conceived by a Buddhist monk at the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Korea Town and painted by Anne and some of our neighbors.

In high school I took a Differential Aptitude Test, and scored in the 98th percentile in “spatial relations” and a 32 in “clerical speed and accuracy”. They said I would never be a hockey goalie. I tend to imagine things in something like wireframe or bullet-time 3D. Conceiving projects in time-based media is a challenge for me: moving images are like a foreign language. With writing and sculpture I enjoy the naïve search for true philosophical declarations, like monuments one can count on to be somewhat eternal, but such objects are always frustrated by the process of time. I used to feel paralyzed to write for fear that any declarations I might write down may become obsolete almost as soon as they are formed. For this reason, I think most people are terrified to write poetry, or describe their ephemeral feelings in any concrete way. Photography may have helped me resolve this somewhat. You aren’t representing the essence of the way you think things are, you are representing the way things might have been, from a particular perspective, during a particular one-hundred-and-twenty-fifth of a second. There are enough variables to avoid reification or the trouble associated with graven images, or any Grand Declaration of the Essence of Truth.

Drew:
Comparing your work to Anne's, there seems to be a real connection, and I do not mean a similarity...you both are very spatial but also venture into a fuzzy no-man's land. Anne does it in her blurry photographs and you take it a step further and make (in your words) "three-dimensional sculpture with ambiguous boundaries, inspired by the blur of out-of-focus photographs."

I love these kinds of conceptual leaps. Very few people are actually capable of them because it means inverting everything you understand about something. I really like your Blurry Bowl and Red Blurry Vase. From the photographs, they look like spinning tethered balls on an acrylic dowel. How did you come to these works?

Bill:
Those are ping-pong balls glued to a structure of clear acrylic rods. They spin on an axis mounted to a ceiling fan motor, concealed in the pedestal. I was reading a lot of French theory at the time, and they were talking about the effects of entropy and duration on ideas. Deconstruction and postmodern thought undermined, or at least aerated the authoritarian one-point perspective that had been entrenched probably since the fifteenth century (right image: Perspective study of a vase by Paolo Uccello [Galleria degli Uffizi, Gabinetto dei Disegni]). This view holds that there is one best way to see things, and that the findings will always be true for all people at all times. If you put your eyeball in the same place as the artist (and close your other eye), you will see exactly what they saw. This is fabulously useful for technical rendering, but a little dehumanizing in matters of expression. What if we slowed down time, and could see all the little electrons we are told are spinning around? We know all objects are made of particles, and yet can’t see them, so I attempted to make some objects with bad boundaries; icons that exist more as tendencies than certainties; blurry things.

Drew:
Your sculptures are very cerebral, but your drawings are much more emotional even though you describe them scientifically as a "re-experience of ambient conditions." All of them are quite beautiful especially what happens in the Star series. All The Ink In A Bic Pen (at bottom of post) might as well be All The Ink In The Universe. And, 24 Chairs pulsates between being quite sad and lonely to cute and optimistic. Drawing for me is the most sensitive medium and I need special conditions to approach it. What is it for you and what do you get from it?

Bill:
Drawing is a meditative practice for me. It is a very primary way to concentrate. I think I started to doodle from an urge to perform the action of writing, but couldn’t think of anything particular to say in words. I just dragged the pen across paper from left to right until the page was filled up, wanting to make some record of my state of mind, but not one that would mean anything more than just what it was: the consequence of two objects in contact over time, guided by my shaking hand.

24 Chairs is one of my favorite drawings. I actually photographed one chair in 24 different positions from the perspective of a fixed point, traced them and then randomly scrambled their locations, redrawing and rescaling them as if they were all together at once. Each chair is drawn in proper perspective; but not in relation to each other. Although they are all together, each is seen from an individual different point of view.

Drew:
I had heard about The Creamery, your house and studio in Vermont. From the pictures on your website, it looks like you had quite the workshop. Does moving on to The Thinkery in Los Angeles reflect a shift towards more conceptual work or is there another reason behind that name?

Bill:
Yes and no. My work has always been conceptual in that I am playing with ideas, more than technically crafting materials, but I don’t think you can have one without the other. I had a huge studio in an old creamery at my disposal because space is cheap in Vermont, (until you have to heat it), but I usually tended to make small and fragile things even there. I got my MA in Theory here in Los Angeles, and since then, our home has become The Thinkery; a think-tank of art projects. The name is from an amazingly modern Aristophanes farce, The Clouds from 423 BC. In it Socrates and other Athenian philosophers are ridiculed as they run a school of rhetoric called The Thinkery producing mostly articulate lay-abouts.

Drew:
I have one of three impressions when I see work. One is when I see something done poorly and the reaction is to simply roll up my sleeves and do it better. Sometimes it is not about the result but the process. That's where my show Under The Hood at The Thinkery came from...which was a reaction to seeing how some photographers conduct themselves and what their goals are. Another reaction is unapproachable awe. This happens with people who go beyond what I could ever imagine. These artists are usually managing teams of people and are working at a scale I would never attempt. I refer to him too much, but Richard Serra comes to mind. The third and final reaction is a glowing feeling that someone has done something I would like to have done, but it is accomplished so well that there is no urge to recreate it. This is where a lot of your work sits with me...I am especially thinking about your brilliant Non-Specific Sites such as Above Ground Hole, Time Machine: To The Immediate Future, Attractive Nuisance and The Above Line Extends Almost All The Way Around The World. The latter is the one I picked up on your desk...and I remember discussing Walter De Maria with you...but I do not remember asking you if this was a nod to him or more about conceptualizing beyond him.

Bill:
I remember you telling me what Anne Hamilton said: if you get a good idea, make it, or else, usually within the month, you will find someone else already has. I believe that intellectual property is theft. We cannot really own ideas. I love it when people see things I have done and say that they are sure they have seen it done before but can’t say where. There are just some ideas that have to be done when the time comes. I hold affinity for De Maria and other monument-makers of the “expanded field” of sculpture. The Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977), located in the Friedrichsplatz Park in Kassel, Germany, (a one-kilometer-long solid brass round rod, two inches in diameter, its full length inserted into the ground with its top reaching flush to the surface of the earth) falls into that second category of awe at the scale and access to materials and resources required. I find much more freedom in work that anyone could have done if they had the idea using materials that are easily accessible, or readymade, or made to order. For this reason, I feel more affinity to Iain Baxter and N. E. Thing Co., who, for instance, set up signs designating a quarter of a mile of landscape as art.

Drew:
I have only covered some of your work. Your site also has your Fire Drawings (as pictured at the top of this interview and below), Installations (pictured with my introductory question) and Distributions. What work are you most proud of and what are you working on now?

Bill:
Gosh. I really like all of my work or I probably wouldn’t show it to anyone. I am particularly proud of a book I self-published: The Wrong Idea; Maritzio Cattelan in the Economy of Attention. It is about the art world within the art world that was briefly epitomized by the Wrong Gallery, a show space smaller than a closet in a doorway in Chelsea NY (now moved to the Tate, London). Cattelan did a number of projects I wished I had thought of, including claiming he buried a piece under the Whitney Museum floor. Although it was written five years ago, it crystallized for me the work I saw as needing to be done today, philosophically and culturally in the environment of contemporary art as I understand it. Not too many people have read it, but it is available on my site (under "Writing").
I continue to work from those ideas.

Drew:
One book on my shelves, which I have not read, but want to is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You are really into motorcycles and you showed me your recreated systems diagram, which is a visual maze...is there a connection for you between art and riding or do you like to keep them separate?

Bill:
Motorcycles are sculptural. They accommodate the human form ergonomically, and could be said to be more design than art, but if you watch people who love motorcycles as they look at other motorcycles, their aesthetic appreciation is very similar to the art viewer. Some elements need to be where they are for support and function, but motorcycles designs vary wildly with infinite customization available. There is a reason that California Light and Space artists developed Finish Fetish works: we have year-round direct sunlight here, which transforms a well painted or chromed metal surface into a hallucinogenic sparkling gem. I took a course in motorcycle mechanics a year ago, and then acquired a 1974 Honda CB360 that hadn’t run since 1982. I tore this whole thing apart and put it back together, cleaned it up, and now the thing runs like a top. It may not be art, but riding it brings me a pleasure close to the satisfaction of having manifested a creative idea in the most eloquent and efficient way imaginable. I get to perform this satisfaction, and use my spatial relations as I move through space in time in an unconventional fashion. On top of which I can’t help but laugh like Pee-Wee Herman as I weave past LA traffic. Motorcycles are a clever solution to a cultural problem.

Drew:
Thank you for your time. I really look forward to seeing how your work develops.

Bill:
Thanks for looking and your questions! I wonder what I’m going to do next, too.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

American Psyche

by Drew Martin

One of my favorite television shows when I was growing up in the 1970s was The Six Million Dollar Man, also known as the Bionic Man. Every kid who watched it would mimic the bionic sound effects (used for Steve Austin's mojo moments) whenever we did something we thought was impressive and needed special attention, such as jumping over a log in the woods and especially during slow motion fights.

The show had a lasting affect on me: I was obsessed with artificial parts, which became the theme of several science projects. In middle school, I typed (on a typewriter) a 40-page English term paper on the history of prosthetics. In high school, I designed a spring-action artificial leg for runners before there was such a thing and for one graphic arts project I made a commemorative stamp for the Jarvik-7: the first human implanted artificial heart, for a patient awaiting a real, donated heart transplant.

When my mother checked in to the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York a couple weeks ago to have her right knee replaced, hovering over the natural concern of a grown child for a parent was an element of fascination that I would have a Bionic mother.

This past Memorial Day Monday, my family went up to the Helen Hayes Rehabilitation Center to visit her. On the way there, my father suggested a detour by a house in Haverstraw, New York, which Edward Hopper used (and modified) in 1925 for his House by the Railroad. In the August 29, 1996 The Atlantic Monthly article Someplace Like Home, the piece's author, Paul Bochner, writes:

"The picture's quality of solitude is due in part to the radical surgery performed upon the model by the artist, who reinvented the architecture of many of his subjects. In this case he amputated the entire right side of the building, leaving the the central tower to nothing..."


It's an ironic and appropriate choice of words for this nearby attraction to the physical rehabilitation center. Hopper's House was used by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960 as his template for Norman Bates' house in Psycho. Likewise, Charles Addams drew a version of it for the mansion of the Addams Family. The House by the Railroad has been referenced in many other movies and visuals: Hopper's seed took root, deep in the American mind.

Similarly, the Bionic Man (as well as the spin-off character, the Bionic Woman) drastically changed a nation's thinking about something very matter-of-fact; disability. In this case it turned the injured body from a condition to be pitied into something of power. On my first memorable visit to The Metropolitan Museum of Art as a kid, I vividly recall a hip, young woman passing in front of me, whose arm facing me had been amputated. She wore a crude artificial limb made of Band-Aid-tan plastic, with the split steel hook in place of a hand. My immediate impression was that she looked cool with it and I was taken by how casual she was about it; wearing a tank-top as if to show it off. The fact that I witnessed this in the Museum simply included the encounter as part of all the other visual stimulation and precious objects.

In 1946, The Best Years Of Our Lives beat out a line of film classics at the Oscars, including It's A Wonderful Life, Henry V, The Razor's Edge and The Yearling. Part of this had to do with the sobering performance by Harold Russell for the character Homer.

Unlike more modern films, such as Forest Gump, where amputation is a special effect, Russell had lost both of his arms in service during WWII. In the film, you witness his struggles and life with prosthetics as a double amputee. It is an inspiring and moving display of human effort and will. Previously, prosthetics were left to the roguish characters: Captain Hook and Captain Ahab.

On the other end of the spectrum, superheroes were models of perfect health and whole bodies, i.e. Superman. Aided powers may have been found in utility belts (Batman) and suits (Iron Man) which reference magic wands, swords, potions and cloaks of medieval tales; and, there was never a shortage of heroes, which were really reincarnations of Egyptian and Greek myths and other sources of hybrid creatures and animism. To my knowledge, the Bionic Man was the first popular image of mechanically integrated and post-human powers. That is quite different than Frankenstein's cadaverous monster and Fritz Lang's android, Hel (after the Norse goddess).

The Bionic Man established a new era of powers as well as expectations for science, design and the health care industry to meet. While Hopper took the mundane and raised its status to something exceptional, the Bionic Man elevated a crippled man to superhero status. This is the American embellishment to pragmatism. It is not a decorative or magical transformation but an embedded, functional shift, where a lone house becomes haunted (or at least haunting) and a machine is souped up.

The opening narration of The Six Million Dollar Man by Oscar Goldman is full of this transforming technological hope:

Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to build the world's first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better, stronger, faster.

Driving by the Hopper house, one can see that it was just a house and nothing more than that, plus someone's imagination; and, seeing my mother use a walker and a wheelchair while getting used to her rebuilt knee offered the candid reality that we are mere mortals with lofty minds and a few good tricks.


(Pictured above is the world-class runner, Oscar Pistorius, from South Africa)